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Fortress

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye.
                                                             ~Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

Twilight had long passed and the clock was ticking over into double digits before they made it to their motel room. Dean had decided that what Sam really needed was the kind of shoring up only a bar could provide, and while the shoring-up part was dubious, it had given Sam the distraction he had really been looking for in begging the extra time.

But now the hours were up.

Sam looked at the notebook paper and chewed his lip while Dean watched expectantly.

“Well?” he finally asked impatiently, when Sam seemed reluctant to speak.

“I’m sure it doesn’t mean what it says; or at least, it must mean something else.”

“That sounds a little ominous, Sam. Want to go ahead and share with the class?”

“It, ah... it calls for the ‘Holy Chalice’.”

Dean just stared at him for a moment. “The Holy Chalice Indiana Jones and the Knights of the Round Table were after Holy Chalice?”

“I don’t know, Dean. And that was the Holy Grail.”

“What's the difference? And I hate to break this to you, Sam, but if getting our hands on this cup requires any amount of purity or piety, neither one of us is likely to fit the bill --you know?”

Sam sighed and rolled off the bed to go retrieve the laptop.

It didn’t take him long to come up with some answers, though Dean’s fuming and pacing didn’t help his concentration any.

“So, no. It’s not the Holy Grail, the Holy Chalice is something different. Something, you know, real. It shouldn’t require any special state of moral… whateverness,” Sam said dryly.

“Great." Dean looked relieved. "Where can we pick one up?”

“Interesting you should ask that," Sam hedged. "Looks like Valencia, Genoa, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

“Is that Valencia, California?” Dean asked suspiciously.

“Italy.”

“Fantastic. There’s more than one?”

“There’s argument over which one is real,” Sam said slowly, still scrolling through whatever he was reading on the laptop.

Dean dropped down onto the edge of the bed. “What the hell is this thing, even?”

“It’s supposed to be the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper to serve the wine.”

“And then they used it to catch his blood at the crucifixion. How is that different from the Holy Grail?”

“No, there’s no blood associated with the Chalice, other than maybe some argument about transubstantiation...” Sam trailed off at Dean’s blank look and tried again. “Okay, supposedly after the Last Supper, the apostle Peter took this cup with him and, well, eventually it ended up in the Cathedral of Valencia.”

“Then what’s up with the other places you mentioned? They hack in into pieces and spread it out as a souvenir?”

“We’re talking about more than two thousand years of religious wars and continental strife and upheaval, Dean. That’s a long time to keep track of a cup. The Valencia Chalice seems to have a strong historical claim, but there are definitely a few hundred years where things got a little muddled, so it’s possible that one of the others could be legitimate. That’s not even including all the ones people made a claim over and then they just disappeared.”

“And none of them could be legitimate and the real cup could be at the Salvation Army down the street.”

“Pretty much.”

“Perfect. That’s just fucking fantastic.”

“Well, at least we know it actually exists," Sam said, trying to find a bright side. "The quest we're on has to be possible. If the Chalice isn't out there to find, then this entire thing is pointless.”

Dean growled something Sam couldn’t quite make out, then: “Fine. New York it is.”

“What?”

“That’s where the Metropolitan Museum is, right? At least that one is on this continent. Until you have a vision that directs us otherwise, we may as well start with what’s easiest.”

“You want to break into the Met? I’m not sure ‘easy’ belongs in that sentence, Dean!”

“Hey, it’s not my idea of a good time either, Sam, but I don’t think they are just going to hand the damn thing over. Besides, we do have some advantages.” He raised one eyebrow over a pitch black eye.

Sam groaned, flopped back, pulled a pillow over his face, and hoped a vision would roll him under before it wasn’t just the demons they were running from, but also the New York cops.


~~~~~


That night brought no visions, and neither did the next day. Sam spent the time trying to manipulate his psychic whatever to hopefully draw in something that would help them out. For his part, Dean seemed pleased to be on the road with some kind of concrete goal. He would have probably been happy to drive straight on through to New York, but Sam made him find a room just over the Ohio state line. Sam was still holding out hope that they would get more information, and justified the stop by claiming that he couldn’t concentrate nearly as well in the car as he could in the quiet stillness of a room. Dean was annoyed at the delay, but grudgingly agreed that they didn’t need to borrow trouble if one more night might save them the inconvenience.

Once in the room, between Dean's restless fidgeting and the weight of too much expectation, the walls just felt like they were closing in. Sam decided he'd had enough ‘togetherness’ over the last few days and wanted some space. Dean seemed to feel the same way because, after personally checking Sam’s cell phone and giving a lecture on safety that would have insulted an eight-year-old, he agreed to let Sam walk the few blocks to the quickie-mart alone while he remained flopped on one of the beds watching some incarnation of Casa Erotica. Sam raised an eyebrow at the choice, seeing as how Dean claimed not to care about those sorts of things outside of their manipulative value or the curse, but Dean insisted it was nostalgically interesting and showed no signs of wanting to move.

Outside, the weather was cold and snow was piled up along buildings and covered the grass, but the sky was clear and the sidewalks and street free of ice. Sam enjoyed the walk; it was twilight and the snow decorating the store fronts added a festive sort of air to an otherwise drab area of town. He didn’t usually pay much attention to things like that, but tonight it suited his mood. He was just another guy out for a walk, stopping by the store to get dinner on his way home.

Normal. Ordinary. Safe.

He was on his way back with his shopping, less than three blocks away from the motel, when a woman stepped out of an alley and blocked his path.

“Sam.”

Sam froze. He didn’t recognize her, and that was never a good sign in his experience.

She smiled and held a hand out in invitation. “I just want to talk to you for a minute, Sam.”

A quick glance confirmed that the street around them had become almost miraculously deserted. Sam tensed to run, but a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, pinning him in place. Sam tried to shrug it off, but the strength was beyond human and the hand almost drove him to his knees in response. He looked over his shoulder to see three expressionless men and another woman standing behind him.

"I appreciate the offer, but I already have plans." Sam held the bag up in emphasis. "My date might get impatient if I'm late." 

The first woman's smile sharpened a bit. “I think I’m going to have to insist. You're 'date' isn't going anywhere without you.”

Sam was herded unceremoniously into the alley. Impersonal hands relieved him of his grocery bag and patted him down, removing his silver knives and the pistol. Sam frantically tried to find that link in his mind that Dean could read. It had never been anything he could feel before, but desperate times and measures…

His brother had insisted the emotional link grew weaker the further they got from the exchange, and they were about as far from that as they got before it was time to renew, but there was supposed to be a physical sense that should be strengthening at the same time. Sam didn’t know if it only transmitted pain, or if Dean could feel the fear and adrenaline flooding his system as well. With no other good options, Sam tried to broadcast his distress strongly enough that Dean would pick it up.  

“What the hell do you want?” Sam demanded of his captors as they finished their pawing with a rough shove.

The woman in change rested her hands on her hips and raked him with a searing look. “That seems like an unreasonably rude way to greet an old flame, don’t you think, Sam?”

Sam blinked at her, shocked. He knew he didn't know her, but... there was something. Something about the the way she spoke, the tilt of her head... Something familiar...

Too familiar. The pieces clicked into place.

“Ruby.” 

She looked pleased. “I knew it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. It's nice to see you out and about in the world again. Not all pinned up in that dinky little shack.”

“How did you find me?” Sam asked, ignoring her comments and aware of how badly the odds were stacked against him. They could grab him up, stuff him in a trunk, be gone in minutes -- and there was probably nothing Sam could do to stop them.

Not on his own.

Ruby shrugged. “You leave distinct traces when you go messing with your psychic stuff. It’s not easy to pick up, especially as dim as you usually run, but this last day it’s been like a neon light at fifty feet. At least to me. Probably because of all that time we spent tangled up together. You remember that. Right, Sam?” Her lips curved into a smile the mere hint of which used to heat his blood. Knowing who she was, he wasn't entirely immune to it now. She had been important to him once. The most important person. Once.

He pulled his mind out of the past and focused on what she was saying. He hadn’t even thought of the possibility that other things might be able to sense what he was doing when he was trying to expand his aura. Dean was going to be pissed. Sam wasn't overly thrilled himself and crossed his arms defensively.

“You still haven’t said what you want.”

Ruby stepped in close enough that she could run fingers lightly down his arm. Even through his jacket and two layers of cloth, Sam's skin crawled. He forced himself to stand his ground. The last thing he needed was to be backed into a wall.

“I want to help you,” she said, voice rich with sincerity.

Sam couldn’t help the disbelieving snort that slipped out. “Right. Because you’ve always been so helpful to me in the past.”

“Lilith is going to get what she wants, Sam. It’s just a matter of how much you have to suffer for it in the meantime. It would be so much better if you just accepted that.”

“Lilith isn’t going to get anything from me, Ruby. I thought you and I already had this discussion?”

“Sam--” she began, her tone coaxing, compassionate.

“Stop it!” he cut her off, fear sliding into the background as the past enveloped him. “You think I’m going to listen to you again? That there is anything you can say that would make a difference to me? You’re pathetic.” Sam still dreamed about her sometimes, her companionship and comfort in the time after Dean’s death; but seven years of living in his self-made prison, with all that time to dwell on how deeply she had betrayed him, ensured that the most overwhelming thing he felt facing her across the shadowed, broken ground was rage.

I’m pathetic?” She laughed. “ So… what then -- you think you and that thing that used to be your brother are going to manage to stop Lucifer?”

“Yeah, you know what? I do, Ruby. But even if we don’t, I know you won’t be around to enjoy it. I should have done this a long time ago.”

Sam threw out hand out and tightened his will around her, just like she had taught him all those years ago. He figured with the other four right behind him, he only had seconds before they stopped him. His mind flickered to Dean briefly, and Sam was surprised how deep the stab of regret went, but there was no time left. The well of demonic power deep at his core was a drained thing, he was weak there, and it would gutter fast. But he had just enough strength left there for this, and plenty of anger to see it through.

Ruby’s scream was interrupted by choking coughs as black smoke began to roil out of her mouth. Powerful hands grabbed Sam and he fought to hold his concentration; he barely felt it when he was released seconds later, all of his attention on the demon in front of him.

When he was sure he had her entirely pinned with his power, he crushed everything inwards until he felt the very last spark of her familiar presence extinguished. There was a sense of loss, but it was well buried by grim triumph, and exhaustion. The emptied vessel collapsed to the ground like a discarded doll, eyes glassy and staring. Dead then. Sam collapsed to his knees, then belatedly remembered the other demons and turned just in time to see Dean pulling the knife from the chest of the last one.

Their eyes met and they just looked at each other for a moment, before Dean broke into a wide smile and held out a hand to pull Sam back to his feet.

“I think that was the hottest thing I have ever seen. I would totally want to do you even without the whole gone-to-Hell and curse thing.”

“Um… yeah. Thanks, I think,” Sam mumbled, dazed, staring at Dean. One of the demons had gotten a blow in before Dean made the kill, and the split in Dean’s lip that was healing even as Sam watched had left a smear of blood that Sam found riveting. He couldn't tear his gaze away.

Dean gave him a knowing look that might have been irritating if Sam was in any state to care. “You want to suck on my lip, don’t you?”

Sam nodded almost helplessly. It felt like his veins were being scoured out with fire, and the only thing that could quench the pain was standing a mere five feet away.

“Hold that thought,” Dean told him, looking around thoughtfully.

Sam leaned back against the cold brick, eyes glued to Dean’s every movement while his brother dragged the bodies deeper into the alley and stashed them under some old carpet and half-rotted-looking pallets.

“That should keep them for at least a few days in this cold. I doubt any of them were locals anyone will be missing.”

Dean gathered up the items Sam had bought that had spilled in the fight, then grabbed Sam's arm in his free hand and got them moving back towards the motel.

“I don’t think we should stay the night," Dean said. 

Sam could only nod in agreement.


~~~~~


Sam managed to keep it together long enough for Dean to get them back to the motel, and the door unlocked, but he gave up as soon as they were both inside and shoved Dean back against the door to get at his mouth. Dean let the grocery bag tumble to the floor and pulled out his pocket knife to slice a deep furrow into his forearm while Sam was distracted getting all of the blood from his lip and investigating for more.

“Sam,” Dean gasped around his brother’s insistent mouth, “Sam, here.” He tried to show Sam the wound, but Sam didn’t seem to take notice. Dean finally just shoved him back a foot and held his bleeding arm up between them. That ended the problem and Dean maneuvered them both over to the bed while Sam sealed his lips around the cut.

What Sam had done to Ruby wouldn’t have wiped him out if it hadn’t already been getting close to time, and Dean didn’t want to stay in town as long as it would take them to transfer the usual amount of energy between them. He needed Sam mobile more than he needed him passed out in a coma for hours. So he let Sam get a good taste to take the edge off, then healed his arm up and slid in closer. With the blood cut off, his brother was already feeling the second stage of the curse.

Sam writhed against him. “Dean. Fuck.”

He struggled with the fly of his jeans, fingers too frantic to manage the buttons. Dean pressed him flat and knocked his hands away, reaching for the fastening himself.

“Hold still a second, Sam; let me do this.” Dean’s fingers made quick work of the buttons and he tried to shove the denim down before Sam lost patience with his efforts.

Sam dragged Dean into his arms and welded their mouths together, licking hungrily into Dean’s mouth and tangling their legs.

“Jesus, Sam,” Dean said breathlessly, as soon as his mouth was free, Sam sucking desperate kisses onto his jaw and throat. “I suddenly remember why I insist on stripping first and bleeding second.”

“Shut up,” Sam ordered, his voice muffled in Dean’s skin. He rolled, pinning Dean down, and tried frantically to drag his shirt off. Dean reached up to help, then pulled his own over his head while Sam kicked off his pants. “Off,” Sam growled, hooking his fingers under the waistband of Dean’s jeans. Dean grabbed his head and pulled him down for another scorching kiss.

With their skin pressed together, Sam’s desperation calmed somewhat, and he didn’t resist when Dean rolled them to the side. He twisted the fingers of one hand in Sam’s hair to keep his head angled how he wanted it and ran the other soothingly over his back.

“Dean,” Sam panted when Dean pulled back, “please.” His hips rocked, rubbing his erection against his brother’s denim-clad thigh.

Dean chuckled and moved his free hand down to the smooth skin of Sam’s hip, encouraging the motion. “There something you want from me, Sam?”

Sweat was beaded up on Sam’s skin. Dean slid his hand between them, wrapping his fingers around Sam’s swollen cock and giving it a helpful squeeze. He ran his tongue over Sam’s bottom lip and Sam opened his mouth obligingly for Dean to claim again. Sam groaned and flexed his fingers on Dean’s back; his movements becoming more erratic. Dean pressed him onto his back as Sam shuddered and hot liquid spilled over Dean’s fingers and leg. Dean gentled the kisses and stroked his hands slowly along Sam’s body as he calmed.

“You know, these were my last clean pants.”

“You should have thought about that when you encouraged me to rub off on your leg,” Sam grumbled.

Dean licked over one flushed cheek and grinned when Sam wrinkled his nose and turned his face away. Sam tried to squirm out from beneath him, but lassitude caused him to settle back beneath Dean’s weight before making more than a token effort.

“You wouldn’t be trying to get away from me now, would you, Sam?” Dean asked pointedly. “Not when the entertainment has been so one-sided and all.” Sam opened his eyes warily. Dean’s erection was pressed hot into Sam’s hip through his jeans. “Surely you wouldn’t leave a guy hanging, and after I was so nice to you.”

Sam tensed and Dean could feel his roiling emotions in the strength of the recently-renewed blood-bond. Could almost hear the cutting replies and retorts that sprang to Sam’s mind. But after a moment, his muscles relaxed and his inner turmoil seemed to settle out. His eyes were still dark with earlier pleasure as he took a deep breath and slid one leg slowly back up around Dean’s.

“Did you have anything specific in mind?” Sam asked.

Dean buried his face in Sam’s throat to hide the triumph in his eyes at Sam’s voluntary capitulation.

“Oh,” Dean smiled, “I’m sure I can come up with something.”


~~~~~


The ‘something’ had been brief but satisfying, and Sam, thank God, didn’t seem to be in a mood to angst about it. Rather, he seemed full of a sleepy contemplation, as they pulled away from the motel.

“You okay?” Dean asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“Just, you know, Ruby and all.”

“You knew it was her?” Sam was surprised.

“I heard enough of the conversation to get the idea of what was going on.”

“You can’t have possibly believed I would listen to her again.”

Dean snorted. “Hardly. That wasn’t why I didn’t charge in. I was just hoping the bitch would spill something useful.”

“How did you know I was in trouble?”

“I felt it. You reached out deliberately?” Dean asked, curious.

“Yeah. I was trying to, anyway; wasn’t sure you would get the message.”

“Oh, I got it all right," Dean assured him. "Just about split my skull in two. You hit pretty hard when you’re panicking.”

“I’ll keep your delicate sensibilities in mind next time I'm jumped in an alley by some of Lilith's pets,” Sam retorted sarcastically.

“You do that. I missed the first part of the conversation, though; did she say how they found you in the first place?”

Sam shifted, a bit uncomfortable with this part. “You know how I’ve been hoping to get a vision to help out with this Chalice thing?”

Dean nodded.

“I was trying to expand my, um, aura, hoping to attract one. Ruby said she could sense that; that’s how she found me.”

“Hmmmm.”

Sam frowned. “I kind of expected more of a reaction from you than that.”

“Why? You’re psychic crap hasn’t caused any problems before like this; no reason for you to have known she could detect it. So, does this mean any time you try anything, we’ll have demons on our ass?”

“She seemed to indicate it was just her, due to our… past acquaintance.”

“That’s a delicate way to put it,” Dean snorted.

Sam was too tired and pleased-feeling to bother being annoyed with Dean being Dean. “We finding another room?”

“May as well let you try some more of your mumbo jumbo stuff and see if it can save us the trouble of grand larceny. Probably try and hit New York first, though.”

Sam nodded sleepily.

Dean gave him a sidelong look. “You sure you’re okay? About Ruby and all?”

“You’re my brother; she lied and helped Lilith send you... you know. She didn’t get half of what she deserved." Sam drew a deep breath. "I’m fine, Dean," he said, almost surprised to find it was actually the truth. "Ruby and I... there was never anything real there. Just lies, more lies, and betrayal. I'm glad she's gone. I'm glad I got to be the one to do it.”

“Good. I just… good." Dean patted his leg. "Get some sleep.”

“Does this mean you're going to let me go out on my own again?”

“Over my rotting corpse,” Dean suggested pleasantly.

Sam wasn’t surprised; he grumbled something incoherent and let sleep drag him under.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

There’s a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the Man comes around
                                                            ~When the Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash

“Did Dean really think I had sent you two off after the so-called Holy Grail?” The angel sounded somewhat miffed.

Sam opened his eyes to see a swirl of autumn leaves skitter past his foot in colors so crisp they were almost painful. He turned to face the person on the other end of the bench; in concession to the weather, it was now wearing jeans and a light jacket with the word "staff" embroidered on the chest. The people passing by on the sidewalk seemed to be sporting more seasonal clothes too.

“We know the Holy Chalice isn’t the Holy Grail.”

“Good. Dean, of all people, should have more faith in me than that.”

“So the Grail is fictitious?” Sam asked curiously.

“Let’s just say that the reality of the Grail, and you’re society’s understanding of it, don’t have a lot of parallels.”

“I thought you were trapped somewhere where you couldn’t reach the World at all.” Sam motioned around at the park and the people. “But you seem to know a lot about it.”

“Reaching and reaching are different things, and so is watching. I can’t observe things easily, but I don’t have so much else to do with my time that it’s not worth the effort. Think of it like television. Turning it on and watching a program about Mars might be some effort, but actually going to Mars yourself? A rather trickier proposition, as I understand the current state of your science.”

“Did you summon me here for a reason?”

“So impatient.”

“I just figure the less time I spend here, the less agony I will be in when I wake up.”

It looked amused. “How do you rate that against the agony you will experience when Lucifer claims his proper Vessel?”

Sam scowled.

The angel's expression fell back into neutral lines. "The cup you are looking for is in New Mexico at the Church of Knights Crossing. Where in the church, I am uncertain, but the cultists who guard the place are likely to take a dim view of your older brother, so you had best be on your guard.”

“Why are you telling me this? The last two things we needed for the spell, you let us flounder around until I had a vision of them. What makes this one different?”

“I told you, this spell, like all spells that aren’t sourced from an individual, comes from the World, and She knows best what ingredients She wants. There were different options for the other two; this one is very specific. Where I can help you, I am.”

“How did a church in New Mexico get the Holy Chalice?”

It shrugged gracefully. “The Chalice has been around for a very long time, in human consideration; things happen. I have not made tracking this particular item a concern of mine until recently, so I can’t give you details. But I would imagine in the usual way. Someone gave it to someone who gave it to someone who decided it would look nice on their mantle and eventually it was sent over the sea. They replaced it with a cheap knock-off and the masses have been worshipping at someone’s great aunt’s prized spittoon ever since.”

It glanced at its bare arm again, as it had previously before Sam had woken back up in the real world.

“Wait!”

It raised a brow.

“What does it look like?”

Sam bolted awake, an image burning behind his eyes of a cup that looked much like the Valencia Chalice, but smaller, more battered and sitting slightly crooked on its base. A cheap-looking antique that he would have never given a second glance at if he had come across in a thrift store.

The spectacular pain always associated with one of his little ‘chats’ with the angel barely managed to register before the taste of blood was on his lips and the world was swept away in a more pleasurable sort of oblivion.


