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Bound By Blood

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Chapter One

 

Dean felt the air touch his hands, cool and real, and he forced them apart, dragging himself upwards. As his head broke the surface, he drew deep, gasping lungfuls of air. It wasn’t enough though. He could still feel the earth around his chest, constricting. His fingers clawed at the grass and dirt, and he dragged his way free, not stopping until his feet scraped the rim of the hole. Then he collapsed on the dirt and turned his head to the side, to the air. His lungs worked like bellows and his head swam from the sudden influx of too much oxygen, but he couldn’t stop himself; he had thought he would die in the dirt.

Die again.

The thought stopped the breath on its way in and he coughed. That was what had almost happened. He had almost died again.

He struggled to his knees, and then after a moment’s pause to let his swimming vision settle, he stood, swaying slightly. He turned slowly, taking in the destruction around him. He was standing in the center of a circle of fallen trees. It looked like they had been ripped out by the roots. There was a roughly hewn, wooden cross behind him. His grave marker.

He gagged.

He’d known since he woke in that box what had happened to him, but he’d not wanted to believe it. Seeing the cross had forced his mind to accept it. He had just dug his way out of his own grave. He had died. Hell hadn’t been a sick nightmare. It had all been real.

So how was he here?

Sam!

He knew at once he was right. How else could he have been saved if not by his brother? How had he done it though?

Do you really need to ask?

He bent over, hands on his knees, and vomited bile onto the grass.

Sam had made a deal. Of course he had. He was a Winchester. That was what they did. How he’d managed to find a demon that would deal, Dean didn’t know, but he must have. There was no one else he could think of who would have had the power to bargain with a demon or determination to save him.

So where is he?

Nothing could have kept Sam away from Dean if he’d known he was coming back. He would never have left him to dig his own way free. There was only one thing that could stop him from coming when Dean needed him most.

“He’s not dead!” Dean growled the words to the empty forest.

Sam couldn’t be dead because that meant it was all for nothing. The deal, the year they’d spent fighting it, the blood, that last horrific night when they’d faced Lilith in that poor child’s body, everything Dean had suffered in Hell, everything he had done… it would mean nothing because Sam was gone. 

He couldn’t be gone.

Sam was out there somewhere, waiting for Dean. He just had to find him. And then, when they were together again, Dean would save him. They would work together to undo whatever mess Sam had got himself into.

You think you can save him from Lilith?

Lilith! That had to be it. Sam had almost had her in that school. He’d been so close to taking her out. He must have found a way. Perhaps he’d killed her. Perhaps he’d dealt with her—her life for Dean’s. That was a deal she’d make, surely. It was the only explanation Dean could think of that didn’t mean Sam was dead, and he clung to it.

Sam was fine. Dean just had to find him.

xXx

His first job was to get out of the forest. He picked a direction and set off walking, stepping over the fallen trees and then weaving his way through the ones still standing. He had no idea of how long he spent walking, his watch had stopped at midnight, but he didn’t stop to rest, not even for a minute. He had an overwhelming need to get to his brother and that made things like his parched throat and aching legs feel like nothing.

Eventually, he heard the blessed sound of traffic, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He was almost out. When he saw the lightening of the trees, his staggering steps became a jog.

He almost ran straight into the road. He skidded to a stop at the very edge of the asphalt with his arms pinwheeling. Someone drove past leaning on the horn. Dean raised a hand in salute, not caring about the driver’s irritation. He was out. He was on his way to Sam. Nothing else mattered.

He took a moment to catch his breath and then moved closer to the road and held his thumb out. He watched every car approach, his heart pounding with hope, only to be disappointed when they drove right past. He had begun to walk along the side of the road, thinking that if no one stopped he would walk all the way home, however far that turned out to be, when a truck honked and slowed. Dean grinned as it came to a stop a dozen feet away from him and the driver gestured him forward from his cab. Dean hurried forward and pulled open the door.

“Which way you heading?” the driver asked.

“Uh, that depends,” Dean said. “Where am I now?”

The driver laughed. “Man, it must have been a good night. You’re in Montana. This is I-90, a few miles out of Garryowen. Where do you want to go now?”

Montana. That meant he hadn’t been moved far after his death. He needed to get to Sam, to The Roadhouse, but Bobby was closer. If could get to him, he would have access to a car to get him the rest of the way.

“I’m trying to get to Sioux Falls,” he said.

“I’m going as far as Rapid City. That okay for you?”

“More than okay.” Dean replied. “That’d be awesome.”

“Good to hear. I’m Jay, by the way.” The driver gave a friendly smile as he put the truck in gear and pulled back onto the road.

“Dean.”

“So, Dean, how did you come to be standing on the side of the road, no idea where you are, looking like you’ve been rolling in the mud?”

“I got drunk with some old college buddies last night, and I’m guessing they thought it would be a good idea to dump me in the middle of nowhere.”

Jay laughed. “Good friends you got there.” He took a bottle of water from the cup holder and held it out to Dean. “If you were drinking last night, you’ve got to be pretty thirsty by now.”

“Thanks,” Dean said gratefully, unscrewing the cap and gulping at the water.

Jay transpired to be a friendly man who liked to talk. Dean chatted with him about inconsequential things like Jay’s job driving cross-country and his family. Dean told him a little about his life, the censored version, how he had a brother and used to be a social worker before taking some time off to travel.

All the time he was talking, he was also thinking, thinking about Sam and Bobby, Ellen and Jo, and how good it would be to see them again. Sometimes thoughts of Hell tried to overwhelm him, but he forced them away. He wasn’t going to think about that now. 

He watched the road slip beneath the tires and the miles tick past on the dash until they were within sight of Rapid City. Just outside town, Jay pulled into a gas station and they came to a stop. Dean reached for the door handle, already saying his heartfelt thanks, when Jay caught his arm.

“I have a feeling your buddies didn’t leave you with a wallet,” he said.

“No, they didn’t,” Dean said awkwardly.

“Thought so. Here you go.” He held out a fold of bills to Dean.

“You don’t have to do that,” Dean insisted even while thinking of how much easier things would be if he had a little cash on his side.

“I think I do,” Jay said, putting the bills in Dean’s hand and wrapping his fingers over them. “You take care of yourself, Dean.”

“Thank you,” Dean said sincerely. “I really appreciate this.”

“Welcome.”

Dean climbed out of the cab and wandered into the station. He made straight for the coolers and pulled out three bottles of water. Despite the fact Jay had given him some on the journey, his throat still felt desiccated. He carried them over to the register and returned the young female cashier’s smile.

“Anything else?”

“Can I get some change for the phone, too?” he asked.

“Of course.” She counted out his change and tipped it into his hand.

Dean thanked her and carried the bottles outside to the payphone. He drank one and set the others on the shelf before taking a deep breath and picking up the phone. The dial tone came through clear and he fed the slot several coins before he dialed the number from memory.

It didn’t even ring once. He just heard a recorded voice saying, “We're sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected.”

Dean put the phone down and stared in shock at the keypad. He never imagined Sam wouldn’t be waiting for him on the other end of the line. He’d expected to hear his brother’s voice, expected him to be anxiously waiting for his call, but instead he’d gotten that hateful message. He knew there were more numbers for Sam, but he didn’t remember them. They were saved on his cell phone.

There was another number he could try though. He fed the slot again and dialed. A familiar voice answered, but it was not the one he needed. “Roadhouse. Doctor Badass here. What can I do for you?”

“Ash?” Dean said.

“Yeah. Who’s this?”

“It’s me, Dean. Look, I need to speak to Sam.”

He heard a quick indrawn breath. “Listen, asshole, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but this is not cool. You stay away from us, understand? Stay the hell away from Sam!”

“Ash, it’s me,” Dean said desperately.

The only response he got was the click of a disconnected call. 

Dean slammed the phone onto the cradle and groaned. What was he supposed to do now?

There were two more numbers he knew by memory but only one that could maybe help.

He drew a deep breath and dialed again.

xXx

Bobby was standing by the window, staring out at the yard and thinking of Dean. It had been four months to the day since his boy had died and nothing had gotten any easier. He still felt the same burn of loss that he had when he first saw his body in that auditorium. He still felt the same waste of a life. He was still desolate.

He eyed the bottle of whiskey on the counter greedily. He wanted a drink. He needed a drink. But he’d made a deal with himself that he’d only drink at night. He could drink all day and all night and it wouldn’t be enough, so he limited himself to drowning his sorrows in the hours the sun was down. To do otherwise, to lose himself to liquor, would be disrespectful to Dean. He probably wouldn’t approve of the nighttime drinking either, but Bobby needed something to help. 

He wondered if Sam had made any such deal with himself. He had been a big drinker before Dean was gone. He had to be so much worse now, now that Dean was….

His phone rang then and he turned to it. It was his local number. Not many people had it, and he thought he knew who it would be.

He slowly walked to the wall where the phone was, in no hurry to hear Ellen’s pleas for news of Sam or to hear her own lack of news in return. “Bobby Singer.”

“Bobby, please don’t hang up,” a voice begged, a voice he thought he knew.

“Who is this?”

“It’s me, Dean.”

“That’s not funny,” Bobby growled. “Whoever you are, whatever you are, you call me again I will put a bullet in you and chop off your head for good measure.”

“Bobby, please!”

Bobby slammed the phone down onto the cradle without another word.

He stood staring down at it for a moment, wondering if it had really happened or if he had finally lost his mind.

The phone rang again.

This time he didn’t manage to get a word out before the voice babbled, “You’re Bobby Singer. You cried at my college graduation even though you swore blind you didn’t. You’ve been my family since I was four years old. I am begging you, Bobby, just help me find Sam.”

“Dean?” Bobby whispered.

“Yes!” the voice replied emphatically. “I’m out. Sam got me out, but I can’t get hold of him. Bobby, help me, please.”

Was it possible? If Dean was back, the first thing he would do was look for Sam, that was true, but how could he be out? Who else would be so desperate to find Sam though? It could be among any number of fuglys. Sam had been killing them all his adult life. It was entirely possible that the ones left behind would want revenge.

And demons… Sam had to have pissed off a bunch of demons, and they would know Dean well enough to know the connection Dean and Sam shared. They had him in Hell. They could have extracted those memories from Dean with ease if they were to…

Bobby shuddered at the thought.

He had to know. He had to be sure. He needed to see him.

“Where are you?”

He heard the relieved sigh. “Rapid City. There’s a Gas-N-Sip on Black Hawk Road. I’m there.”

“Okay, I’m on my way. Stay where you are. Be careful.”

“I will, but, Bobby, where’s Sam?”

“We’ll talk about that when I’m there,” Bobby said evasively.

“But…”

Bobby hung up. If it was Dean, and that was a huge if, they needed to have that conversation in person.

He gathered the things he would need, grabbed his keys from the dish by the door, and made his way outside, hoping desperately that his fears were unfounded and that it really was Dean.

Please, God, let it be Dean.

xXx

The drive was long, too long. It was dusk when Bobby finally spotted the gas station in the distance. He slowed slightly, nervous of what was going to happen next and what he was going to face.

On the ride down he’d thought over the possibilities. He thought that—if it was a monster and not Dean—it was a revenant, demon or shapeshifter. He was capable of dealing with any of them, though he hadn’t given up hope that he wouldn’t need to.

He stopped at the side of the building and climbed out of the Chevelle, the flask of holy water clutched in his hand. It was time. He was there.

Dean, or the thing that looked like him, stepped around the corner, wide but slightly tense smile in place. “Bobby.”

It looked like him. It sounded like him. Bobby’s heart stuttered in his chest.

Dean looked down at the flask in his hand and smiled slightly. “Let’s get it over with then,” he said a little sadly.

Bobby walked forward until they were a few feet apart and then splashed the water on Dean’s face. There was no reaction. Dean merely shook his head, sending droplets into the air.

“Better?”

“Not done yet,” Bobby said.

He pulled the silver knife from his jacket and gestured to Dean to hold up his arm.

“Can’t I do it myself?” Dean asked.

“You think I’m handing you a weapon?” Bobby said, almost amused.

Dean sighed. “Fine.” He rolled up his sleeve and held out this arm.

Bobby held his breath as he brought the blade of the knife down to Dean’s forearm. He was desperate for proof that it was Dean, that his boy was back, but he was scared to believe before he saw it for himself.

He cut through Dean’s skin, and a small trickle of blood ran from the wound to the ground. There was no reaction.

“Dean,” he said, stunned.

Dean rolled his sleeve down, covering the small wound, and nodded. “Told ya.”

“Dean,” he said again.

Dean looked up and smiled at him. “Hey, Bobby.”

Bobby closed the space between them and threw his arms around him. Dean’s hands came up to return the hug and Bobby just felt for a moment, felt the warm heavy weight against him and the amazing relief of Dean being there. Dean alive. Dean free. Dean back.

He pulled back and wiped at the tears in his eyes. “Damn, boy. It’s good to see you.”

Dean wiped a hand across his own face. “You too,” he said hoarsely. “Bobby, where’s Sam?”

Bobby sighed. He didn’t want to have to give the only answer he could. “I don’t know, son.”

“What do you mean?” Dean asked tensely.

“I mean I haven’t seen him since the night you…” He shook his head, shaking away the images that sprang to his mind. “After, he just left. He took your… He took off. I tried to follow, but you know what speeds that rolling iron goes at. That was the last time I saw him. He went to my place first, I know that, but I don’t know where he went after.”

“The Roadhouse?” Dean asked hopefully.

“Not according to Ellen. They’ve been trying to track him, but there’s no sign. Hasn’t been for four months now, all the time you’ve been gone.”

“Where else would he go?”

“I don’t know. Dean, there’s more. He left the Impala behind and went off on your bike.”

“That makes no sense,” Dean said, shaking his head. “What about the weapons? He needs them.”

“I guess he disagreed. The only thing I can tell is gone is the demon knife. It looked like he left everything else behind.”

“I need to find him,” Dean said weakly. “I need to see him.”

Bobby patted his shoulder. “I know you do, boy. We’ll find him. If you’re right, and he was the one that saved you, he’ll be looking for you now. What better place to look than back home?”

Dean nodded. “Yeah. The Roadhouse. We have to go to The Roadhouse.”

He started off toward the car without another word. Bobby took a breath and followed. He had Dean back, and that was amazing, but it wasn’t the end. They had to find Sam now.   

xXx

It was late. Ellen had closed up less than an hour ago, and she was wiping the tables when she heard the car approaching. She was so attuned to the sound of that engine she knew at once that it was the Impala.

Her mind whipped back through the years. One night, what felt like a lifetime ago, she had heard the sound of that engine and John Winchester had arrived with his devastated son. That had been the night things changed for her and Jo. That was when Sam joined their family.

She hadn’t seen Sam since he and Dean walked out of the bar a day before the deal came due. She hadn’t even spoken to him. She had tried everything, they had all tried, but they couldn’t find him. His phones were dumped and disconnected and was the Impala was abandoned.

Was abandoned.

Ellen could only imagine three people ever sitting behind the wheel of that car. Two of them were dead. Did that mean Sam had come back or had Bobby Singer brought it back for her? Why would he? Surely he would know how much it would hurt her to see it in her lot every day, knowing its owner was lost to her.

It had to be Sam, didn’t it?

Ellen dropped the cloth down onto the table and walked on shaky legs to the door. Outside the car had stopped. She drew back the bolts and opened the door a crack. Her heart was pounding.

She had no expectation that the man she was about to see would be the same as he had been the last time he’d walked through this door. He would be distraught without his brother, just like he had been the first time, and he would need her love. She would have to be very careful though. He’d been away four months. She didn’t want to drive him away further by pushing him to feel too much. She would let him lead; she’d do and be whatever he needed.

She drew a deep breath, tried to calm her racing heart, and opened the door.

It wasn’t Sam.

Bobby Singer was crossing the parking lot to her, leaving the Impala parked in the shadows.

Ellen had only seen him once since Dean’s death, and that had been the day after he died when he came to tell them the news. He had been devastated then, a man balanced on the precipice of outright despair. He had wept as he’d told them of Dean’s fate, and Ellen had wept with him. He wasn’t weeping now though, or devastated, or even mourning. He looked tense but happy. More than happy, jubilant even. His eyes were shining with some inner light.

“Bobby? What is it?”

“Dean,” Bobby said with a kind of fervor. “Dean’s back.”

Ellen took a step away from him. “What?”

“He’s really back. All the way back. Human. I checked. Someone sprung him.”

Ellen felt warm wetness trickle down her cheeks that cooled quickly in the night air. “My God. Are you sure?”

“Positive. Ellen, he’s here.”

Ellen walked forward, past Bobby, and looked at the Impala. There was someone sitting in the driver’s seat. She could see the vague outline when she focused through the darkness. The figure moved and the door opened. Ellen watched, awed, as Dean unfolded himself from the seat and walked forward.

She wasn’t aware of moving, but the next thing she knew she was across the parking lot and Dean was in her arms. His laugh whispered through her hair. “Hey, Ellen.”

She held him tighter for a moment and then pulled back and cupped his cheeks in her hands. “Dean?”

“Yeah, it’s me, I promise.”

“Oh, honey, I missed you so much,” she said.

‘Missed’ didn’t seem the right word, but she could hardly say she had ‘grieved’ him so much, even though she had. Dean’s loss had been hard for all of them, especially as they’d never really prepared themselves for it. They’d all believed Sam would do it, save him.

“Me too,” he said. “You have no idea.”

She blinked away her tears and sniffled. “Come in, come in. I’ll get you something to drink. You’ve got to need it.”

“Actually,” Dean said, “there’s something else I need. Ellen, where’s Sam?”

Ellen grimaced. “I don’t know, honey. Come inside. We can talk.”

Dean followed obediently and Ellen led him into the bar to a table. While he sat down and looked around with an almost wistful expression, Ellen collected a bottle and three glasses from behind the bar. When she joined them at the table, Dean had lost the wistful look and had become intense.

“What’s happened to him?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t seen Sam since I last saw you. The day the pair of you walked out of here was the last time I saw him. We’ve been trying to reach him, but his numbers are all disconnected. Ash can’t even find him. He’s not using any of his old credit cards or aliases. There’s no mention of him anywhere.

Dean looked stricken. “How do you even know he’s…?”

“Alive?” Ellen shook her head. “I knew because you were gone. Sam would never have let himself go down before he got you back.”

“He did it,” Dean said fervently. “No one else could have. But where the hell is he?”

Ellen had an idea, but it was a horrible, painful, detestable idea. Dean was back, Sam wasn’t with him. Had it been another deal? He had tried hard enough before to do it. Was it just a case of him finding the right demon to deal with or had something else happened? Had he exchanged himself in some other way? Was Sam gone so Dean could be here?

“We need to find out how he did it,” Bobby said gruffly, and Ellen could tell from the tightness in his eyes that he was wondering the same thing she was. “Someone has to know.”

“A demon?” Ellen asked.

“Can’t think of anyone else to ask,” Bobby said. “There’s a summoning spell I’ve been wanting to have a go with.”

“Ruby,” Dean said quietly. “She’ll know.”

“Who’s Ruby?” Ellen asked.

“She’s a demon. It’s a long story. Can you call a specific demon, Bobby?”

“Works better that way, to be honest. I’ll need a few things that I’ll bet Sam keeps in the trunk. Give me ten minutes and we’ll have a demon to chat with.”

xXx

Dean chewed his thumbnail as Bobby set the last of his spell up. They’d cobbled together what they needed with the contents of the trunk, gear Jo had left behind when she went on her latest hunt, and Ellen’s cupboards. There was a bowl filled with ingredients, seven candles placed strategically on the table, and Ellen was handing Bobby a box of matches.

Dean had mixed feelings about seeing Ruby again.  A small, selfish part of him was worried she would allude to their time together and their relationship—he thought Bobby would have an aneurism if he knew—but the larger part of him was afraid of what she would tell him about Sam.

He had much more respect for her now, knowing where she came from. She had come out with her humanity intact. Dean knew just what a challenge that would have been for her given what he’d suffered and done there. He’d been there a matter of earth months, years of Hell time. She would have been there centuries. To come out the way she had was a true show of strength.

“Ready?” Bobby asked.

“Yes,” Dean said stiffly and Ellen nodded.

Bobby chanted some Latin and threw a lit match into the bowl. Flames flared up and died down as fast as they’d come. Then she was there, her long blonde hair flowing down her back, her lips parted in shock and her eyes wide.

“Dean?”

“Hello, Ruby.”

“How?” she breathed.

“We were hoping you could fill us in on that,” Bobby said stiffly.

Ruby shook her head. “I know nothing about it. I don’t have the juice for something like this.”

Bobby started to talk but Dean spoke over him, asking the question he needed answering. “Where’s Sam?”

She gave him a sympathetic look. “I don’t know.”

“You’ve not seen him at all?” Dean asked.

“I didn’t say that. I saw him a few days ago.”

“You did! Where?” Ellen asked

“Texas.”

Bobby’s eyes narrowed. “What were you doing with him if you weren’t busting Dean out?”

“I was helping him look for a way to get Dean out of the pit.” 

“You found a way,” Bobby said. “How? Was it a deal?”

Ruby shook her head, looking darkly amused. “You think Sam made a deal? You think any demon was stupid enough to even try to give him what he wanted? Believe me, he tried, but there was no chance. All demons are sworn off Sam.”

“Then how did he do it?” Ellen asked.

Ruby shrugged. “I have no idea. This”—she gestured to Dean—“isn’t a demon thing. No demon has the power to bring someone out of the pit, not even Lilith. The only way out is to scratch and claw your way free as a demon. Obviously, Dean didn’t do that, so something else was involved.”

“Something stronger than a demon,” Bobby said. “What the hell is stronger than Lilith?”

“Nothing I’ve ever seen,” Ruby said, staring at Dean with an intense look in her eyes, as though she was trying to communicate something with him. Whatever it was, he didn’t know.

“Okay,” Ellen said. “Putting aside Dean’s return for a moment, let’s focus on what we can do. You said Sam’s in Texas. Where exactly?”

“Austin,” Ruby said. “But there’s no point you going there though. It’s too late. He’ll have moved on already. He never stays after I’ve seen him.”

“What do you mean?” Dean asked.

Ruby sighed. “You’ve got to understand what he’s like now. He’s not the man any of you knew. He’s… dark. He calls me up once a week or so when he wants me, and I go to him. We go over things and then he sends me away again.”

“You must have a number for him though,” Dean said.

“Nope. He calls from motels or payphones. I only know where he is the moment he wants to talk to me, and then, when I’ve seen him, he moves on. I hex-bagged him at first to keep track, but… well, let’s just say he wasn’t happy when he found it. I’ve not tried since.”

Dean raked a hand through his hair. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Wait for Sam to call Ruby again and then go to him? From what Ruby said about his calls, it was at least a few days before he would call her again, and Dean couldn’t wait that long. He needed his brother now. The question of what had brought him back was a sidebar compared to that need. He barely cared. What mattered was Sam.

He turned downcast eyes on Ellen, and saw the same sadness in her that was in him. “What do we do?” he asked.

“I don’t know, honey. I guess we have to…” The phone behind her started to ring. Seemingly automatically, she reached over the bar and picked it off its cradle. “Roadhouse. Hello… Is anyone there?” He eyes widened. “Sam? Honey, is that you?”

Dean crossed to her side in long strides and held a hand to out for the phone. She handed it over wordlessly. “Sammy?” He heard a quick indrawn breath on the other end. “Sam, it’s me.”

The voice that came back to him was full of malice and hatred. “Stay away from my family,” Sam snarled.

“Sam, it’s me. Really. I swear.”

“No, that’s impossible. I don’t know what you are, but I will kill you, you bastard,” Sam vowed, and then there was the sound of a disconnected call.

Dean set the phone down and turned back to the room. He felt the wetness on his cheeks and he swiped it away. Sam was alive!

“Dean?” Bobby asked tensely. “What is it? Was it him?”

Dean nodded. “He’s alive. He’s coming.”

“How do you know?”

Dean smiled grimly. “Because he’s coming to kill me.”

Chapter Text

“Stop!” the demon begged. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. Just stop!”

“There’s nothing I want to know,” Sam replied.

He clenched his fist and the demon screamed.

It was easy now, so easy. All he had to do was search for the rotted core of the demon and squeeze. He could see past the curly red hair, freckles, and wide blue eyes, the feminine features and slim figure. He didn’t see a human or even a meat suit. It was all about the demon.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because I can,” Sam replied in a dead tone.

It was more than that, so much more, but he wasn’t explaining his mission to a demon. That’s not to say it wasn’t without its benefits. Every demon he hurt, every demon he punished, brought him satisfaction because he was avenging Dean’s death. It was a demon that had stolen him away, and it was demons that would pay for that. Just because the one that had made the deal was dead, it didn’t mean the others were innocent. It was practice, too. He was strengthening himself, building up his powers for the final showdown—the one that really mattered.   

The demon struggled against his mental hold, fighting to be free. It was futile. Even if it could break away from Sam, it was in the trap. It wasn’t going anywhere.

Sam decided to make things interesting. He released his hold. The demon jumped back and tried to run. It made it all of a few feet before coming to a halt. The trap was large but perfectly made. Sam liked them large now. He liked the demons to be able to move, to give him something of a chase.

He clenched his fist again and the demon doubled over in pain, crying out.

He felt a presence behind him and knew it could only be one person, one demon, though how she had found him he didn’t know.

“Ruby,” he said without turning or releasing his grip on the demon’s core. “What do you want?”

“I want you to make that infernal racket stop,” a deep, measured voice said.

Sam spun on his heel and looked into an unfamiliar face. The man was dark-skinned, broad shouldered and heavy. His thick lips were pressed into a line, and he wore the expression of someone who smelled something foul.

“That’s better,” he said as the demon’s cries cut off. “Now, Sam Winchester, my name is Uriel, and we need to talk.”

Sam didn’t need, or want, to talk. He wanted to hurt. He lifted a hand and searched for the new demon’s core. He couldn’t find it.

Uriel looked amused. “I am not a demon, you fool. You cannot use those damned powers on me.”

Sam turned back to the demon in the trap and clenched his fist. He needed to end it quickly so he could focus his full attention on this new threat, whatever it was. The newcomer had other ideas though. He stepped into the trap and laid a hand on the demon’s forehead. Bright white light spilled from his palm and the demon’s mouth opened in a silent scream. It lasted only a handful of seconds, and then Uriel stepped back and the demon dropped facedown onto the floor.

“Now you won’t be distracted,” Uriel said.

“You do realize you killed a person, too, right?”

He shrugged. “Do you care? Besides, It’s not like the world will run out. Your foul race breeds more every day.”

My foul race? What the hell are you?”

“I am an angel of the Lord.”

“Bullshit. There’s no such thing.”

Uriel straightened and Sam saw something incredible and unbelievable. The shadows of huge, dark wings spread across the wall behind him. He let Sam get a good look at them and then he relaxed and they disappeared.

“Do you see?”

“Yeah, I see yet another fugly that can make me see crap that’s not real.”   

Uriel shook his head. “Thankfully, it’s not my responsibility to convince you of the truth. That duty belongs to another. I come merely with a message. Sam Winchester, you need to go home.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “And you need to fuck off.”

Uriel’s face transformed with fury for a moment, and then he drew a breath and became expressionless. “Your brother has returned.”

Sam’s heart clenched at the thought of his brother and he reached into the pocket of his jacket and yanked out the demon knife. Uriel didn’t attempt to evade or defend; he simply stood silent and still as Sam thrust the blade into his chest, right above his heart. There was no reaction. No yellow lightshow. No sign of pain. No body to step over and leave behind. Uriel stayed standing.

“Do you feel better for that?” he asked.

“Fuck you.”

Uriel’s eyes narrowed. “Go home, boy. Your brother is waiting for you.”

“Dean’s in Hell,” Sam spat.

Uriel glared at him and spoke in a slow measured tone. “Go home. They need you.” Then he disappeared with a soft rustling sound.

For five minutes Sam just stood, trying to absorb what had just happened. Dean couldn’t be back. This was some kind of trick.

But maybe they really did need him.

He pulled the cheap burner phone from his pocket and dialed a number he hadn’t used in months.  

xXx

“He’s here,” Bobby said quietly, knocking back the remains of his whiskey and getting to his feet.

Dean had heard it, too. He knew the sound of his bike better than even Bobby did. Sam was there, which meant, unless he’d had changed his mind about killing Dean, he was about to face the most awkward family reunion ever. He wasn’t overly worried. They had a plan to protect him. The thing that was most important to him in that moment was that he was about to see Sam again.

He stood, Ellen and Bobby on either side of him, and Ruby moved to stand by the door. They’d swept the salt lines away and the devil’s traps had been broken so she had freedom of movement to protect Dean, something which she’d been more than eager to do.

It was a good thing Ellen had just pushed the door closed and not bolted it across, as it would have needed to be replaced after Sam’s arrival. He didn’t push the door open; he kicked through, so it flew right back and hit the wall. Ruby was apparently caught off guard by his entrance, as he was a few paces into the room before she caught his arms and pinned them behind his back. Sam snarled and struggled, expletives slipped between his teeth, but Ruby was too strong for him to break free.

Dean took in the sight of his brother being held like an animal and he shuddered. He looked worse than Dean had ever seen him. His eyes weren’t shadowed, they were black. His skin was pale, grey almost, but his cheeks were flushed red with anger and exertion. His face was gaunt but the rest of his body seemed to have swelled with muscle. It seemed impossible that he could have changed so much in the space of only a handful of months.

The most upsetting change wasn’t his appearance, however; it was his expression. He was so angry, beyond angry. He looked almost insane the way his eyes fixed on Dean and his lips pulled back over his teeth in a snarl. His hatred for Dean, or whatever he perceived Dean to be, was so great it made him appear less than human.

Bobby stepped in front of Dean, blocking most of his view of Sam. Dean was grateful, not for his protection, but because it made it harder to see Sam’s rolling eyes and snarling lips.

Ellen walked towards him slowly, her hands raised. “Sam, honey, calm down.”

“Get away from that thing!” Sam ordered.

“It’s Dean,” Ellen said in that same soft voice. “It’s really him.”

“No… it’s… not!” Sam panted, trying to break free.

Ellen glanced back at Dean, “Say something.”

Dean didn’t know what to say other than, “Sammy…”

Sam bucked but Ruby held him fast. “You don’t say that! You… thing… can’t call me that!”

Dean closed his eyes for a moment and tried to get a grip on himself. When he spoke his voice was steady. “It’s me. I got out, Sam. I’m really here.”

“Lies!” Sam hissed.

“I checked,” Bobby said gruffly.

“Maybe you could check again,” Ruby suggested. “Cause I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold him for the rest of time. Things to do, you know.”

“Yeah,” Ellen nodded eagerly. “That’s it, right, Sam? You just need to see.” She sounded hopeful.

Sam didn’t respond. Dean peered around Bobby to see Sam. He had stopped struggling for a moment but his chest still heaved and he looked hatefully at Dean.

“Got a silver knife?” Bobby asked Ellen.

Ellen nodded. “I’ve got the kit Sam set me up with.” She looked at Sam once more and he nodded jerkily. She left through the door to the living area and came back a moment later with a knife in a sheath and a hipflask. She handed the flask over to Dean and said with a sympathetic smile, “Down the hatch.”  

Dean tilted his head back and lifted the flask, pouring the water into his mouth instead of drinking from the rim so Sam could actually see it going into him. He was so infected by Sam’s rage and fear that he almost expected some reaction to the water himself. There was, of course, none and he lowered the flask to look Sam in the eye. Sam didn’t look relieved or confused. He still stared at Dean with hard eyes.

Dean held out his hand for the knife. Ellen slid it out of the sheath and handed it to Dean. He rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and cut across his forearm. He didn’t even feel the sting. The adrenaline of the moment held it away. Dean raised his arm and tilted it so the blood flowed down to the floor for Sam to see.

“Silver, Sam,” Ellen said. “And holy water. He’s human.”

Sam didn’t look so angry now, but he still looked suspicious. His eyes were narrowed and fixed on Dean.

“What?” Bobby asked. “He’s passed all the tests.”

“Ghoul,” Sam growled.

Dean sighed in exasperation. “Sammy, I can’t exactly shoot myself in the head to prove the point.”

“In the trunk,” Sam said, sounding and looking more human now, also tired, as if he’d used all his energy struggling and now was spent. “Wooden box. There’s a knife. Obsidian. It’ll prove it.”

“Where the hell did you find an obsidian knife?” Bobby asked.

“I stole it from a museum.”

“Of course you did,” Bobby said, almost smiling. “Keys, Dean.”

Dean gave him the keys and Bobby left. Dean used the time he was gone to try to connect with Sam by staring him in the eye. It didn’t work. Sam stared back at him with empty eyes, giving Dean nothing. When Bobby returned, Dean was staring at the opposite wall, wondering if there was any other way of making Sam believe it was really him if this knife didn’t work.    

Bobby opened the box on a table and pulled out a crudely made short-bladed knife. The hilt seemed to be made of the same material as the blade. It was inky black and obviously very old. Bobby gave the knife to Dean and then turned to Sam. “Just a cut?”

Sam nodded.

Dean took a breath and drew the knife across his arm just below the lines of the previous cuts. It was sharper than it looked, and Dean went a little deeper than he intended to go, but the pain meant nothing to him compared to the voice that spoke across the room from him.

“Dean?” Sam looked stunned, his lips were parted and his eyes were filled with emotion again. It wasn’t hatred or anger this time, though. It was relief and shock mixed with something indefinable.

“Yeah, Sammy, it’s me.” Dean smiled. “Let him go, Ruby.”

No one else argued which told Dean they had seen the same return to reason in Sam that he had. Ellen and Bobby stepped to the side as Ruby released Sam, but Dean didn’t really notice. There was no one else in the room that Dean was aware of other than his brother. He was all Dean saw, and it felt wrong that there was so much space between them.

Dean walked forward without consciously deciding to and Sam met him, and then his arms were around his brother. He could feel Sam shaking and he held him even tighter, murmuring his name and reassurances. He didn’t know how long they clung to each other, each taking comfort and confirmation in the other’s presence, that it was okay, they would be okay, before Sam pulled back and stared at Dean with those hollow eyes. “How?”

“I don’t know,” Dean admitted.  “Until now, I thought you did something.”

“But what happened?”

“Just woke up topside,” Dean said, deciding Sam didn’t need to know the exact details of his return and how he’d gotten free from the grave. 

“I don’t understand,” Sam said. “I didn’t…” He shook his head. “How is this possible?”

Suddenly, a force seemed to sweep through the room; it was like a strong wind. The windows rattled in their frames and the light bulbs overhead shattered and sprayed them with shards of glass. Dean felt himself shoved backwards against the wall, and when he got his bearings again he realized it was Sam who had moved him. He was now standing defensively in front of him. It seemed some things never changed.

“Screw this,” Ruby said, disappearing without a sound.

He looked around Sam’s shoulder in time to see a tall dark-haired man walk through the door. He was wearing a tan trench coat over a black suit, and his startling blue eyes were fixed on Dean.

“Dean Winchester, my name is Castiel, and I am an angel of the Lord.”

Before Dean could say anything, before he could even think, Sam lurched forward, the obsidian knife clutched in his hand. He reached Castiel as Dean shouted his name, terrified for him, but Castiel didn’t move except to follow Sam’s movements with his eyes. He looked mildly annoyed as Sam thrust the knife into his chest. He didn’t cry out. He didn’t fall to the floor. He looked no more affected than if a mosquito had just landed on him. Sam lurched back, cursing, as Castiel gripped the hilt of the knife and pulled it out of his chest. He dropped it to the floor and said, “You cannot kill me.”

“Great,” Sam said. “There’s two of them. Fuck off and leave us—“

Castiel shook his head tiredly and pressed two fingers to Sam’s forehead. Sam dropped like a stone to the floor even as Dean rushed toward him.

“Sam!” He fell to his knees beside Sam and pressed shaking fingers to his throat.

“He’s alive,” Castiel said dispassionately.

Dean didn’t believe it until he felt the strong thumping of Sam’s pulse against his fingertips. He stood and glared at Castiel. “What did you do to him?” he asked.

“He’s just sleeping. I knew this conversation would be more complicated if I had to deal with his multiple attempts to kill me. Also, he looked as though he needed the rest.”

Dean had been the recipient of forced unconsciousness once before and he knew immediately what they were dealing with, and it wasn’t an angel. “You’re a Trickster.”

Castiel looked mildly affronted. “I am an angel.”

“Angels aren’t real.”

“But demons, monsters and psychic powers you do believe in? I assure you they are real. I am real.” Castiel looked impatient and then he straightened. The walls, the ceiling, the bar were suddenly dark with the shadows of huge, black wings. Dean took a step back, bumping into Bobby who steadied him with a hand on his back.

“Okay… not a Trickster,” Bobby said slowly.

Dean wasn’t convinced. A creature that could bounce him through an alternate reality in which he failed all his kids would surely have the power to make a pair of wings appear.

“You’re injured,” Castiel stated, gripping Dean’s wrist hard and pulling his arm towards him. He held his palm above the still seeping cut and the two others and bright, white light spilled forth. When it was gone the wounds were, too.

Dean gaped at him. He’d never seen the Trickster do that.

“What do you want with us?” Bobby asked.

Castiel’s eyes drifted to him and then to Ellen. “With you? Nothing. Your presence is incidental. It is Dean I want.”

“And what do you want from me?” Dean asked. 

“To begin, I want to answer a question: how you were saved from Hell. That was me. That brand on your arm, is my mark. That is what was left when I gripped you tight and raised you from Perdition.”

“You saved Dean?” Ellen asked.

Castiel nodded, his eyes still fixed on Dean. “I did.”

“Why would you do that?” Dean asked. Why, of all the souls trapped in that place, was it him who was saved?

The wings appeared on the wall again, dark, forbidding and, against Dean’s will, convincing. “Because God commanded it. Because there is work for you to do.”

Dean was still stuck on ‘God’s real’, but Bobby’s mind seemed to be working at full speed as he asked, “What kind of work?”

Castiel glanced at him and then back to Dean. “You will see.” Then, with a slight rustling sound, he was gone, vanished.

Bobby blew out a breath. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m a believer.”

Dean nodded mutely. God had work for him to do. What the hell kind of work made it worth going to the effort of springing him from Hell?  What was coming?

Chapter Text

Jo was tired and sore. She’d spent the last few hours of darkness digging up the grave of a local character named Walter Blake, a task made much harder by the fact Walter really didn’t want to be dispatched. She’d spent a lot of time shooting him with salt rounds before she got down deep enough that she could salt and burn him. He was taken care of now though, and she was back at her motel packing up her stuff so she could get home. She figured she would rest a few days before tracking down her next hunt. It would be good for her to have some downtime and it would be good for her mom to have her around for a while. With Sam missing and Dean gone, she worried about Jo when she was away more than ever.

She had shoved the last of her things into her duffel and turned her attention to her weapons, dropping the iron bar on top of her clothes and then checking the shotgun, when she felt a sudden chill descend over the room.

“Dammit,” she hissed. Apparently she hadn’t done as thorough a job on Walter as she’d thought. She spun on her heel, pointing the gun into the corners of the room, waiting for the ghost to appear. “Come on then. Show yourself.”

The outline of a person flickered and solidified in front of her, and she almost dropped the gun in her shock. “You!” she gasped.

“Me.”

Sense returned to her and she pulled the trigger. The spray of salt shot through the figure, dispersing it.

She didn’t understand. It wasn’t possible. How could he be here?

Her phone started ringing and she answered automatically, putting in on speaker and dropping it down onto the bed.

“Jo, it’s me,” her mother said. “Look, I’ve got some news. You might want to sit down.”

“Can’t sit right now, Mom,” she said tensely. “Kinda busy.”

“What?” She sounded worried. “What’s happening?” There was a rustling sound and then a voice she’d begun to doubt she’d ever hear again said, “Jo, tell me what’s happening.”

“Sam!”

“Yeah, it’s me,” he said impatiently. “What’s happening?”

“There’s a ghost. It doesn’t make any sense though, Sam. It can’t be here. It’s…” She cut off, engaged the next cartridge, and pulled the trigger again as the ghost reappeared. “I need help.”

“Where are you?” Sam asked.

“Hay Springs, Iowa.”

“I’m on my way. Make a circle of salt and get in it. Arm yourself with what you can, but do not leave the circle until I get there. Your mom’s going to stay on the phone with you.” Jo heard the phone passing hands again and Ellen said, “Okay, honey, I’m here.”

xXx

Whatever mojo the angel used to put Sam to sleep wore off soon after he left, and Sam woke just as they were discussing whether to try to move him to a bed or leave him where he was after making him more comfortable.

He didn’t wake in stages. He didn’t stir. He went from unconscious to fully alert and upright in a swift movement, his eyes roving the room and the obsidian knife gripped his hand. He looked a little wild at first, then he took in the room and relaxed when he saw only Ellen, Bobby and Dean.

“He’s gone,” Dean said.

“Did you kill him?” he asked.

Bobby raised an eyebrow. “How? You stabbed him in the heart and he didn’t stumble.”

Sam walked over to the table they’d been sitting at before he arrived and drained Dean’s untouched glass of whiskey. “What an asshole.”

“Yeah,” Bobby agreed. “I didn’t like him anyway.”

“I’m not sure we were supposed to like him,” Ellen said. “He didn’t seem like he’d care what we thought of him just as long as we do as he asked.”

Sam poured himself another glass of whiskey, sipped it, and asked, “What did he want you to do?”

“I don’t know for sure,” Dean said. “He just said there was work for me to do.”

“For you?” Sam asked, choking on his drink.

“Yep,” Bobby answered for him. “He didn’t want anything from us. Just Dean.”

“Well he can go screw himself,” Sam said angrily. “He’s getting nothing from any of us. We don’t work for monsters.”

“Angels,” Dean corrected.

Sam laughed harshly. “That was not an angel.”

“I think it might have been,” Dean said uncomfortably. “He healed my cuts. And who else would have the power to drag my ass out of the pit?”

“He pulled you out?” Sam asked incredulously. “That… accountant?” 

Dean shrugged. “That’s what he said anyway. He knew about my arm, and I haven’t told anyone about that.”

“What’s wrong with your arm?” Sam asked.

Dean shrugged off his shirt and rolled up the sleeve of his t-shirt to show the handprint seared into his skin. “Weird, right?”

Sam nodded.

“I think it had to be him,” Bobby said. “Ruby said it couldn’t have been a demon thing. Not even Lilith has the juice for that, and she’s the most powerful thing we’ve ever come across. I believe him anyway; still don’t like him, though.”

Sam’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He didn’t like what he was hearing, that was obvious, but he apparently couldn’t come up with an alternative answer. Eventually, he said, “I saw one, too. An ‘angel’.” He inflected the word with distaste.

“You did? When?” Dean asked.

“Before I came back here. I was on the other side of the state, on a hunt, and this dick appeared and announced he was an angel and that I had to come here because you were back. He did this shadow puppet thing that looked like wings on the wall.”

“Yeah, Castiel did the same thing,” Dean said, “though it was less a puppet thing and more like he was showing us just how badass he was.”

Sam grimaced. “Don’t suppose it matters anyway. I’d lay good money on us never seeing them again.”

“And the ‘work’ they mentioned?” Bobby asked.

“Already told you, it’s not happening.” Sam shook his head as if dispersing an upsetting thought. “They’re not coming anywhere near Dean.”

And there it was. They weren’t coming anywhere near Dean. He had wondered when this would kick in again, this ‘protect at all costs’ side to his brother. Dean understood it, appreciated it even, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make him crazy sometimes. Did Sam not realize Dean felt the exact same way about him? He wanted to protect Sam, too, even from himself. He needed it. Just looking at him you could tell he hadn’t taken care of himself lately. He needed Dean to remind him to do that.

“I need to call Jo,” Ellen said quietly. “She needs to know what’s going on.” She looked pointedly at Dean, and for a moment he wondered what he’d done wrong, then he realized she was referring to his whole ‘back from the dead’ thing. With the arrival of angels in their world and the state of Sam, it didn’t seem like the biggest news anymore.

Ellen picked up the phone and dialed. “Jo, it’s me. Look, I’ve got some news. You might want to sit down.” Her expression went from confusion to worry quickly. “What? What’s happening?”

Sam held out his hand, looking tense, and Ellen handed phone over. “Jo, tell me what’s happening,” he said then rolled his eyes. “Yeah. It’s me. What’s happening?” He hesitated and his expression became hard.  “Where are you? I’m on my way. Make a circle of salt and get in it. Arm yourself with what you can, but do not leave the circle until I get there. Your mom’s going to stay on the phone with you.” He handed the phone back to Ellen and made for the door. He didn’t say a word to Dean. He didn’t ask him to come along or even look to see if he was following, but Dean would be damned if he was going to let Sam just walk away from him. He followed, catching the door as it swung closed, and went outside. Sam glanced back at him, frowned, and then redirected his path to the Impala instead of the motorbike. He got in the passenger side and said, “Hay Springs, Iowa,” when Dean slid in behind the wheel.

“What’s going on, Sam?” Dean asked as he started the engine.

“Jo’s in trouble,” Sam said stiffly. “Sounds like she’s pinned by a ghost.”

The back doors were yanked open and Ellen and Bobby threw themselves into the car, the phone still held to Ellen’s ear.

“You waiting for the lights to change?” Bobby said irritably. “Let’s go!”

Dean shoved the car into gear and they pulled out of their spot and onto the road.

xXx

Ellen was first out of the car and to the motel room door, but Sam was close behind. He would have tried to get Ellen to stay back and let him take care of it, but he knew it was pointless. Jo was in trouble; of course Ellen needed to be there. He felt the exact same way.

Jo opened the door, whey-faced. She glanced from her mother to Sam and she started to say something but Sam shook his head and pushed past her. He stood in the middle of the room, looking around for a sign of the ghost. Jo’s shotgun was on the bed and there was a circle of salt on the floor, but those were the only signs of something being wrong.

He glanced behind him in time to see Jo step out of Dean’s embrace, watched by a teary Ellen and satisfied Bobby, but he felt like he was a hundred miles away from them rather than a matter of feet; he was so disconnected from it all.

“What happened, Jo?” he asked and all eyes moved to him. Bobby looked disapproving, as if he was ruining the reunion moment, but Sam was more concerned with saving Jo’s life than watching her and Dean hugging it out.

“It was an old case,” Jo said. “A water spirit up at a summer camp in Maine a few months ago. I took care of it, but one of the counselors I interviewed died before I could stop it. He was only eighteen.”

“And you saw his ghost?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, but, Sam, he was buried in California, and I have nothing he could be tethered to.”

“So there’s no reason for him to be near you,” Sam said thoughtfully. “Okay. We need to get you somewhere safe and then find out exactly where he’s planted. Maybe he’s just particularly powerful and that’s how he’s broken his tether.”

“Maybe,” Jo said doubtfully.

Sam didn’t believe it either. A ghost that new should have no strength at all, let alone enough to break free of what was binding it. He had no other explanation yet though. He needed to talk to Bobby, to see what he knew, but he didn’t want to do that in front of Jo for fear of scaring her more than she already was. It was clear to him though, that there was something more than just a haunting happening.

“I have somewhere we can go,” Bobby said.

Sam looked at him. “You do?” He knew Bobby’s place was decked out for demon defense and maybe the occasional other fugly, but ghosts were a different ball game.

“Had a bit of a refit this summer,” Bobby said. “Trust me, it’s the safest place.”

Sam nodded. “Bobby’s it is then.”

xXx

They stopped on the road for gas and Sam went into the bathroom while Dean filled the Impala up. Bobby and Ellen were riding with Jo in her car. He was washing his hands when he felt the room’s temperature drop and saw his breath mist. He looked up into the mirror and saw a man standing behind him.

He turned and took in the sight. It was Jeff, the doomed wannabe hunter Sam had killed after he’d been bitten by a werewolf. He had been a cheerful to the point of annoying man before, the complete opposite to Sam, but that had changed. His face was solemn and his eyes hard.

“Murderer,” he snarled.

“Werewolf,” Sam said in return.

It was the wrong thing to say. Jeff’s face twisted with rage and he grabbed Sam’s shoulders and dragged him so they were almost nose to nose. “You killed me!”

He shoved Sam backward so he stumbled. His hip hit the basin hard. He quickly got his feet under him again and said, “I did. I killed you because you were a monster. I have no regrets.”

“Maybe you’ll regret it when I have caved your skull in,” Jeff said.

He grabbed a hank of Sam’s hair and slammed his head into the lip of the basin. Stars exploded behind his eyes and the pain seared through him. He had nothing to defend himself with, not even salt. Cursing his stupidity for not being prepared, he braced himself for the pain again as Jeff yanked his head back for another collision with the basin, but the hit never came. The small bathroom was suddenly crowded as Uriel appeared. He laid a palm on Jeff’s forehead, muttered something, and the ghost disappeared.   

As Jeff’s grip on him disappeared, Sam thumped to the floor, his ears ringing and his head pounding.

“You should be more careful, Sam Winchester.”

“What are you doing here?” Sam asked.

“I believe it is called saving your life.”

“Going to make a habit of that? Because it might cut into your free time.”

Uriel glared at him. “You should make a habit of checking in with old friends. It’s too late for some already.” That said he disappeared.

Sam rose to his feet and looked into the mirror. He had a red welt on his forehead that was going to bruise brilliantly soon. He shook his head and left the bathroom.

“What happened to you?” Dean asked when he caught sight of him.

“Met an old friend.”

“In the bathroom?” Dean asked incredulously.

Sam nodded. “We need to make a detour on the way back to Bobby’s. Head to Sheldon.”

“What’s in Sheldon?” Dean asked.

“Another old friend.”

xXx

Sam refused to say any more about the friend he’d met or how he’d come to have the marks on him, but Dean knew it was something to do with a ghost as Sam called Ellen from the road and told her to set everyone up with salt rounds and anything iron they could get their hands on.

Dean was worried, though that was nothing new. He’d been worried since Sam had walked into The Roadhouse looking like hell. Something big had happened to him in the four months they’d been apart and Dean wanted to know what.

Sam directed him along a road and onto a dirt track that led to a small house. Dean pulled up out front and they both climbed out. They collected a salt loaded shotgun each and an iron bar, reaffirming Dean’s certainty that it was a spirit case.

“Sam, what’s going on?”

“Not sure yet,” Sam said evasively.

They crossed to the house and Sam knocked loudly on the door, but there was no answer. He went to a window and peered inside, and Dean saw what little color he had drain from his face. He shook his head and walked slowly to the door. Dean knew he could pick a lock, but he didn’t even bother to get his tools out. He just stepped back and kicked the door right below the handle. It flew open and Sam went in, pointing his shotgun into the corners.

Dean imitated him and they walked through a short hall into a small lounge. There was a body on the floor, lying over a half finished salt line. It was a man who looked about Bobby’s age.

Sam cursed as he looked down at the man.

“Sam, what the hell’s going on?” Dean asked.

“Ghosts.”

“Yeah, I get that, but how did you know to come here to him?”

Sam sighed. “I was attacked by an old hunt in the bathroom. Jo was attacked at the motel. I got a heads-up that hunters were going down, so I figured it was worth checking in on the other hunter in the area while we were close.” He shook his head and walked away from the body and out of the house.

Dean went out after him and said, “Aren’t we going to do something with the body? You said hunters take care of their own. Shouldn’t he be burned?”

“Probably,” Sam said. “I’ll put a call in when we get to Bobby’s. Someone else can do it.”

xXx

Bobby’s house was a hub of activity when they arrived. Ellen, Jo, and Bobby were each on a phone, speaking quietly in different corners of the room.

“Just check on him,” Bobby was saying. “No, I don’t have anything for sure. Look, Annie, R.C was the ninth body I’ve heard of so far…”

“Tenth,” Sam said quietly and when Bobby raised an eyebrow Sam went on, “Bates.”

Bobby looked stricken for a moment and then he continued his phone call. “Make that tenth. Annie, for God’s sake be careful. Take salt and iron and get out of there in a hurry if you see anything.” He set the phone down and blew out a breath. “How?” he asked Sam.

“Looked like his chest had had been ripped out. Helluva mess.”

“I should think so,” Ellen said, setting her phone down on the table. Her eyes drifted to Sam’s forehead. “What happened?”

“Jeff,” Sam said.

Her eyebrows rose. “Werewolf Jeff?”

“Yeah.”

Jo ended her call. “Old hunts,” she said.  

“Not just hunts,” Sam corrected. “Hunts we screwed up. I killed Jeff and your kid got taken out before the end. They’re people who would blame us for what happened.”

Ellen shot him a sharp look and Jo looked downcast. Sam shrugged. Jo was a hunter now, which meant she didn’t need the facts sugarcoated to save her feelings.   

“Well, now you’re here, I’ve got a surprise for you,” Bobby said. “Come with me.”

Dean glanced at Sam and then followed Bobby through the door that led to the basement, Ellen and Jo on their heels.

As they rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, Sam saw the difference in the space, the most obvious being that there was a lot less. There were still boxes, old furniture and books stacked around, but the majority of the room was gone.

There was a heavy door that Bobby unbolted and passed through. Sam went in and stopped dead in his tracks. The metal walls were curved into a circle and there was a vast devil’s trap painted into the floor. Sam’s eyes were drawn up by a rhythmic pulsing noise and he saw a huge fan set into the ceiling with another devil’s trap worked into the vent. There were weapons, a desk equipped with what looked like a CB radio, and a cot.

“Bobby…” Ellen said, touching a finger to the wall. “Is this… “

“Solid iron. Completely coated in salt. 100% ghost-proof,” Bobby said proudly.

“You built a panic room?” Dean asked.

Bobby shrugged self-deprecatingly. “I had a weekend off.”

Sam looked around. This was perfect, exactly what they needed, but there was one problem. They couldn’t stay there forever. Somehow they were going to have to deal with the ghosts. They couldn’t go across the country, salting and burning, when there were ghosts attacking them. He wasn’t even sure that would work now. They obviously weren’t dealing with normal spirits.

He perched on the edge of the cot and pressed his fingertips to his temples as he thought.

“You okay, Sam?” Dean asked solicitously.

Sam looked up. “No.” Dean looked concerned and Sam went on. “I’m trying to work out what we do next. Obviously, we can’t stay here forever. The ghosts can’t get in, which is awesome, but there are things we need to do that we can’t do trapped here.”

“What are you thinking?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t think these ghosts are really ghosts in the purest sense. Why would they all be attacking at once? There’s something else going on here. We need to find out what.”

“You’re right,” Bobby said. “I’ve got some books upstairs that might help, and we could do with a little more firepower. I’ve got a couple shotguns down here, but we should each have one in case.”

“In case of what?” Dean asked. “You said this place was ghost-proof.”

“It is,” Bobby replied. “But it’s better to be prepared. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to leave the place, and I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be armed.”

Sam got to his feet. “I’ll get them. What books do you need?”

“You think I remember titles?” Bobby asked in a testy voice. “I’ll get them. You get the weapons.”

Dean looked like he wanted to argue, but Bobby cut him off with a glance and said, “Sam and I have been kicking ghost ass the longest out of any of us. We can take care of ourselves.”

Sam didn’t wait to see Dean’s reaction. He just walked out of the room and up the stairs, Bobby following. Bobby headed into the library and perused the shelves and Sam walked outside to the Impala. He had the keys in the trunk and was about to open it when someone or something grabbed the back of his head and shoved it forward into the sleek paintwork. For the second time in as many hours, Sam saw stars and felt the pain of an impact.  

The hand holding him dropped and he turned, leaning heavily against the car. There was a girl standing opposite him, her pretty features set into hard lines of fury. Sam frowned. He recognized her, but he couldn’t come up with a name or story for her. 

“Charlie. Remember me?” she asked.

Sam nodded, the memory returning. “The Bloody Mary Hunt. You were the last one killed.”

“Yes,” she hissed. “I was the last one killed because you failed to protect me.”

“How were we to know you’d killed someone? We didn’t know you were a target.”

“You could have asked! You and your partner were too busy protecting each other to care about me. You asked me nothing. You left me to die! I saw her coming for me, but I had no way to tell you. You didn’t answer your phones!”

“We were busy trying to take Mary out,” Sam said. “And we did. You were the last life she took.”

“She stole my mother’s life!” she shrieked. “She is a wreck of a person now. She sedates her way through her days because she can’t get past what happened to me. If you had just asked me a single question, you could have saved me.”

She flickered and then was right in front of him, her hands round his throat. She squeezed, and Sam felt the lack of oxygen affecting him almost immediately. He had been choked so many times in his life, it seemed the vengeful spirit’s go-to move when trying to kill him, but it never got any easier. He raised his hands desperately even though he knew there would be nothing corporeal for him to grab. His one hope was that she would get bored once he lost consciousness and let him go. That way he had a chance at surviving.

As his eyes began to blur he noticed something on her wrist. It was a mark like a burn but too perfectly patterned to be real. Someone had put it there.

Suddenly, the pressure was gone from his throat and he slid down to the ground, leaning against the rear of the car and gasping in a huge gulp of air.

Dean’s face swum in his vision. “Jesus, Sam, are you okay?”

“Fine,” Sam said hoarsely, struggling to regain his breath in wheezes.

Dean squatted beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He had an iron bar in the other hand.

“Is Bobby okay?” Sam asked, wondering why it was Dean who had come to his rescue and not the older hunter, seeing as he had been close enough to have heard Sam’s head hitting the trunk.

“He’ll be fine,” Dean said. “There were a couple creepy twins going for him, but Jo took them out. You good to stand?”

Sam nodded and let Dean help him to his feet. Every breath he pulled in burned and his head was pounding with pain, but he allowed no sign of it to break his careful control.

He opened the trunk, retrieved the weapons he’d come out to get, and then he and Dean made their way inside again.

xXx

Sam was sitting on the cot again trying to focus on the book that was open in his lap. The mark from the bathroom encounter was now a bruise and there was a deep red welt across the other side of his forehead that was going to join up with the other soon. Dean thought he had to be wrecked but you wouldn’t know it looking at him.

What Dean wanted more than anything was to get these ghosts dealt with and then get Sam somewhere he could climb into a bed and not get out again for a few days. Not The Roadhouse, where there were always things to do—somewhere quiet. And then they could talk. Dean could find out what the hell had happened to his brother in the time they’d been apart and what he could do about it. 

“Here it is,” Bobby said suddenly. “I found it—the mark on the kids and the girl that pounded Sam.”

Sam looked up. “And?”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“I rarely like anything,” Sam replied.

Bobby smiled grimly. “It’s called the Mark of the Witness."

“Witness to what?” Dean asked.

“Witness to the unnatural. None of them died what you'd call ordinary deaths. See, these ghosts—they were forced to rise. They woke up in agony. They’re like rabid dogs. It ain't their fault. Someone raised them on purpose.”

 “Who?” Sam asked.

“Do I look like I know?” Bobby asked. “But whoever it was used a spell so powerful it left a mark, a brand on their souls. Whoever did this had big plans. It's called "The rising of the Witnesses." It figures into an ancient prophecy.”

Dean looked at the heavy tome Bobby was reading. “What book is this prophecy in?

“Well, the widely distributed version's just for tourists, you know. But long story short—Revelations. This is a sign.”

“A sign of what?” Jo asked.

Bobby looked serious. “The apocalypse.”

The only one who didn’t react was Sam. He looked completely blank, as if didn’t have enough emotion left in him to feel shocked. Ellen and Jo sucked in sharp breaths and Dean’s hands clenched, but Sam just sat there.

The apocalypse?” Dean asked. “The actual end of the world apocalypse.”

Bobby nodded. “Seems so. We’ve got mention of horsemen, rain of fire, and the serpent. It all sounds end of the world worthy to me. See, the rise of the witnesses is a mile marker. Guess that explains the angels.”

Dean’s heart was pounding. He’d thought the last year was bad, and that had just been about him going to Hell. The apocalypse was everything going to Hell, or maybe everything blinking out, or… It was just too much.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Sam had left the cot to stand beside him.

“Okay,” Sam said calmly. “Let’s deal with one thing at a time before we start hoarding C-Rations. These witnesses, is there a way to take them down?”

“There’s a spell,” Bobby said. “I’ve got all the ingredients, but they ain’t down here. And the spell needs to be cast over an open fireplace.”

“The library,” Sam said. “Okay then. Then let’s get it over with.”

Bobby stood walked to the door. Sam squeezed Dean’s shoulder once, grabbed his shotgun from the cot, and then followed him. Dean took a breath, trying to wrap his mind around everything that was happening as he went after them. Strangely, Sam didn’t carry on up the stairs after Bobby. He stood by the door and waited for Dean to pass through. His reasoning became clear at once. As soon as Dean was out of the way, he slammed it shut in Ellen and Jo’s faces.

“Sam!” Jo shrieked. “Don’t you dare!”

Sam opened the hatch in the door and ducked his head to look inside.

“Let me out!” Jo said.

Sam shook his head. “Maybe next time.”

“Sam,” Ellen growled.

Sam closed the hatch and walked away.

Dean was numb to being shocked by what Sam did now. In fact, he felt like he should have expected it. Sam wouldn’t want Ellen and Jo in the line of fire. What actually surprised him was the fact he’d let Dean out before slamming the door.

They were at the bottom of the stairs when the man flickered into being. He was unfamiliar to Dean, but the way he glared at Sam made him think they were at least acquaintances. Sam pulled the trigger of his shotgun, dispersing the ghost, and then continued on up the stairs as if he’d done nothing more dramatic than sneeze. Dean hurried after him. 

Bobby was rooting through a desk drawer when they got upstairs. “Sam, upstairs, linen closet, red hex box,” he shouted. “Dean. Kitchen. Cutlery drawer. It's got a false bottom. Hemlock, opium, wormwood.”

Dean hurried to retrieve the items, his mind up the stairs with Sam, listening hard for any sound that portended trouble for his brother.

Bobby had the items he’d asked Dean to get in the silver bowl before Sam came running down the stairs again and dumped the box on the desk. At the same moment, a man appeared behind him.

“Sam! Down!” Dean shouted.

