The sun is already high in the sky, light filtering brightly through the curtains when Dean finally eases out of bed. Sam murmurs sleepy nonsense and immediately sprawls out, face mashed into his pillow. He opens his eyes half way, takes one look at Dean, then squeezes them shut again.
“Lemme sleep,” he mumbles, and Dean chuckles.
He lets a moment pass, waiting until he’s sure Sam has his guard down before he slaps the back of Sam’s thigh. Sam yelps, flailing so Astrid falls to the floor in a tangle of feline limbs. She shifts into a cobra, baring her fangs on a hiss.
Dean pointedly ignores her. “Good, you’re awake. Go get me breakfast,” he says, and Sam blinks up at him owlishly, bed-hair sticking up in multiple directions. Dean doesn’t bother to fight against the smirk pulling across his face.
Sam glares and pulls the covers up over his head. “Get it yourself,” he grumbles.
Saskia yanks at the covers with her teeth, and Sam jabs at her from beneath. When she doesn’t let go, he pokes his head out with a scowl.
Astrid coils tighter, tail lashing before she pounces, shifting mid-air into a wolf and bringing Saskia back down onto the floor. They tussle playfully until Saskia gains the upper hand, flipping Astrid onto her back and biting gently at the scruff of her neck. Astrid concedes defeat, rolling onto her belly and pouting while Saskia licks at her fur.
Sam rolls his eyes. “Bossy,” he mutters, and Dean grins when he throws off the covers.
Breakfast is accompanied by the quick flick flick flick of Astrid shuffling through shapes; some of them are utterly ridiculous, like she’s simply trying to pull a smile out of Sam.
“Always knew you were a monkey, Sam,” Dean says when she chooses a chimpanzee. He shoves the rest of his eggs in his mouth in a single bite, grinning in a way he knows Sam will find obnoxious and relishing the bitch face he receives in return.
Astrid jumps the distance between the two beds and Dean squawks with protest as she shifts into a squirrel, scurrying down his leg to bite his ankle. Sam jolts with the touch, inhaling sharp and shocked, hand clenching in the hem of his shirt.
Astrid creeps from behind Dean’s legs and glances up at Sam with wide eyes. Sam forces his hands to relax, and Saskia crawls into his lap, standing on her hind legs with her front paws on his thighs. It feels like an electric shock down Dean's spine.
“Where’s mine?” she says, and she licks his face, stealing a sausage from the container in his lap while he’s busy wiping a palm down his nose.
Sam rolls his eyes and Astrid huffs with mock annoyance, but the tension bleeds out them almost as quickly as it appeared. Dean throws his daemon a grateful glance.
Astrid continues to shift multiple times throughout the day. For the most part, she keeps to larger animals, predators, saying she feels safer that way. She chooses a wolf identical in every way to Saskia except for her coloring, grey and white to Saskia’s auburn, and she stays that way for several hours.
When she shifts into a lynx, she stretches and frowns, switching back to a wolf soon after.
“It doesn’t feel right,” Sam says, and Dean understands - hell changes a person irrevocably, and Dean was only there for four months. Astrid was there over a year.
Sam still claims he doesn’t remember hell or his months without a soul, not everything. They both know Astrid is purposely keeping things from him, but she’s shockingly tight lipped, refusing to reveal even the slightest of details.
A sudden hush falls over the room, and Dean glances over to find Astrid a bat, fast asleep on Saskia’s back. Sam is sprawled out on his bed with both of them against his chest. A warm feeling spreads under Dean’s skin until all he wants to do is curl his arms around them and never let them go.
Saskia opens one eye and Dean chuckles, dragging off his jeans before crawling in beside them. He kicks Sam in the shin, and Sam grunts but shifts over until there’s just enough room for Dean to throw his arm over Saskia, hand resting on Sam’s hip.
Dean’s eyes fly open, heart hammering in his chest. He sits up, gun already out from under the pillow and in his hand while he instinctively searches out the danger lurking in the dark.
