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Ballad for the Boy King

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Churches are the best place to settle a score.

Dean lay on the cold marble floor of Saint Michael’s, shotgun across his chest, struggling to see straight.  He could hear a semi whistling past outside the broken window.  Blood puddled beneath his wrist.  

A beggar who’d seen Dean fall from the bell tower touched his shoulder, eyes darting at all the broken furniture, the sigils on the wall, Dean’s chewed up arm.  “Hey man, you need to call somebody?”

Dean squinted.  Saw who it wasn’t.  He patted his jacket, pointed to his phone.  “Sammy.”

“You gotta see a doctor.”

Dean smiled, his teeth red and wet.  He hadn’t found a knife in time to make the angel banishing sigil.  “They ain’t ever gonna let me die.  Make the call.”

“I’m gonna call a doctor.”

The beggar took out the phone, leary of the gun.  For a moment the beggar said nothing, and Dean fixed him with a look.  “What’s wrong?”

The beggar held up his hand, as if listening to a distant conversation.  “Sorry, I just...wasn’t it daylight?”

Dean looked around.  Moonlight reflected in blood that now formed a gleaming disk on the marble.  Stars gleamed through the broken window.  Dean did not recognize them.

The beggar backed away, trembling.  “What are you?”

Dean pulled himself up on his elbow.  The darkness extended a quarter mile in the distance and suddenly stopped.  He watched rain fall on the other side of a sunny day as if through a terrarium window, watched birds fly from one side of the other with no regard for the change.  

He swallowed.  “I didn’t...well I didn’t do this on purpose.”

But the beggar was gone, Dean’s phone smacking the floor in his flight.  Dean grabbed his wrist, bleeding into his other hand, and mashed the speed dial with his thumb.  There had to be a book on this at Bobby’s, surely Sammy would find something.  He had a few seconds to glare at Michael’s portrait before the edges of the world went soft and he passed out.

A phone ringing with no one on the other end was never a good sign. Sam cursed when all he got was Dean's voicemail after three tries.

It was easy enough to track his GPS, and too easy to find him once he reached the coordinates. The sky, as he approached, neared a twilight darkness, and his stomach tightened into a hard knot when he reached the church at the epicenter and found the Impala parked outside.

Not bothering to find a parking spot, he drove the stolen car up onto the curb and slammed out, dashing for the church doors. He yanked the doors open and rushed to the center of the church, where Dean lay in a mess of splinters and blood.

"Dean!" he said, leaning down to grab for the lapels of Dean's jacket.

Lifting Dean off the floor to shake him, something coursed through him, his blood turning to ice water, and then just as quickly settled in his bones.  The shadows thickened around them.  Dean crossed his arms over Sam’s hands, a childhood gesture from when they would huddle together for warmth in unheated houses.

Dean opened his eyes and sat up.  “How long was I out?”  

He clutched a pew and moved a few feet.  Outside, a cat lept off a trashcan, startled by the tower of darkness that moved in lockstep with Dean.  

Dean sat back down, pale and heavy-lidded.  “I can’t walk to the car Sammy.”

“Okay,” Sam said, frowning in concern. "I've got you." He leaned down to help Dean to his feet. At the touch, another shock of cold made him shudder. He wrapped one of Dean’s arms around his shoulders and half-walked, half-carried Dean towards the doors of the church.

“Dean, what happened?” Sam asked.

Dean breathed into the hollow of Sam's throat, flannel and coffee and whatever hotel soap he'd shaved with that morning.  "I had an appointment with Father O'Dannon, for those translations you wanted?  But when I got here," he said, eyeing a stone angel, "He was someone else."

“Who was he, then?” Sam asked as they shuffled out into the artificial starlight. He tightened his arm around Dean’s waist, mindful of possible broken ribs, as they reached the stairs.

"Michael. Angels, man, angels got it figured out, gonna scrub the planet clean and free everyone from pain, from loneliness, from death, and talking in his church voice the whole time.  I hope you never have one try and recruit you.  Cuz you'll start liking it."

Sam scrunched his face up and carefully leaned Dean against the door of the Impala. You okay? he almost asked, but of course no, Dean wasn’t. This was worlds away from okay, this column of darkness surrounding them, the cold that leeched out of Dean into Sam’s bones, the blood on Dean’s teeth and the pale of his face and the weakness of his body.

“We gotta get you home,” Sam said. Home, whatever motel they were ever checked into, currently the Sun Bright Inn. He dug into Dean’s pocket for the car keys.

Once he was strapped into the passenger seat, Dean looked at his bloody hands and flipped through cassettes with the tip of a pen.  "We should call Bobby.  Or I dunno, maybe there's something in Dad's journal, you think he ever ran across Michael but didn't know it at the time?" asked Dean, wincing as he popped in a Blue Oyster Cult tape, "Let's get the heat  going, it's freezing in here."

Dean hunched inside his jacket, breath fogging the window as Sam started the car and a melancholy guitar solo opened with 'Last of May'.

After several blocks, at the point where Sam had first encountered the deepening twilight, he realized that they weren't out of the grip of the dark. It was following them, keeping them in a column of night, darkening a wide swath of the city. He saw headlights flick on all around him, and a couple of cars swerved, almost wrecking.

At a stoplight, he reached over to check Dean for fever. He pressed the back of his hand against Dean's forehead and ignored the ache of ice in the small bones of his hand to feel Dean's face hot as an oven in the freezing car.

“You’re burning up,” he said.

"It's nothing," said Dean weakly, letting Sam's hand rest on him, "Hot shower, a little codeine and vodka, I'll be right as rain."

He twisted away and smiled. "Where'd you steal that beater from anyway? Nothing ain’t so bad you gotta rescue me in a math teacher car."

“Dean, you weren’t answering your phone,” Sam said, pulling his attention away from Dean in time to jerk the wheel in order to avoid a car swerving into his lane. “I had a bad feeling. Wasn’t like I had time to be picky.”

Dean clapped Sam once on the knee but said nothing to this.  A news helicopter circled past. Thunderclouds boiled in the distance, the smell of heavy rain in the air, and Dean relaxed.  "That oughta buy us a few hours."

Dean watched Sam from the rearview mirror, some question forming, then went back to staring out his window.  His right sleeve was black with dried blood and he pulled it down over the wound self-consciously.

“Good,” Sam said, glancing sideways at Dean before putting  his attention back on the road again. They were nearing their motel, where Dean could get cleaned up and medicated, and they could try to find some answers. “How do you feel? Like, where does it hurt?”

Dean rubbed his eyes, going down his checklist. "I cracked pretty hard falling from the roof, so concussion?  Hit my right hip, took a few punches in the ribs, and I don't know how long I bled out.  Or if I'm bleeding internally and don't feel it yet."

Sam breathed out a harsh puff of air. “Okay. Well. We can take care of some of that.” It was a relief to have some mundane symptoms to go along with these supernatural effects, something that they could treat while they searched for solutions for the bigger problems. Like Dean said, a shower, some painkillers, maybe get some food in him, too.

Raindrops spattered the windshield as Sam pulled into the parking lot of their motel. He rushed to the passenger side door. “Need help getting out?” he asked.

Dean nodded, taking Sam's arm and using anything else in reach---another car, a postbox, a snack machine---to support his weight until he stood slumped by the doorframe.

Sam’s face was drawn tight as he unlocked the door, wanting to reach out and steady Dean, who looked even worse in the sickly yellow lights of the parking lot. He got the door open and walked Dean inside, helped him onto his bed before he went to dig in their bags for the painkillers.

He drew a cup of water from the faucet and wordlessly handed over the pills and the cup. A sense of urgency to call Bobby and get this thing rolling made his pulse race, but Dean’s pain was immediate and right in front of him.

“Do you need a shower? Some food?” he asked, hands hovering, wanting to touch, to reassure, wanting to help.

Dean tongued his teeth, feeling for gaps, then looked at his arm.  "Toss me a clean shirt, the maid will think I got my period."

Sam barked a helpless laugh and rifled through his bag, pulling out a beat-up old t-shirt. He grabbed the vodka and the first-aid kit and took that to the bed, handing the shirt to Dean. He knelt to get a closer look at Dean’s wrist.

“How’d that happen?” he asked.

Dean inspected the tooth marks.  "I needed blood for the banishing sigil, but didn't have a knife so I...improvised."

He pawed at a shirt button, but his thumbs were useless and the pills made him feel like he weighed five hundred pounds.  He stood up.  "You go check us in, I'll wash up. In the shower.  Yeah."  He sat back down.

“Dean, we’re already checked in,” Sam said. Sam caught Dean by the shoulder when he swayed forward, and he experienced another rush of brittle cold through his arm. “We need to get this cleaned up,” he said, motioning toward Dean’s arm, “and probably give you some stitches, then you can take a shower. If you can stand up.”

Dean stared at the darkened window through the codeine fog, a strange clarity on the edge of dream.  "I can't just sit here Sammy, the sky is pointing at us."

But he lay his arm in Sam's wide brown hand and watched the hotel towel turn pink as alcohol  sluiced over him, the sting as distant as a balloon at the end of a long tether.  

“I know. I’m gonna call Bobby. Just want to get this fixed up first,” Sam said, laying Dean’s hand to rest in his lap as he gathered suturing thread and needle from their kit. He did his best not to look at Dean, whose eyes were heavy-lidded and hazy, but strangely intent, staring out the window at the unnatural night. The thought of it out there, surrounding them, made dread pool deep and cold in his stomach. He didn’t have time for dread, or the indecisiveness that it brought.

Mundane things, then, before Sam opened himself to everything supernatural and set his mind free to examine and process and draw connections. Sam poured vodka over the needle, letting it soak into the leg of his pants, then tipped the bottle up to Dean. “Want a swig of this before I start?”

Dean nodded, taking a long pull, a thin stream running out the corner of his mouth and down inside his collar.  He wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton shirt.  "I'm gonna see if that storm made the news yet."

He set the bottle down and opened the side table, where a TV remote lay beside a Gideon Bible, and a tremor passed through him.  Grabbing the remote, he stabbed the air and a weatherman appeared onscreen, cheerfully explaining away the sudden darkness. Dean laughed. "You ever heard the phrase 'topographical anomaly' so many times in one day?"

