Out of Time
A/N: Endings are hard. Thank you to everyone who's read, reviewed or fave-d this. I hope you enjoy the conclusion.
A few years ago, or rather, many years ago, whenever Sam was ten, Dad and Dean were three days late coming back from a hunt.
They had a tiny rented house at the time and Dad had paid up for the month, so Sam wasn't in danger of being evicted while he sat alone and waited out the seemingly endless hours. He's pretty sure he didn't know that at the time but it never even occurred to him to worry about it anyway; he was far too busy worrying about Dad and Dean and monsters, too consumed by the horrific realization that maybe this time they really wouldn't come back, that if they did, maybe next time they wouldn't. It was all the terrible fears that haunted him in dark, quiet moments brought to life, real and inescapable. He'd never been quite so viscerally aware before of the fact that one day, his family would die. One day he would die. One day a hunt would go wrong and, one way or another, everything would end. Probably sooner rather than later.
The dread, full of hopelessness and useless desperation, that had started as a small flutter of unease when the clock ticked past his father's promised arrival time, had grown by the minute, torn past simple fear and smashed into a kind of terror and grief Sam had never experienced before. By the time Dad and Dean had finally trudged through the door, muddied and bruised and still giddy with post-hunt adrenaline, with a shattered cellphone and muttered apologies from Dad, Sam was physically sick. He hadn't eaten in two days, barely choking down water, because what was the point if there was no one to stay alive for and how could he just eat and drink and live if his family wasn't?
He feels the same way now.
Dean was right; he never should have gone looking for answers. He should have just read about monsters and stayed blissfully ignorant to the utter mess his life has become. Hunting has ruined everything, just like he was scared it would. And he can't change anything, can't go back to his own time or Dad or the brother he remembers because they're all gone, all years in the past and he can never get them back. All he has left is Dean and he's different. His Dean always said he would never let anything bad happen to him but this Dean apparently lets him go on suicide missions.
Sam doesn't know how much time passes before he hears footsteps making their way down the hall. It doesn't seem to matter. He doesn't bother to move. He thinks about never moving again, just refusing to, staying under the blankets he'd burrowed into a while ago. Being wrapped up seemed to help when the shakes started, even if it stretches his handcuffed arm awkwardly and the bed holds no familiarity. It really is his bed though. It really is Dean and this really is his future and everything really is going to end bloody and painful and Sam's starting to wonder whether he's having trouble breathing because of panic or because of the sickness from the Trials.
"You're still here," Dean says from the doorway. He sounds relieved, maybe a little surprised.
"No where else for me to go, right?" Sam says blankly. There's no where else, no one else. This is his life now.
There's a pause. "I guess not. Are you okay?"
That makes Sam snort with bitter laughter – like Dean cares – but then his eyes fill with tears and he has to push his face into the pillows to hide them. "I'm awesome," he says flatly.
The pause is longer this time, slow and suspicious, and Sam doesn't care because Dean is a jerk, an old jerk, and Sam's still a hunter after all these years, and Dad's dead and Uncle Bobby's dead and Sam doesn't know who the fuck Cas is but screw him too because none of this is fair.
"Okay... well-" Dean starts, but suddenly Sam's angry, all this rage filling up the hole terror and despair has carved in his insides. Dean shouldn't be allowed to hide things, Dean shouldn't have given him that stupid Tablet, Dean shouldn't be letting Sam fucking kill himself, so he sits up and throws the computer across the room as hard as he can, even though the movement pulls on his aching chest muscles.
"Were you going to tell me?" he demands, "Or were you just going to keep me in the dark?" That's not even what he's mad about. Dean already told him that he didn't think filling in the blanks was a good idea, and now that they're filled, Sam agrees but somehow the question why are you letting me die? won't come out.
Dean's reflexes haven't been dulled by age. He manages to catch the Tablet before it shatters against the door frame and, for some reason, that just makes Sam angrier. He wishes he had something else to smash.
"Tell you what?" Dean asks, looking from the Tablet to Sam with slowly-forming dread in his eyes.
"About me. About why I'm sick," Sam spits. "Were you going to tell me about the Trials? About how I'm meant to be closing the fucking gates of hell?"
"How do you know about that?" Dean demands, raising his voice to be heard over Sam's outburst, and Sam feels the room spin in a way that has nothing to do with fever because Dean's not denying it, Dean's not saying 'no, Sammy, you've got it wrong'. Dean's saying, "Who told you that?"
"I did. It was on that." Sam gestures angrily at the Tablet and Dean looks at it as if it's just slapped him.
"No, it wasn't." He's shaking his head, as if he can stop Sam from knowing just by denying it. "It wasn't. I checked it before I gave it to you."
