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In The Mud In The Maze

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“You’re on the road
But you’ve got no destination
You’re in the mud
In the maze of [his] imagination”
-- Beautiful Day, U2

 

0.

Burning the body made it final.

It took Sam days to build up the courage. Placing Dean’s body on a table in the Bunker, peeling the jacket and shirt from his back. Sticky with the blood that has now dried to a tacky, crumbling form. He needed scissors in places and winced with every tear. Tears stained his eyes and cheeks, blurring out the expanse of his brother’s back. Sam patched Dean up as best he could with shaking fingers, with a sobbing chest, with a broken heart. Re-dressed him in clean, soft clothes taken from the wardrobe that never held any order.

But Sam knew. He always knew.

Only later would he realise the shirt he chose was from the day Dean walked back into his life.

He builds the pyre with Miracle by his side, gathering sticks from the woods surrounding the Bunker and only venturing, at the last possible moment, into the Bunker storage to collect additional supplies. They had given Dad a hunter funeral without needing Men of Letters. Sam would try his hardest to give Dean the same.

Lighting the match? Tossing it on his brother’s shrouded body? Watching those flames and smokes move toward the sky?

Nothing was harder. Sam had to fight every urge to stop from jumping forward into the burning fire himself. Either to put them out or die alongside his brother, he didn’t know. Was there even a difference?

He went back inside and tried his best to make a life. The toast. The eggs. The facon that Dean never stopped giving him shit for and that made Sam’s eyes tear up when he saw it next time in the fridge. The laundry. The dishes. This continual cycle he never, ever thought he would be doing alone.

He gets a call about something that can’t be anything other than a werewolf. Knows there’s nothing left for him here. Packs up the few things he thinks will be worthwhile and they make up less than one bag. Less than his brother’s bag that he found in his room, under a pile of clothes that stink of sweat and Dean . He grabs a plaid jacket, a ruddy brown and red that hasn’t been washed in so long. Good. Sam puts it on. Soaks it in.

Sam also keeps the bloodied jacket. Just in case.



1.

Sam hunts because it’s what he knows to do. Killing werewolves, stalking down urban legends come to life, salt and burning bones to send their ghosts back to Heaven -- or Hell. Sam has spent a lot of time thinking about the afterlife Jack has been a part of, wonders if he left Hell entirely to Rowena or decided he wanted a piece of the pie. Doesn’t matter if Sam prays because there’s never even a hint of something back. At least Castiel would show up in dire circumstances. Jack is just...gone.

Lucky bastards , Sam thinks a lot toward monsters in those early days. It takes strength not to throw himself into death alongside them. But he knows he can’t.

Sam makes homes of motel rooms again, smuggling in Miracle when he can’t find one dingy or fancy (it’s always one of the extremes) enough to accept dogs. They survive on meals from the freezer section of local grocery stores and, if Sam has the money, he splurges and they sit outside at dog friendly cafes. Food all tastes the same these days. Cut, shovel, chew, swallow.

Sometimes people give him a smile, and even say a few words. At one of the nicer cafes that cleans out Sam’s wallet, a woman even sits on the table across from him and catches his eye.

“Lovely dog,” she says, stretching out her hand. Miracle sniffs it and wags his tail the way he used to when Dean would let him lick the breakfast plates clean of bacon grease. Sam swallows the lump in his throat. “What’s its name?”

“Miracle,” Sam says. His tone is flat because it’s that or cry and his body has run dry of tears.

“Cute name.” The woman gives a grin and pats Miracle from head to tail. He rolls over, belly up, and she scruffs him there, too. Sam watches, numb. All he can see is his brother’s hand doing the same thing.

The world has a sepia filter over it, and no matter how much Sam blinks it never drops away. Dean is missing and the world is bleak. Nothing can change that. Not dogs or women or muffins that were ten bucks a pop.

The woman wanders off shortly after. Sam knows he doesn’t make small talk easy. The world moves in a strange slowness for Sam these days, a conversation lingering before he can move his mouth to make a reply. He finishes picking at his salad wrap, gets one more bowl of water for Miracle, and then wanders back to wherever he’s spending this week.

“Yeah,” Sam finds himself saying to miracle night after night when they’re curled up on a motel bed. Sam already broke his rule about no dogs on the beds, or licking the plates, or really doing anything that was cute to say and watch Dean make his scrunched up face that Sam knew meant lying, but Dean thought was poker ready. The room is silent. Even in the bunker Sam could hear Dean’s snores or rustles or movements through their shared wall. The absence is an ache, a hole, a nothingness that can never be repaired. 

He rolls over, hugs Miracle together, like a child with their favourite teddy bear. “I miss him, too.”

 

&&

 

When it’s too painful, when Sam’s body feels as though it’s about to be ripped in two from the inside out, heart thumping and legs aching and brain being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, he takes his brother’s bloody jacket from the plastic bag he’s carefully wrapped it in.

He ghosts his hand over the dried blood; soaks up the remaining smell, so rusty and strong he can taste it on the back of his tongue. He thinks to get a knife, to scrape it off and place it in a vial. A backup of the backup. Every ounce, every sliver, every memento of his brother deserves to be preserved.

Apart from this jacket, he has Dean’s bag. Sam’s whole life is now inside there, wrapped and bundled the way Dad taught them to preserve space and travel light. He thought, briefly, of piling up the Impala with more belongings but quickly decided against it. He doesn’t want to drive her anymore than he has to. Doesn’t want to look over at the empty passenger seat. Even Miracle refuses to sit there, whining until Sam opens the back door so he can tumble into his appointed spot.

Dean’s words come back as a whisper, then a yell.

Promise me, Sam .

He scoured webpages for miracle workers, looked in their old address books for names and numbers of people he knows can bring back the dead with a drop of blood, a lick of saliva, a wisp of hair. He could go there, take Dean’s car and hand it over if he has to. Let them take out every scrap of DNA they can find to build together a Dean who is real, alive, the Dean Sam needs to keep on living.

They’ve come back so many times before. Bloody, broken, twisted, wrong . But it was still Dean, and Sam always found a way to fix him up. Patching with pieces of himself as needed, happy to hand over his soul or heart if someone said it would work.

Promise me, Sam .

And Sam did promise him. Sometimes he just wishes like hell he never did.

 

&&

 

Sam gets wind of a vampire back in Kansas. It seems like a sign -- or an omen. He can’t tell the difference anymore. Hasn’t since before angels and demons and God started ripping down all the carefully constructed morals and directions Sam had given himself, been given by his brother. 

He bundles Miracle into the Impala with a blanket he took from Dean’s bed and places his meager possessions alongside. Checks the trunk with its guns and knives. Holy water and salt. The fucking ninja start that Sam had to bury deep so he wouldn’t constantly think of his brother’s twinkling eyes and how Sam should have just granted his brother that one last wish . He should just get rid of it, but he can’t part with anything more of Dean’s.

No matter.

No matter any of it anymore.

He drives through the night and into the milky yellow of sunrise. Everything is hazy, or maybe that’s the lack of sleep. Sam finds himself thriving on four or five hours these days, caught in twenty minute snippets like a newborn baby, before the nightmares rouse him.

Sam stops in the sleepy town of Hesston, rents a room, and catches those few snatches of shut eye. The wall at the head of his bed bangs and shakes and seems to emmanant the moans from the next door occupants. That’s what you get with a rent by the hour, he supposes, but it seems to keep Miracle entertained. His ears keep perking up and his tail wags. Everything keeps that dog happy. Sam’s lucky to have him -- doesn’t know what he would do without some sort of companion by his side.

The nightmare that wakes him this time is wavy and fuzzy and not all there but Sam’s sure he sees fire. One of the recurring dreams, the one that makes the least amount of sense, is Dean burning on the ceiling above him.

Sam can feel the fire in those dreams. The heat washing down over him. A drop of blood, two, from the deep gashed wound on Dean’s stomach. His brother’s mouth is open in a silent scream that warps, changes, into a gasp of Sam .

He wakes. Miracle bounds onto the bed to curl up against Sam’s side and help calm his breathing. He doesn’t sleep again, not for a long while, but it seems cruel to disturb the dog so he remains in bed. Sometimes -- like now -- he scrolls his phone in search of hunts. No more victims that he can see on the free news sites, but his law enforcement scouring programs might show something different. Unless the cops need the public, they’re not about to share information about bodies being drained dry of blood.

When the sun shifts over the window with its threadbare curtains and makes Sam too hot to be comfortable he gets up. Eats a banana followed with two black coffees for breakfast. Feeds Miracle the quality dog food the nice guy at the pet shop suggested. Gets on his laptop, scours the area he knows he needs to get to, and then packs his things.

Sam’s life is repetitive these days and that’s just the way he likes it.

TV fills in the middle hours when he doesn’t have the strength to do more research on other cases. He learnt earlier on that doing so is a rabbithole he struggles to drag himself from. How do you prioritise lives? Do you abandon the current hunt to catch the monster killing every day? The monster targeting children? The one that’s been active longest? Sam never found answers to those questions. Daytime TV isn’t so bad. Not when your head and heart are only half involved.

By the time night hits again Sam is in the right town if not the right street. He’s going to scout out the two abandoned warehouses he could find using maps and go from there. It’s a small town, thriving; certainly not the usual place to find a nest, but monsters change. They adapt. Go where the feed is. Sam should know that by now.

“You stay here,” he says to Miracle, who gives a little whine but settles down all the same, face on front paws, ears pricked at attention. He’s so patient. So easy to teach and train. Sam gives Miracle one last scratch behind the ears then shuts and locks the doors.

He always tells Jody where he’ll be, though not the gritty details. Just enough that, should anything happen, Miracle won’t be alone for more than a few hours. The first few weeks she begged Sam to let her come and help but he threatened -- and it was a threat, he soon accepted, even if he didn’t want it to be -- to cut her off completely. Disappear into the night and not even offer her a call.

The weapons he will need are already in the duffle or the waistband of his pants. A machete that glistens in the moonlight. A knife of dead man’s blood to slow them down. He even has a small pouch of repellent Rowena once taught him to make. He doesn’t put much faith in it, but it’s there. A backup option.

Sam should be able to take on any vampire he finds, but part of him doesn’t want to come out of it alive. Doesn’t want to take another breath without his brother by his side, and wouldn’t this be the most fitting way? Both losing their lives to the hands of vamps.

Or vamp mimes, he thinks with a sad bubble of mirth in his throat.

Satisfied the weapons are ready and accounted for, Sam makes his way toward the front door of the first warehouse. No point in trying for a surprise attack when these vamps must know some hunter will be on the lookout for a nest so brazen. He’s expecting guards, some sort of weapon rigging, but so far the warehouse is a dark, dank building of peeling white wall and probably laden with asbestos.

The stairs up to the concrete [BALCONY] are crumbling wood. Not even nailed in -- replaced, maybe? A long time ago -- and they wobble if Sam so much as steps half an inch off center. The sound is loud, deafening in the otherwise silence of the night. They have to know he’s coming. Or this is the wrong warehouse and Sam is letting another victim die while he pointlessly explores.

Dean would have the correct idea, of course. Doesn’t matter how much he called Sam geek boy or the researcher, it was often Dean who had it right when it related to the place of monsters. Sam could figure out the lore; Dean could figure out their nature. The latter was so much more important.

Still, Sam has to survey. Knife out, at the ready, he checks behind doors and walls and leftover shelving that towers as high as the crumbling ceiling. It’s silent but for a distant drip, drip, drip somewhere in deep. It sinks of mould and mildew, of rotten wood and brassy steel. A perfect place for a vampire nest, except he neither sees nor hears any hint of them.

There are so many doors in here, so many possible hiding spots, but Sam finds nothing. He does an entire circuit of the area, then decides it’s not fair to keep Miracle waiting, but--

A piece of drywall sticks out here. Not particularly unusual, given how dilapidated the entire building is but, on this angle, Sam notices it’s whiter than the dirty panels bordering it. He presses in and it bounces back. The screws loose.

False wall. False door .

Sam sticks his eye into the gap revealed -- stupid, sure, and could result in the loss of an eye, but hey. Death wish -- and sees a flicker of movement. He draws back but he’s sure whatever it was had to have seen him. Sam jumps as the wall tumbles down.

The vampire’s teeth are already descended and it gives an unnatural sound caught somewhere between a scream and a hiss.

Sam tears the machete from its holster on his waistband and in one trained, fluid movement connects it to the neck of the vampire. There’s a little resistance this time around -- it hasn’t been sharpened since...since… -- but with a yank of his arm Sam is able to complete the action. Blood pools, spurts, and the head rolls to the ground with a heavy thud.

Sam smiles, satisfied, a brief moment when he actually does feel happy. He’s good at this job, good at hunting. Dean would be proud.

