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Look Back in Wrath

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Art by Milly-Gal

"For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains" - Deuteronomy 32:22

Sam was delving through the piles of old packing crates in the depths of the bunker's storerooms when he found the ring. A cheap, gaudy-looking thing, it was cast in silver and sized for a man's finger, the large round face inscribed with an elongated figure-eight.

Something about it poked at his memory and he was certain that he'd seen either it, or it's like, before. "Hey Dean, does this look familiar to you?"

Dean frowned over from where he was disinterestedly flicking though an impressively large, but achingly dull, set of dusty Men of Letters journals. Sam wasn't stupid; he knew his brother's half-interested attempt at attention was only for the fragile excuse of providing a few precious moments of freedom from his research.

"Hmm, maybe? I dunno." Dean's eyes twinkled as his face broadcast he'd been struck with sudden inspiration. "Aren't you a little tall for a hobbit?" he chuckled, appearing as much amused by Sam's unimpressed expression as by his own humor. "Is it important?"

"No, I guess not," Sam sighed. "I just can't place it." The memory hovered just tantalizingly out of reach. He turned the ring in the light, making it sparkle, as he struggled to recall. "Oh, I remember! It was that time dude. Chronos? You know, when you were zapped back to the 40s?"

"Ah yeah," sighed Dean. "Fun times. You know, I looked damn sharp in that get up."

"Really?" Sam didn't try to hide his skepticism; he felt it was more than enough that he was willing to disguise his amusement at his brother's love of dressing up.

"I think I look good in a hat," said Dean in an offended tone.

Sam looked aghast, absently dropping the slightly glowing ring back into the storage box. "You're not gonna start wearing a fedora, are you?" He made sure to leave no doubt as to how horrifying an idea he found it.

"No!" replied Dean, looking hurt. It amused Sam to note that, despite years of impersonating authority figures, his brother's acting skills were still too poor for his body language not to silently telegraph it had been exactly what he'd been thinking.

"I've had enough of this," Dean declared, standing and rubbing his dusty hands up and down the front of his jeans, leaving long, gray streaks in their wake. "Come on, for that you can help me make dinner."

Unnoticed and forgotten now back in its box, the activated, glowing ring started to cause trouble.

~#~

It only took a few minutes of intentional looming and 'accidentally' getting in the way for Sam to be firmly ordered out of Dean's new sanctum--otherwise known as the kitchen.

"But I thought you wanted my help," said Sam, trying his best to repress the smirk that played across his lips.

Dean scowled. "You can help both of us by getting out my damn way." He waggled a black-handled paring knife in a scolding gesture. "With you doing your Lurch thing you're gonna either walk into my blade, or I'm gonna end up ganking you with it."

Content with his victory, Sam held up his hands in mock surrender and retreated to the safe comfort of the library. He plucked a book at random from one of the many shelves and sprawled himself across a couple of the chairs at the dining table.

He'd barely managed to get past the first few pages before he was distracted by the faint whisper emanating from the bunker's ventilation system. Sam cocked his head to one side to hear better; he knew it was just the random hiss of air and of course he was familiar with the concept of audio pareidolia, but it still sounded disturbingly like actual spoken words.

Run, run, he's coming. Run, run, he's almost here. Run, run, too late...

Art by Milly-Gal

He shivered at a sudden chill and blinked repeatedly in surprise to discover an array of food and utensils laid out in front of him. He rubbed at his eyes to try to clear his vision, but instead it only made double images of the items in front of him.

"Allergies?" asked Dean sympathetically, placing a plate of homemade cornbread on the table.

"No, just..." muttered Sam, baffled by his apparent loss of time and his brother's sudden appearance.

"-cause there's no pollen in here," continued Dean, without noticing, or at least not commenting on, Sam's confused state. "So it's probably dust. It's not good for you, spending all your time down in those dusty archives," he fussed.

"I'm fine," laughed Sam, vision clearing. "I'm probably just tired or something," he added, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. Giving a tight smile, he suffered under Dean's staring. For all his carefully cultivated, badass persona the guy could be a real mother hen. Especially where I'm concerned, thought Sam. He knew he should be grateful but there was still a trace of teenage-Sam that bristled under feelings of being smothered.

"Well, don't just sit there, tuck in. It's not gonna eat itself and you need to keep your strength up."

Sam didn't need to be asked twice. The peculiar events of earlier already forgotten, he decided maybe being a little bit smothered wasn't really quite so bad.

