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What We Become: A Supernatural/Walking Dead Crossover

Chapter Text

Then:

“Hello?”

“Dean! You gotta pack up now. Take Lisa and Ben someplace safe. And take lots of bullets. I mean lots!”

Dean sat up in bed. “Bobby, what's wrong?” Lisa rolled over, eyes sleepy but full of worry as she gazed up at him.

“Sioux Falls is overrun. The walking dead are everywhere.”

“No.” Dean pulled sleep out of his eyes. “No. No way! We stopped the virus.”

“Apparently not.”

“Stay put. I'm coming to get you.” Dean jumped up, pulling his pants on with one free hand.

“No, ya idjit, listen to me! Everywhere! We're overrun. Get your family and get to safety now. Use my safe house, if you can get to it. I'll come when I can.” He paused, and Dean heard growling in the background. “It's bad, Dean. Go!”

*

Bobby heard the sounds of several windows breaking at once. The boards wouldn't hold long.

“Exactly how many times are we going to have to fight zombies together, Bobby Singer?” Jody Mills asked, a thread of panic in her voice belying her calmly wry attitude.

“I'm sorry, Sheriff.”

“Well, it's not your fault, is it?”

“Well...” Bobby thought a moment. “Not a-purpose, that's for sure.” Jody frowned and started to speak, but was interrupted by the sound of planks snapping. The windows started going one by one. He could see croats crawling through in the living room.

“There's too many of 'em!” Bobby yelled, shooting. “Get down to the panic room!”

*

Dean watched as Ben did a passable job of filling the target full of holes. Lisa slipped her arm around Dean's waist, smiling with quiet pride. There was no need to worry about croats for a change as Dean taught them everything he knew about guns. He'd never wanted to do it, but if he had to, he was going to do it right. He'd found a shooting range, surprisingly unlooted, and cleared it out in just minutes. Not too many croats hanging out in there. It was sound-proof and almost normal, and that's all that mattered.

“It's not supposed to be like this,” Dean said, feeling the weight of her proud smile pressing down on his chest. “We stopped all this. Sam stopped all of this. What's the point of his big sacrifice if we're always on the run, and Ben's going to have to live the same shitty life of a hunter anyway?”

“At least he's living,” Lisa said quietly.

“It's not supposed to be like this.” Dean ran his hand down his face.

*

“Cas! You get your ass down here!”

Lisa and Ben gasped as a soft wind fluttered behind him. Dean turned around, relieved to find the angel had finally answered his call. “We need your help, Cas. It's been three months, and he still ain't here. Where's Bobby?”

“Dean, I don't have time for this. We're at war up there!”

“We're at war down here!”

“Dean.” Castiel paced before the boarded windows. “The pagan and eastern deities have teamed up against Heaven. It's worse than anything you can imagine. Someone has stolen the strongest weapons of Heaven and left us nearly defenseless against them. And without Michael and his sword...” Cas shook his head. “I'm honestly not sure we can win.”

“Bobby,” Dean reiterated quietly. “He's done so much for all of us. That's all I need, and then you can get back to your little celestial pissing contest.”

Cas spun around and pushed Dean up against the wall. To Dean's horror, he saw that Ben had his gun out and pointed at Cas's head in half a second. Dean waved him off and stared into Cas's blue eyes. “Please, Cas. I'm begging you.”

Cas disappeared.

“DAMMIT!” Dean stalked through the room, kicked over a chair. “Dammit.”

A low fluttering once again announced Castiel's arrival. Dean looked up in relief as Cas spoke. “He's stuck in his panic room with that sheriff. They don't have a lot of food left.” Cas put a hand on Dean's shoulder. “The place is overrun. I'm sorry.”

“Why didn't you zap them here?”

Cas swallowed. “They were...busy. Now, so am I.”

*

“Rufus! You scared the bejesus out of me, man.” Dean leaned back against an old truck and tried to steady his heart. “What are you doing here? Are you alone?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah. Same.”

“Come to get my boy.” Rufus nodded toward the house. About sixty croats circled the place, most bumping back and forth between the maze of cars that they couldn't find their way out of.

Dean smiled. He held his gun in one hand and an axe in the other. “Yeah. Same.”

“Let's do this.”

*

Dean could only stare wide-eyed at the figure who had just hopped the fence and was sauntering up to the farm. He'd come out running, ready for another fight, unwilling to be run off from this sanctuary. Instead, he stopped in his tracks. His breath left him, and his heart stopped.

“Oh my god!” Lisa cried. “Sam?”

Sam started jogging toward them once the guns were lowered. He smiled tightly as he pounded Dean on the back. “Good to see you, man. It's really good to see you.”

“I don't believe it.” Dean shook his head.

Sam stepped back and spread his arms, then, to Lisa's obvious horror, cut himself with a silver knife. He reached in his pocket and pulled out salt, then sprinkled it right in the wound. He winced for a split second, but that was it. Dean holstered his weapon and pulled his brother close. “How long have you been back? How?”

“Nine months. And I have no clue.”

“You've been back this whole time?”

“As far as I can tell.” Sam looked around at the farm. “You're a hard man to find.”

Dean sighed. “We've been on the move. A lot.”

*

“CAS!” Dean pushed Ben toward Bobby, heedless of the boy's injury.

Bobby in turn pushed him to Jody, though a bit more gently, and grabbed Dean. “You can't! I want to save them just as much as you, but it's too late. We need to get him out of here, and he can't walk.”

“It's never too late,” Dean spat. “Castiel! Get down here! Farm, now!” He tried to pull away. Struggled to run to Lisa.

“Dean, there's too many of 'em!” Bobby pleaded with him. “We've already lost two. Please!”

Dean tried to push him off, but Bobby spun him around and slapped him flat across the face. Dean raised a fist, struggled not to hit him back. “Bobby, don't you dare---”

“I love 'em too, Dean, but that's a damn big herd. Your boy can't walk. Let's go.”

“Cas!” Dean screamed, pulling away from Bobby. “He can bring her back! I know he can. Cas!

“Stop yelling!” Bobby looked back at where Jody was struggling to carry Ben to the car. Ben hopped along as best he could, but the bone was poking out above his ankle. And at least a dozen croats were closing in on them from the other direction. “We're getting surrounded. We gotta go!”

Sam shook his head and clasped Dean on the shoulder. “I'm sorry.” He ran to cover Jody and Ben, his firing never lagging.

“Cas!”

“Dean!” Ben yelled, his voice carrying even more grief than Dean's. Dean stopped fighting off Bobby, and the two looked across the yard at each other. “Please,” Ben whispered.

Finally, Dean ran to the car. Once in, he started beating the steering wheel. “Cas, dammit, come on!”

“Dean.” Sam's voice was low as he fell into the backseat, still covering Ben. “Get us out of here, then I'll drive.”

Bloody croat hands slammed against the windows, and Ben screamed. Dean started the car. Across the yard, he saw first Rufus and then Lisa stand. “Oh, hell no.”

The car started speeding down the driveway. “Ben, close your eyes!” Bobby yelled as he rolled down the passenger window and leaned out. “I'm sorry,” Bobby said quietly before shooting Rufus in the head.

Dean said nothing as he turned the car and shot Lisa himself.

*

“Rick, I'm telling you...he gunned that boy down.”

Those words echoed in Rick's head as he looked at the people of Woodbury. It was mostly just the old and the young staring back at him. A few, but not many, in between. Most of those had been gunned down on the road by the Governor. Rick looked into the frightened eyes of little old ladies and kids.

Kids.

This was just what Carl needed. It was what they all needed. They had food, supplies. They turned over all of the weapons when they heard what the Governor had done. Karen introduced him to a doctor. Eileen was expecting a baby. Ms. McLeod had a pregnant pig and a handful of chickens. They could join forces and have real lives.

“You're welcome to join us,” he said. “But there's got to be some ground rules...”

 

Now:

Daryl spotted the survivors before they saw him, despite the fact that the Triumph loudly announced his approach. Since there were only two of them, both huddled intently over the hood of their ride, he rode up to the crossroads to check them out. The men had their guns drawn and trained on him as soon as they noticed him, so Daryl pulled the bike to a stop several yards away.

They both had narrowed eyes and pistols drawn, but Daryl's eyes were drawn to the shiny black Impala between them. There was some splatter on the windshield where they had obviously encountered walkers recently, but it was otherwise pristine and still quietly purring. Daryl inclined his head. “Nice wheels,” he called.

The shorter one's arm relaxed just an inch or so. “Thanks. Yours too.”

“It was my brother's.”

The man hesitated. “Dad's. But she was mine long before this all started.” He lowered his weapon, but the other man kept his raised. “Don't find many people traveling alone these days.”

Daryl nodded, his eyes sweeping over the duo, then finally noticed the bottles weeping onto the map they had laid out over the hood. “Holy shit! Are those cold?”

“Sorta,” the guy said, following his gaze. “They were cold yesterday. We've been on the road. Ice melted overnight. Sadly, the beers didn't make the night either.”

Daryl cut off the engine and dismounted, throwing his hands up as the big guy double-gripped his gun and took a step forward. “Peace, brother.” He jutted his chin toward their map. “Got one more? I know the area all right. I'd trade you anything I know for a cold drink. Even our water ain't really cold, since we boil it first.”

“He said they're not cold.” The big guy finally spoke.

“Tepid, then.”

The nicer fella reached out a hand to lower the asshole's gun. “Yeah, sure. Why the hell not?”

Daryl left his bow as a sign of good faith, but he still had his knife if anything went south. His hand twitched as the guy walked to his trunk, but he stayed calm, hoping for a soda and not a fight. “Name's Daryl.”

“Dean,” the friendly one said as he shut the trunk and came around with a third drink. Coke in real glass bottles. Daryl sighed with relief, smiling as Dean continued, “This is my brother, Sam.”

“Thanks,” Daryl said, twisting off the cap and drinking deeply. “Man, nice! Thanks a lot.” He peered at the map spread out across the hood. A cluster of counties to the west had all been crossed out. “Y'all looking for somebody?”

“You could say that.” Dean glanced over Daryl's shoulder. “What's back that way?”

“Not much, I can tell you that. I got a group. We've picked most everything clean. Who you looking for? Maybe we found 'em.”

The two exchanged glances. “Monsters,” the dickbag, Sam, said with a smirk. “We hunt monsters.”

Daryl snorted. “Don't we all?” He gestured toward the four-way. “You'll find those any direction you pick.”

“No,” Dean said. “Sam's right. We're hunting monsters - and he doesn't mean the croats. Pack of vamps came through here yesterday. Not sure which way they went.”

Daryl nearly choked, tepid soda burning his nose. “Pack of what?”

Sam pulled his gun again. “You heard him. Pack of vamps. Vam-pi-res,” he enunciated slowly. “Now are you able to help us, or are you just drinking up all our supplies?”

“Chill the hell out, douchebag.” Sam waved his gun, but Dean laughed. Daryl just shook his head. “Y'all been on your own a little too long, I think. Ain't no such thing.”

“Actually, we haven't, and there is.” Dean pushed Sam's gun down once more. “We hunted all manner of nasties before the croats came along, and we'll be doing it 'til the day we die. Now, we're hunting a particularly nasty group of vamps, and night is falling. We don't really have a lot of time for foreplay. You got a group of people that direction, they might be in danger. So I'll ask you one more time – what's back that way?”

Daryl looked between the two. He didn't want to get himself shot, but these fellas seemed to turn real weird real fast. Still, a promise was a promise, and the Coke was colder than anything else he'd drank in a long, long time. If there was a danger of any sort, even if maybe they were just misinterpreting it, he had to watch out for his people. “I said not much. We picked our whole area clean. I got a big enough group looking for supplies a little further out. We cleared out a house last night and a convenience store this morning, but we ain't found much more than that. There's supposed to be a decent town about seven miles north of here, but we don't know how many walkers it has. There's a few trees down on the road about a mile and a half back. My bike's the only thing that could make it through. They're trying to clear it out without loud-ass chainsaws while I scouted ahead. It's pretty freaking rural that way. There's a house we might be able to hole up for the night in, but that's all I saw. Wanted to check around before we went in.”

“A few trees, huh?” Dean downed the last of his drink and grabbed up the map. “They don't usually fall in packs, do they now? I wasn't lying – it's nearly dark, and that's their prime hunting time. I'd bet my sweet ass that that's a trap. And that house may just be their new nest.”

The last thing Daryl wanted was those two armed crazies running off after his group. “Hey, man, I got it. It's my group. I bet they've cleared it already.”

“Not taking the chance if there's civilians on the road,” Dean barked, slamming his door. He gestured, making it clear that he was willing to run Daryl over if he didn't move.

Dammit, Daryl thought. “We're not civilians,” he yelled as he backed out of the way. “We all been fighting a long time. Don't go in there guns blazing.” He guzzled as much as he could as he ran back to his bike. This time he rode with his crossbow over his shoulder. He wasn't going to let those crazies burst in on the group brandishing weapons and getting everyone killed.

“Guns don't kill 'em,” Sam said out the passenger side as they drove past. “Not vamps. Gotta cut the heads off.”

Well, Daryl thought, rolling his eyes at the absurdity of the situation, off-chance they're right, at least Michonne's with the group this time.

He sped after them. He tried to pass them and reach the group first, but, crazy or not, the men either honestly believed their story or were intent on killing and robbing the lot of them. Daryl kicked the gears up but still couldn't overtake the brothers. The Impala went hauling down the road at at least eighty miles an hour, swerving around abandoned cars and walkers alike.

The sun dipped behind the tree line.

Everybody had guns drawn as the Impala came screeching to a halt. The brothers piled out, and there was an honest-to-God Mexican stand-off until Daryl pulled into the middle of it. “Easy now. These guys just want to help,” he assured them. He glanced back at the brothers, hoping like hell that was true.

The trees were mostly pulled off the road. There were five of them, and Daryl looked at them a bit more closely after Dean's earlier comment. The three smaller ones were snapped off at the trunk, and the two larger, older trees were pushed out by the roots. They hadn't been clustered together, either, like if one big tree had pulled the others down. No, these had been pushed over from both sides of the road. Could they actually be right? Daryl wondered, then snorted at the thought. No, if there was any such thing as vampires, they would surely know about it by now. There was only the walking dead - and the poor suckers who couldn't handle it and went off the rails with it. These two were obviously the latter. Dealing with the governor had been hard enough. They didn't need two heavily-armed bat-shitters to fight this time. Daryl quickly cut off the engine and kicked the stand down, ready to draw if need be but trying to avoid it if possible.

Tyreese and Greg were pulling the last, biggest tree out of the way while Sasha and most of the others kept the gathering walkers at bay. Michonne, Glenn, and Maggie had run forward, weapons drawn on the brothers. “They come speeding, jump out with giant bowies drawn,” Michonne said mildly, her sword arm never wavering. “Sure don't look like they're here to help.”

“They seem to think it's a tr--”

Daryl's words were cut short. Sitting alone in the middle of the large, raggedy circle without a weapon drawn, they took him down first. To his surprise, it was a girl who had barreled into him with such strength that it knocked his bike over. Daryl instinctively cursed upon hearing the Triumph clatter before it even registered that he was rolling around on the ground with a tiny chick who had seemingly super-human strength. It was only pure adrenaline that allowed him to push her head up, keeping him – at least momentarily – from being bitten. He looked up into a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. “You're shittin' me!”

The vamp hissed in response, then jerked as bullets pelted her shoulder. One hit her in the side of the head, but she still wasn't phased. She grabbed Daryl's vest and rolled, trying to pull him off the road. He dug his feet in and pushed up as hard as he could, trying like hell to get away. A bullet nicked his forearm, and he nearly dropped her down on top of him. The bullets had no effect on the broad, though.

“The heads!” he heard Dean yelling. “Cut off the heads!”

Blood rained down over his face as Michonne did just that. It sprayed from the chick's – vamp's? - neck, pooling in his mouth. It was only slightly coppery, like blood should be. It mostly just tasted like death. The smell emanating from her truncated neck was fetid, which, maybe luckily, caused him to vomit most of it out. “It's in my mouth!” he screamed, his voice cracking.

“She's dead,” Sam said, pausing only briefly as he ran past. “Gotta be live blood. I think, anyway.” He looked at Michonne. “Better keep an eye on him, actually.”

Then Sam was gone, throwing himself into the melee, and Michonne stood guard over Daryl. She was obviously ready to cut off his head if necessary, and, somewhat to Daryl's disappointment, she didn't look particularly grieved by the idea. “You ain't cuttin' my head off,” he said, pulling his bandana from his back pocket to wipe his face off.

“Will if I have to. Nothing personal.”

“You cut my head off, it gets personal. I don't even know if I believe them.”

A scream was cut short as Greg's neck was bitten. “I do,” Michonne said, then cut the head off of another one who came too close.

Daryl's knife was too small for cutting off heads, so he stood up to reclaim his bow and help keep the walkers at bay. As soon as he stood up, though, the world swam. Michonne caught him by the arm, and then, as his vision cleared, he noticed the sword at his throat. “Stop it,” he said, rubbing his eyes and trying to see just one of her.

He heard a low laugh and was startled to realize it was coming from a guy far across the road. Big fucker with a crew cut who was using an unconscious Greg as a shield. The guy nodded at Daryl, then disappeared into the woods as two others guarded his escape. A third lost her grip on Maggie, thanks to some ferocious defense by both Maggie and Glenn, and managed to snag a bewildered Zach before following Crew Cut Guy.

Daryl cried out as the clatter of knives and machetes became too loud. Hell, everyone's frantically beating hearts were too loud. He could still hear Crew Cut Guy's laugh rumbling from in the woods, hear Greg's feet dragging as he was pulled away. He heard Zach struggling and the thudding sound that silenced him. The last two vamps threw themselves at Sam and Dean, obviously feeling something personal towards those two, but then ran in separate directions as the group came close to surrounding them.

Sam nudged Dean, who looked his way. Daryl struggled to stand up straight. “Shit,” Dean said, sighing. “I kinda liked him.”

Michonne pulled back to swing.

“Wait!” Sam held a hand out and hurried towards them. “Wait.”

Daryl glared at her and used the opportunity to stalk back to his fallen bike, yanking it up with one hand. “Damned thing's gonna flood,” he murmured, not meeting anyone's eyes.

“There's a cure,” Sam said.

“What?” He and Dean spoke at the same time. Dean gaped at his brother. “There is?”

“Yes,” Sam said, tilting his head as he gazed at Daryl. Of everybody there, his heart beat calm and steady. “I'm willing to help you...if you'll help us.”

He saw Glenn stepping up his right hand side, working his way between him and Sam. He and Maggie had their riot gear on, and while Daryl was grateful, he didn't want Glenn taking a hit for him. He nodded in thanks and stepped forward, doing his best to stand up straight. Then --- then all of the sudden Glenn smelled good, almost kind of delicious, and Daryl found his strength and waved him back towards Maggie. “Help doing what?”

Sam gave a faint smile. “We need to find the Alpha. Samuel's been hunting him, and I know he has a Campbell family cure. He's been after the Alpha for months. If we can find him, we'll find Samuel's group.”

“Samuel has a cure? Our grandfather Samuel?” Dean sounded more angry than surprised. "Why is this the first I'm hearing about it?"

“Whatever,” Daryl said. He didn't care about any family feuds or sibling rivalry or whatever the hell these two had going on. He glanced at his friends, whose sweat smelled unnervingly quenching. “Yeah. Let's do it then. Let's go.”

“We're coming with you,” Maggie said.

“No way!”

“Daryl ---” Glenn started.

“You need the blood of the fang that turned you for the ritual,” Sam broke in, nodding towards the vampire's body. “Not a lot of it left, I don't think.”

Daryl turned and looked across the blood soaked pavement. Whether the vampire had been dead or not, its blood had splurted out all over the place with its beheading. There was a pile of bloody puke where Daryl had vomited in the road. It smelled wholly disgusting, but his stomach suddenly seemed made of steel. Empty steel. “How much?”

“Yeah, Sammy, how much?”

Sam glared at his brother. “I don't know, Dean. It was something he mentioned once. I guess maybe a vial?”

Daryl went to his bike and pulled his canteen and cup from the saddle bag. “Fine.” He took a big swig of water – tasteless; wet but not enough – and poured the rest out as he walked to the vampire's body. He kicked her over, caught eyes with Glenn, and looked away. “Fine.” He took a couple deep breaths to steady himself, then balled up his fist and plunged it down into the vampire's chest. It was sticky. Much colder than he expected. Daryl pulled the heart out, ignoring the gasps of his friends. He turned his back to everyone as he squeezed what blood he could out, but he could hear them all breathing heavily, their hearts all kind of catching simultaneously before pounding wildly and dizzily.

He turned back. “That should be enough. Let's go.”

“Jesus, dude,” Dean said, looking at him with some mixture of respect and disgust. Sam smiled, smacked his brother's chest, and headed for the Impala.

Maggie pushed past Glenn, her heart going faster than anybody's. “Daryl --”

“Go back to the prison. Tell Rick and the others. You gotta protect everybody from...” He swallowed, saw Sasha and Tyreese shaking their heads. He busied himself wiping his cup out and putting the canteen away. “Undead things that can think. And who can smell one living person three miles away, let alone a whole prison full.” He turned back and crossed his arms. “And let 'em know shots to the head don't work this time.”

“You're not going alone,” Glenn insisted. Daryl blanched and took a few steps back, trying to distance himself as he began to salivate at the the faint pulsing of Glenn's jugular.

Sam came back down the road, stepping between them and blocking his view. Daryl forced himself to stare at Sam's eyes, unwilling to let his gaze travel any lower, and tried not to let his immense relief at the distraction show. “One more thing,” Sam added. “If you feed, it's too late.”

Daryl's teeth clenched, but his mind suddenly cleared. “I ain't gonna feed. Let's go. They've got Zach alive. I can smell him east of here. Maybe we can save him. But if I can smell him, then they can sure as hell smell all of you. I'll take these guys and follow them, and we'll get Zach back if we can. We'll find this Samuel guy, and I'll come back if they can fix me. And only if they can fix me.”

“I'm not letting you go off with these guys,” Glenn said, pushing past Sam.

Daryl stared at Glenn. “I can more than handle it right now.” From the corner of his eye, he saw Sam and Dean look at each other. “Let's move.” He swung his leg over the bike and tried to start it up. It sputtered miserably. Damned thing had flooded after all.

“Fine,” he heard Maggie say. “No, if that's what he wants, fine. We haven't found anymore gas. We can't get very much farther without it. This is the only way to guarantee that we have enough to get back and let the prison know about the vampires.”

He kicked it again, and the bike finally cleared its throat and sputtered to life. Maggie stepped forward and squeezed his hand. “Hurry. Get the cure and hurry back.”

“Yeah.” Daryl nodded and watched with relief as Glenn silently followed her back to the Dodge. Sasha and Tyreese reluctantly followed. Michonne stared at him a bit before finally climbing up in the back. She nodded to him and sat down cross-legged, resting her sword across her knees. Maggie turned back, giving a half-hearted wave out the window as Glenn turned the truck around, never glancing back his way. Daryl knew he was pissed.

“All right, let's go find this alpha. They're heading south, and pretty quick, too.”

Sam's cheek twitched. “He may not be with the group who hit you.”

Daryl stared at him. “You dick.”

“We think he's close.”

“Think?” Daryl spat. “How close?”

“There's been a lot of survivor groups hit within a fifty mile radius of this cross-roads. And the circle has been growing fast in the last month, from what we hear.”

“Not a lot of fresh food left,” Dean explained. “They're collecting it while they can. Keeping them alive to feed on.”

“Then we should help everybody back to the prison.”

“Hate to tell you, but you ain't got a whole lot of time. How far away is this prison?”

Daryl frowned at him. “Far enough. For now.” It was more than fifty miles, but he didn't want the brothers knowing anything else about it. They'd had to expand runs out farther and farther since the people from Woodbury had joined them.

Suddenly he doubled over, nearly knocking the bike over again as pain seized him. He clung to it, both to steady the bike and himself. His ears started to ring loudly. He crossed his arms above his head and turned away, shocked as he felt a second set of teeth clawing its way out of his gums. And not just one little fang on each side, either. A whole mouthful of fangs poked through before sliding back up. It was a weird feeling, almost as if he slurped a hundred tiny icicles up into his gums, sending a cold chill down his spine. “How do we find Samuel?” he gasped.

“If the alpha is somewhere within this fifty mile area, then Samuel is too. We were on his trail when I finally found Dean's again a few months back. We just need to find him. There aren't that many survivors left that the vamps haven't got. If you can follow their smell, I suggest we follow them until we find more of them.”

“Fine.” The pack had run off through the woods, heading south and slightly east. Daryl swung his bike around to head back toward the crossroads. He waited to see if the guys would be able to turn their car around without getting stuck. As the boys pulled a six-pointer around the trees, Daryl went to tie his bandana around the bullet graze on his arm. To his surprise, he couldn't find it.

Shaking, he tucked the cloth back in his pocket. He could see walkers far ahead, drawn by the commotion. Daryl jumped as he heard one right next to him.

He looked down, seeing the vamp's head gurgling some couple feet off the road. He kicked the kickstand down and walked over to it. The head growled, its eyes rolling back as it tried to see him. Her teeth compulsively slid in and out of her gums, sending that odd tingling down his spine again. He slid his knife out and stabbed her through the head.

Looks like our blood infects them too, he thought, then spat down at her.

The Impala's engine revved. Daryl knifed a walker who had wandered too close and jumped back on his bike. He dodged the ones coming down the road and headed back to the crossroads where he had found the brothers. He turned south, following the vamps and the sweet smell of Zach's cold sweat.

Chapter Text

“So now we're hunting with random, vampiric strangers?” Dean asked the moment Daryl took off.

Sam sighed. “We were hunting the vamps anyway. You want to find Samuel and the Alpha, right? Daryl can lead us straight to them.”

“Or eat us!” Dean looked at his brother, then gestured toward the guy on the bike riding ahead of them. “Or he could eat us, Sammy.”

“I doubt that.”

“Oh yeah? Why? You've only just met him. We don't know anything about him.”

Sam gave a small smile. “He reminds me of someone. I think he'll do fine.” The Impala turned, following Daryl as he headed down the south road. They could see Daryl sniffing when he turned his head. Sam nodded. “You see? He'll save us lots of time. And he seems highly motivated.”

“Highly motivated? Really?” Dean rolled his eyes. “What, are you recruiting right now?”

“No. I mean, maybe.” Sam glanced out the window. “If you're right about the Alpha raising a food harem, then we need more hunters out there. Right? Hell, damn near everyone we know is de--”

“Shit!” Dean slammed on the brakes as they watched Daryl's bike wobble and crumple under him. The Triumph's brake lights hadn't flashed at all, so Dean knew Daryl hadn't even tried to slow. He simply went down, sliding across the pavement as his bike bounced into the ditch and catapulted off the road. “Shit!”

Dean swerved left, doing his best to avoid both the bike and Daryl's rolling form, and the Impala careened across the road. The car spun, coming to a stop facing the opposite direction. He could see Daryl lying on the side of the road, his bike in the distance, the headlight shining into the air like a spotlight. They quickly jumped out and ran to Daryl, surprised to find him bloody but seemingly intact.

“He had to have been going close to fifty,” Sam said, rolling Daryl onto his back and checking him over. “How is he not broken to bits?”

“Chock full of vamproids,” Dean said, kneeling down to get a better look. The guy had a pretty nasty bit of road rash down his right arm and cheek, but otherwise he was mostly just dirty and bruised. “He's got some road rash, but I bet that clears up easy enough.”

“Don't you think he'd have to feed?”

“How the hell should I know?” Dean jutted his chin. “Croat, six o'clock.”

Sam stood and turned, taking out the croat with his bowie knife. They were better used for cutting vamp heads, really, but at least he had something. “Hope dude's crossbow isn't broken. I'm taking that, if he doesn't wake up.”

“Watch him will ya? I'll check the bike,” Dean called as he headed back down the road. “Daryl was pretty pissed when it flooded. He's not gonna be happy to see it now.”

Like its owner, it wasn't in nearly as bad of shape as Dean feared. He stood it up and gave it a slightly better look over than he had Daryl. The gas tank was warped on one side where it had hit as it fell, but it didn't seem punctured. A few dents and scrapes, but it looked mostly intact. “Good,” Dean said, frowning as another handful of croats came into view farther up the road. “Why don't you see if we've got any water we can splash on him? Otherwise, we load him up. Can't stick around here.”

“Don't touch the bike,” Daryl slurred as he began to rouse.

“I was just checking it for you,” Dean said.

“Well don't.”

Dean shrugged and headed back toward him while Sam killed another croat coming out of the woods. Dean held out a hand to Daryl, who grabbed hold with his good arm. “You okay, man?”

“I'm fine.” Daryl stood, unsteady on his feet. “Mostly, anyway.”

“Mind telling us what that was about?” Dean asked. “You're lucky to be alive! Or undead. Whatever you are.”

Daryl rubbed his head, giving a small wince. “He was...talking to me. Kind of.”

“Who?” Sam asked, joining them.

“The Alpha. I guess. Whatever you call him. Everyone else called him Father.”

“Everyone who?” Dean asked. “What, vamps have some kind of psychic telephone?”

“Yeah. You could say that. It was mostly images.” Daryl shook his head. “We're heading the wrong way. I recognized one of the houses. Bastards are leading us away from the Alpha. Doesn't matter though. It's too late. Guess your boy caught him.”

“Our boy? You mean Samuel?”

“Yeah, I guess. Bald dude? Kinda old?”

Sam smirked. “That would be Samuel.”

“Wait a minute,” Dean said. “What do you mean 'caught'? You mean killed, right?”

“No, I mean caught. They're taking him someplace. And boy is he pissed about it.” Daryl slowly walked to his bike, anxiously looking it over. “Aw, hell,” he said as he saw the dents in the gas can.

“It's not leaking,” Sam added helpfully.

“Yeah, but it's beat all to hell.” He tried to start her, to no avail.

“Flooded again?”

“Throttle cable's pinched,” Dean offered.

“You're mighty interested in my bike,” Daryl observed, rummaging in his saddlebag. He pulled out a screwdriver. “Why don't you be useful and cover me while I fix it?”

Dean turned his attentions to the croats who had been called by the noise of the crash. He took out three, then frowned as he saw more coming out of the woods. Sam dispatched the four who had come down the road, but they could see even more in the distance. “Leave it.”

Hell no.”

“You're seriously lucky you're even alive, anyway,” Sam said. “That was a pretty rough crash. Don't you have any gear? I mean, your friends were in full blown riot gear, and you're in a vest.”

“A helmet blocks my vision. Gotta watch for walkers in every direction these days. Cars, not so much. Figure if I wreck, I want to go quick, not lay around all broken, waiting for the walkers to get me.” Daryl said, pointedly eying the dozens of croats now coming out of the tree line.

“Wait a minute,” Dean interrupted, interrogating Daryl even as he stalked from croat to croat. “Where are they taking him? Why are they taking him?”

“I don't know, man. I saw a house I recognize from earlier runs. It's northeast of here. They grabbed him and put him in a van. Two cars with them. No clue where they'd be taking him.” Daryl pulled the throttle housing back on the handlebar and unkinked the line, fumbling as his hands started to shake. He looked up at Sam with gratitude as he kicked a croat away before stabbing it in the head. “Guess my weird healing powers were only temporary.”

“No,” Dean said. “You'll still heal faster. Not as fast as if you feed though.” He shot a look down at Daryl. “But you won't, right?”

“'Course not.” Daryl cracked his fingers before putting the throttle housing back together. “Look, I can take you to where the Alpha was, but I know he ain't there now. I also know that he—like, he called them. Us. Vampires. They know he was taken. And, well...” He threw the screwdriver back in his bag and checked out his crossbow. After a quick appraisal, he shrugged and aimed at an incoming croat, smiling when it shot properly. He continued as he retrieved the bolt, “Well, he seems to be recruiting. They're not catching them all for food. They're turning a lot of them. And he called for reinforcements.”

The brothers shared a look. “You're sure about this?” Sam asked.

“Yeah.”

“You still want that cure?”

“Yeah!”

“Then take us to the house. That's our only lead. I can find Samuel's trail from there.”

“What about Zach? They're going the other way.”

Sam shook his head. “I'm sorry, man. You seem to be a pretty determined guy, but we're probably looking at a pretty small window before the blood thirst eventually overpowers you.”

Daryl's nostrils flared. “Yeah, I suppose you might be right.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Well, all right. I guess I'll take you to that house.”

Dean was already climbing into the car, impatiently drumming on the dash as he waited for Sammy to get his ass in gear. Once they were back on the road, Dean took a deep breath. Without even looking at Sam, he asked, “How much of this did you know already?”

“What do you mean?”

Dean finally looked at him, his eyes blazing. “How much of this did you know?” he asked quietly.

“Look, Dean,” Sam said, frowning. “I knew he was after the Alpha. He once mentioned having a cure. That's it.”

“I just can't help but feel like you've been lying to me this whole time, Sammy.”

“I never lied to you.”

“Playing me, then!” His knuckles turned white as he gripped the wheel. “I mean, I think about how long we played house at that stupid farm. How safe I thought we were, while you knew – you knew, Sam – that we were right smack dab in the middle of the Alpha vamp's trail, with vampires multiplying as they swept through. And you didn't say a thing!”

“Lisa wasn't killed by vamps, Dean.”

“You shut your hole! You don't get to talk to me about that.”

“I just meant--”

“I mean it! Shut up! I know what got Lisa killed, believe me.” Dean took another deep breath, trying to swallow down the urge to pummel Sam's face in. “Fucking complacency!” Dean yelled, causing Sam to jump. “Complacency is what got her killed! You knew this was going on. We're all distracted with the zombie apocalypse, and you knew the vamps were growing and just plucking the last of us off one by one. The Alpha, the recruitment...You should have said something, Sammy.”

“And drag you back into it? No. I left Samuel so that I could find you. When I found you with Lisa, with Ben...” Sam shook his head. “I didn't come to bring hunter news, Dean. I came to find my brother.”

“News like that is pretty freaking important, Sammy.” Dean shook his head. “You should have told me. And you should have told me about Samuel.”

“I told you about Samuel!”

“You told me he was back. Nothing else. And you sure as hell didn't mention any Alpha 'questioning', or I would have made a point to start looking for his ass a lot sooner. Tell me, were you in on these torture sessions?”

“No.” Dean stared at him and raised his brows questioningly, and Sam shook his head and threw up his hands. “No, Dean, I haven't tortured anyone!”

“What is Samuel after?”

“I don't know.” Sam's eyes shifted from side to side as he thought, and it looked for all the world like it was the first time he'd considered it at all.

“Wow, you are not right.”

Sam glared at him. “Dean, I just...”

“No, man, you are not right. You've been off this whole time.”

“I'm fine.”

“No, you're not! I've been there, man. I know what Hell is like. And you don't just pop out fine.”

“Maybe you don't. But I'm fine. Really. I mean, it sucks what happened. Hell sucks. Coming back to this sucks. But I'm still me. I'm still doing what I've always done, maybe even better.”

“Not better. And, honestly, we need to figure this out, because I'm not sure how safe this is.”

“So now I'm not safe?”

“You've got no instinct, dude. This thing with Samuel? That's some really sketchy business. They way you're out to just eat, sleep, and breathe hunting...I'm as driven as the next guy, especially these days, but you're not thinking clearly, Sammy. You're taking stupid risks, you're putting our lives in the hands of people we don't even know,” he gestured out the windshield towards Daryl, “you're keeping secrets, you're lying...”

“I'm not!”

“Oh yeah? Where'd you get those beers then, huh? The gas station we hit didn't have any. I don't believe for a second that you just found a cooler of beer with fresh ice.”

Sam clenched his teeth and looked away. “Okay, I may have taken it off some campers, but they were passed out anyway. They'd had plenty. And, I should add, no foresight to post a look-out, so they're lucky that's all that happened.”

Dean nodded. “So you left me sleeping when I did have the foresight to post a look-out.” It was more a statement than a question. “You see what I mean?”

“I saw a fire and checked it out. That's what look-outs do.”

“Whatever, man. Look, from now on, you tell me everything. I'm not going to keep hunting with you if you're going to be acting weird and keeping secrets, okay?”

“Fine. I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, well. Let's just focus on the task at hand.” Dean's jaw twitched. “Of course, now we have an army of angry vamps to watch out for. If we'd started hunting them about six months earlier, there would be a lot less of 'em, but whatever. Too late for that now. We'll deal with it as it comes. Maybe Ben and Bobby, at least, might survive. ” After a few tense minutes of silence, he finally added, “You know, I only went to her because I made that promise to you.”

“I'm glad you did.”

“I should have been hunting. Maybe we could have stopped all this.”

“We tried, Dean. We've won a lot. Hell, just me being here is proof of that. But, you know, sometimes you don't win.” Sam said. “It's a bitch, but it's true. Sometimes you lose, and you just make the best of what you've got.”

“Yeah. Sure. We've got a steaming pile of violent death every which way we turn.”

“Isn't that what you and I always had?”

“Yeah, but not Ben. Not Lisa.”

“Lisa lived a much longer, happier life with you there to see her through this,” Sam said, gazing at his brother though Dean wouldn't meet his eyes.

“I said shut your hole. Just...no more talking about Lisa. Ever.”

They rode in silence for the next thirty miles.

Chapter Text

Daryl pulled up the long driveway that led to the white colonial. It looked like many houses in the previously affluent Georgia neighborhood, but this one stood out with its green shutters and elaborate rose garden. With the absence of its inhabitants over the last fourteen months, the roses had taken over all of the front and side yards. When Daryl had come through about three or four months earlier, before winter had really set in, they had been straggly, many grown so huge that they were falling over. The vampires had apparently made it their nest since Daryl, Rick, and Michonne had raided the house. One of the vamps – or maybe one of their prisoners – had a green thumb, because the roses had been pruned back to more cultivated bushes. Now they were just beginning to bloom.

It would have been a lovely scene without all of the beheaded hunters, vampires, and walkers bleeding all over the place, Daryl thought to himself. He felt morbidly grateful that the stench of walker and vampire blood managed to overpower the relatively fresh scent of human blood. He could feel those weird teeth rousing, suddenly tight in his gums. He dismounted and deliberately moved over the sliced remains of what looked like three particularly ripe walkers. They'd always smelled awful, but never as awful as this moment, now that his sense of smell was working overtime. He could actually taste the stench. Thankfully, it stopped the urge to fall upon the headless buffet calling his name from up the drive.

“Oh, no,” he heard Sam say, pulling a crowbar out of the car. “It's Mark. They must have had to leave fast if they didn't take care of him.”

“Who's Mark?” Dean asked, shining a flashlight around as he inspected the driveway. Daryl threw up one arm as the light blinded him. Dean's lips tightened as he quickly spun it away towards the house.

Daryl didn't need a flashlight, or the moon, which was nearly full somewhere, though hidden behind grey clouds. Everything seemed bright and clear to him. He almost thought he saw better than he did during the day, or with the bike's light casting weird shadows in the darkness.

There was a wet crunch as Sam stabbed through a head that was barely attached to its body. No clean cut, this; the head had nearly been ripped off. There were two other bodies up closer to the house, but apparently those didn't concern Sam as much. “A distant cousin,” he answered Dean.

“So they took the Alpha,” Dean said, looking around. The house stood dark and silent. No one left here but the dead. “Why'd they take him alive? It's suicide. No way they're taking him all the way to the compound. It's too far.”

“He's been looking for alphas specifically,” Sam said, looking back toward the road. “They'd have to have some place ready, close by, to question. No place too close to a big city or possible herd. They don't want...the noise...to attract too many croats.”

“Hate to tell you,” Daryl said, “but it ain't too close. I got his scent. The Alpha. Father. It's everywhere, all over this place. But I can't smell or sense him from here. They left and left fast. I know they went further north. That's all I know.”

Daryl had always been a great tracker, but too many other things, the things here, were incredibly distracting. He could smell so many dead bodies intermixed with the cloying scent of roses everywhere. And even still, his stomach tried to rumble at the the smell of the non-rotted human blood and the smell of those two brothers, who were the only living beings outside of a few foxes, squirrels, and groundhogs that he could sense hiding out in the woods.

He felt a dull pang in his chest when he realized that he didn't count himself among the living things.

“He had a big group,” Sam said, looking around. “They'd need enough gas for at least three vehicles here and back, if Daryl's vision is right. Can't be too far.”

He knew Sam continued talking, but Daryl lost the thread of his voice as his attention was pulled toward the back of the house. It seemed to Daryl that he suddenly had some kind of tunnel hearing. The sound of twigs snapping was a clarion call in the quiet of the night. What live things there were, he could smell and name and point to in part because they were few, and he was starving and wanted them. But as soon as he stopped focusing on all the smells and realized how much better he could hear, Daryl realized that there were at least forty or more walkers heading toward them, coming from every direction. “We need to move.”

The guys glanced at him. “Get in the car,” Dean said. “We'll come back for your bike after, promise. But you can help suss him out when we get close, and we'll fill you in on everything we know about vamps.”

“No.”

“That bike's just announcing our arrival to everyone out there.”

“Look,” Daryl said, getting pissed. He felt pretty clammy and wanted nothing more than to get back on the road and into the wind. The crisp night air would dry his sweat-drenched skin and clear his nose of the far too many smells assaulting him. “I get that it's loud, especially for vampire hearing. I'm happy to park it a few miles out if we find their trail, but – and no offense meant – but y'all smell like a couple of ribeye dinners right now. I can take a mile or two. Not twenty or forty or a hundred and forty. But I really need to find gramps, like, now. So let's go.”

Dean looked at him intently. Daryl wanted to get right back up in the dude's face, but he was afraid of what he'd do if he let Dean's neck so tantalizingly close. Dean seemed to come to some decision. “Roger that. You lead the way. If I blink the lights once, we're going to pass you. Twice, we need to pull over and talk.”

“Got it.”

Nothing felt so good as pulling back onto the road. Daryl's arms shook a bit as he steered, feeling almost weak from hunger. Deep down, Daryl knew it was just the scent of blood messing with his head. He wasn't hungry. He sure as hell wasn't weak. He felt stronger than he'd ever felt in his life. He could see the road with incredible precision, but even as so many previously unknown details threatened to overwhelm him as the scent of blood and roses had, it quickly cleared to a comfortably familiar blur as he picked up speed. Even the loud rumbling of the bike was a helpful old friend, anchoring his ass into his seat and drowning out some of the night sounds. For a while, he was almost normal again.

It was easy going since the Campbells had cleared the roads already. Once they got out of the immediate walker zone around the Alpha's nest, there was very little to worry about. They made good time. Daryl had to stop once to refill his tank. Sam checked for gas in nearby cars, but the Campbells or other looters had gotten to them first. Daryl hoped that they either found more gas or Samuel pretty soon, because he'd only had the one can on his bike.

After he'd filled her up, Daryl tried to smell and listen to the wind. The trail was faint, but he caught the Alpha's scent again. “It's different this time,” he told the Winchester brothers. “He smells sick. Like death. Not the walkers, but...some kind of roadkill smell. Smells bad, man.”

Dean raised his brows and gave his brother a meaningful look. “They're souping him up with dead man's blood.”

“Probably,” Sam agreed.

“Dead man's blood?”

“Yeah. It weakens them. Regular vamps, anyway. He'd need a lot to tame an alpha, and it seems like it's getting to be a smaller and smaller window before the croatoan virus takes over once a body dies.”

Daryl listened carefully, but there were no walkers – or anyone else – close by. “So you think it's a virus?”

“I know it is,” Dean said.

Daryl narrowed his eyes. “How do you know that?”

“Listen, I'll tell you all about it later, but you're getting a little growly there, huh? Maybe we need to get back to Samuel.”

He felt a flush of hot anger, but he wasn't sure why. Logically, he knew Dean was right. It was getting more and more difficult to be anywhere near them. “I still don't know where exactly they are, but I think we need to turn a bit more east next chance we get.”

Sam pulled out a map and conferred with his brother, but Daryl kept his distance from the both of them. “280's just five miles up. We can head east there. I-75 is just a bit further east down 280, but I really doubt he'd go too far with the Alpha in his car. He's probably got a warehouse set up someplace off the interstate. Though he probably drained the gas off it already, before the hunt.”

“Maybe he'll share.”

“Yeah. I'm sure.”

“Well, guess I'll lead the way again. If we get close, maybe I can tell.”

Once they were on 280, Daryl did pick up their trail. Well, not exactly Samuel Campbell's trail, but he came across the scent of vampires who were also tracking them down, answering Father's call. Daryl followed that until he could clearly pick up the scent of the Alpha, now nearly overpowered with the scent of dead man's blood. He pulled over as soon as he could smell the humans with him.

“They're close,” he told them. “Somewhere down that road to the left there. I gotta admit, I followed the vamps here.”

“Damn,” Dean swore as he headed toward the back of his car. “Well, see if you can get us there first. You got a machete like your pals?”

“No, just my knife.”

“Here. I happen to have an extra.” Dean pulled another blade from the backseat of the car.

“Thanks, man. All right, let's go have that family reunion.”

The smell was indeed coming from a warehouse. They were about four miles from the interstate, and though Daryl's bike was pretty good on gas, it was low enough to make him nervous. It surprised him that he actually thought he might get out of this and make it back to the prison, he realized as he parked near the door. Here, the smell of dead man's blood was too strong. Daryl retreated, pacing anxiously as the Winchesters climbed out of their car and glanced around. They had made it; he knew the Alpha was inside this place, but he also sensed a herd gathering. Just not a walker herd, which he was used to watching for.

No, this was the cold, slightly metallic scent of vampires. Some of them carried the smell of warm blood on their breath. There were walkers too, plenty of them hobbling down the interstate in the dark, following the sound of some long forgotten vehicle. But everything alive in the area had been scared away. Vampires were coming from every direction. He knew many had beaten them to the warehouse. His hair stood on end as he felt their gaze upon him. “This is bad...”

“How close?” Dean asked, jimmying open the warehouse door.

“Some watching us now. Others gathering. They want in too.”

“Let's go!” he said, pushing Sam in and gesturing for Daryl to follow.

Daryl stepped back as a rotten smell filled his nostrils. “I can't, man. It stinks way too bad.”

Dean pulled back the door even farther. “It's dead man's blood. I got it for you, but this is as far away as it's getting. Hold your breath and run in fast.”

Daryl tried, then turned back and began retching as the stench overwhelmed him. The retching filled his empty stomach with pain, and the sick smell made him dizzy. “I'm sorry. Really. I can't, man.”

“If you must,” he said, grabbing Daryl by the arm and tossing him over the threshold. The smell was so disorienting that Daryl couldn't even shake off the manhandling, and he ran as far as he could down the hallway until his senses came to him. He fell dry-heaving in the corner, having nothing left to puke up.

“Let's hope the other ones have even more problems getting past it,” Sam said, hefting his knife and leading the way down the hall. Daryl had the grandfather's scent clearly now (or so he assumed – who else would wear English Leather at the end of the world?), as well as that of a handful of others, but Sam was heading in the right direction.

Daryl pulled them back into a side room as he heard distant footsteps heading their way. It was instinct more than anything. Sam said these Campbell folks were his family, but Dean didn't seem to know much about them except that they played a dangerous game. The fact that they killed vampires was enough. Daryl wanted to lay low until he had that cure.

The brothers, thankfully, seemed to agree, because they hid quietly while a youngish guy peeked his head in and looked around. He smelled off. Daryl didn't know what, but something about the guy's smell turned his stomach. He seemed to have some kind of sickness deep down inside him. It helped stem Daryl's hunger a bit. The guy shrugged and continued on down the hall.

The lights flickered, and it was only then that Daryl realized they had proper electricity and that it wasn't just his awesome new night vision making everything so clear. He could hear murmuring and pointed down another hall. They were able to peek through an open door to see Samuel questioning Father – no, the Alpha Vampire. He looked just like he had in Daryl's vision, only now he looked considerably calmer. He had been fighting quite literally tooth and nail during the vision. Now he sat, calm though tethered to a chair, a tube shoved into his neck pumping what, from the nauseating smell, could only be dead man's blood.

“Where is it? How do I find it?” Samuel Campbell asked, flipping a breaker on the wall. The lights flickered again as electricity flowed into the Alpha via iron nails in his feet and hands.

“Ow. Please, no,” Father said calmly. He smiled up at Samuel, though the smile did not meet his eyes.

It may not have hurt Father, but Daryl doubled over and bit down his own cry of pain. Standing this close to the head honcho, Daryl felt every bit as if it was happening to him. And he wasn't nearly as strong to sit and just take it. He waved off the brothers and tried to breathe through the pain, wiping sweat from his brow with the hem of his shirt.

“You'll talk before it's all over.”

“We'll see. It will be over sooner than you think.”

Samuel threw the switch again, and Daryl groaned quietly, sliding to the floor as he became unable to hold himself up. Samuel was too worried about his captive to notice. He finally slammed the switch and stalked out of the room, leaving Daryl gasping quietly in the hall.

“You three come all this way to visit and don't even say hello?” he heard Father say quietly. “And my own boy? Come here and let me get a look at you.”

“I ain't nobody's boy,” Daryl spat as he mustered the strength to stand. He eased into the room after Sam and Dean. It was a shock to actually stand face to face with the father of all vampires. His dark eyes were so compelling. They sucked Daryl right in, even as he squared his shoulders and attempted to stare the man – thing? – down.

“Get your fill now,” Dean said, sauntering right up to the cage, “'cause we're filing for custody.”

Father laughed. “Silly boy. That one's mine, and I plan on feeding him his first meal myself. He's special.” He turned his head, his eyes finally releasing Daryl and falling upon Sam. “So are you. Very special, it would seem. You smell...cold. Empty.” He peered into Sam's eyes and laughed. “You have no soul!”

“What?” Sam asked, shaking his head in denial. He glanced at Dean, his eyes filled with fright.

“What?” Dean echoed. He stared at his brother. “You can't be serious.”

“Oh, it's a serious condition.” Father's voice rumbled with amusement.

Dean stepped back from Sam, almost as if he preferred the proximity of the Alpha vampire to his brother. Father laughed. Sam frowned, shooting a look of hatred his way before stepping toward his brother. “Dean, it's still me. It's me.”

“Is it, Sammy?” Dean shook his head. “Like I said, you've been off this whole time.”

Daryl could hear the scrape – scrape – scrape of Father working a nail against his bonds. “Don't,” he warned him.

“You don't give orders. You're still a baby yet.”

“I'll deal with you later,” Dean said, pointing angrily at Sam. He turned his finger on Father. “And you...why would Samuel keep a freak like you alive, hm? What does he want?”

“The thing about souls is...” Father started, but Daryl was no longer listening. Not because existential stuff bored him, though a lot of times it did, but because his attention was drawn to the smell of Samuel and his people coming back down the hall. Daryl's stomach rumbled, and he felt Father's deep laugh roll over him, enveloping him in warmth.

Daryl turned and tried to clear his head from the effects of Father's hypnotizing voice. He focused on casting further out for sound. The Campbell family cocked weapons, their steps hurrying now. Beyond that, the vampires had gathered in huge numbers. He could hear their breathing, the shuffles as someone made their way closer to the warehouse doors. Daryl could sense scores of them surrounding the warehouse. He could smell them all. Hear them whispering in sharp, angry tones. They were preparing a rescue.

He was about to say so when Samuel and his lackeys burst in on them, guns drawn. “Didn't expect you to consort with the enemy, Sam,” he said, glancing between Daryl and Father. His eyes finally fell on Dean. “Dean. Long, long time.”

“So it has been, Samuel.” He looked back at Father one more time before crossing the room toward the group. The woman to Samuel's left raised her gun. “Aw, come on.” Dean smiled tightly at Samuel. “Is that any way to greet a long lost grandson?”

“Probably ain't a social call, seeing how you broke in,” Samuel pointed out. “And you appear to be questioning our prisoner.”

“What are you doing caging the likes of this?” Dean asked, stepping towards Samuel. He frowned when the woman stepped between them and rested the barrel of the rifle on his chest. “Look, you gonna shoot, sweetheart, then shoot. Otherwise, get out of the way and let the big boys talk.”

The woman aimed lower, but Samuel raised a hand to stop her. “Gwen, we don't shoot family.” He gazed back at Dean. “Not unless we need to.” She stepped back, then belatedly noticed Daryl and raised the gun on him instead.

“Look,” Dean said, pushing her gun away, “we're only questioning him because our friend here got turned. Sammy says you might be able to do something about that.”

“Maybe.”

“Guys,” Daryl interrupted, “I'd be much obliged and all, but I think we got some pretty pressing problems. There's about sixty or so vamps getting ready to fall on this place and free Father. You ain't gonna hold him long like that, anyway.”

“Boy's right,” Father said, tauntingly.

“I said I'm not your boy!”

Father smiled. “All right. Daryl.” He shifted in his seat, eyes raised toward Samuel. “Still...Daryl's right. In about three minutes, I'll be ripping your heads off and drinking from them.”

“You,” Samuel said, pointing at two of the men with him. “Keep watch on him. We'll go secure the perimeter.”

“Don't go outside,” Daryl gasped. “They've brought Zach. He's still alive. But he's gonna let them right in!” He pushed past the Campbell family. “I'll talk to him. I'm one of them. Maybe they won't kill me.”

“Oh, they will,” Dean said, following.

“Watch him close!” Samuel yelled again, pointing back to Father.

At the door, Daryl turned for one last look. Father smiled. Daryl shivered, turning away as his teeth began to slide out once again. He ran for the door, trying to swallow them back.

He burst outside, once again dry-heaving as he scent of the dead man's blood filled his nostrils. He did what he could to swallow it down and glanced up to see Zach pull his hands from his pockets and run across the parking lot. He grabbed Daryl's arms and pulled him upright. “Daryl!” Zach seemed shocked to see him, then frightened as he realized what Daryl was. “Oh, Daryl, I'm so sorry.”

“It's okay,” Daryl said lowly, knowing that all the vamps hiding out there in the shadows could plainly hear him. “It's working out okay so far.” He pulled Zach aside, smelling Zach's fear as his hands gripped Zach's arms. “Look,” Daryl whispered, “you can't let them in.”

“I have to. They'll kill me if I don't.”

Sam and Dean rushed out, flanking Daryl with weapons raised as they looked around. Samuel was in the doorway but pushed Gwen and another fellow out ahead of him. Just as he started after them, a scream from within pulled him back inside.

One drugged up alpha vampire or sixty-something sober, angry ones? Daryl wondered. Bracing himself, he grabbed Zach and threw him through the door of the warehouse. He took a few deep breaths, trying to ready himself enough to run through. He heard angry hissing, but apparently the hunters didn't. “Watch the tree line!” Daryl yelled, and then an army of vamps began charging across the warehouse parking lot at them.

“Oh, no!” he heard Gwen whisper.

“Get inside!” Sam yelled, swapping his big bowie knife for a gun and covering the door. A gun wouldn't kill them, but it might slow a few down. Dean followed suit, pulling a pistol with his free hand, covering his brother.

“Go!” he yelled at Daryl. “Go now!”

Daryl hesitated as he neared the door and the familiar stench of dead blood once again overpowered him. Dean turned back to him, trying to force him through the door as he had forced Zach.

“Traitor!” a vampire hissed, shoving a distracted Dean aside as she lunged for Daryl's throat.

“Dean!” Sam reached down to help his brother up, and the vamps closed the distance.

Daryl hefted the machete they had loaned him, timing it perfectly as the vamp fell upon him. Once one was down, the whole rest of the group keened. Their voices cried out together in grief and anger. It both scared him shitless and thrilled him, causing his fangs to grow and his body try to respond to the call even as his conscious mind struggled to swallow his inexplicable grief.