Instead, he finds Astrid shuddering so hard against his hip that her teeth are chattering. She’s curled up as small as her wolf form will allow and her eyes are wide and staring at the empty corner next to the bed.
Sam is crouched up against the headboard, trembling from head to toe with his head in his hands. He lashes out violently when Dean moves to shake his shoulder, eyes wide and unseeing.
“Sam!” He shouts, ducking to avoid the punch Sam aims in his direction, “Sam!” But Sam doesn’t hear him, too lost in whatever nightmare is rolling around in his head.
“He won’t - Dean he won’t -” Astrid chokes, panicking, which only makes Sam hyperventilate more. She whines, and Dean immediately recognizes the sound coming out of her throat: high pitched and terrified, like someone is tearing her apart from the inside out, and that is fucking it.
Dean clasps his hand in Astrid’s fur, trying to help both of them get a reign on reality; he holds his breath.
The first time Dean touched Astrid was the day he carried Sam out of the fire. Saskia became a bobcat almost identical to Delilah and snatched Astrid up in her teeth, sprinting for the front door.
She tripped Dean up in the grass while they watched the fire burn, and Astrid shifted into a mouse, creeping down Sam’s neck. Her tail brushed Dean’s hand, and the shock of it made him almost drop Sammy, but by then, Dad was running out of the house, snatching both of his boys up into his arms.
This feels like that first time, only more intense, more - just more. He feels what Sam is feeling, what Astrid is feeling, as well as he knows Saskia, as well as he knows himself.
The unbridled panic threatens to consume him, but Dean clenches his fingers in Astrid’s fur and drags his other hand through the hair at the nape of Sam’s neck, keeping his breathing steady and even. Slowly but surely, Sam unwinds, eyes shutting tight while Astrid’s breath evens out.
Sam opens his eyes, glances at Dean, then mashes his face into his knees. His back shudders.
“You can’t keep doing this to me, Sam,” Dean says quietly, but he squeezes Sam’s neck and makes a feeble attempt at a joke. “I can’t spare anymore lives.”
Sam huffs a laugh that sounds half like a breath and half like a sob.
“What happened?” Dean murmurs, and when Sam doesn’t answer, he sighs out a frustrated, “Talk to me.”
Sam raises his head, and he’s still pale, but his eyes are fully focused on Dean’s face. “You want to talk about this?” he asks, sounding vaguely surprised.
“Do you want to talk about this?” Dean counters, then rolls his eyes. “Never mind - of course you do.”
Sam glares, and Astrid laughs shakily. He pulls his knees further into his chest in a way that reminds Dean of the uncountable times Sam woke up with nightmares when he was a kid, crawling into Dean’s bed as soon as his brother lifted the covers in invitation.
No man his size should ever have the ability to make himself look that small.
Sam drops his head, staring at his knees and swallowing audibly. “I felt it,” he whispers quietly. “Not just last night. What she was feeling down there... I felt it. The entire time.” He shudders, burying his face in his hands.
Dean squeezes the back of Sam’s neck and the muscles are tense and tight beneath his fingers.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t know how,” Sam snaps, and Dean feels a rush of anger and confusion surge through him. He lets go of Sam slowly, and the feeling fades.
Sam takes a deep breath, attempting to get a reign on his emotions. “I couldn’t put a name to what I was feeling, only that it was wrong...”
“I don’t know how you weren’t severed,” Dean confesses quietly. The thought makes Saskia shudder, her bushy tail lashing Dean’s thigh. She lays her head on Sam’s knee, and he reaches down, blindly curling a hand in the fur at the scruff of her neck. Dean inhales sharply, feeling Sam’s quiet desperation like something crawling under his skin, itching to get out.
Saskia growls softly, then noses at Sam’s wrist, licking the skin at the pulse point.
“Witches separate from their daemons all the time, Dean,” Sam says, voice still muffled by his palm.
Dean met a witch once, years ago, when Sam was only just learning how to walk. Her name was Serafina, and Dean remembers thinking she was the most beautiful woman he ever met besides his mother.
