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Wrong Way Down a One-Way Road

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The Silverbergs have two kids, a son and daughter, ages six and nine.

Had two kids. The mother is in the living room, cooling blood soaking into the Persian rug. The Winchesters are almost done searching the house when the father comes after Dean with a carving knife. Sam shoots him in the head, but it doesn't check his charge. Dean meets the demon halfway and plunges an angel blade into his heart, shouts warning to Sam.

He's a moment too late; the other demon is already vaulting the second-story railing above the house's entryway. He lands on Sam's shoulders, knocks them both over. Sam rolls with it, earning bruises but no bones broken on the parquet. He keeps his grip on the demon-killing knife, but then the demon's boot comes down on his wrist, pinning the dagger.

The demon grins, black-eyed and triumphant, and closes one hand around Sam's throat—not throttling; squeezing to crush his windpipe. Except by then Dean is there, his angel blade to the demon's own neck.

"Wait!" Sam gasps out, and Dean freezes, a split second before he's broken skin, the blade's silver point indenting the demon's throat.

The demon's fingers have loosened around Sam's neck. Sam shoves away his arm and pushes upright. The demon glares up at him, black eyes flicking back to washed-out blue, but doesn't risk moving and driving the angel blade into his neck.

"What's the deal?" Dean asks, flat.

"The kids," Sam says. Waves at the wall, the family portraits and school pictures hung there neatly framed. It's well past midnight, but the bedrooms upstairs were empty. And these are children, not teens who might be out late. "Where are their kids?"

The demon grins, rolls his eyes. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Yeah," Dean says, pressing the blade in a little harder. "We would."

"You'll never find them." The demon's voice quivers with laughter, profanely genuine. "It's a new thing Asmodeus is trying—hosts specially prepared. I play my cards right and in a few years I'll get one of my own. So I can say sayonara to this sad sack," and the demon tilts back his head, opens his mouth for the black smoke to stream out.

Sam throws up his hand to stop Dean's stab, even as he starts chanting. It's been a while since he's used it, but the reversed exorcism spills from his lips almost as easily as the regular version.

By the time the black smoke has been forced back between the host's teeth, Dean already has ripped open the man's shirt, blade poised over the breastbone. He scratches the sigil shallow enough to barely draw blood, and the demon shudders with the blade's burn.

It won't seal the demon in long; as soon as he's got a hand free he could slash the mark with his nails. But it's enough time to get the demon cuffs and force him into the Impala's warded trunk. If any of the neighbors on this suburban street heard or saw anything, they're gone before the cops show up.

 


 

Dean had taken note of the burned-out factory on the drive into town. They park in back of the building, out of sight of the road. It's mostly empty fields around; no one to hear anything, no matter how loud it gets.

In the factory's old offices, the walls are scorched but the ceiling is intact. By the mold it's lasted a couple years, probably won't fall in on them in the next few days. Sam lays down a devil's trap—paint, not chalk, for more security—and they tie the demon to a metal folding chair—duct tape and cording, along with the cuffs. They can't afford to be taking any chances.

Once they've shoved the chair into place and double-checked the trap, Dean says, "This could take some time—why don't you head back into town, pick us up some grub?"

"No way," Sam says.

"Come on, there was that bakery with the cinnamon rolls, and they probably have some boring whole-grain stuff, too—"

"We can go later," Sam says. "I'm not leaving you here with—that."

"Sam," Dean says, jaw tightening. "You don't want to see this."

Meaning, Dean doesn't want him to see it. That's a little unusual—quaint, almost. It's been a while since Dean even tried to pretend his little brother is still innocent enough to be squeamish.

But then, this is the kind of thing that will bring that out. "Dean, it's a demon," Sam says. "And there are kids on the line."

Dean's jaw is clenched, a muscle twitching in his cheek. Behind him is the demon, bound in the chair and circle, black eyes watching over the duct-tape gag. "So we do what we have to," Sam says.

 


 

A few hours in, Dean asks Sam for the iron railroad spikes from the Impala's trunk. Wrought iron doesn't have any particular effect on demons, but Sam complies without a comment.

