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Into This Wild Abyss

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Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost

Dean doesn’t notice anything is wrong.

At first, he’s so consumed with seeing his brother again - whole, alive, here - that he can’t focus on anything else but Sam’s face, Sam’s flannel beneath his fingers, Sam’s arms around his shoulders.

Then, he feels teeth at his ankle. He glares at Saskia, opening his mouth to tell her off, but the high-pitched whine from her throat is grief-filled and terrified, a sound no wolf should be capable of making.

She cowers behind his legs, and he crouches down beside her, running his hands through her fur.

“Dean,” she whispers, “he doesn’t have a daemon.”

Dean’s body freezes by inches, every muscle locking up until he can barely move. He forces his lungs to work and his head to turn, while Saskia yanks frantically on his pants legs, trying to pull his gaze away.

Sam is standing in the same position Dean left him - arms at his sides, an overly fond, almost fake expression in his eyes. Dean makes a show of glancing around, expecting Sam’s lynx daemon to jump out of the shadows and pounce on Saskia as if they were still children.

“Sammy...” Dean swallows against a throat gone dry. “Sam, where’s Astrid?”

Sam cocks his head to the side, the expression on his face sliding into slightly puzzled - unconcerned - and Dean’s heart pounds.

Sam shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says carelessly.

Dean can’t breathe.

Saskia screams.

- - - -

It takes half an hour for Dean to coax Saskia back to the car. She shivers, whining softly at the back of her throat and hiding behind Dean, and he understands - Christ, does he understand - but he’s shocked and shaky, and not the smallest bit terrified.

“Saskia, come on,” he growls the third time she trips him up, trying to keep him from moving.

“Dean, he isn’t - she isn’t -”

“I know!” Dean slams his palm against the trunk of the car and swears as pain shoots down his arm. He shakes his hand out, then presses his phone into his fist, closing his eyes. He turns to where Sam is still standing, blinking slowly into the distance.

Dean doesn’t say a word - he walks towards the door, unsurprised when Sam follows. He half expects Astrid to peel out, her laughter enticing Saskia into a race, so when he reaches the Impala, he has to tread carefully or risk stepping on a tail.

Instead, when Dean reaches the door, there is only Sam with his blank face and empty eyes.

Dean shudders. “Get in,” he says gruffly and Sam does, folding his legs into the passenger seat. Saskia continues to whine, but she curls up under Dean’s knees with her face hidden and doesn’t move.

He peels out onto the road, pushing his baby as fast as she can go. He presses the phone to his ear, thankful for empty stretches of dirt on back roads where there are fewer people to witness his soulless brother than there would be on the highways.

Bobby doesn’t bother with niceties.

“Boy, you better have a mighty good reason for calling me after almost a year,” he says as soon as he picks up, voice barely more than a growl.

“Sam is alive.” No preamble, no sugarcoating - just the simple facts.

It’s enough to render Bobby speechless. “What...” He clears his throat. “Dean, tell me you didn’t -”

“I didn’t,” Dean answers swiftly, and Saskia nudges up his jeans to nose at his ankle, trembling. Every molecule in his body had screamed during every idle moment after Sam was gone, begging him to jump in the car and find a way to bring Sam back, but Saskia was always there, always a warm comfort, convincing him to stay with Lisa because it was what Sam wanted.

“I don’t know how he’s back, but he... Bobby, he...”

No amount of stalling will make the words any easier to say. They feel like broken glass tearing at his throat. “He doesn’t have a daemon.”

Bobby doesn’t even breathe for a moment; then he whispers over the line, probably saying something to Brynn. He exhales into the phone. “Get here. Soon as you can.” He hangs up without saying goodbye. Dean snaps the phone shut and presses his foot against the gas, willing the car to drive faster.

Sam sits quietly, staring out the windshield or at Dean, speaking only to ask their destination.

“Bobby’s,” Dean says shortly, hands clenching around the steering wheel. Sam nods, shifting his gaze to Saskia. Dean half expects Sam to reach out a hand to touch her, and the thought makes his stomach twist, bile rising in his throat. The sensation is unfamiliar and unpleasant and Saskia bares her teeth and growls.

Sam turns back to the window, hands never moving from his lap. Dean tries his best to breathe.

- - - -
Bobby is waiting on the steps when they arrive. His hare daemon, Brynn, sits on the chair on the porch, ears flat against her back. All of her fur stands on end. Dean can’t remember ever seeing her so ruffled.

He understands the feeling.

“Stay here,” Dean tosses at Sam gruffly.

Sam continues to stare out the window. He nods, and a shiver works it’s way down his spine. Dean pauses, watching his back shake, but when Sam shows no other sign of movement, Dean opens the door. Saskia tumbles out after, ears pressed against her skull.

“Bobby,” Dean says, shocked when Bobby immediately pulls him in for a hug. He stiffens for a moment before exhaling, arms coming around the other man’s back. Saskia jumps gracefully onto the chair beside Brynn, who noses at her flank.

“You ever go more than a week without callin’ again and I’ll kick your ass from here to Kansas, you hear me?”

“Yes sir,” Dean grumbles.

Bobby makes a show of clearing his throat as he pulls back. He stares purposefully at the Impala. “He there?”

Dean rubs a hand over his face. “Define there.” Bobby arches an eyebrow, and Dean turns, calling for Sam, voice ragged.

Sam unfolds himself from the car and as he walks towards them, Bobby inhales sharply. Brynn hops down the porch to sit at Bobby’s feet, shaking against his ankle until he lifts her into his arms.

“Jesus,” Bobby hisses, and Sam stares, totally unaware of his disconcerting wrongness. He smiles, just this side of too wide.

Bobby shudders. “Good to see you, Sam,” he says roughly, voice so broken Dean is certain even Sam could tell he means the opposite.

Sam doesn’t reach for Bobby; he doesn’t say a word, and his smile slips into a frown. He stares down at Brynn trembling in Bobby’s arms, then shrugs, gazing at the house with a totally blank expression.

“Dean -” Bobby starts, stopping when Dean levels him with a look. Saskia sags against his calf, letting all of their exhaustion and desperation show in a way she rarely does, even with Bobby.

Bobby’s breath shudders out; he gestures towards the door. “Get some sleep. We’ll figure this out in the morning.”

Dean doesn’t miss the way Bobby’s fingers clutch tight in Brynn’s fur when Sam follows them both inside.

- - - -
That night, Dean can’t sleep. Neither does Sam, and Dean wonders if he literally can’t, if not having Astrid with him could change him so thoroughly.

Dean shoves the question down and away even as he heaves, barely making it in to the bathroom before the six pack he downed as soon as he entered the house makes a reappearance.

He coughs, leaning his arms on the toilet seat. Saskia lies at his feet, fur dull at the edges. He lets his breathing return to some semblance of normal before shoving to his feet, shuffling down the stairs and into the living room where he collapses onto the couch.

Saskia paces the room as the full weight of the day hits him. He feels broken, hollowed out and worn down, like he’s lost something he can never get back again. Something that wasn’t even his to begin with.

Saskia runs to Dean then, leaps into his arms with a burst of energy he didn’t think she still possessed. She presses her forehead against his chest as she buries her face in his shirt.

“They were always ours,” she says roughly, and Dean threads his fingers through her fur, holding on.

“We’re going to fix this,” Dean says, clinging. “We’re going to fix this.”

Saskia doesn’t say anything; there’s nothing left to say.

- - - -
The days following Sam’s reappearance are some of the longest and hardest of Dean’s life - which is saying a lot. Sam is a creature of instinct rather than emotion, operating without conscience or question. He makes a phenomenal hunter, but Dean has to coach him through even the simplest of social situations - polite conversations with strangers, the proper response to a grieving witness, and don’t stare at their daemons, Sam, for Christ’s sake.

Teaching this new Sam the ropes is almost the same as when they were younger. He remembers showing Sam the right way to hold a gun while Sam’s small hands shook infinitesimally. Still, he squared his shoulders, determined to make Dean proud. Sam followed his lead, walked in his footsteps, carbon copied his every move.

The difference now is Saskia and Astrid aren’t lying underfoot, side by side in the grass, watching attentively while the two of them work. Most of the time, Saskia curls into a ball wherever they are, head folded on her paws with her eyes squeezed shut.

Sam remains silent for the most part, staring blankly off into the middle distance, speaking only when spoken to in a soft, obedient tone. He shivers occasionally, even in the stifling summer heat, briefly closing his eyes. Dean would ask what was wrong if he thought he had a hope in the world of getting a straight answer. Without Astrid, Sam looks naked, wrong, like a vital piece of him is missing. Dean feels the bile rise in his throat, chest heaving every time he looks at him; he swallows it down.

He’s at his breaking point when Saskia calls for Castiel.

“You weren’t going to do it,” she says when Castiel appears in the middle of Bobby’s study, cocking his head to the side to stare. Bobby hisses at his appearance, shaking off the hot coffee that spills all over his hands. Brynn licks his fingers then turns to Castiel, chattering her teeth.

Dean’s eyes narrow, but Saskia arches her back, stretches, and ignores him. She paces a circle around Castiel’s legs, and Dean feels the electric pulse down his spine of too close, though she never actually touches him.

Angels don’t have souls. It’s why Lucifer rebelled, Castiel explained once, when Dean finally worked up the nerve to ask him about Jimmy’s daemon. Lucifer didn’t think humans deserved them, disloyal and imperfect as they were. It’s why angels have to ask permission, why the vessel rarely survives: their daemon passes on, pushed ahead to the afterlife as soon as the angel takes over.

Castiel never reaches out for Saskia, never once tries to touch, and Dean’s always been grateful for that. He doesn’t remember what it felt like when Castiel dragged them out of hell, doesn’t remember anything about that day - month, year, how long does it take to be raised from the dead? - beyond waking up topside, shaking and gasping, while Saskia tugged him out of his grave with her teeth.

“Sam,” Saskia calls softly, hopping onto the couch and pressing close to Dean as Sam walks into the room. Sam peers at Castiel, curious yet silent.

“He does not have a soul,” Castiel states immediately, turning towards Dean.

Dean rolls his eyes. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

“Saskia said you require my assistance.”

Saskia snorts, standing half in Dean’s lap. “Don’t be so polite, angel. I told you to get your ass over here and help us.” Her back straightens, and all sense of humor is lost. “Find her,” she says, not a question but an order.

Castiel honest-to-God flinches, eyes turning somber, and Dean’s heart beats faster. Saskia goes rigid at his side, breathing harsh and loud.

“You pulled him out,” Brynn says, quiet and shocked, and Bobby grips the edge of his chair, as if the thought never dared cross his mind.

Dean stares at Castiel, praying to a God he knows isn’t listening for a denial.

Instead, Castiel bows his head. “There was a complication,” he says quietly, and Dean wants to feel sorry for making an angel feel regret, but instead, he takes a leaf out of Sam’s book and stares blankly while Saskia practically vibrates beside him.

