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The wheezing of the motel room's air conditioner was the first thing Sam heard when he woke up. Given the pool of sweat he was laying in on the scratchy nylon comforter, someone should just shoot the wall unit to put it out of its misery. His head was pounding and his tongue was stuck uncomfortably to the roof of his mouth, which made him wonder if it was from the unbearable humidity or a hangover from the previous night.

Not that he could remember.

Sam squinted his eyes at the window where the glow of sunlight hit the sill beneath the badly hung olive green curtains and an unbroken salt line sparkled in the strip of morning sun.

Time to get up, but wouldn't he have set an alarm? It sounded like something he would do.

A glance at the nightstand revealed his wallet and a smartphone resting to the side of a folded and worn piece of notepaper that said READ ME in his own neat block script.

Sam swung his long legs off the bed and sat up, rubbing the back of his hands against his eyes. It did nothing to shake off the exhaustion that settled deep in his bones. He thought about crawling back in bed, but his mind was already buzzing, the synapses trying to connect, to bring back memories of the day before, but there was nothing there but a blank slate.

Sam raised his eyes to the empty queen bed across from him. While he didn’t know what had crawled in his mouth last night and died, he did know one thing for sure. Dean was gone and he was alone in this crappy motel room. Everything in between those two facts was a mystery.

His last memories were of death and loss. While Sam knew instinctively that a lot of time had passed since then, those final moments with Dean were still fresh in his mind. The vicious snarls of hellhounds as they ripped at his brother while Sam was pinned helplessly to the wall. His brother, who never cried in pain, was screaming until his voice was finally silenced while Lilith was standing over the two of them triumphant in the moment. It only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like a lifetime to Sam.

Dean’s broken body was silent and unmoving in that Indiana dining room, and the sight of it lit a fuse in Sam. His anger at Lilith escalated in that moment like an atom bomb, blowing inward and outward, a thousand times more powerful than the little spurt of power he felt when trapped in that rugaru's closet six months before.

Lilith's face changed from victorious to confused as she felt Sam’s power surge and she had to release her hold on him, leaving him crumpled along the wall like a discarded doll. As he stood up, he felt the wave of power building and beginning to crest inside him, finally his powers bringing him something useful to this fight and it would have been almost satisfying if it hadn’t been for his brother’s body lying lifeless three feet away. Sam’s final memory was a white light going supernova between them.

Now, he was here, in some nameless town, in a nameless motel, perched on the edge of an ugly green bedspread. Sam rubbed together the two sides of the folded note he found on the nightstand. It was yellow and wrinkled with age as if it had been carried in a wallet or pocket for years. Opening it up, Sam saw more of his own neat script beside the printed name and address of a motel in Fresno.

WATCH THE VIDEO ON YOUR PHONE
or IF IT’S BEEN DELETED BY SOMEONE
CALL BOBBY RIGHT AWAY.

Sam flipped the small sheet of paper over, expecting more explanation, and tossed it back down on the night stand before picking up the smartphone. He had never seen one like this before, with a smooth black screen and no buttons, but it was obviously his. Flipping through the screens, he found a video titled WATCH ME. His thumb hovered nervously over the icon as he noticed it was dated about eighteen months before.

Was it more than a year and a half since Dean went to hell? How was that possible? As the video began to play, Sam watched his own face on the screen, reflecting back scruff and longer hair than he normally wore, with dark circles under his eyes.

"If you are watching this, it means you made it through another day. Congratulations.” Video Sam chuffed at the word. “I just hung up with Bobby and he suggested I record this video and start to use a note to remind myself to watch it every day. Apparently, I suffer from a condition called anterograde amnesia. It means that I can’t make new memories but I can remember everything from before that last night with Lilith.”

Video Sam paused to gather his thoughts before continuing. “Whatever happened that night, it messed me up. Maybe I blew out part of my brain trying to use my powers against her or she injured me in some way. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, what you can’t forget, is that you need to find a way to destroy Lilith and to get Dean out of hell. Not sure if you’ve noticed the tattoos yet but Bobby and I agreed they were a good idea since they’re more permanent than notes or videos, less likely to be erased. I know it’s all frustrating, trust me I know, but keep focusing on the next steps to rescue Dean."

Sam set the phone down and thought about what those next steps might be. Probably a shower and breakfast. His dad emphasized routines as a way to normalize their lives. Saving lives always came first but John always taught them to be disciplined about brushing your teeth, packing your duffel, cleaning your guns, wiping your fingerprints off surfaces. Regardless of what Sam’s life was like today, he could fall back on executing these simple tasks to get his life back in order.

Still thinking of the video and wondering about tattoos, he was surprised when his cell phone began to ring with an incoming call. Caller ID said Ruby.

That wasn't possible, was it? Didn't Lilith send Ruby back to the depths of hell when she helped the brothers out that last day? He answered the call but was unsure what to say so he kept silent.

"Sam, Sam, is that you?" a soft feminine voice called to him from the other end of the line. "Where are you, Sam? It's Ruby. C'mon baby, are you alright? Just give me your address and I’ll come right over." It was a different voice than before, a little softer and a lot more intimate. Ruby calling him baby? That would have made Dean apoplectic. He started to smile at the thought but it died on his lips.

"Ruby, you're back? I need to tell you something. I have this problem. Bobby says its anterograde amnesia and that I can't..."

"Make new memories. Yeah, I know. That's why I'm calling you. You didn’t tell me what motel you were staying at. I was so worried. Why don't you read the address to me off the phone or notepad there? I can be there in no time."

