Dust to Dust
A/N: This is the English version of my previous Polvo al Polvo in Spanish. I hope you enjoy it!
Dust to Dust
It always starts when his body begins to relax. When he breathes in, tired and oddly satisfied, and exhales a quiet, exhilarated sigh. Secretly relishing the fact that for a few moments, his life is complete; and, for the first time in too long, the two halves of his heart aren't miles and years apart.
That's then it starts, always when his guard is down. The first drop feels warm on his forehead and he frowns, but either he's forgotten or he's trying to fool himself, because it's not until the third or fourth drop that his pulse starts to race. Deep down he knows what he'll find when he finally dares to open his eyes.
"Jess, no!" He screams.
Every time he sees it, the vision of Jess pinned to the ceiling stabs him in the chest. She looks gorgeous in her ethereal white gown, face framed by her golden locks. But her pale-blue skin makes him shiver. Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes glassy.
She already looks dead.
"Why, Sam?" Her voice echoes down to him.
The question burns him before the fire starts. He tries to react, to reach for her and keep the blood from escaping her bleeding belly with his own hands. However, Sam's body betrays him. Years and years of training against evil are converted into uselessness and all he can do is cry out like a frozen, pathetic civilian, as his girlfriend dies in front of him.
His family would be very disappointed.
The flames explode over his head and engulf Jess. And Sam screams and screams and screams until the fire swallows him too and tears the flesh out of his lungs.
Sam wakes up with a jolt and it takes a few seconds for him to adjust his senses to the innocuous landscape around him, the music playing in the background and the smell of the worn leather upholstery. Dean is by his side, behind the wheel of the Impala, and is resting a solid, soothing hand over Sam's heaving chest.
"You alright, man?" Dean asks worriedly.
Sam swallows hard and feels that his throat is a little too tight. He's afraid he may have been screaming in his sleep like a terrified child. Since he doesn't trust his voice to come out without breaking, he just nods. Dean studies him for a few seconds longer, his silence clearly disbelieving, while Sam tries to even out his breath and fantasizes about disappearing into the seat.
"What were you dreaming about?" Dean tries, forcing a conversational tone.
Sam finds himself clenching his jaw and shaking his head, even if there's a part of him that yearns to accept the implicit offer to be listened to. Oddly enough, it's his Winchester side that wins, even after he has denied it for four years. Dean's sigh is barely audible and his hand over Sam's chest lifts slightly. Sam bits his lip to keep it from trembling. It's exhausting keeping up a strong front all the time, simultaneously pushing Dean away and feeling naked without him. Luckily Dean doesn't withdraw his hand right away, but waits until he's sure that his little brother has a grip on himself. Then Dean slides his hand to Sam's shoulder and gives it a parting squeeze. Knowing Dean, it must be hard for him to be so patient with Sam, and his younger brother is thankful for it. Right now, it's enough.
He's been having the same nightmare for weeks now, but today it's the first time his worst fear has become a real memory haunting him in his dreams.
At first, Sam doesn't just see her in his dreams, but everywhere he looks. He sees Jess in the lines at the fast-food restaurants, in the aisles of the supermarkets and sitting at the counter in a bar. Sometimes, she's right there when Sam turns, or he finds her staring back at him when he looks in the mirror.
Sam can't really hide his nightmares from Dean, because sharing a room with someone makes some things too obvious. The fact that they have shared space for the most part their lives allows very few things to go unnoticed. Still, he doesn't tell his big brother about the visions of Jess, though he's not sure why. Sam's afraid that Dean will think his brother is going crazy or, worse, that grief has nothing to do with it at all. Maybe Jess is haunting him, like a spirit bound to her murderer. Maybe Sam has no right to wish for her to come back and is even less entitled to wish her away forever.
Dean knows something is wrong, but he gives Sam space. He pretends not to notice that Sam sometimes startles for no apparent reason, or that his eyes tear up out of the blue. In addition, Dean doesn't complain when Sam spends hours alone in the Impala, or just outside of their motel room, because he feels like he's suffocating when he's inside. Dean doesn't say anything either when Sam suddenly acts the opposite and becomes needy and clings to Dean's side like a shadow.