“Lucifer was holding on too tightly,” Castiel whispers, as if saying the devil’s name will make him appear when they all know it’s not nearly quite that simple. “He almost pulled me back down into the cage, and by the time I realized I had only Sam in my grasp...”

He meets Dean’s gaze, eyes flashing. “I did what I could.”

“I don’t care.” The harsh sound of Dean’s voice shocks even him. “You broke him, and you’ll damn well fix him.”

“I did not -”

“He doesn’t have a soul, Cas!” Dean shouts, cutting him off. “He’s a freakin’ robot!”

“Do you think I would have left him like this without searching for a way to bring her back?” Castiel snaps, stepping forward, eyes brimming with power that’s rarely so close to the surface. “If it was that simple, do you not believe I would have done so already?”

“I don’t care,” Dean says savagely, closing the distance between them. Saskia growls from down at his feet. “Find a way, Cas,” he pleads, and Castiel’s eyes narrow. He says nothing, only disappears with the faint sound of ruffling feathers.

“I think we need to work on your people skills,” Bobby says dryly, crossing his arms. Dean balls his hands into fists; Saskia butts her forehead against his knuckles.

- - - -
Sam barely speaks a word after Castiel’s visit, choosing to stay hidden in the spare bedroom or outside amongst the broken-down cars when Dean isn’t asking him to do something.

“Keep an eye on your brother,” Bobby grunts, eying Sam out the window like he might a ticking time bomb. Dean snorts - like he’s been able to do anything else lately. He doesn’t know what to make of Sam any more than Bobby, but he feels the loss of Astrid like a phantom limb, heavy and aching, a hole in his heart.

Dean knows Bobby doesn’t mean it, probably doesn’t even realize the way he stares at Sam, fear stark and open in his eyes. Brynn is more skittish than he’s ever seen, her usually calm and unaffected demeanor abandoned in the face of something so horrible, not even she can make sense of it.

Dean can’t stand to see the expression on their faces any longer.

Bobby tries to keep them from leaving, of course, and offers them the spare bedroom for as long as they need. Dean knows the proposition is half-hearted at best, words said out of obligation rather than a true desire for them to stay.

Dean shakes his head and says, “Thanks anyway, but we should hit the road.” Bobby does a terrible job of covering up his relief.

Sam packs the bags in the car at Dean’s request. They leave at sunset - less of a chance of running into other people traveling in the dark. Dean turns the radio up too loud, leaves the windows open in air growing chilly with the coming Fall. Sam still stares out the window or at Saskia and says nothing.

In Wisconsin, Dean picks a ramshackle motel, run-down with half of the lights on the sign burned out. Sam may not need to sleep, but Dean doesn’t think he can drive another minute without running them off of the road. He pulls into the parking lot and tells Sam to stay in the car while he gets the room keys.

The desk clerk looks up as the door opens and closes the book at his elbow. He glances out the window and smirks. “King or two queens?” His raven daemon squawks a laugh from the back of his chair. Saskia snaps her teeth.

Dean would make a wise-ass comment if he had the energy, but he’s just so fucking tired. He holds up two fingers, dropping the first credit card he gets his fingers on to the counter.

The man frowns as he runs the card and slowly hands two keys to Dean. “Son, you all right?” he asks while Dean signs the receipt, and his daemon shifts her feet, flapping her wings.

Dean wants to laugh or snap I’m not your son in equal measure, but instead, he shakes his head, mumbles, “Thanks,” under his breath, and heads back out to the car with Saskia at his side.

- - - -
Dean wakes in the middle of the night to an empty bed where his brother should be. The beer cooler sits open on the table, and the door is cracked open just enough to let in a chill.

He rubs his eyes, grumbling as he shoves his feet into his boots. Saskia rolls over, mumbling and opening bleary eyes as Dean opens the door the rest of the way to find Sam sitting on the bench just outside of the room with a beer bottle clutched in his fist.

He takes the opportunity to watch Sam unnoticed. His shoulders are tense, even as he lounges against the back of the bench seat. One leg shakes slowly, knee jumping up and down.

Dean sighs, shakes his head and turns back to the room.

“I’m not, you know.”

Sam’s voice makes him jump, and he almost trips over Saskia as she winds around his legs. He scowls down at her and says, “Not what?” dragging his eyes back to Sam.

Sam huffs a laugh of what should be amusement but comes out as a breath of air on the breeze. “A robot.” Sam’s leg stops shaking as he meets Dean’s eye, and Dean stares, riveted. “I can still feel some things.”

Dean stills while Saskia’s breath catches, but Sam doesn’t elaborate further. He drags the beer to his lips and takes another pull, silent as the night stretched between them.

- - - -
The sun is starting its slow climb on the horizon when Sam finally crawls back into bed.

“Do you miss her?” Dean asks quietly; he isn’t sure he wants to know, but he can’t help himself.

Sam makes a sound at the back of his throat. He pulls the covers up to his shoulders as he turns on his side to face Dean. “I don’t remember,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut, and of course, the first real emotion Sam expresses in weeks would be regret.

Dean’s eyes snap open with a gasp as Saskia crawls into bed with Sam, curling close so Dean feels the electric warmth of too close not right, yet not close enough.

Instinctually, Sam cringes away, even as Saskia pushes herself closer, nosing along the outside of his thigh.

The first time Sam touched Saskia was the night after the fire, baby Sammy lying in the middle of a bed in one of Dad’s friend’s houses. He wouldn’t stop crying, little arms and legs flailing in uncoordinated movements. Dad stood downstairs, just outside of the window with his bobcat daemon, Delilah, silent and still at his side.

Dean could yell down to them, but he hadn’t said a word since that morning. He wasn’t sure he remembered how.

Saskia jumped onto the bed, shifting into a falcon mid-leap, almost the same size and color as their mother's daemon, Varro. Dean bit his lip, scrubbing at the tears in his eyes.

She curled around Sam, one wing draped protectively across his body. Dean wrapped his arms carefully around him on the opposite side, and Sam settled down slowly but surely with Astrid as a mouse tucked between the crook of his shoulder and Saskia’s wing.

Sam never reaches for Saskia now, never once tried to reach for Brynn, though the look in his eyes some days as he watched them appeared to be something like longing. It’s one of the things he hasn’t forgotten, not to touch someone else’s soul, an unspoken rule burned into his blood and bones since the day he was born. That rule never applied to each other, though; they grew up touching each other’s daemons as easily as their own.

“Stop,” Sam says roughly, and there’s fear in his eyes, and something else, too, something Dean is afraid to examine too closely.

Saskia pads across the short distance back to Dean, forlorn. She lays her head on his thigh and Dean clenches a hand in her fur. Sam curls up into a ball, eyes shut tight.

“I miss her too,” Dean says quietly. Saskia squeezes her eyes closed, burrowing her head into his leg.

- - - -
Dean tosses and turns for another hour before finally giving up his attempt to fall back to sleep. Sam is already sitting in front of the computer, probably searching for a case, and Dean throws the blankets off of his legs with a sigh. Saskia rumbles her displeasure.

“Don’t give me any grief,” Dean mumbles, tugging on his boots. She burrows further into the covers in response.

Dean stands and turns towards Sam, wanting to say something about the night before. He wishes Sam would speak for him, force him to talk about his feelings and have one of those chick flicks moments he loves so much.

Sam types on, oblivious to Dean’s distress.

Saskia whines softly, jumping off of the bed to brush against his leg.

“Leave it,” she says, and Dean rubs a hand over his face. Sam doesn’t turn when he says he’s going out; he doesn’t acknowledge Dean at all.

Dean hits the diner down the road, a small mom-and-pop place that barely seats twenty people. It’s empty beyond a pair of truckers sitting silently at the counter and an old couple in one of the booths in the back, whispering to each other. Their daemons are laying together in a sunbeam on the edge of the table, a robin and a sparrow, and Dean would call them adorable, if he were the type of guy who found things adorable.

Which he isn’t. Of course he isn’t.

Saskia snorts, and Dean glares at her as he signals the waitress behind the counter, a pretty girl who can’t be older than sixteen. She pours him a cup of coffee while he gives her his order, letting his lips slide into a grin. Her mouse daemon hides behind her hair against her neck, and she ducks her head, blushing.

Dean sits quietly at the counter, slowly spinning the mug around in his hands. Saskia jumps onto the stool beside him and laps at the coffee that sloshes into the saucer. She lays her head in Dean’s lap, pressing her head into his hand and he scratches her behind the ears.

The girl returns with a white take-out bag and two Styrofoam cups of coffee. She places them on the counter, then pats the bag lightly as she rings him up.

“There’s an extra slice of pie. On the house,” she adds quietly before she hands him his change and spins on her heel, making a bee-line for the swinging doors that lead to the kitchen.

Dean chuckles and makes sure to leave her a good tip.

Sam is still staring intently at his computer when they return, typing away and completely oblivious, even when Dean slams the door. Sam only looks up when Dean throws the curtains closed. He tosses the bag of food to the table and falls into the chair across from his brother, rubbing a hand over his eyes, all thoughts of pie forgotten.

“Everything okay?” Sam asks. More than anything, Dean wishes he were asking because he truly wanted to know and not just out of some twisted sense of obligation.

Dean shakes his head and sighs. “Find anything?” he asks gruffly, instead of giving him an answer.

Sam shrugs. “Nothing local,” he mumbles and reaches for the bag of food.

Dean grunts, taking the take-out container Sam offers with a nod. They sit quietly, and the crunch of chewing is the only sound in the room. Sam's eyes pan around, finally landing on Saskia, and he stares and stares and stares until Dean can’t take it anymore.

He shoves his chair back and storms out of the room, leaving the door wide open in his haste to get away. He yanks his phone out of his pocket and dials on instinct.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he tells Bobby, vulnerable and helpless and hating every damn second. “Tell me you have something.”

Bobby huffs over the line. “Keep your friggin’ panties on, princess,” he mutters, and Dean’s lips quirk against his wishes. He hears rustling paper, then nothing else until Bobby clears his throat. “Got a line on someone who might be able to help. Hunter named Lyra Belacqua.”

“Belacqua?” The name rings a bell in a vaguely familiar way, tripping a wire at the back of his mind. “‘Isn’t she the one who - ”

“Saw the other side and came back whole. Or somethin’ like. Hunter grapevine, you know how it works.”

Dean snorts, because of course he knows; passing information from one hunter to the next often resembled the most difficult game of telephone Dean ever played, worse than the time he told Laura Spellman she was lewd instead of cute.

“Never put much stock in the rumors, but hell, there was a time I didn’t believe in angels, either.”

Dean purses his lips, then looks at Sam standing in the doorway, watching him - his emotionless, too goddamn quiet Sam - and he sighs. “What the hell? Where can I find her?” After all, it’s not like things could get much worse.

He follows Bobby’s directions, back roads and alternate routes making the ride almost twice as long as it would have been had he been able to stick to the highways. After almost a day of non-stop driving, they arrive at a small cabin just outside of Saranac Lake.

