When Sam was seven, his dad ran the Impala into a ditch, and they ended up walking almost three miles in the pitch black and bitter cold to the nearest farmhouse. It was Vermont, he remembers. November. There'd been dead leaves on the roads, and the faint smell of snow on the wind.
He doesn't remember what he and Dean were arguing about, just that Dean was turned around hanging over the back of his seat, trying to grab something Sam didn't want him to have. He was laughing, and Sam was pissed about whatever it was. Things were just starting to get out of hand, and Dad was fed up. Knock it off, you two, if you don't want to spend the night in separate rooms, you hear me-- and his eyes only left the road for a second, but it was just as they came around a curve, and a dark shape materialized in the headlights, a huge bull moose, so big he seemed to tower over the car.
Sam always remembers the way it happened, the tight sound of his dad's startled curse, the way the back of the seat made him see stars when he flew forward and smashed his nose into it, the burst of pain so bright it took his breath away. He remembers the surprised look on Dean's face when he flew forward--backward--into the dashboard, and the way time seemed to slow way down and spread itself out over endless seconds of sliding. Remembers seeing the dark gleam of the bull's flank passing right next to the car, and the scraping sound the fenders made on the trees along the embankment. Remembers his dad's voice shaking when he said Dean's name, the way he'd felt all around the back of Dean's head for blood. Later, Sam would have a black eye from where Dean's hand flew out and clocked him one, and Dean would make it up to him by making flip-book cartoons in the corners of a well-used notepad.
This time Sam's behind the wheel, and it's completely different. No stars, for one thing, and no warning, just a bang that feels like a shotgun blast going off in his head, an explosion of brightness that tastes like copper, a crash of ozone that burns through his sinuses, acid on the back of his tongue. Then, nothing. Blackness slamming down, blotting out the world.
* * *
The world, when it came back to him, tasted like blood. A haze of matching red-black fog swam across his vision; the ozone was so strong, his first thought was of lightning. He'd looked right at a lightning strike once when he was a kid, seen it leap up from the ground and split open the night. For an hour afterwards, he'd seen the afterimage of it burned on his retinas.
Sam blinked, trying to clear his vision. His ears were messed up, too, like he'd fallen down a very deep hole, and everything was echo-y and strange. His sinuses were clogged, his wrist felt like it was sprained, or worse, and something heavy was pressing on him, holding him down. He swallowed, and that was a bad idea, because he tasted blood, but trying to move his head turned out to be a much, much worse idea; the wave of pain and dizziness made him groan, and he thought he might be sick. Of less pressing misery but perhaps more potential danger, he was aware of something shifting inside him in a way that was distinctly not right -- cracked rib, most likely, maybe more than one. He made a small, involuntary sound and closed his eyes again, focusing for a second on just trying to breathe.
Memory thrust into him all at once, shoving into his thoughts with blunt urgency. The car. The demon. He'd been driving--
"Dad," he choked, eyes flying open. His voice caught on it, head jerking sideways and breath hitching in his chest as the rest of it came home. He tried to struggle up, heedless now of the pain. Tried to see in the rearview mirror, now knocked askew.
Something had hit them. Something big, blinding lights and a sound like a locomotive, like a mountain sliding down on top of them. It came from the right, some voice of reason whispered. From Dad's side. Sam struggled against the weight that pinned him -- the torqued steering column -- fumbling to push himself up, to see in the blinding white glare from his dad's side of the car. His dad's--
His dad was out cold, not moving. There was blood on his face, bright rivulets of it streaking his hair, and he wasn't-- he wasn't-- Something cold clenched around Sam's heart, but he made himself reach out, shake him gently. "Dad." His voice sounded funny, far away. He shook a little harder, and the cold thing started to spread through him, numbing him. "Dad, come on. Come on, please--" No, the voice inside him said, not reason now, just panic and blunt denial. No. Please, no.
But he knew. He'd known the second he touched his dad's shoulder, and seen the way his head moved.
A sound escaped him, breath pressed out of him by the enormity of it. "Oh, God--"
God can't help us now, Sammy.
"Dean," Sam breathed, the name a sudden anchor against his own blind panic and despair, grounding him. It broke through the heavy numbness of shock, made him forget the dull agony throbbing in his head, the sharper agony of grief. The dead didn't need him now; he had to focus on the living.
The living. Oh, please, God, let him be-- Another frantic glance in the rearview mirror showed him Dean's pale face, unconscious against the window. Was he breathing? Sam's hands shook, didn't want to do what he told them. He fumbled at the door handle on the driver's side, finally grabbing it and yanking it hard. The door didn't budge. Sam yanked it again and threw his weight against the door, barely feeling it, though some part of him was distantly, coolly aware that he'd been right about the cracked ribs. Panic made the pain unimportant.
No accident. He knew that, now. Knew it as he should have known it in the first instant. Should have seen it coming, should have known--
"Come on--" he gasped out, voice breaking on it.
Cold air swept into the car; it ran down his neck like fear. Sam's breath hitched, and he twisted around, trying to see. The back door was open. Fog swirled, obscuring the night sky, but he could see the spidery black shapes of tree branches and something moving in the dark beside the car, something not his brother. Dean was gone. Just-- gone. Adrenaline spiked through Sam in a fierce rush and the driver's side door suddenly gave under his frantic efforts, flew open into the night. He half fell out of the car, caught himself, one foot in the loose gravel beside the road. His heart felt like it might burst.
In the slanting light from the semi's headlights, he caught sight of a dark, unfamiliar figure only a few yards away. Sam was close enough to see the black emptiness where the man's eyes had been, the bull strength of his meaty frame and the blunt threat of those big hands. Thick muscle bulged in the forearm wrapped around Dean's neck; thick fingers gripped hard in Dean's shirt, half-supporting his weight. Sam struggled out of the car, trying to see if Dean was moving at all, if he--
Don't even think it.
Dad, oh God, Dad, I'm so sorry.
The screech of tires broke across his awareness, jerking him back to a fierce, tight clarity of focus. A late-model sedan skidded on the two lane highway, fishtailing before turning back toward them. Sam could see two shapes in the car, a man and a woman. He didn't have to be able to see their eyes to know they weren't human, not any more. The car slid to a stop and the people got out, bearing straight for him. Three on one.
The first one -- the truck driver, Sam thought -- hitched Dean's weight higher, and Sam saw Dean stir, making a slow, clumsy motion to get his feet under him. Seeing it, Sam's heart leapt so hard against his breastbone, it felt like it might leave a bruise. Relief flooded him, then warred with renewed fear. Dean's captor didn't seem overly concerned with letting him breathe.
"What do you want?" Sam demanded, taking a step toward them. He kept his hands spread at his sides while his mind raced, trying to think of something he could use to bargain with, something he had that they might want. Not them, he corrected, thinking fast. They're just pawns for the other one. The one with the plan. It's me he wants -- me and all the children like me. "Take me. It's me he wants. Let my brother go, and I'll go with you."
"You'll go with us, all right," the truck driver said, black eyes slick as oil in the headlights.
The other two were almost on him, and Sam braced himself for a fight; the second they grabbed him, he dropped down and back, trying to yank them off balance. For a second, it worked. He had weight and reach on both the newcomers, and didn't hold back, unleashing all the fury of his grief and terror with precise and deadly accuracy.
Unfortunately, there was such a thing as outmatched and outgunned, and even at his most desperate, Sam Winchester was no match for demon strength. In a handful of moments the vacant-eyed, thirty-something couple had him pinned on his knees, pale and gasping, hands wrenched behind him and the man's fist in his hair. Blunt agony throbbed in his chest, through his side and his hamstring where they'd kicked him. His vision swam, and he felt dangerously close to passing out.
He forced himself to focus on Dean, to keep it together. His brother looked like he was in a bad way, blood gleaming crimson on his face and neck, slick and dark on his clothes, but he was still stirring, fighting his way to consciousness, stubborn as ever. It probably shouldn't have cheered Sam as much as it did.
It didn't last. A second later, a hot wind lifted the hair on the back of Sam's neck, raising gooseflesh as it swept over the tableau on the side of the road, the fog swirling and eddying before that unnatural zephyr. The scent of sulfur burned Sam's throat, made his eyes water.
It was coming from the Impala, behind him.
Sam closed his eyes. Revulsion closed his throat, and he swallowed against it. He knew, even before it spoke, but it didn't help. It didn't help at all.
"You know," said the thing that wasn't his dad, "this is so much easier now that old John-boy isn't in here fighting me any more. Mighty kind of him, really, to leave me the keys to the place."
Sam flushed with bitter hatred, so violent he felt himself shaking with it. "Get out."
"Oh, come now, Sammy. You must know by now there's nothing you can do to stop me."
It was standing right in front of him now. It was looking at him, he knew, and he was John Winchester's son. Whatever it cost him, Sam was not about to give it the satisfaction of seeing him afraid, so he opened his eyes and made himself look it in the face without flinching. "Get. The fuck. Out."
Not-John chuckled, as if Sam were the best thing that ever happened to him. "It's a little late to pretend he means anything to you, isn't it? I thought you'd be relieved. Just think how much easier things will be without dear old Dad coming down on you all the time. Maybe now you can stop carrying around that chip on your--"
"Don't listen to it, Sam."
Sam's head came up at the rough rasp of his brother's voice. "Dean." Their eyes met, held. Dean looked like hell, but Sam recognized the steel in his expression. Not out of the fight yet, that look said. Not as long as I'm still breathing.
Hurt clenched in Sam's stomach. Dean didn't know, hadn't seen-- Sam drew a sharp breath against the sudden pressure on his heart. "Dean, Dad--" His throat tightened, then, and words failed. He couldn't. How was he supposed to...?
"It's okay, Sam," Dean said, as if they were the only ones there, the only ones that mattered.
"You two are breaking my heart, you know that? So brave, stiff upper lip to the end. Just brimming over with self-sacrifice, too. You know, he just tried to trade himself for you, big brother. Kind of sweet, really." The demon smiled John's lopsided, familiar grin, for just a moment. Then, it faded. "As if I need permission to take what's mine."
"Nothing you've ever taken was yours," Dean grated out, and Sam wished with everything in him that he could obliterate the thing that had made his brother sound like that.
The demon was done smiling. He signaled to Dean's captor, and the driver forced Dean to his knees with no physical coercion Sam could see, just a little sideways jerk of his head. Dean cried out, surprise wrenching the raw sound from him before he could choke it back.
Sam surged up against restraining hands without thought, fury hot in his throat. "Stop it."
"Stop it?" The demon's glittering eyes turned on him, held him pinned as a snake might mesmerize its prey. "You can stop it, Sam. It's up to you what happens to your brother now, you hear me? You know what I want."
Sam's breath hitched, ragged desperation and loathing choking him. He tried to see Dean's face. Dean was breathing hard now, his face a rigid mask against the pain, but he shook his head slightly and his eyes were fierce, locking on Sam's with unflinching insistence. Don't you even think about it, Sammy. He didn't have to say it. Sam read him loud and clear.
The demon sighed, and shook its head. It made a small, negligent gesture, and Dean doubled over, making a sound that Sam felt like a kick to the gut. "No!" Sam cried, helpless to keep quiet. No, goddammit. It was too much, after everything. "Just stop. Just--" Sharp rocks dug into his knees through his jeans, and pain throbbed in his head as he struggled, but he barely felt it. It was the demon's presence he felt, overwhelming everything else; it squeezed in tight bands around his chest, steel pressure against his thoughts, just like at the cabin. Some part of him fought against that pressure even as he fought against the iron grip of the demon's minions. What the hell good was it to be able to move furniture, to shape the world with his will, if he couldn't do it now, when it counted? He tried desperately to find that current of energy inside him, to tap into it, but his thoughts slipped and shuddered away from the dark, slick weight of that presence, beating helplessly against it.
"The gun, Sam," the demon said, and John Winchester's voice was almost gentle. "Give it to me, and I'll let him go."
Dean shook his head, and Sam saw him sway a little. "It's lying. It's gonna kill me anyway."
The demon laughed, as if the Winchesters were his own never-ending private joke. He ambled over and caressed Dean's throat, an intimacy that made Sam's stomach turn over. "You may be right about that." The yellow eyes found Sam's, the demon resting the heavy weight of his hand on Dean's neck like a promise. "But you can be sure I'll kill him if you don't."
"Okay! Just-- just stop. Get your hands off him, and I'll give it to you."
"Don't do it, Sam!"
"Dean, I'm sorry." Fear was sick and heavy in his stomach, but Sam forced it down. He couldn't afford it now. Don't think, just-- "I need my hands free," he told the demon. "They have to let me up, so I can break the protection spells."
Those amber-glass reptile eyes pinned him for long seconds, and Sam tried not to think about the chances of a demon keeping its word.
It nodded at last, and Sam's captors stepped back, hauling him to his feet. Sam bit his tongue to keep from crying out; his head was throbbing now, and he could feel something pinching inside of him, a sickening pain that came in waves, and told him he'd done worse damage with all his struggling. He fought the nausea down, trying not to pass out. Don't think about it. Don't look at Dean. Just move.
The driver's side door was still standing open. Sam glanced at the Impala for the first time, the way it had crumpled under the weight of the semi. The inside of the car looked like death, blood spattering the glass. No wonder his dad--
Sam swallowed hard. It's not him, he told himself. Not any more. He moved to the back of the car, sliding a hand across the trunk's cool steel.
"Sam. Think about what you're doing."
Dean's voice sounded weaker, like he was starting to lose his fight to hold on to consciousness. Sam risked a glance at him, trying to put all his apologies and regrets into a look.
Whatever answer was in Dean's eyes, he couldn't let himself think about it, not now. Not and do what he had to do. He tore his gaze away and turned his attention to the task at hand. The couple from the sedan stood close, flanking him.
The defeated sound in Dean's voice hurt him, but Sam couldn't spare thought for that, either. He closed his eyes and drew a slow, steadying breath, wiping his palms on his jeans. And it wasn't praying, not really, but for a second, he felt his dad with him, nothing to do with that thing standing just behind and to his left. With him, where it counted.
It was easy enough to break the protection charms, since he was the one who'd drawn them. All it took was the edge of his thumbnail, scraped through the white grease pencil to break the circle: first one, then the other.
When he broke the second one, the air stilled, and everything seemed to hold its breath. Then the demon laughed softly, a sound of satisfaction that raised the hair on Sam's neck. "Very good, Sammy. Now back away." Sam did as he was told, sickness rising in his throat. He hoped he knew what the hell he was doing, because if he was wrong...
The trunk's lock popped with the barest flicker of intent from the demon, and it swung open. The woman stepped forward and lifted the false bottom, uncovering the weapons cache beneath. Don't look at Dean, Sam told himself fiercely. Don't move, don't look, don't do anything--
"It's not here," she said, looking up.
"What?" the demon said, head turning sharply. It took a step toward the car.
It was only a second, but Sam was already moving fast, as fast as he ever had in his life, heedless of the pain. In the space of a heartbeat he'd reached under his shirt and found the grip of the revolver, still warm from his body, where it had been all along. Then it was in his hands, the hammer cocking with an audible click.