Gwen, who had made it to the door, turned back as the keening grew louder. She and Daryl covered Sam as he worked to get Dean off the ground, but the vamps were coming at them like a dark tsunami. Between them, he and Gwen managed to drop about a dozen vamps, and the boys a handful each, before they were surrounded and cut off from the door.

Dean kept his back to Sam's as they hacked away, shoving up beside Gwen and Daryl in an attempt to stay alive just a few seconds longer. Dean smiled over at Gwen. “Pleasure meeting you, cuz.”

“Yeah. Likewise.”

As the bodies piled around them, Daryl saw Crew Cut Guy and a second big guy calmly walking their way. Faster than he thought possible, the big guy crossed the distance and had Dean's neck in one hand. “This one's mine,” he said, picking Dean up and dangling him. “Father wants that one,” he said, nodding Dean's own head at Sam. Crew Cut Guy stepped forward as four others held Sam's arms down, and Gwen just kept slicing necks as they came at her.

She seemed to be holding her own, so Daryl struggled to take out the guys who had Sam and reach Dean and Big Guy, who Daryl figured must be Father's second-in-command. There were just too many of them. Crew Cut Guy was tying a bag over Sam's head, even as Samuel had done to Father in his vision, and Big Guy was offering Dean's neck to a smoking hot vamp chick at his side. Someone grabbed at Daryl from behind, but he fought hard, trying to get through everyone to stop them from killing Dean.

He stopped abruptly as a hand curled around Big Fella's shoulder, spinning him around right as the girl's teeth descended. To Daryl's shock, a man in a suit and trench coat stood, somehow arriving so stealthily that Daryl had neither heard nor smelled him coming. And he looked pissed. He had no weapon, and he merely touched his fingers to Big Fella's forehead. The vampire lieutenant crumpled, apparently dead, and Suit & Tie began to glow. “Shield your eyes!” he said, sternly but quietly.

Daryl hadn't needed to be told. It burned his eyes the second the man had touched the vampires. He'd turned, beheaded the vampire grabbing him from behind, and ducked his head behind Gwen before he even thought enough to be ashamed about using a human shield.

Whiteness exploded around them, and Daryl screamed in agony as he threw his arms up over his face. Surprisingly, he did not burn to death, although his skin suddenly felt far too tight. But all of the other vampires smoldered in piles of ash.

“How am I alive?” Daryl asked, looking down at himself. His arms, still a bit raw from his earlier wipe-out, were now sunburned and blistered on top of the road rash. He had never felt like so much shit inside and out, which was saying a lot given the kind of life he'd had. He was starting to feel weak from hunger for real now, and he had no idea how he was still standing with the vampires around him still smoking. He looked back up at the crazy shining man who had appeared. “What the hell are you?”

“I am an angel of the Lord,” the man said, gazing back at him with bright blue eyes.

“Oh, no!” Dean screamed, punching Suit & Tie in the face. Daryl took several steps in the general direction of his bike, in case any sort of Wrath of Heaven came down. “I didn't ask you for this!”

“You didn't have to.”

“I don't want a thing from you!”

“Dean, I'm sorry.” The man's eyes looked pained, although his words were flatly spoken. “Truly. I apologize. I couldn't get away then. But I came as soon as was needful.”

Daryl slowly started coming to his senses. He hurt, he ached all over, he felt sick to his stomach, and he still found that he wanted to eat his comrades. To make matters worse, the fight, or perhaps the flash of light, had attracted the attention of all the walkers in the area. They weren't close, but they were undeniably coming in from every direction just as the vampires had. “Is this over? There's still the Alpha to worry about, we just sent out a walker beacon, and I'd like the cure soon, please.”

“Yeah, of course,” Sam said, leading them back into the warehouse.

Daryl even managed to cross the threshold more easily, wholly committed to ending the whole ordeal. After his sick time in a dark corner, he managed to collect himself and nodded at Sam. Dean stayed outside with the guy in the suit and coat, and Daryl could hear more punches being thrown. He wiped his mouth on the back of his arm and turned to Sam. “Is that guy really an angel?”

“Yeah.”

“Really?”

Sam chuckled. “Yeah. Come on. We'd better hope Samuel's okay.”

Once Daryl got further away from the door, his senses began to return and something became very apparent. He stopped, causing Sam to pause and wait. Gwen continued down the hall at a jog, looking for her family. “Sorry. Something weird just happened.”

“Yeah? What's that?”

“Fa-- The alpha vamp's gone.”

“Really?” Sam nodded his head. “Good, I guess. Fried with the others?”

“No. He was here just a second ago, and now he's not.”

Sam turned and started jogging after Gwen. “What about Samuel?” he asked, then skidded to a stop as his question was answered.

Samuel was in the holding room. Father was gone, but Samuel was not alone. “Crowley,” Sam sneered. “This is your doing?”

The Crowley guy smelled kind of sick too. He cocked his head. “My doings are not your concern, Moose.”

Sam looked between Samuel and Crowley. “They are if they involve my family.”

Crowley slid his hands into his jacket pockets – something about suits with these sketchy guys – and crossed the room, looking both Sam and Daryl up and down. Daryl crossed his arms and stared at him, saying nothing. Crowley's eyes flicked back to the doorway, and Daryl turned to see Dean stomping into the room, Suit & Tie trailing in his wake.

“Ah,” Crowley said, clasping Samuel on the shoulder. “I see you have pressing family matters to attend to. We'll talk later, Samuel. Good job though.” With that, the man disappeared into thin air.

“Really, Samuel?” Dean yelled, crossing the room to get right into the old man's face. His anger at the angel was carrying over to his grandfather. “You're Crowley's bitch?”

“No, I am not!” Samuel swallowed. “It's not like that.”

“I see what it's like.”

“Look, can you hold off just a few, Dean?” Daryl asked, wearily making his way to Samuel. “I'm sorry to interrupt and everything, but I'd really appreciate it if you do have a cure for this thing.”

Samuel looked back at Dean. “Of course. But you need the blood--”

“Yeah, I got that. Haven't fed. Good to go.”

“All right. Follow me.”

“Get rid of him,” Dean muttered as he passed Sam, jerking his thumb back at the angel before following Samuel and Daryl.

“Wait a minute,” Gwen called, pushing past him. “Where's Christian?”

Samuel stopped and turned back. “The Alpha killed him. And then he got back up and overpowered it. He was one of Crowley's this whole time.” He turned and continued walking.

“I freaking hate Crowley, man,” Dean said, still emanating anger. “Why are you dealing with some punk-ass crossroads demon, anyway? He might have the power to bring you back, but I don't believe for a second that he could spring Sammy from Lucifer's cage.”

“Angels and demons?” Daryl shook his head. “No way. This is freaking looney. Angels and demons sure as hell ain't that.”

Samuel ignored him. “He's not a crossroads demon. Not anymore. He's King of Hell.”

“Really? Crowley?”

Samuel turned into a room, switching on the light. “Yeah, Crowley.” He turned back to Daryl. “You got its blood?”

Daryl handed over his canteen, and Samuel pulled out a bowl and a little book. He began flipping through it.

“But why are you dealing with the King of Hell?”

“I got my reasons. Can I focus on this, please?”

Dean threw up his hands, but he remained silent as Samuel began mixing ingredients. After pouring in the vampire blood, Samuel gave it a swirl and passed the whole bowl over to Daryl. Whatever it was, it smelled foul, almost as bad as the dead man's blood. Dean seemed to forget his anger for a moment and came forward, watching him closely. It made him nervous. “Bottoms up,” Daryl said, tipping it back.

It tasted even worse than it smelled, if such a thing was possible. It hit his empty stomach hard, and Daryl doubled over with pain. All of his insides were twisting up, and it felt like he was turning inside out. The nasty taste lingered on his tongue. He had tasted vampire blood when Michonne cut that bitch's head off, and it was gross, but this funk was how Daryl imagined a juiced walker might taste. As soon as he thought it, he turned and began spewing bile into a bucket that Samuel was suddenly pushing his head into.

He gasped, hurting so deeply that his chest caught. Then, he couldn't make a sound. His fangs forced themselves in and out, and suddenly he was burning up, his insides matching the angel burn across his arms.

The next thing he knew, Daryl was waking up on the ground, Dean peering down at him. “Did it work?”

“I don't know. Am I alive?” Daryl rubbed his swollen tongue around in his dry mouth. He wished that he hadn't poured out all of his water.

“I think so.” Dean reached down to help him up.

“Here, son,” Samuel handed him bottled water. It was even sweeter than the soda that had been such a big treat only hours earlier.

“Not feelin' so hot.”

“Are the vamps are gone?” Samuel asked Dean. “All of them?”

Dean's jaw clenched. “Yeah. I guess Crowley got his alpha, then?”

“Yeah,” Samuel said shortly.

“Then we're safe enough.”

“Uh, not really,” Daryl said. He inhaled deeply, his nose wrinkling. “I guess it worked. I don't smell 'em anymore, but there were dozens of walkers shifting this direction. The fight's drawn them this way.”

“Which direction?” Dean asked.

“All of them.”

“Again? Come on!”

Samuel rubbed his eyes. “The warehouse should be secure enough, but it's just me and Gwen left out of the whole crew. The Alpha escaped his cage before Crowley got here. Killed everybody else.”

“Uh-uh,” Dean said. “Well, me and Sammy have been driving all night. And fighting. And you two did the Alpha run even before that. This guy's had a pretty hard night too. I don't think any of us are up for fighting a herd right now.”

“What about your angel friend?” Daryl asked.

“He is not a friend.”

“Then we hunker down,” Samuel said. “We've got water and electric. We'll reinforce the doors and stay put for a while.”

“Uh uh. No way. Vamps, croats, and demons know where we are. We go.”

Daryl was tired, but he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. “Yeah, I'm good with that. I want to make it back to my people. Zach okay?”

“Yeah, he's out there with Gwen and Sammy. No offense, dude, but you don't really look up for driving.”

“You might be right, but I don't want to stay here. And I ain't leaving my bike.”

Samuel looked at him. “No, you need some rest. Tell you what, if we got time, we can take the back seats out of the van and load your bike in there. You can rest and take a shift driving in a couple hours. We all put some distance between us and this madness.”

Daryl looked at the men. He didn't trust Samuel, but he trusted Dean at this point. “Do we even have a place to go?” he asked.

“How far away is your...place?” Dean asked.

“I ain't bringing this to their doorstop.”

“Too late. You probably will whether you like it or not.”

Daryl, no longer fighting the urge to fall upon his neck, had no trouble getting up in Dean's face this time. He didn't know most of what these folks were up to, but he didn't want anything to do with demons. He had enough of those in his past.

“It's fine,” Samuel said. “We stayed at a decent place coming down here. If you can make it a few hours, we should be able to get there before dawn if we don't run into any herds.”

“And if we do?”

“Better hope your angel friend can help.”

“He's not my friend. He can ride with you if you want him.”

“Okay then. Daryl can ride with you.”

“I ride with my bike.”

“Let's go then.” Samuel glared at Dean as he walked past. “We have enough gas and water for everyone now that most of my people are dead.”

Chapter Text

For somebody who didn't want to bring all that back to his doorstep, Daryl was fighting pretty hard to get them to follow him back to the prison. His tune changed once he realized how eager they were – or at least how eager Dean was – to split from Samuel. Dean had to hand it to the guy; Daryl seemed to have good instincts. He wanted to protect his people. But so did Dean, and they'd been gone too long as it was.

“We don't have enough gas,” Dean said, though he sympathized with the guy. “I'll teach you everything I know about ghosts. You'll be fine.”

“Come on, man. That alpha vamp was in my head. He might go after the prison. Or the ones who didn't make it to the fight might go after the prison. We're kind of defenseless right now. We need you guys.”

“How can you be defenseless at a freaking prison?”

Daryl frowned at him. “Okay, not defenseless, but we can't face all this crazy stuff without a strong leader.”

“So you lead.”

“That ain't me. And the alpha might come for me or Zach out of spite, anyway. We need our leader back. And our leader is haunted, which is right up your alley.” The two men stared at each other. Daryl looked him up and down. “Man, I helped you guys with all this! Come on. Do me a solid.”

“He has a point,” Sam said, and Dean glared at him.

“Have you forgotten that you have no soul, Sammy? We need to get back to Bobby ASAP and figure out what to do about this.”

Sam leaned forward. “Look, this is the biggest safe house we've heard of yet. We need to check it out.”

Dean looked between the two, then sighed. “Only if Samuel gives us enough gas to get us there and back home.”

“Fine. I'm sure he will.”

“Yeah, he'd better. He's lucky I don't kill his two-timing ass.” Dean crossed his arms. “All right. We'll check it out. How far is it?”

“I'm not a hundred percent sure how far we came to Samuel's place here,” Daryl admitted, having slept through most of the drive, “but we're probably about a hundred miles or so. Two hundred max.”

“Oh, two hundred max?”

“I'm guessing one twenty, actually. Assuming we don't hit traffic.”

“Cute.” Dean glanced at Sammy, who nodded encouragingly. He really wanted to get back to this little matter about Sam's soul, but Sam seemed more than happy to put it off. Sam tried to talk Dean into asking Cas about it, but he still wasn't speaking to Cas. They'd secured the safe house, and then he'd slept for twelve hours straight. Daryl had slept for twenty. “Look, Daryl, if what you tell us about this chick is true, then she doesn't have any bones left to burn. She may not even be a ghost.”

“You guys are our best shot.”

“All right. We'll come for a few days. But we gotta get back on the road in three or four days max. We got no cell phones anymore, and I have a kid that worries about me now.”

“Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Dean.”

“One condition.”

“What's that?”

“Angel rides bitch. He ain't riding with me.”

 

#

 

“You really need to talk to Cas,” Sammy started as soon as they got in the car.

“Not happening.”

“I'm telling you, you need to talk to him. Do you really want Kali after your ass?”

“Just one more reason why I don't want anything to do with that douchebag.” That douchebag looked pretty comical riding behind Daryl, his coat flapping in the breeze. “I don't see why we need to keep him with us if he's just putting us in danger anyway.”

Cas had tried explaining himself, but Dean didn't want to hear a word of it. He knew that a war with deities was a big deal, but that shouldn't matter. Lisa was bigger. If Cas were a real friend, he'd have taken just a split second from his infinitely grandiose cosmic existence, but he hadn't. That said everything.

“I was mid-battle, Dean. I lost a brother. And Kali took Heaven.”

Dean shook Cas from his thoughts. “I don't want to talk about Cas.” He gestured through the windshield. “Look how cute they are together. That Daryl guy seems real taken with the idea of angels. I say we leave him at the prison.”

“You don't mean that.”

“I'm sure as hell not taking him home to Ben!” Dean rummaged around for a tape and turned up the volume to drown out any further conversation. It was his great luck to pull Styx, but he gripped the wheel and rocked out to Suite Madame Blue while Sam rolled his eyes. It did the trick though. There was no more talk about Cas - or anything - until they rolled up the drive to the prison.

Michonne, the hot chick with the sword, pulled on a rope to open large metal doors. They had two fences encircling the whole place, and they'd reinforced it with heavy gates and old vehicles they could use for both cover and watch. Not that they really needed those with four giant guard towers. Dean whistled as they pulled it. “Pretty nice set-up.”

A kid in a sheriff's hat, probably the crazy guy's son, opened the wire gate within. Michonne hugged Daryl warmly, but Dean noticed how the boy kept his eye on Cas and a hand twitching by his belt though he didn't wear a gun. “Pile out,” Dean said, turning to look at Zach. “You first.”

As he hoped, Michonne and the boy softened a little once they saw Zach alive and healthy. Dean and Sam climbed out after, and he caught the frown as Michonne leaned in to whisper to Daryl. “They're fine,” he assured her. “It's a long story. Maybe I ought to tell it to the council.”

“Maybe. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I am.”

“Good.” She stepped back and nodded to the kid. She treated him like an equal, Dean noticed, filing that information away. “Head on up. To the yard,” she clarified for Sam and Dean. “They'll want to talk to you first.”

As they drove up to the yard, a pretty little blonde was already running out. Zach tumbled out of the car before Sam even made it out of his seat, throwing himself into her arms. Dean grinned appreciatively at Sam and gestured out at Daryl. “I would have thought he'd be the one to have the pretty little girl waiting and worrying at home.”

“Hey, check it out.” Sam pointed out his open door and leaned back so that Dean could get a good look. A guy was putting away gardening tools, hanging them on the outer wall of a little pig sty they had built in the middle of the prison's large front yard. There was a good-sized garden, though it only had the first small peekings of shoots reaching out from the ground. “Think that's our guy? The sheriff?”

“Hm. Probably,” he said as the kid ran off to meet him. “Let's say hello.”

A large group was beginning to gather before they could even step out of the car. They'd obviously posted lookouts for Daryl long before. Many ran forward to hug him or clap his back to see his safe return. Daryl looked almost overwhelmed, then ran off with obvious relief once an older white haired man came limping down the steps.

From Daryl's descriptions of the prison and its inhabitants, Dean expected Rick, the crazy guy, to come question them immediately. He didn't, though. He merely glanced at them as he walked by to join the crowd around Daryl. Only Michonne hung behind, keeping a subtle-but-not-subtle-enough watch on the brothers. “We're not here to cause trouble,” Dean assured her, flashing his most winning smile.

“Good.”

“A woman of few words,” Dean said, nodding appreciatively. “My favorite kind.”

Michonne gave a faint smile. “I bet.”

“You must be the Winchester brothers,” the older fellow said as he came toward them. “Thanks so much for bringing them home to us. You must be tired from your travails.”

Dean turned to Sam and mouthed, 'Travails?'

“I'm Hershel Greene. If you'll follow my daughter Beth here, she'll see you to a room. We've got showers, and we'll get you a nice warm meal. Might be a bit bland, but we got plenty.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Greene,” Dean said, deferring to the man since everyone else around there seemed to.

“You can call me Hershel.”

“Dean. And this is my brother, Sam.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Hershel said, then looked over at Cas.

Dean smiled tightly at Beth, who was Zach's little blonde girlfriend. “I'd love a nice shower,” he said, walking pointedly away as Cas spoke behind him.

“I am Castiel.”

Dean struggled not to glower as he walked past the inhabitants of the prison. Sam followed, waving at Daryl as they passed by. He was surrounded by a smaller group of people, and Dean recognized three of the people from the fight where Daryl had been turned. Dean nodded at them as he followed Beth into the prison.

It took a minute for his eyes to adjust, but he paid attention as she led them down the halls. It really was a nice set-up they had. Apparently they had enough people living at the prison to use two cell blocks, and Sam and Dean were given the honor of a spare room in the one with Daryl and his friends. Dean was already getting a sense of the ranking among these people. To his disgust, Castiel had followed them in. “Thanks, Beth. Do me a favor, huh? Make sure that one keeps his distance.”

“The showers are back that way.” Beth gave a wan smile before closing the door of the empty cell across from them, which she had obviously intended for Cas. She smiled at Cas and led him back down the block.

“You shouldn't be so hard on him.”

“Not a word, Sammy.” Dean threw his bag down on a small table. They had taken his knife and gun at the door. Dean allowed it, since that wasn't all he had. He rummaged in his bag for some soap and clean underwear. “Watch my stuff, okay? I mean it. I'll be quick.”

Sam sighed and threw his bag on the top bunk. Dean smiled as he headed out of the cell, adding, “Dibs on top bunk.”

The shower wasn't really hot, but it felt good to get clean, anyway. He scrubbed hair to feet with the bar of soap, relieved to see that someone had left a pile of fresh towels out. It felt really good to shower and dry off with a nice, clean towel. Dean never thought he'd feel quite so pleased to be locked up in a prison.

“Your turn,” he said, gloating inwardly as he noticed Sammy sprawled out on the bottom bunk.

“I think I'll wait for the food.”

“This council is going to want to talk to us.”

“I know.” Sam looked up from the map he was studying. “I'm going to give them five minutes, and then I'm gonna take them up on that offer of food. They'll come to talk to us before we start talking to everyone else.”

“Smart. But kinda cold for you.” Dean's voice hardened. “Isn't that what the alpha said? You're cold?”

“Shut up, Dean.”

Dean shrugged and climbed up onto the top bunk. In a moment, Sammy was shaking him awake. “Food? You coming with me?”

Dean sighed, not realizing how weary he felt until he had enjoyed a few minutes' sleep. “Yeah. Let's get this over with.” He hopped down and pulled a knife and two more pistols out of his bag. He shoved one in his ankle holster and slid the other into his waistband at his back. “You lead the way, bad cop.”

They ran into Beth, who led them to a table just outside the cell block. He smelled the food before he saw Cas. He knew Cas didn't need food, but the angel was picking at his bowl just to be polite. Dean swiped up one of the other bowls and walked across the room, leaning against the wall to eat it. It was piping hot and delicious. Dean had never been so grateful for rice and beans in his life. It even had some corn and what looked like canned chicken. They'd gone all out for their guests.

“Man, this is great. Thanks a lot,” Sam said, sounding almost sincere. Not sincere enough though. Truth be told, Dean realized, I don't trust him very much either. Sam looked his way, as if reading his thoughts, and Dean raised his bowl and gave a small grin.

“There you boys are,” Hershel said, coming in just as they finished up on seconds. Dean had wanted to ask for thirds, but it appeared to be time. “Are y'all finding everything okay?”

“Yeah. Just great. Thanks for the food,” Dean said.

“It's the least we could do for everything you did for poor Daryl. Speaking of which, if you're up for it, the council would like to hear about that.”

“Sure thing. Lead the way.” He left his bowl on the table, walking away with a last, longing glance backward. Then his eyes fell on Cas, still following them like a lost puppy, and he snapped his head back around. He instead turned his attention to Hershel, who was limping down the hallway, candlelight bobbing with each step he took. “What happened to the leg?” Dean asked, making awkward conversation.

“Got bit,” the old man said. “Had to chop it off.”

“Really?” Dean looked at him with new appreciation.

“Yup.”

“You're a lot tougher than you look.”

“Yup.” He turned and gazed up at Dean. “Most of us are, if we made it this long.”

Dean squared his shoulders, doing his best not to think of Lisa. “Guess so.”

With all of the people who had gathered outside when they'd arrived, Dean expected a huge council. A real formal gig. He'd privately envisioned something like the Jedi High Council, or perhaps a parole board, so it was a bit anticlimactic to walk in and see Hershel gesture for them to have a seat as he offered them some kind of tea. At the table was Daryl, who introduced them properly to Glenn and Sasha, who had both been in the vamp fight, and to a short-haired lady named Carol.

“Uh, thanks,” Dean said as he took a seat.

Hershel poured a tea for himself, then got right to it. “Daryl's told us a little about what happened to him,” he said, apparently the mouthpiece of the group. He turned his gaze to Cas. “He tells us you claim to be an angel of the Lord. Is this true?”

“It is.”

The group murmured amongst themselves. The Asian kid, Glenn, seemed more skeptical than anything else. Sasha and the other woman, Carol, argued in quiet, clipped tones.

“Look, it's true,” Dean said, not deigning to look in Cas's direction. “And you can have him if you want. Don't even have to feed him.”

“Dean...”

“Nobody's talking to you.”

Hershel narrowed his eyes. “If what you say is true – and I say if only because I trust Daryl's judgment implicitly.” Dean noticed Daryl flush and shift in his seat. “Then how could you speak to an angel that way?”

“Because he's also a dick,” Dean said, pushing his tea away and glaring at the group. “Look, what do you need to know? Yes, angels are real. Yes, vampires are real. Yes, ghosts and werewolves and djinn and freaking rugaru are all real, okay? Lucifer? Yes. We've tangled with him more than once. Don't worry; he's contained for now. Supposedly. God? Nobody knows. Hell, nobody's seen God in forever. Whether He's real or not, He sure as hell ain't here. That's about it in a nutshell.”

“Well, nobody's seen our God, anyway,” Cas said to Hershel. “But a Hindu goddess and several other deities have taken over Heaven. I have seen it.”

“What?”

“Cas!”

“Well, you were telling them everything...”

“You don't tell a Southern bible-thumping dude that the Hindu goddess Kali is ruling Heaven,” Dean said quietly. “Just sit quiet, if you have to be here at all, okay?”

“She's not exactly ruling it,” he said, turning to Hershel with an earnest look. “I did not mean to cause an existential crisis. There is a resistance. We're going to get it back.”

The poor old guy looked like he was about to have a heart attack. Thankfully, Daryl interrupted Cas. “Look, back up,” he said, rocking back in his chair. “Y'all said you knew what started all this, right? I think we'd all like to hear about that.”

Dean looked at Sam, who shrugged and have a nod. “Yeah. We do. It was the swine flu vaccine released a month or so before all this started. It wasn't really a vaccine. It contained something called the Croatoan virus. We tried to stop it. We thought we did stop it. Somehow it got out anyway.”

“If it's a virus, then maybe we can find a cure,” Sasha said hopefully.

“Yeah, good luck. It's a demonic virus.”

“A demonic virus? You gotta be kidding me.”

“Wish I was.”

“You're saying demons put this out there?” Hershel asked.

“Kind of. They developed it. Lucifer put it out there.”

“The devil?”

“Technically he's a fallen angel,” Cas said.

“Look, Lucifer is locked up, with Michael. And our brother. It was very nearly me and Sam. We deflected the war that would obliterate the world. But somehow his little virus still got out there, and now we've got the croats in addition to the regular bunch of monsters we need to worry about, including a possible ghost in your prison, right?” Dean looked around, seeing a look pass between them. “So there is?”

“Yeah,” Daryl said, while Sasha said, “I don't believe in ghosts.” She looked at Daryl and then looked away. “But, yeah, okay. Something's wrong with Rick.”

“This is what you guys do for a living?” Glenn asked.

Sam smiled. “Yeah. Been doing it our whole lives.”

“Even before all this?”

“Yeah.”

“Damn. And I thought our lives sucked.”

Dean raised his brows, then shrugged. “Fair enough. Well, welcome to the real world. You've got an Alpha vamp who now knows all about you, though he was taken off by a pack of demons. One of your guys spent a night as a vamp, a herd of croats is heading this way, and you're bunking with a ghost, or a woman in white, succubus...something. We'll take it slow, walk you guys through monster bootcamp 101, and then we need to get on the road. Okay?”

“Sounds fair enough to me,” Carol said, reaching out to squeeze Daryl's hand.

“Do you have prisoners here?” Cas asked. Dean swallowed down the urge to jump back on him and resume pummeling. Cas only unbloodied himself the moment Dean took a breather, anyway. It wasn't satisfying.

“Not really anymore left living,” Hershel said. “Why?”

“I need a tattoo.”

“Are we really to believe this guy is an angel?” Sasha asked, throwing her hands up.

“Yeah, he is,” Sam said.

“His all-powerful presence burned me when I was all...vampy, and it nearly blinded me,” Daryl said quietly. “Then, later, he healed me with a touch.”

“Kali put a bounty on my head after I killed Baldur,” Cas resumed. “It's in everyone's best interest if I get some sort of permanent warding. Soon.”

“If we find enough pens and a needle, I could probably do you one,” Daryl said.

“I can procure a tattoo gun and ink, if you'd prefer.”

Daryl sat up in his chair. “Really? Yeah, go for it.”

Cas disappeared, and Sasha loosed a strangled sob. After a moment, she said, “So that really is one-hundred-percent an angel?”

“Yes,” Cas said as he reappeared back in his seat, his arms full of tattoo equipment.

Hershel blinked at him. “All right then. Come with me, and I'll get you some alcohol and towels.”

It seemed that was the official end of the council meeting. Dean left the prison folks arguing about religion and made his way back to their cell. “I just need like five or six hours, then we can jump on the case,” he promised Sam. “We can take turns on watch if you want.”

“No,” Sam said, “you go ahead and sleep. I thought I might talk to Sasha and see what I can learn about Rick.”

“All right, but get some rest soon. I worry about you, Sammy.”

“I will. Promise.” Sam smiled. “Don't worry about me.”

Chapter Text

Sam was already up, staring into space with Dad's journal in his lap, when Dean woke the next morning. Dean rubbed his eyes and sat up. “Did you get any rest?”

Sam looked up at him, then closed the journal. “Yeah. But I got up early and did some discreet questioning.”

“Really?” Dean pulled his toothbrush out of his bag. The cell had a small sink. Although the water didn't run, someone had left a pitcher for them to use. He splashed his face, gesturing for Sammy to go on.

Dean could hear the hum of life around them. Everyone else was awake and going about their duties for the day. He could hear the low thread of conversations, cell doors creaking and banging shut, pleasant murmurs of “Morning!” as people passed each other on the nearby stairs. It was unnerving. They hadn't been around so many people in nearly a year, and the last time hadn't ended well. Thankfully, Sam pitched his voice low as he spoke. Dean smiled, thinking to himself how much he missed the days of vibrating hotel beds and pay-per-view.

“So this guy,” Sam said quietly, “Rick...from what I can gather, he's the only one who's seen the ghost. Not even the kid, Carl, has seen her. Sasha tells me that the first time she ever came to the prison, Rick just started up and yelling at something or someone on the balcony. No one else in the room saw anyone. Sasha just thought he'd gone off the rails, but Daryl seems to think it's something more.”

“You do a lot of talking with Sasha last night, hm?” Dean asked, his mouth full of toothbrush.

“It's not like that,” Sam said, but he had a smug grin that he was trying to hide. “She seemed pretty no-nonsense. I figured she'd give the facts.”

Dean spit and rinsed his mouth out. “And did she, Sammy? Give the facts, I mean?”

Sam half-heartedly punched him as he walked back to his bag. “She was very helpful, actually. Look, so the way it happened, Rick did go a little crazy after his wife died. But they were feuding with this guy called the Governor, who ran the nearby town of Woodbury and was way crazier than Rick. Apparently he tried to keep it together to fight off this Governor guy, and seems he did a passable job of it, because now the Governor's disappeared and most of the folks living here are from Woodbury. When Rick brought them back, he stepped down and the council was created.”

“Okay. And what does Rick do now?”

“Well, seems he farms...and occasionally runs around in the woods looking for his dead wife.”

“Right.” Dean paced the small cell, eager to go find breakfast. “And they just let him run off in the woods crazy and all alone? He's gonna lead every creepy crawly in Georgia back to this place.”

“Well, seems like it's something everybody kind of knows, but nobody really talks about. Especially to him. Sasha and the folks he knew before figure he needs the break, and being out in nature helps him. The Woodbury folks, well, nobody knows him that well because he's always out.”

“I see. Okay, so sounds like he may actually just be crazy. Not our kind of job.”

“Maybe. But we can at least help them work on their defenses in case the vampires come looking. We can keep an eye out while we do, listen for anything, see if we need to do any hunting while we're here.” Sammy leaned against the wall. “Daryl's so concerned about how to protect these people. I really do think he'd make a good hunter, and, think about it, we need to up our numbers these days. The monsters are.”

“Yeah. We'll see. But just a couple days, got it? I need to get back to Ben.”

“I know. C'mon. Beth said she'd save us some breakfast.”

They had their choice of stale cereal with powdered milk or cream of wheat with powdered milk. Dean went with cream of wheat just to have something warm. They did have cinnamon, which was a real treat.

“Is it really true that Daryl got turned into a vampire?” Beth asked them. Although she whispered, Dean noticed nearby tables stop their conversation and watch from the corner of their eyes.

“Yeah, it's true,” Sam answered as Dean dove into his food. “But as long as he didn't feed, we were able to take him to someone who knew a spell to reverse it.”

Beth bit her lip, and Dean remembered that she was the daughter of the bible-toting guy who was so shook up about angels. Hershel. “Nothing to worry about,” Sam reassured her. “The world's always been like this. It's just that now everybody knows it.”

Dean reached over and stomped Sammy's foot, but he merely shrugged as the girl ran off. Dean stared at him. “Dude, we really need to do something about your little soul problem.”

“What? Dean, it's the freaking zombie apocalypse. Her friend is fine. She's got way better things to be scared of than him.”

“We're guests. Try to have a little tact,” Dean said, relieved to see that the peanut gallery was turning back to their stale cereal. “Hey, have you noticed that 'zombie' is like a foreign word around here?”

“Mornin',” Daryl said, plopping down in a seat next to him. “You getting on all right?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Daryl. You got a nice place here.”

“You think that alpha's dead?”

Dean looked at his brother. “Honestly? Probably not yet. Crowley wants something. But if the alpha doesn't give him what he wants, my guess is he'll kill him once Samuel brings him a new alpha.”

“There's more than one alpha?”

“Alpha Vamp, no,” Sam said, looking pointedly at Dean. Sam really seemed to want to make this Daryl – hunter thing happen. Daryl did seemed interested - and competent - enough, Dean had to admit. Dean didn't necessarily disagree with the idea, but it surprised him that Sam was pushing it so hard. “Nearly every type of creature has an alpha, the first one from which all the others originate. Remember what the Alpha Vamp said back at the warehouse?”

“Not really. A lot of that is kind of blurry.”

“Crowley wants to find Purgatory. That's why they're going after alphas. Because that's where the monsters go when they're killed,” Sam explained.

“Yeah, but what Samuel's doing is like kicking at wasp nests. The world has been taken over by the Croatoan virus, and the monsters who were here before all this have had free run of the joint since it happened,” Dean said. “He lost like a dozen people on that Alpha hunt. What, three of them were family? You don't really think he's going after more, do you?”

Sam shook his head. “Do you think Crowley's gonna let him stop until they find it?”

Dean scraped his bowl clean. “Well, I know one thing. Gwen's tough, but he's going to need more than just her if he goes after another alpha. And there aren't a whole lot of hunters left.”

“So how many of these other alphas are around here? Like, in Georgia?” Daryl asked.

“No clue. We came across vamp sign when we found our new safe house. Stories of people being taken. We were hunting them down, making sure it was safe. And now we're a long ways off from where we've holed up.”

“You said you got a boy? Y'all would be more than welcome here.”

“I really appreciate that, Daryl. Nature of our job though, we're usually loners. Things have a tendency to come after us.”

Daryl nodded. “Offer's there, though. All right, we got a group that wants to hear all about protection from vampires versus walkers. And I didn't really say anything about the, you know, demons. But, uh, some of the kids were asking that Cas guy a lot of questions that he was pretty blunt about answering, so some of the parents are kinda pissed.”

“Just great.” Dean really had hoped to leave Cas with the people at the prison. Cas was sure that Kali was going to try to hurt him through Dean, and Dean couldn't seem to get rid of him no matter what he did. “All right. Let's get this show on the road. Sam, could y-- You know what? Never mind. I'll deal with the parents. You talk to Cas – and get rid of him if you can,” he added again as he tossed Sammy the keys. “And then get Baby ready for show and tell. Awesome. Daryl, you've got everybody? I only want to do this once.”

“Everybody but the kids,” Daryl said, nodding to two elderly ladies as they passed by. “And a few of the older folks. Mrs. McLeod there has arthritis, and Mrs. Coleman, well, she doesn't want anything to do with this 'devil-worshipping nonsense'.”

Once Dean had calmed down the irate parents, he did a very similar spiel as with the council the day before. Yes, vampires and werewolves are real. Yes, angels and demons. Yes, ghosts and zombies. Maybe to God, mermaids, and aliens. No to Big Foot, unicorns, and superheroes, although Dean personally keeps hoping to meet a superhero one day and refuses to accept no as an answer.

It was obvious that they all wanted to play twenty questions, but Dean didn't want to do a whole lot of talking. “Look, we can do a Q and A at the end if you really think you need one, but how about you let us show you the ropes and then take a look around this prison? I think you'll find we cover plenty of ground as we go along.”

Dean led them all down the small lot to where Sam stood waiting with the Impala and, to Dean's great disappointment, Cas. He turned his back on Cas, suddenly more than happy to give his full attention to the group of prison residents. He saw one noticeable absence. Rick, the ex-cop, was nowhere to be seen. His kid, Carl, was there though, trying to hide in the back.

“Okay, before we get to the big guns. You! Hey, kid. Yeah, you. You got permission from your dad to be here? I notice he ain't here, and I don't want to step on any toes.”

“I don't need permission.”

“Gotta be this tall to ride, kiddo, or accompanied by an adult.” Dean held a hand up by his shoulder.

To his surprise, the kid laughed at him. “Look, I don't wear a gun anymore because my dad doesn't like it. He's my dad, and I do what he asks. But I have one that's mine, not his, and I've used it to save this place more than once. It's my job to keep my family safe. To keep this place safe. So don't you worry about me or what permissions I need. I know what I need to do.”

Dean couldn't help but laugh, but he quickly realized that no one else was really laughing. Dean raised his eyes at Daryl as if to say, Really? Daryl held his gaze but said nothing. Dean looked at the kid appreciatively. He supposed if dad fell off the rails, the kid really was the one keeping him and his baby sister safe. Dean knew how that was. “All right then. You can learn, but no weapons unless your dad says it's okay.”

He saw that most of them had brought weapons. “Let's see what you guys normally have,” Dean said, waving a man forward.

“Well,” the guy said, “we don't usually go around armed. Those who can shoot take turns on watch in the towers. Those who can't usually take turns killing them on the fence. I got a pocket knife I carry with me.” He held up a large blade he carried. “I started working on this last night, after I talked to Daryl.”

“You made this?” Dean examined the blade, which was nearly the length of his forearm. The edge was a bit uneven, but it was sharp, with a grip that looked like plastic wrapped in leather. “Is this a lawnmower blade?”

“Yeah. I've been trying to figure out how to make tools and weapons. We have some machetes, but not enough for everyone. That's my first try.”

“Not bad...” Dean looked at him questioningly.

“Henry.”

Dean handed the blade back. “Not bad, Henry. Okay, you! Show me what you've got.” As Henry had said, those who had blades mostly had machetes or long bowies. The one badass chick had a sword, which she allowed Dean to have a look at. She handed it over as if bestowing a great honor, so Dean treated it as such. It was a nice piece. Sharp. Obviously well-tended.

Many of them didn't have weapons at all. Or they only had guns they wore while outside. “Guns won't work against a vampire,” Dean explained. “They might slow 'em down a bit if you shoot out their kneecaps, but it won't do any real damage. Neither will a stake to the heart. They're sensitive to the sun, but it won't kill them. To kill 'em, you've got to cut the heads off.”

“You might want to stab the brain after,” Sam added. “They never seem to turn while – well, not alive. Undead. But once you really kill them, the Croatoan virus gets them too. The head'll start gnashing at you and stuff. Better to kill it all the way.”

“Guns can be helpful with other things though. Anybody here got shotguns?” Dean opened up the false bottom of the Impala's trunk and started pulling out all of his different guns. “Rocksalt shells hurt all manner of supernatural critters. Ghosts, demons, even hellhounds, though it won't hold them off for long. Salt keeps a lot of them at bay and can hurt a good many of them, though it likely won't kill them. Still, grab up some salt and make salt rounds whenever you get the chance. Now, silver in blade or bullet form...”

It felt a bit weird doing it on such a large scale, but he and Sammy spent the morning doing a Hunting 101 training for nearly thirty people. When he thought about it, Dean didn't even think he'd seen thirty different people since the gang that ran them out of their very first safe house. That was so different. Those people had been ruthless, and Dean and his small group had barely gotten away with their lives. It had seemed like a mob. Waves of fighters. Now thirty looked paltry. These folks weren't fighters. They were barely armed. Honestly, they were probably only alive by some fluke or another. Did any of these folks even have a chance?

Dean tried to shake away such morbid thoughts. He and Sam would do everything they could to give these people the best chance they had at survival. Then they'd wish them well and move on. Some part of him knew that there was nothing he could do to protect them – or anybody – from Celestial War One. He was probably only buying them a bit of time until they all fried in the inevitable end of the world. He and Sammy might put it off even a few times, but he knew deep down that no matter what, it would always amount to some kind of fiery end.

“Here. Souvenir,” Sam said, tossing an extra rosary to Hershel. “Now you can make holy water.”

“Oh, I'm not a priest.”

“Close enough. Doesn't matter; I'll teach you how.”

“Okay,” Dean said, feeling antsy. The fact that Cas was still lurking beyond his shoulder only kept him sulking and itching for some space. “Daryl, why don't you show us around this prison of yours? Everybody try looking at it with hunter eyes, and we'll decide together how to best batten down the hatches.”

They had done a pretty good job of securing the prison. But on one side, the whole wall had fallen in. It looked like a job that needed some heavy machinery to clean up, but they had repaired and reinforced the fencing and looked to be clearing out bricks. “We're gonna try to build a wall where it's all torn in. Stop walkers from coming in through the boiler room,” Daryl explained.

“A wall will stop the croats, but not necessarily other things. Now, we can paint some devil's traps and maybe booby trap the areas leading inside, but we don't want your own people getting hurt too. If you build a wall, like a little courtyard or something, you may want to roof it up and lock it eventually. Maybe even keep a guard on this side. This is a huge weakness right here.”

“We're spread so thin already,” Carol said. “We keep our cell blocks locked up at night. So far we've not had any problems.”

“You're lucky.”

“Now bright lights, while they don't kill, can bother and disorient vampires. Do the lights on the prison walls still work?”

“Some of them do when we run the generator. It takes a lot of gas though. We usually only do it for laundry or movie nights when we have enough gas to splurge.”

“Outside lights attract the walkers,” a big guy said. He only walked around with a hammer stuck through his belt. Dean recognized him from the vamp fight, and he suspected that the guy was Sasha's brother.

“There's probably not a lot of vamps left in the area,” Sam pointed out. “All the ones relatively close by came when the alpha called them. There was a lot - a whole lot - that Cas obliterated.”

Dean turned and kept walking, continuing along the perimeter of the fence. “Hey!” he called back to the others. “We've got a pretty bad build-up over here!”

The croats had been following along on the other side of the fence as the group made their way around the prison. They'd been trailing the whole time, but now others began pouring out from the nearby woods. On this side of the prison, the fence had come down once already and was weaker than the others. It was beginning to bow in, and though it was still a crisp, early spring day, Dean suddenly felt sweat pouring down his neck.

“I'll get more guns!” Carl shouted, scrambling through the ruins of the wall to get inside. Daryl began shooting his crossbow through the fence, doing a surprisingly good job of avoiding the chain link, while the others ran up ahead to push against the croats who were bowing it in.

“Come on!” one of the women yelled, trying to lure some of the croats up the fence. A group of several others joined her, the big guy playing his hammer across the metal like a xylophone. A few fell for the ploy and were quickly dispatched.

Dean ran into the fray, scrambling with the others to hold up the fence. Those with guns were shooting into the huge pile of croats, and others with knives or crowbars were stabbing heads all around them. One fell dead against the fence right on top of Dean's right hand, and he kept glancing worriedly at it as he pushed, afraid that it would turn its head and bite his fingers off at any moment.

He heard some kind of automatic rifle being fired. It was either that kid, Carl, or he'd brought reinforcements. A large caliber rifle came from the left somewhere, probably from the nearest tower. Dean didn't think they had a very clear shot from there, but he figured they were picking off extra croats who were being drawn in by all the gun fire.

Then an engine was revving nearby. He couldn't see it, but Dean could tell that a team was fighting off the croats from the other side of the fence. It came closer and closer, getting louder and louder, and then there was a release on the fence and Dean slipped, groaning as at least three people landed on top of him. He pushed them off and soldier crawled through people's legs until he broke free.

A large bread truck, it looked like, was plowing through the mob of croats. It circled around the yard and did it a second, and then a third time. Sam was one of the shooters, standing to the side and timing his shots to avoid the bread truck. Carl had brought guns for some of the others and had taken a place pushing up against the fence. Dean rushed in to take his place, though the boy refused to budge. Dean pulled his pistol and moved to the side, trying to shoot croats without getting any of the people. Finally, after probably ten or fifteen minutes fighting the sudden throng against the fence, though it seemed much longer, all of the croats were dead and it was peaceful again.

“Wow,” Dean said after water had been passed around, “does that happen often?”

“Not really,” Daryl said. “More and more lately, though.”

“Yeah, we've battled a couple bad herds,” Sam said.

Not since they'd found the new safe house, Dean thought. Not a really bad one since Lisa. They were probably due for one. It made him want to get home to Ben as soon as possible. They'd taken too long already.

“All right,” he called out, getting everyone's attention. “This has been very educational all around. Why don't we break for lunch, and then Sammy can show you how to make up syringes of dead man's blood. Even the kids can use those against vamps. But it's tricky to gather anymore since the Croatoan virus hit. You only have so long before it's walker blood, which I suspect still might hurt a vampire, but you don't want to take the chance trying to harvest it.”

“Stinks,” Daryl added.

“Carl, Henry, you guys see me after class, okay? You, Hermione,” he said, pointing to Sasha, who had been taking notes the whole time, “I'm guessing you'd know where the syringes are kept?”

“It's Sasha,” she said, settling one hand on her hip. “And yes, I do.”

Dean eyed her appreciatively. She was sweating and breathing hard, splattered with blood where she'd jumped right in to fight. I'd stay up all night with her, too. He turned back to Sam with a wide grin and a wink, as if to say, 'Well done', then turned back to Sasha. “Well, Sasha, if you could gather any extra, that'd be great. I'd like everyone to have a turn making one, and then they should keep some on them for the next few weeks until we see if there's any retaliation against Daryl. If you've got a way to refrigerate and swap out, they'll last longer.”

Sasha gave a short nod and headed back inside with most of the others. A small group had gone with Rick, the crazy sheriff guy who'd gone plowing through the zombies in the bread truck, and came back with a load of poles to lean up against the fence as reinforcement. Sam and Cas soon made it around the fence and were pulling croat bodies off of it, piling them up in the yard to make a burn pile. Dean frowned to see Cas working alongside everyone like that. Why hadn't he just saved them as he'd done with the vamps?

Probably because you told him that you didn't need him to save you. You've done nothing but yell at him about it since, his mind taunted. Dean shook his head and turned back to Henry and Carl, who had stayed behind to see what he wanted.

“Henry, you did a pretty good job on that homemade machete. There are some more supplies I think you guys could have, if you think you can do some real metal work.”

Henry smiled shyly. “I don't know anything about it, really. This was mostly trial and error.”

“Do you have a workshop set up?”

“Not really. I came out here so I could work without disturbing everyone and getting metal shavings strewn about...” Henry shrugged and looked down at his feet. “I think maybe banging on all that metal out here might have called in all those walkers.”

Dean looked out over the scene. “Maybe. Or maybe not. You worked on it last night, right? They'd have probably hit us sooner. They didn't hit us in the night. That's a damned good thing. Still, yeah, you don't want to be calling 'em out here. I want you to find a place to make you a workshop. Do a little forge, collect as much scrap metal as you can. Fast as you can. I'd like to show you some of my other weapons, a few chains and talismans, and we'll see if you can't make some of 'em, all right?”

Henry nodded. “That sounds fun. I'll see what I can do.”

“Good man.”

Carl had his thumbs through his belt loop and was nervously rocking back and forth as he waited. Dean could tell that he was itching to get moving and wanted to help the others move the bodies. Dean clapped his arm. “So, you tell me you're familiar with weapons?”

Carl looked at him warily. “Yeah.”

“What kind?”

“I've got a Beretta that I use most of the time, or used to, and a Browning BDA. A pocket knife. Sometimes I take a turn on the fence with a crowbar. ” He cocked his head, looking up at Dean. “And sometimes my dad'll even let me cut my own steak.”

“Oh, you've got steak, do you, smartass?” Dean laughed despite himself. “Look, I don't mean any offense. Believe me. I know how it is to be in your position.”

“You do?”

“Oh yeah, probably way more than you realize. How old are you, anyway?”

“Just turned fourteen.”

“Ah, good age, fourteen is.”

“Was probably better with video games.”

“Yeah, but there's still girls, eh?”

“Yeah, there's that.” Carl smiled. “So what did you mean when you said you know what it's like?”

“Just that. C'mon, let's go grab some grub.” As they made their way around the brick piles and back inside the prison, Dean looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “I got my first gun when I was seven.”

“Seven?”

“Yeah. There were...things...that were far too interested in my little brother.”

“Where were your parents?”

“Dad was out hunting monsters.” Dean swallowed. “Mom died when Sammy was just a baby.”

“My mom died when she had Judith. My sister.”

“I figured. Sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah, well.”

“So you and me, we're kind of the same. You go through life watching out for your little sister. Even your dad. I get it, man, I do. It's a hard road though.”

Carl finally met his eyes. “Yeah. Can be.”

“This hunting crap, killing croats – walkers – it's no life for a kid. I'm sorry that's the hand you been dealt. But, honestly? It'll make you tough. Hell, you're pretty badass already. You and your baby sister, you'll both do fine if you watch out for each other. Just don't go looking for trouble is all. Trust me. Ain't hard to find. It'll come to you. You know, it took me twenty-odd years to learn the whole 'wisdom is the better part of valor' thing. Don't make that mistake.”

The way the kid looked at him, Dean didn't know if he wanted to ask more questions about the monster thing or punch Dean in the face. Dean realized he kinda liked the kid, and he'd probably only like him more if he took a swing. But Carl just nodded and said, “All right. Thanks.”

After talking to Carl, he didn't feel quite so put-out about coming to check the place out. These people were the closest thing to civilization that he had seen since the whole thing started. It was those kinds of places that need to make it. For all his talk about surviving it together, and for all the times the Winchesters had managed to die and still come back fighting, Dean still knew deep down that when it finally ended once and for all, it was going to be bloody. After his time in Hell, Dean could only do his best to ensure that he and Sammy went elsewhere after. Crowley, Lucifer, every thing they'd sent down there over the years, they didn't need to get stuck with them for eternity. And he hadn't even considered Purgatory. A place where all the freaky monsters go? No, thank you.

Dean had always privately hoped that all the saving and apocalypse averting and whatnot might secure their seats in Heaven. But if Heaven had been taken over by a bunch of pissed off deities, then there was truly no place on or out of this earth that was safe for the two of them.

They reached the cafeteria, and Carl ran off to join some other kids. Dean asked for a place to wash up, and he was relieved to find Sammy already there, scrubbing croat juice off his arms. “Full day's work already, huh? How about we hurry with this ghost thing and get back? I don't want to die here, man. It's herding up pretty bad in this area.”

“Yeah. Michonne and that Rick guy are going out to check the area and clear it if need be.”

Dean grabbed the soap from him. “That doesn't sound too crazy.”

“No. Daryl said he was a pretty good leader, before.”

“His kid seems pretty competent,” Dean said.

Sam snorted. “Oh, yeah.” He lowered his voice. “Found out how the mom died.”

“Kid said she died in childbirth.”

“Yeah, some problem with the baby, but it was during a croat hit after everybody got scattered. The one girl, Maggie – one with the riot gear? Had to cut her open. Carl put her down before she turned.”

“The kid?”

“Yeah.”

Dean shook his head and toweled off on his shirt. “Hell, then I don't blame the guy for stepping down. Be a farmer, give the kid a chance at normalcy. Sounds smart.”

“Yeah, but chasing around in these woods for a dead wife isn't. It's herding up worse here than anywhere we saw on the roads coming in. This guy's kicking at wasp nests just as much as Samuel. I figure it's a ghost, or maybe a psychic projection if the guy's gone too far off the deep end. Sasha thinks he carries a lot of guilt about his wife's death.”

Dean considered it. “Could be. You see what you can find out about the wife. I'll see if I can find Rick and feel him out. But after lunch. I heard it's rice and beans again, but this time there's cornbread. I could use some cornbread.” Dean laughed as he realized how ridiculous he sounded. “Man, what I wouldn't give for a freaking cheeseburger.”

Dean thought he did a great job of being gracious, and he truly was sincere in his enthusiasm for cornbread, but his stomach kept growling angrily as he ate it. Daryl sat his plate across from him. “Needs meat, right?”

“Little bit,” Dean admitted.

“Hey, man, get to bed early tonight, and we'll see how you do real hunting. I'll take you guys out with me in the morning. 'Bout time the deer are fattening up again. Might even find us a decent buck, if the walkers didn't scare 'em all off. I want to check a place a little ways from here. It's far off the roads, so it shouldn't get a lot of traffic, even from walkers.”

Dean looked for Sam, then saw he was busy chatting with Carol. Dean shrugged. “Sure, we could give it a try. Check out the area outside the prison a bit more. We go on foot? Might be best to hear Rick and Michonne's report when they get back.”

“Aw, if we don't get another pile up tonight, then we're probably good for another week or two. We killed a lot this morning. They seem to come in waves lately.”

Dean leaned over and whispered, “You didn't tell us everything about the lady's death.”

“Huh?” Daryl glanced around, but no one was close enough to pay any attention this time. “You mean Lori?”

“Yes. Why didn't you tell us about the boy?”

Daryl shifted back in his seat and toyed with his pile of rice and beans. “Well, it's not really my story to tell.”

“If you've got...something...in here, then, yeah, it's worth mentioning.” Dean raised his voice just a bit. “Sam thinks it could be a psychic projection. If the guy feels some guilt or something over her death. But what if it's the kid?”

“Nah...nuh uh. Not Carl.” Daryl leaned forward. “Look, he's not Beaver Cleaver or nothing, but he wouldn't torture his own dad. And Carl doesn't see her. Just Rick.”

“Okay, fair enough. But what if he has a lock of her hair or something, and Carl is tying her here. Or Judith. Hell, did Rick keep the umbilical cord? Do people do baby books now?”

“No, I don't think they've got anything of her left. I told you, we couldn't bury her 'cause a walker ate her.”

“All of her? Bones and all?”

“Yeah.”

“That seems weird,” Dean said, then resumed shoveling cornbread into his mouth.

“Yeah, it kinda does. Rick said he found the thing all bloated up, and he killed it and then some. Hell, he cleared the whole damned prison out, just about, then burned all the bodies himself. Wouldn't let no one help.”

“You sure he killed and burned the one that ate her?”

“Yeah. He was pissed, man. Seemed pretty sure.”

Dean considered it as he ate his rice. If one of the kids was what was holding her back, then Dean didn't really know how to get rid of her outside of offing the rugrats. They sure as hell weren't going to do that. Well, Dean sure as hell wasn't. He wouldn't put it past Sammy to try it if that was the only way. He really wished he could call Bobby. Bobby would probably know what to do about both problems.

After lunch, they all headed back outside. Daryl and Carol left to relieve the group burning walker bodies. They and the old man, Hershel, watched the fire so the others could go wash up and eat lunch. Sammy took most of the group back out front to teach them about dead man's blood. They still had a little bit taken from Samuel when they left. It was fairly well insulated, but it needed to be used up soon one way or the other.

Dean followed Carl down to the main gate when they saw Rick and Michonne returning. He helped Carl get them in, and offed two croats who got too close, then waited to hear their report. Unfortunately, neither seemed too keen on reporting to Dean. Luckily, Carl spoke up and asked what they found.

Rick smiled, but Dean noticed how his eyes slid over to the stranger before coming to meet his boy's. “Well...nothing too bad. Heavier traffic up on the main road, but we took care of 'em. Left 'em. Michonne thinks the smell will help mask some of the human smell we're sending off.”

Dean raised his brows appreciatively. Michonne smirked, and he could have sworn she rolled her eyes as she turned away and headed off through the second gate.

“Want a ride up?” Rick asked his son. “Hop in. Could you grab the gate for us...Dean, is it?”

“Yeah. Sure, no problem.” Dean pulled the second gate closed as Rick drove the truck – a Ford this time, not a bread truck – back up to the prison. Dean waved at the back of the truck as he latched the gate. “No, I'm good. No, really. I'll walk, thanks,” he said to no one in particular, then took off up the hill at a jog.