But as quickly as the happiness sets in, Sam hears more footsteps. He whirls around and there, where the false wall was mere seconds ago, stands another man. As Sam watches, the second set of teeth descend, razor sharp and deadly. There’s a hint of blood, both in sight and smell. Sam lifts his blade again and moves toward it.

“That was my mate, you know,” the vampire hisses. “You will pay.”

Sam smirks. “Go ahead and try.”

The vampire launches itself from a standing position, closing half the distance between the two of them. Sam is ready. He’s always ready. Trained and honed and perceptive as anything. These are all skills he’s learnt and now clings to in order to avoid falling off the edge of the world.

“Come on,” Sam says.

He’s all cocky bravado because he no longer fears death. This -- living -- is worse than Hell, worse than the Cage, worse than anything Sam can ever imagine. But if he can take a few of these suckers into the afterlife with him, so much the better.

The vampire sprints, a screaming roar coming from its throat, and Sam swings the machete. It connects but no, no. Pain in Sam’s leg, his back. Blinding red of blood and black of death.

It’s a bright, brilliant pain. Sam finds himself smiling, accepting, falling.

 

&&

 

When Sam wakes, the pain is still there. That’s not right. In Heaven pain gets erased, an almost strange sensation for someone so used to an aching back or throbbing knee or splitting headache that never leaves. It’s like the body is floating. A soul, Sam supposed the first time he knocked on the plane’s door. 

But here he feels solid and broken and heavy. He winces as he tries to turn over and wetness spreads across his back and front and sides. Everything smells of rust.

Of blood.

He cries out a broken groan, can’t help it, and that’s when he hears the voice.

“Hey, Sammy, easy.”

This has to be the new Heaven. Sam doesn’t know why Jack would choose to make it include pain, but who cares? Sam is dead and he made it there and his brother is here. Here with him again.

Sam ignores the pain to sit up and look at Dean crouched by his feet. It’s the most beautiful sight in the world and Sam thinks he’s about to cry.

“What’d you go and do that for?” Dean asks. “And vamps? Really ?”

“Dean,” he says. All he can say at first.

Dean presses a hand to Sam’s leg and Sam swallows hard against the pain.

“They jumped me. Harder to hunt when it’s only one of you.” Sam can see his body better now -- or at least the lower half. His right jean leg is torn to shreds and the flesh underneath is a mix of black, red, and white. He wonders when angel powers are going to fix that .

“That’s why you use your attack dog.”

Sam snorts. It hurts his ribs. Badly. “That dog would lick the vampires for pets.”

“Hmm.” Dean says; he sounds so damn casual and contemplative. “Maybe. But Sam, you can’t go throwing yourself into things like that. How about helping out some young up and coming hunters, huh? Take the calls.”

“I could, I guess,” Sam says. He thinks the pain might have lulled -- although that could just be looking at Dean’s face -- but his leg was still gnarly. The words from his mouth seem to almost be coming of their own accord. Maybe it’s the relief of knowing this is all hypothetical now. Or part of a memory he didn’t know he had. “Need a home base. Where would you pick for a home base?”

“Bunker’s always an option.”

Sam sees now that Dean has something in his hand. White. Wrapped. A bandage? In the other a glint of silver. Scissors. 

“Not the bunker,” Sam says. Without Dean there it doesn’t offer any semblance of a home.

“Motels served us fine over the years.”

“I’d have to move a lot.”

“That’d make you an even better hunter’s helper.”

“That’s what you’ve coined it?”

Dean smiles and it’s blinding. This has to be Heaven. Jack’s strange, new version of Heaven. Makes sense. Seems like the type of things Jack would want to keep around. Realistic and human like he always wanted to be.

“Yep,” Dean says.

Dean takes hold of a piece of Sam’s torn jeans and snips the fabric all the way up to Sam’s knee. He’s careful, real careful, but the side of his hand still touches flesh and Sam sees stars. No, no, no. He won’t let himself black out. Has to keep seeing Dean. Has to take every inch of him in.

“Sorry,” Dean says. “Can’t be helped.”

“Are you…” Sam swallows to stop from throwing up. “Are you an angel?”

Dean laughs. It comes deep from his belly, rocks through his whole body, and makes Dean slip a little. The metal on the outside of the scissors, no matter how smooth, makes Sam’s entire body burn.

“Sorry, sorry,” Dean says, laughter automatically gone and his face a stone of concern. “Give me a second. I’ll fix this up.”

Sam wants to keep looking at his brother -- it's all he really, really wants to do -- but the view of his leg is making him nauseated. He looks up instead. At the ceiling that looks strangely like the warehouse he just came from. Exposed beams, drooping wires, pieces of tin that have broken away from the roof and let in pale sheaths of moonlight. Or is it sunlight? Sam could never work out how time exists in Heaven.

“There,” Dean says, after both an impossibly long and short time.

Sam looks at his brother then his leg. The pant leg is gone, giving him a rather impressive cut-off jean short look on one side, but the skin itself has been patched with a cross work of black spidery stitches. The ache is still there.

“Thanks,” Sam says.

“Now,” Dean says. “You need to go back out there and look after my dog. And my wheels.”

“What are you talking about?” Sam says. He manages to sit up again awkwardly, his leg stiff and stuck out in front of him. He moves closer to Dean, wants to reach out and touch, but Dean shuffles away.

“They’re both together out there.” Dean points behind Sam and Sam turns. The door. The one he came through what feels like moments before. In front of it, a body. The vampire’s headless body.

Sam asks the stupid question that should have been first from his mouth: “Where am I?”

“Kansas,” Dean says. He rocks back on his haunches, too far away, and Sam would reach out and grab him if his body weren’t still in so much pain and his brain not so fuzzy. “Pretty much smack bang between Lebanon and Lawrence.”

“And where…” Sam swallows, breathes. “Where are you?”

“With you,” Dean says. “Wherever you need me to be.”

With that, as quickly as he appeared when Sam opened his eyes, Dean is gone.

Sam looks around him. Fast, frenzied, panic seizing his chest and squeezing like a vampire or other monster has grabbed hold of his heart.

“Dean,” he says. Louder, “Dean!”

Silence.

The only thing in this room with Sam is the beheaded vampire and a bird calling from up above.

It’s day again.



2.

Logically, Sam knows the Dean he saw isn’t real. Can’t be real. It was all simply a figment of his imagination, conjured up because of the pain. But that didn’t explain the stitching on his leg that, while neat and clean, is unlikely to have been a hospital job.

And Sam’s pretty sure he would remember being dragged to the hospital.

So, what happened to Sam’s leg? Because Dean can’t be real. Is now nothing more than a soul wandering around Heaven, probably living up his greatest hits of metal rock concerts and his greatest sex conquests. Sam doesn’t let that bother him. Really.

Sam rests up in a motel room for a few days. Orders in too much pizza and Chinese and spends hours on his laptop, scouring police sites and local papers, just like in the old days. It seems easier to let himself be relegated to smaller cases.

Nothing comes up. It seems he took the vampires down, thankfully, but that’s not all he’s looking for. He wants to find some sign of trouble brewing that would explain Dean. Loved ones reappearing, people reporting hallucinations, hell, even a possession would make Sam feel more at ease.

Zip.

Zilch.

Nada.

He finds what could be a haunting in a house over in Missouri and sends that hunt on. He needs to stick around Kansas again, just for a little while, turning over every stone and making sure nothing is amiss. He justifies it, partly, in that his leg is still in a bandage and hurts when he stands up too quickly. It sure feels like Dean’s work: thorough, but a home job, using anything he had on hand and Dad’s sage advice of ‘stem the bleeding, save the limb, worry about healing later’.

The hunter he called -- Carlee -- tries to bombard him with questions about his whereabouts, about Dean, but Sam can’t do it. Three months have passed and Sam still feels that acute ache of pain whenever his brother’s name is mentioned. His chest goes tight, his eyes tear up, and even his ears seem to muffle the world around him. Like his body is shielding him best it can from the pain.

“Just get to the hunt,” he says, voice harsher than he intends, but Carlee listens and hangs up.

He looks at Miracle who is sitting by the door, chewing intently on the fur surrounding his back leg. He could do with a bath, but Sam’s not sure how he’d find the motel shower that squirts water in every direction but down. He should shell out the money for a place with a bath, but it would have to be higher class and those places always ask questions. Make small talk. Do everything Sam doesn’t find himself capable of anymore, unless he’s in the mode of a hunter and can pretend that Sam Winchester is not this Sam Winchester.

Not the Sam Winchester who just lost everything.

Miracle looks up at the sound of Sam’s voice, cocks his head.

“Nothing, boy,” Sam says. “Get some sleep.”

The dog does just that.

 

&&

 

As Sam’s leg heals he leaves the room more often. At one point deciding to hook up Miracle’s collar and leash and bring him along for the job. Sam loves the dog anyway, his shaggy body and stinky breath and the way he curls up on Sam’s feet late at night in motel rooms, but he also knows the average person loves dogs too, is more likely to talk if there’s something fluffy between them and the hard hitting questions. Should have got a dog earlier, Sam is sure Dean would say, and while Sam would argue with him at the time he’s now coming around to the idea.

Miracle, for his part, makes it easy with how happily he trots along at Sam’s side. A perfectly trained dog whose owner never came forward, not even when they posted up signs and asked around. Maybe this was Chuck’s last good thing he did for the brothers.

Then again, Sam doubts he had that much heart.

Sam goes to local cafes, coffee shops, bars. Anywhere they let a dog sit outside and there’s a wealth of people. He talks to them, asks about the comings and goings of the town and tries to hint at the possibility of unusual things. He gets more strange looks than anything, which he supposes makes sense; Sam hasn’t been around people in so long, hasn’t learnt nuances that were once second nature to him. It’s like he’s walking through life that’s thick with molasses and as distorted as a frosted over shower screen. He doesn’t get people, not the way he should. Not without Dean by his side, snapping and questioning in a way that’s too deep. Good cop-bad cop worked for them, so what’s Sam supposed to do on his own? 

Any answers he gets are flimsy at best, mostly from the mouths of confused patrons or pedestrians who shift away quickly. After one whole week questioning townsfolk and raiding newspapers from the motel reception each morning, Sam decides there’s nothing. It was some strange fluke. Maybe he was so out of it from grief and pain and blood loss that some other hunter took pity, patched him up, then ran before Sam would ask questions. Yeah. As messed up and stupid as it sounds, it still makes more sense than anything else. Dean can’t be here. His body has been burned to nothing and Sam wasn’t carrying the blood soaked jacket at the time.

So the answer becomes clear:

Dean is dead.

Dean is gone.

Sam finds no solace in this realisation.

 

&&

 

He does track down a hunt. Feels drawn to it, the same way he felt drawn to the vampires. Without Jack or a Chuck with powers it feels almost strange to think this is natural. A part of his heart, soul, brain whatever you want to go by. Hunting. That family business. For the first time in Sam’s life he knows he still wants to do it.

Somehow, even without Dean.

But he does start to take a different spin on things, like the ghost of a 13 year old boy who spends his days freaking out people at a local 7-11. Shows himself when Sam sits down by the freezer after the store has closed, having jimmied open a pretty crappy back door lock. He even wonders, briefly, if what’s scaring the townsfolk isn’t some flesh and blood pre-teen having a bit of a laugh.

“Hey,” Sam says when a carton of milk goes flying, white contents pooling on the floor a few feet away. He sees nobody, so the money’s going back on ghost. “What’s your name?”

Nothing happens for a moment, then another carton of milk goes flying. This one is a little closer to Sam’s face, but he thinks it has to be deliberate. The aim too off to have been going right for the kisser. Sam scoots over, away from the river of milk that’s heading towards him.

“I’m Sam,” he says, because why not practice social skills with a ghost you’re going to banish soon enough anyway? “You’ve scared off a lot of patrons these past couple of weeks, huh?”

Sam hears something. A shuffle, a rustle. A packet of chips drops to the floor, unopened, and then another. Wait one beat, two beats, and then it’s coming toward him. Hazy at first, like waking up in the middle of a dream you don’t want to leave, but then it takes on a more solid shape. 

This ghost has experience to appear in such a casual, calm way. Sam can’t feel any malicious energy, simply curiosity, maybe a hint of chagrin as he eyes up the spilt milk. The reports weren’t wrong about the young age. Somewhere between 12 and 15, not a hair beyond. He’s wearing a flannel hoodie that’s bloodied in the front and torn on one side. It could be something out of Sam’s own teenage wardrobe.

“What’s your name?” Sam asks again.

The boy comes forward ever so slightly then stops, a few feet that might as well be a world between them, and sits on the filthy lino. Not that dirt would bother something that isn’t corporeal in the first place. If Sam looks closely he can even see the levitation keeping the boy a quarter of an inch off the ground.

“Oliver,” the boys says, a voice surprisingly deep compared to the blonde hair, blue eyed, down-home charm the ghost exudes. “And I didn’t scare anyone.”

