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***

Sam drifts as he drives, because he still can’t believe it, and because he’s scared and it takes him a while to put his finger firmly on what he’s scared of, and then he realizes it’s what he might lose. The feeling of loss, the feeling of staring at his brother for the last time, with the clock ticking, just like New Harmony before Lilith opened the door to her dogs, hits him with the sickly lurch of half-digested food bubbling up into his esophagus. He swallows it back down, wonders if he can pull off the road to throw up surreptitiously without disturbing Dean.

A car looms up out of the dusk, off to the side, the hood up, a couple of figures milling about aimlessly. Kid, one of them, small, preschooler. Woman, her dress billowing in the breeze. It’s getting dark, and the road stretches ahead, flat and deserted. Flat tire maybe, Sam thinks, and his gaze flicks right.

Dean dozes in the shotgun seat, slumped, startles occasionally, makes unintelligible, pained noises that sound uncomfortably like he’s protesting in his sleep. He mutters Cas once or twice, squeaks out a muffled Sammy, scrabbles restlessly at his thigh with one hand, rouses blearily when Sam pulls off on the verge, and blinks at him for a minute, confused. And then he jolts upright, mouth pulled into a tight, grim line, face still mottled with bruises, eyes flaring with something that looks like panic.

“S’matter? Sam? You bleeding again? Any pain?”

Sam shakes his head, holds up a hand. “I’m fine, Dean, no more blood…” He can still taste copper on his tongue and teeth, and he grimaces. He drifts a hand to rub at his belly, at the memory of gut-stabbing agony, the memory of his brother’s anguish, regret, and soft-voiced acquiescence, the answer is yes, as Zachariah made him writhe, and choke, and spit his insides all over the floor. Adam too, an innocent in this fubar. He shivers.

“How long was I out?” Dean stretches, groans, winces as he rubs at his ribs.

“Not long,” Sam replies. “Fifteen, tops. You didn’t really sleep, you were… you know. The usual.” He leaves the rest unspoken, but he thinks it. Bad dreams, his brother’s anxiety and fright expressed in the dark, unconsciously, and sometimes full-blown night terrors. Like it has been on and off since Hell, and all denied and not spoken of the next day.

Dean makes a face, scrubs at his eyes with his knuckles. “We there yet?”

“Nope, Utah,” Sam says, and he frowns. “I think… I’m staying off the highways, just in case. There hasn’t been a road sign in a while.”

“Let me guess. Entering Fudd county, population twelve, including the chickens.” Testy now, the Dean Sam knows and loves. “What then? Piss stop?”

Sam shakes his head, motions back over his shoulder. “Breakdown. Looks like there’s kids in the car.”

Dean snorts. “That’s what they have Triple A for, Sam.”

“It’s up the ass of nowhere, Dean, and getting dark,” Sam says. “Remember that movie where the guy pulls over to help and he’s really a—”

“Jesus,” his brother cuts in waspishly. “Just bring the toolkit. And the Maglite. And if it’s a tire, you’re doing the heavy work.”

***

Station wagon, doors slamming and engine cranking as Dean approaches, a dull grinding whine if he’s ever heard one, and he turns, makes his way back to Sam, just now leaning into the trunk. He reaches in past his brother, stifling a groan of discomfort because he’s fuckin’ worn out, worn down, and Cas really did a number on his ribs, and Christ, he doesn’t want to think about Cas.

There’s a dull beat of pressure across his brow that throbs as he bends forward. His ears are buzzing, and he can see the silver gleam of the angel-killing sword in the trunk, and Christ, he doesn’t want to think about Cas, where he is, whether he’s hurt, what might be happening to him. Much less think of his brother’s insides hemorrhaging out of his mouth all over the floor while Zachariah worked the room. Make that brothers plural, and Dean suddenly realizes he can’t picture Adam’s face, can’t really remember what the kid looked like, though he can damn well remember what he sounded like on the other side of the door, frantic, desperate. He forces it out of his mind, because he got the brother of his heart out of that shitstorm, and he would have damn well trampled over Adam to get to Sam if he had to.

“Leave the tools, it’s a jammed starter,” he says curtly, as he pats about the bottom of the trunk. “Baseball bat should do it. Just be a minute.”

Sam nods, calls after him as he makes his way back. “Ask them if there’s a motel in the next ten miles.”

The woman doesn’t see Dean approaching, or maybe she’s trying to pretend it isn’t happening because she saw the movie too. He taps on the window, sees her jump before she looks up. She’s a harassed looking soccer mom in her mid-forties or so, shoulder length brown hair, and it catches in Dean’s throat suddenly, Ellensacrificedwastedbecause of his fuck-up. He has to swallow it back as she winds down the window a few inches and stares up at him suspiciously. “Lady, you can keep your doors locked, whatever, but your starter motor’s jammed,” he says tiredly. “I got a baseball bat, just pop the hood again. Good hard knock should loosen it up, get you home.” He can see doubt in her eyes, and he smiles.  “I’m harmless,” he says, and he even forces a wink past the dull pain in his chest that he’s full sure is his ribs and not his regrets, past the anxiety, and Christ he doesn’t want to think about Cas, buzzing away at the back of his mind and whispering in his ears. “In fact, I’m a servant of Heaven.” It’s Utah, after all.

There’s a toddler screaming in the back, and the teenage girl in the passenger seat is looking up from a pile of papers and a textbook, glowering at Dean, feeding a piece of candy into her mouth and scrunching up the wrapper before she drops it in the footwell on top of a rapidly growing pile of bright cellophane and silver foil. “How do we know you aren’t going to do something to our car that makes it break down again so you can go totally Jason on us out in the sticks?” the girl challenges aggressively.

Dean raises an eyebrow, leans in closer to make himself heard through the gap. “Hate to break it to you, kid, but you’ve already broken down, and we are, in fact, already out in the sticks.” He grins at the woman again, and now she’s stretching down, fumbling for the lever under the dash.

“Fuck it, mom, get a grip,” the girl barks then, and just as suddenly as she exploded, the scrap in the back stops his hollering.

The abrupt silence that descends is somehow weighty, like they’re all poised for something, standing on the edge of the abyss, about to make some significant life-changing decision, and Dean has to shake himself out of the strangeness of it, the sudden tension, the charged atmosphere, like the air is crackling. He shivers involuntarily, leans on the window frame, chooses his words carefully. “Ma’am, I hope I’m not speaking out of line here,” he starts, and then he looks right at the kid. “But you shouldn’t speak to your mom like that. She’s – your mom. Okay? Show her some respect.”

The woman’s features are locked rigid as she stares back. “She has a condition,” she returns, her voice strained and hoarse. “An emotional thing, she’s on medication. We stopped because I needed to change the baby, and I couldn’t start the car again… we’ve been here for a while hoping someone would drive by. She’s just tense. We all are.”

Dean can feel the girl’s eyes boring into him, and somewhere in the back of his mind there’s a familiarity, intuition. He knows this, somehow, recognizes it, but there’s no sense to it, and he needs to break this spell, trance, whatever the fuck it is. He looks back down the endless blacktop. “Quiet road,” he observes, and his voice resounds weirdly loud in his own head. “You wouldn’t happen to know if there’s a motel in these parts?”

“In the next town,” the woman says, calmer now. “It’s twenty miles or so.”

Dean nods, finds himself pulled back to the teenager's steady gaze for a long moment before he tears his eyes away. He makes his way around to the front of the car, heaves up the hood, wallops the offending part with the bat. “Turn it over,” he calls out, and the engine roars to life. He clunks the hood down, walks back to the open window, and avoids looking at the kid again. “Easy peasy, lemon squeezey,” he quips weakly. “You got anything you can use to whack it if you have to stop again? Wrench or something?”

The woman nods, pulls something out from under her seat. “I have a claw hammer.” She sees his look, smiles again. “It’s a quiet road.”

Dean huffs out. “Well. Not to sound patronizing, ma’am, but do you know where the starter motor is?” It gets him another nod. “Well, if you need to stop, just clout it once or twice to loosen it up before you crank her again. Otherwise you’ll just drain the battery.”

The woman smiles, her teeth bright in the gloom, and the tautness in the air snaps, the wrong vibe gone as swiftly as it blew in, so that Dean wonders if he maybe imagined it. Stuck on the road with tired kids, getting dark, hungry, shitty diaper. Bound to make anyone lose it, he muses. He winks, and as he turns to walk back to the car, the teenager snorts.

“Know it all,” she says. “I bet you think you know everything. But maybe you don’t know as much as you thought.”

And there it is again, that weird crackle in the air, and Dean stops and turns back, frowning.

The girl is looking right at him. “Stagflation,” she challenges suddenly, holding up her textbook, history. “Do you know what that is?”

And it turns out he does. “Yep,” he says. “It’s a term used to describe the economy during Nixon’s presidency, because business wasn’t growing and inflation was spiraling out of control.”

***

The nap hasn’t improved Dean’s mood, and neither does a shower. Sam watches as his brother wears a hole in the cheap carpet, wrings his hands, curses the fact they’re right under a flight path, curses the roly-polies infesting the bathroom, curses Utah, curses Brigham Young, curses the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rocky Mountain elk, the rainbow trout, the Great Salt Lake, the fuckin’ Osmonds. “Except for Crazy Horses,” he rages. “Pretty cool synthesizer riff, I’ll give them that. But only that.” He rubs his brow, leans hard into his hand. “But you know what really fuckin’ grates, Sammy?” he says at the end of his tirade, and his voice cracks. “Touched by a Fuckin’ Angel was filmed here. Right here, in Utah.”

Dean sits down heavily, touches his finger to his split lip, and Sam wonders if he even realizes he’s doing it as he stares into space. “Where’s he been hiding that right hook is what I’d like to know,” he murmurs. “And he kicks like a fuckin’ mule. Jesus.” He transfers his hand to his ribs, presses gently, winces. “I feel weird,” he gripes. “My head’s all fuzzy. It’s whooshing in there.”

Sam frowns. “He was pretty pissed about you using the sigil on him,” he notes after a minute. “Could you manage to land one on him at all? You looked pretty wrecked when he flew you back to Bobby’s. And what do you mean, fuzzy? And whooshing?”

“No, I could not.” Dean sighs, flicks his eyes up to Sam and away again. “Well… what I mean is – did not. And fuzzy like, I don’t know… fuzz. Whooshing, like – white noise. Or like listening to a seashell.”

Sam snaps his fingers and his brother looks up sharply. “Well, you’re alert,” he offers, and he squints, stares hard. “Your pupils look fine so you aren’t concussed. Could not, did not?”

Dean throws up his hands. “S’right. Could not. He went totally fifty-one-fifty on me, man. It was pretty unexpected. You don’t expect that kind of beatdown from someone you…” He trails off then, doesn’t look away though.

And Sam knows exactly what his brother means, what he’s referring to, because Dean wasn’t expecting it back then, in the motel in Cold Spring. Sam had overwhelmed him within ten seconds, Ruby’s blood fizzing in his veins and his fists slamming into Dean's jaw brutally hard.

Dean knows Sam knows, his gaze is searching as he continues. “He took me by surprise. But even after he threw the first couple of punches, I just – couldn’t bring myself to hit back. Didn’t want to. Couldn’t – you know. Hurt him.” He curls his lips up in a wry grin. “Not that I even could. Damn near broke my hand on him before. So. Did not.” He looks down at his boots. “It’s just, uh… he seemed to take it all really personally. And it’s difficult to…” His voice trails off again, and now he teases his split lip with his tongue.

“He was in Hell with you,” Sam ventures. “And you’ve been through a lot together.” And he leaves it there, because he knows that’s all he needs to say and because he doesn’t ever want to have to think about how he put his hands around Dean’s neck so soon after Alastair did, doesn’t want to think about his brother maybe pulling his punches back then too, because Dean didn’t want to hurt him.

Dean’s voice goes soft. “Yeah. He was. And we have.”

The silence is easy, easier than it’s been in months, and after Sam rides along on the crest of it for a few minutes it occurs to him that there’s something he has wanted to ask Dean for a long time and he never has, it never seems like the right moment even though it’s been on the tip of his tongue. Or maybe he’s been afraid his brother will shut down on him, and after what went down with the Siren he wouldn't blame him. But maybe now it is the right time, or a less wrong time, so he throws it out there.

“Do you remember? I mean… remember him being there with you? Saving you?”

Dean looks up, and for maybe a second there’s doubt there, suspicion, a memory of words meant to mock and hurt. It’s there and gone, but even though it’s fleeting Sam is surprised when his brother continues.

“He didn’t just appear wearing the trenchcoat, Sam, if that’s what you mean,” Dean snorts. “It wasn’t like the dreams I had when that nutjob Bender kid popped up in Duluth. It was more like – light. Spinning colors. Feeling like I was safe. Feeling comfort. Hope. Uh… and don’t laugh, but…” His cheeks flush. “Cared for,” he mutters self-consciously. “Feeling like I was cared for. Loved. Which wasn’t exactly the norm down there.”

Sam waits a beat. “I wouldn’t laugh at that, Dean,” he says quietly, regretfully too, because he knows the reason for his brother’s uncertainty.

Dean nods slowly, plays one boot over the top of the other and it’s oddly childlike. He looks up again. “It’s weird, but Adam? He’s blood and all, but this… this is different. Adam might be my half-brother, our half-brother, but this, Cas, it’s – more. Somehow. It just means more. He means more. To me.”

It’s awkward still, and Sam thinks that maybe his brother is waiting for him to shoot it down, maybe expecting a smartass comeback, thinks Dean is but damn well hopes he isn’t. “We never really—” Sam starts, then stops and rephrases. “We don’t really know Adam,” he continues softly, and he knows he doesn’t sound convincing.

Dean pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do you think he’s even alive? Adam, I mean?”

Sam throws out his hands, shakes his head. “Honestly? I don’t think so, Dean. I mean… Zachariah raised him for a reason, to bait a trap, and Adam said the deal was he’d get to see his mom again, and well. I doubt that meant bringing his mom back.”

Dean sniffs. “Yeah, more like sending him back there,” he murmurs. “I wonder if his Heaven is like the Prom this time round too.” He sucks in his lower lip, winces. “I don’t know what to do,” he blurts out then. “I’m officially at a loss. This is all going south faster than a fuckin’ snowbird in Winter. And Cas, he…” He scrubs a frustrated hand through his hair. “I don’t know what to do,” he says again. “I know what I said… about taking the fight to them. But I just don’t know how we can fight them. Especially without Cas.”

“Maybe we don’t stand and fight, Dean,” Sam offers. “Maybe we keep running. We have the sigils, they can’t find us.”

Dean parries, almost aggressive compared to his previous apathy. “Keep running? Hiding? While Lucifer wastes the planet and everyone on it?” His eyes flash. “I saw what he does, Sam, remember? There won’t be anywhere to run… assuming we don’t catch the Croatoan virus, or get picked off by fuglies somewhere along the way.” He buries his head in one hand, works his scalp hard with the tips of his fingers. “We got Adam sucked into this mess,” he mutters. “We need to get him out of it. And I really need to get Cas back. We can’t fight this without his help, and we can’t run from it without him either.”

Sam wants to be positive, ends up hesitating, floundering in his head because he knows it’ll be just so much lip service. “Dean. We’ll get him back,” he echoes his brother’s words in the car instead, and unconvincingly too, as he boots up his laptop. “Adam too, if he’s out there. I promise you. I’m on it right now, Bobby is too.” He pauses then, chews his thumbnail, ends up just firing it out point blank because there really isn’t a diplomatic way of saying it. “You killed Zachariah.”

His brother’s eyes flick up and away almost immediately. He doesn’t reply, but he pouts, and his jaw twitches.

Sam tries again. “Dean. You killed Zachariah. After you said yes. And Cas said that only—”

“It was the plan wasn’t it?” Dean cuts in harshly. “Stick one of those swords in him, distract him so we could get Adam out of there, us too.”

Sam sighs out. “Distract him, yeah. We never expected to kill him.”