Outside, he takes a deep breath of the clearer air. Early spring in Idaho and the breeze is crisp, but the sun is bright enough to be warm on his face.

He hadn't expected it would take this long. Most demons give in quickly, if they have what you want to know. They don't have enough loyalty to anything, even their own principles, to have reason to hold out.

It's not the lack of answers, though. It's Dean's smile as he looms over their captive, as he puts the blade to the demon's flesh, dipped in holy water so it sizzles as the skin peels back.

They'd checked the host first, but the broken neck was proof that it's too late for him. All that's here is the demon—and it's a demon, so it has this coming, even if there weren't two innocent lives on the line.

But it's been fifteen minutes or more, since Dean's asked any questions. And he's smiling, not grim but gleeful, teeth showing, eyes crinkling. Like when he's found an unexpectedly good burger shack, or when a waitress winks at one of his cheesy lines instead of rolling her eyes. Not in spite of the blood speckling his face but because of it.

Dean's still smiling when Sam gets back with the spikes. He's got the cattle prod raised up to the demon's face. "What do you think, Sammy?" he asks. "Will an eyeball conduct the current better? Boil off some of that vitreous fluid?"

"Haah," the demon gasps, rocking back and forth the inch he can manage, in his bonds. "Ha-hahahah!" His grin is wider than Dean's. "You've really lost your touch, haven't you? Too long up here, getting soft—he'd be so disappointed in you!"

"The only one who's gonna disappoint Asmodeus is you, when you spill your guts," Dean says, not sounding offended but equally amused.

But the demon shakes his head. "Not Asmodeus—before his time. What, Dean, you don't remember? After all that quality time we shared—back when you were the real deal. Still learning, but so much raw talent—we feared you. Oh, how we feared you, trembling in our chains and cages—the master's prized pupil, second only to Alistair himself—"

Dean's moving by the time the name leaves the demon's lip. Jams in the cattle prod and there's a crackle and a shriek that stutters into a high, howling laugh. "That's it?" the demon chortles, giving his head a shake. "That's all you got?" He squints up at Dean with his undamaged eye. "It's just sad. Seriously, I'm sad. It was a privilege, you know. It was a badge of honor, that I'd broken on the Righteous Man's own rack—but look at you now. You used to shatter damned souls, and now you can't crack a single—"

Dean punches him, and again, in the mouth and hard enough for the demon's head to snap back. He's breathing loud enough for Sam to hear it over the demon's cackling. "Dean," Sam says, and when his brother doesn't respond, staring at the laughing demon, he repeats it, "Dean!"

His brother's eyes finally jump to him, and Sam tilts his head toward the exit. He waits for Dean to nod, to turn away and walk out the door, before he moves himself, following Dean outside.

Dean stands with his back to the door, to Sam. His fists are clenching and unclenching. The knuckles are smeared with blood, maybe his or maybe the demon's, and the steel-rigid tension in his spine is such that Sam's gaze automatically goes to his arm.

But it's been years since the Mark was banished from his flesh. And Dean says now, like he couldn't then, "Sorry—I should've—I have to..."

Like it's all on him, like Sam hasn't been here this whole time, letting him do this, letting it happen. Sam hesitates, watching Dean's fists fold and open. Finally he says, "This isn't working. Not with this demon."

"It has to," Dean says hoarsely. "Those kids—I can do it. Just gotta get it together—"

"Do you really think you'll be able to?" Sam says, not challenging, asking plainly. "If he was telling the truth..." Which they both know he was; Sam laid down this devil's trap himself.

Dean bristles, shoulders squared—then slumping as he exhales, shaking his head, because this is a hunt, and Dean is honest with himself about the job. "So what are we supposed to do, just give up?"

"No," Sam says. "We try another way."

"We looked for leads—there's nothing. That demon is our only clue."

"Then we convince him to tell us. Willingly."

"And how are we supposed to do that? It's not like good cop/bad cop is going to work. This is a demon we're talking about."

"Yeah," Sam says. "So what if he wasn't a demon anymore?"

