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Lethe

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The muzzle of the gun is cold on the back of his head, raising gooseflesh where the hair is shorn closest to his scalp. The weapon is a nine millimetre, by his guess, probably a mean mugger’s Ruger, and his assailant knows how to use it; their grip is steady, even if their breathing is not.

Dean raises his hands either side of his head and studies the tiles over the stove, the hairline cracks in ceramic twice his age. Hell years included.

“Think real carefully about your next move,” he says politely, agreeable as could be. “Whoever you are.”

Privately, he conjures up a plan of defence, a strategy that mutates with every second that passes, every moment he’s blind. He’s still alive, which means this jackass wants something, and he can tell they’re damned unhappy about it. It’s a scenario he can work with, a mould that’s pliable, if he can get on top of the situation.

“You’re not in a position to be giving orders,” is the first thing his assailant says, and Dean experiences a sense of déjà vu so powerful it makes his heart stutter. He knows that voice, knows it better than he knows the view in the mirror, better than the back of his own hands. If he was in the depths of sleep or stuck in a nightmare, that voice has pulled him out; that voice has denounced him and screamed at and for his father and laughed so hard it was almost sick. It’s a sound that belongs to his personal Pleistocene, when everything was growing, and pure, and tantalisingly possible, even a happy ending.

Impossible, he chastises himself, forcing his jittery limbs to still. It’s bullshit. Another trick by that cosmic bastard.

“Don’t move,” the voice, the memory, says, and Dean grips the edge of the hot stovetop, inches away from losing his fingerprints. A part of him feels stupid, desperate – like a child clinging to a favoured toy when lost in the woods. It’s a dream, he insists to himself. It’s just you, aging badly.

But.

But.

He has to be sure.

“I’m turning around,” he says, and the barrel is almost jabbed into his frigging medulla oblongata.

“Stay where you are! I mean it!”

Dean obliges him, rubs a thumb over the stove’s tarnished steel, as though it will make the surface any less cloudy. A pot awaiting ramen coughs steam lazily, the boiling soft and awkward as Muzak in the near silence.

“Can you tell me your name, at least?” he attempts. There are no footsteps in the hallway, drawn by the raised volume of the conversation. Jack is asleep and Castiel is in the library and Sam is – Sam was getting his phone to show Dean some stupid funny video before they made dinner, a separation of less than three minutes.

Three minutes, or an aeon. He is alone.

“You kidnap me and you don’t even know my name?” The memory sounds irritated, a palimpsest on the faux-machismo he’d presented with his demands and his big boy gun. Dean can still hear the terror, lurking beneath it all. He knows that shadow as well as his own.

“I’ll go first,” says Dean, so no-one could ever accuse him of having rock-solid survival instincts again. “My name is Dean Winchester.”

The memory says nothing to that, the muzzle warming against Dean’s skin.

“You’re a fucking liar.” Whispered, clearly pissing-his-pants afraid. But never wavering in his grip.

Attaboy.

“Let me turn around and I can show you.” It’s another stab in the dark, another desperate lurch towards what might end up being just a loaded semi-automatic levelled at his head. He’s finding it difficult to care about that consequence. There’s only one that matters, if he’s being honest with himself.

The muzzle’s pressure disappears abruptly, and Dean’s left with the throbbing presentiment to a bruise and the urge to retch.

“Slowly,” the memory says, from a distance. Dean takes his time turning, revolving like he’s caught in a bad trip and waiting for a sharp slap to take him out of it. He wonders, for the decade and a half it takes to face his attacker, if this is another one of Chuck’s gambles. Wonders if he should slip into his poker face, pretend disinterest or disdain.

He faces the door to the library, and the observatory, and one of two exits from the bunker, and forgets to calculate his chances of escape as his body tenses up like it’s been pumped full of venom.

There’s a shapeshifter or a Djinn or a demon standing opposite him. Its shaggy brown hair is falling into hazel eyes that are widening in disbelief, and its angular features are taut with apprehension. It’s tall, though maybe half an inch shy of how tall it should be. It’s wearing his brother’s blue flannel and bootcut jeans with the small tear in the seam by the left knee, the clothes he was wearing five minutes ago, and it’s young, younger than Jack looks, young enough to be in college, young enough to decline phone calls from an older brother when he’s drunk off his ass on what should have been their mother’s fiftieth birthday.

It’s a monster, Dean knows. It has to be some son of a bitch that hates his guts and would want him to suffer, that would delight in the way he is unable to fumble for the Colt in his waistband or a butcher knife. They’re running an old con, one he’s seen before.

“Dean?” Not-Sam says faintly, the gun dipping slightly. It looks frightened, incongruously small in its stolen clothes. “Is that – are you really –,”

Dean struggles to find his voice, is almost surprised when it comes out gravelly and half-choked instead of pitched higher, and warped by a smirk.

“I’m me,” he says, and his fury is building, rapid like a nuclear reactor gone critical, control leaking away. “What I’d like to know is who you are, and why you look like my brother.”

Not-Sam stares, mouth gaping, you’ll start catching flies Sammy, and realigns his aim. “Bullshit. You’re screwing with me.” There’s a tinge of panic to his accusations now, and his eyes keep flicking to the door in his periphery, through which the open corridor must seem like an easy escape route. As though he hadn’t come from there, and wasn’t aware of the labyrinthine burrows.

“You’re the one pulling the gun on me,” says Dean, collecting himself along with his cool. “What was your plan, here?”

“My plan?” Not-Sam is on the verge of yelling. “I just woke up on the floor of some windowless bedroom, in someone else’s clothes, wearing this gun!” He shakes it, vigorously, and Dean notes that it’s not some random pea-shooter, but Sam’s Taurus.

“Now I don’t know what supernaturally fucked situation my family has dug themselves into this time,” Not-Sam continues, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

“Nothing?” Dean edges closer, trying to make it seem like he’s just shifting his weight.

“I have finals in two weeks,” Not-Sam snarls, and suddenly Dean finds himself within three feet of his old friend the muzzle once again. Not in snatching distance, because this thing is smart, as smart as someone trained by John Winchester. “I do not have time for this shit. Where’s my brother?”

“I’m your brother,” Dean says, because in some reality, however this shakes out, it’s the truth. Not-Sam scoffs.

“My brother is twenty-four. You’re like, twice that. Missed the mark on whatever sleight of hand mind-fuck you were planning –,”

“Dean?” Castiel has materialised behind Not-Sam, and is observing the standoff with the same detached concern he normally reserves for Jack’s midnight snacking habits. “What’s going on?”

The split-second distraction is all he needs.

Dean lunges forward, grabbing Not-Sam’s wrist and tackling him to the floor as the gun goes off, probably punching a hole in the Men of Letters’ yellowing legacy tiles.

Not-Sam knees him in the kidneys, squirming to get his legs out from under Dean’s weight, but he’s at a significant disadvantage: Dean knows his moves, knows how to use his gangly form against him, and most importantly, he really wants some answers.

It takes several minutes to subdue him, Castiel watching with mild interest as Dean repeatedly bashes Not-Sam’s wrist against the limestone, letting the gun clatter to the floor before he tries to get him in a chokehold. Not-Sam is relentless too, drawing first blood with a punch that makes Dean taste metal, then elbowing him in a sensitive area that makes him grunt before going for a headbutt that would have knocked Dean’s nose into the back of his skull if he wasn’t following a dance choreographed in childhood. He crushes Not-Sam to him so they’re both restrained, recalls the routine when his own muscles were less corded, his skin smoother, his brother a more negotiable armful of bones and hair and frustration.

“Sammy,” he says, and Not-Sam freezes, panting, rigid as stone.

“Sammy, it’s me.” He feels like a mouse drawn into a trap with the world’s most obvious block of cartoon cheese, but the need to soothe is inexorable, a building block in his DNA. If he’s being baited, so be it; if not, this is Sam, and this is his job. “It’s Dean. I don’t know what happened, but I’m Dean. I swear it’s me.”

“If you’re Dean,” Sam says, between whistling breaths, “then let me go.”

Dean could have laughed, would have, if not for the uncoiled anguish in his chest, lashing him to shreds.

“Can’t do that,” he says, and jerks his chin at Castiel. “Can you check him?”

Castiel blinks. “Check him?”

“Is there an echo in here? Check him, Cas, make sure he’s not a damn shapeshifter!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Sam shouts, thrashing, until Dean has to focus most of his energy on keeping him from breaking something. Or one of Dean’s somethings.

Castiel crouches and places a hand on Sam’s head, his closed eyes glowing lambent blue as he searches. Sam has calmed under his touch, but in a way that’s reluctant, retreating from the light and into Dean’s sternum with a jerk that winds him. Eventually Castiel withdraws his hand with a grieved expression, patting Sam’s knee and standing up.

“Cas? Talk to me.”

Castiel looks down at Sam with bald sorrow on his face, but there’s pity there, too. It’s not a death knell, Dean knows his friend’s tells by now, but it can’t be in any way good.

“This is Sam,” says Castiel. “A source of magic has turned the clock back seventeen years for his mind and his body, but he is not a shapeshifter, nor a Djinn, nor a witch under an illusion. There is no demon or angel that exists that could mimic this transformation.” Castiel meets his gaze, smiling hesitantly. “He may be cursed, or changed somehow, but he is not a monster. He’s our Sam.”

There is a lump in Dean’s throat, and his heart is going a thousand miles a minute, syncopating with Sam’s jackrabbit rhythm, the near silence deafening where they lie, slumped against one another.

“Not even – Chuck –,”

“Maybe,” says Castiel. “But I don’t think so. This is too messy. If he wanted a fresh slate he’d just wipe you off the map like in the rest of his stories and start over, not bungle all the work that it took to get you both to this point. No,” he shakes his head. “This was human interference.”

“Who the hell is Chuck?” says Sam, just as a sandy head pokes into the kitchen, pallid from a day of restless sleep. It’s a state that Dean recognises in the mirror, in every hunter he’s ever met.

“Guys, what’s going – um.” He spots Sam, still tangled with Dean, and rubs his eyes. “Is this another nightmare?”

“I wish,” grumbles Dean, and releases his brother by letting himself go lax. Sam jumps to his feet, favouring his right wrist more than he should be, considering Dean’s loose grip. Maybe he had been overly enthusiastic in relieving him of his firearm, he thinks, and isn’t surprised when guilt bypasses him completely. He picks up the gun just as Sam glances at it, his brief flare of hope for retaliation extinguished.

“What did you mean, ‘curse’?” he shoots at Castiel, who is hovering near him, intrigued by the familiar yet strange slope of Sam’s shoulders, the floppy hair and bare traces of baby fat. Dean’s finding it hard to look away himself.

“You are under a spell,” explains Castiel, as Dean hauls himself upright, refusing to groan as a number of joints pop. Jack slinks up beside him in a t-shirt and sweats, his hair in disarray and dull from a lack of washing. He’s alert nevertheless, his attention locked on Sam.

“I don’t understand,” Sam says, his fists clenched under sleeves that fall past his knuckles. “I was just in my apartment. I get the headache of the century and now I’m – I’m here, and Dean is –,”

Dean waves at him, dread settling in his gut like bad chow mein. “Someone’s fucking with us,” he admits. “You, specifically, but also us. Me.” Dean kneads his forehead, pictures gods and ghosts and witches excitedly stirring up problems for the hapless Winchesters just as they’re preparing to battle the biggest douchebag in existence. It fits. Their luck is always in the process of swirling down a toilet drain.

“I’m going to look for Sam,” says Jack, and abruptly leaves the kitchen. Castiel opens his mouth, then wisely closes it.

“Someone?” Sam prods, agitated. “What are you talking about? I don’t know who these guys are – I don’t even know you! Who wants to fuck with me when I’ve been out of the hunting game for years?”

Dean sighs, pulls idly at a thread in his flannel. It’s Sam’s, he realises, an old red thing he’d wanted to toss after they used it to sop up a bleeder while hunting a rugaru. He couldn’t even remember which one of them it had been, or where, but he can see the slight discoloration on the hem, the hardened patch where he’d gone at it with baking soda and cold water. It hadn’t even been about the money, he recalled telling Sam. This is ours, and we always come through.

Sam had rolled his eyes and muttered something about breaking out the oxy and removing stitches, so maybe Dean had been the one that had lain in the back of the Impala hours earlier, hysterical with blood loss, clutching his brother’s shirt to his stomach.

He can fix this, he knows. This is just one more bump in the road.

“It’s two thousand and twenty,” he says to Sam, who is thrumming with tension, his balance tenuous as he rises to the balls of his feet, preparing to make a run for it. “A few minutes ago, you were thirty-seven. And I’m only forty-one, you ass. We’re both hunters. Cas –,” He indicates Castiel, who nods uncertainly, “– is an angel formerly of the Lord, and our good buddy. The kid that made an Irish goodbye just now is Jack, and he’s – he’s, uh, going to be back soon.”

He twitches under Castiel’s penetrating stare, judgement as plain as the day is long, but he doesn’t want to land Sam in a psychiatric ward by launching into a description of the past few years of their lives. It’s a conversation that can wait, though in truth, while he’s relieved that some form of Sam gets a reprieve from the daily horror, a more secret, ugly part of him feels abandoned to the same.

It doesn’t seem to matter. “You’re insane,” Sam says calmly. “You’re lying, again.”

“I’m not lying,” says Dean, annoyance prickling like an itch in a place he can’t reach. “Look around you. This bunker looks lived in, right? That’s because this is our home, you, me, the angel and the kid. You’ve been zapped back in time, and a lot has happened, too much to explain even in Cliff’s Notes. These are the broad strokes, what you need to know until we get you back to normal.”

Sam jounces his leg and backs up, his chest heaving. “An angel,” he says testily, giving Castiel a cursory once-over, then switching gears by abruptly rounding on Dean.

“Where’s Dad?” he asks, and Dean can’t bring himself to respond. The answer dies in his mouth and rots there.

“Where is he?”

When Dean remains mute he presses his lips into a thin line and looks down, nodding, like what he’s inferring isn’t a shock.

“I left to be safe from this crap,” he says viciously, and Dean can’t speak, doesn’t trust himself not to break. “I have exams coming up. I have a girlfriend to get back to. You don’t actually know me, Dean – if you’re even really my brother, which I have serious reservations about, by the way, Dean wouldn’t – Dean would tell me the truth, he’d tell me –,”

“I get it,” Dean says, approaching him with arms akimbo. He’s a threat declawed, defanged. “This is weird as all hell. But I know you better than anyone, Sammy. And you know me. You know me,” he repeats, wants to reinforce it the way their father drilled laps and gun safety and close-quarters combat, wants to catch up on seventeen years of hating and loving and protecting that this version of his brother has blissfully forgotten.

“What was the last thing you said to me?” Sam says, furiously wiping his eyes and fixing Dean with a glare that could have melted titanium. “On the phone. A month ago.”

Dean stretches his memory back, fills in a bitter silhouette that stank of beer and other people’s cigarette smoke, a winding and hungry weed that sprouted in the silence of the Impala, when the doors were closed and the radio was off and he imagined himself dying alone, finger out and brushing the ceiling of the car, the limits of his sky. He would be some itinerant that a passing Samaritan would find in a ditch, baptised in the gore of monsters, having travelled there in his own shiny black coffin. He was nothing more than a future dead body.

“I called drunk,” he says. “Dad had dumped me to go on a hunt, and I was pissed, so I chewed you out for leaving.” He inhales sharply. “I said you were selfish. That you never cared about us. About Mom. And then you hung up.”

“No,” says Sam. “No, you hung up. But I guess you wouldn’t want to remember it that way.”

Dean’s closer now. He could reach out and touch him, if he wanted.

“I want to go home,” says Sam, curling in on himself, and tall as he is he can make himself look little. He can shrink down to any size smaller than Dean and it wouldn’t faze him, would restore the natural order, if anything.