Dean asked why she didn’t have a daemon, and Serafina pointed up to the sky. She said Kaisa was up high, keeping watch, and Dean watched with wide eyes as Kaisa circled the area. He didn’t think he could ever be that far from Saskia.
They tested it that afternoon, Saskia becoming a robin and taking to the air, but she barely flew ten feet away before Dean gasped in pain. She dived back down, flickering into a mouse to curl under his collar.
Dean remembers the torture of being away from Saskia in hell, knowing she was there, always just out of reach. Alastair tried to burn her out, tear them apart forever.
“How do you think demons become what they are?” he asked, laughing, and Dean could feel it happening, the unbearable, agonizing pain driving him to forget. It’s the real reason why he finally got off of the rack. Saskia sat at his side with black eyes, silent and still while he tortured soul after soul, destroyed one daemon after another.
He hasn’t told Sam the truth, doesn’t think he ever will. Some actions can never be forgiven.
“But they’re prepared,” Dean says quietly, shaking the images from his head. “They know what they’re getting into.”
Sam lifts his head and narrows his eyes. “And you think I didn’t?”
For Lucifer to take over his body, Sam had to agree, mean it down to his very soul.
Astrid said yes. Then, she disappeared. With every blow, Lucifer taunted Dean with the knowledge that she wasn’t dead. She was there, inside of Sam; she knew everything that Lucifer was doing. She flickered in and out of existence as Sam grabbed the reins back from Lucifer and remained a solid form long enough for Dean to watch them both tumble down into a deep, black nothing.
"What did you do, Dean?" Sam asks quietly, and Dean holds his breath. "What did you do to bring Astrid back?"
It’s the question Dean’s been dreading for days, since Sam first confessed to not remembering any clear details about his time without a soul. He forces himself to remain calm, to find a way to explain that won't send Sam off the deep end.
“What I had to,” Dean says, quiet but firm, and Astrid whimpers in distress.
"That's not-" Sam cuts himself off with a groan and rubs a hand through his hair. He dislodges Saskia from his lap as he stands so he can pace back and forth between the beds.
Astrid glances up calmly, almost overly so as she stretches her back, but when Sam gets a hand clenched tight in her fur, Dean realizes they’re both still shaking.
Sam turns to Dean with his mouth open, but only a hitched breath makes it past his lips. “I need to get some air,” he mutters, heading towards the door. Astrid dashes after him.
Despite any of Dean’s attempts at explanation, Sam doesn’t want to talk. He fights through the nightmares on his own, spends most of the days exhausted, and snaps at the slightest provocation.
Astrid grows quiet, disturbingly so. She remains in one place in the motel room, curled up on the bed, a mouse or similarly tiny animal twisted up in the covers. Sam keeps her close, tucked into a pocket or between his crossed legs, or in the crook of his neck as he sleeps.
Sam wakes up almost nightly gasping for breath, while Astrid flinches at shadows in empty, dark corners. Saskia curls around her as tightly as she possibly can, but Astrid stops sleeping, and Sam starts mainlining coffee like his life depends on it.
He doesn’t exactly give Dean the silent treatment, but might as well be. The questions asked of him receive the shortest possible answers, never offering any additional information without prompting from Dean. Sam’s agitation builds slowly, and Dean feels it like a small fire growing under his skin.
Dean feels like he’s constantly walking on eggshells, edgy and anxious, until finally, one night, he breaks.
“I saved your goddamn soul. The least you could do is talk to me.” He grabs his jacket and storms out. Saskia reluctantly untangles herself from Astrid, leaping through the doorway so Dean doesn’t catch her tail.
Dean pulls the Impala out of the lot so fast, the tires squeal across the pavement. He pushes his foot down on the gas, arrow tapping at eighty, ninety. His irritation fades with every extra mile between he and Sam and by the time he pulls into the parking lot of an abandoned store front, all he feels is embarrassment and a heaping amount of regret.
