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Until the Morning Comes

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"I think there's something wrong with Brady."

Sam put down the box he was carrying and accepted the bottle of water Jessica offered him.

"Why do you say that?" Sam raised his eyebrows, running his sweaty arm over his forehead to push back his bangs.

Jessica smiled fondly but didn't answer right away. Instead she reached up and pushed his hair back with long, delicate fingers, tucking some of it behind Sam's ear.

"You should really let me cut your hair," she said. "Just a trim. Just to get it out of your eyes."

Sam huffed out a laugh, dipping his chin to his chest as he grinned bashfully. Jess was a natural caregiver. She always made him feel cared about, treasured. Sam had never had a mom or a big sister, but he imagined this was what it was like. Jessica was genuinely fond of him, her friendship and kindness offered freely, with no strings attached, and Sam appreciated her more than he could express sometimes.

Of course, it was a purely platonic relationship. Sam had been very upfront about his sexual orientation from the moment they met, so he knew there could be no confusion or false expectations from the start between them. Sam had never had a female friend his age before, and he had discovered that he liked it. There was a softness about Jessica; she smiled easily and expressed herself without reservation, never holding back her feelings about anything. After six months of friendship, Sam felt like he knew her as well as any human being could know another person. He and Jessica were remarkably compatible; he felt comfortable around her and honestly thought of her as his best friend.

Which is why they had decided to move in together. The dorms were noisy and not conducive to serious study, and Jessica needed a studio for her art. They both agreed they could live more cheaply and probably more healthfully off-campus. Sharing an apartment meant saving money for both of them, although it also meant adjusting Sam's financial aid package too, so ultimately it didn't make much difference. It made Jessica really, really happy, though, so Sam counted that as a win. When Jessica was happy, the whole world felt brighter. If Sam hadn't been gay, he was sure he would've been in love with her.

"He tried to hit on me," Jessica shook her head with a little frown. She began pulling books out of a box on the table, lining them up in the bookcase against the near wall.

"He what?" Sam choked out, shocked. "Are you sure?"

Jessica arched an eyebrow at him. "I think I know when I'm being hit on, Sam," she said with a smirk.

"Yeah, but – I mean, Brady's about as straight as a rainbow," Sam shook his head as he started to open another box. "I'm just surprised, is all."

"Yeah, well, you're not the only one," Jessica nodded. "He seems to be on some kind of girls-only diet at the moment. Like he's trying to fuck himself straight or something."

Sam tipped his head skeptically. "You do realize that's impossible, right? Unless he's discovered some bi-sexual tendencies he never admitted before, even to himself."

"Yeah, I know," Jessica sighed. "I used to really enjoy hanging around with him because I never had to feel like he might be attracted to me. But I'm telling you, he's into girls now. And that's not all. Girls, booze, recreational drugs that I don't even want to know about – "

"Brady?" Sam looked up from unpacking dishes to stare. "We're talking about Mr. Straight-'A's-Who-Studies-All-The-Time-and-Complains-If-He-Can-Hear-Your-Music-Through-Your-Headphones, right?" Sam shook his head in disbelief. "And drugs? I was his roommate all last year, remember? I never saw him so much as smoke a cigarette."

Jessica reached up to the top shelf to place a little ceramic figurine there – an angel, Sam realized – and her shirt rode up on her flat belly, reminding Sam that Jess was a very attractive girl who would probably be just his type if he wasn't so certain of his sexual identity.

"I know," she frowned as she stood back, admiring her handiwork. "Like I say. There's something wrong."

* // *

Brady was possessed.

Sam could see it the minute he caught sight of his old roommate across the crowded room at the party in the house Brady shared with three other guys. Sam didn't need to see Brady's black eyes, although he imagined the flash of obsidian as Brady looked up when Sam walked into the room.

Sam could feel the demon, its dark, coiling rage and spite, the special delight it was taking in corrupting Tyson Brady.

"Sammy!" the demon called, lifting the plastic cup in Brady's hand, smiling seductively with Brady's handsome face. "Great to see you, man!"

Sam could hear the derision in the demon's taunting tone, and he could feel something else, something not-demonic. Brady was still in there, frightened and appalled, watching helplessly as his arm circled the waist of the petite brunette crowded up next to him, as he dipped his mouth to hers for a deep, alcohol-infused kiss.

Sam slipped a protective arm around Jessica's waist and pulled her close. "Let's get out of here," he murmured directly into her ear, aware that Brady was watching him. Sam could read Jessica's surprise and hesitation, could feel her stiffen and start to push away from him.

"We just got here!" she protested, leaning away from him so she could look him in the eye.

"Just trust me, okay?" Sam begged, giving her his most pleading look, still holding her close against him so he could feel the moment she relented, melting against him with a little confused smile that showed her dimples.

"Yeah, okay," she agreed with a shrug.

Sam glanced over her shoulder at Brady, who raised his red plastic cup in a silent salute, smirking as Sam turned away, keeping his arm around Jessica as they moved quickly toward the front door. When they reached the porch, out of the crowd and the pounding music, Sam didn't stop; he moved ahead of Jessica and grabbed her hand, pulling her after him down the steps and across the front lawn.

"Woah, woah, wait a minute," she protested, letting herself be yanked along only as far as the sidewalk, where she dug in her heels and pulled her hand away. "What's wrong? Sam? Why are we leaving?"

Sam was grateful, not for the first time, that Jessica's mind was unreadable. He'd liked that about her from the moment they met. Not that she was hard to understand; Jess was as open and expressive a person as Sam had ever met, and it wasn't really necessary for Sam to know what she was thinking and feeling most of the time. He liked that about her, but he was also glad her mind was so quiet. He could be around her without the constant mental noise he usually picked up from most people's minds. It was a relief, and one of the reasons they had grown so close in such a short amount of time.

That, and the fact that Jessica was so sensitive to Sam's moods and feelings, it was almost like she could read his mind.

And right now, she was concerned for him. Sam could see that in her expression, in her body language as Sam dug his phone out and punched the first number on his speed dial.

"Just hang on," he gestured urgently to Jessica before turning his back on her to focus on the call.

"Sam?"

Dean's deep voice splashed over Sam's soul like warm seawater, making his skin tingle and his heart pound. Sam had to close his eyes against the shivery sensations that shot up his spine.

"Dean," he breathed into the phone, endorphins flooding his system just from the thought of his brother on the other end of the line.

"Sammy, you okay?" Dean sounded concerned, then incredulous. "You drunk?"

"What? No!" Sam protested. "I'm at a party. Outside. Listen to me." He took a deep breath, glanced back at Jessica, made sure she wasn't listening before hissing into the phone. "Dean, there's a demon here. It's – it's in my old roommate. Brady."

"The one who had the hots for you last year?"

Leave it to Dean to get right to the meat of the matter.

"Yeah. No!" Sam huffed out an irritated breath. "Doesn't matter. Except, yeah, maybe it's not just a coincidence."

"Oh, ya think?" Dean sounded angry.

"The point is, we need to exorcise the demon. Save Brady."

Dean was silent, and Sam wished he could see his face, wished he could see that little shake of the head Dean was probably making.

"You know, your friend may not survive," Dean reminded him after a pause. "These things can really beat up on the bodies they possess."

"I know that," Sam nodded. "But I have to try. He was – Brady and I were close, man. More than friends. And I brought this evil thing to his doorstep. It's my fault this has happened to him. This is on me, Dean, and I have to try to fix it."

Dean was quiet for another moment, and Sam was almost afraid he'd lost him. Then he heard Dean take a deep breath, let it out slow.

"Okay," Dean spoke finally. "I'm about an hour away. You just stay put, keep an eye on your boyfriend but don't get too close, ya hear me? We'll figure it out when I get there."

"He's not my boyfriend," Sam grumbled.

"Ex-boyfriend, then," Dean acquiesced. "Whatever. Anyway, just sit tight, ya got me?"

Sam nodded, knowing Dean couldn't see him. "Yeah, I hear you."

When he put the phone away and turned around, Jessica was staring at him, lips turned up in a slight smile.

"Who was that?" she asked, tilting her head quizzically.

"My brother," Sam answered smoothly. "He's gonna be here in about an hour."

"You just invited your brother to a college party?" Jessica lifted her eyebrows. "Why?"

"He – he specializes in things like this," Sam said. "He and I worked together before I started school. With our dad. It's kind of a family business."

"What kind of business?" Jessica was obviously totally confused now. "Party planning?"

Sam huffed out a laugh, dug his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and dipped his chin down to his chest, looking up at her through his bangs.

"No," he chuckled. "More like helping people who are in over their heads. Like what's happened to Brady. Crisis intervention."

There. It wasn't a lie, it just wasn't the whole truth.

Jessica's eyes widened. "So you're saying you think Brady has an addiction problem," she suggested.

"Something like that," Sam hedged.

"That would explain the violent mood swings, the erratic behavior, the reckless sex," Jessica nodded. "And you and your brother can provide some kind of emergency treatment?"

"You could say that," Sam agreed. "It's really more of a cure. Kind of like an instant detox."

Jessica stared in disbelief, obviously waiting for Sam to admit he was joking.

"You do realize that's an oxymoron," she said finally. "There is no way to detox instantly. Even going cold turkey, there's withdrawal. It can take weeks to get clean."

Sam shifted his feet, chewed on the inside of his cheek, unable to meet Jessica's eyes.

"My brother and I know a way," he insisted. "But we need to get Brady alone, away from all these people."

Jessica stared at him for another moment, like she was struggling with her own instinct to trust him, and Sam could almost sense it the moment she decided to just go with it, to just go with him.

"Well, that's easy," Jessica huffed out a breath. "I'll just tell him you want to see him. At our place. For a private party."

"What? No way," Sam stared, shocked. "He's not going to want to see me."

"Oh, you're wrong," Jessica shook her head. "When I ran into him the other day he was all over me, but all he wanted to talk about was you. 'How's Sam? What's Sam up to? Do you think I still have a shot with him?' I kid you not. I'm certain he would come if I told him you were willing to meet with him, especially alone."

Then Sam understood. It was the demon, not Brady, that wanted to see Sam.

And Sam was more than willing to be the bait, to lure the demon somewhere away from all these people, someplace where a devil's trap would already be waiting, of course.

There was no way in hell he could let Jessica be the lure, though. It was too dangerous. He couldn't let her be part of this, couldn't put her at risk that way. Their apartment wasn't good, either, since other people lived there.

But aside from knocking her out, tying her up and giving her the scare of her life, which Sam wasn't about to do, Sam knew there wasn't an easy way to convince Jessica to leave now, to just get the hell out of the way and let Sam and Dean handle this by themselves. If there was one thing Sam had learned about Jessica Moore after six months of friendship, it was that she was almost as stubborn and tenacious as he was.

Almost.

"Okay, he already saw us here tonight," Sam nodded and bit his bottom lip. "Maybe you could text him to tell him I've been re-thinking the way we left things between us, and I came tonight to talk to him about it but chickened out because there's so many people and he seemed so busy."

He paused as Jessica recognized some people she knew, raised a hand to greet them. Sam put one hand on his hip, ran his hand through his hair and licked his lips.

"So I went over to the library to study," Sam went on. "The special corner in the basement where I usually go when I need to be alone. He knows where. But you can tell I really want to talk to him, and you're being a good friend and intervening behind my back a little because you can see how much it would mean to me to patch things up between me and him."

Jessica shook her head, blond curls bouncing. "You're a piece of work, Sam Winchester," she said, smiling mischievously. "It's like you lie for a living or something, you're so good at it."

Sam flushed, lowering his eyes and tipping his chin down to hide his wince.

"Just give me a fifteen minute head-start," he said. "And when my brother gets here, you can tell him where we are."

"You think it's a good idea to do this without your brother?" Jessica frowned.

"I don't want to risk Brady leaving before I get a chance to talk to him," Sam nodded. "Anyway, Dean's just back-up. I could do this myself if I had to."

Something in his tone obviously worried Jessica. She put her hand on his arm and shook her head a little, clearly struggling with her instinct that something about this was wrong and probably dangerous.

"Be careful," she admonished doubtfully.

Her trust in him almost broke Sam, almost made him want to tell her what he was really doing. The urge to share with someone what he and Dean did was almost overwhelming sometimes, and this was one of those times. Sam knew the risks in what he was about to do, knew there was a very real possibility that things could go south, that he could end up dead and Jessica would never know why.

But as much as Sam might owe it to Jessica to let her in on what he did, he owed it to her even more to keep her alive and protected from all the evil that seemed to follow Sam wherever he went. So he smiled and nodded, returning her worried look with as much confidence and reassurance as he could muster.

"Always," he promised. "Fifteen minutes, okay?"

Jessica hesitated another moment, searching his gaze for something that Sam just couldn't give her, clearly confused by the feeling of foreboding that Sam could easily read in her eyes. Sam could see the moment she relented, shaking her head and smiling at her own foolishness.

"Yeah, sure," she agreed. "Okay."

Sam didn't waste another minute. He took off on a sprint across the street and down the block to the apartment to gather the tools he needed, then jogged to the library. He estimated it would take Brady about fifteen minutes to walk there from the party after Jessica relayed Sam's message, so Sam had thirty minutes to lay his trap. As he stood on a table drawing the devil's trap in chalk on the basement ceiling, it occurred to Sam that Jessica might not recognize Dean. Sam had never shown her the photograph he kept in his wallet, and Jessica hadn't been around when Dean had picked him up for Thanksgiving and winter breaks.

Then he remembered about six weeks into the fall semester when Dean dropped by unexpectedly. Well, not totally unexpectedly. Sam had been having nightmares in which he lost Dean in a smoke-filled house, a recurring nightmare from which Sam woke up sweating and shaking. Dean had come when Sam called him one morning, crying and needing to be sure Dean was alright.

And of course he was. Of course, once Dean arrived, teasing and brash and as cocksure as ever, Sam felt like a fool for letting his fear get the better of him. They went out for breakfast together, knocking knees under the table, brushing shoulders as they crowded in and out of the little cafe, Dean full of snarky quips about the granola-crunching atmosphere and the vegetarian menu. While Dean was using the facilities, Jessica happened to stop by on her way to class, just to say hi. Their friendship was fairly new then, but Sam was glad to see her, watching her weave her way through the little tables on her way to the door as Dean returned from the bathroom.

He followed Sam's gaze and smirked as he gave Jessica's retreating form an approving once-over.

"Who's the leggy blonde?" he asked, gesturing with his thumb as he slid back into his chair.

"Just a friend," Sam answered, frowning. He wasn't sure if the stab of annoyance in his gut was jealousy or protectiveness. "Trust me. She's not your type."

Dean had let it go, which almost surprised Sam at the time. There was a time when Dean would've teased Sam about his "girlfriend," even though he knew Sam was gay. It would've been Dean's way of covering up his own attraction to the girl, designed to get a rise out of his brother but also a way of transferring his attraction to Sam onto someone Sam couldn't feel attracted to. It was Dean's backwards way of flirting with Sam that Sam was used to, or had been long ago, before Sam and Dean had admitted their feelings for each other.

But that was also before they knew they were brothers. Things changed after that, and Dean resorted to his earlier teasing manner, and for a while that worked, even if it made Sam so frustrated sometimes he felt like he might explode. He could never tell if Dean was flirting with girls and teasing Sam about them because he thought it was a normal way for brothers to behave with each other, and Dean was trying hard to be "normal" after their earlier relationship had turned out to be incestuous. Or was Dean subverting his attraction to Sam this way, deliberately provoking Sam to react, maybe even wishing he would? If that was the case, Sam had learned he could be pushed only so far before he snapped, as he did one night last summer, grabbing Dean and pushing him up against the wall and showing him exactly how much of a rise Dean could get out of Sam when he wanted to.

After that night, Dean had been more careful. He didn't tease Sam directly anymore, clamped down on his boisterous, flirtatious comments, stifled himself almost mid-sentence sometimes to keep from accidentally tripping into dangerous territory.

The result had been awkward at best, downright tense the rest of the time. Sam felt wound tight all the time, skin pulled thin over his bones, tamped down and repressed so much when Dean was around it made him snappish, angry, more pissed off at Dean than he had a right to be. But they managed. Somehow they found a detente that almost worked, most of the time. It sure beat that first year, which they'd spent mostly apart and more miserable than either of them ever wanted to think about.

So Dean knew what Jessica looked like, more or less.

The clang of the big metal door at the top of the stairs let Sam know someone was coming. Brady, he hoped.

Sam had already pulled the table back, dimmed the light so that only two of the little desk lights were burning. Very few students ever came here to study; it was deep in the stacks, unknown to most, and pretty dark most of the time, since it was underground. Not the kind of place native Californians would seek out. Sam had discovered it early in his first semester and made it his home. One day Brady had followed him, bringing his barely-contained crush on Sam with him, and at first Sam wasn't sure he could stand it. He wasn't sure he could study with Brady there, oozing lust and need and unrequited desire.

But Brady was a serious student, like Sam, and Sam tolerated his company, learned to shut out the lustful thoughts bursting from Brady's brain so he could study in relative peace. They never spoke, and Brady didn't make it a habit so much that he made himself a nuisance, so it worked out.

Now Sam could hear footsteps on the stair, slow and heavy, like Brady was taking his time.

Or like he was carrying something.

Sure enough, when he reached the bottom of the stairs and turned toward where Sam was hiding, Sam could see that Brady carried a body over his shoulder, fireman-style, long, blonde hair swinging almost down to his knees.

Jessica.

Sam closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. When he opened them again Brady had stopped, just out of the ring of light from one of the tables, so that his face was still in shadow.

"Hey, Sammy, I know you're down here," Brady called out, waiting a beat to see if Sam would answer. When he didn't, Brady shifted his feet and bent forward a little, letting Jessica slide from his shoulder and onto the floor, right there in the light where Sam could see that she was unconscious.

Or dead.

"I brought your little friend along," Brady stated the obvious. "Well, not exactly little. This girl is almost as tall as you, Sammy."

Sam let his breath out slow, focusing on Brady's use of the present tense to describe Jessica. Not dead, then.

"Let her go," Sam growled through gritted teeth, staying where he was in the shadows for the moment.

Brady tilted his handsome head, focused his attention on the direction of Sam's voice, letting his lips curl up in a small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.

"I will, after we have our little talk," he agreed. "For now, she's insurance."

"Against what?" Sam asked, vying for time, waiting for Brady to move closer.

"You know what, Sammy," Brady answered, smooth and cocksure.

Good. Let his over-confidence be his undoing.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sam spit out, struggling to control the urge to move, to jump this bastard and shake him out of Brady's body.

Sam could feel Brady inside, desperate with fear, fighting to stay sane after the things the demon had been making him do; Sam glimpsed some of Brady's memories, and it made his stomach roil. Brought tears to his eyes.

Focus. Need to stay focused.

"Oh, I think you do, Sammy," the demon purred, taking a step closer. "You think you're the big hero, don't you? Think you're going to save your friend. But you know what? He's already dead. I'm the only thing keeping him alive."

Sam closed his eyes, fighting the despair and guilt that welled up in him at the demon's words.

"But don't worry, Sammy," the demon went on. "I like it here. It's fun. Brady had a lot of friends, a lot of people who liked him and trusted him. I'm having way too much fun defiling every single one of them."

He took another step, then turned back to gesture at Jessica. "I might even decide to play with this sweet morsel here," the demon grinned, and Sam could feel the malevolent lust rolling through Brady's body, making Brady's dick twitch and harden. "She's got such a thing for you, Sammy. She's so hot for you, she'd probably let me fuck her just because I've fucked you. She'd probably beg for it."

"Stay away from her!" Sam ground out, gritting his teeth so hard it made his jaw ache.

"Well now, that's up to you, Sammy," the demon said. "Why don't you come on out here where I can see you so we can talk about it?"

Sam could hear the implicit threat in the demon's voice. He took a deep breath, clenched and unclenched his fists, then took a step forward, out of the dark and into the pool of light cast by the nearby desk light, taking a wide-legged stance so the demon could see he was unarmed.

"What do you want?" Sam demanded.

The demon took his time answering, letting his gaze run up and down Sam's body appreciatively, letting Sam read the unadulterated lust in his eyes.

"I think you know, Sammy," the demon smirked, licking his bottom lip slowly. "We're impressed. You can see us. Your abilities have grown, just as our father knew they would. You couldn't do that when you were younger, but now you can tell right away when a person's possessed. It's a skill we were hoping you'd develop."

"Why?" Sam shook his head. "What difference does it make if I can see demons or not? Why does that matter to you?"

"Everything about you matters to me, Sammy," the demon hissed, taking another step, and Sam had to force himself not to glance up at the devil's trap, or at the invisible line in the floor where he needed Brady to stand for the trap to work. "You're special. Our father has plans for you. And in the meantime, you and I can be besties again, just like before. There's so much you still need to learn, and I'm a master. I can teach you."

"You want to be my teacher," Sam scoffed. "Right."

Brady's slow grin made Sam's skin crawl. "My father's blood runs in your veins. You're one of us, Sammy," he purred, voice low and dark. "You're meant to serve a higher purpose. Or a lower one, if you know what I mean. With my help, you can learn to be the superstar you were always meant to be."

Sam felt a cold snake of fear slide up his spine at the demon's words, touching the darkness that had always been deep inside him, reminding him that he was unclean. Impure. Wrong.

"Oh, come on, Sammy," the demon coaxed, giving Sam the teasing shoulder-roll that Brady often used when he was being his most convincing. "You and me, we could have so much fun together! Just like old times. What do you say?"

When Sam didn't answer, just drew in a shaky breath and closed his eyes against his own self-disgust, the demon continued.

"I remember, Sam. I remember how good you felt, in my mouth."

Sam cheeks flushed hot; the demon sounded so much like Brady, despite his words, and Sam couldn't help remembering how much he liked it when Brady touched him, when Brady kissed him. Brady used just this tone of voice when he was trying to get Sam to loosen up, to come out of his shell for a minute and live a little, stop all his brooding and just hang out. Be a normal guy for once.

The demon must've read the hesitation in Sam's face, must've been encouraged by it. He took one more step, putting his hand out as if to encourage Sam to take it, to come to him.

Just as Sam had hoped, the demon's over-confidence was his undoing. That last step put him squarely inside the devil's trap, and Sam couldn't help the little triumphant smile that crept along his lips.

