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the gardener

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The first thing Dean does is dig a hole.

That's actually not true, but it's the first thing he does that feels like it counts. He gets the best shovel out of the Impala's trunk and goes out into the frozen day. The best shovel isn't the newest one, but the second-oldest. It's an unspoken contest any time they have to dig, who gets the best shovel first. Sharp blade and a sturdy, long, solid handle that Dean carries slung over his shoulder as he walks out into the snow. Late afternoon. The light dwindles fast over the bare trees all around the grounds. Behind the bunker, behind the big empty power plant, the land that's his stretches out. Ten acres, more or less. The spot he picked is empty, unshaded by trees, none of the scraggly bushes that have taken over while they weren't paying attention. The snow isn't packed too deep and the fall's a fresh powdery one. No ice crusting the ground. With the tip of the shovel he scrapes out a rectangle, big enough for him to lay in with room to spare, and then he starts digging. January, the ground's frozen nearly to rock, but he can get through it. It's a single-minded sort of task. Just what he needs.

He digs, and digs some more. His nose runs and he keeps having to pause to wipe it on his sleeve. Gross, he hears, or thinks, and he takes a deep ice-crystal breath and feels the cold go deep inside his chest, and keeps digging. Sweat prickles under his jacket, wets his neck. His shoulders ache. He knows this work, though. He understands it. Focusing on it is the only thing he can do, the only thing worth doing, and he's not going to stop until it's done. He'll work through the night, if he has to. It's not like he's never done it before. Sam's going to be buried here, in the earth that holds their home, and that's the end of it.

*

The first thing Dean actually did was sit half-paralyzed with his back shoved up awkward against the wheel-well of the car, his head buzzing and the world a blur around him. Sam sprawled over the soaked ground, his hands curled still around Dean's even if the strength in them was gone. His head on Dean's thigh, his forehead pressed against Dean's stomach. His eyes were closed, his mouth soft, and Dean sat there for a long time, looking down into his face. The straight line of his eyebrows. The smile-lines and frown-lines, both smoothed. The stupid mass of his hair, falling over his forehead, and after too long Dean managed to untangle one of his hands and push it back from Sam's face, tucking it behind his ear. A little trail of blood tracked behind Dean's fingers but Sam's face with blood on it was just more familiar, not less. He was pale, though, and Dean slipped his hand down to the back of Sam's neck, his thumb on the soft baby hairs there at the back of his skull, and it was all he could do to just keep sitting there, and look at Sam, and be there. A witness, maybe. No one on earth knew this body as well as Dean did and it was important, somehow, in the corner of Dean's head that could still somewhat function, that he stay there, with Sam. That they were together, despite the end.

Night fell, and then dawn crept up pink-white through the hills, the moon hanging heavy still in a brightening sky that faded the stars. Birds sang, tentative in the cold, and Dean woke up, though it didn't feel like he'd been sleeping as much as it felt like—time had passed, and he'd dreamed, and the world had changed in some essential way. He squeezed his hand around Sam's cold one, tacky now that the blood had dried, and he understood down to the pit of him that Sam was dead, and that was how it was now. Not like it was back then, when Sam was in the cage and they were parted, perhaps forever—he always had an awareness then of where Sam was, and that he was there if not reachable. Not like it was all the times before, or even that first time when he'd knelt in the mud and felt like the world had just cracked in two. Now he curled his fingers at the back of Sam's cold neck and it wasn't Sam, anymore. He looked down, in the greyish-pink light, and gave himself another minute, there in the morning. Then he bent down, curled down awkward over his own lap, and pressed his lips to Sam's hair, the soft space at the temple that Sam swore wasn't going thin, and then he carefully moved out from under Sam's body and tried to make his legs wake up, because it was time to go.

*

He built the casket himself. Nothing fancy. After he'd brought Sam in to lay on thick folded blankets on the map table, the only bier Dean had to offer him, he went to the Home Depot in Hays, a hundred miles of driving quiet and alone in that truck Sam sometimes would use, and bought the wood. Cedar, cut to seven-foot planks. Only took him half a day to put the box together, simple a project as it was. No nails, no iron; he took the time to make dovetail joints, working careful and getting it just right. Pain in the ass and he didn't bother, mostly, but if ever there were a time to make things the right way, it was this one. He cut his hand, while he was finishing up the last tails on the piece that would be at the head, and he bled quick and bright, smearing gore all over the wood. It smarted, something fierce, and he stuck the side of his hand into his mouth and copper-iron covered his tongue. He wrapped it and kept working, and didn't bother cleaning up. Sam wouldn't have minded and so he didn't, either.

No lid. He didn't want to cover Sam's face. By the time it came to put Sam in, the rigor mortis had passed and he could carry him again, though he was still heavy as hell. "You don't even eat anything," Dean said, strained, and Sam of course lolled in against his chest and didn't respond. It would've been easier to give him a fireman carry but with his stomach torn nearly out as it was, Dean couldn't face it; so he carried him close against his chest, through the empty halls of the bunker under the quiet humming lights, to the box freshly put together and waiting, and laid him in it. That was around dawn, on the fourth day. The cedar-smell of the wood was good, clear, like an evergreen forest, and he'd covered Sam's chest and stomach with a clean plaid shirt, and he crouched there beside the casket and touched Sam's cheek—waxy now, still as a mask, and then he went to the Impala's backseat and stretched out where Sam had lain and slept, for hours. He dreamed of nothing. It was two o'clock when he woke up, disoriented, his stomach clawing with hunger, and he went and ate a peanut-butter sandwich since that was about the only thing left in the kitchen that wasn't mold-covered or reeking, and then he drank a beer, sitting silent in the library, and then he went to the trunk of the Impala and got the best shovel, and there was nothing for it but to do what was needed.

*

The hole's done, finally, around three in the morning. Dawn's a long way off, this time of year, and Dean hurts from his thighs to his back to the strain in his neck. It's not six feet, because he can still see over the lip, but it's damn close. He climbs out, his arms wobbly, and sits on the edge of the hole with his legs dangling into it, breathing hard. The moon's still big, though it's not full. Bright enough to spread silver light all over the snowy ground, bright enough to work by. His hands ache. God, it's cold.

He goes inside and leaves the shovel leaned up against the rack of tools, and takes a shower. The hot water stings against his half-frozen skin, against his chafed hands. No blisters, because he's been calloused against this kind of work since he was about thirteen. He stands there, hands against the cool tile, the stream of water pounding against his sore shoulders, and does some math. That makes thirty-one years of digging graves, if he's got the numbers right. He used to think forty-four was old as dirt, let alone forty. Sam didn't quite make it to forty. He'd started calling Dean old man, the four-ish years between them a constant source of amusement. Dean suffered it with dignity, he thought, although Sam had exactly no room to talk with the way his knees crackled every time he went to stand up.

