Best Laid Plans
Author: Lycanthrophile (
Fandom: Supernatural
Originally Posted: February 05, 2008
Spoilers: All episodes up to 3x08 "A Very Supernatural Christmas"
Disclaimer: All hail Kripke! Supernatural belong to Warner Bros. Television Production Inc. and Wonderland Sound and Vision. No copyright infringement intended.
Rating: PG-13 for language
Summary: It's time for Dean to fulfill his end of the bargain made with the Crossroads Demon. It doesn't go as anyone planned.
Warnings: Character death
Word Count: 10,015
Notes: Thanks to bittermint, art_of_mayhem, izzybelli, and clari_clyde for the betas and listening to me whine.
Archive: Please inform me

Deep down, Dean knew, despite Sam's best efforts, this day would come.

He stood at the crossroads where he struck his bargain, waiting for whomever held the contract for his soul to show. It was the last place in the world he wanted to be, but it seemed fitting to confront his fate here, where it had begun a year ago.

When he realized that there was a bullet missing from the Colt all those months ago, he yelled long and loud at Sam for confronting the Crossroads Demon, repeating over and over that Sam could have dropped dead. In response, Sam pointed out bitterly that Dean was going to drop dead instead, and he would to do whatever it took to keep that from happening. In short, it was the blueprint for every argument they had for the next ten months. Now it felt like pointless bickering back and forth had become wasted energy that could have been used to solve the problem. And the worst part of it was, despite their efforts on the sly, they still didn't know who held the contract. It could have been any of a dozen demons he had exorcised or thwarted during his lifetime. For all he knew, old Yellow Eyes had a meaner, older brother who wanted a little revenge.

Still wondering exactly how demons reproduced, a mournful howl rent the air, jerking him to full alertness. Looming in the dark night, Dean saw the wolfhound shape coming nearer. Mangy white fur glowing with a hint of green foxfire stretched over rangy muscles. Claws that looked more like the bone at the end of the toe had outgrown the flesh scored the pavement with each heavy step. Bloodshot yellow orbs glistened as the moist as the lolling red tongues stared at him eye-level. White, pitted fangs that would make a sabertooth tiger jealous jutted from long jaws. A miasma of brimstone and rotted flesh wafted unpleasantly towards him with every stentorian breath.

A glance behind Dean and to each side revealed more of the demon dogs. The four hellhounds settled in a ring around him, blocking each path out of the crossroads. But instead of the lustful baying and eager snapping jaws he expected, they laid on their bellies, forelegs sprawled out in front of them. They weren't priming themselves into the frenzy of a kill. In fact, they looked... bored. To his amazement, one sat up to yawn lazily and lifted a massive paw to scratch vigorously behind a tattered ear. Tense, he looked from dog to dog, ready for an attack from any direction. "Come on," he growled. To Dean, this waiting was worse than being dragged off to Hell. "Get it over with."

The hellhounds merely watched him, heads resting on their paws.

"You're not running, Dean. You're supposed to be running." The feminine voice conveyed a distinct petulance. Dean turned to see a woman walking towards him, pouting like a child denied a lollipop. "It's no fun for them if their prey walks willingly into Hell."

Dean eyed the pale woman, somehow knowing who he was dealing with immediately. Something in the satisfied swagger of the walk and the pleased curve of crimson lips over white teeth gave it away. It wasn't a total surprise who held the contract, especially how this particular demon had come after him before with her own agenda. The Crossroads Demon saying she could get into trouble for doing this made much more sense. "Meg, I shoulda guessed," he said. "Red hair doesn't look good on you at all."

The tall redhead smiled, ice blue eyes flashing black for a moment in acknowledgment. "Oh, I think this meat suit fits me just fine, Dean. Maybe you found it hotter when I wore your brother's." She looked around. "So where is Sam? I figured he would be here, trying to save your ass with whatever harebrained scheme Ruby's come up with this time."

"He would be," Dean responded. "Except that I talked him into a game of quarters for old time's sake. He's lightweight drunk and is sleeping it off. Oh, and he's tied to the bed."

Meg tsked in an amused tone, shaking her head. "Bondage games with your baby brother whose too sloshed to resist, Dean? I knew you had it in you." Her expression became harder and hungrier. The hellhounds whined eagerly, rising into a half crouch. "Fun time's over, Dean. Well, your fun at least. Time for you to fulfill your end of the bargain."

"Yeah, about that," Dean said. "I'd rather not--" His words were cut off by a crushing pain in his chest. Trying to draw breath hurt. Holding his breath hurt even worse, so he was forced to breathe in short, painful gasps. He broke out into a cold sweat as a wave of nausea passed over him.

"But you will." Meg's head tilted in an expression of false sympathy. "Not feeling too good? One too many cheeseburgers for your last breakfast?" Triumph was etched on her wicked grin. Meg shook her head, amused as the hunter tried to walk clumsily towards her. "There's no Key of Solomon to save you now, Dean. No Devil's Trap inscribed on a ceiling to hold me back. No past-his-prime hunter with a bottle of beer spiked with holy water to save your ass."

He managed a few more steps forward before stumbling and falling. On his knees, fisted hand pressed against his chest in a vain attempt to ease the pain, Dean looked up defiantly. "Yeah," he gasped out between pants. "But I've got something better."

"Really?" Meg scoffed, one elegantly groomed eyebrow arching. "And what would that be?"

Dean grinned as he heard the familiar crack of the Colt being fired. Meg stood for half a second, looking shocked and indignant. The bullet hole in the center of her forehead smoked and crackled with supernatural energies before the body toppled over.

Dean rose to his feet, the crushing pain in his chest gone. There was no point in saying it, since the demon was now as dead as the poor woman who had been her host, but he wanted to hear it out loud. Satisfaction radiated from his voice as he stood over the corpse as he said two simple words. "My brother." He inhaled a long breath and blew it out. "Cutting it a little close there, Sammy." Dean turned to smile at Sam, expecting to see his brother grinning back.

Instead he heard a choked cry. "Dean!" Sam stared at spot on the ground between them. "Oh god, Dean!"

