Sam decides not to tell Dean.
After his talk with Alex, Sam returns to Dean’s room, watches Dean sleeping peacefully, unaware. He slips into bed next to his brother and pulls the sheet up, lies staring at the ceiling until sleep finally overtakes him.
Dean’s already up when Sam wakes up. Sam can hear him banging the pots around in the kitchen, making another one of his amazing meals for them to share. Sam thinks about how lucky he is as he struggles out of bed, pads down the hall to the bathroom.
He’s washing his face when it hits him.
He remembers. He talked to Alex in the library last night. She said he only talks to her once a year, then he forgets. But Sam remembers. So does that mean he forgets later? Or is something different this year?
“Happy birthday, brother,” Dean crows as Sam enters the kitchen. He’s happy, grinning at Sam like he’s won the lottery, or like he’s just unwrapped his own birthday present.
There’s a cake on the table. It’s a little lopsided, a little pink — no, make that very pink — and there are unlit candles and “Happy Birthday Sammy!” scrawled in dark pink icing, but it’s acceptable. It looks edible.
“Wow.” Sam raises his eyebrows.
“Right?” Dean enthuses. “I bet you thought I forgot, huh? I bet you didn’t even remember.”
They died on his birthday. It’s been years. All the worst things happen on Sam’s birthday, starting with his birth.
No, starting with his dad’s first death. Mustn’t forget that.
“It’s — “ Sam thinks for a second. “Pink.”
“Awesome, isn’t it?” Dean says excitedly.
“You made this?” Sam’s impressed. He’s had birthday cakes before — usually Dean gives him a Hostess Ding Dong with a candle in it, but it’s the thought that counts, right? – but he’s never had a homemade cake before.
He feels tears smarting at the backs of his eyes.
“Yeah,” Dean says. “Yeah, I made it. Homemade birthday cake. Only the best for my princess.”
“Thanks, Dean,” Sam says, fighting the choking sensation in his throat. He’s actually 102, and Dean’s been dead for twenty years. “I love it.”
“Let’s light the candles.” Dean pulls out a book of matches and methodically lights the candles on the cake. Sam counts sixteen, but he doesn’t question it. If Dean wants Sam to be eternally sixteen, that’s okay with Sam. It’s definitely the least of his worries right now. “Make a wish, Sammy. Come on!”
Sam makes a wish, one he knows he’ll never share with Dean, and bends over to blow the candles out.
Of course they’re the trick candles, the kind that don’t go out no matter how much you blow them. Dean snickers, then laughs outright as Sam blows harder, determined to defy physics.
“Oops, no wish for you!”
“It doesn’t count,” Sam insists. “There’s only sixteen candles.”
“You’ll always be sweet sixteen to me, Sammy-girl.”
“Fuck you.” Sam rolls his eyes as he gives up trying to blow the candles out and plucks them out of the cake to throw at Dean instead.
“Ooooh, maybe later, sweetheart!” Dean laughs as he dodges the sputtering flames.
They eat the cake for breakfast, and Sam has to admit it tastes better than it looks.
Dean’s already packed the car for the trip and the trunk is full of canned food, pillows and sleeping bags, in addition to their regular gear.
“Found us a hunt in Oregon,” Dean crows cheerfully as they head out on the road. “Ghost. Nothing major. Easy peasy for the birthday boy. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so. Then we can head up the coast to Rudy’s cabin. It’s a nice one, with running water and electricity, the whole nine yards. He’ll let us stay there as long as we want. Figured we could use it as a home base to hunt out of for a while. We can take the easy jobs in the area. Milk runs. Nothing too heavy.”
Sam frowns. “How long were you planning on us staying there?”
“Just a few weeks.” Dean shrugs. “Maybe a month or two. If we like it, we can stay longer.”
He puts in his Skynyrd tape and sings along to “Simple Man” and “Free Bird.” Dean’s singing has always been flat and off-key, but it’s so familiar to Sam that it sounds better than any professional singer. The day is overcast and cool, but there’s a smell of spring in the air and the promise of sun later, and Sam’s content just staring out at the Kansas landscape as Dean drives. He thinks about his conversation with Alex, wonders if he’ll forget it in time. It already seems like a dream.
When they stop at a diner for lunch, Sam watches the waitress as she takes their order, brings it to their table. He wonders what she sees when she looks at them. Two working men in the forties, a little rough and worn around the edges but still nice to look at, still presentable.
She never lets on that there’s anything different about them. She never seems to realize she’s serving lunch to a couple of ghosts.
It’s starting to rain when they get back in the car. Sam pulls out his laptop and looks up the case. It’s a milk run, just like Dean said. The spirit of the former owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Grants Pass is terrorizing the guests, driving them away. She sounds more annoying than dangerous, but given the circumstances of her death, it doesn’t hurt to put her to rest. She killed herself and her lover after she found him with another man, and now she goes after couples who stay at the bed-and-breakfast, especially the men.
“Sounds like a simple salt-and-burn, right?” Dean says.
“That’s what it sounds like, all right,” Sam agrees.
He wonders if other ghosts can sense what they are. He thinks back to the hunts he can remember over the past year or so and decides that other supernatural creatures don’t really perceive them as anything other than human hunters. He thinks about the ghosts they’ve known in the past who could interact with the corporeal world.
“What are you thinking?” Dean asks, and Sam jumps.