"Well, I guess you still suck at hacking then." Sam doesn't even care if he hurts his brother's feelings, doesn't care much about anything right now other than pointing out how stupid and dangerous this plan is. "So it's true? You want me to shut away demons? Kill Hell hounds? Are you even expecting me to live through it?"
"Sam, of course-" Dean tries to cut in but Sam won't let him.
"What the hell happened to us? We're not meant to be here. We were meant to get out! We were meant to be something else!" The words feel foreign in his mouth, strange and wrong; he's never told Dean this before, not that he remembers anyway, because his Dean is young and under Dad's thumb and wants to be a hero, and Sam's never found the words he needs to explain that he just wants to be safe, that he doesn't know how much more of his life he can spend being terrified, but now it seems like he's spent his whole life doing exactly what he swore he wouldn't and he never managed to convince Dean that he deserved normal either. It's not fair. He shouldn't be here. "I wasn't meant to do this forever! And I suck at hunting, I mess up everything. What the fuck makes you think I can shut the gates of Hell without dying?"
Sam has more – he feels like he could scream and rage forever right now – but apparently Dean's heard enough because suddenly he's across the room and right in Sam's face, grabbing Sam's shoulders and shaking him hard. Sam feels the handcuffs jerk and a stab of panic jabs him in the gut as he catches sight of the fury on his brother's face.
"You did!" Dean roars, loud enough that Sam tries to flinch his hands over his ears. The handcuffs and Dean's grip stop him. "You promised me you could do it and I fucking believe you, okay! So don't you dare give me shit about how I'm expecting you to die because you're fucking not, you fucking not allowed. You promised me and I am not going to let you break that promise!"
Sam sucks in a hard breath. His face is wet and his anger is gone. All that's left is a low, dull ache of horror deep in his gut, and Sam gets it. This Dean is still his Dean and things haven't really changed all that much no matter how much time has passed because Dean is completely terrified, maybe even more so than Sam. And Sam's yelling at him about something that he talked Dean into, and all it's doing is scaring Dean even more because whatever else has happened – all those confusing things Sam read in the journal – this Dean is just the same as the eighteen year old he remembers from earlier that evening (from over a decade ago), double-checking Sam's gun in the car on the way to the graveyard, to another ghost hunt Sam didn't want to be on, calming his nerves with carefully interspersed jokes and reassurances, and always, always, watching his back.
Sam chokes back a sob and Dean's arms gather him up like he weighs nothing and crush him against his broad chest, holding on like he can keep Sam safe through sheer force of will. Sam twists his free hand in Dean's shirt, which somehow smells exactly like Dean even after all these years, and cries without giving a damn because he feels like he's already dying and he doesn't know if a promise to his brother will be enough to save him.
"You already killed a Hell hound, you know," Dean's voice rumbles, after a truly indeterminate amount of time.
The feverish feeling is back, leaving Sam shaky and weak. His face is stiff with dried tears and he probably looks as gross as he feels, with his hair sticking up in all directions and his nose all stuffed up and his eyes swollen and bloodshot, but Dean still has him tucked protectively under his arm so whatever.
"I did?" That doesn't seem real. How could he have killed a Hell hound?
"Bathed in it's blood and everything." Dean laughs a little but he sounds a long way from happy. "It was meant to be me. I told you to stay clear. Fucking ordered you to stay clear. But grown up you is just as much of a stubborn bitch as little kid you."
"'m not a little kid," Sam denies automatically, even if he feels like exactly that at this moment.
"Sure you're not," Dean agrees mildly. "Speaking of, as much as it makes my life easier to be able to just pick you up and toss you in the tub when you're being a brat, I was thinking you might like to go back to being jumbo-Sam again."
"You figured out how to turn me back?" Sam asks, stunned. He'd almost forgotten what Dean had left to do. Reading about the Trials had done a lot to distract him from his current predicament.
"You don't need to sound so surprised." Dean shifts so he can reach into his shirt pocket. He pulls out something small wrapped in a bandanna and holds it out to Sam.
"What is it?" Sam asks, drawing away apprehensively. His cuffed hand is awkwardly angled and his shoulder is starting to ache. He sits up a little straighter to try to ease the strain.
"Shit. Sorry, Sammy." Dean withdraws a key from another pocket. "Guess I should take those off."
Dean sets the bundle down on the bed and unlocks the cuffs, gently inspecting the scrapes around Sam's wrist with an air of guilt. "I'm not that scary, am I?"
"I didn't know if you were you or not," Sam says, a little defensively. Trying to dislocate his thumb seems like a stupid plan now. He pulls his hand back and rubs at the abraded skin. "Being de-aged is really weird."