“So it was a bonus,” his brother deflects. “I don’t see why it’s even an issue. We needed him out of the picture, he’s gone. That’s good for us.” He rubs his brow. “Anyway. You had an angel machete too. Could just as easily have been you taking him out. I just got there first.”

“But I didn’t take him out, did I?” Sam says pointedly. “So we’ll never know.”

They stare at each other for a minute.

“It’s an issue because you shouldn’t be able to gank an angel,” Sam says then. “Cas said that, and I think Cas is the authority in this case.”

“I was lucky.”

“You shouldn’t be able to gank an angel, Dean,” Sam persists quietly. “Just like you shouldn’t have been able to gank the Whore of Babylon. And you did it after you said yes.”

Dean glances up at him again, and his eyes are guarded, and Sam can see the second when his brother closes it off, shuts it down. “I killed the Whore without saying yes,” he says tightly. “And what I said back there, it was – conditional. Which means I got a do-over. And whatever you’re implying, I’m not in the fuckin’ mood for this.” There’s a barely concealed edge of menace to his voice now, and Sam can see his brother’s right leg start its nervous shimmy. “I’m me,” Dean snaps.

Sam doesn’t press it any more than he has, doesn’t pour out the horror of hearing that one word, of steeling himself to watch his brother consumed by the light, even though he wants to tell Dean, even though he wonders if he could use whatever it is that lurks in him, whatever it is that makes him able to twist and push and force, to make Dean do his bidding, like that one time in Duluth. Use it to make him promise.

He swallows it down, his fear and dread that his brother might somehow not be himself, might have turned. And suddenly the revelation hits him: this is how Dean felt in Rochester when he juiced up and ripped Famine’s black, smoky guts out while he tasted his own blood on his lips. “I’m not implying anything,” he manages finally, comforts himself with the thought that his brother’s baleful stare and snarled out hissy fit are characteristically, uniquely, Dean.

He turns back to the laptop, taps at the keyboard, and up it flashes on the screen: the symbol they last saw the angel carving on his chest with the box cutter. And Sam remembers how rivulets of blood trickled down Castiel’s skin, shivers at the memory, because the thought that Castiel might be mortal, might be getting weaker, might be vulnerable, makes him feel sick, because even if he feels like he might finally be getting back on an even keel with his brother he still thinks the angel might be the only thing who can really protect Dean from Michael. And maybe from him too.

“Are you okay, anyway?” he says, into a silence that’s suddenly, awkwardly, reminiscent of the last few weeks. “Not just the fuzzy head. Your ribs, I mean.”

Dean sniffs, rolls his shoulders, and suddenly the atmosphere is looser again. “I’ll live. Fact, they’re feeling better already.” He throws Sam a look, quizzical. “That car, the breakdown,” he ventures. “Did you get a vibe from it?”

It’s almost a relief, the change of topic safer territory. “A vibe?” Sam parrots. “Can you be more specific?”

Dean shrugs. “No, not really. Just got a funny feeling from the kid.”

Sam picks through his recent memories, pulls out the image of a three-foot high shortass waving his arms as he drove by. “The toddler?” He grimaces at the prospect of this potential new low. “Possessed toddler?”

“Nah. Older kid, girl. Teen,” his brother replies. “In the car, stuffing herself with candy and bitching at her mom.” He air quotes. “Her mom said she had a condition…” He whistles, twirls his finger up at his temple. “Looney tunes, I’m guessing.” And then his stocky frame shakes suddenly, a tremor that comes from nowhere. “Man, what is it with teenage girls?” he murmurs. “Bride of Chucky, all of them.” He huffs out, his voice sharper now. “I don’t know… she was just – creepy. Gave off this… aura. Like Carrie at the Prom. Mouthy too, told me I was a know-all and then said maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought.” He laughs, but it’s hollow. “Made me feel like the brains of the family there for a minute.”

He twitches some more, scowls, taps his hands on his thighs, reaches into his jacket pocket for the car keys. “I need a drink,” he declares, and he holds up a warning finger. “Don’t say a fuckin’ word. I need one. Heck, I need many.” He pushes up, starts for the door, stops and peers over Sam’s shoulder at the screen, squints. “What is that?”

Sam shrugs. “Enochian. Bobby’s trying to translate some more of the symbols on your X-ray, he reckons it’ll help him do some codebreaking, maybe work out what the sigil means, where Cas might have beamed to.”

“If it’s even in this dimension,” Dean mutters. “We should have thought to ask him where the outfield is. He could be, I don’t know – floating around the crab fuckin’ nebula.”

Sam glances up over his shoulder, sees a glazed, faraway expression in Dean’s eyes again. “Well, wherever he is, you think those other angels blasted there with him?” he says uncertainly. “Only he didn’t have his sword.”

Dean doesn’t react, just stares at the computer, and then he frowns. “That’s wrong,” he says, and he leans over and stabs at the screen with a finger. “It should be two syllables.”

Sam glances at the symbols, the translation underneath, looks back up at his brother, feels his brow furrow in doubt. “Uh. Two syllables? I’m sure Bobby probably—”

“It’s wrong. The base syllables in Enochian are C, V, CV, or VC. There aren’t any CC syllables,” his brother announces. “If a CC sequence occurs in a word without any vowels clearly attached to either, it should be two syllables. Same with VV sequences. Two syllables. Every time. Don’t forget this is magic with a k at the end, Sammy, you need to think outside the box.” He twists, throws up the car keys, snatches them out of the air as he strides to the door. “Beer run. Back in ten.”

He’s whistling as he leaves, jaunty even. And Sam stares at the closed door for about thirty seconds, then fumbles for his cell, drums his fingers impatiently on the tabletop as he waits. “Bobby? Yeah – uh, no. It’s not, actually. Look, don’t panic. But I think something’s off with Dean.”

He flinches at the tirade that batters his ear, waits for a break in the rant. “I know, I know I said… Look. I lied, okay? He did say yes.”

Dead silence now at the other end, before he hears a choked-out gasp.

“No, Bobby, wait a minute, wait a minute,” he dashes out. “Nothing happened. Well – not that I could see…” He stops again, tries to keep up with the babble. “No… look, stop for a second, will you?” he cuts in shrilly. “He seems himself. Sort of. No! He is himself, definitely. It’s just that he can read Enochian.”

***

Dean pulls into the parking lot of the Seven-Eleven, creaks open the door, finds he’s singing to himself as he saunters towards the store, finds for some reason he can’t finger that he feels okay with life. And then suddenly he’s dizzy, and there’s that whooshing in his head again, like the waves crashing in a seashell, static, white noise, sibilant whispering, like distant voices. He reels, finds he’s looking up at the sky, and it’s endless, mysterious, purple black, clouds like the softest pale pink cotton candy, and he imagines himself buffeted about up there, floating, gossamer light, a feather carried on the breeze. And then he comes back to himself abruptly, gazes wildly around him, disoriented, does a one-eighty that has him looking back in the direction he came, at a bunch of assorted cars and trucks he doesn’t recognize.

He fumbles in his pocket, pulls out his cell, speed dials. Voicemail, damn. “Hey. S’me. You need to fix that message, man. It still sucks ass.” He half turns, looks towards the lights. “I’m at a Seven-Eleven somewhere in Utah… Heber, I think. I’m – something’s wrong. Something happened… I think I’m lost. Sort of. I dunno. And I feel like someone’s watching me. Just – get here when you can. Hey? You there? Hello?

He snaps his cell closed, chews his lip for a second, flinches because it damn well hurts there, it’s split, and for the life of him he can’t remember why, or how it even happened. He stares down at the phone, flips it open again, names, just names, taps number two. “Uh… Yeah. Sam? Is it? Uh… Seven-Eleven. No, sidetracked. Fine, why?”

The voice on the other end jabbers tinnily at Dean for a few minutes, and in his memory he’s wading through thigh-deep mud that sucks at his boots, wading towards something, anything that might tell him who the fuck Sam is because he can’t honestly remember, wait a second, hunter, friend, enemy, son, brother. Brother. Oh yeah.

The voice pauses.

“I am,” Dean replies now he has the chance to get a word in. “Well. I would, if I could just… look, this is gonna sound – what kind of car do I drive? Yeah, you heard me right. I just can’t, I mean – I’m standing here lookin’ at a whole bunch of cars, and I can’t remember which one is mine. Impala? Okey doke. Yeah. No. S’ fine, calm down. Yeah, I’ll be careful. Did I hit my head, then?”

He runs his fingers across his skull, doesn’t feel any sore spots, it’s all at the front, his lip, his nose, his ribs, he kicks like a fuckin’ mule. Or it was, because now he’s rubbing at his face it isn’t hurting at all, and he must have imagined his split lip because that doesn’t smart like it did either, and he’s sucking in deep lungfuls of oxygen without any tightness or pain. “Wait a minute, where am I coming back to? Oh… yeah.” He reaches into his back pocket, pulls out the room key, squints at the fob. “Got it. Fifteen or so.”

As he slides his phone back in his jacket pocket, Dean considers for a minute, walks back to the car and roots a pen out of the glovebox, writes the word Impala on the palm of his left hand just in case. The whispering in his head is getting louder and he flashes to the head shrink he conjured up from his own battered imagination. He scowls. “Fuck that.” And he ponders it, thinks maybe it isn’t really whispering, maybe it’s more like the wind blowing through the trees, or through fields of corn, more like a rustling, like those stupid home-made maracas he made out of plastic soda bottles and Lucky Charms for his brother a lifetime ago, after they caught The Mambo Kings one Saturday afternoon in some crappy motel room in Scrote, Indiana. “It’s the wind,” he says to his baby. “The wind in the trees. Whispering pines. That’s what it is. Not voices.”

He looks up, around him, shivers because he can’t shake the feeling something’s watching him. He presses his palm against his ribs, the sigil, tracks his hand up to his shoulder to rest it on the other mark for a second. And he suddenly feels at ease, content, fulfilled, finds he’s singing softly to himself as he starts walking towards the lit up storefront again. “I can feel you standing there, but I don’t see you anywhere…”

***

An hour later Sam is pacing, calling his brother for the fourth time, muttering oaths as he’s diverted to voicemail again. He has half an eye on the television, isn’t really paying attention, and the words breaking news are flashing on the screen and a rumpled looking cub reporter is yammering into a microphone.

And there in the background he can see the sleek black rump of his brother’s baby, police cars winking at her. His hand drops to his side as he takes it in, attempted robbery… Seven-Eleven… hostage situation… and it cuts to footage of a figure in a Kevlar vest, shot from a distance. The man is walking towards a brightly lit building, hands up, and now he’s placing his gun on the ground, and he keeps walking right up to the door. Sam would recognize those bowed legs anywhere, and he gapes, mouth slack, as Dean disappears inside the store, and then it’s back to the talking head, huge coincidence… one of the FBI’s top negotiators driving through… lives on the line… extraordinary scenes here…

It’s all over by the time the stolen Camry skids into the parking lot, and Sam wriggles his way through a modest crowd of onlookers to the police cordon. He can just make out his brother ten yards or so away, talking animatedly to a small platoon of reporters, lights flashing, cameras jostling for space, a modest cluster of attentive five-O huddled in back of him, hanging on every word.

He nudges a middle-aged man next to him. “What happened?”

The guy shakes his head. “Shoulda been here kid,” he enthuses. “Hold up at the Seven-Eleven.” It’s said with due weight and gravity, like he’s talking about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and he gestures over at the camera crews. “Local pothead ran wild with a thirty-thirty, took a whole bunch of people hostage. Top FBI negotiator driving through talked him down, got them all out. It was pretty amazing. I saw it all go down.”

Sam blinks at him. “Top FBI negotiator?” he echoes.

The man nods, leans in confidentially. “He’s a real good-lookin’ kid. Real – pretty. Sorta… glows.”

The guy is wearing mascara, Sam could swear to it, and he pulls what his brother calls bitchface #six, jogs back to the car he liberated from the motel parking lot, twirls the dial rapidly through static and the requisite country music. And there it is, Dean’s voice crackling over the airways, coming to you live from Heber, Utah, on KPCW, your community connection, and he freezes, can actually feel drool starting to pool on his tongue and threaten to drip out his mouth as his brother holds court.

“Ma’am, a hostage situation is a law enforcement worst case scenario,” Dean is declaring confidently. “It puts innocent civilians at risk, but we cannot intervene with prejudice in case hostages are harmed by the perpetrators or by stray bullets. That makes the negotiation the most important aspect of any siege of this kind… I had to work to find out what the hostage-taker wanted and how we could solve this crisis without any bloodshed, while also ensuring the safety of the hostages.”

And you did this at some risk to yourself? Woman’s voice, breathless, and Sam can just picture her eating his brother up with her eyes. When Dean replies his voice is honeyed, chocolate brown, topped off with a rasp that sends a thrill racing up and down Sam’s own spine as his brother hooks up for the night on national public radio.

“Yes… miss? Is it? Uh-huh, good… Karen? Well, Karen, hostage-takers can be pretty angry and volatile… there’s a lot of adrenaline flowing and that isn’t good for their captives. Part of my job is to reason with them… never to argue. It involves using delaying tactics, and keeping a positive, upbeat attitude. I had to keep reassuring the perpetrator that this situation could end peaceably, while I chipped away at him in order to downgrade his demands and weaken his position until he—”

Fuck it. Sam snaps off the radio, scratches his head, fumbles for his cellphone again. “Something’s definitely off with him,” he barks into the receiver.

***

She turns about a yard away, steps back, reaches around and pushes something into his hip pocket. “My card,” she murmurs, so close up Dean can smell the scent of Colgate on her breath. “I’d appreciate an exclusive, Agent Michaels. I’ll be getting off in an hour.”

Her lips are so close to Dean’s that he feels his own tingle. “I concur, Karen,” he growls, in his Dean Winchester like the fuckin’ rifle voice. “I can offer you all rights… and I can personally guarantee that you’ll be getting off in an hour.”

She smiles, licks her lips so her tongue just ghosts Dean’s, steps back and drifts into the darkness. Dean laughs out loud, spins on his heel and strolls back across to his, glances at his palm, Impala, only notices the gigantic figure in the passenger seat when he’s got his ass planted on the leather himself.

There’s a split second of silence, and then, “Jesus fucking Christ, Dean!” the other man snaps roughly, and he’s running his hand through long hair that damn well needs cutting.

Dean has to think through it all again for a second: hunter, friend, enemy, son, brother, Sam. “Lord’s fuckin’ name, Sam,” he admonishes testily in return. “What’s your point?”

The guy, his brother, makes a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. “What the fuck, Dean?” he sputters. “Hostage negotiation? You could have gotten those people killed… you could have been killed yourself… Not that Michael wouldn’t bring you back, but even so.” The guy, his brother, Dean reminds himself, stares hard for a second, like he’s trying to figure something out, shakes his head as he repeats, “What the fuck, Dean?”

Dean stares back, furrows his brow, and something clicks in his head, so loudly he’s sure he hears it resound through the small space between them. And suddenly it’s blank inside his brain, and tumbleweeds are blowing about in there, wafting in the dry desert breeze, and he can’t remember what the hell his brother’s beef is this time. “Hostage negotiation?” he bleats. “What the fuck? As in, what the fuck is this about? Sam?”

Sam saws the air with his hands, and his eyes are huge, frustrated. “Hostage negotiation, Dean! Agent Michaels! One of the FBI’s top hostage negotiators, who just happened to be passing through this backwoods hole in the ground? Are you fucking insane?

Dean frowns, thinks about it for a second. “It would seem so,” he offers diplomatically. “Since I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

Sam flaps his lips. “You. What. You don’t. Can’t. You. What are you. What. The fuck? Dean?” He palms his face for a second, takes a few deep breaths. “Something’s wrong,” he mutters. “I knew it.”

Dean leans back into the seat, rubs at his chin as he feels a sudden surge of something inside, some feeling he doesn’t quite recognize. “Damn right something’s wrong,” he snaps. “You got a vivid imagination, Sam. You been… you know? Sampling the local black-eyed peas or something? Sucking on things you shouldn’t?” He doesn’t know where the sneer comes from, but it’s a fuckin’ swashbuckling, sword-swinging, mustache-twirling, peg-legged pirate of a sneer, with a parrot squawking on its shoulder.

