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Fortress

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

 

Prologue

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

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

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

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

Revenge.


~~~~~


Months Later...

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

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

“What are you looking at?”

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

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

“Neither do I,” Sam admitted, frowning.

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

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

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

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

“You have a choice.”

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

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

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

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

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

“For now.”

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

 

Chapter One

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

Seven Years Earlier…

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

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

His mind had refused to register it as Dean.

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


“Sam?”

“Bobby.”

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

“I’m talking to you now.”

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

“What do you think, Bobby?”

“Sam…”

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

“Miss me?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

”What?”

She raised an eyebrow at him.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Two

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

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

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

“She isn’t coming.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you. I am Castiel, an Ang-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What battlefield?” Sam asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dean,” whispered Sam.

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

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

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

“But you couldn’t save him.”

“No, Sam. I am sorry.”

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

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

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

“They were not your decisions.”

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

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

“Are you going to help me stop Lilith?”

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

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

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

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

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

Sam was still shaking his head in denial.

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

“You’re wrong,” Sam said flatly.

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

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

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

Sam was utterly silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And where is your brother now, Sam?”

Sam just stared.


~~~~~


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

He still wasn’t sure what to believe.

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

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

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

Dean.

 

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

Sam put his head in his hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I won't.”

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

 

Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

“Sam?”

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

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

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

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

“You finally notice she was from Hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


“Sam.”

“No, Bobby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam flinched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At worst, I free Lucifer!”

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

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

“I took a nap for awhile.”

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

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

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

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

“Told you,” Bobby grunted.

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

“Sam--”

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

“There has to be some other answer.”

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

“Am I gonna like this plan of yours?”

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

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

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

 

Chapter Five 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam nodded in understanding.

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

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

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

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

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

“His hunting stuff?”

“Some of it,” Sam hedged.

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

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

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

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

“What are you thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You got me there,” Bobby admitted.

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Six

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

Seven Years Later…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Problems?”

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

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

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

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

"What part will?" she asked warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam would have thought of those.”

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

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

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

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

Important things like Sam.

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

 

Chapter Seven 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slip into his bed.

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

“Ruby?” he called softly.

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

“Sorry, Sam.”

Dean.


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

His father’s journal.

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

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

The water shut off in the bathroom.

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

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

Sam was shocked into silence.

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

“Who are you?” Sam demanded harshly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You might be surprised.”

“Really, I don’t--”

“Look,” the demon ordered.

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

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

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

“Is it… Does it still work?”

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

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

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

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

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

The demon seemed to gather itself and calm down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than he hated the demon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

“No!” Sam shouted.

“Shut the fuck up, Sam.”

“No, you son of a bitch. Let him go!”

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

Someone banged on the wall next door.

Sam’s next shout strangled in his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

“Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

“This is for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

Bobby snorted.

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

Why hadn’t it killed Jace?

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Eleven 

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

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

Not any more than Dean had done when alive.

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

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

Maybe just go inside where it was air conditioned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


“You need to eat.”

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fuck you," Sam muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For this cycle.

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

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

Knowing it would never have been allowed.

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

“I told you, bro; we have to talk.”

 

Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

Maybe.

Hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

“Not today, Sam,” Dean said firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about Jace?” Sam asked coolly.

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

“You didn’t have to kill him!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Dean asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walked him to the hospital?”

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

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

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

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

“You let me think you had!”

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

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

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

“I’m not hungry.”

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

Dean groaned. “Not this again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Soon enough for what?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe they were bored?”

“What was the disaster, Dean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You underestimated Lilith’s determination.”

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

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

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

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

“How much before it went off?”

“Um... a few hours. Give or take.”

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

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

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

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

Sam glared.

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

“I want to know what’s going on.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean shrugged.

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

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

“Hell has angels? You mean fallen ones?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell does that mean?!” 

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

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

“And my plan is retarded. You in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam looked at him then, startled.

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

Sam still looked uncertain.

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

“Let me think about it.”

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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


~~~~~


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

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

“Good stuff?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No innocents then.”

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

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

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

“You know what I’m asking, Dean.”

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

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

“Or who I deem absolutely has to die.”

“Only if I’d agree.”

Dean crossed his arms over his chest and glowered.

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

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

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

And Dean had no doubt that he meant it.

“Fine.”

Sam blinked. “That’s it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam looked suddenly thoughtful.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would you think I felt bad?”

“Did you?” Dean raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam nodded cautiously.

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

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

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

“But my visions--”

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

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

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

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

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

“The last Seal.”

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

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

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

“Dean,” Sam said tightly.

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

“The sex,” Sam said flatly.

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

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

“I always knew you were a smart boy.”

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

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

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

“That another one of your big college words?”

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

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

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

“I really can’t, Sam.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean muttered something.

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

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

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

Dean shrugged. Sam exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean perked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~~~~~


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

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

“I’m serious, Dean.”

“Yeah, me too. Not a chance.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam swallowed hard and nodded.

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

Sam glared and snatched the phone

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

“I’m thinking.”

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

Sam scowled at him.

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

“I can think better if you shut up.”

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

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

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

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

He dialed the number and took a deep breath.


~~~~~


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

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

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

Dean snorted. “Generous of him.”

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

“You have resources too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why the sudden slow-down?”

“They weren’t getting any resistance before.”

“What?”

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

“Why?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

“Looks like.”

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

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

“You would rather have been in Hell?”

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

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

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

 

Chapter Fourteen 

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

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

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

They were both grateful when they finally arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam.”

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

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

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

“Yep, he was pretty clear.”

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

Bobby frowned but stepped aside. “After you.”

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

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

“Drinks?” their host asked gruffly.

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

Dean,” Sam hissed.

“You losing air there, Sammy? You don’t need to worry about me and Bobby; we’re just getting things straight.”

Bobby slammed a bottle on the table in front of Dean, and slid another one over to Sam before taking his own chair.

“You maybe want to give me some more details on exactly what the hell it is you think you’re doing?”

Dean took a long pull of his beer. “Nope. But I’m good with whatever Sam wants to tell you.”

Sam gave the demon an annoyed look, then shifted his attention back to Bobby. “I told you about the deal he and I have--”

“Yeah, you did. And I don’t know why I even bother trying to tell you anything, Sam. It’s like you never, ever freaking learn. Hasn’t your family had enough dealings with demons to not be striking any more bargains with them?!”

“Hey, speaking as both a demon and part of the family, I resent that!”

“You can claim to be whatever you want, but Dean Winchester died seven years ago. For Sam here’s sake, I’m willing to tolerate you, briefly, but I think this entire little pow-wow is going to go a lot better if you stay where I can see you, and you don’t talk. Understand?”

Dean stood and motioned towards the kitchen window. “Outside there close enough for you?”

“Depends on what you’re doing.”

“Tuning up my car; she’s starting to develop a rattle, and I may as well work out that kink while you guys work out yours,” he shrugged.

Sam choked on his beer. Dean raised an eyebrow in his direction.

“We clear on the ground rules here, Sam?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine, then; you know where I’ll be.”

The silence blanketed the kitchen until the demon was half buried under the Impala’s hood, stripped down to his t-shirt and jeans, cloth riding up to make the dark lines of the spell visible even from the distance through the glass.

“So,” Bobby began a little awkwardly, “when you said he took Ruby’s spell...”

Sam understood the question. “I meant all of it.”

Bobby nodded and seemed to consider that for a moment. “You doing okay?”

“I don’t really have a choice about ‘okay’ or ‘not okay’. Physically, he’s going to drag me along regardless. If I help him, hopefully it will be over sooner.”

“And the… other part. How are you handling that?” Bobby asked with even more awkwardness.

“I’m surviving, Bobby.”

Bobby nodded and moved on -- to Sam’s intense relief.

“If his plan works -- then what? Will it be finished?”

Sam took another sip and didn’t answer.

“Sam?”

“Finished?” Sam finally echoed. “The Apocalypse will be. Without any chance to free Lucifer, the demons don’t have any other option but to start from scratch.”

“Will the curse be over? That thing out there wearing your brother’s skin going to slither on back to its hole and let you go?”

“He says there isn’t any way to undo it.”

“You believe that?”

“I don’t know. I never found a way, or anyone who knew a way, back when Ruby was holding the leash. He’s certainly been a lot more forthcoming about it than Ruby ever was, and as far as I can tell, he hasn’t lied about anything.”

“You didn’t think Ruby had lied about anything either.”

Sam shifted, uncomfortable with the conversation. “Bottom line is, Bobby, I don’t really have a lot of options here.”

“Is he the one that beat Jace up?”

“Jace jumped him in an alley. He’s lucky Dean didn’t kill him.”

“Probably an oversight.”

Sam just looked at him. “You ever know a demon to make a mistake like that?”

Bobby narrowed his eyes, leaning forward in his chair to pin Sam with his gaze. “This isn’t your brother, Sam. You get that, right? Dean’s dead.”

“Demons start out as people, Bobby.”

“And after thousands of years of suffering, become demons for a reason, Sam! And I ain’t never heard of one claiming to be anyone so recently dead.”

“It is Dean, Bobby.”

“Sam...”

“It is. I know that much, Bobby. I know it.” He took a deep breath. “And it doesn’t change anything, either way. He and I have an agreement; he could be the ghost of Hitler and as long as that deal is in play, I would at least listen. The plan sounds… good. Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Bobby sighed and gave up. “Tell me about this big plan then.”


~~~~~


Dean wandered back into the house a few hours later, shirt and skin smeared with grease and a general air of satisfaction about him.

He found Sam at a battered table in what probably started life as a living room, flipping slowly through a tome that Dean could tell even from a distance had been bound with human skin.

“Wow. Bobby has an even weirder collection than I thought.”

Sam jumped in his seat and elbowed a stack of books, scattering them onto the floor at Dean’s voice. He scowled as he bent to pick them up. “Would it be too much trouble to make some noise when you enter a room?”

“Probably.” Dean bent to grab the last two and toss them back on the desk. “Find anything?”

“Not yet.”

“Bobby out back blessing the water tank?”

“He’s downstairs looking for a couple of books for me.”

“So he’s cool then.”

“He’s handling this as well as could be expected.”

Dean quirked a half-smile at the curtness of Sam’s reply. “You want me to go away and leave you alone?”

“For a few days, yes.”

“You don’t have that many days, Sam. And you have a lot fewer if you want to try this whole ‘staying on top of it’ idea I suggested.”

Sam looked around warily, then lowered his voice. “I don’t want to do that at Bobby’s house.”

“I thought he helped you out with the whole Ruby mess? He doesn’t know how it works?”

“Of course he knows how it works! That’s not the point.”

“He let you shack up with the skank here. It’s a curse.” Dean shrugged. “I don’t know why this is any more of an issue now.”

“Do you really not get why this is different, Dean?!”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Fine, we can bail out of here and go get a motel room. Then the precious sanctity of Bobby’s creepy, run-down shack of a house is preserved, and everyone is happy.”

Sam squirmed.

“Or apparently not. What’s wrong with that plan, Sam?’

“Why are we going to tell him we got a motel room, Dean? We always stay here when we’re in town.”

“Because he has an unnatural prejudice against demons; because we heard he has asbestos in his attic; because we want to make wild love in his guest bedroom but we worry about his delicate sensibilities-- pick one! You’re the one who says ‘oh no, not in Bobby’s house’; you come up with something to tell him.”

“He knows how the curse works; he’s going to know,” Sam muttered.

Dean rolled his eyes again. “He’s going to ‘know'? You really are a girl, aren’t you?”

Sam glared.

“Whatever, Sam. Just,” he motioned towards the stacks of books and shelves in general, “do what you need to do, and then we can hit the road again. But if you push this down to the line, I’m not going to give you a say -- understand?”

“I understand.” Sam slumped. “But if the answer isn’t here, where are we even going to go next, Dean? The ritual looks pretty basic, but without knowing what goes into it, or the exact casting, we might as well try this with sugar, pine bark and a bucket of motor oil! The results will be just as useful.”

Dean shrugged. “There’s always another library somewhere. As long as you aren’t in Lilith’s hands, we have a chance.”

Sam nodded, then held a book out towards the demon. “It will go faster if you help; don’t even try to tell me you don’t know what we’re looking for.”

Dean took the book and settled onto the floor against a bookcase. “As long as all I have to do is recognize the language.”

Dean looked up a few minutes later from leafing through the book when he realized he hadn’t heard anything from Sam in awhile. His brother was staring off into space, a look on his face that Dean didn’t like. “Sam?”

“Why would the angels want the Apocalypse, Dean? Aren’t they supposed to be... I don’t know, the good guys? To protect people from demons and stuff?”

“Heaven and Hell are both more complicated, and more simple, than you think, Sam.”

“It can’t be that complicated, Dean. Hell is evil and fucked up, and Heaven is supposed to be... you know, the opposite.”

Dean snorted and looked back down at the tome on his lap. “I won’t argue the fucked up part, but the rest... You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

Sam turned in his chair and opened his mouth to ask something, but right that moment, Bobby stomped into the room.

“I’ve got the Codex. I don’t have the Phineas Prophecy, but I think I can trade Linda a spare copy of one of the Apocrypha for it. You want to add anything else to the shopping list before I start wheeling and dealing?”

“Uhhh, yeah... hang on,” Sam said distractedly, rummaging on the desk for a piece of paper and something to write with.

“I’ve got paper in the kitchen. I’m sure ‘Dean’ can hold the fort down in here while we put in some requests.”

The demon flipped Bobby the bird without looking up.


~~~~~


For days, they tore through Bobby’s library, familiar ground for Sam after the months he had lived there seven years earlier, trying desperately to find a way to save Dean, or at least free himself from Ruby and Lilith’s machinations.

Even with the over-nighted or hand-delivered volumes coming in, nothing led to any clues or hints as to how to decipher the cryptic language of the spell that Dean insisted was legitimate; though he was cagey about providing details about its origin.

One thing to come out of their stay was that Bobby’s tolerance for Dean was grudgingly increasing. He was still in no way happy about having the demon around, or the demon’s tie to Sam, but he had stopped muttering about it and unbent enough for them to even take a trip or two to town together. It wasn’t even a shadow of the almost paternal relationship they had shared while Dean was alive, but it was relaxed enough that Sam was no longer worried he might turn a corner one day to find Bobby dead in a pile of holy water and rock salt and the demon licking blood off his hands with an ‘I warned you’ kind of expression on its face.

Sam spent his nights at Bobby’s in the bed he had shared with his brother through all their childhood visits. As adults, they had flipped a coin for the couch, but Sam had been surprised the demon was willing to give him the space alone now. He wasn’t sure what the demon did for all the hours that Sam slept. Sometimes, when he stirred in the middle of the night, it would be sitting on the floor watching him, or leafing through a book in the dim shadows of the bedroom. Sometimes, it would be gone entirely. Sam had more trouble falling back to sleep those times, though he didn’t speculate on why.

One cool fall morning a little more than a week after they showed up, Sam and Dean loaded up the Impala and said their goodbyes. Well, Sam said goodbye, Dean just leaned against his car and flipped Bobby a sarcastic salute.

Sam was starting to feel the bite of the curse in a way that Dean wasn’t willing to ignore much longer, and they weren’t getting anywhere. It was clear they had exhausted the possibilities of what was immediately available, and Sam had some desire to maybe try a private collection in a church on the East Coast. Dean was also muttering things about Seals again, and expressing an interest in finding out how much more time they had before Sam became the sole focus of Lilith’s attentions. Sam wasn’t sure what he needed to do that, but the answers weren’t at Bobby’s, so it was time to move on.

 

Chapter Fifteen

The music whispers you in urgency
Hold fast to that languageless connection
A thread of known that was unknown and unseen seen
Dangling from inside the fifth direction
                                                  ~Everything In It’s Own Time, Indigo Girls

The Blue Lagoon Motel was a dive by any standard, but it had two things going for it: it was the cheapest place for a hundred miles, and it was across the street from an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

Sam had personally godaddy web statisticsbeen in the mood for more of a salad affair, but Dean’s face had lit up at the neon sign and it was just so… Dean that Sam’s objections had frozen in his throat.

It really hadn’t been half bad, but by the time they finally made it to their room, Sam was regretting the decision. Stress plus fried food and lack of sleep were not combining to add anything positive to his life.

Having won dibs by virtue of locking himself in the bathroom first, Dean seemed like he was planning on living in the shower. He finally emerged to slouch back in a chair with the laptop, and once Sam had gotten his own chance to clean up, he had no desire but sleep.

He curled into the pillows, exhausted…

…and found himself standing on the sidewalk in a busy downtown area with a driving headache. It was bright, with sunshine glinting off of windows and bleached concrete, stabbing into his eyes. People bustled by on both sides of the street in shorts and sandals, indecipherable conversation and laughter, the rush of traffic. It was dizzying, and his jeans and flannel were too warm for the weather. He made his way through the people to a grassy park with ornate, old-fashioned park benches and sank onto one. The thick overhead canopy blocked out some of the painful brightness. Sam's last memory was of lying in bed, but the world around him didn’t feel like a dream, or a vision.

