”You think you can save your brother?”
Michael faces Sam across a battlefield strewn with bodies. Lightning flashes overhead. Thunder rumbles. Wind whips Sam’s hair around his face, but he holds his ground, archangel blade raised in defiance. His features are contorted in rage and frustration, his face and clothes torn and bloody.
“Give him back!” Sam shouts. “You don’t need him anymore. You’ve won! Can’t you see that? You’ve won!”
Michael’s full lips — Dean’s lips — curl up in a smile. Dean can feel his exultation. Dean can’t speak or move, can’t control his body at all, but Michael lets him see Sam. Michael always lets him see when he’s with Sam.
“Oh yes, I’ve won,” Michael sneers. “This petty little world with all its fallen creatures is toast, as your brother would say. Time for me to move on to the next world, and the next, and the one after that. Time to bring it all down.”
Hope flickers in Sam’s expression, and Dean fears for him. Michael’s not going to let him down that easy, he’s sure.
“Just go, then!” Sam shouts. “Get out of here! Give me back my brother! You don’t need him for that.”
“No, I don’t need him, that’s true,” Michael agrees. “But are you so sure you want him back, Sam? After what he’s watched me do? You think he was damaged goods before? You can’t imagine what he’s like now.”
“I don’t care!” Sam shouts, but Dean can see the hesitation in his eyes, the fear. “Just give him back!”
“Believe me, his time with me makes his tour in Hell look like Disneyland.” Michael smirks. “He’s a broken man, your brother. Not good for much anymore, if he ever was. Not much of a hero now.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sam insists, shaking his head. He blinks rapidly, and Dean thinks he can see tears in Sam’s eyes. “Just let him go. Please!”
Sam’s tearful entreaty pleases Michael. He takes a deep breath and raises his arms in a grand gesture. The storm whipping around them quiets, thunder rumbling away into the distance, wind dying.
“Humans used to pray to me,” he says, voice softening. “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. Do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.” He lowers his arms, smiles at Sam tenderly. “We did that, didn’t we, Sam? You and I and your brother. You and I and Dean killed my brother.”
“He wasn’t your brother,” Sam gasps, chest heaving. “You killed your Lucifer, your own brother. You did that.”
“That’s right,” Michael nods. “Then you sent the demons back to Hell, and I locked the gates, didn’t I? We answered humanity’s prayer together, you and I. And I sent all the worthy souls to Heaven.”
Sam’s arms hang limp at his sides. His chest rises and falls, an expression of sorrow creases his high forehead. His stance is less defiant now, more defeated.
Yet when he speaks, Sam’s voice is strong and low.
“Let my brother go!” Sam growls, his jaw working as he spits the words out, and for a moment he looks more like the Prince of Darkness than Lucifer ever did. He’s positively majestic in his defeat.
Michael takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. Dean knows what Michael sees when he looks at Sam. Dean sees it, too.
“You have both served me well,” Michael says. “You will have your brother back. Look for him where it all began, ten miles west of Ilchester, on the road to Damascus.”
He’s lying on the ground, staring at the sky. It’s getting dark, and the clouds look heavy. His back hurts. His throat is so dry he couldn’t make a sound if he tried. His head hurts.
He wonders where he is, but he can’t remember a thing. His mind’s a complete blank. He blinks, trying to clear his vision, trying to remember why he’s lying on the ground in a three-piece suit, but nothing comes to mind.
A shadow crosses his vision. The next second, a very tall man stands over him, blocking his view of the sky. The man looks tentative. Hopeful. Also wary, like he expects something bad to happen.
The man must recognize him. That’s it. He’s Dean.
He tries to speak, but nothing comes out. His head throbs. His stomach heaves. He rolls onto his side and hurls.
“Hey, hey, okay, it’s okay, I’ve gotcha,” Tall Man murmurs as he helps Dean sit up and lean away from the mess. He massages the back of Dean’s neck and holds his arm as Dean dry-heaves a few more times. Then the man pulls a bandanna out of his back pocket and hands it to Dean.
As Dean wipes his mouth he has a sudden flashback. The Tall Man is younger. They’re sitting across from each other at a diner, and Tall Man is laughing, his dimples and white teeth on full display.
The word comes out as a croak, barely a sound at all, but Tall Man hears it. His face softens, and his eyes glisten.
“Yeah,” he murmurs approvingly. “Yeah, Dean. It’s me.”
Sam gives him a bottle of water, and Dean chugs the whole thing, then wipes his mouth on the back of his hand. He looks down at the suit he’s wearing and grimaces. It’s hot and itchy and uncomfortable. Dean wants it off. Now.
“Yeah, okay, let me help you,” Sam mutters, as Dean flails and twists awkwardly.
Once he sheds the jacket and vest, Dean tries to take the dress shirt off. He pulls the shirttails out of the waistband of his pants and tears it open, popping buttons as he yanks his arms free of the offending garment.
“Whoa, whoa, take it easy,” Sam murmurs, laying a reassuring hand on Dean’s back.
Dean flinches. His back hurts.
“What the hell?”
Sam kneels behind Dean, and Dean lets him pull up the hem of his t-shirt. Cool air touches his oversensitive skin. Sam gives a low whistle.
“Wow. A lot of bruising here. He must have dropped you. Like, literally dropped you. Maybe he thought the fall would kill you.”
Sam’s fingers move gently over Dean’s skin, up over his neck and the back of Dean’s head, where the throbbing is worst.
Dean flinches away again.
“Sorry,” Sam mutters. “You’ve probably got a concussion. That would explain the vomiting. You were unconscious, probably lying here for a while before I got here...”
Dean’s working on the clasp on his trousers now, and Sam grabs his arm to stop him.
“Hey, hey, okay, listen. I get that you want to shed this skin. Believe me, I get it. But we need to get you somewhere safe, okay? Then you can change. It’s gonna be dark soon, and we need to get inside somewhere.”
Dean lets Sam help him up, guide him to the car. Another memory flashes through Dean’s brain as he gets into the passenger seat. He’s in the backseat of this car, little boy Sammy next to him. They’re running matchbox cars along the back panel under the window, making car noises. Little Sammy looks up at him, grinning, and Dean’s chest warms.