Dean turned around, puzzled when he only saw the hellhounds sitting placidly around him. Then he noticed what Sam was fixated on. For a second, he couldn't believe what he saw. "No," he choked out. This wasn't how it was supposed to be "No. No. No. No! NO!"

Sam knelt in the middle of the crossroads, cradling Dean's body to his chest, and sobbing inconsolably.

Interest piqued by the commotion, the hellhounds rose to their paws, looking confused. They gave Sam and his body a wide berth before sniffing at Dean. Dean held still as they milled around him, not sure what the demon dogs would do next. The biggest one's ears perked after a few seconds, something having caught his attention. He looked towards the east before giving an eerie howl. The other hellhounds turned in that direction and added their voices to their leader's cry. After a moment of staring into the distance, they trotted off, leaving Dean standing over his weeping brother and his body.

Dawn was about to break when they moved. Sam stopped crying hours ago, only because he ran out of tears. It broke Dean's heart to see Sam fish the keys to his car out of his jacket pocket. Or how he tenderly picked his corpse up. Sam placed his body in the back seat, gently arranged to look as if he were sleeping off three too many shots of tequila.

Out of habit, Dean walked to the driver's side and reached for the handle, and experienced his first inkling of how different things were going to be. He pulled, and was shocked when his door didn't budge. It wasn't that Dean couldn't feel the cool metal handle. It was quite tangible under his fingers. No matter how much he swore and yanked, he couldn't get the door open. Realizing he wasn't going to be able to move it before his brother drove off, Dean swore under his breath and squirmed in before Sam sat down.

Sam's face wore a fixed, almost blank, expression as he drove to the Singer Salvage Yard. Dean slumped in the passenger seat, shell shocked. He couldn't believe he was dead. He could feel his heart still beating, air moving in and out of his lungs, the press of his flesh through his clothing against the leather upholstery. He was starting to understand why Molly didn't realize she was a ghost until they told her. It all felt like a bad dream. But one look in the back seat reminded him that this wasn't a dream.

Dean waited until his car stopped and Sam was crossing the yard before reaching for the handle. He had just as much success as when he tried to open the door earlier. Shoulder slumping in defeat, he gave a sigh when he realized what he had to do to get out. "Glad you can't see me, Sammy," he said, sliding over to the driver' side. Grateful that his brother had left the driver window open, Dean grabbed the roof from the outside and levered himself up and through the window. "Sorry, Baby," he apologized as he pushed upwards and pulled his legs clear. "Promise I'll never slide across your hood. Or install a horn that plays Dixie."

He caught up with Bobby and Sam just in time to hear Sam answer a question. "No, I'm okay. Just a little headache."

Bobby nodded and looked at the back seat of the Impala, a somber expression on his face. He turned back to Sam, reaching up to clap a hand against his shoulder. "Why don't you go on inside and I'll take care of Dean."

Sam shook his head. "No. I'll do it."

Dean watched as his brother removed and carried his body into the house. He was laid out on the spare bed that had been his when Bobby would watch over them while John was off on one of his extended hunting trips. It felt weird to watch his corpse lying there, not at all like looking at his face in a mirror. More like what he imagined he looked like when he was sleeping, except he was far too still.

He followed Sam and Bobby downstairs, back to the kitchen. Sam sat at the table, while Bobby walked over from the refrigerator to pull out two open beers. It was much like Bobby had done that many times before, except he'd be carrying three beers instead of two. "So, Sam," Bobby said as he placed an open brown bottle in front of Sam. "Tell me what happened."

Sam stared at the beer before taking a drink. Dean wondered if he could taste the holy water Bobby spiked it with. Sam started speaking after several long minutes of silence, Bobby patiently waiting the whole time. "The plan was that we'd use the Colt and shoot the hellhounds and whoever showed up to claim Dean." Sam sighed heavily, looking out the window. "Dean always complained I hesitated too long before shooting."

A half smile crossed Dean's face as he took a seat at the table. "Well, you do," he couldn't resist saying.

Bobby let that statement slide past without comment. But there was an edge to his voice as he nudged Sam back to his story. "So you boys went in without any protection?"

"Not any more than we usually wear. We had those charms against possession you gave us, and Dean had his amulet, for all the good it did." Sam shook his head. "We thought about lining his clothes with salt or goofer dust, but we couldn't risk tipping off Meg or the hellhounds that something was up."

Bobby stared at Sam as if he had grown a second head. "And how were you going to shoot the hellhounds, Sam? Only the person they are hunting can see them."

Even though he knew Bobby couldn't see him, Dean couldn't meet the hunter's eyes. "Yeah, well, we hadn't really thought that part out."

"After I shot whoever showed up, I was supposed to get the Colt to Dean," Sam explained. "We thought we'd have more time--" His words cut off when his voice cracked.

"And you thought it would work?" The anger in Bobby's voice grew sharper with each word. "You should have come to me for help. What were you thinking?"

"We thought we could handle it," Sam snapped. "We knew it would be dangerous as when we tried to keep Azazel and Jake from opening the Hell Gate. And after what almost happened to Ellen, we couldn't risk that happening to you."

The angry words died on Bobby's tongue as he looked at Sam's face. "Sam." Much like he had Dean, Bobby reached up to touch Sam's cheek, the guilt at letting down the brothers down plain on his face. "When you're ready, I'll help you set up a pyre." Bobby caught something in Sam's expression. It had been something he had seen before. Only that time, Sam had been laying cold on a stained mattress and the expression had been on Dean's face. "You *are* going to burn the body, Sam?"

Dean recognized that look on Sam's face. He had seen it too many times, mostly when Sam knew he was asked to do something – learn bow hunting, for example – and wasn't about to. "You need to salt and burn my that's something I never thought I'd hear myself say," Dean mused before refocusing. "Sammy, I need to be able to move on. Don't trap me here."

"No." The insubstantial and slightly shamed word hung in the air as Sam looked anywhere but at Bobby. "I wanted to put into deep freeze. I thought maybe..."