Sam dropped and Dean pulled the trigger of his shotgun, sending a salt round into the young man. Sam got straight to his feet again and grabbed up his shotgun in time to blast away a young woman Dean didn’t know.

Bobby was working fast, muttering over the bowl, but the ghosts seemed to be coming thicker and faster now. As fast as they blew them away, they appeared again: the twins that had Bobby before, the man Dean just shot, the man from the basement and a young girl Dean didn’t know.

“You could have saved me if you’d asked a single question,” the girl said in the instant it took for Dean to reload and shoot her.

The man scowled at Sam. “You should have known what was happening.”

“I wasn’t a monster!”

“The monster took us, Bobby,” the creepy twins said in unison.

Between each accusation, Dean reloaded and prepared to shoot them away again, not liking the flush of color that was heating Sam’s cheeks.

Sam ran out of cartridges first and he dropped the useless shotgun to the floor and picked up the poker instead. He swung it through the air again and again, dispersing the ghosts.

“I was innocent!” the girl screamed at Sam as she appeared again.

Sam stopped with the poker raised. “I don’t care!” he roared. “I don’t care that you died. You were a case.”

The girl came toward Sam, her hands clawed, and Dean raised the shotgun to shoot but the trigger clicked on an empty chamber. The girl had her hands around Sam’s throat again and he’d dropped the poker. Dean started toward him just as Bobby grunted with pain. The man Dean didn’t know had his hand shoved through Bobby’s chest. Bobby had the bowl of ingredients in his hand, but it was slipping.

Dean had a split second to think, and he went against himself as he ran for Bobby and caught the bowl on its way to the ground.

Please, let Sam be okay.

He tossed the bowl over the fire, and the flames whooshed up as the ingredients burned.

“Sam,” Bobby said hoarsely.

Dean was afraid to turn. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see what was behind him. Had he made the wrong choice? Should he have saved Sam first?

“M’fine,” a breathy voice answered, and Dean’s heart squeezed painfully. He turned to see Sam struggling to his feet, his throat red and sore looking and his eyes bloodshot, but otherwise miraculously okay. 

Dean breathed his name with relief, and Sam smiled. “Nice work, Dean.”

“Yeah,” Bobby said weakly. “Thanks for the save.”

Dean grinned. “It’s what we do.”

Sam nodded soberly. “Yeah. It is.”

xXx

Dean left Sam and Bobby slumped on the couch and desk chair respectively and went down to the basement to let Ellen and Jo out. When he unbolted the door and pulled it open he saw Ellen sitting on the edge of the cot looking tense and Jo pacing the room like a wild animal.

“Finally!” Jo snapped, catching sight of Dean.

Ellen looked at him and Dean answered the question he saw in her eyes. “Everyone’s okay. Bruised and tired, but okay.”

Ellen nodded and got to her feet.

“He won’t be okay for long,” Jo said, pushing past Dean and heading for the stairs. 

Dean and Ellen exchanged a glance and followed her. When they got to the library Jo was standing in front of Sam, her hands gesturing and her voice loud. “I’m a hunter now, Sam! You can’t pull that ‘protect me’ crap anymore. You wouldn’t dare do that to Mackey or Isaac, so why do you think it’s okay to do it to me?”

“Jo,” Sam said tiredly. “Give it a rest.”

“I won’t! I want to know what it’s going to take for you to take me seriously.”

Sam glared up at her. “I take you seriously. I also take murderous spirits seriously. You were the one trapped in a motel by a ghost. We were the ones you asked for help. I helped. I locked you up because that helped, too.”

“Is this because I’m a woman?” Jo asked.

Sam shot to his feet and loomed over her. “No. It’s because you’re my sister!”

Jo stepped back, her face pale and stunned. “I…”

Sam closed his eyes for a long moment, drew a deep breath, and then stepped around Jo and made for the door. “I’m going out,” he said brusquely.

“I’ll come with you,” Dean offered.

Sam turned back to him, his bruised throat and temples standing out starkly against his grey skin. “I won’t be long.”

There was a moment’s silence after the door slammed closed behind Sam. Jo sniffed and Dean saw a tear creeping down her face.

“He’ll calm down,” he assured her, surprised at her reaction given that he’d seen Sam be a lot sharper with her before and she’d only ever been defiant then.

“Sister?” Jo said questioningly, looking at Ellen.

Ellen smiled grimly as she nodded. “That’s what he said.”

“I know I’m relatively new to this whole family dynamic,” Bobby said, “but what’s with the waterworks?”

Ellen shook her head and wiped a hand over her face. “Sam hasn’t said that word in a long time. Not since John, no, longer. He’s not said it since…” She shook her head. “I don’t even know.”

Jo sniffled. “Too long.”

“It has to mean something,” Ellen said, turning to Dean. “Right?”

If it was anyone else, Dean would have said yes. He would have counted it as a breakthrough. But it wasn’t anyone else; it was Sam. It could mean something, maybe his walls were breaking and he was coming back to the man Ellen and Jo once knew. Dean couldn’t forget what Ruby had said though, ‘He’s not the man any of you knew. He’s… dark.’ She was the one Sam had chosen to keep contact with for the last four months, not his family.

Dean thought perhaps it had just been a word.  

Chapter Text

Ruby was waiting for Sam when he got to the park. It wasn’t their usual type of meeting place—they’d always met somewhere private where Sam could work alone—but Sam thought this was safer now. They would have privacy among the crowd and if Dean tracked him, he could say he just needed a little space. There was nothing suspicious about visiting the falls.

She was leaning against the fence guarding the remains of an old building Sam remembered from his childhood. It had been the site of many games with Dean, hiding among the ruins, but now it was fenced off. It was the perfect place for them to meet as it bore so many similarities to them both. Ruby was the ruin of a soul and Sam was a ruin of a man.

As Sam approached, Ruby pushed away from the fence and walked towards him. Her expression was tense and her eyes tight. “Is it true an angel brought Dean back?” she asked.

“Apparently. It says it’s an angel anyway. Looked more like a tax accountant to me.”

“This isn’t funny, Sam!” she snapped. “Do you have any idea how dangerous those things are?”

Sam had seen one smite a demon with one hand and bitch-slap a ghost. “I have an idea.”

“No, you don’t. You can’t have if you’re not running scared from them.”

Sam shrugged. “What’s the worst they can do?”

“How about completely annihilate you?” she suggested wryly. “These things have serious power. Apparently even more than Lilith if one yanked your brother out of hell. They’re badass. They scare the crap out of me.”

“Sucks for you.”

“Sam, you’re not understanding me. Angels don’t like demons.”

“They’re not the only ones.”

“Yeah, but these big guns won’t care that I’m on their side. They’ll smite me as soon as they see me.”

“Maybe,” Sam said, unconcerned.

She scowled at him. “And who’s going to help you when I’m dead, huh?”

Sam shook his head. “What else do you know about them?”

“Not a lot,” she admitted. “All I know is demons are running scared. And they’re talking. They’re so scared they’re even talking to me.”

“You don’t know how to kill them then?”

“Kill them? Are you kidding me? They’re angels, Sam!”

“They want Dean for something. They said they have ‘work’ for him to do. They can shove that. Dean is doing nothing for them.”

“You think?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “Because the Dean I know will do whatever they ask out of gratitude for them springing him. Hell, he’d probably do it even if they hadn’t. He’s a good man. He’ll help where he can.”

Did she really think she was saying anything Sam didn’t already know? He knew his brother better than anyone. But Dean wasn’t doing it. Whatever they wanted from him, they could get from Sam and be grateful. He wasn’t going to let his brother get dragged into angel crap. He had already given too much. It was his time to be safe.

“He won’t have a choice,” Sam said.

Ruby nodded. “I’m with you there. I don’t want Dean at risk any more than you do, but how are we supposed to stop him?”

“That’s where the killing comes in. I’ve stabbed one with the demon knife and another with obsidian and neither weapon even slowed them down. I need to know what can take them out.”

“You’re crazy,” Ruby breathed. “Really crazy. You think you can kill an angel. Aside from the physical difficulty, it’s an angel Sam. I’m not exactly the praying type but…”

“But what? I’ll be damned if I take out one of God’s tree toppers? Ruby, what do you think I am now? With what I’ve spent the last four months doing, I’m surprised Castiel didn’t swap me for Dean while he was around.”

She looked sad. “Be thankful he didn’t.” When Sam looked blankly back at her, she said, “What would that do to Dean? He’s been through so much already. He doesn’t need to lose you again.”

Sam shook his head. Like he was such an asset to Dean. He was the reason Dean had gone… there… in the first place. Not only had Dean made the deal for him, but he’d failed to save him from it, too. He’d been so sure of himself, confident that he could do it, that he hadn’t looked into any other way of saving him. He’d relied on himself, and he had failed. Then he’d failed again, as his and Ruby’s plan had taken months too long. Dean had been saved by an angel instead.  Sam did nothing but let his brother down. Dean would be better off without him.

“Sam!” Ruby shook his shoulders hard. “He needs you!”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Sam said, almost honestly.

“Good,” she said, satisfied. “Now, shall we go somewhere a little more private so we can get this done?”

Sam shook his head. “We’re not doing that.”

“I know it’s only been a few days, but we should do what we can while we can. We don’t know when you’ll be able to get away from Dean and the others again.”

“No, I mean I’m not doing that at all anymore.”

“Sam, you need this. You need to strengthen yourself.”

“No, I don’t,” Sam said firmly. “I need to cling to whatever humanity I have left.”

“But Dean…”

“This is for Dean. He needs a brother not a monster.”

“And Lilith? What about her?”

Sam shook his head. “I’m strong enough now. I don’t need the blood.”

“Sam, even with the blood you couldn’t take her out last time. What makes you think you’ll be able to do it without?”

“It’s different now,” Sam said. “I’m stronger than I was then. I can do things now that I couldn’t before. When it comes time, I’ll do it. You just watch me.”

“You’ll kill yourself trying,” she said angrily.

“I won’t.”

He began to walk away from Ruby, but she came after him and grabbed his arm. His reaction was automatic. He squeezed his fist and she doubled over, crying out in pain. He held her for only a matter of seconds, just a warning, before he released her and she straightened.

She looked at him with betrayal all over her face. “You can’t do this, Sam,” she said. “I won’t let you throw yourself into the fire.”

Sam raised a hand and began to fist it, not hurting her, just warning her. “Tell Dean a single thing about what I’ve been doing and I will kill you. Understand?”

She looked stunned but she nodded. “I won’t tell him.”

“Good,” Sam said, walking away again.

He needed a drink. He needed space. Most of all he needed Dean. He needed to immerse himself in what passed as normal for them and try to scrape together what was left of his humanity.

xXx

Dean woke suddenly, the screams of his dream still echoing in his ears. He was damp with sweat and shaky, and he drew a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart.

He was on the floor of Bobby’s library, lying beside the couch where he’d insisted on sleeping instead of in the spare room so he’d hear Sam when he came back. There was a second bed made up on the couch for Sam to use, but it was untouched.

He heard a rustling sound in the kitchen, though, and thinking his brother had come back to continue the party, he got to his feet and slid open the door separating the library and kitchen.

Sam wasn’t there. The angel from The Roadhouse was.   

“Hello, Dean,” he said, and Dean took a deep breath and padded barefoot into the room.

“Castiel, right? What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you. Nice work with The Witnesses.”

“You knew about that?”

“Of course.”

“And you didn’t help? Bobby almost got his chest ripped out and Sam was choked half to death.” Dean was angry now. He’d almost lost his friend and his brother to this fight. “I thought you angels were supposed to be guardians—fluffy wings, halos, you know?”

“Read the Bible. Angels are warriors of God. I'm a soldier. Besides, we helped where we could.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ask your brother who saved him from the werewolf.”

“Oh,” Dean said lamely. “Well, thanks for that then.”

Castiel shook his head. “He was not saved for thanks; he was saved because he is a warrior, too, and with the threat that hangs over us now, we need all the help we can get.”

“That’s for real then,” Dean said. “What Bobby said about The Witnesses being some kind of portent of the apocalypse?”

“Wait,” Castiel said.

Dean frowned. “For…?”

There was no need for Castiel to answer. The answer came in the form of the door opening and Sam stumbling though, reeking of whiskey. He looked from Dean to Castiel and sighed. “Awesome.”

Castiel continued their conversation as if there had been no interruption. “The rising of The Witnesses is one of the sixty-six seals. Those seals are being broken by Lilith.”

“Lilith!” Dean shuddered. He had not forgotten the little girl who had watched with glee while the hounds tore him apart. He remembered her face, her voice, her laugh.

Sam’s expression darkened and Dean immediately regretted not concealing his reaction. Sam would remember her as well as Dean if not better.

“Yes, Lilith,” Castiel said calmly. “She chose specific ghosts when she did the spell. Her intention, which was successful, was to kill as many warriors as she could.”

“Hunters,” Sam said.

Castiel nodded.

“But we put the spirits back to rest,” Dean said. “So it’s okay now.”

“No more people will die by their hand,” Castiel agreed. “But the damage is done. The seal was broken.”

“Why break the seal?” Dean asked,

“Think of the seals as locks on a door,” Castiel said,

“Okay. Last one opens and...”

“Lucifer walks free,” Castiel said solemnly.

“Lucifer?” Sam scoffed. “Lucifer’s just a story they tell at demon Sunday school. There's no such thing.”

“Two days ago, you thought there was no such thing as me. Why do you think we're here walking among you now for the first time in two-thousand years?”

“To stop Lucifer,” Dean breathed.

“That's why we've arrived.”

He looked Dean in the eye for a moment, seeming to stare right into him, and then disappeared.

Sam staggered to the table and collapsed into a chair. Dean sat opposite him, taking in what a mess his brother was and wondering where he would even begin to make it right for him.

“Angels,” Sam said, making the word sound like a curse.

“They can’t be all bad,” Dean said reasonably. “Castiel got me out and he said something about you being saved from a werewolf.”

Sam dragged his eyes up from the tabletop to look at Dean. He nodded but didn’t speak. Dean wanted to know more about what had happened, but Sam looked away and broke the moment. There were other things he needed to talk about though, things he needed to know.

“Sam, that night, what happened?” There was no need to clarify what night. Sam would know. That night was surely imprinted in Sam’s memory as clearly as the night Sam turned the gun on himself was for Dean.

Sam raised his eyes to Dean’s again. Dean almost wished he hadn’t. He looked awful, haunted, pained, as if in that moment he was suffering physical agony. Expect he wasn’t. Dean had seen Sam in physical pain before, and it didn’t look like this. It didn’t look as bad this. Dean wanted to retract the question, but Sam had sucked in a deep breath and Dean was listening despite himself.

“I don’t know,” he said mournfully. “I thought I had her. I had a strong grip on her. Then she started fighting somehow, and it was like… I can’t explain. It wasn’t pain. It was something else. But I still thought I had it, then it was midnight, and I got distracted, and she was able to push me away. And…” He swallowed hard. “I am so sorry, Dean. I don’t even have words… I swear I tried. I know it’s my fault. I didn’t… And you… And I can’t even begin to understand what you went through. I am so, so sorry…“

Dean thought Sam would have gone on apologizing all night if he let him. He had already let him say too much, but seeing Sam so open was so unexpected that he couldn’t stop him. He had heard enough though, and he forced himself to cut in on the stream of words because it was becoming too painful to listen to the longer it went on. “Sam!”

Sam ceased his endless apology and raised red eyes to Dean.

“It was not your fault,” Dean said forcefully.

“If I’d tried harder—“

“No! You couldn’t have tried harder. I saw you, Sam; you were giving it all you had. You tried, I know that better than anyone. No one could have done more. No one ever has done more for me. Lilith was just too strong, Sam, and you’re only a man, powers or no.”

“I could’ve—“

“What?” Dean asked. “What else could you have done?”

“I could have found another way. I shouldn’t have relied on myself to do it.”

“Bobby tried that. He spent the year counting down trying to find another way for me, and he came up with nothing. There was no chance of saving me, not through you or any other means. Understand? You did everything you could, Sam. There was nothing you or anyone else could have done for me. It wasn’t even that bad.”

“You went to Hell Dean,” Sam growled.

“I know. What I mean is that it’s not so bad now that I’m out. It’s brilliant, in fact. I don’t remember Hell, Sam. I’m sure it must have been bad and I must’ve suffered, but I don’t remember any of it.” He was lying to his brother, something he’d sworn he wouldn’t do again, but Sam needed this lie. 

“You don’t?”  Sam looked stunned.

“Not a single second,” Dean said. “I remember the hounds coming for me, and then it’s just a blank until I got topside. The angels must have wiped my memory.” He smiled. “It’s all good, Sam. I’m out. You’re here. We’re together. If we can just take care of this impending apocalypse, things will be golden.”

Sam’s face transformed from misery to something close to happiness. It was like seeing the sun creeping around the edges of a cloud—a glimpse of something that could be great. Dean was loath to ruin it, but he needed to know something, and he thought the only time he might get a straight answer was when Sam was out of his head on drink.

“Bobby said we lost the colt. What happened?”

The sun disappeared and Sam became dark again.

xXx

Lilith’s sick, childlike laughter was all he could hear. He knew Dean had to be making sounds, but there was nothing but her ringing in his ears.

Dean didn’t fall straight away. When the first swipe of the claws reached him, he bucked but kept his feet. His arms jerked and then fell to his sides again. He didn’t try to staunch his bleeding. The second attack came and Dean fell back. There were wounds, there had to be wounds, but Sam couldn’t see them. All he could see was Dean’s right hand slowly moving across the parquet floor, reaching for something. Sam knew who he was reaching for, and he fought harder than ever to be free. It was too late to save him, he knew that, but he could be there and give his brother that connection. He couldn’t break free though. All he could do was move his hand an inch away from the wall and reach for Dean with his fingertips.

Then Dean’s hand stilled, the fingers curled slightly and moved no more, and Sam knew it was over.

“Bye-bye, Dean,” Lilith sang.

Tears streamed down Sam’s cheeks and his breath was hard to catch. He thought his heart would stop through sheer agony. It seemed impossible that he could hurt this much and it could keep on beating. He wanted it to stop. Death, Hell, had to be easier to bear than what he was already feeling.

Lilith was speaking, undoubtedly taunting him, but it was white noise. He couldn’t hear anything but his heart pounding in his ears. He couldn’t see anything but Dean’s face, uninjured and clear of blood, wet with the water now trickling from the sprinklers. It almost looked like he was crying, too.

“Kill me. Please, kill me.”

It took Sam a moment to realize the words had slipped from his own mouth. The plea had come from him without thought or permission.

“Kill you?” Lilith asked, in her high, childish tones. “No. Silly Sammy, it’s much more fun to watch you do it to yourself. I’m going to really enjoy this.”

“If I get free, I’ll kill you,” Sam said. “You have to know that.”

She smirked. “You’ll have to find me first. We’re going to have a game of hide and seek. I’m really, really good at it.” She spun the colt on her finger. “Ready to play?” She disappeared without a sound.

Sam felt the force pinning him vanish and he stumbled forward toward his brother, sloshing in the water. He knelt and brushed a hand over Dean’s peaceful face.

How can he be peaceful?

“I’m sorry, Dean,” he whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Dean couldn’t reply. The knowledge broke Sam a little more. He grabbed Dean’s shoulders and lifted him against his chest. He began to rock him back and forth, crying and howling his pain out without relief.

xXx

Sam shook his head, shaking away the memory to return to him while he slept.

“Sam,” Dean prompted. “What happened to the colt?”

“Lilith took it,” he said dully.

Dean could never know the rest.

xXx

Sam passed out on Bobby’s couch and Dean lay down again to try to get some more sleep, but he realized after a few minutes it wasn’t going to happen. His mind was too filled with revelations and memories to allow him to rest.

He went into the kitchen and got himself a glass of water. There was a bottle of whiskey on the counter that he knew Bobby wouldn’t mind him sharing, but he knew that would be a slippery slope for him to start to descend. He sensed there were more sleepless nights on the horizon for him, and he couldn’t deal with them by drinking every time.

He sat for a long time, just thinking over what Castiel had told them. It seemed incredible that the honest-to-God apocalypse was looming over them. Yellow-Eyes had been bad enough. The hunt for him had shaped his and Sam’s lives; it had cost Sam’s life and with the deal by extension Dean’s. What would it take to save the world from the apocalypse before it was over?

As the sky outside the window began to lighten with the dawn, Dean heard movement overhead and then footsteps coming down the stairs.

He pasted on a smile and waited. A moment later Bobby came into the room, dressed for the day. He seemed as alert and awake as Dean felt, and he suspected Bobby might have been lying awake for a while, too.

Bobby paused in the library and looked at Sam’s sleeping back for a moment then sighed and came into the kitchen.

“What time did he roll in?” he asked, thumbing over his shoulder.

“Around two. Just in time for Castiel’s appearance.”

“That angel was here?”

Dean nodded. “He came to fill us in on a few things. That and scare the crap out of us.”

Bobby looked at him questioningly as he pulled out a chair and sat down, and Dean went on, telling him everything Castiel had told him during his visit. As he came to a finish, Bobby leaned back in his seat and blew out a breath.

“Lilith’s doing this?”

“Yeah. She’s apparently got big plans now.”

“Sounds like. Did Castiel tell you anything else about these seals? Like how we’re supposed to stop them from breaking?”

“No, and to be honest, I was reeling too much to ask anything. Next time he drops in, I’ll ask some more.”

“Might be an idea,” Bobby said. “So, is that what’s got you sitting in my kitchen in the early hours?”

“Not entirely,” Dean admitted. It was no good lying to Bobby, He always knew.

“I don’t imagine it is. Do you want to talk about it?”

Dean considered. He was torn. He did want to talk, but at the same time he was afraid. There was so much he was keeping to himself that he didn’t want to share, but perhaps if he told some of it he’d feel better.

“Yeah, I think I do,” he said.

“Is it Hell?” Bobby asked bluntly.

Dean held back a shudder. When Bobby said it, it sounded simple, like it could be explained in that one syllable word. The name of the place didn’t even begin to encompass it. It didn’t explain the pain and stench and noise and pure desperation.

Dean drew a breath and said, “Time in the pit is somehow different than it is up here. It was four months here, right? But down there it was decades.”

Bobby didn’t say a word, but Dean could see his shock clearly enough.

“I don’t know how long I was there exactly. I just know it felt like forever.  Every day seemed endless and there were so many damn days. Endless days on the rack…” He did shudder this time as the memories came to him. “And the pain… Pain doesn’t even come close. Not agony either. I have no word for what it felt like.” Dean shook his head. “And then it gets worse.”

“What could possibly be worse?” Bobby was pale and he looked like he wanted to be sick.

Dean shook his head. He couldn’t confess that. What he had done there was a secret that he had to keep to himself. He knew on the logical level that it wasn’t his fault. A person could only stand so much before he or she broke. But he didn’t want Bobby to see him as what he had become. He wanted to stay his boy.

“I can’t talk about that part,” he said. “I’m sorry, Bobby.

“Can you talk to anyone about it?” Bobby asked. “Sonny maybe? Or Sam?”

“Sam?” Dean laughed harshly. “Are you kidding me? Have you even seen him lately? He’s…” He didn’t even have words to describe what Sam was now.

“He’s messed up,” Bobby agreed. “But he’s still Sam. He’s tough. He can take it.”

“No,” Dean said firmly. “I told him I don’t remember Hell, and that’s how it stays. Sam doesn’t need more of my crap dragging him down. He’s been through enough. He can’t take any more.”

“Are you sure that’s not just your fear talking?”

“It’s my heart talking. I have put Sam through enough. I refuse to add to it with anything unnecessary.

“This doesn’t sound unnecessary to me.”

“It is,” Dean said. “Sam doesn’t need to know. He needs my help, not the other way around.”

“I think you’re wrong,” Bobby said. “I think you both need help, and lying to your brother isn’t helping anyone.”

Dean shook his head. Bobby didn’t understand. He hadn’t seen Sam break in the night. He hadn’t seen the raw pain in him as he’d apologized. Sam didn’t need to know, and Dean would make sure he didn’t.

“I mean it, Bobby,” Dean said. “Sam doesn’t hear a word of what I told you, understand?”

“You’re making a mistake.” He sighed. “Fine. I’ll back your play, I won’t tell him anything, but just don’t expect it to end well.”

Dean nodded, satisfied. It probably wouldn’t end well, things rarely did for them, but Sam would have something close to peace for a little longer. That was worth the lie. 

Chapter Text

 

Sam was dreaming. He was in yet another rundown warehouse and he was waiting for something. He was very aware that it was taking too long. He wasn’t strong enough yet. He hadn’t succeeded. Dean was still gone.

The door opened and Ruby came in with another demon bound and hooded in front of her. It was in the meat-suit of a man, but that made no difference to him. Man, woman, young, old, he hurt them all. He was just drawing a breath, preparing to work, when Ruby pulled off the hood and Sam saw who the demon was.

Dean.

Dean blinked black eyes and grinned. “You took too long, Sammy. I got out on my own.”

His brother’s name slipped between his numb lips and the feeling of rightness and power that was always there when he was doing this disappeared to be replaced with devastation. It was too late. He’d failed.

“Ready, Sam?” Ruby asked.

Sam nodded without thought and his hand rose from his side to point at the demon wearing his brother’s face. Dean looked amused, as if he knew Sam couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. He was wrong. Sam’s hand fisted and Dean cried out in pain. Tears streamed down Sam’s face and yet he kept working. Dean was in agony. He was going to kill him, he knew, and he still couldn’t stop. It was as if the powers were in control. He couldn’t do anything but watch as Dean’s eyes became fear-filled and he bucked with pain.

“Go on, Sam,” Ruby chanted. “You can do it. This is what we need.”

Sam clenched his fist harder. Dean’s eyes widened and he fell down dead, his face crackling with yellow energy.

Sam woke up with a scream in his chest which bubbled up his throat. He caught it between his teeth and exchanged it for a quiet moan.

Just a dream, he reminded himself. Dean’s back. He’s fine.

His eyes moved from his fisted hands toward the other bed, but stopped when he caught sight of the angel standing in the doorway. Uriel seemed to fill the whole room with his presence, as if his wings were taking up the space. Sam’s glanced at the other bed and saw Dean was there, fast asleep with his breaths coming gentle and easy.

“What were you dreaming about?” Uriel asked.

“Puppies and unicorns. What are you doing here?”

“There is something you need to see,” Uriel said, reaching for Sam.

Sam was out of the bed and on his feet in an instant. “Touch me and I’ll end you!”

Uriel chuckled, a deep and dark sound. “You can try. You have tried. Look how well that worked out.”

Sam glanced at Dean again. He was still sleeping, despite the noise of the room. “What have you done to him?” he asked.

“I have made it so he has a peaceful night,” Uriel said.

Sam narrowed his eyes. “How?”

Uriel sneered. “That is not your concern.”

“If you think I am doing anything for you while you’ve got him—“

“Enough,” Uriel snapped. One moment he was by the door, the next he was right in front of Sam with Sam’s wrist gripped tightly in his hand.

He tried to pull away, but Uriel was too strong. The angel lifted two fingers and pressed them to Sam’s temple. Sam felt a sick twist in his stomach and then nothing

xXx

He woke up in an alley that stank of urine and garbage. In an instant he was on his feet and patting himself down for weapons. He had none. He had nothing but the clothes he’d gone to bed in that night.

“Uriel, you bastard,” he growled.

“You should treat prayer with a little more reverence,” a deep voice said behind him.

Sam spun on his heel and saw Uriel standing there, smug smile on his face. “Prayer? You’re kidding me, right? I don’t pray.”

“It was directed at me, and that makes it a prayer.”

“I’ll be sure not to do that again,” Sam said. “What the hell am I doing here? Where is here anyway?”

Uriel smiled. “That’s the joy of this for me, you know. The so-called Mighty Sam Winchester being reduced to asking questions from me. It’s high time you realized your place in this scheme of things. I am an angel. You are a human. Who do you think holds the upper hand here?”

Sam turned away from him and made for the mouth of the alley. He was going to find out where the hell Uriel had bounced him, and then he was getting home. He didn’t care what Uriel thought he should see. It was angel crap, which meant it was not his problem.

When he reached the mouth of the alley, he realized there was a much bigger problem than where he was.

He turned. “What the…”

“I’m glad you have caught on so fast. It will make things easier for you.”

“Why am I here?” Sam asked.

Uriel laughed. He was still laughing when he vanished with a fluttering sound.

Sam cursed loudly and ducked back deeper into the alley. He knew some of the where from the cars he had seen—they’d been bearing Kansas plates—but the when he wasn’t too sure of. Unless he’d arrived on classic car day, he was well out of his time. Dean would know when he was. He would probably look at the cars and nail down a date immediately, but Sam had never been a gearhead.

The question of why he was there occurred to him. He didn’t think it was just Uriel screwing with him. There was apparently something he needed to see. Sam hated the angel and was loath to do anything for him, including see whatever Uriel thought it was worth bumping him through time to see, but at the same time he was curious.

He made his way slowly to the end of the alley again and looked up and down the street. His first task had to be to get himself some of the necessities—cash and a weapon. The cash was easy, but the weapon might pose a problem for him. He’d improvise. That was what Winchesters did.

He walked out of the alley and along the street, searching for a mark. There were a few people to choose from. One he discounted immediately as it was a woman pushing a stroller. He may play fast and loose morally, but he did have certain standards. The second person was a young man walking in the other direction, but he didn’t look like he would carry much cash. The last was a middle-aged man dressed a god-awful suit. He looked like he might carry a few dollars.

It was so easy he felt almost guilty for it. He bumped into the man, knocking him back a few steps. In the process of apologizing profusely and helping right him, he snaked the man’s wallet out on his pocket. He apologized once more and walked away along the street at a steady pace. When he’d turned a corner, he took out the bills and dropped the wallet onto the ground. 

Cash taken care of, he needed a weapon. There were a few stores on the street he was on, but none of them looked like a likely place to get hold of something useful for self protection. He turned a few blocks until he came to what he assumed was the town’s shopping district. He was just scouting for a hunting store when he passed a small grocery store and realized that it might be helpful to know exactly when he was. He entered the store and made straight for the news rack. As soon as he saw the title of the newspaper he realized he should have known all along. Where else would he be but Lawrence? The surprising part was the date. Over the headline—Nixon Picks FBI head. Goes to retreat—was the date April 28th 1973. Uriel had bounced him back over three decades. What the hell was he supposed to see that happened this long ago?

He exited the store and went along Main Street, trying to come up with a reason for Uriel to send him back. He had no ideas, not one, until he heard a voice calling out across the street.

“Hey, Winchester!”

He turned automatically, not connecting the dots until he saw a man waving and a couple turning. The couple was holding hands, the woman with blonde hair that swept down her back and a slim figure. The man was tall with dark hair and a wide welcoming smile for the person who had hailed him.

His heart leapt into his throat and he breathed their names. “Mom. Dad.”

John and Mary Winchester, his parents, were on the other side of the street. Sam stepped out onto the road. It was as if an invisible bond was drawing him to them. He couldn’t have fought it. His usual care and sense deserted him as he walked forward. Then the blast of a horn pulled him from his head and desire, slamming him back to the present.

He saw the car careening towards him, the sun glinting on the chrome grill and sleek paintwork. Behind the wheel was a man with wide, horrified eyes. He took it all in in the split-second it took him to realize he was about to be hit. Brakes squealed and someone screamed, and then Sam felt the impact. It didn’t come from the front, though; his legs weren’t smashed by the bumper. It came from the side, driving him to the right and onto the ground.

The breath was driven out of him and his head hit the asphalt hard, stunning him for a moment. Through his shock he heard a voice, the most amazing, beautiful voice saying, “John, my God, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mary. Hey, buddy, you okay?”

Sam rolled over and looked up into his father’s concerned face. He pushed himself quickly to his feet, swaying a little. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“Are you sure?” Mary asked gently.

Sam looked at her, absorbing the sight, and nodded.

John was on his feet now, and he put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You’re bleeding.”

Sam brought a hand to his temple and felt the warm stickiness of blood. “It’s nothing.”

“Maybe you should see Doc Harris,” John suggested.

It was bizarre to hear his father talking so solicitously about something so minor. Head injuries used to be met with ‘How many fingers?’ and ‘Need something for pain?’

A lump formed in Sam’s throat. It seemed stupid that in that moment, when he was standing right in front of him, he missed his father more than he had for over a year.

 “There’s no need,” Sam said.

“You need something,” Mary said. “You’ve got a cut there, and infections can be bad. How about I fix you up?”

Sam knew he was being pathetic, and no one who knew him would believe that he was saying it, but he nodded and said, “That’d be great.”

The truth was he just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his mother yet. He didn’t trust Uriel to let him stay now that he was so happy—he would probably bounce Sam home out of sheer maliciousness. He wanted to cling to every second of his parents he could have.

“What’s your name?” John asked as they set off along the street.

“Sam.”

“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m John Winchester, and this is Mary Campbell.”

Sam smiled at them each in turn. “Thanks for the save,” he said to John.

John waved away his thanks. “It’s no problem. Be careful out there next time though.”

“I will.”

“Come on,” Mary said, glancing at Sam’s head again with a frown. “We should get going.”

“If you’re heading back to your place…” John said, letting the unfinished sentence hang in the air.

Mary looked a little disappointed, but she nodded. “I’ll see you later.”

“Meet up in a couple hours,” John said, squeezing her hand. He smiled at Sam, said, “I’ll see you again, Sam,” and headed off in the opposite direction.

Mary watched him go with a small smile and then turned to Sam. “Let’s get you fixed up.”

xXx

As disappointed as Sam was to lose his father’s presence, he appreciated the chance to spend a little time with his mother alone. He had never had that time before that he could remember.

He understood where Dean got the side of himself that made him so good at his job with the kids now, because he was with the source of it. John had sometimes said, when loaded, that Sam was so much like his mother, but as they hurried along the street, Mary chattering while checking he was feeling okay every few minutes, Sam saw the truth. She was the nurturing one, and Dean was the one who took after her. Sam’s nature belonged to his father. They were the hunters of the family.

They came to a house set a little back from the street and Mary led Sam up the path and to the door. She threw it open and went inside calling, “Mom, you home?”

A woman appeared at the end of the hall drying her hands on a cloth. “Mary, have you… Oh.” She did a double take when she saw Sam. “Hello.”

“This is Sam,” Mary said. “Sam this is my mother Deanna Campbell.”

Sam’s grandmother. He knew nothing about her. He hadn’t even known her name before then. John had never mentioned his mother’s parents. There was something familiar about her eyes though. She was pretty and maternal looking, with a kind smile. Sam saw the resemblance between her and her daughter.

“Sam had a little accident,” Mary went on.

“I can see,” Deanna said. “Come on in, young man. We’ll clean you right up.”

Sam followed her into a large kitchen with scrubbed counters and old-fashioned appliances that looked brand new. Deanna directed Sam to a chair at the polished table and Mary retrieved a first aid kit from under the sink.

“What happened?” Deanna asked.                                                                                                

Sam felt color rise to his cheeks. “I, uh, had a mishap on the road.”

“John saved him,” Mary said proudly. “He almost got hit by a car. John ran out right into the road and knocked him out of the way.”

“Well done, John,” Deanna said.

Sam nodded. “He saved my life. Helluva guy.”

Mary beamed at him. “Maybe you can mention that if you meet my father.”

“Now, Mary, that’s not fair. Your father is just looking out for you. He loves you and simply wants the very best for you.”

“John is the best,” Mary said obstinately. “Would Dad rather I ended up with some hu— someone else?”

Sam frowned. She had almost said something else. He puzzled over the aborted word while she dabbed at his cut with antiseptic. One answer presented itself, but he didn’t believe it could be that. It wasn’t possible that they knew about hunters, was it?

Sam’s instincts kicked it and he started to look covertly around the room. He could see the edge of a devil’s trap peeking out from under the large rug that covered the floor, a large wooden chest in the hall that he would bet anything concealed their weapons, a sigil carved into the back of the door, and the charms on the bracelet that was dancing in front of Sam’s eyes as Mary tended to him.

His heart sank. He didn’t want this for her. Not his mother. She wasn’t supposed to know this life, not the life of a hunter. He saw it now though: the hint of something different in her eyes, the mark of a hunter. It was the same thing Sam saw every time he looked into a mirror, every time he looked at Bobby, in almost every face in The Roadhouse.

Was this what Uriel had brought him back for? To see that his mother’s life was just as blighted by the supernatural as his was? What an asshole.

Before Sam could decide whether or not to out himself to his mother as a hunter, the front door banged open and a man strode in. He was tall and imposing, baldheaded and hard faced. He took in the sight of Mary dabbing at Sam’s wound and Deanna standing beside them and he frowned.

“Who’s our guest?” he asked gruffly.

“This is Sam,” Deanna said. “He had an accident and Mary is fixing him up.”

As he stepped closer and Sam got a good look at him, he realized he would have known the man was a hunter even if he hadn’t seen the other clues.

Mary recited the story of John’s rescue, and Samuel’s face grew harder with every word. As Mary finished, he said, “The boy’s not completely useless then.”

“Dad!” Mary said stridently.

“Not useless at all,” Sam said, goaded into speech by the man’s disrespect.  “He saved my life.”

Samuel raised an eyebrow. “It seems stupid to need saving while you’re crossing the street.”

“Maybe,” Sam said. “I guess I’m lucky there was someone to save my stupid ass.”

“Okay, that’s enough” Deanna said loudly. “Sam, would you like to stay for lunch?”

“I’m sure Sam has more important things to be doing,” Samuel cut in.

Sam looked past him at his grandmother and said, “I’d love to,” with a smile. He was surprised though. Hunters, as a rule, were usually guarded and mistrustful. There weren’t many who would open their home to a stranger that their daughter had brought home. He wasn’t complaining though. The more time he had with his mother the better. He wanted to cement as many details of her in his mind as he could before he was taken back to his own time.

Samuel huffed and stomped out of the room and Deanna followed. Mary sat back in her chair and smiled at Sam. “Don’t mind my father. He hates most people.”

Sam ducked his head and smiled. He usually hated most people. The only ones he let in were his small family. He couldn’t hate now though. These people were family. That was his mother sitting beside him and patting his hand where it lay on the table. It was real, flesh and blood. It was a miracle. How could he fail to appreciate that?

Sam went to clean up and when he got back to the table there were sandwiches and salad set out and four place settings. He sat between his grandmother and Mary, opposite Samuel, and settled to eat. They passed a few minutes quietly, only speaking to compliment Deanna on the food. Sam enjoyed the meal and the atmosphere, and he tried not to stare too long at his mother. It was hard. He wanted every detail.

“So,” Samuel said after a while, pushing his plate away, “what are you doing in town, Sam? I don’t recognize you, and I know most everyone here.”

“I’m just passing through,” Sam said. “Just working my way across the country.”

“Working?” Samuel asked.

“I do all kinds of things.”

“You’re a vagrant?”

“Dad,” Mary hissed, obviously embarrassed.

“You could say that,” Sam said, fighting his annoyance. “I do what I can.”

“Basically you’re saying you have nothing to offer the country,” Samuel said. “Did you do your service?”

“Not in that war,” Sam replied.

Samuel scoffed. “Fine man you’ve brought home, Mary. At least that Winchester kid has done his duty.”

Sam’s thought Samuel had enjoyed giving him crap and holding all the cards for long enough. It was about time Sam got to have a say of his own. He chewed slowly, swallowed his mouthful, and asked, “So, how long have you been a hunter?”

Mary choked and Deanna patted her back. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she turned to Sam and said, “Hunter?”

Samuel narrowed his eyes at Sam, and Sam stared back. He wasn’t intimidated by this man. He wasn’t afraid. He was sure he’d handled more than he had in the name of the hunt, despite the fact Samuel had more years on him. He wasn’t going to be cowed, no matter the family connection.

“More years than you’ve been alive,” Samuel said finally. “You?”

Mary gasped and Deanna’s gaze fell on Sam.

“Raised in the life,” Sam said.

“Vampires: holy water or a stake to the heart?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Decapitation. I save holy water for demons. Shapeshifters?”

“Silver to the heart,” Samuel said quickly. “Ghouls?”

“Okay, okay,” Deanna said. “You’ve both passed the test. You’re both hunters.”

Mary looked downcast as she looked at Sam.  

“Is that why you’re here?” Deanna went on. “Are you hunting something?”

“No,” Sam said simply.

“Then what are you doing here?” Samuel asked.  

“No idea,” Sam said. “I got… sent… here for something. I’m still trying to work out what.”

“Sent by who?” Samuel asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Okay, we’re finished,” Samuel said, throwing his napkin down. “It’s time for you leave.”

“Dad!”

“No. I don’t like other hunters. I don’t like secrets. I don’t like unwanted houseguests, and I don’t like you,” Samuel said stiffly. “Leave now.”

Sam got to his feet. “Okay.” He was pretty much done with Samuel anyway. He would track down John and have some time with his father instead. John would eventually lead him back to Mary anyway.

He thanked Deanna for the meal, smiled at Mary, and made for the door. He could hear Mary and Deanna joining in a chorus of remonstration and he grinned. Samuel might have had the pleasure of throwing him out, but he was going to have to deal with the women in his life being pissed for a while, and that amused him no end.

He was halfway down the street when he heard the running footsteps following him. He turned and saw Mary coming after him, an exalted smile on her face.

“What are you doing?” Sam asked.

“Coming with you, of course.”

“What about your father?”

“I told him off.” She grinned. “Mom’s doing the same right now. Poor Dad’s never had a day like it.”

Sam laughed.

“He’s not always that bad,” she said. Sam looked doubtfully at her and she amended. “Okay, he’s always that bad, but once you get to know him he’s great.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Sam said.

She fell into step beside him as they walked along the street. For a while they were silent, and then Mary asked, “Sam, who did bring you here?”

“Someone who likes to mess with me.”

“That’s not much of an answer.”

“I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. It’s just that once you know, things will change for you, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“You’re scaring me a little.”

“Precisely. Imagine how bad it would be if you knew the truth.”

She shook her head. “You’re different, aren’t you? I don’t mean because you’re a hunter. I mean that you’re hiding something huge.”

Sam looked into his mother’s eyes, wishing he could tell her the truth. He wanted to tell her who he was and to be known by her as an adult as opposed to the baby she could only hold for six months. He couldn’t though. She would be changed forever if he did that. There was one thing he could do for her though. One thing he could do for them all. He caught her arm and they stopped walking.

“Mary, do you trust me?”

“Yes,” she answered quickly. “I don’t understand it. It’s like I have known you forever, not a few hours, but I trust you.”

“Will you do something for me?” he asked. “Ten years from now, the night of November second, eighty-three, stay in bed. No matter what you hear, no matter what happens, stay in bed. Will you do that for me?”

“Stay in bed?”

Sam nodded. “No matter what. Please.” His voice cracked. “Please, do this for me.”

“Ten years from now?” She frowned and then gasped. “That’s where you’re from, isn’t it? This person that sent you here, didn’t just send you to Lawrence, they sent you in time, too?”

Sam gaped at her.

“I know you then, too, don’t I?” she asked eagerly. “I’m right, aren’t I? I know you.”

How could he possibly explain the way they were linked? He couldn’t. He didn’t even want to. Sam wanted his mother to live her life like anyone else, to be surprised by events rather than to expect them. As much as he wanted to look at her and have her know she was his mother, he was her son, he couldn’t do that to her. He just nodded.

“I thought so. This is wild.”

“That’s one word for it,” Sam said with a smile.

They set off walking along the street again.

“Why do I have to stay in bed, Sam?”

Sam grimaced. “I could tell you. I could spell it all out for you, but it would change things. Believe me, even a year with something over you is too much. You will do everything to avert it and make yourself crazy and it….” He drew a breath. “It’s better not to know.”

She nodded somberly. “You’ve seen a lot, haven’t you?” she asked a little sadly. 

“More than you can imagine.”

“One more question and I’ll stop,” she said.

“Go ahead.”

“Are you family? You remind me so much of John, and your eyes are just like my father’s.”

Sam hesitated, unsure of how to answer. He could tell her that he was a relation; he didn’t need to tell her it all… Before he could decide what to say or do, he heard the sound of a familiar engine approaching and a car pulled up beside them. John’s car, his, Dean’s—the Impala.

“What on earth?” Mary started.

John wound down the window and peered out at them. “What do you think?” he asked.

“This?” Mary asked. “This is what you bought? What about the van?”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. I saw it there, but then I saw this and it just felt right. Do you know what I mean?”

“No,” Mary said.

Sam grinned. “It’s a beauty, John, a real beauty.”

John looked pleased by his assessment. “Don’t be mad,” he said to Mary. “This’ll work just as well as the van would’ve. Get in and test it out. It runs as smooth as anything.”

Sighing heavily, Mary went around to the passenger side and climbed in. Sam was examining the smooth lines of the car. Its condition was as perfect as it was in his time. John had maintained it, and Dean after, keeping it the way it had looked the day John bought it.

“Are you coming, Sam?” John asked.

Sam looked up. “What?”

“Come on in.”

Sam climbed into the backseat, the seat he hadn’t occupied since he was a child, and settled in. A part of him wanted to laugh at the situation. His mother and father in the front while he rode back, just as it should have been. The fact he was technically older than his parents now made it all the more ironic.

xXx

John drove them across town to a diner where they went inside and took a booth. He leaned back in his seat and smiled as Mary and John argued good-naturedly about the Impala.

He wished Dean was there to share the moment. He would have gotten as much out of this as Sam was getting. Perhaps that was why he wasn’t here. Uriel wasn’t intentionally supplying Sam with a chance to build memories with this, so he wouldn’t extend the same opportunity to Dean.  

When the waitress came over to the table to take their orders, John ordered a milkshake and Sam had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. The John Winchester he knew was a coffee or whiskey man, more often the latter. The idea of seeing him slurping down a milkshake was bizarre. It made him realize more than anything else the difference in the man Sam had known and modeled himself on. Even though this John had already been through a war, he retained an innocence that was rare. Sam wondered if it was fatherhood that had changed him gradually or if Mary’s death had done it in one fell swoop.

Sam was enjoying himself, listening to them both talking, when he felt eyes on him. He glanced up and saw Uriel standing by the door. He almost groaned. He wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t want to go. He hadn’t seen what he was supposed to see.

He ignored him.

He sat chatting with his parents. Absorbing them from one second to the next, until he could bear Uriel’s stare no more. He was afraid Uriel would come to their table and introduce himself as who and what he was just to spite Sam. He didn’t want that. It would ruin everything.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He couldn’t guarantee that though.

Mary followed his gaze to Uriel and with a slight widening of her eyes Sam saw that she understood the who of Sam’s appearance in her time. She couldn’t question him though, not with John there beside her. She looked up into Sam’s eyes and a hundred questions danced in them. Sam thought she knew this was it for them and their time together. He smiled at her sadly and she nodded.

As Sam approached Uriel, the angel turned and walked out of the door. Sam followed him outside and along the street. When they were out of view of the diner windows, Uriel sneered at him and said, “For someone with a reputation like yours, you are an amazingly stupid man.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “And for someone that’s supposed to be an angel, you’re a huge dick.”

Uriel disregarded the insult. “I did not bring you back here to have a family fun day. I brought you here for a reason.”

“Which is?” Sam asked,

Uriel sighed. “You are a hunter, Winchester. Why else would you be here but to hunt.”

“What am I supposed to be hunting?”

Uriel considered him for a moment, and then he said. “I will show you.”

He grasped Sam’s arm tight and Sam felt a dizzying sensation. He closed his eyes, and when they opened again it was dark. They were outside, and Sam could hear voices. He spun on his heel and shouted an inarticulate cry of shock and sadness.

“Quite the picture, isn’t it?” Uriel said.

Mary was kneeling on the ground with John cradled in her arms—John’s body. His head was at an unnatural angle that could only come of a broken neck.  Samuel was bowing over her.  

“Dad,” Sam moaned, rushing forward.

“They can’t see you,” Uriel said impatiently. “They can’t hear you. We’re not really here.”

Sam took in the scene; his father dead, his mother devastated, and Samuel over her—Samuel with yellow eyes.

“No!” Sam gasped. “He can’t be here!”

“Of course he can,” Uriel said. “He’s not been to that Wyoming cemetery yet. You haven’t killed him. Now, listen. This is why you are here.”

 “Think about it,” Yellow Eyes was saying, “you could be done with hunting forever: the white picket fence, station wagon, couple of kids, no more monsters or fear. I'll make sure of it.”

“What? And all it costs is my soul?” Mary asked tearfully.

“Oh no. You can keep your soul. I just need permission.

Mary wiped at the tears on her face. “For what?”

“In ten years I need to swing by your house for a little something, that's all.”

“For what?” Mary asked again.  

“Relax. As long as I'm not interrupted, nobody gets hurt, I promise.”

“No, Mom, no!” Sam moaned, turning to Uriel. “Let me talk to them. Let them see me.”

Uriel smiled. “No.”

Sam cursed and turned back just in time to see the demon lowering his face to Mary’s and their lips meeting in a kiss.”

“No,” Sam moaned.

“I think that will do,” Uriel said. He reached for Sam’s arm again.

Sam knew where he was before he opened his eyes again. The smell of whiskey and beer was in his nose and a faint trace of the perfume Jo wore. He was home.

“What the fuck was that?” he snarled.

Uriel smiled smugly. “That was your legacy. Ten years to the day after that little scene, you were born.  Six months later, Azazel used the invitation your mother had dealt for; he came into your nursery to bleed into your mouth. She let him in.”

“It wasn’t her fault,” Sam said automatically. “She had no choice.”

“Do you really believe that or is that just what you’re telling yourself?” Uriel asked.

“It makes no difference,” Sam said. “If she hadn’t made the deal, Dean and I would never have been born.”

The taint of blood was enough of a price for the existence of his brother, Sam knew. He had taken that blood into himself in an attempt to sustain that same existence. The fact his mother had made a deal to let the demon in meant little to him. He had done plenty worse. There was another more pressing matter in his mind.

“She went into the nursery that night, didn’t she?”

Uriel’s thick lips stretched into a wide smile. “She did. She was roasted alive because she didn’t listen.”

Sam was across the distance between them in an instant. His hands were around Uriel’s throat and squeezing. Uriel laughed loudly, not even a little hindered by Sam’s grip.

Sam gave up his attempt and stepped back. “What was the point of all that then? Why send me back?”

Uriel shook his head and muttered, “Imbecile.” He raised his voice. “You were the only one who could have averted that night. I told you that you should have been hunting. If you had paid attention to anything other than how much you were enjoying time with your parents, you would have figured out your grandfather was hunting the demon without realizing it. You could have retrieved the colt and ended it there and then. You could have averted the dark path your life took by simply doing your job. You didn’t. You failed. You allowed your heart to lead you. You ruined not only your own life but that of your whole family, too.”

Sam reeled back in shock. Why hadn’t he realized? He could have done it. He knew who had the colt. He knew how to end it. He could have killed Yellow-Eyes and saved them all. For once, one time in his life, he had believed something truly good was happening to him. He was getting to know them, and it had cost them both their lives. It had cost Dean his life. He had never felt more hatred for himself.

“Ahhh, you see,” Uriel said, sounding satisfied.

“Take me back,” Sam demanded. “Let me try again. I won’t mess up this time.”

Uriel shook his head. “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. There are rules.”

“Please,” Sam said, close to begging now. “I can still fix this.”

“You cannot. It’s too late. You have set the path of your life. You ruined the lives of those you hold dear.”

“Is that what you wanted to show me?” Sam asked. “Did you think I didn’t already know the damage I have done?”

“No,” Uriel said serenely. “I know just how aware you are of how much you’ve destroyed. I just wanted to remind you. That will help.”

“Help what?” Sam asked.

Uriel hesitated for a moment, seeming to gather up his thoughts, but then he disappeared with the now familiar fluttering sound and Sam was left alone without explanation.

His heart feeling like it was weighted, Sam walked into the bedroom and looked down at his peacefully sleeping brother.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” he whispered. “I am so sorry.”

Dean slept on, oblivious to Sam’s apology or devastation.

By morning Sam would have wiped away the tears that pooled in his eyes. He would be a hunter again, but for now he would mourn his family and his failure.

Chapter Text

Dean had finally had a good night’s sleep. For the first time since he got topside, he hadn’t woken from a nightmare. He didn’t remember dreaming at all. He woke rested. He’d forgotten how good that felt.

Sam’s bed was empty, and Dean wondered how much sleep his brother had managed before calling it quits. Dean wasn’t alone in suffering with his nightmares; he heard Sam having them, too. There was plenty in both their lives to keep them up at night.  

He dressed and went through to the kitchen in search of coffee and his brother. The coffee was there but there was no sign of Sam. Dean poured himself a mug and carried it into the bar.

Sam was sitting at his usual table in the corner, a mug of coffee in front of him and his head bowed. He looked around slowly as Dean came in, and when Dean saw the look on his face, his heart faltered. “Who?”

“No one,” Sam said. “Everyone’s okay.”

“Then what happened?”

Dean crossed the room and sat down opposite Sam. As he did, he took in the rest of Sam’s appearance. The man he had returned from Hell to find had been black eyed and grey skinned with exhaustion. In the weeks that had passed between, Sam’s eyes had returned to normal and his skin had found some color again. He didn’t look as bad now as he had then, but there was something familiar in the way he looked. It was a lot like he’d looked in those last exhausted moments before the truth had been proven that Dean was back as himself. He looked as devastated as he had been when he thought Dean had come back as some kind of monster.

“Had a visit from an angel last night,” Sam said in a cracked voice. “That dick Uriel. He took me on a little trip.”

“Like the Trickster did to me?” The look of devastation was explained. Having been taken on his own ‘trip’ by a supernatural creature, he could imagine the kind of horrors Sam had seen.

“No,” Sam said. “This wasn’t a show and tell; it was a do and see.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Uriel spat me out in 1973. I was actually there. I saw them. I talked to them.”

There was no need for him to explain who to Dean. He understood at once. “Mom and Dad.”

“Yeah.”

“Wow,” Dean breathed. “What was it like? What were they like?”

“They were… incredible. Alive. Young.”

“Happy?” Dean ventured.

“Very happy,” Sam said. “And Dad was just… He saved my life first time he saw me. He had no idea who I was, but he risked his own life to save mine.” He bought a hand up to the cut on his temple.

“You okay?” Dean asked, gesturing to the wound.

A bitter smile crept across Sam’s lips. “Yeah. Mom fixed me up.”

Dean leaned back in his seat and blew out a breath at the unbelievable words. Their mom, Mary Winchester, had done that for him. It would have been the most amazing thing for Sam to experience—Mary, tending to him like a real mother.

“Tell me about them,” Dean begged.

“She was beautiful,” Sam said. “So beautiful, more than I ever saw in a picture. And he was so different, so innocent and young. I had a lifetime with him, and I thought I knew him, but I barely scratched the surface of who he really was.  He was so happy with her. She was everything for him.” These words, more expressive than any Dean had heard Sam utter before, were spoken in a mournful voice. He was hurting, and Dean didn’t understand why.

“She was a hunter,” Sam said suddenly.

“Who was?”

“Mom.”

“Our mother was a hunter?” Dean asked incredulously.

“Her parents were, and she was starting out with them. She was getting the look.”

Dean couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He couldn’t imagine his soft, sweet mother hunting. It just didn’t fit. She was everything opposite to hunting. She was his mom.

“And our grandfather was a dick,” Sam went on. “Didn’t like other hunters. Didn’t seem to like anyone much.”

Dean smiled. “Sounds familiar.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Sam,” Dean said hesitantly, “what went wrong? I get that it must have been a shock to see them, but you seem so… I don’t know.”

“I screwed up. I didn’t think. I knew Uriel didn’t send me back for a reunion, but I didn’t really bother to try. For once, for one damn time, I just let myself be in the moment. I let myself enjoy them, and it all went wrong. Because I didn’t pay attention, because I just felt, she was forced to… and I could have…” He shook his head briskly. “I ruined everything.”

Dean was surprised—not because Sam was apparently taking on the guilt of whatever he had supposedly done wrong, that was classic Sam, but because he had let himself feel. It would have been the most desperate waste to go there, to be with them, and to not make the most of it. “What was she forced to do?” he asked.

“Mom made a demon deal with Yellow-Eyes. She had no choice. Dad was dead. Her father was possessed. It was the only way.”

“She made a deal? Is that why she died?”  

“Technically, yes. It wasn’t hounds though; it was the Demon. He needed an invitation to come in. He got in because she let him in with her deal. He bled into me because of that invitation.”

“Sam…”

“It wasn’t her fault,” Sam said quickly. “Dad was dead. If she hadn’t made the deal, we’d never have been born anyway. A little demon blood doesn’t seem a bad exchange, and she never even knew that was what he would do.” He scrubbed a hand over his face and started to speak in a rush.  “And I tried to warn her. I told her not to get out of bed. But it didn’t work. I could have stopped it all. Things could have been so different. We could have had normal lives. You could have all lived.”

Dean reached over the table and gripped Sam’s arm hard. “Not your fault Sam. I know what you’re thinking; you’re blaming yourself for the deals.” By the way Sam ducked his head he knew he was right. Sam was thinking exactly that. “You couldn’t have stopped it.”

Sam drew a deep breath and straightened his back. “Maybe. We’ll never know. It all happened anyway.”

“It did,” Dean said forcefully. “It happened because she made her choice. We have no idea if you even being there could have made a difference. What happened to you with the blood is terrible, and I know if she had known what was going to happen, she’d never have made that deal.”

“How can you know?”

“Because she was our mom. She’d never have done that knowingly to you. The deals were not your fault. The blood was not your fault. Understand?”

Sam seemed to teeter on the verge of speech for a moment, and Dean knew it was something big he was struggling over, but he didn’t say it, whatever it was. He just nodded slowly and got to his feet. “I’ve got to clean up,” he said dully, and walked out of the bar.

xXx

Sam almost told him. He almost confessed to the months of blood and what he had done in his mission to save Dean, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d already admitted his great failure of the return to the past; he couldn’t make himself tell Dean of his failure in the present, too. Instead, he left Dean sitting in the bar, digesting all he’d heard, and escaped into the bathroom.

Dean and Ellen were in the kitchen eating breakfast when he returned. He knew at once that Dean hadn’t shared the story of Sam’s nighttime escapades with the angel, as Ellen didn’t look at him with sympathy, regret, or disappointment. She looked just as she usually did when she saw him: fond and a little concerned.

They made conversation while Sam ate, neither of them seeming to expect him to join in, which was a relief. He couldn’t face small talk that morning. The image of his mother’s face—so beautiful—kept coming to him, as did his father’s concern after he’d saved him from the car. He thought it would be a while before they left him.

He needed a distraction. A hunt would have been good, but he didn’t want Dean rushed back into it. He hadn’t mentioned hunting or started looking for one, so Sam didn’t bring up the issue either.

Without a hunt to work, he helped Ellen set up the bar that morning and then settled himself at his table with a copy of Revelations.

Sam was absorbed in the book when someone thumped down in the seat in front of him. He looked up and saw Travis, a hunter he’d known for years. John had taken cases with him when Sam was young, and then later, when Sam joined the life, they’d hunted together several times. They’d always gotten on well, but Sam hadn’t really spent any time with him over the last couple years since John’s death. He wasn’t in the mood for a chat, not after the night he’d had.

“Hey, Winchester,” Travis said. “How’ve you been?”

“Just fine,” Sam said. “Something I can do for you?”

“Yeah, actually, there is. I have a case, but I’m a little handicapped.” He had a plaster cast on his arm that he tapped against the edge of the table.

“No can do,” Sam said shortly. He wasn’t dragging Dean back into the hunt until he was ready, and Dean hadn’t said anything about wanting to hunt yet. He would take the case alone, but the time in which he could just take off and dump his brother was gone. They were a team now.  

“You don’t even know what the case is yet,” Travis said.

“I don’t need to know. I’ve got enough other kinds of crap going on. I can’t take on yours, too.”  

Travis stared at him and Sam returned his gaze, looking into his eyes without discomfort.

“What happened to you, Sam?” Travis asked. “Is this about John still? Because you know he wouldn’t want you wallowing like this.”

Sam snorted and looked away. If only he knew.

 John’s death still affected Sam, he thought it would until his dying day, but now it was so much more. It was the loss of John and Mary now. It was Dean’s horrific end. It was what he had done and what it meant for him. It was everything. He couldn’t and wouldn’t tell Travis any of that though. It was none of his business.  

“It’s nothing to do with my father,” Sam said, slamming the book closed. “I just have other things I need to do.”

Travis shook his head dolefully. “If your daddy could see you now, he’d be so disappointed. I’ve got a Rugaru getting ready to chomp and you’re ‘busy’.”

“You don’t know shit about my father,” Sam said through his teeth. “He would understand what I am doing because I’m doing it for family. That’s something he always understood. Now, do me a favor, fuck off before I really lose my temper.”

Travis’ eyes widened. Sam had never spoken to him like this before. Travis was pushing his buttons though, talking about John while the memory of his young, carefree father was still fresh in his mind.

“What the hell happened to you?” Travis asked.

“Life happened,” Sam said, walking away through the door and into the back.

He thought that maybe it was a good time to go for a run, so he made his way into the bedroom and swapped his boots for sneakers. He was just tying his lace when Dean came in.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Fine. You?”

 Dean shrugged. “I don’t know. Just had a weird encounter with that Travis guy.”

“Yeah? What did he say?”

“He told me I grew up good and you grew up an asshole.”

“Sounds like Travis,” Sam said with a harsh laugh.

“He said something about a hunt.”

“I bet he did. Don’t worry about it, Dean. I told him no.”

Dean opened his mouth, hesitated, and then closed it again.  

Sam nodded. Dean wasn’t ready. He’d thought as much. If Dean was ready, he’d be pushing for them to take it. It was the sort of thing he would do. Besides, there were a dozen other hunters in the bar that Travis could ask. Many more he could call up for help. It wasn’t Sam’s problem.

xXx

A few days passed after Dean’s obscure conversation with Travis, and things were as normal as they ever were for them; Jo was back from her latest hunt, Sam was still buried in Revelations, Ellen was running the bar with Dean’s help, and there were no visits from angels. Dean would be content if not for the fact he couldn’t get Travis out of his head.  

