Pairing: None Applicable
Warnings: Blatant Abuse of Mythology. Not a death story, not a crossover.
Summary: Like everything else, dying well, requires practice.
The characters and situations portrayed here are not mine, they belong to the WB. This is a fan authored work and no profit is being made. Please do not link to this story without appropriate warnings. Please do not archive this story without my permission.
artwork is by Rachelle Green. I'm using it without permission and I have
no idea how to get in touch with her. The artwork was found on an open
Google search and was uncredited on the page I found it, but she signed
Don't Pay the Ferryman
The first time Sam Winchester died probably wasn't the first time, but it was the first time he did so in front of a lot of witnesses which made the entire dying but actually walking away from death an interesting experience, if not a little hard to deny.
It might have made more sense or been more easily explained away if it had happened while he and his brother were fighting demons, or laying the spirits of the dead to rest, or otherwise thwarting the dark and evil things that were so much the focus of their existence.
Instead, it was more accident than design, and it happened over a scarred and ancient pool table that needed its felt replaced, in the back room of a bar, in a somewhat dangerous part of Cincinnati.
Sam wasn't even playing pool, Dean was. And so far, Dean had won enough money to cover their hotel room for a few days, pay for their beers and let them share a basket of chili nachos, and keep the guys Dean was playing against interested enough in continuing to play without Dean winning enough to actually piss them off.
Or so he thought. And Sam for once, was inside instead of outside because it was cold, and sipping at the same beer had been for the past hour, and bringing Dean beers which he rarely drank all of, and offering to buy a beer for guys who looked like they might be getting pissed off.
And so it was that Dean was actually winning more than it looked like he was, and he gave Sam the high sign to let him know he was on his last game and close to his last shot, when a series of unfortunate events involving a waitress with a full tray, the back end of a pool cue, and an overly hostile guy who'd lost fifty dollars to Dean a half hour ago, finally collided in a creating a classic example of “wrong place, wrong time”.
Dean lined up his shot, winked at his brother who rolled his eyes and grinned. The pool stick tapped the waitress who jumped like she'd been goosed, which upset her tray, which sent the beer mugs sliding and falling and while people danced out of her way to keep from getting beer spilled on them, Dean turned to try and steady her and hit the guy in the face with the stick, and the next thing he knows, he's flat on his back on the pool table, seeing stars, and about to get his face punched again.
But Sam's a little quicker than that and in two steps and one jump, he's on the guy, and the bar breaks into a free-for-all brawl, which really, was not what Dean had wanted or intended and certainly not what Sam had ever wanted, but mostly he just hadn't wanted to watch Dean get his nose broken.
He'd certainly never intended to die over a pool game. And as willing as he might be to die for his brother, he really had thought that maybe it would be more meaningful or sacrificial than dying over a fifty dollar bet on a game of nine-ball in a bar in Cincinnati.
The sound of a gunshot pretty much put a dead stop to the brawl, because there's nothing quite like that sharp report that echoes and lingers in an enclosed space, that cuts through the screaming and the music and the breaking of glass, and for one long moment everyone stilled and looked around to figure out where it had come from and what it meant.
And in that still moment, just like in the movies, Sam Winchester stared at the man he'd been fighting with like he wanted to tell him something or ask him something, gripping his shirt tightly for a second before his knees gave out. He dropped to the floor with a red stain spreading over his chest, soaking through his t-shirt and the shirt he had over that and even starting to stain the edges of his wind breaker red and wet. And as the red spread faster and further, his face went white. He didn't even look for his brother, barely remembered he had one because the pain hadn't hit yet and all he realized as his blood drained out of him was that dying wasn't nearly as painful as he'd thought it would be, and wow, he wasn't sure his heart had ever beat like that before -- he thought he had better rhythm.
He missed most of the rest of it. He missed the shock on the face of the man who had shot him, he completely missed Dean's mouth opening and closing like a landed fish. He missed it when the screams that had echoed over the fight turned different and shrill. He totally missed Dean yelling for someone to call an ambulance and moving faster than he ever had to keep Sam from going face down on a floor covered in spilled beer and broken glass.
He didn't miss Dean's face bending over him telling him to hang on, even though he couldn't hear him, but Sam knew that's what he said because Sam would have said the same thing. He didn't feel Dean's hand press to the wound in his chest but he knew it was there and he tried to tell him that really, the blood from the exit wound in his back was flowing a lot faster than from the one in his chest.
He also tried to tell Dean he was sorry and not to worry and that it was okay but by then all he could hear was someone calling his name and he wasn't sure if it was Dean, or Jessica, or even his father, but he kind of felt like he should find out.
He had no memory at all of the three or four people that tried to help, of the bar towels passed down, of the frantic calls made. He didn't remember the paramedics or the police, or the ambulance ride. He didn't look down from afar and see his brother crouched in the corner of the ambulance trying to stay out of the way while the paramedics cut open his shirt and tried to resuscitate him, tried to force oxygen into his lungs that just bubbled out again through the wound in his chest.
He completely missed the tears that Dean couldn't stop from falling or the ghostly paleness of his face while he watched Sam die right in front of him.
He missed the doctors and the frantic nurses, the probing and the intubating and the fall of his blood to an emergency room floor that finally slowed and stopped entirely.
He missed all of it. Neither watched nor saw the doctor come out and tell Dean that they'd done all they could and he was sorry. He missed Dean pulling his shit together and coming into the exam room, waiting while the nurses pulled off equipment and wiped the obvious blood from his face and chest and covered him up to his neck with a sheet so Dean wouldn't have to look at the bloody ruin of Sam's chest.
Missed it all and never saw it, though he'd remember it later at odd moments, like he'd seen it through somebody else's eyes.
What he didn't miss was the feel of Dean's hand in his hair, the whisper of his lips against his forehead telling Sam over and over he was sorry. He didn't much care for the broken sound of Dean's voice, and he really didn't blame Dean at all because he didn't actually think it was Dean's fault and never once in his life had he ever thought that Dean wanted or would do anything that would get Sam killed -- fighting monsters and demons aside, of course.
And he completely didn't miss that fact that Dean screamed like a girl and jumped like a cat when Sam reached up and patted his arm and opened his eyes, because Sam had something he needed to tell Dean right then.
"Dean, you think you could get me another blanket, because I'm freezing," Sam said which was nothing less than the truth, but really, he supposed he could have found something a little less demanding and more majestic to a say since he was of the newly risen dead.
The doctor could not explain it. Nor the nurses, nor the specialists because every time Sam took a breath the blood bubbled in the wound again, and he had to get four pints of blood transfused, and right about the time Dean first screamed for help, the pain hit and most of Sam was just as glad he didn't remember. And even long after they'd finally gotten him stable and drugged and were wheeling him to surgery, he kept hearing someone calling him but by then with the clarity of pain and the fog of drugs that made him not really care about the pain, he knew it wasn't Dean, or Jessica, or even his father.
And still, it took the week or so he stayed in the hospital to convince Dean he wasn't a zombie, or a ghost, because, "Dude, other people can see me, you know? And I don't have any interest at all in eating anyone's brains but what I could go for is pizza with extra pepperoni. Or sushi."
"You want raw fish?" Dean asked suspiciously.
"What I want is something other than oatmeal and mystery meat," Sam said, leaning back on his bed about five days in and feeling like hell because his chest and back still hurt and he'd become quite the local celebrity, among the doctors anyway.
Dean had gotten back a lot of his confidence, but sometimes he still looked at Sam like maybe he was dreaming all of this. "I'll buy you pizza."
Sam had grinned. "Best. Brother. Ever."
Two days later, Sam was out and since a firearm was involved, other than making a statement, he didn't have to press charges which meant they could get the hell out of Cincinnati.
And Dean was a little more careful, a little less abrasive at least in the short term, and still a little freaked out anytime he caught Sam without his shirt on because the scarring would be impressive once it stopped looking like a half-healed wound, and Dean took care of changing the dressing but it always made his brow furrow.
"I thought chicks dug scars," Sam said one night when the look on Dean's face just made him want to cover himself up because it wasn't Dean's fault.
"Do I look like a chick?"
Eventually though, Dean stopped looking like that or got better at hiding it and they went back to work and back to the job and neither of them talked about the fact that Dean had called their father twice: once to tell him Sam was dead and then once to tell him, uh… no, he wasn't. And John Winchester never called him back either time.
Without discussing it, they pretty
much stopped looking for him.
The first time Dean Winchester died probably wasn't the first time either, but it was the first time he could remember dying; of actually feeling it and tasting it and fighting it and yet still knowing he was going to lose, and he felt bad for Sam because he knew what it felt like to watch your brother die and not be able to stop it. And while half of him, by that time, thought maybe Sam dying and coming back from the dead had been a medical fluke, he was pretty sure he wouldn't get the same kind of miracle because they were out in the fucking middle of nowhere, and while Sam had utterly and totally killed the son-of-a-bitch bridge troll or boggle or whatever it was, he hadn't done it before the nasty thing had sliced open Dean's throat and Sam had no way to stop the bleeding from a severed jugular, although he tried.
And it happened so fast, Dean only had time to regret all the things he'd never said to his brother and a glimpse of Sam's face where he looked about twelve again before it went dark and he heard someone calling his name. It might have been Sam, or his father, or even his mother, and he couldn't tell but thought he should find out.
So he missed Sam screaming denial at the top of his lungs out in the middle of nowhere with his voice echoing off the bridge and the water and the trees. And he totally missed Sam picking up his gun and actually contemplating just eating the barrel of it for about two seconds before he shoved it into his backpack along with everything else and wiped at his face, smearing tears and blood and dirt over his skin. Missed the way Sam picked him up, carefully, and got him over his shoulder, being as gentle as he could even though Dean was dead and pretty much past feeling any kind of pain or discomfort. And he missed, but would totally have been appreciative, that Sam had spread a blanket over the back seat of the car so that Dean's blood would not stain the upholstery because Dean hated when the upholstery got stained.
And he missed the fact that Sam almost got himself killed while driving Dean to the nearest hospital, he was crying so hard he could barely see, until he pulled his shit together by telling himself that if he wrecked Dean's car, Dean would come back and haunt him forever. Which almost made Sam deliberately drive into a tree just for the possibility of it.
He missed Sam finally calming down and grabbing onto the fact that the nearest town with either a medical facility or even a police station was a good thirty miles away, So that by the time Sam got there, Dean's body was cool and limp and the car was ripe with the smell of death and blood and all the other fulsome odors that accompanied death.
Which really, Dean was just as glad he had missed because, dude…gross.
Missed it all and never saw it, though he'd remember it later at odd moments, like he'd seen it through somebody else's eyes.
What he didn't miss was the fact that the nurse who prepped him for the doctor to examine and pronounce him DOA was kind of pretty but a little old for him or that her eyes were really an amazing shade of blue, or that she had three silver fillings because he could totally see them when she opened her mouth to scream when he opened his eyes and told her in a raspy, whispery voice not to cut his shirt because it was his favorite.
It was kind of gratifying and alarming too, at the sudden furor and activity in the small rural hospital, and he didn't miss Sam's face when he stared at him, his back pressed to the wall and his mouth open and the tears on his face while he looked like he couldn't decide if he wanted to scream in horror or burst out laughing. And Dean met his eyes and tried to grin but it made his throat hurt. But still, he looked at Sam and mouthed "Not a zombie, " at him and then lost sight of him as the medical staff went to work and damn if they didn't cut his favorite shirt off anyway, but he couldn't tell them to stop because even though he was breathing, he could hear air whistling out through his throat, and every breath tasted like blood and the pain was like nothing he'd ever felt before, but then someone was calling his name and it wasn't Sam, or his father, or even his mother.
And four days later when Sam checked him out, Dean bitched about the stitches they'd used, afraid he'd look like Frankenstein's monster when they healed, and Sam told him over and over not to talk so much because it pulled at the half healed wound in his throat. Dean thought it mostly was because his voice wasn't quite as strong as it had been, although the day before he left he hospital the doctor told him that there really hadn't been any damage done to his larynx, that it was the swelling that was making his voice sound like he had emphysema, and eventually that would go away. But it bugged Sam and so Dean went back to playing one-upmanship with his brother because he'd needed, five, count them five pints of blood when Sam had only needed four, to which Sam pointed out that he'd gotten ten stitches in his chest and and twenty-seven in his back and Dean only had fifteen, total, so there.
And Sam never said that he'd tried to call their father again and gotten nothing, but Dean knew it was true the minute he'd borrowed Sam's phone and realized Sam had erased their father's number from memory. He thought about doing it too, but he was mostly too angry about it to let go that easily.
The next time a set of coordinates
appeared on Dean's phone, he ignored them but saved the text message and
didn't tell Sam.
They managed not to talk about it, or to not talk about it by talking around it, following their own leads, and some of that was still aimed at trying to find out whatever it was that had killed their mother and Jessica, and while they still used their father's journal for reference it stopped being "Dad's Journal" and just became "The Journal" and at some point Sam pulled out the pages of their father's account of the days and weeks immediately following their mother's death and tucked them into the back, folded up, and put new pages in where they'd been. Sam was pissed off but he wasn't stupid.
Dean didn't even comment on it because he was pissed off too and not sure what to do about it because part of him wanted to do as Sam was doing and just pretend John Winchester didn't exist at all, and part of him wanted to find his father and kick his ass and beat his face in for apparently not caring that both his sons had died and, at the very least a get well card, even via internet, would have been a nice gesture.
The second time Sam died (that he was completely aware of while it was happening) was possibly a little more heroic but no less painful and it really didn't occur to him that he'd get that lucky twice. It didn't occur to Dean either, which made it all the more surprising when it happened.
They'd followed a story to the little town of Silence, Idaho, which was really, hardly big enough to call a town. It had no post office, it had one gas station, one general supply store, two bars (only one of which served food), and a processing plant eight miles away, where most of the people worked. There was Margaret's Collectibles and Fine Antiques, although as near as Dean could tell, Margaret was the only real antique in the place.
But over the last several months, half dozen people had gone missing along the river side of Silence, along the stretch of road between the train tracks and the water. Abandoned cars only turned up the usual flat tires or blown radiators or empty gas tanks, which explained why the drivers had abandoned them. No one traveled the road much except the people in Silence and two people that no one knew why they were out there. The cars always broke down not far from the old mill and grain silo that hadn't been used in the better part of forty years and there honestly wasn't much out there that could explain it.
Especially not when bones always showed up a week or so later, down by the river, just laying there, stripped of flesh and muscle but not bleached or even gnawed on, like something had just kind of evaporated the soft bits and left the hard.
The police had no idea, the FBI had given up, and the DOT had just put up a sign on that stretch of road between the railroad trestle over the river and the road bridge that said “Absolutely No Stopping.”
But of course someone had and the story made the Weirdly Wired News and Sam caught it.
A few days investigation turned up pretty much nothing. Dean's little EMF gizmo didn't pick up anything and neither did Sam's occasionally useful sixth sense. In fact, the only thing that had changed that anyone in Silence could recall was that the DOT and the Civil Engineers had come in the year before and cut a diversion channel for the river because the banks were narrowing and the road kept getting washed out where they'd built the bridge and so they'd cut a second channel closer in to the rail road tracks (which were really a spur line and thus not often used) just so they wouldn't have to rebuild the bridge. The net difference was that the channel cut across what had been a pretty open run along the river, in a straight line from Silence to the silo and the burial mound, which effectively made kind of a large island of sorts out of the grasses and wood and rocks there.
No one could remember such a thing happening before and even when Sam drove all the way into Montpelier to check the library there, he couldn't find anything about strange deaths that only left bones. All he could find was a reference to the tribes that lived in the area, but there hadn't been many and there were no references to massacres or illnesses or anything that would explain why the spirits of anything that might be out there would suddenly be unhappy.
But he did, on checking, find some kind of related instances of bones being found, although not quite so soon after someone had gone missing, all along the northern line and into Wyoming, but the reports were several years old and while similar, they weren't necessarily connected.
People only went missing during the new moon, which gave them a window to investigate. The folks still in Silence had already collectively decided than any fool who drove in or out of Silence on the New Moon, deserved whatever the hell happened to them. They were a sturdy, practical lot and despite the missing and the bones, no one was seriously contemplating leaving. Silence, they said was golden, and Dean had rolled his eyes at that, but the folks there liked it and while none of them were rich, they all seemed to be pretty healthy and happy and friendly. Which was weird in and of itself , Dean thought because every town had somebody nobody liked. Sam only warned him not to become that person, thanks.
The only other thing of interest was the small but already preserved Indian mound found some five miles out of town and yes, close to the old silage. Marked and flagged for historical purposes but no one had disturbed it that they could tell. The locals seemed pretty amused that the university people thought it was mound at all.
Which had given them an in, at least. The townsfolk giving in to a little indulgent fostering of two grad students just for the sheer amusement of it. But the nearest hotel was twenty miles away.
"I guess we're camping," Sam said with about as much as enthusiasm as Dean felt. Their last camping trip had turned out so well.
"Did you see any campgrounds?" Dean asked. "Do you see a YMCA here? Even a public restroom? Or even help wanted sign?"
"You know," Alice, their favorite waitress by virtue of the fact she was the only waitress at Casey's Tavern, said as she stopped by to top off their coffee cups. "Deke Hawkins died back in July. House is empty."
"Alice, are you inviting us to squat?" Dean had asked, pouring on the charm.
She shrugged and grinned at him. She was old enough to be his mother. "Been standing empty for months. Power may be out, but it's on well water. He's got no family. Ain't much more than a roof over your heads for a few days."
"You wouldn't happen to have the key?" Sam asked.
Alice had laughed at him, looked like she wanted to pinch his cheeks. "I don't even know where the keys to my own house are. Nobody locks doors around here unless they're getting some on the sly, you know?"
Alice looked like she might not mind getting a little on the sly with Dean and Sam only schooled his features into total innocence while storing up ammunition to rag on Dean with for months as Dean tried to extricate himself from the trap of his own flirting without Alice pouring hot coffee in his lap. Sam was actually pretty impressed that he managed it.
Dean wasn't sure you could actually call Deke Hawkins's house a house. More like two rooms and closet that doubled for a bathroom. But it was intact. The power was out, the water was cold but what furniture there was, while dusty and musty, was still better than the ground.
So they made themselves at home as much as they could, and the night before the new moon, Dean drove them out to the silo to check it out, hoping the extra night would be enough of a gap in pattern to keep them safe from whatever was out there. “Silence is golden…” he said as they left the city limits and the little sign that had to be someone's idea of a joke. “Silence is boring as hell,” he asserted and Sam only grinned at him.
“I don't know. It's kind of nice – well except for people turning up missing and their bones all polished,” he added.
Dean pulled into the overgrown gravel lot just as the sun was setting and they did a pretty thorough job of loading up Sam's backpack and Dean's duffle with anything they might possible need.
Staring up at the shadowy, half collapsed structure Dean only shook his head. “You know there isn't anything creepier than abandoned buildings at night,” he said.
“It was pretty creepy during the day,” Sam reminded him because they'd already checked it once, in the daylight, but had found nothing except rotting wood, standing water, cobwebs, rusting equipment and the lingering smells of bird shit and rat droppings.
From as high up in the actual silage as they dared go, and through the rusted out corrugated metal, they could see the small burial mound less than a thousand yards away. It was no more than a smooth rise in the earth, slightly depressed in the center, but there was nothing there to indicate it had been disturbed since the first bones were laid to rest.
"I do agree that anyone who wanders in here pretty much deserves what they get," Dean said, moving carefully through the obviously rotting door frames…water and mold were everywhere, the cap of the silo was half caved in and the whole place looked like a strong wind would knock it down.
"You might want to keep that to yourself," Sam said, panning the camera over the interior and up, methodically -- gridding out the structure as best he could. "Seeing as we're in here."
Dean's EMF hadn't even peeped.
After an hour they'd only barely covered the ground floor and found several places that were about as dangerous as whatever was hunting down stranded travelers on the highway, but the threat was more the rotting floor and the near thirty foot drop into the subbasement below that held the machinery that ran the grain elevators and the aging hulks of combines and threshers, all of it rusting and buried in about three feet of standing and pretty foul smelling water.
“Flip you for it,” Sam offered while Dean looked up at the narrow and none too stable catwalk leading to the top of the silage. Sam deliberately did not look down, he'd take heights over dark, standing water, any day.
Dean on the other hand, was about as fond of heights as he was of flying. “Nah,” he said. “I’ll go down. Boots in the car,” he said and Sam started up while Dean got the thigh high waders on and then came back to start his descent. He saluted Sam once with his flashlight and they kept up a steady stream of chatter as much as to keep each other company as to kind of keep verbally keep track of each other.
The water was pretty uniformly deep and Dean could only wonder if the flooding in the basement was because of the diversion of some of the river water, flooding the area. Maybe it had chased something out, or floated out the bones of some kind of cannibal shaman or who knew what. Unfortunately, his flashlight didn't even cut through the dark water, and he didn't actually see anything that looked out of place. The sub basement was really more like two large rooms. The larger of the two held the massive engines that had run the conveyers from the loading bins to the silo itself, and the second smaller room, actually held truly ancient tractor attachments, combines and harvesters that were rusted and showed torn remnants metal bars that looked like someone had chewed on them -- teeth above water. He could see the ramp and the rise of stone leading to the doors and then to outside on the far side of the room, but it would be like wading through a minefield to try to get through the graveyard of drowned farm implements. He didn't even try to go in; wouldn't, not without better light.
"Sam? Anything?" he waded back out, heading for the stairs.
"Nothing that's screaming 'mysterious killer who spits out bones'," Sam called back and all Dean could see when he looked up through the broken places in the floor was Sam's flashlight, and even standing on firm -- if water covered -- ground it made him dizzy and his stomach rolled at how far up Sam was. And nervous. Very nervous.
"Just be careful, okay?" Dean called and the light flashed down so he had to shield his eyes. Sam flicked it off his face.
"Anything down there?"
"Water and muck," Dean said wading through. "I'll meet you at the car--"
"Dean!" Sam's yelled warning jerked his attention up just as he felt something brush by his leg; something solid and moving.
"What the fuck…."
"Move!" Sam yelled, and Dean could hear him, running down the metal steps that Dean wasn't entirely sure would hold up to the pounding Sam was giving them, but even as he thought it he was moving too, as fast as he could, through the thigh deep water.
Something thick and long and pale slithered by right in front of him, cutting him off from the stairs and he tried to get a better glimpse of it.
"Don't move!" Sam said above him and Dean had no idea how his brother had gotten to the first floor so fast but there he was, standing at the edge of a jagged gap in the floor, with one of the shotguns. Dean didn't move at all when Sam fired into the water just to the left of him, even though having Sam point a shotgun even vaguely in his directions was not something Dean had ever wanted to see again.
But Sam wasn't aiming for him, and he was still a good shot, apparently, because something slapped the water and there was a screeching, sucking sound like a vacuum cleaner on steroids and Sam fired again just as Dean turned around.
He didn't even know what it was and even trying to describe it was nearly impossible except that it was pale and white and vaguely snakish and he could see no eyes but damn, the thing had row on row on row of tiny, tiny teeth in its gaping maw, kind of like a hollow cheese grater -- perfect for you know, swallowing someone whole and scraping off their skin and spitting out whole bone.
"Climb!" Sam yelled at him and fired again, using the second loaded gun and Dean didn't need to be told twice, but it was hard because the thing still blocked him from the stairs which only left the massive machinery and it wasn't exactly meant to be climbed on, plus it was slick with mold.