"Maybe what, Sam?" Bobby's voice grew sharper with each word. "You going to walk into Hell and drag him out?"

"Yeah, Sam." Dean added. Able to be heard or not, he added his two cents. "Imagine your surprise when I'm not there!"

"I'm the Chosen One!" Sam yelled. "Demons are supposed to respond to my beck and call if I so choose! Pride himself called me the Boy King! If I am some sort of demonic messiah, then let me use that power to right this wrong! To get Dean back!"

Bobby grabbed Sam by the shoulders, shaking him to impart some sense. "Sam! Think! Would that be what Dean wants?"

Dean and Sam answered at the same time in a whisper filled with defeat. "No."

Bobby let go of him. "I'm sorry, Sam. I really am," he said firmly. "But you have to let Dean go."

Sam bowed his head. Dean watched him intently, and let out a sigh of relief when his brother finally reluctantly nodded. "Okay, Bobby."

They built the pyre out in the empty country that surrounded the junkyard. Leaning against the Impala, Dean watched Bobby and Sam stack the wood, his brother taking pains that it was just so before adding a layer of salt and soaking it in gasoline. His body, now wrapped loosely in an old white bed sheet was reverently laid on top.

"Wait a minute," Sam said as Bobby approached with a lit torch. He pulled back the sheet from the corpse's head and chest. Sam stared, memorizing every detail of the last time he would see his brother. Gently, as if Dean were merely asleep, Sam lifted the head just enough to ease the amulet from around his brother's neck so he could place it around his own. With the same loving care, Sam eased silver ring from Dean's finger. Taking the torch from Bobby, Sam waited in a final silent goodbye before touching it to the wood.

Dean touched his chest after looking at his right hand. The ring and amulet he still wore, or some manifestation of them. He stepped away from the Impala to stand next to Sam. All three watched silently as the pyre ignited and his body was slowly consumed. He watched the fire die down as Bobby and Sam prepared to scatter his ashes. It's over, he thought. He was ready to move on to whatever he earned, be it Hell or Heaven. He wouldn't become something that Sam would be forced to hunt.

Except nothing happened. No reaper appeared to guide him. He didn't dissipate in a swirl of golden light, like his father had. He stubbornly stayed put. "Okay?" he asked the universe, God, or anyone who was listening, arms raised in supplication. "Now what?"

Nobody answered.

Dean looked around, dropping his hands in disgust. "Well that's just great."

He walked back to the house, expecting to disappear with each step. But he seemed to remaining on whatever plane of existence he was stuck on. It clearly wasn't the same one as Bobby and Sam, although it overlapped it. No matter how much he yelled, stomped, waved, and tried to materialize, neither of the living hunters noticed him. Maybe if Rumsfeld was still around, they'd figure out that something was going on, Dean thought. But as he entered the kitchen, he realized that there might be another way to get their attention.

Several tools of the trade were on the table in various states of repair. As Dean came near, the half disassembled EMF detector lit up. Bobby and Sam stared at it in surprise. "Damn thing's been shorting out, and I can't figure out why," Bobby said, wrapping his fingers around a wire.

"Bobby! Don't--" Dean yelled. The detector fell silent as Bobby jerked the wire. Frustration welled up in Dean. The one time he counted on Bobby to think of the paranormal, he went for the rational explanation. He slammed his fist against the table, making the equipment jump slightly. "Damn it!"

Bobby stared at the detector for a second as if he didn't believe his eyes. He glanced at Sam sharply. Dean's gaze followed, noting the weariness on his brother's face. Sam was so tired physically and emotionally that he hadn't even noticed the equipment vibrating. "Look, Sam," Bobby said. "You've had a long day. Why don't you try to get some sleep."

Sam opened his mouth to protest, and then shut it. "Okay, Bobby. I'll see you in the morning." Turning, he walked upstairs and Dean followed, still trying to figure out how to get Sam's attention. He watched as his brother only bothered to kick off his shoes before collapsing on the bed. Winchesters didn't cry, it was claimed, but he watched his brother's shoulders shook in silent sobs muffled into the pillow. But eventually Sam stilled and fell into a troubled slumber.

Only when he was sure Sam was asleep he approached. "Sam, I doubt you can hear me, but I'm here. I'm not dead, but I'm sure as hell not living." He sighed as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "I don't want to become something I would have wasted without thinking. I was ready to move on, Sam, but I didn't. And I don't know why. I'm no good at figuring this kind of thing out. That's your strength." He watched Sam sleep, trying to find some sign that his brother was hearing him in his dreams. "So tell me, Sammy. What do I do now?"

He continued watching Sam, lost in his thoughts. At first, he didn't hear a familiar voice chant softly. Still, they crept into his brain, forcing him to become aware. The words rose and fell, fuzzily alluring but clearly not English. Although not wanting to leave Sam, Dean couldn't help himself. He walked into the hall, each step bringing Bobby's voice into sharper focus. Dean instinctively closed his eyes as the Latin words swirled around him. The world shifted around him – not a feeling of movement but of places changing instantaneously.

When his eyes opened again, he was standing in a ring of small white tea candles. Bobby knelt before him in front of larger black pillar candle, hand still outstretched after dropping the herbs Dean could smell burning in the flame. "Damn it, Dean," Bobby said tiredly as he retracted his arm. "I should be glad you're here and not in Hell, but I'm not."

"Yeah, me too." Experimentally, Dean put a hand out, trying to break through the ring of candles. It felt like pushing against a pane of glass. "I feel like a freakin' mime," he said, hoping to get a smile from the hunter. The smile dropped off his face when he saw Bobby's expression remained somber. "So you gonna yell at me for being stupid?"

"Like I did Sam?" Bobby shook his head. "Would it do any good now?" He gestured for Dean to take a seat on the floor as he shifted. "I need to know what happened, Dean. What you saw, what you heard. Every detail you remember."

Dean sighed as he sat down cross legged. "It was Sam's idea to begin with. It was that or ask Bella for some charm or potion. Except that we probably couldn't afford what price she would ask." Or wouldn't be willing to pay. He may have been trying to pack as much living into that one last year he was allotted, but Dean still had standards.

