Summary: Dean honors his end of the crossroads deal, but Sam’s not ready to let him go. Temporary character death. Prequel to my drabble Starting Over.
Characters: Sam, Bobby, and Dean.
Rating: PG-13 for language and violence. Genfic.
Word count: 9,600
Disclaimer: Don’t own them. Not making money off of them.
Author’s Notes: Many thanks to swanseajill for the encouragement and fast, extremely helpful beta read.
“I’m not drinking that,” Sam said, pointing at his beer.
Dean’s brow furrowed. “Okay,” he said slowly. “What, you all of a sudden have something against Newcastle?”
Sam had to give Dean credit. Dean was pretty damned good at playing clueless. But Sam knew better.
He snorted and tapped the bottle, which had arrived while he’d been in the bar’s grubby bathroom. “C’mon, Dean. You really going to pretend you didn’t spike it the second it hit the table?”
Dean’s lips pursed. “Why the hell would I spike your beer? This is our last night together. You really think I want to spend it with you unconscious?”
Our last night together.
Sam’s stomach twisted, and his throat tightened as if someone was squeezing it, iron grip threatening to steal not only words, but air. It took him a good half-minute before he could speak.
“You spiked it because it’s our last night together. You don’t want me following you to the crossroads.”
A shrug. “You promised you wouldn’t, so why -- ”
“Because you think I’m going to break my promise,” Sam said, voice rising.
A leather-clad couple at the next table glanced at them, and Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, tried to reel in his frustration. This wasn’t how he wanted tonight to go, dammit. He didn’t want to fight.
Dean studied him for a long moment, then nodded, lips set in a tight line. “You’re right. I do.”
“So you figured you’d head me off at the pass?” Sam demanded, feeling a vein throb in his temple. “Just drug me into oblivion, dump me at the motel, and go die all alone?”
Casually said, like Dean was agreeing to pick up a newspaper or grab a bite to eat.
Sam leaned forward, arms on the table, fists so tight fingernails dug into palms. “I don’t think so, Dean,” he said, quiet edge in his voice. “I couldn’t save you, but I sure as hell can stand by you at the end.”
Dean’s jaw clenched, and he shook his head. “I don’t want you there,” he growled. “I don’t want you to see it happen, and I sure as hell don’t want to take the risk that you’ll pull some crazy-ass stunt at the last second and get yourself killed. Or worse.”
Huffing, Sam leaned back in his chair, arms crossed over each other. “By ‘worse’ you mean go all darkside, right?”
“You came this close last month,” Dean said, thumb and forefinger practically touching.
A dry swallow, and Sam looked away, studied the scarred wood floor and the broken, empty peanut shells scattered across it.
Whisper quiet, but Sam heard it like a shout, couldn’t ignore it because it held too much pleading and command. He met Dean’s somber gaze.
“Sammy, can you honestly tell me you aren’t gonna try something if you go to that crossroads?”
He couldn’t. He had no idea what he’d try, because nothing he’d done so far had made a damned bit of difference. But he couldn’t just stand there while the hellhounds came for Dean.
“What I said back in Albuquerque still stands,” Dean said. “If you save me but it costs you your life, or your soul, it’s not worth it. I’d rather be dead.”
Sam’s eyes burned, and his fists clenched against his ribs. “Dean.”
“I mean it.”
Sam swallowed and shook his head. “I don’t want you to die alone.”
Dean smiled, the sad, empathetic smile he’d worn too many times recently. “I know. But Sam … ” His jaw worked, and he looked away, then back. “I just … I can’t have you there. Swear you won’t come for me until after it’s done.” His expression hardened. “And make me believe you, or I’ll knock you out, tie you up, and dump your ass so far away it’ll take you days to find your way back.”
Dean would do it, easy as hitting on a hot girl or tossing a lit match onto a pile of bones. So Sam made his promise as sincere as possible, hoped like hell Dean would buy it.
“I don’t like it,” he said, letting his voice crack and blinking stinging eyes. “Matter of fact, I hate it. But … I swear, I’ll stay at the motel until ... ” He sucked in and blew out a shaky breath. “Until after it’s done.”
A long look, and then Dean nodded, shoulders relaxing. “All right. Thanks, man.”
Sam managed a tight nod, and an awkward silence descended between them, went on for a good minute before Dean broke it.
“Well,” Dean said, slapping the table and grinning, though it looked forced. “Get yourself a fresh beer, all right? I want you good and buzzed before I whip your ass at the pool table.”
Sam offered a weak smile, then signaled a waitress and had her bring him another Newcastle. He made sure not to let Dean anywhere near it as they made small talk, in case Dean hadn’t really bought his promise.
Twenty minutes later he knew he’d screwed up, the room seesawing and blurring before him.
“How?” he croaked out, gripping the table in a desperate attempt at stability.
“Bartender and I go back a ways,” Dean said quietly. “He owed me.”
No, no, no. “Dean … ”
“Sam, listen to me.”
“No.” He closed his eyes against the dizziness, felt the wetness behind them. This wasn’t fair, wasn’t right. His whole world spinning out of control and away, and he couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
“It’s okay you didn’t save me,” Dean said, voice tight and raw. “You hear me? It’s okay because you’re alive.”
Spinning ever faster, veering into darkness, the sounds around him hushed and distorted, and Sam couldn’t find his way up or out.
“I’d always pick your life over mine, Sam.” A scrape and rustle, and then Dean was there, arms around Sam, breath warm on his neck. “Always.”
“Dean.” A weak murmur. “Please. Don’t.”
“I love you, Sammy.”
The darkness smothered him before he could answer.
Sam pulled his eyes open to weak sunlight and groaned.
If he didn’t know better, he’d swear someone had scraped everything out of his head, shoved it back in, and beaten him with all twelve-and-a-half pounds of the Webster’s International Dictionary.
The rest of him wasn’t faring much better. His mouth tasted like he’d gargled with sewer water, and his stomach rocked and rolled like that time a bad batch of fish and chips had him clinging to the toilet for five hours straight.
What the hell had he drunk last night? And was Dean this hung over, too?
Moving snail slow to prevent his stomach from revolting and his head from exploding, Sam turned toward Dean’s bed.
Dean’s empty bed.
A rapid-fire burst of memories hit him. Dean, bar, beer, promises, spiked beer.
