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Sew Me Up with Threads of Steel

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All it took was one phone call.

"Bobby? Is that you?"

"Heya, Sam. Long time, no see."

"Yeah, uh, ten years by my count… And why exactly might you be calling me?"

"Well, I'm still in the same place y' last saw me – nothin's changed where that's concerned." Bobby's voice was as grizzled and whiskey-warm as it had been the last time he'd heard it, all that time ago. "And I've done my damnedest to respect the decisions you made back then, Sam. Have done the whole way, even when I didn't want to. But I'm callin' outta the blue like this because I just can't do it anymore. Or not if I intend to keep some semblance of conscience."

Sam clenched his fingers around the phone in his palm, trying desperately not to crush the thing. He knew Bobby must have fought hard to keep the distance between them for so long a time, to not make any sort of direct contact, just as Sam had asked. He had been a true asset to the program even at such a young age. In fact, his age had been part of what had made him so successful – him and Dean. It was just that the expense had proven too great. Or, at least, the threat of it. Too close, too real. And even back then Sam had known that he couldn't handle such a weight hanging over his shoulders for even a moment more, much as it had killed him to admit it at the time.

"Bobby—"

"I need you to come back here, Sam. Need your help. Wouldn't be callin' ya if I thought there was any other way."

The plea sent a reflexive chill down his spine. He wanted to ask… but he dared not, fearing the worst. Maybe it appeared cowardly, but Sam knew a thing or two about survival these days. And besides, when it came to the Hunters for Euthanising of Non-standard Threats (or HUNT for short), the less he knew the better.

"Well, you're gonna have to find another way, Bobby. I left for a reason, you know that, and as much as it pains me I don't think I can turn back the clock for anything. I've made a new life for myself, a good life. I've gone as legit as a guy like me can go and it's taken me ten years to get here."

Yeah, as 'legit' as the Research and Sciences division (a.k.a. RANSID) of the CIA's secret tech wing could be, anyway. He'd tried another way in the beginning, a more normal, straight-laced way, but all the unexpected and not-nearly-normal pit stops he'd had to make in the process? He'd had no choice but to give that 'normal, straight-laced way' up for dead. He was cursed to always be pulled just this side of the regular life he'd once hoped for. So he hadn't fought it in the end, when the opportunity had come calling. He'd just let the wind carry him where it would, and it had worked out for the better somehow. Sure, there were still a whole lot of lies and secrecy involved – it was the fucking CIA for crying out loud – but all the people in his current life that really mattered, they all knew the (near) truth, and that was enough.

Not to mention, it was a nice perk to not have hostile firearms being pointed at his person every other day.

"I know, son. I keep an eye on you here and there, y'know. Old habit, that. But, look, I just— Aw, hell, never mind. I'm sorry to bother ya, Sam. I shouldn't have called."

"Wait-…" Sam hesitated, knowing he really should just let sleeping dogs lie, "What's going on? I don't want to ask, but now you've got me worried."

Bobby sighed heavily. "I can't tell y' that, boy. Won't tell ya, more like. Not unless you're coming in to the fold. But just… watch yourself, okay? These bastards we're dealing with right now really ain't messing around and we don't know how far out their feelers have spread."

"Gotcha. I'll be careful. And you… take care, too, alright?"

"You just worry 'bout yourself now, Sam."

Switching off the power, Sam dropped the old burner phone back into his pocket and took a steadying breath. Usually he didn't let himself dwell on the past too much, it was just too painful and filled with so much regret. But when the past was the one landing itself on him… well, that couldn't be helped, could it? For all that he'd tried to distance himself he'd never once entertained the notion of tossing that burner phone, of essentially cutting all ties. He couldn't let go of Bobby like that – his one last connection. The thought drummed up memories about all those things he'd left behind. The all-consuming anger and resentment that flowed up whenever he thought of his father, the fondness and trust he (still) held for Bobby, and then Dean… All the things he felt for Dean could fill a book.

Squaring his shoulders, Sam stepped out of the empty conference room and headed back into the main area of Restricted Lab 2A. It was not long after lunch and plenty of people were milling about having just returned from their break, although Jess was still nowhere to be seen – she was probably still waiting in the queue for one of those ridiculous pastries she loved. He had been about to take a seat back at his computer when the alert went up, the test result window he'd left open on the desktop freezing completely when a warning box suddenly appeared. He looked around only to find that the warning was visible on every computer screen in sight, and somewhere at the other end of the room there was some kind of buzzer going off – that couldn't be good.

"Unplug! Everybody unplug your stations right now!"

Sam did as the supervisor instructed, his computer immediately winking out and taking his hard-earned results with it. He remained standing, idly watching the commotion around him unfold, only to see Ellen dashing in and calling three other technicians by name. She shot him a strange look from across the room, but she was gone again before he could consider what it might mean.

Not deigning to get involved, he simply sat.

He checked his watch.

Ten seconds and his knee was bouncing.

Twenty and he was tucking his hair behind his ears for the fourth time.

Thirty and he could feel the pressure threatening to build behind his eyelids – loud alarms, stress, and regular migraines did not mix.

Sam reached into his desk drawer to find a spare blister pack, easily popping a couple of pills. The bottle he usually used was in his bag, but getting down onto the floor and rummaging around to find said bottle was something he didn't currently have the patience for. He hunched down over his desk and cupped his hands over his ears, grunting with annoyance when it didn't help. He had to wonder what was really going on since the shut-downs he'd experienced in the past didn't normally last that long. Had someone tried to hack them? An employee trying to access files from above their pay grade? Maybe a physical break in? Their cover was as a pharmaceutical company after all, and some people had problems with that. Maybe he should check it out? Or maybe he shouldn't. He was either chained to his desk or his lab equipment these days, nothing more.

But then it didn't matter how long he'd been out of the HUNT world. All that training, all the suspicion and paranoia, the subconscious itch for action – it had been ingrained in his blood since he was a pre-teen.

It wasn't that his current job wasn't an exciting one, because it was. Just in a different sort of way. Yes, once upon a time he had been all about the fight, even if not by choice, but that just wasn't him anymore. He'd made his own choice to step away, no longer the one running headlong into danger with weapons drawn and at the ready, and he'd been making and lying in that bed for nearly ten years. So Sam pulled out some hardcopy results and looked at them instead, leaving messy notes in the margins with a pen. There came another flurry of activity over on the other side of the room but this time he simply ignored it. These things happened sometimes, but they were resolved quickly enough. The CIA had protocols upon protocols for this stuff.

Except then the lights went out. A backup generator kicked in and cast the entire lab in an unearthly shade of blue.

Sam stood up, the smell of something strange tickling his nose.

A woman screamed from nearby.

He couldn't ignore it this time. His body kicked into gear even if his brain was still a couple of steps behind.

Getting to his feet he pulled his satchel from under the desk and threw the strap around his shoulders. His hand slipped under the flap and into the hidden back pocket, fingers running along the edges of the two switchblades he kept there, disguised like USB drives so going through security wouldn't raise any alarms. He slipped one into his palm and raced towards the storage room – hard drive storage, that was – even though he wasn't sure why. Just a gut feeling. His subconscious guiding him through the twists and turns of the hallways. Only to be stopped in his tracks by Ellen's firm hand on his chest. Her eyes only came level with his sternum, but that fierce look of hers still brought him to a halt as if she were seven foot tall.

"You ain't goin' in there, Sam."

"Why? What's the—"

"You don't need to see that, y' hear me?"

"What? See what?" Sam felt his heart rate pick up. "Ellen, what's—"

"You need to get out of here and go somewhere safe. You hearin' me, boy?"

One of the technicians came out of the room she was blocking him from, revealing just enough that Sam could see the missing grate from the air vent and the foul mess coating the floor.

No. It couldn't be.

"Is that… Was that—"

"Sam, you listen to me—"

"We gotta go," Ash – the technician – cut in with a rush, "Like, right the fuck now, man. Smells like gas in there."

Ellen reached over and smashed the glass to the fire alarm on the wall, the wail of the alarm immediately blaring out at full volume and spiking painfully through Sam's ears. She headed toward the fire escape and dragged Sam with her, ignoring whatever protests he made along the way. Eight flights they ran down, just enough to turn Sam's legs slightly jelly-like, and they had barely stepped a foot outside when the ground rocked and an explosion rang out from behind them.

"Fucking shit!"

"This way! Keep up!"

Sam turned to Ellen, even as they ran to clear the unmarked RANSID building.

"Tell me the truth. Was—"

"She was dead, Sam. Only just, but there was nothing to be done. The whole thing was sloppy if you ask me." Ellen led him and Ash down the sidewalk, eyes darting around attentively, and suddenly she pulled them into a shadowed side street. "We were breached, Sam. Our whole system was compromised in a matter of minutes."

It took Sam a couple of shaky breaths to get with the program. "But how?"

"Someone's been plannin' that for a while, is my guess," Ash said with his usual drawl, "Although from what I could tell, once they actually broke in, they weren't real sure what they were lookin' for. It's like, they had the battering ram ready to go, but once they stumbled inside they realised they hadn't looked at the blueprints properly."

"Sloppy again. Just like-… Just like with Jess."

"Yeah, Sam. I checked the security cams. She was just walking past and heard a noise in the storage room, went to check it out, end of story. And much as I'd rather not say either way, you gotta know that the killing blow was clean and instant, though the aftermath was a whole lot of remorse and hesitation. Gotta wonder what kind of contractor has a freak out like that, 'cause this whole thing was otherwise too well planned to be set up by an amateur."

Sam ran a shaky hand through his hair. "But what I don't get? Our prototypes at the moment aren't even that good, nothing's anywhere near complete, so they can't have been after the tech, right? I mean, I don't understand why this is happening."

"Oh, Sam." Ellen looked at him pityingly. "I think you do."

His mind turned over and over, looking for answers, but everything in his life had been so normal lately. No threats, no break-ins, no prickling hairs on the back of his neck. The only thing that wasn't routine—… And then it struck him.

"Oh, God. Bobby? They traced the phone call? But that was…" only a matter of minutes before it all went down. Sam shuddered to think that they had to have been on his scent already.

"I know, son. I'm sorry. We couldn't have known they were watching this closely."

Sam was stunned by her words – it was certainly a day full of surprises. "So… you know about… whatever's going on. With them."

"I keep my ear to the ground," Ellen said with a knowing smile, eerily reminiscent of Bobby, "But I won't say a word more, not out here. Too risky. As for you? I think you know there's only one place you'll be both safe and able to get the answers you want."

Safe? Yeah, what a joke. And still, Ellen was oh, so right. If it was him they were after – and let's be serious, when there was a Winchester in your midst, who else would it be? – then Sam was left with no other option. He was backed into a corner, just like they had probably intended him to be.

All it took was one phone call to bring everything crumbling to dust. Everything that Sam had spent the last ten years building. All the walls he'd put up, layer by layer, brick by brick. The literal and the metaphorical. It was all going to crack into porcelain shards so fine they could never be glued back together. And he was going to let it.

 

 

=///=

 

 

Sam sat on the edge of a mattress. It was on the floor and pushed into the corner of a tiny, otherwise empty space. There was a small bathroom to one side, with more tiles cracked than not, and a kitchen area that was more a sink and a cooktop than an actual kitchen. At least it had a fridge, that was all he could say, because he didn't think he would've been as calm if it weren't for a cold beer or three.

It was the first time he'd been there out of necessity. He had dropped by very occasionally, maybe once every six-to-twelve months, just to keep the place stocked and make sure it was still secure. It was his best effort at a safe house and when it came to that sort of thing Sam could be paranoid to a fault.

Samuel Campbell was the one to blame for that little personality quirk.

