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Fortress

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I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
                                                  ~T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

Prologue

He didn’t remember how long he had been in the World, or what had happened to trap him there. Everything was confusing and abrasive to senses accustomed to another Plane. He drifted from one body to the next, taking hosts like any demon -- using the flesh to keep himself anchored. He didn’t want to be anchored. But when he tried to sink into himself, to escape back to where he belonged, he was driven back, bound against his nature with grim-wards and seals. 

The voices were always whispering to him as he burned through host after host, struggling and fighting to escape, careless of the borrowed flesh that fit him like a cramped cage. The whispers never let up and never calmed down. Layers of sound, cajoling, pleading, commanding. Even when the hissed syllables eventually formed into words he learned to recognize, the words themselves had no value. Brother. Hunting. Family. Love.

He watched a street fight from the shadows of an alley, taking in each blow, each vivid, cutting emotion, and some of the whispers took on new meanings: Rage. Yes. Betrayal. Destruction. He knew these words, they meant concepts he grasped. His attention was caught and his struggles lessened; he started paying attention to the words and discovered that when he didn’t fight them, they came with images and sensations. Eventually he learned a new word. Sam. And quickly on the heels of that one: Mine.

Then one day he had enough pieces. And there was something he had to do.

Revenge.


~~~~~


Months Later...

Sam was shirtless and barefoot on the front porch when Ruby slunk out the door behind him into the cool night air, still buttoning her shirt. He was staring out into the darkness; the stars in the moonless sky and the dim shine of a table lamp through the windows of the house behind them gave just enough light to make out the shadows of the heavily warded fence posts bordering the yard. The slope past the posts angling down to a dirt road and scrub brush was completely lost in the night. Far down the winding road, a pinprick on the horizon marked the closest neighbor Sam had.

Ruby trailed a finger up the middle of Sam’s back from the waistband of his worn, low-slung jeans to right below his shoulder blades. He tensed at her touch; it made her smile as she stepped up beside him. She tried to find what had his attention, but the landscape was uniform in the darkness even to her vision, all of her heightened senses and more unnatural gifts stifled by the ward-line of the yard and the oppressive magics of the house to her back.

“What are you looking at?”

“There’s someone out there,” Sam said, still staring out towards the road.

Ruby raised one perfectly-shaped brow. “I don’t see anything.”

“Neither do I,” Sam admitted, frowning.

“I think you’re delusional,” Ruby murmured, stepping into his space and winding her arms around his waist. “All this isolation is making you crazy. You should get out and live a little.”

That snapped Sam out of his distraction; he scowled and pushed her away, wrapping his arms around himself defensively. “Don’t touch me.”

Ruby planted her hands on her hips and raked her gaze over his body with open appreciation. “I just finished touching a lot more of you than that, Sam.”

“Something I don’t have a choice in. When it’s my choice, you don’t fucking touch me.”

“You have a choice.”

Sam’s hazel eyes narrowed. “Is that where you want this conversation to go, Ruby? Because last time I checked, the only thing stopping Lilith from rending you into so many shreds of screaming smoke is the chance that you might manage to drag me back into the fold. I die, that chance is gone, and I suspect, since she’s a monster, that she will find great pleasure in taking her frustrations out on you. So are you sure you want to really tempt me to think of that as an option?”

Ruby’s eyes burned black as she scowled at him. “You won’t do it. Not as long as your precious Dean is still burning in the Pit. I’m sure there are still a few dark corners of the world left to explore that might have the information you need pry him out.” Sam's nostrils flared in anger and she smiled. “How’s that research going for you, anyways?”

“It would only take a little paint and an hour or two of work to erase the permissions that let you in this place,” Sam said coldly.

Ruby looked bored. “Which means that every few weeks, you would have to step outside your happy hidey hole to meet me somewhere else so I can touch you anywhere I like, and for you to touch me back, of course. You’d think this wouldn't be news to you after seven years.” He scowled as she continued. “And since we both know Dean will climb out of Hell before you walk past those fence posts...” Ruby shrugged. “Sorry if I don’t take your threats seriously.”

“We’re done here,” he said tightly, features pinched with fury.

“For now.”

His eyes darted over her shoulder and she turned to look one more time, exasperated.

“There really isn't anything there, Sam. The wards you've got around this place would stop the Second Coming. Maybe you should get more sleep,” she suggested as she stepped off the porch and into the spell that would sweep her away for another three or four weeks. Until he needed her again --her body, her blood-- to live.


~~~~~


Outside, in the darkness on the dirt road, below the silent crackling of the fence post wards and the steep, patchy slope, far beyond the dim light through the windows and the wooden plank porch where a tall man stood shirtless and shivering in the cool air, another man was standing, looking back up at the house. He had been completely still for hours, a shadow against the black, and all the subtle creatures of the night were careful to give him wide berth. He took careful note of the people on the porch and watched their argument with interest.

When the woman vanished into the spell, he smiled and said one word: “Gotcha.”

 

Chapter One

Blood runs thick and when it rains it pours down
On the family tree or the fields of war
I spend my time being broken hearted and grieving bound
I haven’t much need to look forward
                                      ~Devotion, Indigo Girls

Seven Years Earlier…

It had been three months, five days, seven hours and thirty-one minutes since it happened. In the back of his mind, the clock kept running, ticking endless seconds. Numbers burning behind his eyes; the first thing he registered in the morning, the imagery that haunted him to sleep. Three months, five days, seven hours and thirty-two minutes since his brother died for him, and Dean was still in Hell.

He had been numb when Bobby found him on the floor, kneeling in blood, cradling Dean’s corpse. Like a backdraft, there had been that first crushing blow of grief, then the true horror of his brother’s fate rushed over him, leaving only that numbness inside. It had lasted through their hasty escape, through Bobby finding a place to hole up, through washing the body.

His mind had refused to register it as Dean.

When Bobby started talking about burning the corpse, Sam adamantly refused. He was going to save Dean, and his brother would need that body when he came back. In retrospect, Sam was surprised Bobby had been willing to agree. But then, he had always treated them like sons; maybe he couldn’t bear to see Dean burn either.

His nails were still crusted with dirt from burying his brother when the numbness began to retreat and rage started to seep in. Sam was mad at everything. He let it simmer in his silence; he answered Bobby with nods or grunts and Bobby didn’t push him. Back at the salvage yard, still icy with April snow, Sam tore into Bobby’s library with deadly intent. He slept on the broken couch, unable to face the room he and Dean had shared as children, fingers stained with ink and face stained with tears he couldn’t find when he was awake. He devoured everything Bobby owned and still had no ideas. He packed up and left.

Weeks later, Sam still had no clues, but his rage kept him focused. He barely slept, and he knew he was losing weight. Nothing mattered except saving Dean, but as desperately as he searched, there were still no solutions. The crossroads demons no longer answered his summons, and he could find no book, no lead, no person who seemed to offer any direction. He spun in the same circles he had been trapped in before the deal came due, and only slept when the alcohol dragged him under.

Then, though she had been missing since the night Dean died, Ruby came back, and everything changed.


~~~~~


“Sam?”

“Bobby.”

“It’s been a while; I’ve been worried about you. There some reason you can’t pick up a phone and talk to me these days?”

“I’m talking to you now.”

“Yeah, well, it took you damn long enough. What have you been up to?”

“What do you think, Bobby?”

“Sam…”

“Don’t even start with me; I don’t need your help or your concern. Ruby and I have it under control, and after I’m done with Lilith, I will rescue Dean.”

“You and Ruby, Sam? The demon? That’s who you have watching your back now?!”

“Goodbye, Bobby. I told you, I know what I’m doing.”


~~~~~


They had been working together for months now, but no matter how many meetings they had, there was always something hypnotic in watching her approach.

She walked into the diner like a pop version of the Queen of Night. All long, dark hair and sultry eyes, carrying hints of jasmine and bubblegum with her. She crossed the room towards Sam, her crooked smile just for him. He felt muscles tensed for days slowly relax as she drew close.

“Hey, Sam,” she greeted, sliding into the booth across from him.

“Ruby,” Sam acknowledged. He slid his leg forward to brush against hers under the table and felt a rush of… almost happiness, when she quirked an eyebrow and reached across the table to touch his hand briefly.

“Miss me?” she asked.

“Only because you won’t stick around more than a couple of days at a time,” Sam replied, watching her pour half the bottle of ketchup into a saucer and drag his French fries towards her. “I could be making a lot more progress if you'd stop with the vanishing act.”

“And if I don’t keep an eye on Lilith’s movements, she might be up our nose before you’re ready to take her on,” she retorted, munching his fries.

Sam looked frustrated. “I’m never going to be ready to take her on at this rate!”

“Headache?” Ruby interrupted, derailing his train of thought.

”What?”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Yes," he said impatiently. "It comes and goes. Now--” Sam leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’ve been doing some research and I’m pretty sure I know where we can find a demon. If it's still there, but I'm tired of sitting on my ass wondering when you’re going to turn back up, Ruby.”

She rolled her eyes and stood, tossed a twenty on the table and walked toward the door. Sam stared after her for a moment, before hastily following with a mumbled thanks toward the waitress. He caught her at the door, but before he could ask her what the hell was up, she turned and slipped a finger through his belt loop, tugging him in close.

“Sounds like you’ve got our evening planned, but I notice the afternoon is still free.” The curve of her smile made his blood rush south. “Besides, if you’re going to be doing the heavy lifting, we should probably make sure you've got enough gas in the tank for the job.” She tilted her head and his eyes picked out the pulse in her throat; he felt a stab of desire for something that still made his skin crawl, but knew he would never refuse. Not when it gave him the power to achieve his goals, his vengeance for Dean. Retribution for every shitty thing that had ever happened to them in their lives. But that wasn't what he was thinking about when Ruby pressed against him, all of his attention riveted to the places they touched. She brushed a kiss against the edge of his jaw and Sam shivered at the promise in even that casual contact.

“Yeah,” he said, having to swallow hard before he could get the word out. “I suppose we have a few hours to kill.”

“Yeah,” she echoed, letting go of his belt loop and slipping her arm through his, leaning in against him so he could feel the warm length of her along his side. The only warmth he had been aware of since that night in Indiana. “Let’s go.”

 

Chapter Two

Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Though your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless
                                                        ~Heart With No Companion, Leonard Cohen

Wyoming in late August was warm and windy, the summer burn starting to shade into hues of golden fall, but Sam noted nothing that wasn’t a target, a weapon or a threat. When Ruby was with him, he stalked demons; when she wasn’t, he found other hunts to occupy his time, to keep himself sharp. Ruby promised he was almost ready, not quite there yet, but soon.

It had been a busy few days. He walked out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam, dragged on a t-shirt and boxers over damp skin then collapsed across his bed, grateful to get off his feet. The heavy bruising on his upper back from the poltergeist throwing him into the wall had turned an ugly greenish color. It wasn’t interfering with his mobility much, just hurt like a bitch. He turned his head to see the time. She was late.

“She isn’t coming.”

Sam had the gun ripped out from under the pillow and pointed at the stranger before the sentence was finished.

He felt unbalanced, not only by the fact that a stranger had appeared out of nowhere and was sitting in his motel room, but by the fact that what made him really want to kill him was that he was sitting on Dean’s bed. Dean’s bed. Jesus. It had been months and he was still getting doubles in motel rooms. He could ignore the obvious signs of his failure to deal most nights, but not when it was rubbed in his face.

“Who the hell are you?” Sam asked warily. The stranger looked like he’d just walked out of a nine-to-five, with his dark slacks and white button-up, blue tie crooked under a tan coat that hung almost like an afterthought from his shoulders. On the surface he appeared completely nonthreatening, but there was something about him that was making the hair stand up on the back of Sam's neck. A depth to the calm blue eyes that made Sam feel for an instant like reality itself was something fragile, something he needed to protect.

Something that upended itself with the next words out of the strangers mouth.

“I am Castiel, an Angel of the Lord,” the stranger said with all seriousness. Sam felt his lips twitch despite himself at the craziness of the situation.

“Of course you are. And I’m Rupert, one of Santa’s tiny little elves,” Sam said, deadpan as he tried to ignore the warning bells ringing frantically in the back of his mind. It was ludicrous. An angel? “Who are you really?”

“You are Samuel Winchester. Dean Winchester’s brother,” the stranger said slowly, with a puzzled expression. “I have never heard you called Rupert before. Is that how you wish to be addressed?”

Sam had lost all hints of patience at the mention of Dean’s name. Anger helped him shove the uneasiness away. “I’m tired, unhappy and not really in the mood to dig another grave tonight. But don’t think I won’t if you don’t start talking right now.” He tightened his finger on the trigger. “Who the hell are you?”

“I told you. I am Castiel, an Ang-”

“Yeah. Okay,” Sam said, cutting the stranger off. Whatever he was picking up from the guy, it still didn't feel like a threat -- even if his visitor had appeared out of nowhere. The stranger, Castiel, was still watching him with that serious, concerned expression. Sam was starting to feel ridiculous. The deep bruising on his back and shoulders was making holding the gun on the stranger painful. He sighed and let the hand with the gun fall beside him on the bed.

“Maybe we should start with something simpler,” Sam said finally. “What are you doing in my motel room?”

“I wished to speak with you. It would have been inefficient to be somewhere else.”

Sam could feel a headache coming on. And his skin felt too tight and achy. He needed Ruby, not whoever the hell Castiel was.

“She isn’t coming. Not tonight,” Castiel said, looking distant for a moment. “Maybe not tomorrow either. But soon.”

“Are you reading my mind?” Sam asked sharply.

“Not intentionally,” Castiel assured him. Which was in no way reassuring at all. “But you are projecting very… clearly.”

The guy had appeared out of nowhere in his motel room; Sam was willing to overlook the possibility of mindreading for the moment, in exchange for something more immediately important to him. “Where is she?”

“The battlefield is often obscured, but I made an effort to ascertain her whereabouts tonight. I wished to speak with you in privacy.”

“What battlefield?” Sam asked warily.

“This world," Castiel said simply. "The first Seal has been broken, and now Creation holds its breath waiting for the Apocalypse to begin. The skirmishing grows more intense daily to defend the remaining Seals.”

That was a language Sam spoke and his answer was almost automatic. "It won't get that far. Without Lilith, the demons won’t be able to break the last Seal. There won’t be an Apocalypse. We’re going to stop it. I'm going to stop it,” he added, voice low and intent.

Castiel leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and looked down as if the carpet was fascinating.

“We were not supposed to meet,” he said solemnly.

Sam crossed his own arms tightly across his chest, feeling unsettled and defensive by the strange twist the night had taken. “Then why the hell are you here? And don’t think I’m buying this angel bullshit.”

Castiel continued speaking as if Sam hadn’t interrupted. “I was given an important mission to fulfill. I failed. Because of that failure, many options have been closed to us. I am forced to appeal to you.” His eyes where they trapped Sam's gaze were very blue, very... deep. Sincere. “The fate of this world depends upon it, but I believe this conversation will go better if you believe in what I am.” He held his hand out to Sam, who eyed it warily. “Please. Time is short. I mean you no harm.”

Sam reached out slowly. His instincts were screaming at him, but the message was confused. As his fingers brushed over the stranger’s, the world exploded in a flash of blinding white.


~~~~~


When Sam came back to himself, he was on his knees between the beds, clutching his head with his hands. As his vision cleared, he saw the man, the angel, reaching for him and scrambled back with a cry until his back slammed into the dresser. He didn’t even feel the pain.

“I mean you no harm,” Castiel repeated patiently. Sam just stared, wordlessly. Castiel looked puzzled, but remained sitting on the bed. “You have a… relationship, with a demon. Your family has had many encounters with agents of Hell. Why do you find my existence so difficult to accept?”

Sam swallowed and licked dry lips. He didn’t think he could begin to answer that question, so he went back to the conversation they'd been having before Castiel had upended his world view. “What mission did you fail that would bring you to talk to me?”

The angel met his eyes directly. “I was sent to raise Dean Winchester from Hell.”

Sam was on his feet without even registering the movement. “You were sent to--” he began haltingly, stunned by the enormity of the implications. “Wait, you were sent to--” Sam settled for the most important part. “What do you mean you failed?

The angel almost looked remorseful. “I am sorry, Sam. Far more sorry than you can know. My orders were to raise Dean from the Pit and return him to his mortal body. It cost the Host greatly for me to reach into Hell at all. Your brother should have been in the Rendering, where almost all damned souls abide. I scoured the plane for him, and found many traces, but Dean himself was gone.”

“Gone,” Sam echoed, as he sank slowly back onto the edge of his bed. “So if he wasn’t in Hell, and I guess you would know if he was in Heaven… does that mean he’s back in the world?” A sudden flicker of hope.

“No,” Castiel said evenly, extinguishing that brief spark before it could catch hold. “Without the sort of intervention that is obvious, such as our attempt to rescue Dean, the only way souls leave Hell is as the creatures you call demons. And though he was subject to the worst that Hell has to offer, he has not been there long enough to undergo the transformation.”

“So then what?" Sam asked tightly. "Where is he? And, not that I don’t appreciate it, but why does Heaven care about Dean?”

“The infernal realm is known to your people by many names. It is not coincidental that one of them is the Pit. The depths of Hell are near fathomless, and only my Father can see them clearly. Very few souls, demonic or not, pass beyond the surface. Beneath that, the ways are winding and unknown to the Host. This is the domain of those consigned Below, and denizens that have forgotten themselves so much that they have become mere chords in the charnel winds.” Castiel lowered his head again. “We have… no ability to act there, Sam. For some reason, Dean has descended. He is beyond our ability to reach now.”

“No. No, that’s not right. You guys are angels, you work for God. How can Dean be out of reach?” Sam demanded in frustration.

“It is the way of things,” the angel replied solemnly.

“Fine," Sam said flatly. "I’ll just stick with the original idea and rescue him myself.”

Castiel met his eyes. “I don’t think you understand. Time in Hell is different than the time you experience here. For each month that passes here, at its surface, ten years may pass below, and the discrepancy only grows greater the further from this plane one travels. There is no way to know where Dean has gone, or how deep. It is probable that he has experienced centuries, millennia even, by now.”

“I don’t care,” Sam said. “He went to Hell for me. I’m not going to leave him there. As soon as this Lilith thing is over, that is the only thing I will be working on.”

“Samuel,” Castiel said gently, “you have met and battled demons; they are the product of the Rendering. Those that go Below, they are an entirely new category of creature. I’m not saying you should not rescue your brother, I am saying there is nothing left of your brother to rescue; not that you would recognize.”

“I don’t believe you,” Sam said thickly.

Castiel cocked his head to one side. “I cannot help what you believe. I speak the truth.”

Sam rubbed at his eyes. “You never said why you cared in the first place. Why Heaven gives a damn about my brother.”

“You are familiar with the Seals? What they are?”

“The locks on Lucifer’s prison. There are a bunch of them, and the demons have to break any sixty-six of them. Only the last one is specific. That’s where Lilith has to be. That’s where I’m going to stop her.”

Castiel nodded. "You know about the last Seal. What you don’t know is that the first Seal was also specified: ‘And the first Seal shall be broken when a righteous man sheds blood in Hell. As he breaks, so shall it break’.”

“Dean,” whispered Sam.

“Yes," the angel said, almost gently. "The Rendering is a terrible place, Sam. And Dean was there for a long time by mortal standards before the Seal was broken. We do not judge your brother for his actions there.”

“But why would that make you want to rescue him?”

“Because it is also written: ‘And the righteous man who begins it shall be the only person who can end it.’ We could not prevent the Seal from breaking, but we hoped to salvage Dean so that even if the demons manage to destroy all of the Seals, there would still be a chance of victory.”

“But you couldn’t save him.”

“No, Sam. I am sorry.”

Sam shrugged, rubbing at his temples. “You don’t have to apologize to me. I didn’t save him either.”

“You should not carry so much guilt for this, Sam. You had no say in the choices Dean made that led to this.”

Sam looked up, incredulous. “He went to Hell and started the Apocalypse for me. Now Lucifer might walk free and the world as I know it come crashing to an end, but I shouldn’t carry so much guilt?”

“They were not your decisions.”

“You still haven’t said why you came to me,” Sam prompted, trying to get back to the point of all this. “If it was to ask me not to try and rescue Dean, you’ve wasted a trip.”

“No. We do not believe that is a possibility, so there is no reason for us to act in that matter. Dean’s disposition has forced us to consider other ways to prevent what is coming.”

“Are you going to help me stop Lilith?”

“No. And you must take no actions against her either.”

“She’s going to break the final Seal. I have to stop her.”

“Sam,” Castiel said intently, “Lilith is the final Seal.”

Sam stared at him, the idea not even processing for a few moments. “No. No, she’s trying to break the Seals to free Lucifer.”

“Lilith is very powerful. She was the first of the Rendering demons, and the bond between her and Lucifer is very special. It is Lilith’s blood that will shatter the last Seal and free Lucifer from his prison. But Lilith cannot be easily killed. Only a special child born with the right potential, with the right skills and training, will be able to do it.”

Sam was still shaking his head in denial.

“Azazel was sent to see to the creation of such a child,” Castiel continued relentlessly, “a child who would have the ability to destroy Lilith.”

“You’re wrong,” Sam said flatly.

“I was sent to raise Dean from Hell so that he could deal with Lucifer.”

“Yeah,” Sam said shakily. “I got that. I don’t believe it, but I understand the words. I mean, I love my brother. And he’s probably the best hunter I have ever seen. But Lucifer?”

“We only need Dean to handle Lucifer if you free him in the first place.”

Sam was utterly silent.

“Azazel and Lilith together created you, and have bent all of their resources to making sure that you are ready at the appointed time.”

“I don’t take orders from either of them. And I don’t believe you about Lilith either. Ruby is helping me--"

“Ruby, the demon,” Castiel interjected, “is helping you prepare to kill Lilith to stop the Seal from breaking? Why would a demon help you thwart Lucifer?”

“She hates Lilith, she remembers being human, she doesn’t want to see the world burn. Pick one!” Sam rubbed at his temples again, trying to stop the pounding. “She’s helped me destroy dozens of demons, Lilith’s followers. She showed Bobby how to make bullets for the Colt. She’s teaching me…” His voice trailed off.

“She’s helped you destroy foot soldiers. Which number legions in Hell. The Colt is insignificant at this point. Only Lilith matters.”

“This… this isn’t possible. I don’t claim Ruby tells me everything, but she doesn’t lie to me either. This doesn’t make any sense.”

“It makes less sense than a demon joining sides with hunters?" Castiel asked. "Ruby was sent to make sure that you learn what you need to learn and show up at the appointed place; to keep anything from distracting you from your goal. She is working for Lilith. And Ruby, with Azazel and Lilith destroyed, will be the surviving demon who will have done the most to restore the Morningstar to his freedom.”

“That’s easy to say. But so far, all you have are words. You show up to tell me Dean can never be rescued from Hell and that Ruby, who has actually saved my life, and actually helped me, is working against me. You don’t have any proof.” No proof at all, but the coiling knot in the pit of Sam's stomach was less certain.

“Perhaps not.” Castiel paused. “Why did you start listening to Ruby to start with?”

“What?” 

“With your family’s history I am surprised you would converse with a demon at all. How did she convince you?”

“I… didn’t know she was a demon at first." Sam thought back. "She helped us out on a case.”

“And later, when you knew, why did you tolerate her?”

“She said she…” Sam’s voice trailed off as the memory enveloped him. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten.

“What did she promise you that made you keep going to her and taking her advice? That made Dean tolerate her.”

“She said she knew how to break Dean’s contract,” Sam almost whispered. “She said she could show me how to save him from the Crossroads deal.”

“And where is your brother now, Sam?”

Sam just stared.


~~~~~


Hours later, in the darkness, Sam twisted in the scratchy polyester of cheap motel sheets, wracked with fear and doubt. The angel, having spoken its piece, had vanished in the silence of Sam’s horror as abruptly as it had appeared, leaving Sam alone to consider its words.

He still wasn’t sure what to believe.

Ruby had been… really everything to him since Dean died. He had blown off Bobby and Ellen’s attempts to console him, and hadn’t spoken to either in months. Even Missouri had left a message on his phone -- however she had gotten the number, another lifeline he’d ignored. There wasn’t anyone else in his life who would care enough to try and reach him. Consumed by his need for vengeance, he had shoved them all aside, with Ruby’s staunch support, he remembered darkly. At the time, he had not wanted to face people who also had memories of Dean, people who would remind him of his own humanity. People who would care. Ruby had become his traveling companion, his mentor, and eventually even his lover. He trusted her absolutely. A demon. All of his focus was on getting stronger, getting faster, killing Lilith. Always killing Lilith. Anytime he faltered from pain or exhaustion, there was Ruby, grabbing his arm and reminding him he had to kill Lilith.

Sam rolled over, his head still pounding and his heart tight from his conversation with Castiel. He couldn’t even think about Dean now. That would break him completely. He had to decide what to do about Ruby. If he had failed his brother (the world) so absolutely that he was literally in bed with his enemies, he had to do what he could to make it right before he allowed himself the inner collapse he felt coming.

His whole body carried the dull ache he got when he went too long without her blood. The blood that made him powerful, that would let him kill Lilith. As Azazel’s blood had opened the door, so Ruby’s flung it wide. Azazel, Lilith... Ruby.

Dean.

 

Chapter Three

Remember everything I told you,
keep it in your heart like a stone
And when the winds have blown things ‘round and back again
what was once your pain will be your home
                                                   ~Everything In Its Own Time, Indigo Girls

Sam was sitting in his motel room with the lights off when he heard the knock on the door. Three days since Castiel's visit. Three days to twist in his own doubt and uncertainty, trying to sort truth from lies. He didn’t bother moving. A few minutes later Ruby walked in anyway, completely undeterred by the lock.

“What are you doing in the dark, Sam?” she asked quietly. Something major had changed between them and it filled the room with a tangible tension.

“Seems like I’ve been in the dark a lot lately, Ruby.” He leaned over and flipped on one of the nightstand lamps.

Ruby pushed the door closed and leaned against it, dark eyes wary. “If you have questions, Sam, all you have to do is ask.”

“No. No questions.” He smiled at her, tight and unfriendly. “I’ve just decided that I don’t want to be a part of whatever plans you and Lilith have cooked up for me. I hope that’s okay with you and all; not that I give a damn if it isn’t.”

“Sam, I don’t--” Ruby began, taking a step toward him with her hand outstretched. He threw his own hand out and she froze as the slight prickling of his power began to sink into her.

“Don’t you fucking lie to me, Ruby. I had a visit from a goddamned angel. So don’t you even dare try to lie to me tonight. And don’t you even think of getting near me again.”

Ruby dropped her arm, expression flat as she considered the situation, feeling Sam's resolve and his bitter sense of betrayal at a depth that left her little room to work. Honesty was usually a demon's refuge of last resort, but in a pinch... “That might be harder than you think, Sam,” she finally said, tone businesslike as she abandoned the flirty coaxing she usually turned on him to get her way. “The closeness thing, anyways. Not, you know, if you want to live and all. It would be a shame just to toss your life away. Not after everything big brother did to save it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Sam demanded angrily. The biting edges of his psychic grip tightened a bit, but his anger cost him focus and he was exhausted in deep places the dark allure of Ruby's blood usually filled. Destroying any demon was likely beyond him, but he could still make her hurt.

“Maybe you should explain more clearly what you’re talking about first, Sam. You’re the one having the meltdown. I just showed up.” She strode over to one of the beds and perched on its edge, a picture of unconcern, but tense beneath the rippling edge of his rage.

Sam lowered his hand slowly, letting the power dissipate. “He said Lilith is the final Seal, Ruby. You’ve been so helpful, making me strong, keeping me focused, and all of it to betray everything my family has fought and died for. What my brother died for. You have anything to say about that?”

“It’s your destiny, Sam,” Ruby said with a maddening little shrug. “There isn’t anything you can do to escape it. I just thought I could make things a little easier for you if we did it my way.”

“Oh, God,” Sam breathed, like a prayer. “It’s true.”

“God, Sam?” Ruby stood up and paced, agitated. “Where was God when your dad was making deals with demons to save your brother’s life? Where was God when Dean was being ripped apart by Hellhounds? When the Hell Gate was opened? When the first Seal broke? At every Seal, the angels are getting their collective asses kicked!” She stopped in front of him and leaned down, her arms braced on the sides of his chair, close enough that he could taste the sweetness of her breath. “Face facts, Sam. God doesn’t care about this world anymore, if he even exists at all. But we have a god too, and he will reward his faithful when we free him from his unjust prison.” Her eyes were earnest, imploring. “He will be so grateful, Sam. Anything you want will be yours. Dean, freedom, the world. Anything.”

Sam’s turned his face away. Ruby leaned in until her lips almost touched his ear, breath hot against his skin when she spoke.

“And all you have to do, Sam, is kill Lilith. The evil bitch who had your brother dragged to Hell. And you win.”

She stepped back, giving him room to breathe. Sam still wouldn’t look at her.

“I want you to leave, Ruby.” He swallowed, his knuckles white where he clutched the chair arms. “I want you to leave and never come back.”

She frowned and crossed her arms. “I leave, you die. That's not gonna happen.”

Sam lifted his chin, too heartsick to even manage a glare. “I got along just fine without you. And I think I’ve had more than enough of your fucking help.”

“Come on, Sam. You don't think you can just walk away from this, do you? Your little withdrawal symptoms when you haven’t had any of my blood in awhile? Those are fatal if you go long enough.”

“No,” he whispered.

“I wanted to trust you," she continued, "but Lilith thought we needed something a little more... binding. Looks like she wins this time. It wasn’t that easy of a spell to set either, and man,” Ruby laughed, “I thought I was a witch? You wouldn’t believe the crap Lilith can dream up. This one is all sex and blood, and it’s deep, Sam. You can’t set a spell this deep without the target’s permission. It goes down to your soul.”

“I never gave you permission to cast anything on me!” He jumped up and took a step towards her, but stumbled and caught himself on the edge of the bed.

“Sure you did," she said, watching him. "I offered you sex, and you accepted. That gave me the first hook, and once you were all comfortable with that, I offered you blood, and you accepted that too. Spell set. I mean really, Sam,” she said, holding up her hands in a pacifying manner. “You knew I was a demon, demons make deals. This one may have had a little less discussion around it than most, but I gave you sex and power. Did you think that was for nothing?”

Sam sank back into his chair, almost shaking with anger. “What does it do, this spell?”

“You’re addicted to me.” Her smile held a thin, satisfied edge. “It’s a trinity of elemental ties. Sex, blood, power; the unbreakable chains of Hell. You have to drink some of my blood every so often, and when you do... Well, I think we’ve been at this long enough for you to have a good grasp on what comes next. Or maybe who.”

Sam put his head in his hands.

“Get out, Ruby. I don’t ever want to see you again.” He sounded totally defeated.

She sighed. “You don’t mean that, Sam. I just explained that you can’t walk away from me.”

“Or I die?” He raised his face to look at her. “You really think I wouldn’t rather die than help you free Lucifer into the world?” he asked incredulously.

“Not like this, Sam,” she said seriously. “You don’t want to die like this.”

“It can’t be worse than what Dean faced.”

“It can be a lot slower,” she snapped.

He laughed without humor. “The only reason I don’t just destroy you on the spot is that I actually can’t right now.”

“You’ll change your mind, Sam.” Her eyes were only human dark, but sharp as she watched him. “When the pain starts to really set in, you’ll change your mind.”

“No, I won't.”

She shrugged and walked to the door. “You have my number. I’ll be waiting for your call.”

 

Chapter Four

i said darkness into darkness
all the carnage of my journeys
makes it harder to be living
he said it’s a long road to be forgiven
                                        ~Chickenman, Indigo Girls

The slam of a car door startled Bobby out of a sound sleep. Cars even getting close to the yard should have woken him, but since the news about Dean, he’d been throwing back a few more than he probably should. Good way for a hunter to get himself dead, but sometimes pain had to be dulled. As many months as it had been, though, it was maybe time to start thinking about putting the bottle back.

Bobby wrestled his clothes on, slid a large silver blade into the back of his pants and headed for the front door, grabbing a loaded shotgun off a table along the way. Through the window, he could see the Impala cooling in the pre-dawn air and frowned. Sam had been pretty damn clear about how much he wanted Bobby’s help last time they had spoken --not at all-- right before he vanished with that demonic bitch. Nothing but rumors had surfaced of the boy since then. He certainly hadn’t bothered picking up his phone.

Bobby opened the door slowly. Sam was leaning heavily against the porch rail, Rumsfeld at the end of his chain whining and wagging for all he was worth. He couldn’t see the boy’s face, but he wasn’t standing like he was well.

“Sam?”

“Hey, Bobby,” Sam answered, sounding exhausted. He was looking down like he couldn’t even manage to lift his head, leaving his face shadowed from the security lights. “Didn’t mean to crash in on you, I just... didn’t know where else to go.”

Bobby took a few steps closer and could see that the hands gripping the rail were trembling.

“You bring the demon with you, Sam?” Bobby asked warily, scanning the yard.

“No.” Sam gave a breathless laugh. “We, uh, had a parting of ways.”

“You finally notice she was from Hell?”

“Yeah, something like that.” He swallowed and looked at Bobby, the movement slow like it was taking great effort. “Can I grab your couch for a few days? Not feeling so well.”

Which must have been an understatement. He looked half dead, or more.

“Jesus, Sam. What the hell have you been up to?” Bobby demanded.

“Little of this, little of that. Angels, demons, burying my brother. You know how it goes.” A shuddering breath. “I’m not actually sure how much longer I can stand here, Bobby. It’s been a rough couple of days. Either let me in or tell me no so I can go crash in the car.” Sam’s knees buckled and his grip on the rail slipped.

Bobby cursed and grabbed for Sam before he sank onto the porch. From the way Sam looked, if he went down, it wasn’t either one of them that was going to get him back on his feet. Bobby got a shoulder in Sam’s armpit and an arm around his waist.

“Sam, c’mon now. Just a few feet to the couch. If you can make the stairs, I can stuff you in a real bed.”

Sam didn’t respond, but did what he could to support his own weight. Which wasn’t really enough for Bobby’s aching joints.

“I don’t suppose it occurred to you to give me a call before you showed up here and scared me half to death, did it?” There was no reply as Bobby maneuvered them through the cluttered house. Together, by some miracle, they managed to get Sam's stumbling weight up the rickety old steps and into a bedroom at the top of the stairs. He eased Sam down onto the ancient twin mattress and stepped back.

“Sorry,” Sam mumbled. “Remembered how much you said you liked surprises.”

It took Bobby a moment to even remember the question he had asked, he was so relieved to not be hauling Sam’s practically dead weight around anymore.

He eyed his unexpected houseguest critically. Sam had flopped one arm over his face to shield his eyes from the overhead light.

“I’m gonna get you something to drink; you have any injuries that need to be looked at before you pass out?”

The vague noise Sam made sounded negative, so Bobby went to get a glass of water.

