Dean appears in the middle of an empty, winding road, one hand pressed to his chest to stave off the pain. He didn’t realize Death could feel pain, didn’t think he felt anything at all.
“Wow. They'll just let any slack-jawed haircut be Death these days.”
Dean whirls around with his hand still clutched in his shirt, eyes widening. “Tessa? What are you doing here?”
“Death thought you should have a guide.” She paces slowly around him. Dean turns, keeping her in his sight. “I thought you might be more... amenable to someone you already knew.”
Dean doesn’t answer, too busy focusing on breathing past the clenching in his heart.
Tessa cocks her head to the side and frowns. “Are you all right?”
Dean grunts, dropping his hand stiffly to his side. “Peachy.”
“Liar.” She shakes her head, rolling her eyes to the sky. “Let's be clear so that we get through this with a minimum of screw-up. I don't like this. And right now, I'm not crazy about you, either.”
“Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Dean quips dryly.
“I’m serious,” she snaps and points a finger at him. “When people die, you touch them. I reap their souls, we get through this day and at the end of it, we both go home happy.”
Dean rolls his eyes, throwing up his hands. “Fine. How do we find them?”
Tessa smiles; in the time Dean takes to blink, they’re standing in a hospital room.
He squints, letting his eyes adjust to the light. “Gonna tell me how you do that?”
Tessa scoffs, “Not a chance.”
“Figured,” he says and somehow, he’s able to smile.
Dean paces around the foot of the bed. The man lying there is elderly, white hair in patches on his otherwise bald head. His rat daemon is curled on his chest, eyes shut tight.
A woman who Dean can only assume is his daughter sits on the opposite side of the bed, holding his hand in both of hers; her husband’s hand firmly rests on her shoulder. Neither of them take notice of Dean or Tessa.
The machine behind the elderly man’s head begins to beep erratically, as if his heart is making one last, feeble attempt to keep beating. Then, it slows until eventually it stops. The woman presses his palm to her cheek, tears falling down her face, and Dean touches the knuckles of his other hand.
He appears at Dean’s side, a part of him Dean immediately recognizes as not body or soul, but simply other. He looks down at himself, lips quirking into what looks astoundingly like a smile.
His daemon doesn’t disappear, not exactly. She fades slowly, solid form becoming something made of smoke and light. Dean imagines she would slip through his fingers. Tessa lifts the rat into her palms, easy as anything. The daemon lets out a tiny sigh of relief that makes Dean jolt backwards, eyes wide, heart beating frantically in his chest.
“So this is how it ends,” the man whispers; he closes his eyes, smiling as both he and his daemon disappear.
Tessa places a firm hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Come on,” she says, voice a bit softer this time. Dean can’t take his eyes off of the empty spot on the dead man’s chest.
They reappear in the middle of a busy street, police cars acting as a barrier cordoning off the road from nosy onlookers.
Dean rounds one of the cars and sees why - a man lies in the middle of the road, blood pooling under his chest on the pavement.
“What happened?” Dean asks Tessa. The man’s breathing is still labored, his hyena daemon listing from side to side near his head.
“He killed six women in three states,” Tessa says with a surprising lack of emotion. “He was caught fleeing the scene and tried to shoot the officer pursuing him. The officer's partner fired off a shot first.”
The man takes one last breath, and Dean doesn’t feel bad when he bends down, touching his fingers to the man’s forehand.
He appears at Dean’s side and glances, wide-eyed, down at his body. “So this is hell,” he says, lips quirking into a manic smile.
“Not even close, buddy, but that’s exactly where you’re going if I have anything to say about it.” Dean pauses and glances at Tessa. “Do I have anything to say about it?”
Tessa lets her rolling eyes act as her answer and pushes the man’s soul on.
As the day wears on, Dean is surprised to find he’s doing all right. He's able to ignore the aching loneliness clawing at his insides. He can get through this, no problem.
Then, they appear at the bedside of a man dying of a heart attack. His wife shakes him wildly, screaming at him to wake up, even as Dean swallows, touching his shoulder. Next is a mother, killed in an accident so terrible, the car resembles nothing so much as a twisted pile of metal and rubber; Dean can barely reach his hand through the broken window to touch her forehead.