A look at the clock confirmed it. Seven-thirty a.m., which meant it was the next day, and Dean wasn’t here, and that meant --
“No,” Sam moaned, cupping his pounding head in one hand and using the other to brace himself as he sat up and swung his legs to the floor. He nearly toppled sideways as the dizziness slammed into him.
As he regained his bearings, his cell rang, an explosion of sound that made him cringe even as hope flared, hot and bright and fragile. He fumbled the phone out of his jeans pocket, scanned the display screen.
Hope extinguished like a flame snuffed out, and Sam answered the call with a strained, “Bobby.”
“Sam? You all right?”
A ridiculous question, because Dean was dead and burning in hell. Sam knew it, felt it with the same crushing weight as when Dean had been gunned down in Broward County, the day after the time loop stopped.
“He tricked me,” Sam said, voice raw. “I wanted to go with him, but he … ” His throat closed off.
“I know, son.” Quiet grief in those words. “He called me last night, told me what he was gonna do.” A long, heavy sigh. “I’m about an hour away. Sit tight, and I’ll pick you up. We’ll go to the crossroads together, see if … ”
If there’s anything left.
Stomach twisting, Sam managed an “I’ll be here” before flipping the phone shut and curling in on himself, Dean’s words from the night before an endless loop in his head.
“It’s okay because you’re alive.”
Sam shook his head, blinked against liquid vision. “It’s not. God, Dean. It’s not.”
Bobby drove to the crossroads where Dean had gone to honor the deal in silence, save for the country music crackling on the radio. Sam didn’t know if Bobby thought he didn’t want to talk, or didn’t know what to say.
Sam was simply glad for the quiet. Small talk would be sacrilege, and mention of Dean’s name or the deal, even if only in practical terms, would shatter the precarious control he’d established over his emotions. The control he needed in order to survive the next few hours.
He rubbed his forehead and saw Bobby flick him a worried glance. He ignored it, focusing instead on the stubborn, throbbing headache that wouldn’t subside. At least his stomach had finally settled.
Powder-blue sky and cotton-ball clouds blurred by until finally, they arrived at a clump of trees that formed a screen between them and the crossroads. The Impala was parked off to the left, windows rolled up, waiting for its new owner.
Sam scrubbed a shaking hand over his lips. God, he didn’t want to do this.
Bobby pulled up beside the Impala and turned off the engine. For a moment they just stared ahead, Bobby’s hands flexing on the wheel and Sam’s clenched in his lap.
Sam wondered if Bobby could hear his heart pounding.
“Let’s go,” Sam murmured.
They climbed out of the truck and wove through the trees, emerged to find Dean crumpled in the middle of the crossroads. Sam froze as he took in the limbs bent at odd angles, the blood covering most of Dean’s body and soaked into the dirt underneath.
Two birds soared overheard and veered toward the trees. A squirrel skittered by at the edges of Sam’s vision. Life marching on, despite the carnage and loss.
The incongruity of it hurt.
Taking a stuttering breath and blowing it out, Sam started forward, Bobby walking behind him. It only took a few steps to reach Dean, and then he dropped to his knees as Bobby hung back.
The hellhounds had savaged Dean, ripped dozens of chunks out of him, exposing muscle and bone and organs.
“Bastards,” Bobby grated out from behind Sam as Sam closed Dean’s sightlessly staring eyes, unable to look at the dull hazel.
Sam didn’t bother agreeing, too busy trying to breathe past his grief and anger.
“Damn you, Dean,” he choked out, shaking his head. “Damn you for leaving me behind.”
Sliding an arm under Dean’s shoulders, he eased Dean up against his chest, hating the feel of the cold, shredded body but needing the contact.
If he could hit rewind, he would, all the way back to Cold Oak. He’d kick Jake’s ass so Dean wouldn’t need to make the damned deal. But he couldn’t. Couldn’t get a trickster to do it, either. That bitch Lilith had killed each and every one.
Bobby closed a warm, strong hand over Sam’s shoulder as Sam rocked side to side, the grief swallowing him whole and leaving his cheeks wet and Dean’s hair damp.
They stayed like that until Sam was spent, hollow and fragile as an egg cracked open and emptied. Giving himself a mental shake, he lowered Dean to the ground, ignored the gore now clinging to his own clothing. Then he stood up, Bobby’s hand falling away with the motion, and met Bobby’s gaze.
Bobby looked on the verge of breaking down himself, features tight and eyes red. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“I know,” he said, strain in the words. He glanced at Dean, pressed his lips into a grim line. “I need to … I’ll be right back.”
Bobby nodded, and Sam went to the Impala, used his key to unlock the passenger side. It felt like breaking and entering -- It’s not supposed to be my car. -- and Sam ached with the sensation as he snagged what he needed and headed back to Bobby.
When Bobby spied the first-aid kit in Sam’s hand, his expression softened. “Sam -- ”
“What they did to him ... ” Sam motioned to the gaping wounds and swallowed. So damned hard to breathe. “He wouldn’t care if we cremated him like this,” he said, voice tight. “But I do.”
Bobby’s gaze swept over Dean, lingered on Dean’s blood-spattered face, and then he looked back at Sam and nodded. “All right. Just … Let me help.”
They set to work under the late-morning sun, exchanging words only when necessary.
It took three hours and both their first-aid kits to clean Dean up and sew him back together. It wasn’t their best work, hands shaking or clenching too much to make perfect rows of stitches, Sam’s vision blurring more than once. But Dean looked less violated, a little more like the brother Sam had loved and fought with and fought beside for so many years.
As Bobby packed up what remained of their first-aid supplies, Sam wrangled Dean’s stiff limbs back into shredded clothing, including the leather jacket, so clawed and bloody it was beyond repair. Sam couldn’t stomach the idea of saving it as a reminder. He did, however, slip Dean’s bloodstained amulet and ring off and into his pocket.
“You ready?” Bobby asked, a quiet rumble beside him, Dean’s blood caked under his fingernails just as it was under Sam’s.
Sam nodded, and Bobby headed for the cars to get what they needed for a funeral pyre. Even though they didn’t need to worry about Dean coming back as a restless spirit -- not when his soul was in hell -- Dean had asked for a traditional hunter’s sendoff.
