It starts with cold spots.
Sam’s just buried his brother — shallow grave, careful markers, determined to find a way to bring him back. He sees his breath as he walks from the grave, but he’s too consumed with grief to notice.
“Dean’s gonna need his body when I figure out a way to bring him back,” he tells Bobby.
Bobby looks at him funny, but Sam doesn’t say another damn thing.
The first thing Sam does after he buries his brother is to try to summon a crossroads demon, to make a deal to get Dean back. He plans to offer to go to Hell in Dean’s place. He’ll do whatever the demon wants, if it’ll get his brother topside again.
It doesn’t work. Nothing happens.
Sam tries again and again at various crossroads, but gets the same lack of response.
Apparently, the demons aren’t interested.
Sam begins researching necromancy, how to bring people back from the dead, how to reanimate a corpse, the whole nine yards. He knows Dean would hate him for it, but Sam doesn’t care. He’ll deal with Dean’s disapproval after he gets Dean back.
At first, the constant flickering lights are nothing more than a nuisance. For two weeks, Sam ignores them, too obsessed and miserable with grief to recognize them as signs, even though they seem to follow him around everywhere.
Doesn’t matter where Sam is — in a motel, in a diner, standing under a freakin’ street lamp. Flicker, flicker, flicker.
At night, Sam dreams in vivid, hallucinatory detail. Ordinary moments from their lives appear in moving, full-color snapshots. They’re sitting in the car, Dean driving, then across from each other at a diner. They’re hunting, whacking off vamp heads in some dark warehouse. Dean talks to him, looks at him, stares holes into Sam’s eyes, but in the dreams it feels normal so he doesn’t think about it. In the dreams, Sam wallows in the normal moments, desperately holding onto the fragments of familiar places and things when the dream starts to fade.
In the morning, Sam catches Dean’s shadow out of the corner of his eye as he researches how to bring dead people back. He hears Dean’s voice in his head, clearer than his own thoughts, but he figures he’s hallucinating.
Then, a month after Dean’s death, Sam hears Dean yell at him.
“Damn it, Sammy! Listen to me!”
In the silence of the motel room, just a few hours after dark, Dean’s voice is unnaturally loud. Clear. Sam looks up from his book, sees his breath. The light flickers.
Finally, his foggy, grief-stricken brain puts two and two together.
The light flickers again, almost in response, and the room gets noticeably colder.
“Oh my God, Dean, are you here?”
Sam closes his eyes, concentrates, and hears Dean say, “Figure it out, Sammy! Come on! You can do this!”
Dean’s voice is far off, as if he’s speaking from the other end of a long tunnel, but Sam can hear him.
The cold spots and flickering lights make sense now. Sam could kick himself for not figuring it out sooner. But now that he has, he doesn’t waste any time.
Turning off the lights in the room, Sam stretches out on the bed in the dark, determined to focus all his nascent psychic energy on the task at hand. He lies still on the bed with his eyes closed, concentrates on his brother, and after a few moments he’s almost certain Dean’s right there.
“Dean? Is that you?”
Sam keeps his eyes closed, lies still in the dark, evens his breathing so that all of his energy is focused on the presence he’s been feeling for the past month.
“What are you doing here?”
Dean huffs out a breath, and Sam swears he hears the squeak of Dean’s leather jacket. Sam smells gun oil and aftershave.
“Guess I couldn’t leave,” Dean admits. His voice is low, rumbly, filling the silence of the motel room with the familiar sound of home.
Sam squeezes his eyes shut, fighting back tears. “Missed you.”
Dean clears his throat. “I was always right here, Sammy,” he says. “Even Hellhounds couldn’t drag me away.”
Sam draws a shaky breath, breathes out on a huff. The room is cold. If he opens his eyes, he’ll probably see his breath.
“So, you’re a ghost,” he suggests.