“Feel better now?” Saskia asks dryly and Dean huffs, cutting the engine.
“Shut up,” he mutters; he drops his forehead to the steering wheel. He doesn’t know how long he sits like that, breathing, not really thinking about anything but eventually, Saskia tugs on the sleeve of his jacket.
“Look,” she says softly, and Dean follows her gaze out the window, where a figure stands in shadow, leaning against one of the wooden posts. Dean checks the gun at his hip before slowly opening the door.
He lets out a loud breath of relief when the figure steps forward.
“Stalking is illegal, you know,” he says, shoving the gun back into the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. "Never mind creepy."
Castiel doesn't even crack a smile. “I sought out your brother to apologize, as you suggested. We spoke briefly. He asked me to make sure you were all right.”
As Dean steps closer, he sees Castiel's eyes are narrow, staring deeply at something only he can see. Dean feels uneasy. “How did you find me?”
He gestures to Saskia. “Not you. Her.” He raises his eyes to stare at Dean, stuck somewhere between awe and righteous anger.
Dean almost asks what he means, but then his jaw snaps shut; he already knows. Castiel explained once that angels could see the link between a human and their daemon, a shimmering thread of grace between that person and their soul. The connection between Dean and his daemon must run in more than one direction now.
“What you have done is reckless, almost to the point of stupidity.” Castiel's voice is hushed but laden with fury, strong enough that Saskia sits up and takes notice.
Dean glares, taking another step forward. “You were the one who sent us after Death.”
“Had I known you were going to do something so foolish as to bind your soul to your brother’s, I might have continued to search for other options.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do?” Dean bursts out with, all of his pent-up frustration with Sam finally being unleashed. “Let Astrid rot in hell for another couple of centuries? Leave Sam alone for the rest of his life?” Saskia growls at the thought, crouching with her ears pressed against her skull.
“I do not think you understand the consequences of what you have done.”
“Screw the consequences -”
Castiel ignores him, barreling over his protests. “You do not realize how preciously fragile a situation you have created for yourself, and for your brother. Already, I can barely tell where the link between your soul ends and Sam’s begins.”
Dean chuckles darkly. Death said it himself - no one should be able to touch another person’s soul. The two of them were already so far wrapped up in each other, it bordered on hilarity to hear that there was now a literal result of something that had already been occurring for years.
“This is no laughing matter, Dean," Castiel scoffs, and Dean fights the urge to roll his eyes. "If your enemies were to ever discover your predicament, they could easily use it as a weapon against you. Causing pain to one of you now would be inflicting pain on you both. If they were to succeed in killing you...” His voice trails off, as if even he doesn’t dare to voice the idea.
“They would kill us both,” Dean finishes quietly, and he swallows. He leans his forehead against the post, taking a moment to process that, for the full consequences of his brash decision to sink in.
“It was the only way,” Saskia whispers, but the words carry little weight.
“I am glad to see that you have succeeded,” Castiel says quietly. “I only hope you do not come to regret your decision.”
A flutter in the air beside his ear tells him that Castiel is gone, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Of course, he’s never really alone.
Saskia rubs herself against his calves, tugging on his jeans until he crouches down. “We did the right thing,” she says softly, forcing Dean to meet her eye.
He sighs, “I know,” and rubs his fingers through her fur.
When Dean opens the door to their room, all of the lights are out with the exception of the lamp beside Dean’s bed. Sam is sprawled out on his own bed, one arm flung over his eyes, the other clutching tight to Astrid. He shudders, Astrid whimpers, and Dean kicks off his boots.
Dean ignores Sam’s feeble protests and lays in bed behind him with an arm over his waist, telling him to shut up and go the fuck to sleep. Sam stiffens, suddenly wide awake, so Dean reaches over to nudge his fingers up under Astrid’s jaw. She purrs, stretching into the touch.
“Dirty pool,” Sam mutters, but he slowly relaxes and drifts off.