“I know,” says Dean, which is as much as he can muster, as much as he can give to this innocent without losing his cohesion and crumbling to dust. He lets his hand fall uselessly to his side and it tingles, like he’s just come in from the cold.

Chapter Text

They won’t stop staring at him.

For the most part. Dean is sly about it, peers over his skinny computer or the top of a book when he thinks Sam might be distracted, raking his gaze over his entire body with an incredulity that softens until Sam can’t bear to be witness to it for longer than a few moments.

Castiel, who comes across as more touched than divine, generally takes breaks; he’ll watch Sam openly for a while, then wander away to aid Dean in whatever misguided research project they think will unearth the solution to this time travel debacle. Sam believes that Dean believes this man is an angel, and even concedes there’s something not quite worldly about his earlier benediction, or the way his eyes may have glowed in the tumult of the scuffle with Dean, but he also appears worn like everything else in the underground bunker. ‘Used’ might be a better word for it, he thinks, noting the similar and astoundingly foreign crow’s feet on Dean, the stubble that’s gold, but with the first smatterings of silver. When he leans in there are freckles he doesn’t remember, white scars from battles he may or may not have fought in, the topography of a stranger mapped over his brother’s face and stance and careful military haircut.

There’s so much he wants to know about living with Dean for the bulk of two decades – namely what could have jumpstarted such an egregious error in his own judgement – but he’s been told there’s no time, that the cure for his affliction comes first. It’s a pathetic excuse, and by the throat-clearing that accompanied it they all know it, but Sam doesn’t mind right now. It gives him more opportunities to get acclimated to the great and terrible future, to what remains of his aged family. Dean is all that is left for Sam at this stage, and vice versa, by the quiet desperation that wafts from his brother like a bad smell, and it’s staggering. Sam doesn’t know how they got here. How they’re both still hunting. Dean’s the deadly oracle that will determine how he will do wrong, and so he stares back, as often as he can stand it.

He gets so busy studying Dean that he forgets the other one – the guy Dean had called Jack, and the inexplicably piercing interest that he wields like a weapon. He’d returned empty-handed from scouring the rest of the bunker for a presumably older, wandering Sam, and had fixated on the discount model with a fascination that was almost clinical.

“You’re so young,” he says, when they’re sitting at the tables in the library, and Sam is trying to absorb the dimensions of the sprawling antechamber without seeming like he’s scoping it out.

“Thank you?” he replies, turning back to the tome on time dilation spells honed by black witchcraft. It’s a riveting read, if not the sort of thing he thought he’d be skimming when he woke up that morning in California. He misses his textbook on constitutional law. He misses the perpetual background noise of lawnmowers and traffic. He misses Jess, her absence like a sawn off limb.

“Do you know what happened to you?”

“Jack,” says Dean wearily, the way one might reprimand a particularly vacant puppy after a month of unsuccessful potty training. They both ignore him.

“I told you,” Sam says shortly. “I had nothing to do with this. Whoever did do this swapped me with the – the older me, or just stole years off my life, I don’t know. Everything I do know has just been ripped away from me, okay? I’m not exactly full of information on frigging magic. I don’t do this anymore.”

“You think you’re still in college?” asks Jack, unbothered by Sam’s scowl. He resembles Castiel with his unflinching focus and his ice-coloured eyes, enough that Sam is almost curious about his actual paternity. There’s a story there, he figures, though it’s buried under so much other more pertinent crap that he refuses to waste energy dwelling on it.

“I know I’m still in college,” he says curtly. “I’m about to finish my sophomore year.”

Dean is their audience, Sam realises, rapt and unmoving. Aware of something that he won’t share.

A deadly oracle, indeed.

“College sounds cool,” says Jack, sighing. “I can’t go to school. I’m going to be God instead.”

“Excuse me?”

“Jack, would you shut up?” interposes Dean, tossing one of their oddly flat cell phones at his chest. "Look up more transmutation shit if you want to be useful here, you’re driving me up the wall.”

Jack looks at the wall, then away, bewildered. Sam goes to exchange an amused glance with Dean in a practised ritual as automatic as breathing, and finds empty space instead. Dean is up and in motion, shifting books to make way for scrolls promising arcane cures to issues no-one should have. He stoops, doing so, and Sam sees the age, the wear and tear. It makes him yearn for his sprightly, irksome older brother in his oversized leather jacket, Sam’s talisman swinging from a cord around his neck as he flirts and shoots his way through life. He hadn’t taken that damn thing off in the thirteen years he’d known him to have it, that Sam could recall. Not once.

“Witches,” says Dean out of nowhere, and Sam starts, swallowing the hurt, the curiosity. There’s a reason, just like there’s a reason they have a home instead of a motel, and a superpowered being as a sidekick without a scrupulous hunter in sight. He doesn’t need to know.

He doesn’t need to, but now he really, really wants to.

“What about them?” says Castiel, who is almost invisible behind a shelf that proffers encyclopaedias on Ancient Greek grammar, as well as a mounted scimitar buffed to an unblemished sheen.

Seriously. Sam wants to know.

“Witches can screw with time on a micro scale if they tie it to your mind,” Dean relates, standing up straight. “It says so here. ’The corpus will suffer the effects of the psyche, and thine immaculate memory may tamper reality. The unwilling flesh will become the will of the crown.’ Sounds like our current fuck up, all right.”

“But who is responsible?” says Castiel, stepping into full view. “Rowena has the resources but not the motivation for such trickery. If she wanted to interfere with us she would do so directly.”

“She had connections,” says Dean, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Burned bridges or no, she knew scores of witches when she was alive, and could have sent them to Sam. Or sent Sam to them.”

“Why would I go to see a witch?” asks Sam, and Dean casts him an incomprehensible look.

“Necessity,” he says cryptically, then, “I hope.”

“Sam shares his contacts with you,” says Castiel, frowning. “We would know if there was any untoward –,”

“Not in the past few days, all the crap that’s been happening,” mutters Dean, then bats a hand at Jack. “Go to Sam’s room. Get his phone and laptop.”

Jack waits until Castiel gives him a grave nod, then departs with a sombre grace. Sam wants to bristle at the idea of them trawling through his belongings, just on principle, but he has even less authority than Jack. And he’d likened the poor guy to a dog.

“Dean,” Castiel begins, like Sam had broadcast his thoughts. “I don’t think Sam would appreciate our invasion of –,”

“He’d do the same,” Dean interrupts, and Sam’s getting the feeling Castiel is used to a lot of that, going by his next inhale, and a sentence steamrolled by Dean. “It’s an emergency, Cas. He can give me shit when he’s him again.”

“I’m me, right now,” Sam says loudly, mostly to see Dean wince. “And whatever or whoever I’ve been talking to, I don’t and wouldn’t appreciate you going through my shit –,”

“Do you guys know Josephine Barnes?” asks Jack, meandering back into the library with another slender phone, his thumb swiping up the screen every few seconds. “She messaged Sam this morning, looking for Sumerian rites.”

“Hunter,” growls Dean, and lifts the phone from Jack’s grasp. “How’d you get into this? He has a lock on the thing.”

“It’s my birthday,” says Jack happily, and Sam’s stomach flips unpleasantly. He can’t coast by on crumbs, clearly. His older self had a connection to this gormless people-pleaser, and he’s never going to know why if he doesn’t start getting inconvenient.

“Whatsapp from one Carol Deakins,” murmurs Dean, glued to the phone screen, washed ghostly by its light. “This is new. They were put in contact by Max Banes a few months ago, apparently, been texting about herb dosage or whatever the fuck ever since.” He squints. “Met up a week ago, and call logs show they chat regularly. She’s been asking after him for a while. Latest last night.” He chews his lip. “He never mentioned her.”

“Maybe you never listened,” says Sam, and is gratified when all three of them spasm slightly, as though only now remembering his presence. Jack bows his head and shuffles over to join him at the table.

“Sorry, Sam,” he says earnestly, and Sam feels like a bit of a dick, until his bizarre childlike roommate lifts his hand and it fills with golden light, his eyes igniting with the same.

He’s smiling, burning. “I was thinking. I could try to heal you back –,”

Dean shouts for Jack to stop just as Sam scrambles back, his heart racing as he searches himself for a gun, a silver blade, anything he knows can kill supernatural fiends dead in their tracks –

“Sam. Sam, listen to me –,”

“He’s not human,” Sam says, ignorant of Dean’s grip on him, the way he’s wound his hands into the fabric of Sam’s shirt like he can tether him to Earth, to Dean himself. “This is a trap – it’s not – you’re not –,”

Dean shakes him, once, Sam’s teeth clacking shut as new bruises blossom under Dean’s grasp. He’s close, closer than he’s dared to get since almost choking him out on the floor of their ancient kitchen, and the fear and anger Sam expects to see is buried, closed off and sealed away. His father looks back at him instead, a sober professional working the problem. And Sam was always the problem, wasn’t he?

“He’s half human,” Dean says, still holding him immobile, like he’s a bird that will take off otherwise. “Half human, and half angel. A Nephilim.”

“Did you just say half-angel?”

“Sam, there’s a lot that you don’t know –,”

“Then tell me!” Sam smacks his arms away, tugs his shirt out of the scrunches that Dean had made from manhandling him like a ragdoll. Like some scrawny kid that he could throw around. “I don’t know anything about where I am, and I know you’re hiding the big stuff from me. I thought I didn’t want to know, but this – angels are real, and half-angels? And you won’t tell me why I’m here, instead of with Jess, or why I know witches when Dad hated witches, or where your damn amulet is!”

He’s expecting an outburst, maybe a shove, some expletive about his ungratefulness and a comment about him being a brat. Dean-as-Dad rubs his forehead and sighs, except even Dad had never looked this tired, not the time he was nearly ripped to shreds by a werewolf, or after a month long hunt in Alaskan blizzards, or when Sam had produced his Stanford acceptance letter, snorting like a bull about to charge.

“Sam. It’s been a long seventeen years.”

“I can see that,” he says, because it’s true. He doesn’t want to know what sort of state his thirty-seven year old self is in, if Dean is this wizened, some battered copy of his brother that can shapeshift into John Winchester with an ease that’s almost uncanny. “You’ve seen some bad shit, right?”

Dean smiles, a void of mirth. “Yeah. Yeah, we both have.”

“I don’t marry Jess. Or go to law school.”

“No. But I think you’d figured that much out, at least.”

“Dad’s dead.” Dean lowers his head as though in prayer, and Sam has to pause, take a stuttering breath.

“We get in that deep?” he asks. “We hunt angels or something?”

In the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Please keep my family safe. I’m not with them now, and… They need all the help they can get. Especially my brother. Please watch over his dumb ass. Shit. Sorry for swearing. Thank you. Amen.

It was some version of his nightly plea, whispered when he was sure Jessica was asleep, begged when the full moon was out or he heard about a string of strange deaths in the same old house, usually keeping tabs on obits he knew would pique the interest of his father.

Please keep them safe. Please keep my brother alive. Please, please, please.

Had Castiel heard him, then? Or been delivered to them as a guardian?

“There were times we probably should have,” says Dean. “Though they had their own plans for us. We were drafted in a lot of wars, Sammy.”

“It’s ‘Sam’,” he says absently, and Dean’s grin flashes and is gone, too quick to confirm it was ever there at all. “So we’re hunters for a living?”

“We hunt and we live, not really the same. We scrape around for brew money, but you know that already. Game hasn’t changed all that much.”

“And the bunker?”

“A relic from our dearly departed grandfather,” says Dean, unfazed by Sam’s raised eyebrows. “A well-earned inheritance. He was a part of this secret society. Nothing too dodgy,” he reassures him, until Sam points to the sword resting on the nearest shelf. “Well, he was supernaturally dodgy. His people helped hunters, when they weren’t busy being dickbags.”

Sam shakes his head. It’s a life, he supposes, but it doesn’t slot together. It’s a thousand disparate elements making up one disjointed story, like the puzzle pieces from different jigsaws being forced to connect. One aspect bothers him like a niggling insect, burrowing somewhere vulnerable and soft, a question that’s more pain than confusion, more dread than uncertainty.

“Dean, I wanted to be normal. I didn’t want this. Why am I doing this? Why would I stay doing this? Did I leave Jessica, or did she –,” please, please, please, “– did she leave me?”

Dean’s mouth wavers around the answer, drags it out like a sacrificial lamb to be butchered in front of them both.

“She died, Sam,” he says, of course he says it eventually, grimacing the entire time, like it’s a grief he felt just as keenly. “In 2005, Dad went missing, and I got you from Stanford to help solve his last case. When we got back, Jessica had been murdered by the same demon that killed Mom. We were too late to save her, but we figured later that Dad was already chasing the fucker, so we went on our own hunt. We went on a hunt and we never stopped.”

Jessica Lee. I should have prayed for you too.

“I need to go outside,” says Sam. He feels adjacent to his horror, like the shadow of something massive and filthy and toxic and leaking. He feels knocked sideways, and wonders how the older version of himself had borne this. Wonders, as Dean’s façade shatters and the pieces swim, if anything worse could have happened in all that intervening time.

 

*

 

The entrance to the bunker’s garage is like Persephone’s aperture to the underworld. Aged ash trees line the dirt road that smooths into the mottled stone flooring of the bunker’s driveway, feathery green canopies drooping just enough to obscure the dim, artificially lit interior. Vines creep over the brickwork and up the trunks of diverse oaks and birches that pepper the hidden copse, a neat cover for the narrow path in and out of what must have been carefully guarded secret headquarters back in the day. The trees have thinned somewhat, and the dark entrance would be obvious to a casually passing observer whenever the doors are open, but otherwise it’s a well-planned private domicile.

Sam, sitting cross-legged on a jutting ledge of stone, sees the nifty architecture and blooming verdure of a wet summer and wishes he was six feet under all of it. With Jess. Dad. Mom. The future he’d fought for.

He’d been permitted out to get some air, though it was more important for him to get distance from Dean’s pointless apologies. Tears had already spurted hot and fast down his face and neck, cooling rapidly in the breeze that whipped through the trees and through him, back down the tunnel that led to the others. At some stage he’d smelled exhaust from the neighbouring road, heard the faintest rushing of cars and semis, and it had drawn him up, sent him walking towards it. He needed proof that he was somewhere new and broken, that she was really, truly gone, but Jack had come up behind him and caught his elbow with another stream of sorry, sorry, have to keep you safe, don’t go far.

He was too drained to snap at him that he’d run across the country to get away from that kind of lecture, and just complied, curling up on the first elevated surface he saw.

He watches Jack rest on his haunches nearly ten feet away, studiously plucking, admiring, and cradling daisies, as though their collection is a task he’s been set. He doesn’t come across as some powerful being, Sam thinks resentfully, so cheerfully obedient to the wills of both Dean and Castiel. Probably his older self, too, going by the way he followed Sam outside and kept close, one deceptively sharp eye on him at all times, even as he rummaged through the underbrush for buttercups. Sam doesn’t have any illusions about his solicitude, knows his guardianship has to be on the orders of Dean, but he can’t imagine this guy smiting, or anything. He’s too eager to please.

He’s also very plainly a hunter, and fairly new to it, if his attitude is anything to go by. Sam assumes his past is as doused in blood as the rest of them.

And Dean trusts him. Though Sam isn’t sure if that means anything here, now.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

He jolts, and awkwardly hides it. “Fine. I don’t need a babysitter, you know.”

Jack unfolds from his position near a thatch of nettles and dandelions with some reluctance. “I understand if you’re uncomfortable around me. Almost everyone is.”

“Forget it.”

“I can’t.” Jack has to stop himself from making potpourri out of the tiny bouquet in his fist, holding them gently against his chest instead. “I scared you. But I’m better now. I said I would never do that again.”