He'd been the one to take Sam in back then, the one whom Bobby had called when Sam had gone to him in secret and begged to be free of the life he'd once lived. And Samuel had given him everything he possibly could have needed at the time – a home, a father figure, safety, stability. Samuel himself led an interesting double life. Part military specialist and trainer of spycraft methodologies, part gruff university professor and family man. He couldn't have been better suited to be taking someone like Sam under his wing. He'd known exactly what to give Sam, what to tell him, before he'd even asked. Had helped him change his name and everything about himself, and build the foundations of a new life that would keep him as free of the old as possible.

And then there were the backup plans. Samuel Campbell would put a bullet in his own brain before he was ever caught without a backup plan. He'd helped Sam with that side of things as well, which included the crappy little safe house he was currently sitting in. It was listed under the name Sam Wesson – one of the several aliases he had ID cards and a passport for. Just in case.

Sam had to laugh. He'd always thought Samuel was a little off his rocker when it came to the manifestations of his distrust of authority, and yet look at him now. A safe house had been exactly what he'd needed, and somehow Samuel had known it would come to that one day. He'd told him again when Sam had spoken to him just a few moments ago.

The burner phone (a different one than he'd used earlier that day) still sat in his hand, its screen now gone dark. He still had his normal phone and his laptop in the satchel, which Samuel would probably rip into him for if he knew, but Sam had disabled the wi-fi and data connections early on. He just hadn't been able to part with the hardware itself – too many memories and keepsakes still embedded inside them, plus his laptop had most of his research on it. He'd told Samuel every other detail, though, and Samuel had admitted that this was the right thing to do, that Sam's old life needed to be faced head-on this time, even if he didn't like it.

He'd also told Samuel about Jess. He'd made himself say it out loud, though his voice had shaken through every word. Yes, they'd only just started going steady, had gone to bed together all of two times, and he was sure he could have truly loved her one day. But first and foremost she'd been a friend, a confidante, and he was going to miss her something fierce. Samuel had been as comforting as he ever was – which was not very – but Sam appreciated it all the same. Besides, it was hardly the time to grieve. Whatever was coming? He was going to have to keep his head on straight, that was for sure.

For now he was left with little more than his thoughts. And the impending need to call Bobby, since he was the only one with the ability to sort this shit out. With a sigh he reached into his satchel for his pills and popped another – his headache had thankfully eased off, so this one was of the 'just in case' variety.

Sam fell back on the bed, landing hard on the stale-smelling sheets, and forced himself to dial a number he'd known from memory since the grand-old-age of twelve.

"That you, Sam?"

"How'd you know?"

"Not that many people got this number and most of them are… indisposed right now. You somewhere safe?"

"Yeah, I got a safe house in the city. And I'm on a burner."

Bobby chuckled. "That Samuel Campbell is one hard-ass bastard but at least he's got his priorities straight. Knew he'd do right by you."

"That he did. So, do you want me to come in?"

"Hm. Might be better givin' it a day or two. There's no benefit to you comin' in now, and while there's people out there lookin' for you it's best if you're not moving around too much. But in a day or two… we might really need you by then."

Sam paused, mulling over the significance of that sentence, as well as the fact that Bobby already seemed to know what was going on. "Bobby, where's dad?"

"Well, ain't that the mystery of the year. No one got a single clue where your daddy is right now, boy, and we haven't seen him for a couple years now. Don't even know if he's still breathin'."

"Which means he's probably elbow-deep on a lead. If he was dead you'd know."

"Most likely."

"So…" Sam had to push to get the words out. "What about Dean?"

"That brother o' yours…" Even through the crackly reception Sam could hear the heaviness in Bobby's voice, "Sam, he ain't the same kid you used to know. After you left, and then John leavin' again not long after… you might say he cracked. Had a bit of a death wish for a while. He was reckless. Defiant. No one wanted to work with him. Not that they wanted to before, but still. Then when things started heating up with this particular group of loons, he hatched a plan without authorisation. A stupid plan, too. No doubt he knew I woulda socked him if he'd even suggested it to me… But he did it anyway and went and got himself captured, didn't he?"

"Captured?"

"Yeah. The 'thrown into a deep, dark hole he probably can't climb out of'-type captured."

"Do- do you-… Can I—"

"My reason for calling you was never about you helpin' us to find him, Sam. Got that covered. It's taken us a long time, though, and we still ain't got him back yet. I'm hopin' any day now."

"Is… is he?"

"He ain't dead if that's what you're askin'… We've got a guy on the inside, so we know he's still alive. But what they've been putting him through? Hell, maybe he'd be better off."

 

=///=

 

Two days later saw Sam sitting in Bobby's office, a file as thick as his wrist perched on his lap.

He'd left early that morning, armed only with the gun he'd had stashed in the mattress and the switchblades from his bag, and carrying the few items of musty clothes and supplies he'd had at the safe house. He hoped they might get someone to stop by his apartment to pick up a few more things – preferably that didn't smell like mothballs – but he supposed there were more pressing matters at hand.

Finding the hidden entrance was like riding a bicycle – old hat. The building that housed it was still as old and run-down looking as always. Wood crumbling and paint peeling at every corner. But slip inside and pull on the right door handle, and you found yourself face to face with a panel of metal several inches thick, equipped with a palm- and retinal-scanner like something out of the movies.

He'd been glad to see the system register him as Agent Sam Campbell, and he'd been greeted with more than a few overly curious stares once he'd made his way down in the elevator and stepped into the main part of the facility. It still reminded him a bit of a scrubbed-up 50s bomb shelter, but the technology and information it housed was far from outdated. The file on his lap, for instance. Just the first couple of pages revealed enough for Sam to see not only why he might be needed, but also why this particular enemy was so frightening. Their technology was almost out of this world.

There were implantable microchips, strangely shaped pieces of metal that looked like armour plating, biocompatible wire systems that branched out like tree roots. The microchips he understood, but the rest? What were they building? Fucking robots or something?

"I hope to hell you can make some sense of that crap."

Sam looked up as Bobby entered the room and sat himself on the other side of the desk. He looked the same as ever – bushy beard and truckers cap, and still dressed like a fisherman on his off-day. It was hard to imagine him as the head of a government organisation so covert even the government didn't know about it. And yet, that was what he'd been for as long as Sam could remember.

"Yeah. I mean, the schematics make sense to some degree, but I have no idea what they're for. They're incredibly advanced. Even more so than the stuff I've been working on lately, and that's top secret high-tech super-spy-type stuff at its best."

"I admit I know more than I should about what you've been working on. But tell me, what about it makes it especially slow going, do y' think?"

Sam wasn't sure where this was going, but he played along. "Well, a lot of it is intended to be personally, genetically matched to the person who is going to use it, and creating a complete synthetic genetic profile external to the source and then having to embed it in the technology without constant analysis is so time consuming it's ridiculous. So, I guess… being able to adequately test it is-… holy shit."

He couldn't be serious? These people they were after – that were after them - they couldn't really be-

"Good thing you're such a quick study, kiddo. And yep, that's exactly what they're doing."

"Experimenting with that sort of stuff on live subjects is nothing short of torture. Who the fuck are these people?"

"The bullet points? This group call themselves Heaven's Paradise, or just Paradise for short. But let me assure you, they're more like something from Hell than from any kind of Heaven I can think of. They've supposedly been around for hundreds of years, existing under everyone's noses. Maybe you could equate them with the stonemasons, since they like to be everywhere and stick their thumbs in a lot of pies, but their ambitions are very single-minded and far more sinister."

"Hundreds of years? But what's making them act now? And why these methods?"

"A trifecta of new blood came into power about thirty years ago."

Bobby threw a piece of paper at him and Sam looked at the three fuzzy pictures on it – two men and a woman, the names underneath listed as Azazel, Lilith, and Uriel.

"What's with the biblical references?"

"Those are their pledge names. They take them on when they become part of Paradise, kind of like an initiation thing. But back to the point – their predecessors were mostly a little more subtle in their objectives, but these guys? They're in a whole 'nother level, and they think big picture. They put plans in place thirty years ago that are still playing out today, and that’s a pretty mean feat by anyone's standards."

"What kind of plans are we talking, though?"

Bobby heaved a tired sigh. "In most cases if someone pressed their fingers together under their chin and told you they wanted to take over the world, you'd probably laugh at 'em. These guys? No one's laughin'. They've infiltrated our society deeper than we could've imagined. On top of that they've got technology we can't beat except to blow it to smithereens. They've got secret stashes of stuff in hundreds of places, and they move it all around constantly. We need to start fighting back somehow before we end up on our knees. They've already had at our two best operatives as you know."

Sam swallowed down the emotion that seemed to well-up whenever his brother was mentioned. He hated that he hadn't known Dean had been taken, and he hated that Bobby hadn't contacted him sooner even though he'd demanded to never be called, period, and he hated the thought that even if Bobby had contacted him he probably wouldn't have listened. But he was there now, and Sam would do anything and everything in his power to help, to atone for his abandonment of his family. He only hoped that it wasn't too late. Whatever Paradise had been doing to Dean over the past three years it couldn't have been good. Were they torturing him? Most likely. Leaving him in a cell to rot? Possibly. Experimenting on him? Using them as a lab rat for their bio-tech?

The very idea made Sam shudder with dread, yet it was the option he'd be willing to put money on.

And the more he considered it, the more he wondered if it was at all possible he might get his brother back in one piece. Highly unlikely. But now they were coming after Sam too, weren't they? Had Dean said something? Had they caught wind of his research at RANSID? Maybe they just loved the Winchesters so much they wanted to collect the whole set. He'd been targeted for a lot less back in his HUNT days. But Paradise as a whole seemed to be making a lot of noise just to get their hands on one person.

"They've stepped things up recently, am I right?" Sam hypothesised.

"Yeah, they've been building to something without a doubt. Ain't got the foggiest as to what, but if our inside man comes through I think we might be able to throw them off. For now, anyway. But, Sam… I gotta tell you somethin' and you ain't gonna like it."

"I'm not really sure what you can say that—"

"Boy, you don't know the half of it."

Sam felt that hollow pit in his stomach drop even deeper.

"Out with it, old man."

Bobby pursed his lips, nostrils flaring as he let go a heavy breath. "These guys are the ones responsible for your mother."

Sam's blood roared through his veins.

"That can't be—"

"I dunno how much your daddy told you, and I always respected him in knowing and deciding what was best for you boys even if I thought he was being a bloody idiot. But your ma, she was one of the first operatives to try and infiltrate under the new Paradise leadership. We knew they had some crazy tech stuff in the works and your mother was our computer genius, much like yourself, and she wanted to crack them open like an egg. She was only just back from maternity leave after having you, but when she found out what Lilith was doing back then she wouldn't take no for an answer."

"And what was that, exactly."

"Under her guidance, they were kidnapping infants with the intention to raise them under their own ruling and create their own little faithful army."

"But how did she-… Dad always said Mary was killed in a fire?"

"She was. After they would take an infant they would burn the house down with the rest of the family inside, the intention being that the infant would be listed as dead and therefore no one would look for 'em."

"That's sick."

"Like I said, that's only the beginning, kiddo. Uriel's a dab hand with the pyro, but Azazel's the technology man. He's got a whole lot of science-types under his thumb, working on everything from brainwashing through electric shock therapy, to ray guns and cyborgs. Sounds like a sci-fi novel, but he's closer to making it happen than anyone can imagine."

"But what does—"

Sam was interrupted by the sudden opening of the office door, and he whipped his head around to see a blue-eyed man stride in, dressed in a trench coat that was torn, bloody, and singed around the edges. He felt the movement of Bobby standing up from his chair so quickly that he bumped his knee on the desk.