The demon froze. Its head snapped up, eyes locking on the muzzle of the Colt, pointed straight at its heart. It had knocked the gun from Dean's hands once with the speed of thought. Sam knew that. But he also knew that there was a reason the demon wanted him, that on some level it might even be afraid of him, and if that were true, then now was the time to make it count.
He heard Dean breathe a sharp, startled laugh. "Atta boy, Sammy."
"You son of a bitch--" the demon snarled, eyes blazing brimstone, and it seemed to flare bright with outrage, though Sam felt rather than saw the sudden blast, felt it leap across the twenty feet between them and sear his optic nerves, his mind, as if it would burn him alive where he stood. Sam gasped with the shock of it, but shoved back as hard as he could with everything in him. And the thing that wore his dad's face paled, and fell back almost imperceptibly.
"Do it now, Sam!" Dean ordered, struggling to free himself. "Now!"
"Don't--" Sam gasped out.
Too late. The demon's head snapped around and its rage flared off it like ball lightning, the air rippling as it lashed out at Dean with all the force of its power. Dean didn't even cry out, just choked on a sharp exhale as his body gave way and he sagged, boneless, in his captor's hold. Sam tore his eyes away from the demon's for a precious half-second, long enough to see his brother's face go bone-white and blood gush from his nose. No. Dean--
No time. With a strangled cry and an effort of will that broke something in him, he tore his eyes away from Dean and steadied the Colt with both hands, pointing it unerringly at his father's heart. Now, Sam, his dad's voice said, and it was calm, and sure. He pulled the trigger.
The Colt fired true. For the briefest of seconds, Sam wasn't sure; then the blue-white flashes of electricity burned outward, engulfing John Winchester's leather jacket in a fine web of sparks and crackling current, and Sam could see the small, neat hole at the center, the blackness that curled up from it like smoke. The electrical current intensified, spread over the demon's form as though it were caught in a net of lightning, its stolen body jerking marionette-fashion; then the lightning was inside it, too, skull and bones shining grotesquely through the skin, through layers of clothing, death's imprint stamped hard on the corporeal. The yellow eyes blazed from the inside, and a second later, the lightning leapt outward, grounding itself to a nearby electrical pole, exploding the transformer with a huge boom and a shower of sparks. Sam flinched, ducking instinctively. His arms trembled from strain. He still held the Colt, gripping it as though it could do him any good.
That searing, unnatural wind suddenly blasted him in the face, whipping his hair back, tasting like sulfur and iron, smelling like blood. Sam recoiled, watching in numb horror as his dad's flesh suddenly started to blacken and smolder, red lines of fire cracking the skin of his hands, curling the leather of his jacket and the edges of his clothes. The thing howled, deep and harsh, so alien it made all the hair on Sam's body stand up, made him want to retch. He stumbled back before it, his heart hammering in his throat-- then it staggered, and fell, and Sam saw the light go out in its eyes, saw them shimmer with blue electricity and then just burn away, black smoke burning from the holes where they'd been, from its mouth, face burning away to bone in seconds.
As if it broke a spell, the three demon minions twitched and staggered, howling outrage of their own. They, like Sam, had stood mesmerized by the horror show for long seconds; as their master collapsed and burned away to ash, they snarled in fury, left Dean crumpled in a heap where he'd fallen, and turned on Sam as a pack.
Denial clenched Sam's insides into a knot, burst out of him in some kind of a mental scream he couldn't control, and he didn't even try. It hit his attackers like a wall, slamming them back. He saw fear on their faces, and for a second, he didn't care that these were people, that there were innocent lives still to be spared here. He just... didn't care. Rage seared through him, fed by the backdraft of his grief until it burned with a white-hot ferocity that wanted nothing less than to consume everything in its path. Face twisted into a snarl, he let go of the gun, raised his hands in blind instinct and pushed.
He couldn't have said exactly what he did, or where the power came from. It hollowed him out, burned away everything but the rage, made him into a weapon that had no edges and no form, but against which nothing could stand. It was better than letting himself feel, letting himself think, and he sensed it, the moment the three lesser demons let go and fled.
The humans that had hosted them collapsed like dolls, and it took every last scrap of control Sam had left, to stop himself from just ending them. It would be so easy. As easy as breathing, as wishing it. And for the briefest of moments, Sam couldn't think of why it should matter.
Then he came back to himself, breath hitching on a sob, because he knew why.
The agony in his head staggered him, made him stumble like he was drunk. He wouldn't look at the ruined thing that had been his dad. He turned back toward his brother, made himself cross the little distance between them, though it took more effort than anything he'd done that night.
Chest knotted around his grief like a fist, Sam fell to his knees and reached out, pulling Dean up onto his lap, into his arms, Dean's name locked in his throat. Dean wore his own blood like war paint, but his face was pale and still, at peace. Sam made a sound, low and harsh, unable to stop it. Wetness fell onto Dean's face, streaking the blood where it hadn't yet dried, making it run -- and that's when he knew, because Dean had never been able to watch Sam cry and not comfort him, not tease him or try to make him laugh. "No. No, no, Dean-- oh, God." His hands shook. He made himself gather Dean's hands carefully in his own, made himself draw them up to Dean's chest, willing him to feel it. They were cool. Too still.
He tried to hold it together. Tried not to let himself beg for something Dean couldn't give. He'd already given Sam so much. All their lives, he'd given Sam everything, everything that was in him to give, and then some. Sam's world didn't make sense without Dean in it. Nothing made sense. His stomach cramped and bent him over with the weight of a world like that.
And as it turned out, he wasn't as grown up as he thought, not in this, because in the end it didn't matter that he knew it was hopeless, Sam rested his head against his brother's and begged after all. Please. Please don't leave me. Please--
* * *
Sam flung his hand out, fingers splayed against the dashboard as the violent reality of the then inside his head warred with the here and now of the car, the blinding pressure behind his eyes, the familiar scents of gun oil and leather and aftershave that said Dad.
"What is it, Sam? What's wrong?"
His dad sat beside him in the front seat of the Impala, looking at him with that familiar expression, half worry, half impatience. Alive. The pain in Sam's head was so bad it felt like it might split his skull open, but he suddenly didn't care; he clenched his right hand and felt the keys dig into his palm. They were still sitting outside the rickety old cabin in the middle of the woods. His father was still clamping pressure on the gunshot wound in his thigh, but saying nothing about that; his eyes were still flinty and hard in the moonlight, unforgiving. Sam's eyes flew to the rearview mirror and met Dean's, shadowed with pain, but alert enough to look worried.
Relief bloomed so hard in Sam's belly, for a second he couldn't breathe. A vision. Real enough to gut him, to make his chest feel like something had lodged itself there permanently, but a vision. His thoughts beat at the confines of his brain like frantic wings, and he tried to calm them, to think.
"Sam. Answer me." It was an order.
Time was against them, Sam knew that. They had to go -- he'd said as much seconds before.
It felt like hours. He swallowed hard, pressing his fingers to the insides of his eye sockets. "We can't."
John's impatience rose. "Can't what? What are you talking about?"
"Dad, listen to him," Dean broke in. Pain laced his voice, but Sam could tell he was making an effort to stay with them. "We told you, Sam sees things."
John eyed Sam dubiously. "In these visions you were telling me about.”
Sam let out a breath, shaking his head. They didn't have time for this. "If we head south, toward Braxton, they'll find us. It finds us."
"And you've seen this."
Sam's patience frayed. "Yes, okay? I've seen it."
"No! No maybe! It kills you, you understand? It kills Dean." He stopped. Just saying it hurt, and if he said any more, he'd have to tell his dad the rest. It kills you, but I get the drop on it, Dad. I kill the demon. Only, I'm alone at the end, and none of it means anything. And he didn't want to know what his dad would say to that, he really didn't. "We can't," he said, leaving no room for argument.
John stared at him for a long second as if he would argue anyway, but something in the set of Sam's face must have made him think better of it. "We'll go north, then. Make for Willow Creek. It's about twenty miles further, but--"
Sam shook his head, eyes straying again to Dean's pale face in the mirror. "I don't think so. If we go where it expects us to, do what it expects us to, all it has to do is send its minions or whatever to take over anybody in our path. If it doesn't catch us heading for Braxton, it'll just find another truck north of the highway turnoff, cut us off that way. There's not enough places we could go."
John's voice turned hard. "Sam, we don't have any choice. Your brother needs a hospital. He won't make it a hundred yards on foot." He didn't say anything about his own gunshot wound, of course -- not that Sam expected him to.
Not that he needed his dad to tell him, either. The awareness of how badly Dean was hurt had been running underneath the surface of his thoughts since the moment he'd seen his brother fall. "I know. Let me think." How much time did they have? How long had he been driving in the vision before the truck had come out of nowhere? Twenty minutes, maybe? It was just over thirty miles to Braxton. "Dean, you still have the map?"
"In the glove compartment."
Sam leaned over and got out the forest service map and a flashlight, the Colt digging into the hollow of his spine. He opened the map and spread it out hurriedly over the steering wheel, shining the light and angling it so his dad could see, too. The service roads made a network of spidery tracks all over the big green areas, interconnected, mostly unmarked.
He fought back the panic that pressed at the back of his throat and made himself draw a steadying breath, let his fingertips skim over the intricate pattern, looking with more than his eyes.
There, at the west edge of the forest. A county road, winding northwest. Sam traced it backwards, following the little lines that connected to it. "Dad, you see that?"
"I see it."
"If we can get to that road, I think we can get out of this. The demon isn't all-knowing. It can't be everywhere at once -- all it can do is guess the most likely places for us to show up. I think if we slip past it, it won't have any way to find us. At least, not for a while, not if we're careful."
"Closest town of any size is at least forty miles."
"I know." His eyes slipped involuntarily to Dean's in the mirror.
"I can make it," Dean said, sounding confident. "I'm okay."
Sam knew him too well to buy it, but none of their options were good. "You seriously better not be bullshitting me."
"Come on, man, would I do that?"
Sam didn't dignify that with an answer. Praying he was right, he slipped the key into the ignition. The Impala turned over, the deep rumble of its engine reassuring, familiar.
He reached for the gear shift, and his dad laid a heavy hand over his, stopping him. "Son, are you sure?"
What-ifs flickered behind Sam's eyes, shades of possibility. Would it make a difference that he'd seen what happened, if they went to Braxton now? They could check the map for intersecting roads, watch the mile markers, be ready for the ambush when it came. Maybe he and Dad together could change things enough that--
But it was a risk he wasn't willing to take, not even if it meant losing their one chance to kill it. Three days ago, he'd felt differently, but that might as well have been a lifetime. He might have to think about that later, but for right now, it was enough to know it in his bones.
"I'm sure," he said, and shifted into reverse.
* * *
The Chevy's high beams reflected back off the dense undergrowth, barely showing the rutted track immediately in front of them. The pale glare made Sam feel dangerously exposed, like they might as well send up a signal flare, but it wasn't like he had any choice. It was either that or run them right into a tree. As it was, he took his dad's brusque orders to turn, to bear left or right, pretty much on faith.
Deja vu was strong, and he half expected his dad to bring up what happened at the cabin, to take him to task for failing to follow orders yet again. Why didn't you kill it? I thought we saw eye to eye on this. But it must have been costing all of Dad's concentration to follow the spidery lines on the map, to keep from grunting in pain at the bumps and jounces of the car. Sam's own attention was torn between the twisting dirt and gravel roads and Dean in the back seat, suffering the rough ride in grim, white-faced silence.
When his brother finally passed out, Sam wanted to be relieved, but he was too aware that they were nowhere near help, not even close to near enough. Cold fear gripped him, and he had to fight the urge to drive faster. He was already pushing it. "Why couldn't you drive a four by four?" he muttered under his breath, nudging the gas down anyway, pushing it just a tiny bit further.
He didn't know how, exactly, he did it. But somehow, as they drove deeper into the woods, Sam started weaving himself around Dean, holding him together. Holding him steady. It was nothing he could have explained, and if he thought about it too hard, he'd know that this wasn't something you could do just by wishing it. Things didn't work that way. He knew better than anyone. He did it anyway, holding on for all he was worth.
* * *
How long, now? Sam was sure they'd missed the turn, all the turns, that they were going to be driving around these woods until the demon caught them. The road they were on might have once been a wagon track. Deeply rutted, it plunged straight down a hill, high embankments on either side, and the Impala's tires skidded in the dirt a little as Sam tried to control their descent. Then all of a sudden there were rocks under the tires, and then, abruptly, blacktop in front of them, running perpendicular to the track they were on, the gray shapes of trees looming up on the other side. Sam stomped on the brakes, let the back end fishtail a little, then hit the gas and turned into the slide, feeling it when the tires found the road. He slowed the car, checking the rearview, seeing no headlights in either direction. No lights, no signs. Just faded blacktop, a faint white line dotting the middle.
"This is it," he said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. "Has to be."
"Guess we'll find out."
Sam closed his eyes for just a second, half holding his breath. But no warnings flashed behind his eyes; no inner sight told him what he should or shouldn't do.
He took that as a good sign, and stepped on it.
* * *
North. West, at the second turnoff they saw. Six miles, seven, then north again on another county tributary. When they saw a faded sign marked Poplar Hill Road almost hidden in the hawkweed and kudzu, John just nodded and Sam took it, not questioning. He felt like he'd had an ice pick buried in his head for longer than he could remember. His thoughts were slow, disjointed, and it was taking all the focus he could spare to keep the car on the road; his body was so pumped full of adrenaline and endorphins from trying to fight the headache, he couldn't trust his judgment any more.
They'd gone maybe two miles when the small sign appeared out of the fog: County Animal Hospital. And underneath that: Farm Calls • Emergency Services.
"Dad," Sam said, his voice hoarse.
"I see it."
Thirty miles to go before they'd have a chance of finding a real hospital. Sam took the turn, running on blind instinct.
He had no idea what time it was. The drive turned to gravel; he followed it for maybe five hundred feet before a rambling farmhouse appeared off to the left. The windows were dark, but a single light shone above the door of a second building behind it, the words Animal Clinic visible in the gloom. A black F-250 was parked behind the house beside an extended cab with a horse trailer. Sam pulled in next to them; John laid on the horn, three sharp blares, jarring in the night.
Sam had a hard time prying his hands off the steering wheel, and when he finally managed it, finally opened the door, his legs were so shaky he almost fell. He was past speech, but his dad was indestructible, coming around from the passenger side, opening Dean's door. Limping badly, but otherwise same as ever, strong, steady. It got Sam moving.
Wordlessly, he shouldered his dad aside. He thought it was a close thing, whether Dad would let him, but he didn't really much care about that. They could argue about it later. And John must have agreed, because after a long second he stood aside and let Sam reach into the car, let him slide his hands under his brother's body and lift him, as gently as he could, into his arms.
For a second, the headache was so bad he couldn't see. John steadied him, one hand on his back, the other resting against Dean's chest. "It's okay, Sammy. We got him. It's gonna be okay." He said it like he had when Sam and Dean were small, like saying it gave him the power to make it true.