Dean parks the car as close to the small path leading up to the house as possible, walking the rest of the way. Sam follows close at his heels, hands in his pockets as he peers around with mock-curiosity.

“Where are we going?” Sam asks loudly, and Dean trips over his own two feet while Saskia yelps at the sudden noise.

Sam blinks and frowns cautiously, as if he isn’t sure what to do with his expression or if he’s having the correct reaction.

Dean runs a hand through his hair, scratching between Saskia’s ears before straightening up. “We’re going to see someone who might be able to help find Astrid.”

“You think he can?”

Dean sighs, aggravated. “She. And honestly? Not really.”

Sam tilts his head to the side, examining Dean as he might something under a microscope. He shakes his head and continues walking, his expression unchanged.

The woman that walks out the door as they approach isn’t classically beautiful. Her curly, dark blonde hair falls to her waist. Her daemon is curled around her neck under the collar of her shirt, an animal Dean doesn’t recognize with reddish-brown fur shining in the sun. Her skirt falls to her ankles, bare feet peeking out the bottom making her look younger than she probably is, but her eyes are shuttered and dark. They say she has seen much and lived.

Lyra arches an eyebrow, arms folded across her chest to show off the double-barrel rifle held comfortably in her hands. “What do you want?”

Dean startles at her accent - British, not from around here at all. “Uh - I'm Dean and this is my brother, Sam. Bobby Singer sent us here. Said you might be able to help us.”

“Singer?” She doesn’t let her guard down until she spies Sam over his shoulder, and her eyes rise further to her hairline. Lyra doesn’t cringe away from Sam like everyone else; she isn’t afraid. In fact, she lowers the rifle, frowning, and asks, “Where’s your daemon?”

“That’s sort of what we’re here about,” Dean says, scratching idly at his arm.

Her eyes visibly soften, features smoothing out; her daemon lifts his head to whisper something in her ear and she nods, pushing the door open behind her back. “Come in.”

The house is surprisingly lavish and not what he would have expected looking in from the outside at all. A comfortable-looking arm chair sits in front of a large, unlit fireplace. Shelves and shelves of books line the walls; an odd instrument sits on an open book on the table at the center of the room, and it isn’t until Dean almost knocks over an oil lamp that he realizes the only source of light is the sun shining through the large, front windows.

Lyra’s daemon jumps from her shoulders onto the couch, coiling up on a pillow with his chin resting on one of the arms while she walks into the kitchen. Dean blinks at the distance between them, the lack of strain on either of their faces as Lyra bustles about in the other room.

“He’s a pine marten,” Lyra says from the doorway, making Dean jump. “His name is Pantalaimon. You can call him Pan.” Her eyes are fiercely narrowed in challenge, daring him to comment on the ease with which they’ve separated from each other.

Dean swallows back his questions - Bobby didn’t mention she was a witch, but she could be, and it isn’t any of his business anyway. Bobby wouldn’t have sent them here without warning if he suspected Lyra was more dangerous than any other garden variety hunter.

“Research?” Dean asks, gesturing to the table, and she huffs a laugh of relief as she exits the kitchen with a cup in either hand.

“Something like that.” She hands him a mug of what smells like tea with lemon and something vaguely spicy. She offers the other to Sam, much to Dean’s surprise.

“What?” she asks, blinking, as if this is an everyday occurrence and not something that should - and with good reason - terrify her.

Sam takes the mug with a muttered, “Thank you,” and returns to glancing around the room blankly, picking up books and objects at random before placing them back down.

“He doesn’t have a daemon,” she protests, “He ain’t dead.”

“You’ve seen this before,” Saskia states, and Dean feels her surprise mirroring his own.

Lyra bites her lip, sitting down beside Pan on the couch and running a hand through his fur. “Once. But this is different.”

“How do you know?”

Lyra picks the odd instrument off of the table, twisting it around idly between her palms. “She ain’t dead, is she? His daemon?”

She doesn’t answer the question. Dean doesn’t push. “No,” he says hoarsely, and he clears his throat, “Not exactly.”

Lyra purses her lips, staring at Pantalaimon while she fiddles with the instrument in her hands; it’s a funny-looking compass with various symbols painted along the edge, tiny pictures that seem random to Dean, but must make at least a vague sense to Lyra. She turns several of the knobs so the hands point to different symbols, concentrating so hard on her task that her eyes cross. She stares for a few moments, silent and practically vibrating with anticipation.

Eventually, she closes her eyes, folding the compass tightly in her fist.

“Pan,” she says quietly, a little forlorn, and he noses under her chin, closing his eyes.

When Castiel appears suddenly and without warning, Dean jumps out of his seat, hissing as hot tea spills down his front. He places the mug down slowly and with purposeful caution.

“You haven’t told them?” Pan asks, clearly annoyed, and Dean stares, startled - her daemon hasn’t said a word aloud since they arrived. Dean shifts his gaze back to Lyra, who looks for all the world like a petulant child. He half expects her to stamp her foot.

Dean blinks incredulously when Castiel’s expression shifts into something that looks a hell of a lot like shame.

“I did not think it wise.”

“Wait a second, wait,” Dean says, staring back and forth from Castiel to Lyra like the world’s most unexpectedly interesting tennis match, “You two know each other?”

“He assisted my father once.” The words are laden with secrets and regret, emotions barely contained. He knows that tone of voice - he hears it when he speaks of his own father.

“Tell them,” she says to Castiel, and the words sound shockingly like an order. “The worst that’ll happen is they say no.”

“They won’t say no,” Pan grumbles, and Lyra huffs, giving him a withering stare.

“Tell us what?” Dean asks, and when neither answers, he turns to Castiel. “Cas?”

“I have, as you asked, found a way,” Castiel says, but he’s shaking his head, and Dean's heart plummets down somewhere near the floor. “You are not going to like it.”

Dean plays off the suspicion growing hot and heavy in his stomach with an arched eyebrow. He crosses his arms.

“There is only one way, and Dean, what will be asked of you... I fear it may be too much.”

“Let him decide,” Lyra says firmly, then faces Dean. “You have to find Death.”

“He does not give his help freely,” Castiel argues, and Pan hisses quietly while Lyra crosses her arms over her chest.

“And who does? You want something, you gotta give something in return. Least that’s the way I know the world to be.”

“He can help?” Sam asks, and Lyra is the only one who doesn’t express surprise at hearing him speak.

She turns to where he’s leaning against one of the book cases with his mug cupped tightly between his palms. “In my experience, yes.”

Dean exchanges a glance with Saskia. He has given up much for his brother - his life, his soul. He died and went to hell for Sam. Nothing could be worse than that.

Saskia stands tall at his side and asks, “Where can we find him?”

Dean swallows hard as Castiel describes a surprisingly simple ritual to be performed at a crossroads under the new moon - which either conveniently or through the twisted machinations of fate would be occurring that night. Dean would have expected the steps to summon one of the four horsemen to be a little more complicated than your garden variety rite.

He nods, thanks Lyra for her help, and moves towards the door.

“Dean,” Lyra grasps his wrist, stopping him in his tracks. She waits until Sam and Castiel are out of earshot to say, “Whatever Death asks you to do... it ain’t as bad as it seems.”

“How would you know?” He’s feeling confrontational, wound up tight like a knotted rope twisting in on itself.

She doesn’t seem to notice, or at least she doesn’t call him on his attitude. She releases his arm and shrugs her shoulders. “Because I followed my own Death once, and I thought it would kill me. But it didn’t. I survived, and so will you.”

“You’re not gonna tell me to find another way? Forget all about this?”

To his surprise, Lyra laughs. “That would be awfully hypocritical of me. Anyway, would you listen if I did?”

“No.” Dean pushes aside his jacket to grab at the knife at his hip, a nervous, reassuring gesture.

Lyra stares at Dean strangely then, from the demon killing knife and back to his face again. Her expression shifts to something intense and searching, and Dean fights the urge to squirm.

Saskia paces at his side, discomfited. “What?” she asks.

Lyra shakes her head, and the tension dissipates easily, like it wasn’t there at all. “Nothing. Just... you remind me of someone. Someone I used to know.”

Pan nudges under her chin then jumps to the ground, rubbing noses with Saskia before settling at Lyra’s feet. “Good luck, Dean,” she says softly.

She watches them from the doorway, lifting Pan to once again wrap around her neck; Dean feels their gazes follow him through the dark.

- - - -
The spell to summon Death involves nothing unusual - a bunch of smelly herbs and arcane symbols, which Dean sketches in exact shapes and formations as Castiel describes them. They’re operating solely under Castiel’s word that this will work, and Dean isn't quite sure how far he trusts Castiel's word at the moment. Regardless, they have a distinct lack of options at their disposal.

Dean purses his lips. “You’re sure this will work?”

“I am positive. As soon as you finish the incantation, Death should appear.”

“Wait, you’re not going to stick around?” Dean asks, still digging through the trunk for the box of their scant stock of herbs.

“No,” Castiel growls, vehemently enough that Dean pauses, lifting his head to raise his eyebrows. “Death is not fond of angels,” he says by way of explanation.

Dean barks a laugh. “He’s not overly fond of people, either.”

Castiel doesn’t respond, but Dean feels the intensity of his gaze at his back. He turns fully around and finds Castiel standing with his arms stiffly at his side, lips pulling into the beginnings of a frown. “I am sorry, Dean. Truly, I am.”

The betrayal is still too raw, too painful for Dean offer words of reassurance. Regardless of what Castiel did or did not mean to do, Astrid was still stuck in the cage and Sam was still without his soul.

Still, Dean doesn’t outright reject his apology, either. “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to,” Dean says stiffly.

Castiel nods, looking like he wants to say something else, but he bows his head silently and disappears in the time it takes Dean to blink.

Dean shakes off the dull guilt with a sigh and shakes his head. He has bigger fish to fry at the moment.

“Make yourself useful,” he says to Sam, passing off a handful of candles. Sam takes them without comment, placing each one at a different corner of an invisible square and a single one in the center. He chalks out the symbols on the ground exactly as they appear on the sheet of paper, and Dean would smile if he knew whether this meticulous side of him was due to Sam being soulless or Sam being Sam.

Sam steps out of the circle of symbols and when he nods, Dean strikes a match, taking a breath. “Here we go,” he mutters, dropping the match to light the candle in the center. He stutters through the incantation, a jumbled mess of Latin and Enochian. The flames flare brightly, and Dean shields his eyes, turning away.

“Well, well, well - isn’t this a surprise?”

Dean jumps, spinning to face Death; the candles are burned out, half melted down so white wax spills into the chalky dirt.

Death leans on his cane, tapping his fingers. “You rang?” He asks with an almost bored expression.

Dean stutters out a shaky breath. “We need your help.”

Death rolls his eyes. “Of course you do. Why else would you have summoned me? What is it that you desire, Dean Winchester?”

