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Sam stares at the sizzling flame in the bowl in front of him, breathing in the foul fumes of sulphur and herbs like a strange form of penance. It’s also a distraction from his brother’s last words … latest words … echoing over and over in his head. He’s not sure what Dean would have been proud of, since they’ve done little more in the past year than hurt each other with their inability to accept life and death as a fact of their existence. And the fact that Sam is right here with no plans to let it stand, again , because he cannot process that Dean should be gone for good now with everything that has kept them at a distance left unresolved, just goes to show that they can’t be trusted with the weight of the world any more than the insurmountable task of keeping each other safe.

 

Sam’s eyes are dry now, but every breath feels like he’s sucking crushed glass into his lungs, and it doesn’t help that Crowley takes his sweet time answering the summons. He knows the demon will have to follow the call, not even the King of the Crossroads, the King of Hell, can stall forever, but every second that ticks by tightens the knot in the pit of Sam’s stomach. Right then, audible footsteps on the concrete floor behind him startle Sam into turning around to watch Crowley walk through the door, his hands buried deep in the pockets of his coat, face solemn for a change.

“You rang.”

The sight makes loathing burn in Sam like carelessly spilled acid eating away at a lab desk, because he knows, he knows, that Crowley has been playing his own game all along, that Crowley always best serves Crowley. He has screwed them over as many times as he has helped, often both at the same time, and, it’s true, they never learn, but this one time Sam is not going to let him off the hook. “You know what happened.” It’s not a question and Crowley’s nod is mere formality.

“Then fix it.”

“And what do I get out of that? You have nothing to offer me, and I know you haven’t given up on that plan to bump me off as soon as you get the chance. So again, why would I?”

Sam is up and flying at the cocky demon in a flash, fists curling into the lapels of his coat as he uses his considerable bulk to slam Crowley into the back-wall of the metal shelf.

“Because he saved your ass, you sanctimonious prick, and even if not a sliver of that humanity is left in that dark cesspit you call an existence, you owe him, and you know it. And I need him here, and, believe me, you do not want find out the lengths I’ll go to, to make that happen. Life and death have given me lots of creative choices, as you well know.”

“Now, don’t go flirting with me… you boys really know how to make a guy feel special.”

Sam tightens his grip, turning the fabric of Crowley’s coat into a vice. Even though he knows that cutting off his air supply will hardly faze the demon, it’s a tiny outlet for his barely controlled anguish.

“Is this still just a game to you?”

 

Crowley’s expression does not match the flippancy of his words. And when he shakes his head and continues, the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck stand up from a sinking feeling of dread.

“A game? No, certainly not. You Winchesters… you are literally the Impossible Girl, aren’t you? The number of times you’ve cheated Fate, knocked history out of alignment, gotten more than your fair share… and still you’re right here, demanding a miracle like you’re entitled to it, like it’s something you deserve. Like it’s something you can turn into truth with your will alone.”

Sam shifts a couple of inches away, taken aback by Crowley’s uncharacteristic response, his tone contemplative, almost soft, strangely at odds with his words.

“But, alas, you are going get what you want, although I’ll wager my pitch black immortal soul that you are not going to thank me for it. You know how the universe doesn’t really like meddling, and it has a knack for righting itself one way or another, given time. And the way one hears it told, the two of you were always going to end up here. No matter what you change, or how many details you alter, you were always going to end up… here.”

 

The words don’t sound familiar at all to Sam, but the way Crowley says them touches something in the farthest corners of his mind, makes them feel like they should be. He can’t really grasp it fully, however, before the rest of Crowley’s words sink in, and he lets go of the demon as if he got burned. Sam stumbles back a couple of steps and focuses on the feeling brewing inside of him. His body and soul have been healed by angelic grace as well as they’re ever going to get again, but being touched by evil, essence flayed to ribbons and sown together as he is, it leaves cracks, scars. He has noticed that he sometimes feels the fault lines in the web of the Supernatural around him like an old man with a rheumatic knee might feel an oncoming storm. It’s not something that he has any control over or has even fully acknowledged to himself, but right now, every little bit of him that is tuned to that particular layer of the world is vibrating. Has been really, since he crouched down to light the match for the ritual of the summons, when he was too stricken with grief and righteous anger to pay it any mind. But now, the air is rife with tension, unmistakable, and when Sam looks at Crowley, calm and unruffled across from him, as if they’re still pieces on his chess board, moving to his every whim, it dawns on Sam that he’s already two steps behind again.

