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We can be heroes, just for one day

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Dean has only been gone for a few months when Sam discovers the lump on Miracle's belly. "It's a very aggressive form of cancer," the veterinarian says. "I got as much as I could, but because of its location, it wasn't possible to get it all. Without treatment, he'll probably have three to four good months. Chemotherapy could buy him a few more months. But at his age…"

Dean would say do all the treatment, whatever it takes. But Dean doesn't get to call the shots this time. Dean doesn't ever get to decide again that someone has to live, no matter how peaceful the end that awaits them, no matter how painful and useless their life is, no matter how high the price of keeping them alive, no matter how ready they are to end it all. Dean doesn't get to demand that they keep living just because he can't stand losing them. And he doesn't get to go off and fucking die himself anyway and leave them alone. Dean doesn't get to do that again.

(Sam might, just possibly, be a little bitter.)

Three good months later, there's one last trip to the vet and one more funeral pyre. The clinic offered cremation services but Sam burns everyone he loves and he has to do this; this is his penance, this is his debt. As he watches the smoke rise he thinks that's it; there's no one left who needs me to be here. Sure, there are people who appreciate him, even love him. People who would miss him. Eileen, Jody, Donna. But there's no one who needs him. No one waiting for him to come home. No one whose life would fall apart if he weren't in it.

So maybe now he can just… stop.

Maybe he will.

But if he were going to take himself off the board, how would he do it? He could flub a hunt, although he'd have to trick someone into going with him, to make sure his corpse gets salted and burned afterward. But that other hunter might save him, despite his best efforts. And even if it did work, someone might have to watch him die, knowing they couldn't save him. He can't put anyone through that.

He could climb on top of his own pyre, light it on fire, and quickly eat a bullet. But that's risky too. The fire could go out, or someone could see. That's what kept him from doing exactly that when he torched the barn in Canton. The only thing that stopped him from lighting the fire and then lying down next to Dean and putting a bullet in his own brain was the chance that someone might see, someone might put the fire out. And the barn had to burn. There was too much of Dean's blood there, soaked into the wooden floor after Sam gently took him off the wall and sobbed and begged over his body, cursed and screamed and pleaded for Jack, Rowena, anyone or anything who could undo what had been done. Sam had to stay alive to make sure the barn burned to the ground. If there was any bit of Dean remaining, anything that held his spirit to the earth, it needed to not be a barn in Ohio.

If Dean's spirit had been attached to anything, it would have been the Impala. Sam had half-hoped it would happen. He sometimes talks to his brother when he drives, as if Dean really were haunting it.

"If I were going to do it," he says to the empty passenger seat. "I think I'd slit my wrists in a hotel bathtub. That way, someone will be sure to find me, and I can leave instructions for Jody to have me burned."

You were supposed to keep fighting, Dean doesn't say, because he's not there to say it.

"And you were supposed to stay alive," Sam snaps. "I told you, I don't want to do this on my own. We were supposed to keep fighting together. Who am I staying alive for?"

The Dean who isn't there remains stubbornly silent.

"The thing is, it's all been so pointless," Sam says. "Our whole lives. None of it meant a single fucking thing. All those people we thought we were saving, and we were just following Chuck's script. It didn't mean anything, Dean. So why should I fight now? Why does it matter?"

(Sam might, just possibly, be ready to make his exit.)

And so this is how you end it, Dean doesn't say. You've decided nothing we did matters and nothing you can do in the future is important, so you're gonna bleed out in some shitty motel room. That's how the Winchesters are gonna end?

Well, it won't be a shitty motel room; it will be someplace nice. Someplace in Sioux Falls, under Jody's jurisdiction. The drive to South Dakota gives Sam plenty of time to work out the logistics. A note on the bathroom door telling housekeeping to leave the door closed and call Jody. Written instructions for her, and the signed title to the Impala. All of the mess confined to the easily-cleaned bathtub. It will be fine. No, nothing will be fine, but it will work, and that's all that matters.

Sam parks in a conspicuous spot in front of the Sioux Falls Inn and gets a room for one night. The nicest hotel in Sioux Falls isn't exactly luxurious, but it does have a lobby bar, and he's not ready to be alone just yet. He orders a double of the most expensive whiskey they have and sinks into a comfortable overstuffed chair. He should get something to eat, too. It’s been a while. Then he almost laughs at this ridiculous, futile little burst of self care. Too little, too late. He finishes his first drink and orders another, after assuring the bartender he's not driving anywhere tonight, and composes the note to Jody in his head. It is mostly apology.

