Father gave him the assignment just after his twenty-second birthday. "This is your test," he said with the jocular tone that so often promised a bloodletting. "Screw this up and you're out of the running. Pull it off, and you might just be the heir apparent.
"And get a haircut," he added, as if it were an afterthought. "You wouldn't want the hunter mistaking you for Bigfoot."
Sam only kept himself from hunching down and pushing his hair out of his eyes by locking every muscle tight. If Father had really objected to the bangs, he would have told one of the others, and Sam would have woken up one morning with lye in his hair, or worse.
The real problem was Father's threat and promise. He had never been so blatant before. He was probably lying—that was one of the basic lessons, never to believe anything you hadn't confirmed through your own means—but he was more likely to be lying about the benefits of success than the costs of failure. Now that they were all adults, Father was separating the wheat from the chaff with everything but an actual flail. In the past six months, seven of Sam's siblings had shuffled off this mortal coil, and Sam had only taken out two of them.
"What's to stop Ava from coming after me while I'm off doing your dirty work?" Sam asked.
Father smiled. "That's part of the challenge."
Forced back out into the mundane world, unable to study, and told to win the trust of some random hunter whose importance Father wouldn't even explain. It was enough to make him wonder whether Father wasn't setting him up for elimination. Of course Sam was the pick of the litter, but that wasn't an unmixed blessing for the current leader of the pack.
Father gestured, indicating an end to the audience. He turned to leave.
He froze. When he counted up his grievances against Father, the first was always that stupid, pretentious name. "Yes, Father," he said, forcing his body to stillness.
"Don't get dumb. Just because you won't see me doesn't mean I won't see you."
He nodded woodenly.
Father could throw anything he wanted in Sam's path. Sam wasn't going to stumble. If this was a real opportunity, he was going to squeeze it until it burst. If it was a diversion, he was going to use the chance to hone his powers far from prying eyes.
"I'm looking for Dean Winchester," he told the bartender, a pretty-enough blonde with a scowl that didn't quite hide the way her eyes lingered on his arms and his chest. Even slumped down in his college-kid sweatshirt and jeans, he knew he stood out, so he didn't blame her for looking.
"Dean?" she asked, halfway between suspicious and surprised. "Over there," she gestured, "but—"
He followed her pointing finger to the emptiest recess of the bar and stopped in his tracks.
There is a God was probably the most inappropriate thing he could have thought. Far from the broken-down redneck Sam had been expecting, Winchester was gorgeous. It was impossible to tell the color of his eyes in the bad light, but they were framed by lashes that wouldn't have been out of place on a fashion model. His lips were plump and pink as if anticipating what kisses would do to them, and his heavy stubble made Sam's thighs itch to feel those cheeks against his own skin.
Get his trust, right. Sam could do that.
As he approached, Sam saw the spray of freckles across Winchester's nose. This couldn't be a gift from Father, but it certainly was wrapped nicely.
Winchester brought his gaze up from his beer when Sam was a few paces away, his eyes unerringly finding Sam's as if he'd heard Sam coming through all the ambient noise of the bar. They were green.
"Yeah?" Winchester asked, breaking Sam's inexplicable paralysis.
"Dean Winchester?" he asked, putting extra hesitation into his voice and bringing his shoulders in tight. "My name is Sam Marshall. Can I talk to you?"
Winchester tilted his head. "Don't stop now."
Even though he hadn't been invited, Sam grabbed a chair from a nearby table and pulled it up to Winchester's. When he sat, their knees nearly touched.
"You might be wondering how I know your name," he began.
Winchester shook his head. "Saw you talking to Jo."
Sam stopped again. Pretty or not, this man was a member of a dying breed, deluded into thinking that what a loner did might somehow matter in the great wars between angels and demons. His intransigience should not be derailing Sam's plans.
Up close, the green of his irises was ringed with a darker color, almost black.
"I dream about you," he blurted out, and then wanted to smash his forehead into the table. He might have done it if Winchester's empty beer glass hadn't been in the way.
Surprisingly, Winchester didn't laugh at him. The wariness was not much better, even if it was accompanied by a slight flush.
Okay, Sam could still get his basic cover out, even if it had started like a bad pick-up line. "A couple months back, I started having these—dreams. I thought they were dreams, just imaginary. But then I saw a story in the paper and I found out—the things I'd seen had been happening. All of them. After I dreamed them."
Winchester examined him like he was a rattlesnake. "And this is connected to me how?"
"You were in them. You were fighting—you were hunting ghosts."
Winchester leaned over and gestured towards the bar, not looking at Sam. "Dude, I don't know what your problems are, but they aren't mine."
Time to play the concerned ingenue. "You're in danger," Sam said, widening his eyes as he leaned forward to put his hand on Winchester's wrist. It was like touching Lily, back before Sam figured out how to shut her down, except that this shock was warm and golden. They both stared down at his hand. Winchester was a big enough man that his wrist didn't disappear into Sam's grip, but Sam could still have closed his fingers around Winchester's arm like a cuff.
They were interrupted by the bartender, Jo, whose reason for failing to delegate the task to a waitress was immediately apparent: she put two bottles of domestic on the table, then settled into Winchester's lap, forcing Sam to drop Winchester's hand. Winchester grimaced, half in pleasure and half in embarrassment.
"I'm off in ten," Jo said into his ear, loud enough for Sam to hear.
Winchester's hands fluttered around Jo's body, struggling to find a place to touch her that wouldn't count as hitting a double or a triple. "Jo," he said, in the strained tone of a man with a diamond-edged hardon, "you know I promised your momma I'd leave you alone—"
"You were seventeen," she whined. "And if—" Sam didn't know whether she was going to say 'if you really cared' or 'if you asked her permission,' but it was obvious that Winchester didn't and wasn't going to, and Jo had the minimum of self-respect necessary to shut her up. She bit her lip and wriggled once more as she began to stand up, just to show him what he was missing.
If a girl had tried that with Sam, she would have found herself getting pounded right on the creaky little bar table. Winchester was either the evangelical brand of hunter or some other kind of crazy, because he just sucked in a breath and let her pull away. "I gotta talk to this guy," he said conciliatorily, indicating Sam.
Sam gave her a little wave, barely triumphant at all. He got the hairy eyeball anyway.
She did have a fine ass, snug in nice tight jeans and framed by the cutest little bar apron. When Sam turned back, Winchester was looking at him with mild disapproval.
"Talk," he said.
And now Sam was in a bit of a pickle. Father and his goddamned prohibition on letting Sam do any scrying in advance. ("The problems you'll be having, some of them you won't have any intel on. You've got to learn to react, my boy, get your instincts working for you.") The internet had proved unhelpful in determining Winchester's current activities, no shock there.
He fucking hated what using his powers to see the future did to him, and years of experience counseled against making himself so vulnerable in the presence of others, but there wasn't much choice here. He concentrated, pretending that it didn't make his face scrunch up in a truly ridiculous manner, and opened the window in his mind.
"A woman, a ghost," he said. "You're sitting in a car with her. She's in the passenger seat. She's wearing—a white nightgown?"
"What does she look like?" Winchester asked, hoarse, and Sam wished that he was good enough to open his eyes and still keep the vision.
"She's beautiful—mid-twenties maybe, dark hair, olive skin—she's, she's attacking you—" He snapped back into the now, needing to see Winchester's face whole and not writhing in desperate agony as the woman ripped the life out of him.
The intrigue on Winchester's face was fading into disquiet; Winchester offered him a napkin from one of the beers, then pulled his hand back as he realized that it was already sodden with condensation. He dug around in his pockets and came up with an honest-to-god handkerchief, shoving it at Sam. Sam looked at him, uncomprehending, and only then realized that his nose was bleeding.
"Head back," Winchester said, scooting closer and putting his hand on Sam's shoulder, right at the junction of his neck. "Here." He tugged, easing Sam's head so that his nose pointed up at the smoke-blackened wood of the ceiling, and brought Sam's hand up to pinch his nose closed. His fingers lingered over Sam's until Sam had a good grip, and then Winchester backed off, though Sam could still feel the heat rising off his body.
"That happen every time you get a vision?" Winchester asked. The headache and dizziness was worth it, because Winchester was a believer now.
Sam tried to nod without moving his head. "Preddy much," he got out. He could feel that the blood had stopped flowing, but he held on, just to work the sympathy angle. After a couple of minutes, he tilted his head back down. Winchester was examining him as if he were a complicated series of runes. Sam wiped off the last of the blood, looked down at the ruined handkerchief, and decided not to hand it over. Any one of his siblings would have used the stained cotton to fuck him up badly. Winchester was unlikely to perform blood magic with it, but Sam had the feeling he didn't want it back anyway.
"Okay," Winchester said, nodding and pushing back from the table and standing; he was only a few inches shorter than Sam. "I got a lead I need to track down." He paused. "So, you coming?"
Sam stood, hunching to make himself look less threatening and more threatened, and followed.
Winchester didn't explain why they drove halfway across the country, or why they stopped at the ugliest, orangest motel imaginable, but once they were in California they found exactly what Sam had seen.
"A woman in white, hunh," Sam said as they leaned back against their seats, afterwards. His distant curiosity was honest: his demonology was as advanced as any mortal's since Al-Hazan, but he'd never bothered with the minor beasts and haunts.
"Yep," Winchester said.
Constance had been reunited with her children. That hadn't gone all that well for her. Sam wondered if his human mother had feared him, would fear him now. He had a picture of her, dark-haired and dark-eyed. When he'd been a kid, before Father had explained, Sam had sometimes imagined his mother coming for him, saying she loved him and always had. But he hadn't ever needed a mother to tell him that he was special, and even Father's divided attention was pretty intense.
"What now?" Winchester asked.
"You still need my help," Sam told him, a flat fact. Saying it like that was taking a risk, but Winchester had seemed grateful to have a partner on this—well, Sam guessed it had been a hunt. He was a hunter now. "I can pay my own way, I've got some money saved up."
Winchester chuffed and rolled his shoulders. "You don't have anywhere to be?"
It wasn't enough of a direct question to justify trotting out a life story, and Sam wanted more time observing Winchester to see what would work best. "Nowhere but here," he said, daring a shy quick grin, and settled back into the old leather of the car.
Sam didn't want to push too soon, so he let Winchester take them to Colorado without much question. That was before Winchester showed him the records of the repeated disapperances, mostly attributed to bear attacks. He hadn't signed on for bears, or things that looked like bears, or things that did the kind of damage that got mistaken for bears.
He was also disturbed by how cavalier Winchester was about making up a cover story. Winchester just walked into the ranger station, staring at the wall rather than meeting the ranger's eyes, and started asking about the not-quite-missing group of hikers. When his first bullshit story didn't go over he just switched to the next one, visibly forcing himself to keep talking. Sam thought the ranger helped him out in the end because he was just so obviously desperate for the information.
On the one hand, his indifference to plausibility suggested that Sam didn't have to worry overmuch about his own excuses. But Sam didn't want to get arrested for impersonating a federal officer, or any of the other people Winchester seemed prepared to impersonate. He didn't even have a fake badge for Sam.
Nonetheless, it was true that, when Winchester showed his own fake ID, Hailey Collins didn't bother to ask to see Sam's. Which was good, because the one Sam was holding also had a picture of Winchester, only this time he was a member of the U.S. Geological Survey. Given how Winchester lit up a room just by walking into it, Sam could see how an average person's trust could get him through a lot of these situations, though more confidence would have helped.
The survivor from the 1982 attack was even easier than Hailey, not even slightly suspicious. Winchester was awkward with him at first, too rough and accusing, until Sam stepped in and started asking the questions. But Roger Shaw was beyond the niceties. He'd been carrying around the truth about the thing that had killed his parents for decades, and he only wanted to admit it.
The sight of those three claw marks distorting Shaw's chest made Sam nervous. He could repel anything he saw first, but that might take a lot of explaining, and, even with his abilities, going into the forest to be hunted seemed horror-movie stupid to him.
When Winchester started pulling weapons out of his trunk and stuffing them into two bags, Sam tried to balk. "You don't even know what it is. How do you know guns will stop it?"
Winchester stopped, looked back over his shoulder, and raised his eyebrow skeptically. "Your visions aren't telling you?"
"I'm not some 24-hour news channel," he snapped, because yes, he'd tried to look ahead, and there was nothing useful. Just blurry trunks and rushing darkness and then a bright flash: all that at the price of a migraine. He'd never spent a lot of time trying to sharpen the visions, mostly because they were incapacitating enough that they made him a great target for his brothers and sisters. He'd expended more effort staving them off than bringing them on.
Winchester already had his back to Sam, examining a semiautomatic, then returning it to its place in the car. "It had a physical effect on Shaw, right? Physical effect means physical vulnerability." Sam knew that wasn't entirely true, and opened his mouth to say so before he realized that he couldn't reveal that much expertise. His heart rate jumped when Winchester continued: "Unless it's some kind of demon, but a demon would've left the bodies to be found. Better scare value. So we're lookin' for something that can hit and be hit."
"Fine," Sam bit out. "Let's get this over with."
They hooked up with the Collins siblings and their guide, which Sam wanted to find reassuring. But Winchester's continued fumbling attempts to feign an obviously lacking woodscraft expertise cancelled out most of the confidence Sam otherwise would have felt.
Winchester handed him one of the weapons bags at the beginning of the trek. After a couple of hours, when it became apparent that neither Sam's shoes nor the feet in them were well-equipped for hiking, Winchester waited for him to catch up and then just transferred the bag to his free shoulder.
Sam glared at Winchester's definitely not-hiking boots. Winchester just started walking again, so there was nothing for it but to follow him.
They were far enough away from the others that, once he could breathe without panting again, he figured that conversation might be possible. "How'd you get this job, anyway?" he asked.
"Found some coordinates," Winchester said.
Well, wasn't he a Chatty Cathy. "Found where?"
Winchester sped up. Sam refrained from reaching out mentally to hold him in place. "My dad's journal," Winchester answered after another half a minute, when Sam failed to fall back.
This sounded important. "Where's your dad now? Is he here? Are we meeting him?"
The pain that washed over Winchester's face made Sam think, at first, that his father must be recently dead. But: "I don't know. I thought maybe—but if he'd've been here, there would've been a sign." With that, Winchester increased his pace yet again, crunching over leaves and branches with no evidence that he was even paying attention to where his feet went.
Winchester didn't have any plans that required Sam, he reminded himself, which meant that Sam had to be the one to bend. "Look," he said, forcing his aching legs to move faster. "I know I just crashed into your life. But listen, it's the same for me. I didn't ask to wake up screaming five nights out of seven, watching you nearly get your guts torn out. I don't know what I'm doing, I admit that. You're so hot to help people, then help me. And maybe I can do something for you."
Winchester wouldn't meet his eyes for the next hour. But when they stopped for a break, Winchester handed him the open bag of peanut M&Ms, then a canteen to wash the stickiness away. "Wake up screaming, hunh?" he asked while Sam's mouth was still full. "Guess my life's pretty scary."
Sam swallowed, thinking about the empty beds back home. "At least you're alive and fighting," he said.
Fear wasn't anything special, or even shameful if it was justified. He'd spent most of his pre-puberty life terrified—mostly of the teachers; the bodies changed but the black eyes always glittered the same—and then slowly pushed out as much of the fear as possible with anger, like water displacing oil.
When he was twelve, Father had started sending them out into the world: shopping trips, museum expeditions, library visits. Always with goals, like the time they'd each been ordered to come back with a leather jacket without stealing it. Jake had produced a wad of cash whose provenance he'd never explained; Andy had ordered a woman to open her wallet for him—she'd collapsed after, but they hadn't stuck around to see what happened next; Sam had done what he'd needed to do. Lily had taken nearly three days to return, and she was different afterwards, but they'd all passed.
Later, there had been more diffuse assignments, and more individualized ones. In the summer of his sixteenth year, Sam had been tasked with getting the daughter of a local politician into a compromising position. She'd been nineteen, a spectacular beauty, and he'd been just starting another growth spurt, all bones and stumbles, so it had been a significant challenge. He'd finally approached her at the local pool.
"You're from that funky boarding school," she'd said, smiling condescendingly in her blue-and-teal-striped bikini.
"The Xavier Institute for Higher Learning," he'd said, and then, when she frowned: "Sorry, private joke."
He'd gotten the job done. Afterwards, the girl (Amy, her name was Amy, except maybe it had been spelled differently; he wasn't sure) had drowned in the pool despite the presence of three lifeguards. It was the local tragedy of the year.
Sam had only found out about her death when Father had called him into the study to read out the eulogy delivered by the girl's pastor. "I hope you enjoyed that X-Men reference," Father had said, merry as ever. "It's a good thing she wasn't a comics fan, don't you think?"
Sam had swallowed and nodded, because there was nothing else to do.
So yeah, he knew more about fear than Winchester thought.
Sam felt it the moment Winchester was taken by the wendigo. That instantaneous knowledge was troubling in and of itself, but it was subsumed by the immediate fear. Father would crucify him if he lost Winchester to a mindless killer. Whether or not Father was lying about his presence at Golgotha, Sam believed that he could make it last for days.
Then he had to lead Ben Collins through the woods, even though he didn't know what they were going to find and he was cold and dirty and a new blister seemed to pop with every step he took. It had been easy enough to be confident among his siblings; they'd known him all his life and had reason to respect his power. Ben was just a scared guy out in the woods, with no reason to believe Sam other than the force of his will and the sight of a few peanut M&Ms, marking a trail.
At last, they found a tunnel. There was a warning sign: "Danger! Do not enter. Extremely toxic material." Sam stared at it, almost disbelieving. If it wasn't a coincidence, something that had been put up while the wendigo was quiescent, then there were people out in the world who had Father's sense of humor.
The wendigo's lair smelled like a latrine stuffed with rotten meat. Ben had to stop in the tunnel to gag, but Sam breathed through his mouth and pressed on.
The ground under their feet was soft and unpleasantly squishy. They were fifty feet in when they heard the growl.
Ben froze like prey. Sam knew that if the wendigo saw him, it would find them both, so he grabbed Ben and shoved him against the wall, where his silhouette wouldn't stand out. The wendigo hesitated. Ben trembled. Sam wanted to snap his neck, even as he could feel his own muscles starting to shake.
It loped towards them. Ben's mouth opened; Sam pressed his hand over nose and mouth together, suppressing all sound.
Less than a dozen yards from them, the wendigo swerved and disappeared down a side tunnel.
Sam released Ben, but neither of them moved from the wall at first.
After that, falling through the floor into a pile of skeletons seemed almost relaxing, even if Sam ended up with sliced hands and a cut on his cheek.
The skeletons were evidence that they were near the wendigo's feeding grounds. Sam stood, shaking off the bones trying to cling to him, and tried to find his way in the near-darkness.
There was a sort of electric humming at the back of his mind, a tremble like a compass needle near an iron bar. He found his flashlight and switched it on, pointing it in the direction his instinct demanded.
Winchester and Hailey were hung up like chickens in the window of a Chinatown restaurant. Sam hobble-skipped over to them, Ben following. The boy was a rabbit, but he loved his sister, Sam thought. It was hard to imagine what that felt like.
Sam scrabbled with the ropes—he hoped they were ropes and not the braided intestines of earlier victims—and Winchester twisted slowly. The motion started to rouse him.
"Wake up!" Sam urged, as loud as he dared.
Winchester's head turned slowly towards Sam. He blinked and his eyes widened. Sam realized that the ropes were just looped around Winchester, pulled tight by his own weight; he gritted his teeth, bent, and hoisted Winchester over his shoulder, ignoring the white-hot pain of his feet as he picked the ropes free.
"Thanks," Winchester said when he was back on his feet, seeming more surprised than pleased. Sam understood that: relying on somebody else's performance was a good route to a short, sharp shock.
"Help me!" Hailey said. He turned and saw her pushing at yet another trussed victim: the missing Tommy. Winchester tapped his arm, then put a large folding knife into his hand and jerked his chin at Hailey.
Sam dutifully went over to the Collins huddle and, grateful for his height, sawed through Tommy's ropes, no fucking around with unwrapping this time.
What was Winchester up to?
He cast around in the dimness, his pulse doubling.
"Hey, check it out."
Sam spun, nearly tripping over his own feet. Winchester was in a corner, holding up a bulky pistol.
"Flare guns," Winchester explained. It must have been part of the equipment Tommy and his group brought along, Sam realized. Winchester twirled a gun around each index finger, then looked up and grinned at the expression on Sam's face. "C'mon," he said. Sam would have sworn this was the first time Winchester had actually been happy since they'd met.
Sam found that he had absolutely no hesitation in following Winchester's lead. It was possible that he was a little bit in shock.
Ben and Hailey wrapped themselves around Tommy, who was barely conscious, and they headed back out of the tunnels.
The wendigo's growl boomed out from the depths of the tunnel. In the darkness, there was no way to tell how close it was.
"Suppertime," Winchester mumbled to himself.
"We'll never outrun it," Hailey said calmly.
"All right, listen to me," Winchester said. "Sam is going to get you out of here." He pressed one of the flare guns into Sam's hand, then pulled away.
"What are you gonna do?" Hailey asked.
Winchester was already moving down the tunnel. "Hey, sweetheart!" he yelled. "You wanna dance?"
Sam hovered for a second. This was Winchester's specialty. But he'd already been captured once. But—
"Come on," Hailey hissed. They stumbled down the crumbling corridor.
The next growl couldn't have come from more than ten feet away.
Sam pushed the others ahead without thinking. "Go!" They were on their own now; he turned towards the inevitable attack.
The wendigo rushed him faster than one of Ava's ifrits. He pulled the flare gun trigger almost by accident, pushing out with his mind at the same time to keep the wendigo away. Then he ran.
The Collins siblings were just reaching the tunnel entrance when he rejoined them. He turned back, and the wendigo was leaping towards them again. He cried out in warning, then put himself in its path, so the others wouldn't see the cursed creature move so inexplicably when he knocked it back.
Sam and the wendigo both stopped at Winchester's yell. Then the creature's torso lit up from the inside, and Sam blinked as the wendigo broke into flames from the flare Winchester had fired into it. He saw it clearly for the first time: a wizened brown thing like a man half-melted into a bat shape. After only a few seconds, it crisped into ash and sparks.
The hike back out to a place the ambulance could reach offered plenty of opportunity to review his own performance, the way Father always demanded. He was cold and sore and he smelled nasty. Something squishy had gotten caught between the back of his T-shirt and the collar of his overshirt when he'd fallen down, and he already knew he'd be sorry when he saw what it was. It was almost a relief to think about the larger lessons, including that he needed to figure out how to guide a gun with his mind.
More disturbing than his poor aim were the other aspects of the attack. Winchester had run towards the wendigo like a kid running towards a carnival. Sam was good, but he'd have trouble winning the confidence of a dead man.
And then, when the Collins siblings had looked at him, after, there had been this light in their eyes. Sam didn't get it. Hailey and her brothers had been stupid and they'd nearly paid with their lives. They were pathetic normals, ignorant even beyond the minimal understanding of hunters. It didn't matter what they said, or thought.
Still, Winchester walked a little taller, swaggering almost on those bow legs of his, on their way out of the forest. Sam eyed him and wondered how long it would take to get this job done. Yes, he itched to spread Winchester open and fuck him raw, and he could have done that with or without Winchester's agreement at any time, but Father had specified real trust, accomplished without unnatural influences.
So far, all Winchester had revealed about himself was a fondness for cock rock and a strange shyness around ordinary people.
That was fine: reserve like that hid deep insecurity, meaning that when Sam got inside him—and he did intend to do that, in every possible way—Winchester would be his entirely. But it meant slow going in the beginning, and patience had never been a virtue Sam pursued.
As he was contemplating his next move, Winchester dropped back to match his pace. "You did good." He looked like the words had tasted funny coming out, almost like he expected to get told to shut up.
"What?" Sam asked, automatically.
"You protected the civilians."
Sam knew better than to confess weakness. But this was so obviously a screw-up that bravado didn't seem worthwhile. "I missed the wendigo completely! From four feet away!"
Winchester shrugged. "Ever fire a gun before?"
Before Sam could control his expression, Winchester was already smirking, not meanly but with a kind of indulgence.
"Nobody gives points for style in this gig," he said. "C'mon, step it up. Once we get cleaned up, the beer's on me tonight."
It was oddly relaxing to sit in the passenger seat while Winchester drove and finally, unprompted, started lecturing on the supernatural. His discussions came complete with comparisons of reality to the myths propounded by TV and movies. Sam pretended to be surprised and occasionally disbelieving, just to make Winchester emphasize to him that Sam was the one with the freaky visions. He laughed a lot, and soon he didn't even have to remind himself to do so, and soon after that Winchester started laughing with him, as if he saw for the first time how ridiculous and implausible his life was.
Winchester pulled over by a deserted field, rolling the car until it was hidden by brush and cursing about the undercarriage the entire time. He made Sam take a shotgun and try to hit targets at increasing distances.
With Winchester watching beside him, like some sort of cartoon sun beaming over Sam's shoulder, Sam couldn't very well just make the shot go where he wanted. "Isn't the point of a shotgun that you don't have to aim?" Sam yelled.
"Can't hear you!" Winchester yelled cheerfully back. "Anyhow, you graze a ghost, it's not gonna stay back long. You need to get the center!"
After he pronounced himself almost convinced that Sam wouldn't accidentally shoot him, Winchester returned the weapons to the trunk of his car and they continued on.
For some reason, Sam was reminded of being eight years old and screwing up a minor incantation. Father had made him repeat it until his fingers bled, and given what blood did to that spell, it was a lesson he didn't soon forget.
That night, they stopped at a motel decorated entirely in diamond patterns: the fabrics on the furniture in the lobby, the wallpaper, even the counter of the front desk. "How do you even find these places?" Sam demanded as they headed towards their rooms, because it had been like this every night since they'd left the Roadhouse together: Winchester seemed determined to avoid anything remotely like a chain in favor of unimaginably strange and often depressing little places.
Winchester gave a little smirk that brought out his dimples. "Kind of a hobby. Keeps you from forgetting where you are, y'know?"
Sam shook his head, uncomprehending, and Winchester's smile disappeared as if it had been cut off with a knife. The diamond pattern on the walls made the corridor feel like a cage, ready to close in on them until they choked.
"Anyway," Winchester continued grimly, "it's cheaper." Sam had never thought about that, but clearly hunting wasn't a job that paid in the six figures. He stopped, and Sam realized that they'd reached his door; Sam's room was the next one down the hall.
"I didn't mean—" he began. "It's certainly—educational. I don't mind, or anything." He ducked his head, using his bangs to get some cover, because he didn't know how to fix this. "I never—my family's not big on travel."
Winchester tapped his fist against Sam's forearm, gently, brushing his knuckles on the gray sleeve of Sam's sweatshirt. "Get some rest," he said, just as softly.
Sam nodded and made his feet move him away, to his room.
He was used to having his own space. Once they'd hit puberty, none of his siblings had been fit company and Father hadn't wanted too much energy wasted on proximity-based squabbles. But the mansion-cum-barracks where they'd all lived necessarily hummed with their energies; you could never assume you were alone or unobserved. And then when he'd been away at college, there was always someone dropping by for homework or beer or videogames or something else trivial. He'd had to play his gentle, shy role full-time to avoid complications.
People's opinions were formed like stones skipping across a pond, hitting only the surface. Father had taught him how to use that inattention by smiling and looking bashful. Winchester was buying Sam's story unhesitatingly, and that should have just confirmed that Winchester was no better than the rest of them. He wanted to yell at Winchester: Don't be so stupid! Yet Winchester was obviously not stupid.
The whole puzzle made his stomach twist up and set his skin to itching. He would have gone out and found some anonymous fuck, but Winchester might hear him leave and wonder.
He listened for the sounds that signalled Winchester was getting ready for the night. He imagined the layout of Winchester's room, a mirror image of his own. When he laid down, he twisted onto his stomach and put a hand up to the quilted, diamond-patterned headboard, right across from where Winchester's head might be.
Right across from where he was sure it was.
He would have suspected that Father had put a geas on him, but this felt like it had always been part of him.
Lake Manitoc, at least, had nothing that threatened to eat them.
Winchester fumbled Andrea Barr, the sheriff's daughter, like she was made of razors and molten glass, instead of an ordinary grieving widow. Because he didn't look like the kind of man who had trouble with women, his too-wide smile came off sleazy and she bristled right away.
Then Lucas Barr showed up and Winchester's focus swung to him like a lighthouse beam. If he wasn't careful, he was going to end up in the clink as a potential pedophile.
Sam went into damage-control mode, rolling his eyes at Winchester, bringing Andrea onto his side. "Sorry about that," he told her. "He really is housetrained, even if he doesn't look like it."
She told them where to find the nearest motel. A few hours later, when they had more background on the series of deaths that had caught Winchester's eye, they knew they needed to see her again. Sam would have preferred to talk to her alone, but Winchester's attention had been captured by the fact that Lucas had watched his father die. "You don't get over that," he said, his face as blank and grey as the lakefront.
So they went to the park, because Sam had heard Andrea promise to take Lucas there later. She was sitting on a bench, alone, watching Lucas, also alone. The swings and slides made Sam feel too large. Father had kept playground equipment at their compound, but only a few pieces of everything, so there was always competition. If you wanted something, you had to shove your way to the front, or ally with enough of the others that you could take turns within your smaller group. Lucas had his choice of anything, but he was just sitting at a little table scattered with toy soldiers and crayons.
"Can we join you?" Sam asked Andrea as they stopped beside her.
"I'm here with my son," she said pointedly.
"Oh," Winchester said, barely looking at her. "Mind if I say hi?" He didn't wait for an answer.
Sam adopted a bemused expression, pulling in his shoulders and offering Andrea a sympathetic look.
She was having none of it. "Tell your friend that whole Jerry Maguire thing's not gonna work on me."
He told her the absolute truth: "I don't think that's what this is about."
Over at the table, Winchester squatted down, balancing easily as the hem of his long leather jacket brushed the dirt. He touched the toy soldiers, grabbing one and dancing it around for a bit. Lucas didn't react. Then he flipped through the papers on the table, marked with blobs of color that Sam couldn't interpret from a distance. He said something else to Lucas, then picked up a crayon. As he drew, he kept talking. Lucas didn't raise his head, but he didn't move away as he had earlier.
Winchester offered Lucas the picture he'd drawn, then left it on the table. As he headed back to the adults, Sam saw Lucas pick it up and inspect it.
Winchester wasn't smiling when he returned, which probably had something to do with Andrea's decision to talk to him.
"Lucas hasn't said a word, not even to me. Not since his dad's accident."
"Yeah, we heard," Winchester said, sitting down at the edge of the bench and leaving several feet between himself and Andrea, still oriented like a setter towards Lucas. "Sorry."
"The doctors say it's post-traumatic stress."
Sam made his voice low and respectful, widening his eyes and bringing his brows down a fraction, hunching forward. "That can't be easy for either of you."
"My dad helps out a lot," she said, and a shadow ran under Winchester's face, almost too fast to see. "It's just, when I think about what Lucas went through, what he saw—"
"Kids are strong," Winchester said, putting his hands together between his spread knees. "They can get through just about anything."
Andrea sighed, her face tight with regret. "You know, he used to have such life. He was hard to keep up with, to tell you the truth. Now he just sits there. Drawing those pictures, playing with those army men. I just wish—"
She stopped as Lucas came up to them. His face was as grave as it had been the entire time.