~#~

Dean had out done himself with dinner, so Sam was well-sated and considerably over-full when he made his way back to his room. Rubbing his belly, and feeling self-righteous for suppressing a belch even though no one was within hearing distance, he paused at a junction in the corridor. He felt a minor wave of dizziness and for just a split second it was like walking through heat haze.

He could just catch the distant sound of a frustratingly familiar voice although he couldn't make out the words, no matter how much he strained to listen. A chill prickled down his spine and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. There's no way Dean could've got past me, he realized.

"Hello, who's there?" he called, advancing with caution. The bunker had been his home for some time now, but it never failed to surprise him how it had managed to only slowly and grudgingly give up its numerous secrets. The corridor, like all the others identical to it in the bunker, was long and twisting and made a perfect job of obscuring whatever might lie ahead.

Dean and he had spent many nights discussing why an organization that seemed to have so few members felt it needed such a large base. Sam was convinced it was to support the Men of Letters' pack-rat mentality and their inability to throw away even the smallest, most obscure magical doohickey; hence the endless shelves of things that really ought to have been salted and burned. Dean, ever the tactician, had surmised the unusual layout helped hide the existence of secret rooms and allowed a drawn-out defense in the case of intrusion. Sam just knew it meant an unnecessarily long walk every time you wanted to get from one room to the other.

Speaking of which; there was no one there for as far as he could see. Despite this, his hunter senses continued to scream in alarm, so he hurried, half-jogging, back down the way he'd come.

As expected, Dean was pottering about in the kitchen. Even given his state of anxiety, Sam was still amused by the sight of his brother fusing over the counter tops with a damp cloth.

"Back for seconds? Or is it thirds, now?" grinned Dean. His face dropped and his jaw tightened as he took in Sam's obvious look of distress. "What's wrong?

Sam immediately felt foolish. "I thought there was someone here," he stammered.

"Yeah, it's just me here all on my lonesome," Dean said with a worried smile, gesturing with his left arm at the empty space around them. He frowned. "Is everything all right?" he asked, his voice growing more concerned.

Sam gave a hurried nod. He was sure it was nothing, but he found himself unable to look away from how Dean continuously, absentmindedly rubbed at the crook of his right arm where the Mark of Cain lurked hidden under layers of plaid. Without thinking about it, he stepped back until he hit the wall. "I'm fine," he lied.

~#~

Curled up in an armchair like some kind of giant, long-limbed cat, Sam was lost in the detailed entry of a Men of Letters investigation into the psychological effects of possession, when he became aware of the noise.

He paused, saving his place in the heavy journal with an old receipt from a Gas-N-Sip. He ran his hands over the smooth binding of the book as he wondered if it was just the nature of its content that was making him feel spooked.

There was a cry--faint and indistinct--but he was certain he had heard someone shout out in distress.

"Dean?" he called, getting to his feet and already worried he might be auditioning for the starring role in his own horror film teaser trailer. He crossed the room and stuck his head out into the empty corridor. "You okay? Did you call?"

There was no answer. He was about to return to something less disturbing to read when he heard faint footsteps. Only three, but it sounded like someone running.

Sam squared his shoulders. "Okay, enough's enough," he muttered, knowing that with the bunker's numerous defenses, the chance of a supernatural encounter was slim. Not to mention that even in his weakened state he was still more than a match for any human intruder.

The corridor stretched out in front of him and seemed to shimmer. The hair stood up on the back of his neck as he felt an overwhelming desire to break into a run.

Run.

He jolted at the word that sounded as if it had been spoken directly into his ear. He spun around trying to make sense of the voice's origin. He couldn't see anything, but the hair on his forearms stood up in gooseflesh and there was a powerful sense of another's presence.

Run.

His heart was pounding against his ribcage so hard he was sure it would burst from his chest. Stranger things have happened, came the unbidden, unhelpful reply from his own mind.

"Sam."

This time there was no question the word had been spoken aloud; the voice was flat, a statement rather than a question and imbued with heavy menace. The effect was not unlike iced water poured straight down his back. Seized with an instinctual terror, his brain shut itself down and Sam broke into a run without conscious thought.

Over his ragged breathing, Sam could hear the steady slap of someone else's footsteps following right behind him. The sense of fear ratcheted up as he realized they were drawing nearer.

