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Every hand's a winner

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They were not alone at the crossroads.

When the car rolled up, engine a low, sweet purr in the whisper and wind of the night, it pushed between the still ranks of a silent, leering crowd. They were young and old, man and woman, adult and child, fat and thin; they were of many races; they were more than Sam could count. A lot of them wore clothes stained with blood and worse than blood; a smell rose up out of them, thick and ripe and bitter. They waited behind bright rows of yarrow, their liquid black eyes radiant and fixed on the figure of the child who stood at their center. Where the roads crossed.

Sam watched the girl, the demon, as Dean let off the gas and tapped the brakes. They eased into place in front of her, still idling. Sam could feel her, the nothing of her; she stood like a rip in the night, her physical form barely masking the void inside. Looking at her was like a freefall straight into Hell.

She looked back at Sam, unsmiling, unmoving. Waiting. She didn't look at Dean. Five minutes to midnight. Not yet time.

"Well, well." Dean didn't take his eyes off her, but his tense grin was for Sam. "Look who turned up for the midnight show. I'm a celebrity, Sam. You got a pen? I might have to sign some autographs."

"Yeah, this is shaping up to be a regular summer blockbuster," Sam said. He kept his voice light and even, for Dean.

"I like to think of it as more of a modern cult classic." Dean took the car out of gear and pulled the keys from the ignition. "Those always have sequels."

Sam nodded; he didn't trust himself to say anything after that. His heart was pounding so loud he was sure Dean could hear it, and the putrid wind blowing in through the open windows felt too heavy and thick to breathe. He couldn't stop looking at Dean -- the pale, scared face plastered over with bravado, the wide set of his shoulders under the leather jacket. The white knuckles, clenched tight around the steering wheel and his keys.

Dean nodded back. That was all they would have, all Sam wanted here. They'd said their goodbyes across twelve months; and again last night, stretched side by side along the hood of the car with the windshield at their backs.

"You ready?"

Sam laughed; it came out breathless and a little crazy. "No."

"Sam..."

"Yeah." He cleared his throat, and tried again. "Okay. Yeah."

"Then I guess these are yours."

Dean held out his hand; his keys gleamed bright against his palm. In the pale light of the moon, Sam could see the indentations where their edges had pushed deep into Dean's skin.

"Dean."

"Sam." Dean shook his head, his smile going soft around the corners. "Don't go all watery, okay? I didn't spend the last six months teaching you how to take care of her, just to have you get all sentimental and useless on me now." He took Sam by the wrist, opened his hand and folded the keys into it. "She's yours now. You look after her for me."

Sam blinked away the wetness in his eyes. He nodded, making a fist around the keys, holding on as tight as he wanted to hold on to his brother. "I will."

"Good. That's good." Dean smoothed his hand over the dash, traced lightly around the wheel. "She'll look after you, too."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Dean gave the driver's side door a pat, then pushed it open. "Always did for me."

~

Dirt and gravel ground beneath the heels of Dean's boots. Sam walked half a step behind, anchored by a promise. It took all the will in his body to stand as a witness instead of a defender; it took all the strength and courage he had. Head on, with some dignity, Dean had said across the roof of the car last night. And Sam had said, Okay. But not alone.

The ranks of the possessed surrounded them, eerily silent. Every face different, every expression the same. Sleek and quiet as shadows, two hounds melted out of the crowd and into the crossroads. Their hairless flanks heaved, gleaming with sweat. Vicious, hungry, their red eyes fixed on Dean, they fell in behind their mistress and waited to be freed.

The girl watched them come. Her eyes, blank and white as pearls, glowed faintly with a sickly, eager light. Sam's fingers itched for a knife, or a trigger; he had neither.

Dean smiled, a smile like a blade, sliding over bared white teeth. "Lilith," he said. "You're early. Didn't anybody ever tell you punctuality was a virtue?"

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help it." Her child's voice was high and sweet and wrong. "It's just that I've been looking forward to this all year."

Dean spread his hands wide. "Waiting's over." He looked around at the crowd, and Sam saw that it had changed, pressed closer. There were more of them now. Dean shook his head, and dropped his hands to his sides. "Sorry, but I didn't bring enough to share."

She smiled, too much knowledge for a child's face, too much hunger. "Oh, I think you'd be surprised."

Dean rolled his eyes, and waited.

"No final brotherly farewell?" she asked. "No last loving words? I'm a little disappointed; I was hoping for a few tears, at least." Her gaze shifted, and her smile widened until it gaped, an amused gash that spread too wide across her face. "Nothing from you, Sam?"