He had been up for the hunt when Travis told him about it, but Sam had already told him they wouldn’t do it, and Dean didn’t want to push him into hunting before he was ready. Dean actually liked their life at The Roadhouse. They were with family and there was good, honest work to be done. It was a lot like his old life.

But Travis still niggled at him. He wanted to check in on him.

He broached the subject one afternoon when Sam got back from one of his runs. He was at his table in the bar, Revelations on the table but not yet opened, with a beer in front of him. Dean sat down in front of him and Sam looked up. “Hey.”

“I‘m worried about Travis,” he blurted.

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Why worried?”

“Because it’s been a few days and he hasn’t been back in here. I asked a couple other people, and no one’s heard from him.”

“Doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Sam said.

“But it might.”

Sam shrugged. “Okay. We can give him a call if you like.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and scrolled through the numbers. He hit call and brought the phone to his ear. After a moment, a frown creased his brow and he lowered the phone.

“No answer?” Dean asked.

Sam shook his head. “There was an answer, but it wasn’t Travis.” He stood and made for the back with Dean following on his heels. He went into their bedroom and reached under the bed for a wooden chest

“What’s going on, Sam?”

Sam looked up, his hands on the catches of the chest. “Whoever it was that answered the phone said one word: Murderer.

“Travis is in trouble,” Dean stated.

Sam shook his head. “I think Travis is already dead.”

Dean flinched, a wave of guilt sweeping through him.

“We’ve got to get there,” Sam said.

“But he’s already dead.”

“Yeah, and whatever killed him isn’t. Someone answered that phone, and I’d bet anything it was the Rugaru. We’ve got to take it out.” He flipped open the chest from under the bed and pulled out a gas canister with a nozzle attached. “Fire beats Rugaru.”

xXx

Ash got them the address and they arrived at the house in the late evening. It was a nice place, obviously had set the owners back a lot of money. There was a flashy Mercedes parked outside.

They had parked around the corner of the street, not wanting the Impala to be connected to the massacre that was about to take place, and the flame throwers were in their duffels. Sam was alert for people watching them as they made their way into the spacious yard and to the back of the house. There was no one though. The neighbors were occupied with their TVs or already in bed, all to the benefit of Sam and Dean.

When they got to the rear door, they saw it wasn’t locked. There was a broken pane of glass that told Sam how Travis had gotten in. He eased opened the door, flamethrower gripped tightly in his hand. “You ready?” he asked Dean and received a grim nod of the head in return.

As soon as he opened the door, the smell hit Sam: blood—a lot of blood. He walked through a kitchen and eased open a sliding door that he guessed led into the lounge. When he peered inside, he saw a booted foot on the polished wooden floor. It twitched slightly as he watched, and the sight made him lose caution and rush through, thinking Travis might still be alive.

He wasn’t.

The Rugaru was feasting on Travis’ corpse. Sam had seen many disgusting and horrifying things in his life, but this was among the worst. The Rugaru glanced up as Sam entered, followed by Dean, and the vile wormy face momentarily looked confused, lips parting to reveal the rotten looking teeth.

There was a second body in the room; a woman was lying on the floor, her curly dark hair fanned around her face and a perfect hole in the center of her forehead. She hadn’t been touched by the creature.

“Murderer,” the Rugaru hissed.

“Monster,” Sam returned, flicking his lighter in front of the flamethrower and igniting the gas.

“She was pregnant,” the Rugaru snarled. “My wife. She was innocent. She was my life. And he killed her.”

Grim understanding came to Sam. Rugarus were born, not made. If this woman was pregnant, she was pregnant with a monster. Travis must have known that. There was only one thing to do. Sam didn’t even feel bad as he pressed down on the valve, sending a shooting flame at the Rugaru. It shot to its feet and came at Sam, but it was too late; the flames were already consuming it. Even as it sprang forward, its flesh began to sizzle, and a moment later it dropped to the floor. It writhed and twisted for a few seconds before stilling.

The fire was catching the floor, and Sam helped it along by aiming the flames at the curtains and furniture. He turned and saw Dean’s horrorstruck expression, and thought that maybe he should have sent Dean out before acting.

“Come on,” he said, pulling Dean’s arm and leading him from the burning room. Dean moved like a man in a daze, and Sam knew his mind was still inside the house with the people being consumed.

They were back in the car and driving away before Dean snapped out of it and spoke. “That was horrible.”

“Yeah. But it was what he had to do.”

Dean nodded and sucked in a breath. “Sam, I’m sorry.”

Sam frowned. “For?”

“Travis. You’ve known him a long time, and it must have been awful seeing him going up like that.”

Sam nodded as if Dean was right. He wasn’t. Travis had once been a friend, and maybe Sam could have saved him if he’d been there, but he hadn’t been. In truth, Sam was glad they hadn’t been there. Dean would have been at risk if they had, he could have been killed, and Sam couldn’t take that again.

His need to protect Dean was fast becoming an obsession, though he was unaware of it. All that mattered to him was taking care of his brother. Dean had died for him once, and Sam wouldn’t let it happen again. He would work the angels’ mission, try to save seals and the world, but only for Dean. Dean was what mattered.

Chapter Text

e was pretty sure it was a haunting. One thing that was clear was that the person who had written the post was freaking out on an epic scale—understandably.

“Okay,” he said to Ash, “reply and see if you can get an address from them.”

Ash nodded and started writing his reply under the username Dr. Badass.

Dean wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing, essentially setting them up with a case without talking to Sam first. He told himself he couldn’t talk to Sam, as he was out running, but Dean knew he could have waited another hour for him to get back before taking action. It was the desperation of the person in the forum that made him act. The last line of the post — I don’t know what to do! — pulled at Dean.

“Done,” Ash said happily.

“Thanks Ash.”

Dean moved along the bar from the corner he and Ash had been working in to where Ellen stood behind the taps. She smiled at his approach and set a bottle of beer in front of him. He shook his head. “Not today. We might be heading out.”

“A hunt?” she asked.

“Yeah, found something on this crazy ass website that might be worth a look.”

“You talk to Sam about it?”

“Not yet. I just found it and he’s out. Do you think it’ll be a problem?”

“Well,” she said carefully, “I think it depends on how you approach it. If you do it as something you want, he’ll come along. If it seems like you’re doing it for him or you’re not ready, he won’t have anything to do with it.”

“Didn’t think of that,” Dean admitted. He’d assumed they weren’t actively searching for hunts because Sam didn’t want to yet. He hadn’t considered the fact that Sam’s thinking might be on the same wavelength in return.

Ellen smiled at him and asked, “So, what’s the case?”

“A haunting I think.”

“Haunting?”Jo said, sounding interested.

Dean turned and saw she had just come into the bar with a sack of bar nuts in her arms. She dropped it down onto the bar, scowled at her mother, and turned to Dean. “Where?”

“I don’t know yet,” Dean said. “Ash is trying to get an address for us.”

“You need help?”

“Not sure,” Dean said evasively. “We might not even take the hunt. It depends on Sam.”

“That’s okay,” she said, shrugging. “I can take it if you don’t.”

Dean wasn’t sure how Sam would feel about that. In the year preceding Dean’s deal coming due, he had said he didn’t care if Jo hunted. He’d even seemed to support it sometimes. That might have changed now that he had less to worry about regarding Dean.

They had to wait another hour before the rear door opened and Sam came in fresh from his run. The bar was quite full by then, and a few acquaintances greeted him and tried to talk before being brushed off as Sam made his way to where they were all gathered together. He looked from face to face, from Jo’s excited hopefulness to Dean’s quiet patience, and frowned. “What did I miss?” he asked.

“We might have a hunt,” Dean said. “Ash found something on a forum that sounds like a haunting.”

Sam’s face betrayed no emotion as he asked, “And you’re up for it?”

“Of course,” Dean said. “I think it’ll be a simple fix that can save a few lives.”

Sam stared into his eyes for a moment, searching for something, and then he nodded. “Okay. I’ll clean up and we’ll head out. Where are we going?”

“Ash is working on it. He’s put in a reply on the forum.”

“And if they don’t reply, I can probably get a location anyway,” Ash said a little proudly. “Thought we’d give them the chance to invite you first though.”

“Smart,” Sam said, making for the back before Jo called after him and he turned.

“I’m coming along,” Jo said boldly, apparently deciding a demand was more likely to work than a request.

Sam glanced at Ellen who nodded almost imperceptively and then he said, “Sure. Get your crap together.”

Jo jumped down from her stool and dashed through the door that led to their living quarters.

There was a sound from Ash’s computer and he sidled along the bar to it. “We got a reply.”

“What’s it say?” Dean asked.

“Just an address in Kansas and…” He glanced up at Sam, looking uncertain.

“What?”

“It’s in Gardner.”

Sam’s jaw tightened.

“What?” Dean asked. “What’s in Gardner?”

“We’ll take it anyway,” Sam said, ignoring Dean’s question completely and walking away. 

Dean turned to Ash. “What’s wrong with Gardner?”

Ash stared at the door Sam had disappeared through for a moment before answering. “It’s only about thirty minutes outside Lawrence. Sam swore after last time he was never going near the place again.” He shrugged. “Guess he’s changed his mind.”

“What happened last time?” Dean asked.

Ash shook his head. “Nah, man, no way in hell. You’ll have to get that out of Sam.”

Dean frowned. Ash was renowned among them all as a gossip, and he loved nothing more than sharing stories that were probably better kept private. If he wasn’t sharing now, it meant that it was a big story, and that made it very unlikely Sam was going to share.

xXx

There was only one affordable motel in Gardner and it was themed. Sam and Dean were assigned the ‘Elvis’ suite and Jo the ‘Marilyn Monroe’. Sam’s lip curled in disgust as he took in the velvet pictures on the wall and the blue and gold bedding.

“Could be worse,” Dean said.

Sam looked at him incredulously. “How?”

Dean grinned. “We could have gotten Marilyn.”

Sam shook his head, a small smile creeping across his face. “Okay. Let’s get out of here. This place is giving me a headache.”

They packed up their duffels with rock salt and shotguns and tucked their guns in their pants before leaving. Jo was waiting for them by the car with her own duffel slung over her shoulder. “You boys ready?” she asked, making no attempt to hide her excitement.

Sam didn’t answer. He went straight to the car and unlocked it.  He had thought Jo coming along for the hunt was harmless, a good thing even as he would be able to keep an eye on her, but being back in Kansas, so close to Lawrence, had unsettled him and made him wish he was taking it alone. 

“I call shotgun!” Jo announced.

“Not even a little chance,” Dean said in return, laughing when her lips formed a moue of disappointment.

Sam had checked the route before they left The Roadhouse, so after they pulled away from the motel, he drove confidently along the streets until they came to a nice looking neighborhood on the other side of town. Dean pointed out the address Ash had given them and Sam pulled the car over in front of an unassuming looking house.

“You want to take the lead?” Sam asked; he was talking to Dean but it was Jo who answered.

“Absolutely,” she said, sounding pleased.

Dean smiled into his hand and Sam rolled his eyes. He had no valid argument against Jo taking point, so he nodded to her and climbed out of the car.

He had seen Jo in action before on a hunt with the succubus, but he hadn’t seen her take one on from the start. He was curious to see how she handled it. He was expecting the usual Jo enthusiasm, but as she led them up the path to the house, she seemed to release all of her excitement and become calm and professional. Sam was impressed.

She knocked on the door and it was opened almost instantly by a harried looking man. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“This is Sam and Dean, and I’m Jo. We’re here about your… troubles,” Jo said.

The man visibly sagged. “Oh, thank God. Come in, come in.”

He stepped back and they entered. Sam looked around the hall, lingering as Dean and Jo followed the man into a lounge. He’d brought the EMF meter with him, and he pulled it out of his pocket and set it to on.  It began to hum immediately, and the red lights flipped on one by one. There was definitely a ghost, apparently a powerful one.

He stood at the lounge door and held up the machine to Jo, giving her a pointed look. She nodded and turned her attention to the man who had let them in.

“Jack, this is Sam Winchester. Sam, Jack Winters.”

Sam nodded a greeting and said, “There’s definitely a ghost.”

Jack paled. “I knew there was something, but to hear it, you know, it sounds insane.”

“A lot of what we do sounds insane,” Dean said. “But it’s all real.”

Jack nodded decisively. “Okay. What do we do?”

“We look into the history of the house first,” Jo said. “Odds are that it’s somehow connected to this place. You said you moved in a few months ago and the trouble started then.”

“Almost as soon as we arrived. It was small at first, things moving from where we put them and scratching sounds in the walls. Then it got more… powerful. China coming at our heads. Fires suddenly blazing in the grate without fuel. Then, last week, my wife was thrown down the stairs. It, this ghost, broke her arm.” He raked a hand over his face tiredly. “She won’t come back to the place. She’s taken the kids to stay with her sister.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Jo said. “You should get out of here, too. It’s not safe, and it’ll be easier for us to work alone.”

“I can help,” Jack said.

“You can’t,” Sam said. “You can only get in the way, getting us all hurt.”

Dean frowned at him and Jo looked pointedly away. They were obviously embarrassed by his lack of empathy for the man, but he didn’t much care. The signs the man had been describing to Sam were familiar, and not just from years of hunting monsters. The familiarity came from a specific hunt—the hunt that had made him vow never to return to the area again.

It sounded like Jack Winters and his family had a poltergeist.

xXx

Something was bothering Sam. Of course, that was probably true on any given day, but it seemed more pronounced after they met Jack Winters. Dean didn’t think it was just the town’s proximity to Lawrence, though that was doing a number on Dean himself. He had sworn at an early age he would never go back, and being close wasn’t doing him any favors. He wanted to know the story of the last time Sam had been in Lawrence. Their father had been there, too, Dean knew. It must have been something big to drag John Winchester back to the town where his whole life had gone to hell. He didn’t ask though, because Sam’s face was set with tension, and he didn’t want to add to it. He would wait.

Jo and Dean saw Jack Winters out to his car with his packed bag, reassuring him that when they called him back, the house would be safe for him and his family again. Sam didn’t join the conversation. He just stood by the front door, arms crossed over his chest and expression stony. He turned away and walked inside before Jack had even reached the corner off the street, and when Dean got inside after him, he saw him walking around the kitchen with the EMF meter humming in his hand.

Dean frowned. “It is a ghost, right?”

“Yeah,” Sam said in a tired voice. “I just wanted to see if any spot or thing was giving off more of a reaction than the house in general.”

“Why?” Jo asked, coming in behind Dean.

“Because, for once, I’m really hoping I’m wrong.” He glanced up, saw their confusion, and sighed. “I’m not wrong.”

“About…?” Jo drew the word out.

Sam threw the EMF meter on the couch and ran a hand through his hair in a seldom seen sign of frustration. “I think it’s a poltergeist.”

Dean nodded slowly. “And that’s not as easy to deal with as a regular ghost?”

Sam cupped his scarred throat for a moment and then said stiffly, “Yeah. They’re harder. I’ve only tangled with one before, and that was… I don’t know… Shit.” He shook his head. “Okay. There’s something I’ve got to do. You two go back to the motel and stay there.”

Jo raised an eyebrow. “Why would we do that?”

“Because you don’t want to be caught in this house if this thing realizes why we’re here.”

“And why can’t we come with you?”

Though it was Jo who asked the question, it was to Dean that Sam turned as he answered. “Because I’m going back to Lawrence.”

Dean’s mouth dropped open and he gaped for a moment before he recovered himself. “You’re what?”

“Going back,” Sam said. “There’s something I need, and I only know one place to get it.”

“But…” Dean couldn’t imagine going back for anything, not to that place. What could be important enough for Sam to make himself do it again, especially after swearing he never would? Sam answered his unasked question with his next words.

“I don’t have a choice. There’s only one way to deal with a poltergeist that I know of,” he said, “and even that might not work.”

He picked up the EMF meter from the couch and made for the door. Dean followed and caught his arm. He didn’t know what he was going to say until the words had left his mouth, but as soon as they did he knew he could have said nothing else. “I’m coming with you.”

Seam looked at him, his expression almost pained. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I do.” And said he said it, he realized it was true. He did need to go back to lay those ghosts to rest. Also, he couldn’t leave his brother to face it alone.

A quarter century after he last left the place, he was going home. 

xXx

Sam pulled the Impala over in front of a house with a tended garden and painted shutters, and drew in a deep breath. He was doing his best to hide the strain this was causing him from Dean, and he thought maybe he was succeeding, though that was less about his skills as an actor than it was about the fact Dean was feeling the exact same way.

Jo had stayed back at the motel. She had tried to get Sam alone for a talk before he left, but Sam had dodged her. He knew what she would say—“Are you sure you want to do this?—and he didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to do it. He wanted little less, but he had no choice.

As he opened the door and climbed out of the car, he caught sight of Dean’s face and thought perhaps there was relief there. He hadn’t told him exactly where they were going, and he realized now that Dean may have thought they were going all the way home to their old house. Even Sam, with his ability to shut down emotions when needed, wasn’t capable of going there after last time. Though Mary had destroyed herself to save him and his father, he thought her memory would always be tied to the place for him and he didn’t want to face that again.

He walked up the path and stairs to the door quickly, in a hurry to get it over and done with so he could get out of town again. He raised his fist to knock, but the door swung open before he could make contact with the thick wood and Missouri Mosely was revealed on the threshold.

Her sympathetic gaze settled on Sam for a moment and then moved to Dean, a bright smile breaking out on her face. “Well, well, Dean Winchester. Look at you all grown up. Handsome as anyone.”

“Uh, thanks,” Dean said awkwardly. 

Sam almost smiled at his discomfort, but the reality of what they were doing and where they were stole the amusement.

“And Sam,” she said quietly, staring him in the eye. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry.”

Dean looked confused, but Sam merely nodded. She could be referring to so much: the loss of John, the fate of Dean, Sam’s own death, even what Sam had done to himself in his attempt to get Dean back. Perhaps she could see into his blackened and Hellbound soul now.

“We need help,” Sam said. 

“A poltergeist,” she said. “I can see.”

“You can see?” Dean asked.

“Missouri’s a psychic. She can sense things, read thoughts.”

Dean looked uncomfortable. “Okay.”

“You don’t need to worry,” Missouri said gently. “I don’t share what I know.”

Sam frowned. What was Dean hiding from him?

“We all like our privacy,” Missouri said pointedly, and Sam knew she was responding to his thought as well as reassuring Dean. “Anyway, you didn’t come here to see me perform tricks like a travelling magician. You need help.” She stepped back and gestured them into the house.

Sam went first and swallowed down against the tight feeling in his chest as he saw the dark wood furniture and heavy flowered upholstery. For a moment, just a split second, he imagined he could see John Winchester sitting there on the couch, mug of coffee cupped between his hands and expression dour as he listened to Missouri’s chatter. It was stupid, sentimental nonsense to be reminded of him so forcibly now when it had been so long since his loss. There were other places, other things, that had a deeper connection to him—Sam driving around in his car every day for example—but being back was affecting him.

Missouri patted his arm, and he fought the urge to flinch away from her touch. “It catches you off guard, doesn’t it?” she said softly.

Sam’s jaw clenched and he didn’t answer. Missouri was practically a stranger. He wasn’t going to talk about his father with her.

“This poltergeist,” he started.

She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment and then nodded. “I’ve got everything we need. We can make the bags up when we get there. The fresher they are the better.”

“When we get there?” Sam asked. “Missouri, you can’t come with us.”

She folded her arms across her chest. “Really? Why’s that?”

“Because it’s too dangerous.”

“I remember,” she said solemnly. “But, unless you’ve found the only three corner house in the state, which I know you haven’t, you’re going to need my help.”

Sam shook his head. “We’ll manage.”

“No, you won’t. You need me. Remember what happened last time, Sam?”

Sam could almost feel the constriction of the lamp cord wrapping itself around his throat. If John hadn’t come, if he had been a little slower getting to Sam, it might have all ended for him there. He couldn’t help but think things might have been better if it had.

Missouri started to speak, “Sam, you can’t really…” but Sam cut her off with a shake of the head. Mindreading was a pain in the ass.

“Maybe Sam’s right,” Dean ventured. “If it’s as dangerous as you two seem to think, it’s better if you…” He trailed off under Missouri’s glare.

“You really don’t have a choice,” she said. “If you want the hex bags, you take me along. It’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

Sam felt his annoyance rising. She was possibly more stubborn that even John had been.  He didn’t want to take her along. He was already trying to come up with a way to get Dean and Jo to sit out of the hunt for their own protection—not that he thought he’d be successful there. The last thing he wanted was to add someone who was basically a civilian into the mix. He needed those hex-bags though… Technically he wasn’t against locking her down in the motel—it wouldn’t be the first time he’d done it to protect someone.

“I don’t think so, Winchester,” Missouri said, a hint of anger bleeding into her tone. She took a breath then shook her head and smiled slightly. “You better get used to it, Sam; I’m coming with you.”

Sam turned away, his expression darkening. He felt a hand on his back and he pulled away, knowing it was Missouri as she spoke. “It won’t be like last time, Sam.”

“Fine,” he growled. “Get the stuff together. I’ll be outside.”

He stomped from the house and out to the car, making no attempt to hide how pissed he was in his thoughts or actions.

xXx

The ride back to Gardner wasn’t comfortable. Though Dean was sitting in the backseat and couldn’t see Sam’s face, he could see the tense set of his shoulders and the way his fingers curled hard around the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles whitened.

He wasn’t happy about Missouri coming along with them, Dean wasn’t either, but Dean suspected it was about more than that. He thought the great secret about the Lawrence hunt was what was upsetting Sam now. Dean wanted to know what it was, not out of curiosity but out of a need to help him.

When they got back to the motel, Jo was sitting cross-legged on Sam’s bed with the laptop open in front of her. She glanced up when they entered and frowned as Missouri bustled in after them clutching the paper bag of ingredients.

“Uh… hi,” Jo said awkwardly.

Missouri beamed at her. “Hello, Jo.”

Jo looked confused.

“Jo Harvelle, Missouri Mosley,” Sam said, gesturing between them. “Missouri is a psychic, so be careful what you’re thinking. She’s also a pain in the ass, so watch out for that, too.”

Missouri didn’t look remotely bothered by Sam’s rudeness. She merely crossed the room, dropped the sack down on the bed, and clapped her hands together. “We should get the bags together now and then get to work. I’ll show you how to make them and then we’ll go by the house before it realizes why we’re in town.”

“It’s not going to stay oblivious when we get there,” Sam said.

“Of course it isn’t,” Missouri agreed. “But there are enough of us for each corner and we’ll work fast.” She softened her voice and said again, “It won’t be like last time, Sam.”

“You can’t know that.”

“I believe it. That should count for something.”

Whether it counted as anything for Sam, Dean didn’t know. He didn’t think so. Sam turned his attention to Jo and asked, “Did you find anyone as a potential for the ghost?”

Jo looked from Missouri to Sam for a moment, seemingly caught in their conversation, but then she snapped back to herself and said, “Yeah. It’s kinda sad actually. There was this woman in the eighties who lived there. She was facially disfigured and rarely left the house. She fell down the stairs and broke her neck.”

“That explains the wife getting tossed down them,” Sam said.

“Yeah, but that’s not the worst part,” Jo said. “She didn’t die from the fall. They think she just… withered away. It was at least two weeks before anyone found her there, and she was long gone by then.”

Dean felt sick. That was a horrific end to suffer. How she must have felt lying there, knowing she was dying and there was nothing she could do about it as she couldn’t move. She must have been desperate. Having faced his own end, he knew how frightening it was, and for him it had lasted less than a minute before his death. That poor woman.

“Where’s she planted?” Sam asked, no trace of emotion in him.

“Uh… Rosewood Cemetery on the other side of town,” Jo said.

“Okay.” Sam nodded decisively.  “We’ll deal with the house first and then go salt and burn her.” He glanced at Missouri. “Dad thought that was where we went wrong in Lawrence. We didn’t finish the job properly before it got a foothold again.”

“I think so, too,” Missouri said. “I thought about it a lot after she… Well, I thought about it, and I think that was our mistake. We have to banish first though, as it’s bound to that house.”

“Okay,” Sam said. “Let’s get to work then.”

Missouri tipped out the paper sack she’d brought with her and bundles of herbs, a ball of twine, swatches of cloth, a small bag of dirt, and other sundry items fell onto the table.

Sam sat down on one of the chairs, picked up a cloth and set to work filling it. Dean and Jo just watched him, neither of them knowing the order or ingredients needed to make the bags. Missouri watched him for a moment and then said, “No, Sam, you go fetch us some coffee. You already know how to do this. It’s time for Jo and Dean to learn.”

Sam looked up, frowning. “Don’t we have better things to be doing than drinking coffee right now?”

She shrugged. “Just do it, Sam. It’s been a long day, and it’s going to be a longer night. We all need a boost.”

Sam tossed down the sprig of herb he had been about to put in the cloth and got to his feet. He glanced at Missouri and started to speak, “Don’t you go talking about…” but Missouri waved a hand at him and said, “I will talk about nothing that isn’t my place to talk about. You will though.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “You think?”

“I know,” she said confidently.

Sam shook his head and pulled opened the door. He gave her one last look that was possibly supposed to be a warning, but Missouri just hummed happily and sat down at the table. The door clicked closed behind them and Dean turned to Missouri.

“You’re telling us, right, whatever it is he doesn’t want us to know?”

Missouri shook her head serenely. “No. I’ll let him tell you.”

Jo snorted. “Like that’ll happen.”

“It might,” Missouri said. “For Dean anyway. He’s almost decided to.”

“Why not me?” Jo asked.

“Because it’s not your story to hear,” Missouri said. “It’s Dean’s, just like Dean’s is Sam’s to hear.”

Dean looked down. What had happened in Hell was probably Sam’s story, too, but it didn’t mean Dean would tell him. He was ashamed of what he had done, and Sam would be, too. He didn’t want Sam to look at him differently. He couldn’t bear it. Sam would be repulsed.

Missouri patted his arm gently. “He won’t, Dean. He will understand because he has done the same.”

Dean didn’t believe that. Sure, Sam had made some hard decisions in his life. He had been forced to kill that hunter who’d been bitten by the werewolf. He had killed demons and therefore the people they were using as meat suits. That was in the name of the hunt though. Sam hadn’t tortured people.

She didn’t know them at all if she thought that was something Sam could just see past.

xXx

They would have looked strange to an outsider, marching up the Winters’ walk to the house. Sam, Dean and Jo had duffels filled with salt, iron, hammers and shotguns over their shoulders and Missouri bustled after them with the hex bags. They had no idea if the weapons would be any use. The poltergeist hadn’t showed itself last time; it had just attacked. It was better to be prepared though.  

Sam was uncomfortable with Missouri’s presence. He was worried for them all, but he had more confidence that Jo and Dean could handle themselves than the older woman. He couldn’t help but remember the last time he’d gone up against a poltergeist and how it could have ended back then. They were there now though, and they were as prepared as it was possible to be. They would get it done. He hoped.

They had gone over the plan before they left the motel. Each of them was going to take one of the four corners of the basement so they would be close to each other if something happened.

As Sam unlocked the door and they entered, he felt the cool air sweep over him. The poltergeist was very much present.

Missouri shuddered and said, “Oh boy. It knows we’re coming for it.”

“Good,” Sam said, feigning confidence he didn’t feel.

Dean cast him a quick look, concerned and confused, but Sam didn’t return it. He was leading them through the kitchen to the basement entrance. He was first in and down the stairs, and so was first to see the problem. Three of the corners were clear and accessible to them, but the fourth was a problem. The house was old, that they’d known, but they hadn’t checked the basement when they were there and they hadn’t seen the large furnace that supplied the place with heat and water. There was no way to get to that corner.

“Just how specific is the four corner spell?” he asked Missouri.

“Very,” she said as she walked down the steps. “Why do you… Oh.”

“Crap,” Dean said.

Sam sighed. He should have known it wouldn’t be simple for them. “Okay,” he said, forcing himself to sound unconcerned. “I’ll take an upstairs room. That’ll still work, right?”

Missouri nodded. “It will work.”

“I’ll take the upstairs,” Dean said.

“No,” Sam said quickly.

Dean crossed his arms over his chest. “Why not?”

Because whoever was alone was at the most risk, and Sam couldn’t let anyone else take that on. Besides, he had been in the life longer and was better able to defend himself.

From something that almost killed you last time?

From something that needed to be put down.

He didn’t answer Dean’s question; no matter what he said it would have pissed him off. He looked at each of them and then said, “You know what to do. As soon as you’ve all got your hex bags in the wall, get out of the house.”

Dean started to protest but Sam walked away, up the stairs and into the kitchen again. He was calculating where north—his pre-assigned point—would be within the house, when a hand slapped down on his arm and spun him.

“Why?” Dean asked brutally.

Sam glanced over his shoulder and kept his voice low. “Because we’ve got Jo down there, and Missouri, and they can’t handle it alone. I need you to protect them.”

“And I have to do that why? We both know you’re the better hunter, you’ll be able to take care of them better than me, so why are you running off alone?”

Because I’m the better hunter. Because the poltergeist will have a harder time taking me out.”

“And this isn’t just about keeping me out of the line of fire?” Dean asked.

“No,” Sam lied. “It’s about protecting them.”

It was about Dean, all about Dean, as it always was. He couldn’t leave Dean alone. He couldn’t lose him again. He couldn’t let Dean die, his brilliant, intelligent brother, couldn’t let the light go out of his eyes and leave him a shell of a person again. He just couldn’t risk it.

Dean stared into his eyes for a moment, searching for the lie but failing to find it. “Okay then. I’ll stay down, but you’ve got to be careful.”

“Always am,” Sam said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You better get back down there. I don’t trust Jo not to start without us.”

Dean smiled slightly and walked away. Sam waited until he heard his footsteps leave the wooden steps and then he turned his attention to the cool air and oppressive feeling of the house. “All right, you fugly bitch, it’s time. You’re going down.”

He saw the knife rushing at him and dodged to the side. There was a stinging pain where the tip of the blade whipped across his face, and he laughed. “That the best you can do? Pathetic.” He wasn’t crazy. He wanted to piss the spirit off so that it focused its attention on him while the others worked.

He swiped the blood from his face and started to cross the room to the far corner. The kitchen table came sliding across the floor toward him, but his honed reflexes had him out of its path before it could do more that wing his hip.

“Nice try,” he muttered.

He reached the corner with no more trouble than a colander flying at his head, which he thought was pretty feeble, and he hefted his ax to make the hole in the wall. He had no sooner pulled it back into a swing when he felt it being tugged in his hand.

“I don’t think so,” he said, grunting slightly at the effort it took to hold it. The pull didn’t ease though, and he knew the poltergeist thought it had him pinned. Without the hole, the hex bag was useless. He huffed a mirthless laugh as he swung back his left fist and punched a hole in the weak drywall that lay between the walls and insulated brick. He stuffed the hex bag in and grinned wickedly.

His relief at the job done lasted all of a second before the pull on the ax disappeared and he realized his mistake. He should have waited. He should have been the last to lay the bag. Now there was no distraction for the poltergeist.

Almost in response to his thought, he heard a piercing scream from the basement and his heart clenched painfully. “Jo!”

He raced to the basement door and ran down the stairs, jumping the last four and staggering slightly. It was Sam’s nightmare of a hunt. Jo was on her knees, a red mark standing out starkly on her cheek. Missouri was pinned to the wall and the handle of a shovel was at her neck, constricting her airway, and Dean was struggling to get to her, though he was pinned by a heavy looking cabinet. There were holes driven into two of the corners and he could see hex bags nestled within, but the third was on the floor beside the ax.

Sam launched into action, shouting, “Come on, bitch, stop me!” as he ran across the basement and grabbed up the hex bag. He felt cold fingers curl around his throat and press down, but he didn’t let it stop him as he kicked a hole in the wall and bent to stuff the bag inside. Then something swept his legs out from under him and he fell to the floor. There was a heavy weight on his chest, like a knee holding him down, and he gasped for air. “Jo!” he wheezed. “The bag.”

He couldn’t see Jo, but he felt the bag being tugged out of his hand and he prayed it was her and not the poltergeist. A rush of air swept over him and the pressure on his chest and throat disappeared. He rolled over quickly, taking in the room. The shovel dropped to the floor with a clang, Dean pushed the cabinet away, and Jo leaned against the wall, panting. There was a beat of silence and then everyone spoke at once, demanding, reassuring, and trying to explain what had happen to each other.

Dean took Jo in his arms and held her tight as silent tears crept down her face, and Missouri clucked over Sam’s bloody cheek, and Sam relished it because they were all well enough to do it.

xXx

They dropped Missouri off at the hospital with Jo to get checked out, and then they drove across town to the Rosewood Cemetery. Dean had tried to persuade Sam to go by the hospital, too, as the cut on his face looked nasty, but Sam shrugged off his concerns and said it would heal alone. It would scar though, Dean was sure—another scar to tell the story of another of Sam’s hunts.

Sam was mostly quiet as they dug the grave, seemingly deep in thought. Dean had a feeling he was mulling over something big, but he had no expectations Sam would share whatever it was with him until he was ready, if he ever was. That was how Sam operated.

It wasn’t until they had the coffin open and doused with gasoline and salt that he cleared his throat and glanced at Dean.

“I saw Mom once,” he said.

Dean frowned. “You mean when Uriel bounced you back to ’73?”

“No, I mean in Lawrence.” He took a deep breath. “We, me and Dad, took on a poltergeist in our old house. I told you that much before; what I didn’t tell you was that Mom was there.”

Dean was confused as all hell, but he thought any question would make Sam withdraw into himself again, and that was the last thing he wanted when he was sharing this, so he stayed silent and hoped Sam would get to it in time.

“After Yellow-Eyes… After she died, she didn’t move on.” He looked up and Dean saw the pain in his eyes. “She was a spirit tethered to the house.” His lips pressed into a thin line. “She saved us. We did the four corners spell, and Missouri and Dad figured it was over, but it felt wrong. I made him stay and keep watch. I was right to. The poltergeist came back. We got the woman and children out of the house but I got trapped inside. It was going to kill me but she came and saved me. She burned herself up to do it, Dean. She destroyed the poltergeist doing it, saving me, and she was gone.”

“She saved you,” Dean said quietly. “Of course she did.”

Sam nodded. “I guess I just wanted you to know Dad wasn’t the only hero. She saved lives, too.”

Dean smiled. Of course she saved lives, she saved Sam’s. She was a mom. What mother wouldn’t do that for her son?

Sam lit the matchbook and tossed it down into the grave.

“Guess I just wanted you to know,” he said again.

And Dean knew the moment was over.

Chapter Text

It was early morning. The other residents of The Roadhouse were sleeping, but Sam couldn’t; nightmares waited for him every time he closed his eyes.  Instead of resting, he was running. His feet pounded the earth and his breath rushed in and out of his lungs. He had started at a jog which had become a trot and then a sprint. He ran until all he could think about were his burning muscles and the pounding of his heart. They were better things to think about than what awaited him when he was finally forced by exhaustion to sleep.  

Eventually, he could go no farther. He stumbled to a halt and then set off walking to The Roadhouse. When he got there, the sky was just lightening and the windows were dark. No one had risen yet. Sam let himself in through the back door and, after taking a bottle of water from the fridge, he went into the bar. He sat at his usual table and looked around. It was silent and empty. In a matter of hours it would be filled with people, hunters and civilians, and the register would be pinging with the incoming revenue. Ellen would be happy serving. Jo would be disgruntled about working the taps instead of hunting. Ash would be drinking. Dean would be dividing his time between them all. And Sam would be searching for their next case. It would be familiar and almost comforting, and Sam would want nothing more than to get away from it all.

He felt wrong now. He didn’t feel like he should be around them. He hadn’t since Dean had come back. The things he had done with Ruby were his damnation, and he couldn’t get that out of his mind. It was what he had thought Dean needed from him. He’d had no other option, because the angels had taken four months to get their asses in gear to save him, because they hadn’t revealed themselves to Sam as what they were and what they would do. They were assholes.

His thoughts returning to the present as opposed to the uncomfortable future that awaited him, he opened his bottle of water and took a swig. He was resting his elbows on the table and his chin in his hands, trying to think of nothing but his immediate surroundings, when a fluttering sound announced a second presence in the room.

“Winchester,” a deep voice intoned.

“Uriel.” Sam looked up and saw the angel standing in front of the bar. His lip was curled with distaste and his eyes were hard.

“How can you stand the stench?” he asked. “The sweat and spilled liquor. The reek of humanity.”

“I guess as a human it’s easy,” Sam said curtly. It was the smell of home to him.

“I suppose it is.”

“What do you want?” Sam asked, having no desire to suffer Uriel’s company longer than he needed to.

“I have something for you to do.” He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a folded sheet of newsprint. With a few long strides, he was across the room and standing beside Sam’s table. He dropped the paper and stepped back, as if Sam’s close proximity bothered him. Sam understood. Having Uriel close bothered him, too.

Sam unfolded the paper and glanced over the headline: Local husband and father killed by Halloween prank. He scanned the article quickly and saw it was a short piece on the death of an Indiana man who had swallowed razor blades concealed in candy.

“And I need to see this because…?” he asked.

“Because you’re going to investigate it,” Uriel said.

Sam shook his head. “I am not wasting my time going after a prankster, no matter how successful.”

“It is not a prank,” Uriel said flatly.

“So it’s some kind of fugly. Still not interested.” He was interested in a hunt, but he wasn’t taking one just because Uriel said so. The angel was a dick. Sam wasn’t going to jump just because he said to.

“It is not a fugly,” Uriel infected the word with derision. “There are other monsters in the world than the ones you are aware of.”

“If you know so much about it, why don’t you take care of it yourself?” Sam asked.

“Because I am an angel, not a hunter. I have more pressing concerns.”

“Sucks for you. I have better things to do than run around playing lapdog to you dicks.”

For a moment, Uriel stiffened, and Sam was sure he was going to throw a punch or something similar; maybe he was going to make with the smiting, but he merely shook his head and said with cruel pleasure, “No, you are not my lapdog. Not yet at least. If it makes things easier for you, pretend I am your father. You were a good lapdog for him, weren’t you?”

Sam sprang to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor. “You don’t talk about him. Don’t you dare.”

Uriel raised an eyebrow. “Dare? I am an angel, Winchester; you are an ant to me. You will do what I tell you because I tell you. Understand?”

“Screw you,” Sam spat.

There was a sound in the hall leading to the back. Uriel glanced toward the door and said, “I will see you in Indiana, Winchester,” and disappeared.

A moment later, Dean came into the room, his hair disheveled and his sweats crumpled. “Sam, you okay?” he asked.

“Just fine,” Sam said bitterly.

Dean came closer and picked up the newssheet from the table. He read it with a furrowed brow and then set it down again. “Case?”

“Only if you want to be a lapdog.”

“Huh?”

Sam gave him an abbreviated account of Uriel’s visit, including the angel’s reference to their father.

“Asshole,” Dean spat.

“Yeah,” Sam said, his heart slowing its fury induced pounding.

Dean looked hesitant as he gestured to the paper. “He said it’s not a prank though?”

“He said it wasn’t. Not sure I believe him. He’s a dick enough to send us off on a wild goose chase just for shits and giggles.”

“Yeah… maybe,” Dean said slowly. “But shouldn’t we should check it out anyway?”

Sam looked incredulous. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No. Look, Sam, one person is dead already. Who knows how many more will follow. We should at least poke around a little. We could save lives.”

Sam turned away, his hands curling into tight fists. Dean was right, of course he was, but that didn’t make the idea of taking the hunt any more appealing. He did not want to give Uriel the satisfaction of thinking he’d obeyed an ‘order’.

“I think we need to do this, Sam,” Dean said.

Sam looked back at him and nodded. “Fine. Fine, we’ll do it, but I swear, if that angel comes around lording it over us, I am shivving him for sheer annoyance.”

Dean grinned, possibly thinking of the futility of the threat, and said, “Absolutely. I’ll ever hand you the knife.”

xXx

Dean left the grieving Mrs. Wallace mourning her husband at her home and made his way back to the motel they’d checked into. Sam had opted out of coming to see the widow, citing the fact he was terrible with people, and Dean hadn’t argued because Sam was right. Other than a select few, Sam couldn’t connect with people. It was a stark difference to the child Dean had known. Sam had been exceptionally sociable when he was young. He always made friends in school, despite the fact they were only ever there for a limited time. Dean had learned early on that making friends was a bad idea. You had to leave them behind and that always sucked. It was a long time after he arrived at Sonny’s that he realized it was okay to make friends, as he was there for the duration.

When he got back to the motel, he let himself in to see Sam sitting at the small, rickety table with the laptop open in front of him.

“How’d it go?” he asked.

“It’s definitely not a prank,” Dean said. “The guy had four razor blades in him, one stuck in his throat.”

Sam frowned. “How come he didn’t stop at one?”

“I don’t think he had a choice.” Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out the hex bag he’d found at the scene.

Sam glanced at it and then groaned. “Witches. I freaking hate witches. They’re human, for crap’s sake. How can they…” He shook his head. “Dad hated them, too.”

“He had good reason,” Dean said darkly.

Sam nodded. “Cincinnati.”

“Cincinnati.”

Dean shook off the memory and went on. “I didn’t get much from the wife. She’s all kinds of traumatized. She couldn’t think of anyone who would want to hurt her husband, though, and there was nothing that made me think it was her. She seemed to be genuinely devastated.”

Sam held a hand out for the hex bag and Dean passed it over. He untied the string holding it together and examined the contents with a creased brow. They were silent for a few minutes, as Sam looked at the open hex bag and Dean looked at Sam, then Sam said, “This is heavy duty witchcraft, Dean.”

“How do you know?” Dean asked, then amended, “Apart from a lifetime hunting, I mean.”

“This bone is an baby’s.”

Dean swallowed. “That’s disgusting.”

“Agreed. This here”—he held up a dried flower—“is goldthread, an herb that’s been extinct for a hundred years. This stuff means serious mojo.”

“What do we do?” Dean asked.

“Run in the other direction,” Sam suggested with a slight smile. “Hole up in Bobby’s panic room.”

“You serious?”

“Almost. We can’t book it, obviously, but that’s the smartest course of action when something like this falls in your lap.”

“We need help,” Dean said.

Sam shook his head brutally. “We’re already in this. We’re not bringing in other people to get hurt. Bobby included.”

“Actually…” Dean rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably, “I was thinking about angelic help.”

Sam tilted his head to the side and considered for a moment. “I don’t know…” he said. “It’s tempting and all, they are the assholes that brought us in on this, but I don’t want to spend more time with them than completely necessary.” He shook his head. “No. We’ll let them sit on their clouds while we take care of this.”

“How are we going to do that?” Dean asked.

“We’re going to find us a witch.”

xXx

There was something about the girl, Tracy. Slutty cheerleader costume aside, she was different than the other children Sam had spoken to at the aborted party. She was confident even though she was apparently full of sadness for the death of her friend. Sam disliked her at once, though that was nothing new for him.

As Dean searched surreptitiously for the hex bag they were sure would be there, Sam quizzed her about the ‘accident’. She sniffled and clung to the blanket some kindly—or perhaps lusty—officer had given her, and with every word she spoke, Sam grew more and more suspicious. It was unlikely that she was the witch; she was young and hadn’t had a long enough life to build up the kind of power the hex bag required, but she might know more than she was letting on. The witch could be her teacher or mentor perhaps.

Dean gave Sam a covert nod from behind Tracy and held up the hex bag for a moment before stuffing it into his pocket. Sam asked one more question before excusing himself and jerking his head toward the door to tell Dean that they were leaving. “Do you know a man named Luke Wallace?”

“Who?” she asked.

“Never mind,” Sam said and followed Dean up the stairs out of the basement. 

When they were in the Impala and powering back towards their motel, Dean pulled the hex bag from his pocket and said, “That’s two for two.”

“Yep, and that cheerleader is a liar.”

“What’s she lying about?”

Sam pressed his lips together. “I’m not sure. Her version of what happened to the victim matches with the other witnesses, but she’s hiding something. She said she didn’t know Luke Wallace, but I got the feeling she was lying.”

“You think she’s the witch?”

“I think she might be a witch, but she’s not the witch. She’s too young.”

“Okay,” Dean said. “What do we do next?”

“We follow her,” Sam said. “Maybe she’ll lead us to the real witch.”

Dean nodded confidently. “Sure. You want me to take care of that?”

“Yeah. I’ll do some work on the PD files, see if there’s something we’ve missed about the victims.”

xXx

“Well, you were right,” Dean said as he threw open the motel room door. “Little Miss Cheerleader is a little liar.”

After spending half the night and most of the morning following Tracy around town only to lose her, he was glad to have an excuse to get back to the motel for a while.  

Sam looked up from his book. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, she said she didn’t know Luke Wallace, right?” Dean said and Sam nodded. “Turns out she’s the babysitter. I went back to see the widow, and she said Tracy has been working for them since she arrived in town a year ago.”

Sam looked tense. “A year ago; that actually helps.”

“It does?”

“Yeah. I’ve been looking at lore for Halloween while you’ve been out, and I think I know what we’re dealing with. It’s a demon called Samhain.”

Dean crossed the room and sat on the edge of Sam’s bed. “I’m thinking this is more that your garden variety demon.”

“You’d be right. Samhain is the origin of Halloween. He reigned about six-hundred years ago. People would carve pumpkins to worship him, leave out sweets to appease him, and generally crap themselves when he was around.”

“So it’s not a witch?”

“It’s definitely a witch, maybe more than one. Samhain was exorcised and trapped in Hell. The witches are working a spell to free him again; they’ve probably been planning this for months. It’s only possible to do it every six centuries.”

“Crap,” Dean sighed.

“Yeah. It’s not going to be an easy hunt. If he gets loose, he can raise all kinds of fuglies with ease: zombies, ghosts, you name it, he can pretty much raise it. Dean, this could end with a massacre. He could take the town with ease and the rest of the world right after.”

Dean felt sick to his stomach. He’d thought taking on a witch was bad, but this was so much worse.

“It’s not done yet though,” Sam said determinedly. “The witches need three blood sacrifices over three days to free him followed by a spell. If we can stop them, Samhain stays trapped for another six-hundred years.”

“Okay,” Dean said, clapping his hands together. “We stop the witches doing their mojo. How?”

“We find Tracy again and track her to the boss witch.”

“And when we find them?”

“We take them out,” Sam said without hesitation.

Dean nodded. He didn’t relish the idea of killing the girl, she was young, but it was her or the world. Sometimes you had to make sacrifices for the greater good.

xXx

When they got back to the motel they had company in the form of two angels.

They’d been to the school to try to track Tracy only to find she wasn’t there. They’d had a brief conversation with one of her teachers, a man named Don Harding, which revealed nothing except that she was a troubled teen. It had been basically a waste of time, and Sam was worried and irritable. Time was counting down to midnight and they’d lost track of the girl and still had no idea who her mentor was. The last thing Sam wanted was to deal with angel crap.

“What do you want this time, Uriel?” Sam asked and received no response. 

“Dean,” Castiel said at once, ignoring Sam as completely as if he were a potted plant, “have you found the witch?”

Dean shook his head. “We’ve found the apprentice, but not the boss. Well, we know who the apprentice is, but we kinda lost her.”

“Apprentice?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah, there’s this girl we’re pretty sure is working with the real witch.”

“What makes you think she isn’t the actual witch?”

“She’s just a kid,” Dean said.

Castiel shook his head, looking disappointed. “She looks like a child, you mean.”  

Sam and Dean exchanged a glance and Sam felt his heart sink. It hadn’t even occurred to him that Tracy could be anything more than what she physically appeared to be. 

Uriel had been facing the window, but he turned now, making the movement last in an attempt to intimidate, Sam was sure. “You had the witch and you lost her? In short, you have failed,” he said, addressing Sam.

Sam glared at him. “Which is a big surprise seeing as we had so much angelic assistance. Oh, wait, no we didn’t. We just had a case dumped on us that we didn’t want or need.”

“And yet you took it anyway,” he said with satisfaction. “Never mind. You were never our only hope. We have another plan to deal with the problem.”

“You do?” Dean asked hopefully.

“Yes,” Uriel said. “We will level the town. That will take care of the witch.”

Dean sucked in a breath. “You’ll what?”

“Level the town,” Uriel said in a tone that suggested Dean was intellectually challenged.

“You can’t!”

Uriel raised an eyebrow. “You think you can tell us what to do, you ignorant ape?”

Dean narrowed his eyes. “I’ll stop you.”

“And how will you do that?”

“I’ll find a way.”

“Dean,” Castiel said impatiently, “the raising of Samhain is one of the sixty-six seals. We cannot risk it.”

“And I can’t let you take out an entire town.”

“Enough!” Uriel snapped. “You will both leave this town immediately.”

Dean looked at Sam and Sam nodded. “No,” they said in unison. 

“No?” Uriel’s eyes were wide.

“No,” Dean said again. “Way I see it, you need me. You wouldn’t have plucked me out of Hell otherwise. We’re staying here. We’re finding the witch. We’ll stop this happening and save the town.”

“I will drag you out of here by force,” Uriel said.

“Try,” Dean said, his expression mulish. “But know if you do that you can forget about me doing any of this ‘work’ that you apparently need me to do.”

Uriel stepped forward, his hands fisted. Sam stepped in front of Dean, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Enough!” Castiel said harshly, and Uriel moved back. “Dean, you have one chance to do this. We will leave you to work for three hours. If you have not tracked the witch before then, we will step in.”

“Incidentally, we know one place where the witch has been,” Uriel said. “Here.”

Sam looked at him. “How do you know?”

“She left you a gift,” he said, pulling a hex bag from his pocket. “Had we not found it, you would both have been killed almost instantly.”

“Oh…” Dean said awkwardly. “Uh… thanks.”

Uriel sneered at him. “We cannot use you if you are dead. I was adhering to orders and nothing more.”

Castiel locked eyes with Dean. “Three hours, Dean.” Then the angels were both gone with a fluttering sound.

Dean looked at Sam. “Dude, we are so screwed.”

Sam nodded. They really were.

xXx

Sam felt stupid. More than stupid, he felt like a failure. The ritual had been completed, the demon was raised, and they could do nothing but watch. Thanks to some quick thinking and a pool of blood, they’d escaped Samhain’s notice, but the demon was loose.

The one stroke of luck they had was the knowledge that the demon was going to be summoning zombies, and what better place for that than the town’s cemetery. They raced across town after Samhain, reaching him just as he entered a mausoleum.

Sam and Dean followed him in, and Sam’s heart sank when he heard the thudding of music ahead of them. Zombies they could deal with. Children serving themselves up as a buffet they couldn’t.

“What do we do?” Dean asked, and when Sam hesitated, his tone became more desperate. “Sam! What do we do?”

Sam pulled the demon knife from his pocket and held it up. “I go after Samhain. You get those kids out of here.”

“You’re not going after him alone,” Dean said fervently.

“I am. We have no choice, Dean. The kids need to get out of here, and the demon needs taking care of. I’ve got the knife, and if that doesn’t work, I’ve got a plan B.”

“You’re going to exorcise it?” Dean asked, sounding worried.

Sam nodded. “No choice.”

“Sam…”

Sam was already walking away, the knife gripped tightly in his hand and his mind set on what he was about to do. He would use the knife if he could. If not, he would fall back on the strength he had spent four long months developing. Either way, he would get the job done.

He jogged after the demon, making no attempt to hide his approach. The demon was going to see him soon; there was no need for subterfuge. He didn’t seem to notice Sam at first. He was heading for a crypt at the end of the stone corridor, his mind apparently dedicated to his task of raising zombies.

Sam knew he had to distract him before the zombies or ghosts could be freed, as that would make their job a hundred times more complicated with the children there, so he shouted, “Hey, Don!” and the demon turned at the door of the crypt.

His grey eyes surveyed Sam and seemed to see him as no threat as he walked away. Sam ran after him, the demon knife held up and ready to strike. He underestimated his opponent though. Samhain hadn’t gone fully into the crypt. He was standing inside the door to the side, out of Sam’s sight.

As Sam burst into the room, a hand whipped out and gripped his wrist, squeezing it mercilessly. He tried with all his might to keep hold of the knife, but even he had limits to his capabilities. It slipped from his fingers and clattered on the floor. Looking disinterested almost, Samhain released him and kicked the knife away.

It felt right, natural, for Sam to fix his eyes on the demon and raise his arm slowly, fixing his will on the demon. He reached for the destroyed core of the thing he had become and gripped it tightly. Before, when he was on the blood, it had been easy, so easy for Sam to do this. He had just focused and the rest had just happened at his will. It wasn’t easy now. He felt like he was pressing against a brick wall with bare hands. There was a block. He tried harder, visualizing the demon bent over with pain, and for a moment he thought it had worked, as Samhain flinched, but it lasted only a moment. Sam cursed and forced himself on. Samhain was too damn strong, too damn old and powerful, and Sam was too weak. He didn’t have the blood to strengthen him.

Then he heard a voice echoing along the corridor, Dean’s voice, and fear and anger swept through him. Dean was coming, Samhain would hurt him, kill him. He knew it as surely as he knew the sun would rise in the morning, and he couldn’t let that happen. He closed his eyes, focused, and finally felt the release of his powers as they sprang to life. There was warm wetness on his face but no pain. His head was clear as he found the demon’s core and tightened his grip.

“Sam!” Dean shouted, and Sam knew he was closer now.

“Stay there!” Sam called back, and he was unsurprised to hear the strain in his voice.

“Sam?” Dean’s voice was troubled now, verging on panic.

“I’m fine.”

Dean’s footsteps were coming closer, and Sam knew he had only seconds to finish the job. He slowly raised his fisted hand up, drawing the demon out of the host, and he smiled grimly as the smoke appeared from the demon’s mouth. It sank down and through the floor.

The last of the smoke slipped from the demon’s mouth and the host, Don, dropped to the floor.

Sam felt nothing but relief for a split second; then as he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a terrified voice saying his name, his head erupted with pain. He dropped like a stone, boneless, his head cracking on the floor. He didn’t feel anything as the blood spilled out of his ears and nose. He didn’t hear his brother’s desperate pleas or shouts for help. He was away from it all.

Chapter Text

Sam Winchester really should have stayed on the blood.

Uriel stood invisible in the corner of the crypt, watching him as he battled the demon with his damned powers. Witnessing it made his vessel’s skin crawl. The powers given by Azazel were stronger in this human than they had ever been in any of the other special children. He had trained them so ardently that he was master of them now. Still, he really should have stayed on the blood. This exorcism would have been easy if he had. Instead, he was putting incredible strain on his mind and body to complete it. There would be consequences. Not that Uriel particularly cared. His concern for Sam Winchester was purely tactical. Uriel needed him alive to kill Lilith. In any other case he would be pleased to see the abomination dead.  

Whatever the consequences were, Uriel would deal with them, regardless of what Castiel thought.

Castiel… He had once been a great and mighty leader. Uriel had looked up to him as had the rest of the garrison. He had been among the brightest of them all. Now he was a lesser version of himself

The majority of the garrison believed Dean Winchester would be the savior of the world. How? How could they be so stupid as to believe that? How was that man supposed to be anyone’s salvation when he was little more than a puling infant? The younger Winchester was the only one with even a chance of saving the world, as he at least had powers. If he could find and kill Lilith before the last of the seals were broken, it could all be stopped. That wouldn’t happen. Uriel wouldn’t let it. Not when there was another option in the form of The Morningstar. He would rid the world of humanity. He would lead Heaven. He would create a paradise for loyal angels on earth. Uriel was one of the loyal.

Dean Winchester approached, and his proximity seemed to be the motivation his brother needed to push through the pain and get the job done. As his hand raised and the demon spilled out of the host’s mouth, Dean rushed into the room, his eyes wide and scared.

There was a moment in which Uriel thought perhaps he had overestimated the damage the younger Winchester had done to himself with the exorcism, but then he dropped to the floor, blood running from his nose, and Uriel nodded.

For a moment he was undecided. Should he appear now, heal Sam Winchester and be done, or should he leave it a while to let the message that he needed the blood to sink in? He thought perhaps a little time to educate both Winchesters was best. They would have to see the benefits of the blood.  

Satisfied with his decision, he took flight away from the crypt and the foul stench of Sam Winchester’s tainted spilled blood.

xXx

“Sam! Sam! Sammy!” Dean was panicked. He couldn’t take his eyes off the blood coating his brother’s face.

Dean pressed shaking fingers to his brother’s throat and sighed with relief. There was thumping against his fingertips, faster than he would have liked, but it was there. Sam’s breaths were shallow but steady, and Dean took comfort in that as he pulled his phone from his pocket.

“It’s okay, Sammy,” he said. “I’m going to get you help.”

Sam stirred then and groaned, and Dean’s heart jumped into his throat.

“Hey, take it easy, okay. You’re pretty beaten up. I’m calling an ambulance.”

In a movement that seemed impossible given Sam’s weakened state, he rolled and grabbed the phone out of Dean’s hand. “No ambulance,” he murmured faintly.

“But…”

“But nothing,” Sam said, his voice strengthening with every word. “I’m fine.”

“Sam, you’ve lost a quart of blood, you look like crap, and you were unconscious.”

“Just needed a nap,” Sam said with a smile that was devalued by the blood coating his lips. He swiped a hand over his face, smearing the blood, and looked down at it with an annoyed expression. “Damn.”

“You need help,” Dean said.

“I don’t,” Sam argued. “We need to get out of here.”

He pushed himself to his feet and swayed for a moment, his hand reaching out to steady himself on the wall, and then he straightened his back and walked away towards the door. Dean followed him, ready to grab him if he looked like he would drop again, but Sam remained almost steady, seeming to strengthen the farther he went along the stone halls of the mausoleum.

They got to the Impala and Sam tossed Dean the keys haphazardly, making Dean fumble to catch them. He climbed in behind the wheel and watched as Sam got in beside him with careful movements. When his door slammed closed, Dean started the engine and pulled away from the curb.

“How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine,” Sam said. “Let’s just get back to the motel and grab our stuff. The sooner we’re out of town the better.”

“Out of town?” Dean asked. “Sam, we need to get you to a hospital!”

Sam shook his head slowly, reaching into the glove box and pulling out a Kleenex. He wiped at the blood covering his face and spoke in a confident tone. “I don’t need a hospital. I just need to get out of here. I really am fine.”

Dean spoke through his teeth. “The last time you told me that you were bleeding out from a gunshot wound, Sam. You almost died.”

“Dean,” Sam said patiently, “this isn’t like that. This is what happens when I push it too hard. You know that. You’ve seen it happen before. This time was worse because the demon was more powerful.”

Dean conceded the point. He had seen Sam go down after an exorcism before, and he’d seen him bleed. This seemed different though, worse.

But the demon had been worse, a voice whispered to him, and he doesn’t have the blood strengthening him anymore.

He looked over at Sam, taking in the pale face and traces of blood still marring his skin, and nodded. “Okay. We’ll get out of here, but if anything changes, if you feel different, worse, you tell me. Okay?”

“Sure,” Sam said tiredly

“Promise me, Sam.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “I promise, Dean. That enough or do we need to put it in writing?”

“That’s enough,” Dean said. “It’s just… I worry, Sam.”

“Yeah, me too,” Sam said. He said it so quietly Dean wasn’t sure he was supposed to hear. He had heard though, and he was pretty sure Sam wasn’t talking about himself. 

xXx

They both crashed as soon as they got back to The Roadhouse in the early hours of the morning. Dean didn’t even bother to change before falling into bed. He slept right through until past eight, and he would have slept longer if not for the sounds of the others starting their days. Ellen was humming in the kitchen, coffee was gurgling, and someone was in the shower. They were good sounds to wake up to.

He rolled over and was surprised to see the broad expanse of Sam’s back in the other bed. Sam was usually up before any of them, and he never slept through the sounds of The Roadhouse gearing up. It figured that he would sleep though, as he had expended a massive amount of energy the night before tackling Samhain.

Dean climbed lazily out of bed and glanced over at Sam. The blankets had pooled around Sam’s hips, and Dean had a clear Sam and the blood that had stained his face and the pillow. It was coming from his nose and—Dean felt sick with fear—his ears. He stepped across the small room, calling his brother’s name. Sam didn’t respond, and when Dean shook his shoulder, he rolled onto his back without resistance.

“Jesus,” Dean breathed, and then his voice rose to a shout. “Ellen!”

She rushed into the room, stopped dead, and gasped as she caught sight of Sam: Sam’s pale face, his closed lids and the blood—all that blood. “Sam!”

“Ambulance,” Dean instructed, his eyes fixed on his brother. Sam was breathing, albeit in shallow gasps. When Dean checked, he felt a fast pulse. He rolled Sam onto his side, adjusted his limbs and tilted his head back so he was in the recovery position.

“Sam, honey, talk to me,” Ellen was saying desperately, crowding in Dean’s space and reaching for Sam. She was in shock and useless to Dean, so he stepped back and picked up his cell from the bedside table. He was surprised that his voice sounded so calm and collected as he spoke to the operator, giving a brief rundown on the situation and directions to The Roadhouse.

Jo appeared in the doorway, and she rushed toward the bed. Dean stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and gave her the phone. “Keep them on the line,” he said.

Jo raised the phone to her ear and Dean heard her say, “It’s my brother…” shakily before he turned his attention back to Sam. He eased Ellen back a few steps so he could reach Sam’s head and felt for a pulse again. It was still there, but it wasn’t steady. Dean was either losing track or it was missing beats and then carrying on heroically again.  

“Sam,” he said loudly, “can you hear me?”

There was absolutely no response from Sam, though Ellen moaned quietly. Dean didn’t know what he could say to reassure her, as there was nothing anyone could say to reassure him. Sam was in trouble and they all knew it.