As Sam folds himself into the driver’s seat, Dean slides his hands along the bench seat and pats the dash. He looks up to find Sam gazing at him, an expression of longing and relief in his multi-colored eyes.
“That’s right, Dean,” he murmurs softly, voice cracking. “You’re home. We’re home. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
They’ve just passed a road sign - Damascus 5 miles - and Sam’s flooring it. The gloom of early evening has given way to nightfall in the past twenty minutes, and the Impala’s headlights cast the only light onto the road in front of them. Clouds hide the moon and stars. It’s getting darker. Dean scans the horizon, where even a few moments before some light from the sunset remained, but now there’s nothing.
He thinks there should be some light somewhere, the glow of the town ahead of them, maybe, a farmhouse or gas station. They passed one not too long ago, but it was completely dark.
He looks over at Sam, sees the frown creasing his brow as he concentrates on the road ahead of them. Sam’s worried. Something’s wrong.
Dean sees them the same moment Sam does. People, maybe five of them, standing in the middle of the road, staring at the car as it barrels straight for them.
Sam slams on the brakes, turns the wheel, but it’s too late. Dean braces for impact on the dashboard, but instead the car slides to a stop, dead as a doornail.
Dean looks up, confused. The car’s headlights slice into the deep blanket of darkness thrown over the car. It’s suddenly very cold. Dean can see his breath.
“Damn it!” Sam turns the key, but the ignition won’t roll over. The starter chugs and whines as Sam turns the key again and again, then it clicks. Dead.
A face appears at the window next to Dean and Dean gasps. He’s more startled than afraid, but when more faces join the first one, fear tingles up his spine.
“Fuck!” Sam slams his hand against the steering wheel. He sees the faces, too.
Dean blinks, confused. The white faces in the window are silent, staring, empty of emotion.
“They’re ghosts,” Sam explains, as he twists around to reach into the backseat. He grabs a bag full of salt and a couple of iron crowbars. “They only come out at night, but there’s thousands of them. They’re everywhere. Come on.”
Dean takes the crowbar Sam hands him, frowning at it in confusion.
“You swing it,” Sam explains patiently. “It stops them. Temporarily, of course.”
More faces appear at the other windows. Dean can see ghostly faces all around the car now.
“Come on,” Sam says, urgent. “I need you to cover me. I’ve got to lay a salt line all around the car, and I need your help.”
Dean blinks and grips the crowbar with both hands.
“You’re going out first,” Sam instructs. “You’ll have to clear a path for me so I can lay the salt line, okay?”
Dean raises his eyebrows and nods.
“Good. All the way around the car, back in this door, right? You’ll end up behind the wheel, and I’ll close the door. We’ll have to wait out the night in the car.”
The ghosts are moaning now. At first it sounds like wind, but the sound grows louder, more pronounced. It’s the saddest thing Dean’s ever heard.
“All right.” Sam takes a deep breath, clutching the salt bag with one hand, his crowbar with the other. “On three.”
Dean puts his hand on the door handle. His heart pounds. His palms are sweaty.
“It’s okay, Dean.” Sam’s voice is calm, reassuring. “This is what we do. It’ll feel normal to you, trust me. You can do this.”
Dean’s eyes are so wide they hurt. His anxiety is giving him anxiety. But he takes some comfort from Sam’s words. He trusts Sam. As unbelievable as this situation seems, it feels familiar. Vanquishing ghosts must be in his bones, just like Sam says.
At Sam’s signal, Dean opens the door. A wave of cold, clammy air rushes in, making his eyes sting, but he doesn’t stop. He gets out and swings the crowbar at the first ghost. It dissipates in front of him, leaving behind more cold air. The moaning grows louder. It’s all around him now.
“Head around the back of the car!” Sam shouts, as he climbs out behind him.
Dean steps forward along the car, keeping her cool, comforting metal within easy reach as he takes another swing at a ghostly face.
“That’s it! Keep going!”
Sam grunts with the effort to fend off ghosts with one hand and pour salt with the other. Dean soon finds it’s easier if they move back to back around the car, swinging at ghosts as they go.
When Sam cries out, Dean whirls toward him, taking out a particularly nasty ghost that had grabbed a fistful of Sam’s hair. Dean’s operating on pure instinct and adrenaline now, letting his body go through the motions. He gets better at it, taking multiple swings as they round the hood of the car and head into the home stretch.
When he’s finally back to the passenger door, he scrambles inside and slides along the bench to give Sam room to finish the salt line before he, too, climbs into the car and slams the door.
The moaning is muffled now, and as Sam and Dean take a moment to catch their breath, they exchange glances. Dean grins. He’s euphoric with their success, the brush with danger making him want to laugh in triumph. He struggles to speak, but nothing comes out. He wants to tell Sam that he remembers, or at least his body does.
Sam nods. “It’s muscle memory,” he says, as if he can read Dean’s mind. “Your body remembers doing this, even if your conscious mind doesn’t.” He smiles. “I was kinda counting on that, actually.”
Dean takes a deep breath, nods as he lets it out. He stares out at the ghostly faces surrounding the car, just beyond the salt circle.
“It’s been like this for months,” Sam says. “Every night. They’re mostly just wandering around, lost and mindless, not really vengeful. At least, not yet. But they’ll mob up and kill you if they catch you outside after dark. They’re like ghost zombies.”
Dean looks up, shrugs his miscomprehension.
“Yeah, I know, it’s different now,” Sam says, as if Dean said something reasonable. “I figure it’s because everybody’s dead. They’re attracted to the energy of the living, but now that nobody’s left, they’re just kind of winding down, like everything else.”
“All the monsters have disappeared, too,” Sam goes on. “Vampires, werewolves, ghouls, what have you, they’re just —- gone.” He takes a deep breath, stares straight ahead out the windshield. “It’s like, without humans, there’s no food source, you know? Like what happened with the vampires in that other universe.”
Dean raises his eyebrows. He’s got no idea what Sam’s talking about, although he knows he should. Sam’s not crazy; he knew exactly what to do when the ghosts stopped and surrounded the car. That monsters are real, too, doesn’t surprise Dean as much as it probably should.
He trusts Sam.