Sam’s hand drops away from his face, and he looks crestfallen. “Why would you say that, Dean?” he says softly.

Dean snorts, shrugs. “Maybe I’m just petty,” he drawls. “Maybe it’s just getting to me, all those times that bitch climbed in the cockpit, and took out her sticker, and sliced into her arm, and little Sammy latched on and nursed like a baby while she patted his hair and told him that if he drank enough of her he could get his brother out of the Pit. And he fuckin’ believed her lies, and…” He doesn't complete the sentence, because there’s a sharp needle of pain in Dean’s temple and he reaches up a hand, massages the spot hard.

“How would you know that, Dean?” Sam is saying, gasping really, and when Dean glances across at Sam his brother is slack-jawed.

“I know everything,” Dean mutters, and he rubs at that sharp, strobing pain again, tries to rub it away. “I know it all, things you don’t even…” And there it is again, that blankness in his head. He stares back at Sam, and his brother is pasty faced now, looks ill. Dean’s heart burns rubber as it skids to a stop. “Know what?” he says, panicked. “Know what, Sam? You okay? Only you look like you’re – not… Are you sick? Are you bleeding again?”

Sam cocks his head and his eyebrows meet in the middle. “No,” he says, slowly. “I’m not sick, Dean. I’m not bleeding.” His voice is ragged as he continues. “Know that. How would you know that, about Ruby, what she said, how it all started… how would you know she told me that? So I’d do it?”

Dean tilts his own head, wrinkles his nose in distaste, because hearing her name still has his gut twist uncomfortably inside him, still has him pissed to the gunwhales that his brother set him lower on the totem than his tame demon. Look where it got us, he gripes viciously inside his head. “What are you talking about?” he snaps with his outside voice. “Know what? Do what? What about Ruby? If I ever hear her name again it’ll be too soon.” He peers out the windshield into the dark, cranes his neck to look out back. Bright lights, Seven-Eleven, cops. “Where the fuck are we anyway? What’s with the five-O? Jesus, no wonder I feel like I’m being watched. My head. Fuzzy. You sure you aren’t bleeding?”

“Utah,” Sam says faintly. “Just outside Heber. The cops aren’t here for us. We’re on the way back to Bobby’s… and yes, I’m sure.”

Bobby’s, and Dean has to think about it, finally retrieves the image of a guy a few years older than him, dark hair, blue, blue eyes burning into him, mournful expression all the damn time. “Trenchcoat dude,” he says. “Tax accountant. Bobby. He does our taxes. Is it tax season?”

Sam leans across, very deliberately plucks the car keys from Dean’s hand. “I’m driving,” he says firmly. “We’re going to pick our stuff up at the motel and get back on the road to Bobby’s.”

Dean doesn’t argue, shuffles his ass over into the vacated space, and the door slams shut as Sam gets in behind the wheel. “My head feels weird, Sam,” he says, and he presses the heel of his hand to his temple. “Spaced out. Fuzzy. Whispering pines. That guy in the trenchcoat isn’t Bobby is he? He’s… he’s important. To me. But I can’t remember who he is except that he sells ad space. And we don’t do tax.”

Sam slants his eyes over and he nods just barely. “We don’t do tax, Dean,” he says. “And it’s Castiel.”

Dean closes his eyes for a second, thinks, hunter, friend, enemy, brother. Brother. Oh yeah.

“He’s important, Dean,” Sam continues gently, carefully even. “He’s real important to you. But don’t worry. You’ll remember who he is… we’ll fix this, I promise.”

***

Dean is clutching at straws himself by the time they get back to the motel room. “It was that movie,” he suggests. “You know… the one about the bank job. Inside Man, that’s it. That’s where I got the spiel from. And the whispering’s stopped. I’m fine.”

His brother is grabbing handfuls of fabric, ramming it into the two duffels, pauses mid-stuff. “So it was whispering pines meaning rustling? Not the song? And you’re saying you learned how to be a hostage negotiator from watching a Denzel Washington movie?”

It’s suitably withering, and Dean laughs weakly. “Either that or I know everything all of a sudden.”

Sam raises a skeptical eyebrow as he feeds more clothing in the bag. “That’s what you said in the car. And you knew about Ruby. But you didn’t know who Bobby is. Or Cas.”

“I – forgot?” Dean offers. He bites on his split lip again, flinches reflexively even though it doesn’t hurt any more. “You should roll that stuff up,” he deflects, and his brother freezes, glowers at him. “It’s how you’re supposed to pack,” he continues timidly. “It takes up less space and it doesn’t crease so much.”

Sam stares at him for a minute. “Since when were you the authority on packing, Dean?” he challenges.

Dean scrunches up his nose. “Uh. I don’t know?”

Sam sits on the bed, tweaks at his chin, narrows his eyes at him. “How do you kill a wendigo?” he asks suddenly.

Dean eyes him back. “Uh. You lost me, dude. What’s a wendigo?”

Sam watches him some more, speculatively.

“You’re watching me,” Dean accuses. “Speculating, contemplating, meditating, ruminating, hypothesizing—”

Sam’s eyes widen. “Try this one,” he cuts in. “How do nuclear weapons work?”

Dean makes a clucking noise with his tongue. “They release huge amounts of energy from the nuclei of atoms either by fission or fusion,” he trots out automatically. “With fission, the nucleus of an atom is split into two smaller fragments with a neutron. You need to use uranium or plutonium if you do it that way. With fusion, you join two smaller atoms, usually hydrogen or helium, to make a big one.”

Sam goggles, and Dean shrugs. “That’s how the sun produces energy,” he finishes off faintly. “Fusion. Anyhoo, either way you do it you end up with a shitload of heat energy and radiation.”

“Corinthians thirteen,” Sam throws out.

Dean doesn’t miss a beat. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” he recites. “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face… now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” 

Sam swallows hard. “Okay. Now, how do you kill a vampire?”

Snorting, Dean responds, “Come on, vampires aren’t real. And everyone knows Corinthians.”

“Not you, Dean,” his brother parries sarcastically.

For a second Dean is taken aback, maybe even hurt, definitely pissed, so he doesn’t mince words. “Are you saying I’m stupid, or something?” he challenges. “Because, you know, stupid is as stupid does, Sam.” He knows it doesn’t take two years at Stanford to work out what he’s talking about, and he sees his brother put two and two together right the fuck then, sees Sam’s eyes widen and his nostrils flare.

Sam flushes, and his eyes dart away. “No,” he says, and he puts up a hand, placating. “No, Dean – I’m not.” He looks Dean in the eye again. “I know you aren’t stupid Dean,” he says, firmer now. “Believe me, I know.”

Sam’s eyes are open and honest, and somewhere deep down inside it’s a comfort, makes Dean feel warm, content, makes him feel like things can be like they were, and the strained awkwardness dissipates. 

“Look,” Sam continues. “A lot’s happened, Dean, and we’re both wiped. The room’s paid for. Maybe we should get on the road in the morning, pick this up again after a night’s—”

“I’m not tired,” Dean declares. As he says the words he can see Sam doing the math: he’s been awake for eighteen hours straight, bar dozing in the car. “I feel fine,” he insists. “Tan, rested and ready.” And it’s damn well true. “Ask me another,” he smirks. “I feel lucky.”

Sam thinks on it for a minute, raises an eyebrow. “Okay. Tell me something interesting about Europe.”

“Much of modern western civilization is based on the events that took place in Europe,” Dean fires back. “Significant events include the establishment and influence of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, the plague, constant wars between France and England, the Reformation, the colonization of much of the known world by European powers, the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars—”

“Say something in… German,” Sam races out, with something like desperation.

Dean nods, tents his eyebrows. “In German,” he emphasizes. “Okay. Ich bin nicht ein fasan plucker, ich bin ein fasan plucker sohn… Ich bin nur fasane rupfen ’bis der fasan plucker kommt.” He smirks as his brother gapes at him, waits a beat before he sing-songs, “I’m not the pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son, and I’m—”

Sam shoots to his feet, hefts the duffels. “We’re leaving,” he barks. “This – it’s. It isn’t right. We’re going to Bobby’s. Now.”

“Wow,” Dean says weakly. “Sammy, you make me go all tingly when you—”

“You, in front.” His brother motions to the door. “Where I can keep an eye on you.”

Dean doesn’t argue. He isn’t sleepy, he feels oddly restless, wants to be on the road, on the move, and it’s ringing in his head, he has an appointment, someone he’s supposed to be meeting, something he needs to do. So he does as he’s told, tools out of the room, through the ill-lit parking lot and up the sidewalk, hands stuffed in his pockets. He shuffles into the office, leans on the counter while his brother slams his hand down on the bell, and idly watches the old timer who’s manning the joint stick his head around the door of the back office before creaking out towards them, leaning heavily on one of those fancy canes with four little feet at the end.

“It’s two in the fuckin’ mornin’,” the man growls. 

“We’re checking out,” Sam snaps, tapping the key furiously on the countertop. “Emergency. Can we get the security deposit back?”

The old guy mutters darkly about needing to check they haven’t trashed the room, while he rummages about and finally produces a lock box from under the counter.

Dean gestures at the man’s cane. “Osteoarthritis, buddy? In your hip there?”

The old man nods, spits tobacco on the floor. “It’s fuckin’ killin’ me, son,” he wheezes. “Meds they hand out are fuckin’ useless.” He starts laboriously counting out dollar bills and quarters, and the tap, tap, tap of the room key on the counter speeds up to frenzied.

Dean shoots his brother a scorching look that Sam steadfastly ignores, turns back, nods sympathetically. “You ever thought of joint replacement?” he says. “Only you can have that done right up into your eighties these days, as long as you’re in good health. They do over two-hundred thousand of those babies every year. In fact, seniors who get it done are twice as likely as those who don’t to show improvements in physical functioning and increased ability to care for themselves, according to studies.”

The old man pauses in his counting, cocks his head thoughtfully. “You don’t say, sonny?”

“I do say,” Dean confirms, and he winks, taps his chest. “Board-certified orthopedic surgeon. We can just scrape that diseased bone out of your hip and cement a little metal cup socket there, and then we take off the top of your femur, hollow out a little channel into the bone and sink a stem with a brand new ball joint on the end right in there.” He makes a fist with his right hand, smacks it into the curled palm of his left. “Fits together just like that.” He nods for emphasis, finds himself lacing his fingers, stretching them till his knuckles pop, rubbing his palms together. “Or better yet, why don’t you just drop your pants and I’ll take a look, see if I can—”

“Thanks!” Sam yelps. “Keep the rest!” He reaches out and claws at the notes, sends stacks of coins skittering across the peeling formica, before he grabs Dean under the arm and steers him over towards the door.

“But I was just—”

“We’re leaving!”

Dean cranes his head as Sam kicks the door open. “If you go for joint replacement you need metal on metal!” he hollers back. “Don’t get ceramic on ceramic! They squeak, you can hear it from outside, there’s even lawsuits about it…”

Sam manhandles him into the car, flings himself in, screeches them out of the parking lot and up the highway.

“I could have fixed that guy, you know,” Dean says balefully. “I could have had him pain free and walking again if you would have just let me—”

“No,” his brother cries, so high-pitched it almost comes out as a shriek. “Enough, Dean. First you’re an FBI hostage negotiator, and now you’re a board-certified orthopedic surgeon? You get a straight A in nuclear physics and you can speak German, but you’ve forgotten what a wendigo is? What the fuck is going on with you?”

And Dean gets that feeling again, a strange snaky coldness coiling itself around his brain. Whispering pines. “Chillax, Samantha,” he sneers. “If your panties bunch any tighter, you’ll be draining me and hiding my body in the trunk like you did with that nurse.”

The tires squeal and Dean has to brace himself, hands on the dash and elbows locked, as the car fishtails and comes to a messy, dust-clouded halt at a right angle to the deserted road. He glances across, and Sam isn’t looking at him. He’s hunched over, hair hanging down and hiding his face, his knuckles stark white as he clutches the steering wheel, and he makes a low, choked sound.

Dean leans across, pokes him. “You know, the nurse,” he hisses. “The one you drank so you could raise the devil. Cindy, or whatever her name was.”

And then Sam is gone, almost falling out of the car onto the grass, scrabbling away on his hands and knees, and Dean hears the sound of retching from somewhere in the dark. And he smiles, considers all that he has made, and thinks that it is good.

***

There isn’t much to bring up, and Sam spits oily saliva into the dirt, wipes his mouth on his sleeve, tenses as he hears footfalls approach from behind. He almost jumps out of his skin as the hand starts rubbing his back.

“Fuck’s sake Sammy,” his brother is husking out above him. “You should have said if your guts were still bothering you. You aren’t bleeding again, are you?”

Sam holds himself taut, ready. “No,” he mutters. “No bleeding, Dean… it’s fine. Just. All catching up to me, I think.”

Dean huffs out a sigh in response, plants his ass down on the dirt next to Sam, and hugs his knees. “Christ, Sammy,” he says softly. “I don’t know what to do. I’m officially at a loss. This is all going south faster than a fuckin’ snowbird in Winter, and Cas was… he…”

Sam eases himself up slowly, cautiously.

“I don’t know what to do, Sammy,” Dean says again, and he rests his brow on top of his knees. “Where are we, anyway?”

Sam pushes up onto his feet. “Utah,” he says flatly. “Just outside of Heber.”

And then he brings the barrel of his Taurus crashing down on the back of his brother’s skull.

***

Sam rolls his brother’s limp body over, stares down at Dean’s face. It’s peaceful in repose, and something about it is different, gives Sam the same feeling he got when he was staring at Dean in the car outside the Seven-Eleven, trying to work out what had changed. And it suddenly hits him that the bluish-gray shadows under Dean’s eyes, the bruises, the grazes, the split lip, are gone, and his brother’s skin is its usual unblemished freckle-smattered self. “Healed,” Sam breathes. He remembers what the old guy outside the store in Heber said, and applies a more critical eye, but decides he can’t tell if Dean is glowing or not and wouldn’t ever admit it anyway even if he was.

His anxiety noogies his head from the inside out, rubbing its knuckle hard against the bone as Sam drags his brother’s limp deadweight up onto the back seat of the Impala and cuffs him to the door handle, before shooting him with enough methohexital to ensure he sleeps like a baby all the way to South Dakota. He floors it all the way to I-80, and just outside of Evanston, roughly eight hours before he’s expecting his brother to come round, Sam glances into the rearview mirror to see Dean glowering back at him, mouth pulled thin with anger.

“When did you get in him?” Dean spits out venomously.

Sam skates across three lanes on two wheels, the car pirouetting and narrowly missing a semi-truck en-route as he hauls on the steering wheel. He can see the trucker’s mate gesturing wildly, see the whites of his eyes and hear him hollering abuse, as he slams his boot down on the brakes and simultaneously goes for the knife that can kill anything. A split-second after he first registered Dean’s glare, Sam has them parked haphazardly on the verge, his back pressed up against the window, the knife poised to strike, defensive, fuck, offensive, because his brother is dangerous enough when he’s human to convince Sam the demon version will be a death-dealing monster. He was when he was in the Pit, he thinks suddenly.

“When did you get in him?” Dean snarls again, and Sam notices abstractly that his brother is mirroring his own reaction, shrinking away from him and pressing himself as far as he can into the upholstery.

Sam breathes in deep and hard, ratchets it down a notch. “When did you get in him?” he croaks thickly.

“Don’t fuck with me, buddy,” Dean seethes. “Whatever you do, don’t fuck with me, because you do not have the juice… I can smell you in there. When did you get in him?”

Sam thinks on his feet, starts jabbering it out fast and sure, “Vade, Satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae, hostis humanae salutis, humiliare sub potenti…” 

And nothing is happening, no twitching, no belching smoke, and his brother is leaning forward slightly, quizzical, maybe even amused, and now he’s speaking himself, firm and steady, “Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio, contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium. Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur…” And Dean gets progressively quieter, his voice falters and trails off, and now he looks puzzled. “Why isn’t it working?” he snaps abruptly. “I can smell you in him. Why isn’t it working?”