Dean doesn’t answer for a moment, and Sam smells his brother’s sweat. Dean’s scared.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “I suppose I am.” He hesitates, then says, “I guess that’s not the news you were hoping for.”
Sam resists the urge to open his eyes. Dean’s right there. Sam can smell him. Sam feels the weight of his body filling the air next to the bed.
“It’s okay,” Sam says, relief and hope replacing his grief. Dean’s here. He’s okay. He didn’t go to Hell after all. “We’ll make it work.”
“Sammy...” Sam knows that tone. He knows what Dean’s thinking.
“No!” Sam’s eyes fly open, and for a moment he’s startled to see nothing. No one’s there.
He feels the loss like a knife to the heart.
“We’ll figure it out, Dean,” he whispers into the silence, the emptiness. “We’ll figure it out.”
“I buried you,” Sam says the next night. He spent the day researching, looking for some way to improve communication with a ghost. “I’ve been trying to find a way to bring you back ever since.”
“I was here all along,” Dean answers. “Right after I died. I saw what Lilith tried to do to you.”
“Wait. You saw that?” Sam blushes. His powers embarrass him. He doesn’t understand them, except that he thinks they’re linked to the evil inside him, so they must be evil, too.
He’s pretty sure Dean thinks that, anyway.
“It’s all right.” Dean lets out a nervous chuckle. “Lucky for me you’re psychic enough to hear me. I was starting to get a little worried.”
Sam huffs out a laugh. “Yeah.” He bites his lip. “What I don’t understand is, if you’re here, you didn’t go to Hell.”
Sam can almost feel Dean’s shrug. “I guess so.”
“So your deal...”
Dean lets out a sigh. “I don’t know what to tell you, Sammy. All I know is, I’ve been here with you the whole time since I died. Never went to Hell.”
Sam nods. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved that you’re not burning in Hell, but I can’t help wondering what happened. And if...”
The bedsprings squeak as Dean sits down next to him on the bed. Sam can almost feel him sit back, propped up against the headboard with his ankles crossed, his hands resting on his belly. If he were corporeal, Dean’s shoulder would be pressed against Sam’s.
“You’re thinking the other shoe’s gonna drop,” Dean suggests. “It’s not enough that I died. Hell wants my soul.”
Sam’s throat closes up. He’s just found out his brother’s been with him all along, even if he is a ghost. The prospect of losing him again feels too cruel. Nevertheless, he needs to make the suggestion.
“Maybe we should do some research, find out what happens when a soul doesn’t get collected.”
“Or we just leave things the way they are.” Dean says with a nervous chuckle. “Call it a win.”
Sam’s shocked. “You’re a ghost!”
“Yeah? At least I’m still here,” Dean mutters, and Sam can almost see him shrug again.
“Dean, you know what happens to ghosts.”
“And I worried about it until you finally heard me,” Dean admits. “Now? Not so much. Maybe this is a good thing.”
“How is your being a ghost a good thing?!” Sam gasps.
“At least I’m not in Hell.”
Sam huffs out an exasperated breath. “You’re still dead, Dean!”
“Yeah, but at least now that you can hear me, I won’t go insane.”
“All ghosts go insane,” Sam protests. “It’s just a matter of time. You know that.”
“Well, that’s not happening while I have you to keep me sane.”
Sam huffs out another breath, this time through his nose. The idea that Dean’s fine with this, that he’s willing to continue to exist as a ghost, frustrates Sam. His stubborn brother has never cared enough about himself. He’s content to be dead as long as he can be with Sam, but that’s not good enough for Sam.
Sam wants his brother back. All of him.
“Someday, I’ll die,” Sam reminds him. “You’ll be alone here.”
Dean shifts next to him, and it feels so much like Dean being awkward and evasive that it makes Sam want to cry.
“We’ll figure it out, Sam,” Dean insists. “Just like we always do.”
