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The Apotheosis of Wile E. Coyote

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Part 1: Dean

"You gonna eat that?"

Sam looks up from the laptop screen, uncomprehending.

Dean points to Sam's plate, almost untouched. "Your breakfast. You done?"

Sam stares for another moment, his head still somewhere else. "Sure, go ahead," he finally says.

Dean slides the plate across the table and digs in. "Dude, you've been squirrely this last week. You okay?"

"Yeah, Dean. I'm just trying to concentrate here."

Which is bullshit, Dean knows. Sammy's been distant and distractable and twitchy since Broward and the mystery spot. He knows this has everything to do with that prick of a trickster and the fact that Dean died as often and as temporarily -- not to mention as ridiculously -- as Wile E. Coyote.

"Concentrate on this." Dean holds out the newspaper he's folded into quarters, with a story circled in ink on top.

"Dean, I'm not interested in random jobs right now. I'm looking for an answer for you."

"Yeah, well, I'm sick of the death watch. I need to do something." He pushes the paper closer to Sam. "Can you humor me for two minutes and look at it?"

Scowling, Sam takes the paper and takes in the story Dean marked. The headline sucks him in, just as Dean expected. Tragic Town: 80 Years of Unexplained Madness.

"Seventy-eight incidents of violent psychotic breaks in eighty years," Sam mutters.

"Bet it's a lot more than that," Dean says. "Lot of families keep that kind of thing quiet, especially the farther back you go."

"Bet you're right," Sam says. "No family history or apparent clinical reason in any of the documented cases."

"Yep. Fine one day, completely crazycakes by the next morning." Dean spins the laptop toward him, typing the name of the town into Wikipedia. "Population of under three thousand," he says. "Just a stone's throw from Big Bone Lick State Park."

"Gimme that," Sam says, turning the screen back toward himself. He peers at it, then frowns. "Oh."

"Oh," Dean parrots. "What can you expect from a state named after a brand of lube?" He turns the laptop back toward him, clicks through to the town's official website. "Union, KY Living. Heh. The cemetery's listed under the 'living' tab. Check this." He puts on his folksy and sincere voice. "Neighborhoods: Harmony is a place to live and a place to gather.  A place where the streets are lined with trees, the porches are made for interaction, and the neighborhoods are unique and have a rhythm all their own.  A place that celebrates wide-open spaces and the beauty of the land.  A place where living life in perfect harmony truly does come easy. If that doesn't sound like A place just riddled with pure evil, I don't know what does."

That earns him a grin from Sam, all too rare these days. Dean pushes the laptop back toward him. "Whadya think?"

"It's interesting, but it'll keep."

Meaning Dean won't. "Yeah, but we can actually do something about this one."

Sam glares, but the waitress comes around to top up their coffee before he can get a chance to say anything. When she's moved on, Dean speaks before Sam can get wound up. "Look, I'd like the last thing I do to be saving someone, not tearing my fingernails off clawing to hang onto a life I willingly bargained away."

Sam looks away from him, out the diner window to the street, a muscle jumping in his jaw. Flicking a glance back to Dean and then away again, he finally says, "Yeah, okay."

***

Dean pulls the Impala onto two-lane blacktop, his mood lifting despite the overcast February sky and Sam's matching gloom.

He flips on the radio in time to catch an announcer's voice saying, "The Big Easy, 93.7. Music everyone can agree on."

Dean flicks the dial. "I think we can both agree on that." Twice around the dial, and he pops a Led Zep cassette into the slot. "So, working theories? Wild guesses? What sort of supernatural shit makes people crazy?"

"Might be something environmental. Maybe something genetic."

Right. Because no one's thought of either thing in the last eighty years. "We'll know when we've looked into it."

Sam's too busy chewing at a hangnail on his thumb to respond.

Dean decides to goose him a little. "Did you have a favorite?"

The furrows on Sam's brow deepen. "Favorite? Piece of lore?"

"Death."

Sam has only talked about a handful, changing the subject every time it comes up.

"Personally," Dean says, "I'm partial to the desk, though it would have been a helluva lot funnier if it had been a piano. Or a safe. I wish I'd seen that one."

"Jesus, Dean! Jesus!" Sammy shifts as if the legroom on his side has suddenly been cut down by half. "Fairies, for one."

"I was killed by fairies? I should have known -- those pricks will fuck you up. How did they--"

"No, Dean. The lore. They can drive people insane."

"They get way more good press than they deserve. As if they weren't already overly impressed with themselves, Lord of the Rings really --"

"That was elves, Dean."

"Oh yeah, right."

Sam shakes his head. "There's a handful of things that have been said to drive people insane, which varies among different peoples. Fairies, dybbuks, trolls, Wild Women."

"Wild women sure drive me crazy," Dean notes.

Sam shoots him a glare. "Strigas," he says pointedly, and that shuts Dean right the fuck up. "They're sometimes known to attack adults. They don't kill them, just drive them insane. There's other kinds of lore about insanity: holding a meadow buttercup -- also called crazyweed -- to the back of your neck by the full moon; the full moon itself, of course; smelling basil, being awakened when sleepwalking..."

"If that one caused insanity, I'd be crazier than a shithouse rat," Dean says. He went through a phase there for a few months, when Dad couldn't leave them overnight in a motel by themselves. He'd finally shipped them off to Bobby's for a long while, until Dean's midnight wanderings ended as abruptly as they began.

"No comment," Sam says, and Dean gives him a sidelong glare.

"Well, unless they have an annual Crazyweed Festival, I think we can ignore all the moon and plant lore. I'm thinking we're looking for some kind of evil sonofabitch."

"Maybe," Sam says, and goes back to communing with his hangnail.

Dean hopes so. He's itching to kill something evil before he goes down.

***

The day turns from gray to wet as they drive east, a miserable mix of snow and drizzle. Dean abandons the two-lane for the interstate, which has at least seen some salt trucks. It should be an eight-hour drive, but it's ten and a half by the time they reach Union. As they pass the slide-offs in the median, Dean's glad for the bulk of the Impala and the extra weight of the arsenal in the trunk.

There are long stretches of silence from the passenger seat, punctuated with statements like, "Yeah, sure, I could use a pit stop," or "Just coffee," or "Want anything from the mini-mart?"

Dean makes a few attempts, but Sam doesn't give him enough of a response to work with. He should have kept his mouth shut about the trickster thing. It feels so distant to him, because all he knows of the hundred Tuesdays is what Sam told him. Fucker does have a sense of humor, you have to admit that. Death by Warner Brothers' cartoon. But if their places were reversed, if it were Dean watching Sam die over and over, he'd be shell shocked too, he guesses. Dean couldn't stand it the one time, which is how they got into the current mess to begin with.

About three hours from Union, Dean says, "I'm sorry, man. I shouldn't joke about the Macy's Parade of Death." Apparently, judging by Sam's glare, he shouldn't refer to it that way, either. "It's just -- it's like some crazy story to me. You'd think I'd be the one with PTSD, but I'm not."

"Yeah, I get that," Sam says reluctantly. "But try to knock it off, will you?"

"Sure, I'll try." Sam gets a little more responsive after that, but he doesn't exactly turn into Chatty Cathy.

The snow and rain has turned to drizzle by the time they roll into Union. The library's in the middle of the wide commercial strip, and there are still lights blazing and cars in the parking lot.

"It's open," Sam says. "Let's go."

"Dammit, I'm hungry."

"We'll get something after we get some research out of the way. I want to get this thing cleared up, get on with doing something about your situation."

Dean heaves a sigh and follows Sam into the library.

***

Sam buries himself in recent newspaper accounts while Dean settles in at the microfilm desk to look back at the Depression-era stuff. By the time the library closes at 9 p.m., Dean has a massive headache, either from hunger or the goddamn microfilm reader.

They stop at a nearby chili joint, but Dean frowns into his plate after three bites, vaguely outraged. "What the hell is in here? Cinnamon?"

"Yeah. It's a Cincinnati thing," Sam says. He seems to like it fine.

"Well, we're not in Cincinnati." He picks the packets of oyster crackers off his tray and tips the rest into a trash bin. "Worst three-way I've ever had."

Sam smirks in disbelief that Dean's ever had a three-way. Dean returns to the counter and orders the black bean burrito deluxe with diced onions. See how funny Sam finds that at around two in the morning.

"So did you come up with anything interesting?" Sam asks as Dean settles in with his new plate.

"Far as I can tell, the victims had spent time in the great outdoors before they crazied up. Hunters, kids out drinking or screwing around after dark. Either something got to them then, or they attracted its attention and it came after them. Whatever, they were completely insane by the next morning."

"That's what I got, too," Sam says. "From the recent occasions, there didn't seem to be one particular location. Various local spots."

Dean nods. "Yeah. Same with the older cases too."

"I think our first stop tomorrow should be the mental health facility. See what we can find out there from the staff, and talk to one or two of the patients, if they'll let us."

"That sounds like a job tailor made for you," Dean says.

"Why just me?"

"Because you say 'mental health facility' instead of 'nuthouse,' without even thinking about it. And you look awesome in white."

Sam scowls, but it's the special scowl that tells Dean that he's won. "So what are you gonna do while I'm there?"

Dean bestows a smirk on him. "I thought I'd have myself a nice, long bubble-bath."

***

Dean lingers over the remains of breakfast, his hand resting on Dad's journal, watching Sam head for the Impala in his suit and tie. Though Dean hadn't let on, it still bothers him that Sammy folded on that without argument. He's being coddled, which bugs the shit out of him.

Dean almost misses it, though he's looking straight at Sam. Almost doesn't notice the absence of the little hitch Sam usually has in his gait when he's heading for the driver's side, that first instinct to head for the shotgun seat and the quickstep as he corrects his course. It's there even when Dean tosses the keys to him. But today he heads straight for the driver's door. It's not until he opens the door that Sam pauses, seeming to realize what he's done. He flicks a look toward the diner window, sees Dean watching him, and his expression shuts down.

There's something vaguely unsettling about this, though Dean can't put his finger on it.

"More coffee?"

Dean turns his gaze to the waitress, pasting on a smile. "Sure thing, darlin'." As she pours, Dean says, "My brother and me, we decided to stop on our way up to Cincy and look around town a little. Our mom was born here."

"No kidding," she says. "What was her name? Maybe we went to school together."

"Uh -- no, she uh, wasn't here that long. I think her family left when she was a couple of years old at the most. But we thought we'd look around town a little. Is there anything we should check out? Union's claim to fame?"

"You should definitely check out the state park."

"The state park."

"Big Bone Lick, yeah."

Dean struggles to maintain a straight face.

"There's a museum, great trails, a nature center, and an observation area to see the bison. It's a great park, and it's free."

"We'll definitely check that out. Anyplace else you recommend? Unusual stuff, world's second-largest ball of twine, anything like that?"

"Well, there's the meteor tree. That would be since your mother left."

"Meteor tree?"

The waitress -- her name tag says Evelyn -- nods. "In the mid eighties there was a meteor came streaking through the sky right near here. It shook everyone's windows when it hit, dug a furrow in a field. Six months later, there was a full-grown oak in that same spot. As if it had been there for decades."

That's a new one on Dean. "Where'd this happen -- Ma and Pa Kent's place?"

Evelyn laughs. "Nothing that exciting. Some people call it the miracle tree, though."

Dean sips his coffee. "How's that work? People tear off pieces of bark to heal cancer or something?"

"No, the miracle's just how it got there," Evelyn says. "Nobody really expects it to do anything."

Low standards for miracles around here. Or maybe they're just not that greedy. "Can you draw me a map?"

"Sure." She tears a page off her order pad and draws two intersecting lines and a dot. One end of the horizontal line she labels "Town"; the other is "West." She writes the name of a road on the line that bisects it. "It's just a couple of miles out."

"Thanks."

She tips the coffee pot to top up his cup, then moves off to tend to another customer.

Miracle tree. He's seen damn few miracles in his life, and not a one without a high price. He wonders how the tree ties in with what's going on -- seems like too much of a coincidence for it not to be connected, but then, people have been going insane for fifty years before the meteor.

Dean blows out a breath as he flips open the journal. He's practically got the whole thing memorized, but he hopes anyway for an overlooked entry about Kentucky or supernaturally-induced madness.

He doesn't want what he does find: a strong sense of the last twenty-two years of his father's life, how little there was beside darkness. Dad hadn't even been capable of finding light within his children; he'd just ushered them into the same dark world. Same deep loneliness, same stupid deals --

Dean gives his head a hard shake, snaps the journal closed. No point pissing and moaning about the life he's led. He's got some time left, and he's gonna go down swinging.

***

The combination of inaction and too much thinking is making him restless, so Dean abandons his table, offloads some of the coffee in the men's room, then steps outside. The day is cold but clear, the kind that pulls you two ways -- toward hustling inside, back to warmth, or lingering a moment to turn your face toward the sun.

Dean tilts his face upward, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath. A lifetime supply of days like this is rapidly dwindling down to a handful. Same with everything. A handful of days in the Impala, familiar songs pumping out of the stereo, Sammy grousing about something in the passenger seat. A handful of chatty waitresses refilling his coffee cup with almost every sip. A handful of chances to yank someone else out of their own hell, or stop them from falling there in the first place.

One last issue of Busty Asian Beauties.

There's a place down the street that proclaims itself a variety store, so Dean sets off in that direction. A town this size, you never know, but it's worth a try.

A bell jangles overhead as Dean sets foot inside, and the place has such a strong feel of the past that it's almost disconcerting. Worn wooden planks creak underfoot, and there's a faint, indescribable scent in the air. Dean remembers being inside a lot more stores like this when he was a kid, places he could explore until an impatient dad dragged him back outside. They've been replaced, for the most part, by the bright aisles of Walgreens and Wal-Marts, which don't even carry unedited versions of CDs, much less porn.

This place is the real deal: shelves of stationery supplies, revolving racks of paperbacks and comic books, glass jars full of Atomic Fireballs and other candy on the counter and behind it, boxes of cheap cigars and a rack of magazines with black placards covering all but the titles. Yeah, that's the stuff.

The old guy behind the counter is on the phone, so Dean wanders the aisles, looking at the merchandise. "Yeah, there's a spaghetti dinner at the bowling alley to raise money for the family. Helluva thing. You didn't hear? He lit his business on fire, stood inside while it burned down around him. Joe Collins was out having a few beers with him the night before, and said he seemed fine."

Dean drifts closer to the counter, pretending to browse the general interest magazines against the wall, but the man wraps up his conversation and starts fussing with perfectly straight stacks of merch behind the counter.

Dean drops a copy of Hot Rod magazine on the counter, and asks if he's got Busty Asian Beauties As the man turns to find it in the adults only rack, Dean says, "Mind if I have a quick look at the phone book?"

"Go ahead," the man says.

Dean finds an address and phone number for Joe Collins, scrawling it on the table of contents of the car mag. As he pays for the magazines, he says, "I heard there's some kind of benefit down at the alley. Would you have a flyer for that? Helluva thing, isn't it?"

"Damn sure is." The old guy hands over a flyer and Dean's change, and Dean pushes four quarters back over the counter for a local newspaper and an Atomic Fireball.

He steps back out into the bright February cold, slips the fireball, cellophane and all, into his mouth, shucking it with his teeth. There are occasional duds among the fireballs, but this one is particularly hot. He lets out a breath around it, amused by the steam billowing into the air.

Then he sets off for their motel to change into his dark suit.

***

Dean can't go on foot. He goes on foot by himself in this getup, he looks like a Mormon missionary who lost his partner.

Settling himself in a chair so he doesn't crease the suit, Dean idly opens Busty Asian Beauties. It doesn't take him long to realize it's a tragic waste of perfectly good busts and beauty -- suits and straight-backed wooden chairs don't exactly make ideal conditions for consumption of porn. He tosses the magazine onto his bed for later and opens Hot Rod instead.

Ten minutes later, Sam lets himself into the room. His expression is grim, and the set of his shoulders seems to diminish his height. Sam seems almost startled when he finds Dean in the room.

"Struck out?"

"Uh, no. On the contrary. I'm getting somewhere; we're getting somewhere. Just not there yet."

"Huh," Dean says. "You walked in here looking like you lost your --" Not the time for a cliche, he realizes abruptly. "Shoe." He raises a smirk. "Though that was funny. Tell me what you found in the car. I found a lead, got some other interesting information."

"I wasn't able to talk to any of the patients," Sam tells him once they're in the Impala. "But according to the doctor I spoke to, most of the ones we're looking into rave about something they saw. Something hideous and unspeakable, but the staff hasn't pinned down what it's supposed to be."

"Maybe it's the colour out of space," Dean cracks. "It's the extra U that drives them 'round the bend."

Sam looks up from his task, which is fitting their freshly minted Kentucky Board of Pharmacy IDs into their leather holders. "You've read Lovecraft?"

"I've skimmed. I figured there might be some day it would ping something we run across. Those are hours I won't get back." Ouch. Another thoughtless cliche.

Sam glides right over that. "What did you find out?"

"Couple of things. There's a guy who torched his own pharmacy and let it go up around him. I got the name of the guy he was with the night before, thought we should see if he could shed any light. And the other -- I'm not sure what to make of it." He tells Sam about the meteor tree.

"Huh," Sam says. "I don't know of any meteor lore, but we can check that out."

"This is the place," Dean says. He pulls the car over to the curb and takes the ID Sam hands him.

The door opens a crack, revealing a sliver of a man in a gray t-shirt and jeans. His dark hair is flecked with gray. "No missionaries," he says flatly.

Dean and Sam flash their IDs in unison. "We're not missionaries, sir," Dean says. "Kentucky Board of Pharmacy. We're looking into the Calvin Hough matter. We understand you were with Mr. Hough the night before his death."

The look on Joe Collins' face makes it plain he'd rather be inviting a pair of missionaries into his house, but he opens the door and steps aside for them to enter.

Sam says, "We realize this is a difficult time, Mr. Collins, but we have to clear up a few details."

"Sure, of course. Have a seat."

As Sam and Dean settle onto the sofa, Dean asks, "Did you notice any unusual behavior leading up to the fire? Or any extreme changes in Mr. Hough's mood lately?"

"No, nothing like that. We were out for a few beers that night before it happened, watching the game at the bar. We talked about basketball and our kids, the usual stuff."

"Did he seem to be having any sort of financial or tax problems? Was he spending more than usual?"

"Nothing like that."

"Nothing noticeable, you mean," Dean points out.

"Nothing." The vibe's getting a little hostile now.

"We noticed there's a benefit for his family coming up," Sam says. "Seems a little odd that a pharmacist's family would be facing financial hardship immediately following his death, don't you think?"

"Yeah, well, everything's been frozen, hasn't it? Life insurance, business insurance -- you people, the DEA, the insurance company, they're not letting anything loose until they go over everything. How are they supposed to bury the poor guy?"

Sam holds up a hand. "Look, no one wants to smear Mr. Hough or deny his family anything that belongs to them. We're just trying to find out what happened, so things can be resolved quickly."

"Exactly," Dean adds. "Do you happen to know if he spent any time outside before or after you were together?"

Collins frowns. "Outside?"

"It might seem like a tangent, but we're running down all kinds of possibilities here."

"He stepped outside of the bar a few times to smoke."

"Did anything seem unusual after any of those occasions?" Sam asks.

There's a telling pause.

"Anything will help," Dean says. "Even if it seems far-fetched. If this is a case of acquired sensitivity, it could be poisoning from a combination of medications he was handling. Since the investigation of his work space is compromised, any detail at all can help."

"Well, he said he saw something. After the last time he stepped outside."

"Did he describe it?"

"He was shaken up, scared. It didn't make a lot of sense."

"Tell us anyway, it might help," Dean urges.

"Something about a cat-woman," Collins says. "I made some joke like 'Hallie Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer?,' but he said it was the most hideous thing he'd ever seen."

"Did he seem mentally unbalanced then?" Sam asks.

"No. Really rattled, but himself. I figured he'd seen some shapes or shadows out in the dark and had a little too much to drink. We'd driven out there together in his car, but I talked him into letting me drive back. I dropped him off at his house, and drove home in my own car, and that's the last I saw of him."

"You've been extremely helpful," Dean says. "Just one more thing -- can you tell me where this bar is? Is it one of the places on the main drag?"

"No, it's just this little joint out in the middle of farmland. It gets dark out there, and those pole lights out there throws some weird shadows. He probably saw a dog or something."

Dean nods. "I'm sure you're right. If you can tell us how to get to this bar, we'll get out of your hair."

As they walk to the Impala, Sam says, "'Medication poisoning from an acquired sensitivity'?"

Dean grins. "Did you like that? I pulled that out of my ass. Sounded good, didn't it?"

"Sounds better than a lot of things that come out of your ass." Spoken like vintage Sammy, and that alone makes Dean laugh.

***

"I'd say you boys have got yourselves a wampus cat," says Bobby when Dean reaches him by phone. They're driving out to the bar Joe Collins mentioned to have a look around.

"A what?"

"Wampus cat," Bobby repeats, then spells it for him, and Dean relays this piece of information to Sam. "There's regional lore, but I've never heard of an actual case."

"So what's the lore?"

"It's a supernatural cat-creature that goes around on its hind legs, and has a howl somewhere between a woman's scream and a cougar. The lore's pretty tangled, with bits of Native American stories blended in with white settlers' folklore. One of the versions says it kills livestock and the occasional human, and drives anyone who sees it insane."

"Anything on how to kill it?"

"Since I've never heard of a confirmed sighting, I don't have a hunter's word on what kills 'em. My first guess? It's a supernatural human/animal hybrid -- I'd try what works on werewolves. That's if you don't find anything specific to wampus cats, now that you know what you're looking for."