Holy water to be sure, but it was still wet.


~~~~~


“Sam.”

“No, Bobby.”

“Sam, have you really thought about this?” Bobby asked from the kitchen doorway.

Sam was sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall. Stacks of Bobby’s occult books surrounded him; one thick, dusty tome spread open on his lap. He was so weak, he couldn’t stand on his own without leaning heavily on something, and was wracked with tremors. It had been two days since he had showed up on Bobby’s doorstep. Sleep had helped shore him up a little, but his condition was still obviously deteriorating.

“Have you really thought about it, Bobby? About what you’re asking me to do?” Sam asked without looking up from the pages.

“I’m not asking you to do anything, boy,” Bobby huffed, exasperated. “I just want to make sure you’ve really considered all the angles.”

Sam looked up, irritated. “What angle do you think I’ve missed in this, Bobby? The part where I drink a demon’s blood, or the part after that where I have sex with it?”

“You didn’t seem to have any problem with that before you found out the Hell-bitch was, to everyone’s wild surprise, lying to you!” Bobby snapped.

Sam flinched.

“I can’t do anything about the past, Bobby. God, don’t you fucking think if I could change the past, I would?” He slammed one hand onto a stack of books and watched them scatter across the floor.

Bobby took a deep breath. “All I’m saying is that Dean died for you. He went to Hell for you, Sam. For his brother. So you could live. And now,” Bobby sighed, “now, I don’t know. It seems like you’re just going to throw that away because you’re feeling a little… betrayed.”

“What part of ‘she’s working with Lilith to make me break the last Seal, free Lucifer, and kick off the Apocalypse’ are you not getting here, Bobby?” Sam asked incredulously.

“She tried to use you, boy. Use her back!” Bobby stepped over the books and sank onto the low couch. “You know what her game plan is now; as long as you don’t let her call the shots or listen to a damn thing she says, you should be able to come to some sort of arrangement.”

“Why in the world would Ruby agree to any deal like that? She was driving me to hone my skills so I could kill Lilith. I can’t imagine she’s going to hang around bleeding for me if she’s not getting anything out of it.”

Bobby smiled slyly. “Demons are nasty roaches. And if a roach is good at any anything, it’s surviving. You said that right now you were the only person even close to being able to break the last Seal, and Ruby slipped up and lost you. I can’t imagine Lilith is any kind of pleased with her for that.”

Sam nodded slowly, staring distantly at the far wall, a glimmer of a plan forming in his mind, but he squashed it abruptly. “It’s not enough, Bobby. This is the fate of the world; I can’t gamble that I won’t slip up and do something even unconsciously that will help her. We are talking about the Apocalypse.”

Bobby snorted derisively. “Nice to see your humble nature is reasserting itself. The fate of the world? The Apocalypse? C’mon, Sam. You said yourself that in a few years they will have figured out what ol’ Yellow Eyes was up to and be raising a whole new crop of baby psychics to use. At worst, you speed the process up a bit.”

“At worst, I free Lucifer!”

“Meanwhile,” Bobby raised his voice over Sam, “you could be working on a way to stop them. Working on a way to get some of your own back for what they’ve cost your family. To make sure some of those doomed kids actually get to live normal lives. No one else is in a better position to do that.”

“A way to free Dean,” Sam added softly, looking back down at his lap. He missed the grief that washed over Bobby’s face.

“Yeah, Sam. A way to help Dean,” Bobby agreed quietly.

Sam raked his fingers through his hair. “I need some time. I have to think about it, Bobby. What you’re suggesting... it’s not a simple thing.”

“I know that, Sam. If the situation was really as you say, I’d be handing you the knife and wishing you bon voyage, probably. But your dying doesn’t change a damn thing right now, just gives us a few more years. Alive, you might be able to make a real difference, help us find a way to get out from under Lucifer’s boot before he puts it across all our throats.”


~~~~~


A few days later Bobby stomped into the house, making sure to give anyone inside plenty of warning he was home. The door was locked, but the Devil’s Trap inside the entrance had been altered. One side of the circle had been scraped off, and carefully redrawn in chalk. He made a note to fix that later. Or if it was going to be a regular thing, at least find something more durable than chalk to hold them over in the meantime. He found Sam in the kitchen, up to his elbows in soapy water and dishes.

“You don’t have to wash all those; they’ve been piling up longer than you’ve been here. Maybe longer than you’ve been alive,” Bobby said dryly.

Sam waved one soapy hand in his direction without turning around. “I don’t mind. Needed something to do.”

Bobby eyed him critically. Standing at all was an improvement, and there was no sign of the shaking or pain. “Company all gone?”

Sam's shoulders stiffened, but his voice was easy enough when he replied, “A few hours ago.”

“You’ve not washed enough dishes for it to have been that long.”

“I took a nap for awhile.”

“So I take it everything went… well, then,” Bobby said cautiously, sinking onto one of the kitchen chairs. Sam nodded.

“She wasn’t happy, but I think we reached an agreement.” He rinsed his hands off and grabbed two beers from the fridge before joining Bobby at the table.

Bobby accepted one of the cold bottles and raised a brow. “Well, don’t sit on the details, spill already.”

Sam’s smile was grim but pleased. “She gives me what I need to stay alive, and I don’t go out of my way to die. Apparently, Lilith was pretty unhappy with my change of plans. I get the impression the only reason Ruby is still around at all is on the off chance she can lure me back.”

“Told you,” Bobby grunted.

“Seriously, though, Bobby," Sam sighed, "I’m not safe here. This thing with Ruby has bought me a little time, but she’s going to get bored sooner or later and then all bets are off. The only way she’s going to worm her way back into Lilith’s good graces is to deliver me on a plate. There isn’t anything Ruby can say that will make me work with her, but I can’t promise...” Sam drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I don’t know what will happen if Lilith or some of the other demons get their hands on me; I don’t know how far they can twist me. Every minute I’m alive puts the world at risk.”

“Sam--”

“It’s true, Bobby,” Sam said flatly, cutting him off. “It’s true and you know it.”

“There has to be some other answer.”

Sam drummed his fingers nervously on the table. “I may have an idea. I need to think through it a little more, and then make some calls.”

“Am I gonna like this plan of yours?”

“I’ll be alive, out of Lilith’s reach, and in a position to work towards trying to fix some of this mess.” Sam’s smile was a little more genuine than his earlier effort. “Most importantly, I won’t be squatting in your basement anymore.”

“Well, I won’t say I’ll be sorry not to be hosting demonic booty calls anymore,” Bobby said dryly, “but you don’t have to go, Sam. We can work something out.”

“No,” Sam said firmly. “If I’m going to do this, it’s going to have to be my way.”

 

Chapter Five 

i was on the road to Austin
met a man on the highway
he sold me junk and conversation
he was wise and dirty from the weather
                                                ~Chickenman, Indigo Girls

A week later, Bobby was casting bullets in the living room when Sam came upstairs for the first time in three days.

“You’re turning pasty white. A few more days and I might mistake you for a vampire,” Bobby greeted him.

“I put the dishes in the kitchen. Thanks for bringing the food down.”

Bobby grunted and continued fiddling with the mold. After a few minutes, Sam hadn’t said anything more and Bobby looked up to see him still standing in the doorway, watching him. “You want to grab a seat and help, or just keep blocking the good light?”

Sam moved to a rickety stool on the other side of the table and picked up a bullet absently. “Silver?”

“Werewolves seem to be running in packs a ways up north. Can’t go help myself, so this is the next best thing.”

“Can’t go help because you don’t want to leave me alone here.”

Bobby eyed Sam critically for a moment, then turned back to his work. “I think suicide is a bit premature at this point; doesn’t mean I trust the wards around this place to keep your fan club from dragging you out through a wall while you’re taking a shower.”

Sam nodded in understanding.

“You would have to prepare a place from the bare ground to the rafters and all through construction to get that kind of safety,” Bobby muttered, focusing his attention back on his work.

After a few more minutes of silence, Bobby dropped the mold with a clunk and turned to face him directly. “You got something on your mind, Sam?”

Sam hesitated, then spoke in a rush. “I need you to go get something for me, Bobby. It shouldn’t take more than two or three days. I can stay in the panic room the entire time.”

“This have something to do with all the phone calls you’ve been making?”

“Yeah. I need some of Dad’s stuff from the storage lock-up.”

“His hunting stuff?”

“Some of it,” Sam hedged.

“Mind if I ask what for?” Bobby asked dubiously. “I don’t recall him having anything in there that would make a dent in a demon. ‘Less you hit it over the head, I suppose.”

“It’s what you said about not being safe here--”

“You’re safer here than anywhere else I know of!” Bobby snapped.

“--because there is only so much you can do to secure an existing structure,” Sam finished.

“What are you thinking?”

“Something Bela said during that mess with the rabbit’s foot got me thinking. The biggest problem with just building a secure place is that it would cost an obscene amount of money. Hunters don’t have that kind of cash; certainly, I don’t. But Bela made a killing buying and selling what she could swipe.” He paused; this was the part Bobby wasn’t going to like. “I’ve got access to an entire collection of relics and charms that I certainly won’t be using in the field. I don’t have to steal them, I just have to find buyers for them.”

“Most of that stuff your Daddy locked up is damn dangerous, Sam.”

“Most of it," Sam agreed. "But there's plenty there that’s perfectly fine to be out in the world. Dream-catchers, divining rods, collections of herbs and all sorts of crap that isn’t doing me any good.”

“It could do other hunters a lot of good, if you’ve a mind to get rid of it,” Bobby said darkly.

“Keeping Lilith from being able to use me to free Lucifer will do other hunters a lot of good too,” Sam said pointedly.

“You got me there,” Bobby admitted.

“I’ve made some calls. The amounts of money out there for even piddling junk, Bobby,” Sam shook his head in disbelief. “I can afford to build myself a castle ten times over.”

“So you want me to go pick up a trunk full of the most benign of the lot and let you hock it on eBay?” Bobby raised an eyebrow.

“Pretty much.” Sam put the bullet down and flattened his hands on the table. “In between calls, I’ve been doing research. I think I can build a house that will keep out almost anything, especially anything demonic.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know yet. And I also don’t know how I’m going to be able to do what needs to be done during construction when I have to live in your basement. When I was thinking this up, I never imagined that cash would be the least of the problems!” He slumped a bit, staring at the bullet.

“You need to hire someone who knows about what’s really out in the world to do your scouting and your building for you,” Bobby mused.

“That would be nice, but I don’t know any hunters in the construction business.”

Bobby gave him a look. “Good thing we aren’t just limited to what you know, now ain’t it?”

 

Chapter Six

I got the hangman, I got milagro
I got the celebration too
Your flesh is strong, my spirit’s stronger
So shed your skin baby, let it through
                                            ~Shed Your Skin, Indigo Girls

Seven Years Later…

The bar was smoky and crowded; the heavy smell of cigarettes accented by the higher notes of a good amount of weed. People were pressed in against the bar, laughing, talking and calling orders. The pool tables were bordered with quarters and the classic rock coming through the speakers melded everything into an indistinct buzz of human sound.

The woman he was looking for was easily picked out of the crowd. Among the Friday night floozies with their tight clothes and their low-cut shirts, she stood out. Beautiful without any effort, and carrying herself with an air of sensuality that caused every guy in the bar to give her a thorough look-over. She wasn’t actively shielding herself, wasn't expecting any trouble, so his subtle pull --here, here, here-- didn’t set off any alarms in her mind. Just an easy, low-key compulsion. One she wouldn’t even notice if she was otherwise engaged.

Her night must have been slow, because it wasn’t five minutes after he started projecting that she sauntered through the back door and into an alley lit only by a flickering streetlight on the corner, and the occasional flash of headlights turning in the parking lot beyond the chain link fence at the far end. They were alone in the squalid gloom. He barely let her clear the door before he grabbed her by the throat with one hand and slammed her into the brick wall.

She gasped in shock when she saw him, both of her hands clutching his wrist, the tips of her boots barely brushing the trash-littered pavement.

“Ruby.” Dean flashed her an icy smile, eyes flooded black. “I wanted to thank you for all the help in getting me out of the Crossroads deal,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Gratitude we should discuss somewhere more private.” He pitched her through a boarded up doorway on the other side of the alley and into the back area of an abandoned store. Before she could get back to her feet, he dragged her up by the jacket and shoved her a little further in. Ruby felt a sharp tug at her waist, but wasn't able to stop him from relieving her of her knife before she was falling free of his grip again.

Ruby landed on her knees on hard concrete, in the middle of one half of a chalk infinity loop lined with unfamiliar ritual work, coughing and trying to repair her crushed windpipe. She didn’t need it to breathe, but talking was another matter. Dean paced around her, an ominous presence that felt odd to her senses. That he was a demon, she couldn’t dispute, but he felt... strange. Like his anchoring to the plane was weaker than it should be for an embodied demon.

“Nice meat-suit. Where’d you dig it up?” Ruby asked, trying to hide her unease as she looked around. “I hope it didn’t cost you too much.” 

“This old thing?" Dean swept a hand across his chest as if brushing off dust. "Nah, got it off the clearance rack. You’d be amazed what kind of deals you can make if you know the right people.” He smiled down at her, green eyes bright. To a random stranger, there was probably nothing in his demeanor that would give him away as other. But Ruby had spent months shadowing and studying him and his brother. To her, his was a disjointed mask. A restless, shifting something beneath a thin veil of humanity. The absence in his eyes was disturbing, and she tried to shift out from under his scrutiny -- only to slam into the edge of the loop like it was a solid wall.

“Problems?”

“What do you want with me?” she demanded, braced for a fight.

“I don’t want anything with you, Ruby.” He walked a few feet away and stood in the other half of the loop. “But you do have something that belongs to me. Since I'm here and all, I’m sure you won’t mind if I just take it back.” He crouched with a piece of chalk he pulled from his jeans and muttered under his breath, sketching sigils around his half that mirrored the ones trapping her.

“I don’t have anything of yours! Sam has all of your stuff.” Mention of his brother’s name caused him to pause for a moment, but he quickly went back to drawing. Ruby slammed one frustrated hand against the magical wall, and landed on her ass when the force recoiled back onto her. She glared at Dean, but made no move to stand again.

“Don’t get your panties in a twist. This part isn’t going to hurt.” He tossed the chalk outside of the ring and rested his hand against the invisible wall, leaning into it gently until it caught his weight and stood firm. 

"What part will?" she asked warily.

"How about we just save that surprise for later? When I don't need you in one piece anymore."

“What do you want from me, Dean?” she asked again, trapped for the moment and biding her time.

“You’ve got a leash on my brother, Ruby," Dean said casually. "You have him all tied up in knots with a blood bond. It just so happens I have plans for Sam, so I’m going to take it off you. I’m sure you understand.” He pointed to the delicate tattoo that was just barely visible on the skin between the waistband of her skirt and where her blouse had twisted up when she fell.

Ruby stood back up slowly. “You’re dreaming, Dean. This spell can’t be removed, no matter what tricks you think you have.”

“Who told you that? Don’t you know you can do anything with enough will and motivation?” He smiled, sharp enough to cut. “And trust me, Ruby, I’ve got both in spades.”

“Even if you could remove it,” Ruby said hastily, not liking the way some of the sigils had started to glow faintly, “it’s not just the blood, there's sex too. With Sam. You remember Sam, right, Dean? Six-something, hazel eyes, messy hair, your little brother? You don't want this spell.”

Dean gave her a disgusted look. “I just spent a few thousand years exploring different vacation spots in Hell, courtesy of you and your friends.” His voice was cold. “You can’t imagine a little thing like incest would even slow me down now, not when I have so many things I want to do to properly demonstrate my appreciation.”

“What about Sam, then?” she asked in a low voice. “How fine do you think he’s going to be with the situation? Rescuing you from Hell is the only reason he’s been willing to put up with me at all. And now this? He’s going to off himself the first chance he gets.”

“Sammy’s a big boy now, Ruby. I’m sure once I explain things to him, it won’t be a problem.”

“Things? What ‘things’ have you got to explain, Dean, that are going to make him okay with sharing blood and sex with his dead brother?”

“Well, for starters, I’m going to explain that I’m a demon who has the names and locations of almost every person he's ever known, including most of his Stanford buddies and half the hunters in the Northern Hemisphere. After that, I’ll get creative. Now shut up, I'm busy.” He closed his eyes and the sigils flared up in a blinding light; his chanting was lost to peal after peal of Ruby’s piercing screams as the magic flayed the spell from her spirit, leaving gaping wounds in its place.

After an eternity of pain, the light vanished and with it the chalk lines and barriers. She collapsed on her side and gasped.

“I thought you said this wouldn’t hurt,” she hissed when she could speak again.

Dean looked up from examining a lacework of black now spidering up from beneath the waistband of his jeans to eye her dispassionately.

“I lied. Demons do that, you know.” He straightened and walked towards her. “I didn’t lie about what comes next, though.” She tried to scoot away, but injury slowed her. He twisted his grip in the front of her jacket and dragged her upright again. “You can make everything a lot easier by answering a question or two.”

Ruby licked blood off her lips and eyed his grip on her warily. She thought about just leaving the body, but gathering information was what she did, what made her too useful to kill, and if Dean was feeling talkative... “What questions?”

“You’ve been inside the house. How do I get in?”

She looked at him like he was an idiot. “You have the spell; you just walk in.”

“Just like that?” His grip relaxed slightly and he lowered her so her feet were flat on the floor

“Yeah, just like that. He had to give me access during construction for some of the foundation wards, and I couldn’t swear I would be wearing this body forever, so he couldn’t use that.” She shrugged as best she could. “So instead he cued the wards to recognize the spell.”

“Why not just cue the wards to you personally?” Dean asked suspiciously.

“Something about not wanting to contaminate his precious magic with something inherently demonic.”

“So he can’t block me from entering,” Dean mused.

Ruby licked at her lips again. “He can fix most of the wards to lock you out, but without razing the entire place and redoing the foundation, there will be ways in. The chimney, attic ventilation, washer and dryer hook-ups, places like that.”

“Sam would have thought of those.”

“I wasn’t telling you where, just making suggestions, bright light,” she snapped. “Somewhere there will be a chink. Just go through the wall!” She tried to pull free of his grip on her jacket, but his fingers only tightened. “I’ve answered your questions," she protested, "can I go now?”

Dean's full attention returned to her, his twisted smile a reflection of the Hell she'd helped send him to. He used his free hand to draw the knife he'd stolen from her earlier, the serrated edge glittering ominously in the faint light.  “I said answering questions would make it easier, not that I was going to let you go.”

She didn’t wait to see what he did next; she lashed out with her knee and ripped free when he doubled over. Wearing flesh made you vulnerable to its weaknesses; he might be able to disregard the pain in a manner no real human could, but he was new enough to the skin game that he was going to react to it first. She landed on her backside and scrambled away.

He lunged after her, but before he could reach her, she spat out some words and vanished from the room. The demon that had been Dean Winchester rocked back on his heels and eyed the place she had been with annoyance. Not that it much mattered. He had already gained from Ruby what he needed, and his vengeance on her could wait until he had dealt with larger matters. She was a traitor and a liar and had been instrumental in what had happened to him, but at the end of the day, she was just a tool. She would get what was coming to her, but it was her master he was really after. And towards that end, he needed to be working on more important things, not getting distracted by petty pleasures.

Important things like Sam.

Through the newly acquired bond, Dean could feel his brother faintly on the other end. There was an undercurrent of all sorts of emotions, but they were very... vague, hard to sort out. He focused on the ones closest to the surface: hunger, discomfort, pain; weighing them uncertainly against how he understood the link to work and his own feelings, and decided it wasn’t time yet. Sam was feeling the edge, but he wasn’t desperate, wasn’t crawling out of his skin with need. Dean would have to pay attention, but it had only been about ten days since Ruby’s last visit, so there was probably at least a week, maybe more, until Sam was where he wanted him to be. Which was just as well; dragged out long enough before satisfying it, the curse would do its part to ensure Sam’s compliance at the time, but once the haze cleared, he would still have the memories. He would probably be more cooperative in the long-run if those memories didn’t involve being actually hurt. Hell had given Dean ample experience in a variety of sexual arenas he had not really explored while properly alive, but those lessons focused on pain, degradation and the breaking of the spirit. He needed to practice a bit in a more casual setting before the bond between them drove Sam into his bed.

 

Chapter Seven 

Carve your name into my arm.
Instead of stressed, I lie here charmed.
‘Cause there’s nothing else to do,
Every me and every you.
                                            ~Every You, Every Me, Placebo

As a child, Sam had hated traveling the Western states. The long, empty highways, dusty, isolate towns, and endless hours of having nothing more interesting to do than kick the back of Dean’s seat. Once he was old enough to understand exactly what it was his father vanished to do, it was even worse. The monsters that stalked the more heavily populated regions, with their overcrowded schools and their massive libraries and museums, tended to be more garden variety. He had faith in his dad to handle these problems in an area where the serious threats were detected fast and stamped out early. But out West, the legends and nightmares could roam for decades before they caught a hunter’s attention. Potentially, centuries of craftiness and power. Sam couldn’t muster the blind faith in their father’s prowess that Dean had; he was always sure that this hunt would be the one their dad didn’t come back from. Sam never slept well while in the West.

As an adult, the West had become his salvation. A place to build a bastion of isolation and freedom. Even if the freedom was limited to a hundred acre plot of land and what the Internet could provide him. Or at least what the one fenced acre in the hundred protected by his wards could provide him; the rest just prevented neighbors, and he rented it out to the locals as pasture.

Between Bobby’s contacts, his newly established fortune, and six months of intensive research and planning before Bobby's hand picked construction crew even broke ground, Sam felt confident that he had constructed a place where no demon could walk without his permission. The yard, the house: both enclosed in buried, salt-filled silver piping. Warded fence posts were run through with rails of continuous welded iron, the sigils and invocations culled from a dozen languages and religions. The foundation of the home itself was charmed and marked, and Devil’s Traps were carved into the wood flooring below every window and door. When he was bored, and the weather was bad, or he couldn’t bear to read anymore, Sam would amuse himself sometimes with a pocketknife on the woodwork, adding more charms. Every cut a denial of his past failures; a promise to his dead that he would continue the fight.

After seven years of self-imposed imprisonment, his private occult library was one of the best in the world; shelves and shelves of rare books of lore and magic. He had developed a reputation as a resource hunters could trust when they had questions, and he had even started doing business with other groups that dealt with the supernatural world: benign covens, religious groups -- anyone who battled monsters and needed help. They knew him as Sam Smith; it was innocuous and untraceable.

Of those with whom he did business or who knew who Sam Winchester had been, only Bobby and one or two unavoidable others knew where he lived, and only Bobby was permitted to visit. Well, Bobby and Ruby. But she was as necessary to him as oxygen; his self-loathing and rage did not lessen the siren call of her blood or her body. Since he had no use for the power she amplified in him anymore, he was able to go longer between visits than when they had traveled together, when he was still hell-bent on killing Lilith, burning up his demonic reserves practicing towards that end. Now it was only every three or four weeks that she would show up on his porch.

Slip into his bed.

They seldom spoke. It was unnecessary and he had no interest. She had tried for the first few years to draw him out, tease and mock him, to seduce him in his loneliness. But the more she pushed, the colder he grew, so finally she let it lie. It was a great relief to him when she did.

That first year of his exile, he had thought he would go mad. Made frantic as he found answers nowhere and the walls closed in on him. Learning to garden had helped; relaxing enough to chat with the boy from town who brought him groceries had helped more, given him a line to humanity that wasn’t through a computer monitor or a phone cord. Helped him keep strong the walls he used to hold Ruby out. He knew she could read something of him through the link they shared, but he was never sure how much, only that it was strongest right after they had... spent time together. She had only given him a maddening smile in the early days when he had demanded to know. When he realized she would never give him any answers he could trust, was when he stopped talking to her outside of the brief and necessary.

He tried very hard not to think about his brother. Even with all his failures before the deal was due, and in the madness of the months after, he had held onto hope that once he was safe, once he could clear his mind and focus only on saving Dean, he would find an answer. That belief had sustained him for the first year; and when it had crumbled, guilt had driven him through the second. But by the time the third year rolled around, he found it almost painful to pick up a book, to try to think of a new angle to explore. Bobby had picked up on his change in mood, because he had started calling more often for assistance, and eventually just directed people to Sam. His business had slowly grown from that, until his research into helping Dean consisted of making notes of anything potentially useful that cropped up while consulting on other matters.

And so it had gone for years. But in the last few weeks, something had changed. There was just a... difference. A sense, so subtle there was nothing to point to, but sometimes, at odd hours of the night, the hair stood up on the back of his neck. He would be reading something and suddenly be absolutely certain he was being watched. He never found anything, and even an exhaustive check of his wards revealed nothing. But the sense remained. Ruby had come three weeks after it had started, and that night was the worst yet. Even the taste of her blood could not distract him from the itch of observation, though the sex that followed certainly did. But the sweat hadn't even dried on his skin before it was back, an almost tangible feel of... something.

He slept restlessly that night, but easier the next. After a few days, he decided it was a symptom of his justifiable paranoia and dismissed it entirely from his mind.


~~~~~


The Impala was all but invisible in the dark, moonless night; no lights gave her away. The region was desolate and the driver wasn’t worried about causing an accident. He drove past the fenced yard and silent house set back from the road, until the slope it was set on leveled out, and he could drive off into the rustling grasses and park just outside the fence posts. None of the wards on the posts reacted when he crossed them; they had been carefully crafted to permit him access, after all. With the spell-born connection between himself and the man sleeping inside, he was shielded by a fake veneer of humanity. It easily let him slip through and across the protections tied to Sam. Not even the iron and the salt slowed him down, the sheer weight of the magic bound into the land strong enough to distort even their natural properties when faced with the quandary of the spell that linked him to his brother. 

Almost four weeks of immersing himself in the World and practicing how to be human. Or as human as he could manage. It was growing slowly easier. His original estimate on time had been short; he had underestimated how long Sam could sustain himself when he wasn’t actively using the power. Dean had spent his mornings in the yard where he had located the Impala, getting her into running shape after seven years standing idle. It was an interesting exercise. His hands and his instincts seemed to know what to do, but when he went to find the memories that informed his actions, they were fragmented and colorless. Most of his memories still were. Some things had been kept intact --he recalled in crystal clarity everything that had happened between his family and the demons since his father’s death-- but the memories around them were dulled. There was no feeling attached to anything that wasn’t rage, fear, hatred, despair, anger: the surface emotions of Hell. The longer he was free in the World, the more that would change; he had been promised that would change. That it would all come back with exposure and time. But he couldn’t wait for that. Lilith wasn’t going to wait for anything. And Sam’s time --though he didn’t know it yet-- had run completely out.


~~~~~


Sam woke up drenched in sweat and tangled in his sheets, wracked with pain. He shivered through the agony, and when it receded, glanced at the alarm clock beside his bed. The numbers blinked a depressingly small change since the last time he had looked at it. His sleep was fitful and brief; the pain was intense and regular. He was tired enough that even recognition of his impending death didn’t provoke anything more than a wish that it would hurry up.

Calling Ruby had proved futile. Five days ago, he had broken to the point of leaving her increasingly desperate messages, instead of just the call log as usual. Now he wasn’t even sure where his phone was. He didn’t remember the last time he had eaten anything either; he had been drinking tap water from the bathroom for at least two days -- when he could stand up. The cramps in his muscles unclenched enough to let him stretch out across the mattress on his belly, the most pain-free he had been for the greater part of a week. Sam buried his face in the mattress and almost sobbed in relief. He didn’t know if he wanted Ruby to come anymore or not. He wasn’t sure what he would be willing to agree to, to stop the pain.

Another spasm ripped through him, and the bulbs in the overhead light fixture exploded, along with the tableside lamp and the glass in the picture frames along the wall. Arms wrapped instinctively around his head kept shards from his face, but now his hair and back and bed were littered with razor-edged pieces of glass. They weren’t the first things he had broken with his mind since the fits started, but nothing else had created a danger like this, and his thin t-shirt and sweatpants provided little protection.

Sam slid carefully off the bed feet first; he felt a few pieces catch and drag shallow slices across his skin. Glass crunched under his bare feet, but eventually he was free of the blankets and stood very shakily in the middle of the minefield. He could barely focus on the room, everything seemed blurry and distorted. He flinched with every movement, expecting the agony to flare back up in his muscles, sending him crashing onto the glass-covered wooden floor. Sam didn’t know where to go, but the door that led to the kitchen was closest, and he could get water and food there. He was probably going to die, but he didn’t have to give up just yet. Dragging things out as long and painfully as possible was a family tradition.

The kitchen was cool, dark and blessedly clean of glass. Sam reached the island counter and froze, leaning heavily against it. There was someone in the room. It was deadly quiet, just the soft hum of appliances, but he was absolutely certain he wasn’t alone.

“Ruby?” he called softly.

The hand that clamped across his mouth was running with blood that filled his senses with an explosion of euphoria. Weakness was a thing of the past, and he grabbed hard to the person to stop them from ever pulling away. The rush was swamping his senses and eating great chunks of his consciousness. Before it dragged his rational mind under completely, the last thing he registered --along with the heat sparking in his veins and the warmth of the body pressed against his back-- was the last voice he had ever expected to hear again.

“Sorry, Sam.”