“What have you done?”

 

He doesn’t get an answer, but he doesn’t really need one since his brain chooses this moment to come back online and confront him with the strange fact that Crowley walked in on his own two feet, instead of blinking in and out of existence like he is wont to do, and that can only mean one thing. The King of Hell didn’t wait for the summons, he was already here. Sam’s just got about enough time curse himself for how readily they’ve admitted the snake into this fortress that has kept out any supernatural creature for decades, let the devil into their home, before he tears out of the room and down the corridor towards the living quarters as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. He gets as far as the map room before he catches a glimpse of a fast moving shadow out of the corner of his eye and … knows… but he bursts into Dean’s room anyway to find his brother’s body… gone. The Blade. Gone.

 

Sam hesitates in the door with heaving breaths, each step towards the bed feels like bracing against a rip tide current. However, before his trembling fingers can touch the covers where Dean’s body lay still and unmoving just minutes ago, something collides with his back and throws him onto the mattress with a kind of raw strength that takes his breath away. He hears a feral growl next to his ear, and his body freezes for a moment, like prey who’s about to have its throat ripped out by the hunter, but then reflexes kick in and he fights tooth and nail against the hold. Sam pushes the knowledge of familiar thighs weighing on his hips and well-known fingers locking onto his elbows with a bruising grip aside, until he manages to throw off his attacker long enough to turn around on the bed, only to be tackled again. And this time, his body stops dead, and his heart shatters, because he’s looking into Dean’s eyes that are black as the night where stars die.

 

The shock that paralyses Sam in this moment might very well be what saves his life. He looks up into the face he knows better than his own, every minute muscle movement a whole sentence sometimes, but right now he sees nothing. The thing above him is obviously not even pretending to be his brother, to be human, and there is no recognition on his features. But for some reason, the feral strength that infused the initial attack has stilled. Sam doesn’t know if it’s because he no longer poses a credible threat, or because maybe there’s a glimmer left… somewhere. He is under no illusion that every move could be wrong and potentially fatal, but also that there aren’t going to be any good moves to be made. As long as he has really no idea who or what exactly is hovering above him, he opts for playing possum and silently cursing Crowley for whatever he did that has apparently turned Dean into a demon.

 

Sam cannot keep looking into those black eyes though, that haunted his nightmares a long time ago, back when Dean was first going to Hell, and the world was still so much black and white that his biggest fear was coming face to face with something that had crawled back out of the Pit knowing everything his brother knew and having to kill it, because that’s what Dean would have wanted at the time. Now, killing what Dean seems to have become doesn’t even figure into the equation, and he admits to himself that he was never built any better to carry the burden of going on alone than his brother, even though he used that notion that Dean has of himself as the needy one to deliberately hurt him in the aftermath of the angel fiasco. Even the year he spent trying to build a normal life with Amelia was only ever a way for him to run away from the fact that he had no idea where Dean was and how to get him back. Deep inside, he knew that it would never work as a permanent solution. They’re so tied up in each other that they really don’t know where one ends and the other begins, and the possibility that this bond could be forever altered, even shattered now, makes Sam’s heart seize in his chest and stumble for a few beats.