Unwilling to let him go that easily, Dean cut across the yard as he saw Rick head over toward the garden. They had a couple of nice little buildings set up. There was a pig sty and a small stable for a pretty looking horse. Rick pulled a pair of leather gloves from his pocket and plucked a hoe from the side of the stable wall. “What can I do for you, Dean?” he asked without turning around.

“How about a proper introduction first? Rick, is it?” Dean held his hand out as Rick finally turned around. The man gazed at it a moment before taking it and giving a small but firm shake.

“Yeah, it is.”

“You're the only one who doesn't seem interested in the fact that your buddy there got turned into a vampire.”

Rick rested the hoe on the ground, clasped his hands together over the end of the handle, and cocked his head as he stared at Dean. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I just don't believe in vampires.”

“Oh. Well, you ought to talk to Daryl then.”

“I have. And, see, I'm not altogether certain that you didn't do something to him. Dose him, maybe.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I know there's no vampires. So the way I figure, y'all are some type of con men. I just don't know what game you're playing.” He turned and walked away, heading down into rows of sprouting something-or-others. “I just know I ain't interested in playing.”

Dean watched him for a moment. “Okay, I get it. You're wrong, but I get it. I promise, we're not out to con you or your people. We just want to help keep you safe.”

Rick didn't answer, though Dean thought he might have heard a grunted 'uh huh' as the man dug the hoe between rows.

Dean sauntered down toward him. “So, what, you believe in zombies but not vampires? Or ghosts, maybe?”

Rick glared at him, and Dean wondered if he had pushed too far. There was still a pretty decent chance that this guy was just crazy. “No. No, I don't.”

“'Cause I heard---”

Rick threw the tool down – thank God – and crossed to Dean, grabbing his shirt and getting his stale breath all up in Dean's face. “What? What did you hear?”

Dean pushed him off. “Look, I'm trying to keep you guys alive. You got a good thing going here. Hell, best I've seen in a long while. You can't hide your head in the sand. There's a lot more out there than just the croats, and without billions of humans to keep them all underground and mostly in line, this is quickly becoming the dark side's playground, you feel me? Now you can work to keep your people safe or you can keep convincing yourself that the worst you need to worry about is mindless croats or the neighborhood crazy, but your man Daryl got into some serious shit. You need to step up and be there for him.”

“Don't you tell me what I need to do.”

“I ain't the bad guy, man,” Dean shrugged and began walking away. “Time to wake up, though. Shit's gonna keep going down with you or without you. With us or without us here. That's just how it is anymore.”

“So Rick's a douchebag,” Dean said to Sam later in the privacy of their room. Their cell, rather.

“Seems to be the general consensus,” Sam agreed, not looking up from the journal he was perusing. “That all you found out?”

“Pretty much. He didn't seem inclined to talk about his wife's ghost, that's for sure. Or vamps. He thinks we're con men.”

“I miss the days when we were.”

“Really? You, Sammy?”

Sam closed the journal and crossed his arms and legs defensively. “Well, I mean I didn't like lying to people, of course, but things were sure a lot easier when we could charge a bed to a fake card and hustle pool for a few cold beers and a warm meal.”

“Yeah, you got a point there. Say, Daryl wants to take us hunting in the morning. Like, real hunting. For a deer. Deer's red meat, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Right. So I'm half-tempted to take him up on it.” Dean grinned. “I could eat a deerburger.”

“Seriously, dude? You could eat Bambi?”

“How long has it been since we had meat? Real meat, not stale gas station jerky. I could eat Bambi's little skunk friend right now.”

Sam laughed. “Okay, let's try it then. But what about the ghost?”

“No ghost. I think the guy's just a nutjob. No cold spots, no bones, no one else has seen her.” Dean shrugged. “Maybe you can get Rick to talk to you about what he sees. I don't think he's sharing with anyone, though.”

Sam sat up, suddenly excited. “No, he might be. He's a loner, he's grieving, but surely he'd reach out to somebody here. Not the boy; he wouldn't want to burden him. Not Daryl, or he would have told us more. We may not have to talk to Rick, just whoever Rick talks to.”

“Maybe. He and Carl both seemed pretty comfortable with that Michonne. She's not the talkative type though. Wouldn't succumb to my charms even a little.”

“Losing your touch, Dean?”

“Absolutely not.” She was cute enough. Sexily badass. Just his type, really, but Dean was a grieving widower-ish type person. He sobered at the reminder. “Anyway, you seem to be doing extra well with the ladies. You should try. I can sound out the council members. If he felt comfortable enough handing the reins over to them, maybe they know more about this whole dead wife thing than they shared at first.”

“Yeah, maybe now that they're less awestruck by Cas, they'll be able to help us out.”

Dean abruptly stood. He wanted to pace, but there wasn't really any room, so he settled on climbing up to the top bunk.

“You're going to have to acknowledge his existence, Dean. Looks like we're stuck with him, at least for a little while.”

Dean shoved his head under a flat pillow. “Can you hurry up with that light? Gotta get some sleep here if I'm going hunting in the morning.”

“Sure. I'll take this out to the living room, or whatever you'd call it. I'm going to scour this and then that other hunter's journal that we found. See if I can find anymore info on boneless ghosts or psychic projections.”

“Okay, but get some sleep. We need meat in the morning.”

Dean dreamed of meat all night and was covered in slobber when Sam shook him awake. He smacked his lips, wishing that his mouth tasted considerably better. At least it motivated him to roll out of bed and find Daryl.

“What time is it?”

Sam looked at the wind-up pocket watch he had picked up somewhere. Probably stole it. “Just after four.”

“Seriously? Don't you ever sleep? Put the damned candle out.”

“I thought we were going hunting. You've got to be out before the sun.”

Daryl hadn't mentioned that. Well, he was up, so might as well splash his face and get motivated. “What are you so excited about at four in the morning?”

“I learned a little bit more about Lori. Do you know...” Sam dropped his voice to a hushed whisper, “certain people question whether Judith is really Rick's kid?”

“Since when do you watch soaps?”

“No, Dean, I'm serious. This isn't really idle gossip, either. That Glenn guy? He's been with them almost from the start. And he's pretty worried about Rick. Seems like he was originally presumed dead. Found his family later, traveling with his best friend. Glenn reluctantly admitted that the baby could very well be the best friend's.”

“So who's this supposed friend?”

“Well, he's dead. So it's not him, if that's what you're thinking. But what if she could be, like, a woman in white? Only instead of the husband cheating, it was her?”

“Has she killed anyone this whole time?”

“Well...no.”

“What we need to do is find this chick, if she's real, and see exactly what we're dealing with. Maybe...maybe we shouldn't go hunting.”

Sam looked at his brother with sympathy. “I tell you what, you go hunt with Daryl, and I'll stay on the case.”

“No, Sammy, you don't have to do that.”

“I want to. I'm serious! You're right; we could definitely use some meat. A bit of good protein would help our brains work. Three guys traipsing through the woods will just scare them off or attract croats. You go, bring home bacon, and I'll stay here and see what I can find. Cas can help me.”

“Stop bringing him up. I'm not gonna talk to him.”

“Fine, but we should at least put him to use. Make him pull his weight. Maybe he can find out something we've missed. I'm going to talk to him about it, anyway.”

“Guy's got no tact. Make sure he doesn't start trouble while I'm gone.”

“We've got it all under control.”

Chapter Text

Rick had to admit that it would be nice to have some real meat again. He didn't for a moment believe that that jackass, Dean, was going to be any help, though. No, Daryl Dixon was an excellent hunter. These boys tried to call themselves hunters, but they weren't like any hunters he'd ever seen. If you ask Rick, though no one had, he thought those Winchester brothers were criminals for sure. He could smell a criminal miles away. Likely thieves, possibly smart enough to be con men. Possibly even killers. Whatever it was, it was bad news. Truth be told, Rick was just grateful that Daryl had come back from the run at all. That was the only reason he let Daryl go off alone with that Dean guy that morning. Rick hadn't wanted him going off with them at all, but he was glad that Sam had stayed behind. He'd been ready to insist upon going too, but Daryl could hold his own against one guy.

Rick wasn't a fool. He knew those two kept asking questions about him. And that bothered him. Who are these guys, to come into my house and start investigating me? Worse yet, he almost suspected that Daryl put them up to it. Daryl, whom he trusted above anyone. Why? Rick wondered. Now, Rick knew he hadn't been all there since Lori had died, but he wasn't that bad. Calling in strangers to poke at his private business? Not cool. But Rick wasn't the boss anymore – by his own doing. He couldn't very well kick them out, although he wanted to. Vampires, ghosts, angels...those boys were on drugs or they were plotting something. He just didn't know which yet. So Rick was resigned to letting them come in and do their little investigation. But Rick would do one of his own.

He had woken early, hearing Daryl and Dean talking in low tones as they left. Daryl liked to leave out around four thirty or five when he hunted. Rick quietly got up after they left. The brother was likely awake as well, so he would have to save a search of their cell for later. Instead, he went to grab a bowl of cereal and wait for Michonne. She was an early riser, too. Rick knew she usually woke before everyone else, did an hour or so of exercise, and then went outside to do a perimeter check. They took turns trying to beat the other one out.

She arrived not long after. Rick nodded and sat back, simply waiting. Michonne occasionally glanced at him as she heated up some instant oatmeal and threw a handful of nuts and raisins in it, only speaking once she sat down opposite him. “What's wrong?”

Rick shifted in his chair and popped his neck. “Well,” he said quietly, “to be honest, I'm not real sure about these guys.”

“No?”

“Come on, Michonne. Vampires? And I know they're targeting me and Daryl for something.”

Michonne's brows rose. “You don't believe us about the vampires? Don't believe me? After all we've seen? You should talk to Daryl more. He was turning into one. It's true.”

“I know something happened to Daryl. He looked sick. These...these so-called vampires could have been accomplices. Daryl said they gave him a cold soda and were looking at a map they had all crossed out. I think these guys slipped him something. I don't know what they were really looking for, but I think they're trying to use us to find it. Or maybe they just decided to take us instead.” Rick pushed his empty cereal bowl aside and leaned across the table. “And we just let them right in.”

Michonne cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. After a moment, she said quietly, “All right. I can see how you'd think that.” She sat back and smiled. “That's the cop in you. But I'm telling you, I was there. I saw it. I killed three of the things myself. It's true.”

Rick began shaking his head, but Michonne continued. “No, it's true. So whatever Daryl says happened after, I believe him. We've had a hard enough time keeping this place safe from walkers and people. If this other stuff is out there, better safe than sorry.”

“It's not that I don't believe you...”

“Yes, it is. It's just that you didn't say it. I get it. Still, making this place a little safer never hurt, right?”

“I just don't know that letting them in was the safest thing.”

“Come on,” she said, scraping her bowl. “Let's take a walk.”

It was a fairly calm morning. Still chilly, so they'd brought their coats. Or, Rick had brought his coat and Michonne her cloak. There was a small buildup over by the east tower, but nothing like what they'd battled the day before. The morning fence crew would be able to handle it in plenty of time. Rick figured that he and Michonne had killed most stragglers in the area after the herd at the fence had been taken care of. It would take a few days before a big pack gathered again.

“They did a good job securing the fence yesterday, but we're going to need to devote a full time crew to fixing up the far side now that the weather's gotten nicer.”

“We weren't very successful on our last run though,” Michonne said. “I should take another crew out.”

“No, not until these Winchesters are long gone. We all need to stay close. You said we need to fortify against anything, so we stay and fortify.”

Michonne gave him a look, but she didn't argue that point. “They're trying to help.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Just then, a bleary-eyed Carl came bounding down the steps. “Dad! Can you come in for a bit?”

“What's wrong, Carl?” Rick asked, running across the lot. His hand unconsciously hovered over his belt even though he'd quit wearing his gun months earlier.

“It's okay, Dad. It's just Judith. She's really fussy. Beth has her, and she fed her and got her changed and everything, but she just keeps crying.”

Rick slowed, his heart returning from his throat to its normal place in his chest. “Yeah. All right, let's go see your sister.” He turned back and saw Michonne give a short wave before she continued her walk around the perimeter.

It was still early, but more people were up thanks to Judith's crying. Beth had her out in what had become Cell block C's sitting room, and a handful of people yawned as they drank instant coffee at the far tables.

“Sorry,” Rick said sheepishly as he reached out for his daughter.

“It's what babies do,” Ms. McLeod said, laying a sympathetic hand on his arm. One of the older residents from Woodbury, Ms. McLeod rose early and fixed breakfast for both cell blocks when there was hot food to make. “Can I get you some coffee?”

“No, thank you,” he said, frowning as Judith continued to squall. He laid the back of his hand across her head. “Does she feel hot to you?”

“I thought so,” Beth said. “Should I go wake up Dr. S.?”

“The doctor is already awake,” Ms. McLeod said. “I saw him before I left D.”

“Thanks. Yeah, maybe I'd better take her over there. You said she's already eaten?” Beth nodded. “Good, thank you. Carl, see if you can get some more sleep.” He adjusted her blanket and swaddled her a little tighter, then took a flashlight and headed down the hall to cell block D.

Poor little Judith fussed the whole way there, making Rick pick up his pace a bit. He bounced her, and she gave a couple good burps that settled her for a minute, but she was soon crying again, her hands frantically fighting the blanket she was wrapped in. “There, there, honey. We'll get it all taken care of.”

He didn't know whether the baby felt extra hot or if he was just extra worked up, but suddenly the shadowed halls of the prison felt far too cold. His hairs stood on end as gooseflesh overtook his entire body. He shivered, then shook it off and increased his pace to a run.

“Dr. S!” he cried with relief, forgetting that it was probably only six or so in the morning at best.

“Rick, what's wrong?”

“Judith can't stop crying. I think she feels pretty warm. Can you take a look at her?”

“Certainly. Bring her in.” Dr. S. led the way to his cell. He turned on his battery lantern and pulled out his med kit. “I'm out of thermometer covers, so I'll have to take her axillary temperature. Here, unswaddle her so the blanket doesn't overheat her. Let me have a look at her while we give her a second to cool off.” Dr. S. took Judith and felt her head, neck, and back.

“I had her swaddled up because she kept throwing punches. She's been fed, changed...she's usually in a great mood when she wakes up.”

“Punches, huh?” The doc looked at her as she angrily waved her hands around. “There now, calm down, sweetheart. Let me take a good look at you.”

Judith sniffled, but Dr. S. had a calming manner to him. Her crying soon settled to whining, and she tugged at her ears. “Does your little ear hurt? Can Dr. S. take a look at it?” the doc asked in baby voice, rummaging with one hand as he felt around for his otoscope. “See how she keeps waving around and tugging at her ears? She probably either has an ear infection or she could be teething. Babies pull their ears and can sometimes get a low grade fever when teething. How old is she now?”

“Seven months. She has a few teeth already. She was fussy, but never that bad.”

“Back teeth can be harder. Here now, let Dr. S. see your ear...”

The doctor was careful as he slid the tip of the otoscope into Judith's ear, even as she jerked and flailed at the feeling, but she still resumed squalling. Rick sat next to them on the bed and tried to hold her still, but that only made her scream worse.

Somewhere outside, Rick heard glass shattering. He jumped up and grabbed his flashlight, readying it to use as a weapon. Judith screamed louder, and then, to his surprise, the glass and bulb inside the light just busted open. He could hear more breaking in other cells. “See to her! I'll check it out,” Rick said as he ran down the cell block.

He saw a few of the Woodbury ladies screaming and running. One was shaking broken glass from her hair. He reached out with his left hand to grab her as she ran by. “What is it?” he cried.

“I don't know! All of the lightbulbs just started busting one after another.”

“Is someone using the generator?”

“How should I know?”

A quick sweep of the block showed nothing that he could see. Rick asked one of the men, Noris, if he would find a couple folks and go check out the generator. “I'll be along just as soon as the doc gets done checking out Judith,” he promised.

Rick went back to the doc's cell and tried to pick up all the broken glass from his flashlight. “Didn't see nothing,” he told the doc.

“That's weird. Well, I did, before my scope broke, anyway. Poor little Judy's ears are pretty inflamed. I think that's her problem. I don't know that she has a fever. I think maybe she was just hot from the blanket, but she fights too hard for me to get a good reading. I didn't want to upset her worse. Do you think you could hold her arm down?”

“Sure, give her here.” Rick cradled his daughter against his chest. She seemed fine until the doc tried to press the thermometer under her arm. Then she resumed trying to punch and squall.

Another icy chill came over him, but it wasn't just him. Rick saw Dr. S. hunch his shoulders and shiver. In fact, he almost thought that he could see the doctor's breath, though that was ridiculous. It was still chilly in the early spring mornings, but their breath hadn't even been showing outside. It must have been a trick of the odd blue light from the doc's lantern.

“That's it! Just another minute...” the doc tried to encourage Judith. Rick struggled to hold her arm still with the thermometer underneath, but Judith kicked off of him and arched her back. He hated when she did that. She was stronger than she looked. He was always afraid he was going to drop her.

She kicked again, her crying getting louder. Suddenly a force seemed to grab him by the shoulders, and Rick instinctively released the baby as he was flung across the room and out the cell door. He landed all the way across the floor, rolling up against the wall. He stood and rubbed his sore neck, then saw that Dr. Subramanian was knocked out against the far wall of his cell.

Rick ran into the room, afraid of what he might find, even though he could still hear Judith crying. She wasn't screaming anymore, just giving small hiccups. She had fallen upon the bed and was now pushing herself up. She stopped crying as her chubby little hand found the thermometer and then stuck it in her mouth. Rick shifted her closer to the wall, just above the doc's head where he could keep an eye on her.

“Dr. S! Dr. S, wake up!” Rick shook the man, but he had apparently hit his head against the wall. “Caleb!” Rick yelled. “Doc, come on. Wake up!”

“What's going on?” Rick turned around to find Sam Winchester standing in the doorway. Rick sighed. Someone must have gotten him from cell block C.

“I don't know,” Rick admitted. “Judith's sick. We were trying to take her temperature, and then there was like this, this explosion. I blew that way,” he gestured past Sam, “and the doc this way. I think he cracked his head pretty good.”

Sam began rummaging through the doctor's things. “What happened just before that? Did you hear anything? Maybe smell anything?”

“What the hell are you doing? Don't mess with his stuff.”

“Ah ha! Here.” Sam opened a small bottle and waved it under the doc's nose. Rick sniffed as the scent of ammonia permeated the small cell. Dr. S. began to rouse.

Judith wrinkled her nose and resumed crying. Rick quickly picked her up and took her out, rocking her in the sunlight streaming through the high windows. Someone was sweeping up the broken glass from the old lights. Noris returned, Karen and Julio behind him. He shook his head. “Nobody's on the generator. It's quiet in there. Still have all the gas.”

Rick frowned. “Thanks, Noris.” He rubbed his eyes and tried to clear his head, keeping Judith bouncing in his other arm.

Dr. S. followed Sam out of his cell. “What happened?”

“That's what I'd like to know,” Rick said, staring at Sam.

Sam raised his hands. “Me too. Look, why don't you tell me what happened – exactly – just before you were knocked out.”

“Now listen here,” Rick said quietly, covering Judith's ears. It was mostly to stop her from clawing at them, but he kept his voice low to avoid scaring her. “None of this crazy stuff started happening until you showed up. Now, I don't believe in vampires, and I don't believe in angels. I don't know what it is you're into, but I want you to pack up and take it far from our people.”

Sam shoved his hands into his pockets and stood tall, throwing his shoulders back. “I'm not a threat to you or your people, Rick. We're just trying to help.”

“I don't need your help. Now, I've got a sick daughter to worry about. Why don't you go somewhere and consider what I said?” He stared at the boy as he passed. He stopped and spoke in Dr. S.'s ear. “Are you okay?” Dr. S. nodded. “Can you help Judith?”

Dr. S. swallowed. “Yes, of course. I'll need to check for a respiratory infection, but I don't think she has one. The good news is, she may not need antibiotics. The bad news is, if this doesn't clear up in a couple of days and she does need antibiotics, we don't have any.”

Rick took a deep breath. They had already raided every store and pharmacy in the area. That last run had really needed to be more successful. It was a huge waste of gas with little pay off. Now they needed to branch out in another direction, and he really didn't want a crew leaving with these two holed up in the prison.

“Look,” Rick heard Sam begin behind him. The kid hadn't taken his sincere advice. “We have a pretty good med kit. I don't know what meds are good for babies, but surely we have some antibiotics we can share. Not enough to fully stock you or anything, but enough to help a kid if any is okay for her.”

Rick bit his lip. He'd just told the bastard that he didn't need their help. Now, it seemed he did. He had to put his children before his own pride. He turned around and considered the guy. “All right. We'll let Dr. S. take a look at it then. Thank you.”

“She may not even need any. Let's finish examining her. There are some natural remedies we can try, too.” He led Rick back into the cell. To Rick's relief, he saw Sam turn and head back toward the door. The relief was short lived when he stopped and started talking to one of the residents. Rick shook his head and focused on his daughter.

“Let me listen to her breathing,” the doc said, fishing out a stethoscope – thankfully not busted - and warming it with his hands. Apparently he didn't do a good job, or maybe she was just feeling too touchy, but Judith startled and screamed as soon as he placed it on her back.

“Honey, it's okay,” Rick said, smoothing her hair and bounding her gently.

“She sounds good. I'll see if Hershel has anymore mullein. If we have any dried garlic left, we can try making an oil that might help. If she gets a worse fever or doesn't improve in a day or two, we may need antibiotics.” Dr. S. pursed his lips. “Really, we need antibiotics anyway. People get sicker when the weather starts to warm more than they ever do in the cold of winter. Everyone's out in the still–crisp air and cold mud. We should consider this a warning. We really need to get more medicines.”

“We'll plan another run after these guys leave.”

Afterward, he took Judith back to Beth for a while so he could talk to Hershel about ingredients for home remedies. Rick had never gave a lot of credence to all that natural stuff. His own father had been fond of a hot toddy for every little ill for himself, or a spoon of whiskey for the kids. That was as close to home remedies as Rick had ever gotten. Still, now he was grateful that the doc was the kind who knew about stuff like that.

“Yeah, I should have some mullein left,” Hershel told him. “Don't know about the dried garlic, though. Beth or Ms. McLeod might know. We should still have some wild garlic out in the woods though. I can get some of that if that would help.”

“Ask the doc. But don't go out by yourself, okay?”

“I can handle it,” Hershel said.

“Still. Please?”

“Oh, all right.” Rick turned to leave, but Hershel stopped him. “I hope your girl gets better. We might need to think about a med run soon.”

“Yeah, probably. Dr. S. said the same thing.”

“I know where a vet college is. The medicines are nearly the same. It's probably the best shot we have. I'll talk to the council about it.”

“Good. No more runs until these guys go, though.”

“Have you talked to them, Rick?”

“A little. Not any more than I have to.”

“Well, you ought to,” Hershel said. “I've been talking to the angel, Cas. He's got a lot of interesting things to say.”

Rick laughed. He tried to think of a tactful way to phrase what he wanted to say, but he wasn't sure there was one. “Look, Hershel. You're a man of faith, and I can respect that even if I don't share it. I don't personally believe in God or angels anymore, especially now, but I don't discount the slim possibility. I hope you're right. I hope one day me and Lori and Carl and Judy, we're all happy together forever and ever. But given how reality has turned out, I don't see any evidence of that being the case. One thing I do know, though...if God decided to show proof of any afterlife, proof of honest–to–god angels, it sure as hell wouldn't be that guy.”

“He disappeared in front of our eyes, Rick. The whole council saw it.”

“Yeah, well all of New York once saw the Statue of Liberty disappear, but I don't believe Copperfield's a messenger of Heaven either.”

“You really telling me you don't believe in an afterlife? You don't think Lori still exists somewhere?”

Rick frowned. He never should have told Hershel about that phone call. “No, I don't. I think this bullshit life is it, and sometimes it just breaks us,” he said, then stalked out.

Beth had finally gotten Judith to nap. She had to sit up with her, as the baby's ears hurt too much when she laid down. “Want me to take her?” Rick asked.

“I'm afraid to move her,” Beth whispered. “We're fine.”

Relieved, Rick decided to go de-stress in the garden for a while. He'd gotten into a nice routine since the council took over, and he hadn't realized how calm and centered it kept him until it had finally been disrupted. He pulled out the small mp3 player he had found and turned on some Johnny Cash. Remembering what Dr. S. had said about the early spring sicknesses, he grabbed a light jacket and headed outside.

If he judged the sun right, and he was getting fairly decent at it, Rick figured it was about eight thirty or nine. Still too early to worry about Daryl. Judith normally didn't wake until seven, so he had no idea how long she'd nap, since she'd been up so early. Might as well just enjoy what time he had. I'll have to transplant some of the wild garlic and onion. Maybe I'll go out with Hershel. Nobody would have to go out to harvest it if we had some inside the fence. They had planted onion bulbs just a few weeks ago, but they weren't even close to being ready.

He weeded the rows of onions first, careful not to pull the carrots that Hershel had interspersed them with. That was a mistake he'd never make again. Rick felt his tension begin to ebb as he hoed between the rows, and soon enough he was singing along with the Man in Black.

A flash of white streaked through his peripheral vision. He straightened and looked around, pulling the earphones from his ears. “Lori?” he whispered.

He saw her standing down by the fence. The last time he'd seen her, she had looked radiant in her silky white dress, her hair falling in dark waves down her back. She'd been just as he remembered her from their wedding night, when she'd never looked lovelier.

Now, her arms were crossed and her whole demeanor seemed...different. Her hair was a little more wild, her beautiful white dress now looked slightly tattered. Her face looked haggard, though at least she was not a walker, as she had been haunting his dreams lately. Rick set the hoe down and crossed the yard, hurrying as he saw her angry expression. “Lori! What is it?”

“You never keep your promises, Rick!”

Rick was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

Lori's black eyes flashed. “You promised you'd take care of our baby. Our babies. You took her to someone who hurt her. You helped hurt her! She was crying, screaming, and you just ignored her.”

“That's not true. She's sick. The doctor was just trying to diagnose her.” Rick frowned. “He's a doctor, Lori. I found us a doctor just to take care of them properly.

“He made her cry, and I saw you hold her down! What kind of parent does that?” Rick shook his head. He distinctly remembered Lori having to hold Carl steady several times when he'd gotten his shots.

“We do what we have to do to keep them healthy.”

“No! She trusts you, dammit! Just like I trusted you!” Lori seemed to grow before his eyes. “You said you'd stay with us. That you'd never leave us again. And all you ever did was leave! You weren't there when I had her. You weren't there when I needed you! And now our baby needs you, and what are you doing? You're singing In The Jailhouse Now! Is this a joke to you? Promises aren't just ordinary words, Rick! When you make a promise, it means something.”

“Oh, kinda like vows that way?”

Lori's eyes narrowed, and then she grabbed, lifted him over her head, and threw him. Rick hit the ground hard, then rolled back down the slope. As he slid to a stop, Lori flickered above him, then solidified as her hands reached for him once more. Instead of picking him up again, her hands sunk through him. Rick screamed as pain flooded his chest. It felt like Lori had hold of him by the heart, and the pain radiated out through every bit of him. He screamed again as sharp needle pricks shot through him from fingers to toes - and all other appendages.

The pain – and Lori – suddenly disappeared. Rick gasped and opened his eyes to find Sam Winchester standing over him with a crow bar. He threw his hands up, trying to protect his head.

Sam grabbed him by the arms. “I'm not going to hurt you. Come on! Move!” He pulled Rick through the yard, back toward cell block C.

“Watch out!” Rick cried as Lori flickered before them. Sam swung his crow bar, and she dissipated before their eyes. “What the hell? You see her?”

“Yeah, I can see her. What does she want?”

Rick stumbled, but Sam held him up and kept pulling him along. He found it hard to run and talk at the same time. He could barely breathe after Lori had squeezed out his insides. “She thinks I'm not taking good care of the baby,” he gasped. He struggled not to cry. “She said I don't keep my promises.”

“Woman in White,” Sam said, as if that explained everything.

Lori appeared in front of the door and screeched loudly. Rick tried to stop, but Sam barreled through, swinging his crowbar like a baseball bat. “You really see her?” Rick asked, not sure if that made him feel relieved or more frightened. “I thought she was in my head.”

“Nope. She's real, she's a ghost, and she's pissed!”

“But why? I am keeping my promise! I'm taking care of the kids.”

Sam didn't slow as he tried to explain, and Rick struggled to jog and keep up in order to follow what he said. “Look, your wife is a ghost now. She's stuck here, and that twists them. She can't think rationally anymore. She doesn't know the difference between her baby crying because she's sick and her baby crying because you're mistreating her. She hears the baby crying, she just wants to fix it. Her loving mommy brain is gone though. She's a twisted spirit. We have to set her free.”

“How do we do that?” Rick still had a hard time believing all this afterlife bullshit, but he knew one thing was absolutely true – Lori had been ready to kill him. She wasn't his loving wife who just wanted a little more time together. Not anymore. Maybe she had been at first, but she definitely seemed twisted now.

“You guys said there are no remains?”

Rick swallowed. “No.”

They burst into the cell block, and Sam ran to Ms. McLeod, nearly knocking her over, and took a salt shaker right from her hands. She pulled back against the wall, clutching a carved stone she wore on a thong around her neck, and murmured foreign prayers. Sam twisted the lid off and poured salt across the floor of the doorway. “We need more salt! Do you have more?”

“There's half a box under the cupboard. Probably more in the cafeteria. Big industrial boxes that the prison used.”

“We need one!”

“I'll go,” Rick said, but Sam pulled him back before he could cross the threshold.

“No, she's pissed at you the most. Here! Everyone get in here!” Sam poured a thin line across all windows, then emptied the rest of the box across the doorway into the main cell block. Someone screamed as Lori flickered just outside the doorway. She kept her head lowered as she stared at each of them. She tried to rush through, but the salt kept her at bay. Sam ran up and poked her with his crowbar. “Anyone got any iron? Iron keeps them away. Temporarily at least.”

Rick took Judith, who had awakened in all the commotion, from a very confused looking Beth. “The bars are iron, right? The windows and cells should be safe.”

She reappeared outside the door, this time looking almost normal as her eyes fell upon Judith. She reached out her arms, then quickly pulled them back as the salt border burned her...or something. It was almost like a forcefield. Lori turned her head, and she locked eyes with Carl. Rick couldn't hear her say anything, but it seemed to him that Carl did. “Mom?” Carl took a step forward, then stopped himself. “Mom, I can't.”

She screamed again, and suddenly her skin had an almost grey pallor. Tempests swirled in her eyes. Carl shook his head. “I can't. You shouldn't be here.”

Sam swiped at her again, then paced back and forth. “There's got to be something holding her here. And you'd better hope it's a lock of hair or a wedding ring or something and not your kids, 'cause we can't exactly go around destroying kids.”

“Excuse me?”

“Something's tying her here! Some piece of her. We have to destroy it.” Sam crossed the room and stood inches from Rick's face, forcing him to meet Sam's staring eyes. “What is it? Did she donate a kidney? Do you have some weird hair or nail clippings or something?”

“No! No, I don't have anything!”

“Her wedding ring...do you have it?”

“You want to destroy our wedding rings?”

“We have to do whatev---”

“She's my wife! She isn't freaking Sauron.”

Sam stepped back, gazing at Rick like he was a child. “Give me the ring.”

“I don't have her ring! It was eaten, all right!” He saw Carl jerk his head away and lowered his voice. “Just like the rest of her was.”

Sam turned, his gaze following Rick's. He walked across the room to Carl. “Carl? What is it?”

“Hey!” Rick yelled, passing Judith off to the nearest person, which happened to be a wild–eyed Carol. “You leave him alone.”

Carl refused to look at Sam, so the man bent down on one knee, trying to get in the boy's face like he had with Rick. Rick's fists clenched, and the room felt cold again.

“Carl?” Sam said quietly. “Do you have something of your mom's? Something that's maybe holding her here, or that you give a lot of energy to?”

Carl looked at Rick. He had a good poker face, his son did, but Rick could see the glint of a question in his eyes. “Wait,” Rick said, “do you?”

His eyes widened as he looked over Sam's shoulder, and Rick turned around to see Lori flickering at the doorway. He could feel a slight breeze, which didn't help the cold in the room. She was doing something. Somehow she was bringing in a small air flow, and the grains of salt began to roll across the floor. “Rick!” Carol screamed.

Without looking, Sam tossed his crowbar at her. Carol reflexively caught it, then handed the baby to Beth and went to stand between Lori's ghost and the rest of the residents of C block.

“What do you have, Carl?” Sam asked again, his voice getting harder.

Finally, Carl met Sam's eyes, his own narrowing. He didn't look to Rick anymore. “No.”

“She's not your mom anymore, son. She's a ghost. It's a sickness, just like the walkers.”

“I said no.”

Sam shook his head, his own fingers flexing. Rick didn't like how aggravated he looked, and he moved in between him and Carl. “You leave him out of this.”

“Rick!” Carol's voice was calm but sharp, and he looked over to see that the salt line had been scattered about. Lori disappeared, and then reappeared behind Carol. She reached out to give Carol a push, but Carol was faster. She swung, and Lori dissipated into mist.

People were screaming and running back to their cells, and Lori reappeared before Beth before she could make it through the door with the baby. “Here!” Carol tossed him the crowbar, and Rick ran to them.

“I'm sorry,” he said as he swung the piece of iron at her head. “Go! Go!”

“There's no more salt?” Sam asked.

“Maggie and Glenn ran to the cafeteria to get some,” Carol said.

“What is it?” Sam pressed Carl. “We have to find a way to release her!”

“Leave him alone, dammit!” To Rick's horror, he saw Lori flicker back just outside Beth's cell. “Lori, no! Leave them alone!”

“It's the only thing I have for Judith!” he heard Carl yell as he ran down the cell block.

Lori couldn't get through the iron bars of Beth's cell, but she was making Beth's stuff spin around in her room. Beth was curled around Judith, using her arms and body to cover her from the flying debris, as books kept hitting her in the head. “Lori, stop it!” Rick brought the crow bar down over her head.

She was gone before the blow landed. Rick panted and peered in at Beth and Judith. He clutched the bars with one hand and screamed as he felt Lori's icy grip on his heart once again. He tried to swing the iron bar over his shoulder, but the pain intensified. He dropped the weapon and fell to his knees, his breath taken from him.

“Carl,” he mouthed as he saw his son emerge from his cell. “Run...”

Carl shook his head. “Mom, let go.”

Rick fell sideways, but she didn't let go. If anything, she squeezed harder.

“Mom! You have to let go!”

Pain, such explosive pain as Rick had never known, gripped him. His whole body was made up of subatomic shards of pain. A dark shadow began to steal his vision, and his eyes blurred with unshed tears.

And then it was gone. Rick gasped as he was finally able to draw breath again. His head lolled against the gritty concrete as he tried to focus in on Carl. He saw fire, and finally his head cleared. In one hand, Carl held a silver zippo that Rick didn't recognize. In the other, the flaming remnants of a picture, which he also didn't recognize. Carl dropped it on the concrete and wiped away tears as the last corner began to curl up.

Sam clasped a hand on the boy's shoulder. “You did the right thing.”

Carl turned to him, shoving the zippo at Sam's chest. Rick couldn't see his face, but he heard him clear enough. “Shut up,” Carl told him, then ran to help his father up off the floor.

Chapter Text

Getting the deer back to camp proved more challenging than hunting it did. Dean was surprised to hear that Daryl made such a routine out of hunting, at least since spring had hit. Stalking and tracking was easy if you could be quiet. Hauling large game back wasn't, and it was extra hard to be quiet about it. They drew the attention of more croats than they expected to see after the previous day's massacre. He didn't know how Daryl ever managed to bring deer back all by himself.

“I usually have to leave the heads,” Daryl explained. “Sometimes I'll take a rope and tie the head in a tree right above where I field dress it. They come to eat the guts and stuff, and if too many gather, they'll waste their time fighting each other to try to reach the head.”

“Pretty smart,” Dean had to admit.

“Wasteful. Good when we get plenty to eat though. Shit, back in the day, a lot of guys used to kill 'em and just take the heads. Especially on a big buck. Take the trophies, leave the meat. That's even more wasteful.” Daryl laughed, shifting his grip on the buck's legs. “Of course, Merle – that's my brother, or was, anyway – Merle and I knew where all the poachers liked to go, so when we saw one like that bringing a big rack in, we'd go get the body and eat good for a while.”

“So why don't we just cut off the head and save some hassle?” Dean asked him as they half-carried, half-dragged the buck through the woods.

“'Cause I don't usually have help. And now that I do, I can have my trophy and eat it too. I mean, look at him! He's a little small for a rack like that, but that's just even more impressive. Would be ten points, if that one weren't broke.”

“Yeah,” Dean snorted, “that's an impressive rack all right.”

“All this time trying to feed everybody, and I finally have something to show for it. This one's going on my wall.”

“As it should. You deserve it.” Daryl snorted right back, and Dean hurried to add, “No, I mean it. That was a great shot. And then those three croats that tried to take it from us? You're good, man.”

Daryl didn't say anything, but his speed increased a little bit. After a small sprint, he set his end down. Dean gratefully followed suit. Even field dressed, the thing got heavy going up and down hills.

“All right,” Daryl said, peering over a log and trying to get a view through the trees. “We're near the prison. With a rack like that, we're not gonna be able to pull him through the hole in the fence that we came out of. We're going to have to cart him up to the front gates. That means through the yard.”

“That's a lot of croats to fight off with our hands full of bloody meat...”

“We just gotta be fast. They'll open the gates.”

“Why don't you sneak back in through the side,” Dean suggested, “and then get one of the trucks? I'll stand guard here. Just hurry. Smell's likely to draw them to me.”

“Yeah, all right.” Daryl slapped him on the arm. “Having a partner helps.”

“Yeah, sometimes it does,” Dean agreed.

“Don't let them get to it. It'll spoil the meat.”

“I got it. Just hurry.”

Croat traffic was pretty slow now in the woods. Daryl seemed to take longer than Dean expected, but he still only had to kill two croats while he waited. He had a clear view of the side yard where they had come out earlier that morning, but he couldn't see the front at all. Finally, he heard the unmistakable rev of an engine, and Daryl came driving down the yard in their big Ford, Michonne killing croats from the back bed. He stood as they neared, and Daryl pulled the truck to a stop as close as he could get, the silver truck backed part way into the treeline.

He and Michonne ran to Dean, and all three of them grabbed the young buck and hauled. As they reached the truck, Michonne hurried to take down two walkers coming up from the back of the prison, then she returned to help load the deer onto the truck. Dean hopped in the back and pulled, then stayed there as Daryl jumped back in the cab. “Pull it up in the middle,” Michonne said as the truck pulled around. “We're gonna have a fight when we get in.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was the only one at the gate. We left the inner gate closed, but we had to leave the outer ones open to get back inside. I'll keep the walkers off if you can pull the big doors shut.”

“Sure,” Dean said, his heart beating faster as they neared the front gates. The large metal doors stood wide, with only three or four croats inside. Those came at the truck as it neared. Several were cunningly impaled on spiked fences the prison residents had erected outside the metal doors. A few bodies were in the road, heads cleanly sliced, from Michonne's earlier attentions.

“Big-ass rope hanging from the doors,” Michonne said, pointing with her sword as she prepared to leap out and cover him. She was all sorts of glorious.

Dean nodded, then launched over the side as the truck slowed just outside the doors. He pulled with all his might, surprised at how much heavier they were than he expected. I'm just tired from carting that deer around, he told himself, ducking as Michonne's sword swung a little too close.

“I'm not gonna cut that pretty face,” Michonne assured him, slinging the blood from her blade. Two more croats were shuffling awfully close, but Michonne grabbed and helped pull the gates all the way closed.

“Good job,” Daryl said from the opposite gate. Dean hadn't even seen the guy get out, but Daryl had put down two croats that had made it inside the gates. The inner chain link fence was much easier to swing open.

“The fence crew will burn these guys,” Michonne told him as they rode up to the prison.

“Where is everybody? Is there usually only one person on watch?”

“No.” Michonne avoided his gaze.

Dean stared at her. “Michonne, what is it?”

“Something happened with Rick and your brother.”

“What? Is Sam okay?”

“I don't know. Better than Rick, last I saw.” She jutted her chin across the yard, toward the garden. “Rick was out doing his morning thing. Something...tried to get him. Your brother got him away and inside. Maggie and Glenn were on watch. They ran in to see what was going on. I was the only one left outside, so I figured I'd better stay, in case that wasn't the only thing around.”

“What did it look like?” he asked as the truck pulled to a stop. He stood, ready to go.

Michonne's lips tightened. “Kind of like Lori. His wife. Or so I gather. Never met her, myself.”

Dean ran to his car and quickly pulled a sawed-off shotgun and box of salt from the trunk, then ran inside. He hadn't thought about a light, and he blinked as the door swung shut behind him and he went completely blind. There were no windows in the hall. Dean closed his eyes and listened as he waited a moment for his eyes to adjust. He could hear a very distant murmur of voices, but no screams. No smell but a slightly dusty smell lingering in the long hall.

He opened his eyes again, able to see clearly enough to head down the hall. He took off at a jog, rock salt rounds ready, and quickly made his way to the cell block where he and Sam were staying. A lot of people he didn't really know were sitting in subdued clusters at the tables in the little lounge area. A few of them cringed when they saw Dean's gun, but nobody questioned him about it. He noticed spilled salt on the ground as he entered the doorway. “Sammy!”

“Dean?”

Dean crossed the room, following his brother's voice, and saw Sammy jogging down the length of the cell block. He was smiling. “What I miss?” Dean asked him.

 

#

 

It was a skinny buck so early in the season, but it was much welcome meat. Dean was miffed about missing the big showdown with the ghost, but he was actually more than a little contented with the hunt he and Daryl had gone on. It felt good to provide food for a whole little town. So many people nearly groveled in thanks. He began to wonder if this little place was as thriving as he had thought when they first drove up and saw the garden. Maybe nobody thrives anymore. Maybe the best we can do is scrape by.

Some little Harry Potter kid came up wanting to shake his hand, so Dean had to shake the mopey thoughts and plaster on a smile. In truth, he'd kind of had fun with these people. It was worth it for the venison steak, anyway. Folks were even pressing a roast on them to take home, since Daryl knew that their cooler was empty for the ride back. He figured Ben and Bobby would appreciate that. Assuming they were still alive. They really needed to find some longer range radios, ASAP.

Dean was even more surprised when Rick came up, in front of everybody, to shake hands and apologize for being such a dickweed. Whatever had happened, and Dean expected a more detailed version on the ride home, Rick was no longer a skeptic.

“Hey, man,” Dean said, shrugging him off, “can't say I blame you. I'd have thought we were crazy too.” Everyone chuckled, and the awkward moment was gone. Dean leaned toward Rick and added, “I lost one too. Really, I know how it is. I'd have thought I was crazy, too.”

Rick nodded and gave a kind of half-grin. “Yeah, well, that one's not been disproven yet, either.”

The plan was to eat early, catch one last shower, maybe a short nap, and head out before sundown. The old man, Hershel, didn't seem to like that idea. “You can't travel at night. It isn't safe.”

“True, but we've got a long way to go, and there are two of us to switch out driving.” Hershel tried to argue the point, but Dean held up his hand. “We appreciate the concern, but truth be told, with this matter settled, I'm starting to get worried about my boy. This trip added several days to our travels, so I want to get back before he starts to worry.”

They tried not to take any of the people's gas, knowing how little they had, but Hershel and Rick finally succeeded in pushing a little three gallon tank on them. They finally accepted only on the condition that the residents in turn accept some antibiotics and pain pills Sam was pushing on them - and that they'd stop trying to give away their food. “We're doing all right back home. Really.” It pained him to call their latest refuge a home, but it made the point.

Sasha, who was rather comfortably nestled in the crook of Sam's arm, suddenly sat up straight. “I'd like to take a small crew and go with you. Just for a little bit.”

Sam smiled, and Dean suppressed a groan. He just couldn't seem to get free of these people. They'd still avoided talking about the fact that Sam's soul was apparently missing. He didn't need to be babysitting a bunch of strangers. They needed to get home and do some major fixing.

Sam looked to Dean, who gave a tight smile. “No offense, sweetheart, but we're gonna be moving fast. This isn't a day run.”

“First, I'm not your sweetheart,” she started. Oh yeah. This is one I really want to travel with. “Second, this is some fucked up shit. And what I saw in that book was even more fucked up.”

Dean glared at Sam. “You showed her Dad's journal?”

“No, I showed her Rufus's journal.”

“You can't just---”

“Look!” Sasha said, interrupting the fight. The big guy, her brother, Dean thought, was trying to argue with her in low tones as well, until she stuck a hand in his face. This like a freaking Thanksgiving dinner, with the whole family all fighting around the table, Dean thought. Or guessed. It's not like they often had big family dinners. “I was starting a log...journal, whatever you want to call it, for us. There's all this crazy stuff out there we never knew? I appreciate the, the blood and salt and stuff, but I'm not just going to sit back and be surprised by whatever comes at us. Not anymore. I want to know what's out there, and I want to know how to kill it. You guys leave...” She looked at Sam. “I'll probably never see you again.” Sasha squared her shoulders, then looked back at Dean. “So, Hershel says we need to find medicines. You told Henry to build a forge. He's got a list of things he needs. We're getting low on some other things. So let a couple of us come with you, help clear out and keep watch at night in exchange for learning more.” She frowned as Dean said nothing, then smiled slyly. “Castiel can ride with us.”

Dean rubbed at his eyes, studiously avoiding Cas at the far end of the table. “Fine. But just for a day or two. I'm not taking extra time here. I'm going home to Ben.”

“Of course.”

“You can ride with us,” Sam volunteered. “I'll help you flesh out your journal.”

Dean groaned. “All right, enough. Who else is coming?”

Sasha looked questioningly at her brother, who shook his head slowly. “I don't think this is a good idea, Sasha.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Dean said.

“It's happening,” Sasha said, brooking no argument.

“I'm in,” Daryl said.

“Sure,” Michonne said.

Glenn and Maggie looked at each other, but Dean waved his fork at them. “Uh-uh. That's plenty. You'll need room for Cas to ride.”

“Dean, I--”

Dean pointed his fork at Cas, shushing him, then turned back to his plate. He shoveled the last few bites in his mouth. “That was fantastic. Thank you all for a lovely time, really.” He looked at Sasha and Sam. “Break it up, kids. You, and anybody else, go pack. I'm ready. I'll take a quick nap, but we leave in twenty. As in packed and pulling out of the drive in twenty.”

 

#

 

Dean tried to control it, but his eyes kept flicking to the couple in the review mirror. They had migrated closer and closer to each other, their voices dropping as they leaned into one another. “Dude, come on! I feel like a freaking chauffeur...no, what's the word?”

Sam looked at him in the mirror. “Chauffeur is the word.”

“No, no. Chaperone! That's it. I feel like I'm taking you to the eighth grade dance or something.” Sam rolled his eyes, and Dean glowered at him. “Just keep your hands where I can see them, okay?”

Sam gazed into Sasha's eyes. “It's not like that. We're saving lives here.”

“Yeah. That's what you're doing.”

To his credit, Sam stopped breathing all over Sasha's ear, and Dean could tell that the conversation took a legitimate turn toward the difference between a skinwalker and a werewolf. Dean put in some music and tried to ignore them.

They swapped drivers after a couple of hours, and Dean napped in the back, alone, until he felt the car pull to a stop. He sat up, hand on his gun. “What is it?”

“We're near the vet college Hershel talked about,” Sam explained. “Sasha wants to check it out. You don't mind a quick look-see, do you?”

“What, in the middle of the night?”

“You're the one who wanted to leave after dinner.”

“Yeah, to go home.”

“Dean,” Sasha's voice was soft and pleading. “Please. You don't have to come in. Just be ready for a quick getaway if we need one.”

“Argh!” Dean wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Let's do this. Be fast!”

He did go in, since Dean never could handle sitting back while everyone else risked their lives. To be honest, he didn't much care one way or another at this late hour and inconvenience, but he would have only worried about Sam. And Sam was sticking close to Sasha for now. He hoped it was just a phase. She seemed a little bossy.

To Dean's surprise, Sam seemed to know the most about the medications. He helped bag up everything that might be of use to people. Afterward, he confessed with a grin that he grabbed horse tranquilizers for them. “What? A little time in prison and you're a dope head now?” Dean asked, disturbed by Sam's glee.

“I thought we could see if they worked on croats. If they do, man, we can toss a chunk of drugged up meat at a herd and maybe have a chance next time.”

“It's worth a shot, I guess,” Dean said, although he personally didn't think their bodies would still react like living ones. Still, never know 'til you try.

Of course, it couldn't just be an easy run. Whether it was the broken glass as they made their way inside or the flashlight beams swinging around in the windows, Dean didn't know, but at least two dozen croats had gathered outside – blocking their return to the vehicles.

“We get in formation,” Sasha said. “Move fast. We can get to the vehicles.”

“Don't lose the bags!” Daryl warned, readying his crossbow.

Sasha opened the door, and Daryl led the way out. As he and Sam piled out behind them, Dean realized that 'formation' was basically shoulder–to–shoulder, with no one's backs exposed. Everyone else preferred some kind of melee weapon, but Dean was glad he had a couple of guns on him. They wouldn't be staying here, so he didn't give a damn about making noise.

Cas, useless piece of shit that he was, beamed himself into the back of the truck and waited almost patiently while the mortal folks battled their way to safety. Dean huffed and glared as he stood next to the Ford. All but Cas were covered in blood and croat bits. That last blessed shower hadn't meant a thing. “Great job helping, Cas,” Dean spat.

Cas held up a bloody knife. “I killed one.” He pointed toward the ground on the other side of the truck.

“Oh. Well, good. Peachy.”

“You said you didn't want my help.”

“Tell you what, Cas - whenever people are in danger of dying, that's when you get off your ass and do something!” Dean hurried to his car.

Behind him, he heard Cas whine, “But I did that last time, and he got mad at me.”

Back in the car, Sammy took the wheel and Dean finally got some sleep. Sasha was also sleeping when he woke up. The sun was high, and Dean figured it was getting close to noon. “Sammy, man, pull over. I gotta piss, and you need to get some rest.” He shielded his eyes as he looked around. “We're about half way home, huh?”

“Even more than that, but we made good time. We need to find some gas though. There's a junction with the interstate up ahead. I think we could find a gas station, and it leads to that mall you wanted to check out.”

Sasha roused in the front seat. “A mall? Is that safe?”

“Probably not. But we need some long-range radios, and it sounds like you guys needed some stuff too. We need to at least look at it.” Dean stretched as Sam pulled off at a small gas station. “Glad we got here in daylight though.”

Daryl was driving the truck they had brought, and he filled it with gas they had brought with them. Sam and Sasha went in search of gas for the Impala while Michonne kept watch. Dean headed around the corner to piss away from the ladies. He jumped and nearly got his shoes wet when Cas appeared beside him. “Oh, I'm sorry,” Cas said, looking away.

“Jesus, Cas!” Dean turned away, and it took a moment to resume his stream even though he really had to go.

“I would have knocked if you had been in the bathroom.”

“Rule three, dude,” Dean said as he packed it away.

“I don't understand.”

“What do you want, anyway?”

“I want to help on the run. I'm really trying to be helpful. I can procure whatever it is you need, and then we can hurry you back to Ben.”

Dean rubbed his neck. “Look, there's got to be some kind of happy middle. I don't need you doing my work for me. Hell, Cas, you're messing my work up anyway! Why are you even hanging around?”

“There is no place for me in Heaven right now. Dean, it doesn't matter whether I'm here or not. If Kali learns where you are, she'll come for you, just to get at me. Better that I'm able to offer you and Sam what little protection I can when, not if, she shows up.”

“You know, that's kind of been bothering me. You didn't come when I prayed for you. So how, exactly, did you find us?”

“Jody didn't have a warding. She and Bobby told me where you were headed.”

Dean cursed and turned to hurry back toward the car, but Cas grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Kali doesn't know about Sheriff Mills. She'd have no reason to tie her to you.”

“We need to get some protection on her now. No, last week!”

“It's taken care of.”

“What do you mean?”

“I tied up those loose ends while you were busy at the prison. I told you, I'm trying to be helpful.”

Dean looked at him. “Really? Does Jody know she's warded?”

“I brought her to the prison for Daryl to tattoo. After he did mine.”

Dean's fist raised, and he had to swallow back his anger. Cas even had the nerve to look surprised. “Are you kidding me? Why didn't you tell me?”

“I tried. You wouldn't speak to me.”

“What about Ben?”

“Ben's fine. And he knows you're fine. I didn't take him to the prison, though. I thought you keep a hex bag on him.”

“I do. Jesus Christ, I bet he's gonna need a tattoo too. Who all is after you?”

“Kali and her army. Many of the Norse gods. I'm not sure where Gabriel's loyalties lie.”

"What? Gabriel?" Dean asked, frowning. "As in Loki-Gabriel? I thought he was dead."

"I saw him in battle," Cas said.

“Well, Gabriel's loyalties obviously lie with Gabriel,” Dean said, heading back around to the front. Sam was carrying two full gas cans, so that was a good sign. "Still, he was pretty hot for Kali. Be careful with him."

“Gabriel's not the angel I'm worried about. Naomi is trying to take over the resistance now that I'm underground, and I fear she hopes to turn me over to Kali in exchange for Heaven.”

“Oh, you're worth so much?”

Cas shook his head. “No, but they never really wanted Heaven. They want Earth.” Cas shoved his hands in his pockets. “And then there's Crowley.”

“What? Crowley's after you too?”

“Not exactly. He saw me at Samuel's and pulled me aside.” Cas lowered his head. He took a deep breath, hesitated, then said all in a rush, “He wants to ally with me.”

“What do you mean?” Dean asked, pulling him to a stop. Cas looked like he was actually debating whether to tell the truth. “Cas!”

“He wants to find Purgatory.”

“Yeah...”

“If I can help him, or if I can get you guys to help him, then he'll split the souls with me.”

“What does that mean, 'Split the souls'?”

“Each soul in existence is like a tiny little nuclear reactor. They're incredibly powerful.” His voice hardened. “Crowley says he'll give me half, and he'll take half. I can take back Heaven from Kali, and he'll rule both Hell and Purgatory.”

“You're actually considering giving Crowley more power?”

“Probably not. Maybe I'd take the power. I don't know yet, to be honest.”

“Well, let me help you with that. It's a stupid idea!” Dean said. “Let's get one thing straight. Your little problems? That's on you. I shouldn't have to clean this mess up.” Cas's eyes flashed angrily, but Dean didn't give him a chance to say shit. “I probably will end up cleaning it up, but that really and truly ain't my problem right now. Right now, my problem is Sam. His soul is gone, and we need to get it back. And if it's that powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands, then we need to get it back quick. You're going to help us, and then we'll help you.”

“I wish I could.”

“There ain't no wishing, Cas. Either you're gonna step up and work with us during this mess or you're on your own. You can't have both.” Dean stepped forward, getting right up in Cas's face. “But you decide you're on your own? That's it. For good. You're either all in or all out.”

“All in,” Cas said, his eyes softening as he stared at Dean. “Of course. Always all in.” Cas shook his head. “But I'm not sure putting Sam's soul back is a good idea. It's in the cage with Lucifer and Michael. I guarantee you that it's an angry Lucifer and Michael. His soul is likely to be a broken mess. Assuming we could even get to it.”

Dean hung his head, but he was unwilling to accept defeat.

“I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, Dean. I did everything I could to get away. I nearly made it, and then I saw Raphael fall.” Cas took a wavering breath. “We didn't often see eye to eye, but he was my brother. I couldn't leave him to die alone for my cause.”