“I was thinking about Cole Griffith, actually,” he admits.
“That dead kid in Wyoming,” Dean nods. “I remember. What about him?”
“I was just thinking about how much energy it took for him to move objects.”
“Yeah,” Dean nods. “That’s why angry spirits can throw knives and push people into walls. They’re angry. It gives them their power.”
“Right. But just normal, not-angry ghosts can’t do that.”
“Sam, all ghosts become angry and vengeful eventually,” Dean reminds him. “That’s why we have to put them down.”
“Right. But what if sometimes that doesn’t happen? I mean, what if some ghosts never realize they’re dead so they don’t have anything to be angry about? What if they just keep existing — maybe on another plane, parallel with the living — and neither the ghosts themselves nor the living people around them ever know that the ghosts aren’t alive?”
Dean frowns, then shrugs. “If there are non-angry spirits living among us, I guess we’d never know.”
“Exactly. So it’s possible, isn’t it? Some ghosts could just go on living without anybody being the wiser. They’d never become angry, never go crazy, just go on living their lives without ever going into the light.”
“Except they’re not really living, Sammy,” Dean reminds him. “They just think they are.”
“Yeah, but what’s the difference? If they’re able to go on with the lives they’ve always lived, why would they ever even question whether they’re actually alive or not? What difference would it make?”
Dean frowns at the windshield for a minute, and Sam holds his breath.
“I think that waitress spiked your salad,” Dean says finally. “You’re not making a lick o’ sense. We’ve never heard of ghosts who could live among us like that. Not indefinitely. And even if we had, it’s not really our kind of problem, is it?”
“Right. Unless they’re hurting people, we’d be likely to leave them alone, wouldn’t we?” Sam agrees.
Dean shrugs. “I guess. I’m not crazy about the idea, though. Ghosts that don’t know they’re dead, passing for living people. Sounds pretty Sixth Sense-creepy, if you ask me.”
Sam takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
He feels Dean’s eyes on him as he stares out the window, trying to remember if he’s seen any clues about their predicament before last night. Newspapers with a date on them at a diner, for example. The date on any of the websites he checks regularly. Anything that might tip him off that the Winchesters are living in the future.
Nothing comes to mind, and that bothers him. It suggests he’s already going insane.
“Something you want to tell me, Sam?”
“What? No. I’m just thinking about the case, Dean. Trying to cover every angle.” He clears his throat, doesn’t look Dean in the eye, and he can tell Dean doesn’t like it.
“Every angle, huh?” Dean sounds skeptical. “You thinking this spirit doesn’t know it’s a ghost? You think it’s trying to fit in by murdering people?”
“No, no, of course not,” Sam says. “It’s just got me thinking, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well, that’s never good,” Dean mutters darkly.
They’re on I-80, going fast through Utah, but nobody stops them. Sam wonders sometimes how Dean gets away with speeding the way he does, but he never mentions it. They’ve got the highway mainly to themselves at this time of day anyway. Sam figures they’ll probably stop somewhere near Salt Lake City for the night. At least there’ll be good wifi there.
But when Sam wakes suddenly it’s dark outside, and he can tell by how stiff he is that he’s been sleeping for a while.
“Where are we?” He asks as he sits up, stretches as well as he can in the car’s cramped interior.
“Nevada,” Dean says. “Sheldon National Antelope Refuge, the sign said.”
“You don’t say.” Sam rubs his eyes, glances at the clock. “Did we stop for supper?”
“Not necessary. We’re almost there.”
“Almost where? Dean, we can’t drive all the way to Grants Pass without stopping. That’s crazy.”
“We’re not,” Dean says. “Found us a hot springs resort in the mountains. Place called Hunter’s.”
“I am not. Check the map. It sounds like the perfect place to finish out your birthday.”
Sam stares at his brother, waiting for the punchline. Going to a resort in the mountains isn’t something they do. It’s almost romantic. Sam would be suspicious if it wasn’t in keeping with Dean’s general mood lately, his general contentment. He’s happier than Sam’s ever seen him. It would be cruel of Sam to put a damper on that.
“You’re an idiot,” Sam breathes finally, shaking his head fondly.
Dean’s small, satisfied smile is his only answer.
The place is a dump, of course. It’s a motel built around a swimming pool full of hot, green mineral water with a dilapidated sign out front that’s not even lighted. The restaurant is already closed, but the owner rustles them up some hamburgers and fries when they tell her they’ve been driving all day.
“It’s only a six-hour drive to Grants Pass from here,” Dean says as he takes a bite of his burger. “We can get a good night’s sleep and check out the geyser in the morning before we leave.”
Sam shakes his head. Of course there’s a geyser. It’s a hot springs. “This place is kinda lame for a resort,” he says, poking at his burger tentatively. The lettuce is iceberg, of course, and the tomatoes look like they’ve seen better days.
Dean shrugs. “I bet they’ve got Sister Wives on the local cable,” he snickers lewdly.
“You hate that show,” Sam reminds him.
“Yeah, but it beats the Mormon Tattle-knacker Choir on the radio,” Dean snorts.
“It’s Tabernacle,” Sam corrects. “Yeah, I guess we’re a little deep in Mormon country.”
“You think? Why else do you think I drove us all the way here instead of stopping in Utah for supper? No way was I gonna eat someplace that doesn’t even serve beer.”
