LIMBO - enteselene - Supernatural (TV 2005) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

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Limbo : /ˈlɪmbəʊ/ - From the Latin limbus (border, edge; hem; fringe, tassel).

  1. (Roman Catholicism): a place where the souls of innocent deceased people exist temporarily until they can enter heaven.
  2. (by extension): any in-between place, condition, or state of neglect or oblivion which results in a deadlock, delay, or some other unresolved status. The popular expression "to be in limbo" is used to indicate that a person is disconnected from the reality that surrounds them or a mysterious place where inexplicable things happen.

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Wake me up inside (save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark (wake me up)
Bid my blood to run (I can't wake up)
Before I come undone (save me)
Save me from the nothing I've become

Bring Me To Life — Evanescence

Death is nothing like what Sam Winchester had expected.

He has hunted all flavors of monsters since he was a teenager, but also things meant to cross the veil—if ghosts aren’t proof that death is not the end of the tale, then Sam doesn’t know what can be. So, yes, death is not The End, but… is it supposed to be like this?

Dean felt shocked when investigating Our Lady of the Angels’ murders, found out that Sam still prays now and then—that, despite everything evil they have witnessed since they were kids, Sam has Faith. But it just makes sense. Evil needs Good in order to maintain equilibrium. Sam has seen a lot of evil in his life; just because he hasn't met with the other party doesn't necessarily imply it doesn't exist. If there is Hell, there must be Heaven. It’s a matter of symmetry.

Sam also knows his lore. A compulsive reader since forever, he read Dante when he was 14 years old and then jumped from Plato to Nietzsche, from St. Teresa of Avila to Brian Weiss, while his classmates enjoyed themselves with Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien. He steeped in the Peri Em Heru and the Bardo Thodol (the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead) that winter John took off hunting a pack of werewolves and meanwhile dropped his kids in a no-tell North Dakota town. The next day it started snowing, and it kept going bad enough to suspend high school classes. The brothers were stuck for days in a sh*tty caravan park on the outskirts of town, knee-deep in snow, until the snowplows came through to open the interstate accesses and John could return to pick them up. Sam sought refuge in books then as he usually did and because Dean was driving him crazy with a bad case of cabin fever—thus Sam went for the quiet reading to compensate for his hyperactive, boisterous brother. Dean is not built for stillness, not then, nor now.

The point is, reading about something is one thing, but experiencing it firsthand is quite another. Sam is not naïve, he was certain that death would not be exactly as others said it was. For better or worse, people tend to wax poetic when they write about something. Moreover, and as far as Sam knows, none of those authors themselves were dead before, so everything in the books is just speculation.

What Sam didn't expect was that death would look so much like Michael Ende's The Nothing.

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Sam drifts in and out of his limbo, waiting for some clue as to where he should be heading and for a time that he has no way to measure. However, sometimes he’s ‘here’, his mind running a mile per minute, sometimes he’s not. Like turning a switch on and off. I think, therefore, I am. Where he goes (bad, wrong, nonoNO) when he’s not actively thinking Sam has no clue, but he can feel the pull dragging him back. Restarting his system. In fact, it’s the only thing Sam can feel—and ‘feel’ is not even remotely close to what this is (invasive and compelling, borderline violent), but Sam can't find a better word to describe it properly.

So, yeah, being dead is quite disappointing—not much to do when you're floating bodiless in a dark nothing. Really boring. But what pisses Sam off is that he doesn't remember how he managed to end up dead. 'Hows and Whys' have always been Sam's obsession. His ‘brain’ (what he assumes to be the equivalent of his brain now that he has no flesh) is a big blank void in the recent memory department. He scours through his mind, trying to remember something, anything, and comes out empty. The memory has to be in there, somewhere, but he is unable to find it.

In a nutshell, Eternity sucks.

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The smell takes him by surprise as he runs through the periodic table in an attempt to kill (ha!) time. He is so engrossed in listing the rare earth elements by atomic weight that, at first, it goes almost unnoticed—alcohol, iodine, bleach, industrial soap and, underneath, the pervasive scent of sickness and despair.

A hospital.

Sam panics. He remembers when the semi T-boned them—Dean lying pale and unresponsive in his bed, surrounded by life-support machines and tubes going in and out of his body. Is Sam in a coma? Is he lying, lost in this nothingness, at death's door? Dean managed to communicate with Sam when he was like this—although he later claimed not to remember a thing. The good news is, if Sam is in a hospital, Dean will be here, too. With him. Dean will figure something out. Sam has no doubt because, had he been able to reach out his hand, he could touch his brother. Yes, Dean is here, his scent suddenly overpowering those aseptic hospital smells—gunpowder and leather with a pinch of Old Spice. As strong as if coming from within rather than from without. Sam wonders how he could have missed it before.

So, Sam yells, calling for his brother, and if he could find his voice, it would be gushing out of his throat to stretch away, to where Dean is. If he could find his body, it would be moving forward, to where his brother awaits.

Nothing happens.

Pain would be preferable to this vacuum.

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Next come the noises. The beeping of a heart monitor, the foosh of a breather. His body slowly makes its presence felt and is as heavy and useless as a piece of soaked wood. It's finally here, but Sam can't get anything done with it. He struggles to open his eyes to no avail, to wiggle his fingers and move his legs until the effort dampens his temples with perspiration, to drag a sound, any sound, from his throat.

Oblivious to Sam's troubles, people come in and out of the room, and Sam is manhandled like a doll without uttering a word to him—poking and prodding him here, jabbing him there. Someone pries his eyelids open and moves a penlight in front of his pupils, but Sam can't see anything beyond the blast of light.

It feels as if he were a corpse.

They leave Sam alone again, and a tear slips down his cheek. It runs along the length of his earshell, lingers there, and slides into his ear canal, wet and tickling. A door closes somewhere to his right.

Dante was wrong; if hell existed, it would be this.

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The panic doesn't go away, but Sam is a problem solver. Looking at his current predicament as a puzzle to figure out, as a challenge, helps.

Sam doesn’t think he is brain-damaged. He wants to believe—please, please, God, may it not be true!—that he is too lucid for his brain to have turned into a pudding of gray matter. That raises several troubling options to explain why his mind has decided to cut ties from his body. The most optimistic is that they have him ‘stuffed with the good stuff’ (as his childlike big brother would say) while Sam heals. This could be the reason why Sam only feels present episodically between shots of morphine or whatever, but it also brings up the need for such massive healing, and none of the alternatives that come to Sam's mind are encouraging. In fact, Sam can't decide which one is less frightening. Irreversible coma is one of them, but also other dreadful possibilities like spinal cord injury.

That idea comes from nowhere and spreads, brash and threatening, elbowing other thoughts in Sam’s mind like a barroom bully pushing other patrons in a roadhouse.

The key, of course, is in the memories that Sam fails to recall.

The last thing he remembers is waking up, confused and alone, in a desert ghost town.

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“I think he’s coming to.”

“It’s about time; we changed the drip half an hour ago.”

“Okay, Samuel. I’m going to hold your right hand. I want you to squeeze it if you can hear me, okay? …That’s it! Good boy!”

“His vitals are good. His heart rate has sped up a bit, but everything else is normal….”

“That's good news, isn't it, Samuel? Good, good, that's quite a grip! You're a strong boy. We've dimmed the light in the room, but it may still bother you a bit. Can you open your eyes for me? …Excellent! You're doing great.”

“…ere?”

“Don't try to speak yet, honey. Your throat must be sore. You are in a hospital, but don't you worry. You're going to be fine.”

“I'll go tell Dr. Adams; she wanted to know as soon as the patient woke up. Will you stay with him?”

“Of course, Samuel and I are just getting to know each other. I think we're going to get along nicely. Don't you, Samuel?”

“…t’s Sam.”

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The doctor pats Sam’s hand, sympathetic, and tells him that memory loss is a usual aftermath of trauma. It will all come back over time, although memories closer to the time of the injury may never be recalled. Sam is told, with the careful voice used not to spook a skittish horse, that this is Sioux Falls General Hospital, and he was admitted two weeks ago.

In a compassionate voice, the doctor goes on to explain that Sam was assaulted in the town's industrial sector, robbed, beaten, stabbed, and left for dead. Two good Samaritans found Sam by the curb and took him to the ER. He was in very tough shape—the stab wound affected Sam’s spinal cord, he had a broken arm, and his spleen was busted as a result of the beating and had to be removed. The neurosurgeon assumed Sam would never walk again based on the MRI, but when the doctors cut him open, it turned out that the damage was not as severe as they first thought—despite what was shown on the neuroimaging. Furthermore, the surgery was incredibly successful. Sam will regain the use of his legs! In fact, the spinal swelling is going down pretty fast. Isn’t that wonderful news? His broken bones are mending already. It's as if Sam’s body has unknown regenerative properties, jokes the doctor, a bit puzzled.

He should be dead. The doctor says, thrilled, that it’s a medical miracle that he is still alive and kicking, literally—although Sam must be careful with infections from now on (because, yeah, no spleen) and vaccinate against everything under the sun as soon as possible. Eventually, he will be able to lead a normal life. He should be grateful.

Of course, in Sam's opinion, such a miracle is a huge pile of steaming bullsh*t.

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There is no television in the ICU, nor are newspapers delivered, so Sam has no way to figure out what really happened to him or why Dean is missing—when his whole being screams his brother's presence right by his side. Electronic devices are not allowed in intensive care either, so Sam cannot make a phone call, but the day nurse (the one who first talked to him when he awoke and who looks old enough to have laid the foundation stone for the hospital) assures Sam that if there is someone he wants to get in touch with, the staff will be happy to do it for him. She is so caring that it’s unnerving because the last thing Sam needs right now is another reminder that he's dependent on other people for everything.

Sam asks questions again and again that are not answered so as not to upset him, as if he were made of glass. After several frustrating attempts, when Sam growls through gritted teeth (and on the verge of losing his temper) that not knowing upsets him a lot more, he finally gets some answers.

Little is known about the men who took him to the ER. A green-eyed young man in his late twenties and his bearded uncle passing by on their way to Minnesota. They looked like decent people, although a bit rough around the edges. Both men stayed until Sam came out of surgery and were assured he would live, but then disappeared without a trace. The black muscle car they were driving vanished into thin air from the parking lot overnight. As the staff said (a bit embarrassed) to the sheriff as she arrived to get their clinical report on Sam's injuries, no one thought to write down the license plate. They had more pressuring things to worry about, like saving Sam’s life.

The strangers left Sam's backpack behind when they fled, though. The day nurse shows it to him. It turns out that the muggers who robbed Sam were pretty incompetent because they only took his watch and wallet. Everything else is there: his clothes, his phone, his laptop… no weaponry, though. Just a pocketknife that anybody could buy in a hardware store, just suitable for peeling fruit. The average student's backpack….

…And a book with an old fake Kansas driver's license and a postcard peeking out like bookmarks in it. The book title reads: ‘Blank slate; learning to let go of the past.’

Sam fiddles with the ID, the one Dean made for him shortly before Sam left for Stanford, and then the postcard. He can now get an overall picture of who he is supposed to be and his circ*mstances. His name is Samuel Sage Smith, 24 years old. Kansas University student. He reads the postcard again—in Dean’s block handwriting and ready to send to a fictional college friend:

"Hey Frank, just wanted to let you know I'm taking a sabbatical after mom and dad died. The car crash has hit me hard. I have to come to terms with the idea that I'm all alone in the world except for my friends, but I'll be okay. I'll see you back at college next semester. Keep studying so I can catch up on your notes! Take care, Sam."

Sam stares at the book cover and can almost hear the low rumble of Dean’s voice in his ears. ‘Carry on, Sammy. Let go.’

What a f*cking joke.

He is about to throw the book away and call the bluff off, but something flutters inside Sam’s guts, crawls to his chest, and cushions his heart like a kitten with sharp claws. Something that feels like a warning.

Dean. How could you do this to me? Sam thinks in despair. How could you leave me at my worst? I need you. Deandeandeandeandean….

Sam hands the book and the postcard back to the nurse and, in a hoarse voice, says he is tired and wants to sleep now. The nurse exits the room after glancing at Sam with a concerned look over her shoulder.

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Sam is moved to a regular room a week later. His recovery is going fine, and a tight rehabilitation schedule awaits him as soon as his cast is removed.

His only visitor is Sheriff Mills, a kind woman with sharp eyes which see right through Sam’s lost puppy facade that, until now, was always so successful. As can be deduced from her questioning, it’s evident that the sheriff doesn't believe that what happened to Sam was ‘just’ a mugging, but Sam is not her first (hate crime?) victim afraid to report his assaulters. She sincerely congratulates Sam on his recovery and, after a slew of probing questions to which Sam claims to have no answers, regrets that Sam can't remember anything about the muggers because “scum like that deserve to be imprisoned”. The sheriff gives Sam her card, and Sam promises to call if he remembers anything. They both know such a call will never happen, but the sheriff doesn't push. There is mistrust in her gaze, but also compassion—Sam would choose mistrust any day.

When he is alone, Sam plugs his phone into the headboard rail of the bed, grunting at the pain the movement elicits. He takes a few seconds to pant and dials Dean's number, but it’s been disconnected—both of them! He calls Bobby—one, two times, three… nothing. He calls the Roadhouse too, but the line is not operative anymore. Sam’s breath becomes harsh and shallow.

Warmth spreads across Sam's back (as has happened every dusk since he woke up), and Sam feels as if he were lying on the hood of the Impala on a summer night—the engine clicking as it cools down in chorus with the cicadas. Sam closes his eyes and inspires leather and gunpowder, and the sweet smell left behind by a storm in a sun-heated oat field. It smells like home.

When the illusion fades, Sam opens his eyes and looks out of the window at the fat, white snowflakes that stain the evening grayness, and then at the empty chair in his room where Dean should be sitting (flesh and bone Dean, not a fleeting presence, a bundle of emotion in the back of Sam’s mind), and frowns.

You dumb fool, he thinks warily. How is it possible that I'm alive? What have you done?

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A few hours later, he awakens screaming, his heart trying to make a break out of his chest, and soaked in a cold, sour sweat.

The stark horror lurking behind the blank limbo that trapped him in his sleep reluctantly yields to the faded glow of night hallway lights that seep into the room, and Sam sucks in a shuddering breath. He grips the sheets (just to prove he can), and his injured arm gives a warning spasm in protest.

A young girl in scrubs who looks like she's fresh out of nursing school rushes into the room and checks the monitors, grumbling that Sam's doctor should be persuaded to turn the sedatives back on. Sam needs rest to recover. The nurse complains about the staff being unable to sleep a wink, but then realizes she is scolding her patient and changes her speech in a 180-degree screeching turn. In a delayed attempt to take the heat from her words, she begins to fuss over Sam, straightening the bed sheets and cooing over him in a voice that would be appropriate to address a kindergartner.

It’s the straw that breaks the camel's back. Sam is so fed up with everybody’s mother-henning… Dean never talked to Sam like that, not even when Sam was a small child.

But Dean. Is. Not. Here.

Betrayal seethes inside Sam and pushes aside the fear. Dean left him behind. Dean dumped him like a useless, broken tool. But Sam is not broken; he will stand on his feet again, just wait and see. And now, she… how dare she treat him like a little kid? Sam has fought horrors when he was twice as young as her that would fill her hair with gray, his family has sacrificed everything to keep people like her safe, and she has the gall to patronize him?

It doesn’t matter that the nurse thinks of Sam as your average college student. The idea doesn’t even cross Sam’s mind. Anger turns into wrath. Sam clenches his fists, his nostrils flaring, and the lights in the room flicker. The tray on the bedside table rattles as if the floor were shaking.

Memories come in an avalanche, overwhelming and painful as in a vision. Cold Oak. Yellow Eyes gloating about how he fed Sam demon blood. The Acheri. Lily hanging from the windmill, Andy lying in a puddle of his own blood, Ava… God, Ava. Sweet, sweet Ava, who turned out to be a cold-blooded killer. The snap of her neck at Jake’s hands drowns the memory in black again, stopping the train of thought in its tracks as if a bucket of icy water had fallen on Sam’s head.

The nurse opens her eyes wide and rushes to grab the tray before it crashes to the floor.

“Ohmygosh! Was that an earthquake?” she squeals, and then giggles like the child she is. “It felt like we were in Tremors! Have you watched it? It’s a terrifying movie, isn’t it? There was this horror rerun I went to with my boyfriend last month because he digs that kind of film, but I couldn’t sleep for a week. Thank goodness such things aren’t real. Monsters and stuff, I mean, because on the other hand, earthquakes….”

She keeps on rambling, but Sam doesn’t listen. Can’t. There’s a fluttering inside him becoming increasingly frantic, panicked. It grips at Sam’s lungs and squeezes . Containing. Sam wills his heart to slow down, his hands to relax. His fingers twitch once and lie on the cheap cotton sheets like dead fishes. He lowers his gaze—doesn't want the nurse to look into his eyes, dreading that the hazel has turned yellow.

When the girl finally leaves him alone, Sam chokes with fear in his darkened room. He’s afraid to go back to sleep and face the terrifying nothingness. He’s afraid of the memories he can't quite remember. He’s afraid of his past, and he’s afraid of his future… He’s afraid of becoming the very thing they hunt down.

Is this the reason Dean is gone? Because Sam is a monster?

It’s a miserable night.

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In the morning, Sam asks for his laptop, waits to be left alone in his room, and fires it up with trembling hands—what happened at Cold Oak hanging over his head—a frightening doom. What if…

There are reports of missing persons regarding Lily Baker, Andy Gallagher, and Ava Wilson. Appalled, Sam thinks that only he will ever know what really happened to them. Sam swallows the lump in his throat and keeps typing, but his next discovery astounds him. One window after another cascades across the screen.

Jake Talley, a deserter who vanished from his squad in Afghanistan, was killed in an explosion at Fossil Butte Cemetery, Wyoming. The detonation plume of black smoke was clearly visible for miles and alerted emergency crews. When they arrived, firefighters were met with a macabre spectacle. The corpse of the former marine was scattered in pieces after the blast. Also, the body of an orderly from Shiloh County Hospital in Missouri, reported missing months ago, was found at the scene, shot square in the heart. In addition to the loss of human life, the material damage to the historic cemetery amounts to several thousand dollars.

The FBI guesses that Talley radicalized during his turn in the Middle East and was setting up a bomb in the abandoned cemetery to commit a terrorist attack elsewhere, but crossed the wrong wire. The special agent in charge, Victor Henriksen, also suspects the involvement in the unfortunate events of a known and perilous criminal, Dean Winchester—since his fingerprints were found on the cartridge of the bullet that took the orderly’s life. Henriksen has declined to comment on an ongoing investigation, although he stressed the dangerous nature of the fugitive—breaking and entering, credit fraud, impersonation, grave desecration, robbery, murder… Winchester is armed and extremely dangerous. A man-hunt has been placed across all states.

Holy sh*t. Henriksen.

Dean didn’t dump Sam.

Dean is on the run.

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Days go by, fade into weeks, and as the stronger meds are cut down, the broken nights multiply and the pain comes. A toxic mix that tries to swallow Sam’s world whole, but he demands to keep drugs to a minimum—just enough to face therapy sessions with dignity. His physical therapist clicks her tongue, mumbling that painkillers exist for a reason, but she doesn't have what it takes to challenge Winchester stubbornness.

Sam pours himself into the rehab sessions with the same single-mindedness he put into John's training sessions—when he aspired to be a hero like his older brother and go hunting things and saving people with his family. Before. When hunting was off-limits to a little kid and Sam was unaware of what it truly meant.

Sam works hard. One move at a time. Reality is narrowed down to striving to move his legs. Dumbbells, pulleys, parallel bars… Nothing is enough. Sam demands more until the physical therapist gets pissed and threatens to confine him to bed until Sam grows common sense.

The wheelchair awaits Sam in a corner of the room like a cage, mocking his efforts.

I’m gonna find you… Sam thinks on a loop that becomes a mantra, sweeping the sweat from his brow. He grips the parallel bars again and wills his legs to bear his weight, but a painful cramp sets his back ablaze. Sam grinds his teeth and admits defeat for today. An orderly is called to wheel him to his room.

I’m gonna find you, Dean. Sam vows to himself as he settles in the wheelchair. Figure out what you did, and then I’m gonna kill you for leaving me here, on my own.

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Someone is paying Sam’s hospital bills. The money is good, and the hospital manager doesn't care where it comes from as long as the paycheck arrives weekly. Sam tries to trace the bank transfer but loses the IP somewhere in South America.

He knows a dude who could pull off a stunt like this (to create a new identity from scratch, schedule bill payments, the works), but Ash is out of Sam’s reach because the Roadhouse is unattainable. A dead end.

No one can find a Winchester if they don't want to be found, and Bobby is cunning enough to disappear off the face of the Earth if he wants to. But in every con one can always find a weak link. Sam hates himself a bit, but he starts looking for Jo—although he doubts very much that she will even pick up the phone for him. They didn't part on the best of terms, exactly, not after what Sam did to her when he was possessed, but if necessary Sam is willing to beg.

After some frustrating time of chasing fake trails, Sam finds that Jo left Duluth several weeks ago, because the hole-in-the-wall she worked at is looking for a new bartender in the papers. Also, her apartment on the top floor (previously rented under the name of Johanna Ripley, go figure) is available for rent. A bad feeling creeps up, insidiously, and rears its ugly head, baring its teeth at him.

C'mon, Sam. Are you gonna chicken out? Too afraid of what you might find?

Sam growls and types Ellen's name into his laptop with dread….

Harvelle’s Roadhouse burned to the ground two months ago. Eight calcined bodies, no survivors.

Sam wheels himself to the bathroom and loses his dinner in the porcelain bowl.

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He awakens from his nightly frightening nothing with a gasp. The room is dim, its door almost closed, and he hears no noises coming from the hallway. It looks like he hasn’t alerted the nurses for once. Sam sighs, relieved—he is tired of hearing them whispering behind his back.

His back is aching, and Sam tries to turn on the bed… but can’t. The limbo expands its tendrils into the waking world. The darkness, the helplessness, it's like being in a coma all over again. Trapped in the blank void. Am I even awake? He wonders. His heart, which had begun to slow down, speeds up. Terror assails him, but his body remains unresponsive.

Sam’s pupils dart from corner to corner of the room (the only part of his body Sam can move) as his eyes gradually become accustomed to the shade. He can't even close his eyelids.

There is something pinned on the ceiling above his bed. Someone.

Mom.

She looks just as he remembers her ghost from Lawrence: white gown; blonde, disheveled hair, pale, almost translucent skin, and huge, terrified eyes. Her mouth opens in a silent scream.

Mary's features morph into Jessica’s, the slash in her belly drenching her camisole red, her blonde curls billowing in a nonexistent wind. She begins to glow from within and tears well in Sam’s eyes because he knows what's about to happen. He can’t witness her death again. Just can’t. If only he could convince his eyelids to close….

Jessica’s frame distorts and grows—broader shoulders, narrower hips, cropped hair, greener… pleading eyes….

Dean.

A deafening roar and Dean's body is devoured by a blast of flames, the heat so intense that Sam feels his skin blister. The stench of charred flesh clogging the room is unbearable.

A rain of ashes falls on the bed. Tiny, crusty gray flakes blanketing Sam’s chest, his face, his lips.

Sam screams.

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Winter thaws into Spring. The branches of the trees burst with acid-green buds as the days lengthen. Sunbeams become warmer and brighter each passing week, and even the clouds occasionally retreat—defeated soldiers plotting their strategies for the next downpour.

Not that Sam gives a damn about it. He has not set foot outside the hospital for months now, trapped in a maddening loop of obstinacy, pain, and unrestful nights. He knows about the change of season because the outside world is bent on sneaking in through his window.

Just like it does through the one in this office.

“I was not informed beforehand about any change in my schedule,” Sam says, gruffly, to the African-American man seated across the table.

“Well, Sam… Can I call you Sam?” Dr. Roberts smiles with a mouth full of white teeth and goes on, not waiting for Sam's answer. “Dr. Adams thought you could use a break today. You are working very hard—your progress has everyone thrilled. Your injuries are healing excellently—”

“So, I should go back to the gym—”

“But we’re worried,” the doctor cuts Sam off. “You wake up screaming, you suffer from night terrors (which let me tell you, is rare in a young man of your age), and from what has been noted by the night nurses, you’re experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations.”

“And if so, what?” Sam says, defensive. “Dr. Adams thought the solution was to ambush me into talking to a psychiatrist? Without asking me first?”

“There's no shame in seeking help when needed, Sam.” The man smiles encouragingly. “That doesn't make you a weak man, quite the contrary. You've been through a lot—your parents’ death, the mugging, your injuries… And we couldn't help but notice your old scars.”

So, the shrink thinks he was abused. How ironic. Does scarring from a werewolf’s claws qualify as abuse? Or broken bones from being thrown against a wall by a vengeful spirit? What about training bruises? Sam was never abused, but neglected by an obsessed and absent father. Had it not been for Dean….

Dean’s voice floats from the past—from that year when the middle school counselor took an excessive interest in the young student who changed schools several times a year and whose older teenage brother was the only one who ever attended PTA meetings.

Never tell anyone, Sammy. It’s a one-way ticket to a padded room and a straightjacket.

“No offense, doctor, but I don’t think that opening my heart to a stranger is gonna fix me nor bring my family back.”

Damn. How can he sound so sour?

The man hums, pensive. Reassessing his approach to the matter, maybe. Sam braces himself to be the captive audience for a speech of hackneyed psychobabble.

“In fact, I wanted to make you a proposal,” Dr. Roberts says, opening his desk drawer and pulling out a manila folder. He opens it on the tabletop, and at a glance Sam sees a stylized drawing of a stone and glass building that looks like it was designed by a high-end architect, framed by a forest of green pines. It looks like a retreat for the rich and spoiled.

Sam frowns, puzzled.

“A former colleague of mine is conducting an experimental treatment on patients suffering from sleep disorders that are rare or resistant to conventional approach,” Dr. Roberts explains. “Results to date are very promising. The facilities are brand new and have a gym where you could carry on with your physical recovery. Of course, if you say yes, your stay would be all expenses paid, and you would receive a fee for participating in the investigation.”

“Are you handing me out as a lab rat, Doc?” says Sam, torn between indignation and disbelief.

Are you trying to get rid of me, too?

“Of course not!” says Dr. Roberts, outraged. “Dr. Rebecca Cartwright, the medical director in charge, is an old friend of mine. She was a top-notch student, her professional career is impeccable, and her ethics are flawless. I have total confidence in her and her work. I wouldn't have proposed this chance to you otherwise.”

Sam lowers his gaze, somewhat embarrassed by his cynicism, and Dr. Roberts' smile spreads brightly again. He pushes the folder to Sam.

“Just… think about it, Sam. I believe this is a great opportunity, but whatever you decide, we will respect your choice. We care for our patients here.”

Sam nods and grabs the folder. There's no harm if it gets the shrink off his back and buys him some time until Sam decides what to do next. One way or another, he cannot hide in this place forever. He has to find Dean, he needs answers, and to do so, Sam needs to get better.

“Okay,” Sam whispers.

Dr. Roberts beams.

Chapter 2

Chapter Text

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Maybe without me
You'll return to all the beauty I once knew
But if I stay I know
We will both be drowned by you holding on to me

Broken Pieces — Lacey Sturm

Life, after Wyoming, is not precisely as Dean Winchester expected it to be.

Empty.

True, Yellow Eyes is dead, his evil plans aborted, and the threat posed by the Special Children neutralized. Mom was avenged, and so was Jessica. Dad is finally out of Hell and resting in peace, his crusade fulfilled, and Dean managed to keep Sam alive and not embracing the Dark Side of the Force. But at what cost?

They won, but a lot of evil burst through the hellgate before they could close it down. Dean doesn't even want to start thinking about the sheer caliber of the threat this situation implies to everybody. How many nasty things are out there, running amok and killing people? There are not enough hunters in the world to deal with such a blight.

Furthermore, Ellen, Jo, and by extension Ash, are homeless because they were stupid enough to get involved in the Winchesters’ issues, so some of Yellow Eyes’ minions thought it would be fun to blow the Roadhouse up just to raise some Hell—pun intended. Fortunately, Ellen was in the grocery store, and Ash was at the airport picking Jo up from Duluth when the Roadhouse went ka-boom. But a lot of good people, a lot of hunters, didn’t make it. Their deaths will burden Dean forever.

And the icing on the cake: Bobby is now in the eye of Henriksen's hounds thanks to his long-term relationship with the Winchesters. It's been weeks that Bobby hasn't dared to go home for more than five minutes straight since he found a bug under his desk. Ellen assumes that Henriksen has not laid hold of Bobby already for impersonation (‘How many ‘government’ phones you say are in your kitchen, Robert?’) because the FBI agent is waiting for Bobby to lead Dean to him.

It means that Dean had to let go of everyone he cared for to fly solo, this time for good—it’s too dangerous to be around him while still on the FBI's most wanted list… which is not likely to change in the near future.

It's too dangerous to be around Dean, period—given how often he screws up.

All in all, and as far as Dean is concerned, the whole clusterf*ck could be called a Pyrrhic victory.

(What? He does read, ya know.)

But Sammy is alive and getting better. Dean can feel his little brother regaining strength with each passing day. Sam has his whole life ahead of him. He can leave the nightmare that is hunting behind and start afresh, finding that 'normal' he has longed for since he was a kid—a chance to be happy. In Dean’s book, nothing else matters more. And all that is needed of Dean to ensure his little brother’s future is to stay alive. That’s it. If Dean has to live wrapped in cotton wool from now on in order to accomplish this goal, well. Not exactly a glamorous hero's quest, but what is to be done?

Doing nothing but going through the motions should be easy; at first it looked easy, but it’s not. Dean tries to comfort himself by thinking he still has the same purpose as always: to keep Sam safe. The way to achieve it, however, is… different.

Their own tale didn't have a happily ever after when Prince Charming kissed Sleeping Beauty because then they had to part forever and ever, but Dean's life is not a fairy tale. Never was, never will be—although, if you think about it, fairy tales (the original ones, not Disney’s happy sappy crap) are pretty scary.

And talking about scary, Dean would never have guessed that he would end up in Stephen King's country, either.

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The town is one more tourist trap in Vacationland, Bar Harbor being the main jumping-off point for Acadia National Park. A lot of people come up here lured by the call of nature and a blowout of the best lobster in Maine. Sitting on a bench on Main Street and sipping a scalding after-lunch coffee, Dean thinks that someday he’ll have the balls to try one of Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium lobster-flavored ice creams. However awesome lobster is, Dean misses a good steak—that never gets old.

Dean finishes his fifth coffee of the day (he’s always tired, no matter how much caffeine he manages to pump into his system), throws the Styrofoam in the wastebasket, gets up, and resumes his daily walk towards the pier. Main Street is humming like a busy bee after the winter’s hiatus. The properties’ wooden planks are getting a fresh coat of paint, diners and souvenir shops prettied up, and the parks trimmed. At the stores’ doorways, delivery vans are dropping off boxes of goods. Never mind that it's still freezing cold at night and barely 45ºF at midday, April is rushing towards May, and everybody is engaged in setting up their businesses for the tourist season peak and the incoming cruise ships.

Dean is looking forward to good weather—if you can call it that this far north. He's sick of snow. Never a fan of the cold, Dean would have headed for Mexico after Wyoming, but the breadcrumbs Ash left for Henriksen to find were pointing that way, and the Winchesters had never been in Maine before, so there are no traces of the family business in the state for Henriksen to sniff out. Furthermore, if the going gets rough and Dean is forced to flee, Canada is just a stone's throw away.

Quickening his pace, Dean gets to the pier just in time. The lobster boats are returning to port—small white things defying the fierce Atlantic Ocean, peppering the bay like seagulls.

The Eastport owned by Gertrud, built in the year Sam was born, is a boat of 7.32 meters in length with a 6-cylinder engine that needs a firm but caring hand. It turned out that Gertrud was cursing at the temperamental carburetor when Dean was casually passing by the pier, bored out of his mind, and one thing led to another. Since then, Dean has repaired the engines of some of Gertrud's friends' old boats and earned a pretty penny in return. A sweet deal with extra lobster on the side.

Yeah, this is Maine. It’s lobster season all year round. The brinier Hard Shell kind, and from June to November the highly prized and delicious New Shell, which is only caught on these coasts. It is a hard way to make a living, which bears little resemblance to what tourists experience in the summer months on those manicured lobstering trips. Dean tried it once—the real deal. Gertrud has been fishing lobsters for thirty years now and is proud of her craft. She assured Dean, with a mischievous smile on her weather-leathery face, that it was safe, so there he went—because there was no way Dean was willing to let any woman think he was a chickensh*t. Also, lobstering is not an offshore job, where the Atlantic is truly dangerous.

They cast off around four in the morning—an indecent time to leave the bed in Dean's opinion. The sea was inky dark, and the wind pierced his exposed skin like icy blades, no matter that Dean had grown a beard and wrapped himself in more layers of clothing than an Eskimo.

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There are no corporate fleets, just people with their licenses and their boats. Every crevice, nook, and cranny of the coast is lobster territory. To fish the crustaceans, one has to set a line of traps along the coast, and the next day retrieve them following the signaling buoys. Hoist the winch, trap up, grab the pissed-off thing out trying not to lose a finger in the attempt, make sure it’s legal size, replace the bait, trap down. Between two hundred and fifty and three hundred traps every day. Easy peasy.

It is a mystery how that woman has been able to do this day after day for thirty years. Dean was wiped for two days straight after his little jaunt, but it’s true that he is not at his best.

Gertrud’s Eastport docks at the pier, two crates overflowing with lobsters at the stern, and Dean hurries to catch the mooring rope thrown to him by the fisherwoman.

“Hey, Johnson!” She yells. “Quit scratchin’ your balls and lend me a hand, will ya?”

The borrowed surname doesn't bother him as much as it did initially. After all, Dean is John's son. What bothers him is lying to such an honest person as Gertrud.

He plants a smile on his face and salutes Gertrud, clicking his heels.

“Yes, ma’am!”

She laughs out loud.

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The marina at the end of Main Street gives way at Bar Harbor Shore Path, where Dean starts his daily jogging—not because he feels like it, but because Dean is aware that he must remain healthy for the plan keep-Sammy-improving to work. After a long winter of twirling his fingers and little else, Dean should get in shape. The Shore Path is roughly half a mile, but sue him. Dad would be so disappointed in Dean—his tough soldier checking weather forecasts before stepping foot on the street, not to face a rainstorm and behaving like a pansy flower overall… but Dad is not here to scold him.

The path is easy to run along—flat, well-paved, and carefully maintained against inclement weather. The new boots that Maggie bought Dean, comfortable and well-worn after a whole winter of use, hit the stone pavement with dry beats to the rhythm of his heart. A military march of one.

Breathing in the salty air, Dean trots along the path (the pretty town beach at his left and the cheesy gazebo at his right) and turns south towards the stony coast of wet rocks covered with Irish moss, the song of the waves licking the breakwater in his ears. The sea breeze helps clear the smell of seafood from his nostrils and instead leaves the dubious aroma of things stuck between the rocks by the low tide.

Several private properties, some of which could be called mansions, are enclosed by old fences covered with wild rose bushes, right alongside the path. It is too early in the season yet, but Dean assumes the path will be perfumed with the scent of roses in summer. The townies here really care for their place. Everything is so idyllic and bucolic, so evocative… Dean wonders when he's going to stumble across Laura Palmer floating on the shore.

Bar Harbor Shore Path is a nice walk but usually falls short. Sometimes Dean lengthens his trek to Cromwell Cove if weather permits. He has spotted whales in the distance there more than once. Seeing those giants jumping the waves is thrilling, but today is Thursday, and Bobby will phone at six o’clock, sharp. That leaves not enough time for sight-seeing because Dean has an errand to run first.

Dean checks what time it is so as not to be late—Bobby is quite anal when it comes to punctuality. It's still weird for him to wear Sam's watch instead of his own. It’s a keepsake, something tangible to look at that will always remind Dean his little brother’s heart is still ticking thanks to him, no matter how long they are apart—not that the memory of Sam would fade from Dean's mind regardless of how much time passes. Bobby looked at Dean funny when he took the watch (along with Sam's wallet) before stepping into the ER but made no comment, which Dean will always be grateful for.

The watch face has a slight indentation that Dean doesn’t know the history of. It wasn't there when Sam left for Stanford. Dean runs his thumb over the scratch as if rubbing the glass might smooth it. It's a silly detail, but it bugs Dean a lot because the scratch is just the first. From now on, there will be a lot of Sam-related stuff that Dean won't know about. Such a pity; he will have to learn to live with it. To cope. It's a depressing thought.

Dean turns his back to the coast grudgingly and heads downtown. When summer arrives, he should try the picturesque walk from the Cove to Porcupine Island, the one that is only passable at low tide… being careful not to get stranded by the turning water, of course. If he is feeling adventurous. One can never be too cautious.

Yes, Dean is living a mind-f*cking-blowing, exciting life… if he was a frail ninety-year-old arthritic grandpa, that is.

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Ralph Moreau owns a hardware store that is his pride and joy, the best in Bar Harbor. Anything you want? You’ll find it there. From bolts to fishing tackle, paint cans to climbing carabiners. ‘Everything you need when you need it’, that’s the store motto. And if the item isn’t in stock, Ralph will find whatever it is for you at the best price on the market.

Today, Dean needs to pick up some faucets.

Maggie saw the faucet set in a catalog and fell in love with it—a retro coolness in brass and porcelain. She ordered four sets from Ralph, and he assured Maggie that she would have the things in less than a month.

Dean rounds the pile of junk Ralph calls a truck parked in the driveway. For a man as crafty as Ralph, driving such crap is sacrilege, but Dean isn't going to open his trap and give himself away. If the truck falls apart sucks for Ralph, but there are some good mechanics in Trenton, and the truck has proven to be more sturdy than it looks.

If Dean decided to open shop in Bar Harbor, between cars and boats, he'd be golden. But Henriksen knows Dad was a mechanic, Dean stepping into his old man's shoes might blow his cover, and he promised Bobby to fly under the FBI radar. It’s one thing to fix some boats cash in hand and quite another to pay taxes. Look at what happened to Capone.

Not that it's in Dean's plans to settle in Bar Harbor, either. It's in his blood to wander. He misses plains and cornfields, starry nights driving with his car windows rolled down along endless roads stretching to the horizon. Big cities and small towns, greasy diners and fugly no-tell-motels. f*ck, he misses his Baby, tucked in under a tarp in Bobby’s junkyard and gathering dust because Henriksen figured out what kind of car the Winchesters drive.

Of course, Tomorrow is not as appealing as Yesterday, considering he'll have to do all that alone.