Self-flagellating thoughts came to him—How could you let this happen? You should have taken him to a hospital!—but Dean batted them away, focusing on his brother. They would help no one. When it was over, when Sam was better, he could indulge his guilt all he wanted. It wasn’t time for that yet.

He lost track of time as he stood bent over the bed, trying to rouse his brother, but he felt the exact moment Sam’s pulse disappeared. For a handful of seconds he searched for it, thinking it was his mistake, before he registered the absence of Sam’s breaths, too.

“Sam!” Ellen cried, coming to the same realization even as Dean dragged Sam from the bed and onto the floor and started chest compressions.

He counted off in his head as he pressed down then tilted Sam’s head back and blew two deep breaths into his mouth. Ellen was speaking, perhaps crying, and Jo was there, but Dean only noticed them in a peripheral way, as if they were not a part of the scene. His attention was on Sam. He felt it all: the crack and grate of at least one rib he had broken with his compressions, the burn in his shoulders as he pressed down again and again, the thud of his own heart in his ears like a drum, and the absence of the sound that was Sam’s breath.

Sirens broke through his haze and he shouted at Ellen and Jo, not caring who obeyed as long as someone did, “Go let them in!”

Someone must have gone as shortly after gloved hands were pushing his away from Sam and replacing his compressions with their own.

Dean fell back and scrambled around to kneel behind Sam’s head, his hand brushing the hair—Too long, Sam really needed a haircut—back from Sam’s forehead.

A plastic mask was slipped over Sam’s mouth and fingers compressed the bag attached steadily, breathing for Sam while he couldn’t, and Dean heard the snip of fabric as Sam’s t-shirt was cut away from him. Sensors were placed on his chest and they connected to a small monitor that droned with the sound of an absent heartbeat alarm.

“Shock him?” a voice asked, and Dean answered aloud without being aware of it. “Yes, please God, get him back. He’s my brother.”

Pads were placed on Sam’s chest, and Dean traced their wires to a white box beside him on the floor. The lack of heartbeat was displayed on the screen of that machine, too. Dean couldn’t bear to look. He turned his eyes back to Sam and brushed back the hair from his face again.  

“Clear!” a voice ordered, and Dean’s hands were pushed back onto his lap. There was a hum and a sound almost like gunshot and Sam’s back arched, his head jostling on the floor. Dean stared at his face, desperately needing some sign of life from his brother. There was none. Sam’s was still—dead—not moving.

“Again!”

The sound ripped through the room again and this time it preceded the most welcomed sound in Dean’s world: the beep of the heart monitor.

“Thank you, God,” he whispered, his hands finding Sam’s shoulders and squeezing. “Thank you, Sam.”

The sounds of the room and the bustle of movement seemed to ratchet up a level and Dean became aware of the people around him again. Ellen and Jo were standing across the room, Jo enveloped in her mother’s arms. They were both pale and wore identical expressions of relief. The EMTs were working over Sam still. One was threading a tube into his throat and attaching an ambu-bag, and the other was preparing the stretcher for Sam. With swift movements, Sam was loaded onto the stretcher, the defibrillator and heart monitor resting on his legs, and wheeled toward the door.

“Anyone coming with him?” one of the EMTs asked.

“Me,” Dean said quickly, getting to his feet. “I’m coming.” He would not be parted from Sam for anything now.

xXx

Dean was sitting in the small room with his head bowed and his clasped hands between his knees. He could hear Ellen and Jo talking quietly beside him, but the words rushed over him, meaning nothing. Neither of them was the voice he needed.

He had struggled to leave Sam when they arrived at the hospital. Throughout the ambulance ride he had kept one hand fixed on his brother and his eyes on the heart monitor. He had felt as though Sam would slip away again if he wasn’t watching him closely enough.

Sam had made the journey though, alive at least, and they had swept him away from Dean and into a trauma room where Dean couldn’t follow. Someone had brought Dean to this room, a hand on his arm leading him. He couldn’t even remember whether the person was male or female, he had been so lost in his own head with thoughts of Sam.  Ellen and Jo had arrived after a while, and now they were all sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for news. Dean knew that every second that passed probably signaled greater damage to his brother and a greater struggle by the doctors and nurses to save him. The longer it took, the less chance there was of Sam being okay.

An indeterminable amount of time passed before anything changed. The door opened and a man in blue scrubs came into the room clutching a clipboard. He looked from face to face, settling on Dean, and said, “Sam Winchester?”

“He’s my brother,” Dean said, getting to his feet.

“I am Doctor Marsden. I have been treating Sam.”

“How is he?” Ellen asked.

“He is… unwell, very unwell indeed.”

Like that was news. You didn’t bleed out of your ear if you were healthy. You weren’t unconscious if you were okay. Dammit, your heart didn’t stop!

“He has suffered a cerebral bleed. The bleed has caused swelling. We have inserted an intraventricular catheter to monitor the pressure.” He drew a deep breath. “The pressure is great. We are going to need to operate to relieve it.”

“Surgery,” Jo choked. “You’re talking about brain surgery.”

Doctor Marsden nodded and turned to Dean. “You are his next of kin, I understand.”

Dean tried to speak but his voice came out as a croak. He cleared his throat. “Yeah.”

“I will need you to sign some forms.”

He held out the clipboard and Dean took it. He tried to read the forms, but the words blurred in front of his eyes. He made to sign them anyway, but Ellen’s voice broke into his hazed mind.

“Wait! What kind of risks are we talking here?”

The doctor looked solemn. “Many and varied.”

“Break it down for me,” she replied.

He drew a breath and spoke in a rush, as if that would make it easier for them to hear. “There could be damage to his speech, memory, muscle weakness, balance, vision, coordination. He could suffer seizures. He could have a stroke.”

Dean felt sick.

“Why would we risk all that?” Ellen asked.

The doctor locked eyes on Dean, as if he knew he was the one who needed to hear it more than any of them. “Because if we don’t, he will almost certainly die.”

“You’re saying it’s a trade-off?” Jo said quietly. “We have a brain damaged Sam or no Sam at all.”

“It’s a trade-off,” the doctor agreed.  

“Do it,” Dean said. “Do whatever you have to do to fix him.”

“Mr. Winchester, there is no guarantee we can…”

Dean cut him off. “I know. Believe me, I know. Just do what you can. Please.”

“I will.” The doctor hesitated and then said, “He’s a fighter. He’s made it this far.”

Dean tried to take comfort in the words. Sam had made it this far, he had lived. Was it impossible to believe that he would make it all the way back?

Perhaps.

Chapter Text

The door opened and all eyes snapped up to follow the doctor’s movements as he entered the room.

“How is he?” Ellen asked at once.

Dean listened for his reply even as he tried to analyze the timing of the doctor’s arrival. It hadn’t been long since he left them; had it been long enough for him to save Sam or was it just long enough for Sam to die on the table?

The doctor fixed his eyes on Dean. “He made it through.”

Ellen sighed with relief and Jo laughed shakily. Dean felt his heart restart with a jolt.

“We were able to drain the bleed successfully and without complications,” he went on. “The pressure has gone down significantly.”

“This is all good, right?” Dean said. “I mean no complications has to be good.”

Doctor Marsden nodded. “Yes, it’s good, but I don’t want to lie to you. It was a massive bleed and it’s very unlikely there will be no consequences.”

“You’re saying he could still be brain damaged,” Dean said.

“Yes. I think it’s better that I am honest with you from the start. I have never seen someone with the size of bleed your brother had without some damage. You need to accept that now.”

Dean bowed his head. This was so much, too much. Sam, his brilliant, gifted brother, was damaged. How was he supposed to deal with that? How were any of them, Sam most of all, supposed to deal? Sam was independent to a fault. He wouldn’t be able to bear this.

Would he even realize?

Dean thought over the list of possible complications the doctor had given them before the surgery: seizures, problems with speech, movement, memory. Would Sam even know them now?

Dean swallowed bile and anger. He wanted to lash out, to attack someone. He wanted to siphon his feelings into someone else, make them pay the way he had with Ellsworth. There was no one to hurt though. Samhain was gone, exorcised and sent back to the pit for another five centuries. Dean had no outlet.  

“Can we see him?” Jo asked.

“You can. We have settled Sam in a room now. You need to be prepared, though. He is intubated and on a ventilator to help him breathe. He is triggering the vent on occasion, which means he is trying to breathe himself, but we’re using the machine to allow his body to rest. There are IVs and other tubes. The thing to remember is that each of those things is helping him.”

“How long will he need all that?” Ellen asked.

“I can’t give you a definitive answer about that right now,” Doctor Marsden said evasively.

“A guideline then?”

He drew a breath and seemed to brace himself before speaking. “Sam is in a coma. It’s not as deep as it could be. He is responding to pain stimulus, but he isn’t opening his eyes or making sounds. He is not brain dead. He still has function, but until he wakes up, we can’t be sure what the deficit will be.”

“Okay,” Dean said, holding his hands up. “That’s all I can take.”

“Dean…” Ellen said, soft and consoling.

“I just need to see him,” Dean said. “Please.”

“Of course.” The doctor opened the door again and gestured them out before him.

xXx

Their voices were too loud. The room was too loud. The ventilator whooshed and clicked and the heart monitor beeped, but those sounds were comforting as they documented life; they showed Sam was still fighting. The voices weren’t comforting. Ellen and Jo spoke quietly enough, barely reaching over the other sounds, but their voices were like nails on a blackboard to him. He wanted them gone.

He couldn’t send them away.

They had as much right to be there as Dean. They were Sam’s family, too. He would want them there.

Despite the notices posted in the halls and room declaring the limits for visiting hours, no one had made them try to leave. Dean tried to be pleased about that, but the defeatist part of him worried that it was because there was little time left.  Little time left for his brother and him to be together.

Tears stung Dean’s eyes and burned a path down his cheeks. A sob built in his chest and bubbled up his throat. He brought his arms up to his chest, hugging himself, and cried. Hands touched him and a voice shushed him, but he couldn’t stop. He was scared, more scared than he had been the night the hounds came for him; then he had only been losing his own life, now he could be losing his brother.

xXx

As Uriel watched the scene play out, he felt annoyance mixed with amusement. Dean Winchester was crying and the older woman was trying to comfort, but even Uriel could see it was futile. There was only one person who could help him, and that person was somewhat incapacitated now. If there was no intervention, he would be incapacitated permanently.

What Uriel knew and the humans didn’t was that Sam Winchester was ruined. The damage he had done to himself while exorcising Samhain was catastrophic. He would never move, speak, think or even emote again. He would know no one, not even his brother. He had destroyed himself.

Under other circumstances, it would have pleased Uriel to see him brought so low. Sam Winchester was a stain on the face of the world. He was the abomination and Uriel wanted to see him dead, but he wanted to see Lilith killed and Lucifer freed even more. He saved the thought of the Winchesters’ destruction for those times when he came close to losing hope. They would both be taken as vessels and their lives would be over. Uriel could hardly wait for that day. It wasn’t yet though. There was too much to be done still.

Uriel had to do something.

He wouldn’t act yet though. Sam Winchester could suffer a little longer first; not that he was technically suffering. His brother was though, and that pleased Uriel. Uriel would leave him to suffer a little longer, that way, when the time came, they would both know that the blood was the safest choice to make.  

If Heaven gave the orders to heal Sam Winchester, Uriel would obey them. If Heaven decided he should die, Uriel would defy them. It was better for him to be under Heaven’s trust for now, and he would hate to lose it, but the ultimate goal didn’t require that trust. He would adjust.

He took flight away from the hospital room feeling satisfied.

xXx

Dean finally had some time alone with Sam while Ellen and Jo went in search of food for the three of them. Dean didn’t think they had any more appetite than he did, but it was what you had to do when you were human: you ate, you drank, you slept, you spoke, you moved, you did a hundred other things that Sam might not be able to do anymore. In short, you lived.

He was sitting beside Sam’s bed, his arm stretched across the distance between them and his fingers entwined with Sam’s. The idea of Sam’s reaction if he could see it brought a smile to Dean’s lips that became a grimace when he realized Sam might be unable to react even if he did see.

The door open and Dean dragged his eyes from his brother’s face to look at the nurse who entered. It wasn’t the first time Dean had seen her. She had come in periodically along with Doctor Marsden to run checks on Sam. She was young—Dean would tag her as in her early twenties, pretty with her blonde hair and blue eyes. Dean had taken notice of her as his first thought had been was she even old enough, experienced enough, to take care of Sam? She seemed competent in her movements though and she treated Sam with respect, talking to him and explaining what she was doing even though he was unconscious, so Dean had felt reassured. He turned his attention back to Sam, comfortable sharing the room with her. 

The absence of sound was what alerted him: the loss of the steady beep of the heart monitor. It wasn’t replaced by a droning alarm; it was just silent. Dean lurched to his feet and spun to look at the machine and he saw the screen was dark. “What the…” he started, and then he shouted an inarticulate cry of shock as he saw the nurse’s eyes—the blue had been replaced by black.

“Good to see you, Dean,” she said in a smooth, sultry voice.

Dean reached for the back of his pants for his gun, but it wasn’t there, of course. He hadn’t brought a gun or knife with him. Why would he in a hospital?

“No, no, no,” she said, sounding amused. “No weapons today, Dean, and Wonder Boy here is too busy dying to help out.”

“Get away from him,” Dean said, starting toward her.

“I don’t think I will. I think I will have a little fun.” Dean was almost there, his hands up and ready to claw her black eyes out if that was what it took to stop her, but she was ready for him. She swept a hand through the air and Dean flew back into the wall. The breath was knocked out of him as he hit hard, and he groaned. With another wave of the arm, the sleeping chair Dean had been sitting on skidded to the door, pinning it closed.

“Now, let’s get to work,” she said. “There’s a lot to do before your little tree-topper friends arrive.” She moved closer to the bed and turned her back on Dean. His view of Sam was blocked for a moment but he could still hear. There was a hiss of air and then the ventilator fell silent. Dean heard a choking, gagging sound and then rasping breaths that seemed to fill the room.

She stepped back and Dean had a clear view of Sam. She had pulled the tube out of his throat and now he was struggling to breathe. His chest heaved and there was a sick, gargling sound with every indrawn breath.

“Hmm…” she said thoughtfully. “Wasn’t expecting that to be honest. Figured he’d be enough of a vegetable to slip off the mortal coil without that. Oh well. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

“Stop!” Dean shouted still pinned against the wall. “Leave him alone!”

She laughed. “Not a chance. This is too much fun.”

Just then, someone tried to open the door and Ellen spoke, her voice muffled through the door. “Dean, what’s going on?”

“Demon!” Dean shouted. “Get help!”

He wasn’t sure whether Ellen had obeyed—Who could she even go to for help?—but someone started slamming his or her body against the door. The chair was too heavy to be moved though.

The demon smiled as she grabbed the pillow from beneath Sam’s head and held it up to Dean. “What do you think, will this do it?”

“Please don’t,” Dean begged. “I’ll do anything.”

“There’s nothing I want from you,” she said. “Nothing except to desecrate your bloody corpse, that is. But I’ll get to that in my own time. Now, stand back and be a good boy.”

She pressed the pillow down over Sam’s face and leaned her weight on it. The affect on Sam was immediate. He began to thrash on the bed as the human need for oxygen drove through him.

Dean was weaponless, trapped. He was going to watch his brother die, and there was nothing he could do to save him.

Sam’s gargling breaths were quieter now, hushed under the pillow, and his thrashing had ceased. Only his hands still twitched at his sides. It was almost over. Dean was going to lose the one person he loved above all else. Then it happened. It was like a switch was flicked in his brain and he realized he wasn’t entirely weaponless.

“Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus…”

The demon’s gaze snapped to him and her weight lifted slightly from the pillow, allowing Sam a shallow breath. She looked almost betrayed, as if she couldn’t believe he would do this to her.

Dean let the words flow from him. The exorcism Sam had insisted he learn was going to save his life. The demon’s head thrashed from side to side and she growled deep in her throat. The pillow had fallen to the side and Sam’s mouth was clear, but his breaths still weren’t easy.

“It’s too late,” she said with a laugh. “He’s already gone.” Then she threw her head back and black smoke poured out of her mouth and into the air as she escaped the incomplete exorcism.

Dean staggered away from the wall and started toward Sam, but then a face appeared before him and Castiel was reaching for his temple. Dean just had time to moan, “No,” before he was unconscious.

xXx

When Dean woke, he was lying on an uncomfortable bed in an unfamiliar room. He allowed his eyes to rove around, and he discovered he was in a hospital and Castiel was standing beside the bed.

“Cas?” he asked drowsily. “What are you doing here? What happened?”

“What do you remember?” Castiel asked.

“You knocked me out.” 

“I thought if they found you unconscious there would be less suspicion.”

“And there was a demon,” Dean said. “She… Oh God! Sammy!”

“He is safe.”

“He’s okay?”

“He is safe,” Castiel said again.

“What does that even mean?”

“It means he is in no immediate danger. The doctors are being attentive. Dean, we need to talk.”

Reassured, Dean said, “Course. I’m glad you’re here, man. We need you. Sam needs you. He’s in a bad way, and—“

“I am not here for Sam,” Castiel said.

Dean frowned. “What do you mean?”

Castiel looked away. “I am not here to heal.”

“Why not?” Dean asked in a weak voice. “You have to. You have to! Please.”

“I told you once I am a soldier. I am. I obey orders, and no orders have been given for Sam.”

“But… There has to be. He’s in a bad way, Cas. He needs help I can’t give him.”

“I am aware. Heaven is aware, but they have decided not to intervene.”

Dean’s heart contracted painfully in his chest. “You have to,” he said, his voice raising. “Dammit, Cas, he’s a mess. They’re talking brain damage. I can’t let that happen.”

“I have seen him,” Castiel said. “I know the extent of the damage, and while I would help you happily if allowed, I cannot defy my superiors.”

Dean’s hands curled into fists and he wished more than anything that he could strike out at Castiel and have him actually feel it. He swung his legs around and slid from the bed then made a couple passes up and down the room as something else Castiel said sunk in. “You know the…” He swallowed hard. “You know the damage.”

Castiel nodded. “I do.”

“What is it? How bad?”

“I think it is better that you wait to see for yourself.”

“You’re kidding, right? You actually think it’s better for me to ‘wait and see’? This is Sam that we’re talking about. My brother. I need to know now.”

Castiel looked undecided for a moment, and then he nodded. “Very well. But remember this was your choice. The damage is substantial. Sam will almost certainly never walk, talk, speak…”

He trailed off as Dean swayed on the spot. He felt sick and faint. He wished he hadn’t asked. He couldn’t bear it. Before, he’d had a little hope, now he had nothing. “Stop,” he croaked. “I don’t want to know anymore.”

Castiel nodded his understanding. “”I am sorry, Dean.”

“Sorry? You should be. You’re telling me Sam’s ruined and even though you can fix it, you won’t.” Anger surged like bile. “Screw you, Castiel. You, all of you angels, can go screw yourselves. I’m not doing anything for you now. I don’t care if the world goes to hell. I don’t care if Lilith cracks all the seals like eggs. I don’t even care if Lucifer is freed. I am done with you all. I will not do a single thing for you again.”

Castiel shook his head looking doleful. “You will change your mind.”

“I won’t.”

“And the rest of your family? The Harvelles, Bobby Singer, Sonny, would you leave them to a destroyed world for mere revenge?”

“You wouldn’t call it revenge if you weren’t an angel,” Dean said quietly. “If you could love, you would understand.” He shook his head. “Leave, Castiel. Go now and never come back. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t even want to think of you again.”

Castiel stared into his eyes for a moment and Dean looked back without flinching, then he was gone with a faint whisper of sound and Dean was alone.

He sat on the edge of the bed again and buried his face in his hands. He would go back to Sam soon, and he would hold his hand and talk to him, but there would be no point. Sam would feel nothing, no connection between them, because he was as gone as if he had died.  

xXx

Dean got a shock when he finally staggered into Sam’s room again. The ventilator was gone. He felt a moment of fear, thinking Sam was lost completely, but Ellen saw it and hurried to reassure him. “It’s okay, honey. He’s breathing on his own now. He doesn’t need it anymore.” 

Dean nodded and made for a chair beside the bed. He reached over and picked up Sam’s hand, staring at his expressionless face. He wondered whether he would ever see it animated again. Would he be met with the mask every time he looked at him? The idea hurt him physically.

Even without the ventilator regulating them, Sam’s breaths were steady and even, hypnotic in a way. Dean lost himself in watching the rise and fall of his chest for a while before Jo broke into his thoughts. “What happened with the demon?”

Dean gave her an account of the demon’s actions, not looking at her for her reaction. When he finished, she and Ellen spoke about the demon’s motivation if not orders from Lilith, but Dean tuned them out, keeping his attention fixed on Sam instead.

Time passed and nothing changed for any of them apart from rising tiredness and frustration. Dean didn’t tell them what Castiel had said about the damage to Sam. He didn’t want to steal their hope, too. Dean was considering telling them to leave, to go get some rest when something changed. Sam’s breaths quickened. The gaze of everyone in the room fixed on him, and they all witnessed the incredible moment Sam’s eyes began to roll beneath their lids.

“Sammy?” Dean said quietly. “Sam, open your eyes for me.”

It seemed to take forever, but in truth it was a matter of seconds before Sam’s eyes opened.

Ellen choked a sob and Jo ran from the room, calling for the doctor. Dean stood bowed over the bed, cupping Sam’s cheeks in his hands and turning his face to his. “Sammy, look at me,” he ordered.

Sam’s eyes moved slowly, as if they were weighted, and looked at Dean. It was possibly the most painful thing in Dean’s life to date, the moment his brother looked at him, because there was absolutely no reaction, not even a flicker of recognition. Dean lurched back, his chest burning.

Missing it completely, Ellen came to the other side of the bed and leaned over Sam. She pressed a kiss to his forehead and stroked his cheek. “Welcome back, honey.”

Sam’s gaze moved to her, and Dean watched carefully. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted Sam to recognize Ellen or not. It would be a cruel twist of fate if he knew her and not him, but it would also mean there was still someone he loved that he knew.

There was nothing.

Sam could have been staring at a blank wall for all the reaction he gave.

“Sam, honey?” Ellen said in a worried tone.

Sam’s gaze moved away and he stared up at the ceiling.

Ellen looked at Dean, her face horrorstruck, and Dean knew the questions were coming, though she could have no idea he had some answers for her. The door opened then though, and the doctor came in with Jo following.

“I hear we have a conscious patient,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ellen said, “but there’s something wrong.”

The doctor nodded and moved closer to the bed. “Sam, can you look at me?” he said loudly.

Sam looked at him but there no reaction in his expression. He didn’t look confused or upset; he was blank.

Dean didn’t know what it was that did it, he just knew he couldn’t bear to watch them run through checks and assess what the damage there was. He fled. He ran from the room, legs pumping and feet pounding the floor, until he was outside the hospital in a large manicured garden he thought perhaps they brought patients to for fresh air. He collapsed onto a bench and hid his face in his hands. He couldn’t bear it. He was in so much pain he felt like he was on fire. His every nerve screamed at him.

What was he supposed to do?

Sam, the part of him that made him Sam, was gone. He was a shell now. Castiel had laid it out for him clearly enough. Dean had lost his brother. He had done so much, given so much for him. He’d gone to Hell for Sam, and yet he could be dead now for all the difference it made for him. Perhaps he should have died. Heaven would be better than the living hell he was trapped in now.

Heaven…

Dean hated the word. Heaven wouldn’t give the orders for Sam to be saved. They had the power. It would take almost nothing for them but they wouldn’t do it.

“Assholes,” he hissed.

“I assume you are speaking of doctors and not angels,” a deep voice said from behind him. “As I will not be disposed to help you otherwise.”

Dean turned. “Uriel.”

“Observant little mud monkey, aren’t you?”

“You’re going to help me,” Dean said hopefully. “With Sam?”

“What other dire emergency are you dealing with now? Of course with Sam.”

Dean leapt to his feet. “Yeah. Right. Awesome. Come on.”

Apparently walking was too slow for Uriel as the next moment they were in Sam’s room again and the doctor was just closing the door behind him as he left.

“Dean,” Ellen said tearfully, and then she caught sight of the imposing angel. “Who’s this?”

“This is Uriel. He’s an angel. He’s going to help Sam. Come away,” he said in a rush.  

Ellen and Jo obeyed, moving to stand by the window.

Uriel moved to the bed and looked down at Sam, his lip curling back in disgust. He looked up at Dean as he brought a hand up to rest over Sam’s temple. “Take better care of your brother, Dean Winchester. I will not intervene again.”

Dean nodded eagerly. “I will. Anything. Just help him please.”

There was a rush of light from Uriel’s palm, a strange piercing noise that Dean couldn’t barely perceive, and then a voice, the most welcomed voice in Dean’s universe, saying, “What the fuck are you doing?”

A sob and laugh mixed in Dean to come out in a strangled choking sound and he staggered towards the bed where Sam was pushing himself to a sitting position and looking around. “What the hell happened?” he asked.

Behind him, Dean could hear crying and he knew it was Ellen and Jo. He felt like crying, too.

Uriel looked Dean in the eye and said, “Better care,” just before he disappeared.

“Dean, what’s going on?” Sam asked impatiently.

Dean fell forward and Sam caught him, and then Dean’s arms were coming up and holding his brother, squeezing him against his chest. Tears streamed down his face and wet Sam’s shoulder, and though Dean knew Sam was probably incredibly uncomfortable with the contact, he didn’t care, because Sam’s arms were coming up to grip him in return and he was saying, “It’s okay, Dean, it’s fine,” under his breath and he was capable of saying it. He knew Dean and he cared, and it was more than Dean thought he would ever have again.

xXx

It was the look in their eyes that did it: Ellen, Jo, Dean, they looked afraid. No, not afraid of him, afraid for him. He had scared them, so he accepted it when they begged him to lie down back at The Roadhouse.  

Before he had left the hospital AMA, as part of the doctor’s pleas for him to stay, he’d learned he had suffered a massive brain bleed. That must have scared them, obviously, but he thought there was more to it than that. Something else had happened.  

How it had happened was clear: Samhain. As much as he had trained his powers in the months without Dean, he hadn’t achieved the ability to work without harming himself without the blood. He didn’t think he would ever be able to build that strength, no matter how hard he practiced.

That was a problem. They had the knife of course, but the backup of Sam’s powers was gone as long as he stayed off the blood. And he would. He couldn’t go back to that. He couldn’t defile his body anymore than he already had. There was nothing that could make him do that. Nothing in the world.

Perhaps.

Suddenly, he wasn’t alone in the room anymore. Ruby was standing at the end of his bed. She looked grim.

He quickly sat up. “How did you get in?” he asked.

“No one’s put the protections back in place yet. Lucky for me.”

“Unlucky for me. What do you want, Ruby?”

She perched on the edge of Dean’s bed and looked at him. “I heard what happened to you. Wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Sure you did,” he said. “What do you really want?”

She sighed. “I don’t know how many ways I can say this, Sam, but I care.  When I hear my friend almost died, I make a trip to check up on him.”

“We’re not friends,” Sam said. “We’re barely acquaintances.”

She shook her head looking frustrated. “You need me.”

“I need nothing from you.”

“Maybe not me,” she agreed. “But you need something.”

“No,” Sam said brutally. “I am not doing that again.”

“And the next time you come up against a demon that needs exorcising, what’ll you do then?”

“I’ll manage.”

“It will kill you, Sam,” she said emphatically. “She will kill you.”

“Lilith? No. She’s not my problem. She’s the angels’ issue.”

“You don’t mean that. I know you, Sam. I have seen you at your very worst. Has any of your family seen that? Have they seen you delving so deep into your nature that you’re barely human? Do they even know?”

“No,” Sam said. “And they never will.”

She shook her head. “You should tell them.”

“Never,” Sam said angrily. “And if you tell them I will take that knife we stole from you and shove it through your throat. I am not joking Ruby. If you tell them, I will end you.”

Sam glared at her. It wasn’t an idle threat. Dean must never know what he had done. It would ruin everything. He was back. He didn’t remember hell. There was no deal hanging over them now. Lilith and the seals aside, things were as good for them as they ever were, and Sam was not going to destroy that by sharing what he had done.

He would lie.

Chapter Text

The only times Sam really felt like himself now was when he was running. At The Roadhouse, with Ellen and Dean, Jo and Ash, he felt like he was less than he had been before. They watched him all the time, concerned and careful, as if expecting him to collapse any moment. It was suffocating.

When he was running he felt free, able to breathe without an audience. He would set off from the bar and run until he felt that he had outrun their concern. His feet would pound the earth and his chest would rise and fall in pants, and he would be in control again. He would be Sam. He would be alone. That was until one afternoon around two weeks after he checked out of the hospital.

He was running, pushing himself hard, too hard maybe, and his head was swimming. He came to a streetlight and leaned his head against the pole as he tried to get a handle on his racing heart and panting breaths. When his vision cleared from the exhaustion induced clouding at the edges, he straightened and started to stretch out his legs before the muscles seized up.

“What are you running from, Sam Winchester?” Uriel asked behind him.

Sam managed not to start at the unexpected voice. He took a breath and turned to look at the angel. “I’m not running from anything.”

Uriel’s lips stretched into a mirthless smile. He didn’t speak, but his silence spoke volumes. He knew what Sam was running from because he had witnessed it. He’d seen Sam in that warehouse torturing that demon. He’d perhaps been there before that day, when Sam had been draining Ruby’s blood from the flask. He might have seen Sam killing the demons—and their human hosts, let’s not forget them—all in the name of his mission. He knew Sam was running from the memories of the things he had done and the knowledge of where he was bound now that he had ruined his soul so completely.

He had probably laughed as he’d watched.

“What do you want?” Sam asked, eager for the angel to leave now that the peace of running had been shattered.

“There is a task I want you to do.”

“You’re kidding me, right? The last time I took on a ‘task’ for you guys I ended up bleeding in my brain.”

Uriel tutted. “Is that all they told you happened?”

Sam remained silent. He didn’t want to know more about what had happened to him, not from Uriel. If Dean or Ellen hadn’t told him themselves, there was a good reason for it. They either thought they were protecting him or they were protecting themselves. Either way, it was family business, not the angels’ place to share.

Sam thought perhaps he saw a flicker of disappointment cross Uriel’s features before he went on. “Besides, that was not our fault. We presented you with an alternate solution to the exorcism of Samhain. We were prepared to save you from that.”

“By leveling a town,” Sam said scathingly.

“To save every town.” Uriel shook his head. “That is done, though. Now we have a more pressing issue.”

“Good luck with that,” Sam said, turning away and walking in the direction of The Roadhouse. He had only taken a few steps before a strong hand gripped his shoulder and yanked him around again.

“You will not walk away from me,” Uriel said though his teeth.

“I will.” He tried to pull free, but Uriel’s grip was too tight, painfully tight. “Let go of me!”

“No.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Fine. Talk. Tell me what’s so important that you, the mighty angel that you are, need my help for.”

Uriel drew a breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them and began to speak. “There is a girl we are looking for. She may be going by the name of Anna. She will be…different.”

“This seems a little below your pay grade, looking for a missing girl.”

“This is of the highest importance,” Uriel said, releasing Sam’s shoulder.

“And you can’t just find her yourself because…?”

“Because she is shielded from my ability to see her and if she senses me or any other angel coming, she will flee. I need you to find her for me.”

“Is she dangerous?” Sam asked.

“She’s important,” he said again.

“That’s not an answer to my question.”

“Just find her,” Uriel said in a low, warning tone.

Sam narrowed his eyes. “This really matters to you, doesn’t it?”

Uriel stared into his eyes for a moment, seeming to see right through him, and then disappeared.

“Asshole,” Sam spat, flexing his sore shoulder.

He started back towards The Roadhouse at a walk, thinking over what had happened. This girl, whoever she was, mattered to Uriel, and that made Sam want to see her disappear on the wind rather than end up in his grips. The angel had no qualms about destroying a town for the sake of his mission. What would he do to her? Sam wasn’t going to help him find out. If Uriel wanted her so bad, he could get off his cloud and look himself.

Sam wasn’t helping.

xXx

Dean knew what it meant to be healed by an angel. It meant that Sam was saved, fixed, better. He knew that on the intellectual level, but in his heart he wasn’t so sure.

Sam looked fine, he said he felt fine, but Dean couldn’t get the vision of him lying on that bed, chest not moving, heart not beating—dead—out of his mind. Every time Sam left The Roadhouse to run an errand, to jog, to escape Dean and Ellen’s concern, Dean worried that he wouldn’t make it back.

He had refused outright to hunt. The two possible cases that Sam had come across were delegated to other hunters, hunters who hadn’t recently been desperately ill. Sam was pissed, Dean knew, but he was showing impressive restraint—for him anyway—in accepting Dean’s edict that they were going to rest and recover for a while. That would only last so long though, he knew, and he wasn’t eager for the day Sam would come with a case they couldn’t refuse.

When the case did come, however, it wasn’t Sam who brought it to them.

They went into town for breakfast at the diner at Dean’s request—he wanted waffles and Ellen didn’t indulge in waffle irons. Their order just arrived when Ruby slid into the seat beside Sam. Dean didn’t immediately take in her intense expression. He merely slid his plate across the table toward her and held out his fork. It was an unconscious gesture, a throwback to the meals they’d shared before her true nature had been revealed. For a demon that didn’t need sustenance, Ruby loved to eat, and he was expecting her to dig in and devour his breakfast, but she pushed the plate back and said, “I need your help.”

Sam, who had been watching them with a raised eyebrow until then, cleared his throat. “Help you? This should be interesting.”

Ruby turned in her seat to look at him. “You owe me, Sam.”

Dean thought Sam would come back with a barb, but he merely looked annoyed.

“What do you want, Ruby?” Dean asked.

“There’s a girl. She’s in trouble.”

“And you care because…?” Sam asked.

“Because this isn’t the kind of trouble we can just ignore. She’s going to end up dead or worse unless we help. She’s got some real heavy-hitter demons going after her.”

Dean leaned back in his seat, shock stealing his breath. Demons… The last time they’d gone after a powerful demon, Sam had been taken out. There was no way he was risking that again.

“What’s the deal?” Sam asked, an intense look in his eyes.

“No, Sam,” Dean said quickly.

Sam looked away from Ruby to Dean and frowned. “No?”

“No.”

“You are hearing me, right?” Ruby said. “There’s a girl who needs our help, Dean.”

“I hear ya, and I’m still saying no.” He looked pointedly at Sam. “Not after last time.”

Sam stared into his eyes for a moment, sympathetic and perhaps sad, and then he turned back to Ruby. “What do you know?”

It wasn’t that Dean didn’t expect Sam to be eager for a hunt after their break, but demons… Sam had died.  He didn’t know that, of course, but he knew enough that he should be leery of facing another.

“She escaped from a locked ward in a Kansas hospital yesterday,” Ruby said, as if she didn’t see Dean’s barely concealed panic. “Whoever she is, whatever she’s done, the demons are on a mission to track her down. These are the real big guns, Sam. Lilith’s lieutenants.”

Sam nodded slowly. “Got a name?”

“Anna Milton. She was in— What?”

Sam had stiffened and his expression darkened. “Anna. Has to be the same.”

“Same as what?”

Sam was silent for a moment, thoughtful, and then he said, “Uriel dropped by for a visit yesterday. He wanted us to find some girl for him. Her name was Anna, too. It’s got to be the same girl.”

“The angels want her?” Ruby asked. “What the hell for?”

“No idea. He wasn’t in a sharing mood. He just said it was important.” His fingers clasped the edge of the table and some internal war seemed to be raging in him. “We have to do it.”

“What the hell?” Dean gasped. “Sam, you can’t be serious. Please, no, not after last time.”

Sam shook his head, staring out of the window rather than at Dean. “We have to, Dean. She’s got angels after her as well as demons. Hell, I don’t even know who I want to protect her from more.”

Dean knew who he wanted to protect, and it wasn’t Anna Milton. If it had been any other threat, anything else, he would have jumped in to save the girl. He couldn’t let Sam throw himself into the path of destruction again though.

He hated to do it, but he knew if he had any chance at stopping Sam doing this, it was to make him understand what it had cost last time. “You died Sam,” he said harshly.

Sam raised his eyebrows slightly. He couldn’t be sure if Sam was more surprised by the declaration or the non-sequitur. “What?”

“Samhain. After you took him out, back home, you died. You died right in front of me! Again! You cannot go into this. You’re not strong enough. You can’t do it.”

For a moment, Sam teetered on the verge of speech, and then he shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, Dean, but I have to do it.”

“Sorry!” Dean couldn’t believe after what he had said, Sam was still going to risk it.

Sam tossed a few bills onto the table and got to his feet. “I’ll see you later.”

He walked away, past the other tables and out of the diner, leaving Dean stunned. “I can’t believe it,” he said quietly.

Ruby pulled his plate over to her and took a bite of his cooling waffles. “I can.”

“Doesn’t he know what he’s risking?”

Ruby set down the fork and looked at Dean sadly. “I think he knows. He just won’t let that stop him.”

xXx

So he had died. It wasn’t the shock Dean was apparently expecting it to be. He’d known it had been bigger than anyone shared, and—with the exception of where he must have ended up—that was about the worst thing it could have been. He was back though. He was alive, and he wasn’t going to ignore this girl because of what happened to him last time.

He would be careful. He wouldn’t use his powers again. If he came up against demons, he would stick to exorcism if he could trap them; failing that, he would use the knife. He would make sure it was safe. He would be okay.

As soon as he got to The Roadhouse, he dragged Ash out of bed and set him to work looking up anything he could find on Anna Milton. By the time Dean got back, he had an address for her parents and copies of her patient records.

He was sitting in the kitchen, reading the notes when Dean stomped through the door.

“Hey,” he said.

Dean took a noisy breath, exhaled slowly, and then sat down opposite Sam. “You’re really doing this?” He sounded disappointed.

Sam wasn’t trying to hurt Dean, and he understood his fear, but this was bigger than them. Demons and angels were both gunning for this girl, and he had to help her. He didn’t even know why it was so important to him, he just knew it was.

“I am,” he said. “Are you in?” He already knew the answer. Of course Dean was in. He wouldn’t want Sam to take this on alone, even though Sam would have preferred it that way. Demons that had Ruby jumpy had to be big, and he didn’t want Dean in their sights.

It wasn’t his decision though. It was Dean’s to make. Unfortunately.

“I’m in,” Dean said firmly, as if he expected Sam to argue.

Sam didn’t. He couldn’t. He took a breath and said, “What we’ve got so far is an old address and hospital files.  Anna Milton escaped from the Conner Beverly Center yesterday, taking out a guard on her way. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia with religious delusions, but…”

“But?”

“But it doesn’t sound like delusions to me. She was talking about hearing voices, which is a tick towards crazy, but her delusions were all about the end of the world, our end of the world—Lilith, seals, angels. Her doctor thinks it’s all her religious background—her father’s a preacher apparently—but it sounds too damn close to reality to me.”

“Me too,” Dean said. “So, who the hell clued her in to the end of the world and why the hell would they do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the voices told her. We’ve got to find her before the demons or angels do. Whatever they want, it can’t be anything good.”

“But the angels…”

“Were prepared to level a town. I doubt they’d care much about killing a girl who’s shooting off at the mouth about the apocalypse, spilling all their secrets.”

Dean looked sad at the reminder, almost disappointed. Sam wasn’t disappointed. He’d had no belief in angels before they appeared in their lives, but if he had thought about it beforehand, he would have known they were dicks simply by looking at the rest of the world. What kind of creature could stand by and let it all happen if they had the power to make a difference?

Sam slid from his stool and went into the kitchen where Ellen was stirring a skillet of eggs. “How was your fancy diner breakfast?” she asked with a scowl, though her eyes were soft.

“Don’t know,” Sam said. “Didn’t get to eat any of it. Ruby arrived with a hunt for us.”

“A hunt? You sure you’re ready for that?”

“Already had that conversation with Dean. I’m ready, and it’s not like we have a lot of choice. This is something big, Ellen. Angels and demons kinda big.”

She looked stricken. “Sam…”

Sam touched her shoulder gently and said, “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”

He made to leave but she caught his arm. He turned to see what she wanted, and she wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. He froze for a moment, and then brought his own arms up to return it. The show of affection was uncharacteristic of Ellen, and it told him she was even more worried than she was letting on about this hunt. He patted her back and she released him.

“I always worry,” she said, looking him in the eye.

Sam smiled slightly. “We’ll see you in a few days.”

xXx

The demons beat them to Anna’s house. When Sam and Dean arrived, they’d already visited, leaving the house’s occupants dead on the floor with slit throats.

Sam turned from the bodies and walked out of the house, cursing under his breath, but Dean lingered a moment looking at them. They looked like perfectly ordinary people, a preacher and his wife, and they’d been dragged into this fight through no fault of their own. Now they were dead.

He glanced at the mantelpiece where he saw pictures of them in happier times standing in front of a tall white church with their daughter between them. There was a stark difference between the girl who stood with her parents and the one from the patient file Sam had shown him on the ride to Kansas. In the mantelpiece pictures, she was happy and innocent-eyed. In the file she had already seen too much of the world, and her eyes were shadowed and almost haunted. She needed saving.

He walked back into the hall and hesitated by the door. There was a stack of pamphlets on a small table—the sort of thing churches published with local news and service times on the back page. On the front was a black and white picture of the church Anna and her parents had been photographed in front of. Below it was an address and small map.

Dean snatched up a pamphlet and hurried out of the house and into the car. As he threw himself inside, he said, “I think I know where Anna is.”

Sam frowned. “How?”

“She’s scared, right? She’s gotta be if she’s escaped from a mental hospital. Kids go somewhere they feel safe when they’re scared.”

“She’s not a kid, Dean” Sam started, but Dean spoke over him.

“Everyone’s a kid when they’re scared. Which isn’t my point. My point is that Anna is scared—with religious delusions, knowing the end is nigh—and she’ll want somewhere safe to hide. What’s safer than a church?”

“Clever.” Sam sounded impressed. “Obviously churches are as safe as your average paper bag when you’re facing the kind of demons Ruby was talking about, but she probably doesn’t know that. Did you get an address?”

Dean nodded. “St Jude’s on the north side of town.”

Sam pressed down on the gas and they roared away from the sidewalk.

xXx

“…And some of them don't like you at all,” Anna said apologetically to Sam.

Sam looked amused. “Sucks for me.”

Anna nodded eagerly. “They talk about you all the time lately. I feel like I know you.”

“So, you talk to angels?” Dean said, and Sam could practically see the facts clicking into place in his head. Angels having their private chats eavesdropped upon and a human outside their ‘controlled’ circle knowing the deal with the apocalypse, they had to be pissed.

“Oh, no. No way. They probably don't even know I exist. I just kind of... overhear them.”

“Someone tuned into angel radio,” Sam said, nodding. “That explains the demons, too. They’d kill for someone that could clue them into what the angels are plotting.”

“Demons! Yes!” Anna said fervently. “In the hospital, the orderly that came, he was like a monster. His face was…”

“A rotted mess of horror?” Dean said. “Yeah, that’s a demon.”

“Anna, when did the voices start? Do you remember?” Sam asked.

“I can tell you exactly—September 18th.”

Dean glanced at Sam, his expression tense. “The day I got out of Hell.”

“First words I heard, clear as a bell—‘Dean Winchester is saved.’”

“So, something about me getting out triggered this… ability in you,” Dean said, and Sam thought he sounded guilty, as if it was his fault that the girl was being tracked by angels and demons. That was a conversation they probably needed to have when they’d gotten Anna somewhere safe.  

“I guess,” Anna said. “Hey, do you know if my parents are okay? I didn’t go home. I was scared.”

Before either of them could answer, not that the truth was coming anywhere near Anna in that moment, Ruby burst into the room, her breaths coming fast and her eyes wild. “You got the girl. Good. Let’s go!”

“Her face!” Anna cried.

“It’s okay,” Dean said. “She’s not like the others. She’s here to help.”

“Help you live,” Ruby said. “Which none of us are going to do if we’re not out of here in the next… Too late.” She pointed at a marble statue in the corner of the room. It was crying blood. She turned on Sam, intense and afraid. “You have to pull him. As soon as you see him, get it done.”

“No!” Dean said desperately. “Sam, you can’t.”

Sam was torn. Ruby made it sound like this was an all or nothing kind of situation, but Dean sounded so scared. Sam didn’t want to put him through more than he had already had, but if this demon was as bad as Ruby made out, they’d both end up dead if he didn’t pull it.

“Dean, get Anna out of here,” he ordered. “Ruby, go with them.”

“The hell I—“

“Just do it!” Sam shouted. He would pull. He would kill the demon if he had the strength or exorcise it if he didn’t. Whatever it cost him, he would do it as the alternative was to risk losing Dean again. If it ended badly… well, Uriel had saved him last time; maybe he’d do it again.

He turned to the door just in time to see the demon walk through. He was in the meat suit of a middle-aged man with receding graying hair. Before Sam could do more than raise his hand, the demon had swept his arm through the air. The force slammed into Sam, knocking him down and sliding him across the floor until he collided with the wall. He hit hard.

He was momentarily stunned, unable to move. When he came back to his senses, the demon had a hand around Dean’s throat and had pinned him to the wall. Dean’s face was reddening as the lack of oxygen got to him.

“Come on, Dean. Don't you recognize me?” the demon asked. “Oh, I forgot—I'm wearing a pediatrician. But we were so close... in Hell.”

Even as Sam dragged himself to his feet by the wall, he saw the realization dawn in Dean’s eyes as something Sam didn’t understand slipped into place.

“Alastair,” Dean choked.

The demon didn’t seem to realize Sam was on his feet again. His attention was all on Dean. Sam tried to look reassuringly into Dean’s eyes as he raised his hand and reached for the demon’s ruined core. White hot pain lanced through his head, and his whole body jerked. Dean was shouting, and the demon was laughing, and Sam was trying to keep his feet. It was harder than even Samhain had been. He could barely get a hold of the demon let alone do anything to it. His attempt had done one thing though. The demon had released Dean.

“Really, Sam,” the demon said. “You should know better than to try that again.”

Sam tried once more to get a better hold of the demon, but it was pointless. He felt like he had in those early days, before the blood, when he had been trying to do it through sheer will alone.

Behind the demon, Dean was regaining his composure. Inexplicably, he was smiling. Sam frowned and then understood as Dean pulled the demon blade from his jacket. Sam focused on the demon again, trying to keep his attention on him instead of on Dean, and watched in his peripheral vision as Dean drew back the knife and plunged it into the demon’s neck.

The demon didn’t fall. He looked amused as he reached for the hilt and pulled it out of his neck. “Now, Dean, is that any way to treat an old friend?” He sounded almost disappointed.

There was nothing they could do. The knife was next to useless and Sam’s powers weren’t working. They were going to die in that attic unless they got out.

Dean seemed to come to the same realization at the same moment. He looked at Sam from behind the demon and jerked his head to the window. Sam nodded and they both set off running across the room. In unison they threw themselves up through the stained glass.

xXx

Dean’s recently relocated shoulder burned, and the sight of Sam sitting on the edge of the bed and threading the needle through his own skin was turning his stomach, but those weren’t the things that were truly bothering him. It was the thoughtful look in Sam’s eyes that was doing that. He had heard what Alastair said. He knew Dean had recognized him. It was only a matter of time until he asked about it. Dean could wait a lifetime for that conversation.

“Okay,” Sam said, cutting the last stitch. “That’s me done. How’s your shoulder. Need some ice?”

Dean rolled his shoulder, holding a hiss of pain behind his teeth. “No, I’m good.”

Sam nodded, looking relieved, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He hit a speed-dial and brought the phone to his ear. He listened in silence for a moment and then tossed it down onto the bed.

“Ruby?” Dean guessed.

“Not answering.”

“Maybe she’s still working on getting Anna somewhere safe.”

“Or their both dead already,” Sam said bitterly.

Dean looked down at the stained green carpet. He didn’t want to think of that. Anna was an innocent, and Ruby… He didn’t know what she was to him anymore other than someone he cared about.

“I don’t like it either, Dean, but that demon was a heavy-hitter, and there’s no guarantee they got away.”

“We did.”

“Because he let us,” Sam said. “He wanted us alive and he wanted us gone.”

He threw himself down on the bed opposite Dean and groaned. Dean looked up at him. He was waiting, knowing the questions had to be coming, but Sam stayed silent. Minutes passed like that until Dean couldn’t bear it anymore.

“Ask, Sam,” he said mournfully.

“Ask what?”

“I know you heard what he said. You know I recognized him. So ask. Get it over with.”

Sam took a deep breath, blew it out in a gust, sat up and braced his hands on his knees. “How do you know that demon, Dean?”

“I think you already know the answer to that.”

Sam nodded. “I think I do. Was it seeing him that did it or have you known all along?”

Dean bowed his head. “I’ve known since I got back. I lied. I remember. I remember Alastair. He was my torturer.”

Sam didn’t speak, and after a moment, Dean glanced up at him. He had to know what he was thinking, not that knowing Sam’s thoughts was ever easy. He expected anger, sadness, maybe even the blank mask he employed when he couldn’t deal with something. What he didn’t expect was for Sam to be staring down at his clasped hands, watching the tears dropping from his face to his entwined fingers.

The sight of Sam’s tears brought them to Dean’s eyes, too. He swiped them away and sniffed. “I’m sorry,” he said mournfully.”I shouldn’t have lied. I didn’t want you to…” He waved a hand at Sam. “You’re hurting. I wanted to protect you from that.”

Sam nodded. “I get that. Oh God, Dean. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” Dean wondered if a time would ever come in which Sam wasn’t blaming himself for something out of his control.

Sam lifted his tear-painted face to Dean and shook his head. He looked on the verge of speech for a moment, but before he could say anything, his phone rang. He picked it up seemingly automatically. “Ruby?” He paused and then sighed with what Dean thought was relief. “Good. Where are you? Okay. We’ll come now. For God’s sake, be careful.”

He ended the call, stuffed the phone back in his pocket, and said, “They’re okay. They’ve found somewhere across town to hide out. We need to go now.”

Dean nodded and grabbed up his duffel from the bed. Within a minute, they were gone, their motel was empty, and the tears had been wiped from their faces. Dean thought maybe they would be back before long though, as that conversation wasn’t over.

xXx

Sam saw Ruby’s relief when they arrived at the abandoned farmhouse she’d directed them to. She was relieved that she had backup against Alastair now. She didn’t know they were next to useless against him. The knife hadn’t worked and Sam powers weren’t strong enough.

There was a simple fix to that—he just needed the blood—but he couldn’t go down that road. Not without ruining himself, and Dean needed him to remain his brother a little longer.

Anna was sitting on a dilapidated couch against the wall, her legs pulled up against her chest and her chin resting on her knees.

“Anna, are you okay?” Dean asked solicitously.

She nodded and smiled slightly. “Ruby saved me. She’s not like other demons. She’s good.”

“Finally, someone understands,” Ruby said with forced humor.

“Do you think…” Anna said hesitantly. “Do you think I could call my parents? I’m worried about them, and they’ve got to be freaking about me and the hospital, you know.”

Sam looked at Dean and shook his head. Anna didn’t need to know what had happened to them yet. She was already under too much pressure, and watching her losing her shit wasn’t going to help them at all.

Dean ignored the gesture. He sat down on the edge of the couch and laid a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “Anna, I am so sorry. Your parents… they didn’t make it. The demons.”

“No!” she gasped. “No, no, no. Please no!”

“I’m sorry,” Dean said again.

“I can’t… This is…” She was starting to hyperventilate, then, suddenly she stiffened and looked up at Sam with wide-eyed horror. “They’re coming.”

“Ruby!” Sam said.

“On it,” she said, crossing the room and dragging Anna to her feet. She got her out of the room and into another just as the door flew open, crashing against the wall.  

Sam was expecting demons, Alastair, Lilith, their demon cronies. He wasn’t expecting Uriel and Castiel. He was more scared of them in that moment than he was the demons. They looked ready to kill.

“Please tell me you're here to help,” Dean said, sounding relieved. “We've been having demon issues all day.”

“We're here for Anna,” Castiel said solemnly.

Dean frowned. “Here for her like... here for her?”

Sam already knew the answer. They looked ready to smite, and it wasn’t Sam and Dean who would be their victims.

Uriel sneered. “Stop talking. Give her to us.”

“Are you gonna help her?” Dean asked.  

“No, she has to die,” Castiel said. 

Chapter Text

The force swept through the room like a pulse of warm air. Dean’s arm came up to cover his face as the light dazzled, and when he lowered it, automatically calling his brother’s name for reassurance, he saw the angels were gone.  

Sam was fine. He was standing on the other side of the room, near the door that separated Anna and Ruby from them, and he was looking back at Dean, confusion and relief in his expression.

“What the hell was that?” Dean asked, not with any real expectation of an answer.

“Anna!” Sam said, turning and ripping open the door. He disappeared through it and Dean heard him say, “Dammit!”

Dean ran in after him and skidded to a halt. Anna was leaning heavily against the wall, blood trickling down one arm to the dirty floor and her breaths coming fast. Sam had his hands clasped around the bloodiest point of her arm, and he was speaking to Ruby. “Get the first aid kit out of the trunk. Keys in my pocket.”

Ruby dug a hand into his pocket and extracted the keys then hurried from the room. Dean heard the cabin’s door slam against the wall as she opened it.

“A little help,” Sam said, nodding his head at Anna. “She needs to sit down.”

Dean wrapped an arm around Anna’s waist and she leaned heavily against him. “It’s okay,” Dean said gently. “You’re okay now.”

Ruby was already back in the room when they got Anna situated on the couch, and when Sam held a hand out without turning, she handed him the old mess kit bag they had used to store their first aid kit since their childhood. 

Sam knelt in from of Anna and slowly released his now one-handed grip on her arm. Anna hissed between her teeth. “You’re okay,” Sam said, not unkindly, but not in a tone that would actually reassure anyone.

Dean sat on the edge of the couch and laid a comforting arm over her shoulder. “Sam’ll fix you right up,” he said.

Ruby knelt beside Sam, flipped open the first aid kit and tipped out the contents. Sam rooted through the packages of bandages, sewing kits, and bottles of pills, coming up with a plastic wrapped gauze pad. He ripped it open with his teeth and laid it over Anna’s wound.

“Stitches?” Ruby asked.

“It’s not that deep,” Sam replied. “I’ll use butterfly bandages. Anna, do you need some painkillers?”

“No thank you,” she said quietly. “It’s not so bad.”

Sam shrugged and set to work taping up her skin with the small strips and then wrapping it with a bandage. When he finished taping off the end, he sat back on his haunches and said. “You’re good.”

Anna pulled her arms against her chest and said, “Thank you.”

“Now, what the hell was that?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” Anna said plaintively.

“Did you kill them?” he asked almost hopefully. 

“No, I just sent them away. I don’t know how or where, it just popped into my head. I just knew.”

Sam nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. We’ll make sure to memorize that. Does it have to be blood?”

“Yes,” she answered quickly, then she shook her head. “I don’t know how I know this.” She looked up tearfully at Dean. “How do I know this?”

Dean shrugged helplessly.

“That’s what we need to find out,” Sam said. “It’s not just you tapping into angel radio that’s got them gunning for you. They said—“ At Dean’s harsh look he cut off suddenly.

“You don’t have to pretend,” Anna said. “I heard it through the wall. They want to kill me.”

“We won’t let them.” Dean hurried to reassure her, though he didn’t know how they were supposed to protect her unless they spent the rest of time blasting the angels away whenever they came calling.

Sam stood and walked through to the other room again. Dean thought he was actually memorizing the sigil Anna had used. When he came back into the room, his expression was grim. “We need help.”

“No shit,” Ruby said. “Where are you planning on going for it though? My Rolodex is a little low on people I can call on for help. Most people want me dead.”

Dean looked at Sam. There were a number of other hunters they could call in, but they were as useless as Sam and Dean in the face of the angels. He wondered if Sam was thinking the same thing.

“Missouri,” he said.

Ruby frowned. “What about it?”

“Not the state,” Sam said scathingly. “The person. She’s a psychic. She might be able to get some more out of Anna—like how she knew how to banish angels. She might know more useful stuff.”

“Like how to kill them?” Ruby asked thoughtfully.

Sam nodded. “That. Disable them. Make them shut up and listen long enough for us to get some answers from them about why Anna’s on their hit list. Anything can help at this point.” He looked at Dean. “You up for swinging by and getting her?”

“Where are you going to be?” Dean asked.

“I’ll be getting Anna to Bobby’s.”

“Bobby’s out of town on some hunt. Or maybe it was a vacation. Or a retreat. He wasn’t too clear, but he’s gone somewhere.”

“Even better,” Sam said. “It’s his panic room we need anyway.”

“And where am I going to be on this road trip extravaganza?” Ruby asked.

“With Anna,” Dean said quickly. “Until they get to the panic room, Sam and Anna are the biggest targets. You’ve managed to keep her safe twice already.” Though his concern for Anna wasn’t the only thing driving him. He wanted Sam safe, too.

Sam considered for a moment and then he nodded.”Okay. See you when you get there.”

Ruby tossed him a set of keys. “You take the Mustang. We’ll need the room.”

Dean caught the keys and nodded at Sam. “You be careful.”

“You, too,” Sam said intensely. “Drive fast.”

xXx

Sam knew the conversation was coming. Ruby was staring at him with that determined look in her eyes throughout the drive to Sioux Falls, and he could practically see her building up the reasons in her mind. He knew the reasons already. But he wasn’t doing it. He couldn’t.

It wasn’t until they had worked their way through the multitude of locks on Bobby’s door, broken the devil’s trap just inside, and settled a scared and quiet Anna to sleep on the cot in the panic room that she pounced. Barred from entering the panic room by the devil’s trap that encompassed the entire space, she lurked in the doorway, watching Sam as he covered Anna with a blanket.

“We need to talk,” she said gravely.

Sam shook his head. “We really don’t.”

“Yes, we do,” she argued.

Sam checked Anna was sleeping soundly and crossed to the door. He spoke in a hiss. “You want me to get back on the blood—“

“We need you on the blood,” she interjected.

“—but I am not doing it,” Sam said.

“And when Alastair and his cronies turn up again, what are you going to do?” she snapped. “The knife won’t kill him. It probably doesn’t even tickle. You can’t pull him now. He’s not going to be trapped, so you can’t exorcise him. Tell me, Sam, what exactly are you going to do?”

“Missouri…” he started.

“Can maybe help with the angel side of things,” she said. “Anna might have hidden powder keg secrets to share still, but she can’t do shit about the demons. There is no way to kill them other than the knife, the colt or you. We don’t have the colt, the knife won’t work on the one that matters, and you’re being all prissy about the only option we have left.”

“I can’t do it, Ruby!” He sighed and closed his eyes. “You know, and you’re the only one that does, exactly what I have done and what I became. I am not fit to be Dean’s brother anymore, but I am doing my damndest to change that, no matter how futile it is. If I slip back into that, I will lose who I am. I will lose Dean.”

“And if Alastair gets hold of him, what do you think will happen then?” she asked. “You’re being stupid, Sam. You’re clinging to what you want instead of what you need. Dean needs you to do this. He’d understand if you told him the truth. You’re pretending you’re the same man he left behind, and we both know that’s not the case. Let him see the real you and make his own choice.”

“Never,” Sam hissed. “He doesn’t need to know.” He shook his head. “Did you know Dean remembers Hell?”

She frowned. “Duh. Of course he does. It’s not something you forget.”

“He told me he didn’t. I thought the angels had wiped his slate clean. They didn’t. He remembers. I can’t even imagine what he went through down there. I don’t know how he made it through without losing himself. He didn’t though. He’s still Dean. I am not still Sam. I need to be Sam for him again.”

“This is a mistake.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Sam said, making the decision as he said it. “I’ll lay out the facts. He doesn’t need to know the full story, what I did, but he can make the choice. If he wants me on the blood, if he wants Alastair dead, I will do it. If he doesn’t, we will find another way. It has to be his choice.”

“And the fact he’ll lie and say no if you ask him?”

Sam turned away.

xXx

Missouri bustled ahead of Dean into the panic room in a rush of concern and compassion. “Oh, boy, this is a hell of a mess you boys have found yourselves in,” she said, a pronouncement Dean had heard a few times on the ride. 

Disturbed by her voice, Anna roused and sat up. “What’s happening?”

“Anna, this is Missouri,” Dean said.

“Oh. Hi, Missouri.”

“Hello, Anna,” Missouri said kindly. “I hear you’re having a little trouble.”

Anna laughed slightly. “You could say that.”

“Don’t you worry. Me and these here boys are going to take good care of you. They don’t look like much, but they’re good at what they do.”

Sam raised an eyebrow and gestured to Dean to follow him out of the panic room. They stopped at the bottom of the stairs and Sam spoke in a low voice. “I’ve been reading Anna’s file. Turns out this latest mental breakdown wasn’t the first. When she was a kid, around two, she started freaking out. She’d get hysterical whenever her father got close. She kept screaming that he wasn’t her real father. Here’s the thing. She said her real father was mad. Wanted to kill her mad.”

Dean whistled between his teeth. “That’s pretty heavy for a two-year old.”

“Tell me about it. I don’t know what this means, could be nothing to do what’s happening now, but…”

“It could be something,” Dean finished for him.

Sam nodded. “Yeah. We’ll see what Missouri comes up with first, and then we’ll talk to Anna, see if she has any insight to what happened back then.”

They walked back into the panic room together to see Missouri sitting beside Anna on the cot and Ruby lingering by the door watching them.

“Now, Anna, Dean told me you knew something that would banish the angels. Where did you learn it?”

“I don’t know,” Anna said sadly. “It’s like there’s a block in my mind. I can’t remember. It was just suddenly there.”

Missouri didn’t seem to be listening to what she was saying though. Her eyes were closed and her expression was blank, as if she was hearing something other than Anna’s words.

“Missouri?” Sam said quietly.

She shook her head and seemed to come back to herself. “Well, that’s a puzzle.”

“Are you getting anything?” Sam asked.