Sam goggles at him. “Well, mine’s not working either,” he says defensively, feeling damned foolish as he does.

“You shouldn’t be able to say the exorcism rite if you’re a demon,” his brother challenges.

Sam reaches up to his shirt collar, pulls it down. “I still have the tatt. I’m not possessed. And you shouldn’t be able to say the rite of Saint Michael if you’re a demon.”

And Dean heaves out a sigh, pulls his own tee down. “Ditto.” He raises an eyebrow. “You think I’m a demon,” he says. “I assume that’s why I was cuffed?”

Sam scrunches his face up, relaxes slightly until what his brother just said registers. “What do you mean, was?” he ventures, and his hackles rise up again, along with the knife.

Dean snorts, holds up his hands in the darkness, wiggles his fingers. “Fuckin’ amateur. You know the cuffs haven’t been made that can hold me.” He belly-surfs gracefully over the back of the shotgun seat, arranges himself more comfortably, shoots Sam a sideways glance that tracks down to the blade. “Are you going to put that thing away?”

Sam doesn’t. “I cuffed both hands, Dean,” he says meaningfully. “I lifted all your lockpicks too. And you shouldn’t even be conscious right now.”

Dean leans forward slightly. “Holy water,” he snaps, gesturing with a hand. “Come on. I know you got some. Give it here.”

Sam roots out his flask, hands it over, watches as his brother downs a couple of gulps and wipes his mouth.

“I’m me,” Dean announces as he hands it back. “Your turn.”

Sam considers, takes a swig. “You better not be a fucking siren,” he breathes, as he stows the flask back in the door pocket. “And this doesn’t change the fact that I cuffed both hands and shot you full of happy juice.”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Oy.” He rubs at his jaw for a minute, visibly relaxes, slumping back against the seat. “What the hell is going on with you, Sam?” he says finally. “You stink of sulfur.”

It hits Sam in his gut as hard and relentlessly as his brother’s fists ever have, sucks the wind out of him, has his chest squeezing tight with disappointment. “Going on with me?” he manages, and he tries to make himself think of something else, anything else but his taint, his sin, his weakness and his craving. “Dean, for crying out loud,” he fumbles out. “You’re – all over the place. You’re forgetting things you’ve known for years, you know things you’ve never known… you told some old guy at the motel you were a hip surgeon, and I honestly think that if I hadn’t been there you might have operated. You called me from the Seven-Eleven and I’m sure you didn’t even know who I was… you negotiated seven hostages out of a hold up while you were on a beer run, and you mixed up Cas and Bobby. Jesus. You even thought we paid taxes.”

Dean is staring owlishly at him, sucking his bottom lip in like he always does when he’s thinking. “You still smell like the Pit,” he declares suspiciously after a minute. “And I have no memory of any of that other stuff.”

Sam runs a hand through his hair, gropes for words. “You never said you could smell sulfur on me before, Dean,” he says softly. “And you said things, knew things… things you couldn’t possibly know. About me. And Ruby.” He takes a deep breath. “Are you shining at me?”

Dean gazes back at him for a moment before he barks out a semi-hysterical laugh that ends as abruptly as it started. “Are you serious?” he asks, and he seems genuinely aghast. “You’re asking me if I can read minds? Move furniture?”

Sam shrugs. “I don’t know Dean… but I know something isn’t right with you.” He taps his finger on the steering wheel, ponders, anything so he doesn’t have to think that he might ever remind his brother of Hell. And the germ of an idea is out there waving at him, floating a few hundred yards off the coast of his mind, and he’s throwing out a life ring and hauling it into shore. “Wait a minute,” he murmurs. You said something… about how you know everything, or you know it all. Something like that.” He frowns, seizes on it suddenly. “The car… the girl. You said she was giving off a weird vibe, that she was mouthing off about you being a know it all.”

Dean shakes his head. “Car? Girl?”

“Yeah, the girl. In the car.”

Blank expression.

“The breakdown, Dean,” Sam says, exasperated. “Jammed starter motor, you got it going again. You said there was a teenage girl in the car bitching at her mom, and when you pulled her up over it she was really creepy… she said you thought you knew it all, but maybe you didn’t know as much as you thought.” His mind is racing ahead now, fitting it all together. “You know it all, but you’re forgetting things too… that’s got to be it, Dean, got to be…”

Dean makes a face. “Sorry, you lost me, man…”

Sam feels all the energy run out of him, feels it trickle down to the tips of his toes and spill out into a puddle in the footwell, and he flops his head back against the leather, closes his eyes. “Please Dean,” he mutters wearily. “Please tell me you haven’t forgotten what’s going on. The big picture. What we’re doing, trying to do. Trying to set right. We don’t have time for you to forget.”

It’s quiet but for the sound of Dean’s steady, even breaths, unhurried, unworried, even. “Oh, I know exactly what’s going on,” he says slowly. “I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, too.”

And Sam opens his eyes and tilts his head to look, doesn’t know if he has ever heard his brother sound quite like he does, because Dean sounds dreamy and faraway, like he’s tripping, but still there’s a steeliness to his voice, and it’s terrifying in its surety and conviction.

“I have a rendezvous with death,” he murmurs. “On some scarred slope of battered hill…” He trails off, and he’s staring ahead, and he doesn’t blink.

Sam swallows hard, and something is tingling up and down his spine, something cold and terrifying, no, terrified, and when he speaks his mouth is so dry his voice catches in his throat. “It was conditional Dean,” he husks out. “What you said back there in Van Nuys, it was conditional. You got a do-over. Remember? It’s us, you and me. Team Free Will.” He stops there, doesn’t say anything about running, hiding, while Lucifer wastes the planet and everyone on it.

And Dean seems to shake himself out of his trance, looks at Sam like he doesn’t even know what he said, and grins his usual shit-eating grin. “Yeah,” he says. “Of course I remember. Screw destiny.”

Sam doesn’t really know if the moment of tension or whatever it was is broken or not. But he knows he can’t shake the feeling of unease inside, can’t pinpoint exactly what it means either. “That kid,” he offers, and he thinks he might sound desperate. “It’s got to be her, Dean. A curse. That’s what it is. Maybe she’s a witch.”

Dean nods agreeably. “Curse. Got to be.” He motions his head sharply at the back seat. “Get some sleep,” he says. “We’ll talk about it at Bobby’s. Maybe it’ll come back to me as I drive.”

Sam mimics his brother’s belly-surf in reverse, and his long body sticks halfway because he never did have Dean’s catlike agility, limbs too long and gangling, and he ends up crumpling gracelessly down onto his head in the space between the front and back seats.

Dean rassum-frassums under his breath as he butt shuffles over into the driver’s seat. “Witches, oy. All that sisters of the moon crap.” He shudders dramatically. “Skeevy, fuckin’ skeevy.” And he looks back over his shoulder, suddenly cheery again. “Bobby can sort it. Or Cas. He’ll trot out the mojo, get me fixed.”

Sam’s heart sinks, and he can’t find it in himself to remind Dean that Castiel is gone. He suddenly remembers reading about some guy who lost his memory in a car crash and every time he woke up he’d forgotten his family died, and the doctors had to tell him again, each day, for the rest of his short life. He shudders at the prospect as he hauls himself up on to the seat.

The car lurches back onto the road. “You know, it might be useful,” Dean throws back at him. “Knowing it all. In the circumstances.”

“Not if the flipside is that you’re forgetting a whole bunch of old stuff as fast as you’re finding out the new stuff,” Sam retorts. “Which seems to be the case.” He pillows his jacket under his head, punches into it viciously. “You better not forget how to get there,” he gripes.

Dean chuckles. Normal. “Or how to drive.”

Just as Sam is settling down, he sees a flash of silver under the front seat, and he reaches out, snags it. The cuffs, or one of them anyway, and the steel chain attaching the bracelets has been rended, split, snapped. You broke the chain, he thinks. Heavy-duty steel chain links.

His brother shoots a quick glance back at him, winks. “Yeah, who’d have thunk? Metal fatigue, I guess.”

Sam shoots bolt upright so swiftly his head spins. “Are you reading my fucking mind?” he demands hotly. “Level with me here, Dean.”

He sees his brother’s shoulders go rigid, and Dean’s voice bristles with irritation. “What the fuck, Sam?” he snaps. “You said it out loud, said I broke them. And I answered you. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Sam glares at the back of Dean’s head, tries to backtrack to himself forming the words with his tongue and lips, speaking them, and he can’t honestly remember if he did or not. He flops back down again, stares at the roof of the car for a few minutes. “Maybe it isn’t a mind-reading curse,” he ventures hopefully, because the thought Dean might be able to see inside his head is too awful to contemplate. “Knowing it all doesn’t have to mean mind reading, does it? Dean?

There’s no reply but somehow Sam can sense it, a sudden, smoldering fury, and Dean is pulling off the road again, turning around slowly, and his eyes are incandescent. “So, Sammy,” he says, in a voice tight with anger. “You want to tell me about how you screwed that bitch in the back of my car?

***

Rage doesn’t even come close as Dean slams out of the car and takes Bobby’s porch steps in one bound before hammering on the door, and it sets off a fusillade of barking somewhere in the bowels of the house that sets his nerves on edge because fuckin’ dogs, it’s never been the same since Hell, fuck, since the woods and Bender’s pitbull, and Bobby keeps those big Omen dogs that stare him out with dark, bottomless eyes that seem to know.

The sound of the old man hollering at the mutt to shut it, and the knowledge it’ll be chained up out back five minutes after they arrive, barely soothes his jitters and the noise of Sam shuffling up the steps behind him sends his anxiety into the stratosphere. And it makes no sense, his grief that Sam soiled himself with her, the disgust that he’s up close and personal with something wrong, a stain, something dipped in the filth of the Pit, because he knows what Azazel did, knows his brother spent the best part of a year topping up the tank, knows about them. But it’s like finding out for the first time, like the dirt and deception of her is still under Sam’s nails, her grime absorbed into his brother’s flesh so he can see it in Sam’s pores, imagine it embedded into the loops, whorls and arches of his fingertips where they caressed her skin, and the sulfur stink of her is on Sam’s breath and in his sweat, a miasma that surrounds him. Ruby, and she screeches along Dean’s senses in a way she never even did before he stared into her eyes, sank the knife into her guts, and saw her smoke, and flash, and die.

He can hear Sam shifting about behind him, from foot to foot, maybe, can hear the rustle of fabric, fancies Sam might be reaching out to poke him in the back, and he curls in on himself, brittle. “Don’t touch me,” he hisses. “You’re unclean.” He hears his brother suck in a breath, and he doesn’t wait for a response, stalks in past Bobby the second the door opens. And the old man grabs his arm and swings him round, and Bobby is holding a silver blade. And when Dean looks down he’s standing in a devil’s trap, and Omen Dog isn’t chained up at all, it’s watching him from the next doorway along, panting calmly.

“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me,” he barks, and he deliberately plants one boot over the painted border.

Bobby raises an eyebrow. “Precaution,” he snaps back, and he produces a flask he has tucked in beside his thigh, offers it over.

“We did all this,” Sam says quietly from behind him. “I even tried to exorcise him. He’s not a demon, Bobby. I think it’s a curse.”

Dean snorts derisively in his brother’s direction. “Maybe you should try using your evil hand.”

Sam doesn’t meet his eyes, and Bobby sits there, rock solid in his chair, immovable, and watches impassively as he swigs from the flask, tips the rest of it over his head for good measure. “Satisfied?” He slams the flask down into the old man’s hand. “I can’t be possessed,” he says, bitterly. “I’m off-limits. Protected. I’m a special snowflake, didn’t you know? God’s champion.”

Bobby eyes him for a minute. “Grumpy little bastard too,” he finally says. “What the fuck climbed up your ass?”

Dean clutches at thin air with his fingers. “I have no fuckin’ idea,” he snaps. He jerks his head back behind him. “He thinks Sabrina the teenage witch laid some mojo on me on some back road up the ass of nowhere.” And now the dog is growling at him, low under its breath, and it knows. “And chain your fuckin’ dog, or I’ll plug it.”

Bobby bristles. “Watch your mouth, boy. You ain’t too big for a clip round the ear and I’ll be damned if I—”

And suddenly it’s too much and Dean is dizzy, rubbing at his eyes. “Look,” he says, soft now. “Please put the dog outside, Bobby. I can’t – you know. The dog, it…” And Sam has his hand under his arm and he’s shepherding him over to a chair, sitting him down, and he heaves out a sobbing sigh of relief as Bobby shoves the mutt out ahead of the chair.

Sam is kneeling next to Dean, and his giant hand is on Dean’s knee. “Something’s wrong Dean,” he’s saying earnestly. “This isn’t you. But we’ll fix it.”

Dean stares back. “This isn’t me,” he repeats mechanically, and then he says it again because on some level he knows it’s a clue and that all he has to do is work out what the mystery is and everything will be clear.

Sam glances away and over at the doorway as Bobby rolls back in, bottle slotted in between his thighs.

The old man hands it over and Dean unscrews the lid, gulps the liquor, and it’s tasteless, doesn’t scorch the back of his throat, there’s no fire to it at all, and he stares at the label, grimaces. “You trying to tell me something, Bobby?”

“Such as?”

Dean smiles weakly. “I know you got better stuff than this. Not like you to try and get the piss water past me. I know I’ve been knocking it back some, but it’s no reason to dilute the liquor.”

The old man stares back, purses his lips. “That ain’t piss water, Dean,” he announces dryly. “That’s Wild Turkey. Eighty proof. Like it says on the label. Paintstripper.”

Dean raises an eyebrow, smirks. “Yeah, right.” He swallows another few gulps, because his throat is dry, and at least the liquor is wet. “Can’t you get a sheepdog or something?” he blurts out abruptly. “One of those Lassie mutts? Or a lab? Something less, less – just less.”

Bobby’s eyes flicker with something that might be understanding but he doesn’t reply. Dean glances up at his brother, who looks whey-faced and worn out, and he offers him the booze.

Sam takes it, knocks back a mouthful, explodes in splutters and coughs and watering eyes, spraying whiskey everywhere. “J-jesus… Christ…”

It prickles at Dean right out of the blue, and he makes a face. “I think we say that too much.” 

Sam is wiping his mouth in between huffing out air and trying to catch a breath, and he tents his brows, eyes wide and questioning.

Dean shrugs. “We say that too much,” he repeats. “It’s blasphemy.”

“Blasphemy?” Bobby chimes in. “Well now I’m officially worried. What the hell are you talkin’ about, boy?”

Dean is suitably solemn. “Blasphemy. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

Bobby stares at him, glances at his brother, looks back.

“It’s one of the ten commandments,” Dean says, and then, helpfully, “I know everything.”

“I know it’s one of the ten fuckin’ commandments, idjit,” Bobby snaps out. “I have read the bible.” He stares balefully back, slants his eyes over at Sam. “What the hell happened?”

Sam shakes his head, throws up his hands. “Where do I start?” he says. “We were about twenty miles out of Heber after it all went down, and I saw a car stopped on the verge, breakdown. Dean popped the hood, got it going again, we left. But there was a kid in the car… teenage girl. I didn’t see her, but Dean says he got a vibe from her, that she called him a know it all. And…” he scrunches up his face. “Hey presto. He knows it all. And he keeps saying he feels spaced out, like his head is all fuzzy inside.”

Bobby shifts his focus back, frowns. “Did you take a blow to the head?”

Dean shrugs. “No clue, don’t remember. But I do seem to know it all.”

“It’s weird,” his brother chips in. “He knows things he doesn’t know, never knew. About nuclear fission, hip replacements. He’s spouting poetry. And he can speak German.”

“Je peux parler français aussi,” Dean says. “E italiano, e spagnolo.” There’s a brief, awed silence, and he shrugs. “I can speak French too. And Italian, and Spanish. I can speak every language there is.”