“Peace on earth. A lifetime supply of skin mags.” Before the words leave his mouth, Dean recognizes the stupidity in his response - Death could easily kill them both with a snap of his fingers without thinking twice. Even Sam knows this, and he reaches out to punch his brother none too lightly in the shoulder.

Death’s eyes narrow and he takes a step forward, caught at the edge of the symbols drawn on the ground. “Do not toy with me, Dean. I do not have the patience, nor do I have the time.”

Dean shivers, and he feels Saskia shaking against his calf.

Sam, on the other hand, feels no fear, and his voice is loud, an order carried across the crossroads. “We want you to bring my daemon back from hell.”

Death bursts into laughter - full belly laughs, hard enough that he bends in half over his cane.

It isn’t the reaction Dean was expecting. “You think this is funny?”

“No, I find this situation anything but funny.” He clears his throat, eyes still shining with amusement. “I will help you - for a price.”

Dean holds out his hand, Death’s ring in the center of his open palm. Death shakes his head. “Not enough.”

“How is that not enough?” Dean snaps.

“Because as I recall, you were only borrowing it from me in the first place.” There’s no mirth in his eyes now, just an uneasy seriousness that coils around Dean’s throat, threatening to choke him. Saskia does choke, shuddering against his side, keeping as far out of Death’s line of sight as possible.

“What do you want?” Dean asks quietly, all of his earlier bravado gone up in smoke.

“I want you to learn that what is done cannot be undone.” Death taps his fingers impatiently on the top of his cane. “There are no exceptions to the rules of life and death, Dean Winchester, but you and your brother see it fit to elude me time and time again.”

Saskia tugs and pulls at Dean’s jeans, hard enough that Dean loses his balance and the ring falls from his hand. “Oh, Dean, don’t, we’ll find another way, please Dean-” she begs, but Dean shushes her.

“I want you to understand exactly what it is you are asking of me. For one entire day, you will become Death. Only then will I retrieve Sam’s soul from Lucifer’s cage. Those are my terms.” Death opens his hand, holding out the ring that Dean dropped. “If we have an agreement, the ring is yours for the next twenty-four hours.”

Dean purses his lips. When he steps forward with Saskia at his side, Death pulls back his hand.

“She cannot follow,” he says, eyes boring into Saskia, and she shudders and moves closer, as if she could merge with Dean if she presses in close enough.

Dean jolts backwards with a gasp. He’s always been willing to sacrifice his life to save his brother, but this, giving up Saskia, the other half of himself...

Castiel was right. Death is asking too much.

Then, Dean glances at Sam - quiet, changed Sam, forever alone with Astrid stuck in hell, and Dean can’t stand it.

He collapses to his knees, holding Saskia closer than he ever has before. “Just tell me not to do this,” he whispers hoarsely into the fur at her neck. “Tell me that, and I won’t.”

“I can’t. Dean don’t make me -” She throws back her head and howls, and the sound reverberates down to Dean’s bones. She presses her face into his chest, coaxing Dean’s arms further around her back. “Bring her back,” she whispers and licks his face. Then, she takes a step back.

Saskia trembles, unable to move while Dean stands, walks over to Sam and drops the keys to the Impala into his palm.

“Take care of her,” he says, and he isn’t just talking about the car.

Sam nods and says, “I know.” Of course he does - soul or no soul, he’s still his brother, still Sam. Dean wonders how he could have ever thought otherwise.

Saskia holds herself away from him with an effort he can feel, a phantom hand squeezing his heart, tighter and tighter the closer he walks towards Death. She moves to Sam’s side, weaves close then away, as if she isn’t sure whether or not she wants his attention.

Sam glances down at her, then at Dean, and as a shiver works it’s way down his spine, he nods. “Bring her back,” he says quietly, echoing Saskia.

Dean forces himself to watch them as he places the ring on his finger. Saskia cries out, a sound that seems to echo to the ends of the earth, and then she is gone.

- - - -
Dean appears in the middle of an empty, winding road, one hand pressed to his chest to stave off the pain. He didn’t realize Death could feel pain, didn’t think he felt anything at all.

“Wow. They'll just let any slack-jawed haircut be Death these days.”

Dean whirls around with his hand still clutched in his shirt, eyes widening. “Tessa? What are you doing here?”

“Death thought you should have a guide.” She paces slowly around him. Dean turns, keeping her in his sight. “I thought you might be more... amenable to someone you already knew.”

Dean doesn’t answer, too busy focusing on breathing past the clenching in his heart.

Tessa cocks her head to the side and frowns. “Are you all right?”

Dean grunts, dropping his hand stiffly to his side. “Peachy.”

“Liar.” She shakes her head, rolling her eyes to the sky. “Let's be clear so that we get through this with a minimum of screw-up. I don't like this. And right now, I'm not crazy about you, either.”

“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Dean quips dryly.

“I’m serious,” she snaps and points a finger at him. “When people die, you touch them. I reap their souls, we get through this day and at the end of it, we both go home happy.”

Dean rolls his eyes, throwing up his hands. “Fine. How do we find them?”

Tessa smiles; in the time Dean takes to blink, they’re standing in a hospital room.

He squints, letting his eyes adjust to the light. “Gonna tell me how you do that?”

Tessa scoffs, “Not a chance.”

“Figured,” he says and somehow, he’s able to smile.

Dean paces around the foot of the bed. The man lying there is elderly, white hair in patches on his otherwise bald head. His rat daemon is curled on his chest, eyes shut tight.

A woman who Dean can only assume is his daughter sits on the opposite side of the bed, holding his hand in both of hers; her husband’s hand firmly rests on her shoulder. Neither of them take notice of Dean or Tessa.

The machine behind the elderly man’s head begins to beep erratically, as if his heart is making one last, feeble attempt to keep beating. Then, it slows until eventually it stops. The woman presses his palm to her cheek, tears falling down her face, and Dean touches the knuckles of his other hand.

He appears at Dean’s side, a part of him Dean immediately recognizes as not body or soul, but simply other. He looks down at himself, lips quirking into what looks astoundingly like a smile.

His daemon doesn’t disappear, not exactly. She fades slowly, solid form becoming something made of smoke and light. Dean imagines she would slip through his fingers. Tessa lifts the rat into her palms, easy as anything. The daemon lets out a tiny sigh of relief that makes Dean jolt backwards, eyes wide, heart beating frantically in his chest.

“So this is how it ends,” the man whispers; he closes his eyes, smiling as both he and his daemon disappear.

Tessa places a firm hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Come on,” she says, voice a bit softer this time. Dean can’t take his eyes off of the empty spot on the dead man’s chest.

- - - -
They reappear in the middle of a busy street, police cars acting as a barrier cordoning off the road from nosy onlookers.

Dean rounds one of the cars and sees why - a man lies in the middle of the road, blood pooling under his chest on the pavement.

“What happened?” Dean asks Tessa. The man’s breathing is still labored, his hyena daemon listing from side to side near his head.

“He killed six women in three states,” Tessa says with a surprising lack of emotion. “He was caught fleeing the scene and tried to shoot the officer pursuing him. The officer's partner fired off a shot first.”

The man takes one last breath, and Dean doesn’t feel bad when he bends down, touching his fingers to the man’s forehand.

He appears at Dean’s side and glances, wide-eyed, down at his body. “So this is hell,” he says, lips quirking into a manic smile.

“Not even close, buddy, but that’s exactly where you’re going if I have anything to say about it.” Dean pauses and glances at Tessa. “Do I have anything to say about it?”

Tessa lets her rolling eyes act as her answer and pushes the man’s soul on.

As the day wears on, Dean is surprised to find he’s doing all right. He's able to ignore the aching loneliness clawing at his insides. He can get through this, no problem.

Then, they appear at the bedside of a man dying of a heart attack. His wife shakes him wildly, screaming at him to wake up, even as Dean swallows, touching his shoulder. Next is a mother, killed in an accident so terrible, the car resembles nothing so much as a twisted pile of metal and rubber; Dean can barely reach his hand through the broken window to touch her forehead.

The little, dying girl finally breaks him. Her bedroom is bright pink, sheets and blankets a shade even brighter, a stark contrast to the tubes and wires hooked up to the softly beeping machines behind her head.

Her father sits in a chair at her side, head drooping so his chin touches his chest, his goose daemon lying with her head on his lap. Dean knows, just by looking at the father’s exhausted, broken face, that it’s just the two of them. She’s all he has in the world, and Dean reaches out a hand to grasp Tessa’s wrist.

Tessa turns to look at him with an annoyingly calm and knowing expression on her face.

“This isn’t fair,” he whispers; the girl’s daemon is curled up against her neck, lizard tail twisted in her hair as he breathes in time with her heartbeat. Dean rubs at his chest and the phantom pain around his heart that aches continuously.

“It is not our place to decide what is fair and what isn’t,” Tessa says quietly. She pulls out of Dean’s grasp and folds her arms. “You knew the rules when you agreed to this, Dean.”

Dean’s hand shakes as he touches the top of the girl’s head. He closes his eyes as the heart monitor’s slow beeping turns into a steady whine, and her father drops his head into his hands as he cries.

He doesn’t open his eyes until a soft, high voice at his back asks, “Am I dead?”

To Dean’s credit, he doesn’t flinch when he tells her, “Yes.”

She frowns, and Christ, those are tears in her eyes. “What about Daddy?”

Dean crouches down, steadily holding her gaze. “He’ll be all right,” he says quietly. He turns to Tessa, who holds the girl’s daemon in her hands, pushing the wriggling soul to whatever afterlife exists.

“She will follow,” Tessa says, and Dean can’t take his eyes off of the girl’s body as something flickers out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t explain in words - years from now, he still won’t be able to, though the image will be burned into his memory for the rest of his life. One minute, some part of the girl was still there and the next she was gone, following after her daemon to the great unknown.

Tessa touches his shoulder and the bright walls of the bedroom flicker and shift until they end up on the same empty road where they began.

“He won’t, you know,” Dean says quietly, idly twisting Death’s ring around his finger.

Tessa cocks her head to the side. “He won’t what?”

“Be all right.” He rubs absently at his chest and finds Tessa watching him with an expression of pure puzzlement.

“What is it like,” she asks quietly, all earlier mocking gone from her voice. She knows the gravity of that she is asking. “Having a daemon?”

Dean swallows, struggling to put into words what he feels for Saskia. She’s the other half of him, the better half, his goddamn soul. There are no words in any language that would fully explain, so he settles on, “She’s a part of me,” hoping it’s enough.

Tessa nods, as if with that small and exceedingly underwhelming explanation, she could understand.

“What does it feel like,” Dean asks softly, unsure he wants the answer but asking all the same, “Not having a daemon?”

Tessa purses her lips, thinking. Then, she shrugs. “I have never been anything but what I am.”

“Must be lonely.”

To his surprise, Tessa laughs with genuine amusement. “I’m a reaper, Dean. I’m lonely by nature. And I can’t miss what I never had in the first place.”