In the bed of Ralph’s truck are backpacks and climbing equipment, neatly arranged. Ralph loves his store, but also does guided tours for small groups in the national park all year long. Adventure sports especially, because Ralph is an adrenaline junkie—rock climbing, rafting… paragliding, for f*cks' sake! If human beings were meant to fly, they would use wings, not… those traps.

Yeah, Dean is much more likely to open shop than going hiking in the Park. He glances at Cadillac Mountain's cloudy peaks, clearly on display at the back of the town, and quickly averts his gaze. Nature can be treacherous; a lot of things live there, natural and supernatural alike, and now Dean has to be careful. He won't put himself at risk again.

He is not a hunter anymore.

As soon as Dean enters the store, Ralph circles the counter with a broad, slightly crooked-toothed grin and pats Dean on the shoulder.

“Johnson, I’ve got your faucets!”

“They’re Maggie’s, ya know…” Dean objects, shrugging.

“Yeah, yeah. But you’ll be the one assembling them,” retorts Ralph, going behind the counter to pick up the boxes. “How’s the house doing?”

“Almost finished,” Dean says. “On time for the season.”

“You gonna stick around for the summer?” Ralph asks. “I could use one more guide. Last year was crazy. I couldn't manage all the hiking trips I was asked, and I bet you know your way around the woods… Unless Maggie has already talked you into working at the inn.”

Dean shrugs again, poker face firmly held in place. He doesn’t like hiking, which is not to say that he can’t handle himself in the wild—Dad made sure of it when Dean and Sam were just kids. But… why the in the f*cking hell would Ralph think of Dean as an outdoorsman? Or worse, is Dean giving away a vibe as a survivalist? And even more worrisome, what other stuff are people in town making assumptions about? Folks have a bad habit of gossiping in small places. Dean doesn't remember saying anything to Ralph that would lead the man to think….

“Nah, man,” Dean deflects. “I ain’t good with posh campers. Thanks for the offer, though.”

It has been bothering Dean a lot, the tourist season. Bar Harbor has only around 5,000 permanent residents, but it swells to about 18,000 people in a typical summer tourist season. Add to that the cruise ships. Is a Ushanka and a beard camouflage enough not to be recognized from the picture Henriksen sent to the newspapers? Up to now, it has been, but Bobby said Henriksen is determined to plaster Dean’s face everywhere. Furthermore, Dean’s disguise has to go with the cold season, or he’ll risk attracting unwanted attention with his hairy lumberjack look.

Dean can’t afford to get caught. It's hard to stay in one piece if you're put on trial and sent to be torn to shreds in a sh*tty penitentiary, to end up in the electric chair—although, with his luck, it would be like The Green Mile. If Dean were smarter, he would listen to Bobby and go to Canada, at least for the summer. Toronto or Montreal, someplace where he can hide in the crowds and vegetate for a few more months until Sam recovers fully or Bobby gets Dean out of the mess he's gotten himself into.

But Dean is reluctant to leave the country, although the distance doesn't seem to be a problem for Sam. Otherwise, Dean wouldn’t have left South Dakota, Henriksen or not. Of course, Dean never claimed to be smart either.

He exits the store with the faucet boxes under his arm and a nauseous feeling in his stomach. His time is running out.

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Maggie’s Nest is just another inn in a town full of inns. Or it will be once the renovations are finished. Maggie is turning her family home into a lodge after Steph, her husband’s passing. The house felt too big and too empty for a lone woman, but it also held too many good memories, and she didn't want to sell. Turning the house into a four-bedroom inn was as good an option as any. Besides, Maggie needed something to fill her time with now that Steph is no longer hogging her days. The decision wasn’t about money, but about loneliness. Being an old friend, she phoned Bobby for advice on some ‘build it yourself’ stuff, and Bobby told her about Dean’s predicament without going into specifics. Maggie didn't hesitate for a second; John's son would always be welcome in her home, no questions asked, no matter how long. Besides, a helpful, crafty young man would be highly appreciated.

John saved Steph’s life in ‘Nam. Long story short, their platoon was ambushed in the jungle, and a burst of shrapnel hit Stephen squarely in the leg. John carried the man all the way back to their camp (badly wounded, unconscious, bleeding like a pig) for two days, through the jungle, with the f*cking Vietcong hot on their heels. They made it, and Steph was choppered back to his regiment and from there to the States. Alive, but one leg short.

Maggie told the story to Dean the first morning they ate breakfast together (the very best French toast known to man), watching the snow fall through the kitchen window. She misses her husband badly, and the couple had no children—not because they didn't try, she told Dean with a wink. She always wanted a big family, but it was not her fate. Dean is a poor substitute for a child of her own, but is someone to spoil. Furthermore, Dean is more than willing to try all the recipes in Maggie's cookbook in order to elaborate the inn's menu, which is a bonus for both of them. Dean seems to be constantly ravenous these days—no matter how much food he shovels into his bottomless belly, he keeps losing weight.

Bobby calls when Dean is helping Maggie unwrap the faucets. Five rings, stop, three rings, stop. The same code John used when Sam and Dean were kids. Dean smiles apologetically at Maggie and goes to the parlor to pick up the phone.

“Martha Stewart’s design lounge,” Dean quips, cheerfully. “What can we help you with?”

Bobby guffaws. It's a game between the two of them by now—what extravaganza Dean answers the phone with. It’s also a code: ‘Everything's fine, the Feds haven't found me yet’. Fortunately, Dean's mouth comes out with an unlimited repertory of bullsh*t with no need to strain his brain. The stakes are pretty high after so many months.

“You takin’ crochet classes yet, son?” Retorts Bobby. “How’s it goin’?”

Bobby never disappoints, either. The good news is that his answer means Bobby is doing fine, too. The cranky hunter will always be a paranoid bastard, burner phone or not.

“Screw you, old man,” Dean says, good-naturedly and cuts to the chase. “Have Ellen and Jo settled in?”

“Yeah,” Bobby says. “The new roadhouse is fully transferred and opening soon. Word has spread among the hunters’ community already. Oklahoma is as good a place as any to stop by. The girls say hello, by the way. Ellen also says you'll always have a place to crash at New Harvell’s when you go back to business.”

“Bobby, you know I can’t,” Dean stammers, a bit touched, embarrassed, whatever. “I—”

“Ash and Jo are plotting a way to get you killed in Mexico,” cuts Bobby. “Get H off your tail for good. Ash wanted something along the lines of narcos, and cartel warfare. He said you'd appreciate going out in a blaze of glory,” Bobby chuckles. “Who’d’ve guessed the boy had such a flair for dramatics? Jo votes for something more low-key—that girl has a good head on her shoulders. They say give them a couple of weeks, a month tops to get it all tied up, and then….”

“Bobby. I need a solution now,” Dean says. “Summer is coming, I need to move soon, and Sam needs me to—”

“Balls, boy!” Bobby yells, pleasantries forgotten, and Dean cringes. “What were you thinking? Were you thinking at all?”

Dean closes his eyes and grips his amulet. What was he thinking? Easy. He wasn’t. Couldn’t.

Sam in his arms, under the unrelenting rain in Cold Oak, limp and rasping in raggedy breaths. Sam dying, because Dean was not good enough, smart enough, strong enough.

Not on his watch. Frantic, desperate, Dean racked his brain for a way to save his brother before Sam’s last breath escaped him. All his life dealing with the supernatural, there must be something he could do, something he could come up with to avoid this tragedy, and as if summoned by the rain, the memory flooded in—one recalled from another downpour, another place, another time….

2005, Louisiana

Mama Alizée finishes dressing Dean’s wound and his sigh of relief is drowned out by the patter of rain on the roof. The hunt is done, the bad witch is dead, the kids are safe, and he can finally go. Dean has had enough of the Deep South for a while and yearns for a change of scenery. Besides, Dad is not answering his phone, and Dean is getting anxious. So, what if it hasn't stopped raining for days and the roads are flooded? The storm will pass, and he'll find a way to his family.

She brushes her fingertips over Dean’s chest, and her long nails get entangled with his amulet. She leans closer, stepping between his legs, and purrs in Dean’s ear, her breath hot, and damp, and as sultry as the weather: “I didn’t know you were a believer.”

Alizée may be older or younger than him; it’s hard to tell—her life has not been wine and roses. Not that it matters, either. Dean suppresses a shiver. He doesn’t like witches, white nor black, and doesn’t buy the old gods mumbo jumbo Alizée is so fond of, but her body is warm against his and it has been too long….

“ ‘m not,” he drawls, his mind more invested in cataloging how firm her body is and how curvy in all the right places. But then again, Mama Alizeé is not a mama, not really. She earned the moniker by taking in street kids and saving them from starvation. Catching the eye of an evil child-eating witch was never in her plans.

“Does She know that?” Alizée rolls her hips over his growing erection, her laugh like silver bells in his ears. Dean bites his cheek to keep from groaning. “A man like you, who does what you do, could get a lot of benefit from Her gifts. Whether you use it or not is a matter of necessity. The day may come, and this…” she says, tugging at the amulet’s cord, “will grant you what you need. I can show you… if you are willing.”

Dean is not in the mood to discuss witchy creations with Alizée right now. He can humor her… later. He grips her ass, and she moans. There’s no more talk for a while.

…Soaked by the deluge in Cold Oak, Dean glued his mouth to his brother's and breathed the words of Alizée’s incantation into Sam's lungs. A searing pain stabbed Dean’s heart as Sam sucked in a lungful of air, and everything went black.

It was done.

Bobby researched, Ellen researched, Ash and Jo researched…. Hell, Dean researched what the f*ck it was that he did. Dean had to share all the details of the spell with Bobby, the words Alizée taught him because of the amulet. Bobby knew beforehand that Dean’s trinket was meant for protection, and one pretty strong by all accounts, but not much else. After a lot of digging, they traced it back to Nubia and some bastardized personification of the goddess Meskhenet.

“It wasn’t my whole soul, Bobby,” says Dean, on the defensive. “Just a piece of it. You said it yourself.”

Ancient Egyptians believed that a soul was made up of many parts: Sah, the spiritual body; Ren, the magic power inherent in the name; Ba, the personality; Ka, the life force; Ib, the heart (both thought and emotions); Sehut, the shadow, and Sekhem, the power of the gods only wielded by the initiated. Meskhenet was the goddess who made the newborns’ Ka, which gave them the clue. The amulet was meant to increase the force vitae of the carrier, something handy for a hunter. But magic is all about intent, and Dean’s intent at Cold Oak was clear—to save Sam whatever it took. In the aftermath, it didn't matter much that the enchantment was in fact a botched job. It worked. It worked excellently .

“You shared your Ka with your brother, Dean,” barks Bobby. “That's not like donatin’ a kidney and goin’ on afterward. Will your Ka grow whole again? Once Sam is fully healed, will this… power transfer stop? Are you gonna regain your strength, or will Sam dry you out? Who knows the long-term consequences of what you've done? You could just fade away if we can’t reverse it!”

“I don’t care if I end like those poor schmucks in Lifeforce, Bobby,” Dean says, wiping a hand over his face. “Sam will be fine. He’ll live, and his life is his again to do with it as he pleases. Sam is free.”

“You’re dumber than usual if you think Sam’s gonna let it go,” says Bobby, voice clipped as if he were chewing glass. “Now you two share the same soul, that does not go unnoticed. Sooner or later Sam will find out what you did and come after you. That boy is like a dog with a bone. And when he finds you, Sam’ll be pissed .”

“Do you know how to undo it yet?” Dean asks—as he has done every time he has spoken to Bobby so far. A lot could go wrong, but the possibility of the vitae flow reversing if he is injured troubles Dean the most.

Bobby grumbles something unintelligible, and Dean hunches in his chair. So, Bobby doesn’t know.

“How’re you doing, son?” Bobby asks, instead.

Snatching someone from the clutches of death doesn't come for free. Bobby knows how drained Dean is. He was the one to have to haul Dean’s sorry ass out of the ER as soon as they were told that Sam was going to live—before anyone realized how bad Dean looked and put him down on a stretcher. It was a miracle that Dean stayed on his feet in Wisconsin, but when stimulants and adrenaline wore off Dean dropped like a sack of potatoes and was not even capable of feeding himself for a week. During that time they all huddled in a sleazy motel before splitting up, Ellen (and on occasion, Jo) had to help him with the basics, much to Dean's absolute mortification.

How am I? Hollow, Dean thinks. The hole in me is gonna swallow me down.

“I’m fine,” he answers.

“Sure you are,” Bobby says, skeptically.

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The Hook is not on Bar Harbor’s tourist circuit of bars and restaurants. When tourists ask for a place to quench their thirst, they are directed to the Dog & Pony Tavern, Leary’s Landing Irish Pub, or other of the fine establishments the town is proud of. The Hook is just another hole-in-the-wall, like the many Dean grew up in learning to hustle pool on the road; but also one of the few bars that remain open year-round, where fishermen can go to drown their sorrows in something other than salt water but are not forced to fraternize with outsiders to do so.

Dean is still an outsider, but the locals have come to tolerate him.

Maggie is great, and Dean feels grateful, but sometimes he needs to escape her too-knowing eye and her homey place—when he’s too overwhelmed by her mother-henning. Maggie awakens memories buried deep in Dean's mind that are better off six feet under. Memories of the life he left behind in Lawrence when he was just a little kid… or the life that left him behind, depending on how one looks at it, because Dean had no say in the matter.

Too much time has passed since then, and the memory shouldn’t hurt so much, but it has proven to be a ghost impossible to salt and burn.

Yeah, sometimes, Dean needs to surround himself with a safer and more familiar environment: the smoke of cigarettes and clacking of cues on the billiards, and the smell of cheap booze and testosterone-soaked, boisterous patrons watching the game on a tricky TV. Just to blend into the picture, Dean would drink himself under the table as he did more than once in the past (especially when Sam left for California) if he didn't fear slipping on the ice and breaking his neck on his way home.

Tonight is not a game night, so The Hook is lonely—a few regulars playing cards in a corner and Neil, the bartender, cleaning up shelves and dusting off bottles with no enthusiasm at all. Dean sits on his usual stool, where he can keep an eye on the door, and nods to Neil, raising one finger. A single shot of whisky, neat, is placed on the counter—by now Neil knows Dean doesn’t drink more than two. Quite unsatisfactory, but sadly Dean has to keep his liver from becoming pâté.

The day he knows for sure that Sam is one hundred percent okay and Bobby figures out how to cut the connection between them, Dean is going to drink his weight in booze.

Some fliers are sitting on the counter. Dean grabs a handful of peanuts, drinks a sip of whisky, and picks one up.

Hiring all trades!

Interested call 207-654-198

Dean arches an eyebrow, and Neil shrugs.

“You lookin’ for a job, Johnson?” the bartender asks.

“Maybe,” Dean says. “Depends on what this is.”

“From what I’ve been told, some kind of facility they're buildin’ near to Stonington. Somethin’ for rich people wantin’ a rest or whatever.”

Yeah, a Maine phone code, Dean thinks disappointed, about to put the flier aside. Another resort full of tourists, or a rehab center for WASPs, or cosmetic surgery for plasticized preppies. Bored people who watch the news and read the papers. Nothing that could be useful to him.

“They must have cash, whoever they are, ‘cause I understand they bought the whole island, from what the fliers’ guy said,” Neil adds. “ Privacity. They don't want anyone snoopin’ around.”

They bought an island? Who can do that? Dean thinks to himself, astounded, and immediately on its tracks: A private island.

What Neil said bounces in his head—they don’t want anyone snooping around. It looks a bit murky, Area 51 style, but it would also be the perfect place to hide… taking a few precautions first. Dean doesn't want to dive headfirst into anything government-related. It wouldn't turn out well for him. He takes a closer look at the logo stamped next to the phone number—a DNA chain entwined as a stylish blue S around a blown-glass bud. It looks like that of a pharmaceutical company… or the sci-fi version of Slytherin’s crest.

Either way, it looks promising.

Dean downs his whiskey in one go and gestures for Neil to pour him another.

“Tell me more, buddy,” he says with his most charming smile. “What exactly did the flier dude tell you?”

Chapter 3

Chapter Text

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My shadow's the only one that walks beside me
My shallow heart's the only thing that's beating
Sometimes, I wish someone out there will find me
'Til then, I walk alone

Boulevard of Broken Dreams — Green Day

As Sam finds out soon enough, traveling impaired is not an easy task. It's not just about the airline’s paperwork or getting around in his wheelchair at the crowded airport. It’s about attracting people's curiosity. It goes against all Sam’s instincts, honed by the training John drilled into him growing up. A hunter's survival depends on anonymity—sneak in where the evil is, get the job done, and flee the hell out of Dodge before anyone starts wondering what really happened or who did it.

Sam draws attention from other passengers and airline staff alike as if he were the first young man trapped in a wheelchair… or so he perceives. Each glance makes his skin crawl. He had wished to be on crutches because it’s more inconspicuous, but Dr. Adams convinced him that the endless corridors in airports could be pretty strenuous, and Sam reluctantly gave in. Now, he's starting to regret his decision.

As he gets on the plane, Sam curls up in his aisle seat as much as his oversized legs allow him, makes a show of putting on his headphones (on mute, well aware that he is on his own and cannot let his guard down), and slides his eyelids to half-mast as soon as the plane takes off. He’s not in the mood to listen to the flight attendants' continuous offers of coffee, sandwiches, or blankets, nor engage in small talk with his seatmate. He’s not going to sleep, either. What if he falls asleep and starts yelling his lungs off? What if he’s caught in a f*cking hallucination waking up? It’s not worth the risk. Sam is too nervous to sleep anyway. No idea why, but it's not about facing an unfamiliar environment—this isn’t Sam’s first rodeo. He also has too much to think about.

It’s amusing to find himself humming Metallica.

Sam has come to the realization that he understands why Dean left him at the hospital. Something evil was happening in Wyoming which could not be bypassed. Sam understands, but that doesn't mean he agrees. He can forgive Dean for disappearing on him without a word—his brother had a situation that couldn’t wait to be dealt with. What he can't forgive Dean for is not getting in touch with him afterward (because if Dean had wanted to, he would have found a way) and, even worse, for taking away Sam’s choice—deciding for himself what is best for Sam. Again. Older brother knows best. In true Dean Winchester style, his brother made an all-or-nothing decision: Sam was badly hurt (a red flag to Dean’s prime directive), so Sam is better removed from the hunter’s life. Entirely. Dean became judge and jury in one, snatching away from Sam the option to appeal his case. Without warning, except for a cheap edition of a self-help book with a crystal clear verdict:

Blank slate; learning to let go of the past.

Does Dean think Sam can just forget and go back to college? Do the two years they've spent together on the road mean so little to him? Everything they shared, fought, and bled for? Does his brother think that Sam can forget Dean? If so, Dean doesn't understand what he means to Sam. At all. But he never did, not really.

Although it couldn't be any other way as Sam has held back so much….

It hurts. It hurts so bad that sometimes Sam has to turn pain into anger not to be overcome with despair.

As long as Dean keeps thinking of Sam as someone who needs to be protected, like a child, their relationship won't be able to develop and mature. At Stanford, Sam learned about asymmetrical pairings and what they imply for those involved, how twisted the relationship can get, and how miserable everybody feels. Dean is the strong, responsible older one who makes all the decisions and sacrifices; Sam is meant to follow his big brother’s lead with no questions. Dean won’t see Sam as an equal, and their dynamics will always be screwed as long as he doesn't realize the fact that Sam has grown up and is entitled to make his own choices… and mistakes, painful as they can be.

But to convince Dean, Sam has to find him first. And to do so, Sam needs to dump this f*cking wheelchair but, in order to achieve this goal, it is essential for Sam to manage a restful sleep to regain his strength. A catch-22 situation.

And then there's the tricky issue of what the hell his brother did to keep Sam alive. Something reckless, stupid, and heroic—Dean being Dean, Sam has no doubt. Maybe Sam needed to be saved, but Dean also needs to be saved from himself before self-destructing. His brother has been like a grenade with its pin removed since Dad died. Sam hopes it’s not too late for Dean by the time Sam is ready to put on shiny armor and gallop to the rescue.

Thinking about all this is not helping him to calm down, not one bit.

When the plane lands in Bangor, a driver is waiting for Sam at the terminal, a sturdy woman in jeans and a canvas jacket holding up a banner with his name on it—Samuel S. Smith. It takes Sam a few seconds to remember that this is now his name, but the woman is already approaching him by then. She takes charge of Sam’s meager luggage, introduces herself with a firm handshake as Lara, and gets behind his wheelchair with an efficiency that speaks of long practice handling Sam’s kind of customer. Welcoming Sam to Maine as she wheels him to her car, Lara says she’s been hired to drive Sam to Stonington and, from there, escort him on the ferry trip to his last stop.

“It’s almost a two-hour ride to the coast,” she says, turning on the engine. “If you're tired, you can nap, but the scenery is pretty. I think you'll like it.”

She’s right. The landscape is lush green, and the small towns they pass through charming. Lara is a good travel guide, making witty comments in her smoky voice—a little history here and a little local flavor there. It's a pity Sam is too wired to enjoy her words fully, but he feels jittery, his muscles about to burst through the seams of his skin, his nerve endings raw as if suffering from sunstroke. Thank goodness he didn't drink coffee on the plane, because it’s been a long time since he has felt so off.

However, what hits Sam the most is how much he missed the road. Taking deep breaths to calm his racing heart, if he closes his eyes Sam can pretend that this is not a stranger's car but the Impala, purring under Dean’s capable hands, the road stretching in front of them forever… until the asphalt turns into the ocean and his daydreaming pops like a soap bubble.

The country has been stunning so far, especially once they crossed Blue Hill. Still, it takes Sam’s breath away at Deer Isle Bridge when the rocky coastline unfolds before his eyes, with its dozens of islands glittering in the sun like a handful of shiny marbles spread over blue velvet.

Lara says that the island Sam is heading to is at the easternmost border of Merchant’s Row, the beautiful archipelago located just off Stonington. Gripping the ferry's handrail to hide how much his hands are shaking, Sam lets the sea breeze ruffle his hair, listening half-heartedly to Lara. She is listing islands’ names as the ferry sails its way around: Potato Island (wow, Sam can almost hear Dean cackling in his head); Crotch Island (‘Really, Sam? What pothead named those things?’); Green Island; Spruce Island… Some are merely islets peeking out from the water; some are wildlife reservoirs with flocks of seagulls circling the sky and herds of seals barking madly at the ferry. The bigger ones have a few people living on them, mostly from tourism… and, finally, the ferry aims straight for a forested island with a wooden pier sticking out and guarded by a lighthouse perched on top of a breakwater clinging to the rocky shore.

The ferry turns to dock amidst foamy waves and everyone gets ready to disembark. Lara pats Sam’s shoulder as they step onto the pier with a bunch of people who diligently start unloading crates of goods. She grins widely at her passenger’s open-mouthed first stare at the astounding building compound. But it's not just what the place looks like. Sam's entire system vibrates as if it were an overcharged high-voltage battery. He cannot figure out why, but it feels like he's about to take off from his wheelchair like a rocket.

“Sam,” Lara says, making a sweeping hand motion to encompass their surroundings. “Welcome to Sanctuary.”

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“We are building a space to be used throughout the year,” Jacques Dupont, Sanctuary Project Architect, says in a strong French accent. “A glasshouse, but you can think of it as a polyvalent place. Monsieur paysagiste divided it into sectors, including an organic orchard for self-supply, but a recreational tropical garden will be here, all around the swimming pool. A glass ceiling will be perched on those steel arches over there, to be opened in summer. Those articulated glass panels overlooking the ocean will also be removable on good weather days to let the breeze and sunshine in… but imagine what it’ll be like to swim in the pool watching it snow outside!”

Pretentious, is what this is, Dean thinks, but says nothing, smiling pleasantly at Jacques instead. Paul Meyer, the head of Dean’s crew, takes notes on his pad, pointing here and there to Jacques.

It’s been almost two months since Dean arrived at Sanctuary and began working with one crew after another (painting, plumbing, wiring, whatever) until Paul noticed him and took Dean under his wing in the Green Squad—as the gardeners are called behind their backs. Sam would laugh his ass off if he knew Dean spends his days growing petunias… although the job is a little more complicated than that. As Dean has come to realize, nothing is simple at Sanctuary.

The place is huge—a monstrosity of concrete, stone, glass, and steel that reminds Dean of a space colony vomited from a sci-fi B-movie. A maze of plexiglass corridors connects the many buildings spread all around the site—laboratories, kitchen, laundromat, boiler rooms, researchers’ quarters, staff quarters, patient housing, common areas… Sure, in bad weather, all that labyrinth of covered corridors will come in handy, but Dean can't help but think that glass is still glass, no matter how thick it is. And he's already lived in Maine one winter—and a not-too-bad one at that. He had wondered out loud who was going to brave the outside to shovel snow off the covers in the middle of a blizzard so that the whole shebang wouldn’t collapse under the weight, and was answered with an architectural babble about sliding materials, load lines, slopes, and domes that made his head spin. But what does he know? He’s just a high school dropout.

“So, the paneling will be done as soon as the glass arrives, and in the meantime, we’re working on the heating and irrigation systems,” Paul says, scribbling on his notepad. “Then, we start with beds and substrates.”

C'est vrai, ” Jacques agrees. “Some glass panels have been delayed at the factory, but we can't waste time. We’re on a tight schedule here. The first of the ornamental plant shipments will arrive at the end of this very week; by then, the soil has to be ready, and before that, the irrigation and heating pipes set.” The man rakes his hand through his red hair, making him look like a disheveled co*ckatoo. “The good news is that no frost is expected,” he jokes weakly.

“Don’t worry, chef,” Paul says, snapping his notepad shut. “We’ll make it in time, won’t we, boys?”

Dean, Mark, and Rod humm noncommittally. Dean hates overconfident people. From his teammates' looks, he's not the only one.

Paul claps his hands. “Okay, guys. Chop, chop. We’re wasting daylight here.”

“I’ll check with you at five,” Jacques says, handing Paul the heating system plans.

“ ‘kay, chef,” says Paul to Jacques’ retreating back, spreading the blueprints on a board mounted on trestles.

The glasshouse has a clever heating system. It’ll warm through the soil, running along with the irrigation system of polyethylene pipes with pre-punched holes at various spacings. The underfloor heating will be supplemented by air heating with steel pipes hanging from tension rods at the top, that start up automatically when it’s too cool outside and the lower grid has reached its proper temperature—the degrees in each zone according to the plants in them, warmer around the pool, and cooler in the outlying areas.

“Waddaya think, man?” Mark says, helping Dean pick up some section tubes once Paul has distributed the work among them.

“That we're gonna work our asses off,” Dean replies with a huff. “I don't know where we’re gonna find the time to accomplish all that.”

Mark chuckles, crouching with Dean to start laying pipes on the floor. “You get used to working against the clock here, but I’ve been told that the patients’ rooms in A-Wing are finished—on time because more guinea pigs are comin’. The bosses don’t want any noise in the ‘sleep-building’ that might disturb them. Paul told me he’ll recruit more folks in a couple of days to help with the substrate and beds.”

Dean nods and turns to pick up a wrench… and sways. A burning fist clenches his heart as if it were squeezing an orange (bloody pulp dripping between its fingers), and Dean gasps. His vision darkens at the edges, his knees buckle, and everything goes black. It feels like falling into the icy water of a frozen lake. It's just for a second, or so he thinks, but when Dean gets his vision back Mark is grabbing him by the shoulders, a worried look in his too-blue eyes.

“You okay, man? You've gone pale as a sheet,” he says.

No. I’m not. sh*t, I almost passed out.

Dean shakes off Mark's hands and stumbles on his feet, sweeping a hand over his forehead. He’s drenched in cold sweat.

“Sorry, dude,” he says, his voice a bit hoarse. “I don’t know what happened to me.”

“You need to eat more, man.” Mark looks Dean over from head to toe. “You're thin as a reed.”

“Who’re you, my mom?” Dean says, annoyed.

“Sure chicks dig that model's figure of yours, but it can’t be good for business,” Mark jokes and pats his belly, eyes twinkling.

“Johson!” Paul’s bellow startles them both. Dean cringes as his boss strides toward them. “What’s up?”

“He fainted—” Mark starts.

“I didn’t!” protests Dean. How the hell am I gonna get out of this? It's been hard enough to hide how f*cking weak I feel. I could get fired if they think I'm unfit for work. “I just got dizzy for a bit.”

“Go to the infirmary and get a checkup,” Paul says. “We can't have workmen blacking out on us;” he looks at his watch, “and then go to the bunkhouse to rest. The four of us can spread the pipes to assemble tomorrow. But in the morning, I want to see you working at your best.”

Dean’s ears redden at the tips with embarrassment. “I’m fine, really—”

“Johnson, go,” Paul says. “It’s an order. Everyone, back to work. Those pipes aren’t going to lay themselves.”

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“We’re delighted to welcome you to Sanctuary, Sam,” Dr. Rebecca Cartwright says, shaking Sam’s hand. “John Roberts has told us a lot about you. He has a special interest in your case.”

“Well, Doc, I don't think I'm that special…" stammers Sam, looking up to catch the doctor’s steel-gray eyes. f*cking wheelchair.

“On the contrary, Sam. All of our subjects are special in their own way. Otherwise, they wouldn't be here,” Dr. Cartwright says. She is an attractive woman, tall, slender, copper hair tied in a bun, and with that air of authority of one accustomed to being obeyed. Sam doesn't want to admit it but feels slightly intimidated. Dr. Cartwright reminds him of Ellen in a way he can't quite explain.

“I guess you want to settle in and rest after the trip,” she adds. “But let me introduce you to George first. He’s a qualified physical therapist who will help you carry on with your recovery. I beg your pardon, but I must leave now; work doesn’t wait for any woman. George will show you around and escort you to your room.”

The therapist smiles politely at Sam. He’s a man in his fifties with receding brown hair and arms as wide as Sam's thighs. Both watch the doctor go, white coat flapping on her back in the sea breeze.

“Don’t let Rebecca scare you with her sharp manners,” George says. “She can be quite imposing, but I've known her since she was a medical resident, and she's just pretty stressed. The doctor has a big project on her hands.”

“I’m not scared,” Sam says. “Just a bit… overwhelmed. I’ve never taken part in a study as big as this before.”

“Not even in college?” says George, going to Sam's back to push the wheelchair along a gravel path that crosses a grassy lawn. In front of them, Sanctuary Research Institute unfolds in an arc like a firing squad. “Many students earn a tidy sum from this sort of thing.”

Sam is about to speak but catches himself in time. Of course, Dr. Roberts updated his colleague on Sam's ‘background’. He shakes his head instead.

“Oh, well. It’s easy,” George says. “You'll find all the detailed instructions in your room, but in short, each night it’ll be a cup of pills in your room; you take those, then put the cap with the electrodes on and go to sleep. In the morning, you write anything you remember from the previous 24 hours in your notebook. Anything, including lack of motor coordination, fatigue, headache, blurred vision, nausea…” Sam cringes and George pats his shoulder, sympathetic. “Oh! It sounds worse than it is! The side effects of the drugs are mild and easy to control. The rest of the time, you can do whatever you want, except for scheduled activities, but I hope you'll spend a lot of time with me, working at the gym. I look forward to more than just running some yoga classes.”

“And that’s it?” Sam says, a bit baffled.

“That’s it,” George says. “But be aware that your sleep will be monitored, and there are cameras in the rooms. If a side effect gives you a hard time a helper will be with you any second, don’t worry. However, any contact with the researchers is restricted. We’re in the study's double-blind phase, and everything is encoded so as not to bias the results. No other drugs, by the way. Any unauthorized substance is strictly forbidden. If you've brought any of that, you'd better give it to me now if you don’t want to be kicked out.”

“Oh,” Sam says, unsettled by the prospect of having each and every one of his movements recorded. “I don’t do drugs.”

“Great. We've had some problems with such issues before,” George says with a scowl. “This is not a hospital, a rehab center, or a spa, but a research institute with fifty beds so far that can be doubled if needed. That concrete building over there? That’s the proper institute: the labs, and the researchers' quarters. It’s true that as well as subjects participating in multiple studies, once B-wing is finished and everything is fully functional other people may come here to rest or get a sleep cure—because extra income is always useful… But we’re not there yet.”

Sam turns to look at George quizzically, and the therapist nods. “Oh, we are still under construction. I strongly recommend you do not leave the designated areas. Since it’s almost summer, you can hang out on this nice landscaped green in front of the main doors, but don’t wander into the B-wing or the glass house. They’re still working there. It can be dangerous.”

It wouldn't be if I were myself, Sam thinks, gripping the arms of the wheelchair. The energy rush that took him by surprise when he got off the ferry turned into a slump, but is building up again. Sam feels a bit dizzy, like riding on a roller coaster.

As the gates open for them, Sam catches out of the corner of his eye a figure in overalls hurrying across the lawn, removing a protective helmet from his head to show dirty-blond, sweaty hair curling around his ears, and Sam’s stomach does a flip-flop.

Annoyed with himself, Sam shakes his head. That’s the third ‘Dean’ Sam has thought he glimpsed since the trip began.

Sam closes his eyes, scolding himself. Just because you wish it won't make it come true, you moron. Stop daydreaming. Dean’s not here. That one is too thin. Besides, Dean would never allow his hair to grow that long.

“As today is your first day,” George goes on saying, unaware that Sam has spaced out and wheeling him through a hall that is indistinguishable from a minimalist hotel reception, all whites and pearly grays (not that Sam has been to many of those, but the Internet is there for a reason), “a light dinner awaits you in your room, along with the study instructions and reading material. All subjects are expected to participate in complementary activities—there’s a chart of those in your room. I hope you’ll find something interesting. Breakfast is served in the dining room from seven to nine a.m. Don't be late; your first evaluation appointment is scheduled for ten. If you feel up to it after that, you're all mine,” George grins, pushing the elevator button.

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“C'mon, Dean. It's just a pinprick.”

“I hate needles.” He is not whining, just stating a fact.

The nurse (April, her name tag says) is thorough. She inquired about Dean’s background (and what a pain that was!), tested his reflexes, measured his blood pressure, height, weight, and took a mucus sample from his throat, a urine sample, a chest X-ray, and an EKG. Dean didn’t freak out… much, until he saw the needle.

Is all this f*cking necessary for a stupid dizzy spell?

The offending thing goes into the crease of his elbow, and April releases the rubber band squeezing Dean's arm with a practiced twist of her wrist. Blood begins to fill the syringe. Dean clenches his teeth. It's annoying that this little nothing bothers him so much after all he has endured. Sam used to mock Dean, saying he could run with two broken legs, but a needle could bring him to his knees.

Once the syringe is full, April removes the needle and puts a cotton ball on the spot, bending Dean’s arm.

“Push for one minute. Do not rub, or you’ll get a bruise.”

“ ‘kay.”

“Do you need to lie down?” She asks. Dean feels mortified, but from the worried look in her brown eyes, Dean guesses that he’s not looking too hot at the moment. “Don't be embarrassed; phobias are a pain,” she adds with a smile.

Dean glances at her under his bangs. She’s a little overweight but cute, with creamy skin that promises to be as soft as satin and shapely legs that would feel amazing around his waist.

“I’ll lie down, but only if you hold my hand,” Dean says on autopilot, without real thought behind, and bats his eyelashes.

April blushes, muttering “Tease” under her breath, and Dean grins. Little Dean has been MIA (he’s too tired for extracurricular activities) but flirting is like exercising a neglected muscle. He still has what it takes.

“I’m going to give you these,” April says, retrieving a bottle of pills from a drawer. “Vitamins. Take one per day, and you come to see me again in a week.”

“Is this a date?” Dean says, making a show of eyeing the bottle but more tuned to April's answer.

“Do I need to give you pills to have one?” the nurse retorts, pouting her pink lips.

Often, the best strategy is a good offense.

“When does your shift end?” he asks.

“Tomorrow,” she says with a sigh. “I'm on call today. But we could meet at the staff cafeteria in a couple of days… if you're up to it.”

Oh, man! Dean is so up.

Dean grins wider and takes the bottle, brushing his fingers over April's hand as he does so. He winks, and she blushes again. It’s adorable.

“See you soon, April.”

“Promises, promises,” she complains.

Dean walks out into the corridor, whistling to himself. Maybe vitamins would do him good, and blowing off some steam with sweet April could be just what he needs to take his mind off things. However, his mood cools down considerably after a few steps. It's the first time he's been in the research building since his arrival at Sanctuary, and something gives him a bad feeling about this place. There are too many security measures—access control, card locks on all doors, and cameras around each corner, like the CIA building in Mission Impossible. Dean ducks his head so his bangs can hide his features because cameras make him jumpy, even if it's a closed circuit just to be watched by Sanctuary staff.

But there is something else. Something indefinable that makes the hair on his nape stand on end and gives him goosebumps on his arms. Something disturbingly familiar. Could a ghost be haunting the building? Because ganking a colonial-era smuggler would be so cool….

Dean shakes his head. A leopard can't change its spots just because it wants to. He’s being too paranoid but the fact is, without the ferry, Sanctuary would be cut off from the outside world. That these people didn't want anyone snooping around turned out to be the understatement of the year. As a result, if something were to happen they would be trapped here, and the very idea is chilling. On the other hand, industrial espionage exists, and the bosses are simply taking measures to stop it from happening—pharmaceutical companies have the money to do that and then some.

None of this mulling leads to anything, and Dean decides to think proactively. The best he can do is stop by the kitchens, grab something for dinner, and then go to the barracks to sleep his apprehension off.

After exiting the building, the bad vibes don't go away for a while.

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The room is nice—a queen, a built-in closet, a table with a chair, a bookshelf with a pair of Sam-sized crutches resting next to it, a comfy armchair, and an en-suite bathroom. The window shows row after row of the tall firs that blanket Sanctuary, darkening into a shady wall in the twilight… but not the ocean, and Sam feels slightly disappointed. Next to the bed is a wheeled cart with an electrode cap wired to a device that looks like an airplane black box, and a spiral notebook with a blue Bic on top. In the upper left corner of the ceiling the red light of a camera flashes intermittently.

There are some books on the shelf, an eclectic mix that Sam can't make sense of, as if forgotten there by former occupants of the room with tastes as different as night and day: Your Erroneous Zones, by Wayne Dyer; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré; The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho; One Hundred Years of Solitude, by García Marquez; Forever Amber, by Kathleen Windsor; Great Expectations, by Dickens; The Clan of the Cave Bear, by J.M. Auel; The Little Prince, by Saint-Exupéry; a handful of Stephen King including Insomnia (nobody checks what a potential insomniac reads here?! ), and The Neverending Story, by M. Ende.

Regarding coincidences….