Bobby cocks his head. “Enochian too, apparently,” he says thoughtfully.

“There’s more,” Sam adds wearily. “After she said he knew it all, this kid said maybe he didn’t know as much as he thought. And he knows all this new stuff like I said, but he’s forgetting other stuff, stuff he’s known for years… hunter lore, people. And then he’s remembering it again, and, uh… sometimes he isn’t reacting too well.”

Sam’s voice goes quiet and regretful, and Dean knows it’s because of the silent drive, the air in the car so thick he could taste it on his tongue, the disgust he knows damn well oozed from him from the second he saw them, clear as day in his head, tangled limbs, sweat glistening, and her hands carding his brother’s hair while she whispered her lies and duplicity in his ears, salving his grief by fanning his rage. Not Sam’s fault, he says inside his head, and it’s like he’s having a conversation with himself, talking himself down. Not Sam’s fault, and he rubs at his jaw, leans into his hand and shuts it out.

“Can you find out what it is?” Sam is saying to Bobby as Dean drifts back to the now. “Are we going to need to go back to Heber, track this kid down?”

Bobby wheels himself over to the table, pulls a book out of a pile. “Depends. Most forgetting spells are forget-me-not love spells or just garden variety forgive-and-forget spells,” he says. “It’s the knowing it all sub-clause that’s tricky.” He squints at the page, looks up. “You sure you’re not just shining at us? Mind reading?”

Dean scowls. “No, I am not shining at you,” he grouses. “And shining doesn’t even mean mind reading. It means being able to see into the future. According to the master of horror.” He eyes Bobby for a minute then, smirks all sly and knowing. “Shirley Futterman,” he says.

Bobby goes rigid, looks up from the book. “Come again?”

Dean chuckles. “Funny, that’s exactly what you said to her. Shirley Futterman. You were seventeen and she was twenty-one. It was behind the Wyo Theater in Laramie…”

The old man’s mouth is hanging open now, and Dean can’t resist a glance at his brother. Sam’s mouth is a captivated O, his eyes huge with a mix of shock and thrilled fascination.

“In the Heat of the Night,” he leers, and he winks at Sam. “That was the movie,” he continues airily. “Appropriate, much? You and she did it four more times over the next two weeks, and Shirley loved that movie so much she had a special name for little Bobby, didn’t she? She called him Mister Tibbs—”

“We get the picture,” Bobby growls. The old man glares at him, pink under his beard. “What’s your point?”

Dean stretches, reaches for another gulp of piss water. “My point is that you weren’t thinking of that,” he says. “So I wasn’t mind reading.”

Bobby chews his lip for a second. “What am I doing next Saturday?”

“Next Saturday?” Dean echoes the old man. “How the fuck should I know?”

Slow nod. Then, “Where’s Shirley Futterman gonna be a year from now?”

Dean shrugs. “No clue. See? Not shining either.”

Bobby scribbles a note in the margin of his book, glances at Sam. “Seems like maybe he knows it all about stuff that’s already known,” he ventures. “Known facts, people he knows and things they’ve done. So maybe it follows on that it’s those things he’s forgetting too.”

Sam nods. “It seems to be intermittent. Like, he forgot who Cas was, but then on the drive here it seemed like he remembered again. And he forgot how to kill a wendigo—”

Dean holds up his hand. “With fire, or a silver bullet,” he cuts in, and he taps the ring where it glints on his finger. “Or even with a silver ring if you’re desperate.”

His brother waves a hand at him. “See what I mean?”

Bobby taps his pencil on the desk. “It’s coming and going.”

Dean cuts in, thoughtful. “Maybe I’m not really forgetting,” he offers. “Maybe I’m just non-prioritizing it. You know. Filing it away up there.” He taps his temple. “Like out of sight out of mind. Only out of mind, out of mind.”

“Speaking of which.” And Bobby leans across and gives him a hard clip round the ear.

Dean yelps. “What the fuck was that for?”

“For Mister fuckin’ Tibbs.” The old man’s brows are low, pulled together, a unibrow grimace of intense annoyance. “And because Sam here tells me you said yes.”

Dean rubs hard at his head, snaps testily, “It was conditional,” and then, “Ow! Bobby! What the fuck, man?” He reaches up to rub the other side, and the tip of his ear is smarting. He fires the evil eye at his brother. “Big mouth. Jesus Christ.”

Sam raises an eyebrow, and the message in his eyes is clear, payback’s a bitch, dude, and Dean knows he deserves it, that he’s been like a bear with wasp up its butt since… when?

“I heard your condition got met, right then and there.” Bobby takes off his cap and flicks it into the table. “Out of fuckin’ mind sounds about right. And I see blasphemy is back on the menu.”

Dean snorts, laughs out of left field. “I can’t believe I said that,” he confides. “Blasphemy… since when? I could hear myself saying the words, and it was like someone else was in my head speaking. Weird, man.”

And suddenly Bobby’s giving him that look now, mirroring Sam’s suspicion back at the motel, and on the road. “I’m me, Bobby,” he says quietly. “There’s nothing subletting me.”

Sam drums his fingertips on the tabletop, chips in. “He said his head was fuzzy,” he repeats. “Whooshing like a seashell, or like something was whispering to him. Oh, and a couple of times he said he felt like we were being watched.”

Dean shoots him an accusing look. “My nose is cold and wet, Sam,” he snaps. “I’m wagging my tail. I’m fine.” And to Bobby, “Zachariah had Sam bleeding out from his mouth, by the way. Buckets of it.”

The old man doesn’t take the bait. “Don’t try and steer me, boy,” he says balefully. “You killed Zachariah. And your blue-eyed boy said only an angel can kill an angel. Unless he lied to you about that as well?”

Dean’s irritation spikes suddenly, and he shoots up onto his feet, clenches his fists. “Aren’t we past this?” he forces out through gritted teeth. “Cas didn’t lie to me Bobby. He thought he was doing God’s will, and he was just as much out of the loop as we were.”

“He let your brother out,” Bobby growls. “Let him out to get high on demon blood and gank Lilith, and—”

“That’s exactly what you wanted to do, Bobby,” Dean cuts in harshly. “And don’t forget, you had your chance to stop Sam but you didn’t. If Cas hadn’t let him out Zachariah would have sent someone else to do it, and it still would have gone down just like it did because you’d still have let Sam walk.”

Bobby fixes him with a hard, flat stare, doesn’t reply. And Dean breathes himself down, plants his ass back on the chair. “If Cas had said no, Zachariah would have toasted him, and where the fuck would we be then?” he says. “He was going to warn me something was up, and he got ass-reamed for it, by his own kind. But he came through for me – for us – in the end. He had a choice, and he chose—” He stops abruptly, because Sam is looking down at his boots, and because his next word is meHe chose me, when my own brother didn’t, he thinks. “He chose to do the right thing,” he continues, carefully. “When Zachariah spilled that God wasn’t running the show, Cas did the right thing. He doesn’t lie to me. And it isn’t his fault he can’t…” He flicks his eyes down, at the old man’s legs. “It isn’t his fault,” he says again. “He’d do it if he could.”

Bobby considers him, tweaks his chin with his thumb and forefinger. “Point taken,” he grudges out, and then he raises a dubious eyebrow. “But if you’re saying he doesn’t lie to you, then what exactly are you saying, Dean? Given what he said about angels killing angels?”

Dean looks back and forth from the old man to his brother and back again, palms his face. “Look. Can we just – can we stay on topic here?” he says. “This, whatever it is – it could be frying my brain cells. Like when O’Neill looked into that alien head-grabbing doohickey.”

Bobby stares him down for a minute, relents. “So what do you remember about this weird kid?” he says finally.

Dean sighs out, rueful mixed with relief. “Not much… just some flashes. But yeah, there was a vibe from her. Like – static or something. Like I could feel her on my skin. She said I was a know it all. Something like that.” He frowns, scrubs at his hair. “And there was something she was doing, if I could just remember. I think it was important.”

Sam leans across, puts a hand on his arm. “Maybe we need to get some sleep,” he suggests quietly. “It might help, with the fuzzy head. The whooshing.”

Dean shakes off his brother’s hand, damned aggressively if he’s honest. “I’m fine, Sam, I’m not tired.”

Sam glances at his wristwatch. “It’s been twenty seven hours since we’ve slept properly, Dean. I’m exhausted and there’s no way you aren’t either. Maybe it’s why—”

“I said I’m not tired, Sam,” Dean snaps. “The fuzzy head has nothing to do with being tired. Alright? Now back the fuck off.”

His brother’s face closes down and he stiffens, and in the background Dean sees Bobby sneak his hand out, sees the old man deftly whip the liquor bottle up and out of his reach. “I’m not drunk either,” he protests.

Sam clears his throat, and he could swear his brother sounds nervous. “Well. Maybe it’s tinnitus,” he suggests. “You know. Ringing in your ears. From the noise when it all went down in Van Nuys.”

Dean makes a face. “What noise?”

“The noise. After you said yes. Michael. Coming on down, I assume.” Sam cocks his head. “It was earsplitting, Dean,” he says, exasperated. “You have to have heard it.”

“I didn’t hear any noise,” Dean replies. “I heard a voice. I think. Yeah… him coming, maybe. I suppose.” He sees Sam’s eyes widen. “Before I took it back,” he adds hurriedly. “And Cas said true vessels can hear the angels speak, remember? Like Jimmy did. We know I’m a vessel. It doesn’t mean anything other than that.”

“Well what was he saying?” Bobby chips in.

“Actually I don’t know,” Dean says stupidly. “I wasn’t really paying attention because of the light.”

“The light?” Sam says slowly.

“Yeah, Zachariah,” Dean says, and he whistles out his awe. “When he went up. His grace just exploded out of him, right there in front of me. Like a fuckin’ rocket taking off, like Saturn Five. Not two inches away. It was pretty damn awesome.” Dean is nodding as he speaks, stops dead as he sees his brother’s expression, and it’s a confusing mixture of shock, horror, add a dash of totally bewildered. “What?” he says defensively. “What now, what did I—” And he’s cut off by an abrupt tingling, a tickling sensation along his nerve endings, a sixth sense feeling, an odor, sulfur, burning, eau de Pit, and there’s a simultaneous crescendo of barking and yelling from outside.

It’s a drill they’ve practiced and perfected, as his brother launches himself at the light switch, plunges the room into darkness, heads up the hallway to the door, and Dean slinks to the window, pushing Bobby out of the line of fire as he goes. He pulls his Colt out of his waistband in one fluid movement, slams a hand up over his nose and mouth to stop himself from gagging at the smell. He recoils as a handful of gravel smatters against the glass, ducks back, dares to peer one eye beyond the window frame. It’s quiet, no crickets even, and he can see Sam gesturing furiously from the darkness up near the front door.

“You ready?” Bobby asks, and as Dean nods, the old man flicks a lever and floodlights flash on, illuminating the ground around the house for a good twenty yards out.

And there he is, standing out front and center, blinking in the brightness, dapper in his overcoat, puffing on his cigarette.

Dean shakes his head, murmurs, “What the hell?” And he stalks past Bobby, can hear the old man trundling along in pursuit and calling him, but he continues on up the hallway. “Knife,” he snaps. “Have it ready.” He motions his brother to one side, flings open the door.

“Before you start anything, I’m here with an offer,” the man says, and he has his hands up, palms down, placating, but he’s backing away. “I didn’t come here for a barney.”

Dean stands on the porch step, can hear his brother breathe out the name from beside him.

“Crowley.”

***

It’s the stench that gave the bastard away, rotten, the smell of things long dead, the stink of decay, putrefaction, so thick on the air that when Dean inhales he can feel it slither up inside his nostrils like a living thing, wriggling its way through his olfactory system, bombarding its receptor cells so mercilessly that klaxons sound the alarm, and they scream wrong, diseased, unclean, taint. And it’s like he’s piercing the veil, seeing their true faces again, only baser, because he’s smelling their core, the rancid black essence at their center, and it’s filth, contamination, impure. He can sense his brother next to him, shifts slightly, focuses on his solid strength, his reality. Tries to ignore the fact that even if it’s fainter than what emanates in waves from Crowley, he can smell it on Sam too. You stink of the Pit, he rails inside his head, but he swallows it down.

“The colt didn’t work,” Sam grates out coldly. “We lost friends. For nothing.”

Crowley sniffs. “Well, you took them there,” he snipes. “It was your decision. Doesn’t have to interfere with business though, does it? I still want the devil dead, so we’re still in this together, boys. Am I right? Or am I right?”

He’s cagey, eyes darting about nervously, and Dean can see the meatsuit’s nose twitching, and he wonders if Crowley can smell the same defilement on him, if they’re doing the equivalent of dogs sniffing each other’s butts to get properly acquainted.

“Look, straight up,” the demon continues, not missing a beat, his agitation ramping up as he talks. “I didn’t know it was dodgy, all my intel said the damn thing was a dead cert. What can I say? It’s a learning curve. But I didn’t mess you around. And I lost on this one too, big time. I’m totally buggered. Which reminds me…” He punches up aggressively at Bobby’s floodlights, both hands, left and right, and the lamps flash, sparks flying as the glass shatters, and the lot is plunged into moonlit darkness again. “That’s better,” Crowley snaps. “Since I’m being hunted. And you never know who could be watching me standing here, in public, talking to the Winchester brothers.”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “Word got out, huh?” he sneers. “And now you’re on the devil’s hit list? Tough fuckin’ shit. If I had his cellphone number, I’d tip him off myself. Now, my brother here,” and he jerks his head at Sam, “has the knife that really can kill you sonsofbitches. So, dust, pal. Right the fuck now. Unless you want another slit.”

And Crowley narrows his eyes, and now he’s looking Dean up and down, like he’s taking the measure of him, and he has a half-smile on his lips. “I can get you Pestilence,” he says suddenly. “I know where he is. I know what he has planned too.” He whistles out, shakes his head. “It’s not pretty, I can tell you that. Little virus they’ve been faffing about with for a few years now. Perfecting, if you like. It’s the dog’s bollocks, boys. What you saw in Concrete won’t even come close.”

Sam nudges Dean, leans closer. “Croatoan,” he mutters.

And fuck, it’s 2014, and Croatoan jumpstarted the endgame, and Dean finds he’s breathing fast and heavy because all he can see is the wreck of the porch he’s standing on, the mess in the house, and Bobby’s chair upended, bloodsmeared, and in his head six-billion voices are wailing Detroit at him and over their screams he can still hear the thing that wears his brother whispering sickly sweet sympathy in his ears. “Where is he?” he growls.

Crowley smiles whitely at him, rocks on his feet. “Do you think I’m thick or something?” he says. “You have to promise me you won’t kill me. BeforeI tell you.”

Dean can feel his brother tense beside him, can almost sense Sam gripping the knife tighter, knows he’s poised to let it fly.

“We promise,” Sam hisses, and he takes a few steps forward. “Where is he?”

Crowley takes a step back. “Not so fast, twinkletoes,” he snaps. “I don’t like you. And I don’t trust you.” He points at Dean. “He has to promise. Him. He has to promise me that I live through this, that neither of you two numbskulls pops me, tries to pop me, pays someone else to pop me, or arranges my accidental death.” He looks past Dean, at the doorway. “The old geezer too. But him…” He stabs a finger towards Dean, stares him down, insolent. “His promise is the one that matters to me.” He smirks. “Call it Winchester witness protection.”

Dean can hear Bobby murmuring from behind him, something about trusting a demon, and he stares it out with Crowley, eyes locked on and steady. “I promise,” he announces, and he hears Sam’s indrawn breath.

“Dean, for crying out loud, are you fucking nuts? He’s—”

“Telling the truth,” Dean cuts in. “He isn’t lying, Sam.” He slants his eyes across to his brother. “I know everything, remember? And I know he isn’t lying. About this, or about wanting to ice the devil.”