Sam didn't know which of them he meant to reassure, and didn't care; a light had come on inside the farmhouse, and the front door swung open, a figure silhouetted on the porch.
* * *
The woman reminded him of his dad's friend Caleb. Wiry, wide-set cheekbones, quick gray eyes and competent, strong hands that looked like they were used to gentling horses. She took one look at Dean and didn't ask questions that didn't matter, just led the way to the clinic and hustled them inside.
Sam was having a hard time tracking. Dad exchanged a few words with the woman -- quiet, tense -- as she led the way to the treatment rooms in the back, flipping lights on as they went. The sudden brightness made lights flare and dance in his peripheral vision, then close down to a dark halo, like he was walking down a long tunnel. He held Dean closer against him, trying not to bump him into doorways. They went into a big room that had a wide counter down the middle, and the vet got Dad to help her put down padding on top. His brother wasn't light, but Sam barely felt the weight of him, didn't register how tightly he'd been holding on until they were done and Sam had make his arms unlock to lay Dean down on the makeshift exam bed.
"You, sit," the doctor ordered, not looking at John. "Help me get his jacket off." This was directed at Sam. He was clumsy, hands reluctant to do what he wanted them to, but he did his best to help her. "Bring that light over here," she said when they were done. Sam saw an examination lamp on a stand nearby, and brought it over, turning it on. His dad sat down on the edge of a plastic chair, not looking happy about it, but unwilling to argue while the vet was focused on examining Dean.
Sam's eyes fell on the bloodstained, makeshift bandage his dad had tied around the wound in his thigh -- one of Dean's old T-shirts from the car, ripped into a long strip. The stain was still wet, which meant the wound was still seeping. God knew what else his dad had been through in the last twenty-four hours, but he still looked a hell of a lot better than Sam felt, like he could get up and fight again if he had to, like he could run a marathon if he thought it would help Dean.
Sam hovered. He'd patched Dean up more times than he could count, had seen him gored, bitten, mauled, sliced up, cursed, given him CPR when his heart stopped, and a dozen other variations on a theme, but he didn't even have words for the icy fear knotted in his stomach right now. Whatever elusive sense he'd had of his brother in the car, it had slipped away with his own exhaustion. Dean looked deathly pale, far too much of his own blood soaking his clothes. Sam watched a stranger put her hands on Dean and felt his own shaking, helpless. He slid them into his pockets.
"Sammy." His dad's voice, pitched low. Sam looked over at him, feeling slow and stupid, numb.
John touched his upper lip, a frown darkening his face; it took Sam a second, but at last he lifted his fingertips to his own face. He brushed them under his nose and they came away wet, crimson. He rubbed the blood away with his fingers and thumb and wiped it on his shirt.
Sam just shook his head slightly and turned back to watch the vet as she worked. If his dad could sit there with a bullet hole through his thigh, a nosebleed just didn't seem like much worth worrying about.
The vet finished her initial, cursory examination, and pulled her stethoscope out of her ears. She moved to a cabinet nearby and started pulling things out. "He's in shock, and he's lost a lot of blood. I want to get him on oxygen. Can you bring me that cart in the corner?"
Sam did as he was told, hovering again as she hooked it up. It took some doing to fit the plastic cup to a human, but she managed it, holding it in place manually and getting Sam to help her with a length of clear plastic tubing. When the cup was tight over Dean's pale face, she said, "We'll need that rolling hanger. Can you grab it?"
Again, Sam obeyed. She'd already laid out a bag of saline, a tube, and a needle in plastic, and started setting them up. Sam couldn't help feeling a little reassured by the quick, competent way she handled everything. "I don't even know your name," he said, watching her.
She looked up for a second at that. "It's Madeline. Madeline Wells."
"Sam. This is Dean."
Her focus had already returned to her patient. "Dean, huh? Well, let's get some fluids into you, Dean, what do you say?"
"How's he doing?" John asked when she had the drip going.
"He needs a hospital," she said shortly. "I don't see any evidence of external sharp force trauma, and I can't account for all the blood loss, but I'd say he needs a transfusion." Her hands kept checking Dean as she spoke, feeling now for broken bones.
"Will he live?"
Sam heard the brittleness in his dad's voice, felt it scrape across his nerves like gravel.
Madeline Wells looked up sharply, giving John a hard stare. "Are you not hearing me? I said he needs a hospital." She looked back at Dean, opening his eyes one by one and checking them. "I don't see obvious signs of organ failure, but there's a lot of bruising on his chest and abdomen and he needs a CT scan. Cerebral hemorrhage is a distinct possibility, in my opinion. I don't know what the hell happened to him, but this doesn't look like any car accident I've ever heard of."
"Doctor Wells-- Madeline. Look, I told you. We can't go to a hospital. You're the only one who can help him."
"Can't you give him a transfusion here?" Sam asked. "He's my brother -- we're the same blood type. I've donated for him before." He felt his dad's sharp glance at that, but couldn't spare time for it now. The woman's gray eyes were on him, cool and penetrating. "Please," he added softly, desperation welling up. Cerebral hemorrhage. God-- "Please, I know how this looks. I swear to you, we haven't--" he'd been about to say, we haven't hurt anyone, but the lie stuck in his throat. He couldn't even say with any certainty that they weren't wanted by the police. "We're in trouble, but we're not dangerous. Please, just do the best you can. You're all we've got."
She gave him a long, searching look. Finally, something in her eyes relented. "I do have a mobile equine CAT scan unit that would probably do the job," she admitted.
Sam breathed again, relief a painful ache in his chest. "Thank you."
She shook her head tightly, as if already regretting it. "Don't thank me yet."
"Then just tell me what to do."
* * *
John watched the vet put Sam on an intravenous catheter, and looked at his youngest with new, grudging respect. When they were in Salvation, Dean had joked about Sammy's puppy-dog looks and how they broke the hearts of little old ladies everywhere, but John hadn't realized before how easily Sam won people's trust. He'd always thought that sweet-faced, pleading look only worked on Dean; he hadn't seen it work on a stranger like that since Sam was six, and adorably precocious, and few mortals could resist him.
Things he'd seen Sam do these last few days came back to him, then, and the troubling thought occurred to him that there might be more to it than just sincerity and a harmless face.
"Dad?" Sam asked, glancing over and catching his look.
John closed himself around the thought like a fist, saving it for later. He looked away.
It was a long night. Dean showed no signs of consciousness, just lay still and pale under the vet's hands as she put him through the scanner. The results showed pretty much what John might have guessed: extensive vascular damage with no single critical site; a hairline fracture on his skull, from where the demon had flung Dean against the wall. He was concussed, and showed some cranial bleeding, but his breathing stayed steady, and seemed to be responding to the blood transfusion. His color was better, at least. On the down side, Wells warned them that smaller hematomas might go undetected on her equipment, and she wanted to keep an eye on him for a bit before they moved him. "Come on," she said to John at last, when the first hint of dawn was just starting to show at the windows. "Let me take a look at that leg."
"I can do it," Sam said, pushing himself away from the counter. "You stay with Dean." Wells looked over at him, one eyebrow quirked in surprise, and faint color rose in Sam's face. "You said you wanted to keep an eye on him."
"Shouldn't take me more than twenty minutes. He should be all right for that long."
John started to get up, and Sam closed the distance between them, standing close in case he needed someone to lean on. John said, "It's not that serious. Trust me, I know. Sam's a good field medic -- he can take care of it. You worry about Dean."
Wells looked from one of them to the other, as if she didn't know which of them to tell off. She settled on John, with a hint of exasperation. "You would've gotten on with my ex. Stubborn as hell, and thought he was indestructible, too."
To John's surprise, he felt more than heard Sam's huff of amusement. "Was his last name Winchester?" he said under his breath.
"What's that?" said Wells.
"Nothing, just that sounds about right."
The corners of her eyes turned up a little, and she turned away, pulling a chair close to where Dean lay. "Well, suit yourselves. Holler if you need me."
Sam helped John into the adjacent room, cutting his bloody jeans away from his thigh without comment, cleaning and dressing both the entry and exit wounds in silence. Sam's face was pale from giving blood and gray with exhaustion, the bruises and contusions he'd suffered back in Jefferson City drawn in ugly, sharp relief under the harsh fluorescent lights. Neither one of them felt much like talking, and what was there to say, really? John knew Sam wouldn't let himself breathe until Dean was out of the woods, and if John let himself think about what had happened at the cabin, about the fact that he was still alive thanks to Sam, and what that meant, he was afraid he'd lose it, afraid he'd say or do something that would drive the last nail in the coffin of their already-strained relationship.
Sam hadn't forgotten his first aid skills, and did a decent job of patching him up. The pain was bad, but John had had worse; Sam was a good shot, too, the bullet hole passing clean through the large muscle of his outer thigh, missing the bone and major artery. Watching him clean up after, John felt the clenched, bitter thing inside him ease a little after all.
Sam stilled at the sink, not turning. He held himself stiffly, and John realized he was expecting a reprimand -- had been bracing himself for it. "We safe here?" John asked instead, his voice gruff. He wasn't too comfortable with the idea of having to ask his youngest for intel, but Sam's instincts had gotten them this far, and he needed to know.
"I think so," Sam said, resting his hands on the edge of the sink. "For now."
"Where's the Colt?"
Sam glanced over, meeting his eyes, then looked away. "I've still got it."
There was another silence, harder than the last, and John's hands twitched with the urge to make demands. As if sensing his scrutiny, Sam turned to meet his gaze head on and withstood it in defiant silence, challenging him to argue. No part of that look was suspicion, and John knew, they both knew, the demon wasn't in the room with them. But it was suddenly between them, inescapable, that Dean had paid a high price to keep that gun out of John's hands, and Sam wasn't about to let it go easily.
John wrestled with it for a span of silent heartbeats, but finally let it go with a half-shrug. "Good," he said shortly. "It's not going to do us much good if we don't keep it close." Some of the tense brittleness went out of Sam, and John took a good look at him, seeing that he was near the end of his rope. He recognized the look. "You should put some ice on that," he said, nodding at the bruised swelling around Sam's eye and cheek.
Sam looked down, shrugging a little. "It's fine. Too late to do much good, anyway."
"Yeah, you're probably right." John watched him for a moment more, wishing he thought Sam would listen to him if he ordered him to lie down for a little while, to try and rest. But since when had Sam ever let John tell him anything?
John pushed himself off the table, bracing himself and grimacing against the wave of sudden dizziness; Sam watched him struggle with his balance for a second, then moved, slipping under John's right arm and taking his weight. "Come on, let me help you," he said, and John let him.
* * *
The sky was pale and gray by the time Wells judged Dean's condition stable. He still hadn't regained consciousness, but his vitals were better, and his pupils were responding evenly to light, which the vet said was a very good sign. She pressed again for them to consider taking him to a hospital, but she seemed unsurprised at their resistance, and let it go.
"I wish I had a stretcher to take him to the house," she said, watching him sleep. "He'd be a lot more comfortable in a bed."
Sam, who felt as though he'd gone several rounds with a wrecking ball, got to his feet with effort. "I can do it, if you think it's safe to move him."
She shrugged. "Safe enough, long as you're careful."
Wells rummaged up a cane for John, then carried the bag of fluids while Sam carried Dean. It seemed a small eternity before they made it to the guest room at the back of the house. Whatever reserves Sam's body had managed before, they were long used up, and by the time he got Dean into the single bed his arms were shaking from the strain. "You are so gonna owe me for this," he told Dean's sleeping self. He didn't even try to keep the relief out of it.
"Thank you," he said again in the hallway, when Wells had checked his brother over one last time and pronounced him resting comfortably. "Seriously. We can't thank you enough. I don't know what we would have done."
"What Sam said," his dad said from the other side. "We owe you, and we won't forget, believe me."
Wells shrugged. "Yeah, well. I'm probably crazy for helping you, but most of my friends think I'm crazy anyway, so what's one more on the books?" She stretched her back until it popped, and scrubbed a hand through her short dark hair. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for some shut-eye."
Sam glanced at his father. "We don't want to put you out any more than we already have--"
"Doesn't seem likely," she countered, and a smile hovered around her eyes for the first time. "My friends call me Maddie, by the way. Come on," she said, and started down the hall. "I'll put you in the TV room. It's not much, but it's better than sleeping in your car."
She showed them the bathroom and left them with towels and half a dozen Percocet tablets, which Sam knew better than to think Dad would touch -- not now, not with the demon still out there. When she'd gone to bed, Sam forced himself to go out to the car and get the necessities, what clothes they had, knowing they'd sleep better in clean T-shirts, at least. Dad was probably out of luck when it came to jeans; Sam didn't think he'd fit either his or Dean's. He hesitated over weapons, extra ammo, but nothing in the trunk would do them much good if the demon found them here, and in the end, he left them.
Some time later, cleaner for having showered but no closer to sleep, Sam shifted, trying to get comfortable on the couch that was too small for him. There was no part of him that wasn't sore and stiff. He turned his head toward the other couch and watched his dad sleep with the blunt, straightforward efficiency of a soldier who'd learned long ago to sleep when he could, even if it meant lying down in the mud with his boots on.
Sam should have been able to do the same, tired as he was, but his head was a disaster area right now, wound up and wired from exhaustion, fear, and too many questions. Pale dawn shone through the slats of the blinds on the windows, too bright. He felt shaky, scraped raw, and images he'd pushed away for hours crowded in on him, vivid in his mind.
You mean why'd I kill Mommy, and pretty little Jess?
It was worse when he closed his eyes. Worse when he remembered being on his knees in the dirt, Dean slipping away in his arms.
Because they got in the way.
At last, nagging unease drove him from the haven of the couch, and compelled, he got up, padding quietly back down the hall. He'd seen the door to the kitchen when they came in. Within a few moments, in the slanting light that came through the blinds, he found what he was looking for.
Dean slept on, never stirring as Sam moved around him in the shadows, pouring careful lines of salt across both windows. When he was satisfied that the lines were solid, he pulled out his pocket knife and crouched down near the door to the hall. Carefully, listening for footsteps, he sliced a neat line through the carpet where it met the tack strip at the doorway; he lifted it up and poured a smooth, even line of salt across the door. With equal care, he pressed the carpet back down.
The roiling turbulence of his thoughts hadn't quieted much when he came back and lay down again, but in the end, he slept, the waking nightmares becoming real ones without him noticing.
* * *
He woke in shadows to a rumble of thunder, and the steady spattering of rain against the window -- and to Dean, shaking him awake. He had rain in his hair. "Hey."
"Dean?" Sam pushed himself up, responding to something in his brother's voice, his brain struggling to throw off the haze of sleep. "What--?"
"Something's wrong. Dad's gone. I checked the clinic, too, but he's not there."
Sam sat up, looking over at the other couch, now empty. "The car still here?"
"Yeah, I checked it out. All the weapons were still there, too."
"Well, then he can't have gone far."
"Sam, trust me, something's wrong. My spidey sense is tingling. Come on."