"Hey, sweetie," she crooned, her voice full of yearning.
Lucas raised his hand and offered Winchester a picture.
"Thanks," Winchester breathed. Lucas didn't acknowledge either of them, just walked back to his table.
Bill Carlton, sitting on the dock and looking out at the lake that had taken both of his children, told them that losing them was worse than dying himself. Winchester seemed to crumple a little at that; he stopped trying to question Carlton, but Sam had to tug him away.
He stumbled on his way back to the car. Sam put his hand out, held on so that Winchester couldn't just keep moving. "What is it?" he asked, turning Winchester so that they were face to face. The leather of Winchester's jacket was tough and cracked, nothing inviting about it. Sam leaned in, close enough that he could feel Winchester's panting breaths against his cheeks. He purged the annoyance from his voice, leaving only concern. "C'mon, what is going on with you?"
Winchester pulled sharply away from Sam's clutching fingers; Sam had to let go or they'd be having a fight. "'s nothing," he lied, facing towards the Carlton house so that Sam couldn't see his face. "I just—hey."
He pulled out the picture Lucas had given him. Sam looked at it and cursed the bad timing. Lucas had drawn the Carlton house.
"Sometimes, when bad shit happens, latent psychic talents surface," Winchester said, his tone indicating he'd already concluded that the drawing was no coincidence.
Sam hadn't gotten any sort of vibes off of Lucas, but he also hadn't been checking.
If the kid had some psychic link to the killings, that did a little more to explain his trauma. Of course if watching visions of random people die had been enough to knock Sam out, he wouldn't have survived puberty. But that was the point of Father's lessons, after all: Sam and his siblings were better and stronger than the rest. Lucas, whatever he knew, was as weak as any ordinary kid.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think it's a good idea," Andrea said when they returned to her father's house.
Winchester's earlier unease had been lost to his laserlike focus on Lucas. "I just need to talk to him, just for a few minutes."
"He won't say anything," Andrea pointed out, her face tight with anger that she'd been forced to remind them of her son's deficiency.
Sam took a deep breath and pushed the larger agenda aside. "Andrea, we think more people might get hurt. We think something's happening out there."
She shook her head in automatic denial. "My husband, the others, they drowned. That's all. People drown."
Winchester held his hands out like he was begging for alms. His eyes were wide, bottle-green with worry, but his voice was steady. "Ma'am, please. If you think there's even a possibility that something more is happening, please let me talk to your son."
Sam and Andrea hovered at the door of Lucas's room while Winchester went in.
Winchester began slow, soft, thanking him for the picture. Sam could see that Lucas had drawn a slew of new pictures. The two visible at the moment showed a red bicycle. "The thing is, I need your help again." Lucas paused in his coloring—the present drawing looked like it might be a person in water.
Carefully, like he was unwrapping an ancient text that might crumble, Winchester withdrew Lucas's earlier drawing from his jacket and unfolded it. When he asked how Lucas knew to draw it, Lucas didn't even twitch. It was the same for the next questions, and the same when Winchester suggested that he could nod yes or no. Sam heard Andrea's tiny sigh of disappointment.
Winchester's next words riveted his attention back where it belonged. "You're scared. It's okay, I understand. See, when I was your age, I saw something real bad happen to my mom, and I was scared, too. I—I was all alone then. I didn't feel like talking, just like you." He stopped, drew in a shuddering breath. "But my mom—I know she wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day. And I do my best to be brave. And maybe your—maybe your dad wants you to be brave, too."
Lucas raised his eyes at last. His crayon thudded to the carpet. They stayed locked like that for nearly a minute, and then Lucas reached out without looking into his pile of pictures, extracting one with a church, a house, and a boy with a red bicycle outlined against a fence. Andrea's hand went to her mouth.
"Thanks, Lucas," Winchester said, but Lucas was done communicating. Andrea swept him into a hug, and she looked up at Sam and Winchester like they were half the danger to her son.
Sam found her hovering a little disturbing. The drawings were not reassuring. But did she really think that she could protect the kid from his own mind? It was almost enough to make Sam want to pull Lucas aside and lecture him about the frailty of others. Except that Winchester seemed to be the only person allowed inside his little circle of indifference.
The next four hours were devoted to finding every church within a five-mile radius of the lake, hoping for a match to the church in the drawing. Sam would have tried to get Winchester talking about his mother, but Winchester's angry concentration made it clear that any distraction would be counterproductive.
Winchester really wanted to save Lucas. Not just whoever was going to be targeted next, but Lucas specifically, a little kid caught up in a bigger game. For a second, Sam wondered what it would have been like to have someone looking out for him, him specifically, at the same age. The thought made him twitchy, and he had to keep himself from snapping at Winchester when the first three churches they visited were obviously wrong.
The fourth was perfect, though, and the yellow house from the drawing was right next to it. A woman answered the door when Winchester knocked. Her hair was short and white, and her throat showed her age, the skin sagging down from her chin, but her eyes were still alive.
"We're sorry to bother you, ma'am," Winchester began, "but does a little boy live here, by chance? He might wear a blue ball cap, has a red bicycle."
The woman took a quick gulping breath. "Not for a very long time," she said. Winchester's quizzical expression invited her to continue, and she did, explaining that her son Peter had disappeared in 1970. "Losing him—you know, it's...It's worse than dying."
Without thinking about it, Sam patted Winchester's back and felt the muscles jump. Past the woman's body, he saw a brace of toy soldiers set out on the table, just like the ones that Lucas Barr had started to play with after his father's death. He tapped Winchester's shoulder and indicated them with a flick of his eyes while the woman turned to an old, faded picture just by the door.
Winchester picked up the picture, examining the two boys and the red bicycle. Sam fleetingly wondered why the woman didn't object, but maybe anyone willing to remember her son counted as a friend. "Peter Sweeney and Billy Carlton, 1970," Winchester read from the back.
So now they knew: Bill Carlton was being punished by Peter's unquiet spirit. Unfortunately, they didn't arrive in time to keep Carlton from going out on the lake, and even more unfortunately, they were then subjected to angry interrogation from the Sheriff Devins.
When Andrea showed up to bring her father dinner and was summarily ordered home, Lucas actually made a noise and grabbed Winchester's arm, which seemed to shock everybody in the room but Winchester. Lucas's affinity for Winchester made Lucas's grandfather even more suspicious, and Sam answered his questions several more times, keeping the story basically true. Winchester just kept looking at the door as if he were trying to see all the way to Lucas's house, assenting to Sam's story every time he was asked.
Finally, the sheriff revealed that he'd checked—and easily blown—their cover IDs. Sam refrained from reminding Winchester that he'd predicted this was going to happen. Devins kicked them out of town, which was a fine resolution as far as Sam was concerned.
Except that Winchester got to the edge of town and then turned away from the highway. "The case is over," Sam argued. "Peter got his revenge."
"What if it's not?" Winchester asked. "What if we missed something, and more people get hurt?" This was about Lucas, somehow. A child alone with a parent who mourned but didn't understand.
Winchester might be right. The kid was psychic and still scared.
Sam didn't say anything when Winchester headed back to Andrea Barr's house. If they got arrested, he was prepared to tweak the sheriff's brain until they got free and explain it away somehow, but fighting Winchester on this was not the way to win his trust.
As soon as Winchester touched the door, Lucas flung it open, panting like he'd just run a marathon, and ran back upstairs to where water was pouring out through a closed door. Winchester managed to thrust Lucas into Sam's arms just long enough to kick the door down, and then Lucas was back on him like a leech.
That was damned lucky for Andrea, because Sam doubted even Winchester's considerable physical strength would have been enough to free her from the entity holding her under the water. Sam was able to push the spirit back enough to win the tug-of-war before she drowned, though it was close.
Afterwards, while Andrea cried and wondered if she were crazy and Lucas watched in silence, Winchester rifled through every family memento he could find in the house. When he found an old album labeled "Jake" that contained a picture of Peter Sweeney and Bill Carlson with their Boy Scout troupe, Andrea confirmed that her father was another Scout.
"Hey!" Winchester said, noticing that Lucas had moved to the window. "Lucas, what is it?"
They all followed him out, Andrea wincing and barefoot in her robe, to an unremarkable spot on the lawn. Winchester put his hand on Lucas's shoulder. "Shovels in the trunk," he told Sam.
At some point, Andrea forced Lucas back into the house and into bed, and then she declared herself worn out and went in herself. They kept digging. About two feet down, they hit dull metal, inconsistently shaped enough that they had to abandon the shovels and go to their knees. Sam wanted to stop as soon as they confirmed that it was a red bicycle; it was dark and cold and his legs were nearly as numb as his hands. But Winchester insisted that they might need the bicycle, so they kept at it until dawn crept over the horizon and they didn't need the flashlights to work any more.
At last, they pulled it free of the wet earth, propping it on the pile of excavated dirt.
That was when Sam heard the footsteps behind them. "Who are you?" The sheriff sounded almost as confused as he was angry. They swiveled, Sam raising his empty hands when he saw Winchester do it. The sheriff had his gun up, moving it back and forth to target first Winchester, then Sam.
"Put the gun down," Sam suggested.
"How did you know it was there?" the sheriff demanded.
"What happened?" Winchester asked. "You and Bill killed Peter, threw him in the lake, buried the bicycle? Nothing stays buried forever."
"I don't know what the hell you're talking about." The sheriff even sounded like he wanted to believe himself.
"I think you do," Winchester said, just as Andrea came out yelling for her father. "You've got one seriously pissed off spirit," he continued.
Sheriff Devins cared about his family, he'd made that clear. Sam had an idea of how to reach him. "It's gonna take Andrea, Lucas, everyone you love. It's gonna drown them. And it's gonna drag their bodies God knows where, so you can feel the same pain Peter's mom felt. And then, only after all that, it's gonna take you. That's when it stops."
The sheriff's hands shook on the gun. "How could you know that?"
Sam spoke with pure conviction: "Because that's what it did to Bill."
"You're both insane!"
Winchester had the long-suffering expression of a man who heard that too often for his taste. "If we're going to stop this," he said carefully, "we're going to need to find the remains, salt 'em, and burn the bones. So you better tell me you didn't just dump him in the water."
"Dad, is any of this true?" Andrea asked, but Sam could tell that she was already a believer, like it was just confirming something she'd always known.
"No!" he barked. "Don't listen, they're liars, they're dangerous—"
"Something tried to drown me," she said, her voice thin with shock. "Chris died on that lake, there's something talking to me, I think it's talking to Lucas—Dad, tell me—oh, my God." She crumpled in on herself, nearly falling to the ground.
Andrea's breakdown triggered the sheriff's confession; he had, Sam supposed, little left to lose. He gave the usual excuses: they were kids, it was an accident, things just got out of control. Sam remembered all that quite well. He also remembered how very dead the victims stayed afterwards, regardless of intent.
"Listen to me," Winchester interrupted. "We need to get all of you as far away from the lake as possible."
Andrea gave a choked cry.
"Lucas!" the sheriff yelled.
They turned to see Lucas nearly at the edge of the lake.
By the time Winchester hit the edge of the dock, Lucas was already dipping his hand in the water. Sam saw a hand, solid as any living human's, reach up and grab Lucas's wrist, pulling him down without even a splash.
Winchester dove into the water like an arrow launched from a bow.
Andrea sped up, preparing to follow him, but Sam caught her before he'd thought it through. "Stay on the dock," he warned.
Winchester came up, gasping for air, without Lucas. He went down again, into the black water. Sam could feel him under there, searching frantically and futilely. He'd keep going until he drowned.
Even if Winchester got his hands on Lucas, Peter's spirit would resent the interference and keep them both down. Sam couldn't beat the spirit in water, its home turf, especially not without being able to see it.
He knew what he had to do. "Jake! You've got to end it now."
For a long moment, the sheriff looked straight at Sam. Sam let him see it all: the contempt, the knowledge that Winchester and Sam could do nothing to fight Peter's ghost in time to save Lucas, Sam's doubt that the man would find the courage to accept the trade.
In a moment, he'd give Devins a tiny mental push, but he wanted to see what free will would do on its own.
The sheriff was crying, the tears almost invisible in the weak morning light. Slowly, he waded into the lake, useless apologies spilling from him. Andrea called out denials, not yet realizing that she was going to lose at least one of them.
Winchester emerged, looking around frantically, and saw Devins on his way in. "No!" he yelled, joining his voice to Andrea's.
"Just let it be over!" The sheriff's voice broke on the last word, right before he was dragged down.
Winchester dove again. This time, he came up with Lucas.
Andrea swept Lucas back into the house before the ambulance arrived. Winchester pointed out that sticking around as witnesses to a second mysterious watery death was a good way to get arrested, so he pulled a couple of blankets out of the trunk of his car to protect the seat from his sopping clothes and they headed back to their motel. Winchester didn't seem to mind that Sam followed him into his room. Sam was operating on the theory that success would make him more talkative.
"You really got to the sheriff," Winchester said after he got out of the shower, like he wasn't quite sure whether getting to the sheriff was a good thing. "I—I hate tryin' to convince anyone about this stuff." It took Sam a moment to remember that he was talking about convincing Devins that Peter's spirit was killing people, not convincing Devins to trade himself for his grandson. Winchester had been underwater for that, and Sam had no plans to fill him in.
Sam didn't say anything. Instead, he leaned back on the bed, putting his hands behind him to brace himself, and enjoyed the view, since the towel around Winchester's waist dipped low enough to show his pelvic cut and was still too short to cover more than the upper half of his quads.
"In the end, he sacrificed himself for his family," Winchester said, half to himself. "You think that makes up for what he did?" He bent over a little, his back to Sam, pulling at the towel that had been hanging around his neck and using it to rub his hair dry.
If Sam had been in the same situation as Devins, he would have hied himself far away from open water, but he guessed that the resolution had a certain symmetry. "No. Just means the ghost threatened the right thing."
It took a few seconds to realize that Winchester had paused his towel-rubbing in order to turn his head and stare at Sam.
"Not that it did the right thing," he clarified quickly. "I mean it had the right tactics for its objectives. What do you think?"
Winchester frowned, throwing the towel back over one shoulder. "I think ... you've gotta be willing to make that sacrifice. Sometimes it's not enough. But if you don't—" He shook his head. "Family's all we have."
This whole business had been nothing but an engraved invitation to inquire into Winchester's trauma.
"What you said to Lucas," he began, low and careful. "You wanna talk about it?"
Winchester's mouth pursed up and he dug in his bag until he found an acceptable pair of gray boxers. He dropped the towel around his waist and stepped quickly into them, then began rummaging for a shirt. Sam had to force himself not to be distracted. "Thought your visions told you everything you needed to know about me."
He sat up on the bed, lowering his voice further. "It doesn't work like that. I've only seen flashes of your future. But, you know, the fact that I see your future at all means that we have a weird connection, so maybe there's something ...?"
"Like I said," Winchester told the T-shirt in his hands, his back all clenched muscle, "my mom's dead. My dad and I watched her burn up with my brother when I was four." His hands were strangulation-tight on the fabric, bones and tendons standing out sharply.
"Wow," Sam said, giving himself time to think. "I'm—I'm sorry."
Winchester didn't change expression, but he pulled the shirt on and started wandering around the room, touching random objects. "Yeah, well, light a candle on All Souls' Day. What about you? Any family secrets you wanna share?"
Sam took a deep breath, preparing to give some answer that would strengthen the bond between them. Then he stopped, caught by an instinct. "All Souls' Day? You're not Catholic."
"That's the anniversary. November 2, 1984, the night they died."
He couldn't speak for a moment. Winchester noticed and cocked his head. Without conscious intent, Sam's voice came out in a whisper. "That's my birthday."
Winchester went even paler, his freckles standing out on his skin, his eyes shadowed. "My brother Sam was six months old that day. Exactly six months."
Sam didn't have to feign his shock. This was one of the jokers up Father's sleeve.
A death in the family, a boy with nearly the same name, on the very night Sam was born: that was more than coincidence. Naming him to commemorate a recent victim was just the kind of secret cruelty Father would love. Which meant that the fire was a clue.
"That's what happened to me," he forced out. Lying to Winchester now was shockingly difficult, like swimming up from five fathoms deep, but if he got it done right Winchester would be sutured to him for good. "My mother died in a fire when I was six months old."
"You feel it too, right?" Winchester asked, staring at the wall like he expected it to fall on him. He sounded like he was speaking from under a pile of rocks. "This, whatever. Connection, like you said."
Sam nodded, then made himself say it out loud. "Yeah." If he didn't pay attention, he found himself turning towards Winchester automatically, like a fucking sunflower swiveling towards the sun. He knew where Winchester was in a room, often even in a building, without thinking about it. The only consolation was hearing that it was mutual.
"I feel like I've been in deep water for years and I'm coming up for air for the first time," Winchester admitted.
Sam felt a stab of something sharp and hot in his chest.
If he forgot that this was all a part of Father's plan, he and Winchester were going to end up identical bloody smears on the ground. It was in both their interests for Sam to fight the impulse to spend all his time slobbering over Winchester like a kid with a new game system.
Even if he really wanted to play with Winchester.
Focus. Ava wouldn't let herself be diverted by squishy feelings. He needed to know more facts—unless the whole point of this was only to distract Sam somehow. But why Winchester? It didn't make sense.
What does Father want with you?
"What does it mean?" Winchester asked, an echo of that four-year-old boy who'd just lost his mother in his voice.
"I don't know," Sam said, keeping his hands to himself only with effort. "But we're going to find out."
He'd asked about his mother when he'd been fifteen, brave with hormones. Father had glanced at him, then back to his grimoire. "A witch, pledged to me—German or Polish or something like that."
"Is that why she gave me my name, because she was pledged to you?" It was such a stupid name: people always got it wrong, and he'd given up explaining, even though he always wanted to tell them the difference between 'God has heard' and 'poison of God.' Maybe, if she did it to show her faithful service—
"Sammy," Father had chuckled, "she didn't give you anything."
It was a scissors-stab, but he'd persisted. "Where is she now?"
Father had closed the book with a sigh. "Everywhere." Sam had stood rooted, uncomprehending. "The birth was difficult, the way God intended. It left her ... vulnerable."
That night, Sam had crumpled up the picture and hidden it in the back of his closet. Sometime during the next few years, it had disappeared. But he still remembered her eyes: the first woman he'd killed.
Winchester invited Sam to his room the next night, which was promising, but when Sam showed up, the bed had been tilted up against the wall, propped up on its headboard, and the mattress was sitting on the carpet. At least the disarrangement drew some focus off of the hot-air balloon decor, though there was nothing to be done about the big yellow lamps with their switches embedded in the gondolas.
Sam raised his eyebrows, silently asking for an explanation.
"Thought it'd be a good idea for you to know how to fall."
He was totally serious, too: Sam spent several hours falling over, falling down, falling back, and even falling forward. When he protested, about forty minutes in, and got up to leave, Winchester nodded to himself, then swept his leg out so fast Sam barely saw it, and Sam got to experience what falling was like on the bare carpet.
By the end, Sam was sore and his ass hurt, and he hadn't even gotten Winchester to press their bodies fully together, which might have been some consolation.
But the next day, Winchester started showing him how to break holds.
When Sam had been ten years old, Father had instituted a ritual: the end-of-day deficiency list. Everybody gathered together, and Father would identify one or two screwups by each of them. Unless there'd been none he cared to name, which naturally made that person a target for the next few days. Sam stayed clear of Father's more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger chidings about one day out of four, which was better than anyone else's record.
Father didn't have a fixed order for listing the names, so there was no way to tell if you'd escaped until the very end. Sam would always think, before the start, that the waiting was the worst part, but Father had a way of making your errors sound so amazingly stupid that waiting was generally preferable.
Winchester never made him feel like an idiot or a weakling, even at the beginning when Sam got winded after ten minutes while Winchester was still running backwards in front of him, grinning like the class clown. He even warned Sam about how to keep his muscles from seizing up. His rebukes were softer than Father's caresses: Winchester would whack Sam, open-palmed, on the ass or the shoulder when he got through Sam's guard, or smirk at Sam over dinner when they discussed how he'd killed the hell out of the tree next to the target.
Without penalties, Sam hadn't even noticed he was being taught at first. He'd just assumed it was Winchester's way of passing the time.
Sam started to spend his evenings researching suspicious, unsolved fire deaths. There were a lot of them, too many, so that any patterns were lost in white noise.
Then, on a hunch, he restricted it to deaths involving mothers and their children. There were still hundreds in the early eighties alone. He generated a spreadsheet with dozens of biographical details for each victim. One night, frustrated, he tried a graphical representation of the data, and one of the scatter plots wasn't all that scattered.
From 1981 through 1987, there had been an enormous spike in the number of babies who died at exactly six months old, burned up with their mothers. Or at least that was what the police records said.
Sam's random lie hadn't been so random as all that.
Father had said the birth had left his mother vulnerable. He hadn't said to what.
Most of the babies couldn't have made it, one way or another. Even if he went back to his earliest memories, there had only been about forty of them growing up together. The only attrition he remembered from his childhood had been Father's dispatch of Charles. At eight, Charles had proved unable to control his impulses with respect to the household pets. Father had opted for a swift and public punishment.
Large quantities of blood still forced Sam to fight the urge to gag, not in themselves but because of the sense memory of being required to kneel in his own vomit for over an hour before he'd been allowed to clean it up.
The point was, Father had collected his children from around the country (and probably the world; Sam was still working on foreign data, especially Germany and Poland, but most other countries' records were even harder to get than American ones), but the initial fire seemed to have been some sort of six-month screening. Sam wondered what sort of powers a six-month-old could demonstrate. Or was it just that Father had liked the looks of the ones he saved?
Winchester's brother had likely been a failed recruit. Maybe Winchester himself—but no, there'd been no sign of powers, and Winchester was well past the age of manifestation.
"Thank you, ma'am," Winchester said, smoothing his hand over his tie.
Missy Fawkes didn't look any happier to be called 'ma'am' at the end of the interview than she had at the beginning, but at least she'd bought Winchester's humorless cop act, and she nodded and ushered them out of her condo.
Officiousness was really Winchester's best mode, not the hail-fellow-well-met thing he'd tried with witnesses when he'd first met Sam. He got too nervous to be believable when he tried to smile at everyone. But with Sam around to do the smiling, Winchester was free to be the bad cop, or often enough the bored and indifferent insurance investigator.
The only time Sam had seen him relax around a stranger immediately had been a case involving a garage, and what they had initially thought might have been a possessed car. Sam had known it was going to be annoying from the get-go: Winchester had glowed when he mentioned the possibility of an actual Christine, and spent half the journey on an extended analysis of the merits and demerits of various Stephen King movies. Then, when they arrived to investigate, the garage owner had creamed himself at the sight of the Impala. It had taken Winchester two and a half hours to get around to the point of their visit, by which time Sam had already found out by talking to the owner's girlfriend that the likely source of the problem was not a car but an extremely dissatisfied customer who had decided to start a beyond-the-grave chapter of the Better Business Bureau.
It had taken extensive efforts on Sam's part to keep his patience and cajole Winchester into leaving the garage for the cemetary. Once they'd burned the bones, though, Winchester had been effusive in his praise, and for some reason that had just pissed Sam off more. He wanted to tell Winchester that he didn't give a good goddamn whether some moron's garage burned down. He wanted to tell Winchester to stop pretending that Sam was some kind of good guy. Which was stupid, he knew. Winchester was wrong, but he wasn't pretending. It was just difficult for Sam to keep all the anger in the right places.
In the end, they'd left with a freshly detailed car and five phone numbers for garages across the country that the owner swore would treat the Impala as she deserved to be treated. Sam thought that anyone who called a car a 'she' deserved to be treated rather badly himself, but no one had asked him.
Once he'd had a chance to contemplate his pique, Sam understood a little better. Winchester rarely got the opportunity to share his enthusiasms: the problem with ghost-hunting was obvious; people who loved weapons as much as Winchester did generally either didn't trust strangers enough to talk to them or wanted to recruit them into neo-Nazi cults; B-movie fans all congregated on the internet now, and Winchester hated to type. Of course he'd feel comfortable with someone who recognized the glory of his vehicle.
Sam didn't actually care, but he resolved to do a better job of listening. It was very important that Winchester turn to him first, after all.
The night manager promised them that their rooms were right across from one another. "You have the Aries," he told Winchester, "and you have the Virgo." Sam shuddered to think what those names symbolized.
"So how do you afford this life of luxury, anyway?" Winchester asked while they were heading down the dingy corridor towards their destinations.
Sam shrugged. "Money saved up from college, my dad. It's running out, though."
"We could share," Winchester suggested.
"Really?" It was okay to sound eager, he thought. Sam Marshall was an innocent looking for a guide through this strange new underworld. Winchester looked at him and smiled a little. "Yeah, really. I, uh, don't exactly have a big travel budget myself. You play any games? Pool, poker?"
Sam let himself look shocked. "That's how you get money?"
"Sometimes," Winchester said. "My dad—" And then he shut down like a garage door slamming into concrete, the way he did every time the subject of paternal influences came up. "Anyway, you come over tonight, I'll show you some tricks."
Sam let himself fall a few paces behind so that he could control his expression. The man was a walking encyclopedia of hunter's lore, and the weapon he couldn't work hadn't been invented, but Sam was pretty sure he had no fucking clue the kinds of bad checks he was writing to Sam's libido with his sudden grins and his casual asides.
With the pistols, Winchester made him fire a couple of times "so you don't freak out when you hear how it really sounds," and then they both put in earplugs. This, of course, necessitated that any corrections to Sam's stance be made hands-on.
Winchester wrapped his arms around Sam, moving him into place, sliding his hands down Sam's right arm to make sure it was braced properly, his chest pressed up against Sam's back. He had to be on tiptoe to do it, Sam was sure, hooking his chin over Sam's shoulder so that he could see where Sam was aiming.
It was substantially more distracting than any attack Sam had yet experienced. He did notice that Winchester was careful to keep his groin from settling against Sam's ass, which he chose to interpret as evidence that Winchester was no more immune to Sam's charms than the reverse.
Even after weeks of practice, Winchester's hands always stayed on Sam's arms a few seconds too long when he was correcting Sam's stance. But he always let go, and he didn't cut Sam any slack even when Sam got bored and pulled his saddest eyes, trying to persuade him to cut the training short.
The whole thing was—it was just weird, being touched all the time with nothing behind it, or anyway nothing but the intent to show some move or another.
Everything was a test; Sam had known that since before he'd known his name. But Winchester didn't seem to see it that way. Sure, he got competitive when Sam started hitting the targets with just about equal accuracy. But he seemed happiest when the contest was closest, and after the sparring match in which Sam finally, finally put him on his back and kept him there with a knee in his stomach, he stopped cursing after thirty seconds and then smiled like he'd just been served a huge steak dinner.
Sam pulled back and stood. There was a ball of barbed wire twisting inside his chest, squeezing the breath out of his lungs.
Winchester jumped easily back to his feet, clapping his hands together. "'kay then. Now we run."
Sam watched him retreat for a few seconds, then launched himself after.
Domestically, things were also proceeding, in fits and starts. Winchester dressed in the bathroom, but he always watched when Sam came out of the shower with his towel knotted too low.
He tried not to tease Winchester too much, because he'd hate to get kicked out. Also, Winchester slept in boxer-briefs and tight T-shirts, so he still got plenty of eye candy, especially since Winchester tended to push the covers off of his bed while he was asleep.
It wasn't all ogling and beer. Winchester was used to living with someone, but it was someone else.
"Hey, actually, I like my coffee straight," Sam told him the fourth time he showed up with a cup that was already holding a year's worth of Florida's sugar output.
Winchester blinked at him a couple of times then gave him a stoic suffering face, which was unfairly good-looking on him. "Sorry," he said and held out the other cup. "This one's clean."
Sam took it, because refusing wasn't going to make Winchester feel any better. The strange feeling in his stomach was just annoyance at himself that he hadn't spoken up earlier.
But the other side of Winchester's home training was that, when Winchester pulled up at the laundromat, he took Sam's bag as if it was obvious that they'd wash their clothes together. Sam wasn't carrying anything that would disprove his story about being a college student jerked unwillingly into the underbelly of American monster society, so he didn't resist.
It was kind of relaxing to sit with Winchester in the night-emptied space, the only soundtrack the slosh of their sudsy clothes, and listen to his stories about growing up on the road. Never about his father, of course, just about the towns and the schools and the jobs. But dear old Dad was there in the negative space, and Sam was getting a pretty good picture: obsessed with hunting, relying on Winchester to do the mundane tasks like cooking and washing the clothes, pulling him out of school on a moment's notice when a hunt beckoned.
Winchester was proud of the fact that he'd gone on hunts with his father since before he was old enough to read. He could conjugate Latin like a Roman and make a shaped charge out of two pipe cleaners and the contents of a housekeeping cart, but he told Sam once that he hadn't found the time—meaning his father hadn't found the time—to get his GED.
Even Father had done better than that, though admittedly Father's aims had been somewhat different. Sam's Classics courses had been useful, and scattering everyone to colleges around the country for a few years had given them all some breathing space before the competition began. Sometimes Sam wondered what would have happened if he hadn't jumped the gun and tracked Max and Andy down on their respective campuses, but given what Jake had done right after, he figured that it would have been much the same in the end. He'd learned well enough how to move through the human world, which was what was important.
Winchester had never been given that much freedom of movement. It was no wonder that he didn't know how to deal with people he wasn't questioning for purposes of a hunt. After losing his wife and baby son, Winchester's father had kept a stranglehold on his remaining family.
Winchester had started to look better-rested as soon as they started sharing a room. Sam guessed that he hadn't spent a night apart from his father until the man disappeared.
That also explained why he treated Winchester senior's journal like a talisman. Sam suspected that he would have slept with it under his pillow if that wouldn't have interfered with keeping a gun in the same place.
Which raised the question of the motivation for his father's disappearance. Hypothesis: Father had something to do with it, because there was no way Sam could have gained Winchester's trust with a control freak of that magnitude hovering around.
Why, why, why, that was the question.
After a while, Winchester actually started telling him when he was doing well on the exercises. At first he was hesitant, like he wasn't sure he had any right to speak up, but it became just another part of the routine. Every time Sam hit his latest goal, Winchester would make the next day's training that much harder, adding "civilian" targets to avoid or closing the book of protective runes and making Sam draw them from memory and then demanding ten more pushups.
The fall that Sam turned thirteen, Father had pulled him aside. "Samael," he'd said, all seriousness, "you're my favorite. It's important that you know that. And it's important that you keep this a secret, just between you and me." Sam had been brimful of happiness, able to ignore almost all of the other kids' attacks, for nearly a week before he'd spilled it to Ava after she got in a particularly good dig.
She'd laughed and laughed. "You are truly brain-damaged," she'd chortled, her palms slapping the wall she'd fallen back against. "Didn't you figure out he says that to all of us?"
At first, it was hard not to flinch when Winchester said "awesome" in that tone of unequivocal approval, but Sam learned to accept it. Okay, maybe he also started swaggering when Winchester praised him, but that was justified.
And then, after a good day, Winchester started calling Sam "Sammy." Sam just gritted his teeth and replied "Sam" in his best fuck-you tone, which as far as he could tell only made Winchester grin.
