It didn't feel like a dream. It was too dark to see the ground, but Dean knew he'd been here before. The church loomed, three stories high with a barbed wire fence and doors with metal spikes on the front. He didn't want to go inside. He didn't want to watch it happen again.
He looked around. A crowd had gathered behind him, pale, large-eyed children whose mouths stretched so wide when they smiled that the tops of their heads fell back as if they had been unzipped. They moved forward, and he had no choice but to enter.
Why did the altar need chains? That was different. The dark-haired woman was sitting on someone's back, her voice a high drone like a wasp circling the room.
The look in Sam's eyes was the worst. His fear. His helplessness as the fish children held a goblet under the edge of the altar and the woman grabbed a handful of Sam's hair and and slid the box cutter across his throat. It was an expert cut. Two dark jets of blood poured into the goblet, while everything else that was Sam---his first day at school, his first hunt, looking over the birthday candles at Dean before making a wish---drained onto the floor.
He was back in the hotel. The bed was squeaking, and it took Dean a second to realize why because he had Sam wrapped so tightly in his arms and he was rocking back and forth and sobbing hard toddler tears in Sam's neck.
Sam’s arms were wrapped just as tightly around him, strong arms squeezing him so hard it hurt. They were chest to chest, legs tangled together and cocooned in all the blankets.
“Dean, it’s okay,” Sam said. He felt Dean’s fingertips dig into his back, and he loosened his hold just enough to reach one hand up, to cradle the nape of Dean’s neck, to smooth down the short hair at the back of his head. “It’s okay Dean, you’re awake now, it’s okay,” he repeated.
Dean choked, taking a shaky breath and whispering, "I lost you. She cut you and poured your soul out on the floor and I was never gonna see you again. I was never..."
Dean was breathing fast against Sam's throat now, marshalling his thoughts. Had it been a memory? Or a vision? He pressed his mouth to Sam's forehead, keeping it there, wishing he could stay in the hotel forever and let Arkham self-destruct. His hands found Sam's face, thumbs in the soft flesh beneath his jaw.
"I don't want to go tomorrow," he whispered, mouth ghosting over Sam's closed eye, "She's waiting for you."
Dean’s panic was contagious, and it had Sam’s heart beating hard as Dean pressed their faces together. Sam felt Dean’s lips whisper across his eyelashes when he blinked. He gripped one of Dean’s wrists, pressing Dean’s hand harder against his face, and squeezed gently, strong pulse racing under his thumb.
I don’t want to go either, the small, scared, selfish voice inside of Sam said, I wanna stay here with you and watch Batman and order pizza and forget the world outside and the horrors in my mind, and hold onto you and never ever let go, but couldn’t say aloud. Dean was never this vulnerable, but when it happened, it was Sam’s turn to take care of Dean.
Which meant being strong for both of them.
“We know she’s waiting for me. That’s why we have to go, Dean,” he said, speaking quickly. “But you’ll see me again, she doesn’t want to kill me. Doesn’t want to kill me. She wants me for something else, but she can’t have me. Because---”
Sam stroked his hand up and down Dean’s back, feeling the fine tremor in his brother’s muscles. He turned his face so that their cheeks brushed, stubble stinging his cheekbone and Dean’s lips sliding down his skin. “We’re going to beat her, Dean. I can feel it. I can feel it in me, and I’ve got you, and there’s nothing in this world that we can’t do if we’re together.” Sam swallowed and squeezed Dean tight, ribs crushed together, and spoke against his cheek. “You’re not gonna lose me. I promise.”
Dean turned away and covered his eyes. "Damn I thought this job, that watching out for you, was easy. I mean,” he gave a bitter laugh, “Look at the things you've done! It's like the stuff of myth.”
Dean studied the inside of his hands. “And you know, that gave me hope for a while, because it meant I didn't have to be the hero this time. You're the hero Sammy. I'm just the driver. It was my job to get you where needed to be, and up til now I thought I was taking you to better things," he said, fresh tears sliding down his face, "But instead I'm gonna put you in that car tomorrow and find this awful place where they will butcher you in front of me."
Hot, exasperated anger welled up in Sam, and it was his turn to grip Dean by the face.