Dean led the way down the hall and out the back door into the rain. The gravel parking area was almost a lake, deep puddles splashing up around their boots. Madeline's truck was still in its spot, and it occurred to Sam belatedly to wonder where she was. He followed Dean across the parking lot to the clinic, then around the side toward the barn. "Dean, where we going?"
"Just following a hunch. Bear with me, Sammy." He went another twenty feet, then stopped, spotting something on the rain-soaked ground.
Sam stopped beside him, following the direction of his stare. The rain had almost washed it clean, and for a second, he missed it. Then he realized what he was looking at, and something cold came to rest in his stomach. A footprint in the long wet grass, and in the depression, edging the broken blades, traces of blood.
Expression grim, Dean looked at Sam and pulled his weapon. He moved forward, heading for the barn.
Sam followed, unwilling to let his brother get too far ahead of him, but he didn't like it. "Dean, wait. If it's the demon, we can't just go in there."
"It's got Dad. We're goin'. You got the Colt, don't you?"
"All right, then. Let's finish this thing."
The rain fell harder as they crossed the yard. Lightning flashed, close, momentarily outlining the dark shape of the barn; maybe a second later, thunder boomed and rolled, vibrating through the ground. Sam stuck close to his brother's flank but left the Colt where it was, safely dry and tucked into the small of his back.
They drew near to the barn and stopped on either side of the big double doors, listening, but the hollow echo of the rain on the barn's wooden roof made it impossible to hear anything inside. One of the doors was very slightly cracked. Sam met Dean's look, and Dean nodded. Sam pushed the door open into inky darkness. He hesitated for a moment, then drew the Colt and stepped inside.
He felt Dean close behind him. Shadows swallowed them immediately, the faint gray light from the single window barely reaching the floor below. They stopped inside the door, letting their eyes adjust for a few seconds before slowly moving forward in tandem.
It almost felt right, almost fooled him. He was listening hard for things moving in the dark, bracing himself for an ambush, and he almost let himself gloss over that tiny moment at the door and what was wrong with it. But somewhere, some part of him must have been telling him to be ready, to brace himself for another kind of ambush, because when he felt it -- the awful, unmistakable drip of something warm and viscous hitting his forehead -- he froze for half a second and then moved before he could think about it, turning with the revolver in his hands and drawing an unmistakable bead on the thing that was not his brother.
"Sam, what the hell?"
Sam's skin crawled, chilling certainty sluicing over him in icy waves, but he didn't let it own him, not yet. "You son of a bitch." He felt another drop of blood splash wetly against his scalp and shuddered, felt himself start to tremble. He was desperate to look, but he couldn't, not while Dean was so close. "Get back. Now!"
Dean's face closed like a door slamming. His lips curved faintly. And when he spoke again, his eyes didn't change, but there was something else in his voice -- something not-Dean. "What tipped you off? It was when we came in, wasn't it? Damn, I knew I should have gone first. I didn't figure you'd be so quick on the uptake. You're almost as much trouble as your smart-ass brother."
Sam felt sick. "Shut up. Just shut the hell up." Dean raised his hands, conciliatory, and backed off. Finally it was enough, and Sam made himself look up.
He'd known, of course. He'd known the second he felt the blood who it had to be, what he would see when he looked up. A sound escaped him anyway, anguish and denial clutching at his throat. "Oh, God. Dad."
The demon laughed with his brother's voice. "Looks like your dad was right, Sammy. Should have shot him when you had the chance."
Sam tore his eyes away from his dad's lifeless eyes, from the wide slice that had opened his belly like a grotesque, bloody smile, fighting the waves of reaction that shuddered through him. He tightened his grip on the Colt, feeling his arms tremble with the effort. Don't think about it, he told himself harshly, you don't have time. It's got Dean. His eyes flicked to his brother's pistol, held negligently at Dean's side. Shooting his dad in the thigh had weakened it, made it let go of its human host. Sam could get a shot off, get the thing out of Dean, then maybe together they could--
Madeline Wells appeared out of the shadows then, eyes black, holding a shotgun, and Dean grinned. His eyes glittered, still Dean's own sea-green. "Now whatcha gonna do, little brother? Can't shoot us both. One bullet, remember?"
"Don't call me that," Sam grated out.
Dean laughed. And finally, at last, the thing inside him showed itself, Dean's eyes changing from green to reptilian gold. It blinked, and Sam felt the pressure of its will like iron shackles, like a battering ram. He went to his knees.
Not-Dean closed the distance between them, smiling as Sam fought to keep the gun trained on him, fought the violent trembling of his arms. The leg. The shoulder-- anything.
Last bullet, he thought then, desperate. Last chance. You shoot me in the heart, son.
No. Not Dean. Not that. Another drop of his dad's blood hit his face and ran down his cheek, and Sam gave a broken, half-choked sob, deep in his throat. Fire, damn you, he told himself.
But Dean grinned like he'd invented him, and with a slight jerk of his chin, the grip of the revolver was suddenly white-hot in Sam's hands, searing the flesh of his palms. The pain was blinding, excruciating. Sam cried out and tried to hold on, but his body rebelled and the Colt hit the ground, spun; Dean drew near and nudged it away. "Too bad. He really wanted you to shoot him." Dean's head tilted, and the gold eyes burned into Sam's, feeling like a snake slithering in his mind. It shoved Sam back without touching him, and a suffocating, unseen pressure pinned him to the concrete floor. "Last time we met, I let myself get distracted. Let myself have a little too much fun. You Winchesters are a laugh a minute. Not this time." The demon's eyes flared, and a circle of flame erupted from the floor around them. "This time I'm going to finish what I started twenty-three years ago."
Sam fought to move, but like before, he was helpless under the crushing weight of the demon's power. Rage and despair throbbed through him. "What do you want with us?"
"Same thing I've always wanted. Your dad spoiled my plans, the night I killed mommie dearest. He showed up before I finished what I came for." The demon's malicious fury surfaced in Dean's smile. "You were always special, Sam. You were supposed to be the one I gave to my son. I was saving you."
Sam's thoughts reeled, struggled to find purchase. Buy time, he told himself. "Why not just take me, then?" he managed. "Why do you need Dean?"
"Because I want more than just the use of your body, Sammy. I want your big, psychic brain. I want what you can do. That takes a little extra mojo, you know what I'm saying?"
The blood, Sam thought, and if it were possible, his inner sense of horror and denial deepened. Invocation. That's why it killed Mom. That's why it killed Jess. Some kind of ritual, to consecrate the joining of a demon and a human soul. The blood, and the fire. How long? The circle of flames was closing in on them, a wall of heat against Sam's back, his face. He struggled harder, to no avail; the vise-like pressure on his chest and throat worsened, and he made a choking sound, spots darkening his vision.
At the sound, something flickered in the demon's expression, as though it had heard a far-off warning bell.
Sam seized on it like a lifeline. "Dean. Listen to me. I know you can hear me."
The demon laughed, but it sounded strained. "Dream on, little Sammy. Dean can't come to the phone right now."
"Don't listen to it, Dean. You can fight this thing. You fight it, you hear me?" In his desperation, Sam fell back on the one central truth of his life -- the one imperative he knew his brother would never fail to answer, if there were even a chance. "I need you to fight it, Dean. Please."
Dean's breath hitched, too quiet to hear over the steady crackle of the flames. Fire licked up Dean's legs, but didn't seem to hurt him; Sam could feel them burning his skin now, not much more yet than a bad sunburn, but that would change soon. The gun in his brother's hand wavered, and a tremor ran through him, so slight it might have been Sam's imagination.
"Dean!" Sam cried, willing him to fight, to push the thing out of him.
Dean blinked. And his eyes cleared, just for a minute. "Sam," he said, a fervent plea, or a prayer.
He crouched down, and before Sam had let himself believe it was really him, before he'd even fully registered that he could move again, Dean slid the Colt over, through the flames. Sam caught it without thinking. His hand closed around the grip.
Unshed tears choked Sam, and for a second, his voice failed him. He sat up, pushed himself to his feet. The smoke was worse, choking him, and he tensed, trying to see if he could jump through the fire. "That's it, Dean. Hold on. Keep fighting it--"
But the fire was closing on him, and on the other side of it, Dean was losing. He shook his head. "Dad was right," he rasped, eyes knowing it. He straightened up, then shuddered hard, and Sam's heart leapt into his throat. On some blind instinct, he raised the Colt. "It's now or never, Sammy. I love--"
His breath caught on the last word, and his eyes changed, and before he could let himself think Sam fired, straight into his brother's heart.
The nightmare ended in a crash of lightning.
Sam sat up in the filtered shadows of the TV room, shaking from the aftermath and reeling under the headache that blinded him; his face was wet, as though he'd been standing in the rain.
"Sam?" his dad asked groggily, awakened by some sound he'd made, but Sam was already staggering to his feet. He rushed to the bathroom and barely made it before he was violently sick.
* * *
Too much was clear now, knowledge like weights threatening to pull him under the dark, glassy surface of a weariness that seemed to run straight through his bones. Not real, an inner voice insisted, holding on to the living, breathing reality of Dean's sleeping face, the small movements of his eyelashes and the steady rise and fall of his chest. He should have known even as the nightmare gripped him -- maybe some part of him had known -- but in Sam's heart, in that small, knotted place inside him that had always guessed, always known that he was the cause, the vision or nightmare or whatever you wanted to call it felt like a truth he'd carried inside him for too long.
Mom and Jess. Dad, in some future he had no intention of allowing to come true. How many times would he have to watch someone he loved die so that this thing could try to... what? Claim him? Own him? Use him like some kind of psychic weapon, for some purpose he didn't even want to imagine?
Questions crowded in on him, pressing on the backs of his eyes along with the familiar misery his visions always brought. At the cabin, it hadn't tried to take him. Why? Why torture Dean, instead of killing him outright and using his blood to initiate whatever dark ritual it had planned for Sam? Was the whole thing really just to amuse itself, as a warm-up to the main event? Or maybe it knew forcing Sam to watch his brother and father suffer would weaken him, make him more vulnerable to possession. As emotional distress went, that ran pretty high on Sam's scale.
The gut-wrenching muscle memory of shooting his dad, his brother in his visions, lay stark against the real memory of how the demon had eluded them when he'd shot it back in Salvation. Like it dissipated, then reformed, as if the Colt couldn't hurt it. But Sam knew he hadn't missed, and he was equally sure he'd hurt it when he'd shot his dad in the leg. Maybe it had to possess a human for it to be vulnerable. Which, if it was true, was... yeah, just great, and not exactly the best news he'd had all day.
He closed his eyes, pressing against them with his fingertips. One bullet left. God, who was he kidding? He'd already seen two versions of reality in which the price he paid for beating those odds was unacceptable, unbearable. The ghost-memory of Dean dying in his arms still hurt like a punch to the heart, and this latest nightmare landscape made him feel even more intensely that they were living on borrowed time.
Sam wished fervently that he'd seen something to tell him how it found them here -- how it would find them, Sam corrected himself. Maybe a couple days, maybe more; he couldn't be certain, but he felt like they had at least that long. Had it tracked them here, somehow? Would Madeline Wells eventually get suspicious of what, or who, exactly, they were running from, and call the cops? Or maybe she'd just mention it in passing to someone in town, and that would be enough.
Or, maybe she had nothing to do with it. A cold feeling surfaced, and Sam remembered Meg finding them at Bobby's place. He didn't really want to think about it too closely. But it wasn't the first time she'd found him, was it? Indiana, Chicago-- Sudden memory opened up at the center of his unwelcome thoughts: his dad calling them, Sam saying, Let us help, and his dad telling him, You can't. You can't be any part of it. Even us talking right now -- it's not safe. How sure his dad sounded. How sure he'd been that the demon would come after Sam and Dean in Salvation, while he went to Lincoln with the fake Colt. Maybe his dad knew something he wasn't telling them -- as if that were even a question, Sam thought bitterly -- like that this thing was connected to Sam somehow. Maybe Sam was the one that betrayed them every time, just by virtue of his presence. Maybe Sam was the reason it was dangerous for them to stick together.
Maybe the demon couldn't afford to take him until it was sure that Dad and Dean were out of the picture, so it would have a way to track them.
Feeling sick, Sam let his gaze trace over his brother's face, open and vulnerable in sleep, and thought about his dad leaving Dean without a word all those months ago. About how Dean still wasn't over it, even though he'd forgiven Dad probably about as fast as it had taken him to realize the man was gone. Dean had always been quick to forgive both of them. Didn't mean it hurt him any less, cost him any less. Dad must have known that when he did it, known that he was already forgiven when he'd tried to cut across the thing's path and left Dean in danger -- left him with Sam -- without warning him, without telling them the truth. Thinking about it now, Sam found himself suddenly furious all over again, maybe as furious with his dad as he'd ever been. We all have a part to play, Dad had said in Chicago. Well, Sam was damned if he'd let Dean's part be expendable.
Not happening, he told Dean, feeling a little of his exhaustion drop away at the hot spark of anger and determination. Not in this reality or any other.
The brief flare burned bright in his chest, then subsided, determined, grown-up Sam giving way to the part of him that just wanted to see his brother open his eyes, make one of his bad jokes, and let Sam know they were going to be okay.
* * *
When Sam had been gone a little too long, John ignored the pain and deep stiffness that had settled into his leg, pushed himself up from the couch, and went looking.
He found him in the door to Dean's room, pale and shaky, in pain, propped up against the door frame. Sam watched his brother sleep as though he could will him to get better -- and who knew? Maybe he could.
John drew near, standing beside him in the doorway. "Hey."
"Hey." Sam's voice was hoarse, ragged; five bruises stood out in an ugly ring around his neck, the thumbprint clear in livid purple against his Adam's apple. The strain around his eyes was unmistakable, and John remembered watching him push against the bones of his face, trying to massage a migraine away back in Salvation. He looked like hell, worse than he had last night. John felt bruised himself, looking at him.
He heard Sam swallow. "Nightmares," was all he said.
"You look like you could use some coffee," John said after a minute. "That's supposed to help with headaches sometimes, isn't it?"
Sam watched Dean for another handful of moments, then finally pushed himself away from the door, flashing John a small, tight smile. "Can't hurt."
Afternoon sun streamed in at the kitchen windows, the clock on the oven showing it was half past twelve. Sam found a note on the refrigerator. He glanced over it, then handed it to his dad as John was lowering himself into one of the kitchen chairs. It said:
Gone on a call at the Rankin farm. Eggs and ham in the fridge if you're hungry. Call me if there's any change for the worse. 623-1302.
"One of us obviously had some karma saved up," Sam said.
John gave a soft, surprised sound, not quite a laugh. The concept of karma wasn't exactly part of his worldview, but Sammy had a point. Whatever had brought them to Madeline Wells's doorstep, John was grateful. "I'm pretty sure it wasn't me."
Sam gave him a wry look, and it hit John hard how the years since Sam had left them had turned him into a man he barely knew. "Me neither."
"Must've been Dean, then," John offered, and he thought maybe it was the right thing, because something eased a little in the tense lines of his son's body.
"Yeah, well, don't tell him that. He drives fast enough as it is." Sam turned away and picked up the coffee pot, taking it to the sink and letting it start to fill.