The little, dying girl finally breaks him. Her bedroom is bright pink, sheets and blankets a shade even brighter, a stark contrast to the tubes and wires hooked up to the softly beeping machines behind her head.
Her father sits in a chair at her side, head drooping so his chin touches his chest, his goose daemon lying with her head on his lap. Dean knows, just by looking at the father’s exhausted, broken face, that it’s just the two of them. She’s all he has in the world, and Dean reaches out a hand to grasp Tessa’s wrist.
Tessa turns to look at him with an annoyingly calm and knowing expression on her face.
“This isn’t fair,” he whispers; the girl’s daemon is curled up against her neck, lizard tail twisted in her hair as he breathes in time with her heartbeat. Dean rubs at his chest and the phantom pain around his heart that aches continuously.
“It is not our place to decide what is fair and what isn’t,” Tessa says quietly. She pulls out of Dean’s grasp and folds her arms. “You knew the rules when you agreed to this, Dean.”
Dean’s hand shakes as he touches the top of the girl’s head. He closes his eyes as the heart monitor’s slow beeping turns into a steady whine, and her father drops his head into his hands as he cries.
He doesn’t open his eyes until a soft, high voice at his back asks, “Am I dead?”
To Dean’s credit, he doesn’t flinch when he tells her, “Yes.”
She frowns, and Christ, those are tears in her eyes. “What about Daddy?”
Dean crouches down, steadily holding her gaze. “He’ll be all right,” he says quietly. He turns to Tessa, who holds the girl’s daemon in her hands, pushing the wriggling soul to whatever afterlife exists.
“She will follow,” Tessa says, and Dean can’t take his eyes off of the girl’s body as something flickers out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t explain in words - years from now, he still won’t be able to, though the image will be burned into his memory for the rest of his life. One minute, some part of the girl was still there and the next she was gone, following after her daemon to the great unknown.
Tessa touches his shoulder and the bright walls of the bedroom flicker and shift until they end up on the same empty road where they began.
“He won’t, you know,” Dean says quietly, idly twisting Death’s ring around his finger.
Tessa cocks her head to the side. “He won’t what?”
“Be all right.” He rubs absently at his chest and finds Tessa watching him with an expression of pure puzzlement.
“What is it like,” she asks quietly, all earlier mocking gone from her voice. She knows the gravity of that she is asking. “Having a daemon?”
Dean swallows, struggling to put into words what he feels for Saskia. She’s the other half of him, the better half, his goddamn soul. There are no words in any language that would fully explain, so he settles on, “She’s a part of me,” hoping it’s enough.
Tessa nods, as if with that small and exceedingly underwhelming explanation, she could understand.
“What does it feel like,” Dean asks softly, unsure he wants the answer but asking all the same, “Not having a daemon?”
Tessa purses her lips, thinking. Then, she shrugs. “I have never been anything but what I am.”
“Must be lonely.”
To his surprise, Tessa laughs with genuine amusement. “I’m a reaper, Dean. I’m lonely by nature. And I can’t miss what I never had in the first place.”
True to her word, Tessa returns him exactly twenty-four hours later. They appear at the front of a rundown, abandoned house; the wood of the porch is rotted, badly enough that Dean worries about stepping on it, and the shutters bang against the wall in the wind. The Impala is parked at an angle on a path Dean assumes used to be the driveway. He feels exhausted, the weight of countless souls resting on his shoulders so that a single day felt more like a year, and he wonders, for a brief moment, if time as Death passes as it does in heaven and hell.
“Now you understand,” Death whispers, holding out his palm as he walks towards Dean. The steps creak beneath his feet. Dean silently and willingly hands over the ring, unable to remove it from his finger fast enough.
Saskia cowers behind Sam’s legs in the doorway. Sam tentatively places his hand on her head, and Dean allows himself a brief moment of shock at the gesture before he starts up the steps. He wants to reassure himself that Saskia is really there, reassure her of the same, but then she backs away, hiding almost completely out of sight. She won’t meet Dean’s eye.
He feels like he’s been stabbed.
When Sam sees Astrid heavy and limp in Death’s hands, he shivers violently and takes a step backwards. Saskia nudges his legs, stopping him in his tracks.
Dean asks, “Can you fix them?”