“Oh, yes, plenty.” She patted Anna’s hand where it lay on her lap. “You’re talking plenty, your mind is as open to me as anyone’s, but it’s what you’re not saying that counts. It’s like there’s an echo, and that echo doesn’t agree.”

“What’s it saying?” Sam asked.

“That’s the thing. I can’t make it out.” She sounded annoyed at herself. “It’s more of a sense, like something is whispering back to me.”

“And how do we make it… I don’t know… shout?” Sam asked.

Anna flinched and Dean wished Sam had chosen any other word. Anna was obviously on the verge of a breakdown, and the last thing she needed was to think about voices shouting in her head. Again.

“It depends,” Missouri said thoughtfully.

“On what?” Dean asked.

“On Anna. She has to be the one to make this decision. None of us have the right.”

“What do I have to do?” Anna asked quietly.

Missouri smiled at her reassuringly. “I would like to delve deeper. It might be a little… frightening. Old memories could resurface that will upset you, things that happened before. Whatever your mind is blocking now.”

Silence settled over the room for a while. Sam shifted uncomfortably, and Dean knew he was trying hard not to break it before Anna was ready.

Eventually, Anna nodded and said, “I don’t think I have a choice really. The angels aren’t going to just stop trying to kill me. The demons aren’t going to give up. If this will help, I have to do it.”

Sam sighed a breath of relief, and Dean smiled at Anna, trying to communicate just how grateful he was for her bravery. He wasn’t sure he could do the same in her position.

“So, how do we do this?” Sam asked.

“Hypnosis,” Missouri said. “Anna, if you’re ready and still willing, I will need you to lie down and try to relax.”

Anna lie down obediently with her hands folded on her chest and closed her eyes. Missouri pulled a chair over to the cot and sat down. She turned to Sam and Dean, seeming to be speaking to Sam more than anyone as she said, “Be quiet. Stay back. Let me work.”

Sam nodded briskly.

Missouri fixed her attention on Anna again and began to speak in a slow, soothing tone. “Anna, I need you to do something for me. Listen to my breathing and try to copy it.” She drew a loud, slow breath and exhaled slowly a few times. Anna’s breaths fell into step with hers almost immediately. “That’s good. Now, concentrating on my voice and nothing else, I want you to relax every muscle one at a time. Start with your feet and work your way up. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Missouri,” Anna said in a soft voice.

There was quiet but for the sound of breathing for a moment and then Missouri said, “Okay, I am going to count down from ten, and when I reach one, you are going to be in a deep sleep. Ten…  Nine… Eight…”

Dean felt his own eyelids growing heavy as he listened to her voice, and he shook his head briskly.

“Anna, can you hear me?” Missouri asked.

“Yes.”

“Good, now, I need you to think for me, think through the veil and find the echo. Where did you learn the banishing sigil?”

“I don’t know.”

“Try again.”

“No,” Anna moaned. “I don’t want to.”

“I know you don’t, but this is important, remember?”

Anna’s head twisted to the side. “Don’t make me.”

“You can do this. You’re strong.”

“I’m not. Not anymore. I’m just Anna now.”

“Who were you before?” Missouri asked.

“I was… different. I don’t know. It’s too hard.”

Missouri looked at Sam, and she seemed to be questioning him. Sam nodded. “Anna,” he said. “Who’s your father?”

“Rich Milton,” she said promptly.

“Who else?” Sam asked.

“No one.”

“Why is he angry at you?”

“He isn’t. He loves me.”

“Why did he want you dead?”

Anna moaned deep in her throat, a desperate and mournful sound. “Because I betrayed him.”

“What did you do?”

Anna’s head thrashed to the side. “Please, don’t, Sam.”

“What did you do?” Sam asked again, forcefully now.

Anna jolted as if electrocuted. Missouri held up a hand to halt Sam’s next question, and they waited as Anna thrashed and seemed to be battling some invisible assailant. Dean was afraid for her, a feeling which increased exponentially as she let out a piercing scream that hurt Dean’s ear. There were words hidden in the scream though, scared, painful words. “I fell!”

“Okay, okay,” Missouri said quickly. “That’s enough. You’re done, Anna. Come back to us. Five… Four… Three… Two… One…”

Anna’s eyes snapped open and she sat up. “Thank you, Missouri,” she said in what Dean could only describe as a dignified tone. “That helped.”

“Helped how?” Ruby asked from the doorway.

Anna glanced at her and smiled slightly. “I remember now. I know what I am.”

“And what are you?” Dean asked, though he thought he already knew the answer—Was it even possible?”

Anna straightened her back. “I am an angel.”

“Whoa,” Ruby said, taking a step back.

“Don’t worry. I am not like the others,” Anna said. “I don’t have their power for one.”

“So, you’re an angel with a dead battery?” Sam asked, his tone neutral.

“I am a fallen angel. I lost my grace. I removed my grace by choice. I betrayed God and my brethren. Which for an angel is pretty much the worst thing you can do.”

Sam crossed his arms over his chest. “And now they want you dead. Awesome. Don’t suppose this new revelation comes with a how-to manual for killing angels, does it?”

Anna shook her head sadly. “As a human the most you can do it banish and repel. You need an angel’s blade to kill.”

Sam shook his head looking disappointed.

“What’s this about repelling?” Dean asked.

“Do you have paint?” Anna asked. “I can show you.”

Dean began to search through the cupboard, sure Bobby would have armed the place with spray-paint for circumstances like this.

“So we’re going to repel them,” Ruby said. “That’s awesome and all, but if we can’t kill them, and you can’t leave this place without the demons coming for us, what are we going to do?”

Dean looked around to see Anna as she answered. “We’re going to get my grace back.”

“That’s possible?” Dean asked.

“Absolutely. We just need to find where it landed.”

xXx

Dean and Ruby set off to drive Missouri home. Ruby didn’t argue much when Sam suggested it was safer for her to be elsewhere, which made Sam sure she knew just how dangerous their situation was. Dean had argued. He wanted Ruby to stay with Sam and Anna, to add another layer of protection, but Sam had pointed out that the panic room was as safe as it could get now since Anna had painted the walls with angel repelling sigils. Missouri was the one at risk. Dean conceded the point and after reassurance for each other that they would be back soon, they left. Sam would never have let Dean go if he believed the greater danger was with Missouri. The fact was he wasn’t planning on staying in the panic room long. They were going to find out where Anna’s grace was and they were getting it back.

As soon as they were alone, Sam retrieved his laptop from the truck of the Impala and brought it down to the deck in the panic room. “Okay,” he said. “Tell me about your grace.”

She stood beside him. Sam noticed the change in her since her hypnosis induced revelation that she was an angel—albeit a powerless one. She was no longer the crying girl they’d met in the attic. She was confident, calm, and… angelic.

“It was lost as I fell,” she said. “Literally fell. I was moving at around 10,000 miles per hour. Kinda hard to keep track.”

“Okay,” Sam said slowly. “And where did you land?”

“I didn’t land, Sam. I was born. My mother, Amy, couldn’t get pregnant. Nine months after I fell, she had me.”

“Crap. Okay, you fell, kinda like a comet, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh. Clever.”

“Thanks. You were a college student, so I’m guessing you’re adept at Google,” he said, standing and moving back. “See if you can narrow it down to a location. The closer the better.”

Anna sat down and pushed her hair behind her ears. “Okay. Here goes.”

xXx

The radio was playing some dull talk station, and Dean was sick of it after less than ten minutes driving. Missouri had chosen it though, so he conceded to her. They owed her after all. Without her they’d still be chasing their tails as far as Anna was concerned. The fact they had an honest to God fallen angel back at Bobby’s was pretty incredible to Dean. He was awed by it. Especially as she seemed so much nicer than either Castiel or Uriel. He couldn’t imagine her threatening to take out a town, ignoring Dean’s suffering the way Castiel had when Sam was in the hospital, or planning to kill someone who used to be one of them for the crime of ‘betrayal’.

Dean thought what Anna had done was incredible. She had given up everything she knew, surely knowing the possible price her former family would deal out. What he’d seen of angels so far made him think their lives were pretty good. They didn’t doubt. They didn’t question. They obeyed orders with the kind of dedication Dean had once shown to his father’s instructions. He hadn’t forgotten the simplicity of those days. So what had made Anna give that up for life as a human when doubt and questions were second nature?

“She was happy with her choice,” Missouri said.

Dean was confused by the strange non-sequitur and then he realized Missouri was responding to his thoughts. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It was a little invasive.  

“I apologize,” she said, and Dean laughed softly. She might apologize but it didn’t seem like she was planning on stopping.

“You’re talking about Anna?” Ruby guessed.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “I was wondering what made her give it all up?”

“Maybe because being an angel seems to suck as much as being a demon does.”

Dean glanced at her through the rear-view mirror. “Huh?”

“You’re supposed to be carbon cutouts of each other when you’re a demon,” Ruby said. “Death, destruction, evil basically, and that’s tough. Angels seem to have the same kinda rules, except theirs are piety, following orders, strength, but still basically being automatons. It sucks.”

“Didn’t think of it like that,” Dean admitted. “Poor Anna. She gets a taste of normal and, unless we do something about it, it’s going to kill her.”

“She’s not the only one,” Ruby said darkly. “Those angels catch me hanging around again, I’m pretty sure they’ll smite me.”

“I’m sorry,” Dean said. “If you want to duck out, do it. We’ll understand.”

She scoffed. “Sure, Sam will be real understanding.”

Dean shrugged. “You said back in the diner he owes you.”

“I did. He does. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be happy about me collecting.”

Dean nodded. She was probably right. Whatever Sam owed her for—he was sure it was more than her helping Sam tap into his powers—he wouldn’t want to repay the debt on her terms.

“Look out!” Missouri suddenly cried.

Dean saw it at the same moment. All of a sudden, out of absolutely nowhere, there was a woman running across the road in front of them. Dean slammed on the brakes, even as Ruby shouted, “No, Dean!” but they hit her anyway. There was a sickening thump and the car lifted and rolled as they drove over the woman. They skidded to a stop and Dean leaped out of the car and ran towards the woman where she lay in the road.

Missouri was calling after him and Ruby was shouting, but it was white noise to Dean as he dropped to his knees beside the woman and pressed his fingers to her throat.

“Please be okay,” he moaned. “Please, please be okay.”

Her eyes opened and Dean felt a moment’s relief before they flashed from brown to black. She smiled. “I’m just fine. You on the other hand, are all kinds of screwed.”

Her fist swung at his face, he felt a sharp pain on his temple, and darkness descended.

xXx

At first Sam didn’t realize it was a dream. He was still in the panic room with Anna. She was working at the computer and he was sitting in the cot. Then the angel appeared.

“Sam Winchester,” Uriel said. “You are in so much trouble.”

Sam looked around, seeing the sigils Anna had painted on the walls, and he frowned. “How did you get in?”

“Oh, you think I am here. Stupid ape.”

“I’m dreaming,” Sam said.

“Yes. Incompetent that you are, you fell asleep while you should have been watching Anna.”

Sam’s mind seemed to be working at double speed, bypassing thought and coming out of his mouth as smug lies. “Anna doesn’t need protection anymore. We found her grace. She’s an angel again.”  

“That would be quite the trick considering that I have her grace here.” He pulled a chain from under his shirt and Sam saw the glass vial hanging from it. It seemed to contain light, a blue white glow that made his heart stutter at the sight. “So you see, I know exactly where and just how trapped you are. You can cower in your hidey-hole like a rat in a nest for as long as you want, but I will be waiting for you when you come out.”

“All for Anna? She’s just a human now. She’s no threat to you. Why does it matter so much that she fell?”

Uriel shook his head. “I do not need to explain myself to you. Suffice to say I am working with the will of Heaven behind me. I will not be stopped in my— Oh dear. It seems we are going to be interrupted.”

Sam heard it at the same moment. It was a trilling ringtone, his cell’s ringtone.”

“I will see you soon, Sam Winchester.”

Sam blinked and when his eyes opened he was looking into Anna’s face. She had the phone in her hand and was holding it out to Sam. He took it from her, checked the caller ID, and frowned at the unknown number. “Dean?”

“Sam,” Missouri’s frantic voice replied. “I’m sorry. They took him. There was nothing I could do. They’re both gone.”

Sam’s heart seemed to treble its pace. “What happened?”

“Demons, they took Dean and Ruby.”

An icy calm seemed to settle over Sam. He closed off the shock and fear and replaced it with determination. Dean was in trouble. Losing his head wasn’t going to help that. He had to think without emotion clouding his thoughts. He needed to keep from rushing in and getting someone—Dean!—killed.

“Where are you?”

“Just outside Sioux City. I don’t know where they took him though. They had cars.”

“Okay. Thank you, Missouri,” he said.

“Sam?” She sounded worried.

“I will call you when it’s over.”

He ended the call without another word and fixed his attention on Anna. She was the problem and the solution. She had to be what the demons wanted. Sam knew what he had to do.

“They have Dean, don’t they?” she said.

Sam nodded. “Demons.”

She stared into his eyes. “You’re going to give me up to them, aren’t you?”

Sam nodded again.

“But if we can get my grace, I can save him,” she said.

“Uriel has your grace,” Sam said dispassionately. “There is no way to get it back. You said yourself I can’t kill him.”

She closed her eyes, took a breath, and said. “I won’t try to run. I will go when they call.”

“Thank you,” Sam said.

“But…” Suddenly, inexplicably, she smiled. “I think I might have another idea.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “I’m listening.”

xXx

It felt like a nightmare, but the pounding pain in his head assured him it was all real. He hadn’t thought he’d ever be in this situation again, staring at a rack and victim. It made him feel sick. The one blessing was that he wasn’t the one with the blade in his hand this time. That was a feeble blessing when he saw who did have the knife and who his victim was.

“Ah, Dean, you’re awake,” Alastair said, looking from Ruby’s bare, bleeding stomach to Dean with a satisfied smile. “I was worried you were going to sleep away all the fun. What do you think of my new kingdom? I admit it’s not as good as Hell, there is no stink of blood or sizzle of flesh or wet flap of flayed skin, but it will suffice for now. It serves its purpose, doesn’t it, Ruby?”

Ruby didn’t answer, she was panting through pain. Alastair turned his attention back to her and plunged the demon blade into her shoulder. She screamed horribly.

“Stop it!” Dean shouted. “Let her go!”

“Let her go?” Alastair laughed. “She’s my new plaything, Dean. I am not giving her up yet. Not until the time is right, at least. Now, watch carefully. I am going to give you a lesson in the artistry of torture. It’s been a while since we did this, and I am sure you’ve gotten rusty.”

Ruby screamed again and Dean, coward that he was, looked away. He told himself he was scouting the situation, but in truth he just couldn’t bear it again.

There were seven demons in the room with them. Two stood either side of the sole door leading out of the spacious room—barn—they were in. The other five were standing against the walls, providing Alastair with the audience he wanted as he tortured Ruby.

Dean was tied to a chair in the corner of the room. He tested the knots but they were tight, too tight to get any leeway on, and what could he do if he even did escape? He had evidently been knocked around while he was unconscious, as the pain on his temple was accompanied by an ache in the socket of his right eye and his vision was diminished slightly on that side by swelling. He thought he had a couple bruised if not cracked ribs, too.

Without a means of escape or a way to help Ruby, he bowed his head and looked at the packed dirt floor. His thoughts drifted to Missouri—had she gotten away?—Sam and Anna. He didn’t know how long he had been there. Had Sam missed him yet? Was he worried or was he oblivious to what had happened to Dean?

It felt like a long time later, though it was hard to tell as the screams made him lose track of time, when Alastair stepped into Dean’s line of sight and bent over him. “You can look now, Dean. The nasty part’s over for a while. There is something I need to do.” He patted Dean’s chest over his jacket pockets and then reached in and pulled out Dean’s cell phone.

“There we go,” he said happily. “Time to put a call in to little brother. It’s time he joined the party.” He fiddled with the keys for a moment, searching for the number, and then held the phone to his ear. It took only a moment for the call to be answered, and Alastair began to speak. “Sam, how good it is to speak to you again… Language,” he said, sounding affronted. “Keep mouthing off and Dean will pay the price.” He reached over and pressed a finger against Dean’s chest, right over his aching ribs. Dean grunted in pain. “Hear that? That’s big brother having a taste of what I am capable of. Now, brass tacks. I want that angel you’ve got tucked away. Being a reasonable demon, I will make a trade. Dean and Ruby for the angel. How does that sound?”

“Don’t do it!” Dean shouted.

“So brave now,” Alastair said smiling down at Dean. “Not remotely the man I remember. So, Sam, what do you think? Do we have a deal?”

Dean closed his eyes, torn between wanting to get him and Ruby out of there, and wanting Anna to be safe.

“Wonderful,” Alastair said. “I will text you the coordinates. See you soon, Sam.”  He ended the call and tossed the phone down onto Dean’s lap. “Good news, pets. The hero is making the trade. Now, let’s enjoy the time we have left together.”

Within moments, Ruby was screaming again.

xXx

“We’re here,” Anna said quietly.

Sam nodded.

“Do you have it?”

Sam pulled the marker from his pocket and held it up. Anna’s was clasped in her own hand. Sam didn’t have the greatest confidence in the plan. Scrawled symbols on his arm that were supposed to hide him from angels didn’t exactly seem fool proof, but on the other hand, they had apparently kept the angels from finding them so far.

They were at the end of a long dirt road that led to a farmhouse. The house was in darkness but light crept between the slats of the barn walls, showing Sam that was where Alastair was holding Dean. Being so close to him and not running to save him felt strange, but the calm that had descended in the panic room was still dominant. He had to treat this like any other hunt. It was their best chance of keeping Dean alive. If he rushed in, he would likely fail.

They made their way along the dirt road at a steady pace. When they were within a few yards of the door, they heard a scream from within. Sam’s calm threatened to crack, but he recognized the sound as Ruby not Dean, and it enabled him to come to a stop and glance at Anna. She nodded. Together, they rolled up their sleeves and drew a long line through the symbols on their skin.

“Now,” Anna whispered.

“Uriel, you son of a bitch,” Sam whispered. “Come and get her if you want her. I am done playing bodyguard.” At the same moment, he walked to the door of the barn and hammered on it.

The door was opened by a demon, his black eyes denoting its nature, and Sam and Anna entered. Sam’s eyes found Dean’s immediately where he was sitting, bound to a chair. His right eye was swollen and there was a bruise on his temple, but other than that he looked unharmed.

Ruby on the other hand was very harmed. She was strapped to an old iron bedstead and her was bleeding from countless wounds. In that moment, Sam didn’t care.

“Sam,” Alastair said. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

Sam glared at him. “One angel, delivered as promised.” But where were the others? Uriel should have been there by now. Was it possible their plan had failed? Was Anna going to be taken by the demons? If she was, if they won, would they keep their deal and let Dean go?

Dean looked into Sam’s eyes, betrayed and desperate, and Sam pushed down the feelings that tried to rise in him.

Suddenly, there was a rush of white light and two of the demons that had been standing either side of Alastair dropped to the floor. Uriel and Castiel had arrived.

Sam ran across the room, away from the angels, to Dean and dropped to his knees, struggling with the knots holding him in place.

“What did you do?” Dean moaned.

“Saved your life,” Sam replied emotionlessly.

He got Dean free and dragged him to his feet. Not caring what the angels or demons were doing to each other, Sam crossed the room and unbound Ruby from the bed. “Get out of here,” he said quickly.

There was noise all around them, people shouting, someone chanting what sounded like Latin and then a voice called out above the others. “No!”

Sam turned back, searching for Dean, and saw him with an iron bar in his hands stepping back from Alastair who had rounded on him. Castiel was on his back on the floor, looking stunned.

Sam made for Dean at the same moment a voice cried out, “Shut your eyes!” He looked around and saw a pool of light at Anna’s feet. It was bright, too bright, and as Anna shouted the order again, he obeyed. His eyes squeezed shut without conscious instruction and he listened as the clamor of the room died away to be replaced with a humming sound. The sound died away, and Sam’s eyes flew open, searching for Dean. He was on the other side of the barn, leaning against the wall. Castiel had found his feet again. He stood beside Uriel at the door. They wore identical expressions of fury.

Sam laughed harshly. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go get her.”

Uriel stepped forward, his hands fisted and his glare fixed on Sam. “After everything we have done for you, you would help her?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “Because I can. Because I am no one’s lapdog.” He narrowed his eyes. “Try to remember that in future.”

Uriel’s face twisted with fury. Sam felt sure he was going to attack, but Castiel caught his arm and shook his head. Uriel turned back to Sam, pointing a finger, and said, “This isn’t over,” before they both disappeared.

xXx

Dean wasn’t sleeping. He was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, and waiting—waiting for Sam to come.

It had been hours though, and there was no sign of him. He could hear him in the bar, the occasional clink of glass as he filled his glass again. It had happened far too many times to be healthy now. Not that Sam ever really cared about that.

Finally, he could bear it no longer.

He threw back the bedclothes and got up. Barefoot, he padded through the hall and into the bar. There was Sam, sitting exactly where he had known he would be, at his table. His head was bowed, and he greeted Dean without looking up.  

Dean crossed the room and sat down opposite him. “This is a bad idea,” he said, gesturing to the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table.

Sam dragged his eyes up. “Probably.”

“Stop then,” Dean said.

He had no expectation that Sam would obey, so he was surprised when Sam pushed his glass away and scrubbed a hand over his face.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” Dean said quickly. “My head kinda hurts, but that’ll pass. I think I maybe have—“

“That’s not what I mean,” Sam said. “I mean how are you doing after Alastair.”

Dean shook his head. “You don’t want to talk about this, Sam. Trust me.”

“Do you?” Sam asked.

Dean considered. He thought maybe he did. Sam knew half of the story. He knew Dean remembered Hell and that Alastair had been his torturer, but he didn’t know it all. He didn’t know Dean’s shame. He thought maybe Sam deserved the whole story at last.

He laid his hands flat on the table and said, “I’ve been lying to you, Sam, about Hell.”

“I’m aware,” Sam said without heat.

“But I’m still lying now. There’s more I haven’t told you. I think it’s time you knew.”

Sam frowned but didn’t speak. He let Dean get to it in his own time.

“In Hell,” Dean started, “time moves differently. It was months here, but down there, it was years, decades.” He checked Sam’s expression, not wanting to say too much too soon, but Sam’s face was a mask, only his eyes betrayed him. They were wet. “I remember it all. Every second of it. I have no words for what happened. They rip and tear into you, making you a shell, and then you’re made whole just for them to start all over again.  And the noise… There was never any peace. People make the most amazing sounds when they’re hurting. They moan and howl and scream up here, I’ve heard it, but that’s nothing compared to the noises they make in the pit.” Dean shook his head. “But it does no good to scream. It doesn’t make the pain any easier to bear, but you can’t stop yourself doing it.”

A tear slid down Sam’s cheek, and Dean thought he should stop, but now that he had started, he felt like he had to continue for his own sanity. He couldn’t hide it anymore.

“Alastair was the one that did it. But that’s not all he did. He gave me a choice, Sam. He would let me off the rack if I would put someone else on. He wanted me to pick up the knife and start torturing in his place. Sammy, I did it. One day I couldn’t take anymore. I broke. I climbed off of that rack and picked up the blade.”

Sam was silent, the only sound his quick breaths.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” Dean said mournfully.

“Sorry?” Sam said hoarsely. “What can you be sorry for? It wasn’t your fault, Dean. Anyone would have broken.”

“After everything you did and sacrificed to save me, I broke. I let you down.”

“No,” Sam said, staring into his eyes. “I let you down.”

“You did everything you could—“ Dean started.

Sam shook his head brutally. “Yes, I did everything I could, and I failed. I tried everything to save you, and it didn’t work. So…” he looked into Dean’s eyes, tears tracking down his face, “I broke.”

“How?” Dean asked, honestly confused.

Sam drew a breath, closed his eyes, and said. “I guess, in the end, it all comes down to the blood.”

Chapter Text

~ Two Days without Dean ~

Sam drove the Impala recklessly fast through the junkers that scattered Bobby’s yard. He was at risk of crashing with every turn he made, but he didn’t care. It was just a car. He wasn’t the one who had always thought of it as more.

When he reached the old house, he slammed to a stop and threw open his door; he felt that he had to get out before he suffocated. He was shaking so much his whole body trembled and his teeth wanted to chatter. He had to get away from this place, this car, this state. There were too many memories intrinsically linked and he felt like he was choking on them.

He moved around the car and opened the trunk. Their duffels sat on the false base, Sam’s and another, and the sight of the second made Sam’s throat tighten. He pulled his own out and tossed it onto the ground. He would still need that one. It was the second, the newer, neatly tied one that wouldn’t be needed. He untied the knots holding it closed and the stuffed his hand inside. The soft material of t-shirts, slightly coarser thread of over shirts and the roughness of denim met his hand. He bit down on his tongue and pushed in deeper until he was scrabbling along the bottom of the bag. His fingers brushed something cool and hard and he grabbed at it and pulled it free from the shirt it had tangled in. It was the fob of Dean’s motorbike key. He’d never paid much attention to it before but now he saw it bore the emblem of the Nebraska Huskers.

He tried not to think, to shut it all down, but memories of games, beer and hotdogs shared in stands, rushed at him and he found it impossible to breathe for a moment. When he had gasped himself back to life, he tied the duffel again, not as neatly as its owner would have done but close enough, and slammed the trunk closed. Picking up his own duffel from the ground, he walked away from the Impala without a second glance. It was just a car, and he had no need of it anymore. He didn’t have a passenger.

Dean’s bike was under a tarpaulin in a corner of the service bay. Sam uncovered it, swallowed down the emotion the sight brought him, and set to work fixing his duffel to the back. When it was secure, he took the bike off its kickstand and pushed it out into the yard. He swung a leg over and got himself settled on the seat. His mind tried to batter him with memories again, but he shook the thoughts off and concentrated on the immediate: the feel of the seat under him, the polish of the handle bars, the breeze on his face. It helped a little.

He patted his pocket, checking he had the demon knife, and then brought the engine to life—Dean was right, it really does purr. He pulled on the helmet and snapped down the visor. He was ready.

A moment later, he was gone. The dust kicked up by the wheels and the abandoned Impala were the only signs he had been there at all. 

xXx

“Sam, sweetie, I am so sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I know you’re hurting and you want to be alone, but come home. I can help you. Let me take care of you. Please come home.”

Sam deleted the voicemail. He couldn’t go back there. He had no home anymore. He’d forgotten the reality of his life. Home was not a Nebraska bar. It was a person, and that person was gone.

xXx

~ Two weeks without Dean ~

The fist came flying at him, and he didn’t try to dodge it. He felt the impact on his cheek, mashing it against his teeth.

“C’mon, big fella, aren’t you going to fight back?” the man jeered.

Sam straightened his back and spat blood into the face of his opponent who growled, “I will kill you for that.”

Do it, a voice in Sam’s mind begged. Kill me now. Put me out of my misery. Pull a knife. Cut my throat. There’s even a foolproof scar marked out there for you to follow. Do it.

“No!” Sam growled, speaking to himself, to the voice that was his cowardly need. As much as he yearned for death, he couldn’t have it. He couldn’t save Dean if he was dead.

“I sure as hell will,” the man replied. He was big, almost as big as Sam. His muscles stretched his shirt and his face was scarred from previous fights. That was why Sam had chosen him. He wanted a challenge, someone who wouldn’t fold under the first punch.  

He swung a fist through the air again, catching Sam’s temple, and for a moment his vision blurred. “Not bad,” he said. “I almost felt that one.”

The man roared with rage and came at Sam again. He aimed for Sam’s chest now, perhaps thinking a few cracked ribs would temper Sam’s arrogance. Sam stepped back, and the blow’s impetus swung the man around in a bizarre pirouette. Some people laughed. Sam wasn’t one of them.  

He hadn’t come into the bar searching for a fight. He’d wanted a drink and nothing else. He didn’t even know how it had become a fight. He remembered shoving the man and insulting him, but whether he’d had cause to he didn’t know. Perhaps it was just the fact this asshole was alive and free that annoyed him. Better people than him were gone from the world, people who deserved life more than anyone because they were better than anyone.

The man stopped his pirouette by grabbing at the bar and came at Sam again, breathing hard through his nose like a bull. Sam was already bored with the fight. As the man came within reach, he swung a fist through the air in an uppercut and it collided with the man’s chin. There was a comical moment in which the man’s eyes rolled and his expression became confused, as if he didn’t understand how the person who had taken his beating so far would suddenly attack, and then he dropped to the floor unconscious.

Sam stepped over him and walked to the bar. He downed a shot that was sitting on a cork coaster and then thumbed over his shoulder to the unconscious man. “He’ll be clearing my tab.”

The bartender nodded his head a little jerkily. “Sure thing, man.”

Sam turned to look down at the unconscious man who was unresponsive to his friends’ attempts to revive him and then walked to the door.

He would find a liquor store and stock up for the night so he could get loaded peacefully in a motel.

xXx

“Sam, it’s me. I know Mom’s been calling you and you haven’t answered, and that’s okay. You don’t have to talk. I just want to tell you I’m here. We’re all here. When you’re ready to come home, we’ll be ready to help you. I love you, Sam. Never forget that.”

Sam saved that message, just in case a day ever came when he needed to be reminded that he had once been loved.

xXx

~ Three Weeks Without Dean ~

Sam was in the end room of a dingy motel, lying on the bed with his eyes closed and a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He was completely alone. He’d used his scammed card to pay for the adjacent room so he wouldn’t have to listen to other people living their lives close to him.

Sometimes it seemed impossible that life still went on for other people. He felt the world should be crying out in pain; that others should feel the same agony he did. They didn’t though. They carried on working, eating, sleeping, screwing. Children were born and people died, and only a handful of them knew Dean Winchester was gone. Even if everyone in the world knew, they wouldn’t care. He would be just another name for them.

He was well on the way to loaded and he thought maybe he’d be able to sleep soon. Not that sleep was peaceful. It was necessary for life, however, and he needed to live to save.

Suddenly, he was no longer alone. He felt the presence in the room.

“Damn, Sam,” Ruby said sadly.

Sam didn’t even think; his reaction was automatic. He opened his eyes, sat up, and threw the bottle through the air, aimed directly at her head. She sidestepped it and it smashed against the wall. The room filled with the scent of whiskey.

“You made me spill my drink,” he accused.

She seemed completely unperturbed by his attempted attack. She walked around the bed and pulled out a rickety chair at the table. Sitting down, she laid her palms on her knees and looked at him with sympathy in her eyes.

“You’re a mess,” she stated.

“You’re unwanted,” he replied.

 “I know it hurts, Sam. Believe me, I know. But you can’t go on like this.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “You know it hurts? You’re kidding me, right? You’re a demon.”

“And you know that’s not the whole story. I am a demon that—“

“Remembers,” Sam said. “I know. I remember crap, too.”

“I don’t just remember. I care. I cared about Dean, and I’m hurting without him.”

“Hurt? You don’t know the meaning of the word.”

She pushed her hair back from her face and drew a breath. “I don’t care what you think. I’m not here to argue with you. You’re out of bottles to throw at my head, so I’m going to talk. You are going to listen.”

Sam scowled at her with bloodshot eyes. “I am?”

“You are if you want to save him.”

Sam scoffed. “Save him? You think I haven’t tried? I have been to every crossroads I can find. No demon will even answer me. I have been to Wyoming and tried to open the Devil’s Gate. I stood in front of it for hours and begged and pleaded for it to open. I tried to force it open with a crowbar. I beat my fists on it until they were bloody. I have done everything possible, and he’s still gone.” He held back a moan of physical pain. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“I do,” she said simply.

Sam eyes widened. “What?” he asked intensely. “What do I do?”

She drew a breath. “Yellow-Eyes had plans for you.”

“I remember.”

“We all thought you were going to save us. You were going to lead us from Hell and we’d rule the world. Your name was whispered in the corners of Hell like a talisman. You were like a god to us. You were going to be our savior. We were all waiting for you to step up to the plate.”

Sam just listened, taking no deeper meaning or understanding from the words. She wasn’t telling him what he needed to hear.

“You didn’t though.”

Sam nodded, feeling something as close to pride as he could manage through the pain of loss.

“You killed the boss, killed yourself, and screwed all his plans and our hope.”

“Good.”

She shook her head. “Do you have any idea of the power you would have held if you’d achieved your destiny? You would have been a god. You could have done almost anything you wanted. You could have thrown open those doors and Hell would have spilled out. You could have walked the levels of the pit and done what you liked.”

Sam leaned back headboard and closed his eyes again. “As interesting as the history and legend lesson is, what does it have to do with what’s happened now?” he asked lethargically.

“Dumbass. Are you not listening to me? You could have walked the levels of the pit, doing what you wanted. You could have plucked any soul from the rack and brought it on home.”

Sam had the first inkling of hope flicker to life in his chest and he opened his eyes again. “It’s too late though.”

Seeing he was starting to understand, she leaned forward in her seat and looked at him with wide, excited eyes. “It’s never been too late, Sam. It will never be too late. You have and always will have that power.”

Sam swung his legs around to the edge of the bed and stood. He loomed over her, his eyes fixed on her. “What do I have to do?”

She smiled. “You have to let go. Let go of your prejudices and fears, and open yourself to the power.”

“Is that all?” Sam asked. Could it possibly be that simple to save?

“No, that’s not all. You need the blood. You need to train and master the powers. You’ll have to give in to your powers completely, not just use them for a cause. You need to become one with them. I know you don’t like it. I know you’re scared, but this is the only—“

“I’m in,” Sam said, cutting her off. He didn’t like it. He was scared. But if this was what would save Dean, it was what he would do.

She beamed at him. “Really?”

“Really. But, I have to know, what do you get out of this? I get that you think you ‘care’ about Dean, but you have to know if I do tap into this power and become the Boy King”—his tone was scathing—“I’ll use that power to end you.”

“You won’t,” she said confidently. “And as for what I get out of it, I’ll have helped free the man I love.”

“Love?” Sam scoffed.

“Yes, Sam. Love.”

Sam shook off the ridiculous words and ran a hand through his hair. “What do I need to do?”

“You need a demon and some blood. I can give you one now and I’ll find the other for you as fast as I can.” She rolled up her sleeve and then drew a short bladed knife from her boot. “Ready?”

Sam nodded and picked up a mug from beside the small coffee maker. She cut across her forearm and the blood dripped down into the mug. When there was enough, Sam brought it to his lips and closed his eyes. He was equally repulsed and eager at the thought of drinking it again. The repulsion wouldn’t stop him though. He had to do it.

This was for Dean.

xXx

“Sam, man, it’s Ash. I don’t know what I can say that Ellen and Jo haven’t already said, but they think it’s worth a try anyway. I know you’re hurting, and I get it. I guess I just want to say you’re not the only one. They’re hurting without you. Come back, buddy.”

Sam deleted the message. He would never go back.

~ Four Weeks Without Dean ~

The demon Ruby found was in the body of a middle-aged woman. She had dark hair flecked with grey and blood from Ruby’s capture. She looked like a mom. Sam didn’t let that stop him. The moment he walked into the barn Ruby had trapped it in, he fixed his eyes on the onyx black ones that were looking at him and prepared to work.

He could see the smoke that was the demon’s core, and he clenched his fist. There was pain in his head but it wasn’t so bad he had to stop. In a way, he relished the pain. This was his punishment for failing last time. It was the price of his weakness.

He raised an arm and his fingers curled tighter. It was easy, despite the pressure in his head, to clench the smoke and draw it up to the demon’s mouth. It spilled out in trickles and sank to the floor. The demon choked and gasped, and Sam relished the sounds. They made him feel powerful.

When the last of the smoke left the demon, the host fell to the floor with a thud.

“That was great, Sam,” Ruby said enthusiastically. “Really, you’re going to have this down in no time.”

Sam nodded and then turned to her and asked a question he thought he already knew the answer to. “Ruby, this is going to make me a demon, too, isn’t it?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Does it matter?”

“No,” Sam said honestly. He had decided a long time ago that, whatever it took to save Dean, he would do it.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s going to make you more than a demon. You’ll be the master of all demons.”

“Even Lilith?”

She considered. “You won’t be her master, but you will be strong enough to deal with her at last.”

Sam nodded. “Good.”

The woman on the floor stirred and moaned. Her eyes opened and she looked blearily around the spacious room. “Where am I?” she asked.

Sam turned his back on her and walked through the doors to into fresh air. 

xXx

“Sam, Bobby here. I just wanted to check in. I know you can’t talk about it yet, because I can’t either. But when you can, when you’re ready, I’ll be here. Don’t forget, I loved him, too.” 

Bobby didn’t have the first idea.

~ Ten weeks without Dean ~

Strength and knowledge seemed to flow into him with every demon. Soon he was killing them. It wasn’t even hard. He just concentrated and their essence would burst like a soap bubble against his hand. He felt nothing at ending a life.

The power was intoxicating. He thought he could feel the layers of his humanity being shed. Instead of mourning their loss, he rejoiced. It still wasn’t enough yet though. He wasn’t strong enough to storm Hell. Ruby said it was going to take more than a few months work. He thought if he just worked harder though, took more and more demons, he could make it happen faster.

The knowledge that he could torture them came about by accident. He and Ruby had another demon trapped—this one in a college kid—and Sam was just fixing his mind on the smoke, when Ruby spoke and distracted him. He gripped the smoke tighter, and the demon cried out in pain. He felt a thrill of excitement sweep through him. This was something he could use. They were averaging two demons a week as he killed one and then Ruby searched for the next, but with this he could make the moment last.

“What was that?” Ruby asked.

Sam smiled beatifically. “That was me learning. “

He tried again, gripping the smoke, and the demon cried out and doubled over. It was like putting pressure on an inflated balloon. He knew if he gripped too tightly, he would kill it, but by managing his strength, keeping the pressure steady, he could cause pain. He was in control.

Ruby was babbling excitedly, but Sam was only half listening. He was slowly pulsing his grip on the demon, making it cry out for a moment before recovering and staring all over again.

Right after one pulse of pain, the demon looked up and smiled inexplicably. “You want to play dirty? Let’s see who you’re really hurting here.”

Sam’s grip faltered and he watched, entranced, as the demon’s eyes changed from black to brown, as the smile faded and was replaced with fear.

Ruby hissed and spoke in a rush. “It’s not real, Sam. It’s just the demon pretending. Don’t listen.”

“What…?” the demon whimpered. “What’s happening? Where am I? What are you doing?”

It was the demon’s meat suit. The kid looked terrified and as Sam stared at him, he saw the brown eyes fill with tears.

“My name Rich. I’m only nineteen. I’ve never hurt anyone. Please don’t hurt me. My parents have money. They’ll give you anything.”

“What the hell?” Ruby said, looking at Sam with a furrowed brow.

Sam understood. It was a tactic to deal with threats from others. The theory was if you made yourself human to your assailants, they would find it harder to hurt you. He tested himself to see if it was working, to see if he had enough humanity left in him to care. He was disappointed to find that he did. He apparently hadn’t shed enough empathy yet.

He decided he would try to let this one live.

“Christo,” he snarled, and brown eyes snapped to black again.

“So, what did you think of Rich?” the demon asked. “He’s a treat, right? Gets good grades and visits his family every holiday.”

“I liked him plenty,” Sam said. “I liked him so much I’m going to give you a one-way ticket downstairs instead of snuffing you out like a candle.” He squeezed and the demon cried out. “Say goodbye, asshole.”

It was hard to fight the temptation to kill, but he mastered himself. He would exorcise just this once.

He gripped the smoke and yanked it from the demon’s mouth. Ruby shifted restlessly at his side, probably annoyed that he wasn’t killing, but Sam disregarded her.

The kid dropped as the last of the smoke left him. Sam didn’t bother to check his pulse as the absence of breaths told him it was a waste of time. The kid was dead. He shook his head, disappointed.

“Well, that was a waste,” Ruby said. “You’d have done better killing him yourself. At least then you’d have gotten something out of it.”

Sam stepped over the body on the floor and walked away. He stopped at the door and spoke without looking around. “Find me a new demon.”

xXx

“I miss you, Sam. I miss you both. Please come home. Let me help you.”

Ellen’s voice was slurred, and Sam knew she had given in to the pull of her own liquor in one of her rare bouts of temptation. He hated that she was hurting, but instead of making him want to go back to help her, it made him angry. The Boy King would not care about the people he had left behind. He was still too human.

~ Four Months Without Dean ~

Once a week, Sam would call Ruby and tell her where to meet him with the demon. She would come wherever he ordered, dragging a demon with her, and he would drink the blood then send her away. He would make the demon last as long as he could resist before killing it and moving on.

Days fell into a pattern. When he wasn’t working with a demon, he was working out. His muscles, developed as a necessity over his life as a hunter, swelled. The rest of him changed, too. His eyes shadowed and his skin paled. He looked in the mirror every day, hoping to see even the first tinges of black in his eyes, but there was nothing. He was still too human to save Dean. He wasn’t ready.

It was a day like any other when it all changed. He was working on a demon, torturing and preparing to kill, when he felt a third presence in the room.

Without turning or releasing the demon he said, “Ruby, what do you want?”

“I want you to make that infernal racket stop,” an unfamiliar voice said.

No idea of what he was facing or how it would impact his life, Sam turned and looked into the face of an angel.

xXx

Dean listened as Sam finished his tale, and he swallowed down bile.

Pale and sweaty, red-rimmed eyes and tears drying on his face, Sam poured himself a shot of whiskey and swallowed it down in one gulp. He gasped and said, “I tortured and killed, and I felt no remorse. I was less than human. I am still less than human. The blood on my hands will never wash clean.”

Dean shook his head. When Sam had said it came down to the blood, he’d thought he was going to hear a story of addiction and bad decisions. He’d had no idea—how could he?—that Sam was going to tell him this story of desperation and pain. It wasn’t that he’d thought Sam had spent their months apart living the high life, but he’d imagined drinking binges and bar fights, though he supposed there had been those, too.

He didn’t know what to say to his brother, yet he knew he needed to say something. Sam was waiting for it. He needed it.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Sam met his gaze with confused eyes. “What?”

“What I did to you, what I left you to do to yourself, I am so, so sorry.”

Sam shook his head dolefully. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“But I…”

“No, Dean. I made those choices. I did those things. I am the one who broke.”

He had no choice though. He had no idea the angels would come to the rescue. They hadn’t even known they existed. If they had just revealed themselves sooner, before the deal came due even, it could all have been avoided. Why had they let him go to Hell at all? Why hadn’t they saved Sam from going through that? Why had they forced Sam to see him die, to bury him, to be forced into breaking himself upon the demons to damn himself?

The thing was Dean understood what Sam had done. If Dean had been in his position, if he’d lost Sam to Hell and had the opportunity to save him, he would have done it all the same. They were brothers.

“I’m sorry,” Dean said again.

“I would do it all again in a heartbeat,” Sam said. “The blood, the torture, the killing. If that would save you, I would do it all over again.”

“What about the blood?” he asked. “Are you still…?”

“No,” Sam said quickly. “I haven’t touched it since before you got back. I knew I had to stop, to salvage what was left in me that was human so I could be your brother again.”

Dean reached across the table and gripped Sam’s wrist. “You are my brother. Nothing you can do, nothing at all, can ever change that.”

Sam grimaced, and Dean knew he was doubting him, perhaps thinking he was just saying what Sam wanted to hear.

“I mean it,” Dean said firmly.

Sam nodded. “Thank you, Dean. I appreciate it. Not everyone would want a brother who’s damned.”

Dean closed his eyes and forced down the sob that wanted to escape him. He couldn’t bear the thought of his brother in the pit. He rallied for something to say, and stumbled upon an old promise. “You’re not damned, Sam. Not while I’m here. I told you once I would save you, and I mean it.”

Sam smiled at him, a forced and bitter thing, but his words were a reassurance, a lie. “I know you will. I trust you.”

Dean knew he didn’t believe. He would make him in time though. He would need help from the angels, of course. He would do whatever they needed, he would do this ‘work’, but he would demand something in return. He would save the world, and they would save his brother.

Chapter Text

Something was going on with Sam and Dean, and Ellen wanted to know what it was. After the angel hunt—that they’d told her next to nothing about—they seemed different. Dean was pretty beat up, and they said that was down to a demon, but that was about all they said on the subject.

It wasn’t Dean’s physical injuries that worried her the most. It was what they weren’t saying.

She was familiar with Sam’s usual reaction to stress, he basically shut down, but she wasn’t used to it from Dean. He felt everything so openly and freely that his new reticence almost scared her. He wasn’t being the Dean she knew and loved. Sam, despite the fact he was closed off and quiet, was the person she had known and loved all those long years.

She knew she had to get to the bottom of it.

She cornered the pair of them one afternoon as they sat in the kitchen talking quietly, leaving Jo to manage the bar.

“We need to talk,” she said, dropping into the chair between them.

Sam looked up at her slowly. “Another intervention?”

She stared back at him. “In a way, yes.”

Sam shook his head and smiled slightly. “Not happening.”

His reaction was not unexpected to Ellen. She turned her attention to Dean. “I want to know about your last hunt."

Dean glanced at Sam, almost as if he was seeking permission, but Sam didn’t meet his eye. Dean drew a breath and spoke in a rush. “It was a fallen angel. Anna. She had ripped her grace out. We had to protect her from the other angels—they wanted to kill her—and the demons that wanted to torture information out of her and use her as some kind of angel radio interceptor.”

She waved a hand at his bruised face. “And the demons did that to you?”

“Yeah. There was this one demon, a high-level bastard, that got hold of me and Ruby.”

Sam flinched slightly, a movement so subtle Ellen barely caught it. That explained some of it. Sam would be all twisted with guilt about Dean getting hurt. That explained why they were sticking together now, eschewing the company of others and hiding in the back when the bar was busy, but she had seen Dean hurt worse than the bruises he had now, and he’d not reacted like this.

“Sam got me out though,” Dean went on, smiling slightly at his brother.

Sam shook his head. “Anna saved you,” he corrected. “It was her idea.”

“You sold it though,” Dean argued. 

“Whatever. You’re okay now,” Ellen said, cutting off the argument before it could get too involved. “What else happened?”

“Demons and angels not enough for you? Sam asked.

“They’re not enough for this,” she said pointedly. “Whatever happened to you both has made you shut down, and I want to know what it is so I can help.”

Dean shook his head, looking defeated. “There’s nothing you can do, Ellen. It’s in the past.”

“What’s in the past?”

Dean cast a glance at Sam who shook his head slightly.

Dean cleared his throat and said, “It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s over.”

Ellen knew her easiest target for some truth was Dean, so she fixed her eyes on him. “Talk to me, sweetie. I can help.”

“Sam?” Dean said hesitantly. “Maybe…”

“It’s your story,” Sam said slowly, reluctantly Ellen could tell. “You can tell it to who you want. Just don’t expect me to join in.” He pushed back his chair from the table and stood. “I’m going out.”

It was on the tip of Ellen’s tongue to try to stop him, but she thought she was close to getting some truth and explanation from Dean, and she knew if Sam stayed, Dean would close off again.

Dean looked up at his brother and nodded slowly. “If you need to.”

“I do,” Sam said firmly. “I’ll be back later.” He left through the back door and Ellen and Dean sat in silence for a moment before drew a breath and said in a broken voice, “I’m sorry, Ellen. I can’t do it,” before he rushed from the room.

xXx

The human wore his guilt like a cloak. It was impossible to deny the temptation he provided. After centuries of feeding from thieves, abusers and the occasional taste of a murderer, she had a veritable banquet to gorge upon.

In the times of her rule, her people had brought her sacrifices of family members who had shamed them and themselves. It was that shame she wanted. People filled with shame made the best meals. It had been hard as the world changed, though. Guilt became something people shed as easily as they removed a layer of clothing. They would rationalize it as forgiving themselves their weaknesses, as if weakness was an excuse for anything. All humans were weak, that was true at their point of creation, but that didn’t mean they should indulge that. Even in the prisons she used as a feeding ground now, there were preachers citing the value of forgiveness. They instructed her prey to allow their God—the interloper—into their hearts so they could be forgiven. It was all wrong. They should feel what they had done.

She was currently living the life of Marie Clark, a woman with an independent income that allowed her to dedicate her time to volunteering as a religious counselor at the Nebraska State Correctional Facility. It was a joke, a travesty that she was playing at believing in a god she knew was an uncaring deity.  It was an ideal place for her to insert herself though. She was close to the ones she needed. Close until the preacher would come and spout his false tales about forgiveness. There was always an influx of new prisoners coming to chapel though, drawn in her by her youth and beauty and the sheer fact she was female in a man’s world. They made sure she didn’t starve.

She had long since given up the idea that she would ever feel truly feel sated again. She was struggling by on what the world had left for beings like her, the table scraps, until she stumbled upon the running man. It had been pure coincidence that they met. Part of her pretence was living in a nice home and maintaining a lifestyle outside of her work. She lived in a nice farmhouse in one of the better areas of town. When she ventured into town, she spoke to the people she met, and she went jogging. That was what led her to him.

She was in the area around her house, jogging at a slow, human pace, when he ran toward her. He wasn’t jogging, he was sprinting—racing against someone that wasn’t there, or perhaps racing against himself, trying to outrun his guilt. The scent hit her as he ran past. Below the human smells of sweat and deodorant, there was the bitter tang of guilt, self-loathing, pain. It drew her like a magnet. She wanted him.

Without even considering, she spun on her heel and ran after him. He stopped suddenly and turned. She saw his right hand was cupped around something, the tip of a knife. He was armed. What kind of person went running with a weapon?

She saw the answer to her question in his eyes. He was a hunter. There were shadows of things he had seen lurking there. She had faced a few hunters in her time, and none of them had lived to tell the tale. This one would be different though. He would live. She would feast on him, never taking enough to kill. She would make the meal and the experience last.

“What do you want?” he asked harshly.

 “I want you.”

He looked almost amused as he allowed the knife to drop into his hand. It was silver and completely useless against her. He had no weapon that would kill her. She had been dormant and hidden so long she was sure the way to kill her had been lost along with the devout.

He sliced the knife through the air and she stepped back faster than his human eyes could perceive. In return of the attempted attack, she moved behind him and shoved him so his head collided with the pole of a power line. Blood spilled and the scent of his guilt became more potent. She licked her lips. Incredibly, he wasn’t knocked unconscious by the hit. He was dazed, but he rallied and came at her again with the knife. She parried the attempted cut, and curled her fingers around his throat. He had strength, and he tried to struggle out of her hold, but she was much too strong for a human to escape her. Gradually, the oxygen deprivation got to him and his eyes glazed and fell closed.

Satisfied he was unconscious, she hefted him over her shoulder and set off toward her house. She had a basement that, with a few alterations, would make a perfect home for her new plaything. She had everything she needed to make it work.

Humming happily, she didn’t notice the wallet falling out of his pocket and hitting the grassy verge as he jostled and bumped on her shoulder. Even if she had noticed, she wouldn’t have been concerned. No one could hope to save him. She was a goddess after all.

xXx

When Sam woke with a pounding headache, he found himself tied to a chair in the middle of a room. He took in his surroundings, knowing from the musty scent and small window set high in the wall that he was in a basement. He tested the ropes binding him and found the knots were tight and secure. Whoever had caught him knew what they were doing.

Whoever… It had been that jogger. She had looked like a woman, but she moved too fast to be human. She’d dodged his attacks, and judging from the pain in his head, she’d gotten in a good punch.

There was a grinding sound behind him, like stone scraping metal, and he craned his neck to see what was happening.

“Ah, you’re awake,” a pleased voice said. “Just in time. I’m almost ready.”

“Ready for what?” Sam asked.

The woman stepped into view. She had long blonde hair with a curl at the ends. It was currently pushed back from her face with a bandana, but before it had been loose down her back. He remembered how it had bounced on her back as she’d run. She was beautiful in an almost unnatural way, a succubus maybe.

“Dinner,” she said sweetly.

Probably not a succubus, then, and he didn’t think she was a werewolf or skinwalker, because those creatures wouldn’t have bothered to tie him up. They’d have just killed. Vampire then, or perhaps a Vetala. He hadn’t tangled with one of them for a while. Neither would be a particular problem if he wasn’t currently tied to a chair and without a weapon.

“You don’t want my blood,” Sam said. “It’s what you might call tainted.”

“That would be a problem if it was blood I wanted,” she said in an amused tone. “Luckily for me, you have something far more tempting for me. And tainted is exactly what I like. The more taint, the better the meal.”

Sam frowned. “What the hell are you?”

“How rude of me, I haven’t introduced myself, have I? My name is Culpa.”

Sam searched his memories but came up with nothing.

“You don’t know me,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I shouldn’t be surprised. I was largely forgotten with the advent of the Christians.”

A goddess. Wasn’t that just awesome. Gods and goddesses tended to be much more powerful than regular fuglies and while each had an individual way to be killed, it was highly unlikely she had anything in this place that would serve as a murder weapon. Sam was screwed.

“I would like to take the time to talk you through my history, it really is a fascinating tale, but I am so hungry and you’re just too tempting to resist.”

Sam merely looked at her, not letting even a little emotion show. He was practiced at this.

She stalked towards him and reached for the collar of his shirt. She tugged hard and the buttons pinged to the floor as it was ripped open, baring his chest to the cool air and knocking the phone out of his pocket and onto the floor. Sam’s eyes followed its descent.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “We can’t have you calling in help from your little hunter friends.” She raised a foot and stepped down on the phone, crushing it with immense strength. 

“Now that we’ve taken care of that particular problem… let’s have a look at you. Very nice,” she crooned, running a finger across his chest. “I like a meal that takes good care of itself. You wouldn’t believe the dregs I have been forced to eat in recent years.”

Sam didn’t answer. It seemed to annoy her that he wasn’t playing along. She dug her fingernail into his flesh, deep enough to draw a small trickle of blood.

She inhaled deeply then lowered her hand to just below his sternum. “This may hurt a little, or a lot. Feel free to scream; no one will hear you.” She smiled.

Sam knew pain was coming, but he knew he could handle it as he had before. He wasn’t weak and he wouldn’t make a noise.

His resolution lasted all of a few seconds as she plunged her hand into him. There was no blood, no cracking of bones or tearing of flesh, but there was agony, so much that he howled with pain and revulsion. He could feel her digging her way into him, fingers scrabbling for something. Then she moaned softly, an almost erotic sound, and Sam felt a wave of lethargy sweep over him.

“So good,” she purred. “So dark. So good.”

The moment seemed to last forever, her now still fingers embedded in his chest, and then she was pulling out of him. Sam was sure he would see her fingers dripping with his blood, but there was none. Her pale skinned hand was exactly as it had been before she plunged it into him.

“What did you… do?” he panted. “What was that?”

“That? That was me feeding.”

“Feeding on what?” Sam asked.

“Your soul.”

xXx

Dean didn’t worry at first. It wasn’t like it was the first time Sam had taken off for hours at a time, and there was something that had driven him away this time. Still, there was the smallest flicker of doubt when a few hours passed and it occurred to him that Sam had not only left The Roadhouse, but he’d left Dean, too. Since their confessions, they’d stayed closer to each other than ever before. Often hours would pass of silence that neither of them felt inclined to break.  They weren’t alone, though. They were always together.

Sam had left Dean alone now.

A few more hours passed, night fell, and Dean became concerned. He tried calling Sam, but it went straight through to voicemail.

The bar got busy and Dean waited, but he didn’t come back. When darkness fell and the place emptied, he was really worried. He tried calling Sam once more to no avail before he roused Ash from his drunken slump over the bar and pushed him to his laptop. “Find Sam,” he commanded. 

Ash looked at him blearily. “Why?”

“Because he went running hours ago, and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Ash grimaced. “He won’t like this.”

“I don’t care. He can be pissed all he likes, as long as he’s here.”

Ash frowned at him. “What’s going on, Dean?” He sounded like he was sobering up in a hurry.

“Maybe nothing. Just find him, okay?”

Ash rolled his neck, making a sick crackling sound, and got to work.

Ellen came over to them then, the cloth she had been wiping the tables with still in her hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Sam’s not back,” Dean said. “And he’s not answering his phone.”

She looked concerned but her words were reassuring. “He’s just probably out drinking.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Dean conceded, “but things have been… It’s different now.”

“Different how?” she asked. “Is this about what you ducked out of telling me earlier?”

“In a way.”

“Dean, I need to know whatever it is you aren’t telling me. It could be important.”

“It is,” Dean said. “Very. But it’s not my place to tell you it all, and my side of it won’t help anyway. You need to talk to Sam.”

Ellen shook her head briskly, obviously annoyed. “And whatever it is has you worried enough to try to track him?”

“No. Yes. I’m not sure. I am just cautiously concerned.”

“Concerned about what? You think he’s taken off again?”

Dean’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “I’m just concerned.”

xXx

Angels were dicks. That was not news to Sam, but he’d thought they could at least be useful sometimes. The moment Culpa left him, he had sucked down his pride and prayed to Uriel.

He didn’t answer.

He didn’t come then, and he didn’t come any other time Sam had called in the days that had gone by.

Trapped and without angelic assistance, Sam concentrated on saving himself. As the days passed, he learned more about the goddess. She had some kind of life outside of feeding from him. She would come to him in the mornings, dressed casually in the type of work-out clothes she had been wearing when he first saw her. In the evenings, when she came back for her second feeding, she was dressed differently, professionally, in neat blouses and neutral colored slacks. He was sure she had a job of some kind.

She didn’t feed him or bring him water, which made him think she had some other ability to sustain him, as he wasn’t suffering from dehydration yet. He was aware that he was growing weaker with every feeding she took from him, though. He wasn’t sure exactly what she was taking from him, other that it involved his soul. It occurred to him that she could be taking a portion of the soul itself with every meal. That thought scared him. He was already less than human because of what he had done in his mission to save Dean. If she took it all, it would surely make him a monster. There would be nothing left of him for Dean. He had to get out of there before she ruined him completely.

He had been there five days, suffered through ten feedings, before his plan was ready to put into action. He had been working on his ropes ever since his capture, slowly running them back and forth over the handle of the chair. It had taken him so long because he was so weakened, but he thought if he summoned enough of his strength, he could finally break them and get free. He knew the pattern of her days by then. She would take from him and then leave the house, going wherever she went during the day.

He waited until the morning’s feeding was complete, and then counted off time in his head until twenty minutes had passed, and then struck. He flexed the muscles of his arms, warming them, and then yanked upwards. The frayed and fragile ropes snapped and freed his hands. He bent to untie the ones at his ankles and then stood on shaky legs. He was even weaker than he expected to be, and he stumbled at first, but he took a moment to brace himself and some strength seemed to return.

As he turned, he saw the iron cuffs on the wall. They must be what she had been working on the first day she took him, when he woke up. He knew if he didn’t get out now, he was headed for them next.

He wouldn’t let that happen.

He staggered across the spacious basement—it had to be the full size of the house—and to the stairs. Bracing his hand on the rail, he began to climb.  

She must have been confident that her ropes would hold him, as though there was a keyhole for a lock, it hadn’t been used. He eased it open and looked up and down the hall. The house was old, the wallpaper and wood paneling dated, possibly original. He took in his surroundings in a split-second, just as his father had taught him, searching for a weapon and seeing nothing useful. There was a heavy door at the end of the hall, and three others that led off of it. He didn’t see any need to check out the others, as they looked internal. It was the one at the end, made of heavy wood with a small glass panel, which seemed to lead to freedom.

He crept forward and reached for the handle. He turned it and pulled, but the door didn’t budge. He cursed, feeling momentarily defeated, before he rallied and looked around again for another form of escape. Tottering slightly, he had little energy left, he made for a door in the other direction, hoping it would lead to a kitchen with a back door or maybe a living room with French windows.

He was in luck. It was a kitchen, and on the opposite side of the room was a door. Leaning heavily on the counters he passed, he walked towards it and then tested it. It was locked tight. There were bolts at the top and bottom, but they weren’t engaged. It had been locked from the outside. Sam turned away, feeling a wave of dizziness mixed with anger at his defeat.

No, not defeat. Not yet. There were other means of escape. He just had to be resourceful. Not for the first time, an old adage from John Winchester occurred to him. ‘You can’t get through the door so what do you do next? That’s right, you go through a window.’

He hadn’t meant it literally when he’d said it, but that was exactly how Sam was going to take it.

“Thanks, Dad,” Sam said, smiling.

He walked to a window and turned to the side. He brought his elbow up and jabbed it at the glass, but it didn’t break. All he achieved was a sharp pain that jarred up his arm. Still refusing to accept defeat, he looked around for something he could use. There were heavy looking pans hanging above the stove. He grabbed the biggest one and carried it back to the window. Aware that it was taking too long and every second he was there meant there was a greater chance of him being caught, he swung the pan through the air at the window. It broke and a wave of fresh air rushed in at him. He used the pot to knock out the remaining glass, and then dropped it to the floor.

The air called to him like a siren’s song. It meant freedom, the loss of that twice daily agony of her feedings, and Dean. It meant everything.

He gripped the window sill and tried to vault himself through it. His arms trembled and he fell back on his feet. He had lost too much strength to do that. He wasn’t defeated though. It wouldn’t be remotely dignified, but he would get through somehow.

He took a breath and prepared to shove himself through headfirst.

That was when he heard the whistle of something being swung through the air and felt the explosion of pain as it collided with his head.

xXx

It had been days, days, and Sam hadn’t come back. He hadn’t called or sent a text or answered his phone. There was no sign of him.

Ellen had skipped past concerned and gone straight to afraid. She started every time the phone rang. When the door opened, she looked up hoping for Sam. It was never him.

She wouldn’t have worried so much—or perhaps she would have worried more—if Dean would just tell her the damned truth about what had happened on that last hunt. She could tell he thought that was what had driven Sam away. John’s death had driven him away for a month. Dean’s for four. It had been almost a week this time and he wasn’t back. He wouldn’t leave them to worry like this for nothing.

Ash was doing his best to track him, but the GPS wouldn’t connect, even when he hacked the phone company’s website. He wasn’t using any of the fake credit cards. He was leaving no sign for them at all.