Crowley nods vigorously, sidles closer. “I’m on your side,” he says confidentially. “Strange times make for strange bedfellows, young Sam… enemy of my enemy and all that.” He smiles, flicks a look back at Dean, and his eyes are narrowed and speculative again. “Just do me a favor, huh? Promise me again. On your father’s honor this time.”

Dean cocks his head. “My father’s honor?” For a second he remembers the promise he made to Castiel, to obey, and he snorts derisively. “I promise, on my father’s honor. Such as it is. How’s that?”

Sam crowds around in front of him, incredulous. “Jesus, Dean, we don’t know enough about him to trust anything he ever tells us again after Ellen and Jo, and even if he—”

“I know all about him,” Dean says, mechanically. “Crowley’s been here for a long time, he was Azazel’s wingman, Lilith’s too.” He stops, reconsiders. “He was their John the Baptist, came to prepare the way for them…”

Crowley sniggers. “John the Baptist? That’s a new one. And call me a sexist pig, but I prefer to think of Lilith as my wingman.”

“Okay,” Sam snarls. “You’re a sexist pig.”

Dean throws his brother a look that Sam matches unblinkingly, before he rolls his eyes and turns his attention back to the demon. He steps down into the dirt, takes a few more steps that bring him closer, glances back over his shoulder. “Oh, and the meatsuit’s a pub landlord,” he says. “Boozer on the Isle of Dogs.”

Crowley sniffs. “Well, since you’re shining at me—”

“I’m not fuckin’ shining,” Dean grates out crabbily, and a burst of light flares briefly as Crowley strikes a match, lights up another cigarette, and in the glow cast by the flame Dean can see a calculating gleam in the demon’s eyes, and for a split second it’s somehow knowing, like Crowley has figured something out and he isn’t in on the joke, and then it’s gone.

“I do miss the old girl,” Crowley concedes mournfully.

“Yeah,” Dean says coldly. “She was a joy to be around.”

“Twit,” Crowley snipes. “I mean my pub. The Cock and Bull…” He smiles fondly. “Those were the days. If you thought Hell was bad, you should try Millwall Docks in the seventies. But Lilith?” He hoiks a spitball into the dust beside his shoe. “I don’t give a shit about Lilith,” he declares. “Bint had it coming. You did me a favor, quite frankly.” He quirks his head. “Well. Apart from the whole releasing Satan sub-clause. What the large print giveth, the fine print taketh away. Every time, Sam. You should know that. Unless Stanford pre-law isn’t what it’s cracked up to be?”

Behind them, Bobby clears his throat harshly and Dean glances back at the old man. “Dean,” he says meaningfully. “A word?”

Crowley holds up his hands. “Don’t mind me,” he says cheerfully. “Have your little chinwag. I come in peace. Not going to try anything. Not a thing.”

Dean jerks his head at Sam, makes his way back up the steps behind his brother as Bobby swivels the chair around, wheels back in through the door, and he knows what’s coming, lounges against the doorjamb, watches as Crowley grins back up at him and sucks on his cigarette.

“Are you sure this is wise?” Bobby says bluntly, and he doesn’t get any further before Sam jumps in.

“Dean. Are you seriously telling me you trust him after what happened in Carthage? And how did he even find us, we have hexbags… is it him who’s been watching you? And what the hell was all that about staring into Zachariah’s grace when you ganked him, because—”

“I’m not debating Zachariah’s grace with you right now, Sam,” Dean snaps back. “It didn’t burn out my eyes, I’m fine. And no, I don’t trust Crowley. I said he’s telling the truth. Which he is – about this, anyway. There’s a difference.” He glances over at the demon, returns his friendly nod, albeit unenthusiastically, turns his attention back to his brother. “I don’t trust demons, remember?” he adds cuttingly, and Sam scowls back at him. “Look,” he says then. “He’s hinky as Hell, I know that. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. But he knows stuff, stuff that can help us. And his only interest is him, which means he’ll deal if he thinks it’ll help him in the long term.”

Sam stares back darkly. “It also means he’ll doublecross us if he thinks it’s in his best interests,” he insists. “I of all people should know that. I don’t think we should deal with him, Dean, not after what happened with Ellen and Jo. We should end the sonofabitch right now.”

From over in the moonlit yard, Crowley waves, calls out, “He promised,” as he points at Dean. “And I'm not watching you,” he adds. “Your yard is in the phonebook, old man. I knew they’d turn up here eventually. I’m not dense.”

Bobby snorts. “I see they have bionic fuckin’ ears too.” He beckons Dean closer, leans forward so they’re practically nose to nose. “I vote to gank him. And after that, we’re damn well debating Zachariah’s grace. What the hell were you thinking, boy?”

Dean doesn’t react. “Are you really still in the phonebook?” he says. “That’s a tad risky, even if Cas did do your ribs for you.”

Bobby stares up at him, flinty-eyed. “I need the business,” he growls. “I make an honest living, remember? Mostly, anyway. They haven’t tried anything yet, and since I need a catheter to take a piss these days, I don’t really care if they do. And don’t change the subject.”

Dean feels a stab of disquiet at Bobby’s words, an uncomfortable reminder of the bullet the old man said he was saving. But it isn’t the time or place to pick up that ball, and he knows his brother is forcing himself to keep schtum too, can see Sam clenching his fists in his peripheral vision, can see his brother’s knuckles whiten.

Bobby stops for a minute, takes a few deep breaths, calms down. He tugs at his beard, lowers his voice. “Look… so this guy says he can get us a Horseman. That’s all well and good, assuming he is telling the truth, but should we really be prioritizing the Horsemen at this stage? Shouldn’t we be going for the powerball? Lucifer? Instead of getting sidetracked?”

Sam leans in. “Dean, Bobby’s right. For all we know he could be in cahoots with Lucifer,” he whispers urgently. “This could be a set up to throw us off track, to sideline us in some wild goose chase while the devil checkmates us without us even knowing.”

Crowley is checking his wristwatch now, shifting his weight from foot to foot, shaking his head in exasperation and talking to himself animatedly. He looks up, catches Dean’s eye. “I took a risk coming here, and I’m on a tight schedule,” he hollers impatiently. “Apocalypse, soon. I don’t have all night.” He thumbs the air over his shoulder. “I can just get in my car and piss off out of here if you aren’t interested in doing business.”

Dean squints into the darkness, just barely sees the outline of some innocuous looking sedan parked up near Bobby’s gates, well out of earshot. “Why do they even need cars when they can teleport?” he says, distractedly.

“Ruby said it’s something to do with them being from the Pit,” Sam replies quietly, almost reluctantly, like he doesn’t want to let on that he ever might have talked to her about anything more profound than where the next demon was. “It means they’re tied to the core of the earth… she used to say they couldn’t be airbound, it wasn’t natural. It drains them to keep zapping everywhere. Especially long distances.”

“Like a honeybee,” Dear murmurs. “They shouldn’t be able to fly. It violates the laws of aerodynamics.”

“The angels are different,” Sam says. “Of the air. That’s what she called it.”

Dean stares up to the sky at his brother’s words, and it’s infinite and inky, looks like a promise, and he wants to fall into it. And then Bobby is saying something in the distance, and Dean drags his attention back to Sam’s face, and on the way his eyes track across Bobby’s piles of wrecks, lit up by the cold light of the moon, four and five high, some of the stacks listing precariously, the odd jalopy tumbled over, doors hanging and wheels in the air, cannibalized car doors and fenders strewn about. And he shivers, because it’s another reminder of what Zachariah showed him, and for a second he’s back in the future, Kansas city’s deserted waste land, burnt-out shells of cars and trucks, upturned, tires missing, smashed storefronts, rusted shopping carts piled up with looted electrical goods that won’t work because there’s no more power to feed them, and then he’s running from the Crotes, and he’s outnumbered, and they’re gaining on him and—

“Dean. Dean?”

His brother has his hand on his shoulder, is shaking him, eyes warm with concern. “Dean. Are you fuzzy again? Spacing out?”

Dean blinks up at Sam, shakes his head, shakes off the hand. “No… no. My head’s clear, sharper than it has been for a while… it’s just. The virus. Croatoan. What Crowley said.”

Sam cocks his head, quizzical.

“Going after Pestilence won’t sidetrack us,” Dean insists. “The future Zachariah showed me, remember? Croatoan. It’s how Lucifer set the endgame in motion. He raised the Horsemen for a reason didn’t he? To loose chaos so he could get the upper hand. We saw that in River Pass, with War. So if Pestilence is pulling the strings when it comes to the virus, then if we get him, get his ring, it might take Croatoan out of the picture.”

Crowley butts in again from his spot in the yard. “Could make a big difference,” he calls. “I mean, Satan forbid the proletariat should get itself an organized resistance instead of frothing at the mouth and belting around the place like hyperactive lemmings on acid.”

Sam glares back at him, huffs out, turns back. “I still think it’s a mistake to—”

“And eating each other,” Crowley sings out. “While Lucifer takes advantage of the chaos in the meantime.”

They both spin around to stare out at the demon now.

“Do you know what the point of a blitzkrieg is, boys?” Crowley asks sunnily.

Dean waits a beat before he replies. “Blitzkrieg,” he says quietly. “A lightning war. Constant motion that keeps the enemy off-balance, making it difficult to respond effectively. Until it’s too late to get back on terms.”

Crowley nods, blows out cigarette smoke in a perfect series of rings that float up and dissipate into the night air. “Only Lucifer isn’t bothered with tanks and bombs,” he says. “He’s all about getting the most done with the least effort. And I’d wager Croatoan will sign, seal and deliver the constant motion our friend has in mind without him having to break sweat.” He drops his cigarette butt, toes it into the dirt. “So, Dean. What’s it to be?”

Dean can sense Sam’s tension like his brother is transmitting it to him telepathically, and there’s a minute where he wonders if the kid in the car did lay the shining on him and he really is reading Sam’s mind. And he even does what he imagines might approximate to reaching out mentally, opens up what he imagines might be the channels of communication, and he feels like a fuckin’ idiot as he does it, feels like he’s intruding too. And he doesn’t really want to admit to the fact that if there was some sort of feedback loop, he’s afraid of what he might find out. “What have you got?” he says, and only the barely perceptible sigh Sam puffs out as he replies to Crowley tells him what his brother thinks of his decision.

Crowley smiles. “Well, I don’t have Pestilence per se,” he says. “I have what you might call his wingman. Though I prefer to think of him as the Horsemen’s stable lad. Handles their itineraries, if you like, arranges all of their personal appearances. Weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, you get the—”

“Yeah, we do,” Dean says shortly. “So where is he?”

Crowley motions casually into the distance. “As it happens, he’s in the boot of my car right at this moment in time.”

***

Sam stares down into the trunk, swallows thickly because it’s familiar, looking down at a bound body with a bag over its head, only this time the bag is soaked black with blood in the glow of his Maglite, and the body is still, quiet, and then suddenly it isn’t, it’s her face, mocking, look at you, all ’roided up

He startles as Crowley clucks his tongue right next to him, elbows him. “Well, you’re the muscle,” the demon quips. “I’d rather not get blood on the threads if you don’t mind. This coat’s cashmere. Paul Smith.”

Dean is behind him, clears his throat uneasily, and Sam wonders if the fuzz has cleared enough so his brother is remembering what he said in the car on the road out of Heber, about the nurse, thinks maybe Dean is doing exactly that when he speaks.

“Sam. Uh – you want me to get that?”

Sam takes a deep, grounding breath. “No. I got it.” He leans in, drags the body up, bends at the knees as he hoists it onto his shoulders and it flops limply, dead weight. He glances at Crowley. “Is he likely to come round any time soon?”

The demon shrugs. “Well, there’s a devil’s trap Sharpied on that bag he’s wearing over his head, and I whacked him with a tire iron about seventeen times,” he says matter of factly. “I’d say that gives us another half-hour at least to strap him down and ward him properly.”

“And what’s to stop him from smoking out once he comes round?” Dean snaps.

“Binding spell,” Crowley announces. “I carved it on his chest. He’s a permanent resident as long as we want him to be. I’m sure it’ll be an important part of our bargaining strategy.” He looks up towards the house, where light floods out of the doorway. “Inside, I assume?” He sets off, walking briskly, looks back as Dean hails him.

“Who the hell invited you?”

Sam settles his load more comfortably on his shoulders, ignores his brother’s muttered oath as he starts following the demon, and Dean trots ahead of him.

Crowley spins, shuffles backwards as he talks. “You might need me,” he announces. “This one’s a tough nut, a real wide boy. And there’s—what? What the fuck?” He stops dead, balances on one leg as he examines his shoe. “Haven’t you morons heard of poop scoopers?” he yelps, wipes his foot frantically on the grass.

“I said, who the hell invited you?” Dean repeats acidly.

“These are hand-made Anello and Davides,” Crowley seethes.

“Anello and Davide. Is that like Siegfried and Roy?”

The demon’s voice shoots up a few octaves. “Anello and Davide make shoes for Elton fucking John, I’ll have you know.”

“I don’t give a—”

“And the Beatles.”

“Aren’t they all dead?” And then, because Dean knows it all, “Fuck, are you really from the sixties?

Sam skirts around them and keeps walking, can hear them bickering away behind him. He speeds up, hefts the body up the porch steps and in through the door, staggers along the hallway into the back regions of the house, and Bobby already has the chair ready, dead center of the spray-painted trap, ropes and cuffs on the floor waiting. He tips the meatsuit down onto the seat, turns, and Dean is suddenly right there behind him, so jittery he’s almost tap dancing with it.

“Dammit, Bobby, did you have to break the trap at the front door?” his brother barks, as Crowley appears at his shoulder and steps into the room.

The demon is nodding his approval as he studies his surroundings. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” he says to Bobby.

The old man scowls across at them from where he’s cuffing the meatsuit’s wrist to the chair frame. “I let him in because you said he was on the level about this, boy,” he says irritably. “Otherwise I’d have been happy to gank him.”

Crowley is looking up and down, keeping his distance. “Excellent use of the standard devil’s trap, ceiling and floor,” he notes, “and very crafty placement of hexbags at points north, south, east and west.” He gestures past Bobby’s shoulder, nods for emphasis. “I like the crucifix. Of course it’s a myth they actually work, but it looks authentic… very Exorcist, very Salem’s Lot.” He glances behind him, laces his voice with respect, admiration. “One of those angel blasting sigils, if I’m not mistaken…”

Dean grips Crowley’s shoulder, starts to spin him round. “You can be on the level from outside the house,” he grates, and he suddenly pales, reels on his feet and claps his hand to his mouth. “Fuck,” he mutters from behind his fingers.

Sam is right there, propping his brother up, bearing his weight for him as his knees buckle. “Fuzzy head?” he asks urgently. “I can get this, you need to rest.”

Crowley drips fake concern. “Something wrong?” he enquires. “Is he under the weather? Not feeling himself, perhaps?” He smiles knowingly.

“Shut up,” Sam growls. “There’s nothing wrong with him.” He starts to reach into his back pocket for the knife, and he finds he can’t do it and support his brother, considers whether to walk Dean out of the room or sit him on the floor so he can get this over with.

Dean is shaking his head, eyes scrunched closed. “No… head’s fine,” he mutters. “Smell. Jesus. He smells bad… just need to – get used to it. It’ll take a minute. Wasn’t so bad outside.”

Crowley smiles widely, stares straight at Sam. “He can smell the Pit on me. Like dogshite roasting in the sun, in a downwind. He can smell it on you too, I shouldn’t wonder, young Sam, after all the interesting shapes you made with sweet little Ruby.” He nods his head regretfully. “Now that’s what I call taking one for the team. But she always was a good girl, always did as she was—”

“Shut up,” Bobby cuts in from across the room. “Shut up, or by Christ I will end you myself, right now.”

Crowley flinches, just barely. “Ouch. Can we not blaspheme, please?” He smirks. “And what are you going to do, old man, run me down?” He switches his gaze back to Dean. “By the way, you don’t smell so good yourself.”

Sam feels his brother tense under his arm.

“Is that how I,” Dean starts, and he shudders, whispers it out. “Can you smell the Pit on me?”