The moment he realized he was trapped, the demon's expression changed, first to a look of shock, then grimacing rage. He looked up at the trap on the ceiling above his head, then scowled at Sam, eyes gone pure black, clenching his fists and his jaw as he made a deep growling noise, inhuman and grating.

The demon didn't look like Brady anymore, and Sam was grateful.

"You can't hold me," the demon growled as Sam stepped back, pulled out his vial of holy water and the little Latin book with the exorcism rite.

Sam ignored him as he began the rite, tossing holy water into the demon's face as much to remind himself that this wasn't Brady as to distract it.

Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas...

"You can't exorcise me, Sam," the demon panted after shaking off the effects of the water from its hissing face.

"Watch me," Sam muttered before continuing the rite.

"Brady will die!" the demon insisted. "You'll kill your best friend!"

Sam steeled himself, tossing another splash of holy water into the demon's face as he went on with the rite, holding the little Latin book in front of himself more as a way to stay focused than because he needed it. The lines were already memorized.

Omnis incursio infernalis adversarii...

"Listen to me, Sam," the demon was starting to struggle, starting to slip. Sam could feel it. "If you do this, you'll never know what's coming. I can help you. My father sent me here after you showed us what you could do last summer. Jesse was wrong, Sam. Plan's changed. You don't have three years! Shit's coming down the pike for you soon, kid! Real soon! I can help you prepare for it. Help make sure you're ready."

Sam could feel Brady's consciousness stirring deep inside his demon-possessed mind, hope rising as the demon began losing control, its hold on Brady beginning to weaken in response to the rite. Sam couldn't stop now. He owed it to Brady to set him free, no matter the consequences.

Ergo, draco maledicte et omnis legio diabolica...

"No, Sam! This isn't how it's supposed to be! You need me!" The demon threw it's head back and howled with rage, clenched fists opening wide. "Father! You promised! You said I could have this!"

Vade, santana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae...

The now-familiar rumbling began under Sam's feet, over his head, all around him; Sam braced himself on wide-spread legs, dropping the holy water so he could reach out and grab hold of a bookshelf as the ground began to shake.

Brady turned demon-crazed eyes on Sam, mouth a rictus of hysterical laughter.

"My father is coming for me," he growled. "He's coming to save me! He won't let you do this!"

Sam took a steadying breath, ignoring the surge of terror he felt at the demon's words.

Almost there.

Humiliare sub potenti manu Dei...

"Sam!"

Dean's voice cut through the sound of rumbling, the demon's howling, and Sam spared a glance behind the struggling demon, who had fallen to his knees as if in frantic prayer now.

Dean stood at the bottom of the stairs, taking in the scene with a look of open-mouthed horror as the demon inside Brady rushed out of him in a burst of sparks and roiling black smoke. An overwhelming smell of sulfur filled the room as the demon's wails continued, amplified till Sam worried that his ear-drums would split. He glimpsed Dean covering his ears and cowering as the cloud inside the devil's trap began shooting tongues of flame. Sam could hear the now-familiar groaning of a huge metal door opening, then the moans of thousands of suffering souls carried on the rush of hot air as Hell opened up to swallow the demon and take it back down where it belonged.

The demon continued to wail, disembodied echoes ringing in Sam's ears long after the sound of an iron door slammed shut. Sam heard heavy iron bolts slide into place as the invisible door to Hell closed again and the smoke dissipated, leaving the crumpled form of Tyson Brady on the floor at Sam's feet. The rumbling continued for another minute or two, and the smell of sulfur lingered in the air. Then everything was still, quiet again the way only a library basement can be.

Sam dropped the Latin book and holy water flask and sank to his knees next to his former best friend, his former roommate, his former lover.

"Sam!" Dean's voice sounded choked, like he was struggling to breath through the cloud of sulfur. Like he was on the verge of tears.

"Check Jessica," Sam gasped as he reached out to press his fingers against Brady's neck, overcoming his own fear and hesitation. The demon was gone, but Brady's life was waning, Sam could sense it even before he found the weak pulse in Brady's carotid artery.

Brady's eyes fluttered open as Sam ran careful hands over his body, looking for injuries. He found a golf-ball sized bump on the back of Brady's head that began oozing blood as Sam touched it. Blood gurgled up Brady's throat and trickled out of his mouth, making him cough as he tried to focus his gaze on Sam's face.

"Shh, shh, lie still," Sam commanded softly, courage fading at the evidence of internal bleeding, of serious skull fracture. "Help is on the way."

Sam spared a glance at Dean, who was making the 911 call as he knelt next to Jessica and pressed two fingers to her throat. He nodded to Sam, silently communicating that Jessica was alive, just unconscious. Not dead.

"Sam," Brady gasped, his voice wrecked and shredded, struggling to speak through the blood welling up in his mouth. He waited till Sam looked up, forcing himself to focus with what Sam could see was great effort. "Thank you."

Sam's eyes teared up, his chest clenched as he shook his head. "No, no, you're gonna be fine, the doctors are gonna patch you up. You're okay, Brades, I promise."

Brady closed his eyes, clenched his hands in Sam's jacket as he tried to take a breath, causing more blood to well forth between his lips, trickling down his chin. "Sam, please..."

Sam could sense Brady's desperation, his fear as he faced his own death, physical pain overwhelming his ability to speak, threatening to pull him down into blessed unconsciousness.

Sam slipped his hand through Brady's hair, cradling him gently, overwhelmed with compassion for this man who had been his first friend here in this friendless place, this place where Sam had been lonely and grieving and missing his brother like a hole in his heart that couldn't be filled.

"Tell my mother I love her," Brady whispered, voice so soft and abused Sam had to bend close to hear him.

"Sure," Sam nodded, tears rolling down his cheeks unnoticed. "Sure, Brady. Of course."

Brady sucked in a sharp breath, his body shuddering with the effort, and tears leaked out the corners of his eyes; Sam could feel his pain, his fading consciousness, his struggle to comprehend Sam's words. His last coherent thought was relief that the demon was gone, and it was this thought that Sam held onto as Brady breathed his last, his final, bloody breath leaving his dead body on a choppy wet gurgle.

Sam lost track of time, kneeling on the cement floor, cradling Brady's body, his senses straining for one more thought, one more whisper from Brady's mind. But all was still. Brady was gone.

"Sam?" Jessica's voice, groggy and confused, cut through Sam's grief, Sam's crushing sense of failure.

Sam glanced up. Dean was still kneeling next to Jessica, who had regained consciousness and was struggling to sit up.

"Hey, it's okay," Dean soothed. "You're gonna be fine."

"What happened?" Jessica asked as she put her hand to her obviously aching head.

Then she saw Brady.

"Oh my God, Sam, what happened?"

Sam's eyes spilled, tears rolling down his cheeks as he shook his head. "He's gone," he said brokenly. "I couldn't save him."

"Okay now, listen to me." Dean snapped into command mode like he was born to it. "The cops are coming. There's nothing more we can do here, but if we stay it won't be good. You know the drill, Sam. We cover our tracks and get out."

Sam clenched his jaw, nodded. He lowered Brady's body to the floor gently, cradling his head as carefully as he could. He took one long, last look at the body of his former friend, then took a deep breath and rose to his feet, rubbing his blood-covered hands on the front of his jeans.

"What?" Jessica stared. "You're leaving? You – you can't just leave the scene of a crime! What are you talking about? Sam?"

"Jess, listen to me," Sam crossed the room, helped Jessica to her feet. "We can't stay here. My brother and I – what we do is kind of unorthodox."

"Illegal, you mean?" Jessica leaned on Sam, held onto him like she was suddenly afraid he would bolt. "What the hell just happened here?"

"I don't have time to explain," Sam said. He was aware that Dean was cleaning the room, gathering his holy water flask and Latin book, erasing any sign of their presence here. "I have to go, and I probably won't be back. Just – just tell the cops you found Brady here, just like that. Okay? They'll believe you."

"No," Jessica shook her head, clenching her jaw. She pushed away from Sam so she could look up into his face. "No way, Sam. I need to know what happened. Brady's my friend! He's your friend! You can't just walk out on what happened here! You have to tell me what's going on!"

"Jess – " Sam started to protest, formulating a lie that would make sense to her, knowing how desperately they needed to get away.

Then Dean barged in, reaching around from behind Sam to slip his flask back into his jacket pocket.

"He was possessed by a demon," Dean said curtly, pressing up against Sam's back so Sam could feel his heat. "Sam exorcised the demon, but the thing had already killed your friend there. Probably made him cart-wheel off a roof while he was high on something. That's what demons do. They possess you, and then they kill you."

"Dean!" Sam started to turn, to face his brother, but Dean had his hands on Sam's shoulders, holding him still, facing Jessica. "You can't just tell her that!"

"I just did, Sammy," Dean shrugged. "And the really sick part of this is, one of those things is probably coming for her next. So I say we all get the hell out of here and let the cops try to figure this one out on their own. What d'ya say?"

Jessica's mouth had dropped open at Dean's first words; she searched Sam's face for confirmation and seemed to find it there in his annoyed indignation, his shocked surprise that his brother would break their cardinal rule never to tell civilians what they did. Jessica frowned; she glanced at Brady's body, still lying inside the devil's trap, and Sam could see her mind working back over the months since she met Sam, suddenly making sense of his secretive nature, his mood-swings and nightmares, the sigils and saltings and odd paraphernalia she found lying around their apartment...

"This is what you do," Jessica whispered, half to herself. "You're like the Exorcist."

Sirens wailed in the distance, drawing closer.

"Not exactly," Sam shook his head, reaching for Jessica's arm. She let him take it, let him guide her toward the stairs, quickly and steadily, Dean following close behind. "Look, I'll explain everything. Let's just get out of here."

Chapter Text

Once they were all back at the apartment it took a while for Jessica to calm down enough for Dean to examine her, to confirm that her injuries were limited to a mild concussion suffered when Brady slammed her head against the wall.

"So Dean's your brother," Jessica suggested when Dean went into the kitchen to find them some beer.

Sam nodded, sitting down next to her on the couch and clasping his hands between his knees. He was still pumped up on adrenaline, flooded with the need to run, to get the hell out of this place where demons knew he lived, where they were hunting him, where they were possessing and killing his friends to get to him. Sitting still right now was a serious challenge for Sam.

"Yeah, that's right," he agreed.

"And you two are demon-hunters," Jessica clarified.

"Demons, ghosts, werewolves, monsters you ain't even heard of," Dean said as he came back with the beers, crooked grin lighting up his stupidly handsome face, making Sam wish they were alone so he could kiss him.

Not that he would, of course. That boat sailed long ago.

"You're serious." Jessica returned Dean's grin with a hesitant smile as she accepted the opened beer.

Sam shook his head at Dean's beer offer, clenching his jaw in his effort to control his frustration. They needed to go, damn it, not sit here drinking casually like everything was fine.

"Drop dead serious," Dean nodded, sitting down on the crate they used as a coffee table so his knees brushed Sam's and their three bodies formed a triangle. "There's things in the world that wanna kill you, wanna eat you, and then there's hunters, like us. Saving the world from evil, one creepy, scary, monstery thing at a time. That's what we do."

Jessica stared incredulously from one to the other Winchester, obviously looking for some sign that they were messing with her. Sam returned her gaze with a shrug and an eye-roll. He suddenly decided that beer sounded good after all, and he grabbed it out of Dean's hand so fast their fingers brushed, sending little sparks of lust up Sam's arm and straight to his dick.

Damn Dean, anyway.

"It's true," Sam let out a resigned sigh after taking a long swig of his beer. "What he says is true, Jess. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. It's supposed to be a family secret." He shot a glare at Dean, whose infuriating grin just got brighter, lighting up his face until Sam had to look away, feigning disgust.

"Okay," Jessica took a deep breath. "Wow. So you two aren't just brothers, you're also brothers-in-arms, which explains..." she gestured between them, and Sam frowned, looking down at where his knee was pressed against Dean's, warm and reassuring.

Jessica cleared her throat.

"So, what Dean said back in the library," she shifted sideways a little, pressing against Sam's other knee. "About something coming for me."

Sam sucked in a breath, looked up at Dean before turning to Jessica. "He didn't mean that," he said quickly. "He was just guessing. No way could he know that."

"Sam," Dean warned. "They know where you are. You just sent one of them back to Hell. You know old Yellow Eyes won't just sit back and let that go. He'll send another demon as soon as he can."

"Not necessarily," Sam argued. "Jesse said I've got three years..."

Dean shook his head. "They're stepping up their game," he insisted. "No way they're gonna wait three years."

"You don't know that! Just because Brady said it...Demons lie, Dean, you know that!"

But Dean hadn't heard Brady say that, couldn't know Brady had told Sam the demons were coming for him sooner. And Sam hadn't planned on telling him, didn't want to involve Dean in something that Sam could handle on his own. Sam should handle this on his own, since it was all his fault in the first place.

Dean was staring at him now, smile gone. "What did Brady say, Sam?" he demanded.

So Sam took a deep, shuddering breath and told Dean what the demon had said, confirming Dean's suspicions, and even Sam had to admit Dean's instincts were right on the money, as usual.

"You mind tellin' me why you decided to keep this to yourself?" Dean demanded when Sam finished.

When Sam didn't answer, just shook his head and lowered his eyes, muttering, "Seemed like a good idea at the time," Dean jumped to his feet, towered over Sam with one fist clenched, the other first still gripping his almost-empty beer bottle.

"What the hell, Sam! Huh? You didn't think it might be a better idea to let big brother in on the change in plans? Huh?"

"I was gonna tell you, Dean," Sam started to protest, still unable to look up, raising his eyes as far as Dean's crotch before looking down again, cheeks suddenly flushed with more than just guilt at being caught out on a lie-of-omission.

"Oh yeah?" Dean was getting loud and belligerent now, and Sam could feel Jessica cowering next to him. "When, Sam? Huh? And what the hell were you doing exorcising that demon by yourself anyway? Couldn't wait a few minutes for me to get there? What was that, Sam? What about our promise to each other never to take these things on alone, huh?"

"It was in my friend, Dean," Sam protested, knowing how lame he sounded. "I needed it gone as soon as possible. Yesterday, in fact. If I could've just gotten to him before the demon hurt him..."

"But you didn't," Dean was pacing now, anxiety and anger pouring off of him in waves. "You can't save everybody, Sam, you know that!"

"I had to try," Sam insisted. "I couldn't leave him like that one minute longer than I had to."

"You could've got yourself killed!" Dean practically shouted at him, and Sam understood his anger now, recognized it as fear for him, for Sam.

"I knew what I was doing," Sam said, keeping his voice low and insistent, soothing. "It's not like it's my first demon."

Dean stopped pacing to glare at him, and Sam stared back, aware of Jessica watching them both, mouth hanging open a little.

"Yeah, well, next time, wait for me. You got me? Just wait!" Dean said finally, deflating in the face of Sam's confidence and reassurance. Then his eyes flicked back and forth as a new idea occurred to him. "We gotta get out of here. Now."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you, Dean." Sam practically gasped with relief. Finally.

"Okay," Dean nodded, taking control again, although Sam could tell he was scared. They both were. "Pack your bags. You've got ten minutes. I'll call Bobby, see if he can find us a safe house in the area. You, too." He nodded at Jessica as he pulled his phone out, headed toward the kitchen.

Sam stood up like a shot. "Dean, she can't come with us!" he protested. "It's not safe!"

"A lot safer than leaving her here alone," Dean noted as he raised the phone to his ear. "She's got a target on her back a mile wide, Sam, and you know it."

Which is how they all ended up in the Impala an hour later, heading north on I-5 toward Roseburg, Oregon. Bobby knew a hunter who owned a cabin on the Oregon Coast, which was as good a place as any to reconnoitre and plan their next move. Bobby seemed to agree that it was a good idea to lay low for now, especially given the fact that John had been missing for over a month, and it was generally known that he'd been following a lead on the thing that killed his wife when he disappeared.

Sam accepted this news with a long exhale of breath and a shake of his head.

"Over a month, huh? And you didn't let me know because..."

Dean glanced at the rearview mirror, confirming that Jessica had fallen asleep in the backseat before he answered.

"Yeah, well, at first I thought I knew where he was," he explained, staring into the darkness on the road ahead. "He was in the middle of a hunt. Some poltergeist near Poughkeepsie. He asked me to join him there after I was done with this other job in Connecticut, so when Bobby called to say he hadn't checked in, I just assumed. You know. He's Dad."

"Yeah, I know," Sam nodded, trying not to think about how good it felt to be in the family car again, how the familiar smells and feels of home were nearly overwhelming his senses. "Dean, please tell me you weren't hunting alone again."

Dean frowned and tapped his fingers on the wheel, so Sam knew he was about to hear a lie.

"What? No. I was with Rusty," Dean said. "Well, part of the time, anyway. He had to go meet Travis in Illinois about halfway through, so I finished up on my own. Piece o' cake, Sammy. Simple salt-and-burn. Nothin' to it."

"Right," Sam scoffed, glancing at Dean's familiar profile, fighting down the panic he always felt at the thought of Dean hunting without him.

"Anyway, when I got to Poughkeepsie, I found the motel where Dad was staying, but he was gone. Left his clothes, his journal, even his jacket."

"He left his journal?" Sam frowned. "Did you work the case?"

"I did," Dean nodded. "It was done. Witnesses confirmed Dad had been there, expelled the poltergeist. The family was pretty shaken up, but mostly grateful. Planning to sell, though; no surprise there."

"Did Dad check in with the family after he got rid of the poltergeist?" Sam asked, and Dean nodded again.

"The family said he told them their house was clean, gave them his card so they could call him if they ever have any more problems. That was about three days before I got there."

"And they didn't have any idea where he was going next?" Sam asked.

Dean shook his head. "I've spent the last month retracing his steps, going back over every case he was on for the past year, trying to see if he left any clues about where he was headed."

"I'm guessing you got nothin'," Sam stated the obvious. "Which leads me to ask again, why didn't you tell me? We could've been working this together."

Dean shot a look that took Sam's breath away. How his brother could convey so much pain, fear, and guilt in a single glance just staggered Sam. Made his heart race and his hands sweat.

"I was handling it, Sam," Dean said, his voice shaking only a little, but Sam could hear it. "You were at school. Anyway, I was on my way to get you when you called."

Sam hunched down on the seat, bottom lip sticking out in a pout, angrier than he would admit at the idea of Dean dealing with their father's disappearance all alone for a whole month. He felt guilty for not being there to help, frustrated because the trail was cold now and whatever help he could've offered a month ago would be lessened considerably by time and missed opportunities. He felt angry with Dean for hunting alone after he had promised not to. Then he felt guilty again for being at school in the first place, pretending that his life could resemble a normal person's in any way.

He glanced in the rearview mirror at his sleeping friend and felt another stab of guilt. Sam had done this to her, had brought the evil that haunted him right up to her front door. She didn't ask for this, hadn't even known about it when she decided to befriend Sam, and now she was on the run from something she couldn't even protect herself from. Jessica had called her parents before they left the apartment, leaving a voicemail letting them know she was going away on a little road trip with some friends. It was only a week before spring break, so it wasn't the most unlikely time to go. But when she asked Sam how long they'd be gone, all he could do was shake his head. She didn't press him on that point again, maybe because she was still in shock, maybe because she understood instinctively that her life had been radically altered this night, and that nothing would ever be the same again.

Either way, it was Sam's fault, just like Brady's death. He'd been a fool to try to go to school, to try to fit in and pretend he could have a normal life. Evil had followed Sam around all his life; for a little while he and Dean had managed to keep the worst of it at bay, had even managed to go on the offensive and take down a few of the nasty things, saving a few people in the process. But Sam knew in his heart that he was tainted, marked for evil from birth, and there wouldn't ever be a way for him to escape from that, or win out over it. Ultimately, the evil that chose him would come for him, and there wouldn't be any way he could stop it.

"Hey," Dean's low voice cut through Sam's self-pitying inner musings, his hand reaching out to grab Sam's away from his mouth, where Sam had been worrying his fingernails with his teeth. He kept hold of Sam's hand, lacing their fingers together on the bench between them.

"I know what you're thinking," Dean said, eyes straight ahead on the road, at the darkness beyond the Impala's headlight beams.

"Yeah?" Sam scoffed, glancing down at their clasped hands, surprised and touched that Dean would allow such a display of affection.

"Yeah," Dean nodded, shooting his brother a quick glance. He looked down at their hands, then pulled his away gently to put it back on the wheel. "You're brooding. It won't help."

Sam took a deep breath, sliding both palms down his thighs, the left one still tingling from Dean's touch.

"I can't go back," Sam stated simply, letting out his breath in a long sigh. "Neither can Jess."

"For now, maybe," Dean agreed. "While things are so hot. But once we figure this thing out, find that yellow-eyed bastard and put an end to all this demon shit, you'll go back. You deserve that life, Sam, and I'm gonna make sure you get it."

"That's just it, Dean," Sam shook his head. "Even if we do manage to kill Azazel, figure out a way to stop whatever it is he's planning, there'll always be another monster to stop, another family that needs saving."

"Let other hunters worry about that," Dean growled. "You deserve a life, and I'm gonna be sure you get it. End of story."

Sam gazed baldly at Dean's familiar profile, warmed by his words, more comforted than he could express by Dean's mere presence. He was starting to think it didn't matter so much what he did with his life, as long as Dean was in it. It'd always been that way, as long as he could remember, but he'd also wanted out of the hunting life, wanted to put all the danger and violence behind them. But maybe getting out wasn't as important as it used to be. Maybe the most important thing was sitting right here, next to his brother, doing whatever needed doing.

"When this is over, I want to go with you," Sam said softly. "Wherever you go, I wanna be there."

Dean raised an eyebrow and shot a quick glance at him. "Get some rest, Sam," Dean directed, and suddenly Sam realized how tired he was. "I'll wake you up when we get there."

Sam hunched down on the bench again, trying to get comfortable, wrapping his arms around himself and closing his eyes. It had been a really long night, full of shock and grief and fear, and Sam was out as soon as his head hit the window, dead to the world in that dreamless sleep that only happened when he was with Dean.

