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Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

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They leave the Impala at the Timber Lake Trailhead. Dean slams the trunk closed, shoulders his pack, and raises his eyebrows at Sam, as if to ask you sure about this? Sam shrugs. He's as sure as he'll ever be. It's not like there's anyone they can ask. Not like he has one of the most powerful witches in existence on speed dial any more. Not like there's any real way of knowing if this is going to work, if the weeks of sweat and blood prepping for this are actually going to pay off.

He unfolds the map and lays it across the trunk. "If we head straight east, we'll pick up Route 34 at Farview Curve, and we'll miss all this." Sam runs a finger along the switchback twists and hairpin turns of a section of Route 34. "Or we can go northeast, between these two creeks. It will take a little longer, since we'll have to backtrack some once we get to the road, but we won't have to cross a creek without a bridge."

Dean squints up at the cold morning sky, down at the frozen ground. Scuffs at the hard crust of snow with his boot. "Creek's probably frozen, don't you think?"

"Yeah. Okay. East it is." Sam folds the map and keeps his face neutral. Doesn't want to reveal how relieved he is that Dean actually... spoke. Contributed. Acted like he gives a shit, about this job or literally anything else. He threads his arms through the straps of his own pack, checks his compass, and starts down the slope away from the trailhead.

 

~ ~ ~

 

There is no trail between Timber Lake and Farview Curve, and Sam's too distracted by the rough terrain (and other things, maybe) to be bothered by Dean's silence. He was right about the creek being frozen, although Sam tests the ice with a kick of his heel a few times. More than strictly necessary, probably, judging by the look Dean gives him. Maybe it's hit him already. Maybe the trepidation spilling out of that breach on Route 34 has already reached him, is already sinking into his bones. Maybe he's crossed the line between cautious and fearful.

Or, on the other hand, maybe Dean just doesn't give a shit if they drown in the icy water. Maybe despair is having its way with him.

What they need, right about now, is a reliable narrator.

The forest is thick along the creek and Sam feels closed in and claustrophobic (not caged, don't think about a cage.) He's relieved when the trees start to thin out closer to Route 34. When they finally reach the road, he stops to stretch and take a drink. Dean stares up at the sky, checking the weather or estimating how much daylight is left or just avoiding eye contact.

"Fucking Cas," he mutters.

Okay then. None of the above. Sam motions toward the water bottle hanging off Dean's backpack. "You should stay hydrated."

Dean keeps his eyes in the distance. "I'm fine."

"Are you? Are you doing okay?"

"Told you, Sam. I'm fine."

"Okay, but... I mean, you know. We need to pay attention to -"

"Sam. I am fine. End of discussion."

"You know," Sam sighs, "it would be easier if you'd just talk to me. Tell me what you're thinking."

Dean finally turns to look at him. "Actually, it probably wouldn't." He turns away and starts walking along the snowy ribbon of road.

 

~~~

 

A couple of miles later they come across a crude wooden cross peeking out of the snow. "That would be Corinne Treadwell," Sam says, making a note on the map. "The one who drove off the road... straight into that pine tree, I imagine. Not much of curve here or anything. She must have been going pretty fast to lose control like that."

Dean nods at the scarred tree but doesn't comment.

"So, uh. She was... we know it goes at least this far." Sam clears his throat, feeling inexplicably nervous. (Nervous? Or afraid?)

"Yeah, and you knew that already," Dean says. "You mapped out all the deaths. You know how far they are from the... epicenter. You know the radius."

"What's your point?"

"My point is, why are you bringing it up? Why are we standing here talking about this? We know what we've gotta do, and we know where we have to go to do it. So let's just go get this over with."

"I'm just saying, we're definitely in the affected area now. We don't know how much it's grown since Corinne died, but we know it's at least this far out. We need to be careful."

"And the more time you spend yapping, the more time we spend in the affected area. So can we get a move on? We've got at least a mile to go, and I don't want to get stuck out here after dark." He stares at the sky again, as if Cas is up there, and where do dead angels go, anyway? It seems like Sam knew the answer to that once.

Dean clenches his hands as he turns and heads back to the road.

 

~~~

 

"Is this what you thought it would be like?" Sam asks, readjusting his pack.

"What, the Rocky Mountains? Been here before, in case you forgot."

"No, I mean. What Billie said. Cosmic consequences. Did you ever think about what that could mean?"

Dean's only response is a derisive snort.

"Just seems like it'd be something... bigger, you know?"

"People are dead, Sam. It's fucking big enough."

Which is true, but it still feels too contained, too quiet. There should be flames and brimstone and dark shapes blotting out the sun, a fiery opening torn out of the sky. Not just this quiet miasma of trepidation and fury and dismay. Not this small (but growing, don't forget it's growing) area of contagion so fierce that everyone who survived exposure reported feeling terror, hatred, a bone-deep urge to either kill or die.