There's no way, alone, to get the casket and Sam's body into the hole with any kind of dignity. It'd be worse to have someone else here, though, and he thinks Sam would agree. He hopes so, anyway. After all these years he hopes he knows Sam's mind well enough to know that. In clean jeans, clean shirt, clean jacket, he rigs up a sled of sorts and a harness of ropes to pull it by, and gets the casket down onto the sled without dropping anything. A minor miracle. It's a slow, long drag up the curved driveway, the frosty morning curling down the covered path until he and his load emerge into night, full of stars. The moon's a sliver smaller, sliding down the sky. His breath fogs before him and behind him Sam crunches through the snow, along the path Dean's already cut. He reaches the hole and takes a moment, breathing heavy, and then he tugs the ropes up into the kind-of net he made of them and does his best. The casket still slams heavy into the ground, even with his bracing weight. It doesn't break, though, and Sam doesn't spill out. Small victories. He lets the rope fall down, coiling into a puddle at Sam's feet. The grave's mostly a shadow. Dean looks down into it, then goes back into the bunker. He gets a lighter and a bottle of the good bourbon, the one Sam liked, and then he goes into Sam's room and finds the box lodged under Sam's bed and carries it unopened back out into the cold and lays down on the edge of the hole to carefully drop it down into Sam's casket. "Figure you might need this," he says, his voice all rust. "Since you kept it so damn long. Always were sentimental, bitch."

He aims and the Zippo lands close to Sam's open hand. The bourbon he cracks open, and cross-legged in the dirt he takes two long swallows, heat blooming up in the pit of his stomach. The sandwich was a long time ago. He wipes the neck of the bottle with the tail of his shirt and screws the cap back on, and then leans way way over and drops it down into the hole. Lands flat, next to Sam's other hand. Perfect. He looks down and can't really see Sam's face, can't see the non-expression there, but that's all right. "Okay, then," he says, to the empty air. "I'll see you, I guess." His knee pops when he stands up. "Ow," he says, and then, "I guess that's fair, huh." He fills in the hole. The dirt lands with flat packing sounds, against Sam's body and the casket and then eventually just onto dirt, filling up and up until he's smoothing over the filled-in space with the flat side of the shovel, and then he goes down to his knees in the soft turned-up pile left over and he cries.

*

He doesn't know how to tell people, but people find out anyway. The first person to come is Rowena, sedate for once in black head-to-toe, and she doesn't knock but just walks into the bunker, the door creaking shut behind her and her heels clicking on the stairs. She finds Dean in the library, in one of the alcove armchairs. "My wee boy," she murmurs, her unaging face a mask of gentleness, and he scoffs, looking down. Still cold outside and her fingers are chilly when they touch his cheek, when they slide over his jaw.

"What can I do," she says, quiet, later. She cooked. Dean didn't know she could do that. It's simple food, bread and roast, dripping meat-fat that makes his stomach feel full for the first time in weeks. Even staying overnight here, even in mourning black, her eyes are a galaxy, dark purples and red, a trace of glitter over her cheekbones, her lips shining. She takes Dean's hand, her own fingers small, delicate enough that he could snap them. He doesn't. There's no point, really, is there. She sits at his side, her posture bird-delicate, perfect, and she squeezes his hand, curls in close against his shoulder, her face dipped down toward his. She smells like cloves.

Eventually, she says, "May I see him?" and he nods, stands up, and leads her with her hand still in his up the stairs, out into the snow. She picks up her skirts and walks careful, and he goes slow to accommodate her short steps, and goes around the plant out into the big empty field. He didn't make a marker, didn't need one. The mounded dirt is enough. When he stops in his tracks she squeezes his hand again and then lets it go, and walks alone to the foot of the mound, and stands there with her hands folded over her stomach, looking not down but up, into the mid-afternoon sky. He put Sam with his head to the east. He remembers Sam telling him, years ago, that west was always the direction of death, of things ending. People aren't really creative with metaphors, he'd said, smiling. East seemed kinder. New days.

Rowena turns around, after he doesn't know how long, and one hand is still pressed against her stomach but she extends the other to Dean, and he takes it. "You don't hunt, Dean Winchester," she says, voice rough with demand. He frowns at her and she squeezes his hand, hard, more strength than her little grip should be able to carry. "You don't. I forbid it. If you don't listen to another damned thing I say, you listen to that, aye?"

"Aye?" he says, but his hand actually hurts and she's not smiling, is staring up at him, black-and-flame against the grim white all around. He forgets sometimes, with her so small. She's older than America. He says, "I don't know if I know how to promise that."

"You needn't promise," she says. She tugs at his hand and he starts to follow her, walking back around to the bunker's entrance, her sleek red car waiting there. They walk in silence to it, and he opens the door for her, but she puts her fingertips to his chest, looking up at him, steady. "Stay. That's all you need to do. Simply stay."

"Sure thing, Glinda," he says, and she doesn't smile, but only looks at him for another few moments and then touches his cheek.

When she's gone he stands there for a while in the weak sunshine. It's warm, or at least warmer than he'd expected. Sam's been dead for two weeks. It's February now and the snows have slowed. He hasn't gone anywhere, hasn't done anything. He chews on his lip and then goes back out to see Sam, alone now. The mound of dirt has settled, and he stands at the foot of it, looking down.

"So what am I supposed to do, huh?" he says, out loud. An echo of something—so long ago. He crouches and touches the soil, barely warm from the sun pouring over the field all day. The field's desolate. Like a lot of the farms around here. Their neighbors have been dropping like flies, their kids fleeing the ruin of the town, and the corn and soy fields are about half fallow these days. Spring'll come, and he doesn't know who will be left. Just him and the guys at the co-op gas station, and the occasional flock of traveling birds.

He lets the dirt run through his fingers, rubs some of it between finger and thumb. Seems like good dirt, not that he knows a damn thing about it. Mechanical stuff is more his speed. "Never did get your organic tomatoes, did you," he says, and stands up, and brushes his hand off on his thigh. Cold out here. Still, it's something.

*

He cleans all the blood out of the Impala, and rebuilds her engine because it feels like he should, and then wheels her perfect into pride of place right in the center of the garage and shrouds her in one of the silk covers the Letters had. Ridiculous, but it feels nice as he's settling the corners. He smooths down a ripple on the hood and leaves his hand there for a while, his weight leaned all into her frame. She's solid steel, she can take it.

The truck doesn't drive too terribly, after a tune-up and a new carb. He drives it over to the co-op and Jerry clucks his tongue, says, "Where's that old beauty?" and Dean says, "Getting her beauty sleep, that's all," and Jerry clucks his tongue again but doesn't say any more about it. He gets a new serpentine belt and a new set of shocks, too, and there with Jerry and Randall not helping he fixes the rickety thing up like new. More or less new, anyway.

"Hey there, Mr. Rose?" Randall says, finally, when Dean's drinking a cup of their shitty coffee in the relative warmth of the garage's little office. Mr. Rose. Dean paid with that card one too many times here and now the old men think it's really his name. Sam was always Saul Hudson, for Lebanon. Dean was pretty sure no one in this town would get either reference. Randall scratches under his dirty cap, chews the too-long end of his moustache, gets to it in his own sweet time. Not like Dean has anywhere to be. "Well, Mrs. Becker's got that new Hyundai, it's got one of those computer things in it. Me and Tom just haven't had any luck with it. You know anything about that kind of thing?"

New could mean anything post-1995. "I could take a look," Dean says. He sets down his cup, drags a hand on his jaw. Takes a breath. "Call me Dean, though, fellas. If you don't mind." Someone should.

Jerry shrugs, mostly still watching whatever's on the miniature television on the desk. "No consideration if we mind it," he says, deep in his coat. "If that's what you like. Mrs. Becker might try to pay you with a casserole."

That's how Dean starts coming to the co-op, one day a week and sometimes two. The old men don't talk much, but that's all right; Dean doesn't exactly feel like talking. He's been through this year before and he remembers how it goes. The days stretching one into the other, a blur of putting one foot in front of the other.

It's not all the same, though. There's not a thing to live up to, this time, save one.