"We'll do that." The sunlight almost hurts bouncing off the patches of snow in stubbled fields. Who the hell puts a bar out in the middle of cornfields? "Tell me what you think of this: We also heard of a tree nearby that grew from a meteor strike. According to the locals, the tree was fully grown in six months after the meteor."

"Well, there's a fair amount of Indian lore on meteors and comets. You might want to see what the Cherokee lore has to say specifically, since that's where the wampus cat stories originated."

"The only hitch is, the insanity epidemic started decades before the meteor and the tree."

"Huh. Well, keep an open mind. It might be connected, might not."

"Thanks, Bobby. Appreciate it." And check it out, there's an old frame house with beer signs in the window, right where Joe Collins said it would be. He pulls the Impala into the dirt parking lot.

"Yeah. Just watch yer ass out there, will ya? Don't do anything stupid."

"Aw, Bobby. I love you too." Dean snaps the phone shut on Bobby's wordless rumble of annoyance. "Ever notice he makes this noise when he's irritated that sounds just like Marge Simpson, only lower?"

"What'd he say?" Sam asks.

"Mostly 'Do your own goddamn research.' But he gave us a start with the wampus cat. Apparently there's lore, but no substantiated reports."

"So we get to be the hunters who find out what works."

"Trial and error," Dean says. "My favorite flavor combo."

"Yeah me too," Sam says, the words all run together. Dean's half tempted to give Sam the speech again about how this is the use he wants to make of the time he has left, but he lets it go.

***

They tramp around the area surrounding the bar, looking for tracks, but everything's been covered by snow or wiped out by tire tracks.

When they step inside the bar, every patron in the place looks them over, then turns back to the ballgame, their conversations, their solitary drunks.

"Ever feel like the anti-Norm?" Dean mutters. He has no illusions about how this is gonna go, but he goes through the motions anyway, because he just loves the crispy sound of monosyllables. He runs through the whole gamut, starting with folksy charm, then lapsing into "Okay, you made us. We're investigating a matter..." and finally tossing off a "Would you like your very own copy of the Book of Mormon?" as they're on the way out the door.

"Pricks," Dean mutters as he settles behind the wheel.

"Well, I guess you don't put a bar out at the intersection of Cornfield and Cow Pasture if you're wanting a lot of custom from tourists," Sam says.

"Testify."

Back at the motel, they shed the suits and settle in for additional research. Sam sits crosslegged on his bed, hunched over his laptop while Dean sits at the desk with a map and a scattering of notes, scrawling Xs and dates.

"I've got a dozen tabs open," Sam says, "and it seems like there's a different version of the story in each one."

"Yeah?"

"There's one version, which may be the original, in which the wampus cat is actually a protective spirit. In life she was a woman whose husband was made insane by a demon that was terrorizing the area. She decided to hunt it down, and went to the medicine man for help. She stalked the demon wearing a spirit mask with the face of a cat, and she drove off the demon. Now she's a half-cat, half-woman spirit, wandering the area to protect the people. Somewhere along the line, the versions conflated the demon and the cat-woman."

"I prefer my women non-conflated," Dean says. "Oh wait, I meant inflated."

"Funny."

"So the stories have been passed down, but it's like a game of telephone."

"Exactly."

"But this thing follows the stories that say it's evil."

"We've seen beings who gradually become what they're believed to be."

"What about meteor lore?" Dean prompts. "Bobby said there's plenty."

"I'm about to start looking. How's yours coming?"

"I'm not working with complete information, but what I've got is interesting." Dean brings the map to Sam, spreading it out in front of him. "So check this out. From the reports I have that say where the victim was before he went crazy, the ones that predate the meteor were scattered all through the area. But since the mid-eighties there hasn't beena single report from this zone here." He traces a circle with his finger. "Now look at this." He fishes out the map the waitress sketched out for him. "How's this for stunning coincidence? This is where the miracle tree sprang up."

"Miracle tree?"

"That's what some locals call it."

Sam chews that over, taking a pull from his beer bottle. "Radiation? Maybe the wampus cat is avoiding the area, or the locals are."

Dean shakes his head. "She would've said something. The waitress, I mean. I was asking her what's around here that a couple of tourists might be interested in, and she mentioned the park -- you know, Big Bone Lick," he adds, just to see Sam roll his eyes. "And she mentioned the meteor tree. She said it's sometimes called the miracle tree, not the cancer tree."

"Maybe the cat adopted the tree as its home, decided not to draw fire by hunting too close to its lair."

"You got me," Dean says. "All I know is we have half a county to look for this thing, and one small area where we know it's not." He huffs a sigh and folds the map. "And it's not on any fixed schedule."

"And if we do find it, we may well end up in a pysch ward ourselves." Sam closes his laptop. "Dean, I think it's time we called it quits on this one. Let's tell Bobby to put the word out that this thing is out here, and let some other hunter go after it. We need to get back to finding a way out of your deal."

"Let's find the Holy Grail and the Fountain of Youth and Amelia Earhart while we're at it. Face it, Sammy. There is no way out. That demon bitch told me if I do anything to break the deal, she takes you back. That is not happening. I have never backed out on a job and I'm not starting now."

Sam's not letting this one go. "It's not backing out when you're cutting your losses, Dean. This is like throwing good money after bad. Someone else will come along and hunt this thing, but nobody else is going to keep you out of the Pit."

Dean snatches up the map the waitress drew. "I'm gonna go have a look at this tree before it gets dark. You coming?"

***

The sky's still clear when they get outside, but the wind has picked up, knifing through their clothes.

"We don't want to be out here too long," Sam says.

"Some of us apparently don't want to be out here at all," Dean mutters.

Sam demonstrates that he can make the Marge Simpson noise too, but doesn't say anything.

It doesn't take long to drive out to the field where the tree is. Even without its leaves, Dean has to admit it's a pretty impressive specimen. Its branches spread into a canopy so full it has to create some serious shade. It must be something in the summer.

"Wonder what kind of oak it is," Sam says as Dean pulls the car off the road.

"The mighty oak," Dean says. "What do you mean, what kind?" He yanks his collar up, hunching against the cold as he rummages in the trunk for the pistols with silver bullets.

"There's the red oak, white oak, pin oak, live oak. Live oak is an evergreen, though, so we can rule that out."

"How do you know this stuff?"

"Jess was thinking about a degree in forestry before I knew her." He sticks his pistol in the back of his waistband and falls in step beside Dean, who carefully picks his way over the stubble and uneven ground, listeing to the crunch of their footsteps and the rasp of their breath.

What if they do get this thing? Sammy's going to insist on finding some way to undo Dean's deal. Since the whole trickster thing, his determination has been more like pure obsession. If he doesn't chill his shit, he's going to blow everything Dean tried to accomplish with the deal -- and that, Dean knows, will hurt him as bad as any literal hell.

He just wishes Sammy would stop before things get any more fucked up than they already are. He wishes he could give Sam some peace.

They slow as they approach the tree, Sam slowly circling the trunk, looking for anything that indicate something living in or near the tree.

"Hard to tell what to do," Dean says. "Make charms from the wood to protect people in town, or burn this thing to ash."

Sam turns his back to the wind -- and the tree -- fumbling with his jacket pocket. "Maybe this will give us a clue." He switches on his EMF meter, but there's no sound other than the wind.

Dean looks up through the bare branches for any other sign. It's almost dizzying, looking up into the deepening blue sky. He reaches a hand to steady himself against the tree, and there's a bright flash and a roar in his head, and that's the last --

Part 2: Sam

Without warning there's a blaze of light behind Sam that bleaches the whole world to white before he squeezes his eyes shut and ducks his face into the crook of his arm. A blast of wind -- almost warm, not icy -- pushes him forward two staggering steps. Just as suddenly, both the light and the wind die away, and he reels again.

"Dean?" Sam turns, blinking. It takes him a second to find his brother, because he's sprawled on his back on the ground, limbs splayed outward. "Dean!"

He drops onto one knee next to Dean, who is still and pale as death. "Dean! What the hell happened?"

No answer, no movement. Sam drops the EMF meter and puts two shaking fingers to Dean's neck to feel for a pulse. It's not strong, but at least it's present. Sam gently lifts one of his eyelids with his thumb, but there's only a sliver of green showing above a fair amount of white. Then Dean takes a ragged breath and starts to convulse, his limbs flailing, his neck arched back.

"Dean!" Sam reaches toward him, but Dean's arm lashes out, knocking him onto his ass. He scrambles out of reach, groping for his cell phone.

"911, what's your emergency?" A woman's voice, brisk and competent, with just a hint of a Southern twang.

"I need an ambulance. My brother's unconscious and having a seizure. We're outside and he's on the ground, so he needs help fast."

"What's your location?"

"A field a couple of miles outside Union. We're at the meteor tree."

"I've got someone on the way to you now, sir. Are you familiar with first aid for a seizure?"

"No. He's never had one before."

His movements grow more violent, one arm crashing against the tree trunk.

"If there's anything he could hurt himself on, move it if you can. Don't try to hold him down or force anything into his mouth."

"All right."

"If he stops before the squad gets there, turn him on his left side, and make sure his face is turned in case he vomits."

"Yeah, okay." He ends the call, the weight of those one hundred Tuesdays pressing in on him, the helpless feeling of watching his brother die each and every day slamming back into him. All he can do now is stay out of the way and keep watch. "Help's on the way, Dean. Hang on."

Sam reaches for the fallen EMF meter, and as he shifts, he feels the cold metal of the Beretta against his spine. "Shit!" He clambers back toward Dean, trying to ease him off his back without either of them getting hurt. Dean arches and thrashes, his arm whipping across Sam's face. Sam hisses as Dean's watch opens a gash on his cheek.

"Easy, Dean. It's okay. Help's coming." Might as well tell someone to stop having a heart attack.

Sam gets his hand on the gun, slipping it out from under Dean just as he begins to hear the wail of a siren in the distance. He tucks it away with his own, rearranging his shirt tail over them.

The siren grows ear-splittingly loud and then cuts off, replaced by the sound of voices and clanging doors.

"They're here, Dean. They're coming across the field right now."

All at once the convulsions subside, leaving Dean sprawled at the base of the tree. Sam strokes a hand over his sweat-spiked hair, murmuring, "It's okay, you're okay, I've got you." Though the paramedics are drawing near, he shifts Dean's dead weight so he's lying on his left side, turning his face as directed.

The first paramedic reaches them and sets her equipment by Dean.

"I'm gonna get out of their way now, but I'm right here. You're going to be fine." Sam gets to his feet and steps back, hoping to god that he's telling the truth.

***

Dean's as still now as he was before the seizure, and Sam finds himself avidly watching the rise and fall of his chest when the EMTs aren't blocking his line of sight. Some part of him is answering questions they ask, but he's on autopilot, while most of his brain is busy with the horror of this moment in context of one hundred recent ones very much like it.

This is not how Dad taught him to be.

This is, however, how those hundred Tuesdays taught him to be. Frozen, terrified, despairing, unable to do anything concrete to help his brother, beyond a call to 911.

Once they've got him bundled on a stretcher, ready to lift and carry across the frozen field, the first paramedic turns and asks, "Do you want to ride along?"

Sam's chest aches with how much he wants to ride along. But it's not smart, considering he's got two handguns tucked in hs waistband, and the Impala is his sole mode of transport. "I'd like to, but my only transportation's out here. I'll follow."

Sam reaches out, squeezes Dean's foot gently. "Dean. I'll be right behind you, all right? I'll see you when I get to the hospital."

Not a twitch of expression or a flutter of an eyelash.

Sam squeezes again and nods to the EMTs. "Meet you there."

He sets off at an angle to the EMTs' straight line, heading for the spot where they'd pulled the Impala off the road. He's aware that he's moving too fast in the gathering dark, but he wants to shout at the EMTs to get a fucking move on! Dean's phrase, and Sam hears it in Dean's voice.

Tripping and righting himself, Sam feels his ankle buckle and protest, but he ignores the stab of pain and keeps going. Once he reaches the Impala, he hastily tucks the handguns back into the false bottom of the trunk. While he waits for the EMTs to finish loading up, he hits Bobby's number on the speed dial.

Bobby's voice mail kicks in. Sam usually finds some amusement in hearing the growl that invites Bobby's caller to leave a name and number but is more discouraging than welcoming. This time there's nothing funny about it. Please don't be out on a hunt, he thinks. Dean hadn't said anything along those lines after he talked to him, but Bobby doesn't tell everything.

"Shit," he says when the beep sounds. "Bobby, it's Sam. I hope you're around. Something's wrong with Dean. We're on our way to the hospital. We were out by this meteor tree, and next thing I knew, he was having a seizure, and now he's unconscious. I didn't see what happened; I was screwing around with the EMT meter. There was a flash. EMF. Did I say EMT? I meant EMF." Is this going to sound as incoherent as he thinks? "Call me," he says. "As soon as you can."

The EMTs climb into the ambulance, and it starts to roll. The Impala rumbles to life and Sam gooses the gas pedal to follow the flash of red lights and yowl of the siren.

***

Sam sprawls across the front seat of the Impala under the harsh glow of a security light, rummaging in the glove compartment for the right IDs. Shit shit shit! There's all the fake agency credentials he could want, but the insurance cards that will get Dean taken care of instantly, and IDs that will prove they're brothers so Sam's not kept at arm's length as they treat Dean, are harder to find. His hands are shaking by the time he comes up with the right cards, and he drops them into the footwell, cursing viciously as he chases after them.

Once he's got them inserted into his wallet and Dean's -- which he'd thought to lift at the same time he took Dean's gun -- he launches himself out of the car and sprints across the parking lot to the emergency entrance.

A burly security guard meets him just inside the doors, telling him to slow down and put his name in at the desk.

"They just brought my brother in," Sam blurts. "Where is he?"

"Sit yourself down. Sir."

"Bullshit," Sam says. "He just collapsed out of the blue. I need to know what's going on."

"It's all right," a woman at the intake desk says. She's young and pretty and reminds him of Cassie, but with her hair cut short. "I need to get some information from you."

This is the part he hasn't done one hundred times over. Just the twice -- when Dean's heart gave out on him (ironic -- his heart is the one thing about Dean that never quits, though he'd probably deny it), and after the wreck. Those other times it had been quick and horrifying, but Sam had always been right there at his side.

"Look, I need to be with him."

"Then the sooner we finish this, the sooner you can do that," she says, not unkindly.

The EMT stops by after finishing her own paperwork. "Your brother's stable. They'll be taking him down for some tests soon."

"Thanks."

"You're almost done here," the admin says before Sam can plead to see Dean.

He commits twenty-seven varieties of fraud before he's done, plus signs off on any diagnostic tests and treatment Dean might need. By the time he's slashed his phony signature across the last of the consent forms, there's a guy in scrubs waiting to walk him back to the treatment area where they're taking care of Dean. There's no change, except for gauze encircling his hand where, Sam guesses, he'd skinned it against the bark of the meteor tree. He's completely still, so deathly pale that his freckles stand out in stark relief.

"You should get that cut on your face looked after," an ER nurse says.

"Sure. Later." Sam touches Dean's other hand. "Dean, I'm right here. The doctors are going to run a few tests, find out what's going on. It's gonna be all right."

The doctor looks at a clipboard of information the admin gathered. "His name's Robert?"

"Yeah," Sam says. "His family nickname is Dean, though. He's maybe more likely to respond to that."

The doctor nods and makes a note. "I'm Dr. Mehta. They're going to get the tests started, and you and I can fill each other in."

They step aside as an orderly wheels Dean's gurney through a pair of double doors. Sam watches the doors swing gently behind them, feeling numb.

***

The cell phone is just a weight in Sam's pocket. Bobby hasn't called back, and Sam can't think who else to try. If he's hunting, Ellen might have known, if the road house were still standing.

Sam remembers that time after the rawhead, when the doctors gave Dean a month at most and he looked worse than a great many of the ghosts he and Sam had laid to rest. The call Sam had made to Dad, choked and deperate and frightened. Like talking into the void, for all the response it got. Even then he'd had other hunters he could call, but after they'd uncorked the entrance to hell, they'd lost a lot of the friends they'd had.

He waits for test results to come back, hunched in a chair in the waiting area. Sam's not alone in this; in the time he's been here, he's been joined by a couple awaiting word on their child, an elderly woman and her daughter worrying about the woman's husband, and now a large family and their minister praying for the teenaged boy who was in a car crash.

Sam tries not to make anything of the fact that he's the only one here who's waiting alone. He drinks way too much of the bitter coffee from the push-top thermal dispensers on a table under the overhead TV set. All the waiting room time he'd put in as a kid, he'd longed for the distraction of a TV, but now that they're inescapable, he wishes he could put a few rounds in the fucking screen.

He flips through every magazine in the room, registering nothing, gazes at the bland landscape paintings as if they're as impenetrable as a Pollock. Tries to imagine not being so alone, but the brief flash he conjures of Jess holding his hand and murmuring reassurance is more painful than isolation.

Dr. Mehta finds him and sits with him. "We're in the process of admitting your brother now, and our chief neurologist will be taking over his case in the morning."

"Have you found something?" His heart hammers as he waits for the answer.

"We've ruled out some things, including stroke and aneurism. There's no swelling, which is a huge thing in his favor. But we're not sure yet what is going on."

"Has he been conscious at all?"

"No. We've evaluated his level of consciousness, which we measure using the Glasgow Coma Scale."

Coma. Sam's breath gusts out as if he's been kicked in the gut.

"At present, Dean falls at 7 on a scale of 3 to 15. His eyes will open at pain, and he withdraws his limbs from pain. But verbally, he's completely unresponsive."

"Is 3 the good end of the scale, or the bad?" Sam thinks he knows the answer already.

Dr. Mehta regards him with compassion. "It's on the serious end of the scale. But he is breathing on his own, and he's holding steady."

"Have there been any more seizures?"

"No. We'll give him a night's rest and keep a close watch, and see what the morning brings."

"Yeah. Thanks, Doctor."

"We'll let you look in on him as soon as he's settled in the ICU."

When the doctor's gone, Sam suddenly becomes aware that the waiting room is quiet, except for the drone of the television. The big family has departed, down to the last cranky toddler. He can't imagine how they could have vanished without pulling his attention toward them, even briefly.

Their minister has stuck around, approaching now that Sam's aware of him. "I see you were having a talk with one of the ER doctors," he says. "Is there any way I can help -- call someone, or anything else?"

Sam shakes his head. "Thank you, Reverend, but no. The only family I have is in there. My brother, he's -- well, we don't know yet."

"I can pray, if you like."

Sam chokes back the urge to snarl, "Go right ahead, if you think anyone's listening." Sam prayed. One hundred and one times he prayed for Dean's life to be restored. What looked like an answer was merely a cruel joke. The only god who ever responded was a capricious bastard with a sick sense of humor, who reset the pins of Sam's universe so he could knock them down again. Sam's done with prayer. He looks into the man's dark eyes, forcing himself to be polite. "You're welcome to if you like. I can't."

Excusing himself, Sam finds the restroom, where he relieves himself and splashes his face. He looks in the mirror to find the same haunted man he'd spent hundreds of days gazing at.

Whatever's done this to Dean, he's going to find it and kill it.

***

"Hey. It's Sam, I'm here," he says, but he can barely hear himself over the sound of the monitors. He clears his throat and repeats himself, taking Dean's hand in his own. It's like holding a dead leaf in his palm, for all the responsiveness there. This, he knows, should be on Dean's personal coma scale: Does not withdraw from chick flick moments. This is bad.

"The doctor said they're going to give you a break from tests for a little while, let you get some rack time. I've got a call in to Bobby. I'm sure he'll be here as soon as he can."

A nurse bustles around Dean's bed, adjusting the IV drip, straightening the sheets. She's pretty, dark-haired and petite, just Dean's type. Sam can practically hear him crack one of his favorite jokes -- Did you hear about the nurse who was so good she could make the patient without disturbing the bed? -- which has yet to meet with any degree of amusement from his audiences. (Not that this has prevented him from getting laid on occasion; Sam's still not sure how that works.)

"They're going to kick me out in a couple more minutes," he tells Dean. I'm going to head back to the diner, see if I can talk to the waitress you talked to this morning. I guess that's yesterday morning, now. Maybe she's heard about things like this happening before."

Nothing but the sound of machines and the rustle of crisp linens.

"We are going to get this figured out." Sam's voice rings with a lot more certainty than he's feeling right now, but he's grateful for that.

The nurse signals him that it's time to leave. "I'll let you get some rest now, Dean. I'll be back soon." Sam tightens his grip on Dean's hand just a fraction, then releases it. "Thanks," he says to the nurse, his voice sounding raspy and strange to his own ear. He turns on his heel and leaves the ICU.

When Sam reaches the Impala, he settles behind the wheel -- always 180 degrees off normal, even after those months when he was the car's sole occupant -- and starts the engine, blasts the heater. He jerks out his phone and calls Bobby's number again.

"Goddammit, Bobby, where are you?" he snarls when his voice mail gives the signal to record a message. "It's Sam. I need some help here, all right? Dean needs help. They're using the word coma. I'm trying to figure this out, but I need help." Sam snaps the phone shut, tosses it on the dash. His head's throbbing, and the topical anesthetic has worn off where he got the stitch put in his cheek.

He pushes his hair out of his eyes and puts the Impala in gear.

***

The diner's right at the peak of morning rush when Sam walks in. All the tables are occupied, so he settles onto a stool at the counter and orders a coffee, eavesdropping on the talk around him.

The pharmacy fire is the main topic of conversation, and already the theories are flying. The pharmacist had a drug problem and knew those guys from the state board were on their way to look into things. No, it was trouble with the IRS. A few theories border on the far-fetched, but nothing as crazy as what Sam suspects is the truth.

He's practically nodding into his coffee by the time the place starts to thin out. The waitress tears a check from her order pad, thumping it on the counter by him. "That everything for you?" she asks, her tone indicating she thinks it ought to be. God only knows what he looks like, unshaven, unwashed as he is.

