The Men of Letters shower rooms don’t leave much room for privacy. This secret society built locker room showers, with no doors on stalls. Even with the door to the bathroom itself safely locked, Sam still feels oddly exposed whenever he washes himself, like something or someone might creep up on him when he’s at his most vulnerable and paint the tile walls red. Like in that famous scene from Psycho.
Just another reason why he still doesn’t call the Bunker his home. Sam’s still clinging to his childhood notions of home: something he can’t have; something warm and sunlit where someone who loves you makes pancakes, someplace you feel safe. Somewhere you can plant roots. Home is where the heart is, right? But the Bunker’s underground, and it’s chilly more often than not, and both he and Dean usually wear jeans and flannels and boots around their own home because you never know when something evil will leak into the building through the vents. And, of course, no one makes pancakes.
Sam shakes his wet hair like a dog after a dip in the river and turns the shower off. He methodically wipes himself down with a fluffy white towel. Dean bought a large set of these when they just moved in and he was on a homesteading small luxuries kick. Hey, I’m nesting, Dean said as an excuse before swiping his hacked credit card over and over again.
Sam pulls on his clothes, piece by piece, the fabric clinging to his warm and still slightly damp skin. He leans on the counter and stretches his fingers. First on his good hand, then on his recently recovered one, finally out of the sling. It wasn’t the worst injury he’s ever had by any means, but it was inconvenient to get around with one working arm. Especially considering Dean wasn’t around, at least not to help. When Dean was around, he was around to hurt.
Sam finds him in the kitchen, sprawled under the sink and surrounded by his work tools. Sam scans the instruments and gulps when his eyes fall on the hammer. He remembers diving out of its way as it whooshed by inches from his skull.
“Hey,” Dean says. He’s holding a wrench. He could kill Sam with the wrench too if he wanted. Sam sees it clear like one of the psychic visions he used to have, Dean walking up to him and methodically bashing his brains in with that very wrench. “...so I had to make sure it didn’t spring a leak. Sam, you with me?”
“Alright, space cadet.” Dean climbs out from under the sink and puts the potentially murderous wrench down. “What’s up with you?”
“I’m just tired,” Sam says. Dean raises his eyebrow but doesn’t comment any further.
“Well, Just Tired, I found us a case,” Dean says before his face grows tense. Sam tenses too since the whole wrench thing is still on his mind. “Kids getting snatched. I hate the ones with kids.”
Oh, okay. Dean’s mad about the case. That makes sense. Sam didn’t do anything to possibly piss him off.
“What happened?” Sam asks. Dean wordlessly gestures at the laptop on the table and Sam sits down before scrolling through the research document Dean compiled.
“Cliff notes? A bunch of kids vanished from a corn maze one night,” Dean says as Sam reads a police report. “One of those Halloween supposedly haunted joints. But I looked at the history of the place and it’s clean. No bloody murders, no nothing. And the haunted shit is obviously actors. So I got no idea what’s up.”
Halloween. Great. Sam tenses again in a way that has nothing to do with Dean’s actions and everything to do with the holiday at hand.
“Oh, right. You hate Halloween,” Dean snorts. “Like every other holiday. Call you Sam the Grinch.”
“What’s there to love about Halloween?” Sam grumbles. “There’s always a spike of cases around it. Lots of false positives, too.”
“What’s there to love--” Dean holds his chest in a mock gasp. “I got two words for you: cheap-ass candy.”
“That’s three words.”
“Cheap-ass counts as one word,” Dean sits down across from Sam, a cup of coffee in each hand. “Plus, there’s a new Hatchet Man movie coming out in a couple of days. I love that shit.”
“I know you do,” Sam says.
“We could have a movie night!” Dean says enthusiastically. He pushes Sam’s coffee to him and the Mark stares at Sam from Dean’s arm. It’s pink and docile right now. Sam doesn’t trust it anyway.
“Pass. I’ve seen enough gore in real life to last me a lifetime,” Sam says with a little shake of his head. He brings the cup to his lips. Dean bought a French press when on his domestic shopping spree, so the coffee is good, much better than the gas station kind.
“More for me,” Dean says with a light shrug and grins.
“Besides, I want to watch the second installment of the D'empreintes Digitales movies,” Sam says, for no reason but shit-stirring like little brothers do, to try to scrape even a fleeting glimpse of normality back. “It’s this allegorical series about connecting through dance in a world that outlawed physical contact—”
“Sammy, I’m gonna level with you. This sounds like the most boring shit ever and I’d rather eat my own shoe than watch that. But you knock yourself out.”
For the rest of the breakfast, Sam almost doesn’t think of all the ways Dean could kill him if he only wanted to.
Sam’s walking a tightrope and there’s nothing good waiting for him down below if he falls.
The corn maze is in West Virginia, and true to the song, there are many country roads here. Dean bitches about mud on his Baby, but Sam’s learned to tune Dean’s car-related ramblings out since Dean’s not looking for conversation as much as just to vent.