Sam glanced at the tv, then at Dean. He felt out of step with him. It may have been the curse, or it may have been Sam’s reluctance to acknowledge it. Acknowledging it was, then.

“Never have,” Sam said, and now the sense of urgency to call Bobby welled up in him, making him impatient. There was a literal beacon over them, one that would no doubt attract all kinds of intelligent predators.

He threaded the needle.

“Give me your arm,” he said.

Once Dean offered it to him, he started in, saying, “This is gonna leave an ugly scar,” before beginning to make tight sutures across the wound.

"Chicks dig scars." said Dean, watching the needle sink into his skin and changing channels.  "He let me off light you know.  Creature like that, I was lucky to walk out of there."

Dean changed to the next channel.  A beautiful girl sat in an armchair with a Bible in her lap, faint organ music in the background, reading aloud from Revelations.  When she smiled it looked like she were saying "crunchy!"

"End of the world.  She makes it sound so cute.  Michael wasn't cute about it. He wants this fight, telling me there's no avoiding it, how the only way to stop the unnecessary cruelty of war was for someone to step up and define necessary cruelty for the rest of us," said Dean, reaching for the bottle, "And he's the good guy."

"Better than what Lucifer wants. By inches, maybe. Angels, man," Sam said, shaking his head. He blew out a huff of air and stood. "Do you need anything before I call Bobby?"

Dean clutched Sam's arm, green eyes flaring.  "You're not leaving are you?"

"No, I'm just... I can make the call from here." He sat next to Dean as he pulled his phone and notepad out of his jacket, their knees touching. Ice froze up his joint immediately. He didn't know if this was what Dean felt all over, and if so, how he could stand it.

Dean gathered the coverlet around him and dropped his head on Sam's shoulder, listening to the burr of his deep, rolling voice as he made the call.

“Hey, Bobby,” Sam said, carefully scooting closer to Dean, pressing their sides and thighs together, hoping to share some of this body warmth.

Dean made a noise that might have been 'tell him I said hi', though from under the blanket the grunt sounded like it came out of a trained pig.  After a few seconds his breathing slowed and Dean fell asleep with his nose pushed against Sam's neck.

“Yeah. Dean says hi, I think.”

Sam had a second to wish he’d turned the heater up. Dean’s nose pressing against his throat was a hot burn the size of a fingerprint that sent jagged crackles of frost into his blood. He looked down at the top of his brother’s head and sighed. “Well, we think Dean’s been cursed. By Micheal.”

Sam brushed the hair out of his face.

“Yes, the archangel Michael. By any chance, have you been keeping an eye on the news? Yeah. The thing in St. Louis. That’s us.”

Sam held the phone away from his ear while Bobby let loose a string of loud curses, then  brought it back when Bobby asked a question.

“Well, there are… symptoms. He’s hurt from the fight, but he’s also… when you touch him, it’s like your whole body goes really cold, all the way down into your bones. I’ve never felt anything like it, or heard of anything like it, either.”

Raindrops had played a light patter on the roof since Sam had locked the door behind them, but now the sky opened up and rain thundered over their heads.

Sam considered. “It followed us from where I found Dean to our motel. The rain might be part of it, too, I can’t tell.”

Dean’s nose slid an inch across his throat, leaving a line of fire behind it. Sam frowned. “He’s really burning up, Bobby. It’s bad.”

Sam looked down at Dean again, at the pale skin of his forehead, at his damp, mussed hair, and he had the urge to wrap his free arm around him. “I think… I think he was trying to sweet talk Dean. Then coerce him when Dean wasn’t having it. Like, say yes, or you’ll have this hanging over your head until you die.”

“Dean,” Sam said, placing his hand on Dean’s knee and gently shaking him. “Did Michael say anything else? Try to make a deal or anything?”

Dean shivered, a ribbon of sweat scrolling down his cheek.  "He said..." he paused, "Join me, or may Heaven never shine its face upon you both."

Dean rubbed his face. "That painting in the church had Michael holding a weird flower, I never recalled seeing it in the lore.  Ask Bobby if there's anything in the Apocrypha on it."

Sam repeated this to Bobby. Then, ‘What color was it?” he asked Dean.

"White? Five-sided? With a red spike in the middle? Yeah." said Dean sleepily.

After passing this on to Bobby, Sam said, “Yeah. I’m gonna look in Dad’s journal, but… I’ve been through it hundreds of times. I don’t remember anything about Micheal, or any lore on angels at all. Seems like they weren’t on the scene until last year.”

While Bobby spoke, Sam couldn’t help but to brush away the sweat seeming to sizzle on Dean’s forehead. He wiped his hand on his jeans, then said, “Okay, thanks, Bobby. I’ll be looking too.”

He hung up the phone and tossed it and his unused notepad onto the bedside table, then asked, “Do you want me to turn the heat up?”

Dean inhaled. "Nope.  Shower.  If I don't wash up this room'll smell like I lost a fight to a taco truck."

Dean levered himself off the bed, kicking off his shoes.  "Go on and order some food, I'm gonna lay in the tub and think good thoughts.  What's good to eat around here?"

Sam eyed Dean, encouraged that he was able to stand at all. “I saw a barbeque joint on our way here,” he said. Then he picked up the little paper standee on the bedside table and waved it at Dean. “Or we can order pizza.”

"Holy crap, yeah, get one with, like, all the stuff on it.  I'm so hungry I could eat the soap," said Dean, managing the top buttons and pulling his shirt off one-handed.  The entire right side of his torso was bruised, veined in black.  "You think any of your college profs would know about Michael?"

Sam furrowed his brow. "It's possible. There's a pretty decent university here, and this city is like, cathedral central. I could probably get in touch with someone. I saw a library down the street, too. I'll make some calls, then hit it up after we eat."

"Dang, did you memorize the off-road nerd geography of this town in the two days we've been here?" said Dean, though a smile curled up one side of his face, "You're weird."

He leaned inside the bathroom door frame, looking down at his newly bandaged wrist.  "You did good Sammy.  I never had the eye for detail work."

Dean shut the door, his clothes strewn across the floor in descending order, shoes, shirt, pants, boxers, socks.  The TV began playing a rerun of "Little House on the Prairie".

Sam chuffed out a short breath and smiled, then he brushed his hand over his face to smooth it away. Whatever detail work Dean meant, it was nothing, really; he'd learned to keep an eye out for libraries in any new town they rolled into when he was a kid, and you'd have to be blind not to notice all the big old churches and cathedrals that decorated the landscape of St. Louis. And he’d had to stitch up Dean and his dad, and himself on rare occasions, often enough that he’d nearly perfected it.

He found the remote, thumbed down the volume on the tv, and dialed the pizza place. Once he'd placed his order, he spread John's journal out on the kitchenette table and started at page one, trying to see everything afresh as he scanned for any mention of flowers, or unnatural darkness, or Michael, or any hint of angels.

Later, Dean emerged from a cloud of steam with a towel wrapped his waist, still haggard but a little pinker. Keeping the door ajar, he moused around his toiletry bag until he found a razor, and began lathering his face in the bathroom mirror.  Outside, cats had begun to gather around the window, eyes glowing white, and Dean stared back at them while tapping out his razor.  Rain dripped off their whiskers.  "Kinda different."

Toweling his hair, Dean pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie and then wrapped himself in the coverlet burrito-style, squatting beside Sam with just a nose poking out.  "Find anything?" he said blearily.

“Not yet. I’m still looking,” Sam said. “If I don’t find anything, I’ll make some calls. Hit up that library, and if there’s nothing there, the University library’s gonna be bigger. Between me and Bobby, we’ll figure it out.”

He looked down at Dean, all bundled up, and he spoke to the pink tip of Dean’s nose. “Feeling any better?”

Dean pulled his head free, hair sticking up.  Checked the table clock.  "Did all that happen two hours ago?" he said, more to himself, "I know you got a lot on your plate, it's dumb, but...hold on, lemme dig it out."

Dean extended his arm from the coverlet and pulled a magazine from his bag, the Guns n Ammo Christmas edition. His eyes flicked away to the corner of the room, his voice very quiet.  "Can you read to me?  Before you leave?  Even the letters to the editor, I just need to hear about people with normal problems."

The corners of Sam’s mouth began to lift in a smile, and he opened his mouth to make some sort of jab at Dean, but before anything could come out, the enormity of their situation came crashing down. Both of them chosen vessels, the Apocalypse looming, Lucifer hunting him, and Sam could only imagine what he’d do to convince him. Maybe worse than Michael had done to try to convince Dean. Sam would do anything to help Dean through this, even something as small as reading to him when he was feeling like shit, and he knew Dean would do the same for him.

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, sure thing. Why don’t you just get comfortable, and--”

A loud knock sounded at their door.

“Hope that’s the pizza,” Sam said.

He saw the flashlight before he saw the girl.  A teenager in a black poncho stood with pizza in hand, one blonde lock plastered over her eye.  She shone the light on a receipt. "A large with everything?"

She wrinkled her nose, and her eyes narrowed at the discarded clothes on the carpet, to Dean's motionless body now lying prostrate on the bed. "Is that blood?"

Sam glanced at the sky. The dark cloud cover masked the effects of the curse, so Sam felt comfortable with a bland lie. “My brother. He gets nosebleeds. They’re pretty bad,” he said, digging in his pocket for his wallet. He heard the sheets rustle behind him. At least Dean wouldn’t look like a wrapped-up corpse, ready to be disposed of. “How much?”

She almost asked him something else, but she'd left her engine running and so plucked a ten from his hand. "Watch where you drive tonight dude, the suits are setting up roadblocks."

She turned, shining a wedge of light across the parking lot.  As soon as the door shut, Dean made grabby hand motions.  "Did she bring forks? I don't think I can handle a fork. Forks just get in the way."

“Nope, no forks,” Sam said, handing over the pizza and tossing the sheaf of napkins she’d handed him onto the bed. He grabbed the magazine from the table where Dean had left it and sat on the bed beside him, grabbing a slice. “You hear what she said? The Feds or someone are setting up roadblocks.”