"Warm me up, if you would," Sam says, touching a finger to his cup. He ignores the irritation she projects as she pours and says, "My brother and I were in here yesterday. I think he talked to you about the meteor tree?"

She defrosts slightly. "Oh sure. I remember him."

"I have a question which might seem a little strange," Sam continues. "Have you ever heard of anything strange happening out there? Strange events, unexplained illness, anything?"

The waitress frowns. "Nothing I can think of offhand. Well, except there's one of the farmhands. He said he carved his initials into it one day when he was working there in that field. Said the next day when he went back, they were gone, like he'd never done it. But to tell you the truth, he is so full of crap you can smell it clear from Florence. What makes you ask?"

"My brother and I went out there last night. He got sick suddenly. I wondered if you'd heard anything like that."

"No, can't say I have. How is he?"

"We don't know yet. He's having tests run."

"That's too bad," she says. "He seems like a nice kid."

Sam can imagine Dean's snort at that. He's a charmer and a flirt, but nice is not a word he'd probably use for himself. "Yeah, he is. Oh hey -- one more thing. Have you seen or heard anything about flashes of light out there. Or lightning striking in the area when the sky's perfectly clear?"

"Nothing like that, no."

Sam nods, slips a five under the rim of his coffee cup. "Thanks, I appreciate it."

He steps out into the bone-aching cold, as damp and gloomy as yesterday was clear and bright. He heads back to the motel to extend their stay and have a quick shower. By the time he makes it back to the hospital, Dean's been whisked off for more tests.

***

Sam is weaving on his feet, so a nurse directs him to the gourmet coffee cart on the ground floor. She gives him a flying saucer-shaped pager and a promise that she'll alert him the moment Dean's back from his test.

There's an atrium with cafe tables and two-story high windows, though the sunroom effect lacks any kind of sun. The sky's an especially Midwest brand of February gloom, just grayed over into one giant mass of cloud. He prefers the cloud cover you get in the West, charcoal formations piled one on the other, reminding you of that Big Sky, even when it's obscured. Dean disagrees. More accurately, Dean thinks Sam's full of shit. He --

Sam pushes back the wave of panic and grief that wells within him. As long as Dean's on this earth, Sam's going to fight for him tooth and claw. Fuck that. He'll keep it up if Dean does die, because Dean's all he has left.

Before he finishes his triple shot latte (which shows no signs of breaking through the exhaustion clouding over his brain), his cell rings. Sam's so focused on the pager that he's out of his chair before he realizes it's not the signal he's waiting for. "Yeah," he says once he's sorted out which piece of electronics to respond to.

"It's Bobby."

Relief floods through Sam so strongly it knocks his knees out from under him, dumping him back in the chair.

"I'm on my way to you now. Just tell me exactly where I'm going."

Sam offers up the specifics.

"Anything new on Dean?"

"They're doing more tests. So far they don't know a thing. He's not totally unresponsive, but it's close. I've got nothing to go on, but I'm thinking it has something to do with that tree. Which doesn't fit in with the wampus cat theory at all."

"Doesn't mean you couldn't have two unrelated things going on."

"Yeah, I guess."

"I should be there in about ten hours, give or take." It'll be take, knowing Bobby's lead foot when there's a reason to move. "Try to get some sleep. You sound like shit."

"Sure," Sam says, and they both know he's lying. The pager vibrates, clattering on the table top. "I've gotta go, Bobby. He's back from his test. See you when you get here."

Tossing his coffee cup in the trash, Sam rises and heads back to the nurse's station, hoping for good news, bracing for bad.

***

The doctors have decided Dean's stable enough to be in a room instead of the ICU, which means Sam can actually watch over him instead of wait for his five minutes per hour (if Dean's not off having another test).

Sam supposes he should be encouraged, but seeing Dean as still as before, hair spiky with grease and almost as pale as the faded hospital gown he wears -- it's hard to take. He makes an effort to keep his voice light. "Hey Dean. I'm right here. I talked to Bobby. He's on his way."

He should keep talking, he's heard that a million times. Somewhere in that unmoving shell, there's a piece of Dean that can hear what's going on. It's just more than he can handle right now.

"Now that you're settled in, I'm going to try to catch a little sleep. I'll be right here in this chair, Dean. If you need anything, just --" Sam's hands clench around the bed railing. "Just speak up, I'm right here."

He settles in, but sleep is beyond his reach for a long while. Three shots of espresso might not do much for the mental fog, but it has its effect, and each sound from the hallway or nurse who comes in to check on Dean rockets Sam to wakefulness again.

He's had a little bit of unbroken sleep when the doctor comes in, enough that Sam's neck and back feel permanently stoved up when he straightens in the chair. A tall, black man with some gray theaded through his close-cropped hair, he reaches Sam by the time he's managed to unfold himself from the chair.

He offers his hand. "I'm Dr. Moultrie, the chief neurologist. You're Mr. Plant's brother?"

"Yes. I'm Sam." He knows Sam Plant has to be the stupidest sounding name he's ever adopted, but if Dean's ever going to come around and call out for him, he wants no confusion. "Have you found anything that tells you what's going on?"

"We're still working on that. I'd like to do a quick exam here, and then we can talk."

"Sure."

The doctor leans over the bed. "Mr. Plant? Dean? It's Dr. Moultrie. Can you open your eyes for me? Your brother Sam's right here too. You want to open those eyes?"

"I'm right here, Dean," Sam says at Dr. Moultrie's encouraging look. "You should think about waking up. There are some seriously good-looking nurses in this hospital." He flicks a glance up at the doctor. "Sorry."

Dr. Moultrie grins. "You know the patient. Whatever works."

But it doesn't, so the doctor thumbs Dean's eyelids open in turn, shining a small flashlight into them. He runs through a few other quick assessments, finally taking Dean's hand and pinching the bed of his thumbnail hard.

Dean's eyes flutter and he jerks his hand away with a low grunt.

"That's good," Dr. Moultrie exclaims softly, surprise coloring his voice. He looks up at Sam. "That's the first verbal response we've had. That puts him a little farther up the scale." He releases Dean's hand, setting it gently on the covers at Dean's side, then makes some notes in the chart.

"So there's improvement?" Sam asks.

"Yes." He gestures Sam back toward his chair and brings another over from beside the next bed, currently unoccupied. "He's no longer at the bottom of the verbal response scale." Dr. Moultrie settles into his chair, facing Sam.

"What else have you found?"

"So far we're not sure what's going on. We've done an EEG, which records the electrical activity of the brain. In many coma patients, the most predominant brainwaves are the delta waves, the slow waves that normally appear in sleep. But in your brother's case we found a great deal of electrical activity in his brain, with a type of wave pattern that I've never seen before. I'd like to do some further studies, and repeat this one. To be honest, these results are baffling."

Sam likes his honesty. "But what's happening is abnormal."

"The wave patterns are not disordered. They're just ... nothing I've ever seen before. We'll keep running tests until we find out what's going on." He rises and Sam gets to his feet too. "I'm going to do some research, and I'll be back by in a couple of hours."

"Thanks, Doctor."

Moultrie offers another handshake, and then Sam's alone again with Dean.

***

Once the doctor leaves, Sam finds himself wide awake. He perches on the edge of Dean's bed, down by the foot where there's no railing. "I think you'd like this guy, Dr. Moultrie. Did you hear what he said? Some of the signs are improving. Just keep it up. You know the thing about talking to coma patients, right? The longer you lie there on your ass, the longer you've gotta listen to me. I am not, repeat not going to be reading Busty Asian Beauties at your bedside, not even the letters column. Keep lounging around, and I'm gonna read you the Wall Street Journal and play the most emo alt rock I can find. Then when I need a break, Bobby'll take over, and it'll be country music and the sound of him riding your ass until you wake the fuck up."

Sam is no good at this sort of bullshit threat. Dean, on the other hand, is a master at issuing them and making them sound like iron-clad promises.

Sam wishes he could do what they do in the sappy movies on what Dean calls "Chick Flick Network," which he occasionally watches so he can mock them. He wishes there were happy memories to talk about, childhood games and pets and old girlfriends. But he's drawing a blank. Every memory he can think of is dark, dark. Dean, remember that time you offered to shoot that girl I fell for, so I wouldn't have to? Yeah. Right.

It's about an hour shy of the time Dr. Moultrie said he'd be back when the door opens and a man in a white coat enters. Sam's instant impression is that everything about this guy is the polar opposite of Moultrie: white skin, pale eyes, a distinct lack of warmth. He offers neither a handshake or a name, and Sam takes an immediate dislike to him.

"I would like to ask you a few questions about Mr. --" he consults a piece of official-looking paper. "Plant."

"Are you an associate of Dr. Moultrie's?" Not because he doubts this, but he figures it might at least prompt a name.

"Yes. You are the patient's brother?"

"Yes." Two can play the one syllable/zero information game.

"This happened yesterday? At what time?"

"I didn't happen to pull out a watch," Sam retorts. "It was before dark, but not that much before."

Dr. Warmth nods. "You were present when he became ill."

"Yes."

"Where were you?"

Didn't this asshole bother to read the chart? Everything he was asking Sam had told EMTs, nurses, doctors. All but the EMTs seemed to be transcribing furiously.

"We were a mile or two out of town. There's a tree in the middle of the field. There's a story surrounding it, so we went out to see it."

"And he fell ill while you were there. Can you describe what happened?" He sounds just like that buzz-cut cop on Dragnet.

"Just the facts?"

The snark flies right over his not-so-buzz-cut head. "Yes, that would be valuable."

"I thought Dr. Moultrie was going to come and take this history."

"He was delayed."

"He's not even due yet."

The arrogance rolls off this guy, who's clearly accustomed to deference. "Every person on this staff wishes to help your brother," he says in reproach.

Sam makes himself relax his hands. "I'm sorry. I know that. This is ... hard."

"Take your time," the doctor says, but his manner conveys the opposite.

"We were out there by the tree. There was a flash. He went down, lost consciousness. At first he didn't move at all, then he had a grand mal seizure. When it was over, he was like this."

The doctor frowns. "Was he touching the tree?"

"I had my back turned. The wind was really cold. But he was close enough that he could have."

"Thank you for your cooperation," he says, still sounding for all the world like Joe Friday. Something about that pings some instinct in Sam, but he's out the door before Sam can respond.

Hunter? If so, he's no one Sam's heard about. Another thing he'll have to ask Bobby about when he arrives.

***

Dr. Moultrie arrives with Dean's fat chart under his arm and goes through every piece of it with Sam, including a review of the same information Sam gave Dr. Warmth. "I've made some calls to some of the best clinics and specialists there are," Dr. Moultrie adds, "so I'm hoping it connects with something they've seen."

Some doctors might give off the impression that they were hot on the trail of their next important JAMA article, but with Moultrie it reads as geniuine concern.

"I've even called some neurologists I know who are retired, but are whip-smart."

"Thank you. We appreciate this."

"Have you had any rest at all since this happened?"

Sam shrugs. "A little sleep in the chair here."

Dr. Moultrie lets out an even breath, seemingly weighing a decision. "Mr. Plant."

"Sam."

"Okay, Sam. I'm not brushing aside any prospect of hope, I want to make that clear. But this could go on for a while. You won't be doing your brother any good by running yourself into the ground at the very start. You need a night's sleep, and frankly you could start any time now."

Sam pushes his hand through his hair. "I know. But we've got family coming. When my uncle gets here, I'll get some sleep, I promise."

The doctor claps him on the arm and says, "See that you do." After another quick check of Dean's vitals, he leaves Sam to slouch back into the chair by Dean's side. Eventually he falls into a fitful sleep, punctuated by sudden muscle twangs from his position, or weird dreams woven from the sounds of the hospital.

When the phone pulls him out of yet another unpleasant dream, the windows are blank, black rectangles. He flips open the cell -- against regs, Dr. Moultrie had told him, before adding the evidence that they interfered with medical equipment wasn't that convincing, winding up with Just don't get caught. "Yeah."

"I need you to come down here and vouch for your uncle Bobby," and at this moment that road-roughened growl qualifies as the most beautiful thing he's ever heard.

"Be right down." He launches out of his chair so fast it gives him a headrush, and he grabs at the railing on Dean's bed until he regains his balance. "It's Bobby, Dean. He's here. I'm going to go clear him with the desk downstairs, and then we'll be right up."

There's no answer but the sound of monitors, but Sam still feels like things could turn out all right.

Sam takes the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, the clatter of his boot soles echoing off the concrete walls. When he bursts out of the stairwell and spots Bobby at the desk, he expects to feel an uncomplicated surge of relief and hope.

But the sight of him fills Sam with such a complex, uneasy mixture of feelings that it makes him reel worse than the headrush. Last time he saw Bobby -- last time he saw what looked like Bobby -- Sam had been forced to confront what he was willing to do for the slightest hope of bringing Dean back. He remembers ramming the stake through the body that looked just like Bobby's, and that sickening moment when he believed he'd killed him and not the Trickster. Sam's staggered by a wave of guilt and sorrow and self-loathing and utter certainty that he'd do the same thing again in the same circumstances.

Bobby catches the look on Sam's face and his own reflects rising dread. "Sam? He's not--"

"No, no, Jesus, no. He's about the same." He manages to unfreeze his feet and go to Bobby then, gathered up into a bone-crunching hug.

"Jesus, boy, you scared me there."

"Sorry, Bobby. God, I'm sorry. I'm just so --" Lost, is what he wants to say, but the word gets stuck sideways in his throat.

"Tired," Bobby says. "You're runnin' on next to no sleep, if that, and that rubs a man's emotions raw. Once you've had a chance to sleep, it'll be better."

"Yeah," Sam says, but he's not sure he believes it, and the worried look Bobby's wearing doesn't change that.

"C'mon," Bobby says. "Let's go see Dean, and you can tell me the whole story."

***

It's almost too painful to stand there and watch Bobby lean over the ghost lying in the hospital bed, calling Dean "Kid" and promising to get to the bottom of this.

All Sam can register is the memory of the last time Bobby's back had been presented this way. As a target. Every physical sensation of that moment is so clear in his head. If Bobby knew, he'd never turn his back on Sam again.

Hold it together. Might as well say Stop the moon from rising. He turns toward the window and presses the heels of his hands over his eyes.

"So fill me in," Bobby says as he turns from Dean's bedside. "What do the -- Sam?"

"I can't do this."

Bobby puts a hand on his shoulder. It's not gentle or comforting, it's the patented Bobby Singer This is what getting a grip feels like grab. "What, son?"

"I can't do it again. I said I would fight, Bobby, but I might just put a bullet in my brain."

Bobby shakes him, hard. "You're not making any sense. And this is not the place for this kind of talk. What can't you do again?"

Sam looks over at Dean. Take away the machines and put him in a suit, and he could be laid out for his own funeral. "Not here."

Following his gaze, Bobby nods. "Is your motel far?"

"Someone has to be with Dean."

"I'm a helluva lot more worried about you than him right now. Dean's stable. You're comin' unglued. I'll drive you to the motel, you can fill me in, then I'll come back and sit with Dean."

"Too far away." The nearest hospital with a neurology department from Union is, of course, on the outskirts of Cincinnati.

"Then we get a room at the hotel across the street. Problem solved." And Bobby actually starts to steer him across the room.

Sam tenses to resist, but he cannot fight Bobby, not after what happened. What, to be more accurate, didn't happen.

All he can concentrate on is keeping himself from flying apart while Bobby takes care of the details. He herds Sam into the elevator like a farm dog, ordering him around with monosyllabic equivalents of barks, guiding him to the room.

When they're inside, Bobby says, "Sit down, Sam."

Sam obeys without taking off his coat. Bobby rummages in the mini-bar and pours a stiff drink, which he passes over to Sam, who wraps his fingers around the glass but doesn't lift it. "Someone should be with Dean."

"I set some wards. He'll be safe enough until I get back. Tell me what's going on."

"The doctor --"

"That's not what I'm talking about. And drink that, dammit. It'll cost enough."

Sam dutifully takes a sip.

"This ain't a sorority tea. Lower your damn pinkie and drink." When he's satisfied, he perches on the bed nearest Sam's chair. "What did you mean, you can't do this again? Do what?"

Warmth spreads through him as the whiskey hits his system. "Watch Dean die."

"'Die'? 'Again'? The hell are you talking about, boy?"

Sam rubs his hand across his mouth, looks at the streak of moisture on his fingers. Blood's smeared there; he has chewed his lips raw. "We ran into the Trickster god we thought we'd killed. Down in Florida."

"Christ." Bobby readjusts his hat. "This can't be good."

"I didn't know he was the cause of it, not right away. Dean died."

"Sonofabitch," Bobby says softly.

"And then I woke up, and it was the same day again. And we went through the same motions, except I tried to change things. And he died again, only in a different way. And then wham, Groundhog Day again. Starts the same way, ends the same way, just with variations on how."

"Jesus. How many times?"

"A hundred, I'd guess. Then we found the Trickster, and he said he was getting bored anyway. So the next day, there's actually a next day. Loop over. And Dean -- he dies again. I don't wake up, he doesn't come back.. He's gone."

All the air goes out of Bobby then; he's at a loss for even a curse word.

"And then I'm alone. Each morning I wake up, and I'm still alone. Hunting. Trying to find the Trickster."

"How long?"

"Months, Bobby. It was the worst --"

"Shit, son." The hand on his shoulder this time is fatherly. "How did you make it end?"

This he cannot ever -- will not ever -- say. "Summoned the Trickster. Begged. Pleaded. He decided he was bored with that one too. And then I was back where I was the day the loop ended."

"When was this?"

Sam shakes his head. "A week, ten days ago."

"Damn, son." Bobby clumsily pats his shoulder.

"I'm not lying, Bobby. If he dies, I will shoot myself and go to hell with him."

***

Bobby's face darkens. "Stop talking like a damn nitwit. For one thing, Dean is not going to die."

"I wish I could believe that."

"You haven't slept in so long you're hanging by a thread. Of course you can't see anything but gloom. Just give me the quick and dirty on what the doctors say, then I'll get out of your hair so you can sleep."

"You can't have had much yourself. You've been on the road for --"

"I'm fine, Sam. You take care of yourself. Fill me in, then I'll go sit with Dean."

And Dean is the one argument that Sam can't refute. "All right," he says, and he passes on all the information he has. By the end, he's barely keeping the thread of his sentences from start to finish.

Bobby claps him on the shoulder. "Good job, Sam. Now you get to sleep, and I'll head back over to Dean."

Sam rubs his eyes. "I'll be there somewhere around six or seven."

"Like hell you will. Leave the fucking alarm alone. Just sleep till your body's had enough, then eat something, then you can show up"

"But if he wakes up --"

"For god's sake, boy, you think I wouldn't call you if he woke up?" He whips off his trucker's cap and thwacks Sam across the chest with it. "Idjit." He's gone before Sam can formulate a response.

Sam shakes his head and drops into bed, pausing just long enough to tug off his boots and throw his coat on a chair. Then he's out.

The room is bathed in light when Sam wakes up; he'd never thought to pull the curtains before he'd crashed. He brews some bad coffee and takes a shower, but he's still stuck with the same clothes he'd worn the day before. Grabbing a pastry and another coffee from the free breakfast setup in the lobby, he crams it into his mouth as he heads out the lobby and across to the hospital. It's gone by the time he reaches the hospital entrance, and the coffee's finished by the time he reaches Dean's floor.

As he looks around for a place to throw the coffee cup away, he spots a small, softly lit room he hasn't noticed before. A placard by the door says Meditation Room -- All Welcome. Nobody's there at the moment. There are only four chairs, a couple of photo landscapes on the wall that are meant to inspire everyone, offend no one.

On impulse, Sam steps inside, sits down. Lacing his fingers together with his palms turned up, he stares at them for a long moment. "What am I doing here?" he mutters. "I said -- I said I don't pray. I used to. I remember how shocked Dean was when I told him that."

He looks into his palms for a long time, as if they cradle a small book. One of those pocket Bibles the Gideons handed outside the schools. "I haven't asked or expected anything from you in a long time. But this -- Dean has never once in his life asked for anything for himself. If you let him be taken, you sonofabitch --" Suddenly he's aware of the presence of another person, his skin seeming to register the change in the molecules of the air. Biting back the ineffectual threat he'd been about to issue, he looks toward the doorway and finds himself in the openly curious gaze of the doctor who'd questioned him yesterday.

"Does it look like I'm talking to you?" Sam snaps.

The first glimmer of humanity surfaces in him at that. "I'm sorry," he says. "It wasn't my intention to intrude."

"You have news about my brother?"

"You misunderstand. I meant to spend a few moments in this room, that's all." He steps back. "I'll return later."

"That's okay," Sam says before he can leave. "I need to get to Dean." He rises and moves for the door.

"I'll pray for him," the doctor says as Sam slips past him. "And for you."

Sam can't say why, but he feels vaguely unsettled by this unexpected softening in his manner. "Thanks," he says reluctantly.

He steps out into the bright glare of the hallway and heads for Dean's room.

***

Coming off ten hours of sleep, Sam can now see the signs of Bobby's bone weariness: the set of his shoulders, the pinched look around his eyes.

"Any change?" Sam asks.

"No. Physical therapist came in for while, is all. They want to keep his muscle tone up."

Sam pictures the therapist moving the dead weight of Dean's limbs, an obscene parody of exercise. He has to dig his nails into his palms to keep his voice even as he asks Bobby how he's holding up.

"I ain't exactly perky, but I'm holding up just fine. What about you?" There is nothing casual in the way Bobby asks this question.

"I'm good. Slept like a baby."

Unbidden, he remembers Dean's favorite rejoinder to this, so clear in his head as if Dean's just spoken. What, you woke up crying cause you crapped yourself?" This was always accompanied by a chuckle and a hard thump on the shoulder.