Dean.


~~~~~


Dawn was barely starting to stain the edges of the horizon through the windows when Dean finally untangled himself from Sam. He scratched at skin itchy with a mess of blood, sweat and the flaking aftermath of fast, messy sex. Beside him on the tile, Sam was still limp in unconsciousness, even more of a mess than Dean. Bruises, shallow cuts, and lines of pain were already fading or gone. His face was relaxed in sleep and his breathing even, at peace for the first time in days. There was almost no sense of anything from him humming in the link when Dean brushed against it, certainly not the waves of fear and pain that had swamped Dean before he had even reached the house last night.

Somewhere in another room, a clock chimed. It registered on Dean that the tile was cool, too cool for human comfort probably. They could both do with a shower, and then there was packing to do, and it was already far later than he had wanted to still be at the house. Forces in the world were starting to turn their attention to this quiet corner of the map, and it was past time they were gone. He tried to wake Sam, but his brother was still mostly out of it. He did manage to rouse Sam just enough to stagger, with Dean's help, down the hallway to the bedroom still littered with glass. Dean left Sam slumped against the hallway wall and went to find a broom.

Half an hour later, he had stripped the mattress bare, leaving it glass-free, and swept enough of the floor that every footstep didn’t crunch. He and Sam were both clean, if still damp, and his brother was curled up on the bed wearing the sweatpants, t-shirt and hoodie that had come first to Dean’s hands when he rummaged through the dresser. There was still no indication of any actual consciousness, which was probably for the best, all things considered. Dean left him there while he packed up some stuff.

Two trips through the house and out to the car gathered books he recognized as exceptionally rare or potentially useful into the trunk. He grabbed a laptop from a desk, and the books open there, so Sam could continue with whatever he had been working on. Dean recognized Sam was likely to handle the situation poorly; maybe work would distract him while he adjusted. He found a huge duffle bag coated in dust in the top of the closet, probably from when Sam moved in originally. Clothes, toiletries, some prescription drug bottles from the kitchen, an address book he found in a desk, various other sundries. There was still room, so he added a folded blanket from the top of the closet and a couple of towels. In the closet he found a scarred leather jacket and slipped it on almost without thought. It felt… right.

He crouched to zip the duffle up and noticed the mattress wasn’t lying quite flat against the box springs. He glanced at Sam, who was still dead to the world, and reached to gently tug out whatever was hidden in the bed. Dean turned the worn leather journal in his hands, letting hints of all the memories its stained, battered cover raised wash through him, a confusing jumble of emotions and images that only time could sort.

His father’s journal.

He let it fall open, and flipped slowly through its yellowing pages of cramped, spidery writing, sketches and newspaper clippings. A single photo was taped into the back cover: a Polaroid of two boys sitting on the hood of a black car. Young teenagers, dressed only in cut-offs, everything bright and glinting with sunlight. The older teenager was smiling at the camera, while the younger was looking at him with an expression that left no doubt who the center of his universe was. It was a happy summer picture that would have been well at home in any family album, but this aging, bloodstained journal of monsters and magic was as much of a family album as the Winchesters had.

The demon that had been Dean Winchester brushed a thumb slowly over the cover, and closed his eyes as the feel of the leather journal melded suddenly with the scent of the leather jacket he wore -- and another barrage of imagery poured in. He shook his head to clear his senses and shoved the journal into Sam’s duffle bag. There was no time for any of that now.

He hauled Sam out to the Impala and settled him in the backseat, covered with blankets to block out the cold of the early spring morning. He stuffed the duffle bag into the trunk with the books, then he went back into the house for one last task.

The fiery streaks of dawn across the sky were no match for the firestorm engulfing the house as the Impala pulled away. Collapsing spellwork gave the flames an unnatural hue, but in moments, there was no one left to see it.

 

Chapter Eight

you are the only one
born in the sun
riddled to spend your time
defending my plan
                                 ~Chickenman, Indigo Girls

Sam woke up slowly, so slowly that at first he didn’t realize he was waking up. For seven years, every waking had been the same. The same mattress, in the same room, always, always the same. This was different. The scratchiness of the sheets under his cheek, the squeak of unfamiliar bedsprings, the odor of industrial air freshener… like a dream of his life before.

He wasn't certain it wasn't a dream, until he shifted against the mattress and felt cold metal bite hard into his wrist. That made his eyes snap open, his dreams didn't usually involve handcuffs. Sam squirmed upright and looked around, trying to clear the cobwebs of sleep and figure out where he was. The generic wallpaper, peeling at the corners, worn carpet, rattling heater under the window, were all signs of a cheap motel. He pulled against the handcuff, but the metal bed frame it was attached to was welded solid, and he doubted he would be able to break it anytime soon.

The shower was running in the bathroom. Sam felt lightheaded and his mouth was dry; he used his free hand to awkwardly check the pockets of his sweatpants for anything he could use to pick the lock, but they were empty.

The water shut off in the bathroom.

There was something terribly important he needed to remember. All tied up with... There was no pain, Sam realized suddenly. No shaking. No relentless, desperate emptiness that only Ruby could fill. Other than a little fuzziness, he felt... great. His last memory was the glass exploding. And the kitchen, and then--

The bathroom door opened and a man stepped out, fully dressed and toweling water from his hair.

Sam was shocked into silence.

“That’s all you have to say?” Dean asked, looking hurt. He tossed the towel onto the counter. “No, ‘Thanks for going to Hell for me; nice to see you again,’ or ‘I missed you; glad you’re back’? Where’s the gratitude, Sam?”

“Who are you?” Sam demanded harshly.

Dean raised an eyebrow. “It’s not been that long. Not for you, anyways.”

Sam glared furiously. “You think you’re going to get something from me because you’ve made yourself look like my brother? My brother’s dead.” He jerked angrily against the cuff. “What the hell are you? Shape-shifter?”

“One hundred percent, grade-A demon, Sammy.” Dean grabbed a battered chair from the desk and spun it around so he could straddle the seat and rest his arms on the back, facing Sam. “I thought about going for a different model.” He traced a finger over his own cheekbone. “But then I thought, Nah, better to stick with what’s familiar. Why mess with perfection?”

He smiled at Sam, and Sam’s heart clenched. It was Dean’s smile, carefree and cocky, but his eyes were hard and cold.

“Well, maybe a little less than perfect,” Dean continued. “The Hellhounds did a number on it, and seven years moldering in the ground sure wasn’t pretty. But I always liked a challenge, you know, and it’s not any different than fixing a bullet hole, or a busted tire. Just patience and time. And I’ve had lots and lots of time, Sam.”

“Now I know you’re lying,” Sam spat. “My brother had an anti-possession tattoo that--” He cut off. The self-proclaimed demon was rolling its shirt up, revealing smooth, flawless skin, and just to the left of the base of its throat, the anti-possession tattoo with its stark black lines that matched the one on Sam's chest -- but with a thick, pale weal like a long-healed scar slashing through the bottom margin.

“Hellhound," Dean said casually, letting the shirt fall back into place. "I fixed the rest of the wounds, but repairing this one seemed counterproductive. I decided to leave the mark and just smooth it over a bit.”

Sam swallowed but said nothing. He was still glaring, but now the expression was tempered with an edge of real fear.

“That’s not the mark you should be most concerned with anyways.” Dean stood up and reached for the fly of his jeans.

Sam turned his face away as the zipper came down. “You don’t have anything there I need to see.”

“You might be surprised.”

“Really, I don’t--”

“Look,” the demon ordered.

Sam reluctantly turned back, then stared. The demon had shoved the denim down to bare most of its right hip. The lacy intricacy of the pattern there was very familiar to Sam. He had copied the pattern off Ruby’s body, and spent hours in research trying to identify and unravel its mystery. To undo the spellwork that had destroyed his life.

“What is that?” Sam breathed in horror, as if he didn't already know.

“Spoils of war. I ripped it off a bitch who thought she could drag my brother around on a leash.”

“Is it… Does it still work?”

“Yeah, sorry." Dean shrugged as he refastened his jeans. "It is what it is. All indications are that when it stops working, it will be because you’re dead. I had to look into it when I found out about Ruby’s little connection to you.”

“So the things I was doing with Ruby, the blood and... other things." Sam couldn't quite bring himself to say the word. "Now that's with you?”

“I have places to go and things to do, Sam. I need your help with some of them, and I didn’t think Ruby was going to be willing to ride along with us, in the backseat of the Impala. Besides, you didn’t seem to mind last night. Or, this morning,” the demon mused. “I wasn’t paying that much attention to the clock.

“Oh, my God.” Sam had some vague sense-memories starting to surface, but no details. Sometimes when it was bad, when things had been strung out too long, details would come back later, or not at all. He hoped they wouldn’t this time.

The demon was still talking. “Speaking of Ruby -- some of my memories are a little fuzzy, but I seem to distinctly recall wanting to kill her before I went to Hell. I can’t believe I died and you shacked up with her! Did you even wait until my corpse was cool? She’s a demon, Sam, and you just hopped in the sack with her because… why, again? She fluttered her lashes at you and took off her shirt? You’re lucky a blood-curse was the only thing you got. What the fuck were you thinking?!”

The demon seemed to gather itself and calm down.

“But I’m going to let that go and move past it, because we’re brothers, and family, and family forgives. Right, Sam? You’re still my brother, aren’t you?”

“My brother would never do this to me,” Sam said in a dead voice.

“Really?" The demon's eyes narrowed. "That’s funny, because I seem to remember selling my soul to Hell for you. I wouldn’t think a little blood-letting and some incestuous sex would rate much on that scale. Do you know how long seven years is in Hell, Sam?”

Sam flinched, but stayed silent. And he wouldn’t look at the demon in his brother’s skin.

The demon cursed under its breath. “I need your help.”

Sam gave a disbelieving laugh and looked up. “Yeah, you said that before. My help. Help?” He looked like he wanted to stand, but the cuff still shackled him to the bed frame. “You know how I know it’s not my help you’re after? If you wanted my help, you would have called. You would have found Bobby and convinced him you were serious. You might have even stopped by and waited past the fence to see if I would talk. Instead, you go and get a spell that--” He broke off, shaking his head. “I don’t even have the words.... How could you think I would help you after this?”

“Had to save you, Sam,” Dean said quietly.

“From Ruby?” Sam’s voice was thick with tears. “You didn’t save me from Ruby, man. I had that under control. If you wanted to save me, you would have left me where I was.”

The demon watched him silently for a few minutes while Sam rubbed at his eyes and looked at anything else in the room.

“Here’s the deal,” it said finally. “And you don’t have to cooperate, or agree, or anything else. You just have to shut up and do what I say. I have to find some things, which means I’m going on an extended road trip. I can’t just stick you someplace, because that would make you a sitting duck, and also because you need me to survive--”

“You can’t possibly believe I care about that,” Sam interrupted in a low voice.

“The shutting-up part? That starts now. But since you brought it up -- I do expect you to care about that. I expect you to give your continued survival your most diligent and careful attention. Because if you don’t…” He paused until Sam reluctantly lifted his head again. “Well, without you, I can’t finish what I came here to do. Which means I would have to find new entertainment. And I don’t think I'll be able to find anything more entertaining than carving my way through your address book and sending all your little friends into the afterlife to let you know exactly how unhappy I am with you. Not to mention all the hunters, contacts and various other nice, helpless people we met on the road together. What do you think, Sam? Does Bobby go under ‘R’ for Robert or ‘S’ for Singer?”

Sam’s breathing grew more ragged and his hands clenched white-knuckled in the bedspread.

“And don’t even think of running out on me,” Dean added. “I’m going to take that as a suicide attempt, and then we are back to my being unhappy and all that jazz.”

Dean could taste rage boiling through the link between them, underwritten by a heavy foundation of despair. It was going to have to do for now.

“It feels like you understand my point, so let’s move on. Now, after I have all my shiny souvenirs, there is some spell-casting to be done, which I expect you to play a principal role in. It should be pretty basic, since the entire thing fits on one paper. After that rabbit gets ripped out of the hat, and all of my enemies are exactly where I want them, I will be happy to dedicate my time to finding a way to untangle you from this blood-curse, and letting you get on with your life. I’ve been assured it can’t actually be done, but that’s what they said about me climbing out of Hell. And hey! Here I am.”

Sam swallowed. “What is it exactly you want me to help you do?”

“I want you to help me stop Lilith.” Dean knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left his lips. He didn’t know why it was a mistake, but he felt walls slam up in Sam’s mind as impregnable as any castle’s. A solid sheet of rock-hard denial where only moments before there had been traces of reluctant interest.

“Go back to Hell.” The resolve in Sam’s flat tone was as clear and unshaking as the barrier in his mind.

Dean’s eyes bled black with anger and frustration, but without knowing what had set Sam off, he couldn’t try and fix it. Fine. Whatever. Sam still had to come with him. If he wanted to come dragged as a captive instead of treated like an accomplice, Dean could work with that. Hell, he’d half planned on it anyways.

He walked over and brushed his fingers over the chill metal of the cuff; it released with a soft click from Sam’s wrist and the bed frame. He slid it into a pocket.

“I’m going to go get some of that free food from the office; you go ahead and take care of whatever you need to. I’d suggest a shower at the least. There’s clothes in that bag by the wall. I can see this door through the window. Believe that it had better not open while I’m gone.”

 

Chapter Nine

Was it ever so the evil creeped like ivy
A toehold on the stronger half of nature’s dichotomy
I’m beating back a path through nothing more than pure insistence
So here becomes the distance
                                        ~Leeds, Indigo Girl

Weeks passed like a nightmare for Sam. He would startle awake in random motel rooms, relieved that the last seven years was all a vicious dream, then his wrist would catch on the handcuff, or the arm around his waist would tighten, and reality crashed in, crushing him until even breathing felt like effort.

The Impala was worse. It tugged at a deep part of his memory, a reminder of all things safe and familial. Time when his family was still alive; time when it was his dad and his brother traveling the country chasing hunts; time when he and Dean were traveling together chasing their dad. And later, when it was truly just the two of them. To wake up slumped in his familiar seat, feeling safe and protected, head tipped against the glass, then opening his eyes and looking over at his brother -- finding the demon in his place as it watched him, was horrible. Sam preferred the shared beds and casual touching of anonymous motel rooms; that didn’t feel like such a desecration --a violation-- of his brother’s memory as the false safety of the Impala did.

Of course, the times when the touching wasn’t so casual were the worst of all.

Sam wasn’t keeping track of time in the usual sense. Those first few days, he had been in a state of hyper-aware shock, then as the reality of his situation sank in, things had dimmed around the edges until the entirety of his world was his immediate surroundings. He didn’t see any way out; no rescue, no escape, and so he drew deeper and deeper into himself until entire weeks would blur by without anything but the most casual attention. The demon made him eat and drink, and left him generally free to move about as he wished in the rooms they shared most nights. The demon itself never seemed to rest. Sam fell asleep under its expressionless gaze, and woke up the same way. It didn’t seem to sleep, but it would lie on the bed with him and occupy itself with the laptop most nights. Sam thought about trying to destroy it, all those months with Ruby, learning how to drag demons from their hosts and send them back to Hell, then advancing the lesson to true destruction… it burned in his mind sometimes, how easy it should have been, and the demon beside him was feeding him blood and power, after all… But the blood he took never felt as potent from this demon as the blood he had taken from Ruby had. As if it was able to control how much power Sam drew from it, as if it was keeping him on a short leash. Feeding his need without ever letting him truly power-up. The itchy, worn, exhausted feeling that weighed on him constantly certainly supported the idea.

He wasn’t entirely sure of how long it had been since the nightmarish trip had started. A few months at least; the seasons were changing.

Sam tracked time by the tides of his body. He had been aware of the shifting pull of need with Ruby, but then he had had a variety of distractions to focus on. Now there was nothing but the hypnotic rhythm of the road and a bone-deep awareness of the monster beside him. He knew to the hour when certain symptoms would start up. It was more frequently than he had needed Ruby’s… attentions. More support for the idea that whatever he was getting from this demon, it just wasn't the same. Sam knew how many nights he would have of his normal restless sleep before dreams of sex and blood would start creeping in. How many times he would wake up rigid on the edge of the bed, as far from the demon as he could get, before he would start waking up pressed against it in a parody of lover’s passion.

The demon never said anything about it. It would give Sam enough time to taste the bite of the curse, enough to remind Sam of just how badly he needed its blood, and then one night a silver knife would be on the table beside the bed: simple, innocuous. Sam greeting its sight with with an uncomfortable mix of self-loathing and relief. He hated himself those times.

More than he hated the demon.

His mind struggled against his body’s pull, until the demon drew the knife through its skin and the heavy scent of blood filled the air. There was no fighting the tide at that point. Sam's will melted and he was pliant to whatever the demon wanted as long as it let him taste. Everything after that was just mindless need. The need to touch, to be touched. Heat and fire under his flesh, cooling to a smoldering burn of pure pleasure everywhere their skin connected.

The demon seemed to find Sam’s reactions fascinating. Sometimes, it allowed things to go quickly, just a matter of rough hands and clothing barely shoved aside. Sometimes, it would drag things out for hours, until Sam was aching and open in every possible sense, welcoming a violation that would have been inconceivable at any other point in his life.

Later, after Sam recovered, everything would hit him again and he would lay curled in misery against the door of the Impala, or the clean, laundered pillowcases of wherever they were staying. Futility, frustration, anger, and despair tying him into paralyzing knots. He figured that one day even that would stop, and he would cease to feel anything at all; that oblivion would be better than the deep shame and grief that haunted him.

For its part, the demon didn’t really seem to pay him much attention most of the time. It spoke to him sometimes; Sam thought it might have said something about his work at one time or another, but since he was making a conscious effort to ignore it, he couldn’t be sure.

He hated when it sang along with the radio, his brother’s voice familiar in its off-key enthusiasm.

It forced him out of the car sometimes to go running. Usually late at night on deserted high school tracks. Running until he was drenched in sweat and could barely stand up, and then he would glance over and see it leaning casually against the Impala, waiting for him to finish so they could take off again, and he would find the endurance to go another few laps. Anything to stay out of that car.

The first few times, Sam had tried to refuse, not wanting the disruption in his own private hell and generally unwilling to comply with the monster wearing his brother’s skin. But it had casually suggested that if Sam couldn’t be bothered to take care of his body, then they would have to up the frequency of the blood consumption so that the natural magical properties of it could help keep him in good repair.

After that, whenever the Impala rumbled to a stop at a track, Sam just couldn’t get out of the car fast enough.

 

Chapter Ten

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
                                      ~Anthem, Leonard Cohen

Sam wasn’t sure where they were when he first saw the hunter. Maybe Kansas, maybe Oklahoma, maybe even northern Texas; somewhere in the central states. He was in the car outside a convenience store attached to a Chinese grocery while the demon did who-knows-what inside. He had slept most of the morning and was watching leaves scorched by the summer sun flutter in the afternoon breeze, when a new movement caught his eye. He glanced over, and froze. Jace Wilkins was standing not even twenty feet away, rummaging in the trunk of his car.

Jace was a young hunter, orphaned as a child by a werewolf attack. As he grew older, the quest for revenge had driven him into the path of hunters and earned him the skills and advice he needed to stalk and kill the monster. His course in life set, Jace eventually ended up on Bobby Singer’s doorstep while researching an obscure legend. Bobby had put him in contact with Sam, and Sam had ended up helping him on several different projects. Sam’s general paranoia led him to thoroughly research anyone he worked with, regardless of where the recommendation came from, so he was well aware of what Jace looked like. Sam knew there was a picture or two of himself at Bobby’s house, so it was reasonable that Jace might recognize him just as easily. Hell, Bobby might have sent Jace to find him after he disappeared.

Jace walked casually by the Impala, stopping near Sam’s door and making a show of patting his pockets as if checking for his wallet. Sam pulled his wrist out from the door so the metal of the handcuffs glinted in the blaze of the afternoon sun. Jace glanced over, then moved on into the grocery.

Sam waited tensely for... well, he wasn’t sure what. He hoped Jace would have the sense not to try and take the demon on in a public setting, if he even recognized it.

A few minutes later, the door banged open and the demon stalked out, face cloudy with annoyance and clutching a small white bakery bag with grease stains starting to form near the bottom. It slid into the car and fished around in the bag, pulled out a round, golden cake of some sort and proceeded to practically inhale it. It went through about four of them this way and had its mouth stuffed, still chewing and glaring at the building, when it glanced over and saw Sam watching it. It raised a brow and mumbled something through its full mouth that might have been, “Want some?”

Sam just closed his eyes and leaned back into his seat, expression set, mind whirling with possibilities.

Why was Jace here? Was it some freakish coincidence? Was he hunting for Sam? For the demon? Best yet -- had Bobby sent him, or maybe was even with him somewhere? Had he seen the cuffs? Sam remembered the demon’s threats -- but none of that would matter if it was dead or banished. Sam knew that would sign his own death warrant, but that was hardly worthy of note.

Over the next several days of travel, Sam thought he might have caught a glimpse of Jace or his car a few more times. The demon didn’t seem to think anything was at all amiss. It chattered or held its silence in the same manner as before. Making nonsensical stops and decisions that wound an unpredictable trail through the middle of the country. Sam found himself paying more attention to the world than he had in months, and knew the demon noticed from the speculative looks it was giving him. Sam still ignored it, but now there was a buzz of anticipation under his skin, a sense of hope that he couldn’t quite stifle.


~~~~~


About three weeks after Sam had first seen Jace at the grocery, something changed. Sam’s skin was itchy with the early stages of withdrawal and he had half expected to see the knife on the bedside table after his shower the night before, but the demon had been on the laptop, and had remained there for the entire night, as best as Sam could determine. He was handcuffed and alone when he woke up, and stayed that way until it sailed back in with coffee and bagels shortly after dawn and released him.

Sam started the routine repacking of his things; at this point, something he hardly had to think about. He had just started to slip his toothbrush into the bag when a hand closed firmly around his forearm. The contact against his skin made his body tense in involuntary anticipation. Sam swore silently; god -- he was getting close. He looked up.

The demon’s expression was unreadable in the mirror. “I think we’ll stay another day.”

Sam blinked. They hadn’t spent more than one night in any place since this insane nightmare had started. But asking would show interest, and frankly he didn’t care. He nodded and put the toothbrush back down. The demon let him go, ghosting one finger up the inside of Sam's forearm before he turned and walked back to the laptop on the small table. Sam shivered at the caress, then decided that if they weren’t moving today, he was going to take another shower before he curled back up on the bed.


~~~~~


The demon was gone and it was after dark when Sam woke up again, hours later. He’d learned not to move after waking until he determined how he was anchored. In a lot of ways, the handcuff wasn’t anything but an insulting reminder of the demon’s threats. While some of the things the demon found to bind him to would be fairly difficult to break the cuffs free from, others were of a less permanent nature and could have been broken with a little work and a few good blows. All it really did was prevent Sam from fleeing on impulse by making sure that he would have time to think about all the death and damage his escaping would cause. And to what end? So he could kill himself? Same result. So he could try to kill the demon? Whatever it was now, it had been Dean, and not only had Dean been one of the best hunters Sam had ever seen, he had known Sam like his own reflection.

Sam was ruminating over the possibilities when the door banged open and the demon walked in, kicking the door shut again behind itself. It was dressed all in dark clothes and over its shoulder carried a weakly-struggling and blood-smeared Jace Wilkins.

“No!” Sam shouted.

“Shut the fuck up, Sam.”

“No, you son of a bitch. Let him go!”

“Fine. Keep yelling then. Let’s see how many of our friendly neighborhood cops and unhappy tourists you can drag onto the killing field. Jace here has already offered to provide me some entertainment; want to see how much more meat you can bring in for the slaughter?”

Someone banged on the wall next door.

Sam’s next shout strangled in his throat.

The demon flashed him a grim smile, then carried Jace into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Sam didn’t hear anything after that but the dull sound of what sounded like blows, muffled cries and the hiss of water.

He tried to bury his face under the pillows so he couldn’t hear even that much, pulling mindlessly against the handcuff as if it alone was the anchor that held him in the nightmare.

Hours or minutes later, he roused to gentle hands tugging at his arm. Sam’s eyes felt swollen and his head full of fuzz. He almost thought he could still hear the sounds of those muffled thuds, even though it was deathly quiet in the room. The demon was crouched by the bed, examining his arm. Sam also eyed the limb dully; it looked like it should hurt a lot more than it did. The cuff had cut so deep into his flesh that blood had stained the mattress and pillow and left heavy red streaks down to his elbow. It was still oozing slowly. The cuff itself lay grimed with blood on the bedside table, beside the silver knife. Every muscle in Sam’s body tensed, though he couldn’t say if it was fear, rage, or anticipation.

“No,” he said harshly, trying to pull his arm back.

The demon’s grip tightened. “Stop it,” it ordered flatly. “You knew this was coming soon; you decided to speed the necessity of it up by sawing halfway through your wrist. That was your call.”

Sam noted with horror the streaks of blood on the demon’s face, spatters on its throat and smeared around the neckline of its t-shirt.

“Please,” he whispered, “please don’t touch me.”

Its expression hardened. “You knew how this was going to end. You knew almost a month ago when you decided that letting some pup trail along after us was a better idea than just telling me. Did you think I didn’t know? Seriously, Sam?”

Sam didn’t say anything.

“You know the best part?” it breathed, pushing him down and leaning over him, so close Sam could literally taste the heat of its breath. “I probably would have picked him up on my own --he really doesn’t have the stalking thing down very well-- but I didn’t have to. You told me. With the song of your blood and the swirl of your emotions. Like a neon sign screaming that something was different. There aren’t a lot of things I could come up with that would have caused that kind of change in you, so when I started looking it wasn’t exactly hard to figure it out.”

“He was just a kid,” Sam mumbled, closing his eyes again and turning his face away. “And you would have killed him anyways.”

“Maybe so, maybe no. Guess we won’t get to find out.”

Sam swallowed and waited. The demon straightened and turned back to the table. For the first time since this entire thing started, Sam was almost genuinely grateful for the taste of blood brushing over his lips, willing in both mind and body for once. It guaranteed he wouldn’t have to think about anything again for the rest of the night. Wouldn’t have to hear those muffled thuds in his mind and remember what Jace had looked like when the demon dragged him in to kill.


~~~~~


When Sam woke up the next morning, the demon was lying unresponsive beside him on the bed. It was unusual, but Sam certainly wasn’t going to disturb it. He slid out from beneath the sheet numbly, able to think only of taking a shower to scrub the memory of its touch and the aftermath of sex off his skin. Last night had been one of the fast nights, he had that at least to be grateful for. He was reaching for the handle of the closed bathroom door when he saw the bloody smears on the cheap, white paint. He turned and threw up in the wastebasket.

When he finished heaving his guts up, a plastic glass of water was being offered to him. Sam took it and rinsed his mouth out, then blindly turned to find his toothbrush. There wasn’t anything that was going to drag him into that bathroom. No matter how much he needed to shower and pee. Sam pulled his clothes on and was giving serious consideration to the sink-as-urinal when the demon made an impatient sound from the door and Sam turned to find all of their things packed and ready.

“Let’s go.”

Sam started to grab his pillow off the bed, one of the things the demon had taken from his house, but it was the one that his blood had soaked into, and he couldn’t bring himself to touch it. Sam let his arms, the damaged one healed good as new, fall back to his sides and followed the demon from the room instead.

Outside, a maid service cart was two doors down. Sam was puzzled when instead of heading for the car, the demon thrust a duffle bag into Sam’s hand and strode meaningfully into the room where the maid was working. Sam heard some furious, indecipherable Spanish, then Dean emerged, looking victorious.

An irritated-looking maid followed him out, and after giving Sam a good look over, huffed in annoyance and used a key from her belt to unlock a room that smelled freshly cleaned. She made a grand ‘enter’ sort of gesture and waited impatiently while the demon prodded Sam into the room. The door slammed behind them, and the demon promptly pulled the laptop out and settled in at the table. Sam was confused.

After a moment, the demon looked up and raised an eyebrow. “Bathroom’s free, Sam. Rosalita says we have about thirty minutes before she’s out of sympathy for our sad plight and kicks us the hell out anyways. Get scrubbing.”

“Sad plight?” Sam echoed, the words not making any sense.

“Yeah, she’s such a lousy maid, the room we stayed in last night looked like someone had been murdered in the shower. Couldn’t bring your delicate self to bathe in it. But you should probably be quick about cleaning up now so we can get out of here before she looks and decides someone really was murdered there.” The demon looked pleased with itself.

Sam felt his stomach heave again, and fled into the bathroom, just to get out from under its gaze.


~~~~~


Another week or so passed. Sam wasn’t feeling much of anything anymore. The demon had given up even the pretense of talking to him, and lived in a permanent state of annoyance. It didn’t drag Sam out much either anymore. Where before, Sam had been treated to the parking lots of a wide variety of weird stores and shady-looking restaurants, now generally the first thing it did was find a place to stash him, and then take off. Sometimes, it would toss a battered paperback from the lobby onto the bed with him; sometimes, it would just watch him for a few minutes, then storm out for hours.

Sam thought they were in South Carolina when the routine changed.

He had taken care of what personal business he had to in preparation for a few hours of being chained up, and was lying on the bed, starting his traditional count of ceiling popcorn, when a clatter on the nightstand redirected his attention.

“This is for you.”

Sam stared, baffled, at the small red phone. He recognized it as his, though he had thought it abandoned at his house all those months ago.

“It only dials one number.” The demon held up his own phone to underlay the point. “I had it modified. So don’t mess with it; you’re just going to piss me off. I’m going to be gone longer than usual; use it if you need me. For emergencies,” it said pointedly, then looked around and kicked the plastic trashcan from the bathroom over beside the bed. “For more personal emergencies,” it added.

Sam rolled onto his back again and resumed his count until he fell asleep.

Persistent music woke him up a few hours later. It would start, intrude on his sleep enough to bring him close to consciousness, then vanish. Only to start up again just as soon as he began drifting back down. It was annoying, but not annoying enough to bother actually waking up for.

A sudden series of loud beeps made him almost jump out of his skin. He pulled his wrist hard, startled, then cursed and wriggled into a sitting position, rubbing at it. Nothing had changed in the room, except the display on the phone was illuminated and showed missed calls and a voicemail. Sam wasn’t particularly inclined to listen to any messages the demon left him, but it tended towards creativity when annoyed so Sam reluctantly decided not to risk it.

He punched through the menu and froze. The missed calls were from Bobby, the message was... well, it didn’t say, but the time showed it had been left right after the last missed call.

Jace’s bloody, battered face as he fought with futile strength against the demon’s hold when it dragged him through the motel room that night flashed in Sam’s mind, and he dropped the phone with a clatter of plastic back to the table.


~~~~~


Sam stared at the phone for a few hours, uncertain what he would do it if rang again. But the phone remained silent. The sun was going down and a storm was picking up outside; finally, calling himself a coward, Sam picked it up again. There wasn’t anything a message could do to hurt him or change anything. Even the demon couldn’t really object; Sam hadn’t called anyone. Just listening to a message could hardly count as an escape attempt.

There were the normal background sorts of noises, and then Bobby’s gruff voice cut through the interference.

“Damn it all, Sam -- where the hell are you?! I thought you were dead, boy. Spent a week poking through the burned out ruins of that damn house of yours, and that was no picnic, not with the freaking disaster teams combing everywhere and not wanting to let people into the area at all. I put out every feeler I had for months looking for your ass.

“I get nothing and raise a couple of bottles to your memory, then out of nowhere yesterday, Jace Wilkins, of all crazy people, staggers up to my door, fresh out of the hospital, and starts giving me some rambling, barely-coherent story about seeing you out in Oklahoma.

“He doesn’t remember a damn thing except that. Had a massive concussion and lost about a month of time. Apparently, whatever happened to him, he just walked into an emergency room right outside of Kansas City, completely cool and calm as you please, then as soon as someone asked if he needed help, collapsed and started having seizures.”

Bobby snorted.

But he remembers you. Said he saw you handcuffed in a car just south of Amarillo while he was finishing up looking into another sighting of the Borego Phantom -- because that’s never a waste of time,” Bobby's voice dripped sarcasm.

There was a long pause, Sam could hear the sound of Bobby swallowing nervously on the recording.

“Honestly, Sam. I wouldn’t have paid it much mind, the boy’s practically raving, and I had to haul him back to a hospital this morning. Apparently, they wouldn’t let him have a phone wherever he was, so he pretty much just snuck out and made his way here, a lot prematurely. But, uh, from the way he described the car... I did some calling, Sam, and the Impala’s missing. The guy’s not sure when it vanished, but it sure as hell ain’t there now, and he says it looks like it hasn’t been in some time. I need to know if you’re alive, Sam; I need to know if you’re okay. So if you are, call me, write me, send me a freaking pigeon if that’s all you can get your hands on, but let me know.

“That’s all I’ve got, and I’m probably screaming into the wind, but if it’s true -- yeah, call me.”

Sam hit delete and carefully laid the phone back down on the nightstand.


~~~~~


Sam was still awake when the demon walked back in hours later. He lay still and kept his eyes slitted, trying not to draw its attention.

It stalked in with the air of a man for whom the world is just not a satisfactory place. Dean’s angry stride, Dean’s annoyed fiddling with things, Dean’s dissatisfaction muttered under its breath. It flipped the lights on and grabbed a phone book, then glanced sharply at Sam.

Sam thought it had realized he was awake, but after a moment, it flipped the lights back off and walked to the end of the bed. Sam couldn’t see it, but a moment later, the comforter was draped over his body. The handcuff was unfastened and careful hands turned his wrist over as if inspecting it, then laid it down flat on the bed. Then the sense of presence glided away and the bathroom light flicked on; the door closed and Sam could hear nothing but the occasional rustle of pages.

Sam was confused. He didn’t understand why a demon would inconvenience itself to try not to wake him up; it wasn’t like it should care if he was disturbed. He never looked at or spoke to it unless he had no choice. It apparently hadn’t killed Jace, but it had kidnapped Sam. It didn’t seem to want to hurt him, but it dragged him around the country like a pet. He shied away from thinking about the curse too deeply; that one was all Lilith and Ruby. But it had taken the curse away from Ruby because it needed Sam for something, then had gone weeks without saying two words in his direction while wandering aimlessly around the country. Which couldn’t actually be true; despite the seemingly random shift in direction and weird collection of stops, it had to be looking for something. The muttering over the phonebook in the bathroom supported that if nothing else.

It had all of Dean’s mannerisms but none of his caring, but even that now... Sam’s recently inspected wrist, bruised from a long afternoon and evening fastened to the bed frame, throbbed faintly like a warning. It wasn’t his brother, it wasn’t his brother, it wasn’t his brother... That shouldn’t be hard to remember; it hadn’t been hard to remember, but now he felt like everything he had understood was in question.

Why hadn’t it killed Jace?

Sam had assumed that it was engaging in the normal demonic sorts of activities during their travels, screwing with people and leaving misery in its wake. But as he struggled to bring into focus some of the last few months of his apathy, he couldn’t really point to any incident that supported that. Granted, he wasn’t in public with the demon very often, but sometimes they went into shops together, or diners. The demon was an avid observer, and had offered some fairly brutal observations on the people around them, but it hadn’t actually done anything that Sam could point to as particularly evil or objectionable. Not outside of the things it had done to Sam himself, and to Jace Wilkins.

But Jace was a hunter, and had clearly been stalking them. Even in his current mindset, Sam couldn’t classify self-defense as evil. And whatever had happened in that motel bathroom, Jace had apparently survived. Sam had been around too many demons in his life to believe that was an accident. Demons didn’t make mistakes of life or death.

Hearing Bobby’s voice had been like a slap in the face in some regards. No matter how awful things seemed or how isolated he felt, he wasn’t really alone. He had already survived events no human should have to, and had emerged sane and whole. Being dragged around shackled to things barely even scored a rating on the ‘suffering I have endured’ scale. The emotional upheaval was horrific and ongoing, and he really could have done without the touching, but Sam thought maybe he was finally approaching a place where he could try and cope with the situation instead of just hiding from it.

The mutterings in the bathroom turned into a sort of off-key humming. Sam thought he recognized AC/DC and felt tears burn the backs of his eyes all over again. Maybe.

 

Chapter Eleven 

Jonas and Ezekiel, hear me now
Steady now I feel your ghost about
I’m not ready for the dead to show its face
Whose angel are you anyway?
                                        ~Jonas and Ezekiel, Indigo Girls

Texas was a miserable place in the summer, and the heat and glare of reflective light everywhere was making Sam irritable. He was also tired of fighting the demon over every issue, even if just through his continuing apathy. Being handcuffed in the car was getting old. The ebb and rise of the gnawing ache in his body from not getting enough of its blood was exhausting. His head felt fuzzy all the time, and he was starting to forget what exactly he was struggling for in the first place. Dean --the demon that looked like Dean-- wasn’t murdering its way across the country. In fact, with the sole exceptions of what it was doing to Sam himself, and the incident with Jace, he still couldn’t see that the demon was doing much to bother anyone.

Not any more than Dean had done when alive.

Sam sighed and leaned more heavily against the Impala's door. The demon was still inside the rest-stop lobby while Sam sweltered in the car. Sam was hot and annoyed enough to even briefly consider picking the handcuffs --sure, they were spelled, but they also had a keyhole and he hadn’t actually tried it before-- but he was wary about what Dean’s promised ‘next step’ would be. And what was he going to do? Was he going to flee into the woods? Beg a trucker to take him on?

That probably would send the demon off on a killing spree.

Maybe just go inside where it was air conditioned.

Sam shifted again, the bare skin of his arms sticking to the leather as he tried to get comfortable. He had no idea why the hell it was dragging him along, anyways. So far, the only thing he had added to the trip was to give it something to play with. Which, really, for a demon might be enough right there. Sam turned his face to the window and jerked against the handcuff, startled. Dean was standing right there, watching him with a frown. The demon walked around and slid into the driver’s seat without speaking. He dropped a handful of Welcome To Texas! brochures onto the seat between them and pulled back out onto the Interstate.

It caught Sam looking at the brochures and gave a half shrug. “Lady at the counter seemed insistent I take them. Easier not to argue with her.”

Sam turned away and stared out the window until the heat, boredom, and late afternoon finally lulled him to sleep.

When he woke up, it was dark and the Impala was parked in front of some anonymous motel. Dean was shaking his shoulder. “C’mon, Sam. Time to get out.”

Sam shook his head groggily. His hand was uncuffed and he stared at it for a moment. Then Dean was opening his door and pulling him out into the parking lot. Sam leaned against the car while Dean hauled their bags from the trunk. He stood there until Dean grabbed his arm again, pulling him towards the building, and then into their room.

The A/C was blasting cold air heavy with the odor of cleaning products. Sam sank gratefully down onto the edge of one of the queen-sized beds and rested his head in his hands. He desperately needed a shower, but he wasn’t sure he would be able to get back on his feet. Then Dean’s hands were on him.

“Lie back," the demon coaxed, prodding him until Sam stretched himself out with his arm in easy reach of the headboard. "I’m gonna go find us something to eat.”

Sam watched blankly as Dean shackled his wrist to the bed frame. He closed his eyes against the flare of the handcuffs spell-set and fell back asleep.


~~~~~


“You need to eat.”

Sam made a disgruntled sound and tried to turn his face back into the pillow. Dean hauled him up and Sam squinted against the lights. Both of his hands were free and the demon stuffed a wrapped sandwich into one. The idea of food made Sam feel nauseous and he dropped the sandwich on the bed to rub at his eyes again. He actually wasn't entirely sure what the last thing he'd eaten had been. Food hadn't been a real source of interest for him in awhile.

Dean smiled pleasantly and handed the sandwich back. “You can eat on your own or I can go raid a clinic and you can eat through a tube. Your call.”