~~~~~


“In there?” Dean asked dubiously, a few days later.

Sam didn’t appreciate the skepticism, especially not when he was battling his own, but it made a welcome change from Dean’s nonstop commentary on the Chalice being located in a town down the road from a city called Lordsburg.

Driving back across the country to New Mexico had taken two days. Finding the Church of Knights Crossing had taken another two. It wasn’t listed anywhere, and it was only because Sam spotted a casual reference to a raffle prize donated by Knights Crossing in a New Mexico community newspaper that they had taken a chance on that being the right church and finally found it. The small grey stone building was located on private land and did not appear to be open to the public. A hand-lettered sign by the door read ‘Church of Knights Crossing’. The door itself was locked when they tried it and no one answered a polite knock.

“What now?” Sam asked.

Dean shrugged as they headed back to the car. “The usual. Wait until nightfall and try the more direct way.”

“I’m not happy about this, Dean. The angel went out of its way to tell me this place is home to a cult that might be a danger to you.”

“A cult.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Do you know how far down the list of things I am worried about a cult lies?”

“And the warning your angelic friend seared into my brain?”

“Did it actually say I was in danger, Sam?”

“Not exactly -- but why else mention it?”

“Who knows? It’s been trapped in the Pit for a few millennia without cable. It’s probably got a warped sense of humor and gets a kick out of seeing us jumpy.”

“Do you really believe that?” Sam asked skeptically.

Dean was quiet for a minute, then sighed. “What do you want me to do about it, Sam? We need the freaking Chalice, and I’m not letting you sneak around where there might be crazed cultists on your own. You have another suggestion?”

“No.” Sam looked unhappy.

“Cheer up, Sam." Dean slapped his back. "We'll just be a little careful tonight, and this time tomorrow, we’ll be hundreds of miles away."


~~~~~


Much later, after wasting the afternoon browsing shop windows and sampling some of the local hamburger joints, they left the Impala parked a few streets over in a twenty-four-hour store parking lot and walked back to the church.

The lock on the front door was well oiled and easy to pick. They had rejected the only other entrance, a back door next to a small dirt parking lot, because it apparently got more traffic in the evenings -- judging from the sodium light shining down on it. No lights illuminated the front of the church and the moonless night made them invisible against the doors. When the lock sprung, the handle turned and the door opened silently.

“Wait.” Sam grabbed Dean’s arm before he could enter the church.

“What?” Dean asked impatiently.

“This is a church, Dean. You know-- holy, sacred, consecrated ground? Can you even go inside?”

“So are cemeteries for the most part, Sam. You ever seen a demon have any trouble in one of those? Or remember Meg filleting Pastor Jim inside his church?” He tugged his arm free. “It’s fine; let’s go.”

“Why do demons have trouble with holy water and other things like that if the actual church doesn’t even slow them down?” Sam hissed, as he followed Dean into the building, pulling the doors closed behind them.

“I might have some trouble if I tried to eat part of the building, or roll myself naked across the floor -- but you can’t consecrate air any more than you can consecrate running water. I’ve got on some good, thick soles and have no pressing desire to lick the altar, so I think I’m good to go. Holy water and other heavily blessed stuff is like a magnet for the sort of energy that is corrosive to the basic nature of a demon. It’s not all ‘Wrath of God,’ more ‘oil and water.’ Some things just don’t go together as well as peanut butter and chocolate do, Sammy. Now shut it; we’re on a job.”

They both paused just within the entryway to take in the lay of the land. Inside, the church was one great room with a vaulted ceiling of raw timber soaring overhead and stained glass windows set about fifteen feet above the ground. Dark-stained, low wooden benches sat in rows across the floor and at the end of the room, three short stone stairs led up to a plain altar on which several half-melted candles sat cold on its bare surface. A bronze oil lamp's shielded flame provided all the light in the cavernous room. Behind the altar in the stone wall was a recess, and in the recess, gleaming in the steady lamp light, sat a metal cup.

“Score,” Dean whispered.

“Is there anyone around?” Sam whispered back, eyeing the lamp warily and grabbing Dean’s arm again before he could step down onto the main floor from the entryway.

Dean gave him another impatient look, but closed his eyes for a moment with an expression of concentration.

“Don’t know,” he said after a moment, “this place is lousy with all sorts of wards. There’s some kind of basement, and a few rooms beyond that wall.”

“Great,” Sam hissed, but let go and followed his brother across the floor and around the altar.

Sam examined the cup without touching it and felt his heart sink. “That’s not it.”

What?” Dean hissed back.

“That’s not the Chalice the angel showed me.”

Dean waved a hand expansively at the mostly empty church interior. “You see a lot of other chalices around here, Sam? This is the church, and that’s a chalice! Case closed.”

“Look," Sam began, frustrated, "I don’t know what--” But his words cut off as overhead lights flared to life. The sudden drone of Latin filled the air and Sam spun to see about ten people in pale robes standing near the wall where they had apparently filtered in from a recessed doorway. Water splashed in his face and he blinked to clear his vision, just as Dean screamed behind him and Sam turned towards his voice. Hands grabbed him and pinned him down, someone pressed something metal against his cheek and he cursed and struggled against the restraint. He managed to shove some of them back, but then a powerful blow slammed his head against the stone floor and the world went black.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

I’ve been sitting here for the longest time
Reading all the warning and the danger signs
I don’t have the gift of the prophecy
Telling everybody how it’s gonna be
                                                            ~This House Is On Fire, Natalie Merchant

Sam woke up with a raging headache in a soft bed staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. Having a headache on waking was not unusual for Sam, but the pattern of the pain was. He grimaced and slowly looked around.

Sunlight was pouring into the room through an open window and he could see his clothes neatly folded on the edge of what looked like a motel-grade dresser. In fact, if it wasn’t for the softness of the mattress and the sparkling cleanliness of the entire place, he would have thought it was a motel room. But the air was just more… homey, than that. He reached for his shirt and winced. A bandage was wrapped around his forearm, and when he picked at the edges, he saw a straight cut carefully closed with butterfly strips and smeared with an ointment.

“Sorry about that,” a voice called cheerfully. Sam looked up sharply. Two men stood in the doorway, both dressed casually in street clothes, but the knowing, intensity of their attention left Sam no doubt that they were some of the cultists in question. “We had to be sure you weren't one of them.” At least they didn't seem in a hurry to kill him.

“Silver?” Sam croaked, throat incredibly dry.

“And salt, and holy water and quite a few different pieces of Latin. But you passed with flying colors”

“That’s… great. I’m, um… that’s great. What about D-- the demon?”

“Why don’t we start with your name?”


~~~~~


“So it took you with it?”

Sam nodded solemnly, finding it surprisingly easy --between the pain in his head from having it slammed into a stone floor, and the bright light from the lamp behind the man asking the questions stabbing into his eyes-- to work up a few tears.

“I didn't know what it was," Sam repeated, not having to struggle much to sound depressed and confused either. "I, uh, didn't know about demons like I do now. I just… I couldn't get away.”

The man, who had introduced himself as Father Justin, nodded sympathetically and reached one hand out to clasp Sam’s where it rested in his knee.

“It's not your fault," Father Justin said gently. "Few people are equipped to deal with such matters. You did the best you could.”

Sam hunched his shoulders. “I'm… I'm not sure what to do now. Can it come after me again?”

Father Justin looked around at the ten or twenty equally sympathetic yet grim faces in the room. “We’ve never encountered a demon of such strength and fortitude. We've barely been able to contain it, but we'll do the banishment at noon in three days, when the sun is at its highest, and all of the faithful will be here for Sunday service to lend their strength to the ritual. After that you shouldn't have to worry about it anymore. I would suggest you stay with us until then however, both to rest and so that you can resume your life afterwards knowing it won't be out there to hurt you.”

Sam nodded in agreement, resisting the urge to reclaim his hand. “Thank you, Father Justin… what should I do in the meantime?”

The man squeezed his hand and let go. “You are welcome to stay here with us. Did the beast happen to mention why it wanted the Chalice?”

“No, he just said he had to get something and brought me here.”

One of the other men in the room chimed in. “How did you get here? We didn’t find a car -- maybe there are some clues in there.”

Sam winced internally; he should have been prepared for that question and he couldn’t give them the Impala. “Ummm… he stole a car. I think it was a blue Civic, but I’m not sure from where. He left it… somewhere. I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying much attention.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. We will see if we can find it and maybe help us get some answers. Was the room you woke up in okay? You can stay there, and if you need any medical assistance, we're happy to provide it.”

“Thanks. I’m just… so grateful." Sam managed a tremulous smile. "Really.”


~~~~~


The next few days passed in a blur for Sam. The members of the cult called themselves Knights and informed Sam they had been chosen by God to guard the Holy Chalice until such time as it was needed to battle the darkness. Which darkness exactly, they were a little shaky on, though several of them offered Sam some interesting theories. In general they seemed like a pretty laid back group for a cult, Sam wasn't getting hit with a lot of fire and brimstone sermons and no one seemed in a hurry to sound out his personal religious convictions. 

Sam was much more concerned about what he was hearing about the banishing ritual they planned to use on his brother. Sam was afraid to show too much interest in Dean by insisting on seeing him.  He had heard that the demon was being held in a pure iron Devil’s Trap laid on a floor of consecrated concrete, and that had been enough to send him scrambling for the cult’s library under the guise of doing research into demonology, since it was supposedly a brave new world for him. The Knights who had told him about the trap had taken great pains to reassure Sam that no demonic spell could rip their trap asunder. Even if the demon could get through the pure iron, the floor it was laid on was formed of crushed cemetery granite and holy water, amid the other more typical ingredients. Sam’s heart had sunk more with every word. He thought they were right, he thought that Dean would never be able to escape on his own. And that meant he had to act.

Research, fending off the polite interest of the Knights, and piecing together a plan took most of the three days, and then suddenly it was Saturday night. Sam pleaded exhaustion to his newfound friends, who were reluctant to leave Sam by himself after the whole kidnapped-by-a-demon-thing, but eventually he was able to retire alone to finalize his plans.

He had one little errand to run too.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

And it’s alright though we worry and fuss,
we can’t get over the hump or get over us
It seems easier to push than to let go and trust
but it’s alright
                                            ~It’s Alright, Indigo Girls

After watching the cultists’ movements for the past few days, Sam knew he would only have a brief window to try and rescue Dean before the ritual started. The morning of the third day, Sam slipped down the stone staircase to the underground chamber where he had been told the demon was imprisoned as quietly as possible.

It was hard to make his more-than-six-foot frame invisible, but he gave it his best effort. The cloying smoke of burning herbs made his head feel thick as he reached the bottom of the steps, but it was nearing dawn and he was out of time. The room was well lit with a blazing assortment of candles, but it left restless shadows against the wall, and Sam pressed himself into these as he looked for Dean.

Two robed figures were lighting more candles and talking quietly, giving no indication they had heard Sam approach. There was no altar in the room, or any decorations or religious items, just the scattering of unfinished wooden tables on which the candles were merrily burning and a few smoky bowls of what had to be the incense.

Sam felt his heart sink as he finally got a good look at the centerpiece of the chamber. The Devil’s Trap Dean was curled up in was as elaborate as he had feared, but far worse, it was actually laid into the floor, not on the floor like he had been told. There was no way he would be able to disrupt it enough for Dean to walk free. His hunter instincts admired the simplicity of the idea, but the part of him that was worried about his brother, about the Apocalypse, was in panic. The cultists were setting up for the ritual, and once it started, there would be no saving Dean at all.

Sam swallowed hard and steeled himself for plan B. Contingency planning had been something his dad had drilled into him, but the idea of this one made him feel sick.

Dean himself seemed oblivious to his surroundings, lying deathly still with his back to Sam's position in the shadows. The rents in his clothes and dried blood staining the floor around him testified to the viciousness of his capture. He wasn’t moving, but Sam hoped that would change quickly enough once things got started. It wasn't going to matter how badly Dean's body was injured, just that he was still aware inside of it.

The chimes for the dawn prayer rang and Sam drew back out of sight as much as possible as the two cultists turned quietly and climbed the stairs. He doubted they would be gone more than ten minutes. Time was up. Sam hastily unbuttoned his shirt and pulled a knife from his boot. He took a deep breath, gathering his resolve and steadying his nerves, then slashed deliberately through the margin of the anti-possession charm on his chest and walked into the trap to kneel by his brother.

Dean rolled onto his back at Sam’s touch, startling Sam with the speed of his reaction. “Sam, what the--”

“Shut up,” Sam whispered harshly. He dragged an unresisting Dean’s legs apart and reached for the inner seam of his jeans. There just wasn’t time. He knew the second Dean noticed the bloody ward on his chest because he froze into that unnatural stillness that nothing alive could manage. Sam ignored it and punched a hole in the denim of Dean’s jeans with the blade, then used his hands to rip it apart so he could see his brother’s inner thigh. The lock curved there gracefully. A deceptively simple sigil for all the problems it could cause. Sam slashed through it without hesitation. Dean jerked and recoiled.

“Sam, what the hell?”

“In case you haven’t noticed," Sam said tightly, "the Knights are about to obliterate your demonic ass. And by about, I mean as the culmination of festivities that are going to kick off in the next fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, I noticed.” Dean sat up warily. “Which doesn’t explain what you are up to when you should be a thousand miles away from the crazy, demon-killing cultists by now. You think they are going to be any friendlier to you than they are to me if they find out about your visions, your blood addiction, and --oh yeah-- future status as Lucifer’s Vessel?!” he hissed.

“It’s fine,” Sam assured distractedly, patting his pockets to find where he put the spell. “They think I was your prisoner, and I’m all ecstatic with freedom.”

“Aren’t you?” Dean asked quietly, making no move to get up.

Sam gave him an incredulous look. “Dean, I hardly think this is the time or place to have this discussion. And no, for your information. If anyone is going to send you back to Hell, or oblivion, or whatever, it’s going to be me. Not to mention the little detail of needing your blood to continue living. Plus we still have the Lilith and Lucifer thing hanging over our head and an Apocalypse to avert, which is all going to be a little more difficult without you -- you know? Now shut up and be ready.”

“Ready,” Dean repeated flatly, eyeing the bloody charm on Sam’s chest again.

"Yes." Sam found what he was looking for and shoved a piece of paper into Dean’s hand, then backed out to the edge of the Trap so that as much of his body as possible was clear of it and he could just barely reach over the inner ring. “Ready. If you aren’t trapped, they have no reason to leave a rotting corpse in their sanctuary. So you just… ride along with me for a little while, they toss your body, and then you take it back.”

“Sam…”

Dean, there’s no more time.” He gave his brother a frustrated look. “Just grab hold of me and read that.”

“It’s not that simple. What you’re asking--” Dean hesitated.

“I know,” Sam said quietly, still holding his hand out.

Dean watched Sam expressionlessly, until Sam wanted to scream. He could feel the seconds ticking away. Any moment, there would be footsteps on the stairs and then it would be over.

He closed his eyes in relief as Dean finally wrapped his fingers around Sam’s wrist. His brother’s familiar voice was spilling out Latin with far more fluidity than Sam had ever heard him manage when properly alive.

Sam hissed in pain as he felt the spell bite. The cool touch of his brother’s fingers around his wrist became the living snare of a thorn covered vine, drawing tight and sinking jagged blades through his skin as it twisted around his arm. Sam braced himself on the Trap’s perimeter and kept his eyes tightly shut. The spell promised to reveal the demon’s true face as part of its charm, and Sam had enough problems without having to deal with that experience too. With as much agony as he felt in his arm, he also wouldn't have been surprised to see great gouges in his skin and blood everywhere. He didn’t need to see that either.

Dean’s voice stopped abruptly, and so did the pain. The bite of the thorns shifted into an icy burn that slid under his skin and spread through him like an inexorable tide. Sam opened his eyes, startled, just in time to see Dean’s body crumple to the floor in the center of the inner ring. He stumbled back from the Trap, surprised, and his vision went twisty then dark.

The last thing he heard before his consciousness was swept away was Dean’s voice in his head, telling him to sleep.


~~~~~


Dean took a wobbly step back. Being able to take a host body was one thing, doing it well could take some adjustment, and he just didn’t have time. Nor did he have the centuries of practice most demons did in possession. First things first, though; even outside the Trap, it was still strong enough to set his teeth on edge. He moved away from it and out of the light so he could get his bearings in his new body. He absolutely refused to think of it as Sam. He had moved through hosts before, but limiting the damage he had done to their minds by possessing their flesh had never been a critical concern for him. He just couldn’t be sure he was doing enough to protect Sam from his… nature.

A quick pat-down told him Sam had been kind enough to pack a gun at the small of his back and a knife in his boot. A standard set of lock-picks and a wallet were in his pockets. The button-up still hung loose, and the slashed anti-possession charm was still bleeding, but the dark green of the shirt would help hide it. Dean was just fastening the last button when he heard footsteps on the stairs.

There were only two choices. He could fight, or he could bluff.

He had no idea how long he had been here, no idea how long Sam had been here. Didn’t know the layout, didn’t know the people. But he didn’t want to risk a fight either. In his own flesh, sure. But Sam was not only taller, but built all different. And for some unfathomable reason was wearing pants that felt like they were about to fall off. Sure, he wasn’t in any danger. Outside of the trap, Dean could jump bodies freely. But Sam wasn’t sacrificable, so bullshit it was. Dean stepped out of the shadows just as the first cultist reached the floor.

“Hey,” Dean said, trying for casual. The man recoiled, a bit startled.

“Sam! What are you doing down here?” The man sounded more curious than angry so Dean felt things were going well. Three others slipped past the man, and after glancing at Dean, moved on. From where he was standing, Dean could see them eyeing his body, and was grateful that he had spent so much of his time in the Trap focusing on the obnoxious tedium of mending his flesh. It should have looked like he was dead from the outside, so hopefully they wouldn’t notice any difference.

