A/N: I tried not to write this. It simply wouldn't leave me alone. There are two versions of the tale . Spoilers for 'Scarecrow'. Meet Sacrifice!Dean and Darkside!Sam.
Warnings: Dark, sad, mean piece of mental flotsam. Not a deathfic. More like character... destruction , I guess. Losing Sam would kill Dean; but losing Dean would make Sam kill.
I stand here now, he lies in his place -
Cover the face.
--Robert Browning, After
Sam tries hard not to think about how easy murder is, now. And then he reloads.
The end of the world came the second week of April.
Sam returned to Burkitsville after a night of traveling, worried when Dean didn't answer his phone. He knew something was wrong. He'd reached a point early on the previous evening where stealing a car had seemed like a good idea, but the opportunity didn't present itself. He hitchhiked and hoofed it and had too much time to think.
The town was damp gravel and bracing April air, silver morning light on old growth trees as he walked the last mile in. He purposely didn't ask around about Dean. He wasn't sure what he was walking into. There was a scarecrow that stepped down off its own cross, and in no way had that gone unnoticed by the locals. Dean had shot at it, had taken something from it. In a place this small, this snug, the missing strangers and gunshots in the dark weren't trivialities. They knew. He walked through and he could smell it. There was a pagan god not just loose here but welcomed as well as feared. Whether it held them hostage or nested there from invitation, it would be part of the people. They were probably covering for it if they hadn't found a way to get rid of it themselves.
Which god it was didn't really matter to Sam unless the knowledge brought an idea of how to get rid of it. The pantheon was likely Norse, if he was right about the original settlers based on the complexions of their descendants. The area was Scandinavian in its roots. Sam could see that right away, in the way they named their streets, in the faces of the families who had obviously been there a long time. The bone structure and the lilt of their voices.
Dean had been clear about how the couple had been herded toward the orchard. Sacrificial offerings to a fertility god. Who would bother to search orchards, when it was obvious the nice local folks had already seen the strangers on their way?
Sam snorted to himself. Right.
If they were bound to the god, though, then they had to keep offering until there was nothing left to take. It was obvious they weren't interested in offering themselves. What did they get out of it? The place wasn't exactly thriving; it hung on, and Sam could tell that little had changed over time. The same signs, the homes turn of the century or older, maintained with scrupulous care but old nonetheless. Progress hadn't gained much of a foothold. Another tight knit community not interested in change, preserved under a glass dome of quaintness so that the rest of the world didn't encroach. They kept everything the same; and maybe that was enough.
Dean still didn't answer his phone. Even if the damn thing been destroyed, he would have -
Sam paused, looking around. A diner, the center of town. Had Dean broken his phone, he had no real reason to go out of his way to call; the big damn can you believe this moment had already happened. He'd told Sam about the scarecrow, the best part of the whole tale, and they had parted ways verbally. Dean thought Sam was on his way to California, and the page had turned. Dean would have figured out what to do with the scarecrow by now and would have moved on. It was what Sam wanted to believe. But his gut said otherwise, and where Dean was concerned, he couldn't let that go.
He had called the two closest hospitals and checked for Winchesters as well as a couple of their current aliases and found nothing. If nothing else, he would just circle around and see if the Impala was around. He'd check the orchard and see what kind of destruction his brother had managed to bring down. That alone would be worth something.
There was a guy sitting on the porch out front of the diner, watching him as he walked past. Sam found it easy not to make eye contact.
Not much to the place. Wood-shingled reticence with a veneer of age and tradition made the general store seem like the center of the place, and the gas pumps looked functional but only rudimentarily updated. When he looked further and saw the Impala parked in the shadows of an open bay door in the old garage beyond, he felt his heart drop. The hood was up. He didn't see anyone around. Without a pause in his stride, Sam flipped his phone open without removing it from his pocket and felt for the redial, knowing it was already set on Dean's number.
He heard his brother's phone ring from somewhere inside the car.
The anxiety somewhere in his stomach became genuine fear at the base of his spine. He walked for the car, unable to take his eyes off it, mind whirling with all the possible ways Dean had managed to get himself arrested or hurt. Not taken-to-the-hospital hurt. The possibility that Dean had been forced to leave his phone behind made Sam feel hostile in ways he only barely understood. He approached the car, something darkly rational in the back of his mind whispering warnings about how to play things if he wanted to know where Dean was without getting himself swept away in the machinations of whatever was really going on. A lifetime of approaching with caution, of knowing and waiting for the enemy to make the first move, kept his face mildly interested even though his heart hammered away.