He patted his pockets for his wallet or his cell phone, but they were empty.

And something was very off. Everything was too bright, too sharp, even with the pain in his head -- almost like an artist’s rendition of what the world should be.

A loud slurping beside him made him jump.

“Lose something?” asked the man beside him on the bench, who hadn’t been there a moment before. Long, red hair, green eyes, ragged cut-offs, sandals. Coloring vivid and unnatural, like something from a painting or a cartoon. No one Sam recognized. He could smell the bubblegum flavor of the frozen drink sweating in the guy’s grip. His stomach flipped and he rested his head in his hands, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

“Maybe,” Sam said, rubbing his temples. His head was pounding; he just couldn’t think through the waves.

“I find it useful to think back to the last place I had it when I lose something.”

“Thanks,” Sam muttered.

“Like the Blue Lagoon Motel. Maybe you left it there?” the man commented offhandedly.

Sam sucked in a sharp breath at the mention of the motel he remembered falling asleep in.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“A friend.” The man was still watching the crowd.

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

“I didn’t say I was your friend.” Another long slurp. “Dean knows me.”

Sam went cold. The only things Dean was likely to be acquainted with that could do this would be things he met in Hell.

“I’ll tell him you said hi.” Sam stood up. “How do I get out of here?”

The man motioned towards the street in front of them. “There's the road.”

Sam grit his teeth and started walking.

“It is likely to take you quite a while that way, though,” the man called after him thoughtfully. “Would it really be so terrible to be social for a few minutes? I can assure you, your time here would be considerably more... productive.”

Sam stopped walking and turned back.

“Who the hell are you?” People around them looked wary and made an effort to avoid him.

“Come back and sit down. I have no intention of shouting at you, and you’re disturbing the crowd.”

Sam walked back slowly. “This is real?”

The man waited until he had gingerly sat back down. “Real is a variable condition. It means different things in different places.”

“I’m ready to wake up now,” Sam ground out.

The man arched a brow. “Really? For what? Another futile day of wandering aimlessly around the country, trying to decipher a spell that won’t cooperate?”

Sam blinked as the connection made itself -- Dean and his shifty explanations, not wanting to tell Sam about the spell’s origins, his certainty it would work…

“You gave Dean the spell. You’re--” He left the next thought unspoken, unwilling to voice it aloud.

“An angel of Hell? True. And I did help Dean out when he needed a favor, so yes, the spell. He and I have a deal.”

“The spell that no one can read? That’s payment for a debt?”

The man, the angel, watched Sam thoughtfully. “It’s payment for a future debt. This whole mess with Lucifer is very... inconvenient. Lucifer is very inconvenient, and it's time something was done about it. But I prefer to keep my fingerprints off of this entire mess until I’m convinced you two can actually pull it off.”

“Why would you help us keep Lucifer locked up? Isn’t he your leader?”

It rolled its eyes.

“Leader is a concept completely irrelevant to my existence. And certainly if I had one, he isn’t it. I don’t have any great rage to burn out on humanity or my family vibrating on a different plane, nor any desire to see the World wrecked by Lucifer’s frustrated wrath. He can be such a child. We have our own duties and obligations.” It paused to slurp more of its drink. “My ability to see into the World is very limited. Dean is doing me a favor; in return, I agreed to assist him in the matter of his revenge.” It looked at Sam directly. “Time is running short, Samuel. Ask.”

“How do I decipher the spell?”

“The ritual itself should be simple, even for a practitioner of your knowledge and limited skill; it is the ingredients that are problematic. When you have obtained the first one, I will let you in on the next. And so on, until you have everything, then the directions will be deciphered when you are ready for the casting.” It gave Sam a sharp slash of smile. “It’s nice you have this convenient channel already in place; it will let me give you some help along the way, finding what you need. Sorry it took me so long to find the right way to dial in, but now that I’ve found you, I’m sure we won’t have such trouble in the future.” It looked at its bare wrist as though checking a watch. “Time’s all up.”

Sam blinked into the dark room. Hazy shadows from the lights outside the curtain and the red numbers of a cheap alarm clock greeted his sight.

“Sam, what is it?” Dean asked muzzily from beside him on the bed, rousing from wherever he had sent his consciousness, whatever demons did instead of sleep. “I smell blood,” he said more clearly, sitting up beside Sam and reaching for the light.

“No, don’t,” Sam gasped, grabbing his wrist. “No light.” He cringed in pain, clutched at his head. Dean grabbed his chin and forced his face up. Blood smeared Sam’s face where it dripped from his nose, his expression one of agony.

“Fuck,” Dean cursed, and hauled Sam out of bed towards the bathroom.


~~~~~


“So what happened, Sam?”

Sam was lying on the bed again, the bloody pillow tossed onto the floor, his eyes closed, and a washcloth full of ice covering his forehead and eyes. He didn’t really think it was helping matters, but at least it gave him a counterpoint to the throbbing so he had something else to focus on.

“I think I met a friend of yours.”

“All my friends are in this room,” Dean said thinly.

Sam snorted, and immediately regretted it. “This one is from Hell. Said it gave you the spell, and now that it was tuned in to my channel, it could help us find the ingredients.”

Dean brightened. “It told you how to read the list?”

“No. It told me we would never have been able to read it. It doesn’t trust us, so we have to prove ourselves by getting the stupid things. It will unlock one more for each one we get, and maybe give us some direction.”

“Fuck,” Dean growled.

Sam slid the icepack up so he could watch the demon where it paced unhappily in front of the window.

“Maybe you should have hammered out a few more details before you struck whatever deal you did with it.” Sam’s voice had an uncertain note in it.

“What are you getting at?” Dean asked flatly.

“I just want to know what the hell kind of deal you struck with a fallen angel that it’s helping you keep Lucifer locked up over!” Sam cringed as the volume of his own voice set off another wave of pain.

“Like I told you at Bobby’s, Sam, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Dean said derisively.

“Why don’t you enlighten me, then? You keep dropping all these hints about Hell, but you won’t actually tell me anything. You say I have no idea what I’m talking about, but what I know about Hell, Dean, is that it sucks, and all the very worst things that have happened in my life have all started there.”

“Not in Hell, Sam, they started in the Rendering.”

“I don’t know what the fuck that means, Dean.” Sam sounded defeated. “You want me to trust you, and help you, and be a hundred percent on board with this plan of yours, but I always feel like I don’t even have half of the story. You went to Hell for me, died for me, and now you’re a demon, and… I don’t even know how to feel about it. You act like it’s no big deal!”

Silence from the shadows for a few minutes.

“It said it’s going to be contacting you more?”

“Dean--”

“Just answer the question, Sam.”

“It didn’t say that, it implied that.”

“We should find out if blood will heal this too, then, I suppose.”

“Wait a sec--”

“It was going to be tonight or tomorrow anyways, Sam. Can we not fight about this again, please?”

“Fine,” Sam muttered, after long pause. “But I still want you to talk to me.”

“You want to know the truth about Hell, Sam?”

“Yes.”

Dean nodded. “Okay then; you don’t give me any crap about tonight, and if you still want to know in the morning, I’ll tell you all about it.”

Sam closed his eyes as he heard Dean rummage through one of the bags, then sat up and dropped the ice pack on the dresser when the bed sank under his brother’s weight and Dean began almost clinically helping him get undressed.

“Promise?” Sam asked quietly.

Warm lips pressed against his forehead in a soft kiss, then firm hands drew his head down towards the hollow of the demon’s throat, encouraging him to nurse at a deep cut seeping darkness in the dim room.

“I promise. Now drink and let’s get on with the evening.” Sam heard the amusement in his brother’s voice, but any desire he might have had to snap at him was swallowed by the rush of blood.


~~~~~


Sam was drowsy but still awake when Dean slid out of the bed almost an hour later to grab the laptop. He climbed back into bed with it, sheet pulled to his waist and computer settled firmly on his lap. The tattoo on Dean’s hip made Sam’s skin tingle where it brushed against him; Sam’s flesh reacted like that whenever he touched it, regardless of what body it was on. The effect wasn’t necessarily unpleasant so much as distracting, and Sam squirmed back to put some space between them. But it wasn’t the tattoo, or his brother’s apparent intention to do research all night barely two feet from where Sam was supposed to be sleeping, that focused Sam’s attention.

“What is that?”

“What’s what?” Dean asked, distracted by something on the screen.

“That,” Sam tugged at the sheet slightly, “on the inside of your leg.”

“You been admiring my fine physique, Sammy?”

Sam was mellow enough to let that pass without comment. “It looked like a tattoo; you didn’t have one before.”

“You didn’t actually live in my back pocket for our entire lives, Sam. It only felt like it, you know. And then there was the years you were sulking at Stanford; how the hell would you know what I did or didn’t have on the inside of my thigh?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I don’t know, Dean. Maybe it was the three years after Stanford we spent sharing motel rooms and sewing each other up. Or possibly when I had to wash your body after you were butchered by Hellhounds. I suppose I might have noticed then, you know?”

The demon eyed him thoughtfully for a moment, then shrugged and turned his attention back to the computer. “It’s a lock.”

“A what?”

“A lock, for demons. You do remember Meg, don’t you? That little incident where she put you on like a cheap suit and went on a killing spree? Bobby, hot pokers -- ringing any bells?”

Sam grimaced at the memory and subconsciously rubbed at the smooth patch on his arm where quick thinking by Bobby had burned through the demon sigil that prevented Meg from being exorcised.

“Why do you need a lock? I can’t believe anyone is going to fight you for that body.”

“Locks aren’t just for contested possession, they help resist exorcism from any flesh. And what are you talking about?” Dean sounded offended. “This body is prime real estate! You’re right, though; I hadn’t really thought about doing it until your charming buddy tried to exorcise me in an alley.”

“Jace?”

“The idiot,” Dean snorted. “But it’s possible the next one will be more competent, and I’m attached to this skin; it would irritate the hell out of me to have to find a new one.”

Sam’s eyelids felt too heavy to hold open, and his attention was drifting, but he managed to get out one more question. “Why don’t more demons use them if all you have to do is ink it on?”

“Why don’t more hunters wear anti-possession wards? It’s a matter of knowing, and knowing is a matter of finding out. Most demons are vicious, nasty things, but they’re pretty much frozen where they were when they transformed. They pick up a few tricks they have to have, and never bother looking any further. What ambition they have is limited to causing pain and destruction, and they can do that with brute strength and their natural talents. It’s a rare and dangerous one that pushes for more.”