That night was one of those nights when staying alone in the motel room while Dean hustles pool felt too depressing for Sam. He sits alone at the bar counter, with his brother close enough so that Sam can hear him bragging about shot after shot. Sam has already downed a couple of beers, maybe three. Judging by the number of bottles on the table, it's quite possibly four. But Sam isn't as much of a lightweight as Dean seems to think he is. He's not drunk, just buzzed. Numb enough for the lines of reality to pleasantly blur.
And that's when Sam sees her, sitting on a stool at the end of the counter. Her back is to him, but her golden hair shines like a beacon in the night. Sam feels his throat go dry and the floor wavers slightly under his feet. He will never get used to the sensation of time stopping, or the cold in the pit of his stomach. Frozen, he watches her from afar, until a guy approaches her and puts an arm around her shoulders. Sam can't see her face, but his mind conjures up tension in her graceful frame, and that she is backing away a little. The guy whispers something in her ear; she nods, finishes her beer and stands. Together, they exit the bar, holding hands. And it's like the world slows down and fluctuates on its axis.
Before he has time to realize what he's doing, Sam is following the couple outside and is hearing himself screaming her name over the hammering rush of blood in his ears. Somehow, he has lunged at the guy, who has shoved Sam and is yelling at him. He must be forty pounds heavier than Sam, but the young hunter knows how to tilt that balance in his favor, and for a second that certainty is as overwhelming as it is elating.
Next thing Sam knows, he's being held back and forced to back away from the imminent fight. Whoever is holding him doesn't let go, no matter how hard Sam struggles. The tight grip settles the white noise in his brain and the voices around Sam begin to clear up.
"He's a lunatic! He just attacked me!" The man's indignant voice growls.
"Get out of here." Dean retorts, his voice cold and lethally calm.
"Freak should be locked away! He's lucky I didn't smash his face-" The stranger persists, enraged.
"I said hit the road bastard!" Dean interrupts sharply, his voice becoming more threatening.
And Jess is standing right there and too far away at the same time, her face crumpling.
"Let me go!" Sam yells desperately. "Dean, let me go. Get off me!"
His brother doesn't, not matter how hard Sam twists in his arms. The guy from the bar just glares at Sam with contempt, itching to reignite the fight.
"Jess!" Sam roars.
"That's not her, Sammy." Dean assures him firmly, his hands on Sam's shoulders, gently forcing Sam to take a step back.
"Fucking retard…" The man growls, clenching his fists. "If I ever see you again around my-"
"What part of go the fuck away are you not getting, asshole?" Dean yells back fiercely. "Get in your goddamn car and get the fuck out of here or I will smash your face in, are we clear?"
The man hesitates, as if considering the older Winchester's threat, but the danger contained in it has also reached him loud and clear. Fortunately, he's not stupid: swearing under his breath, he turns around, grabs the shocked blonde and drags her stumbling towards his car.
"No… NO!" Sam begs, desperately fighting with all his might against the impenetrable wall Dean has become.
He's throwing punches blindly now, but instead of letting go, Dean pushes Sam against the wall and pins him with his own body weight. Sam is overwhelmed with the sensation of defenselessness. Like he is back at Stanford and witnessing Jess burn all over again.
"Let me go." Sam pleads, writhing like a wild, wounded animal. "Fuck, let me go."
He hears the car start, and the couple drives away.
"Dean…" Sam whimpers brokenly.
"Easy, kiddo. I'll let you go." Dean soothes him. "Inna minute, Sammy. I promise."
"No…" Sam pleads, stretching his neck to follow the car with his eyes. "Please…"
The road wavers, as Sam's eyes are blurred with tears, but the car has already disappeared from sight and it takes Sam's strength with it. Suddenly Dean's grip is all that is keeping Sam from falling to the ground. Irrationally, Sam fears Dean will keep his promise and release him, so he grips his brother's leather jacket tightly as he struggles to calm down.
"You're okay." Dean murmurs soothingly, as he adjusts his position, not so much restraining as propping Sam up as his knees buckle. "It's okay now. Just take it easy."