 


 

"All set?" is all Dean asks, when Sam gets back.

Sam nods, replies, "How about here?"

"Sprinkled holy water, read the rituals—short of bringing in a priest who wasn't ordained online, it's consecrated."

"Okay, then." Sam gets the first-aid kit out of the trunk, hands the pouch with the disposable hypodermic to Dean and rolls up his sleeve.

Dean takes out the syringe, attaches the needle. Then hesitates. "Are you sure—I could... We don't know if it won't work; I might be able to..."

Honestly, Sam is pretty sure Dean would be able to. He's human now, and no longer bears the Mark. But Chuck had said 'tainted,' and as Dean said, they don't have the time to try and fail.

And Sam doesn't want to see Dean's face, if his blood didn't work—to have it confirmed that he's beyond purification.

So this is better. And too late for Dean to baulk now. "Come on, man," Sam says. "My blood's not gonna draw itself."

This isn't the only ritual that requires blood, and that's putting aside their experience with field medicine. Dean finds a vein easily, pushes the needle in swift and sure enough that it hardly pinches. Sam watches the syringe fill with red. Takes it from Dean when he's done, and goes to the demon.

The demon smiles at him. His eyes are mostly restored but there are still bloodstains on his teeth. "So the pinch hitter's up at bat?" His gaze passes Sam to Dean watching behind him, and his smirk widens. "Benched by the little brother, huh? I guess he is the smart one, after all—"

He jerks reflexively when Sam stabs the hypodermic into his arm, not trying to be gentle. With the demon's wrist secured to the chair, the needle goes home. The demon grimaces down at it. "Is that blood? Kinky."

Sam doesn't respond, just pushes in the plunger, then yanks out the needle. The demon winces, but it's theatrical, not a genuine reaction. He sneers up at Sam. "So is this something you learned back in college? Got your education in liberal arts interrogation?"

Sam turns his back on the cackling demon, goes back to Dean. "That's one dose."

Dean checks his watch. "So now we wait?"

"An hour, yeah." As if Dean doesn't know this ritual as well as Sam. But saying anything is better than letting silence sit, curdling with memory. This burned-out building is a far cry from the bunker's dungeon, the air rank with mildew, and sunlight filtering through the grimy windows, not red emergency lamps. But it's still too easy to remember the last time Sam did this exorcism.

"Hey," Dean says, and Sam glances at him uneasily, not sure he wants to know what this is dredging up for his brother. What Dean remembers of that last time, or how he remembers it; they've never really talked about it, and now... "You wanna play Truth or Dare?"

Sam blinks at him, then rolls his eyes hard enough to feel the strain. "What are we, twelve-year-old girls at a sleepover?"

"Or we could just braid your hair," and Dean smirks at him, and if he's trying too hard, Sam appreciates the effort, all the same.

 


 

The next three doses, there's no change of note, the demon angry and sneering at Sam, as Dean watches, tense but keeping his distance. The sun sets and they get out the electric lanterns from the trunk.

When Sam injects the fifth dose, the ritual more than half complete, the demon rolls back his head, wearily, almost humanly. "So what's really in that needle, anyway?"

Sam doesn't answer. It's not worth trying, not yet.

The demon narrows his host's faded blue eyes. "Been wondering—you here, with a guy tied up, good long day of torture behind you—what would she think of you now? You know, your girlfriend, way back when. The one who died, killed by one of us. What was her name again—Jennifer? No, wait—Jessica, right?"

There's a glass crash as the beer bottle Dean was holding drops; it smashes on the factory's concrete floor, and Dean is charging into the circle of the devil's trap. He gets a blow in before Sam's "Hey! Dean!" stops him—paused with the demon's collar gathered in his fist, pulling him as far up off the chair as the twine and tape will allow.

The demon snarls at him, lips curling back. "Yeah, I remember," he spits into Dean's face, "I made it a point to remember all of it, so I could throw it back to you—how do you like it? Taste as good coming up as going down?" and he's sneering, but his voice is shaky, almost cracking with a rage that's deeper, more real than a demon's volatile malice.