Sam chuckles. It feels strange, like it’s not him making the noise. The last time he laughed must have been Dean’s last day. Before, before--

The chuckle cuts in his throat but the ghost doesn’t notice. Sam clears his throat and continues, “Well, that’s not what the owner seems to think. Says he’s about to go bankrupt, especially since now his wife’s not even letting him come into work.”

Oliver moves his finger around and around in a circle on the floor, drawing up the milk in front of him without touching it. A sense of dread sits in the pit of Sam’s stomach, but when compared to the other darkness in his body it’s easy enough to ignore. All he takes from it is the knowledge that this ghost is seriously, seriously skilled and, considering reportings of strange goings on have only occurred for the past three months, he’s caught hold of this whole ghost-thing faster than even those who have haunted a building for centuries.

Sam has salt in his back pocket. An iron knife. It will be fine.

“I don’t mean to,” Oliver says, his finger moving the white liquid in lazy circles. Sam watches, transfixed. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to know you once needed food but now you just...can’t?”

Sam shrugs. No, not really, but sometimes it’s easier to be noncommittal to spirits; let them lead the conversation and hope there’s a gap somewhere to convince them either to move on or to at least stop messing with things long enough for Sam to locate and burn their bones. He always wanted the chance to let them go on their own, like the woman they found on Highway 41. Now Dean’s gone seems he has the opportunity.

Just no longer the desire.

Oliver continues, “I watched this documentary once, about people who lost their limbs in, like, freak accidents and whatever. They all said they still felt them. A gap, an ache, an itch where something important was meant to be.” The milk is above both their heads now, swirling in elaborate shapes. Oliver hardly seems to be paying attention. “So I figured out how to come in here, grab a few candy bars. Not my fault people caught them floating off once or twice. I tried to be discreet.”

“You didn’t think to come when the shop was closed?”

“It’s harder,” Oliver says. “When there’s lights on, I can channel it easier. This place doesn’t even have a security system -- and freezers have such low energy they might as well not exist.”

“You put all this effort into figuring things out,” Sam says, not quite letting his eye off the milk but also trying to engage Oliver. Not that the boy is looking at him anyway. “Why not see what’s on the great beyond?”

He snorts and the milk drops to the ground. It splashes over everything in the aisle across from the freezers, candy and chips splattered in white. Oliver is still not phased. “You believe in that crap?”

Sam swallows. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

Oliver says nothing. He seems to be looking beyond Sam, beyond the shop. Maybe there’s hints of Heaven visible for ghosts now. A sliver of light, of loved ones, maybe even some sort of image of Jack he’s inserted between the worlds to reassure people that yes, yes, God is real. Sam hopes Dean’s last vision was a good one. A calming, safe one.

“You should really think about it,” Sam says.

Silence.

As Sam walks out of the convenience store he knows Oliver won’t listen to him. Ghost lies are a dime a dozen, especially when it comes to crossing over. Once they’ve denied a Reaper the first time, it’s as though going against that initial instinct is beyond them. A decision made, one that should not be kept.

Sam knows he’ll have to find the bones, burn them; see the ghost off in the way he knows best how to do, but for the rest of the day at least he’ll let it go.

Let the boy enjoy his milk.

 

&&

 

This small town Sam’s found himself in, otherwise, is near silent. Sam takes Miracle for so many walks, one day he wears out the leash from the rub of his hand and it nearly snaps, frays flying everywhere. Miracle at least is well trained without being trained -- at least not by Dean or Sam -- and obediently stays by Sam’s side all the way back to the motel.

Dean bought this leash. Red. Cheap. The first he saw that he thought would work and it did. Sam wraps it around and around itself and puts it in the Impala’s trunk. There’s enough room.

Sam then goes out alone to the local Wal-Mart and awkwardly talks his way through a conversation with an elderly lady trying to buy a collar for her ferret.

“It was my grandson’s,” she opened with, leaning in close to look at the descriptions on the items. Glasses already Coke bottle deep but not seeming to help very much. Sam, looking back, should have offered to read out the measurements for her, but at the time he didn’t know what to do. Socialisation is a practice and Sam wasn’t prepared. Oliver doesn’t count. “But his mother found the lovely thing frightening, so I inherited it. Does that work, inheritance, if it’s from a younger generation?”

“Ah,” Sam said, grabbing the first harness and leash combination he thought would best fit Miracle. If not, he’ll come back, not like he’s lacking on the credit card front. Dean made sure they had plenty on hand from all different companies, states, names. Like always, Sam’s heart twists at the thought of his brother. “Not too sure how that works.”

“Oh well.” The lady selected a sparkling silver collar and turned to Sam with a huge smile on her face. “Thank you.”

Before Sam could say he didn’t do anything to be thanked for, the woman was gone and Sam was heading to the registers himself. At least the small talk there was easier, a get-you-in, get-you-out approach that Sam could appreciate. He took his items and went back to the motel where Miracle was waiting patiently for him. He thinks he should have made a stop in at the corner store, checked to see if Oliver made the right choice, but Sam already knows what he will find.

Monsters are predictable. It’s the humans who are not, and so he fits Miracle’s new harness and takes him out into the cooling fall weather. Debates buying a newspaper or talking to the locals, asking if anything is up, anything he could do and help with to feel useful again, except he doesn’t. He says it’s because this case is Oliver and too many muddies the waters of research. Sam keeps his head down. Down with his heart and guts that squirm and ache every second of every day. Soon he’ll leave this  town, having done nothing useful.

Having not lived up to the promise to his brother.

He walks past the convenience store once, twice, and it remains closed. He doesn’t see Oliver but he knows he’s still in there. Still trying to remain as alive as possible when there’s nothing left to tether you except your own sheer grit and determination.

Sounds about right. Sam will have to follow up, but soon. Soon.

 

&&

 

“I hope you go somewhere better, Oliver,” Sam says as he strikes the match and tosses it into the bones and coffin fragments below. He’s misplaced his lighter somewhere, although how in the minimal amount of crap he has is anyone’s guess. He just hopes he hasn’t dropped it somewhere in his travels. 

The headstone in front of him reads beloved son, taken too soon , and isn’t that always the case? Even the old, the fragile, the infirm have family members not ready to lose them. Sam isn’t sure he could ever prepare for Dean’s death, whether it was now or fifty years on.

The flames lick up the 6ft deep hole and warm Sam’s frigid hands. He forgot gloves, rookie mistake, and has more blisters and splinters than clean skin. Digging graves as a single person is near impossible, but he made it work. Oliver deserves to try for a different world rather than to stagnate in a convenience store of all places.

Sam thinks, not for the first time, about the new Heaven Jack may have created. Whether Hell still exists -- because Sam hasn’t heard boo from demons in years now. Does everyone get to go to the better place? Does everyone get to live in a perpetual state of happiness? That thought gives Sam a jolt of something, a mix of jealousy and rage, that he tries to suppress by stepping closer to the grave. Letting the fire almost burn him.

“It’s not much different than when you went to Hell,” Sam finds himself saying, and he knows it’s no longer the body burning below that he’s picturing but the one he set alight outside the bunker. The body he made sure was reduced to pure ash before he touched it again. “You always do this, don’t you? Find some way to bail, to avoid the pain.”

“I never tried to leave you, Sam.”

Sam starts. Stumbles. Almost falls face-first, full body into the deadly flames below. He moves backwards, almost falls over his own two feet, and whips his head around. Spins in a full circle. Searches up, down, everywhere for the sound of that voice. The voice he’s been aching to hear since the patch up job in the warehouse.

There’s no Dean. Not really. Sam doesn’t even think it was his truly voice. He’s going crazy, of course. Psychotic grief brought about by losing the person you had your life entwined with. There’s nobody he can even talk to about it: a therapist would have him sanctioned the moment he mentioned monsters -- it’s happened before -- and everyone else would tell him to start moving on.

Nobody gets how impossible that is. Better off asking him to walk on water.

The flames are lowering now. Blackening. The oxygen in the hole snuffed out and the body reduced to nothingness. The spirit free. Sam picks up his shovel and heads back toward the impala. For another moment of insanity, he swears he feels Dean walking by his side. Complaining of shoulder pain that was nagging him toward the end. 

“Hey Miracle,” he says to the obedient dog sitting in the impala’s backseat, all perky ears and wagging tail. “Ready to go home, bud?”

Yes , Miracle seems to say.

Except Sam still hasn’t found home .

He’s not sure he ever will.

 

&&

 

Sam travels half the United States in a span of a few months. Him and Dean did the other half before...before...made it to the Grand Canyon, even, and Sam relives the moment for a few hours before the pain becomes too much and he’s rushing out of Arizona entirely. There are monsters, sometimes. More often, it’s strange human locals involved in murder or mayhem or abuse that he lets the police deal with.

When easy to find hunts dry up, Sam goes and stays with Jody for a while. She serves him hot lasagne, steak and potatoes, a spicy curry that burns his mouth, and cookies fresh from the oven. Even has a new coffee machine that boils and froths the milk. Her latte art leaves a bit to be desired but Sam keeps mom.

“Don’t expect this all the time,” Jody says with a twinkle in her eye. “I took some leave. How you been holding up?”

Sam’s not hungry but he grabs a hot, gooey chocolate chip cooling on the rack in front of him just to give his hands and mouth something to do. The taste should remind him of childhood, that’s what people always say, but he never had this as a kid. Sam was lucky to get a packet of TollHouse when Dad left Dean enough money. Still, it’s a good memory. One he cherishes deep inside.

“Fine,” Sam says in response to Jody’s question when she doesn’t give up, her gaze penetrating like she’s trying to find the answer in his soul.

My soul is dead , he wants to tell her. Go find it in that barn.

“You sure about that?”

“What do you want me to say?” Sam swallows the remainder of the cookie with effort. The choc chips scratch his throat as they go down. “That life sucks? That I’m taking it one day at a time? All of it’s true, Jody, but that doesn’t change anything.”

She makes a noncommittal sound and turns to make them coffee. With her back turned she says, “You should stay here. Could always use an extra set of hands.”

“You want me to join the police force?” Sam can’t keep the derision from his voice. “I’ve spent most of my life running from cops.”

Jody finishes up making the coffees and places them on the table, sitting herself down before she speaks again. Sam has what might be a heart, might be an alien in his foam. Miracle rests under the table and she pats him, absentmindedly, with her foot. “I meant helping hunters, like you did at the bunker. Orchestrating it all. You did that well, Sam. You were in your element.”

I was in my element hunting with my brother, Sam thinks, but nobody would understand that. He could sit here, drinking coffee and eating snacks, and spill his guts to Jody. Tell her how the day Dean came to him at Stanford was the happiest of his life, how being in the Impala at his brother’s side made the world make sense again, how saving people and hunting things was the closest thing to destiny Sam would ever accept and it had nothing to do with Chuck’s stupid plan.

But he says none of that because it doesn’t matter. Not to anybody but himself and Dean.

“I don’t know,” Sam sighs with a deep sigh. “I just...I don’t know.”

 

&&

 

“There’s a few possible cases here,” Jody says one morning when Sam’s moved from kitchen to living room, sofa under him and TV on in front of him. If she asked him what was on the screen he wouldn’t be able to answer.

“Hmm?” Sam asks.

On his lap falls a fat stack of newspapers. The local one on top, and other titles he’s never seen before poking out from underneath. He opens the first one, automatically goes to the obituaries and in memory of’s . Jody’s circled some in a thick, black pen. Sam shuts the paper.

“If I’ve overstayed my welcome,” he says, turning to her, “You just need to say.”

She sits on the recliner next to him, staring at him, but Sam deliberately keeps his eyes on the front page of the paper. A new mayor has been elected. A gang of criminals recently arrested but let free on bail and fled the state.

The world keeps turning. Jack really did decide to give it all a hands off approach.

“It’s not that,” Jody says slowly, carefully. She leans forward, elbows on her knees, and Sam fights the urge to draw back. “Your brother--”

Sam shakes his head, hair that’s grown too long flying in front of his eyes and obscuring the view of everything. “None of this has anything to do with Dean.”

No, it has everything to do with him.

“You and...he...went off the radar for a long while those months back. Hunting, I assume?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, throat trying to close up on him but him not letting it. He needs to get control of his body, his emotions, his whole damn life at this point. It doesn’t help that all he wants to do is see that figure of Dean again -- real or imagined, it doesn’t matter.

Jody says, “Is that something you want to keep doing?”

Sam shrugs. How can he explain to her that it wasn’t just hunting on those eight months, two weeks, five days together? That it was about finally grabbing hold of destiny by the horns and riding it wherever they wanted to go? That the hunting, while still a pull for them, was consequential to everything else in life they started doing?