Sam glared at him but peeled back the wrapper and gamely took a few bites. It tasted like ashes. Dean was humming as he laid down the runes that sealed them in for the night. It felt strange not to see the thick salt lines beneath the window and in front of the door, but he imagined that might be a little more locked-in than the demon wanted. His stomach rolled alarmingly and he bolted for the bathroom.


~~~~~


Dean, for his part, bided his time and observed Sam through the afternoon and evening as his stability eroded. As he fidgeted and shivered and tucked his shaking hands beneath his thighs to hide them. As he stuffed most of the sandwich into the trashcan, crumpled into a ball inside its wrapper as though that would hide from Dean that he had only eaten those first supervised bites. Dean could feel the rising tide of the curse uncoiling through Sam’s body, and he was determined that, one day, Sam would goddamned well ask for what he needed.

It wouldn’t be tonight, though. Dean watched his brother strip down to his t-shirt and boxers in preparation for bed, watched as Sam found endless things to waste time with in the tiny bathroom alcove, pale and tense as he struggled against the deep pull of what his body needed. Looking anywhere but at Dean. He didn't need to look, Dean knew Sam was hyperaware of his slightest gesture, helpless in the face of the curse to be anything else. Dean had let it run longer between them in the past, a subtle punishment to Sam for being still so fucking stubborn, but this was how Dean liked it best. He liked Sam on the raw edge of things, not so frantic that he was tripping over himself in desperation, but not so comfortable in his skin that he could put up much of a fight. Just needy enough, just willing enough

Bored with waiting and figuring that Sam had been strung along enough, Dean casually stripped off his own clothes. He tossed them on the dresser and tugged down the faded comforter on the bed furthest from the window, then turned off the lamp so the room was lit only by the bare bulb over the sink where Sam was standing. Dean had seen better fixtures in places that charged by the hour, but the room seemed clean. Enough that he was willing to let Sam sleep there anyways.

Dean fished the silver blade he reserved for just this purpose from the side of his duffle bag and set it on the nightstand with a deliberate sound that made Sam flinch. Using the same knife gave what happened between them an obvious feel of ritual, and rituals had patterns, and patterns were predictable, and predictability… well, it wasn't really Dean's cup of tea, but he figured the familiarity might help Sam keep it together. Until he decided he'd had enough of being broken and started showing signs of life again. Broken, Sam was worthless, but there was broken and then there was broken. His time in Hell had made Dean an expert on the differences between the two. The real Sam was still in there somewhere, lying under the surface; stubborn, intransigent, and still as utterly useless as he'd started the trip. The passive resistance was getting really old… but that was a problem for the morning.

And Sam was still just standing at the counter, head down and fingers wrapped around the edges of the sink like it could save him from something. There was only one thing in the room that could save Sam from anything, but his brother always had been lousy at knowing where to seek shelter when the storms came. Case in point, the fuck-up with Ruby that had led directly to his current circumstances, but it was only the most glaring example in a laundry list of offences. Another lesson that would have to wait. Thinking of Ruby brought a surge of irritation and suddenly Dean was done with waiting.

“Come to bed,” Dean ordered quietly. He watched the play of muscles in Sam’s back as he tensed and un-tensed, wrestling against both himself and the command. Eventually, inevitably, Sam lost the battle and obeyed, still not meeting Dean's eyes. He stumbled to the bed and climbed under the sheets, turning his back to the demon.

Dean found the lube in his duffle and tossed it casually onto the nightstand before snagging the knife and sliding in behind his brother. He stacked the pillows the way he wanted, and stretched out on the mattress. Done with preliminaries, Dean wrapped one arm around Sam's waist and hauled him back until he had Sam's head resting on his arm and the only thing between them was the thin cotton of Sam's clothes. Sam didn't fight him, but he was so tense it was a miracle nothing broke under the strain.

Dean dropped the knife onto the sheets in front of Sam and licked a stripe across the back of his neck. He rolled his eyes when Sam shuddered.

"That was my tongue, not my dick. If you're going to be such a kill joy about the opening act maybe we should skip it and get right to the show?"

"Fuck you," Sam muttered.

"In a few minutes, if you're good. Now get on with it, while I'm still in the mood to be nice."

Dean wasn't opposed to doing all the work, but there was a certain satisfaction in forcing Sam's cooperation. So he left the knife on the sheets in Sam's easy reach until Sam reached hesitantly for the blade.

Dean didn't flinch when Sam sliced into the wrist of the arm his head was pillowed on. “That’s not deep enough," Dean said, watching blood barely bead to the surface. "Do it again."

Sam took a deep breath and sliced harder along the same track, this time blood welled up and ran down the inside of Dean's wrist. Sam made a small, helpless noise and covered the wound with his mouth. Dean inhaled sharply and dragged Sam even closer. The pain of the wound wasn't of interest, but the soft, wet sounds Sam made as he nursed at the cut made Dean groan and nuzzle into the back of Sam’s neck, grinding his erection against Sam's lower back.

Dean eased Sam’s boxers down one-handed, exposing the curve of his ass as Sam continued to be distracted with Dean's blood. The power it carried easing into the aching places and quieting one need, only to stoke the fire of another. Dean pushed Sam's top leg forward, giving himself better access. He stroked a possessive hand down Sam's thigh and up the inside of his leg, then reached behind himself and patted at the table until he found the lube. Fumbling the cap off one-handed was awkward, but better than disturbing Sam by reclaiming his other arm.

Dean coated his fingers with slick then reached down, easing one finger past the tight ring and into the furnace of Sam's body. The hitch in Sam’s breathing told Dean it was felt, but the steady suction against his arm continued. He wiggled a second finger in, spreading the lube around and stroked gently until Sam pulled away from the cut and sucked in a sharp breath, tensing. After a moment, Dean felt a tentative swipe of tongue across the quickly mending wound on his wrist. Dean healed his flesh reflexively, it was hard to concentrate on keeping the cut open while being distracted by his own part of the curse, but Sam seemed willing to leave it and Dean had already given up all the power he intended to share. The wound closed seamlessly in seconds.

Without Dean's blood and the power it carried to Sam's core, Sam had nothing to focus on but what Dean was doing with his hands. Resistance was beyond him, he needed Dean. With the ache filled a fire was building in Sam's body, igniting at the cellular level with a steadily growing burn that could only be cooled by the touch of Deans hands.

Dean eased another finger in, more for the pleasure of control than anything. Sam tensed a bit at the sting, but relaxed quickly enough again. Dean kissed the back of Sam's shoulder and brushed hair from his face with the fingers of his free hand. Sam said nothing, he never did during sex. He made the most interesting little sounds, but never words.

That was enough foreplay. Torturing Sam was one thing, torturing himself was another. Dean slipped his fingers free and moved his arm from beneath Sam’s head. Sam didn't need direction to roll onto his stomach. Dean finished dragging off Sam’s boxers, then knelt between the legs Sam slid obediently apart for him. His own cock was rigid against his belly. He could see Sam’s fingers clenched white-knuckled, needing Dean's touch. Needing that release.

Still less than pleased with how Dean planned to grant it.

Dean hadn’t let the need go far enough this time that Sam was completely overwhelmed by the magic; he liked it better this way. Even if Sam didn’t want this, knowing his brother was actually aware of what was happening made it feel more like having sex than using a toy. They were both chained to this act, but he doubted Sam would be in a place to hear that for awhile yet, if ever. He pressed more lube into Sam, and slicked what was left on his hand over his cock before dragging Sam up to his knees.

“Relax, just let it happen,” Dean warned. He pressed the head of his cock in, giving Sam only a moment to adjust to the intrusion. He could have used more stretching, but with Dean’s blood running fresh through his body, the only way Sam would still be feeling it tomorrow was if Dean was a little harsher than necessary tonight. Dean really wanted Sam to feel it, even if only a little. Sam’s irritation over the constant reminder while he endured the ache in the Impala was one of the few things Dean knew would distract Sam from his depression. An angry, glaring Sam was better than the suicidal despair he usually projected.

As soon as he felt Sam relax a bit, Dean pushed himself in to the root. Sam hissed in pain and tried to pull away as he was abruptly forced open around Dean's swollen length, but Dean held him firmly in place. Sam trembled but held obediently still. After a moment to collect himself, Dean started an easy rocking he could maintain for awhile, enjoying the smooth clench of muscle and the silky, slick heat of the ride. The discomfort fading, Sam tentatively pressed back, seeking release in the increasing roughness of Dean's movements. He reached between his own legs, but Dean pushed him, forcing Sam to put both hands back down to hold his balance. Sam hung his head but followed the unspoken order. Dean rewarded him by reaching down to find Sam's rigid cock and gave it a few firm strokes with his still slick hand. Sam's breathing grew even more ragged and Dean knew he was close.

The pounding of Sam’s pulse; the sheer pleasure of having him stretched out, submissive and fucking cooperative for once was as good for Dean as the physical sensations and the burn of the curse as it reached completion.

For this cycle.

The whole package might have been enough to tempt Dean away from even his revenge, if he could have guaranteed an eternity of just that room, at just that instant. But pleasures of the moment are fleeting, and Dean only waited until Sam’s orgasm rolled through him, leaving his brother limp and panting, before Dean gave a few last hard, dragging thrusts and spilled himself deep. Sam slumped down onto the mattress, Dean a heavy weight against his back.

Dean's breathing stirred the hair at the back of Sam’s sweaty neck while they both came down. Eventually, he slipped free of Sam’s body and flopped onto his back beside him. Sam kept his face turned away from Dean, but made no effort to move from the bed. Dean knew Sam could barely keep his eyes open, he shoved Sam's t-shirt up as far as he could and ran a gentle hand over his warm, soft skin, starting from Sam's shoulder blades and trailing down to the tops of his thighs. Sam didn't bother protesting, hardly awake enough to argue over something so minor after what they had just finished doing. Enjoying the moment, Dean traced all the scars and imperfections from the hard life his brother had led, idly wondering what Sam could have made of himself had he been called to another life.

Knowing it would never have been allowed.

Sam was special. The demon blood Azazel had infected him with was part of it, but the part that had drawn him to Sam in the first place was innate. Sam was just special, and Dean intended to use him to make all of the demons arrayed against them very, very sorry they had ever heard the name Winchester. Even if Sam's was the first ass he had to kick to make it happen.

Dean went to get a damp washcloth from the sink. He cleaned Sam off, his brother still pliant to touch, then laid a towel down in the wet spot, suspecting that Sam would be unwilling to move even just across the room. “Do you want your boxers?”

Sam rolled over and nodded without opening his eyes, so Dean dropped them on his chest. Sam dragged them back on while Dean tossed the cloth back into the sink. He didn’t protest when Dean curled back around him in the bed, and he slept while Dean sank his own mind into scouring unseen pathways for hints of their enemies’ movements.


~~~~~


“Up and at ‘em, Sam,” Dean said early the next morning as he dragged the sheets off his brother. “Grab a shower, then we need to talk.”

Sam sat up slowly, stiffling a yawn. The aches and misery of the day before had been erased like a fever dream. Well, he ached in some places still. He looked up to see Dean eyeing him knowingly and felt his face flush.

“Up, Sam,” Dean said firmly. “A hot shower will cure all sorts of stuff. I’m gonna go find breakfast. We'll probably hang out for a while, then hit the road around noon.”

Sam swallowed and spoke haltingly, asking a question for the first time in days. “What… what are we waiting for?”

“I told you, bro; we have to talk.”

 

Chapter Twelve

I look at this lifeline stretched way out across my hand
I look at the burned out empty like a plague across the land
                                                  ~It’s Alright, Indigo Girl

Dean was hitting a wall trying to deal with the stupid spell.

He had dragged Sam around like sulking dead weight for long enough. Dean figured his brother had hit enough of a bottom that it was time to start trying to get him interested in life again. If nothing else, he needed Sam to send out some informational feelers because Dean sure as hell wasn't getting anywhere, and the hunter community was unlikely to respond well to his poking around. So far, he had only been able to consult sources that for some reason or another were isolated and hadn't heard rumors of Dean Winchester's untimely demise. If Sam would just get on board with everything, things would go much faster. Dean figured he might be able to sell it better if he could promise to leave Sam alone afterwards, but he honestly didn’t think the spell could be undone. Maybe he could just take his threats back and promise Sam freedom after all the loose ends were tied up. Dean felt confident that if Sam would just pay attention for a little bit, he wouldn’t be so eager to kill himself.

Maybe.

Hopefully.

He was back with biscuits and hot coffee by the time the water in the bathroom shut off and Sam emerged.

Dean gave him a quick appraising look when Sam wasn't watching. His brother looked pretty good, all things considered. A little skinny, but still a fit and impressive presence. There was no visible sign of the bruises Dean knew he had left on him the night before.

Sam gave Dean a wary look as he fished clean clothes out of his duffle bag and pulled them on over damp skin.

Dean slid two of the biscuits and a coffee cup meaningfully towards the other chair at the table and sat across from it.

Sam sat, then shifted his weight immediately with a furious glare at Dean, but said nothing. He slowly unwrapped the first biscuit and seemed prepared to lose himself once more in the aimless depression that had been his residence for most of the last half-year.

“Not today, Sam,” Dean said firmly.

His brother blinked at him. Dean was used to the silence at this point, but something had to give.

“I need your help to stop Lilith and screw her and her party pals over.”

The instant hostility that the mention of Lilith’s name had evoked last time flared again in the recently renewed bond between them, but after a moment, there was a slight waver in resolve and maybe a flicker of interest. Dean took it as encouragement, but he was still surprised when Sam spoke.

“I told you," Sam said evenly, "I don’t help demons.”

“Come on, Sam!" Dean slouched bank in his chair, exasperated. "Enough is enough. It’s been six months now! Does it look like I’m out to wage war and atrocity across the land? I haven’t even gotten a parking ticket; where’s your faith?”

“What about Jace?” Sam asked coolly.

Dean’s expression immediately went flat. “Your little friend Jace was a fucking hunter who was stalking my back-trail. He jumped me with a rosary and a freaking bucket of holy water and tried to force me into a trap. I don’t like traps, Sam, not of any sort when I’m the prey. And I didn’t give him half of what he deserved for it.”

“You didn’t have to kill him!”

Dean frowned, the link between them was humming, but he wasn’t sure with what. The hatred and rage he had expected the topic to bring up were... muted. Sam’s dominant emotion felt more like curiosity than anything else, and the expression in his brother’s hazel eyes seemed more searching than condemning.

“Uh, well... I don’t expect you to believe this, but in point of fact, I didn’t.” There was surprise, but none of the instant denial he had expected ghosting over his brother’s face. Dean's eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Something you want to share with the class, Sam?”

Sam’s face shuttered and he turned his attention back to breakfast. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dean’s hand whipped out snake-fast and his fingers locked around his brother’s forearm, hard enough to sink a whole new set of bruises. Even if only for a little while. Sam tried to pull free and Dean's grip tightened until Sam gasped in pain and stopped struggling. 

“Oh, I think you do, Sam. You knew the little bastard wasn’t dead, and I think you had better come clean with me pretty damn fast, because if I have to find out on my own what’s going on, I don’t think you’re gonna like my methods much.”

Sam glared at him, but Dean could feel that the anger and irritation was only on the surface. Beneath it was still the curiosity, and maybe-- confusion? And definitely pain. He released Sam abruptly and watched his brother rub at the reddened skin of his arm with a grimace.

“Well?” Dean asked pointedly.

“Bobby called,” Sam said, reluctance in every line of his body.

“Fuck, Sam!" Dean sat up straight in his chair. "You’ve been talking to Bobby?”

“No!” Sam said sharply, desperation edging his voice.

Dean remembered Sam's reaction to the threats he'd laid out to keep him in line all those months ago. Threats against Sam's friends, threat's against Bobby in particular. He had no real intention of going after Singer, but nothing would be allowed to jeopardize his plans. Dean waited for his brother to provide more detail.

“He just left a message," Sam elaborated under the weight of Dean's expectant look. "That night when you were gone so long and left the phone. I didn’t talk to him; he doesn’t know anything. He just... Jace showed up and told him I was alive. He wanted to know if that was true. I didn’t talk to him,” Sam repeated with emphasis.

Dean knew he was telling the truth, but he still cursed and flicked a wrapper away across the table to bounce onto the floor.

Sam seemed to take his agitation for a bad sign. “That’s all. I swear.”

“I knew I should have done a better job on the stupid kid,” Dean said. A wave of bafflement across the table caught his attention. Sam was frowning at him.

Dean waved the coffee cup in disgust. “When I walked him to the hospital, after you passed out. I tried to smother or uproot all his memories of us. I didn’t want half the freaking hunters in the region coming after me, you know? But I thought it would be even weirder if his memories of his last hunt just cut off abruptly, so I... must have left too much. Damnit.”

“Walked him to the hospital?”

“What -- you thought he took himself?” Dean snorted. “By the time he was done fighting me over just staunching the wounds he got from jumping a demon in an alley, he wasn’t in shape to string two sentences together, much less walk. It was way easier just to slip inside and walk him myself, with the added bonus of the memory riffling.”

Sam remembered how unnaturally still and unresponsive the demon had been, lying beside him when he had woken up that morning.

“Why didn’t you just kill him?” Sam asked.

“Why would I? He was just a stupid kid. I mean, yeah, sure, now with the possible involvement of a hunter like Bobby Singer, thanks to the idiot, I can really understand the appeal, but at the time--” Dean shrugged.

“You let me think you had!”

“I’ve let you think whatever the fuck you’ve wanted all along on this trip, Sam. If you want to bury your head in the sand and let me use your own blindness to manipulate the hell out of you, that’s your call. I mean, that does seem to be kinda a trend with you and demons, but I can’t make you believe a damn thing.”

Sam’s jaw clenched and his nostrils flared at Dean’s reference to Ruby and the events that had led to the blood-curse in the first place, but after a moment, he relaxed, and picked at the biscuit some more.

Dean watched the process for a moment. “That’s nice art you’re working on, Sam. Full points for creativity. Now try eating it.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Remember what I said about the optionality of food?”

Sam looked rebellious, but started eating at least half of what he was tearing off.

Dean watched him thoughtfully. Sam was focused on something inside himself, but the apathetic tinge and sense of absence was gone. Dean figured that was a good start and pulled the laptop out of his bag to get back to work.


~~~~~


The next morning, Dean kept casting looks at his brother, but Sam seemed as oblivious as usual. Oblivious, but not just sunk into passive existence.

Dean broke the normal routine of eating in the car and found a diner for breakfast. He was comfortable with Sam’s silence when there was nothing beneath it but apathy; he was more disturbed when Sam was clearly preoccupied with something. Pleased that he was taking an interest in life, but concerned about whatever he was dwelling on now.

Something to break up the headache Sam was giving them both was definitely called for.

Inside the diner, Sam more or less maintained his silence until the food arrived. He had placed his order in as few words as possible, and kept giving Dean sidelong looks when he though Dean wasn't watching.

Finally, right before Dean broke down and demanded an explanation, Sam spoke up. “Bobby said some other things in his message.”

Dean groaned. “Not this again.”

“He said he went through the ruins of my house. What ruins would those be, exactly?”

“Ruins are what you get when something burns down.” Dean picked up the plastic menu and checked to see if they had waffles. He'd already placed an order, but it was starting to feel like a waffle kind of morning.

Sam's eyes grew huge and he started to speak before catching himself and leaning forward to ask in tight voice, “You burned my house down?!”

“It was full of stuff I didn’t think needed to be left on its own for anyone to just riffle through,” Dean said casually.

“Bobby or another hunter would have found it eventually; some of that stuff was irreplaceable!”

“They wouldn’t have found it soon enough.”

“Soon enough for what?”

Dean was saved from an immediate answer by the waitress pausing by the table to drop off their plates. Sam ignored his food in favor of fuming.

“What aren't you telling me?” Sam pressed when she was gone.

“I’m glad you’re feeling communicative and all, Sam," Dean said, "but I’m starting to think I preferred you sulking and silent.”

Sam's ignored the subtle threat. “Bobby said there were disaster teams in the area. You get firefighters when a house burns down, not disaster response.”

“Maybe they were bored?”

“What was the disaster, Dean?”

Dean raised an eyebrow when Sam addressed him by name, but didn’t comment on it. “There may have been an earthquake in the same general area about the time we blew town.”

Sam frowned. “That’s not a seismically active area.”

“Well then, I guess the violent shaking of the earth and widespread property damage just confused the crap out of people.”

“What the hell is going on?” Sam demanded.

“Hey,” Dean snapped, “I tried to have this conversation with you about six months ago, and you wanted to feel sorry for yourself and put your hands over your ears. Don’t bitch at me because you don’t know what’s going on in the world now.”

“Feel sorry for myself?!” Sam hissed, trying to keep his voice under control, wary of the attention their heated discussion was already drawing. “I’m being hunted by demons, who want to use me to kick off the Apocalypse. I finally get some safe ground, and then another demon, who looks like my dead brother, shows up at my house, assaults me, then drags me off claiming he wants my help to stop Lilith. Ironically, the same thing the last demon who wanted my help claimed, and look what an exciting souvenir I got from that experiment.”

“Yeah,” Dean said casually between bites of his omlet, “but she was a lying bitch, and I’m your brother. Besides, I didn’t assault you, Sam. You were a totally willing participant. Damn near tore your own clothes off trying to help me out.” Sam's face was turning what was probably an unhealthy shade of red. “Are you going to eat those?” Dean pointed to Sam’s hash browns.

Sam didn’t reply, just clenched and unclenched his fists a few times, staring back out the window in anger.

It was a few minutes before he spoke again. “I want to use the laptop.”

“Yeah, how about ‘no’. Does ‘no’ work for you?”

Another frustrated look. “I’m not going to contact anyone, I just want to do some research.”

Dean sighed and pushed his plate away, appetite spoiled. “What is it you want to know, Sam?”

“The earthquake," Sam said flatly. "I specifically considered that possibility when I picked that place to build because I didn’t want perimeter breaches. It shouldn’t have happened.”

“You underestimated Lilith’s determination.”

Sam seemed to consider that for a moment, then paled. “She’s powerful enough to target me with an earthquake?!”

“Nope. But with enough time and determination, she was able to get enough allies who could work together to bring one off. Even then, it took a few years to set the pressure up.” Dean grinned. “Must have cost her a lot of political kudos when she still wasn’t able to get her hands on you. I wouldn’t want to be in your pal Ruby’s place. If she’s got a brain in her head, she’s laying so low right now, she makes earthworms look like eagles.”

“You knew there was going to be an earthquake?”

“Like I said, it took her time and focus to bring it together. Anyone paying attention knew something big was in the works; I got a tip and managed to get you out before it went off.”

“How much before it went off?”

“Um... a few hours. Give or take.”

“And if I had been there when it happened?”

“Let’s just say you would have been moving to a new address anyways, and in something probably a lot less comfortable than the Impala.” Dean paused to try a slice of Sam's toast. “Certainly less stylish.”

Sam ignored that. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Dean snorted. “I thought we covered this already. You wouldn’t have believed me anyways; why waste my time?”

Sam glared.

“Is there something else you wanted to eat instead?” Dean asked pointedly, nodding towards the untouched food on his brother’s plate.

Sam shook his head and picked up his fork, thoughts turning inward again.

“Great,” Dean declared. “Now, let’s see if I can get our waitress and find out what this place has for pie.”


~~~~~


Sam had stayed relatively quiet for the rest of the day. He answered questions in monosyllables, but he did answer, which was a stunning change. A few days into a new cycle, the crispness of the emotional link was fading, but Dean could still tell that Sam was actively thinking about things counter on tumblrinstead of just passively existing.

On the morning of the third day, when Dean walked back into the room from his usual raid on the office muffins and juice --when the office had muffins and juice-- Sam was sitting on the bed, waiting for him. It was unusual, because nothing was packed or ready to go.

“You have plans for today you haven’t told me about, Sam?”

“I want to know what’s going on.”

Dean pursed his lips and set the food down on the table. “Kind of an odd statement from you.”

“Look, I’m not going to pretend to be happy or promise to do anything... I just want to know why you’re doing this. You tried to tell me before, and I... Well, I wasn’t ready to hear it. I am now.”

“So now that you’re ready, I’m supposed to be all excited about it and spill my guts to you?”

“Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass how you feel about it. But there has to be some kind of reason, and you need to tell me, or I honestly might just go insane.”

Dean shrugged and pointed at the other chair. “You eat, I’ll talk."

 

Chapter Thirteen

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
                                              ~First We Take Manhattan, Leonard Cohen

“That’s the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard,” Sam said flatly, when Dean was done explaining what he was up to.

Dean joomla visitorsscowled at him. “You have a better plan, I’m all ears.”

“Just... let me understand this. Your grand plan for vengeance is to find the door to Lucifer’s prison, and move it?”

“Not the door, the place where the door can open," Dean said patiently. "It’s like... a weakness in the barrier between planes, where the Cage itself brushes our reality. And it's already been found; Azazel stumbled over it decades ago. All the angels know where it is. I just have to find the ingredients and cast the spell, or rather, have you cast the spell. That's part of it. You’re the only one who can open the door, and you’re the only one who can move the place it opens.”

“For the sake of discussion, let’s just call it the door.” Sam rubbed at his temple where a headache was staring to build.

Dean shrugged.

“So... the angels all know where this place is, and one of them just happened to tell you while you were hanging out in Hell?”

“Hell has angels too, Sam," Dean said casually. "You didn’t think I crawled back all by myself, did you? I mean, I’m awesome, but maybe not quite that awesome, you know?”

“Hell has angels? You mean fallen ones?”

“Nope, sorry. The whole Heaven and Hell thing is a little more complicated than you think. But it doesn’t change what we have to do.”

Sam looked like he wanted to pursue that line of questioning, but then he shook his head. “Why does it have to be me? All this, just because I swallowed some of Yellow Eyes’ blood when I was a baby, and then survived his twisted little gauntlet?”

Dean moved to the bed by the table and swung his legs up onto the overblown pastel flowers of the comforter. They only used the one bed, but it was beneficial not to stick out in people’s memories, and in the places they stayed, a couple of guys getting a room with one bed was noteworthy.

“Not really, Sam," Dean said, almost apologetically. "It was always you. The blood woke up some natural gifts you have, and maybe carved itself a nice niche, but you were conceived into this role.”

“To be the magic prison key?” Sam asked skeptically.

“To be Lucifer’s Earthly Vessel. The rest is just a bonus.”

“What the hell does that mean?!” 

“Well, it means that the grand plan here is that after you oh-so-helpfully assist Lilith to open the door to his prison, Lucifer has plans to slip you on like a prom dress and parade around in your skin, doing generally whatever the hell he likes to the planet. Good odds are on a barbeque, but I suppose he could just really have a desperate need to play the back nine. You know, Apocalypse-ish type things.”

Sam laughed, but without humor. “This is insane.”

“And my plan is retarded. You in?”

“What the hell does it accomplish? So you move the weakness or whatever and buy a few years, and then we're right back to where we are right now. Screwed.”

“It’s not a few years," Dean insisted. "Lucifer was locked up millennia ago. So long ago, there is no meaningful human understanding of how much time has passed, and his followers have been searching ever since. We move it now, and this whole thing goes poof. It won’t matter anymore how many Seals have been smashed, or how much demon blood gets pumped into you, or how appealing the idea of smearing Lilith across a wall gets. And it is appealing," Dean said," I'm completely with you on that. Without access to that door, the demons have no game plan. They are right back to square one, scouring the planet for another couple of epochs trying to find the cracks where that monster they call their god can whisper at them.”

“And you would be the only one of them who has the information.” Sam licked his lips nervously, wanting to believe and wary of that very desire. He'd heard good stories from demons before. "The only one who knows where the door is. That would put a lot of power in your hands."

Dean could feel the icy walls of resistance starting to creep back up.

“No, Sam. You’re the only one who will know where it is. You’re the one who’s going to move it, and you are the only one who will know.”

“Until you rip it out of me, or catch me... vulnerable, and hold back until I tell you. We both know you can get anything you want from me if just you wait long enough."

Dean looked at him, considering, for a few minutes. Sam looked anywhere else.

“I’m a demon, Sam,” Dean finally said.

“I get that, Dean. I really, really do.”

“Demons make deals. I’ll make you a deal if you want. Right now.”

Sam looked at him then, startled.

Dean nodded. “You help me cast this spell, that I swear won’t do anything but move the opening to Lucifer’s prison for the sole purpose of preventing the Apocalypse anytime soon, with no other payoff to me except giving Lilith and her followers their just rewards. And saving you from them, of course. And in return, I swear that I will never in any way ask you or try to obtain from you the new location. In fact,” Dean’s smile was feral, “I will dedicate myself to making sure no one can get that information from you. Since we have to stay together and all, anyways.”

Sam still looked uncertain.

“Come on, Sam," Dean coaxed. "Demons have to keep their deals; you know that.”

“Let me think about it.”

“What is there to think about? It’s a sweet deal. Just say yes, and we can get this party started. You like parties don’t you, Sammy?”

Sam scowled. “I said give me a little while, Dean! Deals with demons haven’t exactly worked out well for our family in the past. I’m not going to agree to anything until I think about it! And don’t call me that.”

Dean rolled his eyes and stood up. “Fine then. You done eating?”

“Yeah.”

“Great. I’m going out. You’re staying here.” He pulled the silvery handcuffs from his back pocket. “Bed or table?”


~~~~~


Dean didn’t have much to do in town, so he took the Impala to a do-it-yourself carwash and spent a few hours detailing her exterior and interior. With every pass of his hands over her sleek surface, he felt more of the jumbled memories of his past smooth into coherency. It was amazing how much comfort he took from an act that only months ago had been an alien exercise, irritating in its monotony and frustrating in its necessity. Now it was an important ritual that felt as familiar to him as the air he forced in and out of his lungs as part of his mimicry of life. A mimicry few demons bothered with when the body they inhabited was dead, but Dean had reasons it was necessary, and Sam’s stability --while important-- was only one.

When he got back, Sam was sitting on the bed, flipping through the complimentary Bible that had been stuffed in the nightstand.

“Good stuff?”

Sam didn’t reply, but he closed the book and dropped it carelessly onto the mattress. “You want my help, I need more from you than just a promise not to ask me about the location.”

“Well, that all depends on what you want, I suppose. If it’s about the curse, you can bite me. I already told you that’s a permanent bind.”

Sam took a deep breath and nodded. “I know; this is other stuff.”

Dean hopped up on the edge of the dresser. “Shoot.”

“I want your promise that you won’t hurt people while we do this. I don’t want to be tripping over bodies or worried about what you might be doing when I can’t see you.”

“That’s a pretty broad condition, Sam, and the things we are up against aren’t going to be playing so nicely.”

“No innocents then.”

Dean snorted. “When was the last time you met someone who was innocent?”

Sam glared. “I’m not playing around here, Dean. I won’t agree to anything that doesn’t include some kind of guarantee that I’m not going to be helping you hurt people! You have to promise me that you won’t hurt anyone unless it is absolutely necessary, that I would think it’s necessary. I don’t give a damn what you do to the other demons, and I know there may not be anything you can do about their hosts, but I don’t want you hurting anyone else.”

“I won’t let your bleeding heart stop this spell, Sam,” Dean said levelly. “And I won’t not defend myself, or you. Proactively, if I have to.”

“You know what I’m asking, Dean.”

“Fine. I promise to not kill anyone for the sheer entertainment of it.”

“You need to promise not to kill anyone who isn’t directly endangering one of our lives--” Dean looked amused at that, Sam scowled and continued, “--or whatever, or who is actually working to free Lucifer.”

“Or who I deem absolutely has to die.”

“Only if I’d agree.”

Dean crossed his arms over his chest and glowered.

“And you can’t keep threatening me with other people,” Sam added. “We strike this deal, I’ve agreed to help you out as long as you hold up your end. I don’t want to maybe stay too late at a library and find out you slaughtered a few local hunters because you thought I ran off and broke the bargain.”

The demon's eyes narrowed. “You step out on me, Sam, and it isn’t other people you’ll need to worry about.”

“Exactly. This is between us. I mean it, Dean; this is the line for me.”

And Dean had no doubt that he meant it.

“Fine.”

Sam blinked. “That’s it?”

“Well, no. There’s the little matter of sealing the bargain, but otherwise... yeah, fine.”

“I help you move this weakness, I never have to tell you where it goes, you don’t kill people like we talked about, and you don’t hold anyone’s life over my head.” He hesitated when Dean just nodded. “What do you mean ‘seal the deal’?”

“You’ve been around the block a few times; you know how demons seal deals.”

“You aren’t serious,” Sam said flatly.

“Now, now. We should stick with tradition on this. You wouldn’t want to leave me any loopholes to wriggle out of later, would you?”

Sam pulled his wrist so the handcuff rattled against the bed frame.

“Should I just sail a kiss across the room?” he asked sarcastically.

Dean rolled his eyes and walked over to sit on the bed beside his brother. He reached out and brushed his fingers over Sam's wrist, the handcuff fastened there fell away silently. “It’s odd to be doing this with you so… aware.”

“It’s just a kiss,” Sam said, resisting the urge to cross his arms defensively.

Dean shrugged. “Maybe, but you have to do the kissing this time, Sam.”

Sam grimaced, then leaned in and pressed a fleeting touch of lips to the demon’s mouth. “There.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. Try again. Slower.”

“You say you want my help, that you wanted to save me; why the hell are you torturing me now?”

“I agreed to all your terms, Sam. The least you can do is give me one lousy kiss. It’s your deal, and this is the way deals are sealed.”

Sam cursed under his breath but leaned in again. This time, the kiss was more lingering, but still just a brush of skin.

Dean sighed and bit the inside of his lip so blood seeped into his mouth. He grabbed Sam’s head, holding his brother still, and slipped his tongue into his mouth when Sam gasped in surprise. That single hint of blood was enough to dissolve Sam’s immediate resistance, and he melted into the sort of kiss demons had been sealing deals with since humans had first started making them.

Dean allowed the cut to heal up almost instantly, then pulled his mouth away, coaxing Sam down onto the bed until he was lying pressed against Dean's side.

“Why did you do that to me?” Sam asked a few minutes later in a barely audible voice. Dean could feel Sam’s erection pressing against his thigh and he wrapped his arm around Sam's hunched shoulders.

“Convenience. We needed to seal the deal, and I needed to prove a point.”

“What point could you possibly have been proving?” Sam pushed at him and Dean let him go so there was some space between them. “I know I’m addicted to your blood; I know what it does to me. I won’t need it for at least a week, so I don’t see any point but humiliation here.”

Dean crossed his arms behind his head. “You never ask. You let it drag out until you’re actually in pain, and then when I force the matter, you freaking hate me. I mean, you hate me anyways, but it’s worse those times when I push it while you're still, you know, sane. I didn’t do this to you, Sam. I’m tired of taking the rap for it.”

“How does what you just did have anything to do with that?” Sam asked bitterly.

Dean turned his head to face him and raised an eyebrow. “How are you doing over there, Sam? Clawing your clothes off, desperate to reach me? Or are your jeans just a little tight and you could do with a few minutes and some privacy?”

Sam looked suddenly thoughtful.

My point,” Dean stressed, “is that it doesn’t always have to be a painful and mindless ordeal. If you don’t wait until you are so far gone you’re barely even conscious of what’s happening, you can have more control. Hell, if you promise to actually maintain yourself so that we both don’t have to suffer, you can have all the control over the where and when. And if it’s often enough, you might be able to stay in control enough to have some say over the what part too. Maybe it won't knock you on your ass afterwards if you aren't so screwed up first from running on empty.”

“So…" Sam said slowly, testing the idea out, "if I take a little bit from you every day, it wouldn’t be any worse than this now? I could, uh, handle it myself?”

“I didn’t say that; you got barely a hint this time. Even if you fed every day, that small of an amount would still get you strung out over a month or so. Besides, it takes energy just to do the exchange, from both of us. Eventually, we would both be exhausted, and that’s not a good survival strategy. But every couple of days? Maybe once a week? A little blood, a little sex-- sure. The ‘yourself’ part isn’t going to work, though. This is a 'we' thing.”

Sam scowled and squirmed back a few more inches. “It wasn’t like this with Ruby. Sometimes, she would take off for a week or so at a time when we were traveling and just leave me with some blood in a flask. Why can’t we just do that?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You might not have been, shall we say, overcome, every time you drank from the flask, but I bet you guys had one marathon session every time she filled it up, and I bet you felt like crap just about from the moment she finished, until about the moment you downed the last drop in the flask. And I also bet she didn’t abandon you with some bottled blood that often either. Lilith would have killed her. Or, you know. How am I doing so far?”

“Why would you think I felt bad?”

“Did you?” Dean raised an eyebrow.

Sam frowned. “Maybe. I felt bad most of the time then. It was right after… I wasn’t doing well.”

“Uh... let’s just say that filling up the bottle took a lot out of her, but the sex took a lot out of you. Stuff she shouldn’t have taken, and the taking wiped you out, but the stuff that should have replaced it was in the bottle. So you felt like crap until you finished the flask. It was risky, and retarded, and dangerous for you both. It wouldn’t have worked at all if human psychics didn’t replenish so damn slow.”

Sam stared. “You know that made no sense at all, right?”

Dean didn’t say anything for a little while, then he reached out and ran his bare hand up under Sam’s shirt against his skin. Sam jumped and his face tensed, but it wasn’t in pain. Quite the opposite.

“Scoot back and roll over, let me just… put my arm around you while you take care of that,” Dean muttered, reaching for him. “It’s as much privacy as I can give you for this, Sam.”

Sam looked reluctant, but considering how things usually ran between them, the offer was attractive. He shifted until he was on his side with Dean pressed against his back. With as little blood as he had taken in, the need wasn’t the overwhelming, all-consuming thing it tended to be; still a compulsion he could feel building with every second that passed, but not the black-out inducing insanity. He slipped the button loose and unzipped his pants, reaching inside to work his cock with quick strokes. The pressure of Dean's bare arm against the skin of his waist was... arousing, like Dean was touching far more sensitive areas than he really was; as he came, Sam felt like he was almost pouring himself into that point of contact, tugged loose from his body and drained away…

When Sam had recovered somewhat and was starting to tense again, Dean sat up and moved away.

“Why don’t you go take a shower and get your head together. Then we should probably talk a little more.”

“About what?” Sam asked warily, still flushed from his release.

“The freaking curse, if nothing else. But since we have this shiny new partnership, I thought we might want to also talk about the next step.”

Sam drew a deep breath, and then: “Yeah, okay.”


~~~~~


Sam stalked out of the bathroom about twenty minutes later, pulling the same clothes back on since laundry hadn’t been a recent priority. “How exactly are you suffering in this deal again?!”

Dean rolled his eyes. “A little slow there, Sammy.”

“Stop calling me that,” Sam snapped. “And answer the damn question!”

“You mean besides the non-stop angst and recent whining?” Dean snorted. “What did Ruby tell you about the curse?”

Sam frowned and leaned against the wall, arms crossed, trying to remember her exact words.

“Um… that Lilith made it, and it tied me to her with sex, blood and power. That it would kill me if I walked away. That’s pretty much it; the details filled themselves in,” he added darkly.

“Well,” Dean stretched out, “can’t say she really lied there. Did a good job of twisting it up, but all of it is technically truth.”

“What do you mean she ‘twisted it up’?”

“The power’s the key; that’s what the entire thing is about. Remember how I said you have natural gifts?”

Sam nodded cautiously.

“Well, some people are just born like that, but they never tap into that potential, and live normal lives and have normal deaths--”

“But not me; my gifts are tainted by demon blood,” Sam cut in harshly.

Dean rolled his eyes again. “Don’t be such a drama queen; we have plenty of real drama to slog through. Your gifts are fine, Sam. They aren’t ‘tainted’. What Azazel did was force them open, instead of waiting to see if they would develop on their own, and make sure he set a nice, deep channel tuned into demon-radio down in your brain. He couldn’t give you something you didn’t already have. I mean, he could, but only if you worshipped him like a witch. Not when you were a baby.”

“But my visions--”

“Were your own,” Dean said calmly, rolling his head so he could see Sam’s face. “Oh, they were influenced by Yellow Eyes, no doubt, but that’s the channel, not the gift.”

Sam took a moment to digest that idea. “Okay," he finally said, "so, saying I believe you, what does this have to do with the curse?”

“You’ve got a strong gift, but between the channel Azazel gave you and your propensity to, let’s say, a biblical sort of power scale courtesy of your theoretical destiny as a prom dress…” Sam scowled at him; Dean grinned and continued. “You can also handle demonic power, which is more potent, and a lot more useful for killing demons.”

“Like Lilith.” Sam’s voice was almost inaudible.

But the demon had sharp ears. “Right ...like Lilith.”

“The last Seal.”

The silence sat for a moment before Dean spoke up. “You found out in time, Sam.”

Sam just shook his head and waved a ‘go on’ gesture.

“Okay then, well, your own power fills up the space you have to hold it, but that’s the same place you hold demonic power. Blood is the easiest way to transfer demonic power to you, so in order to get you all in shape to butcher Lilith, and really -- that’s such a nice thought, I’d like to pause for a few minutes and imagine just what that moment would be like.” He sighed happily.

“Dean,” Sam said tightly.

“Right, killjoy. So, Ruby made sure you started drinking the blood. And Lilith made sure you had to keep drinking it with the curse. But that power that you get comes from somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ is the blood donor. Due to just the freaking nature of what’s happening, the demon has to lose about twice the power you absorb in feeding off of them, and that leaves them pretty weak. But the power you are taking in is displacing your natural energy. Normally, given what little I know about human psychics and how this was explained to me, that would just kind of dissipate on its own, but Ruby was also your guardian, and the only demon who understood the real game plan except for the puppet mistress herself, so Lilith couldn’t afford to have Ruby that strapped for strength all the time. Do you see where this is going, Sam?”