“Do you really think that? Do you really think so little of yourself?” Sam tilted Dean’s head toward him, staring into Dean’s streaming eyes. “You’re not my damn chauffeur! Look at what you’ve done. You’ve saved more people than anyone will ever know. You killed Azazel. You got my soul back. You helped stop the Apocalypse that I started. And that’s just the beginning of it! Every time I fuck up, you’re there to pull me out of the fire and fix it.”
Now Sam swiped tenderly at Dean’s cheeks with his thumbs, smearing the trails of his tears into his skin, his voice softening, growing plaintive. “Dean, you were my hero growing up. Not Dad, not Bobby, not Superman or Batman or anybody else, you. And you know what? You still are.”
Hero. Coming from Sam the word sounded thin to Dean, conjuring breakfast tables with little Sammy and his toy soldiers, plastic, neutered, bloodless. His whole life measured by a child's narrow definition of a protector.
"Is that all I am?"
The question hung in the air. Dean held his breath, eyes as hollow as a lovesick dog waiting for the first kick.
"Dean!" Sam said, his voice thick with emotion, trying to rein in his frustration at Dean's self-deprecation. The look of pain in Dean's eyes turned him raw and desperate. He found himself babbling. "Of course not! You're a freaking genius, you're the best man I’ve ever known, you're strong and capable and better than anyone at reading a situation. You are good and selfless and..."
Sam took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and touched their foreheads together, unable to look at Dean's face any longer. "It kills me that you can't see yourself the way I do. I wish you could just... understand, Dean, you're so much better than you think you are."
"Please, Dean." Sam pressed their foreheads together harder, as if he could transfer his own image of Dean directly into Dean's brain. "Please understand. I'm not just your kid brother talking. I've been with you all these years, I've seen you become great. Legendary. You think I'm so good, so strong, but Dean, that’s you. I need you to believe me," he said, with such pained love in his voice that it came out cracked.
Dean sat up and turned on the bedside lamp, shielding his eyes with one hand. "Don't kid yourself Sammy, we're still walking into a meat grinder blind and all the good intentions in the world won't make any difference," he said, pulling aside the blankets and pacing the room, "If I have to bury you tomorrow."
He swatted Sam's book off the table for emphasis, watched it sail across the room and hit the wall and fall open to a loose leaf of paper. Dean's eyes unfocused.
Sam's internal whiplash was so severe that he was still sitting up when the book hit the wall. Then there was the sketch in plain sight, and his mouth gaped open, trying to form words. Cold panic made his face go numb.
"I found it... I found it in one of the books," he said quietly.
Dean bent to pick it up, noting his initials in the corners, searching his memory for the day attached to it. Nothing. It might as well been drawn by someone else. It might as well been a different Sam in the picture.
How long had Sam known? And even if he'd known years back after the re-start, would Sam have ever acted on it? No, Dean decided, lightning did not strike twice. Not in this lifetime. They had been different people back then. He was lucky to have Sam still alive, and if he was very, very lucky, the day in this picture would be waiting for him after he died. That had to be enough.
He snatched up his jacket. "Be right back."
Dean opened and shut the door, and outside the curtained window Sam heard the unmistakable click of a cigarette lighter.
Sam sat very still, trying to feel nothing at all. Of course Dean would burn it. Of course he’d want to destroy the evidence of what they’d done. He didn’t know why he’d kept it anyway, hadn’t thrown it away at that rest stop, except that he did know.
Their memories were scrambled messes, and they could be certain of nothing. Except for that; that scrap of paper had told him that once, he and Dean had been together, and if they had been then, they could be again. It was hope against desperate hope. And Dean had burned it.
He debated going outside, but he didn’t know what he’d say. There was nothing to say.
So instead he straightened the blankets from the tangle they’d become in slow, precise movements and huddled up in them.
Dean walked back inside, and Sam looked up at him, and all he could say was, “Dean.” The only word in his current vocabulary that wasn’t twisted and warped and slinking through his mind.
He'd forgotten how fast Dean moved. Two hard steps and his weight shifted the bed, a hand shaped to the back of Sam’s head, lifting him until his mouth pressed to Dean's in a slow inhalation of sweat and gunpowder and ashes with Dean's other hand clutching the headboard.
Dean came up for air. He reached over and turned off the lamp and a flame clicked to life in his right hand, casting his body into half-shadow. Locked eyes with Sam.
"Take off your clothes."