“I just wanted to see. You know, before you finish up.” Surely that sounded suitably bland? Dean cringed inside at the awkwardness, but he was certain Sam hadn’t been to visit him before a few minutes ago. Even deep in trance, he would never have missed Sam’s presence. But that was pretty much all he knew; these people could have a secret handshake, password and mystic dance he was supposed to perform to prove he belonged, and the guy in front of him could be getting ready to scream for back-up even as they stood there.

The man didn’t seem to find anything odd, though. He clapped Dean sympathetically on the shoulder, the hand warm and probably comforting had the situation actually been as it appeared. Dean entertained thoughts about ripping it off, or at least breaking it in a few places. But being in the flesh himself wasn’t nearly as grating as when he had to watch strangers touch Sam. Though the presumption was still irritating. Sam was his.

“I understand. It’s dangerous, though. Demons…” The man broke off, shaking his head. “You can’t image how dangerous. They find your weaknesses, and use them mercilessly. I wish you had told us; we would have been happy to escort you.”

Dean agreed wholeheartedly with the man’s summary of demons.

“I just had to, uh, know it wasn’t out there anymore.” Dean shivered suddenly as Sam’s sleeping self stirred lazily in the back of his mind. Normally, he would have ruthlessly quashed a host’s dormant consciousness, but there was too much risk of damaging Sam. He nervously settled for vague soothing vibes and cursed Sam’s demonically enhanced psychic gifts. Any normal human would be blissfully still and oblivious until Dean was ready to wake them. If Sam woke up, there was going to be an internal power play. Dean knew that Sam wouldn’t intentionally mess them up, but it would be disorienting and he would panic before Dean could calm him. And it would be painfully obvious to the friendly cultist standing in front of him that there was something very, very wrong with their newfound friend.

“Did you want to stay for the ceremony?” the man asked with sympathy, oblivious to Dean's inner turmoil. “It might be hard to watch, but perhaps it will give you peace.”

“No.” Dean tried to mimic Sam’s martyr smile. “I think I’ve gotten what I came for. Thanks, though.” He stepped past the guy and climbed the stairs. Tension crept into his muscles as quickly as he could relax them. He reached the top landing and blinked in the clear dawn air, surprised to find himself outside. There was no door, just a small courtyard bordered by white stucco walls; cultists in their pale robes were moving towards the staircase. Dean stepped hastily out of their way, returning waved greetings or nods to those that offered them. Tried not to look painfully lost. He had no freaking idea where to go.

He was giving a half-hearted smile and a wave to one lady that in another life he would have found quite interesting, when the sleeve of the shirt slid back, revealing inked numbers on the inside of his forearm and a precise, tiny map in black lines with little red arrows and an X. Dean breathed a huge sigh of relief and tried to look confident walking across the green while sneaking peeks at his arm. He imagined he looked like a total idiot, but comforted himself that it was Sam these people saw, and also that they were crazy, demon-killing cultists. So really, more points for haste than style.

The room he ended up in was sparse. A paper bag on the neatly-made bed held a change of clothes, some generic toiletries, and a cheap spiral-bound notebook. He flipped through it, but only the first page had any writing on it. He skimmed it and sighed. Sam hadn’t left a lot of information. It had been three days since he was grabbed, Sam had no idea where the Impala was but assumed it was where they had left it, and he had told the cultists that he was Sam Smith and that the demon had been interested in him because he was a rare occult book dealer. Dean had a powerful desire to kick Sam awake and demand to know what the hell he had been thinking with his insane rescue plan, which admittedly had worked – though that was entirely not the point.

But for now, Sam’s sleeping self was firmly in Dean’s protection, and there were more pressing concerns. Like getting out and finding his baby. Dean picked the bag up and thought it was surprisingly heavy. He sat it back down and moved the clothes, and at the bottom of the bag, wrapped in a t-shirt, was a gleaming cup, similar to the one from the church, but obviously worn and battered by time.

Dean tucked the bag firmly under his arm and left.

Sam’s note estimated they weren’t more than ten miles from town. Time to start walking, before the cultists finished whatever they were doing to his body and maybe came up with some pressing kind of questions to ask.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

We get a little distance some things get clearer
Oh give them their space some hearts will grow nearer
I ran as hard as I could I still ended up here
And it’s alright
                                         ~It’s Alright, Indigo Girls

Sam rolled over, burying his face into a pillow. The cool sheets slid silkily over his naked skin. Not the barely-washed, rough bedding and rock-hard pillows of the usual places he woke in. His bladder was insisting he get up, but that seemed like a lot of effort.

Some of the fog began to lift from his mind and he frowned. He didn’t remember getting a motel room, or getting undressed. In fact, the last thing he remembered…

He sat up fast and looked around. Daylight outlined a huge window across the room where sunlight seeped around the edges of heavy drapery. In the dimness, he could make out a long dresser with a mirror, a tall chest of drawers, a bookshelf, and the counter customizablenightstand by the bed. There were two tall doors in the shadows at the far end of the room. The green luminescent numbers on an alarm clock read three in the afternoon. Sam frowned and swung his feet to the floor. This wasn’t any motel room. The soft carpet and the paintings didn’t belong in any second-rate dive, and the loaded bookshelf was a very personal touch.

Confident that he was alone in his thoughts, Sam concentrated, but couldn't feel anything that seemed out of place in his mind. Maybe a faint… chill. But nothing like the pervasive feeling of violation and filth that corroded his every thought for months after his possession by Meg all those years ago. Even just remembering that made goose bumps rise on his flesh.

He stood up and saw a pile of neatly folded clothing on the edge of the dresser, which proved to be his sweatpants and a hoodie, both worn thin and soft and smelling like an unfamiliar laundry detergent. Sam dragged them on and padded barefoot towards the doors. He was grateful when one proved to be a bathroom.

A few minutes later, Sam was walking down a hallway in what was apparently a house. All pale walls and more soft carpet, tasteful art and clean surfaces. It was completely silent except for the soft whir of the air conditioning and the dim buzz of a lawnmower somewhere outside. A sort of domestic surrealism of the type he had never experienced before. Not with Jessica in the college ghetto, nor in the rustic isolation of the prison he had built himself, and certainly never on the road with his father and Dean. He heard a rustle of newspaper and paused outside of what he thought should be the kitchen, peering cautiously into a mirror hung opposite the open archway, trying to see who was inside.

“Get in here, Sam,” an unfamiliar voice called.

Sam frowned but did as directed. Obviously, he hadn’t been as stealthy as he imagined. He stepped inside and faced a stranger at a breakfast table. The guy was wearing a Polo and Dockers, glasses and short, blonde hair gelled into trendy spikes. He blinked solemn blue eyes at Sam from behind the lenses, and then grinned when Sam continued to stare blankly.

“Do I know you?” Sam asked, at a loss. A few highlighters were scattered across the table, the guy had apparently been in the process of circling things in the paper.

“Sure you do, Sammy,” the man said in tones of amusement, “from the day you were born.”

Dean?” Sam asked incredulously, sinking heavily onto a chair opposite the stranger.

“What? You don’t like the new me?”

“I just… can’t believe you would wear a yuppie,” Sam finally managed to say.

Dean rolled his eyes and went back to the paper he had been perusing. “You wear what’s available. This guy was convenient, and we needed a place to hole up for awhile. Problem solved.”

“You don’t think anyone is going to miss him? What about his job, or family?”

“It doesn’t look like anyone else lives here.”

“And work?”

“Let’s just hope he has a lot of sick days saved up.”


~~~~~


“Do you need blood?” Dean asked a few minutes later, having giving Sam a little time to take in the situation and make some mental adjustments.

Sam, who had gotten up long enough to find some food, gave him a withering look.

Dean frowned. “What?”

“Dude. I’m not taking blood from… whoever that is,” Sam said.

“It’s me, Sam. See?” Dean wiggled the fingers of his free hand.

Sam ignored that. “You don’t even know what kind of diseases he might have.”

Dean snorted and went back to the paper. Sam finished putting his breakfast together and slid into a chair at the table, looking thoughtful.

“I was starting to feel it before I rescued you. I don’t need it now. What did you do while I was out?” he asked, voice heavy with suspicion.

“You make it sound like you went to get coffee,” Dean snorted, closing the paper and eyeing Sam’s breakfast.

“Should I be wringing my hands and wailing about the state of my soul?” Sam asked narrowly, pulling his toast protectively closer.

“The blood is just an easy way to transfer demonic power. Since I was actually in your body, it did the same thing. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t getting hit anyways now that you're on your lonesome again.” Dean shrugged and went to make his own toast. “Don’t even suggest that this might be a solution to the curse, though; we aren’t doing casual possession just because you have hang-ups.”

“Will it last longer this way?” Sam asked, refusing to rise to the bait and get distracted by an argument with Dean about dismissing Sam’s reluctance to have sex with his undead demonic brother as a hang-up. “Instead of the current schedule, will I be able to go, like, a month maybe?”

“Nope,” Dean said, from beneath a counter he was now rummaging in. “Most people who get possessed are a little insane afterwards anyways, and don’t notice any actual differences; the traces of whatever demon hitched a ride just kinda wears off. Their bodies don’t have anything to do with the residue, so it goes poof.” He stood up triumphantly with a box of Lucky Charms and went to the fridge. “Your body, though, it knows all about what to do with demonic power. So instead of it just kind of fading off, you sucked it right into your reserves. While I was still using it.” He brought his food back to the table. “I had to do some weird shit to stop it from literally blowing your mind. You’re getting better with all this crap --able to take more from me without screwing yourself up-- but draining energy from a demon actually sharing your skin? You’re not in that weight class yet, Sam.”

Sam nodded with a tight, unhappy look on his face.

“Now what’s the matter?” Dean asked, exasperated.

“It’s just… we don’t know what the cult does with the bodies afterwards. They don’t burn them, but other than that? For all we know, they might just entomb you down there, Dean. With the iron pentagram and all their ritual crap. Even if they don’t, getting your body back could easily take weeks, months even.” Sam scowled down at his food.

“So?” Dean asked, around a mouthful of cereal. “It takes weeks, or months.” He shrugged. “We don’t have the next ingredient deciphered yet, and we can do research from here as easily as anywhere. Until we figure that out, we don’t have any pressing need to go anywhere.”

Sam stared at him like he was missing something obvious. “Dean.”

“Is there some secret language I’m not speaking here, Sam? We might be here awhile; I get it. Big deal. We can do research, and no one is gonna look for us in the suburbs.” Dean shrugged again. “If we keep our heads down, we could hole up here for a few months and be fine.”

Dean,” Sam said, with a pinched expression.

Dean suddenly got it. “Ah. You don’t want to feed from this body because you don’t want to have sex with this body.”

“No,” Sam hissed. “I don’t really want to have sex with a complete stranger without his knowledge or consent. Call me a Puritan.”

“Ah, Sammy, still my blushing virgin.” Dean grinned. “Don’t worry, baby; I promise not to let him watch.”

“You’re a freaking jerk, Dean.”

“Sticks and stones,” Dean retorted, still grinning. He looked down at himself. “Did you want to do your own shopping?”

“What?” Sam asked blankly.

“You know, if you don’t like this guy, I’m sure we can find one more appealing to you,” Dean offered.

Sam looked appalled. “NO. That is completely not the point!”

“So you do like this one, then?” Dean asked innocently.

“I don’t want to have sex with any guy. I’m not gay, Dean,” he said angrily.

“So?” Dean asked. “That doesn’t stop you from having an opinion on a guy’s fuckability. Girls do this shit all the time; don’t you read the mags in the checkout line? Besides, you’ve been having sex with a guy for months now, and you are going to be having sex with me in a different suit if we don’t get my corpse out of lockup in the immediate future. You might as well get used to the idea now.”

Sam scowled. “That’s different. It’s not hurting anyone else when it’s you.”

“Sam! It’s not like this dude’s going to have any idea. He’s taking just as deep of a snooze as you did, and I solemnly promise to shower afterwards. No hurting involved. Geeze.” He hesitated. "You could pick out a girl? Would that be better for you?"

"No," Sam snapped, "I don't want to pick out anybody! It's wrong, Dean. It doesn't matter if it's a girl, or a guy, or... anyone. We shouldn't be doing this to anyone."

As if startled by his own outburst, Sam fell quiet. Dean let the sullen silence at the table continue until he realized he had read the same stupid paragraph at least three times and he dropped the paper on the table with a sigh.

“I don’t know what you want me to say here, Sam. There’s just some stuff we can’t get out of. You need blood and sex a few times a month from me. Well, here I am, but my normal meat-suit is AWOL, so we have to go with a different model. And since we have to stay close and lay low… it's just not worth shopping in the produce section. Easier to blend in and not attract attention by just using someone who comes with built-in accommodations and actually belongs to the community. I’m sorry it makes you unhappy, but unless we can get my body back soonish, this is just the way it’s going to be.”

“I know,” Sam said quietly, staring down and stirring the spoon through the soggy remains of his breakfast. “I’m just frustrated.”

Frustration wasn’t the emotion Dean was reading off his brother, though, and he felt an almost alien pang of guilt at the sadness. “Sam, I...” He trailed off. Sam still wasn’t looking up, and that made it easier. “Sam, I would let you go if I could,” he said in a low voice. “I wasn’t lying when I said there wasn’t any way to end the enchantment short of your death. And even without the spell we are working on, and all this Apocalypse shit, I’m not ready to see you die, Sam. I’m sorry Ruby did this to you, but I’m not sorry I took you from the bitch.”

“I’m not sorry you did either,” Sam said unexpectedly.

Dean blinked. Sam looked up and gave a rueful half smile at Dean’s surprised expression. Dean did not mistake his smile for any kind of an expression of happiness.

“What did you expect, Dean? She put me on a leash and planned to use me to free Lucifer from prison and loose the Apocalypse on the world. So yeah, I may be having sex with my deceased brother, and drinking his blood, but in the grand scheme of things, I have to say I think I dodged a bullet there, you know? And if we get revenge for having our parents slaughtered and our lives destroyed as a compensation package, well, I can think of worse outcomes.”

Dean reached his hand across the table to Sam; it was easier than trying to verbalize a response to that. He didn’t think Sam would touch it, and was surprised when his brother actually met him halfway.

Sam sighed and continued. “I mean it, Dean. I’m in this with you.” He looked down at the unfamiliar fingers in his grip. “I’m not real happy about some of the details. But it’s not like that has ever mattered before, either.”

Dean squeezed his hand, then let go and ignored the relieved expression on Sam’s face when he did.

He couldn’t blame Sam for being uncomfortable with his possessing other people, and hopefully the situation would be fixed before he had to become comfortable with it on a more personal level. It was amusing to tease Sam about it, but Dean wasn’t excited about the possibility of Sam having sex with any other body either. Sam was his -- in some ways, even more profoundly than the flesh of his birth was his. Dean consoled himself that even if it happened, no one else would know about it. It’s really wasn’t like the guy would even remember. And since this was way more emotional bonding that Dean was usually willing to put up with in a week, much less over breakfast, it was time for something new.

Dean grinned like the drama of the last fifteen minutes hadn’t happened and offered Sam the paper section he had been highlighting earlier. “Obituaries? Some suspicious deaths; smells like witches.”

Sam accepted the peace offering. “Nothing more fun than moving into a strange town and having preteens try to conjure razorblades in your stomach.”

“That’s the spirit, Sammy,” Dean declared. “Just a little more of that optimism, and there won’t be anything that can stand against us.”


~~~~~


They called Bobby to give him a heads-up about the probable witch activity so he could get another hunter involved if he cared; neither one of them felt it was worth the risk of doing the hunt themselves, considering the larger stakes they were involved with. The occasional salt and burn was one thing, but witches were only a half step away from the demons they dealt with and that was too far over the line of exposure. 

Dean waited until Sam stopped sitting all stiff and self-conscious after their earlier discussion and had relaxed into a more normal posture to ask about the Chalice.

“What about it?”

“Come on, Sam! Don’t play dumb; how did you get it?”

Sam shrugged, then his lips curved into a hint of genuine smile. “It wasn’t that hard.”

“Dude, I got grabbed by crazy, demon-destroying, honest-to-God cultists trying to get that thing, and you just stuffed it in a paper bag and we waltzed right off with it? What gives?”

Sam reached over and stole a piece of Dean’s toast.

“They had it locked in a cabinet in the new church, the one actually within the compound. The other one is the one they used before they bought that place. They take care of it and keep it cleaned up for tradition’s sake.”

“And because it’s always nice to have an extra bolt-hole,” Dean added sardonically.

“Probably. Anyways, the Chalice was kept in this really ornate, impossible-to-move cabinet that only has one key that the head guy wears around his neck. Well, the old one recently died, and when they went to take the key for the new one, it was missing. They couldn’t find it anywhere, and since they only take the Chalice out once a year, who knows how long it'd been gone?”

“And the crazy, secretive, demon-banishing cultists just told you all this?”

“Half those people had never dealt with a real demon," Sam said, "and here I show up, having spent actual time with one -- instant fame.” Dean snorted his opinion of that. “They were all eager to talk to me, at least the younger ones, and there's pictures of the Chalice carved all over everything, so I asked about it, and then asked to see it -- and that’s when this all came pouring out.”

“That doesn’t explain how you actually got it.”

Sam shrugged. “It wasn’t a complicated lock. I snuck in there one night with the picks and just swiped it; took less than five minutes, in and out. Made sure to lock it back afterwards.”

Dean shook his head. “It didn’t occur to them to just call a locksmith?”

“And let an outsider into their compound and near their precious Chalice?" Sam raised an eyebrow. "Ha. They did send a few to a locksmithing class, I think, but who knows how long that will take them.”

“Unbelievable.”

Sam shrugged again. “Works out for us.”

“So they don’t even know it’s missing.”

“Probably won’t until they either smash the cabinet or their acolytes finish their votech classes.”

“Well, we can Fed-Ex it back to them after we’re done with it.”

“Yeah, Dean, I’ll make sure to put that on my priority list.”

“You do that." Dean leaned his chair back dangerously and kicked his feet up on an empty one beside him. "Now, go get the spell and let’s see what crazy item is next on our agenda.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Oh, people downcast in despair
See the disillusion everywhere
Hoping that their luck will change
It’s a little harder every day
                                             ~Break Your Heart, Natalie Merchant

Dean forbade Sam to leave the house in case he was spotted, but he himself made a point of visiting the cult every night using his host’s car to try and figure out if the Knights Crossing people had done anything with his body yet.

He had directed Sam to a crate of magazines their unwitting host had in a corner of the kitchen, and Sam’s first question had been whether or not Dean had looked at them yet. When Dean admitted he had flipped through a few, Sam had immediately lost all interest in them. That had set off a briefly diverting argument where Dean demanded to know what was up with the stupid magazines again and Sam adamantly refused to explain anything. But that kind of fight was almost routine for them and didn't hold a lot of good entertainment value.

Dean was finding the entire situation annoying. Sam was starting to get withdrawal pain, and every hour they stayed in one place put them at greater risk of being discovered by any number of beings who did not have the Winchesters’ best interests at heart -- the ones who had hearts at all. They needed to be free to run down the next ingredient, and they couldn’t go about getting Angel Feathers From Above And Below while stuck in nowhere New Mexico. Dean wasn’t exactly sure where they did need to be to get the items in question, but he felt confident it wasn’t where they were now. Sam felt confident about that too, which was probably more telling.