“Dean, there are restaurants in Utah that serve beer,” Sam says. “Especially around Salt Lake. You just have to know where to find them.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not giving them our business.” Dean shrugs as he takes a swig of his beer. “It’s the principle of the thing. Any state that has an anti-alcohol policy can just make do without the Winchesters.”
“I’ll be sure to tell them,” Sam mutters. “I’m sure it’ll break their hearts.”
“I’m serious, Sammy,” Dean says. “They can find their own ghost riders.”
Sam chokes on his beer, puts it down and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Their own what?”
”You know,” Dean says. “Their own private supernatural hunters.”
“You mean hunters of the supernatural,” Sam clarifies.
“I know what I said, Sam.” Dean rolls his eyes. “What? Did you think I don’t know what we are? Just because you forget all the time...”
Sam stares and his mouth drops open of its own accord. He closes it again as Dean shrugs and takes another sip of his beer.
“So you’ve known all along?” Sam’s unsure whether to be angry or just plain shocked. “All that time back at the bunker? All those drives? This hunt? You’ve known the whole time?”
“Yeah.” Dean shrugs. “So? Not like it’s a big deal.”
“We’re ghosts, Dean,” Sam gasps. “Pretty sure that’s a big deal. Pretty sure that makes us the things we used to hunt. Still hunt.”
“Nope.” Dean shakes his head. “We’re not just ghosts, Sam. We’re ghost riders, like in the song. We do the job we’ve always done, only now we always win.”
“But that’s what Heaven’s for, and in case you hadn’t noticed, this is not it,” Sam says. “Heaven’s where you get to live your perfect life forever. We always figured we’d be lucky to end up there someday.”
“So this isn’t your perfect life?” Dean clenches his jaw. “You got someplace you’d rather be, Sam?”
Sam blinks. He can see the challenge and hurt in Dean’s eyes, the old assumption that Sam would always want to leave if he could, would always rather be anywhere else than with his brother.
Sam can’t let his brother feel that way. Not anymore. Sam made his choice long ago. It still amazes him when Dean’s old insecurities resurface.
“Ghost riders is dumb,” Sam mumbles as he takes a sip of his beer. “No way it’s a thing. You made it up.”
“So?” Dean grins and takes a bite of a cold fry. “Sounds cool, doesn’t it?”
“Sounds dumb,” Sam repeats, but he can feel the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth now that Dean’s relaxed again.“What I don’t understand — what I can’t remember — is how we ended up like this.”
“How we traded an eternity in Heaven for immortality on Earth, you mean? Roaming the halls of the bunker, mostly unnoticed by its living residents? Driving the backroads and byways of lesser-traveled places, putting down evil just like we always did?”
Sam’s still reeling from the fact that Dean seems to know more about what happened to them than he does. It doesn’t seem fair. Sam’s the one with the psychic sensitivity. Sam’s the one who researches the hell out of everything until he understands exactly what’s going on. Only this time, he’s got no clue.
Dean takes a deep breath, and Sam leans forward a little in anticipation.
Of course, the waitress/owner takes that moment to offer them dessert. “I’ve got a nice berry pie, baked fresh this morning.”
“She can see us,” Sam says when she leaves to fetch the pie. “But nobody in the bunker can see us. How is that possible?”
“It’s the way this thing works,” Dean says with a shrug. “Nobody who might know who we are ever sees us. We’re part of the past, for them. Legends.”
“But we talk to other hunters all the time,” Sam protests. “We assign jobs. Hunters call us for advice. Just last week I called Jerry Martinez in Rhode Island and asked him to look into a water spirit thing there.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Sam,” Dean says. “But I got a feeling he thought he was talking to somebody else. We never get any visitors, never run into other hunters. That’s just the way it is.”
Sam thinks for a moment, realizes Dean’s right. It’s been years since they’ve talked face-to-face with another hunter. He doesn’t know why he never noticed it before.
“So we made a deal.” Sam shakes his head.
”You made a deal,” Dean corrects. “For both of us. Only you didn’t give up your soul for it. All you gave up was your memory of what you did.”
“And once a year I remember what we are,” Sam suggests.
Dean nods. “On your birthday every year.”
“Which is also the anniversary of our deaths,” Sam reminds him.
“Glass half full, Sammy. Glass half full.” Dean gives a little shake of his head. “You always tell me to look on the bright side, and from where I’m sitting, it’s looking pretty bright. It’s like looking into the fucking sun.”
“Shut up.” Sam grins despite himself, ducking his head to hide the sudden heat in his cheeks.
Dean chuckles as the waitress arrives with their pie.
“So was it Death?” Sam asks as Dean takes a bite of his pie. “Chuck?”
Dean shakes his head. “You never said. I guess we’ll never know.”
“And I always wake up the morning after my birthday without any memory of the day before?”
“It’s weirder than that,” Dean says. “You never seem to remember much after the year 2025. We’re always in our second year of semi-retirement, living alone in the bunker, doing domestic stuff, hunting off and on.”
“Our golden years,” Sam suggests. “We were really happy then.”
“Yeah,” Dean smiles. “Yeah, we were, Sammy. We are.”
“But you remember everything,” Sam says. “You always remember everything.”
“Well, I don’t remember much about our later years,” Dean admits. “I think my mind got a little fuzzy somewhere in there.”
“Yeah, it did,” Sam recalls, voice soft. “But you were always smart, Dean. Sharp as a tack when it came to the important things.”