John watched his youngest go through the motions of making coffee, watched him hunt up filters and measure the grounds from a can on the counter. It wasn't really new, was it? Sam had always been older than his years, in some ways. Between his two boys, Sammy was the one who'd been sheltered the most, who'd been given the luxury of what normal moments of childhood John and Dean could give him. But he was also the one who questioned things, who took the initiative more often than John gave him credit for, figured things out that he and Dean never would have. Both John's boys could be stubborn -- they were both their father's sons, in that -- but Sam was the one who could turn himself into an immovable pillar of stone when he wanted to. He was the one who'd planted his feet at eighteen and made it clear that he intended to go his own way, with or without John's say-so.
That tendency hadn't changed in their years apart. If anything, Sam was more like his mother than he'd been growing up, and that was hard for John to face day in and day out. To see Mary's easy compassion and strong sense of self looking back at him-- it wasn't easy at all. Add to that Sam's unrelenting need to know, and a healthy dose of John's own unbending will, and it was no wonder he and Sam butted heads more often than they got along. They were too much alike, and yet as alien to one another as night and day. And no matter how John tried to understand it, he kept coming up against the inescapable, inexplicable fact that when it came to crunch time, back at that cabin, Sam had dropped the ball.
And now they were trapped here, on the run, while the evil thing he'd hunted for more than two decades went free.
He must have made some sound; Sam glanced over his shoulder and caught the look on his face. Sam tensed, as if under a blow, for barely a fraction of a second, then just drew in a breath and let his eyes flick away. He closed the fridge and turned, leaning against the counter with the milk in his hand as if bracing himself.
"You're still pissed," Sam said, not really a question.
His flat tone scraped against John's nerves. The bitterness he'd pushed away came flooding back, and he wanted to shake his son, shake some sense into him. Dean, he might have understood. But Sam? "I don't know, Sammy, you tell me. Should I be?"
Sam shrugged. "Probably."
"Probably. What the hell's that supposed to mean?" John caught himself, hearing the way his voice had risen. The last thing he wanted to do was fight, but every time he thought he had a grip on things where Sam was concerned, the landscape kept changing. He kept his tone even with effort, trying to understand. "I'm surprised at you, Sammy. I thought we saw eye to eye on this thing."
But his son's eyes were hard, unreadable. Sam's lips curved, the faint ghost of an ironic smile. "Yeah, guess not."
John stared at him. "Well, then, maybe we need to have a serious talk about this."
Sam turned away, setting the milk on the counter and opening a cabinet, pulling out cups. "What's there to talk about, Dad? It's done. I can't change it. You can't change it. We move on, that's all."
John was trying very hard not to lose his temper, and failing. "And what happens next time, Sam? What if we've only got one chance, and that Colt is in your hands. Are you gonna lose it on me again? Because if so, I need to know!"
Sam turned on him, then, anger of his own surfacing. "I didn't lose it, Dad. I made a decision. And the fact that you're still around to yell at me about it is a direct result of that decision. So, yeah, maybe we don't see eye to eye on this thing. Maybe Dean's right -- maybe I'm not ready to write this family off, either. Maybe you have some kind of death wish, but that's your problem, and I'm not gonna be sorry that we all walked out of there alive. Okay?" He was bracing himself against the counter, his fingers clenched hard, knuckles white. He was in pain, John saw, and fighting it. And all John wanted to do was grab him and shake him, and ask him why in God's name he hadn't put a bullet in his father's heart when he had the chance?
Shaken by that flash of self-honesty, John Winchester met his son's angry gaze and tried to figure out when, exactly, he'd started believing that it was inevitable he wouldn't walk away from this thing. When he'd started wanting it. Maybe from the beginning, he thought. Maybe from the moment Missouri had told him he wasn't crazy, and something really had killed Mary, something real that he could hunt, and kill.
The anger suddenly felt more like desperation. He swallowed.
His boys deserved better.
"Okay," he said at last, and it was harder than it should have been, but he said it. "I don't like it, but okay. Fair enough."
Sam blinked. He looked like he thought maybe he hadn't heard right.
John's brows lowered. "Doesn't mean this is the last time we're gonna talk about this. You read me?"
Sam's head came up, jaw firming. He nodded once, short and jerky.
John huffed out a breath, and stretched his bad leg, grimacing. Some of the tension eased; after an awkward moment, Sam picked up the mugs and the milk and brought them over, setting them down on the table. He went back for the coffee pot, then hesitated a moment before pouring it, as if half-expecting his dad to go back to chewing him out.
"Please," John said, and it was as close to a peace offering as he was going to make.
Sam poured them both coffee, residual stubbornness warring with cautious neutrality in his posture. He poured milk into his own and sat down.
"You need a painkiller?" John asked gruffly, not looking at him. He blew on his coffee a little, then sipped it. It was good. Bitter.
"No, I'm okay," Sam said, his voice still rough at the edges.
They drank their coffee in silence for a little while. John's thoughts were rarely still, but he did his best to let them go for a time and just... be with his son. He remembered how they'd laughed together when they were waiting for Dean to come back from the morgue. How good it had felt. How sorry it had made him feel, for all the years they'd lost.
"Dad, can I ask you something?" Sam set his cup down and curled his hands around it, as if trying to absorb its warmth. His eyes were intent with that familiar look he'd worn so often growing up, his need to know. "When you... When the demon was inside you." John went still. "How did you fight it? I mean, that's how we got away, right? You were fighting it for control, and for a while, you were winning. So, how'd you do it?"
Never did ask the easy questions, did you, Sammy? John swallowed, and set his own cup down. "Luck," he said shortly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I don't think I can tell you. I was fighting it the whole time, but it didn't do any good. I tried so hard to warn you boys. I even-- I even tried to throw myself out of the car a few times. It had me good. And then, in the cabin, when it was going to... When I knew it was going to kill Dean, I just-- Something happened. The best way I can describe it is, it was like finding the right number on a combination lock." John pulled himself back from the dark morass of his own memories with effort and met Sam's look. "I wish I had a better answer for you, son."
To his surprise, Sam's expression lightened, and he gave a huff of wry amusement. "It's funny, but I think I know exactly what you mean." John's eyebrows lifted; faint color rose in Sam's cheeks, and he dropped his gaze. "It's just-- Something like that happened to me a few months ago. I moved something, a piece of furniture." He glanced up as if checking John's reaction. "With my mind," he clarified. "But after, I couldn't tell you how it happened, and I've never managed it since then."
John digested that. "You moved furniture," he said.
Sam laughed a little, nervous. "Yeah. It was-- Dean was in trouble, and I couldn't get to him. I saw it happening, and I guess I kind of freaked out."
John stared at Sam and thought, This must be what it's like when your kid tells you he's gay. Or an alien. "Does Dean know about this?"
"Yeah, he knows."
John digested that, too. "And you two didn't think to tell me this, while you were filling me in on the fact that you can see the future?"
Sam's blush deepened. "Yeah, well-- Like I said, it only happened the one time. It's not like I can bend spoons or anything."
Make the gun float to you there, Psychic Boy, echoed in John's head.
"I see," he said, trying to. Trying to think clearly about what it might mean, what advantage it might give them in a fight, while the father in him wanted to shoot something. His boys kept throwing curve balls at him, and he wondered what the hell else they'd been dealing with this past year that he didn't know about.
Sam's eyes grew troubled again, and he looked down as if studying his hands. As if trying to find the right words. "Dad, about Dean..."
John frowned, not liking the sound of that. "What about him?"
Sam was silent for a long moment. At last he pushed himself to his feet, pacing away a little; he laced his fingers together and rubbed his hands over the back of his head, visibly agitated.
Sam turned, leaning against the sink, his legs stretched out in front of him. The afternoon sun slanted down over his shoulders, the bruising on his face standing out in sharp relief. He searched John's face as if trying to measure his reaction. "It's just... you should have seen him, when we thought you might be-- gone already. I've never seen him like that."
John let himself relax a little, and took another sip of coffee. "Your brother's a lot tougher than he looks."
"No, Dad--" At the agitation in Sam's voice, John looked up. "You don't get it."
"What don't I get?"
Sam had gone tense again, visibly upset. "He's-- I don't know, it's like he's just waiting for the day we leave him for good. It's messing him up. And the more he thinks we're willing to sacrifice ourselves for this thing, the harder he's going to try to be the one to take the fall. And frankly, I don't care if that's part of the plan, because I'm not willing to accept that. And you shouldn't be, either."
For a long second, John couldn't find his voice. "That's what you think? That I think of Dean as an acceptable loss?"
Sam's face was an open plea. "Dad, it's what he thinks. That's what I'm trying to tell you."
John stared at Sam, dismay pooling heavy in his chest. "That's ridiculous. Where the hell would he get an idea like that?"
Sam laughed, disbelieving. "From you, where else?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" John said, but his voice betrayed him, sounding unsteady around the edges. "When did I ever--"
Sam pushed himself away from the sink, starting to pace. "When, Dad? How about when were kids, and you made it perfectly clear to him that it was his job to look after me, no matter what -- that I was the one that mattered? How about when you disappeared on him last year without a word, or all the times he called you on the road and I had to pretend I didn't know, didn't have any idea how much he wished I was you sometimes? How about when I called you and told you he was dying and you never even so much as picked up the phone to talk to him? How about, when didn't you?"
A kind of numb denial settled on John's shoulders. He didn't want to hear his son's anger, his words breaking open with the weight of things Sam had obviously waited too long to say. Most of all, he didn't want to hear the truth in them. Maybe not all truth, maybe more than a little of it was Sam worried about his brother and trying to hold it together. But enough truth to feel like a fist in the gut.
"I never meant--"
Sam had stopped pacing and was looking at him. "Yeah, I know. I never meant, either. But that doesn't change anything. I just--" Sam lifted his hands in a helpless gesture, moving a few paces away. Finally, he came back and sat down, his anger bleeding off as if it had never been. "We have to do something to change it. Because I keep seeing what happens if we don't."
John met his son's intent gaze. He swallowed, feeling as though the ground had just shifted underneath him. It was a feeling he was starting to recognize. "You keep seeing it. You mean--"
Sam's short laugh sounded about like he felt. "Yeah, I know. Back to the visions again. Believe me, I don't like it any more than you do."
John blew out a breath, and leaned back, rubbing his hands over his face. "This whole psychic thing is kind of throwing me for a loop, here, kiddo."
"That makes two of us." Sam managed the hint of a grin. "Well, three. Dean says it doesn't freak him out, but you and I both know this isn't exactly his kind of thing, either." The half-smile faded, as though Sam were worn through, too ragged around the edges to hold onto it. "Dad, there's something else I have to know."
What now? Wary, John braced himself. "I'm listening."
Sam searched his face, expression intent. "What made you change your mind in Colorado? Why'd you decide it was time for us to stick together all of a sudden? I mean, the real reason."
And whatever he'd expected, it wasn't that. John felt something cold touch the back of his neck. "I told you," he said. "You and Dean were right. We do better as a family."
But Sam shook his head, sat back. "No, I don't think that's it."
John stilled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, after all the times we tried to call you, after what happened in Chicago-- I don't buy it. I think it's more than that. I think, as soon as you saw what the Colt could do, you decided it was time to go on the offensive. And I think you knew that wherever we were -- wherever I was -- it wouldn't be far behind."
He knows, John thought, inescapable. Psychic, you idiot, he thought in the next breath. Smart, his father's intuition countered. Smart enough to figure it out. "Sam--"
His son smiled a little, as bleak an expression as John had ever seen on him. "Come on, Dad. I'm not stupid."
Smart enough to deserve the respect of a straight answer. "I never thought you were, Sammy." And John, at last, met Sam's gaze head on and didn't deny it. "Yeah, okay, you're right. I think this thing has some connection to you. I think it always has. But I think it has to get close enough for you to show up on its radar -- that's what I figure, anyway."
Sam just nodded, as though he were glad to have the suspicion confirmed.
"Sammy, listen to me. It doesn't mean--"
A breath like a laugh escaped him, and it sounded like something soft dragging over broken glass. "You don't know that."
"Sam." John reached out and gripped his son's arm without thought, squeezing it hard. "Yes, I do know that." The startled look on Sam's face made him suddenly aware of how long it had been since simple physical affection had been normal for them, but he held on, willing Sam to hear what he was saying, to believe it. "Your brother's right, okay? This is not your fault. Not any of it."
Sam swallowed. And breathed, finally, like it was the first decent breath he'd taken in a while. His expression said he wasn't really convinced, but he'd needed to hear it all the same.
John finally let him go with an awkward pat. "Now, I don't want to hear any more talk like that. You hear me?"
Sam nodded, but didn't quite meet John's eyes. "Yeah, okay, I hear you." He looked away for a minute, as if seeing into a bleak future John could only guess at. "Dad, what are we gonna do? When Dean's better, I mean. Where do we go from here?"
"We cover our tracks. We keep moving. Even if we're right, and this thing does have some kind of a line on us--" on you, he knew Sam would hear, but he wasn't going to say it. "It's obviously not all-knowing. We lost it in Chicago for a while, and it hasn't found us here so far. So, we keep moving. Keep out of its sights until we're back in fighting shape, and watch for signs. Watch for where this thing's gonna turn up next. And then, we kill the son of a bitch."
Sam met his gaze. "Sounds good to me," he said, looking a little steadier. Then he hesitated for a moment, his eyes flicking down. "I've seen it coming here. Not yet. Not today. But we can't stay here longer than we have to."
John felt the chill again, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling. "Understood," he said, though he didn't know if he'd ever really trust this new thing of Sammy's. John had seen plenty of things that defied rational explanation, and he'd had to learn to trust things he couldn't see long ago, but his instincts were blind on this one. Missouri was one thing; sensing energies in a room, he could understand. Being able to tell what someone was feeling, even what they were thinking, that kind of sensitivity he'd seen more than once over the years. But full on precognition was vanishingly rare, and this was his son they were talking about.
Problems for another day, he told himself, reading the exhaustion and emotional overload rolling off Sam in waves. Right now, they had to focus on getting their strength back, getting back on the move. "Hey," he said gruffly, "why don't you go sit with Dean for a while? I bet he'd like to know you're close by."
Sam looked up, a little hopeful. "Think he can hear us if we talk to him?"
"Wouldn't surprise me. Maybe you could let him know we're sick of waiting around for him to wake up. Tell him he better get a move on."
Sam's lips turned up. "Probably work better coming from you." But he was already getting to his feet, taking his cup to the sink and rinsing it out.
He poured the rest of the coffee for his dad, and disappeared down the hall. A moment later, he came back, John's journal and something else, a wooden box, in his hands. "Thought you might want this," he said, handing him the journal.
"Thanks." John nodded toward the box. "What's that?"
And then Sam set it down, and John recognized it, and something heavy and unexpected pressed on his heart. "I'll be-- Where did you get this?" Without his conscious will, he reached out, let his fingertips run over the worn varnish.
"From the house, in Lawrence. With everything that's happened, Dean and I kind of forgot about it. I found it this morning in the car, and I thought... maybe you'd want to look at the stuff inside."