“You don’t remember any of it, do you?” Sam asks. His voice is kind, but Dean can read the unhappiness in his tone. The sadness. Sam misses his brother, even though Dean’s right here.
Dean shakes his head, gives Sam a rueful smile. He’s sorry. He really is.
“It’s okay,” Sam says, but Dean catches the sheen of tears in his eyes. Sam reaches out and pats Dean’s chest. “Try to get some sleep, okay?”
Sam turns off the headlights. To save the battery, Dean thinks. Maybe the car will start again in the morning.
Dean hunkers down on the seat and tries to obey, but it’s a long time before he finally nods off.
In the morning, the ghosts are gone.
The car won’t start, though, and no amount of tinkering with the engine seems to do the trick. After an hour, Sam gives up, frustrated.
“We’ll come back for her,” Sam assures Dean as he gathers as much as they can carry into two duffels and a backpack.
As Dean follows Sam down the road toward Damascus, he looks back over his shoulder several times. Leaving the Impala alone in the middle of the road seems deeply and terribly wrong, although Dean doesn’t know why it should feel that way.
By the time they reach the outskirts of town, he’s openly weeping, grief like a weight crushing his chest until he can barely walk. Sam leads them into a hardware store with a smashed front door. He glances around at the broken shelves, boxes of screws and hammers scattered all over, then turns to Dean.
“It’s okay, Dean,” Sam assures him. “Here.” He pulls out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from his duffel. “Put these on.”
Dean unzips the black dress pants, lets them puddle around his ankles as he takes the jeans.
Sam scowls when he sees that Dean stepped out of his shoes somewhere before they reached town. He’s been walking the last two miles in stocking feet.
“Damn it, Dean,” Sam complains. “You can’t walk all the way to Kansas in bare feet!”
As Dean pulls the t-shirt over his head, he gets a flash of a young man whose permanent look of confusion makes Dean think he might have been brain-damaged. Like Dean.
He looks questioningly at Sam, who understands right away.
“It was Jack’s,” Sam says, sad and soft. “Jack was family. He’s gone now, like everybody else.”
Sam finds a pair of boots for Dean in a shoe store on the main street. He hotwires a cheap car and they’re headed west again by mid-afternoon, but Dean’s grief doesn’t begin to abate until they’ve left the Impala 100 miles behind them.
As they drive, Sam glances at Dean every once in a while, like he understands. He doesn’t mention the Impala, but Dean knows he’s feeling sad about leaving her, too.
She kept them safe, that first night, and Dean’s pretty sure that’s not the first time.
He just hopes it’s not the last.
They sleep in an empty motel that night, and the night after. Sam picks the locks, salts the windows and door, and collapses on one of the beds, leaving Dean to settle himself down on the other.
It always takes a long time to fall asleep. The moaning of the ghost zombies keeps him awake long after he knows he should sleep.
In the morning, they get up, eat vending machine snacks, and head out again. West. Always west.
“We should get you back to the bunker,” Sam says. “See if being someplace familiar sparks any memories.”
After three days on the road, most of it walking because the cars Sam hotwires keep breaking down, they find themselves in the food court at a mall. They’re looking for food when a shelf starts to collapse above Sam’s head.
Dean doesn’t realize he’s shouted until Sam jumps out of the way, shelves collapsing around him with an overwhelming crash.
“Wow,” Sam says as he steps out of the way of the mess. “Thanks.”
They’ve been in this mall for over an hour. So far, they’ve found boxes of chips and hamburger buns, but not much else. Sam won’t let Dean open the freezers. The power’s out.
“So you got your voice back,” Sam notes.
Dean shrugs. There’s nothing wrong with his voice, he thinks, at least not after the first couple of days. He just hasn’t had anything to say. Everything is so strange.
“What happened?” he asks later, when they’re sitting at one of the tables, eating their fill. Sam found some processed cheese. They open condiment packages and spread catsup and mustard on the bread. As they eat cheese sandwiches and warm soda pop, Dean thinks he’s probably had worse.
Sam looks up from his sandwich. “What do you think happened?” he says, voice dripping with bitterness. “The world ended. Is ending. We couldn’t stop it.”
“What happened to me?”
His back still itches, but it’s mostly healed now, and his head only hurts when he’s thirsty.
Sam sighs. “Let’s just get back to the bunker, okay? There’s a whole library that explains everything there.”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“I don’t know, Dean.” Sam rolls his eyes. “Because you were possessed by an archangel, maybe? That can be pretty traumatizing, trust me.”
A flash of memory: Dean faces Sam in a garden behind a battered building. Sam wears a white suit. He’s holding a rose and smiling, but there’s something wrong. He’s not Sam.
Sam frowns. “Yeah,” he nods. “What do you remember?”
Dean’s eyes grow round with shock. In the memory, he’s crying, “You. But not you.”
“Yeah,” Sam nods. “That’s what happened to you. Only with you, it was Michael. It was worse.”
“Michael.” The name should feel familiar, but it doesn’t. Sam’s possession by Lucifer feels more real. “He’s gone.”
“That’s right, Dean,” Sam nods again. “He’s gone.”
Sam doesn’t seem happy about that, although Dean’s pretty sure he’s relieved that Sam isn’t Lucifer anymore.
Dean shakes his head. Nothing could be worse than losing Sam. He’s sure of that.
“How long was I gone?”
Sam lifts his eyes, grief and loss clear as day now that Dean understands what Sam’s been through.
“Three years,” he says. His voice cracks. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and takes a swig from his Coke bottle.
Guilt crushes Dean’s chest and makes his ears ring. He left his little brother alone in this world for three years. There is something worse than losing Sam. He hurt Sam. He caused Sam to suffer alone, to fight for the world and his own survival, without Dean by his side.
“I’m sorry.” It’s inadequate, but it’s all he can do. He can’t ever make it up to Sam.
Sam shakes his head, flashes Dean an annoyed glance. “It’s not your fault,” he says. “It wasn’t you.”
“It was my hands,” Dean says. “This was done by my body.”
“It didn’t have to be you,” Sam insists. “Michael would’ve found another vessel. I wish he had.”
“I was his perfect vessel.” Dean’s not sure how he knows that, but it feels right.