But he really had no intention of being sucked down by the massive cheese-grater mouth of a worm. Especially after the thing showed a nasty ability to be able to leap out of its murky wallow and actually grab onto Dean's leg. He could feel those teeth pressing on his calf but the rubber of his boots gave him maybe a couple of extra seconds of protection while Sam almost sent himself crashing through the broken floor trying to get a better angle, and on finding it, fired again.
The thing screeched and thrashed and jerked, and Dean almost fell but he kicked and the boot slid off his leg and fell along with the big-ass worm and then he was climbing again.
"Here!" Sam said, when Dean had climbed as high as he could, and the worm was still thrashing about in the water below, hurling its body against the machine Dean was climbing and the walls, enough weight to make already rotting wood start falling and make things shake that probably shouldn't be shaking. Sam had passed him what looked like some kind of heavy canvas belting to grab onto, and Dean would have preferred a rope for a cable but, hey, you went with what you had.
But even as Dean climbed he could smell the age and the rot on the belt and sections of it flaked off and it started to tear. Sam saw it too from where he was anchoring the other end of the belt by wrapping it around his waist and setting his feet against the silage bracing on the other side.
It wasn't going to hold, Dean realized it as soon as Sam did, both of them staring at where the canvas strapping was starting to tear just below the cross bar Sam was using as a pulley.
Below Dean the worm was still leaping and snapping and thoroughly enraged and Dean was pretty clear that even if he survived the fall, that thing would get him.
Sam only pulled harder and braced himself but there wasn't much he could do, because he was out of floor, only a gap behind him where it had rotted away and as strong as he was, and as much as he strained to pull Dean up even while Dean climbed, the gap was too big and Sam didn't have enough leverage to make up the difference before the strap gave.
The only leverage Sam had was himself and as the strap tore more, Dean saw it in Sam's eyes and he had just started screaming at Sam to not do it when Sam stepped backward, into the empty space, using his body as the counter weight, which might have even worked had the strap been stronger or fall not quite so high.
As it was, Dean almost lost his grip before he could actually reach out and make a second hand hold and about the time he got a hand on the bar, he heard Sam hit the sub basement with a splash and a clang of metal.
"Saaaaaaaam!" Dean only barely heard himself, scrambling across the flooring to stare downward to where Sam had fallen into the second room. Sam's flashlight was there, and from this angle Dean could only barely see the tips of the jagged spikes of metal, and he could hope and pray, but there was no way Sam could have missed hitting any of them.
And under the dim and inconstant light, Dean was made horribly aware that Sam had actually hit quite a lot of them.
The worm squealed again, a whole different sound, smelling blood, and Dean didn't even know what he could do since the shotguns loaded with rock salt had only pissed the thing off but he'd be damned if that thing was going to gnaw on his brother and spit out his bones, even if Sam was already dead.
Although currently, the worm seemed as frustrated and thwarted by the metal spiky bits as Dean had been, swimming back and forth in front of the of the doors and trying to find a way in that wouldn't cause it to shred itself on the jagged bits of metal.
There were stairs on the far side, though, and Dean ran, grabbing up his bag and stopping only briefly to reach for the plastic container of holy water and dumped the whole thing through another gap in the floor.
The creature's flesh sizzled and smoked but it only enraged it further. It still couldn't get into the room, although it snapped and shrieked as Dean hit the bottom of the stairs and waded into the water, being as careful as he dared so he wouldn't shred himself on the metal.
He could see Sam, though, and part of him was still praying that Sam was still alive despite the bits of metal Dean could see poking though his thigh and his stomach. The dark water was almost mirror black and Sam just looked like he was laying there, not moving, like he was floating.
Dean fired two silver rounds from his Glock into the monster and it shrieked again. When he ran out of silver he used regular bullets and wished he'd done that first because those, those seemed to actually hurt it. It flipped him off with a snap of its tail and dove under the water and then it was gone.
Then it was quiet, except for the ever decreasing lap of water against stone and metal and Dean's own hard breathing as he finally got close enough to Sam to touch him. "Sam…" He didn't expect his brother to answer and Sam didn't and all Dean could do was pray it had been fast, that Sam hadn't felt a thing, but almost before he finished his prayer he was cursing and swearing and double checking for a pulse, for breathing, for anything, even though his own screaming was making impossible to hear anything.
It took him too long to get Sam free, to pull him up and off the spikes that had cut through his body like knives in a perfect line: thigh and belly and shoulder. Sam was dead weight and limp and for the longest time, even after Dean had pulled his body free and gotten them both out of the rows and maze of killing metal, Dean only sat on the stairs with Sam's long body stretched across his lap and cursed Sam as well.
It took him the better part of an hour to get Sam out and to the car and between Sam's jeans and the dark shirt he wore, it was difficult to even see where he'd been hurt. The water, foul as it was, had washed most of the blood way and by the time Dean got Sam into the back seat of the car, his hair had started to dry. He looked like he was sleeping. No final moments of pain marked his face, his eyes were closed, lips parted slightly.
The closest hospital was in Montpelier, and even the ambulance service was rural and volunteer. Dean had the urge to get in the car and just drive, leave the damn monster to do what it wanted. To just toss their shit in the car and drive until he couldn't pretend Sam was only sleeping and might wake up any moment. He couldn't cry this time; it wasn't in him, just a huge gaping hole that felt like it would never be filled again.
He'd always known he'd die for Sam, had always been willing to do it. Sam felt the same way, had come so close, so many times, but Dean always thought that really, it was his job to die for his brother. His destiny, and he'd been totally okay with that. Not looking for it, not wanting to hurry it along, but it made sense that of all the people he had saved over the years, they really were just practice for saving Sam. Or maybe saving Sam had been practice for saving them, because he had and he would, and wasn't that the whole fucking point? His father hadn't been able to save his mother and Sam hadn't been able to save his Jessica, but damn if Dean hadn't thought he had the knack for it by now, for saving the person most important to him. No matter how many times he had to do it.
And wasn't it just like Sam to go all contrary and stubborn and just fuck the entire plan up by deciding that this time it was his turn? He just wasn't as good as Dean was at getting them out of situations like this. He should have trusted Dean to find a way out for both of them.
Only Dean wasn't sure he actually would have, even if he'd had a few more seconds to think about it. Sam wasn't supposed to die. Not like this. Not when he'd beat it before. Not when he'd died and come back…
It hit him then, maybe like shock, or maybe like hope, that the wounds he could see were no worse than Sam being shot in the chest at point blank range. And he'd died almost instantly as far as Dean knew which maybe meant he hadn't actually lost that much blood.
But he didn't know what it was that triggered it or how long he could wait to see if it would happen again. It had taken Sam nearly an hour to get Dean to the hospital before his own resurrection, and Dean was perfectly fine now, thanks, except for an occasional tickle in his throat when he was tired.
Should he wait or should he drive? And he crouched near the open door and touched Sam's face and his throat, wondering if he'd know or what coming back from the dead looked like if he actually saw the moment. And it seemed almost too much to even do this again, faced with it twice, that losing Sam was harder than he thought it could be and he'd always known it would be hard -- harder than losing his mother, harder than losing himself which was exactly what this felt like.
Get in your car and drive.
Dean jerked his head up, not sure if he'd heard it or it was just his subconscious giving him something to do rather than sit here and feel like half of himself was bleeding out onto the ground.
"Dean, take your brother to the hospital. Do it now."
He knew the voice, and he knew the tone and he knew the face when he finally whirled around and saw his father. "Dad…" and for a second he didn't even question the fact that his father was standing there, in the middle of an overgrown parking lot, on the back side of Silence, Idaho, where he couldn't be and shouldn't be.
But it was his father, looking solid and real and Dean took a half step toward him.
"Do it now."
Before he could even set his foot down on the gravel, his father was gone, like he'd never been, and maybe he hadn't been, but Dean closed the door, and got in the car and peeled out of there like the hounds of hell were on his heels.
He was lucky he didn't get stopped or wreck, because he pushed the Impala hard and every now and then glanced in his rearview like Sam might suddenly sit up and tell him he was cold or he hurt or something but Sam remained limply still on the bench seat, body twisted a little because he was really too tall to stretch out comfortably. Although usually he curled to his side when he slept there and still his knees would press the back of the front seat.
The emergency room personnel were gratifyingly quick and reactive and Dean didn't mind getting shoved aside only to wonder later, if him being next to Sam or close had anything to do with him coming back to life, so when they started working less frantically, after they'd cut off Sam's shirt and his jeans (and, Jesus, they were going to have to buy new clothes soon the way they were going through them) he slipped inside the room, but out of the way.
It surprised him, even though he'd been hoping for it, that just as the doctor stopped trying to resuscitate Sam (and, man, Sam was going to be sore between the pounding on his chest and the electric shocks) that Sam took a deep breath that ending in a drawn out "Fuck, that hurts!" and then started to shake and gasp in pain.
And even though Dean hated Sam being in pain almost as much as he hated Sam dying on him, he couldn't help but grin and really, seriously, contemplated grabbing one of the prettier nurses by the waist and taking her for a spin around the ER floor. Except she was trying to get an IV into Sam and while Dean as kind of half-sure Sam would survive without it, he stayed back and lost some of his grin as the wounds all along Sam's side started bleeding again.
He caught Sam's eye only briefly and got the same, tense-mouthed message from his brother as he'd passed. "Not a zombie," Sam mouthed.
Dean slipped out of the exam room and went to see if he could find coffee since he was pretty sure the hospital wasn't going to have anything even vaguely resembling grain alcohol.
It was a couple of hours before he could actually get in to see Sam because alive or not, Sam was still seriously fucked up and there were doctors and then even the police to talk to, which was unnerving, but Dean stuck to the simplest story and closest to the truth; that he and Sam had been climbing around in the abandoned silage in Silence trying to get a little night photography done and Sam had fallen.
When he did get in, Sam was pretty doped up, and on a couple of IV's which suited Dean just fine since he was about as close to completely losing it as he could ever remember being now that everything had sort of slowed down and he'd had time to think about it.
Since Sam wasn't technically dead any longer, the doctor hadn't been able to tell Dean what had killed him, only that the internal damage could have been pretty catastrophic and Sam was obviously a lucky, lucky young man. He'd limp for awhile, his arm was going to be in a sling and the wound in his side was going to make breathing painful for a bit yet. But barring complications like infection or a lung collapsing, Sam would be out in a few days. Dean was pretty sure the doctor was being overly optimistic because they had no insurance but he could deal.
Sam actually roused long enough to actually look Dean in the eye, and Dean had a half-hearted lecture all ready to go, about how Sam was not allowed to be stupid like that again, ever. Only first he had to help Sam take a sip of water and reassure himself that there really was warmth in his skin again and while he was completely distracted doing that, Sam managed to get the whole conversation derailed.
"I saw Dad," he said gripping Dean's hand, like it would keep him conscious long enough to make sure Dean knew.
"I saw him too," Dean told him, surprised, but not. "He told me to bring you here."
Sam frowned. "I saw him here. In the ER…"
Dean hadn't seen his father here and he dropped his gaze, seeing that he and Sam both had scrapes along the knuckles of their hands, probably from the chamber of death at the silage.
"I think he's a ghost," Sam said and Dean didn't argue with him, because he'd about come to the same conclusion, since as far as he knew, astral projection wasn't really something that ran in the family. "He talked to you?"
Dean nodded. "You were dead, Sam. Like before. He told me to bring you here."
Sam didn't say anything, only closed his eyes, but Dean didn't miss the fact that Sam's lashes were darker than usual and wet. Dean squeezed Sam's hand and was gratified by how strong the grip he got in return was. "Did he say anything to you?"
Sam swallowed and jerked his chin down but didn't speak.
"He said…I've been…nothing but a pain in the ass since I was born…" Sam said. "And that he should have let them have me…"
Dean wasn't sure Sam had heard that right, wasn't sure his father could or would ever say such a thing, not to Sam. "Sam, he didn't mean that…" Dean started to say and even as he said it he couldn't make sense of it. For his father to come to him and tell him to move his ass and then to come to Sam and lay that on him when he was fighting for his life and in pain…
He didn't even know what to think, but he smiled at Sam and told him, "Well, sometimes you are a pain in the ass, but they're never going to get you, Sam. Not while I'm breathing. Maybe not even afterward."
Sam took that as the literal truth it was and Dean never told him how stupid he'd been to step through the hole in the floor and never would. Which he really wanted to tell him, almost as much as he wanted Sam to know and believe that Dean would always, always be there for him, save him -- only that wasn't exactly true, now was it?
This was now twice that Sam had died on him, and both times it had been Sam stepping in front of or in place of whatever fate awaited Dean and Dean was not comfortable with that at all. And it wasn't because he didn't think Sam could pull his weight or do the job but the feeling that maybe they were pushing their luck a lot lately was there and Dean didn't know where it was coming from or what it meant. And then for their father to show up, ghost or not, and undermine Sam's already admittedly shaky confidence in himself and stir up old guilty doubts about being a magnet for this shit…
Well, maybe it was true and maybe it wasn't but since they didn't know, letting Sam dwell on it only made things worse, a lot worse. It made him damn near reckless, if not suicidal, at times. And that didn't play well for Dean or in Peoria.
Once Sam had fallen back asleep, Dean pulled his weary body up out of the hard chair and headed back toward Silence to get their gear and clothes for Sam. He thought he might have a few choice words for his father the next time he saw him.
If he ever saw him again, because it hadn't quite sunk in that his father was dead, or could be, but he couldn't think of what else could explain any of it.
But he was pissed off and dead or not, John Winchester was going to get an earful from his eldest son at the first opportunity.
Even if Dean had to kill himself
to get his say.
It was amazing, really, Sam thought, exactly how many coherent thoughts it was possible to cram in a fall that took maybe three seconds to complete. He really hadn't intended to die. He was far more concerned about watching Dean die again, which may have been selfish, but really? The last round of the brother-dying-in-front-of-you game had been his to lose and he wasn't quite so willing to go two for two.
And even then, he'd pretty much intended only to drop and hang on, except even as he stepped into nothing, he realized his weight on the rotting canvas was likely to snap it and then they'd both fall. He'd let go the moment he'd been able to clearly see Dean's face and his hands on the bar.
Plus, it was possible that he wouldn't die. He'd seen the metal and had been ready to consciously try and miss what he could see – he hadn't realized the jagged metal bits were pretty much everywhere until as he got closer and in that fraction of second, thought, oh, wow, this one's gonna hurt like hell.
And it had, at first; almost too suddenly to really register. He might have even opened his mouth to scream but then he'd felt nothing. His last conscious thought was that he'd managed to sever his spine which would suck massively but also explained the lack of feeling anywhere. Then it had all gone black and even Dean screaming his name didn't follow him.
Unlike the first time, he wouldn't later remember bits and pieces of any of it. The next thing he felt was just a continuation of the last thing he'd felt: pain. A burning and tearing feeling, like someone was trying to pry his ribs apart.
Someone slipped something into his IV then and he'd have kissed them if he could have. The excruciating pain dulled down to merely unbearable and he'd actually managed to take in the fact that he was no longer in the silage but in a hospital with a lot of worried faces and Dean's wasn't among them.
But Dean's had to be because if Sam was going through this to keep Dean from going through worse, his brother had damn well better have survived.
And then he saw him, just inside of the door, almost out of Sam's line of sight because of people and equipment and Dean looked fine if a little pale and a lot worried but he was upright and standing and Sam tried desperately to find a way to let Dean know he was okay, which he wasn't, but he was more okay than dead.
I’m still not a zombie, was good enough and right about then the pain and the morphine both hit him full on and Sam stopped worrying about Dean for a little bit and worried more or less about himself, since at that point, being dead was starting to look pretty good.
Sam had a serious love/hate relationship with morphine. On the one hand, there was nothing quite like it to make pain, while no less painful, kind of like a whole separate part of him. He could reach over and tap it like he could an arm or a leg and know it was his, but it was very much like tapping a limb that had gone to sleep. You could see it and feel it and you knew the pain was right there, but it didn't actually demand your attention.
But morphine also tended to make Sam see and hear things not unlike he did when he was dreaming (and sometimes when he was awake.) Images and impressions were all kind of fuzzy around the edges. So he wasn't entirely surprised when he looked over to where Dean had been standing and saw his father there instead, looking a little older and grayer than Sam remembered, but it had been almost five years.
For a second Sam just wanted to cry and apologize and explain or rationalize – all the things he hadn't said to his father; all the things he'd wanted to say, that over the months since he'd left Stanford with Dean, he'd come to believe he'd never get to say. That his father had shown up, after all, meant that Sam didn't have to grieve for anything, or add his father to the list of people he was already grieving for, and yeah, he'd probably get to the pissed off part later, but for now, how his father had known and why he'd come…Sam had never been so glad to see anyone in his life.
He didn't think his dad would actually be reassured by the same assertion that he wasn't a zombie that Dean had been, but even as he struggled to find something to say, between the pain and the seriously good drugs, his father moved and came closer, like the people and machines weren't even there. Literally. He walked right through them and they didn't seem to notice. Which couldn't be right but Sam had a hard time remembering why it wasn't right.
Sam thought it was because of the drugs, until his father was right there, wearing a dark sweater, his beard shot through with gray, the lines deep around his mouth and eyes. He had his arms crossed over his chest. He didn't look happy to see Sam at all.
"You have been nothing but a pain in the ass since the minute you were born. I should have let them have you," his father said, just like that and Sam had only stared and then blinked, feeling tears burn his eyes that had nothing to do with the pain his body was trying so hard to ignore.
"Dad, I'm sorry--" he'd opened his eyes in that flash of an instant and his father was gone and Sam sucked in a sharp breath and looked for him, frantically, until the nurse had to push him down and tell him firmly to try and relax.
Sam didn't think he'd passed out, because the nurse who was pressing him down had been leaning over him just as his father spoke and she was still here but his father wasn't.
Maybe he'd imagined it, or dreamed it -- because morphine really did just fuck him up completely. "Where's my brother?" he'd asked and gotten no answer even when he asked again, for Dean. He needed to tell him -- to let him know that Dad was here…and then they'd given him something else, placed an oxygen mask over his face and he slipped back into darkness all over again.
This time was harder than the last.
He knew he had dreams, half remembered impressions of the doctors doing something more to him -- stitches, he thought, or maybe staples because he kept hearing something like a low-caliber gun going off, which slid into the target practice his father had begun insisting on as soon as Sam was old enough to hold a gun, that then slid into the sound of a shotgun exploding, sending rock salt into Dean's chest with enough force to knock him backward and the click…click-click-click of cycling an empty chamber.
Then there was a click-whir and a hiss of air and Sam opened his eyes to dim light and less pain and a shadow by his bedside, with Dean gripping the railing and looking still tired and a little angry and he still smelled of swamp water and sweat. Sam didn't see his father but his words burned in his mind and he cleared his throat just as Dean started talking.
Dean stopped and found the cup and a straw and Sam sipped, tasting bile in the back of his throat and reached up to grip Dean's hand. He needed to know. Did he know?
His brother's reassurances were kind of like morphine. The guilt and the grief were still Sam's to own; he could still touch them and look at them and know they were his but he couldn't really feel them.
Somewhere in the darkness of the night and the drugs, he could feel them watching him from the corner of the room, all shadows and vague threats and even vaguer promises. Not done with you yet, boy. Not nearly done. Get some sleep. When the light came back the shadows were gone and Sam swapped guilt for pain when the nurses and a physical therapist got him up and moving. They were moving back to the bed when Dean showed up.
Dean had at least showered and looked like maybe he'd gotten some sleep. But he didn't look like he'd rested much and his eyes slid over the bandages that encircled Sam like a half finished mummy from shoulder and chest all the way down to his hips and thighs as they helped him back to bed. Once they were gone, Dean pulled the curtain and leaned down low. "I'm going to get us a stake," Dean said. "So I may not be around much. You're going to need someplace to heal up."
Sam balked. "We need to go back to Silence," he said, even while Dean pulled the blankets up over his shoulder, hiding the bandages. Sam wanted to tell him he hadn't done it for Dean, had only done it for himself. "We know what it is that's killing people."
"No we don't," Dean said flatly. "We know what it is, but we don't know what it is."
"Well, it's not a spirit form," Sam said easing back against the pillows. "Really deformed water demon? Maybe a selkie?" Sam was fishing in an empty pond and Dean let him know it.
"In case you missed it -- oh, yeah, you did because you were dead," Dean said and smiled at the glare Sam shot at him. "Nothing we did did anything but piss it off. So, until we know more about what it is, Silence is going to have to wait. Besides, we're past the new moon."
"It went after you the night before the new moon. I don't think its watch is wound right," Sam said sullenly.
Dean bopped Sam on the head. "Maybe not, which is all the more reason to wait. Rock salt didn't work, or holy water or silver." He folded his arms and leaned on the bed railing. "The only thing that did was real bullets, but it didn't kill it, only made it run."
"So we load the shotguns up with buckshot and try again."
Dean snorted. "Did you miss all the excitement, Sam? You've got more perforations than a pie pan. You can barely walk!" Dean snapped. "It really doesn't seem smart for you to go wading around in the monster kiddie pool."
"It tried to eat you!" Sam came back and really, yelling was a bad idea but it made Dean back off a little. Just a tad.
"I don't think it was personal," he said checking Sam's temperature with the flat of his hand. Sam jerked away. Dean rubbed at his eyes. "Look. I'll do a little more poking around at the library, see if this thing has ever made an appearance before. I'll get us a stake built up. We'll get it. Preferably living to tell about it."
Sam didn't like it but, really? He wasn't much use to Dean if he couldn't even walk to the bathroom himself. "Promise me you won't go back until I'm with you."
"I won't," Dean said earnestly. Sam's eyes narrowed. "What? I promise."
Dean's hand curved warm and solid around the back of his neck and he squeezed gently. "I promise. I may go back to Silence and ask around, but I'll stay out of the silo and away from the water."
Sam studied his face, but he still wasn't entirely sure he trusted Dean's promise. Dean rolled his eyes and held up his hand, little finger extended. "You want a pinkie promise, honey?" he asked.
Sam batted his hand away. Dean grinned at him. "We're not done yet, Sam. Not nearly done. Get some sleep," he said and pushed Sam's hair off his face.
Only after Dean left did Sam remember the shadow whispering the same thing to him in the darkness.
Two days later against his doctor's advice and against Dean's protests, Sam checked himself out of the hospital.
Dean drew the line at returning to Silence, merely by giving Sam a light tap on the shoulder that made him sit down too fast and take too long to get his breath back. Dean was angry, worried too, but mostly angry, stalking the narrow length of their hotel room in Montpelier. "This death wish thing you've got going, Sam? The next time you take a shit, you'd better dump it too," he snarled at him. Sam didn't look at him and didn't look around. The room was badly lit and Sam was a little too aware of the shadows.
Dean left him with a stack of books about local legends and regional history and went to find a pool game and a beer.
When Sam slept he could swear he
heard the baying of hounds.
Sam's problem, Dean decided, was that he thought he was invincible and while he might be able to make a pretty good argument for it at the moment, and despite the evidence of his own eyes, Dean wasn't quite ready to test out their new-found knack for resurrections. Maybe they were like cats and only got so many lives to bid against death's decidedly stacked deck. And if that were true, Dean wasn't entirely sure where they stood in the Russian Roulette queue. Two for Sam, one for him, by his count, but there had been plenty of close calls that he was wondering if weren't closer than he'd thought.
And alive or not, Sam looked like hell. Fresh out of the hospital and he was going to have a tiger-striped series of scars all along his left side from where he'd managed to miss few perforations but got scored instead. He might still be ready to scuffle and he could be unreasonably stubborn, but so could Dean and there was nothing that got his back up more than Sam trying to bury his own guilt by doing something that, while possibly heroic, was really pretty damn stupid.