“Okay,” says Sam, mowing right past their implied history. It’s too much to take in with the world somehow both wide open and clamped shut around them. It will be hard to breathe, soon.

“We’ll fix you, Sam, I promise,” says Jack, and inflates, like the role of protector is a source of pride for him, a reliable way to prove his worth. Sam isn’t inclined to deprive him of that idea, even though it makes his heart sink. Is he always to be thought of as lesser, some idiot kid, stationed below even this puppy on steroids?

Does he ever earn Dean’s respect as an equal? Does he want to know?

“Thanks,” he says, and lets Jack return to his botanical ministrations. He imagines undergoing the transformation back into an older, bowed version of himself, someone who let Jessica fall prey to their dad’s white whale – a damned demon, of all things – while he was off gallivanting with his brother. Someone who spent nearly two decades after the fact doing the same, instead of returning to his career, his plans, his sole path out of the life their father wanted to trap them in forever.

We were drafted in a lot of wars, Dean had claimed. What about now? What’s stopping them from finding jobs that don’t rip them to pieces, or families that won’t disown them for having independent thoughts? Why is he still imprisoned in the nightmare that had plagued him since infancy?

The rumble of the Impala startles them both, and they swivel to see the car, Dean’s car, Sam’s home and cell, roll up the tunnel with the slightest grinding of gravel. It pulls up next to Sam’s stump, and Jack scrambles up, beaming.

“Hop in, fellas. I’ve got a magical bullet with this bitch Carol’s name on it.”

Jack flits past Sam and dives in the back seat, tucking his lanky frame into the compartment with practised ease. Castiel is sitting in the passenger seat, ducking his head to get a better view of Sam and his disgruntled expression.

“Let me know how it goes.” It feels petty, good in a vicious way. Kind of like being stupidly jealous of an angel, of all things, occupying his spot.

Sam manages not to flinch when the driver’s door creaks open, and Dean’s shadow falls over him. A set of arms cross in front of him, and Sam is relieved for the first time that Dean doesn’t have Dad’s leather jacket, because the urge to leap to attention with a salute is almost overpowering. It’s a conditioned response that ignites an old rage, and the flames that were fanned by the news of Jess’s death roar.

“Sam. Get in the car.”

“No.”

“That wasn’t an invitation.”

“Okay, then how about fuck you and your orders.”

Dean’s hands come out of nowhere and hoist him up by the lapels of his jacket. His brother looks stricken, not angry, but it does nothing to dampen Sam’s resentment.

“Sam, this is how we get you better. You’ll get your memory back.  Everything will make sense.”

“Do I want my memory back?” He hasn’t pondered this yet, hadn’t thought to until this moment. Dean’s jaw clenches, and he’s thrown by the reaction; so many secrets, so many dark, ravaging unknowns.

“You’d want to be yourself again,” Dean says, unyielding. “So we’re going.”

Sam lets himself be propelled into the back seat with Jack, behind Dean, and keeps his reservations to himself. He can feel Dean’s tension radiate like heat, Castiel intoning directions to the house of the witch in question. It’s in Maryland, a fifteen hour trip from Kansas if they drive through the night.

Sam runs his fingers over the familiar upholstery and repeats the new information like a prayer.

Kansas. Kansas. He didn’t even tell me we come back to Kansas.

 

*

 

Golden fields and windblown towns flash by his window on a loop, the kind of sprawling hillbilly country that ingests miles for identical, tedious hours. Regular floods of barley and a few low-rise barns blush watery pink in the hazy sunrise, the augur of a long, hot day spilling over the landscape.

Sam leans his head against the glass the way he used to as a child, when it was a given that they would go to sleep and wake up in different states, sometimes different time zones. Getting rest had been a matter of how hungry or how fed up he’d been then, on an endless trip through space where the sole source of entertainment was his brother. They argued, played slap jack, made up rock lyrics and traded the foulest insults they could conceive of until their father gave them research to shut them up. They’d been bonded then, no matter that Dad trusted Dean with his life, and barely trusted Sam to cut a slice of bread without impaling himself. It was a safety blanket he had yearned for, and his brother’s solid presence beside him was the one aspect of his old life he’d missed consistently, even after years away.

Now, he has it back, and it’s all wrong. Sam can see the back of Dean’s head instead of his profile, though the Skynyrd tape is familiar. Castiel is flipping through one of the bunker’s dusty tomes and Jack is humming softly, a tune Sam has never heard that barely crests over the thunder of the engine. Maybe later on, when he’s older and wiser, he has all of them in his corner. Maybe it’s even better that what he had.

He doubts it, somehow.

Highways take them close to cities, road signs suggesting diners and speed limits that Dean ignores completely. It’s not until Jack chirps a request for a pee break that Dean reluctantly swings into a 7-Eleven, the neon orange letters flickering over a mostly empty filling station.

“Be back here in ten minutes,” Dean says, and Jack scoots out of the car, off like a shot behind the convenience store. Castiel follows him at a brisk pace, appearing pained, and Sam gets the impression that Jack is the type of guy to get distracted by the bright colours on candy racks.

Dean goes about uncapping the gasoline nozzle, plugging it into the Impala’s side with all the caution of a sixteen year old driver’s ed student doing it for the first time. Sam gets out of the car, inhaling the scent of petroleum and warming asphalt, and considers just walking back down the road they came from. Maybe he can go into the store, say he’s being kidnapped by a trio of madmen.

“We’re almost there,” Dean says, and Sam bites his lip hard enough to taste blood, curses whatever tells he hasn’t relearned how to hide yet. He faces Dean and jerks his head at the store.

“I’m getting a snack. That allowed?”

Dean watches him steadily, malaise in every crease, grouted in every line too long to be from laughter. He nods once, and Sam is already striding away, towards the bright storefront and sparse but existing people, life that’s real and electric and crushing. There are a pair of teenagers that he thinks would be babies if he was back where he was supposed to be, a middle-aged woman who would be barely forty, and a haggard guy in a suit clutching coffee who should be a little younger than Sam, probably just entering college with big ideas about his career. They all wash around him, like waves, flights of fancy that don’t even notice the relic in their midst.

He’s picking up and putting down various flavours of Snapple without really seeing them, dwelling too much on the concept of locking himself in one of the bathrooms, when a hand clamps down on his shoulder. He turns into a boxing stance, reaching for the gun he found in the bunker before he remembers Dean took it off him.

“Shit. Sam, it’s me!”

Sam doesn’t relax his pose, trying to place the man that’s standing in his way with his arms raised in surrender, a sheepish expression on his handsome face. He’s perhaps closest in age to Jack, though with a haunted demeanour akin to Dean that makes Sam think of him, instinctively, as a hunter. That and the Bauer at his hip, a pentagram inscribed on the grip in the kind of layered grooves that normally indicate a fevered passion for occult protection.

“Who’s ‘me’?” he says haughtily, lowering his defence but keeping his distance. The store has gone deathly silent, the customers unusually still. Even the background music has stalled to static.

“Sorry, I forgot, your – uh –,” he gestures to Sam. “Your everything, right now. What a mess.” He chuckles, though it rings hollow. “Not you, of course. The workmanship is extraordinary. I knew Carol was a master cosmetician, but this is next level.”

Sam stares at him and he clears his throat. “Sorry. I’m Max. Max Banes. We’re friends, or…” He tilts his head, studies all of Sam in a way that’s distinctly more appreciative than Dean’s sorrowful gaze, and Sam shifts awkwardly.

“… We’re going to be,” finishes Max, smiling. “I’ve worked with you for years, Sam. You know my family. You introduced me to our beautifully heroic and tragically deceased queen, Rowena.”

The name sets off an alarm in Sam’s brain. “The witch?”

“You know her, then? Your brother must have informed you of some of your new friends, especially since Carol took it upon herself to act the fool.” He rolls his eyes. “A spectacular witch, but she sure loses her composure around a pretty face. I suppose it’s my bad for putting you in her sights. I came to see if I could be of help, since I can’t get a hold of her.”

“I’m friends with witches,” says Sam, reeling. “I thought Dean meant we had some magicians on payroll or some crap. Jesus, Dad would flip his lid if he knew about this.”

Max’s smile grows wider. “Then hearing that you become a skilled witch yourself would induce catatonia in the poor man. You’re a resourceful individual, Sam. I promise you that’s not a bad thing.”

Sam leans back against the refrigerated shelving unit with enough force to rattle the bottles. “Well,” he says. “Dean forgot to mention that, too.”

There’s a slight commotion at the door, the bell over it tinkling obnoxiously as it’s yanked back and forth.

“Sam? Are you here?” The tone is tight, aggravated, like Sam is a toddler about to bumble into an uncovered swimming pool.

Max sighs at the ruckus, rolling up the sleeves of his fashionable tweed jacket. “I was not looking forward to this,” he says amiably.

Dean appears from around the corner of the magazine aisle, the concern seeping from his every pore quickly replaced by suspicion. Castiel is on his heels, and Jack pops up behind him, a strand of liquorice dangling from his lips.

“Max.” Dean approaches with a tinge of a swagger to his gait, halting just short of Max’s reach. “Now what in the hell are you doing all the way out here?”

“Alicia and I operated out of New York,” says Max loftily. “Maryland’s on my doorstep. When you rang asking about Carol –,”

“You what? Decided you’d track us?” Dean’s anger is bleeding out now, a deadly, visceral thing, not the flashbang rage of their youth. It’s even stranger to witness when it’s not directed at him, Sam thinks. It gets uglier, takes on a gargantuan, mythic quality.

“Sam and I traded personal items months ago that we could use to trace each other,” says Max, seemingly bored by Dean’s display. “It’s a common thing in covens, because fuck knows rival hags like their hexes, and vigilance pays. I thought you could use my help, and I knew Sam wouldn’t be able to ask for it.”

“You could have asked me.”

“You weren’t picking up. Sort of childish, since I only told you the truth, but no hard feelings.”

Dean bristles at that, but Sam decides it’s as good a time as any to ascertain some answers about all of this.

“What truth?” he asks, and doesn’t miss how Dean’s mouth opens impotently, nothing emerging, not even a warning. Max glances between them, then turns to Sam, the serious cast to his features contrasting oddly with the perpetual twinkle in his eye.

“Carol didn’t curse you, Sam, but I do think this is her work. She’s a cosmetics witch. Her thing is crafting facelifts and permanent hair extensions for a price. Heavy duty temporal magic is totally out of her wheelhouse, but with enough study...” He shakes his head. “As I told Dean, I knew she liked you, and she felt bad for what you were going through, but this is extreme – even for her. I mean, she even siphoned your memories, and you have a backlog of hundreds of years.”

Sam is still processing the fact that he’s a witch, on top of merely knowing witches. Max’s final comment knocks him back to the jumbled present, just as Dean storms up and wedges himself between them.

“What does he mean, hundreds of years?” he asks, to no avail. “Dean?”

“I don’t know what this Carol’s deal is,” growls Dean, utterly blanking him in favour of looming over Max, “but like I said to you, she’s full of shit. Sam wouldn’t have asked for this.”

“I never said he did. I haven’t spoken to Carol in days, but she mentioned Sam seemed depressed when they last made contact. Maybe she was trying to ease his burden by taking him back to a simpler era.”

“Fuck’s sake,” hisses Dean. “Don’t you freaks have boundaries? Tell her to reverse it!”

“She’s not picking up either,” says Max coolly. “No matter how many times I wanted to warn her Dean Winchester was coming, ready to stake her to a bonfire. I suggest you refrain from doing that when you do visit her for the restoration, if you would like results.” He peers around Dean to where Sam is lingering by the refrigerator, adrift. “You want that, Sam, right?”

“Back off,” says Dean, arm extended. “Kicking someone back a few decades solves nothing, believe me, I’ve been fucked with in every way imaginable by damn witches. I know better, and so does Sam. If you want to help, get the bitch to lift the spell. Otherwise, take a hike.”

“Whatever you say, big brother,” drawls Max, and bypasses Dean entirely to wink at Sam, engaging in some inside joke he’s too displaced to get.

“Give me a call if this crusade of your brother’s doesn’t work out,” he says good-naturedly. “Definitely give me a call if it does. I’d love to follow up on this train wreck.”

Dean flips him the bird, and Max chortles, sweeping around and brushing past Castiel and an entranced, still chewing Jack. He leaves the store with the tinkling of a bell, and suddenly the patrons are bustling again, murmurs mingling with tinny pop music and the dings of the cash register.

Witches, Sam thinks warily, then, hundreds of years?

“Dean? What did he mean? How can I have memories going back that long?”

His brother is encased in bronze, or rendered in marble, or carved from ice. Castiel steps towards Sam and Dean grabs his arm, roughly.

“No.”

“He wants to know,” says Castiel, contention in his voice for the first time as he wrenches himself free.

“I’ll go after Max and ask him myself,” snaps Sam, the drip-feeding of his history starting to chafe, as is everyone around him with their infinite respect for Dean’s next-of-kin wishes – like Sam’s major life events are organs to be left in Sam’s broken, braindead body. He may not be perceived as Dean’s equal, now or ever, but he’ll be damned if he’s about to be treated like his snot-nosed kid brother again.

He stalks towards the door before Dean can stop him, and is greeted by ruthless sunlight, the heat dry and oppressive as noon draws near and traffic picks up, cars coughing exhaust that coats his throat with grit. There is no sign of Max or his pale, winking eye.

“Sam, stop running away. Fuck.”

Dean rustles up somewhere next to him, and Sam wants to scream in his face, wants to beat him back into the shape of the Dean he knows, his partner in crime, the other inmate in the jail cell that was their tormented existence. They’d argued often, and the last time they’d spoken it was with the intent to hurt, but that’s his best friend. The only person for whom he’d ever leave Jessica. The only person he wouldn’t hate for asking that of him in the first place.

“Sam.”

But he isn’t, not really, not the one this Dean wants. It’s a relief, in some ways. He doesn’t feel any need to become that sad, beleaguered man, who had some witch feeling so sorry for how he’d spent the past fifteen years that she voluntarily deleted a chunk of his hard drive. He doesn’t want it back, even tossed into the deep end of a world shunted into the future.

“He said hundreds of years.” The statement is tinder, sparking to smoke in the air. “What did he mean? How can I have lived for that long?”

Dean still smells like engine oil and gunpowder and cheap shampoo, but that’s not enough when he has the inexplicable bearing of a widower, or an orphan, or the nameless that lose a child. A sibling.

“We’ve both seen – combat, I guess you could call it. Wars, like I mentioned.” He rubs his head, vigorously, so that the friction must have burned. “You know that we’re hunters. Well, we hunted some dangerous things, and some of those things hunted us back. We were tricked, and lied to, and set up to fail, and we paid for it.”

Sam waits.

“You know there are angels, and there’s a heaven. Well, there’s also demons, which means there’s a hell, and time doesn’t follow the normal rules down there. They screw with you. A lot.” He looks into the distance, at something Sam can’t see, and his lip quivers. “You don’t have to be evil to get thrown in there. Sometimes you gotta be the opposite. You do something good, and you get punished.”

“And we got punished,” says Sam, softly. A weight presses on him, inexorable.

“Yeah. We died and went to hell. But we didn’t deserve it, Sammy. We – we chose it, but we chose it as a last resort. When the alternative was worse.”

“Worse than hell?” he asks, and Dean just nods, sincerely, like it’s the most honest he’s ever been in his life.

“So we were stuck in hell together?” Sam laughs tentatively, tries to excavate this Dean for the fossil of his brother. “Sounds like our childhood.”

Dean remains grave, laboriously seeks out the sill of the tall glass storefront and sits on it. Sam joins him after a minute, when it’s clear he’s willing to stay mute until they’re both on the same level, both accessible. He raises his hand as though he wants to touch him, then floats it, like Sam’s diseased, or on fire. When he drops it to his own knee, his nails dig cruelly into the denim.