“The bond between them was never broken. It was pulled to its limit, yes, but they were never fully severed from each other.” Death smirks, and Dean wonders how a being as old as time could manage to look so mischievous. “Your angel did not mean to separate them, and Lucifer would not dream of doing so, even if he could. After all, what is the point of splitting body and soul if they can both still feel?”
Alastair said the same once, while he was wrist deep in Dean’s insides. Dean could feel Saskia’s pain, feel her writhing with agony, could hear her cry out, but could do nothing to save her or himself. Dean flinches with the memory.
“There is little I can do for them.” Death cocks his head to the side. “Unless...”
Dean’s eyes narrow. “Unless what?”
“Do you understand what the words soul mate truly mean?”
“Sam and I share a heaven.”
Tessa smirks, while Death barks a laugh. “A fairytale invented by the angels and built around the barest kernel of truth. Your entire sojourn into heaven was manipulated from beginning to end. Do not bother to believe any different.”
Dean suspected as much over time - what better way to continue to pit the two of them against each other than to present a heaven where each of their memories succeeds in nothing but hurting the other? He winces; it’s just one more blow in a long line of blows.
“Do you think just anyone could touch another person’s soul?” Death says quietly, drawing Dean’s thoughts back to the here and now. “I have known but one other such pair in your short lifetime with a bond strong enough, and in the end, even they were torn apart. No, Dean - becoming a true soul mate means far more than sharing heaven for eternity. Your soul will hold his together. You will be his link to reality, and what he feels, you will feel.
“Do not misunderstand me, Dean Winchester - this is not a cure-all solution. There will still be consequences,” Death warns. “Your brother and his daemon will never be the same.”
“Dean,” Sam chokes out, quickly walking towards his brother, and the barest hint of fear in his eyes momentarily stops Dean in his tracks. “Don’t -”
“Do it,” Saskia says softly. She carefully lopes down the stairs, legs shaking, but she holds her head high.
Dean glances at Sam, standing with his eyes wide and hands clenched, somehow both scared and emotionless. He shifts his gaze to Saskia, his brave, beautiful girl, then looks back to Death with pride. “You heard her,” he says and Sam grabs onto the banister, practically vibrating with tension.
Death exchanges a glance with Tessa and laughs, shaking his head. He rubs a finger through the tufts of fur above Astrid’s ears and Saskia growls. “Humans. You are fascinating creatures, but you never learn.”
Death reaches down without warning to brush his fingers through Saskia’s fur, and Dean’s breath catches before he can form a word of protest. A cold chill washes down his spine. This doesn’t feel like when Sam touches Saskia - this feels like a violation, a painful wrench at something deep inside of him where no hand should have the ability to go. Saskia shivers, growling continuously, but she doesn’t pull away.
As soon as Death releases her, she runs to Dean, hiding behind his knees. Dean claws a hand in her fur as Death calls Sam forward while one of his hands still gently runs through Astrid’s fur.
Sam walks slowly and warily down the remaining stairs, more like a man moving towards his doom than one about to be reunited with his soul. The moment Death places Astrid in his arms, Sam cries out, legs folding under him as he collapses. Astrid screams.
Death disappears with Tessa - of course they do - leaving Dean to drag Sam to the Impala. He grunts under his brother’s weight, walking slowly and taking great care to keep Sam’s giant limbs from banging against the door frame. He drapes Sam across the back seat as gently as possible and then digs the car keys out of his jeans pocket.
Saskia carries Astrid across her back, walking on still-shaking legs towards the car. Dean lifts Astrid a lot more hesitantly, as if she may fly apart with a single touch like all of the other dead daemons he saw during his day as Death. He expects to feel something different, a physical reminder of the deal he just made, but instead, he feels nothing but a hollow numbness. Astrid flows onto Sam’s chest, curling up on top of him so her head rests against the steady beat of his heart.
Dean sits down in the driver’s seat, pulling the door closed before he grasps the steering wheel tightly, bending his forehead to his white-knuckled hands. Something bites at his ankle and he glances down to find Saskia pulling away until her back is against the passenger-side door, as far from Dean as she can get without leaving the car.
“Drive, Dean,” she says, deeply exhausted, and Dean takes a deep breath and turns the key in the ignition.