**//**

It was light when Sam woke up. The car had stopped, and Dean and Jessica were gone, and Sam had a moment of panic before he saw them, buying supplies in the little convenience store next to the gas pumps. Dean's eyes met Sam's as he strode out of the store, smart-ass smirk lighting up his eyes as he tossed a protein bar into the cabin of the car.

"Breakfast," Dean announced as Sam caught the snack. Then he slung the plastic bag of supplies into the back seat and reached for the gas pump.

Sam climbed out of the car and stretched, taking in the cloud-covered sky, the thick, dark evergreens stretching as far as the eye could see up the two-lane highway, the damp salt-tinged air of the Oregon Coast range.

"Where are we?"

Dean shrugged. "About an hour out of Roseburg, I'd say," he answered as he started the gas pump and lifted the hose.

"Hey! You can't do that here!" A kid in a baseball cap and baggy jeans appeared suddenly from around the back of the convenience store, where he'd obviously been smoking 'cause Sam could smell it on him, not to mention read it in his over-sharing mind.

Dean put the pump back and raised his hands in mock-surrender. "Sorry," he muttered as he backed away. "We're from out of state."

"Yeah, I figured," the kid nodded. "We get a lot of Californians here. They don't know the law. You from California?" The way he asked, voice dripping with suspicion and disgust, made Sam and Dean shake their heads quickly.

"No, no," Dean said. "We're from Kansas, actually."

Sam darted a glance at Dean. It always surprised him a little when Dean claimed their real home, which for Dean was a place of so much pain and heart-break. For Sam, of course, Lawrence had always been "home," although he knew it was only that way because of his childhood dreams. The reality of the place was nothing but tragedy and destruction. It was just his fucked-up brain that made it feel like home to Sam, more evidence of how messed up he was.

The kid had checked their plates by this time, confirming Dean's words as he started the pump.

"That's a long ways away," the kid commented. "I never met anybody from Kansas before. They got those tornadoes there, right? Big storms that can pick up a house, like that movie with them flying monkeys."

"That's right," Dean nodded as Sam's attention wandered. Dean could be so patient with morons sometimes. At this hour of the morning, they were the only customers here, and from the small number of cars that had passed on the road while they'd been here, Sam would guess they didn't get many customers the whole day. No wonder the kid was so chatty. He was probably bored out of his mind, like most young people in small towns. His mind was filled with thoughts of drinking, ATV-riding, and porn featuring busty lesbians twice his age. It made Sam's head hurt.

Sam took a few steps away from the car, keeping one eye on Dean, the other on Jessica, who was still in the store, and pulled out his phone. John had given him this phone, pre-programmed with John's number, over a year before, with the command to use it if anything came up. Until now, nothing had. At least, nothing that Sam couldn't handle.

But he could sense Dean's fear, even if he couldn't read his mind. He could sense the pain at the thought that John would abandon him deliberately and never return his calls, and Sam couldn't stand that.

"It's me," Sam spoke softly into the phone when John's number went straight to voice mail. "Everybody's worried about you. We've got a new lead on the demon; I'm sure Dean's already told you about that, but -- There's other stuff we need to talk about, Dad, so please call me. Or call Dean. Let us know you're still alive, at least."

Sam ended the call with an angry punch. Damn John, anyway. He'd been doing this all their lives, running off after some lead without letting them know where he was, without answering Dean's increasingly frantic calls. Sam was sick of it. Sick of the way it hurt Dean. And now that they had so much intel on Azazel and other kids who'd been kidnapped like Sam had been, now that they knew that John had been trying to summon the demon -- It was just irresponsible of John to take off without keeping in touch with someone.

Irresponsible, maybe, but so typical. It made Sam even angrier now that they knew things were heating up, now that more demons were probably on their way from Hell, probably pissed off at the Winchesters for stirring things up. For messing with their plans.

And of course John would choose this moment to disappear.

"Sam?"

Jessica had come out of the convenience store and was looking lost and anxious, standing helplessly just a few feet away with a plastic bag of snack food dangling from her fingers.

"Hey, Jess," Sam tried to smile. "How're you doing? You reach your folks yet?"

Jessica's eyes filmed over with tears as she shook her head, looking away from him as she swiped the back of her hand over her nose.

"Mom gets up really early to walk the dog," she said. "It's not like her not to call back. I texted my sister to ask her to check on them."

Sam had a bad feeling about that, but he didn't say anything. Maybe it was nothing. There was always a chance.

"Did you get ahold of your dad?" Jessica asked, and Sam shook his head.

"But that's normal," Sam hastened to assure her. "Dad's always disappearing. He's good at it. When he's working a case, especially one that's really important or where he thinks he's close to something big...He can go deep underground like nobody's business. He knows how to cover his tracks. Keep well hidden."

"Even from his own sons?" Jessica sounded skeptical, worried for him, and it occurred to Sam that she was taking her mind off her own anxiety by empathizing with him, trying to put herself in his shoes.

"Yeah. Especially us," Sam confirmed. He put his hand on her shoulder and she looked up at him, trusting and brave, and he could barely stand it. Didn't deserve it. "Hey, it's gonna be okay," he lied.

Jessica stared into his eyes for a moment, seemed to find the strength or reassurance she was looking for and smiled shakily. She nodded, then let Sam pull her into his arms for a long hug, pressing her body along the length of his and burying her face in his shoulder.

"Hey, when you two lovebirds are done there, we need to hit the road," Dean's warm baritone cruised into Sam's soul, made him lift his head so his eyes met his brother's over Jessica's shoulder. Dean was giving him a bemused smirk, and Sam frowned, pulled back from Jessica's embrace.

"Okay?" He asked, holding her shoulders as she brushed the back of her hand over her eyes.

She nodded, let him lead her back to the car and tuck her into the backseat before shooting another bemused frown at his brother.

"What?"

Dean shrugged as he slid into the driver's seat, glanced into the rearview mirror at Jessica.

"Nothin," Dean said as he cranked the car to life, pumping the pedal to make her roar before peeling out onto the road.

When they reached the cabin, Sam and Dean lay down salt-lines and gathered firewood while Jessica tried calling her family again, this time from the land-line in the cabin, since cell service was sketchy. Then Dean called Bobby, who confirmed that reports of demonic activity had picked up in the past week or so, mostly in California, but also in Wyoming, Illinois, and Kansas.

"You kids just stay put, now," he told them sternly. "Use those protection charms I gave you. Make sure that girl's got one on too. Whatever you did in Palo Alto sure got their attention. There's freak hail-storms and lightning strikes all over that area this morning. All over California, as a matter of fact. A tornado touched down in Los Angeles."

"Los Angeles?" Sam gasped when Dean repeated what Bobby had said. "Dean, that's where Jessica's family lives."

They were speaking quietly, hunched down feeding the fire as Jessica explored the small kitchen area.

Dean shook his head. "Maybe it's just coincidence," he suggested, but they both knew better.

It was almost noon when Jessica's cell phone rang. Sam's stomach lurched as he heard her voice rise, the tone of panic as she answered whoever was on the other end of the call. Her sister, presumably, given the content of Jessica's side of the conversation.

"Oh my God! Are you sure? Oh my God, Jen!" Jessica began sobbing into the phone, shaking so she could hardly hold the phone. Sam crossed the room to put a steadying hand on her back, her arm, and she slumped over into his embrace, collapsing against his chest as she heaved huge, gasping sobs, the phone slipping from her fingers and clattering to the floor.

"They're dead, Sam!" she sobbed, staring up at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. "My parents are dead! Somebody broke in during the night and killed them!"

"Okay, shhh, okay." Sam did his best to soothe her, rubbing his hand up and down her back as he held her, but she wasn't having it.

"No, no, I have to go," Jessica pushed away from him, staring wildly around her as if she'd suddenly realized where she was. "I have to go! My sister's there by herself and she needs me! You have to take me home!"

"The sister's probably already possessed," Dean said, low and dark and just for Sam to hear as Jessica continued to sob and pace.

Sam stared at Dean, shock rippling through him as Dean stooped down to retrieve Jessica's cell phone, punched in the redial to connect him with the last caller.

"What are you doing?" Jessica demanded, stopping her pacing to turn on Dean. "I have to go! You have to drive me home, now!"

She started to grab for Dean, as if she could physically force him to take her to Los Angeles, but Dean ducked away easily, phone to his ear as he listened, raising an index finger in a gesture for her to wait a minute.

"No, this is Dean Winchester. Who's this?" he said into the phone. "Is this Jessica's sister?" He listened another moment, then pulled the phone away from his ear and grimaced. "Not Jessica's sister," he announced to Sam. "Unless Jessica's sister is a vindictive demon with a mouth like a sailor who's mad as hell because it's just been caught trying to lay a trap."

"What?" Jessica reached for the phone but Dean held onto it, shaking his head.

"I really don't think you want to hear this," he warned.

"The hell I don't!" Jessica cried, grabbing at the phone again. "What's going on?"

This time Dean let her take the phone, and she pressed it to her ear frantically. "Jen? Jennifer? What's going on?"

She listened for a moment, then raised pleading eyes to Sam, who took the phone from her gently as she covered her mouth and clutched her stomach.

"She's gonna hurl," Dean announced helpfully as Jessica backed away from them, then turned to run to the kitchen sink, barely making it before giving up the meager contents of her stomach.

"I'll just go find some more firewood," Dean said as Sam joined Jessica at the sink, rubbing her back and holding her hair back as she dry-heaved over the stainless steel surface.

The front door shut with a click as Jessica reached for the faucet, splashed water on her face and rinsed her mouth before glancing her thanks at Sam.

"She's dead, isn't she?" Jessica took a deep breath before asking the question, composing herself, and Sam had to hand it to her; she was being incredibly brave.

"Probably," Sam agreed gently, keeping his hand on her back, rubbing reassuring circles as Jessica gazed out the window over the sink, into the dark evergreen woods behind the cabin. "Demons are usually pretty hard on the people they possess. From what we've seen, the possessed people usually don't survive." Especially when the demon has a vendetta against the family whose daughter and sister had the audacity to befriend a Winchester, he added silently. "I'm sorry, Jess."

Jessica shook her head, taking a shaky breath and closing her eyes. She leaned against Sam and let her head fall back onto his shoulder. Sam laid his hands on her hips, just holding her steady, feeling a little awkward. He wanted to give her comfort, but it didn't feel right to wrap his arms around her from behind; it was too intimate, like something he might do with a lover. Besides, Jessica had pushed her ass back against his crotch, maybe even deliberately rubbing against him, and that was definitely awkward. Then she spoke.

"I know it's totally inappropriate," she said, grinding back against him again, "but I really wish we could have hot, blinding, forget-everything sex right now."

Sam stiffened, let out a huff of breath, and gently but firmly moved back so they were no longer pressed together. He kept his hands on her arms, though, partly to keep her upright and steady, partly to keep their bodies separated.

"Jess – " he shook his head a little, and she sighed, leaning forward, away from him, then turned around to face him as he dropped his hands to his sides helplessly.

"I know, I know," she said. "I took Psych one-oh-one. It's just the shock. My emotions are all fucked up."

Sam nodded, sympathetic but careful. "Can I fix you something to eat?" he asked. "I think Dean bought some cans of soup."

"Nah, I'm still a little queasy," she said, smiling weakly at him. "I think I'll just lie down for a while."

Sam nodded, helpless in the face of Jessica's grief and shock, but willing to agree that rest was a good idea right now.

There was a single bed in the room, tucked under the stairs which led to a second floor covered with old mattresses. Dean had already claimed the single bed for himself, leaving the upstairs for Sam and Jessica. But the cabin was chilly, and the heat from the fire hadn't yet warmed the second floor, so Jessica lay down on Dean's bed, clearly not wanting to be all alone in another room right now. She curled up facing the wall, with her back to the room, and Sam covered her with the only blanket they had and left her to sleep. He was busy heating soup for himself and Dean when Dean came back, arms loaded with firewood.

"How's she doing?" he asked after putting the firewood down as quietly as possible. He smelled like smoke and whiskey, and Sam stifled a gasp as lust stabbed through his gut, making his knees weak.

"She's okay," Sam answered, forcing himself to focus on stirring the soup, keeping his back turned on his brother so he couldn't see his flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes. "She's tough."

"True dat," Dean agreed as he knelt to feed the fire. "That girl's a keeper, Sam."

"Shut up, Dean." Sam set the soup and a loaf of bread on the little kitchen table, then found a couple of bowls and spoons and wiped the dust off them with a dish towel.

"I'm just saying," Dean grinned as he took a seat and reached for the bread, knee bumping Sam's under the table. "After everything that's happened to her in the last twelve hours, she's holding up pretty well. If I found a girl like that, I might be tempted to settle down."

"Fine," Sam snapped. "Ask her to marry you, then. See what she says. I'm sure she's in a real marrying mood right now."

"Who said anything about marriage?" Dean winked and smirked, and Sam huffed out an exasperated breath. "Besides, you're the one she wants."

Sam shook his head, stared down at his soup, and fought down the inconvenient surge of lust that was making his dick hard and his cheeks burn.

"That's not happening, and she knows it," Sam murmured, keeping his eyes down, unable to meet Dean's teasing gaze.

"Doesn't stop her from wanting, though," Dean commented, voice a low purr so that Jessica wouldn't overhear. "Doesn't stop her from pining for you."

Sam sank his teeth into his bottom lip, biting back the moan that almost slipped out. He was hard enough to cut diamonds now, just on the sound of Dean's voice and the press of his knee.

"She'd probably let me fuck her just because I'm your brother," Dean mumbled, voice low in his chest.

Sam pushed back from the table with a start, grabbed his empty soup bowl and clambered to the sink, avoiding Dean's eyes like the plague.

"Hey, I was just stating the obvious." Dean put his hands up with a laugh.

Sam clenched his jaw and grabbed hold of the sink to steady himself before turning to glare at his brother.

"You can be a real ass sometimes, Dean," he hissed. "You know that?"

Dean's gaze fell to Sam's crotch and he flushed to the tips of his ears, blessedly speechless in the face of Sam's obvious need. He looked away and shifted uncomfortably in his chair, giving Sam some idea of the state of his own cock, which made Sam harder than ever.

Sam sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"Look, Dean, we may be stuck here for a few days, until things quiet down. That's not gonna be easy for any of us. Close quarters make for short tempers and all that. So why don't you just ease up on the porn and give us all a break, huh?"

"I think you know me better than that, Sammy," Dean said, wiping the bottom of his soup bowl with the last piece of bread before stuffing it between his full, pillow-soft lips.

Sam closed his eyes and dipped his chin to his chest. "Yeah, unfortunately, I do," he sighed. "I'm gonna go take a walk. Check out the perimeter," he added the last bit lest Dean think he was going out to commune with nature, as Dean called it when he went outside to whack off.

Nevertheless, Dean's smirk got wider and he winked again, just to be sure Sam knew what he was thinking. "Sure thing, Sammy. Enjoy your me-time."

And of course the thought that Dean was thinking about Sam's dick made Sam's dick way happier than it had any right to be.

Chapter Text

When Sam got back, Jessica was sitting at the table with a bowl of soup, crying and taking nips from Dean's whiskey flask.

"I can't believe they're gone!" she sobbed, wiping her eyes on the dishtowel Dean handed her. "It all seems so unreal!"

Sam and Dean exchanged glances over her head; Dean looked tired, and his eyes were red-rimmed, like he'd been crying too.

All of Sam's earlier frustration faded away in the face of Dean's need.

"Hey, why don't you go up and get a little rest?" Sam suggested gently. "It should be warmer up there by now. I already put down the sleeping bags."

"Nah, I'm fine," Dean scoffed. "Just need a little coffee, is all."

"Dean, you're exhausted," Sam insisted. "How long has it been since you slept? Go. I'll keep watch."

Dean thought a minute, realized Sam was right, and folded Jessica's hand around his whiskey flask, patting it gently. "You can keep it warm for me," he told her kindly, and she nodded, smiling through her tears at him.

"Thanks," she swallowed and watched Dean climb the rough-hewn staircase to the second floor while Sam stoked the fire. He totally understood what Jessica felt when she looked at Dean, how hard it was to look away. It took practice, but Sam felt he was finally getting pretty good at almost ignoring his own obsession with his brother, and he felt fairly confident in his ability to hide it from other people.

Which is why it surprised him when Jessica said, "You and Dean seem so in tune with each other. If I didn't know you were brothers, I would never guess you were related."

Sam poked the fire, added another log as he shrugged. "I guess we don't look very much alike," he agreed. "He looks more like Mom, at least from the pictures I've seen of her. And I guess I probably look more like our dad."

Jessica got up and crossed the room, then slipped gracefully onto the ratty, afghan-draped couch, clutching the whiskey flask and dishtowel. She tucked one leg under her and stared thoughtfully into the fire.

"No, that's not it," she shook her head. "It's not your looks, although your parents must be drop-dead gorgeous to produce the two of you. It's the way you are around each other, like you're so aware of the other one. Even when you're not in the room, it's like you're still here, like you're a permanent part of him. He talked about you the whole time you were gone."

"He did, huh?" Sam smiled, scooting back on the braided rug until his back was against the couch, next to Jessica's leg. He felt Jessica's gentle touch in his hair, stroking, running the strands through her fingers, and he let himself be soothed, mesmerized by the fire.

"Hmmm," she murmured, obviously as mesmerized as he was. It was comforting, the warmth of the fire heating the room, banishing the chill coastal air. "I think he's a little in love with you."

Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow as he sagged against Jessica's leg, almost purring with pleasure as she combed her fingers through his hair, then scratched his scalp lightly, sending shivers up his spine. It felt ridiculously pleasant to be cared for, to hear Jessica confirm Dean's feelings, to sit here in front of the fire and let his thoughts wander. A waking vision of hard, muscled limbs dusted with freckles, moss-green eyes and soft full lips tilted in a secret smile meant only for Sam floated in front of Sam's minds-eye; he could almost see Dean's body spread out on soft blankets in front of the fire, the flickering flame coloring and warming his pale skin.

"I think you're in love with him, too," Jessica said, her voice sounding dream-like and far away, her speech slurred by drink. "I think that's why you couldn't get together with Brady."

She paused, and Sam could hear her taking another swig from the little flask. "Poor Brady. He never even had a chance, did he? And then he –" Her voice hitched and she sniffled; Sam could feel her body shift as she wiped her eyes and swallowed convulsively.

"It's like he got what he deserved for coming between you two," she almost whispered, as if she was afraid to speak too loudly, afraid she could make the words be true just by speaking them. "Cosmically, I mean. Like the universe means for you and Dean to be a couple, not just brothers. Something mythic, like Castor and Pollux. It's like your destiny or something."

Sam snorted. "Some destiny," he muttered. "Running for our lives with demons on our tails, getting our friends and their families possessed and killed..."

"Your friends love you, Sam," Jessica said, her voice oddly fierce, protective. "They die for you and sacrifice their families for you because they believe in you."

"How can they believe in us?" Sam shook his head. "We don't even believe in ourselves."

"You believe in each other," Jessica said firmly. "That's the thing." She took a long breath, shook her head a little, and Sam didn't have to turn around to look at her to know she was smiling. "I believe in you together. You two are like some kind of miracle of nature."

"More like a disaster from Hell," Sam muttered grimly, but Jessica's words comforted him, no matter how goofy they sounded. Part of him wanted to believe that there was a purpose behind all of the horrible things that had happened to him and Dean, and of course he wanted that purpose to be good.

It just didn't seem very likely, was all.

He turned to plant a kiss on Jessica's knee, then looked up at her with a grateful smile. "You remind me of another friend of ours, back in Lawrence," he said. "She says stuff like that, all full of love and hope. It's nice to hear."

Jessica smiled down at him, then reached out and pushed his hair back tenderly, tucking it behind his ear, letting the back of her hand trail down his cheek. Her smile was fond, eyes still shining with tears and drink.

"You are good, Sam Winchester," she said softly. "I just know it, with every fiber of my being. Dean, too. What you mean to each other, that's good, too. Don't let anything keep you apart. Not even yourselves."

Sam ducked his head, fiddled with a loose thread in the knee of Jessica's jeans. "Yeah, well, tell him that," Sam muttered morosely. "He's the one who wants us to be just brothers."

Jessica shook her head, took another sip from the flask and gazed glassy-eyed into the fire. Sam had the sudden impression of some ancient priestess or oracle as he looked up at Jessica's rapt expression. With her halo of golden curls she looked like a living painting of an angel, or maybe the Virgin Mary, ethereal and otherworldly, as if she was channeling something outside herself, or maybe just tapping into something deep inside.

"He'll come around," she said, and Sam was suddenly sure he would. "You just need to give him time. He thinks there's something evil inside him, that he's some kind of monster for loving you the way he does. But if you just hang in there, stay true and show him you'll never leave him, that you love even those darkest parts of him, he'll learn to trust you. Maybe even learn to trust himself."

"I don't know if I have that kind of patience," Sam admitted. "Sometimes I just want to shake him, or beat the shit out of him until he just admits it."

"There's nothing to admit," Jessica said. "He loves you. You know that, he knows that. He's terrified because he loves you so much he's willing to do terrible things to keep you with him. That's what haunts him. He thinks if he lets himself love you in every way, even the bad-dirty-wrong way, then he'll be giving free reign to that monster inside him. And once it gets out, there may be no stopping it."

Sam shivered, despite the warmth from the fire.

"I won't let that happen," he said with complete conviction. "Anyway, if either of us has a monster inside him, it's me. I'm the one the demon poisoned as a baby, then kidnapped to be raised by demons and monsters. I'm the one destined to become evil."

"That's just not true, Sam, or you would've turned by now," Jessica shook her head firmly. She was silent for a long moment, and Sam realized he'd just confessed his life story to her, giving away the darkest secrets of his past.

Now I'll have to kill you, he thought with a humorless laugh, the dark jest making his stomach roil, making his heart lurch in his chest. It was like he'd just cursed her, and he could feel himself begin to panic, wishing with everything he had that he could take it back.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have told you that," he hastened to say. "You don't deserve to know that. This is all new to you, and now you're finding out your best friend is a monster..."

"No, no, it's okay," Jessica insisted, shaking her head as if to clear it. "Dean told me about your mother. About how she died. I just didn't realize...I mean, I assumed you guys were raised together, by your dad."

"Part of the time, we were," Sam nodded. "When I was twelve, Dean and I ran into each other, totally by accident. He and John took me in and I grew up the rest of the way as a Winchester."