“We weren’t together, Sammy. I went to hell first. Cas saved me from that, we fought a war, and then you went into hell to stop it. And then Cas saved you.” He mumbles something that sounds a lot like “mostly.”

“Who were we fighting?”

“The Devil.”

“…Oh.”

A few yards away a young family spills out of a minivan, the boys in soccer jerseys, the mother toting a baby on one hip as she scrabbles for her purse and yells after her scattering children. The sun blazes. An old man pumps gas, alone. A crow squawks and flaps into the too-blue empty sky. The world torques on, despite them.

“Dean, I – I was going to be a lawyer.” It sounds whining to his own ears, but he can’t stop. Can’t even think. “Do you know how all this sounds? It’s worse than my worst nightmare, back when I thought I’d never be normal. I thought that if I’d stayed with you and Dad we’d both be corpses before we made it out of our twenties. And now – now this –,”

The tears come unbidden, a humiliation that stings, like the puerile insistence of the unfairness of it all. He turns away, wipes them furiously with the heel of his hand, and imagines crying in hell, imagines the pointless nature of such a thing. He’d been there, apparently, at the whim of Satan himself. So had Dean. Alone.

For hundreds of years.

Who could survive that, and who would want to? What sort of creature would crawl away from the embodiment of human suffering and keep going, instead of foaming at the mouth in an asylum forever? He can’t devise a reason for such resilience, or what could possibly prompt a return to the vocation of hunting, of all things.

Dean has eyes on him again, roving, fervent, as much an archaeologist as Sam. There are the bones of who he will be lodged somewhere, just like Dean’s amulet and leather jacket and cocky grin are subsumed by this stranger’s anguish, a ravenous beast nurtured for well over a decade. The man is overflowing with pain and weariness, and whether his state is exacerbated by Sam’s current condition or leavened by it, there’s no denying it’s a permanent fixture of his daily life. It scares Sam to death to see his brother like this. To think that he wants that for Sam, all over again.

“That Max guy said a witch did this to me because she felt bad,” Sam says, picking through landmines. “Because of my memories of – of hell?”

“Maybe,” says Dean. “Right now we’re also up against a – uh, a monster, of sorts, a very powerful one that’s out for our blood specifically. We’re trying to figure that shit out, so probably that had something to do with it.” He leans back and groans. “Fuck, Sammy. I wish you’d just talked to me.”

“So it doesn’t end.” Sam can barely speak, can’t even parse Dean’s ramblings to someone that can’t hear him. “After everything. Everything I did to get away.” He lets the sun dry his face, and considers sitting under it until he cracks and falls apart, joining the dust on the wind. Filtering back into society, the way he always promised he would. “You should have let me die with Jessica.”

Dean grabs him, the side of his face and the front of his shirt, pulling him back, down, and claustrophobically close.

“Don’t say that. Ever.” Dean’s breathing is erratic, stilted, like he’s damming up a sob that he might not know how to stop. “It was worth it, Sam, I swear. I can’t prove it to you now, but it was. I’d change a lot of things, but not that. I’d drag you out of that fire a million times.”

The devotion that pours out is devastating and starkly evident at this proximity. It’s the tsunami that follows an earthquake, the love someone will only permit to be seen during a funeral, when there’s no danger of it being rejected or accepted by its object. It’s an evolution from the protective streak that Dean has always carried in his arsenal, always a little too fierce, his fuse too short when it came to Sam’s safety. It’s so vehemently Dean that Sam would have staggered if he was standing, would have reached out as well if he hadn’t convinced himself of his wrongness, his lack of belonging in this version of his life.

This is what coming out the other side of hell looks like.

He has to clear his throat of welling regret before speaking, ploughing through the doubt that’s settling in his mind like mist.

“I’m sorry this happened to us. Dean, I’m sorry. But I can’t – I don’t want that. I need to go back to college, I need to be someone else. Dad was surrounded by death his whole life, and that can’t be me. I made sure that wasn’t going to be me.”

Dean’s palm is calloused, a paw that pats his cheek once before slipping to his neck.

“Sam, you are thirty-seven. Your life has already happened. Is happening.”

The gaze that pins him to the window jamb is sea-green, and deliberate as a gunshot.

“We’re going to Carol Deakins to get you changed back. I would really prefer it if you were on board, but we’re doing this no matter what.”

Sam shrugs him off, the old recalcitrance that used to be reserved for their father surfacing suddenly, violently. “Well, that’s not going to work for me. I told you, I – I can’t go back to that. You can’t make me.” He gets to his feet, heedless of the location, the civilians in workout gear and school uniforms going about their privileged business mere yards away. “I’m going to start over, Dean. You can help or you can leave –,”

And doesn’t that strike a chord of absolute terror inside him; a John-less world he could handle, one without Jessica less so, but being devoid of his brother in such an alien environment is unthinkable, petrifying, maybe inevitable.

“– but I’m not going back to hunting. I’m doing it right this time.”

Dean gets up too, and Sam was sure that when he left for Stanford he had three inches of height on him, but there’s shadow grafted to his aspect, a shroud of solemnity that draws him up and fills him out. His anger doesn’t seem to fuel this gravitas, but a well-worn resignation, and Sam doesn’t know him as well as he did but he knows it’s still bad news.

“Cas,” Dean says, and Sam doesn’t get the chance to seek the angel among the instances of humanity. Instead someone touches him, fingertip to temple, and he loses Dean and the rest of the world to darkness.

Again.

Chapter Text

The town of Delight, Maryland, is an oxymoron that would tickle Dean’s sense of justice if his mood hadn’t taken a swan dive down the shitter about three hours previously.

“Jack? How’s he doing?”

In the rear view mirror, Jack bends over Sam’s head, cradled in his lap, and checks his breathing.

“Sam’s fine!” Jack reports, though by then Dean is already focused on the road again, lines in white and broken yellow whipping past and under the car with an alacrity that should probably worry him. He eases off the gas, makes a turn past another ramshackle housing estate, further evidence of a place that’s been broken down by either too much habitation or too little. The sidewalks here leak moss through crevasses wide enough to be a hazard, and the paint on buildings seems to peel universally. It’s not abandoned; there’s an active laundromat and a bodega and a bank, but they all slouch with the same wet-cardboard guise, a bowed yellow-and-grey façade that seems to have been leached of colour by the sun. Even the people are old and etiolated – or at least the few around that all look up at the sound of the Impala, scandalised, like Dean is personally shaking them out of a coma.

“Almost there,” Castiel says, seemingly to fill the silence. He turns to appraise Sam’s unconscious body, discomfort plain in the squaring of his shoulders. “Perhaps we could –,”

“No,” says Dean, and that’s the end of that, even if he can sense the glacial disapproval emanating from the passenger side of the car.

Recollections of Castiel dropping Sam like a dumped marionette cycle, with a vengeance. This time the assault had been at his behest, and not that of a rapacious demigod, which he thinks makes it better. Sam had pitched limply into his arms instead of onto concrete, he’s safe in the Impala instead of a panic room, and he isn’t locked inside the virtual hellscape of his buried trauma. Not yet, at least.

It was necessary, he’d told himself, necessary to make Castiel into an unwilling tranquiliser, necessary to load his brother up like a duffle of guns and drive him to be poked at by some random witch. He’s doing all of this for Sam, even if he can’t appreciate why yet. Had the situation been reversed, he knows Sam would do the –  

You gotta let me in, man. You gotta let me help.

Dean squeezes the steering wheel, a tic developing in one eye, and tries to avoid that train of thought. It’s totally different, he knows, he hopes he knows. This kind of interference is unprecedented, and has to be dealt with like the problem of the week it is – swiftly and brutally. He wills the memories away, the smell of barbecued flesh and the sight of Gadreel retreating, no matter that it’s a view he knows all too well. The declaration of a desire for escape, the sudden departure. Sam leaving, always leaving.

It’s an ugly thought, and certainly unfair, but then nothing about the crap they have to put up with is ever fair. Sam’s back turns and turns and turns, and disappears behind a door or over a peak in the road or into the frigging horizon, and Dean remains the broken tool left in pieces. Good for the dirty work, but insufficient for the task of keeping their family of three, then two, together. A failure.

His knuckles strain against his skin, ghostly against the black of the steering wheel, the tan of the dash. The frailty there disgusts him. He needs a wall, a windscreen, or someone’s jaw. He needs to flay himself to prove there’s a sturdy foundation.

He doesn’t break anymore, and he won’t now.

He’ll get Sam to stay and nothing will break at all.

Easy.

“Dean. 24 Coldwater Place.”

He follows Castiel’s pointed finger towards a lonely cul-de-sac, where an almost comically small clapboard bungalow, boxy and unmarked as a child’s new toy, lies in wait. It’s unremarkable in its details, with a coal-black door, two darkened front windows hosting trays of dehydrated flowers, and a yard overgrown with a thousand species of weed. The solitary houses either side of it are what set it in contrast, these neighbours so decrepit and forlorn that Dean finds it hard to believe anyone could live there comfortably. Maybe a cabal of junkies keep the resident witch company, which wouldn’t even be that surprising, considering her parasitic trade.

He parks next to the cottage, its whitewashed walls producing a mild case of snow-blindness in all of them after the absence of vitality from the surrounding town, and pulls out his gun.

“Jack, bring Sam and stay on our six, okay? I’ll take point.”

“That means ‘stay behind us’,” Castiel translates for Jack, which Dean thinks is a little passive-aggressive, but lets it slide.

They approach the house together, picking through the neglected garden of plants that snag in their clothes repeatedly, thorns sticking into their flesh and tendrils wrapping around their ankles with more frequency than is strictly normal. Jack has Sam over one shoulder, and keeps kicking away anything that tries to sneak over his legs and towards Sam’s swaying head, while Castiel is barely aware of their terrain, brows furrowed in ferocious concentration. Dean is too busy disentangling himself from a persistent magnolia to care until Castiel nudges him, tapping his ear.

“Listen. Do you hear that?”

Dean turns towards the front door, which is closer than he’d thought, and leans forward. There’s the whispering of disturbed greenery, Jack’s upset mumbles, and the faintest wailing, muffled by more than just wood and plaster.

“Behind me,” he orders, and readies himself with a breath before kicking the door in with a crash. His gun is immediately up and aimed at eye-level, and he moves through the short, mint green hallway without a single comment on the volume of doilies, or the saccharine Monet knockoffs on the wall. It seems pointless without Sam next to him, ready with his patented glare. He might as well mug for a non-existent sitcom camera.

He’s still wallowing when he becomes suddenly lightheaded, and he collides with one of the ugly paintings in disorientation.

“Dean? What is it?”

“Witchy crap, I’m guessing,” he says gruffly, straightening up. The wailing is still oddly soft, resounding in his head like tinnitus. “She’s got defences up. Make sure Jack keeps Sam back until we have eyes on her.”

He creeps on, gun raised once again. He turns briefly into a floral room that’s littered with stale laundry, passes by a kitchen piled with dirty dishes and a bathroom carpeted with used tissues and empty liquor bottles.

“Weird,” he says in undertones, because the entire place looks like the hermitage of a recovering addict, not a practising magic user. Max had claimed she was acting as a glorified beautician for the community, but evidence of her business is nowhere to be found. He can’t say the squalor matches the town either, though – it’s too much of an intended mess.  

There’s a cry from the next left, the last stop on their dingy tour. Dean motions Castiel to his side, and tries to shake himself out of a stupor that’s descending like a physical weight. Sweat slicks the grip on his gun as he bounds through the doorway on his final, frayed nerve.

The bedroom is your standard spinster’s fare, too many crocheted throws and cat photographs, an abundance of the colour pink and more books than the room can realistically hold. Dean can tell because they’re filling it up, hovering in the air with figurines and holey blankets and a tide of other paraphernalia, a valiant but flimsy bulwark for the cross-legged, also airborne Carol.

The woman he assumes is his newest nemesis seems to be meditating, even asleep, but the gentle scream nevertheless pours from her parted lips like the ringing of an alarm. Dean’s vision is in vignette now, and he thinks he could lie down, for a minute, forever. He thinks he could succumb to the bliss of dreams, like Carol, like Sam.

Something – no, Castiel – is edging into the room, and pushing Dean along with him. He brings the disconcerted angel blearily into focus just as Jack appears at the door, bemused, and hoisting Sam’s scrawny hide like it’s nothing.

At their arrival Carol’s eyes fly open and the contents of the bedroom fall to the floor, making enough noise to wake the entire county. Carol slumps back onto the bed and sits up slowly, the solemn, faded scream still echoing. Dean slaps his own face, draws himself out of the reverie enough to pay attention to the proceedings, to Carol’s unexpectedly miserable countenance.

“Carol Deakins?” He makes himself move up to her. “I assume that’s who you are.”

The woman nods wordlessly. She’s petite and relatively pretty, but launching out of her thirties with premature lines and a hunch to her back that worsens as Dean gets nearer.

“Your friend Max told us about you. About what you did to my brother. You’re the witch that hexed him, right? Sam over there?”

Carol clambers off the bed and wavers between Dean and Jack, her arm outstretched to where Sam is hefted like a sack of potatoes. She keens helplessly around the ambient wail, and only quells it when she notices their cringing. She clears her throat, rubbing it like she’s fighting off a bad case of strep.

“I’m sorry,” she says hoarsely. “The effect is involuntary, I – I’m healing. If I didn’t expand the fallout I’d be dead right now.”

“The fallout?” Dean retrains the gun between her streaming eyes, still foggy, but undaunted. “Explain yourself, now. I’ve got a very little brother and no patience left, so tell me what happened before I get my angel friend to burn you to a crisp.”

Jack lowers Sam to his arms and Carol starts sniffling, drinking in the sight of his adolescent features like it’s both a satiation and a deprivation. Dean knows the feeling.

“I was expecting you,” she says. “After I did the spell I knew… I knew I’d extended myself. I knew there would be consequences.”

“Max Banes claimed you did it to help Sam,” says Castiel soberly. “Is this true?”

“Yes.” She inches towards Sam and Jack, who are composed like the Pieta, and Dean stalls her with a jerk of his gun.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers or yells, and Dean has to thump himself on the forehead to stop the scream from penetrating somewhere he’s afraid it might set up camp. She’s so damned loud. “Max said Sam was a part of our community now, and that he wanted direction in witchcraft, so I provided it. Sam said there was a massive threat gaining power, and he needed every advantage he could get, so I pointed him to every corrective charm I knew of. Piddly things, really, but he was looking for protection more than offensive measures. Wards, and – and ways to keep other people safe.”

“As if they would work against that dickhead,” Dean mutters, thinking of Chuck’s dependence on subversion, his obsession with making rules in order to break them.

We were supposed to do this together, Sam. He wants us apart, and floundering. He wants this.

“He was doing what he could,” Carol says defiantly. “I don’t know who he was up against, but he was just so – so scared, you know? He kept saying things like ‘this is the end of everything’ when he thought I couldn’t hear, and my mother was a manic depressive, so that sort of thing really freaks me out. I asked him about it, and he said his entire life was a lie, that he’d had to come to terms with something terrible recently, and that it was getting to be too much. He said he wished he was a college kid again, innocent of the real monsters out there.”

“He didn’t mean it,” Dean says, and hates the bare desperation in his voice, the layer of panic that attracts Castiel’s pity. “He wouldn’t have asked for this, which you’d know if you bothered to check with him instead of just going ahead and casting a fucking curse!”

“Dean.”

“Shut up. She needs to be told.” He hits himself again, hard enough to bruise his cheekbone. “You overstepped, and now he’s more mentally fucked than when you met him. Congratulations on a job terribly done.”