Dean folded a slice of pizza and ate the bottom half.  "Oo uhd ake ur bah awong," he said, cheeks stuffed, "Sorry, you should take your badge along, they might know something we don't. And if it's not the Feds out there..."

Finishing the slice, Dean lay flat and stretched his legs, a faint blue mark appearing below his ear when he turned away.

“Of course,” Sam said, frowning. If it wasn’t the Feds, he could improvise. He had the creeping feeling that they should get out of here, go somewhere that they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but where could they go? Alaska? Not an option, especially when he considered the effect the intense cold might have on Dean’s already unstable condition.

His mind circled the problem. Dad’s journal was so far a  bust, but he was only halfway through it. The internet hadn’t turned up anything, though he knew he could search deeper, get deep into the guts of the web. It was approaching night, which was good for them, but it might be cutting it close to the library’s closing time. He still had to make calls to the University and see if there was anyone he could contact. He’d call Bobby about that; maybe he already had contacts there.

He flipped through the pages of the magazine, mind racing. Dean was disconcertingly still, the pizza box lying on his stomach. “Hey Dean, you gonna eat any more?” Sam asked, still frowning.

Dean grabbed another slice, too lazy to scoot the food crumbs off the bed, and tapped the magazine.  His eyes closed and opened again slowly.

Sam subtly scooted closer, and stopped flipping through, his fingers already leaving greasy smears. “Here we go,” he said.

He cleared his throat. “Airgun hunt,” he said. “I’m back from my very first Eugene Ranch Airgun hunt.” He glanced over at Dean. “This work?”

Dean nodded, swallowing the last bite and pulling the blanket up to chin as if he were four.  Rain pelted the tin roof, the lights flickering once.

Sam glanced at him, then started back in, his voice deep and low as he recounted the hunt for big game. Before he got to the end of the column he heard a soft snore, and he looked over at Dean, whose long lashes fanned out over the bruised-looking circles under his eyes. Sam closed the magazine and carefully lifted himself off the bed, picked up the pizza box from where it still lay on Dean’s stomach, and slipped into his Fed suit.

Briefcase packed, he took one worried glance back at Dean, then eased out of the room.

With rain pattering down on his umbrella, the walk toward the library was a pleasant one, all things considered. The cool, wet air felt good in his lungs, and his leg muscles welcomed the stretch. Blue and red lights flashed in the distance. He shoved his briefcase under his arm and fished out his phone, and hit speed-dial for Bobby.

“Hey, Bobby,” he said, stepping around a puddle.

“No, I don’t have anything yet, either. I was just calling to see if you had any contacts at the University of Illinois.”

Just as the darkness began to peel back, the library came into view. Sam listened to Bobby rifling through papers, looked up at the old brick facade of the library, and in the next step he was suddenly in pitch dark.

It felt as if he were plunged into ice water. Clutching at his throat, he strained for a breath that he couldn’t achieve, and then suddenly, he landed dizzy on his ass at the foot of Dean’s bed, briefcase and umbrella and cell phone bouncing away.

A little girl sat perched on the headboard over Dean, rope burns encircling her neck above her old-fashioned nightgown,  the wall art just visible through her.  She put a finger to her lips.

A police cruiser slid across the parking lot, shining a spotlight through the windows, but the light went over Sam and passed into the night.

Heart pounding, Sam passed his hand over his face, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them, the girl was still there. Then he blinked, and she wasn’t.

He stood on shaky legs. Nausea washed through him, twisting his stomach before it dissipated. Part of him wanted to wake Dean. This could wait, though, until Dean woke on his own; surely Dean didn’t have any answers. 

He found his phone under the edge of the bed, and when he lifted it to his ear all he heard was an old-fashioned dial tone. Furrowing his brow, he thumbed the phone off, then tried Bobby again. A bone-deep shiver passed through his body.

“Something happened, Bobby,” he said when Bobby picked up. “I was walking to the library when I called you, and just before I got there, I got… zapped back to the motel.”

There was a long pause, and then Sam said, “I don’t know, ten blocks? Maybe half a mile.”

Sam brushed a hand through his hair and clutched it at the back  of his head, still finding his bearings. “I don’t know what to make of it either. But it’s new information, and information is good, right?”

He glanced at Dean, who was still sleeping, pale and bruised and wrapped up tight in the blanket.

“Yeah. I’ve still got my laptop and Dean’s journal. I’ll do what I can from here. Thanks, Bobby.”

He hung up the phone and went to crank the heater up to full-blast, then he walked back to the center of the room where he stood swaying on his feet, cold and disoriented.

After a long moment, he lowered himself into a chair and opened up his laptop and John’s journal again. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Weariness and warmth and the steady patter of rain on the roof began to make his eyelids heavy and his bones ache. He ran his hands over his face, determined to work through it. There was always something, some small clue that would lead him to answers.

He didn’t realize he was dozing until his phone ringing startled him awake. Groggy, he answered it.

“Bobby,” he said, running a hand over his face and stifling a yawn.

“Oh, you do? Let me write this down,” he said, and he typed the information for Bobby’s contact at the University into a document. He glanced at the clock; almost eleven at night. “I’ll call him first thing tomorrow,” he said.

“Thanks, Bobby.”

He hung up the phone and stared at the screen, his eyes bleary. The brief wakefulness that Bobby’s call had created melted away, and the screen blurred.

It was late; the true night would hide them for now. Too late to call the professor, and he’d do better digging for answers with fresh eyes. He could rest for a while.

He stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, and considered before he climbed into Dean’s bed. Carefully, he peeled the edge of the coverlet away from Dean and eased under it, and the cold radiating from Dean’s body didn’t keep him from dropping into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Dean was awakened by the sound of running water.  The clock flashed midnight, the power having gone out, and he watched steam rise through a column of moonlight until the mirror was completely fogged.  He looked down at Sam, sleeping peacefully, and crept out of bed with his hands in his armpits.

As he turned off the faucet, he noticed a dull rattling noise, like an air filter that hadn't been changed in years, but the heater yielded to a kick and sputtered to life.  The mirror remained untouched.  "Sammy?"

Feeling his hair, he reached for a comb and swiped his hand across the glass.  Realized it wasn't the heater blowing air across the back of his neck.  Someone was breathing on him.

He tilted the mirror a little to catch the dead girl's face.  "Can I help you?"

The faucet turned of its own accord, and in the fog the words appeared, THE ROADS ARE OPEN TO THE BOY KING.  

Dean's reflection vanished, to be replaced by a darkened passage on the other side of the mirror, rough-hewn stone lit by torches at regular intervals.  He tried touching it, but his hand hit solid glass and the reflection changed back to normal.  

"What's down there?"


"How do you know this?"


"My brother isn't a king."


"What do you want?"

More steam, more words.  ONE DAY.  I OPEN THE DOOR, I GET A BODY FOR ONE DAY.

"And I get to deal with the consequences if you go on a murder spree with my face?"

More steam, only two words.  IT'S FAIR.

Dean shut off the water.  Left his hand on it for a minute.  "Hold that thought."

He slid back into bed, gathering up Sam's hand inside his own like they used to as kids.  Studied the lines of his brother's face, wondering what it would look like with a monster behind it, then fell back asleep.

Sam rose slowly to wakefulness, for a few moments only aware of the stifling heat, and Dean’s hand wrapped around his, hot to the touch, cold in his bones. He cracked his eyes open and stared at Dean, whose face was slack with sleep. In the moonlight he could see high spots of color on Dean’s cheekbones.

Moonlight, and raining, and the table clock blinking midnight. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours since he fell asleep. He gently, almost reluctantly, disentangled his hand from Dean’s and rolled out of bed.

The mirror was wet with condensation. He wiped at it absentmindedly and stared at his haggard reflection. Michael, the darkness, the flower, the sudden and sickening teleportation, the spectre of the little girl who was waiting for him when he came back, these things circled through his sleep-fuzzy mind in a holding pattern, none of them willing to fit together yet.

He considered going for coffee, but when he remembered how badly it had gone last time he left the room, he stayed put and opened his laptop instead.

Keys clattered as he typed away, and his face was lit by ghostly blue light.

Reaching up, Dean patted the still-warm imprint of Sam stamped on the pillow.  He looked round, saw his brother fringed in the pale light of the computer, then stood and crossed the room and opened the curtain.  Two cars with federal plates sat together with men drinking coffee in the front seat.  A priest leaned into their window, chatting amiably, though his clothes looked bulky as though he wore a bulletproof vest under the shirt.  "Sun'll be up soon.  I can see it through the rain."  

The mark behind his ear had not yet faded, and Dean touched it absently.   "I had the strangest dream."

Sam turned in his seat to look at Dean. He looked even more haggard than Sam, but at least he was steady on his feet.  "What about?"

Dean shut the curtain and sat back on the bed, palming the lid of the painkiller bottle to open it.  "I got an offer.  Not a great one, but then we're not in a great situation, and this chick showed me what looked like a way from here to there," he said, breaking a pill in half and chewing it, "Though she weren't too specific on where 'there' is."

Sam frowned. “Was it a little girl? Throat cut?”

"You saw her too? She say anything about your, uh, future career?" he said, tossing off the joke without much heat behind it, "Cuz she sounded like a fan of yours."

Dean told him the details of his encounter with the mirror.

Sam listened, his frown deepening as Dean reached the end.

Sam sighed. “Its… it’s something, anyway. If we can’t find anything else. But I don’t like it, Dean.”

"But it is a way out.  There’s no time," said Dean, eyes glittering with some dark memory, "Michael could come back any minute.  This isn't some schoolyard bully out for milk money.  You know what it's like to have something that powerful, that beautiful, wanting you?  And as for the other angel..."   

He fell to his knees suddenly and grabbed Sam's hand, nails marking the skin.  "He's coming for you, Sam.  He'll take you, and then he'll take this world."

Before Sam could speak, a bullhorn crackled in the parking lot.  "Dean Winchester, we have a warrant for your arrest, come out with your hands up."

Sam’s eyes went wide, and he squeezed Dean’s hand, then pulled Dean up to his feet. “Looks like they’re forcing our hand.” His mind sprinted through scenarios, plans, outcomes, and he could think of no other way.