"Leave him alone. He's not a part of this." Dean took a step towards her, hands clenched into fists at his sides. "This is between you and me."

"That's where you're wrong, Dean. You're between me and Sam. You always have been."

"Yeah? Well, newsflash, kiddo: I always will be. Killing me isn't going to change that." He lowered his voice to a rumble. "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Sam laughed. It broke out of him, taking him by surprise, and for a second when he looked at Dean, all of it went away: The girl, the crossroads, the hounds, the demonic studio audience -- all of it. For a second it was Sam and his brother, the reckless idiot brother he couldn't live without.

"Jesus, Dean."

Dean grinned at him. "I know, right? I've been saving that one up."

Sam grinned back, fierce love for Dean rising up in his chest so high he couldn't hold it in. Couldn't hide it to save his own life, wouldn't even try.

His promise broke. He felt it give way, and couldn't find it in himself to regret it.

Lilith felt it, too.

~

She came to them. Sam watched as Dean's smile faltered and faded. She reached out, laid a hand on his brother's wrist, and trailed her fingers down to his hand. Dean went still under the touch. A subtle tremor went through him; Sam took a step closer, drawing their attention to himself.

Lilith smiled at Dean and took his hand. Dean didn't resist, but Sam could almost see his skin crawl. "It would have been lovely," she said. "But I think we all know who you belong to. Don't we, Sam?"

"Hey, back off, Carol Ann. I said leave him alone!"

"Like you would? All alone, empty, nothing but a scar for a heart, nothing but hate and pain to pump the blood through his body? Is that what you want for your brother, Dean?"

"Sam knows what I want for him." Dean looked at Sam, the pride and respect in his eyes clearer than Sam had ever seen. "He's stronger than you think."

"Sam knows what he wants for himself. That's what I think."

Sam's mouth was suddenly dry, his tongue thick and useless as a strip of leather. His voice was barely strong enough to carry. "What do you want for me, Lilith?"

Dean's eyes widened. "Sam, no."

She let go of Dean, and went to Sam. Behind her, Dean tried to follow, tried to move. She didn't let him. She looked up at Sam, if eyes like those could see; staring at them made his skin crawl, made bile rise in the back of his throat. "Sam," she said gently.

"Just tell me."

"It's been a long year, and every road you've traveled has only brought you closer to me. You know you don't have to lose him."

Dean's voice cut through hers, fear and warning making it rough. "Sam."

Sam closed his eyes. His hands fisted in his pockets. Dean's keys cut into his palm, their edges breaking the skin, drawing blood. His blood, Dean's blood, Dad's. Mom's. All the same.

"He's as worthless to me as he's always been to you," she said. "But I don't mind letting you keep him, if that's what you want." She took another step in, close enough to whisper. "All you have to do is ... make me an offer."

"Sam, please."

Sam looked at Dean. His brother, his family; everything he had. Dean's eyes were wide and frightened, his face so white every freckle stood out, his mouth thin and pale. Scared for him, Sam knew, more than Dean had ever been for himself.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he said.

"Sam!"

Sam turned, and looked into Lilith's cold, bright eyes. "You want to make a new deal?"

"Isn't that why we're here?"

"Fine." Sam looked at Dean, stilled and silenced now by Lilith's power but struggling against it, glaring at Sam with hopeless anger. Then he looked past Dean, at the car. He pulled Dean's keys from his pocket, bright steel slick with blood. He tossed them into the air, and caught them easily as they fell.

"Tell you what," he said to Lilith, a slow grin spreading across his face. "I'll race you for him."

~

The kiss was as sour and wrong as spoiled milk, her child's mouth pressing obscenely against his lips and her breath a fragile, sweet push against his cheek. She smiled when Sam pulled back, a pink flush of victory already staining her cheeks.

"Three miles to the next crossroads," she said, pointing into the darkness to the north. "Winner takes all."

"Winner takes all," Sam agreed. "Dean and I walk away whole and undamaged, and you and your pals leave us -- and all these people -- alone. Forever."

"Or your brother -- and you -- are mine to do with as I like, as is your world. Forever." She tilted her head, her face a serene mask. "We'll meet you there."

Sam shrugged, whatever, let's get on with it, and turned to Dean. His brother's face was tense and troubled, worry and anger and hope all mixed together and bottled up behind the spell of silence. "Let him talk," he said to Lilith, more an order than a request. And then to Dean, "Don't worry. You taught me everything I need to know."

"If there's any justice in the world," Dean said, "there's a special ass-kicking room in the Pit, made just for me and you."