A sob of alarm escaping his throat, he twisted around and tripped over his own feet. He fell sprawling and cried out again, this time in pain, as his back slammed down hard on the unforgiving solid tiled floor. There was nothing in front of him, but he could somehow sense someone standing over him. The nothingness seemed to solidify into the barest hint of a shadowed figure.

Sam tried to call out, whether to beg for mercy or scream for help he didn't know, but the sound caught in his throat, choking him.

Something invisible, albeit with a palpable weight, slammed down beside his head, shattering the tiles and sending dozens of tiny ceramic shards flying out to puncture his exposed skin. He raised his arms to shield his face, despite instinctively knowing the next blow would not miss its mark.  His terror was such that he barely registered the agony of the repeated, dull-axe blows that caved in his skull.

~#~

A loud, crashing, pounding sound broke through the confused fog of Sam's ominous dreams to the extent he somehow knew it originated from the bunker's entrance. At the second booming impact, he was up and half-way across the room, damp twisted sheets trailing behind him, before even properly awake.

The long, tiled corridors stretched off further into the distance even as he ran down them. Suffocated by a crippling sense of déjà vu, it was as if he was still in the dream he only half-remembered from earlier.

At that thought, he glanced back down the way he had come to spot any sign of a pursuer. He felt foolish, but relieved, when his scrutiny failed to reveal the half-expected deadly and mercilessly implacable something.

He shook his head; he really needed to snap out of it. Maybe next time, I should take some of those dubiously-sourced sleeping pills Dean keeps offering me.

Crashing blow number three focused his attention back on the task at hand as it sounded, if anything, more desperate. Could a crash sound desperate?

He ran up the stairs to the entranceway, the echo of the heavy knocking still resounding through the otherwise silent room. He stood in front of the thick steel door and wondered if he should open it, when another great crash rang out, the metal visibly vibrating from the force off the impact. Without stopping to think, Sam flung open the door and glared out at the world beyond.

There was no one there.

He stepped outside, shivering a little despite the enveloping warmth of the balmy evening. The bunker tended to stay a little cooler than the outside temperature, but recent events had him comparing it to a mausoleum.

Keeping a careful eye on his surroundings, he pulled the door closed behind him with one hand and stepped further away from the bunker. Using the light from his cellphone he peered into the murky darkness. Nothing there. He sighed and slipped his phone back into his pocket when, as if on cue, another crashing bang sounded from the door behind him.

Heart pounding, he cautiously edged his way back towards the entrance. The door was still pushed closed. Gingerly, he reached forward and pulled the door open and out towards him. There was no sign of anyone inside, his unobstructed view of the stairs meant it was unlikely anyone could have been within.

Heart in his throat, he pulled the door closed behind him again, this time triple checking to verify it was properly secured.

In a heightened state of anxiety, he crept down and through to the kitchen, as he ensured no one was following him, alert for any sign or sound that might indicate an intruder.

He arrived to find Dean sitting, hunched over the kitchen table, totally focused on sharpening the blade of a long-handled axe.

"You've changed," said Sam, pointing at the unfamiliar red shirt. It wasn't what he'd mean to say, but it was a rare day they were not both in their unofficial uniform of plaid.

"Oh, you noticed, did you?" Dean sneered, without bothering to look up from his task.

Sam stood there for a while, uneasily shifting from one foot to another and back again. "I think you'll find that's sharp enough, now," he laughed nervously.

Dean finally stopped what he was doing and looked up. His dark eyes glinted, shadowed despite the bright glare of the kitchen lights. "Don't you hate it when a tool turns out not to be quite as sharp as you expected?"

Sam squirmed. He squared his shoulders in a bid to dispel the feeling, crossing and re-crossing his arms. "There was something outside."

"Something," Dean mimicked, a faint smirk playing across his lips.

"Yep, I couldn't see it, but it was hammering on the door to get in." Sam paused, struck by a sudden thought. "I'm surprised you didn't hear it," he pouted, a note of accusation creeping into his voice.

Dean stared at him for a moment, as if considering, before arching one eyebrow. "What makes you think it was trying to get in?"

"What?" stuttered Sam, confused.

"Maybe it was trying to get out." Dean grinned, his teeth shining dangerous and shark-like in the light. He returned to his sharpening.

Sam stood and fidgeted in place until he realized he'd been dismissed. "Jerk," he muttered under his breath as he stalked back to his room. If his brother replied with the expected formula response then he didn't hear it.

