If this is the after-afterlife— then he can’t blame all the spirits he’s met (and killed) in the past for turning violent and losing it.
Being a ghost is fucking boring.
There’s nothing you can do. You can’t touch anything, you can’t move anything, your hand will go through every single object you try to affect. There’s nobody there to talk to, nobody will see you or notice all the efforts you make to contact the other world, the real world.
It had never bothered him when he was still alive, he’s always been a loner, has always valued his own company more than any other. But there had always been something to do, some werewolf to hunt, some vampire to decapitate, some haunted house to free from tortured souls. Work on the car, watch over the boys, heal from a hunt gone bad.
Get drunk so he could fall into a dreamless sleep and didn’t have to deal with his life for a few hours.
He misses McKenna. Misses the taste of honey on his breath, misses the burn on his tongue that used to tell him it was okay, now, he could let go of everything and just relax. Leave the world behind, close his eyes and don’t care anymore. He fucking misses that, like he would miss an actual person, and even more so because he knows he won’t have it again. Ever.
He’s long stopped thinking about his new world as the real world, because he knows it’s not, no matter what his senses might tell him, no matter how warm the sun seems on his skin or how real and solid the car feels under his hands, it’s not right, it’s not real.
He’s not real, he’s dead.
And yet he isn’t.
It makes his head hurt just thinking about it. Or would, if he still had one.
His sense of time has changed. Again. He no longer thinks in minutes or hours (or monsters), he’s started to think in changes. Time, or the passing of it, for him, is now measured in shadows that grow longer or shorter as the sun passes over the horizon. He can’t tell how long he’s been at Singer’s Salvage Yard, or how many days have passed since he’s found out what has become of him. He has no idea how long it’s been since he’s watched his son have a mental breakdown in the car—and then be all collected and calm, almost carefree as soon as he’d picked up the phone.
He doesn’t know how long it’s been since he’s realized that, maybe, Sam has changed so much that he doesn’t recognize him anymore.
Not that it matters, not that knowing how much time has passed would make him feel better about it—about anything.
He experiences what he tentatively calls time-lapses every once in a while. He’ll sit on the Impala and watch the house, thinking about how to make the boys or Bobby finally see him, when, from one moment to the next, the scenery around him changes, turns from early, foggy morning into bright afternoon. Just like that, no warning, literally in the blink of an eye. It scares him, it freaks him out, he has no control over it, he just loses all that time he could have used to do something productive, to hone his still less-than-useful ghost-skills (if he can even call them that) and it’s just gone.
He can move things now. Inside the car. He can nudge a paper on the backseat and it will move an inch, even rustle slightly. If he concentrates hard enough he can push it off the seat and once he’d even managed to change the station on the radio. He’d felt exhausted and weak after it and hasn’t tried it again yet, but he’s getting stronger, he can feel it.
The car has become his center, he can get to it from wherever he is, all he has to do is think about the Impala and imagine himself sitting on the backseat and he’s inside.
He knows the damned car inside and out by now, he knows how many paper cups litter the floor behind the front seats and he’s counted seven different fast food wrappings—and cursed the boys repeatedly about leaving the car such a mess. He’s found the green plastic soldier stuck in the ashtray in the back that he somehow had never got out and left there. He’s found the ‘protective’ sigils carved into the floor that had turned out to be some New Age version of an ancient cleansing ritual they had never really found out just what it was used for exactly— he’s found countless other reminders of how much time he and the boys had spent on the road and in this car.
And with that, with every piece he’d found that looked familiar, had come the memories, of happier times, of battle, of anger and danger and the hunt, always the hunt, the never-ending road trip that had become his sole purpose in life.
John looks up from an old newspaper when he hears the front door open. Dean steps onto the porch and scans the junkyard lazily, eyes finally landing on the Impala. He looks normal, hasn’t changed a bit. He seems to be in a good mood, he’s smiling, his body language relaxed and calm. He stands in the open door for a minute, then goes down the few steps, to the shack near the house, getting some tools, then walks over to the car.