"Good you kept her out of it," Bobby grunted. "I wouldn't doubt that someone would pay her more to make sure what you tried backfired." He shook his head, thinking about a time that Bella had crossed his path before returning to more important matters. "So, you were at the crossroads and...?"

Dean told Bobby everything. Bobby stopped him a few times to ask questions about what the hellhounds were doing, or how Meg was gesturing as she spoke. When Dean was done, silenced filled the room as Bobby gathered his thoughts. "So let me get this straight. The hellhounds didn't so much as sniff at you before Meg arrived, while she was talking to you, or after she was dead."

"Yeah," Dean said. "Meg said it's because I didn't try to run."

"Shouldn't matter." Bobby rubbed his chin thoughtfully, deeply frowning. "Those hellhounds should have dragged you back to Hell, with or without Meg. Something else is going on, Dean."

"Yeah." Dean sighed. "And I'm smack in the middle of it."

"That you are," Bobby agreed. "So what are you going to do now?"

Dean shrugged. "Haven't figured that out yet."

"You can stay here if you want," Bobby offered.

Until you're forced to put me to rest, Dean thought as he shook his head. "Nah, but thanks, Bobby. I don't know how long before I go poof. And I want to spend that time with Sam, even if he doesn't know I'm here."

Bobby nodded. "I'll see what I can find out about your situation. And I'll keep this from Sam."

"Thanks." Dean gestured at the candle ring around him. "Speaking of my situation..."

"Let me know if you need anything Dean. It's going to be weird seeing Sam driving the Impala into the yard. Good luck." From the choked expression on Bobby's face, it was clear there was more he wanted to say, but lacked the words to express his pain. Bobby leaned over and blew out the black candle.

The air around Dean felt freer as the flame flickered out. Dean reached out and didn't feel the same resistance as before. Stepping out of the ring of candles, he watched Bobby start to clean up the altar, closing the summoning ceremony. Then he returned to Sam's room to watch his brother sleep and ponder his next move.

When they left Bobby's a day later, the first place Sam stopped was the last place Dean expected. He visited this library, renown among hunters for it's occult collection, many times before. He and Sam spent hours reading in the children's section growing up. Actually, Sam spent hours reading while Dean watched him, harassed the librarians, and wondered when Dad would finish poring over old books and scratching notes in his journal. And as they grew older and started hunting, they used the library's resources many times.

Lacking anything better to do, he followed Sam inside. His brother headed straight to the occult section, which wasn't a surprise, and selected a few tomes. "What are you looking for, Sammy?" he wondered out loud, trying to get a look at the book Sam was leafing through.

He was reading over Sam's shoulder when a quick movement spotted out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He looked up just in time to see a grey shrouded figure exit the stacks and turn right towards the stairs. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, and then ran after it. "Hey!"

When Dean turned the corner, a familiar woman stood there, waiting for him. Her face wore a compassionate and sorrowful expression. Memories from the time he should have died bubbled to the surface. He knew who she was, and more importantly, he knew what she was. Dean never thought he would be so happy to see a reaper. "You finally decided it's time to show up?"

The reaper he knew as Tessa sadly shook her head. "I'm not here for you, Dean. I'm here for an elderly volunteer. A few minutes from now, he will drop dead when his undiagnosed aortic aneurysm bursts and he bleeds out."

"You're already taking one, but I can't tag along?" Dean asked. The panic that was fighting crept into his voice. It was one thing to not be moving on and wondering why. It was another when the being that was supposed to guide you to what came after this life was telling you no. "Why can't you take me too? Why am I still here? I should be in Hell."

"Your soul is no longer yours, Dean," the reaper said simply. Her voice was filled with sympathy. "The rules state that I can't guide something that is already claimed." She laid her hand on his cheek, and he leaned into the first physical touch he felt since he died. "That's why you're not allowed to move on."

"So what?" Dean pulled away from her touch. "I'm stuck here? You've got to be kidding me! Hell has to follow rules?"

"There are rules we all have to follow, Dean. Hell and others." She looked up at ceiling. Muffled shouts were heard coming from the floor above, something about calling 9-1-1. "I have to go, Dean." And with that, she faded from sight.

He stared where she had stood, processing everything she said. And Dean came to one nasty conclusion. "Shit." If Tessa was right, he was going to be here for a long time. Maybe long enough for him to go insane and another hunter would have to waste him.

Another hunter, he thought. Maybe that was the clue. He walked back to where Sam was studying and sat on a clear corner of the desk. Sam gave no sign of sensing his presence. But Sam being near steadied Dean, allowing him to push away his panic. He needed to figure out what was going on, and the only way to do it was to think of it like a hunt. "Okay," he said out loud. "If I were hunting me, I'd start by torching my bones. You and Bobby already did that."

He frowned. "Next, I'd start looking for things that were important to me that I could attach myself to." And there were four likely candidates to consider. "There's Colt 1911 Dad gave me. My car. My ring. And my amulet since I've worn that every day since I was twelve."

"Now I need to narrow it down. So I'd talk to the victim." He looked over at Sam. "Crap. You know, for a psychic, you're incredibly dense at times." He could try to get Sam's attention by doing little things that their dad taught them indicated a ghostly presence. But unless his brother felt chatty and whipped out a talking board, he'd probably salt first and ask questions later. And that wouldn't do Dean any good. So he had to figure out how to contact Sam directly.

And there was only one way Dean could think of doing that.

It took Dean about a week to figure out how to appear to people. Mostly he practiced at night while Sam slept since he didn't need sleep like he did when he had been alive. He did tire out while practicing. There were times that he zoned out and when he snapped to, he'd feel refreshed. But there always was a part of him aware of what was going around him.

Touching things took no effort, but moving them was beyond his abilities for the moment. Dean knew he could do it, remembering how he 'full on Swayzed' the glass the last time he was out of his body. And with some practice and concentration, he could appear and talk to people. But that didn't go smoothly.