~#~

Sam was sure he'd read the same paragraph four times and he still didn't understand it. Dropping the book on the table in front of him, he threw himself back in his seat with a loud huff of annoyance. He started to massage the tension around his eyes when he was distracted by the loud buzzing of a couple of large flies merrily engaged in dive bombing his head. He spluttered and waved a hand at them in an ineffective effort to dissuade them but it only seem to goad them on to more desperate attempts.

With a cry of frustration he pushed himself to his feet, sending the chair tipping over onto its back. Breathing heavily, he abandoned the furniture to its fate and stalked off to find his brother.

"Did you leave something out again?" he accused without otherwise greeting, on locating Dean in the kitchen.

"What? No!" Dean sighed and pulled an exaggeratedly pained expression. "There was that one time."

Sam just stood and seethed. "Then why's the library full of flies?"

"Come on, let's go see," offered Dean, rolling up the sleeves of his purple and grey plaid shirt, as he motioned for Sam to lead the way and followed his brother back to the library.

Sam's shoulders slumped as he looked around. "Typical, there's nothing here now," he said, feeling a little flat.

"They must have flown away," said Dean, obviously trying to keep his tone calm and upbeat.

Sam didn't miss the way Dean kept flicking surreptitious, worried glances at him. It would have irritated him if he didn't already feel twitchy and agitated. "But they were right here, they wouldn't leave me alone," he whined, hating the pathetic sound of it in his voice.

Dean nodded in sympathy, not bothering to reply. He righted the overturned chair, throwing Sam an unimpressed look, before making a careful search of the surrounding area, checking under tables and behind shelves. The detailed inspection seemed to mollify Sam, but it hadn't been the first time that Dean had found unpleasant surprises--not just dead animals--under floors and behind walls.

The thought brought up an unbidden memory for Dean of one particular summer. He must have been no more than seventeen, he recalled, when he'd been left with a belligerent, teenage Sam in a run-down cabin that reeked of the sickly-sweet odor of decaying flesh. It hadn't taken long before the stench was so great that they could taste it in the backs of their mouths. Crawling under the house's floor space to retrieve the rotting, maggot-riddled corpse of an unfortunate possum was a memory that, despite the horrors he'd seen since, he still found disturbing. Strange, it's been years since I've thought of it.

Dean's morbid contemplations were interrupted as he heard the faintest sound of buzzing emanating from a ventilation grill in the wall and he moved closer to try to peer into its dark depths.

He cried out in alarm as a thick swarm of flies exploded out at him without warning, his hands flailing and slapping as they bit at his exposed skin and crawled into his mouth and ears. Overwhelmed by the plague of tiny insects, he scooted back, tripping over a chair, and sprawled in an inelegant heap in the middle of the floor. As he warily started to sit back up, the swarm had already dispersed and by the time he was upright they were gone.

Eyes wide and chest heaving with exertion, his heart pounding from fight or flight impulse he looked around. There was no longer anything to be seen.

He got to his feet and rubbed absently at the bites on his neck and arms that were already starting to sting. He was struck by a horrifying vision of his own previous death, his body left to rot in a makeshift grave in the middle of nowhere. His gorge rose as a whisper in the back of his mind reminded him it wasn't the first time he'd been eaten by insects.

Castiel had never really explained how he'd resurrected Dean. Had the angel started from scratch and recreated a masterpiece or had he been forced to 'make do and mend' by reassembling the slop of Dean's liquefying remains? He spat, his mouth gritty and tasting of earth like the time he dug himself from his own not-quite-so-final resting place.

Art by Milly-Gal

Memories of being slowly dissected in Hell--while Alastair provided a running commentary that was effectively the psychological equivalent--were still a disturbingly regular aspect of his nightmares. Often those dreams seemed considerably more real than his waking life and not for the first time he wondered if some part of him he was still there back in Hell. When he closed he eyes he could see a clear picture of his body, pale and decomposing as it hung suspended on Alastair's rack, ready for an inhabitant and another round of the sadistic demon's torture.

Artistry.

Dean shook his head at the mental correction.

Something made him look round and with a start he realized his brother was still present, staring at him in horror, his mouth gaping open.

"You'll catch flies looking like that," Dean quipped, desperate to regain some measure of control over his racing thoughts. He was disturbed by Sam's unchanging expression. "What?" he asked, his voice a mix of nervous laughter, concern, and defensive paranoia.