Sam winces, doesn’t look at him, and Dean’s flooded with shame. He’s done something terrible, just by being born.
He let Sam down.
Dean clears his throat, determined to make it up to Sam somehow. “I had a memory, when we were in the car,” he offers. “I remembered us. As kids. That’s how I knew to trust you, right away. I knew you.”
Sam clenches his jaw and looks sad. He nods once, like he already knew.
“I have flashes of memory,” he tells Sam. “When you gave me this t-shirt, I remembered Jack.”
Sam looks away, frowning, and Dean knows it’s not enough. Dean’s mind is a jumble of confused fragments. The only time he recognizes himself is when he sleeps. That’s the only time he feels comfortable in his own skin.
He hopes he’ll get better, for Sam’s sake, if not his own. But he’s starting to think that might not happen. He’s starting to think this is the way it’ll be, from now on.
He tries not to panic.
Dean jerks awake. He’s in the passenger seat of another hotwired car. Sam’s driving, hunched over the wheel and glaring out the windshield with that grim determination Dean now knows well.
His stomach growls.
“There’s a power bar in the glove box,” Sam says. He leans forward to look up at the sky. “It’s gonna be dark soon. We need to get inside.”
Dean eats the power bar and watches Sam’s profile. He knows he’s not supposed to. Sam’s told him to stop staring more than once, but he can’t help himself. It makes him feel better, watching Sam.
Dean thinks he’ll never let Sam out of his sight again.
He could take his turn driving, but that would mean taking his eyes off Sam.
Sam pulls the car off the road, into the parking lot of a long, two-story motel. He parks at the room on the end.
Dean watches as Sam picks the lock on the door, steps inside for a quick look around, then ducks back out.
“All clear,” he tells Dean as he rounds the car to gather their packs from the trunk. “Let’s get inside.”
It’s warm and stuffy in the motel room. Dust and stale air fill Dean’s lungs. The room contains an old, dead TV, a small table with two chairs, a chest of drawers, and a king-size bed. They light a couple of candles before Dean helps Sam lay salt lines around the door and window. They eat in silence, watching the gathering gloom outside their little haven, the vast emptiness that is now the world they live in. The chirping of crickets grows louder as the sun sets, and Dean listens for the familiar moaning that starts as soon as darkness falls.
“Do you think we’ll find anybody alive?” he asks as the moaning starts up, right on cue.
“I don’t know.” Sam shakes his head.
“How long has it been since you saw anybody else?”
Sam sucks in a breath, looks away. “About a week ago now,” he admits. “Michael brought me to Detroit to witness his Final Judgment, as he called it. All the chosen souls went to Heaven that night. Everybody else stayed here.”
“All over the world?” Dean’s appalled and fascinated at the same time. Billions of people, all dead.
Sam shrugs. “That’s what he said. It’s not like I can confirm it, of course. Maybe when we get to the bunker something will still be working. A radio, or an old landline telephone. Cell service is out, so he must have taken down the satellites and cell towers. No power, so no Internet. I keep waiting for a nuclear power plant to melt down or a dam to give way. In the beginning, airplanes were literally falling out of the sky.”
Dean listens without comprehending. It’s too overwhelming. Dean understands that Michael destroyed the world wearing Dean as his meatsuit. Dean has dreams about it. Nightmares. He feels guilty and responsible for all of it, even if he can’t remember it.
But most of all he feels bad for letting Sam down. He should have been able to free himself and push Michael out. Sam looked up to him, had faith in him, felt as if there wasn’t anything his big brother couldn’t do.
“Dean! Put that down!”
Dean jumps and drops the dirty food wrapper, shame curling through his chest, pounding in his ears. He looks up at his brother, lips trembling, fighting the urge to cry. He’s so hungry.
Sam shifts his feet, shouldering his backpack more evenly across his broad back. He looks tired, stretched thin with worry and the strain of the last few days on the road. It’s been a week since they left the mall. His clothes are dirty and worn, his greasy hair hanging in lank strands around his chiseled cheekbones. Both brothers have scraggly beards.
“Never mind,” Sam says wearily. “Let’s go. Gotta keep moving, okay?”
Dean nods and adjusts his own backpack as he turns to follow his brother out of the alley, away from the dumpster that might have had food in it once, but now doesn’t even have much of a smell anymore.
Except dust. Everything smells like dust.
There are a few abandoned cars on the main street, a few boarded-up storefronts, a lot of empty buildings with their doors hanging open, their windows smashed. Anything useful or edible has been scavenged months ago, maybe years. This town has the air of a place that hasn’t been inhabited in a long, long time.
Nevertheless, they had to look. Dean understands that they had to stop to see if anybody was still here, if anyone else is still alive anywhere. Dean remembers other people, so he knows they exist. It can’t be just he and Sam in this dead world.
“Where did everybody go?” he asks. His mouth tastes like dust, and his tongue is thick and heavy in his mouth. He’s hot and thirsty as well as hungry, but he knows better than to ask Sam for food. He knows Sam doesn’t have anything left to give him. Water, neither.
Sam sighs. Dean watches his big shoulders rise and fall, watches Sam’s face wrinkle up into that look of doubt that always makes Dean sad.
“I don’t know, Dean. Let’s not talk about it right now, okay? Let’s try to find something to drink. Then we can talk.”
Dean nods, trudging along behind as Sam leads the way out of the town and down the road. The sun beats down, making Dean’s head hurt. His feet are sore in the too-tight boots. He’s still wearing the oversized clothes Sam gave him the first day.
Dean doesn’t remember much about the Time Before. If he did, maybe Sam would be happier. Dean wishes there was something he could do, something he could say, to take that sad, anxious look off Sam’s face. But it seems like every time he tries, Sam just gets sadder.
The sun is sinking low by the time they turn up the lane of a farmhouse. Nobody’s home, so Sam picks the lock on the back door and lets them inside. There are cans of food in the cupboards, home-canned jars of peaches on the pantry shelves.
“Don’t!” Sam says sharply when Dean reaches for the door of the refrigerator.
Dean remembers the spoiled smell in the refrigerators at the mall and pulls his hand back. There’s no power. Sam already explained it to him. Any food in there is bad.
Sam tries the tap on the sink; rusty water runs out. He lets it run until the water clears.