“I didn’t know,” Carol bleats, her agony rippling. “He’s too good to ever ask so I – I did it to help, but it was too much. I – I tore something inside myself when I did it. A magical hamstring, or something.” She grasps at her hair, moaning. “I was too embarrassed to ask Max or anyone for help, so I widened the area of rebounding damage, and hid. I’m sick, but – but I am recovering.”

Dean thinks of Delight, its crumbling buildings and withering population, but Castiel gets there first.

“The town,” he says. “You let it spread to the entire town.”

“It’s temporary, I just need –,”

“Then forget that,” says Dean irritably, and jabs the gun at Carol. “What about my brother? Can you turn him back?”

Carol looks to Sam, his peacefully sleeping face. “It’s – it’s possible. Counteractive magic is built upon the designs of the spell it’s intended to reverse, so in theory, it’s easier to execute. It will require less of my own energy.” Her throat bobs. “But I need him for it. I need him awake. Did the spell do that? Make him pass out? It wasn’t meant to –,”

“No,” says Dean, nearly crippled with relief. “No, we did that. He was getting a bit antsy without all his memories, so we made him a bit more portable.”

Carol turns to him with blatant disbelief, almost hurt. “But. But you’re his brother. You are Dean, right?”

“Yeah, and?”

She hugs herself, shrinks like a dying flower. “Nothing. He just – the way he talked about you. I thought you’d be... different.”

Deans lets loose a bark of laughter that’s harsher than the ever-present scream, drowning out his urge to dry-heave. “That’s your problem, sweetheart. Now get to making the antidote to this bullshit so we can all get back to our stupid little lives.”

“He needs to be awake,” she repeats, and Dean bites down on a string of profanity like it’s alive and wriggling on his tongue.

“Fine,” he says, through gritted teeth. “Get everything ready first.”

The next few hours pass sluggishly, the sun vanishing behind a pall of pearly clouds that transforms the cottage interior from dull to positively grim. Castiel gives Dean a spurt of healing grace that keeps the screaming at bay, but never dispels it entirely, sending him wandering after Carol with a tetchy, jittery energy that likely hinders her progress rather than ushering it along. She fumbles about her kitchen for ingredients that include animal intestines and spices, then digs in her jungle of a garden for additions, Dean shadowing her the entire time. When they return to the bedroom to root through her stack of grimoires and mash up her concoction, Castiel is pacing, and Jack is humming again, Sam’s head lolling in the crook of his arm.

“I have to read a passage to him over these components, which will allow the spell to be amended,” Carol says, kneeling by the foot of her bed and leafing through a book almost as thick as her torso. Her mortar of viscera emits a purple steam with an indefinable aroma that Dean takes care to skirt.

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning he needs to be listening to me,” she says. “Wake him.”

She’s wan, with sweat beading at her hairline, but her determination is clear. Either she wants them out of her little witch hut for good, or she feels genuine guilt about Sam, but she seems as eager to get the ritual over and done with as the rest of them. Perhaps more. Her whole house stinks of shame.

Dean tunes out the distant cries and crouches next to Sam, sweeping the shaggy hair out of his eyes. This Sam seems so much younger than the one he wrestled to the floor of a Californian apartment fifteen years ago. He wants to believe he’s just a stretched out version of the kid that used to badger him for stories, Lucky Charms, car rides, and attention – a constant presence – but it’s not true, and it was never true. He doesn’t actually know Law Student Sam, not like he knows the Sam that emerged from his normal life after it went up in flames. That November weekend had changed them both irrevocably.

Sam deserves his own innocence, and he’s believed that since his mother died the first time around; but Chuck won’t hesitate to kill them just because a witch fiddled with Sam’s biological clock. Maybe one of God’s realities has a Sam that lives a quiet and happy life with a wife and a white collar job, but it’s not their one. It never, ever will be.

Jack is tracking his every move, politely curious, but with a firm hold on his brother that would have grated if it wasn’t reassuring.

“Will I wake him up?”

Dean balks. “You can do that?”

Jack smiles tightly and presses two fingers to Sam’s forehead, twin flashes of gold illuminating a hank of the kid’s sandy blond hair.

Sam’s eyelids flutter and he gasps, lurching up and flailing about for a surface steadier than Jack’s embrace. Dean catches his wrists.

“Sam, stop – Sam, it’s me, it’s Dean!”

Sam stills, panting, his restless gaze flicking across the room before landing on Dean.

“Dean? What the fuck – we were just at the – how did –,”

“I’m sorry, Sam, I got Cas to knock you out for a while. Just to get us to Carol Deakins’s house. The witch that –,”

“I remember.” Sam snatches his hands back, and tactfully removes himself from Jack’s space, huddling against the wall. “Real slick. That your go-to when I disagree with you now?”

Dean sighs. “Sam, if you still hate me when you’re back to being yourself you can deck me, but right now –,”

“I am myself, you asshole,” Sam retorts, a vicious twist to his mouth. “I told you I didn’t want this.”

The frustration that’s been building in his chest for the past twenty-four hours ruptures and explodes, spraying debris like armoured projectiles. He stands, casting a shadow that turns Sam’s skin grey.

“I don’t give a shit. Carol. Read it to him. Now.”

“Dean –,”

“Stay where you are, Sam. I mean it.”

Sam looks torn, gaze drawn to the door, the window. It cuts Dean to the bone. This is not his brother, except that it is, and he’s supposed to be the one he trusts more than anything. Is it his age that Sam finds so unworthy, his continually deepening frown? Or is it something more intractable, a fundamental shift in his personality?

He sees his brother. He also sees an obstacle to his brother.

The latter, if Dean has anything to do with them, usually don’t last very long.

“You’re a monster,” Sam says, and buries his head in his arms, drawing his knees up until none of them can see his face.

Carol sets the book on the floor and makes a complicated gesture over the perfumed bowl. She reads in what might have been iambic pentameter a millennia ago, the words flowing like honey where normal speech had tripped her up. Castiel is observing closely, probably so he doesn’t have to look at Sam. Dean feels almost jealous that he doesn’t feel the need to bear witness to this.

He hopes Sam lays into him when this is over, and he hopes he puts all of his thirty-seven years behind the punch.

“It’s done,” Carol says, after what seems like hours, the room having dipped a shade. “I have laid the path for the spell to be counteracted.”

“Why isn’t it working?” Dean demands, as Sam glances up, apprehensive.

“I laid the path,” Carol repeats. “I cannot walk it for him. I am the caster, and this magic, like that of my cosmetics service, is will-based. You see, invoking the will of the person you’re trying to alter is simpler than basic transmutation, which requires the will of the magic user in question to change an inanimate object or an animal, since obviously neither can provide –,”

“Mother fuck, lady,” Dean snarls, taking out his gun. “If you’re fucking with me –,”

“No! I’m – I’m not, honestly, this is how this magic is designed!” She’s shuddering now, her hands raised and her soft screams a racket he’s sick of tolerating. “The final part is Sam – he has to say the incantation, he has to say it while seeking the change it ordains! That’s all that’s left!”

Sam is letting the scene unfold, essentially excluded from its direction until now. He is enraptured by Carol, her frazzled appearance and exhaustion, which seems to be contagious.

“So,” he says, “you mean – I don’t have to –,”

“Where is it,” Dean says, ice breaking over his skin. “Where’s the incantation?”

Carol rips a page from her book and passes it to him, rattled enough to commit the cardinal sin of vandalising her own grimoire. It would be gratifying if his heart wasn’t busy slipping into the region of his shoes.

He kneels in front of Sam, holds the piece of paper like he’s presenting a trophy. “Read it, Sam. Please read it.”

Sam’s eyes are liquid dark, nearly veiled by the fading light. “If I read it, will you stop? Will you let me go?”

Every cell in his body is screaming at him to lie, to clamp protectively around Sam like a vice.

You gotta let me in, man.

He owes him more than the kind of cheap tricks that bastards like Chuck thrive on. He owes him all of himself if he’s going to fix this, even if it makes him feel small. Sam deserves that much.

“No,” he says. “No Sammy, I won’t stop. I don’t have it in me to let you go. I’m sorry.”

Sam takes the page, studies it long enough to memorise it, and then reads it out, as fluidly as any witch. He reads it twice, then again, maybe just to make a point.

Dean gave all of himself. He’s learning that in far too many instances, it’s not nearly enough.

 

*

 

Doors slam louder in the bunker when they get back, and the echoes clang for longer. The place is bigger, emptier, cold enough to seem refrigerated, or haunted. It reminds Dean of prison.

He knows Sam thinks of it that way. He sleeps for most of the day, barely eats, and avoids the rest of them like they’ve contracted something he doesn’t want to catch. It reminds Dean of Sam at seventeen, when he was at his moodiest: talking back to their father, refusing to go on hunts, and spending all his free time on schoolwork, the extra credit stuff that he needed to do to make up for their nomadic lifestyle affecting his record. It should feel like familiar, even comfortable territory, but too much has elapsed between them. It’s closer to the experience of when he came back from hell, a broken seventy year old man in a marred body with a brother too young, too ignorant to understand what he’d been through.

It’s almost a shock to realise he’s finally spent as many years of his life topside as he has down in the pit. It’s another, sharper shock when he figures Sam will never have that privilege, even if they resolve this, beat God, and miraculously live out another half-century.

Planting himself in the library among research on two hours of rest, he wonders for the umpteenth time that week if he’s being selfish, trying to stuff Sam’s memories back inside him. They’ve been through this before, with another strange, albeit more ruthless Sam that anticipated the kind of hurt Dean was willing to force on him, but he didn’t stop then and he won’t stop now. He knows his own limits. He won’t lose his brother, not after everything they’ve been through, and definitely not for the misinformed whims of a kid that is scarcely old enough to drink.

“Really?”

Dean blanches at the aggrieved noise, and almost tips back on his chair, slamming his hand on the table to regain his balance. Two books slip to the floor with low thuds.

“Fuck, Cas. What’s your problem?”

Castiel demurely sits opposite him, pouting like a reproving, matronly aunt. He picks up Dean’s glass of whiskey, but is too well-behaved to toss it like Dean knows he wants to.

“I was distressed. Your alcohol intake is becoming excessive again.”

“Bite me,” Dean replies, leaning back. “I’m in the crappiest of crappy funks, okay? This whole year has been one big sledgehammer to my gonads.”

Castiel lifts his chin. “I believe you are trying to rush the solution to this issue. We’re dealing with witch magic. Comparatively petty, when one reflects on what we’re usually up against.”

“Petty, eh?” Dean plucks his glass from Castiel’s grip. “You mean like Rowena, who broke open portals between worlds, or Sam, who somehow brought a whole ass woman back to life? That petty?”

“Compared to God,” says Castiel sourly, “yes. But I see your point.”

“Well, Hallelujah.” Dean swallows the dregs of his breakfast like water. “Shit. I hope saying that doesn’t conjure him up like fucking Beetlejuice or something.”

They sit in silence for another few minutes, Dean failing to parse the archaic Latin on a scroll of parchment while Castiel watches him struggle. It’s a mark of how strong their friendship is that he’s not inclined to hurl a book at him, Dean thinks, though that’s subject to review the longer he stares.

“I believe Sam will come around,” Castiel says, apropos of nothing, and Dean has to put down the monk’s sheaf of terribly handwritten notes before he takes a lighter to it.

“You don’t know that.”

“No. But I have faith.”

Dean snorts. “And that worked out so great for you before. You’re like a dog that keeps coming back to its owner after getting kicked.”

“I have faith in Sam, not God,” says Castiel. “And Sam is actually reliable.”

Dean puts his weight on his elbows, on the spread of arcane healing rituals and counter-curses that the Men of Letters had sourced from shamans, snake-oil salesmen, and their own imaginations. Any one of them has the potential to save Sam or do something even worse than winding back the clock. None of them is as good a guarantee as the efforts of Sam himself.

It would have made him proud, in another circumstance. It wouldn’t have filled him with dread.

“I can’t do this without him, Cas. It’s not just what Billie said, either, taking on Chuck and the cosmic crap, it’s – it’s the rest of it. We’ve always been the pair of yahoos in a two-man show. Laurel and fucking Hardy.”

He rubs his face. “I can’t take much more of this. There’s always, always something with us.”

“You would like it to stop.”

Dean lifts his arms. “Well yeah, no shit.”

“Then that is something you share with Sam.” He rises with unerring poise, slow and steady. “As the boy he is now, and the man he will grow to be. You might find him more receptive if you take his perspective into consideration.”

Dean is seconds away from a witty rejoinder, but Castiel is already gliding away, towards the garage, probably to sit outside and brood. The guy’s like an elderly man that way, nuggets of wisdom tossed like croutons into their disaster of the hour when all he really wants to do is air himself under the sun.

He hates admitting when Castiel is right, but it has to happen sometimes.

Retirement.

It’s like a spell itself, a blessing imparted by no deity or being that could ever exist. For most people, it’s an inevitability, and for hunters a fantasy that they weave to allow themselves to sleep at night. For them, it’s always been a sort of cruelty, a liberty taken too soon or too late, never really an option as long as monsters walk the Earth.

Yet he hesitates. If they get the big bad, the final boss, the period at the end of the sentence? Can they stop? Can they rest?

It’s not difficult to determine that yes, they can. They can walk away from this life forever once Chuck is dealt with, if both he and his brother manage to emerge from the next battle unscathed. There are days and months and years that don’t need to involve magic, or sacrifice, or death. There is a way to crawl out of the dark, where they have established themselves, and create something new in the light. There has to be.

Retirement, an exquisite obscenity. A luxury they can explore only after the last war.

For which he still needs Sam.

It takes several drawn out moments for Dean to urge himself up, then across the library, then down the hall to loiter outside Sam’s door like a hungry cat, anxiety gnawing at his insides. All that’s missing is the petulant mewling, he thinks wryly. He steels himself to knock just as the door creaks open, and he’s presented with Sam’s mop of hair, his head bowed towards his smartphone.

“Where did you get that?” Dean says sharply, pulling it off him in spite of his protests and his own plans. “This is Sam’s phone.”

“Yeah, which means it’s mine,” Sam says, irate. “Jack gave it to me, since you’re insisting on holding me captive –,”

“That’s not – you’re not a captive, Sam.”

“Can I go somewhere besides here without getting angelically roofied?”

“I – look –,”

“That’s what I thought.” Sam wrenches the phone back. “What do you want, anyway?”

Dean swipes his hand over his mouth, mostly to stall an inquisition that would do nothing but push Sam further away. He remembers Dad shouting, at the end of his rope: Your brother was never this difficult, and Sam roaring back a tirade. He always found Dean after the arguments, no matter the outcome, and Dean made a production of lording the honour of being ‘the easy one’ over him until they both cracked up. They got older, inevitably, and the fights got uglier. Soon even Dean couldn’t find much that was funny about them anymore.

He doesn’t think his dad had ever tried really talking to Sam, instead of at him. Maybe things would have turned out differently if he had.

“I want to show you something,” he says. “It’s important. I should have led with it five days ago, if we’re being honest.”

Sam looks wary, but Dean listens to him follow him back to his bedroom anyway. He’s been so fastidious about avoiding Dean that he hasn’t been inside it yet, and so his eyebrows rocket up in astonishment when Dean opens the door.

He lets out a low whistle as he enters, ever cautious. “Well,” he says. “It’s cooler than mine.”

“I know, right?” Dean closes the door behind them and heads for his locker. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. Yours only seems empty because you keep your stuff other places. The car, the library, in here. Old habits.”

“Motel living,” Sam murmurs. “I do remember that.”

Dean digs around until he finds a small wooden box, a simple vessel that some dweeb from the twenties had left stashed in there, empty but for flashcards that described the medicinal value of patchouli. Seriously.

“I’ve been pretty down on you since you – got here? Changed? Whatever.”