"You ran into each other by accident," Jessica repeated, clearly skeptical. "You realize what the chances of that are, right?"

"Yeah, I do," Sam nodded. "But it's what happened."

"But didn't they look for you? After you were kidnapped?"

"They thought I was dead," Sam explained. "They thought I died in the fire that night, with my mom."

"Oh," Jessica frowned, shook her head again. "Wow. So you were raised in foster care. How are you so well-adjusted?"

Sam shook his head. "It's complicated." He turned around and folded his arms over Jessica's leg, looking up at her helplessly, needing her to understand, needing her absolution, or at least her forgiveness, even though he didn't deserve it. "Look, Jess, I'm sorry to lay all this on you. My childhood is really fucked up, full of real-life monsters who were probably feeding me demon blood so they could fatten me up to become some kind of antichrist or something. Truth is, I'm a real-life child of the corn. My name might as well be Damien. And you did not deserve to know about any of this."

"Wow," Jessica breathed. "This is so outside anything they teach in Abnormal Psychology. And here I was thinking I was helping you, that I could help you. You must think I'm such a fool."

Sam flashed back to all the conversations they'd had over the months since Jessica had declared her double-major in Psychology and Art. She had plans to help children with autism disorders and other special needs by using art therapy, and Sam had been proud of her for her commitment as well as her obvious talents. Jessica was a natural, both as an artist and as an empathetic listener, and he just knew she would do good in the world one day. She'd always listened but never pushed Sam when he talked about his past, no matter how curious she obviously was about it. He was grateful to her for that.

And now she knew everything, all his ugly secrets.

"I don't think you're a fool at all," Sam said softly. "But I bet you wish you'd never met me."

Jessica blinked back fresh tears, shook her head. "You wouldn't be totally wrong there," she gave a short, shaky laugh. "But I still see so much good in you, Sam. I can't believe somebody who had all that happen to him could grow up to be such a kind and caring human being, so I guess it's what I said earlier: there really is something a little miraculous about you."

Sam let out a huff, shaking his head, and Jessica slid to the floor next to him, grabbing his hands in hers, forcing him to look up and meet her gaze.

"No, Sam, I mean it," she insisted, her eyes shining with drink and tears. She looked a little crazed, was probably feverish. "To survive a childhood like that, you've got some serious resilience and strength in you."

"I've got poison in me, Jess," Sam protested. "Something evil in my veins."

"Well then, you have a helluva resistance to it," Jessica said, tugging on his hands for emphasis. "Something in you has been fighting whatever that demon put in you, and it's made you stronger. Those things are stepping up their game, right? That's because you've surprised them. You're not as easy to win over as they thought. You've resisted them, figured out a way to fight them at their own game."

"I let Brady die," Sam cringed, pulling one hand free to run it through his hair. "I couldn't save him."

"That wasn't your fault," Jessica insisted. "And you did save him. He was free before he died. You already told us that. You set him free."

Sam shook his head. It was useless to go back down that road, to struggle through the guilt and grief again. Better to pull a Winchester and just stuff the feelings down deep.

But Jessica's kindness, her face a mask of concern for him, had broken something inside Sam. He'd never been able to confess so many of his inner fears to anyone. Certainly not to Dean, who carried too much of his own guilt and grief and who felt responsible for Sam's, too. Not even to Missouri Moseley, who had been his confidante on numerous occasions since he first met her when he was twelve and just beginning to understand everything that had happened to him. The Catholic priest who heard his confession when he was fourteen simply hadn't believed him, had given him ten Hail Marys to recite as penance for his lying. And that priest had heard only half the story, since Sam didn't know the worst of it himself until nine months ago.

But with Jessica, the floodgates of his conscience opened easily, pouring forth the fear and self-loathing he'd held inside himself for years. She believed him, knew that he spoke the truth, but she didn't run screaming from the cabin in terror. Jessica had known Sam as a good friend, her closest confidante, someone she told all her dreams and secrets to, someone she trusted. Yet now, finding out all the horrible things he'd been hiding from her, instead of feeling betrayed and horrified by him, she seemed even more compassionate than ever. She seemed almost grateful that he was giving her something to test her faith, to challenge her belief in him so that she could finally show him what a loyal friend she could be, to prove that she was worthy of his trust.

"You're kind of amazing, you know that?" Sam smiled, and Jessica blushed, dipping her chin to hide her pleased smile. "What would I do without you?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said modestly. "Crash and burn, I guess."

She lifted her tear-filled eyes to his, and Sam had a sudden vision of himself leaning in and kissing her plush red mouth, as if she was more than just his best friend.

Then the moment passed and he was awkwardly aware of how close they were, their hands still clasped. He cleared his throat, was just considering pulling his hand away when she leaned in and kissed him, softly, on the cheek.

"Maybe in another life, you and me were meant to be," she said as she pulled back, smiling almost shyly, still blushing. "Or maybe if I was a guy. But I guess it's a good thing I'm not, huh? Your brother's already jealous enough."

Sam nodded and squeezed her hand before releasing it. It had grown dark outside, and Sam could feel the hollowness in his stomach that reminded him it had been several hours since he last ate.

"Dean'll be up soon to take over the watch," he said. "I need to check in with Bobby."

Jessica nodded, sat back on the floor to stare into the fire as Sam got up to light the lanterns. It had started to rain outside, and the soft sound on the roof combined with the sound of the crackling fire to give the cabin a beguiling sense of security and coziness that belied the precarious reality of their situation.

Bobby confirmed that demon activity was intensifying as well as spreading. Two hunters had been found dead in Nebraska, another in Milwaukee. All bore the marks of aborted exorcisms, like demons were possessing hunters and killing them, sometimes after allowing the possessed to call for help.

"It's like they're luring hunters to their deaths," Bobby said grimly. "They're using other hunters to call each other in for help, then slaughtering them. It's real vicious, but it's also kinda organized. I've never seen demons act this way, but then I've never seen this many of them show up at the same time. It's almost like they're working together, which is not how demons usually operate, in my experience."

Shivers ran up Sam's spine. "Any idea why they're targeting hunters?" he asked, dreading Bobby's answer.

"No idea," Bobby said. "But whatever it is, it's big. I've never heard tell of so many demons crawling out of Hell at the same time, ever. All the lore says they come one at a time, two tops, but from what I can tell, we're looking at a couple o' dozen at least. And the crazy thing is, they all seem to be converging, doing damage as they go."

"Converging," Sam repeated. "Converging where?"

"Well, here's the weird part." Bobby slammed something onto the floor, and Sam could imagine the old hunter spreading books and maps on his dining-room table, letting books fall as he finished with them in his haste to get to the bottom of the mystery in front of him. "They're all headed to Kansas. Lawrence, to be exact."

"What?" Sam almost dropped the phone.

"Yeah. Three college students died at a rave on the University of Kansas campus last night. Threw themselves off the roof of the Natural History Museum. The authorities are blaming mass consumption of Ecstasy, but the evidence I have says their necks were broken before they jumped off the roof."

"So, demonic possession," Sam breathed.

"Yeah," Bobby agreed. "Looks like it."

"Any idea what they're doing in Lawrence?" Sam was getting shivers again, despite the warmth from the fire.

"No clue, kid," Bobby acknowledged. "I've got a couple o' hunters checking it out right now. I'll let you know what we find."

"Thanks, Bobby," Sam nodded, lifting his eyes as he caught movement on the stairs. Dean climbed down into view, sleep-tousled and gorgeous as ever, and Sam realized that his hair was longer than usual, something he couldn't remember noticing before. "Hey, Bobby? Can you have your guys check on somebody we know?"

"That psychic friend of yours? Missouri?" Something else crashed onto the floor as Bobby moved things again, and Sam held his breath. "She's the one who let us know stuff was going on there. We're keeping an eye on her, don't worry 'bout that."

"Thanks, Bobby." Sam felt tension ease out of his muscles.

Then Dean was next to him, pressed against his side and tugging on Sam's hand where he clutched the phone.

"Let me talk to him," Dean demanded, breathing almost right into Sam's neck as he took the phone, making Sam a little dizzy and weak in the knees. "Bobby?" Dean turned away from Sam so he could focus on the call, and Sam let himself pretend Dean was feeling the same dizziness, the same weakness in the knees, because he could. "You said something about Lawrence?"

Sam fed the fire, checked the salt lines, and put a pan on the propane stove to cook hamburger for their dinner while Dean talked to Bobby. Jessica had passed out on the floor in front of the fire, sitting up with her head back against the seat of the couch, and Sam decided she'd probably be more comfortable lying on the couch, so he laid down a blanket and pillow for her, then scooped her into his arms to lay her down onto the couch. She muttered his name and smiled a little as he settled her, keeping her arms around his neck just a little longer than necessary.

"Everything's gonna be okay," she murmured, eyes fluttering as he gently removed her arms from his neck and crossed them on the blanket.

He couldn't agree with her, wouldn't lie to her, so he said nothing, just squeezed her hand gently before standing up. She lay peacefully in sleep, golden hair fanning out on the pillow, lips curled in a tiny smile, as if her dreams were happy ones where she felt safe and loved.

Sam knew what it was like to have dreams like that when reality was all shot to hell, and he wasn't about to take that tiny comfort away from her, no matter how false. The imagination was a powerful muscle, no one knew that better than Sam, and he hoped Jessica's was helping her to heal, or at least protecting her from the worst effects of the trauma she had just experienced.

Jessica slept while Sam fixed dinner, while Dean finished his call and then went out to check the perimeter, and she was still asleep when Dean came back, shaking rain from his hair and eyelashes, shrugging off his jacket and warming his hands in front of the fire.

Sam watched his brother out of the corner of his eye as he set plates heaping with homemade cheeseburgers and baked beans on the table. Dean ran his hands through his hair, combing it into place with his fingers before sliding into his chair at the table, barely glancing at Sam before taking a bite of his burger.

"Hmmm," he hummed approvingly when his mouth was full. "You remembered the onions!"

Sam tried not to smile too smugly as he took a bite of his own burger, then reached for his water bottle.

"So Bobby says the demons are converging on Lawrence," Sam said, almost conversationally. Because really. Could this be any more of a coincidence?

"Hmmm," Dean nodded as he took another bite, and Sam tried not to watch him enjoy Sam's cooking so much because it was ridiculously distracting and Sam really needed to keep his head in the game right now.

"So what did he say?" Sam prodded. "What's his theory?"

Dean leaned over and grabbed a beer out of the green cooler, popped the cap with his ring, and took a long swallow, tipping his head back so Sam got what was definitely a deliberate flash of Dean's long, exposed throat.

Bastard.

"It's not a coincidence, if that's what you're asking," Dean said when he put the beer down, tipping his chin down so he could give Sam a look that was absolutely designed to turn Sam way the hell on.

Damn it.

Sam felt his jaw clench so he closed his eyes and counted to ten before responding. "No, Dean, it's pretty clearly not a coincidence," he agreed, struggling to keep his voice steady. "That's why I'm asking for Bobby's theory."

"Bobby thinks maybe it has something to do with the new science building they just opened," Dean took another bite of his burger, closing his eyes and moving his mouth in a way that should be disgusting but, of course, wasn't. Not by a long shot. "Maybe somebody's planning a new round of experiments on orphan kids like the ones they did fifteen years ago."

"What?" Sam put down his burger, pushed back his chair, heart pumping as blurred memories crowded into his mind, memories of fear and stark-white, windowless corridors, bright lights and adults in white coats. Waking up alone in a small room, terrified. "He's doing it again? Is Bobby sure?"

Dean shrugged. "Maybe they gave up on you, Sammy," he smirked. "Maybe they decided to go back to the drawing board, try their sucky little plan with kids who were a little more cooperative."

Sam stood up, chest heaving, needing to move. To do something. "Does he have proof?" he asked. "Have there been more nursery fires and kidnappings in the past five years?"

"There's a pattern, yeah," Dean nodded. "Infants who disappeared or died on the nights of their six-month birthdays. About five years ago."

"So it's starting again," Sam breathed, pacing back and forth, clearing dishes, feeling suddenly like a trapped animal. "We have to go there, Dean. We have to help those kids. We can't let what happened to me happen again to anybody else."

"Whoa there, cowboy," Dean finished his burger, pushed his chair back, and actually had the nerve to rub his stomach, as if Sam was still watching after what he'd just learned.

Sam was still watching.

"Bobby said we should stay put," Dean said. "He was very clear on that point. Until we know what we're dealing with, I don't want you anywhere near that science lab."

Sam stopped pacing to stare, adrenaline and frustration pumping through his veins. "Dean, we know exactly what we're dealing with! It's the same thing that put demon blood in me nineteen-and-a-half years ago, and it's the same thing that did all those weird psychic experiments on me in that lab a few years after that. Azazel is kidnapping potential psychics, enhancing their power with demon blood, then trying to harness that power to – I don't know – take over the world, or something. Whatever he's doing, it's evil. And we can stop it! It's our responsibility to stop it!"

"Not ours, Sam," Dean shook his head. "Bobby's got hunters on the case right now. Good hunters. Hell, even Dad was on this case, before he disappeared..."

"Dad knew about this?" Sam's fists began to clench and unclench; he suddenly wanted to punch something. Or someone. "Dad knew and he didn't tell us?"

Dean huffed out a breath, scratched the back of his neck with one hand, rubbing his thigh with the other. "Yeah, he knew. He started doing research on infants who died or disappeared in nursery fires right after he found out about you, and he found the patterns. Not just the year it happened to you. Fifteen years later, too. And going back, fifteen years before your birth, same pattern."

Huh. That was new.

"Fifteen years before my birth?" Sam repeated, shocked. "So we're talking children who are adults now?"

Dean nodded, scrubbing his cheek with one hand, looking at the floor somewhere between Sam's feet.

"What happened to them, Dean?" Sam asked, feeling his stomach sink and his whole body break out in a cold sweat. 'They're all dead, aren't they?"

"Sam – "

"He just raises his little crop of human experiments and then he kills them and starts over, is that it? When they don't turn out the way he wants?" Sam's head was pounding now, his fists still clenching with the need to grab hold of something. Anything.

"Sam, it's not gonna happen, okay? He can't have you. We're staying right here until this thing blows over, just like Bobby said – "

"What? Do you even hear yourself?" Sam stared until Dean finally raised his eyes, finally locked his gaze with Sam's. "There are people dying out there, and we can stop it, and we're just gonna sit here?"

"We can't stop it, Sam," Dean protested. "You heard Bobby. There's literally dozens of demons in Lawrence right now, more on the way. It's way bigger than anything we've ever dealt with before."

"Oh, so we're just gonna sit back and watch it happen, is that it?" Sam sputtered. "We're just gonna watch while Azazel and his minions torture a fresh crop of demon-blood-poisoned kids to see if one of them turns into Darth Vader? Huh? Or Hitler?"

"We don't know what he's got planned, Sam," Dean said, voice low and intent, calming.

"We know it's nothin' good!" Sam shouted. "Dean, I was one of those kids! I know exactly how it feels to be strapped down to an operating table while...while they..." Bile rose in Sam's throat, cutting off his voice in mid-sentence, and he clutched his throat with shaking hands, closing his eyes as he fought for self-control.

Dean was there immediately, warm hands steady and sure on Sam's arms, catching him as he crumbled to his knees on the floor, overcome by nausea and painful memories that pounded unrelenting on the inside of his skull.

"It's okay, Sam," Dean murmured as he sank down in front of his brother, rubbing his shoulders. "I got you. Not gonna let anything bad happen to you."

"That's just it, Dean," Sam shook his head, gasping as he cleared his throat, opened his eyes to stare into Dean's bright green orbs, right there, only a couple of inches away. "I had you. Those kids...There's nobody for them. They're all alone, and scared, and I can't...I can't live with myself if I don't try to do something to help them."

Dean stared into his eyes, and Sam could see the conflict there, the urge to gather Sam up and never let him go, to protect him and prevent him from charging into danger. Sam could read all of that in Dean's eyes because it was how Sam felt when Dean was in danger; the urge to throw himself in front of a ghost or werewolf when Dean was threatened was almost overwhelming.

And right now it was giving Dean fits, that was obvious by the anguished look in his beautiful eyes.

Then Dean's gaze flicked down to Sam's mouth and it hit Sam how close they were, how he was almost sitting in Dean's lap, breathing his air, holding onto his shirt.

Sam's lips parted almost unconsciously and his tongue slipped over his lower teeth to poke at the corner of his mouth, and Dean watched, licking his own lips as a pink flush crept into his cheeks.

"Dean – " Sam breathed softly, mesmerized by the lacy pattern of Dean's eyelashes. "Please."

For a moment it seemed as if Dean was leaning closer, and Sam's lips trembled in anticipation as his heart sped up, pounding inside his ribcage for an entirely different reason than it had been a couple of moments before.

Then Dean's eyes flicked back up to Sam's again, wide and startled, as if he was surprised by his own response to Sam's proximity. As if it was the first time. He swallowed and licked his lips again, sitting back just enough that only their knees were touching. Sam still straddled Dean's thighs but no longer almost sat in his lap.

"Okay, Sam," Dean nodded, clearing his throat, and Sam was surprised to see the film of tears over his eyes. "We'll head out in the morning."

Sam nodded, still amazed at how easily Dean had given in to him.

Dean pulled back, letting go of Sam as he rose smoothly to his feet and backed away a couple of feet, shuffling awkwardly, avoiding Sam's eyes again as if he was ashamed of how close he'd come to – to what? Kissing Sam? Letting Sam see how much he cared? As if Sam didn't already know –

"Now get some rest," Dean ordered, gesturing toward the stairs. "I'll take first watch."

The sleeping bags had been opened and spread out on the mattress, one on top of the other, forming a kind of queen-sized bed, and when Sam snuggled down between them he could smell Dean's smoky sweat, his comforting scent soothing Sam and sending him crashing into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Sam was awakened by howling.

The sound had been going on for a while, he realized as he became aware of someone tugging on the sleeping bag covering him, shaking his shoulder with an urgency that seemed totally uncalled for, since he was more soundly asleep than he could ever remember, and it felt so, so good.

"Sammy! Wake up!"

Dean's voice, right next to his ear, whispered and urgent, accompanied more vigorous shaking, cutting through Sam's comfortable sleep-fog like a sharp knife. He forced his eyes open, moved his leaden limbs, and tried to focus.

"Dean? What's wrong?"

"Shhh!" Dean's hand over his mouth made him gasp, pulling the taste of Dean into his lungs, exploding against his tastebuds. "Werewolves."

Sam's body went into sudden defense mode and he was instantly alert, years of training at a young age kicking in. Adrenaline flooded every muscle in his body as he re-assessed the howling he had heard in his sleep for the threat it had suddenly become. He lay still and tense for a moment as he listened again, registering the diminished distance, calculating how fast the weres were moving to cross the distance between howls.

Dean removed his hand from Sam's mouth and put his finger to his own lips, gesturing silently to the north and south, then to the east and west. They were being surrounded. Sam nodded his understanding, reaching for his gun as Dean grabbed the duffel next to the bed, then backed softly down the stairs. Sam checked the chamber of his .45. He loaded the gun with silver bullets, then quietly followed his brother down the stairs to the first floor as another round of howling sounded outside, closer now.

It was still dark out, but the fire cast enough light inside the cabin to see that Jessica was still asleep on the couch where he'd left her. Sam went over the lunar calendar in his mind, confirming that it was indeed the right time of the month for werewolves to be fully changed, despite the fact that the heavy cloud cover hid the full moon from view.

Then he heard them. With his mind.

The werewolves were close, and their purpose was clear. Even though their thoughts were simple, the malice in their intent was almost overwhelming. They wanted blood – hearts – and they could smell the humans in the cabin from miles away. Sam quickly counted at least ten, maybe twelve separate minds, all focused on the same thing, working together to accomplish their goal. He glanced at Dean, who was already crouched in a defensive position, gun pointed toward the door and front windows. Sam took up his position with his back to his brother, covering the back door and windows in the same manner. The salt lines were intact, but as far as Sam knew salt only deflected non-corporeal creatures like spirits and demons, not werewolves, especially this many at once. Five or six each, Sam counted, considering the odds, with the possibility of more on the way, if he was reading the monsters' minds right.

Then it was too late to try to figure out what they were doing here, how they happened to find the Winchesters in their safe house, who might have sent them, why they were working together in such a large group, combining packs in a way the hunters had never seen werewolves do before. Something hit the back wall behind the fireplace, as if one of the werewolves was running headlong toward the house and simply slammed into it, followed by soft whimpering. A low growling came from under the back windows, then a footstep on the front porch, followed by sounds of more growling and snuffling as the weres scented their prey. Feet shuffled under the windows and on the porch, then a face appeared at the front window and Dean fired.

Things happened fast after that. Sam had only a second or two to register the fact that Dean had killed one of the weres before the rest of them slammed into the doors and walls of the house, as if they could collapse the building with sheer brute strength. Their growls intensified, became almost deafening as they pounded, infuriated and blood-thirsty. Sam maintained his grip on his gun despite the way his arm was shaking. This was familiar. This, he could do. Despite the odds. He and Dean had hunted alone before, and even if they'd never been in quite this situation, against quite this many monsters at once, it was similar to other hunts. Sam could let his training kick in, could trust all the hours spent preparing for this kind of scenario. The important thing was to stay calm, to force the monsters to make the first move, then to weaken their number one by one if possible.

"Sam?"

Jessica peeked her head up over the back of the couch, eyes wide with fear.

Damn. Sam felt his jaw clench as he glanced at her, taking his eyes off the back door and windows for only a moment, but it was long enough.

Something crashed through the window over the sink and barreled straight into Sam, sending his gun flying. Jessica screamed.

So much for salt, he had time to think as Dean's gun went off and the dead were collapsed on top of him.

Then more windows were crashing in and there were growling werewolves in the room all around him; Sam was aware of Jessica ducking down behind the couch again as he pushed the big dead body off him and scrambled for his gun, managing to shoot the were that was attacking Dean before taking a flying leap over the couch.

"Stay down!" he had time to yell at Jess over the deafening sounds of gunfire. He took two more down as they crawled in the front windows, then the back door burst open and Sam shot the werewolf that charged through first before turning his attention to two more that were attacking his brother. He couldn't get a clean shot, so he handed his gun to Jessica, pulled his silver knife out and jumped back over the couch to sink his knife into the back of the beast that was busy trying to choke Dean from behind.