The first time he managed to appear to someone, it was by accident. He had been in the parking lot, trying to open the door to the Impala. He was concentrating on the feel of the handle under his fingers, trying to make his fingers solid enough to move it. Completely engrossed in his efforts, he didn't see the old security guard making his rounds. "Hey! You by the black car! What do you think you're doing?"

Dean pumped a fist into the air in triumph at being seen by the living for the first time in weeks. "Yes!"

The old man turned white as a sheet and dropped to the ground in a dead faint.

"No!" Dean rushed over to the prone man, realizing that he had disappeared in front of the guard's eyes. He was breathing, but his skin had a gray cast to it. Guilty that he had startled him and frustrated that he wasn't able to do anything to help, Dean slammed his fist against the Honda Civic parked next to the Impala.

He jumped when the car rocked and the alarm started to wail. A man appeared at the door of the room two away from Sam's. He rushed over to the down guard. "You okay?" he asked as he pulled out his cell phone. "What happened?"

Despite everything, the guard's words made him smile. "I think I just saw a ghost."

Dean hung around long enough to see the paramedics take the old man away. Sam, hearing sirens and seeing cops responding, had stayed in the room. Which was a good thing since the guard kept talking, trying to convince anyone who listened that he didn't have a hallucination brought on by a sudden drop in blood pressure. He really had seen a young man messing with the muscle car and then blink out. The fact that he had practically had given the old man a heart attack didn't dampen the pride he felt at managing to be seen.

The question was, Dean asked himself, would he be able to do it again?

Three days later and as many motels away, he decided to try to show himself to one or two people at a time. "If I'm not careful," Dean told himself, "I'm going to start rumors about a haunted motel chain."

At first, all he got were people glancing in his direction. They would do a double take, shake their heads, and resume whatever occupied their thoughts before they were distracted. Dean knew he was getting better when he started getting nods as people passed.

Once things quieted down for the night, he approached the front desk. The clerk, a heavyset woman in her 40's was staring at the shelf behind the counter, organizing some papers. She glanced up and jumped with a gasp. "Sorry," she said. "Didn't hear you come in. What can I do for you?"

Dean smiled widely. So far, so good. "I'd like to get a room."

"Sure, hon." The woman bent to grab a key from the holder under the desk. "I just need to see an ID and a credit card."

Dean's smile faded some. He hadn't thought this far ahead. "Uh, yeah," he said, making a big show of patting his jacket and jeans pockets for a missing wallet. "I, uh, think I left it in my car."

"Uh huh. Well, if you'd rather pay cash ahead of time, we can skip the credit card..." She looked around puzzled. "Sir? Where did you go?"

Dean's smile brightened. This time he had deliberately faded from sight. "I think I'm finally getting the hang of this," he said to himself.

That night was a breakthrough for Dean. The reason was obvious when he thought about his other hunts. Strong emotions had to be involved - his or someone else's. They gave him energy, allowing him to concentrate enough to materialize. Afterwards, he felt drained, but that was becoming less the more he practiced. After a day or two and a few more tries, he decided to go for broke.

They left another library where Sam had conducted more research. Dean, despite watching Sam constantly, couldn't figure out what his brother was up to. He wasn't working a job, but he was clearly researching something. And Dean didn't have a chance to attempt to ask Sam. Being in a public place didn't allow him to materialize, and Sam would eat a meal in some greasy dive or out of vending machines before collapsing, not allowing Dean the time he needed to concentrate.

Now it was finally just the two of them, and Dean hoped he had an hour or two to make the attempt. He blew out a deep breath. "Here goes nothing, Sam." He concentrated hard, and was rewarded by Sam looking at the passenger side of the car, a puzzled expression knitting his brows. And Dean knew exactly what was going on in Sam's head. He was thinking he could almost see his brother lounging in the passenger seat, just like one of those rare occasions where he was too tired to drive and let Sam take Baby's wheel.

'Imaginary' Dean's smile grew wider as Sam's expression revealed that he was realizing that he might really be seeing his dead older brother. "'Bout time you noticed me, Sammy."

The Impala screeched to a halt in a haze of road dust.

Sam stared at Dean, the motor of the car rumbling in a menacing idle. "Christo," he whispered.

Dean shook his head, unaffected by the use of the word. "Ghost, not demon, Sam."

"Right," Sam said. He reached under the seat for the stash of emergency salt kept in a plastic bag.

Dean knew what his brother was about to do. Insubstantial hands raised in a vain effort to protect himself. "Sam, wait a minute, don't--"

Sam straightened up and flung the salt directly into Dean's face. It stung and burnt, distracting him, his focus slipping. Sam didn't look surprised when with a screech of pain, the thing that looked like his brother disappeared.

Dean took some comfort in the fact that Sam was startled when he yelled in his brother's left ear a split second later. "That fucking hurt, Sammy!" Dean roared as he rematerialized outside the driver's window, reflexively scrubbing at his eyes before glaring at his brother. "Bitch!"

Without thinking, Sam responded. "Jerk." And then blinked. "Dean, is that really you? What are you doing here?"

Dean continued to rub at his eyes. "Apparently Hell doesn't want me and Heaven's afraid I'll take over."

Sam's eyes widened. "You've been stuck here the whole time?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah, and it's a long story."

Sam gestured at the passenger seat. "So get in and tell me it."

"After you clean up that," Dean said. Even gesturing towards the white granules made the tips of his fingers ache. "I spent how many weeks fixing her?" he grumbled. "I'm not letting you ruin the upholstery."

Sam rolled his eyes. "So clean it up yourself!"

"Dude... spirit. Salt," Dean said, gesturing to himself and then to the seat.

Sam muttered under his breath, but got out of the car. He was still taking to himself quietly as he opened the passenger door to sweep the grains into the palm in his hand. "Better?" he asked as he dusted off his hands.

"Better." He moved around to the passenger side and gingerly sat down. Out of habit he reached for the door. And like the last time, he could feel it under his fingers, but couldn't make it move.

