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Pillars of Sand

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This story is No. 2 in the series "The Pillars Trilogy". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Sequel to Pillars of Salt. Dean is trying to live the “normal” life he promised he would after Sam’s leap into the cage but he is plagued with guilt, regret and memories that shouldn't be. Enter Buffy with a few souvenirs that shouldn't be of her own...

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Buffy-Centered > Pairing: Dean WinchesterBreFR1816143,9584386,36310 Nov 1222 Jul 14Yes

Chapter Three

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these characters or parts of this story line. They belong to the brains of The Whedon and The Kripke.

Illustration

Chapter Three

Another warehouse, another cold lead followed by another dead end. Buffy scowled at the dank space, flipping open her phone and hitting redial.

“What?”

Buffy ignored the gruff greeting. “You got anything for me?” she asked, kicking over an empty crate.

She heard his deep annoyed sigh on the other end. “Nothin’ but the same thing I told you last time.” Silence. “Buffy, these things don’t just up and change their habits without a damn good reason.” She still didn’t respond, staring a hole into the floor. She followed her prey’s pattern again in her head, trying to pinpoint something she had missed, something that would actually lead her to the fucking thing. “There’s a reason it’s circling… like I said.”

“Right.”

A book slammed shut on the other end and he shoved his chair back. “I don’t know what else to tell ya, kid.”

“I’ve been following this thing for weeks now and I’ve got nothing. It’s here, I know it.”

“Then start thinkin’ outside the box,” he replied. Buffy rolled her eyes, chewing on her inner lip, once again hitting a dead end in her mind. It was here… but it was hiding. Why? She was missing something.

“Whatever. I’ll start over. Again.” Buffy took a deep breath. “Thanks.”

“Anytime-” Buffy snapped her phone shut, cutting him off. She closed her eyes, digging her phone into her forehead. No clear pattern, nothing left behind… whatever this thing was doing, it was smart and wanted nothing to do with anything hunterly. Which was fine, made finding it all that much sweeter.

This was the longest hunt she’d been on in years and it was starting to grate at her nerves. She didn’t have time for this crap, but she sure as shit wasn’t going to just abandon it because she was getting cranky. There was the tiniest potential it had answers and she wasn't giving up.

Buffy pierced her lips, looking around before glancing up where a set of hooks dangled from the ceiling. Gritting her teeth, Buffy stared at them, thinking about the people that had been there, the innocent idiots who let themselves get caught and slowly killed like the sheep they were… and it was happening right under her own fucking nose.

The rage flashed through her and with an irrational snarl, Buffy grabbed a crate from the floor and flung it against the wall where it shattered.

*

Dean woke with a start. For a moment, he had no idea where he was, couldn’t remember laying down there - much less falling asleep - when he recognized the cracking wood of Bobby’s ceiling, the large picture window covered in dirt and old sigils letting murky moonlight spill on him.

Dean sat up, staring at the familiar stacks of books all over the living room, Bobby’s desk in front of his ill-used fireplace littered with pages, a few open tombs and three empty smudged glasses.

Tossing the shabby throw off, he swung his legs off the couch, rubbing the back of his neck before checking to see if she was still there.

Buffy sat in a large recliner in the opposite corner, curled up under her jacket, a few pieces of her hair falling on her cheek. She breathed deeply as he watched her, wondering how she had ended up there and not on the couch with him. Bobby may be an old stodgy bastard, but Dean doubted he would have minded a little couch action.

Bobby had long ago disappeared into other parts of the house anyway and Dean remembered falling asleep not too long afterwards to the sight of Buffy at Bobby’s desk, paging through a few books, researching in the soft, dim light of a reading lamp.

The sky was still dark, the sun not even peeking over the horizon. Standing with a little groan, Dean listened to his back crack as he stretched before shuffling towards her. She didn’t move as he leaned over, brushing her hair away from her face, one finger caressing her scar before he leaned down and pressed his lips to her forehead. A few months ago that would have earned him a punch in the junk, but now she made a little sound before settling deeper into the chair.

Dean marveled at how easy the habit had become since she’d gotten lost in the woods with that damn wendigo a few weeks ago. It made him feel better knowing she was actually sitting there, real and not just his screwed up brain making wishes into hallucinations. That had been the damn longest week of his life when she had disappeared before he found the wendigo’s shack and he had made sure she knew that.

Dean made his way to the bathroom. A moment later he came back out, wide awake, wondering if it was kosher to wake her ass up and christen Bobby’s couch anyway when he noticed the shadows in the room were darker, longer. Not the same as he had left them.

Dean frowned, glancing around before turning to Buffy and he saw something shift next to her. Something that seemed to be sucking all the light in the room towards it as it hovered next to the recliner.

Dean’s hand instinctively went to his back where he usually kept his gun before remembering he had taken it out when he’d fallen on the couch. The thing in the room didn’t even notice him and Buffy didn’t react to its presence.

It was the same damn sucker they had been researching, the thing that had gotten a snag on Buffy before they’d managed to get away earlier.

A roar of fury and panic coursed through his system, but he forced himself to stay still as the thing’s face got way too close to hers. He ignored the urge to step up and pull her away and start hammering on the piece of crap; instead, he stayed still, waiting for a chance to get his gun…

Until he saw something dark and long snake out of what he assumed was its mouth and Dean lost it.

“Buffy!” he shouted, shooting towards her. His socked feet slipped on the hardwood floors as Buffy’s eyes snapped open, alert and ready and she moved without thinking, instinctively reeling her arm back and jamming her fist into the chisna’s face. Dean reached her as the thing reared back with an ugly roar before disappearing, melting into the shadows and out of the room.

Dean grabbed Buffy’s arms as she moved to follow it. He didn’t let her get far, wrapping an arm around her waist to hold her back.