"Cas."

"Bobby."

"And?"

"It is done."

Bobby slumped back down in his chair with a groan, pressing his thumb and forefinger into the corners of his eye sockets. This 'Cas' on the other hand, barely blinked an eye.

"What's going on? What's 'done'?" Sam knew in his gut that whatever it was that had just happened was something he needed to know.

The man eyed Sam suspiciously. "And who are you?"

"I'm—"

"Someone who might actually have a chance in hell of helping us out with this one," Bobby cut in before Sam could get any further. "Sam, Cas. Cas, this is Agent Campbell."

They both reached out to tentatively shake hands, eyeing each other off in the process.

"Bobby has mentioned you before. I can only hope you are as able as he claims you to be."

"Nice to meet you, too," Sam said with an edge of sarcasm, not quite sure how to take the man's stick-up-the-ass attitude. "So, Cas, right? That short for something?"

"Yes, for Castiel."

Sam looked to Bobby for an explanation.

"Cas is our inside guy. He was a part of Paradise' ranks until he realised their end game. Gave himself up to us, but agreed to go back in with the intention of bringing them down from the inside out."

"So Castiel is your code name?"

Castiel continued to look at Sam uncomprehendingly, as if wondering why he should be divulging such information in the first place. Sam supposed he didn't blame him. He didn't know who Sam really was, after all.

"Castiel is the name I adopted, yes. My real name was Jimmy, but I was not a man to be proud of back then. I have moved on from that life. 'Cas' will be fine, should you need to call me."

"Now that's out of the way," Bobby said, rolling his eyes, "We've got something way more important to discuss. Also known as Dean."

Sam gaped. "Dean—"

"Be quiet, Agent."

"Dean is being treated as we speak. He knows me as one of Heaven's lot so it wasn't difficult to convince him to come with me, but I had to sedate him once we got clear."

"You won't be able to go back there now. But you've done a lot for us. I hope you'll stay here, Cas, I think we could still use your insight."

"I'd be happy to. And I want to see that Dean recovers. After things went awry the other day, they worked him over… rather efficiently."

"What does he mean that- Bobby, what does he mean? I need some explanations right the fuck now. And I need to see him."

"Sit down, boy."

It wasn't until Bobby said the words that Sam ever realised he'd risen from his chair. He cleared his throat and resumed his position.

"You wanna do the honours, Cas?"

"Dean's training with them was difficult from the start – he is very strong minded, but Azazel was determined. It has only been recently that they deemed him fit for solo missions. Three days ago he was assigned a mission to infiltrate the data banks of the CIA's research facility known as RANSID, which daylights as a pharmaceutical company. Someone back at Paradise would make sure the infiltration was successful and then speak a code word. Once he heard that word, Dean would blow part of the building. He was then to monitor the exits and take out a particular subject with a sniper rifle."

"He killed someone?"

"Yes and no. He was to take down anyone in his way, which he apparently did. Then he was supposed to gun down a specific target, but for some reason his orders didn't take and the mission failed. Another soldier was sent in to retrieve Dean, and he was punished for his failure."

"Who was the target?"

"I'm not sure. It was not listed on his file."

"Bobby?"

"No. I'm not letting you go down to Medical. That's a goddamn order."

 

 

=///=

 

Sam looked up to find Castiel standing in the doorway of his room. They'd parted ways awkwardly earlier that afternoon, Cas eyeing him in a very strange manner the entire time. Sam really had no idea what the man could possibly have to say to him, but he put down the file he'd been reading and beckoned him inside.

"What is it, Cas?"

"It's just occurred to me who you are," he said with a slight tilt of the head.

"You've heard of RANSID? Or are you implying you have short-term memory prob—"

"Who you really are."

Alarm bells suddenly started going off in Sam's head, but Castiel quickly raised his hands in a sign of peace.

"I will not reveal this secret to anyone. You have my word. But it… makes a lot more sense now that I know."

"Is he okay?" Sam couldn't stop the question falling from his lips. Just as he couldn't bear the thought of bad news, and turned his focus back to the file now sitting on the bed. The bright blue of Cas' eyes was somehow too much to look at.

"He is recovering. Sedated, though. Once he realises that he is not where he is supposed to be… it might be unpleasant."

"How-… How long was he there, Cas? Bobby won't tell me the details, but I need to know." I need to know how badly I've failed him.

"If you were anyone but who you are, I would not tell you…" Cas stepped inside and closed the door behind him. "He was there for a little under three years. As I understand it he was trying to find a way in by himself. They had taken John the year before, experimented on him, but it didn't take and he somehow got free. He razed one facility to the ground, but John still wasn't the same after that. Bobby told me that Dean was looking for any reason he could find to exact revenge. His plan was sound, as it happens, but he went in half-cocked and got himself caught. Since John's escape they had upped their security, so there was little chance for Dean to manage the same."

"Stupid motherfucker. I'll kill him if I ever get half a chance."

Castiel looked at him with an air of melancholy.

"What they've done to your brother, Sam… You may not recognise him. And it's almost certain that he will not recognise you."

 

=///=

 

The first time Sam saw him, he was wrapped up in blankets and bandages like a porcelain doll in a glass box. He was still as the dead, with half a dozen tubes sticking out of his face and body, feeding and leeching and sedating.

He was still Dean, though. Despite how little he could actually see of him, Sam would always be able to tell. But the more he looked, the more he saw that Cas was right. There was something hard and impenetrable around the edges now. The cut of his jaw, the set of his eyes...

He was Dean, and then some.

There was a ghost, a demon, taking up the hollow space inside his brother's body – Sam could all but feel it, the unnatural presence. His upbringing may have been all about how quickly and how accurately you could gun down your enemy without getting caught, but Sam learned his lesson early on. An enemy could be much more than just a physical target, and it was those ones that were always the hardest to kill.

 

=///=

 

When he saw the x-rays, the MRI scans, the blood work, Sam was so close to bringing his lunch back up he could taste the acid at the back of his mouth.

All through Dean's body were screws and plates and wires… Fuck, most of his spine wasn't even bone anymore. And all of it showed ample evidence of healing and adhering to the surrounding tissue – clearly it had been there a while. The scientific side of his brain was dumbfounded by the thought that such a thing could have been accomplished in such a short space of time without, at the very least, irreparably damaging the patient. The amount of operations, the drugs, the scarring, the rehabilitation… And what did they do with all the bits they removed? Where were Dean's missing pieces, and what sons of bitches had their paws on them?

Sam shuddered where he stood, despite that he continued to stare at the light box. Yes, it made him feel sick to his stomach, the throb of a migraine building behind his eyes, but more than that he was angry. Angry that Dean had been violated this way, and even more so that he probably didn't even know it. One of the Corp's medical advisors had told Sam that Dean's brain had been toyed with, too – that's where the MRIs had come in – and Sam was no expert on the human brain, but even he could see the scarring on the images. They'd attacked nearly every lobe at some point or another. The medic had told him that even if there were any proper brain function left, his memories and normal behaviour would likely be 'shot to shit'.

It was hard to argue the point. But something in Sam told him not to despair just yet, and he'd always had pretty accurate gut feelings especially where Dean was concerned. Something just told him to wait it out, just wait and see Dean prove them all wrong. He could only hope his gut didn't fail him now.


 

=///=

 

They kept Sam busy in the tech labs. Kept his mind occupied with schematics and diagnostics and numbers numbers numbers.

He knew it was Bobby's doing. And maybe even Cas a little bit too. They were colluding to keep his mind as far from Dean as possible. But it didn’t work as well as they thought. Sam knew this game too well. He'd been playing it for the better part of his life, after all. So he kept it up for as long as he could stand, letting them think he was so deep in reports that there was barely a whiff of anything else on his mind. Yet still, when all was dark and silent in the depths of night, he would sneak down into medical to get a look at Dean in his hospital bed. He was starting to look better – less black and blue, and more pale skin – but the real test would be when he woke up. They'd apparently tried pulling back the sedation a little already, but Dean had gotten restless enough to pose a danger to himself, so straight back to the full dose of drugs they went.

Sam started to get a little worried when the following three days passed without him getting a glimpse of Dean. Going down to the medical ward in the night got him nowhere then. Suddenly there were too many locked doors and too many guards patrolling the corridors. He asked Cas (casually, of course) how Dean was doing, and he gave his usual placating response that didn't really tell Sam anything new. Bobby had already made a point of not telling Sam anything, so he didn't even bother asking anymore. He deserved answers, though, surely. Like why had Dean been moved? Why wasn't the usual medical ward enough? Had something gone wrong? Was he awake? Was this whole thing a bid to keep Sam away?

Sam hoped that wasn't the case. Yes, he realised he was supposed to be playing the part of Agent Campbell, bio-tech researcher and engineer extraordinaire, or some such shit, so he'd been keeping his little 'visits' on the down-low. It wasn't as if anyone had warned him to stay away (apart from Bobby), and it wasn't like he'd been allowed inside either. The whole time he'd been watching his brother heal from behind a double-thick pane of glass. The distance was such that he might as well have been a world away.

Perhaps it would have been easier if Sam hadn't been told Dean was there in the first place, then he wouldn't have had to torture himself night after night, standing there, so close yet so far, telling himself if only he'd stayed that things wouldn't have turned out this way, that Dean wouldn't have gone off on his fucked-up little suicide mission, wouldn't have gotten himself captured, tortured, turned into a science experiment... But Sam couldn't take it back. Couldn't wish it away. For all the whacky shit that existed in the world, time travel and genies in bottles unfortunately weren't amongst it. And who was to say that Dean wouldn’t have cracked anyway. They'd been through some really messed up situations, not the least of which was the incident that had caused Sam to leave, and Dean had come out of it looking far worse than Sam. Physically, at least.

Sam dropped his head into his hands as he remembered. The dark, the cold, and the metallic-tinged scent of blood, the crunch of bone as he'd mangled his hand in order to get it free of the restraints, the agony as he'd gone tumbling through the black after his brother. He blocked out the memory of pain that came thereafter, forcing himself to think only of those moments where Dean was in his arms again. The rasp of his voice as he'd called him 'Sammy' and then grinned that bloody grin. They'd gotten out somehow – Sam could barely recall the details – but all he chose to remember was the softness of the bed back at HQ, the warm weight of Dean's body on the other side of the mattress. That had been the last image he'd captured before he'd slipped out, dressed, and left his old life behind.

And there they were again. Dean unconscious in a bed somewhere, and Sam still at a loss as to what to do about it.

Deciding he had nothing to lose, Sam turned to his laptop and pulled a few extra items from his bag, setting them up on the small desk beside his bed. It had been quite some time since he'd last hacked a government-level mainframe, but thankfully he proved to be not wholly out of touch. It also helped that he already had some basic access to the HUNT system, and it wasn't long before he found himself scrolling through the numerous views of the compound security cameras. He found the ones he wanted on cameras 43 and 44. Both gave him an uninhibited view of Dean's bed. He was hooked up to far less machines now, which could only be a good thing, and Sam suspected that the drip that remained was the one keeping him sedated.

It wasn't ideal – Sam still had no idea where Dean was being kept, nor what his condition was really like – but it calmed him enough in the meantime. He fell asleep to the vision of the security footage, the glowing screen filtering through the dark of the room.

 

=///=

 

No one really knew what to make of 'Agent Campbell', so Sam was usually granted a wide berth by the other agents and researchers and left to his own devices. But the following day he was approached by one of the doctors from the Medical unit, a 'Dr Roman' as Sam noted from the stitching on the man's lab-coat pocket. The man was polite enough, even if it did take him a minute to get to the point.