"Just once, c'mon," Sam wheedled as they drove towards the cemetary. He was pushing, he knew, but Winchester hadn't seemed to mind so far.
"Dude," Winchester said, trying for offended and not quite getting there, "I am not going to say 'Just the facts, ma'am,' so you can stop asking any time now."
"Mrs. Gordon was trying to give me a chocolate chip cookie recipe. And where were you? Off laughing, that's where."
Winchester hadn't been laughing, but he'd been fighting a smile when Mrs. Gordon took Sam's friendly, sensitive detective act as an invitation to share every secret of her kitchen. She'd answered Winchester's bored-sounding questions with ill grace, but Sam's fluffy bangs and goofy rounded shoulders had turned her expansive and, once the digressions were conquered, reasonably helpful about the troubles that had been plaguing her husband at work before he'd died. Yes, Sam's kidneys were floating from the gallon of oversweetened iced tea she'd served him, and he wanted that hour of his life back. Overall, though, he'd have to call the day's work a positive.
He frowned to himself. Of course he didn't care about the poltergeist that was threatening to drive a struggling bank out of business. But Winchester had been impressed. That was the success.
That night, after they returned to the motel from the job, they popped a couple of beers and relaxed on the curb next to the car. "'s good," Winchester said, raising his bottle to his mouth and draining all but a mouthful. "Bein' a team."
Sam thought about wild animals and shifted himself a little, so that his knees were aimed at Winchester even though they weren't touching. "To teamwork," he said, tilting his bottle so that Winchester just had to close an inch's distance to clink their beers together. When Winchester did, he raised his head, and Sam gave him the full treatment. Personally, Sam wasn't fond of the way a wide smile flattened out his nose, but it made his dimples jump out, and you couldn't really argue with success. Certainly Winchester seemed to appreciate the view, grinning back goofily, and at some point Sam stopped thinking about smiling and just did it.
The airplane crash hunt started badly. When Jerry Panowski said that he hadn't ever expected to see Winchester without his father—"attached at the hip" was part of his narration—Winchester went whiter than the time that the ghost in Reston had managed to stab him through the shoulder. Even Jerry, who was roughly as sensitive as a bag of bricks, saw that he'd misspoken and hastily accepted Sam as Winchester's new partner.
Things improved for a bit during the investigation. Winchester in a suit was a nice change of pace, at least after Sam redid the knot of the tie and pulled the shoulders until the jacket sat straight. And when Winchester confessed his terror of flying, Sam took a gamble and offered to do the job on his own. When Winchester refused and insisted on coming along despite the fact that he was actually shaking, Sam felt something click satisfyingly into place.
Winchester didn't acknowledge that Sam reached out for his hand when the airplane was gaining altitude, but he gripped back just as tight.
Offhand, Sam couldn't remember anyone ever leaning into his touch before, at least not when they weren't in the middle of having sex.
The demon perked up as soon as it saw Sam. "Dean Winchester, you've picked up some interesting company," it cooed. "Somebody's slumming. Don't you want to know why?" Winchester didn't flinch, just continued the exorcism, the words spilling out of him as fast and smooth as a lifetime Catholic praying the rosary.
"Demons lie," was all he'd say after, when they were holed up in their room and their minor scrapes and bruises had been treated. He sat at the little table in the kitchenette and didn't meet Sam's eyes.
"Was it a demon who killed your mom?" Sam asked, testing what he knew.
Winchester blew out a breath. "Yeah. My dad—my dad says he had yellow eyes, not black like that one, which is the usual." Sam nodded, accepting the confirmation that the killer had been Father. "But there are different kinds of demons, and the one that started the fire, he was powerful. Stuck my mom on the ceiling somehow, made her watch while he killed my brother."
They hadn't talked about it since that first revelation; Sam had wanted Winchester to get used to him. But now that they'd actually exorcised a demon together, the topic was ripe. "And you think that's what happened to my mom."
"Yeah." Winchester flicked his eyes over to Sam, then back to the scarred vinyl tabletop.
"Did your dad ever catch the demon?" Sam asked, knowing he was on tremorous ground.
Winchester pulled out his gun and began to disassemble it. He'd shown Sam how to do it, but Sam couldn't get close to his speed and probably wouldn't however many years he practiced, which would have been annoying if not for the utter irrelevance of the task to Sam's future plans. The gun was in pieces before Winchester answered, still looking down.
"No. I think that's why—I think he found its trail again. I keep waiting to hear—"
Carefully, Sam approached close enough to squeeze Winchester's shoulder, and Winchester fell silent, his lips twitching in the echo of a grateful smile. Sam didn't need to meet Daddy Winchester to dislike him. Regardless of what temptation Father had put in his path to induce him to leave his remaining family, it was his fault for succumbing. Winchester always got this bruised, shamed look on his face when Sam raised the subject of his father. Sam didn't know what Papa Winchester had said on his way out, but it had been a shot to the heart. Served the old man right, what Sam was going to do to Winchester. If you didn't protect what was yours, you had to expect that someone was going to come along and find a better use for it.
"There's a sign for the Starlite motel, L-I-T-E," Sam said, pointing.
Winchester didn't even look. "No."
"How can you tell?" Sam wondered. "It's not like the signs say, 'Incredibly tacky themes here.'" Last night had been, unbelievably, trout. Sam would have sworn that it was impossible to get trout-patterned linens.
Winchester propped his arm against the window, tapping his fingers. "Just one of my many useful talents."
"I think I like the marksmanship better," Sam said. But that night, wrapping himself in a towel with a once-colorful floral arrangement printed on it, he looked around the room—gingham squares mostly, with ribbon rosettes at the corners, and little corncob dolls dressed in blue bonnets as knicknacks—and smiled.
He hadn't meant to volunteer to draw Bloody Mary out. He still didn't even know why he'd done it, other than knowing that his secrets would be more than tasty enough to attract her.
Now Winchester had the evidence, though: Sam had a secret involving a death. He could bring it up at any time.
Winchester bled too, at the end. Maybe they'd just agree on silence.
Regardless, the satisfied look on Winchester's face when they'd saved the girl felt like a victory. Most of their poltergeist work didn't give such direct results.
After, when they were back in their depressing little motel room (taxidermied birds; Sam imagined he could smell them), Winchester hovered like a—like no one in his life ever had, checking his eyes at least eight times, asking if he felt all right. Bringing him fucking orange juice, of all things.
"I'm okay," he said when Winchester came back and knelt beside his bed for the thousandth time, sheepish but insistent. "Dean," Sam said, and reached out to grab his wrist, "I'm fine."
"Okay," Dean said. But he didn't pull away, and Sam didn't let go for a while.
"Do you seriously think I'm going to need to draw a devil's trap in pitch dark?" Sam asked. Protesting Dean's lessons rarely did any good, but this had to be over the top. Sam's knees were raw from kneeling too long on concrete, he could feel the back of his neck burning in the sun, and he needed a drink and a piss.
"Might," Dean said. His voice was too high, not the usual calm confidence of these training sessions.
Ever since the airplane demon, Dean had been pushing exorcist lore on Sam like there was going to be a pop quiz any day. Sam was familiar with the theory. But Father had strongly discouraged the practice, in the sense of whipping anyone caught reciting the Rituale Romanum. The scars on Lily's back had been a tangle of snakes, slick and white. He was a little nervous about what would happen if Father checked up on his recent studies, but he couldn't very well decline Dean's instruction on the topic.
He was beginning to think that some of the runes, combined with the salt lines, could actually keep Father out—which itself might trigger some punishment from Father. But it was part of winning Dean's trust, so he hoped he'd get the leeway he needed.
In the short term, his problem was actually learning the proper rituals. Sam tugged his blindfold down and wiped at his sweaty forehead. He was in the middle of the world's most lopsided pentacle—more of a square with a skin problem, really—mystical symbols scattered as randomly around him as if he'd dropped a handful of change. The midday heat gave them the basketball court to themselves, so at least they weren't about to be arrested for Satanism, but he thought they might as well pick up the ball they'd brought as a decoy and start a little one-on-one.
"I don't think this is working," he admitted.
"If I get caught without any light with a demon hunting me—"
"You wanna get dead?" Dean yelled, shoving himself to his feet and stalking away.
Sam waited for him to calm down.
Several minutes passed. Dean kept pacing and glaring.
"Dean," Sam said carefully, putting down the chalk. "Give me some help here."
Dean swiveled to face him, tearing at the buttons of his overshirt, then pulling it off in a tangle with his T-shirt. The scar stretched across his left shoulder, traveling over his collarbone, down into the pectoral muscle nearly to the nipple. It was as jagged as a lightning strike, and it was old, stretched with time.
That explained why Dean always kept a towel over that shoulder any time Sam insisted on barging into the bathroom. Sam had just assumed it was a weird shaving habit.
"That's what you get when you fuck one of these up," Dean said. "If you're real lucky."
Dean waited for some response, but Sam had nothing. "I was in charge of the devil's trap," Dean said, his face twisted with self-loathing. "But I wasn't paying attention, I was listening to it ... It grabbed my dad, got him good. Then it started in on me. If it hadn't wanted to make him watch while it played with me, we'd both be dead. My dad nearly died saving my ass, and he couldn't walk for two months."
"Holy shit," Sam said. "How old were you?"
Dean frowned. "Eleven, I guess? That's why you gotta be able to do it right and do it fast, no matter what else is goin' on."
Sam thought that there were a number of things that a demon might have said to distract a kid who'd seen half his family burn to death.
"Dad looked at me different after that," Dean said, soft and confessional. Then he shook his head and continued, more firmly. "Got busted back to supplies for a while. But you're a natural at this shit, you aren't gonna pull anything like that."
'Yes, because I'm not eleven,' didn't seem like a useful response under the circumstances. Sighing, Sam picked up the chalk, shifted himself to a blank patch of asphalt, and tugged the blindfold down again.
Sam's aim with a pistol improved and he turned out to be what Dean called "a freaking wizard" with knives. When he threw a blade, it didn't even need any mental boost to stay on target. This was an advantage that none of his siblings had. He could already see how to work it: get them in a psychic dead zone and then take it physical. Even Jake would have trouble with Sam now that Dean was playing drill sergeant with him.
It wasn't what he'd planned, but it would still put him ahead of the game. He still needed to know what Father wanted with Dean. His best guess was that there must be some vital mystical object that no psychic or demon could touch, so you'd need a superb hunter to get it. But he couldn't find any mention of an object like that in the books he had.
In the meantime, he'd largely stalled out on the fire records. The trail was so old that in lots of places around the country the relevant documents weren't even computerized.
In the absence of new information, though, there were always hunts, and they felt pretty good.
After some spectacular early clusterfucks on the order of 'Abbott and Costello Meet the Night of the Living Dead' (Sam felt bad about the new scar on Dean's shin, even if Dean should have given him more warning before jumping into the grave), they eased into a rhythm of salt-and-burns, sweeping through little towns like some kind of supernatural exhibition team. Every couple of weeks, they'd punctuate the ghost hunting with something that bled a little.
Dean's knowledge of the minor supernatural beasts was comprehensive, and he wasn't shabby on demon exclusion and exorcism. He seemed to think Sam required training in that as well, so he did his best to dig up useful texts. Sam absorbed them, or skimmed them depending on whether he was already familiar with the subject matter. There were plenty of details about non-demonic threats that Sam hadn't known, as well as fascinating connections between the rituals Sam had learned from the inside and the hints that hunters had winkled out over the centuries.
Once Sam caught Dean on the phone, his shoulders hunched and his voice hesitant and respectful, asking somebody called Bobby to send a couple of books along. "They're not for me," he said. "Yeah, I guess. No, sir. No, sir. But I—Yes, sir."
When he ended the call, he gave Sam an apologetic look. "Bobby's the best for demon lore. But he's kind of unfriendly with strangers. Maybe we'll head out there, introduce you, when we get a chance."
Sam nodded and made a mental note to avoid that unless he had no other option. From what he'd seen, hunters were more inventive and dangerous than he'd been raised to believe, and anyone Dean called the best might be more of a challenge than he wanted to undertake until he was sure of Dean's commitment.
He scoured the internet, using all the clues Dean taught him to look for and a few tricks of his own, finding them new hunts. The poltergeist jobs were his favorites. He was there to catch the shotgun shells Dean tossed over to him, to do half the digging, to yell at Dean to duck when the spirit materialized behind him, and to drop when he saw the warning in Dean's eyes. When he concentrated on the night's hunt and let the rest of his life blur out of focus, he felt like a superhero. Maybe it was always like this working with a partner, but it made him bigger than himself, stronger. They moved in concert like a right hand and a left.
Sam guessed that he was the sinister one.
Dean corrected his posture, of all things, which had to be a holdover from his martinet father. "You think you're fooling anyone that you're not eight feet tall when you do that?" Dean asked him once. Sam just shrugged, because as a matter of fact people were a lot less intimidated when he played gentle giant. But he hated being poked in the back with a pencil, so he did have to show off his new combat skills the third time Dean did it while he was reading. He ended up with Dean pinned to the floor, his hands around Dean's neck.
Dean blinked up at him, the creases around his eyes deeper than Sam expected. "Don't do that," he warned Dean. "You're not my father."
Dean swallowed, his Adam's apple working against Sam's fingers, and nodded a little. "Yeah, uh, sorry," he said when he was standing again and Sam was halfway across the room.
He needed Dean off balance, but still committed to him. "Hey, it's not a big deal. Just, you know, no more fucking pencils." He smiled, even if it felt a little stiff, and Dean tried to smile back.
After a string of five clockwork-smooth de-ghostings in ten days, they had a close call. As it turned out, the dear undeparted had a companion, a second ghost whose bones lay elsewhere in the cemetary. If she hadn't been interred in a crypt, they would have been roundly fucked, because they'd already dumped too much of their salt into the first grave to make a reliable circle around themselves with the remainder, and there would have been no way to dig her out of the ground before she got them.
Sam managed to match her translucent screaming face with a name and a picture from one of the newspaper reports he'd read, one of the girls the dead man had coached (and, apparently, diddled). Dean found the crypt and kicked in the door, and Sam broke open their last shotgun shells onto the corpse before setting it on fire. Dean was too busy being slammed into a stone sarcophagus to notice that Sam gave the fire just a bit of a psychic boost, allowing it to consume the girl-ghost before she had time to break Dean's neck.
Afterwards, they were both sore. Sam wasn't quite sure what had happened to his leg, but it involved both twisting and bruising, and Dean was walking with care that foretold cursing in the morning.
Sam was absolutely high with it. His blood had been replaced with champagne; his grin wouldn't go away, no matter how much Dean scowled and talked about amateurs. The only time he'd ever come close to this feeling was when he'd dispatched Andy, and even that had faded quickly with the anxiety about whether the others would gang up on him in reaction and whether Father would kill him for taking the initiative to start the competition a little early.
Getting rid of the ghosts had no rebound. For some reason, the word that kept coming to mind was "righteous."
"Come on," he urged for the fiftieth time as they pulled into the motel parking lot. "We'll just have a few beers."
Dean's speculative expression wavered, irresolute. He pulled into a parking space and turned off the engine, but didn't move to open the door.
"There'll be girls," Sam wheedled, fixing Dean with his best pleading look.
Dean looked like he wanted to run away from this conversation, but also hungry. "I never know what to say to 'em," he admitted, which was a news flash on the order of the fact that there was a war in Iraq.
Sam wanted to say, 'With your face? "Nice shoes, wanna fuck?" ought to cover it,' but that was the type of statement that tended to freak Dean out. Dean knew he was pretty, he just didn't know what to do with it, and hated to be reminded of both of those things.
"I really want to get laid. Don't you want to get laid?"
Dean huffed. Sam could see him working himself up to another confession about his aversion to the dating game.
"We could help each other out," he suggested.
Dean tilted his head. Sam made an illustrative hand gesture. "You know, like buddies do."
He was pretty sure he wasn't going to get punched.
"Buddies?" Dean asked, his voice gravel-rough.
Except that when they'd stumbled back into the room, both of them walking funny, Dean seemed to think that buddies kissed, too. With their eyes open. Sam finally pinned Dean to the bed and lowered his mouth to Dean's straining cock, but only because staring into Dean's ocean-green eyes was starting to weird him out. Father did this trick where he'd rummage inside your body without moving a muscle of his own, and if you were lucky you'd just piss blood for a few days thereafter. This didn't feel anything like that. It felt deeper.
Sam wasn't one to believe in walking on water or loaves and fishes, but Dean was enough to make him reconsider his general stance on miracles. Now that they'd crossed the line, Dean was panting for it constantly. He fucked like he'd suddenly realized he needed to make some lifetime quota and he was ten years behind. He followed suggestions like they were orders from on high and he didn't seem to know that "no" was a possibility. He'd even gone along when Sam had held up the handcuffs and asked, "You know what'd be hot?" The only time he'd balked was in the dark corner of a bar, and even then he'd given it up in the bathroom.
Sam had always had ready access to a fuck, either from a sibling-competitor or some unwitting normal who could be talked into a one-night (or one-hour) stand. Being able to get off at any time wasn't unusual, but Dean was—"easy" was the obvious joke, and it was true, but there was more. He could mark Dean up without getting scratched and bitten in return, or he could put his hand on the back of Dean's neck and press Dean's mouth to his shoulder until Dean set his teeth there. He could rock their bodies together slow as melting tar, or shove Dean up against the door of the latest motel room and make him come while the car's engine was still ticking cool ten feet away.
When he'd first gotten the telekinesis under control, he'd felt a little like this, for a few days at least: king of infinite space, all his choices good ones. Just waking up was enough to give him a warm little shiver of satisfaction in the knowledge that the day to come would be his. Then on the fourth morning, Ava had nearly blown his head off, and Jake had followed that up with a trick that had left him half-drowned in a stinking toilet bowl, and after that Sam had been more careful about gloating.
He wasn't gloating now. But he was thinking that maybe, whatever Father's plans were, he'd wait to go along with them until Dean's glow faded some.
Sam considered the Hookman beneath their notice. There was nothing of interest in Iowa, and he had a dossier of (supposedly) dead children whose mothers had died in fires at the six-month mark to show Dean. He'd made some decent guesses about the origins of most of his siblings, though there was no record that matched his own vital statistics.
His idea was that they'd go talk to the surviving fathers. Sam was pretty sure he could peel Dean off and confront at least some of them in private, see if they'd made any deals or other mistakes that might have made them targets.
Dean, though, insisted that the jobs he found wouldn't wait. "Those kids'll still be dead in a day or two," he said, shoving his clothes into his duffel. "These folks need us now." He did agree that if Sam found other kids who'd lived, then they'd follow that lead.
Before Sam had a better idea of what he was looking for, there was little point in making his case. Whenever he tried to talk about what the fathers might know, Dean would just curl in on himself like a pillbug, brusque and skittish until Sam managed to coax him out of his sulk with blowjobs and once, to his mild embarrassment, a backrub (though that time did end with blowjobs).
It was frustrating, even if Sam understood why Dean wasn't crazy about tracking down dozens of widowers. He thought about faking an investigation report to show that one of the kids had survived, maybe Andy, just to get one last little bit of use out of the twerp. But Dean was arguably a better investigator than Sam was; at least he was more familiar with the types of records confronting Sam, and the risk of triggering his suspicions was too high.
Andy hadn't really been that much of a twerp. He was high-strung, like the rest of them, but he'd never gone out of his way to be nasty to Sam, or really to any of the others. Sam had picked him because—
Thinking back on it, his reasons were hard to reconstruct. Andy had been in the top third, powers-wise, and Sam had thought it was important to start out with a bang. Maybe it all went back to being fourteen, when Andy stopped hanging out with him and started following Claudia around. Sam had already known that it was important to reassess a person's value on a regular basis, but he hadn't much liked the experience of being downgraded.
Now, it all seemed a little childish. He and Dean didn't waste any effort hunting anything that hadn't already started hurting people. The results were concrete; power games didn't come into it.
Father had always promised that one of them would make the world kneel. They'd grown up with the exploits of Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamurlaine, Cortez, Napoleon, and Hitler, each with his own lesson to teach about empire. And yes, it would be awfully nice if people cheered them into town and circled them with garlands of flowers on the way out, but even without that, most normals were not so much in need of a whipping as he'd been raised to think. He'd never bothered to notice before, because he'd always needed to remember that anyone friendly might be a test from Father; he hadn't been looking for people to help.
He wasn't ruling out the idea of bringing the world to heel. But his priority was to get strong enough to defeat his siblings. Once that was taken care of, there would be plenty of time for other decisions.
Dean pulled his head back and looked up at Sam. His mouth was wet and swollen but he'd swallowed everything, not a smudge of white. "Jesus," Sam said, glad he could use the word without pain, "it's amazing nobody's locked you in their basement and made you do that all day long."
Dean flushed even darker and looked away. Sam grabbed his shoulders, urging him onto the bed, leaning back and pulling at him until he was stretched out over Sam, his cock pressing hard against Sam's belly. Sam kissed Dean, searching out every last taste. Dean was thrusting shallowly, lost in his own need.
Sam broke the kiss long enough to grab the back of Dean's neck and tug at him until he could whisper in Dean's ear: "What if I picked out a girl, would you lick her while I watched? Use that pretty mouth to get her off?"
Dean's eyes fluttered beneath their lids. "Yeah, Sammy," he breathed, as if he were imagining it right then, his head framed by soft thighs, Sam just sitting back and watching.
Sam frowned. He put a careful hand between them and grabbed Dean's cock, pressing at just the right place. Dean gasped, not all in pleasure. "Sam," he warned.
Dean's kiss-slick lips smacked together, then parted. Already, he knew better than to mouth off in the middle of sex. "Yeah, Sam," he said, softer and deeper.
But it wasn't enough. Sam let go, then wrapped his hands around Dean's shoulders, pushing him downwards. "Get me hard again," he said. "You're gonna come just from my cock inside you. You're going to come so hard you'll give yourself a facial."
In Oklahoma, Matt Pike was easy to play, because his resentments were so close to the surface. Maybe Sam was being a little harsh on the kid, since he hadn't exactly been a locked safe as a teenager either, but if you didn't learn to swallow your anger and fight back you were never going to get anywhere. Anyway, Matt turned out to be the key to the case, bizarre bug-fetish aside, so it was worth a little reminiscence about Father's desire to control everything Sam ever did or thought.
Sam was impressed by the Oasis Plains curse. Insects were good, very atavistic. He'd have to remember the intimidating effect of an unbroken brown stream of creepy-crawlies.
"Is that why you don't talk to your dad, because he doesn't want you looking into this stuff," Dean said, barely a hint of a question in his voice, as they rolled out of town.
"He doesn't believe in ghosts and visions," Sam said, letting his voice waver a little. "He tried to get me to go see a psychiatrist. Take these drugs that made me—he thinks I'm weak."
After a second, Dean put his hand on Sam's thigh, warm but not pressing down at all. "Hey," he said. "People don't want to believe this shit, that's just natural. It doesn't mean—it's 'cause he loves you."
It was a great opportunity to work himself further into Dean's psyche, unmissable really. But he felt like gravity had just tripled, the air sitting heavy on his chest, and it was a struggle to make his mouth open. "Yeah," he said at last, watching Dean's too-still face out of the corner of his eye. "He's just disappointed in me."
Dean didn't say anything else until they were set for the night, and then he let Sam curl around him like a heavy winter coat. Sam went slowly, tonguing every inch of skin, until Dean broke down and begged for it. Sam let him babble for a while, then fucked him even more slowly, drawing it out so that Dean went hoarse and then wordless. After, he was so limp and pliant that Sam just pulled him into place like a body pillow. Sam swallowed, trying to get rid of the weight in his chest, but it followed him down into sleep.
Dean caught the Martian Death Flu in Lubbock, right after they took care of the werecoyote. Sam woke up on the morning they were supposed to get back on the road to the sound of Dean dry-heaving.
In general, when they were growing up, Father would ward someone who was sick enough to be vomiting. But only in general; it paid to test. For the sick person, that meant that you occasionally had to defend yourself even while you had your hands wrapped around the porcelain sides of the toilet bowl to keep yourself from falling in.
Being sick had been a matter of curling up, setting up any prepared defenses if you had them, and hoping to be left alone long enough to come staggering back to the group in a few days.
It took him a couple of hours to realize that he could go in to see Dean. By that time, Dean was barely conscious, slumped and sweating against the cold pink-and-green tile of the bathroom. (This motel's theme, as near as Sam could tell, was Early Miami Vice.)
He'd planned on asking if Dean wanted anything, but Dean was well beyond answering. Sam left the bathroom door open as he searched the internet, then returned to wet a washcloth and put it on Dean's forehead. Dean winced, pale except for his freckles, and twisted like each drop of water weighed a thousand pounds against his skin.
"I'll be right back," Sam promised.
The 7-11 five blocks away had saltines and Gatorade and Sprite. It didn't have any chicken soup, but he figured that Dean wouldn't be up to that today.
Dean hadn't moved at all when he returned. His hair was heavy with sweat, beads of it thick and greasy at his hairline and over his upper lip, soaking his T-shirt and dampening the floor beneath him.
Eventually, Sam managed to coax him back to the bed, with a trashcan next to it as a mostly symbolic gesture, since Dean's system had been empty for hours. When Dean retched now, he brought his hand up to his stomach in an involuntary attempt to control the pain of the overstressed muscles.
Sam gave Dean liquids in slow mouthfuls and watched him hold on to them for ten or fifteen minutes before bringing them back up.
He went back to the computer and checked. It was too soon for the hospital. Without health insurance, they'd just make Dean wait in an ER full of other sick people, and at least here he could lie down.
At one point, he thought Dean asked for his father, but Dean was largely unresponsive so there was no way to be sure.
Taking care of Dean was tiring and gross; even Dean didn't look good throwing up, and he smelled bad enough to turn Sam's stomach. Oddly, though, Dean's total vulnerability didn't disgust him as much as he would have thought. When he eased Dean back down after one last attempt with Gatorade, Dean pressed his cheek against Sam's thigh, and he didn't get off the bed as he'd planned. Instead, he rubbed Dean's back and pressed a crown of kisses on Dean's hair. They stayed like that until long after Sam's own back had started to cramp.
Dean was better on the second day, and pretended that he was ready to travel, but he didn't bother to hide his relief when Sam refused to share a car with him until he'd been vomit-free for twenty-four hours. That night, Sam climbed into bed behind him, curling up to press his chest to Dean's back. Dean stiffened. Sam frowned; Dean had showered late in the afternoon, and as far as he knew the only problem left was weakness.
"Uh," Dean said. "Is it okay if we don't—I mean, I can—" He reached behind himself, fumbling in the general direction of Sam's groin. "I'm kinda—"
Sam pulled away, realizing finally what Dean was trying to say. He'd slept in the other bed on the previous night, but that was solely to avoid the risk of getting spattered. Had they really not ever just—well, maybe not.
Dean was coffin-still; he'd pulled his hand back to hug his arms around himself. Sam let his hand fall heavily on Dean's hip, squeezing carefully. "I think I'll make it another day without exploding," he said wryly.
Dean grunted noncommitally, but he allowed Sam to curl an arm around his waist, pulling him into the center of the bed.
Two weeks later, Sam woke screaming from an actual, unprompted vision. Dean was there with an arm wrapped around his shoulder and a soft voice coaxing him back to reality. Sam knew it was stupid and weak to rely on someone else, but Dean was right there and he didn't have a competing agenda. Sam curled into his chest and held on, soaking up his warmth until the worst of the aftershocks had faded.
Sam pulled back and blinked, seeing the blotch of blood on Dean's T-shirt. "I ruined your shirt," he said, sounding young and dazed even in his own ears.
"Why are you even talking?" Dean asked. The worry in his voice made Sam's heart rattle in his chest. There had been something terrible done in the house in his vision, and he couldn't avoid the feeling that Dean was at risk. But Dean was here, solid, wrapped around him.
"I'm just saying, you should take it off," he tried. He tugged at the shirt, suddenly wanting Dean's skin more than anything.
"You're all—" Dean protested, but he raised his arms, and Sam could already feel his cock stirring through his sweats.
"Don't worry," Sam told him. "I'll let you do all the work."
In the morning, Sam took a look at the T-shirt before he threw it out. The blood was a carnation, a stiff tangle like a mess of tea leaves, dried red-brown. Divination had never been his strength, but when he looked at it, he had a strong impression of one word: family. Which just went to show that divination was about as useful as a Magic Eight-Ball.
The sketch he drew of his dream was no more helpful. Eventually he admitted his strong sense that the tree and the house behind it was connected to them, but Dean just pointed out that, if they were headed to a hunt there, then there was obviously a connection. They still didn't know where they were going, other than that it was a relatively large single-family house.
Dean didn't like it when he proposed to do a ritual to bring on a vision that would give them more specific information, controlling by magic what his own mind couldn't rein in. "How'd you find out about that?" he asked, and he wasn't suspicious, exactly, but Sam smiled as if he were embarrassed and thought fast.
"I knew you'd react like this, so I've been doing some research myself. There are lots of records of psychics—" Dean winced. "Look, not everything supernatural is evil."
"Yeah, some of it's just dangerous." Dean pushed the sketch away from himself and stood, moving away from the table where they'd been sitting.
Sam worked on a glare of his own. He tried to go along with Dean whenever possible—that trust thing, plus it turned out that non-angry sex with Dean was better than angry sex with Dean, though honestly even the angry sex set a benchmark for quality. But his instinct told him that this vision was pointing him in the direction of Father's larger plan, so Dean was going to have to listen. "I can do this, Dean. You're the one always telling me what a good hunter I am. This is something I can bring to the hunt."
Dean rubbed his hand across his mouth. "I knew you'd get a big head—" And then they both rolled their eyes and snickered like fourteen-year-olds, which led to Dean whacking Sam on the shoulder, which led to a wrestling match that destroyed a chair (wagon wheel back; better off dead) and a lamp (red fringe on the shade; ditto) and ended with them sprawled on the less nasty bed (the one under the sombrero arrangement that served as a wall decoration).
Sam blew a raspberry into Dean's armpit. Dean, who was still panting, shoved weakly at Sam, and he rolled off of Dean and stared up at the ceiling. "So, the ritual," he said, imagining that the shadows in the stucco above him formed pictures of Father and his siblings, their faces wreathed in flames.
Dean pulled at the cactus-print sheet underneath them, wiping off his stomach. "Don't like it," he said.
Sam turned, propping himself up on one arm, even though that put his weight down right on the wet spot. "Hey," he said. "You'll be right there to protect me."
The ritual gave him a migraine and made his ears bleed, which was a first.
"The car, the trunk," was the first coherent thing he managed to say. Dean continued to glare at him, a muscle jumping in his cheek. Sam reached up and touched it, Dean's stubble sharp against his fingertips. "Help me look," he said, softening it to an apology.
Dean refused to talk, but he let Sam lean on him all the way out to the parking lot, then propped Sam against the rear door while he popped the trunk.
Sam had a passing familiarity with the contents, but he wasn't looking for a weapon. He opened the false bottom, ignoring the dangling dreamcatcher, shoving aside the shotguns despite Dean's noise of distress, moving cases and boxes of ammo until he reached the bare metal of the bottom.