Ruby had helped Sam and Dean before with the Seven Sins, with the witches, even offering to give up her life for them in Colorado. She faced Lilith with them that last night before the most powerful demon in all of Hell took over her body. Perhaps he and Ruby were working together to track down Lilith? Before he responded to her, a tattoo on the inside of his left arm caught his eye and sent a chill up his spine as he read the blue ink.

RUBY
QUEEN
OF LIES

"Ruby, you know what, I don't see the address anywhere here so let me call you back, ok? I need a shower and breakfast first anyway." He hung up before she could respond.

Pulling his sleeve up in curiosity, Sam studied the tattoos that wound their way up his arm. The Ruby tattoo was a faded blue, the color of old denim against the tan of his arm, and looked more like a hastily written note than inked skin art. Farther down his arm, before the crick of his elbow was a symbol inked in red that resembled the crosshairs of a gun but Sam recognized it from one of Bobby's old lore books. Crossroads. Had he made a deal for Dean's soul? But that didn't make sense. If he made a deal then why was he still here and not taking Dean's place in hell? Beneath the symbol was the name Crowley scrawled in a cursive script. Who the hell was Crowley? He trailed his fingers between the two tattoos as if he could read their meanings like Braille.

Sam looked back at the smartphone in his hand and began to flip through the information there, searching for clues. A photo album came up and he began to examine each of the pictures. The very first one was of Dean and Bobby, leaning against the Impala and smiling. He remembered that day. South Dakota was dry and cool in October and they had to wait a week for a replacement part to fix the Impala's carburetor. Dean worked with Bobby on cars in the salvage yard while Sam poured over some of Bobby's lore books in his library. They had eaten a spicy chili that Dean made, washing it down with ice cold PBRs while watching a Die Hard movie marathon. That was a great day. A normal day. No demons on their ass. No ghosts or wendigos on their radar. Maybe Bobby had sent him this, a good memory to anchor himself during bad times.

The other photos on the smartphone were a mystery to him. There was another photo of Dean, serious and strangely blank as he spoke to a brunette woman with her back turned to the camera. The shot was blurry as if Sam had snapped it quickly, catching Dean unaware. He didn’t remember taking it but it could have been a mistake, perhaps he was taking pictures of a location or his brother was interviewing a witness.

There was another photo of a bearded man with a calculating look, sitting on a stool in some dimly lit dive bar. Another showed a beautiful woman, petite with big dark eyes and brown hair, and a slight smirk in the corner of her mouth, who was standing next to an orange muscle car. Another series of photos showed men and women tied to chairs in the middle of devil's traps. They were obviously demons but had Sam put them there? Was he working with a partner? Were these people dead now or had the demons been exorcised, allowing these people to live their lives again? The photos give no hint as to the rest of the story.

Then there was one photo of Sam himself. He looked happy in it, showing too much teeth and dimple, and that one disturbed him even more than the others for some reason so he flipped quickly by to a set of photos that showed old abandoned church with a tattered cloth across a dusty altar. Sam examined it for any signs or landmarks but didn’t recognize it.

A loud knocking on the motel room door broke through Sam's thoughts. "Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty. Time to get going," said a British-accented voice on the other side. "C'mon, Sam, open the door. I don't have all day."

Sam held Ruby's knife in one hand as he pulled the door open to reveal a man in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard and a pressed black suit. It was the man in dive bar photo, who was now tapping his foot impatiently.

"Who are you?" Sam demanded.

The guy rolled his eyes. "I'm the one helping you track down the demon responsible for your brother's incarceration in hell. And yeah, I know, I know, you don't remember. It's not my fault if it gets tedious explaining this to you every bloody day, Moose.” When he didn’t get a response, he continued. “I'm Crowley and we have work to do today. Aren't you going to invite me in?"

The need for answers, to connect with someone who knew his circumstances, overcame the gut instinct he had not to trust this person. Sam opened the door further and waved Crowley in.

"You're kidding, right?" the man looked down at the pristine white salt line across the threshold.

"You're a demon?"

Crowley sneered as he looked over Sam’s shoulder at the motel room. "Not just a demon, I’m bloody King of the Crossroads. Salt line isn't the only reason I'm not coming into that filthy rat-hole you call a room, you moron. I could catch gonorrhea from here from that bedspread and carpet. Let's eat breakfast in what passes for a restaurant in this establishment and talk about today's plans." The demon turned on his heel and began walking across the broken pavement of the parking lot without looking back.

Sam scrunched up his face and scratched his head as he considered what to do next. This guy might be an asshole but he was an asshole with answers, so Sam bucked his inner voice telling him to stab him in the face and walked back into the room to get ready.

---

"About time, Winchester" Crowley said as the hunter walked up to the diner table. Sam couldn't bring himself to think of this douchebag by the ostentatious title of King of the Crossroads. "If the food is as atrocious as their accommodations. I would recommend the water."

Sam smiled at the approaching waitress whose name tag read Dolores and whose curly grey hair was escaping her neat white cap. After years of traveling the back roads with his Dad and Dean, he developed the habit of addressing service people by their name. Dad said it was a good way to get them on your side. Sam liked to make them smile, especially when they had to deal with assholes like Crowley.

"What looks good, Dolores?"

She beamed down at him. "Good to see you again, sugar. Well, you had our best dish yesterday even though you didn't eat much of it."

The smile faltered on Sam's face. Every conversation, every day was like this? People knew him, knew what he had said, what he had done, while it all remained an empty hole in his mind. How much of his life had he repeated over and over? The idea of wasting all that time and not finding a way to bring back Dean because he couldn’t remember was exhausting. With a sigh, he handed her the menu back. "Well, I'll have the same thing then."