- - - -
True to her word, Tessa returns him exactly twenty-four hours later. They appear at the front of a rundown, abandoned house; the wood of the porch is rotted, badly enough that Dean worries about stepping on it, and the shutters bang against the wall in the wind. The Impala is parked at an angle on a path Dean assumes used to be the driveway. He feels exhausted, the weight of countless souls resting on his shoulders so that a single day felt more like a year, and he wonders, for a brief moment, if time as Death passes as it does in heaven and hell.

“Now you understand,” Death whispers, holding out his palm as he walks towards Dean. The steps creak beneath his feet. Dean silently and willingly hands over the ring, unable to remove it from his finger fast enough.

Saskia cowers behind Sam’s legs in the doorway. Sam tentatively places his hand on her head, and Dean allows himself a brief moment of shock at the gesture before he starts up the steps. He wants to reassure himself that Saskia is really there, reassure her of the same, but then she backs away, hiding almost completely out of sight. She won’t meet Dean’s eye.

He feels like he’s been stabbed.

“She will forgive you,” Tessa says quietly, “In time,” and Dean backs down the stairs, temporarily distracted from the pain in his chest and rendered breathless by what Death is carrying.

When Sam sees Astrid heavy and limp in Death’s hands, he shivers violently and takes a step backwards. Saskia nudges his legs, stopping him in his tracks.

Dean asks, “Can you fix them?”

“The bond between them was never broken. It was pulled to its limit, yes, but they were never fully severed from each other.” Death smirks, and Dean wonders how a being as old as time could manage to look so mischievous. “Your angel did not mean to separate them, and Lucifer would not dream of doing so, even if he could. After all, what is the point of splitting body and soul if they can both still feel?”

Alastair said the same once, while he was wrist deep in Dean’s insides. Dean could feel Saskia’s pain, feel her writhing with agony, could hear her cry out, but could do nothing to save her or himself. Dean flinches with the memory.

“There is little I can do for them.” Death cocks his head to the side. “Unless...”

Dean’s eyes narrow. “Unless what?”

“Do you understand what the words soul mate truly mean?”

“Sam and I share a heaven.”

Tessa smirks, while Death barks a laugh. “A fairytale invented by the angels and built around the barest kernel of truth. Your entire sojourn into heaven was manipulated from beginning to end. Do not bother to believe any different.”

Dean suspected as much over time - what better way to continue to pit the two of them against each other than to present a heaven where each of their memories succeeds in nothing but hurting the other? He winces; it’s just one more blow in a long line of blows.

“Do you think just anyone could touch another person’s soul?” Death says quietly, drawing Dean’s thoughts back to the here and now. “I have known but one other such pair in your short lifetime with a bond strong enough, and in the end, even they were torn apart. No, Dean - becoming a true soul mate means far more than sharing heaven for eternity. Your soul will hold his together. You will be his link to reality, and what he feels, you will feel.

“Do not misunderstand me, Dean Winchester - this is not a cure-all solution. There will still be consequences,” Death warns. “Your brother and his daemon will never be the same.”

“Dean,” Sam chokes out, quickly walking towards his brother, and the barest hint of fear in his eyes momentarily stops Dean in his tracks. “Don’t -”

“Do it,” Saskia says softly. She carefully lopes down the stairs, legs shaking, but she holds her head high.

Dean glances at Sam, standing with his eyes wide and hands clenched, somehow both scared and emotionless. He shifts his gaze to Saskia, his brave, beautiful girl, then looks back to Death with pride. “You heard her,” he says and Sam grabs onto the banister, practically vibrating with tension.

Death exchanges a glance with Tessa and laughs, shaking his head. He rubs a finger through the tufts of fur above Astrid’s ears and Saskia growls. “Humans. You are fascinating creatures, but you never learn.”

Death reaches down without warning to brush his fingers through Saskia’s fur, and Dean’s breath catches before he can form a word of protest. A cold chill washes down his spine. This doesn’t feel like when Sam touches Saskia - this feels like a violation, a painful wrench at something deep inside of him where no hand should have the ability to go. Saskia shivers, growling continuously, but she doesn’t pull away.

As soon as Death releases her, she runs to Dean, hiding behind his knees. Dean claws a hand in her fur as Death calls Sam forward while one of his hands still gently runs through Astrid’s fur.

Sam walks slowly and warily down the remaining stairs, more like a man moving towards his doom than one about to be reunited with his soul. The moment Death places Astrid in his arms, Sam cries out, legs folding under him as he collapses. Astrid screams.

- - - -
Death disappears with Tessa - of course they do - leaving Dean to drag Sam to the Impala. He grunts under his brother’s weight, walking slowly and taking great care to keep Sam’s giant limbs from banging against the door frame. He drapes Sam across the back seat as gently as possible and then digs the car keys out of his jeans pocket.

Saskia carries Astrid across her back, walking on still-shaking legs towards the car. Dean lifts Astrid a lot more hesitantly, as if she may fly apart with a single touch like all of the other dead daemons he saw during his day as Death. He expects to feel something different, a physical reminder of the deal he just made, but instead, he feels nothing but a hollow numbness. Astrid flows onto Sam’s chest, curling up on top of him so her head rests against the steady beat of his heart.

Dean sits down in the driver’s seat, pulling the door closed before he grasps the steering wheel tightly, bending his forehead to his white-knuckled hands. Something bites at his ankle and he glances down to find Saskia pulling away until her back is against the passenger-side door, as far from Dean as she can get without leaving the car.

“Drive, Dean,” she says, deeply exhausted, and Dean takes a deep breath and turns the key in the ignition.

He drives all night, as fast as he dares, putting as much distance between himself and that abandoned house as possible. His eyes droop, held open through sheer force of will. More than once, Saskia bites his ankle or his wrist, reminding him to keep his eyes on the road, just a little further, before curling back up on the other side of the car.

Dawn crests on the horizon by the time Dean stops at a cabin just outside of Ypsilanti. He remembers coming here a few times with Sam and their father when they were kids, one of a few pieces of property Pastor Jim owned, a safe house for hunters to rest and regroup. The front door sticks, and the furniture is coated in a heavy layer of dust that tells him no one has been here in years.

Dean carries Sam inside while Saskia follows with Astrid. He walks to the back of the house, to the single, tiny bedroom with a twin sized bed that Dean used to share with Sam while their father took the couch out in the living room. Dean places Sam on the bed, lifts Astrid so she’s tucked safely into his side, then curls up beside Sam with one hand on his wrist so his pulse thumps steadily against his fingers. Dean waits for the bed to dip with Saskia’s weight before he finally closes his eyes and surrenders to sleep.

- - - -
Dean spends most of the next three days sleeping, getting out of bed only to eat, use the bathroom, or change his clothes. Exhaustion settles like a chill deep in his bones. He needs to recover, too.

When the food stashed in the cooler at the back of the Impala runs out a week later, he finally drags himself out of cabin long enough to buy more, enough to last them at least another couple of days. He walks down the aisles, dragging his feet with Saskia a shadow at his back. He forces himself to swallow down a bottle of water and a sandwich; they make his stomach churn, but realistically, he knows he needs to eat.

As soon as they return, he heads straight to the bedroom, unsurprised to find that Sam hasn’t moved. Saskia scurries under the bed, as far from Dean as she dares to go. She pokes her nose out, staring at him as he settles onto the mattress before disappearing from sight again. Dean doesn’t try to coax her out, doesn’t try to apologize or explain. One word from her, and he would have stayed, but she knows he had no choice. Leaving her behind was the only way to save Sam and Astrid.

He knows she understands; she doesn’t have to be happy about it.

Sam curls around Astrid, both of them too still and too silent. Dean is used to her soft admonitions of Sam, her quiet voice a parallel to Sam’s chatterbox.

Then, Sam begins to shake, hands clenched tightly in his pillow with Astrid twisted into a tight ball in the crook of his elbow. Dean feels hopeless, helpless. He wants to run his fingers through Astrid’s fur, let her know that she’s here, warm and alive, that both of them are going to be all right, but he hasn’t been able to bring himself to touch her since he first lifted her into the bed. Part of this is because it seems wrong somehow to give himself that satisfaction when Sam isn’t even awake enough to agree or protest.

The other part - the part he won’t admit to himself - is because he hasn’t quite worked out the effects of Death binding them together; he’s afraid of what will happen when he finally does.

“Dean,” Saskia murmurs, jumping lightly onto the bed. She twines tightly around Astrid, who rolls over so their fur blends together. Her back lies against Dean’s chest, and his breath hitches with profound relief as he buries his hand tightly in the fur at the scruff of her neck.

“You’re safe,” Dean whispers, wondering if Sam actually hears him. “You’re safe.” He cards a hand through Sam’s hair until Sam settles back down with a shaky sigh.

Then, he meets Saskia’s eyes in the dark. “You still angry?” Dean asks quietly, not bothering to mask the way his voice shakes. Saskia closes her eyes and huffs a quiet laugh, butting her head against his hand.

- - - -
When Dean wakes the next morning, Sam’s eyes are focused for the first time in days. He holds his breath, barely able to watch as Sam stares at Astrid with regret and a longing so strong, Dean swears he can feel it.

“You forgot me,” Astrid says, voice broken and raw, and Saskia stiffens.

Sam makes a sound at the back of his throat, so close to the one Saskia made when she realized Astrid was gone that Dean aches.

“Astrid,” Sam says quietly, just as wrecked. He buries his hands in her fur, presses his face into her neck and cries, shaking with body-wracking sobs. Astrid licks the tears from his face and curls in close.

Sam raises his head, and his eyes widen when he sees Dean, as if he hadn’t noticed his brother until that moment. He sits up, quickly closing the distance between them until his arms are tight around Dean’s back.

“Dean,” Sam breathes, and Dean tightens his grip on his shoulders. “Thanks,” he says softly, reaching out to run his fingers through Astrid’s fur.

Dean squeezes his shoulder and smiles - genuine and real for the first time in months. He says, “Welcome back.” What he means is welcome home.

- - - -
Sam still isn’t able to walk more than two steps without wanting to pass out again. He spends most of his time curled up in bed with Astrid. When he isn’t sleeping, he watches her, one hand twisted up in her fur, afraid that if he lets her out of his sight, she’ll disappear. Astrid basks under the attention, purring like a freight train when Sam rubs her belly.

Dean isn’t faring much better, still exhausted beyond belief from his day as Death. He takes a moment between eating dinner and hauling his ass back to bed to finally call Bobby, knowing that after weeks without any contact, Bobby is going to raise hell.

He endures a long, expletive-filled lecture about all of the creative ways Bobby will skin Dean alive the next time he decides not to return any of his phone calls. It’s the way they show each other they care, with gruff words and threats of bodily harm.

“Next time, I’ll send a post card,” Dean quips when he really means thank you. Saskia snorts.

Bobby mutters another colorful string of curses under his breath as he hangs up the phone.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Saskia mutters sleepily, and Dean sighs, dropping the phone to the coffee table so a plume of dust rises into the air. He’s beginning to wonder if this exhaustion is all his own or Sam is rubbing off on him, but at the moment, he's sure he doesn't care. He drags himself up and back into the bedroom, barely awake enough to lift his feet.