There was the question of how he had left, too. He’d gone off on foot with only his wallet and cell phone, not dressed for an extended absence. He obviously hadn’t planned to leave them so long when he’d first gone, he would have taken the Impala if he had, so what had happened to make him stay gone?

Dean knew something, but he wasn’t talking. He had never been good at hiding things before, but he seemed to have taken lessons from his brother in secrecy. Whatever it was he was hiding, it was big. Ellen was sure if she just knew what had driven Sam away, she would be able to find him again.

Her cell rang then in her pocket. She pulled it out and checked the screen for the caller ID. It was Dean. She hadn’t even realized he’d gone anywhere. “Dean, honey, you okay?” she asked.

Dean’s voice was tense, scared sounding. “I found something. Sam’s wallet. It was on the side of the road. Ellen, there’s blood, too.”

She sucked in a breath. “Where are you?”

“On Sam’s running route. The old farm road out of town. About a mile along.

“Come back. We’ll…” What? What could they do? They’d been working with the theory that Sam had left of his own accord. He’d been taken though. Taken where? By what? They had wasted so much time.

“We’ll what?” Dean asked. “Ellen, what the hell are we going to do?”

“Come back,” she said firmly.

“I’m coming.” He sounded a little breathless now, as if he was running. “But how are we going to find him?”

Ellen didn’t answer. She didn’t know how.  

xXx

Dean burst into the kitchen of The Roadhouse, letting the door fly back and hit the wall. Ellen had been sitting at the table, but she got to her feet as he entered and held out a hand. Dean dropped the wallet into it and stepped back breathing hard. She flipped it open and checked the pockets. Dean already knew it was Sam’s. He’d known even before he looked into it and saw the folded and creased business card Dean had given him what felt like a lifetime ago. He hadn’t known Sam still had it.

“It’s his,” she said, dropping it onto the table. “And there was blood?”

Dean nodded. “Not too much. Just some smeared on the pole.”  Not too much, but enough to worry him.

She ran a hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face. “Okay. He’s been gone nearly a week and it doesn’t look like he left on his own. He was hurt. He hasn’t called or come back, which means he can’t.”

Dean swallowed hard. He knew she was just working through the facts to allow herself to think, but he didn’t need to hear it. It made his heart clench painfully. “Angels,” he said quietly.

“What?”

“We need the angels. They’ll be able to find him easy, right?”

“Yes!” Her eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “Try!”

Feeling uncomfortable with Ellen watching him but determined, he closed his eyes and said, “Castiel, it’s Dean. I need your help. Sam’s missing, and we think he’s been hurt.” He opened one eye and looked around. There was no one there but him and Ellen. He sighed and closed his eyes again. “Uriel, I need help. Sam’s been taken.” He kept this eyes closed, hoping to hear the rustle that signified an angel’s arrival.

“They’re not here, Dean,” Ellen said with obvious disappointment.

“C’mon, Castiel,” he tried again. “Uriel? Can anyone hear me? For the love of God someone help me! My damn brother is missing. You guys owe him. He killed—”

“I am here, Dean.”

Dean’s gaze snapped to the door to see Anna standing there. He enjoyed a flash of relief that someone had answered, finally, and then he burst into speech. “Anna, some thing has taken Sam I don’t know where. It’s been days. We found his wallet, and there was blood, but…”

She held up a hand to halt his flow of words and her brow furrowed as she concentrated. She looked meditative for a moment and then her brow furrowed. “I can’t find him.”

“Well, it’s not like you looked hard,” Ellen said, irritated.

Anna shook her head. “I mean I can’t sense him. It is an angel’s ability to find humans at their wish, to sense them. Sam isn’t there.”

“What does that mean?” Dean asked.

“It means he is shielded somehow,” she said. “Or he is...” She shook her head. “He’s shielded.”

“Or?” Ellen asked. “You were going to say something else. What is it?”

“Nothing.”

Dean thought he already knew. Sam was shielded or dead. The thought made his throat close with horror, but he didn’t allow it to take hold within his mind. Sam was tough. He had made it through plenty of bad stuff before, Samhain, for example, and Ellsworth. He was fine. Dean would know if he was dead. He’d just know it.

“Okay,” he said, cutting Ellen off before she could ask again. “If you can’t sense him, what can we do? We have to find him.”

Anna looked thoughtful. “I can try something else. I need somewhere quiet and private. I need to concentrate.”

“Our bedroom,” Dean said quickly. “You can use that.”

“What will you be using it for?” Ellen asked.

“When a human sleeps, they are accessible for angels, too. I am going to see if I can find him that way.”

Dean nodded eagerly. “That’ll work.”

“Yes,” Anna said. “We just have to hope that whatever has him is letting him sleep.”

xXx

As far as concussion dreams went, it was pretty bizarre. He was still chained to the wall, the cuffs encircling his wrists, but he wasn’t alone. Anna was there. She looked much as she had when he’d seen her last. The only difference now was that she radiated the power she had been missing last time.

“You look terrible,” she said.

“Wow, dream angels are just as big dicks as the real ones are.”

“I am not a dream, Sam. This is a dream, but I am real. Dean called me. Now, we don’t have much time. You could wake at any moment. Where are you?”

Sam scoffed. “How the hell am I supposed to know? She knocked me out when she brought me here.”

“Concentrate,” she snapped. “What do you know about the place?”

Sam tried to gather his thoughts. They were a little tangled. No doubt due to the pan to the head he’d experienced. “It’s old. Large. Farmhouse, I think. Expensive. In the middle of some unfarmed fields. That’s all I can think of.”

“And the person that took you?”

“Not a person—a goddess. She’s big on souls. Feeds from— What’s happening?” he asked in a worried tone as he felt a stinging pain on his cheek. 

“You’re waking up. Hurry, Sam, what is her name?”

“Culpa!” Sam said quickly. “Her name is Culpa.”

Anna disappeared. He felt a moment of confusion, and then he was looking into the face of the goddess.

“Who were you talking to?” she asked curiously, hand poised for another slap.

“Dean,” he lied. “Must have been dreaming. I thought he was here.”

She backhanded him across the mouth, splitting his lip and making blood trickle down to his bare chest. “You’re lying!”

Sam shook his head, sending droplets of blood into the air. “I'm not.”

She raised her hand again and Sam braced himself, but after a brief pause, she stepped back and lowered her hand slowly. “Angels. You were talking to an angel, weren’t you?”

“Angels aren’t real,” Sam scoffed.

“I heard the feathered pests were walking the earth again. I should have known they’d interfere with us.” She was talking to herself. “I’m not ready to kill him. I refuse to go back to grubbing around for scraps. I will deal with the angel and then we can move. Yes. That will work. I need him amenable though. Weak. I must feed.” She rolled up the sleeve of her cardigan and moved closer to him.

Within seconds Sam was in unendurable pain again.

xXx

Dean was sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. Bobby sat opposite him. They weren’t talking. They hadn’t since Bobby had arrived and Dean had apprised him of the situation. They were waiting for Anna to bring them news. She had been cloistered in the bedroom for hours now. Ellen couldn’t stand to sit there in silence, waiting, so she’d taken advantage of the closed bar to clean.

Dean didn’t know how long passed before Anna came back in, but when she did, he felt energized and hopeful.

“Did you find him?” he asked eagerly.

“Yes. I spoke to him.”

“Well, where is he?”

“I don’t know. I know who has him though. It’s a goddess called Culpa.”

“The soul feeder?” Bobby asked in a low, stunned voice. “Hell.”

“Soul feeder?” Ellen asked, coming into the room. “What does that mean?”

“It means she siphons the power of a soul to feed herself.”

“How does she do that?” Dean asked.

 “Painfully,” Anna said. “She chooses those with guilt. It’s a delicacy for her. The more the guilt, the greater the temptation to eat.”

Dean sucked in a breath. Sam would be a feast for her with all the guilt he held. The goddess would be gorging herself, hurting Sam every time. They had to get him back. 

“We need to get him out of there,” Bobby said, echoing Dean’s thoughts. 

Anna nodded. “Sam said it was old, large, possibly a farmhouse. It’s in the middle of unfarmed fields. Does it sound familiar to anyone?”

Dean shook his head and turned to Ellen. “You?”

“There are a lot of places like that out here. It could be any of them.” Her eyes glinted with realization suddenly. “But Ash will know.”

“Who is Ash?” Anna asked.

Dean smiled slightly. “He’s our genius.”

“Okay,” Anna said. “You get him to work. There is something else we need. 

xXx

Sam was sagging from the one wrist she had left shackled. She had freed the other in order to make the sigil. His blood was now painted on the wall and his hand had a deep cut on it. The cut was nothing compared to the burn in his chest. She had fed from him a dozen times before, but the last had been the worst. It was like she was trying to take all of him at once, all that she could hold. He was weak with exhaustion and his every heartbeat seemed to echo in his ears. He would hold on, though, because he knew they were coming. Anna had been sent by Dean, which meant they were looking, they would find him. He just had to wait.

Culpa seemed to be thinking the same thing. She was in the basement with him, pacing back and forth, tapping her hand against her leg.

“You do know how screwed you are, right?” Sam asked weakly.

“Angels are children compared to me,” she said stiffly.

“Maybe. But they’re not what you should be worried about. It’s my brother Dean who’s going to kill you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “A human?”

“He’s not just a human,” Sam said darkly. “He’s a Winchester.”

xXx

Anna held out the stakes of wood to each of them. She hesitated before giving one to Ellen, but handed it over when Ellen said, “If you think I’m sitting out of this one, you’re dumber than you look.” She snatched it from Anna’s hand and said, “What is this anyway?”

“The wood of a Judas tree. It is the only way to kill Culpa.”

Dean examined the stake. It was sharpened to a deadly point at the tip. It would work. He would drive it into the heart of the thing that had taken his brother and end it.

“Are we ready?” Anna asked.

“More than ready,” Bobby said firmly. “Let’s get gone.”

There was a disorienting sensation of being weightless for a moment, and then Dean was looking around a spacious stone-walled basement.

He heard a weak voice saying his name and he was halfway turned when the force pulsed through the room. He heard Bobby curse and he spun on his heel, his eyes falling on Sam.

Sam was shackled to the wall by one wrist. His other was in the grip of a woman with flowing blonde hair and a petite figure. She looked disarmingly innocent, but Dean wasn’t fooled. She had Sam’s hand pressed against the blood sigil on the wall, the sigil that had expelled Anna from the room.

He took in Sam’s appearance in the moment his eyes fell on him. He was pale and his eyes red-rimmed. His bare chest was sheened with sweat. He looked triumphant though as he looked back at Dean, and a smile curved his chapped lips. “Hey, Dean.”

“Dean?” the goddess scoffed. “This is the mighty Dean who’s coming to save you? He’s barely even a hunter.”

Sam laughed weakly. “That’s what you think.”

Dean felt Bobby and Ellen shift restlessly at either side of him. He didn’t turn to check them though; his focus was all on Sam and Culpa. She hadn’t struck yet. She wasn’t even moving. She was just standing there, beside Sam, looking smug. Dean didn’t know what she was thinking, but he thought it was time to make his move while she wasn’t fighting.

He lunged forward, the stake held out. One moment she was in front of him, looking amused almost, and the next he was flying back across the room, his head hitting the wall hard. He became boneless and his eyes closed. 

xXx

 Sam shouted Dean’s name as he crumpled lifeless to the floor and he pulled on the shackle holding his wrist.

Culpa laughed at his capitulation as Ellen rushed to Dean’s side. She rolled him and his head flopped to the side. Sam’s heart skipped a beat.

“One down, two to go before it’s dinner time. Who’s next?” Culpa asked easily. 

“Me,” Bobby growled, taking a step forward.

Culpa didn’t even wait for him to attack. In a blindingly fast movement, she was behind him, and cracked him over the head with a fist. Bobby dropped like a stone.

Ellen cried his name, and began to crawl across the floor away from Dean to Bobby.

Sam sagged against the wall. He was useless, and their only fighter left was not a fighter. He was sick with fear.

“Now, that leaves one,” Culpa said, advancing on Ellen.

“Leave her alone!” Sam shouted hoarsely.

“I don’t think I will.” She grabbed a hank of Ellen’s hair and dragged her up. Ellen cried out in pain and Sam cried out with her. She manhandled Ellen across the room to the chair and wrapped the ropes around her chest, pinning her to the chair.

Sam struggled and yanked on the shackle, but all he achieved was raw skin on his wrist.

“Now it’s dinnertime,” Culpa said stalking toward Sam. Sam fixed his eyes on Dean instead of her and gritted his teeth as she rolled up her sleeve and brought her fingertips to his sternum.

xXx

Dean’s eyes fluttered and then snapped open as he heard the howls of pain coming from his brother. Ellen was shouting, too, begging and pleading for the goddess to stop.

Dean got to his feet slowly, as quietly as he could, and bent to pick up the stake that had been knocked out of his hand when he fell. As much as he hated the sound of Sam’s pain, he was thankful for the fact Culpa was distracted. He gripped the stake tightly in his hand, took a breath and struck. He thrust the stake into her back, through her chest, and into her heart.

She shrieked with pain and sagged back against him. Disgusted, he shoved her away and hurried toward Sam. His eyes were closed but he was panting. Dean thought he was just working through the pain of what she had been doing to him. He patted Sam’s cheek and asked, “You okay?”

“Fine,” he said in a breathy voice.

“Ellen?” he asked without looking round.

“I’m okay,” she answered.

There was a muffled groan and then Bobby’s testy voice said, “Don’t bother about me. I’ve only been knocked out cold. I’ll be fine.”

Sam smiled slightly. “You okay, Bobby?”

“Yeah,” Bobby said grumpily. “I’m just fine”

They were. That was the miracle. They’d gone up against an actual goddess, and though they’d have killer headaches for it, they’d come out of it okay.  

Chapter Text

Dean knew it was a huge sacrifice play on his part, but Sam didn’t even try to resist Christmas.  He didn’t try to find them a hunt. He didn’t push for a motel. He just sucked it up and allowed the others, Bobby included, to enjoy themselves until early evening when he grabbed a bottle from the bar and disappeared into the bedroom with Revelations.

Dean counted it a success.

New Year’s Eve found them in a field about a mile from The Roadhouse, bundled in coats and sitting on the hood of the Impala with beers in their hands. They were looking up at a magnificent sky full of stars.

It had been a long time of comfortable silence before Sam checked his watch and mouthed down the seconds before saying, “Happy New Year, Dean.”

Dean grinned, “Happy New Year, Sammy.”

Sam leaned back on the hood and smiled up at the sky. “It was a hell of a year.”

“Think next year will be any easier?”

Sam snorted. “I doubt it. Considering the apocalypse the angels are flapping their feathers over still seems to be on the horizon, I’d say no. And it’s not like the demons have been taking a knee lately.” His expression darkened. “I’ll be honest, Dean, I don’t know which one bothers me more.”

“The angels seem to be okay,” Dean started but trailed off as Sam shook his head curtly.

“The angels are okay when they want something from us,” Sam said. “I know I’m not the world’s most trusting person, but if Castiel told me I was on fire, I’d check for smoke.”

Dean laughed softly and then became somber. “Uriel did save you after Samhain.”

He sighed. “I don’t think angels do anything for nothing. They saved you because they think you’ll do their ‘work’. It’s got me wondering what they want from me. Nah. Between them and the demons I think we’ll have another busy year just watching our own asses.”

“Let’s make a deal then,” Dean said. “We each keep one eye on the demons and the angels, and the other on each other. That way we’ll see any kind of crap storm before it comes.”

Sam took a draw from his beer before answering. “Okay. That sounds good. I want to add something to that.”

Dean looked at him. “What?”

“Me. If you see me going… darkside, Boy King, whatever, you lock my ass up in that panic room and leave me there.”

“You can’t expect me to—“

“I can. I do. I’ve earned it.”

Dean shook his head. “Some freaking New Year, Sam.” 

Sam shrugged. “I’m relying on you, Dean.”

And that was the problem. Sam would actually expect him to be able to do this. He had no idea what that would do to Dean. He was blinkered, scared of what he would become. He was wrong. He didn’t take into account his own strength. Dean wouldn’t need to lock him up because Sam would keep himself in check.

At least that was what he was going to keep telling himself.

xXx

It was early afternoon and the bar was starting to fill. Dean and Sam were sitting at the corner table together. Sam had Revelations open in front of him and Dean was looking over the Key of Solomon. Dean had just looked up from the book to take a draw of his beer when the phone in the corner rang. Ellen was serving and Sam didn’t even twitch toward answering, so Dean got up and crossed the room.

“Roadhouse.”

“Hello,” a tentative male voice replied. “I’m looking for John Winchester.”

Dean swallowed hard. “I’m afraid he’s not here.”

“Oh. Do you have another number for him, or can I leave a message?”

“How do you know John?” Dean asked, playing for time to decide how to handle the call.

“I was a friend of Jim Murphy.”

The name evoked memories of the man he had known a long time ago. Pastor Jim had been gentle and kind, a stark difference to many other people Dean had contact with in the hunting life. He had been a good man. He was dead now.

“Look, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but John died a couple years ago.”

There was a sharp indrawn breath. “And Sam?”

“He’s fine,” Dean said quickly, though fine was relative when it came to Sam.

“Thank God.”

Dean could feel eyes on him, and he turned to see Sam looking at him from across the room, his brow furrowed. He wouldn’t be able to hear even Dean’s side of the conversation from the distance, but Dean’s tension must have shown because he stood and walked toward Dean.

“Would you like to talk to Sam?” Dean asked.

Sam scowled but the man on the phone sighed with what Dean guessed was relief and said, “That would be very helpful. Thank you.”

Dean held out the phone to Sam and tried to look repentant, though he didn’t feel it. He was at a loss with the conversation, and since the man apparently knew Sam, he might have better luck.

“Hello,” Sam said curtly. There was a pause and then his expression darkened. “What’s happened? … How long ago? You still at the church? Okay. I’ll be there in a few hours.” He didn’t even say goodbye before he set the phone back on the cradle and wiped a hand over his face.

“What’s going on?” Ellen asked, coming to stand close to them.

“One of Jim’s old friends has a problem,” Sam said. “I need to go to Blue Earth.” He glanced at Dean. “You up for the trip?”

Blue Earth was a part of their childhood the way Bobby’s place had been. Pastor Jim had been a staple. Though Dean hadn’t spoken to him since before Sonny’s, he’d heard occasional news of the man through Bobby, and that had kept him a part of Dean’s life. He was dead now, two years in his grave, but Dean thought going to his home would be even harder for it.

“Sure,” he said, forcing confidence into his voice.

Sam nodded and spoke to Ellen. “I don’t think it’ll take long. We should be back tomorrow.”

Ellen smiled though she still looked tense. “You boys take care out there.”

“We will,” Dean assured her when it became obvious Sam wasn’t going to answer.

Sam walked back to their table, collected the books and disappeared through to the back.

“You keep an eye on him,” Ellen said quietly.

Dean frowned. “You think this’ll be a problem?”

She nodded slowly. “I think it’s going to be hard on you both.”

xXx

It turned out they weren’t only going back to the town of their childhood, but to the very same church they had known and played in.

Sam had been quiet for the drive, but when he spotted Dean’s surprise he spoke. “After Jim died, Ron took over the church.” He hesitated for a moment. “If this is too weird for you, coming back, you can take the car and I’ll meet you back in town when I’m done.”

“No,” Dean said quickly. “I’ll stay.” He needed to stay, he thought, not only for Sam, but for himself, too. He needed to face this ghost.

Sam nodded and pulled the car to a stop outside the brownstone church. He took a breath and then climbed out. Dean followed, letting him take the lead to the door. Before they got there, a man stepped out. He was wearing a black cassock and his hair was short and graying brown. His eyes were kind and he smiled as he caught sight of them.

“Sam,” he greeted, coming forward with a hand outstretched.

Sam shook his hand and said, “Ron, this is my brother Dean.”

Ron’s eyebrows rose for a moment, making Dean sure he knew at least some of their story and how he had been parted from his family. He quickly covered his reaction and shook hands with Dean with an amiable if slightly tense smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please come in.”

A wash of memories of his youth and Pastor Jim swept over Dean as he entered the church and looked around. The wooden pews, dark with vanish and smoothed seats from years of worshippers. The musty scent not entirely concealed by the flowers at the windows. The intimidating altar with the large statue of Christ on the rear wall. Everything was so familiar. He grimaced, an action missed by Ron but spotted by Sam. He cast Dean a quick glance and raised an eyebrow. Dean nodded slightly. He was fine.

Ron took a seat on the front row of pews and Dean copied him, but Sam stayed standing, arms crossed.

“You said something about sulfur,” Sam said, cutting to the chase in his usual way.

Ron looked a little taken aback at first, but then he nodded and said, “Alan Findlay was my assistant, though that was almost at an end. He was ordained a few weeks ago. We were just waiting for a position to open for him. He wanted to stay in the area. Yesterday he was seeing the last of the congregation out after our evening service because I had a headache and he never returned to the house.” He looked a little uncomfortable. “I didn’t realize until this morning, as I went to sleep early, but he must have been taken as he locked up. The keys were still in the door.” He breathed out a sigh. “There was a lot of sulfur.”

Sam nodded thoughtfully. “And there’s no way he took off on his own?”

“You mean consort with demons knowingly?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes. It’s a strange time right now. We’re all dealing with crap we’ve never seen before. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the demons might have managed to recruit.”

“No,” he said doggedly. “Alan is a man of God. He would not abandon that path for anything. Look, I know I haven’t always been the most accepting of people when it comes to these things, but Jim told me things, and I believe now. I think my friend is in trouble. Will you help me?”

Sam looked at him through narrowed eyes for a moment and then he nodded. “Yes. We’ll help.”

Ron breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Sam.”

“But don’t get your hopes up,” Sam went on. “We probably won’t get your friend back alive. It’s more likely a case of bringing his body home for you to bury.”

Ron looked horrified and then he rallied.  “Just do what you can.”

Sam opened his mouth to speak again, possibly to shatter what hope the man had left, so Dean got quickly to his feet and said, “We’ll leave you now.”

Sam frowned. “Hold on. Have you got a photograph of your friend?”

“By the door,” Ron said. “There is one on the notice board under the ‘getting to know your church’ banner.”

Sam nodded and walked along the aisle of the church to the notice board and door.

Dean turned to Ron and grappled for something reassuring to say. The man had called them in for help and while Sam had said they would, he hadn’t exactly given him cause to hope.

“Sam’s the best,” he said awkwardly. “If anyone has a chance of getting your friend back, it’s him.”

“Oh, I know. Jim spoke of him and your father often, how good they were, and I met them a few times over the years. They were not the most friendly of folk, but they were obviously competent at what they did. I have faith in him and you to bring Alan home.”  

Dean smiled but internally he was wondering where they’d even start.

xXx

Sam checked them into a motel in the middle of town while Dean grabbed their bags from the trunk. The clerk was a matronly looking woman who told him she owned a diner a block away that sold the best pie in the state. Sam figured that was probably a pretty biased opinion, but he made a mental note to tell Dean about it anyway.

He let them into their room and took in the neat blue bedspread and pale cream walls. It was nice, nicer than their usual places, devoid of suspicious stains and too thin curtains. That probably meant they wouldn’t get a full night in the place—that was Winchester luck—but it would work out for now.

“Mind if I take the first shower?” he asked Dean.

Dean frowned. “Uh, no.”

Sam understood his confusion. It hadn’t been a long enough drive over to make him feel grungy and they’d not been grave digging or doing anything else that’d make him feel the need to clean up already. Truth was, he thought he could smell the musty scent of the church on him, seeping into his skin and reminding him of things he’d prefer stayed in the back of his mind—things like his absent friend and childhood.

He grabbed clean clothes from his duffel and went into the bathroom, letting the door click closed behind him. He set the water running and stripped, stepping under the spray before the temperature had regulated. The chill made his skin goose bump and prickle for a while before the heat kicked in. He had done this a lot in the days Dean had been gone—step under scalding or icy showers, as if that could counter the feeling of the demon blood working its way through him. It had never worked.

He didn’t want to rush the process of washing, even though he knew he should be out there in the room working the mission. Dean wouldn’t know what he planned to do, so he would be waiting on Sam to get out to start. He should have told him. Dean was far more competent now than he had been in the beginning, but Sam still forgot sometimes he wasn’t John. He needed a little direction.

Ten minutes later, Sam was dressed and toweling his hair dry in the room. Dean had the laptop open in front of him, but Sam suspected he had gotten it out merely for something to do as opposed to actual work.

“What’s the plan?” Dean asked.

Sam picked up his cell phone from the table and said, “Ash. If the demons stayed close, he might be able to nail down a location for them and Alan.”

“You really think they’d have stayed?” Dean asked.

“Doubt it. It depends what they need him for. Some demons have a twisted sense of humor. They might get a kick out of taking a pastor as a meat suit.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I have a feeling this is more than a simple case of a demon’s new meat suit. Taking a preacher sounds more like a seal to me. Ron said there was a lot of sulfur. That means a lot of demons or a really powerful one.”

“Lilith level powerful?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know.” Sam shrugged and dialed The Roadhouse number to bring an end to their conversation. When Ellen answered, he said, “It’s me. Is Ash around?”

“One sec.” The quick way he was passed on and the hum in the background told Sam the bar was busy and Ellen didn’t have time to nag or question him. A moment later, Ash’s drawl came over the phone. “What’s up?”

Sam put the phone on speaker so Dean could hear and then gave Ash a quick account of what had happened and asked him to check the area with his tracking program. It took all of a few minutes before Ash came back, tone businesslike despite the easy words. “Nothing doing, boss. I can’t find any demons anywhere even a little close to you. Sorry.”

It had been a long shot anyway. Sam still felt this was something big, but without a way to find Alan, they were at a loss for a way to help Ron. “Okay,” Sam said. “If anything comes up, let me know.”

“Actually, I might have something for you. I tagged a couple deaths in Wyoming. The bodies were found in churches and the method of killing seemed a little… specific.”

“Specific how?”

“Arcane symbols on the bodies. Both with slit throats.” He sounded almost apologetic.

Sam ran a hand over the faded scar on his neck. “We’ll wrap up here and then head to Wyoming.”

“Cool,” Ash said cheerfully. “I’ll keep an eye out for anything demonic in your area and let you know if anything new comes up.”

“Thanks, Ash,” Dean said.

“No worries. See you guys soon.”

Sam ended the call and looked at Dean to see a deep frown marring his brow. “What?” he asked.

“We’re leaving the Alan thing?”

Sam sighed. “I don’t see what else we can do. There’s maybe a case here and definitely one in Wyoming.”

“I guess,” Dean said slowly. “Still, I feel bad. I liked Ron. I don’t like leaving him without answers.”

There was one option that might ease Dean’s mind. He could stay and keep at it while Sam took off for Wyoming. Sam didn’t think he could handle that though. Selfishly, he wanted to keep Dean close. Things went bad whether they were together or apart. At least if they were together, Sam had a chance of taking care of his brother. He decided to not mention it at all in case Dean insisted on them separating.

“We’ll keep an eye on the situation through Ash. If anything comes up, any clue, we’ll head back here.”

Dean nodded, apparently satisfied.

Sam checked his watch. It was hitting early evening now. If they wanted to get to Wyoming by morning, they should leave soon. “We’ll go by the church on the way out of town, let Ron know what’s going on, and then head out.”

“You don’t want to sleep?” Dean asked. “I mean, we’ve got a motel for the night already. We could catch some shuteye and get to it in the morning.”

“It’ll be okay,” Sam said. “It’s a long drive across and if we leave in the morning, we won’t get there until evening. I’ll drive, you sleep.”

Dean nodded—reluctantly Sam could tell—and picked up his bag from the bed. He hadn’t even unpacked any of his stuff. Sam got his own together and then headed out to the car.

xXx

Dean wasn’t looking forward to the conversation with Ron in which they would have to admit they were ducking out before giving him any answers, and he sensed Sam felt the same, as he was tense for the short drive over to the church. Dean wondered about his relationship with the man. They hadn’t seemed that close when they’d been talking, though it wasn’t like Sam was ever the warm fuzzies type really. Sometimes he acted like Dean was an acquaintance. Perhaps Sam had been close to Ron once.

“You don’t have to come in,” Sam said as he pulled the car up beside the church. “I can take care of it.”

Dean knew he was offering him an out, saving him from seeing the disappointment, but he wasn’t that kind of man. It was unusually solicitous of him, though not for the first time. Since they’d shared the stories of their time apart, since Dean had told him about Hell, Sam had been different. Not only in the fact he preferred them to stay together, but being more… careful with Dean. Taking care of him in a different way than he had before. It wasn’t just about keeping Dean physically protected now. It was personal.

Dean wouldn’t take the out though. He would face the situation the way John Winchester had trained him to. “It’s fine. I’ll come.”

Sam nodded and got out of the car. Dean followed him to the church and stood back as Sam knocked loudly on the heavy wooden door. It swung open at his touch. Frowning, Sam went inside with Dean close behind him. Little had changed inside to how it had been less than an hour ago, but there was a tension in the air that hadn’t been there before.

Sam seemed to sense it, too. His shoulders stiffened and he reached for the gun concealed in the back of his pants. Dean copied the movement.

“What do you think?” he asked quietly.

“Not sure,” Sam breathed. “Something’s not right though.

They made their way along the aisle to the front of the church. Without a word of agreement, they each took a side of the altar and checked behind it. There was nothing there, but Dean noticed a cup and saucer on the pew where he had sat when they’d been there last. He gestured to it with his gun and Sam nodded.

Sam walked forward and peered down into the cup then touched the side with the palm of his hand. “Still warm, and only half drunk.”

“Maybe he just stepped out,” Dean said hopefully.

Sam bent over and ran his finger down the backrest of the pew. “Shit.”

“What?”

He raised his finger and Dean saw the smudge of yellow on the tip.

“He didn’t step out anywhere,” Sam said. “He was taken.”

xXx

Their plan to investigate the Wyoming deaths was forgotten and they headed for Nebraska straight from the church. Though they didn’t get back till The Roadhouse until after closing, Ash was still sitting at the bar, and even more surprisingly, he was sober.

Sam strode straight over to him as soon as he got inside. “What have you got?” he asked.

“Not much,” Ash admitted. “The demons haven’t settled in town. There are no signs anywhere close.”

“What do you have?”

“A small blip on the radar a few minutes after you got off the phone with me which I am pretty sure was the snatch and grab. That’s all though. It’s like they just vanished.”

Sam pulled the photograph of Alan out of his pocket and slapped it down on the bar. “Can you find anything on him?”

Dean started to say, “Sam, how’s he supposed…” but Ash cut him off. “I know where he is. He’s one of the John Does that got pulled out of the church in Wyoming this morning. He’s in a morgue in Laramie.”

Sam turned away and shook his head. It wasn’t like they’d had a chance of saving him, seeing as they hadn’t known a thing about him until he was already dead, but he was still disappointed that he’d not made it in time to actually help Ron’s friend. Now there was a good chance Ron was going to end the same way.

Behind him, Dean was explaining to Ash who Alan was and how Ron had set them up with the case. Sam could feel their eyes on him as they spoke, and he took a moment to marshal himself before turning back to them.

“Okay. We’re too late for Alan. We’re not too late for Ron yet. Ash, tell me everything you can about these bodies.”

“I can do one better,” Ash said. “I can show you.” He opened a folder on his laptop and clicked on a file. An image opened and Dean sucked in a breath between his teeth. Sam saw it, too. The symbol was familiar as he’d memorized it recently. It was the angel banishing sigil, carved into a man’s chest.

“It’s a seal,” he said.

“The symbol?” Ash asked.

“No, the deaths,” Sam said curtly. “The deaths are a seal. The symbol is an angel thing.” He knew what he needed to do, but he didn’t want to do it. He hated talking to them, let alone summoning them for help. Dean apparently felt no such compunction, as he raised his eyes heavenward and said, “Castiel. We need to talk. We’ve got a seal thing happening.” He waited in silence for a moment, and then, when there was no angelic arrival, he turned to Sam. “You try Uriel.”

Sam groaned. “Uriel, you dick, you’ve got a seal being cracked down here and we want to help. Come on down.”

There was no flutter sound, no dry voice or deep timbre. It was just the three of them in the otherwise empty bar.

“Maybe Ruby could help,” Dean said hesitantly.

Sam did not want to see her. It wasn’t like he really had a choice though. If the angels weren’t answering, she might be their best bet at keeping the seal from being broken if it hadn’t already been.

He pulled his cell from his pocket and dialed the number from memory. It rang twice before she answered. “Sam?”

“We’ve got a problem,” Sam said without preamble.

“Let me guess, bodies being dropped in the Colt frontier churches. We’ve got the same problem.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “The Colt churches?”

Ash groaned and started clicking at the keyboard.

“Well, duh. Thought you’d have figured that much out at least. There’s been three now and rumble is they have to do all five. I’ve just called in the third body.”

Sam closed his eyes. “What did it look like?”

“Angel sigil carved into the chest. Whole lotta blood.”

“No, I mean what did it look like? Man or woman? Old or young?”

“Oh… It’s a man. Middle aged. Graying black hair. Had brown eyes. Need a picture?”

“I don’t think I need one,” Sam said sadly. “Pretty sure I already know who he is.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sam said. “Where are you now?”

“Heading to Greybull from Casper. Where are you?”

“We’re at The Roadhouse still. We’re leaving now though, so when you get there, wait.”

“And what do I do if the demons show up?”

“Hide. Run. Do whatever you want, just don’t forget we have the knife now. You’ve got nothing to defend yourself with.”

“Aw, Sam, does this mean you care?”

“No,” Sam said brutally. “It means you can be an asset when you’re not dicking around, and we need all the assets we can get. Call if you have to move.”

“Will do. See you soon, Sam.”

Sam ended the call without a goodbye and turned to Dean. “Ron is dead.”

Dean nodded soberly. “Figured. What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to Wyoming. We’re going to find the demon that did this, and we’re going to kill it. Slowly.”

Because Ron had once been a friend. Because they should have protected him. Because he was dead now and he deserved to be avenged.

xXx

Dean wondered about the logic of driving right to the church door—surely the demons would notice the car and book it out of there. Sam didn’t seem bothered though, so he didn’t mention it, certain Sam had some kind of plan he would let Dean in on in time.

The church was derelict. The wooden walls bowed inwards and the roof sagged. Sam seemed unconcerned about it caving in on him as he opened the door and walked inside though. Dean followed and saw Ruby standing in the center of the room. Her expression went from tense to a smile when she saw Dean.

“Took your time,” she said to Sam.

Sam shrugged. “Any sign of the demons yet?”

“Nothing yet.”

Sam reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out the knife that had stolen from Ruby. “If…” he said pointedly, “I give you this, will you give it back when we’re done?”

She raised an eyebrow. “It’s mine. Why should I give it back?”

“Because you know what I can do to you if you don’t.”

She scowled at him but nodded. “Fine. Call it a loaner. You’ll get it back.”

Sam tossed it across to her and she caught it by the handle.

“Have to ask though,” she said. “Why do I get it?”

“Because you’re the strongest fighter here.”

“True,” she said, nodding. “But that doesn’t usually make a difference.”

“Things change. Me and Dean have exorcisms ready to use and all the salt and holy water we could want. We’ll make out fine.” He nodded toward the duffel in Dean’s hand. “I’ve got a few things to get from the car. Dean, you want to get the traps laid down?”

Dean placed the bag on the floor and started pulling out the containers of holy water and spray paint. He didn’t get suspicious when he heard the driver’s door opening and closing, he just thought Sam had forgotten something, but when the engine roared to life and the wheels spun, he lurched to his feet and ran out of the church in time to see the rear of the Impala speeding away.

“Dammit!” he shouted.

“Huh, gotta say I wasn’t expecting that,” Ruby said beside him.

“Really? This wasn’t all planned with you then?”

“Nope. Though in hindsight, we should have seen it coming when he handed over the knife.”

Dean shook his head. “That stubborn ass. He’s gone to the other church, hasn’t he?”

“That’d be my guess.”

“He’s defenseless.”

“He isn’t,” Ruby said. “You know that as well as I do.”

Dean shook his head. “He wouldn’t do that. Not after last time.”

Ruby raised an eyebrow but didn’t speak.

“He wouldn’t.” There was less confidence in his tone now.

Ruby shrugged. “He might.”

Dean cursed as he pulled out his phone and hit the speed dial for Sam. When he answered, he sounded annoyed, as if he really couldn’t believe Dean would call. Dean was annoyed too as he said, “What the hell?”

Sam’s sigh crackled over the line. “Dean, we have two churches and three people. What did you really think was going to happen?”

“I thought you’d at least discuss it. I thought you’d take a weapon.”

“I don’t need a weapon.”

“You can’t use your powers,” Dean growled. “You almost died last time.”

“I won’t use them,” Sam said. “I will use Latin and traps.”

Dean wished he could believe, but Sam lied. He hid things, especially when he thought he needed to protect Dean.

“Promise me,” Dean said.

“Seriously. Can’t you just trust me?”

Dean wished he could say yes. He stayed silent.

“Fine. I promise,” Sam said.

“Thank you,” Dean said sincerely.

“If the demons come, get behind Ruby and stay there. Let her do all the work. That’s what she’s there for.”

“I will,” Dean said.

“I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Yeah. You be careful, Sam.”

“You too.”

“Happy now?” Ruby asked as Dean stowed his phone in his pocket again.

“Not really,” Dean said.

She smiled at him sympathetically. “Sam will be fine. He’s a good hunter.”

Dean nodded. “I know.” The problem was the demons were sure to be good opponents. Sam would once have had them on their knees begging for mercy, choking on their own smoke as he exorcised them. That was in the past though, when he was still on the blood. He couldn’t—surely wouldn’t—do that this time. He wouldn’t let himself tap into that part of himself again while he was trying so hard to keep himself human.

“Ruby,” he said quietly. “Why did you do it? Help him?”

She needed no more explanation. Perhaps she had been waiting for the question all this time. She drew in a breath and lowered her eyes. “Because he needed me to.”

“It never would have occurred to him if you hadn’t gotten involved.”

“True. But then you would have been stuck there forever. At least that was what I believed.” She looked up at him, fixing him with her penetrating gaze. “He couldn’t bear it. Neither could I. We both needed you out because we couldn’t stay in a world that didn’t have you in it.” She stepped forward and brought up a hand to cup his cheek. “You are loved, Dean.”

He knew she didn’t just mean by Sam, but he pretended to for his own sanity. There was already too much turmoil in his world for him to add to it. He stepped back, away from her touch, and nodded stiffly. “We should get ready. They could be here soon.”

Looking disappointed, sad maybe, she nodded too and bent to pick up a flask of holy water.

xXx

They heard the demons coming. They came by car, an old junker by the sound of the spluttering engine. Ruby pushed Dean behind her, and he let her. Sam had told him to, he had no weapon, and he wasn’t stupid. Though he hadn’t said a word since he’d heard the car coming, Ruby shushed him as she crept to the door with him following.

The car doors opened and Dean counted the sounds in his head. There were at least three of them.

“Four down. One to go,” a male voice said cheerfully as he pulled open the old door. In his arms was a body, throat slit in a wide smile. “We’re headed to the big time.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Ruby said as she plunged the knife into the demon’s throat.

Dean felt a pang of sadness for the meat suit as it dropped and the body landed on top of it, but he was quickly distracted as the other two demons rushed into the room. One of them ran straight into the devil’s trap, and Dean laughed, but it quickly cut off as he realized he wasn’t the only one laughing. The third demon had kicked Ruby in the stomach and she had dropped the blade as she was knocked into the trap, too. Dean lunged for the knife, grabbing it up just before the demon could kick it away.

He felt a sharp blow to the back of his head and his vision wavered. He blinked quickly to clear it.

“Give me the knife, pretty boy,” the third demon, a woman, said.

Dean laughed harshly. “I don’t think so.” He gripped it tightly in his hand as he and the free demon started to circle. He jabbed out the knife, but the demon was too quick. She dodged back so the jab missed by a clear foot.

Dean lunged forward again, but she moved back again, laughing. From his peripheral vision he could see Ruby and the other demon locked in combat within the trap. He couldn’t help her until he had taken out his demon, so he pushed down his need to protect and concentrated on what he had to do.

He rushed forward and struck out. The demon seemed caught off guard by the attack, and Dean managed to get the knife into her shoulder before she pulled back crying out in pain. She grabbed the wound with her free hand, and Dean took advantage of her momentary distraction to get another cut in on her stomach. He had aimed to kill, but the knife didn’t go in deep enough. She bowed over as the light crackled around the wound. Dean launched into action. He punched her over the wound on her shoulder, and when she bowed backwards in pain, he shoved the knife into her neck. It went deep, scraping bone, and he twisted to free it as he pulled his arm back.

He stared down at the body for a moment, feeling a wash of regret for the human he had just killed.

“Knife, Dean!” Ruby shouted, snapping him back to the present.

He threw it to her and she caught it neatly. There was a flash of movement and then the last demon was dropping dead to the floor.

Ruby stepped back from the body, brushing her hair back from her face. “Well, that was fun.”

“No,” Dean said soberly. “That was murder.”

Her face fell and she looked at him sympathetically. “It wasn’t your fault, Dean. You had to do it to save yourself.”

“I know.” He drew a breath and bent to scrape away the edge of the painted devil’s trap with the silver knife from his duffel. “Doesn’t make it any easier to take.”

Her hand cupped his cheek and against his will he leaned into it. “It doesn’t,” she said softly. “But it’s over now. Let’s go find Sam.”

That was exactly what he needed, Dean thought. He needed his brother.

Chapter Text

The hands that gripped her shoulders were tight and rough. She thought they were a man’s, probably one of the men that had taken her. She couldn’t be sure though, as she was blindfolded. The theory was confirmed as she heard his voice when he shoved her forward and snarled, “Get in there!”

Amelia stumbled and her knees hit hard floor. She cried out involuntarily with pain. She heard murmurs and someone shushed the sound. It wasn’t the one who had taken her, she was sure of that. His voice had been loud and guttural. Which meant she wasn’t alone.

“Yeah, keep it down,” a voice said harshly.

She heard footsteps on the stone floor then the slam of a door and a bolt being engaged. She shivered on the cold floor, her knees burning against the prolonged contact. Someone moved close to her and she flinched.

“It’s okay,” a woman’s voice soothed. “He’s gone. It’s just us now. I’m going to take the blindfold off.”

Amelia froze and tried not to flinch again as fingers fumbled with the knot at the back of her head. The blindfold fell away and she blinked into the gloom. She was in a room, about the size of her dining room back home, though that was the only similarity between the two places. Her home was decorated and furnished comfortably. This place was dank and bare. There were windows set high into the ceiling that were letting in the dim moonlight. There were three other people in the room, the woman who had helped her with the blindfold and two men. They were sitting together in a corner.

Amelia backed away from them into the further corner, afraid. They didn’t look surprised at her reaction. It was as though they’d expected it.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“Amelia.” Her voice was a fear-filled whisper.

“Well, Amelia,” the woman said. “I’m Emily and this is my husband Oliver, and this is Jack. You don’t need to be afraid of us. We’re not going to hurt you.”

Amelia nodded shakily.

“Where did they get you?” Jack asked.

Amelia shook her head in an attempt to clear the fog of fear and thought back. It had been late. She was just locking up the house for the night. She’d been about to bolt the front door when it had been kicked open and two men were revealed standing on the threshold. They wasted no time with taunts; they had just made one strange demand, “Pray to him!”

She had tried to obey but she had been too scared, terrified that they would hurt…

“Claire!” she gasped. The fog lifted at last and she moaned. Claire. Her little girl had been at home sleeping in bed when they’d come.

“Who’s Claire?” Oliver asked.

“My daughter.” She was back on her feet and rushing at the door. Her balled fists hammered on it and she cried out for someone to help. The others were speaking behind her, but she paid them no mind. Then a hand clapped over her mouth and dragged her back from the door.

“Jack, stop!”

Warm breath brushed her ear as a man, surely Jack, spoke, “If you upset them, they will punish us all.”

“But my daughter!” Amelia cried, a sob breaking through her.

“You can’t help her from here,” Oliver said.

“But she’s only eleven years old. What do I do?”

“Pray,” Emily said. “Who is your angel?”

“My what?”

“Your angel. Who went with the angels in your life?”

“My…” She shook her head. “My husband was ill.”

Oliver tutted. “Okay. He was ill. But he was speaking to an angel, yes?”

Amelia remembered Jimmy sitting in his armchair, speaking so defiantly in the face of her doubt, so confident and sure, “His name is Castiel, Ames, and he needs me. He says I can help.”

She spoke through gritted teeth. “Castiel.”

“Then pray. Use his name and pray. He will save your Claire.”

Feeling stupid but having no other hope, Amelia closed her eyes and tried to find the peace prayer always brought her. “Castiel, if you’re there, if you’re real even, I need your help…”

xXx

Dean threw back his head and laughed. “They were what?”

“Paranormal Investigators,” Sam said, smiling so wide his face ached. “They had little business cards and everything.”

“What did Dad think of that?”

Sam shook his head, still smiling. “He just about shoved the cards down their throats. They were mouthing off about being professionals and then, when the ghost appeared, they just about crapped themselves.” He chuckled. “At the time it was a pain in the ass, because they were making things so bad, but looking back gave us a lot of—“

He cut off abruptly. Dean had heard it, too, the flutter of an angel’s arrival. Dean turned in his seat, scowl in place ready for whatever angel had broken radio silence to interrupt what had been a good time, and his mouth dropped open at what he saw.

Castiel had a child in his arms, an unconscious child. Even as Dean lurched to his feet and rushed towards him, Castiel unceremoniously dumped the girl on Sam’s bed. 

“What the hell?” Dean exclaimed, rushing across the room to the bed. He checked the child’s pulse and watched her breaths for a moment.

“She is just sleeping,” Castiel said.

“Who is that and why do you have her?” Sam asked, a bite of anger in his tone.

Castiel disregarded his question. “I need you to take care of her. There are things I need to do.”

“Hold on one damn minute,” Sam said. “You’re not going anywhere until you give us some answers. Who is that girl?”

“Her name is Claire.”

“And she’s here because?” Sam asked.

“Because I need you to take care of her.”  

Sam crossed his arms over his chest. “We need a little more than that, Castiel. Who is she in danger from and, once more, why the hell do you have her?”

Castiel sighed. “I have no time to answer your questions. There are things for me to do that are more important than keeping you informed. This is Claire. She needs help. That is what you do, isn’t it? Take care of people?”

“Yeah, but…” Dean trailed off as Claire began to stir. Her eyes opened and roved the room as she sat up. She looked scared, terrified even, but then her gaze fell on Castiel and she looked stunned but happy, exhilaratingly happy.

“Daddy?” It sounded like a question.

Castiel looked down at her, and for a moment, Dean thought he saw a flicker of something, and then his expression became blank and he said, “I am not your father.”

Claire’s face crumpled and a tear began to slip down her cheek. Dean thought he could actually see her heart break, even through his immense confusion. But then Castiel was pressing his fingertips to her temple and she was falling back against the pillow, unconscious again.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Dean asked angrily.

Castiel ignored his anger completely. “I suggest you take her to your friend Sonny’s house. I will find you when I need you again.”

Sam rushed forward into his space, his face twisted with fury and his fist swinging, but before it could make contact, Castiel was gone.

“Dammit,” Sam shouted furiously.

Dean checked the girl over again, found her sleeping and seemingly safe, and then he looked back to Sam. “What was that?” he asked.

“That was a dick,” Sam growled. “Where the hell did he get her from? And does he seriously think we’re going to be able to do anything to help? We can’t go anywhere with her without being tagged as child abductors. Hell, the police are probably already looking for her. We’re going to get our asses arrested because of him!”

Dean raked a hand over his face, trying to think what to do. If he was working still and someone brought a child to him without reason or explanation, he would call the cops and CPS. He would see her safe. But this was different. This child had been brought to them by an angel of the Lord. He didn’t think following procedure was going to cut it this time. Their best bet was probably to do as Castiel said and take her to Sonny’s so someone could look after her while they worked out what they hell was happening.

He considered waking Claire to get her version of events, in hopes that she would have some insight that could help them, but he reconsidered when he saw Sam’s thunderous face. Perhaps it was better that he calm down a little before all they met properly.

“She called him Daddy,” Sam said in a low growl.

Dean nodded. “But angels can’t have children, can they?”

“There are legends of it happening. Nephilim. Angels got it on with human women and they had these children, angel hybrids. It’s just a legend though.” He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s what this girl is. I think she’d be a little more impressive if she were. Besides, can you seriously imagine Castiel knocking boots with anyone, let alone a human?”

He was calming now, Dean was relieved to see, and he tried to calm himself, too. “No, I definitely don’t see that happening,”

“Then she’s probably human,” Sam said. “Maybe her father just looks like Castiel. Maybe being knocked out by angel mojo caused a little confusion.”

“Did it for you?” Dean asked. “When Cas knocked you out, I mean.”

“Not that I remember. It was a strange time though. I was pretty juiced up and stressed out of my gourd. Could be I missed it.”

Juiced up on blood and stressed at the sudden reappearance of Dean from the grave. That was enough to make things vague for anyone.

“Okay. We need to put a call into Sonny, tell him we’re on our way with a new houseguest, and then when she’s awake we’ll head out. We’re only a few hours away.”

“You think it’s a good idea to take her there?” Dean asked.

“I think he’s the only sensible option. It’s him, Bobby’s or The Roadhouse. Which do you think’s better?”

“Sonny’s, definitely,” Dean said.

Sam nodded his agreement. “Then I guess we wait for her to wake up.” He sat down at the table again and laid his palms flat. “That I can do.”

They waited ten more minutes before Claire woke. They were both sitting at the table, giving her space, when her eyes opened. She looked around, searching for something. Her eyes skipped over the pair of them twice before she spoke in a quiet voice. “Where did my daddy go?”

Dean leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly. “Claire, my name is Dean, and this is my brother Sam.”

“Where did he go?” she asked again.

“He had to step out for a while,” Dean said. He wasn’t sure what the connection was between Claire and Castiel, but he thought it was better to not confuse the issue yet.”

Her lips trembled. “Where’s my mom?”

“I don’t know,” Dean admitted.

The tears she had been holding back admirably began to fall. “I’m scared.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Sam said in a softer voice than Dean had ever heard him use before. “We’re not going to hurt you. We’re going to take you to someone who can take care of you for a while and then we’re going to find your mom and dad.”

She looked at Sam, tears still streaming down her face, and she nodded. “Okay.”

Dean saw it happen, and he was amazed. The tears stopped flowing and she looked at Sam with trust. He had seen it dozens of times before, a child connecting with someone, but it had always been him they’d connected with. He had thought once, during the Nixie hunt, that Sam was awful with children, and he probably still was in general, but his simple kindness and gentleness with this girl had forged a bond between them. He doubted Sam even realized it had happened, and he wondered how he would react if he knew. Probably not well. Hopefully he would hold to the gentle nature he had demonstrated with her otherwise she would be wrecked all over again.

Sam stood and started grabbing up his things that were dotted around the room.

“I’ll call Sonny,” Dean said, picking up his phone from the table.

Sam nodded distractedly and looked at Claire. “Sonny is the person we’re taking you to. He’s a good man and will keep you safe.”

Reassured somewhat by Sam’s tone, Dean hit speed dial and when the phone was answered he said, “Sonny, it’s Dean. I need help…”

xXx

“Dean, you’re not giving me much to go on here,” Sonny said.

“I know, and it’s not by choice,” Dean replied. “I don’t know much more than I have told you.”

Sam listened to their conversation with half of his attention while the rest was dedicated to Claire as she sat on the front steps of the farmhouse with Mitch—the kid with a low opinion of Dean. He was talking to her, telling her a little about life at Sonny’s and how they all looked after each other. Claire looked only a little reassured.

She had fallen asleep on the drive, a natural non-angel induced sleep this time, and Dean had explained to Sam how he had somehow forged a bond with the girl. He hadn’t meant to. The problem was he had been able to relate to what she was feeling. He remembered how he had felt when the bottom fell out of his world—the day his father said Dean wasn’t coming back. He had lost one person and it had wrecked him. Claire had lost it all, and Sam was sure it was all Castiel’s fault. When he came back, if he came back, he was going to make good on that punch.

He could feel the weight of responsibility on him now, responsibility for Claire, and it pinned him to the earth. He wondered if that was how Dean had felt about the children he had taken care of for years and how had he coped with it. He could face off demons, vampires and a dozen other fuglys without fear, but faced with this child, he was at a loss.

The sooner they got out of there the better.

“I’m sorry to dump this on you, Sonny. We wouldn’t do it if we had a choice,” Dean said. “I promise we’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Sonny clapped Dean on the shoulder. “I know. Just come back fast and come back safe.” He looked at Sam. “Both of you.”

“We will,” Dean said, and Sam nodded.

Feeling stupid but remembering Dean’s insistence that he not break Claire’s trust, Sam walked over to the steps and sat down beside her. Mitch cast him a look of loathing and quickly got up and walked away. Sam looked at Claire and said, “We’re going to have to go now. You'll be okay here.”

She looked into his eyes, seeming to search for something, perhaps the lie, and then she said, “Okay.”

“We’ll be back as soon as we can be.”

She nodded. “I heard that man talking. He said be safe. Are you in trouble, Sam?”

Always, Sam thought, but he didn’t think it was the time for honesty. “Sometimes,” he said. “Not this time though. Me and Dean take care of each other. We’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” she said again. “I’ll see you.”

“Soon,” Sam promised, getting to his feet.

He felt his eyes on her as he walked toward the car, but he didn’t turn. Dean met him at the car and they climbed in together. Sam started the engine, and with a glance into the rear view mirror, he drove down the dirt track that led to the road.

They were almost out of town when a sense of foreboding settled over Sam and he pulled the car to a stop.

“What’s up?” Dean asked.

“Claire.”

 “I’m sure she’ll be okay. Sonny will take care of her.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he will,” Sam said, “but I’m thinking he could do with a little backup.”

“Backup like…?”

“An angel.” Without further explanation, he raised his eyes and said, “Anna, we’re in Hurleyville, New York. You think you can come—“

“Hello, Sam.” Anna spoke from the backseat. “Dean.”

Sam wasted no time with greetings. He launched himself into an explanation of what had happened and his worries.

Anna looked pensive. “And the child called Castiel daddy?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. “You know the deal with that?”

“She must belong to his vessel.”

“His what?”

 “They didn’t explain? Of course they didn’t.” Anna sighed. “Why would they?”

“Want to fill us in?” Sam asked a little harshly.

Anna took a breath and then explained, “Angels don’t have physical form the way you’d think. What you see when you look at Castiel or Uriel is a human with an angel occupying it.”

“Like a demon? It’s a meat suit?” Dean asked.  

“Essentially, yes. Though there are differences. Demons can take any human they want. Angels’ vessels are different. They have to be of a bloodline that can handle the possession. If an angel takes a vessel that is not destined to be one, they will summarily explode the human body.”

“That’s seriously screwed up,” Sam said.

Anna shrugged. “It’s how it is. There is also the issue of consent. A human needs to say yes to an angel to allow them in. It is our Father’s protection of his greatest creation.”

“So what happens to the human while the angel is running the switches?” Dean asked.

“It depends on the angel. Some stuff their vessel’s consciousness into a place without awareness and leave them there. Some let them watch, unable to control a thing, and others create a place of peace for them to be in while they are in control.”

“Wow,” Sam said. “I thought angels were dicks but I never even scratched the surface. So Claire’s father is Castiel’s vessel. How could he leave his family like that?”

“People give consent for all kinds of reasons. You’d have to ask him what his was,” Anna replied.

“Anyway,” Dean said, possibly seeing Sam’s rising color. “That’s the story with Claire. Can you help us?”

“I can guard her,” she said simply. “I will let no harm come to the girl.”

“Or the others,” Dean said. “There’s a bunch of kids there that need protecting.”

“I will protect them all.”

Sam nodded his satisfaction. Claire and the others would be safe. They would be free to try to work out what was happening with clear minds. Though what the hell was happening he didn’t know.

xXx

They had agreed that Bobby’s was their best choice of a next stop. It was a long drive from New York to Sioux Falls and they made it by each taking shifts at the wheel while the other slept.

They were almost in South Dakota and Sam was sleeping when his phone rang. Sam woke with a start and had the phone at his ear within moments with no drowsiness coloring his tone. “Ellen?” He paused, a deep frown marring his brow, and then said, “He what? Okay. We’ll be there in a few hours. Don’t let him leave. Ask him nicely then. Yeah. Real soon.” He hung up and sighed heavily, rolling his shoulders as if working out stress. “Uriel is at the bar looking for us.”

“Oh. Why hasn’t he just flapped on over to us already?”

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. He told Ellen he had to speak to us and then took up residence at the corner table. She says whatever’s got his panties in a bunch must be big though, because he’s acting twitchy.”

“Twitchy like?”

Sam shrugged. “Ellen’s words not mine.” He glanced out of the window. “You call Bobby, let him know what’s going on, and I’ll take over the wheel.”

“Okay,” Dean said slowly. “But what exactly do I tell him when neither of us has the first idea of what the hell’s going on?”

“Tell him the angels have lost the plot and we need his help.”

“That’ll reassure him.”

“Dean, I don’t think any of us are getting reassurance any time soon,” Sam said. “I have a feeling the crap storm is just starting.”

xXx

Sam had worried that Uriel would flap off before they got to The Roadhouse and demanded some answers but when they arrived, he was sitting at the corner table, a glass of water in front of him. That was the first thing Sam noticed about him that was off. The next was that he was sitting with his shoulders slumped. He had always been straight-backed and proud when Sam had seen him before, proving the stick up his ass was doing its job.

Sam strode across the bar and threw himself into a seat opposite Uriel. Dean sat beside him and looked intently at the angel, seeming to be assessing the same differences Sam had seen.

“Uriel,” Sam said stiffly. “What the hell is going on?”

The angel shook his head. “I’m not Uriel. I’m Nicholas.” 

Sam frowned. “You’re what now?”

“You’re his vessel,” Dean said in a whisper, glancing around to see if they were being overheard. They weren’t. Sam had already checked.

“Yes,” the man confirmed. Sam noticed now that his voice was slightly different, softer that Uriel’s deep bass, and he didn’t speak so slowly. Uriel always sounded like he was picking every word carefully and without emotion. Nicholas was impassioned. “Something went wrong. Something happened. I woke up, I suppose you would call it, and he was gone.”

Sam frowned at him. “Tell us exactly what happened.”

“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “I didn’t see anything. I was… gone I suppose you would call it, for a long time, and then I was back.”

Dean and Sam exchanged a glance. So Uriel was one of the angels that took over everything, including the man’s consciousness. Sam supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. It was Uriel after all. If there was one thing Sam was sure of about the angel, it was that he was an asshole.

“When you woke up, did you see anything?” Dean asked.

Nicholas shuddered. “I saw the woman with white eyes. She was not alone, many of the black eyes were there, but it was the white-eyed woman that spoke.” He looked between them. “Which one of you is Sam Winchester?”

“Me.”

He looked Sam straight in the eye. “She said to tell you I am a message, a lesson in her power. You are powerless without them.”

Sam sighed out a breath. “Shit.”

“She was a woman?” Dean asked, evidently following a different chain of thought. “You’re sure? Not a child?”

“She was definitely a woman,” Nicholas said. “A terrifying woman. I am a Godly man, and I know evil when I see it. She is one step down from the serpent, isn’t she?”

Sam nodded. “Yeah. She is.”

Nicholas looked away, obviously horrified. There was a difference between suspecting something and having it confirmed. “You have to help me,” he whispered.

“Of course,” Dean said immediately. “We’ll do whatever we can.”

“I need to go home.”

“That’s probably not a good idea,” Sam said. “You’ve been tagged by Lilith herself. She’s used you to deliver her message. There’s probably not a lot else she can do with you other than…”

“Kill me? I guessed as much. That’s why I need to go home. I haven’t seen my family in months, my sister and her husband, not since Uriel took me over. They must be so scared for me. If that monster is coming for me, I need to see them first.”

Sam considered. He understood how Nicholas felt because he would want the exact same thing in that situation, but it was too dangerous.

“You could get them killed, too,” he said.

Nicholas’s eyes widened. “Do you think they would do that?”

“I think they’re demons that would do anything.”

Dean cast Sam a remonstrating glance but Sam ignored it. Sugarcoating the truth wasn’t going to help. Nicholas needed to be aware of just how dangerous things were.

“How about this,” Dean said, “we go find your family and bring them back here so we can keep you all safe?”

Nicholas looked unsure. “You can keep them safe?”

Dean started to answer, but Sam spoke over him. “We can make them a lot safer that they will be alone.”

Nicholas considered for a long time. Sam was almost sure he wasn’t going to answer at all when he nodded slowly and said, “Okay. I’ll tell you where to find them. But you must make me a promise. You must do everything you can to protect them.”

“We always do,” Dean said.

Nicholas looked into his eyes, seeming to assess his sincerity. “Very well. It’s not far. They’re in Omaha. 212 West Highlands Drive.”

Sam got to his feet and gestured Dean to follow him across the bar. “I’ll go get them while you keep him here and safe. Take him to the back. It’ll be more obvious if someone is trying to get at him there. Check the traps under the doors. Lay down salt. Just do whatever you can to protect him.”

“I will,” Dean said. “But what’s to say you’re not going to be the one getting attacked?”

Nothing at all but perhaps his reputation, Sam thought. He wouldn’t tell Dean that though. He was already wound tight. “I’ll be fine.”

Dean still looked troubled, but Sam was already turning away and making for the bar to explain to Ellen what was happening. Dean caught his sleeve and tugged him around again. “What?” Sam asked.

“You won’t use your powers will you?” Dean asked shrewdly.

“Of course I won’t,” Sam said easily.

Dean seemed to search his eyes for a lie, and Sam stared impassively back at him.

“Okay,” he said eventually. “I’ll take care of Nicholas and you get his family. But, Sam, be careful.”

“Will do,” Sam said. “And you, too.”