"Dean," Sam says again, and Dean unclenches his fist, shoves the demon back and spins on his heel, strides away so fast he's almost running. Sam checks that the painted lines of the demon trap are still intact and the demon's still within them, then takes off after his brother.

Dean is outside beside the Impala, bent over with his eyes shut and his fists resting on the hood. "Hey," Sam says, coming up next to him. "Thought we agreed good cop/bad cop was a no-go?"

Dean's shoulders go up, come down again with the force of his breath. "Sorry," he gets out, after a couple heaves. "Sammy, I'm so damn sorry."

"Dean, it's a demon," Sam says. "It'd say anything, use whatever it's got. And that was...a long time ago, right?"

He doesn't mean it to sound as much like a question as it comes out as. Dean glances at him sidelong and then away, like he can't even bear looking at Sam's face. Shakes his head in denial he won't voice.

Sam keeps trying. "If he knows that much, he was probably one of Azazel's..." but then he remembers what the demon had said before. If it had been true—should have been true, in this devil's trap. But if this demon had really been made during Dean's stint in Hell, then that was after Azazel was gone..."I guess he must have done his homework..."

"It was me," Dean says, scraped from his throat like rust off a knife blade. "I must have—I told him, down there."

"You...told him?" Sam repeats slowly. It has been a long time. But still. "When you were in Hell, you talked about me to demons?"

"To damned souls," Dean says, like it makes a difference. "Yeah, I talked to them. They'd talk to me—I was one of them, you know. Not a demon—not yet, not then. They'd listen to me. Thinking maybe I cared, that maybe I'd be on their side, and they'd believe it more if I told them about myself. About what mattered to me, because if something mattered to me, then I couldn't be a demon.

"And once they believed that...you know how you break someone? You take away their hope. But in Hell you've got to give some first, to have any to take away..."

It's more than Dean's talked about Hell—in years. Maybe ever. Sam can't remember for sure, and is ashamed that he can't. But it was a long time ago, by now. Ten years, almost.

Ten years, Dean did this, in Hell.

If Castiel and Heaven's host had come just weeks sooner (but that hadn't been their plan)—if Sam had found a way to save his brother a month before (but that hadn't been part of any plan)...

Ten years, and the lines once sketched around Dean's eyes, around his mouth, are carved to grooves, permanent. Ten years, and he's collected more scars again than he had in his twenty-nine years before.

His bruised, split knuckles are bleeding again, dark smears on his fists pressed to the car hood.

They left out the first-aid kit, sitting in the backseat. Sam sets aside the package of fresh hypodermics, gets out the iodine, the bandages. "Let me clean those up," he says, and Dean lets him. Holds himself rigid and doesn't wince at the sting of the antiseptic, and mutters thanks to Sam when it's done, not meeting his eyes.

 


 

When Sam injects the sixth dose, the demon turns his head, snaps at Sam with his teeth like a rabid dog. "What's in that—what are you doing to me?" he demands, but the anger is edged with fear. Sam pulls out the emptied hypodermic and the demon slumps back, rolling his eyes from Sam, to Dean shadowing him.

"You really don't remember me, do you?" the demon says to Dean. "It was...months at least. Must have been. Downstairs, anyway. But you don't remember me at all. I told you, I told you I didn't deserve it. Didn't deserve to be down there—I hadn't done anything wrong. I wasn't evil, I was just young and stupid, making that deal. But that was all of us, wasn't it—Alistair's block was for the hard cases. The ones who really needed the lesson..."

Dean says nothing, nothing to stop their prisoner from going on, "This isn't what I looked like, you know," and the demon nods down at the host body. "Not when I died—I wasn't a guy. Wasn't blond and blue-eyed and strong. I didn't have money or connections or opportunity—not until the demon came. It was my chance, I knew it as soon as she said it. It was my one chance and I wasn't gonna get another one, and I took it."

Sam can't help himself, even if he should. "What did you make the deal for?"

