The flames make everything black — the wood crisps, his hands smear with ash, the sky is masked by an intense and stifling plume of smoke, signaling to the small town around them that someone is losing everything they ever owned. They’ll never know a particularly bad poltergeist lit the place up itself: a last-ditch effort to take everyone out with it. John screams for Dean that it’s impossible, holding Dean around the stomach and keeping him from rushing in with everything he’s got… but Sam’s in there. Sam ran back in, and Dean’s throat is closed up, heart seizing with panic.
“Sammy!! Sammy, no! No!” And he puts his hands on the back of his head finally as his eyes grow wet. The soot on his face is ran through by salty tear trails. The place is black, black like rotted fruit, sour enough to turn their lungs inside out. Dean remembers the stench, revisits that world in his head where Mom is gone and Sam’s nearly dropped out of his arms as he runs down the stairs of their own home; he smells the smell of the Winchester house — but this time, it’s his second life going up in flames.
Sam’s burning to death. Behind him, ambulance sirens wail, casting hellish lights on his and his father’s stricken faces.
It’s not his father this time, but the ghost of Sam — he turns in what feels like slow motion, his breath held as Sam’s specter races around from the back of the old Roslon home; it’s all graceless, limbs fumbling over each other, and Sam’s got his arms curled around a bundle, eyes barely open as he chokes and coughs and sputters.
Ghosts don’t cough.
He rushes over, unable to stop the manic grin from spreading over his face.
“Jesus christ, Sammy! Fuck — are you okay?! Don’t you ever, ever, ever do something that stupid again, you friggin’ runt!!” Dean’s hands hover at Sam to check him for injuries. The boy’s shaking and doesn’t give them time to do much; he just hands his father a soft little body without delay, trying to blink away ash and sweat that’s dripped down into his face. A swell of pride in Dean’s chest gives him pause, knowing Sam had rushed out of there even when he was half-blinded by the elements. He grabs his brother’s chin while John moves the baby Sam had retrieved to the medics waiting in the distance.
“Mr. and Mrs. Roslon just left her, Dean — “ Sam gasps, tears dripping down his face from the irritation; Dean uncaps his holy water and pours it over Sam’s face, and Sam melts into the cool, cleansing water like he needed salvation. “She’s just a baby. They just left her and ran. They just — left her…!”
Dean tries to envision Mom and Dad leaving Sam behind.
It makes his teeth grind behind neutral lips.
“I get it. I get it, Sam. You — you did good, kiddo. Let’s get you sitting down, okay? You probably inhaled some nasty shit.” He leads Sam to sit on one of the lawn chairs nearby, glancing back over his shoulder as John wanders back with a tired, shadowed expression. Dean’s stomach twists. Sam rubs at his face with a towel as medics and firemen swarm around the place; a medic kneels next to Sam, an older woman with her hair tied back.
“Baby’s gone,” John whispers to Dean with surprising gentleness, squeezing his eldest’s shoulder. Dean closes his eyes, letting some kind of godsent composure wash over him. He’s getting too used to this job. He’s learning how to let go. This wasn’t one they could carry out of the fire. But it shouldn’t have been on Sam to do that in the first place, and for that one moment in time — one of the few moments since Sam learned about the supernatural — he wondered just how utterly pointless it all is. How completely ugly, to drag Sam into this messy and sad life, where his brother is coated in ash and asking about an infant that he’d carried out of the flames, one already dead from drowning in the hot air around her crib.
“Dean?” Sam asks, eyes red and weary, and he looks up to his brother, the siren lights dancing across a round face. “How is she?”
Dean smiles thinly.
“… She’s resting now. It’s all good, Sammy.”
And Sam leaves that town in their rear view mirror, goes to college, loses it all, jumps into Hell, plunges needles into his sickly flesh, cures his brother of demonism… still believing that Dean’s words were completely and utterly true.