Sam wheels to the bed to get his backpack and goes over to the table, where he finds the instructions George talked about and a form to collect his medical records and family clinical background. Sam grimaces as he takes a look at the questions—Did Dad suffer from hypertension? Who the heck knows? There is also a floor plan of Sanctuary with the common areas (diner, rec room, library, gym) marked with a highlighter pen, and a lidded tray like the ones in hospitals. Sam lifts the lid: pasta salad with fresh spinach and croutons, a bottle of water, pudding, a carton of milk… and a tiny paper cup with two pills: one red and one blue.

Sam wonders if it’s wrong that he feels like Neo in The Matrix.

Getting up from the wheelchair and leaning on the table to help his equilibrium, Sam sits down in the chair to eat because he is famished —even though his stomach feels funny, as if it hasn't quite figured out that Sam has gotten off the ferry. Anyway, it’s good to be able to stand up for himself, even if it’s with support. His legs are getting stronger. From now on, he will make good use of the crutches and try to forget about the wheelchair. He may ask for a cane if he keeps improving at this rate. Sam hides a smug smirk from the camera by taking a bite of salad.

The food is average, and Sam chews absently while reading the printed instructions, which add little to what George told him already. Sam is expected to take his pills, carefully write down everything (from what he dreams to how many times he pees per day), and participate in the mandatory Relaxation group and Sleep Hygiene workshop. Sam rummages through the optional activities and… surprise! Exploring the Dream World: Lucid Dreams. That Sam did not expect.

By the time Sam finishes his dinner, the sky has darkened entirely, and the room looks like an island of light surrounded by a sea of darkness. Sam fidgets in his chair, restless. He feels the urge to salt doors and windows for the first time in months. Not that he has any salt to do so, and besides, it would be pretty difficult to explain to the person behind the camera.

No phone, no T.V., and when Sam opens his laptop, no wifi.

Sam swears under his breath and swallows the pills, washing them down with a gulp of water.

He grabs the crutches and does his nightly ablutions on autopilot, changing into an old T-shirt and pajama pants. Feeling silly, he puts the cap on. When Sam lies in his bed, he does so with his back to the door, so as not to look for the missing bed he grew accustomed to being always there and the figure that should be resting in it. Ende's book lures him from the shelf, but Sam is too uptight to concentrate on reading. He looks out of the window instead and tries to count the stars blinking in the darkness.

Sleep overtakes him as soon as Sam closes his eyes.

Blank darkness, the Nothing, devours deep oceans and green meadows, arid deserts and humid marshes, besieging the Ivory Tower, and at the top, the Magnolia Pavilion where the Childlike Empress awaits him, seated sheltered on her throne. He takes the last steps forward, aching with grief, holding the magic medallion in his trembling hand, and a bearer of, oh! such bad news….

But the Daughter of the Moon is not a girl with snow-white hair but a teenaged boy in jeans and flannel with freckled skin and big eyes framed by long eyelashes, and Sam is not Atreyu, nor does he hold The Auryn in his hand, but the bronze amulet of a horned moon goddess.

The boy rises from his throne and gracefully takes a few steps forward, and it’s as if Sam's blood races to meet him. He smiles, his lips as full as berries and eyes as green as jade, as he takes Sam's hand. Sam's heart swells in his chest, full of love.

"I knew you'd come…" Dean says.

Sam, for once in his life, doesn't think. He lunges forward and kisses Dean with all he's worth, like he never dared to, and Dean melts in his arms, opening for Sam like he never would. It's as if the last few years never happened, with all their losses, and the secrets, and the anguish—trying to carry on while lying about who they weren’t to each other anymore. They have traveled back in time to their teenage years, when everything was purer—yet forbidden want seared Sam's heart every time he looked at his brother. But there is a major difference: this Dean wants Sam back.

They part to breathe, and Sam stares at Dean in awe. Dean's lips are kissed red, and his eyes are shining moist, his walls down for Sam to see beyond. Dean clings to Sam as if he were afraid to float away if he lets go. Weird, because Dean is no longer an eighteen-year-old boy, nor is Sam fourteen, sick with guilt and irredeemably in love with his brother; they are their current, grown-up selves.

“Sam,” Dean breathes, flushed, and so, so beautiful. “Sammy….”

Sam shuts Dean up with another kiss, and they fall onto the motel bed, the cheap springs creaking under their combined weight, the room barely lit by the harsh, red fluorescent lights flashing from the parking lot announcing that there are no vacancies. There's need and desperation in their kisses, and Sam fumbles to sneak his hand under Dean’s shirt, hungry for bare skin. Dean gasps and his hips buck upward, seeking friction between their erections trapped by the denim.

They part to breathe, and Dean gently pushes Sam up. Sam feels his soul suffocate with anticipated rejection, but Dean's moves have an unexpected gentleness. Dean runs his thumb over Sam's cheekbone as if it were the finest china.

“Sammy, I’m so f*cking sorry…” he whispers.

No. This is not going to happen. Not now. Not when Sam has been waiting for this his whole life.

“Shut up!” growls Sam, voice gravel rough. “I don’t wanna hear it.”

“…but I couldn’t let you go. I…”

Sam bites the tender curve where neck meets Dean's collarbone, viciously, like a vampire, and tastes iron. Dean groans but doesn't budge. He stares into Sam’s eyes, his pupils blown wide with want, and in his gaze Sam finds the permission he’s looking for. Sam grabs Dean’s wrists and pulls his hands over his head, trapping his brother under his body, overwhelmed by a sense of raw power like he’s never felt before because this is Dean , his larger-than-life big brother, surrendering willingly to Sam.

Desire soars, and they rut against each other as mindlessly as animals, hands and lips and tongues covetous of every inch of skin they can get. It’s passion, but it’s punishment too, love and longing and sorrow entangled with guilt and betrayal, and too soon Sam’s boxers dampen with his release as Dean arches off the mattress in his climax… to disappear in a mist under Sam's weight while their bodies still shudder from aftershocks.

Meanwhile, the Nothing keeps consuming the outside world, slowly and inexorably.

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There’s a soft buzzing from the alarm clock on the bedside table, and Sam's eyes open in the dim light of the rising sun creeping into his room at Sanctuary. He stretches lazily in his bed from head to toe like a cat, feeling rested and invigorated simultaneously. Still, his enjoyment is broken by his pajama pants tugging at his skin, disgustingly sticky, and Sam manages to fire two neurons together to connect the dots.

Oh!

He freezes, puzzled. Where did that dream come from? Months unable to recall what was happening to him while sleeping, waking up terrified and aching as if he was going into cardiac arrest, and the first dream he remembers is a wet fantasy about Dean?

Sam glances at the camera in the corner and giggles like a schoolgirl, an embarrassed blush spreading over his face. Crap. Did he put up a show? What the hell is he supposed to write now in his notepad?

He remembers where that memory of young Dean came from—the summer of '97, Iowa. Sam was fourteen, a late bloomer trying to navigate his budding sexuality (it seemed like a simple breeze would give him a boner), and battling his growing attraction to his brother. Dean, oblivious, walked barefoot in the motel room fresh out of the shower as always, dripping wet with a towel barely hanging from his narrow hips, or lay on the queen they both shared in his boxers and a tank top, trying to cope with the sultry summer heat. Sam would lie stiffly on his side of the bed at night, acutely aware of the heat radiating from his brother's body and John snoring softly in the other bed. Sam remembers the sweet torture of looking at Dean (lean but growing into his muscles, fair skin sunkissed gold and cinnamon freckled, dark eyelashes feathering his cheeks, full lips parted and slack in his sleep) and thinking that he was the most beautiful human being Sam had ever seen in his life.

He never dared to make a move. Sam knew it was wrong, that he was wrong because a brother shouldn't feel the way he did about Dean. He prayed for his desire to fade, to turn back into the hero worship he had felt as a little kid, but over time it just grew stronger and stronger, harder and harder to resist. With the passing months, the conflict inside him became unbearable, tearing at Sam from inside, and he started snapping at the slightest trifle, first at Dean and then at John—because anger was the only way he could let off some of the strain building up inside him.

It was the beginning of an end that climaxed with Stanford, Jessica, and a pretense of normalcy that Sam sought to believe in… until Dean came back looking for him, and Sam realized to his utter despair that nothing had changed and his feelings for his brother remained unabated.

Hunting with Dean was like putting well-worn boots back on after hurting for so long in dress shoes that didn't quite fit. He realized how much he had missed the research, the puzzle-solving from deviously connected pieces of intel, the thrill of the hunt itself. Of course, half the time Sam wanted to beat the crap out of Dean for being so infuriating; the other half, he wanted to tackle his brother down and kiss him senseless.

Constance Welch saw through Sam’s lies so quickly….

When the hunt was over Sam put a brave face on saying goodbye to his brother at the doors of the apartment building where he lived with Jessica. He climbed the stairs, reminding himself of all the reasons he loved Jessica and of the bright future that awaited him as a lawyer. By the time Sam opened the door to his apartment, he had convinced himself that letting Dean go was for the best.

And then Dean saved Sam from a fire… for the second time.

Sam sighs, gets out of bed not bothering to put on slippers, and pads to the bathroom to clean up the mess he has made of himself. He grabs a washcloth from the cabinet and fills the sink with sudsy water, gazing absently at himself in the mirror while the sink fills up… and suddenly realizes. His reflected eyes return a look of stark shock in the mirror just before Sam’s legs give way, and he manages to flop ungracefully onto the toilet.

He just got out of bed and walked to the bathroom as if it was nothing. Unaided.

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Dean startles awake from a pillow thrown at his face.

“Rise ‘n shine, princess!” chirps Mark happily.

Is it morning already? Dean thinks—and just thinking is a struggle. He feels like sh*t warmed over. Where did the night go?

“You know what, Chuckles?” Dean groans. “I’m gonna kill you.”

“Bah, promises, promises,” laughs Mark. “You'll tell that to all your sweethearts.”

Mark is a good buddy; he’s also a cheerful early bird. Staring daggers at his roommate as best he can with bleary eyes, Dean thinks grumpily that the second trait revokes the first. Mark picks up fresh clothes and blows Dean a kiss on his way to the showers—Dean answers by flipping Mark the finger.

The room Dean shares with Mark in the bunkhouse is a 10-square-meter cubicle with a tiny window, two bunks, and a closet. The rooms open onto a corridor, at the end of which are the showers and toilets. There are three prefabricated bunkhouses at the forest's edge for temporary workers and staff, each with eight rooms. There were seven when the construction of Sanctuary began, but four had already been dismantled when Dean arrived at the island, and another one is on its way to going down. Dean has been told that those workers who manage to get a permanent contract (mainly on maintenance and gardening) will move to rooms in the staff quarters after the summer. If they are finished by then, that is. Staff quarters are always at the bottom of the endless to-do list.

Dean gets up, scratching his belly… and freezes. He stares in disbelief at the dried come flaking from his nails as if it were an extraterrestrial substance. Dean cringes, and the movement triggers a sharp pain in his neck. Raising his hand, he pokes the aching area. It hurts like a bitch, and not in a dreamlike way.

The remainder of his dream hits him like a sledgehammer.

sh*t.

Grabbing a change of fresh clothes at random, Dean hurries to the showers and stares incredulously at his haggard reflection in the steam-fogged mirror.

There are teeth marks on his collarbone, already turning purple. Two neat rows of them. And his wrists look pretty bruised, too.

f*cking… sh*t.

His reflection looks at Dean with baffled eyes that in a blink turn hard, accusing.

I don’t know how you managed to do this to yourself, but this bullsh*t has to stop. Now. Sam never wanted you like that, never did, never will. Hell, he tried to get rid of you. He even shot you, for f*ck’s sake! And what did you do? Cling to him, drag him down. If he knew… if he knew how you feel, how you really feel about him, Sam would be disgusted with you. You did the right thing for once in your worthless life, letting Sam go. You gave your soul to the one you love, and now you have an incredibly vivid dream of what you wish for but will never have. It's more than you hoped for. More than you deserve. It'll have to make do.

Dean steps into the shower, thinking that it’s not fair to be scolded by himself, and starts soaping his hair. He should cut it back because it’s falling into his eyes, but why bother? Sam is not here to give Dean hell and laugh at him. His little brother would probably see it as a delayed rebellion against John’s marine rules and be delighted, in fact.

“Hey, pretty boy!” a voice mocks at Dean’s back. “Got lucky yesterday?”

“Lucky? Look at him,” another one teases. “Got laid with a pitbull!”

Dean tenses up. Gail Jordan and Zachary Barlow (aka J&B) are staring at him jeeringly, arms like tree trunks crossed over their broad chests and leaning against the shower wall in a cavalier pose. f*ck his luck. The two top-notch assholes of all crews—joined by the hip, built like a wall, and with the same IQ as a brick. They have had it in for Dean from day one and would have made his stay at Sanctuary hell if it weren't for Paul whisking Dean away to the Green Squad. Sadly, Dean has come across jackasses like these two often and is well acquainted with their kind. Jordan is just dumb, following Barlow's lead without question, but Dean thinks that Barlow’s macho bullsh*t compensates for the man being so deep in the closet that he could play cards with the lion.

Maybe if Barlow were sucking the lion’s co*ck instead, everybody would be happier, beginning with Barlow himself.

“Did I?” Dean says, turning to face the douches, and something akin to exhilaration courses suddenly through his veins and puts the most aggravating sh*t-eating grin on his face. “But, you see… Zach-o, not all of us share your kinks.”

Barlow lunges at Dean, baring his teeth. “Motherf*cker! I’m gonna show you kinks!”

Dean raises his fists, eager for a fight, but people are already coming out of the showers and restraining the bullies. Mark and Paul materialize out of the steam and pull Dean aside.

“sh*t, man!” Mark huffs. “When're you gonna learn to keep your trap shut? You don’t go pokin’ the bear in the eye!”

“Nah,” Dean shrugs, sassy. “Those guys? All hat, no cattle. Besides, they started it.”

Paul hands Dean a towel and sweeps a hand over his wet hair in exasperation. Dean’s co*ckiness leaves him in a rush. There’s no need to be a mind-reader to guess what his boss is thinking, but Paul is right—Dean just behaved like a middle-school punk.

“Jordan and Barlow were hoping to get a contract, but what for?” Paul says disdainfully. “Masonry work is complete, and bricklayers aren’t needed anymore. I was asked if they could be useful to me, but I picked Richards and Wu instead because I didn’t want those two messing with my crew. They’re strong but all muscle and no brains. J&B are the next on the to-go list—they were told yesterday, and they're pissed. I'll be surprised if they don't kick up a fuss before their time’s up.”

Paul stares at Dean, frowning. “And Dean, I don't know (and I don't wanna know) what you’ve done to them, but you're in their crosshairs. Can you keep a low profile until those two are gone? I don't need delays in the schedule because one of my boys got beaten up.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Dean says, ashamed. What the hell possessed him, anyway? Weird. As if he got high all of a sudden. Dean doesn’t want trouble, either. He can’t afford trouble. Sam needs him. Dean would be doing his little brother a disservice if he managed to get himself mauled by two assholes over some bullsh*t.

“Okay, guys,” Paul says. “Let’s have breakfast and then lay some pipes already. Newsflash. The bosses want the pool running next week. I got the call first thing in the morning.”

Dean and Mark groan. It's going to be a long day.

Chapter 4

Chapter Text

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Another place and time, without a great divide
And we could be flying deadly high
I'll sell my soul to dream you wide awake

Dreaming Wide Awake — Poets of the Fall

It is said that time flies when you are happy and crawls when you are not. After nearly a week in Sanctuary, Sam is not unhappy… exactly. His days are full of humdrum, but his nights… his nights keep getting more and more interesting— so to speak. The night terrors have not gone away, but sprinkled in between….

Yeah, there’s no doubt that it has been a bunch of awkward days; the two assessment interviews were peppered with too many uncomfortable questions about his past that Sam had to make up on the fly and left him reeling. Sam also attended the sleep hygiene workshop and relaxation group three days per week because they’re mandatory, although as fascinating as watching the grass grow. A few other daily activities designed to help the residents pass their time (a painting workshop, a pottery workshop, creative baking…) were discarded without a second thought. All of them made Sam think of something one would do while institutionalized.

Fortunately, Sam has a gym appointment with George for one hour per day, which wears him out but soothes his constant restlessness and makes Sam feel highly pleased with himself—the change of scenery has done his legs good, and the cane is an actual reality. He would have liked to go out and explore the island. Heck! He would have loved to go for a run because the island is beautiful, but the ruggedness of the terrain forced Sam to discard the idea pretty quickly, and he had to make do with walks to the pier at most.

Sam's best bet? He was going to split his time between the gym and the library. And yet, there would be a lot of empty hours for him to fill.

But today was Sam’s first Lucid Dreams day.

He was unlucky because the workshop (the only one that caught his eye amongst the complementary activities) only meets on Thursdays. Had he arrived at Sanctuary one day earlier, Sam wouldn’t have had to wait for a week.

“Hey, gorgeous! Mind if I join you?”

Sam looks up from his steak. Right, Genna, the girl with the hippy look and hippier ideas who couldn’t stop talking all throughout the workshop. Sam can't remember exactly what she said because he tuned the girl’s verbosity out, but Rick's words (their ‘LD coach’ as he calls himself) are still reverberating in his head. Sam can’t tell whether they’re promising or ominous:

Lucid dreamers can consciously influence the outcome of their dreams. They can create and transform objects, people, situations, worlds, and even themselves. By the standards of the familiar world of physical and social reality, they can achieve the impossible.”

Truth be told, Sam wouldn’t mind a distraction.

“Be my guest,” Sam says to the girl, moving his tray over the tabletop to make room for hers.

Genna sits in front of Sam, wraps her hair in a loose bun (revealing dreamcatcher earrings to match her hippy-ness), and starts spreading the contents of her tray all over the table. Sam arches an eyebrow, and Genna shrugs.

“You’ll find that all of us are a bit weird here,” she says, not exactly justifying herself, but okay. “One might think we were chosen because of our weirdness rather than for our ‘exciting’ nights, although the insomniacs’ are pretty boring. But the parasomniac… we’re the kings of the weirdos.”

She grins and takes a big bite of something that looks suspiciously like a veggie burger. Sam remembers those from California—not particularly appetizing now, having developed a taste for red meat in the last few months that would make Dean proud. Sam is not worried about his newest cravings. His body obviously needs the extra protein—muscle mass doesn't come out of thin air, and his legs still feel like wobbly noodles when standing for long periods.

“Why are you talking to me, then? I could be a psycho-weirdo,” Sam says, amused.

“Nah, I’m a good judge of character, and you're one of the good guys,” Genna deadpans. “So, shoot,” she adds with a wink. “What’s your trick?”

“Aren’t we supposed to keep quiet about our… issues?” Sam says.

“No, not at all,” laughs Genna. “We can talk about whatever we want. Researchers don’t mind. In fact, there’s an underground venting group going on that’s an open secret. The researchers tolerate it. I guess they’re so full of themselves that they think it doesn't harm their outcomes, because chemistry, neurotransmitters and brain waves are all that matter. As if taming the sleep architecture will fix all kinds of problems. You know, phase I, phase II, blah blah blah, slow-wave sleep, and then REM sleep, all tied tight like the textbooks say they should be. Those people… physics beats metaphysics. Science is the new God and all that jazz.”

“It seems to me that you don't agree with them,” Sam says.

“Yeah,” Genna says, playing with a fallen bit of lettuce with her fork. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…” she muses, her gaze lost in thought, and then shakes her head as if amused with herself. “Anyway, the V-Gang (our venting group) isn’t scheduled. Better, indeed, because it's more fun this way—clandestine, like a lover. We meet when we’re in the mood. Will you join us?”

“Maybe,” Sam says, surprised by the offer. “I'll think about it.”

“Worried that your secrets may be revealed?” says Genna, wiggling her eyebrows. “Must be fascinating secrets.”

“Boring secrets, more like,” deflects Sam.

“As you please, but Sanctuary is like a small town—sooner or later, everyone finds out what's up with everyone. Not much else to do around here, so we research what the others have.

“Look,” she says, pointing her chin to the left. “That woman? She’s Kate, a devoted mother of two and housewife of a CEO. She's one of the narcolepsy folks. We have a bunch of those, and it goes beyond falling asleep on your feet, like everybody thinks. Ian, that meaty dude, is a successful salesman. He also has REM sleep behavior disorder—his body struggles and fights when it should be limp. His dates can’t be very pleased with poor Ian, methinks. Can’t be fun to be woken up with a fist in your eye.” Genna grimaces.

She turns on her seat. “See that boy over there? His name’s Arnie. He’ll design the ultimate video game to break all molds, or so he says. And I believe him—that boy is gifted. Arnie has the rare Kleine-Levin syndrome, too. He’s only suffered one episode, but his parents tried to sweep the issue under the rug. That raised Arnie's suspicions. He began to inquire and found out that, when he was a baby, the family went on vacation to Kenya. Arnie caught a nasty virus and was at death's door, cared for only by an untrained nanny, while his parents were having fun on safari for days. The KLS is the delayed effect of that fever.

“Arnie made a royal racket at home, and his parents sent him here to accept his ‘condition’ and settle. Taken out of the perfect picture of the family, he says. As you can guess, Arnie… he's not doing so well.”

Sam looks in the direction Genna is pointing to find a gangly kid who looks fifteen and not a day older. Arnie is cutting his sandwich meticulously; first, the crust, which is set aside on the tray with a disdainful push of the fork, and second the middle—one diagonal cut into the center, two diagonals, three diagonals… Exactly equal-sized pieces that are lined up on the plate like toy soldiers in a parade. Sam wonders if Arnie is nursing an OCD in addition to his sleep disorder, whatever a KLS is.

When Sam looks back at Genna, she has her head co*cked, staring at him with arched eyebrows.

“Okay,” Sam says (because Genna looks willing to wait for his answer forever) and channels his inner Dean. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

“Nasty, nasty boy,” laughs Genna. “Okay. What I have is apparently quite rare. In fact, the doctors thought that people like me were a myth,” Genna brags, puffing up. “The researchers were perplexed when they hooked me up to their gadgets, but they had to accept what is. I’m a rarity, a REM sleepwalker. And my episodes are extremely organized, too. In the last one, I got on a bus and woke up in another state. They are not fugue states, I didn’t register in any hotel as Theresa Neale, but it would have been an interesting touch,” she jokes.

“Woah,” Sam says, outwardly impressed but with warning bells ringing in the back of his mind. This could be just as Genna describes, a rare psychological condition, but the symptoms are uncomfortably close to Sam’s own experience of Meg’s possession. A place like Sanctuary would be the perfect hunting ground for some evil thing; however, many psychological disorders have been mistaken for demonic possession, even by experts, all throughout history. Sam sweeps his gaze around the diner, examining the other subjects with a new eye.

“It's a lot less fun than it sounds, believe me,” says Genna somberly. “It's easy to get hurt when you’re like that… unaware. That's what pushed me to come here and give this a try. But, you?” She hums theatrically, tapping her chin with a nail-chewed forefinger. “Okay, let me guess, dark-and-handsome-with-secrets-to-keep. Sexsomniac ? You don't stop having hot, scorching sex while you sleep, do you?”

“Jesus, Genna!” Sam squawks, embarrassed.

A week has passed since the first time Sam dreamt of his brother, but since then, the issue has recurred. In his dreams Sam has revisited trailer parks, scuzzy houses in which they squatted growing up, motels and cabins scattered all over the States, even his first dorm at Stanford… and Dean was in every one of them—younger or older but always precious, and as willing as the first time. Everything Sam wished for but didn't have during his teenage years and fantasized about then… and after.

Sam averts his gaze, the ghost feeling of Dean’s body flush against his as it was in Sam’s last dream firing all his nerve endings at once.

May is too hot in Arizona to bear indoors, so Dean wants out to take a dip in the motel pool. Sam reluctantly agrees, despite the fact that the cleanliness of the pool doesn't inspire much confidence, but the heatwave is also getting on his nerves and he is unable to concentrate enough to keep studying for his SAT.

However, going for a swim doesn’t help matters—the sight of Dean diving into the water in nothing but his briefs only makes Sam swelter more… and Dean's antics make it even worse. They chase each other for a while, do a couple of lengths, plying the pool’s slightly greenish water with ease, and then Dean gives up, floating lazily face up, the droplets trapped on his skin glistening like little diamonds in the sun and his pebbled nipples standing out on the hard lines of his chest like rosebuds. Dean glances at him and moans almost p*rnographically with delight, as if he was teasing Sam on purpose, putting himself on display.

Sam can’t take it anymore. He gets out of the pool and, covering his arousal with the clothes he had left on the ground, heads back to their room—feeling his brother's gaze glued to him and trying to ignore Dean’s call as his brother gets out of the pool and pushes his T-shirt hurriedly over his head. Sam doesn’t stop. Did he misinterpret that heated glance so badly? Was Dean mocking him all the time?

But as soon as they enter the room the foreplay is over. Dean pushes Sam against the door, kissing him breathless, and fumbles for Sam’s trunks, yanking them down. Before Sam can react, Dean sinks to his knees between Sam’s parted legs, staring at his co*ck with something akin to awe in his too-green, blown-pupilled eyes. He licks his lips as if his mouth were watering, and Sam feels about to explode at the sight, his arousal ratcheting impossibly high. Dean caresses Sam’s damp thighs, raising goosebumps in the wake of his fingers, as his hands wander up to curl around Sam’s hip bones and nestle there.

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Glancing coyly at Sam under his eyelashes, sexy as sin, Dean opens his mouth (a flash of pink tongue and white teeth), and Sam sucks in a breath. Dean’s tongue darts forward, kitten-licking Sam’s shaft, playing with the head and diving into the slit, tasting him, and Sam moans at the overwhelming sensation, growing incredibly hard. Their gazes lock for a second that lasts an eternity, and then Dean deep-throats Sam in one smooth move…

Christ on a stick! No one has ever managed to do this to Sam.

Dean moans as if having Sam’s monster dick lodged in his throat is the best thing ever, and the vibrations run through Sam’s body as shocking as lightning. Dean starts bobbing his head up and down, up and down, spit dripping from his stretched lips and eyelids fluttering in bliss, and Sam’s hips buck forward, but Dean… he just takes it, lips stretched wide in a perfect circle around Sam's dick.

Sam thrusts deep again, expecting his brother to rebel any second now, but Dean opens his throat and lets Sam's co*ck slide even further in. One of his hands lifts from Sam’s hip bone to guide Sam to entangle his fingers in his hair, soft and ungelled. He takes Dean’s head in his hands, changing the angle to reach even deeper, and Dean’s eyes glaze over, tears overflowing to gather on his eyelashes before dampening his cheeks. Sam has a panicked moment, fearing he’s hurting his brother, but Dean moans again, and his thumbs rub slightly on Sam’s hips, drawing the curve of the bone.

It's an epiphany. Sam has never had control over his own life, swept up in his father's crazed crusade since he was an infant, but this is… Sam looks into Dean's eyes, and, for the first time in as long as he can remember, he’s the one in control. Sam feels empowered by his brother’s willing submission, and it’s intoxicating. He needs this—to feel he has control over one thing in his life. But looking at how blissful his brother looks, Sam realizes that maybe Dean needs this, too—to let himself go.

Sam feels the power overcome him and he f*cks his brother’s mouth hard and fast, unhinged.

The feeling is incredible, mind-blowing, and Sam can’t hold it any longer. He shoots down his brother’s throat for what seems like forever, and Dean swallows as his throat constricts, milking Sam dry and making those happy sounds all throughout Sam’s org*sm. He keeps going until over-stimulation becomes almost painful and Sam pulls Dean away and up, kissing him and tasting himself on his brother’s tongue. Dean looks dazed, flushed… and is rock-hard in his briefs. Sam grins, grips his brother’s shoulders, and spins them, pushing Dean onto the rumpled bed.

‘My turn,’ he says.

If Dean would stop trying to apologize (before, after, or even during the sex), every dream would be perfect. Something for Sam to cherish forever. But someone who claimed to be a wise man said that dreams are often wish fulfillment. Sam wished Dean would beg forgiveness for leaving him behind, but this is already too much. Sam didn't suspect himself of being so spiteful. It's a dark side of himself that he was unaware of and deeply dislikes.

“Oh, it was worth a shot,” Genna says mischievously, shrugging one shoulder. “I keep waiting for one of those to come.”

Sam adjusts himself covertly in his jeans, struggling to remember what Genna was talking about and compelling himself to let the memory go. He returns to the here and now, chuckling. He does like this girl.

“No, nothing as fun as that; sorry to disappoint,” he lies, trying not to let his voice give away his remaining arousal. “Night terrors. Pretty dumb, because I can’t recall a thing.”

“Isn't that stuff supposed to be a little kids’ thing?” She says, frowning.

“Aren't just kids supposed to sleepwalk?” replies Sam.

“Touché,” Genna says.

They munch their dinner in silence, each one lost in thought, but soon Genna starts fidgeting in her chair. Sam recognizes the signs—there is something else she is dying to say but is reluctant to do so.

“Sam…”

“Yeah?”

“By any chance, you don't also have sleep paralysis, do you?”

“I…” Sam averts his gaze.

Genna slumps in her chair.

“As I told you, we research. Sleep disorders are often conflated, and sleep paralysis is much more common than people realize. V-Gang thinks that's actually what they're investigating for real here, and the rest is a smokescreen. A bit of a conspiracy theory, isn't it?” she chuckles, dismissive of herself. “But the point is, subjects come and go from Sanctuary all the time, but those who stay? All have sleep paralysis and see things that aren’t there on waking up… even those who didn't have it before coming here.”

Genna pushes aside her tray, still half full, all interest in her dinner lost.

“And all suffer from nightmares, too,” she says in a quiet voice. “Hence the new Lucid Dreaming workshop, I guess. To help us cope. A treat to make us believe we’re achieving something for ourselves by staying here, to keep us docile. But nightmares aren’t worth researching because everyone suffers bad dreams from time to time, and the big guys aren’t interested in something that happens to everyone; nor is it dangerous in any way. They’re just after the non-average stuff.

“The point is, can they do that?” says Genna, staring at Sam with trusting eyes as if Sam holds the secret of life hidden in his pocket. “Cause a disorder? And if the answer is yes… what does that mean for all of us here?”

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“What do you mean he’s gone?!” shouts Dean, panicking.

“Hold yer horses, boy. Don’t bark at me like that.”

Unbelievable. Dean is told that his brother has disappeared… his brother, who is supposed to be an invalid at the moment and recovering from injuries no one should ever heal from… except with the aid of idiotic, cursed Winchesters doing the unthinkable—such as making deals with demons or maiming their own souls. What did Bobby expect? As if Dean would take the news well!

“Ash’s contact said that Sam is in a f*cking wheelchair, Bobby.” Dean switches the earpiece to his right ear. f*cking old phone, and f*cking island, and f*cking company secrecy. If cell phones had coverage here, Bobby wouldn’t have taken so long to break the news to him. But he had to wait until Thursday for Dean to call using the antediluvian wall phone in the hallway. Six days, six whole days lost. Sam could be anywhere by now.

But… Dean has been feeling exhausted lately, hasn’t he? As if Sam were siphoning too much from him—more than usual anyway. Dean hadn't thought about it, but what if his brother is hurting? What if his condition has worsened? What if someone (something!) has taken Sam again? …Because he was alone, and vulnerable, and Dean was stupid enough not to stay by his little brother's side to protect him?

And speaking of feeling exhausted, don't forget about the damn dreams—from which Dean wakes up shaking, sweaty, and wrung out. Indeed, Dean knew he was a chump, but not that his subconscious would turn his forbidden desires into a p*rny, incestuous version of a Meg Ryan movie again and again—those chick flicks are more Sam's thing, okay? Who would have guessed that Dean was such a sap, too? Dean feels embarrassed just thinking about them, though his dick jumps happily at the memory—the traitor.

‘My turn,’ Sam says, grinning, and pushes Dean unexpectedly backward.

He falls on the motel bed on his back, and Sam is on top of him in a flash, crawling over his body like a panther, a perilous glint in his slanted eyes. He pulls Dean’s T-shirt off half way, trapping Dean’s arms in the damp, tangled fabric, and starts biting and sucking at his jaw, his throat, his chest… Dean squirms, bucking his hips upwards, trying to get some friction where he needs it the most, but Sam is having none of it. He plants a massive hand on Dean’s belly and swirls his tongue in his navel, sucking the mother of all hickeys there while tugging off Dean’s wet briefs. Dean finally manages to dump his T-shirt on the floor, but Sam has him naked by then. He spreads Dean’s legs as far as they can go and stares at him like a starved man about to feast.

‘Are you gonna let me take care of you?’ Sam asks, voice husky and dark as the abyss. ‘Dean, let me take care of you…’

Dean makes a choked, embarrassed sound down in his throat, struggling with his own conflicting desires. This is so wrong, but at the same time, it feels so, so right… Guilt will choke him in the morning because he should be the one taking care of Sam, but Dean feels so tired of being strong… It has been so hard to carry on, trying to be brave when Dean feels that he is slowly unraveling—unfit to bear the burden John dumped ruthlessly on his shoulders. And then, here is Sam, his beautiful, smart, and idealistic brother who deserves all the good that can be found in their cruel world, whom Dean loves more than his own life, asking for Dean’s permission to take care of him.

Taking responsibility is engrained in Dean’s cells, is who Dean is, but maybe, just for this one thing, Dean can give way. And Dean wants to let go. Oh! How much he wants to let himself go, if only for once! To surrender to the only person he can trust to give his power back afterwards.

After all, this is just a dream. There's nothing wrong with indulging your deepest, darkest, forbidden desires in a dream, is there? Just a fantasy that hurts no one but himself.

He nods.

Sam leans forward and takes Dean’s wrists in his hands, gently pulls Dean’s arms up, and guides Dean’s numb fingers to curl around the headboard posts.

‘Keep your hands there.’

The command should rile Dean, but he's too aroused, too turned on to manage a coherent thought. He grips the headboard, and his whole body trembles uncontrollably as Sam lifts his legs and bends them at the knees, exposing him to his heated gaze. Dean stares into his brother’s eyes, not daring to hope, and Sam stares back. Sam's gaze sees beyond his barriers, breaks down his walls as if they were nothing, and Dean is about to cry because Sam sees him , and there is no disgust or rejection in his eyes, but a bottomless love, a desire that matches his own. Sam loves Dean for who he is, not for who Sam wants him to be.

His brother nuzzles at his thighs, breathing him in, and Dean gasps as Sam’s mouth wanders past his taint to find his hole and lick a wet, hot, dirty, open-mouthed kiss there.

‘Sammy… please…” Dean begs. Holy f*ck. He sounds wrecked already.

Sam chuckles darkly, his tongue darts forward, teasing the rim, and Dean whimpers.

‘You’re gonna come just like this, Dean,’ Sam says. ‘You’re gonna come just with my tongue in your tight little ass, and then I’m gonna f*ck you until you come again. Untouched. How does that sound?’ Sam purrs, his breath ghosting over Dean’s co*ck and making Dean shudder. It doesn’t matter that the p*rny line is so cheesy—on Sam's lips it turns out incredibly hot. But Sam is far from done. His hand creeps upward to find one of Dean’s nipples and pinches the little bud. Dean arches from the mattress in a perfect bow as the pleasure-pain runs straight to his co*ck. Sam licks his lips, his pupils shallowing the hazel of his irises.

‘And after that, we’ll start all over again, and again. You’re gonna let me show you how much I love you until you believe I 'm telling the truth.’

Sam lowers his head, ignoring Dean's stunned look, and Dean screams his brother’s name. The first of many as Sam proceeds to take him thoroughly apart.

Dean puts the heel of his hand on his throbbing dick and pushes down hard, trying to soothe the ache. He feels dazed, his upstairs brain deprived of the blood that has flown south in a rush.

Nobody has control over their dreams, right? Right?!

“We’re lookin’ for Sam, okay?” grumbles Bobby, and Dean shakes his head to vanish the memory. “Ash found this morning that Sam didn't ask for a voluntary discharge but was transferred to another place. Couldn’t find out where… yet. The boy is pissed. He says no one sneaked his target under his nose this way before. Ever. You should see Ash; he's focused like a laser beam. Not even Jo dares to come within six feet of him except to refill his beer. Ash swears he’ll find your brother's trail, and I believe him. Meanwhile, you stay put and wait.”

“Are you kiddin’ me?” Dean cries in astonishment. “Sam is who knows where, and you want me to stay put ?”

“And you wanna go… where, exactly?” retorts Bobby blandly.

“I don’t know, man! But I can’t do nothing. Sam was supposed to stay at the hospital, getting better. Why the move? What changed?”

“Hell if I know, boy! But you can feel Sam, you hold onto that. You'll be the first to know if somethin’ is wrong with your brother.”

“I…,” Dean swipes a hand over his face. This is like when Meg took his brother for a spin all over again, and look how that panned out! He tries to swallow, but his throat feels parched dry as if his tongue were wrapped in blotting paper. “f*ck, Bobby,” he finally manages to croak.

There’s a pained silence on the line and a gurgling sound at the other end. Awesome. That’s Bobby pouring a glass of whiskey—a generous one for the time it takes. Dean craves a drink himself… or ten, of any kind.

“Okay, boy. Listen to me carefully ‘cause I ain’t doin’ this again,” Bobby says, strained. “Close your eyes… take a deep breath… feel the bond….”

Oh hell, no. This can’t be happening.

“You can’t be f*cking serious,” Dean says. “Who are you, Lobsang Rampa?”

“You wanted to do something?” growls Bobby. “We’re doing something. Drop the smartass attitude and do as you’re told already! Or would you prefer to have Missouri on the phone?”

“Are you in Lawrence?!”

Dean pictures the disapproving frown on Missouri’s face, the coldness in her birdy eyes every time she’d looked at him when they met. She didn’t like Dean much and made that quite evident throughout the time the brothers spent in their hometown. She thinks Dean is an imbecile. Or worse, she knows. She saw into Dean and was disgusted with what she found there. If Bobby has told the psychic what Dean has done, Missouri will whack him with something more forceful than a wooden spoon the next time they meet.

“No, idjit.”

“Thankf*ck…”

Dean sighs loud enough to be heard by the other hunter and bumps his forehead against the wall, letting it rest there and perversely enjoying the throb. Bobby correctly takes Dean's silence as acquiescence.

“Can we get with the plan before growing bald?” Bobby says, “ ‘cause I don’t like this psychic sh*t anymore than you do.”

“Okay, Bobby. Sorry.”

“Close your eyes…” Bobby intones again, “deep breaths… focus on the link… How does it feel?”

“Stronger,” blurts Dean without thinking.

“Good, that’s… good…” Bobby says—although he doesn't seem very enthusiastic. “What’s it like?”

Dean focuses on the eerie feeling that binds his tattered soul to his brother. He supposes it’s like the pain of a phantom limb. Dean can feel what is no longer in him, but in a way, still is. A bridge… no. A linked chain… that’s not it either. A… cord?