"Yeah, well." Dean gazed out over the road. "I get it.”

“Let's get back on the road!” Sam said, pulling out a map. “Thought you were in a hurry,” he teased Dean.

Dean walked around to get a good view of the map. The mall was only three miles up the interstate, four miles away all together. He hoped like hell that the roads were clear. “I take it everybody's got enough gas? Take the truck first, and they can push any smaller cars off the road. We'll follow and stay close on your rear. We get to the mall, we do a perimeter check all the way around. See how many croats, see which stores have easiest access. Sam and I need a Radio Shack or something like it. We all need to grab any batteries, water, or food that we see.”

“We should definitely all stick to the same side,” Sam added. “In and out fast. Daryl and Michonne would be best guarding the vehicles while we pair up and hit two stores at once.”

“You're gonna stick me with Cas, aren't you?”

“Didn't you guys just bro it out?”

Dean scowled and shook his head, then turned his attention to the prison residents. “All right, guys, what do you guys need most?”

“Everything. Clothes, especially socks, shoes, and underwear. Food. Drinks. Kid stuff. Feminine products.”

“Okay, okay. We'll just start a circuit until it looks like we ought to leave. Cas, you're pitching in with defense and bagging, right?”

“I'll do whatever is needful.”

“Good. Let's do this. We get split up, we meet back here at the gas station. If we have to push back, we go back to the main road and head west. Anybody gets outnumbered, we help them out, but somebody's got to stay with the cars at all time.” Everyone nodded, and then it was go time.

It was always a bit of a rush to go into a more heavily populated area. The truth of it was, Dean was pretty out of practice. He had kept Lisa and Ben to the unpopulated edges. Bounced from safe house to safe house. Or storage garage. Always on the outskirts; never in a city.

Dean was really impressed with how the prison residents, as he kept thinking of them, handled themselves. It was Dean's plan, but it was obvious from the start that these people were quick and experienced. Michonne and Daryl worked together beautifully, their defense like a dance. He couldn't say the same about him and Cas. For some reason, Cas was intent on using a knife like all of the regular old humans. He actually did a fair job, fighting two-handed with his angel sword in one hand and a survival knife in the other. Dean briefly wondered where he got the knife, then he focused on looking for radios and walkie talkies.

Unfortunately, Cas didn't really guard his back so much as stalk through the store calling for croats. “Cas! Keep it down, will you? There are surely more inside the mall. We don't want them breaking through the doors to come at us, okay?”

“Oh, sorry.” Cas looked around. “But I've already killed all the ones in here.”

“Great job! How's about you grab some bags and start loading up with anything that seems useful? A lot of this technology stuff won't really work anymore. Skip it over and we'll go find clothes or food.”

Dean grabbed several different kinds of radios, mp3 players (which he had been envying since he saw Rick's), and stacks of cds from a box near the counter. Cas brought out three boxes of batteries that he found in the store's back rooms. They loaded it all into the trunk of the Impala, and Dean was pleased to see that there was still plenty of room. Now that they mentioned it, Ben was going to be needing some bigger shoes very soon. And it was a little late for winter coats, but he'd had to wear a blanket or Dean's leather jacket around all season, so Dean wanted to see if he could find any big enough for next year.

It looked like Sam and Sasha were bringing out what food hadn't been looted from a Mexican place next door, so they headed the other direction toward a JC Penney. Dean gave Cas a few pointers before they headed in, and it was much easier going even though there were technically more croats. They didn't have time to hit the changing rooms or anything, but Dean got coats and shoes for everybody in his group, and he even picked out a few expensive-looking outfits for Jody. Technically that was a gift for both Jody and Bobby.

They filled the rest of the trunk, and they had to put all the big coats up front to just cover up with. It was a decent run. They hurried back to grab stacks of clothes for the prison folks, making sure there was plenty of baby items, both for Judith and any other kids that came down the line.

The back of the Ford was pretty full. Dean was glad to see that over half of it was food. “Gotta go, gotta go!” Sasha screamed, and she and Sam threw heavy boxes in the back. “Go, go, go!”

Dean turned just in time to see a horde falling out of the Mexican restaurant behind them. He scrambled into the Impala, screaming for Cas as he saw Sam and Sasha just dive into Daryl's truck bed. Little room left there, Michonne cut a swathe through the oncoming croats as she hurried to join Dean and Cas in the Impala.

“Nice haul,” she said as they sped away.

Dean hooted and floored the pedal. “Yes, it was. Not bad at all.”

Back at the gas station, Sasha danced around, flushed with excitement. “We made it out into the food court,” Sasha explained. “There were lots of them inside, but Sam was amazing. And so much food was left unlooted! We snuck two loads out before Michonne had to come for backup. The meat and stuff was bad – ugh, those freezers stank! But we have so many cans of fruits and vegetables, lots of rice, beans, and nuts. Even ice cream cones! I don't know what to do with them, but we have some.”

“After seeing your farm set up,” Dean admitted, “I'm thinking about getting a goat. Or, no, maybe cows. Milk and meat.”

“You can eat goat.”

“Huh. Not me.”

“Okay, that herd is probably going to try to follow us,” Daryl said. “Think we ought to go. I know we were gonna part ways, but we got enough gas. How about we see you back and share some of this food with you?”

Sam looked at Dean questioningly, putting an arm around Sasha's shoulders. Dean rolled his eyes. “It's all the way out on the Mississippi River.”

“Really?” Sasha looked at her friends. “Well, we have gas. We just won't stay too long. You guys already cleared the roads, right?”

“Back roads. It'll take a bit longer, but if you don't mind, fine. Can we be done with the stops though? You gotta pee, go now. Next stop, Winchester Manor.” Dean didn't mention that they'd not even been there a week before he and Sam had left on their hunt. He just hoped to find everything in order, and everyone still alive, when they got there.

Chapter Text

Daryl didn't really know what to expect of the Winchesters' home, but he certainly didn't expect an eerie brick Victorian seated on a hill in the midst of a small, wooded island. It was kind of like that nursery rhyme, over the river and through the woods, only Daryl thought it looked less like grandma's house and more like the evil witch's. Who was he to talk though? They lived in a prison. A sturdy brick prison, sure, and there was a lot to be said for brick even if it did seem very foreboding. But, he had to admit, the island was pretty sweet. He couldn't believe Dean had never hunted deer! The island had to be overrun with them. It was a good year for deer, what with all the people dying off. Sure, walkers got a few, but deer were quick – and good jumpers. Honestly, they had a better chance against the walkers than people did.

Dean had stopped to pick up an older guy back at the bridge, a grizzly looking fellow who looked more the part of a 'hunter' with his flannel shirt, ammo vest, and a dirty old cap. He had a little handgun with a silencer (looked like a Kimber, if Daryl remembered right from Rick's shooting lessons), so Daryl figured the fella was probably more Dean's kind of hunter than his own. The guy glared at the truck a moment before climbing into Dean's Impala. “Stay sharp, guys,” Daryl warned Michonne and Cas. Sasha was still riding with the brothers. “We don't want to have any problems.”

“Bobby won't give you any problems if you don't give him any,” Cas assured him.

“Yeah, well, it pays to stay sharp anyway.” He saw Michonne give a short nod in the corner of his eye.

They followed Dean up a long gravel drive and piled out at the house. Daryl shivered as he stepped out, feeling a chill from the nearby Mississippi. “Nice place.”

“Thanks.” Dean ran up the steps as a young boy came out, who Daryl figured must be the famed Ben that Dean had been so worried about. Jody followed behind. Daryl had met her – and tattooed Castiel's weird warding symbol on her – when Cas had teleported her to the prison. Her eyes carefully took in the whole group, though she gave a short nod to Daryl, but the kid beamed and ran straight for Dean, heedless of everything else.

“Dean! You're back!”

“How'd it handle while we were gone?”

“Okay. Jody found a book of edible wilds, and we gathered some food that grows here on the island. We saw deer and turkeys.”

“Thought we might try hunting when you got back,” the older guy, Bobby, drawled.

“Yeah,” Dean said, grinning. “I learned a little bit about that while I was gone. Guys, this is Ben, Bobby Singer, and Sheriff Jody Mills.” Jody tipped a nonexistent hat. “This is Daryl, Sasha, and Michonne. They're good folk.”

“Look good,” Bobby agreed, his hand trailing across a box of waffle cones in the back of the truck.

“Yeah, they're gonna share some of that. Why don't we let them get cleaned up and offer them a drink, and you guys can help me unload Baby.”

Jody led the three of them inside, and she seemed rather pleased to see a few other women. “Lemonade? It's powdered, but we've got rehydrated lemons we toss in it. It's not bad.”

“Sure, wow.” Daryl looked around as he entered the house. From the front, up close, with its red brick, potted herbs on the porch, and a porch swing, it almost looked normal. Almost. But the house loomed weird and out of place, and inside Daryl saw that all of the rooms (and a pretty weird energy, so he thought) radiated from the very center of the place. It looked like extra wings had just been tacked on willy-nilly.

The entry room was painted in vibrant shades of red with green trim and had heavy, old-fashioned wooden bookshelves built right into the walls. It looked very antique, with intricate scrolling in the bookshelves and on the fancy molding of the house, but they seemed almost out of place in the odd home. Daryl's eyes were drawn to several sets of metal shutters pulled back on the inside of each window in the room. There was a large desk in the corner that stood covered with a large sheet, the unmistakable forms of multiple computer screens and towers rising from beneath like a ghostly skyline. There was no other furniture, just a cushion and a pile of guns in the window seat, and three different narrow little halls shot off the entry room from the opposite wall. Jody led them down one hall, to some sort of parlor, he guessed the word was, which he figured was probably the center of the home. It had tons of similar narrow hallways radiating around it like spokes from a hub, and he could see a large, carpeted staircase rising up on the far side of the unused fireplace.

“There's a coat closet under stairs,” Jody said as she continued straight on into a kitchen. “Have a seat. Make yourself at home. We have a wash room just there,” she pointed toward a converted sun room out the back door. “There's a stone walk to the outhouse, if you need it. If that's too weird, we have an incinerator toilet in the upstairs bath.”

“No, that's weird,” Daryl said.

Jody laughed, and Sasha followed her into the kitchen to make good use of the attached wash room. Michonne quietly stalked the perimeter of the parlor, peering her head down each hall and listening before moving on to the next. Sasha and Jody returned shortly, with Jody carrying a tray with a large pitcher and glasses. Sure enough, little lemon pieces floated in the lemonade.

“That was fast. You guys really have a good set up here, huh?”

“Yeah. We lucked out. Whoever owned it was a doomsday prepper-type. It was pretty much furnished and ready to go.”

“Good find,” Daryl said, accepting a lemonade and drinking deeply.

“Maybe too good,” Sasha said, turning abruptly and running back down the hall towards the front of the house. Daryl quickly set his glass on the coffee table and followed, and soon he heard the unmistakable sound of a fight brewing out front.

“I said stop right there!” Dean cried, his gun drawn and ready to take out the driver, who was slowly pulling some douchebag electric monstrosity to a stop behind their truck.

Daryl couldn't help but smile approvingly when he noticed a chick on a sleek black-and-silver BMW dual-sport pulling up behind the awful bubble-Kia. He hurried down the stairs to join Dean with crossbow at the ready as a skinny little dude jumped out of the ugly bubble car and pulled a piece of his own, ducking down behind the driver's side door like that tin flap had a chance of protecting him.

Bobby straightened out of the bushes and threw a bag of breadcrumbs at the car. “Don't shoot! Garth, it's me, ya idjit!”

The kid poked his head up, swinging his gun around. “Bobby?”

Daryl took a step back, though he kept one eye on the girl climbing off the bike. Unlike Daryl, this chick wore plenty of riding gear. She had on a leather jacket and leather chaps over her jeans, with riding gloves that he knew cost over a hundred dollars. Or used to, anyway. She took off a full face helmet to reveal a flattened blonde mohawk, the points lying either which way, oddly bringing to mind a dinosaur. She pulled an M12 pistol off her leg and waved it lazily around.

“Yes, Bobby. And friends.”

The kid came around and gave the old guy a hug. “Sorry, Bobby! I didn't know you were coming.”

Bobby shook his head. “This is your place?”

“Well, yeah.”

“What happened to the house boat? We looked for you. It's all tore up.”

“Oh, yeah, I know. I've still got that, too. Had to pack in a hurry though.” He glanced at Dean. “You can put that gun away.” Dean frowned and kept the gun carefully trained on him, then nudged Daryl. Almost reluctantly, Daryl raised his crossbow back up to cover the girl, seeing as how she was still armed. “I took up a few new hobbies after zombies took over the earth,” Garth was saying. “Cleared this old place and fortified it. Used to be Edgar Hannity's bug-out place. You know him? Conspiracy nut. Turned out to be right, though, didn't he? Found him here already zombied-up, so I took it. I needed lots of yard room for my kennel.”

“Kennel?” Bobby asked. “We haven't seen any dogs.”

“Hope they're still alive!” Garth laughed, but no one else did. “Sheesh, guys. I'm just kidding. They're on automatic feeders and waterers. They're probably pissed about being stuck inside for over two weeks though. Wasn't supposed to be that long. I'm gonna have a doozy of a time cleaning it out.” He walked past everyone and into the house. Daryl nodded to the young woman as she holstered her piece and followed him.

Dean elbowed his arm and grinned as they watched her walk up the steps. Daryl couldn't help but grin back. Then Dean cleared his throat and frowned, turning on Bobby. “You didn't tell us this place was already claimed.”

“I didn't know! I surely didn't think this was Garth's. Hell, did you get a look at him? I figured he was dead.”

“Well, what are we going to do now?”

“Garth won't kick us out.”

“No offense, but I don't think I want to live with this Garth guy,” Dean spat. Daryl tried to drop further behind them as they argued. “Besides, have you seen any signs of dogs?”

That mystery was answered as they followed Garth inside. Weirdo had a hidden room in the basement. Apparently the far door opened right out to the outside, though it was concealed behind large holly bushes, but inside was the real surprise. Inside was what looked like an honest–to–god animal shelter. Cages lined both walls of the large room, and the stench when he opened the door was overwhelming.

“Are those...pomeranians?” Dean asked, blinking his eyes at all the ammonia in the air.

“Yes,” Garth called as he ran through the room to open the far door. “And chihuahuas, bichon frisé, and a few jack russell terriers. We also have a pair of collies in the far corner here. Then there's Peanut,” he said, kneeling before one cage, “our one little bassett. She's spayed, but I really hope to find a breeding pair.”

“You've taken to breeding dogs now?” Bobby asked, incredulous. “How in blazes did we miss this? How do you feed all these things?”

“Well, the room's soundproof. Don't want the zombies to get them. There's a pretty good vent system separate from the house, but guess it's overworked at the moment.” Garth switched to a rather disgusting baby voice. “Sure didn't mean to be gone so long! No, I didn't. I'm so very sorry, little friends.” He switched back to his own voice, much to Daryl's relief. “But really, I can't believe you of all people, Bobby, missed the hidden rooms.”

“Rooms?” Ben asked, peeking his head around the adults.

“Yeah! There's several in this old place. Did you know,” Garth began, taking several leashes off the wall and handing them to his companion. She passed some around to everyone, then pointed toward the cages when nobody moved. “Experts speculated that in an armageddon scenario, all toy dogs would be extinct within five to ten days without humans to protect them. Mostly food for bigger things. And they believed that all specific, individual breeds would die out within fifty years - at the most! But we're not going to let that happen, are we, guys? No! Not with Uncle Garth here to help.”

“Yeah,” Dean muttered to Bobby. “This guy's a nutbag.”

Daryl opened the cage to one of the jack russell pairs. They were so excited to see anybody that they pissed themselves as they jumped all over him. “Hey, watch the shoes!”

“You know that pets are a real commitment in the best of circumstances, right, Garth?”

“Yes. I do know what I'm doing, believe it or not,” he said before tying a handkerchief around his face and grabbing a shovel. Daryl quickly clipped the leashes on his pair and hurried outside and into the fresh air.

The house had several sections that jutted out at odd angles, and a three-barrel rain system had been set up at each gutter spout. All of the dogs pulled to the nearest one, which had a small plastic kiddie pool set up beneath the tap. Apparently their automatic waterers had run out, because these dogs were all panting pathetically, gazing up at Daryl with sad eyes. He turned the water on and tried to keep them from fighting over it.

“We weren't supposed to be so long,” a voice said at his right. Daryl turned to see the fierce mohawk chick. She was cute, even though facial piercings weren't usually his thing. Bikes were. He dug a chick who loved bikes.

“What happened?”

She dropped her leashes, knowing the attached collies weren't going anywhere, and pulled out a cigarette case. “Want one? Camels.”

“Sure. Thanks.” Daryl inclined his head as she lit it for him.

She took a puff before answering. “Me and Garth, we're kind of like guides. We go out and look for supplies, toy poodles, survivors, whatever. We find survivors, we match them up with a camp. Well,” she blew her smoke directly in Daryl's face and fanned it away apologetically, “we heard about a new camp, so we went to check it out. Only we got there too late. Fire had destroyed the whole area. Only finally stopped once it hit the river. Most of 'em were dead, but we spent a couple days looking for survivors. Found a few. Took 'em up to Wolf River.”

“So you just help people find safe zones? You know a few? Like, really safe?”

“Yeah. What, you ain't found no other people? No hunters?”

“I'm kinda new to this.” Daryl switched his cigarette to his left hand and reached out to shake. “Daryl.”

“Lisha.”

“That short for Alicia?”

“No. Just Lisha.”

“So you're one of Dean's kind of hunters?”

“Who's Dean?”

“Trigger-happy guy from out front.”

“Oh. I suppose so. If he's Bobby's type of hunter.”

Daryl swung his crossbow around off his shoulder. “I'm the old fashioned kind of hunter, but I'm trying to branch out these days.”

“Well, plenty of job security.”

“Reckon so.” He scrambled to pick up the leashes before his two dogs ran off. Lisha just snapped, and her collies swung around and came back to her. “We got a place out in Georgia,” he offered. “Know any more out that way?”

“We don't usually roam that far. Kind of a tristate area operation, though we know a couple guys out of Missouri who cover a bit more ground up north.” Lisha walked over to a fallen log and sat down, absently petting the two collies who sat at her feet. “We haven't had anybody out east since...well, we lost some people.”

Daryl nodded and snubbed out the butt of his cig, pocketing it to throw away later. “Well, now maybe you can get to know some folks out that way.”

“Sure,” she said, grinding her butt into the ground with the toe of her boot. “How far are you? Whatcha got?”

Daryl shared a little of their history, and Lisha did the same. He learned that she and Garth were cousins, though she usually preferred to stay on the road by herself. She worked a circuit; she didn't say it outright, but Daryl got the feeling she was looking for someone. Or something. After a while, Ben came and collected everyone for dinner, and they returned the dogs to a newly pristine kennel room. Or closer to it, anyway.

“Think he'll part with one?” Daryl asked as the jack russells covered him in slobbery kisses.

“I dunno. Maybe one of the fixed ones. He seems obsessed with protecting the breeds. Of course, we know where some packs roam if you want to do the whole 'let the wild mustang choose you' thing.”

“Maybe. I don't care much about breed. I've just always wanted a dog.”

“How long are you staying for?”

“It was a pretty long trip. We had a fairly successful run on the way out here. Figured we'd probably head back out in the morning. Sasha wants to log some of their hunting stories. Dean's giving us some of those long-range radios he found, but it won't do no good 'til we get one back to the prison, so we don't want to linger too long. We hadn't planned to follow them all the way out here.”

“You guys can take all that food, you know,” Lisha said. “I take it Bobby didn't find the pantries?”

“I really don't know.”

“Garth and some of his buddies updated this place right after everything started breaking down, but that Edgar guy had it mostly set up already. He's got an underground emergency bunker and an underground storage bunker.”

“Really? Isn't the water table too high or something, sitting right on the Mississippi?”

“Notice the hill the house's sitting on? Dude brought in dirt to cover his shipping container bunkers, then moved the house here on top of it.”

“Damn. It's good to be rich, I guess.”

“Yeah. I think a lot of it was probably stolen. He was a hunter too, you know. We're really all just a bunch of grifters,” she laughed. “But he was like a treasure hunter or something before. Made a bunch of money on art circuits and stuff. Anyway, there's all sorts of prepper stuff in the house. He definitely built this place with conspiracies in mind.” Lisha gave him a sideways smile. “We could probably even spare some for you guys, if you want more than rice and breadcrumbs.”

“Yeah, that'd be mighty nice.”

“I might ride along with, if that's okay. I haven't been east since...well, since we lost my sister. We're always glad to check out a new safe house, though.”

“Well, I can't really vouch for how safe it is with all the crap that's been going on, but you're welcome to check it out.”

“We'd better hurry and get to the stories then.”

“Stories? You're game, then?”

“Oh yeah. You get a nice handful of hunters together, throw in food and a few beers, you guys'll get your stories all night long. Guarantee it.”

“Not sure if Sasha will be happy or disappointed. I think she maybe hoped for some other stuff all night long.”

Lisha laughed, then wiggled her pierced brows at him. “Don't we all?”

Daryl learned a lot from their stories. Everybody did, but Daryl figured he remembered the most, since he was the only one who didn't get shit-faced. Daryl never much cared for alcohol, but especially not after the whole world went to shit. Better to stay clear-headed, he figured.

So he ended up walking the drive alone late at night, figuring that somebody had better keep an eye on the bridge. From what he'd gathered, it was the only access point to the ten acre island, which actually seemed surprisingly safe. There was a low bridge leading to the mainland off the Mississippi side, so they'd not had to cross the whole big river. It was peaceful, and Daryl hadn't seen a walker since they'd made it to the island. Somebody had done a fair job of hiding the bridge on the mainland side. Sitting out below the stars, watching the moonlight ripple on the Mississippi, Daryl almost thought things seemed normal.

Except that the large river would normally have blinking lights in the electric towers lining the sides, with lots of barge activity, especially late at night. There was none of that now. No boats that he could see at all. No roads. No lights. Just leaves, sky, and water.

After a few hours, Sam came to take over for him. Daryl clasped his hand and gave the bro hug, saying nothing as he headed back to the house to catch a few hours of sleep. He hadn't been led to a guest room or anything, so he just curled up with a throw on the couch in the parlor, falling asleep at once.

Chapter Text

Dean watched with relief as the Ford drove across the bridge, that weird Lisha chick following behind them. He liked Daryl's group all right, but having so many other people around was really cramping his style. He was accustomed to leading the show, and he sure as hell didn't want to be beholden to anyone else. He felt more secure with a group he knew, with people who had his back and would act quickly when things got rough. More than anything, Dean wanted to find a diplomatic way to ditch Garth, but since it was apparently his house, it looked like there wasn't much he could do.

“Family meeting!” he declared as he stalked back up the stairs. “You're not family,” he pointed at Garth as he passed. “And you're too young,” he added to an overly-excited Ben.

“That's not fair,” Ben said.

“Totally,” Garth agreed.

“I need to talk with Bobby and figure some things out,” Dean tried to reassure Ben. He said nothing to Garth.

“You know, Garth's a surprisingly good hunter,” Bobby told him as Dean herded him down the hall toward the study Bobby had taken over. “Even better than I thought if he's still alive today.”

“Yeah, that's proof of miracles right there,” Dean muttered, pointedly shutting the door after Jody and Cas. He paced back and forth for a moment before finally blurting out, “Okay, guys. I'm just gonna lay it out. Sam has no soul. We don't really know what that means for poor Sammy, but we do know that we have to get it back. So how?”

“How are you walking around with no soul?” Jody asked Sam.

Sam shrugged and rubbed his neck, looking decidedly uncomfortable to be put on the spot. “I don't know. But I've been...different...since I came back. And when we saw the Alpha vamp, he said I was soulless.”

“Yeah, but you're gonna believe the Alpha Vamp?” Bobby asked.

“I can check if you like,” Cas said, “but I don't really need to. I know. I'm the one who resurrected Sam. I was able to free him from Lucifer's cage, but I was forced to leave his soul behind.”

“What?” Dean gaped at him, and he saw Sam doing the same. “Cas, why didn't you say something?”

“Well, you were so mad at me. And then there was the whole mess with the vampires and the ghost. We didn't really have a good chance to speak alone. Once you were speaking to me again...well, I didn't want to risk messing that up by telling you.”

“You need to tell me everything! The both of you! Jeez, I'm trying to keep everyone safe here. I need to be able to trust the people I surround myself with. If you can't handle that, then you need to just go.” Dean shook his head. He couldn't believe that he had to have the same damned talk with both Sam and Cas. They were the people he should have been able to trust the most. “No more secrets, dammit!”

Cas nodded brusquely, then gestured at Sam. “I mean, look at him. He's fine. If anything, he's an even better hunter than he was before,” he said, unknowingly echoing Sam's earlier sentiments.

“Yeah, but now he's weird!”

“Dean!”

“Sorry, Sammy, but you know it, too. Something just ain't right.” Dean resumed pacing. “It's all right though. We're gonna fix it.”

“Dean, I don't know that we can.” Cas's voice was full of grief. “His soul has been in the cage with Lucifer and Michael for almost a year and a half. That's like a hundred and fifty years in Hell, Dean.”

“Well why the hell didn't you bring him back with his soul?”

“I did what I could. It was hard breaking him out of there. They had a strong hold over his soul. I had to act quickly, while Lucifer and Michael were disoriented. I was able to return your brother to you! But now, with Kali's people looking for me and Crowley showing far too much interest, I don't dare show my face in Hell. You try to open that cage now, there's a chance you could set Lucifer free.” Cas shook his head. “I have no allies above or below. It's an impossible mission.”

“We've got to try.”

“It was hard enough locking them in once. You can't just go throw open that door.”

“There's got to be something we can do.”

“Do I even really need it?” Sam asked.

“Yes! Yes, dammit, you need your soul.” Dean shook his head. “Crowley's King of Hell now. We could cut a deal. You know how he likes deals....”

“You said you didn't want me to ally with Crowley,” Cas said.

“Yeah, 'cause that's stupid. But we can figure something else out. We just need some leverage. Bobby! Have you been able to dig up anything on Crowley?”

Bobby glared at Dean, then shook his head. “You know all that I've managed to find in the last fifteen months. I feel for Sam's plight, I do, and I'll do whatever I can to help get it back. But may I remind you that Crowley is my case? I hate to say it, truly, but if worse comes to worse, I've got dibs on souls from Crowley.”

“What? Really?” Dean frowned, his jaw tightening. “Bobby, how can you be so selfish? This is Sammy's soul we're talking about! Locked in the cage with one very pissed off Lucifer! Sam can't just...just carry on all empty and soulless! At least you have yours for a few more years.”

Bobby took a deep breath, fairly radiating anger. Even Sam and Jody took a step back from him. “Now you listen here, boy,” Bobby began, clenching his fists as he slowly crossed the room to stand before Dean. “I may be a lot of things, most of which I readily admit to, but selfish sure ain't one of 'em. Any time - any time - you boys have ever needed a damn thing, who's been there for you? It weren't your good-for-little dad. It wasn't even each other! It was me. Me, Dean! I have always, without hesitation, without asking for anything in return, been there for you. You need some piece of lore dug up? Some charmed weapon? Somebody to cover for you? Need to bitch about each other? Call Bobby! I have ALWAYS been there for you two.” Bobby roared, though his voice caught in his throat, the only sign of anything other than anger coursing through him. “To the point that I sold my soul to Crowley to get you one piece of information. And look what good it did! We didn't even manage to succeed in stopping the damned end of the world. And now it's been nearly two years, the clock is running, and I'm still no closer to getting my soul back. And you,” he thrust a finger into Dean's chest, “haven't exactly been tripping over your feet to help me. No. So I put my freaking soul on the back burner to follow you around and help keep you and your boy safe. My research ain't gone nowhere this whole damned time, 'cause I been too busy covering your ass – and it's needed covering now more than ever – and sitting on my hands playing nanny for you!”

Dean shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down, then forced himself to meet Bobby's eyes as the man's tirade continued.

“When have you ever dug your head out of your own – or Sam's – ass and helped me for a change? Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate that you came for me up in Sioux Falls, but, truth be told, I was actually enjoying my time in the panic room with Jody. I was gonna pack up and blast our way out of there, be a real hero, when we got down to a week's worth of food. In the meantime, it was a damned treat to get to know her better, to not have to answer everybody's damned calls, and to keep ourselves happily and nakedly occupied until the croats thinned out.” He spared a glance for Jody and actually flushed a little. “I ain't had them kinds of feelings in a long time. I didn't need your saving. You did that for you, too. And after, did you ever offer to help me get my soul back? The clock is ticking, Dean! It's been ticking! And have you said one word about it once? Have you?”

“No, sir.”

“That's right. You was a damned mess, and I understood. Believe me, I understood better than anybody. Everybody loses folk, especially these days, but it's so extra hard when you have to put them down yourself. I know that. And I was there for you, watching you and Sam's backs like I always have. Watching your boy. Helping any way I could. Like I always have. So, Dean, if you ever think to calling me selfish again, I'm gonna take you by the scruff of the neck, march your ass to the nearest mirror, and make you take a good, long look at yourself.” Bobby straightened up, then jabbed his finger at Dean one more time. “And then I'm gonna grab your fool-ass head and bash it into that mirror. Repeatedly. You got that, boy?”

“Yeah. I got it.” Dean sighed, then ran his hand over his eyes. “You're right, Bobby. You're absolutely right. I'm sorry. Really and truly, I'm sorry.”

Bobby glared at him a moment, then slowly relaxed his fists. “Yeah. Well, good. 'Bout time you were.”

“We'll find a way to get both your souls back. I promise.”

“So now you're ready to help me?”

Dean flushed, feeling sick to his stomach, but nodded. “Yes. Of course. Any time. You just gotta say the word.” He saw Sam nod in agreement.

“I shouldn't have to say the word...” Bobby grumbled, but he finally let the matter drop. Jody came up and put a comforting arm around him.

“Okay. We go for Crowley, then. He's our best chance of getting Sam's soul back, and likely our only chance at saving Bobby's. But Bobby's first.” Dean gave him a weak smile. “Sam's young, and there's more wiggle room as far as timetables go.”

“Actually,” Cas spoke up, “the longer we wait, the more damaged his soul is likely to be.”

“Dammit, Cas!” Bobby, Sam, and Jody all yelled in unison.

“Bobby first,” Dean reiterated, his jaw clenching once again.

 

#

 

They started out with questioning a few demons. It seemed that demons and angels had to go to great lengths to protect their vessels, since there were far fewer to choose from these days. Those who were strong enough to handle longterm wear were highly sought after and fought over. Unlike angels, demons could possess croats, though they disliked meatsuits in such poor condition. If they found a fresh body, they held on with all that they had.

Bobby thought that Memphis had a lot of demon sign, and it matched up with stories Garth had heard from other hunters. They packed up and headed north, leaving Jody behind with Ben. Dean didn't like it, but Bobby insisted on coming. As did Garth, who insisted that the island was absolutely safe. “I can raise the bridge, brother,” Garth promised. “It's low, so it comes apart for the big barges. You said you've got gas? They just run the generator until we get over. They'd need to turn it back on and lower it whenever we make it back though. Worse comes to worse, I have the houseboat upriver and smaller boats stashed in either direction. Zombies – or croats, whatever – can't swim. Jody and Ben could last for months in the bunker if any people manage to make it across, but the only ones who know about this place are friends of mine.”

“You don't know who that Edgar guy brought here.”

“We'll be fine,” Jody promised, obviously trying to look like she meant it.

“Okay. But you pray to the angel here if anything happens, got it?”

Jody laughed, but she agreed. “You guys just be safe.”

Garth showed them how the bridge worked, and Sam said, “Jeez, dude, all you're missing is a helipad. It's like your own little James Bond island here.”

Garth broke into a wide grin. “That's a great idea! Do you know how to pilot a helicopter?”

“Not even a little bit.”

Dean regretted letting Garth ride along. Bobby seemed to handle him all right, but it was a long ride up to Memphis, made even longer with Garth's yammering on. They found a house on the outskirts of the suburbs, as far from the city as they could find and still have several good roads of escape. They wanted to avoid the huge concentration of croats and just find a demon or two to talk to.

Cas did some recon and led them to a lone pair of demons shacked up outside of town. He had to put down their hellhound, but thankfully he didn't mention that fact to Dean until after they'd killed one demon and bound the other. Dean had never quite gotten over the time a hellhound had killed him and dragged him to Hell, though Cas kept his promise of no secrets and told Dean on the ride back to the house. Dean tried not to look scared in front of the demon, who happily taunted him. He drove as fast as he could back to the borrowed house, where Bobby attempted to learn what he could about Crowley.

Unfortunately, the first three demons they captured and questioned were all disciples of Lilith who were living in exile now that Crowley was running the show. Nobody knew anything about Crowley – except for the fact that they'd enjoy turning on him as soon as the moment presented itself. Cas put them all down, since they felt it best to rid the world of as many demons as possible and leave no one to hold a grudge against them afterward. Eventually, Bobby and Cas finally dragged in a crossroads demon who worked under Crowley. Cas, who seemed very frustrated by their lack of progress, did the questioning himself. Dean was surprised at how easily Cas came to torture, though he knew that Cas had been a soldier for millennia, so maybe it shouldn't have come as such a surprise.

“Look,” the demon gasped, after she stopped screaming and choking on holy water, “his real name is Fergus MacLeod! He's from Scotland somewhere. That's all I know. I swear it!”

He tried to get the location of Crowley's bones out of her, but it seemed as if she truly didn't know anything else. Cas placed his hand on her head, killing her. He turned away, gazing into the distance. “MacLeod,” he repeated. “That name seems familiar.”

“Think you can find his grave?” Sam asked. “If we find his bones, I bet he'd be a lot more receptive to dealing.”

“If I search all of Scotland,” Cas said. “It would take some time. And with many of the pagan gods allied with Kali, it would be fairly dangerous. I might not return.”

Dean sighed. “Yeah, and if he was as big a douchebag in life as after, he very well could have found himself on the south side of an unmarked grave. Still, it's a lead, at least. There's bound to be a trail back to him that would help us out.”

“I wish we still had Ancestry.com,” Bobby said. “Funny, I never realized how easy we actually had it. At the time, I thought computers were the hard way. What next?”

Sam was watching Cas with interest. “Cas is right. That name is very familiar. MacLeod? There was a Ms. McLeod at that prison...It sounds silly, but I swear I saw her wearing a triple spiral. I saw her grab it while she was praying, some foreign prayer I didn't understand. Could have maybe been a warding spell, now that I think about it.”

“She was wearing a what?” Dean asked.

“A triple spiral,” Sam said, drawing one into the dust on the table with his finger. “It's an old celtic symbol representing maiden, mother, and crone.”

“A witch?” Dean asked. He shook his head. “Anyway, wasn't she Mexican or something?”

“A Mexican named McLeod? Wearing celtic witchraft symbols?” Sam asked, raising his brows. “I mean, yeah, it's a long shot, but it's a shot. We've gone on less before.”

“I don't want to drive all the way to Georgia,” Bobby said, bagging up all the weapons. “Maybe we can find a Scottish genealogy book or something at a library...”

“Yeah, Bobby. I'm sure we'll find a book telling us all about good ol' Fergus MacLeod at the Tunica public library.” Bobby pursed his lips, and Dean quickly backpedaled. “I mean, I'll check every library between here and the prison, if you want, but I guess maybe Sammy's Mexiceltic witch is our best bet right now. Stranger things have happened.” He raised a hand to his mouth and added in a stage whisper, “Between you and me, I think he just wants to see Sasha again.”

“I'll come with you!” Garth cried, raising his hand like he was in school. “I can handle witches.”

“That's okay. Me and Sammy got this.”

“Hey, my cousin's out there. I've got a stake in this too.”

Dean inwardly cursed, but the kid was right. Still, Dean didn't think he could handle another road trip with Garth. “All right, let's get back to the house. Make sure everything's safe. We can head back out in the morning. All of us. I've been gone from Ben for far too long. It'd do him some good to get around kids again, and Jody seemed to enjoy having the company of women again.” Dean groaned. “Man, that's a long drive. I really need to give Baby an oil change. Keep an eye out for a lube shop or something on the way back.”

 

#

 

It was a long trip back to the prison, but he used that time to catch up with Ben. Bobby and Jody rode along with Garth, and Cas tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible in the back seat. Ben was obviously still leery around him, but the angel was on his best behavior.

Dean had insisted upon packing up all of their belongings, including as much of the food as they could carry. He had to rig up a roof rack and a cargo box, for which he apologized profusely. “You're apologizing to your car over a bit of hardware more than you apologized to me about my soul,” Bobby pointed out dryly. Dean glowered and forced his mouth shut.

As much as he loved the island, he absolutely did not want to live with Garth. He didn't want to live at the prison, either. Dean preferred calling the shots, so he wanted a place of his own. He didn't mind the prison as a way-stop, though. He may have said it was for Ben and Jody's benefit, but they could all use some quality time with humans again. Dean, to his surprise, found his excitement growing as they neared the prison. “Down that hill there is where we caught the deer,” he found himself bragging to Ben. “They've got, like, at least half a dozen kids. Maybe more. One of them is just a couple years older than you. Carl. Cool kid. I think you'll like him.”

At the prison, Michonne looked almost happy as she opened the gates for them. A large crowd had gathered before they even made it up the drive to the actual building. Garth reunited with Lisha as if he hadn't seen her in years. Sasha greeted Sammy the same way. Even Hershel came hurrying out to give Cas a big, awkward hug. Dean just hung back and nodded at anyone who looked at him.

“Sam! Dean!” They turned to see Rick crossing the yard. He took off a pair of dirty gloves and held out a hand. “Didn't expect to see you guys back so soon.”

“Yeah, well. On a job out this way. Garth wanted to come check on his cousin and see the prison everyone had talked about. Hope that's okay.”

“Yeah, of course. No problem. Daryl and Lisha went hunting yesterday, so there's plenty of food.”

“Oh, I see how it is,” Dean teased as Daryl came walking up to shake his hand. “You take all the hunters out, do you?”

“Figure you greenhorns need to live up to your name.”

“Daryl! I brought you something!” Garth yelled. He walked back to his Kia and pulled out the puppy that he'd insisted they stop for. He held up the squiggling, dark mass and Daryl came running. “One of my friends had a pregnant German Shepherd,” Garth explained. “He was gonna let me keep the pups, but they're obviously not full blooded. Think they might be part lab or something, judging by the coloring. No good for me, but I know you wanted one.”

Daryl looked shell-shocked as he took the puppy. “Thanks, Garth. That's mighty kind of you.” He nuzzled the puppy, then grinned as it started licking his face. “How old is it, do you know?”

“I was later getting back there then I meant to. I guess it's about three months by now.”

Daryl grabbed him up in a one-armed embrace, which still looked like it might snap Garth in two.

After that, Garth was happily making new friends, trying to look sage as Lisha regaled the small crowd with stories of his previous life as a Texas Ranger. Dean just rolled his eyes and followed Rick inside, where they were shown to the same guest cell that they'd stayed in just two weeks earlier. Bobby and Jody were given the cell across the hall – the one that Dean hadn't wanted Cas in. “We'll have to put Castiel and Garth in D Block, I guess,” Beth said.

Sasha pushed her gently aside as she reached for Sam. “Actually, this one can bunk with me. Dean and Cas made up their little spat.”

Sam raised an eyebrow at Dean. Dean snorted. “Aw, go for it. You don't need my permission. Just come back and see me so we can discuss that case!”

Sam smiled and grabbed his bag. Cas just stared at Dean. “I don't sleep.”

Dean shook his head. “Do whatever you want to do then, Cas. Find you a pretty girl too. Or, hell, a guy for that matter. Relax a little.”

Cas leaned in and whispered, “I can go invisible and check Ms. McLeod's cell...”

“Okay, then. Sure. You do that.”

Dean didn't see Ms. McLeod, nor any other resident of D block. There had been a fence crew working outside, but Ms. McLeod was too old for that. Dean didn't want to tip his hand, so he just figured he'd have to wait for the impromptu dinner party Rick promised. He didn't mind catching up on a few Zs and trying to formulate an actual plan.

A nap helped. He woke a few hours later, energized and in a better mood, if nothing else. They were led down to the prison's large cafeteria, the only place where there was enough room for everyone to eat together.

“Where's Glenn and Maggie?” Lisha asked. “They were on guard duty this morning. I figured they'd be here. I want Maggie to meet my cousin!”

“Probably still up in the guard tower anyway,” Daryl answered, his new puppy sitting happily in his lap. “Tends to be a favorite spot of theirs even when they're not on duty, if you catch my drift.”

“Oh, I catch it,” Lisha laughed.

Carol frowned, then quickly replaced it with a smile as she brought an extra plate for Daryl and claimed the seat beside him. Dean didn't miss how she leaned into Daryl's lap to examine the dog, drawing his attention away from the younger woman.

Ms. McLeod, who apparently loved to cook, carried food out to one of the tables. “Here, let me help you with that,” Dean offered, taking a bowl of mashed potatoes from her. They were instant, but she seemed skilled with herbs, and the smell set Dean to drooling. Several tables had been pushed together to make one long banquet table. Dean set the bowl down and followed Ms. McLeod back toward the kitchen.

“That's an interesting necklace,” he said, seeing what Sam had called a triple spiral. “Scottish, is it?”

Ms. McLeod wrapped her hand around the stone charm. “Yes, it is.”

“You know,” Dean said, keeping pace with her to watch her expression, “I knew a MacLeod once. Fergus, his name is. Er, was. Right ornery little bastard. Bland looking guy, really. Pretty unassuming except for maybe an above average wardrobe. Still doesn't explain how he got the position he did.”

Ms. McLeod stopped in her tracks. She quickly smoothed her dress and resumed walking. “I know the type. Probably sold his soul for it.”

Dean chuckled. “Probably.”

The woman grabbed a small salad and handed it to him. Dean frowned down at what looked to be a bunch of dandelions and yard grass. “I hope you don't have any dealings with a kind of man like that anymore,” she said, floating by him with a bowl of what looked an awful lot like gravy.

“Not if I don't have to,” he said. “But I kind of have to.”

She said nothing, but he saw her watching him out of the corner of her eye. Finally she asked, “That why you came back?”

“I take it you two know each other?”

“Now isn't the time, Dean.”

Dean grabbed her elbow, careful not to spill the gravy. “Time's short with this one.”

The woman sighed. “I knew you were going to be trouble. Okay, look. Yes, I know him. He's – he was my father.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“What's that supposed to mean?” she barked.

Dean tried not to stare. This lady looked old enough to be Crowley's mother. Hell, maybe grandmother. But in all honesty, he was just surprised that it turned out to be so darned easy for a change. “I didn't mean anything by it! I just thought he was a hell of a lot older than that.”

“Oh. He is. Me too. I'd be happy to tell you all about him later. Privately. I really hope that you'll be the one to bring him down. Just don't be bringing that here. I'm not hurting anybody. I don't want anything to do with this. He was bad enough as a sadistic drunk. I don't want anything to do with him as King of Hell.”

“Can't say I blame you there. But still, witchcraft?”

“Family business has a strong call.”

“You swear you're not going to hurt these people?”

Ms. McLeod frowned at him. “Of course not! These people are my family. I'm just trying to stay alive. Just like everyone else.”

“All right. Look, normally, as you can probably guess, I'm not fond of witches. But I'll keep your little secret and let you carry on here. Just tell us where he's buried. Please. He's got some things of ours that we really need to get back.”

Ms. McLeod – he still didn't know her given (or chosen) name – stared at him. “Swear you won't let him know where I am. You'll never bring him here.”

“I swear it.”

Dean was so happy that he actually hugged a witch.

“We gotta talk after the party,” he told Sam. “Tell Bobby to meet us outside after.”

He was eager – so eager – to take Ms. McLeod's information and run, but they had to discuss everything and make sure the plan was fool-proof before summoning the King of Hell. So he made small talk through dinner, was pleasantly surprised that several of the ladies flirted with him, and was even happier to discover that Ben easily made friends with Carl and Patrick.

Still, he rushed Sam, Bobby, and Cas outside as quickly as he could after dinner, and he was just about to share everything that Ms. McLeod had told him when he saw someone slink out from around the side of the building. It was dark, and Dean couldn't tell who it was, but he had a gun drawn and trained on the form almost before he realized what was happening.

Whoever it was stopped only briefly, squared their shoulders, and headed very purposefully towards them. “Dean, don't threaten me,” a woman's voice drawled. “You're a guest in my home.”

“Maggie? Jesus, you scared me, slinking up like that,” he admitted as he holstered his weapon.

“Bela?” he heard Bobby ask as the girl came into clear view.

Dean peered at Maggie in the dim light of the moon, then snapped his fingers. “Ooooh! That's who she reminded me of!”

“Reminded, hell! That's who she is!” Bobby cried.

“Bobby, Bela Talbot's dead. This is Maggie Greene, Hershel's daughter.”

“Oh, like you ain't never been dead before!” Bobby scoffed, his eyes never leaving Maggie. She stood there, saying nothing, as the two argued.

“It can't be...” Sam said.

“It sure as hell is! And if Dean hadn't been so horribly off his game this past year and a half and you hadn't been so soulless and clueless – he's right, kid; you got no instinct – then you guys would have noticed it the first time you came here.” Bobby placed his hands on his hips. “Right, Bela?”

“Probably,” Maggie answered, looking almost apologetic.

“No way!” Dean cried. “Okay, first of all? I am not off my game. Secondly, she's a hell of a lot different all covered with croat blood instead of make-up and sporting a redneck drawl instead of some hoity-toity, posh accent.”

“You damn well are off your game. Look, Dean, I'm sorry to say it, but you are. You've barely hunted since long before the virus hit. And once you were forced to, you stuck to the shadows. The sidelines. You're so worried about Ben that you won't take even the slightest risk anymore. So Bela's pulled one over on you yet again. For, what, the fortieth time? Maybe if you weren't so wrapped up in your own head...” Bobby swung around on Sam. “And you! Didn't she shoot you? Maybe if you weren't so wrapped up in Sasha's thighs, and you two idjits started paying attention to what's going on around you...” He shook his head and glared back at Bela-Maggie. “Last time you saw Bela, she tried to have you killed!”

“Now, Bobby,” she said, “let's be fair. That wasn't my fault.”

“Like hell! Bela, I never had nothin' personal against you 'til you tried to kill my boys.”

Dean's heart caught to hear Bobby call them that, and he coughed and blustered to cover it up. “Say, don't you owe me some angry sex?” he joked, trying to diffuse the tension.

“That ship sailed, darling,” she said, a hint of her old self coming out. It sounded funny in a Southern accent, though. “Okay, I knew this would happen when I saw you pull up, Bobby. Honestly, I thought you boys had come for me when you showed up at the prison with Daryl. But I didn't run, did I? I'm here, this is my home, and I want to clear the air. Look around! Bela Talbot is well and truly dead. I have no hard feelings. But I don't want these people knowing about that girl, all right? Please.”

“Still conning people to the end, are you?” Sam asked.

Bela-Maggie glared and crossed her arms. “No, I am not. Look, this is my real life. I really am Maggie Greene. Hershel really is my dad.”

“Nice try,” Dean said. “Not to open any old wounds or anything, but I found out about your real history, remember? You killed your folks in a crossroads deal. That's why you died ten years later.”

“You found the history that I allowed to be found.”

“No.”

“Yes, Dean. And it was true, in its own way. I really did live in England. And, yes, if you want the honest truth, I did cut that crossroads deal. The wreck you read about killed my mother and my stepfather, who, I might add, was a highly abusive prick that got what was coming to him. And my mom allowed it all to happen. I don't grieve her either.” Her lips tightened, and she made a point of looking each of them in the eye. “I kept my real father out of it. I didn't want any hunters or any of my powerful business associates showing up on his doorstep because they had a problem with me. My mother hadn't let me see him for nearly eight years, anyway, and everyone in England assumed her husband was my real dad. I let them. I returned home, to my real home, after their deaths. And once I was old enough to know more, I used some of their wealth to make sure that my father and his family would be kept safe.”

“You're a liar.”

“Yes, and a right good one. But not about this. You've met Hershel! He's a good man. He's my biological dad, and he took me in and never treated me differently even though I was a virtual stranger to him. He tried to raise me right. It wasn't his fault that I'd already sold my soul to a demon. As soon as I came of age, I tried to take my curse as far from him as possible. But once the world went to shit, I wanted to protect them as much as I could. So I came back. You want to know why nobody here knew about vampires or demons or any of that other stuff? Because I protect them. I've got wardings and hex bags and all sorts of stuff keeping us as far off the radar as we can get.”

“What, and daddy just doesn't know about you being an infamous thief who happily dabbles in the supernatural?”

“No. And I'd very much like to keep it that way.”

“We don't owe you anything,” Sam said.

“I know.” Bela, Maggie, whoever she was looked at him with sad eyes. “But he'd already lost so much. Just let me be the prodigal daughter returned. Please. I promise that all that stuff, conning you, trying to kill you--”

“Yeah, little things,” Sam snarled.

“It's over. I'll help you any way I can. Honest.”

“Fine,” Dean said, ignoring Sam's glare. “You can start by explaining how you got out of the crossroads deal, Bela.”

“Maggie! Please,” she begged, looking for all the world like she was sincere. She was skilled, he had to give her that. Dean just stared at her. “All right. Lilith – the one I told you about? I know you're familiar with her by now. Lilith owned my contract. She wanted me to kill Sam to get out of it. That's why I tried to kill you at the hotel. But did you think I wouldn't have a backup plan? I dealt in powerful objects my whole life. That was simply the easiest way out of my contract. Nothing personal,” she assured Sam. “I used the Colt on the hellhound that came after me.”

“You told me you gave that to Lilith.”

“I did, eventually. That was always part of her plan. But you think I'd get my hands on that and not use it on whatever came to drag me to Hell? Anyway, I managed to keep them at bay for nearly a month using devil's shoestring, lots of salt, and goofer dust. Then I finally managed to procure an angel blade and killed two more before Lilith finally agreed to renegotiate.” She couldn't hide a smug grin. “She was impressed that I managed to hold them off for so long. But to get out entirely, I had to give her the Colt...”

“And?”

Maggie swallowed and looked away, avoiding everyone's eyes this time. “And I had to befriend a list of people and get them to make crossroads deals.”

“Why?”

“I don't know, Dean! You think Lilith let me in on her big plan? I have no clue why. And, as far as I know, all of them are dead now anyway.”

“It's not been ten years.”

“Their contracts were with Lilith. When she died, there was nothing to protect them when walkers took over the earth. Not unless Crowley had his own use for them.”

Dean watched her closely, but she really seemed to be telling the truth. “Okay, anything else?” She looked away. “Bela...”

She whirled her head around. “You will call me Maggie. I'm telling you everything.” She pursed her lips and her eyes hardened. “And she wanted me to continue to provide information to her for the rest of my life. Mostly on you two, but also on some other people.”

“You fed Lilith information about us? And you think that can just be water under the bridge?”

“Well, Lilith's dead, isn't she? I'm not having to do it anymore.”

“Don't you understand what happened? Killing Lilith is what freed Lucifer! What started all this!”

“And I'm sorry for my part in it! Aren't you sorry for yours?”

Dean struggled to contain his rage.

“None of us are in the position to be casting stones, Dean.”

“Ugh! Fine. Okay. But if you're honestly not playing us, then you'll have to prove yourself.”

Maggie nodded. “Of course. I am being honest. Anything I can do to help.”

“We need to get both Bobby and Sammy's souls back from Crowley.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I've managed to stay off his radar since you guys killed Lilith. I'd just as soon keep it that way.”

“You sure about that, Maggie? Put up or shut up.”

“Fine! What do we need to do?”

“Well, I have a plan that I'm nearly certain will work. But first we need to find a crossroads demon's bones and find out whether it's true or not that burning them can destroy a demon.”

“Yeah,” Bobby chimed in. “And obviously these fellas need a lot more practice before we go after harder game.”

Dean frowned, but he was almost starting to believe that Bobby might be right.

Maggie closed her eyes. “I only know one crossroads demon personally, and the little girl whose meatsuit she used is buried over in England.”

Dean smiled. “Not a problem. I can get you a ride on CasAir.”

Cas finally broke his long silence. “I don't want her to ride me, Dean.”

“Zap her there, Cas! I meant that you'd zap her there. Zap all of us. We've got to make sure this works before we try it on the King of Hell.”

“What am I supposed to tell my father? And Glenn?”

“I'm sure you'll come up with something. We leave tonight, after lights out. The earlier we get this taken care of, the less chance there is of you screwing us over. Again.”

Chapter Text

Glenn was already in bed when she entered their cell, but she knew he wasn't sleeping. Glenn could never fall asleep unless he knew Maggie was safe. He rolled over and smiled, lifting the covers to invite her in, and Maggie gave a small smile back. “We need to talk,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed.

She knew that there was no hiding the truth from him. For all that she'd successfully worked with the Winchesters before, she had shot Sam and, later, tried to kill him. The boys, especially Dean, would never just get over that. Maggie didn't really think they'd try to kill her, at least not if she played nice, but Sam seemed off. He was a much different person after the walker virus. Of course, she knew that he'd been Lucifer's true vessel, and she could only imagine what that had done to him. Maggie liked to think that she had changed for the better, but she didn't think she could say the same about Sam. She wouldn't put it past him to shoot her in retaliation, or at the very least, maybe leave her alone in England as penance for her crimes.

But, more than that, she never wanted to lie to Glenn. For all that she would most certainly never have glanced at a skinny little pizza boy in her previous life, she had fallen wholly and completely in love with Glenn in this one. The kind of love that poets used to write about and which she used to mock. The kind that shook you to the core and forever changed the way you looked at the world. Even, it seemed, more than any apocalypse could.

“Maggie? What's wrong?” Glenn sat up and took her hands in his.

She took a deep, shaky breath. “I want you to know that I've never lied to you.”

Glenn frowned. “Okay...”

Maggie swallowed, searching for the right words. She'd practiced what she'd wanted to say before coming to their cell, but now, looking into his earnest brown eyes, her carefully constructed confession flew right out of her head. “It's just...well, I never quite told you the whole truth, either.”

Glenn sighed, then gave a small smile. “I guess this is a conversation for pants, huh?”

Despite herself, Maggie laughed. He held his smile as he slid out from the covers and reached for his underwear. Maggie gazed at the line of his thigh, the smooth curve of his bottom, and gave another shaky breath for wholly different reasons. “Don't go out of your way on my account.” But, no, there would be no more putting it off. It was time.

Once he had his pants back on, Glenn ran a hand through his hair. “What is it?”

Maggie cleared her throat, then spoke quietly, praying like hell that no one else would be able to overhear, and began to tell him about her childhood in England.

“When I was little, Daddy's drinking got real bad. He and my mom divorced, and she took me to live with her parents in England. I was named after my grandmother. Did you know that? Daddy's mama was named Margaret, and my mother didn't care for the connection, so she started calling me by my middle name, Abigail. We started completely over. She eventually married a very wealthy man and we took his name even though he never formally adopted me. Daddy wouldn't have agreed to it anyway. But we pretended like this new husband was my dad, and like we were one big happy family. For a while, we were...”

She avoided his gaze, not wanting to say it out loud. “Then, after a while, everything changed. He—he started doing things to me. I told mum,” she continued, not realizing how she slipped into her old self, “but he was so charming, and she was so in love. First she said I was imagining things. That it was just fatherly hugs. Then she explained that he sleepwalked. Finally, she just got mad and yelled that I was...” She struggled not to choke on the words.