He took a deep breath to steel himself and glanced toward the mirror. “How do we do it?”

Another knock at the door, the chain lock rattling, and Dean rose up to slide John's journal into his knapsack.  "Show yourself!" said Dean to the empty air, snatching the Colt from his bag, "You can have your bargain!"

Dean managed to point the gun at the door as he walked backwards into the bathroom, but then his lungs spasmed and he doubled over coughing, eyes bright with fever.  On the table, the lamp grew ten times brighter, the filament searing their retinas until it exploded in a shower of sparks and they were plunged into darkness.

The motel window shattered inward, curtains billowing around a policeman with a baseball bat.  His eyes flashed black in the moonlight.  In the bathroom, the mirror flew off its hinges and landed on the opposite wall and stuck to the shower tiles with a spiraling staircase framed within.  Papers spun clockwise in the air and were sucked inside.

"You go first," said Dean weakly, as glass crunched under the policeman's boot, "I'll cover."

Before the demon could raise his gun, Dean landed a shot in its neck and it fell to the bed nearest Sam, the sheets stained bright red with blood.  The smell was intoxicating to Sam.

Narrowing his eyes, Sam took a chest-expanding breath, his shoulders stretching, nostrils flaring. He couldn’t drink the blood. He couldn’t.

He could.

Maybe he even needed to; there was no telling what they’d be up against, and any advantage might make the difference between life and death.

Ignoring whatever look Dean might be giving him, aware of the time ticking by, he grabbed the demon by the hair and pressed his mouth to the wound on his neck, sucking hard, trying to pull all the blood that he could in the few seconds he allowed himself.

Power that he hadn’t felt in months sent a fire searing through his bones and made his heart hammer in his chest. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he leaned down to grab the demon-knife from where it was buried in his pack. As another demon showed its bland, policeman’s face through the busted window, Sam rushed to the bathroom.

He took a deep breath, banishing all second thoughts from his mind, and plunged into the mirror.

He looked back and saw the bathroom, saw Dean backing toward the mirror, gun still raised. The bathroom began to fade from view, the image superimposed with a long, torch-lit corridor.

“Dean!” he yelled, and he reached through the portal to grab Dean by the back of his hoodie, yanked him in a fraction of a second before it closed, its presence now indicated only by a slight shimmer in the air.

Panting, Sam took Dean by the shoulders and examined his pale, drawn face and his wide eyes, pinpricks of torchlight flickering in his sclera. “Can you do this?”

Before Dean could answer, the little girl apparated beside them, ghastly and translucent, her feet floating inches above the floor.

Dean pulled himself up on Sam's arm, drawing on some inner reserve of strength. "What now lady?"

Her eyes rolled back into her skull and her jaw fell open, a chorus of ancient voices echoing in the passageway.


She flung out a withered arm toward the end of the passage, from which could be heard the distant rush of water.


She dropped her arm.


Sam stared at her for a moment, analyzing and memorizing her words, and then he looked down at Dean, slumped against him, clinging to the sleeve of his shirt. “You won’t make it,” he said to Dean, voice stern. “Your body can’t handle it. We have to find some other way.”

Dean tried to steady himself.  "It's not as bad as it looks, I'm...." and was cut off by another bout of coughing.  The girl touched his arm and a light glowed in him, stars shining through his shirt as though he housed a tiny nebula in his heart.


The light pulled away from Dean, flying through the air in a long luminous strand and wrapping itself around Sam's arm, his veins burning red, and then faded.  Dean collapsed on the floor.


Sam stood rigid, clenching his teeth as Dean’s essence swam through his body, ice-cold warring with the fire of demon blood pumping through his veins. The frost finally settled in a halo around his heart, and in the throbbing ache in his arm, and he was able to breathe again.

“Which way?” he asked the girl, leaning down to scoop up his brother.

She pointed down the corridor behind him.

Dean was not a heavy burden, with the impure blood singing in his veins. Sam held him easily enough, but how many times had he lifted Dean’s lifeless body? How many times had he lost Dean? He couldn’t count, but images swam up in his mind of Dean broken, bloody, crushed,  gutshot, ripped apart by Hellhounds.

Dean, he thought. Please make it through this.

Dean peered down through his brother's eyes.  Sam could taste his fear.  Damn I got fat. said Dean.

Before now Sam had only heard a fraction of Deam's true voice.  Now all of it---the swagger, the joy, the grinding cynicism---registered on a cellular level,  surfing through his veins as Dean circled his heart like water down an endless drain.   Breathing with him.  Countering Sam's flightiness with Dean's stubborn refusal to budge, their minds in lockstep for the first time.  

How could I ever let an angel share this? Dean wondered, and Sam saw a sudden flash of wings, though it wasn't clear if Dean's memory was real or imagined.

Sam soon came to a crossroads where stood a lamp post from which a body hung, upside down and wrapped in a bloody bedsheet. Wooden crosses stretched in either direction.  Inside a chapel, flowers lay on a drying board beside several pine boxes.  A long-handled shovel leaned on the wall.

Come on Sammy, you can do this, you're a Winchester, said Dean, You were born digging graves.

Sam passed by the chapel into the graveyard proper, and as he did, the world seemed to open up above him, showing a sky full of unfamiliar stars and a bloody, gibbous moon that cast the graveyard in a sickly red light.

It was a matter of moments for Sam to find the grave. The tombstone was paler than the rest, newer, standing out like a beacon. On it was Dean’s name.

He lay Dean’s body down carefully and went back for the shovel. For a moment, the urge to use his powers to shatter the ground, to access the sickly-sweet blood pulsing through his veins was strong, but then he saw an image of a plain cross in a clearing surrounded by a grove of trees, and he gripped the rough, familiar wood handle of the shovel.

There was something of a ritual involved in digging a grave, in  moving the earth with your own hands and the sweat of your brow. No matter what the blood in him urged him to do, he needed to dig.

Hey Sammy, said Dean, a little nervous about Sam's state of mind, What's red and yellow and looks good on hippies?

He waited a beat.


Sam said nothing, focused on the task at hand.  Damn you're quiet, said Dean, as an uncomfortable silence stretched, What kinda music you got in here?

At the thought of music, Dean found himself in the passenger seat of the Impala, or an imagined version at least, with a box of tapes in his lap.  All of them were labeled in Sam's careful handwriting.

Dang man you listen to the Cure?  The Cure isn't music, the Cure is silly. said Dean.

Dean looked up at the rearview mirror. His old amulet hung from it, and when he touched it, Sam broke into goosebumps.

The sensation seemed to cool his blood, to calm him, to snap him out of his single-minded focus. He leaned the shovel against the inside of the grave and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

The sensation of Dean rummaging around in his mind was a peculiar one, a vague tickle within the overwhelming saturation of Dean inside of him. He took a breath and climbed out.

He thought for a moment as he bundled Dean’s body into his arms. You might like Interpol, he said, without much certainty behind it. He found that with a little thought, he could flip through the songs he remembered like turning a dial on a radio, flicking the knob quickly when he stumbled upon one that had reminded him too much of Dean back at Stanford, and he didn’t mind the distraction of it while he placed Dean’s body in the open grave.

You ready for this? he asked, scooping up a loose shovelful of dirt.

That's not me, said Dean, though he looked away, Them's just bones.

Bats swarmed across the red moon.  Dean listened to the shovel, studied the words HERE LIES DEAN WINCHESTER on the tombstone set against an alien midnight where nameless creatures swam in the darkness between the stars.  Somewhere between fear and helplessness was a ten-year-old boy in a too-large leather jacket, wide-eyed with wonderment.  Bitchin'.

Dean pushed his younger self away.  She did us a big favor back there, Sammy.  It was a bad business the last time I was here, and there's things that wouldn't mind dragging me through the streets at the end of a meat hook.

Yeah, but what’s she gonna do now? Sam asked, frowning as he shoveled dirt. What’s she going to do with your body? It can’t be anything good. How do we even know you’ll get your body back?

The blood-deep anger inside him throbbed and said, If she doesn’t give it back, I’ll rip her out of it myself.

As frightening as that flare of anger was, Dean played it off lightly in the hopes of diffusing Sam. Oooo first the Devil, then his nerd brother, now you're gonna put the fear into us all. So many big dicks in the room, how's a girl supposed to choose? said Dean, One crisis at a time.  Creatures like her follow rules, and if you know how to play you can keep them from going too far afield. Trust me.  I've come across my share of contracts.

Sam's mind blue-screened for a second as Dean shared forty Hell-years worth of demonic contract knowledge in the blink of an eye. The whole world went sideways, and Sam staggered and gripped the headstone before he found his feet again.

Okay, yeah, he said, winded. But warn me if you’re gonna do that again.

He finished filling in Dean’s grave, then smoothed the dirt down with the shovel.

“It’s done,” he said, calling out with his mouth and his mind. He stood, listening to the eerie, echoing wind that swept around the graves, then took off toward the chapel.

Here we go, he said.

Sam didn’t want to intrude on Dean’s memories too much by dwelling on what Dean had shown him; his forty-year flashback had touched on contracts and not much more, but Sam saw through it, around it, background details and the visceral memory of pain that Dean couldn’t pry away from the straight information he’d been trying to pass on. But it was all he could do not to think about it as he passed the chapel and walked back into the long, dark corridors.

I didn’t know it was that bad, he said, nearing the spiral staircase that the mirror had shown them. I’m sorry, he thought, but took great care not to put into words.

Dean opened the glove compartment and pulled out an envelope of old Polaroids.   Teenage Dean handing over cotton fair at a fair.  Dean lighting a bottle rocket at Lake Tahoe.  Dean dead on the floor with his guts clawed out like a pinata.  A bottle of whiskey and a demon with a knife through his hand.

You know, as bad as it was, I asked to be a torturer.  It was easy, ya call 'em names, stick 'em in the ribs, get a little blood on the floor, heck that's high school.  And it kept me away from...the people I could really hurt.

Dean tapped the last photo and the scene distorted.   A Kansas crossroad, corn waving in the wind, the horizon split by lightning, and in the center a darker, leaner variation of Dean, in a suit and red tie and eyes to match.  Waiting for Sam to make a deal.