Sam had been bleeding, dark heavy gouts of vitality, the kind of blood that's never meant to see the light of day. The ripped smell of his belly hung in the air and he gasped, barely holding it together, not that Dean was doing one iota better. They collapsed down against the car, the spirit flaming away forgotten in the horror of what was happening, and Dean took Sam's shoulders and brought him in and held his head, told him no and Sammy and it's okay only it wasn't, of course, and in those first moments he couldn't conceive of how it ever would be again. Having had the misfortune of living through this moment too many times before, he knew in an abstract way that any planning only came later. Then, that first handful of endless instants, they were just for the panic. Sam grabbed at his hand and breathed hot and shocked up into his face and then he said, clearly, "Nothing that'll hurt you," and he gasped and brought his other hand to the hole where his gut should've been and said, "I trust you," and he swallowed blood and held Dean's eyes as long as he could before he shut them and curled forward, maybe to spare Dean the moment of his dying. Dean felt it anyway, fast as it was. No gentle slipping away here, the kind he'd made Sam promise him as though it were a promise that could ever be kept. Sam's death was ugly and painful, a last guttering of bloody breath in the lungs, instinct pulling him toward Dean. Like Dean could be some kind of comfort. Maybe he was. He doesn't know. He'd spent an untold length of time holding onto Sam's hands and not knowing what to do, and then he was furious that Sam put that on him. Not a real promise, because Dean knew how to break those when he had to—just Sam's trust, laid on him heavy as a goddamn curse. The only thing he didn't know how to shrug off, shrug away. The only thing he'd ever had to bring him back from all the edges he'd wanted to throw himself over and Sam, damn him, with his literal dying breath still playing that card. After a lifetime, Dean thought he might've learned. More fool him, though. Sam always was better at poker.

*

He starts to source the lumber early. Yew, and horseapple, and black locust. The bunker gains a circular saw, since the old geeks apparently never needed to build something with their hands. This isn't anything Dean will outsource, though. He has to do it himself.

The greenhouse comes together fast, once he has the pieces. It isn't going to be elegant, but it is sturdy. He builds a frame, twenty feet by twenty, and raises the walls to ten feet with a peaked roof that really is an absolute pain in the ass to steady and get together by himself. "You could at least hold the ladder," he says, balancing way too much on his shoulder. The ground below him is cold and doesn't answer, but that's no matter. He's starting to get used to talking out loud and expecting no response.

Insetting the glass is much harder, but he does it in stages. Thicker than he was used to with installing windows in houses, and heavy. Some of it's leaded, some of it double-paned to four millimeters, and some of it is in thick green-sheened sheets recycled from an old house in Wichita, with imperfections that waver the light into something frail when the morning casts through it onto his hands.

The wood and the steel and the glass all fall into place, piece by piece. He installs hinged window pieces on the roof and in the north and south walls for ventilation, if he decides he wants it, and when it comes to the door he considers an old iron piece he saw for sale on the internet, but then—no. No iron. He builds the door himself, out of yew and copper and greened glass, welding the whole thing together in the garage and then carrying it out on his back to be fitted. March, nearly, and there's hardly any snow but the mornings are still fuck-off cold, and his hands ache as he's lining up the hinges, on his knees in the dirt. Forty-four. He always thought, as a kid, he'd be dead before thirty. Never in his life did he think he'd outlive Sam. "Pretty unfair that you beat me," he says. He lays down the cordless drill and wipes the back of his forehead, sitting back on his heels. "That's cheating, or something, probably. Feel like I should get a do-over."

Sam's laid in the back-center of the greenhouse. His feet are about where the very middle would be and his head is a few feet from the back wall, where Dean took a compass and made sure that the big center piece of glass was facing due east, to catch the full brunt of the sunrise. Already it's warmer inside than the outer air, the different pieces of glass filtering and catching the light, the earth protected from the breeze that's curling against the back of Dean's neck and making his foggy breath shred away. He leans on his curled knuckles on the bunched muscle of his thighs, looking inside, and then picks up the drill and finishes screwing in the last hinge, and then he creaks up to his feet and hangs the door, twisting the pins into place so it won't swing open like a damn amateur put it together. When it's done he tests it, swinging it back and forth a few times, and then he says, "Okay," soft and under his breath, and then looks at the rectangle of dirt that's still a little different to all the others. "Guess now I've got to get some grime under my nails." He walks the handful of feet and crouches down, putting his fingertips against the soil again. "We'll get you some nice dirt, don't worry. Only the best for princess." He can imagine, with absolute clarity, the eyeroll he'd get. He takes a deep breath, looks up and out at the day through glass. What is he doing.

Well—there's never been any point in wondering that. He's doing what he's always done: what he has to. "Yeah," he says, on a huff, and goes inside. He's got a little research to do. Trusty geekboy isn't around to do it so they'll have to make do with Dean's efforts. Hopefully they're enough.

*

First he plants what he has, thinking that at least he can see if he knows what he's doing. In the perfect preservation of the bunker the seeds rattling around in their endless drawers are kept viable, and so before long he has little squared-off experiments running in warm interior of the greenhouse. There's a sort-of path, now, to Sam's feet, and on the north side of it sprout tiny tendrils of yarrow, of vervain, of dark green coltsfoot; on the south side he's trying to start larkspur and rue. He thought about trying to rig up some kind of emitter system, but no. He fills a can and goes out every morning and afternoon, checks on the little sprouts, waters the earth. Says hello to Sam, and never goodbye.

In exchange for fixing Tom Muller's combine after Tom came into the co-op to bitch about it, he gets a truckbed's worth of good composted soil. Tom says something about it being rich with nutrients, which gives Dean the first ridiculous image of Tom out there grinding multivitamins into his dirt. He tells Sam that, while he's spreading shovelfuls of it onto the greenhouse's ground and then mixing it into the dirt already there. "Think I should do that, too?" he says, smoothing the soil over Sam like it's a thick black blanket. "You spent enough time trying to get me to take those stupid pills. Be lame if I didn't do the same for your fancy dirt." He drops the shovel and packs the soil down with his hands, moving backward on his knees. He didn't put up a marker. He figured he'd never need to. He could find Sam unerringly, blind in the dark with his legs cut off at the knee. When he was buried Sam, or maybe Bobby, gave him a cross, but that doesn't feel right for him to do the same. He could place a stone, but what would it say? What engraving, what combination of words, could ever come close to the thing Dean felt when he knelt here with his hands on the warm ground, sunlight trickling in, the air still all around. An empty space, behind his shoulder. "I'm supposed to take point," he mutters, and then sits up, sniffs, works his jaw. Salt's not good for the soil, he knows that much.

By the end of March he has a real garden going and there's dirt under his nails what feels like all the time. It's strange to have it be for a reason besides digging up gravedirt. He's got flowers going in, now. Pansies—"Just for you," he said—and daisies that come in strange colors, and goldenrod on the east wall, and lavender by the door. Jerry points him to Maggie Washington, the only black lady Dean's met in the whole county, who grows flowers and berries and keeps thirty hives of bees, and he repairs her power tiller in exchange for a week's use of it, and gets three jars of rose honey in the bargain. He doesn't love it, since it sort of smells like old lady perfume, but he spreads it on toast anyway and drizzles it into his coffee, and he leaves a jar out for Sam and any other thing that might be interested, out in the greenhouse. "She was about five minutes away from offering to do my laundry and keep me for supper, I think," he tells Sam. He holds the coffee against his chest and lets the rosy roasted smell waft up. Another cold morning, but probably the last one for a long time. The ground's covered in the green tops of things. "I'm telling you. Single guy without a ring on his finger, it's just catnip for these broads. If you ever had an ounce of game you might've gotten somewhere with Ms. Washington."