The demon smiles. Not a smirk; small and sad, almost real. "A scholarship—I had the acceptance letter already, but not the funds. And then I did—and I got out. I became a doctor—I figured," and the demon laughs, a caught-breath giggle, "I figured whatever I'd really sold, whoever I'd really been dealing with, that'd make up for it, if I helped people. I was becoming a pediatrician, finishing my residency...and then my time was up and the hell hounds came.

"And then I was down there. Rent and ripped apart, and lot of good that fancy degree did me—so I could name every muscle and bone as they stripped them out and put them back. There were dozens, maybe hundreds—it all blends together. But you," and the demon's glare is fixed on Dean, "you, I remember. You were the one who told me—who taught me the truth. That I deserved it, what was happening to me. That every one of us in Hell, however innocent or pure or good we mistook ourselves for, we had it coming; we were all monsters, once you stripped away the stuff that didn't matter, the lies and the pretension. That was all we ever were."

"No," Sam says. "That's not true—you were human, once. And that's what we're doing now—that's what this is," and he brandishes the empty syringe. "We're bringing you back to yourself. To who you once were."

The demon stares at him, white showing all round the blue irises. Then throws back the host's head and laughs, a gasping howl that sounds like choking.

Dean still says nothing, just watches the demon laugh. He doesn't move to leave, not until Sam clasps his shoulder, turns him toward the door to escape outside.

 


 

The seventh dose, and the demon shrinks back as Sam approaches, tries to turn away. "No, please, no, don't—I don't want this. Don't do this, please, why are you doing this to me—"

"You know why," Sam says. "You know who we're looking for."

"I can't," the demon gasps. "Asmodeus—if I fuck with his plans, he'd annihilate me. Whatever you'd do to me can't match that—even this."

"But it's not about you," Sam says. "We're talking about children—innocent kids. You could save them."

The demon grimaces. "Why would I want to save a few useless brats?"

"Because it's the right thing to do," Sam says. The demon's arm is scarred, the needle tracks only partly sealed over as the demonic healing factor weakens. Sam pushes up the sleeve of the other arm instead, takes a moment to place the needle and slide it in painlessly.

The demon is trembling under his hand, sweating and shivering as if fever-racked. "Why—why should I do the right thing?"

"Because you're human," Sam says. "You've been pretending to be a monster, but that's not the real you." He shows the demon the syringe. "This, the blood, it's a cure. It's a demon cure—that's what this is. It's a disease—you're sick. But the next dose will make you well. Then you can help us. And we'll help you—we'll protect you from Asmodeus. That's what we do, me and my brother—we save people."

"You can't," with a head-shake of denial. "You know—you know," and the demon looks to Dean, desperation in those wild black eyes. "You can't..."

"This exorcism works," Dean says, calm and cool. "We've done it before—he's done it, twice," and he nods at Sam. "In an hour, you'll be human."

 


 

The final dose Dean draws is the first time Sam really feels it. This is nothing like the Trials; there's none of the agonizing, purifying fire that was replacing his blood then. But when he stands up there's a head rush.

Dean's hand is on his arm before Sam sways. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Sam says. "Just need some more fluids." He's been avoiding the beer, sticking to water, but the lightheadedness now is like a buzz.

Dean is studying Sam's arms like he's looking for glowing veins. Nods to himself when he doesn't see any, gives Sam's elbow a squeeze and lets go. "We'll get you a smoothie after. All the green stuff." He puts the first-aid kit away in the Impala's trunk. Lingers for a moment, maybe considering what they'll need once they get the location, then closes the trunk lid and follows Sam inside.

The demon stiffens when they enter, watching them, cringing, trapped. "Please—please, please—"

"This is the last time," Sam says. "The end of the exorcism."

The demon's head twists back and forth. "You don't—you don't need to—"

"I remember you," Dean says. His voice is soft, but the demon trembles. "Your name was Tanya."

"No," the demon says, "no, it wasn't, no—"

"You had a boyfriend—a fiancé. And a mom who was sick. You still remembered them—you wanted to get back to them."