He gave up after two games of pool, one lost, one won because he was completely off his game from lack of sleep and the unanswered questions that were keeping him awake even more than his worry over Sam. And really? He should get a handle on that because he worried about Sam for one reason or another more often than he brushed his teeth and so far it hadn't done him a bit of good. How Sam could be so cautious in his approach to things and so damn reckless in the middle of them Dean had never understood.
He made Sam stay in bed (or close to it) for a week, which was less pleasant than necessary although Sam really did try to keep his frustration under control. And he did that by making lists of additional reference books and toward the end of the week actually wheedled Dean into taking him to the library for a couple of hours to do some intense hunting through books and resources that couldn't be checked out.
Dean took a day and drove back into Silence, after promising Sam, again, that he wouldn't try searching the silage, even in broad daylight which Dean thought was stupid, since staying out of the subbasement should have kept him safe enough, but something in Sam's face made him promise and mean it.
Which didn't keep him from checking out the area around it. That brought more questions than answers, because the river wasn't all that close. So, unless the worm had cut an underground channel or there was some other water source like a well or something underneath the silage, Dean couldn't figure out how the worm got in and out of the silage to begin with.
Unless it wasn't dependent on water. Unless it could move under or over land as well, which made a hell of a lot more sense given where the cars had been found.
And in-between the two lay the burial mound.
That offered even less information. It wasn't large and it was kind of odd in that the top of it seemed to have caved in -- or else the university people had excavated it but it wasn't like them to utterly destroy a mound.
Alice was glad to see him at least, and Dean didn't really hesitate to tell her about Sam's fall when she asked. Sympathy was as good an in as anything. By the end of the day, it seemed like the whole town knew Sam had been hurt, but it was news in a town that didn't seem to ever have much; a few missing people and bodiless bones aside. Alice sent pie back to Sam. "So, I guess you two will be going back to school then," Alice asked him as she brought the bag of food out for him.
"Haven't decided. We kind of need to finish mapping the mound to get the class credit. No credit, no graduation," Dean offered. "Need to dig up a section and classify the bones."
"I don't know who your professor is, boy, but he's an idiot." Margaret of Margaret's Antiques and Fine collectibles was sitting a table away and Dean hadn't missed her hanging on every word while he talked to Alice.
Dean gave her a grin. "Well, sometimes, I think so too, ma'am, but it's his class. Why do you think so?"
"Because ain't just Indian bones in that mound -- they recorded it all thirty years ago, thinking they'd found something. More like some sickness or something that came through and took whites and Indians alike, cattle, horses, other critters, and they dumped 'em all in together," she said.
Alice gave Dean a look that could have been apologetic. "We should have told you when you first got here. We never challenge it 'cause it's tourist money, sometimes, you know. Not hurting anybody. Sign on the road, historical marker, we get one or two cars of folks a year. We thought it was kind of funny the university would send you boys down here. What were you doing in the silage anyway?"
"Uh, there's a great view of the mound from the top. Sam wanted some pictures," Dean said distractedly and he was distracted. So if the mound wasn't Indian, there went another, if weak, theory.
"So, if you don't finish it, you don't get to graduate?" Alice asked him.
"Uh, yeah. Right. We'll have to do something else."
She glanced over at Margaret. "But if you did, even if it wasn't real, you could get your credit?"
"Uh, yeah. Probably," Dean said, completely lost on where she was going with this. Margaret gave Alice a big grin and lit one of her filterless cigarettes.
"Take you a couple of weeks?" she asked.
"About that. Alice, it's not a big deal."
"Maybe not. Tell you what, you bring Sam on back down here, we'll get you set up, do what you have to do."
"Uh, we're doing what?"
Margaret picked up her beer and her cigarettes and moved to Dean's table. "We've been trying to get that silage torn down for twenty years. Sam's not the first to get hurt there and it's an eyesore. But the university's got that land all tied up. Had one of them big stores in here looking at the land not long ago. You show them that mound's not what they think," she shrugged.
"But they know that, you said," Dean said.
"But they haven't re-surveyed it in ten years. We asked 'em. Now your professor has sent you," Alice said and she had a crafty look in her eye.
"What about the tourists?"
Alice shrugged. "Silence is dying off. Processing plant's going to be laying off folks at the end of the year…"
Sometimes in the pursuit of evil, Dean forgot there were other threats…"I'll talk to Sam," he said and both women smiled and Dean left them feeling like the worst kind of person.
Aside from ridding the town of their vicious underwater occupant, there wasn't much Dean could do to help them. There was no professor waiting for a report.
"No," Sam said when Dean laid it out for him. "But we could issue a challenge to the NEH and if that retailer added their weight to it, they'd have to do a site evaluation. Or if Silence incorporated, they could file for eminent domain on the land. They've got some legal avenues they could try. But if that mound isn't a burial mound…that's just weird. Why classify it that way?"
Dean shrugged. "Clue-less, man. Somebody screwed up. But that might actually…maybe this is more of a manifestation than we thought. Anybody could be buried there. But you know, digging that thing up and burning those bones…that's going to draw some attention."
"A lot of attention," Sam agreed. "And I'm not so sure them getting more people in the area would be such a good idea," he added and slid a book onto Dean's lap. "I found this. I'm not sure if it's tied in but, before the turn of the century there was a tribe here -- Schitsu'umsh. They had a pretty well known shaman for the times, one with what locals claimed were accurate prophetic powers. He said his visions were brought to him by a great spirit in the shape of a giant white snake. But I can't find any other references to it."
"What happened to the Shaman?"
"He was part of the Coeur d'Alene tribe, but they're way north of here. He died back in the 1890's. In his own home, on his own land."
"So, not likely a pissed off Shaman. But the snake?"
Sam shrugged and winced. "Couldn't tell you. But back around the same time, they finished laying the rail lines that isolated this part of southeast Idaho. You remember those other reports of bones I found?"
"Yeah, up into Wyoming."
Sam dug through his piles and pulled out a roadmap, with X's marking the line of bones found.
Dean's eyes narrowed at the line of sightings and dates. "That's a pretty narrow corridor."
"Yeah and the incidences cut down, after the railroad was finished, isolating it to this part of the state."
"It's afraid to cross the railroad tracks?"
"Cold iron," Sam said and then sketched out the area around Silence. "And running water. I don't think whatever it is can get out. It's hunting. It used to be every decade or so, or at least that's the nearest I can get to the spacing on when bones were found. But the area has been getting progressively smaller. Then last year--"
"They diverted the river making the area even smaller," Dean said staring at the sketch. "But it was in the water."
"Standing water," Sam said and drew a deep breath and leaned back. "I don't think this is a ghost. A lot of Native American tribes have legends about snakes -- most cultures do. It's not a spirit or even a demon. I think it's something older, but I can't figure out what."
Dean glanced over at him. "This is a lot of intel to pull together, Sam."
"Not like I had anything else to do," Sam told him sourly. "The point is…more people means more food."
"It still has to have a lair, someplace it hides. The silage?"
Sam shrugged. "I don't know. It hasn't come into town."
"Railroad tracks," Dean said. "The spur line. Cuts right across the main road. Maybe it can't. And it's spitting up bones down by the river. Shit…it's got to be there somewhere."
Sam sat up again and studied the map. "We need to go back…" he met Dean's glare with one of his own. "Dean…I'm fine. I won't be climbing, but if we're right -- if Silence gets it's Wal-Mart or K-mart or whatever…they're going to put it right there," he said pointing at where the silage stood. "And it's been hunting more often, every month instead of every ten years or so…"
"We still don't know how to kill it."
"I think we do. Cold iron. But we have to lure it out, first."
"I don't think I have enough bullets."
"Not bullets. Iron rebar. Railroad spikes. There's rebar rusting in the parking lot at the silage."
"We're going to have to get pretty damn close to it," Dean said, not liking the idea at all. "Assuming we can find it."
"My guess would be the mound," Sam said. "People and animals. I don't think it's always or only hunting people but with the river cut through…"
"The wildlife probably took a hike." Dean cut a glance at Sam from the corner of his eyes, noting the wide-eyed intense look. This was scarier than their average haunting, and not a little because Sam had already died once trying to figure it out.
And maybe this was one they should walk away from. Dean had thought that only rarely in his life.
But Sam didn't look like he was willing to back down at all which made Dean wonder how much of what the apparition or ghost of their father had said to Sam was still at work here. "This could take awhile."
Another shrug and Dean started to whap him on the head, only changed at the last minute and ruffled Sam's hair. "Okay. I think Alice had something in mind. We've got a couple of hundred dollars…"
Sam nodded but he still looked troubled. Dean sighed. "Spit it out."
Carefully, Sam folded up the map and closed the books. "I don't think…I've been having these dreams--," he said quietly.
"Aw, Sam!" Dean said. "You were supposed to tell me!"
"I'm telling you, now," Sam said with a glare. "These are different. I keep hearing dogs barking -- howling."
"Hounds of hell kind of barking? 'Cause I hate those fuckers."
Sam let a half grin slip. "Maybe. Hunting something."
Sam's smile faded and he shook his head. "Us."
Dean stared at him. "Us? That's it. We are so out of here."
Sam gripped his wrist. "We can't. There's more. There's fire."
A chill seemed an inappropriate response to the mention of fire but Dean felt it anyway. "Sam, I swear to God, if you are in the middle of it, I'm going to knock you out myself and haul your ass to Tahiti."
Sam shook his head. "It's not me. It's Dad," he said, and Dean's chill turned to ice cold claws in his gut. "I don't think it matters where we go. Whatever it is, it's coming to us."
Normally Dean tried to not rely too heavily on Sam's dicey precognitive abilities, but looking at his brother's pale, resolute face, suddenly giant white worms looked like the lesser of two evils.
Dreams of fire weren't that uncommon for Sam. He honestly couldn't remember having them before his dreams of Jessica started, but then they'd come so regularly and so often it felt like he'd always had them; even long before Jessica had died in blood and flames.
The one with his father had been different, subtly so, and Sam couldn't figure out why, but he knew it was. If he and Dean were right, and their father was already dead and he'd died as their mother had, the dream -- nightmare -- was already vastly different than Sam's other dreams, prophetic or not. He didn't dream of past events he hadn't seen. He had nightmares of Jessica because he'd seen it beforehand and up in his face, live. His more prescient dreams were of things yet to come. So, either he was seeing something that hadn't happened yet or his own subconscious was seriously fucking with him. But if it hadn't happened, then his father's appearance to Dean at the silage and to Sam at the hospital made even less sense.
And the baying of the hounds was tied to the images of fire.
Dean, in his usual annoying way, didn't let up on Sam until he had every detail Sam could remember, like maybe if he had all the pieces he could figure it out. And maybe he could, the same way Sam had pieced together their man-eating worm or snake or whatever it was.
Two days later they pulled back in Silence. Ten minutes later Sam was ready to crawl back in the car and head for parts anywhere else. Not that the whole town turned out, but Alice did and Margaret and even Casey himself, owner and proprietor of Casey's Tavern, and as close to a mayor as Silence had.
Dean was distinctly uncomfortable, which was pretty much the only solace Sam had. They might fuss over Sam's injuries but Dean was getting the looks that usually he took in stride, hero of the day, bold and brave -- but in this, they were both feeling the burden of just how much harm their seemingly minor deception could cause.
But Sam had spent his last day in Montpelier pulling forms and regs off the library's internet. If they managed to rid Silence of its hunting worm, he thought he had enough to at least get them started on getting the misclassified land re-evaluated.
Which would pretty much expose them for being fraudulent grad students. But hopefully they'd be long gone by then.
Unless we're dead… whispered a little voice that Sam knew was nothing but his own fear. So he spent an hour or so with Margaret and Casey, sitting in a table near the back of the bar, while Alice went with Dean somewhere. There were other folks hanging around, some Sam hadn't seen before but most of the town was working.
Still it was distinctly uncomfortable being the center of so much attention.
Margaret more than Casey seemed to grasp the basics of what Sam offered them, her bird-bright eyes making notes on a steno pad in a scratching script that it took Sam a moment to realize was real stenography. She grinned at him when he looked. "Was a time when I was secretary to the Mayor of Montpelier," she said. "He was a horse's ass but this," she tapped her pad with her pencil. "This kept me working and on my own. He was lawyer. You'd make a good one."
Sam had thanked her tightly and pulled out the rest of the forms. "If Silence decides to incorporate, you need to do that first. Might take a year or two."
"But we can appeal to the NEH even if we don’t?" Casey asked him.
Sam nodded. "You can. They're required to do the reevaluations…six months on the outside. Less if you can get some help from the retailer."
Dean came back with a tighter smile, but Alice was grinning broadly. "Excuse me," Sam said going to his brother.
Sam was as stunned as Dean had been.
The good folks of Silence, it seemed, had a touch of fairy Godmothering in them. They'd cleaned Deke Hawkins's house top to bottom, brought in a second bed, serviced and refueled the generator and offered it to Sam and Dean "for the duration," Alice said.
"Most of the houses have generator back ups," Dean said. "Too far off the main drag -- they get snowed in here and it's a couple of weeks before the roads get cleared. So...we have power, hot water. Still no stove. Alice said they'd feed us."
Sam sat down on the freshly made up bed, holding his bandaged arm tight to his chest. After a second Dean sat down beside him. The house was still bare bones, even less well equipped than the cheapest of hotel rooms. The quilts on the bed, though, were handmade. The curtains too, probably. The ancient refrigerator rattled and hummed as the compressor kicked on and off and Alice or Casey had already loaded it up with water and soda and even a twelve pack of beer. Sam was pretty sure there were mice under the floors and probably birds in the attic.
There were homemade cookies on a plate on the table. And a vase of flowers.
"I think we've been adopted," Dean said, trying not to show how touched he was or how uncomfortable the town's faith in them made him feel.
Sam lay back on the bed and closed his eyes. He was pretty sure they'd been out-hustled.
Over the next week, Sam felt like he spent more time on the phone than in the field with Dean. He also spent enough time with Margaret that he figured he might as well take up smoking. But he liked her. Liked her sly looks and her cackling, rough-voiced laugh.
It suited Dean fine for Sam to rest up and he pointed out that with a bad leg and a bad arm, Sam wasn't going to be much help anyway. But it made Sam crazy and by the end of the week Sam pulled his sling off and didn't flinch when Dean gave him a shove. It hurt like hell, but he didn't flinch.
Moving the rebar hadn't taken Dean more than a couple of days, but the mound was big and driving the heavy metal bars into the ground was hard work. More for show, he'd used twine to build a grid over the ones he had gotten in, spaced about a foot apart all around the edge. Alice had even come out and helped him one day, flagging the little squares in what Dean hoped was a reasonable approximation of an excavation grid. He had no idea. Usually when he dug things up, it was with a whole lot less fuss.
But he had more than half the mound ringed by the spikes when Sam showed up.
"If this thing is not in there, I'm going to be pissed off at the amount of work I've put into this sucker," Dean said, wiping at his face.
"We've got another ten days until the new moon," Sam said.
"These don't go down very deep."
"I don't think it matters," Sam said as he picked up another bar and set it for Dean to drive it into the ground. "Railroad spikes don't go all that deep either, but it doesn't seem to be able to go under it or over it, or even under the river."
They drove the last one into the ground as the sun was setting and even though all Sam had done was hold them in place, he was about as tired as if he'd driven them into the ground himself.
Still, he offered to go pick up dinner while Dean showered and changed, opting to walk.
Once upon a time, he realized, Silence had been a bigger town. Not huge. There had a been a church here -- a small clapboard thing that still looked like someone was taking care of it but not in use any longer. Casey's Tavern had once been a feed store Casey had told him, back when farming was the chief industry in the area.
The town had never been rich but folks held their own, Margaret told him. The silage had been built by the community, and they'd lobbied hard for that rail line to come through just before the turn of the century. For a few years, she said, it had been all right. Harvests were good, people didn't much like the sound of the trains coming through but they put up with it so they could sell their crops easier.
Then the railroad had stopped using the main line and they'd put the spur line in by the silo and they didn't get traffic but once a month. A couple of bad harvests and some folks had moved on, found other jobs in other cities. Most of the folks remaining could track their family history back to the first settlers here, but it wasn't likely the town would last the current generation unless something brought people back into the area.
"There was a time when folks didn't need the general store for nothing but salt and nails," Margaret said as Alice covered up supper plate with tin foil. "Good land, plenty of hunting…deer, turkeys, fishing," she shook her head. "Damn shame."
"You hunt, Margaret?" Sam asked her. He wouldn't doubt it for a second and she chuckled.
"I've been known to hunt my own Thanksgiving dinner," she said. "I'd swear that's what killed Deke Hawkins." At Sam's curious glance she shrugged and lit another cigarette. "Deke was the last employee at the silage. Kept it up after they closed it, mostly so he could use it to butcher his kills, but he never was much of one for holding a job. Built that house you're in himself. But he was a woodsman at heart. Hunted. In season, out of season. Used to bring in enough to feed the whole damn town through the winter. Casey let him store the extra in that big freezer he's got back of the tavern. Traded it for anything else he might need."
"We were glad of it," Alice said, bagging up the food. "Kept us in business when folks started moving on."
"But the hunting was off the last year or so," Margaret said. "Deke always said the day he couldn't provide for the town, was the day he'd give up. Last winter, last season, was hard. He probably went out every week. He used to go out a bit further but he was getting up in years, damn near 90 when he died. Nothing much to show for it, this last season, though."
"He used the silage to butcher his hunts?" Sam asked.
Margaret nodded. "I think he just liked messing with them university folk, burying the bones out there. Not in the mound so much as around the silage. But…big place, good if you're gonna be making a mess and dressing an elk is best done where the blood won't stain the wood work."
"Yeah. I could see where that could be a good plan," Sam said and smiled at Alice. "Thanks."
"You boys get your grid set up?" Alice asked him.
"Yeah. Finished today, we'll start digging tomorrow," Sam said.
Alice smiled. "Let us know if you need help, and you watch that shoulder of yours," she warned.
"I will," Sam said and grabbed up the bag.
He'd just reached the door when he felt it, just a tremble, but then the rattle and looked around to see both women staring. The glasses were rattling on the bar, the windows shook and Sam could feel the tremor under the floorboards. It only lasted a few seconds and then settled. He stared at Alice. "Earthquake?"
"Felt like more when one of the trains comes through," Margaret said getting up, and coming to the door with Sam. Other people were poking their heads outside. "We haven't had an earthquake here since the sixties. Mild one back in the twenties. Worst one ever hit this area was before I was born, back in the eighties," she said and grinned at Sam. "The eighteen-eighties." They waited but it seemed to be done.
Sam wasn't sure if it was the minor quake or just the whole situation. He'd felt minor earthquakes before, and a few that were less than minor -- and this had been minor. He still couldn't shake the feeling of impending doom as he crossed the street and angled toward the house.
Dean was waiting for him on the porch. "You felt that?" he asked, taking the bag from Sam.
"Yeah. Margaret says that's pretty weird for this area," Sam said and hunted up their maps and notes while Dean set out the food. "Forty years, give or take," he said.
"Forty years for what?"
"I wish to hell I knew," Sam said. "Look, they finished the first rail line through here in the 1880's. Margaret says there was an earthquake, a bad one then. They had another one in the 20's about the time they laid the bridge and road and built the second line -- another earthquake. In the sixties they closed the silage, and there was another one. And last year they diverted the river, and then…"
"Wait, wait, wait…" Dean said, hooking a chair out to sit in while he ate. "You think this snake thing is causing the earthquakes? This one today? Sam, it's big, but it's not that big…maybe what? Twelve feet from ugly face to tail?" he said, spreading his arms. "Sit down and eat something. I think your blood sugar's low," he said flatly but there was concern in his eyes.
Sam sat and rubbed at his eyes, grimacing when his shoulder pulled. "Maybe," he said and reached for one of the sandwiches Alice had fixed. "Margaret said the hunting's been off lately, last year most severely and the guy that owned this house? Used to slaughter his kills at the silage."
Dean stared at him for a moment, waiting for him to go on. "And…this means what?"
"I don't know," Sam said. "But the people disappearing started happening around the time Deke Hawkins died. What if he….if he knew this thing was out there? If he knew…I mean, if it wasn't just hunting humans, if he was feeding it…"
"Okay. It's a theory," Dean said carefully. "But it doesn't change anything, Sam. I mean unless you want to tell the people of this town to start dumping a couple of hundred pounds of raw meat out at the silage before every new moon."
"It brought visions to the shaman," Sam said.
"And maybe he paid a price for them. What are you getting at, Sam?" Dean asked and then popped the top off a soda for him. "Drink this…and eat something because you're not making a damn bit of sense."
"I just don't think it's actually…I mean, I think it's not really trying to hurt people. I think it's trying to survive."
"Uh, yo, Sam? It tried to eat me, remember? It would have eaten you if it could have gotten to you and we're pretty sure it's already made happy meals out of at least six people. Possibly a few bunnies and squirrels too, but what part of any of that is 'not really trying to hurt people'?" he reached over and hooked a hand around the back of Sam's neck and squeezed gently. "You know, I really don't know what's going on in your head, but this thing…it hunts and it kills and right now, it's mostly going after people. We save the people, Sam. Not the monsters, right?"
Sam knew he was right, down to his bones and he nodded. He nibbled on a half a sandwich mostly to keep Dean from riding his case but it was less interest than necessity and an hour later he was laying back on his bed, trying to see if he'd missed anything in his notes, while Dean worked on trying to make spears out of the thick wooden curtain rods from the house and railroad spikes.
Sam fell asleep with a book on local legends open on his chest.
He woke to the sound of the overhead chandelier rattling and his bed shaking. The lights flickered and Sam almost went to his knees as he tried to get up. Dust fell and from the kitchen he heard glass shatter. "Dean! We need to get outside!"
"Shit," Dean swore, already on his feet and grabbing up his bag. "Come on," he said grabbing up his boots and then nearly fell on his ass when the whole house seemed to heave upward.
Sam, none too steady to begin with, went down hard and Dean didn't waste two seconds, getting an arm around Sam's good side and hauling him to his feet.
The chandelier crashed down with a tearing sound and the glass globes and pendants broke and shattered. Beneath the house they could hear the screeching whine build -- like a turbine pushed to its limits.
"Stay where you are!" A voice snapped at them and they both looked up.
John Winchester stood there, barring their way to the door.
"Dad?" Dean asked. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't move," their father snapped again and Sam could only stare, and then stare harder as their father lifted his arms, spreading them wide. The light was dim but Sam didn't miss the silver sheen to his father's eyes or how the shadows seemed to spread from his arms rather than being cast by them.
"It's not dad," Sam said, pulling Dean back. "It's not dad," he said and the thing with his father's face met his eyes.
Sam knew it. He didn't know how or why, but he'd met this thing before. He clutched at Dean's arm and knew it was a bigger threat than the thing screeching beneath the house.
John Winchester's double brought his hands together swiftly and the darkness spread out like a cloak, heavy and textured like cloth and not like smoke or mist. It brushed over Sam with a cold more chilling than winter, made his insides twist up. For a second he couldn't breathe, couldn't feel Dean's arm under his hand even though he knew he hadn't let go. He thought he heard Dean cry out -- fear like he never heard from his brother, ever.
He felt Dean reach for the shotgun, pull it up, and met the silver eyes again, even in the darkness.
He could hear the hounds baying distantly, even over the screeching worm outside.
He knew this thing, this creature, this darkness as well as he knew himself. He'd known it from the minute he was born.