Dean sits on the edge of the bed, weighing the merits of sleeping sitting up versus expending the energy to lay down. Sam pulls at him hard enough that he throws out a hand to brace his fall so he doesn’t collapse onto Astrid, half-asleep under the covers.

“You’re pretty strong for a comatose guy,” he mutters, and Sam grunts, tugging at his sleeve.

Dean rolls his eyes and pulls back the sheets. He stills when he finds Sam curled on his side with the hand that isn’t gripping Dean clenched tightly in Astrid’s fur.

Astrid gazes mournfully at Dean as he lays down. He squeezes Sam’s shoulder, so he feels the fine trembling running all through his brother.

Dean's stomach clenches, tight and painful, and he whispers, “Are you okay?”

Sam takes a deep breath and holds it. When he exhales, his shaking all but stops. “I’m fine,” he mumbles, closing his eyes. He squeezes Dean’s arm tightly, and his hand remains there, a warm and heavy weight.

Dean bites his lip. He doesn’t press.

It’s another week before Dean feels confident enough to sit at the wheel of his baby without driving her into a tree. Sam is beginning to go stir-crazy, still too tired to move but needing a break beyond the four walls of the cabin and food from Styrofoam take-out containers - not that he’s been eating much anyway. So, Dean packs the bags, what’s left of the food, and his exhausted little brother into the car.

Sam tips his head back against the seat with a groan and closes his eyes. “Not gonna be much help in the navigating department,” he says, voice already sleep-muddled.

Astrid lays at his feet with her head on his boots. “Like he doesn’t know the way,” she says, just as sleepily.

Dean rolls his eyes. “Useless, the pair of you,” he scoffs, but Saskia winds her way around Astrid, who smiles in her sleep. Dean grins at them both fondly, turning down the music to background noise.

It’s been a long time since he drove just for the thrill of driving, eating up the miles of endless highway, wind in his hair, and no set destination in mind. He taps his hands to the beat of the music as he drives and begins whistling softly when a familiar sensation tugs through his chest, followed by a rush of air from his right. He looks over and sees Astrid, wolf-shaped instead of lynx, red fur matching the shade of Saskia’s almost perfectly.

Astrid didn’t settle until after Sam left for Stanford. As soon as Dean saw her that fateful night at Sam’s apartment he knew, as well as he knew the day Saskia chose the wolf, that this sleek and powerful lynx was her permanent shape. He felt it down to his bones and almost laughed. Sam and their father were always more alike than they were different.

Dean pulls the car to the side of the road, heart hammering in his chest. “Sammy?” he whispers, but Sam snuffles in his sleep, rolling his head to the side. Sam reaches out a hand, palm pressed into Saskia’s fur, and Dean feels the warmth of that touch down to his toes. Saskia’s eyes are wide, staring back at him from the footwell.

He takes a deep breath and pulls the car back out onto the road.

- - - -
The sun begins to set, and Dean’s attention span goes with it, eyes suddenly growing heavy and gritty behind his eyelids. He rubs a hand over his face, gripping the steering wheel a little bit tighter.

“There’s a motel coming up if we keep going straight on this road,” Sam murmurs, scratching idly at the fur between Astrid’s ears. She shifted in her sleep back to a lynx and has stayed that shape ever since. Dean presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything about it.

“How do you know?” He grunts.

“My phenomenal cosmic power,” Sam says dryly. Dean slaps him on the shoulder.

He scowls and Dean would never, ever say this out loud, but he doesn’t think he’s ever been more thankful to see one of Sam’s numerous bitch faces in his life. “Saw a sign a couple of miles back, how the hell do you think?”

“Don’t sass me, bitch.”

“Don’t ask stupid questions, jerk.”

Dean bites the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning.

Sam doesn’t let up, though. “Seriously, you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“I’m fine,” Dean grunts, fighting back the urge to rub his eyes.

“Nothing’s after us, Dean,” Sam says softly, and Dean pauses, glancing at his brother out of the corner of his eye. Sam earnestly stares back. He’s right, but Dean has spent so long outrunning something - Yellow Eyes, Lilith, Lucifer himself - he’s hardwired to drive fast and far, putting as much distance in the rear-view mirror as possible. He can’t remember the last time the threat of certain doom wasn’t looming over their heads.

“Yeah, okay,” Dean mutters, and Sam grins, pointing out the motel coming up on the right side of the road.

Dean pulls into an empty spot and turns off the engine. He flicks Sam’s ear, earning a scowl and a punch in the arm.

He winces as he laughs. “Get us a room, Sasquatch.”

Sam rolls his eyes but gets out of the car. While he’s waiting for Astrid to untangle herself from Saskia, Dean shouts out after him, “And find out where I can get some pie!”

The glare Astrid throws over her shoulder as she follows Sam could wilt an entire field of flowers.

“You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Saskia says, but her eyes are smiling. The mirth fades quickly, and she lays her head on Dean’s lap.

“You're awfully affectionate,” Dean grumbles, running his fingers through her fur, but he doesn’t mind; he feels a fondness echoing back at him that leaves his fingers tingling.

“You left me,” Saskia murmurs quietly, and Dean’s hand stills, guilt gnawing at his stomach. Saskia may have forgiven him for leaving her behind, but it will be a long time - maybe never - before he can ever forgive himself.

His breath stutters. “Saskia-”

She stands up on her hind legs using his thigh for support and licks his face. “I know,” she says quietly. She jumps out of the car at the sight of Sam and Astrid coming out of the main office. Dean takes a moment alone to let his chest unwind.

“Clerk says there’s a diner not far from here. And yes, they have pie,” Sam says as he drops into his seat before Dean can get a word in edgewise.

“That’s my boy. Come on,” Dean says, rubbing his hands together, “Let’s get me some pie.”

Sam sighs loudly, but he’s smiling.

Despite his good mood, Sam grows quiet at dinner. He pushes more food around in his plate than he actually eats, and Dean is seriously considering threatening to force the food down his throat when he puts his fork down, crosses his arms over his chest, and stares at Dean intently.

“So, did you even try?”

Dean takes a bite of his burger and asks, with his mouth full, “Try what?”

He wishes he had a camera to capture the disgusted face Sam makes. “Dude,” he protests, wrinkling his nose, and Dean grins as he chews.

“Lisa,” Sam clarifies, and Dean slowly lowers what’s left of the burger back to his plate. “You didn’t even try to make a go of it with her, did you?”

Dean swallows. “I did.” He doesn’t elaborate.

He should know better than to think that Sam will let this go. He’s like a dog with a bone at the best of times. “So what happened?”

“It didn’t work out.”

Sam arches an eyebrow and waits for him to continue. Astrid jumps into the booth next to him, and the setting sun reflects off of her fur in hues of yellow and gold. She lays her head in Sam’s lap, and he reaches over to ruffle the tufts of fur around her ears. Saskia lies down under the table with her tail brushing reassuringly against Dean’s ankle.

Dean takes a deep breath and shoves the remainder of his dinner to the side. “I was a mess, Sam,” he says quietly. “I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I woke up screaming. I drank too much. Lisa wanted to understand, she really did; she tried to get me to go out and make friends, and Ben dragged me around to soccer games and barbecues, but... I couldn’t make it work. I was there seven months, and one morning, I woke up and she asked me to leave. I wasn’t getting any better. Wasn’t even trying, to tell you the truth.

“I took a lot of small cases after I left. Salt and burns, a black dog down in Arizona. Was up in Poughkeepsie helping Rufus deal with a werewolf problem when he told me he’d recently caught wind of a new hunter.” His eyes meet Sam’s, and Sam inhales, visibly holding his breath. Astrid freezes. “Good, ruthless, but never spoke to anyone, just blew into town, got the job done, and blew out. Like a ghost, he said. Blink and he’ll slip right through your fingers.” Dean shakes his head. “I followed your trail for weeks before I found you. Was starting to lose hope, when we both ended up on the same hunt. Goddamn poltergeist probably would have strangled me to death if you hadn’t shown up. You saved my life.”

Sam swallows. “How did you know it was me?” he asks quietly as he slowly processes this information.

Dean scratches nervously at his arm and Sam fidgets in his seat. “I didn’t. Just... had a feeling. Worst case scenario, I was wrong.”

Sam bites his lip and doesn’t ask anything else. Dean reaches for his burger, but finds it cold. He’s completely lost his appetite anyway. He sighs, signaling their waitress for the check.

They’re in the car and back on the road before Sam practically whispers, “How long have I been out?”

“Of the pit?”

Sam nods, staring straight ahead and feigning nonchalance even though his left hand is tightly clenched around his knee. Dean shrugs, his white knuckled hands on the steering wheel the only tell that this conversation is anything but easy. “Couple of months. You really don’t remember anything?” Not that Dean wants him to; if Sam remembers nothing of hell that would suit him just fine.

“A lot of it is just a blur - vague images and impressions. Painful impressions,” Sam says wryly, “But nothing worth remembering sticks out.”

“Be glad you don’t remember,” Astrid says harshly, and Dean glances at her, startled. She doesn’t say anything else, just curls up next to Saskia in the back seat.

Astrid fidgets for the rest of the ride, unable to sit still for more than a minute. As Dean pulls into the motel parking lot, her ears twitch and her tail lashes back and forth while Sam’s leg jitters up and down. Dean taps his fingers against the steering wheel, trying to ignore their growing frustration even as Saskia twitches restlessly. By the time they get to the door of their room, Astrid is pawing at the doorknob, whining softly at the back of her throat.

Dean digs out the key as fast as he can. “What’s wrong, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well?”

Astrid doesn’t comment beyond a growl; she runs inside as soon as the door opens and shifts seamlessly between several shapes, wolf, otter, lynx again, before settling down as a ferret, curled up exhausted on the floor between the beds.

Dean can’t even pretend to be surprised. Sam isn’t either, but he frowns, picking her up and placing her on the bed furthest from the door. He knows just as well as Dean that something fundamental has changed. Dean doesn’t need to feel his worry; he reads it all over the creases in Sam’s forehead and the way he drags a hand through his hair, settling it on the back of his neck.

He gently pushes Sam down onto the mattress by his shoulder. “You should get some sleep,” he murmurs, and Sam lets out a shuddering sigh but for once does as he’s told without argument. He kicks off his shoes and crawls under the covers without bothering to worry about his jeans. He’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.

Dean sits on the edge of the other bed and watches the slow, steady rise and fall of his brother’s chest until Saskia tugs on his sleeve.

“You need to sleep, too,” she says, and Dean ruffles the hair on her head so it lays in the wrong direction. She glowers, nipping at his fingers.

“Says who?” Dean whispers, but Saskia lays on top of him from chest to knee, preventing him from moving again. He reaches over to turn off the light, then lays his hand on Saskia’s neck, falling asleep with his fingers threading through her fur.