Unlike the hunters who’d been cremated before him, though, Dean wouldn’t truly rest.
The knowledge nearly made Sam lose it all over again, but he refused himself that weakness. Clung instead to the belief that he could still help Dean, could find a way to set Dean’s soul free.
Leaning over, he rested his forehead against Dean’s cold one and closed his eyes. “I’ll get you out, Dean,” he whispered, fierce and unyielding. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll get you out.”
Sam lost ten pounds during the eight weeks following Dean’s death.
He stayed with Bobby at Bobby’s insistence, but the familiar surroundings provided scant comfort. He slept only four or five fretful, nightmare-ridden hours a night and treated food as fuel, barely tasting it and sometimes forgetting about it entirely until his stomach cramped and complained. He spent his days poring over books from Bobby’s library, surfing every Web site that offered a glimmer of hope, and calling the few people he trusted who might have a lead on getting Dean’s soul out of hell, one that didn’t involve a crossroads, since the demon who held Dean’s contract would never negotiate.
He didn’t find any answers.
Neither did Bobby.
One night they sat across from each other at Bobby’s kitchen table, half of Sam’s chili congealing in his bowl, Bobby’s pushed aside and two-thirds gone.
Sam rubbed gritty eyes, made a mental note to pick up another bottle of Visine. “I don’t know what else to try.”
Bobby nodded, grim. “The only thing that might work is openin’ the Devil’s Gate, which would set loose a hell of a lot of demons. And we couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. Not without the Colt.”
“Yeah,” Sam muttered darkly, thoughts turning to Bela. She’d destroyed the Colt after using it to waste a centuries-old demon for unknown reasons. Dean had invented a few new curse words after they got the news, threatened to break Bela’s neck next time they crossed paths.
They never saw her again, though. Lilith slaughtered Bela just days later, cut her in half lengthwise and left her to rot in the Nevada desert.
Sam pushed that image away and refocused on the matter at hand. “Bobby … I think we need to take a break, get some distance from it for a while.”
It stung to suggest it, salt ground into an open wound, but Sam knew they needed to clear their heads. And he needed to hunt, craved it almost as much as his brother’s salvation. Just a little controlled, righteous violence to take the edge off.
“Heard about a vamp’s nest in Burnsville,” he said, matter-of-fact. “I’m going to clean it out. Find another hunt or two after that. I’ll be back in two weeks, then we can start looking again.”
Bobby frowned and shook his head. “You need to rest up, Sam. Put some meat on your bones. You go huntin’ now, you might get hurt, or killed. Dean wouldn’t want that.”
The ever-present ache in Sam’s chest sharpened. “I know. But I’ll be okay, Bobby. I know how to hunt alone. I’ve done it before.”
Bobby gave him a long, hard look, then blew out a noisy breath, reluctance and disapproval clear as if he’d put them in writing. “Call every day, then. Let me know you’re all right.”
Sam took his bowl to the sink, scrubbed it out, and slid it into the dishwasher.
Bobby came over and rinsed out his bowl, too, water splattering as he worked, then set it on the counter. “Sam … Even after you get back, I don’t know we’ll find anything. And if we do, it might not work. You know that, right?”
He did. He just couldn’t accept it.
“I’m going to pack,” Sam said, and headed for the bedroom, Bobby’s sigh filling up the space behind him.
Sam came back a week later than planned and allowed Bobby only a brief clap on the back before insisting they needed to talk. Now.
Bobby perched on the arm of the sofa and motioned Sam to take the recliner, but Sam shook his head, too keyed up to sit. Arms at his sides and hands curled into loose fists, he launched right into it.
“I want to bring Dean back.”
Bobby’s mouth dropped open, and his eyes sparked. “You want to resurrect your brother? Have you lost your mind?”
“Bobby -- ”
“His body’s nothin’ but ashes! You’d have to force his soul into someone else! What, you gonna ask for volunteers?”
Sam’s response was quiet and steady. “I already have one, if it comes to that.”
Bobby’s brow furrowed, then smoothed out in appalled comprehension. “You? You’d shove his soul into your own body?”
“If it’s the only choice, yeah.”
Bobby surged to his feet. “First of all,” he growled, jabbing a finger in the air, “if we get his soul out of hell, it might be so messed up it isn’t fit for anyone’s body. Second, if you stuck it in your body, he’d hate it. He wouldn’t rest ’til he found a way to fix it. And that might land him right back in hell, burnin’ away ’til there’s nothin’ left.”
Truth laid out like land mines, and Sam had to force clenched fists to relax. “Bobby … We’re getting ahead of ourselves, all right? There’s a chance we can find something else. Some way to restore his body.”
“Even if we could, and that’s a hell of a long shot, don’t you think the demons down there, especially the one that holds his contract, might come after him once they find out he’s alive?”
Sam’s voice was steel. “If they try to lay one hand on him, I’ll rip them apart.”
“Sam -- ”
“Giving him a fighting chance at life’s better than leaving him in hell!”
The words broke the stubborn set of Bobby’s shoulders and jaw, softened the creases in his face. “It’s not that simple, and you know it.”
Sam’s throat tightened. “What I know is that Dean deserves better. After everything he’s sacrificed … And I … ” His lips settled into a grim line. “Trust me. It’s better for everyone if we get Dean back.”
“Sam?” Bobby asked, eyes narrowed. “What the hell you gettin’ at?”
He blew out a breath, scrubbed a hand over his face and through his hair. “After Florida … Hunting turned into a release, and then … ” His gaze drifted to the floor as memories flashed like lightening, blood and screams and corpses. “At one point, it started feeling good. Not because I was saving people. Because I was killing things.” He looked back at Bobby. “I was getting closer and closer to the edge, and … ” He swallowed. “I didn’t care. I didn’t care what I might become.”
Bobby studied him, frowning. “You feelin’ that way now?”
“Starting to. The last hunt … it felt good.” Sam shook his head, and rough desperation tinged his words. “I need him back, Bobby. I can’t make it without him. And if I go darkside? Dean’s sacrifice won’t mean a damned thing.”
“Sam -- ”
“I’m doing this with or without you, but I’d rather have your help. You’re the only one I trust to help me get Dean back, and make sure I don’t … ”
He couldn’t finish the thought, had nothing more to say, anyway. He’d made his decision. It was Bobby’s turn now.