The beige shoebox was jammed up against the far end of the trunk, squashed at the edges from years of misuse. The lid was spindled and broken, sliding off the box even before Sam had extracted it. "Hey," Dean protested, his voice thin with anxiety, as papers and photos threatened to cascade across the trunk. Sam slowed down and brought the whole thing out without losing any of the piles.
Back in the room, Dean alternated between hovering over Sam's shoulder to look at each picture and scrap of paper and getting as far away from the box as possible. He made about twenty trips to the ice machine and the candy machines. Each time, he'd return and sit on the edge of the bed with his legs jiggling until he gave in and stalked back over to Sam.
Time had faded the ink on all the official records and made the photos stick together. Worried about how Dean would react if he ruined one, Sam pulled them apart as slowly as he dared.
Dean's mother had been a beautiful woman, blonde with a mischievous smile. And Dean's bastard father had been a darker version of Dean—slightly sadder eyes, lips not quite as lush, but still enough to stop a heart at twenty paces. They seemed happy in the pictures, up until the very last one where they were joined by a towheaded young boy and a blobby little infant, too unformed to look like anyone.
He put the pictures down, still at a loss to identify any connection to his vision, and rubbed at his forehead. He would have sworn—
He picked up the final picture of the happy Winchester family and, instead of looking at their faces, examined the background. "Dean?" he asked. "Where was this photo taken?"
An hour later they were on the road to Kansas.
They had to stop halfway through because Dean was flipping out too badly. Sam blew him in the front seat, and that calmed him down for about half an hour. At least Dean's agitation reminded Sam that he didn't need to be following Dean's lead all the time.
Work the case, he reminded Dean. And Dean didn't really know what had happened when he'd been four years old, which meant that they needed to start from the basics. That led them to Mike Guenther, who told them about John Winchester's predilection for fortune-tellers. And that got them to Missouri Moseley.
The psychic greeted Dean by name, which meant that Dean started out freaked, more so when she couldn't do the same with Sam.
Sam had locked himself down egg-smooth, nothing left on him to sense, before they got within eight blocks of her. At least she didn't spend too much time commenting on that. She was too busy looking Dean over and commisserating with him about Papa Winchester's decision to go AWOL. "Your daddy loves you very much," she cooed at him, then shot Sam a dirty glance suggesting that even without the benefit of her powers she knew that he'd silently called bullshit on that sentiment.
Missouri's home remedies for poltergeists were, unsurprisingly, ineffective. If this was demon-related, then she was doing the spiritual equivalent of issuing a speeding ticket to a spree killer.
When Dean's mother showed up, not behaving like any haunt ought to, Sam knew that matters had gone from confusing to downright dangerous.
She told Dean she was sorry, but she stopped in her tracks when she saw Sam. Sam was going to break her son apart and use him for kindling. Even if Sam didn't know the details of Father's plans he knew that much, and still Dean's own mother just stared at him like he was some kind of savior. And then she burned herself up to save them. To save Sam.
Later, when they were lying together in the darkness, Dean admitted that he'd never heard of such a thing, one revenant able to defeat another. "She looked just like I remembered," he said thickly, and Sam didn't think he was talking about the flames. Sam did his best to hush Dean, pressing him back against the tired and sweaty sheets and kissing the salt from his cheeks.
Dean shook for a long time, trembling in the cage of Sam's arms. All it meant was that Dean was weak, like most people were weak. Sam liked Dean, even though he knew it was a weakness of his own, and he didn't want to be reminded of Dean's vulnerabilities. That was the only reason he felt an answering heaviness in his own chest.
When they were on the road again the next morning, Dean admitted that Missouri had pulled him aside and warned him about Sam: "She said she couldn't see my path, long as I was with you. That there was nothing around you but light. I said so what, and she said she'd never had that happen before. Said, be careful around him, you don't know what he might do."
Sam frowned, wondering if he needed to do anything about Missouri just yet. "Maybe it's some psychic-on-psychic thing, because of all the multiplying paths feeding back into one another when both people can see possible futures. I don't know how these powers work," he finished, a little mournfully. The first sentence was essentially true, although Missouri's real problem had been the veils Sam had thrown on himself. Otherwise she might have gotten feedback from him and known what he was.
Dean must have taken Sam's pretense of uncertainty as a rebuke, because he reached out without taking his eyes from the road and cupped Sam's shoulder with his hand, his grip warm and sure through layers of cotton. "Hey," he said. "Nobody's asking you to know it all. But I'm not worried. Between you and some lady who gave my dad a couple of cryptic hints about demons way back when, I know where the smart money is."
Sam knew what Father would say: It's Dean's fault for not seeing what you truly are. You're only behaving according to your nature.
He turned his face to the window and looked past his reflection.
They killed a kelpie with red-hot iron hooks. It was sweaty and worrisome. The iron was heavy even with a mental boost, the fire they used to lure the kelpie threw off sparks and smoke so that visibility was nil, and Sam was convinced he was going to move the wrong way and impale Dean.
All to save a couple of kids who'd probably grow up to be as greedy and sinful as the rest of them.
"Nice work," Dean said when it was over.
"I'm not a kindergartender!" Sam snapped at him. "I don't need a fucking gold star every time we do a job!"
Dean blinked at him, then turned away.
He felt a churning in his stomach, like there was a garbage disposal inside him grinding away. "Dean—"
"Nah, you're right," Dean said, still not facing him. "You know what you're doin'."
"Because of you," he said. The thought of Dean stopping was even worse than the relentless pressure of his praise. It was stupid to be angry at Dean for believing in him; that was just who Dean was, saving innocents and assuming that everyone human was innocent. "Dean, I—sometimes I don't like myself very much. So when you say something like that, it makes me feel—" He stumbled to a halt; Dean had swiveled back, and his expression was one of pure mortification. "If I stop talking, will you pretend I never started?"
"Works for me," Dean told him.
Sam swallowed. "Think those hooks are cool enough to drag out of the water?"
"Let's check." And they did, together.
"Coordinates?" Sam asked, not really believing his ears. "Your father sends you a message for the first time since we met, and it's a couple of numbers?"
"It's a job," Dean said, as if that were the end of it.
Dean's quiet manly endurance was gorgeous, yes, but Sam was too annoyed to let it go. Six months without a word, plus however long it had been before Sam showed up. Not that Father had done even as much to keep Sam up to date, but Father was (not to put too fine a point on it) evil. On purpose. "So that's it? You're just going to jump, like—"
Dean took a loud, ragged breath that shut Sam up quicker than a punch. "Least I know he's alive. Least I know he still thinks I can do the job."
Suddenly it was too hard to be looking at Dean from across the room. "Hey," Sam said, and Dean allowed himself to be pulled into a hug. Sam pressed his face into the join of Dean's neck and shoulder. Dean exhaled and slumped against Sam, letting Sam take his weight. "You don't have to talk about it," Sam said. "But I want to know what happened between you."
Dean's laugh had only pain in it. "One day he just—he ordered me not to follow him, and by the time I decided it didn't matter how much he yelled at me, the trail was dead. That's what I was doin' when we met, you know—tracked him all the way to California, but he was long gone."
"Do you think—maybe it has something to do with the demon, the yellow-eyed one." Sam held his breath. Dean might know something without understanding its significance.
"I don't know," Dean admitted. "I spent my whole life training to fight that thing. I guess he just decided I wasn't ever—"
Sam rubbed slow circles, widdershins, on Dean's back. "Maybe he was trying to protect you."
"He left me," Dean said, then pressed his face into Sam's shoulder, hard enough to hurt.
"I'm here," Sam said, not really aware that he'd even spoken until the full-body shudder went through Dean. He said it again when the backs of his knees hit the bed, and again when Dean was stretched out beneath him, slow fat tears wetting the pillow to either side of Dean's head.
"We don't have to go," he suggested afterwards, while Dean was still panting open-mouthed next to him.
"It's a hunt," Dean said, still a little stuffy. "Means people in trouble. And he might—" Sam was glad that Dean didn't finish the sentence, but he knew that Dean still hoped they'd find his father.
Rockford, Illinois it was.
Sam was a little worried about how easily he'd given in. Dean was so used to taking the lead on hunts, and when Father showed up again it would surely be in the guise of a hunt; Sam needed Dean to accept his guidance. All Dean's goodwill wouldn't be enough if it wasn't coupled with obedience.
Dr. Ellicott's little rage-generation trick obviously worked pretty well on normals. Fortunately for Sam, learning to fight Andy off had left him prepared to shrug off most forms of psychic influence, though he had to admit that pure emotion was powerful. As it was, after he suppressed the impulse to go up there and kill Kat and Gavin to shut their whining mouths, he was pretty sure he had it under control.
Still, when Dean showed up, the temptation to use the situation was just too great (and maybe the residual emotion played a role). "I'm sick of you ordering me around," he told Dean, threatening him with the shotgun. "This isn't my life, this isn't what I want. I don't need you." The words were bitter as burnt hair on his tongue, feeling more like lies than they should have, and the discomfort only made him angrier.
Dean didn't flinch. "That's just rock salt, dude, it's not gonna kill me."
Sam tossed the weapon aside. "I don't want to kill you." It was just like sparring, except that he was the one holding back now (just like he was always holding back on his powers, so it was really the same as ever) and he waited until Dean had gotten in some hits that would leave him visibly bruised before 'snapping out of it' and going with him to find and burn the good doctor's bones.
"Good thing you fought him off," Dean said speculatively after they'd seen the civilians out safely.
Fortunately he still had his get-out-of-jail-free card: "I felt him in my head, and I kind of—pushed back, I guess? I'm sorry I didn't do it in time, those things I said—"
Dean twitched and shifted his body away from Sam. "Whatever. Listen, maybe we ought to be spending more time on these powers of yours. I mean, if you're fighting off ghosts with nothing more than your freaky brains—"
"I don't want to be doing this forever, that much is true. But it's not about you, Dean."
He almost regretted it when Dean's face went dead for a second.
Dean rubbed his thumb over his bottom lip. "Let's get out of here," he said after a moment.
Later, wrapped in his steel security blanket, he had more to say. "Most hunters fear psychics," he told Sam, his words heavy with warning. "Especially if they do more than tell you vague shit about the future. I'm not tryin' to keep you from figuring this out. I just don't wanna take you to anybody that might sell you out, decide you're dangerous."
Sam nodded. He didn't want that either. "I'm fine," he promised.
"You know that for sure?"
Sam wished he could tell Dean the whole truth about the powers. Not to hurt him, like Dr. Ellicott would have wanted, but to reassure him that everything was under control. But it wasn't safe, not yet. "If anything changes, I'll let you know."
It wasn't a lie, even if Dean didn't know all the details.
Immediately after that, as if John Winchester had decided to start taunting his son, there was another message. Six names this time. It took Dean all of an hour to figure out that their only connection was the route they took through Indiana during the second week of April.
Someone was indulging a bit too much in that good old-time religion.
The tree-worshippers of Burkitsville weren't thrilled when Sam managed to convince their current passing-through couple to let Dean fix their car and get them on the road. Neither of them expected the sheriff to make up a traffic violation out of whole cloth, and then even after they'd been pulled over they didn't understand the magnitude of the town's involvement in the sacrificial tradition. So neither of them resisted being handcuffed, and the last thing Sam heard after the sheriff slammed his head into the door of the squad car was Dean's howl of rage.
When he woke, he was in a crappy jail. The good news was that it, along with the rest of the town, had been abandoned for the celebration of the ritual, so he didn't even have to conceal his tracks.
He rescued Dean—that was going to be good teasing fodder for a while, at least—and the random local girl chosen to be his feminine counterpart. It wasn't her fault, and she was too scared to make any sort of play for Dean, so he wasn't mad.
The girl, who was fairly pissed at the betrayal by her adopted hometown, showed them the First Tree. They burnt it to the roots.
Dean thought that the collapse of the town's fortunes would be punishment enough for the people who'd tried to kill him. He hadn't seen himself tied down and struggling. Treated like a fucking meal, like he was worth nothing except as a sacrifice for someone else's benefit.
Dean stopped them two towns over and checked them into Holly's Motel and Restaurant. A holly leaf stood in for the 'o' in Holly, and somehow Dean had sensed that the whole place was decorated with a holly motif. Their room was sort of like a Christmas display in a furniture store, if the window dresser had gotten enormously overexcited. Especially after the tree worshippers, it was easy to imagine that something was looking at them through the leaves and berries of the wallpaper, but Dean just told him he was being paranoid.
After they'd settled in, he brushed his teeth and left Dean under a spell that would keep him asleep as long as no one approached him.
When he returned to Burkitsville, the girl was gone, but the rest of the townsfolk were mostly still congregated in the old orchard, moping or digging in the ashes to see if there was anything to save. That was convenient.
The sheriff saw him first. "Haven't you done enough?" he asked in a voice as cracked as bark. He seemed older, flatter than he had a few hours ago.
Sam tilted his head. "I'm going to go with 'no.'" He concentrated, raising his power. He was out of practice, and this was a good reminder that he needed to sneak off more often, even if Dean didn't like it.
After the first black branch impaled the sheriff right between the eyes, the other worshippers started screaming. Then they ran.
On the way back, he stopped at an all-night diner by the highway for coffee.
As soon as he ordered, a blonde girl with a pixie cut and a wicked smile slid into the seat across from him. "Hey there," she said. "What's a guy like you doing out on a night like this?"
He examined her with every sense. "Arba," he said, and she jerked her chin once in acknowledgement. "Nice body."
She pursed her lips. "Are you jealous that you can't switch? Not that you have much to worry about, at least for the next ten years. Have you been working out?" The lasciviousness on her face was extreme even for her.
"If you have a message to deliver, spit it out. Otherwise—"
She splayed her elbows out on the table in front of her and propped her head up in her hands, cute as a button. "What, are you going to exorcise me right here? I don't think so, little Sammy."
"Arba," he said, leaning forward and bracing his hands on the table edge, in case he needed to tip it over onto her, "not half an hour ago I killed four times as many people as are in this place. You'd be dessert."
"Touchy," she chided. "And here I was planning on giving you the heads-up about home sweet home."
He waited. That was the thing with most demons, even the greater ones: they could plot and plan, but it was all but impossible for them to avoid gloating when they had a victim right in front of them. Sam thought the impatience had something to do with the Fall.
"Fine," she said, just as his coffee came; she sat back in her seat and gestured the waitress away without looking. "You'll be shocked to hear that it's down to Ava and Jake. Ansem and Claudia are still alive, but they're just waiting to see who comes out on top."
"I should care because ...?"
"Come on," she said. "Ava and Jake are wild to know what you're doing out here." Now she'd started to build a little hex symbol out of sugar packets: a circle of white, slashes of pink and yellow shaping and directing the curse.
"You can tell them: I have no idea." They couldn't afford to believe him, of course.
"And this hunter, the pretty one. What's he supposed to do?" Upon further consideration, Arba removed one yellow line of sugar substitute and started an arc of blue packets, reaching through the circle towards Sam.
Sam shrugged. The temptation was to disclaim any interest in Dean. But nobody bothered to explain that they didn't care about a tool. "You should take this up with Father."
"So you're just taking his orders now? That's not what I expect from you."
He smiled, letting it widen slowly. "Like you said. Close to endgame. Pretty soon you're going to have to pick sides too, Arba." His hand darted out, grabbing her before she could finish the curse that would have killed every human in the diner, including him. He felt the bones of her stolen wrist grate together. She blew a kiss at him and brought her other hand up to sweep the table clear.
"As soon as somebody wins, I'll pick a side," she said when he released her. "The point is, Father's not the only one watching. He might think you're the second coming of Judas, but there are other players in the game. You might want to start thinking about how to impress us."
"I'll keep it in mind," he told her, already standing.
"Aren't you going to drink your coffee?" she asked him, all wide eyes.
He tossed a few dollars on the table and didn't bother responding. Emergency trigger on the spell or not, he didn't like the thought of Dean alone, and this was not a helpful conversation.
Father always said that the Nephilim were a dead end, a failed experiment. Of course, his human children were also being used as mechanical rabbits to encourage the Nephilim to continue the race; that was just efficient. Arba was the strongest of them, and if she was involving herself, then they really were close to the final stages of Father's plan.
He had the feeling that when the fuse burned down, he'd better make sure that Arba was in the blast radius.
Somehow, he'd assumed that Dean's recklessness would keep Dean safe from everything he hunted, like some cosmic dare. He'd forgotten that the house always wins.
So now Sam was in this white corridor, stink of adhesive and blood underneath, light so bright that it punched holes into his brain, while a worried-looking man spoke to him like he was an idiot. "We've done all we can. We can try and keep him comfortable at this point. But, I'd give him a couple weeks, at most, maybe a month."
He stared at the doctor, wondering whether there'd be a better answer if the man were pinned screaming to the far wall.
The doctor was saying something about miracles, and Sam nearly did smear him across the white tile, but he had to stay calm.
To his left, a machine bleeped and then went silent, followed by a babble of voices and the thrum of pounding feet. A bulb popped in the ceiling, and then another.
When he was sure he wasn't accidentally going to destroy Dean's heart monitor, he went to Dean's room.
Dean was paper-pale, only a hint of color showing in the creases of his lips. The skin around his eyes was sunken, dark as his stubble. He turned his head when Sam entered. "Have you ever actually watched daytime TV?" he asked, in a voice that was tinfoil compared to his usual steel. "It's terrible."
"I talked to your doctor."
Dean ignored him. "Every goddamn one of those talk-show hosts? Possessed. Before I check out, we should head to Chicago and exorcise Oprah on live TV, what do you think?"
"Yeah." After a moment, he fumbled at the remote, and the cheery sounds of betrayal and melodrama shut off. "Hey, you better take care of my car. Or I swear I'll haunt your ass."
Sam couldn't decide if he wanted to punch Dean or kiss him. "That's not funny." His voice was distorted, like Dean's face had been, reflected in the puddle in that basement. The basement where Sam had left him, so confident that Dean knew what he was doing. A fucking rawhead, a literally brainless monster.
Dean choked, just for a second, then recovered. "Oh, come on, it's a little funny." His eyes dropped to his hands, which were impossibly still on the bedcovers, one finger trapped in the pulse monitor and IV lines on the back of each hand. His ring and his bracelet were gone. "Look, Sammy, what can I say. It's a dangerous gig. I drew the short straw. That's it, end of story."
Dean blinked up at him, surprised. Sam wasn't sure he'd ever sounded like that, like the whole world ought to shake underneath him. "I'll be back," he said, spinning around before Dean could say anything more. He hated to leave Dean, but some of what he was planning wouldn't go down well with Dean or with the hospital staff.
He shouldn't have wasted any time calling John Winchester. He probably sounded like a moron on the message, and the asshole most likely wouldn't even believe that Sam really knew what was going on with Dean; he'd think it was a trap. Fuckhead.
The knock on the door made him start. He used his arm to sweep most of his paraphernalia off of the table and into his waiting duffel, then went to the door.
He jerked it open when he saw Dean on the other side. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I checked myself out." Dean was clutching a little bag of his effects, looking like even that effort was enough to exhaust him.
"What, are you crazy?"
"Don't wanna die in a hospital, Sammy. I figured you'd be tryin' to think your way out of this," he gestured at the laptop, where the browser was open to MedLine, "and I know there's no stopping you. But I wanna be here." He wavered on his feet, and Sam grabbed him. Together, they shuffled over to the chair that Sam had pushed against the wall when he needed more space for his incantations.
Dean didn't seem to notice the state of the room, focusing only on Sam as he sat down. "Have you even slept? You look worse than me."
Sam didn't understand. It was still light out, and yet the stupid clock by the bed said it was two, when he distinctly remembered seeing that it had been past three-thirty at the hospital.
Then it hit him all at once, exhaustion and hunger and desperate, clawing fear. He sagged to his knees, putting his head in Dean's lap. "I've been looking everywhere," he said. Dean's hand came down in his hair, heavy but still gentle, stroking almost reverently.
"It's okay," Dean said, and that was the last sound in the room for a long time, other than their breathing.
Sam couldn't hate John Winchester entirely, not when all Sam's own knowledge had failed and one of the contacts in Winchester's journal managed to come through with the faith healer in Nebraska. Apparently this Joshua person liked Dean enough to respond to a perfect stranger's panicked phone call; Sam was nothing but grateful.
Once Dean was healed, Sam was eager to get the fuck out of town. Now that he'd achieved some clarity about what he valued in life, he needed to figure out next steps. As long he didn't know what plans Father was spinning, they couldn't be safe.
It was unlikely, though possible, that all that Father required was Dean's cooperation in some endeavor, in a corruption-of-pure-intent, force-your-worst-enemy-to-help-you way. That could be managed, perhaps with a blood oath from Father promising protection as the price of Dean's participation. Father liked a bold negotiator.
The alternative—well, it would pretty much suck, because he wasn't sure that all the demon lore he'd picked up would enable him to banish Father back to Hell on a semipermanent basis. If he kept his nerve, and if the hunters' books were right, there were measures to be taken. It would be awfully useful to consult some of the more obscure texts, though, before he threw that kind of Hail Mary.
Aside from the larger issues that were reason enough to get back on the road, Sam wasn't thrilled with Dean's sudden connection to a dying blonde. Even if it was obviously just Dean working through his no-longer-imminent demise. Dean's willingness to hand out his light and his smiles like they were nothing made Sam's teeth itch. Worse was his indifference to Layla's mother's contempt. "She's just scared," Dean told him when Sam mentioned it as yet another reason not to worry about Layla. "She wants a miracle, and everybody's allowed to want a miracle."
Sam tried to load up the car, except that Dean now had the strength to stop him. Dean insisted he'd seen the Reaper, which made it a case, and nothing would do but that they investigate.
Even once they knew what was going on, Sam could have been convinced to allow Roy LeGrange—or, as it turned out, Sue-Ann—to continue playing God with his congregation. Sure, God Himself was slightly better, handing out tricks and treats at random as opposed to judging one person worthy to live in another's stead. But the LeGranges had very good judgment when it came to Dean, so Sam would have been willing to overlook the matter if Dean hadn't been so insistent.
Once they'd started investigating and Sue-Ann got her dark magic on, however, they had to finish it just to keep Dean safe.
The rage that went through him when he saw that altar with Dean's picture on it, crossed out in blood, was so intense that he barely refrained from taking care of Sue-Ann himself after he'd broken her cross. It was only worry over Dean that let him leave her to the Reaper.
On the upside, though it didn't make up for her vicious turn against Dean, the binding spell Sue-Ann had rediscovered was really quite powerful. Sam thought he might even be able to adapt it to other purposes.
And, possibly more important in the long run, Dean had no problems letting Sue-Ann get wasted by her own magic. Dean had never before mentioned killing humans, but it was good to know that he wasn't squeamish about it. Sam was going to have to deal with Ava and Jake sooner or later, and he liked the thought of putting Dean somewhere out of sight, sniper rifle in hand.
Dean was depressed about Layla for a while, despite Sam's best efforts to celebrate his renewed health. Sam didn't bother trying to explain that he would have traded the whole town for Dean, because that was hopeless. Instead, he just reminded Dean that they hadn't known about the Reaper. And then Dean really did make them stop in a couple of churches so that he could pray for Layla, even though he admitted that he thought it was useless. Sam considered the churches a small concession. He picked Catholic churches where possible, looking for the goriest Christs on crosses available.
While Dean knelt, Sam would walk up to the favored son and take a good look. This was the price of obedience.
He had no plans to pay it.
Dean was sitting cross-legged on one of the beds, flipping through his father's journal in search of anything relevant to supernatural car accidents. Sam heaved himself down onto the other bed, feeling it give under his weight. He'd have a backache in the morning, and worse he'd have to wake up to a bevy of swans, from the ones worked into the quilts on the beds to the shapes of the cloudy glass sconces on the walls. "Tell me about your friend," Sam said.
Dean gaped for a second, but then apparently decided to ignore the tone. "Cassie? She—I met her when Dad and I were on a job in Athens, Ohio. I, uh, she was at the library, and she came right up to me." He turned a little, so that he was looking at the dark and silent television rather than at Sam. "I told Dad the research was takin' longer than I'd thought, and we spent a lot of time together. And then I decided I had to tell Dad about her, but first I told her about me, about what I did, and she called me a liar and a crazy person and kicked me right to the curb." The words ran together in Dean's haste to get them out.
Sam didn't know whether to be angry at her idiocy or satisfied that she'd screwed up her chances, so he settled on both. "So, you were sleeping together."
Dean scrutinized him, then broke into the biggest damned grin Sam had ever seen on him, like sunrise all over again. "You're jealous!" But it was only a little bit taunting; mostly Dean just sounded surprised and happy.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Of course I'm jealous," he admitted. "She's gorgeous and smart and has a stable life, and she's obviously still into you."
Dean snorted and moved himself to the other bed, sitting close enough to Sam that their knees bumped together. "Dude, if you wanted compliments, all you needed to do was ask. A, I know there are mirrors in every one of these cheap-ass rooms, B, Cassie's plenty smart but I doubt she'd be able to teach herself Akkadian in six easy lessons, and C, not even getting into your crazy theory about Cassie, if you're seriously suggesting that I oughta settle down I'm gonna have to rethink that B."
In his peripheral vision, Sam saw Dean's hands wrap around his knees and squeeze as he leaned forward. "But none of that means shit. I guess I haven't said it, and I don't plan on sayin' it much, but you gotta know you're it for me." Sam's head turned so fast that something inside his neck snapped, warm and painful. Dean looked as pale as if he'd just been forced to write out those words in his own arterial blood.
After that was a blur. The next thing Sam really remembered was Dean staggering into the bathroom to piss, not bothering to close the door. "Jeez," he said, tilting his chin up as he inspected his neck in the swan-shaped mirror, "blind, deaf virgins are gonna know what we did this afternoon. You don't think a big tattoo that says 'If found, please return to Sam Marshall' woulda been more subtle?"
"Not going for subtle," Sam pointed out. "But a tattoo's not a bad idea." Now that Dean had mentioned it, an anti-possession sigil would be a good precaution, what with Arba and probably others hanging around them.
"You gonna get one too?"
With his years of built-up defenses, he needed it less than Dean. But the thought of them wearing the same ink was ... it was foolish, but if Dean wanted it, there was no harm to it. "I think I will," he said, and Dean came out of the bathroom and kissed him back onto the bed, making them half an hour late to meet Cassie again.
Cassie sent them off with good grace, still thanking them for saving her mother. Sam wanted to see her as a bitch offering gratitude through clenched teeth, but that would have been delusion. She was a good-hearted woman, even if she didn't want to know about the things that made the world irrational. They'd done good work, saving her.
Dean maybe cast off a little more light than usual, but Sam couldn't begrudge him the satisfaction: the two of them had wiped out a racist ghost truck by sending it into a spectral flaming church. No part of that was less than supremely cool.
They found a place a couple of towns over to do the tattoos. Sam made sure the tattoo artist had the design right, then sat down on a stool by Dean's head to watch him work on Dean. Dean had taken off his shirt, and stretched out on his stomach like that, Sam could see the elastic of his boxers just at the edge of his jeans. At the first prick of the needle, Dean's arms twitched, but his back stayed perfectly still.
By the time the artist had finished the first prong of the star, Dean's eyes were completely unfocused, his irises just a thin ring of glass-green around pupils big enough to scry in. His mouth was open, teeth and tongue visible, and he was panting, not loud but steadily.
Before Sam took his place on the table, he grabbed Dean by the arm, squeezing the solid muscle there, and pulled Dean close enough to whisper in his ear. "Don't you jerk off in that bathroom. You wait for me." Dean nodded dazedly and hitched himself up on the stool.
He'd read different things about how much a between-the-shoulderblades tattoo was going to hurt. With Dean's example, not to mention Dean himself sitting shirtless and hard only eighteen inches away, the pain twisted easily into stinging pleasure and heat. Somehow Dean knew when he was about to start humping the table, and grabbed his hand to give him focus.
They took the aftercare instructions and practically ran out of the place, making it to the car only because the brick of the alleyway would have been too painful for whoever got shoved against the wall. Neither of them had bothered to button up their shirts, so they just collapsed into the back seat, legs tangling and jostling as they crammed too much of themselves into too little space, and stuck their hands down each other's jeans. It all lasted about fifteen seconds, and right after it was over Sam started to feel the ache of his abraded flesh as it rubbed up against the old leather of the seats.
"Awesome," Dean said, his lower half slumping down into the footspace.
"Awesome," Sam agreed.
Telling Dean about the telekinesis was about as uncomfortable as Sam had expected. He picked an evening after a good hunt in Virginia, a lair of black dogs they'd put down without a scratch. They'd had steak and fries at a local hangout, then returned to their room: miniature railroads, including a track that ran all around the room just under the ceiling. Dean insisted on turning the little red train on as soon as they finished setting the wards, even when Sam threatened him with an ass-kicking. Dean flopped down on the bed (signals and tracks printed on the bedspread) and watched the train whir around the room, clicking as it turned the corners. Dean grinned every time it made its programmed steam-whistle sound.
Dean pouted when Sam flipped the switch. "We need to talk," Sam told him before he could begin a wrestling match or any other distraction. Dean groaned and dropped his face into the triangle formed by his arms on the bed.
"What's happening to me has gone beyond visions," Sam said.
Dean's head snapped up, fast as a switchblade.
Sam thought about demonstrating by smashing the fucking red train to scrap, but that would probably not make Dean very happy. Instead, he pointed at John Winchester's journal, sitting on a side table that was painted to resemble a boxcar. "Watch," he said. The journal came speeding into his hands.
Dean cursed, then he got up and paced, then he cursed some more. Then he made Sam swear that no one else had seen him move anything with his mind.
After Dean calmed down, he became a hunter again, and his speculations soon brought him near where Sam needed him to be.
"You're the only kid who survived the demon. Psychic mojo doesn't seem like a coincidence. Maybe you have the power to destroy him."
Sam hesitated; this was so delicate, and he didn't quite see a way to prepare Dean that wouldn't get his hopes up unfairly. Dean was strong, and Sam was going to make him stronger, so he just said it: "We don't know all those kids died."
Dean frowned at him, confused.
"I've been over all of the records, Dean, and the evidence that every one of those kids died with the mothers, it's thin. It's really thin. There should have been more remains. One time wouldn't be that surprising, but there were dozens without more than a handful of—well, you know."
Dean's voice was as flat as day-old soda. "What do you think we buried beside my mother, then?"
Sam bit his lip. "Most of the kids died, there's not much doubt of that. I don't think your brother is out there. But there's a possibility that the demon deliberately took some of the children, maybe put them where he could watch them grow up. Like an experiment. Maybe if they were psychics, like me, he thought he'd be able to control them."
Dean rubbed his hands through his hair, making the short spikes stand up even more stiffly. "And you, what about you? What makes you so special that you didn't get taken or dead?"
Sam got hung up on 'I don't know,' because he couldn't make himself tell the lie again when Dean was this raw. "My childhood didn't exactly leave me filled with love for humanity. I think I'm just another one of the demon's experiments. But I'm not planning to let a demon push me around."
Hibbing, Minnesota was a kick in the pants. Or, as Father would have said, a lesson in the necessity of humility. Ordinary fucking humans—except for being psychotic serial killers—and they got the drop on Sam. By the time Sam woke up, Dean had already started scamming the local law, though Sam didn't know that at the time. All he knew was that Alvin Jenkins was not going to enjoy his little run through the forest. He did try to warn Jenkins when the cage opened.