“There must be a well,” he says as he fills a cup and hands it to Dean.
Dean drinks and drinks. He’s so thirsty.
“That’s enough,” Sam tells him after his fourth cup. “It’ll make you sick. Slow down.”
Dean watches as Sam finds a can opener and opens a can of tuna, a can of green beans, and a can of red liquid. He takes Dean’s pack off, directs him to sit at the table, then finds a plate and a spoon. Sam opens one of the jars of peaches and spoons some into a bowl while Dean watches, his mouth watering in anticipation.
“Eat slowly, okay? Don’t give yourself a stomach ache,” Sam directs, opening a package of crackers from the pantry.
Dean eats everything on his plate, drinks the tomato-flavored juice, looks up expectantly until Sam spoons out seconds.
Sam sits down across from him at the table, leaving his own pack on the floor by the door. He watches Dean eat before he takes a bite himself, then eats quickly and efficiently until his plate is empty.
“Can we stay here?” Dean asks after they’ve both eaten their fill.
Sam looks around, sighs. “Maybe,” he says.
He makes Dean stay downstairs while he goes up the stairs to the second floor, then checks out the basement. It’s getting dark by that time, so Sam finds some candles in the pantry and lights them, sets them on the table as Dean watches, hopeful.
“Yeah, I think we can stay here,” Sam says. “For tonight, anyway.”
Sam salts the windows and doors. Then they take their packs and candles upstairs. There are three bedrooms, all neat and tidy, beds still made, clothes still hanging in the closets. It’s as if the people left for vacation, instead of fleeing an apocalypse.
“You can sleep here,” Sam directs, indicating the largest bed in the largest room. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“No, Sam,” Dean shakes his head. “It’s big enough for both of us.”
Dean’s grateful that Sam didn’t suggest sleeping separately, in one of the other rooms. Sam knows Dean can’t sleep alone. Dean’s lucky to have a brother who knows him so well.
“Oh my god,” Sam exclaims softly as he tries the tap in the bathroom. “We’ve got running water here, too. I wonder...”
He leaves one of the candles in the bathroom, the other one in the bedroom, while he goes back downstairs to the basement with his flashlight. Dean waits patiently, and in a couple of minutes Sam returns, a look of wonder on his face that makes Dean’s chest grow warm.
“We’ve got hot water,” he announces, then frowns a little when he notices Dean staring. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
Dean blinks, then opens his eyes wide. His cheeks grow hot. “You look so happy,” he says truthfully. Sam’s expression makes Dean happy, too. He feels happy all over, in fact.
He wishes he could take his boots off.
Sam makes an annoyed face, but he doesn’t stop smiling. “You’re right,” he says. “The prospect of taking a shower makes me happy. The prospect of you getting clean makes me positively ecstatic.”
Dean thinks he’s supposed to feel offended by Sam’s comment, but he doesn’t. The way Sam’s looking at him makes him feel too good.
“Come on,” Sam says. “You first. Get undressed, and I’ll run the shower for you.”
Dean sits on the bed to pull off his boots, wiggling his toes happily when they’re finally free. He stands up to strip off his sweat-soaked, dust-covered clothes while Sam rifles around in the drawers. He pulls out a t-shirt and sweatpants, holds them up in front of himself to check the length.
“These should fit you,” he says. He looks up, blushes, and looks away when he sees Dean standing in the middle of the room, naked and waiting. Dean’s not sure what Sam’s expression means, but it makes his chest warm. Makes his dick twitch.
“Come on,” Sam mutters, leading Dean into the bathroom without looking at him again.
Dean’s sure he’s failed again. He isn’t what Sam expects, and he keeps disappointing his brother with every little thing he does. He thinks it would help if he could remember the Time Before, but he just can’t. Sam says it’s for the best, but he also gets that sad look in his eyes when he says it, and Dean’s not sure it’s really for the best at all.
He stands under the shower for a long time, letting the water cascade over his skin. It feels incredible. After about five minutes, Sam’s shadow appears on the curtain.
“Don’t forget to wash your hair, Dean,” he calls. “Use the shampoo.”
Dean picks up the bottle of shampoo from the shelf. He squeezes some into his hand and rubs it into his hair. It feels amazing. After his hair is clean, he picks up the bar of soap and washes his body, watching the water run dark and dirty at first, then soapy and clear.
“Okay, you’re done,” Sam calls a couple of minutes later. “It’s my turn.”
Dean leaves the water running, steps out of the shower, and takes the towel Sam hands to him. Sam’s naked, too, and Dean tries not to stare at Sam as his brother steps past him into the shower and slides the curtain closed.
“Dry off and get dressed, Dean,” Sam calls, and Dean scrambles to obey.
Sam’s body is too skinny, Dean thinks as he gets dressed in the sleep clothes Sam laid out for him. Sam looks like he’s not eating right. It makes Dean’s chest hurt. He needs to be a better brother. He needs to make sure Sam eats. He needs to take care of Sam.
Sam is beautiful all over, not just his face and his hands. As he pulls back the covers on the big bed, Dean thinks about Sam’s hands with their long fingers and gentle touch. The blankets are musty, but the sheets feel cool against his skin. He lies under the covers, watching the candlelight make flickering shadows on the walls, listening to the sound of the shower running.
Thinking about Sam’s body makes his dick hard, and when he hears the shower shut off, his heart pounds.
It occurs to Dean that Sam doesn’t like to give orders. He doesn’t like to tell Dean what to do. He likes it when Dean takes charge. Sam’s had to be in charge since the beginning, after the Time Before, but he doesn’t like it. It’s not normal for him because Dean’s the big brother.
“Come to bed, Sam,” Dean demands gruffly when he sees Sam standing in the bathroom doorway, hesitating. He thinks he’s done this before, although he can’t remember. It feels familiar.
Sam has a towel wrapped around his waist, and his chest gleams in the candlelight. It makes Dean’s dick painfully hard just to look at him. Sam stands staring at Dean, and Dean wonders if he thinks Dean’s beautiful, too. Dean’s pretty sure Sam used to think so.
Then Sam shakes his head.
“I’ll sleep on the floor,” he mutters as he crosses to the dresser, begins rifling around for underwear.