“Maggie, you don't have to do this.”

She looked at him, pushing all of the hurt back into its tiny little corner in her heart. “Yes, I do.” Maggie sighed, then continued. “It went on for a couple years. I became numb to it all. I'd tell him to just do what he was gonna do, but that only made him meaner. I prayed for it to just stop. I prayed for the strength to get away. I prayed for someone to save me. And then one day my prayers were answered.

“A little girl came up to me and told me she could put an end to it. She'd set me free, and I wouldn't have to pay her back for ten whole years. Glenn, she wore the face of a little girl I'd gone to school with - a girl who'd died two years earlier thanks to her daddy's beatings. I didn't want that to be me. So I said yes. Of course. Happily!” Maggie took another deep breath and clasped her hands together, willing them not to shake. “She was a demon, Glenn. Not the little girl, but a demon wearing her face. A crossroads demon. They're known for making fabulous deals in exchange for a person's soul. What was hell? I thought. I'd spent years in Hell already. At least this way, he'd be sure to get what he deserved. So I said yes.”

She met Glenn's eyes, surprised and moved by all of the love and hurt she saw there. Not disgust or disbelief. So much love. “And the next day,” she continued, her voice now steady, “they died in a car crash. I inherited all of his money. But my gran wasn't well. When she learned that Daddy was four years sober, I came back to live with him.”

There was a long silence. Glenn started to speak several times, but it was obvious that he didn't know what to say. Finally, he croaked out, “What happened? Is the demon coming for you?”

Maggie shook her head. “No. Before all this, I had a different life. I was, I guess you could say, a supernatural broker. I would get people powerful objects, sometimes through dubious means, and I got even richer. I kept some of the best items for myself. I managed to keep the demons – and their hellhounds – off long enough that the demon who owned my contract renegotiated with me. I'm free of that. Sort of. I had to do some bad things, things that I fear may eventually send me to Hell anyway. But I've been baptized. I hope I have a clean slate. Since then, I've tried to help people, to somehow make up for the evil things I had to do, in hopes that maybe I can avoid Hell when the time comes.”

Glenn scooped her up in his arms. She closed her eyes and squeezed him back as he spoke. “I'm so sorry that happened to you. That's too much for anyone to go through, let alone a kid. Your soul is yours now though, for good?” Maggie nodded, and Glenn sighed with relief. “Who else knows? Does Beth? Hershel?”

“No. I've never told anyone the whole truth until now.”

“Well, I'm glad you told me.” After a moment, Glenn started to say something, then hesitated. He ran a hand through his hair and looked down, avoiding her gaze. “I hate to ask, but they didn't ask for your firstborn or anything, did they? That's not why you're telling me now...is it?”

Maggie's heart jumped. “No! Not that. And I'm not!” She sat up and waved her hands nervously. She wished more than anything that they could have a baby, but she knew Glenn still wasn't ready. “Of course not. I wouldn't have! Or if I had, when I was too young and stupid to know better, I would have said as much when we talked about starting a family.”

“I'm sorry! I didn't mean anything by it, but I had to be sure.” He smiled weakly. “But, if that's not it, then why are you telling me now?”

Maggie sighed. “The Winchester brothers and that Bobby fellow? They know me from before, when I ran far away from everyone and took up thieving and conning. I did some rather unsavory things to them. They've agreed to keep my secret and spare Daddy that pain – as long as I help them on their current case.”

“They're blackmailing you?”

“You could say that, or really, it's more like I owe them one. I need to go out with them tonight. But I wanted you to know the truth, anyway. I just didn't quite know how to bring it up before now.”

He pulled out his go-bag. “Well, I'm coming with you.”

“I'm not sure they'll let you.”

“You're my wife. There's no 'let' about it.”

Maggie smiled, feeling grateful. She didn't need Glenn to protect her, but it warmed her heart to know that he was still so eager to do so despite learning the truth about her. “I love you.”

He gave her a kiss. “I love you too.”

“Now, honestly, these guys are good guys. They really are. But...I kind of tried to kill them once. I'm not absolutely certain that they won't hold that grudge once the case is over.”

“Seriously?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Unfortunately.”

“I know you don't want to tell Hershel anything, but at least let Beth know that we're going on a run with these guys. Somebody should know, in case anything happens.”

#

“What's this?” Dean asked when he saw Glenn accompanying her down to the boiler room, where they'd agreed to meet and hash out a plan.

“What does it look like?” Glenn said.

“No offense, kid, but we've got enough on our hands without worrying about protecting you.”

“Then don't worry about it. I've made it okay so far with only Maggie as my big, strong hero,” he shot back.

Maggie couldn't help but grin, and she gave Glenn's hand a squeeze. They were both in their riot gear, though neither wore the helmet.

“You don't feel a bit overdressed?” Sam asked her.

“We don't know what it's like over there.”

Glenn tossed a few empty bags at Dean. “Look, if you insist on taking Maggie with you and risking her life for these guys' souls, then our people get something out of it too. We told Beth that we're joining you on a run. We need to come back with supplies.”

“This isn't your mission, boy.”

“It is now. You claim you need my wife on this one. That makes it mine.”

“Besides,” Maggie said, using a bit of her former charm, “when will we ever be able to take another UK run? It'll be like a holiday! I would kill to have some Marmite again.”

“I bet you would,” Dean snorted.

“Must it always be like this, Dean?”

Dean looked at her, then looked at Glenn, who was scowling with arms crossed. Dean raised his empty bag in a mock toast. “To Marmite.” He looked over at Cas. “All right, what do you need to know?”

Castiel peered into Maggie's eyes, and she managed to hold his gaze despite her discomfort. “Tell me everything about the demon who made your deal.”

“She was possessing Lydia Coburn, who is buried at Mount Cemetery. At least, I thought she was.”

“We don't need the girl's bones,” Castiel said, as if speaking to a child. “We need the actual demon's bones.”

“Oh.” Maggie bit her lip. “I don't know her name, then.”

“Tell me everything about the demon who made your deal,” Castiel repeated.

“Well, she was possessing Lydia, a girl I vaguely knew from school. She'd been dead two years, probably around 1995. Maybe '94. She died in winter, I remember, sometime after Christmas. Then one day two years later, she shows up at school, after hours. I was delaying going home, even though I knew it would get me in trouble.” Maggie closed her eyes, remembering when the demon had come to her. “She sounded more like a Londoner, the way she talked. She told me she could take care of them for me, and I wouldn't have to pay her back for ten whole years. And then her eyes flashed red. I asked her how, and she asked if it really mattered. I'd be taken care of, she promised. I agreed, and then,” she opened her eyes and glanced at Glenn, “I had to kiss her. To seal the deal.”

Castiel rubbed his chin as he considered what she said. “She didn't give a name?”

“No.”

“But it was definitely a female demon?”

“Yes.”

“And did you ever see her again?”

“No. A different demon came to me later with Lilith's offers to renegotiate. A male, that one, with a very intimidating hellhound.”

“Crowley,” Dean sneered.

“Few demons favor children's forms,” Castiel continued, staring off as he considered the information. “I'm betting it's one of Lilith's daughters. If it's an older demon, that could possibly make her bones harder to find.”

“But you can, right?” Sam asked. “Find her?”

“We should check the Catholic churches around the London area. Crossroads demons tend to work a specific area, and the Catholic church often keeps exacting records about demonic activity.”

“Awesome,” Dean said. “So we have a plan! Zap us on over to London then.”

“No!” Maggie said. “We need to leave in one of the vehicles.”

“What? We're heading to England. You can't exactly drive there.”

“We're supposed to be going on a run with you. It will look suspicious if we don't take a car and actually leave.”

Dean sighed. “We have a magical angel friend who can save gas. Why be wasteful?”

“Nobody knows we are going to England. Nobody knows I'm from England. Can't we just act a bit normal about this, please?”

Dean glared at her. “Fine. But we're not taking my car! We wouldn't all fit, anyway. We'll have to take one of yours.”

“We'll take the Dodge,” Glenn said, pulling out keys. “And we're all coming back.”

“I don't know what she told you, but we're not the ones who screw others over and try to kill them.”

“She told me everything. And you keep showing yourself to be petty and immature, so I'm just making things clear at the outset.”

“Look here---”

“Enough!” Bobby roared. “Gentlemen, behave, or Bela and I will do this ourselves.”

“Bobby...” Maggie warned, trying not to show her frustration.

“Sorry. Maggie.”

Castiel rolled his eyes as he followed Sam and Dean back through the prison. “Humans,” he said, sounding almost miserable. “I really don't see the need for me to ride in the back of the truck again. I'll check the area for a croat-free landing spot and meet you guys up the road.”

“Sounds good,” Dean told him.

Glenn glared at Dean's back the whole way out, until Maggie put a hand on his arm and gave a small shake of her head. Glenn scowled but tried to school his features as he climbed behind the wheel of the truck. Maggie followed, with Bobby climbing in the backseat. The brothers, it seemed, preferred to ride in the bed.

“Try to be nice, please?” Maggie asked as Glenn started the truck.

“I'll try. But they're being dicks.”

“I gave them reason. Just remember that.”

Bobby snorted from the backseat, and Glenn glared at him through the rearview mirror. “Hard to imagine,” he said as he pulled down the drive toward the gate.

Maggie threw her shoulders back and looked down her nose at him, allowing her old hauteur to bubble up. “Try, darling.” She smirked when her accent made him do a double-take. “I cared about no one and cared less if they knew it. Caring is weakness. Pathetic.”

Glenn stared, and Maggie looked pointedly at the road. He turned his attention back to driving and nodded tersely to Tyreese and Karen, who opened the gates for them.

“That was the old me,” she assured him. “But you can see, I gave them reason.”

“Reason in the form of bullets, not just a bad attitude,” Bobby reminded her.

Maggie whirled around. “Yes. I told him everything. And I've already apologized to your friends, not that either of them seem inclined to accept it.”

They rode in silence for several minutes until Castiel appeared, hand outstretched, in the middle of the road. Glenn cursed as he slammed the brakes, but rather than be hit by the truck, Castiel instead reappeared in the backseat beside Bobby. “Jesus!” Glenn screamed, hands white from clutching the wheel.

“No, Castiel. Find a safe place to hide your truck. We have a problem.”

Things remained tense as Glenn found a place to pull off the road. Bobby opened up the back glass so the brothers could hear.

“Daryl or somebody is liable to find the truck and get worried,” Maggie said nervously. They were barely three minutes up the road from the prison.

“There is no safe place to land on the streets of London.”

“Nowhere at all?”

“It's overrun. Almost entirely.”

After weighing the options, Maggie finally admitted, “I have a warehouse there. It's warded against angels, but if you can get me to the roof, I should be able to break it so you can get all of us in.”

Castiel looked at her, his face showing no emotion. “Where is it located?”

She gave an address in East London, and the angel disappeared. Moments later, they found themselves, truck and all, parked on the roof of the building. It was only six storeys, but it was a crisp night with a bright moon, and they could see enough of the Docklands to tell that it was completely overrun with walkers.

Maggie, back when she had been full into her Bela alter ego, had rented a modest storage warehouse near one of London's most impressive financial centres. She could see remnants of that illustrious history in the poor souls who were doomed to shuffle the streets below. What had once been fine suits hung now in tatters, carefully coiffed hair now hung greasy (or bloody), and the stench from the mass of bodies was overwhelming. The whole city was rotting at once. “Dear God!” Maggie cried, her hands flying to cover her mouth and nose. She saw Glenn trying to swallow down bile.

“How many are there?” Bobby whispered.

“Millions,” Castiel replied. “All of them.”

“All of them? All of London?” Maggie asked, her voice high and tight.

“We knew the cities were bad,” Glenn said quietly.

“Did no one make it to safety?”

“A few, but most didn't. There is a survivor group with a stronghold in Westminster. That's the problem.”

“How is that a problem?”

“How safe is this warehouse? After you break the angel warding, I mean.”

“It's safe. Or certainly should be. I put a lot of money and effort into making it so.” Maggie crossed to the access door and used her knife and the butt of her gun to chisel through the welds she'd had put on the door.

“Allow me to check...” Cas started, though Maggie waved him back.

“There are more inside. I'll have to scratch away more wardings, but the stairwell should be fine. You can explain what the hell is going on.”

Glenn grabbed his bag from the truck, and they all took flashlights. Her keys were long since gone, but she had a key to the roof access hidden in a false brick. What good was a safe house if you couldn't get in? Maggie led the way inside. She listened carefully, but all sounded still within. After a moment, she started down the stairs. “Let's be swift. I have some powerful things stored in here. I'd just as soon get the protections back up as soon as possible.”

“I think she had a good idea, Cas,” Dean said from the rear. “Why don't you explain what this big problem is?”

“It's complicated.”

“Try us.”

“I thought we could try Westminster Cathedral for information on the demon. It seemed the most promising starting point.”

“And I take it there's a dubious nest of survivors holed up in there?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“C'mon, Cas!”

Maggie held up a warning finger as she opened the door that led from the stairwell into the top floor, which she had turned into an emergency penthouse suite in case she ever need a safe place that couldn't easily be tracked to her. She was glad now that she had. It wasn't a permanent home, not by any means, but it was a nice place to hide out or bring a date for the evening. She opened the door just a crack and listened, hearing nothing within. She closed it and once again scratched through her sigil, being careful to break only the angel warding and nothing else. She cringed as the sound of metal against metal echoed through the stairwell, and they all listened carefully. After a few moments of nothing, Maggie flung open the doors and led the way inside.

They fell into formation without thought, sweeping the room as if they'd worked together for years. Dean made a few snide comments about her décor as his light fell on certain famed (stolen) works of art, but the floor plan was open and they quickly cleared the entire floor. Maggie made sure the curtains were drawn before lighting candles and a few oil lamps she had scattered through the loft.

“This is yours?” Glenn whispered, awestruck.

“I suppose so. I stayed here very rarely.” The electricity had long since failed, and her refrigerator smelled awful when she opened it, but there were unopened bottles of water that she passed around. “Now, Castiel, can you please explain what's going on?”

The angel stood in the center of her sitting room while the rest of them plopped themselves down. Dean propped his feet atop her glass coffee table, smearing years worth of dust. She winced but turned her attention to Cas as he began his explanation. “There is a roughly two kilometer radius of Westminster that has been cordoned off by a group of survivors. They appear to be primarily housed in Buckingham palace, but their warding makes getting to Westminster Cathedral somewhat difficult, at least with all of you. I could go myself,” he said, gesturing that direction, “but their warding is extremely powerful. So powerful that makes me wonder where they got it from. I'm honestly not certain how safe it is for me once I get past it.”

Maggie began to sip her warm water, but the sour fridge smell clung to the Evian bottle. She quickly put the lid back on and sunk into her settee. “What kind of warding is it? Maybe I have something here that could break it.”

“It's Jophiel's Flaming Sword.”

“A flaming sword?” Maggie asked. At the same time, Sam said, “Wait, the flaming sword? The one that's supposed to be guarding the Tree of Life?”

“Yes, it is. I don't know what it's doing in Westminster,” Castiel said. “Well, I mean, I do. It's guarding survivors from croats, demons, and villains. I just don't know why it would be there.”

“Well, let's go find out,” Dean said, turning toward the door.

“As an agent of Heaven, I could pass through its swirling vortex of protection without difficulties, but as humans, you would find it to be the most excruciating torment imaginable. Much like Hell, but far more concentrated.”

“Well, who of us here hasn't experienced plenty of hellacious torment? Or is long overdue for it,” Dean added with a pointed look at Maggie. His eyes flicked over to Glenn. “Well, maybe not Kato here.”

“Actually, I have,” Glenn said between gritted teeth.

“Have you now? Well, I suppose she has that effect on people.”

Castiel interrupted. “We could try it, but if there are any enemies lying in wait, we would be at considerable disadvantage if none of you could fight. Better that I steal the sword and bring it here. I assume you have some way to safely lock it up?” he asked Maggie.

Maggie was only vaguely familiar with the story of the sword. It was used to guard the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve had been banished from Eden. It was a very powerful angelic weapon, and up until now, she'd thought it (and the Tree of Life) was merely a myth. “I have an iron storage chest that might do. Would you be able to place it in if I left it open? Sadly, I don't weld myself, so I hesitate to break all of my wardings.”

“That should be fine. It should power down, so to speak, if not given a particular target to guard once I take control of it. Let us hope that there are no angelic guardians with it. I sensed none, but they could be warded against me as I am against them.” With that, Castiel disappeared.

Maggie sighed. “He's rather instantaneous, isn't he? Well, let's go clear the rest of the warehouse. It should be fine, but better check before getting stuck on the second floor. That's where the vault room is hidden.”

#

Castiel was able to retrieve the sword with surprising ease, and they soon found themselves transported to Westminster Cathedral. It was a relief to see no signs of walkers anywhere, though there were so many in the city that Maggie knew it was only a matter of time before they took over Westminster, at least without the sword for protection. Castiel thought it was more likely that the humans would find them first.

He was right.

They were searching through books in an elaborate study when they heard the party arrive. “Gather up all of the records on exorcism and demonic lore,” Cas murmured quietly. “I'll transport us all quickly if I must, but if they had Jophiel's sword, there's no telling what else they have.”

Bobby and Sam grabbed up books while the others pulled their weapons and slunk out toward the noise in the cathedral. It was a larger group than Maggie had expected, and she knew it was probably not the only one that had been deployed to search the area. She wondered how many survivors there were holed up in this little section of the city. They came in armed and ready, though much more haphazardly than her own little group had come in. It was obvious that they were not used to fighting as a team. It was a ragtag, but relatively formidable, group of about fifteen men and women who had burst in far too loudly and far too scattered about.

Dean, bastard that he was, stepped out of his hiding spot and laughed at them. “No wonder they need a weapon of Heaven to protect themselves! Get a load of these guys.”

For the most part, they seemed to be armed with ceremonial swords and cooking knives. One woman had an axe, and one of the burlier men carried an actual pitchfork. One of the men whirled and came towards Dean with sword raised. He was tall and lanky, with wavy chestnut hair that fell just short of landing in his eyes. Dean trained his gun on him and promised, “One little shot will bring them running, you know.”

“Do you have any idea what you've done?” the man hissed.

“Yeah, actually, we do.”

The man frowned. “You a yank?”

“Doodle dandy.”

“What are you even doing here? How did you get past the sword?”

“That would be me,” Castiel said, coming forward. “How did you get it in the first place?”

The group, seeming to find their wits, came slowly circling up around Castiel, but his implacable stare kept them at a hesitant distance. “What do you know about it?” the axe woman said, glaring defiantly.

“More than you.” His eyes flicked back over to the leader. “I'll answer your questions if you answer mine.” After a moment's hesitation, the man nodded. “Very well,” Cas continued. “We are here on the trail of demons who have plagued us. We got past the sword because I took it to a safe location. I was able to do so because I am an angel of the lord.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. He really seemed to like that line. But, as always, it was met with skepticism.

“Oh yeah? You?”

“Yeah. Me.” Castiel stood tall, and she saw the shadow of his wings appear on the wall behind him. She flushed, suddenly feeling very guilty for rolling her eyes. Castiel, his wings outstretched, seemed even more intimidating inside the church, where a holy sanctity still filled the air. The people gasped, and several took a step back. The axe-wielding woman dropped her weapon, fell to her knees, and crossed herself.

The leader, however, seemed unimpressed. “I'd appreciate it if you'd bring it back.”

“No. My friends and I need to find this demon, and that sword belongs elsewhere. Now, how did you get it?”

The man's eyes flashed. “It's mine! Bought and paid for.”

Cas frowned, and Sam gave a barking laugh. “With what?” Sam asked. “The crown jewels? We heard you've taken over the palace.”

The man's eyes shifted to Sam. “The crown jewels aren't even kept at the palace. Idiot.”

Sam stepped forward, his brow furrowed and fists clenched, but Castiel cut him off. “We had a deal. I answered your questions. Where did you get it?”

The man swallowed, then glanced back at his friends. “I told you, I bought it.”

“From whom?”

“From an angel, just like you.”

“How?”

He sighed. “What, you don't think an angel just wants to protect the people?”

“Absolutely not,” Cas said, and the kneeling woman keened.

The man mumbled something under his breath. “You did what?” Cas yelled.

“I traded him my soul.”

“Whoa,” Dean said, shooting a wide-eyed look at Bobby, Sam, and then Maggie. “Can angels even do that?”

“It's never been done before.” Cas peered at the man. “What's your name?”

“Simon. Simon Leath.”

“Well, Simon Leath, why would you sell your soul to an angel?”

“Better than the alternative, right? I mean, he's an angel. Angels protect us, right? He offered me a flaming sword of protection. Have you looked around? Seemed like a pretty good deal. We could live in peace! Not just my family and me, but the whole lot of us. My friends and neighbors who managed to survive. Stragglers who couldn't get out of the city and lost everything. I could save good people. I did what was right.”

Castiel looked at each of them, and Maggie noticed that several avoided his gaze. “Jophiel's Flaming Sword is worth much more than one soul...”

Simon said nothing. Another man, one who also held a sword, stepped up with his chest poked out. “Okay, yeah. Might have been a few of us. We did the right thing. Now bring it back.”

“How many?” Cas asked. When they didn't answer, he yelled it. “HOW MANY?”

“Ten. Ten of us,” Simon admitted. “But we've saved a hundred and twenty people!”

“What was the angel's name?”

Simon swallowed. “He never actually said.”

“I'm going to have to check. This is wholly unheard of for an angel, and that is an extremely powerful weapon of Heaven,” Cas said, rolling up his sleeve and walking towards Simon. “When someone takes a soul, it leaves a mark behind. I should be able to learn who is doing this. May I? It's important.”

“If you bring the sword back.”

“That sword was not meant for you.”

Simon scowled. “Yeah? Well, it's mine now, and if you want to...to,” he glanced down at Cas's rolled sleeve and frowned, “whatever you want to do, then we get the sword back.”

Cas glared at the man, but finally gave a short nod. “Once my friends are back to safety, I will return the sword.”

Simon peered at him a moment before nodding. “All right, then.”

“This will hurt,” Cas told him, grabbing his shoulder. “If you have a happy place, you should probably go there now.” Before the man could argue, Cas sunk his arm into his solar plexus. It began to glow.

Simon's mouth gaped open in a silent scream. The glow changed as it began creeping up his neck, darkening, and it looked like fire was coursing through his veins. Simon's silent scream became a real one, high and panicked. “Happy place,” Cas murmured, his arm sinking to the elbow. “You don't want to call the croats in just yet.”

Somehow, Simon managed to bite down on his scream. After a moment, Cas released him, keeping a steadying hand on him as his friends rushed to his side. The man with the pitchfork kept it trained on Cas, but the angel simply paced the floor, lost in thought.

“Well? Did you get anything?” Dean asked.

“Yes. It's Balthazar.” He frowned and gazed off into the distance. “But I thought he was killed in the war. He must still be living, if his mark remains on this soul. We have to find him. He was a friend, once. I think it would be safe.”

“One mission at a time, Cas,” Maggie said, relieved when the angel didn't balk at her familiarity.

“We're trying to get people's souls back, are we not? I think we should talk to Balthazar. We need to find out why he's buying human souls - and how he managed to get Jophiel's sword.”

“You're going to give that back, right?” Simon gasped, finally able to find his voice.

“I will bring it here, as promised, but it is supposed to be guarding the Tree of Life. I will talk to Balthazar and try to free your souls. If he agrees, we will return the sword to Eden, where it belongs.”

“Cas,” Dean said, walking over to speak quietly in the angel's ear. “If you really take it back, that's pretty much a death sentence. Not just for this little town, either. For you, too.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Aren't you being hunted by Heaven usurpers? I mean, do you think you can just waltz right into Eden with a flaming sword and no one will notice?”

“I see.” Cas nodded thoughtfully. “You may have a point.”

“I do. Look, just take us back, and let them have their sword back. A hundred and twenty people, Cas! You saw what London is like. They'll die without it. It's not our call.”

Cas looked around, but no one spoke against it. The people of Westminster looked at him with pleading eyes. “I don't like it, but all right. I really don't think it's a good idea for an angel to be in possession of so many souls, though. That's...dangerous business.”

“How so?” Dean asked.

“It's nothing.”

Dean stared at him a moment. “We need to hurry and get these guys' souls back,” he said, and Maggie knew he spoke of Sam and Bobby. He couldn't care less about the other survivors.

Cas met his eyes. “Yes. We do.”

#

Back at the warehouse, Maggie took her time opening the vault room and chest. She cocked her head and smiled sweetly at Cas. “I'll trade you this sword for the Vladimir Tiara.”

“Dammit, Bela!” Bobby yelled, and she didn't even bother to correct him, knowing it was a deserved slight.

“Oh, come on! It's the Vladimir Tiara!”

“We promised them the sword,” Cas said.

You promised them the sword. I just want a small rental fee for storage. It's not like it's anyone's soul or anything. And it's not like they don't have plenty of jewels at the palace.”

“Maggie, are you serious?” Glenn asked her in a quiet voice.

“Well, I mean, come on. It's a once in a lifetime chance! You'd try.” She looked at Cas with hopeful eyes.

“Give me the sword.”

Maggie frowned and lifted it from the chest, feeling a surge of energy course through her arms. No torment, though. She was in control of it. She was in control of it, and it felt righteous. Maggie laughed nervously and quickly handed it off to Cas. Her hands suddenly felt very empty without it. “With both pearl and emerald settings,” she joked, her voice sounding weak in her ears.

Once he left, she ran around the vault room throwing talismans, charms, hexbags, and any supernatural weaponry she could find into a duffel bag. “Falling off the wagon, are we?” Dean asked her.

“You brought vampires and demon hunting to my doorstep, Dean. I'll do whatever it takes to protect my family.”

“Yeah, well.” She saw him palm a box of silver bullets and slide it into his coat pocket. Maggie crossed the room, gave him a second box, and bagged up the rest.

Cas reappeared next to Dean. “It is done. I need a bowl, silver knife, and myrrh. I brought the holy water. And this.” He reached into his coat and threw a velvet sack at her.

Maggie caught it by reflex. “No way! Did you really?” Inside was the Vladimir Tiara, glittering brilliantly, all silver and gemstones. Absolutely spectacular, and it even had the emerald settings already attached. Maggie 's fingers trailed across the scrolling. She squealed and grinned at Glenn. “We have to redo our wedding!”

“A bowl, please!” Cas said, and she reluctantly put the jewels away and hurried to find him supplies.

Maggie couldn't stop grinning as she handed a wooden bowl to Cas. She heard Dean grumbling, “Cas, man,” Dean said, “you shouldn't enable her like that.”

“It wasn't like she asked for anyone's soul,” Cas echoed as he began mixing his ingredients. Maggie quickly silenced Dean's complaints with a pair of charmed silver mini-revolvers. The irony of his own fawning was completely lost on him.

“Got him,” Cas said, and then they were suddenly in a small copse of trees, looking at a stone manor set atop a small hill. Walkers lurched up all sides of the hill, drawn by the music and what appeared to be disco lights emanating from the northwest tower. The walkers never made it to the home itself, however; they burnt to ashes as they crested the hill, like bugs flying into a zapper.

“What the hell are we looking at?” Bobby asked, shaking his head.

“Abraham's Shield. It keeps one's enemies from getting close. We can only approach Balthazar if we mean him no harm.”

“You think croats could kill an angel?” Sam asked.

“No, but they might infect his vessel. I don't know, honestly. Vessels are hard to come by these days though.” Cas looked at each of them in turn. “Does anyone here mean him harm?” They all shook their heads. “Good. Let's hope he means none to us.”

They found themselves inside what appeared to be a small dance hall. Balthazar, dressed in a casual suit, was dancing on a small raised dais with a snifter in one hand and a circle of tightly clad women around him. Dean grinned and nodded his approval.

“Brother!” Balthazar called as he noticed Castiel. He left the women dancing together and hurried down to join them. “It's so good to see you alive!”

“Likewise,” Cas said in a controlled voice. “I mourned your death, brother.”

Balthazar gave an apologetic shrug. “Yes, unfortunate business. I would have told you the truth, but with me dead and you a fugitive, it seemed prudent to lay low.” His eyes slid over to Cas's companions, and he seemed to notice the humans for the first time. “Bela, is that you, darling? It's been so long!”

She smiled. “It's Maggie now, actually. You look good, Balthazar.”

“You two know each other?” Bobby asked, looking between the two.

“Oh, a Southern belle persona now, is it?” Balthazar asked, ignoring Bobby. “Then allow me to respond in kind.” He raised a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat, throwing a faux-Southern accent that was horribly mangled by his natural London inflection. “Well, hey there, Maggie! I ain't seen you in a coon's age.” Balthazar turned his head toward Sam and Dean, dropping the hillbilly act. “And these must be the Winchester brothers, yes? Cas,” he tsked, “that doesn't seem wise. It's the horse everyone's bet on. If Kali succeeds in locating them, she's got you.”

“She'd come whether I'm with them or not. I'd rather be waiting here when she does.”

“Be careful, brother. I hear that Naomi and her faction are hunting you as well. She wants an exchange for peace. How did you find me, anyway? They might try the same thing against you.”

Cas pulled up his shirt to show the warding tattoo he'd gotten from Daryl. Balthazar nodded. “Smart. I didn't even feel you coming.” He waited a moment, then gestured at Cas. “Well, how did you find me? That wasn't rhetorical.”

“I did a locating spell after finding your mark on a man's soul in Westminster,” Cas explained.

“Ah, that.”

“Balthazar, why are you buying souls?”

“They're one of the few things worth investing in right now, aren't they? Haven't you heard? Everyone's doing it.”

“Not angels.”

“Well, most of them are rather slow on the uptake, aren't they? Still, better that it's me.” Balthazar grinned. “I'm downright benevolent. Now, Naomi seems overly interested in souls as well, if my gossip is right – and it usually is. Everybody's scrabbling over souls these days.” He looked at Sam. “After all, that's what you're after, isn't it?”

Sam frowned, raising his head high. “What have you heard?”

“It's just the vibe you give off, man.”

“How did you get Jophiel's sword?” Cas asked him.

“Oh, I got a lot of things.”

“It was you, wasn't it? You stole the weapons of Heaven!”

Balthazar gave a mocking bow.

“How could you do that?”

“I'm just following in your footsteps, brother. Rebellion. Survival! The world's gone to hell,” he said, throwing his arms out and spinning in a circle. “What use is living in it if you're not enjoying it while you still can? We all have to watch it burn. Might as well grab a fiddle and play.”

“Brother, we can get it back!” Cas said, his voice somehow strong and pleading at the same time. “Join with me. Give me the weapons. We can save Heaven. Maybe Earth, too.”

Balthazar scoffed and pounded back the rest of his drink. “It can't be saved, Castiel. Dad is gone, and he's never coming back. A new deity is in town. These aren't just demons, you know, nor fallen angels. These are multiple deities we're talking about.”

“Crowley had a plan...with enough souls. It's a good plan. How many souls do you have?”

“Cas!” Dean yelled, coming between the angels. “No. We decided that was a bad plan, remember?”

“With Crowley, yes, but Balthazar is family. And he holds the weapons, as well.”

“No,” Dean reiterated.

“Doesn't matter,” Balthazar broke in. “I don't have nearly enough. And anyway, I'm dead.” He snapped his fingers, and small bar appeared in one corner. Balthazar refilled his glass and held the bottle out towards his visitors.

“Aw, what the hell?” Dean said, hurrying forward to accept a glass. He looked back at Cas. “Can you do that? Say, with cheeseburgers? 'Cause if so, we really need to work on you pulling your weight a bit more.”

“I'll help you get the soul you're looking for, for old time's sake,” Balthazar told Castiel. “You're right, it shouldn't just be left lying around somewhere. But what is it you were after in Westminster?”

“We were looking for the demon who cut Be—Maggie's deal,” Dean explained.

“A female,” Cas said, “who likes to wear children. I suspect it's one of Lilith's daughters. She works around London. I know you're fond of the place. Can you help us?”

“Well, you came to the right place. It's probably Jade. That's her demon name, anyway. I can't be one hundred percent certain, but she's rumored to have been one of Jack the Ripper's victims. Kate something-or-other. Lilith recruited her after her death, and she specializes in bringing Hell's special brand of justice to very bad men.”

“That fits well enough,” Maggie murmured.

“You're sure?” Cas asked him.

“Not definitively. I'd say 80-20. Good luck, though.” He raised his glass.

Cas stared at him, then blinked in resignation. “I do hope to see you again, Balthazar. I hope you'll reconsider and join me.”

“I tell you what – if things die down, I'll give it some thought. Now, I've a tattoo to get,” Balthazar said, and then he was gone.

Cas took them all back to Maggie's warehouse apartment and jumped back into the church's books, hoping to learn where Catherine Eddows (Bobby remembered her full name from the Ripper case) was buried. Maggie showed Glenn and Dean where all the food and toiletries were that she had, and then she paced about nervously as they bagged it up. She watched the sun rise up over the Docklands, giving a clearer view of the sad sight of her once beloved city. Various-sized herds moved aimlessly, forever wandering through the maze of streets with no living quarry left to chase. They thinned out and came through again in regular clusters. She leaned her head against the window, and it reminded her of watching the buses come and go as she sipped her café au lait in the morning.

“Found her,” Sam said, snapping a book shut.

“I don't want to see her,” Maggie said.

“What?”

“I haven't seen her since that day. I don't want to do it again.” Maggie turned from the window, and she felt a heated flash of indignation when she saw the disdain in Dean's eyes. “Look, that was a long time ago. I made peace with what I did, and I managed to win my soul back and move on from the whole thing. I got a second chance. We don't always get second chances. When we do, they're precious.” She smiled at Glenn, then squared her shoulders and shook her head at Bobby, Cas, and the Winchesters. “I don't want to make the same mistakes. I want nothing to do with demons. You're the ones who wanted to know if this bone burning thing works. If it does, good, nothing to worry about for the next person at her crossroads. But I gave up vengeance. I don't need to see it. If it doesn't work, well, I have too much to lose now if I get back on her radar.”

Sam smirked, but, to her surprise, Dean seemed to look at her with a smidgen of respect. When he opened his mouth, though, she wondered if she had imagined it. “So, what?” he asked her, crossing his arms, “you two just want to hang out here and bang while we go dig up your old bestie?”

“No!”

“Oh, I see. We're fine for fetching you diamonds and Marmite, but you can't put your neck on the line for us when we need you?”

“How would you feel about visiting old Yellow Eyes, hm? Yeah, I know about him and all his freaky little 'Special Children'.” She glared at Sam, who seemed to have developed a permanent case of doucheface. “You're telling me that you two, of all people, don't understand what an awkward reunion this might make for?”

“Yeah, I get it. But you know what? When the time came, we sacked up and did it!”

Maggie shook her head sadly. “I never wanted to be a hunter, Dean.”

“We could explore the neighboring warehouses and see if we find any food or supplies while you're gone,” Glenn offered.

“Fine. Don't get yourselves killed before I get the chance to do it,” Dean spat.

“Don't forget to come back for us,” Maggie retorted.

“Do you think they will?” Glenn asked after they'd left.

“No, not really. It's doubtful, anyway. He's got Ben at the prison. He has to take us back.” Maggie stashed the full bags, after making sure they were both fully armed and their guns had silencers, and grabbed what empty bags they had left. “Come on. I was watching the front. I've got the traffic pattern down. We should be able to clear a couple of buildings, if we work smart. The neighboring ones here shouldn't be staffed or lived in, so hopefully we won't meet any walkers inside. Might have had squatters, though.”

Chapter Text

Then:

“How are you walking around with no soul?” Jody asked Sam.

Sam shrugged and rubbed his neck, looking decidedly uncomfortable to be put on the spot. “I don't know. But I've been...different...since I came back. And when we saw the Alpha vamp, he said I was soulless.”

“Yeah, but you're gonna believe the Alpha Vamp?” Bobby asked.

“I can check if you like,” Cas said, “but I don't really need to. I know. I'm the one who resurrected Sam. I was able to free him from Lucifer's cage, but I was forced to leave his soul behind.”

“What?” Dean gaped at him, and he saw Sam doing the same. “Cas, why didn't you say something?”

“Well, you were so mad at me. And then there was the whole mess with the vampires and the ghost. We didn't really have a good chance to speak alone. Once you were speaking to me again...well, I didn't want to risk messing that up by telling you.”

“You need to tell me everything! The both of you! Jeez, I'm trying to keep everyone safe here. I need to be able to trust the people I surround myself with. If you can't handle that, then you need to just go.” Dean shook his head. He couldn't believe that he had to have the same damned talk with both Sam and Cas. They were the people he should have been able to trust the most. “No more secrets, dammit!”[...] “Well, why the hell didn't you bring him back with his soul?”

“I did what I could. It was hard breaking him out of there. They had a strong hold over his soul. I had to act quickly, while Lucifer and Michael were disoriented. I was able to return your brother to you! But now, with Kali's people looking for me and Crowley showing far too much interest, I don't dare show my face in Hell. You try to open that cage now, there's a chance you could set Lucifer free.” Cas shook his head. “I have no allies above or below. It's an impossible mission.”

*

“Look,” the demon gasped, after she stopped screaming and choking on holy water, “his real name is Fergus MacLeod! He's from Scotland somewhere. That's all I know. I swear it!”

He tried to get the location of Crowley's bones out of her, but it seemed as if she truly didn't know anything else. Cas placed his hand on her head, killing her. He turned away, gazing into the distance. “MacLeod,” he repeated. “That name seems familiar.”

“Think you can find his grave?” Sam asked. “If we find his bones, I bet he'd be a lot more receptive to dealing.”

“If I search all of Scotland,” Cas said. “It would take some time. And with many of the pagan gods allied with Kali, it would be fairly dangerous. I might not return.”

Dean sighed. “Yeah, and if he was as big a douchebag in life as after, he very well could have found himself on the south side of an unmarked grave.”[…]

Sam was watching Cas with interest. “Cas is right. That name is very familiar. MacLeod? There was a Ms. McLeod at that prison...It sounds silly, but I swear I saw her wearing a triple spiral. I saw her grab it while she was praying, some foreign prayer I didn't understand. Could have maybe been a warding spell, now that I think about it.”

*

The woman sighed. “I knew you were going to be trouble. Okay, look. Yes, I know him. He's – he was my father. [...] I really hope that you'll be the one to bring him down. Just don't be bringing that here. I'm not hurting anybody. I don't want anything to do with this. He was bad enough as a sadistic drunk. I don't want anything to do with him as King of Hell.”

“Can't say I blame you there. But still, witchcraft?”

“Family business has a strong call.”

“You swear you're not going to hurt these people?”

Ms. McLeod frowned at him. “Of course not! These people are my family. I'm just trying to stay alive. Just like everyone else.”

“All right. Look, normally, as you can probably guess, I'm not fond of witches. But I'll keep your little secret and let you carry on here. Just tell us where he's buried. Please. He's got some things of ours that we really need to get back.”

Ms. McLeod – he still didn't know her given (or chosen) name – stared at him. “Swear you won't let him know where I am. You'll never bring him here.”

“I swear it.”

*

“Maggie? Jesus, you scared me, slinking up like that,” he admitted as he holstered his weapon.

“Bela?” he heard Bobby ask as the girl came into clear view.

Dean peered at Maggie in the dim light of the moon, then snapped his fingers. “Ooooh! That's who she reminded me of!”

“Reminded, hell! That's who she is!” Bobby cried.

“Bobby, Bela Talbot's dead. This is Maggie Greene, Hershel's daughter.”

“Oh, like you ain't never been dead before!” Bobby scoffed, his eyes never leaving Maggie. She stood there, saying nothing, as the two argued.

“It can't be...” Sam said.

“It sure as hell is! And if Dean hadn't been so horribly off his game this past year and a half and you hadn't been so soulless and clueless – he's right, kid; you got no instinct – then you guys would have noticed it the first time you came here.” Bobby placed his hands on his hips. “Right, Bela?”

“Probably,” Maggie answered, looking almost apologetic.

[...]

“But if you're honestly not playing us, then you'll have to prove yourself.”

Maggie nodded. “Of course. I am being honest. Anything I can do to help.”

“We need to get both Bobby and Sammy's souls back from Crowley.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I've managed to stay off his radar since you guys killed Lilith. I'd just as soon keep it that way.”

“You sure about that, Maggie? Put up or shut up.”

“Fine! What do we need to do?”

“Well, I have a plan that I'm nearly certain will work. But first we need to find a crossroads demon's bones and find out whether it's true or not that burning them can destroy a demon.”

*

“It's Jophiel's Flaming Sword.”

“A flaming sword?” Maggie asked. At the same time, Sam said, “Wait, the flaming sword? The one that's supposed to be guarding the Tree of Life?”

“Yes, it is. I don't know what it's doing in Westminster,” Castiel said. “Well, I mean, I do. It's guarding survivors from croats, demons, and villains. I just don't know why it would be there.” […] “It's Balthazar.” He frowned and gazed off into the distance. “But I thought he was killed in the war. He must still be living, if his mark remains on this soul. We have to find him. He was a friend, once. I think it would be safe.” […]

“We were looking for the demon who cut Be—Maggie's deal,” Dean explained.

“A female,” Cas said, “who likes to wear children. I suspect it's one of Lilith's daughters. She works around London. I know you're fond of the place. Can you help us?”

“Well, you came to the right place. It's probably Jade. That's her demon name, anyway. I can't be one hundred percent certain, but she's rumored to have been one of Jack the Ripper's victims. Kate something-or-other. Lilith recruited her after her death, and she specializes in bringing Hell's special brand of justice to very bad men.”

“That fits well enough,” Maggie murmured.

“You're sure?” Cas asked him.

“Not definitively. I'd say 80-20. Good luck, though.” He raised his glass.

Cas stared at him, then blinked in resignation. “I do hope to see you again, Balthazar. I hope you'll reconsider and join me.”

“I tell you what – if things die down, I'll give it some thought. Now, I've a tattoo to get,” Balthazar said, and then he was gone.

*

“How would you feel about visiting old Yellow Eyes, hm? Yeah, I know about him and all his freaky little 'Special Children'.” She glared at Sam, who seemed to have developed a permanent case of doucheface. “You're telling me that you two, of all people, don't understand what an awkward reunion this might make for?”

“Yeah, I get it. But you know what? When the time came, we sacked up and did it!”

Maggie shook her head sadly. “I never wanted to be a hunter, Dean.”

 

Now:

After quickly scoping the area, Cas zapped Bobby, Sam, and Dean to the Scottish cemetery where Crowley was buried. It was gorgeous country, far from any city, and seemingly uninhabited by people or croats. There was an old castle on a nearby hillside, which Dean figured local survivors might hole up in if they were smart, but it was too far to detect any activity. Hopefully they'd remain equally unnoticed.

Cas paced nervously while the boys dug and Bobby set up the summoning spell. They needed to get in and out quickly, since apparently the majority of Scottish deities had allied with Kali, but, mindful of his oath, Dean wanted to be far, far away from the prison when they summoned the new King of Hell.

Crowley appeared in the circle, his eyes falling upon the bag holding his remains. “Come now, gentlemen. You threw the party. I should be the one bringing gifts.”

“You can,” Bobby said. “We want our souls back.”

“No.”

“We'll burn them, Crowley,” Sam warned, holding the bag high.

“That would be unwise, Moose,” Crowley said. He tried to sound bored, but Dean caught the strain in his voice, and he saw how Crowley's eyes never left the bag. “I'm trying to do you a solid, actually. You don't want that thing back. Michael and Lucifer have had nothing to do for a year and a half besides play with that thing. It could kill you. Or worse.”

“No, it won't,” Dean said, shooting a reassuring look at his brother. “It won't. Look, the man needs his soul! You said you're the big-shot 'King of Hell'. Hand it over, or I'm sensing a regime change on the horizon.” He squeezed lighter fluid all over the bag of bones.

Crowley shook his head. “You see - and it pains me to say this aloud - I can't. I dare not open Lucifer's cage. I have a tenuous enough hold on the reins. I can't let that bastard out, let alone him and Michael both. None of us want that. It's locked, and it's staying locked.”

“Come on, Crowley!” Dean yelled.

“I can't.” Crowley shrugged. “God's, or whomever's, honest truth.”

“You'd better give us something!” Dean flicked open his Zippo, itching to do away with Crowley once and for all.

“All right, look.” Crowley took a step forward, but he couldn't come any closer. “There are only two things I can think of which are stronger than me, stronger than Lucifer, and stronger than Michael. Two things that could do whatever they want regardless of us, even if we were to all band together. God...and Death. Those are the only beings in existence who could simply waltz into Lucifer's cage and take Sam's soul.”

Dean flicked his lighter closed. “Good. Now we're getting somewhere. How do we find Death?”

“You die, you sodding imbecile!” Crowley yelled, and Dean finally saw a handful of Scottish croats burst free from the tree line. With the fog hanging low over the cemetery, and it looked like a freaking Thriller video.

“Keep your voice down,” Sam warned.

Cas laid a hand on the arm holding Crowley's bones. “He's telling the truth.”

“I say we burn him anyway.”

“You backstabbing behemoth!”

“Seriously, dude, inside voice,” Dean said. “What about Bobby? I know you can do something about that.”

Crowley's mouth pinched tight as he considered it. He looked back towards the croats, apparently hoping that the lot of them would get eaten, but the croats were too slow and too few to be any real danger. Crowley choked in disgust. “Fine. One dank, fetid old hillbilly soul, coming right up.”

“You can leave in the part about my legs,” Bobby told him.

Crowley glared but did as he was told. Sam jiggled the bag. “I still say we burn him.”

“A deal's a deal.” Dean took the bones away from Sam. With the toe of his boot, he broke the devil's trap and handed Crowley the sack.

“Always a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Wish I could say the same,” Dean grumbled. Crowley blew him a kiss and disappeared, taking his remains with him.

Bobby gave an audible sigh of relief. “Thanks, fellas. I'm sorry we didn't get yours, Sam, but we will. This ain't over.”

“Maybe we shouldn't,” Sam said. “If what he said is true...Maybe it's better this way.”

“No. No, we're getting your soul back. You're strong, Sammy. It may not even be a problem. And if it is, we'll find a way to fix it. Trust me.” The croats crossed the distance faster than Dean expected, apparently energized by the sight of fresh meat. “Let's grab Glenn and YoSaffBridge and get our asses back to the prison,” Dean said, finding himself back on Bela's roof before he'd even finished the sentence.

“Guess you two had luck,” Bobby said, impressed by the haul they had loaded in the back of the truck.

“A lot of it's stuff I already had in storage,” Bela explained, “but we found a lot of books and comics next door. The kids'll love that. There's some canned food and a big box of ammo, too, but not the weapons it went with.”

“I'm sure that you guys can use what we can't,” Glenn said. “I just wish we'd found more toilet paper.”

Dean snickered. “My friend, you have hit the TP-lotto. Assuming Cas can swing us by Kansas on the way home?” He looked to Cas, who nodded. “Thanks to a little insider tip, I have a whole storage unit full of toilet paper, ammo, and booze.”

“I'm surprised you haven't gone for that already,” Sam said.

He'd actually started that way a few times, but something – usually croats – always came up. I hated that zapping around before, but it's pretty nice having Cas back, Dean thought. Then he realized what he'd just thought. His grin faltered and he shut down, huffing as he crossed the distance to the truck. It'd be even better to have Lisa. Or Sammy's soul. He's the dumbass who left it in the cage with Lucifer to begin with. With a disgusted look at Cas, he hopped into the back, kicking a duffel bag out of his way. “Well? Let's go already.”

Keeping in mind Bela's insistence that they keep London a secret, Cas dropped them back on the prison road as if they were returning from a local run. It was disconcerting going from afternoon in Europe back to early morning in the States, and Dean suddenly realized how very tired he was. He'd been going full throttle for a while now, but he wasn't about to hit the bed until after he'd seen the prison's doctor.

Once again, Michonne was the only one manning the gates, the yard deserted. “You're just in time,” she cried, quickly pulling the gates closed behind them. “Walkers in D!” She hopped in the back of the truck with the brothers, pounding on the back glass as she urged Glenn to hurry.

“Ben?”

“Don't know.” She shook her head. “Been stuck at the gate.”

Dean was torn between following everyone else into D block and running for C, where Ben should have been sleeping while he was gone. While he hesitated, the sound of gunfire echoed from the building, and Dean jumped out and ran for D.

Rick and his crew had apparently handled the issue by the time they made their way in, and now they were walking the second level of the cell block, spiking any of the dead who hadn't yet turned. “What happened?” Dean cried up at them. “Where's Ben?”

Rick nodded to Daryl, who continued down the block, and jogged down the stairs to meet them. “Don't worry. Ben's fine. He was outside with me and Carl, and they went to C to find Beth and Judith.” Dean gave a shaky sigh, rubbing his hands over his face. Rick continued, “It's some kind of illness. Noticed it in the pig and a couple walkers on the fence. Looks like Patrick and Charlie both died from it in the night. There were no wounds on them, and Carol said Patrick wasn't feeling well last night. Charlie locks himself in, since he sleepwalks.” Rick turned and gazed at the carnage. “Patrick doesn't.”

“How many lost?” Bobby asked.

“Fourteen.”

Dean shook his head. “Rick, I'm so sorry, man. We should have been here.”

“You were on a run. That's just as important. And you came rushing in to help anyway. That means a lot.” He looked at each of them, his eyes landing on Sam. “I really appreciate the medicines you gave us when Judith got sick. I don't think I ever said, but you probably saved my girl. Thank you. May save a lot of others, too.” Sam nodded, and Rick turned to Bela. “Maggie, do you mind checking to see if anyone else has symptoms, anything at all, and if they do, take 'em over to A block to see Dr. S?”

Her eyes flicked to Dean, and he reassured her with a 'we're good' nod. “Sure thing,” she said. “I'll double-check on Carl and Ben while I'm at it.”

Dean took an early shift digging graves, something he was much faster at than the prison residents. Once he knocked a couple of graves out and gave Dr. S time to tend the wounded, he washed up and headed inside. “Bet you're about ready to crash,” he said once he found the doctor.

“Not really,” the man said. “There was not much saving to do this morning, I'm sad to say. We gave antibiotics to those feeling even a little bit under the weather. Hopefully it helps.”

“Yeah, hope so. Well, hey, do you have a little time? I need a huge favor.” Dean pulled out an extra med kit and a bottle of vodka. “I'll pay you for it.”

“Sure, Dean. No need to pay. You've done so much for us already.”

Dean gave his most charming smile. “Now, this may sound odd, but it's important. I know you've had enough death to deal with today, but I really, really need you to kill me.”

“I beg your pardon?” Dr. S shrank back in his cell, shaking his head. “Absolutely not!”

“Okay, look, I've also got a bottle of rum and some oxy I took off a dead cousin, but that's as high as I can go right now. We brought a dozen ultra-mega packs of Charmin, though, and that's gotta count for like a hundred bucks a roll for sure.”

“Dean, I can't kill you! That would be a violation of my doctor's oath and against everything I stand for.”

“It's not for good! Just for a little while. I know some of those meds we got at that vet school should work.”

Dr. S sat down, patting his cot beside him. “Look, I understand the pressures of this world. I was out there, practically alone, for over a year. I know what it's like. I'm not a psychologist by any means, but you can talk to me. I can help you through this.”

Dean gave an empty laugh, sat down, and looked the doctor square in the eye. “I appreciate that, doc. Truly. But, look, I've died before and came back. Sam died not long ago and came back. We do that sometimes. Only problem? This time he came back without his soul. And I can't have that.” He watched as various emotions flit across the young doc's face: skepticism, concern, fear, a tinge of curiosity... “Hard to believe, I know, but I don't care whether you believe me. I've just gotta get it back. The sooner, the better. There's one entity in all the world who can help me with that, and that's Death. Either way, I'm gonna hunt the guy down. I'd rather do it with your help and expertise, but I'll do it alone if that's the way it's got to be.”

Dr. S gazed at him for a very, very long moment. Dean nodded and started to stand when the doc wordlessly took the med kit and vodka, stashing it under his cot. “Don't forget the rum and oxycontin,” he finally said. “I'm going to need an assistant, and this isn't something I can ask Hershel.”

“Try Be—Maggie. I'll get Maggie. She owes me a solid.”

Dr. S nodded. “Meet me in the infirmary.”

Dean headed to C block, wincing inwardly as Ben ran to him with open arms and pure joy on his face. The last thing Dean wanted was to leave Ben again. Dean was pretty sure he could make it back in time if he didn't piss Death off too much, but it was always a gamble. “Hey, bud. Glad you're okay.”

“You too! I hate when you're gone at night.”

Dean nodded. “I know. I'm sorry. But it's safe here.” He glanced back over his shoulder, thinking of D cell. “Well, relatively safe. Just lock yourself in the cell when you go to sleep, okay? I'll be able to get in when I need to.”

“Are you leaving again already?”

“No, I'll be around. There's just a whole lot I gotta take care of before we're good to go. Me and Sammy outta help them get things cleaned up over there. It's just a mess. I'll find you later, but for now, I want you to stick with Jody. Anything she says, you don't hesitate. And you watch her back, 'kay?”

Ben nodded, face grave. Dean pulled him close, hugging just a little too tightly. “Sorry.” He gave an empty smile. “I'll find you later.”

After a quick chat with Bobby, Dean found 'Maggie', as he was trying to remember to call her, unloading the haul from their earlier run. Everyone had forgotten about it already. It pleased him to see that she was splitting the goods into two piles, one at the trunk of the Impala. “Come with me,” he told her. “I need your help with something.”

The doc was already in the apparently seldom-used infirmary, straightening up and laying things out. He was sweating nervously, and Dean did his best to put him at ease. “It's your lucky day, doc. I threw in a valium Bobby's been holding back on us. Maybe you outta take it for them shakes.”

“I'm fine,” Dr. S said, washing in actual hot water at the sink. “Unbutton.” He crossed the room and began attaching electrodes to Dean's chest. “You're lucky that they're running the generator while they clean up D block. I'll monitor you as best as I can. I'll give you three minutes, but we can't risk anymore than that. You could wake up with brain damage. Or you might wake up a walker.”

“What's going on?” Maggie asked, her voice low and frightened.

“Nothing you'd mind either way,” Dean said, turning his attention to the monitor as the doc flipped it on. The blips were a little fast, but surprisingly steady. “You just help out the doc as needed. Let's do this quick-like.”

“I'll need these items, in this exact order,” Dr. S told Maggie, wiping Dean's vein with an antiseptic wipe. “Let's hope we don't need that last one.” Dean peered around the doc and saw that the last item was a bowie knife. Dr. S's hands were still shaking as Maggie handed him a syringe, and Dean heard him quietly murmur, “Please...”

“Hey!” Dean interrupted, sitting up fast. Dr. S jumped back, startled, and nearly dropped the needle. “What's the S stand for?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Dr. S. What's the S for?”

The doctor blinked, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. “Subramanian. Caleb Subramanian.”

“Well, look – and I don't mean this offensively or anything – it's just that I'm currently on the wrong side of a certain Hindu goddess. And a couple of Norse ones, actually. And most of the archangels. So, uh, no praying, please.” Dean sat back again. “Gotta fly under the radar.”

Caleb blinked at him. “I'm an atheist.” He shrugged. “Or perhaps I'm just currently on the wrong side of the gods, too.”

“It's easy to do.”

“Okay, no praying. Just...don't stay dead. I've still never killed anyone.”

Lucky you, Dean thought, then closed his eyes and prepared to meet Death.

When he opened them, he was standing behind Maggie, watching them both freak over his now-dead body. Dr. S took a second needle and anxiously watched his watch, while Maggie picked up the knife and moved to stand at Dean's head. He quickly headed out into the hall, looking for a more private place to summon Tessa.