He can’t explain it, simple as that. Can’t explain that being able to see that World’s Largest Ball of Twine or World’s Biggest Egg, while suggested ironically, were some of the highlights of Sam’s life. Because it was a choice he and Dean made together, God or fate or Michael or Lucifer be damned.

“I’ll get back to hunting,” Sam says, because it’s the first thing that pops into his mind and, all things considered, it is the right thing to say. He immediately sees Jody’s tight, coiled stance relax and she slumps back in her seat. Status quo achieved. “Just let me and Miracle rest up a bit first.”

“Of course, of course,” she says, voice lighter and brighter than it’s been since Sam got here. “How about a coffee?”

 

&&

 

Sam packs up his and Miracle’s things less than a week after his newspaper conversation with Jody. He gets antsy when staying in the same place now, with or without Jody’s hunting suggestions, or maybe it’s just the domestic routine of this place. Of Jody turning on the coffee machine when she wakes at the ass crack of dawn and the nightly meals she serves him without question or the expectation of reciprocity. Sam takes over the dishes, the sweeping, the cleaning of the guest bathroom.

It’s a more refined version of what he and Dean had going on in the bunker in those last years. When they could finally settle into their idea of normal and only hunt when they felt they wanted to.

Jody insists on getting Donna and the girls around, giving Sam a farewell dinner that he thinks is a thinly veiled attempt to make him stay, to carve out a base. It doesn’t work. She looks crestfallen when, after eating his share of everything spread out on the table, taste forgotten, Sam pecks each of their cheeks in turn and heads off into the night. The Impala rumbles all the way through town.

There are no hunts around, but Sam knows he’ll find them with time. The world is back to normal. A normal Chuck started with, Sam thinks bitterly, because some things never change. This is the world Sam entered at six months of age and won’t have left at fifty. It’s a bittersweet sensation, one that sits like lead along with everything else in his stomach.

Sam focuses on the road instead.

 

&&

 

“Winchester,” a demon says with a sardonic grin. “Where’s the other half of you, huh? Thought you two were always joined at the hip.”

Sam has the knife at the ready and stalks toward the man with ink black eyes.The first demon he’s come across since the demise of Chuck and he doesn’t even have his brother here to back him up. No matter. Sam puts himself into another frame of mind. Compartmentalises.

“Oh,” the demon continues, smile growing impossibly wider. “Forgot your husband up and left you.”

Fuck you , Sam thinks as the stabs the knife through its chest. The eyes light up, once, then it collapses in a crumble on the ground. Rowena’s problem now.

Sam scrubs the knife clean on a piece of cloth and shoves it back into his pocket. Demons talk shit, but they also sometimes speak the truth, if they think it will get an effect. Talking about Dean is a low blow and Sam knows monsters will take advantage of it. Sooner or later, like with anything, he will find a way to become numb and let it roll off his back. At least on the surface. But today is not that day as he feels snot dripping with sweat and tears down his face.

Pathetic, he thinks, but at least there’s nobody around to see.

Small blessings and all that.

 

&&

 

It keeps happening.

There are no excuses. Not when Dean asks and not when he doesn’t. Sometimes there’s a silence between them so aching that Sam wants to scream into the void. Burst both their sets of eardrums and set the world alight.

In this moments he bites his tongue and focuses on the sensation of pain from wherever it’s blooming

He thinks, maybe, he wants it to be this way. Not only so he can see Dean but also so Dean can fix all of him and have his handiwork there. Let Dean be part of the scars scattered over Sam’s body. The crescent mark that looks like a bite on his left wrist. The slightly out of place right shoulder that aches in the night. The bruised knees. The stitches across his left cheek that pulls whenever he smiles.

Not that Sam smiles much these days, except when Dean is here.

“Stop,” Dean whispers as he clots the bleeding from the gaping wound in Sam’s back. It would be an easy one to get infected. Maybe Dean would come back for that. “Please, Sam.”

There is some guilt. Sam’s not a monster, even though he’s starting to look like the one Frankenstein made. He twists around and tries to look over his shoulder, but Dean pushes him back. Firm yet gentle. Sam aches to lean into the touch.

Rather than risk anything he remains silent and Dean does the same. In a way, it’s worse. He wants to her his brother even if it is to chastise his choices. Dean isn’t stupid but, even if he were, he would have to know by now how deliberately Sam is throwing himself into danger.

How much he wants this to end.

“All done,” Dean murmurs then, and Sam would swear it right on Dean’s funeral pier of a grave, he presses a soft kiss to Sam’s shoulder.

Next second he’s gone.

 

&&

 

When Sam throws himself into research, he almost, almost forgets his grief.

Then he feels the stabbing pain of guilt. The bombardment of thoughts on how could he ever forget Dean? Even for a split second in time?

This potential hunt would take him to Arizona again. Home of giant cacti, monument valley and, above all, The Grand Canyon.

Sam hasn’t been back there. Thought he’d never go, and he does consider sending a message to one of the other dozen hunters that would be closer. Palming off his Word document of notes, of newspaper screenshots, even of social media posts that seem to make up a chunk of their research these days. It would be an easy enough in and out. An old fashioned ghost hunt in a refurbished cabin that’s being rented out by a couple on Air B & B.

Best case: go to the cemetery Sam has found, salt the bones, burn them and go on your way.

Worse case: Torch the place and run.

Pretty easy as far as hunts go. The place hasn’t been rented out this week, probably because it’s sweltering and nobody wants to make a trip. So there’s no potential human casualties or need to make a convincing lie so they leave the property.

So why is Sam sitting in the impala, heading off onto the highway toward Grand Canyon State?

He doesn’t have an answer. Neither does Miracle when Sam asks.

Sam puts on the radio. Avoiding the cassette player these days, because he knows the tapes will wear out one day. Shredded from the constant use in their childhood, their teens, their twenties, their thirties-- 

It’s amazing they managed to survive this long. Maybe another relic to thank Chuck for, Sam thinks bitterly, but no. He will keep them locked up tight and safe and see what talkback radio has to offer. Not much, as it turns out, but now and then some classic rock wafts in. Back In Black or Paranoid , plenty of Stairway To Heaven , which Dean always says was his least favourite Zeppelin song but Sam knows he’s just as mainstream as everyone else and secretly loved it best of all.

Miracle certainly developed his taste alongside Dean; ears perking at metal and rock, falling asleep to anything in the pop genre. It’s funny, cute, and Sam smiles. Smiles and drives and sings along -- badly -- and hopes things could be okay.

He’s lying to himself, but so what. It gets him through another day.

 

&&

 

Turns out, Sam was wrong about the ghost. 

Though at least he was right about the place being tucked away and in a slow season. There’s no locals to push away or guests forced to forfeit their deposits. Sam jimmies the rather flimsy lock and lets himself into the cabin. The place smells like cinnamon and vanilla, but underneath it all is the tell-tale stench of sulfur.

Shit.

He tries to remain silent, stealthy, but he didn’t do enough research into this despite what he might think and that might just cost him.

Worse, Sam could have sent someone more inexperienced into this. Could have let them die . It takes everything in Sam to suppress that knowledge and keep walking. To go through the entrance that looks like it’s out of some Murder She Wrote episode with all its lace and doillies and pastel flower scenes. 

He hears nothing. He sees nothing. Not in the quaint kitchen of white cabinets and wooden signs that say Eat and Coffee Nook and Cook . Not in the first bedroom that has an honest-to-god gingham print blanket folded into perfect thirds at the end of the King size bed. Not even in the bathroom that smells so overwhelmingly of lavender it completely wipes out the sulfur. Maybe that’s the key herb to put places demons have walked in order to obscure their presence. Best not to give them any ideas.

Sam scours the entire place and finds only remnants of sulfur powder lurking on the couch -- just as lacey and plush and cotton candy pink as the rest of the place -- and on a single windowsill. It almost seems as though the demon itself had taken up for a holiday and vacated since. It could be anywhere now.

Sam supposes it’s back to the drawing board. At least he dragged nobody else into it.

 

&&

 

Even the motel Sam ends up in is old lady fancy. At least they don’t charge too much for a night and Sam easily smuggles Miracle in. He sets up his laptop -- no WiFi, of course, but thankfully he has the portable, reloadable USB version Dean scoffed at him buying -- and gets to work.

Sam thought demons were gone. So either Rowena has improved Hell to the point where it’s a form of Heaven for the deviants, or Jack simply made the rules for getting into paradise a lot slacker. Sam hopes it’s the latter. Hopes Dean is up there with every friend they’ve ever had, every person he’s ever saved, passing into other Heavens with Ash’s code. He doesn’t want Dean to be lonely.

Sam has actually found more demons on his own these past few weeks, and wonders what that says about him. Is he drawing them to himself? Turning himself back into the half-demon creature he was always destined to be? He might not have touched the blood in over a decade, but addiction was always addiction. Simmering beneath of the surface.

No, of course not. Coincidence. Simply a big, steaming pile of coincidence.

So why was a demon here? The big, glaring question that was already frustrating Sam. He was so damn sure it was going to be a ghost. The signs were there -- the last guests seeing things from the corner of their eye, having things move around. The fact it was a re-done cottage, abandoned for decades, and then disturbed.

He can hear Dean now, laughing at him. Saying it has to be a ghost, Sammy.

“Then explain the sulfur,” Sam mutters.

Unless…

Unless demons are different now. God was, or so Jack declared, so what not a demon? Sam sits up straighter in his chair and his typing becomes more sporadic, typos galore, but Google knows what he’s asking for.

He types in all the key words he can think of to zone in on demon manifestations, and they’re slim pickings. This is far from normal, but the sulfur was there. The demon was there.

So he looks up signs of ghosts, of hauntings, and tries to wade through true potential cases and hoaxes, urban legends, so-called psychics trying to drum up business. There, he finds articles that speak not about cold spots but about smells. About injuries. Seems the demons have started showing up in houses, hotels, bathrooms in restaurants.

It would be almost funny if there weren’t the start of a body count.

He thinks, for a moment, about sleeping it out and waiting until morning light to come back, but what then? Risk the owner going in for a last minute inspection, or builders to fix the rattle that’s coming from the drains? Sam knows -- knew -- demons. These new ones could be a whole new breed of crazy.

Two minutes. That’s all it takes Sam to gather up the belongings he’d placed around the motel room. The knife under the pillow, the gun on the bedside. The few shirts tossed on a chair. Like Dad and Dean had taught him, Sam was still ready to jump out a window with a moment’s notice. Never get too comfortable. Never be too secure.

Sam shoots Jody a text and then turns off his phone. Miracle remains asleep in the corner, simply cocking an ear when Sam gives him a pat goodbye.

 

&&

The house is still silent. Still holding the smell of lavender, and maybe it was vanilla, but the undercurrent of sulfur was stronger now. Making Sam’s nose itch. He twitched it while reaching down to his pocket to feel for the vial of holy water kept there. Of course it was there. So was the knife, the salt.

And it’s not that Sam deliberately hurts himself, it’s not even that he’s outright careless, but there’s a certain amount of guns-a-blazin’ that he takes into this hunt as he destroys the collection of demons that have congregated. It not being just one is the single thing that surprises Sam. Either the sulfur was in trace amounts or the original demon decided to bring its buddies.

Sam takes out most of them by knife and reciting an exorcism that’s trapped in his brain and he could chant in his sleep, and then one -- an angry brute with what looks like about six foreheads with all the deep lines up there -- gets behind Sam and with a swift kick to the back of the knee sends Sam crumpling.

He must bash his head, because then it’s stars all the way down. Blink. Blink.

Dean .

“Stop doing this to yourself,” Dean says, in his most authoritative voice that, for a split second in time, reminds Sam of their dad.

For a short while Sam doesn’t speak. He lets himself be consumed by the presence of Dean. Right there in front of him. Scruff from days of not shaving, freckles lighting up his nose (they became more prominent the one trip they took to the beach, both their shoulders ending up red raw despite the sunscreen liberally applied), his mouth downturned in concern but it’s still so perfect. The whole image.

His Dean.

Only not.

“Doing what?” Sam says when he comes back to himself. He’s playing dumb and Dean will see straight through it, but who cares? Sam knows he can’t be real. “I’m just hunting, like I promised you.”

“Don’t you--” A flash of hurt sparks through Dean’s eyes before he closes them, breathes, re-opens them to the blank expression Sam’s so used to seeing. “Don’t you dare turn this back around on me.”

“Why not?” Now Sam’s angry; can’t help it. He’s angry and afraid and so damn alone. “You’re the one who left me. Wouldn’t even let me try to bring you back, and you know I’d have found a way. A witch or a demon or--”

Dean seizes Sam’s wrist. For a fake entity of something his grip is lethal. “Don’t, Sam.”

Those two words are filled with so much anger Sam physically recoils. It makes the wound in his chest ache, but what does that even matter anymore? Dean -- or whoever is letting him show himself -- won’t let Sam die. Will keep piecing him back together like a puzzle with too many missing pieces. He’s already starting to look like a zombie.