 

Sam averting his eye, however, half caught deep in his own thoughts, trying to process, half weighed down by helpless resignation and grief, has a peculiar effect. By backing down from open confrontation and eye contact, he has apparently invited… Dean… to move that much closer. He feels the flex of strong fingers on his arms where they hold him down, not bruising, just testing, observant. Sam’s awareness is filled with this presence that follows the breath ghosting over his cheeks. He expects it to be cloying, oozing, evil, but it’s actually just raw, powerful and… alive. Sam’s heart speeds up with the echo of something heady and familiar that stirs in response in the back of his head. And he wonders for a moment whether they’ve ever had a grasp of what it is that really makes a demon. And then it’s all he can do to keep from flinching at the unexpected touch on the side of his neck, tracing the vein where his pulse is beating hard and fast.

 

He closes his eyes, waits for teeth or nails to viciously rend his skin apart and spread his blood out all over the sheets, but the touch stays light and careful, almost like a caress. Sam cannot keep his eyes from fluttering open again, because the uncertainty of not knowing how or when an attack is going to come is suddenly worse than facing what is in front of him. The eyes are still black and sightless, but Sam has the uncanny feeling that the blank emptiness is gone. It’s been replaced with an expression that looks utterly unfamiliar on his brother’s face, but welcome in its human quality. Dean looks… curious, as if he’s never seen another person before, and who knows how his perception has been altered, so maybe in a way he hasn’t. He also looks intrigued, like Sam is something he wants to study… or keep. And it might be a step up from the unbridled, animalistic rage he had expressed in those first few moments, but right now it’s just another piece of evidence that the person Sam has lived most of his life with…for… is gone.

 

It’s this final moment that breaks Sam into pieces with the sense of bone-deep loss, and he cannot stop the sob that wrenches up and out of his core without his permission when everything becomes too much. He keeps his eyes open; ready to see if the uncontrollable shudders wracking his body will finally goad the creature into attacking. But he just seems startled, eyes widening slightly, and then suddenly focused on the hot, branding tears that run down Sam’s face unbidden and unwanted. He takes his hand from Sam’s neck to dip his finger in their path, gathering up one tear and bringing it to his face to study it as if that single drop of salt water held the secrets to unlocking the universe. That more than anything else so far sparks a sliver of hope in Sam that there might be a small part of his brother left in there somewhere, who knows the meaning of this tear and could be drawn out if he just found the right words to say. So, he says the only thing he can think of that will carry his whole heart and soul in one single sentence.

“Dean,” the full attention of those black eyes bears down on Sam, but he can’t hesitate. “Please… don’t leave me.”

 

The effect is instantaneous in a way Sam wouldn’t have dared to hope for. Dean recoils like he’s been slapped and his fingers tighten painfully around Sam’s biceps while his breathing turns fast and agitated. Sam watches him cycle through expression of shock, realization and anguish in short order. It looks like something… someone is clawing their way back up and Sam holds his breath, hoping that whatever chord his words struck is strong enough to call Dean back through the fog of the primal essence controlling his actions right now. Dean’s gaze is fixed on him, eyes flicking back and forth in rapid succession, and Sam meets them head on this time, trying to put every ounce of determination, acceptance and love into his expression, so that Dean knows he has something to come back to. Dean’s eyes slip closed slowly, and he shakes his head as if to ward off a dizzy spell. Sam’s lungs start burning from the lack of air, but he doesn’t dare take a breath until Dean’s eyes flutter open again, gloriously bright and green and human.

“S…Sam?”

In this moment, Sam can’t think of anything more beautiful he’s heard than the sound of his name falling from his brother’s lips. He finally takes a deep breath that punches right back out of him with a startled laugh as he throws his arms around Dean and tugs him close, while his head is swimming with relief. He feels Dean’s fingers twitch against him for a moment, as if he’s not sure what he’s supposed to do with them, before he sneaks his arms under Sam’s neck and presses close. Sam knows that this might only be a temporary reprieve, there are still many questions that need answers, and without a doubt countless challenges in their future as they try to deal with the trappings of Dean’s condition. But right now, they’re both breathing, warm and alive in each other’s arms, and nothing feels more irrelevant and further away than the worry about what comes next.

 

They’ll find a way, they always do. They’re Winchesters after all.