And Sam tries, he really does, but suddenly he feels the sudden buzz of the alcohol rushing through him. And all he can manage to do is drop his head on his brother's shoulder and try to anchor himself twisting his hand tighter in Dean's jacket. If he could, Sam would scream. But the buried tears balloon inside his throat and his chest is on fire, only quiet whimpers escaping him every time he exhales. Dean puffs out a breath and pulls his little brother a few inches away from the wall to throw an arm around his back.
"Breathe, dude. I got you, okay? Just breathe." Dean presses, rocking Sam a little.
Despite his brother's soothing tone of voice, as Sam calms down, he notices Dean's pulse is racing against his cheek. Sam scared him. In all fairness, Sam scared himself a little too. He would like to blame the alcohol or the lack of sleep. Perhaps blame it on the fact that he has only allowed himself to grieve the woman he loved for a few seconds at a time, when exhaustion has made his walls crumble and his guard is temporarily destroyed. Dean says Sam is like John, but John would never have fallen apart outside a seedy bar on the side of the road. John… his dad had had what it took to keep going, no matter what.
"Why can't I…?" Sam chokes, "What… what's wrong with me?"
Dean stills for a beat and Sam holds his breath, until he feels Dean's palm resting warmly on the nape of his neck and his big brother's words sound sure and steady close to his ear.
"Nothing's wrong with you, you hear me?" Dean's voice is adamant. Then he pulls away a few inches to look Sam in the eye. "Nothing's wrong with you kiddo." He presses, softer now, but just as frankly. "But you need to sleep, Sam".
Sam nods. At that moment, he is ready to do anything that Dean tells him to. Sleep sounds good. In fact, if his brother stays where he is, Sam would gladly close his eyes and sink into oblivion right there.
Sam is alone in the morgue of the hospital, watching dazedly as paramedics prepare the body of his father for his family to take. Bobby waits outside, with a fake ID from a funeral home, to take John until his sons are ready to pay him their last respects.
Dean is back in his room, drugged to the gills after he almost passed out in Sam's arms in front of an army of doctors. He had just come out of a coma and, according to the well-intentioned practitioners, he shouldn't be moving around. They were probably right, but Sam couldn't have helped running to him when he found their dad on the floor and the doctors weren't able to find a pulse. Obviously, nothing and no one would have kept Dean Winchester from jumping out of bed and going to his hero.
Time of death: 10:41
Dean hadn't said a word since, not even uttered a protest when he was led back to bed and sedated. Sam had followed the doctors, not really knowing what else to do. He didn't want to let Dean out of his sight and really, the only natural place he could picture himself, at that moment, was by his brother's side. So Sam sat close to Dean's bed and hid with him from the world. Dean's expression had relaxed when the sedatives started to kick in, and the feverish shine in his eyes had faded. In the last moment, he had searched Sam's eyes, as he always did whenever he was sick or scared. Their eyes had locked for a few, long seconds in a pool of silence full of emotions but devoid of words, until Dean's closed and his breathing had evened out.
A nurse's voice brings Sam back to the present and the young Winchester automatically accepts the blue plastic bag handed to him.
"These are your father's clothes. His wallet is inside." He informs him. "He also had this."
Sam reaches out again and the nurse drops his father's dog tags in his open palm. John had never taken them off, not since Sam could remember, and the bite of the cold metal on his skin makes Sam shiver. Still, he sets his jaw and fists his hand around the tags. The nurse mumbles something Sam doesn't get and then leaves: possibly going to find Bobby. Sam stays where he is and looks through the windowpane into the room where John's body rests inside a black body bag. He stares at it for a long while, rubbing the tags between his fingers. When he realizes he's doing it, he plops down on a hard, uncomfortable plastic chair with a sigh.
Taking out his wallet, he chooses the most hidden pocket to keep the tags. When he opens it, his fingers graze an old picture of Jess he's kept all this time: it's the last one he has. Sam takes a deep breath and caresses the picture tenderly. It has been a long time since the last time he looked at it. After the first few terrible weeks following Jess' death, he decided he would cut all the ties with his life at Stanford and would never return. And
Jess had never been just Jess, but also the reflection of that other life where good people live their placid, normal lives and nothings bumps in the dark. Jess was a blindfold, a mirage. Because darkness still swallows up good people and warriors fall, even if Sam wants to look the other way. His father had been one of these warriors as is his brother, lying broken two floors above.