Without comment, Sam shut the door. He stepped into the car and started it up. As they drove down the road, Sam kept glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, clearly trying to figure out how start the conversation. "So Bobby knows you're around?"

Dean nodded. "Yeah. That was me setting off the EMF detector he was working on. Fortunately he figured it out. He even summoned my ass. Hope he never does that again."

"Yeah, that must suck," Sam said. "You talk to him about... what happened?"

"Told him the whole story. He thinks we're morons for trying what we did." Dean turned to squarely face Sam. "What's got me and Bobby puzzled is why didn't the hellhounds didn't drag me to Hell anyway."

Sam shifted uncomfortably, suddenly looking like he didn't want to have this conversation. "I didn't let them."

Dean blinked. "What? What do you mean?" That didn't make any sense. Hellhounds only responded to the demon giving them orders. They trailed their prey relentlessly until it was caught, or their master called them off. "You muzzle them? Bribe them with severed limbs and belly rubs?"

Sam stared straight out the windshield. "I just told them that if they wanted to keep on existing, it was in their best interests to leave you alone."

"You talked to them?" He didn't hear Sam talking to the demons. He and Meg had been the only ones speaking. "How?" The edge to the word could have cut steel.

Sam shrugged like it was no big deal. "In Cold Oak, I saw Ava control demons. She said the learning curve was fast." his next words were quiet. "She was right."

Dean looked at his brother as if he had never seen him before. "Yeah, and look what happened to her."

Sam slammed on the brakes again and turned to face him. "What was I supposed to do, Dean?" Frustration spilled out of his voice. "Kill Meg and watch you get dragged into Hell anyway?"

"You sure as Hell weren't supposed to use the Dark Side of the Force!" A sickening feeling pooled in the pit of his stomach. This was what John had told him to watch out for. "What's next? Virgin sacrifices under the full moon?"

Sam shook his head. "Dean, it's not like that!"

"No Sam, it's exactly like that!" Dean snapped. "It's what Dad was afraid of! You used that demonic power to save me this time. But what if I piss you off? Or what if the next time you try to put the whammy on a demon and it doesn't work? Or it does, but you have to play dirty, and you find out that you like it? What if that's exactly what the Yellow Eyed Demon wanted?"

Sam didn't look convinced. "Dean, I've got it under control. It didn't take that much to push them away."

"This time," Dean conceded. "But how long will they stay away? You can't keep it up forever, Sammy!"

"I can keep it up for as long as I need to." Sam's jaw set into a stubborn position, a horse taking the bit between his teeth. "I've already lost too much, Dean. Had to sacrifice too many things. Mom, Dad, Jess, Madison, Sarah. I can't lose you too!"

Dean shook his head. "You already have, Sammy. We both know I'm not supposed to be here."

"I know, Dean" Sam sighed. "And I'm working on it."

"Working on it?" Dean looked his brother up and down, the dread in his stomach growing worse. "Sam, what are you doing?"

Sam's next words stunned him. "I'm trying to figure out how to get you a body."

"A new body?" Anger grew in Dean's voice. "That's plan B? You walk into Hell, drag me out, and stuff me into a body like a demon possessing an innocent victim?"

"Not like a demon, Dean," Sam tried to reassure. "I've been doing some research– "

"That's what you were doing at the library?" Dean shook his head, chastising himself that he should have known. "I saw a reaper there. She told me that the reason I couldn't move on was somebody already claimed my soul. Didn't think that it was you."

"It's my fault you're like this, Dean." Sam hit the steering wheel in frustration. "I was the reason you sold your soul! And if I had shot Meg the moment she appeared, maybe you wouldn't have died!"

Dean's voice weakened, the weariness he felt while alive seeping through the words. "And maybe it's my time to go, Sam. I've been on borrowed time since Dad died, and we both know it."

"Maybe." Sam started driving down the road again. But from his expression, Dean could tell his brother didn't agree with him.

They drove a few miles down the road before Sam started talking again. "So you know what you're tied to?"

Dean shrugged. "Supposed to be something that was important to me in life, right? Can think of four things it might be. My gun, my ring, the amulet, or Baby here."

Sam started thinking out loud. "I gave your gun to Bobby, so he'd have something of yours to remember you by. If it was the gun, you'd be back at his place and not here, so I think that's out. That leaves the car, the amulet, and the ring. We can figure out which of those three you're connected to easily."

"Yeah, but if it's Baby, you're not torching her to set me free," Dean grumbled.

"Wasn't planning on it," Sam muttered.

Dean looked straight ahead, watching the road roll past. He couldn't look at Sam as he thought. His brother's plans to save him shook him deeply, something he would have never considered Sam capable of. Or wouldn't have considered him capable of before Cold Oak. "Demons lie," Bobby had told him when he brought up Azazel's implication that Sam hadn't come back completely the same. The way Sam killed Jake Talley before the Yellow Eyed Demon taunted him seemed to confirm it. And Sam's determination to see him live again one way or another added to that unsettling feeling.

And even if Sam succeeded, it would be weird in so many ways. He wouldn't see his face in the mirror. There would be a change in height, either taller or shorter. Knowing things like the back of his hand wouldn't be a phrase that applied to him anymore. And then there was the sex. Although the more he thought about it, the less he thought it would be different. Unless Sam was desperate (or sadistic) enough to--

Frowning, Dean abruptly turned to Sam. "Dude, you weren't planning on stuffing me into the body of a chick?"

Sam shrugged his shoulders, making a quiet noise that could have been taken as a no. But there was a small smirk on his face as he watched Dean out of the corner of his eye.

Dean slunk a little lower in the seat, staring out at the road. Maybe the Nair in Sam's shampoo all those years ago had been a bad idea. "At least tell me she was going to be a hot chick...."

It wasn't the ring Dean was connected to.

Dean, like the last time he visited the cemetery, refused to go to Mary's grave. He watched from a distance as Sam dug a hole next to the headstone like he had when burying John's dog tags. At least this time there isn't a circle of dead vegetation, Dean thought as Sam gently placed the ring in the ground and covered it. Neither brother commented on the fact that Dean was able to leave it behind without any ill effects.