“You left me,” Sam says, it’s all he can think to say. “All alone and I have to find some way--”

He cuts off, broken, but with no strength left for tears or sobs. He lets the blood do the talking. Even with Dean stitching him up it continues to leak steadily through the tatters of his clothes.

“Some way,” Dean says, gentler now, like the outburst didn’t happen, “Is to keep fighting. Hell, find yourself a girl and settle down. Forget about monsters and demons and all that crap. You have my permission to run away like you always wanted to--”

Fear and pain surges through Sam and it has nothing to do with his injury. “No, no, no. That was a mistake. Stanford, Amelia, all of it-- Dean, I never should have left. I’m meant to be a hunter. It’s in my blood .”

“Not like you have much blood left these days, little brother.”

Sam thinks it’s meant to be a joke but the grim line of his brother’s face makes it fall flat.

“It regenerates,” Sam says, wincing as Dean finishes placing gauze over the wound the demon must have given him and taping it down. “Didn’t you pay attention in high school bio?”

“Nope.”

Sam wants to reach for the now treated wound and tear the covering off. Stick his fingers in the bloody hole and gouge it bigger, deeper. He’ll either die or Dean will have to stay longer to patch him up. That’s how this works, right? Not like Sam has a book or webpage of law to read up on.

But Dean takes both his hands in Dean’s own. Bloodied, all four of them, but neither care. Sam remembers the blood on Dean’s back that got on his hand, how he didn’t wash it off for a long, long time after because blood was life, right? A primal, important part of his brother and Sam didn’t want to lose anything.

“Be good, Sam,” Dean says and, before Sam can get a word in. Before he can beg or plead or scream, Dean is gone again.

Sam is more alone than ever before.

 

&&

 

So it goes.

A dangerous game but Sam doesn’t care. The only real thing he does care about these days is Miracle, and he’s always made sure to keep him fed and safe and warm. If he dies, Jody will come grab him. Actually, that would be a better life for the dog, wouldn’t it? A proper home. Cuddles from the girls who only disappear long enough to complete a hunt or visit friends. Yeah, Sam thinks, him dying would be for the greater good of everyone.

“No, Sam,” Dean says after Sam’s next semi-intended hunting injury. 

This time it was an arm dislocation, messy and bloody, caused by a Cyclops. Dean looked less impressed than Sam had expected -- or wanted -- for a greek myth come to life but that was neither here nor there. The part where the socket jutted out of his skin was right over an old wound that was still healing. The stitches went pop, pop, pop right out. Like broken zipper teeth.

“No?” Sam says, playing dumb. “No what?”

Dean glares at him, leaving the injury unattended. The pain is starting to get to Sam, adrenaline from seeing Dean fading out, but he keeps his mouth shut tight. He doesn’t need to give Dean more of a reason to stay away. He’s terrified Dean might take the tough love approach.

“No, you are not better off dead,” Dean says. “That’s what you were muttering about in your half-coma, wasn’t it?”

“I hardly think I was in a coma ,” Sam says feebly.

“Well, whatever.” Dean goes back to the arm, wrenching it into place and tying it together with a sling made from his own shirt which, now Sam thinks about, looks damn near identical to the one Sam has in his bag. “I paid enough attention in biology to know too many concussions aren’t good for that brain of yours.”

“You always said I was too smart.”

Dean gives him a withering look.

“There,” Dean says, sliding back on his haunches and wiping off his bloodied hands on the knees of his jeans. They should have a lot more blood now, thick and coated, but they look only mildly dirty, like after every hunt.

Sam reaches out with his good hand and takes hold of his brother’s wrist. The movement still hurts, tearing the breath from him, but he stays steady and holds tight. “Please don’t go.”

“I’m always with--”

“Don’t.” Sam shakes his head and swallows deep over the permanent lump that now seems embedded in his throat. The one of pain and sorrow and anger. “I mean you . Here. Real.” He pauses. “Are you real?”

“Does it matter?” Dean asks. He leans down, grabbing hold of the back of Sam’s head and drawing their lips together. 

He tastes of nothing and everything. Of life and death. Of lust and sin. Everything Sam could ever want and never wants to leave. So long he has dreamed of this moment, hoped for it. When Dean’s breath left his lungs that final time the first though, the one that sickened Sam, was I never got to touch you .

“Yes,” Sam says when they have to break apart from air. At least Sam does; he still doesn’t understand what Dean is, or why he’s here. “Of course it matters.”

Dean’s mouth trails down Sam’s neck, down to his collarbone. Breath hot and heady, mouth finding traces of skin and nerves Sam didn’t even know he had . This can’t be real -- he knows that -- because never would Sam be able to admit these secret desires and expect them to be reciprocated if Dean were living, breathing flesh before him.

But that doesn’t explain what’s happening. Doesn’t explain why Dean is here before him, scars and marks and freckles and all.

“I meant everything I said,” Dean says against Sam’s ear. His breath is wet. Real . “I love you so much, and I won’t leave you. Not really.”

Empty words but Sam needs to learn when to stop pushing. Dean is here -- somehow -- and it’s all that matters. Sam gives into him. Chases his mouth again, kisses him, tasting the want and fear still coating his brother’s mouth. Sam’s cock is so hard, straining against his jeans, and Dean isn’t any different. Sam traces the outline through denim, finds the heat, relishes in the groan Dean gives.

“I’ve missed you,” Sam says. It seems the right thing to say and he can’t keep it to himself anymore. The three words have been eating him alive these past...weeks? Months? Time has no meaning anymore.

“Me too.” Dean shifts lower. “Lay back.”

Sam does. He would do anything for his brother -- walk through fire, go to Hell, die again and again. They’ve both done that for each other. Nothing is too far anymore.

“God,” Dean says. “You’re beautiful.”

Sam should blush -- would blush -- but he’s too focused on Dean’s touch. His hands won’t leave Sam’s skin for a second. Like they want to trace and remember every inch and Sam wants to do the same. His brother should be part of his memory, should never fade, but Sam’s afraid it could still happen. Those months in Hell and he started to forget little bits and pieces, little hints and tells, and it had terrified him. More than even Lucifer sharing his cell.

He ignores the slinged arm, ignores the stitches and scars dotted over almost his entire body now. Once, perhaps, it would have disgusted him to see his body so mangled. Now it’s a reminder of Dean’s touch.

Dean gets a hand down Sam’s pants and pulls them off, his cock springing free. There’s no preamble for Dean to lean down and take Sam in his mouth. It’s a miracle Sam does not just come right then and there, into the moist wet heat his brother provides. He looks at him, stares really, at the way Dean’s mouth moves. Eyes half-hooded and nose flared to keep breathing. It’s the most beautiful Sam’s ever seen him and Sam’s thought his brother is beautiful a lot .

When Dean pulls off it leaves an ache Sam doesn’t think can ever be filled again. He wants to take his brother’s face, guide him back, but Dean’s already moved. Body back to covering all of Sam he can reach, mouth finding Sam’s. He tastes of muskiness, of salt, and Sam finds he doesn’t mind. Turns him on, even, to taste himself on his brother.

“I’m not sure how you want to do this,” Dean says with a nip to Sam’s ear that makes him shudder. “Or if you do .”

“I do,” Sam says, louder than he intends, but the idea of Dean disappearing without going further, without him filling Sam up and letting Sam get every part of him is a worse reality to contemplate. “Please, Dean. I need you.”

He gets the deeper meaning in the words. The want, the need, the simply do-whatever-you-want-just-give-yourself-over-to-me that it all comes down to. Fingers trailing up and down Sam’s thighs, teasing mercilessly, and Sam thinks maybe Dean is real. How else would he be able to take so much time to spend with him? To let them languish in the feel of each other. A ghost would struggle to keep the connection, to emit enough energy to reach through the veil and take hold of human flesh.

Although everything except Sam’s body died in that barn, so maybe it’s different here.

Then Dean’s fingers breach him, with lube conjured out of nowhere, and Sam’s back to thinking something supernatural has to be at play here.

He also finds himself thinking he really, really doesn’t care.

All he focuses on is his brother. The sensation of his fingers slowly moving inside him and the way his eyes don’t so much as blink. Never breaking contact. He is beautiful, Sam thinks. He always has been. A burning of something inside his belly that was ignited even stronger the day they defeated Chuck. He never thought Dean could feel the same way, that Sam was the one twisted and messed up and needed to just keep it shoved deep down and away. 

Now...now…

“Fuck me,” Sam says.

“Of course,” Dean says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Leans down and catches Sam’s mouth in his own, wet and warm and wanting.

Dean enters Sam and it feels like this was how it was always meant to be. Hot, hard, solid, real . The view Sam always has when he closes his eyes -- his brother bleeding out, eyes closing, the last breath entering Sam’s lungs -- is gone. Everything is Dean’s alive, smiling face and hooded eyes blooming with pleasure. Sam wraps his legs around his brother’s waist and draws him in deeper.

“Fuck.” Dean says it like a benediction, and Sam wants to hear it again and again and again until it is the new memory infiltrating his mind.

Dean fucks into him again. Slow, steady, and delicious. Sam never wants this moment to end. Years and years of pent up desire and want finally coming to a head. 

Sam catches their mouths, licks and explores, tastes his brother. Dean works a hand between the two of them and takes Sam’s cock. Strokes it, messy, clumsy, attempting to time it to his own rhythm. Doesn’t matter. Sam could come to this without a touch. He cries out as the world around him turns to stars and Dean’s fucking turns erratic. Balls deep and fast, again and again, pushing Sam until his neck is at an awkward angle that should be painful but really, truly isn’t.

Thrusts slow but Dean doesn’t leave him, not right away. He lies on Sam, full body weight spread out, and runs a hand through Sam’s hair. Sam’s sweaty and gross, he knows this, but he also knows Dean wouldn’t care. Same as how his brother never cared about cleaning up a bloodied Sam, a tear soaked one after Jess, or one that was covered in filth and grime and monster guts.

Waits until his cock his soft. Then slowly, achingly, Dean leaves Sam’s body and leaves a hole he’s been battling with since the moment realisation hit like a freight train that Dean was dying. 

“Stay,” Sam murmurs against the soft, warm skin of his brother’s neck. “Please, please stay with me.”

Dean remains silent, his presence only known by his body under Sam and the hand that keeps running up and down Sam’s body, making him shiver and get goosebumps over every inch of flesh. He wants to stay like this. Always. It’s better than Heaven, better than earth without Chuck. Perfection.

“Stay,” Sam says again. It feels like the only thing his mind and mouth are capable of doing. The only thing filling him from the inside out. “Stay. Stay. Stay.”

Dean kisses the top of his head and holds him close. He stays, for now at least. Stays even though Sam’s body has been patched up and there’s no acute, visible injuries he can see or feel. Maybe he’s bleeding out internally, a ruptured organ or blood clot riding its way to his heart. Dean will only be able to do so much if that’s the case. Sam counts himself lucky that he’ll get to be with his brother while he dies. Last breath to last breath.

The perfect end to their proper story. The one that should have been written from the start.

Sam must fall asleep. Calm, blissed out, the sensation of his brother still a ghost inside and against him. But, when he breaks the barrier between dream and awake, he realises he is cold and alone.

Sam cries then. For the first time in months, he breaks down so hard he can no longer breathe.

 

&&

 

The next time he tries it, Dean doesn’t appear.

Maybe it’s because the injury is only small compared to the others he’s come up against. A slice on the soft underside of his right arm, steadily leaking blood but not pissing like it would if an artery were severed. Sam waits a few beats, expecting the shimmer of his brother to appear, smiles and saunters and calming words, but there’s nothing.

The wooziness of blood loss comes soon after. Quicker and more incessant than usual, but Sam could chalk that up to lack of sleep or a quality diet -- he forgets to eat a lot, tries to fix himself something when he feeds Miracle but even then it’s not always certain -- but either way the choice is black out or fix himself up.

The human body doesn’t want to die.

The stitches are horrible. Too many, too far apart, jagged and wrong. He thinks Dean will have to appear now. Even if it’s just to insult Sam’s non-dominant hand skills and help him wrap a clean bandage around everything. Nothing but silence. A drip, drip, drip of a leaking tap or overflowing drainpipe somewhere close by. It’s a new housing estate, being built from the ground up, and a ghost doesn’t want it to happen.

Sam took them out easily, but not before they got one good attack in.

Hunting ain’t for people on their own. You need a spotter, a confidant, someone to fill in the gaps you miss by being human and fallible. Even Dad was known to call in a helping hand every now and then. Even if the one he knows of most vividly -- Bill Harvelle -- met his death at the hands of his father’s incompetence.

Sam wonders, not for the first time, if Dean hunted alone while Sam was at college. Afraid, nervous, watching his back more than usual. Sam would do anything to go back and pair up with his brother again.