The corn maze is, first, closed for business, and second, tall. Tall-even-for-Sam tall. He has to throw his head back to see the tops of the leaves. A cold, bone-chilling wind rustles by, making Sam pull his faux-FBI black coat a little tighter around himself.
“Cold as balls out here,” Dean agrees as soon as Sam shivers. “And zero ghost activity,” he continues, waving his EMF meter.
“You think this could be just a human thing? Or maybe they wandered off into the woods?” Sam asks, a little belatedly. They already drove all the way out here, they’re seeing this one through.
“One or two, sure, but five kids? In one night? My gut is telling me it’s a hunt. ‘Cause if it was a human, it would have to be one bold sicko,” Dean says. “‘Sides, no matter who they are, human or not, I can’t wait to kick the shit outta the bastard who did this!'' he continues cheerfully and grins at Sam. Sam doesn’t think any of this is funny, which he conveys to Dean with an annoyed look, his mouth pursed.
Mr. Randolph, the balding man running the place, is pensive about the missing kids, but not in the mood to answer weird questions, which pisses Dean right off. Dean’s nostrils flare as Sam goes through the usual gamut of questions. Cold spots? Flickering lights? Sulfur smell?
“Jeez, what does this have to do with anything?” Mr. Randolph asks, exasperated. “Sulfur? What sulfur? How is that possibly related to a disappearance?”
Sam sighs. “I know it might sound strange—”
“Listen here,” Dean says, in a low, dangerous voice. “Five kids are missing on your watch, Mr. Randolph. In your goddamn maze.”
Mr. Randolph gulps and even backs up, away from Dean, but Dean’s undeterred.
“So when my partner asks you a question, you don’t talk back. You don’t ask why. You thank your lucky stars we’re having this conversation in your office and not downtown in a six-by-eight cell!”
Sam pulls on Dean’s sleeve. Calm down, Sam mouths, and Dean immediately falls back. His face is scrunched up and unhappy.
“There wasn’t any sulfur, okay? There wasn’t anything weird about this night. Except for one thing: a few folks complained about the music that we played that night.”
“What about it?” Sam frowns.
“They said it made them feel dizzy or something— I dunno. Sounded like usual to me. We made it a little quieter, I think.”
They interview the other employees too.
There’s a guy with an impressive mustache named Alex who runs the food stall. There’s a tall, attractive woman called Dani who runs the petting farm, and Sam swears there’s half a spark between them, but he’s too burned out to fan any flames right now. There’s a bored teenage girl named Alyssa selling tickets.
None of them seem particularly suspicious.
“What was that back there?” Sam asks fifteen minutes later when they’re finally sitting in a diner booth. Dean’s aggressively slurping a thick milkshake through a red and white striped straw—apple pie-flavored, the diner’s specialty—so he takes a moment to reply.
“Effective, for one. Did you hear him tell us everything we needed?” Dean says. “We don’t have any time to waste.”
“All that did was scare the hell out of some guy who probably isn’t even involved,” Sam says. “I get it, you want to save—”
“Do you? Do you get it?” Dean says, curtly. He lowers his voice. “I was a demon. I did all kinds of fucked-up shit. I need… I need to balance it out. Make sure I help enough people to make up for the people I hurt.”
Sam does get it, actually. Sam gets it vividly: after every major mistake Sam himself made, he went on a self-flagellation atonement tour with a stop in every town that had something to hunt and, more importantly, someone to save.
“I understand,” Sam says, keeping his voice soft. “And we’ll find them, Dean. Just… let’s keep our heads down and do the work like we always do.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Dean says. He twirls the plastic butter knife in his hand. Sam watches the white plastic turn over and over again in Dean’s scarred, bruised fingers, a Perpetuum mobile. “I’ll play nice.”
Even when Dean’s not holding anything anyone else could consider a weapon, he’s still dangerous, like a gun with one bullet hiding in its chamber unbeknownst to the owner. Dad used to repeat safety rules over and over, treat every weapon as if it’s loaded, and don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to kill.
Well, Dean’s always ready to fucking go. And the Mark’s making sure he’s pointed at Sam, even if Dean doesn’t mean to pull the trigger. Dean’s demon eyes were as black and hollow as the muzzle of his Colt 1911.
The Mark’s hidden under Dean’s suit’s sleeve right now. Probably mocking Sam from where he can’t see, laughing at him from Dean’s arm. Isn’t it funny how I can make him do anything I want? Isn’t it hilarious, Sam, how I’m a memory of the first fratricide? Isn’t it wonderful how the joke’s on you, oh, Sam, give me a smile, c’mon now, you always loved Biblical stories and now you get to live out another one, and in this one, you aren’t even a bad guy for once, you’re a hapless little victim. Must be sweet to be the subject rather than the object of evil sometimes. Say a prayer, now, before you meet your maker!
Sam tears his eyes away from the spot where the Mark hides.