Sam didn't say anything else, just left the box and the book, and when he was gone, John sat in the kitchen and slowly shuffled through pictures of another lifetime. Each one felt like a precious weight in his hands, full and heavy with the memory it carried, and he let them wash over him slowly, their heady, remembered contentment sweet and overwhelming.
At the bottom of the box, there was an old, worn baseball. John traced the faded stitching, let his hand close over it. He hefted it in his palm, remembering a four-year-old Dean, his dad's glove too big for him, learning how to field ground balls.
He still wasn't happy about what Sam had done, about what he'd failed to do at the cabin, but he understood now that Sam had done it for Dean, not for any other reason. And how could he stay angry at Sam for making a choice because he loved his brother? Whatever happened, Dean would know that Sam had chosen to fight for all of them, even if it meant losing a chance to end this thing, that he'd chosen Dean's needs over his own when it counted. And a part of John agreed, wanted that for Dean even more than he wanted vengeance. God knew his first born had had little enough in his life.
His youngest had always been formidable, and John always had been a little afraid of what he was capable of, but right now he felt humbled by Sam, and grateful. At last, he got to his feet and made his way slowly down the hall, leaning heavily on the cane and deciding it wasn't too soon to try taking a turn around the yard, if he was careful. At least he could work some of the stiffness out.
In the guest room, Sam had fallen asleep beside Dean's bed, an open paperback on his lap. John thought about waking him, but exhaustion was written all over him, and the two of them always had slept better in the same room.
John drew closer, moving to the opposite side of the bed from where Sammy was sleeping. With the covers tucked neatly around him, Dean looked impossibly young, like a memory of years gone past. John ran his hand over the soft brush of Dean's hair, thinking of how he'd stood up to the demon, how he'd never so much as flinched, when a lesser man would have been sobbing in terror. How he'd kept it together and drawn the demon's attention away from Sam, made sure he himself was the sole focus of its cruelty. Just thinking about it made John so proud of him it hurt.
"Any time, now, son," he said under his breath. "Any time."
With a last glance at Sam, he left them together.
* * *
This time, there wasn't even the momentary disorientation; this time, Sam felt the familiar, icy blade of certainty almost before the nightmare seized hold of him.
It was years later. They were older, the mark of years in the bare hint of silver at Dean's temples. Their clothes were faded, threadbare, thin with wear as if they'd been on the road for a long time without the chance to resupply, and there was something in Dean's eyes that Sam had never seen before -- some crucial, wounded thing that had dimmed the light Sam had always seen there. Sam knew without a doubt, seeing it, that their dad was gone. Maybe had been for a long time.
They were running.
A parking lot, woods running alongside it down the hill; an old clapboard church, neat and pristine white against a cool, cloudless, early morning sky. Sam didn't recognize the place.
Dean was slower, favoring one leg, maybe an old injury; older Sam slowed, waiting for him to catch up. Together the two of them scanned the deserted parking lot, the woods, and ran for the church.
It was a small place out in the country somewhere, no cars in sight; the doors were locked. Dean jacked his shotgun and covered Sam's back while he picked it.
"You got it?" he asked, voice tight.
"Yeah, I got it. Come on." They ducked inside.
"Probably won't do us much good," Dean said, matter-of-fact, once they were in.
Sam pulled the doors shut, locked them again. "There you go again, trying to cheer me up." He gave a lopsided smile and started down the aisle toward the dais. Dean followed.
"Where you going?"
"You never know, maybe there's a big box of Morton's in the rectory."
Dean glanced meaningfully at the dozens of windows, most of them above their heads. "No way, man. It'd take us half an hour to hit all those, and that's if we can find a ladder."
"Might as well get started then, right?" Sam said, but the false cheer wasn't fooling either of them, and he let it drop. "Better than just sitting here."
"Valid," Dean conceded, half a step behind.
But before they made it more than a dozen steps further, the lights started to flicker.
"Dean." Sam stopped, held still, listening. There was a large, open bible on a reading stand; the pages started to flip as if blown by an unnatural wind, slowly at first, then faster.
"Yeah, I'm with you." The flickering lights grew more agitated; somewhere, a bulb burst. "What's the plan?"
Sam blinked, a chill touching him. Sudden realization -- what felt like memory inside a memory -- unfolded with a sickening, slow inevitability. He opened his mouth to speak.
Before he could, the church doors exploded inward. A blast of hot wind whipped their hair and clothes, made reflexive tears spring to their eyes. Sam seized hold of Dean's sleeve, the sickening collision of nightmare and memory and understanding breaking over him, panic shaking him to his core. "Dean, this is how it happens." He shuddered then, wrapping his arms around himself, and made a keening sound deep in his throat. "Oh, God, I brought us here. I brought us right here."
Dean grabbed him, pulling Sam away from the doors. Despite his earlier fatalism, he was scanning the church for anything they could use, any escape route. "Shut up, Sammy, don't talk like that. It's not over yet."
"No, Dean-- You have to go. Leave me here. Please you have to, I know you don't want to, but please -- I'm begging you."
Dean turned on him, shaking him a little. "You are seriously starting to piss me off, you know that? Stop talking like I'm gonna run out on you." Another bulb broke, glass shattering, falling down around them like rain.
Sam's panic rose, and he shoved Dean away from him, hard enough to make him stumble. "Go, for God's sake--" He shifted tactics, then, tried to sound reasonable. "Listen, let me try to bargain with it. If it makes a deal with me, it has to keep it. It says so in every piece of demon lore, that if a man makes a bargain for his soul, and a demon agrees, it has to honor it. Right?"
"Sammy, I am not leaving you! Now snap out of it, you hear me? Look at you." He grabbed Sam with both hands, holding on to him and crowding into his space. His voice dropped, his fear for his brother bleeding through. "Jesus, look at you. You're in a panic. You're so fucking vulnerable, you're the poster child for emotional distress right now. You're playing right into its hands. Now, come on. Get it together."
But Sam shook his head, the terror wrapped too closely around his throat to let him breathe. "I can't. I can't let this happen, not to you. Dean, please." The plea fell broken from his lips. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, as if he could wish Dean far away from here, will him to let go. His hands were clamped around his own biceps as though he were fighting his own instinct to grab hold of Dean, to seek some kind of anchor against the terrible certainty of what he'd seen; they stood like that for what felt an eternity, Dean shaking him and Sam unresponsive, the wind whipping furiously at their hair, their clothes. Then, at last, Sam drew a ragged breath.
He opened his eyes, and Dean let him go as if burned.
Sam smiled, his eyes not his own. "Miss me?"
Dean fell back a half step. His hands twitched, his hunter's instincts telling him to go for a weapon, any weapon, but his shotgun was useless against this. "Let go of him," he ordered, his voice like grinding glass.
Sam advanced on him, backing him up toward the first row of pews. "Now, why would I do that? When I've waited so long."
"You son of a bitch, you let him go right now!"
"Or what? You'll shoot me? Go ahead. We both know rock salt and bullets won't do you a bit of good. Might do some damage to your baby bro, though."
Dean backed up against the side of the pew, putting one hand back to brace himself, as if he needed the support. His breath was coming fast, harsh with the effort he was making to stave off his own panic. "Sam."
"You know, I could never have taken him like this before," the demon said, spreading his hand against Dean's throat, almost a caress. "But I've gotten stronger, while you two just got older. Guess that's the good thing about being me, huh? All this time, trying to claim what was mine, and in the end, he just hands himself over like it was nothing. Dramatic irony's a bitch."
"You're lying," Dean choked.
"Oh, come on. You know better than that. You know he'd do anything to save you. Oh, wait. That's right, I forgot." The demon cupped Dean's face in Sam's big hands, rubbing his thumb against Dean's lower lip in an obscene parody of a lover's caress. "That's a two way street, isn't it? Too bad you didn't think of it first." Dean shuddered and tried to pull away, but he was in the demon's power now, unable to move. Sam made a tsk sound, his yellow eyes flickering over Dean's face, his throat. "Don't be so scared, little rabbit. I can't hurt you. Part of the deal, I'm afraid." With regret, he let his hands fall. "Which is really a shame, because oh, the fun we could have."
"You let him go right now, or I swear I will come for you in Hell."
Sam's face lit up, as though it was the best thing he'd heard all week. "Oh, that's rich. Still with the threats, even now. I gotta admire your ego, big brother. No magic gun, no magic bullets, no psychic secret weapon, but you still think you can threaten me. They just don't make 'em like you any more." His eyes glittered. "Probably because I keep killing you off before you can breed."
Dean fought the invisible bonds that held him with impotent fury, made a sound of pure frustrated rage. "You can't have him, you hear me? He's not yours. He never was. Sam!"
The demon shook his head in disbelieving scorn, laughing a little. "Hello, Earth to Dean -- Sam's gone. He's not coming back. Don't you get it? Maybe you need me to make it clearer for you." Sam's Glock was suddenly in his hand. Dean's eyes went to it, a flash of fear shining through the fury for a split second.
But there was a smile playing at Sam's lips, and he never hesitated, just brought the gun around, put it to his own heart, and fired twice in short succession.
The noise was deafening. Dean flinched like he'd been gutted, then turned back slowly, his eyes wide with disbelief, denial.
Sam, a ragged hole through his chest, blood and bits of shattered bone visible in the wound, put a hand to his belly and started to laugh uncontrollably. "Oh, man. You should see your face. That's awesome." The laughter shook his frame. Finally, he let it die down, took a deep breath. It made him cough, harsh and deep, and blood stained his lips, but he never stopped grinning, just reached up and stuck his fingers into the hole, looking at the slick, brilliant red smear before wiping it on Sam's shirt. "Too bad, I kind of liked this shirt. Totally worth it, though, for the look on your face."
Dean had gone white, lips pale with shock. He shook his head slowly, his breath hitching. "No. No."
Sam tucked the gun back into his pants and moved closer into Dean's space, close enough to kiss him. Close enough to let Dean smell his brother's blood. "You get it now?" he said, softly intimate. "He's mine. Forever. Sam Winchester has left the building."
It was then that the belief broke open in Dean's eyes. Seeing it, the demon smiled in satisfaction and let him go; Dean went to his knees, as though someone had cut his legs out from under him. "Oh, Jesus."
"God, you really are pathetic. Sam was right, it's better to leave you alive than kill you. The last Winchester. Poetic justice, don't you think?"
Something awful, unbearable, twisted in Dean's face. His eyes shone glassy-green with shock, fixed on the hole in his brother's chest. "Sammy." The name caught in his throat like broken steel, tearing and bleak.
In its wake, whatever was left of Dean -- whatever deep reserves of strength he had relied upon in the face of every evil thing he'd fought over the years, everything he'd ever lost or had to give up -- just fell away and left him naked, stripped down to the bone. He fell forward onto his hands, and kept falling, as though plunging into a pit that had no bottom.
The demon's voice -- Sam's voice -- was almost gentle as he crouched down next to him, laid a blood-sticky hand against Dean's neck. "Don't take it so hard, big brother. You knew this day would come. Didn't you? You must have known." He patted Dean almost affectionately and stood up. "You take care, now. It's been fun."
The quiet after the demon left was chilling, all the more terrible for the soundless sobbing of the man who hunched broken on the floor. He pressed a hand hard against his mouth to keep his anguish silent, contained. He squeezed his eyes shut, but couldn't stop the tears that ran freely down his cheeks, over his fingers. In the end, there was nothing left in him to fight with, and the desolation took him, tearing free of his chest in deep, ragged sobs, the most broken sound imaginable.
It took a long time for him to gather the strength to move; when he did, he moved slowly, as though he had aged sixty years in twenty minutes. He shuddered with the effort it cost him, but moved anyway, pushing himself to his knees.
It was as far as he got. Without ceremony, Dean Winchester took out his pistol, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
* * *
Sam was on his feet before the nightmare even finished with him, choking on a wordless cry of denial, staggering sideways under the sickening lurch between dream-awareness and reality. Horror sluiced through him, icy and overwhelming. He knocked the chair over in his flight from the room, but Dean never stirred.
In the hall, Sam stumbled and leaned against the wall, face pressed to his forearm. No. Just-- God, no way in hell that was Dean, not any Dean he knew. Nothing would make Dean just give up like that, especially not if it meant leaving that -- that thing free in the world. Dean was stronger than that. Even though Sam knew better than anyone how deeply Dean cared, how vulnerable he was under his hard candy Dean shell, he also knew with absolute certainty that at the core, Dean was stronger than Sam could ever be, stronger than Dad, stronger than anybody, that there was nothing in this reality or any other that could take that away. Not over him, not like that. Sam just-- He couldn't accept it.
The hallway was too claustrophobic; he pushed himself away from the wall and made himself keep putting one foot in front of the other until he was at the side door, was out, stumbling down the steps and out into the yard. The mid-afternoon sun shone bright into his eyes, abrasive and disorienting. He'd expected it to be night.
He went around back, instinctively looking for a refuge out of view from the kitchen windows. A cold, thready wind lifted the hair from the back of his neck, and it was a relief. His eyes fell on a water faucet sticking out of the back of the house. He went to it and bent down, gripping the cool metal of the handle, leaning on it. The pain was a brutal, iron spike through the right side of his head, but he was getting good at making himself function in the face of that familiar agony. He took shallow breaths, fighting the nausea, and turned the faucet on.
Sam splashed cool water over his face, the back of his neck. It helped a little. He stayed there, eyes closed, water dripping cold from the ends of his hair, fighting it. Fighting not to believe it. Because as certain as he was that his Dean would never just give up like that, on another level, one he could hardly bear to look at, he knew with equal certainty that somewhere ahead of them, on some road they had yet to walk -- that they would never walk, if he had anything at all to say about it -- what he'd seen was as real as the cool vinyl siding of the farmhouse under his hand, as real as the sun that tried futilely to warm him against the November chill.
He let some water pool in his cupped hands and drank it, then turned the water off. Half-blind in the sunlight and moving like an old man, he made his way back into the house.
Dean looked the same. Peaceful, save for the tiny line between his eyebrows, as though he were concentrating very hard on something. On healing, Sam hoped.
He picked the chair up, pulled it close to the bed again. Weary to his bones, unable to remember the last time he'd managed any kind of sleep that counted, Sam sat down and just took Dean's hand in his, leaned forward to rest his forehead on the back of Dean's wrist. He really couldn't care less at the moment what Dean would have said -- would say, if he woke up. It just didn't seem that important.
* * *
In the end, he must have slept again. He thought his eyes had been closed only a few minutes, but when he opened them, the room was deep in shadow, and Madeline Wells -- Maddie -- was shaking him awake.
"Hey. You with me, big guy?"
Sam blinked; he let go of Dean's hand and rubbed his eyes, feeling the last vestiges of the headache as a vague pressure behind them. "Yeah. Guess I must've fallen asleep. What time is it?"
"About half past five." She surveyed him critically, and he could tell from the way she looked at him that that he looked about as bad as he felt. Her eyes shifted to Dean, who slept on. "Anything?"