"You're telling me," Dean agrees. "So, I found the thing fever-brained Sammy decided to play with." He picks up the bundle again and carefully folds open the bandanna, revealing a little golden hourglass sitting in the palm of his hand. When Sam looks closely, he can just make out tiny carvings ringed around the top. Runes maybe. Definitely something old and powerful. "Apparently it belonged to a witch," Dean continues. "One of her strategies for immortality, stealing years off of people's lives to add to her own. See the sand in it? That's your missing years. It took them as soon as you picked it up."
Sam eyes the fine, white sand in the hourglass warily. Years worth of memories. Most of them bad, it seems. He wonders, if it wasn't for the Trials, would Dean be as eager to get them back for him? If Sam wasn't sick, would he be tempted to take the second chance that's being offered? Right now, Sam doesn't want to grow up. He just wants to go back to his time and have this all be a messed up nightmare. "So how do I get the years back? It burned me last time I touched it," he remembers.
Dean grimaces. "Yeah, it's kind of designed that way, so the witch could get it back and harvest the years from it. Couldn't have people taking it away with them, you know? It's a pretty simple spell when it comes down to it though. All you have to do is flip it over but it's going to hurt so you need to do it fast."
Sam nods slowly. "So I just need to flip it? It's not gonna, like, turn me into a toddler or something, is it?"
"No. Definitely not," Dean says emphatically. "I checked out all the research on it. Seems pretty straightforward. You think I'd let you touch it if I thought I'd end up changing your diapers again?"
Sam huffs a laugh, which turns into another coughing fit. Dean rubs his huge hand up and down his back but it doesn't help. A dizzying spike of panic surges up Sam's spine. It's hard to breathe and he can taste blood again. Dean pulls away, leaning over to snag one of the water bottles from the night stand and force it into Sam's hands. It takes a moment before he can catch his breath enough to take a sip but when he does he's relieved to find that it helps. The tepid water is soothing and helps wash away the nasty metallic tang in the back of his throat that's making him want to gag.
"Better?" Dean asks when Sam slumps against him, exhausted and light-headed. He takes the water bottle and sets it back on the night stand, then presses the hourglass into Sam's hands instead, carefully making sure the bandanna is still in place, protecting Sam's bare skin. "You should flip it now. The Trials are hard enough on you when you're an adult."
Dean is probably right but Sam gets the feeling that his brother doesn't usually wrap him up in hugs to make him feel better as an adult and there's a clingy, childish part of Sam that doesn't want to let Dean go.
"You're still gonna take care of me when I'm a grown up again, right?" he checks.
"Of course," Dean says, like that should be obvious. "What do you think all this is?" He gestures at the night stand. "I'm gonna be tucking you in bed and forcing you to eat and drink and take your medicine whether you want me to or not."
"Do I not want you to?" Sam asks curiously. He can't imagine trying to deal with this illness without his big brother's particular brand of comfort. He's never even gotten through a simple cold without Dean looking after him.
"No, you do," Dean says, like that's also obvious. "You just never outgrew your stubborn streak and you don't like letting me see you sick."
Sam bites his lip. He keeps his eyes on the hourglass resting in his hand. "Maybe I'm scared you won't believe I can keep my promise if you see me sick," he ventures quietly, wondering if Dean will hear what he's really saying; that he's already scared that he can't keep his promise. Who knows, maybe it's different for his older self, but right now the idea of dying, the thought of leaving Dean alone in this strange place full of empty, windowless hallways and cursed objects and who knows what else... it's so terrifying that it takes his breath away, makes him think of those long hours waiting for Dad and Dean to return from that hunt and that dead certainty that everything, absolutely everything, was lost. And it would be worse for Dean, if Sam died, because there really wouldn't be anyone coming back for him.
Dean squeezes his shoulders. "Well, you're an idiot then. I can't think of anyone I believe in more."
Sam holds the hourglass tightly, wondering whether that belief will be enough to keep him alive. He can feel heat leaching through the bandanna now. The sand at the bottom seems to pulse, like a heartbeat, like it's alive.
"Ready to grow up, Sammy?" Dean asks.
Sam allows himself one more moment of feeling safe and protected in his brother's arms. "Okay. Just... don't let me break my promise, please?"
He feels Dean's breathing stutter at the plea. Maybe it's unfair to ask but Sam's too damn scared not to. The arm around his shoulders tightens, like an involuntary reflex.
"No way," Dean says, "I told you, bitch, I'm not letting you out of this one."
"Okay," Sam says, and then he adds "Jerk" because apparently they still do that, and somehow that makes him feel better about having to grow up now.
He takes a deep breath and plucks the hourglass from the bandanna. Immediately a sharp pain sears his fingertips. Sam grits his teeth, resisting the urge to fling the burning thing away, and flips the hourglass over. The shifting sand begins to glow as it flows down to the bottom section.