Bobby's eyes narrow. "Yeah, I can see you're good."

"Go on," Sam says. "Get out of here. Same deal, Bobby. Sleep as long as you need."

Once Bobby's gone, Sam settles in the chair he vacated and opens the paper that had been at his hotel room door. "I figured we could see if there are any jobs in the area," he says to Dean. "Once we finish with the wampus cat." He knows, if Dean were awake, Sam would be fighting this very plan, but it gives him something to say so Dean will have a familiar voice to cling to.

Sam's down to reading the advice columns by the time the door opens and the doctor from the meditation room enters. Though he'd been hoping for Dr. Moultrie, Sam nods a greeting and backs off to let him do his exam.

For a long moment, the doctor just stands at Dean's bedside, staring at him with a strange, unblinking intensity. Something about it makes the hairs bristle at the back of Sam's neck, and he takes a step toward the bed.

The man -- Sam realizes he still doesn't know his name -- extends two fingers, reaching out to touch them to Dean's forehead. The gesture's as far from violent as it's possible to get, but Dean's eyes fly open at the contact, a harsh gasp tearing through him.

"Dean!" But the relief that tears through Sam slams up against something hard, as Dean looks around wildly, no sign of recognition in his eyes, only panic.

His arms thrash outward, sending the IV stand crashing to the floor, striking the doctor.

"No!" Dean shouts. His voice is rusty after his silence, but there's something else about it -- Sam would never recognize it as Dean's voice, if he heard it coming from behind him. "No no no no no!"

"Cristo," Sam shouts, running for the doctor.

The man in the white coat doesn't even turn, flinging an arm back to send Sam crashing into the wall with such force his breath is driven from his body.

Sam sprawls gasping on the floor as Dean struggles to break free of the doctor's grasp.

"NO!" Dean screams, his voice breaking on the drawn-out syllable.

***

The muffled thunder of running feet in soft-soled shoes approaches in the hallway, accompanied by urgent voices. The door bursts open, and the room fills with white coats and colored scrubs, and in the midst of this, Sam loses sight of the white-coated man that started this.

Dean still shouts and thrashes, despite efforts to restrain him. "Get away from me, get away!"

"Dean, you're all right, you're safe," Dr. Moultrie says. "Try to relax."

"Kill me," Dean shouts. "Stop him."

"Nobody's going to kill you, Dean," the doctor says. "Relax for me, and we'll see what's going on."

Sam manages to get to his feet, still panting for breath. "Dean, it's all right now. I'm here." He makes his way to Dean's bedside, and the doctors and nurses move aside to let Dean see that he's there. The doctor who knocked Sam across the room is gone. "He's gone now, you're safe."

Dean gives no sign of recognition. "Our father sent him to kill me. I have to go, let me go!"

"Dean, it's Sam. Calm down." Sam gets a forearm to the face in response, and Dean lashes out at the nurses and orderlies who try to pin him down.

"Our father sent him."

"Nobody's going to hurt you," Dr. Moultrie says. "We just want to examine you."

"Dean, Dad's ... he's not going to hurt you."

"And the rock cried out, no hiding place," Dean says. "Father --"

Dr. Moultrie takes Sam by the arm and draws him back from the bed. He murmurs an order to one of the nurses and she hurries out of the room. "Anything you can tell me about this?" he asks Sam.

"Our dad's been dead for two years," Sam says. "And I've never heard Dean call him father. It's always been dad."

"Any reason he'd fixate on this?"

Sam shakes his head. "He's got dad issues, we both do. We had a pretty messed up childhood. But he did the best he could. He never hit us or hurt us."

"Any notion what set him off? Was he awake before he got like this?"

"No. There was a doctor in the room. I don't know his name, but I've seen him a couple of times. He seemed to be about to examine Dean, and when he touched him, Dean started screaming."

"I don't like this," Dr. Moultrie says. "There may be some delayed swelling in the brain, something else that wasn't apparent the first time around. I'd like to repeat some tests."

"Sure." Sam's not convinced that they'll find a non-demonic explanation for this, but he's taking no chances. "Whatever you need to do."

"I don't want to sedate him, considering he just came out of a coma. We'll have to put him in heavy restraints."

Sam doesn't trust himself to speak, so he just nods.

Dr. Moultrie squeezes his shoulder. "You might want to step out while we get him under control. It might be hard to watch."

"No. I need to be here."

"I can respect that. We're gonna do our best for him, Sam."

He joins the others at Dean's bedside, completely obscuring Sam's view of his brother, whose yowls are now a mixture of words and unintelligible sounds.

Dean's right here in the room, but Sam feels as lost and pulled apart as he had during those disappeared months when Dean was dead.

***

It's frightening how easily he drops back into the dark, solitary place he'd lived in for the months Dean was gone, like that time was never erased. Even with two orderlies bustling around him to set the room right, Sam sits alone with the image of Dean completely immobilized, terrified. Twenty minutes go by before it even occurs to him to call Bobby.

It takes a few rings to drag Bobby out of sleep. "Yeah."

"Bobby."

The fuzziness leaves his voice immediately. "What is it, Sam?"

"He's awake. But -- it's bad."

"I'll be there in three."

True to his word, Bobby strides in less than five minutes later. "Where's Dean?"

"They took him down to do more tests."

A relieved breath gusts out of Bobby.

"To repeat the same tests, actually," Sam adds. "They think he might have some swelling. But something -- I think something attacked him."

"Take a breath, son. Tell me what happened."

"A doctor came in. Except I'm not completely sure he's a doctor. Shit shit shit! I meant to ask you about him. Fuck! This is all --"

"Simmer down, Sam. Focus."

"I've seen this guy a couple of times. He asked me a bunch of questions about the tree, and what happened out there. Yesterday, I mean."

"Tell me about today, son. What happened?"

"This doctor came in. He just stared at Dean for a while, then he touched him on the forehead." Without conscious thought, Sam imitates the doctor's two-fingered gesture, so seemingly gentle. "Dean woke up and started fighting and yelling. Sent the IV stand flying."

"What was he saying?"

"At first it was just 'No no no.' Then he started saying our father wanted him killed. And something about no hiding place." He pushes his hands through his hair. "Jesus, Bobby. They had him all strapped up like Hannibal Lecter to take him down for the tests. He was terrified. He didn't even know me. Jesus."

"This doctor who started all this. Is he still with him?"

"No. I lost him when all the other doctors and nurses came running in. I went for him when Dean first started shouting. He slammed me across the room so hard I saw stars."

Bobby scowls. "Demon."

Sam shakes his head. "I said Cristo and it didn't have the slightest effect. Jesus, Bobby. If you'd seen him."

Bobby grabs him by the shirt. "Don't go comin' apart on me, Sam. Dean needs the both of us -- you hear me?"

But Bobby might as well be a mirage, a manifestation of the Trickster, for all the good his haranguing does.

Sam is in this alone.

***

"We've got work to do, boy," Bobby says gruffly.

This is more about keeping Sam from losing what control he has left than finding anything helpful, he suspects. Bobby's voice is a rope snaking down into the inky blackness of the deep well Sam's fallen into. But the rope does no good unless Sam can reach for it.

"Sam. Work with me here. Tell me everything you remember Dean saying."

"Just 'no,' over and over again, until that doctor was gone. Then he said our father had sent this guy to kill him. He said 'our father,' not 'dad.'" He feels himself begin to shiver apart, his throat clamping shut.

"Stay with me, Sam. Tell me the rest." Shaking the rope in front of his face, telling him to grab on and hold tight.

"'No hiding place.' Something about a rock."

"'And the rock cried out, No hiding place.'"

Sam's head jerks upward. "Yes."

"It's from the Book of Revelation. Well, I think we can safely say he's not possessed by a Bible-spoutin' demon."

"Some kind of haunting?"

"Could be, but it's too early to know anything for sure. Did he say anything else?"

"He did, but the rest was gibberish."

"Gibberish, or some language you don't know?" There's a faint tone of reproach in his voice, and Sam knows it's warranted.

Sam closes his eyes, trying to remember the sound. "Dr. Moultrie was talking to me, so I wasn't listening closely. I think maybe it could have been a language, but it sounded ... broken. Strained."

"Nothing seemed familiar about it?"

He shakes his head. "No. Nothing Latinate, or Celtic. But again, I wasn't completely focused on it. I could have missed something."

"You did good, kid." Bobby squeezes his shoulder. "I'm gonna grab a few books from the truck, see if there's anything that'll narrow this down. Anything else you want?"

"Coffee."

"You've got it."

Bobby hasn't been gone more than a few minutes when Dr. Moultrie returns. He settles into the chair Bobby has been using and looks at Sam with a direct, grave gaze. "We'll be bringing Dean up shortly, but I wanted to talk to you first."

"Not rushing him into surgery," Sam says. "So the tests--"

"They showed no bleeding or swelling. Physically, he's stable. So that's good news."

"But that's the last good news you have."

Dr. Moultrie nods. "I'm afraid it is."

***

Sam feels as though the breath has been squeezed right out of him. "What's happened?"

"He's had a complete break with reality, with any sense of his own body. He spoke of being blinded and deafened, made voiceless, but his responses to visual and aural cues were normal -- and you know as well as I do that he can talk. He doesn't know who he is."

"God." He rubs at his eyes, willing himself not to get teary.

"There's a chance this is just a response to the restraints. We had to make sure he was completely immobilized for the CT scan. Plenty of people find it upsetting to be in the scanner even under normal circumstances. Is your brother claustrophobic?"

"Dean has to get into some pretty tight spaces for his work. He doesn't like it, but it doesn't panic him."

"Tell me about his work," Dr. Moultrie says. "Does he handle toxic materials, or could he have been exposed?"

Exposed to toxic materials has been the story of Dean's life, but there's no way to describe the exact sorts of poisonous shit he deals with every day. "Duct work. Repair. Old houses, sometimes factories. There's no way to tell what's in those places." Sam has no idea whether his ready source of lies could be making matters worse for Dean, but what the hell is he going to say? Could be a wampus cat, doc.

Dr. Moultrie makes a few notes in Dean's chart. "All right. We'll do some extensive bloodwork, see if any answers turn up there."

Sam ghosts a humorless smile. "Paging Dr. House."

The doctor snorts. "Please. I love that show, but I wouldn't let that man near one of my patients. If it weren't television, he'd kill at least half the people he treats. I'm ten times the doctor he is, and I don't even have scriptwriters."

Sam manages a small laugh at this.

"We also need to know if there's any family history of mental illness. That might help us narrow things down."

"Actually, we don't know much family history at all," Sam admits. "We never knew our grandparents or any extended family, and our mom died when I was a baby. There's not much I can tell you."

Dr. Moultrie meets Sam's eyes, his gaze penetrating but compassionate. "I realize this could be sensitive territory. I only ask so that I can help Dean. You talked about having a messed-up childhood. Did your father suffer from any kind of mental illness?"

"He suffered from grief," Sam says. It astonishes him how liberally he laces the truth in with his lies, something he rarely does. Moultrie's manner, he suspects, has everything to do with it. "We moved around a lot from the time my mom died. He was kind of a Marine dad at times. But no, nothing like you're talking about."

The doctor gives his shoulder a gentle squeeze and rises. "Thanks for your honesty. I know this is tough. Dean should be back any minute now. He's sedated now -- once we saw we weren't dealing with brain injury, we thought we'd better alleviate the panic. The restraints are off, but we might need to use them again if he's agitated when he wakes up."

"Thanks, Doctor." Sam leans back in his chair, numb, trying to gather his strength for whatever comes next.

***

Before Dr. Moultrie can take his leave, a couple of orderlies wheel Dean back into the room and get him settled back in. The doctor stays to run a quick exam, Sam standing by the other side of the bed, unable to stay across the room.

Dean's as still as he was before, but Sam can smell the sour fear-sweat stink still clinging to him. His hair is spiky with it, and Sam reaches out to smooth it back down. "He practically raised me," he finds himself saying. He can feel Dr. Moultrie's attention on him, but he keeps his gaze on Dean. "When our dad was at work, or just too caught up in his own grief. He fed me and made me do my homework even though he didn't give a damn about his own. He nursed me through colds and chicken pox and scraped knees. Now here we are, and I can't do a goddamn thing for him. He's never asked for anything for himself."

"You can be here," Dr. Moultrie says. "And you can keep taking care of yourself. Because that's what he'd want."

"I had a few hours of sleep, across the street."

"And I went and drained them right back out of you, didn't I?"

Sam doesn't deny it. "You were honest with me. I'd rather be prepared, when he wakes up again."

Dr. Moultrie nods. "It's what I'd hope for." He finishes his notation in Dean's chart and tucks it back under his arm. "And the fact that you don't have any extended family is something that'll stay between you, me and your 'uncle.'"

Shit. His worry has made him careless. He lets out a breath. "Thanks, doc."

"Sure thing." Dr. Moultrie nods toward Dean. "I'll be checking on him again." He extends his hand over the bed and Sam shakes it, then he heads out into the hall.

***

As the door drifts shut behind Dr. Moultrie, Sam gathers Dean's hand in his. It feels different this time. Not responsive, but there's more weight to it than it seemed to have when he was in the coma.

"Hang on, Dean," he says. "I know you're in there. Whatever this is, you've got to fight it. Kick its ass. We have work to do, and we can't get to it until you're back with me."

I know you're in there. He remembers another time Dean was locked inside his own body, dying.

Shouldering open the door, Bobby arrives with an armload of books and Sam's coffee just as Sam blurts, "Ouija board."

"Take this," Bobby orders, extending the coffee as far as he can without the books sliding free and tumbling to the floor. "He's slipped back into the coma?"

"No. They had to sedate him." Sam relays the information Dr. Moultrie gave him. He goes on: "I was just thinking about the wreck last year. When Dean was in the coma, I managed to reach him using a Ouija board. Maybe I should try it again; maybe I can figure out what's got him, help him find his way back."

"Guess it's worth a try," Bobby says. "Why don't you go lay your hands on one, and I'll sit here with Dean while I get some research done."

"Keep an eye on him, Bobby." He describes the doctor who woke Dean and sent Sam flying across the room. "If he comes near Dean again, stop him. I don't care if you have to shoot him."

"Sam--"

Sam ignores him, taking Dean's hand again. "Dean, I'll be gone for a little while. I thought of something that might help. Bobby's right here, and I'll be back as soon as I can. Just hang on."

Finding his coat where he'd wadded it and set it aside, he's aware of Bobby's sharp gaze.

"The books, Bobby." He sounds more like Dean than himself. "Get to the fucking books."

"Now look, you snotnose pup --"

But Sam is out the door and striding down the hallway.

***ohsam4

It's tough to shake the feeling of deja vu when he returns to the room with a Ouija board under his arm. Considering all that happened after that, it's tough to shake the feeling of impending doom.

Pulling the box out of the bag, he says, "You remember how this works, Dean. All you have to do is talk to me."

A voice in his head, one he doesn't want to listen to, reminds him that the circumstances were different last time. He'd felt Dean's presence, seen evidence of it in a shattered glass. This time he's felt nothing.

Sitting on the floor, he opens the box and unfolds the board.

"Now wait a minute," Bobby says. "I'm too damn old to be sitting on floors."

"It's okay," Sam says. "Dean will move the planchette with me. It's how it worked last time."

"Sam." Bobby's voice is laced with a cautionary tone wrapped in uncharacteristic gentleness. "The answers you get that way are bound to be tainted by wishful thinking."

He keeps his gaze on the board. "It worked last time," he repeats, an angry edge to his voice.

"All right," Bobby says, settling back into his chair.

Sam places the planchette on the board. resting his fingertips lightly on one side. "Dean I know you're there. Help me figure out what's wrong, and we'll bring you back."

A pinpoint of pain appears just above the bridge of Sam's nose, and he realizes he's so tense he's probably working against himself. Removing his fingers from the planchette, he shakes out his forearms, flexes his back, then repositions his hands. "Don't be afraid, Dean. Bobby and I will help you. Just tell us what's going on."

Though the headache spreads through his forehead, Sam welcomes the ferocity of the pain. It feels much like the blinding headaches that accompanied his visions. "That's right, Dean. I'm here. Can you feel how close I am?"

The pain brightens, sharpens, deepens. Sam's hand twitches involuntarily, but he forces it back to the planchette. "That's right. Come on, come on." On its own accord, the piece scoots across the Ouija board, shooting over and past the word NO, just as Dean's raspy shout bursts out, sharp as a gunshot.

"Keep talking, Dean." But the pain in his head forces him to raise his hands from the planchette to clutch at his skull. "Dean. God --"

Something roars up and at him from the board, slamming him up and back until he crashes against the wall by the door. A thin howl rises up, and Sam's not sure it comes from his throat or Dean's.

"Cristo," Bobby says, and Sam feels a splash of water on his arm and hand.

Dean's thrashing calms, just as the headache eases by a small fraction. Before Sam can push himself up from the floor, he feels a sudden thread of wetness slip toward his upper lip. By the time he can raise a hand to his face, the trickle has become a gush of bright red blood.

***

Bobby scrambles to his side. "Sam!"

"I'm okay," he says thickly. "See about Dean."

Making a quick detour to the bathroom, Bobby tosses him a rough hand towel.

"Dean," he snarls to Bobby, but chokes on the viscous river clogging his nose and throat. Pressing the towel to his face, he's alarmed by the speed of the crimson stain spreading through the cotton.

"Dean," Bobby says, his voice gentled. "You're safe, son. We're here and we're not goin' anywhere."

"Must not look upon me," Dean mutters. "Stay away."

"Settle down now," Bobby croons. "They took off the restraints -- you want to keep it that way."

"I am bound still," Dean says. "Almost blinded. I can't hear -- Brothers!"

"Sam's right here, son. I'm right here."

"You are not my father," he insists.

Sam staggers to his feet, cloth pressed to his face. "Dean, I'm here."

Whirling to face him, Bobby hisses, "Sam, get the hell back before you scare him shitless. Get in the damn bathroom and clean up."

Hurrying to comply, Sam reels as he drops the blood-soaked towel into the sink and clutches the porcelain. No wonder Bobby told him to get the fuck away from Dean. He looks like he's gone fifteen rounds with the heavyweight champion of the demon world. His blood drips on the sodden wad of towels in the sink, spat spat spat, slowing only for a large clot to push its way through his nose. It both fascinates and disgusts him.

All he can hear from the room is the indistinct murmur of male voices. Anxious to get back out there, he grabs for a washcloth, dampens it, and runs it across his face, but another thick line of blood flows down to stain the skin he's just cleaned.

What the hell was it that pushed at him like that? Sam's never had a nosebleed this bad without taking a direct hit from something as hard as a bat or gunbutt or another man's skull.

"Sam?" Bobby calls out. "How's it coming in there?"

"Not good."

In a moment Bobby sidles into the bathroom doorway. "I gotta keep an eye on him, but -- Jesus, boy."

"I need to have this packed."

"I'd say you do," Bobby says drily. "There's a call button right by the toilet."

"Can't you?"

Bobby favors him with an eye roll. "Stupid me, I didn't think to bring my kit. Cause we happen to be in the damn hospital. Christ, he's trying to get up." Leaning in and punching the call button, he sighs then heads back out to Dean's side.

The muffled sound of pounding soft-soled shoes grows louder until Sam hears the door burst open and Bobby's quick, "In there."

A nurse steams into the place that Bobby just abandoned, fixing him with a sour look. "You're not the patient."

"No. His brother. Look, I -- I get nosebleeds when I'm stressed. I think this needs to be packed."

"We'll need to take you to the emergency room, get you into the system."

"I'm not leaving my brother."

She puts a hand on his arm, and Sam realizes she's totally capable of frog-marching him down to the ER. "You're not having it done here."

"Then I'll do it myself. Bring me some gauze and some tape." Fighting rising nausea, Sam spits another clot into the sink.

"I don't take orders from you, junior. If you want treatment, you have to be a patient."

"Get Dr. Moultrie. Please."

"You are not wasting a neurologist's time with a bloody nose."

Marching toward them, Bobby more than matches the nurse's attitude. He thrusts his head forward, nearly pecking her with the bill of his cap. "You're upsetting the one who is your patient. Give me some supplies and I'll patch the boy up. I was an army medic, and I jammed a cork into a helluva lot worse messes than that one, back when neither of those boys was even a randy thought in their old man's head."

They exchange glowers for a long moment, then the nurse says. "Fine. Just clean up the mess in the sink while you're at it."

Once she's gone, Sam lets out a breath. "Stay with Dean till she gets back. I'll be all right."

***

"Well, you ain't pretty, but that should do it," Bobby says.

It doesn't feel pretty -- two wads of cotton shoved tightly into his nose, with the ends sticking out. Sam can imagine Dean now: Hey, Tampon-Nose. Then again, he'd happily put up with the abuse, since it would mean Dean was himself again.

Bobby waves Sam off when he tries to help clean the sink and everything else he's touched, so he leans against the bathroom door frame, watching Dean.

"I've never felt anything like that, Bobby. Whatever the hell has gotten into him, it has power."

"Yeah. I'll hit the books while you sit with him." He waves Sam away again. "Go on now, I've got it covered."

Warily, Sam approaches his brother. "Hey, Dean," he says, voice soothing as he can make it considering the weird, congested quality it now has. "You knocked me for a loop there, dude. You're safe here, okay? Bobby and I are going to figure out what's happening, and nothing's going to get to you in the meantime."

"Too late," Dean mutters. "It's already happened."

"Can you tell me about it?"

"I was pushed out, cast down."

Dean's rising distress is evident, and Sam is torn between the urge to back off and the desire to push for more information. The second impulse wins out. "Cast down from where?"

It takes a long time for Dean to wrestle the next word out. Closing his eyes, he whispers, "Home."