With the wound as dressed and cared for as he can make it with the items on hand, Sam cleans up and heads back to the impala. Miracle, as always, waits patiently. Sam should really think about leaving him in the motels but that seems equally unfair, with the added risk of someone tracking Sam down, breaking in, and trashing the place. There’s every chance Sam is still on a few police watch lists.

“All done, buddy,” Sam says, sliding into the driver’s seat. No matter how much he adjusts and readjusts the seat, the mirrors, the wheel it never feels right. Like Baby herself refuses to believe her once temporary driver is now in the pilot seat from here on out. 

The blood from Sam’s arm injury is already turning the once white bandage a murky red. He just hopes it will hold out until he gets to the motel. He sticks the key in the ignition and the car rumbles to life.

There’s still no sign of Dean.

 

&&

 

Sam’s life has always been filled with problems. Most of them coming back to his broken, hidden secret of being a half-demon supernatural hunter who is secretly in love with his brother. That sentence alone is so messed up it could make Sam laugh.

He’s sure it’s made Chuck chuckle on several occasions.

Earlier, Sam thought the whole thing had been orchestrated by Chuck. Part of his sick show. But it’s lingered now. Grown sharper, stronger if anything.

Real.

Real.

It has to be real.

Sam’s had plenty of problems before. Most of them hidden in excuses of that just being the way he is. A half demon hunter who is secretly in love with his brother. That sentence alone is so messed up it could make Sam laugh.

He’s sure it made Chuck laugh on several occasions.

Sam knows the slippery slope of addiction. Of falling into darkness. Of trying to justify your choices and actions when you know there’s no way anyone from the outside would find them excusable.

Sam is back in Kansas. In the state that started it all. And the state where Sam saved the whole damn world, according to his brother. When he and Dean would get home late from a hunt, crack a few beers and throw up their feet, Dean would often talk about that day in Stull Cemetery. Almost reverent. Like Dean couldn’t quite believe what Sam was capable of, what he had done.

He’d do it again. It was that or let Lucifer remain in control and end his brother’s life. It’s happened too many times. Again and again and again.

Until the barn.

Until the end.

Sam tries to find another hunt. He really, truly does. Newspapers, websites, listening in to local gossip like a high schooler from the mean girls group. He follows up with potential hauntings he’d usually scoff and roll his eyes at. Of course they’re nothing.

So he drives too fast. Risks Dean’s car because if he won’t come back for Sam he’ll come back for Baby at least. Won’t he?

Won’t he?

Won’t he?

Is Dean losing his abilities? Is he some kind of ghost piercing the veil? Doing an Oliver and managing to take hold of something and ride it out to wherever Sam is. Ghosts get angry, Sam knows this, but he always thought their powers only improved with time spent here. The rage building and building until it was a life force of its own.

Kansas is a bust, but there’s one more place.

Even more potent.

Even more of a gangrenous wound.

 

&&

 

The blood is still there. Faded, worn away, seeped into the surrounding wall and cement flooring but there . A choke catches in Sam’s throat and maybe this is it. The end. Death by his own emotions. It would be a poetic ending, the best ending. Leaving it all behind the same place Dean took his final breath.

Sam touches it. Some of it flakes off, dust. Doesn’t even try to stick to Sam’s fingers but floats to the ground. Sam wants to scoop it up. To inhalebreatheeatinject it all. Let himself be a vessel for his brother who was taken too, too soon.

“Dean,” he says. Louder. “Dean.” Screams it into the void. “DEAN!”

The word echoes all around. Dean, Dean, Dean . It’s the name Sam has started using when checking in all those motels, just to hear it on someone else’s lips. Everyone they’ve ever loved has died and the ones that remain tiptoe around any mention of Dean. Do they think the reminder is somehow a bad thing? That Sam isn’t screaming his brother’s name in the agony of his mind every single second of every single day?

Dean isn’t here. He isn’t a ghost haunting his final resting place, waiting for vengeance. Why would Sam even think that? It’s so far removed from all Dean is and believes in that it almost makes Sam laugh at the absurdity. 

Sam stalks the whole building. Once, twice. Looks in the broom cupboard where they saved those two kids. Siblings looking out for each other, huddled together. In a different world, one different turn of fate, that could have been Sam and Dean. Immune to the supernatural for a little longer until it still reached out and snatched them.

Lucifer. Michael.

Vessels.

A plan.

He makes it back to that nail. Hook. Death trap. Touches it. Presses his whole palm in until the skin breaks and blood trickles and still there’s nothing. Not a whiff or whisper of Dean.

“What am I supposed to do?” he whispers, fight gone from him. This was his last plan to bring some form of Dean back.He doesn’t care anymore if it isn’t Dean . The pale imitation will do if it means Dean is safe in Heaven. If it means Sam will have something to hang onto, a craving so bad it hurts what little soul he has left.

Once more, even less of a whisper. Less than breath. “Dean.”

 

&&

 

Miracle is safe at Jody’s. Sam drops him off with more tears, hidden in the shaggy fur, because Sam’s always the type that once the flood gates open they’re so much harder to ever close. Jody hugs him, she lets him, and then he disappears into the night.

If he had enough of himself left inside to feel something -- anything -- he’d feel guilty. As it is, he’s numb and broken and knows this is in Miracle’s best interests.

Rather than listening to Dean, which he really truly definitely should, Sam finds himself with more of a death wish than ever. It’s not even hunts he tosses himself dangerously into anymore. He picks fights in bars, on the street. Walks a little too close to the edges of bridges so, at one point, a guy pulls up his car and gently steps over.

“You alright?” The man asks, hair and words whipped away in the wind.

“Fine,” Sam shouts back without looking over. 

The wind carries his voice down into the chasm of water and jagged rocks below. The only thing better would be the grand canyon. Let himself tumble down some rocks, give himself a life-ending injury but not one that would immediately mean lights out. Let Dean appear, sit with him, look out over the ocean and tell Sam pointless stories like he used to do to help Sam sleep when they were kids.

“Are you--” the man’s voice sounds again; Sam had forgotten he was there. “Can I call someone?”

There’s no direct line to Heaven.

None except the one Sam has found, which he’s sure is fake. An illusion. But a damn good one.

“Leave,” Sam says to the man. “Please, just--”

But the guy is there. Hand on Sam’s shoulder that makes him jolt, stumble a little forward, sway into the abyss.

“Hey, hey, hey,” the guy says, his voice rising on each word. Almost hysterical, Sam thinks; worse than Sam is himself. “Careful there.”

Sam glances over his shoulder. Dean . But not Dean. The hair is the same shade of brown in the night, the body the same silhouette, the guy even seems to be wearing a long leather jacket. But his face is too soft, not weather-worn from a life on the road like Dean’s. He’s a little too short, like he could fit perfectly under the crook of Sam’s arm. And his smile is wrong. All wrong. Though that could be because he’s afraid, nervous, probably regretting walking up to the crazy guy hanging off a bridge right about now.

“I’m fine,” Sam says.

The guy laughs. It’s a bizarre sound. Dragged into the wind and sounding strangled in Sam’s ears. Which, okay, makes sense. Sam’s pretty fucking far from fine after all.

“Look,” the guy yells, his voice clearer now. “I’m not...you do what you wanna do, but not in front of me, okay?”

Sam isn’t sure who’s being more selfish. This guy is asking him to keep holding himself up, to keep moving forward without so much as a glimpse at Dean. This is the only way. Sam doesn’t know the logistics and doesn’t even care anymore. It’s working and that’s all that matters. He wants to stumble down this bridge and smash every bone in his body.

“Can I call someone for you?” he asks again.

From the corner of Sam’s eye he sees the guy shaking around a cell phone.

“No,” Sam says. He closes his eyes and feels the coldness of the breeze washing over him. The only person he wants to call is his brother, the one who’s supposed to be in Heaven. Or maybe him still being around means he’s a spirit, a stuck one who can only appear when Sam himself is on the border of life and death. He could try a Ouija board again, maybe, but then what? It’s not the same. Never the same.

“Please,” the guy says, end of the word being carried in the wind. “Just...take a step back. Please.”

Sam keeps his eyes closed. From the darkness behind his lids, he can see himself falling. Death or injury? That’s the game he’s been playing. Toeing a line to make Dean show up, not crossing over quite so far so his promise will be ruined.

A hand wraps around Sam’s arm. For a moment, a tiny moment that doesn’t even count as a second, Sam can pretend it’s Dean come to save him. But then his eyes fly open and he looks down and it’s the man. Of course it’s the man. Risking his life now by standing on the precipice with Sam. And Sam might not have been looking after himself but he’s still stronger. Could yank this guy over with him.

Not that Sam would do it, but this guy doesn’t know that.

“I’m Alan,” he says, yelling now to get his voice across. “And I hope to God you’re not going to kill me.”

There is no God, Sam wants to scream. Not really. Jack is somewhere, leaving Sam here and Dean dead and the world a mess. He might be an improvement on Chuck, but that’s a low bar to jump.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sam says, voice slack. Body slack. He sways forward a little more and the hand on his shoulder clenches tighter. That’s the sign he needs, or at least the one he takes. There’s no whisper of Dean’s voice like he was hoping for. No scent of him, sweaty after digging a grave or soapy after a steaming shower. 

This man smells like some kind of cologne that makes Sam’s nose twitch in a way that isn’t even close to pleasant. Sam turns, takes in his face. Unlined, unscarred. Missing bits of stubble and a smattering of freckles over the bridge of his nose. Sam used to count those, sometimes, when they were too old to share a bed but Dad wasn’t about to spring for a third. Even then Sam knew he was wrong for watching his brother so intently, but it was impossible to stop.

Sam has been an addict long before he took that first conscious lick of demon blood.

Now here’s Alan who’s taken Sam back to a motel he says he’s staying at, suitcase open at the foot of the bed with a few clothes spilling out. Exactly like Dean would do, but there’s striped button downs and slacks about two sizes too small. The little details. They make up the whole.

Sam’s pretty sure Alan tries to make sure he’s okay. Offers him water, a shower, a chance to sleep, but Sam makes the move and closes their small distance to catch his mouth. Hands grabbing either side of his head, legs pressing him back. If he keeps his eyes closed, if he makes it quick, maybe it will be close enough.

Alan kicks everything off the bed and scrambles up to the head, dragging Sam along with him. Sam goes. Eager to try and get things started.

It’s not the same. God, it’s not the same at all. Sam’s slept with a number of guys before, back in college, but it never went anywhere. And since that moment with Dean he thinks it might be why. A missing link of something he’d wanted for so long but repressed, deep in the pit of his stomach, along with the hatred yet love for Dad, the confusion around hunting, everything that went along with demon blood. He has a pit as deep as Hell for these kinds of things.

Alan has everything in easy reach, and Sam can’t help but think he’s not the first guy Alan’s brought back here. He hopes it’s not the sign of a boyfriend, of some longer and more serious thing, because Sam can’t deal with that.

Not that he plans to be in town more than a minute longer after this is all over.

He preps Alan fast but thorough, fingers aching for the heat of someone real and alive. When he closes his eyes, when he feels the flesh beneath him, he can almost make pretend. Then the reality comes hurtling back and Sam has to try a different approach, put himself in the moment but as a different person. Back in the mind and body of the Sam who tried to escape this life he was all but born into and tried his damndest to escape.

Two full years without Dean. Sam will always regret the choice he made, even if it made Dean proud. He could have had two more years with him.

Two.

More.

Years.

Sam would sacrifice everything for just two more minutes and he understands, as he thought he understood before, why Dean was so willing to throw his soul down to the depths of hell in order to keep Sam’s heart beating.

Death, even if in the worst of afterlives, was better than living without the other half of your soul.

He enters Alan, full to the hilt as Alan urges him deeper. Faster. Harder. 

Alan is speaking under him, but Sam only vaguely takes in his words. Moans, groans, urgings to take him harder. Sam goes out of his body, like he’s the ghost watching things from above, and takes hold of Alan’s cock. Drags a shuddering orgasm from him and follows up with his own. It’s less satisfying than Sam could ever hope for, but momentarily he’s in a state of bliss. In a world of forgetfulness.

Then he comes back to himself and that crushing pain, fear, grief is ripe once more. Like a rotten apple that hasn’t found the gust of wind to send it from the tree.

Alan sleeps and Sam leaves, walking the long distance to where he abandoned his own car on the outskirts of forest by the bridge. He sits on the hood, wishes he had a beer, and stares at the water he can see lapping down below. He could still do it, but that instant need, want, obsession has passed. Faded like rainclouds from up above. Breathing still hurts, but he’s used to that by now.

Used to the way life is grey. Always.