For a long moment, all John can do is stare at him. From the way Sam had been acting and the fact that he hasn’t seen Dean step outside for days he’d been convinced that Dean had to be injured somehow, or sick—but as far as John can tell Dean seems healthy and happy. His son starts to work on the car and John stays close, watches him work, listens to him sing along to the radio, as out of tune as ever. John can’t fight a grin when Dean spots the broken hose at the same time he does, reaching out to slap Dean on the back—only to have his hand pass through him.
Dean doesn’t notice.
They spend the whole evening on the car, Dean working and—thank God—finally clearing the trash out of the car, while John watches him. Sometimes Dean thinks about him and John doesn’t know how, but he feels it, feels his hold on reality strengthen, feels the real sun on his arm for a moment. It’s those moments when he thinks that Dean might be able to see him and he looks at him intently, even calls out his name hopefully. But Dean never looks up, never stops what he’s doing, never gives any indication that he’s aware of him.
Once, Dean suddenly starts smiling, an open, relaxed, happy smile. He turns to look at the driver’s seat and John has a flash of driving through darkness, sees some nameless road in front of him, hears some familiar rock song he can’t identify—
And then it’s gone and Dean goes back to working on the car.
The sun is setting and Dean is sitting in the car, cleaning the dashboard, when John’s eyes are drawn to something he spots on Dean’s shoulder. It looks like a dark smudge and at first John thinks it’s a stain on the window—but then Dean leans back and the stain moves with him. And not just that, when John looks closer at it—still believing it to be a trick of the light—he finds it moving, like it has a mind of its own, wondering slowly across Dean’s chest. It’s like a stain on his aura—on his soul and the more he looks at it, the more it feels wrong. It doesn’t take John long to place it, he’s seen this before, it’s the same color—the same feeling he’d had when he’d looked at Azazel on the night he had escaped from hell and helped the boys kill the demon. He hadn’t seen the vessel, he’d seen the creature, had seen it wrap itself around the human body and animate it. It had been a sickening sight—and he feels the same now, when he looks at that stain, like the demon has somehow touched Dean and poisoned him with its essence, has infected him with something dark.
John feels his throat close up, feels his stomach plunge to his feet. The demon is dead, it’s gone, it’s over—
No. Nonono… Not again.
John stumbles back, eyes fixed on Dean’s chest, on the wrong, shaking his head over and over again. It can’t be, this is not right, this is not possible. The demon is dead.
“What the hell…” he growls, barely getting the words past his tight throat.
And then he gets angry. Furious. Starts to curse the demon, fate—life in general. He curses himself for leaving his boys behind, for not making sure it would be over for them, that they would be free of this curse. He’d been so fucking convinced they would be safe, at least from the demon—he’d never stopped to think that, with him gone, they might be in even more danger. That Azazel would find a way to fuck with them, screw them over.
And now Dean is carrying a mark and John has no idea what it means—or how to get it off.
But the real shocker—and he doesn’t realize this until long after Dean has gone back into the house and turned the lights off outside—the real shocker is that he would probably not have reacted that strongly to finding the mark—if it had been on Sam. John feels sick to his bones just thinking this, hates himself for thinking it at all—but it doesn’t change the facts.
It should have been Sam.
When Mary had burnt on the ceiling and taken his life with her—it had happened in Sam’s nursery.
When he found out there were three other houses burnt to the ground with mothers dying in their babies’ rooms, the infants all had one thing in common: They’d been six months old, to the day. Like Sam.
Sam had attracted Missouri’s attention before he ever told her his name. “Your son is special, John,” she had said, bouncing the giggling baby on her lap. He hadn’t really listened to her, too busy watching his oldest sitting next to her, chatting away happily. It had been the first time Dean had opened up to a stranger ever since that fatal night, the first time in weeks Dean had said more than two sentences in a row. Seeing the boys react to her like that had soothed something deep in his soul, convinced him beyond any doubt that the psychic could help them. He had written her words off as cheap flattery, something she’d say to break the ice. After all, he’d been nothing more than a potential client for her.