Dean fell forward, sinking his own blade into the werewolf that had been pummeling him, and Sam jumped to the side as the body fell to the floor at his feet. He grabbed Dean's gun off the floor and shot another one coming through the door, then suddenly found himself picked up and thrown against the wall, barely having time to register the shooting pain in his back and shoulder as he hit at an awkward angle before another beast was on him, this time with its claws around his neck, clearly intent on choking the life out of him.

He was aware of Dean calling his name at the same time he could feel something sharp cutting into his leg, while Dean seemed to be fighting two weres at once again, hand-to-hand. The werewolves' growls mixed with Dean's grunts and curses as he threw and received punches. The monster holding Sam down was squeezing harder, cutting off his airflow, making him see stars, then he started to get that darkening prickly sensation in his head that told him he was passing out.

As Sam lost consciousness he heard a single gunshot, so loud it made the house shake. Then nothing.

**//**

Sam came to in the Impala, his brain scrambled with half-remembered images of being mostly carried there between Dean and Jessica, Dean muttering an endless litany of, "Come on, Sam, you're gonna be all right. We gotta go before more of 'em come. Hang in there, now, little brother. You're gonna be fine. Just gotta get somewhere safe, then we can check you out. Get you all fixed up."

He was in the passenger seat, and he could vaguely recall Dean insisting on putting him there. "I need to keep an eye on him," he'd told Jessica, who climbed obediently into the back seat, although Sam had the odd feeling she would've preferred to lay Sam out back there with her.

He leaned his head against the cool glass of the window and must've passed out again, waking to the cold grey light of morning and the comforting rumble of the Impala's engine, the car's heater barely counteracting the chill in his bones.

He was freezing.

"Sam?" Dean's voice was momentarily soothing, and his cool hand on Sam's forehead was even better. "Shit, buddy, you're burning up. We gotta stop."

"No, no, I'm fine," Sam tried to say, but his throat felt like it was on fire and his mouth was full of cotton. His teeth were chattering so hard he was afraid he'd bite his tongue, and when he tried to pull his arms around himself for warmth his shoulder protested painfully.

That's when he noticed he was bleeding. The front of his shirt was soaked with blood, as was his left thigh, and he could feel the sharp tingling pain of surface wounds on his chest and leg. He had a moment's panic as he wondered if he'd been bitten. Then Dean was pulling off the road into the parking lot of a motel and he started to black out again.

This time when he woke up, Sam was lying on his back in a motel bed, naked except for his boxers, with bandages covering the worst of his wounds. Dean was seated at the little kitchenette table with his shirt off, and Jessica was applying antiseptic to the small lacerations across his back. Shards of glass, Sam's brain provided. Caused when the window shattered inward. Dean hadn't been wearing his jacket then, but he must've put it on before they left the cabin, because Sam remembered him wearing it in the car, remembered the familiar smell of leather helping him relax after their ordeal.

"Hey," Sam croaked, struggling to sit up, then collapsed again when the pain in his shoulder wouldn't let him.

Dean turned sharply at the sound, and Sam sucked in a ragged breath. The left side of Dean's face was a mass of bruises, his left eye nearly swollen shut, and his lip was split and still bleeding on that side.

"Jesus, Dean," Sam croaked as his brother shook off Jessica's hands and crossed the room to Sam's bed. "You look like shit."

"Right back atcha, dude," Dean growled, but there was a smile in his good eye and a smirk on the uninjured corner of his mouth. He checked the bandage on Sam's chest, then touched cool fingers to Sam's cheek, where he could feel a bruise forming. "How're ya feelin'?"

"Better now," Sam croaked, unable to contain his purr of pleasure as Dean pressed his palm to Sam's forehead to check for fever.

"Yeah, well, that's just the pain meds," Dean muttered, but his voice was soft with relief and fondness. "Thought I might have to take you to a hospital."

"Nah, I'm tough," Sam smiled, leaning into Dean's touch as he pressed his palm to Sam's cheek.

"Yeah, I know you are," Dean murmured, letting Sam snuggle into the caress. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, ignoring the ache in his ribcage, and he might've pressed his lips to Dean's wrist if Jessica hadn't picked that moment to clear her throat and shuffle noisily just a few feet away.

"I'm gonna take a shower," she announced, digging around in Sam's duffle. "Sam, I'm borrowing some clothes."

"Go for it," Sam croaked, keeping his eyes closed another moment as Dean drew his hand back.

"How's she doing?" he asked when the bathroom door clicked shut and he looked up at his brother again.

"Seems okay, considering," Dean cleared his throat. "She's tough." He let his hand slide down over Sam's bare chest, too slow and deliberate to be checking for injuries. When he dragged his thumb over Sam's nipple Sam let out a tiny gasp. His eyelids fluttered closed and his lips parted. "She saved your life."

"She did?" Sam's dick twitched and he was momentarily grateful that everything was still working down there.

Dean's hand moved down over Sam's stomach, his treasure trail, and the muscles trembled. His dick hardened.

"Yeah. She shot the bastard that was choking the life out of you," Dean murmured. "For a few minutes, I thought she was too late."

Sam's eyes fluttered open, and now he could read the haunted look in Dean's eyes. Now he understood the way Dean was touching him.

"You thought I was dead," Sam croaked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Dean didn't answer. He didn't have to. His eyes were shining with a layer of tears and his mouth trembled. His gaze locked with Sam's for a moment, then dropped to Sam's mouth.

"I'd kiss you if it didn't hurt so much," he said, and Sam felt suddenly weightless, free, relieved beyond the fact of just being alive.

"You would?" he croaked, more hopeful than he could remember feeling in a very, very long time.

Dean raised his eyes to Sam's, nodded. "Don't remember why I ever thought it wasn't a good idea," he admitted, and Sam's heart soared.

Sometimes it takes almost losing someone to realize how much you love them. Sam's head provided the line he was sure he'd heard in some sappy movie or read in some romance novel, except he really didn't watch those kind of movies and he definitely didn't read romance novels.

"Me, neither," Sam croaked, reaching for Dean's hand. He pulled it up to his face again, this time pressing his lips against Dean's wrist as he'd wanted to do before. Now Dean allowed it, blushing as Sam's tongue darted out to taste the tender pale skin.

"I need to call Bobby," Dean breathed, his voice shaking a little as Sam suckled his wrist.

"It can wait," Sam croaked.

"Jessica'll be out of the shower any minute." Dean was panting a little now.

"She knows about us." Sam cradled Dean's entire forearm, tugging on it to get Dean to lie down with him.

"She does? But how – " Poor Dean. He seemed genuinely confused.

Sam shrugged. "She's perceptive," he said. "And we're not exactly subtle."

"I am," Dean huffed indignantly. "I mean, I was. I never even touched you. I know because it took effort. I had to force myself not to touch you. I got pretty good at it."

Sam didn't bother explaining how completely unsubtle Dean's long looks and seductive gazes were, even when he wasn't crowding into Sam's personal space every time Sam turned around. But Sam didn't care if Dean thought he was the most subtle person in the universe, as long as he was lying down next to Sam, pressing his warm chest along Sam's back, spooning him carefully so it almost didn't hurt at all because it felt so good.

"Hmmm," Sam hummed contentedly, hugging Dean's arm against his chest and pressing his lips to Dean's bruised knuckles as Dean breathed deep into the back of his neck, obviously pulling Sam's long-denied scent into his lungs.

Sam was mostly asleep when he heard the door of the bathroom open softly, heard the soft sound of someone crossing the room to the other bed and turning off the light, plunging the room into the gloomy half-darkness of mid-day with the blinds closed.

**//**

"I don't know, Bobby. It's like those things knew we were there."

Through the haze of sleep and painkillers and aching muscles, Sam became dimly aware of Dean's voice, and he struggled to wake up enough to listen.

"Yeah, sorry about Rufus's house," Dean said. "We had to leave the bodies."

Sam managed to open one eye. Dean was pacing not two feet away, fully clothed and with his phone to his ear. Jessica was nowhere to be seen, and since the bathroom door was open, Sam guessed she must have gone out.

That thought brought Sam to full wakefulness. He turned over, managing to put weight on his sore shoulder, and he moaned involuntarily, reaching for the bedside table with his good arm in his struggle to sit up.

"Bobby? I gotta go," Dean said into the phone. "Sam's awake."

Sam swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was still wearing nothing except his boxers and a couple of large bandages, one over the six-inch gash in his mid-section, just under his left pectoral, and the other one on his thigh. The thigh wound was bleeding through its bandage, although Sam could feel stitches pulling on his skin. The pain was making him sweat, and he grabbed onto Dean as his brother bent over him, fresh bandage in one hand, pain pills in the other.

"Hey, kiddo, how're ya feelin'?" Dean murmured. "Why don't you take these, huh? Looks like your fever's back, and I better change that bandage, what do you say, huh? How about you just lie down again so I can fix you up, how does that sound?"

"Dean, I'm not a child," Sam protested through chattering teeth, but he let Dean help him sit back against the headboard while Dean elevated his leg and helped him swallow more pills. "Where's Jess?"

"She went out for a run," Dean said, and that made Sam sit up again.

"What? You let her? Dean, are you crazy? She's still a target. Things are still after her! Those werewolves knew exactly where we were! I heard you tell Bobby you don't think that was a coincidence."

"I don't," Dean nodded grimly, holding Sam down with one hand on his good shoulder. "But we're safe here for a while, and she was going nuts cooped up. Not sleeping, not eating. You always say exercise is good for your state of mind, and I think she's doing pretty well, considering. All day long cooped up in a sick room isn't good for anybody."

"I'm not sick!" Sam protested, teeth chattering so hard he almost bit his tongue.

"You're lucky you didn't get bit," Dean mumbled as he peeled the bandage from Sam's leg. "At least I don't have to shoot you."

"Not funny," Sam hissed as Dean dabbed antiseptic onto the sutured wound, which looked fairly clean, at least. No sign of infection. "Why am I feverish?" he wondered out loud, and Dean shook his head.

"No idea," he muttered as he worked. "You're a freak, what can I say?"

"Shut up," Sam gasped. "We need to go, Dean."

"Hey, hey, you're not going anywhere, Superboy."

"The hell I'm not!" Sam protested, struggling to sit up again. "We've got to get to Lawrence. Gotta save those kids!"

"Damn it, Sam, you're in no shape to go anywhere right now," Dean shook his head, using more of his weight to push Sam back, to hold him down.

Sam's shoulder and ribcage protested painfully, and he collapsed back on the bed in defeat, panting and sweating with pain, forced to admit that Dean was right. He was no good to anybody like this. He could barely go to the bathroom without help.

Sam closed his eyes, tears of pain and frustration seeping out of the corners and slipping down his cheeks. As the pain medication started to kick in, he heard the door to the room open and Jessica came in with bags of food. She and Dean spoke in whispered voices for a few moments, then the bathroom door clicked closed and Sam heard the shower running.

He dozed fitfully for a while until Dean woke him up to eat a little soup and take some antibiotics, then he slept soundly, especially when Dean scooted into the bed behind him and spooned him again, pressing his body along Sam's from shoulder to ankle, breathing against Sam's spine.

**//**

When Sam woke again he could tell the fever was gone. So was Dean. Jessica sat on the other bed, reading a thick paperback novel. She looked up when he moved, flashing him a million-watt smile so bright it lit up the room.

"Hey," Sam smiled back because he couldn't help it. "Whatcha reading?"

"Tess of the d'Ubervilles," Jessica laughed, turning the cover so Sam could see the haunting face of Nasstassja Kinski staring out at him. "It was in a box of free books in the motel lobby. I had my choice of Tom Clancy, Stephen King, or this." She made a face. "My dad reads Tom Clancy. Well, he did." She lowered her eyes for a moment, then looked up at Sam with a shrug, her smile only slightly diminished. "And no way will I ever, ever read Stephen King again."

Sam sat up and Jessica put the book down, slid over the bed to give him a steady hand.

"Where's Dean?"

"He went out to get food and gas," Jessica said as she helped him stand up, slid under his good shoulder so he could lean on her as he limped over to the bathroom door. "He said he'd be right back."

"Are you okay?" Sam asked as she released him, and Jessica gave a little laugh, tossing her golden curls. She looked good, he realized, all tan and fit, with sparkling eyes and a smile that just wouldn't stop. Nothing like the grief-stricken, traumatized girl in the cabin.

"I'm fine," Jessica nodded. "Great, in fact. I feel really good. I mean, I know it's a lot to take in, all that's happened over the past week, but I'm doing pretty good, actually."

"Over the past week..." Sam frowned. "Wait. How long was I out?"

"We've been here three days," Jessica reached up and pushed the hair back from his face, tucking it gently behind his ear. "And you need a shower. Just don't get those bandages wet."

"Right."

Sam took her hand, meaning to give it an encouraging squeeze, then he saw it. On her forearm, just below the elbow so that it was almost hidden under the sleeve of her plaid flannel shirt – his shirt. Her stuff got left at the cabin, he remembered, so she was wearing his clothes.

"Jess, where did you get that?" Sam held her wrist in one hand and slid his other hand up her arm to the elbow, pushing the rolled-up sleeve out of the way. The wound was almost healed now but was still visible on her otherwise perfect skin. A perfect almost-human bite mark.

Jessica gave a little nervous laugh and shook her head. "Yeah, crazy, right? I guess something bit me. I don't even remember when it happened. It doesn't hurt. I mean, I don't remember much about what happened in the cabin, but I guess that's where it happened. When we were attacked, right? I was really scared when I first saw it. I mean, I've seen American Werewolf in London. The bite of a werewolf turns you into one. But I'm fine. I really am. I've never been better. So I guess that's not real after all, right?"

Sam lifted his eyes to hers, and he knew he wasn't hiding the horror and anguish he was feeling very well because Jessica blanched, pulled her arm away and rolled the sleeve down over the bite, as if somehow she could make it disappear altogether. Her smile slipped, and she started as the door opened and Dean came in, carry-out bags in hand. He paused just inside the door, glancing from Sam to Jessica, then back to Sam again, and Sam could see the moment he realized what had happened.

"Hey, Sammy," Dean laid the bags on the table, then slowly laid his keys and his gun next to them before raising his eyes to Sam again.

"Jess, could you excuse us for a minute?" Sam asked quietly. His voice was still a little hoarse, but at least his throat wasn't so swollen and sore anymore.

Jessica blinked, glanced at Dean, at the gun on the table, then back up at Sam. Her eyes were clear, her expression solemn and without fear.

"Sure," she nodded. "I'll just take a walk. I need to get out anyway."

The brothers watched her as she took her jacket off the back of the chair, shrugging it on as she headed for the door. She threw a final glance at each of them when she had the door open, and Sam nodded at her, falsely reassuring in a way that made him feel like a traitor and a cheat for pretending everything was fine when it pretty obviously wasn't.

"You knew," Sam stated after the door was shut and he and Dean were alone. Sam suspected Jessica could hear them through the door if she wanted to; elevated senses and excessive good health were early signs of lycanthropy.

"Yeah, I knew," Dean nodded, keeping his eyes down.

"And you let her go running?" Sam accused.

"She hasn't turned," Dean shrugged. "But her body needs to run. She hasn't slept since that first night. Bobby thinks she won't turn until the next full moon."

"So we've got almost a month to find a cure," Sam breathed, hope flickering through the crushing sense of failure that threatened to overwhelm him. Again.

Dean lifted his eyes then. "There is no cure, Sam," he said softly. "She's going to turn, and when she does, she'll be a mindless killer, just like all the other monsters we've had to put down over the years."

"No," Sam clutched the doorframe. "That's just not possible. Not after all she's been through. Not after she's come this far. She's a survivor, Dean, like us!"

"Not any more, Sam," Dean shook his head. "It's the end of the line."

"Are you sure?" Sam felt tears smarting at the backs of his eyes. "I mean, you've checked with Bobby, right? Isn't there something we can do? She isn't a full-on werewolf until she kills somebody, right? So isn't there still a chance we can fix her? Find an antidote for the poison?"

"Well, there was one thing." Dean seemed reluctant to share, but Sam persisted, so Dean took a deep breath. "Bobby said he'd heard that it might be possible to reverse the effects of the change if we could find and kill the werewolf that infected her."

"Yeah? So? Let's do that!" Sam insisted. "We can do that, right? Go back to the cabin, track the thing back to wherever it came from – "

"Yeah, we could," Dean agreed. "Except the thing is, I already killed it. Silver bullet through the heart. Between you and me and the one Jessica offed, we killed twelve werewolves, Sam. Bodies all over the place, and every single one of them dead as a doornail. Including the one that bit Jess. Dad would kill me if he knew we left a mess like that and didn't go back to clean it up."

"Uh – slightly bigger fish to fry?" Sam huffed out a breath. "I need to tell Jess. I have to explain it to her."

"Whoa there." Dean put a hand on Sam's chest – Sam suddenly realized he wasn't even mostly dressed but this was definitely not the time to think about how good Dean's hand felt on his chest. Not even a little. "You know what you need to do, Sam. I left it to you because she's your friend, but if you don't want to do it – "

Sam looked down at the gun in Dean's hand and couldn't remember how it got there. Sam's gun, its mother-of-pearl handle lying in the palm of Dean's open hand, barrel pointed at the floor, of course.

"You probably want to get dressed first," Dean said, his voice gentle but firm.

Sam had forgotten how cut-and-dried things were for Dean, how little sympathy he spared for the monsters they hunted. Sometimes it frustrated Sam, who had known monsters who were kind to him as a child. The irony of his own status as a demon-blooded psychic who might not even be fully human seemed to be completely lost on Dean, who simply refused to see anything monstrous in Sam at all.

But Sam knew better. He knew there was something dark inside him, waiting for the right combination of events to set it off. He'd already decided he didn't believe in destiny, despite what the demons possessing Jesse and Brady had told him. But he could feel the power he hosted inside his blood, inside his own body, and he knew that it was only a matter of time and circumstance before he did something he couldn't forgive.

He would never forgive himself if he killed Jessica.

But if he let her go, and she killed innocent people, that was on him. Their deaths would be Sam's fault because he couldn't do what needed to be done to save them.

"I need to take a shower," Sam announced, stalling for time, needing to think through what he was about to do.

Dean hesitated, reading the agony in Sam's eyes. "Why don't you let me take care of it, Sam," he suggested, and Sam shook his head vigorously.

"No. She's my friend," Sam said. "She deserves to know, and I need to be the one to explain it to her. I'll do it. I just need a couple of minutes."

Dean nodded reluctantly and left Sam to his privacy. In the shower, Sam considered putting Jessica on a bus for Alaska, some unpopulated place where there weren't any people for her monster to kill. But he knew hunters would find her, especially if she ever did kill someone, and that would be Sam's fault again. And round and round and round we go, Sam thought as he washed the cheap motel shampoo from his hair, relishing the sting as the stuff got into his eyes, making him cry.

And once he started, he found he couldn't stop. The floodgates opened and he let the tears flow freely, running down the drain with the dirt and grime and pain of the past week, all the deaths he couldn't prevent, all the dreams and hopes and futures thwarted. Jessica, her sister, her parents, Brady. He couldn't save any of them, had however indirectly caused their deaths. Not to mention the students and faculty at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, more innocent people, some of whom were already dead. Bobby estimated there were at least six dozen demons in Lawrence, last time he checked, all possessing people who didn't deserve for that to happen to them. There were rumors that Azazel himself was there, orchestrating.

By the time he turned off the lukewarm water, Sam knew what he had to do.

**//**

Jessica had heard every word he and Dean had said in the motel. Sam could tell she had by the look she gave him when he came out of the bathroom to find her sitting at the table with Dean, not eating while he scarfed down a burger. Sam's Taurus lay on the table between them.

They packed up in silence, then drove almost fifty miles to a look-out point on the edge of the highway. At night the surrounding mountains and the lake below were dark, but the cloudless sky overhead was a canopy of tiny lights, endless and infinite. Dean took a walk down into the trees so Sam and Jessica could have their privacy, and they sat on the hood of the Impala, soaking up her warmth as the engine cooled. Jessica snuggled up against him, and Sam put his arm around her, and it was almost romantic, in a completely twisted way.

They sat so long Sam began to be afraid Jessica would never say anything again, no last words, nothing to let him know how she felt about what was about to happen to her.

Not that he deserved it. If she withheld her forgiveness now, it was more than he deserved.

"I heard you guys, in the motel," she said, and Sam had been so convinced she wouldn't speak that it made him start a little when she did. "I thought about running away, but you'd just come after me, right?"

Sam nodded.

"But what I don't understand is, how are you so sure I'm gonna turn into one of those things? Isn't it possible that it might not happen to me? I mean, maybe the one that bit me wasn't that strong or something."

Sam sighed. "Jess, there's no cure," he said. "Eventually, whether this week or next month, you'll turn."

"But it's been four days, Sam," she protested. "Isn't it possible to dodge the bullet on this thing?"

Sam winced inwardly at her choice of words, but she didn't seem to notice.

"Not in our experience," Sam shook his head. "Not from what we've read or seen. Not according to all the lore Bobby has on lycanthropy. You haven't been eating, haven't been sleeping, so maybe the first time you do, that's when it will kick in. You might not even be aware of it. You'll just wake up with blood all over you somewhere, alone and scared and not knowing whose blood it is. Could be some random stranger's, could be mine. Or Dean's."

Jessica shivered, and Sam pulled her closer against him. She tucked her head under his chin and lay her hand on his chest, over his heart.

"I had this idea that I could be your third wheel, you know?" she said. "Like the Mod Squad. Or Katherine Ross in Sundance. You and me and Dean, three crazy kids on the road, fighting crime and monsters, doing good in the world."

Sam tried to smile. He shifted a little so he could get his other arm around where he needed it. He squeezed her shoulder gently and buried his face in her hair.

"I don't want to die," she said, the last word choked off by a sob, and Sam nodded.

"I know," he whispered into her hair, fighting the lump in his sore throat.

She tensed as she felt the barrel of his Taurus pressed up between their bodies, but she didn't speak again, just closed her eyes and clung to him as he pulled the trigger, the kickback making both their bodies jump as the sound reverberated across the lonely mountain scene, making Sam's ears ring.

