There's something in Dean's closet.
He's nearly four, too old to be scared of the dark anymore, but he knows it's there. If he sits still and quiet he can hear it breathing. It's waiting for him to fall asleep so it can come out and eat him.
He wants Mommy, but he's too old to cry for her; besides, she needs her rest, Daddy said so. Dean curls himself into a tiny ball around his teddy bear and stares wide-eyed at the closet's open, hungry mouth. He can hear the monster breathing, and it wants to eat him, and he's almost four but still too little to fight it off.
He's too big to cry, but there’s a monster in his closet.
He cries real quiet, face buried in his teddy, but it's not quiet enough because before long he hears Mommy's soft footsteps coming down the hall. And he feels bad, because Mommy needs her rest and he shouldn't have woken her, but the monster is scared of Mommy and it goes away as soon as she walks through the doorway.
"Hey, baby." Mommy's voice is warm and sleepy and she climbs up on the bed with him. He snuggles against the soft curve of her belly, and she's warm and safe and smells like cinnamon rolls.
"What's wrong?" Mommy asks softly. Dean feels a little silly now—he's too old to be scared—so he bravely swallows back a last teary hiccup and says, "Nothin'."
Mommy smiles. He can't see her face, but he can feel the smile. Her hand smooths his hair, calm and strong, and he knows that monsters will never get him as long as Mommy's there. He wants her to stay so he'll be safe, but he's too big to ask, so he curls trembling against Baby's feather-light movements and waits for Mommy to head back down the hall.
He's too big to ask her to stay, but this is Mommy; he doesn't have to ask, because Mommy knows. She pulls him up into her arms, his ear pressed against her heart. He can hear her heartbeat, and it's stronger than all the monsters in the dark.
"I'm here, baby," she whispers, her breath brushing warm against his hair. "It's okay. I'm not gonna leave, I promise. I'm here."
(Mommy burns to ash on the ceiling, and monsters close in.)
- - - -
Dean is seventeen, and he has the flu.
Dad is gone on a hunt. Alone, of course, because Dean's too sick to go, and Sam has to stay to take care of Dean. Dean can't help but worry about Dad, can't help but feel guilty, even though he didn't exactly choose to get sick.
Dean's throat feels shredded, like he's been gargling razorblades. His head is pounding and his nose is stuffy and runny all at the same time. He's pissy, because he feels like shit, and Sam's pissy because he's thirteen and always pissy these days. They snap at each other for a while, and finally Sam takes a book and retreats to the bathroom in a fit of huffy adolescent rage, slamming the door behind him.
Dean's too sick and too tired to be genuinely mad, so he just tries to sleep and hopes Sam will get over it eventually. Sleep evades him, though; his bones are beginning to hurt like they might just shatter from the inside, and God, he's cold. He burrows under the blankets and shakes so hard that his teeth rattle. He's a little scared, because he's never felt this bad before, but there's no way in hell he's gonna call Sam out of self-imposed exile to take care of him.
After a while he loses track of time and place, and he's coldhotcoldhotcoldhot bones breaking, and when he manages to get his eyes open the wallpaper is moving. He's afraid that he's dying, and then he hopes that he's dying, and then he's sure that he's dying.
Sam's voice comes from somewhere far away, scared and cracking—God, Dean, you’re burning up—and then there's cold on Dean's forehead and the back of his neck, pills forced down his throat, Sam talking, always talking. Stay with me, Dean. You’re gonna be okay. Come on, man, you’re scaring me.
"Sammy?" Dean manages to croak through bright fever-haze.
"I'm here, Dean," his little brother says, hand brushing gently over Dean's burning, sweat-slick face. "I'm not going anywhere," and Sam's voice breaks like he might cry. "I'm right here, Dean. I won't leave you, I promise."
(Sam leaves to find normal and never looks back.)
- - - -
On the fourth hunt since Sam left, Dean is bait.
It works a little too well.