On the other hand, the gateway to Hell was just a hole in the ground, so. There's that. Sometimes the worst thing on Earth is actually pretty subtle.

Sam has to stop for a minute and work very hard at not thinking about a hole in the ground that leads to Hell. Dean walks ahead. The tense set of his shoulders doesn't look fearful or vigilant, it just looks... angry. Sam trots to catch up with him. "How are you doing?" he asks, trying for nonchalant and not quite reaching it.

"Peachy."

"Would you tell me if you weren't?"

"Guess we'll find out, won't we?" Dean nods once, the way he does when he's shoving something down deep, then looks at Sam thoughtfully. "Why'd you save the rest of the blood in the first place, when you were done rehumanizing me?"

Okay, that came out of nowhere. "Just seemed useful," Sam answers carefully. He's not sure where Dean's going with this. "Sanctified blood. Lots of spells call for blood. Seemed like it would be good to keep on hand."

"Not because you were waiting for me to go black-eyed again."

"No. I never. No."

Dean's hands curl into fists (fleeting thought of that fist slamming into his own face, those fingers curled around a wooden handle, no, no, don't think about that), then release. "Okay then."

 

~~~

 

The sun is bright in the cloudless sky, but with every step, Sam feels colder and colder. "Damn, it's really... weirdly cold."

Dean shrugs. "Mountains. Winter. Do the math."

But it's not winter cold. It's not the external temperature. It's something inside leaching the warmth out of his flesh; it's ice water flowing inside his veins, a cold fetid mist pooling in his gut, frozen bones ready to shatter on impact. It's a cold he's only felt in Hell. He watches Dean's hands, watches them spasmodically clench and release, and he knows he feels it too. The wrongness of it.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"I'm fine."

Something snaps; something deep inside lets go and Sam can't control his fight-or-flight response any longer. He grabs Dean by the shoulder, whirls him around to face him. "Goddammit. You're not fine. You are very, very not fine. What I need to know is, is this your normal level of not fine? Or is this some cosmically fucked-up level of not fine?"

Dean swats his hand away, his eyes suddenly wild. "I'm fine. You need to back the fuck off and worry about what's happening in your own head. You think I haven't seen the way you're looking at me? Like I'm gonna throw you on the rack and peel your fucking skin off? You think I can't tell what you're thinking?"

(Oh god the rack don't think about being on the rack don't think about what Dean could do to you don't think about Lucifer's cold fingers peeling and scraping and prying and breaking...)

"I'm not gonna do it, Sam. I promise." Dean lifts his hand, as if he's going to touch Sam's arm, but pulls it back at Sam's involuntary flinch. "I'm not gonna do it to you. I know I did it to them, but I'm not gonna do it to you."

Shit. Whatever it is, whatever is seeping out of that breach created by the broken blood pact, it's wormed its way in. "Dean. This is it. It's getting into our heads. We just gotta get through this."

"I'm not gonna hurt you, Sam. I won't. No matter what they say."

Sam swallows, fairly sure Dean's actually trying to convince himself. "I know."

(But he would, wouldn't he? He would and he did and he'll do it again and there's nothing you can do to stop him; if Dean really wants to hurt you there's nothing you can do about it and there's no one else to stop him, everyone is gone, it's just you and Dean left in this world and he's itching to kill you already, watch his fingers, curled like he's holding a blade, a hammer, a scythe, ready to swing, eyes flipping black -)

"Stop!" Sam shouts. Dean stares at him, green (green) eyes startled, and Sam shakes his head, as if any amount of shaking could clear away the fear and despair. "Don't listen to it, okay? We're almost there. We can do this."

Dean nods and takes a deep breath, pulls himself under control. "We got this."

A hundred yards farther and they're at the spot, the spot where the car stopped at midnight and everything went to shit. But it's too clean. Too normal. There should be downed trees and scorched earth (don't think about angel wings splayed out beside Cas's body, scorched into the earth, don't don't don't), there should be fire, there should be blood.

Oh, fuck. Fire and blood. "Dean. We gotta do the thing."

Dean stares at him for a second, shoving his own demons down. Then he takes off his pack and retrieves the silver knife, hefting it in a trembling hand for a moment before he digs out the rest of supplies - the metal bowl, the dried herbs and kindling, the holy oil. From his own pack, Sam pulls out the carefully sealed container of blood, blood of the many, and is struck by the sudden terror that he interpreted the spell wrong, that this effort will fail, and who would have ever thought he'd miss Rowena, but if she were here, she would know. Rowena would know. But even their occasionally helpful enemies-of-my-enemies are gone, there's no one to help, no one to ask, and they're going to fail and they're going to die here and the breach will get bigger and the contagion will spread and it will never, ever stop -