Dean makes up a case board. He pins up a picture of each of the kids, their names are written in a magic marker right under. It makes sense to have these pictures up here. But Sam can’t help but think Dean did it out of self-punishment, to have these kids look at him and ask him, mister, why haven’t you saved me yet? Dean likes to take on extra heaps of guilt for things that are not his fault to dilute the guilt for things that are. If he’s guilty of everything, he’s guilty of nothing at all. Sam observes it indifferently, like an outsider. He doesn’t feel like the injured party even though he probably technically is.
Dean took on a Mark of the most famous fratricide and lovingly put a target on Sam’s back. That’s a fact. But there were bigger reasons, bigger fish to fry than Sam. That’s also a fact.
These kids are missing and Sam needs to step up as much as Dean does. That’s the most important fact.
“So get this,” Sam says, and Dean looks up from his computer. “This isn’t the first time something like that happened.”
“No. Just not here. All over the country, actually,” Sam says. “People missing from fields and mazes and woods around Halloween in small groups. Used to be a couple of people or maybe two, but lately, the groups got bigger and bigger.” Sam opens a spreadsheet. “I don’t think all of these are linked, necessarily, but quite a few witnesses of these events reported hearing magnetic, eerie music.”
“Whatever this thing is, the music has to be connected. Do you think it’s got, like, a luring effect? Like the Pied Piper?” Dean leans on Sam’s chair, looking over his shoulder, one of his hands splayed on the table. Sam thinks, headlock. Snapped neck. Boom, boom, dead on the floor.
“Maybe,” Sam says, a little delayed.
He wishes to God he could just stop seeing these things. Dean’s Dean. Maybe a little angrier and maybe he’s always got his teeth grit these days and he keeps taking these self-centering breaths when he thinks Sam’s not looking. But he’s still Dean.
Sam’s lizard brain refuses to get with the program. Sam’s not used to Dean being even a little not-Dean. It’s he who’s getting possessed and fucked up and even high on demon blood or has psychic visions or loses his soul or whatever—all of it, it happens to him. Dean has always been a constant, something Sam could trust-fall back on, no matter what. And suspecting Dean of not being 100% himself makes Sam feel like you do when you’re going down a steep stairway and you miss a step. That moment when you've already realized that your foot is only meeting air but before you catch yourself on the railing. That moment, stretched in time, until every second of Sam’s day feels like this.
From what Dean told him, Cain didn’t want to kill Abel, either.
Cain killed Abel for Abel’s own good.
And that just sounds a little uncomfortably familiar. It’s for your own good might as well be Dean’s motto whenever he pulls some shit. Dean doesn’t do messed-up things for his own sake or anyone else’s. Dean does them for Sam.
They get back to pounding the pavement, interviewing the families. The terrified families. This isn’t Sam’s favorite part by any means ever. And kidnapping cases are different from murder ones because the people in front of them aren’t grieving, not yet, they’re hopeful and desperate, and it terrifies Sam, puts a heavy weight on his shoulders.
He was like that himself a little while ago. When he was looking for Dean and coming up short. The parents must be imagining horrible things done to their kids, Sam was imagining horrible things done by Dean; all the things he’d have to still carry after he’s human again.
The subject of evil, the object of evil. It’s evil all the same. Sam woke up once and found out his body burned the city down. He wanted to spare Dean this feeling.
But it looks like he’ll have to settle for saving these kids if he can; and, God, he hopes they can do at least that, or, God forbid, Dean will have a fucking breakdown. Dean high on guilt and spiraling out, topped off with whatever the Mark gives him? Sam doesn’t want to even imagine.
Dean’s guilt-slash-crime board grows by the hour, sprouts new details.
There’s little Andy. His parents have been fighting non-stop, the babysitter told Dean. Dad’s got an affair at work; it’s such ugly business.
There’s Nicole who is homeschooled by a mother that seems to be the type of person to believe schools are brainwashing kids. From what Sam’s picking up on, this outing was supposed to be a rare day when Nicole got to meet other kids her age. Instead, she’s gone.
There’s Ivy, a girl who’s way too young to be taking so many classes. Between violin, swimming, ballet, French, and after-school math, Sam’s surprised she has any time in the day left to go to a corn maze. Even there, she was making a report for the school newspaper.
Yeah, Dean’s not alone: Sam hates the ones with kids, too.
“I think I got it,” Sam says. It’s been a long day of research and his eyes are stinging with all the reading he’s been doing. “The connection between the kids.”
“Shoot,” Dean says. He’s been pacing the room and thinking aloud under his breath for the last ten minutes, which was incredibly annoying but not so annoying Sam was willing to expend any energy on trying to get Dean to sit down and shut up.
“They all had to grow up too soon. Look how much each of them was going through,” Sam says. “One of them was dealing with a really ugly parents’ divorce, another with a helicopter conspiracy nut mom, the third is studying non-stop. None of them had a proper childhood.”
“Okay, is there anything in the lore on a thing with a penchant for kids who got a rough deal in life?”
“No,” Sam says. “No, sorry. I’ll look some more.” He rubs his left eye.
“I got an idea,” Dean says. Sam doesn’t like the tone of his voice. “Whoever it is, they didn’t just take kids. Check it out. A groundworker vanished a few weeks before them. Didn’t make that big of a splash, ‘cause he was on the older side, and a total loner. I think he was the first victim of this thing, and then it escalated to kids. But it might just take an adult if it feels like it.”