And then, after Jenkins had been gone for two minutes, he sighed and busted open the seams of his cage. If any of his captors were watching, he'd be hard put to explain himself, and his powers weren't good around corners or through walls, which made houses a bad place to fight. But he could just imagine how Dean would behave if he'd been the one who got cold-cocked, and how Dean would say terribly awkward things to make him feel better if Jenkins ended up dead. So he followed Jenkins out into the trees.
The men (the Benders, as he later found out) might have been good hunters, but they were terrible prey. His only woodcraft had been learned from Dean, and yet he had no trouble following Jenkins and finding the two men on his trail. He didn't even have to use TK against the first one, just walked up behind him and snapped his neck, swinging the still-twitching body around in case the second one had a shotgun. But no, it was just a big fucking knife.
Sam didn't want to have to explain too much to Dean about how these guys had shuffled off this mortal coil, so he pushed the second one up against a tree, holding him there until he could walk over and repeat the process.
He hadn't been eye-to-eye with anyone he was killing since Max. The guy was smelly and disgusting, and probably a cannibal, but it was still—he couldn't explain it to himself, but it was more like the grim scutwork of spell prep than the satisfaction of victory.
Jenkins could find his way to the road on his own, so Sam headed back to the house. And that decision might have come from a premonition, because then he was just in time to help out Dean and the cop, the one who'd locked Dean to her squad car for impersonating a police officer. The cop, who got revenge but didn't get her brother back.
Dean sat with her for a while before the evidence vans showed up. She talked more than he did, and at the end they clasped hands. Sam felt no jealousy this time. Instead, he had the oddest thought: if he could convince Dean to give up the hunt for the demon, maybe Dean could be happier.
Except that Father was going to force the issue, and Sam would have to find a way to satisfy Dean's thirst for revenge without getting him and Dean both skinned. If he could appease Father, he could then order Dean to forget, but he'd never had Andy's fine control and it was very easy to take away vital parts of a person.
Father's death would be the optimum solution, as always. Still, Sam was pretty sure that a Devil's Trap and an exorcism weren't going to get the job done.
It was the same problem that had stymied him for the past few months, and he was no closer to a solution, no matter how many local libraries they visited.
"How many people would you say we've saved, together?" Sam asked.
Dean didn't answer immediately. Rain turned the world outside into blurry, bruise-dark streaks; his hands tightened and relaxed on the steering wheel in unconscious imitation of the windshield wipers. "I haven't been keeping count. Why? You gonna quit when we hit three digits?"
"No," Sam protested. Then, when he'd had a chance to interpret the look on Dean's face: "Of course not. Just—I wondered, you know. I never saved anyone before I met you." He felt the understatement like a fist-sized rock in his stomach.
"If it makes you feel good, we can keep a list," Dean said. "Write it in glitter pen."
Sam flipped him off and turned the heat up, letting it bake the dampness out of his clothes. Dean spent the next fifty miles suggesting that a handjob would be a good reward for inducting Sam into the ranks of heroes.
"I can't believe you never learned how to sew a button," Dean bitched, then cursed and sucked on the needle-stung tip of his index finger, which guaranteed that Sam wasn't paying any attention to his words. "Seriously," he said, squinting as he threaded the needle again, "not even once?" Sitting cross-legged on the other bed with his shoulders rounded as he bent over his work, fiercely intent, he looked younger than usual, softer.
"I never needed to," Sam said, idly counting the balloons painted on the lampshade nearest him. Circus-themed room: fucking creepy, and also bright. "Never had to think about it. When I needed new clothes, I just—got them."
"Well, so did I," Dean said, raising his eyebrows as he glanced over at Sam. "Dunno what you mean by need."
"I wasn't spoiled," Sam said, feeling obscurely attacked. "Material abundance can coincide with emotional deprivation, you know."
Dean brought the needle up, down, criss-crossing the thread over itself. "Uh, sure I knew ... whatever the hell you just said."
"You can have a lot of stuff and still have nothing," he snapped, and reached out to turn the lamp so that the damned red-mouthed clown wouldn't be smirking at him. Unfortunately, there was an equally disturbing clown on the other side, though this one had a drum instead of a bunch of balloons.
Dean threw the shirt down. Its dark green plaid engaged in a color war with the cavorting circus animals embroidered on the bedspread. "Help me out here, dude."
He put his head down and pushed the heels of his hands against his closed eyes. "I've never been happier than I am right now."
Dean breathed, loud in the otherwise silent room. "I can see the problem." But the bravado was hollow and the words didn't sound mocking at all.
"No," he said, wanting Dean to understand. The only thing he could see was the pressure-created starbursts of white behind his eyes. "I mean, I have never felt like this, and I am so fucking terrified that—that you're going to get hurt, or—It was so much easier when I didn't have anything to lose."
After a moment, Dean's weight made the mattress dip underneath him. Dean's shoulder brushed against his, Dean's version of Eskimo kisses. "After we kill that demon—" Dean said, then stopped. He was still a terrible liar.
Sam let his hands drop to his knees. "You are who you are, Dean. I just—I worry."
"If you don't want me gettin' hurt," Dean said at last, "you could start by learning how to fix your own damn shirts."
As deflection, it was far from his best effort. Sam gave him a watery smile anyway, and managed to sew the button a good half-inch from the right spot on his shirt.
Sam made them wear the alarm company uniforms in Chicago mostly because he planned to do a little roleplaying later on. Dean had already played the police angle, talking a hapless tech support guy into giving him a password, so they knew that Meredith Moore's heart had been removed. But it was different to see the blood all over her apartment. Even with her body gone, the smell of rot had sunk into the furniture and the walls.
Walking through the dead girl's rooms, checking out the food she'd never get to eat and rifling through the mail she'd never get to read, Sam felt that there was a hole in the world. He tried to shake the unfamiliar regret off. It wasn't his fault she was dead, and he was going to get the thing that killed her.
Dean was staring at the bloody carpet when Sam returned to the living room. "You find any masking tape?" Dean asked.
Later, they stared down at the symbol formed when Dean connected the key blotches of blood. It was a rounded Z interrupted by a circle in the middle.
"I've seen that before," Sam said.
Dean raised his eyebrows. "You must really be doin' your homework, 'cause I never did."
"It's Zoroastrian. A sigil for a Daeva."
"Hunh," Dean said. "Daeva's a demon of darkness, right? Savage even for demons. Which, when you think about your ordinary, average demon, means they really make an impression."
They looked around at the blood again. "Not false advertising," Sam said.
"A Daeva has to be summoned." Dean bent down on one knee, not touching any of the lines. "I don't think anything in this apartment did the summoning; there's no other sign here."
"If I remember right, they're not known for being happy about being conjured. They like to slip the leash, take it out on the summoner."
"Yeah, but bringing up a demon nobody's seen in millenia, that's got to take some pretty serious chops. Maybe our conjurer thinks he's got it under control. Your extracurricular reading give you any idea what they look like? I never saw a picture, just some references to legends."
Sam shook his head, wishing that he'd managed to break into Father's private stash of profane texts before he'd left.
At the bar they found for dinner, Dean was showing him the records on the earlier victim, Ben Swardstrom, when Sam felt a ripple of attention pass over him. He snapped his head up and saw Arba's latest host across the room.
She smiled and came over. "Hey there, Sam!"
He could practically feel every muscle in Dean's body turn to stone.
"Hello," Sam said cautiously. "I'm sorry—"
"Meg," she said brightly. "Meg Masters. We met a couple of weeks back," she confided to Dean. "You must be Dean."
Dean's eyes grew bigger.
"Dean, you mind taking care of our tab?" Sam asked, reaching out without looking to squeeze Dean's forearm. Dean didn't say anything, but he stood and headed for the bar.
"What the fuck do you want?" Sam asked, keeping his tone pleasant.
"Just checking in," she said. "Daddy's getting ready to make his move. We wanted to be sure you had the hunter wrapped around your finger."
"Why?" he asked. Even a lie might give him useful information.
She shrugged. "You know Daddy."
"I've got it under control," he said. "Even with you trying to fuck it up like this."
Arba laughed, a trilling sound that cut through the babble of other conversations. Dean's head swiveled away from the bartender, who was attempting to chat him up as she made his change. "Seriously? A little mystery is good for a relationship, I always say. Hey, here's my number—we should talk more when your patsy's not here."
Sam took the scrap of paper from her, barely concealing his sneer, and she was gone before Dean made it back to their table.
"Who was that?" Dean asked.
Dean managed to keep silent until they got back to the motel (framed pictures of John Deere tractors and lampshades that looked like they were made out of sheaves of wheat), even though Sam caught him opening his mouth several times.
Full disclosure was still out of the question, but Dean needed to know that they'd made the major leagues and were about to start the playoffs.
"I met her outside of Burkitsville," Sam began as soon as he'd put down the last line of salt. "I thought she was just another hitchhiker, but running into her again, when we're on a case like this—I don't think it's a coincidence."
"You think she's our summoner?"
"I think she's something. And she wants us to know it."
"What did you tell her about me?" Dean was absolutely terrible at feigning casual interest, and would have been unconvincing even if he hadn't been rifling distractedly through Sam's bag instead of his own.
Sam took a half step towards Dean. "Nothing, just your name. She was fucking with you, Dean." He didn't even know if he was credible, that's how badly she'd thrown him. No, be honest. Arba wasn't the problem. The problem was that he wanted Dean to believe him. "I wouldn't do that to you. I wouldn't."
Dean stopped his busywork and put up his hands. "Hey," he began, and then swallowed whatever he'd meant to say. Instead he reached out, and Sam stepped into his arms.
"There's things I haven't told you," Sam whispered into his shoulder. "But I would never hurt you."
At least his priorities were clear. Fight off Arba and her Daeva; take Ava and Jake and the rest out of the running; using the leverage of being the last child left, make whatever deal with Father was necessary to keep Dean safe. Whatever Dean was for, there had to be alternatives that kept him alive—Father wouldn't raise forty kids to get one survivor and then hang it all on one hunter.
Dean shifted under his touch, slowly raising his hands to stroke down Sam's back.
When they broke apart, they still couldn't meet each other's eyes. Finally, Dean laughed, a little too loud. "We really need to get our heads out of our asses. That Daeva is not gonna care about our high school drama."
"I've got an idea about how to take the edge off," Sam said immediately, reaching for the hem of his shirt.
Dean raised one eyebrow. "Dude, that's the same idea you always have."
"And has it ever gone wrong? Don't talk about the whipped cream," he warned as he retrieved the alarm company uniform from its place at the top of his bag. "Anyway, this idea is a little different."
Dean didn't ever really lose the look of incredulity the entire time he was playing the clueless customer. But being the hunky service provider was a good idea because Dean kept cracking up and making bow-chicka-bow sounds. By the time they actually made it to the bed Dean was as happy and sweet as Sam could have hoped.
Sam reinforced the wards with his own blood before making sure that Dean would stay down with the same sleep spell as before. He didn't need Arba's phone number, but the piece of paper she'd given him was good for other methods of location as well. In fact, the charm he used led him right to the warehouse, which was the best result he'd ever had: in the past, he'd never been able to get more specific than a few city blocks.
He didn't recognize Arba's black altar with its Zoroastrian symbol garnished with human hearts, but the silver chalice of blood was fairly self-explanatory.
For a moment, Sam wished he was the one making the call, hearing that satisfied, confident voice that always promised a reward just over the horizon. Father had set the terms of his self-image for so long; even rebellion was a way of measuring himself against Father. But both obedience and defiance were tools, not ends. Father had hung in Sam's life like a gibbous moon, too big to see anything else. He had Dean to think of now.
He shook off the introspection and listened closely. Unfortunately, Arba didn't actually say much to Father; nothing she couldn't have said using a cellphone, if she hadn't been behaving in classic demonic fashion. One of the Nephilim would never use cheap, effective technology when bloodshed could substitute. Sam wondered, given her blatancy at the bar, whether she was working with some other party against Father. If that were so, then that increased the danger to Dean and to him—collateral damage killed just as dead as direct aim.
He left the warehouse just after she did, nervous all over again about the wards he'd left on the motel room.
The sleep spell snapped as soon as he opened the door to their room, but he made it to the side of the bed before Dean could do more than reach for his gun.
"Sammy?" Dean rubbed at his eyes. Sam tugged at his boots as if he were just putting them on.
"I had a vision," he said.
Dean rolled into a sitting position, still blinking, his face scrunched up and creased from being shoved into the pillow. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. But Meg—she's controlling the Daeva. I saw where she's doing it, a warehouse down on West Erie. And I saw her communicating with someone, or something, using blood, a cup of blood."
Dean reached for his discarded T-shirt on the floor, grumbling as he tugged it on. "Someone or something other than the Daeva?"
"She was talking about waiting for it to show up, and the Daeva's already here. I don't think you have a conversation with a Daeva anyway; 'sit' and 'heel' are the best you're gonna do."
Dean stood and shuffled into his boxers. "Listen, there was something I thought of—" He stopped to yawn and scratch his belly.
Sam waited as Dean made his still-slow way over to the laptop and fired it up. "The complete records of the two victims—we missed something the first time."
"What?" Sam came over and leaned one elbow on the table next to Dean's, reading over his shoulder.
"The first victim, the old man—he spent his whole life in Chicago, but he wasn't born here. Look where he was born."
"Meredith, second victim—turns out she was adopted. And guess where she's from."
They stared at each other; Dean's eyes were inches from his, bright and worried. He could feel the heat coming from Dean's skin, even as Dean shivered.
Sam pushed himself back. "So, Meg's connected to the demon, who may be coming here. But that's not near enough information."
Dean was pulling out his cellphone. Sam frowned at him, confused, but Dean held up his hand and waited long enough that the call plainly went to voicemail. "Hey, uh. We think we've got a serious lead on the thing that killed Mom and Sam. Dad, if you get this, get to Chicago as soon as you can."
"We?" Sam couldn't help asking.
Dean gave him a full duh-face, brows lowered and quizzical dimples. "What'd you want me to say?"
Sam didn't really have an answer for that. It wasn't like Old Man Winchester was going to show, anyway. If he didn't come when his son was dying, then he was unlikely to run to Dean's side because of some vague hint.
"So what happens if we take this thing out?" Dean asked. "Send the demon back to Hell. Is that it?"
Sam wished he'd gotten even the few hours of sleep Dean had managed. "What?"
"You got into this because of your freaky visions about me, and we're connected by the demon. With it gone, you could go back to the real world, do whatever you wanted." Dean said it carefully.
"What do you want to do?"
Dean bent over the computer and started closing files. "Always gonna be hunts."
"That's not what I asked." His voice came out soft. "What do you want, Dean? You've got to say it."
"I want—I want everything, all right?" Dean closed the laptop, just a little too forcefully. "I want to stay with you and I want to save people and kill bad things."
Hearing Dean's definition of 'everything' made Sam's chest feel hollowed-out and waterlogged. He'd been raised to think that all the kingdoms of the earth were only the beginning. "Done," he said.
Dean turned his whole body in the chair as Sam went to his knees beside him. "You couldn't make me go," he breathed, low enough that Dean bent his head to get closer.
Somehow, some way, he'd explain everything to Dean. Depending on what they had to do to survive, there might be a much greater call for hunters in the future.
Five hours later, Sam was thinking that he might have been just a bit arrogant in starting to make plans. Arba had warded the warehouse down against Sam's powers, which he ought to have anticipated. And then she'd smashed him and Dean up pretty good before tying them to separate pillars, like sacrifices lined up for processing. His only consolation was that she hadn't said anything about him to Dean, which meant that she was keeping her options open.
Dean got angriest when she admitted that she'd just picked two random people from Lawrence in order to draw them in. Sam felt the same rage: the victims weren't players. They'd done nothing, nothing, and she'd just reached out and swatted them. Arba watched him twitch in his bindings and laughed, the same musical sound that had turned so many heads in the bar earlier.
"Why don't you kill us already?" Dean asked.
Arba crossed back over to him. "I guess it's true that the pretty ones never need to think. Why would this be a trap for you two kids?"
"It's a trap for John Winchester?" Sam blurted without thinking, because if Arba had just fucked his face up as a side effect he was going to—
"Wow," Dean said, snapping him back to rationality. "News flash, bitch: your cunning plan sucks. Even if Dad was in town, which he is not, he wouldn't walk into something like this. He's too good."
Arba smiled. "He is pretty good, I'll give you that." She straddled Dean's legs and sat down, pressed heavily against his crotch. Sam decided that she had officially taken a side, and it wasn't his. "But you, sweetness, he can't leave you in trouble."
She ground down and put her hands on Dean's chest, squeezing, bringing her mouth to his neck and angling her whole body so that Sam could see her lick from collarbone to ear. Dean refused to flinch, but his head thunked back against the post and his nostrils flared in disgust.
"Get off him," Sam said, every word outlined in fire.
"Why?" she asked. Her hand disappeared behind Dean's back and returned with Dean's second favorite knife.
She swung her leg off of Dean and stood, moving swiftly back to Sam. Mouth quirked in what could have been a charming smile, she knelt in front of him, idly slapping the flat of the knife against her palm. "That's your best shot? Have your little hunter cut free while I'm distracted?"
"No," Sam said, and felt the last strands of the bindings part against his own knife. One thing was obvious: Father and everyone behind him, demon or psychic, had vastly overcommitted to mystical weapons over physical ones.
He shoved the knife deep into Arba's gut, twisting. It wouldn't slow her down much, but it wasn't wasted. While she was still bringing her hands in to protect herself, he grabbed her shoulders and slammed their heads together, which hurt like a motherfucker but sent her to the floor.
"Get the altar!" Dean yelled.
That was smarter than running for Dean, but he didn't have to like it. With one shove, he sent the table over, beads and bones and hearts flying everywhere. He stomped his boot down on the Daeva's symbol painted onto the altar cloth and twisted, smearing it out of true.
Arba screamed rage. All light and air left the room for half a second, leaving Sam gasping as he stumbled back towards Dean. Arba was trying to beat him there, but a figure coalesced out of the shadows and grabbed her.
She kicked and cursed in Sumerian as she was dragged across the floor. The Daeva shook her like a noisemaker at a New Year's party. Sam blinked blood out of his eyes, dropping painfully to his knees so that he could reach the ropes still keeping Dean in place, just as the Daeva pulled Arba through the window in a shower of glass and wooden struts.
Sam helped Dean to his feet and they rushed over to the window, the night wind chill against the drying blood on Sam's face and neck. Arba was sprawled on the sidewalk, her broken limbs twisting her into the shape of the rune for fate.
Her injuries wouldn't stop her long. "I think she's possessed," he said.
Dean gave him a funny look. It would, Sam realized, have been trivial to invoke the Lord's name against her at any time; he'd been holding back in instinctive concealment of his own secrets. "She didn't seem to react much to the gut wound. And that was Sumerian she was using on the way out—if you automatically go back to a language four thousand years older than Christ when you're under stress, I'm thinking you're a demon."
It didn't take long to reclaim the bags of weapons Arba had kicked into the corner. But when they got out to the street, the body was gone.
"Next time," Dean said, "exorcise first, ask questions later."
Sam nodded and they limped off.
Back at their room, Dean opened the door and the first thing Sam saw was the outline of a man standing by the window.
Sam had his gun aimed at the center of the man's torso before Dean got the light on.
"Dad?" Dean said, his voice full of fear and wonder.
The man turned, and even through the beard Sam saw it: the angry shadow of the man in Dean's pictures, the same lines around his eyes as were starting to form around Dean's. But John Winchester's eyes were narrowed with intense suspicion.
Dean dropped his bag and crossed the room in seconds, stopping inches away from his father and hesitating until his father reached up to pull him into a hug. Dean pressed his cheek into John Winchester's shoulder; Sam could see the muscles in his back working through his shirt as he squeezed.
"It was a trap, Dad, I'm sorry," Dean said, the words blurred. Sam carefully put his bag down, then rested the gun on top of it.
"It's all right. I thought it might've been. Who's this?"
Dean pulled away, his hand still lingering on Winchester's shoulder, and turned his body back towards Sam. "Dad, this is Sam Marshall. He's a hunter. We've been working together for about nine months."
Sam nodded in greeting, wishing that he still had the gun just to have something to do with his hands. Dean's use of 'hunter' had sent a warm shiver through him.
"We need to talk," Winchester said. Dean began to look around the room, then stopped. He took a few steps back from his father. The light was too bad to tell, but Sam would have bet just about anything that he'd turned bright red. They hadn't exactly cleaned up before they left, and Winchester had to have been in here long enough to see, and probably smell, what had been going on.
But that wasn't where Winchester was going, not exactly: "This is family business, Dean." He glanced quickly at Sam, then returned his focus to his son. "Private."
Sam prepared himself to leave and take a calming walk around the block. Dean would tell him later, and so he could afford to let the man get away with ordering his son around like—No, it was a mistake to compare him to Father. John Winchester's words had no threats curling around them like smoke, only the simple assumption of obedience.
Then Dean opened up a whole new heading under the category of Dean Winchester Is Braver Than You: he closed the distance between them and grabbed Sam's hand, squeezing hard. "No, sir," Dean said.
John Winchester gaped at Dean's hand with roughly the same expression Sam imagined he himself was wearing. Sure, it was relatively obvious that they weren't exactly living the chaste life of the Odd Couple, but Dean was saying a lot more than that, at least in Winchester-speak.
Dean's fingers were hot and his palm was sweaty, but his jaw was as set as if he were facing down a pissed-off ghost. The triumphant rush swelling Sam's chest didn't dissipate even when he realized that this might complicate their access to whatever John Winchester knew. He met Dean's father's eyes, trying not to add any more challenge than necessary, just wanting him to know that Dean was not alone.
At last, Winchester exhaled. His own hands came up, as if he were staring into the barrel of a gun. "All right, then." His eyes were shining, the way Dean's always did when he was in deep emotional territory.
"I saw an all-night diner a block over," Sam offered.
The diner reminded Sam of Nighthawks, glaring yellow brightness that didn't dispel the loneliness of a dark night, but maybe that was just Chicago.
They hadn't spoken on the way over after Sam had pointed them in the proper direction. John Winchester nodded pleasantly at the waitress who seated them, then waited for her to retreat.
He cleared his throat and addressed Dean. "You've told him about the yellow-eyed demon?"
Sam twitched, wanting to say something like, 'yes, he's passed on all three sentences you've ever said to him about it,' but Dean's knee brushed up against his and he only nodded along with Dean.
"I've been tracking down leads. I'm close, very close, to finding a weapon that will enable me to kill it. Permanently. Not just exorcise."
Sam was silenced by the shock, not for the same reasons that Dean was. If that was even close to true, the man would have almost incalculable power. And, more importantly, that weapon was their way out. It could—Sam could—save Dean.
He wanted to demand to hear all about it, but he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, and sure enough Dean did the right thing: "What is it, Dad? The weapon." Dean sounded cracked open with hope, like some worn-down rock that turned out to be full of crystals inside.
Winchester shook his head. "I can't tell you. It's too dangerous."
Dean bowed his head. "Yessir," he mumbled, then said something unintelligible and stood, which meant that Sam had to get out of the booth. Dean stumbled off towards the bathroom sign in the back of the diner, and they both watched him go.
Sam took a couple of deep breaths. He could whammy Winchester now; he was unlikely to get a better opportunity. But there was still the problem of finesse, and not only could Sam not risk a failure to extract all the relevant details, Dean was likely to get a little upset if his father turned into a zombie while he was pulling himself together in the bathroom.
Instead, he sat down and stared across the table.
"So," John Winchester said, and the expression in his eyes had nothing to do with hunting demons and everything to do with a parent sizing up a suitor, which was so farcical that it almost made Sam's stomach turn. "How long have you and Dean been together?" His tone was weirdly polite, and Dean had already reported on when they'd met, so he was clearly asking the more intimate question.
Sam shrugged, then schooled his expression into something more placating. "It was gradual," he said. With nothing obvious to say, he shut his mouth. Let Winchester figure out how to keep the conversation from dying, if he cared about the guy his son was fucking.
"Dean isn't very experienced," Winchester began. It was so very tempting to correct him on that, but instead Sam merely curled his hands into fists under the table, using the pain of his nails cutting into his palms to ground himself. "I don't—it's not that you're a—he's always thrown himself into things. It makes him—easy to hurt."
Dean clearly had gotten more than bone structure from his father. That incoherent little speech sounded like it had grated like a rasp on the way out. Well, good. "With all due respect, we both know who's hurt Dean more."
Winchester rocked back an inch or so. Sam realized that Winchester's hands were also concealed under the table. He wondered whether there were two guns aimed at his crotch right now, or only one.
"I don't know what Dean's told you—" Winchester's face was stiff underneath his beard, his eyes narrowed.
Sam shook his head. "About you? Not a damned word. Your son grew up strong and loyal and I guess that's some sort of testimony about you. But you broke him apart like you were splitting logs when you left him. I'm looking out for Dean now."
Sam couldn't interpret all the shades of anger and grief running over Winchester's face, settling down at last into a dull burn. "Fair enough," Winchester said in an impressively even tone. "You planning on getting in the way of hunting down this demon? Might be dangerous."
Was the implication supposed to be that Sam was selfishly interested in Dean's safety, or just that Sam was a coward? Didn't matter. "It's not the killing that worries me. Sir."
He sensed Dean coming within earshot then, and it was fortunate that Winchester spotted Dean at the same time and shut up.
The resumed meal was just about as uncomfortable as Sam could have imagined. After Dean started turning his head between the two of them every five seconds, looking like someone just nailed a kitten to his steering wheel, Sam sucked it up and did his best to emanate goodwill. Winchester eventually managed to do the same—Sam could tell that he was an excellent con man—and by the end Dean was happy enough to order an ice cream sundae. Observing Dean in dessert heaven was a temptation no man could have resisted, so Sam let his lips curl up just a little, knowing that Winchester was watching and drawing the appropriate conclusions. But hell, half the diner was staring at Dean.
Winchester abandoned Dean in order to protect him. Dean professed to understand and even agree. He nodded and sirred and stared out at nothing with wet eyes after Winchester had gone.
Sam understood why Dean might want to think that inflicting pain was a sign of paternal love. Hell, he'd felt the same way when Father had explained, all those times, about the true meaning of all his punishments. Difference was, Sam had grown to see the relish in Father's eyes.
No, Winchester didn't seem to be enjoying his solo quest. But he still made Sam want to scream: So, fear for Dean makes you weak, and your genius solution to that is to keep yourself ignorant about all the danger he's in? Some accident of fate gave you Dean, Dean, and all you can think about is people twenty years dead?
If Sam could have explained that Dean was already a specific target, maybe his father wouldn't have fled. But if the man had been rational, then Sam wouldn't have needed to regret his inability to explain, so it wasn't Sam's fault. Anyway, Sam wanted him gone; Dean had gotten over his abandonment before, and could again.
If Winchester did manage to get his hands on a weapon that could kill Father, he'd be very useful. And then, perhaps, his utility would end.
"I gotta say, I'm impressed by your initiative," Dean said from the driver's seat. "Hell Hound's Lair dot com?"
Sam shifted restlessly in his seat. "What can I say, I feel like killing something."
Dean chewed his lower lip between his teeth. Sam guessed that he'd just been a tad too honest. Their encounters with Arba and John Winchester had left him bloodthirsty, yes, and the local legend seemed intriguing enough. He wanted the simple satisfaction of getting rid of a spirit that preyed on innocents.
Which was probably why the Hell House turned out to be the fault of other innocents, children playing with spirit sigils they didn't understand. Creating a tulpa out of the power of online belief. Not that Sam thought that Father would rule over a well-organized world of sunshine and puppies—not unless the puppies were staked out to die of thirst in the desert, anyway—but Jesus, people were stupid.
The tulpa nearly decapitated Dean with its newly-imagined ax before Sam was able to draw its attention. For reasons possibly known only to Tibetan mystics, the TK worked on the ax, but not on the tulpa itself, so Sam found himself up against the wall getting choked while Dean improvised with lighter fluid.
At least the tulpa didn't have any better idea of its own vulnerabilities than they did. When Dean yelled and waved his makeshift flamethrower at it, it let Sam go long enough that they escaped before the flames engulfed the house.
"What do we do if the legend changes?" Sam wondered as they watched a section of the roof collapse.
"Come back, I guess." Dean caught Sam's dissatisfied expression. "Makes you think, how many of the things we hunt only exist because people believe in them?"
"People should believe in something else," Sam muttered.
Dean slung his arm across Sam's shoulders. "Ah, that's just, you know, human nature. Thinkin' there's still mysteries in the world, or proof of life after death—a lot of people need that."
The top story of the house fell in with a crump audible over the crackle of the flames. "I don't get why that makes anybody feel better," Sam admitted. "As far as I've seen, the afterlife sucks. Tormented ghosts and demons from Hell. Wouldn't it be better, safer, if it all just ended? If you could just be done when it's your time. People delude themselves, thinking they'll be the lucky ones, the saved."
Dean's thumb stroked against his neck. "At least we know how to bring them some peace," he offered. "When I go, I want to be salted and burned. You're right—you go out, you should get a real end."
Sam turned his head. The fire reflected in Dean's eyes, brightening the green of his pupils to tiger-fierceness. "Not any time soon." He turned so that he could cup Dean's cheek in his hand, brushing his thumb across Dean's lower lip. Dean's mouth opened slightly under his touch.
"You know—" Dean began, lame protest, before Sam pulled him close and then pulled him down, right there in the grass, the heat from the fire warming them as the house groaned and spat and burned.
They had to run for the car, holding their jeans up one-handed, when the fire engines finally arrived.
The legend of Mordechai Murdoch disappeared from the internet. There were girls in Richardson, Texas who'd live through their would-be suitors' attempts to scare them. Sam would never know them, or want to, and they'd never know him. But he'd saved them anyway.
"Coordinates, again?" Sam could practically taste his own venom that time.
Dean pounded the heels of his hands against the steering wheel. "If you're coming, don't bitch about it, all right?"
"Of course I'm coming to..." he found the correct square on the map, "Fitchburg, Wisconsin. I just—"
"Did you ever think maybe he's my father, and I get to decide whether he's treatin' me wrong?"
"No," he said, which surprised a laugh out of Dean. The billboard that whipped by promised free wireless at the next exit. "Hey, let's grab lunch, see what we can find out about this hunt, about which I am not bitching."
Dean kept his slight smile, and Sam didn't say anything to get rid of it, even when he threw his hands up in frustration at the total lack of reported trouble in Fitchburg.
When they actually arrived, it took several hours to see the problem: late afternoon, and the streets were empty of kids. Sam sweet-talked the woman overseeing her daughter on the swings, all alone, and found out that there had been a recent wave of sickness among the town children. Only five or six were in the hospital, but parents were worried, keeping the healthy ones isolated.
Dean didn't have CDC badges for them, but Sam had learned enough now to know that nobody actually read what was written on the badges. At least now his Homeland Security ID had an actual picture of him. He talked their way past the duty nurse and interviewed the doctor in charge, Hydecker, while Dean went through the charts looking for anything suggestive of the supernatural.
The children's immune systems had simply collapsed, one family at a time.
Sam used TK to get into the Tarnower house, showing off for Dean. "I coulda done that in ten seconds," Dean grumped, but Sam could tell that he saw the potential.