“The sex,” Sam said flatly.

“Exactly. All that loose, clean psychic energy of yours, instead of just vanishing naturally, zings around your body like pinballs, getting you all riled up and desperate. Making sure you have to get some skin-to-skin time with your demonic play-pal immediately. Because that energy only has one home, back into the tank of the demon you’re bonded to. It's a trade. Demons naturally corrupt whatever they have enough exposure to. It’s nothing to turn what they take back from you into energy they can use. I mean, sure, the demon would regenerate that missing energy eventually, but not overnight, and it could mean the difference between keeping you alive in a pinch, or losing their only chance for victory in this generation. Lucifer would be very unhappy with his premier pet if he was forced to stay one moment longer in the box waiting for another proper Vessel to show up, because she was careless enough to let you get killed by her own team.”

“Let me see if I understand this; I have a natural psychic well, for lack of a better word, full of psychic energy. I drink demon blood, which transfers demonic energy to me, that takes the place of the natural energy and causes the natural energy to run loose and makes me… crazy, so that I have to touch the demon who gave me the demonic energy, and the touching transfers my loose natural energy to the demon to replace what they gave me.”

“I always knew you were a smart boy.”

“None of which requires sex! We can hold hands or something if it's just a skin-to-skin thing.”

“Does it feel like it's just a skin-to-skin thing? I didn’t make the spell, Sam. You got a problem, take it up with Lilith. Her goal was to make sure you were as firmly under her foot, which was Ruby’s foot, as possible. Making you desperate for sex with her, and the energy transfer dependent on it, probably seemed like a freaking good idea. If Ruby was the center of your life, makes it a lot less likely you would be listening to anyone else or getting distracted from the end goal.” Dean shrugged.

Sam slid down the wall to sit on the floor. “Fuck.”

“That another one of your big college words?”

Sam glared at him. “What about the mind-reading?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about there,” Dean hedged.

“I can’t tell you how much I’m not in the mood for bullshit right now, Dean. I know damn well you can read my mind sometimes.”

“I really can’t, Sam.”

“Then how the hell do you know the things you do about me?!”

Dean sighed. “Not your mind, your emotions, or your physical state. It changes.”

“What?”

“For the few days after you feed, I can read your emotions pretty clearly, and your physical state a little, and then that gradually shifts until I can feel how badly you are in need crystal clear, and not how you are feeling much at all.”

“I get the physical part, Lilith wouldn’t have wanted Ruby to let it go too long and get me killed. I don’t get the other.”

“Maybe so Ruby could tell if you had figured it out and were contemplating suicide? Maybe just so she could fake a real emotionally sensitive girlfriend for you? You emo guys like that, right? Maybe Lilith just sucks with her spellwork; how the hell should I know?”

“You seem to know everything else,” Sam argued, ignoring the dig.

“I know what I need to,” Dean said flatly.

“Except, apparently, how to move the doorway," Sam said pointedly. "Which is the supposed point of all of this.”

“I know that too!” Dean retorted, defensively.

“You haven’t been tearing around the country trying to find some kind of spell for that?”

“No,” Dean snapped, “I already have the spell. I told you that.”

“Then what the hell are we sitting here for?” Sam snapped back. “If you have the spell, and you know what we need, then why have you been dragging me all over the fucking world? Let’s get the stuff, go cast it, and get it over with.”

Dean seemed to be finding a spot on the wall suddenly very interesting. Sam’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“You do know what we need, don’t you?” Sam asked ominously. Dean shifted uneasily. “How the hell can you have the spell and not know what we need to cast it?” Sam demanded.

Dean muttered something.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said with deadly calm. “I didn’t quite catch that.”

“I said I couldn’t read it,” Dean growled. “I’ve been trying to find someone who can translate it, so I can get what we need and get on with the casting already!”

Sam stared at him. He started to say something, then cut off and shook his head. He tried again. “You -- you need someone to translate it? That’s what this has all been about?”

Dean shrugged. Sam exploded.

“We have been on the road for six fucking months, Dean. Six months you have dragged me from one side of this country to the other, and you can’t even read the damn thing!” He took a deep breath and tried to calm down, but every time he looked at Dean, the rage bubbled back up. “Did you think of asking me? What the fuck do you think I have been doing for the last seven years?!”

“Of course I wanted to ask you, Sam! Hell, half the people I tried to ask said I should go ask Sam Smith. Well,” Dean added thoughtfully, “the ones who hadn’t heard about your little house fire anyways.” Sam growled, Dean hurried on. “But what was I supposed to do? You’ve been fucked in the head and so damn sick with it all the time. You were fighting me tooth and nail over something as simple as saving your life.” Dean slumped back a bit and ran his hands through his hair. “I mean, half the time I could barely even tell you were alive in there, Sam. How was I supposed to get your attention enough to ask without you just assuming it was part of my deep, dark plot to spring Lucifer?”

Sam felt his anger recede somewhat, and a hint of the bone-deep apathy that had plagued him during the past few months take its place. “You kidnapped me, threatened me and fucking raped me, Dean. You destroyed my entire life and took what few choices I still had away from me. You’re pissed you couldn’t… what, get me to open up?”

“No, Sam,” Dean said, frustrated. “I get that. I never expected anything else. But don’t you get all pissy for being dragged around wasting time for six months when it’s taken every freaking minute of that time to get you to a place where you are even willing to talk to me on your own.” Dean glared at him.

“Okay. Okay. Fuck it, you know what? Fine. That’s past.” Sam took another deep breath and let it out slowly. This was accomplishing nothing. “Let me see the spell then.”

Dean eyed him a bit warily but pulled a folded up, tattered piece of yellow legal paper out of his pocket and offered it to Sam. Sam gave him an incredulous look but said nothing as he took it. He walked over to sit on the other bed, then frowned and swept all of Dean’s stuff off the central nightstand, ignoring Dean’s offended yelp, and gently tried to smooth the paper out on it so he could read it under the lamp. It only took him a moment to realize he couldn’t.

Dean picked up on his expression. “No joy?”

Sam felt a hint of professional offense at the resigned tone to his voice. “It looks familiar.”

Dean perked up.

“But I don’t know where from yet,” Sam cautioned. “It could take a while.”

Dean stood up and clapped him on the shoulder, smiling. “That’s better than anyone else has been able to do.” He reached for his boots. “Take your time. I’m gonna go find some food. Looks like I was right about your being able to stay awake.”

“I could sleep, but it’s not dragging me down.”

“Good to know. You need anything before I go?”

“Those books of mine out of the trunk,” Sam said absently. He was stretched out on his belly, already absorbed in the strange sigils on the paper, trying to tease from his brain a hint of where he had seen their likeness before. The words seemed to be a medium length paragraph at the top of the page, and then a short list below it. To the side was a strangely compelling spiral-type design. Nothing on the page was remotely intelligible to Sam’s eyes, though there was definitely something familiar in it.

Dean came back into the room carrying a crate of books a few minutes later. When he sat them on the edge of the nightstand, one balanced precariously on top fell to the floor. As Sam reached for it, his fingers touched the cool, spelled metal of the handcuffs Dean usually secured him with, brushed carelessly onto the floor with the rest of Dean’s stuff. Sam froze for a moment before lifting the book back onto the bed with him. Dean was still standing by the bed quietly, where Sam knew he could clearly see the cuffs. Dean said nothing, and didn’t move, so Sam rolled onto his hip to see his face. Dean met his gaze calmly but with steel in his expression. “I’ll be back in about twenty minutes.”

Sam nodded slowly, understanding what was being offered. “I’ll be here.”

Dean eyed him a moment longer before giving a short nod and leaving.


~~~~~


“You have to let me call Bobby,” Sam said finally, after flipping through his books for a few hours.

“Not a chance,” Dean said, not bothering to glance away from the infomercial he was watching.

“I’m serious, Dean.”

“Yeah, me too. Not a chance.”

“Look, you cremated my library. Bobby is the only other person who has the books I need and is likely to let us look at them.”

Dean muted the television and turned to face Sam. “We can steal them, just tell me where.”

“No. There are a thousand reasons for us to talk to Bobby, and only one reason for us not to.”

The demon’s green eyes flickered black and he cocked his head. “Yeah, but that one reason is a pretty big one, don’t you think? It's bad enough trying to keep under the radar as it is; the last thing we need is hunters coming after us too.”

“He won’t call them,” Sam promised, having a hard time looking at his brother’s face with his eyes like that.

“You don’t know that.”

“Just let me talk to him; I can make him understand.”

“Because you were so understanding yourself about the situation.” 

“It’s not the same," Sam insisted. "Bobby knows how paranoid I am about demons. If I tell him I’m on board with this, he'll at least hear us out.” Sam didn’t add that Bobby also knew how obsessed he had been about getting Dean out of Hell, and how he had made Bobby promise to kill him if it looked like he was falling back in with demons.

The demon blinked, and its eyes were once again his brother’s. It said nothing.

“We have a deal,” Sam said, frustrated. “I promised I would help you. I just want this whole thing over with, and I don’t think we're going to make any progress at all unless I can get my hands on an occult library and figure out what this thing says. You also said it’s supposed to list the ingredients? Well, that sounds like the sort of thing that might also be useful to have Bobby’s help with. I doubt it’s going to be things like ‘salt’. Bobby knows about deals too. I’ll tell him what you promised.”

“If I let you do this, and he send hunters after us, you know I’m going to have to kill them, right? That’s also in our deal.”

Sam swallowed hard and nodded.

Dean shrugged and tossed him a cell phone from his pocket. “Your call then; as long as I don’t have to hear the bitching when it blows up in our faces and I have to clean it up.”

Sam glared and snatched the phone

“Well?” the demon asked pointedly, after Sam had sat staring at the phone for a few minutes without dialing.

“I’m thinking.”

“Thinking this is a bad idea that’s going to turn into a colossal disaster? Because I’m with you there.”

Sam scowled at him.

“Or thinking of how you’re going to explain this to Bobby in a way that doesn’t end with a body count in the double digits? Because that’s a pretty likely result of this conversation too,” Dean offered.

“I can think better if you shut up.”

Dean shrugged and slouched against the wall, arms crossed, watching his brother.

Finally, Sam sighed. “Do you think there is any chance I could do this in private?”

“Depends on if you think the bathroom is private enough or not.”

Sam headed into the tiny bathroom and considered turning the water on to help drown out his conversation, but he didn’t think it would actually impair the demon’s ability to listen in, and would just make it harder for Bobby to hear him.

He dialed the number and took a deep breath.


~~~~~


When Sam finally emerged from the bathroom about twenty minutes later, Dean was waiting in the exact same place.

“So,” the demon drawled, “Bobby all excited about us coming to visit?”

Sam raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think he knows what to think. Hell, I don’t know what to think and I’m in the middle of all of this. He promised to hear us out before he made any decisions.”

Dean snorted. “Generous of him.”

“Look, I think I can keep him calm as long as you don’t do anything stupid,” Sam insisted. “We need help, and Bobby Singer has access to some of the best resources in the hunter community.”

“You have resources too.”

“Yeah, but I’ve been missing under highly suspicious circumstances for half a year; most of my sources will either have gone underground or greet me with shotguns and holy water.”

“Just goes to show that hunters are smarter than your average bear.”

“Yeah, well, it’s going to turn this from a difficult task into an almost impossible one, Dean. At this point, Bobby is my best resource.”

“People never value what comes easy, Sam. Get your stuff together and let’s go. The junkyard is halfway across the country from here and we need to be moving. I don’t know how many Seals are left, but it’s not a lot, and after the last one of them goes, that smug bitch Lilith won’t have anything to distract herself with except getting her hands on you.”

“I don’t understand that either.” Sam gathered his things from the counter and stuffed them in the outside pocket of his duffle bag. “I mean, seven years ago, the demons had already smashed through more than half of the sixty-six Seals, and they did that in, what? From when...” His voice trailed off.

Dean looked up from sliding the laptop into its case. “When I broke the first one?”

Sam nodded. “From then until the angel came to me and told me about Ruby.”

“That isn’t really true, you know. Azazel was plotting this whole thing out from the time he found the Door. Once he knew the Vessel had been born --that’s you, in case you forgot-- even if he didn’t know which one of the kids you were yet, he knew the clock was down to decades and it was time to get things moving. They started working on the Seals right then, not necessarily doing the actual breaking, but getting things lined up so that they could break them as quickly as possible. And then they had all that help from the Gate opening, and after I kicked it off, it was time to start the smashing for real.”

“Then why the sudden slow-down?”

“They weren’t getting any resistance before.”

“What?”

Dean shrugged. “The opposition --in this case, angels from Heaven-- weren’t fighting them. They were just sitting back on their sanctimonious asses, watching the fireworks.”

“Why?!”

“Not entirely sure. My, uh, contact was a little vague about it. Something to do with Vessels. It’s possible they might have had some designs on me at some point.”

“Wait.” Sam’s brow wrinkled in concentration as he thought back to a conversation more than half a decade ago. “The angel who told me about Ruby also talked about you. They couldn’t rescue you from Hell, but they tried to, because you were supposed to fight Lucifer if I set him free.”

“My contact seemed to think Heaven actually wanted the Apocalypse to happen.”

“What? Why?” Sam asked again, horrified.

Dean shrugged again. “But, you know, if they needed my help for some reason to win, and without me they couldn’t...”

“So once you were out of reach, they had to start protecting Seals to stop it all from happening.”

“Exactly.”

“You’re suggesting the angels wanted me to free Lucifer?”

“While they still had a chance to win, sure.”

“And... you were their chance to win?”

“Looks like.”

Sam stared at him. “You’re being awfully blasé about this, Dean.”

Dean grinned and shouldered the laptop and his own duffle bag. “The places I’ve been, Sam --trust me, this is tame. Why the hell would I want to be a freaking patsy for a bunch of angels?”

“You would rather have been in Hell?”

“Well, you know, Hell is what you make of it.”

He turned back when he didn’t hear Sam following him to the door and raised an eyebrow at his brother’s expression.

“You should close your mouth, Sam; flies might get in.”

 

Chapter Fourteen 

And here’s to the few
Who forgive what you do
And the fewer who don’t even care
                                                  ~The Night Comes On, Leonard Cohen

The trip to South Dakota was a strained affair. Sam tried hard to find the rhythm of talk and silences that they had developed over a lifetime of travel together, but it was elusive. The conversations were awkward, and the space between them tense.

Finally, Dean just told him to shut up and sleep, or at least be quiet, and Sam gratefully did that. Neither one of them wanted to bring up any topic that might threaten the fragile truce they had forged, not in the car where there could be no walking away to head off a fight, or space to clear their heads.

They were both grateful when they finally arrived.

Bobby’s junkyard was as ramshackle and rusted as usual to Sam’s eyes.

To Dean’s eyes, it was an entirely new landscape. All of the sigils and wards that had gone unnoticed in his human life glowed or whispered to his senses now. Some were barely aware of him; some didn’t seem to notice him at all. Others flared and screamed when he walked by, reaching out for him, but never connecting. They were designed to react with the sort of demons hunters knew best, and at his core, Dean was a different sort of animal entirely.

Dean wondered if the junkyard had always been like this, or if it was the result of seven years of Bobby having lived with an intimate understanding of exactly what sort of crisis the world was facing.

He ignored most of the protective spellwork, but a few of the wards seemed to find Sam interesting as well, and those he noted carefully.

Bobby himself was standing on the front porch, watching them with an impassive expression.

“Sam.”

“Bobby.” Sam looked nervously over at the sullen presence of the demon lurking a few feet behind him, before focusing back on the older hunter. “Um, how are you?”

Bobby ignored that to turn his attention to the demon. “Sam says you have some plan to head off this whole looming disaster.”

“I hope Sam also told you how this little arrangement works,” Dean replied, with an ominous sort of edge to his voice.

“Yep, he was pretty clear.”

“Great. Now that that’s out of the way -- do you have anything to eat? We’re starving.”

Bobby frowned but stepped aside. “After you.”

Sam gave Bobby a weak smile as he followed Dean into the house, Dean pausing only to give the edge of the devil's trap in the doorway a good scuff with his boot to break the circle.

Dean found his way into the kitchen, kicked back in one of the rickety wooden chairs, and looked around as if he had never seen the room before. He used a foot to nudge a chair towards Sam, who sat down just as Bobby entered the room.

“Drinks?” their host asked gruffly.

“Yeah, hold the holy water on mine, Sam will take his the usual way. That’s what you really want to know, isn’t it?”

Dean,” Sam hissed.

“You losing air there, Sammy? You don’t need to worry about me and Bobby; we’re just getting things straight.”

Bobby slammed a bottle on the table in front of Dean, and slid another one over to Sam before taking his own chair.

“You maybe want to give me some more details on exactly what the hell it is you think you’re doing?”

Dean took a long pull of his beer. “Nope. But I’m good with whatever Sam wants to tell you.”

Sam gave the demon an annoyed look, then shifted his attention back to Bobby. “I told you about the deal he and I have--”

“Yeah, you did. And I don’t know why I even bother trying to tell you anything, Sam. It’s like you never, ever freaking learn. Hasn’t your family had enough dealings with demons to not be striking any more bargains with them?!”

“Hey, speaking as both a demon and part of the family, I resent that!”

“You can claim to be whatever you want, but Dean Winchester died seven years ago. For Sam here’s sake, I’m willing to tolerate you, briefly, but I think this entire little pow-wow is going to go a lot better if you stay where I can see you, and you don’t talk. Understand?”

Dean stood and motioned towards the kitchen window. “Outside there close enough for you?”

“Depends on what you’re doing.”

“Tuning up my car; she’s starting to develop a rattle, and I may as well work out that kink while you guys work out yours,” he shrugged.

Sam choked on his beer. Dean raised an eyebrow in his direction.

“We clear on the ground rules here, Sam?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine, then; you know where I’ll be.”

The silence blanketed the kitchen until the demon was half buried under the Impala’s hood, stripped down to his t-shirt and jeans, cloth riding up to make the dark lines of the spell visible even from the distance through the glass.

“So,” Bobby began a little awkwardly, “when you said he took Ruby’s spell...”

Sam understood the question. “I meant all of it.”

Bobby nodded and seemed to consider that for a moment. “You doing okay?”

“I don’t really have a choice about ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’. Physically, he’s going to drag me along regardless. If I help him, hopefully it will be over sooner.”

“And the… other part. How are you handling that?” Bobby asked with even more awkwardness.

“I’m surviving, Bobby.”

Bobby nodded and moved on -- to Sam’s intense relief.

“If his plan works -- then what? Will it be finished?”

Sam took another sip and didn’t answer.

“Sam?”

“Finished?” Sam finally echoed. “The Apocalypse will be. Without any chance to free Lucifer, the demons don’t have any other option but to start from scratch.”

“Will the curse be over? That thing out there wearing your brother’s skin going to slither on back to its hole and let you go?”

“He says there isn’t any way to undo it.”

“You believe that?”

“I don’t know. I never found a way, or anyone who knew a way, back when Ruby was holding the leash. He’s certainly been a lot more forthcoming about it than Ruby ever was, and as far as I can tell, he hasn’t lied about anything.”

“You didn’t think Ruby had lied about anything either.”

Sam shifted, uncomfortable with the conversation. “Bottom line is, Bobby, I don’t really have a lot of options here.”

“Is he the one that beat Jace up?”

“Jace jumped him in an alley. He’s lucky Dean didn’t kill him.”

“Probably an oversight.”

Sam just looked at him. “You ever know a demon to make a mistake like that?”

Bobby narrowed his eyes, leaning forward in his chair to pin Sam with his gaze. “This isn’t your brother, Sam. You get that, right? Dean’s dead.”

“Demons start out as people, Bobby.”

“And after thousands of years of suffering, become demons for a reason, Sam! And I ain’t never heard of one claiming to be anyone so recently dead.”

“It is Dean, Bobby.”

“Sam...”

“It is. I know that much, Bobby. I know it.” He took a deep breath. “And it doesn’t change anything, either way. He and I have an agreement; he could be the ghost of Hitler and as long as that deal is in play, I would at least listen. The plan sounds… good. Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Bobby sighed and gave up. “Tell me about this big plan then.”


~~~~~


Dean wandered back into the house a few hours later, shirt and skin smeared with grease and a general air of satisfaction about him.

He found Sam at a battered table in what probably started life as a living room, flipping slowly through a tome that Dean could tell even from a distance had been bound with human skin.

“Wow. Bobby has an even weirder collection than I thought.”

Sam jumped in his seat and elbowed a stack of books, scattering them onto the floor at Dean’s voice. He scowled as he bent to pick them up. “Would it be too much trouble to make some noise when you enter a room?”

“Probably.” Dean bent to grab the last two and toss them back on the desk. “Find anything?”

“Not yet.”

“Bobby out back blessing the water tank?”

“He’s downstairs looking for a couple of books for me.”

“So he’s cool then.”

“He’s handling this as well as could be expected.”

Dean quirked a half-smile at the curtness of Sam’s reply. “You want me to go away and leave you alone?”

“For a few days, yes.”

“You don’t have that many days, Sam. And you have a lot fewer if you want to try this whole ‘staying on top of it’ idea I suggested.”

Sam looked around warily, then lowered his voice. “I don’t want to do that at Bobby’s house.”

“I thought he helped you out with the whole Ruby mess? He doesn’t know how it works?”

“Of course he knows how it works! That’s not the point.”

“He let you shack up with the skank here. It’s a curse.” Dean shrugged. “I don’t know why this is any more of an issue now.”

“Do you really not get why this is different, Dean?!”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Fine, we can bail out of here and go get a motel room. Then the precious sanctity of Bobby’s creepy, run-down shack of a house is preserved, and everyone is happy.”

Sam squirmed.

“Or apparently not. What’s wrong with that plan, Sam?’

“Why are we going to tell him we got a motel room, Dean? We always stay here when we’re in town.”

“Because he has an unnatural prejudice against demons; because we heard he has asbestos in his attic; because we want to make wild love in his guest bedroom but we worry about his delicate sensibilities-- pick one! You’re the one who says ‘oh no, not in Bobby’s house’; you come up with something to tell him.”

“He knows how the curse works; he’s going to know,” Sam muttered.

Dean rolled his eyes again. “He’s going to ‘know'? You really are a girl, aren’t you?”

Sam glared.

“Whatever, Sam. Just,” he motioned towards the stacks of books and shelves in general, “do what you need to do, and then we can hit the road again. But if you push this down to the line, I’m not going to give you a say -- understand?”

“I understand.” Sam slumped. “But if the answer isn’t here, where are we even going to go next, Dean? The ritual looks pretty basic, but without knowing what goes into it, or the exact casting, we might as well try this with sugar, pine bark and a bucket of motor oil! The results will be just as useful.”

Dean shrugged. “There’s always another library somewhere. As long as you aren’t in Lilith’s hands, we have a chance.”

Sam nodded, then held a book out towards the demon. “It will go faster if you help; don’t even try to tell me you don’t know what we’re looking for.”

Dean took the book and settled onto the floor against a bookcase. “As long as all I have to do is recognize the language.”

Dean looked up a few minutes later from leafing through the book when he realized he hadn’t heard anything from Sam in awhile. His brother was staring off into space, a look on his face that Dean didn’t like. “Sam?”

“Why would the angels want the Apocalypse, Dean? Aren’t they supposed to be... I don’t know, the good guys? To protect people from demons and stuff?”

“Heaven and Hell are both more complicated, and more simple, than you think, Sam.”

“It can’t be that complicated, Dean. Hell is evil and fucked up, and Heaven is supposed to be... you know, the opposite.”

Dean snorted and looked back down at the tome on his lap. “I won’t argue the fucked up part, but the rest... You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

Sam turned in his chair and opened his mouth to ask something, but right that moment, Bobby stomped into the room.

“I’ve got the Codex. I don’t have the Phineas Prophecy, but I think I can trade Linda a spare copy of one of the Apocrypha for it. You want to add anything else to the shopping list before I start wheeling and dealing?”

“Uhhh, yeah... hang on,” Sam said distractedly, rummaging on the desk for a piece of paper and something to write with.

“I’ve got paper in the kitchen. I’m sure ‘Dean’ can hold the fort down in here while we put in some requests.”

The demon flipped Bobby the bird without looking up.


~~~~~


For days, they tore through Bobby’s library, familiar ground for Sam after the months he had lived there seven years earlier, trying desperately to find a way to save Dean, or at least free himself from Ruby and Lilith’s machinations.

Even with the over-nighted or hand-delivered volumes coming in, nothing led to any clues or hints as to how to decipher the cryptic language of the spell that Dean insisted was legitimate; though he was cagey about providing details about its origin.

One thing to come out of their stay was that Bobby’s tolerance for Dean was grudgingly increasing. He was still in no way happy about having the demon around, or the demon’s tie to Sam, but he had stopped muttering about it and unbent enough for them to even take a trip or two to town together. It wasn’t even a shadow of the almost paternal relationship they had shared while Dean was alive, but it was relaxed enough that Sam was no longer worried he might turn a corner one day to find Bobby dead in a pile of holy water and rock salt and the demon licking blood off his hands with an ‘I warned you’ kind of expression on its face.

Sam spent his nights at Bobby’s in the bed he had shared with his brother through all their childhood visits. As adults, they had flipped a coin for the couch, but Sam had been surprised the demon was willing to give him the space alone now. He wasn’t sure what the demon did for all the hours that Sam slept. Sometimes, when he stirred in the middle of the night, it would be sitting on the floor watching him, or leafing through a book in the dim shadows of the bedroom. Sometimes, it would be gone entirely. Sam had more trouble falling back to sleep those times, though he didn’t speculate on why.

One cool fall morning a little more than a week after they showed up, Sam and Dean loaded up the Impala and said their goodbyes. Well, Sam said goodbye, Dean just leaned against his car and flipped Bobby a sarcastic salute.

Sam was starting to feel the bite of the curse in a way that Dean wasn’t willing to ignore much longer, and they weren’t getting anywhere. It was clear they had exhausted the possibilities of what was immediately available, and Sam had some desire to maybe try a private collection in a church on the East Coast. Dean was also muttering things about Seals again, and expressing an interest in finding out how much more time they had before Sam became the sole focus of Lilith’s attentions. Sam wasn’t sure what he needed to do that, but the answers weren’t at Bobby’s, so it was time to move on.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The music whispers you in urgency
Hold fast to that languageless connection
A thread of known that was unknown and unseen seen
Dangling from inside the fifth direction
                                                  ~Everything In It’s Own Time, Indigo Girls

The Blue Lagoon Motel was a dive by any standard, but it had two things going for it: it was the cheapest place for a hundred miles, and it was across the street from an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

Sam had personally godaddy web statisticsbeen in the mood for more of a salad affair, but Dean’s face had lit up at the neon sign and it was just so… Dean that Sam’s objections had frozen in his throat.

It really hadn’t been half bad, but by the time they finally made it to their room, Sam was regretting the decision. Stress plus fried food and lack of sleep were not combining to add anything positive to his life.

Having won dibs by virtue of locking himself in the bathroom first, Dean seemed like he was planning on living in the shower. He finally emerged to slouch back in a chair with the laptop, and once Sam had gotten his own chance to clean up, he had no desire but sleep.

He curled into the pillows, exhausted…

…and found himself standing on the sidewalk in a busy downtown area with a driving headache. It was bright, with sunshine glinting off of windows and bleached concrete, stabbing into his eyes. People bustled by on both sides of the street in shorts and sandals, indecipherable conversation and laughter, the rush of traffic. It was dizzying, and his jeans and flannel were too warm for the weather. He made his way through the people to a grassy park with ornate, old-fashioned park benches and sank onto one. The thick overhead canopy blocked out some of the painful brightness. Sam's last memory was of lying in bed, but the world around him didn’t feel like a dream, or a vision.

He patted his pockets for his wallet or his cell phone, but they were empty.

And something was very off. Everything was too bright, too sharp, even with the pain in his head -- almost like an artist’s rendition of what the world should be.

A loud slurping beside him made him jump.

“Lose something?” asked the man beside him on the bench, who hadn’t been there a moment before. Long, red hair, green eyes, ragged cut-offs, sandals. Coloring vivid and unnatural, like something from a painting or a cartoon. No one Sam recognized. He could smell the bubblegum flavor of the frozen drink sweating in the guy’s grip. His stomach flipped and he rested his head in his hands, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

“Maybe,” Sam said, rubbing his temples. His head was pounding; he just couldn’t think through the waves.

“I find it useful to think back to the last place I had it when I lose something.”

“Thanks,” Sam muttered.

“Like the Blue Lagoon Motel. Maybe you left it there?” the man commented offhandedly.

Sam sucked in a sharp breath at the mention of the motel he remembered falling asleep in.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“A friend.” The man was still watching the crowd.

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“I didn’t say I was your friend.” Another long slurp. “Dean knows me.”

Sam went cold. The only things Dean was likely to be acquainted with that could do this would be things he met in Hell.

“I’ll tell him you said hi.” Sam stood up. “How do I get out of here?”

The man motioned towards the street in front of them. “There's the road.”

Sam grit his teeth and started walking.

“It is likely to take you quite a while that way, though,” the man called after him thoughtfully. “Would it really be so terrible to be social for a few minutes? I can assure you, your time here would be considerably more... productive.”

Sam stopped walking and turned back.

“Who the hell are you?” People around them looked wary and made an effort to avoid him.

“Come back and sit down. I have no intention of shouting at you, and you’re disturbing the crowd.”

Sam walked back slowly. “This is real?”

The man waited until he had gingerly sat back down. “Real is a variable condition. It means different things in different places.”

“I’m ready to wake up now,” Sam ground out.

The man arched a brow. “Really? For what? Another futile day of wandering aimlessly around the country, trying to decipher a spell that won’t cooperate?”

Sam blinked as the connection made itself -- Dean and his shifty explanations, not wanting to tell Sam about the spell’s origins, his certainty it would work…

“You gave Dean the spell. You’re--” He left the next thought unspoken, unwilling to voice it aloud.

“An angel of Hell? True. And I did help Dean out when he needed a favor, so yes, the spell. He and I have a deal.”

“The spell that no one can read? That’s payment for a debt?”

The man, the angel, watched Sam thoughtfully. “It’s payment for a future debt. This whole mess with Lucifer is very... inconvenient. Lucifer is very inconvenient, and it's time something was done about it. But I prefer to keep my fingerprints off of this entire mess until I’m convinced you two can actually pull it off.”

“Why would you help us keep Lucifer locked up? Isn’t he your leader?”

It rolled its eyes.

“Leader is a concept completely irrelevant to my existence. And certainly if I had one, he isn’t it. I don’t have any great rage to burn out on humanity or my family vibrating on a different plane, nor any desire to see the World wrecked by Lucifer’s frustrated wrath. He can be such a child. We have our own duties and obligations.” It paused to slurp more of its drink. “My ability to see into the World is very limited. Dean is doing me a favor; in return, I agreed to assist him in the matter of his revenge.” It looked at Sam directly. “Time is running short, Samuel. Ask.”

“How do I decipher the spell?”

“The ritual itself should be simple, even for a practitioner of your knowledge and limited skill; it is the ingredients that are problematic. When you have obtained the first one, I will let you in on the next. And so on, until you have everything, then the directions will be deciphered when you are ready for the casting.” It gave Sam a sharp slash of smile. “It’s nice you have this convenient channel already in place; it will let me give you some help along the way, finding what you need. Sorry it took me so long to find the right way to dial in, but now that I’ve found you, I’m sure we won’t have such trouble in the future.” It looked at its bare wrist as though checking a watch. “Time’s all up.”

Sam blinked into the dark room. Hazy shadows from the lights outside the curtain and the red numbers of a cheap alarm clock greeted his sight.

“Sam, what is it?” Dean asked muzzily from beside him on the bed, rousing from wherever he had sent his consciousness, whatever demons did instead of sleep. “I smell blood,” he said more clearly, sitting up beside Sam and reaching for the light.

“No, don’t,” Sam gasped, grabbing his wrist. “No light.” He cringed in pain, clutched at his head. Dean grabbed his chin and forced his face up. Blood smeared Sam’s face where it dripped from his nose, his expression one of agony.

“Fuck,” Dean cursed, and hauled Sam out of bed towards the bathroom.


~~~~~


“So what happened, Sam?”

Sam was lying on the bed again, the bloody pillow tossed onto the floor, his eyes closed, and a washcloth full of ice covering his forehead and eyes. He didn’t really think it was helping matters, but at least it gave him a counterpoint to the throbbing so he had something else to focus on.

“I think I met a friend of yours.”

“All my friends are in this room,” Dean said thinly.

Sam snorted, and immediately regretted it. “This one is from Hell. Said it gave you the spell, and now that it was tuned in to my channel, it could help us find the ingredients.”

Dean brightened. “It told you how to read the list?”

“No. It told me we would never have been able to read it. It doesn’t trust us, so we have to prove ourselves by getting the stupid things. It will unlock one more for each one we get, and maybe give us some direction.”

“Fuck,” Dean growled.

Sam slid the icepack up so he could watch the demon where it paced unhappily in front of the window.

“Maybe you should have hammered out a few more details before you struck whatever deal you did with it.” Sam’s voice had an uncertain note in it.

“What are you getting at?” Dean asked flatly.

“I just want to know what the hell kind of deal you struck with a fallen angel that it’s helping you keep Lucifer locked up over!” Sam cringed as the volume of his own voice set off another wave of pain.

“Like I told you at Bobby’s, Sam, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Dean said derisively.

“Why don’t you enlighten me, then? You keep dropping all these hints about Hell, but you won’t actually tell me anything. You say I have no idea what I’m talking about, but what I know about Hell, Dean, is that it sucks, and all the very worst things that have happened in my life have all started there.”

“Not in Hell, Sam, they started in the Rendering.”

“I don’t know what the fuck that means, Dean.” Sam sounded defeated. “You want me to trust you, and help you, and be a hundred percent on board with this plan of yours, but I always feel like I don’t even have half of the story. You went to Hell for me, died for me, and now you’re a demon, and… I don’t even know how to feel about it. You act like it’s no big deal!”

Silence from the shadows for a few minutes.

“It said it’s going to be contacting you more?”

“Dean--”

“Just answer the question, Sam.”

“It didn’t say that, it implied that.”

“We should find out if blood will heal this too, then, I suppose.”

“Wait a sec--”

“It was going to be tonight or tomorrow anyways, Sam. Can we not fight about this again, please?”

“Fine,” Sam muttered, after long pause. “But I still want you to talk to me.”

“You want to know the truth about Hell, Sam?”

“Yes.”

Dean nodded. “Okay then; you don’t give me any crap about tonight, and if you still want to know in the morning, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Sam closed his eyes as he heard Dean rummage through one of the bags, then sat up and dropped the ice pack on the dresser when the bed sank under his brother’s weight and Dean began almost clinically helping him get undressed.

“Promise?” Sam asked quietly.

Warm lips pressed against his forehead in a soft kiss, then firm hands drew his head down towards the hollow of the demon’s throat, encouraging him to nurse at a deep cut seeping darkness in the dim room.

“I promise. Now drink and let’s get on with the evening.” Sam heard the amusement in his brother’s voice, but any desire he might have had to snap at him was swallowed by the rush of blood.


~~~~~


Sam was drowsy but still awake when Dean slid out of the bed almost an hour later to grab the laptop. He climbed back into bed with it, sheet pulled to his waist and computer settled firmly on his lap. The tattoo on Dean’s hip made Sam’s skin tingle where it brushed against him; Sam’s flesh reacted like that whenever he touched it, regardless of what body it was on. The effect wasn’t necessarily unpleasant so much as distracting, and Sam squirmed back to put some space between them. But it wasn’t the tattoo, or his brother’s apparent intention to do research all night barely two feet from where Sam was supposed to be sleeping, that focused Sam’s attention.

“What is that?”

“What’s what?” Dean asked, distracted by something on the screen.

“That,” Sam tugged at the sheet slightly, “on the inside of your leg.”

“You been admiring my fine physique, Sammy?”

Sam was mellow enough to let that pass without comment. “It looked like a tattoo; you didn’t have one before.”