He rubs a hand over his beard. Keeps forgetting to shave, since it's not like they've got to pretext as FBI anymore. He huffs. "Grizzly Adams, breaking hearts all over Smith County." He shakes his head and drains the last of his coffee, down to the almost-last swallow. "At least I've still got a man's haircut, huh?" He drizzles the last inch down onto the soil. The acid's maybe not great, but whatever. Man's not meant to go months without coffee.

With the tiller he breaks up the soil around the greenhouse, since he figures at this point, why not. He works through a week of afternoons and the grounds are soft and cracked-open, giving under his boots. He bought a random handful of packets of seeds and he scatters them all over. They might take, they might not. It rains, a day or two after he does it, and he goes out the next morning and looks at the dew clinging to the truck and to the new grass and to the hodgepodge glass of the greenhouse, and then a car engine cuts through the silence, and that's how the second person comes: Claire, who tumbles out of that rickety Jeep with holes in her jeans and her eyes red with crying and falls right into Dean's arms, squeezing him so hard with those skinny muscles he can't, for a solid thirty seconds, take in a real breath.

Someone told someone, and they told someone, and so on until it trickled back to Claire when she was trying to figure out a case involving a striga. She'd tried to call Sam, but his phone was dead, and Dean's has been too, for almost three months. Late April now, spring very much sprung, and Claire hits his shoulder and then hugs him again, her mascara streaky and smeared. "Why didn't you call?" she says. Petulant and furious as always, when her heart's hurt. Dean did call her on that last day, when Cas left his vessel for good, and then he drove across country to meet her with the body bundled safe in the backseat, and she tried to beat the shit out of him for doing it, Illinois snow in her hair and her knuckles split, and he took it until she cried and then held her. All he had left then was to be patient, with Sam at home nursing Jack. Patience was all he had to give.

Now, he doesn't even have that left, but he manages it anyway, somehow. She pulls back after a while of just clinging to him, and smears her mascara worse trying to clumsily knock her tears away. Claire's never been a good crier. Her hair's grown out, in one of those braid things that she has wrapped around like a bun, and she still looks about fourteen, to him. Funny. She's the same age Dean was, when he went to get Sam way back when. He rubs under her eye, gets a splotch of wet black off onto his thumb, and she licks her lips and looks down at her dirty tennis shoes, takes a soggy breath. "Where'd you burn him?" she says, and he says, "I didn't," his voice all rust because he hasn't talked to anyone yet, today, not even Sam. She blinks at him, shakes her head, and he shrugs and walks out around the big lump of the plant to where the greenhouse is waiting for him to check in. She huffs and follows, and after a few running steps to catch up she takes his hand and he can feel her surprise when she sees it. No one else has, yet.

He takes her inside, and says, "Careful," and she follows behind him on the narrow path between where the flowers are coming up. There's just room for two people to stand side by side in front of the unmarked grave, and he folds his arms over his chest, looking down. "Sammy, Claire's here," he says, and in his peripheral vision he sees her face lift to his. Does he sound crazy? Maybe. Warm in here, even though he left the door and the ceiling vents open, and it smells like rain and wet dirt. Claire crouches down, her head bent and her arms wrapped around her knees, and with her crown of blonde hair and that pinkish leather jacket she looks like a flower, herself.

"Hey, Sam," she whispers, wet-sounding. Dean looks away.

The goldenrod's already shooting up. It might get tall. He goes and stands in the doorway, looking out at the soggy grounds, and wonders. All those random plants that might grow. A field, a forest. All the growing things he can possibly cram in. On Sam's thirty-eighth birthday when they were getting very, very drunk indeed, because their friend was dead and their kid was gone, Sam said, with a sunny booze-filled conviction, that he was really glad that they had a house. Why, so you can have me play house-maid and not feel guilty? Dean had said, and Sam had rolled his head over on the floor where they were both laying, because it was the kind of night where that seemed like a good idea, and he'd said, That's a bonus. No, no, I mean—I mean, it's good, you know? It's something—permanent. Something with roots. That's all.

Claire doesn't spend the night. The striga's a problem she left behind and Alex is in Minnesota waiting to meet her. She comes downstairs and makes a weirdly good pot of coffee, and Dean gives her a jar of the new alfalfa honey that Ms. Washington left for him at the co-op, and she holds it against her chest and hugs him again, one armed this time but just as hard. "Let me know when you get out there again," she says. Older now, she's stopped pretending to quite the same don't-care attitude. Still not wise, though, not yet. She smiles at him, careful. "Hunting's not the same without at least one Winchester out there being a know-it-all. We'll take out a werewolf or something. Just say the word."

He smiles back, and gives her a kiss on top of the head, and doesn't say a word at all. He watches her down the driveway. That Jeep needs at least two belts replaced. "Hear that squeak?" he says, soft, and closes his eyes. The sun's warm.

*

That summer the flowers burst forward, blooming in all kinds of colors and making the air inside the greenhouse almost headache-inducing strong. Bees come, maybe from Ms. Washington's hives or maybe just wild travelers. Dean gets an old metal chair that he rescued out of the drafty interior of the plant and sets it at the doorway to the greenhouse. The wildflowers have spread, and some random vegetables or something too. He's not doing anything with the stuff outside, other than watching it—the earth can have it or not, can take care of it or not, in random patches of summer rain that break up the monotony of the sun baking down. Hotter, now, than it used to be.

Dean sits out and drinks a cup of honeyed coffee—simple clover, this time—and nurses his hurt wrist, the evening settling down on the field and the smell of lavender thick in the back of his throat. "You wouldn't know," he says, a little over his shoulder, "but it was an amateur move. Should've made sure the jack was steady before I got under there." He snorts, carefully rotating his forearm. Nothing broken, because he'd know. He's never seen Jerry move so quick. "Boneheaded, huh. Trying to stop a truck falling with one arm?" Happened fast—the jack slipping, and the black undercarriage falling toward his face. He snapped his arm out quick, quick enough that he could almost be proud of his reflexes, but there wasn't any panic. He wondered if it would come later, after the first burst of adrenaline. A truck, falling down inches from his head. The panic didn't come.

He stretches his legs out, gets his heels into the grass. It's about half clover at this point. No bees out, now. They're all headed home, with dusk coming, and he tips his head back against the chair-back and watches the sky wash out to dim blue, and then dim purple, and then black. Stars prickle everywhere. No lights out here, no pollution to hide them. Summer and so Orion's easy to pick out. Dean follows the invisible trail back from Orion's foot to where his big dog sits. Waiting, his master always a few steps ahead. "Gods always give you the raw end of the deal, huh," he says. "Poor mutt."