Sam grasps the amulet hanging around his neck, flashing back to the horrible minutes after Dean died, holding Dean’s shredded body in his arms until Bobby came in to get him. The hours it took to carry Dean’s body to a safe house in Champagne, to clean him up and dress him in clean clothes, are all a blur to Sam. His argument with Bobby about disposing of the body still hurts. Bobby wanted to give Dean a hunter’s funeral, sending him up in flames. But Sam was determined to bring Dean back, so he wanted Dean buried in the cheapest coffin in the shallowest grave possible. The drive to Pontiac to bury Dean felt like a nightmare. Sam remembers removing the amulet, putting it around his own neck, just before closing the lid on the pine box, then struggling with Bobby’s help to lower the coffin into its grave.
“I’ll get you back if it’s the last thing I do,” he had vowed by way of a eulogy.
Bobby just frowned and shook his head.
Now, Sam’s chest clenches with shame and grief. Even with Dean’s ghost right here beside him, even after watching him die over a hundred times in Florida, the trauma of Dean’s death in that house in Indiana will haunt Sam till the day he dies. Probably after.
“We can’t tell Bobby,” Sam says softly, clutching the amulet like a lifeline. “He’ll make me burn this thing, for one. Then he’ll insist we dig up your body and burn it. Maybe burn the car.”
“Well, we can’t let that happen,” Dean agrees. “Just in case.”
Just in case it’s one of those things that’s holding Dean here, Sam doesn’t say, but he knows Dean’s thinking that, too.
“Of course, maybe it’s just you,” Dean says.
Sam frowns. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, technically, we’ve got the same DNA,” Dean says. “Maybe I’m tied to you physically in some way. It always felt that way, anyhow.”
Dean chuckles. “Yeah. You’re the albatross around my neck, Sammy. Holding me back. Literally.”
“You know the albatross saved sailors at sea, right? It’s not a bad thing.”
“No, it’s not,” Dean agrees, his voice warm and full of affection.
They’re silent for a few moments, Sam soaking in Dean’s presence. A warm weight presses against Sam’s shoulder. He doesn’t want to think about it too intently, for fear it will turn cold, or dissipate altogether, but for right now, this moment? It’s nice. It’s relief and comfort and home.
It’s almost like Dean’s alive.
“You think you might learn how to be more corporeal?” Sam muses. “Like, so I could see you as well as hear you?”
Dean shifts, his shoulder pressing harder into Sam’s. “You feel that?”
“That first day, after I died, whenever I tried to touch you, my hand went right through you,” Dean says. “You probably didn’t even feel it.”
Sam lets out a breath. “So you’re more solid,” he says thoughtfully. “You can keep your shape for a few minutes.”
“Hey, geek boy, I’m me all the time. I’m never not here. It’s you being able to hear me or whatever that takes some effort.”
“That makes sense.” Sam nods. “It takes energy to push through the veil. We’ve seen it when we hunt. Ghosts leave behind ectoplasm and EMF when they manifest. It’s measurable. If I turned on my EMF reader right now...”
“It’d be buzzing off the grid,” Dean finishes. “That first week or so, I kept wishing you would turn it on, just so you could’ve figured out what was happening sooner. I kept yelling at you, ‘Turn on the damn EMF, Sammy!’ Like it did any good.”
Sam scoffs. “I thought you were in Hell, Dean,” he growls. “I was a little preoccupied trying to figure out a way to get you out. It never occurred to me that...”
“That I was right here all along,” Dean finishes. “Right.”
“Now we just have to figure out a way to get you back into your body.”
“Whoa. Wait.” Dean shifts, the air moving in front of Sam as if Dean’s lifting his hand in a gesture to stop. “I sold my soul, remember? But through some...loophole?...I ended up here, with you. I can’t tell you how much better that sounds. I’d rather not jinx it, if you get my meaning.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sam squeaks. “How could this be better?”
“Than Hell? Are you kidding? Of course it’s better.”