Crowley ignored the waitress, studying Sam's face as if he were tunneling through his head to dig out his thoughts one by one. Once the waitress walked away, the demon reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of twenty dollar bills, sliding them across the table to Sam. "This is for the next few days. I would suggest that you pack up and head over to Simi Valley. I hear that the smog in the Valley makes sunsets beautiful this time of year."

Sam picked up the cash, examining the bills as if they were a virulent strain of anthrax under a microscope. Why would a demon give him money? Demons take what they want. They don't live like hunters scraping by on cash and stolen credit cards, and they don’t offer to help people.

"What is this for?"

"To keep you in rat-hole motel rooms and diner food for the next few days and to keep you out of sight."

"Out of sight? You said that you were helping me track down Lilith. Remember, the demon that killed Dean? How does hiding out in Simi Valley help that? If we're hunting together, let's hunt. We should be figuring out a way to kill her, not keep out of sight. As King of the Crossroads, you must have some knowledge or pull about this type of thing. It should be an easy thing for you to do."

Crowley narrowed his eyes at the last comment. "It's more complicated than that."

The demon’s lack of further response spurred Sam on in his rant, bitterness and frustration bubbling up.

"Fine. If we’re not going to hunt, then why don't you and I make a deal right now? That's what a crossroads demon does, right, make deals for souls? You take my soul for Dean's. It's a simple exchange. I don't need 10 years, I don't need 10 minutes, we do this right fucking now." Sam slammed his large palm down on the Formica table top, rattling the water glasses and sloshing their contents like a small tsunami.

“Always such a drama queen,” the demon responded.

"You boys all right over here?" Dolores the waitress was back with a plate in one hand and two coffee mugs in the other, arching a suspicious eyebrow at Crowley.

Not looking up at her intrusion, Crowley responded by continuing to stare Sam down. If Crowley was as powerful in the hell hierarchy as he said, he could probably burn a hole right through his skull, but Sam sensed that the demon needed him for some reason.

"My tall friend here gets a little excited at times when he goes off his meds. Nothing to worry about." His Scottish accent should have been charming, but this waitress probably had years under her belt of dealing with jackasses with charm.

She caught Sam's pinched and troubled hazel eyes as she set down his plate of scrambled eggs and corned beef hash, and he offered a tight smile in return before she left again. The sight of greasy eggs and fried meat made his stomach roll over uncomfortably.

Crowley looked away as the plates were arranged on the table and began to shred the paper napkin in front of him.

"We can't go after Lilith right now," he responded quietly, tapping his temple with a finger and then pointing at Sam’s head. "You blew out your gourd when she came after Dean the last time, so whatever powers you had at your disposal are locked away or gone. We can’t go off half-cocked; besides it would take a very special weapon to kill an ancient demon like Lilith."

Sam sat up straight. The memory of Dean lying propped against a tombstone on a cold Wyoming night, beautiful and broken, doomed to hell but taking his one shot to kill the demon that killed their mother. "I know a weapon like that. It can kill anything, even high-level demons. It killed Azazel."

"Ah, yes, the Colt," Crowley drawled, glancing back over at Sam again, his expression unreadable. "I know about the Colt, Sam, but it’s not going to help us this time. Right now, the most important thing is that we need to get you out of town. Lilith's allies are looking for you. The good news is that because of the thing," he said, once more tapping on his temple, "everything else about you is broken so none of the angels or demons can track you."

"So glad that my brain damage is a good thing," Sam said. "Wait. Back up a minute. Angels?"

---

Sam's mind was filled with thoughts of angels as he returned to the room. Unlike the image he had of patient and pure guardians who served humanity, Crowley said that angels were more like fascist dictators who didn't like their earthly charges much. They were virtually unkillable and unlike demons, they needed permission to possess a person. Sam immediately wished he could tell Dean that both of them had been so very wrong about them.

Once he walked back in the motel room, Sam studied the yellow Post-It note in his hand. The handwriting was difficult to read in Crowley’s spidery script, which would look more at home in a Victorian novel than on a note written in a diner, but the message was clear. Drive to Simi Valley. Find a motel. Stay out of sight. He carefully tucked it into his wallet.

Packing his duffel efficiently, he thought of how he still followed the routines that were learned from years on the road with his dad and brother. While Sam had always been fastidious, folding and rolling his t-shirts and jeans, Dean would throw things into his bag, careless with everything that wasn't a weapon. Guns and knives would be laid out with care on the spare bed, after hours spent cleaning and reassembling them, before they were wrapped and placed in the weapons bag. The memory of Dean that last morning before Lilith, of his brother seated on the end of the motel bed, handling his Taurus, his head bent down and his brown hair looking almost blond in the morning sun, made Sam's heart clench.

As he pulled on a hoodie, yanking the long sleeves down to hide the tattoos, his cell phone rang. The caller ID said Ruby again. "Hello?"

"Sam, where are you?" He searched his memories again and couldn’t pull up any images of what this person looked like. Last time he saw her, Ruby was a tall blonde and now she could be anybody.

He was torn between the tattoo's message and the trust he previously had in her. His interaction with Crowley left him craving contact with someone who could help him, who knew him, who wasn’t a pompous idiot.

"Ruby? I need your help. See, I have this problem. Bobby says its anterograde amnesia and that I can't..."

"Make new memories. Yes, I know. Sam, just tell me where you are."