“Dean, what the hell are you doing?” she snapped, her voice laced with sleep. She tugged against him and he swung her behind him. “Dean!”

“Stay,” he barked, shoving her onto the couch. He grabbed his gun, checking the chamber and glared at her when she vaulted back to her feet. “That things got a goddamn hard-on for you and I’m going to gank it before it comes anywhere near you again.”

“Oh please,” Buffy said, rolling her eyes. She shoved his shoulder away. “Don’t pull that misogynistic crap on me.”

“Don’t be a such a fucking moron,” Dean replied, holding her arm and when she tried to return to her chair. “Buffy, we just got done-”

Dean didn’t have a chance to finish as a blur of black matted fur swept past them and slammed into her. Buffy fell to the ground with a loud whoosh of air as the thing on top of her growled, leaning down to take a taste. Dean was already moving, shouting her name, tackling the chisna where it hovered over her, slamming it into the couch. He groaned in disgust when he felt the cool goo that coated its fur sticking to him.

The damn thing wiggled away and vanished again.

“Damn it,” Dean breathed, rolling onto his back, the crap on the chisna’s fur feeling way too gross to contemplate. Buffy reached over and slapped his shoulder as hard as she could and Dean turned to glare at her. “What the hell was that for, I just saved your ass.”

Buffy snorted.

Dean rolled to stand and slipped as his gooey palms slid on the floor. He grunted in annoyance, watching Buffy do the same thing albeit with more grace. So much for their showers getting rid of this crap earlier. Fucking creepy thing. They found their feet and Buffy was already heading for her gun.

“Teamwork,” Buffy said sarcastically, her words mocking his from their last hunt. They were about six months into trying this whole ‘hunting as partners who happened to have sex nine times a day’ thing and it wasn’t going smoothly. They both liked taking the lead. It led to issues. “Let’s play nice and everything will be all better.”

“Shut up,” Dean groused. “That was before you took off to play hero with that wendigo.”

Buffy didn’t bother replying, checking the clip on her gun before shoving it into the back of her pants. She leaned down and came back up with a machete. She glanced at him. “How much does Bobby like clean walls?”

Despite his irritation and he extreme urge to reach out and rattle her senseless, Dean smirked. Buffy shot him a little smile before disappearing around the corner. And then the annoyance and fear part was back with a vengeance as Dean cursed, grabbing his gun, wiping his hands off as best he could before following her.

“Buffy,” he said softly, but there was no response. Dean looked up and down the long hallway. He clenched his jaw to restrain himself from her calling out her name with a few colorful adjectives. “You gotta be freaking kidding me.”

Stepping out, Dean examined the shadows, keeping his breaths to a minimum to hear as much as he could for the chisna's wet breathing. He didn’t hear a damn thing for a moment and he wondered how the hell Bobby was sleeping through all the ruckus - the man had to sleep like the dead.

Suddenly a loud a slam bounced out from the kitchen and Dean broke into a sprint.

The chisna had Buffy pinned to the tiny table in Bobby’s kitchen. Her machete was pressed against the thing’s neck but it wasn’t moving away from her; in fact, it seemed to be spurred on by it. Dean saw red, moving up behind them and reaching around to grab the blade. He yanked it into the chisna’s neck with as much force as he could muster.

The thing reared back and Dean let out a little yelp as he fell back with it. The fucker was strong, but Dean was quick as the machete sliced some of its skin and with a loud howl, it was gone again.

Dean scrambled to his feet, glancing around the kitchen before checking the machete blade. It was covered in sticky blood with a light green tinge to it. He smirked before glancing at Buffy, who was breathing heavily on the table, covered in the chisna’s fur goo.

“Man, that baby likes you,” Dean said with far too much amusement, the high from leaking some blood soaring through him. “That sweet Buffy juice-”

Buffy was glaring at him when her eyes suddenly widened. The chisna roared up behind him, knocking him down. Everything was a blur after that as Buffy shouted his name, leaping from the table. Dean tried to roll to his feet but the floor was slippery from the chisna’s fur and he almost took Buffy out with him before he found his sea legs.

Dean shoved the machete into the chisna’s flank, pushing it away from her and pinning it to a wall. It roared mightily.

Vaguely in the background he thought he heard Bobby saying, “What in the hell?” as the chisna roared in Dean’s face, shoving him away. Dean slipped on the floor, slamming into the table and the chisna was on him, its maw open and it aimed for his throat…

“Dean, no!”


Dean woke with a violent start, sitting up in the recliner in a panic. His eyes flew around the room, Buffy’s words reverberating in his head as he quickly stood, turning in a slow circle, his body tense.

The silence of the room was deafening; he couldn’t see anything, the darkness suffocating him and a tendril of fear spiked through his chest as he wondered what the hell was happening. He felt like he was moving through thick glue.

And where was Buffy?

He looked down at his hands, still feeling the slick goop that had been coating the chisna’s fur and the hot sticky blood the machete had drawn…

But his hands were dry.

Month Nine

The room was empty save for him and his heavy breathing and Dean roughly rubbed his face. He saw spots when he opened his eyes and they slowly started adjusting to the dark living room. The TV was there, the couch… not Bobby’s couch, not Bobby’s house.

“Jesus,” he breathed, closing his eyes. It had been so real, like he was living it again for the first time.

He saw Buffy the way she had been that night - angry about the attack and his trying to keep her from it and frightened when the chisna almost took his head off; the sound of her voice calling his name and Bobby tackling it to the ground where Buffy cut its head off… although that part was fuzzy and unclear; faded, like the memory it was.

And not real because they had never fucking happened.

Because 2014 Dean had never happened and never would happen and everything with Buffy would never happen and he was losing his goddamn mind.