Suddenly, that other life makes little sense to him.
Sam puts the dog tags in the wallet just before the nurse comes back in, with Bobby at his heels. The two hunters don't look each other in the eye, but John's old friend brushes Sam's shoulder as he passes next to him.
"Go be with Dean. I'll handle this." Bobby orders gruffly.
Sam nods and obeys. When he stands up, he leaves Jessica's picture on the chair.
Awake in bed, Sam can't stop thinking of Dean's incredible story about the world of the Djinn. After spending the previous night looking for Dean, exhaustion is starting to weigh him down, like a solid burden resting on his head and shoulders. He still punishes himself, imagining what he would have done in Dean's shoes. If he had had everything he wanted: Jess and his family at the same time, a normal life without fear or blood or fire… would he have had the strength to come back?
The question burns in his gut like acid and leaves a bitter taste in the back of his throat. Stanford is the answer to how far he tried to escape once, even though he had known that there were lives at stake.
Dean turns in his bed, just as awake as Sam is, and the younger curses himself silently. His brother must be totally wiped out and the only reason he isn't sleeping is knowing that Sam's upset. In the end, Sam speaks up, because it seems stupid for the two of them to keep on looking at the ceiling.
"Dean?" Sam begins, hesitantly.
"Yeah?" Dean's sleep-laden voice comes back.
Sam chews on his bottom lip nervously. He doesn't know how to ask his question without sounding insensitive or anxious.
"What, Sam?" Dean pushes. He sounds so tired it makes Sam's muscles ache.
"I… I mean, the other Sam…" Sam stutters, apprehensively. "Did he tell you how he proposed to Jess?"
Dean just keeps silent at first.
"It's just…" Sam hesitates. "I never… I never got to decide how to ask her and… I was wondering if maybe…"
This is even more stupid than looking at the ceiling, Sam curses to himself, and he closes his eyes in shame. He shouldn't be thinking about such things anymore.
"No." Dean answers softly. "I'm sorry, but we didn't talk about that."
Sam should leave it at that, but somehow he can't. It's been months, years since the last time he thought about her and now Dean has seen her. He has really seen her and the worst part is that Sam is jealous of him and hungry for their shared images, as much as he knows that Dean was dying in the meantime.
"And…and at the dinner, with Mom, how..? How was her hair?" Sam asks, hating how his voice hitches.
"Her hair?" Dean asks, surprise leaking into his tone.
"Yes, she…" Sam frowns in the dim light, scared of how the little details are getting harder to unbury from his memory. "Jess used to straighten her hair on special occasions. I liked it curly, but she said it was more elegant straight. So maybe for the dinner she… I don't know, maybe her hair was straight?"
Sam breathes in and bites his tongue, because if he keeps on talking, he feels that he will start crying.
"I didn't know." Dean whispers after a second.
Sam swallows hard.
"It was curly, Sam."
Sam lets out a weak laugh at the muted apology he senses underlying his brother's words. Of course it was; it makes total sense. The alternate reality had been created from Dean's memories and he had only seen Jess with curly hair. It wasn't logical to expect otherwise.
It wasn't her, Sam.
"Get some sleep." Dean tells him.
"I'm sorry." Sam mumbles, surprised to hear tears in his voice.
"Sammy, sleep." Dean orders, his voice gentle but firm. "Tomorrow we get back on the road."
Dean died three months ago. And three months ago, Sam's spirit shattered and the hunter became a specter. Since then, he's done nothing but stumble his way through a series of furious, suicidal missions. He doesn't even think too hard about what Ruby is doing to his soul, as he doesn't believe there's going to be anything left or worth saving of him when he is done. Right now, she's all he needs. Ruby is his support and his power source. The noises she makes, the way she undulates like a cat in heat under him, tears a heady sensation from his nerve endings, as intoxicating as her blood.
Maybe Ruby is just a means to an end, but she's his means. She's the only solid thing he's got. He only feels something when he curls around her under the sheets: something dark and primal and real. So he takes her hard, over and over again, and she laughs and moans and never says no. When Sam thinks he's got nothing left inside, she knows how to squeeze him even more. With Ruby, there are no boundaries. That's why he needs her, because to do what he needs to do, he can't have limitations.