Home is a word they use so seldom it might as well be never. Dean hasn't had anything like a home since he was four, unless you count that summer Dad parked them at Bobby's. Sam doesn't remember the house in Kansas at all, except their visit two years ago, but the place he shared with Jess had been home to him.

Resisting the urge to touch Dean's arm, afraid it will bring his revelations to an abrupt halt, Sam contents himself with leaning closer. "Tell me about your home."

"It's gone. The other took the memory when I was torn out."

The other. The words make Sam's skin rise up in goosebumps, though he doesn't know why. "What can you tell me about the other?"

"The other chose this. To leave me in this place, blind and deaf and hollowed out. Alone."

This time when the urge comes on, Sam does reach out, laying his hand on Dean's arm.

Dean pulls away, snarling. "This is your doing. I was sleeping. Why did you force me awake?"

"Dean--"

The only response is another push, which sends Sam reeling back into the wall.

***

The dual thuds of Sam's contact with the wall and the floor bring Bobby hurrying out of the bathroom to kneel at his side. "What the hell happened?"

"He gave me another one of those psychic pushes." Gingerly he touches the tip of the nose tampon (now that he's heard this in Dean's voice in his head, he can't think of it any other way), but there's no blood leaking through. "I touched him. I don't know if that's what set him off, or just the emotions that were building up. I think maybe we need to step out into the hallway and have a talk."

"You all right?"

Nodding, Sam says, "Give me a hand up." As he gets to his feet, he steadies himself with a hand on Bobby's shoulder. "Dean, Bobby and I are going to step outside for a couple of minutes. We'll be just outside the door, so if you need anything--" As if Sam's the answer to his distress, and not the cause.

When they're in the corridor, Sam says, "I've got a theory. It sounds nuts, but it's all I've got."

"So stop pussyfooting around -- what is it?"

Sam gently tests the nose tampon again with the back of his forefinger, recognizing the beginnings of a really annoying tic. "I don't think it's random crazy. I think Dean's possessed. But whatever it is that's possessing him -- there's something wrong with it. I think -- I think it has amnesia. Have you ever heard of anything like that?"

"Can't say I have, but there's a first time for everything."

"So the question is, does exorcism work on something that doesn't remember what it is?"

"One way to find out," Bobby says, turning and pushing through the door.

"Shit!" Sam calls out behind him. Despite the fact that they'd been blocking Dean's door, the doctor who'd awakened him in the first place stands over his bed, reaching a hand toward Dean's face. "Get away from my brother!"

Bobby lunges toward the doctor and finds himself slammed against the wall as Sam had earlier.

"Cristo!" Sam says again, though he knows it's useless.

"Do not interfere." The doctor's voice is commanding, arrogant. "This man has taken something that is not his to keep."

"Taken? Whatever it is, it took him."

He makes a dismissive gesture. "No matter. He will relinquish it."

"What happens to him then?" Sam asks. "To my brother."

The doctor gives him a look that says the conversation is beginning to bore him. "That is not my concern." He turns back toward Dean and Sam tries to tackle him, but some force restrains him, holding him motionless.

Before the doctor can lay a hand on him, Dean vanishes.

Anger seems to make the air crackle around the doctor as he whirls toward Sam as if this is his doing. Then, in a heartbeat, the doctor vanishes too.

***

Wide-eyed, Bobby turns to meet Sam's gaze. "What in the fucking fuck?"

All Sam can do is shake his head. He rushes out into the hallway, not sure what he's expecting. Neither Dean nor the doctor is out there.

"I did see that, didn't I?" Bobby demands. "He didn't take Dean -- Dean disappeared first, right?"

"Yeah. That's what I saw. Where the hell do we look, Bobby? In the hospital?"

"Beats shit outta me, Sam."

"The tree. Whatever's got him might remember the tree."

"Good thought." Bobby darts back into the room to grab his coat and Sam's. They fly down the hall as they wrestle their way into the coats, dodging orderlies and nurses and slow moving patients. Sam slips and nearly wipes out on the slick pavement outside the hospital entrance, but rights himself before he falls. When he makes it to the Impala, he reaches toward the driver's door, stopping in mid-motion.

"Dean!" Sam wrenches the door open and Dean recoils, throwing an arm up to shield his face. Sam gentles his voice, crooning, "Dean, it's all right, I won't hurt you."

Dean drops the arm to half mast, but his breathing's still ragged, eyes wild with panic. The hospital gown has come untied at the back of the neck, leaving one shoulder mostly bare.

Sam reaches a hand toward him, but freezes when Bobby says behind him, "Careful, Sam."

Instead he makes a placating gesture, palms out. "We won't hurt you. How did you get here?"

"I don't know. What is this place?"

"It's my brother's car. He must have led you here." It gives Sam goosebumps to realize the truth of this, to feel the strong surge of hope that follows that thought. He's still in there. "We should find someplace less exposed. Who is that man who's after you?"

"I don't know." His lack of answers is making his panic level rise, and Sam shows his palms again.

"Okay. I know this is scary as hell for you. But Dean -- he's my brother -- he led you here because this is the place he considers home. He put you right behind the wheel, which is one of the places he feels safest. He trusts this car to get him someplace safe, no matter what's going on. He trusts me, and he trusts Bobby here. Can you try that too? We'll take you somewhere safer."

It's hard to tell at first if Dean -- or whatever's got him -- even processes this. He sits behind the wheel, his hands clenched around it without any of the familiarity and love Dean's hands convey when he touches the Impala.

"If you'll let me drive," Sam says gently, "I'll get us somewhere safe."

Dean's grip on the wheel loosens.

"That's it, just slide over to the other side. You don't even have to get out."

Awkwardly Dean shoves over to the other side, as far against the passenger door as he can get.

"Good, that's good," Sam says. Making no sudden moves, he settles in behind the wheel, and Bobby gets in back with the same care.

"Where you thinking to go?" Bobby asks.

"Across the street," Sam says. We'll park in the garage and get him up in the elevator without too much exposure."

"Exposure's the word, in more ways than one. You got a pair of pants in here, or at least a blanket?"

"Dean's clothes are back at the motel in Union. There's a blanket in the trunk. I'll go back and get our stuff when we get him settled in." He finds a spot close to the elevators, checks that the coast is clear, then delivers a blanket to Dean. "It's gonna be okay," he says. "Bobby and I, we're going to keep you safe."

Still rigid with tension, Dean nods tightly and lets them guide him up to the room.

***

Blanket wrapped around him, Dean sits on the edge of one of the beds. The sight of his pale, bare feet on the carpet twists Sam's heart. "Is there something I can get for you? Are you thirsty or hungry? Maybe a hot shower to warm you up?"

Dean just stares at him, seemingly puzzled by any of these choices.

"Give him a few minutes, Sam," Bobby suggests. "Let him get used to being here."

Realizing that's a smart plan, Sam backs off, literally as well as figuratively. The last thing he wants is Dean to get freaked out enough to teleport somewhere else. They were lucky enough to find him easily the first time.

Bobby gestures him to the other side of the room, and Sam complies.

"We may have some other issues coming up," Bobby mutters. "They're gonna find their patient is missing, eventually, and nothing but a Ouija board and a bathroom full of bloody paper towels left behind. Someone might sound the alarm."

"Shit. You're right." Sam flips open his phone. "I'm gonna talk to Dr. Moultrie."

"Sam --"

"I trust him, Bobby. You know that's not my automatic response. And I'm pretty sure he trusts me. If I come clean about bringing Dean with us, I think we can avoid the whole fugitive thing. I'll go over and see him."

It takes a few minutes to get Moultrie on the phone. "Dr. Moultrie, this is, uh, Sam Plant." He cringes every time he has to use this stupid alias. He vows he's going to burn these insurance cards, get another set. "I need to talk to you about my brother."

"Sure thing," he says. "I'll meet you in his room."

"No. He's finally calmed down some. I'd like to let him sleep."

"My office, then." He gives Sam the room number and signs off.

Perching on the bed next to Dean's, Sam says gently, "I have to leave for a few minutes, but Bobby's going to stay. Just do your best to stay calm. Trust Dean's instincts, because he doesn't give his trust without good reason.

His only reply is Dean's apprehensive gaze. Sam casts a helpless look toward Bobby, then heads out for his meeting with Dr. Moultrie. The upper floors of the hospital are more challenging to navigate, but Sam finally finds his way through the rabbit warren of hallways and taps on Moultrie's door.

When Moultrie opens the door, there's a coolness in his manner that Sam hasn't noticed before. Maybe it's being on his turf, in the chief neurologist's office. He raises an eyebrow. "What happened to your nose?"

Or maybe it's the fact that Sam looks like a prize fighter who's had his ass stomped.

"Oh. Monster nosebleed. I get them when I'm stressed, and the last few days have been right off the charts."

The doctor nods and gestures him to a chair facing his desk. "Have a seat." Perching on the edge of his desk, he regards Sam. Casually he picks something off the desk and idly turns it over and over in his hands, ivory flashing against the pink and brown of the palms and backs of his hands. It takes a moment before Sam recognizes the object -- a Ouija board planchette.

His breath catches in his throat. "You went to Dean's room."

"One of the nurses did, between the time you called and when you got here. Is that what this is about?"

Sam nods. "He panicked and got past us both -- Bobby and me. We were lucky enough to catch up with him. He was in our car."

Dr. Moultrie raises an eyebrow. "His condition's changed substantially if he's prepared to drive."

"No. He's nowhere near ready for that. Our car -- his car, really -- it's almost like home to him. It belonged to our dad. It was the one constant of our childhood."

"Some part of him remembered that. That's encouraging."

"Yeah. But mostly he's just blank and scared. Anyway, we took him across the street, hoping to settle him back down. Bobby's with him now."

Pursing his lips, Dr. Moultrie thinks for a moment. "Do you have any idea what set off his panic?"

"There's a doctor." Actually, Sam very much doubts it, but he keeps that to himself. "White guy in his thirties, medium height, dark hair, blue eyes." Saying "Cristo" doesn't work on him. "I've seen him three times, and the two times he was with Dean, Dean had the same kind of panic."

"Do you remember the doctor's name?"

"He never gave one."

Dr. Moultrie scowls. "That's against staff policy."

"He didn't strike me as a guy who cares about policy."

"It's my business to make them care. But he doesn't sound like one of my staff. I don't like the sound of this." He puts the planchette back on his desk. "Tell you what. I'd like to examine your brother. If it's calming him down and I think it's safe for him to stay with you, I'll let you keep him there."

***

As Dr. Moultrie rises and reaches for his overcoat, Sam says, "Could you leave the white coat behind? I honestly can't say it'll make much difference, but the guy who freaks him out wears one."

Moultrie shucks the white coat before Sam even finishes his request, which reassures him that this extension of trust isn't going to go all cockeyed.

As they wait for the elevator, Moultrie says, "I'm curious as hell about the Ouija board. Scrabble and cards I've seen, but that's not the standard hospital pastime of most families here."

We're not your standard family, he thinks of saying, but instead what comes out is: "No. I thought -- I thought maybe I could reach him."

Moultrie's brows shoot upward, but the elevator arrives and they're alone for only one floor of their journey. Sam keeps his silence and Moultrie follows his lead. When they reach the ground floor and gain some space from other people, Sam says, "It worked once before. We were in a pretty bad car accident, and Dean was pretty close to death. I managed to ... connect with him." As they step out into the cold air, the wind knifes through him with a sense that he's taken trust one step too far. He hears Dean's voice in his head: Now you've screwed the pooch, Sammy. Good plan -- let Dr. Moultrie know he's being asked to leave his patient in the hands of crazy people. "That, uh, sounds a little extreme, I know."

"I've seen plenty of things in my career that are hard to explain," Dr. Moultrie says. "How did it work this time?"

Not well, doc. I got bitch-slapped by something that's taken over my brother's head. Right. This is the place where Sam reaches the limits of his trust. "It didn't."

The hotel lobby seems overheated in contrast to the freezing air they've just escaped, and it seems almost elegant in contrast with the usual shitholes Sam and Dean frequent. Moultrie, on the other hand, is perfectly at ease here.

Sam fumbles the card key in the door badly enough that Bobby gets there before the lock releases. Opening the door with a curse for electronic locks, Bobby goes carefully neutral when he sees Sam's not alone.

First things first. "How's Dean?"

"Pretty much the same." He shoots a guarded glance at Moultrie.

"This is Dr. Moultrie, the head of neurology. He's been looking after Dean." Sam gestures at Bobby. "This is our Uncle Bobby."

Extending his hand, Dr. Moultrie says, "It's good to meet you. I'm glad to see Dean has a support system in you two. I'd like to look him over, see if he's going to be calmer out of the hospital environment."

Bobby nods and lets them enter, but as soon as the doctor passes him, he favors Sam with a bug-eyed What kind of moron move was that? look.

Ignoring it, Sam turns his attention to Dean. Sometime after Sam had left, he'd settled all the way onto the bed, swaddled in a blanket now, his knees pulled up with his arms wrapped around. Not exactly a relaxed pose to begin with, and now he looks up at Dr. Moultrie with apprehesion.

"Dean," Sam says, "you remember Dr. Moultrie. He's been taking care of you since they took you into the hospital."

"They sent you."

"Who, Dean?" Moultrie's voice is soothing.

"I don't know. The ones who sent the other."

"Nobody sent me," Moultrie says, maintaining his distance. "I asked to come and see if you're okay, and your brother Sam said I could. Can I come closer?"

"It's okay," Sam adds. "I trust him. It's okay."

Dean's expression is a mixture of misery and fretfulness, but after a moment he nods.

***

Shifting his feet, Bobby mutters, "Three people might be too much for him. I'll be right outside."

Relieved, Sam nods and closes the door behind him, bending to smooth the line of salt he'd led Dr. Moultrie through.

Moultrie's attention is firmly on Dean as he perches on the edge of Dean's bed. "Give me your hand, Dean," he urges, and to Sam's complete surprise he does so after a moment's hesitation.

Even more surprising, the doctor doesn't use it for any kind of examination; he just holds it. "You're safe now, Dean. Can you tell me about this other that you talked about?"

"The one who tore us in two, or the one who wants to destroy me?"

"The one you're afraid of."

"I haven't done anything. No one gave me a choice, but they want me to pay."

"What can you tell me about them?"

Dean shakes his head violently. "It's gone. They're gone. I used to feel them, all the time."

"Where were they?" Dr. Moultrie flicks a look up toward Sam, then back at Dean. "Were they in you? In your head?"

"Inside me, outside me. They were everywhere. I think they still are, I just can't feel them anymore."

"Can you tell me what it was like when they were there? Do you know how many there were?"

"Untold hosts," Dean murmurs. "But I can't remember how it felt."

The anguish bleeding through Dean's voice and his manner tears at Sam. "Doctor."

"Thank you, Dean," Dr. Moultrie says. "You've done very well. Why don't you rest for a few minutes." Releasing Dean's hand, he rises and crosses the room to Sam.

"Damned if I can make out what's going on," he tells Sam softly. "This talk of the others, it could be symptomatic of schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder -- what used to be called multiple personalities. I could probably narrow it down with a few more questions, but I think we agree your brother's miserable enough at the moment."

Nodding, Sam says, "Thanks for backing off."

"The thing I can't make out is, Dean claims this is how things were, that these others were a constant presence -- but the manifestation of illness occurs once he says they're gone. Were you ever aware of --"

"No," Sam says firmly. "There were no signs of any kind of mental illness before the seizure and coma."

"How much time do you typically spend with your brother?"

Sam tries not to let his temper flare. "Most waking hours, for the last two and a half years or so. Before that, I was in college." He doesn't mention that there was not a single family visit during those four years.

"What did you study?"

The question throws him off balance, since everything up to this moment has been about Dean. "Pre-law." As soon as this piece of information emerges from his mouth, Sam realizes just how telling it is. Four years of preparation for something that never happened. "Then -- well, family stuff. Our dad died about a year and a half ago." He lets that hang there, creating an impression of sickrooms and a selflessness Sam can't honestly claim. "So, uh, what's the next step with Dean?"

"I'm going to discuss his case with a couple of psychiatrists on staff, and I'd like to get him evaluated."

Calling Dr. Bombay, Sam thinks. Maybe he'd have a snowball's chance of helping Dean.

"For now, though, I think he could use some rest." He looks back toward Dean, who leans against the headboard, still wrapped in the blanket. "What d'you think, Dean? Would you like to stay here a little while, maybe try to rest a bit?"

Wide-eyed, Dean takes in the doctor and then Sam.

"Would you be more comfortable here?" Dr. Moultrie prompts.

Comfortable isn't the word, but Dean finally says, "They haven't found me here." He nods, quick, agitated little movements. "I could stay."

"Good man," Moultrie says. "Your brother will take good care of you. And I'll be in touch when I know what's next." Turning to Sam, he adds, "Call me if anything changes. Have them page me if necessary."

"Sure, thanks." He gives his cell number to Dr. Moultrie -- an all-time Winchester first, he's certain -- and shows him out.

***

As Dr. Moultrie steps outside, Bobby touches two fingers to the bill of his cap in greeting, then says to Sam, "Want me in there yet?"

"Give me a minute," Sam says. "I'll call, if you want to head down to the bar."

Closing the door, he lays down another salt line, then turns to Dean. "How are you doing?" Nowhere near as bold as Dr. Moultrie is, he settles on the other bed.

Dean looks like he hasn't got the slightest clue how to answer that.

"Dr. Moultrie's a pretty good guy, I'm thinking," Sam says conversationally. "We were lucky to wind up in his care."

Hesitantly, Dean nods.

Sam weighs his words carefully. "I think, though, that he's looking at this problem the way he's been trained, and I'm not sure he's got the right frame of reference."

Sam's lost Dean with that; his gaze wanders around the room, not pausing to focus on anything.

"Dr. Moultrie thinks it's mental illness. I think -- I think maybe you got pushed in there with my brother somehow, and you're as freaked out as he probably is." Sam prays that Dean is still there inside his body; he clings to the hope that the appearance in the Impala is proof that he is. "Can you feel him in there? He should be right there with you."

His eyes stop flicking all around him and come to rest on Sam's face.

"He's there, right?" Reaching for his wallet, Sam says, "There's something I want to show you. About Dean." He slips an old photograph from its sleeve and holds it out to Dean. "See this? This is a picture of my brother and me when we were kids."

Dean's stare wavers between Sam and the snapshot in his hand, as if it's a weapon.

Sam makes no move to push the picture on him or take it away. "He's my big brother, y'know? He looked after me since I was six months old."

After another moment's hesitation, Dean reaches for the photo and studies it. Sam knows it by heart -- the two of them leaning against the side of the Impala, Dean with an arm hooked over the back of Sam's neck. Dean's posture so casual, full of twelve-year-old cool, but still that expression of pride on his face. Look, Dad, I'm still watching over Sammy.

"He still does that. Takes care of people, whether he knows them or not. I couldn't begin to count the number of people he's saved from things that were after them." He'll throw himself into the Pit just to have one more year looking after me. Sam bites back a surge of emotion, but Dean looks up at him as if he's given it voice. It's all Sam can do to push out the next few words. "So maybe if you step back and leave some space for Dean, he could help you too." Is what he's offering even possible? Sam's torn between wanting to help this terrified being in some fashion, and saying anything he can just to win Dean's release. "He knows his way around the world. He knows how to fight things you can't always see."

Dean thrusts the photo back toward Sam, who reaches out for it carefully, hoping to avoid another psychic assault or sudden disappearance.

"Why don't you rest now," Sam says soothingly. "Like Dr. Moultrie said." You trust him, even if you don't trust me. "Bobby and I will keep watch."

As he teases the picture from Dean's fingers, Sam lets out a pent-up breath. His fingers brush Dean's, and in an instant, Sam's looking at an empty bed.

***

Part 3: Dean

-- thing he --

Wait, what?

He's been crammed into this box, he's not sure how long, and now the lid is off, and he's --

Standing in the kitchen of a strange house with his ass hanging out of a hospital gown.

Or maybe not so strange. A weird feeling of familiarity washes over him as he looks around. That ribbon of sunlight slanting across the table. How the hell can a sunbeam be familiar?

Why is he wearing this drafty and deeply fug rag he wouldn't use for waxing the Impala?

On the end of the table closest to him sits an empty juice glass with a milk ring and a small plate dusted with crumbs. Dean gets a sudden, disorienting flash of himself sitting in that very spot, watching a blonde, very pregnant woman move around the room. She's humming to herself.

Dean blinks, then looks around the room. There are changes -- some post-fire, some after the poltergeist -- but he knows this place. The house in Lawrence.

The hell? How did he --?

As he takes a step forward, his bare foot lands on a squeak toy.

"Richie?" a woman's voice calls. "I thought you --" A blonde, not-at-all-pregnant woman walks into the room, catches sight of Dean and screams.

"I'm not--"

Then he's slammed back in the box.

***

Part 4: Sam

Scrambling for his phone, Sam hits Bobby's speed-dial number. "Fuck! The Impala, Bobby. Quick!"

"I'm on it."

Sam rushes out of the room and thunders down the stairs to the ground floor, bolting across the lobby to the parking garage entrance. By the time he makes it to the ramp where the Impala's parked, Bobby is there, holding up a hand that brings him skidding to a halt.

"He's not here, son. What the hell happened?"

For a moment Sam looks around wildly, as if Dean might've appeared in some other car.

"Sam. What happened?"

"I thought we were making progress. I talked about Dean, how he could probably help, if whatever's in there now would just step back and let him take over for a while. Seemed to me like he was giving it some thought, and then something startled him, and bam, he was gone."

Bobby scowls. "What is this, some afterschool special? When did it get all rainbows and puppies and let's make friends with the goddamn thing that's possessing your brother?"

"That's not what --" But Bobby's not wrong. There's been a shift in his attitude toward this thing -- Sam can't bear seeing something so lost and confused when it's wearing Dean's face. "We can't exactly kill it, either. Not until it's out of him."