“It's like a…” Dean fumbles for the words. “A ribbon of mercury light running from my chest… an open… a vortex heading towards… Sam is at the other end. He’s… fine,” Dean finally manages to swallow the lump in his throat. Relieved doesn't even come close to what he feels at the moment. “Bobby. Sam is fine.”

“Told ya,” Bobby says.

Dean opens his eyes and rubs his sternum. It feels cold, a hollow aching with longing.

He doesn’t like seeing inside himself.

“Now that we've got that out of the way,” Bobby says as if he has a frog in his throat, “Can we cut this emo-sh*t out before we grow tit*?”

Dean should have a smartass retort stashed for that; instead he slumps against the wall because his legs have turned into Jell-O.

“What do we do now?” he says, dispirited.

“We wait,” Bobby states.

Dean hangs up the phone.

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Sam is at the library when he feels it. The prodding inside, gentle but full of intent—hard iron wrapped in silk sliding carefully around his heart. The fluttering thing inside him vibrates like a tuning fork, an echo resonating with yearning.

Dean.

Sam often thinks of his brother in those terms, matching him with things that are pure, raw, and deceptive in their simplicity. There is the Dean everyone can see—the hunter, the protector. Strong, and brave, and loyal. The Dean willing to do anything for his family. The Dean who struts into a bar and attracts all eyes for good or for ill. The Dean who charges headlong into danger, guns blazing. The Dean who chases after everything with a pulse. The Dean that jokes, pranks, and chews with his mouth wide open just to be annoying. The simple Dean. But, underneath, Dean is anything but simple. Smoke and mirrors would describe Dean much better. Sam has always known this fact about his big brother, but since the hospital, his perception of Dean has increased to become sharper, deeper.

Until now, Dean was like a ghostly presence lingering with Sam—a feeling at dusk, a soothing warmth in his scar, a pang in his chest when Sam was about to lose control. But it all had an automatic quality, like a reflex triggered by the right stimulus. For the first time since he woke up at the hospital, the sensation feels deliberate, as though Dean really is behind it, and Sam hurries to extend his ‘sixth sense’ towards his brother… but it's as if a door closes in his face.

How typical, Sam thinks grimly.

Sam tilts his neck left and right until his vertebrae pop satisfactorily and tries to refocus on his book.

REM sleep involves the cooperative activity of different brain parts. Independent neural systems cause muscle paralysis, blocking of sensory information, and cortical activation. When these three systems work together, the brain will be in a REM sleep state, dreaming.

But sometimes those systems don’t turn on or off simultaneously. A dreamer may have partially awakened from REM sleep before the systems that produce the paralysis turn off, so their body is still paralyzed though awake; this condition is called sleep paralysis. In this state, people typically struggle in a fruitless effort to move or wake up. Such panicky reactions are counterproductive and stimulate areas of the emotional brain that paradoxically cause the REM state to persist and may trigger hypnagogic hallucinations.

Very rational and satisfactory for the average reader… because science laughs at such things as incubi, succubae, and other entities that lurk in dreams and feed on terror.

Fortunately, this is not the case here.

Of course, Sam checked, all right? On principle alone.

After so much reading, Sam's eyes prickle and burn a bit. Sanctuary's library is well stocked with books about sleep, both general and specialized. It's a fascinating topic and Sam never could resist the call of research, but it is getting late. Furthermore, feeling Dean so vividly has cut off Sam’s flow. Yawning, he gathers his notes into his laptop bag and grabs his cane. His legs feel heavy and stiff, but Sam manages to stand up and make his way to the door.

The library is almost empty this late in the evening. Absently, Sam has noticed people coming and going (because no hunter worth his salt is ever unaware of his surroundings), but now it's just him and the introverted kid with the weird syndrome. Arnie. As Sam walks past the boy, he can't help but see that the table Arnie is sitting at is covered with a jumble of unsettling black-and-white sketches: a forest cloaked in fog; the skeletal legs of a terrifying, gigantic spider peeking out from behind a spooky tree; crows haunting pitiful shapes (corpses?) locked in cages hanging from bare branches; the silhouette of a child with eyes shining like headlights…

Disturbing.

Sam wonders what Arnie’s nightmares look like; if the kid’s drawings are inspired by what he sees when closing his eyes. Are those sketches a way of facing his fears? It is likely. Rick said that the way to overcome fear is to face it. Escaping a nightmare by waking up only removes the dreamer from the direct experience of the anxiety-provoking images. It’s not enough to know that it was 'only' a dream and therefore cannot harm—an unresolved conflict remains that will come back to haunt the dreamer another night. Furthermore, when one tries to force an oneiric character to disappear, it can become more threatening. But the fears in our nightmares can be dealt with like any other phobia: by facing them progressively.

Rick also said that the non-lucid dreamer is like a small child terrified of the dark because they believe monsters lurk there. The lucid dreamer would be like an older child, still frightened of the darkness but growing out of their belief in monsters. This child might still be scared but knows there’s nothing to be afraid of, and therefore masters the fear.

Sam thinks of the hunting knife ever-present under his brother’s pillow, and the .45 John gave Sam himself to face the darkness when he was just a kid. If Rick knew how wrong he is, he would never sleep again.

But Sam is nothing like a defenseless kid, he will not let his night terrors defeat him, and even less so now that he has a weapon to confront them with. He is not powerless anymore. And, most of all, Sam is a hunter.

The time has come to try out the effectiveness of Rick's training.

Chapter 5

Chapter Text

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Sleep with one eye open
Gripping your pillow tight

Enter Sandman — Metallica

As soon as Sam gets to his room, he leaves his bag on the table and makes a bee-line to the cart, swallowing the pills he finds, as usual, in the tiny cup next to the wired cap device without a second thought.

Resolved, Sam puts on his pajamas, hangs the cane on the headboard, and lies on the bed. He feels some trepidation but reminds himself that this is not the same scenario Ava was referring to when she spoke about opening up to their powers… but it seems similar enough to make Sam feel uneasy. He closes his eyes nonetheless and makes his body relax from head to toe, breathing from the belly as he has been taught. Soon, tiny flashes of light shaping geometric patterns dance under his eyelids like a kaleidoscope—as usually happens when Sam is about to fall asleep. It’s the set-up Sam has chosen from those Rick talked about to induce lucid dreaming and jump straight into the REM phase.

His body seems to sink into the mattress, and Sam notices a slight tremor so subtle that it would easily go unnoticed if he hadn't been paying attention—the harbinger of REM sleep. He clings to his consciousness as he allows his body to sink deeper while simultaneously thinking of floating and, suddenly, he is looking down at himself lying on the bed.

It worked. Sam grins from his dream body at his sleeping body (the clunky wire cap tangled funny in his hair) and reaches into his pocket to grip the horned head of the bronze amulet he knew would be there —the oneiric symbol he chose in the Lucid Dreams workshop to anchor himself in reality. Sam thinks it's quite appropriate. Dean was his only constant growing up in a fleeting world in which Sam never could put roots down, and now he is about to explore uncharted territory, so Sam picked a token of his brother. Something that would summ what Dean embodies to him—security and home.

Sam should wake up, as Rick instructed them, and write down his accomplishments in the notebook, but he is too excited and curious to do so. He steps back, turning toward the door… but there is no door, no room, no light, no noise. There is Nothing. Sam is trapped in the blank limbo of his night terrors, at the mercy of whatever lurks here.

Terrified, Sam starts to run, his heart pounding in his chest, trying to escape, to flee this horrendous place, but the ground begins to give way, to dissolve under his feet. The panic is unbridled. Sam is going to fall into the void. He’s going to fall forever, devoured by the devastating nothingness. He screams, clenching his fists… and the amulet digs into his palm, solid and anchoring. Sam stops dead in his tracks.

No, he's not going to lose himself in the nightmare. He's in control. This is his dream. He’s sleeping safely in his bed. He’s not a scared child but a grown-up man. It’s about time to face whatever hides here and conquer his fears once and for all. Sam unclenches his fist and picks up the amulet's cord, pulls the trinket over his head, and feels its comforting weight rest on his chest.

To begin with… let there be light.

Well, it’s not exactly light that comes out, but it’s enough. Sam takes a look at his surroundings. Something like funnels of darkness are opening and closing around him, dizzying in their fast spinning, as if he were standing at a tornado crossroads. The scenery is not precisely reassuring, but Sam guesses that this is his unconscious, trying to give a shape to something that has none. Sam grips the amulet resting over his heart and says aloud, "Show me what I can’t remember. Show me what is terrorizing me.”

One of the funnels seems to grow and widen, approaching at a vertiginous speed, and San is sucked into its black vortex.

Sam staggers on his feet in the soggy mud of Cold Oak, looks down at Jake's unconscious body and raises the hunk of iron, about to deliver the coup de grâce… but stops. Yellow Eyes has won Jake over, the man is a menace. Sam should finish what he started and kill the soldier, but then he would be playing into Yellow Eyes' hands, and besides, Sam isn't like that. He may have demon blood inside him, but he's not a murderer. His rage vanished, Sam throws the rusted piece of iron to the ground, holding his arm instead. It is broken, and his belly hurts horribly. There's also something broken in there.

And then, over the roar of thunder, he hears the best sound in the world.

“Sam!”

It’s Dean, his brother has found him.

Sam turns and takes a few unstable steps forward to meet Dean with a relieved smile on his lips. Dean and Bobby are running to him, but they are not smiling. Sam frowns. Why don't they smile? They look alarmed. Dean shouts, speeding up his run:

"SAM, look out!"

Jake doesn’t share Sam’s moral qualms. His stabbing is brutal and ruthless.

The sudden pain is excruciating. It spreads across Sam’s back and then stops. Everything stops. Sam falls to his knees, and Dean is suddenly there, holding him, but Sam feels nothing—not his brother’s hands, not the muddy ground, not the cold rain… nothing. The Nothing envelops him. He tries to hold on to Dean's voice but can't understand what his brother is saying. The world fades away, and Sam is falling and regrets… Oh, how much he regrets wanting to know! Because now he can see what’s rushing for him from the other side and cannot behold it without going insane.

He’s falling into Hell, that has come for him to claim his tainted soul.

‘So, this is what I couldn't (didn’t want to) remember—Hell, reaching out to me.’

But this is his dream, memories, whatever, and Sam is still in control. Once again, he separates from his body and watches the scene unraveling before his eyes. Dean is rocking him in his arms, with a devastated and frenzied expression, muttering “Nononono” over and over again. There’s so much pain, so much love on his brother's face… It breaks Sam’s heart. Dean’s hands are soaked with blood where they clutch at Sam’s clothes. Sam detachedly looks at the extent of the damage. Judging by the amount of blood, it’s a fatal wound.

‘I suspected, but now I know for certain.’

Dean grips him tighter and whispers in his ear. “Don’t worry, Sammy. I’m gonna fix you up.”

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He’s dead in his brother’s arms. Anyone could see it, feel it, acknowledge that nothing can be done, and stop trying. Let go. But Dean doesn't know how to give up. Sam remembers Dean's words at the cabin, the desolated look in his brother’s eyes.

For you or Dad, the things I’m willing to do or kill, it’s just… it scares me sometimes.

Dean was raised to put Sam first since he was four years old, thoroughly broken in by the best.

Watch out for Sammy.

Sam's blood runs cold in his veins, questions swarming in his mind like a murder of crows—each one more fearful than the last. There’s only one thing that his brother could do. Did Dean follow in John's footsteps, condemning himself, because he couldn't bear the survivor's guilt anymore? Have the sins of the father finally defeated the son? Is this why his brother has not gotten in touch in the aftermath? Because he sold his soul for Sam? Is Dean rotting in an anonymous grave, his soul burning in hell, in exchange for Sam's? Sam wished Dean by his side when he woke up in the hospital. Is the fluttering presence inside Sam just the somatization of a desire?

Is Dean dead because of him?

This is Sam’s worst nightmare come true.

‘Did you know you were sentencing your own son to death, Dad?’ he thinks, bitterly. ‘Did you even care?’

Dean would jump beyond boundaries to keep Sam safe and do what no one else would dare to achieve the impossible. Sam expects everything of Dean… but what happens before his eyes he does not expect.

Dean takes Sam's head in his hands and kisses him.

‘But this is a memory, right?’ Sam is puzzled. ‘Why would Dean, the real Dean, kiss me?’

Sam doesn't care about Heaven, Hell, pain, or death anymore. He just wants to feel Dean's lips on his—the bittersweet goodbye. And as simple as that, he's back in his body, but it's not a kiss that he feels. Dean is breathing air into his lungs as he might a newborn baby, whispering mystic words in Sam's mouth, and Sam’s dead body reacts as if struck by a lightning bolt. He sucks in a lungful of air, and something of his brother rushes inside him, spreads, and takes hold.

Dean clutches Sam and sobs, “I gotcha. I’m gonna take care of you. I gotcha, Sammy. You’re gonna be fine.”

When Bobby arrives, both are crumpled on the mud under the raging storm.

Two bodies, one soul.

Sam opens his eyes in the darkness of his room, overcome by what he has just experienced in his sleep. But… was it a memory, or was it a dream? Was it his twisted brain trying to concoct a wild explanation for the strange bond that links him to his brother?

Sam doesn’t think so, but awakening doesn’t dispel his fears.

Oh my God! Dean gave me his soul. His soul. Is he even alive? Is the echo inside me all that remains of my brother?

Moonlight streams into the room through an open crack in the curtains, and Sam wants to pull the blinds open because he needs light. He needs light to clear his mind and be able to think because his emotions are drowning him… but when Sam tries to get out of bed, he can't move.

Sleep paralysis.

f*ck. This, he doesn't need.

Rick warned them that it might happen after a lucid dream, and Sam resigns himself to wait for his brain circuits to catch up when a movement in the corner of the ceiling attracts his attention. No! Not again. Sam fears his heart will shatter if he has to witness Dean burning on the ceiling one more time—because now the image has a new and terrible meaning. But what happens is different from how his old hallucination usually unravels.

A dark shape clumps in the ceiling corner bit by bit, drips to the floor like clotted blood sliding down the wall, and pools there. Coalescing, it takes humanoid form slowly, painfully. It crawls towards Sam with jerking movements as if its limbs were disjointed and perches at the foot of the bed.

Don’t panic, thinks Sam. This is not real.

But, for not being real, it looks incredibly realistic. The thing stares at Sam, and Sam stares back. It's unlike anything Sam has ever seen before. It's about the size of a ten-year-old kid, naked and gaunt; however, Sam can't tell if it's male or female given how hunched over it stands. Its skin has a sickly pallor, like that of an animal bred in the sewers, parched dry, running with bluish veins, and looks missing in places. Its limbs are long and scrawny, swollen at the joints. Its black eyes are disproportionately large for its pointed face and lack whites, like those of a demon. It creeps onto the bed, over Sam's body, and nestles on his chest, huddling there like a dying cat. It opens its mouth, full of sharp little teeth, panting piteously, and Sam can smell rot and disease on its breath.

“Help me,” it cries.

Sam squeezes his eyes shut and turns his head away, trying not to take in the breath of this… thing, and then he realizes: He can move!

When Sam opens his eyes he's alone in his room, but the smell of decay remains.

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Sam disappears from his arms, and Dean howls in anguish. His brother is gone! It was all for nothing, and Sam. Is. Gone. Dean pounds his fists again and again on the cold ground, sobbing, wishing to bleed, to hurt. Hoping that the physical pain will override his emotional pain even though he knows it's pointless.

“Dean, Dean-o, Dean,” sing-songs a mocking voice. “You'll never learn, will ya?”

Dean’s head snaps up, and John is there, leaning cooly against a tombstone. They are in Wyoming, yards away from the hellgate, but it’s not black smoke that pours from the mausoleum. A viscous, slimy tar gushes out from the gate like crude oil, gurgling and steaming over Jake's corpse. Bobby and Ellen are yelling and struggling, trapped in it, and their screams are as if they were being consumed by lava.

“You’re dead,” Dean whispers, and John tsks.

“Dead, alive… is a matter of semantics,” John says, and his eyes flash yellow. “When has death ever stopped a Winchester?”

“You son of a bitch!” roars Dean. “Leave him alone!”

“Sorry to disappoint, but we’re one now, Dean. We got a deal. Your life for… this,” Yellow Eyes grins like a hyena and opens its arms wide, putting itself on display. Dean wants to throw up. “Of course, Johnny is not very pleased with how you've been running the business since he left the building. He expected more, but he should’ve known you weren't up to the task, shouldn’t he?”

“You’re lying.”

“Nope,” it says, popping the p. “Watching you squirm as you hear the truth is much more fun. Anyway, I must thank you. Sammy was gone, offside so to speak, but now he’s back on the podium. Oh, boy! My little champ with a borrowed, debased soul. No willpower whatsoever… but that's what happens when you buy on sale. I bet he's gonna do everything I ask of him and more.”

“No! Sam will never—”

The demon raises a hand dismissively and Dean goes flying to crash over a tombstone. His skull bounces against the stone, and his breath empties from his lungs. A high-pitched whistle blares in his ears, threatening to explode his head. Yellow Eyes glides to him as if dancing to the sound of inaudible music and stops, crouching right in front of Dean, so close that their noses practically touch.

It's like being trapped in the cabin again, at the mercy of the monster.

‘I’m gonna die,’ thinks Dean in despair. ‘What will happen to Sam now?’

“How do you know, Dean?” It whispers, sniffing Dean’s neck, and its words are venom. “How certain are you that what you brought back is 100 percent pure Sam?” Yellow Eyes laughs, and Dean cringes. “Like clay in my hands! Poor thing, so vulnerable, so lonesome. My troops over there are gonna hunt him down,” it gloats, pointing back to where Dean can’t see Bobby or Ellen anymore. “Imagine Sam's relief when Daddy dearest returns from the grave to save the day!”

Yellow Eyes narrows John’s eyes, staring at Dean like an entomologist would at a bug he's going to pin to a poster board. It leers, smirking.

“Both of them made a mess of you, didn’t they? So deliciously damaged… so easily discarded. I told you already, you’re nothing to them, not to John, not to Sam. But if you are a good boy, I might convince Sammy to be magnanimous and let you stay by his side… as his f*cktoy! I'll even let John come out to play now and then. They can take turns with you,” the evil face becomes sleek, and an abnormally large tongue rolls out of its mouth, lapping a wet stripe all along Dean’s neck. Dean’s stomach lurches in disgust. “Would you like to, Dean?” It purrs. “The three Winchester boys, together again… rolling around in bed?” It co*cks its head as if listening. Chuckles. “My, my! Johnny says it's the one thing you've never shown any talent for.”

It’s so close and yet so wrong that Dean suddenly realizes.

‘This is not what happened. Dad sold his soul for me, and I burned his body—a hunter’s burial. And yet, Dad came back from Hell to save me again. I killed this son of a bitch. I’m dreaming. This is just a f*cking nightmare.’

He tightens his hand around the Colt’s grip and raises the weapon, pressing the barrel to the monster's chest. The demon's eyes widen comically like in one of those cartoons, about to pop out of their sockets.

Dean pulls the trigger.

He opens his eyes, the thunder of the gun echoing in his ears and the taste of cordite acrid on his tongue from firing at point-blank range. Disoriented, Dean instinctively turns to the other bed to check on Sam and frowns. Something is wrong. It's not as it should bethat is not the breathing cadence of his sleeping brother.

Right, he realizes, disappointed. I’m in Sanctuary, and this is Mark. Sam will never be in the other bed again. But, just for a moment, I thought….

People are approaching, talking in low, urgent tones in the corridor—however, only darkness shows through the window. It's too early to be up. Something is happening. Training takes over, and Dean is already out of bed and ready when the door bursts open.

“Dean, Mark, get up.” Paul is fully clothed, with a grimmer expression than Dean has ever seen on him. At Paul’s back, Rod looks nervously over his shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Dean asks, quickly hiding his knife at the small of his back. Mark is sitting in his bunk, blinking like a drowsy owl and looking at his hands, opening and closing his fists as if they don’t belong to him.

He’s spooked, Dean realizes. What’s up with him? Mark is the most even-minded guy I've ever met.

“Some of the boys from bunkhouse two heard noises in Jordan and Barlow’s room and went to check what was going on,” Paul says, throwing some pants to Mark—who jerks, startled out of his stupor. “They weren’t in a hurry because there was a party this evening, an early start for those on leave for the weekend and going to Stonighton’s festival. So, the boys thought J&B were on a drunk rampage in their room… again. But Jordan and Barlow were nowhere to be seen, and their room was trashed.”

Paul pauses and swallows a breath.

“There were bloody stains and sheets torn in shreds all over the floor.”

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“Breathe in deeply and hold the air in your lungs… three, two, one, exhale… everything… out. Breathe in, and fill your chest… at the top of your lungs. Clench your right hand into a fist. Feel the strain… in your wrists, spreading up to your elbows… nails pressing against the palms… Now, on the count of three, release the tension. All at once, as if cutting off an electrical current. One… two… three.”

Sam knows the technique already. It’s called progressive relaxation, and Jessica showed him how to do it right at Stanford, to help him loosen back cramps and neck kinks after a study night. But it was much easier to relax when faced with an exam—the thing in his room felt far more threatening.

‘I checked,” Sam thinks, worried, “and everything was in order. All tests were negative. What the hell was that thing? Because that was not a hypnagogic hallucination.’

Sam isn't scared… exactly. He feels offended. How did that thing get into his room? What does it want? It asked for help. Is it toying with him? What makes it think a hunter would help a monster? And… to do what, exactly?

But it wouldn't be the first time I helped one of them, would it?

“Breathe in deep…,” the therapist intones again.

Sam doesn’t want to breathe; he wants to yell, to empty his mind with screams. Dean would know what to do. Dean wouldn't be here, wasting his time listening to this junk. Dean would be hunting the monster and keeping everyone safe… Sam included. Dean wouldn’t be worthless.

Dean could be dead.

It is the most stressful half-hour of relaxation Sam has ever experienced in his entire life.

However, turning his fears upside down in his mind doesn't stop Sam from realizing that his classmates don't look relaxed either when the workshop ends. Not even Kate, who usually asks for a do-over. Sam searches for the housewife and spots her whispering to Natalie (their hypersomniac, checkout girl slash wannabe actress) in a corner of the room. Kate doesn’t look great—she is pale and wringing her hands with anxiety. Natalie puts her arm around Kate's shoulders in a universal gesture of comfort. Both women look worn out, with dark bruises under eyes that seem dimmed today.

Sam pays closer attention to the group. Familiar faces are missing—including Genna’s. Some leave the room muttering tensely to themselves. Others storm off as if chased, blatantly ignoring the therapist's weak attempts to wish them a good weekend—Arnie among them. Pale, haggard faces are the norm. Sam runs his hand over his hair.

Everybody here looks as haunted as Sam feels.

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“We need to call the cops.”

“And tell them what?”

“But there was blood.”

“Bah, a nosebleed is blood. Besides, it's not up to us. You heard the bosses. If we call the cops to find J&B sleeping it off under a tree, then what? It would make a ruckus and disturb the patients and the researchers.”

Bullsh*t. They don’t want to draw attention to their business with lousy issues. What would the sponsors think? Dean muses cynically.

Mark is worried, and Rod is undaunted—but Rod doesn't like J&B much. Indeed, nobody likes J&B much. Nate Richards and Wu Cho nod their heads to Rod in agreement. Dean tries to ignore them and focus on his task, throwing a shovelful of compost into the hole they made to plant a hibiscus bush.

The tropical green is finished. Dean has to hand it to Paul; the outcome is beautiful, and will be more so once the plants take root and grow. Dwarf palm trees and bushes of all shapes and sizes (some of which Dean is not sure he can pronounce the name right) are flowering around the swimming pool, their large leaves swaying gently in the sea breeze. The greenhouse is filled with bright colors and the rich scents of blossoming buds. Ready, except for a few finishing touches, for the weekend as scheduled. Puffed up with pride, Paul said they got a bonus for well-done work… and then started plotting the orchard and vegetable beds. There are plenty of organic tomatoes, lettuce, and green beans awaiting Dean in the near future.

Sammy would love this crap.

However, Dean’s thoughts are not revolving around the extra pay, nor swimming on the sly in the brand-new pool with sweet April as they had planned. The two missing bricklayers have been the talk of the day—no way for Dean to turn it off. Jordan and Barlow were looked for throughout the morning, but when the ferry arrived at midday the search stopped. Everyone says that J&B will show up sooner or later, but Dean heard Jaques and the chief doctor, the ice maiden, talking about tightening security; just in case, because a dirty trick wouldn't be out of character from Jordan and Barlow.

No. He wasn’t eavesdropping. Dean just has fine hearing.

Dean barely caught a glimpse of J&B's room in the bunkhouse and agrees with Mark—that was not a nosebleed. He didn't like either how the pharmaceutical company's CEO (Brian something) handled the matter, brushing it aside hastily as if it were nothing. Dean had not met Brian but overheard him talking to the doctor and Jaques, and the executive was slippery and elusive. Interestingly, Jacques and the doctor waited to talk when the CEO left, as if those two didn’t trust their sponsor.

The problem is that Sanctuary lacks as many security personnel as the bosses would like in a situation like this. Too many electronics, too few human assets. Perhaps Dean should take a closer look at Bunkhouse #2 because he’ll be sure to find clues others have missed. Moreover, if J&B are up to something, there's a chance Dean is in their plans, and he is positive he won't like it.

So, the swim with April will have to wait. Dean has other things to do this evening.

Yeah. Better safe than sorry.

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After the relaxation workshop, Sam missed his appointment with George and went straight to the library. Some hours later, he glares at the few books cluttered on the table and swears under his breath. What Sam wouldn’t give to have John's diary with him right now! So far, Sam has researched what science has to say about night terrors, sleep paralysis, and hypnagogic hallucinations, but now he turns to lore as he should have done from the beginning. Dean would be so disappointed in him…

He doesn’t need to dig deep, though. Sleep paralysis used to have another name before catching the scientists' interest and getting its current one.

Old hag syndrome.

When he returns to his room, Sam will turn it upside down looking for hex bags or whatever, not minding if he looks like a lunatic to the camera. He will tear down the walls if necessary. Witches can be brilliantly creative, much to the hunters' chagrin.

There are plenty of tales trying to explain why sleep paralysis often comes with a heavy sensation of pressure on the chest and sinister visions. According to the lore, sleep paralysis is caused by a mære, a supernatural creature from Nordic folklore that some relate to demons and some with a kind of witch. The word ‘night-mare’ was used to describe the experience before getting its modern meaning. Furthermore, there are reports all over the world, with slight variations among them, but one place catches Sam's eye: Newfoundland, in Canada, rich in legends about the Old Hag.

Sam recalls a paper he read at Stanford regarding a 9th-century Viking settlement, L'Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of the island. Newfoundland. A land relatively close to Maine.

People from the old world brought their gods and demons to the new one. Sam remembers the vanir they burned in Burkittsville, and how close he came to losing Dean at that time. Perhaps those Vikings brought their own petty evils as well.

Sam turns the page of the book.

The mære is a malevolent being described as a withered and scary witch who creeps into the sleeper’s room, crawling from the foot of the bed to perch on their victim’s chest, making it impossible to move or breathe, which may even result in death. Others say the mære is a cursed woman who leaves her physical body at night and visits villagers to sit on their rib cages while they are asleep, causing them to experience nightmares.

Well, it's close enough, Sam thinks, but that's not exactly what he experienced. The thing that climbed on Sam’s chest looked nothing like an old woman. And it had black eyes. The demon hypothesis cannot be dismissed. Sam keeps reading.

This nightmare experience is described as being ‘hag-ridden’, because the mære was believed to ride horses too, leaving them exhausted and sweaty by the morning. Even trees were thought to be ridden by the mære , resulting in branches being entangled. She could also entangle the hair of the sleeping man or beast in marelocks , called martovor ('mare-tangles') in Swedish or marefloker in Norwegian.

Sam's lips quirk upwards. If Dean were here reading this, he'd put Nair back in my shampoo.

The mære can also take on the form of animals while their spirits go out in a trance, such as frogs, cats, horses, hares, dogs, oxen, birds, and often bees and wasps.

Sam slumps in his chair.

Fascinating, but none of this tells me how to kill a mære.

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Dean finds Gail Jordan bundled behind a mossy rock at the cove that gives Sanctuary its horseshoe shape, like wreckage washed up on the tide. At a glance, Dean can say that the bricklayer will not get out of this one. Dean approaches slowly, making his boots grind deliberately on the beach pebbles—it's not a good idea to startle a dying animal. Jordan bares his bloodied teeth at Dean like a cornered beast, but when he manages to focus his eyes and sees who is approaching, he curls in on himself, holding his chest tight.

Dean doesn't put his .45 away, however. Jordan seems on his last legs, but dying animals are quite unpredictable.

“ ‘re you… here… to kill me?” Jordan wheezes.

“Why would I?” says Dean. “It looks like someone has beaten me to it.”

Jordan tries to sneer, but it turns into a whimper, and a gush of blood flows between his lips.

“He went… batsh*t… crazy… Said I was… Had a knife….”

“Who?” Dean asks, even though he already presumes the answer.

“Zach… he said… said I was the… monster… in his… nightmare. f*cker… stabbed me. I… ran.”

Now, Dean didn't expect that. The monster in his dreams? As in, literally? He tightens his grip on the gun as his finger slides over the trigger.

“Are you? A monster?” Dean asks agreeably. It wouldn't be the first one he's met in human guise.

“If I had… claws… and fangs, you think… I'd be the one… bleeding out… here?” Pants Jordan.

Tiny pink bubbles stain the blood on Jordan’s lips. So, at least one punctured lung. And the idiot took off, sprinting through the woods. If Barlow's stabbing wasn't enough, running like that would have done it. Jordan killed himself, trying to outrun death.

“Fair enough,” says Dean, lowering his gun.

They stare at each other for some awkward and agonizing seconds, and Dean swears.

“Okay, hold on. I'm gonna get you out of here—”

“Don’t,” Jordan says. “I’m done for. Let me… die in peace.”

“Don't be more of an asshole than usual, Jordan!” Dean shouts, exasperated. If he could plug the wound, then maybe… Dean looks around; where are the plastic bags when you need them? The cove is spotless.

“Hey… Johnson…”

He could use his shirt, but the fabric wouldn’t block the wound, and the air needed inside would keep rushing out. Those lungs must be about to collapse. “Yeah?”

“I know we've been… a pain in the ass… to you….”

“You’re telling me,” says Dean, still searching. Damn it. Nada.

“But, would you… do… the bidding of… a dead man?”

Dean turns so fast that the world becomes blurry in his eyes. “The f*ck you talking about, man?”

“My daughter…” Jordan stutters amidst coughs. Blood drips down his chin. “She lives… my mama… Albany… Will you take my… ring to her? …Tell her… tell her—”

Jesus f*cking Christ.

Dean crouches beside Jordan and looks at the wedding ring in his outstretched hand.

“She knows, man…” Dean rasps. “…But I’ll do it.”

Jordan nods and coughs painfully.

“A… last… favor?”

Dean says nothing. He doesn't trust his voice.

“Will you… stay… ‘til I'm….”

Dean doesn’t answer but sits on the pebbled shore beside the dying man. Both men watch the horizon dye pink and the first stars peek out, twinkling between shreds of purple clouds in an indigo canvas. Slowly, the sea merges with the sky.

Shortly after, Dean's breathing amidst the lapping waves is the only sound remaining on the beach.

Chapter 6

Chapter Text

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I'm tired but I can't sleep
'Cause they're waiting for me
These bad dreams are more than true
And they'll get you

Bad Dreams — Faouzia

“Sam!” A voice breaks the library's silence. “We were looking for you.”

Jolted, Sam jumps in his chair, and Genna’s eyes widen in surprise. She raises her hands, palms up placatingly, and steps back bumping into Arnie—it's like watching one of those domino chains in which one piece falls and knocks all the others down with it. The boy grunts, more annoyed than pained. He is a sullen shadow at her back, clutching his sketchbook to his chest and narrowing his eyes at Sam as if Sam were the one who goes around giving people heart attacks.

“Sorry,” Genna says to Sam. “I didn’t want to startle you, but you missed lunch, and we couldn’t find you at dinner either, so….”

“No, Genna,” Sam apologizes and settles back in his chair. “It’s alright. I was… absorbed.”

Arnie scoffs and Genna elbows him in the ribs, mouthing “Behave” over her shoulder as if she were chastising her little brother. Sam’s heart aches looking at them. The girl smiles crookedly at Sam. “Never mind. We're all pretty on edge today. Understandable, I guess, because there was an epidemic of nightmares last night, and nobody has been able to rest.”

“Yeah?” Sam says, wary. If the thing that snuck into his room also paid others a visit….

“V-Gang had an emergency meeting this afternoon,” Genna says. “The nightmares were getting worse, but last night was… pretty bad is an understatement. We tried to talk to the researchers (in case they’d changed the dosage or something), but we weren’t allowed to enter the research building. Some talked about dropping out, but the ferry had already departed and there’s no other scheduled until Monday. We were running out of options, so we looked for Rick, and he said that the nightmares were good —because if we remember them that vividly and in detail, it means we’re becoming conscious in our dreams. In fact, he had the gall to encourage us to pick up tonight where we left off. To face our fears.” Genna huffs a mirthless laugh. “Ian almost punched him.”

"What did you dream, Genna?" Sam asks in the same soothing voice he would use to question a traumatized witness—which in a way she is.

The girl doesn't answer but leans forward, peeking at the open book on the table. Her beaded bracelets jingle as they slide down her wrists.

“The Old Hag? Really? I was born in Saint John’s, Newfoundland. I know everything about the Old Hag!”

“Yeah?” Arnie pipes in. “My great-grandmother was from there, too!”

“I know,” she says quietly and purses her lips. “Was that your nightmare, Sam? I didn’t peg you as someone afraid of witches and goblins.”

Sam frowns. He tries to convince himself that there is no hidden double meaning in the girl's words, but can’t help but wonder. If the hag is a cursed woman who leaves her body behind as she dreams and acts out in her sleep (something very close to sleepwalking if you squint), could it be Genna….?

Damn it. He liked this girl.

“Sorry, I shouldn't have said that, it came out wrong,” Genna blushes in shame, contrite, misreading Sam's expression. “No one has the right to make fun of other people's fears.” She sits at the table in front of Sam, dragging Arnie with her to sit on the remaining chair and the boy grudgingly complies. “But I told the V-Gang already. They’re not just nightmares. We’re dealing with a plague of entities from the lower astral.”

“Yeah, because that makes much more sense than the Lloigor,” Arnie says, rolling his eyes.

Sam glances at the boy, hiding a smile. It looks like Cthulhu Mythos books keep finding their way to new hatches of teenagers despite the all-powerful video games.

“ ‘Course it does,” Genna says. “The astral world is a plane of existence crossed by the soul after death on its way to being reborn and populated by angels, spirits, and other immaterial beings. An in-between place. You just know it by another name, Arnie. Call it Limbo if it suits you better.”

“Wait! What?” Sam says, gaping at Genna.

“It’s a pity, but mainstream beliefs misrepresent the spiritual world. They are so narrow-minded…” Genna shakes her head, disdainful, but this is her favorite topic, and she’s on a roll. “The astral plane is a fact. Have you read any of Yogananda's works, Sam? The guru says that the astral plane can be visited through astral projection, meditation, near-death experience… and dreaming!” Genna says passionately, turning to face the boy. “It’s what we’re doing here! Arnie, you can't deny it after what you told me!”

“Genna!” Arnie shouts, reddening to the tips of his ears. “He’ll think—”

“That you’re nuts?” cuts Sam off. “Believe me. I won’t.”

Genna squeals. “You did it! You went to Limbo, like us!”

“You two had a lucid dream?” Sam asks.

“Yeah, but…” Genna looks disappointed and grips a pendulum-shaped amethyst hanging from a cord around her neck—one more of her many colorful New Age charms. “It didn’t turn out as I expected.”

“That so?” Sam says.

“Sadly. It’s said that there’s a place in Limbo where the lower vibrations are found, a dimension where negative energies converge and evil beings dwell, such as demons as well as the damned souls or suicides, murderers, rapists, and those versed in the dark arts. This nightmare plane is called the lower astral, and the bluntest souls are attracted to it.” The girl’s eyes brim with unshed tears and she sighs. “I’ve worked so hard to improve, thought I had evolved further….”

Sam’s empathy takes over his suspicions.

“What is it, Genna? What’s wrong?”

“I got trapped in a nightmare, okay?” Genna says defiantly. “And when I woke up, it followed me.”

Sam slumps back in his chair and stares, stunned, at Genna and then Arnie.

“Me too,” admits the boy reluctantly and shudders. “It was waiting for me in my dreams. It was huge and awful. I ran and ran until I couldn’t anymore, and when I woke up It was trying to get through the wall to get me, and I…” the boy trails off.

“What was trying to get to you, Arnie?” asks Sam, gently.

The boy doesn't answer but opens his sketchbook on the table. Sam stares at the hideous giant spider he glimpsed the other day. In this drawing it’s pushing its legs out from the wall in a darkened room and looming over a boy a fifth its size, gripping his bed sheets tightly.

sh*t. Arnie must have felt terrified. Genna soothingly puts her hand over Arnie’s because the boy is trembling.

“Not everybody agrees, but some say that negative energies from the lower astral can pass through the different dimensions to reach our plane of existence and harm us,” Genna says in a shaky voice. “Sam, what if it's true? What if we’re playing with fire here?”

“I don’t wanna dream anymore,” Arnie whispers.

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Sam faces a dilemma. Should he tell these terrified people about the existence of the supernatural? Scare them to death? More than they already are? He doesn't even know what they're dealing with. If it’s about the thing that sneaked into his room, Sam doesn't know how to kill it… and it cried for Sam’s help. Sam’s not even sure if it has to be killed. Something doesn't add up. Besides, he doesn't think Genna, Arnie, or any of the people he's met at Sanctuary so far have what it takes to hunt the things that go bump in the night.

“Okay,” Sam says, hating himself a bit for how patronizing his voice is, but the truth is that he needs to buy some time. “Let's calm down. It's late, and we’re on edge, but no one has been hurt for real so far. We should go to our rooms—if not to sleep at least to get some rest. See what happens tonight. Tomorrow first thing in the morning we'll meet at the diner. Gather the V-Gang to share notes. If it was a one-night thing, swell. Weird stuff happens sometimes, and we forget about all of this. If it happens again tonight… then we decide the best course of action among all of us.”

“Sam, are you sure?” Arnie says, distraught.

Sam nods and pats the boy reassuringly on the shoulder, but he isn't sure of anything except for one thing.

He needs Dean… any version of Dean that Sam's subconscious can reach. Maybe it's puerile, but Sam has never brainstormed as well as he does when he's with Dean, and this situation needs one hell of a brainstorm.