And he knew its name.
The darkness folded around them tightly and Sam shoved Dean back, stared into the silver eyes and spoke the name he couldn't remember ever hearing before.
The darkness flared and parted and revealed a creature -- not a man -- who no longer looked like their father, but was familiar even in its obvious lack of human features. A powerful hand curved around his throat and lifted him, shoved him backward until he hit something solid and hard that just sent sharp, bitter pain through his still healing body. The last thing he heard was Dean screaming his name and the shotgun going off.
Dying was starting to look like a really good second choice.
Dean had never been so surprised to see anyone in his life. Even while half his brain stuttered on the idea that his father couldn't be here, just as it had at the silage, he still couldn't stop the mix of elation and relief and anger that washed through him.
The anger kind of edged to the forefront because the house felt like it was coming down around them and their father was blocking their way. Sam's fingers dug into his arm and even as Dean was demanding to know what their father was doing, he could hear Sam saying it wasn't Dad at all.
For a split second Dean found himself caught between the rock and a hard place he'd always hated and never wanted to be in again: trust his father or trust Sam. They shouldn't be mutually exclusive but sometimes they were.
And to be honest, Sam's credibility was a little strained still. Dean had forgiven him for the round of buckshot and the four -- four times Sam had pulled a trigger on an empty gun -- but he hadn't forgotten. He never would. And he hadn't forgotten what Sam said then either, under the influence or not.
It had stung more than the rock salt. Maybe because at least part of Dean acknowledged that it was true. He trusted Sam -- mostly. But he had near perfect obedience to his father, even when he'd disagreed with him. It helped that his dad was more often right than wrong.
The urge to remain where he was, to keep Sam from moving either because their father -- if it was -- said so, was a difficult thing to deny.
And in that split second, he felt the darkness enfold both he and Sam, felt it more than saw it even as his vision dimmed and the cold seeped into his bones through clothes and skin. He couldn't feel Sam beside him anymore. He clutched at him, because his arm had been around Sam's waist and he felt nothing but more cold. For a blind, frozen moment he thought he'd lost Sam entirely.
It was all instinct that made him reach for the shotgun. Before he could even be sure he actually held it, he felt himself shoved backward, and heard something he couldn't identify: it could be howling. It could have been a shriek or a whisper, it could even have been a fragment of song.
Dean swore he had never heard the word -- the name -- Sam cried out. He wasn’t even sure a human throat could make that sound. And even knowing he'd never heard it, he also knew it was familiar.
But suddenly it was there, the coiling darkness pulling in on itself, pulling away from Dean, from Sam, taking shape until it – not his father – stood before them. Silver eyes flashed and a very solid arm came out and grabbed Sam by the throat, lifting him like he weighed nothing. “Do you think you can call me to heel like a dog, boy?” it said in a voice as soft as summer, and cold as the arctic. With barely a twitch of its wrist, it sent Sam across the room, high against the wall with enough force to crack the plaster, and bits of it spattered over Sam like snow when he fell, hitting the floor equally as hard.
“Leave him alone!” Dean snarled and let both rounds fly from the shotgun, which he could only barely feel buck in his hands.
The shot went through, but the thing – it didn’t dissipate, didn’t even hesitate to close the distance, jerking the gun from Dean’s hands and shoving him backward until his back hit the wall and the gun was pressed to his throat, held there with one incredibly powerful hand while the other blocked Dean from going for his knife.
Even struggling, Dean’s eyes lit briefly on Sam; unmoving, laying in a twisted heap on the floor like every bone was broken.
Then he turned his gaze back to the thing holding him like a bunch of bananas. Other than its eyes, the facial features didn't really register, the skin uniformly black -- not like an African American but like stone or old motor oil; so dark, what light there was in the room didn't even highlight what facial features might have been there. It was like looking into a black hole of a face, framed by equally black hair. A cloak Dean couldn't see moved around the wraith-thin body like a living thing, and Dean could swear darkness washed off it like a black snowfall.
“He’s not dead…and I have no intention of killing him or letting him die just yet,” it said in a soft, almost melodic voice, and Dean glared at the thing in front of him. He, if it was a he, was eyeing Sam with a proprietary look that made Dean see red and he lashed out, driving his knee up and his other hand pressing the gun back.
The gun was tossed to the side, and Dean twisted when the moving darkness reached for the knife at his hip, jerking it free.
He was shoved back the way Sam had been; one hand at his throat, the grip encompassing the full width of his neck, the pressure on his windpipe making it impossible to breathe. Dean tried to break its hold and saw the blade flash between them. He expected to feel it and he did, going still when it was jabbed between his legs, the tip buried in the wall, the sharp blade pressing close enough under his crotch for him to feel the denim of his jeans tear open. The pressure on his throat eased fractionally.
“If you’d give up your blessed protector role for five seconds,” his opponent said, “there’s some things you should know.” It leaned in, the silver eyes flecked with blue, and its features changed, the blackness fading to grey then something more like a human face, with a nose, sharp cheekbones, and a thin slash of a mouth. It wasn't that big of an improvement. It had all the physical appeal of a corpse. It moved pale lips close to Dean’s own. “And I’ll let you reassure yourself that your brother isn’t dead or beyond repair. Truce?” it asked and Dean was all too aware that his only other choice was an unconditional surrender. He didn’t even know what this thing was, much less how to fight it.
“Truce,” he ground out, more of a gasp, and it smiled, reached between his legs and pulled the blade free, then let go of Dean’s throat.
Dean staggered, almost fell, but caught his balance and the thing offered him his knife back, hilt first.
Dean took it and then nearly dropped it, the blade so incredibly cold, it burned. It took off layer of skin from his palm with it, his fingers so cold he couldn’t close his hand.
“Oops. Sorry,” the thing said and bent to retrieve the blade. He held it for a moment and then offered it again.
It was still cold, but not likely to cause frostbite.
Dean took it and glared, then edged toward Sam, dropping to one knee beside his brother’s head. Almost belatedly he realized the house had stopped shaking.
Sam was breathing at least, but it sounded harsh and breathy. His hand still feeling like it was on fire, Dean had to sheathe his knife to check Sam’s pulse but it seemed steady if a little fast. There was a knot the size of an egg on the back of his skull.
He didn’t think anything was broken, but he was almost afraid to move Sam to find out.
The darkness squatted beside them. “Wrist fracture, a little more bruising around the ribs, had the air knocked out of him, concussion. He’ll be sore but he’ll live,” it said. It reached out to move Sam and Dean shoved him back, gratified when the darkness went down on its skinny ass.
”Don’t you fucking touch him,” Dean snarled out.
It sat back and stared at him, then grinned. “Or you’ll what? Cut me with your puny blade? Curse me? Is that any way to thank me for saving your pitiful lives?”
“Save us? You damn near killed us,” Dean spat out and forced himself to use his hand. It still hurt like a son of a bitch – the feeling was coming back. He maneuvered Sam onto his back, bending down to listen, to make sure the raspy breathing didn’t mean Sam had punctured a lung or something.
“I was hiding you, you fool,” the dark thing snarled out and got to its feet. “It’s amazing that you’ve survived as long as you have, the way you so blithely walk up to the gates of hell and demand entry,” it said. “Do you think that thing in the mound cares for your holy water or salt or your pitiful attempt to fence it in? It’s a sybylla, boy, and you and your brother have annoyed it. It’s not even hungry now, just pissed off. It’s not a ghost or the spirit of long dead natives. It’s an earth-bound creature. You want to kill it, you’ll need a cold iron sword and a lot of luck. The only way to kill a sybylla is to cut its head off, assuming you can find it again before it finds you.”
“Why?” Dean demanded. “Why would you…do that?” Protect was the first word to come to mind but Dean wasn’t sure that was what the thing had done.
“Because I have a vested interest in making sure your brother stays alive for awhile yet,” it said. “And because of him, you as well.” It didn’t sound terribly happy with that arrangement.
“What do you want with him? What’s he to you?” Dean asked, clutching Sam’s shirt in his fist, like he could pull him out of range if the thing tried to lash out again.
It stared at him, considering, then crouched again reaching out to touch Sam’s slack face. Dean tried to shove it back again only to find himself slammed hard again the wall again, almost losing consciousness.
“Keep trying my patience, boy, and I may change my mind and take you across for free," it said. "Killing mortals, even annoying ones, really isn't on my short list of entertainments." It glared at Dean again and then leaned over Sam. It whispered, murmured something against Sam's lips that sounded like his name but wasn't, only it meant the same thing as Sam and Dean didn't know how he knew that.
Sam jerked back to consciousness so fast and hard, it was obvious it hurt and even so, staring up into the face of the thing that had woken him made him jerk away hard, scrambling backward until Dean was afraid he really would injure himself further.
The thing noted it too and backed away and Dean reached out and grabbed hold of Sam, getting them both up and to their feet. Almost immediately Sam started to go down again and Dean caught him, held him up and squeezed him at the sound of Sam's fast, too-shallow breaths.
The dark thing backed away further.
"Breathe, Sam. I don't think it actually wants to hurt us -- bad," Dean shot off and the thing rolled its eyes. Pretty neat achievement for something that apparently had no eyeballs.
"I know you," Sam said and actually shrank back against Dean like he hadn't since he was a small child, which just sent off even more warning bells in Dean's head. Sam was fucking terrified, so scared he was shaking; barely even knew he was hurt. "It was you in the hospital," he accused.
"Yes, well, you've caused me no end of trouble. More so recently," it said.
Distantly they heard a screech and a rumble, then there was silence. Almost total. All Dean could hear was Sam's still too-fast breathing.
"Where's the….the sybylla?" Dean asked.
"Wreaking merry havoc along the river. It can't find you at the moment and can't get to you as long as you stay in this rather well-constructed house."
"The town?" Sam demanded.
"They're fine. Did you entirely miss the fact that this house in on the wrong side of the tracks?" it asked and strode to the door, opening it.
Dean had the urge to head out the other way but the creature pivoted and turned its gleaming eyes on them. Still, he could see past it -- or through it, he realized. The town, what he could see of it, was quiet. The single lamppost in front of Casey's Tavern shone down, casting a gleam on the railroad tracks separating the few stores and houses from this side of the road.
And he had missed it, even with what Sam had told him -- Sam had too. They thought the road would be protection enough.
"What do you want?" Dean asked, easing his grip on Sam a fraction. After a second, Sam relaxed a little too, but didn't move away from Dean.
It turned back to face them, studied them both for a long moment in a way that made Dean's skin crawl. He couldn't remember ever encountering anything like this before -- demon, maybe. Too solid for a ghost, although…
It closed the door again and crossed the floor and Dean realized he couldn't hear it move, despite the kind of heavy looking boots (Legs? Feet? Hooves?) it wore, there was no sound of them on the wooden floor.
It seemed to take a breath and let it out slowly, crossing its arms over its thin chest. "Mostly, I want you two alive, but you really are making it damned hard. And the sybylla has your scent now. You step out of this house and it'll find you."
"It can't get in the house?" Dean asked.
"No. It might bring it down around you but the builder…" It laid a hand on one wall and the silver eyes vanished briefly. "Knew what he was doing. There's iron laced all through the framework."
"So Deke did know," Sam said and his voice sounded steadier but he still hadn't moved from Dean's side and he hadn't stopped shaking. It made Dean wonder if Sam wasn't going into shock.
"Yes. He knew. He meant to tell someone," it said and smiled at them. "Never put off things, boys. Death's got its own timetable. Most of the time, anyway."
"Who are you?" Dean demanded.
"He's--" Sam started to say and both of them were slammed to the wall again without the thing moving a muscle.
"Say it again, Samuel, and I'll break your jaw and rip out your tongue," it hissed at him coming closer. "Alive does not mean whole. You can call me…the Ferryman."
"The F…Ferryman, like THE ferryman?" Dean asked as it released them. Sam started to slide and Dean caught him.
"Yes, that one. One of them."
"Chiron," Sam gasped out.
"Well, no. He was one of us but not me, or I'm not him. But I warn you now, Sam. Keep that name silent -- you as well," the Ferryman said, his gaze sliding to Dean. "You've already put yourselves -- if not this town -- in more danger than they ever were in from the sybylla."
"The hounds…" Sam said and his weight was heavier on Dean's arm and his face was paler than it had been.
He could hold him up but Sam really needed to lay down.
"Oh, for the love of my Aunt Martha," the Ferryman said and moved in, catching Sam and picking him up. Dean started to stop him and Sam squeaked. Dean got a glare and Sam got a whisper that made him go totally limp.
"He's fine!" Ferryman snapped and moved the whole ten steps to lay Sam on the bed, carrying him like he was a child instead of six plus feet of grown man. "You want to be helpful, get him some water," he barked at Dean.
That pretty much broke the hold on whatever common sense he had, Dean thought later. "Fuck you!" He gave the Ferryman a shove as soon as he'd let go of Sam and as fast as that, had one of his homemade spears up and ready. "Stay away from him," Dean said, putting himself between the creature and Sam.
"The hounds are after him," Sam said, which made next to no sense to Dean, and only made him worry more about how hard Sam had hit his head.
Ferryman glanced at Sam and then at Dean's spear. "Cold iron won't work on me," he said after a moment.
"You want to tell me what will?" Dean asked.
Gleaming white teeth showed. "Not particularly, no."
"Fine. Then, look. Thanks for saving us from snake-face," Dean said. "You'll understand if I don't see you out."
"Do you really think it's going to be that easy?" Ferryman said. "You won't get ten feet past the door."
"We'll wait until dawn."
"Oh, good, then you can watch it eat you or your brother in broad daylight," Ferryman scoffed.
"It hunts at night."
"So do raccoons but they have been known to venture out in the daylight if the temptation is strong enough."
"We can't stay here forever," Sam said, still watching the Ferryman warily.
"No. You can't. So…here I am offering my knowledge and my services," it said with a bow.
"I think I'd rather have answers," Dean said. "Why did you look like our father?"
"In the vain hope that you would do what you are told," it said coolly. "It saved your brother's life before."
"In the parking lot?" Dean asked.
"In the hospital?" Sam asked pushing up to sit and Dean caught his arm to help him.
The Ferryman stared at Sam long and hard before turning around and going to the kitchen. He returned a moment later with a bottle of water he offered to Sam.
It took Sam a long time to take it, but Dean didn't offer to mediate, watching the two of them. "Yes, it was me in the hospital," the Ferryman said once Sam had taken the water and sipped. "I should not have said that to you, Sam. Your father never would have," it added, sounding almost contrite. "But I was annoyed with you. Both of you," he added giving Dean a less apologetic look.
"Are you saying you're the one who saved Sam's life?" Dean asked.
"In a manner of speaking," it said, crouching down. It looked less imposing but Dean wasn't fooled and he didn't let go of the spear. "Being what I am -- I can refuse to allow a mortal soul to pass, turn it back, or hold it for a time. Although you two have been testing the limits of my power for some time now. And you've been lucky."
"Lucky? You call Sam having holes in his body he isn't supposed to have, lucky?" Dean asked.
"I think better he have holes than get splattered over the hood of your car when you are driving too fast and are too tired," the Ferryman said coldly. "I can't heal injuries, I can only hold body and soul together until the miracles of your modern science can be brought into play -- and even that has limits. You came far closer to dying at the claws of the boggle than you realize, Dean."
"The bullet," Sam said.
"Yes. And the were-dog when you were twenty-four, Dean," it said.
"Were-dog," Sam repeated and looked at his brother, hand reaching to Dean's back where he knew the scars lay. Dean closed a hand on his arm. He didn't need the reminder. Somedays, when it was cold and damp, they still hurt.
"Is our father dead?" Dean asked it, not sure if he could believe it. If he even wanted to.
"No. No," the Ferryman said at Dean's raised eyebrow.
"Do you know why he's not here?"
It was silent for a moment before rising. "Yes. He's not here, because I am. Because he knows what I am and where and why -- and I'm here because I'm the end of your quest. So to speak."
"Which would be?" Dean asked.
Silver eyes met Dean's steadily. "Because your brother has something that belongs to me, and I'm here to get it back."
Dean got to his feet and then pushed Sam back down to sitting when he would have risen as well. "Is this epic-long story-telling part of who you are, or are you always this much of a drama queen?" he demanded. "Because so, far…you haven't told us a damn thing, and Sam doesn't have anything that belongs to you."
"Dean," Sam started. "I know him…it…"
Dean glanced back, cutting his eyes toward his brother and keeping his eyes on the Ferryman at the same time. "From where, Sam? Did you dream him?"
Sam shook his head. "No…he was…you were there," he said staring at the Ferryman. "You said it. When I was born. You were there. And then…then…"
Sam went white -- almost literally, like, every ounce of blood had drained from his face. And suddenly he bore a scarily, freakish resemblance to the creature in front of Dean. "When my mother died…"
The Ferryman dropped his chin. "Yes. I was there the night your mother died. It was almost you, Sam. I'd come for you."
Dean stared at it, and then flipped his spear up and drove it through the thing's chest, driving it and the spear back against the wall, until the spike buried itself in the plaster and the Ferryman stared at him with wide silver eyes.
"You failed then. You still lose," Dean snarled and twisted the spear.
It showed no pain. There was no blood. Oily black hands gripped the haft of the makeshift spear and it pulled itself forward until it was nose to nose with Dean. It gave off cold like an open freezer. "You think so?" it said, in a voice like a lullaby. "You've studied, Dean. The Ferryman always gets his due," it said, and smiled and looked past him.
Dean let go of the spear and spun, just in time to watch Sam try to get to his feet only to crumple down and then arch backward, unable to even scream.
And Dean felt it inside, like something was being twisted, or ripped to shreds. It wasn't even pain -- it was more like having some part of him torn out. He managed the two steps to Sam and dropped, pulling his brother's curled up body hard against his own.
The Ferryman stepped forward and pulled the spear from its chest and dropped it at Dean's feet. "Now. If you are done with your theatrics, I have a proposition for you."
"D…don't. Don't…" Sam gasped, turning a tear-streaked face toward the Ferryman. "Don't trust him…he killed mom. He's the reason she's dead."
"No, Sam. You are the reason she's dead," the Ferryman said coldly. "And the reason Jessica died, and if you don't listen to what I have to say, you'll be the reason your brother dies too. Because you can hear them, can't you, Sam? The hounds are coming."
"They're coming for you," Dean said and he swore he could hear them too.
"Yes, they are. But I once sacrificed your mother for your brother. Don't think for a moment, that I won't sacrifice you as well."
"You can't have him," Dean snarled out.
The Ferryman smiled. It was almost genuine, almost human. "Funny. That's what your mother said." It reached down and pulled Dean up by his shirt front and throat.
Dean felt his blood ice up, so much so, he couldn't get a breath, his vision blackening almost immediately.
They say hearing is the last thing to go.
He was pretty sure he heard Sam scream his name.
Then he heard the other name, and saw real fear cross the Ferryman's features.
We go, you're going with us, mother-fucker, he thought.
He'd probably never been prouder
of Sam in his life.
Threats of bodily harm aside, it was the only thing Sam could think of, and he wasn't entirely surprised when the Ferryman released Dean and turned its full attention and fury on him and cut him off before he could say its name fully.
He shouldn't even be able to remember it. He couldn’t remember his mother, even after the brief glimpse of her he'd had in their old home. She was still more dream than real. But Dean was real. His father was real, no matter how at odds they were.
The thing in front of him was real too.
He didn't even try to get away, not even when he could feel it reach inside him without moving a muscle.
It was like being torn in half, or turned inside out.
"The hunters hunting me don't care about you, Sam. Or about your family -- your brother, your father, and you know what happened to your mother and to Jessica."
"Because of you!" Sam said, choked it out. "Why didn't you kill me then? Why her and not me?" he demanded. If he was going to die, he wanted the answer to the question that had haunted him his entire life. "Why Jess? Why did you need me at all?"
It stared at him and Sam wouldn't look away, couldn't.
It was like looking at himself. Like seeing himself in a mirror haunted by Bloody Mary's apparitions, only the face that looked back at him accused him of nothing, it only knew him, recognized him.
"I almost killed you in the womb," the Ferryman said and touched his face with icy fingers. Sam wanted to pull away but couldn't as a different kind of horror sent a different chill into his soul.
It was so familiar, so recognizable, like it was part of him. And if it was, then Sam was no different or better than the things Dean and his father hunted.
"Oh, please tell me you aren't my father," Sam whispered. "Please…if that's true just kill me now."
The thing blinked, drew its hand back, and very carefully let Sam go, gently enough that Sam didn't just sprawl back on the floor. "You know, these overly dramatic protestations are really not appealing at all," it said clearing its throat and glanced over at Dean, who was stirring and staring and shaking with cold.
The Ferryman sighed again and reached past Sam to snag a quilt off the bed, folding it and spreading it over Dean. "I really, really, have spent entirely, too much time with your father," it said and squatted.
It glanced between the two of them. "Now, if we can all, please, get past the histrionics…I still have a proposition for you that may actually not require that anyone die -- well, not you two at least. And no, Sam. No. I'm not your father. I'm not capable of fathering children on mortals." It clasped its hands together and pressed the doubled fist against its bloodless lips. "And to answer your question -- you lived and your mother died because it was her choice, but I didn't kill her. I'll admit to being the cause of her death ultimately, but it wasn't my hand that ended her life. Nor did I kill Jessica. In truth, I'm not capable of killing mortals. Ushering them across to their after life destination, yes, but taking a life, no," it said and rose up.
It pulled Dean up as well, and while Dean tried to shake the cold hands off, it gave him a squeeze on the arm that made Dean wince. "I can't kill you, Dean, but please don't think I can't completely kick your ass from here to Montpelier without breaking a sweat." It gave Dean a little shove toward Sam and the bed, and then pulled a chair around for itself. "I should probably make coffee. This could be a long night," it said and headed for the kitchen.
"I think we're in hell," Dean said, teeth chattering. He slid off the bed to sit down hard, next to Sam. "But, man, I thought it would be warmer." Sam reached up for the second quilt and wrapped it around him; Dean's skin was like ice.
Sam felt neither hot nor cold. What he felt like was that he was underwater, everything sounding hollow and distant. Even the hounds sounded further away. He only barely registered it when Dean's cold hands framed his face.
"Hey, hey, Sammy. You with me here?"
Sam managed to nod but in truth he was starting to wonder if he'd ever been here at all, or all here. "It…he's...inside me," Sam said on a whisper, almost afraid it would hear him, which was stupid because if it was, it already knew it.
One of Dean's hands moved down to cup the back of his neck, the other tilted his head so they were eye to eye. "Is this like Dr. Ellicot inside you?" he asked perfectly seriously.
Sam shook his head but in truth he wasn't sure -- of course, he also didn't have an overpowering urge to kill his brother at the moment. "No…it's like...when you see a photograph. You know it's you, but you don't really recognize it. But you still know."
Dean pulled Sam in tight against his shoulder. "You're still you, Sam. I know it even if you don't," he said and Sam pushed his arms around Dean's chest like he had when he was a child.
"And you would," the Ferryman said from the kitchen doorway.
"What did you do to him?" Dean demanded, wrapping half the blanket around Sam. He managed to moderate his tone -- a little. Sam twisted to look at the Ferryman as well.
The Ferryman regarded him for a moment before coming across the room to sit in the chair. In the kitchen, Sam could hear the coffeepot gurgling.
The total mundanity of it all struck him oddly. They had a…a what? A reaper? The Ferryman? A gatherer and deliverer of souls, who sometimes looked and sounded like their father, sitting at the table waiting for coffee to brew, trapped in a house once owned by a man who'd hunted game to keep a murdering worm from attacking the people of his town. His brother's skin was still ice cold and his teeth were chattering even as he held onto Sam, like hell itself would have to work to pull him free.