 

&&

 

Can he really keep up this life? Hunting and killing and travelling without his brother by his side? The Impala has already started having some issues, a blown gasket and clogged fuses, and while he could fix those things he knows it’s only a matter of time before some deeper engine trouble appears and he’ll be lost.

There’s no way he will ever let the Impala be sold for scrap or even to look busted up. But he’s aware mechanics can only do so much -- hell, Bobby was ready to ride her off after that truck crash years ago -- so he has to start thinking long term.

Long term . That’s a funny phrase for Sam. One that has warped and changed so much over the years. Once, long term meant go to school, get a law degree, marry the girl, have 2.5 kids. Then it meant hunting. Hell came next -- a lifetime in the pit, and he would have done it, too, to save the world. To save his brother.

Now...now Sam doesn’t know what he’s doing. Looking after Miracle gives him a purpose. Scouring newspapers for whatever town he ends up in makes him feel as though he’s making some sort of difference. But beyond that he’s trapped, stagnant.

All he wants is to see and speak to his brother again.

But Jody did have a point during one of their conversations. There came a time where two things happened to hunters: they died or they retired. Sam couldn’t imagine himself having a typical retirement, house and books and going fishing on weekends. No way. He’d have to go the way of Ellen or Bobby. He’d have to keep up with things, have to feel like he had some kind of purpose.

First things first, he goes back to see Jody.

“Sam.”

Somehow, despite his name being only a single syllable, in the span of the word she goes from mad to relieved. Even her face and hair and body seems stressed, frazzled, on edge but smooths out as Sam offers a strange smile that feels unnatural on his face.

Miracle comes to save the day by bounding down the hall and throwing himself up against Sam’s legs. He’s slobber and fur and meaty breath and Sam soaks it all in. So Dean did have a point with letting the dog share his bed and give him kisses. Wasn’t as bad as Sam always feared.

Sam’ll just never tell him.

“How have you been?” Jody asks; the doting mother hen who follows him and Miracle into the kitchen. She goes to the kettle and switches it on, the sound of water bubbling filling the room immediately. It’s changed since the last time Sam was here, he thinks, or maybe he just didn’t take it in. There seems to be a new coat of paint on the cupboard doors and a new colour scheme of place mats and tea towels. He didn’t think Jody would be the type to pay attention to details like that, but maybe when it’s your own home it’s different. The ability to set down roots and help them grow with a hefty dose of interior decoration fertiliser.

Sam sits on one of the chairs that now has a cushion beneath it, the same sunflower yellow as the mat in front of him. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands when there’s no mug between them, no knife or gun to clean, no computer to tap around on, so he settles on using one to pat Miracle and twisting his fingers around themselves on the other. He’s picked up a lot of nervous ticks lately. Tries not to think too deeply into it.

Jody hands him steaming coffee and it reminds him too much of the last time he came here. When his entire plan, screaming in his mind, was get away, get away, get away . Only staying, like sitting in a dentist chair for pulling teeth, because he wanted to make sure Miracle would be settled in, safe.

Now Sam doesn’t even know why he’s back.

“Fine,” Sam says with an over exaggerated shrug that hurts his shoulder. Old age, it’s catching up to him, too. “Few hunts here and there.”

Jody makes a noncommittal noise and sits across from him, sipping from her own mug.

“You’ve changed the place,” Sam says. He points to the set of plates hanging from the wall, more of that sun bright yellow. “Let me guess, some independent designer.”

Jody snorts. “Try the art class Donna dragged the girls to. It was, and I quote, ‘the biggest waste of three hours since archery training’.”

“Archery is an important skill,” Sam murmurs before catching himself. He’s not here to talk about hunting tactics or the type of training he underwent as a petulant child who complained more than took in.

Jody raises a brow but, thankfully, says nothing.

There is a comfortable enough silence here. One Sam always felt when staying at Bobby’s, except the reminders of hunting were everywhere there. The piles of books, the weaponry splayed about in a way that couldn’t be NRA-approved. Here, in Jody’s kitchen, most of it is hidden away. Under the floorboards, so to speak; a beating heart not unlike the one in Poe’s tale. 

Part of Sam always enjoyed studying the horror classics in school. Seeing others create fantasy from a messed up reality that was his life. Seeing the bastardisation of vampires and werewolves, the sympathetic view of ghosts that so rarely occurs in the real world. That’s part of how Sam knows the Dean he was able to touch, feel, smell, taste wasn’t a ghost: he didn’t come back with vengeance. 

“So what are you going to do?” Jody asks, breaking that silence like a glass falling from a waiter’s tray. The splash of champagne is Sam’s realisation that he just doesn’t know . He’s floating in limbo. Might as well sell his soul to The Empty.

He sculls the remainder of the coffee and stares at the dribbles on the bottom of the mug. “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?”

 

&&

 

He always gets the double room in motels, which makes it so much worse. That bed across from him is always unruffled, unchanged. In a sleep-deprived state Sam can almost imagine Dean there, sheets messy around him, one leg splayed out because he’s not afraid of the monsters grabbing him from underneath. Sam can even see himself wander over there, touch the expanse of Dean’s sleep-warm back. See him turn, smile that smile only Sam ever gets, and lean up to touch their lips together.

Alive, this never happened. Alive, this never could happen. But...whatever went on those times when Sam was injured, bleeding, dying made it feel so, so real. The culmination of everything Sam had been aching for from the moment he knew to give it a name and even before.

The vision swims after that kiss. So warm he can feel it alive on his tongue, like eating too much sour candy or swilling one too many shots of liquor. His cock twitches, his heart thrums, and at the end of it all Sam is still alone in the room with only Miracle for company.

He takes a cold shower, closes his eyes, leans against the tiles.

What’s he still doing in the world where his soul has already been torn in two?

What’s he doing hunting when his partner can’t be here?

What?

What?

What?

 

&&

 

Sam’s never so much as rented a house. He quickly learnt that applying for university housing didn’t come close to comparing, not when college did all the work for you when you were going full ride and had the GPA to prove it.

Dad rented, sometimes, when enough money popped up and a job was going to last months. They also had Bobby’s, but that was only half a step up from derelict motel rooms with its crumbling walls, dripping taps, and tumbling shelves of books that threatened to kill you in your sleep.

At least the application is easy enough: done over his laptop, chewing his lip when they ask for last known employment and current employment and personal references . He should have found a way to sell the bunker to buy a house outright. Completely destroy the legacy Dean tried so hard to make Sam create.

The thought make’s Sam laugh. It’s a crisp, terrifying sound and Miracle lowers his ears and looks like he’s about to growl at the door.

“Sorry, buddy,” Sam says. “Not much fun, am I?”

Miracle’s ears settle back to their neutral position as his eyes begin to slowly blink. Tired, Sam knows, the same as he is himself. Only Miracle finds the ability to sleep on beds or floors or car seats. Sam struggles no matter where he is. He thought this decision, this life he always thought he wanted, would assunge him from some of that guilt and worry.

No such luck.

He goes back to applications, filling in boxes one after the other, copy and paste and bullshit. He has little hope. Motels it is, at least until he can build up the strength to return to the bunker.

“Yeah,” he mutters into the emptiness of the room. “Not gonna happen.”

 

&&

 

Then, after he’s all but given up, Sam receives an email. Letting him know his rental application has been processed and he’s welcome to come to an inspection. He’s been staying in this motel the entire time, leaving only when he has to. There’s no hunts, at least not ones he can find easily, but people still call him. Ask his advice. Sam finds that rattling off lore still comes easily to him, ingrained in his mind and bones by something other than Chuck’s sick idea of fate.

But before ending the call, always, they ask when Sam will be back. If the bunker will be reopened as a hunter headquarters, and Sam doesn’t know what to say. Does he say no, he’s quit the life? He knows he hasn’t, not fully. Does he say they can take over the bunker? Then what? Does Sam become responsible for its comings and goings?

Like most things in his life right now, Sam just doesn’t know what to do.

Now there’s this application, this tangible piece of information that would separate hunter Sam from regular life Sam and he’s paused, heat and nausea rushing through his body. This is what he wanted, isn’t it? From the day he was old enough to realise life could be more than a motel room with him, Dad, and Dean.

You tried that, remember? The worst years of your life -- until now, anyway .

“Dean,” Sam says into a room filled only by the presence of him and Miracle. His voice sounds small, childish. As though he’s been transported right back to that elementary school boy who was afraid of everything both real and supposedly imagined. “What do I do?”

Silence is his answer.

He moves in two weeks later and signs contracts for six months. Six long months in the same place. He didn’t think he would ever do that again.

It’s been so long since Sam was able to last see Dean, even that mirage of him his mind must have conjured up. But it felt real. Looked real. He has these marks to prove it as he stands in front of the full length mirror. The first one he’s seen maybe ever. It’s not quite as tall as him, but if Sam stoops he can see from his eyebrows to his knees. It hasn’t been cleaned properly, a thin sheen visible in the sunlight pouring through behind him. Cologne or perfume maybe, but the scent has faded, and it could just as easily be water or spit or piss. Sam tries not to think about it.

He tears off his shirt. The cotton on it is thin, well-worn, and going from grey to dirty white. Like the opposite of all white shirts he’d once owned. He’s thinner too. Veins and bones visible around his arms and ribs. But what really strikes out, what he doesn’t want to look at, is his skin.

If he doesn’t think too deeply and allows his eyes to blur, his figure to contort, Sam can see little more than the ghosting fingers of his brother. Watching him patch Sam up, jerk him off, open him wide and go inside. So deep Dean could live in there and never, ever let them be pulled apart.

Then Sam’s eyes adjust. They clear up, the world coming back to reality as the clouds shift over the sun. Scars coat him. In every direction with no rhyme or reason. The biggest goes from hip to ribs, jagged, wide. Ugly. The one Sam truly thought would mean the end of him, his reunion with Dean.

He traces his finger alone it’s jagged curve. When they were young, first aid was second tier in Dad’s list of training. First you needed to learn how to wield weapons: reload guns, slice a knife in the right direction and with the correct amount of strength. Learn the lore, the monsters, so you knew what you were doing. Only after all of that was ingrained deeper than blood, and bone, and sinew did the ability to fix up your shattered body come into play.

It’s a miracle any of them survived for so long.

Then again, was it? No matter how hard Sam tries to move on from those years, images of Chuck continue to bombard his mind. This... being who stole so much from him and Dean. The one who also gave them abilities. Who raised them from the dead too many times to count. And for what now? His game had been long over. 

Puppets.

Sam’s starting to look more and more like one by the day. Strings as part of his body instead of attached to his limbs to hold him up. Should slit his wrist next, he thinks darkly, make the charade work better.

He tugs his shirt back on and goes into the small kitchen. There’s a few freezer meals waiting. Old habits die hard. Sam sticks one in the oven instead of a microwave, finding himself wanting to give a small smile at doing so. An upgrade, gourmet meals, at least that’s what Dean would say. He pours food into Miracle’s bowl and sits at the -- his -- round kitchen table. Digging out his laptop he’s hardly used these past few months and scour half-heartedly for hunts. He can’t give up. Won’t. Needs to hunt the same way he needs to breathe, because how else will he feel close to his brother? How else will he pretend Dean is simply in the other room, singing off-key in the shower or snoring heavy in his bed?

It was decided long ago. When this universe was created. When Chuck started throwing things left, right and centre.

When he carved Dean’s name into the bones on Sam’s ribs. Then did likewise for Dean. They were never supposed to be apart.

Only Chuck dying, ironically enough, could let it happen.

 

&&

 

“This one wasn’t intentional.”

“Sure it wasn’t, buddy.”

Dean won’t even look Sam in the eye as he dresses the wound on his face. Gazes only at the scratch just below his hairline that must be worse than it looks -- and feels -- to make Dean show up. Sam had tested it. Giving himself papercuts or burns on the stove. Nothing. Not even a damn flicker. Then he had to go and stumble in his own backyard.

He’s given up trying to work out what triggers Dean to...to what? Come down from Heaven ? Even Sam doesn’t have that much faith in Jack’s system.

“You like this place?” Sam pushes instead.

Dean’s hands are pull, pull, pulling the stitches. Sam’s face feels like after mud or dirt has dried and cracked; tight, uncomfortable. “It’s alright.”

“Alright?” Sam plays off his hurt with a cough of laughter but it’s not fooling anyone. Dean’s eyes flicker to Sam’s then, just as quickly, back away.

“Cheaper to rent a motel room for the size, wouldn’t it?”

“It’s a base,” Sam says flatly. “Thought that’s what you wanted.”

“As long as that’s what you want.”

Dean continues to pull and pluck at the stitches, tie off the knot and remove thread from the needle, all while Sam’s trying to get his head around those seven words. Maybe he has a concussion from the fall. Tripping over a damn rock that juts out from one of the badly overgrown gardens he hasn’t even tried to get under control. This should be incentive but it won’t be.