“You didn’t actually live in my back pocket for our entire lives, Sam. It only felt like it, you know. And then there was the years you were sulking at Stanford; how the hell would you know what I did or didn’t have on the inside of my thigh?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I don’t know, Dean. Maybe it was the three years after Stanford we spent sharing motel rooms and sewing each other up. Or possibly when I had to wash your body after you were butchered by Hellhounds. I suppose I might have noticed then, you know?”

The demon eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged and turned his attention back to the computer. “It’s a lock.”

“A what?”

“A lock, for demons. You do remember Meg, don’t you? That little incident where she put you on like a cheap suit and went on a killing spree? Bobby, hot pokers -- ringing any bells?”

Sam grimaced at the memory and subconsciously rubbed at the smooth patch on his arm where quick thinking by Bobby had burned through the demon sigil that prevented Meg from being exorcised.

“Why do you need a lock? I can’t believe anyone is going to fight you for that body.”

“Locks aren’t just for contested possession, they help resist exorcism from any flesh. And what are you talking about?” Dean sounded offended. “This body is prime real estate! You’re right, though; I hadn’t really thought about doing it until your charming buddy tried to exorcise me in an alley.”

“Jace?”

“The idiot,” Dean snorted. “But it’s possible the next one will be more competent, and I’m attached to this skin; it would irritate the hell out of me to have to find a new one.”

Sam’s eyelids felt too heavy to hold open, and his attention was drifting, but he managed to get out one more question. “Why don’t more demons use them if all you have to do is ink it on?”

“Why don’t more hunters wear anti-possession wards? It’s a matter of knowing, and knowing is a matter of finding out. Most demons are vicious, nasty things, but they’re pretty much frozen where they were when they transformed. They pick up a few tricks they have to have, and never bother looking any further. What ambition they have is limited to causing pain and destruction, and they can do that with brute strength and their natural talents. It’s a rare and dangerous one that pushes for more.”

“Mmmmmmm…”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can’t believe you fought it this long. See you in the morning, Sam.”


~~~~~


The next morning, Sam was slouched in the faded red vinyl booth of a roadside diner when he brought it back up again. “All right, Dean.”

“All right, what?” Dean was distracted from his perusal of the greasy menu. As if they didn’t have exactly the same things every other roadside diner they had ever visited had.

“All right, it’s time to tell me, you know...” Sam lowered his voice. “What you promised you would tell me.” Dean snorted at that. Sam frowned at him. “What?”

“You can’t even say it?”

“I can say it fine. I just don’t want to draw attention to us.”

Dean looked around and made a gesture inviting Sam to take in the entirety of the nearly empty diner.

“If you want to avoid this conversation so much,” Sam accused, “why do you keep getting involved whenever it comes up? You could just not speak up, and I wouldn’t even know there was a conversation to be had.”

“You keep going on about Hell like you have some idea what you’re talking about, and I have trouble biting my tongue.”

“Feel free to clear my misconceptions up for me.” Sam’s voice held an edge of annoyance.

“You need to stop thinking about it in terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. That isn’t what it’s about.”

“That’s great, Dean. But you know, I really wasn’t thinking about it in terms of ‘good’ at all.”

Dean ignored that. “Hell gets a bum rap because of all the shit Lucifer and his fucked up followers have pulled. That’s only the Rendering, the very thin crust that bumps right up against the material plane. Like... I dunno, soap bubbles on top of water.”

“So... you’re trying to say Hell is what, a paradise?” Sam asked incredulously.

Dean shrugged. “As much as the place you call Heaven is. There isn’t much to choose from between them once you cut past the crap.”

“I hate to have to point this out to you, Dean, but the demons are running around creating all sorts of problems and generally making life suck for a lot of people right now. I don’t recall any stories about whatever you would call their counterparts in Heaven doing that.”

“That’s because the Angels of Creation are doing their jobs, mostly, and the souls going to Heaven aren’t having to battle their way through thousands of years of corrupt monsters to move on. In Hell, the inmates are running the asylum. They strain all the souls passing through so they get all tied up in fear and pain and trapped, which just feeds back into the cycle. The Rendering is everything Hell is claimed to be, and the souls there are all convinced that it only gets worse the deeper you go, so they don’t. They just sit there and rot until they are as twisted and fucked up as the ones that trapped them, and then they really are screwed. If they would suck it up and let go, their pain would be over.”

“Over how?”

“Some of them would just fade into... let’s not call it ‘Hell’, let’s call it ‘Entropy.’ That’s what Heaven and Hell really are, polar opposite planes of Creation and Entropy. I mean, it’s like... you turn the lights on, or you turn the lights off, both states have their uses and their problems, but you wouldn’t really say one is better, would you?” Dean took in Sam’s baffled expression and waved him silent when it looked like he was about to speak. “Anyway, the souls with strong enough Entropic traits who want to hang onto themselves can transform themselves into Entropic Demons if they have the will to keep it together as they go deeper. But that’s almost unheard of, not just because the Rendering is the happening place, but because, well... almost no one manages it.”

“So... Entropic Demons are more powerful? Like Azazel, or Lilith?” Sam asked slowly, still trying to work his mind around this new frame of thought so he could ask the important questions.

Dean snorted again. “Hardly. Lilith, Azazel... they are all products of the Rendering, and nasty creatures even for that. It would be really hard not to notice an Entropic Demon, Sam. Reality would warp around it and start causing massive rifts in the World. This Plane is the place where Creation and Entropy mix it up, they both give to it, so the things here represent both polarities. Creatures of either extremity can’t tolerate it. It would take a massive amount of power and spellwork to allow an Entropic Demon to walk here, and really -- why would they want to? They have no interest in anything here; this Plane is corrosive to them.”

Sam just kind of blinked at him.

“What about the Apocalypse?” he finally asked.

“What about it? That has nothing to do with the true Hell, that’s just the last act of Lucifer’s little rebellion against law and order. Honestly, if the Angels of Entropy hadn’t been so easy to play, they might not have gotten locked up, and the Rendering might not exist at all.”

“Angels of Entropy -- what the hell are you talking about, Dean?!”

“Exactly. Hell." Dean raised an eyebrow. "Did you think only Heaven had angels? They aren’t creatures of goodness and light, Sam. They're just another type of being. Hell has angels just like Heaven does, and serving the same function. They carry out God’s will in their respective Planes, and part of that job is making sure that spirits crossing out of this plane get ushered on their way. The problem was that Lucifer, an Angel of Creation, was jealous of the... well, it’s hard to say what he was jealous of. My contact was a little short on details, but considering the general insanity about this whole mess, it could be anything from cocktail Thursday to the color of grass.”

Dean shrugged.

“Anyways, whatever it was, he bucked the order and enticed a couple of mortal souls into hanging out near the margin of where the Material Plane meets the Entropic one, and gave them enough power and knowledge to trap other souls coming in and generate more power out of their pain. He managed this under the noses of the Angels of Entropy, who, let’s face it, are kinda disorganized and distractible by nature, and then once his demonic followers had pulled enough power out of their victims, he used it to lock the Entropic Angels down into a level of the Pit where they could no longer act at the surface or touch the Material World at all. This created the Rendering and gave his followers a free hand. The trapped angels managed to drag some of the more powerful of his followers deep enough that they were forced to turn all of their attention to maintaining their identities against the natural Entropic pull, and neutralized them that way. But a little late; the damage was done.”

“Why didn’t God just free them when he had Michael cast Lucifer out? I mean, if that’s accurate?"

“Far as I know.” Dean signaled the bored-looking waitress, who had been wiping at the same three feet of counter with a worn dishrag since they walked in.

“Then why not free the Entropic Angels, if they could have freed all the souls trapped in the Rendering and headed off all the current mess?” Sam asked, sounding both fascinated and skeptical.

“God isn’t just the God of Heaven, Sam. He’s the God of everything. Heaven and Hell are meaningless distinctions once you get out of all the religious decorations humans have given that -- at least as far as the souls that return to them are concerned. The Angels of Entropy screwed up big time and got themselves trapped; my understanding is that God told them to get themselves untrapped and not whine at him until it was done.”

“But what about the human souls? It’s not their fault this happened; why do they have to suffer?”

“They don’t have to suffer, Sam. All they have to do is let go of their fears and they will sink into Entropy on their own. They hold themselves in the Rendering. All human souls have aspects of both polarities, so you can make a bargain to bind yourself to one plane or the other, Heaven or Hell, but there is no force, no deal, that can keep you from sinking into that power once you're there. Not if that’s what you want to do.”

“That--” Sam cut himself off abruptly as the waitress approached them with her pad out.

“What’ll you have?”

Dean ordered for both of them without bothering to ask Sam what he wanted, and shook his head as soon as she was gone at Sam’s lack of objection to his food.

“You need to work on being less predictable, Sam.”

“Me! When was the last time you didn’t get a burger of some sort?”

“Yeah, but I’m a creature of chaos," Dean said airily. "I’m unpredictable by nature. Patterns are where I have trouble. I have to work at consistency, so hamburgers are like homework. You’re so predictable I could almost set a clock by you." His voice grew more serious. "Don’t think your enemies don’t know it either.”

Sam glared. “According to what you just said, we’re all creatures of chaos.”

“Yeah, but you’re a denizen of the mixed plane and I’m something… different.”

Sam frowned and opened his mouth, but Dean cut him off before he could speak. “It’s kind of funny, when you think about before. When I was the good, obedient son and you were bitchy and rebellious and stirred everything into a mess every time you came or went. Seven years in a box tamed you, Sammy.”

“You’ve certainly paid me back,” Sam muttered. “And stop calling me that. And stop trying to distract me!” Sam went back to the previous topic. “So, instead of good and evil, and good people going to Heaven and evil people going to Hell, you are saying it’s about... Creation or Entropy instead?” Dean nodded. “So creative people go to Heaven, and... what? People who like to break things go to Hell?”

“Nope. On that simple logic, creative people go to Hell. Try thinking of it as the Plane of Order, and the Plane of Chaos. If you do things that promote order and growth, you are more likely to go to Heaven, but if you promote things that are chaotic and destructive, you are more likely to go to Hell. Working to implement a new idea is orderly and all, but the sheer invention of that new idea is a disruption of whatever status quo existed, and that’s chaotic, a destruction of order. See? It’s not always that easy to determine what goes where.”

Sam was staring at him again, Dean frowned.

“What? It’s not like this changed anything about the current problems. We still have to stop Lucifer from walking free, and we still have to get all the spell ingredients to do it. Just because the larger issue is a little different than you thought it was, that doesn’t change anything.”

“When the angel came to me in that motel room and told me that he couldn’t find you, he made it sound like a really bad thing. But all he really said was that if you had descended, there was nothing they could do.” Sam swallowed. “You made that deal for me, and I have to know... what was it like, Dean?”

Dean looked away through the glass to the passing cars on the road outside. “Don’t do this, Sam. I made that deal of my own free will.”

“Don’t do ‘this’? Torture myself imagining what you were going through in Hell?” Sam laughed without humor. “I’ve been doing ‘this’ to myself for the last seven years.

His brother sighed and leaned back a little in the booth. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. The Rendering? It’s exactly as advertised. Every filth and pain and degradation thousands of years of human evil can come up with. All live and bleeding at your fingertips.”

“You broke the first Seal.”

Dean nodded, looking past Sam at the greasy, fake-wood paneling that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the dingy place opened. “In the Rendering. I was there… for a long time, Sam. There aren’t words to tell you what it’s like there. I might be able to show you with our link, but you’ve never done anything to deserve that kind of pain, so don’t even bother asking. I didn’t know about the Seal then. But I fought them as long as I could. And when I couldn’t fight anymore…” Dean shrugged and stole Sam’s water to down half.

Sam lowered his voice. “When you couldn’t fight anymore… then what, Dean?”

“Come on, Sam!" Dean complained. "We have more important things to dwell on right now. It’s in the past.”

“What happened, Dean?” Sam repeated.

“When I couldn’t face one more second of the knife myself, Sam? You wanna know what happened then?”

Sam nodded, expression determined.

Dean smiled, and it was the coldest smile Sam had seen since the night he thought Jace was murdered. “I climbed down off the rack, and started putting other souls on. I took the blade from my torturer’s hand and used his lessons to share my pain with others. And with that first cut, the Seal broke. Satisfied?”

His brother looked ill, but not like he was ready to drop the subject yet. “And then what?”

“What do you mean, ‘and then what’?”

Sam glared. “You said that was in the Rendering, Dean, but the angel said you had descended. And you must have met the angel who gave you the spell somehow. And, I mean, to be a demon yourself, you must have spent thousands of years in Hell… I was told that was only possible deeper in the Pit.” Sam’s eyes grew wide as something occurred to him. “How can you be a Rendering Demon if you were deeper? You said deeper created Entropic Demons.”

Dean snorted. “Don’t get all uptight, Sam. I also told you Entropic Demons have no use for the Material Plane, and it’s almost unheard of for a soul to make that transformation. I wasn’t much use to anyone in the Rendering after I broke the Seal, so they ignored me for the most part, since they figured I was as trapped as they were anyways. But I have some extra-special qualities because of the whole ‘should have been an angel puppet’ destiny thing I dodged, and someone Below the Rendering did have a use for me. It called me; I followed the voice, and met an Entropic Angel. It needed a favor, and in return, it offered to help me with this. It certainly doesn’t have any reason to be all buddy-buddy with Lucifer, and it only gets what it wants after I get what I want. That’s how I know it’s honest.”

“So, you spent how long Below then?”

“A really freaking long time, Sam.”

“With the angel.”

It wasn’t a question, so Dean didn’t have to lie.

“You act so much like… my brother, though, most of the time now,” Sam continued. “How can you have experienced so much torture, and then thousands of years of time and still be my brother, almost like I remember you being? Is this just an act?” Sam’s voice was a bit thick, but on his face there was no hint of his internal misery, misery Dean could feel clearly through the recently renewed link.

“I’ll always be your brother, Sam,” Dean answered quietly. “The Rendering sucked, no bones about that, but Below… that wasn’t really torture. I mean, sure, it was thousands of years, but it’s not like I consciously lived them. ‘Time’ as a concept we use here doesn’t really mean anything there. And the angel helped me; that was a part of our deal. I would help it, and in return, it would help me stay me, and get my revenge. So, yeah, there are some things I’m still remembering, and I’ve got some instincts and skills I didn’t have before. But this -- with you? This isn’t an act, Sam. I promise. Maybe some with other people, but not with you.”

Sam nodded and stared down at the Formica table in silence for a few awkward minutes before just nodding again and going back to a previous point. “What does it want?”

“The angel?” Dean looked relieved to be moving out of more emotional waters. “What do you think it wants?” When Sam’s only reply was to narrow his eyes, Dean filled in for him. “It wants what everyone else does: to be free.”

“And you can give it that?” Sam asked skeptically.

“The key is in the World somewhere. Other than that, it’s a little unclear. But I’m not doing squat until after the current mess is cleaned up, so don’t worry about it. I’m not.”

“You sure it’s the right thing to do? I mean, we’re going to destroy Lilith’s plans and make sure Lucifer stays locked up… and in return, we are going to set loose a bunch of Angels of Hell?”

“I told you," Dean said impatiently, "they aren’t any more evil than Angels of Heaven are. And I think they'll have enough to do dismantling the Rendering to keep them from bothering anyone else for awhile anyways.”

“How long is that really going to take them?”

“I dunno, but they’ve been slacking on the clock since… well, forever, almost, as far as humans are concerned. So, take every soul that has lived for thousands of years, divide by two--”

“I get it,” Sam cut him off. “Fine. So what next?”

Dean shrugged, pleased to have the conversation over.

Sam let the silence sit for a minute. “I feel better today.”

“Than last night? I would hope so.”

“No, I mean -- better than usual. Stronger.”

“That’s a pretty expectant look you’re giving me, Sam.”

“Something’s changed. What did you do?”

“Why is it always me?”

“Dean.”

“I didn’t limit the transfer,” Dean gave in. “Before, I didn’t exactly want you at you best, for the obvious reasons. And now that you’re on board with everything, it doesn’t make any sense to keep you handicapped.”

“How much control do you have over that?”

“Looking for more trade secrets?” When Sam just gave him an irritated look, Dean flicked a straw wrapper at him and continued. “It’s my power, Sam. I don’t have to give it up unless I want to. You naturally try to draw a certain amount out at a certain rate, and I can either fight that or let it go. It’s not a complicated science.”

“With Ruby... Ruby said I was working towards something. Getting stronger, able to take more. If you aren’t holding back on me... is that still going to happen?”

“I’m not going to suddenly start trying to swamp you, if that’s what you mean. I figure your body knows what it’s doing and unless problems start cropping up, we can just let it go at that.”

“What if--” Sam looked around warily, as if suddenly remembering they were in a public place. He lowered his voice. “What if I need more of your type of power to do the spell?”

“You needed to beef up on my type because you had to kill that bitch Lilith with it, and nothing does a demon in like good ol’ home cooking. But the spell isn’t demonic; I don’t think it would matter where the power comes from, as long as it’s yours.”

The conversation lapsed while the waitress carried their orders over and plunked them down. Sam muttered a thanks and she wandered back to her counter, casting sidelong looks at the clock.

“Now, for our next step--” Dean reached into the laptop bag he had carried in with them and slid out the yellow notebook paper the spell was written on. Sam had insisted it be preserved in a rigid, clear paper-protector he had gotten from Bobby. Dean had grumbled that it would be harder to carry around that way, which had sent Sam off into outraged near-incoherency about the value of a spell that was accidentally sent through the wash, not to mention just the wear and tear from being carried crammed into a jean pocket.

He laid it on the somewhat sticky table between them, ignoring Sam’s irritated look at his casual treatment of it. “I suppose we just blindly at this for awhile and hope for inspiration. You sure my ‘contact’ didn’t give you any useful information.”

“I told you everything it said, Dean.”

Dean snorted and lifted his burger. “Fat lot of good your vision was, then.”

“Look! I had nothing to do with--” Sam’s voice cut off with a clatter of his dropped fork as he shoved his chicken salad aside so hard the plate hit condiments against the wall with a crash of glass and spilled half its contents onto the table.

“Sam, what the--” Dean started.

“I can read it.”

“What?”

Sam pried the spell from the table and stared intently at the paper. “This, I can read it!”

Dean’s eyes widened. “All of it?”

Sam frowned a bit. “No, well, I can read this line.” He held it so that Dean could see it too and pointed at the first line of incomprehensible jargon that made the ingredient list beneath the casting directions. “I can read the same thing up in this section too,” he added, shifting his finger to the casting directions and one of the tangle of symbols there. “The rest of it is still scrambled, though.”

“Shit. Well, it said it would give them to us as we picked them up, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s it say then?”

“Uh, ‘blood, by blood betrayed to death’.”

“Are you serious?” Dean asked incredulously.

“I swear to God, Dean.”

“You probably shouldn’t do that, you never know when he might decide to listen,” Dean suggested darkly, taking the spell from Sam and glaring at it as though that would make it more helpful.

Dean cursed and handed the spell back to Sam; he slid out of the booth and tossed a few bills on the table. “Let’s go.”

Sam frowned. “You’re not going to eat?”

“Not when I’m this annoyed, and half your food is scattered on a table that probably hasn’t been cleaned this month, and if I have to listen to that woman wipe that rag in that same circle over that same foot of counter for another minute, I will not be responsible for my actions, Sam; I swear I won’t.”

“Right, it’s fine, just, uh-- calm down, Dean.” He slid out of the booth himself as Dean stomped to the door. Sam flashed the waitress, who was eyeing them suspiciously, an apologetic smile and followed his brother into the parking lot.

“What the hell was that all about?” Sam demanded, once they were alone in the cool, late Fall air.

Dean raked his finger through his hair. “Nothing, just... annoyed, and the noise didn’t help.”

“She wasn’t making any noise, Dean.”

“She was to me,” Dean snapped, unlocking the door. He waited until they were both in the car. “What the hell does that even mean?”

“The ingredient?”

Ingredient? ‘Salt’ is an ingredient, Sam, ‘chalk dust,’ ‘wormwood,’ ‘eye of newt,’ ‘tongue of toad,’ I'll even take 'fanbelt of jaguar' in a pinch: those are ingredients. That is a cryptic load of bull.”

Sam sighed. “I don’t know, Dean. Let me think about it on the road for awhile.”

“On the road to where?” Dean demanded. “We don’t have any place to go! Just more freaking circles.”

Sam counseled himself to patience; it would only get worse if they were both irritable. “There’s a motel not even thirty miles from here we can crash at and think this out a little more. You said the angel wanted something from you, so it’s not going to just give you crap. We just... need to think about it.”

Dean just nodded like he didn’t trust himself to speak and peeled out of the parking lot.


~~~~~


Dean dropped Sam off at the motel to get a room and went to pick up some pizza and beer. He made a note to hit an ATM on their way out of town and drain some more out of one of Sam’s bank accounts. Sam had never said anything about Dean’s periodic looting of the accounts, which made Dean happy because it saved them from a conversation about how he had gotten the codes and information out of his brother when Sam was so wracked by the curse he would have promised Dean his last dollar or his first child just to be touched. He didn’t give a flip about Sam selling their dad’s stuff to get the money. He felt like maybe he should, but... it just wasn’t there.

When he walked back into the room an hour or so later, still fuming about the spell but much calmer than earlier, Sam was sprawled on his stomach, hair still damp from a shower, intent on something he was reading on the laptop.

“Find anything good?” Dean asked by way of greeting.

“Not on here yet. I think the ingredient itself is pretty self-explanatory, literally blood from someone who died because they were betrayed by a relative.”

“So pretty much the same place we were in the restaurant. That’s fucking awesome. Any person betrayed to death by a relative? Can I go give some deadbeat fifty bucks to cap a sibling and use that?”

“Hey, it’s your contact, and your spell. And also, no.”

“My contact is in your head. Next time you see it, why don’t you deck it for me? My own personal thank you for being a bastard.”

“Yeah, Dean. I’ll make sure and try that while it’s controlling my brain,” Sam agreed sarcastically.

Dean slumped on one of the beds and blew out a deep breath. “Let’s just eat and see what’s on the tube.”

“You mind if I call Bobby and get his take on this?”

“I don’t care if you call the Psychic Friends Network, as long as we get some answers."


~~~~~


Sam grimaced at the sickly smell of bubblegum and sunscreen. He wrinkled his nose and turned his head away, but the smell persisted. He snapped his eyes open in annoyance, and immediately closed them again against the glare of the noonday sun.

Once he could stand to look around, he found himself in a familiar park; its vibrant, unreal colors and the chattering crowd exactly as he remembered. He turned his head to face the redhead watching him solemnly and working on what appeared to be the same drink as the previous night.

“I don’t think Dean is very happy with you,” Sam offered, to break the silence.

“I’m sure in some time or place that would concern me.”

“How specific are these ingredients?”

“Very. Some more so than others.”

“And this one? The blood?”

“You might be able to find some substitutions for this one.”

Sam nodded and looked around again. “Why are we meeting here again?”

It raised one shockingly red eyebrow. “You have someplace you prefer more?”

“No, I mean-- why are we meeting at all. You gave us the ingredient; we don’t have it yet, so...”

It smiled, a sudden flash of teeth. “I could feel Dean’s irritation all the way into the Pit. I thought you might need some shoring up.”

“Is that all we’re going to get? One cryptic line?”

It eyed him, considering. “This is a very... important spell. Like all spells of this prominence, it weighs heavily in the World.”

“Yes, so?” Sam asked impatiently.

“You are a naturally gifted psychic who, for reasons of both theoretical destiny and the interference of demons in your life, has a talent that is specifically sensitized to matters of the demonic and the Apocalyptical.”

“I get all the good prizes, so what?”

“Have you had any visions lately?”

“Other than you?”

It waved a hand dismissively. “These don’t count. I’m imposing these from outside, exploiting both your gift and an existing channel. I mean other visions, visions that are purely yours.”

“I...” Sam hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had one like that. I mean, the only visions I’ve had, I had about other psychic kids, and they stopped when Dean shot Azazel with the Colt.”

“You’re lucky he didn’t share everything with Lilith. If she knew just how vulnerable you really are, you would have found your skull a very crowded place quite some time ago. Azazel was clever when he carved himself this niche; it’s well hidden.”

“What does that have to do with visions now?”

“These are your gifts," the angle said simply. "He gave you nothing that was not yours first. The spell and its ingredients are deeply powerful in the aura of the World. They have impact that leaves traces wherever their possibility occurs.”

Sam frowned. “Was that supposed to make sense to me?”

It rolled its eyes. “I think I would know you and Dean were brothers from this conversation alone. He was always unreasonably resistant to the obvious. Let me be plainer for you.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Sam ground out.

“You are a natural psychic. The World shaped the spell and its demands; I just wrote it down. If you want information about the specificity of ingredients, or where you might find them, that’s what you should ask.”

“Ask the World?!”

It shrugged gracefully and took another long sip of the syrupy drink. “It’s like a muscle you’ve never flexed. You have the capability, but no idea how to use it. It needs exercise and practice to be wielded with intent.”

“Ruby made sure I had lots of ‘practice’ and ‘exercise’.”

“Only using demonic power, and only doing things that were of direct benefit to their grand plan. This is from you. You have to learn how to open yourself to what the World can show you. But not too open,” it added with a sly smile. “You wouldn’t want just anything to come stumbling in.”

A cloud passed over the sun and an icy wind blew over Sam’s skin. Around them, the holiday air hadn’t changed. People laughed, and skated, and chatted, and walked, but most of the color suddenly seemed drained out and the light was dimmer. Sam looked sharply to the angel to see that all levity had fallen from its face like a discarded mask.

“Time to go, Sam.”

“Wait! How do I do this?”

“You have the question, now find the answer.”

Sam reached out instinctively to grab it before it could vanish...

…and fell out of bed, banging his elbow sharply on the nightstand. A barely-noticed pain against the flare of agony in his head.

“Shit, Sam.” Powerful hands grabbed him, slipped on his sweat-drenched skin, then took firmer hold and pulled him up. He let the demon take most of his weight as it dragged him to the bathroom. Exciting-looking lights were flaring and exploding behind his eyes.

“Dean, please,” he croaked, grabbing onto his brother’s arm with as much force as he could muster from where he had been left seated on the toilet lid. The lights were still off and it was nearly pitch black in the small bathroom, but even the hiss of the shower was another source of pain to his overly-sensitized ears.

“Shit,” Dean muttered again, and then Sam was being hauled bodily into the shower with his clothes still on. The cool spray felt good against his overheated skin, but only distantly.

“Please,” he gasped again, clinging to his brother, who was taking almost all of his weight.

The reply was warm lips crushed against his. They tasted like copper and salvation, so he eagerly opened his own and invited the demon in.


~~~~~


Sam opened his eyes to shards of light. He squinted them shut again and rolled over with a grimace. A moment later, he heard a rustle of drapes.

“Sorry about that. Head still hurt?”

“Yeah.” Sam cautiously tried one eye, and found the gloom of the room seemed okay this time. “Nothing like last night, though. I honestly thought I was dying.”

“I could feel it.”

“When we did this the other night, I felt fine in the morning. What’s going on?”

“The other night was a night we were going to be dealing with the curse anyways, pretty much; I gave you as much as normal and you were fine. Last night, you only got a taste in comparison. It seemed to work out; things progressed in their usual manner-- and I think it’s cute that you still blush after all these months, by the way.” Sam didn't think it was cute, but it wasn't worth picking a fight over. “And then you passed out," Dean concluded. "Is it okay now?”

Sam stretched against the sheets, but other than the lingering ache in his head he felt fine. “It’s not fun, but it’s no worse than it was coming down off the visions I was having back with Yellow Eyes. Today anyways. Last night was... something else.”

“I was gonna say I don’t remember your visions ever being quite this incapacitating. I take it you were visiting angels again?”

“Just the one,” Sam said sourly, “and I think it’s because before, even though Azazel was influencing the, uh, flavor of my visions, it was still just my whatever doing what it wanted, versus now the angel is actually forcing visions on me. I hope it doesn’t want to chat again anytime soon,” he added, rubbing his eyes.

“Did it at least tell you something useful this time?”

“Come sit over here where I don’t have to move to see you and I’ll tell you everything I know,” Sam yawned.

 

Chapter Sixteen

It’s alright forty days of rain
My skin stretched out from the growing pain
And it’d be nice to have an explanation
But it’s alright
                                 ~It’s Alright, Indigo Girls

“Missouri? Seriously, Sam?” Dean asked again, dubiously.

It was the third time in the last hour, and Sam was getting annoyed. He had slept most of the day vBulletin statbefore, getting over the worst of his reaction headache, but still felt achy and out of sorts. His morning had started with being bounced out of sleep by his brother fresh from a five a.m. Wal-Mart trip, the spoils of which included Moon Pies, a new atlas and a stretchy knit cap and glove set in pastel purple with pink reindeer for Sam. The demon had been especially gleeful about the last item, and seemed deeply offended Sam refused to try them on. Sam finally shoved them in his jacket pocket just to get them out of his brother’s sight in the hopes he would shut up about them.

At least the demon was currently watching the road; he seemed to have an unbearable compulsion to want to look at Sam while speaking.

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Dean. I don’t know that many psychics and I’m not making any progress on my own. I have no idea how to ‘listen to the World,’ do you?”

“It’s only been a day, and it’s not like you were at your best.”

Sam gave his brother a suspicious look. “You keep pushing and getting upset that we don’t have a concrete direction, so now we know how to get one, and you want to… what? Hole up in a bar somewhere and hope we get lucky?”

“Hey, if I hole up in a bar to get lucky, there’s no ‘hope’ about it.” Dean sounded offended at idea.

“Dean! Eyes on the road!”

“Its straight, Sam. We’re in freaking Kansas. I think I can glance aside occasionally and still not put us in a ditch.”

“If you do put us in a ditch, you won’t be the one breathing through a tube,” Sam ground out. “I’m not as easy to repair.”

“Bets?”

Sam gave him a wary look. “Whatever. Look, Missouri is really the only psychic I know. She knows about hunting, she knew Dad, and she can probably give me some pointers on whatever the hell I’m supposed to be doing. Plus, Dad trusted her, so I’m kinda inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. You seriously would rather wander in aimless circles for a few more days, hoping I might be struck with some sudden inspiration? What exactly is the problem here?”

“I just don’t like it. Psychics give me the creeps. Present company excluded," Dean added hastily, catching Sam's sidelong look. "Why can’t we call Bobby and see if he knows anyone?”

“Because we’re right here, Dean! Missouri isn’t even two more hours away. And I think we might be straining Bobby enough as it is, you know? Let’s give him a little more time before we hit him up for any more favors, if possible.”

“Fine,” Dean groused. “We’ll do it your way.”

“Hey, none of this is my way,” Sam said pointedly.

“You’d rather be on your knees at Lilith’s feet. Or better, wrapped up with Ruby on a cot somewhere, waiting until they need you to open the damn door and then you can just share your skin with Lucifer until he’s gotten bored with the planetary roast and moves on to bigger and better things. Would that be your way, Sam?”

“Screw you.”

“Not for a couple of weeks. Unless you want to go sooner?”

Sam glowered but refrained from continuing a debate with no high ground.

It was a very long two hours to Lawrence.


~~~~~


Missouri was standing on her front porch when the Impala rolled to a stop at the curb in front of her house. Sam opened the door and swung his feet out, but hesitated when he didn’t hear the other door open.

“Dean?”

“Yeah, Sam?”

“Uh, doors work better if you open them. You know, with the whole ‘getting out of the car’ thing.’”

“Thanks, Sam. And all this time I’ve wondered what I was doing wrong.”

“Okay, seriously, dude. What’s going on?”

“I think I’ll just wait here for you.”

“What?”

“There isn’t anything I need to talk to her about; you go on in and see if she’s feeling chatty. I’ll be here napping.”

“Napping,” Sam repeated skeptically.

“Or whatever.” Dean’s smile was disarming. “See if I can’t get a feel for any local trouble spots. You might want to hurry, though, Sam; she’s not looking too happy to see us. Might call the cops any second.”

Sam wanted to snap back about the likelihood of that happening, but he glanced at the porch and had to admit that Missouri really didn’t look especially pleased. He climbed out and closed his door with more force than necessary, ignored the offended yelp from inside, and headed for the stairs.

It wasn’t that he really wanted to inflict Dean on Missouri; it was just weird that he was so willing to let Sam go off alone after practically clinging to his hip for the previous months. Sam had even gone to the men’s room at a restaurant the other day and walked out to find Dean leaning against the wall, waiting for him. But the demon clearly didn’t intend to tell him a damn thing about it, so he shoved the mystery aside for the moment and focused on the unsmiling woman waiting for him at the top of the stairs.

“Sam Winchester, as I live and breathe, and here I thought all you Winchester men shuffled off this mortal coil years ago.”

“Hey, Missouri.” He was more than a foot taller than her, but felt dwarfed by her personality. “No, uh, Dean and I are still around.”

“Dean, huh.” She looked out towards the car, and if anything, the expression on her normally welcoming face got even grimmer. “That's what you think is sitting in that car?”

“I know he’s… different, Missouri. But we really need your help. I would never have brought him here otherwise.”

“I’ll hear you out, Sam, for your parents’ sake if nothing else, but if I don’t like what you have to say, we’re done. Understand?”

“I do; thanks, Missouri,” Sam said, grateful to get that much.

She nodded grudgingly and opened the screen door for him.

“So,” Sam asked awkwardly, once she had him seated in her kitchen with the lemonade she had insisted on pouring. “You looked like you were waiting for us. How did you know we were coming?”

She snorted and sat down across from him. “I felt that thing in my driveway coming from a good hundred miles away. I’d have to be ten years dead to miss that. Can’t say I was terribly surprised to find you with it; your family has always attracted the worst kinds of trouble.”

“I can’t argue with that, but I’ve never heard of anyone being that sensitive to demons. Would have come in handy a few times in my life.”

“Demons?” She raised a brow.

“Like, Dean. You said you felt him from a hundred miles away, right?”

“Honey, I think you need to start this story over from the beginning.”


~~~~~


Sam glossed over some of the more detailed aspects of the blood-curse, though from the look Missouri had given him during that part she didn’t need him to fill in the details anyways, and about an hour and a half later, Missouri had the gist of the problem. They had moved into the family room for comfort some time earlier, and it did not escape Sam that from her chair, Missouri had a good, clear view of the Impala.

“So, what do you think?” he finally asked her when the story had been spilled out.

“I think you and Dean have your work cut out for you.”

“That’s it?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know what all you want me to say, Sam. It’s a right mess you’re in the middle of, but it’s hard to escape these kinds of forces. You’ve made some bad decisions, but you did the best you could with the information you had. Dean, too, it sounds like. I’m still not happy to have him out in front of my house like a looming cloud of disaster, but I understand why you’ve come.”

“You aren’t surprised by what he said about Heaven and Hell and stuff?”

“No, but I’m a little surprised that you are. Christianity has a long way to go before it counts as an old religion; it isn’t close to being the most popular one, even today. I’m not saying any of the others are more accurate, but they are all just vehicles to help humans understand what isn’t truly understandable.”

“Angels are real, Missouri. I saw one in my motel room.” Which sounded insane when said aloud, but Sam had discovered a long time ago that a lot of things in his life were like that.

“I think you will find that most religions have angels, or something like angels, somewhere in their belief system. And things to say about demons, too. And I wouldn’t be advertising that about the motel room, Sam,” she chided, “people will think you’re touched.”

Sam gave a wry smile. “So you’ll help me?”

She spread helpless hands. “There isn’t much I can do to help you. It’s not something I can fix. We can talk some about it, and I can show you some meditations, but opening yourself up like you want… it’s dangerous and difficult.”

“You don’t think I can do it.”

“If you were starting from scratch? No, I think it would take you years to learn to do what you’re after. But your gift has never really been repressed, just… misaimed. That damn demon wrenched you nice and open when you were just a babe. Probably a good thing he did direct it a little, all things being fair. No telling what you might have been subjected to, otherwise. As it is, this isn’t like having to put the TV together from parts using only chewing gum and directions written in Chinese, more like just kicking the box a little until the picture clears.”

Sam frowned and leaned back. “If it’s that easy, I would have thought it would have happened on its own by now.”

Missouri snorted. “Kicking the box may not be that hard, but you have to know what it looks like first. Fortunately, you do know, you’ve just been trained to see it as something else.”

“Trained?”