He circled the car, keeping his hands in his pockets and leaning in to look in the windows.
His father's journal was on the passenger seat, intact. Dean's phone lay beside it.
Sam stepped forward enough to look under the hood. It looked as if the car was getting a cursory once over before someone decided what to do with it.
"Help you?" The voice was middle age and male, cautious and only borderline polite. The forced politeness of small town upbringing. Sam glanced up to gray eyes and hair, suspicion and crow's feet in a mechanic's jumpsuit.
"Nice car," Sam said, matching his tone to the man's almost exactly and keeping his shoulders slumped. Tall but harmless, just a boy. That's all he wanted to seem. "She for sale?"
"Not yet," the man said, coming to stand on the other side of the car from Sam. "Gotta fix her up a little. You a collector?"
Sam nodded a little, feigning good 'ol boy interest. "My dad's a collector," he said. "I always keep my eye out when I'm passing through places. On my way to spring break."
The man seemed to relax a little, taking Sam at face value.
"Pretty good shape for a '67," Sam said. "You the original owner?"
"Nah," the guy said. "Some guy pawned it off, traded up, said he couldn't afford the gas anymore."
Had the man been looking at him, he would have backed away. Sam was long fused and serene by nature, contained in all the right ways, something that came of knowing himself. The cold and coiled part slept long and hard until it was needed. Sam had needed it so little despite the things he'd seen and done so far, but right then it was the only thing left in his eyes; destruction for something other than to save or preserve. They had done something with his brother.
Sam pushed away, distantly hearing himself say see you later, not realizing how true it would come to be. He walked away knowing all he needed to know, intending to return for the car and the journal later no matter what he found. If he stood there any longer, he would be beating the truth out of the guy, locked up soon after and most likely hung out for the pagan god in the orchard. He had to go see the scarecrow, for himself, in the daylight. He would see the scarecrow and he would know more, maybe know the rest of it. It was possible Dean was still fine but put aside for something. Whatever it was would be final, based on the story he'd just been told. They were going to dispose of the car and hide the fact that Dean had ever been there. They were going to dispose of Dean.
The fact that the orchard was so prominant made perfect sense to Sam as he entered it; it wasn't on the outskirts. It was the focal point of the place. They'd built the town around it, in a way. Whatever lived there had made itself the heart of things, sunk itself into the land, tainted the trees and whatever fruit they bore. It needed the town and its people as badly as they needed it, symbiotic rather than parasitic. Sam looked at the trees as he passed. Braeburns, mostly, if he read the blooms right. Apples were the first tree that humankind cultivated. It fleetingly occurred to him that they were associated with choice in most myths.
The rows were planted curving in, youngest trees on the outside. They got older, more gnarled, as he worked his way in.
When he first saw it, the morning light made it seem like a vaguely humanoid collection of rags slumped loosely against its perch. Gray-black and soaked in dew, it seemed little more than a captured bit of overzealous decoration. The dark head hung at an angle of insensate supplication, and not even the hook in its dangling right hand could lend it more than a token hint of menace.
He came closer to look at it without any expectation. It still stood, meaning Dean hadn't had the chance to get to it before someone had gotten to him. Had he asked too many questions, made his intentions plain once he found out what was going on? He knew how blatant Dean could be, how heedless. He wouldn't think for a minute that anyone in the town would be quick or clever enough to get the drop on him, and with no one to watch his back, a pseudo-lynching wasn't too much of a stretch.
The morning light caught a glint of silver near the ragged right cuff as Sam circled; there was a hole in the cloth of the glove. Curious, Sam came close enough so that the hand, hanging at face-height, was more visible. He glanced up at the head, wondering if daylight was enough of a deterrent. It felt as well as looked inanimate; there was no indication that it was poised to strike, no undercurrent of a power waiting to swing the hook into one of Sam's eyes. Still, he let his own fingers hover just short of the torn cloth for a moment, unsure. Then he poked at the visible bit of metal, feeling the smooth chill of it, confused about why the creature would be adorned with something like a ring unless it was an amulet of some sort, something empowered to channel its -
Sam jerked his hand away when an agony of an idea slammed into place, a whoop of apple-blossom April morning air filling his lungs; then he moved again in a convulsion of shock, gripping the loose folds of the rotting glove and yanking it away. It fell away in a sodden heap, already forgotten in favor of the startling paleness of a human hand and the silver band on the ring finger. Sam took a full step away, startled into gazing around at the trees as if for help. The orchard was too loud, too bright, too large. He fixated on the ladder to his left, vacillating between a need for more proof and a cringing repulsion. He could feel the numbness in his hands and face that meant he was hyperventilating, but the ladder was already in his hands and he had it leaning up against a flat part of the cross and was several rungs up, the floppy brimmed hat flung away and a single tug bringing the stitch-mouthed mask back from the face. Strong jaw and full lips set in gray; slices of malachite gone opaque just visible beneath a sweep of dark lashes. Soft bronze strands cut short, cut close around the ears.