“But you’re dead.” Sam can’t believe they’re still going in circles over this point. It’s surreal. “Dean, I need you alive.”
“Yeah, but I figure, for now maybe it’s good to lay low, you know? Not call too much attention to whatever caused this little glitch in Lilith’s plans. Because it’s a pretty big glitch, wouldn’t you say? I sold my soul, Sammy. But Hell didn’t get it, did they?”
“Or maybe they did, and whatever’s still here — whatever you are, isn’t your soul.” Sam can feel the hysteria rising in his chest. He has to struggle to tamp it down. “Maybe you’re just some residual thing, you know? Just this little scrap of yourself that got left behind. Maybe that’s all ghosts are. I mean, it’s not like we’ve had that much personal experience with them.”
“That’s not true and you know it,” Dean huffs out indignantly. “We’re the best damn ghost hunters in these contiguous United States. Name anybody who knows more.”
Sam’s hysteria dampens as he works the problem, tries to find an answer.
“Well, Bobby, for one, which is why I think we gotta call him after all, Dean. We need his help.” Now that he’s come one-eighty on his thinking, Sam’s shaking. Shivering. The room is getting colder.
“Okay, listen.” Dean’s voice is soothing, warm as whiskey and smooth as honey. “Now you’re just going in circles again.” He sighs, sounding so human it breaks Sam’s heart. “You need some rest. We can talk about it tomorrow night.”
And just like that, Sam’s eyelids droop and his chin falls to his chest. If he didn’t know better, he’d think Dean’s words had magic in them, some way to compel Sam to do what he wanted.
Or maybe it’s just having his big brother beside him again, bossing him around, reminding Sam of what he needs, that comforts and reassures him. Feels right.
He’s almost out when a blanket covers him, all the way to his chin.
“So, what I’m wondering is, if a ghost is tied to a person,...”
Sam’s got Bobby on the phone, and it isn’t going well. He can tell that Bobby already suspects something.
“Is there something you need to tell me, boy? Something about your brother?”
Bobby’s ability to zero in on the nature of the problem is uncanny. It’s probably the reason Sam hasn’t called him once since Dean died.
“What? No!” Sam insists. “What are you — That’s not why I’m — Nothing like that, Bobby, I swear.”
Bobby sighs, long and deep, and Sam waits. He doesn’t have a choice.
“Listen,” Bobby says finally. “There’s a psychic I know, name of Pamela Barnes. I’ll give you her number and you can call her, tell her what your problem is, see if she’s got a way to help. But Sam.”
Sam tries not to sound too eager. “Yeah?”
“You need to tell her about Dean,” Bobby says. “So she knows what she’s up against. If there’s demons out there still trying to track down your brother’s soul, it’s only fair she knows before you ask for her help.”
Sam draws a breath. “Right. Of course.”
“And Sam.” Sam waits while Bobby makes that disgusted face that Sam knows too well, even though he can’t see it through the phone line. “If your brother figured out a way to tie himself to you so he didn’t have to go to Hell?” Bobby lets his breath out slow. “You’re both looking at a lifetime of demon-dodging. You do realize that.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, letting out the breath he’d been holding. “We — I know. Thanks, Bobby.”
“Good luck, kid.”
“The demon said, if I dodged the deal in any way, you would die,” Dean reminds him that night. “This isn’t something I did, I can promise you that.”
“So Hell must not know you’re still here,” Sam says.
“Which sounds almost too good to be true,” Dean agrees.
Sam sighs. “Pamela said she could see me tomorrow evening,” he says. “I guess we’ll see what she has to say.”
Dean grunts, shoulder pressing into Sam as solid as if he was really there, and Sam leans into it. He slides down beside his brother so he can lay his head on Dean’s shoulder. He falls asleep that way, finds himself wrapped in a blanket and hugging a pillow when he wakes up the next morning.
Sam’s slept better in the last few nights than he did during the whole month since Dean died. He’s feeling almost human again.