"So we're thinking we could use your expertise."

Sam finally tuned into the conversation.

"In what way, exactly?"

"We've been running diagnostic tests on Agent Winchester's 'additional features' for the last forty-eight hours, and while we have reached some conclusions, most of us that are working on this are medical doctors. We're used to human bodies. But a lot of Agent Winchester is no longer… organic. That's where you come in."

He took a moment to consider it.

Finally, Sam had an opportunity to get in there, to get behind those walls, get some sort (any sort) of contact with his brother.

"What sort of tests are we talking? Will he be awake for it?"

Dr Roman took one long look at Sam before bursting in to laughter.

"Oh, heck, no! What do you think we are, suicidal? He's sedated through the whole process, of course. For all intents and purposes, dead as a doornail. So no need to worry about that, buddy, he won't be leaping up to choke you out in the middle of an examination or something."

The doc was still chuckling when he reached out as if to pat Sam on the arm, but Sam took a step back to remain out of reach. Dr Roman suddenly calmed and looked at him questioningly.

"Fuck off."

"Huh? Agent, you—"

"I said, get the fuck out. You want me to look at something, you can fucking email it."

 

=///=

 

"Heard you cursed-out one of the docs."

Sam turned away from reading an email about Dean's diagnostic tests to find Bobby standing in the doorway.

"Better believe it."

"Yeah, well, best not get too mouthy with them or they'll gladly make this research thing a crapload harder on you."

"Yeah, well," Sam mocked, "Maybe they should remind themselves of their Hippocratic Oath or something, because that Roman guy was talking as if they had a goddamn animal down there. But he's a man, Bobby. My brother. Violated and abused like an animal, perhaps, but still a man."

Bobby sighed, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe. "I know, son, but I don't want you clinging to these high hopes when we still have no idea how much of Dean is actually left inside that thick skull of his. Gotta be realistic here."

"Hopes are all I have right now," Sam said, turning back to his computer, "In my mind there's no choice but to cling to them, especially when no one else will."

"You're as much a stubborn idjit as yer daddy ever was, Sam Winchester, but I guess you got your priorities straight at least." Bobby stepped in close enough to give Sam's arm a squeeze, then turned again to leave. "You need anythin'?"

"No, thanks— No, wait. Actually, there's… When Cas stole all these schematics, did he manage to get anything else? Like, anything biologically-related? Blood, chemicals, all that stuff?"

Bobby started to leave before he finally nodded. "I'll see what I can find."

 

=//=

 

It was incredible, if a harrowing reminder of Dean's plight.

Yes, he should still have been going through the file of tech stuff and the diagnostic reports from the doctors – that was officially why he was at HUNT Corps in the first place, was it not? – but Sam couldn't manage to break himself away from the new file Bobby had brought him that morning. It was as large and involved as the one containing Paradise's technological schematics, but instead was focussed on the biological science behind it all. And it was fascinating.

Sam almost hated how enamoured he was with the reports he was reading. But as a scientist himself, he couldn't not acknowledge the ground-breaking work that had gone in to the experiments. It was genius. Almost too genius. Almost unbelievable. Not to mention their methods were utterly inhumane. Yet the science was sound, the science worked – apparently his brother was living, breathing proof of it.

He couldn't flip through the pages fast enough, and when the words began to blur, Sam had to nearly throw himself back from the desk in order to make himself stop. All the answers to Dean's physical conundrums were in this file, he just knew it, but that only meant that he had to be all the more careful with what he read and how he read it. He couldn't afford to make mistakes where Dean was concerned. Enough mistakes had already been made.

He wondered how much of the file the doctors had seen. If any.

The information seemed on the verge of being too sensitive to be shared – even amongst half-a-dozen or so highly specialised doctors – so Sam had to wonder what sort of heads up Medical had been given in order for them to treat Dean appropriately. Had they been given select pages, maybe? Or a redacted version of the full file? He could only hope they'd been given something of worth, else they'd been wasting more time than he dared to contemplate.

Leaning back against the wall of the lab, Sam pressed his thumbs into his eye sockets. The lights in all the research labs were almost obscenely bright and kept the threat of a migraine simmering away behind his eyes. He'd left his pills back up in his room but he wasn't sure if he could be bothered to retrieve them. He knew he should. Knew what would happen if he let it linger too long, and his injections were back in his apartment – far out of reach.

Dragging his feet back over to the desk, Sam stuck his fingers somewhere in the middle of the stack of papers that made up the file and turned to somewhere randomly in the middle, just to see what would happen. He found a drawing of a molecular model – an incredibly complex one – but no explanation as to what it was or what it did on any of the surrounding pages, only the reactions of the chosen 'subject' when they were injected with it. Sam could only assume the subject to be Dean, and the reporting of his reactions to be the coldest descriptions of human torture he'd ever come across.

He was pulled from his reading suddenly by the loud blaring of an alarm.

The last time Sam had heard an alarm like that his girlfriend had just been killed and he and his colleagues had barely gotten out alive.

So he stood, slipped the file into a locked drawer, and stepped out into the hall, following the sounds of chaos and trying not to think about the dull pounding in his temporal lobes. It brought him to the edge of a high security area, only the guards that were usually watching the doors were nowhere in sight. There were plenty of people still milling around frantically, though, and they gave Sam those strange looks that they always did – suspicion and disregard and 'why's this nobody in my way?' sorts of looks. He couldn't blame them either, since they had no idea. Not to mention it was their job to be critical of unfamiliar people. He'd been like that once, too.

Ignoring them, he pushed his way through the unmanned security doors and into a large area beyond that was edged with more science and research labs, and a room that looked a bit like an interrogation room. Only it had a bed bolted to the wall and a half-private bathroom in the corner. It was practically a jail cell. Though what really drew his eye were the dozen or so bodies lying on the ground – some of them out cold, some of them curled over and groaning in pain. The door to the cell was partly off its hinges, and in following the trail of bodies Sam turned a corner to come before another pile of bodies pressed against a wall. They weren't out cold or injured this time. They were alert and moving and swarming something that was just out of Sam's sight. He stood and watched until it became apparent that it was a person, squirming and fighting against their hold.

And Sam realised suddenly that the hand he could just see? He was pretty sure he recognised that hand.

"What… Hey! Hey, what are you doing! Get off—"

"Sam, stop."

He turned to find Castiel at his side, dressed in a clean trench coat and looking on at the body-pile with worry.

"Let them do their job. Dean is much stronger now – abnormally strong. He might kill them all if they're not careful."

The mass struggled and writhed, some men swooping back as Dean tried to take a swing, but they managed to catch his arm and pin it to the wall before it connected. Sam would catch a sliver of his brother's face every now and then, his teeth bared like a growling dog. It was an apt description perhaps, as Dean kept trying to kick and punch his way out, despite the futility of his situation – the metaphorical leash around his neck. His expression never lost that angered desperation until, for a split second, their eyes seemed to meet.

Sam felt as though his body had been hammered into the ground, such was the weight of that momentary glance. And when there appeared a gap between the guardsmen again he found that Dean was still looking straight at him, too, their gazes locked together with no key to separate them. Sam's heart thundered in his chest, thinking that Dean must surely recognise him, but there was no change in Dean's expression, no call of 'Sammy' from across the room, only the slow droop of his eyelids as his vision clouded over. The guards disentangled themselves just in time for Sam to see the syringe being extracted from the side of Dean's neck, and he watched as his brother's body went gradually limp, two of the men picking him up from beneath the armpits and dragging him off somewhere out of sight.

He wondered by what degree Dean's treatment at Paradise had been worse.

A hand on his shoulder brought Sam back to the present, Castiel's pitying gaze staring down at him from above. Apparently he had managed to back right up to the wall and slide down to the floor at some point.

"It's for the best Sam," Cas placated, "At least until they devise a sedative that will allow him to interact but also keep him calm."

"But- I-… what was that, then?"

"Double-strength horse tranquilizer. It's the only thing that will take him down that quickly, short of physically knocking him out, and even then there's no telling how quickly he'd recover. I did manage to bring back a sample of whatever drug Paradise were using, but Research haven't been able to isolate all the contained substances as yet. So they're making do."

Sam let his head drop back against the wall and pushed the heels of his palms against his eyes. He thought of what he'd seen so far in the second file and felt confident there'd be more detailed mention of sedatives in there somewhere.

"I think I can probably help with that… And I'm assuming this has something to do with his enhanced strength, am I right?"

"Yes. Whatever they experimented on him with has heightened his metabolism tenfold. He's also stronger, faster, has better aim, and heals a whole lot quicker than any normal human."

"So normal medications and things won't work. Makes sense. He's probably more immune to disease and infection as well."

"It's highly likely. But—Sam are you okay? You don't look so good."

"Yeah, yeah, I—" Sam peeled his hands away, only to wince in pain at the sharp brightness of the lights overhead. "Okay, maybe not so good. Help me up?"

Castiel helped him back on to his feet and all but steered him back to his room. He put Sam on the bed, pulled his shoes off, and even soaked a handtowel with water, draping it over Sam's face.

"You're kinda good at this, Cas."

"I had children once."

"Oh."

"Now are you going to tell me what is going on with your eyes?"

Sam sighed, taking a moment to gather his thoughts.

"I don't know how much you know about me and Dean, or my leaving ten years ago, but there was a… a case. The last one before I left. Our dad had serious issues, even way back then, pissed a lot of people off. Mostly bad people. One group of them managed to track us for a long time, and we had no idea about it until Dean and I ended up kidnapped. They fucked Dean up real bad, all because of something Dad had done. I got away with nothing worse than a head injury, but ever since I've gotten bad migraines."

"I assume you're on medication?"

"Oh, yeah, right." Sam heaved himself upright just long enough to pull the bottle from his bedside table and knock back a couple of pills. "I have injections for the really bad ones, but they're at my apartment, so I'll just have to manage with these. It's probably just all the stress that set it off."

"Understandable. Let me know if you need anything, but I have somewhere to be."

Sam listened as Cas left the room, closing the door on his way out and leaving Sam there in the dark. His thoughts, however, were awash with colour and swirling images, flashes of Dean's distress haunting him and preventing Sam from finding calm. He knew he had a shitload of work to do, but he needed to sleep this off, too – he wouldn't get anywhere plagued by pain and conjured visions of Dean's torture. Yes, there was no doubt in his mind it was because of the stress.

 

=///=

 

He spent the subsequent three days in his private lab, barely leaving to eat or sleep, and popping pills to keep the headaches at bay. Somewhat reckless perhaps, but worth it once his plan finally began to come together, when he started to see the results right there in front of him, real and substantial. Somehow he even managed to spare enough time to find the right references in the file, and isolate and recreate Paradise's sedative of choice while he waited for his own tests to complete.

There was little in the world that made Sam feel as worthy as when he was being productive. Making progress toward a final goal with what would have living, breathing results.

The only thing that could compete was one particular person. And that person was locked in a room somewhere on the floor below, and was not currently himself.

Sam heard the alarm go off a second time during those three days, but paid it no mind. He had to keep reading, keep working. Once he managed to unlock Paradise's secrets he would hold Dean's fate in the palm of his hand, would be able to save him as he had failed to do so before. When the time came not even Azazel could stop him.

 

=///=

It was taking longer than expected.

The first batch Sam completed, having waded through the entire file collecting every semi-evident partial-instruction he could find, had been unstable nearly from the start. The blue-tinged mixture had ended up all over the bench and in puddles on the floor, damaging a lot of equipment – it was just a good thing it wasn't flammable. The second lot, however, Sam was more sure about. He made a few tweaks of his own design where some of the original notes had been unclear, and was pleased to find the resulting liquid to be both uniform and stable. He wasn't about to go throwing it back like some diesel-fuel whiskey, though. He had a mind to run several tests first; just to be sure the mixture was what he supposed it was. The only downside being that it would take some time.