Well, you'll definitely owe her an apology, the Dean in his head says. Kinda shitty to dump more trauma on her. She had to watch her own zombie kid eat her husband, and now she gets to find her friend dead in the tub.

Then he'll apologize more. Because he trusts Jody to make sure his body his burned, make sure the tub is scrubbed clean, make sure there's no part of him left to tether his soul to this crappy, empty, miserable plane of existence.

As Sam sips his third glass of whiskey, a group of five or six people enters the bar area, voices slightly raised in friendly disagreement. He ignores them until he hears the word Impala, and then slips instinctively into alert mode. Great, he's sitting here in public, in a fucking bar of all places, half-wasted, and someone might recognize him.

They don't seem to have noticed him, though. Just the car. A young man in a denim jacket plops down at a table near Sam, sets his drink down with just a little too much force for sobriety, and jabs a finger in his friend's face. "Listen," he says, "I know you think you're the ultimate car guy, but I'm telling you that's a 1967 Chevrolet Impala, and I know this. Because I had a life-changing event that involved a car exactly like that and I will never forget it."

Sam looks down and lets his hair hide his face, but he can hear Denim Jacket's friends sliding into seats around the table. "Life-changing event?" one says. "I need to hear that story."

Denim Jacket and his friends are just drunk enough to be a little loud, not realizing anyone nearby can hear them. Which is good, because Sam needs to hear this story too. "Guys," Denim Jacket says, "I am going to tell you something I have never told anyone. You won't believe me, but I swear to God, every word of it is true."

He takes a drink and looks around the circle. "So, this was March, 2006, back when I lived in Missouri. I'm ten years old, right? On a Boy Scout camping trip. We're out in the woods, it's night, we're telling ghost stories around the fire and shit, and all of a sudden there's this godawful growling sound. One of the leaders had gone out in the trees to take a piss, so I thought he was just fooling around, you know? Trying to scare us. And I'm going: okay, Mr. Franklin, that's not funny at all. Then there was this bloodcurdling scream. Not someone joking around, an actual real scream of terror. I don't think you could fake it. We're all sitting around going what the fuck, and then this creature shows up. Some kind of big monster dog. Like, think of the biggest, meanest dog you've ever seen, and then multiply it by ten."

"So, a wolf," someone says.

"No, not a wolf. I know from a fucking wolf, all right? This was not a wolf. It was huge. Taller than me then. Maybe taller than me now. Jet black, red eyes, fangs as long as my hand, and this thick black spiny hair down its back."

Black dog. Unmistakeably a black dog. Not that Denim Jacket or his friends would recognize it.

Someone next to Denim Jacket laughs. "Is this the heartwarming story of the first time you dropped acid?"

A couple of friends break into giggles, but Denim Jacket smacks the guy in the shoulder. "I told you, dipshit, this is the God's honest truth. So this monster dog bounces into our campsite, blood dripping from its fangs — Mr. Franklin's blood, you know, cause it just slaughtered him — and it's looking around at us like who's next? Half of us ran screaming, and half of us just froze."

"Wait a minute," says a woman across the table. "You're telling us your Scout leader was killed on a campout?"

Denim Jacket leans forward. "I am telling you that my Scout leader, Mr. Ronald Franklin, was killed on a camping trip in Osceola, Missouri on March 11, 2006 and you can look that shit up." He settles back into his chair. "The news will say it was a wolf attack. Even though there were no wolves known to be in that area. No dangerous animals at all, which is why there was a fucking Boy Scout camp there."

Sam flips through decades of memories. Osceola, Missouri? It's possible…

Denim Jacket takes a drink and continues. "Like I said, half of us froze. I was one of them. The monster dog was closest to me, and he reached out and swiped me with these giant claws. Sliced me right open."

The woman across the table from Denim Jacket laughs. "Carlos, you are so making this up."

"Oh, okay." Denim Jacket — Carlos — nods and unbuttons his shirt, revealing a set of jagged parallel scars running diagonally across his chest, from his collarbone to the middle of his ribcage. "Am I making this up?"

His friends rise from their seats with gasps of shock. The two on either side of him lean in close, their hands hovering over the scars, as if they want to touch them. The woman across the table puts her hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

"How did you not die?" someone finally asks.

"That's the best part! These guys showed up out of nowhere. I'm on the ground, bleeding, and the monster dog is coming in for the kill, and I hear a gunshot and the monster dog yelps and then there's this guy." Carlos gestures excitedly. "This big young guy, almost seven feet tall. He empties his gun into the monster dog, and he's a perfect shot, pow pow pow, right between the eyes, but that doesn't take it down. It just pisses it off, but at least it goes for him instead of me, right? So it lunges at him, takes him down, and it's trying to tear his throat out and he's barely holding it off, and I'm thinking I should get a stick or something and try to help, but I mean, he just shot it half a dozen times. If that big guy with a gun can't kill it, there's not a damn thing a scrawny 10-year-old who's bleeding all over the place can do."