He drives all night, as fast as he dares, putting as much distance between himself and that abandoned house as possible. His eyes droop, held open through sheer force of will. More than once, Saskia bites his ankle or his wrist, reminding him to keep his eyes on the road, just a little further, before curling back up on the other side of the car.
Dawn crests on the horizon by the time Dean stops at a cabin just outside of Ypsilanti. He remembers coming here a few times with Sam and their father when they were kids, one of a few pieces of property Pastor Jim owned, a safe house for hunters to rest and regroup. The front door sticks, and the furniture is coated in a heavy layer of dust that tells him no one has been here in years.
Dean carries Sam inside while Saskia follows with Astrid. He walks to the back of the house, to the single, tiny bedroom with a twin sized bed that Dean used to share with Sam while their father took the couch out in the living room. Dean places Sam on the bed, lifts Astrid so she’s tucked safely into his side, then curls up beside Sam with one hand on his wrist so his pulse thumps steadily against his fingers. Dean waits for the bed to dip with Saskia’s weight before he finally closes his eyes and surrenders to sleep.
Dean spends most of the next three days sleeping, getting out of bed only to eat, use the bathroom, or change his clothes. Exhaustion settles like a chill deep in his bones. He needs to recover, too.
When the food stashed in the cooler at the back of the Impala runs out a week later, he finally drags himself out of cabin long enough to buy more, enough to last them at least another couple of days. He walks down the aisles, dragging his feet with Saskia a shadow at his back. He forces himself to swallow down a bottle of water and a sandwich; they make his stomach churn, but realistically, he knows he needs to eat.
As soon as they return, he heads straight to the bedroom, unsurprised to find that Sam hasn’t moved. Saskia scurries under the bed, as far from Dean as she dares to go. She pokes her nose out, staring at him as he settles onto the mattress before disappearing from sight again. Dean doesn’t try to coax her out, doesn’t try to apologize or explain. One word from her, and he would have stayed, but she knows he had no choice. Leaving her behind was the only way to save Sam and Astrid.
He knows she understands; she doesn’t have to be happy about it.
Sam curls around Astrid, both of them too still and too silent. Dean is used to her soft admonitions of Sam, her quiet voice a parallel to Sam’s chatterbox.
Then, Sam begins to shake, hands clenched tightly in his pillow with Astrid twisted into a tight ball in the crook of his elbow. Dean feels hopeless, helpless. He wants to run his fingers through Astrid’s fur, let her know that she’s here, warm and alive, that both of them are going to be all right, but he hasn’t been able to bring himself to touch her since he first lifted her into the bed. Part of this is because it seems wrong somehow to give himself that satisfaction when Sam isn’t even awake enough to agree or protest.
The other part - the part he won’t admit to himself - is because he hasn’t quite worked out the effects of Death binding them together; he’s afraid of what will happen when he finally does.
“Dean,” Saskia murmurs, jumping lightly onto the bed. She twines tightly around Astrid, who rolls over so their fur blends together. Her back lies against Dean’s chest, and his breath hitches with profound relief as he buries his hand tightly in the fur at the scruff of her neck.
“You’re safe,” Dean whispers, wondering if Sam actually hears him. “You’re safe.” He cards a hand through Sam’s hair until Sam settles back down with a shaky sigh.
Then, he meets Saskia’s eyes in the dark. “You still angry?” Dean asks quietly, not bothering to mask the way his voice shakes. Saskia closes her eyes and huffs a quiet laugh, butting her head against his hand.
When Dean wakes the next morning, Sam’s eyes are focused for the first time in days. He holds his breath, barely able to watch as Sam stares at Astrid with regret and a longing so strong, Dean swears he can feel it.
“You forgot me,” Astrid says, voice broken and raw, and Saskia stiffens.
Sam makes a sound at the back of his throat, so close to the one Saskia made when she realized Astrid was gone that Dean aches.
“Astrid,” Sam says quietly, just as wrecked. He buries his hands in her fur, presses his face into her neck and cries, shaking with body-wracking sobs. Astrid licks the tears from his face and curls in close.
Sam raises his head, and his eyes widen when he sees Dean, as if he hadn’t noticed his brother until that moment. He sits up, quickly closing the distance between them until his arms are tight around Dean’s back.