“Sucked to be old, though,” Dean says. “It’s better this way.”
“You don’t — you don’t mind that I don’t remember things?” Sam’s not sure how he feels about all of this. He can see that Dean’s happy with this weird thing that’s happened to them, and that’s important to Sam. But it still bothers him. It worries him that his memory is so fragmented.
“It’s a small price to pay, Sammy,” Dean says. “And if I need to reminisce about something with you, I know I can do that once a year.”
“On my birthday.”
Dean nods just as the waitress arrives with the check.
“Oh, it’s your birthday?” she gushes. “Happy birthday! The pie’s on the house for the birthday boy!”
Sam blushes and ducks his head as Dean pulls out some bills, gives them with the check to the waitress.
“Keep the change,” he tells her, and she flashes him a huge smile.
“Oh, thank you, sir! I hope you’ll join us for breakfast in the morning before you head out.”
“We just might do that,” Dean smiles at her and she blushes.
Sam knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of one of Dean Winchester’s most charming smiles, and he can forgive the poor girl for getting a little flustered.
“I should research this thing,” Sam says when they get back to their room. He pulls his duffel open, grabs his laptop.
“Sure, Sammy, you do that,” Dean says. “I’m gonna take a shower.”
By the time Dean comes out, amidst a billowing cloud of warm steam, wearing nothing but a towel, Sam’s found nothing. There are plenty of legends of dead heroes coming back to life to help people or entire countries in their times of need, but he can’t see how those stories have anything in common with what’s happened to him and Dean. The Winchesters didn’t just resurrect this time. They resurrected as something other than human. Something that never gets old. Something possibly immortal. Something that goes through the paces of its former life without remembering what it is, except once a year on its death day.
Sam’s mind goes back to his conversation with Alex.
“We should call Rowena,” he says out loud. “Alex seemed to think Rowena knew what had happened to us. She said Rowena told her it was a consolation prize for saving the world.”
When Dean doesn’t answer, Sam looks up to find his brother sitting propped up on one of the beds, dressed in the sleep shorts and t-shirt he usually wears to bed, his skin and hair still damp, cheeks flushed.
He’s so beautiful it takes Sam’s breath away.
“Sounds about right,” Dean says. “You go ahead and call her if you need to. Knock yourself out.”
A little tingle of anxiety prickles up Sam’s neck. “I’ve done this before, haven’t I?”
Dean sighs. “The thing is, you made this deal, not me. Or if I did, I don’t remember. But I’m pretty sure it was you this time. Last time we talked about it, you told me you thought you’d made the right choice, and whatever happened, you could live with never figuring it out. You. Super nerd who researches everything until you’re blue in the face. You said you could live with not knowing.”
Sam thinks about that. “We don’t always talk about it,” he suggests. “Sometimes I go the whole day without bringing it up.”
Dean shrugs. “Sometimes, yeah.”
“But it’s been twenty years.” Sam shakes his head. “Don’t I ever question why we’re not aging? How do I explain the passage of time? The accumulated memories of twenty years...”
Dean shrugs again. “Never comes up. I figure it’s part of the magic. You just accept it.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little creepy?” Sam cringes. “I mean, Heaven-style loss of time passing always seemed freaky to me. I couldn’t imagine living that way.”
“So whoever did this to us made sure you didn’t have to,” Dean says.
“But it doesn’t bother you,” Sam clarifies. “Not sharing the sense of time passing with me, or with anyone. Doesn’t it get lonely?”
Dean rolls his eyes. “Have you met me? I’ve got you. I don’t get lonely.”
Sam thinks about that. It’s true that this whole set-up works in Dean’s favor. It definitely seems to be Dean’s idea of Heaven. Not that it isn’t Sam’s, exactly. But Sam knows himself. If he had the time, he’d try to figure this out. He’d want all the answers. It’d be too hard not to research and ask questions until he got to the bottom of the mystery of what had happened to them.
Which is why the deal included the memory loss. Sam sees that now. And he can see why it was likely Sam himself who made the deal. He can see himself agreeing to something that would make Dean happy, while going on making the world a better place in the best way the Winchesters know how. It makes sense that Sam would set it up that way. Sacrificing his memory of the deal itself as well as his innate drive to uncover the truth about it must have seemed a small price to pay. Dean’s right. Sam’s obviously thought through this before and come to the same conclusion.
But Sam still wonders. “Doesn’t it get boring sometimes? Reliving the same year over and over?”
“It’s never exactly the same year.” Dean shrugs. “There are plenty of differences. Plus, there’s benefits.”
“Benefits?” Sam frowns.
“Yeah. After twenty years of practice, I’m a helluva good cook.” Dean grins.
Sam shakes his head. It’s true. Undoubtedly, they’re also better hunters than ever, but Sam doesn’t say that.
“And in all those years, we never figured out who did this, who I made the deal with,” he says.
“All I can tell you is, it’s not angels this time. It’s not demons. The gates to Heaven and Hell are closed, Sam. We closed them. Everybody we ever knew is dead. Nobody’s calling the shots but us now. And you know what? That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s better this way.”
Sam’s head spins, imagining their future, the years stretching out ahead of them endlessly as they hunt and drive and live their old lives in the bunker as if no time has passed. Eventually, won’t things break down? Won’t the world around them change so much that even Sam’s damaged mind won’t be able to keep from noticing?