Dead people underwear, Dean thinks. It makes him snicker. They’re both wearing dead people clothes.
Sam drops the towel when he finds a pair of shorts. He bends over as he pulls them on, and Dean sucks in a breath. Sam gives him a look. His dimples show as he shakes his head and yanks a t-shirt on over his head, covering his gleaming chest as he turns to face Dean again. The t-shirt is too small for him; it pulls across his broad chest and shoulders, shows off a slip of skin above the shorts. He crosses the room, grabs a pillow off the bed, and tosses it on the floor.
“You don’t have to do that,” Dean says, pulling back the covers in invitation. “There’s plenty of room.”
“Yeah, I do,” Sam says. “I’ll be right back.”
He leaves the room, returning after a couple of minutes with blankets from one of the other beds. He lays them on the floor where Dean can see him and reaches up to blow out the candle before settling down. His arm is long and veined. Strong.
“You’re an idiot,” Dean mumbles into the dark. He thinks he’s heard Sam say that. He has the overwhelming urge to use another slur, but he resists. He doesn’t want Sam to be mad at him.
Sam sighs. “Go to sleep, Dean.” His voice sounds weary, but maybe just a little fond, too.
Dean falls asleep to the sound of the wind rattling the shutters on the windows.
The ghosts are quiet tonight.
Dean wakes to the sound of rain on the roof. A wan, grey light creeps around the dusty curtains on the windows. Dean blinks, rubs the sleep from his eyes, and turns his head to look for Sam.
His brother’s already up, and Dean thinks that’s normal. Sam always gets up first. He likes to get up early to go for a run before curling himself into the confines of the car for the day’s drive.
That thought slips away before Dean’s sleepy mind can grab hold of it. It’s a memory of the Time Before, he knows that much. Not even a specific memory, just a vague impression of How Things Were Back Then. Like the way Dean’s body responded to Sam’s nakedness last night.
“I’m downstairs, Dean.” Sam’s voice echoes up the stairs. “Just making us some breakfast.”
Dean pulls himself out of the warm bed. Dead people clothes are laid out for him at the foot of the bed, and they mostly fit. The jeans aren’t even baggy, and the shirt fits perfectly once he rolls up the sleeves a little. He pulls the socks on and tentatively pushes his feet into the worn, scuffed boots, hoping they won’t be too tight. When he’s able to move his toes around once they’re on, he sighs contentedly and paces the room a few times to work them in. The boots mold to his feet as if they were made for them, and it makes him happier than he can remember feeling. Ever.
In the bathroom, Dean finds a razor and does his best to shave. His hair has grown. It curls around his ears and tickles the back of his neck. When he examines his face in the mirror, he gets the impression he always kept his hair short, in the Time Before. It’s a stranger’s face that gazes back at him. Clear green eyes, pink, freshly-shaven cheeks that make his lips stand out, plush and red. He runs the water in the sink, slicks back his long hair with a comb. He studies his reflection for another moment, searching for the man he used to be, before Michael, but nothing comes to mind. He knows he’s Dean Winchester because Sam told him so, and he trusts Sam. He’s Sam’s big brother. Everything he knows about himself comes from Sam.
Dean starts as Sam appears in the doorway. He didn’t even hear Sam coming up the stairs, and now his brother is looking at him with that half-concerned, half-exasperated expression he uses most often when he talks to Dean.
“Oh.” Sam raises an eyebrow as he takes in Dean’s appearance, his eyes sweeping over him from head to toe.
Dean blushes and looks away.
“You...” Sam rubs his own cheek as if he can’t find the word, as if it’s too intimate.
“I know how to use a razor, Sam,” Dean growls. “I’m not an idiot.” It feels normal to growl at Sam. It feels familiar.
“No, I know.” Sam shifts his feet. He hesitates for a moment, then adds, “You look better. More like yourself.”
Dean flinches. He doesn’t know what he looked like in the Time Before, so he can’t say. All he knows is, he doesn’t like feeling useless and incapable. He doesn’t like dragging Sam down.
“I made you some breakfast,” Sam says. His tone is softer, and when Dean looks up at him, he gives a tentative smile. Dean can’t stay angry in the face of that smile. Sam’s expression is hopeful, and Dean can’t bear the thought of quashing Sam’s hope. He depends on it too much.
He winks at his brother, hopes it’s something he used to do sometimes.
After breakfast, Sam puts on a dead man’s raincoat and heads out to have a look at the garage and the barn. Dean waits, not very patiently. Bored, he searches the house, opening closets and rifling through drawers. He looks for a long time at the faces in the photographs. Most of them are of two boys, as babies and toddlers, then as school children in sports uniforms. In the most recent picture, one of the boys is wearing a graduation gown, standing between his parents with his younger brother beside them. The older boy is tall, almost as tall as Sam. He’s a head taller than both his parents, and his little brother barely comes up to his shoulder.
The dead boy’s clothing fits Sam, Dean realizes. Dean’s wearing the father’s clothes.
When Sam gets back, he stomps his feet on the mat and shakes rainwater water off like a wet dog.
“Take your boots off, Sam,” Dean directs when he sees the mud on them. After last night’s insight, he thinks it might be something the old Dean would do, ordering and directing Sam.
Sam gives him a look but obeys, pulling off the dead guy raincoat and hanging it up before following Dean into the living room. He stands in the doorway, staring at the pictures Dean laid out on the coffee table.
Dean points. “See? The older boy was tall, like you. The dad was built like me.” He pulls out the deck of cards he found in a drawer, holds them out. “Wanna play?”
Sam’s forehead creases with doubt. He looks uncertain and tempted at the same time.
“We can’t stay here, Dean.”
“No, I know,” Dean nods. “But it’s pouring out, and I’m guessing you didn’t find a car in the garage, am I right?”
Sam’s face turns sour. “I did, but I can’t get it started. It’s deader than a doornail.”
“Okay, then, maybe we stay until it stops raining, huh? I mean, there’s food, water, beds, cards. And this.” Waggling his eyebrows, Dean pulls out the bottle of whiskey he found in a cupboard under the stairs. Sam rolls his eyes and snorts, but his dimpled grin comes back.
Dean did something right.
