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And Once More Saw the Stars

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Sam doesn't remember going to Hell the first time. Not really. Not enough that it matters.

He wakes up—jerks awake like he's coming up from underwater and fills his lungs with musty air. There's another stench in his nose—sulfur, rotten, burning—but it dissipates as he gasps for breath, replaced by dust and mildew and the sickly unmistakable reek of a corpse.

He's lying on a mattress, not even up to their usual motel standards, bare and worn and stained red-brown under him. The floor is splintered and the walls are crumbling, and he's alone.

The last thing he remembers is—

scorching, tearing, stabbing, choking

—is Dean, running toward him, shouting his name, as there was a sting of pain at his back, sharp enough to drive the breath out of his chest, and then—

slashing, crackling, struggling, screaming

—nothing.

He's shaky with exhaustion and hunger, stomach knotted in his gut like he hasn't eaten in days. It takes him a couple tries to sit up on the mattress, a few more to stand.

There's a dull, deep ache in his back, the wrong place for a pulled muscle and worse than a bruise. He's checking out the healing scar in the cracked mirror when he hears the door, and then Dean—his face, his hushed voice, the way he pulls Sam into his arms, rough and close and desperate—

Sam knows the truth then. He just pretends he doesn't. Pretends not to see anything in the empty liquor bottles, the full boxes of pizza and takeout Chinese. Pretends not to notice how Dean glances at him, sidelong across the Impala's seat, every minute like clockwork for the whole drive to Bobby's. Like Dean is recalibrating, tuning his heart to the beat of Sam's own.

Sam doesn't ask why Bobby goes sheet-white when he sees them on his stoop; doesn't comment when Bobby adds a hit from his flask of holy water to the drink he gives Sam, just gulps it down.

They don't have time for those questions; the yellow-eyed demon is out there, and Jake with him. Jake who stabbed Sam in the back and left him for dead, and Sam can still feel wrenching agony of the knife, and he wants Jake to feel it instead. Wants Jake to feel—

tongues of flame eagerly following the path of oil dripped down his chest

—to know that he's made the wrong choice. Sided with a demon over humanity, but they'll stop him. They have to.

In the cemetery, Jake stares at Sam, eyes as wide as Bobby's. Tells Sam nothing he shouldn't already know: "You were dead, I killed you."

Then mocks him, "You had your chance," but Sam has a second chance now, a second chance he never should have gotten, and he can't waste it. Not when he knows what it cost.

It isn't hard to pull the trigger, not after so many years with a gun in his hand. Four shots to center mass and the demon's chosen son is lying on the ground, bloody, begging. One shot to end it, and two more to be sure.

Sam feels the spray of blood against his cheek, briefly scorching like molten metal—

poured over his arm and the blistering flesh sloughs away, bone charring through

—but already cooling as he wipes it away.

Bobby is staring at him again, and somehow Dean looks shaken, like he doesn't understand. Like he wouldn't have done the same thing, when he's already done so much worse.

But the Gates are unlocked and opening, demons flooding the world, and Yellow-Eyes comes, reveling in his triumph.

Too soon. They heave shut the Gates, and Dean puts the Colt's last bullet into the demon's chest. And then it's over.

Everything except what matters most. "One year," Dean admits. "I got one year."

It's dawn by the time they get back to Sioux Falls. Bobby puts on coffee while Dean scrambles eggs, and Sam starts going through Bobby's library, pulls out books on demon lore and fairy contracts, curse breaking and hellhounds, building stacks in the middle of the living room, while all he can think about is how could Dean have done this. How could he have gone through with it; how could he have only gotten one year—three-hundred-sixty-four days, now.

At noon Sam sits down on the couch to start reading, paging through a nineteenth-century analysis of Dante's Inferno, squinting at the too-small print through a growing migraine. Shuts his eyes for a momentary respite, and then he's—

blinded by the glowing point of the poker, closer and closer until it's pressing against the swell of his eyeball, searing sizzle and then it pushes in

—starting awake, his lower back throbbing in time with his too-tight skull. He hunches over, groaning, twisting away from the couch cushion digging into his wound.