“Mmmmmmm…”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can’t believe you fought it this long. See you in the morning, Sam.”


~~~~~


The next morning, Sam was slouched in the faded red vinyl booth of a roadside diner when he brought it back up again. “All right, Dean.”

“All right, what?” Dean was distracted from his perusal of the greasy menu. As if they didn’t have exactly the same things every other roadside diner they had ever visited had.

“All right, it’s time to tell me, you know...” Sam lowered his voice. “What you promised you would tell me.” Dean snorted at that. Sam frowned at him. “What?”

“You can’t even say it?”

“I can say it fine. I just don’t want to draw attention to us.”

Dean looked around and made a gesture inviting Sam to take in the entirety of the nearly empty diner.

“If you want to avoid this conversation so much,” Sam accused, “why do you keep getting involved whenever it comes up? You could just not speak up, and I wouldn’t even know there was a conversation to be had.”

“You keep going on about Hell like you have some idea what you’re talking about, and I have trouble biting my tongue.”

“Feel free to clear my misconceptions up for me.” Sam’s voice held an edge of annoyance.

“You need to stop thinking about it in terms like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. That isn’t what it’s about.”

“That’s great, Dean. But you know, I really wasn’t thinking about it in terms of ‘good’ at all.”

Dean ignored that. “Hell gets a bum rap because of all the shit Lucifer and his fucked up followers have pulled. That’s only the Rendering, the very thin crust that bumps right up against the material plane. Like... I dunno, soap bubbles on top of water.”

“So... you’re trying to say Hell is what, a paradise?” Sam asked incredulously.

Dean shrugged. “As much as the place you call Heaven is. There isn’t much to choose from between them once you cut past the crap.”

“I hate to have to point this out to you, Dean, but the demons are running around creating all sorts of problems and generally making life suck for a lot of people right now. I don’t recall any stories about whatever you would call their counterparts in Heaven doing that.”

“That’s because the Angels of Creation are doing their jobs, mostly, and the souls going to Heaven aren’t having to battle their way through thousands of years of corrupt monsters to move on. In Hell, the inmates are running the asylum. They strain all the souls passing through so they get all tied up in fear and pain and trapped, which just feeds back into the cycle. The Rendering is everything Hell is claimed to be, and the souls there are all convinced that it only gets worse the deeper you go, so they don’t. They just sit there and rot until they are as twisted and fucked up as the ones that trapped them, and then they really are screwed. If they would suck it up and let go, their pain would be over.”

“Over how?”

“Some of them would just fade into... let’s not call it ‘Hell’, let’s call it ‘Entropy.’ That’s what Heaven and Hell really are, polar opposite planes of Creation and Entropy. I mean, it’s like... you turn the lights on, or you turn the lights off, both states have their uses and their problems, but you wouldn’t really say one is better, would you?” Dean took in Sam’s baffled expression and waved him silent when it looked like he was about to speak. “Anyway, the souls with strong enough Entropic traits who want to hang onto themselves can transform themselves into Entropic Demons if they have the will to keep it together as they go deeper. But that’s almost unheard of, not just because the Rendering is the happening place, but because, well... almost no one manages it.”

“So... Entropic Demons are more powerful? Like Azazel, or Lilith?” Sam asked slowly, still trying to work his mind around this new frame of thought so he could ask the important questions.

Dean snorted again. “Hardly. Lilith, Azazel... they are all products of the Rendering, and nasty creatures even for that. It would be really hard not to notice an Entropic Demon, Sam. Reality would warp around it and start causing massive rifts in the World. This Plane is the place where Creation and Entropy mix it up, they both give to it, so the things here represent both polarities. Creatures of either extremity can’t tolerate it. It would take a massive amount of power and spellwork to allow an Entropic Demon to walk here, and really -- why would they want to? They have no interest in anything here; this Plane is corrosive to them.”

Sam just kind of blinked at him.

“What about the Apocalypse?” he finally asked.

“What about it? That has nothing to do with the true Hell, that’s just the last act of Lucifer’s little rebellion against law and order. Honestly, if the Angels of Entropy hadn’t been so easy to play, they might not have gotten locked up, and the Rendering might not exist at all.”

“Angels of Entropy -- what the hell are you talking about, Dean?!”

“Exactly. Hell." Dean raised an eyebrow. "Did you think only Heaven had angels? They aren’t creatures of goodness and light, Sam. They're just another type of being. Hell has angels just like Heaven does, and serving the same function. They carry out God’s will in their respective Planes, and part of that job is making sure that spirits crossing out of this plane get ushered on their way. The problem was that Lucifer, an Angel of Creation, was jealous of the... well, it’s hard to say what he was jealous of. My contact was a little short on details, but considering the general insanity about this whole mess, it could be anything from cocktail Thursday to the color of grass.”

Dean shrugged.

“Anyways, whatever it was, he bucked the order and enticed a couple of mortal souls into hanging out near the margin of where the Material Plane meets the Entropic one, and gave them enough power and knowledge to trap other souls coming in and generate more power out of their pain. He managed this under the noses of the Angels of Entropy, who, let’s face it, are kinda disorganized and distractible by nature, and then once his demonic followers had pulled enough power out of their victims, he used it to lock the Entropic Angels down into a level of the Pit where they could no longer act at the surface or touch the Material World at all. This created the Rendering and gave his followers a free hand. The trapped angels managed to drag some of the more powerful of his followers deep enough that they were forced to turn all of their attention to maintaining their identities against the natural Entropic pull, and neutralized them that way. But a little late; the damage was done.”

“Why didn’t God just free them when he had Michael cast Lucifer out? I mean, if that’s accurate?"

“Far as I know.” Dean signaled the bored-looking waitress, who had been wiping at the same three feet of counter with a worn dishrag since they walked in.

“Then why not free the Entropic Angels, if they could have freed all the souls trapped in the Rendering and headed off all the current mess?” Sam asked, sounding both fascinated and skeptical.

“God isn’t just the God of Heaven, Sam. He’s the God of everything. Heaven and Hell are meaningless distinctions once you get out of all the religious decorations humans have given that -- at least as far as the souls that return to them are concerned. The Angels of Entropy screwed up big time and got themselves trapped; my understanding is that God told them to get themselves untrapped and not whine at him until it was done.”

“But what about the human souls? It’s not their fault this happened; why do they have to suffer?”

“They don’t have to suffer, Sam. All they have to do is let go of their fears and they will sink into Entropy on their own. They hold themselves in the Rendering. All human souls have aspects of both polarities, so you can make a bargain to bind yourself to one plane or the other, Heaven or Hell, but there is no force, no deal, that can keep you from sinking into that power once you're there. Not if that’s what you want to do.”

“That--” Sam cut himself off abruptly as the waitress approached them with her pad out.

“What’ll you have?”

Dean ordered for both of them without bothering to ask Sam what he wanted, and shook his head as soon as she was gone at Sam’s lack of objection to his food.

“You need to work on being less predictable, Sam.”

“Me! When was the last time you didn’t get a burger of some sort?”

“Yeah, but I’m a creature of chaos," Dean said airily. "I’m unpredictable by nature. Patterns are where I have trouble. I have to work at consistency, so hamburgers are like homework. You’re so predictable I could almost set a clock by you." His voice grew more serious. "Don’t think your enemies don’t know it either.”

Sam glared. “According to what you just said, we’re all creatures of chaos.”

“Yeah, but you’re a denizen of the mixed plane and I’m something… different.”

Sam frowned and opened his mouth, but Dean cut him off before he could speak. “It’s kind of funny, when you think about before. When I was the good, obedient son and you were bitchy and rebellious and stirred everything into a mess every time you came or went. Seven years in a box tamed you, Sammy.”

“You’ve certainly paid me back,” Sam muttered. “And stop calling me that. And stop trying to distract me!” Sam went back to the previous topic. “So, instead of good and evil, and good people going to Heaven and evil people going to Hell, you are saying it’s about... Creation or Entropy instead?” Dean nodded. “So creative people go to Heaven, and... what? People who like to break things go to Hell?”

“Nope. On that simple logic, creative people go to Hell. Try thinking of it as the Plane of Order, and the Plane of Chaos. If you do things that promote order and growth, you are more likely to go to Heaven, but if you promote things that are chaotic and destructive, you are more likely to go to Hell. Working to implement a new idea is orderly and all, but the sheer invention of that new idea is a disruption of whatever status quo existed, and that’s chaotic, a destruction of order. See? It’s not always that easy to determine what goes where.”

Sam was staring at him again, Dean frowned.

“What? It’s not like this changed anything about the current problems. We still have to stop Lucifer from walking free, and we still have to get all the spell ingredients to do it. Just because the larger issue is a little different than you thought it was, that doesn’t change anything.”

“When the angel came to me in that motel room and told me that he couldn’t find you, he made it sound like a really bad thing. But all he really said was that if you had descended, there was nothing they could do.” Sam swallowed. “You made that deal for me, and I have to know... what was it like, Dean?”

Dean looked away through the glass to the passing cars on the road outside. “Don’t do this, Sam. I made that deal of my own free will.”

“Don’t do ‘this’? Torture myself imagining what you were going through in Hell?” Sam laughed without humor. “I’ve been doing ‘this’ to myself for the last seven years.

His brother sighed and leaned back a little in the booth. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. The Rendering? It’s exactly as advertised. Every filth and pain and degradation thousands of years of human evil can come up with. All live and bleeding at your fingertips.”

“You broke the first Seal.”

Dean nodded, looking past Sam at the greasy, fake-wood paneling that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the dingy place opened. “In the Rendering. I was there… for a long time, Sam. There aren’t words to tell you what it’s like there. I might be able to show you with our link, but you’ve never done anything to deserve that kind of pain, so don’t even bother asking. I didn’t know about the Seal then. But I fought them as long as I could. And when I couldn’t fight anymore…” Dean shrugged and stole Sam’s water to down half.

Sam lowered his voice. “When you couldn’t fight anymore… then what, Dean?”

“Come on, Sam!" Dean complained. "We have more important things to dwell on right now. It’s in the past.”

“What happened, Dean?” Sam repeated.

“When I couldn’t face one more second of the knife myself, Sam? You wanna know what happened then?”

Sam nodded, expression determined.

Dean smiled, and it was the coldest smile Sam had seen since the night he thought Jace was murdered. “I climbed down off the rack, and started putting other souls on. I took the blade from my torturer’s hand and used his lessons to share my pain with others. And with that first cut, the Seal broke. Satisfied?”

His brother looked ill, but not like he was ready to drop the subject yet. “And then what?”

“What do you mean, ‘and then what’?”

Sam glared. “You said that was in the Rendering, Dean, but the angel said you had descended. And you must have met the angel who gave you the spell somehow. And, I mean, to be a demon yourself, you must have spent thousands of years in Hell… I was told that was only possible deeper in the Pit.” Sam’s eyes grew wide as something occurred to him. “How can you be a Rendering Demon if you were deeper? You said deeper created Entropic Demons.”

Dean snorted. “Don’t get all uptight, Sam. I also told you Entropic Demons have no use for the Material Plane, and it’s almost unheard of for a soul to make that transformation. I wasn’t much use to anyone in the Rendering after I broke the Seal, so they ignored me for the most part, since they figured I was as trapped as they were anyways. But I have some extra-special qualities because of the whole ‘should have been an angel puppet’ destiny thing I dodged, and someone Below the Rendering did have a use for me. It called me; I followed the voice, and met an Entropic Angel. It needed a favor, and in return, it offered to help me with this. It certainly doesn’t have any reason to be all buddy-buddy with Lucifer, and it only gets what it wants after I get what I want. That’s how I know it’s honest.”

“So, you spent how long Below then?”

“A really freaking long time, Sam.”

“With the angel.”

It wasn’t a question, so Dean didn’t have to lie.

“You act so much like… my brother, though, most of the time now,” Sam continued. “How can you have experienced so much torture, and then thousands of years of time and still be my brother, almost like I remember you being? Is this just an act?” Sam’s voice was a bit thick, but on his face there was no hint of his internal misery, misery Dean could feel clearly through the recently renewed link.

“I’ll always be your brother, Sam,” Dean answered quietly. “The Rendering sucked, no bones about that, but Below… that wasn’t really torture. I mean, sure, it was thousands of years, but it’s not like I consciously lived them. ‘Time’ as a concept we use here doesn’t really mean anything there. And the angel helped me; that was a part of our deal. I would help it, and in return, it would help me stay me, and get my revenge. So, yeah, there are some things I’m still remembering, and I’ve got some instincts and skills I didn’t have before. But this -- with you? This isn’t an act, Sam. I promise. Maybe some with other people, but not with you.”

Sam nodded and stared down at the Formica table in silence for a few awkward minutes before just nodding again and going back to a previous point. “What does it want?”

“The angel?” Dean looked relieved to be moving out of more emotional waters. “What do you think it wants?” When Sam’s only reply was to narrow his eyes, Dean filled in for him. “It wants what everyone else does: to be free.”

“And you can give it that?” Sam asked skeptically.

“The key is in the World somewhere. Other than that, it’s a little unclear. But I’m not doing squat until after the current mess is cleaned up, so don’t worry about it. I’m not.”

“You sure it’s the right thing to do? I mean, we’re going to destroy Lilith’s plans and make sure Lucifer stays locked up… and in return, we are going to set loose a bunch of Angels of Hell?”

“I told you," Dean said impatiently, "they aren’t any more evil than Angels of Heaven are. And I think they'll have enough to do dismantling the Rendering to keep them from bothering anyone else for awhile anyways.”

“How long is that really going to take them?”

“I dunno, but they’ve been slacking on the clock since… well, forever, almost, as far as humans are concerned. So, take every soul that has lived for thousands of years, divide by two--”

“I get it,” Sam cut him off. “Fine. So what next?”

Dean shrugged, pleased to have the conversation over.

Sam let the silence sit for a minute. “I feel better today.”

“Than last night? I would hope so.”

“No, I mean -- better than usual. Stronger.”

“That’s a pretty expectant look you’re giving me, Sam.”

“Something’s changed. What did you do?”

“Why is it always me?”

“Dean.”

“I didn’t limit the transfer,” Dean gave in. “Before, I didn’t exactly want you at you best, for the obvious reasons. And now that you’re on board with everything, it doesn’t make any sense to keep you handicapped.”

“How much control do you have over that?”

“Looking for more trade secrets?” When Sam just gave him an irritated look, Dean flicked a straw wrapper at him and continued. “It’s my power, Sam. I don’t have to give it up unless I want to. You naturally try to draw a certain amount out at a certain rate, and I can either fight that or let it go. It’s not a complicated science.”

“With Ruby... Ruby said I was working towards something. Getting stronger, able to take more. If you aren’t holding back on me... is that still going to happen?”

“I’m not going to suddenly start trying to swamp you, if that’s what you mean. I figure your body knows what it’s doing and unless problems start cropping up, we can just let it go at that.”

“What if--” Sam looked around warily, as if suddenly remembering they were in a public place. He lowered his voice. “What if I need more of your type of power to do the spell?”

“You needed to beef up on my type because you had to kill that bitch Lilith with it, and nothing does a demon in like good ol’ home cooking. But the spell isn’t demonic; I don’t think it would matter where the power comes from, as long as it’s yours.”

The conversation lapsed while the waitress carried their orders over and plunked them down. Sam muttered a thanks and she wandered back to her counter, casting sidelong looks at the clock.

“Now, for our next step--” Dean reached into the laptop bag he had carried in with them and slid out the yellow notebook paper the spell was written on. Sam had insisted it be preserved in a rigid, clear paper-protector he had gotten from Bobby. Dean had grumbled that it would be harder to carry around that way, which had sent Sam off into outraged near-incoherency about the value of a spell that was accidentally sent through the wash, not to mention just the wear and tear from being carried crammed into a jean pocket.

He laid it on the somewhat sticky table between them, ignoring Sam’s irritated look at his casual treatment of it. “I suppose we just blindly at this for awhile and hope for inspiration. You sure my ‘contact’ didn’t give you any useful information.”

“I told you everything it said, Dean.”

Dean snorted and lifted his burger. “Fat lot of good your vision was, then.”

“Look! I had nothing to do with--” Sam’s voice cut off with a clatter of his dropped fork as he shoved his chicken salad aside so hard the plate hit condiments against the wall with a crash of glass and spilled half its contents onto the table.

“Sam, what the--” Dean started.

“I can read it.”

“What?”

Sam pried the spell from the table and stared intently at the paper. “This, I can read it!”

Dean’s eyes widened. “All of it?”

Sam frowned a bit. “No, well, I can read this line.” He held it so that Dean could see it too and pointed at the first line of incomprehensible jargon that made the ingredient list beneath the casting directions. “I can read the same thing up in this section too,” he added, shifting his finger to the casting directions and one of the tangle of symbols there. “The rest of it is still scrambled, though.”

“Shit. Well, it said it would give them to us as we picked them up, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s it say then?”

“Uh, ‘blood, by blood betrayed to death’.”

“Are you serious?” Dean asked incredulously.

“I swear to God, Dean.”

“You probably shouldn’t do that, you never know when he might decide to listen,” Dean suggested darkly, taking the spell from Sam and glaring at it as though that would make it more helpful.

Dean cursed and handed the spell back to Sam; he slid out of the booth and tossed a few bills on the table. “Let’s go.”

Sam frowned. “You’re not going to eat?”

“Not when I’m this annoyed, and half your food is scattered on a table that probably hasn’t been cleaned this month, and if I have to listen to that woman wipe that rag in that same circle over that same foot of counter for another minute, I will not be responsible for my actions, Sam; I swear I won’t.”

“Right, it’s fine, just, uh-- calm down, Dean.” He slid out of the booth himself as Dean stomped to the door. Sam flashed the waitress, who was eyeing them suspiciously, an apologetic smile and followed his brother into the parking lot.

“What the hell was that all about?” Sam demanded, once they were alone in the cool, late Fall air.

Dean raked his finger through his hair. “Nothing, just... annoyed, and the noise didn’t help.”

“She wasn’t making any noise, Dean.”

“She was to me,” Dean snapped, unlocking the door. He waited until they were both in the car. “What the hell does that even mean?”

“The ingredient?”

Ingredient? ‘Salt’ is an ingredient, Sam, ‘chalk dust,’ ‘wormwood,’ ‘eye of newt,’ ‘tongue of toad,’ I'll even take 'fanbelt of jaguar' in a pinch: those are ingredients. That is a cryptic load of bull.”

Sam sighed. “I don’t know, Dean. Let me think about it on the road for awhile.”

“On the road to where?” Dean demanded. “We don’t have any place to go! Just more freaking circles.”

Sam counseled himself to patience; it would only get worse if they were both irritable. “There’s a motel not even thirty miles from here we can crash at and think this out a little more. You said the angel wanted something from you, so it’s not going to just give you crap. We just... need to think about it.”

Dean just nodded like he didn’t trust himself to speak and peeled out of the parking lot.


~~~~~


Dean dropped Sam off at the motel to get a room and went to pick up some pizza and beer. He made a note to hit an ATM on their way out of town and drain some more out of one of Sam’s bank accounts. Sam had never said anything about Dean’s periodic looting of the accounts, which made Dean happy because it saved them from a conversation about how he had gotten the codes and information out of his brother when Sam was so wracked by the curse he would have promised Dean his last dollar or his first child just to be touched. He didn’t give a flip about Sam selling their dad’s stuff to get the money. He felt like maybe he should, but... it just wasn’t there.

When he walked back into the room an hour or so later, still fuming about the spell but much calmer than earlier, Sam was sprawled on his stomach, hair still damp from a shower, intent on something he was reading on the laptop.

“Find anything good?” Dean asked by way of greeting.

“Not on here yet. I think the ingredient itself is pretty self-explanatory, literally blood from someone who died because they were betrayed by a relative.”

“So pretty much the same place we were in the restaurant. That’s fucking awesome. Any person betrayed to death by a relative? Can I go give some deadbeat fifty bucks to cap a sibling and use that?”

“Hey, it’s your contact, and your spell. And also, no.”

“My contact is in your head. Next time you see it, why don’t you deck it for me? My own personal thank you for being a bastard.”

“Yeah, Dean. I’ll make sure and try that while it’s controlling my brain,” Sam agreed sarcastically.

Dean slumped on one of the beds and blew out a deep breath. “Let’s just eat and see what’s on the tube.”

“You mind if I call Bobby and get his take on this?”

“I don’t care if you call the Psychic Friends Network, as long as we get some answers."


~~~~~


Sam grimaced at the sickly smell of bubblegum and sunscreen. He wrinkled his nose and turned his head away, but the smell persisted. He snapped his eyes open in annoyance, and immediately closed them again against the glare of the noonday sun.

Once he could stand to look around, he found himself in a familiar park; its vibrant, unreal colors and the chattering crowd exactly as he remembered. He turned his head to face the redhead watching him solemnly and working on what appeared to be the same drink as the previous night.

“I don’t think Dean is very happy with you,” Sam offered, to break the silence.

“I’m sure in some time or place that would concern me.”

“How specific are these ingredients?”

“Very. Some more so than others.”

“And this one? The blood?”

“You might be able to find some substitutions for this one.”

Sam nodded and looked around again. “Why are we meeting here again?”

It raised one shockingly red eyebrow. “You have someplace you prefer more?”

“No, I mean-- why are we meeting at all. You gave us the ingredient; we don’t have it yet, so...”

It smiled, a sudden flash of teeth. “I could feel Dean’s irritation all the way into the Pit. I thought you might need some shoring up.”

“Is that all we’re going to get? One cryptic line?”

It eyed him, considering. “This is a very... important spell. Like all spells of this prominence, it weighs heavily in the World.”

“Yes, so?” Sam asked impatiently.

“You are a naturally gifted psychic who, for reasons of both theoretical destiny and the interference of demons in your life, has a talent that is specifically sensitized to matters of the demonic and the Apocalyptical.”

“I get all the good prizes, so what?”

“Have you had any visions lately?”

“Other than you?”

It waved a hand dismissively. “These don’t count. I’m imposing these from outside, exploiting both your gift and an existing channel. I mean other visions, visions that are purely yours.”

“I...” Sam hesitated. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had one like that. I mean, the only visions I’ve had, I had about other psychic kids, and they stopped when Dean shot Azazel with the Colt.”

“You’re lucky he didn’t share everything with Lilith. If she knew just how vulnerable you really are, you would have found your skull a very crowded place quite some time ago. Azazel was clever when he carved himself this niche; it’s well hidden.”

“What does that have to do with visions now?”

“These are your gifts," the angle said simply. "He gave you nothing that was not yours first. The spell and its ingredients are deeply powerful in the aura of the World. They have impact that leaves traces wherever their possibility occurs.”

Sam frowned. “Was that supposed to make sense to me?”

It rolled its eyes. “I think I would know you and Dean were brothers from this conversation alone. He was always unreasonably resistant to the obvious. Let me be plainer for you.”

“I’d appreciate it,” Sam ground out.

“You are a natural psychic. The World shaped the spell and its demands; I just wrote it down. If you want information about the specificity of ingredients, or where you might find them, that’s what you should ask.”

“Ask the World?!”

It shrugged gracefully and took another long sip of the syrupy drink. “It’s like a muscle you’ve never flexed. You have the capability, but no idea how to use it. It needs exercise and practice to be wielded with intent.”

“Ruby made sure I had lots of ‘practice’ and ‘exercise’.”

“Only using demonic power, and only doing things that were of direct benefit to their grand plan. This is from you. You have to learn how to open yourself to what the World can show you. But not too open,” it added with a sly smile. “You wouldn’t want just anything to come stumbling in.”

A cloud passed over the sun and an icy wind blew over Sam’s skin. Around them, the holiday air hadn’t changed. People laughed, and skated, and chatted, and walked, but most of the color suddenly seemed drained out and the light was dimmer. Sam looked sharply to the angel to see that all levity had fallen from its face like a discarded mask.

“Time to go, Sam.”

“Wait! How do I do this?”

“You have the question, now find the answer.”

Sam reached out instinctively to grab it before it could vanish...

…and fell out of bed, banging his elbow sharply on the nightstand. A barely-noticed pain against the flare of agony in his head.

“Shit, Sam.” Powerful hands grabbed him, slipped on his sweat-drenched skin, then took firmer hold and pulled him up. He let the demon take most of his weight as it dragged him to the bathroom. Exciting-looking lights were flaring and exploding behind his eyes.

“Dean, please,” he croaked, grabbing onto his brother’s arm with as much force as he could muster from where he had been left seated on the toilet lid. The lights were still off and it was nearly pitch black in the small bathroom, but even the hiss of the shower was another source of pain to his overly-sensitized ears.

“Shit,” Dean muttered again, and then Sam was being hauled bodily into the shower with his clothes still on. The cool spray felt good against his overheated skin, but only distantly.

“Please,” he gasped again, clinging to his brother, who was taking almost all of his weight.

The reply was warm lips crushed against his. They tasted like copper and salvation, so he eagerly opened his own and invited the demon in.


