It’s been a week now, that his brother has been lying at the bottom of the lotus pond. A whole week that Dean’s spent his days lying on the herbal lawn, steadily drinking whisky and staring at the flowers floating on the surface of the water that holds what’s left of his heart. He hasn’t cried since the day he’d sewn up the last stitch on Sam’s shroud, weighted it down with river rocks that had edged the pond. Lying there in the dappled sun, he thinks about what he’s lost in finally letting his brother go. Sam had extracted that promise about not bringing him back, and he’d kept it.
Out of all the promises to keep, why’d he kept this one? The tears finally start when he thinks about standing in Sam’s mind when he had been dying from the Trials, along for the ride as he and Gadreel convinced Sam to stay and live. Death himself had come to collect his brother, and Sam was going to go with him, until Dean had said those words. Well, Gadreel had said them, but they were what had always been in his core, unexpressed and hidden from the one person who had always needed to hear them. “There ain’t no me, if there ain’t no you.” The tears finally came remembering that instant of joy on Sam’s face. Had Sam remembered this too? He cried harder at the thought that he didn’t know and maybe never would.
He lost himself in thoughts and memories and only came back to the present when he felt the weight of a familiar arm around his shoulders and then a tickle at the trail of tears on his cheek. He reached up to wipe them away and an orange butterfly flew away from him for a moment, circling back and landing on his hand where the small smear of tears remained. It gently suckled them up and Dean wondered if this was the same butterfly from a week ago, the one that had done the same to Sam.
“You’ve got a thing for Winchester tears, huh?” Dean asked the butterfly, instantly feeling foolish and maybe a little on the edge of crazy. He was glad to feel the arm over his shoulders, just for the strange comfort of the familiar and impossible.
The butterfly paused at his words and seemed to look at him, examining him, tracking the movements of his eyes the most carefully. The thing seemed to begin to weigh more than it should, as much as the weight of the arm slung around his shoulder, and then so much more until Dean could barely hold his hand up. He lowered it down to rest on the lawn beside him and the butterfly stayed. It walked around in a small circle on the back of his hand, nimbly stepping over the hair. It tickled and Dean had to hold his hand steady and not flick it away. The butterfly folded up its legs and wings and settled down, its insect eyes still not leaving Dean’s face. It felt so damn familiar, almost like he was in a staring contest with Sam.
“So what, I’m supposed to believe you’re Sam or something?” Dean asked, the wind from his words fluttering the edges of the butterfly’s wings.
It didn’t answer, thank Chuck for small favors. He was losing it, but not completely. He’d stopped crying at least, so there was that to be thankful for.
“Thanks for interrupting my cry-fest,” Dean said, closing his eyes and letting himself drift. It was comfortable there on the soft herbal lawn, it smelled so damn good up close like this. He knew he was laying on it too much, but he hoped it would survive his period of mourning, however long that was going to last.
The butterfly seemed to shrug its little insect shoulders and then resettled itself on his hand, still staring unblinking at Dean. How did it seem even heavier now?
“If you’re not him, then maybe you can give him a message for me, huh? Tell him—tell him that I changed my mind. I wish I’d never kept my stupid promise to let him go.”
Dean would swear on all the priceless artifacts in the bunker that the butterfly rolled its compound eyes at him, all twelve thousand of them. “I mean it, I miss him, and need him back here with me.”
The butterfly took off then, the push it made on the back of his hand denting the skin with the force. It made a beeline for the center of the pond and hovered over the lotus pads that had gathered over where Sam’s body still lay. It began to fly in a tight circle, and then other butterflies flew in to join it, until there was a large group of them. Dean remembered the time that he and Sam had argued about the collective noun for butterflies, whether it was a kaleidoscope or a flutter, or just a swarm. Whatever it was, a group of the brightly winged things were flying faster and faster making a small maelstrom appear in the water of the pond below.
The lotus pads were pushed away as the surface of the water frothed and heaved. Dean sat up when he heard the muffled sound of rocks moving underwater. The white of Sam’s shroud began to show just under the water’s surface and then he could see it, the whole thing floating there, practically taunting him with how bad a job he’d done of burying his brother.
“Shit, now what?” Dean grumbled to himself, stepping out into the pond.
As he neared the floating shape of his brother’s body, he saw that it was moving in the area where Sam’s chest would likely be. It had to be the water moving it, or a fish caught up in the fabric. He took a few hesitant steps closer and reached out a tentative hand to grab ahold of the tablecloth. The fabric tore away as if it was so much wet Kleenex and he didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see what Sam would look like after a week in the water. But he heard a sound, a tiny gasp of surprise, and it was the butterflies that made him look. They swarmed in front of his eyes and led his head until he was pointed in the right direction. The group of them parted like a curtain and he was looking into Sam’s open eyes.
“Am I dreaming or what?” Dean asked, voice trembling with equal amounts of wonder and terror.
“I think I might be,” Sam said. “Can you at least help me out of this?” He struggled a little in his funeral wrappings.