"Whatever we do, we've gotta find him first."

Rubbing at his forehead, Sam mutters, "He could be anywhere."

"Let's go to our first choice last time Dean bolted."

"The tree."

***

Part 5: Dean

When the lid comes off again, it's no less disorienting than the first time. All he knows is he's squeezed into his little corner of nowhere, and then he's standing in another kitchen.

This one he recognizes instantly. There's clutter everywhere, books and machine parts and bottles. "Bobby?" he calls. "Hey, Bobby?"

No answer.

"What the hell is this, the Great American Kitchens tour?" Before he can be stuffed back into his box, he heads across the room to Bobby's crazy bank of phones and punches Sam's number into one of them. "Sammy," he blurts when Sam answers.

"Dean! Where are you?"

"I'm in Bobby's kitchen, though I've got no idea how long. Two minutes ago I was in the house in Lawrence." Was it two minutes ago, or has it been hours or days? "What the hell is going on? And where the fuck are my clothes?"

"We're working on that. It seems like --" Sammy cuts himself off, and Dean gets a definite sense of information being withheld for his own so-called good.

"Seems like what?" Dean says darkly.

"Like, uh, there's something riding along with you. Do you have any idea what it is?"

"You think I'm possessed? Is that what you're saying?"

"Something like that. But we can't tell what it is. Listen, just stay put, and we'll get there as soon --"

Just like that, Dean's yanked back into his box, no longer in control of his own body.

***

Part 6: Sam

Sam flips his phone shut. "He's at your place. Well, he was. I lost him. I think he got yanked somewhere else."

Glowering, Bobby says, "So now what?"

"Well, we think about where he's been. The car, your place, and the house in Lawrence."

"Lawrence?"

"Yeah. He said he'd been there just before he popped up in your place. So far it's been Dean who seems to be determining where he goes. Places he knows, where he's felt safe. So maybe we can anticipate the next place he'll land."

"Well, that would be swell, Sam, if we could teleport our own asses around. If he doesn't stay anywhere more'n five seconds at a go, even that wouldn't do us much good."

Sam's head hurts like hell, and he rubs at his face, only to jostle the twin rolls of gauze in his nose. "Fuck, ow. Well, how many places can there be? He might come back to the Impala. If we drive out to the tree, we've got two chances of finding him."

"Out of seventeen billion."

"It's a start, Bobby."

Pushing up his cap, Bobby scratches his head. "Yeah, I know. It's as good a plan as any, I guess."

And a better plan than none, which is what they've got otherwise.

***

Part 7: Dean

He's beginning to feel like a fucking jack-in-the-box. He pops up again in another kitchen, this one completely unfamiliar. Except for the smell of spaghetti sauce bubbling on the stovetop, which clicks in to some distant memory he can't quite identify.

And damn. He's hungry.

Although there's no one in the room watching over the stove, there's an open laptop at one end of the table, surrounded by notes and a couple of books. Sammy? But this is no place he recognizes, and this particular, spicy scent of cooking is not one he associates with Sam. Keenly aware of the cold air on his bare ass, Dean approaches the table to study the notes.

The handwriting is familiar too, and it instantly falls into place. Cassie. Hastily Dean reaches around behind him to pull the edges of the hospital gown together. "This is just not cool," he mutters.

The light tread of feet on wooden stairs give him just enough warning to put up his free hand in a non-threatening gesture before a basement door bursts open and she's there, laundry basket tumbling out of her hands and spilling clean clothes onto the floor. She sucks in a breath, a ragged gasp or prelude to a scream, he's not sure.

"Cassie, Cassie, don't be afraid, it's not what it looks like." What the hell does it look like? Somebody tell me.

"Dean? What the hell --?"

"I don't know, I don't know. Something weird is going on. Even, um, weird for a Winchester."

"Are you okay?"

"I don't know." He's a damn broken record. He glances down at the faded print of the hospital gown. "Apparently I've been in the hospital." Is he still there, lying in a bed with a trauma team working on him, playing hide and seek with a reaper? Why can she see him?

Carefully she approaches him, holding out a hand. "Are you wearing a bracelet?"

Not on his free arm. Dean clutches tighter at the back of the gown with the other hand.

"Oh let go," Cassie says, exasperation and warmth mingling in her voice. "It's not like I've never seen your ass before."

Reluctantly he releases his hold on the fabric over the small of his back. He slowly brings his arm around, and Cassie reaches for it, drawing it closer.

At the warm, solid touch of her hand, he lets out a gust of breath. "I guess -- I guess I'm alive."

***

Cassie gives him a bemused look. "Of course you're alive. How did you get here?"

He rubs his hand through his hair, regretting it immediately and wiping his palm on his hospital gown. "Sweetheart, I don't even know where here is, much less how I got here. This isn't your mom's place."

"No." Frowning, she steps in closer and touches his face. "You look like hell, Dean. What's going on? Why were you in the hospital?"

"I have no idea."

"Sit down, before you fall down. I'll make something hot to drink."

Sidestepping the chair Cassie steers him toward, he says, "No, really. I'm just shy of bare-ass naked here, and I, uh, no."

"Hang on a minute." She leaves him and heads for the pile of folded laundry that's fallen onto the floor and fishes out a pair of boxers. "Here. Still warm from the dryer."

"Whoa! Am I thirty seconds from getting shot to death by a jealous lover?"

Thrusting them at his chest, she says, "I sleep in them, remember? I can't believe you forgot after all the shit you gave me about that."

As she turns toward the kitchen counter, he steps into the boxers and pulls them up over his hips. "I'm lucky I remember my name right now, Cassie." At the sound of water hitting the bottom of a kettle, he groans. "Not that tea."

"Hush." As she passes him on the way to the stove, she puts a hand to his shoulder and pushes him into the chair.

"You're bossy," he says. "I remember that."

She lights the flame under the metal, gives the spaghetti sauce a stir, then pulls up a chair close to him and sits. "I'm worried about you. Where's your brother?"

"I have no idea," he says again.

Frowning, she rubs his arm. "You're back to the way things were? When I first met you, I mean."

"No. We were on our way somewhere together. Checking out a job. That's the last I remember. I should call him."

"Sit." Rising and retrieving her cell phone, she hands it over to him.

"Bossy," he mutters.

As he punches in Sam's number, Cassie fingers the hospital bracelet, pulling it around his wrist to read what's printed there. She pulls the laptop toward her and types in a couple of names on the Google page.

'Dean!" Sam shouts into his phone. "Where are you?"

"I'm at Cassie's."

"In Missouri?"

"No. I don't know where this is."

"Philadelphia," Cassie says.

"Philly," Dean relays. "Man, I could go for a cheesesteak, if I can get more than five minutes here."

"Actually, can you get here? Bobby and I are at the tree."

This is making his head ache. "Tree? What tree?"

"Where all this started." A fair amount of worry and exasperation are evident in Sam's voice. "Never mind. Hone in on the Impala. You did it once before."

"I don't even know what it is I'm doing. I'm just here one second, somewhere else the next. It's getting old, Sam. Where the hell are you?"

"Just south of Cincinnati. You don't remember?" He switches tacks. "Look. Just stay there. Meditate or something. Put Cassie on and I'll get directions, then we'll come to you. Will that work?"

"Sure, yeah, I guess." He hands the phone over to Cassie just as the kettle starts to shriek. Cringing, he rises to shut off the flame, but just as he does, a white-coated man appears out of nowhere behind Cassie.

He glowers at Dean.

"Oh, shit." And then he's stuffed back into his box.

***

Part 8: Sam

"Dean?" Cassie's voice crackles over the suddenly staticky phone line. "Dean?"

Cursing inwardly, Sam flicks a look toward Bobby in the shotgun seat. "Cassie, what's going on?" He hopes asking the question will somehow make the answer come out differently.

"He's gone. I was looking right at him, Sam, and he --" Sam hears the screech of a chair on bare floor, and Cassie's urgent voice. "Dean? Dean, are you here?"

"Cassie," Sam says. "He's not there. Tell me exactly what happened. How long was he there?"

"Just a few minutes, as far as I know. I came upstairs from doing the laundry, and he was standing there in my kitchen, wearing a hospital gown and wristband and nothing else."

"But he was Dean. He knew who he was." Of course he knew who he was -- the first thing he said was he wanted a cheesesteak.

"He couldn't remember everything," Cassie tells him. "He didn't know what he was doing in the hospital, and didn't know where he'd been right before that. So do you want to tell me why it doesn't surprise you that he vanished into thin air?"

"He's been doing that. We haven't figured out why." The theory on possession, he decides, is something he'll keep to himself for the moment. "Tell me the rest. What happened just before he disappeared? Was he startled? Did you touch him?"

"I touched him a couple of times. That wasn't it." There's a brief pause. "He looked somewhere behind me, like he saw something there."

"Shit."

"That's what he said. Do you mind explaining what the hell is going on?"

"Something's after him. We don't know what or why, but it looks human. Just ... be careful, all right? I don't know if he'll be back, but if he comes back and there's anyone following, stay away from it. I've gotta go."

"Sam, you can't just --"

He bypasses the interstate ramp he'd been looking for and finds a place to loop back around toward the Kentucky countryside. "I'm sorry, Cassie." He flips the phone shut and glances over at Bobby. "I guess we're back to the tree."

***

Part 9: Dean

Pop goes the weasel. Dean bursts forth from his box and finds himself back at Bobby's. "Sonofabitch," he mutters. His stomach growls at the sudden transition between the rich smell of sauce simmering on Cassie's stove to the pervasive smell of yesterday's fried onions, gun oil, and musty old books.

When this is over --

Shit, he doesn't even know what this is. Some after-effect of the Trickster's time loop and the parade of undignified deaths? Something connected with a job? He can't remember the job they were heading toward -- what it was, where it was.

Think, dammit. There's the biggest arcane library in the western United States out there in the next room. There's bound to be an answer there, if he only knew the question.

He heads for the living room, with its leaning towers of books landscaped with bottles. Making for the phone, he stops cold when he sees a figure backlit against the afternoon light filtering in through dust-covered windows.

"I'm growing weary of this chase," the figure says. "You cannot outrun me."

Dean shifts his feet, backs up a few feet so he's just past the devil's trap on Bobby's ceiling. "Yeah, I guess you're right." He resists the urge to glance above him. Bobby had repaired the damn thing, hasn't he? Of course he had -- he's a damn careful man. "Why don't you come and get me, you sonofabitch."

***

The man advances on him, and Dean backs up, leading him on. Once he leaves the dusty glare of the window, Dean can see that he's wearing a doctor's white coat.

"What, you're after me for the outfit? Or is there a problem with my insurance?"

The guy has a glower Bobby only wishes he could produce. "You have something that is not rightfully yours. I have been sent to take it back."

"Seriously? It is the hospital gown you're after?" This is too bizarre. Dean considers a new theory: This is an elaborate salami-fueled dream. He usually stays away from that shit for exactly this reason, but --

Glowerpuss stops below the devil's trap, his expression changing to one of intense curiosity. "Tell me, was this rebellion worth the consequences? Is this realm truly more satisfying than your home?"

Whoa, abrupt topic shift. "The only one who's got consequences is you, asshole. You're trapped." Dean flicks a glance upward, satisfying himself that Bobby did in fact repair the sigils.

His prisoner looks upward, regarding Bobby's handiwork. "These sigils have no effect on me." Stepping forward, he effortlessly breaks out of the confines of the circle.

"Cristo!"

The scowl comes back, but it's more perplexed than threatening. "There's no call for insult."

Goddammit, Dean's miscalculated his backpedaling, stumbling into one of the thigh-high stacks of books lining the wall. Knees folding, he sits heavily on the pile, setting off an avalanche that he rides until he's sprawled on the floor. There are no weapons at hand, unless he wants to chuck a book at this invader. An unbelievably undignified cherry on this royal banana split of indignity that is his life. Finally it all clicks. "It's you, you fuck." Dean cannot believe it took him this long. "Go prank someone else, you sadistic little bitch."

The man seizes Dean by the arm and lifts him to his feet with about as much effort as a a toddler snatching up his favorite teddy bear. Shoving Dean against the wall, he growls, "I do not indulge in pranks."

Dean gets that, instantly recognizing his mistake. If this were the Trickster, he'd be the smirking, gloating, insufferable bastard he always is. This, on the other hand, is one humorless fuck. "Who the hell are you?"

"I am Castiel. I have been sent to put a stop to this disobedience."

"Disobedience? I don't have the slightest damn idea what you're talking about."

"Why do you insist on these pretenses? What can you gain, beyond a few earthly moments of delay?"

"Humor me, pal. What the hell are you?"

Castiel heaves a weary sigh. "If you must persist in this foolishness -- I am your brother."

What?

"I am an angel of the Lord."

***

Part 10: Sam

"So who's this Cassie?" Bobby asks.

They've made it out of the Cincinnati sprawl and into countryside. Sam keeps the Impala pushing past the speed limit. "She's a girl Dean saw for a while, back while I was at Stanford. We helped her out a couple of years ago, when something killed her dad. He was in love with her, that was pretty clear."

"Slightly different from the pattern up until now," Bobby says. "She's not in the place he associates with her. So sometimes it's places, but sometimes it's people that maybe feel like home to him. That give us any clues where he could turn up next?"

Sam lets out a breath. "I sure as hell don't know." Pierced by a feeling of overwhelming sadness, he counters it with a vicious curse.

"What?"

"It's just -- what kind of fucking life is this, Bobby? I'm trying to think of places where he would have felt safe and maybe even loved, and this is what it comes down to? The last place we were a family, the house of another hunter, the only woman he ever told who he was -- which didn't go well, she pitched him out -- and a goddamn car? That's fucking tragic."

"I know, son," Bobby says softly.

"And this is it, Bobby. This is pretty much the whole of his life, unless I can come up with something to get him out of his deal. It makes me so fucking angry." Sam hopes Bobby doesn't ask why the hell he's blinking back tears, then.

"I know," Bobby repeats, grim and weary and sad.

Sam suddenly remembers walking in Bobby's dreams. A couple of weeks ago, a hundred Tuesdays and a living death ago. Of course he knows.

"What the hell took you so long?" Dean says from the back seat.

"Fuck!" Sam shouts, fishtailing over the two-lane until he regains control over the Impala. His heart jackhammers in his chest. "Dean! What d'you mean, what took us so long?"

"Not you," Dean says. "Oh hey, Bobby. Sorry about the mess. Crank the heat, will you? Damn."

Casting a quick look over his shoulder, Sam determines Dean's all right, but still wearing next to nothing.

"Dude, what's with the nose tampons?"

Sam emits a shaky laugh that he hopes Dean doesn't recognize as being uncomfortably close to a sob. "Your passenger knocked me on my ass."

"You really think I'm possessed? Get back to the motel, willya? I want to get out of this damn hospital gown and burn it."

"It sure looked that way. Whatever it is knocked me on my ass with its brain."

"Huh," Dean says. "Whatever it is must be a badass mofo. That thing has an angel on its tail, and he looks pretty pissed off."

"Angel?" Bobby blurts.

"That's what he said. And the devil's trap sure didn't work on him."

"Tell me what he looked like," Sam says.

"The doctor who's not one of the four-out-of-five who agree," Dean responds.

Sam scowls. "That's him. He said he's an angel?"

"'An angel of the Lord,' to be specific."

"That's a new one."

"Well, hey," Dean says. "You got your wish. They exist after all."

***

Part 11: Dean

The door's barely shut behind Bobby before Dean peels out of the damn hospital gown and pulling clothes out of his duffel. While Sam hurries to start a pot of coffee, he hastily pulls on jeans, three shirts and two pairs of socks before tearing off a bedspread and wrapping up in the blanket below.

He leaves on Cassie's boxers.

"All right," he says as Sam gets the coffee brewing. "Tell me what the hell happened. I know there was a tree and a hospital, and then there's me bouncing my bare ass all over the countryside."

"You remember hearing about the meteor tree?"

"Meteor tree?"

"Yeah, some waitress told you about it. It's at the scene of a meteor strike, and six month after the meteor hit, there was a full-grown oak."

Smirking, Dean says, "That doesn't sound at all supernatural."

Sam nods. "That's why we decided to check it out. We were standing right under it when you collapsed. I was looking at the EMF meter, so I didn't see exactly what happened, but there was a flash and you went down. You were just out for a while, then you had a seizure."

Seizure? Dean does not like the sound of that. "You know, it's damn hard to take you seriously when you've got those things shoved up your nose."

As he'd expected, the classic Sam Winchester bitchface is funnier still with the Dual Nose Tampon Effect. "Yeah, well, we've seen demonic massacres that were less bloody than this nosebleed. But if it provides some entertainment for you, hey, it's all worthwhile."

That did not ring sincere. "Alright, alright. So I'm flopping around on the ground. Then what?"

"Got you to the hospital, and they started doing tests. You were in a coma for maybe 36 hours before that doctor came in. The one who says he's an angel, I'm betting."

The coffeemaker makes a sound like a seventy-year-old coughing up his first lung of the day. Bobby pours a cup into a chipped mug next to the machine and brings it to Dean.

"Thanks, Bobby." Taking a sip, he makes a face, then plunges on. "So what, I was touched by an angel and magically woke up?"

"Something like that. Except maybe a little less Roma Downeyish, and more with the screaming about how he was there to kill you."

"He said that?"

"No, that was you. Specifically, you said your father had sent him to kill you."

"I sure as hell don't remember that."

"I don't think you were awake yet."

"You mean your possession theory." Dean puts a little extra disdain in his voice, because this is not a topic he's happy exploring.

Bobby finally enters the discussion. "Tell us about when you woke up."

"It was kind of zero-to-sixty in .001 seconds. All of a sudden I was standing in the kitchen of the house in Lawrence."

"Well, you'd been walking and talking --" Bobby shakes his head -- "teleporting and talking -- for a while before that."

Despite the blanket and layers of clothes and coffee mug in his hands, Dean shivers. "So if I'm possessed, by what?" He was flinging the Cristos without any repercussions, so apparently not a demon.

Bobby grunts. "Well, I'm beginning to have a theory about that."

***

Swallowing another mouthful of coffee that manages to be both weak and bitter, Dean steels himself, looking up at Bobby. "Tell me straight, doc. Will I ever play piano again?"

"Whatever this is, it's got an angel on its ass. It says 'our father' sent him, and it called out for its brothers. It quoted the Bible -- the Book of Revelation, to be exact. According to the doc, it talked about being blind and unable to speak, and its memories seem blasted all to hell. It's powerful, though; it sent Sam flying across the room when he tried using a Ouija board to find out more about it."

"Not to mention teleporting my bare ass wherever it wants."

"Well, that's just the thing," Sam says. "You had a helluva lot to do with where it's appeared. Even before you woke up -- which I think it let you do -- you disappeared and we found you in the Impala."

"Why would it let me come up for air?"

"I asked it to," Sam says simply. It's such a ludicrous concept that Dean can't suppress a laugh.

"You mean all this time we've been making with the Latin and the holy water, when all we needed to do was say, 'Oh, excuse me, would you mind vacating the premises?'"

"This thing isn't a demon," Sam reminds him. "It's scared. I sat down with it and said it could trust you, that you feel safe in the Impala, and that's why it had teleported there. I said it should trust your instincts., that you could help."

"Help?" Dean blurts. "That's not exactly what we do, Sammy."

"Sometimes it is, Dean." Sam lets out a breath. "But to tell you the truth, I would have said anything to get it to loosen its hold."

Dean scrubs a hand through his hair, then grimaces. "I need a fucking shower, but it would be my luck I'd be popping up buck naked and with suds in my eyes all over the damn countryside." He looks up at Bobby. "Okay, digression over. You were in the process of telling me what you think this thing is." He already thinks he knows, and the thought makes his stomach clench.

Uncharacteristically fidgety, Bobby fusses with his cap, then his belt buckle, then he seems to realize what he's doing and folds his arms over his chest. "I can't help thinking this thing might be an angel."

Dean greets this with another laugh. "Well, Clarence has a piss-poor sense of direction, if he was aiming for my shoulder and got stuck in my head instead. No wonder he let me pick the destinations." Eying Bobby for a moment, he finally blurts, "You're serious? What would an angel want with me?"

"Probably the same thing I frequently do," Bobby growls. "Maybe it wants to put a boot to your ass."

"I wonder if this whole thing was accidental," Sam says. "Say somehow it's dormant in this tree, and you made it wake up and inhabit you."

"That's just nuts. Why me?"

"That's a good question. The tree's been there for twenty years, something like that. You can't be the first person to touch it or whatever you did. Maybe it was something you carried, or something you said. Could be something in your history, something you hunted once that left some kind of mark on you. I don't know. I'm not sure Clarence knows, if we could even talk to him again."

"It, Sam. This is a thing. Just because I threw a name out there, it's not suddenly our housepet." He wants it out, now.

"Maybe we should try," Sam says.

"Try talking to it?" Dean demands. "Oh, hell no. You're getting way too friendly with this thing, when you don't even know for sure what it is. You want to go all Dances with Angels without thinking about the fact that I'm the goddamn dance floor. Fuck that."

"Maybe it could help us. Help you."

"C'mon, Sammy. Asking powerful supernatural beings for favors is how I landed in the shit in the first place. We are not going there."

"Speaking of going," Bobby says, "what about heading back out to where all this got started."

"The meteor tree," Sam says.

***

Dean's next words surge out on a spike of fear. "Look, why don't we find out for sure what's happening before we go crashing around trying to fix it?"

"That's the idea," Sam snaps, "if you would just stop being so damn resistant."

"Maybe if you'd been the guy who recently died a hundred entertainingly undignified deaths -- ask him for the story, Bobby, it's a fucking laugh riot -- you'd be a little wary too."