~~~~~


Sam opened his eyes to shards of light. He squinted them shut again and rolled over with a grimace. A moment later, he heard a rustle of drapes.

“Sorry about that. Head still hurt?”

“Yeah.” Sam cautiously tried one eye, and found the gloom of the room seemed okay this time. “Nothing like last night, though. I honestly thought I was dying.”

“I could feel it.”

“When we did this the other night, I felt fine in the morning. What’s going on?”

“The other night was a night we were going to be dealing with the curse anyways, pretty much; I gave you as much as normal and you were fine. Last night, you only got a taste in comparison. It seemed to work out; things progressed in their usual manner-- and I think it’s cute that you still blush after all these months, by the way.” Sam didn't think it was cute, but it wasn't worth picking a fight over. “And then you passed out," Dean concluded. "Is it okay now?”

Sam stretched against the sheets, but other than the lingering ache in his head he felt fine. “It’s not fun, but it’s no worse than it was coming down off the visions I was having back with Yellow Eyes. Today anyways. Last night was... something else.”

“I was gonna say I don’t remember your visions ever being quite this incapacitating. I take it you were visiting angels again?”

“Just the one,” Sam said sourly, “and I think it’s because before, even though Azazel was influencing the, uh, flavor of my visions, it was still just my whatever doing what it wanted, versus now the angel is actually forcing visions on me. I hope it doesn’t want to chat again anytime soon,” he added, rubbing his eyes.

“Did it at least tell you something useful this time?”

“Come sit over here where I don’t have to move to see you and I’ll tell you everything I know,” Sam yawned.

 

Chapter Sixteen

It’s alright forty days of rain
My skin stretched out from the growing pain
And it’d be nice to have an explanation
But it’s alright
                                 ~It’s Alright, Indigo Girls

“Missouri? Seriously, Sam?” Dean asked again, dubiously.

It was the third time in the last hour, and Sam was getting annoyed. He had slept most of the day vBulletin statbefore, getting over the worst of his reaction headache, but still felt achy and out of sorts. His morning had started with being bounced out of sleep by his brother fresh from a five a.m. Wal-Mart trip, the spoils of which included Moon Pies, a new atlas and a stretchy knit cap and glove set in pastel purple with pink reindeer for Sam. The demon had been especially gleeful about the last item, and seemed deeply offended Sam refused to try them on. Sam finally shoved them in his jacket pocket just to get them out of his brother’s sight in the hopes he would shut up about them.

At least the demon was currently watching the road; he seemed to have an unbearable compulsion to want to look at Sam while speaking.

“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Dean. I don’t know that many psychics and I’m not making any progress on my own. I have no idea how to ‘listen to the World,’ do you?”

“It’s only been a day, and it’s not like you were at your best.”

Sam gave his brother a suspicious look. “You keep pushing and getting upset that we don’t have a concrete direction, so now we know how to get one, and you want to… what? Hole up in a bar somewhere and hope we get lucky?”

“Hey, if I hole up in a bar to get lucky, there’s no ‘hope’ about it.” Dean sounded offended at idea.

“Dean! Eyes on the road!”

“Its straight, Sam. We’re in freaking Kansas. I think I can glance aside occasionally and still not put us in a ditch.”

“If you do put us in a ditch, you won’t be the one breathing through a tube,” Sam ground out. “I’m not as easy to repair.”

“Bets?”

Sam gave him a wary look. “Whatever. Look, Missouri is really the only psychic I know. She knows about hunting, she knew Dad, and she can probably give me some pointers on whatever the hell I’m supposed to be doing. Plus, Dad trusted her, so I’m kinda inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. You seriously would rather wander in aimless circles for a few more days, hoping I might be struck with some sudden inspiration? What exactly is the problem here?”

“I just don’t like it. Psychics give me the creeps. Present company excluded," Dean added hastily, catching Sam's sidelong look. "Why can’t we call Bobby and see if he knows anyone?”

“Because we’re right here, Dean! Missouri isn’t even two more hours away. And I think we might be straining Bobby enough as it is, you know? Let’s give him a little more time before we hit him up for any more favors, if possible.”

“Fine,” Dean groused. “We’ll do it your way.”

“Hey, none of this is my way,” Sam said pointedly.

“You’d rather be on your knees at Lilith’s feet. Or better, wrapped up with Ruby on a cot somewhere, waiting until they need you to open the damn door and then you can just share your skin with Lucifer until he’s gotten bored with the planetary roast and moves on to bigger and better things. Would that be your way, Sam?”

“Screw you.”

“Not for a couple of weeks. Unless you want to go sooner?”

Sam glowered but refrained from continuing a debate with no high ground.

It was a very long two hours to Lawrence.


~~~~~


Missouri was standing on her front porch when the Impala rolled to a stop at the curb in front of her house. Sam opened the door and swung his feet out, but hesitated when he didn’t hear the other door open.

“Dean?”

“Yeah, Sam?”

“Uh, doors work better if you open them. You know, with the whole ‘getting out of the car’ thing.’”

“Thanks, Sam. And all this time I’ve wondered what I was doing wrong.”

“Okay, seriously, dude. What’s going on?”

“I think I’ll just wait here for you.”

“What?”

“There isn’t anything I need to talk to her about; you go on in and see if she’s feeling chatty. I’ll be here napping.”

“Napping,” Sam repeated skeptically.

“Or whatever.” Dean’s smile was disarming. “See if I can’t get a feel for any local trouble spots. You might want to hurry, though, Sam; she’s not looking too happy to see us. Might call the cops any second.”

Sam wanted to snap back about the likelihood of that happening, but he glanced at the porch and had to admit that Missouri really didn’t look especially pleased. He climbed out and closed his door with more force than necessary, ignored the offended yelp from inside, and headed for the stairs.

It wasn’t that he really wanted to inflict Dean on Missouri; it was just weird that he was so willing to let Sam go off alone after practically clinging to his hip for the previous months. Sam had even gone to the men’s room at a restaurant the other day and walked out to find Dean leaning against the wall, waiting for him. But the demon clearly didn’t intend to tell him a damn thing about it, so he shoved the mystery aside for the moment and focused on the unsmiling woman waiting for him at the top of the stairs.

“Sam Winchester, as I live and breathe, and here I thought all you Winchester men shuffled off this mortal coil years ago.”

“Hey, Missouri.” He was more than a foot taller than her, but felt dwarfed by her personality. “No, uh, Dean and I are still around.”

“Dean, huh.” She looked out towards the car, and if anything, the expression on her normally welcoming face got even grimmer. “That's what you think is sitting in that car?”

“I know he’s… different, Missouri. But we really need your help. I would never have brought him here otherwise.”

“I’ll hear you out, Sam, for your parents’ sake if nothing else, but if I don’t like what you have to say, we’re done. Understand?”

“I do; thanks, Missouri,” Sam said, grateful to get that much.

She nodded grudgingly and opened the screen door for him.

“So,” Sam asked awkwardly, once she had him seated in her kitchen with the lemonade she had insisted on pouring. “You looked like you were waiting for us. How did you know we were coming?”

She snorted and sat down across from him. “I felt that thing in my driveway coming from a good hundred miles away. I’d have to be ten years dead to miss that. Can’t say I was terribly surprised to find you with it; your family has always attracted the worst kinds of trouble.”

“I can’t argue with that, but I’ve never heard of anyone being that sensitive to demons. Would have come in handy a few times in my life.”

“Demons?” She raised a brow.

“Like, Dean. You said you felt him from a hundred miles away, right?”

“Honey, I think you need to start this story over from the beginning.”


~~~~~


Sam glossed over some of the more detailed aspects of the blood-curse, though from the look Missouri had given him during that part she didn’t need him to fill in the details anyways, and about an hour and a half later, Missouri had the gist of the problem. They had moved into the family room for comfort some time earlier, and it did not escape Sam that from her chair, Missouri had a good, clear view of the Impala.

“So, what do you think?” he finally asked her when the story had been spilled out.

“I think you and Dean have your work cut out for you.”

“That’s it?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know what all you want me to say, Sam. It’s a right mess you’re in the middle of, but it’s hard to escape these kinds of forces. You’ve made some bad decisions, but you did the best you could with the information you had. Dean, too, it sounds like. I’m still not happy to have him out in front of my house like a looming cloud of disaster, but I understand why you’ve come.”

“You aren’t surprised by what he said about Heaven and Hell and stuff?”

“No, but I’m a little surprised that you are. Christianity has a long way to go before it counts as an old religion; it isn’t close to being the most popular one, even today. I’m not saying any of the others are more accurate, but they are all just vehicles to help humans understand what isn’t truly understandable.”

“Angels are real, Missouri. I saw one in my motel room.” Which sounded insane when said aloud, but Sam had discovered a long time ago that a lot of things in his life were like that.

“I think you will find that most religions have angels, or something like angels, somewhere in their belief system. And things to say about demons, too. And I wouldn’t be advertising that about the motel room, Sam,” she chided, “people will think you’re touched.”

Sam gave a wry smile. “So you’ll help me?”

She spread helpless hands. “There isn’t much I can do to help you. It’s not something I can fix. We can talk some about it, and I can show you some meditations, but opening yourself up like you want… it’s dangerous and difficult.”

“You don’t think I can do it.”

“If you were starting from scratch? No, I think it would take you years to learn to do what you’re after. But your gift has never really been repressed, just… misaimed. That damn demon wrenched you nice and open when you were just a babe. Probably a good thing he did direct it a little, all things being fair. No telling what you might have been subjected to, otherwise. As it is, this isn’t like having to put the TV together from parts using only chewing gum and directions written in Chinese, more like just kicking the box a little until the picture clears.”

Sam frowned and leaned back. “If it’s that easy, I would have thought it would have happened on its own by now.”

Missouri snorted. “Kicking the box may not be that hard, but you have to know what it looks like first. Fortunately, you do know, you’ve just been trained to see it as something else.”

“Trained?”

Missouri sipped at her drink and just looked at him.

“You mean with Ruby," Sam said as realization dawned. "Using the demon power, because it replaces my own power, it comes from the same place?”

“Your Daddy always said you were a bright one.”

“But how do I use that to… invite visions of the spell? The only thing Ruby ever taught me to do was exorcise demons, or destroy them. How is that the same?”

“They aren’t, but you know what that power feels like in your mind, and in your body. How to find it and feel its shape. Just instead of those focused streams of power, you want it to feel… more scattered, to wear it around your skin like an aura, and infuse it with what you want.”

Sam looked baffled.

“I told you this wasn’t an easy thing," Missouri said tartly. "You can’t expect to get it overnight.”

“How about in two nights, then? Because Dean thinks we only have a little bit of time until I'm the only thing the demons are focused on, and the clock is running out.”

“Let me show you a few things to try meditating on that might help you then; after that, it’s all up to you.”


~~~~~


“Thank you, Missouri. Really… thank you for everything,” Sam said earnestly, as he stepped back onto the porch hours later. The sun was starting to sink down in the west, and even from the porch, he could hear Blue Oyster Cult floating in the air from the Impala’s speakers. The windows were rolled down and Dean’s boots were hanging out the passenger window.

“It was no trouble, Sam. I know you can’t promise to stay safe, but you can promise to try.”

“I will, Missouri.”

“Sam,” she was looking past him to the car, “be careful with that one.”

“Dean?" Sam followed her gaze. "We have a deal; I told you about it. I--” Sam lowered his voice, “--know he’s not my brother anymore, Missouri, but he will stick to the deal, and that’s all I need. He’s not going to hurt me.”

“Oh, I think he is your brother, Sam," she disagreed grimly. "A lot more than he should be. And he may not hurt you on purpose, but the hurt he can cause you on accident… Be careful.”

Sam frowned. “Missouri, what--”

“Not just with your brother, but with what you’re about -- you’ve been around enough to know that some things once freed don’t go so easily back into their cages.”

“I don’t under--”

The horn of the Impala blew, cutting him off.

“Yo, Sammy! You’ve burned all the daylight! Let’s get going!”

Sam gave his brother an impatient look and turned back to Missouri, but she had stepped away and her expression was remote. “You should go, Sam.”

Sam looked at her helplessly. “What were you saying about--”

“Sam!” Dean yelled again, pressing the horn.

“Okay! I’m coming!” Sam yelled back, taking a few steps down. He turned back one last time, but Missouri was gone, and both the screen and inner doors were shut.

He climbed into the car with a withering look for his brother, who was impervious.

“Have a nice visit?” Dean asked, shifting the car into gear.

“Why’d you have to be such a jerk? I was just saying goodbye.”

“You’ve had--” Dean paused to eye his watch, “--six hours to say hello, goodbye, and almost any other combination of words you wanted. Wasted the entire freaking day. Get anything?”

Sam gave up and let go of his annoyance. “Maybe, I don’t know yet. We talked about it and she gave me some meditations to focus on; they might help.”

“‘Might’? ‘Might’ doesn’t sound like something I would sit on my ass for half a day to get.”

“Dude, you cut class and laid under Amanda Kneffler’s crappy porch with all the gaps in the planking for eight hours once, because she might have walked out the back door and she might have been wearing a skirt when she did it. Don’t even try that crap with me.”

“Yeah,” Dean grinned, “but I was right, wasn’t I? And that was girls; this is some mumbo jumbo maybe mystic dream-quest crap.”

“No, that was High School, and this is the Apocalypse.”

“You spoil all my good memories.”

“It’s called ‘perspective’, Dean.”

“It’s called ‘killjoy’, Sam.”

Sam gave a half smile. “Jerk.”

“Bitch.”


~~~~~


Sam’s good humor over the exchange in the car lasted until they found a motel room, then he was distracted by other things. Dean was letting him share time on the laptop these days, and he wanted to look up some of the things Missouri had suggested.

Dean’s good humor lasted much longer. He was still grinning hours later when Sam’s eyes ached too much to continue any more research. He closed the computer and looked over to see what his brother was up to.

“It wasn’t that funny, Dean.”

“Hmmm?”

“In the car. You’ve been grinning like a loon ever since. It wasn’t that funny.”

“Am I wearing a sign somewhere that says I need help deciding what’s humorous, Sam? Maybe I just like what’s on TV.”

“Yeah, because,” Sam glanced over to see what was on, “documentaries on the homeless always make me happy inside, too.”

Dean clicked the television off and tossed the remote onto the nightstand. “In the car earlier, I’m not happy because it was so funny… I’m happy because I got it.”

“Got what?”

“Amanda Kneffler! The porch. I remembered, and I didn’t have to struggle for it, it was right there when you said it, like a real memory. And I totally remembered that you were the bitch, dude. That came completely natural.” 

Sam ignored the jibe to pursue the larger question. “What’s strange about that?”

Dean shrugged. “When I… came back, I didn’t. Remember, you know? I knew what had happened, and what my bargain with the angel was, and you -- I remembered you best of all. But all of the details that make a person real, that make a life… all of that was gone. I picked up a few anchors, like my car, and my jacket, Dad’s journal from your house, things that were familiar and I valued in my life, because they were supposed to help me remember how to act, how to be Dean Winchester; I remembered the items and that they were important. But it was just facts. The angel told me what to get.”

Sam had gone very still.

“It took awhile, but things started to filter back in. I took care of the things that were supposed to be important, even if I didn’t actually care, because I needed them to remind me. I didn’t feel anything for the jacket until I found Dad’s journal under your bed. I was just touching the leather on the cover, and the leather scent of my jacket just suddenly stuck me, like lightening, Sam, and then a thousand memories poured in. I still didn’t get why the jacket was important; I do now -- but then it started as possessiveness, and some confused imagery. Same with the Impala; I didn’t really get her either, not until that jackass outside of Biloxi almost t-boned us. I got it then. But it’s still been kinda a struggle for the random crap. Bits and pieces.”