Right at dusk, when Dean's just starting to get bored, the chiye-tanka blindsides him. He smells it an instant too late, and it takes him down with a blow to the head that makes his world explode in bright pain. He tumbles to the ground, gets back up, moving on pure adrenaline. The trees are spinning wildly in front of his eyes and he can barely tell up from down.
The creature is an indistinct blur in the fading light; Dean gets off a couple shots but doesn't have a chance in hell of hitting it before it's on him again, its stench overpowering. Claws rip through the front of his shirt, deep into flesh and muscle, carving trails of destruction through his chest. He tries to fight it off, but he's dizzy and can't focus well enough to see what he's fighting.
It lands a hard blow to his shin, and there's a brittle crack and he lets out a strangled scream because his leg is not supposed to bend right there. Then the world tips sideways and he's on the ground and everything's fading away, and he knows it's over, and where the hell is Dad?
When he wakes up (and that, in itself, surprises him) he's been out for at least an hour, judging by the moon. The chiye-tanka—more commonly known as Bigfoot—has a clawed hand hooked in the back of his jacket and is dragging him inexorably through the woods, probably toward its lair, wherever that is.
Dean's whole body is lit with pain, and the dark shapes of trees moving by make him even dizzier than he already was. He has a moment of absolute panic because he doesn't know where he is, or where Dad is, and he really doesn't want to be Bigfoot's midnight snack.
Slowly, carefully, he reaches back for the gun tucked into his waistband, and oh thank you GOD it's still there. The creature pays him no mind as he half-turns in its grasp, takes aim (or tries—everything's still blurry and the darkness doesn't help). He fires two shots into its broad back and it shrieks in pained fury, lets him go, stumbles away, stops. He shoots it again and it runs off into the trees, making whimpering noises—injured, but still alive.
Dean's head hurts like there are hot pokers behind his eyes trying to stab their way out. The front of his shirt is tacky with congealing blood and he's afraid his leg won't ever go straight again. (He thinks he can see a glint of bone through his torn jeans in the moonlight, but he tries not to look.) He drags himself up against the base of a big pine, gun cradled in his lap, and waits for Bigfoot to come back to finish him off.
The night goes on forever. The air grows colder, and he shivers, each tremor jolting fresh pain from his battered body. The forest is alive with night sounds, and he's waiting, wondering which rustle will be the creature coming back. It's so dark, and there's something out there that wants to kill him; maybe it already has. Dean wonders where Dad is, why he didn't come. Wonders how long it will take for them to find his broken body propped against a tree. Wonders if Dad will call Sam.
Somewhere along the line Dean drifts off, because when he opens his eyes the forest is gray with dawn and Dad's voice is saying Dean, wake up. Dean, look at me, dammit! Dad sounds scared and angry and desperate, and Dean can hardly believe he's really here.
Dad's hand brushes across the swelling on Dean's forehead, settles against his cheek. With his other hand he pulls open Dean's jacket to get a look at his chest, makes a small despairing groan when he sees the gashes. His hand moves down to Dean's leg, ghosts over the torn blue-jean fabric covering the crooked shin.
Oh, Dean, Dad says, with a heavy sigh. What am I gonna do with you? Then, when Dean starts to drift again: Stay awake, Dean. Keep your eyes open. That’s an order!
Dean looks up at Dad's face, paler than it should be in the early morning light. He knows he's too old to be scared of the dark, but there are monsters out there, and one of them got him, and he was alone all night and Dad didn't come.
"Dad," he whispers, half-knowing that he'll hate himself for it later. "Dad? Don't leave me."
A tremor runs through the hand resting against Dean's cheek. I won’t, Dad whispers, and there's a rough catch in his voice that Dean hasn't heard in years. I’m right here, you hear me, Dean? Stay with me. I’m not gonna leave you, dude, I promise.
(Dad walks away without a goodbye, leaving nothing but coordinates and a journal.)
- - - -
Dean collapses on the third day after getting shot.