And all of a sudden Jess is in the room, standing at the foot of the bed, watching him sadly and accusingly. Sam sits up with a jolt but one blink and she's gone.
He pushes Ruby away roughly. His heart is racing and he feels like throwing up. He barely recognizes his own voice when he yells at her and kicks her out. When he's finally alone, his lungs close up and he empties his stomach. He feels dirty and dead, like the corpses in the graves they used to dig up. And as much as he knows that the illusion wasn't really Jess and that he owes her nothing now, after downing a bottle and a half of tequila he swears not to see Ruby ever again.
This time he keeps his promise for over two weeks.
He should have seen it coming when Hendriksen comes back to torture him. Seeing Meg feels even weirder, because this time it's not the demon talking but the girl he thought he'd met in a deserted road close to Burkitsville. They were both innocents and they both died because they crossed paths with the Winchester curse. But Sam is an experienced hunter and neither compassion nor guilt keeps him from shooting them out of his way. After all, what's dead should stay dead.
However, time stops when she appears. Her blue eyes have a steely tint in the semi-darkness of the hall and her blond waves of hair brush her shoulders as she walks. When their eyes meet, her lips twist in an angry grimace.
"How could you, Sam?" Her voice is clear, her tone sharp. It's Jess, upset because Sam has let her down, because he has forgotten or kept something from her. It's Jess hurt, demanding answers.
No, it's not Jess. It's not Jess.
Sam freezes when she comes closer, unable to react. His heart stops, his lungs fail, and even his thoughts seem to escape him. The only thing he can do is look at her. Just look at her as he holds his breath. And then he hears a shot and Jess vanishes with a shriek that shatters his soul into pieces.
Sam recognizes his brother's frenzied call somewhere deep in his mind, but it's like he's underwater. Everything is slow, muted and incomprehensible. Before Sam realizes fully what's happening, Dean is in front of him, shaking him.
"Hey, hey! Snap out of it!" Dean demands, fear sharpening his voice into a snarl.
Sam blinks, dazed. His ears are ringing and Jess' face, her voice –Jesus, he had forgotten her voice!- engulfs him so completely that all he can do is drown in the memory of her.
"Sam! Sammy, look at me" Dean demands, cradling Sam's face with his hands and forcing his brother to meet his eyes. The younger shivers as the mixture of urgency and compassion in his brother's hazel depths pull him out of his shock. "You've gotta react now, okay?"
Next time Sam breathes in, oxygen explodes in his ears and finally Dean's words sink in. All the emotions contained there, the I'm sorry, the I know, the Not now resonate with him and he knows that if he breaks now, he will not only be risking himself, but his brother too. Dean is not going anywhere. That certainty gives him the strength to clench his teeth and tighten his grip on the shotgun. Dean nods and pats Sam's arm encouragingly.
Yet Dean doesn't leave his side. Jess comes back over and over, and although Sam feels ready to repel her, his brother always shoots first.
In the end, when it's all over, the ensuing calm is soaked in exhaustion on all levels. The revelation that the Apocalypse is coming should have been horrifying enough, but it's the shame of having frozen in the middle of the fight that does Sam in. He goes out of the house feeling like a lifeless and transparent ghost in which a single puff of wind could blow away.
Dean soon follows his brother to the Impala, where Sam has sought shelter. It's not until the older opens the driver's door that Sam realizes how habit has brought him to sit behind the wheel, and he hates himself for it. Still, Dean stops Sam's automatic attempt to move to the passenger's side with a hand to Sam's shoulder. The simple gesture of comfort still feels awkward and the lost familiarity bewilders him, because he shouldn't need it. He certainly doesn't deserve it. That doesn't keep Sam's eyes from moistening, even as he tells himself it shouldn't be that easy to bring him so close to tears. A hunter can't let shit get to him and Sam has become an excellent hunter in the last few months. There's been no time to cry or feel self-pity. There's been no time to freeze like a freaking deer in the headlights. What the fuck is wrong with him? Somebody could have died! Dean should be furious with him. And yet…
"You did good, Sam." Dean sounds drained, but there is an underlying certainty in his words.
Sam bits his lip and shakes his head.
"The hell I did." Sam growls.