Dean wakes to find Sam standing over the bed with a cup of coffee and a small, white bag, which turns out to contain several doughnuts and a bearclaw. Dean recognizes it as the peace offering it's meant to be and stuffs the bearclaw in his mouth, grinning so Sam rolls his eyes.
Sam sits on the edge of the bed with his own cup of coffee in his hands. “Cas was here last night,” he says awkwardly.
“I know. He said you sent him to find me.”
Sam nods and stares down at his cup. Dean allows him a moment of silence to gather his thoughts.
“So, I’ve been kind of a dick,” Sam finally says.
Dean huffs a laugh. “Yeah, but I won’t be winning any awards for brother of the year, either. At least not today.” He waggles his eyebrows, but Sam doesn’t even crack a smile. Dean knows he’s working up to something, sees it in the way he clenches his fingers together, shifting his shoulders and scrunching up his forehead.
“I’m starting to remember,” he admits quietly. “Bits and pieces are starting to come back to me. Lucifer… he wouldn’t let me see Astrid. He kept us apart. Said it was worse, knowing she was hurting and that I couldn't stop it.” Dean reaches out to touch his knee, but aborts the motion, unsure whether or not Sam wants to be touched. “I know you blame Cas for leaving her there, but you shouldn’t. It isn’t his fault.”
“He should have looked for her,” Dean says roughly, and Astrid butts her head against his hand, every inch the tabby cat she's imitating.
“Maybe,” Sam admits, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced. He shakes his head. “I can push the memories away when I’m awake – distract myself. But at night…”
“You lose control,” Dean finishes; he's familiar with the sort of memories that creep up when the world goes dark and quiet, so there's nothing to distract or keep them at bay.
Sam nods miserably. “I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, and Astrid’s memories are stronger, and that only makes it worse. I can’t – I can’t –” Sam clutches at his hair with one hand, blindly grabbing for Astrid. She whimpers, inching closer.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he whispers finally, holding Astrid tightly in his arms.
“You didn’t feel anything. And now, you feel too much,” Astrid says, matter-of-fact, and Sam tosses her a loaded glance, one she returns without batting an eye.
Dean takes a deep breath and tells him everything - about Lyra and Pan, her connection to Castiel, his day with Tessa, Death bringing Astrid back. He shivers with the memory of Death’s hands on Saskia’s back, but forges on, even as Sam inhales sharply, head snapping up when Dean tells him about Death binding their souls together. Sam bites back his protests, allowing Dean to continue before he says a word. He doesn't look at Dean while he speaks, just watches Astrid, absently running his fingers through her fur.
“I didn’t realize it would affecting you this way,” Dean finishes. “I never thought that it would be a bad thing. If I had -”
“Don’t lie, Dean,” Sam says, but he isn't being cruel. Just honest. “You still would have done it, even then. Given the choice, I would have done the same for you.”
Dean huffs a laugh and doesn’t bother to deny it. Death was annoyingly but undeniably correct in his assessment - humans never learn. The two of them will keep sacrificing for each other until the day they die. Together.
Sam eventually raises his head, glancing at Dean out of the corner of his eye. “Dean, do you realize what this means?”
This time, Dean doesn't fight the urge to roll his eyes. “Yes, Castiel outlined it in annoyingly descriptive detail,” he says dryly.
“Dean!” Sam snaps, giving Dean his full attention. His annoyed expression quickly falls, and he reels back in horror that Dean feels sliding up under his skin. “Oh God - you feel it, too, don’t you?” Remembered pain rails through him, despite any attempt to keep it at bay, until all he feels is terror, overwhelming and all consuming. Sam gasps, unable to breathe; Astrid isn't breathing at all.
“Sam!” Dean grabs Sam and Astrid in tandem. He pushes away his own anxiety, forcing himself to radiate nothing but a quiet calm. Then, he squeezes Sam's wrist until he winces.