- - - -
The sun is already high in the sky, light filtering brightly through the curtains when Dean finally eases out of bed. Sam murmurs sleepy nonsense and immediately sprawls out, face mashed into his pillow. He opens his eyes half way, takes one look at Dean, then squeezes them shut again.

“Lemme sleep,” he mumbles, and Dean chuckles.

He lets a moment pass, waiting until he’s sure Sam has his guard down before he slaps the back of Sam’s thigh. Sam yelps, flailing so Astrid falls to the floor in a tangle of feline limbs. She shifts into a cobra, baring her fangs on a hiss.

Dean pointedly ignores her. “Good, you’re awake. Go get me breakfast,” he says, and Sam blinks up at him owlishly, bed-hair sticking up in multiple directions. Dean doesn’t bother to fight against the smirk pulling across his face.

Sam glares and pulls the covers up over his head. “Get it yourself,” he grumbles.

Saskia yanks at the covers with her teeth, and Sam jabs at her from beneath. When she doesn’t let go, he pokes his head out with a scowl.

Astrid coils tighter, tail lashing before she pounces, shifting mid-air into a wolf and bringing Saskia back down onto the floor. They tussle playfully until Saskia gains the upper hand, flipping Astrid onto her back and biting gently at the scruff of her neck. Astrid concedes defeat, rolling onto her belly and pouting while Saskia licks at her fur.

Sam rolls his eyes. “Bossy,” he mutters, and Dean grins when he throws off the covers.

Breakfast is accompanied by the quick flick flick flick of Astrid shuffling through shapes; some of them are utterly ridiculous, like she’s simply trying to pull a smile out of Sam.

“Always knew you were a monkey, Sam,” Dean says when she chooses a chimpanzee. He shoves the rest of his eggs in his mouth in a single bite, grinning in a way he knows Sam will find obnoxious and relishing the bitch face he receives in return.

Astrid jumps the distance between the two beds and Dean squawks with protest as she shifts into a squirrel, scurrying down his leg to bite his ankle. Sam jolts with the touch, inhaling sharp and shocked, hand clenching in the hem of his shirt.

Astrid creeps from behind Dean’s legs and glances up at Sam with wide eyes. Sam forces his hands to relax, and Saskia crawls into his lap, standing on her hind legs with her front paws on his thighs. It feels like an electric shock down Dean's spine.

“Where’s mine?” she says, and she licks his face, stealing a sausage from the container in his lap while he’s busy wiping a palm down his nose.

Sam rolls his eyes and Astrid huffs with mock annoyance, but the tension bleeds out them almost as quickly as it appeared. Dean throws his daemon a grateful glance.

Astrid continues to shift multiple times throughout the day. For the most part, she keeps to larger animals, predators, saying she feels safer that way. She chooses a wolf identical in every way to Saskia except for her coloring, grey and white to Saskia’s auburn, and she stays that way for several hours.

When she shifts into a lynx, she stretches and frowns, switching back to a wolf soon after.

“It doesn’t feel right,” Sam says, and Dean understands - hell changes a person irrevocably, and Dean was only there for four months. Astrid was there over a year.

Sam still claims he doesn’t remember hell or his months without a soul, not everything. They both know Astrid is purposely keeping things from him, but she’s shockingly tight lipped, refusing to reveal even the slightest of details.

A sudden hush falls over the room, and Dean glances over to find Astrid a bat, fast asleep on Saskia’s back. Sam is sprawled out on his bed with both of them against his chest. A warm feeling spreads under Dean’s skin until all he wants to do is curl his arms around them and never let them go.

Saskia opens one eye and Dean chuckles, dragging off his jeans before crawling in beside them. He kicks Sam in the shin, and Sam grunts but shifts over until there’s just enough room for Dean to throw his arm over Saskia, hand resting on Sam’s hip.

- - - -
Dean’s eyes fly open, heart hammering in his chest. He sits up, gun already out from under the pillow and in his hand while he instinctively searches out the danger lurking in the dark.

Instead, he finds Astrid shuddering so hard against his hip that her teeth are chattering. She’s curled up as small as her wolf form will allow and her eyes are wide and staring at the empty corner next to the bed.

Sam is crouched up against the headboard, trembling from head to toe with his head in his hands. He lashes out violently when Dean moves to shake his shoulder, eyes wide and unseeing.

“Sam!” He shouts, ducking to avoid the punch Sam aims in his direction, “Sam!” But Sam doesn’t hear him, too lost in whatever nightmare is rolling around in his head.

“He won’t - Dean he won’t -” Astrid chokes, panicking, which only makes Sam hyperventilate more. She whines, and Dean immediately recognizes the sound coming out of her throat: high pitched and terrified, like someone is tearing her apart from the inside out, and that is fucking it.

Dean clasps his hand in Astrid’s fur, trying to help both of them get a reign on reality; he holds his breath.

Everything stops.

The first time Dean touched Astrid was the day he carried Sam out of the fire. Saskia became a bobcat almost identical to Delilah and snatched Astrid up in her teeth, sprinting for the front door.

She tripped Dean up in the grass while they watched the fire burn, and Astrid shifted into a mouse, creeping down Sam’s neck. Her tail brushed Dean’s hand, and the shock of it made him almost drop Sammy, but by then, Dad was running out of the house, snatching both of his boys up into his arms.

This feels like that first time, only more intense, more - just more. He feels what Sam is feeling, what Astrid is feeling, as well as he knows Saskia, as well as he knows himself.

The unbridled panic threatens to consume him, but Dean clenches his fingers in Astrid’s fur and drags his other hand through the hair at the nape of Sam’s neck, keeping his breathing steady and even. Slowly but surely, Sam unwinds, eyes shutting tight while Astrid’s breath evens out.

Sam opens his eyes, glances at Dean, then mashes his face into his knees. His back shudders.

“You can’t keep doing this to me, Sam,” Dean says quietly, but he squeezes Sam’s neck and makes a feeble attempt at a joke. “I can’t spare anymore lives.”

Sam huffs a laugh that sounds half like a breath and half like a sob.

“What happened?” Dean murmurs, and when Sam doesn’t answer, he sighs out a frustrated, “Talk to me.”

Sam raises his head, and he’s still pale, but his eyes are fully focused on Dean’s face. “You want to talk about this?” he asks, sounding vaguely surprised.

“Do you want to talk about this?” Dean counters, then rolls his eyes. “Never mind - of course you do.”

Sam glares, and Astrid laughs shakily. He pulls his knees further into his chest in a way that reminds Dean of the uncountable times Sam woke up with nightmares when he was a kid, crawling into Dean’s bed as soon as his brother lifted the covers in invitation.

No man his size should ever have the ability to make himself look that small.

Sam drops his head, staring at his knees and swallowing audibly. “I felt it,” he whispers quietly. “Not just last night. What she was feeling down there... I felt it. The entire time.” He shudders, burying his face in his hands.

Dean squeezes the back of Sam’s neck and the muscles are tense and tight beneath his fingers.

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“I didn’t know how,” Sam snaps, and Dean feels a rush of anger and confusion surge through him. He lets go of Sam slowly, and the feeling fades.

Sam takes a deep breath, attempting to get a reign on his emotions. “I couldn’t put a name to what I was feeling, only that it was wrong...

“I don’t know how you weren’t severed,” Dean confesses quietly. The thought makes Saskia shudder, her bushy tail lashing Dean’s thigh. She lays her head on Sam’s knee, and he reaches down, blindly curling a hand in the fur at the scruff of her neck. Dean inhales sharply, feeling Sam’s quiet desperation like something crawling under his skin, itching to get out.

Saskia growls softly, then noses at Sam’s wrist, licking the skin at the pulse point.

“Witches separate from their daemons all the time, Dean,” Sam says, voice still muffled by his palm.

Dean met a witch once, years ago, when Sam was only just learning how to walk. Her name was Serafina, and Dean remembers thinking she was the most beautiful woman he ever met besides his mother.

Dean asked why she didn’t have a daemon, and Serafina pointed up to the sky. She said Kaisa was up high, keeping watch, and Dean watched with wide eyes as Kaisa circled the area. He didn’t think he could ever be that far from Saskia.

They tested it that afternoon, Saskia becoming a robin and taking to the air, but she barely flew ten feet away before Dean gasped in pain. She dived back down, flickering into a mouse to curl under his collar.

Dean remembers the torture of being away from Saskia in hell, knowing she was there, always just out of reach. Alastair tried to burn her out, tear them apart forever.

“How do you think demons become what they are?” he asked, laughing, and Dean could feel it happening, the unbearable, agonizing pain driving him to forget. It’s the real reason why he finally got off of the rack. Saskia sat at his side with black eyes, silent and still while he tortured soul after soul, destroyed one daemon after another.

He hasn’t told Sam the truth, doesn’t think he ever will. Some actions can never be forgiven.

“But they’re prepared,” Dean says quietly, shaking the images from his head. “They know what they’re getting into.”

Sam lifts his head and narrows his eyes. “And you think I didn’t?”

For Lucifer to take over his body, Sam had to agree, mean it down to his very soul.

Astrid said yes. Then, she disappeared. With every blow, Lucifer taunted Dean with the knowledge that she wasn’t dead. She was there, inside of Sam; she knew everything that Lucifer was doing. She flickered in and out of existence as Sam grabbed the reins back from Lucifer and remained a solid form long enough for Dean to watch them both tumble down into a deep, black nothing.

"What did you do, Dean?" Sam asks quietly, and Dean holds his breath. "What did you do to bring Astrid back?"

It’s the question Dean’s been dreading for days, since Sam first confessed to not remembering any clear details about his time without a soul. He forces himself to remain calm, to find a way to explain that won't send Sam off the deep end.

“What I had to,” Dean says, quiet but firm, and Astrid whimpers in distress.

"That's not-" Sam cuts himself off with a groan and rubs a hand through his hair. He dislodges Saskia from his lap as he stands so he can pace back and forth between the beds.

Astrid glances up calmly, almost overly so as she stretches her back, but when Sam gets a hand clenched tight in her fur, Dean realizes they’re both still shaking.

Sam turns to Dean with his mouth open, but only a hitched breath makes it past his lips. “I need to get some air,” he mutters, heading towards the door. Astrid dashes after him.

- - - -
Despite any of Dean’s attempts at explanation, Sam doesn’t want to talk. He fights through the nightmares on his own, spends most of the days exhausted, and snaps at the slightest provocation.

Astrid grows quiet, disturbingly so. She remains in one place in the motel room, curled up on the bed, a mouse or similarly tiny animal twisted up in the covers. Sam keeps her close, tucked into a pocket or between his crossed legs, or in the crook of his neck as he sleeps.

Sam wakes up almost nightly gasping for breath, while Astrid flinches at shadows in empty, dark corners. Saskia curls around her as tightly as she possibly can, but Astrid stops sleeping, and Sam starts mainlining coffee like his life depends on it.