The truth is, he’s worried about Sam. They’ve been on the road for a couple of weeks, and Sam’s had to be the responsible one. He’s had to shoulder the burden of everything that’s happened to this world alone because Dean doesn’t remember any of it. Sam’s had to carry the burden of a damaged and broken brother who can’t even begin to be a real partner anymore.
Dean’s worried about Sam’s physical health, but he’s even more worried about his mental state.
Sam’s discouraged. He’s grieving. He’s despairing of finding anyone else alive in this world, and he fears that his brother will never be his brother again. He’s on the verge of losing it, and Dean wants more than anything to fix things. To help. He has the feeling that he used to be able to do that. He has the feeling that the old Dean could be strong and decisive because it was what Sam needed, and Dean always gave Sam what he needed.
When Sam relents and agrees to play cards and share the whiskey with him, Dean almost passes out with relief.
“Just one more day,” Sam says. “Just till the rain stops.”
Dean decides he can live with that.
”I should kill you now.”
Michael’s got his hand around Sam’s throat, holding him down. He applies just enough pressure to keep Sam on the verge of passing out, without quite going under. Sam wheezes, tries to suck in a breath, can’t speak.
“There would be a kind of justice in it, wouldn’t you say?” Michael goes on. “Killing this world’s perfect vessel for this world’s Lucifer. Making Dean watch.”
Sam struggles, but it’s useless.
“I’m going to kill all the Sams and Deans, in all the worlds,” Michael hisses. “Two by two. And I know just how to do it. All it takes for Dean to say yes is to threaten to kill you, every time, in every world. Easy peasy.”
Sam’s eyelids flutter closed, and his body goes limp. Dean screams and rails, pounding against the prison of his own mind, where Michael has him locked up, able only to watch helplessly.
Michael releases Sam’s motionless body and stands up, brushing off the front of his suit. He gazes down at Sam, giving Dean an unobstructed view of his handiwork. The work of Dean’s hands. From this vantage point Dean can see Cas’s and Jack’s bodies among those of the other hunters, strewn across the bunker floor.
“See, Dean?” Michael murmurs as Dean rages and sobs. “It’s not so hard to kill your own brother, is it? And now, with my help, you’ve done it. You’re just like me, now.”
I’m nothing like you! Dean screams. Michael smiles and raises his hand.
When Michael brings Sam back with a snap of his fingers, Dean gasps with relief.
“I need you both to witness the end of the world you worked so hard to save so many times,” Michael explains before he closes the window, cutting off Dean’s view, sending him back to the blessed oblivion of Rocky’s Bar. “You’re my father’s favorite playthings, and I need you awake and present at the end of everything, when there’s nothing left to save. Maybe then my father will notice.”
Michael pauses, and Dean can feel his callous indifference. It makes Dean shiver.
“Or not,” Michael adds. “I don’t really care.”
Dean wakes up screaming.
There’s a warm weight holding him down, something soft tickling his nose.
“Hey, hey, Dean, you’re okay. I’ve got you,” Sam’s voice breathes into his ear, and Dean knows he’s been thrashing around like a wild animal. His arms and legs feel tired and achy, and his throat’s sore from screaming. He’s breathing hard, like he’s been running.
Sam sighs as Dean’s body relaxes under his, and Dean reorients himself. It’s dark, he’s lying in the bed in the farmhouse where they’ve been squatting for the past three days. He’s just had a nightmare, and although he doesn’t remember much of it, he thinks Sam was there. Sam was suffering.
It was a terrible dream.
The rain hasn’t let up, and Dean’s been fixing the car. He didn’t know he could do that, but when he begged Sam to let him look at it, he knew just what to do.
As Sam slides away from him on the bed, Dean reaches out, grabs handfuls of Sam’s shirt and holds on. Clings.
Sam tenses for a moment, then relents.
“Okay, okay,” Sam sighs, and Dean can feel his breath. “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. Just let me grab my pillow.”
Dean nods and takes a shaky breath. He can feel tears on his cheeks. As if he can see them in the darkness, Sam’s big, warm hand cups his cheek. His thumb brushes the tears away, and he leaves his hand there a moment, as Dean’s breathing slows.
“Okay?” Sam asks, and Dean nods. Sam sighs and lets his thumb slide down over Dean’s lips as he pulls his hand away.
Dean swallows. His dick hardens. He wishes Sam would kiss him. He knows Sam wants to. He knows Sam used to, even though he doesn’t remember. Dean’s body remembers.
Sam’s hands close over his. He gently forces Dean to let go of Sam’s shirt, pushes his hands back against Dean’s chest, and lets them go.
“Try to get some sleep, Dean,” he says softly, and all Dean can do is sigh as Sam turns onto his side, away from Dean. Sam’s back is like a wall between them.
Dean turns onto his back and stares up at the dark ceiling, listening to Sam’s breathing and the moans of the ghosts outside, until sleep overtakes him.
This time, he sleeps dreamlessly.
In the morning, after breakfast, Dean gets the car started. The rain has let up, and Sam’s anxious to get going. He and Sam pack the car with food, rope, salt, tools, and a gas can. It took them over a week to figure out that they didn’t need to hotwire a new car every time one ran out of gas. They could just siphon the gas out of other cars.
They each select two changes of clothes from the dead people’s closets, plus extra underwear and socks from the drawers. Dean sneaks a photograph of the two boys who lived here when they were young, the older one with his arm slung carelessly across his little brother’s shoulders.
“I’ll drive,” Sam announces as he slams the trunk.
Dean nods. It doesn’t occur to him to argue, but from the look Sam gives him, he knows that the old Dean would have protested.
They make good time on the back roads. They stay clear of the main highways, which are clogged with stalled cars. Dean thinks about the first week, when they came across a freeway ramp full of cars, some containing decayed and decaying bodies. Since then, they’ve kept out of the cities.
They drive and drive and drive.
That night, in another empty motel, Dean lies on his side of the bed and stares at the ceiling as Sam tosses and turns in an attempt to get comfortable after the long day’s drive.
“I’m sorry I’m not your brother any more,” Dean says.