As far as the curse went, Dean let Sam procrastinate longer than he was usually willing to tolerate, since it gave Sam something to do other than pace in the living room or stare at a computer screen for hours, but eventually he had to force the issue.

“I don’t want to do this, Dean.” Sam crossed his arms and tried to look adamant.

“Wow, Sam. Because that’s not something I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Look,” Sam tried, edging around to keep the couch between them, even though that put him in a corner, “there's no reason we can’t wait a little longer. They've got to be getting ready to do something with your body; they can’t just leave it there! I mean, the demon’s gone; that would make no sense.”

“Hold your hands out.”

“Why?” Sam asked, wary.

“I’m testing your theory," Dean said impatiently, "about there being no reason we can’t wait.”

Sam reluctantly held his hands out, finger spread, and both brothers looked at them. After less than fifteen seconds, fine tremors were visible that turned into full-on shaking in under a minute.

Sam scowled and tucked balled fists under folded arms.

Dean rolled his eyes. “Already there’s no way you could shoot anything you were aiming at. I doubt you could defend yourself from anything more dangerous than a Girl Scout. I know how much you’re aching, so suck it up already; it’s not a picnic for me either.”

Sam still looked belligerent; Dean’s eyes narrowed.

“Is this really the way you want to play this, Sam? I have to go out in a couple of hours, and I can’t leave you alone here like this. Think about it this way: we go into the bedroom, I’ll open a vein, we have sex, you take a nap, and all the evidence can be tossed in the washing machine. Alternatively, we can have a blazing row right here, destroy the living room, get some real structural damage going, and have the same end result: blood, sex, nap. Except that this way, you get to live with all the property damage as a visual reminder for however long we are stuck here, and what do you think this poor guy is going to think when he gets his body back?”

“I hate you,” Sam growled, though his heart wasn’t in it. 

Dean snorted and stepped out of Sam’s way.

“Life’s just full of these little indignities,” he retorted, as he followed his brother down the hall to the bedroom.


~~~~~


Dean’s nocturnal scouting of the compound finally paid off a few days later when he spotted some of the cultists in the field outside the walls late one night digging what looked to be a hole about the right size for a grave. He hung out long enough to watch them roll a body-sized something in, then called Sam.

“Are you sure it’s your body?”

“You think they’re stockpiling them in there, Sam?”

“I’m just saying…”

“I think we’ve had enough bad luck over the stupid Chalice already; it’s my body.”

Sam sighed in frustration but gave in. “Fine. How do you want to do this?”

“Pack up. I’ll come get you and you can drive me back here. I’ll leave this guy wiped clean and out for the count while I go get my own meat-suit back. You can take this one back to his house, then grab the Impala and head out to that cheap motel we scouted. I’ll be along in a couple of days. Don’t forget to clean out his pantry for food; I don’t want you leaving the motel room until we meet up.”

“A few days?”

“My body’s been decaying for awhile, Sam; repair work on that scale takes some time. Time you will be grateful I took, believe me.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Just let one day move into two
I’m losing everything except for you
I would sing you a song of devotion
If that’s what I should do
                                     ~Devotion, Indigo Girls

Rather than the few days he had suggested, it had been almost ten before Dean banged on the door of Sam’s motel room and got his brother, irritable after more than a week in a single tiny room, back in the car and on the road. Sam had failed to have any more visions since they had picked up the Chalice, and without any specific direction, the Winchesters drifted back towards the central states.

Days later found them ghosting along a practically deserted highway in Oklahoma, with still no idea how to get the Angelic Feathers. Sam had been having a vague nagging sensation for a day or so. It wasn’t anything compelling -- he just felt better when they traveled in some directions than others. Dean had been highly skeptical about trusting Sam’s feelings, but had been forced to agree --after doing everything he could think of to check Sam for spellwork-- that any clue was better than no clue.

“So… any ideas?”

“No; stop asking. If I suddenly have any bright ideas, you’ll be the first person to know,” Sam snapped. “And turn up here.”

“I feel compelled to remind you again about the last time you felt drawn someplace.”

“This is different. This feels -- I don’t know, like it comes from where the visions do, you know?”

“Absolutely not,” Dean said with all sincerity.

“Just turn.”

Dean shrugged. “Whatever you want, but if Lilith is waiting at the end of this trip, we’d better live long enough for me to say ‘I told you so’.”


~~~~~


“We’re in Tulsa, Sam.”

“I know that, Dean.”

“I don’t think you’re hearing me -- Tulsa.”

“What do you want me to do about it? Something wants us to be here; it seems pretty stupid to go along with it this far, then chicken out because you don’t like the city.”

“I’m just saying, the only fun I ever had in Tulsa ended up with an embarrassing visit to a free clinic and a really awkward conversation with Dad.”

“Dude, that’s more information than I needed.”

Sam suddenly sat up straight, spilling the bag of chips he had been holding onto the floor and ignoring Dean’s outraged yelp.

“Oh, hey! Stop!”

Dean was muttering something about, “every single one of them, with your tongue,” but his brother was too distracted to care.

“I think we’re there.” Sam ignored Dean’s dark look and climbed out of the car. Dean joined him a moment later and they stood out on the city street looking up, baffled.

“Why would I be drawn here?” Sam wondered aloud.

“Maybe after stealing the Holy Chalice from a religious order, you feel some deep-seated need for forgiveness?”

Sam scowled at Dean and looked back up at the massive cathedral for a moment before heading for the entrance. Extensive outbuildings fanned out to the side of the church, but the front steps looked original to the main structure and appeared to lead directly into the nave.

The massive wooden door to the cathedral swung open easily on well oiled hinges, and they stepped unchallenged into the nearly deserted building. Inside, the air was heavy with the scent of pine and incense. Tall stained glass windows illustrated highlights from biblical stories and dark-stained pews sat bolted in neat rows, filling up much of the floor space. Doors along the right side of the room probably connected to the newer construction they had observed from outside. At the far back of the room, a short flight of stairs led to a dais with an altar and a podium where two men stood quietly talking, apparently oblivious to Sam and Dean's presence.

Dean sneezed.

In the silence of the cavernous room, it sounded like a gunshot, and Sam nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned his glare back on his brother, who gave him a ‘what’s your problem?’ look -- then frowned as if distracted by something going on up in the front of the room. Dean's expression fell suddenly flat.

“What?” Sam asked sharply.

“Don’t worry about it, Sam." Dean patted his shoulder and gave a little push. "You just… go on up there and make nice. I want to see something.”

Before Sam could express concern over what exactly a demon wanted to see in a church, Dean walked away and slipped out a side door. Sam was about to follow and demand an answer when one of the men in the front of the room waved a cheery greeting, which left Sam with no real choice but to walk up the long aisle between the polished pews to meet him. The other man stood watching Sam approach impassively.

The one who had waved smiled generously and held a hand out when Sam reached them. “Welcome, stranger! What brings you here to us this fine evening?”

“How do you know I’m a stranger?” Sam asked, as he returned the man’s handshake and smile.

“I’ve been at this church for more than twenty years now, and I make it a point to know every face that comes through our doors. I’m Pat Reynolds; I direct the choir and pretty much whatever else needs doing on a day-to-day basis. Are you new to the area?”

“Sam Smith, and yes. But I’m only passing through. I spend a lot of time on the road and was just driving by and felt… inspired, to drop in. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

“Not at all!" Pat's smile broadened. "You’re more than welcome to visit the church. The chapel is open to all, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If you can, you should try and come back for the Sunday Service; we have the most wonderful program going on this week! Though, in honesty, I have to tell you, I feel that way every week.” Pat winked conspiratorially and Sam’s smile turned a bit more genuine in the face of the man’s honest enthusiasm and friendliness.

“I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t think I will be in town that long.”

“Well, let me know if there is anything I can do for you. I have to go run an errand or two, but Peter here can help you out if there is anything you need.”

“Peter?” Sam asked, turning towards the silent man who was still watching him impassively.

“Peter Marshall. He helps out with programs and community outreach work too, don’t you, Pete? Pat and Peter, we’re who they always call.” Pat gave Peter a friendly slap on the shoulder, and then headed out a side door.

Peter still said nothing, just stood regarding Sam in silence. Sam felt like his soul was being weighed and found wanting. 

“Well, like I was saying, I don’t think I need anything, just… uh, wanted to come in for a few minutes.” Sam edged back towards the stairs.

“You are an abomination.” The man spoke in perfectly calm, measured tones, as if commenting on the weather.

Sam stopped moving and blinked, shocked.

“Without you, none of the events that we fear will come to pass.” ‘Peter’ reached one hand out towards Sam and it glowed with a sickeningly white light.

Sam flashed back to his dream about June Richards all those weeks ago, and flinched back from the harsh, unforgiving brilliance that burned even through the eyelids he reflexively clenched shut.

Suddenly, there was a squawk, almost like an angry bird, then the rustle of what sounded like a thousand wings. The light vanished. Sam cautiously opened one eye from his place on the floor where he had fallen while scrambling to get away, to see ‘Peter’ lying on the floor and Dean standing over him looking triumphant, a shimmery, blue almost-liquid burning on the fingertips of one hand.

“What, um--”

Dean offered his other hand and hauled Sam to his feet.

“What was that?!” Sam finally got out.

“That? That was one smug, self-righteous bastard of an Angel of Creation. And this?” Dean held up his shiny fingers proudly. “This is a couple of its pinfeathers.”

“You… plucked an angel?”

“Don’t tell me you feel sorry for it! The damn thing was about to try it’s best to blast you into little bitty pieces and then stomp anything left into dust.”

“I don’t feel sorry for it, I’m just in… shock is probably not too strong a word.”

“Well, don’t get your panties in a twist about anything; we still need to find something to store this in; otherwise, as soon as the featherhead gets over its affront, it’s just going to summon it back, and we will be back to square one with this ingredient.”

“What is that actually, Dean?”

“It’s a smidgeon of its Grace, Sam. The stuff that makes angels, angels. Their Holy anointment, or whatever. It’s not even going to miss this.” Dean nudged Peter with his foot. “But we might want to get out of here before someone sees us hanging around with a body on the ground.”

“Is he dead?”

“No. He was possessed, but he should be fine. Or not. But either way, it’s the angel’s deal, not ours. I didn’t make the flighty thing leave.”

“Ah... okay. What do you need to store that in?”

“Something with some serious blessing, and a lid, probably.” Dean winced and held his hand awkwardly as if in pain. “Sooner is better.”

Sam nodded, still a bit dazed, and looked around. On some shelves built into the wall in the back of the room he saw a crystal decanter with a stopper in the top and half filled with a pale, golden liquid. He grabbed it and carried it back over to his brother. “This work?”

Dean reached out and touched it gingerly with his free hand, then drew back hastily. “Yeah, that’s Blessed out the wazoo.”

“I think it’s sacred oil.” Sam poured the oil into a potted plant then held the open bottle out to Dean.

Dean carefully scraped his glowing fingers against the rim until all of the shimmering blue slid into the bottle. Sam slid the stopper back into place and Dean examined his blistered fingers with a frown.

“Problem?” Sam asked, hurrying towards the door, Dean beside him.

“No, just damage inflicted by Blessed stuff is especially annoying to fix.”

“Why?”

“It’s all that strict order and shit; stings like nothing else.”

“...Right.”

“Just get in the car,” Dean groused, heading back towards the main doors. “We need to fish some tape out to secure that top with, and if we are really lucky, the voice in your head will offer up some feathers of the other flavor, because unless that happens, I have no idea how we are supposed to get our hands on an Entropic angel long enough to pluck it; and I don’t think we would enjoy the aftermath if we did.”


~~~~~


Sam wasn’t at all surprised to find himself on an old fashioned bench again that night after laying down to sleep. It seemed to be midnight in the park; all the streetlights were ablaze and the air was a balmy breeze, blowing the occasional piece of litter down the otherwise empty streets. The moon was high and full overhead and the trees were covered with a heavy canopy of leaves that looked almost black in the sodium lights. Sam turned to face the presence at the other end of the bench.

“We’re getting closer,” he greeted it.

“Yes,” the angel replied. It was dressed all in black, and the whiteness of its skin and flaming banner of its hair seemed to almost float in the darkness. “Congratulations on your latest conquest. I wasn’t certain how you would get your hands on one of my more orderly siblings, but you seem to have accomplished the job easily enough.”

“I was directed there.”

It nodded. “As aggravating as Lucifer is in his prison, the World has no interest in setting him free. After all, humanity is one of the children of her birthing, but Lucifer is an angel, and we existed long before the plane you inhabit came to be.”

“You know what we need now?”

“Yes, but this will not be easy for you.”

“Why me specifically?” Sam frowned.

“I have no ability to touch the World, not in a meaningful fashion. That means that the power to translate anything I should give to you into your proper plane of existence must come solely from within you,” the angel said solemnly.

“How ‘not easy’ is this going to be?” Sam asked warily, remembering the agony his visitations with the angel usually caused.

“Presuming your brother is on hand to see that you survive the initial reaction, you will probably sleep through the worst of it.”

“Wait a minute, survive?”

“Good luck to you, Samuel Winchester. Lilith has only three Seals remaining. Be sure to make this last bit of time you have without her sole attention count.” Then it reached out and grabbed Sam’s hand before Sam could move away.

The world exploded in agony.


~~~~~


Unlike his previous visitations, he couldn’t seem to wake up from this one. Waves and waves of pain kept trying to drag him down to true unconsciousness, but then tossed him back out before he could get any relief. Sometimes it seemed there were lights burning in front of his eyes that he desperately tried to claw away from, other times the screaming in his ears was so loud he thought his eardrums would rupture. All he could taste was copper, and though he was half convinced he was bleeding to death, the idea didn’t bother him as long as the pain would stop. He wasn’t even really aware of his body; washes of agony in red and searing white, disconnected from anything concrete, took all of his attention. Eventually, there was a sharp sting from somewhere in the pulsing haze, and then finally, finally, true oblivion rolled over him and he fell into it without regret.

~~~~~


It was dark when Sam woke up, head throbbing and throat dry, but he was otherwise comfortable; the heavy, warm weight at his back was familiar.

“Dean?” he whispered hoarsely.

The arm draped over his stomach squeezed a bit, then loosened again. “Go back to sleep, Sammy.”

“Where are we?” Sam asked fuzzily, not protesting the nickname for once -- finding just keeping his eyelids open more than he could manage.

“Bobby’s. Go back to sleep.”

Sam wanted to ask how they got to Bobby’s, but it turned out his brother’s suggestion was an excellent one and he fell asleep again before he could ask anything at all.


~~~~~


How many days was I out, again?”

“I wouldn’t say you were out, exactly.” Dean was leaning against the counter in the kitchen, watching Sam eat scrambled eggs and toast like his observation was vital to the process. “More like deciding if you wanted to live or die.”

It was late afternoon in South Dakota, but eggs and toast were what was hot and fresh in Bobby’s kitchen for people who were convalescing.

Sam shifted his attention to Bobby, who shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. I got a panicked phone call in the middle of the night from a demon, then broke a few traffic laws getting to Oklahoma, loaded you up, and dragged your sorry ass back here.”

“Why didn’t you just, um--” Sam cast a sidelong look at Bobby, who raised an eyebrow at him. “You know, fix me like we did before?” he asked Dean.

Dean gave him a disgusted look. “I tried that, Sam. You were choking on my blood, and I didn’t even think that was possible. You were convulsing in pain and I couldn’t leave you alone long enough to go try and find something to at least put you under. I left you for two minutes to go find a cell phone and you tried to claw your eyes out. Once Bobby showed up and we managed to knock your ass actually out, I got hold of Missouri and she seemed to think maybe you had fried your brain so badly you couldn’t handle any power; not mine, not yours, nothing. Which means that even reliving our little experiment with possession wouldn’t have helped.” He ignored Bobby’s sharp look and continued. “I told her that wasn’t really something you could survive, and she suggested giving you at least two or three days to see if you could get your brain unmangled and then try again. Well, you lasted about twelve hours before your systems started trying to shut down from total withdrawal, so I didn’t have a freaking choice.”

“Why do you sound so angry about it? You saved my life.”

Dean shot him a furious look and stormed from the room. A few seconds later, the front door slamming made the kitchen windows rattle in their frames.

Sam looked at Bobby for an explanation.

“You didn’t have to see it from this side, Sam. He didn’t have any choice; you were pretty obviously dying, but every time he gave you any blood --which, you know, I thought was supposed to be a good thing with you-- you started… screaming, like it was acid he was feeding you, but he had to do it anyway. One of the worst things I’ve ever had to live through," Bobby rubbed at his head and exhaled heavily, "and mostly all I did was watch once we had you strapped down.”

Sam swallowed with an uneasily sore throat. “How long did that take?”

“A few days. He took breaks sometimes, so we could keep you cleaned up and try and get some real food in you, but then he was right back at it. Said you didn’t seem able to retain any power like usual, you were too badly torn up in your mind, but he had to keep pouring it into you to feed whatever that freaking curse of yours is hung on. Finally, after about five days, you started being a little receptive to it, and it just got slowly better from there. You were able to walk around a little with help, like a zombie or something. I don’t think Dean left you alone for more than a minute the whole time.”

Sam noticed that the sarcastic edge was gone from Bobby’s voice when he called the demon ‘Dean’ now.

“Thanks, Bobby.” Sam tried hard not to think of what else Bobby must have witnessed if Dean had been running that much blood and power through Sam’s curse-stricken body.

Bobby shook his head and stood up. “Whatever you did, Sam, don’t do it again.”

“I’ll try not to,” Sam said with complete sincerity.