“What don’t you remember now, Dean?”

Dean raised an incredulous eyebrow. “Did you really just ask me what I don’t remember?”

“You know what I mean!”

His brother shrugged, still amused. “Can’t tell anymore. Not unless something comes up and I’m blank on it; doesn’t feel like there are any gaps. I mean, I’m sure there are, but not… obvious ones. Before it was pretty obvious where the holes were, but I didn’t care.”

“Was it like that with me? You didn’t, uh, feel anything for me either?”

“No.” The look Dean gave him was piercing. “I always felt something for you; you were what I remembered best. Even when I didn’t remember your name, I remembered you.” Dean’s voice was distant, like he was seeing something far away, another lifetime. He snapped back to attention with, “I mean, to be honest, mostly what I felt for you was a kind of rabid possessiveness. It was easy to justify taking care of you; you’re vital to my plan. Revenge and selfishness are good Entropic emotions, and those all come easiest. By the time I actually got my hands on you, though, I was already filling in some of the missing crap. More brotherly stuff.” He shrugged again. “Anyways, I’m just pleased to be picking up little details too. You know, functionally.”

Sam wasn’t entirely sure how to take this. “Ah, well, that’s… that’s good, Dean. I mean, that you remember and all.”

“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m going to go get celebratory pizza. You want to come?”

“No, I’m going to try some of that stuff Missouri showed me. The sooner I get started, and all that.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll bring you back some.”


~~~~~


The next few days were strained. The pizza and revelations had put Dean in a good mood, but by the next morning, that mood had vanished and he was jumpy and irritable. Sam woke up in a less-than-friendly frame of mind for no reason he could come up with, and everything went gradually downhill from there.

Even a long run on a deserted track and a winding trip through Arkansas to pick up a salt-and-burn Bobby had muttered something about during Sam’s periodic check-ins with him failed to distract Dean from the fact that all they were really doing was waiting. Waiting in the slim hope that something Sam had learned from Missouri would click and net them some clues from the whatever. It was the kind of nice, concrete plan that had driven Dean up the wall when he was properly alive; being a demon had actually seemed to improve his patience, but not for situations like this. Even his roaming search for some way to translate the spell had at least included actual people to find.

Nothing really seemed to smooth out their tempers, not Dean’s increasingly long absences from whatever motel room he randomly decided on when he was tired of driving, or the hours of meditation Sam was immersing himself in. There was no conflict between them, so nothing to make peace over or settle. Even working through the curse one windy night in a battered old motel in northern Wisconsin did little to help; Sam was reluctant and bitchy before Dean took out the knife, as uncooperative as he could manage to be during the sex he was unfortunately, from Dean's perspective, fairly lucid for, and restless while he slept afterwards. Having an insider’s view to Sam’s emotions did nothing but give Dean a more vivid representation of how just how irritable and frustrated his little brother was. There was just nothing for them to do while Sam tried to feel out how to work his gift, except stay moving and hope their enemies weren’t able to track them down.

Dean was uncertain just how many Seals were left, but he was confident the answer was ‘almost none’. Maybe actually none by now. He had considered hunting down a lone demon and beating an answer out of it, but the risk that it would see him and escape was greater than the information was worth. Lilith almost certainly knew about him by now; from Ruby, if no other way --assuming the bitch hadn’t run for the hills rather than face Lilith after losing Sam in the first place-- and if from Ruby, then she also knew about the spell changing hands. Even if she couldn’t know exactly what they were up to, she would know it was unhealthy for her plans. The last thing he needed was some low-level toady running back to her with a pinpoint location.

But another hour in Sam’s company without a break was likely to drive one of them to blows. Dean usually didn’t even think about pulling off the road until well after dark, so Sam’s surprise when the Impala came to a rest in front of the office of a suitably seedy-looking motel when it was barely mid-afternoon was expected. Dean didn’t say anything to him, just stalked inside and demanded the usual accommodations. He moved his car around to the rear of the motel and got out long enough to inspect the room and give Sam a few meaningful looks. All of which his brother ignored, looking relieved to not be trapped in the car with Dean anymore.

“You didn’t bring the laptop in.”

“Nope,” Dean replied, poking suspiciously at what looked like a weak latch on the window. “Thought I’d go see if there was someplace in town that does both burgers and Internet. Did you need it?”

“Not if you want to use it,” Sam offered generously, not even attempting to hide his happiness at Dean’s leaving.

Dean decided the latch was crap, but the stick wedged vertically in the track above it was a suitable security measure against most human threats, and the non-human ones wouldn’t care if they boarded the entire damn thing up. He dropped the tangled collection of wards they generally kept around --some general ‘stay away’, and decent ‘nothing to see here’ type stuff he had picked up here and there or borrowed from Bobby-- on the table.

“Got your cell phone?”

“Yes, Mom.” Sam sounded impatient.

Dean let is slide. They were both on their last nerve, and some space could only do them good. “I’ll be back before midnight. Anything interesting happens, like another visitation or finally a freaking vision, give me a call.”


~~~~~


The music was excellent, the burgers tasty, and the Internet was at the speed of light. But something still felt terribly off. Away from Sam for a few hours, Dean had expected the tense, grating feeling to dissipate. It wasn’t that his brother was really doing anything --other than not getting his visions working and being generally emo about the whole thing-- but Dean was frustrated in general, and everything Sam did just set him off. The time apart was a truly needed thing, so Dean didn’t understand why, if anything, the tension was getting worse. It had crept up so slowly that it had taken awhile to notice, but finally his own restlessness was too obvious to ignore, and the way he kept glancing at the clock even though he had nowhere to go, and the tight, achy pounding in his head… It was just too much with no cause. Dean tossed some cash on the table and grabbed the laptop up. Something was wrong. This wasn’t coming from within himself, and it wasn’t coming from Sam. In fact, for only being a few days post-sex, he wasn’t getting much from his brother at all.

He had to get back to Sam.

Sam wasn’t answering his cell phone, which by itself wasn’t necessarily a cause for alarm. He was prone to showering at the worst times, and he might have just left it in the other room. That was plausible. Likely, even. He might have walked to the lobby for something and forgotten to bring it. Or across the street to the diner for dinner. Lots of possibilities. But the closer Dean got to the motel, the more certain he was that something was wrong.

Dean could see lights on in the room when the Impala slammed to a halt and he leaped out. It was sunset and the long shadows left the back of the motel in darkness. Dean didn’t bother with the room key, he just twisted the handle until the lock snapped and shoved the door open. But inside, he had already known what he would find.

Sam was gone.

 

Chapter Seventeen 

I see the bad moon arising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin’.
I see bad times today.
                                       ~Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

The days had been wearing for Sam, but having Dean out of his hair for awhile promised to give him the break he needed to really buckle down and focus on his meditations without feeling like he was being watched every second.

Or it should have.

After a good hour, he gave up and relaxed into a more casual posture than he had been trying, flopped back on the bed, and considered his options. He was really honestly trying to follow Missouri’s instructions, but something just wasn’t clicking right in his mind. Sam thought he understood what she had been saying about energy and form, but it felt like he had it, and still nothing was happening. It was also hard to maintain; she had promised that with practice and experience, he should be able to hold the… aura, for lack of a better word, in place without having to think about it, but for now, it took nearly constant attention, and he still wasn’t certain he had it right. She had told him that even when he did get it, he shouldn’t expect the information he was after to just come pouring in. It was more like baiting a hook and hoping the fish were hungry; an analogy Sam hadn’t been comfortable with, considering it was his mind on the line, literally.

But he was still edgy and restless, and surprisingly, somewhat nervous. There was an almost oppressive feeling in the air, and he found himself eyeing the clock and wondering when Dean would be back. Something he would have found unbelievable just an hour earlier. He thought about giving Dean a call, he even picked up the phone… but what would he say? ‘I have no news. Nothing is happening, but I’m jumping at shadows; can you come back?’

Dean probably would come, but he doubted the demon would be able to resist a certain level of mockery. And with the way they both had been feeling-- that would probably end in punches.

Sam was confident of his ability to hold his own in a normal fight, and would have given himself even odds against his brother before, but his brother with a demon’s supernatural strength was a no-brainer. If Sam was going to brawl, he wanted at least a distant chance of winning. He stuck the phone in the pocket of his hoodie, though, just so it would be close.

Even a long, hot shower didn’t do anything to ease his nerves. He just knew there was something out there.

A few more hours passed and Sam was not only certain of the danger, but more sure of it than he had ever been sure of anything in his life. It was out there, it was after him, and it knew where he was. He had to run. He dragged the hoodie back on over his clean shirt and went out into the parking lot, body tense with nerves and senses alert. He had a pistol, one silver knife and a pocketful of salt. But he was never going to make it on foot; he had to find a car, and fast.


~~~~~


Sam’s cell phone started ringing about the time he turned onto the Interstate. He fumbled for the phone he had completely forgotten about having, and managed to get it open before the ringing stopped.

“Dean!” Sam gasped, relieved to hear his brother’s voice.

“Are you running from me?” Dean’s voice was ominously level. “Because I gotta tell you, Sammy, you picked a stupid time to try this.”

“No, Dean, that’s not-- Something’s after me,” Sam insisted. “I had to go.”

“Had to go? Go where, Sam? Where the hell are you?”

“I don’t know!” Sam’s frustration bled into his voice. “I was just sitting in the room, trying to work on things, and could feel it coming. I had to get out. I hotwired a car… you've got to get out of there too, Dean!”

“Sam, calm down.” Sam could hear the rustle over the connection as Dean moved around the room. “There isn’t anything here.”

“It’s not there yet--”

“I don’t feel anything either, Sam. The wards are still active; there’s people chatting in the parking lot--”

“No, damnit, Dean! I felt it; I can still feel it. It’s coming.”

“Coming after you? You can still feel it coming after you, Sam? Where are you?” Dean asked sharply.

“Just passed Exit 40. I thought if I could get away, we could meet up. Maybe back at Bobby’s--”

“No, Sam,” Dean cut him off. “Pull off, get out of the car, and wait for me.” Sam could hear the jingle of car keys and the door as Dean left the motel.

“Dean, I can’t. It’s still--”

“--coming, I know, Sam," Dean said impatiently. "Now pull off the damn road and get out of the car.”

“Dean--”

“Sam. You aren’t listening to yourself. This makes no sense! You suddenly get a wild hair that something’s after you, so you take off from a nice, safe, warded motel room in the middle of nowhere, steal a car, don’t call me, and take off for… where again?”

Sam hissed, frustrated. “Dean--”

“You don’t sound like you’ve pulled over yet,” Dean snapped. “You won’t like it if I have to make you get off the road.” It wasn’t something Dean had tried before, forcing his will on Sam through the tenuous connection between them, and he didn’t know if it would work. But it made an effective threat.

“Okay!” Sam exploded. The road around him was deserted as he slowed the car onto the grass sloping down beside the asphalt. “Now what?”

“Get out of the car and walk into the woods.”

“What? Why! It’s freaking cold, Dean!”

“Sam, I swear…”

“Okay! Okay, I’m getting out.”

Dean could hear Sam cursing softly as he climbed out of whatever car he had stolen and into the freezing winter air. Dean had grabbed Sam’s boots and jacket from the motel room when he left. Bringing the coat was just a matter of scooping it off the bed, that Sam hadn't picked it up on his way out was just another point in favor of Sam being seriously fucked up by something. Dean had a really bad feeling about whatever was going on and needed to get his hands on his brother again. “Sam, you sound like you’re just standing there.”

“It’s fucking cold and I’m wearing sandals, Dean. What do you want from me!?”

Dean growled as he turned onto the Interstate ramp and picked up speed. “I want you to stay where I goddamn leave you, I want you to call me before you do stupid things, and I want you to get your ass away from that car and out of sight. Maybe something is after you, or maybe something is luring you in by making you think it’s coming after you. You consider that, genius? Where the hell did you think you were headed?!”

Sam hugged his arms around himself and pinned the phone against his shoulder so he could keep talking to Dean as he walked into the tree line. “I wasn’t going anywhere! I was just… going away. From--”

“--whatever is coming. Yeah, yeah, gotcha. And you don’t see how that screams trap? Your running away is probably a direct line to whatever thinks you’re tasty!”

Sam huffed a bit, but didn’t have a good reply. His skin was still crawling, but every step he took away from the car was an almost physical struggle, and the fact that it didn’t weird him out that he had an almost unbearable compulsion to head back to the car and keep driving was itself weirding him out. Enough to follow Dean’s command and keep struggling to get deeper into the woods despite the bitter cold of the light snow covering the ground and his bare toes.

“Sam, I’m gonna park some distance away. I don’t want the Impala near that car you stole. No way to know if you picked it randomly or if it’s tagged. Keep walking; I’ll find you.”

“And what if something really is after me, and now that I’m not driving, it’s going to get me that much faster?”

Sam heard the slam of the Impala’s door as his brother got out, and could almost hear the cold, anticipatory smile on Dean’s face as he replied, “That will save me the trouble of hunting its ass down, now won’t it?”


~~~~~


Sam sat on the tree stump with his sandals planted squarely on a log to keep his practically bare feet out of the snowy undergrowth. The feeling of pursuit and the need to flee was still heavy in his mind. But with Dean’s orders and threats to help keep him firmly in place, and the knowledge that Dean was in the forest looking for him right that second, Sam had plenty of incentive to fight the compulsion.

He had stumbled through the forest in the growing dark until he was genuinely worried about his toes and could barely see the ground. Finding the tree stump had been a stroke of luck. That had been awhile ago, though, and Sam had since passed the point of being able to feel his feet, and was onto worrying about the rest of himself. The hoodie wasn’t meant to protect him against the chill of a snowy forest on a winter night, and even though the air was dead still, his jeans weren’t the best at retaining heat either.

He had tried calling Dean a few times, but his brother wasn’t answering. Sam was trying to crush the edge of concern he had about that. Dean had been worried about him on the phone. Pissed as hell when he had thought Sam was running from him, then angry, and scared. Dean should have found him easily. And it was dark, and freezing, and the dead, muffled silence of the snowy winter forest was creepy as hell. It didn’t help that the night was moonless and he would barely be able to see his hand in front of his face, if he had been willing to unwrap his arms long enough to try.

Sam was trying to distract himself from the turmoil over his missing brother and his physical discomfort by focusing on the compulsion in his mind. Now that he was absolutely not moving, he thought he could maybe feel what Dean had been afraid of. He still needed to flee, felt like something was after him, but he needed to flee in one direction. When he imagined turning in a different direction… he just couldn’t. Sam wondered uneasily where he would have ended up. He couldn’t come up with any place in particular in his mind. Just… that way. And he hadn’t even thought of calling Dean, not once the feeling had grown bad enough that he should have. It just genuinely hadn’t crossed his mind; the only reason he even had the phone on him was an accident. That more than anything else screamed outside interference.

A hard, cold hand out of nowhere clamped across his mouth as another gripped his shoulder, muffling his startled cry and preventing him from leaping to his feet.

“Sam.” The low, familiar growl flooded him with relief and he relaxed into his brother’s hold. “You have to be quiet now,” Dean whispered into his ear. “There are bad things in these woods tonight, and I don’t know that I got them all. I’m gonna take my hands off you and get these boots on your feet. Can you feel your toes?”

Sam shook his head as Dean released him. Even though his brother was barely a dark shape against the darker forest to his sight, he knew Dean would be able to see him clearly. Dean muttered a curse and draped something over Sam’s shoulders. Sam was grateful to realize it was his jacket and hurriedly shrugged it on. The knit gloves and cap Dean had bought to tease him were still crammed in the pocket. He hastily pulled those on too, not caring in the least how ridiculous they probably looked.

Meanwhile, Dean had been doing something odd with his legs, though it wasn’t until Sam started to feel the painful tingles of returning sensation that he realized what it was. Dean had crouched down and stuffed Sam’s frozen feet against his belly under his shirt, and dragged his own coat around to keep in as much body heat as possible.

“You so fucking owe me for this, Sam,” Dean hissed darkly as he rubbed Sam’s calves. “You cannot imagine the favor you are gonna owe me for this. Sandals? In winter?”

Sam gave Dean an irritated look that he hoped wasn’t completely lost on him.

“I wasn’t exactly planning on going outside. I had the sandals on so I didn’t catch god-knows-what from the floor of that forsaken hell-hole you put us up in,” Sam snapped.

“Shhhh.” Sam closed his mouth abruptly, remembering the dead silence of Dean’s movements and his hushed whispers. “Can you wiggle your toes for me?” Dean muttered. Sam complied, pleased when they all seemed responsive. “Okay. Just needed them thawed out enough so you can walk on them without falling all over the place. Boots on now.”