In the meantime he continued his study of Paradise's biocompatible materials and all the horrible, ingenious things that had been inelegantly shoved inside his brother.

Access to Dean had been even more restricted since his first escape attempt-slash-attack, and Sam had only put eyes on him the once since then. He'd only gotten as far as the corridor – enough to have seen Dean's sleeping form through the large glass windows – before he'd been ushered back out by one of the guards. The doctors had apparently been trialling Dean on various doses of the sedative Sam had reconstructed, but he'd received no word on whether it was working as they'd hoped.

Out of the blue another alarm sounded. He'd ignored the last two but had decided there wouldn't be a third. Sam hurried along to the restricted area and pushed through the doors without a second thought, following the sounds of chaos until he came upon the guards trying to hold Dean's attacks at bay. They'd seemingly developed a bit of a routine by then, but Dean's mind had cottoned on to what they were doing – their hand gestures and formations were textbook – and Sam watched as his brother slipped easily out of the fray and began edging down the opposite direction. Towards Sam.

It gave him a chance to give Dean the once-over, a chance to note the complete lack of bandages or tell-tale signs of how bruised and beaten he'd been hardly two weeks before. He wore sweats with the HUNT logo on them – oversized, though it didn't seem to hinder his movements – and while his feet were bare, his hands were covered in what looked like cotton gloves. He'd seen at least one of Dean's hands ungloved the other day, so Sam had to wonder if there was something the matter with his circulation or his skin.

Moments later the guards turned and charged after him, and Dean motioned as if to break into a run, but suddenly caught sight of Sam and it stopped him dead in his tracks. They both remained still and staring at each other as the guards gathered around – preparing for a fight, but thankfully not instigating one.

Dean didn't even blink.

“Do you know who I am?” Sam dared to ask.

Dean’s head ticked slightly to the side as if contemplating the possibility that he did. The corners of his lips slid downward and his brow-line curled into a deep furrow, thinking hard. But apparently the memory refused to come to the fore, and Sam could pinpoint the precise moment when the frustration hit and the rage took over again, Dean lashing out with his fists. Thankfully the guards were at the ready and were able to sedate and relocate Dean in a matter of moments.

“Interesting.”

Sam whipped around to find Castiel standing a few steps behind him.

"Usually once he's raging the only thing that will stop him like that is the tranquiliser."

"So that was new behaviour, then."

"Yes, indeed."

"Good."

"You should be careful, though. Making yourself known to him could make you a target in is mind. And you probably shouldn't call him Dean. Last time someone called him that it did not end well - but whatever memory or emotion the name itself triggers in not yet clear."

"Is that what they called him there, maybe?"

Cas shook his head regretfully. "Not that I ever heard. Azazel was fond of 'Dean-o', but I hear it was Lilith that started calling him 'Pin-pin', as in short for 'pincushion'."

Sam grit his teeth, feeling angry on his brother's behalf. Dean had always hated cute nicknames. Only ever tolerated them from their father or Bobby. Likely Lilith had figured that out and had called Dean names just to antagonise him - she seemed an evil enough person to do such a thing.

He felt his fists squeeze tight with anger, his nails cutting into the flesh of his palms. "Well it seems they had a grand ole time sticking as many needles and scalpels in him as possible."

"Sam," Castiel said with a placating tone, "You can't blame yourself for what has been done to him. And you wont be able to fight this if all you feel is hatred and thirst for revenge. If anything, Dean needs calm, not violence."

Sam knew Cas was right. but he was too close to boiling-point to process the words at that moment. So he turned and walked away. Once Dean came back to some semblance of himself, no doubt he'd have enough thirst for revenge for the both of them.

 

=///=

 

He woke slowly to a room of muted greys and the smell of stale bleach.

Everything ached. Felt Heavy. And cold. Everything inside him was cold as ice.

But his skin was warm. Whatever he was dressed in was soft. And the sheets were crisp but thick.

He didn't know where he was, didn't know if it should feel familiar or not. He tried to remember something, anything, that came before, but it was like slamming into a big, black brick wall. That is, if a brick wall were as barren and frightening as a canoe floating alone in the middle of the ocean. But how could there be so much of nothing? He was. He was not nothing.

Gritting his teeth he tried again, tried to remember.

And there. There he got a flash of something. Hazy, perhaps, and unfocussed, but there was a moment (maybe two) where there was light and a vague notion of a bed and a hard floor and dark shapes. People. Lots of people. Inspiring fear.

He forced his eyes wider and looked around as much as he could without moving his head. The bed he was in was pushed right against the wall, there was a table and two chairs, and a toilet and shower partially concealed by a thin barrier. For some reason the word 'hospital' came to mind. But was he sick? He didn't feel sick. Although the 'no memory' thing might have been a clue.

But no. He didn't know how he knew, but there were too many things at odds with a hospital scenario. A hospital would have a sharp, clean smell. A hospital would have him hooked up to those machines that beeped. A hospital wouldn't have security cameras at each end of the room capturing his every move.

The ache wouldn't let him keep still, so with great effort he pushed himself upright, shoulders sagging back against the wall with a dull 'thud'. He kicked the covers away to find his feet the only part of his body not covered – even his hands had gloves on them. With trepidation he tugged the fabric away. His right hand had some pronounced ridges along the back of it, but was otherwise fine. His left… stopped him breathing.

Three of his fingers were missing.

Or not missing. Because there were fingers there. Just not his. Not ones made of bone and flesh.

He stared blankly at the metal digits in their place. He bent them. Flexed them. Curled them into a fist. And they responded as though they weren't metal at all.

Following the raised seam of flesh they were embedded in brought him to a sectioned plate that covered most of his hand, almost as far as the wrist. It, too, seemed to move almost as fluidly as muscle. He pulled at the edges, but it barely shifted. Too deeply implanted into the skin.

He forced himself to blink. To inhale. Exhale. Inhale again. Slow the racing heart rate.

Who? Where? When? How long?

There were too many questions.

He put the gloves back on so he didn't have to look. Then started patting all over every reachable part of his body from the neck down. There was something solid covering part of his left shoulder and upper arm. And in the middle of his lower back. And along the length of his left thigh. And knee.

How much of him was not him anymore?

Voices drifted toward him and he protectively pulled the sheets back over his lower body. A man and a woman, both dressed in suits, came to a stop outside the glass walls of his 'room'. Their conversation was low and too muffled to make out. Then suddenly another man walked into view. A taller man. With messy hair down past his ears. Not in a suit. The man looked straight at him. And he couldn't help the distinct feeling that he knew this man. Despite that it was impossible. He couldn't know someone he didn't remember. His head hurt.

The suited man and woman walked over to him. Started talking to the man in clipped tones. The man frowned and answered back as if he were angry about something.

The man stayed where he was as the suited couple moved to the door and entered into his secure room with a third man in tow – dressed all in black and wearing a utility belt around his waist. He didn't dare move as the man in black came closer and closer, kneeling at his bedside and then moving his hands so quick he missed the purpose of the action completely.

He felt the after effects, though. Immediately his limbs seemed to go limp, muscles failing to respond, and he had a hard time holding his head up straight.

"I'm Dr Masters. But you can call me Meg if that's more comfortable."

The woman took hold of one of the two chairs in the room and tugged it closer to his bedside.

"I'm hoping we might be able to have a chat. Nothing too serious. I'm supposed to try and get inside your head, but I think that's a little too much too fast, don't you?"

She took a small device from her pocket and pressed a button.

"There are better ways to get a feel for someone's mindset than just burrowing your way inside. Subtler ways. Subtle seems like it might be a good fit for you."

She leaned closer.

The man outside was watching him intently through the glass. Eyes earnest and pleading.

He liked the feeling of those eyes on him.

He would have reached for him if he could.

"So. Why don't we start with something easy."

The woman smiled.

"Why don't you tell me your name, hmm?"

The fire spilled up out of nowhere, raging and hot.

Suddenly the bindings were gone from his limbs and he was reaching.

For her throat.

 

=///=

 

Another night. Another nightmare. Another failed night's sleep.

Sam looked to his laptop, to the 'secure' feed of Dean's room that he'd finally managed to hack into. His brother was still out cold. Sedated. He could almost have laughed when Dean had lunged at that Masters woman earlier in the day (and maybe he would have if Dean were closer to being in his right mind). She was some fancy shrink HUNT had brought in, supposed to be able to coax victims of trauma out of their shell. She'd done a real bang up job, there. Sam had to wonder if she were a crock. Or maybe she'd been there for a whole other reason than what she'd said. Working in the spy business, it paid to ask the question.

Either way, Sam was determined to get himself into that room somehow. He had no idea what might get Dean to react, but he thought he'd do a damn sight better than dear Dr Masters had.

Certain there was no more sleep to be had, Sam pushed himself wearily to his feet and pulled on a jacket and shoes. He wandered down the hall, down into his lab, and stopped in front of his vaccine fridge.

He stared through the glass, stared at the half-dozen pre-prepared syringes sitting there. Mocking him.

He quickly pulled one out, jabbed it into the crook of his arm, and depressed the plunger before he could think better of it.

 

=///=

 

He went the very next day.

Sam wasn't so rusty that he'd forgotten how to watch his periphery, so it was matter of moments for him to walk up to the door of the containment room, key in the code Dr Masters had used the day before, and take his first step towards his brother without a single obstacle in his way.

Dean didn't appear scared of him, only wary, and he watched with interest as Sam took careful paces across the room until he met the wall and slid down to the floor, leaning against it. For several long minutes they simply stared at one another – Dean completely still, and Sam failing miserably at his attempt to not fidget. He couldn't hold back the anticipation, the eagerness to get some sort of acknowledgement from Dean. But Sam also knew that he was unlikely to get the reaction he subconsciously so desired. Trying to be rational about the situation was already a failed endeavour, because there was simply nothing rational about the entire situation whatsoever.

Maybe his brother was in there, inside that shell of a man curled in the corner of the bed and wrapped in blankets. He was just buried so deep down, locked up behind so many door's worth of brainwashing and experimental drugs and torture and fear.

Dean had never been the type to scare easy. Or, at least, he'd been an expert at hiding it. Whenever Sam had been on the verge of a freakout, Dean had always been the one to punch him in the arm, giving him a gruff 'stop being a pansy and suckitup!' All those cases from their youth – the breaking and entering, the data hacking, the espionage, the guns the knives the explosives – all of it had come so naturally to Dean. That wasn't to say that Sam hadn't been good at it, because that would have been a lie, but he did have to work at it harder to bring himself up to Dean's level. He'd had to prepare himself mentally and physically before each mission, go over every schematic, every personnel file, and consider the likelihood of every probable outcome. Dean was more the sort to fly by the seat of his pants. Not that he didn't do his research. He absolutely did. It was just that he was more content to compromise, to make things up as he went, play it by ear. And he was a pro at stalling for time.

That was what made him a natural fit at his job. And part of the reason why Sam had wanted out of the life for so long. That and the constant threat of death - of Dean's death - had been something he could only stomach to a point.

It had been Sam's dirty little secret. And he'd had enough of those as it was.

But the idea that he might have wanted a 'normal' life? A life where he could have a backyard with a dog, and neighbours and friends and a career that he didn't have to lie about? That was about as big a sin as he could possibly have committed according to one John Winchester. Sam had never told his dad, not in a million years, but he'd heard enough of his father's impassioned rants about the ignorance of the people, about the 'pretty little lives' they lived, to know better than to say anything.

And now look at them.