Sam laughed, wrapped an arm around Dean's neck and pulled him in, holding him tight. "Tell me all about it later," he whispered in his brother's ear. "When I've blown this bitch and her fan club back to Hell."

~

Two of Lilith's demons latched onto Dean's arms, wrenching him away from Sam and dragging him away. He didn't flinch, didn't cry out, never said a word. Never took his eyes off Sam. He was gone into the darkness in a heartbeat. The crowded faded back with him, leaving the crossroads silent and still.

Beside him on the gravel, Lilith stood waiting. Her hounds crouched under her hands on either side.

"If they hurt him, if they even annoy him--"

"They'll wait for us at the finish line. He won't be harmed. Not yet, anyway. A deal is a deal, after all." She smiled. "Besides. Hurting him is my prize, not theirs. And I'm so looking forward to it, Sam. You don't even know."

"You'll never touch him again," Sam said, and it was the truth, it had to be the truth.

He climbed into the car. The ignition key slid in easily, and the Impala snarled to life under Sam's steady hands. She was louder than he expected, the rumble under the hood deeper and smoother. She was wild under her brakes, barely held back, ready like Sam had never seen her. She knows, he thought, not quite rational, waiting for the signal to start. She knows.

Lightning struck on either side of the road, forked and red, three times -- and on the third, the car leapt forward with a roar, eating the ground in front of her and spitting dirt and rock behind. The wheel shuddered and jerked under Sam's hands; he held it with a light touch and was rewarded with a path straight and true. The road blurred to either side, trees and brush and land a monolithic slab of darkness, gilded to a river of silver by speed and moonlight.

And on either side, the hell-hounds bayed with voices like screams, eager and swift, keeping pace. Pulling ahead. In the glare of the Impala's headlights their legs bunched and stretched; black foam dripped from their muzzles, demonic grace and thunder driving them on. Sam could smell them, fetid breath and rank, unhealthy flesh. He put his foot on the floor and the car jumped forward again, pulling even. Red eyes met his through his open window and teeth like razor blades snapped at the air viciously, ceaselessly.

They passed the halfway mark. Detroit steel groaned and whined around him as Sam pushed the car to impossible speeds. The screaming of the hounds faded to ragged pants, to nothing. A peal of childish laughter rang inside his mind, and there was light up ahead, a nauseating liquid glow, and the hounds, on either side of him, the hounds...

The hounds stretched, their limbs melting and lengthening, their heads rounding and narrowing like bullets. The laughter came again, in Sam's head and in the air, impossibly loud.

The hounds ran faster.

"Dean," Sam whispered. Tears streamed from his eyes, blurred his vision. Even half-blinded he could see that the needle was buried; the car had nothing left to give. To either side of him, the hounds had edged ahead, a dark and hungry escort on the road to Hell.

Come on, girl, Dean's voice urged from somewhere in Sam's memory. A hundred crazy somewheres, over the years, strong square hands smoothing over the glossy black finish, over the dashboard. Sam wiped at his face with the heel of one hand, barely keeping the tires on the road, then put his hand back on the wheel.

"Come on, girl," Sam said, and poured his will into her engine block, his heart into the last quarter mile. "He's waiting for you, just up ahead."

The engine screamed, and the headlights flared bright as the sun, and the Impala lurched forward - ungainly, unbeautiful, but fast, faster than she'd ever been, faster than anything. Beneath Sam's hands, slick with tears, the steering wheel spun out of control; he let go of it, let her go, grabbed onto the door and the dash, and just hung on. She flew, tires barely touching the ground, frictionless over the moonlit glow of the road.

Behind her, her tail-lights blazed the color of blood, but the only ones who saw that were the hounds.

~

She skidded and spun, gravel ripping up off the road in a sheet; even the demons raised their hands and turned to cover their hosts' faces. In the center of the crossroads she stopped, smoke pouring thick and black from under her hood, tires hot enough to melt. The ignition killed itself, keys turning without human intervention. Sam sat for a second, listening to the engine's click and ping. Then he climbed out of the car.

The hell hounds lay in the pool of light thrown by the headlights, deformed and broken, dead. Lilith stood over them, her eyes still filmy and white, her face still pale and calm. Only her fists, clenched tight and shaking at her sides, betrayed her anger.

"Kind of a sore loser, aren't you," Sam said. He winked at Dean, who stood between two of the possessed, unmoving; Dean snorted, and shook his head, and ducked to hide his grin.

"This is one battle," Lilith said. "Not the war. What's out there, what's coming -- it's going to be glorious. I may have lost this round, but I'm not alone out here, Sam. I'm not freelance."