And Sam had a throbbing headache and the vision out of his left eye was fuzzy. He half suspected his leg was bleeding and his left shoulder felt swollen to three times its size. He couldn't help it when he started laughing. He was pretty sure his laughter had more than a hint of hysteria in it, but it was either that or beat his head against the iron bed frame until he passed out.
Dean only pulled him tighter in and rubbed circles on his back, although Sam half expected him to slap him.
The Ferryman watched him for a few moments before getting up and retreating again to the kitchen. He came back with mugs of coffee, half filled and strong, offering one to each. "Would this be easier if I looked like…"
"Shit…don't do that!" Dean said almost spilling his coffee but when Sam looked, it was his father crouching in front of him, offering him a mug.
His father's face showing the same lines and gray shot beard, dark eyes regarding him instead silver ones. His father was a big man, built more like Dean but tall like Sam. The last time Sam had seen him, he'd been angry and Sam had been as well.
There was no anger there now, and even knowing it wasn't his father, Sam felt a certain calm creep into his mind. "Why are they hunting you?"
"Ah. Well…you know what I am, what I do," it said and rose again to take the chair. It sounded and looked like John Winchester but its mannerisms were different. It made it easier somehow. "In short, I'm not the reaper, who calls you -- or others -- to their deaths. I'm merely the guide afterward. Humans, demons, any and all creatures with souls come to me, or my siblings, to find the next place they will dwell. Kind of the 'ever-after' train conductor."
"Wait…demons?" Dean asked, holding the mug to his neck.
"Demons. Those with souls anyway. Look, the ways of the other realms are complicated and boring, but everything goes somewhere when it 'dies'" for lack of a better word. Paradise, Hell, Chaos, Order, somewhere in between. Sometimes they move right from one life into another and sometimes it's the last journey they'll make. My job is to see that every soul gets to where it's supposed to be. It's what I do. What I am," it said and sipped at its own mug of coffee. "In my line of work, mistakes don't happen. They aren't tolerated. Occasionally souls do get confused, but it's my job to sort them out again. And I'm very good at my job--"
"You lost somebody," Dean said suddenly. The Ferryman glared, made a twisted face; an expression like Sam had never seen on his father's face. It was embarrassed.
Dean started laughing. "You did. You totally lost somebody."
"I did not lose somebody. I merely misplaced a soul -- temporarily…"
Dean sat up and leaned forward. "Bullshit. You lost somebody and now you've got the equivalent of your personnel office hunting your ass. Who'd you piss off? The Devil? Lose a minion? The offspring of some totally skanky succubus?"
"No. I lost a human soul," it said flatly. "But a rather important one."
"How important?" Sam asked also sitting up, setting his mug aside. "Who's hunting you?"
"A group of -- beings -- who tolerate mistakes even less well than I do," it said snottily. "Look -- I've spent quite a few of your centuries trying to recover this particular soul and were these imbeciles not chasing me, I'd probably have done it already. So, I needed to lay low for awhile and so I found the most incredibly mundane place I could think of to--"
"--Hide," Dean said flatly. "Like a coward. And what, you hid in Sam, in a baby and now--"
"No," Sam said and blinked. "Not…me."
"No," his father said, fixing Sam with his gaze and then looking at Dean. Dean's face was flushed and his skin less cold, but now he was pissed off again and Sam dug his fingers into his brother's shoulder. "No. I hid in your father. Not for very long and he was completely unaware of me. It wasn't a possession. I didn't make him think or feel anything, I merely…became part of his shadow," it said. "Not even for very long. A few months. Not even a year. But…I was there when you were born Sam and you, as any newborn would have, recognized something in me that comes from where mortal souls exist before they are born into the world. I frightened you then…in the womb. You almost died there, but that was never my intention and I am incapable of killing mortals -- you weren’t quite that yet. So I gave you something that would make me more familiar. My name. Which would not have been that much of an issue had I left then. My mistake was staying."
"Why did you stay?" Sam asked.
The Ferryman rose and went to the kitchen, bringing back the coffee pot and topped off their mugs. Dean took the pause to get himself and Sam off the floor. Sam sat, but Dean stood and stretched.
"You haven't answered Sam," Dean prodded and the Ferryman sat down again, crossed its legs and leaned forward. It was eerily like their father again, now.
"I'm not sure I have a good answer. I meet your kind at the end of your lives and old or young, your deaths are more present than your lives. I've never spent that much time among mortals. I stayed because…partly for the quiet. Partly because time doesn't mean the same thing to me as it does to you. Before I realized it, months had gone by…" It lifted its head and looked at Sam and almost instinctively Dean stepped closer. The Ferryman flicked him an annoyed gaze. "Before I realized it, months had gone by. You, Sam, were about five or six months old…making noises. You said my name and the hunters were listening."
Dean snorted. "Uh…no. Not taking that one -- Sam was a baby. He made noises all the time. Him making baby noises does not make him responsible for Mom dying. That's all on you, asshole."
It glared at Dean. "No…but you repeated it back to him. Intent made it real, and having been said with purpose, they heard it and came running."
Dean glared too but his hand tightened on his mug.
"You don't get to make it Dean's fault either," Sam said flatly. "They weren't after us, they were -- are -- after you. So, they heard us and you did what…why did Mom die? You said she made a choice."
It met Sam's gaze and Sam swore the dark eyes flickered silver for a moment. "Take off my father's face," Sam said softly. The thing inclined its head and John Winchester vanished. Sam's heart beat a little faster at the totally alien thing that in some ways was closer to him, more like him, than Dean was.
"They were too close for me to escape cleanly. My intention had been to replace my soul with one of yours. I thought your father, at first -- he'd have been willing to make the sacrifice, if I'd asked. But the chances were they'd find me there. Even before your mother's death, your father had a certain darkness in himself. Even for a shadow that can cause problems. Different shades of gray. I meant to trade my soul for yours, Sam. And it would have been nearly impossible for the hunters to see me in child so young. Discard most of your soul, take your place until they'd moved on, then extricate myself. The souls of the very young are very fragile, delicate, easily lost."
"But you didn't," Dean said. "What would have happened to Sam?"
"He would most likely have died once I moved back into the world. Children -- infants do it all the time, inexplicably -- although, not usually due to my kind."
"You said you couldn't kill," Dean said in a low voice, body tightening.
"Ah, a matter of degrees. It would have taken some time, and it's possible his soul could have found it's way back to him..." it said a little airily.
Dean's fist shot out knocking the Ferryman on its ass again.
It stared up at Dean and rubbed its jaw. "All right…I suppose I deserved that," it said and then was back on its feet before either of them could blink. "I am neither mortal nor bound by your rules or your conscience or your sense of right or wrong, Dean. Neither are those who are hunting me -- they, even less so. Yes, it's likely Sam would have died, but 'likely' is not the same thing as fact. Sometimes children's souls escape them without any cause at all. It's what makes infants and small children both as fragile and as resilient as they are -- as you were. They can take a great deal of -- damage -- be it physical or emotional, and still grow up to be rather remarkable people as adults," it said, meeting Dean's glare.
Sam took a breath and squeezed Dean's shoulder. "I think he just complimented you, dude."
Dean's eyes narrowed and then he looked uncertain, glaring at the Ferryman suspiciously. Before rolling his eyes. "Okay, fine. But you didn't take Sam's soul."
"No...not entirely…your mother stopped me. Found me with you, Sam. Initially she thought I was your father, but I had to be -- myself -- in order to make the exchange. She recognized me as well although I'm not sure how. Maybe from your birth, but…" it cleared its throat. "Your mother was remarkably strong willed, and being your mother she had a certain prior claim. But I think you both already know it's not wise to underestimate the love a mother has for her children," it said softly.
Sam's eyes stung and Dean looked away. "So…she stopped you." Dean said thickly.
"No. She bought me time and she made me promise something. Enough time for me to take only half Sam's soul and leave part of my own. Then I fled just as the hunters came upon me. You mother took another part of my 'soul' although my soul is not much like a human one -- which is why the hunters killed her. They aren't particularly known for their attention to nuance. Then I showed them myself and led them away."
Sam sat down again, bent over. He felt a little queasy, a little light headed. Dean made a noise and Sam looked up to see the Ferryman squatting in front of him. "Sam, it was your mother's choice. I….regret…that such a choice was forced upon her, but self sacrifice really isn't in my nature. It says a great deal about your mother's love for you -- for both of you -- that she did what she did. I've always been rather astounded at the human ability for sacrifice. There aren't many creatures like you in all the universe."
"And Jess?" Sam asked.
"Jessica was…is more of a tragedy, than a sacrifice. I told you they didn't have much use for nuance. They are still looking for me, Sam, and unlike me, they have no compunctions whatsoever at killing anything in their way. Jessica had just enough of you in her for them to track and recognize. It's taken them awhile…took them…they expected to find you. Had your father not…"
Sam's head came up, and he felt heat in his face, a low burn in his belly. "Tell me my father did not have anything to do with Jess dying, with making me leave."
"Not with her dying, not directly, but he knew they were close. He'd tried to call you. He was on his way to you when he was…sidelined. Had Dean not convinced you to go with him, it's likely you and not Jessica would have died that night."
It was said so apologetically, so reasonably, Sam wanted to laugh. Then he wanted to cry. Then he just got pissed off.
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Sam got up and shoved the Ferryman backward. "My mother? Jess? Who next?" he demanded and stared right at Dean. "I don't want this. I never did. What's it going to take to stop it? When they find you?" he asked glaring at the Ferryman. "Me? Is that what it will take? Well, better that than just watching everyone I care about die in front of me, for me. They want you they can have you. And me too," he snarled and ran.
He was completely clear on what he needed to do as he hit the porch, the whole end to it as crystal clear as the night sky above him.
"Sam!" Dean called him, running after him and Sam stepped off the porch and into the yard. The Ferryman, looking once more like John Winchester, followed him.
"Sam!" It called him as well, then reached out to pull Dean back as Sam tilted his head back and yelled the forbidden name to the sky.
But it wasn't the hounds he heard, or the approach of the hunters. Instead, the ground beneath him shook, and a high pitched whine sounded, muffled like from a distance.
He heard the screech and twisted, staring as the pale shape erupted from the earth and towered over him.
Dean was wrong. The sybylla was a lot longer than twelve feet. Twenty easy.
Well, shit. That really hadn't been the plan at all.
Sam ran again. This time for his life instead of toward his death.
He should have seen it coming, Dean thought, even as Sam ran -- limped -- past him. He'd known Sam carried a shitload of guilt over Jess's death, over their mother too, although that was more subtle. He had since he was old enough to even get the whole story from their father. And to know, if the silver-eyed asshole was to be believed, that his mother and Jess had both died because of him, however inadvertently…
I am going to find a way to kill that son of a bitch if it's the last thing I do, Dean thought.
First he had to keep Sam from killing himself for no damn reason. But he wasn't at his best and his limbs had shifted from feeling like blocks of ice to the near-painful pins and needles of numb flesh becoming less numb.
But he made a grab for Sam anyway as he stepped off the porch, only to have the son of a bitch Ferryman haul him back. It took Dean about three seconds to realize why.
"Fuck!" Dean snarled when he felt the tremors and saw the earth mounding up in front of Sam, dirt and grass rising up and falling in a perfect circle as the sybylla emerged.
"Sam!" Dean screamed as the thing dropped down blindingly fast. Sam dove and rolled, coming up close to the edge of the porch, his face nearly as white as the worm. Dean shoved at the Ferryman, knocking him aside, almost off the porch, which would suit Dean just fine. Maybe the damn thing would choke on him.
He swore time slowed down. Seemed to. He'd noticed it before in the middle of a fight, like things got clearer, sharper. Working with Sam over the past year, he'd gotten accustomed to Sam's moves, to how he thought, often without either of them saying a word. Which didn't work so well when they weren't on the job or fighting something.
Sam had only two choices and Dean wasn't sure he was fast enough for either. Make it to the house or make it across the street and let the railroad tracks protect him. Come on, Sam. Come on. Put a little faith in teamwork, he thought as he hit the end of the porch.
The sybylla stretched out, using its length to cut Sam off from the house, which was closest, and Sam made it to his feet again, but he was limping badly. The tracks were a hundred yards away, which normally, Sam could make in maybe 7 or 8 seconds…those long legs of his were good for something.
Come on, come on Dean thought as got a good grip on the porch railing and climbed over. "Yo! Sam! I could use some pie!" he yelled and saw Sam's head jerk up. Trust me, Sam. Please. I'm not the one with a death wish, Dean prayed and stepped off the porch.
"Hey, Grub-zilla!" he yelled. Damn, could the thing even hear? "Come on, baby. I've got a seriously big bottle of Tequila for you to crawl into!"
The thing screeched, and swung its head around, because Dean was now closer than Sam.
Sam ran. More like loped and even so he almost went down. Dean took an extra step away from the porch and bent for a small rock, hurling it at the sybylla.
It barked at him. That's what it sounded like anyway, then it was moving toward him and Dean turned and ran two steps and jumped. He missed the railing by an inch, one foot on the porch edge and the whole house shook again.
A cold hand wrapped itself around his wrist and pulled. Asshole or not, Dean didn't bite the hand saving his ass. He went up and over the railing just as the worm slammed into the side of the porch, then screeched again, and turned.
Dean honestly didn't realize anything that big could move so fast. "Sam!" he yelled warning and Sam didn't break his uneven stride to look, he just ran and then dove, like he was sliding into home plate. Dean winced for him -- as if Sam didn't have enough bruises. But he hit the ground between the rails and then rolled over the second, far rail.
The sybylla screeched again and slithered along the line of the rail line for a few seconds before heading back and slithering back down into its hole.
Dean hovered on the edge of the porch. Sam was still down, although he was moving, and Dean didn't know if he should hope someone in town had heard the noise and would come out to check, or not. "Sam?"
Sam lifted his arm and tried to roll over, but then he went down on his back, sprawled and unmoving.
"Sam?" he called again but his brother didn't move. He whirled on his reluctant rescuer. "You have to help him."
His father's eyebrows shot up. "I have to help him? I've got enough problems," it said, lifting its head up to the sky. "Bigger problems. You're fool of a brother has managed to really screw things up."
Dean looked but could see nothing. He couldn't hear anything either. "They're after you."
"They're damn near on top of us and trust me when I say, if they find me, whoever else is in their way won't even register," it whispered and then stared at Dean. "Ask me again."
"What?" Dean said and then stared. "Help my brother."
"What are you willing to do for my help…?"
"You need to hide."
"I need a little more than that. I don't have time for a deep metaphysical discussion, but what I did to your father the first time, was unasked for. What I took from Sam, he never gave me permission to take. Your mother, however…"
There was a rolling like thunder and Dean stared at the sky. It was clear -- not a cloud. But now he could hear them. Dogs, horses…a freight train headed their way.
"Do it…how's it going to help, Sam?"
"The sybylla is looking for you, not me," the Ferryman said with another show of white teeth.
"You screw me over on this and I will find a way to make you pay for it," Dean swore. "Do it. Come on in."
He didn't know what he expected. Maybe cold, maybe pain.
He didn't expect to suddenly feel so crowded. It was unpleasant and kind of creepy, like something was just under his skin and at the same time, he didn't feel quite attached to his body at all.
Don't tempt fate, boy. Cross the street. Just because it's not sensing you, doesn't mean it won't just pop up for a snack.
"Shit," Dean said, hearing the voice in his skull like an echo, but he took the three steps down and stepped cautiously on the grass.
The earth trembled but the sybylla didn't appear. "What about your friends?" he asked as he took a bolder step and then broke into a trot…
It didn't answer him, but the cloying sense of crowding was still there as Dean ran across the street and over the tracks, dropping down beside Sam and for a moment forgetting worms, hunters, and the thing that still lay heavy under his awareness.
There was blood on Sam's face from his fall, a scrape across his cheek, jeans torn at the knee where he'd fallen on the tracks and even as Dean checked, blood on his feet from running barefoot across the road and God knew what.
But he stirred, brushing feebly at Dean's hand and wincing even in half-conscious awareness when Dean slid a hand under his head and felt the goose egg Sam had gotten earlier. "You so owe him for that," Dean muttered to his uncomfortable visitor.
"Yeah, right here, buddy," Dean said, helping him sit up.
Thunder rolled across the clear skies again.
"Can you hear them?" Sam asked him.
And Dean could, whether because of the Ferryman or because the hunters were close he didn't know.
And suddenly they were here.
Dean wanted to swear but for the first time in his life he maybe really understood what blasphemy was. Instead he held onto Sam and Sam to him.
He'd expected…he wasn't sure what. Demons, monsters, something unspeakable, the Wild Hunt, things of legends. What he saw were just as much legends but not ones he'd ever put as much stock in because it too often seemed like God, if there was one, had left humans to their own devices for too long. That the evil that crept through the darkness did so unchecked by anything but daylight and the occasional skill and luck of really good hunters.
Somehow, even thinking of himself as a hunter faced with Them seemed incredibly arrogant.
He couldn't even look for long and not just because there were as bright as the Ferryman was dark. Mostly because he didn't want Them to see him or Sam for that matter. That being noticed by Them was something that should never be courted.
There were three, bright shielded and bright armored, on things that should have been horses but weren't. The faces were in no way human, but not alien either -- what had Sam said. A photograph you knew was you but you didn't recognize it.
The hounds were long and sleek, whippet thin, with lashing tails and lolling tongues and eyes that looked more human than anything Dean had ever seen.
The leader dismounted, barely even looking at them and Dean kept his eyes averted, was painfully aware when Sam hid his face against his shirt.
He kept his head down, only daring to look from the corner of his eye, even when the first came close enough for Dean to feel it like an additional pulse under his skin.
Dean would swear the Bright thing (and he refused to call it anything else) sniffed the air near him, near them, hesitated long enough for Dean to feel the sweat trickle between his shoulder blades.
Then it moved away and Dean realized he'd stopped breathing. He took a cautious one and almost turned his head, only to have the Brightness turn back.
Dean squeezed his eyes shut, pulled Sam in tighter. He couldn't even say it was fear, it went so far beyond that, beyond terror, right into mindlessness.
He knew if he looked that he was as likely to be turned to a pillar of salt as he was to just drop dead.
There are some things humans are not ever meant to see clearly.
With his eyes closed he wasn't sure how he knew when the Brightness turned away again and mounted its beast. The hounds whined and strained, and the thunder rolled again as the three hunters, their dogs, and their mounts moved slowly through town, still seeking.
The air went still and quiet, but some heat lingered, like a warm breeze.
They were gone and Dean relaxed a little, eased the death grip he had on Sam, and cracked his eyes open.
Don't move yet. Where the hunters hunt, the jackals follow.
There was no thunder, no baying of hounds…
"Oh, Jesus," Sam murmured and Dean hushed him.
He smelled them before he saw them or heard them, rank and rotten, announcing their presence with corruption and decay. Three darker shapes, mirror images of the first three -- but like negatives. Horses that looked like skeletons, hunting creatures than slunk low and whined but didn't bark. Dean couldn't look at them either but more because he was afraid he'd throw up.
But they weren't looking for either the Ferryman or Sam or Dean, they were trailing the hunters ahead of them, taking advantage of whatever skill the others possessed.
Dean did not want to be there if the two sets of hunters actually found what they were looking for -- and not because he was worried about the Ferryman.
They rode past silently, leaving a stench behind them, the raw scent of sulphur and ammonia, of rotting meat, and the heat was more damp and heavy.
They are gone, came the whisper and Dean felt completely wrung out, almost falling over when his muscles suddenly went weak. Only the fact that he and Sam were wrapped around each other tighter than Dean was pretty sure he'd ever been wrapped around anybody and still had his clothes on, kept him from just sprawling on the asphalt.
The presence under his skin shivered and Dean set his teeth against the unwelcome feeling. "Feel free to take a walk anytime," he said tightly.
The Ferryman leaving him was a whole lot more uncomfortable than it had been getting into him and left him feeling hollow and bruised inside.
The Ferryman took a breath and looked down on them.
Very gently, Dean eased himself out of Sam's arms and sat back. Sam did the same thing only he just lay back down, stretched out on the road, but his eyes were open.
"So…" Dean said, looking up at the shadow looming over them. "Just exactly whose soul did you lose?" he asked.
The Ferryman cleared its throat and Sam pushed himself back up to sitting.
"Well…it's been awhile."
"Define awhile," Dean said flatly.
The Ferryman hesitated. "About two thousand years, give or take a Julian calendar month or so…"
Dean stared at him and Sam's jaw dropped.
"Are you shitting me?" Dean asked. "Dude…You lost the Son of God?"
The Ferryman glared at him. "Misplaced. I misplaced the Son of God."
"I swear to God, Sam. The minute you are all healed up, I am so going to kick your ass and beat your face to a bloody pulp," Dean snarled at him, even as he was reaching an arm out to help Sam get to his feet. "Don't you fucking ever do something like that again!"
Dean was well and truly pissed off at him and all Sam could do was give him a tight, crooked smile and settle his arm around his brother's shoulders. He didn't miss Dean's arm around his waist tightening as he took more of Sam's weight. The intensity of Dean's affections were always related to how much bodily harm he threatened at any given time.
Sam was clear that Dean pretty much loved him more than just about anybody. It was good to be reminded. Kept Sam from being so incredibly self-involved and selfish sometimes.
Although, at the moment, getting his ass kicked and his face beaten to a bloody pulp would probably be an improvement over the way he felt.
They had pretty much skipped over the whole Son of God issue for the moment -- although Dean, as big a man as he could be at times, had totally given into mocking the Ferryman for a good five minutes up to and including references to the three wise men, past episodes of Crusader Rabbit, and a reference to Elvis that despite himself, Sam still thought was hilarious. Or maybe he was still slightly punch drunk and not a little unnerved by even his brief glimpse of exactly what was tracking their reluctant ally.
Nor had it escaped him that Dean had once more put himself between Sam and what could be a potential threat (or more than mere potential, he had to admit) and really? He needed to put a stop to that somehow, even though he was aware that the only thing that had kept him from running straight into the arms of judgment was the fact that he was pretty sure Dean would have body-tackled him and taken on even the Holy Host before letting him get two feet.
And as much as he loved his brother (and Sam did, though he rarely said it which had less to do with the dreaded Hallmark moment and more to do with a totally inadequate vocabulary, despite his college trained brain,) Sam could think of absolutely nothing worse or more inevitable than the day Dean actually succeeded in proving the whole "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life…"
He understood the urge. Really, but it totally sucked being on the other end of that and Sam wasn't sure he had the strength or courage or even will to make the whole sacrifice worth anybody's effort. In truth he knew he didn't. All he had to do was glimpse a photo of his mother or summon Jess's face to mind.
"Why didn't they," Sam's voice dropped to almost a whisper, "See you in me?" he asked the Ferryman.
The Ferryman had regained a bit of his cool, he also looked like their father again which was starting to be more unnerving than comforting. "Because I never asked you for your permission," it said. "Human souls are more…present…than others. Maybe because you live such short lives, maybe because you all dwell on the line between dark and light, but my soul has never been that obvious. Your own, fractured as it is, still burns brighter. But they can sense it, sense you. What you have of me…isn't quite as active, for lack of a better word. Destroying you -- and that part of me you are harboring, gains them nothing. As you can see, I obviously don't need it."
"You know what, I already have a headache," Dean sniped. "Now…could we prioritize a little here? Hunters off looking for whatever at the moment. Check. So, what do we do about that?" he asked, casting his eyes toward the still open hole in the ground in front of Deke Hawkins's house.