"I'm sorry," Sam whispered, although Jessica probably couldn't hear him anymore. Her hair was wet, and he realized he was crying again, tears streaming silently down his cheeks.

Dean was there a moment later, reaching in to untangle Sam's fingers from his grip around the Taurus, putting the safety on and tucking it away in his own waistband before reaching for Jessica. He pulled her gently out of Sam's arms, and Sam watched her go, closed eyes and slack lips, blood spreading on her chest like a red flower blooming, soaking his borrowed shirt.

They wrapped her in a blanket brought from the motel for just that purpose, then dug a grave on the edge of the hill, below the highway, facing the view. They decided to forgo salting and burning the corpse, not because they believed Jessica wouldn't come back to haunt them, but because they didn't want to draw attention to themselves by putting up a literal smoke signal as to their whereabouts.

They drove another hundred miles, mostly in silence, until Dean pulled off at a motel where they could shower and sleep for a few hours.

"We head to Lawrence in the morning," Sam announced as he climbed into the king-sized bed, bone-weary and aching from the digging and the car-ride, exhausted with grief.

Dean said nothing, just pulled Sam against him and laid kisses along the back of his neck and shoulder until Sam fell asleep, still weeping.

Chapter Text

When he woke up the next morning, Dean had already gone out for coffee. Sam got dressed, ignoring his aching muscles and unhealed injuries, and packed the car, then snapped impatiently at Dean when he finally returned with the coffee and a bag full of breakfast sandwiches.

"What's your hurry, princess? Disaster in Lawrence ain't goin' nowhere. Trust me, it'll still be there when we get there," Dean frowned. "Besides. We still have to come up with a plan."

Sam scoffed. "A plan," he repeated. "Since when did Dean Winchester need a plan?"

"Well, we can't just burst in there guns blazing," Dean shrugged.

"Why not?" Sam demanded. "Isn't that the Winchester Way? Since when are you all Mister Cautious?"

"Since I had a dream back at the cabin and you were in it, okay? And it wasn't pretty."

Sam stared, completely flummoxed. "You had a dream?" he repeated. "About me?"

Dean frowned and looked away, and Sam had time to realize this wasn't gonna be good.

"What about me, Dean? What did you see?" Memories of the last time Dean had had a "dream" about Sam made his skin crawl.

"It was you dead, Sam," Dean growled after another moment's hesitation. "There, you happy? It was you on the floor in some weird-ass ivy-league type building like they got at the University of Kansas, dead. You got me? So sue me if I'm not all gung-ho about charging in there any time soon."

Sam thought for a moment. "So you had this dream back at the cabin?" he clarified. "Before the werewolves attacked?"

It suddenly hit Sam how overwrought Dean must've been to see his part of his dream come true, right there at the cabin, how it must've sent him over the edge with fear and despair.

"I guess so, Sam," Dean shook his head. "What difference does it make now?"

"You were trying to talk me out of going to Lawrence because you wanted to protect me," Sam accused. "Then the werewolves killed me anyway. And that's when you decided to patch things up between us, isn't it? Because if I was going to die anyway, you might as well get your last night on earth."

Dean blinked like a deer caught in the headlights, but he didn't deny it. "I was thinking about you, actually," he said. "I was thinking how you might die without getting what you wanted, and who the hell was I to deny that to you anyway? Huh? It's not like we hadn't already popped that particular cherry."

Now it was Sam's turn to stare incredulously because this –– this was the asshole brother he understood.

"God, Dean, that's fucked up," he breathed. "You realize how really fucked up that is, right?"

Which is when the phone rang. Of course it did. Sam glared at the tiny screen for a moment to register the caller ID before snapping it open.

"Dad?"

Sam was aware of Dean perking up, staring at him in shock as the familiar deep voice on the phone snarked, "Heya, Sammy."

Sam's heart plunged and he felt the air rush out of his body in a single breath.

"You're not my dad." Sam closed his eyes, struggling to regain his wits as Dean reached for the phone. Sam pulled back with a jerk, shaking his head sharply, and Dean's hand closed around the arm of his jacket, clutched the material as he invaded Sam's personal space, pressed up next to him like he belonged there.

Which, of course, he did.

"Bingo, Sammy-boy," John's voice snarled. "You always were the smart one."

"Is he still alive?" Sam felt Dean tense beside him, felt him scramble for the phone again, so Sam leaned his head against Dean's, turning the little phone so they could both hear.

"Oh, he's very much alive," the demon purred. "He's been most cooperative, actually."

"That's a lie, you sick son-of-a-bitch!" Dean yelled, and Sam grabbed the front of Dean's jacket, stared a warning into Dean's eyes to get him to calm down.

"Temper, temper, Dean-o," the demon purred. "John-boy agrees we have a common purpose, that's all."

"What's that?" Sam took the bait just to keep the demon talking, holding onto Dean to prevent any more outbursts.

"Oh, I think you know, Sammy," the demon cooed. "Johnny knows, too. You're ours, Sam. You belong to us. It's time to come home, son."

"Fuck that!" Dean exclaimed fiercely.

"Oh, and just so we're clear, that annoying big brother of yours is not invited," the demon said. "His daddy and I were very clear on that point. It's you we want, Sam. It's you we've always wanted. And if Dean gets in the way, you'll both pay the price. So enjoy your last night of incestuous hay-making, Sammy, because by midnight tomorrow, you're with us where the sun don't shine."

The line went dead and a message with coordinates showed up on the phone. An address on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Sam surmised as he lifted his eyes to Dean's, caught the fear and anguish there the moment before the shutters went down and Dean's righteous anger returned.

"The hell with that," he growled. "You ain't goin' alone, and that's that."

Sam shook his head. "You heard him, Dean. If you come with me, he'll kill you. He'll kill Dad."

"How do we know Dad's even still alive?" Dean looked anguished again. "That wasn't him. Demons lie."

"He's leverage," Sam guessed, because he really couldn't be sure, beyond needing to take that look out of Dean's eyes. "He's alive as long as you don't come in there with me."

"You think that's him?" Dean changed the subject, deflecting. "Yellow Eyes?"

Sam shrugged. "It makes sense," he said. "John was tracking it when he disappeared, now it's possessing him. Causing who knows what kind of mayhem in Lawrence. Experimenting on a new batch of kids, Dean. That's the thing I have to stop. If I can, I have to try and stop that."

Or die trying, he didn't add, because they both knew that part.

"We need to call Bobby," Dean said.

"What good will that do?" Sam protested. "He can't help us. It'll only make him crazy, knowing what we're planning when he can't do anything to help."

"Maybe he can," Dean insisted. "Maybe there's something he knows that can help us find another way besides you goin' in there like Gary Cooper and getting yourself killed."

"Gary Cooper won, Dean," Sam reminded him. "I don't think that's gonna happen here, but at least I've got a shot at saving those kids. If Yellow Eyes really wants me that bad, maybe he'll be willing to trade. Their lives for mine."

"Not gonna happen, Sam," Dean shook his head. "I'm not letting you go in there alone. Not letting you sacrifice yourself on the off chance that maybe Azazel won't kill Dad. Maybe he won't kill those kids. What's to stop him once he's got you, huh? He's a demon, Sam. Killing and torturing people is what he does."

"You got a better idea?" Sam flung his arms wide. "Because from where I'm standing, we got one card to play, one way to maybe save a few lives here, and I'm willing to take that risk."

"Well, I'm not!" Dean practically shouted, and Sam tensed for the blow Dean looked like he might shell out, just to keep Sam from charging into danger. "It's a suicide mission, Sam!"

"I don't care!" Sam yelled back.

"Well, I do!" Dean clenched his fists, and Sam felt the adrenaline rush of an impending fist-fight. "I can't let you do it, Sam."

Sam was ready for the punch, but Dean wasn't. Sam had the advantage of daily training, the state-of-the-art gym facilities at Stanford, and recent height and weight gain that Dean simply wasn't prepared for. Dean had the advantage of years in the field, though, plus Sam's recent injuries slowed his reflexes. Sam knew his only real hope was to get in the first shot and to make it count.

Nevertheless, it surprised Sam when Dean crumpled at his feet, down and out after a single well-placed blow to the side of his head. Sam winced as he considered the bruise he'd added to the collection on Dean's handsome face as he knelt to check Dean's vitals, then turned him gently onto his side so he wouldn't asphyxiate if he started to vomit.

"Sorry, brother," Sam murmured, swiping his hand through Dean's hair, committing to memory the contours of his beloved face, the familiar smell of sweat and leather, the feel of Dean's soft, spiked hair through his fingers, aware that if things went well, he'd never see Dean again.

**//**

An hour later, Sam was on the road to Kansas, crammed into the driver's seat of a hot-wired Ford Escort, trying not to think about how angry and desperate Dean would feel when he woke up.

But when his phone blasted Pearl Jam about two hours into his drive, it wasn't Dean.

"Missouri?" Sam picked up because he couldn't imagine not answering a call from his old friend, the first person who had really helped him, who understood him because she shared many of his talents and had taught him how to learn to live with them. "Are you okay?"

"And what makes you ask that, Sam Winchester?" she demanded, sassy as ever. "You think maybe all these demons moving into town haven't brought a giant heap o' trouble with them? Is that it? You think maybe they haven't brought all kinds of evil spirits and nasty creatures with 'em? Hauntings everywhere, let me tell you. Practically every house has a spirit in it now. All except one. This whole town is crawling with creepies."

"Sorry to hear that," Sam muttered contritely. "I'm on my way."

"And that's another thing," Missouri went on, as if she hadn't heard him. "Where's that brother of yours? Cuz I'll tell you one thing, Sam Winchester. You need him right now. If you have some Lone Ranger idea of riding in here without him, you got your priorities crooked, you hear me? I'm having all sort of visions right now, waking visions, and I don't like what I see about what you're up to. No, sir."

"Azazel's got our dad," Sam started to explain. "He said I have to come alone."

"You takin' orders from that hell-spawn?" Missouri demanded. "Since when did you start doing anything your elders told you to, huh? Where's that rebel child I remember?"

Sam took a deep breath. "People have died, Missouri," he said. "Because of me. People I cared about. I killed my best friend last night."

"I know, Sam, and I'm sorry," Missouri said. "I truly am."

"I have to stop it," Sam went on. "The deaths, the possessions, the experiments on psychic kids, all of it."

"And you will, if you want to," Missouri said. "You can stop all of it, if that's what you want."

Sam let out a shaky breath, almost closed his eyes in his relief. "So it will work," he said. "If I go in there and give myself up to Azazel, it'll all stop."

"No," Missouri said. "If you give yourself up to the yellow-eyed demon, you will die."

Sam clutched the steering wheel with one hand, the phone with the other, staring unseeing at the road in front of him. He gave a little frustrated shake of his head.

"Then I don't understand," he said. "If I don't surrender to Azazel, how do I stop what he's doing?"

"I don't know exactly, Sam," Missouri said. "I can't see that far. There's something in the way. But I do know you will stop it. You and Dean. Together. That's what I know. It has to be both of you."

Sam chewed on his bottom lip in silence.

"I can't let Dean get hurt," Sam said. "I'd rather die than let something bad happen to him."

"Haven't you heard a thing I've been telling you all these years, Sam?" Missouri said. "You dying is the worst thing that can happen to Dean. He's your soul-mate. Losing you is like death to him. There is no 'after.' He will get you back, or kill himself in the attempt. Or worse." Missouri took a deep breath, then her voice got low and dark. "There's worse things than death. You know that. Becoming a monster, turning into something evil, something you don't want to be, that's worse. You want to be responsible for doing that to someone?"

Sam's mind flashed to Jessica and he shook his head. "Too late," he said, choking back a sob.

Missouri let out a long sigh, and Sam wondered if she could read his mind at this distance after all. "You really think you could kill your own brother?" she asked quietly.

"No," Sam said. "No, I couldn't. But he's not the monster, Missouri. I am."

"Who told you that?" she demanded. "That demon? Again, why you listen to that devil, huh? What's he done to earn the respect you don't even give your own father, boy? Huh?"

"Azazel's blood flows in my veins," Sam said. "I can feel it."

"John Winchester's blood flows in your veins, boy," Missouri reminded him. "Mary's too. You're a powerful psychic, but not because that demon made you that way. You were born with it. Your mother had it, your darn fool father has it if he was ever willing to admit it, and your brother has it. That's what you feel inside you, Sam. Not some demonic poison that ties you to Hell or makes you evil. You have power in you, but it's not evil, you hear me? It's you."

Sam was driving through mountains again, and the connection started breaking up, but Sam had heard enough anyway. It didn't change anything. He still had to go up against Azazel, had to try to rescue John and those kids. If what Missouri said was right, he could depend on at least a little psychic mojo to help him. He would find out what Azazel wanted him to do, and maybe he could pretend to agree to whatever it was – leading his demon army to take over the earth. Whatever. If he could just make Azazel believe Sam was desperate enough to agree, then maybe he could get the demon to release John and the kids. For now, Sam wasn't letting anything distract him from that mission, and although Missouri's words were soothing, they didn't change what Sam knew he had to do. Alone. No matter what Missouri said, Sam couldn't let Dean get hurt. He couldn't.

He would die first.

**//**

When he pulled into Lawrence the next day, the usually-busy college town was abnormally quiet. The late afternoon sun had decided to hide in some seriously threatening thunderheads, and Sam could hear the oncoming storm rumbling in the distance. He could smell ozone and something rotten, like sulfur, hanging in the heavy, pregnant air. A feeling of expectancy, of something about to happen, made Sam's skin crawl and sweat at the same time.

He decided to leave the car parked in front of his old house and walk to the campus along familiar tree-lined streets. The house looked empty; no car in the driveway, no lights on, the flowerbeds dead and empty in the early spring. Sam considered peeking in the windows, establishing whether someone actually lived here, but then he remembered Missouri''s warning about ghosts occupying many of the houses in town.

Except one.

But if any house should have ghosts, it was this one, where a young mother had died trying to protect her infant son from being fed demon blood and then kidnapped, where a father and brother barely escaped the fire that destroyed their family and set them on a course of terror and revenge, wracked with rage and survivor-guilt.

Yet Sam had happy memories of growing up in this house. He remembered birthdays and Christmases and Easter Egg hunts, throwing balls around with his brother in the back yard, learning to ride his first bike in the driveway. Sam remembered walking to school, Dean carrying his backpack and lunchbox packed with the special sandwiches their mom made just for Sam, on account of his sensitive stomach. Sam remembered the playground with the ball field where he and Dean played and rode their bikes. He remembered the pool where he learned to swim, and the Fourth of July picnics ending with fireworks displays in the park down by the river.

Only none of those memories were real, of course. They were dreams. Extremely vivid, life-like dreams that helped Sam live through the reality of his early years, his reality of abuse and neglect and the frightening, freaky tests and experiments which were described as "treatments" for some unknown ailment from which Sam had suffered since he was a baby. By the time Sam was eight he stopped having the dreams altogether; the doctors found a way to excise his dream-life and his imaginary brother from his brain, leaving him lonely and bereft for four long years until Dean found him wandering a country road near Sioux Falls.

Sam kept the dream-memories, and sometimes he wished he could share them with Dean, whose life growing up on the road with their dad had been just as lonely and grief-stricken as Sam's would have been if he hadn't had his dream-life to escape to. More so, since Dean didn't have any memories of a good life raised together, like Sam did.

Now, coming home to Lawrence, Sam felt the ghosts of his own dream-memories dancing around him, taunting him. No one lived in their old house now. The place was cold and lifeless. Not even ghosts would dwell there. No real ones, anyway.

By the time Sam reached the University of Kansas campus, the storm was close. Bright flashes of lightning lit the empty, gloomy streets, followed almost immediately by loud crashes of thunder, rumbling away again like boulders down a mountainside, gathering momentum for the next onslaught. Thunder shook the ground and rattled the windows, but no lights came on. No one dashed down the street to get where they were going before the storm hit.

Sam had the feeling of eyes watching him, though. It wasn't just a sixth-sense or psychic feeling. It was a creeping, eerie, haunted feeling that anyone might have being alone in a deserted town, a town so recently teeming with life. Sam wondered where all the people had gone. They couldn't all be possessed by demons. He imagined the real people cowering silently in their houses, not fully understanding how their once-friendly town had become a place of terror and mayhem, where once-trusted and reliable colleagues and neighbors had turned feral and unpredictable, throwing themselves off rooftops and murdering co-workers and friends. From the intel Sam had gathered, Lawrence had made the national news for its sudden uptick in unexplained deaths and murders. The FBI had been called in to investigate. Theories abounded about tainted water, a misdiagnosed virus, mass psychosis. Now Lawrence was in a state of lock-down, the mayor had declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard had been called in. A curfew was imposed.

But Sam could see no sign of National Guard or FBI presence. He wondered if they hadn't arrived yet, or if they had suddenly received orders not to come after all. Maybe the demon-possessed mayor had everything under control and called off all outside help.

A sudden cool breeze heralded the arrival of the storm just as Sam reached Jayhawk Boulevard. Here was the new science building where the experiments were happening, where a new crop of orphaned and abandoned children were receiving the "treatments" that plagued Sam's nightmares and real-life memories. He wondered if one of them would turn out like Sam one day, ready to embrace his or her dark destiny. It made Sam wonder if there were others, children like him who had been born with special abilities, whose natural talents had been enhanced by demon-blood and "treatments," children who were adults now, some Sam's age, some fifteen or thirty years older.

You're the only one, Sam, the familiar voice of John Winchester spoke suddenly in his head, making Sam jump. You're my favorite.

Sam immediately closed his mind, filling it with thoughts of puppies and rainbows, as he'd been taught to do when he wanted to shield himself from another psychic.

John's laughter boomed in his head, echoing, as if he was standing in a large, empty room, inside Sam's head.

You can't keep me out, Sam, the voice purred. I made you. I'm inside you, flowing in your veins. I'm already part of you.

"No," Sam muttered out-loud, shaking his head as if he could physically eject the voice. "You're not."

Rationally, Sam knew the voice wasn't part of him; the demon was projecting its voice into Sam's head, a trick Sam had learned could be used to persuade others. It worked particularly well on people who didn't have a strong sense of themselves to begin with, who welcomed the voice in their heads that told them how to think, how to behave, what to do.

Sam had only ever practiced this particular skill on a bullying older foster-brother when he was a kid, convincing the boy to burn his entire collection of girly magazines in the back-yard one afternoon. It hadn't been as satisfying as Sam had hoped, making someone do something they didn't want to do. In fact, it had made Sam feel like the creep everyone already said he was, and he'd never used the ability again.

The skies opened as Sam crossed the street to the Natural History Museum and slowly climbed the stairs. He was soaked by the time he reached the doors, and he took a deep breath before reaching for the handle of the nearest one.

The door moved inward of its own accord, revealing the dimly-lit lobby within, silent as a tomb.

Sam's heart was racing and his palms were as wet as the rest of him as he stepped across the threshold into the building. Immediately, the rush and roar of the thunder and pouring rain were muted, the outside world subsumed by the oppressive air within, the air thick with power. A feeling of dark malevolence crept up Sam's spine, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. A single light glowed, dispelling not even a little of the gloom of the empty lobby, an exit sign shining its cold blue florescence into the dark space.

"Heya, Sammy," a familiar voice sounded from the shadows at the other end of the room. Sam turned his head toward the sound, saw two yellow lights shining in the darkness there. Eyes, Sam realized. Shining, cold, yellow eyes.

Sam stiffened, pulled himself up to his full height, and clenched his fists. He cleared his throat, determined to speak aloud. "Well? I'm here."

"Yes," the voice agreed, and Sam watched in trepidation as the creature stepped forward, into the dim emergency lighting. "Yes, you are."

The power's out, Sam realized. That's why there's no lights anywhere.

Azazel sucked in a long breath, and Sam could see him now, could see John Winchester's familiar form and face, eyes glowing with that eerie yellow light.

"Almost Biblical," the demon said nonsensically. "I am that I am. And here you are, Sam-I-am."

"So what do you want?" Sam demanded, pushing down the fear niggling at the back of his skull.

The demon smiled, and it was John's smile, but it wasn't. It made Sam's skin crawl.

"Come here, son," the demon said, sounding suddenly like John, and Sam knew that was deliberate. "Let me show you something." The demon turned, gesturing toward the shadows, and Sam felt sure he was about to meet his own death.

The demon shook his head, and Sam could tell it had heard his thought. "If I had wanted to kill you, you'd be dead by now, Sam," it said softly. "Now come let me show you something."

The demon turned, disappeared into the shadows, and Sam followed. When he almost reached the darkness, he realized there was another glowing light coming from the room beyond, and that room was larger, the ceiling reaching up at least two or three floors over his head.

Sam was aware of the front door closing with an echo of finality behind him, and he was certain the door was locked and that he was trapped. At the same time he noticed that the second room held the skeleton of a dinosaur, and he tried to focus on the sight to keep his panic at bay.

"Your daddy used to bring you and your brother here as kids," the demon said. "Remember? You loved it here."

Sam grit his teeth, rage flooding his senses as he recalled the dream-memory Azazel referred to. "Stay out of my head!" he hissed. "Those memories aren't real!"

"You sure about that, Sammy?" Azazel lifted an eyebrow, smiled at him with John's dimpled grin. "They seemed pretty real when you were a kid. It got to be a real problem for us, as a matter of fact. Your imagination got in the way of the work we were trying to do. The enhancements we were working on for you."

"So you cut it out," Sam accused. "You ripped out part of my mind. My dream-memories."

"No," the demon shook his head. "We tried, but we couldn't remove those memories. You buried them, to protect them from us. They're still there. It's all still there. That's what makes you strong, Sam. That's what makes you special."

"I don't understand," Sam shook his head. "What do you want?"

Azazel smiled, but instead of answering, he turned and gestured to the dinosaur, which must have been a mosasaur in life.

"These monsters ruled the seas, sixty million years ago," he said. "Back then, Kansas was under water, and these babies swam all over this area, eating each other. Then, in a little less than a hundred years or so, they were all gone. Just like that. Just winked out of existence. Like somebody decided one day that their time was up. And on the basis of that thought, that one idea, an entire species disappeared.""