He doesn’t exactly give Dean the silent treatment, but might as well be. The questions asked of him receive the shortest possible answers, never offering any additional information without prompting from Dean. Sam’s agitation builds slowly, and Dean feels it like a small fire growing under his skin.

Dean feels like he’s constantly walking on eggshells, edgy and anxious, until finally, one night, he breaks.

“I saved your goddamn soul. The least you could do is talk to me.” He grabs his jacket and storms out. Saskia reluctantly untangles herself from Astrid, leaping through the doorway so Dean doesn’t catch her tail.

Dean pulls the Impala out of the lot so fast, the tires squeal across the pavement. He pushes his foot down on the gas, arrow tapping at eighty, ninety. His irritation fades with every extra mile between he and Sam and by the time he pulls into the parking lot of an abandoned store front, all he feels is embarrassment and a heaping amount of regret.

“Feel better now?” Saskia asks dryly and Dean huffs, cutting the engine.

“Shut up,” he mutters; he drops his forehead to the steering wheel. He doesn’t know how long he sits like that, breathing, not really thinking about anything but eventually, Saskia tugs on the sleeve of his jacket.

“Look,” she says softly, and Dean follows her gaze out the window, where a figure stands in shadow, leaning against one of the wooden posts. Dean checks the gun at his hip before slowly opening the door.

He lets out a loud breath of relief when the figure steps forward.

“Stalking is illegal, you know,” he says, shoving the gun back into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. "Never mind creepy."

Castiel doesn't even crack a smile. “I sought out your brother to apologize, as you suggested. We spoke briefly. He asked me to make sure you were all right.”

As Dean steps closer, he sees Castiel's eyes are narrow, staring deeply at something only he can see. Dean feels uneasy. “How did you find me?”

He gestures to Saskia. “Not you. Her.” He raises his eyes to stare at Dean, stuck somewhere between awe and righteous anger.

Dean almost asks what he means, but then his jaw snaps shut; he already knows. Castiel explained once that angels could see the link between a human and their daemon, a shimmering thread of grace between that person and their soul. The connection between Dean and his daemon must run in more than one direction now.

“What you have done is reckless, almost to the point of stupidity.” Castiel's voice is hushed but laden with fury, strong enough that Saskia sits up and takes notice.

Dean glares, taking another step forward. “You were the one who sent us after Death.”

“Had I known you were going to do something so foolish as to bind your soul to your brother’s, I might have continued to search for other options.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do?” Dean bursts out with, all of his pent-up frustration with Sam finally being unleashed. “Let Astrid rot in hell for another couple of centuries? Leave Sam alone for the rest of his life?” Saskia growls at the thought, crouching with her ears pressed against her skull.

“I do not think you understand the consequences of what you have done.”

“Screw the consequences -”

Castiel ignores him, barreling over his protests. “You do not realize how preciously fragile a situation you have created for yourself, and for your brother. Already, I can barely tell where the link between your soul ends and Sam’s begins.”

Dean chuckles darkly. Death said it himself - no one should be able to touch another person’s soul. The two of them were already so far wrapped up in each other, it bordered on hilarity to hear that there was now a literal result of something that had already been occurring for years.

“This is no laughing matter, Dean," Castiel scoffs, and Dean fights the urge to roll his eyes. "If your enemies were to ever discover your predicament, they could easily use it as a weapon against you. Causing pain to one of you now would be inflicting pain on you both. If they were to succeed in killing you...” His voice trails off, as if even he doesn’t dare to voice the idea.

“They would kill us both,” Dean finishes quietly, and he swallows. He leans his forehead against the post, taking a moment to process that, for the full consequences of his brash decision to sink in.

“It was the only way,” Saskia whispers, but the words carry little weight.

“I am glad to see that you have succeeded,” Castiel says quietly. “I only hope you do not come to regret your decision.”

A flutter in the air beside his ear tells him that Castiel is gone, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Of course, he’s never really alone.

Saskia rubs herself against his calves, tugging on his jeans until he crouches down. “We did the right thing,” she says softly, forcing Dean to meet her eye.

He sighs, “I know,” and rubs his fingers through her fur.

- - - -
When Dean opens the door to their room, all of the lights are out with the exception of the lamp beside Dean’s bed. Sam is sprawled out on his own bed, one arm flung over his eyes, the other clutching tight to Astrid. He shudders, Astrid whimpers, and Dean kicks off his boots.

Dean ignores Sam’s feeble protests and lays in bed behind him with an arm over his waist, telling him to shut up and go the fuck to sleep. Sam stiffens, suddenly wide awake, so Dean reaches over to nudge his fingers up under Astrid’s jaw. She purrs, stretching into the touch.

“Dirty pool,” Sam mutters, but he slowly relaxes and drifts off.

Dean wakes to find Sam standing over the bed with a cup of coffee and a small, white bag, which turns out to contain several doughnuts and a bearclaw. Dean recognizes it as the peace offering it's meant to be and stuffs the bearclaw in his mouth, grinning so Sam rolls his eyes.

Sam sits on the edge of the bed with his own cup of coffee in his hands. “Cas was here last night,” he says awkwardly.

“I know. He said you sent him to find me.”

Sam nods and stares down at his cup. Dean allows him a moment of silence to gather his thoughts.

“So, I’ve been kind of a dick,” Sam finally says.

Dean huffs a laugh. “Yeah, but I won’t be winning any awards for brother of the year, either. At least not today.” He waggles his eyebrows, but Sam doesn’t even crack a smile. Dean knows he’s working up to something, sees it in the way he clenches his fingers together, shifting his shoulders and scrunching up his forehead.

“I’m starting to remember,” he admits quietly. “Bits and pieces are starting to come back to me. Lucifer… he wouldn’t let me see Astrid. He kept us apart. Said it was worse, knowing she was hurting and that I couldn't stop it.” Dean reaches out to touch his knee, but aborts the motion, unsure whether or not Sam wants to be touched. “I know you blame Cas for leaving her there, but you shouldn’t. It isn’t his fault.”

“He should have looked for her,” Dean says roughly, and Astrid butts her head against his hand, every inch the tabby cat she's imitating.

“Maybe,” Sam admits, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced. He shakes his head. “I can push the memories away when I’m awake – distract myself. But at night…”

“You lose control,” Dean finishes; he's familiar with the sort of memories that creep up when the world goes dark and quiet, so there's nothing to distract or keep them at bay.

Sam nods miserably. “I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, and Astrid’s memories are stronger, and that only makes it worse. I can’t – I can’t –” Sam clutches at his hair with one hand, blindly grabbing for Astrid. She whimpers, inching closer.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he whispers finally, holding Astrid tightly in his arms.

“You didn’t feel anything. And now, you feel too much,” Astrid says, matter-of-fact, and Sam tosses her a loaded glance, one she returns without batting an eye.

Dean takes a deep breath and tells him everything - about Lyra and Pan, her connection to Castiel, his day with Tessa, Death bringing Astrid back. He shivers with the memory of Death’s hands on Saskia’s back, but forges on, even as Sam inhales sharply, head snapping up when Dean tells him about Death binding their souls together. Sam bites back his protests, allowing Dean to continue before he says a word. He doesn't look at Dean while he speaks, just watches Astrid, absently running his fingers through her fur.

“I didn’t realize it would affecting you this way,” Dean finishes. “I never thought that it would be a bad thing. If I had -”

“Don’t lie, Dean,” Sam says, but he isn't being cruel. Just honest. “You still would have done it, even then. Given the choice, I would have done the same for you.”

Dean huffs a laugh and doesn’t bother to deny it. Death was annoyingly but undeniably correct in his assessment - humans never learn. The two of them will keep sacrificing for each other until the day they die. Together.

Sam eventually raises his head, glancing at Dean out of the corner of his eye. “Dean, do you realize what this means?”

This time, Dean doesn't fight the urge to roll his eyes. “Yes, Castiel outlined it in annoyingly descriptive detail,” he says dryly.

“Dean!” Sam snaps, giving Dean his full attention. His annoyed expression quickly falls, and he reels back in horror that Dean feels sliding up under his skin. “Oh God - you feel it, too, don’t you?” Remembered pain rails through him, despite any attempt to keep it at bay, until all he feels is terror, overwhelming and all consuming. Sam gasps, unable to breathe; Astrid isn't breathing at all.

“Sam!” Dean grabs Sam and Astrid in tandem. He pushes away his own anxiety, forcing himself to radiate nothing but a quiet calm. Then, he squeezes Sam's wrist until he winces.

“You feel that?” He waits until Sam nods, but still doesn't let go. “That’s flesh and blood. That’s real pain. Any time you start freaking out, you tell me. I don’t care where we are or what we’re doing, you stop me and you tell me, Sam. You’re here, with me. You hold onto that. You make this,” he squeezes Sam's wrist even tighter, until he feels bones twist beneath his fingers, “Stone number one. Do you hear me?”

Sam doesn’t respond, so Dean pinches Astrid until she yelps. “Sammy!”

Sam inhales slowly, he and Astrid breathing together - in and out, in and out. “It's Sam,” he gasps, finally able to speak past the panic squeezing his throat.

Dean breathes a shaky laugh, shaking his head. “No way, dude. Not this time.”

“Never thought I'd see the day you encouraged touching,” Sam says, and Saskia huffs, collapsing into his lap.

Dean rubs his thumb along the inside of his wrist. “Stone number one, Sam. We’ll build the rest together.”

- - - -
Sam lets Dean sleep in the next morning. He’s already out of bed, and a note on the bed side table tells Dean he went to pick up breakfast and yes I’m getting you coffee, stop bitching. Dean grins and grabs his clothes, whistling on his way to the bathroom.

By the time he finishes his shower, Sam is sitting at the table next to the window, where a cup of coffee and an aluminum container sit in front of the seat on the other side currently occupied by Saskia. Dean can see an empty container in the trash that says Sam’s already eaten.

Dean gently shoves her out of the seat, ignoring her indignant yelp as he sits down, stretching his arms over his head with a groan. He rubs a hand through his still-wet hair and takes a sip of his coffee.

“What do you say we get out of here?” he asks, but Sam doesn’t answer; he isn’t looking at Dean.

Astrid stands up from her place at Sam’s feet. She cocks her head to the side and shifts and Dean knows this is her shape now, the same way he knew the day that Saskia settled years ago: like a puzzle piece shifts into place in his chest, satisfaction pooling in the pit of his stomach.

She’s a snow leopard, white fur dotted with black, but her eyes are still that same warm, familiar gold. Saskia slinks towards her, brushing against her side almost hesitantly. Dean feels the warmth of the touch down to his toes.

On the road, in the Impala, Saskia and Astrid sprawl out in the backseat. The music blares, and Dean keeps one hand on the wheel while he reaches back to run his other hand through Astrid’s fur.

Astrid rumbles, pleased, pushing her head into Dean’s hand.

“Brat,” Dean mumbles, and when Sam laughs, the sound settles over Dean, warm and bright.

It’s the best sound he’s ever heard.