Bobby gave him a ‘look’ at that, but just shook his head and walked out.


~~~~~


Sam finished his breakfast and went to take another shower. He had taken one earlier, with Dean’s help, since he had still felt a little wobbly on his feet and Dean had refused to take ‘no’ for an answer --muttering something about head injuries-- but Sam still felt itchy and weird. It occurred to him as he was toweling his hair off that he felt exactly like he did when he was running down a cycle -- which didn’t seem possible, considering all that Dean had done over the past two weeks to keep him alive, but the symptoms, once recognized, were unmistakable. After dragging his clothes back on, Sam headed outside to find his brother.

Dean was laid out on the Impala’s hood, drinking beer and watching the sunset, long, denim-clad legs crossed at the ankles, the bottle held almost casually between the fingers of his right hand.

Sam paused to watch, out of Dean’s line of sight, and stood motionless, taking in the view. His brother still looked twenty-something, when he should have been closer to forty. With the Impala beneath him and the backdrop of the junkyard, it could have been 2007 again, and all the years since just a bad dream. It could have been any one of their numerous stops at Bobby’s during the winding years between when Dean had picked Sam up from Stanford until the night his deal had come due -- before Dean went to Hell and Sam discovered what real pain and guilt was. Sam had experienced the same sort of moment before at odd times during their travels together, and was braced for the engulfing sense of loss and grief that came with it; was surprised when it struck him as more a gentle wave of nostalgia and regret.

“What are you torturing yourself over now, Sam?” Dean hadn’t turned his head, but Sam knew he had senses other than vision to detect him, and his emotions, with.

“That’s cheating,” Sam commented, still bemused by the strangeness of his own mood as he moved from the shadow of the wrecks and slid onto the other side of the hood.

“Then don’t angst so loudly in my immediate vicinity.” Sam could see the eyebrow Dean raised when he let the moody tangle drift away; Sam didn’t usually let things go so easily.

“Does space make a difference?” Sam asked, accepting the bottle Dean offered wordlessly, and taking a long pull.

Dean shrugged, turning his head to face him. “Maybe. We haven’t really been separated by any significant distance since this all started, you know? Kinda hard to tell.”

Sam nodded and was content to sit, sipping at the beer for awhile in companionable silence.

Crossing his hands over his stomach, Dean turned his face back towards the setting sun before he spoke again. “I kicked him out for things you wouldn’t have wanted him to see.”

Sam felt something tense in his shoulders he hadn’t even been aware of relax. “Thanks.”

Dean shrugged again.

“What would you have done if I died?”

“I’m not really feeling the deep, emotional bonding tonight, Sam.”

Sam waited in silence.

“I don’t know,” Dean sighed finally. “Wait around for the next Vessel, I suppose. No one else can cast the spell.”

“Because it’s all about revenge.” It wasn’t a question.

“It’s... mostly about revenge.”

“What’s the rest of it about?”

Dean shifted, but didn’t answer.

Sam leaned back against the edge of the windshield frame, feeling the warm metal of the Impala beneath the length of his body, and the warm tones of his brother’s presence shaded in his mind, finding comfort in both. His awareness of being able to feel Dean had slowly been growing since the incident with Ruby; having reached out for him once in a panic, now it felt almost like he could do so anytime. It was even stronger since his awakening just hours earlier.

The sun was nothing more than the thinnest ripple of red over the horizon before Dean spoke again. “I know you’re hurting; you going to give me any grief about tonight?”

Sam closed his eyes as the last of the light slipped under the edge of the world. “No."

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?
Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the Man comes around
                                                             ~When the Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash

“Virgin Ashes? Seriously?”

“Yes,” Sam replied, still regaining his stamina after the ordeal of the last couple of weeks -- most of which he thankfully did not have any recollection of, “seriously. And if you say anything to me about going to kill one ourselves, we are going to have a problem, Dean.”

Dean looked offended. “I wouldn’t dream of it, Sam. I was just marveling over the injustice of a world where people die virgins.”

Sam rolled his eyes and sank back onto the couch.

They had sat around long enough -- it was dangerous just being at Bobby’s, where all sorts of people knew they occasionally visited; being at Bobby’s long term was insane. They needed to get back on the road and planned to do so before dawn the next day.

Things seemed to have more or less settled back into place as far as the curse and the power balance between them went. Dean had come as close to truly sleeping as Sam had ever seen him since he had reappeared and dragged Sam from his house all those months ago, and had done so forvBulletin tracker nearly an entire day once he was certain Sam was set back to rights and didn’t need to be hovered over. Even now, there seemed to be a vague lethargy to Dean’s movements, but asking him about it only sent him off on rants about people who sucked all his energy down and then asked him how he felt. Sam himself still felt too rundown to deal with it anymore, even after all the much-mentioned energy-suckage, and let the matter lie.

He had asked Dean about the ingredient the angel had given him that had led to their impromptu stay at Bobby’s. Dean had given him a dark look, but gone to retrieve something from the Impala’s trunk. What he had brought back was about the same length and width of a cigarette, but clear, hard and sharp-edged like crystal, rather than a smooth, circular shape. Inside, the crystal shimmered; a substance the same rich blue as the material Dean had ripped from the angel at the church. The exterior of the crystal was smeared with something, and when Sam asked about it, Dean had given him another dark look and explained about prying Sam’s fist open to get it, and how the crystal was embedded so deep into his hand that Dean had put in temporary stitches to stop the bleeding, since he wasn’t able to heal Sam with blood. Sam hadn’t asked any more questions.

The recent excitement wasn't on his mind when he made his next observation. “I hope I have a vision soon.”

The look Dean gave him was withering. “Or maybe you can just stay awake for awhile, and we can find our own damn Virgin Ashes. Little kids die every day; I’m sure some of them are cremated. Even if we can’t find one already in an urn -- it’s not like we haven’t looted a funeral home or two before.”

“We’re almost done, Dean. Two more things and we'll have all the ingredients, which, if you recall, are pretty damn specific -- let’s not screw around with it now. Also, looting blood and looting bodies are a little different.”

“One fits in your pocket, one gets slung over your shoulder; it’s not that different.” Dean shrugged.

“That’s really disturbing, Dean.”

“Sorry -- I’m a demon back from a few thousand years in Hell; a lovely tourist spot I got to visit as a result of selling my soul to bring you back from the dead, and you’re a freaky psychic future meat-puppet vampire who has a chatty relationship with an angel of Hell, and together we have a relationship no brothers should really share, and do things like rob churches trying to hold off the Apocalypse. Oh yeah, and before all that started, we enjoyed a lively existence digging up corpses to set them on fire and stalking things like witches, werewolves and other Halloween favorites while on the run from the FBI. What part did you say was disturbing, again?”

“I am not a vampire!”

“Of course you are,” Dean said in a completely reasonable voice. “You drink blood to live, don’t you?”

Bobby walked in before Sam could find the words to express his outrage, took one look at the scene, and tossed a heavy duffle bag to Dean before holding one hand up in a ‘stop’ gesture to Sam.

“I don’t want to hear it. Sam, he’s a demon -- if all he’s poking you with are verbal knives, count yourself lucky. And, Dean, he’s your little brother; stop with the damn teasing. At least where I have to hear it, please?”

Sam still looked outraged, but kept his mouth shut. The new relationship between Bobby and Dean that had apparently developed while he was unconscious for all that time still made him nervous, but not in the ‘who’s-body-will-I-find-today’ sense of their previous visits, more of the ‘welcome to the Twilight Zone,’ one.

Dean wore an expression of total innocence. “Sure, Bobby. Whatever you say.”


~~~~~


Three days later found Sam leaning against the filthy wall of a back-country gas station around the side from the actual store-slash-convenience shop, eyes clenched shut and nausea welling up in his belly. He had been washing his hands when the vision struck, and was just waiting for the immediate after-effect to pass so he could stagger out to the Impala. He thought he might be feeling Dean’s concern from inside the store, and tried to project reassurance back before Dean did something noteworthy, like kick in the door. Something was changing, not in the curse, but in himself. A slow expansion, like stretching out in places he'd never known he had before. Dean didn't seem concerned about it one way or the other, taking in stride that the emotional sense he had for Sam wasn't a one way street anymore. Sam was a little more unsettled with the idea, but it was only a distant, glancing thing still. A small matter of intent and unreliable footing. It wasn't like they were suddenly living in each other's skulls.  

“Need the Internet?” was all Dean asked a short time later, when he slid into the car beside Sam, who was white-knuckled, holding onto an atlas in the passenger seat waiting for the aspirin to start working and take the edge off.

“Yeah," Sam managed. "Not for awhile, though. I don’t think I could look at the screen right now. But swing southeast.”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw palm trees.”

“Could be California.”

“No,” Sam dropped the atlas to his lap and closed his eyes as he sank back into the seat. “There were also live oaks and Spanish moss. That’s not a West Coast thing.”

“You pick-up anything else immediately useful?”

“Not unless you know where Sunland is.”

“What the hell is Sunland?”

“Something on a sign,” Sam mumbled. “Figure out more when I can read again. Wake me when the sun’s up.”


~~~~~


Sam’s headache was persistent, and they still had a good way to go before they were even close to the part of the country where people liked tea with their sugar and Spanish moss like mourning veils draped the sprawling trees, so it was past lunch before Dean pulled over at a restaurant advertising free Internet on a highway billboard.

Really, Dean -- Wendy’s? This is better than a coffee shop?”

“Not better than a coffee shop, better than your coffee shops. Five dollars for coffee, Sam --honestly?”

The conversation, such as it was, wound down as Sam became more involved in what he was finding on the Internet, though he did look up occasionally to find Dean happily devouring what was a truly impressive mountain of chicken nuggets.

Early on, once he had started talking to Dean, Sam had asked why he bothered eating if the body was actually dead and it was an effort to mimic all the functions and activities of life. Dean had casually explained that it was the difference between turning the crank-shaft of a machine by hand for every second it was running, or just dumping fuel in occasionally and making sure nothing was broken. Sam pointing out that the latter didn’t sound that different from any other body -- to which Dean had replied, “If your brain gets fried, your machine could still run. I walk away from mine, and it just grinds to a halt.”

Sam had decided he probably didn’t want more of a technical answer and stopped asking for fear Dean might actually provide him one. Sam had enough problems in his life without seriously contemplating himself as a necrophiliac too.

“Tallahassee,” Sam finally announced.

“You sure?”

Sam nodded. “Sunland Hospital. A facility for children with physical and mental handicaps, psychiatric disorders, things like that. Closed in 1983 amid a wave of scandals and accusations of neglect, abuse and general poor conditions.” He turned the laptop around to face Dean, who read through the Wikipedia site before turning a skeptical glance back on Sam.

“It says that there were branches all over Florida. Palm trees are more of a South Florida thing, so why do you say Tallahassee?’

Sam pulled the computer back and pulled up another tab before shifting the laptop so Dean could see again. Now, instead of a Wiki page, was a lurid red and black website with a series of photos, showing a fenced-off and greatly overgrown version of the hospital from the Wiki site, featured prominently. “Live Oaks are north Florida. Besides, that’s my vision, Dean. Even the sign; see it? That’s where I saw the name.”

“Dude, is this a ghost hunter’s website? Are we going on a ghost hunt, Sam?”

Sam closed the computer and rested his hands on top of it while leaning in to keep their discussion private. “The hospital ruins have a reputation for that, but we’re going because that’s where my vision is taking us, Dean. Because that’s the only way we’ve gotten as far as we have, remember?”

Dean shrugged and slid out of the booth. “I suppose where there are ghosts, there are bodies to ash. You ready?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the big deal with virgin ashes, anyways?”

“Well, maybe it’s a bloodline thing again; that’s why it’s specific." Sam gathered up the laptop and his notes and followed Dean outside. "Maybe she just happens to be a virgin; maybe the angel, or the World, or whatever, just didn’t know what else to call her -- how am I supposed to know?”

“Or him,” Dean mused, pulling open the Impala door.

“What?”

“We could be looking for a guy.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “They could just happen to be a virgin, happy?”

“Not in the least. But get in and let’s go see what a haunted children’s hospital has to do with the end of the world.”


~~~~~


Finding the Sunland location wasn’t difficult; everyone in the diner of the gas station they filled up at off I-10 on their way into town knew where it was, though they called it ‘Sunnyland’ and suggested staying far away at night. And the daytime too, for that matter. No one seemed to have any specifics, though, and the general air was more that of a relished local urban legend than something that inspired true fear. Dean didn’t like the cashier when they checked out, really didn’t like him. But he couldn’t give Sam a reason why, so Sam dragged him outside when it seemed like Dean might be planning to express his feelings all over the store.

“You should have let me question him,” Dean said grimly.

Sam sighed. “Because you didn’t like him?”

“I barely notice most people, Sam. They don’t even show up on my radar, but I really didn’t like that guy.”

“And that means…?”

“It means he was bad news. And possibly a spy for freaking Lilith.”

“A human?”

“A lot of humans are stupid, Sam. This can’t be news to you. They think the magic is harmless, they cut a deal with a stranger, or they are just really idiots and go looking for demons on purpose. There’s a lot of ways to get involved, and the only thing that would surprise me is if we hadn’t been tagged by Lilith’s human flock before now.”

“Do you think he heard us ask about the hospital?” Sam asked, voice sharp with concern.

“I think it would be really easy for him to find out where we’re headed.”

“We have to go in tonight, then; the longer we wait, the worse our chances.”

Dean nodded; he was giving Sam a rare opportunity to drive while he looked through a stack of print-outs on the hospital Sam had done at a copy shop a few hundred miles back.

“This is a lousy place to hunt for ghosts, Sam. They didn’t even have a morgue. No suspicious deaths or disappearances, no fires or specific tragedies. I mean, it sounds like a sucky place to end up -- but not the kind of sucky that makes ghosts, you know? And if there were real ghosts hanging out, you would think the legend would have garnered a little more respect after twenty years of idiot teenagers poking around the place.”

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Dean.”

“You could start with what the hell any of this has to do with palm trees.”

“I saw the sign, I saw palm trees, live oaks, Spanish moss. I heard dripping water and felt like my feet were falling out from under me, though that last part may have been from having the visions rather than in the vision. Mmmm… I saw a couple holding hands, and I think Ruby’s knife. That’s it.”

“Ruby’s knife? You didn’t mention that before.”

“Sometimes it takes awhile before I get a grip on what I see; you know that. Besides, it was just a flash. I think it was the knife; could have been a different blade maybe.”

Dean frowned and looked up. “Just a flash? Like in a fight?”

Sam shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“That’s freaking great, Sam.”

“Hey! Next time, you can have the mind-crushing visions, and I’ll sit on my ass and come up with unhelpful commentary and criticisms.”

Dean looked like he was going to snap back, but visibly changed his mind and just grumbled something, turning his attention back to the papers he was reading.


~~~~~


They waited until close to midnight, when the area would be quiet and hopefully deserted. Sunland Hospital was set off from nearby office complexes by a tangle of trees, but during the day, it was still a busy intersection and police patrols were fairly frequent. Not to mention Sam’s insistence that, in his vision, it was dark.

There were patrols at night too, but seldom, and they did barely more than enter the parking lot long enough to turn around and leave. The building itself was a tall, narrow five-story structure that had been abandoned to the elements around it. About half the windows were broken out, and what had once been a building-tall glass elevator shaft glittered ominously from beneath a heavy weight of climbing vegetation in the lights of occasionally passing cars. A tall construction fence surrounded the entire building, hung with ‘danger’ and ‘no trespassing’ signs.

“Flashlight, rock salt, shotgun, knife, lock-picks, wire-cutters… What am I forgetting, Sam?”

“Loose salt,” Sam replied, from where he was still rummaging in the trunk. Going into a strange building that might be haunted, or might have some other kind of infestation, or might not be home to anything more dangerous than bats and field mice, always made the decision of what to bring exciting.

They had decided to leave the Impala in the parking lot of a business center a short walk through the trees over from Sunland Hospital. At least there was a legitimate reason for there to be cars in that lot, even overnight, if someone had had engine trouble or something. But no cop would be able to justify not investigating a car showing up at an abandoned hospital, especially not one that was apparently an attraction for teenagers.

“I don’t think I’m going to be rockin’ the loose salt tonight; you feel free to go ahead, though.”

“Thanks.” Sam’s sarcasm didn’t evoke any comment from Dean, who was looking in the direction of the hospital intently. “Something wrong?”

Dean hesitated, then shook his head. “No, just thought I felt something for a minute. It’s gone now.”

“Felt what?”

“I don’t know, something. It’s gone -- you ready?”

Sam nodded and eased the trunk closed. It was less than ten minutes through the woods. Dean led the way, not bothering with the light at all, and Sam was careful to keep the beam trained down to avoid the attention of anyone passing by.

“You want to climb it or cut it?” Sam asked in a low voice, as they reached the back side of the building and stopped at the fence.

Dean pointed down to where the wire of the fence had been extensively clipped, then pinned back down so it looked intact by someone shoving a stick through the bottom links and into the ground.

“These aren’t new cuts,” Sam commented, crouching down to examine the damage.

“No, but I think it’s a popular entry.” Dean nodded back towards the woods and Sam turned his flashlight that way. The light glinted off of metal and he walked over to take a look.

A cheap motorbike was laid down on its side in the tall grass. It had obviously not been there long.

“Fantastic." Sam sighed. "So-- what? You, me, my vision, a possibly haunted hospital, and one clueless teenager?”

Dean snorted. “Get real, Sam. You don’t come to a place like this alone, and you don’t ride tandem on a bike like that with your buddy. You bring your girl along and hope to scare your way into her pants.”

“This just gets better and better.” Sam bent, pulled the stick out of the ground and crawled through the curled back fencing. “Hopefully, they will be busy in a closet somewhere and stay out of our way.”

Dean followed Sam through and stood up, then froze.

“What?” Sam hissed, feeling exposed in the somewhat clear area between the fencing and the vine-covered back of the building.

“I think you can drop the ‘possibly’ part.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The ‘possibly haunted hospital’. No need to use the ‘possibly’ part.” Dean turned to face Sam, his eyes completely black in the shine of Sam’s flashlight. “This place is alive with spirits.”

“Shit.”


~~~~~


Dean stood just outside the main hospital entrance, eyes closed, feeling out the building. There were no back doors that looked like easy access, and the main door had been obviously open on their pass-by earlier in the day. The vegetation was heavy enough on that side of the building that they could easily hide from a passing patrol, and the entry was big enough to give them lots of room to maneuver if it came to a fight just over the threshold. Sam was a big believer in maneuvering room.

“What are you picking up?”

 

“Honestly, Sam,” Dean replied without opening his eyes, “I’m surprised you aren’t vibrating like a tuning fork. You seriously don’t feel anything?”

“Maybe a little… cold?”

Dean snorted and relaxed, giving Sam a disgusted look.

“Any humans?”

“The spirit activity in this place is unreal. I might even have trouble finding you through the static. But it doesn’t feel especially hostile, and there is definitely something going on up around the third floor. Can’t tell you more than that. What I don’t get is why. There wasn’t anything that happened here that should have sparked something like this.”

Sam looked up at the height of the abandoned hospital, with its broken windows, stained facade and the spidering greenery that was slowly reclaiming it for the elements. “This place was full of neglected children, Dean. Probably thousands of them over its operating years. Kids that were abandoned, unloved, unwanted, and who suffered from all sorts of casual abuse and misery. Back in those days, if you went to a place like this, your parents were pretty much expected to forget about you. Visiting was discouraged, and once admitted, most of these children never saw a relative again. I’m sure there were worse places to be, but this was bad enough. I’m not surprised all that negative energy created a spiritual hot-spot over the years; I’m just surprised to hear you say it’s not hostile.”

“That’s not what I said, Sam. I said not especially hostile. Just because the overall flavor is benign doesn’t mean there aren’t a few rogue elements that would be completely happy to toss us out a window. Don’t let your guard down.”

They moved in cautiously, but nothing seemed out of place. The building was in a great state of disrepair, but the floor and ceiling, and least for the ground level, seemed intact. Water was in standing pools in some places and mangled equipment could be seen against walls or in rooms. The place was liberally decorated with graffiti, and empty beer or soda cans were strewn about with the general debris.

“Charming. Why are we here again?” Dean muttered, annoyed.

“You know as much as I do.”

“So just do a top to bottom walk-through and see if anything jumps out at us?”

“You have a better idea? Because if this doesn’t pan out, I have no clue what we do next,” Sam hissed, keeping a wary eye out for movement in the shadows.

Dean walked along considerably less concerned, trusting his instincts to warn him of anything getting too close. “I liked my staking out a funeral home idea.”

Sam snorted but refrained from comment.

Dean pushed on half of a double door and it swung open easily. “Stairs.”

“I guess we go up, then.”

They both froze at the sound drifting down the open stairwell. A repetitive squealing, like from a gurney wheel, was receding down what sounded like a second floor corridor.

“Teenagers?” Sam asked hopefully.