“Dean,” Sam breathes, and Dean tightens his grip on his shoulders. “Thanks,” he says softly, reaching out to run his fingers through Astrid’s fur.
Dean squeezes his shoulder and smiles - genuine and real for the first time in months. He says, “Welcome back.” What he means is welcome home.
Sam still isn’t able to walk more than two steps without wanting to pass out again. He spends most of his time curled up in bed with Astrid. When he isn’t sleeping, he watches her, one hand twisted up in her fur, afraid that if he lets her out of his sight, she’ll disappear. Astrid basks under the attention, purring like a freight train when Sam rubs her belly.
Dean isn’t faring much better, still exhausted beyond belief from his day as Death. He takes a moment between eating dinner and hauling his ass back to bed to finally call Bobby, knowing that after weeks without any contact, Bobby is going to raise hell.
He endures a long, expletive-filled lecture about all of the creative ways Bobby will skin Dean alive the next time he decides not to return any of his phone calls. It’s the way they show each other they care, with gruff words and threats of bodily harm.
“Next time, I’ll send a post card,” Dean quips when he really means thank you. Saskia snorts.
Bobby mutters another colorful string of curses under his breath as he hangs up the phone.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Saskia mutters sleepily, and Dean sighs, dropping the phone to the coffee table so a plume of dust rises into the air. He’s beginning to wonder if this exhaustion is all his own or Sam is rubbing off on him, but at the moment, he's sure he doesn't care. He drags himself up and back into the bedroom, barely awake enough to lift his feet.
Dean sits on the edge of the bed, weighing the merits of sleeping sitting up versus expending the energy to lay down. Sam pulls at him hard enough that he throws out a hand to brace his fall so he doesn’t collapse onto Astrid, half-asleep under the covers.
“You’re pretty strong for a comatose guy,” he mutters, and Sam grunts, tugging at his sleeve.
Dean rolls his eyes and pulls back the sheets. He stills when he finds Sam curled on his side with the hand that isn’t gripping Dean clenched tightly in Astrid’s fur.
Astrid gazes mournfully at Dean as he lays down. He squeezes Sam’s shoulder, so he feels the fine trembling running all through his brother.
Dean's stomach clenches, tight and painful, and he whispers, “Are you okay?”
Sam takes a deep breath and holds it. When he exhales, his shaking all but stops. “I’m fine,” he mumbles, closing his eyes. He squeezes Dean’s arm tightly, and his hand remains there, a warm and heavy weight.
Dean bites his lip. He doesn’t press.
It’s another week before Dean feels confident enough to sit at the wheel of his baby without driving her into a tree. Sam is beginning to go stir-crazy, still too tired to move but needing a break beyond the four walls of the cabin and food from Styrofoam take-out containers - not that he’s been eating much anyway. So, Dean packs the bags, what’s left of the food, and his exhausted little brother into the car.
Sam tips his head back against the seat with a groan and closes his eyes. “Not gonna be much help in the navigating department,” he says, voice already sleep-muddled.
Astrid lays at his feet with her head on his boots. “Like he doesn’t know the way,” she says, just as sleepily.
Dean rolls his eyes. “Useless, the pair of you,” he scoffs, but Saskia winds her way around Astrid, who smiles in her sleep. Dean grins at them both fondly, turning down the music to background noise.
It’s been a long time since he drove just for the thrill of driving, eating up the miles of endless highway, wind in his hair, and no set destination in mind. He taps his hands to the beat of the music as he drives and begins whistling softly when a familiar sensation tugs through his chest, followed by a rush of air from his right. He looks over and sees Astrid, wolf-shaped instead of lynx, red fur matching the shade of Saskia’s almost perfectly.
Astrid didn’t settle until after Sam left for Stanford. As soon as Dean saw her that fateful night at Sam’s apartment he knew, as well as he knew the day Saskia chose the wolf, that this sleek and powerful lynx was her permanent shape. He felt it down to his bones and almost laughed. Sam and their father were always more alike than they were different.