"I didn't, that wasn't—that isn't me—"

"You shouldn't have been there," Dean says. "In Hell—you didn't belong there. You weren't evil, or guilty; you were tricked. Just a kid when you made the deal, and you had no clue what it meant. How could you, when you didn't even know demons were real? You should be still alive now—you should be living another fifty years, die with grandkids around your bed and go up to the Heaven you didn't even believe in. That's how it should've been."

"No," the demon whispers.

"There are two kids who are in hell on Earth now. And maybe Hell afterwards, depending on what deals they make to get out of it," Dean says. "If they haven't dealt already. But we can save them."

The demon doesn't answer, just shakes her head. Sam steps forward, to her side, the syringe of blood in hand. "Just one more," he says, as gently as he can.

The demon lifts her head. "Will you?" She isn't looking at Sam but at Dean behind him. "If I tell you—will you save me?"

"Yes," Dean says, before Sam can. "I promise."

The demon shuts her eyes. Lowers her head, exhales. "Laramie," she says. "They're in Laramie, with the others they've grabbed," and she gives the address.

Sam checks the devil trap's wards, but they stay quiescent. She's telling the truth. At least, if she's still enough demon for that magic to work.

"That the truth?" Dean asks quietly.

The demon lifts up her head. Tears are filming the blue eyes. "I hate you," she says. "You're a monster, whatever color your eyes are now, and I'd rip your heart out with my teeth and nails, if I could reach you. I'd do to you what you did to me, like I've done to so many since. But you owe me. You owe me, and it's the truth."

"Thank you for telling us," Sam says, and lifts the syringe, to pour the blood into his hand to complete the ritual.

Dean moves first, and faster. Sam hadn't even seen the demon blade in his hand. Not until it's plunged into the host's chest.

There's still enough demon for black and then fiery light to flare across the blue eyes. Then the body collapses, head at a broken angle, an already-cold corpse tied to a chair.

Dean is still for a moment, one hand around the dagger's hilt, the other resting against the body's chest. Then he pulls the blade free in one sharp motion, wipes it clean on his own sleeve, not the demon host's clothes. "Wyoming's only a state over," he says to Sam. "We can be there by morning. Come on."

 


 

It's ten hours, by the GPS app. They leave the body burning at 1 AM, make it to Laramie by 7 AM.

There are four demons on babysitting duty, but two of them are drunk and none of them are expecting a raid. It takes all of ten minutes to take them all out.

There are eight kids total, the Silverbergs and six others. At nine years old, Lindsey Silverberg is the oldest, sitting with her little brother in her lap and the other kids huddled around her. They're all terrified and some of them are hurt, but they're all alive and none of them are possessed.

Three of the children can't walk, or won't. Sam carries the two toddlers and Dean picks up the little girl. She's maybe five or six. She buries her face in Dean's shoulder, gasping sobs, and he rubs her back, murmurs, "It's okay, sweetheart, it's gonna be okay," the whole walk outside, moving carefully with the other kids clustered around his legs, clinging to the hem of his jacket, his jeans.

Eight is too many to fit in the Impala, even if it had any seatbelts in the back. Without much choice, they call the cops. Then wait with the kids until the two cruisers arrive, lights flashing. Sam shows his FBI badge, gives a bare-bones explanation—hot tip on a human trafficking ring, the division director was supposed to have called it in, don't know what went wrong. The children have to be the priority, obviously, but Sam and his partner will follow them back to the station for the full report.

At the third corner, Dean takes the turn for the highway. Maybe the cops in the cruisers think they're taking a shortcut, or maybe they don't notice at first. Nothing they can do about it either way. Dean's foot is on the gas, and they're on the road back to Kansas.

 


 

Dean doesn't put in a tape, keeps the radio off. Sam naps most of the drive, between finishing off four bottles of organic juice and a protein shake.

He breaks the silence once, a couple hours outside Lebanon. "We could've completed the exorcism. You didn't have to..."

Dean doesn't look away from the highway. "She didn't deserve that," he says.

"Because she was a demon? But she wouldn't have been a demon anymore—"

"She didn't deserve it," Dean repeats. "Having to go on—in a body that wasn't even hers, living with whatever she'd done, trying to make up for it—eight years on Earth. Way longer if she was downstairs. That's enough time for..." He tightens his hands around the wheel, steps on the gas until the engine's guttural roar is almost louder than his voice. "She shouldn't have had to live with that."