"Then I guess you're going to have some explaining to do when you get back to the office." Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Give me my brother, take your little militia, and get the hell out of here. That was the deal."

"That was the deal," Lilith said sweetly, and the mouths of the possessed yawned open, and oily black smoke boiled up and out of them. Streaks of darkness blotted out the stars, flashed across the moon, vanished. Lilith smiled, and her smile was coy and vicious, and while Sam was recoiling from it she laughed, and when the laughter was finished, she was gone. Her pet demons were gone.

Only Dean and Sam and the car and the crowd remained, and in the space of a breath the crowd fell, their limbs sprawled and lax, their eyes frozen, their flesh cold.

Dead. Every single one.

~

Sam caught Dean just as his knees started to buckle, and helped him over to the car. The hood was still too hot to touch, so he propped Dean up against the driver's side door, one hand on his shoulder to keep him steady. They both tried not to look at the bodies, and they both failed; the dead reached out to them with their stillness, snagged at their peripheral vision.

"Hey." Sam moved his hand to the back of Dean's neck, gave him a shake. "Hey, just. Think about this. You're okay. We beat her. You're not going anywhere."

Dean nodded. His face was lined and pale, like he'd aged ten years across three miles. His eyes cut away to the nearest of the dead, a boy in jeans and ragged sneakers, one cheek pressed into the gravel where he'd fallen. "Where do you think they went?"

"It doesn't matter," Sam said, then shook his head when Dean's eyes snapped up, shocked. "I mean, it's not on us. They were dead before they got here, Dean. This is Lilith's work, not ours." Sam looked at Dean, only at Dean; he couldn't afford to look anywhere else, couldn't stand it.

"I know." Dean closed his eyes, and tilted his head back to rest in Sam's hand. "I know."

"I couldn't let her take you," Sam said. A well of panic rose up in him, and his hand tightened against Dean's neck. "You get that, right? I couldn't--" He shook his head and looked away. "I just couldn't."

"Hey." Dean grabbed Sam by the arms and gave him a little shake. "Hey, it's okay, Sammy. I get it. I do." He pulled, and Sam fell onto him, a barely controlled stagger; without the car behind them, Dean couldn't have taken his weight. He wrapped his arms around Dean, burying his face in his neck, holding on; and Dean held on, too, and for a minute, everything else in the world went away.

~

Sam took the passenger seat; the car wouldn't start until Dean was behind the wheel, and then it came alive with a low, welcoming growl. They called Bobby before they reached their hotel, to let him know Dean was still topside and to arrange for an anonymous call to the local cops about their fallen citizens down the road.

The rest of the ride passed in silence; every time Sam almost said something, he'd catch a glimpse of Dean's face in the glow of the dashboard lights and the words would catch in his throat. He wasn't sure what he would have said, anyway. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He was all mixed up between relief and fear and gratitude and adrenaline, too keyed up to sit still and far too tired to move.

Dean pulled into a spot in front of their motel room and cut the engine and the lights, but made no move to open his door. Sam stayed put, too. The car's interior made for a warm, quiet bubble of what passed for safety in their lives; he wasn't in any rush to leave it.

"What you did back there," Dean said finally. Sam looked over; Dean was peering out the windshield at the door to their room, like he was trying to read the fine print on it. "That was--"

"A little crazy," Sam said, "I know. But--"

"I was gonna say 'awesome.'"

Sam tilted his head, eyes wide. "Really?"

"Yes, really." Dean looked like he was going to say more, but he just shook his head and looked away. He fumbled the keys out of the ignition, nearly dropping them; Sam put a hand over Dean's, locking the keys between their fingers.

"You sold your soul for me, Dean," he said, looking down at their joined hands in a kind of wonder. "Did you really think I'd do anything less for you?"

Dean shook his head, and laid his free hand on top of Sam's. Then he let go with both. The keys fell, forgotten. He turned in his seat and reached for Sam, clumsy, his hands in the way because Sam was reaching back and neither of them knew how to do it, how to reach and hold on like they wanted. Sam figured it out first, got one hand on Dean's face and the other on the collar of his shirt; he pulled in with both, pulled Dean closer until they were sharing breath.

"Sam," Dean said. His breath was warm and fast against Sam's mouth. "What are we doing?"

"Something. Finally." Sam grinned, pressing his forehead against Dean's. Something right. Something that had been coming on for a long, long time.

"Rules are rules," Dean said seriously. He leaned closer; so close. Almost there. Sam could almost taste him. "You did win me, after all."

"I won you," Sam said with a shaky laugh, "I did, I won you fair and square."

And behind them, unnoticed and untouched, each of the car doors locked.