What in the blue hell were these dreams about? Where were they coming from, why were they so vivid? He was so sure that they had really happened instead of the fantasy world Zachariah had shoved down his throat, but…

“Get the fuck out,” Dean growled under his breath, digging his fingers into his head as hard as he could, trying to push the memories away. They had never happened and they would never come to pass… so why did they feel so real, so potent?

It felt like it was getting worse, getting harder to separate himself from them as time passed. They were a constant veil - a reminder, a presence he couldn’t escape.

Dean dug his palms into his temples as he tried to burn the images away, but all he saw was Buffy.

All he ever fucking saw was Buffy.

Dean glowered at the floor before stalking into the kitchen. Switching the light on, he grabbed the glass he’d left by the sink and the bottle of whiskey from on top of the fridge. Dropping the glass with an angry thud, he spun the top of the bottle off, making it fly away and hit the floor with a sharp twang. He poured a healthy amount into the glass, slamming the bottle down before throwing back the drink. It instantly burned his gullet as he drank it without breathing before slamming it on the table.

He couldn’t get rid of her. He couldn’t escape.

He never thought the day would come when he wanted nothing more than to escape from her, just erase her from his memories. Where once upon a time, she had been a strange and calming balm that he could easily push away when it got to be too much, she was now turning into the bane of his existence. Always there, no matter how much he tried to shove her away.

Over time, the memories had started to die out, go away, like any old memory. But now without Sammy there to distract him, his mind was unraveling further and further every single damn day, like someone had dumped the memories back into his brain anew, and everything was Buffy.

Fucking. Everywhere.

Dean poured another glass, some whiskey sloshing onto the counter and he drank it without censor before cursing at the liquid on his fingers. No amount of alcohol helped either. Even if he blacked out, she was still there… always there. He slammed the bottle on the counter again, closing his eyes in frustration as the dream washed over him.

It had been so real. He could see her, smell her, touch her. He remembered with perfect clarity the feeling of her scar under his fingertips as she slept, the heat of her forehead when he pressed his lips to her, the rattling fear when the damn chisna appeared out of nowhere, the fear that he was going to lose her again after he had just gotten her back and how he wouldn’t have been able to handle that.

He had lost Sam and he damn well wouldn’t lose her too.

“Damn it!” Dean snapped, slamming his hand on the counter.

None of it was real! It was all in his head… but then why in the hell did it all feel like it had just happened yesterday?

“Not. Fucking. Real,” he mumbled, pouring another glass. He absently realized with a humorless chuckle that he was missing the glass most of the time before dropping the bottle on the counter. He looked at the glass… and in his mind’s eye, he saw the glass he had been drinking with Buffy and Bobby… the sense of familiarity and belonging and comfort and everything else that was now foreign and just wrong. Things that didn’t belong in his life.

None of it had been his, it had all belonged to his future self, and yet here he was, remembering it like it had happened to him. Dreaming like it had happened to him. Dean scowled at the glass, the amber liquid mocking him.

None of it was helped by the intense desire floating just under the surface to take Buffy’s face in his hands and kiss her, make sure she was okay, like she was just in the next room, waiting for him. His body positively ached with the need of it. It was the most vivid part of the dream, the fear that had tasted chalky in his mouth and just wanting her to be okay, especially after almost losing her with the wendigo. He vaguely remembered 2014 Dean doing just what he wanted right now, holding her when she grabbed him after chopping the chisna's head off…

But he was alone, with nothing but memories…

With a snarl, Dean grabbed the full glass and threw it against the wall. It shattered, the sound piercing the night’s silence, the whiskey drenching the paint, glass flying everywhere, alcohol dripping down the wall. It did nothing to alleviate the pressure in his head.

Dean took a deep, shaky breath, closing his eyes. The same exhaustion that had been dogging him ever since the first night he dreamed of her closed in around him and he leaned over the counter, burying his face into his hands. What he wouldn’t give to reach into his mind and rip out whatever crap had been shoved in there.

They weren’t his memories, but they felt like his. He had never felt these things, but he felt like he had - hell, he was still feeling them. He actually felt like he loved the absolute shit out of this woman and with every day that passed, it was getting harder and harder to see past that, harder to see what was in front of him.

Harder to remember none of it was real. That he was no longer a hunter, that he no longer had his brother at his side.

“Damn it, Sammy, why the hell did you leave me?”

God, he missed Sam. He missed seeing him, even in dreams - he’d take watching him fall into the hole over and over any day over this torment she was creating inside of him. At least then he’d get to see him again, if just for a soul-wrenching second.

“Dean?”

Dean stood abruptly, knocking the bottle over and whiskey sloshed out all over the counter. Lisa stood at the entrance of the kitchen, her eyes wide and cautious as she stared at him.

Dean grabbed the bottle, his eyes flying to the mess he’d made on the wall and floor before looking at her again. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t said a word. And she didn’t need to; he could read it all over her face.

“Are you okay?”

Dean took a deep breath, closing his eyes. The words ached to come out: ‘No, I’m not okay; I’ll never fucking be okay. I can’t be okay again, not without Sam, not without her. I need her and I know it’s not real or sane, but…’

“Yeah,” he replied, forcing the word out. He gave her a lame smile, ignoring the rush of nausea as his stomach turned, the alcohol burning his insides.

Lisa didn’t move. She looked frozen as she stared at the broken glass, the spot on the wall where it had impacted.

“What happened?”

“Nothing. I was just… I dropped it.”

Lisa nodded slowly. She glanced at the wall again, her face shuttered and stiff as she made the obvious conclusions. When Dean met her eyes, she frowned and looked away. She didn’t say anything, instead moving into the kitchen, making her way to the broom closet.