Missouri sipped at her drink and just looked at him.

“You mean with Ruby," Sam said as realization dawned. "Using the demon power, because it replaces my own power, it comes from the same place?”

“Your Daddy always said you were a bright one.”

“But how do I use that to… invite visions of the spell? The only thing Ruby ever taught me to do was exorcise demons, or destroy them. How is that the same?”

“They aren’t, but you know what that power feels like in your mind, and in your body. How to find it and feel its shape. Just instead of those focused streams of power, you want it to feel… more scattered, to wear it around your skin like an aura, and infuse it with what you want.”

Sam looked baffled.

“I told you this wasn’t an easy thing," Missouri said tartly. "You can’t expect to get it overnight.”

“How about in two nights, then? Because Dean thinks we only have a little bit of time until I'm the only thing the demons are focused on, and the clock is running out.”

“Let me show you a few things to try meditating on that might help you then; after that, it’s all up to you.”


~~~~~


“Thank you, Missouri. Really… thank you for everything,” Sam said earnestly, as he stepped back onto the porch hours later. The sun was starting to sink down in the west, and even from the porch, he could hear Blue Oyster Cult floating in the air from the Impala’s speakers. The windows were rolled down and Dean’s boots were hanging out the passenger window.

“It was no trouble, Sam. I know you can’t promise to stay safe, but you can promise to try.”

“I will, Missouri.”

“Sam,” she was looking past him to the car, “be careful with that one.”

“Dean?" Sam followed her gaze. "We have a deal; I told you about it. I--” Sam lowered his voice, “--know he’s not my brother anymore, Missouri, but he will stick to the deal, and that’s all I need. He’s not going to hurt me.”

“Oh, I think he is your brother, Sam," she disagreed grimly. "A lot more than he should be. And he may not hurt you on purpose, but the hurt he can cause you on accident… Be careful.”

Sam frowned. “Missouri, what--”

“Not just with your brother, but with what you’re about -- you’ve been around enough to know that some things once freed don’t go so easily back into their cages.”

“I don’t under--”

The horn of the Impala blew, cutting him off.

“Yo, Sammy! You’ve burned all the daylight! Let’s get going!”

Sam gave his brother an impatient look and turned back to Missouri, but she had stepped away and her expression was remote. “You should go, Sam.”

Sam looked at her helplessly. “What were you saying about--”

“Sam!” Dean yelled again, pressing the horn.

“Okay! I’m coming!” Sam yelled back, taking a few steps down. He turned back one last time, but Missouri was gone, and both the screen and inner doors were shut.

He climbed into the car with a withering look for his brother, who was impervious.

“Have a nice visit?” Dean asked, shifting the car into gear.

“Why’d you have to be such a jerk? I was just saying goodbye.”

“You’ve had--” Dean paused to eye his watch, “--six hours to say hello, goodbye, and almost any other combination of words you wanted. Wasted the entire freaking day. Get anything?”

Sam gave up and let go of his annoyance. “Maybe, I don’t know yet. We talked about it and she gave me some meditations to focus on; they might help.”

“‘Might’? ‘Might’ doesn’t sound like something I would sit on my ass for half a day to get.”

“Dude, you cut class and laid under Amanda Kneffler’s crappy porch with all the gaps in the planking for eight hours once, because she might have walked out the back door and she might have been wearing a skirt when she did it. Don’t even try that crap with me.”

“Yeah,” Dean grinned, “but I was right, wasn’t I? And that was girls; this is some mumbo jumbo maybe mystic dream-quest crap.”

“No, that was High School, and this is the Apocalypse.”

“You spoil all my good memories.”

“It’s called ‘perspective’, Dean.”

“It’s called ‘killjoy’, Sam.”

Sam gave a half smile. “Jerk.”

“Bitch.”


~~~~~


Sam’s good humor over the exchange in the car lasted until they found a motel room, then he was distracted by other things. Dean was letting him share time on the laptop these days, and he wanted to look up some of the things Missouri had suggested.

Dean’s good humor lasted much longer. He was still grinning hours later when Sam’s eyes ached too much to continue any more research. He closed the computer and looked over to see what his brother was up to.

“It wasn’t that funny, Dean.”

“Hmmm?”

“In the car. You’ve been grinning like a loon ever since. It wasn’t that funny.”

“Am I wearing a sign somewhere that says I need help deciding what’s humorous, Sam? Maybe I just like what’s on TV.”

“Yeah, because,” Sam glanced over to see what was on, “documentaries on the homeless always make me happy inside, too.”

Dean clicked the television off and tossed the remote onto the nightstand. “In the car earlier, I’m not happy because it was so funny… I’m happy because I got it.”

“Got what?”

“Amanda Kneffler! The porch. I remembered, and I didn’t have to struggle for it, it was right there when you said it, like a real memory. And I totally remembered that you were the bitch, dude. That came completely natural.” 

Sam ignored the jibe to pursue the larger question. “What’s strange about that?”

Dean shrugged. “When I… came back, I didn’t. Remember, you know? I knew what had happened, and what my bargain with the angel was, and you -- I remembered you best of all. But all of the details that make a person real, that make a life… all of that was gone. I picked up a few anchors, like my car, and my jacket, Dad’s journal from your house, things that were familiar and I valued in my life, because they were supposed to help me remember how to act, how to be Dean Winchester; I remembered the items and that they were important. But it was just facts. The angel told me what to get.”

Sam had gone very still.

“It took awhile, but things started to filter back in. I took care of the things that were supposed to be important, even if I didn’t actually care, because I needed them to remind me. I didn’t feel anything for the jacket until I found Dad’s journal under your bed. I was just touching the leather on the cover, and the leather scent of my jacket just suddenly stuck me, like lightening, Sam, and then a thousand memories poured in. I still didn’t get why the jacket was important; I do now -- but then it started as possessiveness, and some confused imagery. Same with the Impala; I didn’t really get her either, not until that jackass outside of Biloxi almost t-boned us. I got it then. But it’s still been kinda a struggle for the random crap. Bits and pieces.”

“What don’t you remember now, Dean?”

Dean raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Did you really just ask me what I don’t remember?”

“You know what I mean!”

His brother shrugged, still amused. “Can’t tell anymore. Not unless something comes up and I’m blank on it; doesn’t feel like there are any gaps. I mean, I’m sure there are, but not… obvious ones. Before it was pretty obvious where the holes were, but I didn’t care.”

“Was it like that with me? You didn’t, uh, feel anything for me either?”

“No.” The look Dean gave him was piercing. “I always felt something for you; you were what I remembered best. Even when I didn’t remember your name, I remembered you.” Dean’s voice was distant, like he was seeing something far away, another lifetime. He snapped back to attention with, “I mean, to be honest, mostly what I felt for you was a kind of rabid possessiveness. It was easy to justify taking care of you; you’re vital to my plan. Revenge and selfishness are good Entropic emotions, and those all come easiest. By the time I actually got my hands on you, though, I was already filling in some of the missing crap. More brotherly stuff.” He shrugged again. “Anyways, I’m just pleased to be picking up little details too. You know, functionally.”

Sam wasn’t entirely sure how to take this. “Ah, well, that’s… that’s good, Dean. I mean, that you remember and all.”

“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m going to go get celebratory pizza. You want to come?”

“No, I’m going to try some of that stuff Missouri showed me. The sooner I get started, and all that.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll bring you back some.”


~~~~~


The next few days were strained. The pizza and revelations had put Dean in a good mood, but by the next morning, that mood had vanished and he was jumpy and irritable. Sam woke up in a less-than-friendly frame of mind for no reason he could come up with, and everything went gradually downhill from there.

Even a long run on a deserted track and a winding trip through Arkansas to pick up a salt-and-burn Bobby had muttered something about during Sam’s periodic check-ins with him failed to distract Dean from the fact that all they were really doing was waiting. Waiting in the slim hope that something Sam had learned from Missouri would click and net them some clues from the whatever. It was the kind of nice, concrete plan that had driven Dean up the wall when he was properly alive; being a demon had actually seemed to improve his patience, but not for situations like this. Even his roaming search for some way to translate the spell had at least included actual people to find.

Nothing really seemed to smooth out their tempers, not Dean’s increasingly long absences from whatever motel room he randomly decided on when he was tired of driving, or the hours of meditation Sam was immersing himself in. There was no conflict between them, so nothing to make peace over or settle. Even working through the curse one windy night in a battered old motel in northern Wisconsin did little to help; Sam was reluctant and bitchy before Dean took out the knife, as uncooperative as he could manage to be during the sex he was unfortunately, from Dean's perspective, fairly lucid for, and restless while he slept afterwards. Having an insider’s view to Sam’s emotions did nothing but give Dean a more vivid representation of how just how irritable and frustrated his little brother was. There was just nothing for them to do while Sam tried to feel out how to work his gift, except stay moving and hope their enemies weren’t able to track them down.

Dean was uncertain just how many Seals were left, but he was confident the answer was ‘almost none’. Maybe actually none by now. He had considered hunting down a lone demon and beating an answer out of it, but the risk that it would see him and escape was greater than the information was worth. Lilith almost certainly knew about him by now; from Ruby, if no other way --assuming the bitch hadn’t run for the hills rather than face Lilith after losing Sam in the first place-- and if from Ruby, then she also knew about the spell changing hands. Even if she couldn’t know exactly what they were up to, she would know it was unhealthy for her plans. The last thing he needed was some low-level toady running back to her with a pinpoint location.

But another hour in Sam’s company without a break was likely to drive one of them to blows. Dean usually didn’t even think about pulling off the road until well after dark, so Sam’s surprise when the Impala came to a rest in front of the office of a suitably seedy-looking motel when it was barely mid-afternoon was expected. Dean didn’t say anything to him, just stalked inside and demanded the usual accommodations. He moved his car around to the rear of the motel and got out long enough to inspect the room and give Sam a few meaningful looks. All of which his brother ignored, looking relieved to not be trapped in the car with Dean anymore.

“You didn’t bring the laptop in.”

“Nope,” Dean replied, poking suspiciously at what looked like a weak latch on the window. “Thought I’d go see if there was someplace in town that does both burgers and Internet. Did you need it?”

“Not if you want to use it,” Sam offered generously, not even attempting to hide his happiness at Dean’s leaving.

Dean decided the latch was crap, but the stick wedged vertically in the track above it was a suitable security measure against most human threats, and the non-human ones wouldn’t care if they boarded the entire damn thing up. He dropped the tangled collection of wards they generally kept around --some general ‘stay away’, and decent ‘nothing to see here’ type stuff he had picked up here and there or borrowed from Bobby-- on the table.

“Got your cell phone?”

“Yes, Mom.” Sam sounded impatient.

Dean let is slide. They were both on their last nerve, and some space could only do them good. “I’ll be back before midnight. Anything interesting happens, like another visitation or finally a freaking vision, give me a call.”


~~~~~


The music was excellent, the burgers tasty, and the Internet was at the speed of light. But something still felt terribly off. Away from Sam for a few hours, Dean had expected the tense, grating feeling to dissipate. It wasn’t that his brother was really doing anything --other than not getting his visions working and being generally emo about the whole thing-- but Dean was frustrated in general, and everything Sam did just set him off. The time apart was a truly needed thing, so Dean didn’t understand why, if anything, the tension was getting worse. It had crept up so slowly that it had taken awhile to notice, but finally his own restlessness was too obvious to ignore, and the way he kept glancing at the clock even though he had nowhere to go, and the tight, achy pounding in his head… It was just too much with no cause. Dean tossed some cash on the table and grabbed the laptop up. Something was wrong. This wasn’t coming from within himself, and it wasn’t coming from Sam. In fact, for only being a few days post-sex, he wasn’t getting much from his brother at all.

He had to get back to Sam.

Sam wasn’t answering his cell phone, which by itself wasn’t necessarily a cause for alarm. He was prone to showering at the worst times, and he might have just left it in the other room. That was plausible. Likely, even. He might have walked to the lobby for something and forgotten to bring it. Or across the street to the diner for dinner. Lots of possibilities. But the closer Dean got to the motel, the more certain he was that something was wrong.

Dean could see lights on in the room when the Impala slammed to a halt and he leaped out. It was sunset and the long shadows left the back of the motel in darkness. Dean didn’t bother with the room key, he just twisted the handle until the lock snapped and shoved the door open. But inside, he had already known what he would find.

Sam was gone.

 

Chapter Seventeen 

I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin’.
I see bad times today.
                                       ~Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

The days had been wearing for Sam, but having Dean out of his hair for awhile promised to give him the break he needed to really buckle down and focus on his meditations without feeling like he was being watched every second.

Or it should have.

After a good hour, he gave up and relaxed into a more casual posture than he had been trying, flopped back on the bed, and considered his options. He was really honestly trying to follow Missouri’s instructions, but something just wasn’t clicking right in his mind. Sam thought he understood what she had been saying about energy and form, but it felt like he had it, and still nothing was happening. It was also hard to maintain; she had promised that with practice and experience, he should be able to hold the… aura, for lack of a better word, in place without having to think about it, but for now, it took nearly constant attention, and he still wasn’t certain he had it right. She had told him that even when he did get it, he shouldn’t expect the information he was after to just come pouring in. It was more like baiting a hook and hoping the fish were hungry; an analogy Sam hadn’t been comfortable with, considering it was his mind on the line, literally.

But he was still edgy and restless, and surprisingly, somewhat nervous. There was an almost oppressive feeling in the air, and he found himself eyeing the clock and wondering when Dean would be back. Something he would have found unbelievable just an hour earlier. He thought about giving Dean a call, he even picked up the phone… but what would he say? ‘I have no news. Nothing is happening, but I’m jumping at shadows; can you come back?’

Dean probably would come, but he doubted the demon would be able to resist a certain level of mockery. And with the way they both had been feeling-- that would probably end in punches.

Sam was confident of his ability to hold his own in a normal fight, and would have given himself even odds against his brother before, but his brother with a demon’s supernatural strength was a no-brainer. If Sam was going to brawl, he wanted at least a distant chance of winning. He stuck the phone in the pocket of his hoodie, though, just so it would be close.

Even a long, hot shower didn’t do anything to ease his nerves. He just knew there was something out there.

A few more hours passed and Sam was not only certain of the danger, but more sure of it than he had ever been sure of anything in his life. It was out there, it was after him, and it knew where he was. He had to run. He dragged the hoodie back on over his clean shirt and went out into the parking lot, body tense with nerves and senses alert. He had a pistol, one silver knife and a pocketful of salt. But he was never going to make it on foot; he had to find a car, and fast.


~~~~~


Sam’s cell phone started ringing about the time he turned onto the Interstate. He fumbled for the phone he had completely forgotten about having, and managed to get it open before the ringing stopped.

“Dean!” Sam gasped, relieved to hear his brother’s voice.

“Are you running from me?” Dean’s voice was ominously level. “Because I gotta tell you, Sammy, you picked a stupid time to try this.”

“No, Dean, that’s not-- Something’s after me,” Sam insisted. “I had to go.”

“Had to go? Go where, Sam? Where the hell are you?”

“I don’t know!” Sam’s frustration bled into his voice. “I was just sitting in the room, trying to work on things, and could feel it coming. I had to get out. I hotwired a car… you've got to get out of there too, Dean!”

“Sam, calm down.” Sam could hear the rustle over the connection as Dean moved around the room. “There isn’t anything here.”

“It’s not there yet--”

“I don’t feel anything either, Sam. The wards are still active; there’s people chatting in the parking lot--”

“No, damnit, Dean! I felt it; I can still feel it. It’s coming.”

“Coming after you? You can still feel it coming after you, Sam? Where are you?” Dean asked sharply.

“Just passed Exit 40. I thought if I could get away, we could meet up. Maybe back at Bobby’s--”

“No, Sam,” Dean cut him off. “Pull off, get out of the car, and wait for me.” Sam could hear the jingle of car keys and the door as Dean left the motel.

“Dean, I can’t. It’s still--”

“--coming, I know, Sam," Dean said impatiently. "Now pull off the damn road and get out of the car.”

“Dean--”

“Sam. You aren’t listening to yourself. This makes no sense! You suddenly get a wild hair that something’s after you, so you take off from a nice, safe, warded motel room in the middle of nowhere, steal a car, don’t call me, and take off for… where again?”

Sam hissed, frustrated. “Dean--”

“You don’t sound like you’ve pulled over yet,” Dean snapped. “You won’t like it if I have to make you get off the road.” It wasn’t something Dean had tried before, forcing his will on Sam through the tenuous connection between them, and he didn’t know if it would work. But it made an effective threat.

“Okay!” Sam exploded. The road around him was deserted as he slowed the car onto the grass sloping down beside the asphalt. “Now what?”

“Get out of the car and walk into the woods.”

“What? Why! It’s freaking cold, Dean!”

“Sam, I swear…”

“Okay! Okay, I’m getting out.”

Dean could hear Sam cursing softly as he climbed out of whatever car he had stolen and into the freezing winter air. Dean had grabbed Sam’s boots and jacket from the motel room when he left. Bringing the coat was just a matter of scooping it off the bed, that Sam hadn't picked it up on his way out was just another point in favor of Sam being seriously fucked up by something. Dean had a really bad feeling about whatever was going on and needed to get his hands on his brother again. “Sam, you sound like you’re just standing there.”

“It’s fucking cold and I’m wearing sandals, Dean. What do you want from me!?”

Dean growled as he turned onto the Interstate ramp and picked up speed. “I want you to stay where I goddamn leave you, I want you to call me before you do stupid things, and I want you to get your ass away from that car and out of sight. Maybe something is after you, or maybe something is luring you in by making you think it’s coming after you. You consider that, genius? Where the hell did you think you were headed?!”

Sam hugged his arms around himself and pinned the phone against his shoulder so he could keep talking to Dean as he walked into the tree line. “I wasn’t going anywhere! I was just… going away. From--”

“--whatever is coming. Yeah, yeah, gotcha. And you don’t see how that screams trap? Your running away is probably a direct line to whatever thinks you’re tasty!”

Sam huffed a bit, but didn’t have a good reply. His skin was still crawling, but every step he took away from the car was an almost physical struggle, and the fact that it didn’t weird him out that he had an almost unbearable compulsion to head back to the car and keep driving was itself weirding him out. Enough to follow Dean’s command and keep struggling to get deeper into the woods despite the bitter cold of the light snow covering the ground and his bare toes.

“Sam, I’m gonna park some distance away. I don’t want the Impala near that car you stole. No way to know if you picked it randomly or if it’s tagged. Keep walking; I’ll find you.”

“And what if something really is after me, and now that I’m not driving, it’s going to get me that much faster?”

Sam heard the slam of the Impala’s door as his brother got out, and could almost hear the cold, anticipatory smile on Dean’s face as he replied, “That will save me the trouble of hunting its ass down, now won’t it?”


~~~~~


Sam sat on the tree stump with his sandals planted squarely on a log to keep his practically bare feet out of the snowy undergrowth. The feeling of pursuit and the need to flee was still heavy in his mind. But with Dean’s orders and threats to help keep him firmly in place, and the knowledge that Dean was in the forest looking for him right that second, Sam had plenty of incentive to fight the compulsion.

He had stumbled through the forest in the growing dark until he was genuinely worried about his toes and could barely see the ground. Finding the tree stump had been a stroke of luck. That had been awhile ago, though, and Sam had since passed the point of being able to feel his feet, and was onto worrying about the rest of himself. The hoodie wasn’t meant to protect him against the chill of a snowy forest on a winter night, and even though the air was dead still, his jeans weren’t the best at retaining heat either.

He had tried calling Dean a few times, but his brother wasn’t answering. Sam was trying to crush the edge of concern he had about that. Dean had been worried about him on the phone. Pissed as hell when he had thought Sam was running from him, then angry, and scared. Dean should have found him easily. And it was dark, and freezing, and the dead, muffled silence of the snowy winter forest was creepy as hell. It didn’t help that the night was moonless and he would barely be able to see his hand in front of his face, if he had been willing to unwrap his arms long enough to try.

Sam was trying to distract himself from the turmoil over his missing brother and his physical discomfort by focusing on the compulsion in his mind. Now that he was absolutely not moving, he thought he could maybe feel what Dean had been afraid of. He still needed to flee, felt like something was after him, but he needed to flee in one direction. When he imagined turning in a different direction… he just couldn’t. Sam wondered uneasily where he would have ended up. He couldn’t come up with any place in particular in his mind. Just… that way. And he hadn’t even thought of calling Dean, not once the feeling had grown bad enough that he should have. It just genuinely hadn’t crossed his mind; the only reason he even had the phone on him was an accident. That more than anything else screamed outside interference.

A hard, cold hand out of nowhere clamped across his mouth as another gripped his shoulder, muffling his startled cry and preventing him from leaping to his feet.

“Sam.” The low, familiar growl flooded him with relief and he relaxed into his brother’s hold. “You have to be quiet now,” Dean whispered into his ear. “There are bad things in these woods tonight, and I don’t know that I got them all. I’m gonna take my hands off you and get these boots on your feet. Can you feel your toes?”

Sam shook his head as Dean released him. Even though his brother was barely a dark shape against the darker forest to his sight, he knew Dean would be able to see him clearly. Dean muttered a curse and draped something over Sam’s shoulders. Sam was grateful to realize it was his jacket and hurriedly shrugged it on. The knit gloves and cap Dean had bought to tease him were still crammed in the pocket. He hastily pulled those on too, not caring in the least how ridiculous they probably looked.

Meanwhile, Dean had been doing something odd with his legs, though it wasn’t until Sam started to feel the painful tingles of returning sensation that he realized what it was. Dean had crouched down and stuffed Sam’s frozen feet against his belly under his shirt, and dragged his own coat around to keep in as much body heat as possible.

“You so fucking owe me for this, Sam,” Dean hissed darkly as he rubbed Sam’s calves. “You cannot imagine the favor you are gonna owe me for this. Sandals? In winter?”

Sam gave Dean an irritated look that he hoped wasn’t completely lost on him.

“I wasn’t exactly planning on going outside. I had the sandals on so I didn’t catch god-knows-what from the floor of that forsaken hell-hole you put us up in,” Sam snapped.

“Shhhh.” Sam closed his mouth abruptly, remembering the dead silence of Dean’s movements and his hushed whispers. “Can you wiggle your toes for me?” Dean muttered. Sam complied, pleased when they all seemed responsive. “Okay. Just needed them thawed out enough so you can walk on them without falling all over the place. Boots on now.”

Sam sat silently while Dean tugged socks and boots over slightly less-frozen feet and then pulled him to standing. Sam had half a mind to ask him where the sandals were just to irritate him, but Dean’s edginess and his earlier warning about bad things in the woods was starting to weigh heavily on him, even against the compulsion still hammering in his brain, so he kept his mouth shut and wrapped his fingers around Dean’s hand when it grabbed hold of his own.

The trip out of the woods was nightmarish even by Winchester standards. Sam was effectively blind to the landscape unless it was literally inches in front of his face. The terrain was a complete mystery, with slopes and tangled undergrowth, and his feet were clumsy with cold. Dean’s hand was his only guide, and Sam constantly stumbled and banged into things as he tried to keep up with the pace. Dean, to his credit, kept Sam more or less upright and didn’t let him hit any trees, but his attention was clearly on something else, and Sam was afraid to ask what. If it came to a fight, he would be less than worthless, unable to help or flee, and probably painfully obvious to whatever enemy they might encounter. Several times, Dean jerked to a halt and Sam slammed into his back. He actually appreciated these brief pauses, because he could lean greedily into Dean’s warmth while his brother focused intently on something only he was aware of.

Sam quickly lost track of time and distance. It seemed he had been stumbling through the frozen darkness forever when Dean came to another halt. But this time, instead of ignoring Sam, he turned to face him, leaning in so close that Sam could feel his breath warm against his throat.

“You’re doing good, Sam,” Dean whispered. “We just have this last little bit, and then I can get you someplace warm and lit and figure out what’s going on in your head. But this part’s gonna suck.” Sam couldn’t imagine what would make the trip worse. “We’re gonna have to run.” That would do it. “It’s a little uphill, then a little downhill, and they’ve done more cutting near the road so the undergrowth is a lot thicker… and there might be some people waiting around for us. Can’t tell if they’ve found the Impala, but if so, there’s going to be a bitch of a fight. I know you can’t see a damn thing, so if we get in a dust-up, you just drop flat and wait it out. Okay?” Sam nodded. “Good. Ready then?”

“Yeah,” Sam muttered; he let out a slow breath and tightened his grip on Dean’s hand. He could feel his brother’s approval and wished it didn’t make him feel so damn good.


~~~~~


The fight had been short and vicious. Their only warning, or rather, Sam’s only warning, that they were about to be attacked had been a rustle in the bushes, then Dean had pushed him roughly down and what had been a rustle became a full-on brawl. Tell-tale flashes had clued Sam in to how Dean was dispatching the other demons so easily.

“You have Ruby’s knife,” he greeted Dean when the fight was over.

“Not Ruby’s anymore.” Dean sounded grimly pleased. “And that should do it for the welcome wagon.” Sam struggled to his feet, then jumped when Dean grabbed his hand again. The warm fingers wrapped around his own were tacky with drying blood, but Sam didn’t hesitate to grip back.

Finding the Impala was a breath of relief, but Dean didn’t start her up, just sat there. The blood had been mostly wiped off on his thighs, but vivid streaks of it were still visible on the backs of his hands and crusted on his short nails.

“Dean?”

“Do you still feel it, Sam?”

Sam nodded, fidgeting in his seat. “Yeah. I mean… I recognize it now and while I’m not about to rip open the door, roll out of the car and take off running because of it, it’s still there. I think… I think it might be getting stronger.”

“That makes sense." Dean sighed. "If it gets bad enough, you’ll be forced to answer.”

“Would that be a bad thing? I mean, then you could kill whoever it is. It should lead us right to them.”

“We’re thinking this is Lilith, right, Sam? And killing Lilith is bad, remember? Even assuming she doesn’t shish-kabob us first.”

Sam nodded again, rubbing at his head with a grimace. “I don’t know what I’m thinking. I keep saying and doing things that make no sense.”

“It’s the spell, Sam. It’s a fucking good one, and it will probably make any decision that could possibly reel you in seem completely rational. I can do a little mojo thing that will sorta smear your presence for awhile, make it hard to pinpoint exactly where you are, but whoever is running the spell will still be able to tell what general area, to within a couple of miles probably. Also, it’s exhausting, and I can’t keep it up for long.”

“How long is long?”

“A few hours.”

“And then what? I’m screwed?”

Dean shrugged. “We have to break it before then.”

Sam crossed his arms and slumped back in his seat. “We don’t even know who’s casting it, or what it is exactly. And I may be somewhat familiar with magic and occult stuff -- but that’s a far cry from being a real practitioner. You know anyone in these parts who might have a clue? Because I don’t.”

“It’s demonic in nature, Sam. I can see it on you if I squint just right. A human practitioner might be able to detect it, and could maybe get really lucky and put a dent in it, but you need a demon or something on that level to tackle this.”

“Can you do it?” Sam asked quietly. “I mean, you were... away, all that time. Didn’t you pick this stuff up?”

Dean let out a slow breath. “I didn’t spend most of my time in the Rendering chatting up pals at the water cooler exchanging crib notes on the latest and greatest magic, you know? I mean, I got one Hell of an education, literally, but it’s pretty specific. I can maybe destroy it without hurting you in the process, but it’s going to mean moving our schedule up.”

“How does the curse help us with this spell?”

“There’s a point during the power exchange in the curse where our auras bleed together a bit; the freaking compulsion is lying right outside of yours. I could blast something like this right off of me, but getting at the same thing on you is harder and risks turning you into, well, a vegetable. If we confuse it so that it tries to swallow us both, I can get rid of it entirely.”

“Are you sure?”

“You think we’re going to come up with a better plan in the next couple of hours? This way the trail stops cold here.”

“Right here?” Sam glanced dubiously around at the snowy forest through the glass.

Dean gave him a ‘look.’ “What’s your bitching about now? We killed off the immediate threats; let’s get this done and make tracks. I’d like to be on the far side of the country from anyplace Lilith thinks I’m hanging around. Besides, we don’t know what this thing is really doing to you; I certainly have no intention of heading in the direction it was pulling you, and who knows what it will do to your brain for me to haul you off elsewhere while you’re feeling it’s effects?”

“It’s freezing in here.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to notice.”

Sam still looked reluctant. Dean dragged a worn flannel blanket out of the backseat and tossed it at Sam.

“There. You know, this would only take about ten minutes if you would stop being such a girl about it.”

Sam spread the blanket out over his legs. “Fuck you, Dean.”

“That’s the spirit.” Dean dug a pocket knife out of his pants and flicked the largest blade out. He cut deeply into the center of his palm and held the cupped hand out towards Sam as blood welled.

“Drink a lot. We want to make sure all the magic is nice and confused. I hope the bitch gets a backlash headache that knocks her on her ass for a month.”

Sam wrapped his cold hands around the warmth of Dean's outstretched one and hesitated. “Is that possible?”

“Don’t know, but the thought of it should give you some sweet dreams while you’re napping.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

Welcome me to a haven given
It’s well received into my open arms
I ran in my sleep through shaking tremors
I felt the splitting earth echoing in my ears
                                         ~Welcome Me, Indigo Girls

“Why again did you insist we had to get a freaking room?” Dean asked, annoyed, when Sam finally emerged from his shower.

Sam gave him an equally irritated look and pulled on his clean jeans. “Because after your solution to our little problem, I woke up completely disgusting, and we were a few hundred miles away with no signs of pursuit. You admitted we were probably clear, and I need some calm, peace and quiet to work on the meditations some more. What’s the problem?”

“‘Probably clear,’ and ‘clear’, are not the same thing!”

Sam rolled his eyes.

“Go take a shower and give me some space.” He sank down onto one of the beds and crossed his legs.

“Because naked in a shower is exactly where I want to be when the forces of Hell kick the door down and try to drag you off.”

“You reek like blood and you’re distracting me.”

Dean muttered something under his breath and stalked into the small bathroom. A few minutes later, the sound of running water in the sink filled the room and Sam tried to relax into his mind.

Something had to give soon.


~~~~~


For his part, after washing the traces of blood from his hands, Dean tuned his hearing into the rhythm of Sam’s meditative breathing and heartbeat so he would know if there was a problem, then settled himself on the edge of the bathtub and sent his consciousness ranging out to try and detect any other demonic entities in the area. He wasn’t reading anything close by, but anything could change and he wanted the heads up.

A sudden change in Sam drew Dean sharply back to awareness of his body.

“Sam?” Dean called, opening the door. His brother was still sitting on the bed where he had last seen him, but his shoulders were shaking and he was resting his face in his hands.

“Sammy?” Dean asked sharper, and grabbed his shoulder.

Sam looked up; his nose was bleeding and he smelled like pain, but he was smiling broadly and Dean realized he’d been laughing.

“It works, Dean. I saw… we have a place to start now!”

“Awesome!” Dean hugged him exuberantly, then let him go to examine his face. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Sam looked at his hands is if surprised to see blood there. “I remember I used to think this was the most painful thing ever, now next to the crap visitations from your angel friend, this is a cakewalk. I mean -- they still fucking suck, but it’s not even on the same scale.”

“So you know what we have to get?”

“I have some clues. I need to do some research, but I think we’ve got it.” Sam was still grinning, though the expression was somewhat pained.

“What did you see?”

“Mountains… a crowd of people, the clothes were old. Like, really old. Another century old. There was a dirt road, and a… rope. I think they were hanging this guy, Dean. I saw his face pretty well; he was watching this one man in the crowd. There was a… sign? Something. I couldn’t make out the words on it, but there was a symbol. Like a town seal or something.”

“That’s all a little vague, Sam,” Dean said, some of his enthusiasm flagging.

“Not as vague as some things I’ve tracked down. Hand me my shirt, would you? We need to find some wifi.”

Dean tossed his shirt to him, but Sam paused in the act of pulling it on, expression thoughtful.

“I’m not irritated anymore.”

“Uh… good,” Dean responded, bemused. “That’s… good.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed; he finished dressing then faced Dean directly.

“Are you?” he asked pointedly.

“Am I irritated?”

“It’s not like any of this has been smooth sailing, but it’s never been as bad as this past week has been. And now it’s all just… gone. I feel fine. And don’t even try to tell me you weren’t feeling it too.”

“It was Lilith.” Dean shrugged. “You were being pressured by the trap she was setting, and I was probably detecting it around the edges. It was irritating us both -- which shouldn’t be surprising, considering its source.”

“So next time I want to deck you, we should look for a spell?”

Dean snorted. “When was the last time you went an entire day without wanting to hit me at least once? I don’t think that means you’re being targeted, I think it means you’re still breathing.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Or whatever?”

Dean shouldered a duffle bag and flashed Sam a blinding smile. “Exactly.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
                                                ~First We Take Manhattan, Leonard Cohen

Dean took another sip of his lukewarm coffee and grimaced. He had never really been able to tell any difference between dollar coffee and five-dollar coffee, except that the only thing he had to decide with dollar coffee was decaf or regular, and ordering five-dollar coffee came with more options than his last cell phone plan. Fortunately, Sam had interceded before he felt forced to get violent with the girl at the register, but the entire experience still left him disgruntled. He despised yuppie places like this. But Sam had insisted. It had caffeine and free Internet and that was all Sam needed to settle into a place for weeks at a time.

Five hours was four hours and fifty-nine minutes too long for Dean.

“Sam.”

“What?” His brother looked reluctantly up from the laptop screen and raised an eyebrow.

“How much longer?”

“It will take as long as it takes. Why don’t you go… wash the car or something,” Sam suggested distractedly.

Dean glanced out the tinted front windows at the snow drifting down heavily and starting to pile up against buildings and gutters.

“I’ll get right on that, Sam. Are you at least getting anywhere?”

Sam sighed and looked up at the ornate clock on the wall. “Thirty more minutes.”

Dean looked surprised. “Why thirty minutes?”

“David Hill says he will get back to me in about thirty minutes. He had to run over to the library and flip through some of the historical archives. They won’t let him take those books out of the collection room, but he’s pretty sure he knows what he’s looking for. And once we have a name, it should just be a few minutes of Internet searching.”

“Who’s Hill?”

“A professor I did some research with when I was doing consultant work. Are you going to keep talking? Because I need to finish some stuff up before I hear from him, and this is just making it take longer.”

Dean wandered over to a couch to examine some magazines, outdated but still new to him.

Almost an hour later, Sam waved a hand at him and Dean headed back to the table.

“Your professor friend has a poor sense of time.”

“We’re over six months into this and finally making progress, Dean, you really want to whine about an extra half hour?”

We aren’t six months into this, I am a hell of a lot longer than that into this, and you just jumped on the band wagon practically freaking yesterday.”

“It was thirty minutes, Dean.”

Unmollified, but accepting that part of annoyance was just boredom, Dean slid into the chair next to his brother. “What do you have?”

“So -- I told you about the vision, with the crowd and the rope and the mountains and stuff.”

“Which sounded completely useless, but you seemed excited.”

“Thanks, Dean. Yeah, anyways -- based on the way the ingredient is listed, and the stuff that I saw, Professor Hill and I narrowed it down until we really only had one name that seemed to fit, this guy named Thomas Harris, out in South Dakota. Apparently some kind of a loner. His brother was a horse thief, and I guess they must have looked somewhat alike, because when someone saw the horse thief plying his trade one night, the guy managed to convince people it was his brother Thomas who was actually the criminal.”

“They killed him?" Dean asked incredulously. "For stealing horses?”

“Horses meant a lot in the Old West.” Sam shrugged.

“Apparently. How does this help us? We need blood; it sounds like you’re talking a hundred years or so ago. They decide to keep a jar of it laying around?”

“1877 to be precise, and we need blood, but it doesn’t say liquid anywhere.”

“I love it when you try to be all sneaky, Sam. Now what the hell are you on about?”

“They botched the hanging; like, really botched it." Sam grimaced. "The guy’s head practically came off. Lots in the story about how his blood rained all over the brother that had accused him, and so on.”

“Wait, this guy had the balls to accuse his brother of a crime he committed, then let his brother get sentenced to death and actually showed up to watch him die?”

“Well-- yeah, I guess.”

“Geez,” Dean muttered, “and I thought we were dysfunctional.”

“You mind if I continue?” Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dean made an impatient gesture.