“What the hell, Dean?” Tessa cried, looking his spirit up and down. “You just can't resist picking at things, can you? In case you haven't noticed, we reapers are keeping pretty busy these days.”

“I need to see your boss.”

“That's not how it works.”

“Get his ass down here.”

“That's NOT—-”

“When will you realize, Dean, that nobody makes 'my ass' do anything?” Dean whirled around, face to face with Death once again.

The guy had a way of making a pit drop in Dean's stomach. Dean swallowed, then squared his shoulders and let it fly. “I have something of yours. And if you--”

“Yes, yes,” Death interrupted. “My ring, which I recall loaning to you so that you could lock Lucifer back in his cage and save the world. Bang-up job with that, by the way.”

“Hey, we tried!” Dean stepped back and started to pace. “Sam said yes and rode Lucifer straight to Hell. The apocalypse, the whole stupid showdown, was averted. We did what we were supposed to. And we fought Pestilence and won, so I don't know what happened.”

“You obviously didn't win enough, Dean. I'm very busy thanks to your little screw up. Now get to the point. And,” Death held up one skinny finger, “do it without the blackmail and bravado if you want me to be receptive. It's not like I don't know where you put the ring. My time is precious. What is it?”

Dean cursed, then held his hands up. “Look, I'm sorry. I have literally tried everything else. Survey says you're the only one who can jailbreak Lucifer's cage.”

Death considered this. “Interesting.”

“Sam's soul is stuck in there with Michael and Lucifer both. So's our brother, Adam. I need you to break them out.”

“Pick one.”

“What?”

“I'll give you one, not both, and you're lucky I'm considering that much.”

“Sam,” Dean said without hesitation. There was a twinge of guilt, but not nearly as much as he expected. “Sam's soul. But...I hear it's in rough shape. Can you fix it?”

“Can I fix an agonizing era of torture under two of the most powerful archangels? I'm Death, Dean. Healing's not really my thing. And I can't very well just trim away the flayed bits.” Death raised his brows pointedly. “There'd be nothing left.”

“There's got to be something we can do.”

“I could try putting up a wall. Something to keep those dangerous Hell memories locked away, but it wouldn't hold forever. A while, maybe even a lifetime, but not forever. Still, it'll buy you time.” Dean's shoulders relaxed as a huge weight was lifted off of them, but Death wasn't finished. “You'll have to do something for me, though.”

“What's that?”

“When you fetch my ring, put it on. I want you to be me for one day.”

Dean frowned. “That doesn't sound like the best idea, to be real honest with you.”

“It wasn't a suggestion, Dean. You'll get my ring, put it on, and then not remove it for twenty-four hours. That's the deal. You break it, and no soul for Sam.”

“Fine, but--” Dean gasped and sat up, staring into the startled face of Dr. S. Dean sighed in relief. “Too good to shake on it?” he grumbled, then felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Dean shivered. “Sorry!”

“Dean, are you okay?” Maggie asked him, slowly lowering the bowie.

“Yeah. Right as rain.” He realized that his heart was racing, and he suddenly seemed full of energy. He figured the doc must have had some adrenaline. He smiled at the both of them and clapped the doctor on the back. “I told you there was nothing to it.”

“You were gone for over five minutes,” Dr. S told him. “I was just about to give up.”

“Glad you didn't.”

“Well, we were going to tether you and wait until you turned before knifing you.”

“I appreciate that.”

Back in C block, Sam and Ben both seemed to want to stay up his ass. He still felt hopped up, but he tried to hide it. “Hey, Ben, they're moving all the kids to the office building, and I think it's probably a good idea for you to go along.”

“Maybe we should all just leave,” Sam said. “This illness? I don't like it. Didn't you want to find a new place?”

“Yes, Sam, but we're kind of in the middle of something here.”

“I think that can wait,” Sam said, and Dean frowned at him. He could tell that Sam was feeling – or whatever it was he did now – nervous after talking to Crowley, but Dean wasn't going to let him chicken out of getting his soul back.

“I've got everything under control,” he promised both of them. “You go help that Carl kid protect the little ones. We'll get this mess straightened out, get with Daryl and maybe that Lisha chick, and find out if there are any good safe houses in the area.”

“We could just stay here,” Ben said.

“I just don't know if that's a good idea, kiddo. I was thinking about it, I'm not gonna lie, but this sickness and croat outbreak has me itching to get back on the road.”

“We're always on the road,” Ben grumbled, and it was like a knife in Dean's heart.

“I'm gonna try to put an end to that. I promise. I thought we had it at the island, but Garth had dibs, and we just don't have enough hunters left to fight amongst ourselves. We can find another place just as good,” Dean assured him. “We'll try to stay close by, since you've made friends. We'll stay at least another day or two. We'll help our friends clean up this mess and get ourselves a concrete plan in place. Do it right.”

With Ben safely in quarantine, Dean just had to shake Sammy, but his brother seemed to know he was up to something. “Dean, we need to go. You know we shouldn't be here right now. What gives?”

Dean continued walking, trying to find Bobby. “Nothing I ain't got under control.”

“You need to let it be.”

“Not likely.” He caught a glimpse of Bobby washing up in the bathroom. “Hey, there's something I need to do. You guys see if you can find any leads on a new safe house, and I'll be back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Bobby asked. “You can't go off by yourself. Especially not after hunting all night long.”

“Got to. Just watch out for each other,” he said, giving Bobby a meaningful look.

“Dean, I know you're up to something. I need you to drop it,” Sam warned again.

“Look, it's done. Okay? Death is gonna help us, and he's going to put up a...like a wall to lock away all the Hell stuff.”

“You really think that's going to work?”

“Yes.” Dean didn't flinch. “I told you, I've got it covered. Find us some new digs. Bobby?” Dean held out his hand, waiting for the ring he had given Bobby for safe keeping while he went to meet Death. “Keep an eye on him,” Dean whispered.

He slipped the ring on his finger and found himself standing in a deserted Big Spot. Tessa appeared at his side. “You were right, Dean. This is a bad, bad idea. Do not screw this up.”

“Wasn't planning on it.”

“Here's how this works: when someone's time comes, you touch them. They die, and then I reap them. They'll probably have some questions. 'Why?' is popular. So is 'What does it all mean?'”

“Well...what do I tell them?”

Tessa shrugged. “That's on you. But like I said, do not screw this up.”

“Right. Let's do this.”

Dean heard a bottle break, followed by a woman's scream. He took off through the aisles. Tessa was already there when he came upon the scene. It was a woman with a young kid. They had bags, obviously raiding the store for supplies, but they'd been interrupted by a thug with a sawed-off shotgun. “Hey!” Dean yelled.

“Let this play out,” Tessa told him. “They can't hear or see you, anyway.”

“Nice and slow,” the thug was saying. “Hand them over.”

“Please,” the woman pleaded. “My son hasn't eaten for days. There's more than enough here for all of us.”

“Have you seen this world? There isn't enough for any of us. Now hand over your bags.”

The woman, crying now, did as she was told. Dean's fists opened and closed of their own accord. Not the kid, he thought over and over. Not the kid.

The kid tried to toss his duffel bag, but it landed just a foot or two in front of him. The thug rolled his eyes in disgust, then rushed forward to retrieve the bag. As he bent down, the kid, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight, pulled a pistol from the back of his waistband and shot the guy in the head.

The lady pulled her kid back as blood pooled at his feet, and the thug screamed, rolling around on the floor, hands scrambling at the top of his head. “So he can't die 'til I touch him?” Dean asked.

Tessa's jaw dropped. “Dean...”

“Just a sec,” Dean said, enjoying watching the guy squirm. Then he saw the kid's frightened eyes, and Dean reached down to put an end to it just as the mom shot a second round into his brain.

The thug looked similarly slack-jawed as he gazed at his corpse. He looked up at Dean and Tessa. “Why?”

“Because you're a fucking dick,” Dean said, ignoring Tessa's look. “Enjoy the ride down.”

After the reaper had ushered the thug to Hell, Dean found himself standing above a pit full of croats. “Well, that's cute. These ones are dead already. Or something like it.”

Tessa pointed toward a nearby RV, where Dean looked up and saw a couple of guys kicking back some beers and knocking golf balls around. “Let me guess...drunken fall?”

“Just wait.”

“What, you don't think you can keep this place safe?” one of the men, a big guy with an eye patch, was asking.

“Well, I mean, I try,” the other dude, Mexican from the look of him, was saying. “Hopefully we can be ready for whatever comes at us.” He grabbed another ball and turned around, setting up his shot. “Now that you're here, maybe we can share the crown...”

Even at a distance, Dean could see the mad look in the dude's one good eye. He quietly slid a club from the bag and took a step forward. The other dude swung, and Dean reflexively ducked as the ball came straight at his head. The Mexican's eyes followed it, and he was staring directly at Dean when the club came down on his head.

“Jesus!” Dean cried, whirling on Tessa. “What is this?”

“It's his time,” Tessa said as Eyepatch kicked his buddy off the side of the RV.

The dude jumped down, grabbed his golf buddy, and started dragging him across the grass. Dean gaped in horror as he realized what the guy was about to do. “No. Dude, that's not right.”

Eyepatch started yelling as he pushed the guy's head into the croat pit. “I don't want it, dammit! I don't want it!”

The guy was still stunned, but he reached up and tried to shove a thumb through his killer's eye patch. Eyepatch groaned and pulled his head back, pushing the guy's head further down into the croat pit. “Can't I kill that one?” Dean asked. “Please?”

“It's not his time.”

The poor golf dude could only scream as croats started gnawing his head and face. Dean hurried over and touched his victim, putting an end to the man's screams. “Jesus,” the guy said, echoing Dean's sentiments, as he watched his body get devoured. “He's gonna just let me turn? Damn.” Suddenly, the dude seemed to notice Dean and Tessa. “Why? I was doing good here!”

Dean gave him a sympathetic look. “Sorry, man. You have shit taste in friends.”

“Tell me about it.”

Tessa took him off (up or down, Dean had no clue), and Dean watched Eyepatch sit and stammer, “I don't want it.”

“Then put your own damned head in there,” Dean suggested, turning away as the croats pulled out the dead dude's intestines.

The next one was even harder. Dean found himself looking at another mom and kid, this one a daughter who looked to be maybe twelve. They were struggling to climb up a pretty steep hill, and suddenly the girl fell, gasping. She reached in her pocket, then tried to stand, frantically patting herself all over.

“Oh, no,” Dean said. “I'm not killing a little girl.”

“You have to. It's her time.”

The girl started panicking, and her mom tried to soothe her. “I...forgot,” the kid gasped, “inhaler...at camp.”

“She's only been slowing them down, anyway,” Tessa said. “This is just the end of her road.”

“The hell it is!” Dean said, his jaw clenching.

“You have to.”

“If I'm Death, then I say not this time.”

“Everything has consequences, Dean. You said you wouldn't screw this up.”

“There aren't enough kids in the world anymore,” Dean said quietly. “I'm not doing it.”

The woman was talking in soothing tones. “That's it, honey. Seven...eight...nine...ten. Good job. Relax. Don't panic. Just stay here and keep counting. I'll run back for it. I'll be so fast. Just keep breathing nice and slowly.” Whether from her coaching or Dean's refusal, he wasn't sure, but the girl started getting herself together. The mom rose, squeezed her daughter's hand, and took off down the hill. She passed through Tessa, stumbling and shivering as she did.

Dean's eyes narrowed. “Come on,” Tessa said, following the woman.

“What? Why?” He jogged to catch up with them – and, boy, she was moving fast. So fast, in fact, that the racket she made attracted the attention of half a dozen men hunting nearby. Dean winced and picked up his pace as he watched them appear out of the bushes, following the woman's path.

They got to the camp at the same time, but there was nothing Dean could do to stop them. They crouched behind trees, counted the armed campers, and quickly started taking them out one by one. Soon the whole damned camp was lying there, everyone shot or stabbed. Dean went amongst them as quickly as he could, putting an end to their misery one at a time while the murderers bagged up most of their supplies.

“How could this happen?” a big guy, probably the leader, asked. The spirits of his campmates all huddled with him, clinging to each other. There were eleven of them altogether.

“It wasn't supposed to happen,” Tessa said. “Not today. You were on tomorrow's list,” she reluctantly admitted to the leader and some folks on either side of him. Then she turned to the asthmatic girl's mother, who was now clutching a toddler. “But you and your son were supposed to have good, long lives. You,” she turned to another couple, “were supposed to have that baby you wanted, and you guys,” she turned to the last family, “were six months away from a safe haven that would have housed you into old age.”

“What happened?”

“He messed up,” Tessa said, looking at Dean.

Dean swallowed back tears. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”

While Tessa ferried all of them to wherever they were supposed to go (and Dean fervently hoped that they all got a free pass upstairs due to technical difficulties), Dean walked his way back to the little girl. He could have teleported there, he was sure, but he needed the time to get his head straight. He found her where he left her, breathing free and easy. Smiling, even.

Dean steeled himself and placed a hand on her brown head. “Hi there,” he said to the girl when she noticed him.

The little girl looked down at her body. “Did I have to die already?” she asked him.

Dean nodded. “I'm afraid so.”

“How come?”

“There's...a natural order to things. It can't be broken.” Dean shrugged and gestured at a handful of croats stumbling through the woods. They had been the girl's relatives and friends not even an hour before. “Look at this world, anyway. It's not what it used to be. Heaven's much better,” he assured her, hoping that was still true.

“That still sucks,” the girl said.

“Yeah. I know.”

Tessa reappeared, taking the girl by the shoulders. Dean killed far too many people that night. They were mostly due to nighttime croat attacks, but one was a little old lady who just went to sleep and never woke up. That was the only one Dean didn't feel bad about, mainly because her son found her and spiked her before she ate the grandbabies. Still, Dean stuck to the plan, determined not to make anymore waves.

“Man, this is the longest twenty-four hours of my life, and that includes time spent in Hell,” Dean said as he found himself in the midst of yet another camp in the early morning hours. “Oh, come on!” Dean yelled as Eyepatch walked up to knock on the door of the camper next to them. “This guy again? Please tell me I'm here to kill him.”

“Not him,” Tessa said, nodding as the door was opened by a young dude who looked like he hadn't gotten much sleep.

“How many people can this guy kill in one twenty-four hour period?”

“You'd be surprised,” Tessa murmured.

Death's ring was weighing heavy as they followed Eyepatch into the camper. The bastard, coward that he was, knifed the guy right in the kidney. That's two people who apparently trusted him, taken unawares as their backs were turned. Dean shook his head, hurrying to get it over with.

“What's it all mean?” the guy asked Dean.

“Doesn't mean jack,” Dean answered.

“You're almost done,” Tessa assured him once she returned. “Last stop.”

Dean found himself in the boiler room of the prison, looking upon a scene that would probably have killed him if he didn't happen to be in control of death at that moment. Bobby was tied to a chair, and Sammy was drawing back a machete, looking for all the world like he was ready to strike. “Oh, hell fucking no,” Dean said, crossing the room. “NO!”

“I'm sorry, Bobby. It's nothing personal.”

Dean slipped off the ring and grabbed Sam's wrist. “Hiya, Sam,” he said as he closed his free hand around the ring and swung.

Sam fell, and Dean was pretty sure that Bobby nearly pissed himself. He cut Bobby loose and used the rope to tie Sam, making the knots extra-tight. “What the hell is going on?”

“I don't know,” Bobby said, helping him roll Sam over. “A couple hours ago, I caught him torturing Ms. McLeod. He's been trying to kill me ever since.”

“Where's Cas?”

“I don't know. He left when you did.”

“He did what?” Dean stared down at Sam, thinking. “Help me get him to D block.”

“Everyone who was in D block started showing symptoms. We don't want to go in there.”

“They cleaned it, right? Hot water and bleach and everything. Everyone in there's been quarantined. It's the only place we can put him where there's no risk of people coming to poke around.”

As distasteful as Dean found witches, he was pissed to hear about Ms. McLeod. She'd cut a deal to help them and had expected the prison to stay a safe place. Nobody wanted a pissed off witch on their tail, least of all the Winchesters. But besides her, how could Sammy have gone for Bobby like that? Bobby had been like a father to them. Dean could only hope he wasn't too far gone.

Heavy as his gigantor ass was, they put Sam in the cell farthest from the door. Bobby said that Rick had gotten his shit together a lot more since everyone started getting sick. He and his kid were both carrying guns again, and he was keeping a steady patrol of the prison. Apparently Bobby and Sam had had a hell of a time pin-balling around the prison, Rick, and each other all night. Rick had picked the worst time to go back on sheriff duty.

“I don't know what to do, Bobby. I messed up.”

“What happened?”

“I took off the ring. I was supposed to take you, and I took the ring off instead.”

Bobby was silent as he took that in. “Thanks for that.”

“Yeah, well, let's hope Death doesn't come for you anyway. I...I gotta give him his ring. You keep an eye on Sam,” he said, pointing to where Sam laid unconscious inside the cell. “Don't open this cell door. No matter what.”

Dean headed back through the cell block, but a voice called out as he passed a cell near the middle. “Dean!” Death sat, patting the cot beside him much like Dr. S had done. “Have a seat. I brought you a bacon cheeseburger.”

Dean wiped his sweaty palms on the front of his jeans and entered the cell. He sat down, but he didn't touch the foil-wrapped burger.

“I never figured you for a man who'd turn down a cheeseburger, especially in the midst of the zombie apocalypse,” Death said as he took another bite of his own. He reached for a large to-go cup, tilting it questioningly at Dean before taking a sip. Death then set it carefully back down on the floor and wiped his lips with a handkerchief. “The job kind of turns the stomach, doesn't it? Were I mortal, I'm sure I'd have ulcers.”

“Look,” Dean said, “it's not that I don't appreciate you being nice and all, but we both know I failed. A pity-burger can't take the sting out of that.”

Death sniffed and sat tall, looking down his nose at Dean. “You know, when you went back and killed that girl, I thought you had learned a lesson.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Did you?” Death balled up the handkerchief and crossed his arms. “Then why didn't you kill Bobby Singer?”

Dean thought about how to best word his answer. “It's like I told the girl: there's a natural order to things. But what Sam was doing...that's not natural. That's not him. Sammy'd never hurt Bobby. And if I hadn't stopped that and he had gotten his soul back, he'd never be able to live with himself. He wouldn't have come back from that, wall or no. I had to save the both of them.” He held out the ring, which Death accepted with a grave bow of his head. Dean looked him in the eye as he rose. “Bobby's never gonna die on my watch.”

Death chuckled. “Everybody has their time, Dean.” He stood, and Dean finally dropped his head, staring at his toes in defeat. Death didn't leave, though, and Dean looked up at him. “Well? Let's go fix your brother.”

“But I lost.”

“In the letter, but not the spirit, of our bet. You learned one important lesson, Dean, but I know how you get where Sam's concerned. You'd just keep digging and digging away at that cage until you managed to weaken it somehow. So, I'll do this anyway, and then you'll leave it alone.”

“Yes, of course.” Dean nodded, not sure if he wanted to laugh or cry.

“If you want to dig at something, keep digging into the souls. Don't stop just because you get Sam's back.”

“What do you mean?”

“It's about the souls. Remember that, and keep your little friends away from Purgatory, okay? Those aren't the kind of souls you want to bust out.”

Dean nodded, and Death put the ring on, disappearing. Dean hurried back down the block, grabbing the bars to help stop his momentum.

Sam was awake now. He saw Dean's face and knew. “No!” Death reappeared, and Sam really started yelling. “No, please, don't do this!”

Death sat gingerly on the cot beside him, opening a carrying case. A blue glow enveloped the room. “I'm going to put up a wall, something like a dam, in your mind. You may feel some itchiness. Listen to me carefully, Sam: whatever you do, don't scratch.” He reached one hand into the case.

Sam struggled to loose his bonds. “Don't! I'm begging you!” His eyes moved past Death, flicking between Bobby and Dean. “Please, guys, don't do this!”

Very carefully, Death pulled forth Sammy's soul and transferred it to his body. Sam's screams got louder and louder, and still Death did not release his grip. He closed his eyes in concentration, and Dean had to force himself not to look away. He'd done this to Sam, and he made himself watch.

At last, Death pulled his arm back out of Sam's torso, and his brother fell silent, head lolling as he lost consciousness. Death stood and turned to Dean.

“Thank you,” Dean said, and Death disappeared. Dean continued to stare into the cell.

“C'mon, son. He'll probably sleep a good long while after that,” Bobby said.

Dean let himself be pulled away. “You okay, Bobby?”

“Yeah. Think some punk kid's gonna get the best of me?”

“I'm sorry,” Dean said, meaning for everything. As he passed by the cell, Dean ducked in and grabbed his burger, slowly unwrapping it. “Guess I'd better try to smooth things over with Ms. McLeod.”

“I'd steer clear a while longer.”

Dean stopped, considering. He lifted the bacony, cheesy goodness to his nose and took a long whiff. “Like, torture-torture?”

“'Fraid so.”

Dean sighed and re-wrapped the burger, feeling fully broken when he offered it to the witch as a gesture of apology and goodwill.

Chapter Text

Then:

Aidan struggled to rise from the cold concrete. He felt broken inside, and he knew he'd be done for if not for the fact that he'd fed on live blood beforehand. And, too, thanks to Sally. The ghost was not strong enough to defeat Bishop on her own, but she could hold a stake long enough to provide a distraction.

As soon as the pain settled a bit, signaling the healing of his internal wounds, Aidan pounced. He grabbed the razor wire, leapt to his feet, and wrapped it around Bishop's neck in one smooth motion. “I begged you to not to do this!” he cried, tightening the wire. Bishop's hands fought futilely against his arms. “It didn't have to be this way.”

“You're right,” Bishop gurgled. Aidan's hands didn't exactly loosen, but he stopped short. Bishop, arms reaching behind him, squeezed Aidan's shoulders one last time, almost as if with pride. “I'm...sorry.”

So many visions suddenly flashed in Aidan's mind, a myriad of alternate timelines, each one always leading toward him killing Bishop. As if he saw it too, Bishop choked, “S'okay...Aidan. The son...always...kills the father.”

“No.” Aidan pulled the razor wire from his maker's throat, throwing it across the room. “No!” he cried again, pushing Bishop away. Now Bishop was the one lying at Aidan's feet. “You can only make me so much of a monster, Bishop. I won't be like you.”

“What are you doing?” Sally cried. She balled her fists and mimed kicking Bishop in the head. “You have to kill him! He wants you dead! And Josh!”

“Not anymore,” Aidan said. “This is finished. You hear me, Bishop? You've taken – and given – my life so often over the centuries. Now I've done the same, and we're finally at quits. Leave Boston. Run far, and never come back.”

Bishop stared at him, ignoring the ghost entirely. Aidan read so many different emotions in his maker's gaze, but he kept one look in his own eyes. He saw Bishop recognize it, and the older vampire nodded, bowing his head in defeat.

“He stole my door, and you're just going to let him go?”

“I'm sorry, Sally. But it's over. Done. Bishop won't be a problem for us anymore.” Aidan turned and walked out of the warehouse, praying that was true.

*

“I will not die. I will not die. I will not die!” Aidan reiterated to himself, far, far under ground. For months, he'd been lost inside his own head, haunted by visions of the happy life he'd always dreamed of. He could feel himself giving into the delusions. The time was coming when he might not come back to himself, when delusions would become preferable to this mindless, starving torment. He was already forgetting why coming back was so important anyway. “I will not die!” he thought he screamed, but his throat only croaked dryly.

Then he stopped, cocking his head to listen. It wasn't his imagination, nor a delusion. Aidan heard the unmistakable hiss of a shovel slicing through dirt. Someone was digging him up.

It had been so long, well over a year, since he'd seen light. Aidan was blinded as the coffin lid opened, and he was so weak from hunger that whoever it was could have easily killed him with a toothpick. He rubbed crust from his eyelids and struggled to see his rescuer.

“Now, I know you never wanted to see me again,” that familiar voice said, “but when I heard what Mother had done to you, I simply couldn't sit idle.” Bishop lifted Aidan from the coffin and effortlessly raised him up to the hard-packed ground above. Aidan couldn't see where Bishop went after jumping out, but he heard the sounds of a struggle. “Disgusting things,” Bishop said as he returned to pull Aidan away from the grave.

Aidan could smell the blood that Bishop's hands left on his jacket, but something about it smelled absolutely foul. Starving as he was, the scent of blood should have sent him into a full-on junky tailspin, but it didn't. It turned his stomach and somehow made feeding the last thing he wanted to do. That was probably the only thing that saved the poor girl he finally noticed lying face-down on the ground nearby.

“I brought take-out!” Bishop grinned at him, then his face quickly sobered. He snapped his fingers in front of Aidan's eyes. “Aidan, are you still in there? Come on, it was just over one year! Not eighty.”

Remembering what led to his being grounded, Aidan began to cry. “Suren.”

“Yes, yes. I'm sorry you lost another love. It happens to the best of us.” Bishop sat down, crossing his legs. “Now, we don't have much time, and I need you to listen carefully. Aidan! Dammit, this is serious. Are you with me?” Aidan managed to swing his head into something like a nod, and Bishop continued, “Mother is dead. They're all dead, Aidan. Damned humans caught some kind of filthy virus. They're turning into zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. Like fucking cockroaches, really; it's a cesspool around here. And to think, that's what we thought before.” He laughed and looked sidelong at Aidan. “Well, most of us, hm? Anyway, the antibodies it leaves behind in the survivors is killing all vampires now too. You can't drink from them if they've ever had the virus, even if they're healthy now. It started cropping up all over about seven months ago. Now, if you can even manage to find a human, having a simple meal is like playing Russian roulette. That's why I brought you this one. She's special in more ways than just the one.” Bishop reached over to the unconscious girl. When he rolled her over, Aidan saw that it was Emily, Josh's sister. His head finally began to clear.

There you are. Glad you're coming back! Okay, eat up, 'cause you're gonna need your strength. But for god's sake, don't kill her. Emily here didn't get sick. Or maybe she did and is just immune. Hell, I don't know what's going on. What I do know is that there aren't many like her left. You'll need her, and you'll have to fight off the other vamps too if they realize what you've got. You'll have to fight the humans, or the ones who used to be, regardless.” Bishop stood and gave Emily a half-hearted nudge with his toe.

“Don't--” Aidan groaned again.

“Don't you worry about me,” Bishop said as he bent over to pat Aidan's shoulder. “Marcus has a couple of gals set aside for us. Let me give you another tip: if you need another food source, always have one of the new turns taste-test first. Give it twelve hours. If they get the virus, you'll know by then and probably before. You can turn the contaminated food, if you avoid their saliva and just drip blood into their mouths. Or you can kill them. But setting them free just helps kill more of us that much faster – and turns them into even more zombies in the long run. We've all got to do our part to stem that tide. Headshots, of course.” Bishop stood tall and dusted his hands off on his pants. “Now we're at quits. I'll help you guys get into the house and go right back to leaving Boston; it's a lost cause anyway. Eat. Get your strength back. We'll never see each other again after this. But I couldn't leave you in that box to rot forever.” Bishop smiled, blue eyes flashing. “Call me sentimental.”

*

“I'm telling you,” Emily said, hiding her face behind her hand and a curtain of brown hair, “he's not in Ithaca. I thought he would come for us, I really did. But he didn't. And then...” She trailed off, her voice choking. She finally looked up at him. “After, I thought maybe I could find him in Boston. Bad idea. The cities are overrun. If he's still there, he's dead. And if he's not, I don't know where he'd be.”

“The cities are overrun,” Aidan echoed, his mind racing now that he was in better condition. “He'd take Julia and go off-grid.”

Emily shook her head and smiled sadly. “No. Julia didn't make it. Josh got back together with Nora a month or two before shit hit the fan. That was the last I heard from him.”

“I might know where to find them.” Aidan, feeling revived enough after his third feeding, left Emily to recuperate as he hunted for a well-gassed vehicle. He wasn't back to full health by any means, and explaining the whole vampire situation once Emily had finally regained consciousness had taken a lot out of both of them. He felt guilty for drinking so much that first time without her knowledge, but he'd had to. If he'd tried to wait until she woke up, he wouldn't have been able to control it when he finally did feed. Emily came around to the idea of feeding him much faster than he expected, but it may have just been his luck at being the only familiar face she'd seen in over half a year. Or the fact that Bishop and his crew had fed on her before. But she dealt well with Aidan's news and right now, her health was suffering far more than his. Their mutual convalescence had taken a week, and there was no more food for Emily.

He found a car, as well as a bag of pork rinds and a couple of slim jims somebody had stashed away, abandoned on the main road. From the long-dried blood splatter in the driver's seat, as well as the fact that four similar vehicles sat at various spots some distance up the road, Aidan was fairly certain that the vampires had laid a trap for humans evacuating the city. He found a bag of clothes in another car, and he changed out of his fifteen-month-buried clothes and into a blue t-shirt and a black hoodie, though he had to keep the dirty pants. Another car had a few canned goods and an empty gas jug, so Aidan siphoned what gas he could from all of them. He also found two water bottles, and he swished the gas taste out of his mouth and put those in the bag to take back to Emily.

Josh and Nora weren't at Josh's old changing shed, where Aidan had killed Connor so many months before, but he could smell the lingering scent of them. Aidan's nostrils flared. Josh, Nora, and...someone else. Another werewolf, and very similar to Connor and Brynn's scent. Aiden stopped in the doorway again and noticed a large blood smear where someone had fallen against the doorjamb. Aidan bent low to examine it. There had definitely been a fight here. Damn, Aidan thought, pacing the small shed with his eyes closed, trying to figure out out what had happened. Strong. Musky. Dammit! They were pureblood twins. Surely some father, or maybe pack leader, seeking answers or revenge. This is my fault.

“Is it...?” Emily couldn't say it aloud.

“Josh's blood,” Aidan said. He headed back outside and paced the small yard. “It's old, but he was alive when he left.” He couldn't tell which way, so they decided to start spiraling out around the cabin until they found some sort of clue. After several hours, they finally found a little cave, a crevice really, that smelled heavily of werewolf. It was...almost Josh? He smelled different. Aidan pointed east, deeper into the forest. Although the trail was old and zig-zagged crazily, Aidan was able to follow it for over two miles before the long-spilt scent of Josh was overrun by the fresher, infinitely-stronger scent zombies. Aidan frowned, worried about how much blood Josh must have lost for it to linger at least a month, maybe two. It almost seemed like it was easy to follow because there were no other smells, as if the scent of Josh's blood had kept the zombies, and even other animals, at bay.

“Do you think they...ate him?” Emily asked, jumping as they heard twigs snap up ahead of them. She eased her knife from its sheath, though Aidan was being as gallant as possible in protecting her from all others who wanted to eat her. He still wasn't quite full strength, but he was getting there as quickly as he dared. Emily needed to stay strong and able to run just as much as he needed to.

Aidan shook his head, circling around as the zombie broke free from the treeline. It was, had been, a woman, missing her left eye and a goodly amount of hair. Aidan only had a pocketknife that he'd found on one of the already-dead ones, but he used it to good effect. “I don't think so. I'd be able to smell that, surely. If he was wounded, they would have had to find a real shelter. Let's get away from this ripe fella and see if we can pick up the trail again. That looks like it slopes uphill over there. Let's have a look.”

There were too many trees to get a good view, but Aidan stood there for a long time, keeping his eyes closed so that he could focus on scent and sound. There were two or three more zombies not far to the west; their footsteps sounded like they were shuffling their way down a paved road. Then the wind suddenly gusted from the east, and Aidan caught the unmistakable scent of werewolf. A very strong scent of werewolf, heavy on the wind even though it blew in from miles away. Aidan opened his eyes and looked skyward. Though not quite dusk, the moon had already risen, and it was a gibbous moon. Not full.

“That's not possible.” He took off at full run – a vampire's full run, not even thinking until he heard Emily scream his name. He hurried back to her side and reined it in, pulling her along as fast as he was able since he felt too weak to risk carrying her.

“What is it?” she gasped. “What's wrong?”

“I don't know, but something definitely is.” They ran for two or three miles, and Emily was begging for water, when Aidan picked up a new scent. “Nora!”

He left Emily to follow as she was able, since he could detect no other undead in the area. He had used up too much energy the first time he'd taken off at super-speed, and now he could only run as fast as any other exhausted, hungry man could run after covering several miles.

Aidan stumbled out into a small clearing. There was an old camper parked, a fire pit and fold-out chair giving evidence to some kind of inhabitant. Aidan could smell Nora, smelling kind of like sweaty dog – but the good, familiar, huggable kind – all over the place. He knocked on the door, going so far as to open and call inside when he received no invite. Unfortunately, the place was deserted. He shut the door and sat on the small steps, cradling his weary head as he tried to catch his breath.

After a few moments, he noticed the smells around him becoming more and more intense. He stood just as Nora burst from the forest in his right. She shot across the small field as if she was on a mission, and Aidan saw that she was armed with some kind of handgun. “Nora!” he cried, “Are you okay?”

She stopped suddenly, skidding her feet almost cartoonishly, and turned toward him. She stared blankly, her mind obviously elsewhere. Aidan stood and rubbed his bushy, bearded face self-consciously. He hadn't had the opportunity to bathe or shave since he'd been dug up, and he knew he must look like hell. “Aidan? Is that you?” she asked incredulously. Her face sobered. “You shouldn't be here.”

He half-jogged, half-stumbled towards her. “What's after you?”

Nora frowned at him, and then a look of pure terror sunk in. “You need to go! Now!”

They heard crashing coming through the woods. Nora assumed a shooting stance. “The tranq will slow him, but it's taking longer and longer to kick in. RUN!”

The werewolf stopped and lowered his head, eyeballing the newcomer. Aidan's heart broke, because he recognized it was Josh. “Oh, no. But how--?”

The wolf lunged, and Nora shot two darts into his shoulder. He slowed only slightly, veering around the woman as he went for Aidan. Aidan turned, somehow finding one last surge of energy, though it petered out around the same time Emily came sliding to a halt just in front of him. Aidan turned to face Josh, placing himself between the two of them.

“What the actual fuck?” Emily pushed Aidan aside, staring at her brother.

The werewolf stopped and cocked his head. He sniffed the air, and then his head started to wobble. He shook it, as if trying to fight off the effects of the darts, and stumbled forward toward Aidan and Emily. Nora ran up and shot one more into his hindquarters, and after a brief but valiant struggle, Josh fell.

“That's not Josh,” Emily insisted. During their talks at Mother's, Aidan had confirmed for her that everything in Josh's journal was indeed true, but he knew it was something else to see it for the first time. Josh's wolf form was brown and wiry, the body almost half-man and half-canine. No fuzzy puppy, this. He had coarse, thin hairs all over his body, but the only real 'fur' Josh had was a patch of black, almost a mane, really, circling his wrinkled, half-snarled face. Aidan knew it was even worse to watch the change. It was like Josh's whole body ripped apart. He was glad Emily had been spared that, but she still gaped, shaking her head in disbelief. Aidan had drunk as much as he dared from her, and now as her face went even paler, he feared she would pass out. “There's no way that's Josh.”

“It's not even a full moon. How did this happen?” Aidan asked once again, gesturing to the unconscious, fully-turned werewolf.

Nora sighed. “He was cured, battled a witch, and was later scratched by a pureblood. It's a long story. Help me get him back to the barn.”

Oh my GOD!” Sally's voice screamed in his ear, and Aidan dropped the tentative hold he'd had on Josh's arm – front leg, whatever. “Finally! I did a locating spell on you guys, like, three days ago, and I've been hopping back in time ever since. But don't worry; I think I know a way to turn him back!” She turned to squeal at Aidan. “And Aidan! You're back! And scruffy. Kinda dig it. I would have looked for you too, but seeing how you ran off with Suren,” her face fell slightly, “I figured you didn't want to be found. Anyway, Nora needed my help. Where've you been?”

“It's a long story,” Aidan echoed Nora. “Let's get him locked up, and, if you really can, change him back. Emily and I both need to eat soon.”

A pale, shaky Emily sighed, but she picked up Josh's other arm and helped slide him across the forest floor without complaint.

*

As the trees suddenly cleared, the group caught glimpse of a large prison looming in the distance, surrounded by multiple rows of fencing all the way around. Josh grabbed Nora and Emily's shoulders, pulling them into the trees on one side of the road. Aidan sniffed the wind and smiled. “People. Children. And tomatoes.” His smile tightened. “Aaaaand a hint of death,” he reluctantly admitted. “But, I mean, everything smells that way anymore.”

“We shouldn't,” Josh said, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Not if there's kids.”

“Look at those fences, Josh!” Nora practically dragged him back into the street. “Zombies aren't getting into that prison, and vampires can't get in without an invite. Just until Aidan and Emily can get their strength back. That last fight took too much out of them. And you.” She plucked at his bloody sleeve. “I know it's worse than you're letting on.”

Josh looked anxiously over his shoulder, then up at the sky. “What about the moon?”

“There are cells. We can find an unused corner. Solitary.”

“No! Not with kids.”

“Then we can take our chances in the woods and maybe bring down a few of those bastards on our tail. Or maybe Aidan and Em will be better by then, and we'll be on our way.”

“Neither one of them is anywhere near full strength! We wouldn't be able to leave by then.”

“Josh,” Aidan croaked, struggling to keep himself upright. Emily hadn't had much left to give that morning. “We need a place where we can all just catch a breath. Maybe, if we can trade for supplies, we could even build up a small bank so it doesn't take so much out of her when I get hurt. I promise, I won't let you hurt anyone.”

After a moment, Josh nodded, then took Aidan's arm and put it around his shoulders. “C'mon, I'll help you down.” Nora did the same for Emily.

Sally jumped up and down, clapping. “I'll go check it out!” she squealed before dissipating. The rest of them hobbled down toward the prison gates. Luckily, they were so covered in zombie guts that they seemed to pass for zombies themselves, because none of the walking dead so much as glanced in their direction.

There was a commotion at the gate. They had been spotted.

 

Now:

“Jesus, Cas, it's about freaking time!” Dean stood from his pallet and walked out into D-cell, which they'd had to themselves since Sam had lost consciousness. “Where the hell have you been? We've needed you! I finally manage to get Sammy's soul back – no thanks to you – and he's been freaking comatose for the last five days. We can only keep making so many excuses to these people before they kick us out. Can you fix him?”

The angel, Castiel, did not even look at Sam. He turned away, keeping his head down. “I don't know. There may be a way, but I need to look into it further. It was dangerous putting his soul back, Dean. It's going to take time.”

“Time? They said you left when I did. That's been nearly a week without a word, Cas. What's going on?”

“It's nothing.”

“Nothing, hell! You promised me, Cas. No more secrets.” Dean stalked over to the angel and forced him to raise his eyes. “I said I'd kick you to the curb, and I meant it. No secrets.”

Castiel's lips drew thin, and his eyes hardened. “I've been very busy, Dean. Trying to protect you, and Sam, and these people.” He peered into the cell where Sam had lain unconscious for days. “While you were...Death...I met with one of my contacts. Naomi somehow got word that I was in London. That might be beneficial, if she believes I'm on another continent, but she may simply be too close on our trail. I decided to lay a few false trails far from the prison.”

“Good,” Dean said, swallowing some of his pride. “Well, uh, look, I'm sorry I snapped at you then.”

The angel actually smiled. “Thank you.” His smile fell just as soon as it came. “But while I was doing that, Meg managed to find me. Seems a demon somewhere recognized you while you were playing Death, and he sold that info to Kali. So we're on both Naomi's and Kali's radar now.”

“Perfect.”

“They don't know why you would be allied with Death, but I do think it's given them pause.” Dean smirked at Castiel's words. “I think Meg may have figured it out, though.”

“I can't stand demons, man.” Dean began to pace the hallway. “How much does she know? What does she want? Did she follow you?”

“No, she didn't follow me. That's why I took another two days – and a sojourn through the eighteen hundreds – to confuse the trail. But she knows about Sam locking Lucifer back in the cage, and about Sam's soul. I don't know how. She said, 'It's Sam, right?' and then just guessed everything! I didn't confirm,” he assured Dean, who looked none too convinced. “But she wants to ally with us as well. She's after Crowley. She's willing to share intel on both demons and Heaven.”

“Why does Meg want Crowley?”

 

“This. Is. Perfect. There are babies! Babies!

Carl sat up, grabbing his gun despite still being half-asleep, and pointed it toward the cell door. He'd been in the middle of a weird dream, but that woman's voice definitely hadn't been part of it. That was real. Quietly, he stood and made his way to the wall on first one side, then the other, of the cell door, peeking first from the left and then from the right. Seeing nothing, he cautiously poked his head out the door.

No one was there.

Someone's here, some inner nudge insisted.

Carl quickly grabbed his hat and holster and ran out to the yard. His dad was already outside, and Carl saw him and Tyreese jogging down toward the gate. He wasn't overly surprised to see a handful of people approaching the prison. They were slow, tired, and bloodied, but the two men and one blonde lady each took turns taking out the walkers that had gathered at the gate. One girl, obviously weakened, had been set down some distance up the drive, and one other was like a cheerleader bouncing around in a surprisingly clean purple dress. She seemed content to clap and point out walkers instead of actually help anyone.

His dad raised a hand when he noticed Carl running toward them. “Wait on this side.” He and Tyreese went through the inner gate, opening the far doors for the new arrivals. From the tower, Glenn and Maggie cleared the walkers that were drawn in by the scuffle.

Rick kept a gun trained on them as Tyreese pulled the gate doors closed. “Hand over your weapons,” he said, gesturing his gun slightly towards Tyreese. Tyreese collected various knives off of each of them, a gun off the dark-haired model-looking guy who was being half-carried, and another off the blonde woman who was helping the younger, obviously hurt, girl. Carl guessed she was Beth's age, or maybe a little older. Tyreese didn't even turn towards the girl in the dress. Carl frowned, his hand hovering near his own gun.

“Are you okay? Are you sick?” Rick asked them.

“Not sick,” the healthier-looking guy answered, then words just came tumbling out all in a rush. “We got into quite a scuffle yesterday. That was miles away, though. Half a tank of gas and I don't know how many miles walking.”

“Who'd you encounter?”

“Some freaking canni--” The guy's voice was loud and shrill, but he broke off completely when he locked eyes with Carl through the fence. He turned his face away and lowered his voice. “Cannibals!” he finished in a stage whisper.

“Please,” the wounded girl croaked. “We need a place to lie down, just for a few days. Please.”

Rick and Tyreese shared a long look. “We'll take you up to see our doctor.”

“Thank you, baby Jesus!” the woman in the dress cried out, and Carl could have sworn that it was her voice that had woken him up. Her companions looked at her but said nothing, and his dad didn't even deign to glance in her direction.

“But then you'll have to speak to the council,” he continued. “They decide who can stay.”

Everyone heaved such heavy sighs of relief that the group almost seemed to fall in on itself. They held each other up though, and Carl noticed the meaningful look his father shared with him. He stood a bit taller as he opened the inner gate for them.

Rick met eyes with each of them as they passed through the doorway and into the yard. “You try anything, anything, against our people, and you're dead.”

Carl noticed how he turned and followed the blonde and the wounded girl, completely ignoring the one in the dress, who lagged behind. He had a crazy theory, so he stepped right up to confront her about it.

“O-oh! Look at the little man in his little sheriff's hat!” The woman gave a patronizing grin and clasped her hands behind her back like she was examining an animal in the zoo. Carl's stomach turned. Her smile froze, then started to slip as she leaned from first one side to the other. “Guys!” she hissed. “I think Little Man can see me!”

The beat-up guy swung his head around, and two others copied him. The blonde lady flashed Carl a weak smile. Carl smiled back, then looked up at the ghost chick and smiled at her, too. One of the men groaned, but he said nothing. Carl followed them all up to the infirmary, where he took it upon himself to stand sentinel at the door.

His dad gave him another proud nod as he entered the room with Dr. S. As Carl shut the infirmary door behind them, he felt a presence at his back and turned. As he expected, he found the ghost girl standing behind him, leaning against the wall. “Hey,” she said, kicking one foot nervously.

“Hey.”

“So, what are you?”

“What?”

“What are you? You're not a ghost. Are you psychic or something?”

Carl considered that a moment. “I never really was before.” She didn't seem crazy like his mother's ghost had been, but Carl was leery of any supernatural creatures these days. He wished he had a crowbar or piece of iron handy. At least he'd taken to carrying a couple handfuls of salt in his pockets. He sunk his hands in and tried to look nonchalant. “That's a weird question, you know. 'What are you?' So if I can see you, and your friends can see you, then what are your friends?”

The girl blinked rapidly. “Psychics.”

“So you travel through the apocalypse with a band of psychics?” Carl rolled his eyes. “I'm one of the living. We still have brains, you know.”

“Okay, well, they're not, like, anything special.” She picked her nails and shrugged. “You're right. It was a stupid question. I'm Sally, by the way.” She waited a couple of beats. “What's your name?”

“Carl.”

“Nice to meet you, Carl.” Sally bit her lip, then bent down with her hands on her thighs, as if lowering herself to speak to a toddler. “Listen, hon, I'm not here to, like, scare or haunt people or anything. It's true; my friends really do just need a place to rest for a few days.”

“I guess if the council says okay. Just don't go all poltergeist or woman-in-white,” he said. “But I will be watching you. You try anything with our people, and you're dead. Or rather, banished.”

Sally's eyes widened in surprise, then she smiled that patronizing grin again. “I won't try a thing. We're good people. Promise.” She zapped herself back into the room with her friends.

Carl was glad to see Daryl coming. He nodded at Carl, then peeked through the infirmary door's glass. “How they doin'? Think they're up for the council?”

“I don't know,” Carl said. “Probably not yet. They looked pretty banged up.” After only a moment's hesitation, he added, “They've got a ghost with them. Some girl named Sally.”

“Really?” Daryl stared back through the door. “How do you know that?”

“I saw her. She talked to me.”

“Really,” Daryl said again, not so much a question this time. “We're like a freaking magnet lately. Reckon they're evil?”

“I don't know. But I know they can see her, too.”

Daryl took out his knife – a new silver thing from a big stash that Maggie had found somewhere – and took up a position on the opposite side of the door. He leaned against the wall and started cleaning his nails with the tip. “I got this. Why don't you go tell Sasha what you told me? And maybe Dean. I doubt you can tear him away from Sam, though. Must have been one hell of a head knock to put him out for so long. Startin' to think he might not make it back.”

Carl nodded, but he said nothing about the dream he'd been having when he woke. There was no reason to believe that any of that craziness about souls and playing Death had actually happened. After all, Dr. S. had looked at Sam and confirmed blunt force trauma. They were keeping him in a quiet, dark room as the doctor suggested. “I'll let them know. Don't let these new guys out of your sight!” he told Daryl, who smiled and nodded.

Carl found Sasha wrapping up a conversation with Tyreese. He waited until her brother was out of earshot, then told her, “The new people are travelling with a ghost. Like, aware of her and talking with her. Daryl thought you and Dean oughta know. Do you want to tell him?”

“Oh, hell no,” Sasha said, her face darkening. “He'd just think I was looking for an excuse to be alone with Sam. He's not leaving Sam's side, and he doesn't trust me around him, for all we had both their backs. Well, I don't trust him with my folk either. I'll handle this one.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. We got this one.”

Carl nodded. “For what it's worth, Sally, the ghost, seems pretty nice.”

“I'll take that under advisement.”

Sasha headed back into the building just as a handful of kids came piling out. Frowning, Carl turned and headed the other way. He hadn't really hung out with any of the other kids since Patrick had died. Those left were too young to have much in common with – and they were far too weird. Lizzie in particular seemed to be coming more and more unhinged. He'd caught her doing some pretty messed up stuff at the fences the night before. Carl glanced back, making sure she was staying outside and out of the way for a while, then hurried to go find his father.

Rick was outside of the seldom-used B-block, where the guests had been given quarters. Rick was obviously staying close enough to keep apprised of the newcomers' comings and goings but far enough so as to remain unobtrusive. Carl knew his dad had his hands full, so he nearly turned around, but then he remembered Lizzie looking bug-eyed at him and decided he'd probably better say something.

He waited until everyone was out of earshot before bringing up his concerns. “Dad? You got a minute?”

Rick tore his eyes away from B-block's door and looked at him in surprise. “Sure thing, Carl. Let's take a walk.” He clapped Carl on the shoulder and headed down the yard, toward the garden where the kids had headed.

“Um, no. Let's walk this way,” Carl said. Rick looked at him curiously but obliged. “Look,” Carl started, “I know we've got a lot going on all the sudden, and maybe it's nothing, but I just thought you should know...”

“What is it, Carl?” Rick gazed at his son. “You know you can tell me anything.”

Carl sighed. “It's just...well, last night, I saw something kind of freaky. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I heard a cell door creak, and then I saw Lizzie sneaking out. I followed her, you know, since it's not safe going out alone at night. She just...” Carl looked behind them, making sure she was still well out of earshot. “She went straight to the fences. She was,” he swallowed, “feeding them. The walkers.”

“What?”

“Yeah. That wasn't even the weirdest part. She was, like, calling out into the dark. Just kind of reaching,” Carl mimicked her, “and mumbling something, and then, I swear, Dad, these rats just came running at her. Like, to her. She picked them up one by one and handed them through the fence holes to a few of the walkers.”

Rick stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he said, “We'd found carcasses down at the fence line. But why would she – well, I mean, Lizzie's obviously not right. You sure about what you saw, Carl? They were really just coming to her like she called them?”

“Exactly like that.”

“I think maybe we ought to go tell Dean about that one.”

They did, a discussion which left Dean in dumb silence. “So,” Rick prodded, obviously unnerved. He'd only recently accepted all of the Winchester brothers' tales. “Do you think maybe it's a demon possession?”

Dean blinked and shook his head, seeming to come back to himself. “No, that doesn't fit the M.O. at all. And we've got wards up. Demons shouldn't be able to get in.”

“Well, whatever it is, we can't have her feeding the walkers. That's probably what led to the build-up at the fence last week.”

“Yeah, no, we definitely can't have that,” Dean agreed. He turned to Carl. “You're sure she called them? She didn't, like, throw out some food or something, maybe?”

“No, she was calling them. They were just trotting up to her one by one.”

“Yeah, okay, that's more than a little freaky,” Dean said, and Carl nodded. “This is the one who's always been a little eh-eh?” He waved his hand like a scale teetering off balance.

“Yeah, kinda,” Rick reluctantly agreed.

“Maybe we ought to go talk to her dad.”

Ryan Samuels, Lizzie's father, had been bitten during the D-block attack and was recuperating from an arm amputation. The doc had kept him pretty doped up, but he'd been lucid for the last day or so and Rick deemed it safe to try to talk to him. He was pale and kind of clammy, but awake, when they reached the infirmary. He even laughed and tried cracking a joke about not being able to wave. “Them new folks is a little odd,” he said to Rick as they came to his bedside. “That tall guy stared at me for the longest time. After he realized it, he wouldn't even look at me again. I think maybe the stub unnerved him.”

“New folks?” Dean asked.

“Yeah, a group of four turned up at the gates this morning,” Rick explained. “Pretty banged up. Don't look to be a threat, but we're keeping an eye on them.”

“Good call.” Dean stuck his hands in his pocket and looked between Rick and Ryan. When Rick said nothing, Dean took the lead. “Look, Ryan, is it? We'd like to ask you some questions about your daughter.”

Ryan didn't have to even ask which one. “Lizzie's not in any trouble, is she?”

“We hope not,” Rick said, shifting his feet. “That's what we wanted to talk to you about. Has she seemed...odd to you lately?”

Ryan gave a little chuckle. “Well, Lizzie's always been an odd bird.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, “but we don't mean, like, normal kid weirdness. We mean more like...” He struggled, as if he wasn't quite sure how to phrase it.

“Has she been having bad dreams lately?” Carl asked in a rush, working on a hunch. He knew he had been.

Ryan looked at him as if he'd just noticed him for the first time. “Well, I've been in here near a week now, but yeah, she'd had a nightmare or two in the last few weeks. I mean, don't we all?” He shook his head. “You'd have to ask Carol how they've been since I got in here. She's been nice enough to watch Lizzie and Mika for me.”

“We'll do that,” Rick said. “Has she talked about these dreams at all?”

“Huh. You know, the night before the attack, she said that I was gonna die. Got real scared, nearly out of her head. Insisted I locked the cell door that night. Probably saved our lives.”

“Y'all are lucky,” Dean said, shifting on his feet. “Has she had any other prophetic dreams or feelings?”

“Not lately.”

“Lately?”

“You know, she's always been...particular. She's always made really random comments and demands, but sometimes they paid off. Like, once, she insisted we take a different road to school, and there ended up being a big pile-up on the road we would have drove on. Or insist I light a bunch of candles moments before the power went out. That kind of thing.” Ryan smiled. “She's always been kinda special that way. Lucky, I guess.” His voice turned wistful. “She got it from her mom. Now there was a lucky woman! Always was. The damnedest thing, really. Val swore she had an angel on her side.”

Carl noticed Dean tense up ever so slightly. “That so? Tell us about your wife.”

“She was gorgeous. I mean, every man says that about his wife. If he's lucky, anyway. But Val was a lot prettier than I deserved. Always pleasant. Always had good fortune.” Ryan smiled and trailed off, obviously thinking of her. After a moment, he continued, “You know, she even won the lottery once. Like, real money, not no twenty-buck pot. We were having a pretty rough time when she was pregnant with Mika. She was on bedrest and had to quit working, and we were honestly about this close,” he raised two fingers on his remaining hand, “to bankruptcy when she won a cool mil on one of them scratchers.”

Rick made a choking noise, but he shook his head when Carl and Dean looked at him. Ryan continued, “Her luck never steered us wrong. Even, you know, after all this, money didn't do no good after a while, but her good fortune just kept a-goin'. Val would even shake us awake and get us moving just before the roamers would show up. Worked a good year, right up until...well, when it didn't.” He swallowed. “Lizzie tried to warn us, but she'd been feverish for days, and we thought she was just delirious. You want to keep them lying safe somewhere while they're sick, you know? And she wasn't making any sense. But her luck took over once Val's ran out, I guess, 'cause Lizzie's screams are what brought the Governor and his people. Saved us that day. He may have went crazy, but he saved us that day.”

Dean looked like he wanted to ask more, but Rick spoke up first. “Thanks, Ryan. Sorry to disturb you. You get some rest, okay?”

Once they left the infirmary, Dean reached out a hand to stop him. “Rick, you okay?”

“You heard what he said, right?”

“Yeah. So? Girl's either prophetic or lucky. You know, we found this cursed rabbit's foot once...” Dean laughed and shook his head. “Nevermind. I'll ask Bobby what he thinks, since he's got way more lore than me tumbling around in that head of his.”

“Dean?”

“Yeah?”

Rick gazed at Carl with a look he couldn't decipher. For a moment, Carl thought his dad was going to shoo him off again, but he didn't. He shook his head and looked back at Dean. “Shortly after Carl was born, we fell on some hard times ourselves. Lori had needed an emergency c-section, and I'd only just recently got on at the precinct, and my insurance hadn't even kicked in yet. Lori's mom was sick, and it was looking like we might have to back out of our lease, which we couldn't really afford to do, and move back in with her folks. Then, one day, lucky us...it was just after Georgia started its lottery. Lori won a million dollars. Doesn't last as long as you might think, but we were able to buy a home, and a better car, and hire some good live-in care for her mom. Had plenty to live off of for several years, and a good college fund set aside 'til all this happened. One million dollars.” He looked back towards the door. “Ain't that something?”