He takes a seat on the bed, and opens it, the box itself a trinket that he’d dismissed out the gate as being frivolous until they started putting down roots. The personal debris accumulated surprisingly quickly, and so had the need to keep it all safe. This had been a sensible way to ensure his entire family had a presence in their new home, which may have started off as a paltry substitute for a real one, but it was what they had. And it got them all under the same roof again.

“I shouldn’t have been so doom and gloom,” he says, patting the bed beside him. “Your life hasn’t been all bad, Sam, and I’m sorry I made it seem that way. C’mere. Take a look.”

Sam joins him on his memory foam and sinks into a slouch, though he’s unable to contain his interest for long. He catches sight of the box’s contents and shifts nearer.

“Is that –,”

“Mom,” says Dean, handing over the first photograph, Mary Winchester beaming in front of a white, as yet unburned house. She doesn’t look all that different from the dead body he’d held in his arms.

Dean lets him curve over it, aching at his brother’s sad smile for a woman he’s never met.

“She – she came back, you know,” he says, and Sam’s head snaps up. “For a little while. Magic brought her back, sort of like what’s affecting you now.”

Sam can’t seem to speak, fixated on the photo again, so Dean produces more.

“Dad, and Mom, before it all went to shit. The two of us, that first year after Jessica died; it was taken by this awesome girl Sarah, after she helped us gank a ghost in a painting. Crazy case. This is us on Christmas Eve in ’95, when Dad was actually there for once, you gotta remember that. That’s Mom and me, and the both of us with you in front of our old house in Lawrence – you know we actually visited there, got rid of a ghost for this little family? That’s us and Bobby before we fought the Devil. That one is us a little while after you got back from hell, when Bobby wanted to memorialise all of us being healthy for once with a picture. Nearly dropped his wife’s old Canon, trying to figure out all the buttons. Made you laugh for real for the first time in a year. I never thanked him for that.”

Sam is holding the photos like they might dissolve if he touches them too much, and his lips are pursed, like he’s keeping his grief from gushing out. The next question, one of the many Dean has been dreading, worms free anyway.

“Is Bobby dead?”

Dean nods.

“Pastor Jim? Caleb?”

“Like I said, Sam. It’s been a hard few years.”

Sam exhales in a gust, and scrubs something from his eye. “Yeah. Yeah. I got that.”

“There’s something else,” Dean says, and takes a small pouch from the bottom of the box. He passes it to Sam and turns towards him, hoping the direct approach will eliminate any remaining illusion of duplicity. “Since you asked.”

Sam shakes the bag and an amulet falls into his palm, a brass charm on a black pleather cord.

“That damn thing had its own journey,” says Dean. “My fault. But we saved it, in the end. A piece of history that we got to keep.”

Sam rolls it over, brushing away a speck of dust. “But you don’t wear it?”

“Too valuable to lose again. Plus, it kept hitting me in the face when I got into brawls.” Dean offers him a grin, which widens when Sam has to hide his own.

“Jerk.” He gathers up the photos gingerly, riffling through them twice more, and Dean doesn’t interrupt. It’s his apology mixed in with a plea, but it’s also a gift for his kid brother, the college student that lived fifty, a hundred, five hundred miles from his family.

He missed us. We never asked him if he did, just assumed the worst.

“So after all this,” Sam says eventually, to their mother beaming up at him from 1983. “After all this insane crap that’s happened, tell me, what monster overrides all of it? What beats the Devil?”

“You sure you want to know?”

Sam scoffs. “I’m asking.”

Dean closes the box, adjusts his position on the bed until he has Sam in profile, awaiting his full attention. When he gets it, Sam is stolid, everything Dean loves most in the world secure in the cradle of his arms. He’s braced for the worst, and he’s girding himself to bear it.

Sam Winchester. More reliable than the almighty fucking Creator.

“It’s a monster,” Dean says calmly, because it’s true, and doesn’t sound like a lie. “It’s a monster with the power of God. It’s gunning for us and the entire world, Sam, and the bottom line is I can’t stop it by myself. Those are the facts, and that’s all the reason you need to come back.”

Sam sets down the photos, leaving the one where the both of them are nearly doubled over laughing on the top of the pile. “The power of – of God?”

“Yeah.”

Sam kneads the wrinkles from his too-big jeans. “Jesus.”

“Unfortunately it’s just the big kahuna. Or fortunately. I haven’t examined that one too hard.”

Sam looks peaky, tinted green. “Jack said we saved the world before.”

Dean sighs. “I’m going to need to gag that kid. Yes, we did.”

“That’s… that’s not me, Dean.” He holds up a hand to halt Dean’s next pitch, and Dean can see that he’s despondent, dredging up a confession like a corpse from a lake. “I’m not that person, as you’re so fond of reminding me, not yet. I’m a law student. I’ve never been to hell, I’ve never saved the world, I can barely keep a job and a full time scholarship while having a girlf – a –,”

He shakes his head, leaning compulsively on his knees, a modern Atlas. Without even knowing.

“I can’t help you. This sounds stupid, but I wish – I wish you were here, you know? My Dean, I mean.” He chuckles mirthlessly, rakes his fingers through his fringe. “I thought asking about it might – might make things clearer, but it’s muddied more, now. I’m not some hero, I’m just a – a guy. I’m sorry.”

Dean scoops up the pictures and the amulet and arranges them inside their box, shelving it with extreme care. He feels punctured, a ragged lifebuoy drifting uselessly in the middle of the sea. There’s someone he’s supposed to keep afloat, but he can’t find them. It’s his job, and he can’t find them, can’t even help them if he does, and it’s not good enough.

He can never do his fucking job right.

He returns to the bed, where he finds Sam with his head in his hands, and he knows he needs to fix it. He’s doomed to fail, needing to fix everyone, and everything, but he’ll crawl over coals to comfort his brother.

“You don’t know that,” he says, the fight leaving him. “Hey. Look at me.”

“Dean, I –,”

“Quit slobbering,” he says, smiling crookedly as Sam dries off several traitorously escaping tears. “Aw hell, Sam. Come here.”

His brother is small when he crumples in his arms, and he shakes intermittently, the way he once did during thunderstorms. It’s a childlike vulnerability that Sam wouldn’t allow himself to succumb to nowadays, a justified weakness he would deny himself on principle. There’s always work to be done, after all, and if one crack is permitted to spread the whole wall can come down.

“We’ll get past this, Sam,” he says. “We’re both alive, which means we’re already doing better than usual.”

Sam says something into his shirt, a series of vowels that he doesn’t seem motivated to clarify by pulling away, so Dean just rubs his back. “Right. And I’ll make you a promise, Sam, to you now and if the spell gets reversed; we’re due a retirement package. Hawaii, maybe, or Mexico, where we take care of our own back yard, but we don’t go looking for hunts. We leave that to the new blood. Instead we’ll grow tomatoes in pots and catch up on reality TV. Do online courses. Finally get you a frigging dog. Whatever you want, we’ll do it. This monster dies, and we’ll do it, okay? Just – stick around, and I’ll get you there. Cross my heart.”

Sam’s breath is hot and damp, and he starts talking again, the same lilting cadence on repeat. Dean bends to listen, and when he understands the words he’s stupefied, immediately lulled like it’s a bedtime story.

Sam stays bony and Dean stays wrapped around him as the incantation suffuses the air. It’s eloquent, indulgent. It’s as hollow as a hymn in an empty church.

Chapter Text

>I think I’m losing it

>take it easy. maybe go outside?

>They babysit me out there. And I’ll still feel bad. In general

>talk to ur brother

>I did. That’s why I feel bad

>gimme a sec. i have something that might help

 

The little grey dots buffer on the phone’s screen as Max types, rhythmic as a Newton’s cradle. It’s a convenient mechanism to aid modern communication, and had been another revelation of the terrible, wonderful, and oh-so-distant future that quickly made Sam feel like Encino Man, despite Max’s remote tutelage.

He doesn’t mind focusing on the long reach of the internet or the newness of the technology though, Twitter and Facebook and online shopping, right there in his pocket. It’s far easier to sit in silence for half an hour while Jack explains the purpose of ‘gifs’ than it is to be alone with his thoughts, or in the vicinity of Dean’s troubled aura.

He’d surprised himself by retrying the incantation, particularly after the debacle at the waifish witch’s house. Waking up in a cold, dim room with the faint sound of screams and four people crowded around his unconscious body had set him on edge, and Dean’s proprietary tone after the fact had induced such an avalanche of fury that he’d barely been able to vocalise it. Being cordoned off in their underground prison hadn’t helped, but if he’s one thing consistently, it seems, it’s malleable to his brother’s use of sentiment. Seeing their good memories and learning about his mother, Bobby, and friends he couldn’t remember would have been playing dirty if it was anyone but Dean, and anyone but Sam might have been resistant to it. Sam wants to accuse him of nurturing his seed of doubt into a Redwood of neurosis, but really, that has always been Sam’s own speciality. He’d recited the incantation because he had to know for himself where he stood.

Since that afternoon he’s been unable to bring himself to repeat the spell, arriving at the conclusion that either the witch was incompetent or he’s the coward his father had always accused him of being.

Sam is a selfish little smartass. Sam thinks of himself before the family. Sam, your brother would never let me down like this.

Sam would caustically inform him that he’s searched for the reputed warrior Dean requires, this master of endurance, the Devil Killer, and come up empty. That fantastical identity is not something he ever wanted, and even if he did, the formula for it is hidden inside fifteen mysterious years of extensive anguish.

He’s not that person. He’s not even the pretentiously quixotic runaway student his brother once knew, because his scholarship is gone and so is Jessica.

He wants to say he’s on his own. It would be simple to claim back the independence he’d won himself two (no, seventeen) years ago, and he would have lobbied for it already had Dean’s promise not lodged in his chest like an aortal blockage.

It’s a conundrum that has brought him repeatedly back to Max, endlessly lamenting the conflict between his desire to ditch hunting and his need for Dean, his only connection to his past. Will his brother really want him around if he doesn’t change back to being older, more seasoned, more useful?

Will he still keep his promise?

A delicate whooping alert interrupts his crisis, and he sees that Max has finally responded with a clickable file and attached photographs.

 

>sent some links you might find interesting. field trip?

 

Sam opens the link and is presented with a barrage of news articles, police reports, and timestamped photos, all adding up to brutal and as yet unsolved homicides in a neighbourhood barely ten or so miles from Lebanon. Max has used an editing tool on the virtual map in one article, circling the address of a derelict house at the epicentre of the murders with a smiley face to the side. It has a crudely drawn mouth full of fangs.

The cogs of his analytical brain start to grind, and his extremities go numb with sudden comprehension.

 

>This is a hunt

>gold star. werewolf just moved in down the street.

>You want me to get on this???

>yep. i even did the heavy lifting for you. go with ur big bro & see what happens.

The dots undulate for a few seconds, then:

> wouldn’t you like to know what you can do?

 

He sits there for long enough that the screen goes dark, but images of grisly crime scenes and data patterns adorn his bedroom walls anyway, imprints that last when he tries to blink them away. He considers deleting the texts and going back to wallowing, because trailing Dean on a hunt of all things, now, seems like it would hinder rather than help his cause for shutting down the family business.

And yet their business is god-killing, these days, or something awfully like it. He might as well scrape off a bit of rust and assimilate while he dithers between making his own destiny and complying with what his brother wants out of him. He sincerely hopes he gets it figured out before circumstances force him into fighting fucking Cthulhu, or whatever.

He moves for the hallway, opening the links again and scrolling through the police’s initial suppositions of wild animal attacks, recently dismissed over evidence of theft on the victims’ remains. The hearts were taken from all of the leftover bodies, giving credence to Max’s assertion that the perpetrators were werewolves, but there were heads and legs and arms missing as well. It doesn’t fit the lycanthropic profile, and the lack of self-preservation evident in how the deaths are clustered is unorthodox too, sticking in the back of his mind like a cerebral popcorn kernel.

It’s definitely the kind of case that will intrigue Dean, though Sam himself doesn’t exactly relish the thought of grappling with the kind of hairy bastards that had nearly taken his entire family out of commission one summer. Even Michael J. Fox in a wig had spooked him after that gory expedition. 

He heads for the library, where the low timbre of his brother’s voice draws him, siren-like. He finds Castiel there too, bent over by a bookshelf and oozing consternation.

“It’s there, Cas, keep checking.”

“If you subscribed to the Dewey Decimal system this would not be an issue, Dean. Organisation is integral to how we research, and if we cannot maintain a coherent and streamlined process –,”

“Sammy!” says Dean loudly, waving him over. “Welcome to the party. Save me,” he adds, when Castiel turns away, harrumphing like an old woman.

Sam sits opposite him, setting his phone on the desk and sliding it forward. His nerves jangle like a ring of keys.

“I have something you might want to check out.”

Dean straightens up immediately, dropping his copy of Assaying ye Skurge of Magicke on top of a stack of parchment scrolls, ragged enough to be ancient. Sam isn’t invested in this place or its contents, but the sight of them flattened still makes him wince.

“You found something on the spell?”

“No,” says Sam, pretending not to notice the dying spark of hope in Dean’s eyes. “Nothing like that. It’s still important, though.” He indicates the phone and Dean picks it up, starts swiping through the reports with what seems like mounting suspicion.

“This looks like a hunt.”

“It is,” he says, and Dean gapes, confounded.

“You,” he says, sounding out the sentence like it’s in a foreign language, “want to go on a hunt. Now.”

“I didn’t come up with this,” Sam replies, uncomfortable under the attentions of both Dean and Castiel, who has tuned in to the discussion with interest. “You can see right there, a few days ago in Esbon, these killings started up. There’s been six so far, and they’re increasing day by day, so Max suggested that we –,”

Max suggested?” Sam’s phone creaks from the sudden pressure of Dean’s grip. “You’ve been talking to him?”

That disapprobation again, inherent mistrust for Sam, or Sam’s choices, or Sam’s existence without the back half of his life.

“He’s been helping me adjust,” Sam says defensively, keeping a lid on his temper. “I just needed to vent, and he –,”

“That’s what I’m here for!”

“It’s not a competition, Dean,” Sam shoots back. “He’s my friend. And he passed this hunt on to us because we’re close and he said it – it might be good for us, you know? I was thinking he might be right.”

Dean drags his gaze away from Sam with difficulty, focus shifted to the phone screen. He reads for a few minutes, Castiel absorbed by Sam, Sam appraising his fingernails.

When Dean pulls over a pencil and a pad of paper to take notes, Sam edges closer on his chair, instantly recognising the scribbled address of the purported werewolf hideout.

“Ordinarily I’d come at this as a Fed,” Dean says, almost absently. “But we know the cops around here, and this case seems pretty open-and-shut. The fucker that’s off his leash is sloppy.” He takes out his own phone and starts typing. “This place is close. I can scope it out, see if it’s really his hidey-hole.”

“Max says it is.”

Dean glares at him. “Yeah, I got that.” He scoots back his chair with a screech and collects his jacket from the other table. “I can’t believe this never came up on our radar though. It’s practically –,”

“Down the street,” Sam finishes for him, Max’s disturbed echo. “You haven’t exactly been hunting, though, not since – well. Since me.”

Dean chews his lip. “I guess. It’s worth checking out, at least.” He dons his jacket and makes for the garage door. “Back soon. Cas, watch him and the kid.”

“Woah, hold on,” Sam says sharply, getting to his feet just as Castiel makes some abortive attempt to obstruct him. “You’re not going by yourself. I’m going too.”

Dean chuckles, but it comes out flat, and he looks thoroughly unamused. “Yeah, not a chance, Sam.”

“Then I should go,” says Castiel, already moving to join him, but Dean stalls him with one hand.

“Jack’s still jittery since the Occultum,” he mutters to him, though not quietly enough that Sam can’t hear the words and privately puzzle over them. More lore on their god-monster?