Realizing that he still didn’t know, that he could be anywhere in the Western states, Sam pulled out a folded paper map from his duffel bag. It showed a route marked in red pen with a series of X’s marked along the way, with the last X in Lancaster, California. The map was another throwback to habits ingrained by John Winchester to keep track of where you had been and where you were going that would be translated to a hunter's journal afterwards. Keeping a disciplined system also helped when you woke up every morning in a different town and a different motel. All these routines, which had seemed like overkill when he was growing up, were now a godsend to him with the memory loss.

"I'm in the Central Valley right now but heading to Simi Valley. I'll call you when I get there."

---

A light rain had started to fall as Sam pulled into the motel parking lot. Through the gloom, he spotted a petite brunette in a leather jacket perched on the hood of an orange and black Mustang. The woman’s face and the car matched the photo on his phone and he felt another puzzle piece click into place. This must be Ruby.

"How did you know where to find me?"

"You and Dean used to pick the first motel in the phone book so I took a shot. Even with your brother out of the picture, losing your memory hasn't changed a lot of things." While the brown hair and brown eyes were different from before, the twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth and the attitude towards Dean hadn't changed.

"You gonna invite me in or are we gonna stand out here all day in the rain?"

The motel room at A Little Slice Of Heaven was like hundreds of motel rooms he had shared with Dean, dank but functional and in need of a deep institutional cleaning. He glanced at the queen bed nearest to the door (growing up it was always Dean's bed) and threw his duffel on the ground in front of the far bed. He approached the small nightstand and pulled out his wallet, smartphone, and the small folded note that said READ ME, laying it carefully on top of the phone. He didn't remember doing this before, but the action was like muscle memory, an ingrained habit he must have developed to stay alive.

Ruby threw her leather jacket down and stood at the foot of the bed, considering Sam with hooded eyes and blocking his way back out. She was so small now, almost delicate, but beautiful with her wavy brown hair reaching past her shoulders and big brown eyes. In another life, he might have found her attractive. Ruby might look different now but Sam would always recognize her by the cock of her hip and that crooked half smile.

"Well, what now?" Sam said, hands in the air.

Ruby walked over and pushed Sam gently back until he was seated on the bed. She held his shoulders and rubbed them as she talked. "Listen, babe, since we last talked I found a guy. Someone you'll be very interested to meet, someone who has a stake in Lilith's death too."

He flinched back from the demon using that endearment again but latched onto the new information. "What are we waiting for then? Let’s find this guy."

"Relax, Sam, we have some time before we meet up with him." Her hands slid from his shoulders to push under his brown Carhartt hoodie. "Why don't we get you out of this? I haven't seen you in so long."

Sam pulled back instinctively but Ruby was there, standing inside the V of his legs as if she belonged. She helped him to strip off the jacket, leaving Sam in his grey v-neck. Looking at the inside of his wrist, the blue tattoo warning jumped out at him.

Ruby looked down at the same spot and laughed, rubbing the skin over the tattoo softly with her fingertips. "Dean must laugh his ass off about that one. Queen of lies - so dramatic, Sam."

"I doubt Dean is laughing about anything right now." He pulled his arm away from her. Ruby’s familiarity with him pulled him apart, between wanting to lean into her light caresses and knowing from the tattoo that this woman was not to be trusted. Maybe he had been alone for too long without physical affection. Was he with Ruby this way yesterday or last week? When was the last time someone cared for him and touched him after Dean was taken away?

"It's ok. I get it, Sam. It's not fair and you're confused." She withdrew her small hand at his initial protest but then reached back to rub his arm as if gentling a racehorse. "Since Dean was taken, we've become close. Like really close. I take care of you now. I’ll always take care of you."

“And yet you didn’t know where I was staying?” He raised one eyebrow at her.

“It’s not my fault that you pulled a Houdini and disappeared. Think about it, Sam. That’s why my number is in your phone, so we can keep in touch.”

“And the tattoo?”

“We had an argument and your friend Bobby doesn’t like me very much. Guess it seemed like a good idea to you at the time.”

She reached her hand up, running it over the top Sam's ear, through the thick hair there and then back along the stubbled jawline, resting it on his cheek. He closed his eyes and leaned into the soothing motion, feeling her lips softly skate over his. At that touch, he jerked a little and with the motion, she moved in closer and increase the pressure of the kiss, sliding her wet tongue in between his lips while holding the back of his head. He couldn't move away and didn’t really want to, letting himself relax into the warmth and comfort of her mouth.

Ruby stepped back and grabbed the hem of her black t-shirt, pulling it quickly over her head, ruffling her glossy dark hair. She shimmied out of her jeans and within a moment, stood before him in a black lace bra and matching panties, all of which spoke of familiar territory between the two of them.

She eased up onto the bed, straddling his hips between her knees and grinding down on his cock. The demon appeared delicate but was strong enough to hold him in place. He felt boneless and light headed as the blood rushed to the point of contact between them. The friction and her lips sucking under his jawline made him clench and unclench his hands at his side, still unwilling to hold her but unable to push her away.

"How many times, Ruby?" he gasped hoarsely. "How many times have we done this?"

"So many. It's always good. You need to trust me on that, baby."

She pushed Sam onto his back on the bed, and began to kiss down this throat. Sam then flipped them over his legs parting her thighs and hard cock pressed firmly into her soft stomach as they laid hip to hip. Long dark eyelashes framed her eyes which were almost fully dilated to black, giving Sam pause. He thought about Dean’s eyelashes as they sat together in that diner the last morning they were together. Almost blond in the sunlight but just as long, framing green eyes not black. It was as if he had fallen into a shadow world, darkness surrounding him here, dragging him down.