“No, Lisa, I got it, go back to bed,” Dean said, avoiding the glass to intercept her. He grabbed her shoulders to stop her and she immediately flinched away from him, giving him an indecipherable look that made him pause. “Lisa-”

“Dean, don’t,” she snapped, holding her hand up. She stared at the glass on the floor before looking up at him. She tried to move around him again but he grabbed her arm, holding her in place and she felt the urge to rip it out of his grasp. But she didn’t.

“Lisa, come on, it’s fine-”

“No, it’s not fine,” Lisa replied, the words snapping something inside her and she snatched her arm away, taking a few paces back. She shrugged, looking lost before drilling her eyes into his. Dean felt his stomach pinching as she stared at him like she didn’t know him. Like she didn’t know what she was doing or why she was doing it, but she was doing it anyway…

Dean felt a sinking feeling fill him as he saw the last months reflected on her face: unraveling. He was unraveling. She didn’t know him, she didn’t know what he was doing or why, she didn’t know anything…

“It’s not fine…” she whispered. “You’re not fine.”

He closed his eyes. “I… Yeah. I know.”

“You know?” she repeated, her voice coloring with accusation before she swallowed it down, looking away. Lisa crossed her arms, the struggle on her face. “No, I don’t think you do.”

“Lis-”

“I’ve got a kid upstairs, Dean,” she said, her voice stringent. “And you’re down here… I don’t... I don’t even know what you’re doing.”

“Lisa, I’m…” Dean paused and she stared at him expectantly, wanting to hear the right words, the right thing… Instead he looked away, his voice muted, “I’m sorry.”

He wanted to defend himself. He wanted to fight for her and whatever was left of this relationship with her and Ben. He wanted to want this life; he wanted to put everything in his broken can to bed, to rest… He wanted to see her, see Lisa. He wanted to take comfort in her and… He wanted a lot of things.

She didn’t say another word. Lisa stared at him, sad and resigned. And then she turned to leave.

Lisa pinched her lips, pausing at the entrance. She stared at the broken glass on the floor and she felt his eyes burning into her back.

“I’m sorry too,” she said softly before leaving him.

*

Month Ten

His fingernail picked at the peeling label on the beer bottle, slowly but surely getting underneath the stickiness and pulling it back in little bits. He didn’t notice the pile of trash he was leaving on the table or that his beer had gotten warm. He just stared at the label, picking at it, his mind slowly going through the motions of sitting, drinking, sitting, drinking, sitting, drinking…

Sid was somewhere in the bar, he knew that much. He had said something about needing to get home for dinner with the in-laws, but Dean couldn’t remember the exact words. All he remembered was seeing Sid sitting across from him, his mouth moving… and then he was gone.

Because all he could think about was Buffy.

She was like a noxious cloud of fumes that wouldn’t go away. He couldn’t escape her. Everywhere he looked, there was Buffy. He caught her out the corner of his eye; he saw her driving her Jeep in front of him, he saw her walking next to him if he didn’t pay attention and when sleep came…

With a deep sigh, Dean closed his eyes, setting the bottle down and resting his face in his hand.

He hadn’t thought about Sam for weeks now. Whenever his lids shut, he saw her blonde, scarred face. Whenever he tried to think about Sam, all he saw was Buffy. He couldn’t escape her, she was everywhere.

He felt a deep, gnawing pull of guilt in his gut as he thought more and more about his brother before seeing Buffy slide right over him, like an overlapping image. If he had a mind to think about it, he would say he was cursed as hell right now. He couldn’t get away from her, she was literally everywhere.

He missed Sam. God, how he missed Sammy. He missed his presence, his voice, his desire to eat green things. He just missed his brother. Missed how annoyed he felt when Sam gave him that look when Dean ordered a beer. Missed that warm feeling he felt whenever they met up after a hunt apart, knowing he was alive and well. He missed making sure they stopped at the store for his stupid protein bars. He actually missed the dreams of that day in Lawrence…

And now he couldn’t even think about him, much less mourn him.

“Hey, handsome.”

Dean turned to find Karen standing next to him. She smiled and he forced one to his lips. “Hey, Kay.”

She raised an eyebrow at the mess he was leaving. “You want another?”

“No. No, I’m good. Thanks.”

Karen rested her hand on his arm and Dean stiffened at the touch before forcing himself to relax. She rubbed his shoulder a bit. “You doin’ okay?”

Dean paused, glancing at her hand on his shoulder, the hand on his arm before looking back at her.

Was he okay? Stupid question.

He gave her a short nod and a polite smile. She sure didn’t know how to take a clear ‘no thanks, I’m taken’ message. “Yeah. Dandy.”

Karen grinned at him, leaning in like a conspirator to something he had completely missed. “Okay, well, shout if you need anything.”’

“Yeah,” Dean replied, gluing his eyes back to the table where his pile of scraps sat. Karen headed to the table next to his, collecting bottles. He felt her eyes on him, but he didn’t look up as the scrapings started to turn into Buffy’s face.

“Yeah, I’m gonna go,” Dean whispered, his eyes feeling scratchy, but he didn’t close them. Because when he did that, all he saw was her face. And he was starting to get to the point where he wanted to slam his head into a wall - anything to erase her from his mind. Anything to erase everything from his mind. The damn memories, the damn last year, the last five years - hell, everything. He just needed a goddamn five minute reprieve from it all.

He needed to breathe and he couldn’t.

Dean moved in slow motion as he stood, pulling out his wallet and dropping a few bills on the table. He felt someone slap their hand on his back and he turned to see Sid standing next to him. He was talking, his lips moving, and Dean frowned, nodding despite hearing nothing but white noise.

“… and I definitely feel fine enough to handle the hell-in-laws now,” Sid continued, chuckling to himself and turned to wave to Karen. “See you later, Kay!”