The demon regards him for a long moment, expression neutral now. “Nope,” he says finally. “You smell like angel.”

Dean pulls his hand away from his mouth. “I smell like angel?”

“Yep. It’s all over you.”

Sam can’t help himself, blurts it out, intrigued. “What does angel smell like?”

Dean turns and glares at him accusingly for a second before he fixes his attention back to the demon, clears his throat. “Uh. Well? What does angel smell like?”

Crowley grimaces. “Like a bunch of fucking flowers. Like one of those stupid little plug-in air fresheners that make your house smell like vanilla. Like that Febreze stuff you spray on the couch to hide the smell of cat piss. Like the perfume department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Like a newborn baby’s hair.” He shudders theatrically. “I think that about covers it. And angel is to me what Pit is to you, Dean. So I trust you’ll forgive me if I’m not doing the happy dance about it myself.”

Dean is pulling away from Sam now, seems to be coming back to himself, never taking his eyes off the demon.

Crowley sniggers, eyes narrowed and cunning. “Of course, you have to wonder why it is Dean here smells like he’s been rolling in angel. Maybe all those rumors I’ve been hearing are true.” He waggles his eyebrows suggestively. “So where is your celestial boyfriend? Only I heard he departed the mortal coil.”

Dean cocks his head. “That’s none of your damn business,” he says, low and controlled.

“Of course the rumors wouldn’t explain why you can suddenly sniff out my kind,” Crowley muses archly. He roots in his coat pocket, pulls out his cigarettes, glances at Bobby. “Mind if I have a fag?”

“Yes. I do,” the old man snaps.

The demon puts the box back in his pocket, snorts. “Anyway. I heard friend Castiel got himself vaporized helping you,” he mocks. “And all for nothing.”

“What happened to Castiel doesn’t matter,” Dean says, frostily.

“For nothing?” Sam hears himself say. “What do you mean for nothing?” And then he’s turning it on Dean. “And of course it matters, Dean…” His attention is suddenly caught by Bobby gesturing furiously at him, and the old man mouths what the fuck? and Sam throws his hands up, clueless, because he’s seen his brother madder than hell at Cas but he’s never seen this shut down, mechanical lack of emotion at the angel’s name.

“Knife, Sam.”

And Sam can sense it coiled inside his brother, the explosion that’s about to blow Crowley to kingdom come, and that’s what it is, Dean is just distracted, hungry for the kill. And he hands over the blade, takes a step back, motions Bobby to retreat, and the old man is already moving.

Crowley’s eyes widen. “You promised!” he says indignantly. “You can’t break your promise, that’s why I said it had to be you, and—”

Dean laughs, a not entirely sane laugh. “You said I had to promise not to kill you before you told me,” he says. “You didn’t say anything about me not killing you after you told me.” He shakes his head in mock sympathy. “What can I say, Crowley? What the large print giveth, the fine print taketh away…”

He’s closing in, light on his feet, arms outstretched, crouched slightly, ready to pounce. And there are times when Dean sledgehammers in for the kill, and it’s all brute force and uncontrolled violence, and then there are times when it’s like watching a dance, all catlike grace and poise, and Sam could watch his brother kill anything when it’s like that, because Dean’s eyes blaze and it’s a thing of beauty. And he shuffles sideways so he can see properly, and he thinks of Ellen and Jo, blown to smithereens, and it’s justice, and damn well git her done so he can sit his brother down and find out what the hell is going on with him.

The blade glints in the light as Dean raises his arm. And it hangs there in mid-air, and it’s like Dean is teasing, playing cat and mouse games. Only he’s not, because he clears his throat harshly.

“I can’t.”

Sam furrows his brow, throws a look at Bobby.

“What do you mean, you can’t?” the old man says.

“I mean, I can’t,” Dean mutters, and he lets his arm fall to his side. “I can’t kill him. I promised.”

Bobby’s face is a picture. “So what? Get on with it. Or I’ll do it.”

“No you won’t,” Dean says. “I won’t let you.”

“Won’t let me?” Bobby gapes.

“I can’t,” Dean repeats faintly. “I promised him.”

“You promised to re-tile my roof two summers ago and I’m still waiting,” the old man snaps. “Who cares what you promised him?”

“I care,” Crowley interrupts agitatedly. “I can damn well do without you trying to talk him out of it, and—”

“Jesus,” Sam sighs. “I’ll do it. Dean, hand it over.”

His brother turns around, slowly, holds the knife up and out. Holds it ready. “No.”

Sam nods, bites his lip. “Okay,” he says tightly. “We’ll do this now, then. What the hell is going on with you, Dean? Since when do you keep promises to demons? And Zachariah, the light. What was that? And since when do you say Cas doesn’t matter? It does matter, what happened to him, and—”

Dean’s staring at him, puzzled, frowning. “What are you talking about Sam?” he rasps. “Anyone would think he was dead or something, the way you’re—”

“But he is,” Sam almost-shrieks. “You were there. He blew himself away with that damn sigil, he carved it on his own chest with a box cutter so we could—”

“It doesn’t fuckin’ matter, Sam.” Dean is insistent, right up in Sam’s face now, voice rising in volume and pitch, and suddenly his eyes are molten, unearthly, pinprick pupils, and something is wrong, very wrong, because there’s a dull roar coming from somewhere, rustling, whispering, and the floor is shifting under Sam’s feet, undulating, and in the corner of his eye he can see Bobby’s wheelchair sliding about, the old man reaching out to grab at the curtains as he rolls over and comes to rest against the window.

“It doesn’t fuckin’ matter because Castiel is fine, Sam,” Dean hollers. “Do you hear me? He’s fine. Look – see?

And the house is shaking now, and Sam looks up and the light fitting is swinging wildly, and the glass doors of Bobby’s cabinets are crashing open and books are falling out onto the floor, and pictures are tumbling down from where they hang, and he can hear glass shattering.

“Do you see?” his brother yells furiously, and he cuts his hand through the air savagely.

There’s a billionth of a fraction of a second when Sam could swear Dean flickers out of phase and he’s staring at thin air, and he blinks, sees that Dean is still right there in front of him. And there’s a flash, a bang like a car backfiring, and there Castiel is, dazed, bloody, clothes in tatters, swaying. Sam reaches out as he falls, catches him and falls to his knees, cradling the angel in his arms. He can hear Bobby shouting something above the roar, and it’s like a tornado bearing down on them now, wind high and moaning, and he can hear things falling elsewhere in the house, slamming on the floor of the room above. And then Crowley is leaning down in front of him.

“Didn’t you know?” he shouts over the noise. “Are you thick?

Something is glinting in Crowley’s hand, a knife, a shiv, and Sam flinches, shuffles back, pulling the angel with him and twisting around to shield him from the demon.

“Prat,” Crowley sneers, and he rolls his eyes. “It’s not for him. Or you.”

Sam looks past him, can see Dean standing in the middle of it all, his hands out and palms upwards, and he’s looking up and his eyes are blank, and fuck, but Sam could swear his brother is starting to glow, just like the old guy at the Seven-Eleven in Heber said. And now Crowley is weaving his way towards Dean, hands out to balance himself because the house is still shaking. No… no, Sam thinks, and he screams it out, because he’s too far away and Crowley is right up at Dean’s shoulder now.

And the demon pushes past, lurches over to the door, makes a slicing motion across his palm, slams his hand on the sigil.

The room lights up, so bright Sam’s pupils flare with agony even behind his closed eyelids, and then everything is stillness, silence, apart from his own breath and the matching percussion of Bobby’s labored panting.

And when Sam opens his eyes, his brother is gone.

***

Sam knows all the hiding places in the ramshackle old house, coming ready or not, Dean, hunts high and low, throws open closet doors, leaves footprints in the dust on the floors of rooms he doesn’t even remember. He pulls down the ladder that leads up to Bobby’s attic and crawls around between boxes, piles of books, and bundles of old newspapers held together with string, coughs up his lungs and spits out cobwebs while horrified spiders run for their lives. And he knows at any moment his brother is going to erupt from behind something and dogpile him face first into the insulation until he cries uncle, so he’s on his guard, keeps glancing behind him, waiting for Dean to pounce, but his brother is biding his time.

He takes the stairs back down three at a time, careers into the front door and adroitly pushes off it and along the hallway like Michael Phelps making a flip turn, crashes down the steps to the basement. He overturns furniture, checks the chest freezer because people can get trapped in those, tips out tea chests, rips through the panic room, checks under the beds in there, Hurricane Sam making landfall, and he’s category fucking five and nothing can withstand his force. And he thinks he sees Dean looming up out of the shadows to give him a Texas wedgie, and he whirls, but there isn’t anything there.

He crashes back up to the hall, out through the front door into the damp night, panting heavily every couple of minutes because he keeps forgetting to breathe. He sprints around back of the house to loose the dog because needs must, and if anything’s going to scare his brother out of his hiding place it’s the memory of Lilith’s dogs, and the mutt races off into the blackness of the lot, barking joyously.

Flashlight, in the trunk of the car, and then he’s jogging around in the dog’s wake, shining the beam into the murk, into the cabins of smashed up cars, trucks, even vans, though he knows Dean would never hide in a van, I feel like a fuckin’ soccer mom, only maybe he might just because he knows Sam won’t expect him to, so he shines the light in those too. And he knows damn well that Dean is stalking him, that he’s going to bushwack him from somewhere high up and tickle him until he’s red faced and weeping from it, but his brother is waiting for the right moment to catch him totally unawares.

And finally, when he’s looked everywhere he can think of where Dean might hide, Sam stands and hollers his brother’s name into the night until his voice cracks and fades.

“You know, there’s denial,” Crowley says from behind him, “and then there’s stark raving stupidity of the kind that totally misses the fact its own brother is—”

“Shut the fuck up,” Sam grates out hoarsely. “It’s a curse, we ran into a witch on the road here. And Dean isn’t here to stop me from killing you.”

“Well,” the demon considers. “From what I’ve heard, it wouldn’t be the first time you ignored what he told you before—”

Sam whips around, reaches his hand out, starts to coax, tease, pull, sees Crowley start to flush and swallow hard. And then he remembers Dean’s face in the gloom behind Famine, his shock, his sadness, his disappointment, his defeat. He drops his hand to his side, and Crowley clears his throat feelingly.

“Where is he hiding?” Sam says then, with a kind of desperation. “We used to play hide and seek here all the time when we were kids… I know all the best places, and he isn’t in any of them. Where is he hiding?”

Crowley stares at him, impassive. “Word to the wise,” he says after a minute, and he jerks his head sharply towards the house. “The way the floor was shake, rattle and rolling in there, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your devil’s trap is looking like a lace doily. Which means you’ve potentially left wheels and your brother-in-law in there at the mercy of a real little toerag.”

Sam shifts his gaze from the demon to the house, and back again, and Crowley is shaking his head now, amused, or maybe bemused.

“You really didn’t know,” he says, on a laugh, and then he cocks his head, curious. “Did he know?”

Sam starts walking, trotting, speeds up as he takes the steps, hits the hallway at a run, skids into the back room.

It’s a mess, but it’s curiously tranquil, quiet. The demon is still slouched in the chair, and Bobby is still parked by the curtains, hasn’t moved an inch as far as he can tell. Castiel is splayed out on the floor next to the couch, frozen in a perfect stillness that looks terminal from where Sam is standing.

The parquet floor tiles are jutting up here and there, and Sam crosses to the desk, pulls open the drawer, retrieves the spraypaint. He forces himself into a calm he doesn’t feel, even hums low under his breath for effect, as he carefully retraces the painted circles, zigs, and zags, filling in the disturbed portions, daubing the lines of the trap three or four inches wide in some spots to make sure the gaps are filled.

Bobby watches him in dead silence for a few minutes as he works, and when he speaks the old man’s voice is whisper thin. “You found him. Hiding out there. Tell me you found him, Sam.”

Sam doesn’t answer, clicks the cap back on the paint can, and he isn’t thinking, isn’t dotting the i’s, isn’t crossing the t’s, isn’t doing the math, isn’t joining the dots.

“He said yes,” Bobby chokes out then. “That fuckin’ idjit said yes.”

Sam ignores him some more, pushes up, nods in satisfaction at his handiwork, crosses over to the desk and puts the can back in the drawer, and he isn’t speculating, contemplating, meditating, ruminating, or hypothesizing.

Crowley is leaning on the doorjamb, watching, as quiet as they are, oddly respectful even, and he catches Sam’s eye, nods towards Castiel’s sprawled form. “You should move him further away from our friend in the chair,” he remarks. “It might not be safe for him to be up so close.”

Sam makes his way back to the trap, squats down and hauls the angel’s limp body further away from the slumped demon, touches his fingertips to Castiel’s neck, lays his hand on his brow. “His pulse is really weak,” he says. “And he’s burning up. I don’t think this is right, Bobby, I don’t think he should be this badly affected. He wasn’t before, when Dean used the sigil on him.”

There’s no reply, and when he looks up, Bobby is staring at him with empty eyes. “Bobby,” he says sharply. “We need to deal with this.” And he fucking wants to deal with this, he thinks, so he doesn’t have to deal with the rest of it.

It jolts the other man out of his shellshock. “Put him on my bed in the den,” he says quietly. “You know where the first aid kit is.”

Sam looks back down at the angel’s blood-drenched shirt, swallows. “I think we may have gone past first aid kit, Bobby,” he murmurs. “That’s a lot of blood.”

Bobby moves now, wheels himself laboriously over, looks down. “Maybe it’s just taking him longer to heal because he cut it into himself,” he says. “Or maybe it was too soon after Dean hit him with it.”

Sam scrubs a hand through his hair. “Do you think transfusing him is an option?” he asks. “If he keeps bleeding, I mean?”

The old man heaves out a weary sigh. “I have no idea, kid. He’s an angel, giving him our blood might mess with him big time. And we don’t know the vessel’s blood type… does he carry any ID that might say what it is?”

Sam pats the limp body down expertly, feels something approximately the right size in the inside pocket of the shredded trenchcoat, tugs it out, sighs as he flicks it open and sees a photo-booth shot of wide-eyed bewilderment staring back at him. “Agent Eddie Moscone,” he says. “It’s one of my fake FBI badges. Dean gave it to him when they were tracking Raphael. Cas must’ve hung onto it.” It’s like it breaks the spell to mention his brother’s name, and Sam suddenly feels sick, flops back on his butt, gasps out.

And Bobby must feel it too, because his hand is on Sam’s shoulder, gripping it tight. “What does it mean?” he rasps out. “Sam. What does it mean…?”

His voice trails off, and somewhere inside Sam knows the old man isn’t expecting an answer, isn’t waiting for one, because he knows what it means. Just like Sam does, even if he isn’t going there, even if he padlocked the door to there closed and swallowed the key. And the way Bobby keeps his grip on him, holds onto him, is proof, because the old man’s hand is there to hold Sam together, to stop him from breaking into pieces.

“It doesn’t mean anything, Bobby,” Sam evades mechanically. “He’s Dean, he is. He’s my brother. He just – it’s a curse. That’s what it is.” He stares down at Castiel for a long moment, and the angel is ghostly white, navy blue shadows under his eyes, blood trickling from his nose and his mouth, and even his ears, and Sam hates himself for thinking it might even be a blessing to have this to focus on, to not have to sit and stare back at Castiel’s look of bleak horror and grief as well as Bobby’s. “Maybe it’ll be okay, maybe the blood doesn’t have to be typed and matched,” he ventures. “He’s an angel, maybe he can handle it. Maybe he just needs a boost or something.”

Crowley coughs from the doorway. “Well, you can’t give him yours,” he says succinctly. “It’s toxic to his kind.”

Sam chews his lip, looks up at Bobby again. “Let’s get him comfortable at least, patch him up,” he says firmly. “Dean is gonna be pissed when he shows up if he thinks we haven’t been taking care of him.” He maneuvers himself out from under Bobby’s hand, leans down, starts pulling the limp body up onto his shoulder.

“Sam? Sam Winchester?”

Sam freezes, twists his head to look at the demon in the chair, and it’s cocking its head, listening through the bag that conceals its face.