“I didn’t even say what my idea was yet!”
“You wanna be bait,” Sam says.
“Got it in one,” Dean admits. “But c’mon, Sammy. Kids are going missing, and we have nothing to go on so far. You got any better ideas?”
Sam does not.
“I still think we’re going on a limb here,” he says, following Dean into the maze. The hedge is still too tall even for Sam, and it makes him feel claustrophobic, the inky night sky overhead starless and every bit as oppressive as the cramped maze walls. Sam clutches the flashlight just a little tighter.
“Man, quit complaining,” Dean mutters, irritated. “I get it, you’d rather keep looking through lore in search of a needle in a haystack.”
“Oh, and hoping this thing is just gonna snatch you up isn’t going out on a limb?” Sam bites back. “At least it’s warm back at the motel.”
“God, you’re such a fucking wuss sometimes.”
Sam rolls his eyes, and Dean groans.
“Don’t make that face, dude.”
“You weren’t even looking at me!” Sam says, frustrated.
“Like I need to look to you to tell,” Dean mutters. “Can you just shut it so we can finally work on the damn hunt?”
“Sure, boss,” Sam replies, incredulous, and follows Dean into the maze, his shoulders tense. He’s pretty sure he’s keeping up with his idiot of a brother just fine, but when Dean turns a corner and Sam follows, he walks straight into a dead end. Sam reaches out and feels the plants in front of him to make sure it is, in fact, a dead end. Faint, haunting music echoes in Sam’s ears.
He looks around, his flashlight’s ray darting from spot to spot as his heartbeat quickens.
“Dean?!” Sam yells out as he circles back. These mazes weren’t even supposed to be that complicated! They were supposed to be easy even for a kid to clear. But as Sam walks on, he finds himself only more turned around.
And the maze seems to grow even taller, the plants reaching out to the sky in silent prayer. The violins Sam’s been hearing pick up, and he belatedly remembers that maze attendees reported hearing music that made them dizzy.
Sam sure as hell feels dizzy right now.
He scrambles for the pocket where his phone is, but it’s too little, too late. He slides down on the ground, shaking and shivering, and a shadow covers him before his tunnel vision narrows into darkness.
Dad beams with pride as Sam opens his college acceptance letter.
Sarah decapitates a vampire that snarled right into Sam’s face and helps him up, her hand tightly gripping his.
Charlie looks over his hacking methods and gives him pointers, excitedly waving her hands as she thinks of all the ways Sam could hack even better.
Bones licks his cheek and noses at it, wagging his tail so much it might as well fall off.
Mom makes blueberry pancakes. Sam’s favorite.
Ruby stops him right before he can kill Lilith. She can’t let him go through with this, plan or no plan.
Sam’s down on his knees next to his bed, his hands clasped together in prayer. He feels warm all over like he’s not alone. Like someone’s listening on the other side. Listening and caring.
Jess teaches him how to bake her trademark cookies. She used to joke that she’ll take this secret to her grave, but the other day she changed her mind.
Sam smiles and breathes in deep.
His eyes fly open wide when pain runs through his very core, making every muscle in his body seize. Dean’s worried face hovers in his field of vision.
“Gah,” Sam says eloquently. Stop, don’t, knock it off. He looks down to see where this pain is radiating from. His plaid is unbuttoned and there’s a thick vine coming out of the middle of his stomach, right out of the belly button. Small tendrils are plastered against his skin. Flowers are prickling his pores from the inside.
“Wake up, dammit!” Dean says. “We have to get out of here.”
Sam doesn’t care. He wants to go back to his dream. Sam closes his eyes for a second, and when he blinks awake, Dean’s got a switchblade in his hand and he’s eyeing that vine in a way that Sam doesn’t like at all.
It’s a relief to see a tall silhouette swoop in. She picks Dean up easily and tosses him away. Sam’s forced to look around. He’s in a warehouse. A group of children is sitting in a circle, and just like him, they’re attached to an ancient tree in the middle of the space, its branches reaching for the sky through a hole in the roof just like the maze did earlier. Its wide trunk is twisted like a corkscrew and branches are spread wide. Sam used to research dendrology for fun, look for new species he hasn’t seen before wherever their hunts took them. It was a long time ago, when he had the energy for these active hobbies, but he remembers that this tree is called a Bristlecone pine. And it’s beautiful. Breathtaking, even.
The tree’s pulsating, warm and safe. Sam’s shoulders drop with relief just looking at it. He’s home. He knows that if he places his hand on its bark, he’ll feel a heartbeat, all of their heartbeats joined together as one.
Sam knows another thing intuitively: sooner rather than later, the leaves will gobble Sam up whole, until he’s nothing but a part of this living, breathing organism that’s larger than him, larger than life.
No more fear. No more nothing. Just this.