He was in a bar full of hunters, many of which Sam could trust to take care of his brother. Bobby would be there soon. Sam had faith it would be okay until he got back. Almost.

xXx

Nicholas’s sister’s house was in a nice area of the city. The gardens were well tended, Sam guessed professionally, and the paintwork was neat and clean. There was a wraparound porch with a bench on it to be enjoyed in warmer days.

Sam hurried up the path and steps to the house and rapped on the door. It swung open at his touch. Cursing quietly he slipped inside and pushed it closed behind him. He knew almost at once what, or rather who, had happened, as the stench of sulfur was thick in the air. Damned demons.

He pulled the knife from his jacket pocket and held it in front of him as he crept through a door on the right. It led to a lounge. He felt the presence before the slow handclap started. He spun to the side and saw the demon sitting in the dark leather wingchair by the fireplace. It was a man, probably in his thirties, with dark red hair cut close.

“Winchester,” he said cheerfully. “I wondered when you’d finally get here. How’ve you been?”

“Just fine,” Sam said, gripping the handle of the knife a little tighter. “Are they dead?”

“Straight to the big question?” The demon tutted. “I thought we’d have a little chat first. There’s so much I want to talk about. Like how I’m going to peel the flesh off your brother’s bones and make you eat it.”

“No thanks, Hannibal. Let’s talk about how I am going to peel the flesh off of you with this knife and make you eat it.”

The demon laughed. “You can try. It’ll be interesting to see which of us comes off better in the attempt.”

Sam glowered at him.

“Don’t be so glum, Sammy. It’s not like what I’ll do to Dean is anything new. Word is he did the same in the pit. The stories I heard… He made such a good apprentice for Alastair. After he was the subject that is. The noises they say he made.” He leered. “They were music.”

It was the mention of Alastair that did it. The name of the demon that had almost destroyed his brother. It made Sam’s anger surge, and he reacted without thinking. He clenched his fist and the demon bowed over with pain, crying out.

Sam was momentarily shocked at himself, and then he felt a surge of triumph. He wasn’t weak. He still had some access to the powers the blood had given him, even though it had been months since he had drunk any. It didn’t even hurt much. A headache opposed to a migraine.

He released his hold on the demon and waited for it to straighten.  “Are they dead?” he asked.

“I won’t tell you a—“ He cut off as Sam clenched his fist again. “No!” He howled. “Lilith has them.”

“Where?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know,” he moaned. “They didn’t tell me.”

Sam released the pressure on the demon’s core and waited for him to pant himself to sense again. “What is she doing to them?”

“Holding them. They’re the trap for you and the angels.”

That wasn’t exactly a surprise. Why else would Lilith take them if not for some other gain? Sam was willing to bet Claire’s mother was one of the taken, too.

“What happened to Uriel? Why did he leave his vessel?”

“He was cast out. Lilith and Alastair have been working on it for weeks. They want to weaken you.”

And distract them no doubt. They had to be working on another seal.

“Anything else I need to know?” Sam asked.

“No,” the demon said quickly. “I told you it all. Now kill me.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “You want to die?”

“Death is better than what Lilith and Alastair will do to me for telling you this.”

“Hmm, you might be right. Which is why I am not going to do it. You can go back to Hell and tell Lilith and Alastair I am coming for them, and this time I won’t be alone.”

“Humans,” the demon groaned. “You cannot win against them.”

“Not just humans. Your bosses made a big mistake this time. They pissed off the angels.”

“Please kill me,” the demon begged. “I will do anything.”

Sam shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He drew a breath and raised his arm slowly. His fingers curled around the demon’s core and he squeezed as he pulled it up. It was like slipping into a pair of old, comfortable shoes it was so easy. There was a thud of pain in his head, but it was bearable.

The demon’s eyes widened as the smoke poured from his mouth, and Sam grinned. “Goodbye.” The smoke drifted down to the floor and the demon’s meat suit followed. Sam crossed the room and bent to check for a pulse. There was one, it was strong and steady. Satisfied, Sam straightened and made for the door again.

Nicholas’s family was taken but alive. Sam knew what he was facing and he knew he wasn’t as powerless as he had thought. He wouldn’t be able to take on Lilith or Alastair, but he could thin their ranks.

It hadn’t been a completely wasted trip.

xXx

Around thirty minutes after Sam left The Roadhouse, Bobby arrived. He strode into the kitchen, casting Nicholas a mistrustful look, and then rounded on Dean. “What the hell kinda trouble you boys got yourselves into this time?”

Dean raised his hands. “Not our fault. It’s all on the angels and demons this time.”

Bobby grumbled and threw himself into a seat while Dean fetched him coffee.

“Nicholas, this is Bobby Singer,” Dean said as he set the mug in front of his friend. “Bobby, this is Uriel’s vessel, Nicholas.”

Dean had filled Bobby in on what Anna had told them about vessels and Castiel’s vessel’s daughter when he’d called him, so he was unsurprised when Bobby’s expression darkened as he addressed Nicholas. “So, you gave up everything for an angel?”

Nicholas looked surprised at Bobby’s hostility. “I did,” he said hesitantly.

“You got kids?” Bobby asked.

“No. Just a sister.”

Bobby nodded slowly. “I guess that’s something. Still, I gotta ask, what the hell made you let an angel take you over? Your life that bad?”

“Yes, it was,” Nicholas said. “At least it was sometimes.” He hesitated on the verge of speech for a moment and then the words flowed from him. “A year ago I wouldn’t have considered it. But a year ago I had Marcus in my life. He was my partner for over twenty years. We were everything to each other. Did everything together. Then he was gone.”

“What happened?” Dean asked quietly.

“Pulmonary embolism. They say it happened fast. He wouldn’t have suffered. But he was gone. One day I had the most amazing man in my life, the next I woke up alone. I was lost. All I had left was my faith.”

“Then the angels came and you were easy pickings,” Bobby said bitterly.

Dean was sure their thinking was along the same lines. Uriel had picked an easy victim, a grieving man, and used his weakness against him. It was despicable, though they probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Sam definitely wouldn’t be. Dean wondered what Castiel’s vessel’s weakness had been.

“I wasn’t easy,” Nicholas said with a bite of anger. “It wasn’t a snap decision. I prayed on it and I spoke to Emily and Oliver. They gave me their blessing, agreed I was chosen for a reason. It was the Lord’s work.”

The whole ‘Lord’s work’ thing wouldn’t have convinced Dean, but the misery of losing the most important person in his life he could relate to. He’d once lost Sam after all.

xXx

It was impossible to confuse Nicholas with Uriel. Uriel always seemed calm, even when threatening to level a town, whereas Nicholas was tense. Uriel was still and straight-backed while Nicholas slumped over the table, chewing his cuticles and fiddling with the hem of his shirtsleeve. The more time passed, the more the anxiety got to him, until after almost ninety minutes of Sam’s absence, he burst out, “What is taking him so long?” 

“It hasn’t been that long,” Dean said soothingly. “Not long enough for him to get there and back already.”

“He should have called then.”

Dean smiled fondly. “Sam doesn’t always think about things like that.”

“What kind of person doesn’t think about things like that?” Nicholas asked incredulously. “What kind of man is he?”

“A good man,” Bobby said before Dean could answer. “A man who’s had a helluva life that’s changed him from the kind of people you know. A man who lost people that he loved one by one and kept going on regardless.”

Nicholas looked chastened. “I didn’t mean…”

“What Bobby is trying to say is that Sam isn’t the sort to think about reassuring us with phone calls when he’s working,” Dean said, surprised by Bobby’s impassioned defense of Sam. “He’ll be back soon.”

They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Bobby had his arms crossed over his chest and he was staring at the opposite wall while Nicholas toyed with his sleeve again. Dean considered calling Sam, just to check in, but decided against. Sam would be fine. It was just Nicholas’ worry infecting him.

He heard footsteps in the hall and looked up to see Jo walking into the kitchen, her duffel still slung over her shoulder and the tired eyes of someone just finishing a hunt. Last Dean had heard she’d been on a vengeful spirit case in Indiana. It was apparently over.

“Hey,” she said, smiling at Bobby and Dean tiredly then frowning as she saw their guest. “Uh, hi.”

“Jo, Nicholas. Nicholas, Jo,” Dean said. “Jo is family. Nicholas is… a friend.”

Nicholas smiled wanly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Ditto,” Jo said. “Dean, Mom wants to talk to you.”

Dean nodded. “Sure. Bobby, you want to fill Jo in on what’s going on?”

“Will do,” Bobby said.

Dean walked through the hall and into the bar where he almost walked straight into Ellen. He took a step back and said, “Jo said you wanted to talk to me?”

“Yeah,” she said. “We’ve got company.”

Dean’s eyes scanned the room as he spoke in a low voice. “Trouble?”

“I think so.”

“Demons?”

“Angels,” she corrected. “Angel vessels at least.” She nodded toward a group of three, a man and two women, standing at the opposite end of the bar. They were watching Dean and Ellen carefully. “They’re looking for Sam.”

“Sam?”

“Asked for him by name. ‘We need to speak to Sam Winchester.’ Wouldn’t say anything else. They’ve had the piss scared out of them by something.”

“Yeah, Lilith,” Dean said in a low voice. “You mind if I take them to the back?”

“Go ahead.”

Dean crossed the room toward them, and spoke to the woman with blonde hair. She looked slightly less scared that the others. “I’m Dean Winchester,” he said. “I know you’re looking for Sam, but he’s stepped out for a while. If you come with me I can take you somewhere we can talk in private.”

They exchanged glances and the woman nodded. Dean smiled reassuringly and gestured for them to follow. When they got to the kitchen, he stepped to the side and they walked in ahead of him. He didn’t see what was happening, but the second woman, short black hair and petite figure, rushed ahead saying, “Uriel! You have to help me. Help us. Sophie is gone. The demons—“

“That’s not Uriel,” Bobby said.

“I am Nicholas.”

Dean squeezed past the man blocking the door and went into the room. “Okay. Everyone take a seat and we’ll catch up.”

Obediently, they each took a seat, leaving none for Dean. He leaned against the counter and said. “So, you were all vessels? I mean, you all had an angel in you?”

They each nodded.

“Sophie,” the woman said mournfully.

“Okay,” Dean said. “And Sophie was expelled by a white eyed demon?”

“Yes,” she said. “Alastair.”

Dean felt the color drain from his face. A chair scraped the floor and then Jo was in his face, asking if he was okay. He nodded automatically, and said, “Fine. I’m fine.” He didn’t resist as she led him to the chair she’d just vacated though.

It wasn’t that he thought Alastair wasn’t coming back. He always knew he’d have to face him again. What had happened with Anna hadn’t killed him, he’d known that, but knowing and knowing he was out there fighting again were two different things. It made things twice as complicated now, facing him and Lilith. They weren’t even a match for one of them. 

He took a few deep breaths, forced down the fear, and said, “We know Alastair.”

“Well he hurt us. He did something to Sophie, some Latin chant, and then I was alone. Matthew and Sylvia were already there.” She nodded at her companions. “They blindfolded us and brought us here.”

“Here?” Dean asked. “They dropped you off here?” Had they been that close to Lilith and Alastair and not realized?

“Not here,” Nicholas said. “It was a few miles away, wasn’t it?” The three newcomers nodded.

“They put us on the road and pointed here,” the woman Dean guessed was Sylvia said. “They said we would find a bar are there would be a man called Sam Winchester. We had to give him a message.”

“That he’s powerless?” Dean asked.

“Yes.”

Dean looked up at Jo. She was sitting on the counter, tapping her heels against the cupboard beneath. She shook her head curtly and said, “Sam’s never powerless. Neither is Dean. You’ll be fine. All of you.” ”

Sylvia and Matthew looked reassured, but the other woman, Sophie’s vessel, and Nicholas looked wary. Dean wasn’t sure he believed her either.

Chapter Text

Sam thought Ellen must have closed the bar up early because there were far fewer cars in the lot than there had been when he left, even though it wasn’t yet midnight. As he pulled up beside Jo’s car and got out, Dean came out of the front door and walked towards him.

“Everything okay?” Sam was surprised Dean had left Nicholas on his own.

“It’s fine,” Dean said. “There were a few developments while you were gone though, so we had to make some choices without you.”

Sam frowned. “Okay. And you didn’t call because?”

“Because you wouldn’t have agreed, and we needed to do this.”

Sam tamped down his annoyance, reminding himself Dean also had good reason to be pissed, even if he didn’t know it yet, and said mildly, “What wouldn’t I have agreed with?”

“While you were gone, some more vessels showed up. Six in fact. All with the same story as Nicholas. They were sent to give you a message.”

“Six!”

“Yeah. We’ve got a real party going on in there now.”

“I’m sure,” Sam said dryly. “Is that what I’m not going to like? Because I’m not bothered. It’s not like you could send them away.”

“No,” Dean said uncomfortably. “That’s not the problem. Thing is, we let a few friends in on the angel secret and they’re still here. We figured we could use the backup. We had to keep these people safe, no idea when or if the demons would come back for them, and you weren’t here.”

But he had just been a phone call away. Sure, he hadn’t called them to fill them in, but he hadn’t been making choices that affected them. Apart from his using his powers, and that wasn’t really down to them. That was on him. He didn’t feel he had a good position to argue from though, and it wasn’t like he was the boss of them. Dean was a hunter now. He could make these judgment calls as well as Sam could.

“Who did you ask?”

Dean looked relived. “Isaac and Tamara, Fletcher and Mackey. With you, me, and Jo back, that’s one hunter each. It’s got to be better that way.”

It was sound logic, and Dean really couldn’t have chosen anyone better than the ones he had. Tamara and Isaac would especially be assets, as they were good with demons and they had the Palo Santo stake. Fletcher and Mackey were good, competent. The only issue was that Sam wasn’t sure how the angels would react to being outed. Then again, the angels he knew of compromised Castiel, Uriel and Anna. There was only one that he would trust on a good day and it was the fallen one.

“It is better,” he agreed. “Has to be. Angels might not like it, but they can suck it.“

“I didn’t think of them,” Dean admitted.

“They can suck it,” he said again.

Dean nodded decisively. “They can. How did you get on with Nicholas’ family?” He glanced at the empty car. “Oh.”

“Yeah. They were already gone when I got there. Found myself a chatty demon though that I sent on home.”

“That’s great.” Dean said. “What did he say?”

“Basically what we could have worked out ourselves. This is all a distraction, keeping us and the angels off of them while they do whatever they have to do.  I’m guessing a seal.”

Dean sucked in a breath between his teeth. “Any idea what the seal is?”

“None. Demon guy was chatty enough, but he didn’t know anything useful.” He shrugged. “Way I see it, we have no idea what the seal even is much less how to stop them from breaking it. We have a big problem already with the vessels missing their angels. Let’s fix what we can and leave the rest to the angels once we’ve stuffed them back into their humans.”

It was the only way. Splitting their focus and trying to do both was going to get them all hurt or killed. They had to tackle what they could. There was one more issue that hadn’t been addressed—his powers. He’d had the ride back from Omaha to decide how much to tell Dean, and he’d come down on the side of honesty. Dean deserved the truth, and even though he was going to be pissed, Sam would give it to him. They’d come too far to keep secrets like that now.

“Something else,” he said. “I made a little… discovery… when I was talking to the demon.”

Dean frowned. “Yeah?”

He spoke in a rush. “The powers are still there, Dean. I can use them. It’s not like last time. I didn’t overreach myself. It was controlled and careful. I figure it’s the same as what I was doing before the blood. I am tapping into the limited abilities I have on my own. It didn’t do any damage. Even exorcising was okay.”

As he spoke, Dean’s face went through a range of colors. He paled, then flushed slightly and now he was red-faced and obviously pissed. Sam figured he deserved some of it, so he stayed silent as Dean vented his rage. “Please tell me you’re kidding me! You used your powers after what happened last time? Are you trying to destroy yourself? What the hell, Sam?” He broke off panting for a moment before powering on. “And you exorcised! That floored you before. Why on earth would you risk that again? You were alone there. No one would have known you needed help. You could have died and we wouldn’t have had a chance of—“

Sam raised his hands and spoke over him. “I’m fine, Dean. I get that you’re worried. I would be, too. But look at me. I am fine. I didn’t even do it on purpose at first. It just happened. But it worked and all those things you’re worried about didn’t happen. It’s okay.”

Dean shook his head. His cheeks still flushed. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”

“We’re not,” Sam said. “Not anymore.” Honesty time and family drama was over. There were more important things for them to be doing. He walked away, through the door, and braced himself for the next drama—telling Nicholas his family was gone.

xXx

Dean could see the strain in Sam’s face as he spoke to the room at large. He was much happier talking to a few people at a time, better if they were family. He was doing well with the group of outsiders though.

“The priority has to be keeping these people safe,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re the ones who matter, not the flying dicks.”

“Are they really that bad?” Isaac asked. “You’d think angels would be … angelic, you know?”

“They’re that bad,” Sam said firmly.

“And it’s demons we’re worried about coming?” Mackey asked.

“Not just any demons, the demons,” Dean said. “These ones are higher level than anything I’m guessing any of you have faced before. They’re not going to let themselves be trapped, so we can’t exorcise.”

“Your best bet is the Palo Santo,” Sam said, looking at Tamara and Isaac. “I have no idea if it will work, but it’s better than anything else we’ve got apart from the knife.” He looked at Mackey and Fletcher where they sat at a table with their designated vessels to protect. “Stay close to me and Dean or Tamara and Isaac.”

“Is that such a good idea?” Fletcher drawled. “Surely we’re too much of a target here, all together. Wouldn’t we do better splitting up and keeping on the run?”

“I don’t think so,” Sam said. “You’d be without a weapon, and this place is best protected outside of…”

“My place,” Bobby finished for him.

“Yeah,” Sam said slowly. “I didn’t even think. Damn.”

Bobby nodded. “You said yourself, demons that level aren’t going to let themselves be trapped. Best thing we can do is bunker in ourselves and wait for the angels to take control of the situation.”

“However long that takes,” Nicholas said bitterly. He had been devastated to learn about his family’s capture, and seemed to have lost some of his affection for the angels since.

“Bobby’s right,” Dean said. “We’re not that protected here if Alastair or Lilith come. At least at his place there’s somewhere they can’t get in. Bobby, you up for some houseguests?”

“Sure,” Bobby said. “We’ve got to be damned careful on the road though.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Dean said. “I’m pretty sure there’s one angel around that can speed things up for us.”

Castiel had been absent since he dropped Claire off, which was pretty damn messed up. The least he could have done was check in with them. They’d had vessels arriving all day, and they could have done with some advice at least.

Dean raised his eyes heavenward and said, “Castiel, we need your help. We’re at The Roadhouse, and we’ve got company.”

They waited, but there was no flutter of wings or dry voice. There was nothing but the sound of a room full of people breathing out in a rush after holding their breath too long.

“Okay,” Sam said, not even attempting to hide the anger in his tone. “We’ll have to do this the hard way. Tamara, Isaac can you take Sylvia? Fletcher—Matthew?”

He went on, assigning people to hunters, while Ellen and Jo went to the back to collect as many blankets and pillows as Ellen had stashed away—the panic room wasn’t in the least bit comfortable. Dean didn’t pay them much attention, he was internally whispering to Castiel. He wanted to angel there. He wanted him to prove he was more than an automaton. He had just about given up hope when he felt the slight disturbance of air behind him and Castiel spoke. “Dean, what is happening here?”

Sam was across the room and his fist was connecting with Castiel’s face before Dean could even decide whether he wanted to stop him.

Castiel looked as perturbed as he would be if a fly landed on him, but Sam was raging. “You dump that poor girl on us, not caring that she’s traumatized. You shove yourself down her father’s throat, taking him away from her and her mom. You…”

He cut off, panting, as Dean laid a hand on his chest.

“I did what must be done,” Castiel said. “Now, you called me. What do you want?” Hs eyes narrowed as they fell on the group of former vessels. “How did they come to be here?”

“They were sent by Lilith to deliver the message that we’re powerless.”

Castiel walked toward the woman whose name Dean didn’t know, the woman who had been Sophie’s vessel, and said, “What happened?”

Tears swam in her eyes as she replied. “Sophie heard a prayer. It was from my mother. We went to the house but the demons were there. I am not sure what it was, but the white-eyed man was using Latin as a spell, and then I was alone.”

“They expelled her,” Castiel said, not seeming to be addressing anyone but himself. “Then she must be…” He shook his head and rounded on Dean. “You must keep these people safe.”

“Uh, yeah, we kinda already worked that out for ourselves,” Dean said, and Sam huffed a short laugh.

“No,” he said intensely. “You must keep them safe. They are more important than you know.”

Dean glanced around the room at the vessels where they stood, flanked by hunters. Did Castiel really think they weren’t already doing what they could? “We get it.”

“If you’re done,” Bobby said gruffly, stepping forward. “We would all be a helluva lot safer at my place than standing around here. How’s about you get us there?”

Castiel looked around the room. “Everyone?”

“Everyone,” Dean said. “We figure it’s the safest place for everyone while the demons are on the loose.”

“Very well.” There was the disconcerting sensation of being moved and a few gasps and then Dean was standing in Bobby’s lounge. He did a quick headcount of the others and found no one missing.

“Downstairs,” Bobby said without preamble.

With the exception of Dean and Sam, everyone followed him into the hall, and then there was the sound of many feet descending the wooden stairs.

Castiel watched them go and then turned to Dean, paying as much attention to Sam as he would a houseplant. “Those people are rare and important. You must keep there here safe.”

“Here?” Sam said suspiciously.

“As your friend pointed out, it is the safest place for them. I brought them here for that reason.”

“And so they’d be easy to find when your buddies come back for them, right?” Sam asked. “Don’t you think they’ve done their part already? Can’t you find some other shmucks for them to run around in?”

Dean looked at Castiel, hoping for an argument. He wanted him to say he was thinking of the humans’ safety not the angels’ need for vessels. He wanted him to show he wasn’t the complete dick Sam thought he was. He wanted to be shown that angels were worthy of his trust. He was disappointed.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a vessel?” Castiel asked. “The bloodlines are rare, and rarer are those who have enough faith to actually let an angel in. Even rarer than that are good vessels. Strong ones, like you and Dean, are near impossible to find.”

“We’re vessels?” Dean asked, though he had believed as soon as the words left Castiel’s mouth. Of course they were vessels. As far as he could tell, being a vessel was pretty crappy all around. It was a Winchester’s fate to deal with crap.

“The strongest vessels I have ever known,” Castiel said. “You would make powerful angels if you gave consent.”

Sam snorted. “Sure. That’ll happen.”

Castiel scowled at him. “What matters is that downstairs we have seven strong, rare vessels, and if we have any chance of stopping Lilith we need the angels in them. Humans, as beloved by God as they are, will not win this fight for us. I am among only a few now that remain on earth. Others are searching for vessels as we speak.”

Dean had always imagined that there were angels everywhere. He knew enough now to know they weren’t flitting around healing people and answering prayers for peace, but he thought with all the seals to protect that there would be more than ten on the ground.

“More people screwed over,” Sam said bitterly.

“It is that or death for all!” Castiel said, impassioned. “If there are no angels protecting the seals, Lilith will break them all in short order and Lucifer will be freed. Do you think those people’s freedom is more important than that?”

Sam looked away from them both and glared out of the window. He would have liked to argue with Castiel some more, Dean was sure, but there was no arguing with that logic, as screwed as it was. The people in the panic room now, as decent, and in Nicholas’ case friendly, as they were, would have to give up their freedom if they had a chance of winning.

xXx

Sam felt suffocated by the sheer number of people around him. It wasn’t the same as being in the bar on a busy night, when he could sit at his table and ignore everyone. They were all watching him, looking to him for guidance. A very large part of him wanted to point at Dean and shout, ‘He’s the one you want!’ Dean was the good one. He could sympathize with these people because that was what he did. But they’d all hitched to Sam as the man in charge, and while that wasn’t a problem with the hunters in the room, the vessels were freaking him out. He could protect them physically, he was confident about that, but these people needed more than that, and he couldn’t deliver.

Thankfully, Castiel wasn’t there. He had flapped off somewhere in the night, and hadn’t come back yet. It was early morning now. The sky through the vent was lightening. Another day was starting. Everyone was sitting on the floor, cushions from the couch and pillows from the beds between them and the concrete and blankets wrapped around shoulders to ward off the chill of the room. Sam and Dean were the only ones standing.

There was one good thing about the lack of privacy and that was the fact Dean couldn’t give Sam any more crap about using his powers. He no doubt would eventually, and Ellen and Jo would join in the chorus of remonstration, but for now he had a reprieve.

He was just considering venturing out of the room to make a pot of coffee for them all when he heard the sound of a gunshot from upstairs. Everyone started and a few queries of, “’what was that?’ filled the room.

Sam grabbed up the demon knife from the desk and made for the door. He felt someone behind and he turned to see Jo and Dean behind him.

“No,” he said harshly, blocking the stairs with his arms. “We can’t all leave them. Dean, come with me. Jo get back in there and help the others keep them safe.”

“But…”

“There are seven civilians who need your help,” Sam said. “Dean and I can handle whatever’s up there.” He could hear footsteps overhead. “Do it, Jo!”

She turned away and walked back into the room. Sam tossed Dean the demon knife and said, “I’ve got my own weapon,” when he started to protest. Though what he would do if it was Alastair or Lilith up there he didn’t know.

He was halfway up the stairs to the house when the door to the hall opened and Ruby stuck her head around. “Wondered where you two were.”

Sam sighed with relief.

“Who did you shoot?” Dean asked her.

“No one,” she said, sounding a little offended by the question. “I took out the devil’s trap by the door. Would have sucked to get stuck.”

“What are you doing here, Ruby?” Sam asked.

“Heard something big was going down. I’ve been looking for you. I didn’t expect to find you hunkered down in Singer’s dungeon though. Is the end nigh already?”

“It’s a long story,” Dean said, walking back down the steps. “We’ve got…” He cut off, just before Sam could tell him to, as a voice rang out in the panic room.

“No! I won’t! Get away from me! I will not do it!”

“Nicholas,” Sam groaned, running down the stairs and into the panic room.

It was chaos. Nicholas was cowering against the wall, his hands flat against the iron paneling, and his head turned away. In front of him, ebbing and flowing in the air was bright, blue-white light. It moved like smoke, but tendrils reached out and retracted as if it was feeling the air. Castiel was standing beside the smoke, facing Nicholas, and speaking passionately about duty. A woman was crying, the others in the room were talking, and there was a high-pitched whine on the air that almost sounded like words.

“Shut up!” Sam shouted at the top of his voice. “All of you be quiet.”

The only sound in the room was the high-pitched whine and sound of harsh breathing.

He thought he knew some of what was going on from Nicholas’ reaction, but he turned to Castiel anyway and thumbed at the light, “Uriel?”

“Yes.”

“And he wants back in?” he asked Nicholas.

“I won’t do it,” Nicholas said. “I can’t do it, Sam, not again.”

“Okay,” Sam said calmly. “No one can make you.”

“He must!” Castiel said. “We need him. Lilith and Alastair could strike again any moment, and I cannot defend alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Dean said reasonably. “We’re all here.”

“You’re humans,” Castiel dismissed.

“Hunters,” Tamara corrected.

“It comes to the same thing,” Castiel said. “We need angels, not humans.”

Dean frowned. “You’re serious. This really is an all or nothing situation.”

“Yes,” Castiel said emphatically.  

Sam felt a stirring of unease. He thought he knew how this was going to end already. He could see the thoughts being processed in Dean’s eyes. He was weighing it up, deciding whether to do it.

“Dean…” he started in a low voice.

Dean looked at him, unrepentant, and Sam knew Dean was aware that he’d worked it out. “It makes sense. I’m not the best hunter here, but I am one of the strongest vessels.”

Sam shook his head curtly. “I’m not letting you do this.”

“I’m not asking for your permission,” Dean replied.

Sam hated it, hated it, but there was only one thing to do if he was going to stop Dean making a huge mistake, the biggest maybe since his deal for Sam.

“Uriel, you dick!” he snapped, and the smoke tendrils pulled away from Nicholas and came at Sam instead. He focused and heard a voice through the whine.

“Sam Winchester, I am Uriel, an angel of the Lord. Give me consent and feel my grace.”

“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

“Sam!” Dean growled.

“You need to say yes,” Castiel said, sounding satisfied.

Sam fixed his eyes on the light and spoke clearly and confidently. “Yes.”

The light came at him, obliterating all other sight, and then Sam felt it forcing its way into him through his mouth, filling him to his deepest places. Taking him over.

xXx

Iron tight hands gripped Dean’s upper arms as he tried to rush forward. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, jump between Sam and the light maybe. He had no chance to do anything, though, as he was held firmly in place.

The light burned brighter, blazing, and his eyes squeezed shut. When they opened again, the light was gone and Sam was still there.

“What the hell, Sam?” Dean shouted, stepping into his space. “How could you do that?” After Azazel, after everything, how could he do that to Dean? Didn’t he realize just how impossible it was going to be for them to look at him and not see Sam looking back? Again. Sure, he had been about to do it himself, but his reasoning was solid. He wasn’t the best hunter. He wasn’t the best fighter. Sam was. He would be an asset.

“I am not your brother.” The voice was Sam’s but not, just as the expression was not. Sam never looked so self satisfied. It was all Uriel speaking.

“Then get the hell out of him so I can talk to him instead!” Dean demanded.

Uriel rolled his shoulders and curled his fingers, as if fitting himself into the skin a little better. It was a repulsive thought to Dean. “I will not,” he said slowly.

“Get out!” Dean shouted.

Uriel fixed him under his gaze and a grim smile curled his lips. “I know every single thing Sam knows now. Would you like me to share some family secrets?” His eyes flickered to Ellen and Jo where they stood and back to Dean. “No? Then be quiet and let us work.”

Dean staggered back. Sure, Uriel wasn’t his best bud, but to threaten that was a low blow, a very low blow.

Seeming supremely unconcerned by Dean’s reaction, Uriel and Castiel fell into discussion.  

“How were you not captured?” Uriel asked.

“I didn’t hear the prayer until she was already taken. I took care of the child and then sought revelation. Our brothers and sisters are searching for vessels as we speak. Do you know the seal that is being broken?”

“No. The expulsion was disorienting. As soon as I was able to regain myself, I came here.”

Dean listened to them, thinking how surreal it was to see Sam having a civil conversation with Castiel, even though it wasn’t really Sam. He was probably stuffed down deep within his mind, unable to do a thing for himself.

“The others should be returning soon, too,” Castiel said. “We should wait for reinforcements and then strike.”

 “Very well. I shall seek revelation.”

Castiel nodded. “I shall return to my search.”

There was a rustle and both the angels were gone.

Dean looked at the place his brother had stood, numb with shock, and started when someone laid a hand on his arm. He turned to look into Ellen’s worried eyes. “He’ll be okay,” she reassured him.

Dean nodded. Yeah. Sam would probably be okay. Castiel said they would make powerful angels if they gave consent, so Sam should be fine physically, but there was the issue of getting him back that worried Dean now. If he was such a good vessel, would Uriel ever leave?

xXx

Dean was sitting alone on the floor, his head bowed and his hands fisted in his lap. Sam had been gone three hours, and his worry and desolation were growing with every minute that passed.  

There was nothing to do now that the angels were gone except wait for the next to arrive and claim its vessel. One had already. Sophie, the one whose vessel Dean had never learned the name of, came in a rush of light an hour ago. The woman hadn’t even hesitated before throwing her arms wide as if to embrace the light and shouting her consent enthusiastically.

Dean saw polished loafers appear in his line of sight, and then someone sat down beside him. He raised his head slowly and saw Nicholas adjusting himself against the wall into as comfortable position as was possible under the circumstances.

“I know you would rather be alone,” he said in his deep voice, “but I would really like to talk to you.”

“What’s on your mind?”

“You were going to give Uriel your consent,” he stated. “Why would you do that?”

Dean shrugged. “Seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Sam did it first though. Did he do it for the same reason?”

“No,” Dean said, sure what he was saying was true. “Sam did it because he’s a hero.”

“I don’t understand.”

Dean drew a breath. “You’ve been stuffed down deep in Uriel for months, so you don’t know, but if Uriel had let you see, you would understand. We call ourselves hunters, people who do what we do. But in some cases, that’s the wrong word. It should be hero for Sam. He’s been in the life since he was a kid, risking his life to save strangers, and he’s earned the title. He said yes for two reasons, I think. One, to stop me doing it, and two to stop you having to do it. Like I said, hero. We’re pretty much powerless against Lilith and Alastair, but with an angel on our side, we’ve got a chance at hurting them at least a little.”

“I understand,” Nicholas said quietly. “You must think I am quite the coward.”

“No. I think you’ve already done enough, having Uriel in you as long as you did. Do I wish you’d said yes? Sure, I do, but I understand why you wouldn’t.”

“I wish I could be a hero,” Nicholas said. “I have done nothing great in my life.”

“There’s still time,” Dean said. “Don’t give up on the idea. There are all kinds of heroes in the world. Sam’s just one of them.”

Nicholas nodded thoughtfully. “Perhaps.”

Dean felt Ellen’s eyes on him from across the room and he pushed himself to his feet. She probably needed reassurance or maybe she wanted to give some of her own. He had barely gotten a few paces before the light rippled through the vent in the ceiling and came at Matthew.

Another angel for the cause. Another vessel gone.

xXx

“The Hostages?” Castiel asked doubtfully. “Our orders are for the hostages?”

Uriel nodded and tried to ignore the laughter in his mind. “Yes. They are to be rescued.”

“Why?”

Maybe because there are some non-dick angels in the world after all, Sam Winchester suggested, his glee clear in his voice.

“I didn’t ask for an explanation Castiel.”

But you know anyway. Why? Because you’re not as stupid as you look.

That was a little ironic as far as Uriel was concerned, seeing as he was currently in the form of the Winchester. He didn’t counter though. He was determined that he would not engage with the voice. He wished he could silence him. He had never had this trouble with his last vessel. The man had been packed away in a corner of his own mind, oblivious to everything. Sam Winchester seemed to refuse to allow himself the same fate. He was just too strong to be overpowered like that, not that Uriel would ever admit it.

The truth was, or rather Uriel’s suspicion was, that the vessels weren’t all going to give consent if they knew their families were in peril. They would actually be stupid enough to think they themselves could protect their loved ones. Uriel’s former vessel was proof of that.

“What are we to do then?” Castiel asked.

Uriel smiled slightly. “I have a plan. It cannot be argued that I am the strongest in this form. I will distract the abominations while you take a team to free the hostages.”

“You believe you will be a match for Lilith and Alastair?”

“I will not attempt to kill them, that is the task of the Righteous Man after all. But with the power of this vessel and my grace combined, I will be enough to keep them occupied.”

“Very well,” Castiel said. “I shall lead the rescue.”

One expelled angel coming up, Sam said cheerfully.

Uriel’s lips pressed into a thin line. He would not engage, he would not engage, even though he wanted to flense the flesh from the Winchester’s bones for sheer annoyance.

“We will amass at the Singer house,” Castiel said.

You’ll what? Now the Winchester was angry.

“Very well,” Uriel said.

Castiel took flight away from him, and Uriel was left alone.

You cannot do this, Uriel! Dean and the others don’t need to know what we’re doing!

Uriel smiled, satisfied. Perhaps they didn’t need to know, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t.

xXx

“No!” Dean said viciously. “No, you’re not.” They couldn’t do this. Not to Sam. For all his confidence while talking to Nicholas, he’d never thought it would happen.

“Yes, I am,” Uriel said calmly, and Dean thought he saw humor dancing in his eyes. “The hostages must be freed and I am the best equipped to do provide a distraction. I have the strongest vessel.”

“He is not just a vessel,” Ellen said angrily. “He’s our family.”

“Be that as it may, this is what’s happening.”

Dean turned away from him and took in the other angels around the room. It was surreal to see the people who had been scared and traumatized before now standing straight and tall, confident angels instead of weak humans. He could see no fear in them; they were ready and willing to go.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want the families of these people to be rescued; it was just that he didn’t want his brother’s body dangled like a piece of meat in front of Alastair.

The one blessing they had was that Lilith wasn’t there. She was apparently making the most of the angels’ distraction to break yet another seal. Had his fear for Sam not been so overpowering, Dean would have worried about the speed at which they were being broken.

With the now familiar sound of arrival, Castiel appeared in the room. He spoke to Uriel. “Are you ready?”

“Yes. Are you?”

Castiel glanced around the room, almost as if he was doing a headcount of angels, and nodded. 

“Wait!” Dean shouted. “Just stop and think a moment.” He turned on Uriel. “Are you seriously willing to die for this?”

“I will not die,” Uriel said.

“Are you willing to let Sam die for this?”

No answer was spoken aloud; it was all in the eyes though. Uriel, Castiel, they would sacrifice Sam for the sake of the mission without thought now. This was important enough for them.

Dean felt bile rise in his throat and he swallowed reflexively. “Please don’t,” he whispered.

Uriel and Castiel exchanged a glance, nodded, and every angel in the room disappeared.

Dean cursed, his hands coming up to this head. His feeling of powerlessness lasted all of a few seconds before an idea occurred to him. He pulled his phone from his pocket and hit speed-dial. A moment later Ash’s voice could be heard. “Dean, what’s going on?”

“No time,” Dean said quickly. “I need you to do something for me.”

“Sure. What?”

“I need you to find demons signs for me. Big ones. As big as they get.”

“What’s going on, Dean?” Ash asked.

“I’m trying to find Sam.”

“Dude, there’s no need for that. He’s in Des Moines. South Side of the city. I’ve got his GPS tracking. I’ll text you the coordinates.”

“Thanks,” Dean said breathlessly. He had an address. It was too far to make it by car. He needed help. “Anna,” he said loudly. “I need your help. Again…”

xXx

“Sam Winchester with an angel stuffed down his throat,” Alastair said. “I never thought I’d see the day. He must have been desperate.”

Just being there, facing the demon he hated beyond even Lilith, without being able to say a word was maddening. Sam felt like he was drowning on his hatred for him.

“He was,” Uriel said calmly, sounding pleased even.

“And now you have brought him to me. I thank you. I will take great joy in breaking him once you’re gone.”

“You assume I will go that easy,” Uriel said.

“I know you will. I have already defeated you once. I don’t mind doing it again, and then I will destroy him as thoroughly as I did his dear brother Dean on the rack. I will make him into a whole new kind of monster. It will be a pleasure.”

Sam raged at the mention of Dean. He couldn’t bear to hear his name from Alastair’s foul mouth. He wanted to attack—to find the demon’s core and clench until he was crying out in pain. He wouldn’t even care that it would ruin him, kill him perhaps. He would do it with glee for Dean.

“You won’t,” Uriel said smugly. “I have had what you might call an upgrade in my vessel.” He raised his arm, palm open, and concentrated.

Sam could feel the power rushing through him, even though it wasn’t his own. Whatever Uriel was doing, Sam had never seen it before. Bright white light spilled from his palm, the same light that Sam had seen when he said yes to Uriel.

For a moment Sam thought it was over. Alastair looked afraid. Then he felt the power stutter and weaken inside him.

“No!” he shouted within his mind. “Do it, Uriel. Suck it up and get it done.”

Alastair laughed freely, cackled almost, and Uriel hand’s dropped weakly to his side.

“You are powerless, angel,” Alastair said, stepping forward. “I will force you out and have my way with the Winchester. Can you hear me in there, Sam? The things I am going to do to you… You will beg for death. I will not be merciful.”

“I cannot do it,” Uriel’s voice whispered, defeated.

“I can!” Sam growled.

He had felt the sensation once before, when he had taken over Azazel. It was harder than it had been then, but he forced himself forward and eventually he felt it happen. He took control.

“No!” Uriel moaned.

Sam ignored him. A grim smile curled his lips and he said, “Hello, Alastair.”

“Well, well, well, Winchester,” Alastair said, amused. “You are stronger than I thought after all. You will prove a far more challenging target than your brother. I will truly enjoy breaking you.”

Sam shook his head. He could feel it racing through him, the borrowed power of Uriel and his own cursed gift. It was easy, natural to lift his hand and search for Alastair’s core. It was there, familiar from the last time they’d faced each other. His fingers curled in one by one as he relished the moment. He felt the sharp pain in his head, but as fast as it came, it disappeared.

“Do your work. I will do mine,” Uriel said.

Alastair’s smile faltered for a moment and then grew exponentially. “You can’t do it, Winchester. You are dry and weak now. You will break yourself on me like a wave on a rock as I enjoy the view.”

Sam squeezed harder, but instead of moaning in pain, Alastair laughed. He tried to step forward, but couldn’t. Sam was unable to kill, exorcise or even hurt, but he could hold. He didn’t know for how long or how it would end, but he could do that.

“Hold on. Someone is coming.”

The door flew open and a man rushed in. Sam would have been grateful to see almost anyone in that moment, angel or human. There was only one that he wanted to keep away, and by Winchester luck that was the one who came in.

“Dean,” he groaned.

For a moment, Dean looked at Sam’s raised arm and his eyes widened with fear. Then he seemed to stuff down his worry and take control of himself. He dropped the duffel down on the floor and pulled out fireplace poker.

Sam nodded at his brother and gripped the demon tighter, holding him while Dean did what he had to do.

Dean raised the poker and brought it smashing down on Alastair’s head again and again.

xXx

Castiel looked down at the unconscious demon shackled to the upright rack in the Enochian trap and he felt a surge of something close to happiness. Impossibly, the Winchesters had done it once again. They had overcome all odds and succeeded. It was incredible to Castiel.

He felt a presence beside him and Uriel spoke in his deep, measured voice. “Hello, Castiel.”

He turned away from the demon to look at Uriel “Brother. How did you persuade the vessel?”

Uriel smiled grimly. “He wanted to be a hero apparently. Sam Winchester cast me out and Nicholas proved willing to let me in again.

“Good,” Castiel said. “The Winchesters are better working independently.”

“And your vessel?”

“Still contained within a memory. His wife and child have been reunited. I see no reason to inform him of what happened while he is at peace.”

Uriel nodded. “I agree. I think it’s better that they—“ e cut oHHe  He cut off as the demon started to stir.

White eyes opened and Alastair from one wrist to the other where he was bound. He struggled for a moment and then smiled. “Nice workmanship. I always appreciate that. It won’t hold me forever though, you know that. So why don’t we get down to business? I’m assuming these shackles aren’t just for fun, so what do you want?”

Castiel’s blade slipped into his hand and he said. “We have a few questions for you.”

A moment later the room was filled with cries of pain. 

Chapter Text

Sam leaned against the factory wall and checked his watch once again. Fletcher was late by almost an hour, and Sam was annoyed. Fletcher had been the one to call Sam in on the hunt, and yet he wasn’t bothering to show up for it. Sam would give him another thirty minutes and then he was out of there. He could check himself into a motel and have some downtime while Dean visited his friend.

The call had come through just yesterday. Fletcher had found what he thought was a djinn in Poughkeepsie. It was only an hour’s drive from Sonny’s place, so Sam had suggested Dean go visit with the man while Sam took the case with Fletcher. Dean had hesitated but it hadn’t taken that much persuasion for him to agree when Sam had pointed out he wouldn’t be alone; Fletcher would be with him. Dean obviously missed Sonny and they’d barely seen him when they’d been there with Claire, so Dean had driven Sam into town and left for Hurleyville soon after.

Sam had thought it would be simple enough to deal with the djinn, maybe buy Fletcher another drink to thank him for his help with the angels problem, and then he’d be golden. He could hole up, drink, not talk to anyone. It would be awesome. He wanted to get started already.

He had his phone out of his pocket and was about to call Fletcher when he heard a sharp crack ring through the air. The group of factory workers who were across the street having a smoke break jumped and glanced at one another. One of them muttered something about it being a car backfire, and they all laughed awkwardly, embarrassed by their reactions perhaps.

It wasn’t a car backfire. It was a gun.

Sam started running toward the sound, his pace increasing when he heard someone scream. He shouted over his shoulder at the workers, “Call 911!” while he tried to calculate where the sound had come from. A second shot rang out and Sam redirected his path to the large factory across the street. As he got to the door, people started rushing out—men and women with tear-streaked faces and horrified eyes.  

He shoved his way roughly through them, elbowing people and pushing them away as he struggled against the flow. He got inside and squeezed through the mass of people crowding around the small door. A man wearing dirty grey overalls was on the floor curled into a ball as people stepped over and on him in their rush to escape. Sam dragged him away from the crowd by the arm, shouting at people to get out of his way. When they were apart from the mass, the man uncurled himself and said in a breathy voice, “I fell down.”

“Is there another exit?” Sam asked.

There had to be. A factory this size had to have plenty of exits in case of fire or other emergency.

“They locked them.” The man struggled to his feet. “That’s the only way out.” He didn’t even look at Sam. He just ran straight for the door again, throwing himself into the mass of people.

Another man came barreling toward him. He was huge, bald and mean looking. He was exactly what Sam needed.

“You!” he shouted. “Here!” He thought the man would ignore him at first, but he must have seen something in Sam’s eyes, something other than the fear in everyone else, and he came to Sam. “I need your help.”

“Buddy, I got to get out of here,” the man said.

“You can save lives if you help,” Sam said. “I need you to man this door. Get to the front and control their exit. Two at a time. Hold them back if you have to. Hit them if that’s what it takes. If you don’t stop the stampede there will be people crushed to death. Do you understand? Not enough people are getting through as it is now. You can help them.”

The man nodded. “I can do it. I’m Chris by the way.”

“I’m Sam. Well, Chris, go save some lives.”

He watched Chris power his way to the door and shout above the chaos, “Stop pushing people. We’ll all get out if we work together.”

Sam smiled slightly, satisfied, and then he heard a gunshot ring out, another scream, and he ran toward the sound, pulling his gun from the back of his pants as he did. He had a full magazine. Fifteen rounds. He would only need one—he hoped.

He came to a large sliding door that was half open. He ran through and then slipped and fell, dropping his gun. He scrambled to pick it up and rose to his knees again, pointing it around the room. There was no one to fight though, just a bleeding, moaning woman on the floor a few feet away. He crawled toward her and rolled her onto her back, making her cry out on pain.

“I’m sorry,” he said as his eyes raked her bloody form for the site of all the blood.

Her hands came up to cup her abdomen and he eased them away gently and saw the hole in her overalls. He ripped it open wider, exposing her stomach. The wound was relatively small and neat but pouring out blood.

She moaned as he pressed down on it, trying to staunch the bleeding.

“It’s okay. You’re okay,” Sam reassured her.  

Four more gunshots rang out in quick succession, further away than they had been before. Sam had a moment’s indecision or whether to stay and help or go after the shooter, but the woman he was tending to made the decision for him. She patted his hand where it lay on her wound and whispered, “Thank you,” before her eyes slid shut and her chest stilled. For a moment Sam stayed where he was, pressing hard down on her stomach, and then he realized it was futile. She was gone. He pushed himself to his feet with bloody hands and picked his gun up from the floor.

She was the first. She wouldn’t be the last.

xXx

“I swear, Dean, the girl barely said a word except to ask when your brother was coming back. I never tagged him as a person who related well to the kids, but Claire seemed to really connect with him.”

Dean smiled fondly. “He’s not a kid person. Not at all. But he let himself open to her a little and she clung on. I think he was as caught off guard by it as anyone. I don’t see it happening on a regular basis, though.”

“No?”

“Let me put it this way, I don’t think Sam will let it happen again. He can take on the weight of the world’s fate, but he can’t take on a kid’s trust.”

“That’s actually very sad,” Sonny said.

”That’s Sam.”

“Another drink?” Sonny asked.

Dean nodded and held out his empty soda can. Sonny took it and disappeared into the house again. Dean looked out over the field where the kids were playing some convoluted game of tag. It was good to see them enjoying themselves with their chores done. He remembered those days, except his free time was spent studying and filling out college applications. Things had been simpler then, but not nearly as good as they were now. He had his brother back. There might be an apocalypse hanging over them and demons on their asses, but they were together.

The screen door banged open and Sonny stuck his head out. “Dean, come on in here and listen to this." His tone was tense. Dean quickly stood and walked into the kitchen. Sonny and Ruth were standing by the radio on the table.

“What’s going on?” Dean said, but Sonny held up a hand to silence him.

Dean turned his attention to the voice emanating from the speakers to get an answer. “This is Natalie Cole with breaking news of the situation in Poughkeepsie. Gunshots have been heard and witnesses that managed to escape the building before exits were blocked report one man shooting inside the factory. It’s understood that Wilkin and Sons employs over two hundred people per shift. 0nly fifty-seven are confirmed to have escaped so far. Calls are coming in from listeners that have family inside the factory. They say there is at least one shooter. SWAT teams are in place and there is a huge police presence but no one seems able to get inside at this time. We will bring you more news as it reaches us.”

Dean swallowed hard.

“It’s terrible,” Ruth said. “All those poor people.”

Sonny nodded somberly and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “The police are there. They’re trained to deal with things like this. It will be taken care of, you’ll see.”

“Yes, but how many…?” she trailed off.

Dean knew what she meant: how many would die before the police took care of it? How many people would lose a member of their family? How many lovers would be torn apart? How many Deans would lose their…

“Sam!” he gasped. “He’s in Poughkeepsie.”

“Dean, I’m sure he’s okay,” Sonny said quickly. “Why would he be in a factory anyway?”

Because that was where Dean had dropped him off. In the industrial district of the city. And if he’d heard what was happening, he would have done everything he could to get in there to save lives. He didn’t remember reaching for his phone or dialing, but the phone was at his ear and he could hear the call going through. It took a long time, so long Dean was sure it wouldn’t be answered, before Sam’s voice came through. “Dean, I’m fine,” he said.

“You’re not there?” Dean asked hopefully.

“I’m fine,” he said again.

“Dammit, Sam,” Dean groaned. His heart faltered then as a muffled crack came through the speaker. The sound was unmistakable to him as a gunshot. “Jesus!”

“It’s okay,” Sam said. “I’m not hurt.”

“You have to get out of there,” Dean said. “The news says the doors are blocked, but you can…”

“All the doors?” Sam interrupted.

“I don’t know. I think so.”

“Shit. We’re trapped.”

“The angels,” Dean said.

“I tried. Castiel and Uriel aren’t answering.” A sigh crackled over the line. “ Dean. I’ve got to go.”

“No!” Dean shouted. “Don’t hang up on me. Keep me on speaker. Put me in your pocket. I don’t care what you do, just don’t hang up on me. I’ll lose my mind.”

There was another crack and Dean’s heart faltered.

“I have to,” Sam said. “I’ll see you later.” The call was disconnected and Dean lowered the phone to his side.

“Sam?” Sonny asked, and there was no need for him to say more.

“He’s in there. God, he’s in there, Sonny.”

Sonny laid a hand on his arm. “He’ll be okay.”

“I have to get there.” Dean ran from the room, threw open the screen door and burst out onto the porch. Sam was in there. Dean had to get there. In his mind Sam’s safety was inexplicably linked to him being close. The closer he was, the safer Sam would be.

xXx

Sam shoved the phone back in his pocket and straightened. He had been checking for pulses in the three people he’d found in the doorway to the vast room he guessed was the main space of the factory. He had known before he checked that it was too late. Their open, staring eyes and absolute stillness had been obvious, but he couldn’t accept it until he checked.

He had another problem now. Dean said all the exits were blocked. Did that mean the one he’d stationed Chris at, too? He had to know. He had been sending every living and walking wounded person he saw there in that direction. He turned away from the bodies and jogged back the way he had come. As he passed an open door he heard a voice inside. It was quiet, as if it didn’t want to be heard. The possibility it was a wounded person, someone he could maybe save in the face of so much death, made him change his direction and enter the room. He pointed his gun in each corner ahead of him, but there was no sign of the shooter. The people inside were cowering in a corner. He knew from the neat outfits of the three young women and one middle-aged man that this had been an administrative area of the factory.

One of the women screamed as she caught sight of him, and he quickly realized it was the gun frightening her. He lowered it and hissed. “Be quiet! You’ll bring him right here.”

She clapped a hand over her mouth and her eyes widened. In her other hand was a cell phone, and Sam could vaguely hear a voice coming through the speaker. “Emma? Emma, are you okay? Talk to me.”

“Tell them you’re okay,” Sam instructed.

The woman, Emma, brought the phone back to her ear and said, “I’m okay, Mom. I need to go now. There’s a man here to help us.”

Against what sounded like protests from the caller, she pressed a button and dropped the phone into her lap. 

“Are you a cop?” the man asked. “Are you here to save us?”

“I’m going to try,” Sam said. “I can’t get you out yet, though. I think the door’s blocked.”

Two shots peppered the air in quick succession and they all sucked in a breath.

Sam looked around the room. The only things in there even potentially useful for them were the desks. “Okay,” he said confidently. “Turn your phones off. I know you want to reassure people but you have to stay quiet. I heard you, which means the shooter might. Get under the desks. Don’t speak. Not even to each other. Stay here and stay silent. I will come back for you when I can.”

The man nodded and scrambled across the floor to hide under a desk. His belief in Sam seemed to give the women confidence. They moved across the room and slipped under desks, too.

“Stay,” Sam instructed one more time and then turned and left the room.

Back in the large hall of the building, Sam breathed a sigh of relief. There were at least some people still living, some people he could do something for to at least give them a chance of surviving.

He jogged back toward the door, passing the first woman he had tried to save. He knew before he even reached the door that it was too late, as there was no sound of people fighting to get out. It was eerily quiet.

He rounded the corner and saw why. There were a dozen people dead on the floor, Chris, who could have used his bulk to escape but had stayed to help, among them. Sam groaned. The door was closed now, and there was a heavy chain and padlock on the handle, cinched tight so it wouldn’t open even an inch. Sam guessed it was the same story at all the exits.

He heard footsteps then and he whirled around, his gun raised and his finger on the trigger. He was aware it could be someone trying to escape, or it could be the shooter. The steady pace of the person made him lean toward the shooter.

A man appeared around the corner and Sam lowered his gun. “Fletcher,” he breathed.

“Sam? Damn, what are you doing here?”

“I was waiting for you,” Sam said. “Heard the gunshots and got in before the place got locked down.”

 “Same,” Fletcher said. “I was running late, doing some last minute groundwork, when it all kicked off.”

“Have you seen the shooter?” Sam asked. “How many are there?”

“No idea. I haven’t seen anyone but the dead, injured and terrified.”

“Okay,” Sam said, an idea occurring to him. “Stay back,” he said, raising his gun and aiming at the padlock.

“You know you’re outing us as targets, right?” Fletcher asked.

“Saves me hunting them down,” Sam said.

He pulled the trigger, hitting the padlock square on the hinged strip by the handle. The metal twisted and broke, and Sam stepped forward. Protecting his fingers from the heated metal with the cuff of his jacket, he pulled it out of the chain and then began to uncoil it from the handles.

“There’s four people back along the corridor in an office,” Sam said. “Go find them. Get them out of here and the cops in.” There had to be cops out there by now. Sam hoped.

“On it,” Fletcher said.

Sam heard his footsteps running away and he turned to follow. And then the footsteps disappeared suddenly, too fast for them to be out of range, and there were three gunshots, a scream, and one more.

He thought he knew who and where, but he didn’t know why. He pelted along the hall and into the room he had told the occupants to hide under the desks. He knew he was too late. From under one of the desks there was an arm extended, perfectly still and spattered with blood.

Sam cursed quietly and then raised his voice. “Fletcher!”

There was an answering laugh. “Yes?” Sam spun on his heel and saw Fletcher standing behind him. Sam didn’t hesitate. He raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered Fletcher’s chest, slightly off center. Blood spurted from the wound, but Fletcher didn’t fall. He just smiled and blinked black eyes.

“You bastard!” Sam shouted.

Fletcher grinned and looked down. “We’re all dead now, Sam. You included.”

Sam’s hand came up but before he could do a thing to the demon, he was being thrown across the room, sliding over a desk and landing heavily against a wall. His gun dropped from his hand and skidded across the floor.

“I don’t think so,” Fletcher said. “Can’t have you doing that. Not until my job’s done.” He bent, picked up Sam’s gun, grinned wickedly, and disappeared. Sam was released from the wall, and he was in motion before he had even considered what he was going to do. His hands fumbled over the desk, searching for a weapon. He upended a pencil pot and sighed with relief as his fingers found the hilt of a letter opener. It wasn’t very sharp and it was certainly useless against a demon, but it was better than nothing.

He glanced down at the floor, at Emily’s blank looking face and empty eyes, and then left the room.

He ran back the way he had come, away from the shots towards what was hopefully still a means of escape. He was disappointed. There was a new padlock on the door and scrawled in blood on the wall was a message—a message for him. ‘Nice try, Sam.’

Crack. Crack. Crack. The shots were coming from far away now but still within the factory, Sam was sure. He ran toward the sound.

He got into the factory proper again and skidded to a stop as he saw a group of people on the floor just through the door. They were all bloodied so much he wasn’t sure where their injuries were. One was moaning loudly, and it was him Sam made for first. He knelt beside him and started searching for the wound, but before he could do more than lay hands on him, a blow to the back of his head knocked him to the side. His eyes blurred for a moment and he blinked rapidly as he felt himself being rolled onto his back. His vision cleared in time to see a man, one of the injured, lifting a leg to straddle him.

“What are you doing?” Sam gasped.

The man smiled and his eyes turned black. His fingers came to Sam’s throat and he started to squeeze. Sam rasped in a breath and the demon pressed down harder. Instinctively, losing air, Sam raised his hand and jabbed the letter opener in the demon’s throat. Blood spurted from the wound.

He realized his mistake a second too late. He clamped his mouth shut, but the blood was already in there. He swallowed reflexively as the demon grinned above him.

The power of the blood, the rightness and strength swept through him, and his body acted of its own accord. He fisted his hand at his side and the demon cried out in pain, falling sideway off of Sam.

Sam got to his feet, his fingers still curled in and his grip on the demon tight. Howls of pain rent the air, and Sam relished them. This was right. This was revenge. This was power.

Crack. Crack.

He was running out of time. For every moment he stayed, another person was at risk of dying. He drew a breath, bent over the howling demon, and drank.

xXx

Dean didn’t know how long he had been on the road, how long he had been waiting and praying, when the angel appeared in the car beside him.

“What took you so damn long?” he shouted.

“I was busy,” Castiel said.

“What can possibly be more important than this? Sam is trapped in there with a gun wielding madman.”

“He is trapped in there with a gun wielding demon.“ Castiel corrected “And what was more important than reassuring you was trying to find a way inside. The whole building has been warded against angels.”

Dean spat a curse. “Then what the hell do we do?”

“We have to wait for it to be over.”

“For Sam to die you mean?” Dean asked, his voice constricted.

“No, for Sam to get out on his own.” 

“How the hell is he supposed to do that?” Dean asked.

Castiel was silent for a moment and then he said, “By doing what you and your brother do best. By defying the odds.”

“You have to do better than that,” Dean said angrily. “Destroy the wards. Get him out. Save him.”

Castiel looked annoyed. “Do you not think we would if we could?”

xXx

The gunshots came thick and fast, always from a different direction. The demon was moving around with each attack. Sam didn’t follow them. He knew he would never find him like that. The demon would come back to him before the end, he was sure. Instead of tracing the shots, he tended to the wounded, dying and dead. He staunched bleeding, he closed empty eyes, and he held their hands as they slipped away.

He lost count of the number of people he helped, though their faces were burned into his mind. He thought they would haunt him for a long time to come if he survived.

He came across another body, a girl who couldn’t have even reached her twenties before she was killed. He bent to close her eyes when she suddenly sat up. “Hello, Sam.”

Sam straightened and clenched his fist. She didn’t react. She got smoothly to her feet and brushed her hands down her overalls. “What do you think of the meat suit?” she asked. “It’s not as cute as Rosie was, admitted, but she has a certain charm, doesn’t she?”

“Lilith!” Sam hissed.

“Yes. Clever Sammy.” She blinked and when her eyes opened, they were white.

Rage boiled through Sam. His veins seemed filled with fire, fire and power. He wanted to end her. It was more than a want; it was a need. He had to do this for himself, for Dean and Bobby, Ellen and Jo. For the world. He brought up a hand and search for her core.

It was there, stronger and more powerful than anything he had felt before, even Alastair. He clenched and she winced. Sam felt a rush of satisfaction for a second before she swept a lazy arm through the air and pinned him to the wall.

“You’re stronger,” she said. “But not strong enough.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Sam said through his teeth.

She looked at him indulgently, as if he was a misbehaving but beloved child. “Dear, Sammy. You have no idea what it would take to for you to succeed. Even if you did, you couldn’t do it. There was a time in which you could, but not now. You have been tamed by love for your brother.”

Sam shook his head and she laughed.

There was an explosion of gunshots, closer than before.

“I think we’re almost there,” Lilith said. “Only a few more to do. I think…” There were three more cracks and she nodded. “Yes, there we are. I think that’s it. Now, as much as I would love to stay and chat some more, there are things to do, seals to break. I’ll see you real soon, Sam.”

She disappeared and Sam fell away from the wall. He felt sick, defeated, furious at his weakness. He had been so sure he could do it this time. He had failed them all.

“Hello…” a voice called. “Sam, you there?” Fletcher appeared around the corner, a smug smile in place. Sam clenched his fist automatically, gripped the demon’s core. He didn’t do it to hurt this time. He wanted to save. He knew there was little hope. He had shot Fletcher too close to the heart for him to survive without a miracle, but he had to try. He yanked the demon up, out of Fletcher, and let it sink to the ground.

Fletcher kept his feet for a moment. He looked down at the gun in his hand and said in a choked voice, “Oh, God, what did you do?” A trickle of blood followed the words from his mouth.

Sam rushed forward and caught him as he toppled forward. He lowered him to the ground and held his head in his elbow. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“I was possessed?”

“I didn’t know.”

Fletcher nodded slowly, sighed out a breath and stilled.

Sam didn’t find out until later, but Fletcher was the sixty-seventh person to die that day. One more death than the seal demanded.