They exit the library together and part reluctantly at the elevator doors, each heading for their room. Sam tries not to notice Arnie's accusing look as the boy stands, frozen, in front of his door.

Once in his room, Sam wastes no time. Pushing aside the cane, not bothering to put on his pajamas, he drops his clothes on the floor, climbs into bed in his underwear, and turns off the light. f*ck the pills, the cap, and the researchers. He'll face whatever consequences his little insubordination could backfire on him in the morning. Closing his eyes and with his mind focused on his brother, Sam sinks easily into Limbo and begins to scan through the swirling funnels, looking for the one that will lead him to Dean.

Funnels open and close for Sam—a girl yelling her lungs out under a raging storm, a boy crying and clutching his mom’s twisted hands to his chest as they become wood, a man burning like a torch, a woman drowning in a dirty lake, a little boy running away from his drunken father who has a belt gripped in hands that are turning into claws. Murky, inarticulate images of which Sam cannot make any sense (and are even scarier for it) mingle with serial killers, rapists, abusers, and people suddenly realizing they are naked in the middle of the street or frantically searching for something essential they have lost, but Sam doesn’t give up.

He is so unyielding about getting answers that Sam doesn't stop to consider why tapping into Limbo allows him to step into the dreams of others…. He doesn't even stop to think that, when a door to the unknown unlocks, it's a bad idea to leave it wide open.

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The conference room erupts in jeers and boos. Rick looks at his colleagues in disbelief. This was his opportunity to present his work to the scientific community and finally get the recognition he deserves from his peers. His lecture was going well until a moment ago, what happened? Rick turns to look at the screen and gapes. Instead of his carefully collected data, the big screen shows the scribbles of a small child. Rick looks down. He is a small child, in his pajamas, surrounded by ugly adults screaming and mocking him. Unbelievable. It’s been a long time since he lost control like this. Rick tries to take the reins of the dream… but he is too small, helpless, powerless. Little Rickie starts sobbing uncontrollably and sucking his thumb. What was he going to do? He can't remember. Those mean grown-ups are going to hurt him. His bladder gives up, and a wet warmth soaks his Tweety pajamas. Oh, no! Mommy is gonna yell at him, again. She will dump him in a trash can, as she promised, and he will die there, scared and alone.

Woah, awkward. Sam exits the funnel, shaking his head.

‘No, this isn’t the one I’m looking for…’

Emma's husband was supposed to be away for the weekend. She panicked when she heard the key in the lock and cajoled Ian out the bedroom window to hide, perched precariously on the building’s ornamental ridge. She promised to come for him as soon as her husband was asleep, but it’s been hours . Ian clings to the wall with all his might, his heart pounding madly, but his arms are getting tired, and painful cramps run through his hands, threatening to make his sweaty fingers let go of the slippery bricks. The fragile ridge finally gives way under his weight and the tips of his toes fail to regain support. He yells again, calling for help, but nobody hears him. Ian looks down, although he knows he shouldn't, and the ground rushes away under his eyes as if he were hanging from the Empire State Building's top floor instead of a three-story apartment block. He won't hold on much longer. He's going to fall and smash into the pavement. He's going to fall. He's going to fall. He's going to fall—

‘Crap! Not this one….’

Kate looks at her husband through the tears in her eyes. Peter looks back at her with indifference. The two bimbos tucked under his arms smile at Kate with devilish glee with their too-red lips in their too-tight dresses. They wouldn't sum up Peter's age if they added their years together. She starts pleading, but Peter turns a deaf ear and walks out of the condo, ‘their’ loved condo Peter worked so hard to get and was so proud of. He doesn’t even deign to look back—the heel tapping of the little whor*s drowning out Kate’s plaintive calls. She slumps on the floor, sobbing, wringing her hands… her hands, which are covered in age spots and wrinkling under her astonished stare. She jumps to her feet (her joints crack at the sudden movement) and runs to the lounge, freezing in front of the big mirror hanging from the wall. This is not possible, the old woman reflected in the mirror can’t be her. Kate has just turned forty-three, she is not that decrepit creature with sparse, gray hair and flabby skin decaying at a fast speed in the mirror. Kate screams, and the thing in the mirror opens its toothless mouth and shrieks, shreds of rotting flesh peeling from its withered cheeks….

‘Holy sh*t! This one either.’

Okay, back to square one. Forcing the dream he wants to find doesn't work. Sam's afraid he might have to pull an all-nighter. Maybe real-Dean is not asleep and dreaming tonight… but dream-Dean should be available in here. Maybe if he lets himself go a little, just enough to slip into his own dreams….

Sam was expecting to come out of the funnel at yet another roadside motel but is in for a surprise. He looks up and marvels. So far away from civilization and its pollution of electric lights, looking at the starry night is like watching a fireworks display. He has never been to this part of the island before, but he knows with that certainty dreams like to assume that he is in the real Sanctuary (or its dreamed counterpart, anyway) in the small, stony, horseshoe-shaped cove he glimpsed from the ferry the day he arrived. The ocean, calm, lazily laps the beach, rolling up wave by wave with the high tide over rounded and smooth granite ledges in a promise to reach the thick line of trees. The silence is almost complete, except for the muffled sounds of someone digging in the sand.

Sam descends to the shore carefully, so as not to slip on the mossy pebbles, and stops beside Dean. His brother is digging a hole that looks too much like a grave, but the sand keeps filling the hole back in. Dean must have been trying for quite some time because his T-shirt is streaked with sweat and his hair, longer than Sam remembers it ever being, curls wetly over his forehead and at the nape of his neck. His worn jeans ride low on his narrow hips and threaten to slip down further. Dean doesn't look up, engrossed in his task, but Sam knows his brother is aware of his arrival by the subtle changes in his posture and the twitching of his muscles.

Sam sits on a rock and rests his forearms on his thighs, mooning over his brother. Dean is beautiful; he will always be beautiful in Sam's eyes, no matter what, but he doesn’t resemble the man in his prime that Dean should be, nor the younger version Sam has been dreaming of. This is undoubtedly Dean, yet Sam would never have pictured his brother like this. There are enough dissimilarities between this Dean and the previous, dreamed ones, to catch Sam’s attention. As in the game ‘Find ten differences’, Sam lists this Dean's subtle and not-so-subtle changes in his head—thinner, with dark circles under his eyes and a pallor under his tan. Sam’s brother looks drained despite his display of strength. Someone who didn't know Dean wouldn't notice, but to Sam's experienced eye Dean looks a bit like he did in Nebraska, when his heart was failing after being electrocuted saving those children from the Rawhead.

It’s a disturbing thought, and Sam’s heart clenches in his chest.

“Dean….”

Dean pretends not to have heard him and crouches to keep digging with his bare hands, the shovel vanishing as it falls onto the sand.

Sam has never been able to stand being ignored by his brother.

“DEAN!”

Dean stops, but he doesn't look up.

“What are you doing here, Sam?” he says, gruffly. “I'm not in the mood to make out tonight.”

“Great, because neither am I,” Sam says. “I need to talk to you.”

Dean sits on his haunches and stares at Sam. He sweeps a forearm over his hair, trying to get rid of his bangs without getting sand in his eyes.

“Figures,” he says. “Even as an invention of my mind, you want to talk.”

“If anyone here is a mental projection it’s you,” Sam retorts, evenly—because it’s necessary to make things clear from the outset. “But it doesn’t matter, I need your help. Or, well, not your help, because you’re not really you, but the help of the part of me that you play in my subconscious… Ah, hell! Whatever. You see, I’m stuck in this—”

Dean groans and shakes his head, muttering to himself—but not low enough to prevent Sam from hearing a couple of cherry picked insults. Unbelievable. Even not being real, Dean manages to get under Sam’s skin.

“What did you just say?” Sam asks, narrowing his eyes dangerously.

“I'm a ‘mental projection’ of your ginormous brain, Mr. Big Words, aren't I?” Dean says, acerbically. “Then you should know.”

“You know what?” Sam snaps, annoyed. “Forget I asked. I should have known that counting on any version of you was pointless.”

Dean shrugs, murmuring something that sounds suspiciously like “Whiny little bitch” under his breath, and resumes his digging. The hole looks the same as before, with no measurable progress. Minutes pass, and Sam's anger begins to subside enough to allow his brain to work again. There is too much wrong here. Sam stares at his brother’s hands as he digs—scratched, bruised, his fingernails stained with red….

“What are you doing, Dean?”

“What does it look like to you, Einstein?” Dean snorts.

Sam swallows, thickly. “That you’re trying to dig your grave.”

Dean arches an eyebrow. It’s a gesture that he has mastered over time, conveying a million different messages, but on this occasion Dean seems hurt—although he covers it quickly.

“Eager to get rid of me, Sammy?” he snarks. “Well, give it a little more time, and you might get away with it.”

“What? No!” shouts Sam. He slips over the fact that he is talking to himself, bitterness outweighing rationality. “Quite the contrary. You're the one who dumped me to rot alone in hospital!”

“I saved your life, you f*cking selfish, self-righteous prick!”

Sam gets up and, with one large stride, looms over Dean, who squares his shoulders, jutting his chin up.

“And I know how you did it, you self-destructive suicidal!” Sam yells.

They glare at each other, on the verge of throwing punches, the atmosphere electrifying between them but, unexpectedly, Dean starts chuckling.

“Dude,” Dean puffs up and a moist bang goes flying over his forehead. “For a figment of my imagination, you’ve turned out to be a handful. Pretty much like the real you.”

“A ‘figment of your imagination’? Really?” Sam flops on the sand in front of Dean, also grinning and unable to help it. “Who’s using the big words here, Jerk?”

“Bitch,” retorts Dean, fondly.

Sam pushes a pile of sand into the hole with the toe of his foot.

“So… who is the grave for?”

Dean points his head toward what Sam mistook for a heap of clothes in the starlight.

A body.

“Who is this?” whispers Sam. Maybe Sam is dreaming of his brother in the middle of a hunt. If he stops to think about it, it's odd that he hasn't come up with that scenario so far.

“This is a poor fool who fell in with bad company,” Dean says cryptically.

“Did you kill him?” asks Sam.

“Hell, no!” Dean says. “He brought this on himself, but now I have a nutcase running around loose in Sanctuary and a bunch of innocent people he can pick one by one to slaughter—and with no way of getting them out of here. This f*cking island, man.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sam agrees. “That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Something is wrong in Sanctuary.”

“You’re telling me.”

“But it’s not a psycho, it’s some kind of monster. It crept into my room, but I’m not sure what it is, yet,” Sam tries to explain. Dean gapes at him, horrified. “If you were real…”

“No, no, no. Just because I felt something weird at the labs you don’t have to pick up on it. Besides, if you were real, you wouldn’t be hunting… and you sure as hell wouldn’t be here!” Dean yells.

“Likewise!”

They glare daggers at each other again. Sam can’t help it—he grabs a fistful of sand and throws it at his imaginary brother. Very mature, but Dean has this effect on him.

“Okay,” Dean says, standing up, pissed and wiping sand from his jeans. “Enough of this sh*t. I’m f*cking fed up of not being able to sleep in peace. Vanish into the ether or whatever imaginary beings do. Let me alone for once and for all.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” says Sam, exasperated, his nostrils flaring as he gets to his feet too, arms up in the air. “Now my subconscious is kicking me out of the chat.”

Dean swears. Colorfully.

“You so sure you're real?” says Dean, pointing a finger at Sam. “Prove it. Meet me at the greenhouse, by the swimming pool. Now.”

“Fine!”

“Fine!”

Sam is about to turn on his heels, but he feels a wicked smirk creep across his lips. Dean looks at him, wary.

“How are you gonna wake up, Dean?”

“What? Oh!” Dean arches that damn eyebrow in thought. “Should I stab myself again?”

The last thing Sam hears before he exits Limbo is his brother's indignant yelp as Sam pushes him and Dean falls on his ass into an icy wave.

When Sam opens his eyes blue twilight is dragging its feet in the sky, dawdling before the dawn—though it seemed like a hundred nights passed while going through all those dreams, and the sun should be rising by now. Sam sits up in his bed, setting aside the rumpled sheets, and combs his hair out of his eyes with a shaky hand. He already knows what he’s going to do—although it is a Very Bad Idea. He gets up slowly and, wondering if he might be growing a masoch*stic trait, puts on the same wrinkled clothes he wore yesterday, laces up his sneakers, grabs the cane, and heads to the greenhouse feeling stupid and childlike, bracing himself for the meltdown that is about to come. The disappointment that awaits at the greenhouse will tear him to shreds. He shouldn’t do this. He is giving his heart up for a mirage. He is truly losing touch with reality if he’s willing to follow the demands of a dream.

The door at the back of the diner leading to the service passages is not locked, as if a ‘Staff-only’ sign were enough to keep people out. It's Sam's first time venturing through Sanctuary's forbidden corridors, and the experience is not encouraging. Sam misses the right turn a couple of times in the unmarked labyrinth, gets entangled in the plastic sheets hanging at some of the bifurcations like dirty veils, and has to retrace his steps. Since they connect some areas under construction, only the occasional dim red emergency light brightens the passages. It’s an eldritch effect—the faint red glow battling the predawn indigo that lurks behind the glass and engulfs the outside world. The hollow thumps of Sam's cane awaken echoes in the emptiness that sound like a giant’s heartbeat. Soon, he feels like he's traveling the intestines of a beast, and the darkness around him doesn't help any.

Sometimes, Sam wonders if it might be preferable to lack imagination altogether in his line of work.

The greenhouse is bigger than Sam expected it to be and reminds him of some botanical gardens he visited with Dean as a child, with a L’Exposition Universelle touch in all those graceful steel arches and glass. It's a pity it can’t be enjoyed as it deserves in the dull glow, and Sam promises himself to return when it’s full daylight, but it also gives the place an eerie charm, as if Sam were entering Fairyland.

Once there, it’s not hard to find his way to the swimming pool—the chlorine smell is enough of a guide. As he arrives, Sam holds his breath. Someone is sitting at the poolside in just his pajama pants (unlaced boots peeking under the hems), his knees tucked under his chin, and looking out wistfully at the black ocean through the glass doors. The blue light silhouettes him, slides over his shape, caresses his broad shoulders, and fiddles with his hair. Sam approaches slowly, breath trapped painfully in his lungs and his cane thud-thud-thumping on the ground, booming irregularly with Sam’s haste, but the figure doesn't turn around. He doesn't need to. He knows who's coming. They would both pick out each other's footsteps among those of a million people.

Sam stops by his side, afraid to break the spell, unable to find the words in the chaos his mind has become, and Dean rises with the same liquid moves that Sam was so envious of growing up, a smile parting his plump lips and crinkling his eyes.

"Heya, Sammy."

Sam punches him.

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Dean staggers and avoids falling into the swimming pool by the skin of his teeth. “Ouch!” he complains, rubbing his chin. “What was that for?”

Sam lunges forward, dropping the cane, and wraps him in a bear hug, shaking. After such a ‘warm’ welcome Dean is hesitant (he doesn’t need another bruise), but raises his arms to return the hug and awkwardly pat his little brother on the back because that's what an older brother is supposed to do in a situation like this… and relishes the feel of his brother nonetheless. But soon he forgets what he’s supposed to do and what he’s not. Sam is crying, for f*ck’s sake, and Dean is not so far behind—the raw emotions ricocheting from one to another to a point where Dean fears they are going to physically merge into each other.

This has to stop before they fall apart… but Dean can’t let his brother go. Not after being so sure that he had lost Sam forever. Not when the icy hollowness inside him seems to lessen, soaking in his brother’s bodily warmth, and Dean can breathe for the first time in months.

It’s Sam who breaks the hug first, without letting go of Dean. He is red-eyed and blotch-faced, but Sam has always been a messy crier. He is far from the beanpole he once was, however. Sam has packed muscle on his arms and shoulders over the past few months, and his cheekbones look more chiseled despite the sh*tty light. He even seems to have grown an inch or two, if such a thing were possible. Dean thinks he is gorgeous… until Sam grabs him by the shoulders and shakes Dean as a parent would, if Dean were a rugrat playfully sticking his fingers into an electric socket.

“Asshole!” Sam cries, voice thick with tears. “I thought you were dead! Where the hell were you? Why didn't you call me? Don’t you dare to dump me again or I’ll hunt down your sorry ass and—”

“Sammy…” Dean prods, trying not to bite his tongue between shakes. Sam keeps on rambling and rattling him. And they say men can't do two things at the same time!

“—and you’re here! You’ve been here all the time and—”

“Sam!”

“What?!”

“You’re standing…” says Dean, a pinch of wonder in his voice.

Realization sinks in, and Sam narrows his eyes. Uh oh. Bad sign.

“What did you do?” Sam asks in a dangerously even voice. His grip on Dean tightens to just this side of painful, and his tone reaches the marrow of Dean's bones and scratches from the inside like chalk on a blackboard. Dean feels himself paling. “Did you make a deal, like—?”

Dean is not dumb. He knew the confrontation with his brother if (when) it were to happen, wouldn't be pretty, but this is going a lot worse than he had anticipated. There's a sternness in Sam that wasn't in his little brother before. Dean frets. He’s not afraid of Sam, (never, ever afraid of Sammy) but Yellow Eyes' mocking voice echoes in his head for the umpteenth time.

How certain are you that what you brought back is one hundred percent pure Sam?

Besides, what Sam is suggesting is ridiculous… isn't it?

“No!” Dean hurries to say. “I didn’t. I’d never—”

“Liar,” growls Sam. And, oh boy! Dean is in deep trouble here. “Either you made a deal… or what I saw in my dream is true! At Cold Oak, under the rain, what you did to me… Oh, my God! Everything is true. Why do you think your life is worth less than mine? Are you dying on my behalf, Dean?”

“No, Sammy. It’s not like that,” Dean stammers. “I swear….”

Sam honest to God growls and Dean hastens to slip out of his brother’s grip. What Sam implies cannot be. Yeah, he’s been dreaming of Sam too, but dreams are nothing but dreams. They mean nothing. They dreamt of each other because they missed each other, that’s all. Sam can't be right, because if he is, then…

No. That’s a terrifying idea, and Dean is not even considering it. He lowers his head because if Sam looks into his eyes, he will see everything Dean has worked so hard to keep buried. Dreams can’t be shared. Just can’t.

And yet, Dean is sure that Sam is right. So, what he did to Sam, the things he made his little brother do to him in his dreams… Bile rises in his throat and Dean swallows thickly, trying not to throw up.

f*ck, f*ck! What’ve I done?

He bends to pick up the forgotten cane, takes a deep breath to collect himself and, standing up, holds the cane out to Sam. His little brother eyes it as if Dean were giving him a venomous snake but grabs the cane anyway. He leans on it with both hands (perhaps holding back so as not to break Dean's perverted head with it) and looks through the huge glass walls.

Dean tries to square his slumped shoulders… and fails. This is the end. Sam is disgusted with him and for good reason. If Sam tells him to get lost, Dean will make the mainland by swimming if he has to.

“Why isn't it dawn?” Sam says.

“What?” Dean is so thrown off by the non sequitur that it doesn't register at first what Sam is saying.

“How long have we been here?” asks Sam, leaning on his cane. So, he’s not as physically recovered as he wants to pretend—although his progress is certainly impressive. At least some good has come out of Dean’s mess. “Half an hour? More? It's still as dark as it was when I woke up.”

Dean turns to the glass panes that look eastward and frowns. The eerie crepuscular light has not given up one iota for… well, over an hour at the very least. He looks at his watch (notices Sam realizing whose watch it is) and stares at the sky again, baffled.

It’s 05:46 in what should be the morning.

“Something’s wrong,” they both say at once.

Chapter 7

Chapter Text

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Welcome to the nightmare in my head, (Oh god!)
Say hello to something scary,
The monster in your bed, (Oh god!)
Just give in and you won't be sorry

Mz Hyde — Halestorm

They waste precious time going to the bunkhouse first because there’s no way in Hell Dean will face such a crisis in his pajamas. When they finally arrive at the common building, people are already gathering at the front green and the entrance hall. Dean can identify patients among the miscellany as well as researchers and staff. As far as Dean knows, it’s probably the first time they’ve all been together in the same place at the same time.

Dean should have figured something was off when they didn't stumble upon a soul in the bunkhouse, but he was too distracted by Sam's presence by his side, too overcome by feelings raw as exposed nerves, and let down his guard. Sloppy. He's rusty, they both are, and a rusty hunter is a dead hunter. Better hurry to put their skates on if they want to get out of this in one piece.

He eyes the onlookers. It is yet to be decided which has these people more freaked out: the fact that the sun doesn't feel like coming out today or the bodies that are being carried out of the sleep building on stretchers and covered by sheets.

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Some people stand on the lawn staring at the stretchers, baffled, huddled in clusters of two or three, their faces etched with fear. The blue twilight eats away the electric light spilling from the building and casts large, foreboding shadows over them. An uneasy silence permeates the air, broken only by the occasional nervous whisper. In contrast, a larger group of people is gathered at the doors of the building. A small, noisy, hysterical crowd. They look like frightened folks about to start a riot.

Dean exchanges a meaningful glance with his brother, both of them slipping unconsciously into hunter mode despite Dean’s previous reservations, and without a word they split up to address more witnesses in the shortest time—although it’s harder than it should be to watch Sam leave his side, even if only momentarily. But people are dying, dammit. They have work to do. Dean can’t afford foolish clinginess.

Glancing at the stretchers, Dean wonders if good ol’ Zach definitively lost all his marbles and has been busy tonight paying room calls to the patients, or if it was the thing that he felt at the labs and Sam saw in his room finally getting loose. The idea makes a chill run down his spine and the skin on his arms erupt in goose bumps. Either possibility is bad news. Sam is still recovering; he's in no condition to face a nut job on a killing spree, let alone who the f*ck knows what kind of monster.

A monster able to stop the sun.

As for himself… well, he craves crashing in his bunk, sleeping for a month, and getting rid of the exhaustion that is consuming more and more of him with each passing day, but he can’t. There's too much at stake. This is no time for navel-gazing. Dean looks to the east, hoping for any sign of dawn. Nada. Yeah, he can wish, and pigs might fly. It sucks, but Dean will have to soldier on.

A few moments ago, albeit for different reasons, Dean was about to swim for shore if he had to. Now, he'll do it with Sam on his back if he must to keep his little brother safe.

Watching Sam head straight for the larger group, Dean decides to try another tactic. He scans his surroundings, looking for a target and… jackpot! April is sitting cross-legged on the grass, a bit out of the way, and smoking a cigarette. Dean walks over to her, sitting by her side. The nurse takes another cigarette from the pack, lights it with the butt of the one she was smoking and, crushing the consumed butt into the ground, takes a big puff on the new one.

“A nasty habit, I know,” April deadpans, “but I can’t quit.”

Dean is not the best person to offer advice on unhealthy habits, so he lets it go—with all that is going on, he would gladly ask for a ciggie himself if it weren't for the fact that Sam would give him hell. The boy has the nose of a truffle dog.

“What happened?” he asks instead.

The girl rubs her eyes and stares at the tears she finds glistening on her fingers as if taken by surprise. Dean can recognize someone in shock when right under his nose, and April is about to fall apart—she just doesn't know it yet.

“I don't think I'm allowed to tell you,” she whispers.

She is skittish, and for good reason. So, a careful approach it is, if Dean doesn't want her to bolt.

“C’mon, babe,” Dean cajoles, draping an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t be like that. I just wanna help.”

The girl yields and snuggles under his arm, seeking solace. She's trembling like a leaf.

“Three subjects died tonight in their beds,” April, aka Captain Obvious, says. Dean thinks nothing of it because she’s not at her best. He nods.

“The drug they’re experimenting with here… backfired or something?” Dean prods. If Sam is in danger….

April barks a laugh, but it comes out like a cough. Such a tough girl. She’s keeping a stiff upper lip (more or less) for the moment, but it won't last.

“No, nothing like that,” she says. “We don’t know what happened to them yet, but the bodies’ve been taken to the labs. We couldn't leave them in their rooms. Dr. Cartwright said she’d try to find out… but most of the researchers and assistants went to Stonington on weekend leave to enjoy the Harbor Festival, so she’s on her own. The doctor expects me to go back to the labs and help her figure out this mess, but I’m just a nurse. I…” she trails off, distraught.

“April, tell me,” Dean holds back the urge to shake the girl. Sam has always been much better at handling traumatized people than he is, but Dean fears they don’t have the time to sweet-talk witnesses into openness. Three bodies so far. Who knows how many more when the day is over… or starts, if it even f*cking starts at all. They have to move now, even half-co*cked.

“You won’t tell anybody, will you?” She asks, wary.

My brother, as soon as I’m done here.

“Cross my heart,” lies Dean, trying for lightness, but it goes flat in the cyanotic, threatening twilight.

Not that it matters much, because April is eager to vent. The nurse rests her head on Dean’s chest, her voice shakier as she speaks.

“We tried to keep the other subjects from finding out, but a couple saw, and word has spread. Oh my God, Dean!” She sniffles. “I've never seen anything like this. It’s horrible. The first one… he was scorched in his bed. I thought the whole spontaneous human combustion thing was a hoax, but… And that poor woman! She was what, forty? She was shriveled up like a mummy. She looked like she was on the bad side of ninety!”

Dean frowns. f*ck. This doesn’t look like the handiwork of a human murderer, but monsters stick to their peculiar MO. They don't switch their killing patterns from one victim to the next just for sh*ts and giggles.

“There were three stretchers…” Dean says.

“Oh, him!” April takes such a deep drag of her cigarette that it almost consumes half of it. Sparking ash falls onto her scrubs, but she doesn't seem to feel the sting.

“He was crushed,” she whispers. “I don't think there was a single bone left unbroken in his entire body.”

“Crap! That’s terrible…” Dean says, sympathetic. And then asks—because he needs to know. “Have the cops been called yet? When are they expected to arrive?”

Dammit, solving this puzzle is going to take its sweet time. Henriksen would love to find Dean trapped here like an Easter egg in a basket.

April shakes her head.

“How?” she says, and the first sob breaks free. “Phone’s not working. We’re on our own.”

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“We deserve a f*cking explanation!” yells one man, furious, spittle flying from his mouth.

“Are our lives at risk?” demands another one, more frightened than angry. “Are we gonna burn, too? What about everyone we couldn't wake up? Are they in a coma? The drug… Are we poisoned ?”

Burn? Sam thinks, baffled. What the…

“What’s wrong with the sun?” The woman, whom Sam has seen serving food in the dining room, is on the verge of tears. “Why doesn't it rise?”

Dr. Rebecca Cartwright raises her hands placatingly, addressing staff and subjects alike. George, frowning, stands by her side with his arms bulging and crossed over his chest like a bodyguard. He’s so close to her, so protective, that Sam wonders if there might be more than just an old companionship between doctor and therapist. In a disquieting sense (given such a presumed relationship), George reminds Sam of Dean, always shielding his little brother from danger and utterly oblivious to personal space.

“Please, let's keep calm,” the doctor says. “All will become clear. We're going to get to the bottom of this. Meanwhile, please return to your rooms and—”

“And what,” Angry Man interrupts—Johnathan something, Sam thinks. Sam has seen him before. Sanctuary is not that big; they've all seen each other at some point (except for his elusive brother, that is), but he hasn't interacted with the dude much. “Wait meekly like lambs at the slaughterhouse? I'm not gonna be next. I'm out of here!”

“Sure, and how’ll ya do it, genius?” snarks another woman—one of the maids, maybe? “There’s no ferry ‘til Monday.”

“We must get in touch with the mainland somehow!” whines the frightened one.

“Anyone care that it's not dawning?” cries the cook. “What’s wrong with you people?”

“Oh my God! We’re all gonna die a horrible death!” sobs a girl in a pink nightie, wringing her robe in anguish with her hands.

“We’re dreaming!” pipes up a young man Sam has met at Lucid Dreams and he laughs—a bit loud, a bit strung up, a bit off. “That’s it! We’re dreaming together! That’s why it’s not morning already!”

The dude looks delighted, although a manic gleam in his eyes betrays his facade. He is trying to convince himself of what he says by convincing others.

Sam wishes the guy was right because that would solve this FUBAR situation in one fell swoop, but he doesn't think so. He's had elaborate dreams all his life, but this one is… just too much. Too realistic, too detailed, too long. On the other hand, if this were a dream, Dean would slip through Sam’s fingers again, and Sam isn't about to let that idea take root in his mind.

The cook stares at the guy. “Are you delusional? I ain’t a patient, nor is Tori,” she says, pointing briskly at the younger woman. “We came here to work. We’re not on drugs. We’re dreaming nothing! We’ve zero to do with their mess!” she yells, raising her voice higher and higher with each denial and pointing at the doctor, who cringes.

“What are you implying by ‘patients’?” a middle-aged woman snaps, prissily. “We’re the subjects of a scientific research study. You mean we’re crazy? Hallucinating?”

“Yeah, tell that to the sun!” snarks the cook. “It’s the one hallucinating here!”

Sam fears they are about to go for one another's throats and gets ready to back George up if needed (not because he's taking part, but because getting into a frenzy won’t do anyone any good), when someone barrels into him from behind, making Sam lose his balance and lurch unsteadily forward.

Yeah, a hell of a backup he would be.

“Sam!” Genna sobs, clutching his shirt and manhandling him to look her in the eye. Dammit, she’s strong, but at least her grip stopped his fall. “You have to help me! Arnie is gone!”

Oh, sh*t!

“Calm down, Genna.” Sam disengages the girl and rakes a hand over his hair, restraining the urge to tear some locks out in frustration. The argument has stopped, and the whole group is now staring at them. Sam grabs Genna’s wrist and steps aside from the others, dragging the girl with him. “What do you mean Arnie’s gone ?”

“I can't find him anywhere!” Genna shakes her head. “I was worried for him and went to his room, but he wasn't there, and the room was all messed up. I looked on other floors, the diner, the library… everywhere. Sam, I found those people too, the ones that won’t wake up. But, Arnie… he’s nowhere to be found!”

“Do you think Arnie was about to have a crisis?” Sam asks. “Was he eating too much, moody, or sleepy all the time? Could he be hidden somewhere and fallen asleep on the spot?”

“No, I don’t think so,” sniffles Genna. “He was a bit moody, yeah, but no more than usual. Arnie’s not in the compound, Sam. He’s in the woods. I know it. You have to believe me!”

“Okay, we're gonna find him,” Sam assures the girl, but how will he make good on his promise? Arnie could be hiding anywhere… or worse. If they find Arnie dead, Sam will feel sad because he appreciates the snarky boy, but Genna will be heartbroken—those two have become inseparable over time, even if they don't seem to have much in common. He and Dean need to get going before the body count spikes.

Sam surveys the green and grins. Dean is approaching them in long strides, with a girl wearing nurse scrubs reluctantly in tow—Sam thinks he remembers her from his first day at Sanctuary when going through the battery of physical tests. Just in time. He breathes a relieved sigh and goes ahead, Genna still clinging to his shirt, to meet his brother halfway. The four of them stop in the center of the lawn. The nurse seems a bit lost, and her eyes are red-rimmed, but who could blame her? Sam smiles at the girl, encouraging, but Dean and Genna stare at each other from head to toe, sizing each other up. Dean frowns, and Genna scowls.

Wow, weird. Distaste at first sight.

“Sam, this is April,” Dean says, not taking his eyes off Genna—who narrows hers. “She’s a bit overwhelmed right now, but she knows stuff I'd like her to tell you. Let's go somewhere we can talk in private and—”

“No!” Genna tugs at Sam’s sleeve. “Arnie is out there in the woods. We need to go. Now!”

“Hey! Hold your horses, lady!” Dean widens his stance as if ready for a fight. “Who the f*ck are you, and who the f*ck is Arnie?”

“And who the f*ck are you ?” Genna growls.

“Genna, this is Dean,” Sam tries in a conciliatory voice. “He’s my… we’ve known each other for a long time. He can help—”

“Can I?” Dean drawls in that infuriating voice that has put them straight into more than one bar brawl.

Sam loves his brother, he really does, and more than he should, but sometimes he would like to strangle him.

“Yes,” he says, looking Dean in the eye. Saying what must be said means to recognize he’s useless and feels like letting Dean down, but they cannot afford white lies that could get them killed. He grits his teeth. “Look, three people have died, another bunch can’t be awakened, and a kid is missing in the woods. I can’t go trekking out there. My legs aren’t strong enough. You’ll have to do it. I’ll stay here with April and Genna, see if I can figure out—”

“Like hell I’m staying back!” Genna stomps her foot on the ground and glares daggers at them, arms akimbo. “I know where Arnie goes when he feels anxious. I've been there with him before.” She points a finger aggressively at Dean. “I don’t know him, Arnie doesn’t know him. He won’t trust a stranger. I'm coming too.”

Dean glares at Sam accusingly as if Sam set him up. Sam smiles weakly.

“f*ck!” Dean swears.

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Dean can't say he knows the island like the back of his hand, but when he started working with the Green Squad it was clearing scrub in the area surrounding the Sanctuary compound (taming the wild for fire prevention, Paul said), and what he remembers is nothing like this.

For starters, the forest looks darker, thicker, the trees taller and more tenebrous—their roots twisted, sticking out of the ground like bear traps and forcing them to move carefully so as not to trip and break an ankle. The underbrush has grown more than should be expected in so little time, but instead of ferns what prevails are brambles and thorny plants… which makes no sense—nature is not used to switching species for the sake of it.

Second, the silence is deafening. Suffocating, in fact. No bird, no insect, no crack of a twig stepped on by a gopher can be heard. It’s as if the nocturnal fauna have retired to their dens, but it’s still too dark to awaken the diurnal ones. Furthermore, Sanctuary is not a big island, but it’s not small either. The island is shaped like a U, with a bottleneck eroded by the sea in the middle that divides the elongated wild half facing the mainland from the almost perfectly circular half facing the open ocean, where land was cleared to build the compound. They have been walking for a while. If they are as close to the cove as Dean estimates, they should be able to hear the waves breaking on the granite cliffs, especially in the stillness before dawn, but it's not so.

Finally, there is the mist, swirling and crawling even though there’s not a breath of breeze, thick as syrup like in a lame horror movie. It wraps around their legs and makes it difficult to calculate distances and find one's way around.

Oh, and the sun is still AWOL. Let's not forget that little tidbit.

“So,” he says to the girl’s back, because the silence is getting on his nerves. “Tell me about the kid.”

Genna glances at him over her shoulder. Since she claimed to know where the boy might have gone into hiding, Dean let her lead the way, but being in the rearguard does not suit Dean, and has increased his edginess.

“Yeah, as if you care,” she says spitefully.

Oh, that’s enough. In a long stride, he steps into the girl’s personal space, and she recoils, startled.

“Listen,” Dean spits. “You're right. You don't know me, and I don't know you and, truth be told, I don't give a sh*t what you think of me. But there's a kid out there who needs help. If you're gonna be a pain in my ass, you better turn around now, because I'm not gonna put up with more bitchiness.”

Genna stares at him, and Dean clenches his jaw.

“You do care,” she says, and she has the gall to look surprised. Is it that, at first glance, she pegged Dean as a cold-blooded, sociopathic serial killer?

“People matter to me,” Dean shrugs, inexplicably embarrassed. “So, truce?”

Genna stares into Dean’s eyes, pondering, and he has the unsettling feeling that she can see through his walls.

“Truce,” she finally says, “until we find Arnie. He is… a very special boy. One of a kind. His imagination is exceptional, way above average. He’s bound to do such interesting and innovative things… great things. Arnie is a very talented kid, and life has thrown him a nasty curveball with his illness. He doesn't deserve it, and he doesn’t deserve to be in danger, either. We have to find him.”

She speaks passionately and with genuine concern for the boy. Dean can sympathize. Life isn’t fair, but it’s always harder when kids are involved. Yet, there is something off about Genna that Dean cannot put his finger on, something that repulses him, and it's not because she was pawing at his brother earlier.

No, it's better not to think about Sam. If Dean doesn't focus and his mind gets caught up in what happened in the dreams with his brother, he’s a dead man walking. All his energy, what little he has left, must be centered on the hunt. It's hard enough to keep up with Genna (seriously, does she do cross-country marathons in her spare time?) without the girl catching how much he's struggling in this f*cking terrain; how hard it is for him not to fall on his ass because of his f*cking weakness. He'll worry about the fallout with Sam later.

“Okay,” Dean says. “We'll find the kid and get him home safely… and then we can go back to chewing each other's heads off.”

“It works for me,” Genna nods.

They cross a dry creek that Dean doesn't remember here either, the cobbles sharp instead of rounded by the current, and Genna approaches a tree growing by the bank, its branches bare despite it being summer.

“This is a blackthorn,” she whispers, making a move to brush her hand against the trunk but withdrawing it as soon as she touches the bark, as if she was scalded.

“If you say so…” Dean is not too interested in a botany class right now, or worse, from the hippy, tree-hugger chick.

“On islands like this one ash, spruce, and firs grow, but not blackthorn,” she says, petulant, as if Dean were a moron.

“Whatever,” Dean says. He doesn't know what Sam sees in this girl. She’s like a Woodstock trite stereotype with a bad temper.

Dean takes a couple of steps aside to inspect a bundle in the waterway right at the foot of the tree, nestled in its twisted roots. It’s a dead bird lying on the cobbles, its feathers disheveled and sticking every which way. A seagull. Dean doesn't like winged rats or scavengers of any kind, but there's something odd about this one. He leans in for a better look and grimaces. A tiny, malicious black eye glows in its semi-melted-looking head—a pulsating, phosphorescent… goo glued to it like a parasite. Creepy. Giving in to an impulse, he picks up a fallen, dry branch, and pokes the carcass. The seagull leaps up with a screeching cry, and Dean jumps backward.

“f*ck!”

The bird takes flight, losing shabby feathers with each flap of its wings, gains height, and swoops towards them like a homing missile. Genna screams in distress, raising her arms above her head to keep the disgusting thing from getting tangled in her hair. Dean reaches instinctively behind his back for his gun, but by the time he wants to aim Genna and the bird are struggling so much that he can't get a clean target—he risks injuring the girl. Dean doesn't like Genna, but he's not going to let the damn thing poke her eyes out, so he fires into the air to try to scare the bird away. The detonation roars like a cannon shot in the stillness, and the critter squawks and plunges into the depths of the forest.

Genna glares at Dean, hunched over to catch her breath, resting her hands on her knees, and then slowly rises, shaking feathers out of her hair. Her composure has all but disappeared. Tousled, eyes wild, and face full of scratches, she looks like a tatty, discarded scarecrow that someone has thrown into the gutter.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” she pants. “Are you f*cking nuts?”

“You’re welcome,” retorts Dean. Ungrateful bitch.