Crowley is sucking air in between his teeth over in the doorway, looks moderately apologetic. “Oops,” he says. “I forgot to mention that little detail.” He smirks. “Still. That’s what you get, working with a demon.”

Sam thinks he knows the voice, doesn’t want to believe he does though, and he lays Castiel back down on the floor, pushes up to his feet. “Does he know me?” he says slowly, suspiciously. “How does he know me?”

He tells himself it’s just the usual mouthy demon, like they all are, that it made a lucky guess because they all have his face and Dean’s committed to memory, and he knows the sonofabitch just heard him say Dean’s name and put two and two together, knows he has nothing to worry about even though his hackles are raising involuntarily, and alarm bells are ringing in his head because he thinks he knows the voice… doesn’t want to believe he does, though. 

“Sam, is that you?”

And he frowns, steps closer, no danger, the meatsuit is still bound and the trap is secure, and he reaches over, plucks the bag off the man’s head.

Brady always had perfect teeth, the perfect all-American-boy smile, the perfect Kennedy brother sideways cowlick swirl of hair that still looks artfully styled even though the back of his skull is caved in, and Sam towers above him, can see pasty pinkish globs caught in the strands at the back, can see the pale gleam of shattered bone.

He must have said the name out loud because the man smiles that perfect smile again, even wider. “Brady hasn’t been Brady in years,” he says mockingly. “Not since, oh… the middle of sophomore year?” He sighs, and it’s almost sympathetic, almost understanding, almost commiserating. “Poor Sammy had a devil on his shoulder even back then…” 

Sam is stock still as it sinks in, and the words creep out of him like they’re scared of what they might find, or of what might pounce on them as he opens his mouth, they crouch there on the tip of his tongue, peering out and looking this way and that. “But… you were my best friend,” he whispers, as the sounds finally pluck up the courage to cross the threshold of his lips into the danger zone. “You introduced me to Jess…” Golden, smiling, kind-eyed Jess, who was his future, and she dripped blood on him as she burned, and he hasn’t seen that image in his head for years now but there she is, floating above him and imploring him with her eyes as the flames halo around her, and her lips move soundlessly, and this can’t be, he’s thinking and now he can hear himself muttering it, in a monotone.

“Sam,” Bobby is saying, and the old man is rolling up beside him, gripping his forearm, and Brady is laughing up at him, all perfect fucking teeth, head thrown back and eyes squeezed shut with mirth, moisture trickling out of the corners. Sam isn’t aware of raising his hand to hold in the bile, but it’s pressed against his mouth all of a sudden, and then Crowley ranges up on his other side and nudges him.

“I’d clock him if I were you,” Crowley suggests amiably. “He can wait. It’s not as if he’s going anywhere now, and he’ll just distract you while you stitch up pretty-boy down there. Unless you need me to hold your hair for you while you puke?”

Sam swivels his head round, stares confusedly at the demon, hears a dull thud that has him swinging his gaze back around to the center of the trap. Brady is drooping in the chair again, and Bobby is right up behind him, holding a cast iron poker, his face crumpled with distaste as he looks down at the gray matter and hair clumped stickily on the tip.

“This can’t be,” Sam chokes out into the abrupt silence.

Bobby throws the weapon down, maneuvers himself alongside the unconscious demon, fishes inside his jacket and produces a wallet, flicks through the contents. “Brady’s his name,” he confirms quietly.

Crowley sniffs beside Sam, huffs out. “Well,” he declares, and he crosses to Bobby’s desk, roots out a piece of scrap paper and a pen. “Looks like friend Brady’s on the back burner until the big cahuna shows up.” He scribbles on the paper, wafts it at Bobby. “My cellphone number. Just give me a bell when he gets back, yes?” His attention is caught by papers scattered on Bobby’s desk, and he picks one up, takes out his phone, squints at the document in his hand as he thumbs in numbers. He looks up, smiles brightly. “I’ve put you in my contacts. If I don’t hear from you in the next twenty-four hours, I’ll be in touch. Just keep your moose off young Brady here until he gives us what we need, okay?”

Sam stands rooted to the spot, knows his mouth is hanging open, hears Bobby snort.

“What the fuck makes you think you’re welcome here?” the old man snaps. “Show your face again and I’ll blast you so full of rock salt you’ll be pissing Margaritas for a month.”

Crowley cocks his head, grins. “Negotiating a high level defection is a very delicate business,” he says. “You might need me. Besides. I’m invested.”

And then he isn’t there any more.

“Yeah, well hesitate to fuckin’ call,” Bobby growls at the empty space where the demon stood. He shakes his head, mutters under his breath before he wheels himself back past Sam. “He’s right, boy,” he says. “Whoever that is, we got other problems just now.” He sharpens his voice, his turn to prioritize now. “Sam.”

Sam tears his gaze away from the slumped demon, and Bobby is leaning over, reaching down, tapping Castiel’s cheek. He looks up.

“We need to help him, get him cleaned up. Before we do anything else.”

And Sam closes his eyes for a minute, breathes out his memories and his turmoil. Then he kneels down and heaves the angel up onto his shoulder, lurches out through the doorway, the earlier journey in reverse, only everything was different then and the world as he knows it hadn’t screeched to a halt, obliterating everything he held dear with its skid marks.

He finds he’s talking, babbling like he does when his brother is hurt, like Dean does when he’s hurt, doing it to steer his own mind sharp left of panic stations just as much as he does it to distract Dean from the discomfort, the usual crap droned out, just a few minutes more, get you lying flat, get you cleaned up, you need something for the pain? No reply, and Sam can feel damp seeping through his shirt, and he finally nudges up against Bobby’s bed and offloads his brother’s friend – their friend – down onto it. He catches his breath, crosses to the closet and heaves out Bobby’s first aid trunk, drags it across the floor so it’s right where they need it. Bobby is already busying himself at the foot end of the bed, pulling off Castiel’s shoes, and Sam stands and looks down, feels fucking awkward if he’s honest, and at least his unease is another distraction from his simmering anxiety.

“Well?” Bobby grates out, and Sam startles. “Get on with it,” the old man says gruffly. “I don’t want him bleeding out on my bed.”

Sam leans down, reaches out, stops with his hands hovering just above the sacked-out angel. He can feel Bobby’s eyes boring into him. “It’s just that he’s an angel,” he blurts out. “It’s – weird. To be stripping him. He only ever took the coat off when he was Jimmy. It’s like it’s welded on him or something.”

The old man nods. “I know what you mean, boy,” he says dryly. “Just watch out for the wings. Your brother told me he keeps them under there all folded up and when he undresses to put his PJs on, they spring up like a jack-in-the-box and knock everything flying.”

Sam snatches his hand back, gapes at the old man. “Is that tr—”

“Of course it isn’t fuckin’ true,” Bobby snaps, and his voice is strained and tight because his world has run off its tracks too, and Sam notices that his hands are shaking as moves them to the armrests of his chair, and he grips them tight, his fingers kneading into the vinyl.

“Okay,” Sam says. “Okay. Let’s do this.” He kneels down, scratches his head, blows out. “I’m gonna have to cut this off him,” he decides, and he slides his Bowie out of its ankle holster, slices through the tattered coat, drops pieces of it on the floor. “Can you pull the rest out from under him if I lift him up?”

Bobby wheels up beside him, grasps the fabric.

“On three. One. Two.” Sam braces. “Three.” He lifts, gets a chestful of bloody angel, the coppery tang of the red patches close up enough now to turn his stomach, and Dean and Castiel are about the same build, the same weight, and it’s such a visceral reminder of holding onto the barely contained slop that was his brother’s ruined corpse in New Harmony that Sam chokes.

He lays Castiel back down, swallows as he starts to peel the shirt away. And he remembers that he never closed Dean up after the hounds took him, too much damage, too ragged, too many slivers of muscle and flesh, the edges of the wounds frayed so they looked like the fringed hems on the denim cut-offs Jess used to wear, and if he’d tried to mend his brother Dean’s body would have looked like nothing so much as a cross stitch sampler. Sam suddenly imagines himself embroidering some hollow, meaningless blessing or bible saying into Cas, angels are watching over you or some crap like that. God is our refuge, or not, as the case may be, or maybe this is the day the Lord our God has fucking made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Fingers click next to his ear.

“Are you gonna get this or not, Sam?” Bobby’s voice isn’t as sharp now, and he has gauze packets and antiseptic cream laid on a towel next to Castiel’s leg.

“I’ll get it,” Sam says wearily. He looks across at the old man, sighs.

“I know, son,” Bobby says quietly. “I know.” He sighs himself, narrows his eyes. “Why do you think the sigil didn’t work on him? It should have blasted him right out of here…” He reaches across Sam, finishes folding the shirt back off the wounds, blanches. “Jesus. It’s a fuckin’ mess…” He squints, tilts his head sideways as he stares down.

“I don’t know,” Sam ponders. “I haven’t even really thought about it.” And he knows why he hasn’t, knows that thinking too hard about it will inevitably lead to thinking about the fact the symbol did work on his brother. “He was behind me,” he offers. “And unconscious. Maybe they have to actually see it, see the light. Be exposed to it.” He blinks hard, moves it right along, examines the slashes more closely. “We thought he was just going to cut his hand, daub it on the wall or something. But he carved it into himself…”

The lacerations are puffy, seeping pus and serum, and spidery branch lines wander off at every angle, splitting into scarlet tendrils that swirl across Castiel’s torso like mile-a-minute vine covering a south-facing wall, and the skin from his sternum down to his pants is inflamed, blistered, raw.

“It looks burned on,” Sam murmurs. “The light must have seared it into him or something. Pass me the Bactine, I’ll have to slosh it on there.”

He soaks his hands first, then the wounds, parting some of the worse slashes to dribble the antiseptic in there, washing away the mess. He shakes his head. “This is pretty nasty, Bobby. Do you think he’ll feel it? Maybe we should give him something… he felt that hangover, Dean gave him some aspirin.”

“Do you know if he took it?”

“No, no idea, he just took off again.” It shouldn’t be infected, Sam is thinking. He’s an angel, he can heal himself. “Dammit,” he says. “You know, I think if we held him up to the light, it would shine right through him…” He trails off. The light, he thinks. Glowing, and then Dean gone.

“I don’t know, kid. He must be fixing himself, surely?” Bobby considers it for a minute. “Putting something on him to stop the bleeding is one thing, but I’m loath to risk putting anything in him. It could do more harm than good.”

Sam chews his lip. “It took a whole liquor store to get him drunk,” he muses.

Bobby’s face is still creased in doubt. “I guess we could give him some antibiotics,” he says finally. “Justincasey. But I think we should hold off on anything stronger till he comes round.” He fusses over the gauze packs, mutters out an oath. “They should make spackle kits for this kind of thing,” he grumbles. “Those mesh patches you use to fill holes in the wall. Just slap the damn thing on him and spackle over the top. Problem solved.”

It’s a ludicrous enough image that Sam smiles weakly as he hefts his Bowie again, expertly cuts through the thin cotton of the shirt to get the rest of it off the angel while he works. And he freezes, the blade hovering in mid-air.

“Would you look at that…” Bobby murmurs softly.

Sam can’t help himself, reaches out to touch the raised welt on Castiel’s shoulder, the handprint an identical twin to the mark that still raises the hairs on the back of his neck when his brother emerges from the shower and he catches a glimpse of it in the few seconds before Dean self-consciously pulls on his tee.

“Jesus,” Bobby says suddenly. “Do you think he was in Hell?”

Sam shakes his head, helpless. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the fuck is going on here, Bobby.”

His fingers trace the mark, just barely, and he lines up his hand as best he can, upside down to it, measures its length, smaller than his, and he doesn’t see Castiel flail his own hand up, just feels it grip his wrist, tight. He sucks in breath, swivels his head, and Castiel is staring at him through bleary eyes, moving his lips, whispering something to him.

“Cas… What?” Sam leans in close enough to feel the angel’s breath warm against his cheek. “What? What happened to you?”

It’s drawn out, shaky, and so faint he can barely hear it. A name, and it makes Sam’s blood run cold in his veins. 

***

He doesn’t know where he is when he wakes up, only knows that he aches dully all over and that sharper pain is lancing up his neck from his shoulders, right into his brain. He cracks his eyelids and the sky is pale gray above him, and he groans out into the dawn, pushes himself up on his elbows, feels his stomach flip flop like a beached fish inside him. He winces, reaches his right hand back to rub at the muscle over his left shoulder blade, because it feels weirdly stiff, heavy, like something is dragging on it.

“Yep, it hurts when you lie on them for hours,” a voice says, out of the shadows. “Even if they don’t really exist in this dimension.”

He rockets up onto his ass, skitters himself backwards with his heels until his back hits something solid, and he pats frantically behind him, feels like rock, cold, hard, smooth in places, jagged in others, and he squints into the murk, makes out a shape that’s darker sitting over to his right. “What happened?” he croaks. “Where am I? And who the fuck are you?”

The shape chuckles. “Don’t you recognize me?” it teases. “I know I’ve been gone for a long time, but I never thought you’d forget, not really. You were always so good at taking care of your family.”

And something about it is familiar and right, but wrong, so damn wrong, and he swallows hard, palms his cheeks, shakes his head, feels the first hint of what might be appalled disbelief. “I don’t know you…” he whispers. “But. I do. Something’s wrong.” He looks up then, up into the sky, can hear someone speaking in his head… of the air, the voice is saying. “Something’s wrong,” he says again, and he doesn’t know why he says it or what he means.

“Sensing a disturbance in the force, brother?” the voice replies softly.

Zachariah, he thinks wildly, and he babbles it out. “Is this 2014, is this Detroit? Did he, am I—” And then he stops as he registers what the shape said, feels a stab of terror at the memory of not-Sam’s velvety, patronizing voice, his fake concern, his promise. “Is this the garden? Am I in the garden again?” He can hear his voice break with his horror. “Sam? Sammy? And he leans forward, squints at the shape as it squats there, but there’s no bulk to it, and he shakes his head doubtfully. “No… you’re not my brother, you’re not him,” he mutters. “He’s bigger… wider. Much wider.”

It laughs again, the shape, and he thinks he can make out its face looking up at the sky, its arms wrapped around its knees. “Wrong brother,” it mocks him gently.

“Wrong brother?” he echoes, and he knits his eyebrows together, tilts his head in a way he suspects might be just like Castiel does, because he’s picking up his brother’s habits as sure as his brother is picking up his, and then he shakes himself mentally because that thought didn’t come out right at all. And then he hits on something, can feel himself gape. “Adam…” he says, incredulous. “Is that you? How did you… where are we? What is this, are we—”

“Wrong brother,” it mocks him again.

There’s no malice in the voice, only an undercurrent of melancholy that twists in his heart like a knife. He feels something wet drip onto the back of his hand, and he reaches up, finds that tears are meandering down his cheeks. “I don’t have another brother,” he says softly, unconvincingly, because he doesn’t really believe it himself any more, knows he’s kidding himself, knows something is right there, that he’s standing on the precipice of it, a revelation, something huge, something world-shattering. And he skirts it, doesn’t want to go on to the new place, because that’s what this is, he knows it in his heart, knows that it will never be the same for him if he opens his mind to this. So he gives it one last shot. “This isn’t me,” he whispers, like he whispered to his brother before. “This isn’t happening.” Repress and deny, it’s his modus operandi after all, always has been. “It was conditional,” he chokes out desperately. “I got a do-over.”

“There are no do-overs,” the voice says sadly. “It is you, brother. It always was. Remember what I said? You were born to this.”

The shape stands, small, wiry, picks its way over to him, sits down beside him, and its warmth is familiar, comforting, and he remembers that it was a good, if mischievous brother.

“Gabriel,” he breathes.

The face beams, the first genuine, heartfelt smile he’s seen it wear on this plane of existence. Gabriel reaches up his hand, lays it on his cheek, tender, uses his thumb to smooth away the tears.

“It’s good to see you again, Michael.”

***



Continued in chapter 2