Dean tapped it again and the could-have-been memory vanished.  I'm not scared of demons any more, and neither should you.  They make a lot of noise, but really they're not much more than that, you tape over the windows and wait for it to pass.  But angels Sammy, you gotta steer clear of them, cuz they are old.  Old old.  They know what makes you tick.

Dean shuffled the Polaroids, shoving back the memory of wings.  They know how to make you love them.

Sam came to the foot of the staircase where the girl awaited him.  DO WE HAVE A DEAL?

I’m not afraid of demons. I just don’t trust them, Sam said, staring down this witch dressed as a ravaged little girl. He shuddered in anger and revulsion, and not a little bit of possessiveness.  Dean is mine, not some demon’s meatsuit to parade around in.

“We have a deal,” he said, eyes narrowed. "One day."

She made an elegant hand gesture and a knife appeared.  CUT YOURSELF.  

Wait, Dean whispered, Negotiate the terms of fair use first, for example...

A laundry list of exemptions appeared in Sam's mind, mostly having to do with the definition of 'day' and that the body be restored to Sam in its original condition.  

Sam took a deep breath. Of course.

“Wait. I have some terms,” he said. “Twenty-four hours, and you return the body to the grave. In its original condition; no modifications, injuries or diseases. And don’t leave us any messes to clean up. I don’t want the cops on our tail, or any witches out for vengeance when this is over, or any illegitimate children to deal with. Or legitimate ones, for that matter. Don’t enter into any legally binding contracts. Don’t damage the car.”

He ticked the items off in his head. Am I forgetting anything? he asked.

That sounds good, said Dean, though we're on a slower clock here, so we may end up finishing our work and go home and find she's only had me for five minutes Earth-side.  If that's so, we can track her for the remainder of the day. Track me.  Assuming she's even going to Earth.

An idea occurred to Dean.  If Lucifer's vessel has access to Hell, What doors would Michael's vessel be allowed to pass through? Tell her to stay out of Heaven.  They'd never let me leave.

“Stay out of Heaven,” he told the demon. “And avoid any contact with angels. Those are our terms.”

He held his hand out for the blade.  Holding the knife, she carved a strange symbol into her palm, an oval with a horizontal slash like a half-open eye, then took Sam's wrist and gave him the same.  The pain was blinding, but when she grasped his hand, the wounds touching, Sam had a momentary flash of seeing himself through her eyes and she through his, before his sight arighted itself.  The wounds sealed over.


Here she said a name in one of the dialects of Hell, which Dean cheekily translated as either 'The Hate Star' or 'Jennifer'.  Sam could feel the smirk in the back of his head.

Sam smirked too, as if the muscles of his face were moving of their own accord. He nodded, said, “Done,” and he watched as the girl disapparated.

Then he was on the move, following the single corridor, the rough stone walls lit by torches at irregular intervals. The stream, she’d said, and as he walked, the temperature rose until sweat prickled in his armpits and on his upper lip. As it got hotter, the blank walls took on chains, manacles, empty barred cells.

Ahead, he heard the trickle of water over stone.

We’re getting close, he said. Closer to the center of Hell, closer to the stream. Sam flexed his hands, sensing the nearness of demons, whether real or imagined.

The tunnel opened into a wide volcanic plain, plumes of black smoke rising from the mountains, and the road split into multiple directions both down and up, and at the very bottom churned black water.  Sam descended the steps, spying a figure at the base.  A wizened old woman stood by the shore, the chain of a rowboat in her fist, but when Sam touched her shoulder, she rocked to one side, weightless. She'd been dead for centuries.

Don't be sad, Sammy, you can't help anybody here.  They're past help. said Dean, as Sam pulled the chain free and stepped into the boat.


Sam shook his head, tight-lipped. He gripped the weathered oars and began to row. Committing this simple, repetitive act, the sound of water lapping at the hull of the boat, on their way to the cure, he was able to relax for the first time since he’d gotten Dean’s phone call.


With no distractions, he could feel Dean in him, the swell and ebb of him, almost as if he were breathing inside him. He was an effervescent presence all the way down to Sam’s bones, tempering the fire of the demon blood and calming Sam. He’d miss this, when it was gone.


I don’t love Lucifer, you know, he said, quietly, thoughtfully, as he paddled, the smell of sulfur thick in his nose. I don’t think I could. It’s ingrained, maybe, too much negative press… I think he loves me, though.


He won't give you the choice, Sammy, they don't have to argue a point or buy you flowers or hold a gun to your head, all they have to do is...

Dean stopped, choking on his words.  I'm sorry man, I just can't get that sound out of my head.  The sound of his wings.

Dean said this last part...with grudging respect?  The way a soldier might refer to an enemy helicopter pilot who'd come to his rescue.  Sam tried accessing Dean's memory of his encounter with Michael, but it appeared to last both one hour and 20,000 years.

Dean leaned back in the passenger seat, pushing the Doobie Brothers "Black Water" cassette into the player.  Watched his little brother through the window, strong, healthy, purposeful.  Dean couldn't remember the last time he was this happy.

Sam cut through the water with smooth, powerful strokes, and the volcanic plain gave way to a network of caves lit dimly by phosphorescent fungus, the stream cutting right through, to a landscape of rolling hills. The sky was a bruised purple and red, the hills a bilious green. Flowers dotted the hillsides, leprous white, with red pinpricks of blood in the center.

Sam shoved the boat onto the bank.

We’re here, Sam said, the words unnecessary. He climbed out of the boat, warm water soaking his shoes, and grounded it on the riverbank. Feeling the warm glow of Dean’s contentment inside him, he strode through the knee-high grass toward the hills.

Up there. said Dean.

Sam looked up, and saw the flowers grow whiter, brighter, toward the top of the hill, the pure progeny of Heaven that had yet to breed with the local flora.  Sam climbed up, the sickly flowers licking his calves, until he found the first truly white bloom.  its perfume went straight to his head.

He leaned down and put his ear to it.  It knew his name.  They had been waiting for their king.

We should get going. said Dean nervously.

The world had begun in a garden and to a garden it would return, free of sin, said the white flowers. They begged Sam safe passage, that they might come to Earth and blossom in the minds of men, stretching their sanity until they popped.

Don't listen to them Sammy.

But they had a story to tell.The flowers twined through Sam's hair in a living crown, whispering how Michael had plucked the First Flower from his heart and planted it here to torment Lucifer,  an eternal reminder of Heaven's beauty.  How their master longed for wind and rain and sun and the wealth of existence denied him in the Cage.

A warm trickle ran down Sam's cheek, toward the corner of his open mouth.  The smell of sour pennies.  The flowers were weeping blood.

Don't drink it Sammy, remember what the witch said.

Sam groaned. The smell was sweeter than anything he’d ever experienced, more tempting than the purest demon blood. The nectar tickled the outer corner of his lip and he cried out, desperate. Help me, Dean. Please, I can't.

Dean's strength welled inside him and Sam was able to slowly, torturously raise his hand to his face, to wipe the blood away from his cheek. He planted his hand on the ground, saw the bright red against his skin, and squeezed his eyes closed. The ambrosial scent of the flowers still called to him, their voices a siren song, and he needed to get away, to run, to leave this place before he was forever ensnared.

Help, please, he said again, near tears with fighting it. I can’t move. Move.

With everything in him he concentrated, sweet and blood and temptation filling his head. He reached down inside himself to wrench out his last bit of strength, and he found the demon blood.

MOVE, he said louder, thought louder, and the ground shook under his hands. Wind rushed by his ears. The smell faded, faded, was gone, and he found himself on himself on  his hands and knees elsewhere, the gritty feel of dirt under his hands.

He opened his eyes and stood. It was dim here, neither dark nor light. The ground and the earth were barely distinguishable from each other. The horizon was hazy and flat, with nothing to break the straight line of it. There was no wind. There was no sound but his harsh breath.

Sammy, where are you?!

Dean turned the radio dial, but it was static from one end of the spectrum to the other.  A thick fog rolled over the Impala, as though wrapping him in cotton.

A faint light could be seen in the east, maybe a hundred yards away, and Sam walked toward it.  He walked for five minutes.  Ten minutes. An hour.  A day.  The light would always be just out of reach, but it pulled him onward.  By the time a month had passed he'd forgotten why he'd come there.  By the time a year had passed he'd forgotten America. A hundred years and he'd forgotten his name.  A thousand years and he'd forgotten Dean.  Humanity wasn't real.  Earth had been a dream.  Sam floated through the belly of the Cage, as inconsequential to it as a single blood cell, while Dean howled uselessly inside of him.

Dean panted, a hard knot in his heart burning  white as though anger were forging something new within him.  Zachariah's words came to him.  You are the Michael sword.

Ten thousand years.  Sam was an empty slate, never to be free from wandering, when suddenly the distant light began to grow.  Began to call his name.

Dean pressed both hands against the inside of the windows, face twisted in agony as the thing inside him grew, shunting aside his lungs and other vital organs until he felt his ribs crack.

Look away Sammy!

But Sam looked up and he heard it.  The sound of his wings, two continents in the sky edged in black lightning with a star in the center.  The star loved him.  The star had waited to be with him.  Though his fists balled up ready to fight, he longed to be connected to another living being, and Sam fell to his knees in worship.

Sam was aged and worn. Sam was as empty as a dry husk. The star wanted to fill him, to give back the light and love that Sam dimly remembered. Sam wanted, with all that was left of his soul, to let him.

With an aching awe, Sam watched the light come closer, watched the wings move, vast and beyond his understanding. His clenched fists hung forgotten at his sides.

"What are you?" he asked, voice ruined.

Dean shouted to him, but Sam gazed ahead, and as the fog thinned, Dean too saw a figure walking through the whiteness, against a sulfurous sunset burning the edge of the mountains of Hell.  A tall, powerfully built shadow outlined by fire, trailing stardust.  Still wearing John's leather jacket.  And he was marching toward Sam.  And Sam, hands trembling, tensed, eyes wide with fear.  This ill omen, this dread portent.  This final judgement.

Lucifer lifted Sam's chin with one finger, fixing him with his bright green eyes.  