A half-minute passed, the grandfather clock ticking and the dogs rustling around in the front yard, and then Bobby sighed, a frown pulling at his lips.
“I’ll help. But you have to agree on a few ground rules.”
Relief swept over Sam, vertigo-intense.
Bobby’s expression hardened, a cop about to lay down the law. “No crossroads deals. Nothin’ that involves anyone dyin’, or gettin’ possessed, or sacrificin’ their soul. Agreed?”
Sam could live with that. For now. “Agreed.”
“And I will stop you if you step out of line. Got it?”
Research crawled molasses slow, because there was a huge difference between freeing Dean’s soul and resurrecting him, and not just from a logistical standpoint. Most everyone would share Bobby’s concerns, so they had to be discreet.
Sam didn't mind that. What pulled at his fraying edges was hitting nothing but dead ends in their research. He clung to hope like a lifeline, though. He couldn’t give up.
So when Bobby sat him down at the kitchen table one cold November morning, six months and three days after Dean had died, and said it was time to stop looking, he couldn’t breathe for a long moment.
He didn’t get the chance to argue, though, thanks to a sharp knock at the door.
Bobby’s lips pursed into a crooked line of irritation as he went to answer it.
Sam heard the door open, then Bobby’s growled, “What the hell do you want?” It got him out of his chair and to Bobby’s side, where his spine stiffened as he saw their visitor.
“Hello, Sam,” Ruby said, breath visible in the crisp air, faint smirk on her face. She arched a slim eyebrow. “You going to keep your hands to yourself this time?”
His jaw clenched, memories of that day sharp as a high-definition television picture.
Forcing Ruby into the devil’s trap after she admitted she couldn’t save Dean, grating out the rituale romanum as he choked her, not caring that he was killing a human host. Dean stopping him, shaking him so hard his teeth rattled.
He hadn’t seen Ruby again, until now.
“Why are you here, Ruby?” he asked.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in? It’s cold out here.”
Bobby smiled, shark-sharp. “Oh, you can come in, long as you stand under that,” he said, motioning to the devil’s trap on the living-room ceiling.
Ruby’s smirk faded. “I’ll stay here.”
“Why are you here?” Sam repeated, voice hard.
“I heard you want to bring Dean back to the tortured land of the living.”
Sam exchanged a nervous look with Bobby. So much for being discreet.
“Don’t worry,” Ruby said breezily. “Next to nobody knows about it, and the ones who do, don’t really care. Well, except me.”
Sam scoffed. “You expect to me believe you give a damn about Dean? All he ever was to you was a means to an end.”
A long, steady look, and her next words lacked her usual attitude. “Maybe. But I owe him, and you. For Lilith.”
Four weeks before Dean had died, he, Sam, and thirty hunters had killed Lilith and a slew of her followers. The cost had been high. Only nine hunters had survived.
Ruby reached into her jacket, withdrew a piece of parchment paper, and handed it to Sam. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”
He scanned the age-brittle paper and silently translated its twelve lines of Latin. Bobby must have done the same, judging from the look on his face.
Hope and suspicion made Sam’s heart skip-stutter and his skin prickle as he eyed Ruby. “You’re giving me a ritual to bring Dean back to life?”
“How do I know it’s legit?”
The smirk was back. “You’ll have to take my word for it.”
Eyes narrowing, Bobby crossed his arms over his chest. “Why haven’t we run across this before now? We’ve been researchin’ for months.”
Ruby cocked her head at him. “Demons are the only ones who know about it, outside of the human who wrote it. And since none of us ever saw it, and nobody ever used it successfully, we chalked it up to an urban legend.”
“So how’d you find it?” Sam asked.
A quiet chuckle. “C’mon, Sam. You really expect me to reveal my sources? Girl’s gotta have some secrets.”
Bobby took a step toward her. “We could always exorcise the truth out of you.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Gramps, the second you start the Latin, I’ll dump this body and take off.”
Sam laid a hand on Bobby’s arm, waited until Bobby moved back before dropping it.
Bobby gave him a grim look before addressing Ruby. “Let’s say this thing works. Aren’t your friends down there gonna come after Dean?”
“First of all, they’re not my friends. Second … ” She half-shrugged, half-nodded. “Yeah. They’ll probably come after him, once they hear he’s alive and well. From what I’ve heard, Dean’s one of their favorite playthings.”
Sam swallowed against the images that sparked, images that had plagued his nightmares and left him a sweating, shaking mess.
“But,” Ruby continued, “they have to get topside first, which will take awhile. And as far as killing him because they’re pissed off is concerned?” She eyed Sam with a wry smile. “Well, you’re used to that.”
“And if they want his soul back?” Bobby pressed.
“Short of him making another crossroads deal or going evil, I don’t know how they’d get it.” She raised an eyebrow at Sam. “You see either of those things happening?”
“No,” he said quietly, flicker of hope burning brighter.
Pinning him with a sharp look, Ruby waved toward the ritual. “There isn’t any other way to bring him back, Sam. This is your only chance. And if I were you? I’d use it, fast. Rumor has it Dean’s close to breaking.”
The nightmare images rose again, Dean torn and bleeding and begging, and Sam wanted nothing more than to haul Dean out of hell right then and there.
“See you around,” Ruby said, and strode away.
Bobby shut the door and turned to Sam. “You think she’s bein’ straight with us?”
Sam scrubbed a hand over his face, reviewed Ruby’s every word and expression, and found no deceit there. Yeah, he’d fallen for Ruby’s lies before, but this time …
“I think so.”
Bobby snorted. “You think so?”
“Bobby … We haven’t found anything on our own. We have to at least consider this. Especially if what she said about Dean is true.”
Gaze slipping away, Bobby ran a hand across his lips, then nodded. “All right.” He looked at Sam. “But beware demons bearin’ gifts, Sam. There’s got to be somethin’ in it for her.”
Sam sighed. “Probably. Knowing her, she wants us in her debt so she can call in a favor somewhere down the road.” He set his jaw. “But I’ll handle her, if it comes to that.”
After a long moment, Bobby reached for the paper. “All right. Let’s get started.”