They were wanted men. Hunted by some cult organisation that had probably been on their trail for as long as Sam had been alive.

The notion held Sam's heart in its icy grip for an extended moment.

The spell was broken by the sound of shifting blankets and the creaking of metal. Dean had moved to the opposite corner of the bed, closer to where Sam was perched against the wall. He said nothing – far as Sam knew he hadn't said anything coherent the entire time he'd been back at HUNT – but the curiosity in his eyes was enough to bring Sam out of his thoughts a little.

He and Dean had always had a knack for 'reading' each other, for not needing to exchange words to know what the other was thinking.

The Dean there in that room, his body language was not the same as the one he'd once been so familiar with. And yet, Sam didn't believe that deciphering it was beyond him. He had to believe there was still a sliver of his brother in there somewhere. As soon as he stopped believing that? It was all over.

"I shouldn't be in here," Sam said suddenly, his voice sounding strangely loud in the confined space.

Dean didn't react.

"I think – I hope - that they're just doing their job. Trying to protect us. You. They have to keep everything contained until they know everything that was done to you. I mean… it's all precautionary, mostly. And diagnostic. The whole isolation thing is… protocol. They need to moderate what happens and when. And who. They'll probably have to come and drag me out of here soon since I'm not on the short list."

He glanced back up at Dean from where he'd been staring at the floor. Dean just blinked.

"I don't want to go, though. I mean, they weren't letting me in here at all, which is why I had to sneak in. They don't get that I need to be in here. With you. Not that I can blame them. You can't blame someone for not knowing, right? They all know me as Agent Sam Campbell. Only that's not my real name. And they don't know that. I don't know what they'd think if they did know who I really was. Maybe they'd let me stay… but I'm not sure. My name has… connotations. It's a dangerous name. I want to tell it to you, but I don't want to hurt you."

The ensuing silence was pronounced. Maybe a little expectant. And definitely tense.

Sam breathed out audibly.

"I know a lot about you," he said, much more quietly this time. Sharing a secret. "I know nearly everything about you actually. I've… been a coward in a lot of ways. I need to make amends for that. Dunno how. I'd say 'I'll do anything' but somehow I don't know if 'anything' would really mean all that much… But what I'm saying is that I'm not leaving you, okay? I'm going to watch out for you and I don't care what they think about it. They already think I'm a nutcase as it is. But I also think the most important thing here is that… when you're ready, when you tell me to, I'll tell you whatever you want to know. I promise."

Dean's eyes were watching him intently by then. Sharp.

It shook Sam. Prompting him to think back to the original scans he'd looked at, and the swell of fear they'd stirred within him. The MRI scan they'd done of Dean's brain had been incomplete. Supposedly he'd been sedated through the whole process, but Dean had somehow woken slightly and had become too agitated for them to continue. Still, there'd been enough slices to see the majority of the damage that had been done. And again, Sam was no expert when it came to brain physiology, but he knew enough to know that Dean should not have been able to follow his conversation as he had been. Sure he hadn't said anything, but Sam just knew that he'd understood every word. There was no doubt in his mind.

Sam scrolled quickly through the possibilities of what might have been going on. He decided that the sedation mixture he'd recreated was partly to blame. But also… was it possible that Dean's brain was healing itself? Was his enhanced healing ability trying to fight back somehow?

He'd been about to say something more when there came the slam of a door from somewhere outside.

Immediately Dean's body tensed, eyes darting towards the door of his room, likely in anticipation of an attack. And he wasn't too far wrong.

"Just stay there and stay calm, okay?" Sam urged as three guards entered the room looking all-business. One kept his focus trained on Dean as the other two approached Sam's sides and hauled him bodily to his feet. Sam pleaded to Dean with his eyes, and thankfully he did as Sam had asked. But it didn't stop the guard from being a bit rough with Sam. Any attempt he made to reclaim his limbs was met with resistance. So he gave in. Let them all but carry him down the hall and up in the elevator, right to Bobby's door.

And Bobby was not pleased.

"I want unrestricted access," Sam cut in before his pseudo-uncle could speak, "Somehow he's healing himself. He was listening to every word I said down there. Understanding every word. This despite all the scarred brain tissue. And I think that sedation formula needs to be altered. I think it's poisoning him. I won't take no for an answer, Bobby."

Bobby slumped back in his chair and scratched at his beard.

"Whatever. It's not like anything I say is gonna stop ya anyhow. I'll put yer name on the list tomorrow, y' goddamn idjit."

 

=///=

 

The first injection had been all anxiety, no aftermath.

The fear of what it might do had far outweighed any effects that actually came to pass – which was strangely none at all.

The second… was like ribbons of ice skittering through his veins.

The third had him reaching depths of pain he'd never known.

His body all but demanded he stay in bed in the dark, at world's end. But Dean was still out there, in need. And that was enough of a motivation to have him fighting mind over body any day of the week. He felt like an old man as he forced himself upright – hunched over and shuffling, barely able to lift a foot off the ground. But the longer he was moving the better he felt.

Castiel found him at some point and started fussing like an overprotective parent. But somewhere around lunchtime Sam finally managed to brush the guy off. He had things to achieve of a sort that Castiel unfortunately could not help him with. Or more to the point, things that Castiel would not approve of.

It took Sam four days to realise that he'd gone those same four days with barely the threat of a migraine.

 

=///=

 

Now that his memory had started to be a memory again, he almost wished it hadn't.

It meant he was remembering that there existed periods of light and dark, periods of awareness and non-awareness. He remembered that there were good days where the people in white coats left him alone, and there were bad days where they would poke and prod him until he snapped. Then the cold sting of a needle would be the only thing pushing him back to earth again.

He also remembered about the dreams. The dreams themselves were nothing but a blackened blur that hovered over him like a cloud on a string. But he would wake from that blackness with a dying scream in his throat and his limbs tied up in knots amongst the sheets. That is, if the sheets were even still intact and not merely shreds. The feeling of despair would linger for a long time after he woke and pulled himself together. An oppressiveness that plagued those punched-out holes of his memory, taunting him with the heavy secrets it held and all the time he'd lost.

The drugs that they gave him were good for numbing the pain. Several times he'd started kicking and screaming, throwing things, just so the guards would race in to pin him down and dose him. Then he'd be there on the bed, maybe on the floor, lying still for hours on a floating sea of nothingness.

He thought sometimes that the drug sliced even more holes in the bare scraps of his brain. But the problem with that was that he could never be completely sure.

There was one thing he did learn to be sure about, though: Agent Sam Campbell.

The Agent always made sure to introduce himself and make sure he was at ease before he came into the room and sat down. He had even managed to respond with a nod on several occasions, to which Sam had replied with a wide smile – a sad smile, he thought, but still a smile. They never smiled much at all. Never a real smile.

From the beginning he'd begun to associate Sam with a level of calm he only wished he could maintain.

Sam would ramble on about anything and everything – even those things that made him angry or upset. But he never found himself feeling angry or upset in turn. Only a sense of closeness that took root and grew to fill him completely. It made him want to be a part of those words. A part of those rambling, immaterial stories.

And one day he dared to make a change.

Sam had his head propped back against the wall, his knees bent up against his chest, his eyes closed. He reached out with a finger, slowly, carefully, and brushed it across Sam's cheek.

The words stopped and Sam's eyes opened. Shocked.

He retreated.

"No, no. Don't hide again."

Sam leaned forward but then stopped himself.

"You…I—You can touch me, y'know? If you want. You can poke me or tickle me or… how about you touch my hand?"

He drew forth his courage and placed the flat of his right hand atop Sam's. And Sam laughed.

"This is so amazing. You're so amazing."

It played out in similar ways over the next few visits. Holding hands, patting shoulders… And Sam was never cross if he retreated again.

The scars. The metal. His secrets were exposed eventually.

It was his foot (of all things) that gave it away. His left ankle had a mess of scarring all over one side. Something in the back of his mind supplied the word 'explosion', but of course he couldn't really be sure.

Sam didn't shy away, though, only tugged back parts of his clothing so that he could show him his own scars.

"We all get hurt sometimes. Nothing to be ashamed about." Sam bit his bottom lip between his teeth. "And I… I know about the other stuff. About the metal implants. I've seen the x-rays and things. You can show me if you ever want to, but you don't have to."

He did want to. So he pulled the cotton glove from his left hand and shoved it in Sam's face. If he wanted to look, stare, condemn, then so be it.

Yet he did none of those things. Instead, Sam took his hand between his own larger ones and held him gently. He stroked around the edges of the scar tissue. Smoothed his thumb over the metal plates until they warmed to body temperature.

"You'll never change my mind, jerk," Sam whispered under his breath, almost so soft that he didn't catch it at all. And maybe he wasn't supposed to. But while it at once confused him, it also reminded him of what Sam had said back in that first time he'd stolen in to his room.

I know nearly everything about you.

Eventually Sam would get up to leave.

And he would reach out to grab Sam by the wrist before he could get too far.

His voice would be hoarse from lack of use, but he'd force it out.

"Thank you, Sam."

A squeeze.

"Come back, Sam."


 

=///=

 

Sam couldn't get the images, the feelings, out of the forefront of his mind. It was right there and so strong that he almost couldn't put one foot in front of the other, almost couldn't put the right button in the right button hole, almost couldn't feed himself a bowl of cereal without nearly missing his mouth completely.

Dean might not have been the same Dean, but it was still the same flesh on his bones, and still the warmth of his touch against Sam's hands, despite the frequent interruption of metal. Sam was a sad and desperate man, and he would take what he could get. Anything to conjure those memories – the ones where Dean was writhing against him, calling his name in that husky tone he was so familiar with, clawing at his body to pull it closer. He recalled the sting of Dean's nails cutting into his back, and that tight heat clenching around him…

True arousal coiled in his stomach for the first time in weeks. He gripped it tight and held it close, like a whisp of smoke clutched against his chest.

Sam felt himself drifting into thoughts of days gone by, the clandestine heat of the nights in between, and he abandoned himself to it.

Through corridors and stairwells, he wandered aimlessly. Only stopping when he reached what otherwise looked like a dead end.

Except it wasn't.

Sam broke from his thoughts through a flash of recognition, remembering the couple of times he had been guided down this way when he was much younger. He found the concealed latch and pried open the long-closed door, revealing what looked like a flight of emergency stairs. He followed them down as far as they went, pushing through one more door to find himself in a storage room the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It smelled musty and stale, probably having remained untouched for a decade or more. He wouldn't be surprised if Bobby were the only remaining agent to know of its existence.

There were so many things down there he would've loved to have found if he'd had the time. But with the state of the world – Sam's world – as it was, there really was only one matter worth searching for.

 

=///=

 

"Agent Campbell, is it?"

Sam turned to face the man approaching him. He was fit, dark haired, with an angular face. Handsome. It was the white coat he wore that had Sam's hackles rising, however. "Who're you?"

"Dr Michael. Pleasure to meet you. I've been watching your interactions with Agent Winchester recently and I must say, he seems to be quite taken with you. Opening up where the rest of us have only failed."

"Oh. So you're Dr Masters two-point-oh."

He barely managed to hold back a smirk when he caught the irritated twitch of Dr Michael's eye.

"I suppose you could say that. But unlike Dr Masters, I'm more than willing to work with you. I want to help Agent Winchester as much as anyone, but at present the only microphones in his room are up high and they miss most of the conversation between you two. I'd like to ask you to wear a mic next time you go in with him so that we can properly analyse what you say to him and how it affects—"

"Sorry. Dr Michael, was it?"

"Yes?"

"Fuck off."

 

=///=

 

Sam began to visit even more often.