"I'm your brother."

The word was laden with greatness of meaning. Brother. Of course. Through the the veil of fog in his head, images began to surface, hazy and indistinct. Fireworks. A scuffle in the darkness: Easy, tiger. A young boy, his face freckled, arms held out for him. An older boy, his head leaned against the window of a car, sleeping, his leg warm where it pressed against his.

The images began to sharpen. An amulet bouncing against a black tee-shirt. A strong profile lit by the flashing lights of an ambulance. The same face lit by a road flare, cocky and sure.

A body torn to shreds, its lifeblood seeping through the cracks in the floor.


This was his brother, whom he’d come here to save.

“Dean,” he cried, remembering. His arms ached to wrap around Dean’s chest, to hold him close against himself, to feel his body, whole and warm and alive.

In Sam's head, the light was unbearable, bleaching the Impala white, the tires four puddles of melted slag. Dean's nails dug into his chest, scrabbling for the thing inside him.  

Lucifer leaned down.  His wings took an aeon to open and close, stars forming and bursting in their wake, but the brightest one floated just behind Lucifer's teeth like a bubble lit from within.  A light he meant to breath into Sam.

Their mouths were inches apart.  "Let me in Sam."

“Dean,” was all Sam could say, reaching up to dig his fingers into Dean’s short hair. In this moment, this was everything he wanted, Dean alive and here and loving him. He surged upwards, wanting to feel the brand of Dean’s love against his lips.

The Impala was a blackened skeleton with Dean inside, and he felt  Sam slipping away like the end of a balloon string, up up up to be swallowed into the maw of Heaven, while the thing scraped inside him. Waiting to be born.  He hooked his nails on either side of his chest, heart hammering in time with Sam's, and began to dig.

Sam didn't remember falling. One moment he was in his brother's arms, and the next he saw Dean.  His Dean.  Standing on the devil's neck with blood up to his elbows and a flaming sword in his hand.

Sam scrambled back on his elbows, dazed. Dean, he said for the third time as the fog in his head burned away. But now it was his own brother in front of him, and how could he have thought that thing was Dean? That thing that struggled and sneered under Dean’s scuffed boot. How could he have thought Dean would kiss him?

The sword was bright and beautiful, its pure white light burning away the dimness for what seemed like miles all around them, and shining on the blood goring up Dean’s forearms.

Two realities struggled to reconcile themselves inside his head: one where he’d walked millions of miles, the loneliest creature in existence, and felt every step and mile and year; and one where he’d torn himself away from Michael’s flowers and found himself confronted by what he knew now was Lucifer, who had warped his mind in some fundamental way. He knew the second to be true, yet he still felt older than the earth, tired and alone, and he wondered if those years would ever really fade away.

What happened? he asked internally, already an ingrained habit, and then aloud.

Lifting both arms, Dean plunged the sword into Lucifer's heart, holy steel sinking until it came out through his back and then into the ground until the hilt touched and the ground split in a seismic zig-zag that poured forth smoke.  The angel reverted to its true form, a writhing, limbless horror.

"Look at me."

Lucifer spat blood in Dean's face and Dean let it drip on his boots. He bared his teeth, his eyes two murder holes in his head, and twisted the blade with every word.

"Don't." Bones snapping. "Fuck." Blood boiling on steel. "With my." Flames shot out the angel's eye sockets. "Little."  Lucifer screamed. "Brother."

The crack in the sand widened, and pressing a boot to Lucifer's chest Dean hove him off the sword into the ravine, the angel’s screams lost in a peel of thunder as the smoke swallowed him up.

Dean's chest heaved, sparks dripping off the sword.  Off the thing in his hand.  A child's amulet, now black with blood.  He turned to Sam.  

"Wake up Sammy."


Sam blinked, and when he opened his eyes he lay at the foot of the flower-strewn hill, vision blurry, grass stains on his knees and dirt on his hands. He pushed himself to his feet and swayed in place.

He groped inside himself, feeling for his brother. He found him there and drew on his presence, let Dean’s familiar essence center him as he stared across the grass to the river, where the rowboat waited.

Dean, he said. Dean, we made it through that. And then, sheepish, Now I understand what you meant. I was almost gone, wasn't I?

Dean lay curled on the seat of the Impala, radiating cold, his insides like broken glass.  He longed for someone to put an arm around him and shield him from the memory of that Other Dean, but he pushed this back for another day.  I hardly fared better with Michael.  This place was built to get inside your head. said Dean, adding, We are getting drunk when is this done, and not top shelf I mean the cheap stuff that's so bad it made the news.

Sam laughed and the pain in Dean's gut eased.  He fumbled around under the seat.  The flower.  Did you get a flower?

Sam gingerly ran his fingers into his hair, untangling long stems, and he pulled away the crown of flowers. They were crushed and ruined with blood but for two, and these two he plucked off. He cradled them in his hands. Yes.

Dean, you… The thread of pain running through his connection with Dean made Sam want to say something, anything, to make him feel better. He could think of nothing, though, so instead he brought up good memories, bright and strong, and projected them onto the screen of his mind.

It’ll be okay, he said as he strode toward the river, his steps strengthening as he went. We’ll get through this, we’ll get through it together, and it’ll be okay.

Two boys bounced off the hood of the Impala, followed by the faceless phantom of a movie theater cop.  Busted for sneaking into Ghostbusters.  Young Sam glanced over his shoulder and tossed a smile at Dean while he lay on his side, gently bleeding in the light of Sam's memory.  Then everything jostled with the rowboat and Dean closed his eyes listening to Sam pull the oars.  Safe.

The radio cut to an oldies station, early Beatles. "Oh dear what can I do, baby's in black and I'm feelin' blue, say oh what can I do?"

Sam rowed through the hills, rowed through the caverns, rowed until he reached the volcanic plain, the flowers sitting at his feet. When he came upon the years-dead old woman, he docked the boat and climbed out, gently cradling the flowers against his chest.

Hey Dean, how long do you think it’s been? I lost track of everything when Lucifer had me.

Dean touched his neck, the mark of Michael that had bruised his soul.  Two, maybe three minutes.  I couldn't see you until the very end.  

Registering Sam's discomfort, Dean added, I nearly said yes too.  Michael said I needed perspective. Put me in a cold dark place way up high so I could see how small the world was, said Dean, fanning out his fingers in front of him, Til you could cover it with one hand.  

Dean dropped his hand.  And then he brought his wings around me.

Some residual of Dean's memory leaked into Sam, twenty thousand years of hanging in the void like frozen meat, and then reviving like a sick man stepping into a hot bath.  Dean kept the details locked away where Sam could not see.

Sam approached the graveyard, and Dean asked, Where do you get the stamina dude, I got tired just watching you dig the first grave.

Sam huffed a short laugh. Tried not to think about the sickly sweet power of demon blood in his veins, demanding to be used. I was born to dig graves, right?

The earth was soft and loose, and the shovel slid in with a satisfying chink. He dug down, powerful back and shoulders working, and though he knew he wouldn’t find Dean’s body it was still a disappointment when all he was left with was a dark, gaping hole in the ground.

I guess we wait, he said. Or go after her and see what she’s up to.

Dean looked down at the bloody amulet in his hand.  A few KFC napkins were still under the seat, and he spit-shined it until it gleamed and hung it back on the mirror, the eyes winking green.  As if in all the melee some fragment of his soul had come loose and  become entangled with Sam's.  

Dean stared at his open grave.  This party sucks, let's go back through the Hellmouth and see if the cops left us any pizza.

Sounds good to me, Sam said.

His footsteps echoed in the eerie, empty passageways, and he felt the tickle of Dean rummaging in his mind as he walked. How are you doing in there? he asked.

Dean dropped the bloody paper napkin on the floor.  Awesome.  He flipped through the tape collection again and popped in the Woodstock recording of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin so drunk she kept staggering away from the mike.

"Love's got a hold on me, baby,
Feels just like a ball and chain.
Now, love's just draggin' me down."

Dean pressed his lips flat. So where ya gonna go once the curse is fixed?

Sam frowned. What do you mean?

Nothing, just...I mean I know you're stuck with me now but afterward...if you gotta be with normal people for a while…

Sam’s frown deepened as he remembered all the times they’d separated, mostly by his own choice, and it wasn’t hard to understand why Dean would think he’d leave again. But he could feel Dean, their blood and their heartbeats and their breath entwined within him, and he never wanted this connection to break, as selfish as it was. Dean had his own life, but the way Sam felt now, his whole being suffused with his brother’s soul, he wouldn’t even want to be in another room than Dean.

I know I’ve left before, Sam said. Some of those times, I think I was right to, but some of them I was wrong. Selfish. But now, you know… I don’t want to go anywhere, Dean. I want to stick with you.

I know you're happy now Sammy.  Hell I can't remember us getting past something so bad in one piece, but...

Dean paused.  After Dad died, I thought I'd hurt for the rest of my life.  That enjoying a meal, kissing a girl, that moving on would be shameful.  But the hurt didn't last forever, said Dean, eyes gray with tears, And neither does happy.

But Dean… I’m not happy. I mean, Lucifer’s after me, Michael’s after you, everything’s all screwed up. The world might literally end. Nothing’s okay.

The spiral staircase in view, Sam stopped in the middle of the corridor. Dean’s despondence bled through, making a hard knot in his stomach. I know we’re in extremis right now. I know I need you to get through this whole, demons and angels thing. But the only thing that feels right in this whole mess is me and you together.

I don’t wanna leave again. Sam felt stripped bare, his emotions raw and on display for the world to see. It came easily to him to be this honest, but it could be hard to make Dean believe him, when it came to this kind of thing. I don’t care what we do after, keep hunting, find somewhere and settle down and get real jobs, just go on a road trip for a year without worrying about anything. I don’t care. Whatever I do when this whole thing is over, I want to do it with you.

The song ended.  Dean swiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and noticed a dog-eared photo in the stack that seemed newer than the rest.  A hotel wall, blood-spray along the frame, with hatchmarks carved on it like a prison sentence.  A calendar on a nail with all the Tuesdays X-ed out.  Dean did not recognize it, but it was as hot in his hand as if it had been laying in the sun.  