On the outside of Bethany Tarnower's window ledge, Sam found an elongated black handprint, like a shadow frozen in place. When he leaned closer, he smelled rot, and he thought that he saw a cluster of fly eggs at one of the junctions between the fingers. "I'm ruling out pneumonia," he said. "What the hell leaves a handprint like that?"
Dean pushed past him, inspecting the ledge. "It's a shtriga," he said, as if his voice was coming from somewhere very far away. "He wants me to finish the job."
"What the hell is a shtriga?" He'd thought Dean had been careful to tell him about everything huntable.
"It's kind of like a witch. I think." Now Dean sounded even worse, like he'd been gut-shot. His tentativeness was another red flag. Sam knew that he'd sort of promised not to complain about John Winchester's decision to send them here, but really: this was getting fucked up fast.
"I've never heard of a shtriga," he prompted. "It wasn't in the journal."
"We—he hunted one before, in Fort Douglas. I was, uh, maybe ten. It got away."
Thus, 'finish the job.' Except that according to Dean, nothing evil that John Winchester found ever walked away from him. Now Sam seriously regretted snarking earlier, because Dean would—not unfairly—interpret almost anything he asked as an attack on Dean's father. He settled on a gentle tone and a vague prompt. "What else do you remember?"
"Nothin'," Dean said immediately. "I was a kid."
A kid who'd been bullseying targets for years. A kid who'd dropped his first match into an open coffin at age eight, and at ten was already learning how to drive.
Sweet mother of fuck. The only thing for it was to work the job, as fast as possible, and do as much of the work as possible by himself.
"Let's get out of here," he suggested.
The surly preadolescent working the counter at the motel quailed under Sam's black look and gave them the key to the closest room. Once they were there, Dean busied himself with weapons maintenance, but he didn't do it in his usual orderly fashion, instead pulling a chair up to the bed and laying all the guns out across the mattress, drifting from one piece to another as if he kept forgetting which one he wanted.
Sam hit the databases. The usual sources were nearly barren, but one reference took him deep into Eastern European folklore repositories. A shtriga, it developed, was an evil entity that fed off of life force, preferably youthful life force. He got to the end of the article he'd found and stared at the screen. "Dean," he said. "It says here shtrigas are invulnerable to 'all weapons devised by God and man.'"
Dean's head snapped up. "That's not right," he said. Sam swallowed down his instinctive desire to demand more. After a moment, Dean put his pistol down on the bedspread. "She's vulnerable when she feeds. Catch her when she's eating, you can blast her with consecrated iron. I think."
'Do you know how strange you're acting?' was what he wanted to ask. "How do you know that?" was what he did ask.
Dean picked at a thread that had come loose on the bedspread. "Dad told me."
After that, their room seemed to have no air. They both slept badly, slamming into each other every time one of them shifted or turned.
In the morning, they were on their way to breakfast when they saw the motel kid again, all his attitude lost in dejection as he sat outside the motel office. Dean, of course, stopped to talk to him and found out that his little brother (whom Sam had never seen, but Dean apparently had) was the newest kid to be hospitalized for pneumonia.
"It's my fault," the older brother—Michael—said miserably.
"How?" Dean asked.
Michael raised his head, caught perhaps by the fact that Dean didn't immediately dismiss his confession as the self-centeredness of a child. "I should've made sure the window was latched."
Dean leaned closer, bracing his hands on his knees; he would've gotten on his knees, Sam was sure, if the kid had been a couple of years younger. "Listen, I can promise you this is not your fault. Okay?"
"It's my job to look out for him," Michael said, like his guts were hanging out. Dean nodded like he understood.
Michael's mother came out then, and Dean managed to talk his way into giving her a ride to the hospital. She insisted they take her car, and Dean didn't even balk at driving an automatic; he was deep in the need to hunt. Before he left, he grabbed Sam and leaned in close. "I want this thing dead." Sam couldn't say a word.
Sam drove the relatively short distance to the library at U Wisconsin-Madison. It didn't take him long to find the record of deaths in Fort Douglas. Before that, there were other towns, roughly every fifteen to twenty years. The damage had only started to be glimpsed in Fitchburg. In the past, dozens of children had died, slowly, before the shtriga was finished.
Dean called in the afternoon, when his stomach was protesting that lunchtime was already hours past. He gave Dean a quick rundown.
"How far back does this thing go?"
"I don't know," Sam admitted. "I've tracked it back to Black River Falls, back in the 1890s. Real horror show." He scrolled the microfilm, trying to find the date of the first reports, and stopped at a faded picture of doctors crowded around a patient's bed. "Fuck me," he said.
"I got a photo here of Hydecker attending a sick kid."
"Son of a—" Dean cut himself off, drawing an enraged breath.
"You still at the hospital?"
"Lookin' at him," Dean said, every word black with fury.
"Don't do anything," Sam said, knowing that if he needed to say it then a warning was useless. "I'll be right there."
Dean didn't attack Hydecker at the hospital, though. He just brought Michael's mother back to the motel, and was sitting in their room when Sam returned.
Sam went to him, pulling him up for better inspection, and checked to see that he wasn't injured, even though that was stupid; Dean would have been arrested if he'd tried anything at the hospital. "You didn't—"
Dean was too mad at the shtriga to react much to Sam's manhandling. "I'm not gonna shoot up a pediatrics ward. And I wasn't armed, so I couldn't even if I'd wanted to. Anyway, wouldn't've done any good—that bastard's bulletproof until it opens its goddamned mouth to eat."
"Okay, what now?"
Dean pulled away, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. "The shtriga works through siblings. Means Michael's next. We gotta talk to him, get his help."
"You want to use a kid as bait?" It was a good idea, it just wasn't a Dean idea.
"We've got to catch it somehow, or more kids are gonna die." A muscle jumped in Dean's jaw. "We let this thing go, it's gonna keep killing. Now and every time it gets hungry. Over a hundred years already." It had the sound of a rehearsed justification.
"Are you sure?" Sam would have sworn that Dean would do just about anything to think up an alternative—curl up under the covers of the kid's bed and impersonate him, at least. As he thought about it, that plan was obviously insufficient: a creature like the shtriga could sense life force and that wouldn't work.
"Dad sent me here to fix my mistake."
Oh, this day just kept improving. "What are you talking about?" Sam demanded.
Dean turned his back to Sam, his arms pulled in tight to his sides. "I'm the one whose fault it is. All those kids, they're hurt 'cause of me."
"What? Dean. Dean! You've been messed up since we got here. Talk to me," he begged, closing the distance between them and sliding his hand down Dean's back. Dean twitched and Sam backed off a few inches.
"He needed me for the hunt," Dean said at last, his voice back to a kid's wavering tones. The words spilled from him like water, fast and colorless. "He needed me to draw it out. I was supposed to wait until it started feeding. I swore to him I was strong enough. But I just—I got scared. I couldn't let it—I called him too soon and when he fired, it—it ran, and I was cryin', so he went to me instead of following it. He took me out of Fort Douglas, to a friend's house. By the time he got back, the shtriga disappeared. Just gone. Gone until now.
"He never talked about it. But I let him down and he knew it. He told me what I had to do and I fucked it up. And now those kids are gonna die, unless Michael steps up to do what I couldn't."
"Dean," Sam began.
But just because Dean's mind was made up didn't do squat to convince Michael.
When they went to find Michael in the motel office, he was, to put it mildly, unwilling to listen.
Dean's insistence that pneumonia was not the culprit in Asher's coma freaked Michael out from word one; anybody could have heard that Dean was about ready to break down.
Quickly enough, Michael stood and backed to the door, ready to flee. "You're crazy! Just go away, or I'm calling the cops."
"I had a brother," Dean said, his voice harsh and deformed under the pressure, and Michael froze with one hand out towards the counter phone. "I would've done anything, anything to keep him safe. But I failed." Dean sucked in air, ragged. Michael swayed fractionally towards him, drawn as anyone would be to Dean's total vulnerability, his commitment. "Listen to me, Michael. This thing came through your window, and it attacked your brother. I've seen it. I know what it looks like."
Michael closed his eyes. "It...it has this long, black robe?
"You saw it, didn't you?" Dean asked, his voice gentling like a storm's sudden ending.
"I thought it was a nightmare."
Dean breathed out through his nose. "I wish—I wish to hell I didn't have to tell you this. But sometimes, nightmares are real."
"Why are you telling me?" Michael was visibly a kid now. Wanting someone else to take care of the problem—his mom, still at the hospital; maybe his missing father. Sam felt a strange urge to reach out and give him a hug.
That wasn't what they had to give him. "We need your help," Dean admitted.
And then it fell apart. Michael was having none of it, still terrified of what he'd seen. He didn't listen when Dean tried to use his anger over his brother's illness, then warned him that other kids were still in danger.
Sam had to pull him away when he saw that Dean was about fifteen seconds from taking out his own guilt on the kid. Sam had nothing against emotional blackmail in theory, but it was plain that neither Dean nor Michael would benefit from further conversation.
"Well, that sucked," Dean said when Sam had hustled him back to their room.
"You can't expect a kid to just do something like that," Sam told him, not meaning Michael.
Dean ignored him. "Now what?"
"Maybe we can figure out some way to fake a tasty life force," Sam said, without much conviction. They didn't even know what the shtriga sensed, not well enough to simulate it.
Someone rapped on the door. Sam's shoulders sagged involuntarily; it was probably Michael's mother, come to tell them to get the hell away from her remaining kid.
He was shocked to see Michael standing outside instead.
"If you kill it, will Asher get better?" he demanded.
Dean rubbed his fingers over his mouth. "Honestly? We don't know."
"You would have done this for your little brother?"
Dean swallowed. "If I could've traded myself—I didn't have the chance. But yeah, I would've done anything for him."
Michael stood a little straighter. "Me too. I'm in."
John Winchester's plan had depended on waiting for Dean's outcry. Sam and Dean had a night-vision camera, so they wouldn't need to rely on Michael's sense of timing. Dean promised him a thousand times that they'd be one room over, just the thickness of a wall away, waiting with their guns. Dean talked him through what would happen: rolling off the bed and crawling under it, staying down to avoid any chance of being shot, preparing for the noise of the guns. In his careful instructions, Sam recognized the man who'd taught him how to hunt, and began to think that Dean was going to make it through this.
When the shtriga came, it was worse than Sam had imagined: a hooded figure of pure shadow, corpse-bony. It hovered over Michael, breathing in, and its mouth filled with light, like something spilling in from another, more horrible dimension.
They burst in, firing, and the shtriga flew backwards with the force of the bullets. Michael was nowhere to be seen—Sam trusted that he was under the bed—and they stalked quickly to where the shtriga was lying on the floor. Sam knelt, using his gun to prod at the thing's all-concealing robe.
Sam didn't even see it rise up, it was that fast. It knocked him back into a chest of drawers, his lower back hitting so hard that he felt something snap. Then it shoved Dean, sending him flying backwards across the room until he smacked into the opposite wall, smashing a picture in its frame before crashing to the floor. The shtriga was right behind him, wrapping its blackened twiglike fingers around Dean's neck as it opened its mouth again.
It planned to finish what it had started years ago, Sam realized. Dean's outstretched hand flailed for his gun as his face started to gray out in the unnatural white glow.
A noise of pure rage came from Sam's mouth. He reached out with his mind, twisting the shtriga's head away from Dean, and shot it between the eyes.
"Are you all right?" he demanded. Dean panted and, once he'd retrieved his gun, gave Sam a thumbs-up with his free hand. Sam limped over, helping Dean to his feet, and then as one they each pumped three more iron rounds into it.
Like that, it collapsed into nothingness, leaving only its black robes.
"Holy shit!" Michael said from behind them. "Just like Star Wars!"
They both turned to look at the boy, Dean's raised eyebrow probably a match to Sam's expression.
"I told you to stay under the bed," Dean said, but there was no heat in it. Michael came closer, and Dean put a hand on his shoulder as he stared down at the fabric, finally daring to stick out his foot to brush against it.
He nodded, then. "Can we call the hospital and ask them to check on Asher?" Dean smiled down at him and ruffled his hair. Michael didn't even try to get away.
"You think the kid's going to be all right, now that he knows what's out there?" Sam asked as Dean stuck his arm out the window, waving goodbye.
Dean checked the rear-view mirror. "Dunno. Look how well-adjusted we are." He chewed on the side of his mouth for a minute. "Anyway, he knows he's a hero. That's gotta be good for him, right?"
"You know there was nothing you could have done to save your brother, right?" Dean didn't even twitch; it was as if Sam hadn't spoken. "Dean, even your father's spent twenty years looking for a weapon against the demon that killed him and your mom." At that, Dean's eyes widened a little; maybe it was just that Sam had offered no hint of disrespect for John Winchester. "What you do—what we do—it's the right thing, but it's not because you need to make up for anything."
In the silence that followed, Sam had plenty of opportunity to think about his own ledger.
Fifteen minutes later, Dean spoke. "That's not what it feels like."
That night, Dean found them a motel in Michigan decorated entirely in shades of burnt orange and red-brown. Velveteen bedcovers patterned in paisley; beads for room dividers; stained-glass wall sconces. Even the bumpy floral-shaped anti-slip decals on the bottom of the tub (which itself was the color of badly curdled milk) were red and brown. "It's like the seventies threw up in here," Sam said, amazed, as he investigated.
Dean chuckled, and Sam heard the bed creak as he threw himself down. When Sam emerged from the bathroom, Dean was stretched out on top of the covers. He still had his boots on, his legs crossed at the ankles and his hands loose on top of his stomach as he stared up at the stuccoed ceiling.
"I never asked," Dean said as Sam headed towards his bag, "but you don't have any brothers or sisters, do you?"
Sam froze. He hadn't lied to Dean about his past in months, largely because he hadn't said anything at all. "I was—actually it was kind of screwed up," he said. "My dad, he—he took in a bunch of other kids. But they were never—I kinda hated them."
Dean made a vague humphing noise. When Sam dared to look, he was still facing up towards the ceiling. "I always wondered," Dean said eventually, "what it would have been like. Growin' up with a little brother. When Sammy came home from the hospital, I threw a fit, told my mom to take him back. But three days later, Dad says, I was his biggest fan."
He had to tell Dean about Father now. Confession was only going to get harder. He could say he'd fled, he'd decided he wanted to switch sides. It was true in all but chronology.
"Dean—" he began.
But Dean was rolling off the bed, standing, grabbing hungrily at him, his sweet hot mouth stopping the words that Sam didn't want to say.
They were on a two-lane highway in West Virginia when the tape deck and the engine went out together, like the whole system had been fried by an EMP. Dean cursed as if invective alone might power the car and guided it gently off the road, bumping over gravel until they came to a stop just in front of a stand of trees.
They were both out of their seats, headed to the weapons in the trunk, as soon as the car gave its final jolt. "Did you lose any time?" Sam joked as he checked his clip.
"Time's a universal invariant," Dean said right back, scanning the road.
Freaky electrical phenomena might be a sign of alien abduction on The X-Files, but they weren't that lucky.
"Listen," Dean said, turning his head slowly back and forth. His gun was at his side, his finger tight on the trigger, barrel aimed at the ground.
Sam didn't hear anything, not even leaves rustling, the air heavy and dead around them. In the distance, he saw a black swarm of birds, winging away from them.
Step by step, they backed up until their shoulderblades touched. "In a minute," Dean said, the vibration of his voice running through their bodies, "I'm gonna pop the hood. You gotta—"
Between one blink and the next, Ava was there, standing in the road, strands of hair whipping across her face even though there was no wind. Her hands were hidden in the pockets of her dark blue denim jacket. Dean felt him stiffening and swiveled, so they were shoulder to shoulder facing her.
She looked fabulous. As the phantom wind died down, her brown, shoulder-length hair curved around her face like a scimitar; her light eyes shone under eyebrows that were perfect arcs; her softly rounded cheeks were slightly pinked with exertion; and her plump mouth was a dusky rose that made her look, even with all Sam knew, just a little bit vulnerable. Along with the jacket, nipped in to highlight her waist, she was wearing tight jeans and low-heeled boots. He remembered a couple of weeks when the second most powerful urge in his life was the one to fuck her.
"Sam!" she said, chipper as ever.
"Ava." He tucked his gun into the back of his jeans. Any bullet she saw coming wasn't going to be the one to kill her.
Dean didn't lower his gun, but he jerked his eyes over towards Sam. "Who the fuck are you?" he asked.
She smiled, soft and a little secretive. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Be careful," Sam warned Dean, urgently.
She raised her hand. The gun ripped itself from Dean's hand; Sam caught it before it hit the ground and sent it under the car, where Ava would have a harder time grabbing it to use against Dean.
Dean shook out his no-doubt stinging fingers. Abruptly, Latin began spewing from him like soda from a shaken can.
Ava giggled. "That's sweet, but I'm not a demon."
Dean stumbled to a halt. There was a moment of perfect silence, during which Sam realized that a battle to the death right now would impose an unacceptable risk to Dean. Therefore, Ava was going to do it. There was no more leeway for lies. "Dean, Ava and I grew up together. She's another psychic, like me." Dean was stone beside him, and he didn't dare look.
"Ooh, did I make it in time for true confessions?" She examined Dean as if she was imagining whether he'd clash with her decor. "What Sammy means, I think, is that he and I and all the others spent our young lives like scorpions in a bottle, crawling all over each other. Until for some reason our father sent him to recruit you, which, by the way, how's that going?"
"Your father," Dean repeated, arrowing in on the key term.
Ava shrugged prettily. "Our father, the father of lies, the Angel of Death, the Impudent One. Epithets can be so cruel."
Even with his eyes fixed to Ava, Sam could tell that Dean was connecting the dots: Sam had warned him that there might be other demon-targeted psychics out there, carefully laid the groundwork for it.
"Dean, I will explain everything, I swear to you. The important thing right now is that Ava is here to kill us, okay?" He'd opened up a whole new vein of weakness for her to exploit; there was no way around that. But it was too tasty for her not to spend some time gloating about.
Sam backed up a few steps, giving himself a better range of motion and making it easier for him to see both Dean and Ava.
Ava shifted, spreading her legs and settling into a fighting stance. Her hands left her pockets, apparently empty. He remembered how he'd been able to wrap both of them in one of his. She'd seemed so vulnerable then, such a contrast to his size.
"Am I the last one left?" he asked her.
She tossed her head. "You've gotta know the answer to that." She glanced over at Dean. "But, for those of you who are just joining us: Yeah, I killed Jake last week. Now it's two little Indians, out in the sun."
Sam raised his eyebrows, letting her see his surprise. "I was pretty sure you'd let Claudia live," he told her. "If only to have someone to lord it over."
She pushed her hair back behind one ear. "There's six billion people on this stinking planet. For now, anyway. I'm sure I can find someone to gossip with."
"You—" Dean interrupted, his voice rusty. "You've been killing the other psychic kids?"
She turned her head to focus on him. "Well, not just me. But yes, I do hold the world record. I'm guessing Sam didn't tell you how he was the first of all of us to start cutting down on the competition."
Dean blinked slowly, like he'd been concussed.
Before Ava could decide to start the fight, Sam did. With one mental push, he shoved Dean back, sending him skidding over the hood of the car, out of sight. Then, taking advantage of Ava's surprise, he used the TK like a giant fist, hammering her straight down.
Ava cried out in fear and shock, but an invisible shield snapped up before he'd done more than startle her. Sam felt the rebound from the blow in his own hands; he hadn't known that was possible. Ava brought her hands up to her temples. Sam recognized the tell and prepared to fend off her shadow-demons.
The one she brought up this time was a hell of a lot bigger than the poppet-sized pit bull he remembered. It tore at him with smoky fingers like knives, and he spent a bad ten seconds pushing it away, the thing sliding around his mental jabs like it was made of snakes, before a better solution occurred to him.
He wasn't as fast as Dean, who could rap out the Rituale Romanum at three hundred words a minute, but the demon cringed back as soon as he began, and fled as he advanced on Ava.
Who threw up her hands and emitted a fucking fireball at him. He ducked and rolled, catching only the edge of its heat on one leg, bouncing back to his feet. Now they were both on the empty road, twenty feet from the stalled-out car.
"Good one," he called out, struggling not to pant visibly.
"You missed a lot."
If he could distract her long enough to throw a knife—
The gunshot made them both flinch, just as the bullet splashed into her shield and flared like a flower as it disintegrated. "Stay back, Dean!" he yelled. He couldn't protect them both. He was an idiot for not thinking of shields before, relying too much on Dean's offensive measures rather than his own potential.
Then he was busy dodging a stream of fireballs, smaller than the first but hot enough to crisp his hair even when they missed him by a couple of feet. After the first few it was like the drills he'd done with tennis balls, pushing them off course with his mind, except that this time he had to turn every one in the opposite direction, making sure that none of them went behind him towards where Dean was.
Something about shields—
The heavier boom of Dean's shotgun startled Ava into flinching. The rock salt spattered against the invisible barrier six feet from her chest, flaring into black holes with yellow edges. It was actually working, eating through the psychic wall that curved around her. Ava yelped as Dean fired again. Sam's knife was already in the air, heading straight for the largest collection of holes.
It came to a halt two feet in front of Ava's face, twisting slowly before she let it drop. Then Dean yelled in surprise, his voice coming closer as he was dragged past Sam. Sam grabbed at him, imagining his will as a mountain blocking the path.
Dean screamed, twisting against the grip of Ava's power, a rope wrapping around his chest and shoulders. His muscles were twisting, tearing in her grasp, and Ava didn't care whether they ripped him apart between them like two dogs fighting over a scrap of meat.
Helpless, Sam let go, and Dean tumbled forward, into the protection of Ava's already-healing shields. He lay at her feet, his limbs tangled, his feet twitching uselessly.
"So it's true," she said, kicking Dean casually over onto his back with one pointed boot. "You finally found something to care about other than defying Father. I guess I just wanted to see for myself."
Dean's nose was bleeding, and there was something funny about the way his left arm was lying on the concrete.
"Well, it's been fun, but you're really out of practice." Ava raised her hands again, safe against counterattack behind her shield.
And then he saw it: Ava had spent the greater part of a year perfecting her skills. But she hadn't spent that time hunting things that mostly came out of the ground.
He sent his power down, below his feet and through the dirt beneath the road, punching back up behind her and slamming her forward like a cue ball hit on the break. She flew through the air, fetching up against him with a force that rocked him. He was ready, grabbing at her neck even as he took an involuntary step back.
The shock had dissipated her psychic barrier, and now unless she could reform it right around her skin, he—
She burned, like holding a live coal. He fought off the illusion, but his fingers relaxed involuntarily, cringing away.
Now she had her hands on his chest, pushing her own TK into him. He could feel her squeezing at his lungs. He tightened his grip on her shoulders, imagining her heart swelling, exploding in her chest.
Dean popped up behind her like a target in a shooting game, sending a shock of terror into Sam, and then Dean's whole body lurched forward, pressing Ava between them. Ava made a gurgling noise. Sam felt a tearing pain in his abdomen. Ava sagged against him but didn't fall, her mouth going slack. He felt wetness, blood, soaking into his shirt, running down his waist into his jeans. Her hands scrabbled at his arms, her nails catching on his shirtsleeves. Her soft mouth, her soft face, blurring as if they were disappearing underwater.
With his last strength, he pushed her away. The pain increased.
She fell, landing oddly, toppling over to one side. Because of the hilt, the knife hilt embedded in her back, he realized. Sam's knife—Dean had stabbed her, except that the blade had gone all the way straight through and out her stomach, into Sam. The razor tip of it poked through her shirt, as red and gleaming as a shark's guts.
Her arms were flung out. He could see the inside of her right wrist, blue-veined, where the blood was still probably moving feebly, the cells striving to get more oxygen.
He looked up. Dean's eyes were blazing, lacking only a lighter to set him on fire.
Dean knew to the millimeter how long that knife was. Sam pressed his hand to his middle, trying to staunch the flow enough to let himself think.
When had he gone to his knees?
He'd imagined being the last one left so many times. Mostly it was Ava on the ground in front of him, Ava or Jake. She'd never looked quite so awkward in his fantasies.
He closed his eyes and let the black cloud of unconsciousness take him.
Stinging pain brought him awake. He was lying on thin grass, clods of dirt and pebbles pressing against his back. Dean was tying off a stitch on his stomach, working one-handed. Dean's fingers were bloody and his face was swelling with bruises.
Sam turned his head. At the foot of the trees in front of the car, he saw a pile of leaves and branches that hadn't been there before, big enough to conceal a body.
"Can you get up?" Dean asked, whiskey-rough.
Sam nodded, then regretted it. He pushed himself up to sit, then, after a minute, struggled to his feet. Dean stood only a few feet away, but his arms were folded tight across his chest.
"Popped it back in," Dean said. He'd had to do it for Sam, once, and the pain had been so excruciating that Sam had made Dean swear to knock him out first if it ever became necessary again.
"I got the car fixed from what that bitch did," Dean interrupted, turning his head away. "Can you give it a jump?"
He saw the logic in getting away from the corpse right off the road. They'd already had more luck they deserved, bloody and helpless like this. He nodded.
The cut (stab wound, Dean had stabbed him) in his stomach didn't pull that much. The crumpled, sodden feeling in his lungs was more worrisome. If Ava had done enough damage, she could get her revenge from beyond the grave without coming back as a ghost.
Dean stayed well away from the car while Sam put his hands on the ignition. Generating electricity wasn't that much harder than moving physical objects; it was all the same ultimately, at the atomic level. The car rumbled to life underneath him and he surrendered the driver's seat to Dean. Dean waited until he was all the way over to the passenger side, and didn't help him fumble the seatbelt on.
But Dean didn't shove him out of the car either. While he'd been out, the sun had passed midday and started heading for the horizon, and they were driving west now, forcing him to squint and look out the side window while he tried to work out what to say to Dean. Dean unclipped a pair of sunglasses from the visor and put them on, making his eyes as blank as the rest of his expression.
"Tell me you didn't kill my brother," Dean said at last, his voice as shredded as if he'd been dragged along the highway for miles.
Oh God. He hadn't even considered that.
"I swear to you," Sam said immediately. "Dean, I found the records. Andy and Max—they were, they—" They weren't Samuel Winchester, but what stopped his mouth was the thought that they'd been just like baby Sam, only unlucky enough to survive for Father's training. When they'd been little kids, Andy had been the closest thing Sam knew to a friend. He remembered playing leapfrog with Andy, and then a year ago Sam had walked up and just—
And maybe Andy would have done the same to him. Maybe he could have explained to Dean how none of them were innocent, none worth saving. "They were somebody else's family," he said, bowing his head and waiting.
"Okay," Dean said at last. "Okay." He punched the steering wheel with his fist and didn't even wince. "The only thing I want is to kill that fucking demon. You help me out there and we're golden."
"Don't you say my name like you know me. You know the demon, you know somethin' about what it wants. So fucking tell me what you know."
"He never told us," Sam said, hopelessly. "He always said the last one standing would find out. It's big though, Hell on earth big. He was always talking about ruling, crushing the world. But I don't know how."
Dean snorted. "More," he said. "Details."
Sam began. "His name is Azazel," he said, wondering if the name alone might be enough to summon Father. He told Dean about who he'd been, about Arba and the likelihood that she had a different agenda, talking until his voice was hoarse and past, until there was nothing left.
They stopped for gas. Dean left him in the car. Where would he run? Leaving now would just invite Father to swoop in and grab Dean as a hostage for Sam's bad behavior. Father would probably tie Dean to real railroad tracks, just for the show-off value.
When Dean returned from paying, he threw a bottle of Coke and a packet of almonds into Sam's lap. The soda was cold against his thighs. He picked it up to have something to do, turning it in his hands.
"You do like Coke, right?" Dean asked as he turned the key in the ignition. "Or was that another lie, 'cause it's what I drink?"
Sam scraped at the label with his thumbnail, remembering the taste of it from Dean's mouth, caramel and the bitterness of caffeine.
Dean laughed to himself.
Dully, Sam twisted the cap off, waiting for the foam to settle. He had to be ready for what came next. Assuming that Ava had been telling the truth, he'd just become the linchpin in Father's grand design.
"Saving people, that was no lie," he said. "I changed my mind, you showed me—"
He didn't see Dean's hand move, but the cool circle of a pistol barrel pressed into the skin of his temple. The car wobbled a little with only Dean's sore left arm to guide it. "Don't even," Dean warned.
Dean hated him; Dean was still going to hate him when this was over.
"Do it," he said, closing his eyes. "Fuck up his plan, it's the only way to be sure."
Dean's trembling breath was louder than the thrum of the engine. The gun dragged along Sam's skin, hard enough to leave a mark.
"Fuck," Dean snarled, pulling the gun away and shoving it behind his back. "He'd just start again, wouldn't he? No fucking way."
That was all he'd say. The car seemed huge, Dean telescoping away from him, a leather and iron cage built just for him.
Dean got them a single room at a Best Western: cream walls, square headboards, faded bedspreads.
Sam wasn't just going to follow him around like some abandoned puppy. He had his pride. He was going to do the right thing, but he didn't have to grovel the entire time.
Except that when Dean casually shoved him down onto the bed, so hard that he felt a stitch pop on his abdomen in a warm rush, he didn't even raise a hand. Dean growled, climbed onto the bed on his knees, and ripped at Sam's belt, thumbing open the button on his jeans and jerking them down over his hips with a strength that just forced the zipper to give.
For all of that, Dean's hand on his cock was gentle, slow and knowing. Sam gasped and closed his eyes.
He expected Dean to stop, turn him over and fuck him maybe. He didn't bottom often, but Dean always liked it well enough. But Dean just kept going, steady pressure rolling through him, getting him past the pain of his injuries.
When Sam opened his eyes again, trying not to come, Dean had propped himself on one elbow, on his side next to Sam as if nothing were wrong. His head dipped down, his nose brushing the curve of Sam's ear while Sam mindlessly raised his hips into Dean's touch.
"You want my mouth?" Dean whispered. "Was it the cocksucking lips you liked best? Or maybe you switched sides 'cause of the magical power of my ass."
Sam didn't try to hide how he flinched at each sentence.
"It was you," he said helplessly.
"Bullshit," Dean said, and ran his thumb up the center of Sam's dick, pressing down at the rim of the head. Sam gasped and his eyes fluttered closed. Dean continued, not even breathing hard. "You think I wasn't listening all this afternoon, you and your awful childhood? You hate your father—hell, you hate my dad on principle. You were lookin' for a way out. But you couldn't tell me the truth. You had to keep your options open, right?"
Sam forced his eyes open, raising his head and flailing at Dean, grabbing for his shoulder until Dean pulled his upper body away, still without loosening his hold on Sam's cock. "I was going to tell you," Sam begged.
Dean smiled, beautiful and dead-eyed. "Yeah, well, I was gonna kill the demon and live happily ever after. Guess we both suck at predicting the future."
He twisted his wrist just right, and Sam came all over Dean's hand and his own stomach. Blood and come stained the bandage over the stab wound, but he didn't have the energy to clean up.
Dean rolled off the bed and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him deliberately. The water went on and stayed on for a long time.
Sam came awake screaming, the pain in his lungs quickly overwhelming the boxing match going on in his head.
When he pulled himself together, he saw Dean crouched by his bed, gun in hand, mouth pursed grimly. He blinked feebly and swiped at his nose, clearing off some of the blood.