Dean hisses as the figure approaches him. Vines pin him down to the wall. Maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll get to join them. Be one with Earth. Is that really so bad? Compared to some other ways their shitty life story could’ve ended, it’s actually kind of uplifting.
“You’re a goddess,” Dean says. “Aren’t you?”
“Correct,” the tall woman says, leaning down to stare Dean right in the eye, her dark earth-colored hair cascading over her shoulder like a waterfall. It’s the woman from the petting zoo that they met earlier. She blended in with humans well then but now her skin glows in the dark ever so slightly and she’s just a little too tall to be a regular human. “My real name is Danu.”
A Celtic Goddess of nature, Sam thinks absent-mindedly. This checks out. He looks at his hands, stares at the grass and wheat taking root in the lines crossing his palms.
“I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but I’m not big on lying.” Dean strains against his binds. Idiot. The sooner he embraces his fate, the sooner they can go to sleep. “What kind of sick plant cult bullshit are you up to here? Let all these kids go. Let Sam go!”
“You aren’t really in any position to be making demands, little hunter,” Danu says. “Especially when it’s your own fault I had to take your brother.”
“Oh, you humans. I’ve been watching you for a very, very long time.” Danu says. “I’ve seen you grow. I’ve seen you,” she huffs, disgusted, “industrialize. But it’s funny, you’re so connected these days, with your phones and your Skype and your Facebook, and yet, you’re more lonely than ever.”
“You took lonely kids,” Dean says, a sudden realization sinking in. “That was the common denominator. They were all lonely.”
“You humans can’t even make children feel like they’re safe and like someone cares, not anymore,” Danu shakes her head. “I wish I could do more for them. I’m hardly worshipped anymore and I don’t have the powers I used to. But I can save some.”
“You call that saving?!” Dean snaps. “Look at them! Really puts a whole new fuckin’ spin on “vegetable state”.”
“Better than being awake,” Danu says.
“No, it’s not. Look, I’m here, I came for Sam. So he’s not alone. He’s fine. He doesn’t need your fucked-up saving.”
“You haven’t even noticed, then,” Danu scoffs. “How lonely he feels. How scared. You’re a bomb, little hunter. And your brother’s living on it.”
“I’m not his only friend,” Dean says after a momentary hesitation.
“Aren’t you? All your joint friends are your friends first and foremost, Dean. It’s you Charlie wants to geek out with. It’s you Castiel rebelled for. And when Sam does get close to someone, well, I just plucked the name Amy Pond from his memory...”
“That’s ancient history!” Dean snaps.
“What do you know of ancient history, boy?” Danu cocks her eyebrow. “You’ve been alive but for half a second from where I’m standing.”
Sam inhales and flowers bloom in his lungs.
“Just let me talk to him.”
“What’s in it for me, hunter?”
Dean takes a moment to reply. “If I get through to him, you let everyone go. If I don’t, you can take me too.”
“Oh, no. I won’t take you. You’re a mess, of course. Guilt, self-loathing, abandonment issues, oh, you’re filled to the brim with them,” Danu says. “But you’re not lonely, not right now. No, if you lose, I keep them, and you’ll go far, far away from here. What kind of a gamble would it be if I simply let you disappear into a blissful nothingness if you lose?”
Dean’s face flickers with fear, like a candle’s flame in a gentle gust of wind. But he collects himself.
“Deal,” he says, and the plants holding him in place retreat back to Danu. Dean scrambles to his feet and makes his way over to Sam before kneeling in front of him.
“Sammy? Can you hear me?” he asks, shaking him by the shoulder. “Sammy, it’s me.”
“Leave me alone,” Sam says at last, and immediately regrets it because Dean’s eyes light up with hope. Sam coughs and spits out a few pink flower petals. They’re silky smooth and feel so good slipping up his throat and sliding off his tongue.
“Sammy. C’mon, man. Listen, if what she was saying was true, and you feel lonely, man, I’m sorry. I’ve been so preoccupied with this goddamn thing on my arm and the whole demon thing that I’ve dropped the ball with you. And I’m sorry.”
“You might be sorry now,” Sam says. There are little clingy vines wrapped around his spine. “But you’ll kill me later.”
“Bullshit!” Dean says with fervor. “I won’t kill you! I won’t let the Mark win, I promise. I’ll fight until there’s nothing left.”
“Already tried,” Sam says. “Turned into a demon. Hated me.”
“That wasn’t me,” Dean says. He bites down on his bottom lip. “You gotta wake up, man. If not for me, then because reality always beats a dream, no matter how sweet. You didn’t let me stay in a djinn’s clutches when it got me, right? Even if I was happy there in that stupid la-la land or whatever.”
“Long ago,” Sam says. “Things are different these days.”
“So you’d let me rot now?”
“Of course not.” Sam sighs.
“I can’t leave you here either. C’mon, if not for me, you gotta wake up to keep fighting the good fight.”
Sam makes a little pained expression.
“Okay, no. Not just the fight. There’s much more in the world. I dunno, dude, books. A rolled-down window on a fast drive. Your stupid froofy coffee drinks. That dog park you go to. A morning run with… with a sunrise in tow. A good song on the car’s stereo. That pretentious French flick you were gonna watch. Man, yeah, life is, no fucking doubt, shitty more often than not, but checking out is never better than clocking in and trying the best we can.”