"It was completely random," Sam protested. "Just a random astronomical event."

"You sure about that, Sam?" Azazel said. "No forethought involved? No intelligence? No destiny?"

Sam huffed out a breath. "You're suggesting...You're saying there's a God." Sam shook his head. "I don't believe that."

"I'm saying, it's possible to wipe out an entire species with nothing more than a thought," Azazel said quietly. "I'm saying, that kind of power exists. And I think you have it."

Sam flinched involuntarily as something clicked inside his brain. What Azazel said couldn't be true, didn't even make sense, but something in Sam resonated when he heard the words, like a switch had been turned on inside him. He felt a kind of low-level pressure in the left temporal lobe of his brain, a sound like a hum vibrating at a steady frequency. He could feel heat spreading out from that area of his brain, getting warmer as it grew.

"You can feel it, can't you?" Azazel said, staring keenly at Sam, and Sam could feel the demon's mind pushing into his, seeking out the source of the warmth in his brain.

"Get out of my head!" Sam exclaimed, slamming up every invisible wall he could muster.

"I can help you harness that power, Sam," Azazel said, John's deep voice resonating with command and persuasion. "You can do great things, change the world, just like we promised when you were a kid."

"By exterminating the human race?" Sam cried over the humming in his head. It was getting louder, and he pressed his hand to his temple in an attempt to stifle it. "Like the dinosaurs? Just rub us all off the face of the earth?"

"That might be a good start," Azazel nodded. "Mankind has kind of had its day, wouldn't you agree? Time's just about up, I'd say. Time for a new race to take over the shop for awhile."

"What? Demons?" Sam almost shouted over the noise. "Is that it? You really want to give the planet to a bunch of hell-spawn? You think demons could do a better job taking care of the Earth?"

"Couldn't do much worse," Azazel shrugged. "Don't underestimate us, Sam. Most demons are dying for a chance to redeem themselves. Why do you think they love being topside so much?"

"Uh -- because they live to torture people?" Sam snarked, rubbing his head, starting to wonder if he could contain whatever was happening inside him.

"Wrong!" Azazel said. "They torture humans because they're consumed with jealousy. You people have all the opportunities, all the possibilities still ahead of you, but you squander then every damn time! Demons have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Hell is a horrible, horrible place, Sam. You really never, ever want to go there, and you sure want to get out if you do. Most demons are willing to do whatever it takes to get topside, even if it means turning over a new leaf. Putting aside their vices and crimes to do good in the world."

"I don't believe you," Sam growled. "Demons are evil. They don't know how to be anything else."

"Most demons are human souls, Sam," Azazel said with what almost looked like sorrow. "They've become so twisted and tortured they're no longer human, but they remember. They remember how it felt to be loved, to have someone care for them, to do something good for someone else. After millennia in hell, they're desperate for change. For redemption."

"No," Sam shook his head, shocked. "That can't be true. Demons aren't human!"

Azazel grinned, perfect white teeth gleaming in the dim light, and Sam had a moment to consider that John Winchester must've had good dental care growing up. Must've had someone who loved him enough to take care of him, to get him to regular dental check-ups.

More than Sam or Dean ever had.

Strange that John never talked about his childhood, that Sam couldn't remember any grandparents or aunts and uncles or cousins in his elaborate, vivid dream-memories. It'd always been just the four of them.

But of course Sam didn't remember much about John and Mary, either. The memories he had were almost all of Dean. Even though he was peripherally aware of their parents, Sam had no specific memories of either of them. That was just the way memory worked, he'd decided. The most important things were front and center, and the rest was off to the side, taken for granted, part of the background.

"Get out of my dad," Sam hissed, the humming in his head making it hard to concentrate. "Get out and leave him alone."

"No can do, Sammy. Not until I have your word you'll do as I ask," Azazel shook his head.

"You need my permission?" Sam cried. "I thought you were a demon! I thought you could just take what you want! Possess me, take whatever power is inside me and use it yourself."

Azazel shook his head impatiently. "I wish I could, Sammy, but it doesn't work that way. Your power is something only you can use. I can help you, but I can't do it for you. You have to agree of your own free will."

Sam stared, overwhelmed by this new information. His ability wasn't just demon-made. However much Azazel had enhanced his power with demon-blood and whatever else, it was still his. Sam's. Azazel couldn't just take it from him.

He had a choice. None of this was inevitable after all.

As soon as Sam understood this, he knew it was true. He felt stupid because it should have been obvious to him from the beginning. It was what Missouri had told him, but he hadn't believed her. He'd been so sure that the darkness inside him was evil, that it had caused the deaths of people he cared about, that it had corrupted Dean. He'd believed that it would consume him, eventually.

But the truth was that it could only consume him if he let it. It wasn't inherently evil at all. It was just that strange place inside him that was part of who he was, that was dark not because it was evil or impure, but because it was a mystery. Unknown.

"Then my answer is no." Sam drew himself up, struggling to ignore the pounding hum in his head. He squared his shoulders, clenched his jaw and his fists, and stood tall, shaking only a little because this was it. Now Azazel would kill him, move on to the next batch of kids. Find someone else. "I won't do it. And I know – I know my dad wouldn't want me to give in to you, ever, so I'm pretty sure he's okay with that."

For a brief moment, Sam could see the rage and raw frustration in Azazel's face – John's face. Then he schooled his features again, raised his eyebrows, and looked almost sympathetic.

"Poor little Sammy," he said softly. "Always so sensitive. You think your daddy loves you?" He shook his head sadly. "He thinks you're a monster, Sam. He thinks you're already one of us, and if I ever gave him his freedom again, about the first thing he'd do is kill you. Especially after what you've done to his son."

Sam sucked in a breath, shaken to the core but not surprised. He looked down at his feet, aware for the first time of other demons in the room, hovering just out of sight in the shadows, breathing in their borrowed bodies.

"If that's what he thinks, I probably can't convince him otherwise," Sam said quietly, his voice only shaking a little. "But I know him well enough to know that he would never want this. And Dad, if you can hear me, if it means anything to you, I never meant to hurt Dean. And if you can believe I'm still your son, then you know I'm every bit as stubborn as you are, and I'm not letting this evil so-of-a-bitch manipulate me. You hear me? He can't have me! I've made my choice, Dad, and I'm sticking to it! I won't do it! I – "

Sam's voice stopped mid-shout as Azazel raised his hand. Just stopped, like the hand had pinched off his vocal chords. Sam put his hands to his throat, struggled to make a sound, but nothing was coming out. It didn't hurt, it wasn't like he couldn't breathe, but the sound was just gone.

Azazel was glaring intently at Sam, and once he had his attention again he shook his head, lowered his hand.

"Such courage in the face of certain defeat," he commented. "Daddy doesn't give a shit, of course, still thinks you're a sick little freak. Wishes he'd killed you when he first had the chance. But he really doesn't matter anyway, does he, Sam? You never cared much for John Winchester. If I snapped his neck right now, I doubt you'd even mourn him much."

Azazel turned away, but Sam caught the cunning gleam in his eye, and it made his blood run cold. It didn't matter that Azazel knew how he felt about John; he just hated that the demon could read him so well in the first place.

"You might not miss daddy dearest much," the demon continued. "But I know someone who would." Azazel nodded at someone in the shadows, and Sam heard a scuffling noise, a familiar grunt of protest as two demons stepped forward, holding a bound and gagged figure between them.

Dean.

His brother's wide-eyed look of horror and desperation when he saw his father's face with its glowing yellow eyes was something Sam felt sure he could live the rest of his life not seeing. It brought tears to Sam's eyes, made despair flow through his veins. And when Dean turned his accusing gaze on Sam, those huge, expressive eyes begging Sam to fix this, to do whatever it took to save their dad, Sam was flooded with shame. He wondered how much Dean had heard about how willing Sam had been to throw John's life away, Azazel giving Dean the chance to see just how little John meant to Sam.

Or at least, that's how Sam imagined it felt to Dean.

"So, how're we doing now, Sammy?" Azazel's insinuating voice cut through Sam's shock and guilt like a knife. "Are we having fun yet?"

Sam's vocal chords were still clamped, and when he tried to move he realized his whole body was caught in a psychic vice, frozen in place. He watched helplessly as Azazel closed in on Dean, John's face adopting a look of fond adoration. He stepped close, right into Dean's personal space, and lifted a hand, still gazing down into Dean's face from his slight height advantage. Dean glared back, tears glistening in his eyes as the demons which had been holding him drew back, leaving Azazel alone with Sam's brother.

Azazel made a little gesture and the gag and bindings holding Dean's arms behind his back fell away, but Dean was still frozen and unmoving, staring up at Azazel as the demon cupped his face, almost gentle.

"So beautiful," Azazel breathed. "I can see what Sam sees in you, for sure. There's an innocence and goodness in you, isn't there? No amount of killing or corruption can really touch that."

Azazel turned to Sam, still holding Dean's face. "You've chosen well, my son," he nodded approvingly at Sam, who clenched his jaw and renewed his efforts to break free.

Loving Dean was never a choice, Sam's inner voice retorted.

"It'd be a shame to mar these lovely features," Azazel murmured, dragging his fingers down Dean's cheek, over his lips and chin, wrapping his hand around Dean's exposed throat.

Sam struggled to focus the pressure in his head, clenching his fists, his toes, testing the limits of Azazel's hold as the demon leaned in, nosing along the side of Dean's face, taking deep breaths of Dean's heady scent. Sam knew that scent, knew it was probably tinged with rage and fear right now as Azazel pressed his lips to Dean's cheek, then the corner of his mouth. Dean squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his jaw, his throat working under Azazel's hand – John's hand – as he struggled to break free. When Azazel pressed his lips against Dean's, the younger man's eyes flew open, and Sam flinched at the horror and grief he read there.

"Mmmm, so sweet," Azazel murmured as he kissed Dean's unresponsive lips. "Like honey. Such a good boy for Daddy. I bet you'd be all pliant and obedient for me, wouldn't you, Dean-o?"

"Get off him!" Sam burst out, and Azazel turned his head, keeping his hand on Dean's throat as he smirked at Sam.

"That a-boy," the demon hissed. "There's that fighting spirit!" He grinned wide as he hit Sam with another wave of power, momentarily cutting off Sam's airflow and silencing his vocal chords again.

Sam closed his eyes, concentrated on loosening each muscle from Azazel's psychic grasp. He was shaking with the effort; when he heard Dean's stifled whimper as the demon began kissing him again, something snapped in Sam and he gasped, eyes flying open in time to see Azazel running his hand down Dean's chest, over his stomach, slowly making its way down over the front of Dean's denim-covered crotch. The demon had one hand behind Dean's neck, holding his head while Azazel french-kissed John's son with John's tongue, squeezing between Dean's legs with John's other hand.

"What d'ya say, Sammy?" the demon panted as he tore his mouth away from Dean's for a moment, turning his grizzled cheek against Dean's swollen lips, rubbing them with John's whiskers. "You wanna watch your father fuck your brother? Huh? Before I kill them both? Or should we skip the fun and go straight to the painful part?"

Sam renewed his struggles, groaning with effort, and Azazel laughed cruelly. "Does this turn you on, Sammy? Your father thinks it does. He thinks you're probably hard as a rock right now, watching him fondle his first-born, watching little Dean-o give it up to Daddy like the dirty little whore he's always been. Isn't that right, Sammy? We could probably take him together, couldn't we? I could make him suck Daddy's cock while you fuck him. Then we could switch! What do you say? Huh?"

The humming in Sam's head had reached epic proportions, to the point where he could barely hear the demon's taunting voice. His vision had started to blur, and all he could see was Dean's face, the tears running out of his closed eyes, down his tipped-up cheeks and into his ears. Dean's chest heaved with his efforts to escape Azazel's hold on him, and Sam could see his puffy, reddened lips trembling, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

Then Sam's vision clouded over, pin-pricks of light dancing in the darkness in front of his eyes, exploding like fireworks at the edges of his sight. He felt something pushing against his muscles, something else reaching tentacle-like into his mind, and he visualized grabbing onto it, pushing back. His muscles tensed with the effort, but it wasn't merely physical; he was pushing on something that felt real but also immaterial, like a magnetic field that responded to his movements with counter-movements, pushing back with a force equal to the one he used against it.

When he realized he could gather enough strength at one point to push the entire forcefield off of him, Sam was flooded with sheer adrenaline. It was easy, he realized. All it took to free himself was to focus that strength on each point at the same time, or at least almost simultaneously, the way a bed-sheet hanging on a line rippled when a breeze struck.

It only took a split second, then Sam was free, gasping and flexing his muscles as he stumbled backwards, blinking at Azazel as he became aware of the room again. Azazel was stumbling too, a look of shock and rage on John's handsome face as he stared first at Sam, then at Dean, who was free as well. Sam had only a second to wonder if he'd managed to somehow free them both, then Dean was throwing himself at the demon possessing his father, fists flying, grabbing and shaking him, growling and snarling like a junkyard dog.

"Get out of my dad, you son-of-a-bitch!" Dean cried, choking on the words, which is how Sam realized Dean was sobbing, tears streaming down his cheeks, nearly blinding him.

Sam reacted instinctively, reaching for Dean while chasing after the demon's field of telekinetic power with his mind, grabbing at it as Dean clutched the front of his father's jacket, fist making contact with John's jaw in a solid punch.

For a moment, Sam thought they'd won. He could feel Azazel's confusion and surprise. He could feel something even deeper and more pungent, something that felt almost like fear.

But before Sam could claim a moment's triumph, the demon regained its wits. With a power so savage and sudden Sam hardly saw it coming he was thrown backwards across the room, slamming into a concrete pillar with such force he felt something crack. His skull, probably, he thought dully as he struggled against the demon's renewed power, holding him tighter this time, sealing up any gaps in the pressure so that every inch of Sam's skin tingled with a magnetic force that was pressed so tightly against him as to be almost painful.

He could move only his eyeballs this time, so that he had to witness everything in vivid detail as Azazel took his rage out on Dean, telekinetically slamming him to the floor, then ripping into his chest through his clothes, making Dean scream as rivulets of blood spurted forth in perfect rows, soaking the remains of his tee-shirt as Azazel railed and snarled his frustration.

"You think you can fight me? You think you can take me on? Huh? Pathetic little shit. Now you die painfully. Now you can show your brother exactly what's in store for him if he doesn't get off his high horse and get with the fuckin' program."

Dean screamed again, back arching off the ground as invisible claws ripped into his chest, as invisible hands closed around his exposed throat and squeezed.

"No!"

From deep down inside him, Sam felt Dean's life waning. He could feel it like it was his own life force slipping away, like it was his own soul getting ready to depart, and everything in Sam protested. Violently. Viscerally. His consciousness drew back inside himself, away from the agonizing screams of the man who was more than just his brother, more than just his lover. In that moment, Sam's consciousness narrowed down to one single thought, one singular idea.

Sam couldn't let Dean leave him. Dean must stay. He couldn't go.

The moment the idea coalesced in Sam's mind, it became something physical, and Sam both understood that and didn't know what it meant at the same time. All he was aware of was that something was different now because that's the way it had to be. Dean couldn't not exist because he was part of Sam. Dean couldn't die.

For Sam, it was as if the air in the room had been sucked out. He couldn't breathe, and his brain reacted to being deprived of oxygen by shutting down, by flashing images in front of him that Sam remembered from earlier days: Dean laughing at him as Sam missed the ball Dean pitched when he was four. Dean helping him blow the candles out on his birthday cake when he was five. Dean jumping from the swing and Sam too afraid to follow until Dean held his arms out and promised to catch him. Dean snuggled up behind him on the sled, holding Sam tight against his chest as they raced down a snowy hill, cold wind biting their cheeks, making their eyes sting. Dean right there in the front row as Sam won his first debate for the speech team in eighth grade, leading a standing ovation of one. Dean jumping to his feet when Sam crossed the stage to accept his diploma.

Dean lying in bed, bare to the waist and covered only in a sheet, blinking up at him with sleep-mussed hair and a crooked grin. Dean in the driver's seat, glancing over at him, face breaking into a smile just for Sam, just because Sam always made him smile and Sam knew it.

The images played faster and faster in front of him, reality overlapping with memories from his dream-life until they flowed seamlessly, until there was nothing to separate them at all. Then Sam realized the sound was off and the images were becoming smaller, farther away, surrounded by more and more darkness until they were no bigger than a bottle cap, till he had to squint. Then, with a final impression of something being squeezed into a hole or sucked down a drain, they were gone.

Chapter Text

For a moment, all was darkness. But Sam barely had time to consider that he might be dead when a bright light appeared like an explosion, startling him and making him jump. Sound rushed in, too loud and chaotic for Sam to process at first, but quickly becoming distinguishable as voices, as feet walking on uncarpeted floors, as metal doors clanging. The bright light began to fade to shapes and colors, then figures and objects appeared and Sam realized he was still standing in the dinosaur room at the Natural History Museum, but everything was different.

For one, the lights were on. People milled about like they were just here on a casual sight-seeing visit, like it was a normal afternoon on a normal day. Sam turned, made brief eye-contact with a security guard standing at the door to the lobby, but there was nothing demonic about him. He was human, as were all the other people here. No demons anywhere, no sign of Azazel.

"Sam!"

Sam whirled toward the familiar voice and there was Dean, running toward him from the other side of the room. He was whole and unbloodied and very much alive, and Sam didn't even feel himself moving forward, meeting his brother halfway, bodies crashing together in a tight hug, tight enough to feel each other's hearts pounding in their chests. They held each other for so long Sam sensed the security guard growing restless. Sam turned his face into Dean's hair, breathing deep as he could feel Dean doing in his shoulder, eyes closed, shaking with relief. Then Sam had to see, and Dean must've had the same thought because their hands were moving, seeking injuries. Sam cupped Dean's head, peering down into his face where there was no sign of bruising, then Sam stepped back so he could look down at Dean's chest, laying his hand there to convince himself that Dean's wounds were gone.

Not just healed, but gone. As if they'd never existed. As if they'd never happened in the first place.

Sam touched his own torso, then pulled up his tee-shirt to find nothing but smooth, bare skin, a little more tan than usual, especially against Dean's pale hand as Dean examined the site of the wound he had stitched and dressed not one week before.

"What the hell just happened?"

Dean said it first, but Sam was thinking it, too.

"I don't know," Sam answered truthfully.

"Hey, you boys can't do that in here," the security guard called out, and Sam realized how intimate they were, practically undressing each other in their haste to be sure the other one was all right, hands all over each other's exposed skin. They weren't kissing, or even embracing at that point, but they might as well be for the way they were touching each other. It probably looked like they were feeling each other up.

Which wouldn't be far off, of course. Sam's relief was palpable, and he knew Dean's was, too, and if they'd been alone right now, with or without a bed, he felt sure they would have expressed exactly how grateful they were to be alive in the most intimate way possible.

So yeah, the security guard had the right to ask them to leave.

The lobby was full of people, families mostly, all going about the business of enjoying a day at the museum. Sam and Dean staggered out the open front doors into the almost-blinding sunlight of an early spring afternoon, holding onto each other as they stumbled down the front steps, literally dazed and confused. The scene outside was just as normal, with students lying out on the lawn, reading or just basking in the sun. Cars moved on the avenue, people walked along the sidewalks. There were no demons, no smell of sulfur, no black-eyed humans, no sign of the storm that had been raging when Sam entered the museum less than an hour before.

They found the Impala parked two blocks away, on a side-street on the way to their family home. They started walking that way by mutual agreement, without speaking a word, but when Dean saw the car he was visibly relieved.

"Ah, baby, thank God you made it," he breathed as he ran his hands over the hood, along the roof.

"Isn't this where you left her?" Sam asked as he pulled the passenger door open.

"Sam, the last thing I remember after you hit me in that motel room is waking up in the trunk of some demon's car with the stink of sulfur in my lungs and a gag in my mouth," Dean growled as he cranked the ignition.

"Sorry about that," Sam murmured, immediately contrite. He couldn't remember now why he thought it had been a good idea to leave Dean behind in the first place.

"Yeah, well, just make sure it never happens again," Dean echoed Sam's thoughts, and Sam nodded.

They decided to pretend they were on a case, starting their investigation with the new science building. None of the research assistants they spoke to had ever heard of any experiments involving children.

"Trials using kids are illegal anyway," one of them said, as if that should be obvious. All of the staff and students were human, according to Sam's spidey-sense, as Dean called Sam's ability to sense demons. The place was as clean as the rest of the campus, no sign of having been overrun by anything supernatural anywhere, no kidnapped children to rescue.

Dean wasn't quite ready to call John, and Sam respected that; he understood that it might take a while before Dean was prepared to hear John's voice again. They drove by the old house, but there were clearly people living there now. A man was mowing the lawn, a child's tricycle sat in the driveway, two boys were tossing a ball around in the yard next door. Then Dean called Bobby, who seemed surprised to hear from them.

"I thought you boys were still in California," he said, and Dean breathed out a sigh of relief.

"We heard there was some demon activity in Lawrence," Dean suggested.

"Lawrence, Kansas?" Bobby sounded surprised. "First I've heard o' that. What've ya got?"

Dean exchanged glances with Sam, who shrugged and started to chew on his bottom lip.

"Nothin', I guess," Dean said into the phone. "I guess we got nothin' after all."

"Hey, you boys might want to call your dad," Bobby said. "Bastard's been calling here looking for you, like I got you two on a leash or somethin'. Like I'm the one who's the father. Asshole. Sorry. I'm not too good with the whole absentee dad thing."

"It's okay, Bobby," Dean murmured, and Sam could see him starting to choke up so he reached for the phone, pulled it away from Dean's trembling fingers.

Bobby confirmed that John was fine, as far as he knew. Not that he cared, but that was beside the point. John Winchester hadn't disappeared. Wasn't possessed by a master demon, much less the one that had killed his wife.

They spoke another minute or two and Bobby confirmed that no demon activity had been reported anywhere in the country for years. Bobby didn't even seem to remember the demon he trapped in his basement when Sam was fifteen, or the one before that when Sam had been rescued from the warehouse fire.

It was when Bobby acted like he had no memory of that fire, in which hunters had stormed a training facility full of shape-shifters, that Sam realized things were weirder than he had thought.

Sam had to make one more call before he let another minute go by.