“Let’s find out.”


~~~~~


The next floor was as uninteresting as the first. The squealing died away as they climbed the stairs and didn’t reoccur. Faint breezes occasionally brushed by them, but those were easily explained by the broken windows. The walkway on the second level was in a more questionable state than the ground floor had been -- clearly the decades of water and weather exposure had weakened it in places, and Dean flatly refused to let Sam go first.

Reaching the glassed-in elevator shaft, Sam kept warily back from the edge while Dean craned his neck over to get a good look around. The doors had been pried open and stood crooked in their tracks, the space beyond them was empty.

“What do you suppose happened to the elevator?”

“Aliens,” Sam snapped, from where he stood nervously inside the doorway to a stairwell; neither one of them wanted to cross back down the second floor hallway to reach the main stairs if they didn’t have to. “Is there anything interesting in there, or can we go?”

“A super nasty pool of water and who knows what else at the bottom, more cans. Some chairs, I think. Nothing good.”

Sam opened his mouth to suggest they keep moving when the sudden crash of slamming doors from above ricocheted through the building.

“Shit!” Dean growled, holding onto the elevator shaft frame with a white-knuckled grip. Sam shone the flashlight on him and could see all of his brother’s fingers sunk into the actual metal. “I almost jumped in the stupid shaft. What the fuck was that?”

“One way to find out.”

“It sure as hell better not have been the damn kids, or it won’t be the ghosts they need to be afraid of.” Dean frowned and looked up as a banging started up above and what sounded like muted yelling drifted down the stairwell to their ears. “Got the rock salt ready, Sam?”

“I thought you said this place didn’t feel hostile?”

“That was then, this is now,” Dean replied grimly, pulling Ruby’s knife out. “It still doesn’t really feel like there's much interest in us, but something up there has definitely got the locals agitated.”

“You think we’re going to find something to use that knife on?”

“I think I’d rather be prepared than sorry.”

They climbed the stairs cautiously, finally stepping out onto the third floor to be faced with a heavy double security door. The doors were buckling under frantic pounding, but not giving way. Through the mesh-inset safety glass in the windows, they could see the panicked faces of two teenagers fighting to get out.

“Guess that answers that question,” Dean muttered as he shoved the knife back into its sheath and reached for the door. He twisted the handle, expecting to have to break through some kind of lock or resistance… and was surprised when it twisted normally in his grip. Dean pulled it open and the teenagers tumbled through the open doorway.

“Hey, hey!” Sam grabbed the girl by the shoulders to steady her. “What happened?”

She looked up at Sam, mascara smeared down her cheeks from crying, stumbling over her words. “We weren’t doing anything; we just wanted to look around. Then the doors started slamming and we tried to get out and the big ones closed and they wouldn’t open.”

Dean was just watching with his arms crossed, clearly unwilling to get involved. The guy who had come tumbling out of the hallway with the girl brushed himself off and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He was still shaking too, but making an obvious effort to pull himself together for his girlfriend.

The girl twisted violently and shoved him back, her fear flashing over to anger. “Stay away from me, Seth! You only brought me to this place so you could comfort me when I freaked out. You happy now?! Am I freaked out enough now?!”

Sam grabbed the girl’s arm to stop her from hitting her boyfriend when she advanced towards the guy, clearly intending to swing at him. The light jacket she was wearing fell open when he yanked her back. She was wearing a Key West shirt with two palm trees crossed on the front. Sam sucked in his breath like he’d been punched.

“Don’t be like that, Vicky,” Seth protested. “I didn’t know the place was really haunted; you know I wouldn’t have taken you anywhere dangerous.”

“We’re surrounded by dead people, Seth!” She missed the eyebrow Dean raised or the warning look Sam shot him. “This has been some great anniversary date. When we get out of here, I never want to see you again!” She pulled out of Sam’s grip and wrapped her arms around herself.

“Okay, kids!” Dean announced, clapping his hands and stepping forward. “This has been really entertaining, but my brother and I? We actually have some other things planned for this evening. So if you two would like to just mosey on back to the front door and take your little lover’s spat with you, I’m sure the fine spirits of this establishment would be appreciative. I know I would be.”

“Oh, we aren’t lovers,” the girl spat. “I told the bastard I was saving myself for marriage, and he still drags me out to a creep show like this, hoping -- what, Seth? That I’ll let you in my pants for a ride home?!”

“Vicky, that’s not fair! Rhonda and Mark were here last week and they said it was awesome. I didn’t know!”

Vicky looked ready to try another swing at Seth, but Sam saw a more serious danger. There was no light but the flashlight Sam had aimed at the floor on the landing, but Sam felt certain that if he could see Dean’s face at that moment, his eyes would be inhuman black. Dean was utterly still, and Sam was pretty sure he knew what the problem was.

“Really, guys, this has been great -- but you should be going. Angry spirits, remember?” Sam suggested urgently.

“What’s the sudden hurry, Sam?” Dean drawled. “The lower floors are dangerous and they don’t look like they have a light.”

“It broke when we were, uh, pounding on the door,” Seth offered sheepishly, sounding grateful to talk to someone other than Vicky.

“See, Sam? They need our help to get out.”

“No, Dean, I don’t think they do. Give them your flashlight; you aren’t using it, anyway.”

“Not that we don’t appreciate the rescue, guys, but who are you and what are you doing here?” Vicky was calmer when not railing at Seth, but with the edge of her anger spent, the reality of their situation was creeping back up on her and she was looking around at the dark corners nervously. She was completely oblivious to the real danger, though -- Dean was standing in arm’s reach behind her.

“Sam and I are ghost hunters.” Dean held the spare flashlight out to Seth. “We’re just passing through town and wanted to take a look at the local tourist spots. You’re just lucky we were here tonight.”

“Yeah, thanks. Can we get out of here now?” Seth was also looking around warily.

“Sure thing.”

“They can get themselves out, Dean,” Sam repeated, having no intention of allowing Dean to stay anywhere near Vicky.

“No, wait! My purse.” Sam gave the girl an incredulous look that she missed in the dark. “I dropped it when the doors were slamming; it has my paycheck in it!”

Sam was all set to suggest her life was worth more than a paycheck when Seth piped up, emboldened by the presence of the Winchesters and the flashlight. He seized a chance to get back into some of his girlfriend’s good graces by doing something both macho and stupid. “I’ll get it, Vicky.”

He stepped back past the fire doors and headed down the hallway before anyone had a chance to grab him.

“Seth! Crap.” Dean rolled his eyes --green again in the light of Sam’s flashlight-- and started after the teenager. Before he could cross the threshold into the third floor proper, the fire doors slammed shut again.

“Seth!” Vicky yelled, panicked, at the same time a, “What the fuck?!” could be heard from past the doors.

Dean tried the handle again, and they turned freely, but this time turning them didn’t help the doors open. He tried pulling at human strength, then threw his demonic muscle into it, but even with the power that should have ripped the doors off their hinges, they held firm. Dean slammed an elbow against the glass as a last-ditch effort, but it had no more effect than his attempts on the actual doors had. He turned to Sam with a ‘what now?’ expression.

Seth was on the other side now, watching them through the glass. He was clearly trying to keep it together but his face was pinched white with fear.

“Ah… maybe he can walk to the other end and take the main stairs down?” Sam suggested.

Dean was skeptical. “You think the ghosts only care about the one entrance?”

“There aren’t any doors on the other side,” Vicky said, sounding like she was about to cry. “But the floor is all messed up down there, really bad. Rhonda said this was the coolest floor, so we tried to come up that way first, but it looked too dangerous so we went up to the fourth and then back down on this side to reach it. This stuff isn't supposed to be real!”

“Was the fourth floor okay?” Sam asked.

Vicky nodded. “It’s some rooms at each end, then a big, open space in the middle.”

Fine,” Dean said. “Sam, take Vicky back downstairs. I’ll go get Seth and then we can do… whatever.”

Sam really didn’t like the way Dean kept eyeing Vicky-the-self-proclaimed-virgin, but approved of a plan that moved one of the civilians out of danger and kept the girl away from Dean. “Okay.”

“No!” Vicky protested. “I’m not leaving without Seth!”

Dean huffed in exasperation. “Look, lady. Your boyfriend is trapped in an abandoned mental hospital full of ghosts, who for some reason want to keep him around. You have a lot of experience with that? Because, otherwise, I don’t see where you will be a whole hell of a lot of help getting him out. What you can do is get the hell out yourself, so we have one less target to worry about. Got it?”

“I’m not leaving him!”

“Five minutes ago, you never wanted to see him again!”

Vicky ignored him and ran to press her hand up against Seth’s through the glass.

Dean threw his hands up in frustration and stomped over to Sam.

“Don’t even suggest it,” Sam hissed at Dean in a low voice.

“I saw her shirt too, Sam. She’s in this hospital, and practically the first thing she did was throw herself at me and announce she was a virgin! That’s like screaming ‘it’s me!’ for the spell. It was your vision.”

“I don’t care if my vision included her name, address, social security number and she came gift-wrapped on a pyre -- I have a rule about killing people! Remember?”

“And I have a rule about this spell,” Dean growled back meaningfully.

Sam raked the hand not holding the flashlight through his hair in frustration. “Look, let’s just get them out of here and then think about it. A day or so isn’t going to change anything -- maybe we can, I don’t know, cut her hair and use ashes from burning that or something. And what the hell are these ghosts doing? Is that door and some sound effects the only things they can manage?”

Dean was still gaping at Sam’s suggestion they use burned hair for virgin ashes, but pulled himself back together for Sam’s second question. “That is a serious supernatural lock on that door, Sam. I get the impression the locals can do pretty much whatever the hell they want, but they still don’t feel that hostile. Maybe… mischievous?”

Sam sighed. “Better than homicidal.”

He walked over to Vicky and grabbed her shoulder. The girl turned her head, startled.

“Look, Vicky, that door clearly isn’t going to open, and it sounds like trying to cross the floor on the other side is a stupid thing for someone with no experience to try, so if you are sure you won’t do the smart thing and let us get you out of here first, then probably the best bet to get Seth out of here is for all of us to head back across the fourth floor and then let Dean go get Seth and lead him back. Then we can go home. Sound okay?”

Vicky nodded. Seth, having been able to hear Sam from being pressed up against the door near the seam, also nodded from the other side of the glass.

“Great, then.” Sam steered Vicky back towards the stairwell, ignoring Dean’s annoyed presence following at their back.


~~~~~


“You two are totally retarded,” Dean growled again, for the third time in as many minutes.

“We didn’t know,” Vicky mumbled again in answer, clinging to Sam’s free arm despite being told repeatedly not to do so, in case he needed to shoot at something. She had finally noticed the shotgun slung over his shoulder, but was terrified and scared enough that she had accepted a hasty explanation of rock salt versus ghost and resumed her clinging.

Dean’s problem was that despite Vicky’s assurances everything was fine, the walkway of the fourth floor was by far the worst one yet. Something neither Winchester had noticed in time to stop Vicky from getting ahead of them in her eagerness to reach the other side.

They would have turned back as soon as they caught up with her and just gone back to the ground floor, then up the main stairway to reach Seth on the third floor, but Dean had no sooner started berating Vicky for idiocy when a plaintive voice had called down the hall, “Is that you, guys?”

Dean’s swearing had reached new heights at that. Apparently, Seth had been too creeped out waiting where it was safe, picked his own way across the third floor walkway, and decided to meet them upstairs. Unfortunately, luck had not been with him on his second trip, and he had slipped on water and damaged his ankle, after making it almost to the center of the floor. Not to mention breaking the second flashlight. Dean, Sam and Vicky had been nearly to the middle as well, once they had caught Vicky, and after that, it made no sense to do anything but press forward and hope they didn’t miss any weak spots -- or rather that they missed all of the weak spots. Now, Dean was being forced to test almost every foot of ground ahead of them.

“I’m going to kill you both,” Dean snarled, crouching down to check another patch of floor.

Vicky made a sound like she was going to start crying again. Dean had absolutely forbidden her to talk to Seth until they were done with the hallway, because he needed to listen to what he was doing instead of, “hormonal, brain-dead kids.”

Sam patted her back, keeping the flashlight shining where Dean was working, even though the demon didn’t need it. It would be a little suspicious for him to be picking his way across the floor without one. “He doesn’t mean it.”

Vicky nodded miserably. When they finally reached Seth, he was white-faced for an entirely different reason and looked unbelievably grateful.

“Can we talk now?” he whispered.

“Sure,” Sam told him, “just keep it quiet.” He knelt down beside the teenager to check his ankle while Vicky wrapped herself around Seth's neck.

“Well?” Dean demanded, a couple of minutes later.

“It’s broken,” Sam pronounced.

“Fucking excellent.”

“He can hop on one foot if I brace him.”

Dean looked disgusted. “Hopping. On a weak floor that could give way under our feet at any second.”

“Well, short of carrying him, Dean, I don’t see we have a choice. And it’s a whole lot harder to dump someone you’re carrying if an emergency crops up, than to just let go if you only have an arm around them -- you know?”

“Whatever. Let’s go.”

Dean, with Vicky at his heels and Sam following with Seth a few feet behind, had just reached the corridor again when the wall beside them exploded outwards, sending Dean and Vicky flying across the room. Vicky landed on Dean, who immediately shoved her unconscious weight aside and leaped back to his feet. Sam let go of Seth, shoved the flashlight into the teenager’s hands and grabbed the rock-salt gun off his back, training it on the man who emerged from the gaping hole in the wall.

“Well, look who we have here,” the man said with an oily smile. “Sam and Dean, or is that Sam and the demon-formerly-known-as-Dean. Hmmmm?”

“Who are you?” Sam demanded.

“Oh, my name doesn’t matter,” the man assured him. “I’ve just come on a tiny little errand, you see.” He took a few steps closer and Sam edged nervously back, aware suddenly of the sounds of more footsteps in the hallways.

“No need to be shy, Sam; we don’t want to hurt you. In fact, where we want to take you, you will only receive the best of care. Your continued health is my mistress’ greatest concern now.” It took another step and Sam brandished the gun.

“Lilith can find another chew toy; I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“You heard him, Peter Pan,” Dean called from somewhere in the darkness behind Sam. “Now why don’t you and the rest of the Lost Boys here pack up and go find something else to do tonight. Before we have to get ugly about this.”

“You should really stay out of this, Dean. I’m afraid your invitation to the party must have been lost in the mail.” The man reached out snake-quick and snatched Seth away from the wall, pulling the injured teenager in front of himself like a shield and holding him there by the throat while Seth made desperate gasping noises and struggled to stay balanced on his good foot, the flashlight fallen to the floor where it spun in slow arcs of light.

“Let him go!” Sam shouted, trying to keep Seth, the demon holding him, and the newcomers filing into the room all in sight

“You’re worried about the life of one boy, Sam -- when you have within you the power to save millions? Billions, even?”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s talking crap, Sam. Totally grade-A bullshit,” Dean yelled from where he was squaring off with three other demons, trying desperately to remember where the weak spots were so he didn’t put a leg through the floor and handicap himself.

“Am I? Lucifer is going to rise, Sam. One way or another, our master will be free. Even if you take yourself out of the running, in a few more years, there will be another, equally as suitable. But maybe this new Vessel won’t care so much. You care; you could whisper to him, maybe influence him to spare the lives of the people you don’t want to see hurt. He will be very grateful to you for everything you will have done to free him, after all.”

There was a long heartbeat of silence in the near blackness of the room, then Sam snorted and borrowed one of Dean's sayings. “Bite me.”

Something flew by Sam’s ear and a split-second later, there was a howl of agony as Ruby’s knife sank hilt-deep in the demon’s eye with a distinctive flash and the demon collapsed to the floor.

The other demons rushed in, but in the darkness, Sam was blind to their locations. The flashlight was still spinning slowly in the corner behind the body where it had flown when Seth had been grabbed, but Sam was afraid to go for it because of the instability of the floor. He settled for ducking down and trying to find Seth, whose ragged breathing he could still hear.

Cries and the sounds of a fight filled the air; strong hands grabbed Sam by the arm. He pulled away instinctively and tripped over Seth, falling to the floor and pulling the demon down on top of himself, but the ground seemed to be only the thinnest of barriers and he barely registered hitting it before he was falling through. The last thing Sam heard before he was buried under masonry and debris was Dean screaming his name.

 

Chapter Thirty

Well I've spent a reckless night inside the wonder
Of your everlasting charm
Now I'm haunted by geography and the flora
And the fauna of your heart
                                ~Starkville, Indigo Girls

The hospital, a real one this time, sucked even more than Dean had anticipated.

His plan had been to finish off the demons in reach, find Sam --who he could feel in the fabric of his being was still alive-- check Sam’s wounds, and decide if he needed to do some bloodletting on the spot, or if Sam could wait until they cleared the area.

Getting thrown from the second floor as the fight raged through the building, then ganged up on so that his little two-minute diversion became a thirty-minute adventure had not been okay with Dean. When he finally got the upper hand, he made sure the bastards that had delayed him understood exactly how unhappy he was.

Running back to where he had left his brother and finding police cars and an ambulance loading Sam up had made Dean kind of wish he had left one or two of the demons alive for a little more venting. Apparently, Vicky had gathered her wits enough when she regained consciousness to call 911.

Police and paramedics had shown up and found Sam lying unconscious in the rubble doing his best to bleed to death. The fight had taken Dean some distance from the ruin by that point, and on return, there was nothing he could do but watch from the shadows, then go to meet the ambulance at the hospital.

He couldn’t remember ever being more grateful to Bobby Singer than he was when he was able to pull out an actual insurance card at the hospital for Sam. Dean considered himself Sam’s own personal insurance, but last time they were at the junkyard and Dean had been mulling over the decision aloud, Bobby had given him a look that even now was able to make him feel like a slow child, and told him to buy a damn policy and shut up. It’s not like the money was a concern anymore. Having it had certainly eased things at the hospital once he was able to find out where they had taken Sam.

After convincing them that he was Sam’s brother, and he had no idea what had happened, and telling some rambling, vague yarn about a road trip and hearing a girl scream from the hospital when they had slowed down to take a look at a local legend from the street, not having a cell phone so letting Sam go check it out while he went to find a phone, then coming back and seeing the police cars, and how shocked and appalled he was, and was Sam okay…. Well, being able to hand over some legitimate insurance seemed to seal the deal as far as the cops and the front desk people were concerned, and he had been left to brood in the waiting room on his own.

Down the hall, he could hear hysterical crying.

Sam was still alive, but Seth wasn’t. It sounded like they were going to have to sedate Vicky. Dean knew he should feel bad about that, but mostly he felt bitter that it hadn’t been Vicky to go down when the floor gave way. She was the one Sam’s visions had marked. He supposed they could try with Seth’s corpse, but that didn’t feel right to Dean. And despite how badly he wanted to just kill her and do what his instincts were insisting was the right thing, he had the ghosts of older instincts that helped him stay his hand, and he had the memory of the look in Sam’s eyes when he had stood in a Texas kitchen, looking at the corpse of a woman who’s death he had felt responsible for.

Vicky’s crying was getting on Dean’s nerves, nerves already shredded by not being allowed to check on Sam.

Finally, they called Dean to the desk and explained what was wrong with his brother, summed up as about a hundred and thirty stitches in his torso, a slight concussion and blood-loss. No organ damage, a minor head wound, and he was awake and being difficult -- so Dean was more than welcome to head on back and try and make him stay in bed. Right.

It took about twenty minutes from the time they let Dean see his brother until the time he was carefully easing Sam into the back of the Impala so he could lie down while Dean looked for a suitable place to hole up. The only stop was an all-night pharmacy by the hospital that was nice enough to fill the prescription for pain-killers the doctor had insisted Dean take for Sam. There were a variety of other annoying instructions; the medical staff had not been really pleased with the Winchesters’ decision to vacate the premises, but Dean planned on tanking Sam up with his own magic healing elixir just as soon as he found a place he felt safe, so he wasn’t terribly worried about pain management.

At least he wasn’t until Sam started bitching at him even through the haze of the injections he had already received at the hospital. Dean let him rant on weird, unconnected topics until he was back onto Dean’s, “stupid, irresponsible decision-making,” for the third time before Dean pulled onto the shoulder of the road, grabbed a bottle of water and the prescription, and crawled into the backseat enough to force two of them down Sam’s throat, despite Sam’s general uncooperativeness. It was a much more pleasant drive after that, even if he did have to practically carry Sam into the motel room.