Sam looks up at Dean. The familiar freckles, the familiar wide eyes—and for once, an open, unguarded, earnest expression.
“Sammy, I’m sorry. I’ve fucked up so many times, and no doubt I’ll fuck up again. But you’ve got someone in your corner. And I’m far from perfect, but I’m getting up every day and trying.” Dean smiles, nervous. “And you gotta try, too.”
“I try,” Sam says. The flowers wither and rot, one by one. They leave cold patches behind. Sam feels empty. “I try every damn day, Dean.”
He turns his palm up just in time to see a few more flowers crumble into dust.
“You said I was a burden,” Sam whispers.
“That’s a lie!” Dean says, frustrated. “How can you even fucking think it was anything else? The demon— I was lying to hurt you.”
“Well, mission accomplished,” Sam says. “Forget hurt me. You tried to kill me.”
“Quit holding that against me. That ain't fair, man. It wasn’t me. And I won’t do it again,” Dean repeats. Nothing is ever Dean's fault, and if it is, he won't do it again, and if Sam doubts him, then Sam's the one who sucks ass here for not trusting his family and holding grudges.
God, Sam thinks, God, you and all your impassioned speeches that make even deities and Death himself dance to your tune, but I just don’t believe you, Dean, I just don’t believe you; because you can’t promise me shit, not after you took on that stupid Mark that makes you not you.
Sam doesn’t believe in Dean's words, but for the dogs and the sunsets and the morning jogs, he’ll try. Even jumped up on fratricide poison, Dean knows what to appeal to. Dean knows him. And maybe there’ll come a day when Sam feels safe enough to do a trust fall with Dean again. Knowing someone’s been voted most likely to kill you and hoping you can still make it right is the very definition of insanity. And yet. Look at Sam go.
There’s nothing left on Sam’s clothes and skin but dust.
“I freed Sam,” Dean says to the goddess. “Let them go.”
“Sam freed himself,” Danu says.
“Whatever! We had a deal!”
“Are you really willing to doom them to a life of suffering, human?” Danu asks. “Look at the world— it’s all wars, pain, disease as far as you can see. Why live in it?”
“We had a fucking deal!” Dean repeats, going from zero to eighty in under two seconds. He pulls a gun out.
“You think you can kill me?”
“Oh, lady, you wouldn’t be the first god I killed,” Dean snarls. She bares her sharp teeth, but before she can attack, Sam steps between them.
“Stop!” Sam says, loud, forcing both of them to flinch and look at him. Sam places his hand on Dean’s arm with the gun, and Dean reluctantly falls back.
“Danu,” Sam says, stepping in front of his fuming brother. “Let the kids go. I know you just want to help. But I’ve been there, in your dream, and I want to be here. I really think they’ll feel the same way, given a choice.”
“You were happy. Safe. At one with us,” Danu says. Her eyes are miserable when they lock with Sam's. Sam suspects she'd like to check out herself. But won't. Or can't. Which can be one and the same.
“Life’s not about being happy,” Sam says. “It’s not even about feeling safe. And sometimes it’s even not about being with others.”
“No?” Danu asks. “What’s it about?”
“Being free,” Dean says as if reading his mind.
“Being free,” Sam echoes.
Sam loves these cases when they don’t have to kill anyone. Where things can be fixed and made right. But even the best outcome on the case can’t untangle the knot of worry in Sam’s stomach.
A girl in a bright yellow dress runs up to Dean who reassures her, promises she’ll see her parents soon. Dean’s good with kids. She’s crying one second, laughing the next.
A small boy silently walks up to Sam and takes his hand, clinging with all five fingers like Sam’s a lifeline. Sam squeezes back, careful not to squish too hard.
The boy doesn’t smile, but his breathing seems to grow ever so calmer.
“This will be alright,” Sam says. He can’t promise him that everything will be alright, but he can promise that this particular ordeal is almost over.
“Do we need to talk about this?” Dean asks over the purr of the Impala’s engine.
“Nope,” Sam says. “All good.”
“Yeah? Are you okay?” Dean asks. He’s pretty cheerful. Why wouldn’t he be? They won: saved the kids, got a goddess to back off with a stern warning, everybody lived. Plus, he saved Sam. All in all, it was a good day on the job.
“Doesn’t feel right. These kids had a pretty rough go of it and we just made them go back,” Sam says. “Nothing that would warrant calling CPS, but…”
“I wish there was something we could do, too,” Dean replies, hesitant. “But you said it yourself, it’s better to be awake and alive than to wander through a fake happy dream,” he continues.
“You said that,” Sam says.
“And I was right!” Dean insists, slamming his hand on the wheel. “It’s red pill over the blue one all the way. Ain’t it?”
“Mhm,” Sam says.
“You sure you’re fine?”