"Hello? Sam?" the familiar female voice rang in his ears like the clearest bell, the purest music.

"Hey, Jess," Sam choked out, his voice breaking as a lump rose in his throat and his eyes teared up.

"Sam? Are you okay?" Jessica sounded concerned, ever the sensitive, caring friend, and Sam took a deep breath, steadied himself.

Thank you, he said silently, sending out a prayer of gratitude, just in case someone was listening.

Once Sam had established that Jessica was, in fact, fine and studying for final exams in her dorm room as any normal college sophomore should be doing at this time of year, he dared to ask about Brady and discovered that he, too, was fine. Not behaving abnormally. Not possessed. Not dead.

Jessica seemed surprised when Sam asked about her family. "Everybody's fine," she insisted, bewildered. "They're looking forward to seeing you and Dean when you take me home this summer. You're still planning to do that, right?"

"Yes. Absolutely," Sam lied to mask his own confusion and relief.

Dean was anxious to get out of Lawrence at that point, since there was clearly no case for them there after all, and he wanted to put as much distance between them and this place of horror and tragedy as they possibly could. But Sam insisted they stop to make sure Missouri was okay.

She didn't seem to recognize them. It was weird, having to introduce themselves to someone Sam had thought of as a close friend for years, and she picked up on that right away.

"I'm not who you thought I'd be," she noted as she led them inside to her sitting room. "You were expecting someone else."

"Not exactly," Sam said. "It's just – this is going to sound really weird, but you kinda saved my life seven years ago."

"Well, I don't see many children in my business," Missouri said. "And seeing as how you can't be more than sixteen right now..."

"I'm nineteen," Sam corrected her.

"Actually, I think you just had your birthday, so you're twenty," Dean corrected, and Sam glanced up at the calendar on Missouri's wall. May, 2003.

"Why don't you boys tell me why you're here," Missouri suggested. "I could guess, but I'm pretty sure you already know how you feel about each other, so you're not here for advice on your love lives."

"No, ma'am," Dean shook his head. "We've got that straight."

"Well, not exactly straight..." Sam snickered, and Dean turned halfway around on the couch to stare at him.

"Did you just make a joke?" Dean asked, feigning shock. "Did I hear right? Did Sam Winchester just make a joke?"

"Shut up," Sam groused, grinning ear-to-ear because he couldn't help himself. "You're an idiot."

"Oh no, I am not letting that go," Dean bumped Sam's shoulder a little too hard, so Sam bumped him back, even harder, making Dean reach out to catch himself on the arm of the couch as Sam snickered again.

Missouri rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. "All right, so it's not about love," she said. "Money? I'm sensing one of you has a promising future as a fancy-pants lawyer, if you play your cards right."

"Him," Dean cocked his thumb at Sam, and Missouri nodded.

"All right then, so what do you need from me? It sounds like you two have it all figured out."

Sam decided the best approach was the most direct, so he got right down to it.

"Do you think it's possible to alter reality?" he asked, throwing out the question he'd been asking himself since shortly after he and Dean left the museum. "I mean, one minute you're living a certain life, and the next minute things are different? Not everything, but maybe a few key details?"

"How do you mean, different?" Missouri looked decidedly uncomfortable suddenly.

"Well, for example, old friends don't remember you," Sam said gently. "Other friends who were – who had died, for example, are alive again."

Missouri frowned, shook her head a little as if she was trying to clear it. "That's not really what I do," she said. "What you're talking about's a little over my pay-grade. You got a question like that, seems to me you need to talk to somebody who teaches theoretical physics at the University, not some old palm-reader like me."

"You're not just a palm-reader," Sam smiled. "I know you as a powerful psychic."

Missouri shook her head vigorously, got up as if she'd just seen a ghost, busied herself clearing dishes and rubbing her hands on a towel. "I don't know what you're talking about," she muttered, eyes flicking nervously between Sam and Dean, not really looking at either of them. "I'm just a simple palm-reader. I read minds, help people with their problems, help with the occasional spirit-cleansing. Just like it says in the book." She gestured at the telephone book on her coffee-table.

Sam could see he'd pushed her too far; she looked spooked, and although Sam suspected there were things she knew, things she could sense about them that she wouldn't tell them, he understood that he couldn't demand her confidence. Missouri – his Missouri – had placed her trust in a twelve-year-old boy, had been a kind of substitute mother to him, helping him grow up and face the challenges of being a psychic and a hunter. She had helped him deal with his past, with the violation that had happened when he was a baby, with his complicated and inappropriate feelings for his brother.

This woman didn't remember any of that. She'd never done any of it, hadn't become the woman who helped raise a troubled boy whose special gifts she had long ago learned to accept. This woman looked at him with anxiety and more than a little fear. She could tell he was powerful, and it scared her. When Sam and Dean rose to go, Sam knew he couldn't give her the hug he wanted to, couldn't shower her with the love and appreciation he felt for all she had done for him. He didn't want to make her uncomfortable.

But on the front steps she reached out and touched his arm.

"You're welcome," she said, then shook her head as Sam turned to face her again. "I'm sorry I don't know what I did for you, but I can see you have a pure heart, Sam. As long as you keep that boy by your side, you're gonna be just fine."

"Yes, ma'am," Sam nodded, glancing over his shoulder at Dean.

Back in the car, Sam was silent for so long that he almost jumped when Dean put his hand on Sam's knee and squeezed.

"No more brooding, okay?" he said, and Sam blinked, then glanced at his brother's profile before turning his attention to the road in front of him. It had grown dark and Sam hadn't even noticed. "Whatever happened back there, I'm taking it as a win, okay? Just so we're clear."

Sam took a deep breath and nodded. Despite the sadness in his chest when he thought about Missouri, he knew Dean was right.

"So you think you did that?" Dean continued. "Altered reality or whatever?"

"I don't know," Sam admitted. "Maybe."

"And nobody else knows, right? Just you and me?"

"I guess," Sam sighed. "I guess it's just us."

"Huh," Dean nodded.

"So where are we headed?" Sam asked, realizing for the first time that he'd never asked. Just being in the car with Dean felt so good, so right, it didn't seem to matter where they were going.

"Home, I guess," Dean shrugged. "I mean, temporary home. Apparently I moved out to California with you after all."

Sam blinked, glanced at Dean's profile. "You did?" he said. "How do you know?"

Dean rattled the key chain in the ignition. "Apartment key," he noted. "Plus, I remember doing it."

Sam frowned. "You remember? How do you remember something that never happened?"

Dean cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck before answering. "Well obviously it did happen, Sam, since I've got the key."

Sam stared at the offending piece of metal for a moment, then shook his head. "I don't remember that," he stated flatly, tingles running up his spine. "How can you remember something I don't?"

Dean shrugged. "Same way you remember stuff I don't," he suggested. "Like you and me growing up together in the house in Lawrence."

Sam shook his head. "This is gonna make us crazy," he said.

"Agreed," Dean said quickly. "I say we stop somewhere and get drunk. Forget the whole thing."

And Sam had to admit that sounded like a pretty good idea right about now.

So they pulled into the Lazy Pines Motel because it had internet service and Sam needed to research all the differences in the timelines, just to make sure most major events had happened in the same way here. While he was working, Dean went out to find food and a liquor store and came back with enough booze to kill a small army. Sam said nothing because after what had almost happened back in Lawrence he figured Dean deserved to get just as drunk as he possibly could. And when at a certain point Dean pulled the laptop away and climbed onto Sam's lap, breath smelling like whiskey as he straddled the chair and pulled his tee-shirt off over his head, exposing his flawless pale chest, free of scars and sprinkled with freckles, Sam wasn't arguing that either.

"You sure?" Sam asked as he ran his hands up over Dean's strong back, relishing the feel of the smooth, warm skin.

"We do this all the time," Dean said. "I remember." He dipped his head and touched his lips to Sam's, sliding one hand into Sam's hair so he could hold his head the way he wanted. It felt good, and Sam hardened immediately, settled his hands on Dean's hips to pull him closer.

"What do you remember?" Sam gasped as Dean kissed across his cheek to his ear.

"Everything," Dean breathed, letting his tongue swipe along the shell of Sam's ear. "I remember growing up together, after Mom died."

"Wait, what?" The blood was rushing south pretty fast, given the way Dean was lap dancing, grinding his crotch against Sam's. But Sam was pretty sure Dean had just said something kind of important, and he probably needed to figure it out.

"Uh-huh." Dean grabbed one of Sam's hands, rubbed Sam's thumb over his own nipple and moaned wantonly. "I've got two sets of memories now, just like you."

Sam opened his mouth to ask another question and Dean kissed him, plunging his tongue inside while rubbing his nipple over Sam's hand until Sam got with the program and pinched it, making Dean gasp and pull back.

"Fuck, Sam," he breathed as he ground down on Sam's dick, the denim between them creating just enough friction to keep Sam on the edge. "Need you to fuck me."

Dean kissed him hard and deep again, grinding and undulating in Sam's lap, spreading himself open, gasping as Sam continued to roll Dean's nipple between his thumb and forefinger. Sam slid his other hand down Dean's back to his ass, sliding his long middle finger down Dean's crack, rubbing at his hole through his jeans.

"You sure?" Sam asked again when Dean came up for air, panting as he pushed back against Sam's finger.

"Oh yeah," Dean moaned as he kissed along Sam's cheek, tipped Sam's head back so he could suck and kiss Sam's neck. "Need to forget. Need you to make me forget."

Sam swallowed convulsively against the lump in his throat, moved almost to tears despite his state of near total wanton depravity. Dean nipped Sam's adam's apple, then licked it to relieve the sting. Sam tipped Dean back, holding him with one arm around his back, the other spread across his ass as he stood up, staggering only a little under Dean's weight and the awkward angle. Dean wrapped his legs around Sam's waist and kept kissing his neck as Sam carried him to the bed and laid him down on his back.

"Off," Dean growled, tugging on Sam's shirts, and Sam stood back to undress, kicking off his shoes as he removed his shirts, watching Dean as he unbuckled his belt. Dean was already barefooted and belt-less, and when he unzipped his jeans and pushed them down off his hips Sam saw that he was bare there too. Sam watched Dean fist his own dick as Sam unzipped his jeans and pushed them down, letting his swollen dick bob free.

Dean licked his lips as he stared at Sam's cock, spreading his bow legs wider in blatant invitation.

"I swear you've grown again, Sam," he smirked as he stroked himself, and Sam flushed hot with embarrassment.

"You think you can take me, big brother?" he teased, stroking himself languidly, ducking his chin so he could look up at Dean from under his bangs.

"Oh, I know I can," Dean flirted back, reaching down between his spread legs to expose his hole, making Sam gasp. "Oh yeah. We do this all the time, according to my memories. Piece o' cake."

"Oh my God," Sam moaned, gripping himself and closing his eyes against the sight that nearly put an end to the game before it had started. Dean had always been beautiful to him, but this new vulnerability was strange and exciting at the same time. Until recently, Dean had been bigger as well as older, the big brother who was always in control, always the boss, and certainly always the top in their sex lives.

But in the last two years Sam had not only grown over Dean's head height-wise; he'd built more muscle, too. And even though they'd only had sex once in the past year that Sam could remember, it had been completely different from the times before that. Dean not only didn't mind that Sam was bigger now; he seemed to get off on it.

"Come on, Sam, what are you waiting for?" Dean panted, squirming as he pushed his fingers into his ass, opening himself up dry.

"Jesus, Dean. When did you start being such a bottom?"

"Shut up!" Dean growled, working his ass furiously. "I'm still a top! I just top from the bottom now."

"Oh yeah? I'd like to see that!"

So Dean showed him. He made Sam get the lube first, though, then he pushed Sam down onto his back on the bed and kissed him senseless, working himself open the whole time, slapping Sam's hands away when he tried to help.

"You just do that thing you do with those huge paws of yours, Sasquatch," Dean insisted, then showed Sam how well he liked to be touched, caressed, and massaged everywhere, especially his nipples and his ass.

Of course, most of this was familiar to Sam; he'd always known about Dean's erogenous zones, and he'd gotten pretty good at kissing and licking in all the right places. What was new was the way Sam's hands spanning Dean's ass or his back or chest was such a turn-on for them both.

It wasn't until he was balls deep in Dean's ass, with Dean writhing and panting on top of him, lips slack and slick with Sam's spit, eyes heavy-lidded and almost black with pleasure, that Sam understood.

It shocked him, and he knew instinctively it was something he would never, ever talk about with Dean. But there it was, obvious in a way that should have made Sam sick to his stomach, but that in fact only made him love Dean more. Dean had never felt loved by his father. He'd never felt good enough. He'd been abandoned emotionally by a father too obsessed with revenge to give his son the love and attention he craved, and as a result Dean had grown up looking for his absent father in every man he met.

Including Sam, now that he was a man, or at least now that he had outgrown his brother.

It made Sam ache to think how the demon must have read Dean's mind, must have known how badly Dean craved his father's love. That Azazel had used that knowledge to take advantage of Dean in the worst possible way just made Sam wish he could go back and kill Azazel all over again. Slowly. Painfully.

"Come here." Sam reached up, pulled Dean down so he could kiss him as he thrust up into his warm body, projecting as he did the acceptance and understanding he felt for his brother, needing Dean to feel it, hoping beyond hope that it could be enough, that Sam's love could compensate for all that lost father-love, all those years of loneliness and need.

"You're mine now, Dean," Sam murmured against Dean's ear as he thrust. "All mine. Always."

He felt Dean's body tense and go still, then he shuddered and gasped as he came, warm fluid between their stomachs.

"That's it, that's it. I gotcha," Sam murmured, and then he was releasing deep inside Dean's body, almost blacking out with the intensity of it as Dean collapsed on top of him, breathing hard.

They lay still for several minutes, dozing off and on. At some point Sam pulled himself out from underneath his brother, padded to the bathroom to clean up, brought a warm washcloth for Dean. The older Winchester was still dead to the world, but when Sam scooted in next to him, pushing him over so he could gently wash him off, Dean purred contentedly. He snuggled up against Sam afterwards, letting Sam put an arm around him as Dean lay his head on Sam's chest, pressing his ear over Sam's heart.

After a few minutes Sam assumed Dean had fallen asleep, so it surprised him when Dean spoke.

"I guess we're even now," he rumbled sleepily, and Sam tightened his arm around him, squeezed his shoulder.

"How so?"

"You remember us growing up together, and now I do, too," Dean murmured, and Sam could feel him smiling against his skin.

"Huh," Sam huffed out a breath. He made a mental note to ask Dean more about his new childhood "memories," feeling vaguely sad that they apparently didn't include a normal home and parents who loved him, like Sam's did.

"Sam?" Dean's cheek vibrated against Sam's chest. It tickled.

"Yeah?"

"You're sure he's dead, right?" Dean's voice was small, despite how deep it was.

Sam opened his eyes, stared blankly into the dark for a moment, remembering the moment when everything shifted. He remembered the feeling of suffocation and death, understood now that it wasn't his death he was feeling, nor Dean's.

"Yeah," Sam said softly. "Pretty sure."

"We need to tell Dad," Dean mumbled, relief making him sleepy.

Sam was silent for a moment, considering how the news would affect John, how it would take the wind out of his sails to find out the thing he spent Sam's entire lifetime hunting was already dead, killed by the child John had distrusted so much.

"Yeah," Sam agreed. "We'll leave him a voicemail."

Dean's lips touched Sam's skin, over his heart, and he snuggled closer against Sam's side, sliding one leg between Sam's so his dick pressed tight against Sam's hip.

"Okay," he breathed, and Sam sighed contentedly. "G'nite."

Sam turned his face into the top of Dean's head and breathed in again, closing his eyes as he hugged Dean, holding him close.

Never letting him go.

 

**//**

They talked about it in the weeks and months that followed, so that by the time John showed up at their door that summer, looking for their help on a routine ghost-hunt, they had their story nearly straight.

In this reality, Dean had carried Sam out of the house the night of the fire that killed their mom. The boys had been raised together, on the road with their dad, training to be hunters, in pursuit of the demon that killed their mother. They were each other's everything, and falling in love wasn't even a question, although Dean had insisted they wait to consummate the sexual part of their relationship until Sam was of age.

"So you knew we were brothers from the beginning, but you let the sex happen anyway?" Sam was flabbergasted. "All this time I thought you were freaked when you found out we were brothers, and in this time-line you were okay with it because you already knew? Do you realize how fucked up that is?"

Dean shrugged. "What can I tell you, Sam? It just wasn't as big of a deal in the other reality. In this reality, I mean. Whatever. Maybe it felt more normal, you know? I never got used to thinking we weren't related first."

"Huh." No, that really didn't make better sense, but Sam figured he should probably let it go, not try to think about it too hard. Eventually, maybe he'd even learn to get used to it.

They had a lot of these conversations at first, as Sam tried to piece together the differences, all the changes. It worried him for a while that Dean had changed, too, that in fact his Dean had ceased to exist and had been replaced by this Dean who had other memories, other scars, who really belonged in this time-line.

But Dean assured him that couldn't be true because he remembered things the other way, too.

"So in this timeline, nobody knew about the psychic thing, right? And it's still there," Sam said. "I mean, it's still part of us. We must have been such freaks, growing up."

Dean shook his head and explained that Sam's ability didn't manifest in this timeline until he hit puberty.

"Although you were always a dreamer," Dean said. "We both had a lot of weird dreams and nightmares growing up. Sleeping together helped, at least until it got awkward."

"I bet," Sam rolled his eyes, and Dean shoved him.

Sam tried to imagine how isolated their early lives must've been, how lonely, but Dean shook his head violently when Sam suggested that he must've been a burden to Dean.

"You were wicked smart, Sam," Dean insisted. "Dad left us alone a lot when we were little, and I mean a lot. Having you with me instead of being all alone like I was in the other timeline, man, that was way better. You can't even imagine how good that felt."

Sometimes, Sam got frustrated because he couldn't remember something like Dean did; he would find a picture of them together as children and wrack his brain as if he could force the memory to materialize. It was a kind of disability, having a life-time memory gap, and it made him crazy at times to think of all the pieces of himself that he could never recover. Being with Dean when he was five, for example; what was that like? How had that shaped the man he had become?

But of course Sam could remember being with Dean at that age; it was just a different memory than the one Dean had. A happier one, at least for him.

Dean worried that the timelines might shift again, that Sam would leave him, maybe to go back to that other timeline. But Sam was adamant that killing Azazel had destroyed that other reality. There was no going back. He didn't know how he knew, but he was sure about that. Sometimes he feared the possibility of doing it again, though, of something happening that might push that button in his brain and shift him into yet another reality.

He didn't mention his fears to Dean, though. He knew it would take something as drastic as Dean's impending death, or maybe his own, to cause that to happen, and he planned to do everything he could to keep them safe from now on.

And anyway, even if it happened again, Sam felt sure Dean would be right there with him, and ultimately that was all that mattered to him anyway.

It was weirdest when they spent time with Bobby or their dad, who shared Dean's memories but not Sam's. But of course Bobby was used to Sam being a little "off," and Dean filled in the details if necessary when he and Bobby talked about something that had happened in the past. Nevertheless, Sam missed the Bobby he remembered, who had spoken up for him when they first brought him home, who had been a staunch supporter and from whom they learned so much growing up. Who had known about Sam and Dean and their soul-bond, with all its intimate details. And sometimes he caught Bobby looking at him a little funny, like he could tell that Sam was different, that this wasn't the Sam he knew.

John was oblivious, of course. He surfaced periodically when he needed their help on a hunt, then disappeared for days, chasing some lead he didn't share with them. So, business as usual. He was still on his quest for vengeance, and Sam might've felt sorry for him if he didn't remember exactly what kind of bastard John Winchester could be. Dean insisted they try to explain what had happened, how they had killed the thing that killed their mother, hoping maybe that knowledge would bring John some peace. But of course John didn't believe them, couldn't imagine that they could accomplish something that John had spent the last twenty years pursuing. He wanted details, and Dean wouldn't let Sam reveal his psychic power to John, which told Sam just how much Dean trusted his father, even after all they'd been through.

Sam didn't care whether or not John knew he was a psychic freak, but the story of Azazel's death really wasn't his to tell. If Dean ever wanted to explain in detail to their dad exactly how the demon had died, that was up to him, not Sam.

Which meant, of course, that John would never know.

In some ways, it didn't matter anyway. John's whole identity was so invested in his quest that he would never give it up, even if Sam and Dean could produce evidence that Azazel was dead, which they couldn't really do. Besides, the world was still full of evil creatures that needed to be stopped, and John and his boys had their work cut out for them.

Dean hadn't had visions in this timeline, and Sam was just fine with that. Dean's memories of the past few years in this timeline were hazy and dream-like, just as Sam's were when he remembered his other childhood; he remembered growing up, moving with Sam to California, spending the past two years working odd jobs while Sam was in school. But the details just wouldn't come, and they finally decided it just wasn't that important. They both knew what had really happened that day in the Natural History Museum, and if the other timeline was a little shadowy, that didn't really matter.

Sam was so relieved to find Jessica alive in this timeline that he almost hugged the life out of her the first time he saw her. When she laughed at him and asked if he'd had another weird dream, his mouth fell open in shock, which made her laugh even harder.

"Oh my God, you should see your face!" she exclaimed delightedly. "I'm kidding! Jeez, Sam! You're always so sensitive about your psychic thing, but I think it's awesome. You know I do!"

Finding out that he had revealed the family secrets to Jess in this timeline was almost as weird as learning that he and Brady hadn't had sex after all.

"Not that I didn't think about it," Brady confided one night over beers. "But you had Dean. And that dude's got muscles, man. And moves!" He leaned close and whispered, "Jessica says he's got a gun. So nuh-uh. I'm not stupid."

"So you're my one and only," Sam shook his head that night when he and Dean were alone. "No one else ever touched this."

"Hmmm," Dean grinned as he snuggled up under Sam's bare, sweaty arm. "Just the way it should be."

And Sam had to agree with that. It wasn't perfect, and their lives would never be normal, of course, but Sam and Dean were making a way for themselves. Once Sam finished his bachelor's degree he could go on to law school, eventually forging a career that could give them a fall-back when they decided to stop hunting altogether.

Or maybe not. The world was open to them, they were young and in love and free of the darkest part of their past, and for now it was enough.

Or at least it was a start.