“He’ll just get in the way,” Dean continues. “And Sam’s not going in the line of fire when he’s like this. I need you to keep an eye on them, okay? I’ll take care of this.”

“But Dean –,”

“It’s a milk run,” he says, which is almost too much, too patronising for Sam to let slide. Dean will demand the impossible from him at the tip of a hat, shove their entire lives under his nose as proof that he can handle anything, that he’s a Grade A Badass, then kick him to the kids’ table when Sam actually tries to contribute. It’s clear a dismissal; proof, finally, that he believes Sam is nothing but a burden.

Dean is still reassuring Castiel when he slams his fist on the table, books bouncing with the impact. Both of them rotate to look at him, Dean’s eyes narrowing dangerously.

“I’m not a child, Dean,” he says coldly. “I’m not useless just because I don’t want to do this for a living. I have reservations about staying here, sure, but that doesn’t mean you should go solo to prove a point. You might need me.”

It’s not his strongest argument, and he grimaces at his confrontational tone, but it’s the truth. Whether he ends up rematriculating at Stanford or pulverising Dean’s godly bogeyman, he deserves to be treated like an equal, deserves the respect that he didn’t have while living with him and their father as a teenager. His brother owes him that. He owes it to him if he’s twenty, or thirty-seven, or one hundred and in hell.

Dean quirks a smile, wistful.

“I do need you, Sam,” he says. “That’s why I can’t put you at risk.”

He claps Castiel on the chest and departs swiftly, like he thinks they might try jumping him if he lingers another moment. Sam listens to him clatter down the corridor to the garage and lets himself hate, for a fraction of a second, permitting just the tiniest mote of blistering loathing for the only man he would die for.

It doesn’t feel as good as he thought it would. It feels like drinking seawater while becalmed, and hoping for relief.

Castiel comes to Sam’s side, and pats his arm carefully, like he’s afraid he’s going to blow.

“I’m sure it will be fine, Sam.”

“Yeah,” says Sam, barely registering his presence. His hatred is being buffeted, batted away to make room for defiance, and the scheming that goes with it. It’s a ritual he knows from childhood, a game he’d played against his father and won when it mattered.

Nobody gets to tell him how to live his life. Not Dad, not Dean, not some random witch or the cruel cattle prod of fate.

Wouldn’t you like to know what you can do?

He pats Castiel back. “Excuse me a sec.”

He slips out from under his hand, striding out of the room and into the hall before he can be intercepted. His adrenaline is pumping, intoxicating him when he gets to his room and starts scouring it for his gun and spare ammunition. His skin hot, too tight for his body. His muscles are contracting like he’s already engaged in combat. His brain, his worst enemy and greatest ally, is finally shaking off the dust that has accumulated from over a week of paralysing anxiety.

Jack is dozing in his room with his headphones on, the planes of his face softening while in the throes of sleep. He startles when Sam shakes him awake, and the years return with a vengeance.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

“No,” says Sam, glad to be able to admit that for once. Jack unshackles himself from the headphones and a wad of cables and follows Sam’s admittedly unsubtle fingering of his Taurus, now flush with silver bullets.

“What’s wrong?”

“I need you to do something for me,” Sam says as he holsters the gun in his pants, grateful when Jack nods immediately, leaping up.

“Anything.”

Sam divulges his plan without tumbling over his words, a small miracle. He repeats his instructions twice – more for his own peace of mind than Jack’s – then skitters out of the room and into the refuge of the kitchen. He presses himself against the wall beside the door, invisible to anyone approaching from either end of the hall unless they actually ventured down the steps. The sink digs into his thigh, but he doesn’t so much as hitch his breathing as he counts, eight, nine, ten –

There’s one more beat, then an ear-splitting yell, heart-rending, the base squalling of the tortured.

Castiel is fast, faster than Sam had expected. He’s a black-and-beige blur that flits past the kitchen doorway and hurtles into Jack’s room, he guesses, because the next din is comprised of his attempts to soothe the half-angel-half-Daniel-Day-Lewis.

He wastes no more time checking to see that Castiel is entirely occupied, tip-toeing towards the garage entrance while a muddle of cries and bass pleas trail him the whole way there.

In the airy garage, he opens the door of the first car he sees, and is stunned to discover that Jack had told him true; the keys are on the dashboard and the tank is full. It seems to be the case for all of the blocky vintage cars parked down here, though he doesn’t have the luxury of trying them all out for his perfect match. He hops into the mustard-coloured Buick and turns on the ignition, a hearty dose of his tension draining out when the engine flips over without a problem. Dead leaves litter the exit tunnel, so Sam knows Dean has left the doors open. He’d call it an invitation if he wasn’t convinced it was done in the midst of his hubris – Dean presuming Sam would obey him instead of having a mind of his own.

Sam drives up and out, fervently hopeful that Jack’s performance will keep Castiel busy for at least as long as it takes him to get to Esbon. It’s an idiotic way to go about doing this, he knows, darkly-garbed trees flying by as he turns onto a main road. He despises feeling like an escaped convict, or the straggler of walled off livestock, but if this is how he takes up space, then so be it.

He’s not going to be knocked unconscious this time, or the dead weight that his brother drags around as an obligation. He made a decision, alone on a bus to California, that he was going to be his own person, and he’s following through on that with or without a degree.

Maybe he’s not the mythical hero that Dean, Jack, Castiel, Carol Deakins, and Max keep going on about, but he’s someone, and after tonight he’s going to know for certain who that is.

He thinks it’s about time that Dean got used to his snot-nosed kid brother having his back.

 

*

 

The Impala is parked under a canopy of trees, down and across the road from the abandoned house that Sam has glowing from the map on his phone. It’s nearly full dark, and Sam only finds it because he’s looking for the sheen of the hood under the moonlight. Dean has picked a spot that offers relatively easy access to his mark, but ensures near total invisibility for the car; it’s a skill that their father had perfected in order to leave Sam there for safekeeping, and it seems it’s serving Dean just as well.

Sam ditches his own antique ride on the grassy berm by the road and starts jogging, his phone’s light on low but still illuminating his shoes and the ground in front of him. He crouches behind an overgrown hedge that borders the neglected property and tries to discern any hint of life, be it the flickering of a flashlight or the briefest twitch of curtains.

The house stares back at him dully, the windows voids behind broken glass, the walls stubbly with moss and layers of guano. It’s nothing but a hollow, lifeless rock, and Sam is on his way up, his patience waning, when a crash reverberates into the cicada-filled night.

It’s better than an alarm. He takes off at a sprint, keeping his head down, and swerves towards the side of the house, where the noise had come from. He has to tear through masses of creepers and sere grass to look inside a narrow rectangular window, the pane missing entirely, and is greeted by another flood of inky darkness. He produces his phone just as another bout of smashing and banging reaches him, and at this proximity he can deduce that the noise is still muffled slightly – beyond a door or a thin wall.

He lowers himself into the room, the window close enough to the ground that he’s prepared for the vertiginous descent into a cellar or basement. He drops easily to the packed-dirt floor by keeping his joints elastic, and ends up in a three-point landing that he would have crowed about if he was sixteen again, only too happy to fish for his brother’s perennial grin.

Raised voices seep down to him from empty space, and he taps his phone, light pooling out so quickly that it hurts to see it. He can recognise that he’s in a cellar, though it’s one that has been all but reclaimed by nature. The air is damp and stale, and it’s full of weeds, the rafters dripping with webs and condensation. There’s a dearth of manmade structures, boasting only a pair of shelving units, a stack of crates lining the far wall, and the cloudy shards of a dozen shattered wine bottles. Tufts of grass sprout in bursts along the floor’s perimeter, and Sam can hear the rats and water damage, even if they’re shrouded in darkness. The place is a microcosm of every haunted building he’s ever been thrust into, and if he was on a normal hunt with his dad and Dean it would be rote to express disgust, then acceptance, just another Thursday digging through bones and bugs instead of attending soccer practise.

It’s different now, of course. He’s here of his own volition.

Cockroaches scuttle out of his way as he moves ahead, and he notes the scuff marks as they disperse, evidence of human boot soles as well as the indents of claws. He casts around for further clues, clothing or a body, and is rewarded with more footprints, more grooves in the pattern of pointed nails.

Sam leans over to see the marks better, and notes how the patina of grime is disrupted, the dust not yet having settled. They’re freshly made, and track all over the cellar, to the far corners and around the stairs, almost like the creature had been locked in, and there are odd disparities with the marks, like it had been skidding, or they’d been smudged, or like –

The voices get louder, an incomprehensible stream of agitated decibels, a ratcheting argument.

Like there was more than one, Sam thinks, his gut writhing, fetching back his lunch.

He advances towards the rickety stairs, his mind buzzing, refusing to land on any one coherent thought, or any reassurance that doesn’t ring hollow. Dean should have gone in stealthily, like Sam, like they were taught, but there are too many unknowns here to try assuming what he did; for all Sam knows, he’s still outside on surveillance, and his anxiety is for nothing. For all he knows, he’s dead.

Stop it.

A milk run, Dean had said. Meaning this is probably just the one dumb werewolf, with wildly varied shoe and paw sizes. It had left a blindingly obvious trail of six mutilated bodies inside five days, but idiots could get lucky. Even psychopathic idiots.

Cotton pads Sam’s mouth as he makes his way up to the door, testing the steps before settling his weight to avoid squeaking into an ambush. It feels like hours until he gets up to the top, though by then he’s spotted the thin crack of yellow underneath the door, puddling dimly over his feet. He clicks off his phone’s flashlight, leaving him in near darkness, and puts his ear against the rough wood.

“… kind of douchebags are you, anyway –,”

Sam’s heart skips into his throat, and starts pattering at the approximate pace of a hummingbird’s wings. That’s his brother’s voice, and that’s how his brother sounds when he’s been cornered. He knows from being both spectator and participant in school fights, bar fights, and monster fights, though in those days Dean had at least known he had backup. This is lethally different.

“– up, you hear me? Smart-ass prick –,”

The growl is subterranean, the emission of something decidedly human-adjacent. Sam listens as it trades a stifled complaint with another tyres-on-gravel voice, both bemoaning Dean’s continued possession of a tongue.

A milk run, he’d said.  

“– wait another minute or two. Then I’m gonna find him for –,”

“– want to keep your balls? Stay there –,”

Sam can’t get a full picture of what they’re referencing, but he knows that things are taking a detour south, and that it’s only going to worsen the longer he stays frozen.

He braces himself, and slides his hand towards his gun at the precise moment his phone starts to ring.

Fuck, Sam thinks, snatching the gun, as footfalls pound towards him. Castiel’s timing sucks.

The door swings inward as he gets the Taurus up, and Sam has a glimpse of an infuriated, hirsute face before it ducks away from his gun. A silver bullet harmlessly pocks the opposite wall, and Sam follows it out, his aim steady, even if his palms are moist with sweat.

They’re in a room jumping with candlelight, more shadow than corporeal. The ceiling sags, crusty with mould, and on the walls the paint and plaster are drooping in strips; insulation like exposed adipose tissue puffs out from within, stained and subsumed by cobwebs. The filth is a depravity he’s inured against by now. The sight of his brother, strapped to a chair and flanked by werewolves, is another case entirely.

“Get away from him,” he says, deploring the plaintive tinge to his tone.

Dean has a split lip, a swollen eye, and the side of his face is coated in blood from some hidden head trauma, but it’s Sam’s appearance that makes him tense up all over. Sam catches his gaze and tries to impart some trace of the bravado that fled him when he entered, but it’s ruined by the guffawing of Dean’s captors.

“Who’s this, your kid?” one of them asks, the counterpart to Sam’s speedy target. He’s burly, thick-necked, and of a height with Sam. He’s also got a mouthful of fangs and a hold of the scruff of Dean’s shirt, claws scraping his skin.

“He’s got silver,” says the other, who’s twitchy, his eyes wide and pus-yellow behind that mask of hair. “He’s the other hunter, all right.”

“You’ve got terrible coordination, then,” says Burly, licking his scimitar-blade teeth. “We were expecting the pair of you together.”

“It was a set-up,” Dean says to Sam in a rush. “These fuckers were hired –,”

He’s cut off by a sharp belt to his midsection, and is left wheezing as Sam jerks nearer, the pad of his finger on the trigger. “Hey! Knock it off!”

“Nobody hired us, asshole,” snarls Burly. “We’re not getting paid for this shit.”

Sam orients his movements like a dancer, calculating the distance between himself and Dean, Burly and Hairy, Burly and Dean’s carotid. The werewolves are too far away to incapacitate without some casualty, and they’re too quick and strong to take on in close quarters.

The adrenaline is back, along with the anger, but it has nowhere to go. He latches onto their lisped debate to keep the focus on him, scrambling for ideas.

“Pretty stupid, then,” he interjects, squaring up opposite Burly, like if he’s cocky enough he’ll lure them out of Dean’s space. “Someone just asked you to go after a pair of hunters, and you agreed for what? Scooby snacks?”

Hairy hisses and draws back, as though he’s about to pounce, but Burly stays him with a growl. He tightens his grip on Dean until he chokes, and Sam lurches, involuntarily, like he’s been hit. Burly seems amused by their tandem suffering, how easy it is to manipulate one to affect the other.

“Witch magic got us here, actually,” Burly says, languid, and Sam feels something in his chest constrict. Exactly how many damn witches were fucking with him?

“We were compelled to squat in this shithole by one of those lily-livered Satan freaks,” Burly continues, “and we can’t leave until we get what he wants. And what he wants is something you have, boy.”

‘He’. Surely – there’s no chance –

No. He’s my friend.

He wouldn’t – he told us to come but he wouldn’t –

“All I have with me is this gun,” Sam says, keeping his voice level, unbroken, pushing the confusion aside until he can parse it. There’s too much at stake. “I will use it if you don’t get away from my brother. Now.”

Burly smiles, bending down to Dean and lightly brushing his long, black nails under his chin, half-hidden behind both him and the chair. He’s smart, Sam thinks, around the fury. He knows how to insure himself in an intimate assault like this, gets shrewd about his opponent, like he’s done it before. And he’s already figured Sam’s weak spot.

Specially recruited for the job.

“I’m not moving, so go right ahead. I’d love to see if dipstick here actually has any brains.”

Hairy looks elated at the turn of events, welded to Dean’s other side as he watches Sam and drools, just a little. Dean, meanwhile, is ashen and staring at Sam, shaking his head fractionally like it will get him to leave. As though he would ever give up, if he was the one with the gun.

Sam breathes, in and out, too shallow, too deep. He’d followed Dean to establish himself his role within their small family, and to prove he had one in it whether he was older, sadder, on board to kill a god or not. He isn’t a boy, and he certainly isn’t about to let some two-bit walking Halloween costumes screw with his plans by killing Dean. He has so much he has yet to yell at him.

“Someone played us,” says Sam cautiously, garnering the werewolves’ attention. “We’re not your real enemies here, okay? So you tell me what you need from me and we can all go our separate ways.”

Sweat gathers at Dean’s hairline, and trickles down to his jaw. He implores Sam silently, looking at the door and back, too clenched to even crack wise.

“Well, ain’t your optimism just adorable,” Burly rumbles, resting his great paw over Dean’s throat, the other creeping around the nape of his neck. “We have one objective here, kid, and once you give us the information, we’ll decide if it’s enough. We are kinda hungry, now that I think about it.”

Hairy nods, saliva falling in bungees to the floorboards.

Information.

He’s trained to handle firearms, knives, and a menagerie of mythical beasts, but the most he knows about the past decade is that he survived it.

Shit.

“What do you want to know?” he asks. His poker face has always been better than Dean’s, though he worries he might be a mirror image of the panic that his brother is struggling to get under control.

“Our slimy witch friend wants to know,” Burly says pointedly, “how to resurrect someone without a body.”