"I mean it." Dean assures him solemnly. "I'm proud of you."
They're silent for the longest of whiles, shoulder to shoulder. It's Dean's way of giving Sam permission to let go, because it's alright now. It's over. The problem is, Sam doesn't know how to start. The knot that has settled in the pit of his stomach is part of him now, and Sam has forgotten how to pull the threads to start unraveling it.
Then Dean passes over his flask and Sam accepts the offering.
As whiskey burns his throat and sloshes warmly in his stomach, Sam bends forward and buries his face in his arms. Dean's hand rests on his back and the affection in his touch is like a balm that breaks through the shock and melts Sam's armor. Sam's hand is shaking as he brings the flask to his lips and drinks until it's empty.
The laugh that escapes Sam's throat when Dean pulls the rest of the bottle out of his jacket is tinged of nostalgia.
The Impala's purr and the powerful engine's vibration is Sam's most accurate definition of home. Dean drives easy and relaxed, his rock music plays low in the background and the road unrolls ahead of them: always ahead. There's still tension in the air, but considering that Dean has just taken him back not two hours ago, Sam's not looking the proverbial horse in the mouth.
"You know?" Sam says distractedly. "It was Jess. Who came to me in my sleep, it was Jess."
Dean tosses him a sideways glance and purses his lips. Sam looks down, unsure of why he has opened his mouth. The truth is that after everything they've gone through, the fact that Jess has appeared in his dreams seems completely meaningless. However, after Lucifer's visit, Sam is scared and the only thing keeping him together is Dean's belief that together they can beat anything.
"No. No, it wasn't." The older replies, his tone unwavering.
Sam grimaces and shrugs a little.
"I know." He murmurs.
Dean's eyes linger on Sam's profile a few seconds before returning to the road.
"She looked so beautiful… Her hair was shorter, like the day we met." Sam rambles. "She was so close. I could almost touch her."
"Sammy…" Dean interjects.
"It's funny." Sam closes his eyes and leans his head back against the headrest. "I've been dreaming of her death and imagining her ghost for so long now that I… I don't…" Sam swallows and opens his eyes a little. "I almost don't remember who she really was anymore. What it felt like to walk with her, what her favorite food was or whether we went to the movies a lot. Those kinds of things."
Dean breathes in and simply nods as he listens.
"And I've realized…" Sam continues laboriously. "That I spent fewer years with her alive than with her ghost. Sometimes… sometimes it's like the woman she was never existed."
Dean wets his lips and gives Sam a sorrowful look. Then he pays attention to the road again and is quiet for a minute.
"Jess existed." He says finally. "She liked taking walks at night and Chinese food. And when you went to the movies, she made fun of you because you liked caramel popcorn."
Sam turns his head towards Dean, his eyes shiny.
"How do you know all that?" He asks in a shaking voice.
"At first you talked about her a lot. You didn't realize you were doing it, but you talked about her all the time."
"And you… remember?" Sam whispers.
Dean shrugs with a hint of embarrassment.
"It seemed like it mattered." He replies, almost under his breath.
The renewed wave of grief hits Sam hard, and brings tears to his eyes and crushes his chest. Because that was what it all came down to. It is the key to his tragedy.
"But why can't I? Why do I keep forgetting what matters?" Sam voices his question miserably.
Dean sighs quietly and holds his brother's devastated gaze as the impala continues to take them down the deserted road.
"We all forget sometimes, Sammy." He admits in a calm tone.
Sam worries his lip and nods, his breath hitching. Dean twists his lips, flashes him a soft smile and looks ahead again.
"Jess existed" He repeats kindly, his voice a whisper. "And she made you happy."
"Yeah." Sam acknowledges. "Yeah."
"But we're still here. That… that matters too." Dean adds. It's hopeful and hesitant and as close as a plea as Dean can get.
Sam closed his eyes and focuses for a second on evoking Jess encouraging him warmly, of her giving him hope. The Jess that brought him breakfast in bed, pulled his hair to get his attention, and rubbed his back when his small world crumbled.
That was Jess, and when Sam finds her, he holds her tight.
"Yes." Sam smiles, as a tear rolls down his cheek. "It's the only thing that matters."
And then he lets her go.