The bodies of the deceased are nothing more than final landmarks for the living.
They had made a placeholder of his brother.
There was a moment where he saw everything clearly, for the last time in a long time. A true crossroads stretched in front of him, showing him the choices he could make. There were only so many ways to respond. Sam's first response was the press of lips to a cold brow and an unfelt smoothing of the fine hairs at the nape.
Sam had found over time that his morals never withstood the peril of his family. The true tests came and went and he had always chosen whichever path would mean preservation of what he knew. He didn't judge that fact now that things had come to a point where preservation was out of his hands.
He didn't remember replacing the mask or descending the ladder. He felt the cold and damp waxiness of years of fallen leaves through his jeans as he fell to his knees at the base of the cross, a sudden unplanned descent, legs failing. All of him, failing. A grief that knew nothing about what the heart could take bent him double beneath the trees, forehead touching the ground, hands held open and loose against the earth, empty. Denial wouldn't come. Only final words, long dispersed from cell to cell by satellite, would surface. I'm proud of you, Sammy.
He meant to take it all down. This could not serve as Dean's final monument, and to leave him in place was a mockery. But he couldn't touch him again. He couldn't disrupt a cycle that had begun again, not while there was some sort of hope about when and why and how the stepping down occurred. The scarecrow would walk again if he left it alone.
He bypassed denial and considered sacrifice.
With dark came a new order.
He'd started with the load-bearing walls for points of ignition, at two a.m. The buildings with wood shake roofs were good starting points, too, but he needed one good large blaze to get most of the attention while he set several more potentially damaging fires. By the time they were noticed, they were out of control. He knew the buildings would come down and the inhabitants - they were no longer people, just monsters - would come into the open.
He'd been right.
He still found something obliquely amusing about the rifle against his shoulder - a Winchester. Fitting. No one had run at first, in the confusion, even when the first several fell in plain sight, men only. It was always a little hard to believe there was a sniper in your town.
He took the Impala back before he set the garage alight. The gas pumps made the most satisfying whump as they went up, splashing a hellish orange glow across nearby trees and against the garage. He drove away from Burkitsville without so much as a glance in the rearview.
He left the orchard untouched.
There were no further tears; they had been scorched out of him.
A year turned and the tumblers of Sam's memory brought him back to the same place. He knew by then that there was no elixir or exorcism that would reverse the damage done. Dean was not in a temporary state and would not emerge from the cocoon of tatters. He'd read and read and discovered that the name vanir might be derived from the Old Norse word vinr which meant friend.
Old Norse for brother was bróðer.
He'd been place after place, hunting, exploring, lying low. He finally lied to his father about why Dean's phone message was never updated. Dean is busy. Dean stepped out. You know Dean, that guy is always up to something. Sam didn't care that sooner or later he'd have to say something. Sooner or later is for choices that haven't been made yet. Sam has made all the choices he means to.
The first week of April, he returned to ground zero and saw that the place had been bulldozed. An occasional brick or charred timber was still all that remained; signs heralded the intent to build again. The orchard had begun to run wild, untended. The scarecrow stood in place, withered and weatherbeaten...waiting.
Oh, the waiting. Sam settled in, one town over, careful to stay out of the orchard after sunset.
The second week of April, the papers were full of missing people and the cross stood starkly empty. The cycle spun itself out and the ritual spilled over into the everyday world. The scarecrow demanded sacrifice, and Sam left him to it. There was nothing of Dean left under the tattered, mold-riddled coat. The choice had been made and the places were all held.
The third week of April, Sam kicked the cross down and burned the orchard, not knowing or caring what effect it would have on the shambling puppetgod that had run its final season in the dear, adored construct that used to wake him from nightmares. Not knowing why, he kept a sapling that had been growing at the base of the rune-scored and eldest of the trees.
He walked away into the light of the next day, a living and breathing monument to all he was too late to save.