As they go deeper into the forest, the seagull is not the only half-melted creature they stumble upon—although Dean is now very careful not to get too close to them, and Genna gags every time they find one. They are mostly large birds (cormorants, herons, seagulls), but also raccoons, and one pathetic deer twitching upside down at the bottom of a gully. Melted puddles on the ground with some lost feathers or scraps of fur here and there show that smaller animals just kind of liquify.

When Sammy was playing college boy, Dean hooked up with a girl who wanted to be an artist. Her apartment was stocked with framed posters of paintings by the great turn-of-the-century masters. These pitiful animals remind Dean of one of her posters, with flaccid clocks that looked like uncooked eggs sliding off a table. Something discouraging and pretty inappropriate to hang above the headboard of the bed.

She asked Dean if she could paint him in the morning. Dean sneaked out in the middle of the night as soon as she fell asleep.

He is still staring mesmerized at the deer, wondering if he should go down there and put it out of its misery, when Genna shouts and tackles him to the ground.

“The f*ck…!” he yelps.

“Look, dumbass,” Genna points.

There is one of those parasites writhing on the dirt just where Dean was standing a moment ago. The thing squirms on the pine needles and starts crawling towards them in fits and starts. Dean and Genna flinch and back away, pushing off with their heels in the dirt, still tangled up with each other and a hair's breadth from falling down the gully in their haste. They get up, using each other for leverage, and Dean looks up.

Many more of those gooey, sickly phosphorescent things are hanging from the tree branches in bunches, like baleful grapes from a vine, about to drop on their heads.

They take off running, protecting their heads with their hovering arms, as the first brain-eating goos rain down on them.

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The coffee is probably one of the worst Sam has ever had (too strong and too bitter), but it’s hot and comforting. He sits at a table, nursing his cup and glancing at the people bundled in the dining room. A breakfast of leftovers has been set up for those with the stomach to eat. The professionalism of the staff is praiseworthy. Those people managed to pull through and do their job despite being as stressed as everyone else.

It was a pity that Sam’s fellow subjects had nothing productive to occupy themselves with but brooding or freaking out all over the place. Sam had said to those who wanted to listen to him that what is (not) happening with the sun looks like some kind of collective hallucination, because of something in the environment or a contaminated supply—as what happened in Salem with the rye. Good news, because it will wear off sooner or later. That had calmed people down a notch—which was exactly what Sam intended. It’s fortunate that he can lie so convincingly, but practice makes perfect.

However, some had gone to the small chapel, built on the edge of the forest as though an afterthought, to pray. Sam sympathizes but doesn't think their prayers will stop whatever is happening here. Praying is fine, but God helps those who help themselves.

Spirits were spiraling towards a depressed hysteria, if such a thing were possible, so Sam had taken matters into his own hands and put on John Winchester's camp boots to pull people out of their emotional morass. To Sam’s surprise, his lead was followed after some token opposition. Finding out most of the staff had gone to the mainland for the weekend for a festival or something, he started assigning tasks among the civvies (at least to those who weren’t too shocked to be useless) to keep them busy so they wouldn't fall apart one after the other. All the chores indoors, because even the most level-headed would end up nuts under the endless twilight.

Sam had braved the corridors again, accompanied by some plucky guys to the systems room only to find the control center busted open and the wires burned to a melted mess. And wasn't that discovery a shock in itself? Who could have done such a thing? And, more importantly, why? Sam remembers vividly what happened at River Grove during the Croatoan outbreak, what Dean had said when they found out the phones didn't work: If I was gonna massacre a town, that'd be my first step.

Sam hasn't stopped looking over his shoulder since.

Two guys stayed in the control room, hoping to fix the phone lines. Good luck with that. Meanwhile, a ham radio amateur’s son and the only security guard they could find have gone to the lighthouse. In case some old radio equipment is stashed there, to contact the mainland.

Sam had to concede that it was a good idea, but he doesn't want anyone else wandering around until it’s clear what they’re dealing with here. The first rule everybody had to agree on was not to be alone, and to move as a group if they had to leave the dining room or the adjacent rest room for whatever reason. ‘Sleepers’ were brought from their rooms to the gym to be more easily supervised, and Sam set up shifts so that someone always had an eye on them. A couple of volunteers offered to lend a hand in the kitchen to keep the coffee flowing and give the cook and her lonely assistant a respite—rivers of coffee will be required because no one dares to fall asleep.

For his part, Sam volunteered to liaise with Dr. Cartwright every two hours because people have lost trust in the ‘white coats’ and don't want to be sidelined if something vital is found at the labs… which gives Sam a legitimate excuse to step into the research building.

Sam would never underestimate Dean's hunches. If his brother says he felt something off in the labs, then there is something off going on in the labs, and Sam wants to know what it is and how it relates to the mære who sneaked into his room. April had told Sam about the strange circ*mstances in which the three dead subjects were found. Sam had to make a considerable effort not to let it show how shaken he felt—three dead people just like the ones in his dreams. He would have questioned the nurse longer but had to allow April to go to help Dr. Cartwright… even though he is positive April is holding something back.

Taking a sip of coffee, Sam opens John's journal. Dean had it in his duffle (how could he not!) and gave it to Sam along with a grim look before heading into the forest with Genna. ‘Figure out what's going on’ was implicit in his brother’s gesture.

The first thing Sam does is look up anything related to mæres in the journal. Unfortunately, John never had to deal with any of those, but he wrote about Old Hags while working on a string of deaths caused by a rogue witch.

There’s no hunter’s record of how to kill an Old Hag, but there’s an 1896 manuscript pointing to what might be done to keep the witch at bay. Transcription: “A man told me he had been ridden to death by an old hag until a wise elder advised him to drive nails through a shingle and lash it to his breast when he went to bed.”

Just f*cking dandy. Although the strategy seems somewhat naïve and more oriented to chase away the mære than to end it—like a spiky barrier in a vegetable garden so slugs can’t eat the lettuces. Whatever. Should it work, where the hell is Sam supposed to get a pallet of shingles in a glass building to protect everybody?

Nowhere in the journal is an endless night reported relating to Old Hags—nor any other monster, for that matter. Mæres simply don't have the juice. They are just petty gluttonous entities, greedy for individual nightmares but unable to stop time. Sam wonders if time has only frozen on Sanctuary or if it has a more global effect. He hopes not because he doubts he and Dean alone could deal with such a powerful being. Not even a regiment of hunters would help.

However, Sam is not as convinced of the frozen time theory as Dean is, and his research wouldn’t be helpful if Sam didn't look at all possible scenarios. So, there’s the possibility they all are sharing a dream, because of the drug or for other reasons. Maybe the guy from before wasn't so misguided after all. In this case, how can Sam wake everybody from the nightmare? Or, they may be within the dream of a single dreamer. But who? If it’s one of the sleepers who cannot be awakened….

Sam spots Rick out of the corner of his eye as he takes a small sip of his coffee. Their 'LD coach' looks rather lackluster today. Still, it's not surprising, given that George had to physically restrain Angry Man from beating the sh*t out of Rick when the therapist came out of the building, rubbing his eyes like a child and looking utterly lost. The hurt look on the adult's face reminds Sam of the little boy from Rick's nightmare. Sam wonders if, assuming they make it out of this one alive, Rick won't decide to change the object of his work from now on.

A chilling shriek pierces through the whispered conversations and shatters Sam's focus. What now? Sam thinks in despair. He gets up and walks as fast as he can to the dining room door as the girl in the pink nightie storms in.

“Help! Help me!”

“What’s up, Lizzy?” Sam asks.

“She’s choking,” the girl stammers. “She…”

Sam pushes the girl aside and hurries toward the gym. He hears other footsteps behind him but doesn't look back. As he enters the gym, he spots a guy leaning over one of the figures lying on mats, attempting CPR. Reaching his side, Sam stops dead in his tracks. He can recognize the woman despite the wet curls falling over her face. He had seen her before in the dream… and she was drowning there, too. Dirty water streaked with mud pours from her lax lips and nose as her body convulses in an attempt to breathe, but she still won't wake up. The guy looks desperately at Sam, panting, his blue eyes bloodshot.

“I can’t…” he wheezes.

Sam takes the man's place and resumes cardiac massage. One, two, three… thirty compressions. Sam pinches the woman’s nose and breathes into her mouth, but a puff of stagnant water pours into Sam’s, and he turns away, gagging. A circle of frightened people has gathered around them. Sam doesn’t relent and keeps the CPR going. The knees of his pants are already soaked from the amount of water she has vomited, and his back arches from the effort. Compressions, open airways, breathing. Compressions, open airways, breathing. Compressions…

A hand lands carefully on Sam’s shoulder.

“Man… stop,” Blue Eyes says. “She’s dead.”

Someone starts crying inconsolably.

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“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Dean pants.

Genna looks venomously at Dean over her shoulder.

“As if you'd've noticed where you were running to with those things falling on us!”

She has a point. Dean sits on a mound of pine needles to catch his breath and looks around, trying to spot something familiar. Twilight is both a blessing and a curse. The faint light keeps the forest's horrors from becoming evident yet simultaneously makes everything look the same, as if they were walking in circles. Which is quite likely. At least it looks like they have left the brain-eating goos behind. A tendril of cold mist wraps around Dean’s wrist, taking advantage of his distraction, and Dean shakes his hand to dislodge it, annoyed.

“It doesn't scare you, does it?” Genna says, sitting by Dean’s side.

“What doesn’t?” he asks, puzzled.

“The fog, the endless night, the… the acidic grubs. Nothing scares you.”

Oh, how wrong you are. Everything terrifies me.

“Doesn't seem to scare you either,” Dean says.

Genna shrugs. “I need to find Arnie first. I can get scared later.”

A girl on a mission, Dean thinks, looking at Genna from the corner of his eye. Let's hope it doesn't kill us both.

Dean looks at his watch, but it has stopped ticking. Dean would fret and turn around on the spot if it weren't for the fact that he can feel Sam, loud and clear, somewhere in what he assumes should be the South… but isn’t. As though the island were reshaping itself. Anyway, this is one more point for the frozen time theory. He's not sure how long they've been wandering in the woods like stray sheep but it has been quite a while. Arnie’s time is running short—despite what the watch shows (or does not). They have already tried to find the kid Genna's way but to no avail. It’s time to regain the initiative.

Dean picks up a handful of pine needles and crushes them between his fingers. They are dry and brittle, as if the trees have endured an atrocious drought and shed all the dead needles at once. Dean opens his hand to drop the mess, and a faint resinous smell wafts through his fingers.

Sometimes, when Dean and Sam were little, Bobby took them hunting in the woods. For the fridge. Roe and deer, mostly. Not often, because little Sammy scared the animals away on purpose, and when the hunt was successful the kid refused to eat the meat, too appalled for innocent murdered Bambies—as if hamburgers were bred in refrigerators, ready as they are for the frying pan. It's been a long time coming, but Bobby's lessons stuck. Dean stands up, stone-faced and worn to a frazzle after the run.

He can't remember the last time he didn't feel exhausted. The memory sits falsely, like something that happened to someone else.

“Keep quiet and watch out for goos,” he commands the girl.

“What are you—?” Genna says.

Dean raises a finger to his lips to shut her up and starts walking carefully, scanning the ground. One has to know how to move in the woods to leave no trace in such thick leaf litter, and Dean bets Arnie is not one of those. The boy must have left some kind of trail. Likely, as a rhino would. Dean can picture Arnie in his mind—a sullen teenager beating bushes with a stick as he passes and throwing stones at branches. Having lived through Sam’s teenage years, Dean is acquainted with the type. There must be a path, more so if what Genna said is true and it's not the first time Arnie has gone wherever he usually goes to hide. The trick is to find it.

They go like that for what Dean estimates may be half an hour, Dean looking down, searching for traces and Genna walking listlessly at his back. After a while, Dean finds himself struggling to breathe because of fatigue and because the atmosphere is as charged as it would be before a storm breaks. Oppressive. Filthy. As if the air has become thick and heavy. Dean wonders if breathing coal fog felt like this in the London of the last century, where all those Hammer horror movies were inspired. He wouldn't be surprised if a red-eyed Christopher Lee jumped out from behind a tree, waving his cape and showing fangs. In fact, it would be a welcome distraction.

He and Sammy had good laughs watching all those movies in one motel after another, with a bowl of popcorn in their laps and high on Pepsi in the wee hours of the night. Those monsters were fun, not like the real ones. Nor like the evil Dean has witnessed and which haunts his dreams. Nor like a possessed father, squashing Dean’s entrails with a demon's hatred. Or a brother stabbed treacherously in the back, dying in agony in the mud of a cursed city.

Dean stops and looks up. The world is drowning in shadow. The high canopy of the trees obstructs a view of the sky, the treetops leaning over each other to close into an impenetrable dome. Dean doesn't need to see to know there is nothing beyond. No moon, no stars, no sun rising over the horizon. The sky is empty, Heaven is empty, but Hell… Hell overflows.

He can’t breathe; he’s blind in the neverending twilight, chilled to the bone in this forsaken mist, and is too weak to save his brother for a second time.

“Dean…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t feed the darkness.”

Dean bristles and resumes his quest. This girl couldn't be any weirder if she tried.

He finds the first trace in the peeling bark of an ash tree: a t-shirt tatter. Next are a few drops of dried blood soaking the moss. A little further on, a furrow in the blanket of pine needles made by something heavy being dragged along.

Chapter 8

Chapter Text

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Evil grows in the dark
Where the sun it never shines
Evil grows in cracks and holes
And lives in people's minds

Where Evil Grows — The Poppy Family

“Sam… can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah?” says Sam, sitting cross-legged on the ground and glancing cautiously out of the corner of his eye.

Blue Eyes—whose real name is Mark, as he told Sam on their way to the research building, and who happens to work with Dean; introduced himself as a friend of Dean; has spent more time with Dean in the last two months than Sam got in a whole year, and (the cherry on top) is his brother's roommate… all of which made Sam insanely jealous—clears his throat.

“You and Dean… I mean…” Mark stumbles over his words, “…I saw you two speaking before, and you look pretty… close. Are you—?”

“Friends,” interrupts Sam curtly, remembering in the last second not to blow Dean's cover. “We grew up together. We’ve known each other all our lives.”

Sam hates gossiping in small places, but Mark's question doesn’t take Sam by surprise. This is not the first time he and Dean have been mistaken for a couple.

Dean handles it poorly, and Sam handles poorly that Dean handles it poorly. But Sam never had to please John by acting like a miniature Marine, nor did he have the problems his too-pretty brother had as a teenager, easily mistaken for a twink at roadhouses and truck stops. Dean roughened up pretty soon in his early years, not for fear of appearing effeminate (his brother was always too comfortable with his sexuality for that) but because Dean thought it made him look vulnerable, an easy target.

Sam glances at the sad bundle of the drowned woman deposited on the ground in front of the research building entrance, waiting for the door to be opened. He should respect the dead and concentrate on the case, but the truth is that jealousy needles his skin like fire ants. Sam feels swept back in time to his high school years, a host of bitter memories. If the guy blurts something like, ‘You think you could give me some advice to make a move on your lifelong friend?’ Sam is going to—

“I’m glad to know Dean can count on you,” Mark says, stirring the dirt with the toe of his work boot. “I don’t wanna overstep or anythin’ but Dean’s a good pal, and has me worried. He tries to pretend, but there's somethin’ wrong with him.”

“What do you mean ‘wrong’?” Sam says—the green-eyed monster defeated, salted, and burned in one blink, concern taking its place.

“Dean plays the tough guy, but I work with him, and we’re roommates,” Mark says. “It’s difficult to hide some stuff livin’ in close quarters. Dean works as hard as any of us, but he’s bone tired. I’ve seen him turn pale just for liftin’ middleweights, and wobble after a day's work on our way to the bunkhouse. He eats, but he doesn't put on weight. He tosses and turns in his sleep, and barely gets a few hours of rest at night.” Mark looks at Sam with concern. “Is Dean sick? He shouldn't do such hard work if he's sick, not even if he needs the money that badly.”

Oh, sh*t. Dean said he was fine. Dean swore to Sam that he was fine, but he was lying, and Sam should have known it. Nobody could do what Dean did to keep Sam alive and be fine. Sam should be taking care of Dean. Instead, he sent his weakened brother into the woods with no backup but a tiny hippie girl to face who knows what that is haunting a whole island.

The door opens with a metallic click, and a guy in a rumpled white coat peeks a disheveled head through the crack.

“You Sam?” he asks, looking up and squinting umber, myopic eyes.

Have you seen many guys around here walking with a cane? Sam thinks, but says nothing. He just nods, and the dude opens the door, noticing then the body on the ground.

“What’s this?” he asks in the same voice as he would reference a heap of laundry.

“This,” Sam says, pissed on the deceased woman’s behalf, “is Lucy Thompson. She choked to death not half an hour ago.”

“Oh! Another one of those,” the dude says. “Okay, follow me and don’t stray. Mr. Ward said he wanted all the cold meat in the same place ‘til we can have a look at them.”

Sam seethes silently. You callous douchebag….

Mark picks up the body in a fireman's carry, and they enter the building after Douche. Sam is not interested in knowing the name of this one. Douche fits him like a glove.

The inside of the research building, with its white walls and blinding fluorescents, hurts Sam's eyes, unaccustomed to so much brightness in the neverending twilight. Douche leads them through the corridors, Mark in the middle carrying the body, and Sam closing the pack as he walks more slowly, the tip of his cane slipping on linoleum. It’s unsettlingly quiet but, as they round a corner, Sam hears a muffled cry through a closed door.

Sam doesn't think twice. He pushes the door open.

April is lying on the floor, tied up and gagged, her terrified eyes brimming with tears. By her side, there are five bodies lined up on the tiles.

“What the hell is this?” asks Sam, turning to face Douche.

Mark’s sharp intake of breath is the only warning Sam gets before the butt of Douche's revolver smashes into Sam’s temple.

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Paul is hanging from a tree.

It’s an appalling sight. The features of the Green Squad’s leader are distorted in a crippling panic, his eyes bloodshot, his mouth open in a silent cry. His body is wrapped in silk threads as thick as rope and strong as wire, his face peering out between the threads. No big-ass, giant spider’s web can be seen, but silk tufts entwined with mist hang loose like fly traps here and there, virtually invisible in the twilight. The critter had fun hunting in the bunkhouses because Paul wasn’t the only one dragged here—the bodies of a couple of workers dangle from branches like tortured chrysalids, murdered in their cocoons. The stench of ammonia hangs in the stagnant air.

Like stepping into one of Stephen f*cking King's books or Shelob’s lair, Dean can't decide which. He shivers.

“Can you see him?” Genna whispers, clutching the sleeve of Dean’s shirt.

Arnie. Arnie is all that matters to Genna. The world could drown in blood, and she wouldn't care as long as she got her boy back.

They tiptoe from one body to the next, watching the trees, the mist, the sticky silk. Dean's muscles cramp with tension, and sweat slides down his spine to pool, cold, at the small of his back. The owner of this trap can’t be far away. He doesn't know much about spiders but doubts they are in the habit of leaving their webs unattended. And this f*cker must be the size of Godzilla.

“There,” he warns, crouching.

It cannot be seen in full, perched high in the trees. Just two long, black legs as pointed as wicked blades, that could be mistaken for dry branches if they didn't tremble now and then. The mist seems to coalesce around it, hiding the body, but from the size of those legs, Dean estimates the bug may be about fifteen feet long. Maybe more.

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They move even more carefully if possible, scanning the lair in circles, finally finding the kid at a twisted tree. Arnie is not hanging from a branch like the others but glued to a trunk just above the ground, trussed up like a stuffed turkey with silk threads. The boy's skin has a sickly pallor and his head is hanging down, eyes closed as in sleep.

He looks dead, but suddenly Arnie’s brow furrows, and the boy lets out a shaky whimper as if he were in pain.

Genna stifles a gasp and lunges forward, but Dean catches her in time. She turns on him fast and hard like a viper, copper sparks flashing in her crazed eyes. Dean clamps his hand over her mouth, trying not to look shocked and cursing to himself. Whatever she is, fortunately it’s not a gorgon—because if looks could kill, Dean would be toast. And she still needs him… probably. She could have killed him ten times over since they left the compound. She could have let the brain-eating goo fall on his head. But she didn't. So, she can’t free Arnie on her own. Dean will have to cling to that hope and pretend she’s fooled him until his chance comes.

Once they get out of this mess, Dean will have a word with Sam about his penchant for monsters.

“If we touch him, we’re f*cked,” he grits through his teeth. He doesn’t know how fine a spider’s hearing is, but he won't take any chances. “Look at that thread. It goes straight up, where it lurks. We can’t free the boy; we have to lure the bug away first.”

Genna shoves Dean aside, eyes narrowed. No sparks are swirling in her pupils now, but Dean tenses.

“Can you shoot it?” she breathes.

“With this?” Dean whispers, pulling out his gun. “Probably just to piss it off. Maybe with a grenade launcher….”

“Ha, ha, very funny. What a hunter you are!” She snarks, dropping the charade.

Dean co*cks the gun and points it at her head in one smooth move. She shrugs. Shrugs!

“You can put that away, Dean. It wouldn't do anything to me, but it would catch its attention,” she says, pointing at the treetops. “I could use you as bait and flee with Arnie while it devours you but, despite what you may think of me, I'm not a murderer.”

The threat hits Dean like a punch. He hadn't thought of that. Moron. To his credit, he hadn't thought Genna was a monster either, just a bossy girl with a nasty attitude.

“You know who I am?” Dean asks.

“You have HUNTER written on your forehead,” she says. “But unlike others I’ve met over the centuries, you care. I already told you. That makes a difference.”

Yeah, a kid's life is in danger. He and Genna will clear the air between them. Later.

“Okay,” Dean nods, stowing the .45 at the small of his back. “From monster to hunter, spill. What do you really know about…” he makes a sweeping motion with his hand, “…this.”

“I tried to warn Sam, but he didn’t listen,” Genna pouts. “‘This’, as you pointed out so eloquently, is Arnie’s nightmare, powered by the drug, that has crossed the boundaries of the Dream to take over reality.”

Kid couldn't dream of puppies and rainbows, could he? Dean thinks.

“So, if Arnie dies…”

“Don’t you dare!” hisses Genna. “Don’t you dare to even ponder —”

“Chill,” Dean shushes. “I was thinking aloud.”

Genna rolls her eyes, miffed.

“Anyway, it would be pointless,” she says. “The nightmare’s got a life of its own. It no longer needs Arnie to keep going. Furthermore, ‘this’ is not Arnie’s making alone, but the sum of all the nightmares dreamed in Sanctuary fueling the most powerful among them. However, no matter how strong Arnie's nightmare is, in no way could it have shattered the Dream’s boundaries. There must be a catalyst…”

Sam, Dean realizes. Sam, with his demon blood, his freaky powers, and his reckless playing with stuff that should be left alone.

He’s not going to harm Sammy to end the nightmare. No matter what.

It seems he has more in common with Genna than he would like.

“What does he mean to something like you?” Dean asks, looking at the kid. “The truth this time,” he demands.

Genna sighs. “What I told you is true, but not the whole truth. A mind like Arnie’s is full of wonder, but also full of excess; bound to overwhelm him sooner or later. Special people like Arnie usually die before their time… by their own hands. They just can't take it. But I can. I’ll take what Arnie can’t bear and not an ounce more. I’ll feed and, doing so, Arnie will stay sane. As you mortals say, a win-win situation.”

“Like a parasite,” snarls Dean, disgusted.

“No,” dismisses Genna, “a symbiosis. Arnie will go crazy before his 20th birthday is due. His own mind will destroy him. With me, he'll live a full and fruitful life; without me, he’s doomed.”

So, she’s some kind of nightmare-eater. Dean eyes Genna’s dreamcatcher earrings and frowns. A monster’s joke. He hasn’t met anything like her before, nor does he know of other hunters who have, nor has he heard of nightmare-eaters attaching themselves to a particular human. The lore is thin, but says they are benign creatures, so there's no reason for a nightmare-eater to catch a hunter's eye.

In a way, she reminds him of Lenore. A monster that chooses not to kill.

“Swear,” Dean rasps. “Swear to me that you won’t harm Arnie, no matter what.”

“Never,” Genna says. “That would be pretty stupid of me, wouldn't it? Like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. But… I like Arnie,” she straightens her shoulders, and copper sparks dance in her eyes.

“What’s your name, Dean?” She asks. “The real one.”

Names have power, Dean knows. But he wants to say his name out loud at least one more time.

“Winchester,” he says proudly. “I’m Dean Winchester.”

She nods and takes his hand, placing it on her chest. Her heartbeat is strong and even.

“I swear to you by the Dream, Dean Winchester. I will protect and care for Arnie from this day forward until the end of his natural days. I will not harm him nor allow him to be harmed.”

She leans and kisses him as a demon would to seal a deal. Her pointed teeth draw a drop of blood off his lips. The flash of copper in her eyes becomes a flare.

“Oh!” She marvels. “Such a great love. What you did—”

“Don’t,” Dean says, stepping back. She saw. She saw what he did to Sam. Something that big must be written with neon lights in Dean’s blood for any monster to rejoice in. Dean wonders what else she's seen. Under the circ*mstances, it's not that it matters much.

“You will die if you don't get back what's yours,” Genna whispers, her coppery eyes full of… sorrow?

Dean has to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. Yeah, he had figured that much out on his own, but Dean will not accept pity from a monster. He smirks, co*cky facade full force. “That wouldn't be much of a loss to you, would it?”

She shakes her head.

“A good man is hard to find, Dean Winchester,” she says. “I’ll mourn your demise.”

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Dean's hands are cold. It feels amazing against his throbbing temples. Sam thinks he could stay like this forever, with his head resting on Dean's lap and his brother's cold, soothing hands running gently through his hair… except those hands are too small and delicate to belong to Dean, and Dean's jeans never gave off this floral fabric softener scent.

Sam opens his eyes but squeezes his eyelids shut immediately, groaning. Looking straight into a fluorescent light with such a headache is not fun.

“You okay, man?” a male voice says, worried.

Right, that’s Mark, and the cold hands must belong to April, the nurse. And Douche knocked Sam out with the butt of his semi automatic!

Sam turns away from looking directly at the ceiling lights as he opens his eyes again. The first thing he sees are the bodies. He struggles to sit.

“Take it easy, Sam,” April says. “Travis hit you hard. I need to check you don't have a concussion.”

“I don’t,” Sam states, sitting carefully. Sadly, he is familiar with what a concussion feels like. The headache, however, will stay with him for a while. “How long have I been unconscious?”

“About twenty minutes,” says Mark, and grins. “You've got a hard noggin under all that hair.”

“I’ve been told,” Sam deadpans. “What happened?” he asks the girl.

“Travis hit you—”

“I know,” Sam cuts her off grumpily. “What happened to you, April. Why were you gagged and tied up in this…” Sam looks around them, “…storeroom?”

April rubs her wrists. Her skin is reddened and a bit abraded from writhing in her bindings.

“I went looking for some stuff for Dr. Cartwright,” she says. “The doctor is trying to figure out what happened to those subjects. She hasn't breathed a word to me, but it's clear that she's puzzled. And appalled. The doctor is a good person. She's indeed a bit uptight but she takes care of her people.”

Sam nods, encouraging. Behind him, Mark is rummaging through the shelves. Sam hopes the man will find a crowbar to pry the door open.

“Anyway, I stumbled on Joel Travis and Brian Ward on my way to the examination room.” April shakes her head. “They were carrying a corpse, each. But not of subjects, of workers. They dumped the bodies to the floor as soon as they spotted me, and Travis pulled a gun. Ward… he just looked annoyed. He told me I was a nuisance. I thought they were going to kill me right then and there, but they tied me up and locked me in here, with them,” she points to the bodies and shudders.

“I know these people,” Mark says, voice rough. “This is Nina, from laundry. Thomas is… was a maintenance guy. He had two kids and a pregnant wife waiting for him in Portland.”

Sam takes a closer look and grimaces. The man looks run over by a tractor or something with huge wheels. And, is she… boiled? These people have died in ways as bizarre as the research subjects.

“Travis is a weasel,” April says. "He's just an analyst but acts as if he were Ward's right-hand man. And Ward goes around with airs and graces as if Sanctuary belongs to him. More than once, I’ve found them talking in whispers after hours in the labs. I’ve seen Ward sneak out of Dr. Cartwright’s office like a thief in the night. I tried telling her those two were up to something, but she dismissed my worries. The doctor is so involved in her research that she sees nothing else.”

“But you do see, don’t you, April?” Sam says. Normally, he wouldn't be so blunt with a witness, and such brashness catches Sam off guard, but the words fly out of his mouth before he can subject them to any filter.

April fidgets on the spot, looking guilty.

“I thought they were just fudging the numbers so they could market the drug as soon as possible. It wouldn't be a first. Pharmaceuticals are more about profits than ethics. But this…” she cringes, pointing at the bodies. “Hiding the deaths? This goes beyond petty, unethical greediness.

“I know these people too,” she says to Mark. “They had prescriptions for chronic hypertension and headaches… I was the one giving them their meds. I hadn't thought about it, but last week Nina came to see me and asked for something to help her sleep. She was puzzled because she’d always slept like a baby, but I thought she’d got carried away by this place’s vibes, and I let it go, but… Thomas came to me two days ago. They both complained of nightmares.

“While locked in here, I was wondering,” April swallows thickly. “I suspect that they haven’t only rigged the drug but also meds other people take here, antihypertensives, antidiabetics, painkillers…”

“Oh, f*ck!” Mark cries, holding his hands to his chest in fright. “You can’t be serious! I asked Thomas for some painkillers… for my hands. They’ve been botherin’ me lately, and he was kind enough to slip me some. My mama had arthritis…”

Sam takes a good look at Mark. If he were a few years younger, the gardener would look like the boy in Sam’s dreams—the one crying with his mom’s wooden hands in his. He’d not realized until now, blinded by jealousy.

“I’m afraid the drug has been tampered with, but that can’t account—” April whispers.

“Subjects who don’t know they are subjects,” says Sam, grimly. “With whom the company can do whatever they want because they’re not protected by any medical protocol, who won’t complain if something goes wrong. If you think about it, it would be so easy… Take their usual meds and spike them with the drug. Who knows if the food or the water is also—”

“Sam…” April says, wringing her hands in anxiety. “I need to talk to Dean. I gave him some vitamins…”

“What?” Sam gasps, suddenly feeling unable to breathe.

“What we need is to get the hell out of here,” Mark says. “If you’re right, they won't want witnesses rackin’ up their dirty tricks in the open. They’re gonna kill us.”

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Think, damn it.

There must be another way out of this quagmire, but Dean can't think of one. He looks at the kid. Arnie hasn't moved in the last few minutes, and his skin has taken on a cerulean hue, like a corpse's.

Sam is going to be pissed, but it can't be helped. The only good thing about this f*cked up situation is that he got to see and touch Sam for real. To hug him, chick-flicks be damned. To check that his little brother is well enough to improve on his own, with no more magic help.

“Can you wake the boy enough to make him walk?” he says.

Genna looks at Arnie, assessing, and nods.

Dean clenches his jaw, takes his Zippo out of his pocket, and hands it to Genna who looks at it, baffled.

“We’re stacking pine needles to make some piles,” Dean says. “But loosely, so the fire can breathe. The needles are dry enough to burn like tinder. I guess it’ll make a lot of smoke, too.” He takes a breath and the burning of the ammonia in his lungs makes him regret it immediately. “Wait for the bug to go, release the boy, and set the piles on fire. Then run as fast as you can to Sanctuary. Here.”

He takes the knife from its sheath on his ankle and gives it to Genna, handle first. Dean knows how to take care of his stuff properly—the blade is as sharp as a barber's knife. Sharp enough to cut through all those wiry threads. Genna looks at him in disbelief, and Dean grins.

“You’re right, we need bait.”

“No, no way,” Genna says. “You're too weak to run. It'll catch you in a heartbeat, and then it’ll come after us.”

“You don't know me,” Dean says. “You don't know what I'm capable of.”

Panic and adrenaline work wonders, freak. Just wait and see.

“You’re going to set the forest on fire,” she protests.

“Nah, I don't think so. The pine needles are dry, but the mist has everything damp. The best we can hope for is a good smoke. No more than a diversion. That’ll make it lose your scent, give you time to hide.”

Genna looks at the ground, picks up a bunch of pine needles, and holds them, grimacing.

“It smells like cat litter,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

“Yeah?” Dean retorts. Well, princess, next time don't forget the air freshener from the palace.”

“You missed my point, you idiot,” she says, annoyed, and mutters, “I think I can make more than a little smoke out of this….”

They start stacking pine needles in piles, moving as quietly as possible, and making a line in front of the tree Arnie is tied to. Soon, sweat begins to bead on Dean's skin but he keeps working until he’s risking himself too much out in the open. He takes a deep breath… and coughs. Genna hisses.

Dean ignores her and considers their handiwork. It will have to do.

“As soon as it follows me, cut Arnie loose,” Dean whispers. “Give me a few minutes head start and set the fires.”

“It will kill you,” Genna says, tilting her head. Her eyes flash with just the promise of copper and turn to a velvety brown color. “You're willing to die for a boy you've never met. I don't get it. I don't get you.”

“You’re a monster. I’m a hunter,” Dean shrugs. “I don't expect you to understand. Just do as I say.”

He stares into Genna’s eyes. They look like human eyes. There is more to Genna than she allows him to see. It’s a pity the lore about nightmare-eaters is so sparse because it would be handy to know what a thing like her can do. What she said before… Dean bets she wasn't bluffing.

"If the bug gets extra crispy, it wouldn't be much of a loss," he gambles.

"No, it wouldn't," Genna replies and smirks.

No goodbyes, no good wishes between them. Dean just turns and starts walking, crouching, avoiding the silk threads. When he deems he’s far enough, Dean straightens, stretching his back until it pops. Time to face the music. He looks to where the critter is hidden in the trees.

“Hey, fugly!” Dean bellows. “You up for a snack? I’ve been told I’m pretty tasty!”

The forest around him holds its breath, and the silken tufts quiver in a non-existent breeze. Dean counts the racing beats of his heart. One. Two. Three. Four….

It f*cking jumps to the ground.

Monsters have no sense of the dramatic, Dean thinks, disappointed. It would have been cool to see such a behemoth swinging from a thread-rope like Tarzan.

Dean sprints. He doesn’t look back but can feel the bug trotting behind him in the vibrations of the ground beneath his feet, its bulbous, faceted eyes fixed on his bristling skin. Dean runs and runs, his heart pounding in his chest, until the air whistles as it passes through his lungs and his skin is covered with scratches from the brambles; expecting at any moment to be skewered by those saber-like legs, and when it doesn't happen, he realizes. Smart son of a bitch. It’s having a good time, playing with him. Dragging out the hunt. Waiting for Dean to exhaust himself so he won't have the strength to fight.

His boots squelch on soggy ground, and his legs sink to the knee. f*cking great. One more trick from the f*cking nightmare. He didn't need to run into a swamp. He can’t run in terrain like this, but for sure, the damn thing won’t have the same problem.

Dean draws his weapon and turns to face his pursuer. At least he'll enjoy emptying the .45 magazine into the bug's face.

The spider stands a few feet away—a slightly furry, monstrous body perched on too-long legs and full of evil eyes, protruding jaws, and finished with a disproportionate sting. An unreal, grotesque caricature of what an amalgam of all spiders would be like as envisioned by a frightened child. It’s testing the wet ground with its legs. Undecided. Dean tries to steady himself on the sloshing ground to aim… but can't. The bog grips his legs and sucks his feet down. The more he tries to move, the deeper he sinks. Dean freezes, breathing hard, his heart racing even more, on the verge of panic at the unexpected turn of events.

It stretches one of its legs in his direction longingly. Yeah, it sucks to go to bed without supper, but in the end, it proved to be smarter than him.

The blast takes them both by surprise, and Dean and the spider instinctively duck. A flare rises above the treetops like napalm fire. Atta girl, Dean thinks, almost proud. How the hell she managed to blow the lair up Dean has no clue, but it’s a beautiful sight. The bug screeches, high-pitched enough to shatter glass and turns, racing to its burning lair.

Dean slowly lowers the gun. The mud (quicksand, you fool. Name it for what it is; quicksand) is up to his thighs. At this rate, if he manages not to hyperventilate into fainting and moves as little as possible, he will last a quarter of an hour. In the best-case scenario.

He would have liked to see the sunrise one last time, but one can't have everything.

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Sam looks around in concern. The door is one of those fancy ones with hinges hidden in the frame, and the inner handle is irretrievably broken and useless. The room has no windows, just a laundry chute not even a small child, let alone an adult, could squeeze through. The materials stored are flasks, pipettes, microscope slides, latex gloves, disposable shoe shims, scrubs… nothing useful to them—heavier material and cleaning supplies must be stored elsewhere. The shelves are made of glued plywood with no nails or brackets, and anyway, the pieces would be too flimsy to use as leverage. Nothing they could use as a weapon either because Douche took Sam's cane with him when he locked them in the room. Mark is a sturdy guy, but the gardener won’t stand a chance against two, who knows if more, armed men.

His headache has dwindled to a high-pitched ringing in his ears that keeps him from thinking straight, but Sam needs to come up with an escape plan—their situation is desperate. So, it's all the more shocking to hear Mark chuckle to himself.

“Man,” Mark huffs. “I’m such a moron… Help me here.”

He starts picking up armfuls of scrubs and throwing them on the floor.

“What—?” Sam says. Has Mark lost his mind?

“Help me move the shelf.”

“What for?” asks April, frowning. “You want to block the door with it?”

Mark shakes his head, still smiling, pushes the shelving aside, and kicks hard with his steel-toed work boot. The wall cracks and Mark turns to look at them with a wicked gleam in his blue eyes.

“I’ve been workin’ in Sanctuary since the start, but I just remembered,” he kicks again, and the break becomes a dent. “When buildin’ they were in a hurry. I saw the materials, helped unload the items, even. The doors are solid but…” another kick and the dent becomes a hole. Mark grins. “Most interior walls are plasterboard.”

April jumps to her feet and hugs the man. “Dude! I could kiss you!”

Mark pats her back and pushes her gently.

“Down, girl,” he says, laughing. “What would Dean think? He’d be disappointed, and I don’t step on my friends’ toes.”

“Nah, he wouldn’t,” she says. “Dean likes to play, but we never got anywhere,” April sighs. “Maybe his heart belongs to someone else.”

Sam crouches to peer through the hole into a darkened room with more shelves in it, feeling a telltale blush spread across his cheeks. He wishes what April said was true and that Dean would reciprocate Sam’s feelings as he did in Sam’s dreams… However, they didn't discuss the issue on their way to the bunkhouses—too much to catch up on and figure out, with the missing sun and everything else. Sam has to wonder. To what extent would Dean be willing to make Sam’s dreams a reality?