"I did offer my expertise," the Ferryman said with a toothy grin.
"And what's it going to cost us?" Sam asked.
The Ferryman fixed Sam with a gaze that was both chilling and strangely understanding. "Well, not your lives in this instance."
"So, what? You've got some kind of magical sword? We stake Sam out in a field like a goat and hope I can move fast enough?" Dean asked, openly skeptical.
"No," the Ferryman said. "How are you with explosives?"
Sam decided he and Dean were operating on too little sleep and maybe one too many concussions to even be contemplating this, but it didn't stop Dean from once more offering himself as host to the Ferryman, long enough to cross the street and get the car.
The explosives themselves weren't actually a problem and the Ferryman seemed really surprised by that -- which was reassuring on one level because obviously it didn't know everything.
They had driven several miles out of town, Dean cursing as he forced the Impala over the broken ground that had once been corn or wheat field -- twenty years ago.
"I'd think, given the life you two lead, four wheel drive would be a better choice," the Ferryman commented after a particularly nasty jolt slammed its John Winchester head into the roof of the car.
"Shut up," both Sam and Dean said to him at the same time and then grinned at each other.
"This won't kill it," Dean had pointed out.
"No. But the actual problem is that it's lost its access to hunting grounds, not that humans are its natural prey," the Ferryman said. "But if you are determined to kill it, then we could, in fact, stake Sam out like a goat. I'm sure I could find a sword somewhere."
Dean glared at him. "Last thing I do, man. I'm just saying. When my number's up, you'd better hope and pray to whatever that you aren't the one punching my ticket to my final destination."
The spur line was overgrown and unkempt, this far out, and already the section they'd chosen was split; years of ice and snow alternating with heat and water runoff had shoved a few ties out of place, one rail itself rusted and out of alignment.
The Impala's suspension took another hit as Dean coaxed the car across the rail. The last thing they needed was to be caught on the wrong side of the tracks again.
Sam kind of thought the amount of explosives Dean packed around the tracks was overkill, but he said nothing. They did not want to do this twice, especially not with a raging sybylla on the loose. But at the same time, he found himself kind of hoping it would work.
"It'll stop killing people?" he asked, stepping back and leaning against the Impala trunk as Dean set the lines.
"I…I can't promise that, Sam," the Ferryman said. "But…during the time Mr. Hawkins was seeing to its needs, it seemed perfectly content to eat what was offered."
"But the bones -- the human bones in the mound?"
"May well have been dead before it fed on them, it's as much scavenger as hunter. I think, it's possible, if you checked Silence's cemetery, you might be surprised at the lack of mortal remains you find there."
"And the forty year cycles?"
The Ferryman was silent but Dean noticed it, and held up the trigger for the explosives. "Uh, now is not the time to be holding back."
"I believe it's nesting," the Ferryman said after a moment.
"Nesting?" Sam asked and straightened up. "We're about to cut it loose through half of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming and you think it's getting ready to spawn?"
"Nesting, not spawning. As far as I know -- or can sense," the Ferryman said evenly, "there is not another sybylla in this area. Born before mankind or not, it does require a mate. It will lay its eggs and watch over them until they turn to stone. Sybylla's may be immortal but they are not self-propagating. Besides, even opening its hunting grounds, they are very territorial. It's likely it would eat its own young if its hunting grounds were threatened again."
Sam stared at him. "What are the chances you're wrong?"
The Ferryman grinned. "What will you give me to know?"
Before Sam could try a sucker punch, Dean hit the trigger.
It was satisfyingly loud, rained debris down in a far larger circle than they'd expected, but in the end, the tracks were broken and scattered, opening a good fifteen foot gap in the steel .
"Is it going to know?" Dean asked, surveying the surrounding landscape by a sliver of moon.
"It lives underground…it'll know," The Ferryman said. "Although we may still need to lure it to this point. It's not just the iron itself, it's how long its…essence has been soaking into the earth around it. It's why your rebar fence didn't work at containing it. Why your railroad spike spears would have only made it angrier," the Ferryman said. "You only fouled its nest, pissing it off. These tracks have been here for a good while. But still…once a sybylla is angered…they have long memories." He glanced over at them and made a face. "I despair of the lack of education and memory your own people have."
"Yeah, well I despair of you ever getting tired of the sound of your own voice," Dean said and stared down at the gap in the rails. "How long do we need to wait?"
The Ferryman didn't answer, only climbed up to sit on the Impala's trunk.
"Hey, man, you scuff my car and I'll--"
The whine was soft at first and Sam shook his head, not sure he heard it. His ears were still ringing from the blast. But no…no. "Dean…Dean!" he said but Dean was already moving even as the earth started to tremble.
Dean left a few scuff marks of his own scrambling onto the hood of the car.
The Ferryman rapped a fist on the trunk. "You're sure this is all sheet metal? Not fiberglass?"
"Shut. Up." Dean snarled. "This is a Classic, man. All Detroit steel."
"You'd better hope so," the Ferryman said as the sybylla erupted from the earth a few yards from the damaged tracks. "Because I can't hold your bodies and souls together if that manages to get hold of one of you."
The whine had turned from an annoying screech to more like an inquisitive one as the sybylla paced along the tracks. It made a foray across the open area only to draw back with a snarl and growl.
"Maybe we should have brought a goat," the Ferryman remarked, leaning back on its elbows.
Maybe they should have. Sam started to move toward the edge of the car and heard the click.
"Sam, you put one foot on the ground and I will shoot you," Dean said calmly and Sam looked back to see his brother checking the clip in his Glock.
Sam pulled his knees up while Dean sighted.
"Are you trying to piss it off more?" Sam asked.
"Nope. Just giving it a little encouragement," Dean said and fired, hitting the dirt near its head.
It screeched and rushed the rail, only to draw up just short of it and back off. "Oh, come on," Dean said and fired again.
This time it snarled and pushed past the rail, heading for the car. "Oh, shit," Dean said and got down. "Hang on!"
The sybylla didn't actually hurl itself against the car, but it banked and dove and sent up a wave of dirt that made the car rock and tilt from the front passenger side upward.
Dean slipped, crying out as the worm curled around the front of the car. Sam dove across the roof, bracing knees and his left hand in the open passenger side window, catching Dean with his right hand, and pulled.
His left shoulder burned and he could almost feel the already abused muscles give way but Dean got his feet under him and climbed, rolling up, and Sam pulled him in tight against his chest, panting harshly.
The car shook and heaved and the Ferryman made an impatient sound and slid off the trunk, spreading his arms…
I hate this part, Sam thought and just dropped his forehead to Dean's shoulder as the darkness spread and widened and fell over them in all its icy nothingness.
Sam didn't fight it this time, and didn't doubt that Dean was still under his hands even though he couldn't feel him. And he kept his lips pressed tightly together.
It could have lasted forever, or just a few seconds, although when it finally receded, Sam was pretty sure the sliver of moon had moved a couple of degrees toward the horizon.
"Our next stop is fucking Florida," Dean said through chattering teeth but though chilled, Sam could feel Dean's body -- and his own -- warming up quickly. "Where'd it go?"
"North," the Ferryman said. "I'm sure it will find sustenance along the way, but I'd recommend you two not spend a great deal of time in this part of the country in the near future. Possibly, ever. We should probably go. I have no doubt that some geological station, somewhere, is likely to be interested in the recent seismic activity in this part of southeast Idaho."
Dean reached up and patted Sam's hand where it still clutched his shirt. "Thanks, man," he said quietly.Sam only nodded, let him go, and slid carefully off the roof of the car.
Only to find himself face to face with the Ferryman.
"Now, you and I have some other business to discuss," it said, John Winchester's face as solemn and serious as Sam had ever seen it.
Sam met the silvered gaze that flickered at him and licked at his lips. "What's it going to get me?" Behind him, Dean snickered.
The Ferryman's eyes narrowed. "Well, for starters you might get your whole soul back," it said.
Sam shrugged. "I seem to do okay."
"That's my soul you're holding, boy."
"I never asked for it," Sam said and shouldered past him, heading for the passenger seat. He caught Dean's approving smile but he didn't miss the worry in the hazel eyes.
Dean slid into the front seat the same time Sam did. "You figured something out?" he asked Sam softly, eyes flicking up to the rearview mirror.
"Maybe," Sam said glancing back. "It said Mom made it promise her something."
"Maybe to keep you alive long enough to fix it?"
"It wants something."
Dean thumped his head against the seat rest. "Well, duh," he said and tapped Sam's chest. "It's soul back."
"Then why doesn't it just take it?" Sam asked.
Dean frowned and looked in the rearview again. "It can't."
"It wants to trade something," Sam said and then stared downward as the Ferryman slid into the back seat.
"Can we drop you at the bus station or something, there, Dad," Dean asked, cranking the engine. "Or shall we play twenty questions back to Silence?"
"You two are neither clever nor funny," it said.
"We've handled the sybylla. Your hunters are off on a new trail…" Sam said as Dean eased the car over the fresh mounds of dirt. "You said you had a proposition."
"I do. I'd like to be as done with this as you would," it said sourly. "Odd as it may seem, I would very much like to go home," it added.
"Yeah, well, we all would but you pretty much fucked that up for us," Dean said harshly and Sam looked at him in surprise. Dean caught him looking and Sam swore there was a flush to his cheeks. "So, let me guess. You can't go back until you've got your whole soul together."
Sam twisted around in the seat to see his father's face looking wistfully out the window. "Something like that," he looked at Sam. "Going back, even whole-souled, won't do anything but bring the hunters down on me faster."
"You need to correct your mistake, find the one you lost," Sam said and even now he couldn't say it, Dean's jokes aside. "Get it where it's supposed to be." And really, he didn't want to think about that one at all. Somehow he didn't thinking pointing out that huge portions of human history and civilization were kind of predicated by a series of events, that apparently hadn't actually happened -- or at least not the way they were recorded -- was going to accomplish anything he could actually get his brain around.
The Ferryman nodded. "Yes. And I have a relatively short window to accomplish that once I actually have that particular soul under my guidance once more. You did notice there were two sets of hunters?"
Dean left one hand on the wheel and the other arm he reached across and lay tight across Sam's chest. Before Sam could ask, he hit the brakes.
Dean's arm kept Sam from adding yet another bump or bruise to his collection but the jolt shook things and made things ache that Sam had kind of started to be able to ignore.
The Ferryman didn't fare as well, slamming into the rear of the front seat with an audible "Ow!"
"Sorry," Dean said glancing at Sam, then threw his door open and went to the rear, opening it and hauling the Ferryman out by his shirt front.
Sam got out as well and blinked. There was something incredibly wrong and yet guiltily satisfying about watching Dean manhandle their father against the rear quarter panel.
Daddy issues, much, Sam? a snide little voice said and Sam shook it off.
"I really, seriously, could give a shit about your problems," Dean said. "Do you actually even know where this misplaced soul is?"
The Ferryman straightened up and met Dean's angry gaze. "Yes."
"So, why haven't you done what you need to do?" Sam asked.
"Because it's currently occupying yet another human host," the Ferryman said.
Dean gave him an incredulous look and spread his hands. "Aannnd? It's not like you've got some huge problem with jerking human souls out of their bodies just because you feel like it. I mean, I get that Sam isn't exactly messiah material, but you seemed totally okay with the idea of stealing my brother's soul and leaving him to die."
The Ferryman looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I only took half. And even if I'd completed my original plan, I would have left a fragment of Sam's soul -- I did still require a human soul to…hide…behind."
Dean closed his eyes and shook his head. "Use smaller words."
The Ferryman fidgeted and glanced at Sam, and Sam for the life of him couldn't figure out why it kept looking at him like he should already know this.
Except Sam realized he did, and therein lay his entire dilemma with what he and Dean and their father did as a matter of course.
"He needs the whole soul," Sam said. "And that would be, in fact, a death, and not a possibility. And he can't kill. He needs us to do it for him."
"Yes," the Ferryman said and Sam couldn't look at his father's face any longer. "And I can't have any part of it, which requires that you…willfully surrender my soul back to me with no conditions. Humans can be forgiven -- even for murder."
"Get in the car, Sam," Dean said calmly. "You?" he said to the Ferryman. "Can go to hell."
"If this isn't set right, you know there will be consequences," the Ferryman said. "Not just for you and your brother but for all of mankind."
"Then I guess you'd better come up with a plan B," Dean snapped.
"What happens when -- if -- I give you your soul back?" Sam asked. "I mean, do I get mine back?"
"You could," the Ferryman said slowly, ignoring Dean entirely.
"Sam…you need to not listen to him."
"Where is it? My soul?" Sam asked even though he was pretty sure he knew.
"This isn't a condition, it's a question."
The Ferryman's eyes flickered silver, toward Dean. "Safe."
Sam wasn't going to give in that easily. "And the other half of Dean's soul?"
"What?" Dean asked as if he were just now figuring it out. Maybe he was. It made more sense than Sam thought possible.
"Also safe," the Ferryman ground out.
Sam forced his gaze back, eyes narrowed, taking in every line and shadow, every pock-mark and broken vessel, every freckle and mole and the gray and white hairs that now peppered his father's beard and hair that hadn’t been there the last time he'd seen him.
He pushed off the car and came to stand right in front of the image of his father, and saw apprehension? Worry? Regret? Flash through those familiar eyes. "There's still a gap."
"You can't make conditions, Sam," his father said and Sam felt his eyes burn.
He felt Dean move up behind him and Sam didn't need to turn around to now that Dean was still a few steps behind, but he'd catch up. His brother was smart that way, he just had a different temperament than Sam, and part of Sam found that actually both funny and reassuring.
"It's my choice, Sam," John Winchester said. Not him, Sam reminded himself, but there was enough of his father there to recognize.
"It's not fair. And you don't get to choose for me," Sam said. "Not anymore." He hardened his gaze and felt Dean's hand on his shoulder. "The next time I see my father's face, it better be him," Sam said.
He had to close his eyes when the Ferryman let his father's countenance slide off its pallid features.
"That's a condition, Sam," it said.
Sam nodded and shrugged. "Yeah, it is. Deal. Let's go, Dean." He backed up and bumped shoulders with his brother.
"Tell me you didn't just make a deal with that son of a bitch," Dean said.
"Naw. Just came to an understanding," Sam said and slid into the car.
Dean hesitated, staring back at the Ferryman who was making no move to join them. "I'll find a way," he said to it and Sam smiled. Yeah, Dean probably would, but only if he stayed as he was, who he was.
And Sam was the only one who could make sure that happened.
Dean put the car in gear and Sam leaned back.
Some days Dean knew Sam was smarter than him -- smarter in that book knowledge, put the pieces together, kind of way. Other days, he knew Sam was no more intelligent than he himself was -- the difference was that Sam liked studying and learning. He liked thinking about things, which Dean had long since recognized was not really his strong suit. Not that he couldn't or wouldn't but actions spoke louder than words in most cases, and Dean had no aversion to learning new things as he was doing them. Over thinking things tended to make him a little nuts and if Sam were anything to go by, he'd probably made the better choice by not giving into the urge to over think too often.
He wasn't quite sure when he'd first realized that he and Sam could be dealing with the exact same information, under the same circumstances and come up with two completely different conclusions.
Although, granted, in their current circumstances it was entirely possible that Sam had access to information or at least theories from sources Dean couldn't access and wasn't sure he'd want to anyway. It had taken him, what? Five whole minutes to realize even sharing the same air with the Ferryman tended to make him see red -- the idea of sharing the same thoughts, much less the same soul, for an extended period, with something so incredibly repulsive and annoying maybe gave him a better understanding of Sam's penchant for seeing the absolute worst side to damn near everything.
The problem was, he didn't actually know how much of that was the part of Sam the Ferryman actually occupied and how much of it was Sam. And if the bigger portion of it really was Sam, then Dean ran face to face with the likelihood that maybe he and his father had actually done more harm than good to Sam over the years, forcing him to be something, someone, that deep down inside, Sam really wasn't.
Okay, and then there was the whole, this-thing-had-been-part-of-Sam-since-their-mother-died which meant for years and Dean had never known it, that freaked him out so completely, he'd spent a lot of time in the last twenty-four hours trying desperately not to think about it as much as possible.
See? It was the over thinking part that made him insane every time.
He glanced over to see Sam leaning back with his eyes closed, looking paler than he should even in faint moonlight and the green glow from the dash. They were both filthy, and Dean didn't actually need to check to be sure some of the darker spots on Sam's shirt were blood from the scrape and cut on his face. First order of business was going to be getting Sam under a hot shower or he was going to be unable to move tomorrow. Today.
He pulled his eyes back to the road, and it was road now, but Dean wasn't driving very fast (which had nothing to do with the Ferryman's crack about driving too fast when he was tired,) he just needed a few minutes of calm without something trying to either intimidate them (the fucking Ferryman), kill them (the fucking worm), or make him consider changing his religion to something that required the constant imbibing of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol (fucking hunters, Light and Dark.) For the last, he wasn't sure if his best bet was satanism, Rastafarianism, or possibly some voudun variation -- Santaria, maybe.
Or maybe he should just head himself and Sam south and go to the Baptist church on Sunday and drink the rest of the week. It seemed to work for a lot of people. But until then he kind of had to deal with what actually mattered.
Sam wasn't whole.
If he bought into any of this, and really, despite his best efforts, trying to find a way to see this as a huge hoax was getting him nowhere, then he was face to face with that fact.
Sam wasn't whole and didn't that just explain a shit load of things about his brother that Dean had never understood? Not that Sam was damaged -- they both were. Sam didn't need half a soul to bear the scars of that, from their mother's death to their father's obsession, to their upbringing, to Jess. The miracle would be if Sam weren't damaged, or Dean either for that matter.
Even with the stealthy appearance of Sam's kind of bizarre nightmare-laden prescience, it had never occurred to Dean that his brother was missing something important. That something threatened him, yeah. Duh. Two women dying right over Sam's bed, twenty two years apart -- Dean hadn't needed Jessica's death to know something was after his brother.
And Sam hadn't needed it either, not the reminder, not the additional guilt and that was still there, and no number of confessions or reassurances from the Ferryman, from Dean, or even from their father would ever absolve Sam of the guilt, because it had nothing to do with being the cause and everything to do with being the survivor and Dean knew that as well as Sam did.
Which made the fact that Sam had actually discussed bringing an end to the whole thing with that prick like Sam actually had any idea what he was doing, just make Dean's skin crawl and the hairs at the back of his neck stand up because he could feel something bad coming from all of this. And he didn't need to be prescient or psychic or even particularly good at connecting the dots. He knew his brother.
He hadn't missed the whole three card shuffle the Ferryman had apparently done with the Winchester souls, and he was still trying to process that as well. Because, again, if that were true and some part of Sam's soul was given to Dean to keep safe, just as John had given Dean Sam's tiny body to keep safe, he didn't even know what to do with that idea. With the concept. With the thought of how or if he would feel or be different if Sam suddenly regained all of his soul.
How did that work anyway? To hear the Ferryman talk about it made souls sound like sheet cakes, like you could cut them into equal portions and just kind of rearrange them and he had to wonder if that metaphor even held, because the edges of a cake were always a little harder than the center, so had the Ferryman cut Sam's soul in half or had he taken half out of the middle?
Sam swallowed and made a noise that could have been a cut off moan or a really prolonged grunt, but when Dean glanced his brother's eyes were open.
"We're almost there," Dean said.
Sam nodded and stared out the window.
"Sammy, if you were going to do something amazingly stupid, you'd give me heads up right?" Dean asked, glad to see the corner of Sam's mouth lift.
"Define 'amazingly'," he said.
"Like commit murder to fulfill some cosmic sense of balance because a freak with an aversion to the concept of modern heating fucked up two thousand years ago."
Sam chuckled and leaned his head back again. "No. I wasn't planning on committing murder. I don't like him that much. I'm not even sure I like you that much," he said rolling his head toward Dean.
"Aw, come on, you'd die for me but you wouldn't kill for me? That's splitting some truly fine hairs there, Sam." He could see the white flash of Sam's teeth in the darkness, and Dean smiled too, but Sam's answer didn't exactly reassure him.
"I'd kill anything that tried to kill you," Sam said as Dean pulled the Impala up to and in front of the house. Sam got out stiffly and Dean did as well, not missing the way Sam looked at the three steps up to the porch like they were Everest and Dean didn't hesitate lending his shoulder to Sam again for which he got a grateful and sweet smile and no protest whatsoever.
"You might want to stand under the shower for a while," Dean said once they were in. "But I'd like to get cleaned up too, so save me some hot water."
"Then you should go first," Sam said and eased himself down in the chair the Ferryman had occupied only a few hours before.
It was a better plan. "Don't fall asleep," Dean said and Sam promised.
Dean was as fast as he could be, even going so far as to step under the water when it was still cold and gritting his teeth against it, but it heated up quickly and by the time his skin had warmed up again he was clean and felt better and was out and pushing Sam toward the bathroom before he'd done anything more than wrap a towel around his hips.
And the only thing Sam did need help with was getting his shirt over his head and even as Dean assisted, he had to wonder why Sam could so easily ask for help with things like this -- getting undressed, or patching wounds he couldn't reach, (can you help me tie my shoes, Dean? Man, sentence diagramming sucks -- can you help me with this? So if the ratio of powder to silver is too high, the silver will slag off before it does its work? Show me again? If you don't shut up and help me with this head gasket we're never gonna get on the road again.) but ask for help on the big things? Be they nightmares or even deciding which school to go to which Sam had never discussed with him, or hey, calling the Holy Host and the Three Dead Demons Walking or making a deal with the devil, those things Sam never asked for help on.
Of course, Dean didn't either and that probably set a bad precedent, right there. Then again, Dean also didn't ask for help with the little things much and Sam just offered, when he wasn't pissed off or didn't recognize than any offer of help would be slapped down and away because Dean was pissed off.
Although he'd offered to help after he'd filled Dean's chest with rock salt, and yes, Dean had slapped his hand away and even now he didn't feel particularly guilty about it because he had been pissed off and hurt in more than a physical way, and while he didn't actually think Sam hated him that much or at all, until that moment in the basement of that horror of a hospital, he'd never really contemplated the idea that Sam could hate him, mostly because it was impossible for Dean to think for even a nano-second that he could hate his brother. Want to kill him sometimes? Yes. Hate the things he did, or his sometimes self-righteous attitude? Absolutely. But hate Sam? He might as well hate the air he breathed.
And wouldn't that just be the ultimate irony of irony to discover that that had more to do with the possibility that Dean had had a part of Sam with him since he was four and if he followed the logic, that his father held a piece of him, and Dean didn't need to be a metaphysical Mensa applicant to know that the gap in their family, in their father, had everything to do with his mom, which left Sam at the beginning and ending of the equation as the one still missing something. And while Dean did not and couldn't remember a time when he'd actually ever believed that there was fairness guaranteed or happy, happy ever after, it was still deeply fucked up for Sam to bear the brunt of this and be the one to have to keep paying for it even though none of it was his fault.
He stared at his phone and thought, not for the first time, about trying to call his father again, because he was rapidly losing his grip on this either because he was too damn tired or it was too damn weird, but he didn't because if he did that it was admitting that much of what the Ferryman was saying was true and that meant his father knew, knew more about this than he'd ever said.
And Dean could not think of one good reason why or how it made any sense for his father to stay away from them or leave them to deal with this all on their own unless he couldn't come to them which made more sense but not enough for Dean to figure it out.