Their whole lives had been dedicated to finding the bastard responsible for their nightmare—and protecting Sam. Keeping him safe from things that go bump in the night—and might be interested in him.
And now this…
John can’t wrap his head around it, can’t make sense of it. He spends the rest of the day trying to figure out what could have happened, how Dean could have ended up with the devil’s mark on him, but comes up blank. He doesn’t know what has happened, but he’s determined to find out.
They leave Bobby’s five days after they close the Devil’s Gate.
He doesn’t exactly throw them out, but he doesn’t put up much of a fight against them leaving, either.
Sam can’t blame him; with everything that has happened, the poor guy has to be yearning for a quiet break from it all, just as much as Dean is looking forward to getting on the road again.
They don’t have a case, but they need to get out, Bobby’s place is driving them—Dean— nuts. Dean is in the best mood Sam’s seen him in in a long time; his brother is practically vibrating with energy. He keeps talking about how he wants to see the world, how he wants to go to the Grand Canyon, about things he wants to do in that last year he has left. If Sam didn’t know better, he would start to suspect that having only one year to live is the best thing that has ever happened to Dean, like a chance-of-your-lifetime sort of thing to finally lay back and enjoy life.
In a way, it is exactly that... but it comes at a price Sam is just not willing to pay.
And that’s the problem. Dean doesn’t talk about it, about the deal. Sam knows there is something more than just the exchanging of one life for the other, one soul for the other—and he knows there is something off about it. There’s the time Dean got out of it, the time he has left on earth. A year is too short. Sam has been through everything he could dig up about demonic pacts—which, admittedly, wasn’t that much, but still he’s managed to find out that the majority of them have a standard contract period of 10 years—and that’s where his rusty lawyer’s instincts (as well as common sense) kicked in.
Something is wrong and Dean isn’t talking. Which means Sam has to find out the details on his own and then come up with a plan to get Dean out of it. And he will, it’s only a matter of time.
And so Sam spends his time reading books he’s brought from Bobby’s and hidden in the trunk, while Dean has the time of his life, sleeping with girls, drinking too much and eating everything he can get his hands on.
It starts with dreams.
The good thing is, they aren’t nightmares, he doesn’t wake up in a panic, there is no fear closing off his throat and making it hard to breathe. He doesn’t come awake with a scream, about to have a heart-attack and scaring the shit out of his brother, it’s nothing like that.
Whatever they are, they aren’t visions, either. There are no headaches, no gruesome deaths happening before his mind’s eye, haunting him for days. No sense of urgency, no inner voice screaming at him to do something, go somewhere, save someone, it’s not like that, either.
If he had to catalogue it he would probably call them ‘out of body experiences’ whenever he falls asleep. It doesn’t matter where or when he dozes off, or even how long, the result is always the same.
The first time it happens, Sam falls asleep in the car. Thanks to years of practice he manages to doze off to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, with Dean drumming along on the steering-wheel and scenery that consists of trees, fields and even more trees. The usual.
Sam falls asleep and, somehow, his mind shifts. He’s dozed off in the passenger’s seat, but when he opens his eyes, he’s watching the street through the front window while sitting on the backseat. The scenery hasn’t changed and even the music is still there, though no longer blasting out of the speakers at top volume. Dean must have turned it down.
Out of the corner of his eye he can see Dean’s back, his brother is still drumming on the wheel, humming along to the music.
On the other side of the front seat there’s… him. He’s slumped, uncomfortably, against the passenger’s door, head propped up against the window, fast asleep.
He can’t move. He tries to, tries to flinch back, turn his head to the side, to raise his hand to… do something—touch something, but he can’t, can’t move a muscle.
It scares the crap out of him. He feels trapped, starts yelling in his mind to fucking do something—move, scream, open your eyes, wake up—do anything but sit there, trapped, vulnerable, watching himself sleep—and suddenly his view shifts. It moves from the front window and rests on Dean’s back, then to his own body—and back to the street.
And that’s it, that’s all that happens. He doesn’t know how much time passes, too freaked out by the feeling of helplessness that creeps up his throat and stays there.