“I’m fine,” Sam says. Dean’s sleeves are rolled up, and Sam’s mind throws up a flashing DANGER neon sign. Dean could crash the car if he wanted to. Dean has a backup gun in the glove box and a gun on him and an arsenal in the trunk. And if all that fails, Dean’s got sharp teeth and scarred-up hands that’ve been killing since his age was still in single digits.
Subject, Cain. Object, Abel.
“You, uh…” Dean scratches his cheek. “You wanna—wanna choose the station?” He nods at the dashboard.
“The radio station?”
“Don’t you have this whole thing about the driver choosing the music—”
“Dude, it’s a simple yes or no question. Not a big deal or anything,” Dean says, shaking his head. He’s quickly growing defensive and annoyed. “If you don’t wanna choose, just gimme one of my tapes.”
“No, I do,” Sam says, and fiddles with the dials.
“Suffered a swift defeat, I'll endure countless repeats,” the voice croons and Sam smiles with recognition. “The gift of memories, an awful curse, with age it just gets much worse—”
“Optimistic,” Dean says after making a face at what he surely thinks is anemic indie rock.
“Shut up,” Sam says. Dean grins, tries to hide it but Sam sees it all the same.
The Mark lays quiet and dormant on Dean’s arm. Sam presses his forehead to the window glass and closes his eyes.
“But I won’t mind.” The song continues as Sam exhales. “I won’t mind.”
Sam comes home from a long late-night walk to a pitiful scene in the kitchen: Dean’s slumped against the wall, ungracefully sprawled on the seat. Next to him, an empty bottle of Jack and a half-empty glass. Dean’s got quite the tolerance for booze, Sam can’t imagine how much he must’ve thrown back to get that sloppy.
“You’ve had more than enough, buddy,” Sam says. “I’m cutting you off.” He grabs the glass and pours the remains down the drain. Dean doesn’t protest, which must mean he’s well and truly sloshed.
“Go to bed,” Sam continues. “Get some sleep.”
“Gimme a minute,” Dean mutters, rubbing his hand on his face.
“What’s going on with you?” Sam asks. He’s tired and he just wants to get some sleep too but he knows he wouldn’t be able to get a wink of sleep if he doesn’t investigate the whys and hows that led to this sad sight here.
“The Mark…” Dean says. The fact that he caves so easily is just another testament to how fucked he is. “We’ve been looking high and low.”
“Yes, we have,” Sam says. “And we’ll look some more.”
“Truth is, some days I’m not handling it that well.”
No shit. Sam’s mouth thins into a line. It feels so strange to comfort someone who’s driven to kill you, especially when you can see him caving. Sam’s going to be telling Dean it’s okay even when Dean digs his fingers into his throat.
But what’s the alternative? Leave Dean languishing all alone? Even by the most cynical self-preservation standards, it’s a bad idea: he’ll crumble so much faster without Sam’s shoulder to prop him up.
And there’s nowhere on earth Sam could hide if Dean’s defenses fall. If one day Dean’s love doesn’t cut it where the Mark is concerned. Dean finally got what he wanted: a Sam who cannot outrun him.
“I know,” Sam says. “I’m not stupid, Dean.”
“Never said you were,” Dean replies, eyes growing half-lidded. “I just— I want to hurt. I wanted to hurt Danu. And I want to hurt every evil creepy-crawly I come across. But that’s not what hunting is. We’re not sadists. We do it because it needs to be done, not because we get our jollies off ganking evil sons of bitches. Man, if I ever cross this line, I’m gonna be like one of these batshit hunters who kill for the sake of killing. And I can’t be like that.”
“You won’t,” Sam says. This is Winchester community theater and Sam knows his role by heart. “I won’t let you.”
Dean looks at him, a little doubtful, his fingers curling into a fist as his body shakes. Like he’s stomping down a sudden urge.
Where does this end, Dean? Is what Sam really wants to say. Do you want to hurt people who cut you off on the road? Did you want to punch that cashier who tried to short you at a gas station a few weeks ago? Because it really seemed that way.
Do you want to hurt me when I argue with you? Do you give me the side-eye and see my blood and gray matter splattered all over the bunker walls?
“You won’t let me. For now. But this thing is fucking forever,” Dean says. “I asked Cas whether chopping my arm off would work,”—Sam’s eyes widen in surprise at that tidbit—“but, no. Because it’s not really on my arm. It’s all over me like a disease. And I can’t get rid of it. I can’t fix this. Fuck, I shouldn't have ever taken it on.” Yeah, he shouldn’t have. But Sam’s not so cruel that he'll say it out loud.
“Dean,” Sam says. Sam’s a scared man second and a brother first. “Forever is an awfully big word to worry about right now. One day at a time. One step at a time. We’ll figure it out. I’ll figure it out.”
“Promise?” Dean asks. He sounds like a little boy. Maybe that’s why he gets along with kids so well: a part of him never grew up.
“Promise,” Sam says.
Dean falls quiet, then proceeds in the child-like vein. “In much better news, I bought a bunch of discount candy the other day. I know you hate Halloween, but you can’t possibly hate cheap candy.”