"You were speaking out loud," said Sam, his voice barely a whisper but sounding discordant and loud in the deathly silence of the room.

Words of explanation or justification stuck in Dean's craw and he held out a hand, needing to hug or touch, or at least make a connection, but Sam had already fled.

~#~

Sam knew he was in a deep sleep in the unsurprised way one just knows things while dreaming. In that same distant, accepting frame of mind, he noted he appeared to be a disembodied presence floating in one corner of his bedroom.

Looking down, he could see himself, or rather his body, as it thrashed about in its sleep. The sheets had become ropes as they twisted themselves into bindings that restricted the body's movements even as it continued to push and pull against them.

It looks like quite a nightmare. He wondered if he was having flashbacks to his time in the Cage. If his emotions hadn't felt so muted--not quite as bad as being soulless--it would have elicited sympathy.

He almost didn't notice the words ("run, run") floating in under the soft hiss of the bunker's ventilation system, a gentle murmur lapping at the edge of his consciousness and lulling the body's exertions to a restful doze.

A vague, flickering shadow coalesced at the foot of the bed and it also gazed down at the sleeping man as if unsure what to do next. In the dark of the room, the comforter that slipped to the floor looked like a pool of blood.

"So much blood," someone whispered. Sam felt the impact of the words like a twisted knife blow in the back.

His body now lay unmoving on the bed, its face rendered slack by sleep; he looked so young and innocent. That thought also cut deep and the figure shuddered at the knowledge of the horror and pain of all that was to come.

"Why won't you listen to me?" it screamed, the words harsh and unrelenting, crashing on the beach of Sam's attention like the muffled roar of the sea.

Sam sat up, the sleep-knotted sheets clinging to him like vines trying to pull him back under. It was almost dawn before, exhausted, Sam finally surrendered to sleep once more, this time mercifully free from dreams.

 ~#~

Dean had the bright idea of doing some research himself. Heaven knows Sam had been distracted recently; with all the highly-strung, morose loafing about it was like living with a teenager again. So much for that brainwave, he thought, discarding yet another volume whose contents didn't match the promise of its cover. The grim reality was an endless pile of dusty books written by a bunch of old guys who obviously didn't get out much. Hell, I could use a drink.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stave of the approach of what felt like a killer headache. And why does the print have to be so small?

He didn't bother to turn around when Sam came in and hovered behind one shoulder. The dark, looming shadow made the text even more difficult to read as the words blurred and danced in front of his eyes.

"So you're back," he snorted. He felt irritable, and if he took it out a little on Sam, well, that's what family was for. Sometimes being petty is its own reward.

"Since you're here, how's about you..." he said, turning in his chair.

There was no one there.

A chill raced up his spine so intense he leaped to his feet, books and papers spilling to the ground in a circle around him.

He stood, silent and still, straining his ears for any sound in the bunker that might be out of place. There was nothing, the silence overwhelming. As quiet as a tomb.

He shivered. I must have imagined it. Grabbing his coat he decided it was time to go out and get that drink after all.

~#~

Charlie was bored. The boys were usually more entertaining, which was why she'd stopped by to visit--admittedly at short-notice--but she hadn't been expecting to find a pair of wet-blankets waiting for her. Now she was stuck here, on her own, with Dean presumably out on the prowl (I'd have made an awesome wingwoman) and Sam choosing to lock himself away somewhere (Oh God, please not literally).

She'd been amusing herself with the ancient TV and remote control, grimly clicking her methodical way through an unlikely array of channels, half-expecting any minute to find herself getting zapped into Pleasantville.

When the screaming started, it was almost with a sense of relief; like the realization you get in summer of how horribly oppressive the atmosphere's been once the cold wind sweeps back in and the thunderstorms start raging.

She ran ("run, run," whispered an alien voice in her head) towards the direction of the screams, stopping at Sam's door ("no, no," continued the uninvited voice).

She tried the door, unsurprised at finding it locked; during her last visit she'd heard all about the latest Winchester prank war and the blue dye in the bathtub incident. Taking a deep breath to center herself, she took a running jump to shoulder-open the door.

"Charlie?"

To her horror, Sam had opened the door as she was in mid-air and she collided with the huge, great bulk of the man who was both sopping wet and dressed in just a small towel.