Dean heard the water cut off and broke himself from his thoughts long enough to throw on a clean t-shirt and boxers and even pull out clothes for Sam, and then made a half stab at clearing the broken glass away from the floor near the beds at least. It made him feel somewhat justified and better when Sam managed to get his own t-shirt on with no help but the shower had only washed the dirt from his face and left him looking kind of rung out and grey. "You going to be able to sleep?" Dean asked him as he sat on the edge of the bed and retrieved the quilt from the floor.
"I think I fell asleep in the shower," Sam said which was pretty much a yes, as was the slow stretch of his body on the old mattress.
He was out almost as soon as he closed his eyes which was strange enough worry Dean even more.
Dean was tired too, but now he couldn't let this go and grabbed the last of the coffee from the pot, which was cold but strong, and added jeans to his fashion repertoire, checked his guns, and mostly checked Sam before turning the single remaining light off and took himself and his over-thinking out on the porch to watch the sun rise.
And how not surprised was he that there were more shadows on the porch than there should have been. But Dean only curled his lip at the darkened corners, and again was not surprised when the shadows coalesced into something more familiar, but still not welcome.
"You know, Sam doesn't owe you a damn thing," he said quietly, wondering if the sunrise might could hurt this thing at all. It was unfair that something that had wreaked so much havoc should apparently still get to call all the shots.
"You and I disagree on that point," it said crouching down next to him and Dean didn't look directly but he was reminded as nothing so much as a vulture waiting for something to finally die so he could pick at his bones. "But assuming you are correct and this is something I should deal with entirely on my own, I'm surprised you aren't summoning the hunters yourself, because they would find me, this close -- all of me and not just the parts of me you see now. It's not like you don't know what it will take to bring them back and they do love a dawn hunt."
Dean sipped at his coffee and refused to be baited, aware when the thin lips pulled over white teeth. "He won't kill for you."
"Of course not. I never expected he would," it said and laid those thin cold hands on Dean's shoulders. He almost shrugged him off but the Ferryman was waiting for it and easily held Dean in place with a grip that made his shoulders ache all the way to his knees.
"But you will. Have. And he knows it."
Dean whipped his head around to stare and the Ferryman rose, looking the same but different, even more shadowy and elusive and the shadows of its face were darker and harder.
It leaned close. "Which is why he won't say anything or ask, or even tell you. So, I will. What you seek is not all that far away, a few hours, a day away. But you should hurry because even I'm not entirely sure how long a human can survive with only half a soul, and between you and your father and Jessica, he's got even less than that."
The cup dropped from Dean's hand as he got up, ignoring the Ferryman and dashing back inside.
Sam looked just the same. Still asleep, curled on his side and pale to the point that Dean could swear he could see the veins under his brother's skin.
Sam had never actually agreed to tell him before he did something amazingly stupid.
It wasn't actually that hard to wake Sam back up again, and he blinked and yawned and looked so much like he usually did on waking that for a split second Dean thought the Ferryman was just yanking his chain again until Sam's eyes fixed on him for a moment and he blinked. "What? What do you--" and his eyes settled on the shadow behind Dean and Sam had always sucked at keeping guilt off his face.
He pushed up to sit. "We had a deal," Sam said to the Ferryman.
"So we do. I'm making another one. I've told you before, self-sacrifice isn't in my nature and being wholly myself doesn’t actually mean much when I've got God's own henchman ready to shred me to minute bits of particulate matter. It's always been a life for a life, a soul for a soul, Sam. Unfortunately, you don't get to sacrifice yourself for yourself. That's rather remarkably self-centered, don't you think?"
"You can find another way."
"Shut up, both of you," Dean snarled and gripped Sam's arm hard enough to leave bruises. "What did you do?"
Sam didn't even flinch, but the green eyes were brighter and more resolute than Dean had ever seen, because water had a tendency to make things brighter and clearer, even when tinged with salt. "I gave him back what was his."
"Already? Like now? Sam--"
"An hour or so ago, which leaves us -- you -- not much time." The Ferryman said and Dean didn't miss the urgency in its voice.
"Aren't you supposed to do your soul-shuffle?" Dean demanded. "You know, put us back the way we were?" The way we were meant to be, but even as he thought it, Dean realized that there was no going back to that, and he glared at the Ferryman when what he really wanted to do was glare at Sam and maybe knock some sense into him, or just punch him in sheer frustration for figuring it out first.
The Ferryman shrugged.
It was more than Dean could take, or wanted to, and he was half tempted to take the Ferryman up on his suggestion and just call out the name and let the hounds of hell and heaven come running and sort it all out, sort the Ferryman out, only that wouldn't end well either.
Because his mother had died and Dean hadn't missed who was leading the hunting party, or missed that jackals only ever followed and waited after a kill.
Bright and shining and wondrous and terrible and most of all not human.
"He won't do it," Sam said and curved his fingers around Dean's where they dug into his arm, but didn't actually try to pry Dean's fingers from his arm.
"The hell I won't," Dean said, and Sam should damn well know it. "Dying or killing, it's all about death, Sam," Dean said and shook him. "And trying to elude it as long as possible. You don't get to make those kind of choices for me."
"I know. But you don’t get to make them for me, either," Sam said and gave him a smile and just seeing it reminded Dean that there was a reason he trusted Sam's instincts almost as much as his own, and more than that, while it might be true that God or whatever might forgive him, Sam never would. "You won't," Sam said, so certain and sure Dean knew he was still missing something and Sam wouldn't just tell him because he wanted Dean to agree without knowing why. A deal was a deal was a deal.
And the Ferryman wasn't so sure either because he looked pissed off and like maybe he was thinking of challenging the old "Thou Shall Not Kill" rule.
But he reached in his pocket and pulled out something bright and shiny and small and flipped it at Dean.
Dean didn't try to catch it, just let it hit the floor and bounce and roll and stared at with much the same dread he'd felt watching Sam's blood hit the floor of an emergency room, any emergency room.
"That's the coin of your brother's life," the Ferryman said, like Dean didn't know perfectly well what it was. "What you seek is on the Coeur d'Alene reservation. And you need to remember; humans can be forgiven anything, even murder, if they ask for it."
"He won't," Sam said and Dean eased his grip.
"You forget that he's holding half your soul in trust. Losing you will literally be like losing part of himself," the Ferryman said.
"You two can stop talking about me like I'm not even here," Dean snarled out and let go of Sam's arm to grab his hand and ignored the coin at his feet and the asshole looking as sure Dean would commit murder as Sam was sure he wouldn't.
Sam's hand tightened on his and Dean almost didn't want to look but he did anyway.
There had never been a time in Sam's life, except for a brief few months after his birth, when he'd been wholly and totally himself and normal in a way that had nothing to do with the way they'd been brought up or what they knew hid in the darkness.
And maybe it didn't show in his face or his body or in the way he bled or bruised, or who he loved or how, but Dean could see it anyway.
How do you take away from someone you love more than your own life, the one thing that they'd always wanted?
For a brief second Dean bowed his head, to touch his forehead to their joined hands, praying to the only truth he knew, before shifting over to reach down and pick up the small coin.
It was cold and it burned his palm and he closed his fist around it and stared at the Ferryman if only so he could savor the wash of very human emotions over the sullen dark face: apprehension and anger and disbelief and then fear which was what Dean really wanted to see.
He shifted the coin to his finger tips and pressed his lips to it before flipping it back to the Ferryman who caught it and stared at it. "You should have listened to me when I told you not to fuck with my brother."
Dean didn't even have to summon anyone to come take the trash out.
He also didn't really have time to even gloat or savor it and wasn't sure he would anyway, when the thunder rang clear and loud from the skies and the hounds sounded like a windstorm over the corrugated roof. What he did get to see was Sam grinning at him like he had just done something amazing and impressive, like he was sliced bread and paper napkins, someone who Sam could and did admire and look up to more than anyone he ever had. Best brother, ever.
And maybe Dean's soul was whole, a patched together quiltwork of he and Sam both and maybe a little of their parents, which made it kind of like armor except Dean was pretty sure that not even the armor of the Bright things now racing toward them could keep his heart from breaking or being ripped from his chest without anything but Sam's smile touching him.
Like sunrise through stained glass, They filled the room and the house and there was no place at all for a shadow to hide and Dean could only wish that he could stand to watch, but as before, curiosity warred with something indescribably terrible (or wondrous) and lost, and for the moment, Sam was real and solid and still warm against his chest, and even through the tearing and rending and screeching that should have driven both of them insane, he could still hear Sam's quiet "thank you" against his ear and the words that neither of them ever said out loud only showed in a thousand ways a thousand times a day.
Even through closed eyes, Dean knew when that bright, bright, unforgiving thing came close as if looking for remnants or traces. Sam made a low pained sound Dean couldn't stop himself even though he didn't dare look, only pushed an arm out to fend off the unrelenting judgment that had come for its due, without really stopping to think about what could happen,
And for one brief second, he could
swear he felt his mother's hand on his head, both in blessing and forgiveness
because he'd never been meant to keep a promise she made and the only one
that had never known that was him.
The last time Sam Winchester died came neither suddenly nor as a surprise and while for himself, he was pretty okay with the idea (because, yeah, there was something to be said for having that much control over your own destiny if not your own life -- and having any kind of control over his life was something Sam had learned to live without for all but a few years at Stanford and even that had apparently been more illusion than fact) if he had it to do over again, he'd probably pick fast and sudden if only to spare his brother the details.
And it wasn't like Dean didn't know, or hadn't figured it out, but his ability to deny what was right in front of him ran almost as deep as his confidence and that was pretty deep -- that was like a nearly untapped natural resource, self-renewing and entirely justified. Or so Sam had mostly thought right up until they pulled into the parking lot of the Benewah Medical center outside of Plummer, Idaho, on the far west edge of the Coeur D'Alene Tribal Reservation.
And suddenly, Dean's confidence seemed to run dry, be tapped out, and while Sam had seen Dean scared quite a few times, he'd rarely seen him panic and wasn't sure he was seeing it now, but he thought it might be panic.
But they weren't here for the medical center per se, even though Sam was really clear on the fact that he was dying and that there wasn't anything anyone on this side of the line that divided this world from the next or others could do about it. They'd still needed to come here because this was where their father was and this really was pretty much the end of their journey, if not Sam's alone, and Sam had known it would be even before he gave the Ferryman back what Sam had never wanted.
It had taken them nearly nine hours to get here, nine hours that had been harder on Dean than Sam because Dean wasn't ready to give up just yet and Sam was past thinking he was actually giving up anything at all and only grateful that he actually had time to think about it and realize that his mother had managed to give him twenty-two years -- a whole lifetime -- in which he'd lived a pretty full life, had been loved and loved in return, and in the end, aside from the losses and the pain and the misunderstanding and the fights, there really wasn't a whole lot more he could probably expect from another twenty-two years or forty two or even a hundred. Not that he didn't still wonder if maybe somewhere along the way things might be different, until he kind of ran right into the fact that this was about as different as it got and that he'd already died a couple of times he could remember and maybe a few more he didn't and all in all, this one was the only one that didn't really scare him.
But it scared Dean and Sam wished he could find a way to make it be all right for him, or better, but of course it wouldn't be, and so Sam dug in and hung on because if he couldn't do anything else for his brother, what he could do was make sure Dean wasn't alone when it happened.
And Sam wasn't exactly sure how he could manage to do that only he knew that it had come close to being not only sudden and unexpected but painful back in the little borrowed house in Silence, when suddenly there was too much light to even see by, when the thunder sounded less like a storm and more like the bones of the earth cracking, and it hadn't actually hurt very much when he'd let go of the Ferryman's shadow soul, only left him feeling hollow and echoey like suddenly there was far too much room inside him for him to occupy and it was a weird feeling to feel your own soul kind of flopping around or drifting, broken and in pieces, trying to find a way to fill all the empty places left behind.
And then the hunters had been there, looking, not willing to let their prey escape again, but they were too big or too powerful or just too much to be contained by a human soul much less a human body, and the hollow feeling had been replaced by the sensation that they were quite willing to slice him open so that any remaining part of his soul would be forced to flee and then burn his body and his bones in a purifying fire that would ensure that not even the smallest fragment of the Ferryman's soul remained. That Sam's wouldn't either was not even a consideration, really.
After all, that had been how and why his mother had died, and why Jess had died and somewhere, somehow Sam always knew that ultimately, that was how he was supposed to die too. And it could be unfair, and it could be cruel, but this kind of justice didn't look for nuances of grey or partial redemptions and this kind of judgment wasn't meant to deter or reform. This kind of judgment and these judges were all about righting grievous wrongs, about retribution for sins so encompassing, there was no room for mercy and no quarter given. Innocence or guilt had no place in this because it was about neither.
But really? It wasn't any easier to accept that kind of unrelenting justice than it would have been to accept it from the demons that haunted the world, who nonetheless knew and used all the shades of black and gray and the shades in-between because they weren't absolutes, they were variables, whereas the Holy Host and Hunters Three, were about as down dirty and absolute as the sun rising, the rain falling, and the fact that every human being was heading for death from the moment they were born.
Except one. Maybe two if Sam really pushed the theology angle a bit but that was hard to do when he could feel the blade against his belly and the heat against his back and he was afraid.
And then the cold edge of justice against this stomach and the blast-heat burn of purification went still for a fraction of a second and Sam didn't know what was happening or why they had stopped because you didn't get to bargain with an absolute.
Only Dean did and Sam wasn't sure how or why and he clutched at Dean's shirt and his hair because he didn't want another person, and certainly not his brother, to make another promise, to sacrifice themselves again because two had been too many and three would kill him just as surely as the loss of his soul would, only faster.
And there was no bargain here. It wasn't as if that one amazing and endless soul had been born into him, because of all the things Sam did know, he did know he was the son of a woman and a man and brother to another man, and there was nothing divine or world changing in any of them whether they hunted ghosts or demons or worked on other people's cars, or became lawyers, or raised families. And maybe they weren't normal in a wholly human sense, but they certainly were more normal than not in a great cosmic sense.
The burn in his belly receded and the heat at his back cooled and he knew Dean had done something, but his brother's body was still pressed against his own, and Dean's fingers were still dug into his hair tight enough to make Sam's scalp tingle, his face buried in Sam's neck, but his other arm outstretched…
Maybe because he was already halfway across, or because fear for himself had been less of a priority than fear for others, or because while he knew this wasn't fair on any scale, human beings would ever use to measure, it also wasn't like looking would make it any worse and if Sam was going to die and maybe Dean as well, then whatever judgment was levied against them could damn well look him in the face when the sentence was pronounced.
Once upon a time, when Sam was about ten, his father had given him a large blank book and a pen, because Sam was forever doodling on the edges of things, around notes and maps, much like John Winchester did, and while Sam had had blank notebooks and pads before for school or while they wee spending hours in libraries, he'd never had a book, a blank book that came to him with no other purpose whatsoever than what he wanted to determine for himself. So he'd carefully put his name in the front and stared at the blank pages and it had been weeks before he'd actually put a single other thing in the book, but sometimes he would take it out and look at the blank pages and grin at Dean when he demanded if Sam was ever going to write in that thing, and close it again. I don't have to, he told his brother. I can do anything I want with it..
And Dean had snatched it out of his hand and opened it, as brother's were wont to do, and poised a pen over a blank page. Sam had said nothing, because if he tried to get it back, Dean would do it anyway, and if he pleaded, Dean might give it back but he'd call him a baby and Sam hated that Dean thought that, even when most of the time he didn't act like Sam was a baby.
Put your name in it, Sam had said instead, because at least if Dean did that, it would still be part of Sam's to do with as he liked and Dean had looked at it and started to, only to stop and hand it back to Sam. You do it.
And Sam had. And then he'd put his father's name in it, and the name of the mother he didn't remember, all in the front on the first page.
And later he and Dean had used the back of the book to play tic-tac-toe (which Dean usually won at) and Hangman (which Sam usually won at) and by the time Sam was twelve, the blank book was filled with doodles and notes and fragment of games, with a couple of diary entries that Sam had written and then torn the pages out because it was enough to spill his guts to a blank page but too much to think Dean or his father would ever read them and adolescent angst was never so interesting when you looked at it later.
When he left for Stanford after bitter words with his father and almost none at all for Dean, the book, which he hadn't written in in more than three years went into the bottom of his bag and stayed there, all through his trip across country, and remained in the bag in the bottom of his dorm closet, and later in the bag in the closet he shared with Jess and sometimes Sam looked at it and thought he should just toss it, but it was still there up until the night Dean came looking for him and he'd repacked the bag with clothes and weapons and left the book out on the dresser because he thought it would be safer there and he didn't want to take anything with him he was afraid he'd lose.
So, he'd left behind the book, and his future, and four years of hard work, and Jessica.
Only he knew now that he'd left part of himself with her (completely willingly), and taken part of her with him (given freely), and the book was still burned in his memory, and the hard work hadn't been really that hard, and his future, such as it was, wasn't actually something he could leave behind even if he tried, even if it wasn't what he thought it would be. And he'd taken with him the one thing he really was afraid to lose, which is why he'd said yes to Dean in the first place.
It wasn't even like he could really see that terrible, beautiful face, or that it cared at all for him, or his brother, and Sam wasn't sure it even acknowledged them as anything more than furniture or the blurred background to a world it actually had no part in or use for.
But it recognized a lot of things that bridged the two worlds, like courage, like honor, like justice and debt and maybe even hope and love.
And it knew the difference between justice and vengeance and maybe even a little of mercy because it stepped back without moving at all, and looked Sam in the eye and barely touched the back of Dean's hand, just above the corded leather at his wrist, and maybe inclined its head a little.
And apparently it didn't know what to do with gratitude, which Sam might have found a little funny, if his own sense of it didn't threaten to just finish what the Ferryman had begun twenty-two years before, and instead found himself knowing he'd been given a little grace here and maybe, maybe, this kind of justice wasn't as unrelenting as he thought.
Then They were gone, brightness and shadows both, and Sam waited but the jackals didn't follow though he knew they were probably not far, and the true sunrise came washing through the windows and bathed the floorboards clean, lanced off the broken glass so that a dozen tiny prism rainbows danced off the walls.
Dean held onto Sam for Sam didn't know how long, not really sure what he felt, if anything, and Sam didn't move either and only his brother's warm breath along his throat told him it wasn't quite over yet and maybe it was over past fixing, but Dean was still here and still alive and in the overall scheme of things that was really all Sam wanted and maybe even a little more than he'd dared hope for.
"Dad really is at the Coeur d'Alene reservation," Sam finally said, feeling tired but it was as much information as request.
They were on the road in less than half an hour.
Sam would have preferred to be more company but he could feel himself bleeding out around the edges, even though when he looked at his hands or his arms or even caught a glimpse of his face in the side mirror, he looked just the same, and the hollowness inside didn't seem to be making him cave in on himself, even though that's exactly what it felt like. So he rested when he could, but was almost afraid to fall asleep because he wasn't sure he could pull himself out of it and he needed to finish this thing, give his brother not so much what Dean wanted as what he would need.
A little less than eight hours later they were outside the reservation of the Coeur d'Alene tribe and Dean realized he had no idea where they were going.
"Sam…" His fingers curled around the back of Sam's neck and his thumb rubbed under Sam's ear until Sam could focus on him. "I don't know--"
"The reservation," Sam said.
"We're at the southern edge. It's a big place."
"Not so big…toward the medical center in Plummer." Which was another couple of hours away.
"Do you need a hospital?" Dean asked, and Sam could see the fear in him like it was etched in black across his skin.
Sam shook his head. "No. It's where Dad is. He's okay," he added.
"How do you know that?"
"If I told you I dreamed it, are you going to freak out on me?" Sam asked, with a little more spunk in his voice.
"Okay, then. How's 'trust me' working for you?"
Dean swallowed and drove.
The medical center was pretty impressive, new, and Dean circled the parking lot twice before they spotted their father's old beater of a truck. Dean looked both relieved and not, glaring at Sam almost like he was accusing him of something, which he probably was, but he was pretty justified in it so Sam took it and let his brother's anger keep him going for a few more minutes.
Sam was reached for the door handle which took him both longer and apparently required a whole lot more strength and coordination than Sam possessed at the moment and Dean leaned across to open it for him.
Sam did manage to nudge the door open though, and swing his legs out only to find Dean there when Sam hadn't either heard or felt him get out of the car. Then his hand was there, strong and sure, and anger or grief aside he wasn't letting go of Sam, and Sam thought he'd miss that more than anything.
"Maybe you should go find Dad," Sam said, leaning against the car and he watched Dean, again wishing this had been sudden because it was more difficult to watch his brother try to come to terms with this than he'd ever thought possible, but Dean wasn't moving, torn between being afraid to stay and watch Sam die right in front of him or walking away and never seeing him alive again. He put a hand on Sam's chest and Sam gripped it, while Dean pulled out his phone and speed dialed a number he'd given up on months ago.
Sam knew he wouldn't get the message they'd both memorized, but he couldn't look at Dean's face when their father actually answered as Sam knew he would because watching Dean fight crying was harder than doing it himself, but at the same time, he knew he'd made the right choice to bring Dean here, for a lot of reason but this one was the most important.
"D…Dad. Sam and I are in the parking lot…of the medical center," Dean said and his voice was thick as he listened and nodded and then closed the phone. His fingers curled into Sam's shirt and Sam patted it awkwardly. "Dad'll be right out."
Sam nodded and there were tears on his face too, even when Dean repeated what he'd been saying for hours, all through the drive up here. "There's got to be something we can do."
And that made Sam chuckle and drop his chin, only to lift it again and smile. "Dad's here," he said and Dean turned and looked to see their father shoving open the glass fronted doors, long legs eating up the distance.
"This better be him," Dean muttered but he didn't let go of Sam which was just as well because Sam wasn't sure he could stand on his own any longer, when he already felt like his body was heavier than it should be and at the same time, was starting to feel like it wasn't part of him anymore. And as little as he wanted to give the Ferryman credit for anything it was a lot harder to hold body and soul together than Sam had thought and he wondered how much of that was his own will, or his brother's love, or some ebbing state of grace left behind by angels and furies.
Then their father was there with one hand on Dean's shoulder and another cupped around the back of Sam's neck and Sam didn't really need his father's forgiveness, nor feel the urge to offer his own, and he knew better than to ask for Dean's because that would take some time -- time Sam didn't have.
Sam had to wonder why they all had such a resistance to physical contact, because there really wasn't anything quite like being enfolded in his father's arms, or feeling Dean still warm and solid under his arm.
Except for the moment when you finally
had to let go.
Dean had spent a lot of time and a lot of miles over the past year trying to figure out what he’d say to his father once he saw him again, and somewhere along the way, the conversations in his head had mutated from being able to see it and hear it in his head like they caught up to their father at some diner or motel or on some job, to being not so distinct or clear, like he might not get to say what he wanted to say until either his father was dead or he was, or maybe both.
And he’d thought about what his father had said on a tape Dean had made the day before he had headed for Stanford and Sam and he didn’t even need to play it anymore to remember his father warning him that something was starting, something was coming, Run, Dean, run! Take your brother and get out!.
But whatever he’d wanted to say or meant to say, whatever questions he wanted answers to, or apologies he thought maybe he deserved, all faded and crumbled in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere Idaho, with his father right in front of him and Sam’s smile that went lax and disappeared and it took both Dean and his father to hold him up because he was barely breathing and the pulse Dean could feel under his fingers was too fast and too wild and all he wanted to know or to ask his father or even Sam, was, Why? If you knew this was coming, that it was happening, why didn’t you stop it? There has to be a way to stop it!