They didn’t find anything glaringly wrong with the ritual, nothing that implied inherent danger or suggested fraud. Everything was straightforward, herbs and oils and symbols merging with Latin to cleanse the hell-imprisoned soul, reunite it with its owner, and bring new life to the one who’d died. The end result was the dead alive again, healthy and whole, free of the memories of hell.
A pretty sweet deal, if you asked Sam.
Bobby wasn’t so sure.
“Cleansin’ his soul and givin’ him new life could be about a hell of a lot more than just wipin’ him clean of his time in hell,” Bobby said as they sat on his porch in the waning daylight, bundled in jackets against the cold. “Could mean wipin’ him clean of everything.”
Sam took a swig of beer. “Amnesia?”
Sam considered Dean coming back minus the snark, the crappy table manners, the fierce protectiveness. A blank slate with no clue what a Winchester was beyond a type of rifle. It hurt. He couldn’t pretend it didn’t. But Dean in hell hurt more.
Blowing out a long sigh, Sam crossed his arms, beer balanced carefully in one hand. “I can live with it, if I have to.”
“All right.” Bobby tipped back the last of his whiskey and set his shot glass on the floor. “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.”
Sam sighed. Of course Bobby had more holes to poke in the ritual.
“Sam, we don’t have any proof it’ll work. There’s no record of it even existin’, or anyone tryin’ it.”
A slight smile, because Sam had anticipated this argument. “You’re right. There’s no record of anyone trying it. So, there’s no record of anyone failing, either. No proof it won’t work.”
Bobby frowned but tipped his head to the side, a small concession. “Let’s say we do get him back, but he comes back wrong.”
Sam’s hand tightened around the cool slick of the beer bottle. “Wrong as in evil?”
The possibility sent icy prickles up Sam’s spine. “The ritual says -- ”
“Forget what the ritual says it’ll do,” Bobby said, quiet but intense, “and think about what’ll happen if it doesn’t work right, or we screw it up.”
“We won’t screw up,” Sam insisted. “It’ll work.”
He swallowed, looked away. He didn’t want to have this conversation, dammit.
“Son.” Bobby waited for Sam to meet his gaze before continuing. “If he comes back wrong, and we can’t fix him, we might have to kill him. Are you ready for that?”
He wasn’t. How the hell could he be?
Sam’s gut twisted as he realized this must have been how Dean felt after Dad said Dean might have to kill him.
“It won’t come to that,” he said, throat tight. “It won’t.”
Bobby squeezed Sam’s shoulder. “I hope you’re right.”
Sam blinked hard while he drained the rest of his beer, wished he’d gone with Bobby’s whiskey instead. “Can we do this tonight? I don’t want to leave Dean there longer than we have to.”
I don’t want to wait anymore.
A check of his watch, and Bobby shook his head. “Ritual says to do it right at midnight. Even if we work nonstop startin’ right now, soonest we could be ready is twelve-thirty.”
Sam sighed. “Okay. Tomorrow, then.”
One minute to midnight, Bobby turned to Sam, raised an eyebrow, and asked, “You ready?”
Sam rubbed eyes gritty from a crappy night’s sleep -- too many nightmares about a demonic or irreversibly broken Dean -- and studied the three interlocking symbols on the floor. He scanned their thick black curves and swirls and the spots where he and Bobby had placed herbs and smudged oils, and then surveyed their contingency plan. The flask of holy water stuffed in Bobby’s hip pocket, the shotgun loosely gripped in Bobby’s right hand, the devil’s traps painted on the ceiling above them and the wooden floor to their right.
A hard, dry swallow, and Sam nodded. “As I’ll ever be.”
The grandfather clock’s second hand ticked down to midnight, the sound like thunder in the quiet of the room. When the new hour chimed, Sam started reciting the ritual, the words he’d memorized hours ago flowing smooth and easy as water from a faucet.
Only a few sentences in, the symbols began emitting a soft, purplish-white light, and the room’s temperature rose, the smell of herbs and oils strengthening with it. Even the air changed, a weak electric charge that raised the hair on Sam’s arms.
His heart rate picked up like a horse prodded from trot to gallop, and his hands turned cold and clammy, but he kept reading. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bobby glance at him and then train the shotgun on the largest symbol.
Sam’s voice rose as he reached the end of the ritual, and when he uttered the last word, the symbols slammed into each other with a crack and a burst of light that made both him and Bobby flinch, and then disappeared.
The room was silent save for Sam and Bobby’s harsh breathing and the ticking of the clock, the temperature normal, the light again limited to what the floor and desk lamps emitted. Sam barely registered any of it, more intent on the space where the symbols had merged.
The empty space.
“No,” he breathed, heart hammering, stomach churning. He started to protest again when it happened. In the space where the symbols had been, between one frantic heartbeat and the next, a baby appeared.
The baby didn’t go anywhere, just lay there naked and crying, eyes squeezed shut, tiny limbs scrunched against its pinkish-red body, umbilical-cord stump jutting out --
“It’s a newborn,” Bobby said, confusion and wonder weaving through his voice. He pointed the shotgun at the floor in front of him, away from the baby. “What the hell?”
Sam felt like a drunk trying to process trigonometry. It didn’t add up. And yet, as he reviewed the ritual and stared at the baby -- a boy, now that he looked closer -- it did. And it hit him like a body slam.
“Oh, God.” Sam met Bobby’s wide-eyed gaze with his own. “New life, Bobby. Cleansed soul, new life … ”
Bobby glanced at the still-crying baby, and his eyes widened even further. “You sayin’ we turned your brother into a baby?”
Sam managed a faint nod. “Yeah. I think so.”
“But … ” Bobby scrubbed a hand over his face, the movement knocking his cap back an inch. “I’ll be damned.”
Willing his heart to slow down and his stomach to stop its rollercoaster ride, Sam took a step forward. He needed confirmation, felt compelled to offer comfort because the baby was crying so hard, limbs jerking, face bright red.
“Hold on, now,” Bobby said, hand on Sam’s arm. “We need to make sure he’s not carryin’ any unwanted passengers.”
“He’s a baby.”
A frustrated sigh, because Bobby was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. “Yeah. Okay.”
Bobby switched the shotgun to his left hand and snagged the flask with his right, uncapped it, and sprinkled some holy water. The baby flinched but didn’t smoke or sizzle, and Bobby nodded, then started reciting the rituale romanum.