“You boys be careful,” she replied, and Dean turned to look at her and she winked at him. He looked away, shrugging his jacket on and heading outside with Sid. The night was cool and he looked around, taking a deep cleansing breath as Sid turned to walk to the opposite side of the building where they’d parked that night.

Dean moved to follow when a group of women approached him. He barely glanced at them, shoving his hands into his pockets as they brushed past him, all three talking about someone in their office when Dean heard her.

Buffy. It was Buffy.

Dean spun around, his eyes wide and he started after the group. “Buffy?”

His heart and feet stopped at the same time when he saw the only blonde in the group, her back torn to shreds in long, angry scratches down the length of her back, the skin stripping off in bloody chunks through the dark green jacket she wore. Her long blonde hair was tangled in a bloody mess as she walked away from him and Dean stopped, shaking his head in disbelief.

She’d gotten attacked?

“Buffy!” Dean shouted, moving quickly to catch them, his heart pounding as he got closer, the blood brighter in the dark night and he thought he could see the bone of her ribcage. “Buffy.”

Dean grabbed the woman’s arm, spinning her around and his heart stopped when he saw it wasn’t her.

Dean blinked slowly, not hearing her protests, shaking his head again before forcing her to turn around so he could see her back.

There was nothing there. No blood, no ripped skin, no green jacket…

“What the hell, guy?” the woman demanded, wrenching away from him and stepping back. She rubbed her arm where he had been gripping her and he felt the ache in his hand from holding her too tightly. Dean took a few steps back, his insides clenching.

He’d been so sure it was her. Her voice, her back, her… everything. Dean felt something tugging deep inside as he stared at her, willing her to be who he thought she had been… Who he had been so sure it was.

“My bad,” was all he could say, his eyes still searching her face.

“C’mon, Liene,” one of her friends said, all three of them giving him a cautious look as they backed away and headed into the bar. Dean watched them leave, his eyes wide before rubbing his face. He didn’t hear or feel Sid next to him until he placed a hand on his shoulder, making him jump.

“What was that, man?” Sid asked cautiously, trying to turn Dean to look at him, but Dean wouldn’t. He didn’t take his eyes off the woman until she disappeared from his sight. “Dean.”

“Yeah?” he replied, turning back to Sid, coming back to the moment. He looked back at the entrance of the bar, a tug of panic settling in his stomach at what he had just seen… he knew he had seen it. But it hadn’t been there. Dean forced himself to smile. “Sorry. Just thought I knew her.”

“Who’s Buffy?”

“Nobody. She’s… nobody.” Dean bit the tip of his tongue. He was going fucking crazy.

Dean turned back to his truck, patting Sid on the back to reassure him as his mind spun out of control. It had been so real; she had been so real, he could taste it. Dean felt his chest tightening as he started thinking about what was happening to him, his breaths getting short and he made himself breathe evenly until he reached his truck.

He heard Sid saying something and Dean nodded, responding but he wasn’t sure what he had said. Sid got into his car, starting it up as Dean did the same. The truck’s engine turned and he looked up, his eyelids thick with the debilitating exhaustion that had been dogging him for months as his mind tried to push through the sudden fog enveloping it.

Across the street, a man stood in the shadows.

Dean frowned. He could barely see him, but somehow he knew he was staring at him. He could feel the burning sensation of eyes drilling into him.

Dean shut the truck off. Neither moved as the silence got heavier with each moment, turning into a pressure sitting on a Dean’s chest as his mind fought to put two and two together about what he found so strange about the man when he finally moved. Dean instinctively moved for the gun underneath the seat and the man stepped into the lighted circle of a streetlight.

Dean’s jaw dropped as he watched his brother - who was supposed to be dead, who was supposed to be in the goddamn hole with Lucifer - take the spotlight and smile at him.

And then his eyes flickered to black before Sam cocked his head… and disappeared.

*

“Wait, what?”

Lisa paused, dropping the wet clothes back into the washer and standing up as Dean paused on the other end of the line. She closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead as he said, “I’m just… I just need to check this out.”

“Okay, Dean,” Lisa said slowly, turning to lean back against the washer. The smell of dinner cooking wafted into the laundry room, mixing with the clean scent of recently washed laundry. Her stomach twisted into knots as she tried to find the right words, the smell of normality doing nothing to help. “You know, I’ve been pretty… okay, considering, with everything you’re going through. I know I can’t understand-”

“It’s not about that, Lisa,” he replied sharply and Lisa ignored the stab to her chest as he tried to brush her off, again. For the hundredth time in as many days, she wondered what would be the last straw…

“But I’m trying,” Lisa continued vehemently. She paused, waiting for him to reply but he said nothing. She closed her eyes, remembering the call just before his. “Sid called.”

“Oh?” he asked, sounding far away.

Lisa’s chest got tight as she remembered Sid’s words, ‘I’m not sure what’s up with him, Lis, he’s just got a lot on his mind and I don’t know, maybe he should talk to someone.’

“He said you were acting weird. He was concerned.”

“Yeah, I thought I saw somebody I used to know, it wasn’t anything weird.” The words sounded lame even to her ears.

“Oh.”

“Yeah,” he said on the other side and she could barely hear him over the wind coming through his open window. She closed her eyes.

“Okay,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear her.

“You have Bobby’s number, right?”

“What?” Lisa frowned, staring at the laundry room floor. She couldn’t name the feeling that was suddenly growing in her chest, and she felt like it was choking her as it started climbing up her throat. “Yeah, but… are you going somewhere, what are you doing?”

“Yes. Well, no… I’m not going anywhere per se, I’m just checking stuff out. I just saw…”

He took a deep breath and Lisa could hear the tremble in it. Her mind flew back over the last several weeks, to when she’d heard the same tone, when he’d woken up from a nightmare or thought he saw something outside during dinner. If only Sid knew the half of it…

“I just want to make sure, I’m just checking something out, you know how I get with these things.”