They were going to start experimenting with the amulet when they got a call from Bobby. Ellen, still trying to rebuild the Roadhouse, called Bobby seeking help. There appeared to be an angry spirit haunting a graveyard. It attacked several self-proclaimed paranormal investigators and bereaved people visiting their loved one's grave. Sam was the only hunter Bobby knew of in the area, and would he mind checking it out?

Neither Sam nor Bobby mentioned Dean.

Glad for a hunt to focus on, they drove into town and started asking questions. Dean was forced to admit that Sam's cover story was pretty slick. People seemed eager to talk to the producer of the popular ghost hunting show on cable TV and opened up with all the gossip and history. If all the stories were true, in addition to the haunted cemetery, there were three haunted houses, two vampires, and a chupacabra lurking in various parts of the town.

Sam was given the full history of the cemetery as well as the keys to the gate so he could do some research and told to have fun. He parked outside it and opened the trunk to select the weapons he'd need. "The old caretaker, Eli Slade, was big on keeping kids out of the cemetery after dark," he explained, to Dean, pulling out a shovel and gas can.

"Yeah, and he was so big on the job, he's kept on doing it after he died two years ago," Dean said. By Sam's side and invisible, he heard every story and was ready to take action.

"Yup," Sam agreed. He was still selecting weapons from the arsenal, so he wasn't looking at his brother when he spoke his next words. "Stay here, Dean."

Dean blinked at Sam like his brother was speaking a foreign language. "What?"

Holding Dean's sawed off shot gun, Sam twisted to look at his brother. "Dean, I'm going to have to use salt. I don't want to have to worry about hitting you accidentally."

"Yeah?" Dean sounded like a defiant younger brother. "How you gonna keep me from going with you?"

"Easy." Sam pulled the amulet from his neck and tossed it into the trunk of the car. He slammed it shut and walked away without a further word.

Dean looked at the locked trunk to Sam's back, and then to the trunk again. "Bitch!" he yelled at his brother before he entered the graveyard. Sulking like a little boy, he leaned against the trunk, arms folded over his chest.

Sam was gone for about half an hour when the uneasiness hit. The nausea reminded Dean of food poisoning, which he immediately discounted since he hadn't eaten anything since the morning he died. Underlying it was an ache... to be with his brother? Except that he couldn't since Sam hadn't taken the amulet, and the car couldn't fit through the gate. If he was linked to either of them, he should feel fine where he was. So why did he have this yearning, this need, to be with his brother.

"Son of a bitch," Dean said, the light flipping on in his head. He pushed away from the car and started walking towards the gate. And although the discomfort didn't go away, it started to lessen. "Damn," Dean whispered quietly. It wasn't the amulet or the car he was attached to, but Sam himself. "He really did claim my soul," he said as he slipped through the gate, following the faint trail that he couldn't see, but knew would lead him to his brother.

The cemetery wasn't as empty as he thought. He saw a girl, no older than seventeen, staring morosely at a grave. Wondering how Sam missed seeing her, he snapped to alertness when she looked directly at him. "You can see me," he said as he realized that she was also a spirit.

The girl eyed him with a hard, suspicious expression. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

Dean spoke quietly to reassure her. She may be a spirit, but he was getting a feeling that she was also a victim. "Name's Dean." He couldn't explain how he knew, but he was certain she wasn't causing problems. And if she wasn't hurting anyone, it wasn't his place to force her to move on. "I'm not here to hurt you. You leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone."

The girl nodded, expression still wary, but softening slightly. "You got to get out of here before he sees you," she warned. "Before he traps you here like me. Leave while you still can."

"Slade?" he asked. "Who are you? Is he keeping you here?"

"I'm Emily," she said, still wary. "I died in a car accident three months ago. For some reason, I found myself here."

"Unfinished life," Dean murmured. She died before she felt that she had lived, and was stuck here in the graveyard near her remains. "Go on," he encouraged.

"Eli found me. Said that he'd take care of me. Guess I reminded him of his daughter." Emily shrugged. "It was okay at first. Except that I'd get this feeling I wasn't supposed to be here. When I told him I wanted to leave, he said that I couldn't. And I've been trying to ever since."

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that." Dean vaguely remembered that Slade had a daughter that died of pneumonia in her late teens. Slade's spirit seemed to be big on protecting - the graveyard he tended in life and the surrogate for the daughter he lost to death. "Do you know where he is now? Or where his grave is?"

Emily pointed in the direction that he could feel Sam had gone. "Crap. Stay here," he ordered over his shoulder as he trotted that way, dodging gravestones. A few minutes later he spotted Sam in front of a freshly opened grave. His brother was pouring gasoline into the hole, making sure that the remains were saturated. He put down the can and was about to strike a match when Dean saw a blur materialize behind his brother. "Sam! Look out!"

Sam, acting on an instinct and experience, immediately dropped and rolled to one side, barely missing a vicious blow from a swinging shovel. Slade stood eye level with Sam, but skeletally thin. But his wiry muscles could swing the shovel with incredible force. Sam was forced to roll again as the blade edge of the shovel buried itself two inches into the ground.

Slade was lifting the shovel for a third blow when Dean tacked him. Both went down in a tangle of flailing limbs. "Hurry up, Sammy!" Dean yelled, sitting on Slade's midsection. He threw a punch at Slade's face.

"Get back in your grave!" Slade growled. Bony fingers wrapped around Dean's neck and squeeze. Dean pulled at Slade's wrists, trying to break the iron grip. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam stagger to his feet. A match flared, and a light fell like a shooting star into the grave.

The pressure on Dean's neck lessened as the flames crackled to life. Slade stopped struggling, a look of horror on his face. And then he disappeared in a cloud of smoke. "Good riddance," Dean said, dusting off his hands. He moved over to Sam and tried to touch his shoulder. "You okay, Sammy?"

"Yeah, fine, Dean," Sam said, trying to catch his breath, not feeling the touch. "I thought I told you to stay put."