“Come to bed, Sam,” Dean admonishes. “You’re overthinking again.”
But there’s still something bothering him.
“Why did you tell me?” Sam asks. “You could have let us go to bed, let me wake up and not remember. You didn’t need to tell me that you knew.”
Dean shrugs and looks away. “I had to be sure you still wanted this. Had to be sure this was your choice.”
It’s Dean’s infernal insecurity again, his need to make sure Sam really wants the same thing he does.
“Yeah. Okay, that’s enough, big guy,” Dean says. He waves a hand toward the bathroom. “Take your shower. Come to bed. We’ll talk more in the morning.”
Sam hesitates. “I won’t remember this in the morning, will I?”
“You’ll remember enough,” Dean shrugs. “We’ve got a job to do. You always remember that.”
In the shower, Sam lets the hot water cascade over his skin, scrubs shampoo into his hair. There’s another thing that bothers him.
“Why would I remember at all?” he asks Dean as he walks out of the bathroom. He drops his towel, pulls his sleep shirt and pants out of his duffel. “Why the once-a-year awareness of the situation? Isn’t that asking for trouble? What if I figure out who did this to us?”
“Sometimes you try,” Dean shrugs, flipping off the TV and reaching for his beer. He’s still sitting on the bed, where Sam left him, and his hair has dried in delicious little spikes that stick up on the top of his head. Sam wants to run his fingers through them. “Sometimes you spend your birthday researching.”
“Which is why you suggested this trip,” Sam suggests. “You were trying to distract me.”
“No sense moping around the bunker all day,” Dean agrees. “It’s morbid as hell, Sammy. No way to spend your birthday.”
Sam lets out a long sigh, slumps down on the bed in defeat, his back to his brother. “So it’s a catch-22,” Sam says. “I left myself an out as part of the deal, in case I — what? Change my mind? But it wouldn’t matter if I did, because there’s never enough time to change anything. It doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t it be better if I never remembered at all?”
“No. It would not. I need to know this is your choice, Sam.” Dean’s voice is firm.
That part of the deal was for Dean, then. To reassure Dean this was what Sam wanted. Dean hadn’t always put Sam’s autonomy above all else, but he’s doing his best to rectify that now.
Sam huffs out a breath and turns toward his brother, pulling one pajama-clad knee up on the bed. “I would never leave you, Dean,” he says. “Even if I remembered everything all the time, I never would. You should know that by now.”
Dean shrugs. His eyes flicker away when Sam gives him his most sincere and sympathetic gaze. He takes another sip of his beer, then looks down at it, fiddling with the label as Sam watches, waiting patiently.
“You always say that,” Dean mutters.
“Because it’s true, that’s why,” Sam says, incredulous. “I don’t know how you can even think that, after all these years.”
Dean gives a little shake of his head. “Sam...”
“No. Listen to me. There’s no way in Hell I’d ever leave you, no matter what. If you can’t believe that, after a lifetime together plus twenty years of an afterlife together, I don’t know how to convince you. You are my choice, Dean. You will always be my choice. Nothing can ever change that.”
But Dean’s still shaking his head, still not looking at him. “Sammy, you could’ve had anything,” he says. “You could’ve had a normal life with kids and grandkids and a cushy job in a nice suburb. I dragged you back into this life. I yanked you out of college and hauled your ass back into the hunting life, gave you grief every time afterwards when you tried to leave. You deserved that nice life, Sam, and I always made sure you didn’t get it.”
“No,” Sam shakes his head. “No, Dean. I chose this life. Maybe not at first, but after Hell and Lucifer and all the crap that came afterwards, I chose this, of my own free will.”
“You tried to get out when I went to Purgatory.” Dean looks up, meets Sam’s gaze. “And you had every right to do that. I was an ass when I came back, blaming you for giving up on your responsibilities. You tried to build a normal life and then I came back and pulled you back in.”
“Dean...” Sam’s still shaking his head, but Dean’s not done. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed and stands up pacing around the foot of the bed so he’s facing Sam.
“Then when you almost died, I shoved an angel into you to keep you alive. To keep you with me. I did that, Sam, even after everything that had happened to you with Lucifer. And you had every reason to hate me for it afterwards. Every reason!”
“Dean, that was years ago,” Sam says. “It’s all water under the bridge now. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“It matters to me, Sam,” Dean gestures, chest heaving with emotion. “All I’ve ever done to keep you with me, to keep you alive and by my side, it’s all because I could never let you go. I couldn’t exist without you. And now this — this afterlife you’ve created for us — what if it’s just more of me manipulating you into staying with me? Huh? What if it’s just one more way I figured out to never let you leave?”
Sam doesn’t have an answer for that. The whole notion that Dean somehow manipulated their current situation is remarkably serpentine and complicated. It’s more labyrinthian than anything Sam’s come up with on his own. It’s more than a little insane, actually.
But he’s just as certain it’s wrong-headed. He’s more certain than ever that this entire deal is his fault, not Dean’s.
And now he’s going to have to prove it.
“Okay, you know what? We need to get to the bottom of this, right now, before I go to sleep and forget the whole thing.”
Sam gets up, shoves past Dean on his way to his duffel, and starts rifling through it.
“What are you talking about?” Dean hovers behind him, shifting from foot to foot nervously.
“I’m talking about this,” Sam says, pulling the object he was seeking from his duffel, holding it out so Dean can see it.