A chilling thought occurs to Sam, and a shiver runs down his spine, making his skin crawl. What did Dean say…? ‘I’m f*cking fed up of not being able to sleep in peace… Let me alone for once and for all.’ Except probably for the last one, they were Sam’s dreams, so Sam was the one in control. Was Dean willing at all? Were the dreams nothing but a selfish fantasy Sam unwittingly dragged his brother into? If so, did Sam force Dean to engage in something he didn't want?

Dean never could say no to Sam. If you can't say no, nothing is consensual. All of Dean's furtive glances on their way to the bunkhouse take on a new and dire meaning. Oh, God! Did Sam abuse his brother in trying to show how much he loves him?

He grips the jagged plasterboard and yanks with all his might. The hole enlarges with a crunching sound.

“Sam!” April cries. “Don’t do that! You’re going to hurt yourself!”

Yes, and I deserve it, Sam thinks.

“Stop, man.” Mark looks at Sam apprehensively. “I don't know what's gotten into you, but we need you at your best. Injured, you're not gonna be much help.”

Mark is right, and Sam hates him a little because of it.

It doesn't take much effort to widen the hole enough to get into the other room, and April lets out a happy squeal when Mark tries the handle and the door opens. Sam lingers a bit, taking in what is stored around them. This is the drug and laboratory supply store—dangerous products kept separate from meds in fireproof cabinets.

“Now, what?” Mark says, peeking out the door to check the corridor. He goes outside and returns a second later, Sam's cane in his hand. “They threw it away when they locked us in,” he says, handing the cane to Sam.

“First,” Sam says, grabbing the cane, “we get the hell out of here. Then, we find Dean.”

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Dean hears them approaching from his left before making out silhouettes among the trees. He co*cks the gun and glances up, tired, defeated. Despite remaining utterly still, his body has sunk to his waist. His muscles are numb from the cold and fear. His heart, however, is hell-bent on racing until it explodes. Perhaps it would be a better way to go—by a heart attack, rather than suffocating slowly and painfully.

“Have you come here to gloat?” He asks. His voice is broken, barely a hoarse whisper.

Genna sits Arnie on the ground, settling the boy's back against a fallen log. Arnie raises glassy eyes to her. He looks gone, drugged. Genna tenderly strokes his cheek, and he leans into her touch.

“Wait for a minute, sweetheart,” she says. “There’s something I have to do.”

She turns and walks warily, testing the ground with her feet, to stop at the wetland edge in front of Dean. She frowns.

"I didn't expect you to give up," she says.

Dean huffs a bitter laugh and sinks an inch or two.

“Yeah? Well,” he drawls. “I'm a goodie bag. Happy to entertain.”

She grouches, and Dean smirks. He will not show how defeated he feels to a monster, nor will he beg. Playing his co*cky persona is better, familiar. Something he can hold onto to the bitter end.

“How did you do it?” Dean asks because he’s curious, and if she humors him, it could take his mind off death. Maybe.

“Do what?”

“Blow up the lair.”

“Oh!” She lifts a strand of tousled hair and twists it around her finger. It would be cute… in a human girl. “Remember the cat litter? Do you know what happens if you heat ammonia enough?”

Dean arches an eyebrow. “It turns into gas….”

“It turns into an unstable, very flammable gas,” she agrees.

“Dude,” Dean chuckles and sinks a bit more. “I’d’ve loved to see it.”

“I bet,” she says and retreats into the forest.

He watches her disappear into the mist and feels bad for the kid. He hopes Genna will come back for Arnie… after. She promised, and Dean believed her. But how good are a monster's promises?

Silence expands, and Dean fights the urge to fidget, to squirm, to move. To scream out his panic and anger. He doesn't want to die. He doesn't want to die like this. Trapped, helpless.

Alone.

He pictures Sam in his mind as he saw him at Stanford before dragging him back to the hunting life: so carefree and happy. All dimpled cheeks and sparkling eyes. He wonders if Sam will feel the moment Dean’s heart stops beating. Whether Sam will be sad… or relieved.

He stares at his gun.

Genna seems to materialize out of the mist. She’s dragging a large branch no human wisp of a girl could lift. Dean’s heart skips a beat, unexpected hope blossoming in his chest.

She lays half the branch on the quicksand and sits down, hooking one of her legs around a root. Pushes the branch toward Dean slowly without letting go of her end.

“Grab it,” she says. “Move slowly. One inch at a time. Don't struggle, or you'll sink down, and I won't be able to pull you out.”

Dean grabs the branch.

Chapter 9

Chapter Text

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Thou shalt not fall
Thou shalt not die
Thou shalt not fear
Thou shalt not kill


Cry Little Sister — Gerard McMahon

The smell is the only warning Sam gets before seeing them. Had Sam known what they were going to stumble into, he would have sent April and Mark straight to the common building with the others, but Sam convinced them to take a detour around the back of the compound and along the edge of the forest, hidden from hostile eyes that could spot them through the research building windows.

It’s… shattering.

The two bodies are impaled on crudely carved pikes, disemboweled, their insides hanging out like a butcher's window display. It stinks of blood and sh*t as in a slaughterhouse. Whoever did this tried to burn the bodies, but the fire didn't get hot enough to catch in their soaked clothes… or maybe they did it on purpose—so that the two braves who went to the lighthouse would spend their last moments in panic as well as excruciating pain.

April whimpers and bends to retch. Mark doesn’t look any better than her.

“What kind of monster could do this?” the gardener whispers.

One of the human kind, thinks Sam bitterly.

In the background, obscured by the mist, the chapel mocks the corpses with the promise of denied shelter.

The chapel. Where some innocents went to pray.

Sam hurries as much as he can to hear faint sobs and pounding coming through the door. The very jammed door, blocked with two wedges brutally half-buried in the ground.

“Hey!” Sam shouts. “You all right?”

“Oh my God,” cries someone inside. “Help us! Help us, please!”

“Hold on! We’re gonna get you out of there!” Sam says and, turning, yells. “Mark!”

The banging on the door has increased with renewed fervor by the time Mark comes skidding in the wet grass next to Sam, April not far behind.

“Sweet Jesus,” Mark says, widening his blue eyes. He crouches to the ground and swears. “These’re iron wedges. The sumbitches stuck them in good with a mallet or somethin’.”

“Let's hope they didn't carry it with them,” Sam says, grinding his teeth. “We'll need the mallet to remove the wedges.”

They search through the tall grass and bushes frantically, stressed out by the cries for help coming from the chapel, until April finds the mallet half-hidden under some ferns. Mark grabs it with a somber frown and retraces his steps to stop in front of the chapel door.

“Back off!” he shouts. “Don't push anymore! You're just jammin’ the door!”

Mark raises the mallet and strikes the first wedge sideways, his arms bulging from the effort. Sam watches him work, feeling useless and trying unsuccessfully to reign in his self-contempt. A few well-placed hits later the door swings open and a bunch of terrified people rush out, gathering around them, everybody speaking at once.

“Thank God you came!”

“C’mon! We need to get out of here! He’s gonna come back!”

“The good Lord heard our prayers!”

“He’s crazy! He was gonna burn us!”

“Wait,” Sam says, shocked. “What?”

“He locked us in, said we were monsters,” a man says, torn between anger and fear. “He said monsters had to burn.”

“You know who he is?” Sam says.

“No clue,” the man shakes his head.

“I do,” says a woman, and sniffles. “One of the bricklayers, a bald guy broad as a bull.”

“sh*t!” Mark kicks the grass and a tuft flies up out of the ground. “Was he alone? Wasn't another big fella with him?”

“Not that I saw," says the woman, "but it happened so fast….”

“Mark, what is it?” asks Sam.

“I know who he is. We have to warn Dean. He's in serious trouble—”

A piercing scream cuts Mark off. One of the women has glimpsed the bodies on the pikes.

It's chaos from that moment on.

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Being able to see the horizon doesn't make the twilight any more bearable, but it does lift Dean's spirits a bit… until the wind slaps him in the face and he notices the leaden clouds looming in the sky, threatening to collapse over a gunmetal, churning sea. The twilight has darkened to a deep, indigo blue. Great. A storm was just what the nightmare was missing so far.

He tugs at his clothes. The mud has become an icy shell that weighs like armor. It's not that Dean has ever tried wearing any, but whatever. The chills and his chattering teeth are just one more annoyance. He is as numb on the inside as he is on the outside. He just wants to go back to the compound and see Sam. The sky can fall on his head next if it’s in the mood.

"I think it'd be better if we skirt the coast," Genna says. “It's a longer way, but I don't trust the forest.”

“You just want to see the critter coming,” Dean grumbles. Neither is under any illusions that the spider has given up the hunt, nor willing to let its prized possession slip away.

“See? I knew there was a brain hidden under your looks,” Genna retorts. Somehow she manages not to make it sound like a compliment.

“You said this is the Dream,” Dean says. “There’s nothing you can—?”

“I don't make the Dream, Dean. It’s something you humans do… although I can sometimes suggest stuff to willing ears. But, this nightmare? It’s out of control,” Genna grouses, tucking Arnie possessively under her arm. Dean wonders how they managed at the lair, and if Genna’s ‘suggestions’ are the reason Arnie is so out of it.

A particularly vicious wave breaks against the cliff and sprays them with foam, biting and cold as hail. The wind is not too bad yet, but it will get worse. If the storm catches them out in the open….

Genna glances at Dean and frowns, copper flashing in her eyes like embers. “Are you going to hold out?”

She’s not worried about him. Just assessing her assets.

Skirting the coast will take time, which they don't have. Genna said Arnie wasn’t awake; no, really? The kid is kind of sleepwalking—his body is here, but his mind is elsewhere, trapped by the Dream. Dean isn’t even sure if Arnie could run—f*ck it, he sure can't. If the bug finds them, they’re screwed. They need to get indoors to a place where they can protect the kid. Genna doesn't trust the forest, but Dean doesn't trust the Dream. The f*cking nightmare keeps terraforming, endlessly changing the island. Following the coast is a sure-fire guarantee of getting nowhere.

Dean taps inside, feeling the bond— that he can trust. He turns, walking back into the forest in a beeline toward Sam. Genna sighs exaggeratedly behind his back but follows him. Dean wonders when he started feeling comfortable with a monster at his six. Yeah. Right. Since she saved his life. Twice.

One step after another. No thinking. No fear. No pain. His mind empty except for the beacon of the bond and the motion of his feet. Carrying on. Like a wind-up toy until the spring runs down.

They hear the racket before they exit the forest line. Genna lays her hand on Dean's shoulder, wary, but Dean shakes her off and hastens his pace, drawing strength from where he thought there was none. There’s a bunch of people hurrying away towards the compound and pointing at the stormy sky but Dean’s vision focuses on a tall figure standing with his face to the wind, and everything else becomes white noise. There he is. Sam. Dean tries to call, but no voice comes out. Feeling him, Sam turns, and sags in what may be relief, maybe another feeling altogether. Something darker and not welcoming at all if Sam has finally come to realize how perverted and broken the piece of soul Dean shared with him is. The unnatural things it made Sam desire. A taint worse than demon blood.

April is there too, and sprints to meet them, followed by a man—Mark. Dean feels a weight lift from his shoulders. The gardener is fine. Dean didn't check, the bodies were hanging too high in the trees to see their faces, but he’d been afraid Mark had shared the same fate as Paul.

He wills himself to move forward, drawn to Sam like a moth to a flame, unable to take his eyes off his approaching brother… and trips over his own feet.

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“Whoa!” Mark exclaims and catches Dean before he crashes to the ground. He helps Dean to sit on the grass and turns to the others, disconcerted.

“What happened to him?” Sam asks Genna, crouching beside his collapsed brother and tilting Dean’s head to find green eyes looking at him in… fear? Sam’s heart gives an anguished somersault. The girl shakes her head, Arnie glued to her and unsettlingly absent. The kid must be in shock, but Dean looks like roadkill, his clothes drenched with caked mud and his skin gray.

Dean mutters a grumpy “Get off me, Jesus f*ck!” under his breath and fights feebly to get free.

April kneels on the ground as well, grabbing Dean's wrist. "Just look at him, his lips are blue, and his pulse is weak. Mild hypothermia, and exhaustion.” She glares at Genna, narrowing her eyes as if Dean’s state was Genna’s fault. “Did he fall in a pool of mud?”

“Quicksand, actually,” Genna replies, voice clipped. “Hero had a… mish*t.”

“You’re kiddin’, right?” Mark says weakly.

Dean tries to bat their hands away and Sam grabs his brother tighter, battling anger and fear and wanting to beat the death wish out of Dean if he must to keep his brother alive. Under his grip, Dean’s skin is clammy and cold.

“Sammy… please,” Dean whispers. “Help me stand up.”

It’s Genna who grabs Dean’s jacket and sets him on his feet. Sam looks at her, flabbergasted. There’s something different about Genna. Something hard and edged.

“Look,” Genna says. “We need to move—”

“What we need is to get him indoors and out of these soaked clothes,” April says, trying to pin the curls that the wind keeps blowing into her face.

“Genna’s right, Sam.” Dean struggles to brush him aside, but Sam stops him with a bruising grip. Dean looks pleadingly at him. “ ’s coming for the kid, gonna hunt us—”

“sh*t!” Mark cries, looking over his shoulder in fear. “J&B! I almost forgot. f*ckin’ psychos….”

“There’s no J&B anymore,” Dean says, tiredly. “Jordan is dead.”

“Well, Barlow ain’t, bat-sh*t crazy f*cker. Look at what he did,” grumbles Mark, pointing to the pikes. Dean’s eyes narrow, and then widen, taking in the macabre scene. “He was gonna burn the chapel with all those folks in it.”

“And Travis and Ward were going to kill us,” April chimes in. “But we broke free, and—”

“What?” Dean cries, piercing Sam with accusing eyes as if Sam were a kid who’d thrown a party at home in his parents' absence.

Mark and April start talking at once, trying to bring Dean up to speed on what has happened to them so far. Sam stares at Genna without letting go of his brother, a feeling of dread washing over him. Genna returns his gaze sternly.

Dean takes his gun out of his jacket, his eyes cold as ice. He stands straight, as sharp as if he’d dumped his fatigue aside and locked it in a box, putting himself together enough to assess the danger they are in. More so, to judge by his brother’s gaze, Dean has a plan. Dean’s fortitude never stops amazing Sam.

“Mark, get April and the boy to the dorm building.” Dean takes command as matter-of-factly as a general ordering his troops. “Gather everyone in some room with no windows, but where you can't get trapped if you have to flee. We don’t want a repeat performance of what happened at the chapel.” He checks the magazine and hands the .45 to the gardener. “If someone tries to break in, shoot first, question later.”

“What are you gonna do?” Mark says, taking the gun and easily adjusting his hand around its grip. This isn’t a first for Mark, and Dean smirks.

“We’re gonna fix this,” Dean says.

“I'm not letting Arnie out of my sight!” growls Genna, baring her teeth. “He's safer with me than with anyone else.”

“You’re wrong,” Dean says, staring Genna in the eye. “Look, we have an insane psychopath on the loose, armed assassins in the labs plotting who knows what mayhem, and a rampaging nightmare trying to eat us. There are too many open fronts and too many innocent people could get hurt, Arnie among them. Go with the kid and barricade yourself behind closed doors if you're too gutless to help. But, if we go down, you won’t get Arnie out of here alive and, of all of us, you’re the one most likely to make a difference.”

“Yeah?” scowls Genna. “And why should I?”

“Because you promised,” Dean deadpans.

Genna narrows her eyes and Sam gets the illusion of something dangerous and deadly coiling behind a girl's thin facade, but Dean squares his shoulders and stands his ground. Sam has no idea what’s going on, but he couldn’t be more proud of his brother.

The girl yields first in the dueling stares contest, muttering something that sounds like a curse behind her teeth, and gently pushes Arnie towards Mark and April. The kid grunts a protest, and Genna caresses his face.

“Go with them, sweetheart,” she says. “I’ll be back for you.”

“We’ll take good care of him,” Mark says, reaching for the kid.

"I'm counting on it," Genna says fiercely, glancing sideways at Dean. “I took an oath I cannot break.”

Sam feels out of his depth. What’s going on? There’s something he’s missing. Something crucial happened between Dean and Genna that Sam needs to know about. They rubbed the wrong way since they met, and now Dean wants Genna by his side? And, even more shocking, she complies?

“You’re going to the research building, right?” April chimes in. “I’m afraid for Dr. Cartwright….”

“Yeah,” Dean says.

The nurse looks Dean over from head to toe and shakes her head.

“You’re in no condition, Dean. You’re dead on your feet, and you, Sam,” she says, assessing. “No offense, but you can’t fight either. Maybe Mark should go with you….”

“No, April,” Dean says. “I need Mark to protect you guys if something goes sideways. We’ll be fine.”

“I highly doubt it, but here,” she picks a card key out of her pocket and hands it to Dean. “You're going to need this if you want to get into the labs, but first… remember the exam room? Look in the cabinet behind the stretcher for vials marked erythropoietin. I know you don't like needles,” she jokes weakly “but it’ll give you a chance.”

“April… thank you,” Dean breathes.

“I’d’ve loved to take that swim in the new pool with you,” April says. She looks at the sky and smiles bravely. “Maybe when you come back and it's in the morning.”

They watch the trio walk towards the compound, huddled against the wind—Arnie flanked by April and Mark. Sam realizes in shame that he didn't step in during the entire exchange even once, mindlessly surfing his brother’s wave. Exactly the same thing he has disowned about their relationship. Old habits die hard, but they will have to be broken sooner rather than later—if Dean is willing to put up with him once they get out of here, that is.

Sam is about to open his mouth, but Dean faces Genna as soon as the others are far enough not to hear.

“Is Sam the catalyst?” he asks, voice hard.

“No, he is not,” Genna says, reluctantly. “He opened the doors and mingled the nightmares, but the Dream’s boundaries were already broken.”

“Okay,” Sam says, uneasy. “What’s going on?”

“Oh! Right,” Dean turns to Sam. “Monster, meet brother. Sam, meet monster. Now can we—?

“What?!” Sam cries, staring at Genna and feeling a surge of anger and betrayal. He steps back, trying to drag Dean with him.

“Aww, Sam. Don’t be a racist,” Genna says, copper sparkles lighting up her eyes. Sam bares his teeth, nostrils flaring.

“Sammy,” Dean says “it’s fine. She’s a good one… like Lenore.”

“Right! That's why she lied and scared the hell out of me coming into my room the other night!” he cries.

“Sam, I’ve never lied to you, and I’ve never been in your room, neither in the Dream nor in the Vigil… Who’s Lenore?”

“A vampire,” Dean says, helpfully.

“I have nothing to do with those… things!” Genna says resentfully, scrunching her nose in disgust.

“If she wasn't, then what, Dean?” asks Sam, frustrated. “What was in my room? What's causing all of this?”

“I already told Dean, and I tried to warn you, Sam,” Genna huffs. “Do you remember what I said in the library? The nightmare, what Arnie called Limbo, has overflowed into reality. They,” she says, pointing her chin disdainfully toward the research building, “had to make something forbidden to achieve it, but I don’t know what they did. No synthetic drug could break the Dream this way.”

“Okay,” says Dean, his shoulders slumping a bit. “Stalemate. Can we discuss it on the way to the bunkhouse? April was right; I need to warm up. I… I'm… I'm not gonna take much more of this.” He pats his jeans, and a chunk of caked mud drops to the ground.

“Oh, sh*t! Dean, I’m sorry! You’re right.” Sam could smack himself. What's wrong with him? Why can't he concentrate on what (who) really matters? He feels scattered, and at the same time like a pressure cooker whistling warningly over a too-high fire—or is it the ringing in his ears keeping him from thinking straight? Maybe Douche hit him worse than Sam thought and he is concussed.

They go to the bunkhouses, Genna filling in Sam’s blanks about the Dream, Arnie’s nightmare, and what Dean did to free the boy; Dean walking quietly ahead of them, trying to pretend that he’s not about to fall flat on his face again and looking apprehensively over his shoulder every five seconds. As soon as they step into the bunkhouse, Dean heads straight into a room and comes out with clean clothes under his arm and his duffle in his hand. He drops it at Sam’s feet.

“Tell me you have an arsenal in there,” Sam tries to joke.

Dean shakes his head no.

“Just a spare gun, a phone with no coverage here, and some clothes. I had to travel light,” Dean says and walks stiffly to the end of the corridor.

Oh! Henriksen. Sam forgot about the FBI manhunt. One more thing he missed to add to the pile of shame.

As soon as they hear the shower start, Genna faces Sam and he stiffens at the fire in her eyes.

“When we made the deal, I saw inside Dean. He’s dying. He won't tell you, pigheaded dick that he is, but he’ll die unless you cut off the flow…” she sizes Sam up, aloof, ignoring his horrified expression, “…or you'll burst like an overstuffed balloon. It’s yet to be seen which will happen first. He’s running on empty, and you keep taking and taking… the human body isn’t built to withstand such abuse.”

Sam's heart stumbles a beat and then races. It must be a lie. Genna is a monster. She's f*cking with him because that’s what monsters do… except she isn't—Sam can feel that she’s telling the truth. An ‘overstuffed balloon’, she said, and Sam shudders, feeling like a filthy vampire. All the jittery energy he couldn't explain, that has been building and building since he arrived at Sanctuary… Is that what is wrong with him, instead of the after-effects of a gun butt to the head? Sam sways, suddenly dizzy, about to pass out from fear. Is he going to explode?

But, whatever happens to Sam, Dean can’t die, he can’t. Sam’s world would crumble without Dean in it.

“I don’t know how to stop…” he says. sh*t, he sounds like he's five.

“Then figure it out,” Genna says, sharp as shards. “And you better hurry. He doesn't have much time left.”

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It’s amazing what a hot shower, a change into dry clothes, and a shot of EPO can do for a man. Dean feels… not restored, but close enough. And then there's everything those people stashed here. No wonder Sam wanted to come back. Dean looks at the cabinets and lights up like a schoolboy in a candy store, his lips widening in a wolfish grin as he reads the tags.

“You look like a kid on Christmas Day,” Genna says as if she could read Dean’s mind (oh! wait, she can), turning slightly to look at him out of the corner of her eye while keeping watch on the hallway.

Sam scoffs but keeps looking at the chemicals in the cabinets, and Dean’s good spirits wane. Christmas was always a sore time for Sam, although Dean tried his best to cheer the kid up. Sam has been unusually short of words since Dean came back from the showers—keeping his distance, avoiding Dean's eyes, and overall walking on eggshells around him. Dean would bet Genna said something to Sam. Something she shouldn't have. Monsters are not good at empathy, and Genna can be pretty direct. That, or Sam is just being professional and waiting for the end of this mess to kick his disgusting brother to the curb as Dean deserves.

Dean picks up the stuff he needs from the cabinets and places the items carefully on the floor.

“Yeah?” he quirks an eyebrow at Genna and smirks. “Let’s make some presents.”

He picks sulfuric acid, potassium chlorate, an empty glass bottle, and starts working. That’s a homemade impact bomb, sweet and easy. He could make a nice flammable one with hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid, too. Oh! And all that alcohol and acetone would come in handy. In high school, his chemistry teacher complained that Dean wasn't paying attention in class, but that wasn’t true. It's just that Dean only paid attention when what was said was useful.

The f*cking spider is toast. Dean really needs to blow something up to vent his frustration.

“Someone’s coming,” Genna whispers, closing the door to just a crack and gripping Dean’s knife.

Dean jumps to his feet, pulling out the 9mm. He left the .45 and its higher stoppage power with Mark, but the Glock has a larger magazine capacity and less recoil—which his shoulders will be thankful for in the sh*tty condition he’s in. He takes Genna’s place by the door and glances sideways at Sam. His little brother has a resolved look in his eyes, his jaw tight. Sam looks meaningfully at him, and Dean nods.

Voices approach down the corridor—a woman, pleading, “Don’t do this, Brian. People died, and we don't know why. If you market the drug, a lot more will suffer. The FDA will find out—”

“I’m so tired of so much whining…” a man complains. “Can we just shoot the bitch, take the Source, and leave this place already?”

“You’re so dumb,” another man, colder. “The bosses are pissed. They want no trace of this mess for the CSIs to find. Bad enough we’ll have to burn the compound to the ground to clean up, and now we have one man dead by gunshot, you stupid trigger-happy asshole! We'll have to take the body with us and dump him at sea. I don't want to carry her to the launch, too.”

Muffled sobs, almost by the door… and then a little further. Dean tightens his grip on the 9mm. So, they intend to lock her in the storeroom and burn the compound with all the people trapped in it? Well, those f*ckers are in for a surprise.

“Wakey, wakey,” the first man sing-songs cheerfully as the latch of the next door unlocks. “We've got company for you.”

Dean peeks through the gap of the door to see two men trying to peer into the storeroom’s darkness—Dr. Cartwright caught in between them with a gun poking into her side. He slips into the hallway like a ghost, positioning himself at their backs and widening his stance.

“Where the f*ck did they go?”

“sh*t! We have to find them!”

Dean co*cks the gun, and they freeze.

“I don’t think so,” Dean says. “Hands in the air and turn really slow. Don’t give me more reasons to blow your f*cking brains out.”

He feels Sam stepping out into the corridor to stand behind him and a pinch to his left, but he doesn’t turn, his eyes pinned to the scumbags in front of him. Dean recognizes Brian Ward and who must be Joel Travis, both gaping at him in shock. The doctor looks about to faint.

“Wait, man. Let's talk,” the CEO says, raising his hands placatingly—hands that don't hold the gun. “There's a lot of money at stake—”

“What for, Brian?” Dr. Cartwright says in a voice choked with tears. “For a useless drug?”

“Drop. The. f*cking. Gun,” growls Dean, his eyes fixed on Travis—the piece of sh*t who hit Sam and is going to pay for it.

“This is a business!” Ward snarls to the doctor. “The board was getting antsy. We couldn’t wait any longer for you fussy researchers to yield results! But I was given something you wouldn't believe to amp up your sh*tty drug. And the result… f*ck, what a result! What we accomplished here? It’s better than an ordinary drug! It’s a weapon!

“Just think about it,” Ward turns to Dean, cajoling. “Let us go, and you’ll be rewarded. Think big, man. Six numbers big! You’ll be rich beyond your wildest dreams! Everyone will want to tap into this baby as soon as we perfect it. There are powerful people already very, very interested. A single dose and, boom! A bastard who gets what he deserves, killed by his own fear. Like a punishment from God Himself! Ah!” Ward laughs. “That would be a good trade name: Dies Irae!”

It happens fast. Travis pushes the doctor, putting her in Dean's line of fire, and she stumbles forward. Dean leaps to tackle her to the ground as a gunshot followed by a shriek resonates in the hallway. Dean rolls with the doctor on the floor, trying to shield her with his body and waiting for the pain from the gunshot to come.

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“Dean! DEAN!” Sam tosses the cane aside and lunges toward his brother.

Brian Ward is writhing on the floor, wallowing and thrashing in a puddle of hydrochloric acid that Sam threw at his head. Sam hurriedly drags his brother and the doctor away from the agonized CEO, although the effort triggers his headache even more, worsened by the bang of the gun in the enclosed space. Dean raises his head, looking at Sam in bafflement.

“Sammy…?” Dean rasps. “You okay?”

“Oh! For the love of…” Sam cries, exasperated. His brother looks fine, but it's hard to tell with the doctor clinging to him like a limpet. “Dr. Cartwright… Rebecca. Please. It’s over. I need to see if you're both okay….”

The doctor sniffles and sits up, letting go of Dean. There’s no blood on their clothes, and Sam breathes a relieved sigh. His brother is fine. Sam turns to yell at Genna.

“You could’ve got them killed! What were you thinking?!”

Genna comes out of the storeroom, bends down to remove the knife deeply buried in Travis' throat, and wipes it with the edge of the tech’s lab coat. She steps over the corpse, circles Ward as if the dying man were nothing, and extends her hand to help Sam up. Sam looks at her, pissed beyond words, and gets up by himself. Genna shrugs.

“They didn't know I was here, so I snuck into the storage room. I figured you were making too good a distraction to waste,” Genna says smugly and Dean looks aghast at her. She rolls her eyes. “Don’t make a fuss, Dean. When Travis moved, I saw the opportunity and took it. You would have done the same thing. Besides, I have a killer aim,” she jokes with no regrets whatsoever.

Dean stands up and picks up Travis’ gun, checks the chamber, locks the safety catch, and hands it to Sam. Then, he walks to the wall where a bullet hole is visible at the height of his chest. Dean ghosts his fingers over it and Sam can imagine what his brother is thinking. If Genna's fling hadn't deflected the shot….

“So,” Dean says. “I guess we finally know who took out the phones, and why. Those sons of bitches were intent on a massacre.”

“Travis murdered George,” Dr. Cartwright whispers, and Sam gasps. “George was trying to protect me, and Travis shot him in cold blood. They were going to kill me, to kill everybody. They were monsters,” she sobs.

“They were monsters…” Genna echoes with an indefinable expression. “What about you, Sam?” She says, pointing at Ward—who has stopped screaming, although his body still twitches with spasms as his head dissolves in a mess of blood and ruined flesh.

“I…” Sam swallows bile and squeezes his eyes shut, pinching his nose. He just killed a man in a grisly way. He should feel appalled, disturbed, but the ringing in his ears, while dulled outside, has come back in full force, growing louder and louder. His headache has worsened too. It doesn't allow him to think at all. “I just reacted. I…”

“Leave him alone, Genna.” Dean looks at Travis and Ward with contempt. “What's done is done. I'm more worried about how those two were planning to burn Sanctuary down. Did they plant bombs? And… Doc,” he says to Dr. Cartwright. “What the hell is the Source?”

“I have no idea,” Rebecca Cartwright shakes her head. “But there was something strange in the subjects' blood—something I had never seen before. I confronted Brian and demanded an explanation. That's when Travis pulled out the gun. George… George tried to disarm him, but…” Her voice breaks, and she sniffs. “What did they do? What did they adulterate my drug with?”

“Dean…” Sam clutches his head in his hands. The ringing is becoming a deafening siren, blaring in his ears. His skull feels about to shatter. He sinks to his knees, whimpering.

“Sammy!” Dean is with him in a flash, holding him, but the world is blurring around Sam, the ear splitting noise all that remains. He can barely hear what they are saying:

“What’s wrong with him?” Dr. Cartwright asks.

“That f*cker hit him in the head,” Dean spits.

“This could be a traumatic aneurysm,” the doctor says, worried. “We have to take him to the examination room—”

“No, it's something else,” Genna says thoughtfully. “Sam… I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt.”

“What? No!” Dean cries.

Genna takes him from Dean and a stabbing iciness washes over Sam. He jerks and fights her grip, but the noise is fading. It’s still there, a cry calling out for him, but now Sam hears it as if muffled through a pillow. He squeezes Genna’s hand in gratitude.

“The f*ck did you do?” Dean rips him out of Genna's arms, a wild look in his eyes.

“It’s fine, Dean.” Sam pets his brother’s face, dazed as if he had suddenly recovered from the worst hangover ever. “I’m fine.”

“He can feel it… their pain. Am I wrong, Sam? Are their screams what you hear?” Genna co*cks her head and taps her temple. “I could hear them, too… in your head. Why didn't they reach out to me? Why can’t I hear them?” She mutters and turns to glare at the doctor, her eyes a threatening blaze of copper. “What did you do ?”

“What are you talking about?” Dr. Cartwright raises her palms in fear.

“Genna…” Dean warns, stepping between the two women.

“Over there,” Sam says. He turns his back on the argument and starts walking down the hallway. The others follow him, muttering to each other, but he pays no attention. It’s calling out to him, luring him, and the time is due. Sam hastens his pace as he comes closer, answering the call. He stops in front of a closed door.

“Sam, there’s nothing in that room, just the boilers and an emergency generator in case the power goes off,” Dr. Cartwright says. “You’re probably concussed and disoriented. Come with me. Let me check you out—”

“That's why I couldn't feel them,” Genna growls in anger. “It’s warded .”

Sam raises his hand and a flood of… something rushes from the tips of his fingers as happened at Max's house, bursting the door open. Dean gasps behind him. Sam knows that Dean fears his powers and opposes their use, but the call is too deep inside Sam’s head to ignore. He’ll apologize later, but now Sam only has eyes for the figure bound in iron chains to a gurney, half-hidden behind the generator's bulk.

Sam enters the boiler room, forcing himself to get closer to the mære. It's just like he remembers it—pale, emaciated, humanoid, black eyes in a pointy face contorted in pain. Its wrists and ankles look burned by the iron, oozing a yellowish fluid, its chest is carved with sigils in a hunter’s handiwork, and its arm is connected to an IV. There are two blood bags hanging from a holder at the head of the gurney, both full.

“Oh, my God,” breathes Dr. Cartwright. “What is this?”

"This is what they spiced your drug with," Sam says, pointing at the blood bags, nauseated. More evil blood to recombine with what was already in his system. How long until his eyes turn black? How long until Dean is forced to keep his promise to John?

Genna circles Sam slowly to stand next to the mære and rests a hand on its head. The mære looks up and hisses softly. The call stops abruptly, and Sam lets out a relieved sigh at the blessed silence in his head.

“Yeah, I should have expected something like this,” Genna says, caressing the mære’s forehead. It hisses again and Genna’s lips quirk into a cruel smile. “Are you afraid of me, little sister? …You should be.”

“Is this it?" asks Dean, standing on the other side of the gurney and holding onto the pole for support. He’s pale as a sheet, and Sam wonders with a pang of guilt how much he took from Dean by breaking down the door. “Is this the catalyst of the nightmare?”

Genna stares at the pathetic thing on the gurney and starts talking, her gaze lost in memories and her features hard.

“They came in their large ships a long, long time ago,” Genna says, and her voice trembles. “The People were innocent and trusting. They decked themselves in red to welcome the warriors from beyond the seas, carrying presents of furs and redcurrants… but my kind was suspicious of foreigners and looked into their dreams. And with good reason. We found in the dreams of the son of Erik that he wanted the Land for himself.”

Sam stares at Genna, gobsmacked. What she said at the library… I was born in Saint John’s, Newfoundland. No. It can’t be. “Hold, hold on,” Sam stammers. “The son of Erik? Erik the Red ?”

“Yes, that's what they called him,” Genna nods. “We warned the Elders in their dreams about the outsiders’ true intentions, and there was war, on the Land as in the Dream. After years of bloodshed, the Land itself revolted and drove the outsiders out, but they left behind their little mæres to keep tormenting those who remained, and the People eventually withered and died. Without them, my kind was left adrift, thus we became less than we were.”

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Sam stares at Genna in awe. So, she is not just a simple nightmare-eater but a totem, some kind of tribal spirit. Sam didn't know they could take human form, unless…

He wonders if the real Genna is trapped inside that body, as he was when Meg took over him, and shudders.

“A charming tale,” says Dean, unimpressed, “but to the point: Some fool hunter caught a mære and sold it to a pharmaceutical, and the fools took the blood from a supernatural pest to amp up an experimental drug. That’s great! Let's play Dr. Morbius and see what happens!”

“Putting it crudely… pretty much,” Genna says.

“I didn't know about this," says Dr. Cartwright, appalled. She looks at Sam, pleading. "I swear I didn't know about this.”

“No one's accusing you, doctor,” Sam says. Dean glances at him, clearly disagreeing.

“So, if we gank this f*cker…” Dean says.

“The nightmare is linked to her,” Genna agrees. “You can kill her, weakened as she is and trapped in the Vigil world, but it might be somewhat… radical. The Dream could be withdrawn abruptly. And remember that the Sleepers are fueling the nightmare, too. They could get… damaged for a while. Instead, I can take her away. The effects of the drug will wear off sooner or later, and the nightmare will dissipate—”

“How long?” Dean asks. “How long will it take for the nightmare to 'dissipate'? How many people will die in the meantime?”

“I don’t know,” Genna says. “Two or three days, tops?”

Dean glares at Genna and narrows his eyes coldly.

“You can’t fool me.” Dean takes a step forward until his hip rests against the gurney. Is Dean so weak that he can't even stay on his feet? Sam is about to go to his brother but restrains himself. Dean has that look that has surfaced at times since Dad's death… the one that scares Sam. Dean wouldn’t welcome his aid.

“What you want is to take it with you,” Dean says, cold as ice. “To keep tormenting it… to get your pound of flesh and sate your revenge. Well, that's not gonna happen.” He draws his gun, quick as lightning, and shoots the mære at point-blank range. Twice.

“Dean!” Sam shouts, staring shocked at the gaping wound in the mære's chest. “Damn it! We don't know the consequences of what you’ve done!”

“What I’ve done?” Dean says, lowering his gun. “What I’ve done is mercy. Now, let’s get the hell out of here.”

Chapter 10

Chapter Text

And I'll be with you when the sun turns black
'Cause finding faith will always be the hardest
When you're standing in the heart of darkness
If there is one thing I can promise you
We'll see the light again


The Hammer’s Coming Down — Nickelback

Dean holds his breath, straining to hear something in the boiler room other than Dr. Cartwright’s muffled hiccups. Nothing feels different. Fool, what had he expected? That ganking the mære would be like flipping a switch, and the world would suddenly pop back to normal? But they are in a windowless room. Perhaps, when they exit the labs, dawn will be waiting for them on the other side….

Yeah, and the Impala will be magically parked out front, sparkling under the sun, with a cooler stuffed with a chilled six-pack in the trunk and a cheerleading squad waving pom-poms at them.

Dean would love to be an optimist at heart like his little brother, but the cynicism of years of hunting has slowly eroded his faith in good things. In all good things… except Sam. Sam is and always will be Dean's last bastion of hope.

He’s cold again, and feels old beyond his years—the artificial strength gained from the EPO spent. Whatever Sam did, it sucked a good hunk out of Dean’s batteries.

Dean glances at Sam, but avoids looking into his brother’s eyes so as not to see the reprobation Dean is sure he will find in them. Sam gets pissed when he assumes Dean acts before he thinks, but killing the mære was the right thing to do. Genna said the nightmare would dissolve on its own, and she was probably telling the truth, but how many more people could get hurt or worse in the meantime? Two or three days, she said. A lot of bad stuff can happen in two or three days.

Furthermore, Dean felt disturbed by Genna's story. He is more than familiar with what the desire for revenge can do, and to what extremes it can drive people. Genna is not people but sadly, in Dean's experience, monsters and human beings differ very little in this matter. Monsters do not inspire sympathy in him, after all he was raised to exterminate them, but Dean can't live in John's black-and-white world anymore. Over two years of hunting with Sam, Dean has learned to navigate shades of gray while trying to keep his moral compass intact.

It’s one thing to terminate a rabid dog, quite another to kill it with unnecessary cruelty and suffering. Gordon taught Dean that lesson well.

“We need to get rid of this thing,” he says. “It has to be salted and burned.”