“Right. When they caught the other guy back at his old tricks later in the next town over… well, people said that the guy they hung the first time had reached out to mark his killer. It was apparently quite the sensational story back in its day.”

“The sort of sensational story people like to keep souvenirs of,” Dean mused.

“Exactly. Like the blood-soaked rope. Quite the museum piece.”

“You get a location?”

Sam turned the laptop around to face his brother.

Dean glanced at the map. “Awesome, more snow.”

“Oh,” Sam added as he shut the laptop down, “and grab those magazines. They don’t care if we take one or two.”

“Dude, what the hell is up with your magazine fetish lately? We’ve got more than your body weight sliding around in the backseat already. I mean - I might be understanding if you were suddenly needing the comfort of some Busty Asian Beauties, though weighing in at a metric ton is an awful lot of comfort, Sam, but Cooking Light? Oprah? National Geographic? What the hell?”

“I like to read.”

Dean snorted and randomly grabbed a couple of the magazines scattered across the low table. “Not even you can read that fast. The only thing you ever do is flip through the pages. It’s not like they have anything interesting in them anyways.”

Sam stilled in the act of sliding the laptop into the case. “Have you been reading my magazines?”

“Sometimes.” Dean eyed Sam curiously, picking up on the tension in his voice and body. “The nights get boring and I can only take the whine of the laptop for so long before I need to take a break. Of course, I can take a lot less of that crap you’re collecting.”

“Play Solitaire.” Sam zipped the bag shut with more force than necessary and turned to face Dean directly, meeting his eyes. “Stay out of my stuff.” He grabbed the magazines out of Dean’s hand and slammed out of the cafe into the swirling white.

Dean took a moment to drain the last sip of his coffee, watching thoughtfully through the window of the store as the snow began to settle in Sam’s footprints, then tossed the cup in the trash bin and followed his brother out.


~~~~~


The building was ancient; cement between the dusty, pitted bricks was crumbling out, the paving stones uneven and chipped. The only thing new about it was the roof, which had obviously been replaced sometime in the last few years. It was all to the Winchesters’ benefit, however, since the windows had not been dubbed such a high priority. Their wavy, uneven glass and battered, cracked wooden frames were at this point probably supported as much by over a century of repainting as by any structural merit.

They had rolled into town earlier in the day, and spent most of it getting a feel for the local law enforcement and hanging out in the museum, playing tourists. Sam had also insisted they find a commercial recycling bin and had disposed of nearly all the magazines he had accumulated, keeping only the couple grabbed at the coffee shop. His expression had dared Dean to comment and so the demon had held his tongue, still curious about what had his brother so riled about them, but unwilling to start a fight over it.

The item they were looking for at the museum had not been on display. But at least the snow clouds that had blanketed most of the rest of the region seemed to have missed one isolated corner; it saved them having to be overly concerned about footprints. They also didn’t have to worry about alarms. The little building didn’t even pretend to have a security system, and the two cameras mounted inside were obvious fakes. They did have lights with motion detectors outside, but they had been so poorly positioned that half of the windows were easily approachable.

Dean pushed up carefully on the frame until a gap wide enough for the blade of a thin knife appeared, slid one through the gap and across the frame slowly until it caught on metal, then pushed until the metal moved under the pressure and the latch slid away.

Dean grinned at Sam. “They might not be into all the upgrades, but at least they keep things oiled.”

“Yeah,” Sam whispered harshly, “you know what else they aren’t into, Dean? Bushes. So can we please get inside before the cops come back around?”

Dean rolled his eyes, and after a quick look to make sure no one was watching, pushed the window up and climbed in. Sam followed on his heels. They found themselves in an oak-paneled room with display cases indicating the history of Whitewood, a tiny splinter town a few miles outside of Deadwood, South Dakota. The cases were all polished and illuminated from within, and the wooden floor was glossy in the light from the displays, probably original to the building, judging from the gnarled and uneven look of the planks. A handwritten sign politely apologized for some of the displays having been removed for restoration or on loan. Some casual inquiries during their earlier visit had revealed that restoration was done on site, and the loans were to various places all over the region for some kind of localized history week. Dean hadn’t wanted to link their memory to a particular item by asking about it specifically, so they were doing the search the hard way, starting with the museum itself first.

“Where to?”

“There’s only two rooms that weren’t part of the tour, one is the staff office, so the other...” Sam headed down the main corridor to a heavy door painted the same brick red as the trim with ‘staff only’ neatly centered on it. Sam tried the handle, but it refused to turn. He turned back to Dean, who shrugged, dug out his lock-picks and crouched down in front of it.

The lock released silently. Dean twisted the handle and pushed the door open.

“Ladies first.”

Sam gave his brother an irritated look but didn’t hesitate. His visions and research had led them to this place, and if he was right, if what they were looking for was here, then they would have the first of a short list of tangible things needed to make sure that Lucifer would stay locked up for a long, long time. It wouldn’t stop Lilith from making his life miserable, but it would go quite a ways towards evening the scales. If they got their hands on the first one, he was sure they could acquire the rest.

The old wooden floor creaked under his weight as he moved slowly through the room. It was lined with shelves and benches, everything cluttered with boxes of all shapes and sizes and piled up apparently at random.

“Crap,” Sam muttered, looking about helplessly.

“Well, that’s accurate.” Dean gave the room a disgusted look.

One of the relatively clear benches held a variety of empty display boxes. Sam moved them aside while reading the content labels and felt a surge of dismay. His brother was riffling through boxes on another bench.

“Dean.”

“What?”

Sam held out one of the empty display boxes. Its aged, green velvet lining was faded on the edges and neatly pinned at the bottom was an aged slip of paper. Written on it in a spidery blue ink:

Rope from the Tom Harris hanging, 1877, Deadwood S.D.

The box was otherwise empty.

“It’s fine, Sam.”

“In what way is this fine? If it’s not in its box, where the hell is it?!”

“Probably in its new box,” Dean offered nonchalantly, he held out a different case. This one was about the same size as the box in Sam’s hand, but was lined with crushed red velvet and coiled up in the middle, with the noose undone and the rope flat after more than a century as a display piece, the blood-soaked rope from the botched Harris hanging. A new printed tag beneath it gave the same information as the old tag:

Rope from the Tom Harris hanging, 1877, Deadwood S.D.

There wasn’t any blood visible just from looking at it, though, and Sam felt a surge of doubt. “How can we be sure?”

“Sure of what?” Dean gave his brother an impatient look.

“That this is the right rope! I mean, it has been a century. It could have been lost, or misplaced, or stolen as a souvenir and replaced with just any rope. It’s not like this one looks any different.”

“This is only now occurring to you? I thought you were supposed to have the smarts in the family?”

“Dean!”

“What do you want from me, Sam? If it’s the rope we’re looking for, we get to move on to the next ingredient, right? And if it’s the wrong rope, then... we’re screwed and back to square one.” Dean started to open the case.

“Don’t do that.”

Dean paused and raised an eyebrow.

“It’s protected in there; let’s just take both cases.” Sam gestured around at the mess. “It will take them longer to notice it’s gone if they don’t have empty cases laying around, or they will probably just assume it was loaned out if the box is gone.”

“If they notice at all,” Dean added, stacking the new and old cases and tucking them both under and arm. “Any other shopping you want to pick up while we’re here?”

“No. Let’s just try and get out without getting caught, please.”

Dean snorted. “We only get caught when we want to get caught.”

“I think maybe all your memories haven’t quite returned yet,” Sam muttered, as they made their way back through the building to the window they had entered from. He looked carefully around outside through the glass, then pried the window up and slipped back out.

Dean handed the cases to him, then hopped lightly down beside him onto the grass. “You don’t have enough faith in us, Sam.”

“What would your reaction be if we were spotted by the local cops and they tried to arrest us?” Sam asked pointedly.

Dean flashed him an edged smile that promised violence and pain. “Not a chance.”

“Exactly, that’s what I have faith in. So if you don’t mind, can we please go before they drive by again?”


~~~~~


“So what now?” Dean asked, when they were safely back on the Interstate. The lights of Whitewood had receded into the distance and they had the road practically to themselves. The whole thing seemed almost anticlimactic now that it was over. All that work and waiting and it was a ten-minute burglary he could have pulled off in his sleep. “Do we wait for you to have another vision?”

“It didn’t say; just that when we had one item, the next would be revealed.”

“Maybe you can just read it, then.”

“It’s in the trunk; you want to pull over at the next rest stop and I can look?” Sam asked.

“No point. I’m sure whatever it is will be annoying and require research and more visions to figure out. Let’s just put another hundred miles or so between us and the museum we just finished robbing, to be on the cautious side, and then we’ll try and find a less irritating place for you to geek out than some yuppie coffee shop.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with coffee shops, Dean.”

“Sure, if you allow for them being inherently evil, there’s nothing wrong with them at all.”

 

Chapter Twenty 

I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers overflowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
                                                ~Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

Sam could read the next ingredient, but it didn’t make Dean any happier than the first one had.

“Where on the fucking planet are we supposed find ‘Nephilim Blood’?” he demanded, after Sam read the new required item to him.

“Maybe from a Nephili?”

“Oh, that’s just great help, Sam. No problem there -- I have half a dozen in the trunk; we can just pull over and juice one.”

“Look, last time I heard the term, it was a reference to giants. But since I haven’t seen any of them walking around ever, I’m hoping I can find a somewhat more conventional meaning. But I can’t figure out anything from the passenger seat of the car or standing around in a gas station parking lot!”

“Fine. We’ll get a room.”


~~~~~


 Dean drummed his fingers on the table and considered what Sam had discovered. “So the blood of the offspring of angels and humans?”

“Seems to make the most sense,” Sam sighed, and leaned back in his chair.

“Huh.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say, Sam?”

“I don’t know. Something more… helpful? You’re the one with the angelic buddies.”

Dean shrugged. “If these ‘Nephilim’ are part angel, I can probably feel them.”

“That’s great!” Sam sat up straight again.

“Maybe," Dean cautioned. "Bad news is I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Sam didn't look overly dismayed. “Well, considering the spell and all, it’s probably pretty rare.”

Dean wrinkled his nose. “I don’t even know how it’s possible.”

“Angels and humans having kids together?”

“Yeah.”

Sam shrugged. “The usual way?”

“Angels don’t have bodies.”

“The one I met at the motel had one.”

His brother snorted. “That was a Vessel, Sam. Some poor sap it borrowed to play Michael Landon for you.”

“Maybe that’s your answer. Maybe it’s just… infused.”

Dean stood up and reached for his car keys on the top of the television set that looked like it had been ancient when he was born. “Well, I think this conversation had gone as far as it possibly can. Thanks for that imagery, Sam. You ready to go get dinner?”

“That won’t solve our problem, Dean.”

“It will solve one problem. I’ll let you know if anyone trips my angel-dar; other than that and research, and hoping that you get some kind of visitation, is there anything we can do?”

“No.”

“Then food it is. Get your jacket.


~~~~~


More than a week later, Sam woke up to insistent shaking and his dead brother’s voice calling his name.

He opened his eyes and a kindly old woman was sitting beside him on the bed. When he blinked at her, she stood up and walked to a counter where she picked up a mixing bowl and a long wooden spoon.

“You looked like you were having a nightmare, dear. Do you want to tell me about it?”

Sam instinctively tried to sit up… and realized he was in a wooden chair at a kitchen table. It looked a little like Bobby’s kitchen, but Bobby’s kitchen had never been so clean, or smelled like fresh bread. Cordite and gun oil maybe, not bread.

“Um… I don’t… I don’t really remember. What are you making?” It seemed terribly important to ask.

The woman gave him a grandmotherly smile and sat down across from him, still stirring the contents of the bowl. “Cookies. My grandchildren always want cookies. So I try to always keep some in the jar; makes them eager to come see me.” She gave him a conspiratorial wink and leaned in a bit. “Store bought ones just can’t hold a candle. They think if they throw enough sugar at the problem, people will gobble them right up. But you feed a child some real homemade cookies and they remember who has the good stuff. A little flour, a little butter…”

Sam half listened while she continued chatting about her recipe; he was looking around, trying to figure out what was going on when something she said drew his attention back. “Did you say blood?”

She looked up at him with that smile again. “Love. I said love is important too.” She tilted the bowl forward and he could see that the handle of the spoon was a blade and blood from her badly lacerated hand was running thickly down into the batter.

Sam looked up at her, horrified, then watched, shocked, as her eyes flared with a brilliant white light and ghostly wings seemed to burn the air over her shoulders. Her voice was the same, though, as she continued.

“It’s in the blood, the legacy you pass down to your children, and your children’s children. It remembers where you come from, even when you don’t.” The light in her eyes grew brighter, expanding until Sam couldn’t look at her anymore and he fell back off his chair trying to scramble away. The entire house was shaking and he threw his arms over his head to protect himself.

Strong hands grabbed them and forced them down again. “Sam, damnit! I said wake up!”

Sam’s eyes flew open. “Dean?”

“For fuck’s sake, Sam. That better have been a vision, because if it was a nightmare, you need to be getting more sleep. I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten minutes.”

“Can you turn the light off?”

“Vision then.” Dean reached over and snapped off the switch. “Better?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it the angel?”

“My head doesn’t hurt enough for that, but it was weird.”

“The vision was weird,” Dean repeated, deadpan.

“She said love was important,” Sam mumbled, rubbing at his forehead.

“What? Did you get any clues?”

Sam blinked and just looked at him blankly.

“Clues, Sam! Did you get any from the vision?” Dean explained his question impatiently.

“Oh. No. Well, maybe. I could see trees outside, looked scrubby. Mesquite maybe.”

“South it is then.” Dean sounded pleased. He was sick and tired of snow and it was barely even winter yet.

“Can I sleep some more first?” Sam asked muzzily, twisting away from even the dim light coming through the cheap curtains from the parking lot. He heard a rustle of canvas and then the sound of water running at the sink.

“Take these first or you’re going to be completely worthless when you wake up.”

Sam pushed himself up on an elbow enough to swallow the pills and some water then flopped back down.

“You sure there wasn’t anything else?”

Sam wasn’t sure he replied aloud, but Dean left him alone, anyway, and soon he was asleep for real.


~~~~~


“Sam, yo -- you in dreamland over there? This nice lady has asked you three times what you want to eat.” Dean flashed the waitress an inviting smile that broadened as the woman blushed and returned it.

“I think it’s her, Dean.” Sam was staring intently at the local Texas paper.

“That’s not an order, Sam.”

Sam held up the paper and pointed to a figure in the grainy black and white photo on the cover. “Her, Dean. As in, from the other night, her.”

Dean looked back at the waitress. “Why don’t you just double my order.” Then he waited until she left to grab the paper and scan the page. “What the fuck are the odds of that?”

“Apparently, pretty good.” Sam glanced at the menu, then tossed it aside dismissively. “It’s not like anything about this entire mess has been normal.”

Dean snorted. “Normal for who? Now let’s see...” He unfolded the paper so he could see the caption. “‘June Richards of Southlake, Texas helps with her great granddaughter’s kindergarten class during grandparents’ week.’ Awwww, that’s sweet. So, Southlake then?”

“Unless you have some other lead I should know about.”


~~~~~


Texas was flat and arid.

Finding June Richards hadn’t been much of a hardship; she was listed in the phone book. The house was in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, somewhat of a step down from the more posh neighborhoods that Southlake --basically a Dallas suburb-- was known for. But it was also an older neighborhood, and if it was less upscale, the homes also had more of a personal feel about them. Children playing outside, neighbors talking on their porches, and landscaping actually done by the homeowners, and not the aesthetic dictates of someone hired for the job.

It only took about twenty minutes of observation to confirm that the home belonged to the right June Richards.

"Okay, we know she’s the woman from my vision --so what? Now what do we do?” Sam asked.

Dean shrugged, still picking at his cheeseburger. “I guess we confirm she’s one of these Nephilim.”

“How exactly do we do that? Go up and ask?”

“She probably wouldn’t know anyways. You said in your vision she talked about generational bloodlines; I doubt she has any idea what she is. But if she’s got that much angelic blood in her, I can probably tell.”

“She wasn’t even fifty feet away, Dean; you couldn’t tell then.”

“Fifty feet and five feet make a lot of difference when reading things like this, Sam,” Dean said, wounded.

“Well, how do you want to get within five feet, then? Stalk her?”

Dean snorted and finished off the burger. “I thought we would brush off some of our more traditional skills.”


~~~~~


“Ms. Richards? I’m Detective Young and this is Detective Shaw. We wanted to know if we could have a few minutes of your time? There have been some reports of unusual people hanging around the neighborhood and we’re just talking to residents, making sure there hasn’t been any problems or anything like that.”

The confused-looking elderly woman opened the door wider. “I’m happy to help out, Detective. But I haven’t seen anything. I’m not outside anymore as much as I’d like to be.” She gave them a rueful smile. “Arthritis in my back and all. The kids next door run around at all hours, though; they would probably be more helpful.”

“Thank you for your time, ma’am.” Dean gave her a professional smile back. “We really appreciate it; you can’t be too careful these days.”

“This has always been a safe neighborhood, but I appreciate you boys checking in. Have a nice day.”

She pulled the door closed and Dean walked quickly back to the car, Sam following on his heels.

Dean turned to Sam in the Impala, a light in his eyes that immediately put Sam on guard. “It’s definitely her.”

Sam nodded. “So we know; what do we do now?”

“What we do now, Sam, is sit back and enjoy some tunes!” Dean turned the volume up and soon the raucous strains of one of Dean’s personal mix tapes was loud enough to make Sam wince. But Dean was singing happily along, so Sam let the matter lie.

The motel they were staying at was a good thirty-minute drive. Dean pulled up in front of the room but didn’t kill the engine.

Sam hesitated with one foot outside the car. “You’re not coming in?”

“I’m gonna go find a carwash, do a little container shopping, and then grab something to bring back for dinner. I thought you would rather have some Internet time alone. You can come if you want,” Dean offered.

“No, thanks.” Sam climbed out and closed the door, but then leaned back in the open window. “How are we going to get some blood from her, Dean? It’s not like we can really just ask her to open a vein.”

“Did you pay attention to the spell, Sam?”

Sam didn’t bother dignifying that with a response.

“You have to use the Nephilim blood to draw some weird design, and it looks like a pretty big one. We aren’t talking a cupful of blood here, we’re talking more like a bucket.”

“No," Sam said immediately, "she wouldn’t survive that.”

“I didn’t make the spell, Sam, I’m just following the directions.”

“We aren’t going to kill that woman, Dean!”

“We’re going to do whatever we damn well have to.”

“No! Look, Dean. She’s not the only Nephili in the country, she can’t be! We can… figure out something. Maybe a little blood from several of them. We aren’t going to kill any people who aren’t even involved in this.”

“Wake up, Sam," Dean said acidly. "The whole planet is freaking involved. And it was your vision that picked her out, and it’s your vision that we are following here. Suck it up.” He shifted into drive and Sam had to jump back to avoid getting a foot run over. He stood in the parking lot fuming for several minutes before stomping into the room. It damn well wasn’t over yet.


~~~~~


When Dean slammed into the motel room a few hours later, Sam was waiting for him, standing with his arms crossed in the middle of the room. No chance to avoid the confrontation.

“You can kill her or you can keep me. You can’t do both.”

“Handing out ultimatums now, Sammy? That just doesn’t seem that bright.” Dean dropped his shopping bag by the door in case it turned into a battle of more than words and let a hint of his inner darkness frost the edge of his voice.

Sam glared at him. “I mean it, Dean. Stop trying to fuck with my head. We had a deal. I cooperate and you don’t kill people. Remember that, Dean? Remember the whole ‘demons have to keep their deals’ speech you gave me when I agreed to come along on this stupid trip?”

Dean gave Sam a surly look. “The whole point of you cooperating is for the spell. And if we can’t get the spell ingredients, then what the hell am I dealing with you for at all?”

“I’m not saying we can’t get the ingredients, I’m saying you can’t kill people to do it."

“People who aren’t trying to harm us,” Dean said pointedly.

Sam hesitated, then nodded. “Right. No other people, Dean.”

“What about people trying to harm other people?” Dean asked.

“Stop trying to split hairs, you know what I mean. You kill this woman and I walk.”

Dean threw himself back into one of the motel’s cheap chairs. “Then what exactly do you suggest we do, Sam?” he asked, annoyed. “Go and politely ask her if she will cap herself conveniently near a bucket?”

“I don’t know yet, but we aren’t killing her,” Sam stated flatly.

Dean let the silence stretch, staring balefully. Eventually, Sam got tired of the game and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door. Without Sam in front of him to annoy, Dean slumped down and tried to think of an alternative that wouldn’t end with his brother handcuffed in the car again.


~~~~~


Hours later, Dean was still in more or less in the same position. Sam had eventually emerged from the bathroom, and after some awkward conversation around the subject, they had tacitly agreed to drop the matter for the time being. Dean had indicated a general disinterest in doing anything that involved getting out of the chair, so Sam has settled in for the evening with the computer and whatever food he had dug out of his duffle, since Dean had been too annoyed by the confrontation in the parking lot to remember to bring anything back. The whole room still smelled like peanut butter.

A quiet whimper attracted his attention and Dean looked up sharply. Sam was curled into a knot, tangled with sheets on the bed farthest from the door. The darkness of the room didn’t hide from Dean the pained expression on his brother’s face as he struggled through whatever nightmare had him in its grip. It wasn't like there wasn't plenty of options to choose from. Dean still hadn’t thought of a solution to their problem yet, and as much as he would just as soon not have to deal with a conscious Sam anymore for the time being, he also wasn’t willing to let him suffer just to avoid a little awkwardness.

“Sam.” He shook his brother’s shoulder. Unlike the night before, Sam startled awake immediately, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. “Sam, you okay?”

“We have to go.”

“Go where?” Dean asked warily, remembering vividly what happened the last time Sam was insistent they had to go somewhere.

“The house, something awful is happening.” He slid out of bed and started pulling on his discarded clothes from earlier.

Dean had never bothered getting undressed so he quickly gathered up their few belongings that weren’t still packed. If they were about to go investigate something Sam described as awful, it was likely they would be wanting to blow town immediately afterwards.

“You have any more details than that?”

“No,” his brother replied, eyes wide and haunted. Dean wasn't even sure he was seeing the room around them, maybe still trapped in whatever vision was driving them out into the night. “We have to go now, Dean!”

“Soon as you get your shoes on. I’ll go toss stuff in the trunk.”

They only delayed long enough to shove the key in the overnight drop box for pre-dawn check-outs, then ghosted the Impala through the nearly deserted streets of Grapevine and then into Southlake. Sam was silent and still beside him.

“You still doing okay there, Sam?”

“I’m fine,” Sam said shortly, sounding less dazed and looking more aware. "Fine" was obviously a blatant lie, but if he was together enough to tell it, he probably didn’t need any help at the moment.

Dean parked the Impala at the far end of the block where an overgrown, empty lot hid it from casual view and there was a straight shot back to a main roadway. Sam hadn’t come up with anything more useful than ‘awful’ during the trip as a description of what they were about to walk into, so Dean wanted their bases covered. He shoved a rock-salt loaded shotgun into Sam’s hands and together they crept through backyards and gardens towards June Richards’ house.

They were still two houses down when Dean grabbed Sam’s arm, halting him in his tracks.

“Demons,” he hissed.

Sam sucked in a sharp breath and whispered back, “Still here?”

“Maybe.” Dean kept his grip tight on his brother and sent his senses ranging out, trying to get a better feel for what was happening. It was too dark for Sam to see the black his eyes had turned as he deliberately engaged his demonic abilities for information, but he could make out the distant expression on his face in the waning moonlight.

After a few minutes, Dean seemed to shake himself and let go of Sam’s arm. Sam rubbed at the residual ache. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t know. I don’t think any of them are still here.”

“Don’t think?”

Dean gave him an impatient look. “It’s not like it’s a science, and that old lady has a weird presence; it’s made this whole area difficult to read, like a static residue.”

“Ms. Richards?” Sam whispered, concerned.

“I didn’t pick up any humans. Or whatever she is.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Let’s go see what’s left.”

The back door was ajar. Sam reached to pull it open but Dean blocked his way. “Don’t touch anything.”

“What?” Sam hissed back.

“You don’t have gloves on, and I can already smell blood. Don’t touch anything.” Dean pulled the door open and motioned him inside.

“You don’t have gloves on either.”

Dean smirked and held up one hand, fingers spread as if demonstrating something. “I own this body, bitch. I only leave prints if I want to.”

Sam grimaced at the reminder, and crept in cautiously.

It wasn’t a difficult search. The back door opened into a laundry room, that opened into the kitchen from Sam’s dream. The woman herself was still propped gruesomely in one of the polished wooden chairs. She was wearing a long cotton nightgown and seemed to have suffered a few superficial wounds, long slashes to her arms and one across her cheek. None of them bad enough to have caused life-threatening bleeding, but the cause of death was obvious; no human could survive the unnatural angle of her neck.

“I guess it doesn’t matter if you get a bucket now,” Sam mumbled in defeated tones, the confirmation of what he had seen not unexpected, but still depressing. Dean didn’t appear to be listening, though; his eyes were again flat black and his expression intent as he stared at the corpse.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re not alone.”

Sam looked the body over again, but she seemed just as dead as before. “Dean...”

Dean pulled Ruby’s knife from the sheath at his back and reached for the body. “If no one’s home, then this won’t be a problem.”

Before he could make contact, the body jerked upright with an agility it probably hadn’t possessed for at least thirty years and moved back against the wall. The neck straightened before their eyes and the woman’s death mask turned to a cynical and almost predatory smile, her eyes filled with the same darkness as Dean’s.

“Hello, tasties,” the demon purred. “My, you have been naughty, haven’t you? But never fear, Lilith is willing to let bygones be bygones, if you ask nice and grovel well.”

“What are you doing here?” Sam demanded tightly.

“Nothing much, poking around, asking questions. We’ve been so terribly curious about what you boys have been up to, you see. I couldn’t figure out what was so interesting about this particular slab of meat, and I wanted to talk to her. She didn’t feel very communicative, though.” It traced a finger along one of the slashes on its arm. “And screaming gets so on the neighbors’ nerves. I thought it best to end the discussion before someone noticed and called the cops.”

“She was just an old woman; she doesn’t have anything to do with anything, didn’t know anything!”

“And yet, here you are, darkening her doorstep again in the middle of the night. Why is that again?”

Sam gave Dean a furious look for assistance.

“I think what Sam’s trying to say is, she wasn’t any of your business, and we don’t appreciate your interest in ours. How did you follow us?”

It snorted.

Dean moved faster than Sam could even see. One moment, he was standing beside him, the next, he had the demon pinned back against the wall with the tip of Ruby’s knife digging into its throat.

“That really wasn’t an answer, now was it? And don’t even think of trying to smoke out of this meat-suit; that would make me angry.” Dean gave it a smile that was all edges. “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

“Doesn’t matter," the demon gasped as the blade knicked into it's neck. "There isn’t anything you can do to me that will be worse than what Lilith will.”

“Even destroying you completely?” Sam suggested from over Dean’s shoulder.

The demon sneered. Dean pressed harder with the knife. “I think you need to take a better look at me, before you feel so sure that Lilith is the worst thing that can happen to you.”

The demon blinked and focused on him. After a moment, its eyes grew huge and it actually seemed to cringe.

Sam was baffled; he couldn’t tell anything different about his brother, but something was scaring the crap out of the demon inhabiting June Richards’ corpse.

“Now that you are feeling more reasonable,” Dean continued, “why don’t we try this again. How are you following us?”

“It’s a locator charm.” The demon glanced meaningfully at Sam.

“Sam?” Dean demanded, looking over at him too.

“I don’t have anything, Dean!”

“More information,” Dean snapped at the demon.

“Someone gave it to him, in some shop in, uh, Kentucky. He carries it with him; he’s carrying it now. I can feel it.”

“That’s how Lilith set that damn compulsion.” Dean swore. “She’s been tracking us all along. Dump your pockets out, Sam.”

“Dean, I swear I don’t... Wait.” He frowned. “Kentucky?” Sam ripped his wallet out of his jeans and pulled a thin stack of business cards from the back. He singled out a pale lavender one with fancy black script and held it up.

“What is that?” Dean asked.

“That cafe, the one outside of Evansville. I was asking the guy at the counter about a rare book store in the area and this woman butted into the conversation. She said her uncle dealt in rare books, and she was sure he could help me out if I really needed to find something. She gave me this card, I… completely forgot about it.”

Dean pressed harder on the knife to make sure the demon didn’t try anything, then held his free hand out impatiently. “Let me see it.”

Sam passed the card over. Dean cursed as soon as the paper touched his fingers and let it flutter to the floor. “That’s it.”

“Why couldn’t you tell about it before? It’s been weeks, Dean!”

“It’s faint, really, really faint. And it’s not targeting either one of us, just sending out enough of a signal for anything attuned to it to trace. They probably can’t even feel it more than a few miles away; they’ve been on our fucking heels.”

“Then why only try to grab me the once?”

Dean turned his attention back to the demon. “Well, I guess that answers our question about whether any Seals are left or not, doesn’t it?”

“How?” Sam demanded.

“She was just feeling us out. If she’d gotten you, then great, but just watching after that attempt failed seems to have been okay. Means she isn’t ready for you yet, so she must still have other chores occupying her time. That right?”

“I don’t know her business,” the demon replied sullenly.

“Wait,” Sam interjected, “why kill this woman? You could have followed us around forever and we wouldn’t have known; why reveal yourself like this?”

It didn’t answer. Dean dug the point in another hair.

The demon flinched. “It was an accident. We just wanted to know why you were talking to her. But she knew something was… different, about us. She freaked out. We shoved our way in and tied her up. We were hoping you would show up sooner so we could use her as bait, but after a few hours, my associate got a little enthusiastic.” It shrugged a little.

“Where’s your associate now?”

“Do I look like I’m any kind of authority figure? I don’t know where he went; he told me to hang out here and see if I could find anything else out. I was going through her files when I heard you coming in the back door. This seemed like a better meat-suit to eavesdrop from.” It kind of waved off toward the hallway, where Sam could make out a man’s loafer, presumably attached to a body, just barely visible in the light from the kitchen.

“You have any more questions, Sam?” Dean asked casually.

Sam shook his head. Dean turned his attention back to the demon.

“You know anything else you might like to try and trade for your continued existence?”

“Fuck you.”

“Guess not.” Dean took the knife from its throat and slammed it home in its chest, but didn’t pull the blade from the corpse.

“Should we burn the card?” Sam asked, not looking at the body his brother was carefully lowering to the ground, at the friendly grandmother he had chatted with that afternoon, now with Ruby’s knife hilt-deep in her chest. Dean hadn’t even blinked when they had walked into the room and found her corpse in the chair -- Sam was sure of this because he’d been watching. Some part of him had already known what they would find, so he had watched Dean instead, watched for some sign that the horrible death of a completely innocent woman touched him at all.

“No," Dean decided. "She’ll know we know the second the spell breaks and start trying to tag us some other way while she still knows where we are. We can destroy it when we blow town.”

“That isn’t going to be right now?” Sam asked, trying to keep focused on the immediate problems.

“In a few minutes. I have to go get some stuff out of the car. Go through your wallet and take out anything you don’t absolutely need and we’ll burn it all. We’ll go through your duffel bag too, and anything you’ve added to the Impala.”

“What about your stuff?”

Dean gave him an impatient look. “Anything I carry on me or wear, I would have noticed by now, even as faint as that spell was. It’s only your stuff that’s risky. Back in a sec.”

When Dean came back a few minutes later carrying his shopping bag from earlier, Sam had a neat pile of receipts and business cards on the table. Dean traced a finger over them, then shook his head negatively. Spell-free. Sam gathered the papers back up and shoved them in a pocket to be destroyed later anyways.

“Did you touch anything?” Dean asked.

“Only the top of the table, and I wiped that down already.”

“Great; go wait outside.”

“Why? What are you doing?” Sam asked sharply.

“What we came here for. She’s already dead, Sam; neither one of you can complain now.”

Sam paled a bit and didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon.

“One of us has to be mission-oriented, Sam. Now go wait outside.”

“That isn’t fair, Dean.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything. But we’ve got things we have to do, and we can’t let anything trip us up. We didn’t kill her, but we still need her blood.” Dean pulled a gallon-sized plastic iced tea pitcher with a screw-on lid from the bag. “You don’t need to watch this, so get out.”

Sam nodded and went to sit in the darkness on the back steps.

About fifteen minutes later, Dean joined him, the jug wrapped up in the bag.

“You sure you got enough?” Sam asked dully.

“The human body only has about a gallon and a half of blood normally. She’d already been injured, and a corpse isn’t the best thing to try and bleed.” Dean shrugged. “Under the circumstances, I think a gallon is about the best we can do.”

Sam didn’t say anything, just stood up and started walking back towards the car.

Dean caught up with him, but held his silence until the gallon was stored in the trunk alongside the rope still in its case, and the Impala was back on the Interstate.

“I can’t coddle you, Sam,” he said finally. “I was completely honest with you about what I was after, and what I was willing to do to see it through. You agreed. I’m not going to go out of my way to rub your face in things you would prefer to ignore, but I’m also not going to jeopardize our success because you’re feeling squeamish. You got lucky this time; if next time I have to handcuff you again, stuff you in the trunk, and use the curse to get information out of you because you shut down on me in some moralistic hissy fit -- don’t think that I won’t. This isn’t about just us, or Lilith, or even that woman back there; this is about this entire fucking reality, and if you can’t be trusted to get my back, then I have to take steps to make sure you also can’t stab it.”

Sam nodded without looking at him. The gulf between them seemed greater than it had since they had forged their deal all those months ago.

 

Chapter Twenty-One 

Well, I’ve been waiting, I was sure
we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for
I think it’s time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
                                                 ~The Stranger Song, Leonard Cohen

Things were better the next afternoon. Sam had regained some of his perspective while drowsing against the passenger door of the Impala. Dean hadn’t caused any of this, and it was Sam’s vision that had brought them to June Richards’ house. They hadn’t killed her, or had any idea that they were being tailed by the demons that did.

All of their clothes had been sent through the Laundromat, along with some herbs and a few Latin chants, and if their wardrobe now smelled faintly of rosemary and cedar, they were assured that none of it contained any spellwork. Dean had gone through all of Sam’s things --starting with his wallet-- looking for the faint hints of magic that would indicate more of Lilith’s meddling, then had personally run his hands over every single thing contained in the Impala, front seat, back seat and trunk, and had spent almost two hours out in the rain and cold of a diner parking lot while Sam ate and surfed the web, carefully inspecting every inch of her undercarriage and beneath her hood. People kept giving him strange looks while they went about their business, but Sam could hardly explain to them that Dean was a demon possessing his own body, and as such was hardly vulnerable to things like cold or pneumonia. Sam just pretended not to know him instead.

Then they had to look for a suitably abandoned barn or something where they could lay out the working for another spell, this one for preservation. Bobby had been unimpressed with Sam’s reasons for needing such a spell and had asked several pointed questions about exactly where they had obtained all this blood they wanted preserved. Sam had been sketchy about it, but after insisting what felt like dozens of times that neither he nor Dean had killed the woman, or had anything directly to do with her death, he had emailed Sam the ritual he needed within a few hours. It was fairly simple, but it required burning a circle around the object, so not really the sort of thing that could be handled in a motel room.

Sam wiped ash off his hands onto his pants and stood up.

“All done?” Dean asked, from where he was sitting on a hay bale watching the proceedings.

“Yeah. That should do it. I guess we will know if the spell worked or not if it starts to rot.”

“That’s a charming image, Sammy; thanks for sharing. Dump that ice out web analyticsin the grass, would you?”

“Don’t call me that,” Sam answered reflexively, as he grabbed the cooler they had kept the blood in and carried it out through the barn door to turn it over.

Dean rolled his eyes and went to grab the jug. “Where to now?”

“Lunch. And then… I don’t know.”

“You look at the spell yet?”

Sam grimaced, Dean knew damn well he hadn’t. “No, but… if it’s like the last two items, we aren’t going to know a damn thing until I have a vision anyways, and that could take anywhere from hours to days. Can I wait until tonight?”

“We didn’t kill her, Sam.”

“I know that, Dean! I’m just asking for a few hours.”

“It’s been almost two days.”

“Just a few more hours. Please.”

“All right, Sam. But it has to be tonight.”

“Tonight,” Sam agreed, “just not… now."