Sam glowers. "Maybe if you'd been the one left with the aftermath of all that -- not to mention seizure-coma-crazy Dean -- you'd stop dragging your feet and try to do something."

"Hold the fucking phone, Sammy." Dean's suddenly on his feet, clutching the coffee mug, blankets puddled around his feet. "Are you getting ready to tell me how much suffering you've endured? Swear to god, I will punch your face in."

"Goddammit, boys!" Bobby hollers. "Knock it the hell off."

Despite the hand Bobby's planted on his chest, Sam draws a breath, purple-faced. Looks like Dean's about to be on the receiving end of the saliva shower of rage.

Instead, he finds himself jammed back in the box.

***

Then he's back in Cassie's kitchen, pieces of the mug falling to his feet in little pellets, like safety glass.

Cassie, who's gazing into her own mug, a hand to her forehead, looks up at the sound. "Dean!"

"You're okay? That thing that's chasing me, it didn't hurt you?"

She's already on her feet, moving toward him. "I didn't even see it." Her sneakers crunching over the ceramic pieces on the floor, she throws her arms around him.

Dean closes his eyes, indulging in the illusion that she can hold him down, keep him with her.
"What the hell is going on?" she asks, muffled against his chest.

"Sam thinks I'm possessed. Bobby thinks it's an angel."

Pulling back, she stares at him, speechless for a moment. "What?"

"I know. Crazy as a shithouse rat, the both of them. But I've got this guy after me, who says he's an angel. I don't know, Cassie. I think I'm putting you in danger just by being here. If Michael-Landon-with-an-attitude shows up again, or if I revert to whatever it is that's jerking me around from place to place -- Is there someplace safe you can go?"

"You can knock that crap off right now," Cassie says. "I'm not going anywhere. But why -- don't you stand a lot better chance fighting it off with Sam and Bobby?"

"You'd think," he says sourly.

"Sit down," she says. "I'm going to feed you. It's already made."

"Bossy," he says happily, following orders.

Pulling some plates from the cabinet, she asks, "What did you mean, 'you'd think'? It sounds like you don't trust them."

Shows that she still knows him, he thinks, that this kind of question she poses while not looking directly at him.

"It's Sam I'm worried about. He wants to talk to this thing that's hijacked my body. I just got it back -- with the occasional half-naked trip to all points of the compass. He thinks -- hell, Cassie, I don't know what he thinks or if he thinks. I'm seriously worried he's coming unhinged."

Cassie aims a sharp glance his way. "Unhinged?"

"He's been through the wringer the last six months or so." Six months, a week, it's all the same in Dean's weird world. "We both have, but you know me, I'm Wile E. Coyote, I'll accordion back up and pop my eyeballs back in. But Sammy -- he's had some major issues with what's happened, and what's coming. I'm afraid he's gonna snap." It's hard to tell what surprises him most, the fact that he's voiced this at last, or the relief that roars through him now that he has.

She turns, a tangle of spaghetti dangling from the claw of a kitchen tool. "'What's coming,'" she repeats, her frown an unspoken question.

Abruptly he remembers the how and why of the mistake he made with her the first time they were together, and damned if he's not going to make it again. What has he got to lose this time? "Cass," he says, and he's surprised to hear his voice crack. He clears his throat. "Cass, I'm dying."

***

The spaghetti claw clatters to the floor, flipping a clammy strand of pasta against Dean's leg.

"Dean. Jesus, what -- did they find something when you were in the hospital?"

"No, it's not --" He rakes a hand through his hair. "I guess it's not accurate to say I'm dying. It's not my health. I'm going to die, though, and I don't have that long."

Pulling up a chair close to him, she drops into it and takes his hand. "I don't understand."

"I'm not surprised. It's --" He lets out a breath. "It's pretty fucked-up, I guess." Both her hands are curved around his, but he can't give in to this comforting pressure, can't return it. She's going to let go. She always does. "I made this deal."

"Deal?"

"Sammy --" Breathe, Dean. "Sam died. Not quite a year ago. I'd already lost -- I guess you didn't know this, but Dad died a few months before that. I couldn't lose Sam too. I made a deal. My life for his."

She tightens her hands around his. "Dean, it doesn't work that way."

"It does when you're dealing with a crossroads demon," he snaps. "I didn't bargain with God, Cassie. I didn't say, 'I'll never curse or get drunk or look at porn again if you just give me Sammy back.' I sold my soul, and I got a year."

Watching her expression, Dean pulls his hands out of hers. Better to be the one to pull away first. A flash of fierce crosses her face, and she leans in to grab his hand again.

"How long do you have?"

"I'm not even sure," Dean says. "I lost time. It's weeks, I think."

"What happens then?" she asks.

He scratches at his neck with his free hand. "Hellhounds get a new chew toy."

Irritation flashes across her face. "Why do you always do this?"

"What, exactly, am I doing?"

"That thing where you're talking about something serious, and suddenly it's a big joke."

Again he pulls his hand away. "Well, that's how it's done in my world, Cassie. Something knocks you down, you rub a little dirt on the hurt places, get up and go on. Because people need you, and being emo about it isn't going to get you shit." Something tells him to let it drop there, but fuck it. He's been nursing this for a long damn time. "It's especially how it's done when you try it the other way and you get shot down in flames. I told you something serious a few years back, and you gave me the boot. You were the first woman I ever told who I really was, and you can be damn well sure you were the last."

"You know I thought --"

"I know what you thought. Well, it's easy believing in someone who tells you something believable, isn't it? Believing in someone who's telling you something that sounds crazy, but they're being as straightforward as they know how to be -- that's the definition of 'something serious,' sweetheart, and I thought we had that."

Her eyes glitter. "I hate it when you call me sweetheart. You use sweetheart for every waitress who brings you a piece of pie."

True enough. He'd called her that the night they first met, and when he was packing up his shit to leave, but not in between, not when he thought she was the one he'd love like Dad had loved his mom. "Yeah, well." Picking the cold piece of spaghetti off his jeans leg, he drops it onto the table, a silent, pointed reminder that at least a waitress can be counted on to bring him food when she promises it.

Any fucking time now, he thinks to his passenger. I don't know why you dragged me here in the first place.

Standing up and stepping away from the table, he announces, "I have to go." He realizes how that sounds. "Leave. I'm leaving." Just his fucking luck that this is when his passenger decides he's had it with the comings and goings, and leaves him standing there looking like a jackass. "Now."

You can't tell me the fucking Trickster isn't behind this. Because this is just a step below getting splatted by a desk.

"You're a little better dressed for it, but you still don't have any shoes," Cassie points out.

In response, he holds out his hand. "Let me borrow your phone again."

Before she can comply or argue, Glowerpuss Angel makes an abrupt appearance in the kitchen.

"I hate people who drop in at dinnertime," Dean says.

The stranger walks around Dean, making a full 360 as he sizes him up. Dean keeps his eyes on Castiel's, flexing his hands, waiting for the asshole to make a move.

By the time Cassie yelps, "Hey, what are you doing?" and Dean sees the flask, it's too late. Castiel has poured some kind of oil in a circle around Dean. Just as Cassie yanks on his sleeve, he turns and gently touches his fingertips to her forehead, and she slips to the floor as noiselessly as the blanket had fallen to Dean's feet.

"What the fuck did you do to her?" Dean makes a move for Castiel, but before he can cross the circle of oil, the bastard drops a match onto it. As a low flame springs up, Dean slams against some kind of invisible barrier.

Putting up a hand to push at the barrier, he finds it extends all the way around him, as if there's a glass wall circling him. "Great," he mutters. "It's not bad enough I'm a cartoon, now I'm a mime. This is the goddamn limit."

Then this Castiel starts to glow like he's going all Chernobyl, and Dean falls to his knees, burying his face in his hands.

***

Seriously? Dean thinks. His passenger who has the power to teleport finally wakes up, and this is what it comes up with? Kneeling?

Suddenly glass showers over him from the overhead light, the kitchen windows and the glass-fronted cabinets. It must be making a helluva noise, but it's swallowed by the sound of Castiel's voice.

Holy shit, he's never heard anything like it.

But he has.

It's complex and beautiful and terrifying, almost like music, but no kind of music he's ever heard.

Like home.

The voice calls a name he knows must be his, but it's not in any human language, because he is not human. He folds in on himself, low to the ground to signify his submission, palms pressed flat on the floor, heedless of the broken glass. He cries out for mercy

and that just pisses Dean off. He raises his head and feels his face go slack with terror. This thing has as much in common with the sweet and girly Christmas tree angels as Godzilla has with Michigan J. Frog.

If Godzilla were made of light and beautiful in an otherworldly way.

Fighting his passenger's attempt to compel him to grovel, Dean feels a thread of blood trickle from his nose. He nods toward the circle of flame. "Nice Johnny Cash impression. What else have you got?"

His passenger doesn't think much of that. He hurls Dean back into an impossibly small space, this time allowing him -- forcing him -- to witness his interview with the angel.

Bowing his head once more, he begs for forgiveness and mercy, knowing he will never be permitted to ask these of the Father he has offended.

"You know there is no forgiveness for what you have done," the other answers. "You placed your will above that of our Father. Was it worth it to walk among men for a handful of decades? Was it worth abandoning your post and your brethren? Turning your back on your garrison?"

"Begging your forgiveness, but it has been but a few days since I awakened. I woke when you touched me, and found myself in this body." Allowing himself a glimpse at the presence before him, he whispers, "Is this what I was?"

Grief and shame surge through him like flood waters, even before the affirmative answer.

"You do not remember?"

"I was torn from my home," he says, and the savage pain of that violation sears him along with the memory. "I was torn ... in two." Horror and desolation and then nothingness. "It was not my choice, but if --" Tears streak his face. "If you are here to kill me, I submit freely. It would be an act of mercy."

***

Forcing his voice past the cramped space he occupies, Dean struggles to raise his head to glare at the angel. "Whoa whoa whoa. No submitting! He is not speaking for me. I've got a few crappy weeks left, but I'm not letting anyone give them away." All that light and the enormous presence -- and holy fuck, wings! -- surge and coalesce until they're contained in the body Castiel was wearing before. And then he's just, to all appearances, a man.

Dean doesn't even notice the ring of fire has extinguished until Castiel leans in to loom over him, taking Dean's jaw in an iron grip, eying him with an intensely curious expression.

"Hey now, you're gonna leave a mark."

"You are not Anna," he says, as if there were something surprising in this.

"That seems kind of obvious, pal."

Frowning in puzzlement, Castiel adds, "And yet you are." He lifts two fingers as he did with Cassie, and as he extends them toward Dean, he tries to pull back, but is caught, paralyzed.

The width of Castiel's hand obstructs most of Dean's vision as his fingers alight on his forehead. A stab of fear accompanies the touch, but it's soon swept up in a storm of memories and feelings, including the time he'd lost before and after the meteor tree, the flash and roar that filled his head when he'd put a hand to the rough bark.

But that's not all.

Dean feels the weight of Sam in his arms, and it's simultaneously the compact weight of a baby, so heavy for a four-year-old to carry, and the dead weight of a young man who's breathed his last. He sees fire -- the one that took his house, the one where Jess died, his father's funeral pyre. He feels another weight, wholly unaccustomed, at his shoulder blades, the extension and flexion of enormous wings, the heft of a sword in his hand, battling things the likes of which he's never seen. He sees the death throes of every demon he's ever ganked.

He sees his own death -- one hundred and one of them, all playing in his head at once. Sees Sam's desperate grief at each and every one of them. He feels a wrenching pain more agonizing than all of these combined, something that tears at the fibers of his spirit and he falls into exile, into a cold, silent, dark place.

And then nothing.

And then Dean opens his eyes, reeling. Still kneeling, he finds himself staring right at Castiel, who is on his knees now too, looking as pole-axed as Dean feels.

"You are a true vessel," Castiel says, with something like wonder in his voice.

"I have no idea what that means." Dean's voice sounds rusty to him, as if he hasn't spoken in a week. "But if it means you won't kill me, yay." And then he slumps forward.

***

Castiel takes his shoulders and holds him upright. "I would not slay you," he says, and Dean gets the feeling that this is a new development.

And he so doubts that angel smiting would be an anvil he'd be accordioning up from.

He so does not feel good at that thought. Swaying, he puts a hand on the angel's arm to steady himself.

"This cannot continue," Castiel says. Intones, really. In fact, every damn thing he's said has been a flat pronouncement.

Belatedly, he drops the offending hand. "I'm not getting fresh here, I'm just a little woozy."

"You must relinquish this vessel, Anna. It does not belong to you."

"It? Thanks a helluva lot, pal." Though he thinks maybe he's referred to his passenger as it. "So this angel that's been possessing me is a chick? Is she hot?" Shit, had he said that out loud?

Castiel fixes Dean with a look that says, Stop interrupting; the grown-ups are talking. But he answers, just as you might a four-year-old tugging at your pants leg. "Angels do not have genders as humans do. And it is not precisely Anna who has usurped your body, but the --" a flicker of a frown crosses his face -- "the closest I can come in your language is to call it Anna's grace. It's this Anna tore away in order to renounce Heaven and fall to earth."

"You do this a lot? Hijack a body for a little slumming with the locals?"

"Falling and walking among humans are two entirely different acts. Both, fortunately, are rare," Castiel says pointedly.

"So you, that body, that belongs to some poor bastard who's stuffed in his own box?"

"He consented to this. He prayed to be of service to the Lord, and when he was needed, he was asked for his assistance."

"Maybe you think you asked," Dean snaps, "but I can tell you, no one asked me squat."

"What happened to you was an accident," Castiel insists. "Anna's grace recognized a viable vessel, and its longing to rejoin its kin overwhelmed its judgment. The seizure and coma, these occurred because of the violence of your joining."

"You make it sound like rough sex," Dean says, which earns him a scowl. "So what's this grace? Am I like the walking angel brainstem, while somebody else got Anna's memories and the undoubtedly charming personalityf?"

"Without the grace, Anna would have no memories. These are veiled from the human Anna has become, just as Anna's human form is veiled from us."

"This is giving me a headache," Dean says.

"No doubt," Castiel says. "This is a consequence of Anna's grace inhabiting a vessel that is stolen, however inadvertently."

Dean considers telling Castiel not to be so damn literal, that the headache is figurative, but decides it's not worth the effort.

"This is only the beginning," Castiel goes on. "Vessels are not interchangeable. If Anna's grace remains within you, you will shatter and die."

***

Dean levels a look at Castiel. "Shatter? Like explode? Time things right, and I can take some hellhounds with me."

The forehead rumples in that your human ways are strange to me way that he keeps trotting out. "Why do you make light of such matters?"

"Because I've watched too much damn TV since I was a kid. It's what the hero does." Even though it's a joke, calling himself a hero makes Dean feel like a big fraud. "Because it's not going to change a damn thing if I go all glowerpuss. Not that it doesn't look good on you."

Castiel sticks with the puzzled, though. "Why did you consign yourself to hell for all eternity?"

Sincerity launches a sneak attack, and Dean finds himself saying, "Because Sammy's my brother. I couldn't face him being gone."

"Yet you have ensured that he will suffer the same fate."

"I know. I honestly thought he could handle it better." He'd seemed fine enough with going off to Stanford, cutting off all contact. Dean had thought he wasn't that necessary to Sam. The highlights reel that just ran though his head proves he'd been wrong. None of the deaths Sammy had witnessed -- and he wasn't spared a single one of them -- had seemed less than real to him because it was just another click in the Trickster's slide show of stupid death tricks.

"I'm sorry about that, I am," Dean admits. "If I'd known then what I know now --" The claim that he'd do things differently gets stuck sideways in his throat. Even knowing what he knows, he can't say in all honesty that he'd let Sam die. He's too selfish for that. "The angels who fall. Like Anna." He doesn't even know what he means to ask.

"We grieve for them, yes. I spent many thousands of years fighting by Anna's side."

"Yet you came here to kill her. Him. It."

"I have my Father's orders."

"Yeah. Me too. But if push comes to shove, I know I can't. I made a promise to my dad, but I'm gonna break it."

And it's gonna break me.

Something in Castiel's steady gaze changes. Though Dean can't say what it is, for the first time he doesn't feel like something that's pinned on a dissection board for study. It's not sympathy. Recognition, maybe. Dean suspects that for an angel that's something akin to an emotional breakthrough.

"What are you going to do about Anna's grace?" he asks.

"I must go for guidance. It must be removed from you without harming you, but beyond that, I do not know."

"Yeah, well," Dean begins, but by the time he gets to "hurry up" he's speaking to the air.

***

When the angel's gone, Dean sways on his knees and reaches for a table leg to steady himself. "Cassie?" He looks around for her, his head swimming, relieved to see a subtle movement from her sprawled form. She's in a slanting rectangle of light from the next room, her hair glittering. "Cassie, are you okay?"

Shuffling to her on his knees, he reaches her just as she starts to stir.

"Yeah, I --"

"Careful. There's glass everywhere. There's a lot in your hair."

She starts to reach a hand toward her head, but he intercepts her hand.

"You'll cut yourself. Keep your head down and your eyes closed."

"What broke?" she asks from behind the curtain of hair.

"Just about every piece of glass in the room. Are you all right?"

"Yes, but I want to get up. It's freezing."

"Don't move. Not yet. Tell me where I can find a broom and a comb." Following her directions, he comes up with both and a floor lamp from the living room, and starts to sweep the fragments off the floor. Dean dampens a dish towel and wipes off a chair seat, then hands her a clean towel. "Okay, cover your face with this and keep your eyes closed." Backing off, he turns away and tells her to shake her head. He makes another pass with the broom, then takes her hand and helps her up, settling her into a kitchen chair. Gingerly he pulls her hair back from her forehead, mindful of the glass bits sparkling like water droplets, and she lowers the towel from her face.

He always loved Cassie's hair. The weight of it, the smell of the coconut oil she used to condition it. The rippled curtain it made around his face as she straddled him and bent forward for a kiss. Stop that. It's ancient history now. Seating himself behind her, Dean takes the comb to a section of her hair, working his way upward, combing out the glass.

"What happened while I was out?" she asks. "What broke all the glass?"

"It's not that much more believable than 'My dad and me, we hunt werewolves and shit.'" He'd tried for joking, but it hit a little too close to the bone. "Our angel friend forgot to use his indoor voice."

"Dean --"

"No, don't. It's okay. Water under the bridge."

"It's not. I really hurt you, and I'm trying --"

"Try not to piss off the guy with the comb," Dean snaps. He used to say practically the same thing to Sammy about scissors, back when Dean was his barber. It's such a weird mixture of memories, sexy Cassie and cranky Sammy, who always hated having his hair cut. It makes Dean's chest ache. He slides his left hand farther up the section of hair he's working on, holding it as he combs so he won't tug at her scalp. "This could hurt a whole lot worse than it is."

"You're very good at this."

"I used to cut Sam's hair." He flicks a larger piece of glass off a curl with the comb, but still gets a sliver when he slips his hand higher up. "Though considering how he wears it down to his ass, I must've traumatized him."

"Did you fight?"

"Yeah, sometimes. But he was small enough then that I could sit on him."

"Not Sam," she says as if Dean's dense or something. "The ... angel."

"No. He just left. I think he's coming back, so don't let it throw you."

She jerks away from his reach, looking back over her shoulder at him. "And your only weapon is a comb? Are you crazy?"

"If he wanted me dead, I'd be dead. And your hair is still full of glass. You'll get that shit in your eyes, if you're not careful." Taking her shoulder and drawing her back toward him to resume combing her hair, he's struck by the intimacy of this, in a way more striking than anything they shared in the short time they were a couple. "Turn back around."

It's slow going, but Dean works with the same patience he'd use if he were sewing up a gash on Sam's cheek. Cassie asks for stories about where he and Sam have been in the last two years, what they've been doing.

He has no heart for it. If she'd given a shit, she would have used the damn phone number and asked once in a while.

"The usual," he says, his tone slamming the door on any further questioning. "How about you, what brought you to Philly?"

Continuing his work, he listens for the sound of her voice, but not the content. He's not halfway through his task when Castiel reappears, making them both jump.

"You must come with me," Castiel says.

"I can't leave Cassie with all this glass in her hair. She --"

The angel flicks a hand in her direction. Her hair blows back slightly in a non-existant wind, looking for all the world like a girl in a soft-core porn mag or fashion ad (same thing, really). When the movement subsides, there are no more pulverized bits of glass on her or the floor, and no more cold air pushing through the blank window by the sink.

"There is no time to lose," Castiel intones.

And then Dean's standing in the cold night air, the skeleton of an oak looming over him.

***

"Dean!" Sam shouts.

Turning toward the sound of his voice, Dean reels at the sudden movement. He reaches out a hand to steady himself against the tree, but Sam yells, "No!" and Castiel intercepts it, steadying him with an iron grip.

"You want to get your hands off that boy right now," Bobby growls, and the absurd thought sails through Dean's head that he probably has a slightly different vocal tone depending on the weapon he's holding, and if Dean spent any amount of time with Bobby he'd be able to --

Don't go losing your shit now, he tells himself sternly.

"Bobby, stand down," Dean says. "He brought me here to help."

"Now why do I have a hard time believing that," Bobby says.

It's not a question, but Dean answers anyway. "Well, probably because he's all wrath-of-God looking, even when he's not in smite mode."

Castiel offers a free sample. "This does not concern you," he tells Bobby and Sam.

"It sure as hell does," Sam says. "He's my brother."

"And he is mine, to put it in a way that you might understand," Castiel says, and the idea of this angel treating Stanford honor-roll Sam like he's a remedial almost makes Dean laugh.

"Look," Dean says, "I picked up a hitchhiker by accident. I can't carry it around much longer, and Castiel's going to get it out."

"So it is an angel," Bobby says.

"It's part of an angel," Dean clarifies. "The shiny parts."