 


 

In the bunker kitchen, Dean goes through their haphazard liquor shelf, pushing aside the decent scotch he uses to refill the decanter, to grab the bottle of rotgut whiskey he won't even use in chili.

It's one bottle; they're in the bunker, and the odds are low of any breakthroughs in the next couple days—but when Dean starts for the door toward his bedroom, Sam says, "You don't...pour me a shot?"

Dean frowns at him, tired enough that he already looks drunk, eyes bloodshot and moving at half-speed. "It's okay," he says. "I'm a big boy, Sammy."

"What if I," Sam says, "if I don't, if I promise—I promise not to ask you any questions. Not one."

Dean looks at him a moment longer, then says, "Or answer any."

"I swear," Sam says, raising his hand, boy-scout style. Dean snorts, then grabs a couple shot glasses and sits at the table across from Sam. Fills both glasses up to the rim and shoves one toward Sam.

Sam stops at two shots, switches to nursing a beer instead; it's the only way he can keep that promise. He doesn't keep track of how many Dean pours for himself, but he watches the level in the bottle fall, watches Dean's slump fall into a slouch, elbow slanted on the table, eyes shutting as he breathes in and out through his nose.

They talk a little. Not about demons or hunting; not about Mom or Jack. Dean's still trolling online auctions for that part for the Impala at a decent price. Sam's finished the archives of his latest true crimes podcast and is looking for a new one. Neither of them can remember what's the last season of Game of Thrones they saw or knows what season the show is on now.

Dean's been silent for a while, and Sam's lost track of his own attempts at conversation, before Dean finally says, "This. I—fuck this." The just-emptied shot glass tips over when he puts it down; he rolls it against the table under his hand. "You shouldn't have to...none of this. It's not fair."

"It's not," Sam agrees.

"You shouldn't." Dean's barely slurring but he's speaking slowly, the false gravitas of a numbed tongue. "Dealing with this, after everything, everything you...you shouldn't have to. You shouldn't have to talk about it, you shouldn't have to...not with me. It doesn't... You were in the Cage. With Lucifer. What you went through there, I can't even...it was so much worse."

Sam tries to maneuver the thousand yards to meet his brother's stare. "You really think that's true," he says, and that's not breaking the rules because it's not a question; he can see the honesty of it in Dean's red-rimmed eyes.

"With Lucifer," Dean says, "there was nothing you could do, no way out, ever. You never got any choice. He never gave you one."

Not a question, either. "No, he didn't."

"Sorry." Dean pushes the bench back from the table, pushes himself to his feet. He keeps his palm flat on the table long enough to steady himself as he picks up the bottle. There's still a couple shots sloshing in the bottom. "I'm so damn sorry, Sammy. That I couldn't—that I didn't get you out sooner." He starts for the kitchen door, steps falling heavy and uneven.

"Dean," Sam says, and Dean stumbles to a halt in the doorway, props his shoulder against the jamb without looking back.

I'm sorry, Sam wants to say back to him. Or should say, even if he doesn't want to. I'm sorry Cas wasn't sooner, but that's not how the story was written. I'm sorry I ever found this hunt, but we saved those children.

I'm sorry that I'm not more sorry. That if you were in the dungeon with your eyes black right now, I'd do it again.

What he says is, "A demon's still a human soul, right? Basically just a jumped-up ghost. And when a ghost is banished, their soul goes to Heaven, or to Hell. But we know demons don't go back to Hell when they die. So maybe...maybe they go the other way."

"Yeah, maybe," Dean says. He slides off the jamb and starts down the hall. "'Night, Sam."

"Good night," Sam tells his brother.

They'll go to bed; they'll sleep. And when they wake up tomorrow—morning, or afternoon, or after dark—they'll be one more day past this. One more week, one more month, one more year. Until it's another ten years. Twenty. Forty.

It's still a long time now, before Sam lets himself go to bed.