It failed to spark any kind of reaction, including and especially billowing clouds of black smoke. Sam pushed out a relieved breath and kneeled by the baby, whose eyes had opened.
“They’re blue,” he murmured, looking up at Bobby. “Not hazel.”
A nod as Bobby set the shotgun and flask on the desk and came closer. “Most babies are born with blue eyes.”
Sam studied them closer, then swallowed around the rock that lodged in his throat. “They look like Dean’s. Something about the shape.”
The baby -- Dean? -- met Sam’s gaze and kept on crying, a trembling, angry sound. Sam reached down to touch him, but stopped, realizing his hands were still cold and clammy. He rubbed them on his jeans, then eased one to cup the baby’s head and neck and slid the other under the baby’s back.
Tiny arms and legs shot out, and Sam winced.
“Shh. It’s okay,” he soothed as he gently turned the baby to check for the birthmark, the small heart shape with three bumps, located over the tailbone.
He found it.
“It’s him,” Sam said hoarsely. His eyes burned as he nestled the baby against his chest. “It’s Dean.”
It didn’t take long before Sam realized he needed to push aside his grief -- He wasn’t supposed to come back like this. -- for more practical matters.
He got to his feet, Dean still pressed against his chest. “He needs a diaper. We could use one of my T-shirts.”
Bobby scratched his beard and shook his head. “Don’t think that’ll be absorbent enough. Hand towel’d be better.”
Sam nodded. “We should wrap him up in a bath towel to keep him warm. You want to hold him while I grab everything?” he asked, hope tingeing his voice, because his brother was a baby, and he wasn’t good with babies, and Dean wouldn’t stop crying.
Bobby took a good, long look at Dean -- “Nope.” -- and headed for the hall closet.
Sighing, Sam turned his attention back to Dean.
“Dude, I know you’re upset, but you have to stop crying.” He switched Dean to a different position, cradled against his side along one arm.
The crying ratcheted up a few painful notches.
“Okay,” Sam said slowly, settling Dean back against his chest and noting the immediate, though small, improvement. “Let’s try something else.”
Swaying side to side helped a little. Singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” didn’t. “Enter Sandman” didn’t work any wonders, either.
“He’s probably hungry,” Bobby said as he returned, towels in hand, and motioned Sam toward the couch.
“Yeah.” Sam laid Dean on his back, and Dean did the spastic arm and leg thing again. Keeping one hand on his brother’s chest, Sam frowned at Bobby. “Is that normal?”
“Hell if I know.”
It took five minutes, two hand towels, and an embarrassing amount of duct tape, but they finally got Dean diapered, then swaddled in a bath towel.
Sam snugged Dean against his chest and resumed his swaying, wincing as Dean’s cries continued.
“This is temporary, right?” he asked as Bobby patted Dean’s back. “We can fix him, can’t we?”
The patting stopped, and Bobby sighed, dropped his hand. “I don’t know, Sam. We can’t reverse the ritual. That’d kill him and send him back to hell.”
Sam’s grip on Dean tightened.
“And the only other option I can think of is forced aging, which would be damned dangerous. Even if you could do it safely, he probably wouldn’t be the same man you knew before. Cleansed soul, remember?” Sam nodded. “All the things, all the memories that made Dean Dean are probably gone.”
It made Sam’s stomach twist and his heart ache. “Maybe there’s some way to slowly age him and restore his memories at the same time.”
Bobby’s gaze slipped to Dean and back, expression dubious.
Sam set his jaw. “We can look into it.”
A heavy sigh, and Bobby nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, we can.”
Dean’s cries were amping up. Time to get him settled.
“Shh, it’s okay,” Sam murmured, rubbing the small back. “We’ll take care of you.” He tipped his chin at Bobby. “We need a supply run. Can you make a list?”
Nodding, Bobby grabbed pen and paper, then started writing. “Diapers, formula, bottles. Clothes, too.” He looked up, eyebrows raised.
“Uhh … pacifier.”
Pen scratched against paper.
A quick look at Dean’s red, angry face, and Sam amended the request. “Make it two, so we’re not screwed if we lose one.”
Bobby adjusted his list. “Anythin’ else?”
There had to be dozens of things they needed, but the stress of the last day muddled Sam’s thoughts like a concussion. “That should get us through today, at least. We can get more tomorrow.”
“All right.” Bobby snagged his truck key out of his pocket. “Closest twenty-four-hour store’s a ten-minute drive from here. I’ll be gone awhile.”
Dean’s head raised up and banged against Sam’s chest, and a tiny fist followed, infant tantrum in full swing.
“Hurry,” Sam urged, swaying harder.
Bobby nodded and headed for the door.
“It’s called a startle reflex,” Sam said, voice raised to be heard over Dean’s crying, which was fast becoming hoarse.
“What?” Bobby yelled from the kitchen, where he was pouring formula into sterilized bottles.
“That weird thing Dean was doing with his arms and legs. It’s called a startle reflex. It’s supposed to go away after a few months.”
The fridge door creaked open and shut. “And you know this how?” Bobby asked as he walked to the couch and handed Sam a bottle.
“Internet.” Sam settled Dean into the crook of his arm and nudged the nipple into Dean’s mouth, held his breath as he waited for Dean to start eating, to stop crying. Dean started sucking right away, wet, noisy sounds filling the room.
Letting out a long sigh, Sam closed his eyes and dropped his head back on the couch. “Thank God. I thought he’d never stop.”
As Dean continued eating, Sam met Bobby’s gaze. “Hey.” He nodded toward the pile of groceries on the kitchen counter. “Thanks for getting everything.”
Bobby had bought six cans of formula, two packages of diapers, four pacifiers, a dozen bottles, two blankets, and six outfits, including the blue, teddy bear-themed one Dean wore.
Dean would hate it, and the thought both made Sam smile and sparked a deep ache in his chest.
“You’re welcome,” Bobby said. “So, what else did you find out?”
Sam reviewed the little research he’d done while desperately trying to soothe Dean. “I’m going to get next to no sleep for the immediate future. Newborns eat every two to three hours, and they need their diapers changed at least as often.”
Leaning back against the desk, hands on the edge, Bobby whistled. “That’s rough.” He eyed Dean, scratched his beard, and looked back at Sam. “You know, you boys are welcome to stay here long as you like.”