“Yeah,” Lisa said, nodding. “Okay.”

“Just a little OCD,” he continued on the other end, trying to joke, and Lisa pulled her lip between her teeth, worrying it. She wanted to say she wasn’t okay with it, that maybe things weren’t working out so well here, that maybe he should go see someone, that maybe…

“Okay,” Lisa said again, hating the way the word sounded as it came out. “How long will you-”

“Just tonight,” Dean said immediately. “I won’t be gone long, I promise. I just want to check this out, make sure everything is okay.”

“Okay.”

Neither of them said anything for a moment and Lisa crossed her arm over her chest, tucking it against her side as she bowed her head. The pressure in her throat turned into the burning sensation of tears on their way and she swallowed it down. She didn’t know what to do. She had no idea how to handle this - she didn’t know what the mental breakdown signs were for someone who did what he did. She didn’t know what was going on inside his head and she felt guilty that really didn’t want to know.

Somehow they had both fooled themselves into thinking things were going to be okay, were going to get better. And they had integrated themselves into each other’s lives based on that promise, thinking they would get to the end of the tunnel in one piece …

But now…

With a resounding smack of guilt, Lisa found herself wishing Dean had never come into her life, and she swallowed it down.

“You know Ben has his match this weekend,” she said, her voice low. She cleared her throat. “He wanted you there.”

“I said I’d be there, I wouldn’t miss that.”

“Okay,” she said with a shrug.

“Okay. Good. Uh… I’ll have my phone-”

“Dean,” Lisa interrupted him, not needing to hear the spiel. He stopped. “Are you…” Lisa let her head fall back, staring at the ceiling before choosing her words. “Just come back in one piece… okay?”

“Yeah,” he said softly. “Yeah, I will.”

“Okay, good. Bye.”

She hung up, staring at the wall, the smell of dinner starting to burn wafting towards her.

“Mom, the chicken is burning!”

It wasn’t just the chicken burning, she thought wistfully, her throat clenching tight with the tears she held at bay…

“Mom!”

“Okay,” she yelled back, leaving her phone in the laundry room.

*

Dean stared at his phone for a moment, the bright screen flashing the “Call Disconnected” symbol at him before he snapped it closed, squeezing it tightly before dropping it in the passenger seat.

What in the fucking hell was he doing? Dean gritted his teeth, holding onto the steering wheel, breathing in deeply through his nose. What was he doing? Would he ever have an answer? Dean shook his head at himself before rolling down the window completely, sticking his hand out in the cool air as the cab of the truck suddenly felt stuffy and hot. He felt like he couldn’t breathe.

His headlights cut a swath through the dark forested road he drove on. He had no idea where he was going; no clues, no hints as to what he was looking for. He didn’t want to lose time going back to the house to find some clues to help guide him.

The minute Sam had disappeared, he’d started his truck and he just drove.

He knew he hadn’t seen Sam, which meant he really wasn’t seeing Buffy. Relief washed over him at the thought. So whatever it was that had been fucking with him had finally given him something tangible to hold onto, somewhere to start

He knew he should probably call Bobby, give him a heads up that something was messing with him. Maybe he should head to the library and do his own research…

For a moment, he drove fine. The road stayed clear, the headlights stayed focused as he followed the curves of the road that was leading him deeper into the woods. He knew eventually he would need to turn his ass around and head back into town, and for the first time since he’d restarted the truck, he wondered what the hell he was doing out here…

How had he gotten here?

Just as quickly as the relief had been there, a wave of doubt brought him under. Dean closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember how he’d chosen this road. He just remembered seeing the man - Sam - before he disappeared.

Dean wasn’t exactly sure what he had seen. His chest tightened all over again as he thought about seeing Buffy. Both incidents had felt so real, but they weren’t… he’d been so damn sure it had been her. The same Buffy whom he had run into those few years ago; the same Buffy that put him on this path of insanity; the same Buffy who put him in Zachariah’s crosshairs more than he already had been.

And then what the hell was that with Sam?

The joy of seeing his brother was entirely fucking ridiculous and Dean rejected the idea.

“Damn it,” he snapped, slapping his palm on the steering wheel before slowing the truck to a stop, pulling over onto the dirt-heavy side road. Dean killed the engine as a cloud of dust rose up around the truck, fogging up the air in front of the headlights. He breathed heavily, bowing his head, leaning on the wheel. “What the hell are you doing, man?”

Talking to himself like an insane person; rationalizing seeing a woman who only lived in his head; feeling an outrageous amount of anger towards that woman because she was all he could see. Every single time he closed his eyes, there she was. He no longer saw Sam… at least until tonight…

But no, Sam was dead. He was gone.

And now he was out here, literally chasing ghosts? Had he actually seen something back there?

Dean took a deep breath, closing his eyes, his head hitting the headrest with force. The always constant pressure burning in his chest grew hotter and his eyes stung with unshed tears.

“What the hell is happening to me?”

A rustle across the street caught his attention and Dean whipped his head to the sound, blinking away the film of tears to focus on the wooded wall. The silence of the night pushed down on him, his ears straining, his eyes trying to see what had made the noise before he shook his head at himself.

“Animals live in the forest, jackass,” he said, turning to stare out the windshield. A long moment passed before he rolled his eyes. “And crazy people talk to themselves.”

Another rustle came from the stretch of woods and he ignored it before he heard the distinct sound of footsteps in the brush. The sound was close enough to raise the hairs on the back of his neck and Dean stiffened, turning to study the trees again. But there was nothing.

The footsteps came again.

Scanning the area, Dean turned and grabbed his precaution duffel bag he kept stashed on the backseat floor. He dropped it on the passenger seat, tearing the zipper open. He looked up once, but there was still nothing.