"Fine, so get it out," Sam says. "But I'm staying."

"No," Castiel says. "Humans cannot gaze upon my true form. To do so would burn your eyes from your head."

"But --" Dean says.

"You are a vessel," Castiel tells him. "You were protected by Anna's grace."

He thinks of Cassie and shivers, grateful that she was sprawled unconscious on the floor. "Take the Impala," he tells Sam and Bobby. "Go cruise the main drag in Union or something. I don't want her windows busted out."

"Dean --"

"I'll be safe, Sammy. These guys want me alive."

Sam puts on the bitch-face, but he and Bobby do as Dean asked. As the Impala rumbles down the quiet rural road, Dean looks at Castiel. "So one of these days I'm going to get hijacked by my real passenger? Walk around like you, all wrathy and smitey and inhuman?"

"That knowledge is held by my Father alone. But we have not walked among humans for two thousand years. Once my mission has been completed, this vessel will be released."

"Catch and release? Or do you mean flopping on the deck of the boat released?"

"He will return to his life, just as you will." All three weeks or whatever he has left.

"And Anna's grace?"

"It will be received with joy by its brethren."

"But what about your orders?"

Castiel holds his gaze, but the intensity this time isn't creepy. "They pertain only to Anna's will, that which instigated this rebellion."

Dean lets out a breath. "All right then. Let's do this. Let's get your lost lamb home."

***

Producing a small bowl of some kind of oil, Castiel dips a finger in it and draws a sigil on Dean's forehead.

Nose wrinkling, he blinks furiously. "Dude. This has some serious funk. It smells like hour four of a Phish concert." The fact that he even knows what that's like shows there is such a thing as going too far to get laid, and Dean has been there. Once.

Castiel pauses, his finger resting in the small pool of oil. "Do you make light of everything?"

"Only the important stuff."

Castiel regards him for a long moment, and Dean wishes fiercely that he had some kind of read on angelic expressions.

"Open your shirt."

It takes an enormous effort of will not to make a joke about that, but Dean manages to keep the wisecracks at bay.

The angel paints another sigil on Dean's chest, leaving behind a sensation of faint warmth along its lines. "When I tell you to close your eyes, you must do so without delay."

Dean nods.

Castiel begins speaking in some language Dean's never heard. Slow, rough-sounding syllables that sound less like chanting than like the sound of slogging through a muddy field with the gunk sucking at your shoes with every step. For the next round, Castiel puts a palm against each of the sigils he's drawn, repeating the syllables.

Heat builds within Dean's forehead and chest. Light pours from Castiel's hands into Dean -- or maybe it's pouring from Dean into Castiel's hands. The radiance envelops them both, and he sees Castiel's wings unfurling. There's a hum in the air that he's never heard before, that has always been there, and it's like the song/not song that he heard in Cassie's kitchen, multiplied by thousands. Terror and joy shudder through him, and he sways against Castiel's hands. Some kind of energy surges into him, holding up upright, and it loops through him and returns to Castiel.

Castiel's in full angel mode now, sound and fury and music and light. The presence within Dean moves toward him, hesistant as a shy child at first, then rushing forward to greet its kindred and be welcomed home.

"Close your eyes," Castiel says, in English and in angel at the same time, and Dean complies.

The heat and light and sound he's been bathed in become suddenly too much, forcing Dean to sag back from Castiel's touch and hide his face in the crook of his arm.

And now the sound of Castiel's voice is nothing but screech and hiss and pain, the sound of tectonic plates heaving and grating against each other.

So long, and thanks for all the fish, Dean imagines Castiel saying, just before he blacks out.

***

When Dean comes to, he's a lot warmer than he'd expected to be. It's dark again, and the angel noise has toned it down to a throaty roar. There's an odd feeling of motion too, like he can suddenly feel the movement of the earth.

"Whoa. That was a hell of a thing," he says to the starless sky.

And then he's nearly pitched off the ground, which -- he belatedly realizes -- is not the ground. There's the screech of tires and fishtailing, and Sam yelping "Dean!"

Fuck, did I just teleport myself here? He prods the corners of his mind, but doesn't feel another presence there, or any sense of confinement.

"Dean, did you just do that?" Sam asks.

"I don't think so. I think maybe it was Castiel."

"Your hitchhiker," Bobby says. "Is it --"

"Gone. I guess Castiel took it home." He thinks about sitting up, but realizes he likes lying on the back seat just fine. The Impala's rumble vibrates through his muscles. Best Magic Fingers in the world. Dean pats the upholstery. Sorry I didn't recognize you at first, baby.

Switching on the dome light, Sam peers at him. "Are you all right?"

"Tired. Call Cassie, will you? Tell her I'm okay."

And he lets his baby lull him to sleep.

***

Dean surfaces a few times, finding himself in a room that's a helluva lot nicer than the motel room he remembers. Every damn time he finds Sam watching him. Sometimes he's quietly conversing with Bobby, sometimes he's by himself.

"Dude," Dean finally says. "Get some fucking sleep. You look like crap on a stick."

Of course Sam ignores that. "Do you want anything? Coffee? Something from room service?"

Letting his eyes drift closed, he mutters. "'Nother few minutes."

"Dean. You're sleeping your life away."

Is he? He shifts, sits up. "How long since I had my angelectomy?"

"About eighteen hours."

Doesn't seem all that excessive, considering he's been hopscotching all over the country, freeballing and barefooting it in the dead of winter. "Bobby still around?"

"Yeah. He's getting in some rack time. You want him? He said to wake him up anytime."

"Naw, let him -- well, actually yeah. Maybe he'd sit here with me while you go grab me something to eat. Of all the damnedest things, I'm suddenly craving some of that crazy chili. With the cinnamon."

"I thought you thought it was the most disgusting thing in the known world."

Well, uh, yeah. He'd figure out what he'd do with the shit once Sammy brought it back. Dean shrugs. "Cravings. Who knows why."

Sam eyes him for a long moment, then finally nods. "Sure. I'll get Bobby. How do you want it? One-way, five-way, something in between?"

"Huh? Oh. The chili. Call me when you get there."

Lingering just long enough to make Dean feel like there's something he's leaving unsaid, Sam finally nods and leaves the room. Bobby's at his door quick enough that it's clear he's been sleeping in his clothes.

"Decided to join the waking world, huh?" Bobby says. "How are you feeling?"

"We can get to that later. There's something I need to know, Bobby, and I need you to tell me the truth." Dean lets that hang there until he gets a minute nod in response. "I need you to tell me how Sammy's doing."

***

Bobby sits on the edge of the bed Sam just vacated. "Dean, now's not the time to be worrying about anyone else."

"Bullshit, Bobby. Now's just about all the time I've got. Nothing's going to change what happens to me, but Sam's still going to be here. How is he holding up?"

"Not good," Bobby admits.

"We went through some shit down in Florida. Ran into that Trickster we thought we killed."

"Sam told me about that," Bobby says.

"It fucked him up, Bobby. I didn't realize how much, but I do now. Castiel ... he showed me every damn death, and every reaction. He's gonna do something stupid or crazy or both."

"Like you did?"

Dean rubs at his jaw, still tender in spots from Castiel's iron grip. "Yeah, well. Guess that makes me the perfect poster boy for Stop the Madness. It's just -- how much are we dealing with?"

"When I first got here, you were still in the coma. I won't lie, that boy was at the end of his rope, and then some. I was worried as hell. And yeah, I still am."

"Me too, Bobby. You know how goddamn single-minded he can be at the best of times. I'll do what I can to keep him reined in, but when I'm dead --" The word seems to jam sideways in his throat, scraping his insides raw as it emerges. "When I'm gone, keep an eye on him."

"I'll do my best. You know that."

Yeah. He also knows -- they both know -- that Sam might make it damn hard for him.

"Thanks. And thanks for coming out here for Sammy while all this was going on."

"I came for you too, chucklehead."

Unexpectedly, it's the insult that hits Dean hard, sending him straight into chick-flick mode. Throat tightening, he looks away from Bobby, his burning eyes settling on the blank TV screen. "You've been --" Dean's throat closes, and he knows if he forces one more word, he'll break.

In two strides, Bobby is on him, yanking him off the bed and into a bone-crunching hug. "Goddammit, son. Goddammit."

"Yeah, Bobby. I goddammit you, too."

With that, Bobby snorts a laugh and releases Dean.

Dean drags his sleeve across his eyes. "We'd better cut the emo crap before Sam gets back. Hell, you should get back to sleep. We'll all have breakfast before we blow town."

"Look, I'll stick around and deal with the wampus cat," Bobby says. "You boys do whatever you need to."

"We'll sort that out in the morning." Dean's cellphone, which Sam has fished out of his clothes and set on the nightstand sometime in the 18 hours that Dean was out, shrills Sam's ringtone.

Great. Now I get to decide if I want to eat nasty shit plain or with onions, cheese and shit crackers.

Bobby gives Dean's shoulder a manly squeeze and takes his leave while Dean flips open his phone.

"Yeah, Sammy."

***

Sam's not alone when he comes back with the Skyline. There's an older black guy with him wrapped in a nice looking coat, not the cheap imitation grownup clothes he and Sam wear on a job. Too well dressed to be a cop.

Dean hopes like hell it's not another angel.

"Dean, hey. Do you remember Dr. Moultrie?"

"Can't say I do."

"He was just coming by to check on you when I ran into him," Sam says.

Getting to his feet, Dean says, "Seriously? You make hotel calls?"

The doctor smiles, offering his hand. "You're a hard man to keep in one spot."

"You have no idea," Sam says fervently.

"I hate to keep a man from his chili," Dr. Moultrie says, "but I'd really like to do a quick exam." He gestures to the bed Dean's been occupying. "Have a seat."

"Here?"

Moultrie's smile quirks up into a grin. "Like there's the slightest chance you'll walk across the street for an appointment?" Without waiting for Dean to comply, he pulls the room's desk chair over to face the bed.

There's something about the guy's manner that Dean likes, but he flicks a look over to Sam, who nods.

"You can trust him, Dean." The fact that Sam says this at all indicates a level of trust that's extremely rare for outsiders. What Dean can't figure out is whether Dr. Moultrie knows some things, or everything.

Settling on the edge of the bed, Dean directs another look at Sam. This guy can't be a hunter's doctor, not with the pricey coat he's shucking out of and folding onto the other bed. The clothes beneath are just as expensive.

"Dr. Moultrie's actually the chief of neurology at the hospital," Sam informs him. "He took your case after they moved you out of the ER."

The doctor shines a small flashlight beam into Dean's eyes, then flicks it away. "Your brother mentioned the possibiity that this episode might've been caused by something you encountered on the job."

Deer, meet headlights. Well, flashlight. "Uhh..."

"Possibly a toxic substance from crawling around in ductwork," Sam hastily adds. "I was thinking about that old factory a month or so back."

"Huh," Dean says. "Could be. That place was a wreck."

"I'd like to do some bloodwork, if you'd consent to going back to the hospital."

"Aw, no," Dean blurts. "I hate bloodwork."

"We're self-employed, doctor," Sam says smoothly. "We're already backed up on our schedule. And to tell you the truth, we'd rather spend the money on improving our protective gear." There's something about this doctor that seems to smooth Sam's jagged edges, even if just slightly. Considering Sam's recent state of mind, it's pretty remarkable.

"Well, I'd be in favor of that," Moultrie says. "But I'd still recommend finding out what it was that affected you. I don't want to be an alarmist, but you could have another episode, or other effects."

"I appreciate that, doc," Dean says. "But the jobs are stalled and the bills aren't."

"I understand." He moves on with the exam, checking Dean's reflexes, asking him questions, some of which Sam answers with a smooth lie before Dean has a chance to stumble over a response.

This doctor's a smart one -- Dean can see him registering every time Sam leaps in to answer a question. He knows something doesn't add up, Dean's sure of it. Turning Dean's head, he eyes the cluster of bruises on his jawline. The scrutiny reminds him of Castiel's, which of course is where he got the marks in the first place.

"Do you remember where these bruises came from?"

"Nope," he says.

After regarding him for a long moment, Dr. Moultrie settles back in his chair. "As far as I can tell from this level of examination, you seem to have bounced back from this." He turns toward Sam. "You're the expert, though, Sam. I never met him before the coma and psychotic reaction. Does your brother seem like himself?"

***

Sam regards him for a long moment as Dr. Moultrie waits for an answer and Dean's stomach begins to knot.

"Well, he hasn't made nearly enough inappropriate remarks or crass jokes," Sam finally says, "but I'm chalking it down to what he's gone through."

"Oh, very fucking funny," Dean says. He shares an eyeroll with the doctor. "Baby brothers."

Dr. Moultrie laughs. "Then I'm going to say whatever this is, it's passed. I'll write an official discharge, and you can get to your next job."

"No additional tests?" Sam asks, prompting Dean to shoot him a dark look.

Offering a shrug, Moultrie says, "They all came out normal the first time around, apart from some unusual brain activity during the coma. But if you'd like--"

"Thanks, but no thanks," Dean says hastily.

"If you notice any after-effects or problems, make an appointment." Producing a card from his pocket, he hands it to Dean. "Rose is my scheduler. Just tell her I said to put you on the fast track, and she'll get you in as soon as she can."

"Thanks, doc," Dean says, and this time it's sincere.

Getting to his feet, Dr. Moultrie reaches for his coat. "It's been one of the most intriguing cases I've ever seen. I don't have any anwers, but I'm pleased with the outcome." He offers Dean his hand, then shakes Sam's in turn. "Take care, and be a little more cautious on the job, will you?"

"You bet," Dean says. When Dr. Moultrie's gone, he says, "Decent guy for a doctor."

"Yeah, I like him. You and Bobby get things settled?"

Frowning, Dean says, "What things?"

A shrug. "Whatever it was that you wanted to say badly enough that you sent me running out for cinnamon chili instead of calling room service or sending me downstairs."

Dean scratches at his neck. "Oh yeah. I keep forgetting that you're not stupid."

"Hilarious."

"I am starving, so hand it over." Starting to open the paper bag Sam hands him, he changes his mind and sets it on the nightstand. He looks up at Sam, who has a Was I right? smirk on his face. "I did want to talk to Bobby. About you."

The smirk takes a southward turn. "Me?"

"This has been rough on you."

"Look, you're the one who's had it the worst," Sam says. "I lost some sleep and did some worrying, but I didn't have an angel riding me. Like you said, you're starving. Let me pitch that shit out and we'll call room service." Starting toward the hotel phone, he halts as Dean throws up a hand.

"Sammy. That's not what I'm talking about." Pointing toward the chair Dr. Moultrie had pulled up to the bed, he says, "Sit."

Instead Sam settles himself on the other bed, putting a couple more feet of distance between them.

"Look, I know I've been blowing off the whole Trickster thing, making jokes, saying insensitive shit."

The corner of Sam's mouth quirks up. "When you put it that way, it sounds just like you being you."

"Well, it is, you know. It's wisecrack like an asshole, or shut down and never talk at all. You were too young to remember now, but I did that for a while after ... after Mom." Sam takes a breath to speak, but Dean gestures for him to hold up. "That whole Trickster thing was more like some crazy story than something that happened to me -- to us. It was easy to make jokes. But all those memories got unlocked at the end of all this. I saw every single float on the shit parade of death."

Sam looks up, stricken. "Dean --"

"It wasn't that bad, Sam. It didn't traumatize me. But I got to see how you reacted, every single time. It hadn't occurred to me to think what it would be like on your end. Man, a hundred times watching me die -- if it was me in your place -- I don't know how you're still walking around. You're one tough sonofabitch, and I mean that in the nicest possible way."

This, at least, teases a small smile from Sam. "I'm flattered." Sobering, he adds, "That's what you saw, the hundred Tuesdays?"

"Yeah. That and some some other memories, ones that weren't lost. I guess Castiel was giving me the full angel brain scan -- that's when he said I'm a vessel."

"Vessel?"

"Yeah, a potential meatsuit for an angel. That's why the tree put the whammy on me, but no one else. But that's not the angel I was made for. I guess vessels are custom-tailored to one particular angel." An idea blooms in his head, so clear and unexpected that it makes him draw in a breath.

"Dean?"

He rubs his forehead. "I thought I'd told you all this. I guess I dreamed it."

"Yeah, you must have, because it's news to me."

"Did I tell you the other part? About my deal?"

His brows crowding together, Sam says, "No, what about your deal?"

***

"Wait," Sam says before Dean can answer. "Are you talking about something new? A deal with this angel? Did you agree to be possessed again?" His voice rises on a note of tension, and Dean hurries to reassure him.

"No. He said -- I think -- that they have to get consent from a vessel. And he said it's been 2000 years since the last time Michael Landon came and slummed with us human types. Me getting possessed, that was an accident."

"So, what deal -- that deal? The crossroads demon?"

"Yeah." Dean hesitates. Once he steps off this cliff, there's no going back. It's wrong and he knows it, but goddammit, he can't watch Sammy suffer like this for the time he's got left. He'll take fake happiness over true torment. For Sammy. He hopes Sam will forgive him once it all falls apart. "Castiel told me this whole temporary vessel thing changes everything. Hell can't take me now."

Sam's jaw drops, his breath whooshing out. "Dean? For real?"

Clap for Tinker Bell, baby. Keep this bullshit alive. "Hell, Sammy, would an angel lie to me?"''

The corners of Sam's mouth twitch as if he's afraid to smile, or has forgotten how. "Dean, that's -- god, I don't know --" He launches himself up and bounds toward Dean, hauling him up just as Bobby had done and pulling him into a crushing hug. "Dean, that's fucking fantastic."

"I know, right?" A laugh bubbles out of him, half hysterical at the fucking audacity of this.

Sammy's answering laugh is just as shaky. "Idon'tbelieveitIdon'tbelieveit!" He howls like a drunken hockey fan, lifting Dean in the air. "Fuck, yeah!"

By the time he's back on his feet, Dean has rearranged his face, managing to approximate the lunatic joy he sees on Sam's. "Shit, yes!"

"You're totally off the hook?"

"Off the hook, contract ripped into confetti. I'm golden, Sammy."

Then Sam is laughing and crying at the same time like a big damn girl. Before Dean can point this out, he feels moisture tracking down his own face, and he laughs too, strangely giddy. This is why he sold his soul, for this Sam, whom he thought he'd destroyed by making the deal.

Letting go of his fistfuls of Dean's shirt, Sam raises both arms in the air and whoops, and Dean sets up a wolfpack harmony. In about thirty seconds there's a thump at the door which is too terrifying to be mere hotel security.

"Yeah, Bobby," Dean says, swinging the door open.

"What the holy hell is going on in here?" he hollers. Wearing his hat and a terry robe that no doubt has a gun in the pocket, he levels the glower of doom at them.

"Dean just told me," Sam says.

"Told you what?" Bobby aims an I better be wrong about this glare in Dean's direction.

"He doesn't know yet," Dean says to Sam. "I was waiting to tell you first." Wetting his lips, he goes on. "I'm clear, Bobby. The hellhounds can't get me now. Because I had an angel riding around in here."

Please just go with it, he silently pleads. It's hard to do without the face too, but Sammy's watching them both closely.

"Damn, son," he says after a stunned pause.

"That's pretty much how Sam was, too. Speechless."

"That's damn good news." Bobby pulls Dean toward him, fingers like iron against the back of his neck as he hauls Dean close. "You stupid sonofabitch," he whispers into Dean's ear, "I oughta beat the snot out of you."

"You said it, Bobby," Dean says, louder. "A bona fide miracle."

Ducking his head, Bobby uses his hand and his hat to shield his face from Sam, making a good show of being overcome and gruffly trying to hide it. He comes up with a lame excuse and makes his escape

"I don't think I've ever seen Bobby like that," Sam says.

"He's not so comfortable with the sentimental shit, is he?" Dean suspects the moment Bobby can pry him loose from Sam, he's in for a major ass-chewing. So, it's worth it, if he can give Sammy two or three weeks of peace of mind.

Tangling his long fingers into the front of Dean's shirt, Sam pulls him into another hug. "Jesus, Dean." He laughs again, less shaky this time. When he pulls back, it looks like ten years have rolled off him. Seeing that makes Dean feel the same way. When he grins back, it's no longer an effort.

"What d'you say we check out of here and go get that damn wampus cat," Sam suggests.

"Well, here's the thing," Dean says. "When you were out getting the chili, Bobby offered -- this was before he knew my deal is null and void -- he offered to take over the hunt. I'm inclined to say yes. It's been a helluva few days, and I just want to --" Rest is what he's about to say, but that's not what he wants at all. "I want to travel."

That yanks a crazy laugh out of Sam, and Dean finds himself laughing too.

"No, I mean really travel. See stuff. Go where we want to, pick up every damn tourist brochure on the rack at the first gas station we come to, and see every single tourist trap. The fucking Spam Museum, and the House on the goddamn Rock. Look in the papers for the nearest hokey small-town festival, instead of flipping past any story that's not full of death. One month, Sammy. Just for ourselves, then we get back to into the hunt. Shit, we've both been through a meat grinder the past few weeks. It'll do us good, and then we'll do more good for other people when we're back."

The shine in Sam's eyes get brighter as Dean rattles on, convincing him that this is right, whatever the cost later on. When Sammy is back in the hunt, but Dean is not. Bobby will be there for him, no matter how pissed he is at Dean at the moment.

"One month," Dean repeats. "We've earned it, Sam. We've been at this for two and a half years, and the only break we've had is when one of us lands in the hospital. What d'you say?"

"You had me at 'the fucking Spam Museum.'"

They laugh like lunatics, with more hugs and back thumping.

Dean can't remember when he's felt this happy. The hellhounds might take him, but they can't have these weeks. These are his and Sammy's, and they're going to be pure and untainted.

He thumps Sam on the arm. "Let's get our shit packed up and in the car. We're on vacation time now."