You ever think about the future Sammy? Like maybe there's a better to way to do things without us having to stick our hand in the blender all the time?

It bled through, that photo, all those endless Tuesdays, so much of his brother’s blood on his hands that he thought he might never get it off. There has to be a better way, Sam said. You can’t die on me again, he thought. Never. He stared down at the white and red flowers in his hand, so delicate, and maybe the only thing standing between Dean living or dying.

It can’t all be on us, he said. Right now, we’re dealing with fate, destiny, angelic meddling, whatever you want to call it, and we don’t really have a choice, right? But afterwards… We’ve got to find some way to let it go. I believe it, I believe there’s a way.

Is there? I don't know what to do Sammy.  Heaven's built themselves a weaponized family and I don't see an endgame short of breaking into Heaven with the Colt and shooting our way to the finish line, and what would that make us?  Dean shook his head.  I don't like killing. I just like saving people.

A faint glimpse of Dean's memory flashed before Sam, a pair of feline eyes with a touch of cinder in them, Dean falling in love with the eyes and being terrified of the rest of Michael.

The entrance back to the hotel loomed ahead, the mirror a filmy veil between the two worlds.  Guess we should call her, unless you brought your eldritch lockpick, said Dean, adding, Ooo we should wait til the maid comes, you can do your Vincent Price voice.  He laughed, slapping his knee.  

You think you’re so funny, don’t you, Sam said affectionately.

He stared at the portal, then pulled out his knife. Blood, she had said, though she hadn’t been more specific. He’d improvise.

Here goes, he said.

He sliced the skin of his palm, and once the blood welled up, he squeezed his hand closed to let the blood drip onto the floor of the corridor. Then he smeared a handprint along the surface of the wavering image of their hotel bathroom.

A disembodied voice echoed through the corridor.


The mirror came into focus, and Sam climbed through. The motel room was in as much disarray as it had been when they’d left, window busted open, dead body of a cop sprawled out over the bed, his blood staining the sheets. The rest of the police lay dead in their cars, the seats lined with sulphur.  Sam glanced at the clock.  Perhaps fourteen hours had passed in their absence, and they heard fire trucks one street over headed their way.

She left the car!  Grab the bags and high-tail it for the corn fields Sammy! said Dean, his seconds-old ennui vanished.  Despite the therapy session, his excitement for danger as genuine. He wasn't Dean unless he was scared and miserable and being shot at.

Sam shouldered the bags, not bothering to pack up their dirty clothes, and he bolted out the door. He sprinted down the block, bags bouncing on his back, and slowed when he reached an alleyway. Red lights flashed and sirens blared, too close, and he kept running until he was several blocks away, where he ducked into another alley, this one wide and lined with cars.

An old, beat-up Pinto was easy to hotwire, and he slung the bags into the passenger seat and climbed behind the wheel, panting, his knees grazing the dashboard.

Where could she have gone? he asked.

Dean's hairbrush stuck out from a duffel pocket.  Tracking spell, if we got the other ingredients. said Dean.

Right. We’ve got to get out of here, first.

He gunned the Pinto and drove, passing a trio of speeding police cars, passing by motels, until he found a likely ruin of a house. One of the back windows was broken, and he climbed in. The living room was dusty and rank with the smell of dead rodents, a few of which lay in the corners, in nests of broken bottles and fast-food bags.

Damn it, if we had the car, everything we need would be in the trunk. He breathed out a huff of air. Let’s see what we’ve got.

He pulled out Dean’s hairbrush then rummaged through the bags, squinting in the pale light filtering through the windows. Good thing we aren’t organized, he said, as he pulled out a vial. We might actually have the stuff.

Unfolding a map of Saint Louis, Sam shook out a teaspoon of this and a forkfull of that, flipping through his Latin dictionary for a word he'd forgotten.  Dean surveyed the house.  Ooo dinner, Bobby taught me this great recipe for dead mice and road salt.

You’re disgusting, Sam said with a laugh. Taking a deep breath, then regretting it, he dropped a match on the map and watched it burn until only a small circle was left.

There, he said, nodding at an intersection that was maybe a mile from their location. She’s close. Let’s go see what she’s been up to.

Nine o'clock.  They passed upper middle class bungalows to a coffee shop attached to a ballet studio, where inside several little girls in leotards were drawing shapes in the frosted windows, while a Dean-shape sat in the bench facing the window, slowly working his way through a pint of Haagen-Dazs.  

Huh, Sam said, frowning. This isn’t exactly nefarious behavior.

After some deliberation, he climbed out of the car and walked to the bench. Sat beside her.

Dean’s head turned slowly to regard him. “Boyking,” it said in Dean’s deep voice. “My time is not up.”

“I know,” Sam said. The nearness of her set his adrenal glands pumping, rushing adrenaline and raw blood power throughout his body. He forced his voice to calmness. “Just needed to see what you were up to. Make sure you weren’t breaking our Deal.”

"Our contract is intact," said the witch, turning back to the girls, "I have a gift for you."

The witch pointed to the reflection in a clean corner of the window. Hills spread out behind them, the shadows of houses stretched across the lawns, but on a barren lot something stood beneath the power lines.  At a distance measured in years rather than miles.  A figure all in white.

What is that? Dean asked.

"That is you, my king.  Always in the corner of their eye, always watching, waiting, a little closer each day.  That," said the witch, "Is the last thing they'll see before they die."

The witch turned to Sam.  "They will not know it is Sam Winchester of course. Sam Winchester is a stranger, a face in the rain.  But their lovely."

Sam recognized his silhouette, broad shoulders and long legs, and for a moment, he recognized the possibility of it. What choices had he made to this point, to free Lucifer from the Cage and bring the Apocalypse down on them? All of them had been for good reasons, and with the best intentions behind them. That could be him there, full of terrible glory.

He shook his head to negate the thought. Dean was a warm glow inside him, even agitated, and hadn’t he just told Dean less than an hour ago that they could make it?

He jumped when he felt wetness lapping at his fingers. By his knees, coming from an empty space on the concrete, there was a snuffle, then a familiar panting sound.

He looked up, aghast. “Is that a… “

The witch smiled around the spoon, then offered a lump of ice cream to the empty air, watched it disappear, and stropped the spoon on Dean's bluejeans.  Inside the Impala, Dean was blasting the horn.  Kill it Sammy!!  Kill it with fire!!  Where'd it go?!  I can't see it!!

The puppy tugged at Sam's bootlaces, invisible ears flopping from side to side, and Dean  shrieked clear past two octaves and balled himself in the wheel well.  It's come to collect!!  Holy crap, how many evil twins I gotta find today?!?!

Sam tried to send soothing thoughts to Dean, tried to calm his own rapid pulse. This was a touch terrifying, of course, but it sent ideas spinning through his head. I know you’re scared, he thought, but didn’t dare say.

But Dean, think about it. She said it’s a gift. And she wants me to, to conquer, to succeed, so why would she give me something that would harm me?

He reached out, touched short, bristly fur that didn’t even come up to his knee.

You wanted to know how we could win. This could help us. It’s just a puppy, he said, letting it sniff his hand, cold wet muzzle and warm breath on his palm. Once it was done snuffling at him, he tentatively scratched behind its ears. I think it’s imprinting on me already. We can train it.

“It’ll be loyal to us?” he asked the witch.

“Of course. As long as you treat him with respect.” the Dean-thing said.

See? he asked Dean.

Dean stared at the creature, seething, an old bitterness rising up at both future and past versions of Sam with dogs. The king in white, his hound howling at the appointed hour to collect the world. The teenage runaway, wiling away three weeks in a cabin with some mutt.  That last memory hurt most, like Sam had gone and got himself a new family.  

But then the burden on Sam's shoulders was surely greater, having spent his whole life at the mercy of forces beyond his control, that infant hand stroking the cheek of evil. Who was Dean to begrudge him a companion, especially a loyal one that might keep his baby brother out of harm's way?  

One of the ballerinas watched ice cream lick itself off the sidewalk, then blinked and turned back to her classmates. Dean shrank inside his jacket.  Okay Sammy.  I'm following your lead on this.

Thank you, Sam said, trying to make sense of the quicksilver changes in the emotions that bled through and wondering that an argument didn’t come of them. He reached out to pat the Hell-puppy on its solid, heavily muscled back.

“I will go now,” the witch said, dropping the empty ice cream container on the grass and standing. “There is work to be done.”

As Dean’s body stood, Sam almost reached out to grab it by the arm of its jacket, but then he recoiled. “What work?” he asked.

The witch surveyed a church across the street. A choir was rehearsing for Christmas Eve.

"Mary did you know?
The baby you delivered
Will soon deliver you."

"Mirrors have terrible memories. How can they know what your face looks like once you've stepped away?  The city has a great many mirrors," said the witch, tapping a puddle with a boot and watching Dean's face reassert itself in the water, "And they mustn't forget you, my king."

The dance class filed out.  Pulled along by her parents, one of the ballerinas tracked the distant king in white in the window, the whole family waving to him cordially. As if he were a neighbor. As if they'd known him their whole lives.  

"They will know you, my king, though they will not be able to put this knowing into words.  They will know you, and they will run to you in the end."

“We’ll see,” Sam said, his nostrils flaring, sick of her zealous certainty. Let’s go, Dean, he almost said out of habit.

Instead, he turned silently and walked back to the car, the Hell-pup snuffling at his heels. He opened the door and let it climb into the back seat, watching its paws make deep imprints in the fabric. Through the windshield he watched the witch walk away, her gait strange and light compared to Dean’s confident swagger.

I guess that could have gone worse, Sam said, his eyes unwavering on the witch as she stepped gingerly toward the Impala.

Yeah, if all we gotta worry about is general spookiness...

Dean listened to the hound pant, warming to Sam's opinion of it and adding his own wish to exercise authority over what was arguably the most relentless predator he'd encountered.  And it wouldn't be Sam's hound, it would their hound, to raise together.

Dean hazarded conversation. You think he likes cheeseburgers?

He ate the ice cream, Sam said, heartened. I’m sure he’ll eat just about anything we give him. We’ll get him one first chance we get.