He eased Fletcher’s body to the floor and walked away. He didn’t stop until he had found staircase and a door to the roof. When he was out in the clean air, away from the blood and bodies, he raised his eyes and spoke to the sky. “It’s over now. I’m out.”

xXx

Sam was staring out at the water when Dean found him on the shore beside the Hudson River. Castiel had told him where to find him, where they had brought him.

He didn’t even slow as he ran at Sam and threw his arms around him. Sam froze for a moment, stiff, and then returned the embrace tentatively.

“I’m okay,” he said quietly.

He didn’t look okay. His hands were clean, but his clothes were caked in blood. Dean plucked at his sodden shirt, checking for injury beneath, and Sam stepped back. “Not even a scratch,” he said.

Dean sighed with relief, and then took in the rest of his brother. There might not have been a scratch, but there was damage. It was in his eyes and face. He had been through too much. He had seen too much.

“There are clothes in the car.”

Sam nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Come on,” Dean tugged on his arm.

Sam pulled back. “I need to talk to you first.”

“Of course,” Dean said. “You can talk to me about anything. You know that.”

Sam grimaced and then seemed to steel himself. “A lot happened today, Dean. Some I will never be able to talk about. But I have to talk about this because I owe you the truth.” He drew a breath. “I drank blood again. At first it was an accident. But then it was a mission. It wasn’t just desperation. It was a want. I chose to do it.”

Dean was aghast, but he kept his features smooth and controlled.

“I am not stopping this time,” Sam went on. “I can’t.”

Dean drew a sharp breath. “Why?”

“Because Lilith was there and I was practically powerless against her. I will continue to be powerless without the blood. She was right when she expelled the angels. I am no threat to her without it.”

“We’ll find another way,” Dean said desperately.

Sam shook his head. “There is no other way.” He sighed. “It’s not a discussion. I am not asking permission. I am telling you what I am doing because you’ve earned that. You have to know though, nothing is going to stop me now. I will find her. I will kill her. I will deal with whatever comes after the only way I know how.”

“And how’s that?” Dean asked.

“Alone. I won’t ask you to kill me. I realize now that was unforgivable.”

“No,” Dean said harshly. “You won’t be alone.”

“It’s better this way, Dean.”

“It’s not. We’ve come too far for you to break away now. I made a promise to save you, to help, and I am keeping it. If the blood is what you need, I’ll support you. When you face Lilith, I will be there. And when it’s over, I will save you.”

Sam’s expression didn’t change but Dean thought, or perhaps hoped, he saw something change in his eyes. There was a little less darkness there now.

Chapter Text

Sam came into the kitchen, dressed in his running clothes. “I’m just heading out for a run.”

“Stay away from crazy goddesses,” Dean joked.

Sam forced a laugh. It was fake and wrong, and not Sam, but it was an attempt so Dean smiled in return and tried to pretend he wasn’t worried Sam really would get trapped in a factory with a shooter or tied up in a basement by a goddess or teleported to an abandoned town where he would have to fight to the death to please a demon or…

A hand squeezed his shoulder. “I won’t be long, Dean.” Sam knew. Of course he knew. Dean wasn’t exactly doing a standup job of hiding his paranoia. Though, was it paranoia when there was history to back it up?

Dean nodded. “I’ll poke around while you’re gone. See if I can find something for us to get to work on.” By something he meant a demon, and by work he meant kill.

“Okay.”

The door opened, closed, and Dean let his head fall into his hands. It wasn’t the demons or the dead meat suits or even the blood. It was nightmares and Sam washing his hands too many times a day as if he could still feel the blood on them. It was what had happened in that factory and what it had done to him.

Dean knew only the vaguest details. Not much more than the rest of the hunting community knew. It had been a seal. Lilith had been involved. Fletcher had been in there, trying to save lives like Sam, but he’d been taken out by the shooter.  It was all Sam was prepared to say on the topic. Dean saw more though, in the clean hands, in the extra shot of whiskey before bed, and in the blood. What he had seen in that factory had driven him back to the blood.

The sounds of Ellen moving around in the bar ceased and Dean knew she had heard the door close. She would be there in a moment, wanting Dean to talk, and Dean would have to lie, to hide the most important point.

Dean got to his feet and went to the counter. He refilled his mug with coffee and poured a fresh one for Ellen. When she came into the room, her face set with determination, he held it out to her. She smiled and took it from him, the determination becoming fond amusement.

Dean sat down again and sipped at his coffee, waiting for it to start. 

“How is he?”

And there it was. “He’s fine. Gone for a run. Absolutely fine.”

“And the fact I heard you two awake and talking at three-am?”

Dean ducked his head.

“That’s absolutely fine, too? Not a nightmare then? Not for either of you?”

Dean grimaced. It had been them both. Sam flailing about and moaning had woken Dean from his own nightmare of standing by Sam’s funeral pyre. It had become a common dream for him since Sam had told him he was going back on the blood. When they had been standing by the river, Sam talking about why he had to do it, Dean’s thoughts had been about keeping him from getting in too deep, stopping him from becoming what it was that scared them both. He hadn’t considered until later that there might not be a chance to save him as he might already be dead. Samhain had almost killed him. When Dean raised the topic again, Sam dismissed his fears, saying it wouldn’t happen now that he was on the blood. Neither of them knew though. They couldn’t be sure.

He didn’t know what Sam had dreamed about.

“It was just a nightmare, Ellen. Dreams can’t hurt you.”

“You of all people know that’s not true. Dreams can hurt plenty.”

That was the damn truth. Dreams were cruel. They were twisting both Sam and Dean’s nights into something dark and fearful. He didn’t want to talk about it though. He wanted Ellen to let them both get through it on their own. She was family, they both loved her, but there were things she didn’t need to know.

He needed a distraction, anything to make her drop the subject. For once, fate was working in Dean’s favor. There was a rustle and Castiel and Uriel appeared on the other side of the room.

“Where is Sam?” Castiel asked without preamble.

“Running. Why?” Dean asked suspiciously.

Castiel nodded and Uriel disappeared. He was gone for a moment, long enough for Dean to ask, “What’s going on?” There was no answer as the next moment Uriel was back, with Sam standing at his side, red-faced and panting.

“What the fuck?” Sam asked angrily.

“We have need of you.” Uriel said.

“What for?” Ellen asked.

The angels disregarded her as if she wasn’t even there. Their attention was fixed on Sam. “Angels are dying,” Castiel said stiffly.

Sam raised an eyebrow. “And yet you two are still here. Good for you.”

Uriel’s expression darkened. “Our brothers and sisters are being killed. Show some respect.”

Sam ignored him and addressed Castiel. “Is there a reason you’re telling us this?”

“We need your help.”

“With?”

“Alastair,” Uriel said simply.

There was a beat of silence. A moment to try to make sense of what they were saying, and then they were gone, Sam with them.

Ellen’s head swiveled comically, eyes searching the room, but she and Dean were alone.

xXx

Sam peered through the window in the spacious room. Alastair was upright and bound to a pentagram in the middle of an intricate devil’s trap.

“That trap is Enochian,” Castiel said behind him. “He cannot escape.”

“Good. Now, what exactly do you want from me? I get the feeling you didn’t just drag me here for show and tell.”

“Lilith and her demons are killing angels,” Uriel started.

“I’ll make plans to give a shit about that some other time,” Sam said brutally.

Uriel scowled at him. “We need to know how.”

“You’re not the only one,” Sam taunted. “Knowledge like that would come in handy.”

Uriel grabbed the collar of his t-shirt and shoved him against the wall. “We have been nothing but good to you and your brother. We saved him from Hell. I healed you after you destroyed yourself attacking Samhain.”

“Didn’t you get my thank-you card? I must have forgotten to mail it.”

Uriel shook him roughly and Sam‘s head bounced off the wall.

“Uriel!” Castiel snapped.

Uriel closed his eyes, took a breath, and seemed to summon patience. When he opened his eyes again they were cool and calculating instead of angry. He released Sam and patted his chest hard but not so hard it looked like an attack.

“Sam,” Castiel said, and his tone was consoling, gentle, “We need you.”

“You still haven’t told me exactly what is it you need,” Sam pointed out.

“We want you to get the information from him,” Uriel said.  “You are the most motivated to hurt him, and you have proved very capable in the past.”

“You want me to torture him?”

“I know you don’t want to,” Castiel said, “but we have no other option. ”

Sam laughed. “That’s where you’re wrong. I really want to do this.”

This was the most wonderful gift. Sam had hated the demon from the moment he met him, a feeling that increased exponentially when he learned what had happened to Dean. Now the angels, the angels, were giving him free rein to hurt him. It was incredible. Sam was going to enjoy every moment of it. Alastair deserved it. There was one problem though. It had been a while since he last drank, and he didn’t have the juice to really let loose until he had some, unless he wanted a blinding and possibly brain-damaging headache.

“Okay,” he said confidently. “I need to make a phone call and then I’ll be good to go.”

“A phone call?” Castiel asked.

Sam nodded. “Yes. You zapped me out of The Roadhouse, leaving Dean without an explanation. I’m pretty sure he’s losing his shit right now. And I need the knife. It’s at the Roadhouse, under my pillow.” That sounded feasible. Honest even. Castiel looked reassured. Uriel did not. Uriel could suck it.

“Would you like me to bring him here?” Castiel offered.

“No,” Sam said quickly. “He doesn’t need to be near that thing again.” He thumbed at the door.

“I will speak to him in person,” Castiel said. “I can retrieve the knife too.” He nodded to Uriel and disappeared.

There was a beat of silence in which Uriel and Sam just stared at each other, sizing the other up and then Uriel smiled slightly and said, “You do realize you don’t need the abomination Ruby for the blood, don’t you? We have a very powerful demon in that room.”  

“No,” Sam said harshly. “I will take nothing of him into myself. I will make this work, Uriel, but I will do it my way. She will come with what I need. You will not smite. Are we clear?”

“You think you can order me to do anything?”

“I know I can. You need me, not the other way around.”

Uriel narrowed his eyes. “Tell the demon she’ll find us in zip code 50501. South of the river.” He smiled grimly. “She can follow the screams. “

Sam smiled. “She can and will.”

“I shall leave you to work. There are… tools… in there that you can use in the interim.”

“Great,” Sam said enthusiastically.

He waited until Uriel had turned and walked away before he pulled out his phone and sent off a quick text message. He knew Ruby would come fast. She would understand his need from the last two lines of his message: I have Alastair. I need a drink.

xXx

“Where’s he gone?” Ellen asked, demanding an answer, like Dean had one to give.

“I don’t know,” Dean said emphatically. “I saw as much as you did.”

“But what do they want him for?”

That Dean had an idea of. Their form of information gathering from Alastair hadn’t worked. Sam had a unique ability to hurt a demon that no one else did. He would be the perfect tool to extract the information, and the angels wouldn’t care what it would do to him to get it.

“Castiel!” he shouted. “Come on, man. We need to talk.”

There was no answering voice, no flutter of sound. Just Dean and Ellen alone in the kitchen.

Dean cursed.

“Think, Dean,” Ellen said harshly. “You know the angels better than me. Where would they take him?”

Dean tried. He tried to imagine any place the angels would want to be outside of Heaven. He could think of nowhere. When he had met with them before, it had always been somewhere different.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It could be anywhere. They could have—“ He cut off abruptly as he heard a sound in the hall. He made for the door in time to see Castiel coming out of the bedroom he and Sam shared. He was holding the demon knife in his hand. 

“Hello, Dean,” he said simply, as if he hadn’t just basically kidnapped his brother, as if this was a prearranged meeting to discuss something banal.

“Where’s Sam?” he asked at once.

“I cannot tell you,” Castiel said. “He does not want you to know.”

Ellen scoffed. “You can try all you like, but we all know that’s not true.”

“It is true,” Castiel insisted. “I know because I heard the words from his own mouth.”

Dean’s teeth clicked together as his mouth snapped shut. Sam didn’t want him there? That meant it was bad. He was tapping into it deep and he didn’t want Dean to see.

“Why would he say that?” Ellen asked, addressing Dean and not the angel.

Dean shrugged and lied when he said, “No idea.”

“I need to return to them,” Castiel said. “I may be needed.”

He left without another word and Dean took a second to gather his thoughts before carrying on down the hall and hammering a hand on the door to the third bedroom. “Ash! Open up!”

Castiel wouldn’t tell him. Sam didn’t want him there. He would find another way to get to his brother.

xXx

“Sammy Winchester,” Alastair said gleefully. “What can I do for you today?”

Sam grinned as he wheeled the trolley of tools toward him. He pulled the cloth away and revealed everything he could want for the task at hand: pliers, syringes, holy water, salt, knives, a hammer, a dozen other things. In his pocket was the demon knife Castiel had retrieved for him. “You can scream really loud,” he said.

Alastair laughed. “You think you can hurt me? You? There is nothing in you for me to fear. You don’t have the stones to do the job. You’re an amateur.”

“Perhaps,” Sam said calmly. “Still, I like to learn new skills. You can help me with that.”

“It’d be a pleasure. I always enjoy educating the young. Your brother knows that.”

Sam tamped down every emotion but his hatred and picked up the flask of holy water. He stepped forward slowly, making the movements a threat in and of themselves, and splashed the water over Alastair’s face. His skin sizzled and smoked, but he didn’t make a sound. He just smiled and shook his head, sending droplets back at Sam.

“Refreshing,” he said. “I enjoyed that.”

“You want refreshment?” Sam asked. “I should have offered you a drink.” He gripped Alastair’s chin and forced it down. He upended the flask of holy water into Alastair’s open mouth, and smiled, satisfied, as Alastair retched and gagged as smoke poured from his mouth.

“That’s more like it,” Sam said. “Now, what next?” He turned back to the trolley and selected a can of rock salt.

Alastair allowed no emotion to change his expression, but Sam thought his eyes revealed a flicker of unease. It wasn’t much, not even fear, just a trace of something, but it was a start.

xXx

Dean was powering along the I-80 when he saw her standing on the side of the road. For a moment he teetered on the verge of carrying on without her, but he thought she might actually be a good ally in this. He flipped on his blinker and pulled over. She came to the car and climbed in the passenger seat—the seat he’d left vacant by literally driving away from Ellen before she could get in.

“You know what’s happening,” he stated. What other reason would she have for standing beside the road, waiting for him?

“The angels have Sam torturing the shit out of Alastair? Yeah, I’m aware.”

“How?” Dean asked.

“How do you think?” she asked. “I’ve been on a milk run for Sam. Got a text teasing me with Alastair and announcing he was thirsty. I did my bit. Got him the go juice he needed.”

Dean nodded. He knew it already, of course, but hearing it stated so calmly, idly, seemed wrong to him. It wasn’t ‘go juice’, it was blood. It was Sam tapping into his powers to torture someone. Admittedly, it was Alastair, a demon that Dean would like to see hurting, but it was Sam doing it, not him. That was different.

“He’s in Fort Dodge,” she said.

“I know. Ash tracked him for me. I’ve tried calling, but he’s not answering.”

“Of course not. He’s a little preoccupied.”

“How’s he looking?” he asked.

“Like he’s having fun. I’m guessing he’s been waiting a while for a chance to do this. He looked like the man I spent months with, providing the fuel he needed.” She considered for a moment, as if weighing up how much he needed to know. She didn’t go on.

xXx

Alastair’s howl of pain was music to Sam’s ears. None of the tools he’d used had done this for him. Alastair had borne them all as stoically as he was capable of. Not now. Now, with Sam’s hand and power squeezing the core of his essence, he couldn’t hide the pain. It was so good. Sam felt no regret or conflict at what he was doing. This was right. It was justice. Most of all, it was easy. Sure, his head ached and his nose trickled a little blood, but it was nothing in the face of his happiness. He allowed no sign of his glee to reach his face though. He looked blank as he worked.

“Who is killing the angels?” he asked, easing off on the pressure for a moment so Alastair could talk.

“I will never tell you.”

“You will,” Sam said confidently.

“You think you can break me?” Alastair asked, a hiss of laughter breaking from him.

“Sounds like you’re well on your way to breaking to me,” Sam said.

“You know nothing of the art of torture. You can hurt me, but it takes more than that to break a person. I should know. I have broken so many, your brother included.”

Sam clenched his fist tightly and Alastair cried out.

xXx

“Easy, Dean,” Ruby said as Dean slammed the car to a stop and threw open his door.

He turned to look at her incredulously. “Easy? Can you hear that?”

The howls of pain were slightly muffled by the walls of the warehouse, but they were still audible.

“I hear it just fine,” she replied. “But it’s not Sam making those sounds. It’s Alastair.”

Truth was, the sounds of pain scared him. Sam was doing that. He had seen him exorcise before and it had been intense, the proof of the power Sam held, but this… this was different. This was torture. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He’d known when he got back from Hell, when he realized what he had suffered and done there was real, that he never wanted Sam to know even a taste of that world. Sam had fallen into it anyway.

The howls only got louder as he entered the warehouse. Uriel and Castiel were standing by a door with a small window, neither looking through it, just standing there. They showed no shock when Dean burst in.

“I wondered when you would find us,” Uriel said mildly.

Dean didn’t answer him. He walked past them and peered through the window to the room. Sam had his back to him. His hand was raised and aimed at Alastair who was shackled to an upright rack in a trap more intricate than Dean had ever seen before. Alastair’s head was thrown back and his bloodied mouth was agape. There was a trolley in the room, with tools coated in blood. Sam had been busy.

Dean had dreamed of this, having the chance to hurt Alastair, but it had always been him doing it, not Sam. He shook his head, trying to make sense of his thoughts.

“It is impressive, isn’t it?” Uriel said.

Dean turned back to him. “That is my brother in there.”

“Are you sure?” Uriel leered at him. “Is it still him even when he is doing this?”

“It is always him,” Dean said doggedly.  

xXx

Sam turned away from the demon and closed his eyes. He hadn’t expected it to be easy to get the information he needed, but he had thought after this long, however long it had been, he would have something from him. He wasn’t sure exactly how long it had been, but it had been long enough for him to start to doubt himself.

He needed a break from the smugness, the satisfaction, the defiant words that poured from the demon every time he stopped to take a breath.

“Leaving already?” Alastair asked as Sam’s hand fell on the door handle. “And I was just starting to enjoy myself.”

“Bathroom break,” Sam said idly.

“Of course it is. Not you slipping off for a little meltdown at all.”

Sam stared over his shoulder and said, “I don’t break that easily either.

He pulled open the door, completely caught off guard when he saw Dean standing on the other side. He was so taken up with the sight of his brother that he didn’t notice the soft plunks of water that fell from the pipe above the devil’s trap.

xXx

Dean saw Sam’s shock as he caught sight of him, and he tried to hide his own. Sam looked awful. His eyes were ringed with shadows and there were traces of blood on his upper lip. More than that was the expression of defeat he wore. He quickly masked it with anger, but Dean had seen it.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, then he rounded on Castiel. “I told you I didn’t want him to come!”

“I didn’t bring him,” Castiel said.

“Ash?” Sam asked and Dean nodded. “Damn.”

Dean disregarded the sense that he should not approach while Sam was in this mindset, the knowledge he wasn’t wanted there. He stepped forward and dragged Sam into a hug. Sam bore it stiffly for a moment, his hands at his sides, and then he brought them up to return the embrace. When Dean released him and leaned back to get a good look at him, Sam forced a smile.

“I’m fine.”

Dean nodded. “I know.”

Sam turned to Uriel. “He’s not talking. I am doing my damnedest, but he’s strong.”

“Keep trying,” Uriel said.  

“I will,” Sam said solemnly. “But it might not work.”

“Our brothers and sisters are dying,” Uriel said.

Sam shrugged and a wry smile crept across his lips. “I am aware. That’s your problem. I just want to break him.”

xXx

“You know I owe a lot to your family,” Alastair said as Sam entered the room again.

“Yeah?” Sam asked. “What’s that?”

“The apocalypse,” he said conversationally. “Well, when I say family, I mean your brother. You played your part of course, killing yourself and forcing Dean to make that deal, but it comes down to him in the end.” His voice became rapturous. “And it is written that the first seal shall be broken when a righteous man sheds blood in hell. As he breaks, so shall it break.
We had to break the first seal before any others. Only way to get the dominoes to fall, right? Topple the one at the front of the line.”

“What’s that got to do with Dean?” Sam asked, though his mind was already working it out.

“He is the Righteous Man. When we win, when we bring on the apocalypse and burn this earth down, we'll owe it all to Dean Winchester.”

Sam turned away, his face falling into a rictus of pain. It was Dean. Dean had started it. He couldn’t have known; he could never know. No one should have to live with the guilt of that hanging over him. Sam would never let him find out the truth.

He drew a breath and asked for what felt like the hundredth time, “Who is killing the angels?” as he turned.

His stomach rolled and his heart clenched. The trap was empty. Alastair was gone, the shackles hung loose at the edges of the hexagram.

Breath whispered on the back of his neck and he spun to see Alastair standing directly behind him. The demon moved in closer, as if to whisper in Sam’s ear. Sam pulled back quickly.

“The only thing that can kill an angel,” Alastair said in a whisper, “is another angel.”

Not even processing what he was saying, not thinking about what he was doing, Sam quickly brought up his arm and grabbed at the black smoke that was the demon’s core. He pinned Alastair in place, smiling, and started to squeeze. It was harder than Samhain, but not impossible. He felt the pressure build, and Alastair’s eyes widened. Dean’s voice came from far away, an echo of sound behind the pounding of Sam’s own pulse in his ears.

“You can’t do it,” Alastair said in a choked voice.

“Fuck you,” Sam said, enunciating the words carefully as his fingers clenched harder and the smoke, the essence, died. Alastair’s meat suit dropped to the floor, sparking with light just as Yellow Eyes’ had.

The demon was dead.

Sam bent over, panting and exhausted. Voices rushed in his ears and there was a hand on his back that he was sure was Dean’s, but for a minute he couldn’t respond. He was overwhelmed by what had just happened. The triumph was high in him.

Hands gripped his shoulders and pulled him upright.

“Are you okay?” Dean asked. The strain in his voice made Sam sure it wasn’t the first time he had asked the question.

“I’m fine.” He looked past Dean into Castiel’s eyes, seeing the shock dawning as he said, “The only thing that can kill an angel is another angel.”

xXx

“Are you sure about this?” Dean asked.

“Not remotely,” Sam admitted in a tired voice. “But if I’m wrong, there’s no damage done.”

“Sam, there are probably hundreds of angels, thousands, why does it have to be one of them?”

“Because I don’t trust either of them,” he said doggedly. “I just have a feeling. We have to check.”

“They might not even be there.”

“They will be.” That was something Sam was sure of. He didn’t know why, but he knew they would still be in the warehouse.

He pushed down harder on the accelerator, coaxing a little more speed from the engine. The warehouse was in sight, and he fought the urge to get out and run. He was too weak, exhausted from the strain of killing Alastair.  It had been an hour since they left the warehouse, and they had been on their way back to The Roadhouse when Sam had done a U-turn and directed them back the way they had come.

Alastair had said only an angel could kill another angel. Uriel seemed the most upset about it. Too upset. He and Castiel had never shown any affection for each other, despite the fact they were supposed to be part of the same heavenly family. They had been bound on course to kill Anna and she had been one of them once. Uriel had slipped up and revealed too much. He was lying about something. Sam started to suspect it was him doing the killing.

They skidded to a halt and he and Dean threw themselves out of the car and through the warehouse door.

As soon as he heard the sounds of fighting coming from the room he had killed Alastair in, he knew he was right. He yanked open the door and saw Uriel and Castiel locked in combat. Uriel was punching Castiel, and Castiel was wavering on his feet.

“You cannot win, Uriel,” Castiel panted. “I still serve God.”

“You haven't even met the man,” Uriel said, landing a blow on Castiel that sent him skidding across the room. A long, silver sword fell to the floor and Castiel’s eyes widened with horror.

“There is no will. No wrath. No God,” Uriel said with satisfaction as Sam ran toward the blade. He was too weak though, too tired and Dean beat him to it. As Uriel bore down on Castiel, another sword in his hand, Dean ran behind him, the sword in his hand.

“Dean!” Sam shouted, not sure if it was encouragement or warning. He had no idea what would happen to Dean if he stabbed the angel.

Dean thrust the sword through the back of Uriel’s neck, forcing it up and through until it came out of his gaping mouth. Light poured from the angel’s eyes and mouth before he fell to the ground, the faint image of wings visible on either side of him.

Sam rushed toward his brother, scared of what would happen to him, but Dean kept his feet, looking stunned at what he had done. Sam patted his face, checked him for a sign of injury or pain, but there was none.

“I’m fine,” Dean said, and grinned.

Sam breathed a sigh of relief and turned to Castiel. “I guess Alastair lied. It’s not only angels that can kill other angels. Winchesters can, too.”

Dean held out a hand to Castiel to help the angel to his feet. Castiel rose up and stared at Dean, awestruck. “You killed him.”

“He saved your life,” Sam corrected.

Castiel nodded. “He did. Thank you, Dean.”

Dean smiled slightly. “It’s what we do.”

Chapter Text

Something was wrong with Dean. Ever since he’d killed Uriel, he seemed on edge all the time. It was almost as if he was expecting God to strike him down with a lightning bolt at any minute. Sam had pointed out that Uriel was such a dick God was probably celebrating his death up in the clouds. Castiel had reassured him, too. He said there would be no retribution from Heaven as, by killing Uriel and saving Castiel’s and many other angels’ lives, he had done them a great service.

Dean didn’t seem to believe them. He stayed tense and his nightmares increased exponentially. There was never a night now that Sam wasn’t woken by his brother’s tossing and turning even when his own nightmares of the factory gave him a short reprieve. 

But he knew, knew in his gut because he knew his brother, that when he woke one morning to see Dean sitting on the edge of the opposite bed with tears streaming down his face that it wasn’t Uriel’s death that had upset him.

Something else had happened and Sam hadn’t been able to protect him from it.

xXx

Dean woke with a start. For once it hadn’t been a nightmare that woke him. It was something else. His eyes snapped to Sam, his mind rolling back through the months to the morning he found Sam bloodied and barely alive in the bed beside his. Sam was fine though. He was lying on his back, his breaths easy and his color good. He was fine. So why had he woken?

He got out of bed and made for the door, thinking one of the others must be up and moving around. A part of him knew, though, that this wasn’t normal, and if he had forced himself to think, he would have expected the person that was waiting for him in the bar. It wasn’t the first time it had happened after all.

“Hello, Dean,” the Trickster said as he entered. He was sitting on the bar, swinging his legs, his heels tapping the dark wood.

“What are you doing here?”

The Trickster grinned. “There’s something I need to show you.”

Dean turned away from him. “No thank you. Not interested.”

“Aw, Dean, don’t be like that. We had so much fun last time.”

“You pretending to be my father and showing me all the awful things that would have happened if I wasn’t dumped by him was not fun. It was crap.”

The Trickster put a hand to his heart. “That hurts me. It really does. It’s not every day I bust out my coolest tricks, and you didn’t even appreciate them.” 

“Interesting choice of words with Tricks,” Dean said. “I met someone else like you a while ago, but he didn’t call himself a Trickster.”

He looked amused. “Oh really? What did he call himself?”

“An angel. So, which are you? Trickster or angel?”

“Why can’t I be both?”

Dean nodded. “Angel. I thought so.”

“Yes. I am angel. But before you get ideas about shivving me like you did Uriel, take note of this. I am not any ordinary angel.”

Dean frowned. “What does that mean?”

The Trickster smiled and said in an overly formal voice, “I’m sorry, Dean, that’s all the time we have left for questions. Now we should get going. So much to see.”

Dean didn’t want to do this. He wanted to go back to bed and sleep and have the nightmares he was familiar with, not the nightmare the Trickster was sure to show him. It wasn’t like he had a choice in the matter though. He sighed. “Fine. Let’s get it over with.”

The Trickster clapped his hands and slid down from the bar. “Okay. Awesome. Let’s get this party started.”

Dean closed his eyes and braced himself. This was going to suck.

xXx

They were outside The Roadhouse. The Impala was parked in front and the door was open, revealing Ellen and, in the light spilling out, John Winchester. Ellen looked younger by a while.

“When are we?”

“May, ’95,” the Trickster said happily. “About two days after you went to the school dance.”

Two days after he’d been abandoned. John and Ellen were talking, but Dean’s attention was on the boy who almost fell out of the car.

"Sammy, I told you to stay in there," John said in a defeated tone, turning to face his son.

"I wanted to see Dean," Sam said in a small voice. He sounded awful, almost as defeated as his father. 

Dean’s heart clenched and he turned to the Trickster. “Is this real, is this what actually happened, or just your approximation of it?”

“Oh, no. This is what actually happened, right down to the last detail.”

"I told you," John said. "Dean's not coming back."

Tears began to spill down Sam’s cheeks. There was no sound, he didn’t sob or gasp; he just cried. He wasn’t crying for comfort. He was crying because it was all he could do. 

Ellen pushed past John without a second glance and knelt in front of Sam. "Honey, what's happened?"

Sam wiped his face with the sleeve of his worn shirt. "I want Dean."

When Ellen opened her arms, Sam fell into them. His hands held the collar of her shirt and he hid his face in the crook of her neck, those silent tears still slipping from him. 

Ellen lifted him into her arms and walked inside. Dean followed her, not caring whether the Trickster came or not. Sam was drawing him like there was a thread between them, connecting them.

She carried him into her bedroom and lay Sam on the bed. He rolled onto his side and curled himself into a ball.

"Okay, honey, I need to talk to your dad,” Ellen said gently. “Will you be okay in here?"

Sam didn’t answer aloud, but he nodded. She ran a hand through his hair and then bent and kissed his forehead.

She turned and left the room, leaving Sam and Dean alone. Dean didn’t think he had ever seen a more devastated child than his brother on the bed. He was just… ruined. He’d known it must have been hard for Sam after he was gone, but this was beyond his nightmares. Sam was hurting so much, and Dean couldn’t do a thing to help him. He wasn’t really there.

He would stay though. He would watch over his brother until the Trickster dragged him away, even if it broke his heart.

xXx

It was a motel room, one of the hundreds Sam must have stayed in over the course of his life.

Dean didn’t think much time had passed since they’d arrived at The Roadhouse and Ellen had taken Sam into her arms like the mother Dean remembered but Sam never could. John was sitting at the small table under the window, a half empty bottle of whiskey in front of him. As Dean watched, his father took a swig straight from the bottle. His eyes were red and sad.

Sam was lying on one of the beds. He wasn’t sleeping, though the sky outside was inky black. He was watching his father, no surprise in his face which made Dean think this wasn’t the first time he had met this sight.

Sam slid from the bed and padded barefoot over to his father, his face set with sadness and what Dean thought was a sliver of fear.

“Dad,” he said quietly.

John started, as if he hadn’t realized Sam was awake until he had spoken. “Yeah, Sammy?” he said.

“Where’s Dean?”

John sighed heavily and straightened with what looked like a lot of effort. “Dean’s got a better life now. A life he wants. He’s okay. He’s doing well. But he’s not coming back to us, Sammy. It’s just me and you now.” There was no mistaking the sadness in him. He was wrecked.

Sam wrapped his arms around his father and he rested his head on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Dad,” he said. “I’m here.”

Dean had known things had been hard for Sam when he was gone, but he hadn’t considered what it had been like for his father. This more that any explanation or pretence from the Trickster made him see that John really had been trying to do the right thing for Dean when he’d left him behind. If not for Sam and what had happened to him, Dean would have almost been grateful for his sacrifice.

xXx

Sam still looked young and he looked happier than Dean had any right to hope for given the last scene he had witnessed. 

He was in the bar of The Roadhouse with Ellen. She was filling the shelves with bottles of beer and mixers. In his hand was a length of what looked like a cut down broom handle wrapped in black insulation tape. He was pointing it around the room, jabbing it at random table and chairs, looking concentrated, as if expecting something to actually happen.

Dean knew at once that this was his wizard phase. It was almost as endearing to watch as the space suit thing had been.

Ellen finished with the bottles and she straightened and leaned over the bar, watching him fondly as he played. Dean absorbed it, the proof that things hadn’t all been bad without him in Sam’s life.

There were footsteps in the hall then and a moment later, Jo skipped into the room. Her hair was pulled into a neat braid but there was a smudge of dirt on the shoulder of her white t-shirt and cheek.

“Joanna Beth, where have you been and what happen to you?”

Jo looked at Sam accusingly. “Under the table. We were supposed to be playing hide and go seek, but Sam didn’t come.”

“Sam?” Ellen asked, fighting a smile while attempting to sound stern.

Sam slapped his wandless hand to his forehead. “Oh. I forgot we were playing.”

“Sure you did,” Ellen said fondly. “You know, you could let Jo play with you now. I could make you costumes to wear and everything.”

“Yeah,” Jo said excitedly. “You can make me something sparkly, Mom, and I can be Sam’s helper.”

Sam looked at Ellen and hesitated for a moment before saying, “Thank you, but real wizards don’t wear capes.” He glanced at Jo. “And they don’t have assistants.”

Jo pouted and turned and stomped from the room, muttering about boys.

Dean watched her go and he smiled. This was the kind of childhood he’d always wanted for Sam, the one he deserved. He was relieved that Sam had at least a little of that life.

xXx

It was a classroom. Sam stood in front of a desk, facing a man leaning back in his chair, looking completely at ease.

“Do you want to go in the family business, Sam?” he asked.

Sam looked stunned. “No one's ever asked me that before.”

Dean felt a pang of hurt. Sam had never been asked. It was one of the basic questions you asked children at all ages: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Dean didn’t think even he had asked the question when Sam had been very young. It had always been a done deal that Sam would be a hunter. It had been the same for Dean. He hadn’t minded. What job could possibly be better than saving lives? But Sam… he should have been asked. 

“Well?” the teacher probed.

Sam drew a breath. His eyes were sad but his voice impassioned. “More than anything, no.”

Dean closed his eyes. Ellen had told him he once wanted college and a life outside of the hunt, but to see the proof of it when he was already deep in the life was so wrong. Sam never had a chance. At this age he had already dealt with vengeful spirits, sent souls into the unknown, and it wouldn’t be long before he shed blood properly. He had been bound to hunt since he was a child, a baby even, and because Dean hadn’t been there to support him, he hadn’t had a chance of doing anything else. If he had been there, he would have helped Sam. He would have taken Sam’s place at John’s side as a hunter. Sam would have been free to go to college. 

“Well... I don't want to overstep my bounds here, but you don't have to do anything you don't want to do,” the teacher said. “Look, I mean, I know what it's like. I come from a family of surgeons, and that wasn't me. So, you know, I traded in the money and prestige of being a doctor for all the glamour you see around you. But the point is... there may be three or four big choices that shape someone's whole life, and you need to be the one that makes them, not anyone else. You seem like a great kid, Sam. Just live the life you want to live.”

Dean felt that he could cry at the look on Sam’s face. He believed. He was reassured. Perhaps in that moment he could see a life outside of what his father wanted for him. He could have been a lawyer. He could have helped the world in a different way.

He turned to the Trickster. “I don’t to see any more.”

“I know. Not much more now though.”

Dean closed his eyes and willed himself not to show his heartbreak.

xXx

Sam was sitting on a brown couch, with a can of beer in his hand, beside a young girl with long blonde hair pulled back from her face. His cheeks were a little flushed and his eyes bright. He looked nervous. He had to be fifteen, maybe sixteen, approaching the rush of manhood development.

“Okay, but be honest – I mean, moving all the time sucks,” Sam said. “You're always the new kid, and everyone always thinks you're a freak.”

“Sam, you are a freak,” she said, and Dean saw some of the brightness fade from Sam’s eyes. “But so was, I don't know, Jimi Hendrix and Picasso. So am I. All the coolest people are freaks.”

Sam grinned and leaned forward slightly. Dean, who knew him so well, could see his nerves, but the girl seemed to miss it. She leaned forward, too, and their lips met in a kiss. Sam’s cheeks reddened and they both pulled apart at the same moment.

Dean thought he knew who the girl was and how it ended. “She’s the Kitsune kid, right?” he asked.

The Trickster nodded. “Amy. Sweet girl. Living a good, clean life now, working in a morgue. You might want to mention that to Sam later. I’m sure he’ll be pleased, even if he doesn’t you know… show it.”

Dean nodded. He would. Sam needed something good about his childhood as a hunter to hold on to.

“You know what happens next, right?” the Trickster asked.

“The girl kills her mom to save Sam.”

“Yep. She was the heroine for the story for a change. Sam was the damsel in distress.”

“But Sam never saw her again.”

“Not yet anyway,” the Trickster said. “There may be time. Who knows? It all depends on you.”

“How?” Dean asked.

“Not yet, Dean. We’ll get there though. Be patient a little longer.”

xXx

John was thrown back against the wall of the crypt, and Dean heard the sickening thud as his head made contact with the stone.

“Dad!” Sam shouted.

“I’m fine,” John said weakly. “Shoot already.”

The creature, it had to be the ghoul Sam had told Dean about, came at Sam, and he raised the shotgun.

“Shoot!” John said, sounding a little stronger now and struggling to his feet.

Sam’s face set with determination and he pulled the trigger. The ghoul’s head was destroyed by the shot and its body crashed backwards on the stone floor. Sam watched it fall, seeming mesmerized. 

“Sam, Sammy, you okay?” John asked, spinning him by the shoulders and looking him up and down.

Sam nodded. “I’m fine.”

John sighed with relief and pulled Sam against his chest for a moment then pushed him back and ruffled his hair. “Nice work, son. A Kitsune and a ghoul already. You’re turning into a helluva a hunter.”

Sam smiled, a forced a bitter thing Dean was familiar with, but his father seemed to miss the pretence.

John toed the corpse of the ghoul and said, “We’ll have to take care of this. You good for a burial duty?”

“Sure.”

Sam gripped the ghoul’s legs and hefted them up. With the body swinging between them, Sam and John backed out of the crypt, leaving Dean and the Trickster alone.

“More than anything, no.” Dean said quietly as he recalled Sam’s conversation with his teacher. Sam had been so certain but he was already a hunter. It was too late.

xXx

Sam had to be around eighteen. He was in the kitchen of The Roadhouse, sipping a mug of coffee and sorting through the mail. He came to a large, thick envelope, and he set his mug down with shaking fingers. He took a breath, closed his eyes, whispered something Dean couldn’t hear, and slid his finger under the flap. He hesitated for another moment before taking out a sheaf of paper. He looked down the first sheet read aloud. “Dear Mr. Winchester. I take great pleasure in offering you a place at Stanford University…” He paled and the letter dropped from his fingers on to the floor.

For a moment he looked stunned, unable to process, and then he snatched up the letter again and read it through, his smiled growing wider with every second that passed until he looked almost demented.

“Ellen!” he shouted, running through the hall and into the bar with Dean hot on his heels.

Ellen met him at the end of the bar with a cloth in her hands, looking worried. “What’s wrong?”

“I did it!” he shouted. “Stanford, Ellen, can you believe it? I got a scholarship and everything. It’s really happening. I’m going!”

Ellen’s face transported with joy. “Oh, Sam. I’m so proud of you.”

“I can’t believe it,” Sam said. “Stanford!”

Ellen threw her arms around him and hugged him tight, a tear trailing down her cheek to damp his shirt. “I knew you could do it.”

“I’m getting out,” Sam said. “I’m going to be a lawyer. It’s really happening.”

She pulled back and cupped his cheek with a hand. “You are. And you’re going to be amazing.”

Dean felt the tears welling in his eyes and he blinked then swiped them away with the back of his hand. He had only seen Sam this happy once, and that had been when he realized Dean was out of Hell. Even then his reaction hadn’t been this free and joyful. His life had beaten that freedom from him.

“It never happened,” he said miserably. Sam’s wonderful future had never happened because he had dedicated it to saving others instead. He had given his hopes and dreams up to protect other people’s.

“Nope,” the Trickster said idly. “A few hours after this scene your father returned with news about the demon and Sam tore his letter up. Helluva day for him. Poor kid.”

Dean shook his head. “It’s so unfair.”

The Trickster clucked his tongue. “You know better than most that life’s not fair. Why should Sam’s be different?” Just because you love him, it doesn’t protect him from reality.”

“Are we done now?” Dean asked. “I can’t bear anymore.”

“Yes, we’re done.”

xXx

When they got back to The Roadhouse for the last time, Dean collapsed into a chair and buried his face in his hands. “That was painful, awful,” he moaned.

The Trickster threw himself into the opposite chair. “Yep, I imagine it was.”

Dean raised his head to glower at him. “What was the point this time? In case you forgot, I already got the message that I am an epic failure as far as Sam is concerned last time.”

“Geez, for someone with your knowledge of the world and human minds, you are really dumb.”

“Screw you,” Dean said angrily.

The Trickster rolled his eyes. “You really are turning into your brother, aren’t you?”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. I see it as something great.”

The Trickster shrugged. “He has his good points, I agree. It’s those that we need to talk about. I did this, put you through that, for a reason. It wasn’t just to show you the crappy parts of Sam’s life without you. It was to show you that part of him.

Dean frowned. “I already know my brother. I know what he gave up.”

“But do you know what he needs?”

“He needs me,” Dean said doggedly.

“Yes!” he said emphatically. “He does. He needs you to help him find himself again.” Seeing Dean’s blank look, he went on. “I tried last time to make you let him go. So much would have been better if you had. You were stubborn though, and you paid the price. But, this time, I am not trying to make you let him go. I want you to hold onto him. Hold him tighter. Help him.”

“Help him what?”

“Be that man again, that child. That person that wanted freedom from the life of a hunter.”

Dean snorted. “You seriously think I can make Sam give up hunting? You’re dumber than you look. Sam is a hunter. It’s not a career choice. It’s a calling.””

“I agree, and I don’t want you to stop him hunting. The world is a better place when he does. But I need you to find that man in him again and bring him back.”

“Back from what?”

“Back from the blood.”

Dean grimaced.

“Yes, I know about that, and I know what it does for him. I know it all. I know it’s more than a means to an end for his powers. It’s a need within him. It gives him more than psychic powers. It sates something he needs. You need to reach the part of your brother I showed you, and save him.” He sighed. “I am sorry, Dean. I know this is a lot to handle. Too much for one man. But it’s on you. If you lose him to the blood, and you are bound on course to this time, the world will suffer.”

“Suffer how?”

“I’ve already said too much,” the Trickster said. “I have done too much. I can’t tell you any more than I have.”

Dean narrowed his eyes. “You telling me there’s rules?”

“There have always been rules for my kind. Anna taught you that, didn’t she?”

Dean sighed. “Yeah, I guess she did. Doesn’t make it any easier for me to understand though.”

“I don’t imagine it does.”

“Who are you really?” Dean asked. “You seem to know so much. You’re showing me these things. That’s a helluva lot of power compared to what I’ve seen Cas do.”

The Trickster smiled. “Maybe you’ll know one day. Not today though. I don’t want to distract you from your purpose.” He became solemn. “Reach your brother, Dean. Find him again or the world will suffer.”

He clicked his fingers and Dean was alone.

He rose to his feet and walked into the bedroom again. Sam was still sleeping peacefully, his face serene in a way it never was when he was awake. He sat down on his bed and closed his eyes. Everything he had seen that night rushed through his mind, and he tallied up everything his brother had lost.

The thing he kept coming back to was that he hadn’t been there to stop it. He could have split their father’s focus; he could have stood up for Sam’s choices. He hadn’t. He hadn’t been there, and it was at least in part his fault; he saw that now. He shouldn’t have played poker. He shouldn’t have stolen the bread. He shouldn’t have let his father leave him behind. 

Tears pooled in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.

Chapter Text

Sam’s phone beeped with an incoming message and he snatched it from the table before Dean could get a look at it even though he leaned over the table to look. 

Sam frowned at him. “Do you want to read my diary, too?”

His eyes skimmed over the message and then he slid the phone over the table to Dean. Dean couldn’t resist; he read the message—Provost Rd. Rm 25. 18052. Have something for you.—and sighed. More blood. More demons. More risk.

“What’s with the face?” Sam asked.

“Blood.”

Sam scowled at him. “Do you really want to do this again?”

“We haven’t done it once yet. Every time I bring the subject up, you duck out on it.”

When Dean had calmed himself after Sam had woken, he’d told him almost everything about what had happened with The Trickster. The only thing he’d withheld was just how much of a sucker punch it had been to see how Sam had lived without him, because he’d known Sam wouldn’t want to hear it. Sam hadn’t wanted to discuss it though, and he’d just walked away every other time Dean tried to talk it out. They needed to talk about it though. Dean was afraid.

“Fine,” Sam said, leaning back in his seat, “let’s talk.”

“The angel, the Trickster, whatever, told me it will end badly.”

“And that’s the first problem,” Sam said calmly. “The ‘whatever’. Things will end badly if it’s telling the truth. It’s either a monster or an angel, and I don’t trust either. The second problem is the unreality of it. If I don’t kill Lilith, she’s going to break the last seal and unleash Lucifer on the world. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than an apocalypse, but maybe you have some insight I don’t.”

Dean shook his head. “It said there were rules. It couldn’t tell me more.”

“Convenient,” Sam said dryly. “My point is how can me on the blood be any worse than Lucifer loose in the world?”

Dean didn’t know. That was the problem. The Trickster had seemed so sure though.

“The last problem,” Sam said, “is that it didn’t give us an alternative. If it knows so much, it has to know what the stakes are. If there were some other way to end this without blood, it would have told us, right? There was no other way. There is no other way. I have to kill Lilith to save the world. To do that I need blood.”

“Sam, please don’t do this. Let’s just wait a while. Find the Trickster again and find out what it knows.”

“No can do. There’s no way to track a Trickster, and with every day that passes, Lilith could be breaking another seal. We don’t know how many she’s done already. Bobby said there were three more recently, right?” He checked his watch. “Now, I’ve got to go.”

He picked up his jacket and left. He didn’t slam the door shut behind him. He clicked it closed quietly. There was quiet for a moment and then Dean heard the sounds of the Impala starting and driving away. Again, there was no extraordinary speed or noise behind the actions; he didn’t rev the engine hard. He drove away and Dean was left on his feet, staring at the door with his heart sinking to his boots. Sam made it all seem so logical and right, and Dean would have agreed with him if not for the Trickster’s warning. ‘If you lose him to the blood, and you are bound on course to this time, the world will suffer.’

Was Sam’s logic because he truly believed he was right or because he just couldn’t give up the blood? Had Dean already lost him?

xXx

The motel Ruby had holed up in was a few towns over, and Sam made the drive a leisurely one. He was in no hurry to get to Ruby and was in even less of a hurry to get back to Dean after. Ever since that damn Trickster had shown him Sam’s life—and he would kill him for that as soon as he found him again—Dean had been a man possessed. He had actually listened to the thing. He believed what it said. Sam thought he would have known better. He may have been out of the life a while, but John Winchester had taught them both better than that. Falling for a demon was one thing; he hadn’t known. Kissing the demon even after her true nature had been revealed; it was a moment of weakness. Trusting a douchebag Trickster/Angel—Sam didn’t know which was worse—was stupid and they both knew it.

When he came to the motel, he pulled to a stop beside Ruby’s Mustang and took a moment to brace himself to deal with her before getting out. The door to her room opened and she was revealed on the threshold. “Took you long enough,” she griped.

“Had a family drama to deal with,” he said.

She stepped back to let him into the room and closed the door behind him. “I thought Dean was on board with all this.”

“So did I.” He wasn’t going to bring her in on Dean’s nighttime escapades. She didn’t need to know about that.

“Then what’s the problem?”

Sam shrugged. “No idea. Anyway, let’s get this done.”

“No foreplay?” she said. “Not even going to chat first?”

“Wrong brother. I need the blood from you, Ruby. I don’t need anything else.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know if stopping the apocalypse didn’t depend on this relationship….”

“I’d have killed you months ago,” Sam said.

“You’d have tried,” she corrected.

“I’d have succeeded. I will succeed.”

Ruby laughed lightly. “This is more like it. It’s all I want, Sam. It’s a little lonely being me, you know. Every demon out there wants my head. You don’t like me being near Dean. Conversation is hard to come by.”

Sam just stared at her. She sighed and rolled up her sleeve. Sam drew the short silver knife from his pocket and walked toward her. She held out her wrist and Sam cut made a shallow cut in the vein. The blood pooled and trickled down her arm.

Sam wasted no time. He drank.

xXx

Sam was halfway back to Dean when his phone rang at his side. He answered without checking the caller ID.

“Sam, it’s me,” Ash said. “I have news. Big news. Good. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”

“Want to try English this time?” Sam asked. “What’s going on?”

“Demon signs. Huge ones. It can’t be Alastair, since you zapped him like a microwave dinner, so it’s got to be…”

“Lilith,” Sam breathed.

“Yeah. Look, man, I haven’t told anyone else. I don’t want to freak them out. But I’m thinking you’ve got a plan for this, so I figured you should know.”

“You’re right. I do have a plan. Look, Ash, you’ve got to keep this from Ellen and Jo, okay? I don’t want them worried. And Dean. Whatever you do, don’t tell him where she is.”

“Okay,” Ash said doubtfully. “But Dean…”

“I don’t want him anywhere near her,” Sam said. “Not after last time.”

“I won’t tell him where. But you should tell him what.”

“I will,” Sam lied. “No problem. Now, where is she?”

“Place called Ilchester in Maryland. I can’t narrow it down any more than that right now, but I’ll keep working on it. If I can get a little more specific, I’ll text you coordinates.”

“Thanks, Ash.”

“Be careful, Sam.”

“I will. Goodbye.” He ended the call and looked down at the phone in his hand. He hadn’t done it consciously, but he’d ended the call with a goodbye. “It’s not goodbye,” he muttered to himself. He was going to do this. He was going to kill Lilith. He was going to collect Dean from the motel. He was going back to The Roadhouse and he was going to get blind drunk with his family to celebrate. That was the only outcome he’d accept.  

He did a u-turn, ignoring the blaring horns and squealing brakes and hit speed dial on his phone. It took only a moment for Ruby to answer. “That was quick.”

“Ash found her.”

“Lilith?”

“Who else? She’s in Maryland.”

He heard her suck in a breath over the line. “Ilchester?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

“Sam, we have to move fast. There’s not much time,” she said fervently.

“What’s happening, Ruby?”

“Ilchester, Maryland. It’s the only place Lilith can do it.”

“Do what?”

“Break the last seal.”

xXx

Dean was sitting on the edge of the bed, chewing his thumbnail. It was a nervous habit he rarely allowed himself to indulge in, but he was anxious as all hell. Sam had been gone too long – it shouldn’t have taken him this long to make it to the address Ruby had given him and back, even accounting for the time it would take him to spend there to do what he needed. Something else was going on. Sam wouldn’t answer his phone though, nor would Ruby. They were leaving Dean in the dark and the reason couldn’t be anything good.

He got to his feet and made for the door. He had seen the address on Sam’s phone; he would go to the motel Ruby had directed Sam to and find out what was going on.

He had barely taken two steps when there was the sound of an angel’s arrival and a voice spoke behind him.

“Dean Winchester.”

Dean spun around to the voice. There were two angels standing behind him. One man, one woman. The man was huge and baldheaded, and even though he was dressed in a smart black suit, he put Dean in mind of a hell’s angel. The woman was mocha skinned and attractive, with full lips that were almost smiling.

“I am Camael,” the man said, “and this is Berieah.”

“Uh, hi,” Dean said awkwardly.

The man smiled slightly. “We have need of you.”

Dean frowned. “For what?”

“Our orders are just to collect you,” the woman said.

“Not much for asking questions, are you?” Dean asked. 

The man smiled slightly. “We are angels.” He said it like it explained everything, which Dean supposed it did to them.

“Okay,” he said. “Where are we going?”

They didn’t answer. They just exchanged a glance and the man stepped forward, saying, “This will not hurt,” as he raised a hand with two fingers extended to Dean’s forehead. They made contact and Dean felt himself falling forward and strong arms catching him.

xXx

Awareness returned to Dean in a rush and his head snapped from the table where it had been resting.

“Sam?” he called automatically, lurching to his feet.

“He’s not here,” a serene voice said.

Dean looked into the eyes of a heavyset angel with sparse graying hair and a smug smile. “Where is he?” He looked around. “Where am I?”

It was like the most sumptuous hotel Dean had ever seen. The kind of place he would walk past in the city, admiring the façade in a distracted, never-going-in-there way. The pale, gold trimmed walls were adorned with paintings he would have bet were originals and priceless. There were porcelain vases on antique looking tables. Statues stood in the corners and the table Dean was sitting at was marble topped.

“This is what we call the green room, and my name is Zachariah. Your brother is fine; he is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing.”

“And that is?”

Zachariah smiled. “He is fulfilling the first part of his destiny.”  

“Which is?”

“Killing Lilith of course.”

Dean sucked in a breath. “He can’t be.”

“Well, perhaps I preempted a little. He is on the path to his destiny at least. He and the abomination Ruby are currently kidnapping a demon with the intention of Sam draining it of its blood. It’s going to take lot of blood to kill Lilith. You know, I don’t think he will ever be the same again,” he finished conversationally.

“No, I mean he can’t be,” Dean said. “If he was, I’d know about it. He wouldn’t hide something this big from me.”

“Do you truly think so? It’s not possible that he could be hiding something? He has answered your calls, has he?”

Dean bit down on his tongue to stop himself answering. The pain grounded him, made him think clearly through his certainty that Sam not hide this from him.

“You see now,” Zachariah said, satisfied. “You know I am telling you the truth.”

“Why am I here?” Dean asked in lieu of an admission.

“Because we’re coming down to it now, the crux of it, and we need you safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“Lucifer.”

Dean just looked at him blankly.

“Sam is, or rather will be, cracking the last seal like an egg.”

“No,” Dean snapped. “He is saving the world. He is doing what you couldn’t. He is killing Lilith.”

“Absolutely. He is doing what we couldn’t. He is killing the first demon. It is the only way after all. He is the last of the special children. He is the only one left with the power to do it. Unfortunately for him, killing Lilith also happens to be the final seal.”

Dean shook his head. The angel was wrong. He had to be wrong. How could he say it with such satisfaction, such pleasure, when the angels had spent months trying to protect the seals? There was no way, unless…

“So you’re Team Uriel. I wondered how many of you there were.”

Zachariah shook his head, amused. “There is no Team Uriel. There is only the will of Heaven. Some know the truth, some know the lie, but the end result is the same. When the time comes, they will obey and they will be rewarded with Paradise.”

“Not all will obey,” Dean said, thinking of how Castiel had fought Uriel. How he had fought for the right side.

Zachariah laughed. “I know who you are thinking of, and I have a surprise for you.” He raised his voice. “You can come in now.”

The door opened at the end of the room and Castiel walked in. He looked into Dean’s eyes and said with what seemed like sincerity. “I am sorry, Dean.”

xXx

Sam had felt no regret when they trapped the demon, not even for the meat suit that would soon be dead. It wasn’t the first time he’d killed after all. In the months without Dean he had done it countless times.

It wasn’t until Ruby told him what they needed the demon for that he began to feel something. He had killed with the knife and with his powers. He had never killed a demon specifically to drink its blood in its entirety. He told himself it was one life for the sake of the world, and that assuaged his guilt somewhat, but when Ruby stalked toward the screaming demon with the Sam’s knife in her hand, he turned away. There was a cry of pain that became a gurgle and then silence for a moment before the sound of streaming liquid hitting the plastic bucket came.

The scent of copper permeated the room and the faintest trace of sulfur. Against his will, Sam clenched his fists. The need for the blood was strong. He wanted it. He wanted to feel it rushing through his veins, suffusing him with power. Strengthening him to kill. To end. To save. To win.

The flow of blood lessened to a trickle and then drips, and Ruby said, “Come and get it.”

Sam turned, trying not to see the man with his gaping throat and wide, dead, eyes. He looked down at the bucket—So much blood. So much power—and swallowed hard.

“You have to, Sam,” Ruby said, misreading the hesitation in his eyes.  

“I know,” Sam said. He wasn’t reluctant to drink to kill. It was for a purpose. It was to save. It was what came after that worried him. How inhuman would he be after this? Would he ever be able to see Dean again?

“Then what’s the holdup?” she asked.

Sam shook his head. “Nothing.”

He had to do it. He had no choice.

xXx

“How can you do this?” Dean asked.

Castiel frowned. “I told you once I was a soldier. Soldiers follow orders.”

“Not when their orders are this!” Dean shouted.

“You two need time to talk,” Zachariah said. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He marched across the room, head held high, and left through a door Dean was sure hadn’t been there a second ago. He followed and reached for the handle, determined to get out of there, to Sam, before it was too late. Before his fingers could close around the handle, though, the door disappeared.

“You cannot leave,” Castiel said.

“Please,” Dean pleaded. “Help me stop this.”

“I cannot. You need to stay here.”

“Why?” Dean asked. “Because of Sam? If this is his destiny, there’s no changing it, right? So why can’t I at least be with him while he does it? He needs me there.”

Castiel shook his head. “You are needed here.”

Dean laughed harshly. “You think I will do anything for any of you after this? Cas, you have to help me. You’re not Uriel. You’re not a machine.”

Castiel looked around the room, his eyes dark, and Dean knew he was right. Castiel didn’t want this. Dean just needed to find the right words to make him fight. “Please, Cas, I am begging you. Just let me go to Sam. I have to be there. He nearly died when he took on Samhain. What if it happens again? I have to at least speak to him.”

Castiel’s eyes widened minutely and he said in a disinterested tone, “Your phone is ringing.”

Dean frowned for a moment—it wasn’t ringing—and then understanding dawned. He couldn’t leave, but he could still reach Sam. He nodded. “I better answer then.”

He turned away from Castiel and hit speed dial as he brought the phone to his ear. It rang and Dean was talking even before he realized it was Sam’s prerecorded voicemail that he’d connected to. “Sam! Don’t’ do it!” he said desperately. “Don’t kill Lilith! It’s the last seal! You kill her and it all ends! Please listen to me, Sam—” Strong fingers wrapped around his wrist and twisted his arm behind his back in a half nelson.

“I think that’s enough, don’t you, Castiel,” Zachariah said pointedly. 

Castiel bowed his head. “Yes. That is enough.”

The fingers released his wrist and Dean staggered forward.

Zachariah spun him by the shoulders and leaned forward so his hot breath brushed Dean’s face as he said, “You think that will actually work? Your brother is already too deep in the blood to be stopped now.  He will kill Lilith. The end will come, and you will give yourself to the cause. Do you understand?”

Dean looked past him to Castiel, wanting to speak to them both, a warning to one and a reassurance to the other, as he said, “That will never…” But then he took in Castiel’s pose. He was standing by the wall, long silver blade in hand and bleeding palm raised to the blood painted sigil on the wall. As Dean watched, he slammed his hand down in the center of the sigil and a force ripped through the room. Zachariah was yanked away from him and into nothing.

Castiel rushed across the room and grabbed Dean’s arm. “We have to hurry.”

“Where to?” Dean asked. “Where is Sam?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel said. “But I am hoping your friend Ash will.”

xXx

“You going to listen to that message or not?” Ruby asked.

Sam sighed. He had ignored the call when it came in because he knew it was Dean and there was nothing to say. He would be pissed at Sam’s prolonged absence. Sam couldn’t talk to him though. He would argue and demand that he be there, and Sam wasn’t letting him anywhere near Lilith. There was nothing to be lost by listening to the message though. He dialed up his voicemail and listened to the automated voice telling him he had one message waiting. “Sam! You have to do it! Kill Lilith. She’s breaking the last seal! You have to kill her to save us all! You’re the only one that can.”

The message ended and Sam sucked in a breath. He didn’t know how Dean had found out about Lilith breaking the last seal, but he guessed the angels were involved. That was good. If they knew enough to warn him, they knew enough to keep Dean safe, too.

Confidence surging along with the heat in his veins, Sam climbed out of the car and made for the doors of the chapel.

“You can do this, Sam,” Ruby was saying at his side. “Just let the power work and you’ll kill her. You’ve done it before. You will do it again.”

“I know.”

They strode together along the long passage to the doors at the end. There were half a dozen black-eyed demons coming toward them, and Sam killed then as easily as drawing a breath. There was no need to raise a hand, to take them one by one; with a thought and push of his mind, they fell down dead.

Ruby threw the doors open, and Sam entered the room. Lilith stood alone. Sam flung out a hand and she was flung back against the stone altar.  

“I've been waiting for this for a very long time,” Sam said.

Lilith leered at him. “Then give me your best shot.”

Sam smiled.

xXx

Castiel’s hand fell from Sam’s shoulder and he said, “They are in there.”

Dean ran at the doors and raced in to a long passage. There were dead bodies lining the walls at the end. “Sam!” he shouted. “Sammy, stop!”

There was no answering voice, no reassuring shout from Sam. Dean felt sick. There was a set of doors at the end of the passage that Dean pounded on, bellowing his brother’s name, but they wouldn’t budge. Castiel shoved him aside and threw them open. Dean raced inside, going straight to his brother’s side, chanting his name. Sam was on his knees, looking at Ruby who was kneeling in front of him. He didn’t even seem to notice Dean’s arrival.  

“You don't even know how hard this was,” she said. “All the demons out for my head. No one knew. I was the best of those sons of bitches! The most loyal! Not even Alastair knew! Only Lilith! Yeah, I'm sure you're a little angry right now, but, I mean, come on, Sam! Even you have to admit—“ Her words cut off abruptly and Dean looked up to see the tip of Castiel’s blade through the front of her chest, right above her heart.

“No!” he shouted.

Castiel withdrew the sword and Ruby’s body flopped to the floor.

“Dean,” Sam said, sounding dazed.

“I’m here, Sammy.”

Sam got to his feet and turned around. Dean followed his gaze and saw the blood that had flowed into a spiral on the stone floor. Light was starting to stream from the center.

“Oh, God,” he breathed, his hand coming up to rest on Sam’s chest, to push him back, away from the light, away from Lucifer perhaps.

“He’s coming,” Sam said, his voice wrecked. “Dean, he’s coming.”