Sam sat silently while Dean tugged socks and boots over slightly less-frozen feet and then pulled him to standing. Sam had half a mind to ask him where the sandals were just to irritate him, but Dean’s edginess and his earlier warning about bad things in the woods was starting to weigh heavily on him, even against the compulsion still hammering in his brain, so he kept his mouth shut and wrapped his fingers around Dean’s hand when it grabbed hold of his own.

The trip out of the woods was nightmarish even by Winchester standards. Sam was effectively blind to the landscape unless it was literally inches in front of his face. The terrain was a complete mystery, with slopes and tangled undergrowth, and his feet were clumsy with cold. Dean’s hand was his only guide, and Sam constantly stumbled and banged into things as he tried to keep up with the pace. Dean, to his credit, kept Sam more or less upright and didn’t let him hit any trees, but his attention was clearly on something else, and Sam was afraid to ask what. If it came to a fight, he would be less than worthless, unable to help or flee, and probably painfully obvious to whatever enemy they might encounter. Several times, Dean jerked to a halt and Sam slammed into his back. He actually appreciated these brief pauses, because he could lean greedily into Dean’s warmth while his brother focused intently on something only he was aware of.

Sam quickly lost track of time and distance. It seemed he had been stumbling through the frozen darkness forever when Dean came to another halt. But this time, instead of ignoring Sam, he turned to face him, leaning in so close that Sam could feel his breath warm against his throat.

“You’re doing good, Sam,” Dean whispered. “We just have this last little bit, and then I can get you someplace warm and lit and figure out what’s going on in your head. But this part’s gonna suck.” Sam couldn’t imagine what would make the trip worse. “We’re gonna have to run.” That would do it. “It’s a little uphill, then a little downhill, and they’ve done more cutting near the road so the undergrowth is a lot thicker… and there might be some people waiting around for us. Can’t tell if they’ve found the Impala, but if so, there’s going to be a bitch of a fight. I know you can’t see a damn thing, so if we get in a dust-up, you just drop flat and wait it out. Okay?” Sam nodded. “Good. Ready then?”

“Yeah,” Sam muttered; he let out a slow breath and tightened his grip on Dean’s hand. He could feel his brother’s approval and wished it didn’t make him feel so damn good.


~~~~~


The fight had been short and vicious. Their only warning, or rather, Sam’s only warning, that they were about to be attacked had been a rustle in the bushes, then Dean had pushed him roughly down and what had been a rustle became a full-on brawl. Tell-tale flashes had clued Sam in to how Dean was dispatching the other demons so easily.

“You have Ruby’s knife,” he greeted Dean when the fight was over.

“Not Ruby’s anymore.” Dean sounded grimly pleased. “And that should do it for the welcome wagon.” Sam struggled to his feet, then jumped when Dean grabbed his hand again. The warm fingers wrapped around his own were tacky with drying blood, but Sam didn’t hesitate to grip back.

Finding the Impala was a breath of relief, but Dean didn’t start her up, just sat there. The blood had been mostly wiped off on his thighs, but vivid streaks of it were still visible on the backs of his hands and crusted on his short nails.

“Dean?”

“Do you still feel it, Sam?”

Sam nodded, fidgeting in his seat. “Yeah. I mean… I recognize it now and while I’m not about to rip open the door, roll out of the car and take off running because of it, it’s still there. I think… I think it might be getting stronger.”

“That makes sense." Dean sighed. "If it gets bad enough, you’ll be forced to answer.”

“Would that be a bad thing? I mean, then you could kill whoever it is. It should lead us right to them.”

“We’re thinking this is Lilith, right, Sam? And killing Lilith is bad, remember? Even assuming she doesn’t shish-kabob us first.”

Sam nodded again, rubbing at his head with a grimace. “I don’t know what I’m thinking. I keep saying and doing things that make no sense.”

“It’s the spell, Sam. It’s a fucking good one, and it will probably make any decision that could possibly reel you in seem completely rational. I can do a little mojo thing that will sorta smear your presence for awhile, make it hard to pinpoint exactly where you are, but whoever is running the spell will still be able to tell what general area, to within a couple of miles probably. Also, it’s exhausting, and I can’t keep it up for long.”

“How long is long?”

“A few hours.”

“And then what? I’m screwed?”

Dean shrugged. “We have to break it before then.”

Sam crossed his arms and slumped back in his seat. “We don’t even know who’s casting it, or what it is exactly. And I may be somewhat familiar with magic and occult stuff -- but that’s a far cry from being a real practitioner. You know anyone in these parts who might have a clue? Because I don’t.”

“It’s demonic in nature, Sam. I can see it on you if I squint just right. A human practitioner might be able to detect it, and could maybe get really lucky and put a dent in it, but you need a demon or something on that level to tackle this.”

“Can you do it?” Sam asked quietly. “I mean, you were... away, all that time. Didn’t you pick this stuff up?”

Dean let out a slow breath. “I didn’t spend most of my time in the Rendering chatting up pals at the water cooler exchanging crib notes on the latest and greatest magic, you know? I mean, I got one Hell of an education, literally, but it’s pretty specific. I can maybe destroy it without hurting you in the process, but it’s going to mean moving our schedule up.”

“How does the curse help us with this spell?”

“There’s a point during the power exchange in the curse where our auras bleed together a bit; the freaking compulsion is lying right outside of yours. I could blast something like this right off of me, but getting at the same thing on you is harder and risks turning you into, well, a vegetable. If we confuse it so that it tries to swallow us both, I can get rid of it entirely.”

“Are you sure?”

“You think we’re going to come up with a better plan in the next couple of hours? This way the trail stops cold here.”

“Right here?” Sam glanced dubiously around at the snowy forest through the glass.

Dean gave him a ‘look.’ “What’s your bitching about now? We killed off the immediate threats; let’s get this done and make tracks. I’d like to be on the far side of the country from anyplace Lilith thinks I’m hanging around. Besides, we don’t know what this thing is really doing to you; I certainly have no intention of heading in the direction it was pulling you, and who knows what it will do to your brain for me to haul you off elsewhere while you’re feeling it’s effects?”

“It’s freezing in here.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to notice.”

Sam still looked reluctant. Dean dragged a worn flannel blanket out of the backseat and tossed it at Sam.

“There. You know, this would only take about ten minutes if you would stop being such a girl about it.”

Sam spread the blanket out over his legs. “Fuck you, Dean.”

“That’s the spirit.” Dean dug a pocket knife out of his pants and flicked the largest blade out. He cut deeply into the center of his palm and held the cupped hand out towards Sam as blood welled.

“Drink a lot. We want to make sure all the magic is nice and confused. I hope the bitch gets a backlash headache that knocks her on her ass for a month.”

Sam wrapped his cold hands around the warmth of Dean's outstretched one and hesitated. “Is that possible?”

“Don’t know, but the thought of it should give you some sweet dreams while you’re napping.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

Welcome me to a haven given
It’s well received into my open arms
I ran in my sleep through shaking tremors
I felt the splitting earth echoing in my ears
                                         ~Welcome Me, Indigo Girls

“Why again did you insist we had to get a freaking room?” Dean asked, annoyed, when Sam finally emerged from his shower.

Sam gave him an equally irritated look and pulled on his clean jeans. “Because after your solution to our little problem, I woke up completely disgusting, and we were a few hundred miles away with no signs of pursuit. You admitted we were probably clear, and I need some calm, peace and quiet to work on the meditations some more. What’s the problem?”

“‘Probably clear,’ and ‘clear’, are not the same thing!”

Sam rolled his eyes.

“Go take a shower and give me some space.” He sank down onto one of the beds and crossed his legs.

“Because naked in a shower is exactly where I want to be when the forces of Hell kick the door down and try to drag you off.”

“You reek like blood and you’re distracting me.”

Dean muttered something under his breath and stalked into the small bathroom. A few minutes later, the sound of running water in the sink filled the room and Sam tried to relax into his mind.

Something had to give soon.


~~~~~


For his part, after washing the traces of blood from his hands, Dean tuned his hearing into the rhythm of Sam’s meditative breathing and heartbeat so he would know if there was a problem, then settled himself on the edge of the bathtub and sent his consciousness ranging out to try and detect any other demonic entities in the area. He wasn’t reading anything close by, but anything could change and he wanted the heads up.

A sudden change in Sam drew Dean sharply back to awareness of his body.

“Sam?” Dean called, opening the door. His brother was still sitting on the bed where he had last seen him, but his shoulders were shaking and he was resting his face in his hands.

“Sammy?” Dean asked sharper, and grabbed his shoulder.

Sam looked up; his nose was bleeding and he smelled like pain, but he was smiling broadly and Dean realized he’d been laughing.

“It works, Dean. I saw… we have a place to start now!”

“Awesome!” Dean hugged him exuberantly, then let him go to examine his face. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Sam looked at his hands is if surprised to see blood there. “I remember I used to think this was the most painful thing ever, now next to the crap visitations from your angel friend, this is a cakewalk. I mean -- they still fucking suck, but it’s not even on the same scale.”

“So you know what we have to get?”

“I have some clues. I need to do some research, but I think we’ve got it.” Sam was still grinning, though the expression was somewhat pained.

“What did you see?”

“Mountains… a crowd of people, the clothes were old. Like, really old. Another century old. There was a dirt road, and a… rope. I think they were hanging this guy, Dean. I saw his face pretty well; he was watching this one man in the crowd. There was a… sign? Something. I couldn’t make out the words on it, but there was a symbol. Like a town seal or something.”

“That’s all a little vague, Sam,” Dean said, some of his enthusiasm flagging.

“Not as vague as some things I’ve tracked down. Hand me my shirt, would you? We need to find some wifi.”

Dean tossed his shirt to him, but Sam paused in the act of pulling it on, expression thoughtful.

“I’m not irritated anymore.”

“Uh… good,” Dean responded, bemused. “That’s… good.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed; he finished dressing then faced Dean directly.

“Are you?” he asked pointedly.

“Am I irritated?”

“It’s not like any of this has been smooth sailing, but it’s never been as bad as this past week has been. And now it’s all just… gone. I feel fine. And don’t even try to tell me you weren’t feeling it too.”

“It was Lilith.” Dean shrugged. “You were being pressured by the trap she was setting, and I was probably detecting it around the edges. It was irritating us both -- which shouldn’t be surprising, considering its source.”

“So next time I want to deck you, we should look for a spell?”

Dean snorted. “When was the last time you went an entire day without wanting to hit me at least once? I don’t think that means you’re being targeted, I think it means you’re still breathing.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Or whatever?”

Dean shouldered a duffle bag and flashed Sam a blinding smile. “Exactly.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
                                                ~First We Take Manhattan, Leonard Cohen

Dean took another sip of his lukewarm coffee and grimaced. He had never really been able to tell any difference between dollar coffee and five-dollar coffee, except that the only thing he had to decide with dollar coffee was decaf or regular, and ordering five-dollar coffee came with more options than his last cell phone plan. Fortunately, Sam had interceded before he felt forced to get violent with the girl at the register, but the entire experience still left him disgruntled. He despised yuppie places like this. But Sam had insisted. It had caffeine and free Internet and that was all Sam needed to settle into a place for weeks at a time.

Five hours was four hours and fifty-nine minutes too long for Dean.

“Sam.”

“What?” His brother looked reluctantly up from the laptop screen and raised an eyebrow.

“How much longer?”

“It will take as long as it takes. Why don’t you go… wash the car or something,” Sam suggested distractedly.

Dean glanced out the tinted front windows at the snow drifting down heavily and starting to pile up against buildings and gutters.

“I’ll get right on that, Sam. Are you at least getting anywhere?”

Sam sighed and looked up at the ornate clock on the wall. “Thirty more minutes.”

Dean looked surprised. “Why thirty minutes?”

“David Hill says he will get back to me in about thirty minutes. He had to run over to the library and flip through some of the historical archives. They won’t let him take those books out of the collection room, but he’s pretty sure he knows what he’s looking for. And once we have a name, it should just be a few minutes of Internet searching.”

“Who’s Hill?”

“A professor I did some research with when I was doing consultant work. Are you going to keep talking? Because I need to finish some stuff up before I hear from him, and this is just making it take longer.”

Dean wandered over to a couch to examine some magazines, outdated but still new to him.

Almost an hour later, Sam waved a hand at him and Dean headed back to the table.

“Your professor friend has a poor sense of time.”

“We’re over six months into this and finally making progress, Dean, you really want to whine about an extra half hour?”

We aren’t six months into this, I am a hell of a lot longer than that into this, and you just jumped on the band wagon practically freaking yesterday.”

“It was thirty minutes, Dean.”

Unmollified, but accepting that part of annoyance was just boredom, Dean slid into the chair next to his brother. “What do you have?”

“So -- I told you about the vision, with the crowd and the rope and the mountains and stuff.”

“Which sounded completely useless, but you seemed excited.”

“Thanks, Dean. Yeah, anyways -- based on the way the ingredient is listed, and the stuff that I saw, Professor Hill and I narrowed it down until we really only had one name that seemed to fit, this guy named Thomas Harris, out in South Dakota. Apparently some kind of a loner. His brother was a horse thief, and I guess they must have looked somewhat alike, because when someone saw the horse thief plying his trade one night, the guy managed to convince people it was his brother Thomas who was actually the criminal.”

“They killed him?" Dean asked incredulously. "For stealing horses?”

“Horses meant a lot in the Old West.” Sam shrugged.

“Apparently. How does this help us? We need blood; it sounds like you’re talking a hundred years or so ago. They decide to keep a jar of it laying around?”

“1877 to be precise, and we need blood, but it doesn’t say liquid anywhere.”

“I love it when you try to be all sneaky, Sam. Now what the hell are you on about?”

“They botched the hanging; like, really botched it." Sam grimaced. "The guy’s head practically came off. Lots in the story about how his blood rained all over the brother that had accused him, and so on.”

“Wait, this guy had the balls to accuse his brother of a crime he committed, then let his brother get sentenced to death and actually showed up to watch him die?”

“Well-- yeah, I guess.”

“Geez,” Dean muttered, “and I thought we were dysfunctional.”

“You mind if I continue?” Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dean made an impatient gesture.

“Right. When they caught the other guy back at his old tricks later in the next town over… well, people said that the guy they hung the first time had reached out to mark his killer. It was apparently quite the sensational story back in its day.”

“The sort of sensational story people like to keep souvenirs of,” Dean mused.

“Exactly. Like the blood-soaked rope. Quite the museum piece.”

“You get a location?”

Sam turned the laptop around to face his brother.

Dean glanced at the map. “Awesome, more snow.”

“Oh,” Sam added as he shut the laptop down, “and grab those magazines. They don’t care if we take one or two.”

“Dude, what the hell is up with your magazine fetish lately? We’ve got more than your body weight sliding around in the backseat already. I mean - I might be understanding if you were suddenly needing the comfort of some Busty Asian Beauties, though weighing in at a metric ton is an awful lot of comfort, Sam, but Cooking Light? Oprah? National Geographic? What the hell?”

“I like to read.”

Dean snorted and randomly grabbed a couple of the magazines scattered across the low table. “Not even you can read that fast. The only thing you ever do is flip through the pages. It’s not like they have anything interesting in them anyways.”

Sam stilled in the act of sliding the laptop into the case. “Have you been reading my magazines?”

“Sometimes.” Dean eyed Sam curiously, picking up on the tension in his voice and body. “The nights get boring and I can only take the whine of the laptop for so long before I need to take a break. Of course, I can take a lot less of that crap you’re collecting.”

“Play Solitaire.” Sam zipped the bag shut with more force than necessary and turned to face Dean directly, meeting his eyes. “Stay out of my stuff.” He grabbed the magazines out of Dean’s hand and slammed out of the cafe into the swirling white.