Sam had some illustrated book of myths that he lugged around for about three states when they were kids. Dean can't remember now how old they were—still in school, at least. He'd memorized all the stories in about a week, because he was always an absolute nerd like that, but he still read them over and over, telling Dean which constellations were which whenever Dean would turn down the music enough to listen to him. Every star with its own special story. Dean thought the ancients could've really used MTV and maybe a few Clint Eastwood movies to pass the time instead of trying to attach meaning to made-up shapes in the sky, and he told Sam so. I can make up a constellation, too, look, he remembers saying, and tracing random dots and making up stupid stories. Something about a hot chick milking a cow, and something about Van Halen. Making Sam's stories less special. Sam had rolled his eyes about it, mostly, although once he'd thrown down his dumb book and gotten actually-mad, like Sam had been doing more and more in those years, and he'd shouted about how this could help, that maybe one day they'd need this, since so much stuff that should've been made up was really real, after all. Back then, though, Dean was burning bones and killing werewolves and gods didn't seem like anything they'd ever see, and he'd dismissed the whole thing out of hand. It was stupid as hell, Dean had thought, to believe in anything. It didn't do any good and all you might get out of it was a crushed heart. Better to leave it in the storybooks.

The lavender smell has faded, with the night cooling off. Dean's coffee is cold. He levers himself up to his feet, his hip aching from so long in the same position, and goes inside. Dark, but he can still find his way. He sets the mug down on the rectangle of soil he's kept bare and goes down to one knee, and then the other, sighing. "I wonder if you know how sorry I am, sometimes," he says. Crickets chirp, somewhere out in the night. The air's still, warmer in here than outside with the heat trapped in the glass. His wrist hurts and he holds it against his chest, his eyes closed. Can't see a thing, anyway. "There's so much I wish—"

He shakes his head, doesn't finish. Sam knows, anyway. The dirt's soft, under his knees, and he slowly shifts and twists until he's laying down, on his back in the dirt. The leaves of rue brush his boots and the long stalks of goldenrod slowly resolve against the starry night barely visible through the glass. They did get tall, almost five feet. Dean closes his eyes and breathes in the air, and runs Sam's soil through his fingers on his good hand. Half a year now, almost. It's amazing, how long someone can live with one lung, one ventricle and one atrium, a crippled half-body, a mind looking ever backwards. Amazing, that it's possible, and yet the sun just keeps rising every morning.

*

That night he dreams of Sam, in a different way from all the nights before, and from the days where he passes out with his arms folded on the library table. Sam sits by his side, shoulder to shoulder. They look out at the stars, midnight moon above their heads, and in the way of dreams he can see Sam's profile in every speck of detail, even though the night's very dark. They're sitting in the doorway to the greenhouse and Dean knows there's something he should be doing but he can't remember what. Sam says nothing and Dean doesn't either—this isn't the kind of dream where he has any kind of say in how things go—but he can see Sam, and that for then is enough. He looks younger than he was. Hair's still too long. His hands on his knees, big as ever, braced like he wants to stand up. Dean watches him and feels keenly how his heart thuds in his throat like it's trying to beat right out of his body and he also feels, in the vivid knowing of dreams where the knowing comes delivered like a book falling open to the right page, that he is dead too and that everything is ended, and yet simultaneously that things will be all right, after all, and he looks at Sam and then he opens his eyes into the humid hour of dawn with his back aching and the smell of pollen up his nose, and he sneezes, and knocks over the mug of coffee, and that odd feeling stays with him all day, and for days after. He doesn't mind it, really. It's something.

Sleep's different, after that. There have been lots of days where he stays in his bed and doesn't get up for hours, drifting in and out of the real world and that other one, but ever since he put up the greenhouse he can't just close his eyes and let time pass away. He has to get up, he has to change his clothes, he has to put on boots and force his bones straight and walk up out of the bunker and meet the sun, and see Sam. Some days he could only bear to check that the dirt was still the right kind of moist, that the thing hadn't fallen down over Sam's head, and he'd say, "Still going," down to the dirt, and would go out and away because—still going was as much as he could manage, his nerves all scraped down to some point past bearing. He kept going, though. Sam trusted him to. What kind of raw deal was that, Dean often thought, but there wasn't anything for it.

He wanted to stay asleep, then, even if it wasn't exactly rest or respite. Now, though, he dreams about Sam almost every night. Nothing special, just like that first time, except that it feels more vivid, more concrete in some essential way. Not the dreams of before, random hunts that morphed into bar trips that morphed into sixth grade social studies, in the stupid way the brain would scramble up what it knew. This is just Sam, and him. Nothing wild. Sam sits beside him on the ground and it's warm, and he drags his heels up and wraps his arms around his knees and looks out at the horizon. They sit facing the west and Sam's eyes are steady. He doesn't look sad, or worried. He's just calm. He doesn't mind, luckily, that Dean can't do anything but stare at him.

When he wakes up out of these dreams Dean doesn't feel better, exactly, but in his gut something does feel different. He takes his coffee out to Sam and says, "Long time no see," and the greenhouse breathes around him. In the morning it's full of light, the plants waking up to the day. Flowers open and fill the moist air with living. Dean keeps Sam's soil clear, pulling out any roots that try to sneak over, brushing away fallen petals and leaves. His wrist slowly stops hurting and some nights he doesn't leave the greenhouse, sitting in his chair until the sun comes up or curling up on the dirt again, letting the glass shelter him. Maybe the greenhouse isn't part of the bunker, not really, but it's starting to feel that way. Sam's home, as much as the space underground was. Feels like Dean's, too.

*

He gets a letter, actual physical mail like he never gets anymore. Been long enough since he checked the box that the post-girl comes out to him when he's walking past, a bag of necessary groceries in arm. He takes it all the way home, puts away milk and bread and meat and then stands at the kitchen island with a beer and slices it open. Unsigned, in a curving hand. Autumn approaches. Stay strong, Winchester.

Faint scent clinging to the paper, a sense of drama. "The witch says hi," Dean says to Sam, when he comes out to check on things. His wrist's all better but it took its sweet time about it. Today was the first day he could go back into the garage and actually do any kind of work. He thought green thoughts all through reassembling that set of disk brakes he'd left behind, Randall politely ignoring him while he worked on his own project. He felt strange and wanted to get back. He breathes better out here, even with the air thick and humid in his lungs. Grass lush all around and some kind of wildflower spreading out into the field behind. Dean adjusts the ventilation, comes inside, plucks a few dead leaves off the rue, crumbles yarrow between his fingers. Sharp floral smell rising up and he feels calmer, already. Autumn feels a long way off, in this sleepy summer heat.

He sleeps there with Sam again that night and doesn't wake up until almost noon the next day, with bees humming through the air and the smell of goldenrod filling his head. His back hurts but not as much as he thought it would. According to the bunker's solar calendar the days are starting to get shorter but it doesn't feel that way. The sun tracks slow across the sky until he watches it set through the glass, his blood beating heavy in his ears, his aches distant. It's not quiet out here, anymore. Crickets, and fireflies sparking through the dusk, and confused birds singing one last determined song. He lays down, the soil soft at the back of his head, a cushion at his shoulders. The day radiates from the dirt, still warm, and he closes his eyes and presses his handful of leaves and petals and sticky sap against his chest, and there waiting inside his head is Sam, and it's worth getting up again each day to make it to the end where he can fall asleep and find his brother, waiting.

The summer does track on, though, as it always had to. The one tomato seed that survived the culling of the greedy birds springs up into a stalk, unfurling clean new leaves, puts out green tomatoes that slowly ripen to orange-red. Golden streaks on the flesh, knobbly like the ones from the store never are. Dean crouches and strokes his thumb across the supple-firm flesh, smiles at it. Feels like his face creaks. Disuse and rigidity. All around are wildflowers, yellow and orange popping randomly out of the earth, and thick grass, and bushes he doesn't recognize. There's a walking path cut into the dirt into the greenhouse, and everything there is kept careful and perfect by his hands. Outside the glass he just lets everything go free and, hey, it grew anyway. He stands up and feels his thighs and bones and joints creak, despite the warm humidity in the air. Even with all these stupid aches he'd hoped to outrun, his chest feels light. "There you go," he says, voice coming out rusty. He brushes the top of the bush with his fingers, soft warm green against his skin. "Got you your stupid tomatoes, princess. You can stop complaining now."