Oh, wait. Yes. This is familiar. The Boy Scouts and the black dog and the kid on the ground, pale and bloodied, Sam's despair that they were too late, and the beast snarling at his throat. And then…

"And then I hear someone yell hey, fugly, over here! Like he's trying to distract it? But it doesn't care, because it's trying to munch on Guy Number One. Then I can finally see Guy Number Two come barreling out of the trees. He's another big guy, and he just grabs the motherfucker and picks it up and hurls it away from the first guy. I mean, this monster dog weighed more than 300 pounds. Probably closer to 400. And he just picked it up and threw it. I know about an adrenaline rush, but I've never seen anything like that. It looked like a pro wrestling move, except real."

Sam smiles into his whiskey. Dean had come running into the circle of firelight, desperately trying to draw off the black dog, afraid to shoot it for fear of hitting Sam. He'd finally been able to kick it hard enough to throw it off balance. Sam had rolled away, torn and bleeding but alive.

"So then, the monster dog comes flying at the second guy, and while he's fighting it, Guy Number One drags me away from the action, cause they're basically right on top of me. And then there's another one. Another monster dog jumps onto Guy Number Two's back, and the first one has its jaws clamped onto his arm, and the guy with me yells at him and tosses him this huge-ass machete. And he catches it in his free hand, and then he just —" Carlos is standing now, making wild swinging motions. "He goes thwap, cuts the first monster dog's head off, and doesn't even adjust his grip, just carries that stroke through, twirls it over his head like Conan the fucking Barbarian and wham, sticks the machete right in the other monster dog's head."

It is… not quite accurate. Sam can't think of exactly why he would have thrown Dean a machete instead of coming to his aid. He does know it takes more than one stroke to decapitate a black dog, and that it would be pretty much impossible to thrust a machete through the skull of anything clinging to your back. And he's also pretty sure there was only one black dog. But Carlos's audience is enthralled.

"Then what?" someone asks.

"Honestly, things are kinda blurry after that. I passed out for a little bit, I think. Next thing I knew, Machete Guy was carrying me to his car. A big black Impala, just like the one out front. That's why I knew it, right? I will never forget coming up on that car. He sat me down in the back seat and got a first aid kit out of the trunk and started patching me up, and he said so that was some crazy wolf, huh? I said that wasn't a wolf, and he looked at me for a minute, and said I know it wasn't a wolf, and you know it wasn't a wolf, but things are gonna go a little bit easier on you if you tell people it was a wolf, you know what I mean? So that's what I told people — that it looked like a wolf."

He pauses and looks at the group around the table, one by one. "When we got back to the camp, the other guy had already pushed all the remains into the campfire. There wasn't enough left to tell what it was by the time the cops and the ambulance got there. You guys are the only ones who've heard the real story. And you probably still think I'm making it up. Some of you, anyway. But I'm telling you, there's some shit out there. And once you know, you can't unknow."

Yes, it's all familiar now. Sam burned the black dog's carcass and tried to calm the remaining campers while Dean took the injured kid to the Impala to give him first aid and the "monsters are real" speech. And now that kid is here, with Sam, in the lobby bar of the nicest hotel in Sioux Falls, giving a bunch of drunk friends the same speech. It's insane. Dean would get such a kick out of it (and oh, dammit, that hurts).

The group is quiet for a moment before Carlos speaks again. "That guy, those guys, that's why I became a firefighter, you know? I mean, I'll never be as brave as them. But saving people just became really important to me after living through that. I wanted to be that kind of hero. They didn't even know me, and they risked their lives to save me. I wanted to be that for somebody."

Sam chokes back a sudden sob. He quickly turns it into a cough and looks away in case he attracted anyone's attention. Which is unnecessary — it's not like Carlos would recognize him. He's not that person any more.

"Dude, that's exactly what you are!" someone exclaims. "That woman on the bridge, and the little girl last year? You're a damn hero!"

One friend claps Carlos on the back in affirmation. Another lifts his glass and says "Well, here's to the guys in the black Impala." Carlos joins them in the toast. Sam does too. To my brother, the guy in the black Impala.

The group continues talking but Sam can't listen to it any longer. He downs the rest of his drink, settles his bar tab, and heads up to his room.