For some reason it bothered him that all his 'visitors' usually wore either some sort of suit or a lab coat, but Sam always came in wearing denim and flannel. He was supposed to be an Agent but somehow got away with not acting like any of the other Agents he'd encountered. It was just another reason to single out the man from the rest of the pack.

It wasn't the only odd thing about him, either. Lately, every time he arrived at his door, the first thing he would do was throw an item of clothing or a pillowcase over the two cameras situated in the corners. Then he would fold his long legs beneath him and sit on the floor by his bed, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him down onto the floor to Sam's side. That was where he was warmest. The solid ice beneath the layers of his flesh would thaw just for those short whiles. The impeding cold that gripped him through all his waking moments let him breathe a little easier.

Their fingers would tangle together – flesh and flesh and metal and flesh – and with the cameras covered it was as though it were their little secret. They existed in some small bubble apart from the rest of the universe, just the two of them. At the time it was breathtaking, but it wasn't until Sam had gone that it would hit him how frightening and strong his desire was. Sam was the sole string keeping him from falling into the abyss below. And it was a precarious position.

Indeed, the need became so great that he almost allowed it to cloud his judgment altogether. But one moment, hearing the sound of Sam coughing, cleared the fog.

Sam was sick.

He had a hard time reconciling what that meant, precisely, but his head told him he was right. That there was something very wrong. He brushed his fingers along the dark smudges under Sam's eyes.

"Yeah, I know. Not sleeping well."

He nodded. He could relate.

"You as well? Mm. Maybe you get nightmares like me, sometimes, too? I keep dreaming about shit that happened in the past but I keep remembering it differently every time. It's weird and it freaks me out, y'know?"

He squeezed Sam's hand and dropped his head on Sam's shoulder. And they remained in silent repose until Sam had to leave.

But just. One more thing.

A most important thing that couldn't wait anymore.

"Sam. You know me. Right?"

So many nods and so many touches.

"Tell me my name. Please."

 

=///=

 

Another injection.

He had to do at least six for it to take, going by the Paradise files.

The pain was a monster. And his migraines had come back with a vengeance.

The pain, he could take. It was a punishment. And a catharsis. And an incentive.

But the storm raging in his head?

He didn't know what he was doing anymore. Except that he knew more clearly than ever.

He pressed the plunger down.

 

=///=

 

His vision was shadowed and fuzzy as he wandered through the corridors.

Had he been a stubborn fool again? Knowing what was in his body… Did it make it better? Was he somehow more in control? Or had he played right into their fucking trap?

Yes, it was hard to think with his body, his head, behaving the way it was. But he was doing a lot of thinking all the same.

Through the fog, his theory was taking shape. The reasoning seemed sound. He could just about prove it. But would anyone believe him?

Sam stumbled suddenly and braced himself against the wall. It wasn't the first time he'd done that of late. But when the second wave rocked the floor beneath him where he stood, he realised he wasn't the one at fault this time.

As fast as he dared he was stumbling down the stairs and pushing his way onto the restricted floor. The fire alarm was blaring, and Sam felt the cold wetness seeping into his clothes as the overhead water sprinklers sprayed down. Heading towards Dean's room he was met with the sight of walls caved in, collapsed ceilings, and vents and wires draping down to the ground like glittering vines.

It only made him move all the faster.

Someone from Paradise must have found them.

Someone had figured out where they were holding Dean and they wanted him back.

This time they'd have to go through Sam first.

He was ready for a fight when he rounded the corner and stalked towards Dean's room. But there was a figure in the way. A familiar one.

No.

"Well, looky here. It's my boy, all big and grown up."

"…Dad? What… How."

John only grinned and clenched his fists together.

"I've been looking for you, boy. Abandoned your daddy, didn't you? But now you've come crawling back… I'd say a punishment's in order. There's no prodigal son business allowed here."

Sam watched in horror as his father stalked around him in a circle, eyeing him like he was prey strung up and ready for the slaughter. But Sam eyed him back. Because the man in front of him was not the father he'd once known. This was… his mind playing tricks. TYes, his John had been heavy-handed and determined to the point of his own detriment, but the man in front of him was crazed and unstable, his eyes sparking from an insane fire that burned away inside. And more shocking than all of that was the state of his body. Where once there had been a right leg, there was now a completely mechanised prosthesis. As well as some kind of armour peeking out from under his shirt.

"Yeah, I got a few extra features now, kiddo. But you been gone a while. You missed out on all the fun."

Sam wheeled back as John came for him. His training kicked in as the first punch was thrown, but John was too amped-up. He was moving too fast. And when his fist connected with the side of Sam's head, he went down like a ton of bricks.

"Sam!"

His heart skipped a beat when he caught the sound of Dean's voice. He dared not look over for fear of drawing John's attention. But it was already too late.

"What have we here… Is that my Dean-o?"

"You stay away from him!"

Sam leapt onto John's back, hands around his throat, but a single punch sent him flying. His head connected with a wall somewhere and Sam heard the shattering of glass from nearby. He tried to move – he had to get to Dean – but his limbs simply refused to cooperate. Guards sprinted by, some coming, some getting the fuck out of dodge, but none dared interfere. Sam strained to listen, lying there with dire hopelessness building in his chest.

And then came the shot. A scream.

Fuck, no.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, too afraid to see.

A warm, trembling body dropped at his side.

Dean with a smoking gun.

 

=///=

 

One last injection.

He was done. Complete.

And nothing.

No change.

No gain from the poison that plagued him. That he'd put inside himself.

What had he done?

 

=///=

 

"Jesus Christ, kid, you look like hell."

Sam forced a smile, wincing when the action pulled on the fresh stitches on the side of his scalp. "Good to see you, too, Bobby."

"Yeah, well, maybe I'd'a seen you yesterday 'cept the whole goddamn day went to shit no thanks to yer daddy. Who's batshit insane nowadays, in case you didn't get the memo."

"That's one way to put it," Sam said with a wry smile, "Least we know he's alive now, right?"

"So far as we know."

"What do you—"

"I mean yer daddy managed to escape early this morning. Son of a bitch could be Swiss cheese and he'd probably still crawl his way out somehow. Like a frickin' roach."

"Yeah, probably."

"So."

"So?"

"Out with it."

When Sam only blinked questioningly Bobby simply rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in disbelief.

"Ain't no way you traipsed all the way up here just to stare at my pretty face, so start talkin'."

"Fine," Sam huffed, "Tryin' to figure a few things out, actually. Like why my family are being targeted."

"You know why. The Winchester name is almost synonymous with the HUNT Corps and has been for decades. Anyone out there who's on our radar would be more than happy to take a bite outta any one o' you without bothering to ask questions. Not to mention that between Mary and John and you boys, there's a whole lot of families and factions and cults and whatever else out there that's probably still thirsting for revenge."

"Maybe. But…"

"What? Somethin' smells different this time?"

Sam bit his lip pensively. "Do you think there's any way to know for certain how many times we've come into contact with Paradise before?"

"So you… You think that Paradise might have been after you lot this whole time?"

"Why not? I dug up some old case files the other day, looked into what went on around the time Mary got killed. She wasn't the only HUNT agent infiltrating their ranks at the time, as you'd know, but she did make the biggest mess. She brought the whole of Lilith's perfect little scheme crashing down. And in my mind she's the one driving this thing to begin with. I'd bet she's got Azazel and Uriel wrapped around her pinky finger. I also think their world domination plot is actually secondary to their main objective – which is to make us suffer."

Bobby crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Sam for a long time.

"Sam, I don't want you to think I don't believe you 'cause that's not what I'm sayin', but I want you to eat something and then get some rest. Alright? I wasn't kidding when I said you look like hell. I just want you to rest up and then come back to me with a clear head - preferably one without stitches in it. Then we can talk."

The sound of his chair scraping back on the floor was obnoxiously loud, but Sam paid it no mind as got to his feet and left the room without turning back. It was already late – after the insanity that was the day before, he'd slept much of the current day away. That was what Bobby seemingly didn't understand. He was sleeping, he was eating (when he got around to it), it was bad science and separation that were killing him.

Knowing and dreading the next step, he took himself down to Medical and slipped into one of the empty radiology rooms. He booted up the computers and the lone x-ray machine, thankful that he was familiar with the process from back at RANSID. He draped the protective cloak around his shoulders and moved the control panel closer so he could operate it from the bed. He took pictures from several different angles and then returned the computer desk. And held his breath.

Just as he'd suspected – and feared – there it was. So small, yet so menacing. His proof.

 

=///=

 

Sam's eyes were glossy and bloodshot, his skin a shade of pale that looked bordering on green. Leaning against him he could hear the effort behind every one of Sam's breaths.

Whatever was afflicting him was getting worse.

Sam refused to talk about it, though, despite Dean's incessant worry. Sam just looked at him for a long while, a half-smile half-grimace on his face, and then changed the subject.

The fear of death was in his eyes, though. Sam could change the subject, but he couldn't change that.

Dean sighed.

Everything had changed over the previous few days.

Sam telling him his name had settled something secure yet foreboding in Dean's stomach. The beginning of the end. Before his name he'd just been 'him' and 'you' and 'subject', and he'd thought of himself in much the same way. Now there was something of substance to connect himself to, something that was all his own. And 'Dean' sat around his shoulders like a favourite t-shirt – well-worn and comfortable. It frightened him just how easily he suddenly associated himself with that name. It convinced him just that little bit more that Sam was everything Dean hoped he was. That Dean really was his real name. And it was so ingrained in him that it just felt right, no matter that he couldn't remember much of anything from before a few weeks ago.

Then there had been the crazed man two days before, who had broken into the building they were in, destroying everything in his path. And he'd known him. Had called him Dean. Had called Sam 'my boy'. That alone had stirred Dean's thoughts into an unrecognisable stew. But of course, he couldn't forget about the leg. The man's leg, all metal and mechanical, just like Dean, only more. All he could figure was that they had been created in the same sort of place. He needed to know if that maniac had been made just like himself. But it wasn't as if just anyone was going to answer his questions. Not with Sam being the only one in the entire place who talked to him like a real person.

He looked out the windows and watched the men and women working to clean up the mess outside and put it back into some semblance of order. It was going to take a long time by the looks of it. And it wasn't as if you could just ask any old handyman to come in and help fix your top secret facility.

"Agent Campbell!"

They both startled as Sam's name was called. And Sam quickly picked himself up and hurried out into the hallway.

Dean leaned over to watch, noting that Sam had quite obviously left the door open behind him, but Dean made no move to try and escape this time. For Sam's sake, he wasn't going to do that again.

He listened to the conversation between Sam and the other man, but couldn't make out many of the words. The other man was angry, though. Not quite 'throw your fists' angry, but he was definitely not happy. The man pulled on Sam's shoulder, bidding him to follow, but Sam turned back to Dean in distress. No, Dean didn't want to be parted from him, either.

The man yanked on Sam again, and this time it was hard enough to trip Sam up. Some men were working just behind them and a mop and bucket went toppling over. Sam slipped in the soapy water and Dean watched in slow motion as Sam's body went horizontal in the air, also sending one of the workers stumbling to his knees.

Sam came down with a hard thump, and suddenly the roof above seemed to give. Dean leapt to his feet, sprinting out into the hallway, but even with his extra strength he wasn't able to reach Sam in time to push him out of the way. Plasterboard and plastic and loose cables dropped down from above, landing on Sam and in the puddle he was lying in. The air around them seemed to snap, and Dean watched as the puddle – with Sam in it – became electrified.

Sam was out cold, yet his body still spasmed and jumped.

Dean knew he shouldn't get near, but he did it anyway. He threw himself on top of Sam and picked him up into his arms. The electricity surged into him through Sam's wet clothing and skin, and Dean was pulled down in kind, limbs shuddering and shaking beyond his control.