"Whoa, that is a seriously small towel," she grumbled, as she tried to disentangle herself from his arms while frantically keeping her eyes averted. "Jeez Sam, I thought we'd had this conversation already. I like you as a friend," she joked, trailing off as his apparent distress sank in.

"I fell asleep in the tub," admitted Sam. "Then it was full of blood," he added, his voice breaking.

Suspecting another prank, she pushed past him and he reluctantly straggled behind her back to the bathroom.  Looking around, she saw nothing particularly noteworthy. She knew Sam not-so-secretly indulged in long soaks in the bath, but she guessed he'd have to have folded himself up pretzel-like to fit in the thing. She sniffed approvingly at the light woodsy scent that permeated the room; she'd known the Winchesters for long enough to realize that it would have been his brother's bubble bath he'd swiped; Dean always had the best colognes and  grooming products.

"Hmm. Nice ducky," she commented, laughing as Sam's cheeks colored and he spluttered excuses. There was nothing remarkable about the now tepid, sudsy water and she pulled the plug, letting it drain away.

"See? Nothing to worry about," she called over her shoulder. As she straightened, her attention was caught by a particularly loud gurgle and suddenly she was seeing a bath, but not this specific bathroom.

A broken body lay within the bathtub like a discarded toy all-too casually tossed to one side by a spiteful child. Her face, battered and torn, stared sightlessly back at her.

A faint whispered voice, that she thought she almost recognized, carried on the breeze. "See? He's gonna get you killed, too."

~#~

There was someone ahead, standing waiting for him in the depths of the bunker. The bright glare of the lights behind the figure obscured their features, but Sam didn't need to see their face. Years of familiarity meant he knew that silhouette better than his own.

As he drew nearer, his vision grew clearer. He could make out the bright red, button-down shirt and meticulously groomed hair neatly parted as if by an axe.

"Dean?"

His brother raised his head in an abrupt, lizard-like fashion that screamed "wrong, wrong, wrong" in Sam's mind. The eyes, when they met his own, were deepest, bottomless black.

"Hello..."

Sam sat up, gasping for breath, his bedclothes once more soaked and twisted around him.

"...Sammy?"

The hand didn't even make contact with his shoulder, but the nearness was enough to make him jolt awake and scream with fright

"Jesus!" shouted Dean, jumping back. "You scared the life outta me," he chuckled awkwardly. "Even if you do scream like a girl."

Sam dived for the corner of his room, feeling safer with a wall at his back. He grabbed a flask of holy water, which thanks to grim experience he always kept by his bed, and sloshed its contents across the room.

"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus," he recited, the familiar words springing from his lips without effort.

"Omnis satanica potestas, yes, yes," replied Dean. "I'm not a demon," he yelled.

Sam knew better than to fall for such tricks again, especially when a tall figure appeared in the doorway behind 'Dean'. The new arrival wore his face, which it twisted in malevolent disgust when it noticed him. Another filthy demon.

"Omnis incursio infernalis adversarii, omnis legio," cried Sam, his voice rising in desperation as, in sync, his doppelganger raised a shotgun and brought it to bear on him.

The gunfire was deafening in the confines of the room, but that was nothing to the agonizing sting of the exploding salt spray as it burned him away.

~#~

Dean rounded a wide-eyed gaze on his brother who was now apparently standing behind him, after seeming to have vanquished his own ghost.

"First Charlie takes off like a bat outta Hell and now this. What is going on here?" demanded Dean.

Sam looked just as shocked and stood swaying on the spot. Dean grabbed a hold of him (at least I now know this one's solid) and steered him over to the bed before Sam toppled over like some kind of traumatized giraffe.

"It was a spirit," muttered Sam. "It was me," he cried.

"Yeah, I kinda figured that bit out myself," said Dean, going into automatic mode and checking his brother for any physical signs of trauma. He knew there weren't any, but it made him feel useful. He gave an irritated tut as Sam slapped his hands away. Yep, he's fine. Physically.

"He didn't seem to like you much," accused Sam. "He seemed terrified."

"And yet you're the one that shot him, Han Solo," quipped Dean, his mind racing. "I thought you were just tired--you've not been sleeping--but it wasn't that." He took a closer look at his brother, painfully aware of the dark smudges that underlined the reddened, tired eyes. "He looked older."

Sam nodded his agreement. He worried at his bottom lip as he clearly wrestled with a sudden thought. "But not that much older," he said at last, his voice hoarse.