“Fine, but let's do it outside,” Sam says, clipped. “We don't know if Sanctuary could blow up at any moment, and we have to warn the others.”

So, Sammy is pissed, but he has a point. Dean looks at the dead thing in disgust. He’ll have to carry the body outdoors now or come back for it later. But no, others could see the corpse, the very inhuman corpse, and it would be hard to explain. It has to be done now. The mære is no big deal, it’s no bigger than a skinny kid, but the thought of throwing the thing over his shoulder makes Dean’s skin crawl.

“We can carry it on the gurney…” Sam says as if reading Dean’s mind.

Dean nods and grabs the gurney. He starts pushing.

The floor under his feet trembles.

They exchange a startled look. A low groan arises from the ground, a deep grumble that speaks of impending doom. Dr. Cartwright turns wild eyes to them, holding her hand to her chest as if she wanted to clutch her heart within. Genna swears.

“I told you!” Genna charges, furious, her glare blazing copper at Dean.

“Out! Now!” shouts Dean, letting go of the gurney.

They rush into the hallway, the upward groan from the earth’s depths chasing them. The doctor cries out in fear when the first crack runs through the walls and the light goes off, replaced with flickering red emergency ones. The building whimpers under the strain, sending plaster dust cascading from the ceiling. Dean’s heart pounds in his chest, realizing that their exit routes may get blocked if they don’t hurry, but there’s something he needs to do first.

As they pass by the corpses in the hallway, Dean crouches down and frantically rummages through their pockets.

“But… what the hell are you doing?” hisses Genna.

“Looking for… this!” Dean says, triumphantly holding up the keys to what must be the launch Brian Ward talked about. Then he rushes into the drug storage room and picks up the homemade bomb he had finished from the floor, stuffing it into the inside pocket of his jacket. Genna's voice scorns him from the hallway.

“It'll do little good if the roof crushes you!”

Dean steps out of the storage room but doesn't answer. He only has eyes for Sam, who is on his feet, staring blankly at his forgotten cane discarded on the floor.

Aww, Sammy… you didn't realize until now?

The groaning from the earth is answered by a clap of thunder, and the hallway shakes violently beneath their feet.

“The Dream is about to collapse!” cries Genna. “Out! OUT!”

They run, gripped by a primal panic, stumbling in the swaying hallway to burst through the door… and stop dead in their tracks, gazing in awe at their surroundings.

“f*ck me,” Dean whispers.

The blue twilight is gone, but the night sky is ablaze with vibrant greens, blues, and purples instead—swirling curtains of light dancing across the darkness in a breathtaking display. The colors are so bright that not even the moon, low on the horizon, can dull them. They flicker and twist like living things, casting an otherworldly glow over the landscape. In the cloudless sky thunder cracks, deafening, and the wind howls in the throes of a dry storm as if the Dream was undecided about which new and exciting catastrophe to pick next before going out with a bang. Dean frowns and locks eyes with Sam.

It's not just the wind that howls.

His eyes dart right and left, frantically searching for the threat among the riot of colors pouring down from the sky. Sam grabs Dean’s sleeve and points.

There, on the trail leading to the pier, a tortured form writhes in the agony of change under the bone-white beams of the full moon.

Zachary Barlow has been ensnared by the Dream, entangled in the nightmare. His body is turning into something else—taller, wider… furrier. A grotesque Lon Chaney copycat stuck in his transformation but failing to complete the metamorphosis. It's not possible with the whistle of the wind and the groan of the ground overflowing his senses, but Dean falls into the delusion of hearing bones break and reform. Barlow turns glowing red eyes straight to him and howls, long and wild, in a bottomless hatred.

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“Go! To the main building, before it's done changing!” Yells Sam over the wind, pulling a whimpering Dr. Cartwright along. The doctor shakes her head in negation, her rational and scientific world shattered over and over again, faced with the evidence of the impossible.

“Sam…,” Dean stammers, defeated. “I-I don't have any silver bullets on me, I…”

“It’s fixed on you, Dean!” Genna shouts, grabbing him when the next quake threatens to throw Dean off his feet. The earth moans and a rift opens a few feet to their left, wafting a graveyard stench over them. “You can’t go with the others! You must keep it away!”

Keep it away from Arnie, thinks Dean. But she’s right; the catch is that Dean doesn't know if he’s up to the task of playing bait for another monster.

Sam steps forward and pushes Genna away from Dean. His expression is as hard as steel.

“I'm not leaving my brother alone!”

Dean’s heart swells.

I wish it were true. Oh, how much I wish it were true!

“The greenhouse,” he says, remembering the chainsaw stashed in it. Any kind of monster would find it difficult to stay alive without a head on its shoulders. “There’s stuff in the greenhouse… if we can get there.”

They run, or rather try to, trudging along the rolling earth and pushed by gale force winds. It’s like moving through molasses, struggling in that agonizing crawl of stretched time that nightmares flaunt. They skip the dormitory building, staggering blindly under the whip of the wind, to dive through the wreckage the twisted corridors have become and which now resemble the crushed passages of a dungeon. Dean pants, the air burning as it moves in and out of his lungs and a painful pang in his side. He would have fallen, jumping lamely over the debris scattered around, had it not been for Genna's iron grip as they finally stumble into the greenhouse, the glass roofs reflecting the fires in the sky like a Swarovski crystal.

It’s the stench of ammonia that makes Dean and Genna stop in their tracks, but Sam and the doctor are unaware and keep running ahead… to get entangled in a tuft of silk.

Add fuel to the fire…

Dean launches forward, his eyes captive to Sam’s frightened face, but Genna manhandles him in a display of supernatural strength, embracing Dean to force him to stop. Dean tries to headbutt her, but she rolls with his movement and hisses. Sam has his hand over the doctor's mouth, whispering urgently in her ear, “Stay put, for f*ck’s sake! Don’t struggle!”

It’s nowhere to be seen, but Dean's hair stands up on end nonetheless. Did it weave this trap before or after the one in the forest? Is it abandoned… or quite the opposite? Dean curses the lush vegetation and the drunkenness of colors reflected in the steam escaping from the roof pipes and mingling with the mist to become a thick fog, making it impossible to make out anything—the glass walls keeping outside the wind that could clear the atmosphere in the greenhouse and make it less oppressive. Sweat pours from his forehead, and not just because of the sudden rise in temperature.

He feels watched, measured. He feels like prey.

Genna pulls out her knife and walks slowly toward Sam, balancing like a ballerina on the unstable ground. Dean draws his gun, watchful for any movement, any noise, and prays to a god he no longer believes in.

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Sam holds his breath, watching Genna approach with a knife in hand. Despite Dean's confidence in Genna, fear and uncertainty grip his heart. Is she going to release them, or will she kill them? The mære is dead, and the nightmare gestated from its blood will wither and die soon. Are they still useful to Genna, or have they become an obstacle? Sam loathes his naivety. He crushed his incipient suspicions because Genna seemed so harmless, just a simple girl… just like Madison.

Dr. Cartwright jerks in his arms. She is terrified, trembling violently in a state of animal panic. Sam feels sorry for her, but they can’t afford her struggles ripping up the threads and alerting the owner of the trap. Sam will knock her out if necessary. He recalls Arnie’s drawings of the spider, and a shiver runs down his spine.

Genna stops in front of them and carefully studies the silk threads as an artificer would the wires of a bomb, chooses one, and brings the knife closer. The sharp blade cuts the thread like a razor, and Sam lets out in relief the breath he was holding in.

The greenhouse is pregnant with tension as Genna works methodically through the threads. A new tremor makes the structure sigh around them, whispering secrets to the tempest above, and Sam is overwhelmed by a profound sense of urgency. He should help; he could help if he reached for the dark power that wells inside him. He could burn the threads down like paper lanterns with a wave of his hand… but he could kill Dean doing it.

Genna turns sharply, facing the greenhouse entrance, and Dean tenses up and raises his gun one second later. Something is coming.

“Hurry!” Sam whispers to Genna. “Hurry, damn it!”

Barlow enters the greenhouse like a force of nature.

Sam has faced werewolves before, but this one is… wrong. He only has time to catch a glimpse of a disproportionately enormous bulk, huge claws, and pointed fangs protruding from a long snout like that of a predator before Dean starts shooting. Barlow jerks and stumbles backwards with each impact, but keeps coming like a panther on the prowl, a low growl in his throat and his eyes glowing like hellfires.

Genna slashes the remaining threads, any precaution forgotten in the face of imminent danger. Sam scrambles, hindered by the sobbing doctor, to reach the gun at his back even at the risk of becoming entangled again in the trap—aware beforehand that his gun will be pointless. Dean also knows that his bullets are useless, but he yells like a warrior on the battlefield as he keeps shooting, feet firmly on the ground, not budging back an inch and buying time for them to flee. Despite the mortal danger they are facing, Sam's stupid, lovesick mind takes a second to think that his brother looks magnificent. But then the werewolf howls in response—a sound so full of hatred that it chills Sam’s blood.

Barlow may not be a true werewolf but a nightmarish character concocted by the Dream. However, he seems to abide by the rules, and none of their magazines are full of silver. Dean is a prime shot. The shaky ground has hardly impaired his aim. Even though the beast’s body is a bloody mess already and such damage should have slowed him down, silver or not, Barlow keeps moving forward. He stops within twenty feet of Dean, and crouches low, muscles coiling under the fur, ready to pounce…

But he can’t. A black blade emerges from Barlow's body with a wet thunk, and Sam gasps, freezing. The impact lifts the werewolf more than an arm's length off the ground, and the beast howls in pain this time, slashing blindly with its claws in the air.

The spider slowly descends the wall, Barlow skewered on one of its front legs, his claws unable to reach its monstrous body. The former bricklayer writhes in agony, still slashing, rabidly but futilely, at the monster. Sam doesn’t know if Barlow can die like this, but the pain must be excruciating. Yet, he remembers the impaled bodies in front of the chapel and can't help but note the poetic justice of Barlow’s predicament.

Sure of its immediate prey, evil, faceted eyes fix on them. Sam takes aim, and Genna wields her knife, her eyes a copper inferno, but the doctor shrieks. She shakes off Sam's grip and runs in panic. The spider sways gracefully, riding another quake unperturbed even with Barlow's considerable weight hindering its movements, and Sam has the horrified certainty that it’s about to jump on them. Sam’s finger moves to pull the trigger….

“DOWN!” Dean yells, throwing something at the monsters.

Oh, f*ck, the homemade bomb.

Sam instinctively drops to the ground and buries his head in his arms as a flare blasts over his head. He rolls over, trying to evade the explosion's scorching heat, and crawls blindly on wet soil like a worm for what must be a few seconds but lasts for eons, his mind trapped in a loop of move away, move away, move away, move away….

“Sam!” Genna cries in anguish.

Sam dares to raise his head to face chaos: what remains of the monsters is a ball of fire burning furiously on the ground. The flames reach the silk threads, which start burning upward like rags doused in gasoline, spreading fire all around the place. But it’s not the unleashing conflagration that triggers Sam’s panic and makes him spring into action. Genna is crouching over Dean, clapping her bare hands onto the smoking fabric of his clothes as if her body were not made from vulnerable flesh and bone.

Sam jumps to his feet, already taking off his jacket to throw it over his brother and looking panic stricken at Genna.

“Get him out,” she shouts over the roaring flames. “I’ll get the doctor.”

Sam doesn't argue, takes his brother in his arms, and gets up with adrenaline-fueled urgency, staggering towards the exit and turning his back to the fire to walk out into the storm.

He lays Dean on the ground, in the meager shelter of the collapsed structures, surrounded by debris and twisted plexiglass sheets, and looks for a pulse. It’s there, but weak and erratic. Dean's hair is singed and his face looks red from the explosion as if he got a bad sunburn. Sam is afraid to move Dean's clothes aside—images of burned people with their flesh stuck to charred fabric come to his mind. He carefully peels Dean’s jacket open and sighs, relieved. Thank goodness Dean wrapped himself in more layers of clothing than an onion.

Sam rests his ear on his brother's chest next and cringes at the rasping noises in Dean’s lungs. Yeah, Dean's clothes don't look that bad, but the wheezing in his lungs worries Sam more. His brother threw the bomb standing too close to the monsters. The fire had to have launched a blast of scalding air that Dean could not help but breathe along with the chemical particles expelled.

Dean has burned lungs.

Sam realizes that Dean is dying.

Despair overwhelms him, and tears stream freely down his cheeks. Sam holds his brother in his arms and weeps—the cataclysm on the outside paling in comparison to the torment inside. This is Sam’s fault. Dean is strong, he could have dodged the blast if he had moved faster… if he were whole. Dean would be fine had he not emptied himself into Sam. Shaken by sobs, Sam realizes with absolute certainty that he won’t live in a world without his brother in it.

Now, Sam can fully understand his brother's desperation at Cold Oak.

Cold Oak.

Daring to hope, Sam opens Dean's shirt, fumbling for the amulet. The amulet that Sam gave innocently to his big brother and Dean hasn't taken off since.

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Sam was a kid then and didn't know what he was doing, but now he does. His eyes are wide open. He is aware of the risks he is about to take, but Sam doesn't care. Nothing matters if he can't save Dean.

The words of the incantation, just as Dean said them in the dream, stand out in his mind. Sam carefully pulls the leather cord over Dean’s head and passes it over his own, thus taking ownership of what once was his, grips the horned head, and brings his lips to his brother's, pouring his whole will and his love into the arcane words. Praying with all his might to be heard, to be worthy. At his back, the greenhouse panels explode in a hail of shattered glass, but Sam doesn't notice it, plowing through the incantation again and again, because Dean's lungs are failing. He… is… not… breathing!

Sam feels when the spell takes—a sharp pain as if the incantation were ripping his rib cage open to shred his heart in two, but Sam endures the pain and keeps his lips on his brother's. A fiery flow pours from his chest into Dean's to be countered with an icy void, and Dean seizes in Sam’s arms. The two forces collide, and it’s like two tides crashing into each other. For a few, agonizing seconds, Sam fears that the opposing forces will tear them to shreds, but the currents mix as if two oceans were mingling, and then there is quiet and a wondrous sense of balance, of rightness. It is as it was meant to be.

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Sam reluctantly pulls his lips away from Dean's and lets his tears spill freely over his brother's cheeks as the nightmare unravels around them.

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“He’ll be fine,” a voice says over his shoulder. “You two will be fine now.”

Sam raises his reddened eyes. Genna is standing by their side, soaking wet. Her long hair drips on Dean as she bends over to look at him closer. Sam stares at her, puzzled.

“How’s it that—?”

“—I'm soaked?” Genna says nonchalantly, purposely misinterpreting Sam's question, and shrugs. “Me and the doctor got trapped. Inside the greenhouse was hell, so we jumped into the pool.”

Sam guffaws… and cannot stop, but his hysterical laughter soon turns into sobs. Genna kneels beside him and places a pale hand on Dean’s chest.

“He’s fine, Sam. Just unconscious,” she reassures again, and Sam sniffles away his tears and struggles to put himself together. “The burns on his arms will have to be attended to, but he’ll be fine.” She turns to Dean and gently brushes a lock of scorched hair away from his forehead. “Stubborn and reckless bastard…” she says with something akin to tenderness, “of all the hunters I could run into, it had to be you.”

Sam eyes Genna, flummoxed, and she rolls her eyes.

“What can I say,” she flashes a crooked smirk. “He’s grown on me, the f*cker.”

Sam barks a laugh that becomes a new sob. Genna pats him awkwardly on the back.

“The two of you…” she says, shaking her head. “What a piece of work you are!”

"Can you see what I did?" asks Sam. Dean is breathing easier now, but the doubts are piling up again in Sam’s mind. “I gave it back? Is he whole?”

“Oh, Sam…” Genna sits on her haunches and looks at him. “You gave back nothing—”

“B-But,” he stammers. “You said that he’s fine!”

“He is,” Genna nods, “but what he gave to you freely is yours to keep. Gifts like that cannot be returned because they become part of the giftee. But you did the same thing for him that he did for you. You shared your soul with your brother, and now both of you are in balance—no more emptiness and no more excess. Equilibrium restored.”

Had I known, would I have done it? Sam wonders, and immediately, Yes, without a doubt.

“f*ck!” Sam says. “Dean’s gonna kill me.”

“No, he won’t.” Genna takes Sam’s hand in hers, glances at Dean, and chuckles. “He’ll rage for a while, that’s for sure, and he’ll freak out, but… Sam. When we made the deal, I saw inside Dean—it's how the deals work. I saw everything. He loves you. He truly does. As much as you love him. In the same ways you love him. He’ll come to terms with what you two are now.”

Hope blossoms in Sam’s heart, and the tiny fluttering thing inside Sam that is Dean’s curls around it and settles with a satisfied sigh.

“And what are we?” he asks, feebly.

“You are one,” Genna states. “Treasure what you have, Sam. It’s something precious that very few achieve in their lifetime.”

Sam looks into Genna’s eyes. They show a rich brown color and a yearning in their depths. A loneliness carried for centuries. Sam realizes in a breathtaking flash of understanding that even monsters crave love.

And, apparently, monsters can also play Dr. Phil.

Sam fidgets, feeling exposed. Genna grins, realizing that The Moment is over, and gets to her feet. She tilts her head, listening.

“Help is coming,” she says.

Sam looks at her blankly.

“C'mon, Sam,” she huffs. “The nightmare is over, and the Dream is remaking its boundaries, fast. I sent the good doctor to the main building to check on the others—to start dealing with the aftermath. She has a lot to explain and a lot to atone for. She was eager to buy the tale you came up with about the collective hallucination, and I’ll back her up when law enforcement arrives, but I have a feeling you guys shouldn't be here when the cops show up, so I ordered her to do a couple of errands as soon she gets to the main building.”

Genna straightens up and looks at the sky, at the serene, starry night above their heads, and rocks slowly on her heels as if basking in the quiet of nature…

“Genna!”

An excited teenager throws himself into Genna's arms. She laughs, staggering from the impact. A salty breeze ruffles her hair, and suddenly, Sam is looking at the old Genna—the hippie chick he met in the dining hall with her charming smiles and lively gestures. The change is so abrupt that Sam shakes his head in bewilderment.

“I had the weirdest dream!” Arnie blurts. “It was crazy, and when I woke up Mark told me that there was a quake or something. f*ck, and I missed it! You wouldn’t believe …” The boy suddenly notices they are not alone and looks at Sam, blushing. “Hi…, Sam…”

“Arnie…” Sam nods. “I’m glad to see you’re okay.”

“And why wouldn’t I be?” Arnie says, puzzled. He points his chin at Dean’s prone form. “What’s wrong with him?”

Sam smiles at the boy, and Arnie frowns so much that it wrinkles his nose. Sam holds back a bubbling chuckle. His fingers brush over Dean's throat, feeling the pulse, strong and regular under the skin, and it grounds him. He exchanges a knowing glance with Genna.

“Nothing wrong. He's had a… rough day.”

Mark approaches them, dodging the debris.

“You were right,” the gardener says to Genna. “There is a dinghy hidden in the lighthouse… Woah! Is Dean…?”

“He’s okay, Mark. Just… spent,” Sam says.

“Sam… sorry to intrude, but you shouldn't leave, especially not in the middle of the night. It doesn't matter what she says," Mark objects, looking sideways at Genna. “He should rest. We can take him with those who just woke up and—”

“Mark…” Sam bundles his jacket and puts Dean’s head on it carefully, standing up. It’s good to be on his feet again. He lays a hand on the gardener's shoulder. “I appreciate your concern, I really do, but she’s right. We need to go. Dean… got into some trouble a few months back, and it wouldn’t turn out well for him to be here when law enforcement arrives.”

“Do I wanna know?” Mark asks.

Sam chuckles. “No, no really… Will you help us get out of here?”

“ ‘course,” Mark says.

They go to the lighthouse, Mark carrying Dean after Sam stumbled lifting his brother up, Genna and Arnie chattering to each other, apparently catching up. Sam listens halfheartedly to them talking. He would like to know what story Genna is pulling out of her hat, but he feels too tired to make the effort. However, it’s a good tiredness—the kind Sam would expect after everything he has endured. Just average fatigue, and Sam is grateful for it. It means that things are back on track, back to normal… or as normal as life can be for a Winchester.

Sam waits at the foot of the lighthouse while Mark, 'assisted' by Arnie, lowers a Zodiac to the water and Genna snorts at the teenager’s antics. Sam hops in and, with Mark's assistance, carefully lays Dean in the inflatable boat. Sam searches in Dean's pockets until he finds the key and tests the engine, suddenly worried that it won't start, or is out of gas, or….

The engine sputters to life and Sam sighs, relieved.

“Oh! Give this back to him, wouldya?” Mark reaches around his back and pulls out Dean's .45. “If the cops are gonna come and make a fuss, I don't wanna get caught with this on me.”

Sam takes the gun and squeezes Mark’s shoulder.

“You’re a good man,” Sam says “and a good friend. I'm glad Dean could count on you when I… wasn't around.”

Mark blushes fiercely for a man his size and age, pats Sam’s shoulder muttering a goodbye, and hops off the Zodiac to walk down the pier, followed by Arnie. Genna scoffs, amused by the men's silliness.

“Take care of him, Sam,” she says as a farewell.

“Always,” Sam replies and steers the Zodiac north.

It is a beautiful summer night. The sea is calm, and Sam sails towards Stonington without running into any hazards. It’s not difficult to find his way, with the moon illuminating the dark waters like a pale lamp. Sam has decided not to navigate through the archipelago, following the ferry route and risking crossing paths with other boats, but to skirt it. It’s an easy task because he just has to keep all the islands to his left. A welcome respite, surrounded only by the sea, the quiet, and the reassuring feeling of Dean within. A much-needed time to plan his next steps. He gave up trying to calculate the passage of time while they were wrapped up in the nightmare, but it’s not too long when Sam sees Stonington in front of him—hard to miss with the festival still going on and lights and music spilling all over the bay.

Slowing down, Sam pilots the Zodiac towards the outskirts and spots a small jetty outside the town limits. Approaching carefully, Sam checks that there are no lights on the lonely building next to it and no people in sight, but skips the jetty and grounds the Zodiac on the pebbled shore. He jumps off and, melting into the shadows, walks crouching toward the only two vehicles parked on the concrete lot next to the building—a refrigerated van with Stonington Lobster Co-Op painted on the side and an old, battered Ford pickup.

Fingers crossed, he tries the Ford’s door… which opens with a creak. Sam cringes and strains his ears, but only the bustle of the festival can be heard in the distance. The Ford looks as scruffy on the inside as it does on the outside, but Sam is not deterred. He lowers the sun visors and searches the dashboard, but the owner hasn't left the truck keys inside. Cursing to himself, Sam climbs out of the cab and searches the Ford's bed. There's a toolbox attached to one side. Sam rummages inside and pulls out a screwdriver, as blunt and battered as everything else, to disassemble the dashboard panel and hotwire the truck.

The old engine coughs, spits, grunts… and starts up. Sam hurries back to the Zodiac, impelled by urgency—the sky is clearing in the east. Dean shifted while he was alone, lying on his belly as he usually does when sleeping and now he’s snoring softly. Sam reaches for his brother, and Dean stirs and groans.

“C’mon, man. Help me here,” Sam says, draping Dean's arm over his shoulders and making him sit.

“ ‘mmy?”

“Yeah.”

“ nnngh…?”

“Never mind,” Sam mutters, lifting Dean up and grabbing him by the waist. They both get out of the Zodiac and stagger to the Ford. Sam manhandles his semi-unconscious brother onto the shotgun seat and hops behind the wheel. He wastes a few seconds to center himself and takes off his jacket, tucking it over his brother, and pocketing in it Dad’s journal and the .45. He keeps the other gun in his lap, and Dean's phone in his hand. As expected, Bobby's number is on speed dial. Sam punches in the number and puts it on speaker, but he doesn't wait for the answer. Sam is already driving off the lot when the first dial tone rings.

As they leave Stonington behind, the sun rises proudly in the rear-view mirror.

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Two days afterwards

Sanctuary — Monday morning

Victor Henriksen steps out of the helicopter and surveys the desolation around him.

“What happened here, man?” whispers his partner. “A hurricane, tsunami, tornado?”

Although this is a rhetorical question, Reidy has a point, thinks Henriksen. Sanctuary Research Institute is still standing, but the effect is what one would expect from a tornado… or a war zone. There is broken glass and debris everywhere. What are supposed to be the laboratories, according to the satellite pictures submitted to the Bureau, seem to have taken the brunt of it. As far as Henriksen can see, there is fire damage too. And that twisted ruin in the center of the compound must be what remains of the greenhouse. Maybe the buildings can be saved if there’s no structural damage, but that greenhouse looks like a bomb dropped on it.

“You know darn well there was no tornado here,” Henriksen says.

“Yeah, nor an earthquake,” grumbles Reidy. “The USGS ruled it out. Their instruments haven’t recorded a single tremor in the Maine area over the last month.”

Neither a storm, nor an aurora borealis, nor a twilight lasting for 24 hours, thinks Henriksen with a sneer.

He read some witness statements on his way to Maine—conflicting, contradictory, f*cking lunacies. Just the mere suspicion of foul play on the part of the pharmaceutical company, as stated by Dr. Rebecca Cartwright, Sanctuary Project head researcher, would have been enough to draw the FBI here. If the doctor's accusation is well-founded, the trial could become the scandal of the year, with million-dollar lawsuits in its wake.

If it is well-founded and not craziness, like some of the other statements. Henriksen will have to interview all these witnesses, at least as many as he can before they scatter to the four winds. Some have already gone home on the condition of being available for further questioning, while others are housed in municipal quarters in Stonington, waiting their turn. But they can leave, they are not under arrest, nobody has been charged with anything… yet.

Separating the wheat from the chaff until it becomes clear what happened here is going to be a f*cking pain.

But that’s not what brought Henriksen to Sanctuary. Not by a long shot.

A man in his fifties turns away from the bunch of CSIs working in front of the buildings and strides toward them with a grim look on his face.

“Reidy,” Henriksen says.

His partner doesn’t need further instruction. He walks over to who must be the Stonington Sheriff with his FBI badge already in hand and talking a mile a minute before the officer has the chance to open his mouth. Henriksen nods, he’s not in the mood to put up with the bullsh*t of a country bumpkin, no matter how much of a sheriff he is. Reidy will handle the man, Henriksen has other matters to attend to. The pictures of the carnage are still fresh in his mind.

Eleven people died. Eleven people were murdered here, each one in a more gruesome way. And it remains to be seen if, once all the debris is cleared, more victims will appear to add to the count.

He walks briskly over the ruined grass to the edge of the forest, where the chapel is, and a little further on, to where yellow tape marks the spot where two men were impaled. Henriksen stops and looks at the holes in the ground, the only thing left of the savagery committed against two innocent human beings. He clenches his fists and feels a muscle jump in his jaw.

Henriksen has to applaud the Coast Guard's zeal. A patrol spotted a flare-up in the early hours of Sunday morning and rushed to check that a forest fire had not broken out on the island. After the astonished radio transmission from the patrol, the emergency teams arrived shortly, followed by the police department's boats, and the evacuation began immediately. Amidst all the hubbub, it was fortunate that the police officers on the scene noticed that there was salvageable video footage in the research institute, and took it to the police station. Even more fortunate that the rookie assistant who was in charge of viewing the footage was a good physiognomist.

The patients’ recordings have yet to be viewed, but Henriksen expects the court order any day now. The recordings from the labs before the cameras stopped working, however…

The Evidence Response Team is still examining the scene. The bodies have been taken to Bangor and handed to the forensic team, but the Deputy Director has assured Henriksen that he will be the first to read the reports and that Maine law enforcement will be at his full disposal. The State Police can grumble all they want, this case is his.

Sixteen hours after the Coast Guard set foot on Sanctuary, a grainy photograph of Dean Winchester, armed and apparently threatening three people, one of them Dr. Rebecca Cartwright, reached the Bureau and set off all the alarm bells. Three hours later Henriksen arrived at Washington-Dulle International Airport, on his way to Maine.

No one is going to take this case away from Henriksen, no matter how big it gets or how many powerful people may be involved.

Dean Winchester is his.

Chapter 11

Chapter Text

Call me a sinner, call me a saint
Tell me it's over, I'll still love you the same
Call me your favorite, call me the worst
Tell me it's over, I don't want you to hurt
It's all that I can say
So I'll be on my way


Call Me — Shinedown

The first time he wakes up, Dean knows he is dreaming.

It's a sh*tty dream, because he's thirsty, hungry, and aches all over.

Dean opens his eyes a slit. He's slumped against the door of a rusty pickup truck, rattling along a crappy road who the f*ck knows where. Sam is behind the wheel, his chin pointing forward as if he could make the piece of junk go faster by the sheer force of his will. Sam glances at him and a warm hand lands on Dean’s thigh and squeezes.

“Go back to sleep, Dean. You need rest.”

He’s dreaming, because they’re on the road. Together.

It’s not a sh*tty dream, after all.

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The second time Dean wakes up he guesses he’s still dreaming.

He’s dreaming because he’s lying on a bed in a motel room. Dean recognizes where he is because he grew up from motel to motel and knows how they feel.

He’s dreaming, because Sam is in bed with him, glued to his back, and big-spooning him.

Dean’s heart jumps against his ribcage, and his body stiffens. He tries to squirm free, but Sam's arm around his waist pulls him tighter, and Sam breathes a tiny puff of contentment in his ear. Panicking, Dean tries to come up with something, anything, to get free.

“Sammy…”

“mmm…?”

“I need to pee…”

After a couple of agonizing seconds, Sam’s arm loosens and Dean slips out of bed as if he were a boneless thing to curl in a heap on the dirty carpet, shivering.

Dreams can't be trusted anymore.

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The third time Dean wakes up, he wishes he were dreaming.

Again, he’s lying on a bed, but this one doesn't have a lumpy mattress, the pillow is a fluffy thing, and the sheets smell like fabric softener. The room he’s in is not a motel room, but a bedroom.

Dean jumps out of bed but, dizzy, has to prop his hand against the wall. When the world stops spinning around him, Dean dares to open his eyes again. Yup, a bedroom under the roof, clean but not fancy—it looks like the homeowner upgraded the attic to gain an extra room.

An unknown bedroom. In an unknown place he doesn't know how he got to.

More worrisome, he’s alone. He’s alone, in an unknown house, in whose the f*ck knows bedroom… in just his boxers.

Dean runs a hand over his head and frowns. Where he was used to a mop of hair, his skull is shorn short, and his arms are bandaged up to his elbows.

The sloping roof has a skylight obscured by a piece of curtain-ish fabric. Dean approaches and pulls the cloth aside. In front of him stretches a dirt road and, just across, a wooden building flanked by prickly pears and some thirsty acacia trees providing shade to the lot. Out front there is a sign that says: New Harvell's.

Dean knows where he is—at Ellen’s place in Bumf*ck, Oklahoma… strategically located on a service road between Interstate 44 and Route 66. Now, he needs to figure out how he got here.

Somewhat calmer, Dean takes a look at the bedroom.

He doesn't see his old clothes anywhere, but on a chair sits a Goodwill bag. Inside, Dean finds a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a shirt in his size. Under the chair are the boots Maggie bought him, with clean socks balled up and peeking out. On the bedside table there is a bottle of water and another of aspirin. In the drawer, Dean finds his .45 and Dad's journal, his silver ring as well as Jordan's ring… and Sam's watch.

Dean raises his hand to his chest, but his amulet is gone.

So, Sam managed to get him out of Sanctuary, bring him to safety, and then he took off… before Dean woke up. Dean assumes he deserves no less.

His heart sinks to his feet and he has to restrain himself from screaming his despair to the rooftops, from devastating the place to the ground, from tearing out his worthless heart with his bare hands—because if he starts he won't be able to stop.

Alone. Alone. Alone.

A fluttering feeling creeps from his guts and climbs up to his chest, winding there and threatening to suffocate him. He tries to swallow it down as if it were just a lump in his throat, and fails spectacularly.

He goes back to the window. Given the height of the sun in the sky (and isn't it shocking that there is a sun in the sky?) it's early in the morning—too early for night owls such as the Harvelles or Ash to be up. Dean dresses in the semi-new clothes, chugs a couple of aspirin with the whole bottle of water, picks up his stuff, and slips out of the room. A flimsy staircase leads to the main floor, and Dean sneaks through the place like a thief, opens the door, and scurries away.

He's being a f*cking bastard, but he can't face anyone right now. He can't face the pitying looks from the girls, or sympathetic pats on the back from Ash, let alone Bobby's 'I told you so' if the old hunter is holed up here.

The bright sun mocks him from the blue, blue sky. It’s wrong. Misplaced. The whole universe should weep to match his despair—the rain pour down, the earth under his feet become ashes, and the rivers bleed. But it's obvious that the universe doesn't give a sh*t about Dean's pain.

Dean eyes the road, shimmering under the hot Oklahoma sun. If he's lucky, some trucker will pick him up on his way to Tulsa or Springfield. If not, he’ll walk. Any direction. Dean doesn't care. He has no reason to care, not anymore. Not when his world is empty and barren, and will remain so forever.

He starts walking, dragging his boots in the dirt—because it seems like his legs don’t have the strength to lift his feet off the ground, and the thing in his chest is bent on cutting off his air and suffocating him—when the roadhouse door opens and Sam steps outside, holding a cup in his hand.

Dean stops dead in his tracks, deer caught in the headlights’ eyes, mouth as dry as dust, and heart pounding like crazy, on the verge of a panic attack. Sam smirks, strong and beautiful as a Greek god, and strides to him with a confident step, holding out the cup. The amulet gleams in the sun, resting on his brother’s chest.

“Drink, Dean,” Sam commands. “You look about to pass out.”

Luckily the cup of coffee reaches Dean’s lips before he realizes how much his hands are shaking. Dean drinks all of it. He tries not to choke and spill it because this is a coffee Sam got him. Sam made him coffee instead of shooting him in the face as his little brother was entitled to do, but his throat is so tight that he barely manages.

Sam didn't leave, Sammy is here.

Yeah, but for how long?

Sam tsks, his lips pressed tight, and grips Dean’s elbow. He drags Dean across the road and stops in the shade of an acacia tree. Dean’s back thumps against the bark.

“Sammy, I—” Dean tries.

“Don’t!” Sam rakes a hand through his hair and glares at him. “Not another apology. Not a single one. Indeed, not a word. You're gonna listen to me.”

Dean nods, out of words anyway under Sam’s intensity.

“You thought I dumped you,” Sam says. “You thought I did the same to you as you did to me. Well, I didn’t… Not that, anyway. Whatever. It’s better if I show you. Look inside, Dean. Really look.”

Dean does as he’s been told, waiting to find the aching emptiness inside…

Oh! OH!

Dean reaches for the fluttering thing inside him that is Sam’s and caresses it in awe. It settles and shines. He had no idea that love, unconditional love, could look so beautiful or that something so precious could dwell within him.

The thing flutters playfully one more time and melts, spreading warmth all over Dean’s insides. He takes in a lungful of air.

“What did you do?” he whispers, although he already knows the answer.

“What I wanted to,” Sam says, matter of fact. “Not just what needed to be done, but what I wanted to. Let's see if I can get it through your thick skull once and for all. We shared our souls and there’s no turning back, nor do I want to. This is what I want, what I’ve wanted for a long time. And, now, I know it goes both ways. f*ck! So much wasted time, Dean… but not anymore. I want to take care of you as much as you want to take care of me. I want to stand by you, by your side. I want to be with you, Dean. What happened in the Dream between you and me was real, and was right. Get over it. No more hiding. No more lies. No more guilt. No more denial. No more running. No more…”

Sam kisses him.

LIMBO - enteselene - Supernatural (TV 2005) [Archive of Our Own] (73)

Dean swallows a startled gasp and goes rigid in Sam's arms, but his brother keeps kissing him, and kissing him, and kissing him, and Dean can’t hide what he feels anymore. He opens up, and Sam growls possessively into his mouth as his tongue plunges inside Dean to caress, and stroke, and own. Dean’s hands lift up to wrap around Sam's nape as his toes curl in his boots.

Damn, but Sam is a hell of a kisser.

When Dean thinks he's going to pass out, Sam breaks the kiss by dragging Dean's bottom lip between his teeth and chuckles darkly in Dean's ear.

“Do you remember what I promised to you in the Dream?” he asks, plastering his whole long body against Dean's from shoulders to toes and making his arousal evident. A moan slips out of Dean's throat. He shivers at the memory, and his co*ck twitches, full and aching. Sam chuckles, grinding against him. “Yeah, you do. What do you say we do it for real this time? The things I wanna do to you…”

“f*ck, Sammy!” Dean exclaims, breathless.

Sam grins, smug. “That’s the point.”

Dean bursts out laughing. He can’t help it. He’ll freak out later, but now Dean feels so happy, so full, that he could explode with joy.

“If you think I'm gonna start lusting after old, dusty books from now on, you're very much mistaken,” he grumbles—because Dean wouldn't be himself if he didn't cheapen the moment.

“Well, you’ll lust after me and nobody else from now on,” Sam purrs, and Dean shudders again. Sam laughs. “But I dig red meat now, so don't rule the dusty books out. C’mon, Ellen’s making pancakes. Bobby also wants to say hello and smack you on the head while he's at it. Jo and Ash, too. Did you really think we were going to let you slip away? We've been taking shifts watching the house.”

They leave the shade of the tree and walk side by side towards the roadhouse, their steps in synchrony. Dean looks at Sam from the corner of his eye, uneasy.

“What do they know?” Dean asks warily.

“What happened in Maine, yes, because this is serious, Dean. Creature trafficking.” Sam makes a disgusted face. “Who knows how many more are out there, in private labs or, God forbid, in the government's hands. We have to spread the word. What happened in the Dream, however, is none of their business but ours and ours alone. They only know that we’re both fine and will stay fine.”

Dean huffs a relieved breath, and his stomach picks that moment to growl. Loudly.

“Let’s eat some pancakes, and then we’ll hit the road,” he says. “We’ve got work to do. But first, I have an errand in Albany, and then we’ll fetch Baby from Bobby’s junkyard. f*ck the BOLO. We’ll change her plates. Whatever. I ain't doing my job driving a SUV.”

Sam looks at Dean fondly, and Dean’s battered heart swells, too big for his chest.

“Yeah,” Sam says, bumping his shoulder with Dean’s. “We’ve got work to do.”

THE END

Thank you so much for reading. I hope you enjoyed Limbo. Kudos and comments are cherished and treasured, no matter when ❤️

EnTeSelene

LIMBO - enteselene - Supernatural (TV 2005) [Archive of Our Own] (74)

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

EPILOGUE

LIMBO — THE VIDEOGAME

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limbo_(video_game)

LIMBO - enteselene - Supernatural (TV 2005) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)
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