At one point, Dean pulls over to a gas station and stops the car. He sits in the driver’s seat for a long moment, staring out of the window, unmoving. Then he turns and looks at Sam’s sleeping form, watching him with the weirdest expression on his face.
Dean shakes his head and moves, reaches out and puts a hand on Sam’s arm—
—and suddenly Sam is blinking up at his brother’s face from a rather uncomfortable position slumped against the passenger’s door. Sam gasps and flinches back, can’t help but stare at Dean who pulls his hand back, regarding him with a raised eye-brow.
Sam blinks, turns his head to look at the backseat.
Sam turns back to look at Dean who’s followed his gaze and is now frowning at him.
Sam forces himself to nod, straightening in his seat. “Yeah, I’m fine, just had a very… weird dream…”
Dean grins, turning to get out of the car. “Spare me the details, Sammy, I don’t need to know what you were dreaming about with all the happy noises you were making…”
It’s meant to tease and Sam is supposed to come up with some witty remark about Dean making these noises even while he is awake—But Sam knows it’s wrong, he wasn’t making any sounds. He stays in the car, trying to get his somewhat scrambled brain cells together, watching his brother cross the parking lot to get to the hotel reception.
When Dean comes back with the key to their room, Sam has recovered enough to help him get their backpacks inside. He lets his gaze linger on the empty backseat for a moment, then turns to follow Dean inside the room.
The next time it happens, it’s in the middle of the night.
Sam doesn’t know how or when he fell asleep, but, from one second to the next, he’s suddenly awake. He’s sitting at the room’s only table, staring into the dark room. Dimly, he can see the outlines of himself and Dean in the beds at the far end of the room, can hear Dean snore softly, sees himself move slightly, and then still again.
It stays like that for what feels like hours—and it scares the shit out of him. And it gets worse, with every moment, with every breath he wants to take but can’t—it’s a nightmare, this feeling of being unable to even move his head—
Sometimes his gaze starts to wander, crawls across the furniture, across their stuff scattered on the floor, shoes, backpacks, the books on the table—and the keys to the Impala. Dean’s left them on the table where they both could get to them if they needed to. It’s like his eyes are drawn to them, over and over again, as if they have some sort of important meaning.
And then he’s back to staring into the room.
He must have fallen asleep at some point, because when he wakes up the next morning he’s lying in his bed as Dean staggers toward the bathroom. He needs a moment to realize that he can move again, that he needs to breathe—and then he’s out of the bed, standing at the table, gaze locked on the keys. He picks them up, studies them closely, turning them in his hand. They look normal, there’s nothing wrong with them—
The voice is low, it sounds as if Dean is still half-asleep, a little distant.
“Hm?” He asks, still lost in thoughts, turning the keys over again.
He looks up then, turns to look at the bed—and freezes.
The bed is empty, covers drawn back and rumpled—and Dean is nowhere to be seen. A moment later he hears the shower turn on and remembers his brother getting in there to take one—
He feels his hackles come up in warning, starts to turn, slowly, scanning the empty room, every instinct screaming at him: He is not alone.
~~~ . ~~~
The second Sam touches the keys—something changes.
John instantly feels stronger, somehow, more alive. There’s a sense of—connection that wasn’t there before, of familiarity, of completeness—and, suddenly, he knows, he knows if he talks to him now, that, as long as Sam is holding the keys, his son will hear him. Feeling almost dizzy with anticipation he steps closer to Sam, stands next to him, studies his profile as Sam studies the keys. He opens his mouth, and for a second he can’t get a sound out, feels his heart slam so hard in his chest he’s almost convinced he still has one.
His voice sounds normal, not scratchy or unused, maybe a little echo-y.
Sam is still staring at the keys, but his attention shifts slightly.