The lights went out. The whole grid going down.

Sam came to with a gasp.

"Sammy?"

"Oh, shit, Dean. It hurts. Hurts so bad." Sam's body was holding taut like a guitar string, and still shaking. "I should've… I can feel it… I... I'm sorry. I've been dosing myself. Made more of the serum they put in you. Put it in me. Can feel it. It hurts, Dean. I'm sorry."

Their hands clasped together, sending a zap through both their arms. And then Sam was out cold again, his whole body now limp and heavy.

Dozens of guards appeared to surround them from out of nowhere, and Dean watched with dismay as they pulled Sam from his arms and moved him away and out of sight.

"Gonna be fine, Sammy."

 

=///=

 

"Where is he?"

"Gone."

"What do you mean gone—"

"I mean, last night he somehow got out of his cage and crawled through a goddamn air vent until he found a way out. Out out. Outside, out."

Sam pursed his lips. "Then I guess I've got somewhere to be."

"Oh, no," Bobby warned as Sam turned back out the door to his office, "I've already got Agents on this. Good Agents. You are grounded, you stubborn little bastard. You're sick and injured. Not only a head wound, but you got electrocuted for crying out loud. Most people wouldn't have survived that, let alone being up and about a day later and desperate to go hunting down their crazy cyborg brother who doesn't even know who he is anymore. I am not letting you risk your life like this when we have no idea how dangerous Dean is right now. Just no."

Sam began moving again and Bobby swore, slamming his hand against a button under his desk.

Immediately a wall of steel dropped down in the hallway outside. And another further along. And another. It was a lockdown.

"Just try and stop me," Sam seethed, slamming his hands against the nearest barricade and forcing his energy into its core.

Sparks flew from the edges, and after a moment of stillness, all the visible barricades started to rise straight back up again. Sam scowled as he threw a look back over his shoulder, inwardly revelling in Bobby's surprise. Bobby was a good guy, with experience on his side, and he would do anything to protect those he cared about. Sam got that. But he also had no option where Dean was concerned.

He headed towards his room to grab his stuff and found Castiel by his door.

"I had been intending to ask if you needed any help… But apparently not."

"Thanks, Cas. But I got this one."

"Whatever you say, Agent. Give me a call if you need anything."

 

=///=

 

Sam took one step into the house and was immediately tackled to the ground. He threw his own weight into it and sent himself and his assailant rolling across the floor, crashing into walls and tables and chairs.

They split and quickly bounced back onto their feet. There was barely enough light to see, so a lot of their punches were near-misses, knuckles just grazing across the surface. But Sam thought he had it when he swiftly kicked out at a leg and sent the other guy sprawling.

Oh, how wrong he'd been.

Two smooth, clean chops of the hand and Sam was grasping at his side as he tumbled to the floor. His opponent sent them rolling again, landing himself on top of Sam's chest.

It was eerily reminiscent of a time long ago.

"Dean?"

His opponent snorted.

"Gotcha."

"So it…" Sam had to pause to swallow the tears, "It’s really you? Like, you you?"

"The one and only."

"Oh... Oh, god, Dean. Thank fuck."

Sam reached out to touch, to pull his brother into his arms, but Dean reeled back too quickly.

"You came back, then."

It took a moment to get where Dean was coming from, then mentally slapped himself. But of course his being gone for ten years was an elephant they were going to have to live with one way or another. "I'm so fucking sorry, Dean. I hate myself for leaving like I did, although maybe I would've hated myself more if I didn't… I don't know. It… doesn't matter. I mean, it does. But I'm here now… Look. I'll-... I'll go if you want me to. Just say so, and I'll leave."

"Don't," was all he said.

Extracting himself from their tangle on the floor, Dean rolled away but remained within reach, only facing in the opposite direction. Dean had always had a hard time staying face to face when he had something serious to say.

"Not gonna change my mind this time, bitch."

The words were soft and barely audible, and Sam gasped when he remembered his own words from several weeks prior.

"You remember that…"

"Amongst other things."

"Jesus."

"Ain't gonna save us now."

Dean heaved a long sigh in the following silence, raking notably ungloved fingers through his own hair.

"So. Lots of crap has apparently gone down since you got back. Start talking."

"You sure you're up for that right now—"

"I can handle myself. Not gonna fall apart. But I gotta know, 'cause for a moment there you looked about to die in my arms. What's going on with you, Sam?"

"The real truth?" Sam grit his teeth, hating that Dean was diverting the attention, making it all about Sam when he should have been the one seeking solace. Comfort that he more than deserved. "Is that Paradise – those motherfuckers who took you – have been after us since we were kids. Kids, Dean. Thirty years ago they were killing babies and our mother died to stop them. Then they sent assault after half-assed assault, only to be put down by Bobby and Dad. And when we were kidnapped that last time. Do you remember?"

Dean's jaw clenched. "I remember enough. What's your point."

"That was them, Dean. Different lackeys but still under the domain of Heaven's Paradise. They'd been trying to get back at our family and HUNT the whole time. But do you know why they won that particular round? They put fucking chips in our heads. Microchips! In our heads!"

"Sam, you're—"

"I'm not losing it, Dean. I did the x-rays myself, and there it was. Right where my head wound was. For ten years I've been getting debilitating migraines because of that tiny thing! And I'd bet my soul that you've got one, too. I don't know what they were planning with it. To control us, or track us maybe. But they're there, I swear it."

"But they…" Dean sucked in a breath and looked down at his hands. Metallic fingers flashing in the near-dark. "They didn't finish my head scan, did they? I don't remember much, but I remember the pressure. Made my arms go crazy and I couldn't control it."

"The MRI machine probably interfered with whatever electrical signals are running through your body."

"Right. Microchips. Probably got fried by the electric shock, though, right? So now what?"

"You kidding me? We get revenge, that's what."

Even in the low light, Dean's smile lit up the room.

"Full of good ideas these days, ain't ya, Sammy?"

He turned his body and crawled slowly back over to where Sam sat on his knees. His hands curling around Sam's neck.

"Well," Sam gulped, "Your ideas aren't all bad?"

"You gonna let me kiss you? If I wait any longer I might just die."

Sam skipped a step and dove straight in for his brother's mouth, sucking at his lips almost violently. Dean gave as good as he got, though, pulling Sam roughly against him and tangling his fingers through Sam's hair. Their tongues warred and embraced in equal measure, sliding between their mouths and urging them in deeper.

"C'mon, more."

He had no idea who voiced the thought, but clearly they were both thinking it as Dean sent them both sprawling to the ground, arms flying everywhere as they scrambled to pull off their shirts. Dean got there first, throwing his shirt to the side and moving to straddle Sam's hips so he could help. They both groaned aloud as their groins rubbed together, but Dean held Sam at bay when he moved to tug at the waistband of Dean's sweat pants.

"You're…" Dean swallowed nervously, "Okay with this? With me?"

Sam made a point of running his hands over Dean's back and shoulder where the metal plating was exposed. He knew Dean must have felt pretty self-conscious about it all. He often was when it came to his looks. But it was always something he would angst over in secret, never letting anyone in on his true insecurity. Sam could only hope Dean might just let him in this time around.

"You're as much you as you ever were. And I know it's going to take time to adjust - for both of us - but I've never wanted you more."

"As long as it doesn't weird you out too much. 'Cause if we keep going and you freak out when it counts, I will never ever—"

"Dean, are you trying to tell me you've got a chrome dick, now?"

"No!" Dean spat, "What the fuck?"

"Well, then it's no big deal. So chill. It's just me, okay? Think about how much shit we've been through together, and yet here we are."

"Such a girl, Sammy."

Dean relented and allowed Sam to peel away his pants, Dean helping him to kick off his own. Then they rolled together, just skin on skin, hard cocks pressed close between their stomachs.

"Been dreaming of this for ten years," Sam gasped.

"Yeah. I've been waiting for you."

Dean's body buzzed like static every instance Sam's fingers brushed across his armour. Whatever had been making Sam sick, and whatever had been holding Dean's memory captive, it had all crumbled away when they'd been struck by that electric charge. And as well as Sam's new affinity for electricity, it had also made Dean all the more sensitive wherever he had the metal plates on the surface. Somehow they were a perfect match.

"C'mon, Dean, touch me."

Eager to push to the finish line, Dean reached down, only to be stopped by Sam's intense gaze.

"No. The other one."

Groaning with want, he switched hands, slipping his left down between their bodies and looping his fingers around both their cocks, squeezing them together. Sam throbbed in his grasp, hips reflexively thrusting forward and further against the metal of Dean's fingers, searching for more. Happy to oblige, he kept his fist tight and strokes firm as he jerked them off together, Sam's hands keeping a tight grip on his thighs. It tingled with every sweeping touch across the thick plating over his left thigh, and he had to look away from his brother's face, finding himself too close to the edge, too soon.

"Don't hold it in, Dean. Wanna see you."

Even when they'd done it before, back when they'd been the greatest HUNT team ever but barely more than teenagers, and yet so sure of what their bodies wanted, Sam had always known what to say to him. He'd always had the right words, always known just the right places to touch. Dean still hadn't forgiven him for leaving – that was going to take some time and extreme patience and probably some breathing exercises – but it didn't mean he wasn't going to throw himself back into Sam's embrace. Dean was quite aware he was selfish and stupid in a lot of ways, but even though the resentment was still there, he'd been too long without his brother to make himself suffer any longer than he had to.

More to the point, he knew what he wanted.

And Sam was just as well-aware. His hands were restless, his cock so close to blowing it all, but he just had to get inside Dean. Just a little bit. Just the tip of a finger as he smoothed his hands over the perfect curve of Dean's ass, and his fingertips circled over the furl of his entrance, clinging tight when Dean jolted in surprise. He knew how Dean loved to be played with like that, and true to form, Sam had barely pushed in to the second joint before Dean was coming. Pearly drops spilling over both their torsos.

The sight alone was probably enough for Sam, but Dean's hand kept moving, and his head dropped back as he let go. He added to the mess, and a heavily-panting Dean bent down for a non-serious attempt at clean up.

"Still taste good, little bro."

After, Dean fell back onto the floor and tried to stop the oncoming freakout from bowling him over. He'd needed that. Had needed his brother close like that. But Dean still had a lot on his mind and a lot of shit he had to sort through. Not the least of which was that his body was no longer completely the body he'd always known. He wasn't really sure how he was supposed to go about getting over that sort of thing – he was pretty sure the HUNT Medical team didn't have a textbook on that one – but all he could think was that blowing some crap up would probably help. Destruction was always a winner.

"Dean?"

"Man, don't you be thinking that I ain't gonna bust your ass to hell when this second-honeymoon phase is over. You've got ten years to atone for."

Sam was silent for a long moment.

"I know. I figure I'll be playing catch up for probably the next ten years, too. But I think I'm okay with that."

"Yeah, you better."

 

=///=

 

Dean stood back and propped his hands on his hips. Yeah, his handwriting was still as shitty as it'd always been, but just so long as it got the job done, right?

"So this is all of it?" Sam gestured to the mess of paper and string and red marker pen tacked to the cork-board.

"As much as I can remember. I'd reckon it's maybe ninety, ninety-five percent?"

"Good enough for me."

Sam bent down to get a better look, committing all the marked sites to memory. There were over fifty of them, dotted all across the country.

They'd decided that as part of their self-appointed therapy, they were going to tear Heaven's Paradise to shreds, one underground bunker at a time.

Sure they had stuff to work through together, and more issues than National Geographic, but Dean was right for once – blowing crap up was a nice temporary reprieve from the pain.


~end.