~#~

Sam blinked, as he realized he was lying on his back on the bed and had been staring at the ceiling for what could have been either moments or months as far as he could tell. Overcome with a strong, apathetic lethargy he was content to just lie still. Inaction was a luxury seldom allowed, by either himself or life's events.

At first, the weight that pressed down on him was negligible, so barely noticeable he assumed it nothing more than normal tiredness. As the pressure increased, he tried to raise himself to look down at his body, but the effort was too much. He allowed his head to loll back as he wondered when he had started to feel so chemically altered. It wasn't a bad feeling, but an underlying sense of sick anxiety nagged at him. Perhaps Dean decided to slip me some of those sleeping pills after all?

The pressure increased on his body until he could feel it like heavy shackles on his arms and legs, pinning him down.

It's just a flash back, he told himself. He's not really here. He can't hurt me anymore. It's just... sleep paralysis. Yes, that's it. I just need to wake up.

A callused hand covered his mouth and nose, gripping so tight that is was impossible to breathe. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest so hard it would surely burst through his ribcage.

Already anticipating the usual nightmare routine of rough, too-intimate stroking from a familiar taloned hand or the rasp of a forked tongue, when the next touch revealed itself as the piercing cut of a knife, drawing open a deep gash from sternum to navel, he didn't know if his silenced screams were ones of pain or relief.

"All mine, together forever."

Sam struggled against his invisible bonds, his muscles still frozen and stubbornly refusing to cooperate. Stars exploded behind his eyes as he felt a pair of hands pulling at the incision running down his torso. There was a sickening squelch as the flesh was ripped apart and a hand entered him, grasping at his internal organs.

"Will I always have your heart, I wonder?" the voice crooned.

"Sam!"

Sam glanced around, realizing that it was only moments since his brother had sat him down on the edge of the bed. "Sorry," he muttered, disorientated. "I must have zoned out for a second."

"You look terrible," said Dean, seeming to have grown tired of playing nursemaid.

"How did you bear it?" gasped Sam, feeling like he ought to wail, or cry, or even just pound his chest. He really wasn't sure what he was feeling. He just knew he was tired, unrelentingly so. And there was no escape, he realized. He suspected this latest vision proved the consequences of that rash, fleetingly-considered action.

Dean frowned.

"I don't know what it was like on the rack, but...." Sam trailed off as he tried to hold Dean's gaze, but it slipped away like a greased eel.

Dean's cheeks colored and his eyes, unfocussed, turned down and away. It was an expression that in a microsecond was enough to share a library's worth of hurt.

It was Sam's turn to look away in shame. What's buried should stay buried.

~#~

Sam was instantly aware when Dean came back from his room. With a change of clothes and a hatchet clasped in one hand, he seemed as sharp as the blade on the axe he carried. There was a new sense of single-minded focus and...

Sam gagged. "Dude, if you were gonna freshen up, then shower. How much body spray are you wearing?"

"Come on, I've had enough of this. We can't be haunted," his brother scoffed.

Sam nodded. Dean was right. This place was theirs. It was their home and he wasn't about to give it up.

"So where do we start? How do I salt and burn my own ghost?"

Dean's smile didn't reach his eyes. "And they say you're supposed to be the smart one."

"Jerk," snorted Sam. He waited a beat. "Okay, I give up, what have I missed?"

"Ghosts from the future?" prompted Dean, his voice thick with disdain. He led them deeper into the depths of the bunker until they came to a stop outside one of the storage rooms. "And whose ring did you find before all this started?" He held open the door and gestured for Sam to go in.

"I forgot all about this damn thing," said Sam, as he tipped out the contents of the packing box to retrieve the ring. "Although how the thing got here, I don't know. Didn't we kill Chronos in Ohio?"

"Oh yeah, I noticed he wasn't wearing it when we burned the body," Dean supplied.

"Really? You're only just telling me this now?"

"Well, he was already dead. I didn't think it mattered, just that the ring had come off in the fight."

"What is it with immortals and rings?" sighed Sam.

"Wait, what's this?" asked Dean, retrieving a brown card tag from the turned-out contents on the table in front of them. "Ring of Chronos, submitted by Eliot Ness, November 5, 1944"

"What, so you think Ness was a Man of Letters instead of a hunter?"

Dean shrugged. "Could be, I mean the dude was a badass, but he was also kind of a douche bag."

"So what do we do with it?" asked Sam, holding the ring aloft.