Sam’s lips curved up. “Thanks.”
A few minutes later, Dean had drained two-thirds of the bottle and was almost asleep, lips parted around the nipple, eyes mere slits, breathing soft and steady. Sam eased the bottle out of Dean’s mouth and set it on the couch, then flipped a hand towel over his shoulder, gently laid Dean over it, and patted the tiny back. He felt awkward, worried he was doing it wrong, but he got a burp after only a few seconds, and another a moment later.
Dean’s warm weight was growing heavier, so Sam guided Dean down to rest against his chest, tucked the downy head under his chin. The tiny body went even more slack, required a tighter grip, and Sam realized, then, how fragile Dean had become, how dependent Dean was on him.
It terrified him.
He wasn’t remotely qualified for this, had seen too much darkness, had flirted with it himself so recently.
Sam swallowed and met Bobby’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can do this, Bobby. If he’s like this permanently ... ” His chest tightened like someone had woven a drawstring through it and pulled. “How am I supposed to go from being his brother to raising him?”
Bobby’s gaze slid to Dean and back, fondness and encouragement warming his features. “You’ll do just fine, Sam. I’m not sayin’ it’ll be easy, but I know you, and I know how much you love your brother. You’ll do right by him.”
Sam pressed Dean a little closer, felt the gentle throb of Dean’s heart against his chest. “I hope you’re right, Bobby. God, I hope you’re right.”
“And this,” Sam said, cradling Dean against him as he slid into the driver’s seat, “is your car.”
He touched one of Dean’s hands to the steering wheel and waited for some kind of reaction. Dean had loved the Impala so much it had bordered on disturbing, so if any of the old Dean remained in this newer, smaller version, it’d manifest itself here.
Dean merely blinked and yawned.
Sam couldn’t help the twinge of disappointment as he tucked Dean’s hand inside the blanket. He was so damned glad Dean was out of hell, but --
Bobby’s gruff voice by the driver’s-side door, and Sam startled. Dean, too.
“Sorry,” Bobby said as Sam shushed Dean and nestled him against his chest, squinting at the lemon-bright, early afternoon sun. Bobby jerked his chin at the car. “You goin’ somewhere?”
Shaking his head, Sam snugged the blanket tighter around Dean and maneuvered out of the car, then shut the door, keeping his back to the sun. “I’ve been showing him some of his stuff, trying to see if he’d recognize anything.”
Sighing, Sam adjusted his jacket to cover Dean’s body and shield him from the brisk weather. “Nothing.”
A half shrug, half nod. “That’s pretty much what we expected.”
“Yeah. I know.” Sam’s jaw cracked as he yawned.
“You get any sleep after I went to bed?”
They’d been up until almost four in the morning, and then Bobby had turned in while Sam took the recliner, Dean asleep in the crook of his arm. He’d been up almost every hour after that, either feeding or changing Dean.
“Not much. Between taking care of Dean and figuring out our next move … ”
Bobby nodded. “You make any decisions?”
Sam looked at Dean, whose body was relaxing into sleep, and considered what he and Bobby had discussed earlier. That while the demons probably thought Dean’s soul had simply been freed, they’d most likely find out the truth and come after Dean. And even if they didn’t, someone or something else might use Dean to get to Sam.
The thought of anyone hurting Dean when he was so vulnerable, when he couldn’t fight back, made Sam’s heart pound, a fist smashing against a door.
Sam swallowed and met Bobby’s gaze. “If we can’t fix him … ” His throat tightened, and it took him a few seconds to work around it. “I could put him up for adoption, give him a shot at a safe, normal life.”
He already knew how he felt about that particular solution, but he wanted Bobby’s opinion and, hopefully, validation.
A heavy sigh, and Bobby shook his head. “Sounds good on the surface, Sam, but if even one demon comes after him, and you’re not there to protect him … Nobody’s gonna fight for him as hard as you.”
Reassuring, but not. “That’s what I thought, too.”
“What’s the plan, then?”
Sam glanced at Dean, asleep and oblivious to the danger around him, and stroked Dean’s temple with a thumb. “If we can’t change him back, I’ll take him with me. Keep a low profile. If anyone spots us, I’ll say he’s from some one-night stand. That the mom died, and I’m raising him.” He cocked his head to the side and back. “I don’t know if anyone will buy it, but … it’s worth a try.” His lips pressed into a thin, hard line. “And if anyone comes after him, I’ll be ready.”
Bobby nodded. “Whatever you need, you let me know.”
Sam blew out a long, heavy sigh. “Right now, I need to know if we can fix him. How long until we get an answer on that? I want to stay here until we do, but I figure we’re only safe here for a few weeks.”
Bobby didn’t get many visitors, and Sam could always hide Dean in the basement if someone dropped by, but the sooner he didn’t have to worry about that scenario, the better.
“Based on some research I did this mornin’,” Bobby said, “we should have a definitive answer in a week. Two, at most.”
Sam blinked. “That quick?”
Bobby’s words were quiet, his expression grim. “There aren’t a whole lot of possibilities for puttin’ him back the way he was, Sam. And the ones that are out there … don’t look too promisin’.”
Not the news Sam wanted to hear, but before he could say anything, Ruby slipped around the back of Bobby’s pickup.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she muttered, crossing her arms as she eyed Sam and Dean.
Sam froze. He wasn’t ready for this, for Ruby or any other demon to be so close to Dean. He felt a surge of protectiveness, mercury trying to break free of a thermometer, and itched for a weapon.
Shaking her head, Ruby took a couple steps closer. “I heard Dean’s soul flew the coop. Had to come see for myself. This? Is not what I expected.”
Sam forced his body to relax, aimed for a casual tone. “He’s not -- ”
“Don’t bother with the whole ‘he’s the spawn of a one-night stand’ story. I know it’s Dean. Just tell me how you managed to screw the ritual up.”
Sam’s spine stiffened, but he tried to keep his voice level so he didn’t wake Dean. “We didn’t screw anything up, Ruby. This is what the ritual meant by cleansing his soul and giving him new life.”
Ruby’s gaze flicked to Dean. “Huh,” she said, arching an eyebrow at Sam. “I didn’t see that coming.”