The tomatoes are gone, next morning when he comes out and checks. Probably rabbits, or birds, or hell, raccoons. Who knows what lives out here. Wild animals weren't ever his preference, for hunting. Not that he's doing any hunting, anymore. "Hope you got a taste before they went," he says, to the dirt, and that night when he sleeps Sam's there, and even if he still faced away, even if he doesn't look at Dean and even if his eyes are wet when Dean stares greedily and drinks him in, Sam's smiling. Sammy, smiling. Dean wakes up with salt-trails striped down his temples, his chest sore. If anyone had told him twenty years ago—but there's a lot he's done in the past twenty years that passes explanation, or understanding. He wipes his face, looks up through the greenish glass at where the day's starting to streak cross the sky. If he had, himself, traveled back to look his own young self in the eyes and said that there would come a day that he couldn't undo, that his brother would be gone and he'd live, that he'd put one boot in front of the other and breathe and eat and drink and not try to burn down heaven to get him back—well, that would've been a fistfight worth selling ringside tickets to. Winchester v. Winchester, TKO.

August trails away, and September starts days of cooler mornings, and wind that comes and brings with it things he doesn't want to remember. In his sleep, Sam sometimes stands and Dean stands too, watching him, facing west. Sam's eyes change, sometimes, and sometimes they'll be empty with a kind of stripped-bone sorrow Dean recognizes, and Dean feels it too, his gut hollowed and that clawing feeling in his throat. For days after those dreams he won't be able to speak and he won't go in to the co-op, won't do much but move from greenhouse to bunker and back, and it'll take a night of sleeping curled over Sam's bones and seeing Sam alert, sitting easy, a calm at his brow, for Dean to wake up and feel like it's all right for him to take a full breath, again. There's starting to be a him-shaped indent in Sam's soil. When he sleeps in his real bed, the memory foam sits odd and wrong against his back, his shoulders. Too soft, and the air too still, dry and stale with the recycled filtering of the bunker. He dreams of Sam but they're thin, not substantial enough, and he finds himself shoving his feet into his boots and going out in his pajama pants and an insufficient t-shirt, and finding the cool smell of the sleeping greenhouse under the glass, and he rests there, with Sam in his head, behind his eyes. The leaves touch his bare goosebumped arms and it feels like the brush of Sam's fingers; the night breeze rolls through the open windows and it sounds like Sam, sighing over some ridiculous bit of lore. That's all Dean has, all he can shore up against the nagging need every day to just end it, to burn the bunker and let the Impala go to rust, to walk into the greenhouse with Sam's Taurus in his belt and kneel down and soak the soil with warm iron, and come at last to the hope that, maybe—maybe—

He can't, though. Pretty sure that would count as hurt, when Sam's voice is still bubbling-clear in the back of his head. There were so many times in years past where all he'd wanted was an ending. Rest, at last, or if not rest at least just—nothing. He couldn't, of course. Too much to do, too much to shoulder. Beyond all that, there was Sam. Sammy, looking up to him and then looking him in the eye, grown up—grown up too much—and there were times he thought Sam was right there with him, and times he thought they might both just lay down, one day. Some final sunset, where at last they laid down their guns and said, okay, and both knew for a certainty that there were no more worlds they had to stop from ending. Only it never did come, did it, that day. Always something else in the offing. Always one more job.

He thinks about that a lot, as autumn does creep up. Chill in the air, leaves turning. At the co-op he rebuilds Tom Muller's damn combine again, and the fields start to yellow, and the last corn harvest comes in. On the land around the bunker the wildflowers wilt under the growing rains and the ground turns colder, mud and dead grass, and he closes up the ventilating windows on the greenhouse and makes sure he shuts the door firmly behind himself every morning. He leans against the door and looks out at the dimming slowing world and it's hard to remember. One foot in front of the other. Blood won't do it. There's a trust laid over his heart. He can't do anything but this.

*

In his dream Sam seems closer to the age Dean remembers him. A little grey, at his temples, and a few more lines to his face. They stand on either side of the door to the greenhouse and Sam's just so—tall, even leaned back against the wooden frame, his hands in his pockets, his chin high and his eyes on the west. Dean's telling a story only he can't quite hear the words as they're coming out of his throat. He feels it, though—the laugh tucked into his chest, and the need for Sam to smile, to get that solemn mouth cracked into a grin. He spent so much damn time performing for this kid, the least he could do is pay a little attention. Clouds roll in and the day—unseen past Sam, because that's all he focuses on—turns from light to dark, and the rain starts, and Dean is aware of being cold though of course he doesn't feel it, not truly. Sam's hair plasters down against his skull and he looks like a statue. Solid and unmovable as iron, his profile a sharp carved slash against the black sky behind him. The humor in Dean's belly drains away to worry, to fear, and when he wakes up alone and slumped over the war table it takes him long minutes to stop the shaky weird breathing that's taken over his lungs, and it's not until he staggers up and out and onto the grounds, goes and puts his hands against the cold glass in the pre-dawn light and lets his breath fog against where Sam's still—still there—that he calms down at all.

*

Colder, and colder again. The tomato dies, and even with the shelter of the greenhouse the pansies fade. The herbs are still going strong, though. Dean picks away the dead leaves, keeps them healthy and striving, waters just enough. Hawthorn, coltsfoot, and the goldenrod's stubbornly clinging, soaking up the sun through the east wall, shedding its small petals over Sam's soil. Dean picks them up, crushes them between his fingers. Faintest smell of black licorice. "You and licorice," Dean says. He smooths the dirt with his hands, making the long rectangle nice and clean. "You've never had good taste, you know that? It's embarrassing, is what it is."

No answer. He kneels up at the foot, brushes his hands off, takes a deep breath. It still smells like wet earth, like sunshine, the growing of things filling him up. It has to be enough. It's all he has.

In October, he's sitting on his chair, drinking coffee—plain honey, this time, thick bittersweet lingering under his tongue—when there's the sound of a car engine slicing through the cold encroaching evening. Old muffler, from how loud it is. "Expecting visitors?" he says to Sam, but the door is closed to keep the remaining warmth of the day inside, and he puts down his mug in the dead grass, gets to his feet. When he comes around the side of the bunker it's Jody. Sitting in her truck, still, with her hands on the wheel, looking out her windshield at the big plant—and he can see it when she notices him, her eyes cutting his way before they close.

He slips his hands into his jacket pockets, waits. She's grown her hair out again, almost to the length it was when they first met her—god, how long ago? Solid grey now, but that tight press of her lips is still the same woman he knew, even if they haven't talked in…

She gets out of the truck, at last, and walks around to the front of it. "Dean," she says, and her mouth stays open for a moment before she closes it, jaw clenched. Her wrist's in a brace, peeking out from under her coat. She's thin. He doesn't say anything, because what can he say? Last time they left she didn't want anything to do with them, ever again, and he'd known that was best, because the people around them always get hurt, or worse. Here she is anyway. She sighs. "You look like crap," she says, and he nods, looks at the bare ground. She comes and touches his arm, just a bare light graze he can hardly feel through his jacket, and then she walks past him, with purpose, like she knows where she's going. Claire probably talked to her.