“What kind of a monster hates cheap candy?” Sam asks rhetorically.
Dean snorts before growing serious. “You know, you never told me why you’re such a diehard Halloween hater, Sammy. Old, unhealed bobbing for apples-related trauma? That shit’s nothin’ short of a legal way to waterboard people, I swear.”
“Ugh,” Sam sighs before throwing his hands up. “Okay, you wanna know?”
“Mhm,” Dean says in a sleepy voice. “Wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”
“Remember Halloween in, I wanna say, ‘92 or ‘93? We were in Colorado? And for once, I made a couple of friends and they invited me to go trick and treating and I’d never been.”
Dean doesn’t respond, but Sam’s not looking for a response. Or at Dean. He stares at the wall opposite.
“I was so fucking excited, man. You and I made me this stupid Waldo costume, from 'Where’s Waldo?'—you thought it was stupid, and I guess it was, looking back on it, but you helped me anyway, and I swore you were excited for me. You swore we were gonna go. But then Dad dropped by for five minutes to restock his supplies just as I was about to leave—and you know how he got every late October—” Sam didn’t get it then. He gets it now: every late October and the very beginning of November makes his heart echo with dull pain. Might’ve been a decade, but he still misses her.
Sam rubs his forehead. “He was right. There is a yearly spike in supernatural activity every Halloween. All these monsters hiding in plain sight… maybe he was right, not to let me go. But it sure didn’t feel that way.” And the second Dean heard Dad wanted Sam to stay, he fell right in line and agreed to keep an eye on Sam so he wouldn’t sneak out to hang out with his friends. One second, he was Sam’s cool big brother, the next he was Sam’s prison guard.
Sam looks over at Dean. Dean’s sound asleep on the table, his arms folded under his head like a cushion.
“It wasn’t that bad, really. It wasn’t even the worst fight Dad and I had even back then, and hell knows we fought much worse later,” Sam tells Dean’s sleeping form. “But I knew I was about to outgrow trick-or-treating and I could feel this experience that, like, everyone has—”
Just slip out of his grasp. Pass him by. Dean didn’t give a flying fuck about normal, but Sam still did, then, and sitting there in the shitty motel room in his makeshift Waldo costume was the first time that he let himself earnestly entertain the idea that he was missing out on enough that he’d never be normal. He’d never get away.
It’s a good thing Dean fell asleep and didn’t hear Sam’s story, come to think of it. He’d get upset and blame himself, and Sam neither wants to hurt Dean nor to hear him make Sam’s childhood heartbreaking epiphany all about himself.
If Dean ever asks again, Sam will just have to make up something silly and a little embarrassing, something Dean could smile about and Sam wouldn’t feel raw like an exposed wire telling out loud.
Some things Sam wants to—needs to—keep to himself.
Dean looks docile right now, but Sam knows better than to trust docile things. His knuckles are scraped up and bloody and Sam just knows an unlucky wall in the bunker somewhere got punched over and over and over again while he was gone.
Dean’s right there, but Sam’s still all alone.
He drapes a blanket over Dean’s shoulders and gets a new bottle of whiskey out of the cupboard. Sam pours a single glass for himself and grabs a pack of M&Ms out of the discounted candy bowl.
As shit as that one Halloween back in ‘91 was, Dean shared his stash of candy with Sam and watched the Hatchet Man horror movies with him until late. Dean laughed and tried to make Sam laugh, too.
That was so, so long ago. Doesn’t even feel real anymore.
Sam checks whether the picture is well-fixed in the cheap Walgreens frame. Dean and him, nearly a decade ago, laughing up a storm. Bobby snapped this picture in a—rare for that grouchy old man—moment of sentimentality. Sam found it when he was going through Bobby’s stuff after his death a few years back.
They look happy. They must’ve been happy. The worst thing they were dealing with at the moment was the yellow-eyed demon, and it seemed like such a big deal at the time. Fighting an actual honest-to-god demon felt like the end of the world. Little did they know.
Some of the productivity and self-care video bloggers Sam watches said setting a visual goal and keeping it in front of your eyes helps. Dean would laugh if Sam told him about these videos, about the hippie-lite, positive ideas they have. It’s a good thing that this is Sam’s room and he can put whatever helps him get through the day in here.
A photo doesn’t make a place a home, but it sure brightens up the room. Maybe he can get a plant or two later, the kind that wouldn’t hate the lack of sunlight.
Home’s where the heart is. But Sam’s home isn’t anywhere to be found. Sam’s home is in the wind.
Sam’s home is in his fingers, in that frame, on that sunlit day. He sets the frame down and heads to the library.
Lots of research to get through; all of it on the Mark of Cain.
One day at a time. Or whatever. Sam doesn’t believe all the stuff he tells Dean. But if Dean believes it, even a little, that has to count for something. Sam’s willing to bet not even preachers’ faith is stalwart, unyielding, and always true, but they keep talking about God to their congregations all the same.
Sam’s a lot of things. Hate it or love it, he’s a brother first.
Most of the time, Sam doesn’t mind it.