Holy water. Knives. His favorite sawed-off. He pulled the shotgun out, checking the chamber before looking back into the forest at the sound of footsteps again.

And then there he was.

The same man Dean had seen before stood in the forest several yards away. Dean could only see the vague outline of him, but it was him, Dean had no doubt in his mind. He was tall, and he was walking away from him.

Dean leaned out his window and shouted, “Hey!”

The man paused, turning his head to glance over his shoulder. Dean felt a chill fall down his spine, knowing instantly that he hadn’t seen Sam earlier… that wasn’t Sam. And then he turned around and kept walking away.

Dean cursed, turning back to his bag, grabbing a bottle of holy water, a package of salt, his silver knife and the shotgun. Wrenching the door open, Dean shoved everything into his pockets before leaning down and grabbing his handgun.

He didn’t notice the lone figure a couple hundred yards behind him, the bike pulled to the side of the road as she stood, watching him. He only saw the shadow in the woods, the man that was taunting him, luring him…

Dean didn’t take two seconds to think. He ran into the woods.

“Damn it,” Dean growled, pushing through the trees. A branch swiped out, slapping him across the face and he angrily pushed it away, crashing through the trees without direction. He paused for a moment, breathing heavily, squinting into the darkness, trying to find the man, but he was nowhere to be seen. “Hey!”

Nothing.

“Show yourself, you spineless dick!” he shouted again, his voice carrying. Dean’s breathing started picking up again and he shoved his shotgun under his arm, rubbing his face with both hands. “Jesus, Dean, what are you doing?”

He couldn’t explain the sudden surge of panic that slammed into his chest as he realized he was standing in the middle of a forest he’d never been in, alone, chasing a literal shadow. He had done this countless times, but right now… Dean shook his head, squaring his jaw and forcing himself to keep going. He knew what he had seen. There was someone else out there. He dropped the shotgun into his hand, narrowing his eyes.

“C’mon!”

Dean pushed forward, slower this time, looking around. For a few minutes, he kept moving, hearing nothing more than his own boots on the damp ground, the leaves crunching softly beneath them. A few minutes later, Dean stepped into a small clearing. He looked around and paused. He turned in a slow circle, the panic he had managed to shove down eking back in.

The perfect delicately-arched lines had appeared out of nowhere.

“What the hell?” Dean swallowed the panic clawing up his throat and closed his eyes. He took a shaky breath and opened them again.

The circle was still there.

Dean stared at the lines. The circle was flawlessly drawn with him smack dab in the middle of an obvious pentagram, cut in perfect, correct strokes. The grass inside was even flattened, like he was inside one of those crop circles from the hokey UFO shows. Dean’s eyes followed the lines, following them out of the circle where they continued…

Dean stopped breathing.

He was standing inside a devil’s trap.

“Okay, Mother Nature, you’re getting a little too accurate here,” he whispered, his voice trembling and he glanced up, suddenly more than ready to get back to his truck when he noticed all the trees in the forest had moved away. Miles away, like he was standing in the middle of a barren nowhere. His stomach dropped. “What the hell is this?”

Dean paused for a moment, his mind racing, his heart thundering in his ears, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. No way, he was definitely imagining this… he had to be…

“Yeah, screw this,” Dean said, forcing his head to stay clear, forcing himself to not freak the absolute fuck out like he really wanted to - amazed that he was able to push the choking fear in his chest down - and he turned, jogging back the way he’d come. He ignored how far the trees that seemed to be pushing further and further out kept going, closing his eyes and praying that things would right themselves when he opened them.

Jesus Christ, he was really losing it, what the hell-

Dean ran face-first into what felt like a brick wall and he cursed, his nose making an ugly crunching noise as he fell back onto the ground, rolling to his side to protect to himself. He felt something hot and sticky falling down his face and Dean opened his eyes, staring up in confusion at what he had just run into…

Nothing. There was nothing there.

“Goddamn it,” Dean said, touching his nose and hissing when he felt the hot mulch it had become. Dean wiped his nose, shoving some of the blood between his lips, the coppery tang too familiar. When he pulled his hand back, it was covered in blood. “Goddamn it, what the hell?”

Dean yanked himself to his feet, holding out a hand to feel whatever it was he had hit. He saw he was at the edge of the circle he had found and when he reached the edge, instead of going through it like he should, something stopped him.

The realization slowly settled in as Dean shoved his hand through the invisible barrier. It was like pushing through tar. Dean pushed both hands against the barrier, and nothing happened and the panic he’d been doing such a damn good pushing down suddenly pulsed through his body.

“No,” he said, his voice cracking and he looked around again. He was inside a devil’s trap. He was stuck inside a devil’s trap. No, this was all wrong, he should be out there… he wasn’t a fucking demon

The panic burst inside him.

“No!” Dean shouted, pushing against the invisible wall, his hands just stopping in midair. Nothing happened, he was stuck. “No, goddamn it!”

“Yes.”

Dean whirled towards the voice, his chest hollowing out.

“Sammy? Is that you?”

“Hello, Dean.”

Dean’s lungs were full of water as he tried to breathe. Sam was wearing the same thing he’d been wearing the day he jumped into the hole with Lucifer… the look on his face was the same he had worn that day, when the devil walked in his skin. Dean opened his mouth to speak - to question, to rail him about what the hell was going on - but nothing came out.

Because he wasn’t real. He couldn’t be.

Dean shook his head, stumbling away when he heard footsteps behind him.

Dean whirled around and came face to face with himself. Dean’s jaw dropped. His doppelganger was coated in blood and dirt, cuts and bruises decorating his skin like he had danced inside a meat grinder. A cold smirk decorated his face and Dean felt like he really was trying to breathe under water.