“There,” Dean says, swiping a cloth over Sam’s face. He’s gentle, slow, and Sam finds himself leaning into the touch. Sighing. Even closing his eyes for the briefest of moments.

When he opens them again, Dean is gone.

 

&&

 

Sam mulls over Dean’s words for days before the reality of their meaning starts to dawn on him.

How everything Dean said in that barn as the light and life drained from him was to help Sam find some sort of stable ground to keep walking on once his brother was gone. Sam’s failed. Failed so bad he doesn’t think there’s any way out of this dark pit he’s dug around himself.

It gets too much. It’s like Sam’s demon blood addiction all over again, only this time he doesn’t have Dean coming back to help him through. He aches to feel the pain, to see the light he knows means Dean will be here any second. The adrenaline rush that dulls what he’s done to himself, coming back only in snippets as Dean stitches or relocates or or patches up.

Locked in the small bathroom of this place, mirror fogged by the shower that’s been running relentlessly with nobody to clean, Sam takes a razor to his arm. Gentle, then harder. Digging in deep. Something in the mirror flickers, but it’s gone when Sam stops cutting.

He drops the blade. Ignores the red blood running from the skin and onto the off-white tiles of his bathroom floor. The steam has built up again, the entire mirror hidden. There’s no scent of Dean, no sound of his heavy footsteps or him clearing his throat. No sensation of him.

Sam is alone.

More alone than he’s ever felt in his life.

He has no fucking idea how to get out of this cycle. Doesn’t even know if he wants to.

 

&&

 

Hunt, because you have to.

Hunt, because it’s the only thing you know.

Hunt, because Dean won’t save you. Won’t come to your aching calls.

Sam pushes and pushes and hopes each day will be his last. Wishes it, even. Prays despite giving it up long ago. Jack won’t acknowledge him, of course, but maybe some angel up there will take pity. Shove a vampire in Sam’s path that has blood lust stronger than Sam’s abilities to chop off it’s head.

All he can do is hope.

Then, Dean comes back.

Sam doesn’t think he’s in any mortal peril, at least not to start with, but something captures the corner of his eye and he turns. The regret is instant because he’s let Dean out of his sight. Doesn’t look back. Can’t look back. Dean has trained him too well. Engrained these skills down to the bone.

Nothing too fun or fancy. Feral werewolves who are half crazed with hunger and too far gone to defend themselves, but one gets a momentary upper hand. Fights dirty, kicking Sam in the groin, and Sam keels over. Swallows puke. Staggers back up and gets out his knife and wastes the sucker in two seconds flat.

He goes home. There’s blood and spit on his clothes, his face, but he doesn’t care. Opens the door and there

There .

“Not too bad, Sammy,” Dean says. “Maybe a little stagnant.”

Sam whips around. His body heaves for more air but he doesn’t care about that either. All, all, all he can think about is walking over and throttling his brother.

“You promised you’d always be with me!” The emotions well up in Sam and explode along with a choked-off sob. He doesn’t want to offer Dean his pain, his care. The cut on his arm throbs but so do the others, every half healed scar and badly sewed up wound. Sam kept picking and picking and picking at them. Hoping the pain itself would be enough to gain a flicker of Dean.

“I know,” Dean says, but he doesn’t sound convincing. Doesn’t even look convincing this time. He’s a little misty around the edges, like if Sam reached out to touch him his arm might go right through.

Sam remembers the sex they had, when Dean was here. How real, how solid he felt. Every sensation lighting Sam’s nerves on fire.

“You’ve never been real, have you?” Sam can’t stop this sob that follows the words.

Dean takes a step forward. Another. Each movement makes him appear to be more and more solid. He reaches Sam, runs a hand through his hair, and says, “I’m real enough, Sam. I looked after you, didn’t I?”

He’s right there. Warm. Smelling of Dean. Feeling of Dean, the electric current that has always ran between them as real and alive as ever.

Sam closes his eyes and several tears leak through, burning, hot and salty on his cheeks and lips where they settle. Dean wipes them away. Kisses Sam. His lips wet, plush, opening in response to Sam’s own fervent need. He has to be real. Sam deepens the kiss, tries to drag himself into his brother. To find those carvings in his ribs. The promise, the truth. 

“Why did you leave me?” he says into Dean’s mouth. Knocks their teeth, tastes blood on his tongue. 

Dean shoves him. Not hard, but incessant. An order without words. Sam goes. Letting himself be pressed up against the wall of the house -- his home , except nothing will ever truly be home without Dean by his side. Dean attacks his mouth, all teeth and tongue and lust and want. He could never tire of this. Could never imagine asking Dean to stay away. So why can Dean just come and go like he does?

You’re. Not. Real.

But does it matter?

Dean holds him up like he’s the only thing keeping Sam tethered. He is, Sam thinks. The rope of a lifeforce who forces Sam to keep living in this crummy life. Growing old and grey and fat. 

There are so many years left between then and now. He knows he’ll lose more things. Miracle, for one. Probably Jody. Charlie. New people he might meet, old ones that might tumble back into his life. 

What is the point of going on? Of dragging his feet, one after the other, to face days that blur into each other and never, even lessen in pain?

“What am I doing?” he says out loud. Maybe to himself, maybe to Dean, maybe simply to the void that’s stretching all around him. Has engulfed him and will never let go.

“You’re living, Sammy,” Dean says. He rests his hand on Sam’s cheek. The bruised one, with scabs that are taking forever to heal. “That’s what matters.”

Is it?

He kisses Dean again. Would burrow into him if he could, replace his current house with a home made of flesh and bone inside his brother.

“Show me,” Sam says, desperate. “Show me that you’re real.”

Dean does just that. Stripping them both down right there on the dirty floorboards of Sam’s place, fingering Sam ready. Whispering words that Sam finds solace in. Memories of childhood and adulthood, of hunting, even of the bunker. When it all gets too much Sam cries out and tells Dean to please, please, please do it. To please make Sam whole again.

“Of course,” Dean says. 

He drives himself home perfectly. Finding the place in Sam that makes him sees stars, makes him forget just how fucked up everything about this whole thing is. All that matters is Dean, Dean, Dean is inside him. Dean is touching him and making him feel things he never thought he could feel again and, most importantly, he’s not disappearing. He’s not fading like a ghost should or dissipating in Sam’s mind like Lucifer always did. He’s breathing hot and heavy against Sam’s mouth, even a bead of sweat dripping down, pooling in the crook of Sam’s collarbone because he’s lost weight and all those bones stick out now. Angular, harsh.

Dean doesn’t care. Sucks the sweat out then licks a trail along those bones to Sam’s mouth. Salty lips meet Sam’s and they’re the damn best thing he has ever tasted. Sam never wants to let go, but knows he’ll have to. Knows all of this is only temporary, and who knows how long it can last?

“What are you then?” he asks, voice strained by the way his body rocks against Dean’s. By the orgasm that’s building and building but he won’t let it explode out. Not yet. “How are you--”

Dean wraps a hand in Sam’s hair and fucks him harder as a response. Mouth no longer moving, instead having formed a tight line that all but takes his lips away with it. Sam cries out at the angle his brother hits, at the way everything feels right in the world for one blissful, distracting moment.

Who are you?

What are you?

The orgasm his him like a freight train. An explosion of come and shuddering muscles. Dean slows but keeps fucking, long and languished strokes that make Sam twitch each time they hit him right.

Dean comes himself with a deep groan, reverberating from his belly all the way up to his slackened mouth. No secrets fall out, no truths, but Sam laps it all up anyway. How can someone not real feel this way? React this way? Be warm and cold and soft and hard all at the same time? It’s like no ghost or monster Sam’s ever seen.

“Does it matter, Sammy?” Dean murmurs. They seem like his favourite words as of late. Not that Sam’s sure what late even means here. It feels both like yesterday and like twenty years ago that he watched Dean die in that barn. Eternity and not eternity. Forever and not so long ago.

Yes , he wants to say. Yes, yes, yes it matters . Because he fucked whatever this is, fell deeper in love with whatever this is, and if it’s not Dean he’s pushed the true memory aside and that will never, ever do.

“It’s me, Sam,” he says. Nuzzles his nose against the crook of Sam’s neck and breathes out warmth. Breathes out his scent. Hurtles Sam back into so many memories he feels trapped in an ocean riptide. Which way is up? Which is down? Where even is Sam on this timeline of life? If he’s learnt anything from their duel with God and Death it’s that there’s nothing linear about this universe.

Maybe this is Dean from another universe. Like the one they saved. Caught, hidden somewhere else for the last few years.

“Stop thinking,” Dean says. His breath is still warm against Sam’s neck. Like he’s trying to lull him to sleep. “Know that’s hard for you, but it won’t do anything.”

He’s right. Sam knows he’s right. No matter what this is or where they are, Sam’s not going to be able to wrap his head around it. Dean’s as locked up right now as Chuck’s Death Book.

That’s part of how Sam knows it can’t really, really, really be Dean.

“I have to find him again,” Sam says, that strain and emotion drawing up again in his throat like a bug caught. Legs scratching. Trying in vain to be let free. Or is it like Jonah in the whale? Trapped by a ruthless deity who needs him to suffer.

Dean shuffles. Closer. His cock is hardening up again against Sam’s leg and it makes Sam’s own twitch back to life. “You know how that goes.”

Of course. More times than he could have ever imagined as a kid learning about things that went bump in the night. What’s dead should stay dead. A mantra both Dad and Dean had used in the past, that Sam had absorbed and abided by.

Until it meant the death of his brother and no, no, no. There were no depths Sam wouldn’t go to in order to get Dean back.

“I’m safe, you know,” Dean says, his voice taking on a gentler tone. Almost a whisper and Sam has to strain to hear it all. “Got my wheels, plenty of people. But it’s not your time yet, okay?”

“Why?” It’s the question that hasn’t stopped plaguing Sam. Why did Dean have to die? Why did Sam have to stay? Why, why, why has anything in their lives happened the way it did? Even Chuck can’t be held responsible for the first two questions.

“I don’t know,” Dean says. “But soon, okay? Soon.”

It’s really not enough. How could it be? But Dean’s hand is trailing up Sam’s thigh, brushing against his balls, making his cock reach full hardness in the span of half a second. He shifts, lets Dean get his hand around the full girth, and the smile Dean gives blinds him. Makes Sam need to kiss him again and again.

They fuck. Sam could never get sick of this, but what if he gets old? It still feels a lifetime away. Worse, if it really does end up being that long. He wants to experience this always and he can never be sure if this will be the last time he gets Dean. When they finish and curl up together all he wants is to close his eyes and make the world stop spinning.

“You’ll live,” Dean says, and maybe it’s Sam’s imagination but it sounds as though his voice is changing. Fading.

Sam sits up, frantic, taking hold of his brother’s arm. The warmth seeps through to his fingertips, his veins. All the way to his heart and stomach that are both lurching and thumping and making him feel out of himself.

“You will,” Dean says. “I will be there, don’t you worry.”

“No,” Sam says. His own voice doesn’t sound right, but choked rather than lost in the nonexistent wind. “No.”

Dean is gone.

 

&&

 

3.

Six months in the house comes up and Sam doesn’t know how that can be real. Almost 200 days calling the same place his . Or at least as his as having a landlord breathing down his neck can be. Not that the guy’s bad. Sam communicates with him purely through email and the agent does the bimonthly checks. Loves Miracle. Everything is going good.

At least until the loneliness starts falling down and then Sam does what he does best. Or at least what he used to think that was. It’s strange to know when you don’t even know yourself. When the other half of you is on a completely different plane.

He hunts.

But after those six months things change, and he turns more to research. Not throwing himself in the line of fire in hopes Dean will appear before him.

Of course he still wants his brother there. Wants it like a burning in the remainder of his soul, but he’s starting to realise it’s not his time yet. That no matter what he keeps doing, Dean will keep patching him up, and maybe Dean is something stronger than God now.

Something stronger than the universe.

He goes so long without getting hurt that it’s a shock when he does. When a [MONSTER] manages to toss him into a wall and Sam feels that familiar weight of a concussion closing in on him, blackness and fuzziness and warmth as he slips under. Then wakes up, almost wondering if he’s dead, and Dean is there with a grim look on his face and this isn’t Heaven.

Not yet.

Never yet.

“Been a while,” Dean says, already setting to work at the cut on the back of Sam’s head that’s now starting to sting.

“Is that a bad thing?” Sam asks. Quieter, he adds, “Did you miss me?”

“Of course I miss you,” Dean says. He pinches something and Sam winces. Soft hands pat over his hair, smoothing it. Sam leans into the touch. “But it’s okay. I know it’s not forever.”

Dean kisses him.

Gentle,

and then all at once.

In that moment, in a swirl of pain and fear, but also so, so much love Sam knows one day he will go to his brother. His real, real, real brother.

One beautiful day.