He grabbed her hair and pulled back, searching her eyes for what her game was in all of this, what angle she was playing. The demon relaxed in submission under him.

"It's all on you, Sam. What do you want to do? If you want to stop, we can stop," she purred.

She was lying open and willing beneath him, urging him on with that unknowable smile like a dark Mona Lisa. This desire and darkness felt right, like a familiar place he had visited many times, but a small distant voice that sounded like his brother's called out a warning to him. Sam shook his head. Dean wasn't here with him in this dirtbag motel, reliving every day without the safety net of his memories. Dean wasn't here to argue with him about what to do or not do. Dean wasn’t here to comfort and guide him. Sam had to figure things out on his own.

He pressed in against her, spreading her legs even more. She reached down and opened his jeans, sliding one small hand through to wrap around his cock. The touch of her hand lit him up like a live electric wire, the jolt shooting through his balls and up his spine, as she stroked him slowly. As Sam arched up into her touch, she shifted his jeans and underwear further down his hips so that his cock was exposed, hanging down hard and hot. She released him and grabbed his hipbones, grinding him against that perfect juncture where the smoothness of her thighs met the roughness of the lace. He closed his eyes, feeling the heat and warmth of her body, letting out a soft moan as the pressure behind his balls built up.

This wasn’t romance, this wasn’t love, this was just need and want and apparently they were both fine with that.

"Don't tease me, Sam. Fuck me hard. I can take it. You can’t hurt me." Ruby's voice whispered in his ear. Sam released her, running his hand over her breast, lingering only for a moment on her nipple, before trailing down to her hip bone and moving between her legs. He tugged the panties to the side only enough to glide his fingers beneath to where she was hot and slick.

She began to squirm as he rubbed her clit inside the lace, each pass over it making her breath catch. Sam pulled back to look at her face again, with those red lips parted, and he could pretend in that moment that she was just another beautiful woman.

"Sam, stop making me wait. I want this, baby.”

At that, he stepped back and yanked the panties down her legs. He took his cock in hand, stroking it slowly, spreading the precome over the tip. Ruby took over quickly, no wanting to wait to see if Sam changed his mind, not wanting to draw this out, and grasped his erection which looked enormous in her delicate hand and guided it to her pussy. As he entered her, he wondered if he would pull her apart but they fit together like puzzle pieces, cut to an exact match. It only took a few thrusts before he was coming inside of her and losing himself inside that darkness.

---



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Standing in the bathroom under a flickering fluorescent light afterwards, Sam wiped the condensation off the mirror and studied his reflection. His chestnut-colored hair was wet from the shower but still the same unruly mess it always was, only longer, brushing the bottom of his ears. While he had the same lean muscles as before, he looked gaunt. When he hunted with Dean, his brother was a mother hen about food, constantly after him to eat. As annoying as it was, Dean had kept Sam at a decent weight. It wasn’t until he left for Stanford that he would ignore mealtimes in favor of sitting at the library, and his physique became more lanky.

Looking at his reflection now, it seemed that whenever Dean was absent from his life, the life blood was sucked from Sam's body.

In that unflattering blue-white light, his eye was drawn to a scattering of several more tattoos across his torso. The anti-possession tattoo, a twin of the one his brother wore on his left pec, anchored him to the man he was before and the brother he loved. They had split a fifth of whisky before going to the tattoo parlor that night. Two bad-ass hunters who were a little squeamish about needles seemed funny at the time. Dean sat by his side during the whole thing, filling the time up with stories about when he and John hunted while Sam was at Stanford.

Reading the rest of the symbols across his body was like opening up a new book. Sam ran his fingers over a pair of angel wings sitting opposite on his right pec, with the words BANISH BY BLOOD below it. This looked like his freshest tattoo, the blue lettering standing out strongly against the paleness of his skin. The design of the wings above the lettering was older and it was stunning, each sweeping feather beautifully defined.

How many tattoo artists had been stumped by Sam's requests to transfer information and skip the artistry?

His fingers trailed down his stomach and began to trace a ring of recent scar tissue. Rather than inked by a tattoo artist, this circular sigil was carved into his skin by a box cutter or pen knife. It had to have been painful when made. The scar was still red and the design underlying it carefully executed. It reminded him of a devil's trap but simpler with different Enochian symbols around the inside and outside of the ring, topped by a triangular design. Did this have to do with his powers now made latent by Lilith's attack? He should call Bobby to ask. He pulled out a notepad and small pencil from under his towel and made a note.

The last set of tattoos sat on the inside of his right wrist and contained three lines. The first two were in Enochian while the third was in English. The years he spent studying arcane languages at Bobby's house paid off and on the notepad he translated the words MICHAEL and LUCIFER. His heart clenched at those two names together and the implication behind it, but it was the third line that made his blood run cold.

ALWAYS SAY NO

Ruby was dressed when he walked out of the bathroom. "We need to go. The guy I told you about? He really wants to meet you but we got to move quickly, drive down to a warehouse in Downey. He won't wait forever."

"Explain to me, how is this guy going to help us? Does he know Lilith? Is he another demon?" Sam was ramped up, looking forward to taking some action finally.

"Demon? No, definitely not a demon but he and Lilith knew each other. If there's anyone who can help you get Dean back, he's the one."

"Ok." Sam turned away and started packing his duffel back up.

"Ok?” Ruby snorted. “That’s it? Really, Sam? You're not going to fight with me or ask a bunch of questions?"

"Why would I? Everyone keeps yanking my chain. If you say this person can help, then let's go. I'm tired of hiding or whatever it is I've been doing this last year."