He spends the first two days insisting he's fine—just a flesh wound, Sammy; stop hovering, dammit—and refusing to discuss what really happened while Sam was possessed. On the third day he collapses, goes down so fast that Sam never has a chance to catch him. One minute Dean's trying to listen to whatever Sam's saying; the next he has a mouthful of motel carpet and his newly jarred shoulder is hurting like a bitch.
Dean's shoulder is infected and blood loss and exhaustion have finally caught up with him. Sam's worried and angry—damn it, Dean, why didn’t you tell me?—but Dean doesn't answer because Sam already knows why.
He has a fever, is pretty out of it for a few days until the antibiotics take effect. Sam takes care of him, stays with him, paying back all the times Dean took care of him when he was sick.
Dean rambles a lot, gets delirious and almost-violent a few times; afterward, he doesn't remember most of what he says, which is probably a good thing. It's bad enough that he vaguely recalls saying something like I can’t do it, Sam, I won’t; don’t you ask me to do it, and I’d rather shoot myself than you, Sammy. He doesn't remember how Sam responds, but it doesn't really matter.
One thing Dean does remember, clear as crystal—though he doesn't know what he said to prompt it—is Sam holding his hand in a way Dean would never allow if he was coherent, Sam's voice calm and soothing as he says, "I'm here, Dean. I'm here, man. I'm not going anywhere. Promise."
(Sam dies quietly in Dean’s arms, and his skin turns gray and cold on a dirty mattress in the middle of nowhere.)
- - - -
They try everything, but it's not enough.
Sam spends the whole year looking for an answer; Bobby and Ellen, too. They scour every scrap of supernatural lore looking for a way out of the deal—every obscure tome, every hunter's journal. Bobby calls in every favor he's ever been owed, and Dean's pretty sure Ellen does the same thing. It makes him feel guilty, that they'd do that for him, use up credit earned through decades of blood and tears just to try to save his life.
In the end, it's not enough, because there's just no damn way out. In the end, it comes down to Dean and Sam, sitting together on the hood of the Impala, watching the sun set for the last time together. The sunset's beautiful, all red and gold like fire, and Dean leans back against the cool metal and tries not to think about fire. Tries not to think about anything but the breeze on his face, and how good it feels, being alive.
Sam hasn't said anything, hasn't cried either, but Dean can tell by his hitching breaths that he's close to it. Dean didn't want Sam to be here, didn't want him to see this, but Sam insisted, flat-out refused to be absent for his big brother's last few moments of life.
Dean's been hearing the hellhounds for a while now, and he knows it won't be long. He doesn't know what to say, what to do, how to fit I love you and goodbye and take care of yourself and just be happy, okay? into a few seconds' worth of words. He's never been good at saying what needs to be said—it's one thing he inherited from Dad.
So in the end he doesn't say anything; he just hugs Sam, sudden and fierce, and it says everything Dean can't put into words. Sam trembles in his grasp, warm and alive, and Dean's scared as hell but he knows that he'd do it all over again.
When Dean steps back reluctantly—because he wants to hold onto his little brother forever as much as Sam wants to hold onto him—Sam looks at him with five-year-old eyes, eyes that say don’t leave me, Dean. Please, please don’t leave me.
Dean gives Sam a sad smile. He can feel that the crossroad bitch is close, and he squares his shoulders, turns to face her. He isn't going to run, isn't going to hide in fear until the last second. This is it, and he tries hard to convince himself that he's ready. Tries hard not to think of fire.
"Dean," Sam says from behind him, voice clogged with tears. "Dean, I—"
Dean throws a glance over his shoulder, smiles, and it almost reaches his eyes. "My turn, Sammy," he says softly, and steps out to meet her.
(Dean dies at a crossroad, and Sam scatters his ashes to the wind.)
- - - -
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Spoilers: Through 2.22 All Hell Breaks Loose. This was written shortly after that episode aired, and was rendered AU by season 3.