“Sammy?” His voice betrays him, then, dropping to a choked whisper, he barely gets the word out past the lump in his throat. He stares at Sam, wills him to hear it, to recognize his voice, sense him, anything—and Sam moves, turns around to look at Dean’s empty bed, opens his mouth to say something—
And freezes. His eyes dart to the bathroom where the shower is being turned on and John hears Dean start to sing. Sam eyes the closed door for a moment, then turns around, slowly, scans the room so intently John is surprised he doesn’t see him when Sam’s gaze wanders over the spot where he is standing, next to Sam, so close their shoulders would be touching.
“Sam, can you hear me, son?”
Sam turns around and puts the keys on the table—and the connection is lost so abruptly, John feels it with his whole being, like he is losing his foothold on reality, everything becomes blurry and cold—
When reality falls into place again and he can see beyond the spots clouding his vision Sam is kneeling next to his bag, going through it, looking for something. He is tense and has his back to the wall, eyes darting around the room again and again. For a moment John forgets what has happened and looks around as well, searching the shadows for any signs of danger—
A loud, shrill beeping cuts through the relative silence of the room and he winces, turns back to look at Sam who is holding the EMF-meter in his hand, pointing it at the room. John hasn't seen that in a long time, but he knows from the volume and frequency of the signal that the device has picked up something. Sam walks through the room slowly, pointing the device here and there— until he finally stops about a step away from where John is standing next to the table. For a second it seems as if Sam is looking directly at him—but then Sam looks down at the EMF-meter again.
"I know you're here," Sam says and looks at the exact point where John is standing. "Who are you?"
"I'm your father, Sam," John says, deciding to play along, maybe the kid can pick up something. "It's me."
Sam obviously doesn’t hear him; he turns around, slowly, until the EMF-meter points directly at John again. “Who is there?”
John barely resists the urge to wave his hand in front of Sam's face in frustration—and then inspiration strikes. He walks, slowly toward the table where the keys are, watching as Sam follows his movement with the EMF-device, frowning. John touches the keys—and the annoying sound gets so loud he flinches.
Sam joins him at the table, the device pointed at the things on it; an old pizza box from the night before, Sam's notebook, a few books. The keys are on top of the books and John reaches out to touch them again, staring at Sam, hard, willing him to make the connection. Sam eyes the device quizzically and looks at the table, frown deepening.
And then he reaches out to pick up the keys and John holds his breath, waiting for the connection to flare to life again—but nothing happens.
"Sam?" He concentrates on the keys, on Sam, on what it had felt like—but there is nothing. Sam holds the keys in his hand and scans the room again, looks back at the keys and the device that is still announcing John’s proximity.
"What the hell..."
"Sam?" He tries again, but Sam doesn't react, he walks over to his backpack, pulls out some of his clothes and throws them on the bed behind him, then walks over to the bathroom door, knocking. “Dean!”
Dean yells something John doesn't understand and Sam knocks again. "Dean, hurry up, get out here."
Still holding the EMF pointed at John, Sam goes back to the table and sits down in front of his notebook, powering it up. The door to the bathroom opens and Dean steps out, wearing nothing but a towel and an annoyed frown.
"What's your problem, Sammy? Time wasn't up yet." He walks over to the bed and sits down on, going through his duffle, taking out underwear and socks.
"We’re not alone," Sam says distractedly, and Dean frowns, looks over at him—and notices the EMF-meter next to Sam.
"What the hell—" Dean starts, getting up from the bed, scanning the room suspiciously. "What is it?"
Sam looks up from the screen and shrugs. "I don't know, trying to find out if something happened here, but so far there's nothing."
Sam sighs softly. "I thought I heard a voice—I thought it was you, but you were in the shower and... it felt like I was being watched."
"What did it say?"
"It called my name."
”Your name? Like it knew you?” Dean asks, scanning the room. "Did you get anything else?"
"I..." Sam looks as if he doesn't really want to talk about something, then sighs. "I had this dream last night."
"About what?" John and Dean ask in unison.
Sam shrugs. "I was... it was like some... weird out-of-body experience. Like I was watching the room and I saw myself... and I saw you, and we were both asleep..."
"And then?" Dean prompts, but Sam shrugs again.
"Nothing, that's it, just watching us sleep...”