Dean pulls the car to the side of the road, heart hammering in his chest. “Sammy?” he whispers, but Sam snuffles in his sleep, rolling his head to the side. Sam reaches out a hand, palm pressed into Saskia’s fur, and Dean feels the warmth of that touch down to his toes. Saskia’s eyes are wide, staring back at him from the footwell.
He takes a deep breath and pulls the car back out onto the road.
The sun begins to set, and Dean’s attention span goes with it, eyes suddenly growing heavy and gritty behind his eyelids. He rubs a hand over his face, gripping the steering wheel a little bit tighter.
“There’s a motel coming up if we keep going straight on this road,” Sam murmurs, scratching idly at the fur between Astrid’s ears. She shifted in her sleep back to a lynx and has stayed that shape ever since. Dean presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything about it.
“How do you know?” He grunts.
“My phenomenal cosmic power,” Sam says dryly. Dean slaps him on the shoulder.
He scowls and Dean would never, ever say this out loud, but he doesn’t think he’s ever been more thankful to see one of Sam’s numerous bitch faces in his life. “Saw a sign a couple of miles back, how the hell do you think?”
“Don’t sass me, bitch.”
“Don’t ask stupid questions, jerk.”
Dean bites the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning.
Sam doesn’t let up, though. “Seriously, you look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I’m fine,” Dean grunts, fighting back the urge to rub his eyes.
“Nothing’s after us, Dean,” Sam says softly, and Dean pauses, glancing at his brother out of the corner of his eye. Sam earnestly stares back. He’s right, but Dean has spent so long outrunning something - Yellow Eyes, Lilith, Lucifer himself - he’s hardwired to drive fast and far, putting as much distance in the rear-view mirror as possible. He can’t remember the last time the threat of certain doom wasn’t looming over their heads.
“Yeah, okay,” Dean mutters, and Sam grins, pointing out the motel coming up on the right side of the road.
Dean pulls into an empty spot and turns off the engine. He flicks Sam’s ear, earning a scowl and a punch in the arm.
He winces as he laughs. “Get us a room, Sasquatch.”
Sam rolls his eyes but gets out of the car. While he’s waiting for Astrid to untangle herself from Saskia, Dean shouts out after him, “And find out where I can get some pie!”
The glare Astrid throws over her shoulder as she follows Sam could wilt an entire field of flowers.
“You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” Saskia says, but her eyes are smiling. The mirth fades quickly, and she lays her head on Dean’s lap.
“You're awfully affectionate,” Dean grumbles, running his fingers through her fur, but he doesn’t mind; he feels a fondness echoing back at him that leaves his fingers tingling.
“You left me,” Saskia murmurs quietly, and Dean’s hand stills, guilt gnawing at his stomach. Saskia may have forgiven him for leaving her behind, but it will be a long time - maybe never - before he can ever forgive himself.
His breath stutters. “Saskia-”
She stands up on her hind legs using his thigh for support and licks his face. “I know,” she says quietly. She jumps out of the car at the sight of Sam and Astrid coming out of the main office. Dean takes a moment alone to let his chest unwind.
“Clerk says there’s a diner not far from here. And yes, they have pie,” Sam says as he drops into his seat before Dean can get a word in edgewise.
“That’s my boy. Come on,” Dean says, rubbing his hands together, “Let’s get me some pie.”
Sam sighs loudly, but he’s smiling.
Despite his good mood, Sam grows quiet at dinner. He pushes more food around in his plate than he actually eats, and Dean is seriously considering threatening to force the food down his throat when he puts his fork down, crosses his arms over his chest, and stares at Dean intently.
“So, did you even try?”
Dean takes a bite of his burger and asks, with his mouth full, “Try what?”
He wishes he had a camera to capture the disgusted face Sam makes. “Dude,” he protests, wrinkling his nose, and Dean grins as he chews.
“Lisa,” Sam clarifies, and Dean slowly lowers what’s left of the burger back to his plate. “You didn’t even try to make a go of it with her, did you?”
Dean swallows. “I did.” He doesn’t elaborate.
He should know better than to think that Sam will let this go. He’s like a dog with a bone at the best of times. “So what happened?”
“It didn’t work out.”
Sam arches an eyebrow and waits for him to continue. Astrid jumps into the booth next to him, and the setting sun reflects off of her fur in hues of yellow and gold. She lays her head in Sam’s lap, and he reaches over to ruffle the tufts of fur around her ears. Saskia lies down under the table with her tail brushing reassuringly against Dean’s ankle.