"Ears too," Dean said tonelessly.
"I saw—I don't—you told me vampires were extinct," was all he could think to say.
"The fuck you talkin' about?" Dean rubbed at his eyes with his free hand.
"Vampires, Dean, I saw these things come through a skylight in this cabin, they practically tore him apart. They ripped his throat out and drank his blood, the teeth—"
"Hold on," Dean ordered. "Go get cleaned up."
Sam's head was still ringing like he'd been the pinball in a high-scoring game. He forced himself to his feet and shuffled into the bathroom. It was perfectly anonymous, not a hint of character, and the unrelieved white—counter, tiles, towels, shower curtain—pounded on his aching eyes and aching head until he turned off the light and washed up in the minimal glow from the illuminated light switch plate.
When he returned to the main room, Dean was sitting in a chair by the window, one leg slung over the opposite knee, the gun in his lap and his hands on the thin square arms of the chair. He turned his head from the view of the parking lot and examined Sam.
"Do the visions come from him? Azazel," he clarified.
"I don't know," Sam admitted. "The power does, but that's not—I don't think it's the same thing." He thought about it as his head began to clear. "I'm pretty sure the visions are truth, just like the other powers really work. Otherwise—"
"Otherwise, what would he need with you," Dean agreed. "So, this thing you saw, with the vampires, it's gonna happen soon?"
Sam scratched at a line of blood drying under his earlobe. "I think—maybe it already has. The vision felt—different."
"Talk," Dean said, and Sam did: the multiple vampires, the fierceness of their attack, the gun they'd stolen so deliberately, the scratches the man had left on the floor in his last moments.
Before they went for breakfast, Sam went online and found the report of the inexplicable mauling of Daniel Elkins in Colorado. Dean flipped through his father's journal until he found the same name, and they were off. He was so focused on the hunt that he kept forgetting and talking to Sam like they were still partners. It made the moments when he remembered and shut himself off even more painful.
Once they had identified Elkins, it wasn't hard to figure out that the message he'd left was a post office box with a combination. And then, moments later it seemed, they were in Colorado, sitting in the car in the post office parking lot and holding a letter for John Winchester.
Dean stared at it for several minutes, then decisively flipped it over and stuck his thumbnail under the edge of the flap.
The knock on the driver's side window made them both jump.
John Winchester grinned at them. Sam swallowed his curse as Dean rolled down the window.
"Dad?" Dean said, and Sam could finally hear the joy in it, as well as the desperate hope, the fear that he wouldn't be good enough once again.
"Dean." He opened the back door and slung himself inside. "Sam."
"John," Sam managed without choking, which he considered a victory of sorts.
"What's going on?" Dean asked, twisting in his seat to see his father even though Sam knew that had to be extremely painful, just as it was for Sam to turn enough towards the back for conversation. "You knew this guy, right?"
"Yeah," John acknowledged. "He was ... he was a good man. Taught me a hell of a lot about hunting."
Dean frowned. "I don't remember him."
John reached out, getting halfway to Dean before he pulled his hand back. "You were—it was real early on. We had kind of a falling out. I haven't seen him in years."
Sam wondered whether the 'falling out' had anything to do with John's willingness to take a little kid on hunts.
"Let me see that," John ordered, and Dean of course handed the letter right over.
"'If you're reading this, I'm already dead,'" he began. "Son of a—"
"What?" Dean asked.
"He had it the entire time," John muttered.
John ignored him. "I have to go up to the cabin," he said. "There's something—there should be something there I need."
"You mean the old revolver?" Dean asked, glaring at Sam.
John looked at Dean like he'd just burst into song. "How do you—?"
"Sam here sees things, sometimes." Dean's mouth snapped shut, his jawbone standing out beneath his stubble.
"Sees things," John repeated.
"He's a psychic. Like Missouri, only ... more active."
Sam was pretty sure that the only reason John didn't pull a gun on him right then was that he didn't get that things had changed between Dean and Sam. He tried to maintain his attitude in the face of John's suspicious inspection, but found himself dropping his eyes.
"The gun, Dad," Dean prodded.
"We've got to get it," John said, startled back to business. "Did he ... see anything that lets us pick up their trail?"
"Us?" Sam blurted. "Now you want company?"
He swallowed and looked past both Winchester frowns.
John spoke as if every word was being pushed past a mouthful of bullets. "If Elkins was telling the truth, we need this gun."
"Why?" Sam asked, because there was no point in trying to placate either of them right now.
"Because it's important, that's why," John said.
"Yessir," Dean said before Sam could get further into it with John. So it was fine for the sainted John Winchester to withhold any information he liked. Sam swallowed his protest—it wasn't really hypocrisy, no matter what it felt like—as Dean pumped his father for information about vampires. In his eager tone, Sam could hear the kid Dean had been, terrified of not being good enough. John, though, just answered with short declarative sentences: no cross, no stakes, no sunlight, just beheading by raw force.
So it was the same as before. John gave the orders, Dean jumped, and Sam seethed. He knew he was digging himself deeper away from Dean, but he couldn't seem to stop. The bastard had the gall to criticize how Dean treated the Impala, and all Dean did was duck his head and nod.
While John was off talking to the policemen investigating the disappearance of a young couple, presumably vampire victims, Dean leaned toward Sam and poked him in the shoulder, hard. "Do you want me to put a bullet in you? Because you're headin' there at eighty miles an hour."
Sam turned his head deliberately away, staring out at the police cruiser parked sixty feet away.
"Jesus," Dean cursed. "I don't need this."
"Maybe you can just turn off how you feel," Sam snapped, "but I can't, okay, and how he treats you, it's bullshit. You're not a kid, you're the best goddamned hunter there is, and keeping information from you is gonna get you killed, and I—"
He buried his head in his hands so that he didn't have to see Dean's face. His palms were slippery-wet, his chest hurt like a bulldozer had run over it, and even the cut in his stomach was protesting how he was curling up into himself.
He'd gotten the sobs down to little hiccups when he felt Dean's fingers, tentative, on his upper arm. "Hey," Dean said, softly, and the shell of control Sam had managed to build up cracked all over again.
"Hey," Dean repeated, and shoved his handkerchief into Sam's hands. Sam wiped his fingers and his palms dry, then blew his nose.
Dean flexed and released his fingers on the steering wheel. "I'll ask him," he said when Sam finally managed to meet his eyes. "But not with you around." He snorted then, unhappily. "Jesus, how do I—how can I trust you around him?"
Sam opened his mouth to point out that Dean had put his own life in Sam's hands—but Dean put a different value on his father's life, and Sam just couldn't hear that right now. So instead he looked out the window, away from Dean, and listened to Dean sigh and shift in the seat until John returned.
In the end, John did give Dean the details on the gun—the Colt, which Sam would never have known just by looking at it. Why Samuel Colt would have been able to make a gun that could kill any supernatural thing remained unclear to Sam, but John's hope had transmitted itself to Dean.
Sam was impressed with John's courage when John gave them the plan of just walking into the lair. Courage, not brains, but burning the whole place down would likely melt the Colt as well, so he understood the decision.
Despite what John had told them about vampire habits, he hadn't expected there to be human captives. Dean got to work on the cage while Sam went for the woman who was tied to the bed. She stirred as Dean popped the hinge on the cage.
"Shh," Sam warned, leaning over her. "We're here to help you."
She opened her eyes. Then she started to scream, and Sam saw the extra row of teeth.
He raised his machete, prepared to do battle. The thud from the next room brought Dean's head up, and then John was screaming at them to run.
Sam couldn't hold all the vampires back with the TK, especially not the ones he couldn't see, so he hauled ass out into the sunlight.
"They have our scent for life?" he repeated disbelievingly when they'd retreated to John's motel room. "Why was that not a part of the initial lecture?"
John lowered his brows and shrugged, as if suggesting that caring about being targeted for death by superstrong vampires was a mark of cowardice. Dean looked like he wanted to imitate John, but couldn't quite deny the justice of the complaint.
"We need dead man's blood," John said, as if that were the end of it.
Dean had never shown Sam how to use a crossbow, so he was the bait. It was a damned good thing John wanted that gun so badly; otherwise Sam never would have gotten next to something John was planning to shoot.
When they captured two of the vampires by shooting them with arrows tipped in dead man's blood, John pronounced them lucky. One was the leader's mate, which meant they now had something to trade for the Colt. He decapitated the other one while Dean and Sam watched.
Sam was beginning to get the feeling that John Winchester just might make a serious opponent for Father.
And then he had to go and ruin it with his moronic fucking plan of making the trade on his own. "I'm trying to keep you safe," he explained to Dean, ignoring Sam.
Sam drew in a breath, prepared to risk Dean's wrath, but: "All due respect, that's crap, Dad."
"Excuse me?" John said, and for once he and Sam were in perfect agreement.
"You know what I've been hunting. You sent us on hunts. You can't be that worried about keeping me safe."
John blinked. "This demon, it's different. I can't—I can't do what I have to if I'm worried about keeping you alive."
Dean stood like an oak, brutal and strong. "You mean, you can't just go in expectin' to die if I'm with you."
John turned, so that he didn't have to see Dean's face any more. "Dean—your mother, Sam's death—that almost killed me. I can't watch you die too. I won't."
"But it's okay for me," Dean said. "It's okay for you to walk off and leave me alone, when I could help."
John shook his head. "You're not alone any more." The words rolled into the clearing like a grenade with its pin pulled.
Dean only snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. "We're stronger together, Dad. You know it."
John turned away. "We're running out of time. You do your job, you save those people, and you get out of the area. That's an order." He started to walk.
Dean and Sam looked at each other, alone in the clearing with the decapitated corpse.
"I don't know what the hell to do with you," Dean said. "But I know one thing."
"We're going after him."
Dean didn't comment on the plural.
With everything so precarious, the hunt was somehow better than ever. He slotted into place effortlessly: guarding Dean's back as he freed the captives, swinging the knife in perfect arcs to dispatch the vampires, running to the car to make it to the place John was negotiating with the vampire leader.
Shockingly, the trade hadn't gone as John had expected; his hostage had knocked him over and was advancing on him just as they arrived.
Dean managed to shoot a couple of vampires from cover, but then they had to go in.
In the melee, Sam lost his machete, but he saw the Colt on the ground, ignored.
He heard the vampire leader yell and felt Dean stop flat. Whipping his head around, Sam saw that the leader had John by the neck. "I'll break his neck," the vampire warned.
"Put the crossbow down," he continued when Dean didn't move. After a moment, the vampire tightened his grip on John's throat.
Dean slowly knelt, his eyes locked on his father.
Sam remembered himself and called the gun over. It sailed into his palm with a soft slap. No one was even watching, too caught up in the more dramatic standoff.
"You people," the vampire said bitterly. "Why can't you just leave us alone? We have as much right to live as you do."
"I call logical fallacy," Sam said.
The leader swiveled, dragging his hostage with him as if John were as light as a raincoat. Sam shot the vampire in the head. The results were extremely dramatic: yellow crackling lightning, enveloping his head and then moving down to his body, eating inwards rapidly until he was a blackened, twisting corpse. Sam reached out with his senses: the vampire dwindled into nothing, not Hell-bound, just dead.
He had it now, confirmation that the Colt would do what was promised.
The leader's mate screamed and lunged for Sam, but another one of the remaining vampires grabbed her and pulled her away.
"So, you ignored a direct order," John said, walking in to their room while Dean was still messing with his bag.
"Yes, sir," Dean said. He spent a moment tugging at the zipper, making sure the duffel was completely closed. "And we saved your ass."
John sighed. "You're right."
Dean nearly fell over. "I am?"
"I don't like it, but—Dean, you're a grown man. I'm ready to go after this thing. Together."
"Yes, sir," Dean said, fervently.
John turned to Sam. "That includes you." It was almost not even grudging; Sam tried not to look surprised, but doubted he pulled it off.
"Of course," he agreed.
"Now," John said, stepping over to the dresser so that he could stand where he could see them both, "tell me about these visions Sam has. The ones you didn't mention when I met him."
Sam looked at Dean. Even if things weren't destroyed between them, telling John the full truth was going to get Sam extremely dead, extremely fast. But he couldn't lie, not in front of Dean.
Dean surprised him again: "Wasn't sure you cared to know. 'Til recently, they were just about our hunts, not the demon."
"If it affects you, I need to know."
"What's that supposed to mean?" John's voice was ocean-deep, impatient.
"Come on, Dad, you didn't answer your phone for a year! I called you from Lawrence, Sam called and begged you to come when I was dying—" Sam gaped at him; he hadn't known that Dean was even aware of that—"and there was nothing. Demons you got time for, but visions about me? You didn't want the live version, why would you care about the instant replay?"
John flinched and crossed the room towards them. Dean stood to meet him, his back a tight line. Sam couldn't see his face, but John's was angry. "Dean—" He stopped, rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm sorry if I made you think that. I should have been there for you."
About half of the tension drained out of Dean. Sam wanted Dean to stay angry, but mostly he wanted to be able to stay angry at John himself. But that was a dead end—it wouldn't help him use his rage to get anything he wanted.
"The visions don't happen on command," Dean said, conciliatory. "They just—they've helped us find hunts, like with Elkins."
John shifted his focus to Sam with nearly palpable relief. "Have you seen anything, anything about the demon?"
If Dean didn't get his wide-eyed liar look under control quickly, John was going to know that something was very wrong. But John only had eyes for Sam right now. Sam swallowed. "Its name is Azazel," he said. "I don't—can you use that?"
Like that, John was off, mumbling something about research. "We'll stay here tonight," he announced on his way out. "Uh—you boys have a good night."
The door slammed behind him. Dean's befuddled expression was probably close to Sam's own.
"I guess I'll go pay for another night," Sam said after a moment.
"We're not okay," Dean said when Sam had his hand on the doorknob. Sam stiffened, but didn't turn, couldn't force himself to look at Dean's face. Dean blew out a loud breath. "Fuck, I should've known, all that shit about bein' a team. You must have been laughing at that, right?"
"I never laughed," Sam said thickly. "Dean, I never—"
"I can't do this now," Dean said, like a jail door swinging shut. "If you're on my side, then you'll shut up and go along 'til we've iced Azazel."
"You know you're part of his plan," Sam said, still facing the emergency exit map. It had a little red X: you are here. "He sent me to you."
"If I believed that I'd put a bullet in my own head."
He flinched, but there was an easy answer to that, and it was even true. "Sacrificing yourself, that might be what he needs. He'd love that."
"That's not how I plan it. But I don't care who walks away at the end, long as it's not him."
Sam put his forehead on the hollow plastic motel door and just leaned into it until he could see again.
John shared his research, explaining that he picked up the demon's trail nearly a year ago, which was what prompted his Dean-dump. Sam hadn't asked Dean about it, but he assumed that Dean had come to the same conclusion as he had: this was deliberate manipulation by Father.
But Sam hadn't known what bait Father had used. He hadn't known that children and their mothers were dying again.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Dean asked John when he'd heard the story. His voice was low, almost incurious, as if he were pretty sure he knew the answer and was asking against his better judgment. Sam had never hated John Winchester more, for getting his chance to explain.
John just shifted on his feet, refusing to meet Dean's eyes. Sam wanted to shout at him: tell Dean that there was never anything wrong with him. Tell him that you were stupid but that you only meant to protect him.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up," John said, finally. Sam wanted to get up and hit him, except that he was trying not to call further attention to himself.
Dean just sat back down on the unmade bed and braced his elbow on his knee, hiding his face in his hand.
We did this, you and I, Sam thought at John. We took all his choices away even though we both knew who he was.
If he could have, Sam would have made the sun run backwards and undone everything since they'd met. Unconditional support from now on was a pitiful next-best, but it was all he had.
When John went on a meal run, Dean asked another relevant question. "Was that true, that your mom died when you were six months old?" he asked, speaking as softly as if he might be overheard.
"I was just pulling it out of my ass," Sam admitted. "But with all this I think maybe, I might have sensed more than I knew."
"He could be rebuilding, in case he screws up this round. Or maybe he just did it to give me a chance with you."
Dean tilted his head, narrowing his eyes. "Those kids, that isn't your fault."
Sam frowned: now, Dean chose to let him off the hook? "No, but it's my problem."
Dean slapped his thigh in exasperation. "Right, in eighteen years they might be competition."
"Yeah, whatever. One way or another, those kids aren't gonna have the same thing happen to them."
Maybe it would have been smarter to leave Dean with John and strike out on his own. But Father had gone to a great deal of trouble to get Dean involved, and Sam still had no idea why. There were demonic rituals that required the sacrifice of a pure soul of some kind, or a warrior. The problem was, Sam could identify at least fifty of them, and not a one generated enough power to open the gates of Hell.
John had figured out the pattern of strange weather and unexpected deaths that preceded one of Father's visits to a family. Sam wasn't sure whether this was intentional or a mere side effect of Father's powers, but it did offer a wonderful tracking opportunity.
And now the signs were present in Salvation, Iowa, which had to be an ironic gesture on Father's part.
Sam made the drive with Dean in silence, occupying himself with reviewing John's research in case something jumped out at him. Nothing did, but reading about the new deaths was a sharp reminder of why Dean was still putting up with him. Dean was being professional, the only thing left for him to be. And Sam needed to emulate that: he'd told Dean to shoot him, but it turned out that it was much harder to live with what he'd done. Living with it in order to take Father out was exactly what he owed Dean.
No sooner had they passed the town line than John got news that one of his close friends had died. He stopped his truck even though it was raining and pulled off the road, so they did the same. When Dean hurried over to check on him, a ghost-faced John told him that a demon had killed Pastor Jim.
Dean took it hard. Sam thought that the grief made him forget how angry he was at Sam; in the car on the way to the first hospital they were checking, he told Sam that the pastor had been a good friend to him, growing up. Sam wondered if Dean had ever had a friend close to his own age, but that was an old, secondhand regret, no time for it now.
Coming out of the hospital, rain spattering his face like slow tears, the vision slammed into him like an out-of-control car. Each image was a shard of glass driven into his brain. The noise corkscrewed into his ears, making him whine in sympathy.
There was a nursery and a baby and a child on fire.
A couple of nurses on their cigarette break, hiding from the drizzle under the short lip of the building, saw him stagger and grab his head. He had to talk fast to avoid being admitted to the ER.
And then he had to search the map, looking for the train tracks to match the train he'd heard along with the vision. It was either their good luck or Father's clever construction of a trap that put them in a small town, because the train only went through a small residential area.
He called Dean and let him know about the vision, then started jogging towards the right part of town. The slowly dwindling rain felt good on his abused head.
He had every intention of waiting for Dean, until the woman from his vision nearly ran over his toe with her stroller.
"Oh, excuse me!" she said, fumbling with her umbrella.
She was Monica; her child was Rosie. Sam told her he was visiting town, thinking of moving, and prayed she wouldn't ask him why anyone would move to Salvation. But she was more interested in showing off her just-six-month-old baby girl, who seemed pleasant enough. Monica swore that Rosie looked at people as if she could read minds; the fact that Rosie didn't immediately burst into tears when she looked up at Sam was evidence to the contrary, but he wasn't ruling it out.
Monica left him on the street, waving goodbye, just as he heard the growl of the Impala's engine. The car pulled up next to him. He leaned in to open the door—
The vision hit like a broken bone on top of a sprain; he'd never had two in such quick succession. His brain felt like it was going to burst out through his eyesockets as it liquified. He saw Monica hurrying into Rosie's room, then thrown to the ceiling, split across the middle, bleeding down as she lit up like she was made of paper. Then the vision changed. It wasn't the same room, or the same woman. It was Mary Winchester, whom he'd seen burst into flames in Lawrence.
She looked just like Monica when she disappeared under the orange-yellow fire.
He came back to coherence lying down. His head felt wet and cold, and under that was the distant drumbeat of a fading headache. He opened his eyes and carefully turned his head to the side. He was in a room he'd never seen before, dingy but unremarkable, as if Dean hadn't given much thought to the choice. Dean himself was slumped over a side table, asleep in his leather jacket.
He didn't want to get up for fear of tempting the headache to worsen. "Dean?"
Dean pulled himself upright like he was tearing off a bandage. "You gotta stop that," he said, yawning as he stumbled over to Sam.
With Dean's hands urging him up, he managed to get himself sitting against the headboard without vomiting. Dean gave him sips of flat-tasting orange juice from a wobbly plastic cup and made him take two Aleve.
"Uh, what happened?" Sam asked after he swallowed the pills.
"You pitched a fit, landed right in my lap," Dean said. "Bled like somethin' out of Kill Bill." He took Sam's face in his hands, his thumbs rubbing the tired skin under Sam's eyes, tilting his head back and forth as if looking for renewed bleeding. Sam tried not to read too much into the touch, but his heart still pounded painfully and his fingers itched to reach out for Dean in return.
Forcing himself to face reality, Sam quickly summarized the visions—Dean didn't like the plural, and especially didn't like the mention of his mother.
"He's coming tonight," Sam concluded. "But it feels bad."
"You're sure it's him. Azazel."
Sam shrugged; the motion set his head ringing again. "He can possess any body. I saw a man who could have been him."
A key scraped in the door, and John Winchester walked in, holding what looked like a bag of takeout. Dean shifted a few inches away from Sam on the bed, but he didn't get up.
"You're up," John said, sounding dubious about it.
"It was another vision," Dean told him. "This time, about the demon."
Sam straightened himself further, shoulders pushed up against the carved wood of the headboard. "Azazel is coming for that family tonight."
"Then we'll be there to stop it," John said.
Sam's cell phone trilled out from the end table where Dean must have tossed it. They all froze for a moment, then Sam reached out tentatively.
"Hello?" Sam said.
"Samael," Arba cooed.
"Arba," he said grimly, then covered the speaker. "The demon that's possessing Meg." Dean nodded and waved his father's protest silent.
"Put me on speaker, I've got things to say to the lot of you."
"I don't think so." He made himself sit up, planting his legs on the floor, feigning strength.
"Why, afraid I'll rat you out?"
"The thought had crossed my mind." Dean and John were watching him like snakes hypnotized by a mongoose. Every muscle in John's body was tightened, as if he were a second away from lunging for the phone himself.
"It's sweet that you still care. Love isn't as easy as it seemed, is it? First you have to get into young Dean's head, not to mention his pants, but you're not the only one in his world. Kinda blows, doesn't it? All those tangled webs humans weave, sucking each other dry. Who do you think Dean would choose if I made him?"
"What do you want?" It didn't come out as commanding as he'd hoped.
She chuckled. "You've put yourself in an enviable position, young man. You have the Colt and you have Daddy's blessing. I need a little leverage: I want the Colt."
Arba's assumptions about how much John and Dean trusted him stung a little. "Why would we give you the Colt?" John jerked forward at that, and it took Dean's hand on his shoulder to keep him from grabbing Sam.
Sam stood up warily as Arba continued.
"I just killed Jim Murphy, and I'm with John's friend Caleb in Lincoln now. Sure you don't want this on the speaker?"
He didn't, but Caleb's protest and blood-drenched death were audible anyway.
"I'm gonna keep killing every one of their allies until you hand the Colt over. Anyone who ever helped them, anyone who gave them shelter, anyone they ever smiled at."
He couldn't point out that Arba was assuming that he cared, because he couldn't claim to be in charge while John was listening, even if Dean would forgive the lie. In fact, the conversation was untenable, which gave him only one option.
He ended the call.
John was already yelling before he'd brought the phone down from his ear, and Dean wasn't far behind.
"Your friend Caleb's dead," he told them. "And there'll be more. She wants the Colt."
That silenced them for a couple of seconds. "Why?" Dean asked when the shock had begun to fade.
"Demon politics, I'm guessing. A demon capable of inflicting true death on other demons would have a lot of leverage."
"You got this from your visions," John said. He didn't sound like he believed it.
Dean's eyes whipped from Sam to John. "We've been doin' a lot of research," Dean began.
"The first thing to do is to stop the attack tonight," Sam said, not only to change the subject.
John nodded. "I'll take the Colt to the house," he said. "No demon is destroying that family."
Sam closed his eyes. For a moment, he wondered why this baby should get to escape. With their intervention, Rosie could have a mother and learn to use her powers, if they ever manifested, on her own and not in a constant cage match.
He remembered the serious little face from the morning. Imagining that uninterrupted life, full of a thousand ordinary disasters and everyday joys, was enough to make him want it for her. Everybody should be able to be a civilian.
"What about Arba?" Dean asked.
"She'll call back if she wants the Colt that bad. Here's the plan," John said.
"I won't do it," Dean said. "I won't split up."
"This isn't a democracy," John said right back, his face granite.
"Dad," Dean said, so close to tears Sam could practically taste them, "I don't want you to get hurt."
John closed his eyes, then took the Colt off of the table in front of him. He put it in his lap and ran his fingers over it like a man petting a cat. "And I don't want Mary and Sam to be dead. I don't want a demon to have ruined our lives. I don't want any of this. I just want it to be over."
Sam had the feeling that John didn't have the slightest idea what his words meant, what Dean heard. But the little speech worked: Dean shut up and went to go acquire the fake gun from one of John's seemingly infinite number of contacts.
"You're a real piece of work," Sam told John once the door had closed on Dean.
John was leaning over, one hand cupping his chin as his elbows rested on his knees, his whole pose one of exhaustion. His head came up when Sam spoke. "You want to get into it with me, boy? Here and now?"
"Not particularly," Sam admitted. "But I'll take a rain check if you're planning to stick around to honor it."
John snorted and sat back in his chair, the Colt still on his lap like he was afraid it would float away if he let go. "Sam Marshall," he said, almost contemplatively. "Not an uncommon name, but you don't match any of the pictures or ages in any federal database. Now, every person I talk to says the same thing: Dean and Sam, they're a perfect team, they'll kill anything that even thinks about doing evil. So I've let it slide. You want me in Dean's life so bad, you think about what I might do there."
The desire to say that Dean knew everything was a bolus in his throat, impossible to breathe around. But knowing and forgiving were two different things, and using Dean's knowledge to score points with his father felt like a lie.
Sam swallowed his anger and stomped out to check the weapons in the Impala.
The fake Colt looked pretty much like the real one, though Dean swore that there were five obvious differences and seven that required a minute's inspection. The only reassurance was that Sam was reasonably confident that Arba wasn't as much of a buff as Dean.
Arba called back within a few hours. "Ready to deal?"
"Yeah," Sam said, not giving her the satisfation of anything more. She provided an address and a time: midnight, of course. How very fucking typical.
"We've gotta haul ass to Lincoln," he said as soon as he shut the phone. "Warehouse there."
The car was already loaded. Dean paused to hug his father; neither of them seemed comfortable doing it, but Dean stood a little straighter when he pulled back. "See you soon," John said, and Dean nodded without looking at him.
Sam climbed in the car.
John Winchester was the man Father's plans had made. They were all caught in a cycle of misery, cutting deeper every time the wheel turned. Growing up, Sam had always known that there was no one to rely on, because Father could always offer something to tempt any alliance into defections. But now, here, he thought there might be a chance to sabotage the infernal machine.
"You could go with him," Sam pointed out, before Dean started the car.
Dean swallowed and turned on the headlights. "Yeah, like I'm lettin' you out of my sight. Anyway, Dad can handle himself."
"We all know this is a trap, right?" Sam asked over the engine's starting grumbles. "If Arba gets me and the Colt—"
"'s why she's not getting' the Colt," Dean said, far too pragmatically for Sam's taste. "Only four bullets left, can't waste 'em."
Whereas I'm expendable, Sam thought.
"We're gonna finish this," Dean said.
"Dean, I want you to know, just in case—"
"Fuck no," Dean said, and reached to twist the radio on, loud. "No way you're gettin' off that easy."
Before they went into the warehouse, Dean insisted on breaking into the system and blessing the water supply. "Don't you have to be ordained to bless holy water?" Sam asked.
Dean grinned mirthlessly up from his crouch where he had his hands deep in the guts of a maintenance box. "You're lookin' at an ordained minister of the Revised Anglican Church."
Sam frowned, distracted. "You don't even believe in God!"
"I believe in holy water," Dean said, and turned back to his blessing.
"Honey, I'm home," Dean called out as they entered the main area of the warehouse. Sam felt the same itch at the back of his skull he remembered from their first fight with Arba; she'd warded the place to make his TK inoperative.
"Remind me why we're doing this, again?"
"Buying time," Dean said, almost too softly to hear. They stopped only a few feet inside the main room, next to a stack of wooden pallets taller than Sam. Prey never benefited from being out in the open.
Sam nodded, then scanned around again, still seeing nothing but dusty ropes and abandoned boxes. Hope, hope for John Winchester, thumped painfully in his chest.
"If it isn't Frick and Frack," Arba said from the side of the room.
They turned, shoulder to shoulder. Sam put his hand on his gun for reassurance. Arba was standing next to an unfamiliar man, tallish and crisp-featured, brown hair as short as Dean's but not as pretty.
"Ready to hand it over?"
"Aren't you even going to pretend we'll be safe if we do?" Sam asked.
Arba rolled her eyes. "I could do that, and you could pretend to believe me, but wouldn't it be simpler to cut straight to the bleeding?"
"Fine," Dean said, getting down on one knee so that he could spin the Colt across the floor. It came to a stop about five feet from Arba.
"Tom," Arba ordered.
"Tom? Demons named Tom, what's the world coming to," Dean said to no one in particular. It was pretty much the same thing Sam was thinking.
Tom hurried forward and scooped up the gun, examining it carefully.
Fuck, she brought her own gun nut, Sam thought, preparing to start shooting.
"Well?" Arba snapped. "Is it the Colt?"
Tom stuck out his lower lip a little, thoughtfully. Then he brought the gun up and shot Arba in the chest.
"Hey!" she yelled, looking down at the dark, nearly bloodless hole in the center of her white shirt, her hands rising to paw at herself.
"It's a fake," Tom drawled.
Arba closed her mouth and snapped her head up. Dean shrugged.
Then they ran, ducking behind the pallets to get out of her line of sight. Arba screamed, and the pallets lurched at them, nearly pinning Sam to the wall before they made it to the corridor.
Dean began chanting in Latin. Arba yowled back a curse involving Dean's mother that Sam deeply hoped Dean didn't understand.
Exorcism or not, they were badly outmatched without the TK. Dean pushed Sam ahead of him, around a turn—and right into Tom. Sam slammed into him at speed, nearly falling backwards with the shock of it.
Then he was flying, not falling, shoved back against the corridor wall with bits of broken wood and stray stapled notices digging into his back. Tom held him pinned easily, none of Sam's ingrained mental defenses effective.
Dean fired his gun, emptying his gun in not much more than a second. Tom's body shifted with the impacts, but his grip on Sam didn't loosen. The empty clip clattered to the ground, and then Dean was firing again, this time straight into Tom's face.
That might have been a bad idea; if there was anything worse than being pinioned by demon powers, it was being held pinioned by demon powers by a possessed body with no face left.
"I'm gonna make you eat this," Arba said in his ear, shoving the fake Colt in his face.
A human body could only take so much, even strengthened by demonic energies. Tom's was going to have to fall apart soon.
Sam struggled for breath. "Kill me and Father's gonna assign a torturer to each part of your body."
Arba's eyes darkened with annoyance. "Sweet talker. You don't need legs for his plan. Or maybe I'll just take your boy here, stick the gun in him and pull the trigger."