Dean took a moment to drain the last sip of his coffee, watching thoughtfully through the window of the store as the snow began to settle in Sam’s footprints, then tossed the cup in the trash bin and followed his brother out.


~~~~~


The building was ancient; cement between the dusty, pitted bricks was crumbling out, the paving stones uneven and chipped. The only thing new about it was the roof, which had obviously been replaced sometime in the last few years. It was all to the Winchesters’ benefit, however, since the windows had not been dubbed such a high priority. Their wavy, uneven glass and battered, cracked wooden frames were at this point probably supported as much by over a century of repainting as by any structural merit.

They had rolled into town earlier in the day, and spent most of it getting a feel for the local law enforcement and hanging out in the museum, playing tourists. Sam had also insisted they find a commercial recycling bin and had disposed of nearly all the magazines he had accumulated, keeping only the couple grabbed at the coffee shop. His expression had dared Dean to comment and so the demon had held his tongue, still curious about what had his brother so riled about them, but unwilling to start a fight over it.

The item they were looking for at the museum had not been on display. But at least the snow clouds that had blanketed most of the rest of the region seemed to have missed one isolated corner; it saved them having to be overly concerned about footprints. They also didn’t have to worry about alarms. The little building didn’t even pretend to have a security system, and the two cameras mounted inside were obvious fakes. They did have lights with motion detectors outside, but they had been so poorly positioned that half of the windows were easily approachable.

Dean pushed up carefully on the frame until a gap wide enough for the blade of a thin knife appeared, slid one through the gap and across the frame slowly until it caught on metal, then pushed until the metal moved under the pressure and the latch slid away.

Dean grinned at Sam. “They might not be into all the upgrades, but at least they keep things oiled.”

“Yeah,” Sam whispered harshly, “you know what else they aren’t into, Dean? Bushes. So can we please get inside before the cops come back around?”

Dean rolled his eyes, and after a quick look to make sure no one was watching, pushed the window up and climbed in. Sam followed on his heels. They found themselves in an oak-paneled room with display cases indicating the history of Whitewood, a tiny splinter town a few miles outside of Deadwood, South Dakota. The cases were all polished and illuminated from within, and the wooden floor was glossy in the light from the displays, probably original to the building, judging from the gnarled and uneven look of the planks. A handwritten sign politely apologized for some of the displays having been removed for restoration or on loan. Some casual inquiries during their earlier visit had revealed that restoration was done on site, and the loans were to various places all over the region for some kind of localized history week. Dean hadn’t wanted to link their memory to a particular item by asking about it specifically, so they were doing the search the hard way, starting with the museum itself first.

“Where to?”

“There’s only two rooms that weren’t part of the tour, one is the staff office, so the other...” Sam headed down the main corridor to a heavy door painted the same brick red as the trim with ‘staff only’ neatly centered on it. Sam tried the handle, but it refused to turn. He turned back to Dean, who shrugged, dug out his lock-picks and crouched down in front of it.

The lock released silently. Dean twisted the handle and pushed the door open.

“Ladies first.”

Sam gave his brother an irritated look but didn’t hesitate. His visions and research had led them to this place, and if he was right, if what they were looking for was here, then they would have the first of a short list of tangible things needed to make sure that Lucifer would stay locked up for a long, long time. It wouldn’t stop Lilith from making his life miserable, but it would go quite a ways towards evening the scales. If they got their hands on the first one, he was sure they could acquire the rest.

The old wooden floor creaked under his weight as he moved slowly through the room. It was lined with shelves and benches, everything cluttered with boxes of all shapes and sizes and piled up apparently at random.

“Crap,” Sam muttered, looking about helplessly.

“Well, that’s accurate.” Dean gave the room a disgusted look.

One of the relatively clear benches held a variety of empty display boxes. Sam moved them aside while reading the content labels and felt a surge of dismay. His brother was riffling through boxes on another bench.

“Dean.”

“What?”

Sam held out one of the empty display boxes. Its aged, green velvet lining was faded on the edges and neatly pinned at the bottom was an aged slip of paper. Written on it in a spidery blue ink:

Rope from the Tom Harris hanging, 1877, Deadwood S.D.

The box was otherwise empty.

“It’s fine, Sam.”

“In what way is this fine? If it’s not in its box, where the hell is it?!”

“Probably in its new box,” Dean offered nonchalantly, he held out a different case. This one was about the same size as the box in Sam’s hand, but was lined with crushed red velvet and coiled up in the middle, with the noose undone and the rope flat after more than a century as a display piece, the blood-soaked rope from the botched Harris hanging. A new printed tag beneath it gave the same information as the old tag:

Rope from the Tom Harris hanging, 1877, Deadwood S.D.

There wasn’t any blood visible just from looking at it, though, and Sam felt a surge of doubt. “How can we be sure?”

“Sure of what?” Dean gave his brother an impatient look.

“That this is the right rope! I mean, it has been a century. It could have been lost, or misplaced, or stolen as a souvenir and replaced with just any rope. It’s not like this one looks any different.”

“This is only now occurring to you? I thought you were supposed to have the smarts in the family?”

“Dean!”

“What do you want from me, Sam? If it’s the rope we’re looking for, we get to move on to the next ingredient, right? And if it’s the wrong rope, then... we’re screwed and back to square one.” Dean started to open the case.

“Don’t do that.”

Dean paused and raised an eyebrow.

“It’s protected in there; let’s just take both cases.” Sam gestured around at the mess. “It will take them longer to notice it’s gone if they don’t have empty cases laying around, or they will probably just assume it was loaned out if the box is gone.”

“If they notice at all,” Dean added, stacking the new and old cases and tucking them both under and arm. “Any other shopping you want to pick up while we’re here?”

“No. Let’s just try and get out without getting caught, please.”

Dean snorted. “We only get caught when we want to get caught.”

“I think maybe all your memories haven’t quite returned yet,” Sam muttered, as they made their way back through the building to the window they had entered from. He looked carefully around outside through the glass, then pried the window up and slipped back out.

Dean handed the cases to him, then hopped lightly down beside him onto the grass. “You don’t have enough faith in us, Sam.”

“What would your reaction be if we were spotted by the local cops and they tried to arrest us?” Sam asked pointedly.

Dean flashed him an edged smile that promised violence and pain. “Not a chance.”

“Exactly, that’s what I have faith in. So if you don’t mind, can we please go before they drive by again?”


~~~~~


“So what now?” Dean asked, when they were safely back on the Interstate. The lights of Whitewood had receded into the distance and they had the road practically to themselves. The whole thing seemed almost anticlimactic now that it was over. All that work and waiting and it was a ten-minute burglary he could have pulled off in his sleep. “Do we wait for you to have another vision?”

“It didn’t say; just that when we had one item, the next would be revealed.”

“Maybe you can just read it, then.”

“It’s in the trunk; you want to pull over at the next rest stop and I can look?” Sam asked.

“No point. I’m sure whatever it is will be annoying and require research and more visions to figure out. Let’s just put another hundred miles or so between us and the museum we just finished robbing, to be on the cautious side, and then we’ll try and find a less irritating place for you to geek out than some yuppie coffee shop.”

“There isn’t anything wrong with coffee shops, Dean.”

“Sure, if you allow for them being inherently evil, there’s nothing wrong with them at all.”

 

Chapter Twenty 

I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers overflowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
                                                ~Bad Moon Rising, Credence Clearwater Revival

Sam could read the next ingredient, but it didn’t make Dean any happier than the first one had.

“Where on the fucking planet are we supposed find ‘Nephilim Blood’?” he demanded, after Sam read the new required item to him.

“Maybe from a Nephili?”

“Oh, that’s just great help, Sam. No problem there -- I have half a dozen in the trunk; we can just pull over and juice one.”

“Look, last time I heard the term, it was a reference to giants. But since I haven’t seen any of them walking around ever, I’m hoping I can find a somewhat more conventional meaning. But I can’t figure out anything from the passenger seat of the car or standing around in a gas station parking lot!”

“Fine. We’ll get a room.”


~~~~~


 Dean drummed his fingers on the table and considered what Sam had discovered. “So the blood of the offspring of angels and humans?”

“Seems to make the most sense,” Sam sighed, and leaned back in his chair.

“Huh.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say, Sam?”

“I don’t know. Something more… helpful? You’re the one with the angelic buddies.”

Dean shrugged. “If these ‘Nephilim’ are part angel, I can probably feel them.”

“That’s great!” Sam sat up straight again.

“Maybe," Dean cautioned. "Bad news is I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Sam didn't look overly dismayed. “Well, considering the spell and all, it’s probably pretty rare.”

Dean wrinkled his nose. “I don’t even know how it’s possible.”

“Angels and humans having kids together?”

“Yeah.”

Sam shrugged. “The usual way?”

“Angels don’t have bodies.”

“The one I met at the motel had one.”

His brother snorted. “That was a Vessel, Sam. Some poor sap it borrowed to play Michael Landon for you.”

“Maybe that’s your answer. Maybe it’s just… infused.”

Dean stood up and reached for his car keys on the top of the television set that looked like it had been ancient when he was born. “Well, I think this conversation had gone as far as it possibly can. Thanks for that imagery, Sam. You ready to go get dinner?”

“That won’t solve our problem, Dean.”

“It will solve one problem. I’ll let you know if anyone trips my angel-dar; other than that and research, and hoping that you get some kind of visitation, is there anything we can do?”

“No.”

“Then food it is. Get your jacket.


~~~~~


More than a week later, Sam woke up to insistent shaking and his dead brother’s voice calling his name.

He opened his eyes and a kindly old woman was sitting beside him on the bed. When he blinked at her, she stood up and walked to a counter where she picked up a mixing bowl and a long wooden spoon.

“You looked like you were having a nightmare, dear. Do you want to tell me about it?”

Sam instinctively tried to sit up… and realized he was in a wooden chair at a kitchen table. It looked a little like Bobby’s kitchen, but Bobby’s kitchen had never been so clean, or smelled like fresh bread. Cordite and gun oil maybe, not bread.

“Um… I don’t… I don’t really remember. What are you making?” It seemed terribly important to ask.

The woman gave him a grandmotherly smile and sat down across from him, still stirring the contents of the bowl. “Cookies. My grandchildren always want cookies. So I try to always keep some in the jar; makes them eager to come see me.” She gave him a conspiratorial wink and leaned in a bit. “Store bought ones just can’t hold a candle. They think if they throw enough sugar at the problem, people will gobble them right up. But you feed a child some real homemade cookies and they remember who has the good stuff. A little flour, a little butter…”

Sam half listened while she continued chatting about her recipe; he was looking around, trying to figure out what was going on when something she said drew his attention back. “Did you say blood?”

She looked up at him with that smile again. “Love. I said love is important too.” She tilted the bowl forward and he could see that the handle of the spoon was a blade and blood from her badly lacerated hand was running thickly down into the batter.

Sam looked up at her, horrified, then watched, shocked, as her eyes flared with a brilliant white light and ghostly wings seemed to burn the air over her shoulders. Her voice was the same, though, as she continued.

“It’s in the blood, the legacy you pass down to your children, and your children’s children. It remembers where you come from, even when you don’t.” The light in her eyes grew brighter, expanding until Sam couldn’t look at her anymore and he fell back off his chair trying to scramble away. The entire house was shaking and he threw his arms over his head to protect himself.

Strong hands grabbed them and forced them down again. “Sam, damnit! I said wake up!”

Sam’s eyes flew open. “Dean?”

“For fuck’s sake, Sam. That better have been a vision, because if it was a nightmare, you need to be getting more sleep. I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten minutes.”

“Can you turn the light off?”

“Vision then.” Dean reached over and snapped off the switch. “Better?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it the angel?”

“My head doesn’t hurt enough for that, but it was weird.”

“The vision was weird,” Dean repeated, deadpan.

“She said love was important,” Sam mumbled, rubbing at his forehead.

“What? Did you get any clues?”

Sam blinked and just looked at him blankly.

“Clues, Sam! Did you get any from the vision?” Dean explained his question impatiently.

“Oh. No. Well, maybe. I could see trees outside, looked scrubby. Mesquite maybe.”

“South it is then.” Dean sounded pleased. He was sick and tired of snow and it was barely even winter yet.

“Can I sleep some more first?” Sam asked muzzily, twisting away from even the dim light coming through the cheap curtains from the parking lot. He heard a rustle of canvas and then the sound of water running at the sink.

“Take these first or you’re going to be completely worthless when you wake up.”

Sam pushed himself up on an elbow enough to swallow the pills and some water then flopped back down.

“You sure there wasn’t anything else?”

Sam wasn’t sure he replied aloud, but Dean left him alone, anyway, and soon he was asleep for real.


~~~~~


“Sam, yo -- you in dreamland over there? This nice lady has asked you three times what you want to eat.” Dean flashed the waitress an inviting smile that broadened as the woman blushed and returned it.

“I think it’s her, Dean.” Sam was staring intently at the local Texas paper.

“That’s not an order, Sam.”

Sam held up the paper and pointed to a figure in the grainy black and white photo on the cover. “Her, Dean. As in, from the other night, her.”

Dean looked back at the waitress. “Why don’t you just double my order.” Then he waited until she left to grab the paper and scan the page. “What the fuck are the odds of that?”

“Apparently, pretty good.” Sam glanced at the menu, then tossed it aside dismissively. “It’s not like anything about this entire mess has been normal.”

Dean snorted. “Normal for who? Now let’s see...” He unfolded the paper so he could see the caption. “‘June Richards of Southlake, Texas helps with her great granddaughter’s kindergarten class during grandparents’ week.’ Awwww, that’s sweet. So, Southlake then?”

“Unless you have some other lead I should know about.”


~~~~~


Texas was flat and arid.

Finding June Richards hadn’t been much of a hardship; she was listed in the phone book. The house was in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, somewhat of a step down from the more posh neighborhoods that Southlake --basically a Dallas suburb-- was known for. But it was also an older neighborhood, and if it was less upscale, the homes also had more of a personal feel about them. Children playing outside, neighbors talking on their porches, and landscaping actually done by the homeowners, and not the aesthetic dictates of someone hired for the job.

It only took about twenty minutes of observation to confirm that the home belonged to the right June Richards.

"Okay, we know she’s the woman from my vision --so what? Now what do we do?” Sam asked.

Dean shrugged, still picking at his cheeseburger. “I guess we confirm she’s one of these Nephilim.”

“How exactly do we do that? Go up and ask?”

“She probably wouldn’t know anyways. You said in your vision she talked about generational bloodlines; I doubt she has any idea what she is. But if she’s got that much angelic blood in her, I can probably tell.”

“She wasn’t even fifty feet away, Dean; you couldn’t tell then.”

“Fifty feet and five feet make a lot of difference when reading things like this, Sam,” Dean said, wounded.

“Well, how do you want to get within five feet, then? Stalk her?”

Dean snorted and finished off the burger. “I thought we would brush off some of our more traditional skills.”


~~~~~


“Ms. Richards? I’m Detective Young and this is Detective Shaw. We wanted to know if we could have a few minutes of your time? There have been some reports of unusual people hanging around the neighborhood and we’re just talking to residents, making sure there hasn’t been any problems or anything like that.”

The confused-looking elderly woman opened the door wider. “I’m happy to help out, Detective. But I haven’t seen anything. I’m not outside anymore as much as I’d like to be.” She gave them a rueful smile. “Arthritis in my back and all. The kids next door run around at all hours, though; they would probably be more helpful.”

“Thank you for your time, ma’am.” Dean gave her a professional smile back. “We really appreciate it; you can’t be too careful these days.”

“This has always been a safe neighborhood, but I appreciate you boys checking in. Have a nice day.”

She pulled the door closed and Dean walked quickly back to the car, Sam following on his heels.

Dean turned to Sam in the Impala, a light in his eyes that immediately put Sam on guard. “It’s definitely her.”

Sam nodded. “So we know; what do we do now?”

“What we do now, Sam, is sit back and enjoy some tunes!” Dean turned the volume up and soon the raucous strains of one of Dean’s personal mix tapes was loud enough to make Sam wince. But Dean was singing happily along, so Sam let the matter lie.

The motel they were staying at was a good thirty-minute drive. Dean pulled up in front of the room but didn’t kill the engine.

Sam hesitated with one foot outside the car. “You’re not coming in?”

“I’m gonna go find a carwash, do a little container shopping, and then grab something to bring back for dinner. I thought you would rather have some Internet time alone. You can come if you want,” Dean offered.

“No, thanks.” Sam climbed out and closed the door, but then leaned back in the open window. “How are we going to get some blood from her, Dean? It’s not like we can really just ask her to open a vein.”

“Did you pay attention to the spell, Sam?”

Sam didn’t bother dignifying that with a response.

“You have to use the Nephilim blood to draw some weird design, and it looks like a pretty big one. We aren’t talking a cupful of blood here, we’re talking more like a bucket.”

“No," Sam said immediately, "she wouldn’t survive that.”

“I didn’t make the spell, Sam, I’m just following the directions.”

“We aren’t going to kill that woman, Dean!”

“We’re going to do whatever we damn well have to.”

“No! Look, Dean. She’s not the only Nephili in the country, she can’t be! We can… figure out something. Maybe a little blood from several of them. We aren’t going to kill any people who aren’t even involved in this.”

“Wake up, Sam," Dean said acidly. "The whole planet is freaking involved. And it was your vision that picked her out, and it’s your vision that we are following here. Suck it up.” He shifted into drive and Sam had to jump back to avoid getting a foot run over. He stood in the parking lot fuming for several minutes before stomping into the room. It damn well wasn’t over yet.


~~~~~


When Dean slammed into the motel room a few hours later, Sam was waiting for him, standing with his arms crossed in the middle of the room. No chance to avoid the confrontation.

“You can kill her or you can keep me. You can’t do both.”

“Handing out ultimatums now, Sammy? That just doesn’t seem that bright.” Dean dropped his shopping bag by the door in case it turned into a battle of more than words and let a hint of his inner darkness frost the edge of his voice.

Sam glared at him. “I mean it, Dean. Stop trying to fuck with my head. We had a deal. I cooperate and you don’t kill people. Remember that, Dean? Remember the whole ‘demons have to keep their deals’ speech you gave me when I agreed to come along on this stupid trip?”