"The whole time?"
"That's one boring dream, dude," Dean jokes, but he doesn't sound in the mood for joking at all.
"Yeah..." Sam shudders for a second, then looks at the table, at the keys— and picks them up, like he remembers something. "And then—I was looking at them a lot... And when I touched them this morning— I heard that voice."
Dean looks surprised—and irritated. "What do the keys have to do with anything?"
"I have no idea, but they seem to be important—" He looks up sharply. "Oh my god..."
"What?" Dean is alarmed, looks around as if he expects to be attacked suddenly, and John can't help scanning the room as well, looking at Sam with a worried frown.
"It's not the first time I've had a dream like that..." Sam finally admits and Dean stares at him.
"You know, when we were— when I fell asleep in the car the other day, I was watching us—from the backseat."
"And you never bothered to tell me?”
Sam rolls his eyes. "It was just a dream, I didn't think it meant anything."
”You never do,” Dean huffs, running a hand through his wet hair. John can’t help the wave of affection at the familiar gesture. His eldest always has been a vain thing. "So you're thinking someone is following us?” Dean asks wearily. “I mean, if they were in the car with us when you were having this—dream? Is it like an out-of-body-experience? You're a dreamwalker now?"
Sam flinches. "I don't know, I didn't see anything, just the room and the car.”
"Like you were watching through someone else's eyes?"
"I guess so."
Both frown and scan the room and John wants so badly to tell them it's him, he's with them, prays for them to see him somehow—but of course they don't, their gazes keep going through him whenever they look at where he's standing.
”So,” Dean says eventually, “Something is following us… something that sets the EMF off… you thinking a ghost?”
Sam shrugs. "I've never heard of this before. I mean, we're days from Bobby's, I've never heard of a ghost traveling like that. They’re usually tied to a certain area. Remember Molly? She could appear near the road and she could also go back to her house, but I doubt she would have been able to leave town with us."
"Well, it doesn't seem like the someone is crazy or violent— aside from the creepy, psycho, peeping-tom act, that is. So, I’m gonna get dressed, and you... keep an eye on that." He points at the EMF-meter, then walks to the bathroom door. He pauses there for a moment. "Sorry, whoever you are, this is not meant for your eyes..." He indicates his body with a hand and disappears into the bathroom.
Sam rolls his eyes and focuses his attention back to the screen. He’s looking up “out of body experiences”. John reads a few entries with him, but his thoughts soon drift off and he watches Sam and then looks at the keys thoughtfully. It makes sense, the keys are a part of the car, they’ve been a part of him for years, it makes sense for them to act as a catalyst—and the boys now know that he’s there, even if they have no idea who he is.
Dean comes out of the bathroom a few minutes later, scanning the room. "Is it still here?"
Sam nods, but doesn't take his eyes away from the screen. "I turned the EMF off, it was getting on my nerves."
Dean picks up the keys and John tenses—but, again, nothing happens. "Think you can handle Caspar on your own for a while? I'm hungry."
Sam nods again. "Get me their special menu, whatever it is. I'm gonna call Bobby, see what he knows."
"Sounds like a plan." Dean goes to the front door, but stops before he leaves, speaking to the empty room. "Behave!"
With that, he's gone, and John and Sam are left alone. Sam soon loses himself in his research and John turns from the window to watch him for a moment. Sam is totally focused on the screen, fingers flying over the keyboard without him ever looking at it. John realizes he has never really seen Sam work on something. When he’d been little and John had needed information, Sam had just gone away and come back with the information he'd needed. It had always somehow turned up. And it had usually been flawless intel and exactly what he needed… and only now does he begin to realize how much crap Sam must have sifted through to find the real information. How many useless reports and old stories that had to be raided for pieces of truth. How many hours Sam had spent digging for that one little fact, that one tiny scrap of information or history that would save their asses…. And only now, watching him, he starts to wonder for the first time how he manages to focus that intently.
"You're damn good at this," he mutters, more to himself than to his busy son, and watches him for another moment, before he turns back to the window, lost in thoughts.