"Is that what you’ve been doing, Sam? Hiding from me? Did Crowley tell you to do that? He loves to make things difficult." In response to her question, Sam absently rubbed the crossroads sigil in the crook of his elbow which unlike the other tattoos was inked in red. "Sam, he is just a stupid crossroads demon, and he is only keeping you close to protect himself."

"Not just a crossroads demon. King of the Crossroads," he repeated back Crowley's words and wondered what protection a powerful demon could get from a damaged human like himself.

Ruby snorted at that. "Lucifer must love the ego of this one. He'll hunt him down and eviscerate him on an endless loop, broadcasting it for all of hell to see. I'll wait for you out in the car. We can drive together."

As she left the room, he picked up the folded note from the nightstand and carefully placed it in his wallet along with the cash Crowley had given him. He looked at his phone for a minute, caressing the screen edge with his thumb before opening up the photos folder again. Flipping through them, he now recognized Crowley and Ruby but knew that he wouldn't remember them tomorrow. It was another photo that got his full attention this time, that made a cold chill run up his backbone. It was the blurry shot of Dean talking disinterestedly to a woman with her back to the camera. A petite woman with long brown hair and a leather jacket.

---

Sam watched the orange Mustang ahead of him as it weaved aggressively in and out of Los Angeles traffic and matched its moves in the Impala. He’d convinced Ruby that he should take his own car so they wouldn’t need to come back for it. Picking up the phone, he dialed Bobby.

"Sam, it's good to hear from you, son. Where are you at?" If Bobby was surprised to hear from Sam, he didn't show it.

"I'm in California near LA, Bobby. I'm following Ruby right now and she wants me to meet someone."

"Ruby? You know that can't be a good thing, right? Watch out for that one, Sam."

Hearing Bobby's gruff voice reminded him of being a four-year-old child dropped off in South Dakota while Dad and Dean headed out to Wisconsin on a case. As Sam found out later, that was Dean's first case and he’d been giddy with the chance to prove his worth to their father. Dean hadn’t looked back once as the Impala headed down the dusty driveway.

Sam kept for hours busy exploring Bobby's messy old house, pulling books from the shelf, examining tools on Bobby’s worktable in the garage, petting his big dog who patiently allowed him to hold onto his collar as they walked around the yard. Sam ended up curled up on the couch around a book about fantastical creatures, crying for his brother.

The older man had picked up the sleepy and distraught four-year-old and slung him up on his hip while answering the FBI and State Police phones in the kitchen for other hunters. The rumble of Bobby's voice as Sam laid his head on his chest had felt like comfort and home.

"Yeah, I know, Bobby" Sam waited a few heartbeats before asking his next question. "How long ago did Dean go to hell? How much time has passed?"

"About 18 months. Why? What did you see?"

"I haven't seen anything. How about Ruby? When did she come back in the picture?"

"Maybe 12 months from what you’ve said before. Sounds like she had to battle her back out of hell to get here. Sam, listen to me carefully. You should turn that car around and get as far as you can away from that demon. She's always pulls you around like a puppy on a leash. Besides, there's some crazy demon signs out there in Southern California and it's making me nervous. I think you might be walking into the middle of something."

"Like what?"

"I'd rather not say over the phone. Turn the car around and make for my place. Write yourself a note about it right now, but whatever you do, get away from Los Angeles."

"Ruby has a lead on Dean, and I have to check it out. I'll call you when I'm done." He pushed the End Call icon before Bobby could respond and threw the phone down on the black leather next to him, watching it bounce once on the bench seat before landing in the wheel well.

Ruby was lying, Crowley was useless, and Bobby was cryptic. If he was going to save Dean, he needed to do it himself.

As he leaned down to reach for the phone on the floor of the car, he saw a black Sharpie next to it. He sat up, pen in hand, yanking the lid off with his teeth, pushing up his plaid shirt sleeve to expose an empty spot on the inside of his right elbow.

Sam was determined to get this written down before he forgot the next morning. He didn't know why Dean was back and hadn't reached out to him. Or maybe he had. The thought that he had seen Dean, touched his brother who was alive and walking around this world, and Sam had not remembered it? It was going to overwhelm him. He shook his head to clear the tears that threatened to come. This fact was too important to let slip back into the darkness of his memories the next morning.

DEAN IS BACK
RUBY KNOWS

He pulled his sleeve back down as Ruby's orange Mustang pulled off the road and proceeded towards a small warehouse.

---



 photo sambigbang1_zpsuz5xettt.jpg

The inside of the warehouse was lit by a string of naked bulbs, each throwing off a meager dirty light. The interior was colder than the California night outside and Sam zipped up his hoodie against the chill.

"Ruby, you sure this is the right spot?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure, Sam." She walked ahead of him, leading him through stacks of wooden crates, piled six feet high around them, the corridors reminding him of a rat’s maze.

As they approached the center of the warehouse, a figure appeared. Leaning against a work table with arms folded across his chest and legs crossed in front nonchalantly, it appeared to be a man but the light bulb behind him only illuminated a halo of short spiky blonde hair but the shadows it cast made it difficult to see his face.

"Sam, you're here. It's always good to see you."

The familiarity of the greeting threw him. "Do I know you? You're a friend of Ruby's?" Sam squinted in the semi-darkness and as his eyes adjusted to the shadows, the man's features became more clear. He appeared to be just an ordinary man with blue eyes, wearing an olive green shirt and blue jeans, an outfit that would be at home in John Winchester’s duffel bag.