No matter what happened, he trusts Jody. He hangs back and only watches while she goes up to the greenhouse, walking slow. "How about that, Sammy," he murmurs, under his breath. A breeze picks up, rustling the grass and scattering dead leaves around his boots. Jody's hair flutters, grey against her black coat. She puts her hands against the glass and her head drops, before she turns around and fixes a determined look on Dean.

In the kitchen they stand across from each other at the island, cups of coffee between them. She doesn't ask how it happened and he doesn't explain. "You haven't been hunting," she says, not a question. He shakes his head and she nods. "How long?"

"It's been—" he starts, and it comes out so tangled he has to clear his throat. Her eyes change, just like that, and she looks more like the Jody who'd wrap them both up in back-breaking hugs, who'd send them home with leftovers, who was so good to them both when neither of them deserved it. "Most of a year."

She studies his face and then picks up her mug, goes and sits down at the table with a sigh. "It's not long enough, is it," she says, and with what happened it could be a dig but it doesn't feel like one. "Never is. But I guess you know that, don't you."

He braces his hands on the table. After Patience he thought Jody might actually kill him and he was fine with that, he deserved it and does still, but Sam pushed him into the Impala and said you don't move, you stay right here and you don't fucking say a thing, and he was so intense that Dean did what he said with his face hidden in his hands like a coward, and so he didn't see what that last conversation was like, he didn't hear what Sam said to her that made her let them go, but when Sam got into the driver's seat his face was white and he said, it's done, we're going, and Dean didn't look back because he didn't dare. They put six hundred miles of road between them and Sioux Falls before he said out loud what did we do back there, Sam and Sam stopped the car on the side of the empty highway and wiped his face and then he said, god, Dean. What we had to. What else do we ever do?

Jody tucks her hair behind both ears, drags her fingers slow along her jaw until they're pressed together, like she's praying. She might, still. That'd be something. "What you've done out there," she starts, and presses her lips together, like she's thinking. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," he says. He comes and sits down, too, and he feels old as he does it. The cold's been laying heavy on his bones lately and the years packed in feel like so many more than they really are. He runs his hand over his head, a lump of lead where his heart ought to be. "Nothing."

Her laced hands come to rest on the table. "That's what it feels like, every day," she says. "Doesn't it? Like—it's all just waiting, but you're waiting for something that's never going to come. But you keep waiting anyway, and in the meantime…"

"Yeah," Dean says, and he's nowhere then but slumped on the cold ground, Sam's weight in his lap. Every time, like the first time. That utter rejection that his world could've come to this, but there was the evidence, laid bleakly in his hands.

Jody gets up, slowly, and comes around the table. She puts her hand on his shoulder, and then on the back of his head, and then leans down and wraps her arms loosely around him, and he shudders all over and presses his face into her stomach and hugs her back. It shouldn't be allowed and he shouldn't take it, but he—

"Oh, honey," Jody says, very quietly, and the years of absence vanish. He curls in and lets her put her hand on the back of his neck. He tries not to shake but he does, anyway, and she doesn't mind.

She gives him a tissue, after, and doesn't look away while he tries to clean himself up. "I can't stay," she says. "The girls." She doesn't elaborate. Dean doesn't ask her to. It's more than he deserves that she came at all.

He walks her up the stairs. Déjà vu. "What happened to your wrist?" he says.

She kind of laughs, rusty. "Oh, what hasn't," she says. The wind's still blowing, grey-black skies threatening rain. She looks out toward the north, sighs, and then touches his jaw, soft. "You're living. That's what counts. Remember that part, okay? When you're ready, you'll have a life left. Whatever you choose to do with it."

It's not true, but Jody doesn't know that. He tries to smile at her and he watches her truck all the way down the drive, and he can't quite face going back out to see Sam, after that. No one understands. Not anymore, not anyone who's still breathing.

*

He drains what's left of a whiskey bottle and sleeps hard and troubled that night, in his own bed. Sam's there, and he's looking at Dean. There's snow on the greenhouse and on the white landscape all around, one of those white-out days where the horizon and sky and land all blur together. Terrible cold and Dean in the dream seems to be frozen down to his bones, his eyelashes frosted with ice, his body distant. Sam's in a t-shirt, jeans, bare feet, like a summer day's bleeding out of him, and Dean stretches out but he can't touch him. His hand doesn't reach. Sam bites his lip, looks from Dean's face into the greenhouse, and Dean sees then that the door is open and the snow has blown inside, the careful cultivated warmth destroyed and the herbs and flowers frosted-over dead, and Dean rears up out of the dream with the tears still streaming down his face and barely makes it to the sink before he's vomiting, deep gut-clench shudders making him heave, sick and panicked.

He trades an easy oil change and tune-up to Arlene Bennett for a sturdy space-heater, one she'd used for her sheep barn in birthing season and that had sat useless for the last decade. She says it doesn't work. A week of fiddling around and rebuilding it proves that wrong. A trip to a hardware store and he's got enough extension line to reach out to the greenhouse, and now when he goes out to see Sam in the morning the room's steaming-warm, beautiful glowing humidity that touches his face and hands, gentle in the cold. The pansies bloom again, confused about the season, and the lavender fills the air with its smell, and he sleeps above Sam and sweats and whispers, quiet even if no one else will hear, "It's okay, it's okay, I got it. I got it."

December brings a blizzard. Weather's been jumbled up for years now but that's a first. He brings bread and cheese and beer and candles out into the greenhouse and waits it out there. The space heater's still working, the glass warm on the inside even it's freezing without, and he sits in the middle of the narrow walkway at Sam's feet and watches the white pile up. The blizzard passes but it just keeps snowing, the air thick and the sun filtered through it so the world seems full of impossible light. He closes his eyes and breathes in the green air, lays down, sleeps. Sam leans casually against the door in a land of always-summer, glances at him, smiles. He's his own age, again, that scar on his neck that an angel will never again heal away, and Dean wakes up and presses his cheek against the warm dirt, watches through the aisle of green leaves as the snow forms soft banks against the glass. No more birds, no insect hum. Just the oppressive soft silence of winter, the earth gone quiet. Not dead, not exactly. Just waiting.

He stops going into the co-op. He doesn't like to leave the bunker for too long, not even the half-hour into town and back, and he has what he needs here. For food he has beans and corn, meat in the freezer. He runs out of beer, and then coffee, but he'll live. The candles stayed in the greenhouse and he leaves them burning all night, in the shadow under the tall goldenrod stalks, on either side where Sam's hands could be if he were able somehow to stretch them out under the ground, break through the box Dean build for him and ease up that ache in his chest. When one candle burns down Dean replaces it with another and the lavender's matched with the smell of beeswax, the occasional sulfur-strike of a match. Sometimes the smoke burns for a while, the pool of wax guttering for a second, and it rises up like from a censer, wavering the world beyond the glass to a blurry mystery.

Christmas sees snow again. He brings out the last dug-up bottle of whiskey and pours some out on Sam's soil. "Not that you ever appreciated the good stuff," he says, raspy. Echoes of so many times before. He's starting to feel—he sits down, his hip aching. Echoes. Same references, same music. His jeans frayed thin, same brand he's been buying for a decade now, and his boots worn in the same places. A record, skipping, the needle slipping over and over in the same groove. He rubs dirt through his fingers, watches the thin runnel of earth slip back into itself, and he doesn't think. Empty as a lost glass jar.