Dean takes a deep breath and shoves the remainder of his dinner to the side. “I was a mess, Sam,” he says quietly. “I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I woke up screaming. I drank too much. Lisa wanted to understand, she really did; she tried to get me to go out and make friends, and Ben dragged me around to soccer games and barbecues, but... I couldn’t make it work. I was there seven months, and one morning, I woke up and she asked me to leave. I wasn’t getting any better. Wasn’t even trying, to tell you the truth.
“I took a lot of small cases after I left. Salt and burns, a black dog down in Arizona. Was up in Poughkeepsie helping Rufus deal with a werewolf problem when he told me he’d recently caught wind of a new hunter.” His eyes meet Sam’s, and Sam inhales, visibly holding his breath. Astrid freezes. “Good, ruthless, but never spoke to anyone, just blew into town, got the job done, and blew out. Like a ghost, he said. Blink and he’ll slip right through your fingers.” Dean shakes his head. “I followed your trail for weeks before I found you. Was starting to lose hope, when we both ended up on the same hunt. Goddamn poltergeist probably would have strangled me to death if you hadn’t shown up. You saved my life.”
Sam swallows. “How did you know it was me?” he asks quietly as he slowly processes this information.
Dean scratches nervously at his arm and Sam fidgets in his seat. “I didn’t. Just... had a feeling. Worst case scenario, I was wrong.”
Sam bites his lip and doesn’t ask anything else. Dean reaches for his burger, but finds it cold. He’s completely lost his appetite anyway. He sighs, signaling their waitress for the check.
They’re in the car and back on the road before Sam practically whispers, “How long have I been out?”
“Of the pit?”
Sam nods, staring straight ahead and feigning nonchalance even though his left hand is tightly clenched around his knee. Dean shrugs, his white knuckled hands on the steering wheel the only tell that this conversation is anything but easy. “Couple of months. You really don’t remember anything?” Not that Dean wants him to; if Sam remembers nothing of hell that would suit him just fine.
“A lot of it is just a blur - vague images and impressions. Painful impressions,” Sam says wryly, “But nothing worth remembering sticks out.”
“Be glad you don’t remember,” Astrid says harshly, and Dean glances at her, startled. She doesn’t say anything else, just curls up next to Saskia in the back seat.
Astrid fidgets for the rest of the ride, unable to sit still for more than a minute. As Dean pulls into the motel parking lot, her ears twitch and her tail lashes back and forth while Sam’s leg jitters up and down. Dean taps his fingers against the steering wheel, trying to ignore their growing frustration even as Saskia twitches restlessly. By the time they get to the door of their room, Astrid is pawing at the doorknob, whining softly at the back of her throat.
Dean digs out the key as fast as he can. “What’s wrong, Lassie? Timmy fell down the well?”
Astrid doesn’t comment beyond a growl; she runs inside as soon as the door opens and shifts seamlessly between several shapes, wolf, otter, lynx again, before settling down as a ferret, curled up exhausted on the floor between the beds.
Dean can’t even pretend to be surprised. Sam isn’t either, but he frowns, picking her up and placing her on the bed furthest from the door. He knows just as well as Dean that something fundamental has changed. Dean doesn’t need to feel his worry; he reads it all over the creases in Sam’s forehead and the way he drags a hand through his hair, settling it on the back of his neck.
He gently pushes Sam down onto the mattress by his shoulder. “You should get some sleep,” he murmurs, and Sam lets out a shuddering sigh but for once does as he’s told without argument. He kicks off his shoes and crawls under the covers without bothering to worry about his jeans. He’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow.
Dean sits on the edge of the other bed and watches the slow, steady rise and fall of his brother’s chest until Saskia tugs on his sleeve.
“You need to sleep, too,” she says, and Dean ruffles the hair on her head so it lays in the wrong direction. She glowers, nipping at his fingers.
“Says who?” Dean whispers, but Saskia lays on top of him from chest to knee, preventing him from moving again. He reaches over to turn off the light, then lays his hand on Saskia’s neck, falling asleep with his fingers threading through her fur.