"Well, I'm more of a mentor to Ruby than friend, Sam.” The man paused and looked him over. It felt invasive and possessive. “Sam, it feels as if we've known each other forever. You know, I've been keeping track of you since you were a child." The blonde shifted his weight and stood up, almost as tall as Sam.

At the man’s movement towards him, Sam’s hackles rose and he felt an urgency to run, as if instinct was telling him this was an apex predator and he was prey.

"Keeping track? How?" His voice cracked on the last word.

The man smiled and glanced at Ruby and back to Sam. "Well, there are some benefits to being an angel with friends on the ground." Ruby gazed with worship at this man, and a bomb could have dropped in the room without her noticing.

Sam thought back to the tattoos on his wrist. This was an angel. Not just any angel but an archangel. If it were Michael, Ruby would have run for the exits. That left only one option.

"You're Lucifer.” His eyes went wide and he took a step back. He shot the demon in the room a baleful look, clenching his jaw. “Dean was right about you from the start, you manipulative bitch."

Ruby walked across the room to him. "Don't you see, Sam? He can help you in every way - heal your mind, find your brother. It's all you’ve wanted for the last year and a half. I figured out a solution so that everyone wins. Just listen to what he has to say."

"So it was all a lie, Ruby? You and I going after Lilith?" Sam's question brought a confused look to Ruby's face which was fleeting before she broke out in laughter.

"Oh, honey, we iced that bitch months ago. We had to do some pretty big mojo to bring back the Devil and you killing her was the cherry on top. I know you don’t remember, but Sam, you were so happy that day. Killing Lilith was a good thing and needed to happen to bring us here."

He felt tears prick the corner of his eyes and his stomach clenched tight. The pictures on his phone had told the story of how he worked with Ruby, all the things they had done together, but he hadn’t been able to string the story together until now. Everything his life was built around - vengeance on Lilith - was a lie. Sam fell to his knees on the cold, hard floor and clutched his abdomen; he felt like he was going to be sick on the warehouse floor. That's when he felt it. The scar tissue under his shirt was now warming up to his touch. He thought about the Enochian sigil carved into his skin and another piece fell into place. A blood sigil, not a tattoo. It needed his blood to work.

He looked up to find Lucifer smiling benignly down at him. "Sam, I know this is confusing but really it boils down to one thing. Do you want my help? You can put the power of heaven behind you and see your brother again. All you have to do is say yes to me." The archangel looked confident as to the answer, like a parent eager to give their child a long desired gift.

"No. No, that's not going to happen. Crowley said you need my permission."

Sam stepped back and raised the hem of his t-shirt. The sigil started to glow and burn like hot coals, his skin tight and painful, and he grabbed his stomach in an attempt to stop the pain. In that moment, as his hand touched the sigil, a white-blue light streamed across the warehouse. It was like being in the middle of a tornado of light and sound and pain. It was like ground zero for an atomic bomb.

When the light died down, the archangel was gone and Sam was lying alone on the dirty concrete floor, his head pulsing with a burning hot intensity. His insides felt as if they had been put through a Cuisinart and then shoved back into his body. Warmth flowed down his cheeks but whether it was blood or tears, he couldn't say.

A hand was shaking his shoulder and Ruby's face came into view. Her mouth moved angrily, but no sound came out. Sam didn’t have the energy to lift his arms, to push her away, to tell her he was done with her lies. He couldn't even turn his head away so he closed his eyes until she released his shoulder and moved out of view.

The wall of silence was his only comfort given the extreme level of pain he felt in his head and throughout his body. He wasn't sure how long he lay on that warehouse floor, it could have been minutes or it could have been hours, but the warmth of his body was beginning to leach into the concrete, chilling his bones. If it weren’t for the thought of Dean and the desire to find him now that he was back from hell, Sam would have let go in that moment, drifting away from this life and his pain.

As he considered the comfort of release, Sam could see another figure approaching in his peripheral vision and wondered if Ruby had returned, perhaps to put her blade through him for frustrating the plan, but more than likely to watch over him for Lucifer to return from wherever Sam sent him with the blood sigil. They needed him as Lucifer's vessel.

As the angel or demon or man neared him, a ring of light from the naked bulb surrounded them and once again, all he could see was short spiked hair and an olive-colored jacket. Panic began to eat through the pain. Sam should have known that whatever reprieve he had would be short. Lucifer was the most powerful entity in the world and a banishing spell would only stop him for so long. Tears leaked from the corner of his eye, rolling slowly down into his hair as he thought of lying there, impotent and weak, at the angel's mercy.

The person crouched down to where Sam lay and the face came slowly into focus. Sam had to blink once, twice, to understand what he was seeing.

Dean. His brother was with him in this cold, dark warehouse. Could it be that instead of your life flashing before your eyes in your final moments, you saw your greatest wish come true, like some kind of djinn dream? Maybe his wish to see Dean one more time before death was being granted.

As Dean reached down and cupped the back of Sam’s head, relief flowed through Sam. His brother looked well, no physical signs of how his time in hell must have marked him, but his face held a blankness that was so unlike the softness and affection that was the core of Dean and the fingers that were wrapped around his head were colder than the concrete below him. How and when Dean had come back from hell didn't matter. What mattered was that his brother was with Sam here, in this final moment.

As Sam gazed up at his brother, Dean touched two fingers to his forehead and the change was instantaneous. No more pain, no more headache, just a feeling of wellbeing, of bliss. His body floated in perfect comfort and warmth, although he was still too exhausted to move. Dean continued to hold his head but made no move to hug him as Sam expected and needed him to do, instead choosing to study his face calmly.