Sam shook his head, drew a deep breath, and cleared his throat, stretching a little. "I don't think so." He studied Dean's face for a moment, then looked back at Maddie, who looked tired and grimy and smelled of horse, but seemed pleased with herself. "How'd it go at the Rankin's?" It hit him again, how easily she'd let them lean on her, how lucky they'd been to find her.
"Mama and baby are doin' fine. A bay colt, nice and strong. Nursing like a pro when I left."
He had to smile. "Probably kind of the best part of your job, huh?"
"Pretty much. I'm gonna go get cleaned up, then see about some supper."
Sam got up, feeling his spine pop as it tried to work itself back into alignment. "If you trust me in your kitchen, maybe I could help with that," he tried, wanting to do something to show his appreciation. He wasn't exactly the world's greatest cook, but he thought he could manage spaghetti or something.
She shrugged. "Go for it. Best I usually come up with is grilled cheese and tomato soup. How much worse could it be?"
"That sounds pretty good, actually," Sam admitted. As they started down the hall, he asked, as an afterthought, "You seen Dad?"
"Out trying to set a world speed record on the driveway when I came in."
Sam laughed a little. "That sounds about right." He stopped in the door to the kitchen, and she kept going. "Hey, Maddie?" She turned back. "You think Dean'll wake up soon?"
Her gray eyes met his steadily. "Trust me, if I didn't think so, he wouldn't still be here."
Sam nodded, accepting her at her word.
He turned on the light in the kitchen and set about putting together a decent supper. Dean probably would have opted for omelets, he thought. They'd turn out good, too, toasty on the outside and fluffy on the inside, with just the right amount of cheese and ham inside. Sam's repertoire consisted of three main dishes, none of which were omelets, and among which his lasagna was probably the best, but he didn't have the energy or the ingredients for that. He searched around and finally settled on grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with tomatoes. He'd watched Jess make them often enough; he could probably manage that all right.
He worked in silence for a little while, cutting up tomatoes, making sweet tea from a powdered mix. He needed the sugar and the caffeine, but his stomach rebelled at the thought of coffee; it wasn't too sure about the concept of food, either, but Sam soldiered on in the hopes that it would sound like a better idea once it was cooked.
What he wished for desperately was someone he could talk to about whatever was going on with him. Someone who could tell him what it meant, that he kept getting these visions that felt more and more real, that reached further and further into the future. Even now, after a year of living without Jess, it was moments like these when he missed her with a pain that felt like something pressing on his chest, his stomach. She was the one person he'd always been able to talk to -- even when he couldn't tell her the whole truth, he could talk, and she'd listen, and just get him, in the ways that mattered most. But it didn't do any good to think about that; he was on his own on this one.
It made a sort of sick sense that he was so wrapped up in worrying about Dean, he kept giving himself visions of futures in which his worst fears became reality. Were his abilities getting stronger, or was he maybe learning to focus them somehow? And what happened to those futures when he successfully changed things, and averted those fears? Maybe they still existed somewhere, like they'd talked about in high school physics.
That was a disturbing thought. If he could take a step to the left through an invisible curtain of reality, would he find himself in a world where Dean had been shot at the hands of Max Miller? Was there some other reality where they'd never come to this place, and the truck had hit them on the road to Braxton? He didn't even want to think about the implications that his vision-self remembered having the same vision -- talk about losing yourself down the rabbit hole.
One thing Sam knew for sure: he was getting very tired of watching his brother die.
The three of them ate in the kitchen, Sam doing his best to hold up his end of a conversation about hunting rifles, truck engines, and hauling capacities. If you only knew how he knows so much about rifles, he caught himself thinking, watching the surprisingly easy rapport Madeline Wells seemed to have with his dad. He tried to remember the last time he'd seen John Winchester even talk to a woman for a reason other than gathering information, or placing his breakfast order. Either his dad had mellowed (unlikely) or one of their left turns had taken them into an alternate dimension where Dad was actually a decent houseguest (slightly less unlikely). They were still talking when Sam was well past the point of pushing food around on his plate, so he excused himself and went to check on Dean.
His brother slept on, no visible change in the hour or so since Sam had left him. He looked pretty okay, all things considered -- probably a lot better than Sam himself did, at the moment. Except for the part where Sam was more than ready for Dean to wake up and start making a pain in the ass of himself.
He sat down in the chair beside the bed, studying the familiar profile, the strong, competent hands that rested on top of the bedclothes. He looked-- normal, like himself. Like a hundred nights on the road when Sam had slept in the next bed, the two of them crashed out from digging up some grave laid in Georgia clay, or chasing some spirit through a cornfield, or just from twenty hours straight in the car. Last night, Sam had faced the very real possibility that his brother was dying -- no, more than faced it. Felt it, with a part of him he didn't even have a name for. And that was no vision, no might-have-been.
He picked up the book he'd borrowed from Maddie -- some detective novel -- and flipped through it, looking for where he'd left off. It was kind of a stupid book, and reading aloud to his brother made him feel kind of weird, and more than a little geek-like, but it was easier to read than to try and think of what to say.
Hey, Dean. Could you wake up now, please? I'm kind of going crazy -- well, crazier than usual -- and it would really make me feel a lot better if you were here to tell me to chill out.
Hey, Dean? I have this problem. Every time I close my eyes, I keep seeing you die--
It was maybe an hour later that Dean stirred, and made a small sound like he'd had a dream that startled him. Sam looked up, not sure at first that he'd really heard it. But his brother's eyelashes fluttered, and he stirred again, that restless energy that said Dean.
When Dean's eyes opened and found his, Sam couldn't help it-- he caught his breath and felt himself getting choked up, felt tears pressing on his sinuses. "Dean." He laughed, and it came out sounding a little too close to tears, and he couldn't really bring himself to care. "Hey."
Dean's voice was a hoarse rasp. "That bad, huh?"
"Worse, trust me. You look like three-day-old hamburger left out in the sun."
"Ouch. You sure know how to hurt a guy."
The impulse to hug him was very strong. Sam fought it. Tears were one thing -- tears you couldn't be expected to control, and a little mistiness was allowed as long as nobody made a big deal about it. Unprovoked hugging, though, was a gray area for them these days, situation unknown.
"Hey, think I could have some water?" Dean asked, taking pity on him.
"Yeah. Of course, sure." Sam hurried to get a cup and fill it from the tap, then came back and slid his arm under Dean's shoulders. Gently, he helped him sit up a little, held the cup to his lips. Dean managed a few sips, but Sam could feel him shaking from the effort. "Easy," he said, lowering him back to the pillows. It was a measure of how shaky Dean felt that he didn't immediately wave Sam off and protest the babying.
"Dad?" Dean said instead, and that, at least, was predictable. Sam was surprised it had taken him that long.
"Dad's fine. He's been worried about you. We all have. Are you-- how you do you feel?"
"I'm fine, Sam. Just a little tired, that's all. Where are we?"
"Someplace safe." Sam hovered for a second, wanting to do something. Dean looked like even the few moments of talking had worn him out, like he'd gladly sleep for a week. "Hang on, I'll get Dad."
Sam found him in the TV room, going through a stack of old clothes. Maddie must have come up with them from somewhere -- maybe her ex. Sam leaned a hand on the doorjamb. "Dad, he's awake."
His dad's head came up, the clothes forgotten in his hands, and an unspoken tension ran out of him at the words. For a second, the ghost of a smile surfaced. It was gone a moment later, but his eyes shone quietly with renewed strength. "Is he--" It sounded rough, and he cleared his throat. "How is he?"
Sam smiled a little. "Asking the same thing about you. He seems okay."
His dad set the clothes aside and picked up his cane. "Go find Maddie. I think she's in her office."
Sam went without argument, not missing the eagerness in his dad's lopsided gait as he headed down the hall.
* * *
Sam waited near the door while Maddie checked his brother over and gave him a few simple tests of coordination and responsiveness, asked him the standard questions to test his cognitive functions. Dean, despite the fact that she had him at a serious disadvantage and also had a good ten years on him, did his best to keep his reputation for charming women young and old; Maddie, to her credit, wasn't buying any of it.
"Where are we, exactly?" Dean asked John, when she'd assured them he was past the risk of brain damage.
"About thirty miles outside of Plainsfield. Couple miles from the state highway."
"Lucky to find a doctor out here," Dean said, impressed. Maddie made a sound suspiciously close to a snort, and exchanged a glance with John.
"You want to tell him, or should I?"
"Tell me what?"
She unfastened the blood pressure cuff, and pulled it free. "Well, let's just say my usual clientele tends to have a few more feet than you do, and about two less thumbs."
Dean waited until she left the three of them alone for a minute to give Sam a look like he'd just said he'd booked Matchbox 20 for Dean's next birthday party.
"Dude. You took me to a vet?"
A wave of relief, pure and sweet, broke against something inside Sam. "Well, look on the bright side. You won't have to worry about rabies any time soon."
Dean groaned. "You are so not letting me hear the end of this, are you?"
Sam didn't even try to keep the grin off his face. "What are little brothers for?"
* * *
Dean could barely stay awake for the five minutes it took him to get down half a bowl of chicken broth, and he was already out again by the time Maddie had the IV out and was bandaging up the hole it left. When she was finished, she shook her head wryly.
"I can see already, this one's trouble."
John laughed, a low, surprised chuckle. "Trust me, you don't know the half of it." Even Sam could hear the relief in his dad's voice. He suspected the same was written all over him, but then, Sam didn't really care who knew how he felt, most of the time.
Hearing it, too, Maddie met Sam's eyes behind John's back. "Sam, want to help me with the kitchen clean up?" And part of him might have wanted to stay, but he'd had Dean to himself for more than a year, and he figured he could afford to be generous.
"Sure," he said, feeling better than he had in days.
And then, as Sam washed the dishes and Maddie dried, she remarked casually, "Big storm coming."
He went still, hands in the soapy water. "When?" His voice sounded small, far away.
"Oh, not for a couple days yet. Worst is supposed to come through on Thursday, they're saying. Could mess with the end of the harvest, though."
Sam let himself breathe. Made himself go back to washing the dishes, careful not to let them slip out of his grasp.
Later, he lay awake in the TV room with the weather channel on mute, staring at the pattern the blinds made on the ceiling. Dad was still up, sitting with Dean, making notes in his journal. Sam stared into the flickering dark and tried not to think about what his dreams might show him if he closed his eyes.
Thursday. Tonight was Monday. How close was too close? Would Dean be able to move tomorrow?
If Sam left now, just got up and walked out the door, would it be enough to draw the demon off?
He struggled with the question of just how certain he was about the intuitive leaps he'd made where this thing was concerned. He thought now that he had some idea of what it wanted -- him and all the children like him -- but it didn't just want to possess them. It wanted something more than that. Something... permanent. He wasn't sure he understood it, but he guessed that this was all for some greater purpose, some plan, that it was seeking a different kind of power than it already had.
He thought of his dad walking away from them because he was stronger on his own, because his boys were his weakness. The thought of walking away now, after everything that had happened, pained him -- more so now that Dean was back with them and they were all more or less okay. But it was starting to feel like the only choice he could make if he wanted to change the balance, the fatal wrongness in him, in the three of them together, that led down so many different paths to disaster. As so often before, Dad's instincts had been right when he'd kept them apart; he'd just been wrong about the details.
Sam could give his dad the Colt, he thought reasonably. Let him and Dean hunt it -- it was what they were born to do. And he could... what?
If this had been any other evil thing, Sam would have sought consecrated ground somewhere, hidden himself away where he could explore his abilities alone, where he couldn't hurt anyone. But they already knew it had killed Jim Murphy on hallowed ground, so that wasn't an answer.
His dad was right about the need to keep moving, too. That would be doubly true if Sam hoped to elude the Winchesters as well as the demon. He'd have to be quick, and smart, use every trick Dad and Dean had ever taught him and then some. And he'd have to try to find somebody to help him, somebody who could teach him how to fight this thing. Missouri was out of the question. Besides being too obvious, he hated the thought of that thing following him, hurting her. But maybe he could find someone.
Even if he failed, he thought grimly, at least he would have stopped being a liability to his family. At least he'd be out of the way, so they could hunt like they were born to do.
He didn't much like the thought of Dean and his dad going after this thing with one bullet, but on the good side, he knew it would work. He'd seen it work. Have to tell Dad that, he thought as he closed his eyes at last, make sure he knows, and it was then that he knew he really meant to go through with it.
For the first time in days, Sam's sleep was unbroken by nightmares.
* * *
The next day passed much like the first had. Sam felt more like himself, and did some chores around the place to help out, while John wrote in his journal and worked on his mobility with the cane, pushing himself more than he should have. Dean was supposed to be concentrating on resting, and getting his strength back, but by nine or so that night, he was starting to go a little stir crazy. After supper Sam sat up with him and did his best to keep him occupied.
"Seriously, man, it's not that funny." Despite his opinion on this particular point, after two hours of playing 'remember when' with his brother, Sam's cheeks were starting to hurt from laughing.
"Oh, no, trust me, it is. You haven't lived until you've experienced the Mecca of Albino Squirrels. I mean, you just cannot buy that kind of entertainment."
Sam shook his head, still laughing in spite of himself. Once Dean got him going, Sam had a tendency to just go with it; nobody else could wind him up in quite the same way. "You are seriously warped, you know that?"
"Yeah, well. Tell me something I don't know."
"Hey, remember that time we stayed at that campground in New Hampshire?"
"The one with the... what was it?"
"Black flies," they said in unison.
Dean shuddered, remembering. "Man, those things were a bitch."
"Yeah. But remember what we did that weekend? Dad went up into the woods looking for that old haunted cabin, and we decided we couldn't take the flies any more--"
Dean's eyes lit up. "Oh, yeah, the pool tournament."
Sam nodded. "That's right. Eight-ball doubles tournament, down at the local bar."
"And they let us play, because you swore to the lady who owned the place that you were eighteen. What'd we win? Three hundred dollars?"
"Three hundred and twenty-two dollars. And you got me trashed on some awful cinnamon crap. I swear, I've never been sicker in my life. To this day, I hate anything cinnamon-flavored."
"Oh, man, yeah, that was pretty rough. You liked it fine when you were drinkin' it, though, I remember that."
"Well, what do you expect? I was fourteen." Dean was grinning over the memory, and true to form, Sam found it hard to keep a straight face when his brother grinned like that.
Dean looked at him, then, his grin subsiding to a mellow, unruffled contentment, rare for him. "See, man? It wasn't all bad."
Sam shrugged. "Never said it was." He kept his tone mild, unwilling to spoil the mood. It seemed to work; the moment passed without further remark, and Dean's face didn't close up the way it usually did when they talked about Stanford, about Sam leaving. At last Sam let the moment break and glanced away, trying very hard not to think about the year it had taken them to get there.
Dean stretched and reached for his cup of juice, made a face at it. "So when we gettin' out of here?"
"Soon as you're up to it."
"Hell, I'm good to go. Just toss me in the back seat with a pillow or somethin' and we'll motor." Sam shook his head. "What?"