“Thought you weren’t gonna haunt me, dude,” Dean said, pulling the remains of the tablecloth shroud away from Sam’s body, and helping him stand steady in the muck of the pond bottom. Sam was all big again, strong and healthy like he was back when he’d first found the garden. It was like the endless nightmare months of cancer hadn’t even happened.
“Don’t think it counts as haunting if I’m alive,” Sam said, grabbing onto Dean’s waist when he slipped on the rocks at the edge of the pond. Dean hauled him out the rest of the way and flopped back onto the herbal lawn.
“This is one hell of a dream,” Dean said, wanting to close his eyes and just keep the dream going as long as he could, but not wanting to miss a moment of seeing his brother alive and breathing right there next to him.
Sam pinched Dean’s bicep, twisting the flesh hard between his strong fingers. “This feel like a dream, Dean?”
Dean pinched Sam back in the same place, just as hard and he reveled at the feeling of Sam’s pond-cold skin warming up between his fingers. “Yeah, it does actually.”
Sam pulled him into a wet embrace then, wrapping his arms and legs around Dean, squishing Dean’s face down into his soggy flannel-covered chest. Dean held his breath, not sure what was happening, or why he was dreaming something like this. Maybe he should have cut out all the whisky. It wasn’t until he felt Sam’s lips moving against the skin of his ear, and heard what he was whispering that he knew it couldn’t be a dream.
“Chuck said to tell you that you’re wrong, you’re not on your own. You never are.”
Dean pushed himself out of Sam’s hold and looked at him, he really was here and alive. “So you were right about the lotus recycling you, huh?”
Sam’s hand landed on Dean’s cheek and it felt too cool for a moment, until he moved it, the skin practically igniting at his brother’s touch. “I thought you hated recycling.”
“Not this kind, obviously,” Dean said.
“So you missed me, huh?” Sam asked, a fleeting smile gracing his lips.
Dean shrugged, and knew he didn’t need to answer. “That why you came back? Just because I asked?”
“Maybe…I’m not really sure. I think I was always going to come back somehow, just didn’t know how or when it would happen.”
“Dude, were you really just an orange butterfly, or was I dreaming that part of this whole crazy thing?” Dean asked, searching Sam’s face, hungry for any expression, he’d missed all of them so much.
Sam rewarded him with a half-level bitchface that turned into a sly smile. “Let’s just say that we’re even on tasting each other’s tears, and leave it at that, huh?”
“Uh…you remember me doin’ that?” Dean asked, embarrassed down to his core.
“It’s the last thing I remember from—before,” Sam said in a slow dreamy voice, “That was a hell of a thing to go out with. Maybe that’s why I’m back.”
“‘m sorry,” Dean said, dipping his head with the weight of his embarrassment. That one impulsive gesture he’d made just a week ago couldn’t have been all that revealing, right?
“Not a thing to apologize for, and like I said, we’re even on that score now.”
Dean couldn’t take it any more, he gathered Sam back up into his arms and held him tighter than tight. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise about just letting you go, Sammy. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.”
“But you did though, Dean. I think that’s part of why I got to come back.”
“What are you talking about?” Dean leaned back a little so he could try and read his brother’s face, he wasn’t making sense.
Sam smiled one of his infuriatingly enigmatic Sam-smiles. “You let me go just like you promised, you even buried me where I asked you to. And you didn’t make any deals or sell your soul or bust open the gates of Heaven. You didn’t do any of that, you just let it happen like it was supposed to.”
“Oh, so what, you dying just got—poof—undone, just because?” Dean asked.
“Yeah, and the pond is maybe…uh, a little more special than I had let on,” Sam said, sounding a little tentative.
“Meaning what exactly?” Dean asked, wondering what the hell Sam had left out when he’d explained the garden and pond in the first place.
“The Men of Letters, when they built this place, well they didn’t just pick the spot randomly, right? There was something to the choice, and from some things I noticed in the garden logbook, I started to get the idea to look up their reasons. Turns out there’s a confluence of ley lines and a few other esoteric things that converge right out there.” Sam pointed to the middle of the pond, the spot where he’d just recently been buried. “It corresponds to one like it in several other places in the world, there was one in Florida, that was sometimes known as the ‘Fountain of Youth’.”
“You’re telling me the Fountain of Youth has always just been hanging out in our backyard here?” Dean asked.
“Pretty much, but it doesn’t always work the way it just did for me. That was a special case.”
“Story of our lives, right?” Dean asked, even though it wasn’t really a question for them. They’d never trusted the special cases exception, hadn’t counted on it, but here it had come through.
“I think it was a combination of a lot of stuff. Part of it was Chuck, part of it was what you did after I died, and the rest was how much I wanted to come back to uh…be with you.”
Dean tightened his arms around Sam and looked out at the pond, the sun reflecting almost as brightly as the flare of an angel’s grace. He didn’t know who he owed his thanks to, but he knew this one last chance with Sam wasn’t one he’d be wasting. He leaned down to press his lips against Sam’s, just before his words escaped him. He knew it was all changed and new, that it was their turn now. Dean kissed Sam desperate and wild with this knowledge, and his brother opened up to him with the calming beauty of the lotus flowers. Recycled, renewed, reborn together into a world where this was not only possible but inevitable.