"Since when do I do what you tell me?" Dean asked. He looked back to see Emily watching, smiling peacefully. She was still smiling as she faded into a swirling golden light which disappeared.

It was just like finishing a hunt when he was alive, he thought as he stared into the flames. The satisfaction that one more thing that wouldn't hurt anyone else, the only thanks he ever got, felt the same. He could continue helping people. Hunting things. He didn't have to quit the family business just because he was dead. And he could still keep an eye on Sammy, help keep him from turning into what the Yellow Eyed Demon wanted him to be.

Once the fire died down, Dean and Sam headed back to the motel where he was staying. "I could use a shower," Sam muttered as he pushed the door open.

"Sounds good. Mind if I join you?" an unexpected voice responded. A blond woman stood in the middle of the room as if she owned it. To Dean, she looked perfectly normal at first glance. But at a longer look revealed a filmy substance floated just below her skin, oily but smoky. And even though it appeared extremely familiar, it took Dean a moment to realize what he was looking at.

The blond woman gave him a sharp smile. "Dean," she greeted him before turning her attention to the younger Winchester. "Sam," she said, sounding like a scolding mother. "You've been a bad boy. I thought we had a plan."

"Ruby." Sam narrowed his eyes, tensing. "Your plan would have ended up with Dean being killed."

"And yours didn't?" Ruby shook her head, tsking lightly. "Sam, Sam, Sam, how long do you think you'll be able to keep the hellhounds distracted? You still need my help."

"So I can take over, just like Azazel wanted me to?" Sam's voice was filled with anger and contempt. "But instead of him, you'd be there to guide me, manipulating me like that poor girl's body you're wearing?"

Dean looked from his brother to the demon to his brother. "Sam, what are you talking about?"

"Plan B, Dean," Ruby said sweetly. "When he was going to go into Hell to save you, Dean, he wasn't going alone. He'd have an army at his back."

Sam was staring hard at Ruby. "And to keep Dean safe, I'd have to not only conquer Hell, but Earth as well, with you at my side as a 'trusted advisor.' That was your plan all along, Ruby. It never was about getting Dean out of the deal."

"Give the boy a gold star. I'm starting to see what Azazel saw in you." Ruby slowly clapped her hands in approval. "So what's the plan now? Find a body to put Dean into? Don't tell me you're that naive." She looked at Dean sideways as her grin grew wider. "Ever wonder why demons possess the living instead of grabbing a handy corpse from the morgue? Other than the mindfuck? Demons can keep the meat suit in one piece, but a soul is needed to power it. Dean probably couldn't do it, or dominate the host's soul to take control. But you could, Sam. The only question is, will you?"

Sam looked at Dean. Dean shook his head.

Sam looked at Ruby. "No. I love my brother and want him back. But if he thinks it's not worth the cost, I'm not doing it."

"And you were Azazel's favorite." Ruby shook her head in disgust. "I had such high hopes for you." She looked at Dean, her smile going predatory. "You may be able to keep the hellhounds away from him, but they're not the only thing that can drag him to Hell where he belongs." Her eyes went black as she started chanting in Latin.

Dean started towards Ruby, but discovered he was rooted in place. It felt like when Bobby summoned him, trapping him in one spot. "Sam!" he yelled in panic as he smelled sulphur and could see the flicker of hellfire forming around him.

Ruby's chanting was drowned out by a shout.. Sam's voice echoed with an authoritative reverberation Dean had never heard before. "Stop! He's mine!"

Both Dean and Ruby seemed surprised to see that Sam's eyes were now a bright mottled yellow. The scent of sulphur was fading as Ruby tried to choke out more Latin. She was forced to give up. "What are you going to do, Sam?" she yelled at him. "Shoot me like you did Meg or the Crossroads Demon?"

"No," Sam said. "I have a better idea. You're so eager to go back to return home? Then go to Hell!"

Ruby's head snapped back as her body went rigid. Screaming, her jaws opened wide as a black cloud burst out . The demon smoke billowed upwards, menacingly spreading out a few feet over their heads before it dissipated.

The girl dropped bonelessly to the ground.

Sam bent over her in a second, eyes back to their normal green. He reached out and lightly touched her neck, feeling for her pulse. He looked up at Dean. "She's still alive."

Dean shook his head. "No she's not."

He stepped towards the blond woman, who was staring in shock at her body. Unlike Ruby's demon persona, the girl was frightened. "Is she gone?" Dean silently nodded, and she asked the next question. "Am I dead?"

This time Dean didn't get a chance to answer. Tessa appeared silently next to them. She held out her hand to the girl. "It's over. It's time to go."

The girl looked uncertainly at Dean, seeking guidance.

"It's okay. You can go with her," Dean reassured. "Tessa'll see you get to what's next safely," he managed to say without bitterness.

The girl stepped gingerly towards Tessa and took her hand. There was a look of peace on the girl's face as the golden light started to swirl around her and the reaper. And one of sympathy on Tessa as she sadly smiled at Dean as they faded away.

Dean watched as Sam loaded the body into the Impala. They drove a ways out of town to a bend in the road. From there they trekked into a field screened by bushes. Sam built a pyre, laid out the body wrapped in a sheet from the hotel room. Dean instinctively took a step back when his brother sprinkled a layer of salt over the bodies, followed by a soaking in gasoline. With the flick of a lighter, the body was set on fire.

A few hours later, once the ashes had been spread, they were back in the Impala, burning rubber to be far away as possible before the local authorities showed up to investigate. Nothing was said until Dean chose to break the silence an hour later. "Sam, be honest." He looked at his brother. "When you said she was still alive, were you going to put me in her?"

"No." The word was followed by a heavy sigh. "But I thought about it."

Dean didn't know how to respond to that. So, in typical Winchester fashion, he ignored it. "So now what?"

Sam shrugged. "Read in the paper about a couple of murders in a town about 300 miles from here. Could be a poltergeist."

Another day, another hunt. What passed for normal in the life of a Winchester, even if he was dead. Dean nodded, glad to be with his brother. "Then let's hit the road."

The end.