Bobby pinned Ruby with a thoughtful stare. “The other demons don’t know he was resurrected like this, do they?”
“From what little I’ve heard, they think you set his soul free. Nothing more.” Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “But we all know it’s only a matter of time before they find out. Demons aren’t stupid.”
“How much time?” Sam asked, pressing Dean closer.
“Hard to say. Could be a few days, or a few months.”
Sam closed his eyes a moment. “I don’t suppose you know how to age him back to how he was before the crossroads?”
Ruby eyed Sam like he was up for the Darwin Awards. “Yeah. I just happen to have the cure right here,” she said, patting her jacket pocket.
Sam’s lips pursed.
“No, Sam, I don’t. You could combine some rapid-aging, memory-restoration spells or rituals, but it’d be risky. The aging spell alone could kill him, or leave him drooling into pureed vegetables at a nursing home.”
Sam’s stomach twisted. Unacceptable. But there had to be some way to put things right.
“Look on the bright side,” Ruby said, matter-of-fact. “He’s out of hell.” Her gaze flicked to Dean, expression unreadable, and then back to Sam. “I have to go. And before you ask, no, I won’t tell anyone about Dean. Like I said the other day, I owe you.”
Sam cupped the back of Dean’s head, felt the fragile warmth there. “I hope you mean that.” His voice went diamond-hard. “Because if you do tell anyone, I’ll make sure every demon knows you were the one who gave me the ritual. And then I’ll exorcise your ass. We clear?”
Expression tight, Ruby nodded. “Crystal.”
One more glance at Dean, and she turned and strode away.
The next two weeks passed in a blur for Sam. Taking care of Dean twenty-four seven -- Bobby couldn’t help much, given he was buried in research -- proved more exhausting than he’d anticipated. He not only lost track of the date, but also which day it was; three times, he wore mismatched socks without realizing it until he peeled them off before bed; and twice, he nearly brushed his teeth with diaper-rash cream instead of toothpaste.
Despite the exhaustion, he was alert enough to learn a fair amount about Dean. Things like, of all Sam’s fingers, Dean liked clutching his pinkie the best. And how if Dean fussed for no apparent reason, he’d calm if Sam turned on Zeppelin and danced around the room with him. And that while Dean liked Bobby, he preferred Sam, always.
The afternoon Dean turned fifteen days old, Bobby found Sam sprawled on the couch, a third of the way through a strong cup of coffee. Sam had just put Dean down for a nap in the secondhand crib Bobby had bought, an object he’d seen as an admission of defeat until Bobby convinced him it was simply about Dean needing a safe place to sleep.
“I called Donna,” Bobby said as he planted himself in the recliner. “She didn’t sound too hopeful, but she’s gonna look into it. Said she’d call back tomorrow.”
Sam swallowed. Donna was their last lead, an expert in combining modern witchcraft and Latin rituals to alter people’s brain chemistry and appearance, usually in small ways, like improving memory or tweaking facial features. Bobby had known and trusted her for twenty-two years, had assured Sam if anyone could help Dean -- and be discreet about it -- it was her.
“Hope she can help,” Sam murmured, taking a sip of coffee.
A brief nod, and Bobby cocked his head, studied Sam a long moment. “Circles under your eyes aren’t as bad today.”
“He slept a lot better last night. He went three hours in a row toward the end.” Sam thought back to that last stretch of sleep and grinned. “You know, when he sleeps really deep, he does this weird humming-snoring thing.”
Bobby’s lips curved up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Sam’s grin faded, and he shook his head. “It’s weird, man, seeing him like this.” Images of a grown-up Dean flicked through Sam’s mind, and he swallowed. “I want him back the way he was before.”
Bobby’s gruff amusement faded, sympathy taking its place. “I know, kid. Wouldn’t mind havin’ him back myself.”
A buzzer sounded in the laundry room, a call to duty, and Sam stood up, excused himself, and went to check if Dean’s clothes were dry.
When Bobby relayed the news that Donna couldn’t help, it ripped through Sam like a knife, severed something deep inside. He knew the most important thing was Dean was out of hell and had a second chance at life, but it still hurt.
He didn’t have time to wallow in his grief, though, because Dean started crying. Dean needed him. So he pulled himself together the best he could and went back to the guest room, felt Bobby’s heavy gaze on him the whole way.
Dean lay in his crib, features scrunched up, clenched fists jerking through the air, heels shoving against mattress.
“Hey, hey,” Sam soothed, cupping the side of Dean’s face. “What’s wrong, huh?”
Since Dean had eaten less than an hour ago and gone down for a nap thirty minutes after that, Sam guessed a dirty diaper was the culprit. He didn’t think Dean had pooped, though, as the telltale smell was missing.
He unsnapped Dean’s onesie with three deft clicks, then undid one side of the diaper. Sure enough, it was wet.
“All right, hang on,” Sam murmured, and set about changing Dean, a quick process he could do in his sleep these days, had done half-asleep multiple times.
When he finished, Dean’s cries had quieted but weren’t close to subsiding. Sam swaddled him in a blanket, making him look more like burrito than baby, picked him up, and settled him against his chest, Dean’s head tucked under his chin.
Easing into the rocking chair, Sam found the motion Dean preferred, harder than he would have expected for a baby. Figured Dean would like that. He’d always gone at everything full throttle.
Bittersweet, jagged little thought, and Sam’s eyes burned. It was so damned hard to reconcile everything, to balance the gains with the losses.
He pressed his lips together hard, teeth trapping flesh, and used the physical pain to displace the emotional hurt. He couldn’t calm Dean if he fell apart himself.
It took a few minutes of rocking, but then he felt more in control, and Dean had stopped crying, the tension in his tiny body gone, though he had yet to go lax with sleep.
Sam’s words were quiet but ragged. “I wish I could hear your voice, telling me everything’s going to be okay. But I guess that’s my line now, huh?” He nodded to himself, determination concrete-firm. “It’s my turn to take care of you.”
He rubbed circles between Dean’s shoulders, reciprocal comfort. “It’s going to take me awhile to get used to this, though. So uh … You need to be patient with me, all right?”
Dean yawned, a soft, breathy sound, and then his body grew heavy, and his breathing lengthened.
A gentle smile tugged at Sam’s lips. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
He settled his hand along Dean’s back, closed his eyes, and kept rocking.