Sam turns toward him on the bed, and although it’s too dark to see his face, Dean knows Sam’s looking at him. Moonlight filtered through the curtains falls on the bed between them, partly on Dean’s face. He can feel it. Sam’s hand slips into his and squeezes.
“You’ll always be my brother,” Sam says.
Dean squeezes back and holds tight when Sam starts to pull away.
“Sam? Are you ever gonna kiss me again?”
Sam sighs. He puts his free hand on Dean’s cheek, sliding his thumb along the cheekbone.
“Probably,” he admits. “But not tonight, okay? Tonight, we sleep.”
“Do you see him when you look at me?” Dean hates himself for asking, but he can’t help it.
“I see you when I look at you,” Sam says. He strokes his thumb down Dean’s cheek to the edge of his mouth, takes his chin between his thumb and forefinger.
“I can get better, Sam,” Dean promises. “I can get more of my memories back, not just the flashes. I feel it. Someday I’ll be my normal self again, I promise.”
“It’s okay if you never get better,” Sam assures him. “Even if you never recover your memories, you’ll always be my Dean.”
Dean blushes, but he’s on a roll. He can’t stop himself. “I love you, Sammy. I think my old self couldn’t say that to you, and sometimes you doubted it, but I love you more than anything.”
“I know,” Sam whispers. “Now go to sleep, okay?”
“Okay.” Dean nods as Sam pats his cheek, then rolls away from him on the bed.
Dean lies still until Sam’s breaths grow deep and regular. He lets himself relax because he did that. He helped Sam fall asleep. Even if he’s not the big brother Sam knows and misses so much, he can still give Sam what he needs. He’s got enough of a brain left to figure that out.
The car breaks down the next day, and Dean can’t get it started again.
“The gas has gone bad,” he tells Sam. “It won’t ignite anymore.”
“Like everything else,” Sam gripes.
It’s all winding down. Everything’s ending. It’s a wonder the earth isn’t slowing to a stop. Maybe it is, and they just haven’t noticed it yet.
They walk until their legs hurt, carrying too much in their packs like before.
They bed down in a barn that night, salting the perimeter as best they can. The farmhouse is full of dead bodies. They drag the bodies out and burn them in the backyard, but the smell of death lingers.
“At least those ghosts won’t bother us,” Sam says grimly.
“Where are all the animals?” Dean asks as they lay blankets down over the loose hay in one of the stalls. The barn smells of dust and leather, but at least nothing died in here. Saddles hang suspended on wire hooks along one wall. Hay bales are stacked neatly in the corner. “Have you seen any animals in all this time?”
Sam shrugs and shakes his head. “I guess not,” he admits, as if it’s the first time he’s considered it.
“You’d think there’d be a dog. Or a horse.”
Sam shrugs again, then frowns.
Sam rubs his grizzled cheek. “Did you shave today?”
“Yeah.” Dean shrugs. “So?”
Even in the dimming light Dean can see Sam blush. He grins nervously to hide it and looks away.
Dean files that away. It occurred to him last night that Sam likes his face clean-shaven. The old Dean was meticulous about his appearance.
They consider lighting a candle, but it’s easier just to go to sleep and get up with the light. It’s been a long, exhausting day.
As they lie down, side by side, not quite touching, Dean takes advantage of the darkness to continue their conversation from the previous night. It’s easier to talk to Sam when he can’t see his face.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“He told me,” Sam says. “At the final battle in Detroit, after he killed the last of the hunters. He said he wanted to leave us alive to witness the end. He wanted us to see the world afterwards.”
Sam huffs out a breath, and Dean thinks he might not get an answer. Then Sam says, “I’m not sure. At first I thought it was his way of punishing us for stopping the apocalypse the first time.”
Sam sighs. “Michael told us he was going to burn all of his father’s worlds. He wanted to tear them all apart. We were Chuck’s favorite characters, so he wanted to punish us to get back at God.”
Dean gropes for Sam’s hand, threads their fingers together, and squeezes. “This doesn’t feel like punishment,” he says.
Sam turns his head, stares at Dean in the dark. “We failed,” he says. “I failed. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t stop Michael. The whole fucking world died, and I couldn’t stop it.”
“We’re together,” Dean says. “That’s the important thing.”
Sam pulls his hand away, huffs out a breath. “You can say that because you don’t remember,” he says bitterly. “You didn’t watch everything end. You didn’t see all those hunters die. You don’t remember Jack and Cas and Mom and Bobby...”
“You’re right,” Dean agrees. “I don’t. But that doesn’t mean I can’t grieve. Especially since it was my hands that did all that killing.”
“I already told you, it wasn’t you,” Sam insists.
“He let me watch sometimes,” Dean says.
Sam turns sharply towards Dean, propping himself up on one elbow.
Dean shakes his head. “Not really. I had a dream where I was — where I — and you — “ He swallows thickly, fighting back tears. “In the dream, he let me watch while he did terrible things. I think — I think it was real.”
“I’m real sorry I did those things, Sam,” Dean says, blinking up at Sam in the darkness. He can’t see his face, but he knows Sam’s gazing down at him. “I’m sorry about Mom and Jack and Bobby and all those hunters. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I’m broken, and can’t be your partner anymore.”
“Shhh.” Sam’s warm hand cups his face. His thumb swipes away Dean’s tears. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Dean. You’re still my partner, okay? You’ll always be my best friend. You’re gonna get better. Or maybe you won’t, but either way, you’re still the best thing in my life. Okay? The best thing.”
Dean weeps silently, chest heaving with grief he doesn’t even understand. He can recall the Dean from his dream, railing against Michael as Michael kills the people he loves, and although the grief that dream-Dean feels is intense and immediate, it’s also removed from waking-Dean’s emotional life. It’s like experiencing those feelings through a curtain, or a wall made of dark glass.
But the grief that Dean feels because he’s failed Sam is real. It’s overwhelming. It’s more than he can handle.
Sam gathers him close, soothes and rocks him in his long arms, lets Dean cry against his chest with his chin tucked on top of Dean’s head. Dean clings to Sam’s t-shirt, soaks it with his tears as Sam strokes Dean’s back. He falls asleep that way, cradled in Sam’s arms, face pressed against Sam’s chest, listening to the comforting beat of his heart.
It’s the only place he ever wants to be.