“That's something all right,” Dean said, his face a mix of emotions that seemed an awful lot like anger, disbelief, and curiosity. “And Lori died when Judith was born?” Rick nodded, and Dean turned his gaze on Carl. “And you've been having dreams too? Prophetic ones?”

Carl swallowed nervously. “Kind of. A lot of weird stuff has been happening since Mom's ghost showed up.”

“Uh huh.” It seemed like that meant something to Dean, but Carl didn't know what. “And how old is this Mika kid?”

“Mika?” Carl was surprised. “Ten. Almost eleven, I think.”

Dean made an 'ah ha' face but said nothing. “And how old are you?” he asked Carl.

“Fourteen.”

“What is it?” Rick pressed.

“Sounds to me like a deal. Make a deal with a crossroads demon and great things happen for the next ten years, but then the demon comes to collect his due.”

“His due?”

Dean avoided Carl's gaze this time. “Their souls.” Reluctantly, his eyes flicked back to Carl. “But that doesn't explain you and Lizzie...”

“I'm not like Lizzie.”

“No, I know. You're not ten or eleven, either. It's just–” Dean shook his head. “There's got to be more to it than that. Let me talk to Cas and Bobby, see what they say.”

Carl and Rick followed Dean as he headed back to D-block. When he noticed that they apparently planned to accompany him, Dean rolled his eyes and said, “How about you guys come along with?”

They listened as Dean filled Bobby and Castiel in, speaking in low tones. When he mentioned the lottery similarities, Castiel murmured, “That's very specific,” and when he mentioned the death of Lizzie and Mika's mom, Bobby added, “Well, it's gotta be a deal.”

“Carl was thirteen when Lori died. She got more than ten years. And what about the kids, though? They're definitely affected somehow.”

Bobby looked at Carl a long, long moment, then said quietly, “Azazel?”

“Couldn't be!”

“What's Azazel?” Rick asked.

“He was a demon, but he's long dead. And all of his 'special children' died as well.” Bobby's eyes flicked to the cell where Sam was being held. “They were all much older, anyway. Sam's age.”

“What special children?” Rick asked, on high alert where kids were involved. He reached to put an arm around Carl's shoulder.

“It was a demon experiment gone wrong. And it's over now,” Dean said. “Long over.”

“What if somebody else had the same idea, though?” Bobby asked. “One of Azazel's protégées, maybe.”

“I'll look into this,” Castiel said. “Maybe ask Meg. It does sound similar, but it doesn't sit right with me. I think you're right, Dean. Something else is at play here.” He turned to Rick. “May I speak with the boy?”

Rick looked down at Carl, who nodded. “All right.”

Castiel led Carl down the hall, where they sat in an empty cell. Carl briefly wondered if his dad would eavesdrop but realized that he likely wouldn't with Dean and Bobby right there. He just sat quietly, waiting for the angel to say something.

“You saw Lizzie drawing rats to her, you said?” Carl nodded. “And her dad said she knows things sometimes?”

“Yeah.”

“And you do as well?”

Carl nodded again. “I've been having dreams, since I banished mom's ghost. They come true sometimes.”

“Like how?”

“I was dreaming about the walker attack in here just before it happened. I hadn't said anything, because I thought it was just a nightmare, but I should have.” Carl hung his head.

“That's not your fault,” Castiel promised. He tried to give Carl an earnest look, but he ended up just looking uncomfortable. “Anything else happen to you lately?”

“Something woke me up this morning. A voice. I coulda swore it was that Sally girl who arrived with the group this morning.” Carl lowered his voice. “Sally's a ghost. She seemed really surprised that I could see her.”

“A ghost? There seems to be a – well, nevermind. Is that all?” Castiel asked, and Carl deliberated on how much to tell him. He didn't want to be viewed as freaky like Lizzie. “Carl, what else?”

“Sometimes I can feel magic, I guess it is. Like, the hairs on my arms and legs prick up when I walk over the devil's traps you guys drew, and I can tell that Maggie and Ms. McLeod are both wearing some kind of magical jewelry or something.” Carl shrugged, lowering his voice. “I just kind of feel the power pulsing off of them. I can't really tell much when you're around though. You kind of drown out everything else.”

“Interesting.” Castiel peered at him as if peering into his very soul. “Have you been visited by anyone? Demons, ghosts, entities of any sort?”

“Except for Mom, not really. I mean, I can see that Sally ghost, but I don't think she's here to visit me. She just trails along with her friends. I think she just wants to watch over them.”

“If anyone comes for you, even if they just want to talk or seem really nice, I want you to call for me, okay?”

“Sure. What do you think's going on?”

“I don't know yet, but I'll find out.”

“I told you once already!” They heard Dean's voice raise, and both Carl and Castiel rushed out of the cell. “You've got to just let him heal, Sasha.”

“I'm not after your brother, Dean. I wanted to talk to Bobby, thank you very much.”

“Bobby?”

“Yeah. Unlike you, he's not a dick, and I like to hear what he has to say.”

“You just haven't known him long enough,” Dean grumbled.

“Can we speak in private?” Sasha asked Bobby.

“Well, to be honest, now's not the best time.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. “Fine. No problem. I'll handle it myself.”

Rick's ears seemed to prick at that. He jogged across the cell block as she turned to leave. “Handle what?”

Sasha's eyes slid over to Carl. She dropped her voice, but Carl saw Dean's interest suddenly pique as he strained to overhear. “Carl asked me to keep an eye on the newcomers. I snuck a few tests in on them when I went to say hello. At least one of the men – the shorter one? Josh, I think – had a reaction to silver. The taller one didn't, and then I didn't really have a good opportunity to try the ladies, since they were on their guard and concerned about Josh after that.” She held up a hand, showing a chunky silver ring. “This little thing burnt the shit out of him, though. Or something that made him jump near through the roof. I didn't let on that I knew anything, and he tried to play it off. Daryl's on watch, and I thought I'd see if we could narrow down what exactly he might be.”

“You can't be serious,” Dean said. Sasha shrugged and looked away. “Man, we really don't need this right now.”

There was a groan from the cell behind him, and Dean's eyes went wide. He turned and ran for the bars. “Sammy! Sam!” He glanced back over his shoulder at everyone. “How you feeling, bud? That was one helluva whack you took to the head.”

Sam stood on shaky legs and came toward the locked cell door. “Dean? Why am I in jail? What are you doing here?” He peered over Dean's shoulder, looking into the room, confusion writ on his face. “Bobby, Cas? I thought you guys were dead! Is that – a kid?” He gaped at them and wavered on his feet. “What's going on?”

“You don't remember anything?” Castiel asked him, moving up to stand behind Dean.

“Bits and pieces. The last thing I remember is...jumping in the cage.”

Dean laughed nervously as he fumbled with the key. “That was some head knock, all right.” He turned back to Rick, Sasha, and Carl. “I think you two can handle the guests for now, can't you? Carl, do you mind telling Dr. S. that Sam's awake now? He should probably get looked at.”

They reluctantly left, but Carl thought about what Sam had said as he ran to get the doctor. He'd mentioned jumping in a cage, and the angel, Castiel, had mentioned Sam locking 'Lucifer' in a cage in his dream. Carl strongly suspected that this morning's dream had been a true dream as well, and if that was the case, then Dean, Sam, and Bobby needed an eye kept on them just as much as anybody. They weren't being honest, and they were involved in something way more dangerous than vampire hunting. Carl might not be the most educated kid thanks to worldly circumstances, but he was no fool. A couple of guys who hung with an angel, battled demons, allied with Death – crazy as it sounded, Carl suspected that there was only one Lucifer they could be talking about.

He resolved to investigate them himself. Maybe he'd even try honing his magic-detecting senses or see if he could gain control of his dreams at night. It was probably a good idea to get a good handle on whatever strange powers he was developing, anyway. Practice makes perfect, after all. Somebody like Lizzie sure as hell shouldn't be better at it than he was. Again, no fool; that'd make for some dangerous shit.

His dad called for him to wait, then walked with him over to A-block. Carl hung back as the men chatted, trying to disappear as Rick questioned the doctor about their current guests. “How bad off are the newcomers?” he asked. When Dr. S. hesitated, Rick chuckled and added, “There's no HIPPA anymore, Caleb. What I mean is, how long before they can safely be on their way?”

“It's difficult to say.” Dr. S. spoke in quiet tones as they walked. “Aidan is not so bad off as we initially feared. He didn't want any assistance at all. He just looks a little blanched. Probably dehydrated and malnourished, from their story. Emily, however, is extremely anemic as well as dehydrated. I'm really concerned, to be honest. But she says she always gets that way,” he glanced over his shoulder at Carl and turned back to Rick, whispering, “just before her menses.”

Carl tried not to laugh. It wasn't like there was an abundance of extra hygiene practices or privacy going on anymore. Sex and adult bodies held little mystery at this point. Dr. S. continued in whispered tones, “They're all suffering, but Emily's worse off by far. I've given her some B12, and I've got maybe half a dozen iron supplements, but that's it. She needs rest, a lot of water, and hopefully some red meat and other iron-rich foods.”

“Well, we've got plenty of beans, and I've got a little spinach finally coming up,” Rick said, though he sounded reluctant to part with the greens. “We actually still have a lot of iron-fortified baby cereal left. Judith won't touch the stuff. I bet it's tolerable enough with some of those jelly packets squeezed in or something.”

“Good. It might actually be better to start them with something easy. They don't remember how long, but it's been over a week since they've eaten. Two of them have three gunshot wounds between them, luckily all superficial. Still, they need several weeks to regain full health. A week or two less if you just want a patch job.”

They were nearing D-block, and Rick reached out a hand to stop them before entering. “What about Sam? We're pretty worried about how long he was out. Now he's apparently forgotten everything since before. Is he safe?”

Dr. S. stared at him. “Well, I'll need to examine him, of course, but I don't see why not. Memory loss isn't unheard of in head trauma victims.”

“He thought his friends were dead. He doesn't seem to remember us here at the prison at all.”

Now Dr. S. looked around, everywhere but at Rick's face, considering. “It's possible he confused some of his coma dreams with reality when he woke. Did you not experience such a disorientation when you awoke from yours?”

“When I woke,” Rick said wryly, “I discovered an apocalypse in actual progress. There was plenty of disorientation. I don't remember dreaming at all, but I was scared awake pretty damned quick.”

Carl, once again, tried to imagine what it must have been like for his father to wake from a coma and find the whole world dead around him. Carl still felt guilty that they'd left him. He didn't have any idea how his dad had managed to find them again, but he was definitely some kind of hero. Carl had sworn to always have his back, ever since the moment he realized his dad was alive. He'd always be there when Rick needed him. He may have been a kid when he swore it, but he'd meant it, and he was doing his best to live up to it.

“Go ahead,” Rick said to the doctor. “See to Sam. Just keep us posted. I'm worried about him.”

After the doc had saluted and headed off into D, Rick turned to his son. “I'd like you to sit in on the council meeting, if you're up for it.”

“Really?”

Rick smiled. “Yeah, really. You've been a great help around here lately. And so far you're the only one who can see this, this Sally, so they could use your impressions afterward.”

Carl beamed. “Sounds great.”

Since their guests obviously needed food before questioning, it was decided that they'd hold the council meeting after lunch. Carl was surprised to see Sam and Dean join them, and he watched closely as Sam was re-introduced to everyone. He really didn't seem to remember a thing. Like his dad, Sam had just woken up to find an apocalypse happening around him. Dean looked upset about him being up and about at all, but Sam shook him off. Nothing was said aloud, but they kept exchanging pointed looks, and Dean finally scoffed and stopped mother-henning over him, though he let everyone else do the talking.

The newcomers were very reserved during dinner, almost as if they were afraid to talk to anyone. They sat to a table by themselves in the far corner, but many people were sitting nearby and chatting, trying to make them feel more at ease. They certainly didn't look dangerous, Carl thought, but then he remembered what Sasha had said and wondered.

Ms. McLeod came out with a large pot of veggie stew and started ladling seconds into their bowls, and Beth trailed behind with two plates full of salmon patties. They'd gotten a lot of canned meat from Lisha and Garth, but not really any red meat. Daryl claimed half of one plate for his table (which mostly meant his dog). As Ms. McLeod approached the dark-haired guy, Aidan, he flashed a dimpled grin and Carl could have sworn he saw her blush. “Oh, thanks, but I know I couldn't eat another bite,” Aidan said.

The blonde – Nora, Carl heard her tell Carol only moments before – gave a more strained smile. “Truly, your generosity is moving, but you have more than enough mouths to feed.”

“This is on Dr. Submaranian's orders,” Ms. McLeod said, plopping a spoonful in her bowl anyway. “You're all far too skinny.”

They looked uncomfortable again, and Carl realized that they were likely feeling embarrassed about showing up on their doorstep so...helpless. He had a hard time picturing any of them as monsters. More like lost and dirty refugees, helpless as babies. Still, they did have a ghost, whom they could all obviously see. Actually...as Carl watched a little closer, he realized that the younger girl never seemed to glance in Sally's direction. Sasha said the fidgety one was some kind of, well, something. Well, I did say I needed practice, Carl thought to himself.

He took a few deep breaths, just to shake off any nerves, and then picked his bowl up and went to sit at their table. “Hi,” he grinned, trying to be as disarming and pleasant as chiseled-dimpled-guy had been. Once he got closer and thought about it, Carl did kind of get a feeling of some weird energy coming off of them, but he wasn't sure if that was ghost interference or due to their obvious fright around so many people. “So, are you guys family? Been together long?”

Emily, the younger girl, smiled and punched Josh in the shoulder. “This one here's my brother, and Nora is my far-too-good-for-him sister-in-law,” she joked. “Aidan's a family friend.”

“Roommate,” Josh said, holding one hand to his mouth as he swallowed his food. “We were roommates before all this happened.”

“Are you from around here?” Karen asked from a table nearby. “Do you know the area at all?”

Sally, the ghost, snorted. Aidan gave her a look from the corner of his eye. “No, we came out of Boston, actually.”

“Boston?” Rick asked. “What made you come all this way?”

“Oh, you know...” Aidan gave a little shrug with his head. “Zombie apocalypse. We couldn't stay near Boston. It was just completely overrun, and the suburbs were no better. I actually...ah...I had some friends who lived out in Pennsylvania Dutch country, and I thought there might still be some little pocket of civilization left running off-grid out there. You know, the Amish keeping on just like they always have, but...” A sad look came to his eyes, and he returned to poking his salmon.

Carl tried to 'get a read' on them, but he wasn't sure what was real and what he was projecting. Aidan's grief seemed real enough, but it also seemed like there was far more to the story. Carl tried to flex his psychic powers, third eye or whatever, and look into Aidan's mind to see what he was leaving out, when BAM! It was like Carl had run face first into a brick wall. His head even hurt a little. Aidan's eyes narrowed for a split second, though he didn't look up from his plate.

“Yeah, so that was bloody.” Josh gave a wild little laugh. “But, uh, Nora had a cousin who lived out in the mountains in North Carolina, so we thought that would be a better bet. At least she knew where a secluded cabin might be, you know? Maybe family. But we couldn't even get close because of a pretty bad forest fire. That pushed us off course and we got lost. We just kind of wandered around, hanging out with groups for a while if we found a good one, but mostly avoiding people because they're, well, there's a lot of crazies out there. Thieves, cannibals, that kinda thing.”

“That's the truth,” Daryl said, coaxing the puppy into eating some potatoes before getting any salmon patties. Daryl was an oddly gentle parent-type thing all of the sudden.

Dean finally stirred. “Hey, what'd you name that thing?”

“Coal.”

“You know that's a female, right?” Garth called from across the room.

Daryl rolled his eyes. “Coal with an 'a'. 'Cause she's black, you know?” Garth had called her a 'Sheprador', a German Shepherd/Black Lab mix. She was just a fuzzy black ball at the moment, but she had the big German Shepherd ears that stuck straight up. They hadn't had a chance to go on any runs since Sam and Dean had shown back up with Garth, so they had no dog food except the half-bag Garth had brought with them, but Coal was content to eat every meal out of Daryl's hand. Carl would never have thought a dog would like vegetable stew, but she happily ate whatever pieces of onion or canned potatoes that Daryl fished out for her. “Gonna have to hunt again soon, with all these new mouths to feed.”

“There'll be time for that,” Rick said, his eyes sliding to the newcomers. “We'll work something out.”

Aidan looked between the two men. “You know, I'm actually a pretty fair hunter. I've just got a bruised rib or two. Give me another day and I'd love to help, maybe pull some weight around here in thanks for your hospitality.”

“Why don't we see what the council says first?” Carol said, smiling at him. “If you're ready?”

They stood, and Beth hurried forward to take their dishes for them. Josh gallantly pushed their chairs in and waved the ladies ahead, stopping to gesture for Rick to precede them. Rick's mouth quirked slightly. “Oh, I'm not on the council. But he is.” He gave a little nod to Carl, and Carl hopped up to follow, giving the rest of his bowl to his dad to share with Judith.

“Oh, he is?” Josh said, swallowing down a laugh.

“For now he is,” Rick said.

Sally spun around and glared at him. “You ratted me out, didn't you? You little snitch! Guys, he totally told on me.” Aidan and Josh shared a look but tried to pretend like they didn't hear her. As they headed down the halls of the prison, Sally continued her indignant tirade. “Have I done anything even remotely spooky? No, no I have not. So I like to kick it with my old roomies and help out when cannibals try to eat them! That's downright angelic, if you ask me.”

“You obviously haven't met any angels,” Carl muttered under his breath.

“What?” Sally said at the same time that Carol turned around and asked, “What's that, Carl?”

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud.”

The other council members were already assembled when Carl, Carol, and Daryl ushered in their new guests. Daryl had given Coal over to the kids to play with, and Carl realized that he'd have to speak privately with the council about what he'd caught Lizzie doing. For now, he reckoned that Beth would keep a good eye on the prison's newest, fluffy member. Hopefully Lizzie wouldn't feed Coal to the walkers in broad daylight.

“So,” Hershel said after another round of introductions, “I know you've had a rough road, but we'd really like to hear more about you and your experiences. Especially regarding these people you're on the run from.”

“Of course.” Aidan seemed to be the unofficial spokesman for the group. “We shared a bit of our history with these fine council members at lunch,” Aidan said, gesturing to Carl, Carol, and Daryl, “but basically we're a small family from Boston. Well, Josh and Nora are married, and Emily's his sister. I'm the coworker-slash-roommate that they've been kind enough to keep alive at the end of the world.”

Emily did something akin to a snort-laugh. “Oh, sorry.” She waved a hand, tightening the cap on her water bottle, which Dr. S. had insisted she and Aidan keep on them at all times. “Aidan's far too humble. He organized our entire rescue mission on Terminus.”

“The what?”

“Terminus,” Nora said quietly. She gulped, shaking her head at the memory. “That's what they called it. There are signs up all over the place out there. I'm surprised you haven't seen them. 'Sanctuary for all', it promises. 'Community for all. Those who arrive survive.'” Her voice hardened. “Bullshit.”

Everyone was quiet, waiting to hear what they would share but hesitant to push with such an obviously traumatic tale. After a moment, Aidan continued, “As we said, we were leery of strangers. You rightfully are too. So we wondered about the type of place that would openly advertize all over multiple counties. We wanted to check the place out before going in.” Carl noticed Hershel and Glenn nodding in agreement.

“We could tell we were getting close,” Nora said, “since things were cleared out and being managed. We turned back to find a good safe house for Em to wait in. We doubled back quite a bit, just in case. We scavenged what we could while Aidan scoped the place out.”

“I can be pretty quiet in the woods. I waited until dark and worked my way up a nearby hill where I'd have a good vantage point. I heard gunfire and rushed to the top. Terminus was an abandoned railroad complex, wide open with train cars dotted here and there.” Aidan's voice hardened. “I was able to get a very close view because everyone's attention was on the back rail yard. They were...herding...a group of people. Leading them down a maze until they were cornered and forced into a train car. I watched for a short while, then scoped the compound as much as I could until the guards finished their sport and started patrolling the forest perimeter.”

“How could you be sure they were cannibals?” Carl whispered.

Aidan's jaw clenched and he looked away. “They had a scrap yard. And...multiple barbecues. I smelled it, saw it.”

“So we made a plan to get in and free those people,” Josh said, his voice sounding strong and sure for the first time since he'd arrived.

“How many were there?” Carol asked.

“We saw them herd five into the train car, but I heard people in others as I circled around,” Aidan said. “They were families. Children. We had to do something. I had a son once. I couldn't just leave them like that.”

“How many in Terminus?”

“At least thirty-five. Maybe more, because when we counted the captives, those numbered twenty-four.”

“You don't know?” Carol asked. “Some of the cannibals got away?”

“We let the children go with one of the women,” Nora said. “A couple escaped during the shooting. Others may have escaped that we didn't see. We came in through the back, and the alarm was sounded before we'd opened all the train cars.”

Everybody shifted in their chairs, and Carl watched his own people for cues as closely as he'd watched their guests.

“You four took out the entire community yourselves?” Sasha asked, her skepticism obvious.

“Not entirely. We had weapons, and I'd seen where they'd taken all of their captives' belongings. Nora covered that area while Josh and I opened the cars.”

“First we were quickly explaining that they could run one way and take off or find their weapons the other way and fight with us,” Josh said quietly. “But when someone sounded the alarm, Aidan covered me as I finished opening the train cars as quickly as possible.”

“I was a soldier and a hunter,” Aidan said with a small smile. “I have good aim.” Aidan noticed Emily finish off the last of her water, and he passed his bottle down the table to her. When Carl stood to fetch him another, Aidan shooed him back to his seat. “Please, sit.”

“Dr. S. said--”

“I'm fine, really. If I drink anymore, I might not make it through the meeting.” He gave a little wiggle in his seat.

Carl still had trouble getting a read on Aidan, but something about him suddenly seemed shady. Fake. His smile seemed forced, like it didn't meet his eyes.

“We thank you for your service,” Hershel said, and then the look was gone. “Both times. In the service and saving those people.” Aidan turned to him with a look of surprised gratitude.

“I'd like to hear how you did it,” Carol said. “How'd you take out all thirty or more of them?”

“We had better guns, for one, but we ran out of ammo during the shoot-out. The prisoners who ran were on their own,” Nora explained, “but we had several join us. Nearly everybody who hadn't had kids. We all grabbed up what weapons or armor we could. A few of them had personal items they wanted to find and took longer searching the room. I told them to cover the yard after we left, while six went to help Josh and Aidan and the rest circled around to the front with me.”

“We took out the snipers and what guards came running outside,” Aidan continued, “then Josh and I breached the building. We split into two groups of four to sweep the house. I'd gone over the plans and everything with Josh and Nora. My group was the one that intercepted their leader, who had a pretty large group himself. We lost two almost immediately, and I'm not really sure what happened after that. I think the other guy ran.”

“All of mine ran once I – once we fought a group of more than just two,” Josh said. “I saw one later, on the way out. I guess the others took off. I took this hit,” he said, gesturing to his shoulder, then lifted his shirt, “and another really light graze here. I'm lucky it wasn't way worse. I took care of the situation and followed the gunfire back to Aidan.”

“My group covered the front exit and kept them occupied there,” Nora added, her voice choking. “I tried to get them to surrender, but the prisoners wouldn't have it. They shot everyone they could. It was a bloody battle, but they were in a frenzy. Our part was over pretty quickly, and some of my group spread out to cover the whole perimeter.”

“I couldn't even ask a surrender,” Aidan said. His own voice was dull. “The leader was a mad man. I knew his kind. Psychotic. The things they had been doing...they weren't even human anymore. They were monsters. They'd disarmed me and were having a go at me when Josh arrived, and he distracted them and gave me a second wind. ”

There was a heaviness as he broke off, and Carl felt a flush of guilt about his earlier thoughts. No, Aidan was not insincere. They may not be telling everything, but what they were telling had the ring of truth, as crazy as it sounded.

“Nobody's giving me any credit?” Sally asked, walking around the table to stand between Carl and Hershel's seats. “Obviously one of them knows about me.” She looked down at Carl. “I'm the one who told them there were others in the other train cars, and then I totally scoped a safe path for everyone to escape. Well, nearly everyone. And I kept telling Josh where all the bad guys were once his pansy-ass backup...ran off.”

“I got a little graze too,” Nora said. “We really lucked out, honestly.”

“I'm so sorry that happened to you,” Hershel said. “But are you sure that none of them followed you here?”

“Pretty sure,” Aidan said. “We did stumble upon some Terminus deserters, but Josh's deserters had found them first. We heard gunfire and arrived in time to help his pansy-ass back-up,” he smiled, “make their retreat. The termites followed us for a bit, but with us nearly doubling the survivors' numbers, they finally gave up.”

“That was the last we saw any. We split off from the group and found a car to circle around and pick up Emily,” Josh added, “then we booked it. Took turns driving until we ran out of gas. Aidan and I checked a pretty large perimeter before we camped for the night. It's been safe. Well, as safe as it can be.”

Emily finally spoke. “That was last night.”

The adults looked between each other and seemed to come to some mutual decision, though Carl didn't know how. Hershel leaned on the table and looked Aidan in the eye. “It's clear enough that your friend needs some help if she's going to make it out there, but you all sound like a rather formidable force. If your tale is true, we have a lot to discuss and prepare for just in case. It's enough to make a body nervous. You understand.”

“Of course,” Nora said, smiling at her companions. “We would never disrespect your hospitality.”

“Yeah, just as long as you don't go attacking us or eating people, there shouldn't be an issue,” Josh added, then laughed a little too loudly. “But, I mean, you won't, right? We don't want any of that, I promise.”

Sasha didn't back down. “Why wouldn't you let our doctor look at you?” she asked Aidan.

“I didn't need it,” Aidan said. “At first I thought I might have busted a rib from the many knees I took to the gut, but once we found a car and I got to lie back and rest a while, I felt pretty okay. It's just bruised at most. Been there before. There's not much to do for it.” He shrugged. “You've let us stop walking for a bit. That's all I need, and we don't plan to overstay our welcome.”

Everybody glanced around again, and this time Sasha held Carl's gaze. She was waiting for his approval, he guessed, so he gave Sally one last look. She clasped her hands under her chin and batted her eyes. “Please! Please, guys. We will be so good.”

Carl gave a brisk nod. It was Hershel who spoke next, his eyes flicking quickly to Josh and away again. “All the same, y'all are rightfully wound up, and we're rightfully nervous. Would you consent to having your cells locked at night?”

Aidan's brows rose slightly in surprise, but he looked to his friends. They all gave grave nods. “Of course. Whatever it takes.”

“You still gotta answer the questions if you're staying a while,” Daryl said, uncrossing his legs and straightening in his chair. “How many walkers have you killed?”

“Walkers?” Nora asked. “Oh. God, I don't know.”

“A lot,” Josh said.

Everyone looked to Emily and Aidan. “I may not be in the best shape right now,” Emily said, “but I'm not an invalid. I've killed at least a few dozen myself.”

“Probably hundreds.” Aidan shrugged.

“How many people have you killed?” Carol asked.

“Like, all together, or just since the whole zombie thing started?” Josh asked. He laughed nervously again when everyone looked at him.

Nora shook her head at her husband. “Four.”

Josh looked at his hands. “I'm honestly not sure at this point. With the shootout and everything...there were a few others even before them. I never wanted to.” He sighed. “Probably a couple dozen at least.” He flushed and avoided his sister's gaze.

“Two,” Emily said quietly.

Carl's stomach dropped at the thought of how many humans everybody had actually killed. And not just these people. Carl knew the three questions; everyone at the prison knew the three questions. But he never sat in on these discussions and rarely heard the answers. Besides the kids, were anyone's hands even clean anymore? Carl himself had killed three people. Well, he'd done the actual kill shot with his mom and the Woodbury boy, but he still considered himself responsible for Dale's death too. That was a weight he'd always carry.

“I honestly couldn't tell you,” Aidan admitted. “I don't know. I...I was in several wars even before all this. A whole lot. Too many.”

“Several?” Carol asked. “How old are you?”

“I look young for my age,” Aidan said. “I'm actually...thirty-six.” Sally suddenly disappeared from Carl's shoulder and popped herself into a far corner, examining her nails.

“All right. Now why?” Daryl asked, returning to the questions.

“To protect myself and my friends. To protect innocents. And...sometimes because I had orders to,” Aidan said. “There were a few times, back then, when I lost it and didn't know when to stop. I killed people I shouldn't have. I've spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it, though.” He was a man who obviously owned his failings and would not hang his head as he answered.

Going back down the line, Emily answered, “Mercy killings.”

“Everybody I ever killed was threatening my family in some way,” Josh said, and then his voice turned shaky. “Except Julia.”

Sally's face fell. “Josh.”

Ignoring her, he continued, “She was my ex-fiancée. It was an accident, but the accident was my fault. And then...” Josh clasped Nora's hands in his, “there was our baby.”

“Josh,” Nora whispered, turning to lean her forehead against his. “I never blamed you. That wasn't your fault.”

“Yes, it was! My...genes...my...my...”

“No,” she said firmly. “No. That wasn't you.”

Everyone was silent, the prison residents looking unsure, but with sympathy in their gazes. Nora shook her head, dispelling whatever thoughts were there. “Same here as far as reasons go. And my ex as well, actually, long before this started, but he was a bad man too.”

“Well,” Carol said, smiling as best as she could, “everybody has baggage. We all protect our own. Rest up. Heal. You behave and treat us right, we'll do the same, and there'll be nothing to worry about on either end.”

The meeting apparently over, all of the adults began shaking hands and murmuring thanks or sympathy as they filed toward the door. Carl turned and looked expectantly at Sally. “Well?” he asked quietly.

“Well what?”

“The questions.”

“Oh! Well, I can't kill any 'walkers', obviously.” She demonstrated by sticking a hand through the table. “And anybody I ever killed was already a ghost anyway.”

Carl wanted to ask how that was even possible, but then he remembered banishing his mom's ghost. If that's the case, guess I actually killed her twice. I wonder if my number is still three or if it's four?

“See ya,” Sally said. “Thanks, really. You guys have no idea how much we've needed this.”

Chapter Text

Then:

“We have to go,” Nora said, holding her head as she paced the length of the prison block that they supposedly had to themselves.

Supposedly, Aidan thought, because he knew for a fact that someone stayed just outside the door at all times; he could hear them talking in low tones every now and then. “We can't leave,” he told her. “You said yourself that the last fight took too much out of us. I know one meal wasn't enough to do much of anything for you guys, and I'm still barely feeding.”

Nora held her forehead as if in pain. After a moment, she said with a wince, “You remember what Blake said...”

Aidan's jaw clenched. “I will not feed on a baby, safe or not! I'd drink from you two before I ever did that, and I hope to never have an experience like wolf's blood again.”

“Not just the baby. If some of the kids can see Sally, maybe they're special ones Blake mentioned? They're the right age.”

“There's no way to tell without dying if we're wrong.”

Nora cursed and resumed pacing. After a moment, she stopped and looked at Josh. “Did you recognize him? Tell me you remember.” When Josh frowned and shook his head, Nora sighed. “The tall guy? The really, really tall guy? I know this isn't his place, because I saw him being introduced to people, but if he's here, we need to be elsewhere.”

Josh's eyes flashed, and Aidan swiftly threw a calming hand on his arm. He could tell it helped, but when Josh spoke, there was still a growl in his voice. “Why? What did that man do?”

“Not him. Me!” Nora winced and covered her face with her hands. “I may have kidnapped him and left him tied up – but loosely, you know, because zombies – in Rhode Island.”

“You did what?”

“I had to! It was the only thing I could think of. He would have killed Josh, or Josh would have killed him.” Her eyes darted around the room as she thought. After a moment, she pointed a shaky finger at her husband. “Um, you've got the big backpack stashed, right? Go see Carol; I got a good feeling off her, and I think she'd be open for a fair trade. Take her that small box of tampons and the green nyquil. See if they'll give us a gas can. Five gallons at least. Tell them that you and I are going to go back for our car and the rest of our supplies. We'll just be slow, take a couple days, and then you guys be ready to leave as soon as we get back.”

Josh stepped back, wide-eyed. “I'll, um, we'll get you out of here, but you don't want me trying to haggle with people.”

“C'mon. I'll help you.” Aidan steered Josh towards his cell and turned a questioning look at Nora, who mouthed Sorry.

At that moment, Sally reappeared. “Guys, this is great. Not only can I talk to a couple of the kids, but the cook? Get this, she's a witch!” She looked at Nora and Aidan's dumbfounded faces. “I know, right? She says she can teach me how to...you know, like wield...all this magic without hopping back in time whenever I do. And she's way nicer than Donna. Oh, Aidan, you weren't here for that, but –”

“She brought you back from the dead and tried to eat your soul. Battling her is what messed up Josh when he re-wolfed. I know all about it.” If it wasn't one thing, it was another. Aidan gave a weary smile. “Don't get too comfy. Apparently we have to go ASAP, so you've got a few days at most.”

 

Now:

When Sam awoke, everything was quiet and dark. Eerily quiet and dark. He still didn't know what had caused his amnesia, but over a year and a half was lost to him. Somehow the Croatoan virus had gotten out despite everything they had gone through to stop it, and there was a full-scale zombie apocalypse in progress. There were no streetlights shining in the windows, no refrigerators or air conditioners humming quietly in the background, no cell phones chiming, no trying to ignore Dean's late-night movies.

As he threw on his jacket, Sam realized that he'd picked up a pocket watch somewhere. He'd forgotten to wind it, and as he stepped out of the cell and caught a bit of moonlight, he saw that it had stopped at two-fourteen. He felt well-rested; hell, he felt like he'd been sleeping for ages. He was antsy. Since he also found a pistol in one pocket and a knife in the other, he decided to head outside and investigate.

He'd seen it earlier, but it still took his breath away. The dead, half-rotting, were slowly gathering at the fences that surrounded the prison. Sam took in a shaky breath and headed down for a closer look. A glance at the moon made him guess that it was around three-thirty, maybe four o'clock in the morning. He wondered what time the prison residents started rousing. Sam was pretty sure that a guard was on watch in one of the towers, or perhaps doing a perimeter sweep. From what little Dean had actually filled in, Sam knew that he was somewhere in western Georgia, and it was late April.

The low growling of the croats grew louder as he approached, and the stragglers began to cluster on the fence just ahead of him. Sam pulled his pocket knife, pleased to see that it was a decent-sized switchblade. As he watched the faces gather and gnash in front of him, some deep anger welled up from within. He glanced around, finally noticing where the inner fence was clipped together some distance away from the gate. He jogged to it and let himself through, then popped the blade and fell upon the croats through the outer fence.

The first few were old and pretty rotten, barely resembling the humans they used to be. But then there was a young woman who still had most of her face, an old woman with dirt and cobwebs in her half-fallen grey bun, and a man whose faded name tag said he was Mac.

After, Sam wiped sweat and croat blood off his face and knife with his jacket sleeve. He was careful to latch the inner gate securely when he came back through. He saw the shadow approaching before he heard footsteps, and he whirled, his knife up but the blade not out. The moon hit the figure from behind, and Sam recognized the outline of a trench coat. He relaxed his arm. “Cas. Morning.”

“Good morning, Sam. You shouldn't be out by yourself.”

Sam gave a tight smile and headed back up the yard. “I think I handle myself okay.”

“Dean will be angry, is all.”

“I'm a big boy, and I couldn't care less what Dean thinks. He literally wants to lock me in a cell all day. I'm not having it.”

“To be fair, you have experienced trauma...”

Sam stopped and turned towards the angel. “Yeah. What happened, Cas? Dean keeps looking at me like I'm going to break, and Bobby acts like he's afraid to even be in the same room with me! My head feels just fine. You want to be fair? Why can't I remember the last nineteen months?”

“That's just a byproduct of the wall. Inconvenient, but it's for the best.”

“Inconvenient.” Sam shook his head. “Why'd you put a wall in my head to begin with?”

“Not me. Death put it there to lock away your soul's memory of Hell once he returned it to you. See?” Cas gave a patronizing smile. “It's for the best.”

Sam took that in, trying not to betray any emotion. “Right. Of course.” He swallowed, then nearly jumped when he heard his name called.

“Sam! Wait up a minute!”

The Southern drawl was strong with that one, so he was doubly surprised to see what looked like Bela Talbot jogging across the drive. “Bela?” he asked, disbelief writ across his face.

She came to a stop some distance away and rolled her eyes. “That's exactly why I hoped to catch you alone, so thanks for that.” Her accent didn't waver. “Look, we've actually been through this once before. Yes, I was 'Bela' for a bit, but I'm Maggie Greene by birth. I'm here with my dad and his family, or what's left of it, and they don't know anything about my...past. You agreed to keep it that way.”

“I did?” Sam shook his head with a scoff. “I doubt that.”

“You did,” Cas agreed. “She helped us get your soul back.”

“Oh.” Sam turned to her. “Wait, did you really?”

“Yes. Everything's water under the bridge, I promise. And don't worry, I haven't told anyone that it wasn't a 'head wound'. Your business is your business,” she pointedly added.

Sam believed he was starting to piece together what may have happened, and it didn't sound good. Dean must have done something to free him from Hell, but it brought him back without his soul. They'd found a way to get it back, but doing so was dangerous. Or was it? Dean had been to Hell. Did he just think that Sam wasn't strong enough to live with the memory? He frowned, then remembered the woman standing expectantly before him. “I got it, Bela. Or, what, 'Maggie'? Fine.”

“And in fact,” she continued, tilting her head at him, “I hope we can be friends. Bobby's angry about the whole shooting thing, but if you don't remember me saying so, I am sincerely sorry about it. My hand was forced. We're all just trying to survive here. I truly appreciate everything you guys have done for us, and if you need any help, I'm here for you.”

“Thanks.” Sam tried not to cringe at the thought. “Maggie.”

“The council really appreciated you boys' suggestions to have multiple rendezvous points in case of attack. We have fresh provisions on the bus thanks to you, and they're mapping out three stages of fall-back routes. Y'all have helped us a lot, and, well, I really do appreciate it.”

Once she was gone, Sam asked Cas if she was serious. “Yes, I believe so. The world has changed a lot, Sam. Maggie's just the tip of it.”

As they headed back into D-block, Sam could hear Dean and Bobby talking quietly in their cell. “We'll just give it a day or two,” Dean was saying, “see how Sammy holds up, and then get the hell out of dodge. We come here to teach these guys how to batten their hatches and protect themselves, and then they just throw open the gates for any old group that comes knocking! I want to check out these new folks today. Do you mind taking the kid case?”

“There's a case?” Sam asked, leaning in through the open cell door. “I could use a case.”

“Well, uh, that's okay,” Bobby said quickly, giving Dean a look. Sam frowned.

“You're recuperating,” Dean said. “Look, Sammy, no offense, but I've got enough to worry about right now. You just take it easy so you're ready to roll once we swing out of here.”

“Dean. There's no internet, no tv, and hardly any books. I'm bored, and it's only been, what, sixteen hours? Bobby, let me help you on your case. Something's up with one of the kids?”

Bobby stood, jutting his hands into his pants pockets awkwardly when Sam didn't move from the doorway. “You know what? Neither one of us heard any of Carl or the one-armed guy's testimonies. Dean, you two should actually take the kid case. I'll check out the visitors and see if we're dealing with a werewolf, wraith, skinwalker, whatever.”

Sam looked between Dean and Bobby. Bobby obviously wanted nothing to do with Sam, and he wasn't sure why. Dean was treating him like a child. A broken child. “Actually, I can handle that one.” Sam nodded and stepped out of the way. “I've dealt with werewolves, wraiths, and skinwalkers before, and I remember it. You guys know all of the people here and whatever's going on with their kids. So you take care of that, and I'll investigate the others.” Dean started to protest, but Sam interrupted him. “Oh, Maggie said thanks for the emergency suggestions and that a bus is packed and loaded should something happen.”

As he'd intended, it derailed Dean's train of thought. “Good. They were making my mistake and getting a little too complacent here behind their fences. I'm glad they're tending to back-up plans. And I insisted they keep a full-time watch on that boiler room breach, too.”

Bobby hurried out, not even looking at Sam as he passed, and Dean reluctantly stood to follow him. “If you're insistent on working a case, I want you to keep Cas with you. Hear that, Cas? You take care of him. I mean it.”

“Of course.”

Once they were gone, Sam asked Cas, “Who are the new people?”

“A group of four staying in B-block. Five if you count the ghost.”

“They have a ghost?”

“Yes, but Carl says she's nice. I've not spoken to her.”

Carl was one of the kids, Sam remembered, the one with the sheriff's hat. The one whom Bobby had mentioned as 'giving testimony' about whatever the kid case was. “So he can see her then?” Sam asked nonchalantly.

“Yes. He talked with her. She just follows her humans around, it seems.”

Like you, then? Sam thought, then swallowed down a snort. Aloud he said, “So that's why they're looking into the kid?”

“I think Lizzie's their main concern, actually,” Cas said, turning and heading for the door. “She and Carl have both been experiencing strange abilities lately. You'll find this interesting – the mothers of both children won a million dollars on scratch-off tickets when the children were babies. Now, both on the cusp of puberty, they're exhibiting supernatural powers. Bobby thinks it's a deal, or maybe even some kind of Azazel thing.”

That made Sam stop in his tracks. “Azazel? Really?”

Cas turned back to him, and a look of concern came over his face. “Well, not Azazel himself, I'm sure. Perhaps a protégé or some other demon who got wind of his plan. In fact, I need to meet with Meg after we finish up here. I'll see what she knows. So if we could hurry?”

“Of course. I don't want to inconvenience you. I can check out – whoever reacted to silver, I take it? – easily enough.”

“No, I promised Dean.”

“Why are we working with Meg?”

“Well, 'we' aren't. Dean's pretty mad about it, to be honest, but Meg is giving me intel on Crowley and Heaven both. See, Kali and her minions have taken over Heaven.” Cas sighed. “Everything's a mess, Sam.”

“Apparently.” They stepped outside, and Sam saw that the sun had still not risen. “You don't happen to know what time it is, do you?”

“Four fifty-seven a.m., Eastern Daylight Time.”

“Thanks.” Sam reset his watch. “So we're still doing Daylight Savings?”

“Are we not? Perhaps it's three fifty-seven.”

“It's fine,” Sam said. “If there's a government somewhere, it's probably still keeping on as always. The real question is, what are everyone's bodies on? How early is too early to make a visit? Well, let's go to the breakfast hall for now. You point out the newcomers whenever they come in.”

“I can do that.”

They – or rather, Sam – ate a slow breakfast, but the new arrivals didn't make an appearance in the dining hall. It was just after six (or maybe five) when Sam decided that they should offer to carry breakfast over to them. The cook, a solid woman with a suspicious eye, crossed her hands over her chest. “What are you up to, Sam Winchester?”

Sam gave her a look of surprise. “Just being neighborly.”

“My ass. You be nice to those people. I like them.”

After she pushed a basket into his arms and sent him on his way, Sam whispered to Cas, “Who was that?”

“Mrs. McLeod. She's Crowley's daughter, if you can believe that.” When Sam stopped and turned back for a closer look, he added, “She helped with your soul situation as well.”

Things just keep getting weirder and weirder, Sam thought.

As they headed up the steps to B-block, the guard on the landing crossed her arms and a storm of emotions flitted across her face. “Oh, no,” she said, her voice low and angry. “This is my case.”

Sam looked down at her, trying to glean what he could from her body language. “You're a hunter?”

The woman looked at him in disbelief, then snorted. “Yeah. I'm a hunter.”

“Look...?”

“Sasha.”

Cas tried to turn around and move past him down the stairs, but Sam and the basket took up too much room. He ended up spinning in a circle on the landing, avoiding Sasha's gaze. “I'm just going anywhere but here,” Cas said before disappearing in a flutter of wind.

“Look, Sam,” Sasha continued, her voice getting eerily quieter instead of louder. “It wasn't like I was angling for a ring or your jacket or anything. Honestly, I didn't expect to ever see you again after you took off the first time. It's the end of the world, and a girl wants to have some fun with a tall, brooding stranger every now and then. If you're done, fine,” she said, smiling, and then her voice turned hard, “but don't you dare look me in the face and act like you don't know my name.”

Sam's eyes went wide. “Oh. Look, Sasha, I can tell that we...ah...must have grown close,” he stammered, “but I'm honestly not trying to be a dick. I really do have amnesia. I hate it! It seriously, seriously sucks, but I swear to you, I'm not faking. And I'm so terribly sorry for anything I've done that might have hurt you. Truly.”

Sasha looked away for a long moment before finally meeting his gaze again. “Well, I appreciate that. You didn't hurt me any, I guess, so long as you're not trying to play me for a fool.”

“I'm not.”

“Well, like I said, it was fun.” She gave a little grin as she looked him up and down. “You just let me know if you ever feel up for a refresher. In the meantime, this is still my case.”

Sam looked around, but Cas was nowhere to be seen. “Do you want any help? Bobby keeps running away from me, and Dean's getting on my nerves.”

“He's good at that.”

“Yeah. So someone reacted to silver?”

Sasha sighed. She considered him for a moment, then grudgingly answered, “Yeah. The shorter guy, Josh, did. But, you know, I saw a Star of David around his neck. If he's religious, he's probably not a monster then, right? He jerked away in pain, but maybe it was an actual allergy.”

A new hunter then, Sam thought, and he began to get a better inkling of their previous relationship. “You'd be surprised. Monsters sneak in everywhere. He's the only one who reacted?”

“That I noticed.” She held up her hand and wiggled her fingers, showing off a chunky silver band. “The other guy, Aidan, didn't flinch, but I didn't get a chance to touch either of the women. They were a bit hover-y over Josh after I 'shocked' him.”

“So there's been a lot of supernatural activity around here lately?”

Sasha gazed down towards the fence line. “You mean besides the usual? Since you guys showed up, yes.”

“You're sure your ring wasn't just cold or something?”

“Oh, I'm sorry, I should have said, 'Hello, I'm Sasha. Not an idiot.'”

“You're right. Sorry. Stupid question.” He raised the basket. “Well, I really did bring breakfast. Care to introduce me?”

“Fine. But I'm lead.”

“I wouldn't dream of stepping on your toes.”

She led him inside B-block, which looked very similar to every other block he'd been in. They heard voices and shuffling as they headed down the hall, so they knew someone was awake. There were only three people in the block when they entered. Sam frowned, suddenly overcome with a dizzying sense of deja vu. He cried out and stumbled as a stabbing pain shot through his head. He grabbed it as flashes of...memory?...flooded him.

A sense of nausea and of the world spinning as he fell. A whirlpool of dark tree branches looming high overhead. Darkness, thick darkness, with a woman's voice screaming, “No! Back! Back, dammit!” following closely on its heels.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

Sasha was pulling him up by the arm, and he was ashamed to see that he'd dropped the food basket. Apples rolled across the floor, as did a few jars. Luckily the jars of cereal and powdered milk were unbroken. “I'm sorry. I had a weird pain, but it's gone.” He laughed self-consciously as she led him to the nearest cell. “I'm fine, really.”

“Doc says you took a head injury, Sam. That's not fine. You sit here while I go get him.”

“No! Really, Sasha, I'm fine. Right as rain.” He looked past her and waved to the people staring at him. “I'll wash those apples for you.”

“No need,” one of them said, the man who, from descriptions, Sam knew was not Josh. “We have water bottles. Are you okay? I was a nurse before all this, actually. I can take a look.”

“No, really. I'm good.” He smiled and forced himself up. The guy certainly didn't look like a nurse. “I appreciate it though. What an entrance, huh?” He laughed self-consciously. “I'm Sam,” he said, offering a hand to shake. Before coming in, he'd slipped a silver ring of his own on.

“Aidan. And this is Emily and Josh. You just missed his wife. Showers.”

Sam exited the cell to shake their hands. Josh kept his distance across the room and just gave a curt wave, so Sam turned his attention back to Aidan and Emily. “Are you two married as well?”

They looked at each other and laughed. “Hell no!” Emily said, adding a quick “no offense” for Aidan's benefit. “I'm a lady's lady, if you know what I mean.”

“Ah.” Neither one flinched at the handshake.

Sam saw Sasha collect the apples and give a quick pour of water from a flask – a flask Sam recognized as one of their own, one which held holy water. He was beginning to see why he'd liked her. She handed the apples around with a friendly smile. “They're small, but they're local. Maybe even organic by now,” she said with a laugh.

“Thanks,” Emily said, happily munching away on hers. Aidan gave a wan smile as Sasha watched him expectantly, then finally took a bite and added a rather unconvincing “Mmmm. Good.”

Josh seemed hyper-aware of Sam's eyes on him, as Sam was of him. Sam wasn't sure what was going on, but there was definitely something off about the guy. Josh had been leaning against the wall, kicking it with his heel as he chewed his nails. When Sasha's attention also finally turned to him, he kicked off the wall and came to join the group. He looked Sam up and down as he passed by and took the apple Sasha offered. “Thanks. It's been a while since we had any fresh fruit.”

None of them reacted to the holy water, and it seemed like the space between he and Josh seemed to grow almost electric with tension. Josh was paying him no more attention at that point, rifling through the food they had brought, but Sam definitely felt a weird energy from the guy.

“So, I hope this isn't rude,” Sam started, “but my brother and I are probably going to be heading out soon. I heard you guys had some kind of run-in with cannibals? Is that true?”

The three looked between each other, their faces suddenly somber. They had the look of soldiers fresh from battle, and Sam knew that not only was it true, it had legitimately horrified these people. People? he wondered. Is that really what they are? He watched closely as Josh turned away and busied himself with prepping the powdered milk for everyone. After Sasha's trick with the holy water, he wished he'd stopped to throw some salt into the powder or something. He decided that once he left, he'd make a small salt line under the door and see if that affected any of them.

Aidan turned and tossed his apple onto the bed in the next cell over. “Unfortunately,” he said as he turned back, crossing his arms protectively over his chest, “it is true. If you see any signs for 'Terminus', take them down or mark as unsafe. We think we, ah, took out most of those...people...as we were freeing their prisoners, but you never know if there's enough left to regroup.”

Josh brought a bowl of cereal to Emily and ran into one of the cells, quickly returning with a folded map. “So, Hershel, I think it was?” At Sasha's nod, he opened the map and continued, “Hershel gave us some maps to look over and try to figure out where exactly Terminus was. As best we can figure, it's about here,” he said, pointing to a spot near Macon.

“That's only eighty or ninety miles from here.”

“Well, the roads are all clogged on this side, so it takes a lot longer than it probably used to,” Josh said. “Then again, we circled wide trying to avoid any chase. They'd cleared out about a ten mile radius around their train depot.” He was the kind of guy who gestured a lot as he spoke. In fact, it almost seemed like he could barely stand still, since he was always rocking on his heels or bouncing on the balls of his feet. Sam tried to surreptitiously watch him, but he didn't seem particularly monstrous to him. Weird, awkward, and hyper, yes. Dangerous or evil? As he watched the guy move away to take a rag and start vigorously scrubbing the area where Sasha had spilled holy water onto the concrete, Sam just couldn't see it.

Still, there was definitely a thickness in the air between he and Sam, and since Sasha seemed to be focused more on getting a read off of Aidan and Emily, he guessed that she didn't feel the same thing. And, too, there was just this overwhelming sense of...something. The smell of crisp autumn air and fallen leaves. Sam felt like there was some important memory just within reach, like a shadow in the periphery of his mind. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and set his heart to beating a little faster than it should.

Josh washed his hands after cleaning the floor, then wolfed down a bowl of cereal faster than Sam would have thought possible. He was going for seconds when Sasha smiled and clapped Sam on the back. “I'm going to go check on Nora, let her know we brought breakfast. There won't be any left if she doesn't hurry. We don't really have that much hot water anyway.”

“Oh,” Josh said with a high chuckle, “she's probably just psyching herself up. We're going back for our car today. Gotta get all that bathroom, showering, and meditating stuff done while we're in a safe place. It's been a while.”

“You're leaving so soon?” Sasha asked, although she did not sound broken up about it.

“Just Nora and me. We really appreciate you guys helping Aidan and Emily recuperate, but we don't want to use up all your resources. We have more supplies in our trunk, if we can get to them before anyone else does.”

“It's not safe for two people to go out on a long trek alone,” Sasha said, eyes narrowing. “Especially if you've both been shot!”

“It's just a flesh wound!” Josh cried in a high-pitched faux-British accent. Emily rolled her eyes.

“We're coming with you,” Sasha said, and Sam raised his brows at her.

“Um,” Josh was back to rocking on his heels again, cereal bowl seemingly forgotten. “To be honest, we were kind of hoping for some alone time. It's been a long, long while.”

“No.”

Josh's eyes went wide with rage, and Aidan stepped between them with a wide smile. “I know it's a prison, but I didn't think we were actually prisoners.”

“You're not. But you come in here with wild tales, grievous wounds, and we give you our food, medicines, shelter, all without hesitation. Now you're splitting up? How are we to know that this isn't some kind of trap? That you're not going back for reinforcements to hit us from inside and out? Nuh-uh. We're going with you.”

Sasha gave Sam another look, so he quickly added, “We really feel this is for the best.”

Josh's face still held quite a fury, which only made Sam realize that Sasha had the right idea. Dean wouldn't like him leaving, but he wasn't about to let Sasha go off alone with this guy. The quick switch from awkward goof to dangerous predator was both surprising and disturbing, and it suddenly didn't seem that far out to think he wasn't completely human. Sam was really afraid they'd have to fight right then and there, but a voice from behind them instantly settled Josh.

“They're right. You know we'd feel the same way.”

Sam turned around, finding himself face to face with an unassuming blonde woman. She was toweling wet hair, and her eyes locked with his. After a moment, she smiled. "Hi. I'm Nora.”

His eyes subconsciously narrowed just a bit. She almost reminded him of someone. He struggled to remember who, like some annoying tune he couldn't put a name to. But whatever wall was in his head made his mind start flitting between totally unrelated things.

Sam woke as the sun was just starting to rise. His head was laid against the van window, and as everything gradually lightened, he slowly realized that the 'tree line' to his right was actually a loose wall of croats. He should have been terrified, but honestly, it was exhilarating. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of them stumbled across the fields, but they were aimless and unsteady. They were barely running on echoes of instinct. Sam easily recognized that he was better than them in every way, and as he watched them plod along, he began to think that it might even be fun taking them all out.

“Easy, boy,” a voice said to his left. His grandfather, Samuel Campbell, gave an empty laugh. “And we thought it was weird for us coming back from the dead. At least we're not like that, huh? No stopping to piss here, I'm afraid. Too many of 'em. There's a jug in the back if you need it, but we're only about forty minutes from the compound. You're 'bout to meet a whole lotta family you didn't even know you had.”

*

“Look at this pattern,” Sam said, pointing to red circles on a map. Several people leaned in for a better look. There were about a dozen hunters in all, and all of them Campbell family or married into it. “It's zig-zagging and round-about, but I'm certain he's heading for Boston.”

Samuel thrust a small shaving case into his chest. Sam grabbed it, unzipped, and counted a dozen syringes of dead man's blood. “Pack up, son. Better hurry. The Alpha Vamp must be gathering his minions as he travels. He knows we're onto him. But so long as he keeps a-zig-zagging, we should be able to beat him there.”

*

The woods were eerily quiet. Sam glanced around and slowly, as quietly as he could, pulled the bolt back and popped in a round. He heard nothing. Saw nothing. Smelled nothing. Something was terribly wrong here.

He walked as quietly as he could through the fallen leaves, wincing every time a crinkle echoed through the forest. It only served to prove how eerily empty it was. There were always – always! – croats stumbling around anymore. At least until the snows hit, and they hadn't yet even this far north, though he knew winter was coming fast. Still, and especially if croats weren't around, you always found survivor groups or, at the very least, wildlife taking sanctuary where they could. But there was literally nothing here.