“Sucks, huh?” his doppelganger said, stepping away from him to indicate the devil’s trap. “Wondering what’s going on here, Dean-o?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, swallowing, ignoring the way his voice quaked. “Kinda wondering if I’m just knocked out in my truck actually.”

His other self smirked at him. “Always joking.” His voice was calm and amused. “The human mind is so interesting. It’s amazing what we can make ourselves believe when we really need it.”

“Am I supposed to know what that means, you handsome devil?” Dean asked, his throat dry and his words croaking out as he looked around, wondering how he would get out of this.

“I’m talking about this. What you’ve become,” his doppelganger said and he stepped in closer, his face contorted in malicious glee and Dean shivered at the look.

“You never left Hell, Dean,” Sam said behind him.

Dean turned to him slowly. “What?”

“You never left Hell,” his darker self continued and Dean turned in time to see him shifting into someone else… someone smaller, softer… blonder.

His eyes widened as Buffy stared up at him. She smiled, the scar on her face deepening and he felt a deep tug in his chest as he watched her.

It was her. He knew it was her.

A waft came towards him that was only Buffy. The singular scent that was only ever Buffy and Dean felt a mixture of disbelief and relief flood him when he realized he wasn’t just imagining her this time. She was looking at him, interacting with him…

Dean wanted to step up and yank her into his arms and never let her go…

“You never left, Dean,” she said softly and Dean choked on his next breath. “You tortured, you killed, you maimed… you killed yourself. None of this was ever real. Me, Sam. None of it was real because you never left.”

“What? But… no.” Dean didn’t feel the tears until one escaped and his mouth quivered as he watched her lips form the words, over and over again.

None of it was real?

No, she had been real. It had all been real, he was sure of it. Sam, Bobby, Buffy. Lisa and Ben. Hell, what kind of whacked mind came up with Dean 2.0 from 2014 crap? No, it had to be real. He wasn’t in Hell, he couldn’t be…

But…

What if he had never escaped? What if Cas had never ventured down there, what if it wasn’t even possible? What if there was no Cas? What if he was still torturing people, killing people, losing himself? What if this was some fucked up fantasy in his head to save himself… from himself?

She stepped towards him, her arms crossed, her face serene and she repeated, “None of it was real.”

“No, Buffy-”

“Dean.”

Dean jumped, spinning around again to find Sam gone and in his place another Buffy, her arms crossed.

He gaped.

This Buffy’s face was cold and gaunt as she stared at him, the circles under her eyes giving her a skeletal look, and she was dressed differently, covered head to toe in black. This one’s hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and the way she stared at him…

“No.” Dean shivered, frowning. He shook his head, closing his eyes. “Buffy?”

“Come with me,” she said, her voice dark.

“What?” Dean asked, turning to the other Buffy, but she was gone. Dean’s eyes danced around the small open space and saw the circle was gone; the trees were back in their spots. Dean touched his face; even the bloody, broken nose was gone.

He had imagined it all. Again.

“Damn it,” he mumbled, shaking his head when he heard a noise behind him. “No, damn it, you aren’t real. None of this is real.”

“Dean, turn around.”

He didn’t turn, feeling something like a vice starting to twist his chest into pieces as he closed his eyes. Her voice. It was hers; it was colder, emotionless though. Dark, but familiar… it was her.

Dean broke out in a chuckle.

“Man, Winchester, you know how to go off the rails like the best of ‘em,” he said loudly. His eyes locked on a piece of dead trunk laying a few feet away. He frowned at it, shaking his head before looking up at the sky. “Looks like I’m taking the trophy for biggest basket case home, huh, Sammy?”

“Don’t be a fucking idiot,” she said again from behind him and this time, she touched him. Dean jerked away when she gripped his shoulder, stumbling over his feet as he stared at her with wild eyes.

“What the hell?” he spat, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. She wasn’t disappearing. Dean closed his eyes, trying to make the image go away but when he opened them again, she was still there. “What the hell?”

“Dean-”

“Stop it,” Dean snapped, closing his eyes. When he opened them again, she was still there. “No, you aren’t real!”

She opened her mouth to speak before changing her mind, rolling her eyes and the movement was so perfect, so Buffy, that Dean stopped.

A shock of memories rolled through him… he had forgotten how damn beautiful she was. How much he had really missed seeing her scar, her eyes, her hooked nose… how much he had craved her smell. Even though she looked a hell of a lot worse than he ever remembered, she was… Buffy.

The urge to just step forward and fall into her arms swept over him, the same feeling that had been driving him for so long.

Dean screwed his eyes shit, slamming his palm into the side of his head. “No, goddamn it! Screw that Zachariah asshole!”

“What?”

“Fuck off,” he growled at the hallucination. She raised an eyebrow in reaction and crossed her arms, looking annoyed. Dean shook his head in disbelief before flexing his hands, wondering what he had done with his sawed-off. And then he remembered he hadn’t come entirely unprepared. Reaching into his inner pocket, Dean slipped out his handgun, cocking the hammer and holding it up to her face. She still didn’t go anywhere. “You aren’t real.”

“I hope you’re joking,” she said, not even flinching at the gun in his hand and Dean knew without a doubt that he was dreaming. This Buffy was too calm. His Buffy would have ripped him a new one. This one was in his head, he knew it. His finger itched on the trigger before he felt how badly his hand was shaking.

“You… you took Sam from me,” he said, his hold on the gun wavering. “I can’t see him at all now because of you.” He missed the confused look she shot him and he shook his head. “You… get the fuck out of my head. You are not real.”

She smirked. “I am real, you jackass.”

Dean frowned, shaking his head as she shifted positions, tilting her head and blinking.

And when she opened her eyes again… they were pitch black.

*

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