Sam shakes his head, disbelieving. “That’s not – how would I even –,”

“Motherfucker,” says Dean faintly, heedless of his prickly restraints. “That little – look, he doesn’t know, all right? Your master or whatever wants a spell that was a one-time deal, it worked on our friend, but that’s it –,”

Burly flexes and Dean’s protests die in a gurgle.

“Fucking stop that!” Sam snaps, his desperation mounting, because he doesn’t know what Dean’s talking about and he doesn’t know why his friend, his ally, would want this, doesn’t know what Max would do with a resurrection spell. More crucially, he is blanking on why he would assume Sam knows it, in his present state. None of it makes sense.

“We were told you have the information,” says Burly, his lupine moue twisting with displeasure. “The skinny one with the hair. That’s you, right?”

“Y-yes,” Sam says, rooting through his interactions with Max over the past week, straining to remember any line of questioning that would hint at what he seems to want now. A resurrection spell, he’d said, only Max had barely mentioned magic to Sam at all after Carol failed to change him back. Their discussions centred on him, or him and Dean, or him and his square-peg-in-a-round-hole dilemma. Max had rebuffed any attempt to investigate his own history or their relationship with jokes and deflections, which Sam only now realises should have been a red flag.

“We’re waiting, boy,” croons Burly, and his claws are long, serrated, drawing blood that spills down to Dean’s collar while he grunts in pain. Sam can feel the edges of his vision going dark, nothing existing except the red of Dean’s blood, and the quantity of it – enough to sate a vampire, enough to soak his shirt, enough that their father would turn white at the sight and shove him at the bathroom, get boiling water and towels, son, hurry

“I don’t have it,” he whispers, and Dean’s lips are thinned to repress a cry, he’d never let Sam see him break, always grinned and claimed it was nothing, ‘tis but a scratch, Sammy –

“What was that?” Burly asks, Hairy leering at him over Dean’s shoulder.

“I don’t have it,” he says, reedy and too young, the gun shaking in spite of his training. “I’m not – there was a spell, another witch, I don’t have the memory Max is looking for, please – just let me call him, I can sort this out –,”

He can barely articulate the plea, the smell of fur and the tang of iron clogging his higher functions and driving everything from his mind except the blood and his brother’s smile, predictable as the rising sun.

“It’s okay, Sammy,” he’s saying, crow’s feet like John Winchester’s, forgiveness like Dean’s unique brand. “It’s okay.”

He can’t remember why they’re here, doesn’t know how this, of all things, could be their end – and it would be their end, he knows, both of them. He’s his own person, but Dean’s his person too.

Burly is growling again, low and deadly. He takes advantage of Sam’s petrification and swings fully behind Dean, claws extended, mottling his fingers black.

“We were told you’d need some extra motivation,” he says archly, winking with slit pupils, animalistic but for the cruelty.

Sam doesn’t even have the chance to shout, to beg or to warn; Burly’s hand slashes across Dean’s stomach in a single motion, spraying blood that Hairy opens his mouth to receive, like a child in a snowfall.

No.

Dean’s head is lolling.

Not after everything you put me through.

“Sam,” he slurs, trying to get up, to reach him. “S’m… run…”

There has to be something, because there’s always an answer, and Max is clever and he’s ruthless but he’s not evil, and if he wants something from Sam it’s because he knows without a doubt that Sam has it –

“Shit,” he breathes. Of course. Of course. “I’ll get it,” he says to the werewolves. “I know how to get it.”

He knows that he has options, and that he doesn’t have to be trapped in the constraints set by his family. He also knows that when it comes to his brother, there’s no choice at all.

It’s a reality that makes him proud.

“Tharrud erbithe,” he recites, the way it had been written. “Ayla aran dovan klarr.”

There’s a flash of light, blinding, searing the dingy room molten gold. He can’t inhale properly, and his bones are too hot, and old scars tickle and burn as they’re carved anew on his skin, and he falls to his knees, gasping.

He knows –

Jess and fire and Dad’s pyre and Dean –

Hell and Ruby and Lucifer and Dean –

Cas and the cage, the cage and Dean –

Eve and Leviathan and trials and Dean –

Black eyes and darkness and God and Dean –

 

I have to be back by Monday.

 

Sorry kid, he thinks. And thank you.

There’s barking, furious and loud and issuing demands like its owners have the right to anything, even their own lives. Sam can hear an undertone, a voice wet and crackling with injury, calling his name the way most people beseech a higher power.

He stands, instantly cognisant of the werewolves’ disadvantage. They’re still partially blind, cowering from the solar flare from his transformation, and he’s thirty pounds heavier, armed, and pissed.

He snatches up his Taurus and shoots Burly first, the back of his skull splattering against the cloudy windows. Hairy’s next, babbling apologies that degenerate into gibberish until Sam shoots him in one eye, sending him into the wall with a crunch.

He doesn’t know how they’d ever seemed imposing.

“Cas,” he’s saying, making it to Dean in two strides and kneeling, untying the ropes at his wrists. “Cas, I need you. 367 Henry Street, Esbon.” Dean pitches forward and he catches him, lowers him gently to the floor.

“S’mmy,” Dean mutters, blood bubbling with the word. “That you?”

Sam strips off his jacket and balls it up, pressing it so hard to the gashes in Dean’s abdomen that he moans, batting ineffectually at his arm.

“It’s me,” he says, blinking away a stinging sensation as footsteps thud towards them. “I’m here.”

“And you’re bigger,” Dean says, his laughing warbling into a cough as a door smashes open, and clear air washes in, tinged with ozone.  

“Yeah,” says Sam, finding his hand and squeezing it, like he’s the anchor to Dean’s wandering ship. He knows Dean would contest that simile, and he would have been right, once upon a time. “I’m back to cash in on that promise of retirement.”

Castiel sinks down next to him, two fingers raised, and he anoints Dean with healing grace as Sam hovers. He waits with him, watches every wound seal.

When Dean sits up and pants slightly, his hand ghosting over his torn shirt and sealed stomach, Sam slumps back in the chill of his drying sweat.

He feels everything, intensely. Shock from the enchantment curdles into resentment for Carol’s presumption, which is rapidly mown over by irritation for Dean’s manhandling and departure. Underneath it all, clumping like silt on the bed of a river, is regret for the poor kid that didn’t want to fight God. All of it swirls into a burgeoning migraine, to say nothing of the phantom pains from the indecision, the yearning. He hadn’t been vocal about crap like that in a long, brutal time, and it strikes him acutely now that keeping it locked inside had done him more harm than good.

“You all right?” Dean asks, still drenched in his own blood. “Fuck me, I am going to mount that Banes prick’s head on a stick.”

“I’m fine,” Sam says, gesticulating vaguely over his restored welts and worries. It’s simpler than coming up with a response that mentions Max, which he can’t collate from his thoughts, all scattered like rubble.

“What do you remember?”

Sam offers him a feeble smile. Everything. Nothing. Like an old dream. “I remember telling you not to go without me.”

Dean scoffs, incredulous, as Castiel rolls his eyes at their routine and steps over them to confirm that the pair of werewolves are out of commission. “You were gung-ho about getting out of the life,” Dean says, “then you were back to riding me for not including you. I got whiplash from your mood swings, man! What was I supposed to think?”

“Better of me?” suggests Sam, and only feels slightly guilty when Dean glances away, abashed. “You were tossing me from place to place like luggage. I was trying to prove I was more than that.”

A lifelong endeavour, he reflects, but the bitterness that was once irrevocably paired with that realisation is almost non-existent now. After all, he doesn’t have much left to prove to anyone.

Dean sniffs, wiping his bruised noise. “I was just trying to reverse the spell, Sam. Did you expect me to leave you as you were?”

Sam rakes a hand through his hair, almost jarred by its old length, and the absence of a fringe. He’s weirdly sore, like he just went through puberty again on fast-forward mode.

“No,” he says, because he wouldn’t have given up either. “Thank you for trying, by the way.”

Dean’s older face, his right face, creases, and he takes up Sam’s jacket from his lap, throwing it back to him. “’Course. I’m uh –,” and he halts, ever wary of apologies. “I shouldn’t have acted like a jackass,” he amends, which Sam decides is a fair compromise. “Not including you, or not giving you more credit, I guess, was a dick move.”

Sam shakes out the jacket, wonders how many of them he’s already dumped that were also dyed with his own or his brother’s blood. Any more than one is too many, surely.

He sighs. One bloody jacket is too many. 

“Thanks for that,” he says sincerely, to Dean’s sober expression. “It’s – it’s good to hear. I was really going through it, there, for a while.”

“Ain’t that always the way.”

“Yeah,” says Sam choosing his words with care, like weapons before a hunt. He aches, all over, and he knows the pain will soon blend with his perpetual fatigue, the kind that recedes with downtime but always comes back. He hadn’t noticed it really, not until it disappeared with his seventeen years. “Yeah, Dean, but it’s not going to be that way forever. I may have been snarky under that spell, but I was right about that.”

Dean gets to his feet with difficulty, grouching about joints and exsanguination and ‘seven heart attacks, seeing you’, before he reaches over and grasps Sam’s hand, pulling him up.

“I said I’d get you there, didn’t I?” he says, and he grips the back of Sam’s neck, pressing their foreheads together with a roughness that belies how afraid he’d really been. Dean has calluses from their work, a matching set to Sam’s, and it makes him smile. “Old folks’ home or a beach in Cabo,” Dean says. “After God bites it we’re throwing a dart at a map and getting lost.”

“Yeah?”

“Fuck yeah,” says Dean, releasing him, but keeping a hold of his shoulder, like he needs to confirm he’s not a mirage. Sam leans into his touch, too tired to do the macho thing, too grateful for Dean’s life to imitate stoicism.

“A promise is a promise,” Dean declares, “and I can’t think of a better way to spit in Chuck’s smarmy mug than retirement with my pet Sasquatch.”

Sam thumps him on the chest, where he’s whole again, and feels Dean laugh. It travels through his knuckles, right up his arm and into his centre mass, where it unfurls, warming his entire body.

“I’m kidding, kidding. We’re in this together, I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Took you long enough,” Sam grins, as Castiel lays his hands on their backs, and brings them home.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hello, Sam.”

“You thought I’d forget, didn’t you?”

He listens to the rustling of fabric as Max shifts at the other end of the line. He’s alone in the kitchen, left to his own devices for the first time since they returned in the early hours of the morning. Jack had greeted them with a yelp of excitement and a hug that had made Sam’s ribs creak, while Castiel launched into a tirade about deceit, and trust, and incalculably reckless behaviour that Dean had quelled with a look. Sam had quietly apologised to him later, Jack still tailing him with a goofy smile on his guileless face, and Castiel had let it go.

“Your methods of trickery are rubbing off on him,” he’d said, smoothing out a wrinkle in Jack’s shirt. “But at least you’re a good influence, too.”

Jack had preened at that, and Sam had snorted, tousling his hair. “We’ll see about that.”

He’d sent them away with proclamations about tying up loose ends, though Dean had been reluctant. Apparently hunting down Max with the intention of making him eat a bullet was his planned weekend activity, and he sulked when he was reminded of more important, infinitely more slippery prey.

Sam wanted to handle this one himself, anyway.

“Quite the contrary,” says Max, ever sultry, but with a faint undercurrent of fear. Sam recognises the sound of it, even honey-coated and hidden. He’s heard it in hell, heaven, and on Earth, where creatures of every tier have shrunk from him for a reason. “I was waiting for your call.”

“You lied to me.”

“Yes.”

“You sent us into a trap with a fake hunt. Those news reports weren’t even real.”

A beat. “Technically, yes.”

“You almost got my brother killed.” Sam is blunt about it, because he can be. The statement itself is as good a death threat as a semi-automatic to the temple when it comes to the Winchesters.

Max seems to have gotten the memo too, because he audibly swallows before answering. “It was never supposed to go past threats.”

“Uh-huh. Then explain to me why it did,” Sam says icily. “Was all of this you? Did you make Carol curse me because I wouldn’t give you that spell?”

There’s a pregnant pause, expanding to the third trimester. “Sam, it’s complicated. I needed it, okay? Rowena kept her secrets and that’s fine – but you knew about Alicia, you knew what I was going through, and you resurrected some hunter – a woman you’d known for a year –,”

“Enough,” Sam interrupts, razor-sharp. “We all have people we want to bring back. Eileen was a spirit, caught in the veil. This was about rescuing someone, not granting wishes.”

“Very convenient,” says Max, though his flare of indignation has passed, diminishing back to his usual measured self. “Different rules for you boys, I forgot.”

Sam ignores the jibe, fed up of explaining how most people don’t have to stop multiple apocalypses in their lifetimes either. Occasionally they tripped and fell into trouble, but more often than not these extreme situations found, and sometimes murdered them.

“So you made Carol hex me.”

“For the last time, it wasn’t a hex, or a curse, or anything intended to hurt you. I sent you to Carol because I thought she’d therapy the resurrection spell out of you. At least that was what she was supposed to do,” he adds, irritably. “Instead she went and caught feelings, decided to commit to making you feel better. Jesus, most women would just get you in bed, but no, she wanted to make a gesture.”

Sam rubs his brow. He’s really getting too old for this shit.

“So shaving seventeen years off my life wasn’t your doing.”

“Fuck no,” says Max, brimming with distaste. “How would you have given me the spell if you didn’t remember it? I met you at that gas station after Dean told me about the fuck up, hoping to gain your trust back, then set you on a course-correction, albeit a violent one. It still worked.”

“Oh, for the love of – it worked after my brother’s intestines hit the damn floor, Max!”

“And yet I hear he’s still up and about, offending Creation with that haircut,” drawls Max. “You were halfway out the door with Stanford on the brain, and I put you back where you belong. While making a point of my own. You’re welcome, by the way.”

“You’ve got some nerve,” Sam retorts, seething. “After you made this mess in the first place –,”

“You might want to give me some credit. You were flighty as a bride at a shotgun wedding until I stepped in.”

“You’re wrong,” says Sam, and it feels important to say it, to hear himself confirm it. He’d decided his loyalties, and his worth. It was just a matter of making sure everyone else knew, too. “I would have stayed.”

“If you say so.”

“You’re lucky nobody really died, Max. Because if this plot of yours had a body count, I wouldn’t be hiding the RPG from my brother right now.”

“Right.” He can hear the smile in Max’s words, and the bitterness under them. “Except I don’t hand over real personal effects to random witches, like some silly people, so you’d have one hell of a hunt on your hands.”

Sam sighs, reminds himself that it’s not the time to be making more enemies, and especially not out of friends that are a dark reflection of who Sam and Dean could have been. They’re winding up to fight Chuck so they get to keep their happiness. Sacrificing it over a misunderstanding will only deprive them of that.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t bring your sister back, Max, and I’m sorry that you felt you had to resort to lying to me, instead of outright asking for my help, but that spell is gone. I’ll show you proof, but Rowena’s backups are expended now. There’s nothing left.”

Max exhales into the receiver, a hurricane of old grief. “That was our last chance.”

Our. Sam tucks that puzzle away for later. “Not necessarily. You were the one who taught me how witchcraft both works with nature and subverts it, right? There’s always hope.”

“So I’m not excommunicated from your little cabal of hunters?”

“No. Although you really should sit down with Carol and chat about boundaries, you know?”

Max laughs, diminished but genuine. “You know, your brother said the same thing.”

“Yeah, well autonomy is kind of a big deal for us.”

There’s a brief spurt of static, like Max is adjusting the phone, seeking a way to speak his mind, so Sam does it for him. “We’re good, Max. But this goes without saying. Don’t fuck with me or my family again. Got it?”

“Oh, I got that. You’re really back, huh?”

“I never left,” he says grimly, and ends the call.

He’s got work to do.