Dean stripped Sam down to check the stitches and reassure himself there weren’t any other wounds. The stitches looked neat, if gruesome, in the Frankenstein track they carved across Sam’s bruise-mottled skin from beneath the waistband of his boxers to brush his right clavicle.

With the pain clearly a distant thought to Sam’s heavily drugged brain, and an assurance from the doctors that he wasn’t in any danger provided his wound was cared for, Dean was content to watch Sam lie in a dreamy haze across the bed while he cleaned and checked all the weapons. He personally didn’t rely much on them, but Sam did, and it was a routine enough way to spend a few hours while he tried to find a way around what he felt he needed to do and what Sam would allow him to do -- as much as allow was applicable. A little blood, a little sex, some more sleep, and Sam would be more-or-less fine.

But there was no rush, so Dean took what time he needed to make some decisions. Sam couldn’t be allowed to compromise the spell because he got a little squeamish over the details, but maybe giving him a little time to reach that realization himself while they poked around another abandoned Sunland hospital or two wouldn’t be a terrible thing. But time was quickly becoming something they didn’t have more of, and Dean was torn between the expediency of his agenda and the cooperativeness of his brother -- who was himself a vital component of Dean’s plan.

As soon as he fed Sam, he was going to have to pick all those little stitches out before the skin healed, and he had ideas for how best to distract his brother while he did that. Ideas that were likely to lead to not-another-damn-thing getting done that evening, so best to finish the job he started while he could.


~~~~~


“My head hurts.”

“That’s the fifth time in the last hour, Sam. There isn’t anything wrong with your head anymore. Give it up already.”

Sam rolled over on the bed and reached for the remote control on the nightstand. Dean was sitting on the other bed, doing something on the laptop. Sam was out-of-sorts after the previous evening, most of which was a painful blur after the sensation of falling through the floor; his brother had run out of sympathy before Sam even woke up properly.

“What are you looking for anyways?” Sam asked.

“Getting the addresses for the other Sunland Hospitals. You were sure about the sign; it was the rest that was …unspecific. Maybe it is another hospital, one further south.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Sam said.

Dean looked up, annoyed. “No, but I’m feeling a little out of options at the moment, Sam.”

“I’m almost surprised you haven’t snuck out and hunted her down on your own yet.”

“I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t think about it, but I’ll give it another stop or two. For you.”

Sam clicked the remote on and let his eyes drift closed again as the television droned on a local news station. He didn’t feel like quiet at the moment; he wasn’t really tired either, it was just easier than getting out of bed -- there wasn’t anywhere to go at the moment anyway.

Sam was just drifting off to sleep when the announcer’s words caught his attention and he sat up, completely alert, just as he heard Dean close the laptop and shift on the other bed.

“Did he just say what I think he said?” Sam demanded, as the news turned to commercial.

“That depends on if what you think he said was that a local teenager killed herself this morning after her boyfriend died in a tragic accident last night while exploring an abandoned hospital.”

Dean fell quiet. Sam glanced over and caught his eyes. “You don’t have anything else to say about it?”

Dean shrugged. “Good things come to those who wait?”

Sam gave him a withering look and reached for the phonebook on the nightstand. “Throw me my phone.”


~~~~~


That night, they stood together in a deserted junkyard watching a body burn. The heaps of junked cars hid the flames from casual passersby, and in a part of the country where people still burned their garbage on occasion, no one was likely to report the smoke.

“I don’t understand,” Sam said finally, as the flames were winding down. It was close to dawn and they needed to gather up the ashes and leave before anyone arrived to catch them.

“Understand what, Sam?”

“Why she did it. I mean, what the hell did this accomplish?”

“She’s not in pain anymore.”

“He died in a stupid accident,” Sam said. “This was completely pointless.”

“Maybe she felt guilty.”

“For what?” Sam demanded. “She didn’t drag him to that building.”

“She forgot her purse.” Dean squinted at the sky, judging light and time. “If he hadn’t gone back for it, he would have been with us and outside, not on the fourth floor in a brawl.”

“That’s just… dumb. You weren’t going to let Vicky out of your sight and we were going to get jumped by demons anyway. His odds of survival started dropping as soon as you and I walked in. Which reminds me -- the demons? I thought you could detect them.”

“I told you that place was alive with ghosts. When the supernatural static hits, that kind of detection is one of the first things to go.”

Sam kept his arms tightly folded and said nothing.

Dean elbowed him. “This wasn’t your fault, Sam. The girl did what she wanted to do, and it wasn’t on us to look out for her. People die all the time, and most of them don’t have loved ones hanging themselves from banisters the next day. She was obviously unstable. Nothing we did caused it.”

“That doesn’t make it better, Dean. It’s just such a waste.”

“We’ve got bigger problems to worry over than this.”

Sam nodded reluctantly. “Lilith isn’t waiting around anymore.”

“No, we’re down to one Seal, and she’s it. You’re on deck for two teams, and we still have one ingredient left to find before we’re ready to make our play.”

“Back to the motel, then?”

Dean shook his head negatively. “Let’s keep moving. You can read the spell in the car and we can stop at a diner to start research later; I want to clear out of this place ASAP. I wouldn’t have stopped so soon for this even, except I didn’t want to risk getting caught with a body in the car. Nothing gets the police excited faster than if you have to start killing them to cover your tracks.”

“That’s… really considerate of you, Dean.”

“I’m a fucking saint, Sam. You have no idea how much. Now grab that shovel and let’s get this over with."

 

Chapter Thirty-One

Now here I go again, I see the crystal visions
I keep my visions to myself
                                        ~Dreams, Fleetwood Mac

The last ingredient was Jerusalem Oil. Neither Sam nor Dean had any idea what that was, and drupal statistics modulethere was nothing about it on the Internet or within the knowledge of any of the contacts Sam had. A few, like Bobby, had promised to keep looking, but seemed dubious at the prospect of turning anything up. Sam had the sinking feeling that locating the last ingredient was going to involve a trip to the Middle East.

Dean disagreed.

“It just doesn’t make any sense, Sam! All of these other ingredients, they’ve been right here on this continent; hell -- in the States, even. Or at least accessible here. It makes no logical sense whatsoever that the last one would be halfway around the planet! The World, or whatever, wants us to succeed, wants us to keep Lucifer trapped in his pen, and that’s what designed the freaking spell. I’m telling you, Sam, whatever the hell this Jerusalem Oil is, it’s got to be something we can get here.”

Sam found the argument less than compelling, but was forced to concede it had some merit, and chased his brother off to go find pizza, or something, for dinner. Sam was just closing his eyes to enjoy the quiet of the motel room alone when he became aware of being watched. His eyes flew open and he stared at the figure standing at the end of the bed. It was the angel from before, the one who had first warned him about Ruby almost eight years ago.

“You’re--”

“Castiel,” the angel offered, when Sam seemed to come up blank.

“Right," Sam said slowly, bewildered, "Castiel. What are you doing here?”

The angel lifted a graceful ceramic pitcher with an oddly elongated neck and set it on the dresser beside the television. “I believe you are looking for this.”

“Jerusalem Oil?” Sam asked, hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Jerusalem,” the angel replied solemnly.

“Ah... thanks. Why?”

“I still feel that I owe you and your brother something for my earlier failure.”

“That wasn’t you’re fault.”

“Nonetheless.”

“Why help with this? Why not before?”

“Lilith has been shattering Seals all over the planet; we have been very busy trying to defend them.”

“And now?”

“Now she had shattered all that she needed but the last.”

“The last being herself.”

“Yes,” the angel agreed.

“One of your colleagues seemed to think that killing me would solve the problem,” Sam said, a bit nervously.

“We would face the same problem again, eventually; the matter must be resolved.”

“We aren’t going to kill Lucifer, just lock him up for longer; you know that --right?”

“Of course, but the amount of time his followers have been looking for him is not insignificant, even for us. There are those among the garrison who wish the Apocalypse to take place, for events to be decided so that we can all move on.”

“But not you.” It wasn’t a question, but the angel answered anyway.

“No. Others of us believe that if the Angels of Entropy can be freed from their long exile, we can restore the balance as it was meant to be. The Apocalypse will not solve the actual problem, simply the immediate irritation. The imbalance would still exist. These divisions in our ranks, where some of us pursue one action while others work against it -- these are because of the imbalance in the polarities.”

“And you want Lucifer to stay locked up so...”

“So that your brother can be about his task.”

“Freeing the other angels?” Sam asked, still uneasy about that plan.

“Yes.”

“If you want them freed so badly, why don’t you guys help out?”

“We cannot; our Father has forbidden it.”

“But it’s okay for Dean to get involved?”

“I do not know of any Orders our Father has given regarding Dean,” Castiel told him seriously. “But right now, he appears to be their best chance.”

“Okay then, well... we will, uh, keep on with the mission.”

The angel nodded. “I will leave you then.”

“Wait!”

It looked at Sam curiously.

“You said you felt that you owed me something,” Sam began hesitantly.

“I have brought you the final ingredient.” The words were conclusive, but the tone was curious, so Sam sucked it up and pressed on.

“Yes, but... could you maybe do one more thing? Something little?”

“What would you ask of me?”

Sam swallowed hard, and told the angel what he wanted.


~~~~~


Sam opened his eyes, then sighed inwardly and closed them again for a moment. It seemed to be his night for angelic visits.

“Are you ready?”

“I didn’t have such a great time after our last visit, you know,” Sam replied.

“I did warn you about that. Are you ready?”

Sam leaned back against the warm wood of the old fashioned bench. The park was much like it had been on his first visit, but the angel was still in black and the sounds of the people on the sidewalks seemed oddly muted. The sun was high and the air was nice, though.

“Yes. As much as I’ll ever be.”

It nodded. “Have you thought about after?”

“Not really.”

“You should give that some thought.”

“I had kind of thought it was going to end with me collapsed on the floor dying from having expended all of my psychic energy moving the door, and Dean trying desperately to save me.”

The angel shrugged gracefully. “It could. Though I have to say, I doubt it.”

“You don’t think Dean is going to have a use for me after the spell is cast?” Sam found the idea depressing, though not entirely shocking considering Dean's nature.

“I meant that I find it unlikely a spell like this will require such a great investment of your energy that you will be in any danger. Of course Dean will have a continued use for you -- he still owes me a favor that requires him to be able to move in your world, and his ability to do so easily in great part relies on the connection he feels for you.”

Sam looked up, surprised. “Why?”

“You should ask him. Also remember, the power was yours first.”

“What?”

“Just something to keep in mind. I think our time here is concluded for now. Good luck.”

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soul is burned
by the fire in my blood
                                        ~Strange Fire, Indigo Girls

They were five hundred miles north of Tallahassee when Dean brought up a problem. His attitude upon finding out an angel had delivered the final ingredient was not so much glee as a settling of grim determination. They had the entire list now; it was just a matter of the actual casting. When Sam had recovered from his visit with the angel, there had been nothing to the spell that he couldn't easily decipher. As promised, the casting itself seemed fairly straightforward. It wasn't even that long of a spell, probably less than ten minutes all things considered.

As always, the danger was in the details.

“I don’t think we can do the ritual in the church.”

Sam almost choked on the cold coffee he had been resentfully sipping at since the last crappy gas station. “Where the hell else are we supposed to do it then, Dean? It’s pretty location specific.”

“Yeah, all I’m saying is that Lilith isn’t totally stupid. She knows we’re up to something. She would have to be an idiot not to be keeping an eye on her interests, and both you and that doorway are definitely interests of hers.”

“Or, she could be trying not to draw attention to the site by deliberately not paying it attention,” Sam said.

“Awwww, Sammy,” Dean said dryly, “it’s my job to offer insanely optimistic possibilities, and your job to dump the cold water of reality over my happy thoughts. I get all confused when you switch roles like this.”

“I’m just pointing out possibilities, Dean.”

“Sam, I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere between here and New England, we’re gonna get tagged by a member of the Winchester fan club. I’m sure by now Lilith has some inkling of the sort of stuff on our shopping list. She’s gonna put you, me and our souvenir collection all together heading northeast, and not come up with anything good. She will flood that entire area with monsters, on the off chance she might be right in her nasty suspicions. Which, of course, she is,” he added with a grim smile.

“It has to be in that church, Dean,” Sam said tightly.

“In, or near?”

Sam frowned. “It just says that it has to be where the door is.”

“That’s not really precise,” Dean pointed out.

“Since we are dealing with the fate of the world, Dean, I think maybe we should err on the side of caution.”

“I’m just saying, it’s not gonna matter where we err if we get slaughtered getting out of the car.”


~~~~~


Contrary to Dean's prediction though, after staking out the convent for several days they had still failed to find anyone showing interest in the compound. Except for a single groundskeeper who mowed the grass and did some trimming, no one paid it any mind; no one went near it. Dean’s paranormal ability to detect other entities was unreliable from the massive interference being generated by the doorway, its presence powerful with all of the Seals but one shattered. They were stuck with what they could find through more prosaic methods, and what they could find was... nothing.

“This is too easy, Dean.”

“I know it is, Sam. What do you want me to do about it? Maybe we’ve just gotten lucky.”

“We don’t get that lucky. In fact, maybe it has escaped your attention, but pretty much all of our luck is bad.”

“So what then? You want to not do the ritual because it looks too easy? Maybe wait until a few hundred demons flood the area, then carve our way through them to make you feel better? I could give Lilith a call myself if it would get this show on the road.”

Sam frowned. “You know what I’m talking about.”

“I do, and I’m telling you, I don’t see any other options. You have any?”

“No.”

“Fine then. We go tonight. We'll do our little thing to make sure you're all tanked up, and then... I guess it's time. You excited?” Dean gave him a sidelong grin.

Sam slumped back in his seat. “Thrilled. Out of curiosity, what did you have to talk to Bobby so urgently about yesterday?”

“Getting you a ride.”

Sam turned to look at him. “There something wrong with the Impala?”

“For afterwards," Dean clarified. "I might not be around and you might not be in shape to drive, I don’t think you’re going to want to hang out and wait for the cops if this attracts attention. Bobby can pick you up.”

“That seems... awfully optimistic.”

Dean raised an eyebrow. “You don’t like our chances?”

“You, and me, against Lilith and everything she can summon up?”

“No one’s here now.”

“That’s great, Dean, but we can’t do it now. After dark, remember?”

“I think I find your lack of faith in our innate awesomeness to be troublesome, Sam.”

“I find this entire situation to be troublesome, Dean.”

“That’s because you don’t know how to have fun,” Dean said causally.

It left Sam speechless the rest of the ride.


~~~~~


The area seemed just as deserted that night as it had been earlier. Sam had the gallon of preserved blood in one hand, and a paper sack with the rest of the items in the other. Dean carried Ruby’s knife unsheathed and led the way through the quiet gravestones and grass towards the abandoned convent.

“I still don’t like this, Dean,” Sam whispered. “This feels really wrong.”

Dean paused. "Wrong like you're having a vision wrong? Or just the usual creepy graveyard-in-the-dark wrong?"

"I don't know, it's... wrong."

Dean rolled his eyes. “We haven’t seen anyone in five nights, Sam. Now shut up; I’m concentrating,” he hissed.

The lock was a joke, and in moments, they were heading down the hallway towards the chapel. Compared to everything else they'd been up too, getting their hands on the building plans hadn't been an issue.

“How long do we think this will take again?” Dean asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know. Fifteen minutes? Less? It’s not very complicated. I mean, it doesn't look very complicated. I guess I won't know for sure until I try.”

“Great. I love the precision of this plan, Sam. It makes me all warm and tingly inside.”

Sam didn’t bother glaring at him and reminding him who’s plan this entire thing was again, he just shoved some pews aside to make enough room in front of the altar for the spell's foundation sigil, and began carefully pouring the blood.

Set-up took less than five minutes. The strange, armed spiral glistened wetly in the dim light, with the blood-soaked rope twisted into a circle at its core, and the Holy Chalice centered within that. Inside the Chalice and on the ground beneath it, inside the margin of the rope, Jerusalem Oil had been poured; the ‘feathers’ of the angels had been dripped carefully into the oil in the Chalice, and the shimmering liquid seemed to seethe and shift as if alive. Sam sprinkled ashes liberally over the entire set-up, then rubbed a smear on his own forehead.

Sam knelt carefully within the spiral and looked up at Dean.

“Do you know where you’re going to put it?” Dean asked quietly.

“Yeah, I’m ready.”

“Better hurry then.”

As the last syllable left his lips, a force blew through the room. It lifted Dean high into the air and hurled him down into a pile of broken pews.


~~~~~


Dean staggered to his feet and tried to move, only to slam into a wall of thin air. He kicked a pew free and stared in fury at the elegant line of runes revealed, forming a suspiciously familiar design. He looked up just in time to see Sam hauled into the air by an invisible force and pinned back against the wall behind the altar.

“Be good and stay put, Sam. I have this little matter to take care of before I deal with you,” a musical voice floated into the room from the back of the chapel as a recessed door opened and an emaciated blonde in a long, white dress glided gracefully onto the floor. Sam was peripherally aware of other demons filing in, but it was Lilith who was the true threat, so he kept his focus on her.

“Hello, Lilith,” Dean snarled.

“Dear darling Dean, how I’ve missed hearing about all your special little exploits in Hell. I was so worried when you wandered off that you might be hurt, but here you are again. Safe and sound. I can’t wait to get you alone so we can discuss my concern in greater detail.”

Dean slammed his hands against the invisible wall and was thrown skidding back onto his ass.

“Now, Dean. You should remember, you only get one touch before it touches you back. It took me awhile to figure out how you did it, but once I did, I had to marvel at your ingenuity. But then, it wasn’t really your idea now, was it? You always were a good little soldier; even in Hell. All you needed was someone to give you orders and you straightened right up.”

“You don’t know a damn thing about me, bitch.”

Lilith’s eyes narrowed and her voice lost some of its singsong pitch as she waved a hand and sent all the pews sailing into a heap against the wall opposite the altar, leaving the sigil-lined figure-eight design bare to sight. She stepped into the half without Dean and smiled.

“I know more about you than you could dream, Dean. For instance, I knew that if I waited long enough, you would bring Sam to me at the right place. I don’t even have to deal with him, really; all I have to do is wait until he is so desperate, and he will do whatever I say. Or at least,” she added casually, “he will once the spell is mine.”

“Dean!” Sam called, wrestling with his panic. He was afraid to fight Lilith’s hold on him; he had defeated her powers once before, the night Dean had been killed -- but fighting her would be tiring, and they had no idea how much of his strength the spell to move the door would take.

“Don’t worry, Sam; the bitch is blowing hot air.” Dean glared steadily at her.

“Am I?” She smiled and started chanting. Dean screamed and collapsed to his knees as her magic began to carve great holes in his self.

“Dean!” Sam yelled again. He looked around, fighting his instinct to struggle against Lilith’s strangle hold. The ritual was ready; he just needed a couple of minutes in the right place and it was done. But if Lilith took the spell from Dean, they were probably done. He had to stop her, and looked around desperately for anything…

…the power was yours first…

The angel’s voice rang in Sam’s ears and he felt his mind calm and focus. He did have more at his disposal than just demonic skills or visions. Sam hadn't experimented much with his telekinesis; he knew he had the ability, it had surfaced unexpectedly a time or two. But it was highly unreliable; in fact, he had never been able to use it intentionally before. But to just knock something over...