“My amulet?” Dean’s hand moves up to the center of his chest automatically.
“My amulet, remember?” Sam corrects. “You threw it away.”
“And you fished it out of the trash and kept it,” Dean says, his voice hushed. “For years.”
Sam nods. “Until the day it burned hot in God’s presence.”
“So you think Chuck is behind this,” Dean says, and Sam nods again. “Because only God has the power to grant eternal life.”
“More like eternal afterlife,” Sam says. “And who says it’s eternal, anyway? Just because we don’t age doesn’t mean we’re immortal. Maybe we can be killed. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that we’ve won every fight since we died.”
“Pretty sure we’re immortal,” Dean says, and when he doesn’t elaborate Sam sighs.
“Okay. Only God has the ability to stave off death permanently, right? Eventually, everything dies, so if we’re immune...”
“You’re not immune.”
The air becomes unnaturally still, and the next moment a beautiful woman appears.
“Billie,” Sam breathes, rising slowly to his feet. Dean jumps, turns to follow Sam’s gaze.
“Hello, Sam. Dean.” Billie glides closer, out of the shadow of the corner of the room, and Sam and Dean press together instinctively, Dean in front, between Sam and the dangerous supernatural entity.
“You did this?” Sam breathes.
“No, Sam.” Billie runs her hand along the top of the TV cabinet, examines the dust on her fingers. “This was your choice.”
“I knew it!” Dean mutters, as if he hadn’t just spent the last half hour doubting that very thing.
“And yours too, Dean,” Billie drawls. She picks up Sam’s damp bath towel and delicately wipes her fingers. “Believe me, I was more than ready to reap both your souls. You’ve been an unusually large pain in my ass these past few years.”
“But you saved us,” Dean says. “You didn’t reap us after all.”
“Let’s just say, I allowed your souls to remain Earthbound, after your deaths,” Billie says dryly. “I’m not in the habit of saving people, Dean. That’s your department.”
“But you took my memories as — some kind of payment?” Sam guesses.
“I don’t make ‘deals,’ Sam,” Billie says. “Generally, I do what I want.”
“So Chuck agreed to leave us here? Instead of letting our souls into Heaven?”
“Your God had very little to say on the matter. As you will recall, I am much older and more powerful than either Chuck or his sister. One day I will reap them both.”
Sam shudders involuntarily, and Dean presses his back into Sam’s chest.
Billie smirks, obviously relishing their discomfort. “I couldn’t let you think you owed your afterlife to that smug, indifferent little entity. Not after everything you’ve accomplished with no thanks to Him.”
Sam looks down at the amulet in his hand, all but forgotten.
“My memories,” Sam says. “I want them back. And I want to keep them, even after I wake up in the morning.”
“You do, do you?” Billie looks him up and down. “You think you can live with those memories without trying to change your circumstances? Because in case you didn’t hear me before, I don’t make deals.”
Sam knows that’s not true. Death had dealt with both Winchesters in the past, and Billie knows that. But Sam also knows better than to argue with her. If she needed to forget that she had ever stooped to dealing with them, then Sam’s fine with that. As long as she gave him what he wanted, it didn’t matter anyway.
“I don’t want to change a thing,” Sam declares. He squares his shoulders as Dean shifts against him. “I chose this life a long time ago. Now there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?” Billie says.
She looks at him and the room spins.
Sam’s dreaming. Remembering.
He’s in the bunker, in Dean’s room. Dean’s lying in the bed, old and worn but still the most beautiful thing in Sam’s life. Dean’s breath is shallow, his cheeks pink with fever, and Sam remembers this. This is the night Dean died. The night they both died.
They’re not alone. There’s a shadow in the corner, and as Sam focuses the shadow becomes a shape, familiar and dreaded.
She turns, looks Sam up and down. “You think you can summon me,” she says, her voce dripping with disdain.
“I just did.” Sam puffs out his chest, squares his shoulders and jaw.
“After all your interfering with the natural course of the universe, you still think you can make a deal.” Billie’s eyes narrow.
Sam takes a deep breath. “You have the ability to change the future, to alter time.”
“Your brother is dying.”
“I’m not asking you to stop that,” Sam says. “Dean’s had a long life, longer than either of us ever thought possible.”
“All lives end, Sam.” Billie smirks.
Sam swallows thickly. This is harder than he had thought it would be. “I know that,” he says. “I’m asking you to take me, too. Reap us together.”
“Well, that’s an easy one.”
“And I want to stay here, on Earth. But not as ghosts. I want you to let us stay here as Venatores Immortales. Nightwalkers.”
Billie raises her eyebrows, clearly impressed. “You’ve done your homework, Sam.”
“And I want you to take my memories, so I can’t remember what I did. I don’t want to undo it, ever. If I know what I’ve done, I’ll want to fix it.”
Billie smiles, and Sam senses her respect. “You know yourself well, Sam Winchester. But what about your brother? How do you think he’ll feel if he knows you did this?”
Sam glances down at Dean, grateful he doesn’t seem to be in any pain at the moment. He’s been complaining of shortness of breath lately, and Sam can tell just by looking at him that his heart is giving out. His skin has that grayish tone that it had all those years ago after he was electrocuted by a rawhead. There are dark circles under his eyes.
“He’ll be okay with it as long as we’re together, doing what we do best,” Sam assures her. “Pretty sure he’ll be good with it, actually.”