"Sam!" Dean is kneeling at the bowl, mixing the oil with the dried ingredients. "You okay? You with me?"

"Yeah. I'm good." Sam runs a hand down his face, surprised to feel perspiration on his forehead. He's so cold, cold down to his bones, Hell cold, Lucifer cold, and each bead of sweat should be a droplet of ice. He opens the container of blood and gently tips it into the bowl. As Dean mixes, Sam pulls a folded sheet of paper out of his pocket. He used a marker to write out the spell, bold black letters that are easy to read under less-than-ideal circumstances, but the strokes stare at him like hard black eyes and he shoves it back in his pocket.

Dean digs in his own pocket for a pack of matches and sets them carefully next to the bowl. He takes up the silver knife and cuts a neat slice in his palm, holding his hand over the bowl, and Sam expects frozen crystals to tumble out (so cold, he's so fucking cold) but it's just his brother's completely normal blood, trickling onto the mixture below. Dean looks up at Sam, raising his hand to offer the knife (still gripping the handle tight, his hand trembling slightly, poised to cut, close enough to tear through Sam's flesh), then he shudders and tosses it onto the ground instead, like he wants it out of his own reach. "Your turn."

But as Sam reaches for the knife, there's a sudden gust of cold wind and a sneering laugh and a familiar icy voice.

What are you boys up to? Do you have any idea what you're doing?

Sam closes his eyes but he can't shut it out, can't unsee Lucifer standing there, pale eyes and chilly smile, standing in the forest like an average guy in jeans and a faded shirt, because sometimes the worst thing on Earth is pretty subtle. "No," he whispers, "no, no, no," but even his loudest screams were never able to drown out that voice.

You don't even know what your pet angel unleashed, do you? You have no idea what's oozing out of that hole. What do you think happens when you break a blood oath with a reaper and tear open a hole in the world? What did you think would be on the other side?

It's not real, he's not real, it's just the breach. It's just the evil and the fear seeping out of the breach, seeping into his brain. Sam turns his head toward Dean because Dean will know, Dean won't see him, and that will prove he's a hallucination. But when he opens his eyes, Dean is staring in horror, and oh, God, no.

"Dean? You see him too? Lucifer?"

Dean blinks at him, confused. "Not Lucifer. Alastair."

Lucifer chuckles. Everyone's got their own personal version of Hell. Most of them aren't as literal as yours, granted. He leans in, conspiratorially. I wonder what ol' Alastair's telling your brother to do to you right now? Think he can fight it off?

Dean's shouting at him but his words are lost under the roaring in Sam's ears and Lucifer's cold laughter and he watches, frozen, as Dean lunges for the knife and whirls toward him, cries out and flounders helplessly as Dean wrestles him to the ground and then Dean's above him, hand raised, flash of light on the silver blade (swinging a knife toward his throat a hammer toward his head a scythe toward his neck) and please, God, no, but there is no God, and even when there was a God it didn't matter, God never listened to Sam's prayers and he's not going to start now and there is no angel behind Dean, no Cas there to stop the killing blow, no one but Sam and his brother who's going to kill him and he failed and he's sorry, he's so sorry, and he closes his eyes because he doesn't want to see his brother's eyes go black, he doesn't want that to be the last thing he sees, and he stops fighting because it doesn't matter any more, they're both going to die and then everyone's going to die and he didn't save them and he's sorry.

But when he finally feels the bite of the knife it's on his palm, not his throat, and when he opens his eyes, Dean's holding his hand over the bowl. "Stay with me, Sam," he mutters. "If I'm seeing Alastair and you're seeing Lucifer then neither one of them's real, and we just gotta ignore 'em. You can do this."

Yes, fuck, yes, he can do this. He set up the spell; it needs his blood. Sam rises to his knees and bleeds into the bowl, then wipes his hand on his jeans and digs the spell out of his pocket. The paper rattles in his quaking hands, but the stark black letters are legible enough. Sam speaks the words as Dean lights the pack of matches and tosses it into the bowl. There's a gentle whoosh and the air abruptly feels warmer and lighter and not wrong. And Sam's not afraid.

He collapses into the snow, face up, eyes closed, and hears a muted grunt as Dean does the same.

~~~

"You okay?" Dean asks, a few minutes later.

Sam takes inventory. Everything seems to be in working order. "Yeah, I'm okay. What about you? And don't say fine or peachy or I swear to God, I will stab you in the face."

Dean huffs a dry little laugh. "I'm good. I mean, shit was messed up for a while, not denying that. Hell, shit's still pretty messed up. But it's all right. We got this."

Sam turns to look at his brother, who's staring up into the sky again. Cas is out there somewhere, unreachable, gone. Mom is out there somewhere, unreachable, but... but not forever. They'll get her back.

"Yeah. We got this."