"Dude, seriously. You were unconscious for almost twenty-four hours. Does the term 'skull fracture' mean anything to you?"
"Well, I'm fine now. My head's as hard as they come -- you oughtta know that better than anyone. Get me a couple Power Bars and some Red Bull, and point me at any demon you happen to find." Sam just gave him a look. "Seriously, man."
"Yeah. Seriously, we'll get on the road tomorrow sometime. I already talked to Dad." True as far as it went, even if it wasn't the whole truth.
"Tomorrow? Why tomorrow?" Dean's eyes narrowed, his radar a little too sharp where Sam was concerned. "What's happening tomorrow?"
Sam made a face, lips pressed together. "You are a pain in my ass, you know that?"
"Yeah, that's why you love me. So, come on, Sammy, tell me what's goin' on. I know there's something. You and Dad got some kind of secret code or somethin', and since when does that happen?"
Sam straightened in his chair, leaning forward to glance down the hall; no sign of Madeline. He turned back to meet Dean's look. "I've been having nightmares again."
All joking went out of Dean, his whole manner focused, intent. "You mean... nightmares, nightmares?"
"Yeah, as in, the kind that come true."
"What did you see?"
"The demon. Coming after us here, at Maddie's place."
Dean sat up straighter. "What? When?"
"Not yet, we've still got a little time. But soon. That's why we have to leave tomorrow." He watched Dean digest that, watched him work through his fear like always. And like always, Sam wondered whether Dean had any idea how clearly everything he felt showed on his face. His brother was simultaneously the hardest person in the world to understand, and the easiest to read, if you knew what to look for.
Dean was also a master at dealing with fear, at accepting it and controlling it and letting it make him faster, smarter, a better hunter. The terror Sam had felt back at the cabin had been paralyzing, overwhelming, and he'd barely begun to deal with the reality of what it would be like to face that on his own. It had to have been ten times worse for Dean, who'd had all the demon's rage focused on him, but Dean had never backed down, not once. "Dad got a plan?" Dean asked at last, looking up.
Sam swallowed a little, kept his face and voice neutral. "I think he's working on it."
Dean just nodded. At last he settled back against the pillows, scrubbing a hand through his messy hair. "Sammy, tell me something." He hesitated, then glanced at Sam, his usual self-assurance nowhere in evidence. "How'd you know? When I told you it wasn't Dad. How'd you know I was right?"
The question caught Sam off guard. "I didn't. I just... You were so sure, I believed you." He watched Dean take that in, turn it over in his head as if trying to make it make sense. "What?" Sam said after a moment. "Is it so weird that I'd trust your instincts?"
Dean's eyebrows rose, and he opened his mouth, closed it again. "I guess not."
A soft, disbelieving laugh escaped Sam. "You guess not? Come on, man. After what we've been through? I'd probably jump off a bridge if you told me to."
"Now that? Is seriously tempting. You should not give a guy ideas like that."
Sam let that pass, feeling too strung out, too tied up in knots and trying too hard not to show it to give Dean's usual deflection tactics the appropriate response. He sat back in his chair, slouching into a more comfortable spot and letting his head fall back against it. "Yeah, well. Whatever." He closed his eyes.
Sam cracked an eye open. Dean wasn't looking at him. "What?"
"It's mutual, you know. The bridge thing."
Sam closed his eyes again, and felt his mouth curve tiredly. "Yeah, Dean. I know."
But then he remembered how long it might be before he saw his brother again, how much longer before Dean trusted him enough again to make an admission like that, and his smile faded. "Hey, Dean?"
Sam swallowed. He didn't know how to say what he wanted to say without tipping Dean off. He opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on the ceiling, trying to find a way.
"Sammy?" Dean was looking at him, now, concern written in his face. Sam's eyes slid over to meet his brother's, and he swallowed again.
They don't need you, not like you need them.
Sam drew a deep breath, and sat up straighter. "Dean... the things it said back there. The demon. About you and me, and Dad." The walls that slammed up in Dean's face almost stopped him, but he was committed now, and plunged ahead. "It lies, you know. That's what they do. Demons-- They lie." It went without saying, they both knew it, but Sam said it anyway.
Dean looked away. His mouth twisted. "Hey, you think there's any place to buy beer around here?" he said, as if he hadn't heard.
"Dean, I'm serious."
"Yeah, well-- Forget it, okay? I don't want to hear it." He shifted a little, and Sam could see the pulse at his throat, the tension in his whole body. At last his eyes slid back to Sam's, a plea. His voice dropped into that rough growl it got when Dean got emotional. "You think I don't know that?"
Sam met his look and didn't back down. "Yeah, Dean. I think you don't know that. At least, not where it counts, anyway. But you need to." He swallowed again, harder this time. "I need you to, okay?"
Dean said nothing. But he didn't look away, either, and something changed subtly in the tense lines of his body, his face. He was incapable of refusing Sam anything when he asked like that, they both knew it. And if emotional blackmail was what it took to get him to listen, Sam was okay with that. "We on the same page, here?" he asked softly, searching Dean's eyes.
Dean swallowed, and looked away at last, but the slight nod of his head was acknowledgment enough.
"Dad still pissed at you?" he asked after a minute. It might have been a non sequitur, except that it wasn't.
Sam just smiled a little, and shrugged. "What do you think?"
Dean's hand twitched on top of the covers. There was no way in hell he'd do something so girly as reach out for Sam's hand, not in this lifetime, but Sam read the impulse just the same. Neither of them would ever bring it up, but certain things were understood between them, and Sam's reasons for disobeying their dad's order to kill him was one of those things.
At last, gruffly, Dean said, "Read to me some more, will you, Sammy?"
"Sure, yeah," said Sam, his chest tight with too much feeling. He took a deep breath, and opened the book again, trying to find his place.
He started to read. Dean didn't seem to mind the roughness in his voice, just settled down into the pillows and closed his eyes, letting the words flow over him, the years falling away from his face as he started to relax, to let go. Sam fought the urge to brush his hair back from his forehead; he made himself make do with resting his leg against Dean's, the covers between them.
He knew the moment Dean slipped from waking into sleep, the moment his breathing evened out and his body relaxed, losing the last of that coiled energy and tension. Dean always slept like that, like a little kid who'd played hard and worn himself out, and who looked on sleep as serious business, not to be approached half-assed. Once he was out, not much that wasn't clawed or fanged or undead would wake him.
Sam had envied him that more than once. Now, he was glad for it.
He closed the book and set it aside. For a while, he just watched Dean sleep, trying not to think too hard about what he was doing. What he was about to do. Trying not to think about a night half a year ago, and the click click click of Dean's nine millimeter in his hand.
At last the tight knot in his stomach was too much to bear, and he leaned forward, resting his head against Dean's. Closed his eyes. "You were right, Dean. You were right." He drew a breath, shaky, wishing he'd known how to say it before without setting off Dean's alarm bells. "I don't want to go. You hear me? Not now, not when this is over, not ever. If there was any other way--"
He couldn't say any more. There was no way to make this not hurt, no words to fix it. Somewhere in the last year, he'd forgotten where he ended and Dean began, and he couldn't even regret it any more. It just was.
Staying here was just making it harder, so he made himself pull away. Made himself get up, get it together, turn his back on his brother and walk out of that room.
Made the only choice he could make.
* * *
"Dean. Wake up, son."
Dean could no more fail to answer that voice than he could fail to breathe. He opened his eyes, awake and alert more quickly than anyone should be, cataloguing place and time with the swift habit of long practice.
His dad had opened the blinds and was pushing back the curtains, weak November sunlight struggling through a graying sky. Dean rubbed his eyes, trying to clear away the cobwebs, to be ready for whatever was going down. Dad made a little sound, not quite a laugh.
"Salt lines," John said to himself, fingers brushing along the windowsill, the fine grains spilling softly to the floor. At last he turned away from the window and met Dean's eyes; Dean took one look at his face, and knew.
He sat up too fast.
"No. Hell, no. He didn't--" But his eyes went instinctively to the night stand, fell on the book Sam had left there. On Sam's phone left beside it, the screen dark. I need you to, okay?
"Afraid so," John said, his expression grim. "On foot, far as I can tell. No telling how long ago -- hours, probably."
"Son of a bitch." Dean pushed the covers back, ignoring the twinge in his side. He swung his feet to the floor.
His dad had something in his hands, was holding it out to him. A piece of paper torn carefully from a notepad, folded neatly in thirds. "He left this on the kitchen table." It had something written on it in black felt tip: Dean. In Sam's handwriting.
Dean stared at it for a long second before tearing his gaze away, struggling up, looking for his clothes. "The hell with that, I'm not reading that. Come on, Dad, help me."
"I'm serious. We've been here too long anyway, and you know it. We're going."
Dean was right, of course, and they both knew it, so his dad let it go and helped him up, helped him get jeans and shirt and jacket on. Dean slipped Sam's phone into his pocket; the letter, he wouldn't touch, and left on the night stand.
He made it as far as the door before he went back for it. Dad, wisely, made no comment.
* * *
The sky was already starting to darken as Dean stepped out onto the porch, the faint rumble of thunder in the distance. Beside him, John hardly spared a glance for the gathering clouds; he slipped on his jacket and turned the collar up, then started down the steps. Thanks to sheer stubbornness and two days of self-enforced, impatient rehab, his limp barely slowed him down.
Maddie went out to the car with them. She put a soft-sided cooler and a six-pack of water behind the front seat without comment, then shut the door and stepped back, watching them get in. John rolled down the driver's side window and just met her look, his hands resting easily on the wheel.
"I hope I don't have to say this, but if you ever need anything, anything at all--"
She smiled, wry. "Just wait till you get my bill."
"Seriously, be careful, okay?" Dean said from the shotgun seat, leaning one hand on the dash. "Don't tell anybody we were here. Not even after we're gone. It's better if you just forget you ever saw us."
"I got it, don't worry. You just tell Sam when you see him that I wouldn't mind a postcard some time. Be nice to know you guys are okay."
John started the car. "The number I gave you should be good for a while. I hope you won't need it, but if you do, don't hesitate."
They pulled out. The first raindrops spattered against the windshield as they started up the long drive; Dean was watching Madeline Wells in the rearview mirror, and that's why he didn't see them at first. It wasn't until they passed the curve in the driveway that he looked down, and felt ice slide through his belly. He froze. And swore to himself, as understanding tightened in his gut.
At his tone, Dad automatically slowed the car and looked over. "What is it?"
Dean was staring at the familiar white symbols drawn in painstaking grease-pencil on the door of the glove compartment. John followed the line of his gaze. "Devil's trap," John said, recognizing the symbols almost immediately. "The Colt," he said a second later, getting it.
The Colt. The motherfucking Colt. And Sam, going up against this thing with no weapon but himself. "I'm gonna kill him," Dean said, when he could manage words. "I'm gonna freaking kill him."
"Where would he go?" John asked, voice tight, and it was a measure of how helpless he must have felt that he let himself ask. He pulled out onto the main road and accelerated. The cold winter rain pelted harder against the car. "Where would he go to fight this thing?"
Dean's hands closed into fists with nothing to hit. "If I had a clue, I'd tell you."
"Think," his dad insisted.
"What the hell do you think I've been doing? He's the psychic boy wonder, not me!" The second the words were out, Dean regretted it, and closed his eyes in frustration. "Sorry, Dad, I--"
"It's okay," John said gruffly. "I know how you feel."
Dean bit back his answer to that. Not Dad's fault, even though this was one of those times when Sam was so much like him, it wasn't even funny. Even though he'd have given anything, gladly suffered one of Sam's nuclear headaches if it meant he could zero in on where his brother was. Dad's stronger without us, Dean had said in that alley in Chicago. The same night Sam had said, I'd do anything for you, and brought reality crashing down in the same breath. Turned out, he wasn't kidding, about any of it. And how the hell had Dean not seen this coming?
He swore under his breath this time, tightening one fist against his thigh. "This is my fault."
"It's not your fault."
"I should've known he was gonna do something like this." Should've seen it coming a goddamned year ago.
"Dean." His dad looked hard at him. "It's not your fault. We'll find him. Okay?"
Dean's chest felt like something heavy was pressing on it, like he might implode if he let himself. You don't know that, he wanted to say. You don't know him like I do. But he caught himself, made himself nod.
Sam was on foot. He had to have hitched a ride. "He has friends in St. Louis," he said. He thought about Rebecca and her brother, tried to picture Sam going to them. Thought about the way Sam had hugged her goodbye. He closed his eyes and shook his head, impatient with himself. "Come on, Dean. He wouldn't go there. Not if he thought it'd put them in danger."
His dad weighed that, eyes on the road. "What about Missouri?" he asked at last. "Would he risk going to her for help?"
"Can't see it. He's too scared of anyone else getting hurt because of him. But--"
"But maybe she could help us find him," said his dad, voicing Dean's thought even as he dismissed it as too dangerous.
Dean was already shaking his head. "Can't risk it. Going back to Lawrence now would be suicide, you know that."
"We don't have to. I warned her to take precautions after what happened to Jim. If we can get to a pay phone, I can get in touch with her, arrange to meet someplace safe."
Dean blinked, and looked over. You'd think, after all this time, his dad wouldn't still be able to surprise him. "You serious?"
John met his look with the barest hint of a grin. "What do you think?"
For the first time that morning, Dean felt a flicker of hope. "Well, all right then. Worth a shot."
It wasn't far to the state highway. They turned west, and Dean tried not to think about the gun in the glove compartment, and whether his dad might still be thinking in terms of a sacrifice play. Tried to be grateful for small mercies. His dad was beside him, just like old times, and he'd halfway believed that was never going to happen again.
The Impala ate up the road, a racehorse let out to run after too long. It should have made him feel better, but it didn't, not really. He couldn't help thinking about how he'd felt when it had been the three of them again after so long. The way he couldn't quite stop wanting to pinch himself. The stupid fantasies he'd had, that it could be like that all the time. Now his heart was too heavy in his chest, making it hard to breathe, and all he could think was Sammy, goddammit. Don't do this to me.
Dean slipped his hand into his pocket and traced the tips of his fingers over the buttons of Sam's phone, knowing already what the message would say. If this is an emergency, call my brother, Dean...
At last he gave in, pulling the letter out. Dad said nothing, pretending not to notice; he didn't even glance over as Dean unfolded the paper and smoothed it out on his knee.
I can't tell you where I'm going, or for how long. I don't expect you to understand, not after everything I said to Dad, but I wouldn't do this if there were any other way. You have to know that.
This thing wants me. It knows how to get to me. And it's afraid of me, too, but as long as we're together, I can't fight it. I know that now. I've watched you die too many times, too many different ways. And no matter how I look at it, it all comes down to the same thing. I can't lose you. Not after everything we've been through, Dean. I can't.
I hope you can forgive me one day. And I hope you know that no matter what happens, I get it, okay? I get it.
Tell Dad, the gun works.
Dean just looked at the piece of paper for a long time. When he couldn't see it any more, and the careful lines of Sam's handwriting had smeared into an indistinct blur, he folded it over and leaned his head against the window, watching the flicker of the trees.