Billie shakes her head, considering. “You know it’s irreversible, right? You’ll never rest now. They’ll be no Heaven. You’ll roam the Earth till the end of time, hunting evil, rooting out darkness.”
“And living relatively normal lives,” Sam adds. “When we’re not needed, we’re here, or wherever home is, just hanging out.”
Billie nods. “That’s right. Think you can handle the mundanity?”
“We’ll manage,” Sam says. He picks up Dean’s wrist, feels for his pulse. It’s weak, quick and fluttering against Sam’s fingers. “We don’t have much time. Please, Billie.”
“You make it hard to say no, Sam Winchester,” Billie says. “It’s an offer any reaper worth its salt would find hard to refuse. But you’re right to come straight to the source. Only Death can grant this. Only Death can make Nightwalkers.”
Sam knows that. He’s been researching the hell out of this proposition for the past ten years, fully aware that his timing was everything. It had to happen tonight, their transformation. Everything monumental that had ever happened to them had happened on Sam’s birthday. The date is fraught with energy, the forty-eight-hour period around the moment of Sam’s birth forever stretched thin with the power of the events that occurred at that point in time during the years of Sam’s life, starting with the deal his mother made ten years before he was born. Life and death overlapped on May 2, just as they did during the period of the ancient autumn equinox. It’s a time of power.
When Claire and Alex find them in the morning, they’ll get a hunter’s funeral. It will be three days before they’ll rise again, their bodies fully reconstituted and immortal. Their souls will remain forever bound to their risen bodies, and for Sam it will be as if nothing happened.
Dean knew, though. Sam hadn’t asked Billie to remove Dean’s memories. He knew they should be dead.
“You thought we were in Heaven,” Sam says as he opens his eyes.
Billie’s gone. Sam and Dean are alone in the Hunter’s Hot Springs Resort Motel.
Sam remembers everything.
Dean takes a deep breath. “Yeah.” He sounds relieved. “Everything was awesome for a whole year until your birthday came around.”
“I got all moody and weird,” Sam says, recalling that first birthday. “I knew something was wrong.”
“So I told you we were in Heaven,” Dean nods. “But you didn’t accept that. You thought something a little less benign had happened to us. You figured it was a spell. Black magic.”
“So I called Rowena,” Sam recalls.
“And she told us it wasn’t something she could undo.”
“But I kept trying. Called her again the next year. And the year after that.”
“Till she stopped answering,” Dean shrugs.
Sam frowns. “Do you think she’s still alive?”
Dean shrugs. “Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, you kept trying to call her.”
“Hey, it made sense. You figured if anybody would know how to undo a spell like this, it’d be her.”
“Only it isn’t a spell. It’s permanent.”
“We’re immortal. Like, forever.”
Sam winces. “You’re okay with it?”
Sam takes a deep breath, spreads his arms in a wide shrug. “Beats being cooped up in Heaven forever.”
Sam nods. “Yeah. Our options are a little limited.”
“So we’re the walking dead.”
Sam rolls his eyes. “We’re not zombies, Dean. We’re Nightwalkers.”
“Like Whitewalkers, only without the ice.”
“More like Supernatural Monster-Hunters. Like human hunters, only not human.”
“We’re agents of Death, Sam. We work for Death.”
“Not really,” Sam shakes his head. “We don’t reap souls. We don’t kill humans. We save people, just like we’ve always done, by going after the unnatural things that try to kill them. We help keep the natural order, that’s all.”
Dean takes a deep breath. “I don’t get how that helps Death.”
“When people die of supernatural causes, it upsets the natural balance,” Sam explains. “It frays the fabric of the universe, makes it that much easier for evil to get a foothold.”
“Puts us that much closer to another apocalypse,” Dean suggests.
Sam nods. “Supernatural deaths are complicated. Messy. Not supposed to happen. Sometimes Death has to undo them, just to set things straight.”
“Oh, I’ll bet Billie hates that,” Dean smirks. “She’s watched us resurrect enough times as it is.”
“That’s why I knew she’d go for this,” Sam says. “She sees it as a kind of rough justice, the Winchesters putting right the natural order we’ve violated so many times.”
Dean takes a deep breath. “So now we know.”
“So — now what?” Dean’s eyes widen. Barefoot and in his sleep shorts and t-shirt, he looks young and vulnerable. Sam wants to gather him up in his arms, promise him the world.
“Well, now I guess we try to get some sleep,” Sam says. “Hope I remember this in the morning.”
“You think you will?”
“If I don’t, you gotta promise to remind me,” Sam says. “I don’t want to forget again. I’m sick of not knowing what the hell happened to us. Sick of only having one day each year to try to figure it out.”
“And now that you know, you don’t want to change it?” Dean’s voice cracks and his jaw clenches. He blinks up at Sam through narrowed eyes, as if he expects to be hit.
Sam feels his heart break just a little. He take a shuddering breath, closes the gap between them, and takes his brother’s beautiful face in his hands. He turns it up and dips down so there are only a couple of inches between them.
“I will never leave you, Dean,” he says quietly.
“Never’s a long time, Sammy.”
Sam drags his thumbs along Dean’s cheekbones. His lips part. “Whatever happens, we’re in this together. Just like always.”
Dean’s long, thick eyelashes flutter but he doesn’t back down. Doesn’t pull away. And when Sam angles down for a kiss, Dean lets him.