"Same thing," Sam said, seeing sparkles at the edges of his vision. "I was sent to get him."
"Oh, honey," she whispered, syrupy and mocking, "you just don't get it, do you?"
"Get what?" he asked, knowing himself for a fool.
Tom's overtaxed body released him as the demon spewed out of the already-dead man. As Sam fell a foot to the floor, he spat Christ's name at Arba. She reared back, right into an arc of water that went immediately to steam around her. Sam propped himself up against the wall and saw Dean holding a dripping bucket; he must have gone scrounging for it after the shooting failed. As Arba screamed and smoked, Dean grabbed his arm and they ran towards the exit.
Water was cascading across the floor, evidence of Dean's activities. They splashed through it, nearly losing their footing a couple of times, and ran back to the car. No doubt Arba would find a way around the holy water swiftly enough—at worst, she could jump out another window.
"He's not answering his phone," Dean snarled, flipping his cell closed with one hand and swerving to avoid some invisible obstacle with another.
"Let me try," Sam told him. "You keep dialing and you're gonna kill us both."
"He promised," Dean said, which Sam didn't remember, but he wasn't about to say that, and even more he wasn't about to reassure Dean that John was probably just dead, not ignoring his son.
In lieu of commentary, he held out his hand for the phone. Dean made a pissed-off sound, but he handed it over.
They often drove late nights, and Sam had come to enjoy the way the world narrowed to headlights cutting through the night, the highway a through-line pulling them across the face of the earth, the darkness inside the car warm and unthreatening. Now all of that was lost. Dean was barely present, yearning towards John, and Sam knew that Father was out there as well. He remembered Father's hands, clamping down on his shoulders while Father read his homework over his shoulder. He remembered how Father would make little spider-steps with his fingertips all the way down Sam's arm, chuckling as Sam grew ever more still against the touch.
"If we come to it," he said, "I'd rather be dead than do what Azazel wants. You get me?"
"Shut up," Dean answered.
"No, this isn't just about us any more. This is about everybody he's gonna hurt. Everybody he's gonna use me to hurt."
Dean's mouth was pinched painfully, his shoulders drawn so far up that his neck nearly disappeared into his jacket.
"What, I'm not good enough to sacrifice myself?"
"Not gonna happen!" Dean roared, and they both flinched.
"Then it won't make a difference for you to promise," Sam said, inexorably.
Dean's phone buzzed, startling Sam so badly that he nearly dropped it. There was a new message. He put the speaker on and dialed in.
"I missed," John said over some loud background noise. "I missed and I have to go get the baby now. I'm leaving the Colt in a Devil's Trap under a pile of leaves in the front yard. You come and get it before anything happens to it."
"I'll start calling hospitals." Sam reached for his own phone, but it came alive in his hand before he could start to dial. "Yes?"
"Nice try, kids," Arba's voice said. "No, really, nice try. Playtime's over now, though. You're never going to see Daddy Winchester again. Ready to open your eyes and face facts?"
The phone clicked off with a sound like a gun dry-firing.
They sped back to Salvation. Dean snuck past the firefighters still working on the smoldering ruins, while Sam walked straight up to the fire captain, who was perfectly willing to tell an insurance investigator that an unknown man had roused the household and carried the baby to safety before disappearing.
"Three bullets left," Dean told him when they were back in the car.
Dean had been about two pieces of duct tape away from shaking apart since Arba's taunting call, and now that they'd retrieved the Colt Sam thought he might lose it completely. He was letting Dean drive because he feared what Dean would do in the passenger seat more than he feared an accident, but it was close.
"Bobby Singer," Dean said after a minute. "He knows his demons." He started the car and turned them towards the interstate.
Bobby Singer turned out to be the redneck hunter Sam had imagined Dean to be all those months ago, a grizzled man with a full beard and a baseball cap over squinty blue eyes. Dean gave him the gist of the problem standing in the dirt in front of the steps to his house, talking straight into the barrel of Bobby's shotgun while Sam kept his attention on the very angry-looking dogs that hovered well within biting distance.
As soon as they stepped inside Bobby's house, he stood the shotgun just inside the door and held out two flasks. He made Dean and Sam toss back holy water, then whiskey, watching Sam just as carefully with the whiskey as with the holy water.
Dean handed back the second flask and wiped his mouth dry with the back of his hand. "Thanks, Bobby. Tell you the truth, I wasn't sure we should come."
"Nonsense," he said, old-fashioned and righteous. "Your daddy's in trouble."
Dean winced. "Last time we saw you, you did threaten to blast him full of buckshot. Cocked the shotgun and everything."
"What can I say? John just has that effect on people."
"Mr. Singer," Sam said, his mouth still stinging from the bite of the alcohol on cuts he hadn't remembered getting, "you and I are gonna get along just fine."
Dean pulled a face, but Bobby only examined Sam sharply. "Bobby'll do, son."
They explained what had happened in more detail.
"Well, you fellas are standin' in the center of the whirlwind, I'll tell you that," Bobby said, before telling them about a nationwide spike in demonic possessions.
They were mapping the possessions against John's records of the mother-and-child burnings when the door came off its hinges, crashing to the floor, and Arba stalked in over it.
"Congratulations," she said. "You just killed another one of your friends." Bobby flew backwards into a desk, whimpering as his back bowed. She smiled and stepped forward. Then she halted, frowning, and Bobby fought back to his feet, ignoring the books and papers that spilled to the floor behind him.
"Demons," Bobby said, shaking his head and rubbing gingerly at his back.
"What the fuck!" Arba spat, lunging forward only to bounce off of the barrier created by the Devil's Trap above her head. Dean sniggered.
"John Winchester, where is he?" Sam asked. Sam didn't believe that John was still alive. He was too much of a variable. But Dean wouldn't believe it until he saw the corpse.
"Dead!" she said. "With any luck he's already being sodomized by my closest friends. He probably likes it—I hear that sort of thing runs in the family."
Dean took out Bobby's flask and flung an arc of water across her face. She hissed and her eyes went full black. "Sam knows it's true. I stuck my fist into his stomach and I pulled out his guts."
Dean shook off Bobby's hand, taking two quick steps that nearly brought him across the lines defining the Devil's Trap.
"Dean!" Sam pointed up. "Let me do this, okay?"
Dean regarded him the way he might have examined a shotgun for task suitability. Sam didn't flinch; he'd asked for it. "Exorcise her," Dean said. "Do it slow, until she talks."
A freestanding exorcism would just remove the demon from the possessed person. But an exorcism in a Devil's Trap, as Sam understood it, would send the demon back to Hell. Hell wasn't fun even for demons.
Even assuming John was dead, he owed the man at least a hunter's pyre.
He began reciting.
Arba cursed and gibbered, bashing herself up against the binding circle even though her fists flared with fire whenever she made contact with the edge. As he finished the first prayer, she roared.
He leaned in close, careful not to get even a hair within the circle. "Got a better answer for me?"
"Daddy's gonna take your skin off for doing this!"
"Okay then!" He continued, until she was collapsed on the floor, jerking like a landed fish. Her eyes fluttered and her blood smeared across her cheeks, and he had to remind himself that she was one of the Nephilim, not a victim.
He stopped when she seemed about to lose consciousness entirely. "John Winchester," he said.
"Jefferson City," she gasped.
"Do better," he suggested.
Blood was pooling at the corner of her mouth, spreading out on the floor like a time-lapse photo of a flower.
"Sunrise Apartments," she managed.
Dean grunted. "Finish it," he said.
"No!" she whimpered, but why she'd expected better from humans Sam couldn't imagine.
Now that there was no reason to delay, he hurried through the rest of the exorcism. The Latin thrummed through him like an electric current, charging him even as Arba convulsed. A black cloud spewed from the girl's mouth, abandoning the body, and rushed towards the ceiling, but was caught in the Devil's Trap. It circled like a miniature tornado, then turned white around the edges and collapsed in on itself with a clap and a rush of displaced air.
The only sound was the hitching, choking breaths of the girl on the floor.
"Fuck me," Dean breathed, pushing past Sam and dropping to his knees. "Call 911."
They all knew that the victim couldn't possibly survive—she'd probably broken most of her major bones in Chicago, and she'd been shot in the chest hours ago. But Dean gathered her in his arms and propped her up, his movements so gentle that she might not even have noticed them amidst all her other hurts.
She blinked up at Sam. "Thank you," she said. The words brought a new flood of red from her lips, coating her teeth and her chin and dripping down to her collar.
Then she died.
Dean held her there for a minute, staring down at her forehead. Slowly, carefully, he used his thumbs to close her eyes.
"You can lay her out on the kitchen table," Bobby suggested. "We'll bury her later."
"Her name might've been Meg Masters," Sam said. "She might have family that—people who want to know."
Bobby sighed and tugged at his cap. "I'll see what I can do."
Dean picked the girl's body up, just like he was going to carry her across a threshold, and took her out of the room.
They didn't say a word until Dean returned. Somehow he'd acquired a streak of her blood along one cheek.
"So," Sam said. "I guess we go to Jefferson."
"Yeah." Dean turned to Bobby. "There's something I've been wantin' to try. You got a laser printer?"
When they got within a few blocks of the apartment building, Dean parked the car. They went to the trunk to arm themselves, just like it was a regular hunt. Except that as soon as Dean closed the trunk, he grabbed Sam's shirt, using surprise and momentum to slam him back into the side of the car. "If you switch sides on me and get Dad killed—"
Sam felt his gun grind into the small of his back, bruising him. He looked down at Dean, still beautiful with his brows lowered in fury. Dean's hands on him, in anger now, strong and unflinching. Dean's weight against him, pressing him against unforgiving black metal.
If Dean let himself think about it, he had to know that John was probably dead, and that going into that building was likely to be a one-way trip.
"I'm with you all the way," Sam said.
Dean's face twitched as if Sam had just punched him in the gut. "Like you care if he dies," Dean spat out.
Sam brought his hands up and out, the way he'd placate a gunman. "I don't want anybody else to die," he said, as softly as he could. "It's time to choose, Dean. Trust me or ditch me, but pick one, or you're not gonna be able to keep your eyes on the prize here."
Dean's fingers clenched, tugging Sam's shirt tighter, then released. Dean stepped back, cutting his eyes away from Sam.
Sam followed him towards the Sunrise Apartments in silence.
When they got within sight of it, Sam frowned, dismayed. It was far too large for his comfort.
"Anyone in that complex might be possessed," Dean said. His tone was neutral, as if he'd forgotten the previous conversation, or maybe even decided to put the issue aside for the time being. Sam felt a stab of hope, hot and painful as a knife.
"I can usually detect demons," Sam informed him. "But sometimes it takes me a couple of minutes."
"Well, that's no good." Dean ran his thumb over his lower lip, considering. "Set off the fire alarm, cut down on the number of civilians?"
"Fire department shows up, things might get messy."
Dean shifted on his feet. "We'll work fast."
"I don't have anything better," Sam admitted.
Dean snorted. "Yeah. So let's get straight on this: you want Azazel dead and so do I. We get that done, I'm through. You can go conquer the world like you're supposed to."
Sam took a couple of deep breaths, then gave up. "I know what you think of me. But—it's not worth it, Dean. Azazel isn't worth you dying."
Dean headed towards the building. Sam followed.
They found the first demons on the second floor, charging at them with black eyes and crazed roars. Dean spewed out Latin, forcing them to cringe, while he and Sam pulled out the holy water and prepared themselves.
It was hard to get his hands on the possessed woman and pull her collar down to expose her neck, but once he'd managed that, it wasn't that much more difficult to slap down the exorcism printed on the temporary tattoo paper that Dean had bought on a hunch. Make-your-own transfers with the Rituale Romanum printed out on them; only Dean.
The words adhered and the demon snapped the woman's head up, screaming itself into the ceiling.
Dean's target was also collapsed on the hallway floor. Sam spared a moment to stare at Dean in raw admiration, and then it was time to keep looking.
John was tied to a bed on the third floor. He was badly bruised, but there were no visible incapacitating wounds.
He was very badly guarded, Sam realized as they carried him down the stairs. He also wasn't light. "I'll bring the car around to the alley," Sam told Dean when they'd left the building. Two fire trucks were already blocking the street, but the alley was clear.
Except that as he was reaching for the driver's side door, a man barreled into him, sending him across the concrete in a stinging slide. The first punch snapped something in his left cheek; the second, on the right, sent the left side of his head rebounding against the ground, increasing the pain exponentially.
"That was my sister, you human stain."
There was more, something about a king, but he didn't really get it, what with having the shit kicked out of him.
And then there was a gunshot, and after that silence.
Sam heaved himself over on his side, threw up, and then managed to drag his head far enough off the ground to see Dean, pale and shaking, the Colt drifting down now that he no longer had anything to aim at.
Dean shook off his paralysis and hurried over to help Sam to his feet. He could feel that the bruises would be bone-deep, and he'd probably cracked a couple of ribs. "I ran out of exorcisms," Dean said, not looking at Sam even though he was propping Sam up with an arm around his shoulder. "And I couldn't—he was swinging so hard, I thought—"
"Two bullets left," Sam managed. His mouth was salt-sweet with the taste of his own blood.
"You don't get to check out before the end of this," Dean told him.
Even though he had no obvious injuries, John stayed unconscious through the entire trip to some cabin in the middle of nowhere that Bobby promised would be a safe place to hide. Sam also passed out for some of the trip, but Dean prodded him awake every hour because, he said, Sam had taken a hit or two to the head. Sam didn't remember that, but since every cell in his body, including the ones in his hair, hurt like fuck, he was willing to accept Dean's story.
"You know," he said once, when Dean had made him take another painkiller and drink a bottle of water, "he was alone with them for hours. He could be possessed."
"Used the last of the holy water on him last time I gassed up. Nothin' happened."
Sam smiled. It hurt. "Should've known you'd have it covered," he said, and let himself sleep again.
Leaving the car was almost as painful as the original beating, because of how stiff he'd gotten during transit. Dean took pity on him and carried John into the cabin and just let Sam limp in after. The place was a total shithole, paint peeling off of the wooden plank walls, piles of insect husks in every corner where years of spiders had dropped them, only a bare mattress for John.
Sam eased himself to the floor and fell asleep sitting up.
He woke to the sound of John's voice, low and gentle. "I'm glad you saved him, even if it did take a bullet. You know how to take care of your own, son, and I'm proud of you."
He blinked, hearing Dean shift and stand. On instinct, he pushed himself upright against the wall, ignoring the pain as best he could. "Wha's goin' on?" he asked, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Dean was on the opposite side of the cabin, backing away from John, who was standing in the middle of the room, his hands raised like the patriarch about to offer his blessing.
"That's not my father," Dean said, raising the Colt.
The gun flew out of his hand and hit the wall, bouncing down to the abandoned mattress. Sam reached out for it, but both he and Dean were flung back against the cabin walls. The impact rattled Sam's bones and caused a nuclear bomb to go off in the back of his head. He fought to stay conscious; TK was as out of his reach as particle physics right now.
"The holy water," he managed.
Father—of course it was Father—turned to him and sneered with John's face. "You think something like that works on something like me? I'm not some corrupt ex-human or half-human. I am an angel from on high!" Father's eyes flared yellow, and it was every terrified moment of his childhood all again, dry-heaving with the knowledge of the impossibility of escape.
"I hear the mighty have fallen," Dean said from where he was pinned like a bug. "What the fuck do you want?"
Father strode over to Dean. He looked Dean over from toes to crown, the way a shopper might examine a cut of meat. Then he roughly undid Dean's jeans, sticking his hand in and grabbing. Dean's face grew impossibly whiter. "So this is what you're proposing to abandon your father for," Father said, his tone grave and disappointed.
"Don't you touch him!" Sam snarled, terror a black clawing thing within him like another demon.
"Why not?" Father asked. Sam could see the muscles of John Winchester's forearm moving. Dean gasped, then clamped his jaws shut. "We're all family here."
They both froze.
"What?" Father withdrew his hand and licked the palm. "Mmm, he is tasty. I foresee a threesome in our future. Do you mean to tell me you haven't figured it out, Sam? Even with all the breadcrumbs?"
He smiled, too wide for John Winchester's mouth. "I got a prophecy in hand, said my plan would take a psychic and a normal, bound by blood. I couldn't have him in our little creche—one of you vicious lovelies would have eaten him alive. And then I didn't want you to get confused about your loyalties when you finally met. Long-lost brothers sounds so heroic, doesn't it? I needed to tawdry it up a little. So: you were born the night little Sammy Winchester died, and when I say born, what I really mean is more of a metaphor than the whole umbilical cord-and-squalling thing."
"My mother—" Sam began. He'd stared at the photo of her for hours, looking at the shape of her face, seeing bits of himself there.
Father rolled his eyes. "You mean that picture I picked up in a thrift store?"
No. No and no and no and no.
Pinned up on the wall, Dean was also shaking his head.
"Oh yes," Father said, staring straight at Sam. "Sam has two daddies, and they're both right here. You've been giving it to your brother in every way you can think of—some that even impressed me—for months now. And knowing that, you still want him.
"Let's get all our cards on the table. You are evil, my little seducer, and your desires are evil, while your big brother is good, and the only way you get to have him is chained to your throne in Hell. So embrace your destiny, and our little family can live happily ever after."
He knew how truly stupid it was to take his eyes off Father, but it was like fighting gravity. Dean had left off denial and was working on horror. Even his lips were pale and his forehead shone with sweat. As Sam watched, he retched and just held back from vomiting all down his shirt.
Father chuckled, running his hands over Dean's chest, his stomach. He leaned in and bit deliberately along the line of Dean's jaw, John Winchester's tongue flickering obscenely over Dean's skin. "Don't worry," he crooned. "You're so hot for little brother, it won't take any time for you to get used to Daddy."
Sam lunged against the power holding him pinned. He could feel that there was a weakness in Father's grasp, an unevenness that could be exploited, if he could only pull enough out of himself.
"Dad," Dean gasped. "Help me, please. Fight it."
Sam wanted to explain: John couldn't, no matter how much he loved Dean. Meg Masters probably had people to fight for too. It wasn't about love or will, any more than surviving being hit by a train was. It was about power. Dean was ignoring everything he knew about possession because Dean had made John into his god, and Sam saw now how that must have weighed on John.
"You want to know the best part?" Father asked, turning to look back over his shoulder at Sam. "Dean here never really believed you loved him. Not because you're not capable of it—he couldn't know that—but because poor little Dean isn't worthy of anyone's love, even a bastard like you."
"Daddy," Dean tried again, the word bubbling out along with a fresh gout of blood. His head lolled on his neck. Blood stained the front of his T-shirt like sweat. Sam tried to shake his head, tried to come up with words that would make Dean hear the truth, but the pressure holding him in place was too strong. It was a cage, a mental presence made of barbed wire, bits and pieces sticking out all over, threads tangled up together, all wrapped around a central corkscrew that he could—just—reach—
Something tore, deep inside his brain. He thought he might be having a stroke. It was like his mind was made of layers of velcro, coming slowly apart, unwrapping itself until the pain was gone and the only thing left was one word.
He came off of the wall like a supermagnet had been shut off, landing on his feet just like Dean had taught him.
Sam held his hand out and the Colt smacked into his palm. The metal was all complicated angles and sharp edges. He found the trigger by trained instinct.
He aimed the gun.
"Whoa, I bet nobody saw that coming!" Father's voice was as jolly and condescending as it had been when Sam was thirteen and had tried to run away. He remembered the punishment for that and his heart tripled its beats. Blood dripped steadily from his nose, and the skin under his eyes was wet.
Rage was the only corrective for fear. Father didn't have the upper hand now. Sam reached for every iota of anger and resentment he'd ever felt.
"Kill me if you must," Father said, "but I promise you, your work will be a lot easier to do with me around to help. There's an army of demons waiting for you, and if you don't take advantage of my experience they'll put you on a spit and tear you apart an inch at a time instead of bowing to you."
A neglected piece of glass exploded off to the side. Sam's muscles locked tight, ready for a fight that couldn't be physical.
"I'll make it easier for you," Father continued. "Let's see what John-boy has to say."
John's face contorted as Father burrowed back under. The body twitched, still held rigidly under Father's control. "Shoot me," John Winchester begged.
Dean made a noise like a dog being sacrificed.
Then John was gone again, drowned under Father's control. Sam could see the path the bullet would take, the way that gold lightning would wrap around the stolen body and split Father open.
The vision changed, sped up: Father fell dead, and Dean rushed to the corpse's side, sobbing helplessly. He shook off Sam's comforting hand, turned his back to Sam, wouldn't listen or look until Sam made him. And then there were the Nephilim to deal with, so he had to keep Dean under control just until they were both safe, just until Dean calmed down. After that the competition grew more diffuse and varied: hunters, demons, a last-ditch stand by a coalition of witches and other practitioners. In the middle of it all, he noticed how Dean was hurting himself, and that was unacceptable. Applying the additional binding tattoos took time he couldn't afford, and he had to sacrifice most of the Eastern seaboard, but it wasn't like he had any friends there, or anywhere but right beside him. When it was over, Dean smiled again, for the first time in years it seemed, and his presence gave Sam the strength he needed.
Father was wrong. Chains were entirely unnecessary.
Sam blinked and the red-tinged images were gone. Father was still smirking at him. "You can take the high road or the low road, son. They go the same place in the end."
Sam narrowed his eyes. "One's got a hell of a lot better scenery, old man."
Father laughed, full-throated; Sam heard Dean gagging. "That's why you're my favorite, Sammy, you give me lip. So what's it gonna be, son? Lead or bleed?" Dean started to choke again, and Sam understood that Father was giving him a countdown.
Either way, Dean was lost to him. That made it impossible to allow Father to survive. But—
There were three people here. Three choices, only one of them that Father hadn't been able to control. Fear and rage and love.
"I love you, Dean," he said. "And I'm sorry I can't do what you asked."
Hatred flared for a second in Dean's eyes, chased out by despair.
Sam lowered the Colt. Father raised his eyebrows, but his grin was as confident as ever. "I hope you won't attribute it to bias when I say—"
Sam fired. The bullet took Father in the meat of the thigh, spinning John Winchester's body back. Father screamed as the light crackled over him, howled as his true form reasserted itself, and rushed out in a torrent of black before John Winchester's head hit the floor.
Without thinking about it, Sam began reciting Sue-Ann LeGrange's binding spell. The altar and the rest of the trappings weren't as important as will and understanding. The spell wasn't enough to hold Father; he was far too strong for that. But Sam ripped power out of the cloud, grabbing it for himself. Father's essence was like blackstrap molasses, thick and chokingly sweet, rubbing around Sam's insides. He clamped down, winding it around itself. It was like twisting a guinea worm around a stick to get it out of a human body, slow and painful. Father was fleeing, and now Sam was only picking up shreds, but he still felt gravid with dark energy.
He looked at John and Dean, crumpled on the floor like mirror images twenty-five years removed from each other. Dean's T-shirt was shiny with blood, sopping with it. Azazel's power wasn't a healing power, but it could be used to hold things in stasis, so that was what he set about doing.
No one could explain how Dean could have sustained such internal injuries without more severe external trauma, but the doctors pumped blood and drugs into him anyway.
John Winchester's bullet wound, a straight through-and-through, was treated in the ER.
Sam refused an examination, claiming that their supposed carjacking had done nothing more than bruise him. Because he was in the best shape of the three of them, he was the one who talked to the police, explaining that John's truck had been stolen by men with guns, but not before they'd all been beaten and John had been shot. He gave the police artist descriptions of Tom and Jake, because that couldn't hurt either of them. John would have to change the plates on his truck, whenever he managed to pick it up again, but Sam considered that a small price to pay.
After Sam was through with the cops, he and John sat like grave guardians on opposite sides of Dean's bed. The most conversation they managed was when Sam asked if John wanted coffee from the cafeteria. Getting it, he remembered how Dean used to bring it and dumped half a canister of sugar in.
When he got back to Dean's room, pushing the door open with his elbow because both hands were full, John was leaning over Dean's bed. The murmur of their voices fell silent and they both turned their heads to watch him get closer. Dean's eyes were as blank as grass, free of judgment or forgiveness, and soon he'd slipped back into a state between sleep and unconsciousness.
John drank his coffee without comment.
Within forty-eight hours, Dean was coherent enough to check out AMA, even if he didn't manage to fight off the wheelchair they made him use until he got to the door. Dean protested when Sam opened the back door of the Impala. Still, he laid down on the seat when Sam didn't bother to respond.
John looked at the key in Sam's hand like he expected Sam to offer to let him drive. If he couldn't say it, though, he could just deal, like Sam was dealing.
Sam took them to the third-nearest motel, one with flags from dozens of nations out in front like a flat, cheap UN. He rented two rooms.
He brought Dean's duffel into the first one (Italy) while John got Dean out of the car, and then they both helped Dean inside. It would have been more efficient and less agonizing for either one of them to carry him, but Dean wasn't far enough gone to allow that.
Dean laid back on the bed, panting with pain and effort. He stared up at the two of them through the screen of his lashes. "Check in with you in a couple of hours, Dad?" he asked at last.
John started. Sam gave him the other key, unable to meet his eyes, and breathed for the first time in days.
Dean didn't say anything to him when he brought his bag in. By the time Sam had made his mind up that they were going to talk, Dean was asleep again, open-mouthed, only the rise and fall of his chest signalling his continued presence.
Sam sat at the little desk across from the bed and got a good look, fixing the pale skin and the bruises in his mind. He'd done this. He'd done this to Dean.
There were too many things to say and not enough apologies in the world. He couldn't even tell Dean that he'd meant well, because that would have been the biggest lie of all.
His brain simply refused to process Father's—Azazel's—revelations. When he tried to think 'father' or 'brother' the words just skittered away from every other thought like drops of water on a hot griddle. It wasn't that the concepts were meaningless. They'd always meant danger and fear and pain. But now everything was worse, twisted and bloody.
Right before he'd left Azazel for Dean, one of his—one of the other psychics had just given up. Susan, who'd never been at the front of the pack or the rear, whose best talent was in creating illusions. She could make you smell roses while you were stepping in rot. One day, she simply stopped: stopped getting out of bed, stopped responding to Father's orders, stopped resisting attacks. She'd been dead within three days, and Sam had been furious at her for behaving so incomprehensibly.
He hadn't understood what it was like to find an impassible wall inside oneself, a blank space where reason and emotion both fell away.
Maybe Susan hadn't wanted to die either. Maybe she just couldn't figure out how to live.
Dean slept for over four hours, waking with a gasp as he tried to sit up, and then a sigh as he gave up and slumped back into place on the bed. Sam was instantly on his feet, wanting to come over.
"Near sunset," Dean said, looking at the pattern the sun made against the side wall.
"Yeah?" Sam asked, not following.
"Help me outside? I wanna see it."
As Dean obviously knew, Sam would have complied with any request up to and including 'spoon-feed me your liver,' so he was up and across the floor in moments, easing Dean to a sitting position, then supporting him so that he could stand and shuffle over to the door.
He had to leave Dean propped up against the outside wall in order to retrieve a couple of chairs from inside, but he wasn't going to make Dean sit on the ground.
He put his chair next to Dean's. If Dean told him to go, he would, but Dean was going to have to say it.
Dean sighed, letting his head fall back. "This sucks."
Sam barked a laugh. "You want to specify?"
"Nah, I think that about covers it."
Dean straightened up, shuffled in his seat a little, and winced. "So I guess this is the part where we talk about what happens next."
"That's up to you," Sam said cautiously.
Dean rubbed the back of his neck. "Dad—doesn't remember. Not what Azazel did or what he said when he was in charge."
"What did you tell him?" Sam sounded like a whipped dog in his own ears.
Dean's shoulders hunched further. "That you used the Colt to save him."
Sam waited, but that was apparently it. "And what are you going to tell him, when he asks for the whole story?"
Dean raised his chin and looked out towards the horizon, his eyes unfocused. "He needs to know about the psychic kids and the demon army. Needs to know the fight we're lookin' at. But my brother—" he stumbled, just a little—"he died with my Mom. Even if, without everything with us—I don't think there'd be any way to get our Sam back, you know?"
Sam nodded, remembering the little headstone next to Mary Winchester's. Some lies were necessary to keep you moving forward. He'd never hate John enough to want to force the truth on him, and more than that he'd never hate Dean enough.
"There's going to be more trouble with Azazel, or whoever's left in charge," he agreed. "What I did left Azazel weak. If we're lucky, one of the Nephilim will take him out."
"Yeah, 'cause what this family's got a shitload of is luck." After a minute, Dean shifted his weight, grunted, and put his hand right between Sam's shoulders, over the tattoo. "That wasn't fair."
Sam couldn't quite make himself shake off Dean's hand. "Fair's got nothing to do with it."
Dean didn't wait long before speaking again. "I really thought you were gonna kill him and take over, you know."
Sam shook his head. "I haven't wanted that for a while."
Dean made a soft, almost amused noise. "I guess I—I wanted to believe in you too much to believe it, you know?"
That made no sense, except that it was perfect Dean-logic. "I know switching sides doesn't make up for what I did."
Dean took a while to answer, his fingers rubbing warm circles over the back of Sam's shirt. "Azazel, he was wrong about you."
Sam laughed, because Father'd known him for twenty-two years and Dean only for a fraction of that, even if Dean's time with him did bracket Father's tenure. He laughed until the sounds he was making stopped sounding like laughter. Dean's hand stayed on him the entire time.
When he blinked his vision clear and looked up, Dean was still watching him. His expression was patient and not even a little freaked out, which Sam thought he ought to resent. "What possible reason would you have to think that?" Sam managed.
"'Cause he was wrong about me," Dean said matter-of-factly. "He said the only way you could have me was chained, but it turns out that was a lie. You can have me any way you want."
And wow was he in no condition for that, but his whole body ached with longing. All he wanted was to sink into Dean until the world disappeared. "Dean, I—" He turned, meaning to explain that Father had chosen his children well and that if Dean put a bullet in him now then the world would be ten times safer. But Dean tugged him closer, closer, drawing him over with a grip that had no strength in it. Their lips touched, not a brother's kiss: a soft swipe of Dean's tongue, the taste of metal, the inverse of chaste.
Dean broke the kiss by leaning his forehead into Sam's, their noses brushing, Dean's hand now cupping his cheek. "I'm not good," he said, his breath going hot and wet right into Sam's lungs. "And you're not evil. We can be whatever we want to be."
He felt like he was breathing through two-hundred-degree steam, heavy and scalding. He was a scared little kid again, dreaming of rescue, hoping for someone who would want only him.
He opened his eyes. In the thick end-of-day sunlight, Dean's irises were almost black. Almost, but not quite. Dean's face was calm, certain. Devoted.
Sam pulled back, slowly enough to let Dean know that he wasn't running or refusing. He caught Dean's hand before Dean could let go.
"You need to know, I didn't do it just for you," he said. He wasn't sure Dean was going to thank him, when all was said and done, and he highly doubted that humanity in general would have reason to applaud his decision, but he wanted to tell the truth. Maybe he could start making a habit of it. "I wanted to put a bullet in Azazel's head, but I couldn't let your father die. I didn't want to be the man who did that."
Dean blinked at him, his lips still parted. "Sam—"
"Shut up and get better," Sam said, because Dean had already told him everything he'd ever need to know. "We've got work to do."