Which had pretty much Dean’s approach to everything bad that had he’d ever seen in his life, be they vengeful ghosts, or restless spirits, demons or possessed people, and for most of his life, he’d been right – there was a way to stop it, to end it, and if not fix it entirely, at least fix it enough that people could recover and rebuild and go on and so could he.
The first time he hadn’t been right about that had been those twenty odd years ago, when his father had told him to run and he’d done it without knowing why only that his father had said so and it hadn’t occurred to him that his mommy wasn’t there or even to ask, until his father had come out again and picked up him and Sam and Dean had waited but his mother hadn’t come out or come back. And even days later, when he was still waiting and Sammy was crying all the time even though Dean couldn’t, and he knew Sammy was afraid and maybe he should be too, Dean had waited, thinking his father could make Sam stop being afraid or maybe his mom but neither happened.
And so Dean had climbed into his brother’s crib and Sam had stopped crying and not been as afraid, and that felt a thousand times better than the empty, scary, hollow feeling Dean had, and maybe he couldn’t fix his mom not coming back, or his daddy crying or being sad and scared, but he could fix it for Sammy and it was the first time he realized that yes, he could fix some things. Maybe not all, but some, and that fixing them was better than them being broken and afraid.
But now he was faced with something he couldn’t fix, wasn’t even sure where to start, and he could feel it when he went down to his knees with Sam, like something was trying to tear itself free, that same fluttery, panicked, bird-trapped-in-a-cage feeling, that he’d felt almost too long ago to remember, and maybe he should have been willing to let go, but he wasn’t, and he didn’t actually know how.
And the flapping and straining inside him eased off a little when his father told him again to run, this time for help, and maybe it was stupid or foolish or selfish because Sam was dying but he’d looked at his father and defied him as he had few times in his life.
“I’m not leaving him.”
His father hadn’t been angry or even surprised, he’d only gotten to his feet. “I’ll be right back,” he’d promised and Dean believed him but he also knew it wouldn’t matter. That it didn’t matter even when he returned with a doctor and nurses and orderlies and a gurney, and they were doing things to Sam that Dean had seen all too often before, keeping his body alive when the will had fled.
He was dry-eyed as his father wasn’t when they entered the center, and calmer, and he listened to the doctor tell them that they were running tests and that Sam was still breathing (with a little help) but that his heart was working too hard and his blood pressure was dropping and they didn’t know, yet, what they could do except keep trying.
And Dean was fine with that, because he’d take what time he could get now that he was face to face with Sam’s choices, and maybe he could even admire Sam a little, but not that much, because Dean wasn’t done yet, because no one had been able to tell him why.
And Sam was still here however weak or fading or willing to give up – so maybe there was something to those testimonials on Oprah or those Hallmark movies, where the dying were waiting for their loved ones to release them.
Dean wasn’t ready to let go yet, and he felt not one pang of guilt at Sam being on a ventilator for awhile until he could explore every avenue and maybe see if he couldn’t work a few deals of his own.
So, he sat by his father in the waiting room, and sometimes he could see past the quickly moving people and sometimes not, and the too fast beating of his own heart told him it wasn’t over yet, but that it was getting close.
“You knew,” Dean said finally to his father, without looking at him and he didn’t have the strength or really the will to be angry with his father and disappointment was so much easier, except not because, knowing or not, he didn’t actually believe his father wanted Sam to die, and there had to be a reason why he was letting it happen.
His father hadn’t denied it, had met Dean’s a gaze steadily through red-rimmed eyes and a runny nose and kept his voice low. “I knew what needed to happen. What would be asked. It’s why I’m here.”
And Dean hadn’t understood, but had only glanced at Sam when his father got up and led him down a hallway and around a corner and it took Dean a moment to realize they were in the maternity wing and stopped, and Dean didn’t want to look except he knew now why and how Sam had been so sure, and it had little to do with what might or might not have happened two thousand years ago and everything to do with what had happened only a couple of days ago and why things had happened so quickly.
“Her name is Jerusha Maria Fast Horse,” his father said and Dean could only look and wonder a little. She had a mop of coal black hair and her nose was kind of flat and her eyes were bright blue like most babies were, and she was tiny and fragile and looked nothing like Sam had, or even, he supposed like a baby born a couple of thousand years ago because she was neither of those people and hopefully all herself.
She looked at him the same way she looked at the play of shadows and light on the ceiling and turned her head to sounds behind the glass, and yawned and spit and fussed and Dean remembered two things which might be true: the first he’d heard over and over again until he thought everyone had and hadn’t really put much stock in it and maybe still didn’t.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and Dean was okay with the idea that in this case, it was a daughter, because the only son he’d ever paid much attention to had been the other son of his father.
And the second thing he’d heard more recently but had probably known before; that sometimes infants and children died for no reason at all…
And sometimes they did, but not this child, and not for any reason that he or his father and obviously not Sam could justify and he turned away and put his back to the glass observation window and asked his father who exactly he’d come here to save.
“I thought your brother, maybe you. But...I think the only one I saved is myself,” his father said in a voice broken and tired, and Dean made himself turn around and look at the baby again.
Because this was where the line got drawn, and Sam had known it and Dean did too and so did their father – that there was huge difference between sacrificing a life to save someone you loved and sacrificing your own life to save someone you love, and Sam had known it the same way his mother had.
And maybe this child would grow up to save the world, or save souls, or redeem the wicked, or maybe she’d just grow up and worry about her looks, or dream about kissing her first boyfriend, or save her money to take a cruise to the Bahamas when she turned thirty or settle in and have babies of her own and the truth was it didn’t matter what her fate or purpose was because it wasn’t up to Dean or his father to determine.
The story went that the Son of God had been made man and lived as one, and all in all that had been the real miracle and the gift, and the whole reason a sacrifice had been offered and accepted. And Dean was inclined to think maybe that account wasn’t horribly far off because the Ferryman had never said exactly when it had misplaced that particular soul. Which made Dean wonder how much of that was accident and how much was design, since if any of it was true, it’s likely it all was and well, man, they were talking Child of God here, so who the hell knew if this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen all along? Because in Dean’s sketchy faith it made a certain sense that maybe you should know the people you were trying to save.
He’d turned away from the infant without an ill thought toward her or her fate and headed back to the emergency room because while he now understood that part and what Sam had done, he still didn’t know why it was necessary, because Sam could have just stayed as he was and let the Ferryman hang out and be annoyed since that knack he had for resurrecting the dead had kind of come in handy.
His father got stopped by the doctor and they’d moved Sam to a quieter part of the emergency room and for some reason Dean hadn't expected to see him on machines and people moving around him but there was an IV in his arm and a tube in his throat and some kind of monitor on his chest and the room gave off muted chirps and beeps and hisses like an orchestra that couldn't quite get its act together, but even as he got closer, Dean knew that, yes it was all true, and it was no weirder than anything else he’d seen or done, that Sam would be waiting for him to let go, to sever that last link that held him bound here.
It didn’t help to know that some part of Sam would be always and forever his because the moment he let go, that part of Sam that had been part of him so long would be wholly his and not Sam at all and it wasn’t going to be something he could call back or do over.
He knew when his father came up behind him and he didn’t mind the big hand that rested on his shoulder or the other that came back and pushed Sam’s hair back off his face but what he did mind was when his father leaned down to kiss Sam’s forehead, because his father was already letting go and Dean…Dean wasn’t ready yet.
Fear very often becomes anger and Dean knew it better than most, pushing back and past his father, because this was wrong, and that it might be inevitable didn’t make it right and it was fucked up that his brother was dying because some careless, inhuman asshole had misplaced a soul the way Dean sometimes misplaced his car keys.
He wanted his pound of flesh and he wanted his eye for an eye, and mostly, since he already knew there were far too many things out beyond the beyond paying attention, he wanted a deal and at the moment he didn’t really care who he made it with. So, he ignored his father when he called him back, and he ignored the renewed sensation of something trapped inside him that wanted its freedom, and he ignored the fact that he couldn’t see very clearly even when he pushed through the doors and into the sunlight – since it all looked bleak and grey anyway.
But he wasn’t so far gone as to want to make some monkey-paw kind of deal that would give him back Sam, but a Sam without a soul, or the ability to laugh, or roll his eyes at Dean’s bad jokes. He’d go for an out and out trade, his life for Sam’s, his soul for Sam’s, because if Sam could be stupid and brave, Dean wasn’t going to be outdone by his geeky baby brother, even if his real reason for wanting the trade had nothing to do with stupidity or bravery at all.
He had no number in his cell phone to dial, and somehow he thought this might be beyond the abilities of the Ghostbuster’s to fix or even Oprah, and he only barely acknowledged when he slipped past anger and grief and into a kind of manic hysteria that was a lot like being drunk only there was no forgetting or oblivion waiting at the bottom.
Which only pissed him off more, and barring a literal deal with the devil, all he could do was curse the name of the thing that had brought them to this and wonder if there was any way to summon the ghost of something that had never really lived, just so he could consign it to darkness and shadows all over again, or maybe do a little tearing and rending of his own.
“There’s no power in a name that means nothing any longer.”
Someone spoke behind him and Dean turned to face a middle aged man, who had all the features of a Native American, was dressed in jeans and denim and maybe he worked here, or lived here.
Or was something else entirely.
“I tend to go with what I’ve got,” Dean said carefully, flatly because he really wasn't in the mood to be jerked around.
The man nodded. “That’s a wise course. Do you know what the people of this land call themselves?” he asked.
“Not a clue…” Dean said and felt a creep of disappointment
“They call themselves ‘Schitsu'umsh’," he said but Dean noticed he said, they and not we. “It means ‘the discovered people’ or ‘those who are found here’.”
“It’s always good to know where you come from and who you are,” Dean said and his attention was caught by his father coming out the door again, and even from this far away, Dean could see it in the slump of his shoulders, in the way he waited for Dean to come to him. “I’ve got to go,” he said.
The man stepped in front of him, and Dean swore he felt the earth tremble under him, and the fast beating in his chest and his heart went still, and the air that had been sunny and bright turned brittle and cold.
Those features shimmered and slid and for a brief moment Dean swore he saw, not yet another version of the Ferryman, but something long and pale and snakish, coil around the man in front of him, only to have it vanish and settle and then to see it flare so brightly that for a moment Dean wanted to turn away for fear he’d be turned to a pillar of salt.
The man held up a coin, kind of dull and small, worn at the edges and familiar. “This…cannot buy back your brother’s soul, nor repair it, or restore it, but it was taken from him without his permission and offered to you. No man can refuse for another to pay the price of passage,” he said. “Nor can I promise your brother will still not refuse. This…” He held up another, brighter and less worn but still familiar coin, “is the coin of your life which you cannot offer up for him, but which you can use to buy the time he needs to let his soul heal…”
The man gave him a wry smile. “If your brother refuses, you will have paid the price for no reason.”
“I don’t need one.” Or maybe he had all the reason he needed, the same way Sam had.
“So be it. But you should know, once joined, they cannot be parted. If your brother makes the journey again, you will as well.”
“And if I…if I die? Will Sam be forced to follow?”
“Not so quick to say yes, after all,” it said with a sly smile.
Dean set his jaw. “I think Sam’s paid enough for what one of your kind did – or failed to do,” he said and his father was running toward him. “Just tell me.”
“If you die…the choice will be his.”
That was all Dean needed to know because over-thinking always got him in trouble. “Do it.”
And it smiled at him and held the coins in either hand and tossed both in the air, "Then let go of that which is not yours and claim what is."
Dean saw his father stop running and he called out something but the sound was lost in thunder and squealing and Dean suddenly remembered that if something sounded too good to be true it probably was, and hard on the heels of that was what the Ferryman had said about always getting his due.
Because what this creature had not said was exactly who or what Dean would be buying that time from. Or how much time it would take.
And letting go of what wasn't his meant claiming what was, and he could see it in his father's face when he stopped and knew why Sam hadn't chosen to stay as he was.
There was still a gap to be filled and it had to come from somewhere.
He could almost hear his father say "Do it," the same way Dean had.
Like any good bet, the minute the coins hit the ground the calling of it was over, and there was no way to make that choice because while his father would probably be grateful, Sam would never be able to live with the idea that he'd been the cause for both his parents dying and he'd refuse and it wouldn't matter anyway.
And Dean thought all this while he leapt to grab the coins before they hit but he could only catch one.
He closed his fist around it and dropped, hitting his knees almost the same moment his father did and across a dirty parking lot he met his father's eyes for a brief moment before hearing the other coin hit the ground and ping and roll, and opened his hand to look at the now dull, worn circle that he actually didn't have the right to claim at all.
And this ferryman bent down and picked up the shinier one and regarded him solemnly. "Every journey has its price," it said and turned away and walked toward the medical center, becoming less substantial with every step until it was completely gone by the time it reached the doors.
And the day was still sunny and bright but the coin in Dean's hand was chill and dark.
He couldn't move or think, even when his father got up and moved beside him, and maybe he'd be angry that Dean had made the wrong choice, but that would come later. For now, the feeling of something trapped inside him had gone still and the ache wasn't from something being torn free but because something was already gone, and yet still his.
"Dean…we need to go," his father said and Dean could only wish his father meant get in their cars and drive, but of course he didn't, because dead or not they weren't leaving Sam behind.
He tried to remind himself that it wasn't like he hadn't seen Sam dead before and he should be used to it, but the last couple of times Sam had come back and Dean gave half a thought to just waiting, just in case, but he didn't actually think it would happen.
And then the nurses were moving in to remove the tubes and slide the needles out from under Sam's skin, and watching them treat him so carefully, like he could still feel anything was more than Dean could take. "Dad…I need to …I gotta…" and his father had only nodded and he looked older than he was and Dean wasn't sure if his father would recover from this one, or if it would matter since they'd done at least part of what John Winchester had set out to do so many years ago, to find out why and how his wife had died, and somehow Dean didn't think even his father could take on the Holy Host and win but maybe he'd take them on just to finish it once and for all.
Dean had no destination really and no sense of what to do next, although he was sure they'd need to make arrangements because if nothing else he was pretty sure Sam belonged next to their mother and that meant going back to Kansas.
So he found himself in the main lobby and there were vending machines and he dug through his pocket for change and then stared at the dull and tarnished coin in his hand and there was something just kind of funny and very Sam about Dean using that coin to buy a cup of coffee.
But he didn't and had to wonder why he still had it and why the ferryman hadn't taken it back along with Dean's, but as they said, the journey was paid for.
So he got his coffee and drank it and thought maybe he should get one for his dad and while he waited for the cup to fill, he saw a couple moving across the lobby and didn't pay that much attention, finally ready to head back himself.
But the mother stopped and fussed with blankets and the baby she carried gurgled and the proud new dad shifted a truly obnoxiously pink diaper bag onto his shoulder so he could carry his wife's purse. Any other time Dean might have rolled his eyes and just taken a wide path around them, but the baby had her head on her mother's shoulder and the blue eyes blinked sleepily at him when she yawned.
And for a long moment Dean tried to find some sense of resentment or anger or even maybe some kind of satisfaction in the idea that maybe this child would get the normal life Sam had always wanted.
Which was what finally broke through the numbness and opened him up to one of those moments that he hated with everything in him, but he gave into it anyway because what kind of man was he if he couldn't even cry when his brother died?
And maybe he made some kind of noise or just a sob or maybe it was the thunder he heard rattle the skies and the building because then the baby started crying and her mother tried to soothe her.
The thunder rumbled again and this time it came with rain when the skies that had been so blue and clear before went dark and opened up and Dean could see the rain beyond the glass doors, coming down in sheets.
The lights flickered and then came back up, and Dean felt the flutter in his chest and the creeping hair up his arms and the back of his neck, and the baby and her parents were moving toward the doors so the father could dash out and get the car. And the announcements started, calling some doctor back to the emergency room for a code and Dean didn't even stop to think about the fact that hospitals generally called codes when someone was dying, not after they were already dead.
He didn't see his father immediately and the cubicle where Sam had been was empty, and he had to stop a nurse to ask and she gave him a wide-eyed look. "Uhm…they took him to surgery."
Which registered not at all but she pointed him down another hallway and he could see the signs on the wall and he found his father there looking both like he was possibly three sheets to the wind and insanely hopeful.
"There was…the doctor went to check for final vitals and…there was fluid and they didn't know but Sam…took a breath and they…and Sam…"
…or someone, something had held him together body and soul until modern medicine could do its thing only Dean didn't believe that for a second.
And maybe it was because a baby cried, or maybe it was because every journey had its price, and maybe there was still a price to be paid in a world where giant worms hunted rabbits and people and gave shamans visions of the future.
And maybe Sam still only had part of a soul or all of it but all Dean knew was that an hour later, when they still weren't sure if Sam was going to pull through and his father asked him if he had change for coffee, Dean couldn't find the small tarnished coin in his pocket.
And when he took a break from the
waiting and stepped outside, he couldn't even tell it had rained.
Once upon a time there was a boy, who grew up like most boys, alternately loving and hating his parents and his siblings and sometimes himself, but then all boys do because their dreams are sometimes too big for them hold onto and they fear they will never grow up fast enough to pursue them and it makes them fractious and a little mouthy but always earnest. And the boy was good with his hands, and he liked cars and eventually girls and he couldn't quite figure out how to make those two things come together even when he was no longer really a boy but not quite a man. But the boy found a fairy godfather named Uncle Sam and with an enlistment bonus and a recommendation from his shop teacher, the boy learned how to be a warrior too, and he still got to work on cars, and tanks and all kinds of things.
But being a warrior meant he had to see some ugly things, and some brutal things, and he learned to fight and he learned to kill and maybe some people thought of him as a monster and some people thought of him as a hero and while he was proud of what he learned and who he was, he wanted something else, something more, like a reason why the fighting was necessary and the killing was necessary and he still would rather work on cars or engines and he still liked girls and it was still all about finding away to make those two things come together.
And then he met a princess, who was lovely and kind and who knew nothing about fighting or killing or engines, and the last was a good thing for him because he did, and so when her car broke down, he was able to fix it, and that made him a hero to her and it had nothing to do with fighting or killing but only because he liked to work on cars.
So he bought her coffee and she baked him cookies and when the time came around again for him to choose between continuing to be a warrior or make a living as a decent mechanic with a princess to love, it was kind of a no-brainer.
So, he became a king instead of warrior, with his own little kingdom (three bedroom, two baths, with central heat and air) and she became queen of his heart and soul, and after a year or so, she gave him a son and an heir, and he decided while it was good to be a hero, or a warrior, or even a king, it was way better to be a husband and a father, and it was nice to know that the hands that could hold a gun, or kill a man, or use a wrench or a hydraulic hoist could also hold a baby or change its diapers and make raspberry noises on his son's stomach (or on his wife's, which always made her laugh.)
And he thought life couldn't get better although his queen thought he was such a good father and provider and she so much loved being a mother that they decided maybe another heir was in order, and maybe it would be a daughter or maybe another son, but mostly, they just thought that more of what they had could only make them happier and no one really wants to settle for less happiness.
And so they tried, but it took some time and maybe a few extra visits to the doctor just to be sure, but finally Mary the Queen and John the King and Dean the Crown Prince all got what they asked for which really, was just somebody else to love since they had so much to spare.
And Prince Sammy gave them a bit of scare when he first showed up, but he settled in nicely and he was a happy baby who seemed to know he was well loved the same way he quickly learned to find his toes or laugh at his father's deep voice, or blow bubbles at his mother's softer one, or flail his arms and legs when Prince Dean came to play with him.
And Good King John, who had been a warrior and a hero, forgot the ugly and brutal things he had seen although really, even having seen what he had seen and done what he had done he couldn't be prepared to see the other ugly and brutal things in the world because he'd really never expected to go back to it or wanted to because he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world and he had two sons that he loved just as much and the eldest at least, still thought he was a hero and the best Dad ever and his wife still thought he was a hero and the best husband ever and there was no reason at all for John Winchester to think his younger son wouldn't also love him and be loved in return because that was the way things worked in the Winchester Kingdom. Praise the Lord, and Hallelujah! Long live King John! Long live Queen Mary! And long live the most Blessed of Princes Dean and Sammy!
And they lived happily ever after.
It was a couple of hour before the doctor's came out and told them that they had found the problem and fixed it, that there had been fluid building up around Sam's heart from his earlier injuries and that the pressure had been what was killing him -- had killed him -- but they'd relieved the pressure and put in a drain and Sam was resting quietly but they could see him in a little while. And John watched his strong, handsome, wise-cracking eldest son duck his head and then get up and take a walk, and when they came to tell him Sam could have visitors, John went and found Dean first.
And watching Dean ease himself into the recovery room so carefully, without his usual confidence, and worry etched on that handsome face while Sam's face showed nothing but peace, made him wonder all over again if he'd made the right choices for his sons, because as proud as he was of both of them, this was never the life he'd seen for them, nor the one he and Mary had whispered to each other in the darkness and privacy of their bedroom. And he remembered Mary smiling at him over Dean's newborn head that he was going to be something wonderful, that he could be anything he wanted to be.
But John had never asked Dean what he wanted to be, and maybe Dean was happy being who he was but he should have had the choice. But if he asked, Dean would tell him it was fine, he was fine, that he was where he wanted to be and kicking the ass of evil wasn't such a bad gig most of the time.
But this wasn’t most of the time, and although Sam would live, he'd still do so with half a soul and John wasn't quite sure how that was going to work just yet, only that if anyone could pull him through it would be Dean because Dean never gave up and if he loved his brother a little more than he loved his father, John could live with that because he'd loved his wife a little more than he'd loved his sons, and maybe Mary had loved her children a little more than she'd loved John, and John thought maybe she'd been right about that because their sons were pretty remarkable men; brave and strong and true, just like Princes were supposed to be.
He only wished he had a better kingdom to pass into their hands, but he thought maybe now, maybe he could give them the home they'd lost so long ago.
Then Sam started to wake up, and John wanted to go to him to forgive or ask forgiveness or just let Sam know he was glad he was alive and that he was John's son, all the things he should have told Sam before but hadn't because anger and grief made him see not his youngest son but only how his presence reminded him of what he'd lost, rather than what he'd saved. But he waited and he watched and saw the same smile on Dean's face that he'd had as a child and the same sense of wonder Sam had as a baby and realized his sons didn't need his kingdom, and they'd built their own home.
Every journey has its price and John Winchester knew this was the price he'd paid for his own journey -- that he loved his sons and they him, but not as much as they loved each other.
And maybe that was right and maybe it was the way things were supposed to be, because there were still questions to be answered and there was still evil to be vanquished, and Dean would always be a warrior and Sam would always be looking for ways to replace what he'd lost, just as his father had.
And when he finally came in and let Sam see him, he noticed that Dean made room for him but didn't give way, and Sam was the one who lifted a hand for his father to take, which was asking and giving forgiveness all in one gesture.
And this time when John Winchester leaned over and kissed the forehead of his youngest son, it wasn’t in good-bye, but more like starting over.
And Sam had smiled and pulled his father down and Dean had cleared his throat and looked at them both with a raised eyebrow and said, "So, do you two need a moment? Because I can totally go check out the nurses at the desk if this is going to get sloppy."
"It's gonna get sloppy," Sam told him, but Dean didn't let go of his hand and Sam didn't let go of his father.
But John, John let go of a little of his grief, and maybe, just maybe made a little more room in his heart and soul for his wife to make her way back in.
Because really, if one angel can dance on the head of a pin, they all can.
Which is to say, that in the Kingdom of Hearts and Souls, all things are possible, and if you can't have happily ever after, sometimes you can have Happily, and sometimes you can have Ever, and sometimes you can have After.
And after After?
There's a whole other journey to be made.
continue on to epilogue coda Dodging the Bullet