The Impala’s taillights flicked on, and she roared to life.

I’m not entirely sure what she meant about the mirrors, but I don’t like it, Sam said.

Oh I see exactly what she's doing.  It's like crocodiles hanging in the water, pretending to be asleep. Giving the fish a false sense of security. She's hiding the end of the world in plain sight, only she's not showing them everything.  They're getting the petting zoo version, an apocalypse that eats out of their hand, so they won't run for help when it does happen, said Dean, quickly amending his words as he felt Sam's blood pressure spike, If, If it happens.

Dean huffed out his breath.  Let's head back round the house, unless you gotta do anything.

Sam sat quietly, digesting Dean’s words, before he said, Right, with a sigh. He started the car and drove off, passing the still-idling Impala. On the way he hit a drive-thru and ordered a few cheeseburgers, so they’d have something to do, if nothing else.

He climbed back into the window of the ruined house. He paused, patted his leg and said, “Here, boy!” and was somewhat awestruck when he heard movement, then saw pawprints as big as his fist on the dusty floor.

“Good dog,” he said, reaching out to scratch behind invisible ears. He was struck by the horror and absurdity of it, a Hellhound following him around, and him treating it like a puppy. Good dog. This was a killer. He shuddered, despite his certainty that keeping it was the right thing to do.

This is beyond bizarre, he told Dean, unwrapping a cheeseburger.

Dean watched the beef patty tear loose from the bun, tossed in the air of its own volition, and snapped up into nothing in two bites.  Once the remainder of the burger disappeared, a gust of wind blew out of the window, some digging, and then a femur floated into the room and landed daintily at Sam's feet.

Dean laughed.  He wants to play fetch.  Oh man, that’s so cute, we gotta give him the worst name.  Here Hitler, come on Hitler, bad Hitler bad, put that down!

When Sam didn’t laugh, Dean added, Maybe you should pick names.

Sam tossed the bone across the room and thought of sharp teeth, red eyes, a friendly disposition that hid a ruthless killer. Gordon, he said. The bone came bouncing back through the air, and he threw it again.

Seriously Sammy?  This thing will hand you your ass in style, guts all over the floor like you dropped a hot pie... Dean trailed, suddenly inspired.  How 'bout Sugar?  Or Puddin’?

Sam laughed. Here, Puddin, he thought as he unwrapped another burger. No way, Dean. What about Chopper?

Steam rose from a pack of french fries, and Dean watched them longingly.  Tater?

Sam shook his head, smiling. He tossed another patty into the air, then bit into his own burger. I’m eating this for you, just so you know. Though I doubt you can taste it. He chewed, watching dust filter up from the floor as the Hound was apparently chasing its tail. Devourer of Worlds. We can call him Devo for short.

Dean considered this.  Where’d we get the hat for him? he said, little whirls of dust catching in the moonlight, What about Spooky?   

Dean, you’re ridiculous, Sam said, smiling around his burger.

Your face is ridiculous. said Dean, turning up the AC in the Impala and basking in a hot draft of cheeseburger, Spooky it is bro.

Fine, you win, Sam said. he unwrapped the last burger and patted his thigh. “C’mere, Spooky. Here, boy!”

The Hound trotted over to stand before him, and Sam gave it a shot. “Sit, Spooky,” he said. There was a whump and a displacement of dust as the dog sat. “Good boy. Stay. Staaaay,” Sam said, holding the burger patty a few inches above where he estimated its head to be.

When the patty was intact after a few seconds, Sam reached out to pat at the Hound’s head. “Good boy, Spooky.” He tossed the hamburger patty into the air and watched as it disappeared.

Then embarrassment crept up in him. Playing with a Hellhound as if it were a real puppy. My face is ridiculous, he told Dean. But it looks like he’s already partially trained, at least.

This ain’t ridiculous Sammy, this is about as Mayberry as we get, what we’ve been given.  I think about the year after I made the Deal, the year I spent every day wondering what was gonna happen to me, what was gonna happen to you, not enjoying the life we had. said Dean, as a gentle pawprint impressed itself on Sam’s shirt,  We were robbed.  

Sam’s phone rang.  One of Bobby’s pseudonyms popped up on the screen.  

“Hey Bobby,” Sam said.

“That’s okay, I think we figured it out.”

Sam paced the creaky wood floors as he gave Bobby a summary of the events of the past day, leaving out any mention of the Hellhound - Bobby could process that another day - pausing occasionally to let Bobby ask questions or curse. The Hellhound followed at his heels, nuzzling at his free hand, its nose cold and its breath hot.

Toward of the end of the conversation, Sam let out a long, jaw-creaking yawn. “Yeah, I think i will get some rest,” he said. “Thanks, Bobby.”

He hung up the phone and slumped against a wall, feeling the stressors of the past sixteen hours catching up to him.

Do you think it’s safe to get some shut-eye? he asked Dean.

Sam walked to the bedroom, the windows covered in newspaper and an old mattress with blue ticking against the wall, clean on one side.  Spooky ran a quick circuit around the room and came to rest at the door, as if announcing they were clear of danger both seen and unseen.

In the Impala, Dean kicked off his shoes and rooted around for reading material.  Sleep would not come to him.  Cool, Batman! said Dean, pulling out some comics.

Sam smiled and lay down, linking his fingers over his stomach. He was hesitant to sleep; he was already so used to having Dean a warm kernel inside himself, and he only had a few hours left before they’d be separated again. But he was dead tired despite the remnants of demon blood seething through his veins and they could use every advantage they could get, if things went sideways. So, Keep an ear out, he said, and within minutes, he was asleep.

When he blinked awake, he immediately checked his watch. He felt Dean shift inside him. An hour to go before they’d get Dean’s body back. It wasn’t much time, considering.

He stood and stretched, knots popping all along his back. Spooky trotted to his side, nudging against his legs until Sam gave him an ear-scratching.

You ready to go, Dean?

Dean looked around the Impala.  He'd spent hours searching for a pen to leave Sam a letter, but for whatever reason the car would not allow him one.  He blew hot air on the window and drew DW & SW in the fog and watched it fade again.  Yeah okay.

Sam stopped for breakfast and parked by the Mississippi, cranes twenty stories tall moving containers from ships to the delivery trucks, men in flannel with arms like bridge cables.  Dean's people.  He blew steam off his coffee, and reaching into the bag he extracted a loaf of day-old bread and began feeding the birds.  And as the moon dipped out of sight in their final hour together, Dean played all his favorite guitar tracks, Little Martha, The Thrill is Gone, Stevie Ray Vaughn's cover of Little Wing, the industry of the river taking on a richness for which the two men had no words for and which could never be taken from them.

When the hour was up, Sam looked to his right and the witch stood beside him.

“It is time,” she said in Dean’s voice.

Sam nodded, reaching down inside himself to feel Dean’s all-present spirit once more. Goodbye, he wanted to say, though he knew it was foolish, as Dean would be right in front of him in only a moment. Instead he said See you in a minute, and hoped his sadness didn’t come through.

The witch rolled up Dean’s sleeve to bare his right forearm and the mark she’d made there, and she held her knife in her left hand. “There must be blood,” she said. “This small amount should not negate our contract.”

Sam nodded again, and he watched as the witch made a shallow slice over Dean’s mark, just deep enough so that small beads of blood welled up in the slit. She handed Sam the knife and he did the same on his own mark, and they clasped forearms so that their wounds touched, blood mingling.

The wound on his arm was hot where they touched, but Sam felt cold, so cold as Dean’s spirit flowed out of him and into his own body. It was a slow, painful process, all his molecules and blood vessels and organs, and his heart, being leeched of Dean’s presence. His eyes watered. The space in his mind that had held Dean for a day that seemed like it had lasted forever emptied.

Finally, the slice on his forearm stopped burning. Dean winced, then shivered, then the spirit of the girl appeared beside him, all but transparent in the early morning sunlight.

“It is done,” she said. “I will watch you, Boyking.”

Sam said nothing to that, and she faded away. Then Sam had to catch Dean as his legs went out from under him.

“Whoa, I gotcha,” Sam said, carefully hoisting Dean up.

Dean inhaled, the diesel aftertaste of traffic mixed with snow, and opened his green eyes.  Looking at nowhere but Sam, warm in his arms, like a long-absent soldier returning to his old  bed.  Their profiles glinted in a nearby truck mirror, where the witch could be seen making the long, long walk to a figure in the distance.

The clouds turned red on the horizon, and Dean touched Sam's shirt pocket, digging around for the flowers.  "What the hell...?"

Dean pulled out an unlabeled cassette tape.  A white cassette tape.  In their journey, the flowers had lost all their prettiness, now a pair of reels with just enough room for one song. Dean sat up.  Tapped it against his palm and looked at the Impala.  Looked at Sam.  "Feel like watching the sunrise?"

They sat in the car, Spooky chasing squirrels behind them, and the knife's edge of sunlight crept over them as Dean pushed in the tape and pressed play and let his hand fall on Sam's.

"Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
It's not warm when she's away
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
And she's always gone too long
Anytime she goes away."

Sam turned his hand to twine their fingers together, locking them, grateful for the contact. As the sun rose, making the bristle along Dean's jaw glow red-gold, he felt Dean's skin begin to warm, and he felt a warm seed inside his chest resonating with it. As empty as he felt, he was glad of the thought that maybe a part of Dean was still inside him, would always be inside him.

His throat tightened as he listened to the song, the music to heal the curse, and the day brightened around them.

They sat in silence once the tape came to an end, their hands still linked, the skin-on-skin contact that would always be the closest thing to what they'd had, contact that was necessary at this moment, so near after being neatly sliced apart. This is me now, and this is you.

Finally, Sam asked, "Is it done, then?"

The bells of Saint Michael tolled, a flock of birds spiraling out of the roof and into the clouds, to whatever lay on the other side of the sky.  Dean keyed the ignition, listening to the hound snore in the backseat.  Eyeing the king in white in his sideview mirror.  Objects are closer than they appear.

"They ain't done with us, but then...  Find us some road songs Sammy," said Dean, tossing the box of tapes in Sam's lap and smiling, "Shotgun picks the music."