He sleeps more. Sam's there.

*

The day Sam died, Dean sat with his body through long, empty hours. Night fell, and the moon rose and poured silver-white light across the cold ground that had been soaked darker with Sam's blood, and Dean pressed his head back against the Impala's steel and held Sam in his arms and was full of nothing. There was a hole, somewhere, and everything in him had drained out.

The trees cast long bleak shadows in the moonlight. Dean looked out into the empty dark and between one instant and the next a shadow moved, and there was Billie, watching him. Even with the night shrouded around them both her eyes were easy to see. He cupped Sam's head closer, pointless protection. Despite their history Billie's mouth curved solemn. This wasn't a win. She said, quiet in that deep blues-singer voice, "It's time, Dean," and he looked at her with his throat a solid mass, and she tilted her head and said, in the same tone, "He's served his time. There's no trick, here. There's no trade you can make. Sam is dead. That's the way things are."

Dean said, "Let me go with him." His lips felt numb.

Billie crouched down, her coat pooling on the ground around her. Her eyebrows were drawn together, her face otherwise that unnatural smooth stillness. She said, "That's not my business. I don't take anything before its time."

Nothing moved, in the darkness. He could feel his heart beating, sickly thick in his chest. Dean said, "I'll make a deal," and Billie said, gentle, "You will not," and Dean said then, "I'll call an angel," and Billie said, "None will come."

He breathed, in and out. Sam's weight in his lap had made his legs go dead-asleep. He looked down, at the pale profile tucked in against his stomach, and he smoothed Sam's hair back even though it was already perfectly in place. "I can't," he said, and it wasn't pleading but a statement of fact. There was no world in which Sam could be gone and he could live, not again. It wasn't worth considering.

"No," Billie agreed, and when he looked up she was still focused entirely on him, her hands loosely clasped between her knees. "No, you can't. But you will."

A terrible sympathy, in her face. Dean's blood pricked hotly in his cheeks, throbbing through him despite how much he wished it would stop.

She said, "If you welch, I will take Sam away to the empty and you will never see him again." Eternity alone. Dean stared at her. "Be patient. The seasons turn. Life goes on." She stood, looking to the east, and said, "The sun does rise, despite everything. You'll know what to do."

She was gone then, between one blink and the next. Dean looked down at Sam. That was all he could do, then. He didn't understand then how he could do anything else, but it turned out that he could. Biggest horrible tragedy of his life, he's often thought. That ability to stand up, to keep moving, even with every straining fiber of him wishing to do anything but.

*

The greenhouse breathes. In the center of the white grounds it's frosted green, the wood rimed but wet black beneath. Yew, and horseapple, and black locust. The copper on the door has started to oxidize, bronzed dark with the year that has passed. Snow piles up against the glass but inside it's warm, seething with life. Vervain and yarrow, larkspur and rue. The leaves furl open and pour ripe oxygen into the air. In the soil: blood, and rot, and coffee, and honey, and whiskey like a prayer.

Dean lies in the back-center of the greenhouse with his head to the east. It's warm and he's stripped down to his flannel shirt, kicked off his boots. His stomach is empty but that hunger is distant; his lips are dry, but his licks them with a sticky tongue and they part slow in the damp air. His breath comes steady, like his heart. The jar of honey sits empty, the candles burned down to low pools of wax. His hands spread open on the dirt.

When they were kids he'd had an argument with their dad. Something inconsequential, though it had seemed so important at the time. He'd disobeyed, in some essential way, and Dad took Sam to Bobby's house and then Dean got stuck in a school in Indiana through three weeks of a miserable winter, enough money to pay for twenty-one days at a bleak rotting motel and barely enough left over for food each week. The hunger wasn't the punishment. By the time the Impala rolled up to the school to pick him up, he'd lost ten pounds and he'd almost gone to his knees, he was so grateful. Sam hung out the back window, making faces and then grinning at him, and he'd yelled come on, what's taking so long? Dad says he's taking us for ice cream! Dean had gotten into the backseat and Sam had smiled so wide it looked like his little face would split in half and he'd said, like it was a confidence, I'm getting marshmallows on mine, and Dean had looked at Dad in the rearview, watching them both, and he'd said, when don't you want marshmallows, you little weirdo, and took Sam's little fist to the shoulder like it was a hug.

In his dream Sam's leaning over him, hair a mess, his familiar face set in those familiar worried lines. They're in the dirt, cold everywhere, like a blanket pulled up over Dean's chest. He can't say anything, but then he never can. Sam's hand hovers over his face and he bites his bottom lip, and he looks like he's going to cry. That's never what Dean wanted. Even when they were furious at each other, he never wanted that. He reaches up and his fingers skim along Sam's jaw, cupping the side of his neck, like he so often used to do. Sam blinks at him, shocked, and when he blinks a tear falls and hits Dean's cheek. It's cool, and Dean feels the trail of it seep along his skin, down to the hollow of his ear. Sam's mouth moves but Dean can't hear him. It's okay, he wants to say. It's okay. I'm here, and I'm not going to leave you. That's all that's ever mattered, between them. That's all there's ever been: him, and Sam. It was a promise he never had to make because it was built into him, from the very start. He wishes he could say it now but he thinks, maybe, Sam knows. It's there in his eyes, if Sam wants to look, and he is—he's looking, and he smiles. Watery-eyed, maybe, but he smiles, those dimples carving deep in his cheeks, and Dean's heart feels light. Friggin' girl. He squeezes and then lets his hand fall away, and Sam's mouth moves, his lips say: Dean. Dean.

*

Dean's eyes open. The world sparks blurrily, light fracturing into impossible pieces. He hurts, all over, but something under his breastbone feels like—fireworks.

"Hey," he hears, and warm hands brush his cheeks, scuff through his beard, grab him under the ears and shake him. "Hey."

He blinks, hard, and there's—Sam. Sam, leaning over him. Lines around his eyes, his stupid hair fluffed around his face, his mouth a cautious worried smile. "Sammy?" he gets out, thin as thin, his throat a sore dry mess, and Sam kind of—gasp-laughs, his smile getting wider, and he says, "Yeah, man, it's—it's me," and Dean feels the world realign into a new shape. He blinks again and Sam's outlines get sharper. He touches Dean's forehead, the corner of his eye, his chest, and then he tugs and Dean's forced to sit up, the universe spinning dizzily around him, and he sways.

"Hey, hey," Sam says, again. He cups Dean's face in both hands, looks him at him steady. "It's okay. It's okay, now."

The earth under Dean's hand is churned up, loose. He curls his hand into a fist and looks at Sam, there, sitting right beside him. His face is lit up in the sunrise coming through the glass. All the grey in his hair, still grey, and the wrinkles Dean can't make fun of because Sam will just say look in the mirror, buddy, and the thing is that—Sam can do that, now. Sam's here. "Sam," he says, like that's all there is to say, and Sam pulls him in, tugs him close and wraps his arms around Dean's back, squeezing. Dean's face tucks in against Sam's, their ears pressed crumpled against each other.

The air doesn't smell like flowers, now. It smells like—skin. Sam's smell, salt and sweat, and his hair in Dean's nose. Dean curls his fingers into the warm flannel over Sam's shoulders, lets Sam take his weight. Sam's big hand cups the back of his head and Dean closes his eyes. The sun is warm on his back. He breathes. For the first time in a year, it doesn't hurt.