The kiss turns hungry and desperate as the emotional upheaval of the day crashes in around them. They’re naked and crushed together almost before Sam’s aware of undressing. When he pushes Dean back onto the bed, Dean lets him, lets Sam take control, surrenders his role as big brother and protector as a gift.
This time, Sam remembers all the times they’ve done this. He remembers the first times, desperate and shame-filled and wordless. He remembers the tender, quiet times in their later years, when Dean’s skin was still soft but sagging in places, when his wrinkles were more pronounced and his beard was almost completely gray. Sam remembers the first time after their resurrection, when they were young again and free of old age’s infirmities.
He remembers how good it’s been these past twenty years. All the successful hunts, all the long aimless drives, all the domestic bliss.
Sam can’t imagine a better life, for either of them.
“How do you keep the car running?” Sam asks later when he’s sated and so well fucked he’s not sure he’ll be able to walk in the morning.
Dean smiles against Sam’s shoulder, plays idly with Sam’s nipple. “Magic.”
That was probably always at least partly true. Hundred-year-old car parts are probably a little hard to find.
Sam wakes up to the sound of the shower running. His joints are a little stiff and his ass is sore, but in a good way. The sun is trying to push its way into the room around the edges of the curtain.
Dean’s made coffee in the room’s little plastic-and-glass coffee maker, so Sam crawls out of bed, pulls on his jeans and pours himself a cup. He’s standing at the window, gazing out at the steaming green water of the mineral pool, when the bathroom door open.
Sam turns away from the window, blinking into the relative darkness of the room. He can’t read the look on Dean’s face, but he imagines he’s a little anxious. Wary.
Sam scrunches his face up, looks Dean up and down. “Who are you again?”
“Shut up.” The moment of tension passes, and Sam grins. Dean turns his back as he digs through his duffle for clean clothes. “Did you borrow my underwear again?”
Sam shrugs. “I always forget to pack it.”
“Damn it, Sam. You’re always stretching it out. You need to wear your own goddamn underwear!”
“I’ll take it off, if you want.” Sam smirks.
“Yeah, so your big dick can flop around in the breeze and scare all the witnesses.”
They eat breakfast in the motel restaurant, then walk down the road to take a look at the geyser. They’re apparently the only guests at the motel, and there are no other tourists, so they’ve got the place to themselves. They stand together and stare at the geyser for a minute, Dean’s back pressed up against Sam’s chest as usual, and Sam can almost imagine they’re the only two people left alive in the whole world. If it hadn’t been for the owner/cook/waitress who took their breakfast order this morning, Sam might think Billie had reaped everyone on the planet last night while they slept.
He wouldn’t put it past her.
Someday, it’ll happen, Sam thinks. Someday, the world will end, whether of natural causes or not. But Sam and Dean will still be here, the only semi-human beings left alive, hunting the monsters that no longer have anyone left to terrorize.
Maybe the monsters will disappear, too, once their human victims have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
It should bother him. Confronting his and Dean’s immortality should fill Sam with dread. He’s impressed that Dean’s been dealing with it so well, these past twenty years.
Human beings aren’t meant to live forever. The knowledge of their own mortality is what gives their lives meaning. People’s minds aren’t supposed to be able to contain more than around eighty years of memories at most.
Sam’s mind contains at least 200 years of memories, counting his years in the Cage with Lucifer. Luckily, those memories have faded, causing him only a faint shudder when he thinks about them.
“You cold?” Leave it to Dean to notice.
“Nah, I’m good,” Sam says. He’ll get used to this. It’ll take time, but he’s got time. “Everything’s fine.”
“Except for this thing,” Dean mutters, nodding at the geyser. “This is lame. No wonder nobody’s here.”
“Maybe it’s just too early in the season.” Sam shrugs. Spring is a time for renewal. For starting over. For rebirth. Maybe, eventually, May 2 will stop being the worst day of Sam’s life and start being something else.
It takes them less than 24 hours to take care of the ghost in Grants Pass. By sun-up the next day they’re on the road again, heading up the Oregon Coast on Highway 101. They find Rudy’s cabin shortly after lunch.
“Come on, Sammy. Leave the unpacking for later. Let’s get down to the beach!” Dean’s positively giddy, like a little kid, and Sam can’t help smiling.
It’s cold and windy on the beach, but the sun’s shining. Dean takes his shoes off and rolls his jeans up, and Sam follows suit, pulling the collar of his jacket up to his ears and shoving his hands under his armpits to keep them warm as he follows Dean across the sand to the water’s edge.
“Shit’s freezing! Jeezus!” Dean jumps back as soon as the water touches his toes, and Sam barks out a laugh.
They’re alone here, too, which isn’t a huge surprise. They’re miles from the closest town, it’s early in the spring, and it’s a weekday. One long, empty, sandy beach stretches as far as Sam can see in either direction, beckoning them with its pristine beauty, its timeless loneliness. It’s made for them, Sam thinks. It’s been waiting for them, this landscape. Waiting to commune with them in their mutual endlessness.
“Come on, Sam,” Dean calls. He’s already headed down the beach, into the wind, and Sam joins him, jogging a little to catch up.
They walk side by side along the water, moving fast to keep warm. The wind roars in their ears, precluding any conversation, but Sam doesn’t mind. They’ve said everything that needs saying for now. There’s plenty of time to talk later.
Plenty of time.