"How?" Sam croaked weakly. "How are you here?"

"Always so problematic, Sam." Dean ignored the question but Sam flashed back to the mysterious photo on his phone with Dean talking to a brunette.

"It was Ruby, wasn’t it? Did she help you escape?"

"A legion of angels pulled Dean from hell, not some third-rate demon. They fought their way through hell to bring him back and put him on the playing field where we needed him. Everyone is ready for the final battle but there is one problem. We need you to play your part, little brother. Yet, each time you stubbornly refuse."

Looking deep into those familiar green eyes, Sam finally saw it. What was missing. It was just like St Louis all over again. "You're not Dean."

"Oh, but I am. Dean was grateful that we pulled him out of hell but not grateful enough to agree to be my vessel right away. That took some time. In the end, we offered to either help his poor damaged little brother or kill him. You see, Sam, it was Dean’s choice in the end. All it took was the right leverage. It didn’t take much convincing for him to realize that in your current state, you would say yes, whether it was by mistake or because Lucifer somehow convinced you. By agreeing to be my vessel, he thought he could protect you. That the two of you could somehow come out the other side of the Apocalypse together."

“So you lied to him? Serving me up to Lucifer isn’t protection.”

The long-suffering look the angel gave him made Sam sick. Dean had sacrificed himself for their end game because he didn't have faith in Sam’s damaged memories and because the angels lied.

"Please let him go," Sam pleaded quietly, still unable to do anything more than lay motionless in this imposter’s arms, the scene a pale shadow of the many times his brother offered him comfort throughout their lives.

"Out of the question. What we need is for you to get with the program.” Now that the pretense had been set aside, the angel spoke like a field general used to having orders followed. “Since it will take a while for my brother to make his way back, and you won't remember any of this, I need to take steps to ensure your cooperation."

Archangels and brothers. Michael was the big brother and Lucifer his little brother. Sam knew the stories but hadn’t thought about their relationship before.

Sam glanced down at the blue symbols tattooed on his right wrist where the angels’ names peeked out of his sleeve. The angel followed his gaze.

"Yes, your tattoos have been quite amusing but now it's time for them to go." Michael reached down and pushed up Sam’s shirt sleeve. Almost too gently for his harsh words, he grasped Sam’s wrist and as Sam watched in horror, the blue Enochian symbols inked on his skin disappeared, each line wiped clean as if the tattoos never existed. The names went first followed by the instructions to ‘always say no’.

"No, no, no, you can't do this." Sam struggled to sit up, to pull his arm away from the angel who held it. Michael now grasped his other wrist and the notes on Ruby and Crowley disappeared like smoke.

Sam couldn't hold back the tears of frustration, which squirted further down his cheeks as he squeezed his eyes closed. When tomorrow came, he would be blissfully unaware of all the puzzle pieces and of the enormity of the stakes of this game.

"I have to admit that the blood sigil for banishment was a smart trick, Sam, but we can't allow that to happen again." He brought his hand to rest where Sam’s t-shirt was still rucked up and his stomach exposed. The sigil was burnt out, a grey and useless shadow of its former power. As the angel rested his fingers lightly on the ridges of scar tissue, Sam’s stomach smoothed out, becoming as soft and unmarked as a baby’s.

He weakly grasped the angel’s wrist to get his attention, to draw his eyes up to him. “Dean, I know you’re in there somewhere. I’m sorry. I will find a way to make this all right.”

“No, Sam, you won’t. What you will do is say yes, and it will happen the next time you see Lucifer. One insignificant, damaged man isn’t going to stop the Apocalypse.”

Michael laid Sam’s head back down on the hard concrete floor and the last thing he saw was the angel bringing two fingers to his forehead again before the darkness surrounded him.

---

The sound of traffic outside the motel was the first thing that Sam heard when he woke up. Trucks pulling in and out nearby combined with the muted sounds of conversation and laughter between co-workers. Sam thought that maybe the motel was next to a gas station or a warehouse.

Not that he could remember.

As he moved to get up, the slick feel of a cheap comforter under his fingers made him realize that he must have fallen asleep on top of rather than under the covers of the bed. Looking down at the dusty clothes and jacket that he hadn’t changed out of, Sam was grateful for once that he couldn’t remember what happened the day before.

He ran his hands through his hair and over the stubble on his cheek, feeling that something was missing. He squinted his eyes at the base of the window but there was no salt line there. Weird because he always put a salt line out. And wouldn't he have set an alarm to wake up? It sounded like something that he would have done.

A glance at the empty nightstand worried him as well. Dad and Dean liked routines, especially when they moved from place to place so often, and it was a consistent habit for Sam to put his phone, his keys and wallet next to the bed. If there wasn’t a hunt last night, then what could have happened to throw him off his routines so much?

His clothes looked a mess but physically, Sam felt great, like Rip Van Winkle waking from his long sleep. Doing a quick mental and physical inventory, he felt no injuries or pain which was odd. His shoulder where Bela shot him had always acted up in the morning, giving him a twinge before he could fully stretch it out. No twinge this morning. He felt under the tshirt for the scar but felt nothing. He remembered the night he received it and Dean patching him up in the motel afterwards. Instinctively, he knew that quite a bit of time had passed since the incident with Bela happened. Scars might fade over time but to disappear completely? Something wasn’t adding up.

Reaching into his coat pocket, Sam was relieved to find a smartphone and a small crumpled note with his block printing that said READ ME.

Maybe this was the first clue to help him understand all of this. To help him kill Lilith. To help him save Dean.