Then Dean is there, hand on his shoulder, anxious voice in his ear, "Sammy? Your back, huh—should we bandage that? Lemme see," and he pulls up Sam's shirt, makes a visual inspection and finally nods decisively. "Looks like demons make crap surgeons," he says, "but I think you're going to live."

Sam pulls up his head, though the sudden motion yanks painfully at the wound, to glare at his brother. "Not funny," he grates out, and Dean looks momentarily startled, then momentarily heartbroken.

Then he grins, shit-eating wide, teeth showing. Glad. "Doesn't have to be," he says, and gives Sam's shoulder one more pat, final check that Sam is really here, really breathing, before he stands.

Sam reaches down, wincing, to pick up the tome fallen off his lap to the floor. Looks at the cover, tattered dull red, flaking gold print outlining a simple line sketch of flames. Stylized hellfire. He swallows. "Dean?"

Dean at the doorway turns back. "Yeah?"

"How..." Sam's throat is dry. Parched and scorched raw, aching as he works up enough saliva to speak. He could make a guess, extrapolate from the food left out, the dry ground after the rain; but he wants to know. "How long was I...before you made the deal?"

Dean goes still, like they're on a hunt, the absolute fixed readiness before he pulls the trigger. At last he says, "About two days."

Two days. And the smell of death had been heavy in that derelict house. "But you didn't—why didn't you burn the..." They'd put how many spirits and monsters to the flames. Put Dad himself on a pyre.

Dean shakes his head. "Wasn't time to." The grin flashes again. "Good call on my part, huh?"

Two days, and Dean hadn't burned his body.

And yet Sam knows, he knows he burned. Crackling fire licking his skin, red to black to gray drifting ash.

Two days dead, his unburned corpse rotting on an old mattress, while his soul...

Sam has always believed in God. Heaven he's less sure of, but always hopeful.

Hell, though, is a matter of fact, not faith. They'd slammed the door on it just last night.

Hell, where the damned go. The forsaken and the wicked, and Sam maybe has some illusions about himself, but he knows what he's done. What he is. Maybe it was what Meg did with him. Maybe it was Yellow-Eyes, dripping blood into his infant mouth. Or else it was everything in between.

It doesn't matter. Dean got him out. And Sam is going to get Dean out.

"Sam?" Dean asks. Sam looks up at his brother. Dean's frowning, brow furrowed around the bruised slash bisecting his forehead. "That book looks like a real page-turner, but how about you come along on a grocery run? Got to pick up something for dinner.

Sam's hands curl around the red book, clutching it close. It probably doesn't have the answers, but maybe it does. Something has to, somewhere. "You go. I want to get through this by tonight."

Dean actually rolls his eyes, like Sam's eleven and asking for more quarters for Mortal Kombat. "Come on, dude. I'm not sifting through a pile of string beans to find the good ones. So if you want something green on the table tonight..."

Three-hundred-sixty-four days and counting, and Sam couldn't care less about eating his vegetables. But Dean is shrugging, turning away, and maybe there's only three-hundred-sixty-four days left of this, too.

Sam shoves aside the book, jumps to his feet. "Hold up, I'm coming," he says. Dean just shrugs again, but he's smiling again, too, as Sam falls into step behind him.

One year will be enough time to figure out something. It has to be.

Their dad clawed his way through the Gates. Sam wouldn't have been strong enough to do that, but his brother dragged him out anyway.

"Sam?" Dean says, as they reach the Impala. "Something you want to tell me? You got this look, like..."

"Nothing," Sam says, opening the passenger side door, climbing in. Driving, Dean isn't able to look him in the eyes. It makes it easier. "Just thinking."

Dean doesn't need to know. Will never realize himself, what those flames are like.

But some fire strengthens. A forge is where iron is smelted into steel, where blades are cast and bullets poured. And he hadn't hesitated, pulling the trigger. Knows he won't now, not when it counts.

There are no Winchesters in Hell now, and there won't ever be again.

Sam's going to see to that.