"Put it the furnace," said Dean impatiently. He raised his eyebrows mockingly at Sam. "Slouch on, Frodo," he grinned, making a shooing motion.

Sam gave him a funny look, but led the way.

~#~

They watched as the ring melted away. It was almost disappointing how quickly and effortlessly the metal melted away.

"Y'know, I love furnace rooms," said Dean, his face taking on a thoughtful expression. "It's funny, isn't it, how it's a central feature in so many horror films? Like a little piece of Hell in every suburban basement." He seemed happy at the idea.

"Dean?" ask Sam, his heart suddenly hammering against the bone cage inside of his chest.

"Yes, Sammy."

Two innocuous words that Sam had heard countless times before, yet now they seemed to carry such an air of menace. He paused and looked at his brother, really looked. "You're not Dean."

Dean laughed. He ducked his head and peered up through his eyelashes in a coy parody of Dean's 'good ol'boy' look. "I'm more 'Dean' than you can imagine. Strip away all the angst and self-loathing and this is what you get. Pure, distilled Dean."

"Pure something," sneered Sam.

"That's m'boy, that's more like it," Dean jeered. "You keep that attitude up! There's nothing worse than when your victim just hangs from the rack like a rotting piece of meat. I should know; I used to drive Alastair nuts. So much more fun cutting into something that's thrashing about – and, let's face it, you've got the legs for it." He winked. "I'll be seeing you around."

"I'll be ready."

"That's what you said before," smirked Dean. "Before I killed you. Or, will kill you, from your point of view, I suppose; time travel's such a bitch to explain." He gave a deep, belly laugh of pleasure at the look of shock that flashed across Sam's face. "Of course, I regret it now," said Dean, with a wistful smile.

Sam swallowed, his throat so tight it was almost painful

Dean arched an eyebrow and when he spoke again it was in a mocking whisper. "If I could do it again, I'd make you suffer for a lot, lot longer."

"So why did you help me destroy the ring?" asked Sam, with a terrible sense of foreboding.

Dean's teeth and eyes glistened red in the reflection of the flames from the furnace. "You came back to stop me," he said, as if speaking to a small child. "Well, future dead you anyway."

Art by Milly-Gal

He heaved an exaggerated sigh, dripping with toxic scorn. "You had your time when we were growing up. I couldn't let you spoil all my fun now, as well," he added as he gradually faded away, back to whenever he'd come from.

~#~

Dean rubbed his jaw in the vain hope it might reduce the throbbing; sure the blow that had knocked him out earlier had also loosened one of his molars. Future-demon-him obviously ruled with an iron fist in every sense of the words.

"I'm gonna go shower, having demon-douche-me around's just made me feel all slimy." He shuddered at the memory of being confronted by the black-eyed bastard.

Art by Milly-Gal

Sam gave a slow, distracted nod as if struck by a thought. "Hey, do y'think that's what Chronos meant?"

Dean frowned and shook his head, not following his brother's logic. "Whaddya mean?"

"Remember what he said about our future? 'It's covered in thick black ooze; everywhere'"

Dean barked out a humorless laugh. "Just as well he was as crappy a fortune teller as he was a god."

Sam shrugged. "I guess the future's not written in stone, anything could happen," he said, the sour-note of false optimism clear in his voice.

"Exactly! I've been down that road before; we both have. There's no way I'm ever going to let that happen to us," said Dean, trying to inject some pep into his words, while not believing them any more than his brother did. He desperately held out against the persistent itch from the Mark of Cain on his arm, even while knowing full well he would have to scratch it at some point.

Sam grunted in agreement and, clearly wanting to change the subject, turned back to his book.

You know I'd just have to ask, boy, and you'd climb right back up on that rack as quick as a flash, whispered Alastair in his rasping, sing-song voice in Dean's mind. Dean's eyes flicked over to his brother. Yes, agreed Alastair. Then you'd drag him along after you.

"If you could've, you'd have done it already," muttered Dean.

Sam looked up, with a questioning glance. Dean shook his head and pulled a face.

Of course, when did he ever do something I wanted? thought Dean, mournfully, leaving his brother to his studies, knowing a trace of Alastair was now awake and back with him.

I never left, crooned Alastair, running a ragged fingernail down Dean's cheek. We all have our demons, and now we both know it's only a matter of time until I make you one of mine again.

THE END

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" - 'The Second Coming', Yeats.

(;,;)