He's a lot more wobbly than he expected. Well, that was a lot of whiskey for someone who hasn't eaten or slept in a couple of days, dumbass, Dean would say. If he were there. But he's not there, and he won't ever be there again, so fuck him.

It takes a couple of attempts to slide his key card into the door. Sam stumbles into the room, eases himself carefully into the desk chair, and finds a pen and the hotel's notepad. Time to write his letter to Jody. But his head is spinning and it's hard to get a good grip on the pen, and maybe he needs to stop and pull himself together. Maybe the lack of food and sleep, and the complication of too much whiskey, mean he's in no condition to be wielding a knife right now. Sam might, just possibly, be too drunk to do this.

Yeah, it'd be awful if you slit your wrists wrong and accidentally lived, Dean doesn't say.

Sam's too weary to tell the Dean who isn't there to fuck himself. He just needs to rest for a little bit and let the whiskey work its way out of his system. He stretches out on the surprisingly comfortable bed, closes his eyes, and dreams.

.

It's a chilly night. They're sitting on the hood of the Impala, beer in hand, looking at the stars. Sam turns to his brother. I'm sorry I can't be that person any more, he says. I know you're disappointed.

Dean shrugs. I'm not disappointed, man. I just don't understand why you're ready to give up. You know you're one of the guys in the black Impala, right? You did that. WE did that. That Carlos kid is a hero now because of what we did back then. That wasn't Chuck, it was us.

But there isn't an us any more. It's just Sam. And when he thinks about the rest of his life, thinks about the lonely years, the empty decades ahead of him —

So don't think about years, or decades. Think about tomorrow. Think about what you're gonna do tomorrow, Sammy. And then tomorrow, you can think about the next day.

But I don't want to hunt without you. I never did.

Dammit, Sam. I told you to keep fighting. That doesn't mean you have to keep hunting. Go back to school and be a lawyer who fights for the little guy. Be a teacher. Write a self-help book. Become the only Boy Scout troop leader who can actually protect his damn campers from a black dog. You really think there's nothing good left to do? You really think there's no one out there who needs Sam Winchester's help?

True, there is another life out there. A life Sam thought he had packed up and put away a long time ago. But maybe he can open that box again.

So, one day at a time, huh?

Whatever works, Dean says, as he finishes his beer. Hey, you remember that show? One Day at a Time? Mmmm, young Valerie Bertinelli. Mrs. Eddie Van Halen. Rawr.

Sam is startled into a laugh, for the first time in forever. It feels good. I'm pretty sure I was the one who had the crush on Valerie Bertinelli, Dean. I think she was a little too wholesome for you.

Dean lights up with a lascivious grin. What part of 'Mrs. Eddie Van Halen' reads as wholesome to you? You think a guy like that is gonna marry someone who isn't just a little bit nasty? He's crude and juvenile and Sam misses him so fucking much. But yeah, you're right, that was you. I guess that means I'm you, and you're just talking to yourself, aren't you? No one up here but Sam. And the fact that you're having this argument with yourself means part of you wants to keep going, right?

Okay, sure. There probably is a part of Sam that isn't ready to climb into that bathtub and set a blade to his wrists. Otherwise, he would already be bleeding out, slipping down the drain of the nicest hotel in Sioux Falls.

So maybe you should listen to that guy. Let him drive for a little while. Give him a day or two, see what he comes up with. You might be surprised.

Sam nods. Yeah, okay. Maybe. Maybe I will.

.

A burst of tinny music thrusts Sam back into his hotel room. Dean is gone, again. Dean will be gone for the rest of Sam's life. He can either live with that, or not.

He squints at his phone. Jody Mills calling.

"Hey, Jody."

"Sam, I just drove past the Sioux Falls Inn, and I'm pretty sure I saw your car. Are you here? Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, that's, that's me. I'm here." He can't answer her second question.

"Why didn't you let me know you were in town?" She sounds caring. Concerned. Because she does care. It'd be a shame to make her identify your corpse, the Dean who isn't there doesn't say.

"Sorry. I, ah, I got here late. Didn't want to wake you up if you weren't already up."

"Well, here I am, just off duty and wide awake. You wanna talk?"

Sam glances at the clock. It's 11:46 p.m. It's practically tomorrow, Dean doesn't say. You lived through what was supposed to be the last day of your life. May as well live through the next one too.

One more day might not hurt.

"Actually, I'm pretty beat. Can I buy you breakfast in the morning?"

"Come to my house and I'll make you pancakes. The girls would love to see you."

"Yeah, okay. Sounds good. Thanks." Sam gets undressed, crawls back into bed, and sets his alarm. He has plans for tomorrow. And maybe, just possibly, the day after.