No, not nothing. Sam peered into the bare branches of a large bush up ahead, where a spot of black caught his eye. He hurried to it and pulled out a tuft of coarse fur.

“Sam!”

Sam blinked, his eyes finally focusing upon Aidan's worried face. “You're in no condition to go traipsing out amongst zombies.”

Sam pulled his arm free from Aidan's grasp. “First off, I don't traipse. Second, I'm fine. I just got a little dizzy there for a moment.”

“That's twice in twenty minutes. If you took a head injury, this could be a sign of serious trouble.” From the note of concern in his voice, Sam knew that Aidan was honestly concerned and not just trying to talk him out of following Josh.

“What?” Nora said, hurrying forward. “A head wound?”

Sam pulled his head back, uncomfortable with everyone suddenly in his face. Nora continued, “It's all right. I'm a nurse. Tell me, have you had any problems with double vision or...or memory loss?”

Sam sighed. He couldn't exactly tell these people that he hadn't really taken a head wound. “Look, I appreciate everyone's concern, but I'm fine. I'm a big boy. I've already been confined to bed for a week.” Sasha looked like she was going to interrupt, then thought better of it. “Honestly, I'd asked Sasha to let me go on the next run anyway. I think the fresh air and sunshine will help a lot.”

They all looked skeptical, but they finally backed away. Nora flashed a tight smile. “Well, it's a good thing you're coming along with us, then. At least we both have medical training.”

“Right. I'll just see if Mrs. McLeod has any food to spare. How far away is your car?”

“We were in no condition to fight, so the zombies kind of herded us through a lot of backroads,” Josh said, coming to put a protective arm around his wife. “Maybe thirty miles, if we figured the map out right.”

Sam saw Aidan move to bend low into Sasha's ear. He murmured something, and she gave an imperceptible shake of her head. Sam felt his heart begin to beat fast again. Was it some odd jealousy? He didn't even remember his time with her.

Sasha snapped him out of his reverie as she took his arm. “Pack up. We'll leave in an hour,” she said, and Sam did not miss Aidan's little warning shake. His mind was suddenly clear, and he knew without doubt what had been whispered. His suspicions were confirmed when they stepped outside, for he'd barely started patting himself down in search of salt before Sasha whirled on him. “Sam, you can't come.”

“I'm getting really tired of everyone telling me what I can and can't do.”

“Sam.” She searched his eyes. “I'm sorry, but you know it as well as I do. You're not up for a thirty mile trip even without walkers and unidentified monsters.”

He sighed, and he wanted to argue, but he did know she was right. These flashes were painful, and he lost sight of everything around him when they hit. Sasha saw the disappointment in his face and softened a bit. “It's okay. I'll take Tyreese. Nothing's getting me with Tyreese around.” She smiled as she handed him a small canister of sea salt from her own pocket, nodded toward the door, and took out a radio from her other. “Tyreese,” she called into it, “are you with Karen right now?”

Tyreese's voice was groggy when it came over the line. “It's early as hell, girl. Anyway, I told you we were taking it slow.”

She grinned up at Sam. “Hey, get her double-time and ask her to take over my B shift. You get our go-bags. We gotta run.”

He grumbled, but said he was on it. While they waited, Sasha attempted to make awkward small-talk.

“How many walkers have you killed?”

“Walkers? You mean the croats?” He laughed. “I'm not lying about the amnesia. How should I know?”

Sasha gave him a smile much sweeter than he would have expected. “Humor me. What would you guess?”

Sam gave an apologetic shrug. “I wouldn't even know. I can't remember the start of all this. I assume a whole lot. But as far as what I could swear to, I took out seven or eight on the fence this morning.”

“How many people have you killed?”

He tensed at that one. He didn't want to answer, but something in Sasha's eyes told him that it was very important to her. He lowered his eyes and thought. “I guess I can't know that either. I know I've killed a lot, far too many, people before all this,” he admitted, “and likely some after.”

“Why?”

“A lot of them were possessed, and there was no way to exorcise without killing them. There were times, before I knew how to avoid it, when I myself was possessed. There were bad people who tried to kill me or my family, and there were good people who ended up casualties of war. I know of some times, probably way more than I realize, when I was indirectly responsible for people's deaths. A lot of them were beings who were human once and then they weren't anymore, but that doesn't make the loss any less real.”

Sasha was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. Finally, she said, “That's a tough road you've walked.”

Sam blinked at her. “Yeah. It is.”

“Thank you for being honest,” Sasha said. “Look, there's Karen. Go see Dr. S., please. Take care of yourself. I'll be back in a day or two.”

Cas was waiting for him when he rounded the corner. “Where've you been?” Sam asked him.

“Is everything okay with your case?”

“Yeah, I guess. Though even Sasha agrees I'm a liability,” he grumbled.

Cas laid a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe it's best we don't tell Dean that I left you alone.”

Sam shrugged him off and rolled his eyes. “I won't get you in trouble.” He started to walk off, then realized Cas had avoided his question. “Went to see Meg, did you?”

“Yes.”

“I'm surprised you're so chummy lately.”

“We share some common interests,” Cas said, “and she's very well informed. She passed along a message from Balthazar. Gabriel paid him a visit shortly after we did.”

“We saw Balthazar?”

Cas looked at him blankly, then sighed. “When we went to the UK in search of Crowley...remember I said Maggie helped us? We went with her. It's a long story, but Balthazar was buying souls in London.”

“What? Why would an angel buy souls?”

“They are...” He seemed to struggle with the phrasing but finally settled on “Valuable. Balthazar was grabbing whatever power he could as the war broke out. I asked him to ally with me, but he wanted to stay off the radar.” Cas frowned. “I inadvertently put him back on. Gabriel found him quickly after we did. He expressed pleasure at learning I was alive and wanted to know where to find me. Balthazar told him that I had taken his advice and was staying as far from you two as possible, so likely the Ukraine or Papua New Guinea. Now Kali's forces are seen checking hot spots outward from London, and Balthazar's in the wind again.”

“You think Gabriel would sacrifice you to Kali?”

“I don't know what game he plays. Either he would trade me in an effort to get Heaven back, or he's just trying to draw some of them from Heaven to even things so the angels can strike.” Cas looked thoughtful. “It's possible that he actually loved Kali once, but I can't believe that Gabriel would ever turn against Heaven itself.”

Sam looked at him with compassion. “I know he's your brother and all, but he's been known to play both sides before. I think his main concern is keeping himself alive.”

“Hey!” A voice cried as a figure rounded the corner. As he picked up speed, Sam saw that it was Carl. He saw no sign of Dean or Bobby. Carl jogged the last few yards and frowned up at Cas. “Aren't you supposed to be on boiler room duty?”

Sam bit back a smirk to see the kid address Cas that way. Cas frowned down at him. “No, I've been with Sam all morning. Haven't I, Sam?”

“Oh, yeah. All morning.”

Carl looked between them, his eyes wide as he thought. “You haven't been down in the boiler room?”

“No. Carl, what's wrong?”

He glanced nervously at Sam. “Remember our talk?” he asked Cas. When Cas nodded, he continued, “Well, I felt, you know, angel static. Whatever you'd call it. Bright ringing that drowns other stuff out. I was looking for my dad, but when I felt all that, I figured it was you and Dean on guard so I left.”

“When was this?” Cas demanded.

“Just now.”

Cas disappeared in an instant. Without thinking, Sam pushed the kid. “Where's the boiler room? Now!”

Sam kept an eye out as he followed Carl, but he didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Once they reached the boiler room, he saw why Dean had insisted on having a watch down there. The wall was completely blasted in, although there were signs that people had been clearing it out and starting to build a wall around the breach. They found Carol there, working away at it.

“What's going on down here?” Sam asked.

Carol turned and frowned, and Sam noticed her hand tense ever so slightly on the trowel she was holding. “Not much. I just relieved Henry and thought I'd be useful. What's wrong?”

He belatedly saw the little girl piling bricks up behind her. She eyed Sam nervously, and he wondered if that was the girl Dean and Bobby had been worried about. “Carl heard something. Have you seen anyone come through here?”

“No.”

Sam looked beyond her. “What about you...Lizzie, is it?”

The girl smiled. “No, we're sisters. I'm Mika.”

“Well, Mika, have you seen anything strange down here?”

“Besides you?” Her eyes flicked toward the door. “Nooooo,” she said, drawing the word out slowly.

“Mika...” Carl warned.

The girl shook her head and smiled sadly. “Just Lizzie. You know. She sent me in here because she doesn't like me around when she talks to her imaginary friend. She says he tells her secret stuff, but it's just a stupid game she plays when she doesn't want me around.”

Sam was about to ask where Lizzie was when he heard Cas call for him. He followed the voice down the hall, and he noticed that Carol followed without hesitation. Cas was alone in an empty brick room with a girl just a bit younger than Carl. Sam didn't need to ask; he could tell this was Lizzie. Besides the unsettling look in her eye, she was clutching a dresser drawer that looked suspiciously like a spell box. “What's all this?”

“It's my treasure box,” she said, “and you shouldn't be here.”

Sam knelt down on her level. “Can I see your treasures?”

She frowned at him and tipped the drawer up against her chest. “No. Go away.”

“What were you doing, little girl?” Cas asked, his voice harsh.

“I was just playing.”

While she was looking at Cas, Sam snatched the drawer from her hands. “Hey!” Carol yelled, moving forward to guard Lizzie, trowel up and ready to fight.

Sam fingered the contents. He held up first a rabbit skull, then a rat skull and what looked like part of an arm. There were a couple of teeth that looked human, some yarn bits, and one of those little plastic bubbles with silly putty that you used to get from quarter machines. “Is this a spell box?”

“Of course not!” Carol cried. She looked at Lizzie, and Sam could see the flicker of doubt in her face. “Is it?”

“No! Give it back. It just holds my treasures.”

“Who gave you this stuff?” Sam pushed a crumpled flier aside and felt an unmistakable plastic case. He pulled out a DVD, then spun it around to show Cas and Carol. “Casa Erotica: Undead Co-ed? Aren't you a bit young for this?”

“Sam.” Cas's voice was surprisingly excited. “Do you still have a laptop computer?”

“You know, I'm honestly not sure what I have anymore. We can check my bag.” He handed the drawer to Carol. “It could be she's just a pack rat, but this is a drawer full of body parts. Somebody needs to have a talk with dad at best and the council at worst. You might show Mrs. McLeod and ask her which.” He turned to leave.

“You boys are awfully eager with that,” Carol spat, herding Mika and Lizzie together. “Have some decorum!”

At that moment, Dean rounded the corner. “Sam! What are you doing down here?” He saw Lizzie beyond and pointed a finger at her. “You're a squirrelly little thing, aren't you?”

Carol put a protective arm around her, but Sam was already pushing Dean out of the room. Dean noticed the DVD and plucked it from his hand. “Hey, this is a collector's item! Kind of ironic though, don't you think? Undead Co-ed?” He laughed, but neither Sam nor Cas joined him. “You know, only this version's better, because the one thing these co-eds need to eat to survive is –”

“Dean!” Sam was acutely aware of Carl still following behind them.

“Yeah, I know. It skirts a little too close to the whole necro thing for me, and it was only out for a few weeks before the Croatoan virus unleashed. And then it was recalled,” he explained. “That's why it's a collector's edition.”

“Who collects porn during a zombie apocalypse?” Cas asked, sounding legitimately curious.

“Anyone with either head still working!”

“Okay,” Sam butted in, pushing Dean rather forcefully out into the prison yard. "Little pitchers have big ears.”

“What?”

Sam nodded toward Carl, and Dean made an 'ah ha' face. “Hey, buddy, why don't you – ”

“Go find my dad?” Carl sighed. “Have fun.”

They hurried back to their cell, filling each other in on the cases. “Where'd Bobby go?” Sam asked.

“Well, we questioned that Mika kid, who had quite a lot of interesting things to say about her sister. Bobby went to talk to the dad again, and I was supposed to tail the squirrelly one, but I lost her in the cafeteria.”

“I bet you did. Did Mika tell you about Lizzie's imaginary friend?”

“Nick? Yeah. Crazy-ass kid plays with croats, man. It's not hard to believe she's got more than a drop of demon blood in her.”

“What? Not that,” Sam dropped his voice as they entered D-block, where they were staying. “Lizzie kicks Mika out when she talks to her imaginary friend. Carl said he felt angel vibes coming from down there, while Mika said Lizzie was talking to her imaginary friend. Maybe it wasn't imaginary.”

Dean thought about that a moment, then asked Cas, “You can't tell if another angel's been around?”

“Not if they're shielded from me as I am from them.”

“We need to find out if they're still here!”

“They're not.”

“You can't know that, Cas.”

“We're still alive, and we've not been abducted.”

“Oh.

“Besides...” Cas held up the DVD. “I may know who it was.”

“Oh!” He pulled the privacy sheet across the cell door and pulled out a portable DVD player. When Sam looked surprised, he said, “You're damn right I stocked up at Radio Shack. In fact, I made sure to get –”

“Okay, okay.” Sam waved him off, and all three of them crowded on the bottom bunk to watch.

Int. College Classroom, Open Stage – Evening

 

A large college classroom with rows of seats rising on three sides. A clock sits over the whiteboard.

THE TIME -
7:30.

ALICE, a svelt and sexy co-ed with a strawberry-blonde bob and an asymmetrical red dress, angrily packs up her books. She and classmate SHAUN, a scared-looking nerd in shirt and tie, have been told to stay after class.

PROFESSOR ROMERO, back turned, is wiping down the board at the end of the day.

The doors CLANG open. CLOSE UP: BARBRA, a buxom blonde with a smudge of blood on her face. She sees a CRICKET BAT lying near the door and shoves it through the door's metal handles.

BARBRA:
(hysterical as she runs down the steps)
Professor Romero! Help! The students have gone mad!

Professor Romero turns, raising one dark brow. His hair and mustaches are slicked to perfection. His eyes narrow as Barbra nears, and he takes his RULER from the desk, SLAPPING it menacingly in his hand. CLOSE-UP on Romero's face.

PROFESSOR ROMERO:
Hiya, bucko.

“Gabriel,” Cas whispered, right as Dean yelled, “Sonofabitch!”

'Professor Romero' snapped his fingers, and Gabriel stood before them in the cell. Sam closed the player and jumped up with the others.

“Sit, sit,” Gabriel said, motioning them back down.

“You would lead her to me!” Cas growled, reaching out to grab the archangel's arm. His hand went straight through, and he looked up in surprise.

Gabriel smirked. “No, I would not, as a matter of fact, and that's why I've Obi-Wanned myself here.” He winked. “Or Princess Leia-ed. I could go either way, really.”

“I bet you could,” Dean grumbled.

Gabriel's smile dropped, and he looked surprisingly serious. “Listen, brother. You slipped up in London. Kali was too close. I've got her looking in the other direction, but you need to make yourself scarce before she figures out she's on a wild goose chase.”

Cas looked at Dean. “We were planning on leaving soon anyway.”

“Soon's not good enough. You need to skedaddle now, and you need to keep away from these two goons. It's like you're trying to die.” That line almost sounded familiar to Sam.

“You're the one making porn deliveries. Coming straight to me and Balthazar. Your concern is insincere.”

Gabriel looked hurt. “I've stayed away from you just like I urge you to stay away from Dick and Dicker here. Don't worry about that. I'm tight with the weird kid. I don't have to be anywhere close to infiltrate that swirly twirly timebomb of hers.”

“Still, you're the only one who knows where I am. I must stay with the Winchesters. I know she'll eventually strike.” He looked deeply in Gabriel's eyes. “I will be ready.” Something unspoken passed between them. “So you did go to Balthazar?” Cas asked.

“I did.” Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “Sent him on the run again, and he's pissed, but it couldn't be helped. Kali's not after him anyway.” He looked as if he wanted to say more, then glanced at Sam and Dean and thought better of it.

“Balthazar is very powerful right now.”

“Yes,” Gabriel agreed, his attention back on Cas. “You're doing much better yourself, Castiel.”

Cas smiled. “Gabriel, if the three of us worked together...”

Gabriel held up a hand. “I do too much already. It's my real death if I openly defy her.”

“We're close,” Cas said, his voice thick with emotion. Sam shot a questioning look at Dean, who shook his head. “If we would all three just ally together, they could not stand in our way!”

“We'll talk again,” Gabriel promised. “I'll send word when I can.”

“No!” Dean said. He looked at Gabriel, or Gabriel's 'hologram'. “Whatever backstabbing shit you're messed up in, it needs to stay far away from here.” Then he looked at Cas. “You'd better tell me what you're up to.”

Before he could, Gabriel pushed an irate-but-useless hand through Dean's chest. His eyes flared. “You should treat me with more respect. I'm the unsung hero of your messy little screw up here – which you were warned about, no less! I've saved more lives than you could possibly imagine.”

“Yeah? Being Kali's little bitch?”

Not just his eyes but Gabriel's entire being flared, and he began to force-choke Dean. Sam grabbed Dean as he dropped and screamed uselessly at the angels until Cas managed to talk Gabriel down. Gabriel disappeared exactly as he'd come, with a snap of his fingers.

Their discussion was on hold until Dean managed to drink some water and start breathing again. He rubbed his weary eyes and laid back on the bed, where Sam sat anxiously beside him. “What are you up to, Cas?”

“Trying to figure out what Gabriel's up to.”

“No, I mean what were you two talking-without-talking about?”

Cas gazed at the wall across from the bunks. “Balthazar has the weapons of Heaven. We're close to discovering the entrance to Purgatory. If Gabriel has full access of – ”

“What?” Dean stood and looked at Cas in disbelief. “We said no on the Purgatory thing. You weren't supposed to be poking at that!”

“No, you said not to ally with Crowley,” Cas finally looked up at him. “Meg is the one helping me. She doesn't want Crowley getting those souls any more than I do.” Dean made a strangled noise, and he continued, “She was helping us already, and she doesn't have designs on Heaven or Hell.”

“Oh, she's just doing it out of the goodness of her heart, is she?”

Cas thought about it. “It's probably not goodness. Maybe convenience.”

“She's a demon, Cas,” Sam backed his brother up. “If she's wanting to find the door to Purgatory, it's not going to be a good thing.”

“She doesn't want any of the souls!” Cas implored. “I'd get to use them all to save Heaven.”

“Dammit, Cas!” Dean grabbed him by the coat. “Death himself said to stay away from it, and since he's got rank with God gone, you're going to listen.”

Cas swallowed and said nothing until Dean tightened his grip. “All right! I'll think about it. But we have to do something to get Heaven back. I won't ever give up.”

Finally, Bobby showed back up. He looked at their faces and frowned. “Well, I had some news, but it looks like you boys do, too. Everything okay?”

“No,” Dean said, a disgusted look on his face. They filled Bobby in on all that had happened, then listened as Bobby did the same.

“You keep your fluttery ass away from Purgatory, you hear?” he started. “Now, I don't know how much Dean told you boys...”

“Nothing,” Sam spat. “What else is new?” Dean gave him a dirty look, which he ignored.

“Well,” Bobby said, ignoring him, “that little Mika girl was very helpful. Seems Lizzie's powers started cropping up after her mom died, but it was all really subtle until recently. She's having dreams or nightmares, or sometimes just scary feelings. Nothin' all of us haven't had since the damned croats started, but hers hit jackpot more than statistically likely. Then once they came here, they had a bit more free time for her to practice talking to croats and pied pipering rats or whatever. Hell, Carl never had nothing before he vanquished his mom. Maybe the prison is a hot spot or something. Anyway, both of them have seen an increase in power since moving here. Though Lizzie appears to be more powerful than Carl.”

“It's not the croats. Apparently Gabriel's been poking around,” Cas told him.

Sam sat up too quickly, hitting his head on the top bunk. His hair caught in one of the bedsprings, and he angrily pulled it loose. “Gabriel admitted that he's been talking to her in her head. You don't think...?”

Cas smiled at him. “It's heartening that the thought appalls you now that your soul is back, but Gabriel using a child's mind to pass messages to me is mild for an archangel and downright benevolent for Gabriel.”

“Yes, it is. But supernatural things were happening to that girl before she ever got here. Carl swore he felt a strong angel presence himself, even though Gabriel swears he wasn't here physically.” Sam's words came faster as he spoke. “What if it's not an Azazel thing as in demon blood? What if it's an Azazel thing only with angel blood?”

Dean tried to say something and only started coughing again. Cas spoke over top of him. “An angel would never!”

“They'd never buy souls before, either,” Sam said. “Gabriel called himself the unsung hero of the zombie apocalypse. Like he said, Zachariah brought Dean here firsthand to see it! You guys all knew this was going to happen years ago.”

“It's not the same,” Dean said. “You were Lucifer then. And Baby was a wreck! That's how I knew it was one of Zachariah's tricks.”

“We made different choices and fought against it. We were able to change some things. What if Gabriel did too? If any angel is crazy enough to borrow Azazel's M.O., it would be Gabriel.”

Cas had nothing to say to that, and from the rapidly shifting eyes, Sam could tell he found it entirely possible. “Is there any way you could test the kids to see if there's angel blood in them?” Sam asked.

“I don't know,” Cas admitted. “Unless Lizzie starts smiting or something, I'm not sure I could tell you.”

“We need to watch both of them more closely,” Dean said roughly. “If an angel's screwing with the prison's kids, we can't just bail. Or is it worse for them if we stick around?”

Cas frowned and said nothing. Sam shook his head. “Sasha seems awfully green as a hunter. I know Maggie and Crowley's daughter are here, but is that enough?”

“Hell, that could be worse,” Dean said.

“You need to put up angel wardings immediately,” Cas said. “I think I can find a tome with a cloaking spell for dieties, but someone will have to be ready to let me back in and reset the warding.”

“Won't you go impotent?”

“Yes. Make it easy to break from inside in case we find ourselves under attack.”

Dean sighed, then looked at Bobby and Sam. “Well, get to warding. I don't think we should say anything about the Gabriel theory until we know for sure. In the meantime, I'll tell Jodi and Ben to unpack. Maybe even ask him if he's having any weird dreams lately.”

Chapter Text

Then:

 

“Sam,” Dean said without hesitation. There was a twinge of guilt, but not nearly as much as he expected. “Sam's soul. But...I hear it's in rough shape. Can you fix it?”

“Can I fix an agonizing era of torture under two of the most powerful archangels? I'm Death, Dean. Healing's not really my thing. And I can't very well just trim away the flayed bits.” Death raised his brows pointedly. “There'd be nothing left.”

“There's got to be something we can do.”

“I could try putting up a wall. Something to keep those dangerous Hell memories locked away, but it wouldn't hold forever. A while, maybe even a lifetime, but not forever. Still, it'll buy you time.” Dean's shoulders relaxed as a huge weight was lifted off of them, but Death wasn't finished. “You'll have to do something for me, though.”

“What's that?”

“When you fetch my ring, put it on. I want you to be me for one day.”

*

Tessa pointed toward a nearby RV, where Dean looked up and saw a couple of guys kicking back some beers and knocking golf balls around. “Let me guess...drunken fall?”

“Just wait.”

“What, you don't think you can keep this place safe?” one of the men, a big guy with an eye patch, was asking.

“Well, I mean, I try,” the other dude, Mexican from the look of him, was saying. “Hopefully we can be ready for whatever comes at us.” He grabbed another ball and turned around, setting up his shot. “Now that you're here, maybe we can share the crown...”

Even at a distance, Dean could see the mad look in the dude's one good eye. He quietly slid a club from the bag and took a step forward. The other dude swung, and Dean reflexively ducked as the ball came straight at his head. The Mexican's eyes followed it, and he was staring directly at Dean when the club came down on his head.

“Jesus!” Dean cried, whirling on Tessa. “What is this?”

“It's his time,” Tessa said as Eyepatch kicked his buddy off the side of the RV.

The dude jumped down, grabbed his golf buddy, and started dragging him across the grass toward the croat pit. Dean gaped in horror as he realized what the guy was about to do. “No. Dude, that's not right.”

 

*

“Man, this is the longest twenty-four hours of my life, and that includes time spent in Hell,” Dean said as he found himself in the midst of yet another camp in the early morning hours. “Oh, come on!” Dean yelled as Eyepatch walked up to knock on the door of the camper next to them. “This guy again? Please tell me I'm here to kill him.”

“Not him,” Tessa said, nodding as the door was opened by a young dude who looked like he hadn't gotten much sleep.

“How many people can this guy kill in one twenty-four hour period?”

“You'd be surprised,” Tessa murmured.

Death's ring was weighing heavy as they followed Eyepatch into the camper. The bastard, coward that he was, knifed the guy right in the kidney. That's two people who apparently trusted him, taken unawares as their backs were turned. Dean shook his head, hurrying to get it over with.

*

As soon as the pain settled a bit, signaling the healing of his internal wounds, Aidan pounced. He grabbed the razor wire, leapt to his feet, and wrapped it around Bishop's neck in one smooth motion. “I begged you to not to do this!” he cried, tightening the wire. Bishop's hands fought futilely against his arms. “It didn't have to be this way.”

“You're right,” Bishop gurgled. Aidan's hands didn't exactly loosen, but he stopped short. Bishop, arms reaching behind him, squeezed Aidan's shoulders one last time, almost as if with pride. “I'm...sorry.”

So many visions suddenly flashed in Aidan's mind, a myriad of alternate timelines, each one always leading toward him killing Bishop. As if he saw it too, Bishop choked, “S'okay...Aidan. The son...always...kills the father.”

“No.” Aidan pulled the razor wire from his maker's throat, throwing it across the room. “No!” he cried again, pushing Bishop away. Now Bishop was the one lying at Aidan's feet. “You can only make me so much of a monster, Bishop. I won't be like you.”

*

“We have to go,” Nora said, holding her head as she paced the length of the prison block that they supposedly had to themselves.

Supposedly, Aidan thought, because he knew for a fact that someone stayed just outside the door at all times; he could hear them talking in low tones every now and then. “We can't leave,” he told her. “You said yourself that the last fight took too much out of us. I know one meal wasn't enough to do much of anything for you guys, and I'm still barely feeding.”

Nora held her forehead as if in pain. After a moment, she said with a wince, “You remember what Blake said...”

Aidan's jaw clenched. “I will not feed on a baby, safe or not! I'd drink from you two before I ever did that, and I hope to never have an experience like wolf's blood again.”

“Not just the baby. If some of the kids can see Sally, maybe they're special ones Blake mentioned? They're the right age.”

“There's no way to tell without dying if we're wrong.”

Now:

Dean slept later than he meant to, and he couldn't find anyone he needed. He really wanted to question Cas, but Cas was out hunting a cloaking spell to hide them from the deities he feared were on his trail. Gabriel finding them had only made him more paranoid. Bobby wasn't around either, and Dean hunted all over for him. Finally, a little reluctantly, he went looking for Sam.

They needed to come up with a plan to verify whether Gabriel had messed with these kids. After talking to Gabriel – or his hologram representative, whatever – Dean was convinced that he was involved somehow, whether he had copied Azazel's little plan or not.

He found Sam in the boiler room, inspecting the drawer Lizzie had called her 'treasure box'. "Yo, where's Bobby?"

Sam didn't look up from the box. "Helping burn the croat bodies from yesterday." There had been another build-up at the perimeter fence.

"Well, we gotta figure this out," Dean said. "Why did Gabriel say he saved lives? What do you think he's up to?"

Sam tossed the box aside and shrugged. "We have no idea whether angel vessels can get infected. Maybe Gabriel was doing experiments on these children... An angel innoculation kinda thing."

"Yeah, maybe." Dean rubbed his eyes. Trying to come up with insight into Gabriel was like trying to breathe water: impossible and more than a little painful. He was trying to think of some witty remark when an explosion rocked the prison. Dirt and debris rained down upon their heads. "What the hell?"

They raced back upstairs, shocked to find that the prison was under attack. The advancing group had six cars fanned out, with an honest-to-God tank right in the middle of them. The tank had apparently blown the northeast tower. People came pouring out of the prison, and Dean saw Rick pull up short, mouth agape. Rick saw his people spilling out and cried, "Get back!"

A very familiar face rode atop the tank. It was the crazy Eyepatch dude that Dean had seen kill two men during his twenty-four hour stint as Death. That whole experience had been more than enough to let Dean know this guy was bad news. Sam came jogging up beside him, and Dean gave a tight smile. "Hope you got extra rounds. This guy's gonna be trouble."

"You think?" Sam said, eyeballing the smoldering tower.

"Rick!" Eyepatch cried. "Come on down here. Let's have us a little chat."

"It's not up to me!" Rick called down to him. "There's a council now. They're in charge."

Even at this distance, Dean could see Eyepatch smirk. "Is Michonne on the council?" A man pulled Michonne from one of the vehicles. Her hands were tied, and there was a bandage on her head. She had to have been knocked out to be taken, Dean knew, and she looked extremely unhappy about it.

Dean heard Rick curse, then, to his surprise, he heard Jody do the same. He swung around to see a look of fear on the sheriff's face. She was clutching Ben's shoulder, and far too tightly judging by his grimace. Dean followed their gaze back down to the cars, where he finally noticed Bobby being pulled out of another one.

"Hell no!" Dean cried, pulling his gun. He started to run down the yard, and suddenly one of those new guys was there at his arm, pulling him away with surprising strength. Where had he come from? Dean rounded the gun on him. "Let go."

"We have to be careful about this," the guy said. What was his name?, Dean wondered. Aidan, maybe? "If this goes south, a lot of people could die."

Suddenly, another car door flew open, and out stepped a man who looked all too familiar. He had a shoddy blonde dye job, but Dean would recognize those piercing eyes and that asshole smirk anywhere: Lucifer. "It can't be," Dean whispered, then swung around to look back at Sam.

As he feared, Sammy stood in stunned shock. Then he let out a strangled cry and crumpled to the ground, his body convulsing.

"Sammy! Sam!" Dean cried, running back to his brother.

"Why, Aidan, fancy meeting you here," Lucifer said as Dean fell to his knees beside his brother. Dean looked up, confused. He'd come for Aidan?

"Bishop," Aidan spat, and the man opened his arms and smiled.

Bishop? What the hell? The man looked just like Nick, Lucifer's 'backup vessel'. Could Nick have had a twin brother they never knew about? It sure as hell looked like him. Whatever it was, Dean was pretty sure that face had just single-handedly smashed down Sammy's wall.

Bobby cried out, "It ain't him!" Eyepatch pointed threateningly in his direction, then turned to the man Aidan had called 'Bishop', easily giving him the floor.

"I kept my word and stayed out of Boston," the man said. "You're the one who's out of bounds now. Leave this place. The South is mine."

"Not this," Aidan said, a growl in his voice. "Not here."

Dean barely heard the exchange through his worry about his brother, but that last sentence finally pulled him back to himself. "Ben," he hissed, glancing down toward where Eyepatch held the sword on Bobby. "Get Jody out of here. You guys need to go inside and break all the angel wardings. If Bobby says that ain't him, it's safe to break 'em. We need Cas, pronto!"

Ben nodded and turned, pushing Jody off ahead of him. Dean looked around for anyone who could help him with Sammy. The only person nearby was Garth, so, somewhat reluctantly, Dean motioned for the guy to join him. "Now, this may break you, but somehow we gotta lift Sammy and get him to the Impala."

"I'm tougher than I look," Garth said, though he was about the size of Sam's forearm.

He was true to his word. They managed to half-drag, half-carry Sam up the hill to the Impala. Dean was only vaguely aware of the happenings around him as they did. He was more concerned with finding some cure, some charm, some something to pull Sammy back to himself, but nothing he tried worked. Finally, reluctantly, he decided his best bet was in helping fight these assholes off. Then they could worry about Sam.

Bishop stepped forward to the fence line. "Don't you want to invite me in, Aidan? Have a proper conversation? I know I taught you better manners than that."

"No!" Aidan screeched, rounding on everyone. "Do not invite them in the gates! They can't cross without an invite."

Vampires, maybe? Not like any he'd ever seen before, that's for sure.

Eyepatch hopped down to stand beside Bishop, who grinned a grin just as evil as Lucifer ever did. "Have you met my friend?" Bishop taunted. "He'd do anything to be changed."

"No!" This time it was Rick who screamed as he hurried down toward the fence. "That...man..." he choked on the word, pointing at Eyepatch, "cannot be given anymore power. It's death for you as surely as for us."

Bishop raised a brow. "This the one?" Eyepatch nodded, and Bishop waved his hand. "Do what you will."

Dean looked back at the group, and he saw that Daryl was moving around, handing out weapons. They were mostly guns, but he was relieved to see a few machetes handed out as well. Henry had done well in making them.

"Let 'em go," Rick said, "right now. I'll stay down here and talk as long as you want."

“You and your people,” the man said, “have until sundown to get out of here. Or they die.”

“It doesn't have to be this way,” Rick pleaded, and Dean cringed to hear the crack in his voice.

“I've got more people, more firepower, more...” He gestured at Bishop. “Everything. We need this prison. This ain't about the past.”

Dean began to suspect this asshole Eyepatch was the Governor he had heard so much about. He might still be human, but they would not underestimate him.

"There are children here. Some of them are sick. They won't make it out there."

"Leave 'em," Bishop said. "We'll take good care of them. I promise."

"Bishop, even you never messed with children," Aidan said. "Why start now?"

"Kids born after the virus are immune. You can drink without worry," the man explained, and Dean started to get some inkling of how Aidan had crossed to him so quickly and seemed so strong. The douchebag was definitely a vamp! But how on Earth were they out in the sun? They were like no vampires Dean had ever encountered.

"You drink from babies now?" At least Aidan had the good sense to sound horrified.

"Only when we have to. Some of the older kids are...special." Bishop craned his neck toward the prison, but he evidently didn't see what he was looking for. "We'll take the one who controls the rats. And the baby."

"No!" Rick cried, and Dean heard Carl echo his scream. Dean quickly grabbed a couple machetes from the car and hurried down to join Rick.

"I have a tank, and I'm willing to let you walk away from here. There's nothing else to talk about. This is the way it is."

"Bishop," Aidan said, walking forward with his hands up. "Don't do this. The world's plenty big enough for all of us now."

"No it's not, Aidan! Didn't you listen? Their little virus kills us. I'm willing to let you keep Emily. I don't take back my gifts. But my new associate here wants this prison, and we need the kids who can feed us safely. I know you understand."

"Cas," Dean murmured, testing out the angel wardings. Cas did not reappear, and Dean silently cursed Ben and Jody, urging them to hurry up.

"Hey, Gov'na – you're the Governor, right?" Dean asked.

"Not anymore."

"Is there no other way to work this out?"

"We could all..." Rick choked again, nearly sobbing. "We could all live here. Nobody has to leave. We'll stay in separate cell blocks. We never even need to see each other."

"That won't work, and you know it." The Governor straightened, then pulled his gun and shot a few croats who had come too close. "Noise'll only draw 'em out. Make it harder for you to leave."

"We're not leaving. You try to force us, we'll fight back." Rick shook his head, swallowing back tears. "And you're right. The noise will only draw more in. They'll knock down the fences, and this place is nothing without the fences. Now...we can all live in the prison, or none of us can."

The Governor stalked over to another man (or vamp?) and drew Michonne's sword. He came to stand between Michonne and Bobby, holding the sword at Bobby's throat, and Dean felt the hot taste of pure fury rising up in him. "You don't want to do that," he warned the man.

Rick tried reasoning with the others, those people brought by Bishop and the Governor. A few looked ready to turn sides, and Rick sweetened the deal by offering to let them stay. Dean shook his head in disgust. These people could never live together.

"Now. We can all live together," Rick tried, though Dean thought he knew it too. "I know we've all done some of the worst stuff, just to stay alive. But we don't have to anymore. We took his people in! We all work together now. We're not too far gone. You get to come back. We can change. We can."

For a moment, Dean thought the two chicks might cross over to their side. Maybe they would have helped turn the tide. But the Governor snarled, and then he said, very quietly, "Liar." Before anyone realized what was happening, he drew back the sword. A moment later, it sliced into Bobby's neck. Bobby's face echoed the shock that Dean felt.

"No!" Dean screamed, and he pulled his pistol back out and started shooting. It must have been his grief blinding him, because he missed nearly every shot, though he caught Eyepatch in the arm at least, right as the man finished the job. "I swear, you son of a bitch, I'm going to kill you!"

It was mayhem in the yard. Others were shooting from behind him, and Dean hurried to grab cover behind an abandoned bus lying on its side. Michonne spun away like some ninja on steroids, avoiding every bullet, and Rick's shots followed the Governor, missing by mere inches.

Rick took a shot in the leg, and Dean pulled him behind the bus. A blur sped by them, and Dean whipped his head around just in time to see Aidan jump the fence. He would have easily cleared the whole thing, but Bishop jumped up, meeting him in the air, and they fell together on the far side.

"Let's go," the Governor barked to his people. "Get in your cars, take down the fence. Kill them all!" The tank lurched and came at them, pulling down the fence.

The Governor laughed and followed into the yard. "Why don't you join me, friends?" he called to Bishop and the others, and a second wave – these surely all vamps – followed him in through the gates.

Suddenly, the man was distracted. Dean looked beyond him to see a woman carrying a child, maybe ten years old. The kid was obviously dead. Governor turned to move toward them, and Dean took his shot. It caught him through the back of the head, and Dean smiled in grim satisfaction. He'd been wanting to kill that guy for at least a week. He hurried to him, putting the rest of his clip into the man.

Then, of all people, that crazy-ass Lizzie was out in the yard. She threw out her hands, and Dean saw some strange blue, wavy force shooting from her palms. One of the attackers threw his head back and opened his mouth, and black smoke billowed out. Somehow, the little nutjob had just exorcised a man! Kind of like Sammy used to do. She turned to the next, another vamp who was just close enough for Dean to see two fangs sprout on either side, just like vampires from the movies. Could there be more than one kind? he wondered, and then he quit thinking coherently as he watched Lizzie's force-power begin twisting the vamp's head around, Exorcist-style. Around and around it went until the neck snapped right off. She'd beheaded him with her mind!

Bishop and Aidan were still fighting, but three other vamps circled the girl, managing to take her down. All of the sudden, a shit-you-not werewolf came running into the fray. In the middle of daytime, nowhere near a full moon. "What the hell is all this?" Dean cried, running back to Rick. "What other secrets have you been hiding?"

Rick looked panicked. "I didn't know! I swear!"

The werewolf took down two of the vamps, but one got away with Lizzie. A few bodies were dropping, and Dean figured those were still humans. The rest must be vamps. He stuck his gun back in his waistband and came out with his blade, ready to chop off a few vampire heads. There was no good hit on Bishop without hitting Aidan, and as much as he'd happily rid the world of all vampires, Aidan was at least fighting on their side. Dean didn't want to inadvertently hit him. He went for the others, paying little attention to Rick anymore.

Finally, Cas appeared in the middle of the mayhem. "What the –" Without missing a beat, he threw open the book he held and started reciting some ancient spell. Surely, Dean knew, the one he claimed would cloak them from deities. It didn't particularly matter at the moment, and Dean resolved to have a little chat about priorities when this was all over.

Once he finished, Dean yelled, "Cas! Tank!" The tank was still blowing holes through the prison. Cas disappeared as he beamed himself into the tank. Finally, the thing stopped. Then, to Dean's delight, the gun turned and fired on the remaining cars zooming through the yard. Keeping from turning in Baby's direction, of course. Good angel.

He turned back to find that Aidan was now being overpowered by Bishop. Dean had a hate-on for anything remotely resembling Lucifer, so he was all too happy to come to the rescue. Bishop had fast reflexes, because he dodged easily and backhanded Dean, sending him flying. It was enough to get him to loosen his grip on Aidan, who easily grabbed the advantage. Enraged, the younger vamp simply grabbed Bishop by the head and ripped it straight off his neck.

Dean's eyes widened, worsening when Aidan turned a raging gaze on him. He'd taken several gunshots, Dean saw. He had no time to think before Aidan grabbed him, drinking deeply. Dean tried to fight him off, but the vamp had immobilized his arms, and Dean felt himself weakening. Finally, Aidan pulled away.

"Sorry," he gasped from a bloodied mouth. "I don't think when that happens. It's the only way I can heal."

"I will fuck you up as soon as I'm able," Dean promised.

"Okay. But I did apologize. If it makes you feel any better, your blood will probably kill me."

"Yay," Dean spat, then tried to stand. He headed back up the yard, and then his feet went out from under him.

Baby was gone.

So was nearly everyone from the prison. Now, Dean and Sam had helped the prison residents prepare and set up various rendezvous points just in case of emergency situations like this – but that didn't make Baby any less gone.

He and Aidan stood staring dumbly at the ruins of the prison. All Dean could hear was the panicked sound of "Carl! Carl!" being screamed from somewhere near the cell blocks.

Looking around, they saw only the bodies of the fallen. "Was that werewolf on our side?" Dean asked.

"Yeah." Aidan tried to grin, but it came out more like a grimace. "That's Josh. Please don't kill him. He's a good guy. One of the best."

"Where is he?"

They both looked around. "Where is everyone?" Aidan asked.

"Cas! Where's Ben and Jody?" Dean demanded.

Cas shook his head sadly. "You had me put wardings on them. I won't know where they are unless they pray to me."

Dean groaned. "Let's hope Jody does that soon, but if she saw..." Dean choked up and looked away. "She may not think of it." He swallowed and looked at the two remaining men. "We'll give him a hunter's goodbye. Cas, you clear out the croats while Aidan helps me build a pyre." Aidan started to interject, but Dean cut him off. "Stick with us. We'll find who we can. First Bobby, and then my car – with my brother, I mean – and only then do we start hunting werewolves."

"You mean hunt as in 'find', not as in 'kill', right?"

"I don't know yet," Dean admitted. "I've never seen one like that before. It bears investigating. Look, I need to make sure Ben's not still here at the prison. You start gathering wood. Cas, cover us." He hurried to join his own hoarse "Ben! Ben!"s to the Carl refrain.

Aidan, who was much faster, searched the prison within seconds and reported back, "He's gone. And I think, if I smell correctly, that he may have been the one who took your car."

"Oh, hell."

Chapter Text

Ben swerved, somehow managing to keep the Impala on the road. The thirteen-year-old knew he was warded, but he thought he must have a guardian angel that kept him from killing them all. Sam was lying in some kind of coma in the back seat, and Jody was practically the same in the front. Her eyes were open, but she didn't seem to be there at all. She hadn't even blinked when Ben spun the car while trying to avoid a packed prison bus that seemed to come out of nowhere, nor when he took the curve too fast and almost went off the road.

They sat at the crossroads. “Aunt Jody,” he said quietly. When she made no move toward him, he tried to make his voice sound stern. “Aunt Jody! I don't know which way the bus went. Where do we go?”
Still, she said nothing, so Ben sat there for a while, hoping Dean might catch up.

They'd both seen what that horrible man had done to Bobby. Beheaded him just like a vamp! He and Jody had come out of the prison to see poor Bobby's body, as well as several of the prison residents' bodies littering the ground. Sam's fallen body was gone, but they found him in the car. Dean, of course, was front and center as the battle raged on. Dean had been so mad that of course he went after that one-eyed, Bobby-killing son of a bitch. He had to have won, too. He had to have.

But Jody had stood in shocked silence, immobilized, and Ben finally had to push her into the Impala himself. Dean had told him to take care of Jody, and they'd done their job with the angel wardings. Cas would come and blow them all to smithereens, and then their group would all reunite and head to safety.

But now almost an hour had passed, and they still hadn't seen Dean come from the prison. To be fair, no one but croats had come by, anyway. They just sat there in the car, silent, as the croats walked right by them. But it was starting to get thick now, and they couldn't just stay there. More and more croats were coming from the prison. If he was going to keep them safe, Ben had to leave.

“Aunt Jody,” he asked again, quietly, “which way do we go?”

She said nothing, and so Ben turned west, back the way that looked familiar. He'd paid attention as they came to the prison. The roads were clear, and he knew where any potential danger might be. He even thought he remembered an empty farm off the main road a few hours out.

The hard part was staying on the road for that long, without hitting anything.

It took way longer than he reckoned, although he went pretty slowly at first. He eventually got used to driving fairly decently, he thought. He'd seen people do it plenty. Once he finally got the curves down, he was a-okay. An hour or so after that, he increased his speed. He thought Dean might have been proud if he'd been there to see it. After all, he only hit two signs during the whole ordeal.

Sam still wasn't awake, and Jody still wasn't registering. Ben took his gun, a Glock 9mm with silencer, and cleared the farm. The back door was already barricaded, so that was good. There was just one croat left inside, and Ben took care of that easily enough. He dragged it off the front porch. He'd learned at the prison, from Michonne, that the smell helped keep other croats away from humans, so he just left it lying there.

The tricky part was getting Sam inside. Ben wasn't near strong enough to pull him up the steps and into the farm. He needed Jody's help, and likely her full help. He had to get through to her somehow. He started with splashing some water in her face, but that didn't seem to work. She wiped it off without even looking at him. He really, really, really didn't want to, but he finally tried a move he'd seen on TV: he slapped her across the face. Hard, twice.

Jody finally turned her head and looked at him with dull eyes. “We are all alone, do you understand?” Ben asked in a tight voice, his eyebrows raised questioningly. Jody nodded, and Ben said, “Good. Now, I cleared this farm, but I need your help getting Sam inside. Something's really wrong with him. We can't stay out here all night. I need your help. Can you help?”

She said nothing, but after a moment, she finally nodded. Ben helped her out of the car and got her standing. Jody rolled her neck until it popped several times, and then she seemed to come back to herself, at least a bit. She turned no-nonsense, grabbing Sam by the armpits and hauling him out of the Impala. Ben hurried to take one side of the large man. It was a tough, long job, and Ben had to take a break twice to kill croats who had been brought in by the noise, but they finally got him up the stairs and into the farm's parlor.

Jody sat in a rocking chair and watched out the window, saying nothing. Ben went back to the car and popped the trunk. He'd never been allowed to mess in the trunk, but he had to now. He grabbed more ammo, a couple of machetes, and all the journals he could find. He was glad Jody had the foresight to grab everyone's bags before they'd seen what had happened to Bobby.

He found the pages with the demon and angel wardings, which he recognized from the prison. Ben took a can of spray paint from Dean's bag and did his best to copy them on each door. He found salt left in the pantry, and he salted all of the window sills. Only then did he finally scavenge the house. He was lucky. The house had been raided, but he pried open a crawl space and found a stash of cash, medicines, candles, and canned goods. He ate some tuna and tried to get Jody to have some, but she was back to not paying him any attention. Sam laid unmoving beside the couch. They hadn't quite gotten him onto it.

Ben hung blankets over the curtain rods, though Jody just kept staring at the blanket that covered her window. He lit a candle and sat down to read the hunter journals. He'd snuck a peak at John's a couple of times when Dean was gone, but he'd never seen Rufus's or the new hunter's, that Ed guy who had owned the island. He tried a spell he found to break a sleeping curse, but it didn't work. He stayed up as long as he could, but he finally fell asleep sometime in the night.

#

“Don't look back, Carl,” his dad gasped as they made their way from the prison. “Don't look back.”

Carl didn't. His last memory of the prison, where they had lived safely for so long, was of his sister's bloodied car seat. She was gone. His mom was gone, now Judith was gone. Everyone was gone.

His dad wasn't, but he might be soon. Rick had been shot in the leg. He'd tied it off with a strip of dirty cloth, and he wasn't doing too well. He must have lost a lot of blood, or maybe one of those vamps had fed from him. He was just so weak! They walked as far as they were able, but they finally found a house that Rick thought looked promising to stay the night at. They would have liked to have gotten a bit farther away from the prison, but Rick was moving far too slowly by then.

Carl knew they were supposed to go to the rendezvous point, but his dad would never make it on foot. As soon as they barricaded the door and Rick passed out, Carl went looking for supplies. There was nothing to be found in the house, besides taunting video games that he couldn't play, so he climbed out one of the second story windows and went scavenging elsewhere. He was headed down a side street when he heard someone calling for help.

As quietly as he could, Carl ran toward the cries. He peeked around the corner of a house, surprised to see Henry from the prison. He was trying to fight off a trio of walkers – and losing. He'd gotten one with his homemade machete, but then that had gotten stuck in the walker's skull. The other two converged, one biting his arm and the other biting his neck.

Carl started to shoot, but then he stopped himself. His silencer was on, but it would waste precious ammo. Henry was already as good as dead. Killing those things wouldn't stop anything. Instead he shot Henry, putting an end to the man's screams and misery. He felt mildly guilty, but not enough to stop him from sneaking up to Henry's nearby car while the walkers were busy with the body.

Henry had loaded up a car and took off by himself. Luckily for Carl, he'd loaded up a car. Carl wasn't quite sure how to drive, but it was easy enough to figure out. He managed to get the car turned around, even running over one of the assholes who ate Henry, and drove it back to the safe house where his father was. He used Henry's duffel bag and carted everything up through the second floor window, though it took him several trips. There were even a few books and one of the prison's industrial cans of pudding. He sat on the roof and enjoyed that after his labors.

His dad hadn't moved. Henry had even stolen some of the medicines, and Carl tried to give some to him, but Rick wouldn't rouse. Carl sat back and wondered what his next move should be. Just then, Rick's hand began to twitch. Carl gulped and grabbed his gun.

Could I shoot him? he wondered. They're gone. All gone. It'll all be better if I'm gone too. With those morbid thoughts, he resolved not to shoot his father's corpse. Let Rick kill him and be done with it.

Rick groaned, and Carl did what he could to swallow back tears. Then, to his amazement, he heard, “Caaaarl...” His dad wasn't dead!

Carl fell to the floor, cradling his father's head in his lap. “I'm scared,” he whispered, but his father only groaned. Carl opened the penicillin he had found and shook out two capsules, forcing them down Rick's throat one at a time with spilled sips of water. They finally managed to go down, though Rick never fully came to.

Carl sat beside him and watched him through the night.

#

Mika plodded along behind Carol while Tyreese, with Judith on his back, covered the rear. Mika was safe enough to fret, and she did so liberally.

Her father was dead. She saw him shot down as he tried to help the children get onto the bus. Then Lizzie decided they should fight back, and she'd ran right into the thick of the battle! Mika didn't know what she'd been doing with her hands, but Lizzie did something to help defeat those vampires, and they hadn't liked that at all. No, they'd attacked her and taken her hostage, and now Mika had no one left in the world.

That wasn't entirely true. She had Carol, and Carol could handle anything. Carol tried to teach Mika how to be brave and strong, but she just wasn't as brave and strong as Lizzie was. Still, where had that gotten Lizzie? Likely killed, if not worse.

“Don't worry,” Carol said for the hundredth time. “We're going to find your sister.”

“Carol,” Tyreese said, “I want to find her just as much as you, but we have to meet everyone at the rendezvous point. Rick's gonna be lookin' for his little girl!”

“Take her and go. For that matter, take Mika with you.”

“I can't leave you alone out here.”

“I'm a big girl, Tyreese.”

“Nuh-uh. All this crazy shit going down? I'm staying with you. But these girls need us now. Let's just go to the rendezvous and make a plan.”

Carol sighed. “I have a plan. I'm hunting the vampires who took Lizzie, and I'm not going to waste time going in the opposite direction and let the trail go cold.”

Mika did her best to drown them out with her mind. Vampires, rendezvous...what did it matter? Everyone was going to die no matter which way they took.

They camped in a small cabin, and Carol was gone in the morning. Tyreese changed and fed Judith, then they set out for the rendezvous point. “We need Carol!” Mika screamed, nearing hysterics. “I'm only alive because of Carol! I can't make it without her!”

“You can make it, Mika, and you will make it,” Tyreese promised her. He fondled his trusty hammer. “I'll take care of you. I promise.”

Mika thought that Tyreese could probably follow Carol's trail, but he took them back the way they came instead.

Hershel, Beth, and Daryl were already at the rendezvous point. Apparently all of the Woodbury residents had died when the bus was shot up while trying to leave, although Hershel and Beth both managed to escape. Mika felt sorry for the friends that she lost, but Lizzie had warned her not to get too close to them. It was her own fault for not listening.

Daryl left to go find Carol. Beth and Tyreese tried to talk him out of it, but Daryl didn't stick around long enough to listen.

Mika played with Judith, but she kind of hated it because Judith was still alive and Lizzie surely wasn't. It didn't seem fair.

In the afternoon, Maggie, Sasha, and Bob showed up, but no one else from the prison did. They waited two days, but no one else ever arrived at the rendezvous. Reluctantly, Hershel and Maggie decided that they should fall back to the next rendezvous point some twenty miles north. Sasha found a van with mattresses in the back, and they all piled in. Maggie finally stopped pacing once they loaded in the van, but she kept tapping her fingers nervously. She was worried about Glenn, Mika knew. Nobody spoke of Lizzie.

There was no sign of any of their friends as the remaining prison residents head north.

#

“Let me go!” Lizzie screams once she comes to. She tries to use her super magic powers, but nothing happens.

The man laughs. “That was some pretty impressive stuff you did back at the prison.”

Lizzie keeps shaking her hands at him, waiting for her powers to flow, but everything just fizzles. She looks at the man with a frown. “What have you done to me?”

“It's called a binding,” the man explains with a smile. “You're a very special little girl, you know that?”

Lizzie scoffs. “Yeah. People been saying that my whole life.”

“Oh, I don't mean special-woo-woo. I mean special.” The man walks the room, and Lizzie finally thinks to look around. She's in a room made of concrete blocks and no windows, and she thinks it might be a basement. There are dusty old shelves filled with all manner of food supplies, games, even toys. “See?” the man says. “You'll like it here. We've got it all set up. And there are friends, too. Other children just like you. Special.”

“You guys killed my dad. Why should I trust you?”

“Because we need you, sweetness,” the man admits. “When this sickness hit, you never caught it, did you?” Lizzie shakes her head. “You are protected somehow. We're not sure how, but something about you – and the other kids like you – kept you from getting sick. And if we drink from you, we don't get sick either.”

“You're a vampire.”

“Smart cookie. Now, your friends killed all of my friends, but I'm not going to hold that against you. I've already fed off you, so I'm all healed up. We can be friends, if you'll behave. You can eat, play with these toys, and once I'm sure you won't try anything stupid, I'll introduce you to the others.”

Lizzie feels her neck, only now noticing the crusted blood where the nasty man had fed on her. She shakes her head. “That wasn't cool.”

“You'll get used to it.”

But Lizzie doesn't want to get used to it. Lizzie doesn't want to be kept like a feed hog. She wants to kill that jerkwad one way or another. She tries to stand, but she's dizzy from loss of blood. The man rushes forward to catch her.

She grabs at him, surprised by his strength. She knows he'll probably kill her, but she's going to fight back any way she can. She leans back to look at him, then flings herself at his neck. She sinks her teeth in just as hard as she can, and she tries to rip his throat out, but it doesn't work.

He flings her to the ground, and she screams at him, “How do you like that? Not so nice, is it? You shouldn't do that to people!” Her mouth is covered with his blood, and she laughs at him, knowing she looks as crazy as people call her.

He stares at her with wide eyes, and for a second, Lizzie thinks she won. But then he says, “Do you have any idea what you've just done?” She doesn't, and she guesses it probably shows on her face. “I just told you that I fed off you, dammit! Now you've fed off me.”

She tries to stand, but she feels even more dizzy. The man barks a humorless laugh, which she barely hears through the ringing in her ears.

“You're turning, you dumb brat. What good are you to me now?”

Turning? She's going to be a vampire? Lizzie could imagine the power that would give her. She grins a big, red grin. “Oh, lots, I think.”