Dean gave Sam a surly look. “The whole point of you cooperating is for the spell. And if we can’t get the spell ingredients, then what the hell am I dealing with you for at all?”

“I’m not saying we can’t get the ingredients, I’m saying you can’t kill people to do it."

“People who aren’t trying to harm us,” Dean said pointedly.

Sam hesitated, then nodded. “Right. No other people, Dean.”

“What about people trying to harm other people?” Dean asked.

“Stop trying to split hairs, you know what I mean. You kill this woman and I walk.”

Dean threw himself back into one of the motel’s cheap chairs. “Then what exactly do you suggest we do, Sam?” he asked, annoyed. “Go and politely ask her if she will cap herself conveniently near a bucket?”

“I don’t know yet, but we aren’t killing her,” Sam stated flatly.

Dean let the silence stretch, staring balefully. Eventually, Sam got tired of the game and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door. Without Sam in front of him to annoy, Dean slumped down and tried to think of an alternative that wouldn’t end with his brother handcuffed in the car again.


~~~~~


Hours later, Dean was still in more or less in the same position. Sam had eventually emerged from the bathroom, and after some awkward conversation around the subject, they had tacitly agreed to drop the matter for the time being. Dean had indicated a general disinterest in doing anything that involved getting out of the chair, so Sam has settled in for the evening with the computer and whatever food he had dug out of his duffle, since Dean had been too annoyed by the confrontation in the parking lot to remember to bring anything back. The whole room still smelled like peanut butter.

A quiet whimper attracted his attention and Dean looked up sharply. Sam was curled into a knot, tangled with sheets on the bed farthest from the door. The darkness of the room didn’t hide from Dean the pained expression on his brother’s face as he struggled through whatever nightmare had him in its grip. It wasn't like there wasn't plenty of options to choose from. Dean still hadn’t thought of a solution to their problem yet, and as much as he would just as soon not have to deal with a conscious Sam anymore for the time being, he also wasn’t willing to let him suffer just to avoid a little awkwardness.

“Sam.” He shook his brother’s shoulder. Unlike the night before, Sam startled awake immediately, sitting bolt upright and gasping for breath. “Sam, you okay?”

“We have to go.”

“Go where?” Dean asked warily, remembering vividly what happened the last time Sam was insistent they had to go somewhere.

“The house, something awful is happening.” He slid out of bed and started pulling on his discarded clothes from earlier.

Dean had never bothered getting undressed so he quickly gathered up their few belongings that weren’t still packed. If they were about to go investigate something Sam described as awful, it was likely they would be wanting to blow town immediately afterwards.

“You have any more details than that?”

“No,” his brother replied, eyes wide and haunted. Dean wasn't even sure he was seeing the room around them, maybe still trapped in whatever vision was driving them out into the night. “We have to go now, Dean!”

“Soon as you get your shoes on. I’ll go toss stuff in the trunk.”

They only delayed long enough to shove the key in the overnight drop box for pre-dawn check-outs, then ghosted the Impala through the nearly deserted streets of Grapevine and then into Southlake. Sam was silent and still beside him.

“You still doing okay there, Sam?”

“I’m fine,” Sam said shortly, sounding less dazed and looking more aware. "Fine" was obviously a blatant lie, but if he was together enough to tell it, he probably didn’t need any help at the moment.

Dean parked the Impala at the far end of the block where an overgrown, empty lot hid it from casual view and there was a straight shot back to a main roadway. Sam hadn’t come up with anything more useful than ‘awful’ during the trip as a description of what they were about to walk into, so Dean wanted their bases covered. He shoved a rock-salt loaded shotgun into Sam’s hands and together they crept through backyards and gardens towards June Richards’ house.

They were still two houses down when Dean grabbed Sam’s arm, halting him in his tracks.

“Demons,” he hissed.

Sam sucked in a sharp breath and whispered back, “Still here?”

“Maybe.” Dean kept his grip tight on his brother and sent his senses ranging out, trying to get a better feel for what was happening. It was too dark for Sam to see the black his eyes had turned as he deliberately engaged his demonic abilities for information, but he could make out the distant expression on his face in the waning moonlight.

After a few minutes, Dean seemed to shake himself and let go of Sam’s arm. Sam rubbed at the residual ache. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t know. I don’t think any of them are still here.”

“Don’t think?”

Dean gave him an impatient look. “It’s not like it’s a science, and that old lady has a weird presence; it’s made this whole area difficult to read, like a static residue.”

“Ms. Richards?” Sam whispered, concerned.

“I didn’t pick up any humans. Or whatever she is.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Let’s go see what’s left.”

The back door was ajar. Sam reached to pull it open but Dean blocked his way. “Don’t touch anything.”

“What?” Sam hissed back.

“You don’t have gloves on, and I can already smell blood. Don’t touch anything.” Dean pulled the door open and motioned him inside.

“You don’t have gloves on either.”

Dean smirked and held up one hand, fingers spread as if demonstrating something. “I own this body, bitch. I only leave prints if I want to.”

Sam grimaced at the reminder, and crept in cautiously.

It wasn’t a difficult search. The back door opened into a laundry room, that opened into the kitchen from Sam’s dream. The woman herself was still propped gruesomely in one of the polished wooden chairs. She was wearing a long cotton nightgown and seemed to have suffered a few superficial wounds, long slashes to her arms and one across her cheek. None of them bad enough to have caused life-threatening bleeding, but the cause of death was obvious; no human could survive the unnatural angle of her neck.

“I guess it doesn’t matter if you get a bucket now,” Sam mumbled in defeated tones, the confirmation of what he had seen not unexpected, but still depressing. Dean didn’t appear to be listening, though; his eyes were again flat black and his expression intent as he stared at the corpse.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’re not alone.”

Sam looked the body over again, but she seemed just as dead as before. “Dean...”

Dean pulled Ruby’s knife from the sheath at his back and reached for the body. “If no one’s home, then this won’t be a problem.”

Before he could make contact, the body jerked upright with an agility it probably hadn’t possessed for at least thirty years and moved back against the wall. The neck straightened before their eyes and the woman’s death mask turned to a cynical and almost predatory smile, her eyes filled with the same darkness as Dean’s.

“Hello, tasties,” the demon purred. “My, you have been naughty, haven’t you? But never fear, Lilith is willing to let bygones be bygones, if you ask nice and grovel well.”

“What are you doing here?” Sam demanded tightly.

“Nothing much, poking around, asking questions. We’ve been so terribly curious about what you boys have been up to, you see. I couldn’t figure out what was so interesting about this particular slab of meat, and I wanted to talk to her. She didn’t feel very communicative, though.” It traced a finger along one of the slashes on its arm. “And screaming gets so on the neighbors’ nerves. I thought it best to end the discussion before someone noticed and called the cops.”

“She was just an old woman; she doesn’t have anything to do with anything, didn’t know anything!”

“And yet, here you are, darkening her doorstep again in the middle of the night. Why is that again?”

Sam gave Dean a furious look for assistance.

“I think what Sam’s trying to say is, she wasn’t any of your business, and we don’t appreciate your interest in ours. How did you follow us?”

It snorted.

Dean moved faster than Sam could even see. One moment, he was standing beside him, the next, he had the demon pinned back against the wall with the tip of Ruby’s knife digging into its throat.

“That really wasn’t an answer, now was it? And don’t even think of trying to smoke out of this meat-suit; that would make me angry.” Dean gave it a smile that was all edges. “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

“Doesn’t matter," the demon gasped as the blade knicked into it's neck. "There isn’t anything you can do to me that will be worse than what Lilith will.”

“Even destroying you completely?” Sam suggested from over Dean’s shoulder.

The demon sneered. Dean pressed harder with the knife. “I think you need to take a better look at me, before you feel so sure that Lilith is the worst thing that can happen to you.”

The demon blinked and focused on him. After a moment, its eyes grew huge and it actually seemed to cringe.

Sam was baffled; he couldn’t tell anything different about his brother, but something was scaring the crap out of the demon inhabiting June Richards’ corpse.

“Now that you are feeling more reasonable,” Dean continued, “why don’t we try this again. How are you following us?”

“It’s a locator charm.” The demon glanced meaningfully at Sam.

“Sam?” Dean demanded, looking over at him too.

“I don’t have anything, Dean!”

“More information,” Dean snapped at the demon.

“Someone gave it to him, in some shop in, uh, Kentucky. He carries it with him; he’s carrying it now. I can feel it.”

“That’s how Lilith set that damn compulsion.” Dean swore. “She’s been tracking us all along. Dump your pockets out, Sam.”

“Dean, I swear I don’t... Wait.” He frowned. “Kentucky?” Sam ripped his wallet out of his jeans and pulled a thin stack of business cards from the back. He singled out a pale lavender one with fancy black script and held it up.

“What is that?” Dean asked.

“That cafe, the one outside of Evansville. I was asking the guy at the counter about a rare book store in the area and this woman butted into the conversation. She said her uncle dealt in rare books, and she was sure he could help me out if I really needed to find something. She gave me this card, I… completely forgot about it.”

Dean pressed harder on the knife to make sure the demon didn’t try anything, then held his free hand out impatiently. “Let me see it.”

Sam passed the card over. Dean cursed as soon as the paper touched his fingers and let it flutter to the floor. “That’s it.”

“Why couldn’t you tell about it before? It’s been weeks, Dean!”

“It’s faint, really, really faint. And it’s not targeting either one of us, just sending out enough of a signal for anything attuned to it to trace. They probably can’t even feel it more than a few miles away; they’ve been on our fucking heels.”

“Then why only try to grab me the once?”

Dean turned his attention back to the demon. “Well, I guess that answers our question about whether any Seals are left or not, doesn’t it?”

“How?” Sam demanded.

“She was just feeling us out. If she’d gotten you, then great, but just watching after that attempt failed seems to have been okay. Means she isn’t ready for you yet, so she must still have other chores occupying her time. That right?”

“I don’t know her business,” the demon replied sullenly.

“Wait,” Sam interjected, “why kill this woman? You could have followed us around forever and we wouldn’t have known; why reveal yourself like this?”

It didn’t answer. Dean dug the point in another hair.

The demon flinched. “It was an accident. We just wanted to know why you were talking to her. But she knew something was… different, about us. She freaked out. We shoved our way in and tied her up. We were hoping you would show up sooner so we could use her as bait, but after a few hours, my associate got a little enthusiastic.” It shrugged a little.

“Where’s your associate now?”

“Do I look like I’m any kind of authority figure? I don’t know where he went; he told me to hang out here and see if I could find anything else out. I was going through her files when I heard you coming in the back door. This seemed like a better meat-suit to eavesdrop from.” It kind of waved off toward the hallway, where Sam could make out a man’s loafer, presumably attached to a body, just barely visible in the light from the kitchen.

“You have any more questions, Sam?” Dean asked casually.

Sam shook his head. Dean turned his attention back to the demon.

“You know anything else you might like to try and trade for your continued existence?”

“Fuck you.”

“Guess not.” Dean took the knife from its throat and slammed it home in its chest, but didn’t pull the blade from the corpse.

“Should we burn the card?” Sam asked, not looking at the body his brother was carefully lowering to the ground, at the friendly grandmother he had chatted with that afternoon, now with Ruby’s knife hilt-deep in her chest. Dean hadn’t even blinked when they had walked into the room and found her corpse in the chair -- Sam was sure of this because he’d been watching. Some part of him had already known what they would find, so he had watched Dean instead, watched for some sign that the horrible death of a completely innocent woman touched him at all.

“No," Dean decided. "She’ll know we know the second the spell breaks and start trying to tag us some other way while she still knows where we are. We can destroy it when we blow town.”

“That isn’t going to be right now?” Sam asked, trying to keep focused on the immediate problems.

“In a few minutes. I have to go get some stuff out of the car. Go through your wallet and take out anything you don’t absolutely need and we’ll burn it all. We’ll go through your duffel bag too, and anything you’ve added to the Impala.”

“What about your stuff?”

Dean gave him an impatient look. “Anything I carry on me or wear, I would have noticed by now, even as faint as that spell was. It’s only your stuff that’s risky. Back in a sec.”

When Dean came back a few minutes later carrying his shopping bag from earlier, Sam had a neat pile of receipts and business cards on the table. Dean traced a finger over them, then shook his head negatively. Spell-free. Sam gathered the papers back up and shoved them in a pocket to be destroyed later anyways.

“Did you touch anything?” Dean asked.

“Only the top of the table, and I wiped that down already.”

“Great; go wait outside.”

“Why? What are you doing?” Sam asked sharply.

“What we came here for. She’s already dead, Sam; neither one of you can complain now.”

Sam paled a bit and didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon.

“One of us has to be mission-oriented, Sam. Now go wait outside.”

“That isn’t fair, Dean.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything. But we’ve got things we have to do, and we can’t let anything trip us up. We didn’t kill her, but we still need her blood.” Dean pulled a gallon-sized plastic iced tea pitcher with a screw-on lid from the bag. “You don’t need to watch this, so get out.”

Sam nodded and went to sit in the darkness on the back steps.

About fifteen minutes later, Dean joined him, the jug wrapped up in the bag.

“You sure you got enough?” Sam asked dully.

“The human body only has about a gallon and a half of blood normally. She’d already been injured, and a corpse isn’t the best thing to try and bleed.” Dean shrugged. “Under the circumstances, I think a gallon is about the best we can do.”

Sam didn’t say anything, just stood up and started walking back towards the car.

Dean caught up with him, but held his silence until the gallon was stored in the trunk alongside the rope still in its case, and the Impala was back on the Interstate.

“I can’t coddle you, Sam,” he said finally. “I was completely honest with you about what I was after, and what I was willing to do to see it through. You agreed. I’m not going to go out of my way to rub your face in things you would prefer to ignore, but I’m also not going to jeopardize our success because you’re feeling squeamish. You got lucky this time; if next time I have to handcuff you again, stuff you in the trunk, and use the curse to get information out of you because you shut down on me in some moralistic hissy fit -- don’t think that I won’t. This isn’t about just us, or Lilith, or even that woman back there; this is about this entire fucking reality, and if you can’t be trusted to get my back, then I have to take steps to make sure you also can’t stab it.”

Sam nodded without looking at him. The gulf between them seemed greater than it had since they had forged their deal all those months ago.

 

Chapter Twenty-One 

Well, I’ve been waiting, I was sure
we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for
I think it’s time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter
                                                 ~The Stranger Song, Leonard Cohen

Things were better the next afternoon. Sam had regained some of his perspective while drowsing against the passenger door of the Impala. Dean hadn’t caused any of this, and it was Sam’s vision that had brought them to June Richards’ house. They hadn’t killed her, or had any idea that they were being tailed by the demons that did.

All of their clothes had been sent through the Laundromat, along with some herbs and a few Latin chants, and if their wardrobe now smelled faintly of rosemary and cedar, they were assured that none of it contained any spellwork. Dean had gone through all of Sam’s things --starting with his wallet-- looking for the faint hints of magic that would indicate more of Lilith’s meddling, then had personally run his hands over every single thing contained in the Impala, front seat, back seat and trunk, and had spent almost two hours out in the rain and cold of a diner parking lot while Sam ate and surfed the web, carefully inspecting every inch of her undercarriage and beneath her hood. People kept giving him strange looks while they went about their business, but Sam could hardly explain to them that Dean was a demon possessing his own body, and as such was hardly vulnerable to things like cold or pneumonia. Sam just pretended not to know him instead.

Then they had to look for a suitably abandoned barn or something where they could lay out the working for another spell, this one for preservation. Bobby had been unimpressed with Sam’s reasons for needing such a spell and had asked several pointed questions about exactly where they had obtained all this blood they wanted preserved. Sam had been sketchy about it, but after insisting what felt like dozens of times that neither he nor Dean had killed the woman, or had anything directly to do with her death, he had emailed Sam the ritual he needed within a few hours. It was fairly simple, but it required burning a circle around the object, so not really the sort of thing that could be handled in a motel room.

Sam wiped ash off his hands onto his pants and stood up.

“All done?” Dean asked, from where he was sitting on a hay bale watching the proceedings.

“Yeah. That should do it. I guess we will know if the spell worked or not if it starts to rot.”

“That’s a charming image, Sammy; thanks for sharing. Dump that ice out web analyticsin the grass, would you?”

“Don’t call me that,” Sam answered reflexively, as he grabbed the cooler they had kept the blood in and carried it out through the barn door to turn it over.

Dean rolled his eyes and went to grab the jug. “Where to now?”

“Lunch. And then… I don’t know.”

“You look at the spell yet?”

Sam grimaced, Dean knew damn well he hadn’t. “No, but… if it’s like the last two items, we aren’t going to know a damn thing until I have a vision anyways, and that could take anywhere from hours to days. Can I wait until tonight?”

“We didn’t kill her, Sam.”

“I know that, Dean! I’m just asking for a few hours.”

“It’s been almost two days.”

“Just a few more hours. Please.”

“All right, Sam. But it has to be tonight.”

“Tonight,” Sam agreed, “just not… now."

 

Chapter Text

 

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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