“You feel that?” He waits until Sam nods, but still doesn't let go. “That’s flesh and blood. That’s real pain. Any time you start freaking out, you tell me. I don’t care where we are or what we’re doing, you stop me and you tell me, Sam. You’re here, with me. You hold onto that. You make this,” he squeezes Sam's wrist even tighter, until he feels bones twist beneath his fingers, “Stone number one. Do you hear me?”
Sam doesn’t respond, so Dean pinches Astrid until she yelps. “Sammy!”
Sam inhales slowly, he and Astrid breathing together - in and out, in and out. “It's Sam,” he gasps, finally able to speak past the panic squeezing his throat.
Dean breathes a shaky laugh, shaking his head. “No way, dude. Not this time.”
“Never thought I'd see the day you encouraged touching,” Sam says, and Saskia huffs, collapsing into his lap.
Dean rubs his thumb along the inside of his wrist. “Stone number one, Sam. We’ll build the rest together.”
Sam lets Dean sleep in the next morning. He’s already out of bed, and a note on the bed side table tells Dean he went to pick up breakfast and yes I’m getting you coffee, stop bitching. Dean grins and grabs his clothes, whistling on his way to the bathroom.
By the time he finishes his shower, Sam is sitting at the table next to the window, where a cup of coffee and an aluminum container sit in front of the seat on the other side currently occupied by Saskia. Dean can see an empty container in the trash that says Sam’s already eaten.
Dean gently shoves her out of the seat, ignoring her indignant yelp as he sits down, stretching his arms over his head with a groan. He rubs a hand through his still-wet hair and takes a sip of his coffee.
“What do you say we get out of here?” he asks, but Sam doesn’t answer; he isn’t looking at Dean.
Astrid stands up from her place at Sam’s feet. She cocks her head to the side and shifts and Dean knows this is her shape now, the same way he knew the day that Saskia settled years ago: like a puzzle piece shifts into place in his chest, satisfaction pooling in the pit of his stomach.
She’s a snow leopard, white fur dotted with black, but her eyes are still that same warm, familiar gold. Saskia slinks towards her, brushing against her side almost hesitantly. Dean feels the warmth of the touch down to his toes.
On the road, in the Impala, Saskia and Astrid sprawl out in the backseat. The music blares, and Dean keeps one hand on the wheel while he reaches back to run his other hand through Astrid’s fur.
Astrid rumbles, pleased, pushing her head into Dean’s hand.
“Brat,” Dean mumbles, and when Sam laughs, the sound settles over Dean, warm and bright.
It’s the best sound he’s ever heard.
A while back (far too long a while) ohsam hosted a comment meme. cordelia_gray requested a Season 6 style fic in the His Dark Materials universe, where Sam is separated from his daemon rather than his soul. I instantly snatched it up, thinking the prompt was awesome, plot ideas already running through my brain.
I wrote almost 5,000 words, plus a decent outline when the file was inexplicably deleted from my google account. While I remembered most of the details, my heart just wasn't in it anymore, and I resigned myself to never writing the rest.
Until dream_mancer came to visit me last September. I went on a cleaning frenzy, sorting through everything in every single corner of my bedroom, where, tucked into a corner with unopened mail and various slips of paper with fic excerpts written on them, I found the first 3 pages of the fic, printed out with all of my notes on the back.
This fic has been a long time in the making, and I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
First, to my fantastic artist mizz_destiny, whose fabulous cover art made me flail and squee and who is just a generally awesome person. I hope we have the opportunity to work together again.
To alwaysenduphere for the invaluable characterization advice, for finding all of my tiny plot holes so I could fill them in, and for commenting on all of the little things I truly love about this fic.
To dream_mancer, my always wonderful brain twin, for helping me even though she does not know the HDM universe, for kicking my ass when my motivation disappeared, for listening to me rant and flail pretty much non-stop for the past month, and for all of the encouragement, especially this past week - while she was on vacation. Also, for not deserting me and my atrocious and continuous misspellings of ain't.
Finally, to chosenfire28 for once again hosting a brilliantly fun challenge. I can't wait until next year :D