A tall candelabrum stood by the arched doorway, miraculously missed in Lilith’s clean sweep of the seating. Sam closed his eyes and tried to feel for the elusive sense of his natural talents. Just one good push...


~~~~~


Dean was barely hanging into his body; the wound Lilith was carving was like being flayed --something he had experienced more than once first hand in the Rendering-- and he could feel Sam’s panic and fear through the recently renewed link between them.

Sorry, Sammy, he thought, trying to brace himself to give the bitch the comeuppance she deserved as soon as she released him. He couldn’t stop Lilith from taking the spell, and he couldn’t kill her-- but he could kill Sam. It would destroy what humanity he had clung to in the Rendering, and what had been restored to him from Below, but he could do that much for his brother. It would only be a matter of a few decades before Lucifer would walk free, and the Apocalypse would barely be delayed, but the Winchesters would have no part in it.

Sam would be free.

Lilith neared the pinnacle of her spell and Dean closed his eyes and tried to prepare himself for feeling the sense of Sam ripped from his mind, when a loud, unexpected clatter sounded in his ears. Dean felt the building pressure of magic around him vanish like a popped bubble and take with it the agony lancing through him.

He opened his eyes. Lying in front of his knees and across the lines of the spell was a tarnished brass candle holder. Dean felt the pulse of Sam’s elation between them as he stood up and dusted off his knees. He gave the suddenly unsure Lilith a truly vicious smile and stepped towards her and out of the broken spell trap.

“My turn.”


~~~~~


Sam slid down the wall as Dean plowed into Lilith and threw her through the stone wall.

He could hear the sound of others joining the fight as it ranged outside, but half-throttled and hidden behind the altar where he had fallen when Lilith suddenly found herself with other things to think about, Sam was left completely alone.

He crawled back to the spellwork he had crafted on the floor and examined it hastily. Everything was as he had left it. Lilith had paid it no mind, believing the only threats neutralized, and none of her flunkies had given it a second look when they ran to join her. Sam closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steady his nerves and bring the incantation back to the forefront of his mind, then began.

Dean, meanwhile, was at the center of a violent brawl, and felt fan-fucking-tastic about it. With Ruby’s knife and no need to pretend to a humanity he was no longer bound by, Dean was able to let loose with a force and power none of the assembled demons could match. Lilith, maybe, on a good day -- but even she couldn’t match his violent rage and he threw her aside as easily as the others. He spared her the knife, though; he knew it wouldn’t kill her, and he didn’t want to risk the blade, not even for the satisfaction of sinking it into her meat-suit just to hear her scream.

Then she did scream, and for a moment, Dean thought he had forgotten himself and taken a stab at her anyway in the chaos of the brawl, but her cry was one of fury and loss rather than pain as she ran back into the sanctuary, Dean on her heels.

Inside, Sam was slumped against the altar, the spiral sigil now scorched permanently into the floor, smoke still rising from it in barely visible drifts. The Chalice was kicked over, the contents apparently evaporated, and the Rope was little more than a circle of ash. Dean realized then a vague presence he had been subtly aware of since entering the convent was just gone. The night felt easier and the air lighter, the supernatural static of the door gone as if it had never existed.

Lilith stalked towards Sam.

“What have you done?!” she spat.

Sam tried to sit up and face her, but it was clearly an effort.

She turned on Dean. He could feel the presence of at least thirty demons arrayed behind him, some of impressive age and power. He was pretty sure he could make it out, but was less sure about doing so with Sam.

“Do you think you’ve stopped me?” she cried. “He knows what he’s done.” She flung a hand out, pointing at Sam. “Do you think I can’t carve the new location out of him? And when I’m done, I promise you, Dean, he will beg me to let him help, to do anything to make the pain stop. And you can listen to his screams, knowing it was you who made it all necessary.”

“Won’t matter,” Sam offered, finally making it more or less to his feet and leaning heavily on the altar. “There isn’t anything you can do that will get me to tell you the new location.” Sam laughed weakly. “I don’t remember.”

Both Lilith and Dean turned to stare at Sam. Lilith spoke first. “That isn’t possible.”

“An angel owed me a favor; I could have asked for anything. But that’s what I wanted, to not remember where I moved your precious prison door. I wanted no one to know. I was the only one, and now it’s not just that I can’t tell you, but I don’t even have the faintest idea. You can torture me until I beg for whatever the hell you want, Lilith, but I will never be able to tell you where it is.”

“Guess you had better get out your walking shoes again,” Dean suggested to her with a sneer. “It’s a big world out there for such a tiny door. And I mean, I could barely feel it when you had it cracked open in here; it must be a real bitch to detect when you haven’t got even that much. Probably pass it four or five times before you even stumbled over it. I suppose you can wait a few thousand years until the local humans get so disturbed by it they do something like build this convent here again. Give you lots of time to fume over the error of your ways while waiting.” His smile as he finished was positively beatific.

Lilith stood statute still.

“I don’t believe you,” she said finally. “And even if I did, this doesn’t change anything; I will still have the pleasure of carving you up.”

Sam's smile was a vicious as any Dean had ever flashed. “The memory trick wasn’t the only thing the angel gave me.”

He held up a pale wooden disk about the size of his fist, dark runes burned onto it in a lacework of dizzying intricacy. Dean had not been excited about its origin or function, but agreed it would a prudent addition to their plans. Sam snapped the disk in half, and in seconds, stood alone but for a pile of bodies in the ruined chapel of the old convent.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
                                                           ~Heart With No Companion, Leonard Cohen

“So... let me get this straight,” Bobby asked again, for what felt like the hundredth time since he had picked Sam up in Illchester the previous day. “This was part of a plan?”

They were heading back towards South Dakota, where Sam and Dean had agreed to meet up if Sam had to use the banishment charm. The angel had been vague about its provenience, but promised it would send anything demonic within a half-mile radius packing.

The angel Castiel had reacted to Sam’s request to have his memory erased with more bemusement than anything, but had agreed readily enough. The charm was a bonus offered almost as an afterthought, with the warning that it was unique in nature, remnant of an earlier age.

Where the charm sent the demons packing too had been beyond the angel’s ability to answer, but Sam had been assured that they usually turned back up sooner or later. He had been reluctant to leave Dean’s body on the convent floor with the others, but Dean had been firm in instructing Sam that he would be able to find it easier when he clawed his way back from wherever if it was near the place he had last occupied it. Besides, Sam didn’t need to be hanging around, corpse-sitting.

Sam left the Impala too. Dean would need it when he got back from… when he got back, and the idea of Dean taking public transportation made him wince -- for the sake of the other passengers. His brother would probably steal a car before he'd hop a bus, but leaving the Impala for its owner felt right. Sam had another ride, anyway.

It was done. Lucifer wasn’t a threat anymore; the demons would have to start all over locating his prison, and it would probably take them millennia. The Apocalypse was averted, life on Earth would continue onwards as it had been for centuries now. Any disaster would be of mankind’s making, and not the result of the rages of a cast-down Archangel.

All things considered, Sam felt pretty good. And the spell had been… surprisingly easy. He had felt the power flowing out of him, but then it just stopped. He was exhausted, but not shaking or hurting, so he was doing better than he usually was at the end of a cycle. That had been the biggest concern, short of the spell failing or just failure in general -- that Sam would be forced to use the ward after the casting of the spell left him on the edge of death. Then with Dean banished to who-knew-what ends of the Earth…

But it wasn’t like that. Sam figured he had a few days of feeling pretty well, and then still the better part of the week feeling a lot less well before he started getting into the dangerous stages.

Well, that and he had no idea where Dean was. But he couldn’t do anything about that but trust his brother would make it back to him. Would want to make it back to him.


~~~~~


Days turned into a week, and that week started edging towards two.

Finding himself at loose ends for the first time in years, Sam threw himself into whatever task came to hand. He organized Bobby’s library, weapons and cabinets until everything was practically alphabetized, then moved onto cleaning. When there wasn’t any dirt to be found and the finish on most of the furniture was entire shades lighter after having the grime of several decades scrubbed from them, he started sanding down and refinishing Bobby’s work tables. Sam had more enthusiasm than skill at the task, but they were in such bad shape, he was unlikely to make anything worse.

It was when he had finished even that and started asking Bobby things like, “Haven’t you always wanted a tree line over there?” and, “When was the last time you had a new roof on this place?” that Bobby stepped in and tried to distract him. But Sam adamantly refused to get involved in any of the research Bobby suggested, declaring himself on an indefinite holiday from anything involving hunting -- with the sole exception of his brother-the-demon. Whenever he showed up.

When two weeks had rolled around and Dean was still missing, Sam was out of energy to be a pain in Bobby’s ass. He spent a lot of time sleeping, and when awake, he went for long walks or hung out with Bobby, just enjoying his company. Bobby was worried, but there was nothing that could be done for Sam, so there was nothing to talk about on that angle. Instead, Sam asked Bobby stories about his dad from before Sam could remember; before he knew what his dad really did in their life on the road.

He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been angry with his dad for one reason or another, and was surprised to find that through the lense of Bobby’s stories, he actually liked him. Bobby was happy to talk, and the picture of John Winchester that emerged from his recollections wasn't that of the tyrannical authoritarian figure that had loomed like a shadow over Sam’s life, his every action seemingly designed to make sure Sam never got anything he wanted, frightfully competent and merciless. Through Bobby’s eyes, Sam got to see his dad as a desperate father, terrified for his children and grieving for his wife, who did the best he could to protect his sons from a danger he always knew was coming, but never from where.

Sam had forgiven his father years ago for his childhood, after suffering and failing his own trials had given him new perspective; John had been forced to make decisions under pressures that Sam would never face, but he was sorry he had never known the man Bobby remembered.

He thought that maybe Dean had.

Sam called Ellen and let her yell at him for awhile, before she finally ran out of breath, then he told her what had been going on, and let her yell at him some more. He left out some of the details, but she got the gist.

He didn’t call Missouri; he wasn’t ready to talk to her again yet. He sent her a letter, telling her how things had gone, that he’d figured out what she had been trying to tell him. But he didn’t want to talk to her yet, because he had also figured out the other half of what she had said; he could feel it growing daily -- his awareness of the World, his awareness of himself. His awareness of Dean -- but that was something else he was avoiding, so he shied away from examining it too closely. None of it would matter, anyway, if his brother didn’t come back.


~~~~~


Sixteen days and Sam was starting to lose it. He’d had a raging headache for the past two days that worsened by the minute and he felt like he was living on the edge of his skin. Bobby dropped a pan while cleaning up after dinner; the noise had rattled Sam so badly that every window in the kitchen had exploded. Bobby hadn’t said anything, just gave Sam a long look, then gave the snow clouds on the evening horizon a long look, then sighed and had gone to find trash bags and duct tape. Sam fled for his room.

Sometime after midnight, Sam was awakened by a familiar pattern pressed against his thoughts. He heard the soft sound of the window latch falling open. The muffled thud of booted feet hitting carpet. The rustle of clothes being removed.

A gentle hand stroked over his hair and strong arms pulled him into an embrace. “Told you I’d come back, Sam.”

Sam smiled and inhaled against Dean’s neck.

“Took you long enough,” he mumbled into the warm, familiar skin.

Dean snorted softly. “Yeah, I’ll tell you about my exciting trip sometime. Pick your head up for a second.”

Sam pulled back sleepily and waited in the quiet night as Dean opened a deep cut at the base of his throat. As his brother’s hands tugged him back in to drink, Sam wondered when this had grown to be something that didn’t faze him. Not a trace of unease, just relief. And a deep satisfaction, something disturbed in the back of his mind resetting neatly into place.


~~~~~


“So, what will you boys get up to now?” Bobby asked, the next morning. He hadn’t said anything when Dean accompanied Sam down the stairs. Sam imagined the sleek, dark presence of the Impala, parked some distance down the drive but visible from the house, had probably given the surprise away.

“I don’t know,” Sam mused. He had never allowed himself to consider a time after. The idea that he could possibly have a life was a new one for him, having given up all hope of such a thing before he even turned twenty-five. “Are we actually free? I mean, should we be looking over our shoulder for Lilith from now on?”

Dean shrugged. “I doubt it, or at least not for awhile. She’s a pretty practical monster. I’m sure she’d love to use us for dartboards and take our skin off with a carrot peeler,” Sam and Bobby winced, “but that’s going to be a secondary pleasure to finding Lucifer again. It must be griping her ass to get so close after so long -- and be busted right back to square one.”

“But what if she didn’t believe me about not knowing where the prison is?”

“Oh, she believed you, Sam. You weren’t in great shape to notice, but the expression on her face... she believed you. I’m not saying you should have your name done up in lights and get a Vegas act, because I have no doubt if it’s convenient, she will try to grab you, but something more quiet, like school or your consultant stuff, and even hunting again, as long as you don’t hunt demons -- those should be okay.”

“We,” Sam said quietly.

“What?”

“‘We’. You keep talking about what I can do, but I thought this was a ‘we’ thing.”

Dean looked a little uncertain. “It’s your life, Sam. I told you that before, that you could do whatever you wanted with your life after you helped me with the spell. I mean, I’ll have to check in on you every so often if you want to stay alive, but other than that you can do your own thing.”

“That eager to get away from me?”

“It’s not like that, Sam. I just thought... you know, you might like to have your own life again.”

“I never had my own life, Dean." Sam shrugged. "Even now, there isn’t anything I’m good for that would be normal. I’m never going to be really free of this stuff. And... I don’t want you to go.”

Dean blinked at him, looking surprised. “Okay, Sam. I, ah, won’t then.” Dean grinned. “It’s not like I've got anything pressing to do anyways.”

Sam nodded, satisfied.

Bobby rolled his eyes. “You two girls need some alone time, or do you think you can kiss and make up while you clear the table? I’ve got actual work to do, unlike some people.”

Dean blew him a raspberry as Bobby left the room, shaking his head.

“You really don’t have any plans?” Sam asked, once Bobby was gone.

Dean kicked his feet up on one of the kitchen chairs. “Yes and no. I got what I wanted out of the deal, now it’s my turn to pay the piper. But these guys think in terms of epochs; if I want to stretch out and just mull it over for a few decades, I doubt anything is going to have a problem with that.” He shrugged. “So if there is something you wanted to do in the meantime…”

“I want to help,” Sam said firmly.

“You sure about that?”

“It’s partially my debt too. And like you said… it’s not like we have anything else to do.”

“What about school and stuff?”

Sam snorted. “School was a possibility, maybe, about ten years ago, when I thought I could do it, know everything I know and just pretend I was normal for the rest of the world. But I can’t anymore, Dean. I don’t even want to. There’s been enough lies. Even if my life isn’t everything I could want it to be -- at least I’m living in the real world.”

“The real world isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, Sam.”

“Thanks, Dean -- but actually, I got that memo. Do you even have a clue what you are going to do about the Entropic Angels being trapped in Hell?”

“’We’, Sam. I distinctly heard you say this was a ‘we’ thing now.”

“So that’s an ‘absolutely not’, then?”

“I’ve been a little busy with other things to dwell on the matter, you know?” Dean sounded offended.

“This is me being shocked.” Sam threw a dishrag at his brother. “Get over here and wash these.”

Dean eyed the rag dubiously. “What are you going to do?”

“Start dragging out the books. And after this is over, you are buying me a freaking house so I can start putting my own library back together.”

“You are never going to let that go, are you?”

“Which part, Dean? Where you cremated my priceless, probably irreplaceable library, or where you used the curse to manipulate me into giving you control over all my bank accounts?”

“It’s not like I changed anything; you've still got all the access you had before.”

“You’re missing the point.”

“Whatever, dude; you don’t even have one. Do you remember how I was saving your life at the time?”

“I remember waking up handcuffed in a motel room. Is that the time you’re talking about, Dean?”

“Hey, I just didn’t want you running into Lilith’s arms before I got a chance to explain myself.”

Sam snorted. “Yeah, that went really well.”

“How was that my fault?! If you weren’t such a delicate flower, we would have hashed things out right there and been done months ago!”

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.” Dean twisted the wet rag up like he had intentions to use it on his brother, but Sam was careful to keep the table between them as he left the kitchen for the study.

Sam grinned where Dean couldn’t see; though after the previous night, he had no doubt Dean could feel it, and went to start putting together a list of research materials he wanted to start with.

“Hey!” Dean called, remembering something that had nagged at him. “You want to tell me what the hell was up with all those freaking magazines you were obsessing over? Tell me that was related to the door, and not just some new OCD thing you've picked up.”

Sam wandered back and leaned in the doorway, already thumbing through a thick volume. “I’ve never been out of the country, and I needed to see the world.”

“What?”

“To move the prison," Sam explained. "I couldn’t move it to a place I couldn’t visualize, and while tracking every place I’ve ever been would be difficult, it’s not as hard as searching the entire planet. I spent a lot of time on the Internet too, looking at places.”

Dean remembered the probably thousands of magazines that had passed through Sam’s hands in the previous months -- and the endless hours he had hunched over the laptop, glaring if his brother even came close. In light of his purpose, though, Dean felt pretty forgiving about the whole thing.

“So you really have no idea?”

“None," Sam assured him. "I don’t remember anything I looked at, even the covers. The angel was thorough.”

A vivid recollection of the week Sam had spent curled up shotgun, thumbing through magazines on space and the cosmos flashed through Dean’s mind. He didn’t know if it was actually possible to have moved the doorway there, but the idea made him feel especially warm and happy.

“I’m sure wherever it is, they'll have a suitable length of time to consider the errors of their ways and be very, very sorry,” Dean said with great satisfaction.

Sam gave him a skeptical look. “Do demons ever really feel sorry for anything they do?”

Dean shrugged. “A suitable length of time to storm around in frustrated rage and take it out on each other then. It’s not really enough punishment, but it’s probably the best we can do.”

“So that’s a ‘no’?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, to be sorry like you mean it there has to be some capacity for remorse. They don’t have that. They can be sorry they screwed up, but not sorry for hurting someone else.”

“What makes you different?”

“Who says I’m different?”

Sam’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve apologized to me a few times during this insane adventure. And I’m not sure about earlier, but at least the last few times, you were honest. I could feel it.”

“I’m your brother, Sam -- don’t you know I’m awesome?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Well, it really wasn’t much of a question.”

Sam was quiet for a minute, then, “I’m not going to drop this, Dean.”

“Then we’ll have something fun to discuss when we get back on the road, won’t we?”

Sam growled and stalked back into the other room.

Alone in the kitchen, Dean closed his eyes and let the edges of his spirit slide for the briefest of moments through the thorny angelic grim-wards within his boundaries of self, and into the rushing darkness of pure entropy at his core. Just that glancing touch flooded him with strength and fervent longing, before the wards flared into life and he cringed completely back into his flesh. It felt tight and uncomfortable, and for a moment, he was filled with a wild desire to shatter the awkward container and flee from the prickly and disorienting sensations that flooded his senses. He opened his eyes and stared into the sink, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, but for a moment, even the basic idea of water was a confusing mystery he wanted to smash.

“Dean,” Sam called from the other room, “Bobby wants to know if you’re going to change the oil in the Impala today or tomorrow? He can pick some more up in town, but he doesn’t have much on hand, and if you aren’t going to use it today, he’s going to go ahead and do the truck. What should I tell him?”

Dean leaned heavily on the counter and focused on the rhythmic pattern of breathing; he opened his mind to the link with his brother and let Sam’s humanity brush against him, reminding him of Dean Winchester, and why he was doing this at all.

Footsteps coming towards him through the living room snapped him completely back to attention.

“Dean?”

“Tell him I can do it tomorrow.”

Sam must have picked up on something in his voice, because he continued into the kitchen until he stood almost at Dean’s back.

“Everything okay?”

Dean kept his back to the doorway and opened expressionless eyes of solid grey.

“Yeah, Sam; everything’s fine.”

 

 

END

Notes and credits: http://glasslogic.livejournal.com/10886.html 

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