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Counteroffer

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About two weeks after Sam gutted a hellhound, completing the first trial, he started acting weird. Well, weirder.

He'd been staying up late, working his way through the Batcave's extensive collection of books, starting with the occult section — texts in every language, some of them written on pages that were most definitely not paper. That wasn't the weird part.

What threw Dean for a loop was that Sam didn't take breaks anymore. Maybe to pee, or shower and change his clothes, but that was about it. Or at least, he didn't take breaks during Dean's waking hours. Sam ate methodically, next to his books, his eyes never leaving the pages. The few times Dean had seen him sleeping, it was with his head on the table.

"I'm gonna go check on Kevin," Dean said, waiting for a nod, or a word of acknowledgement.

Sam turned the page.

"Might be gone a few days." Dean leaned back in his seat and propped his feet on the table nudging one of Sam's books with his boot.

That got his attention. Sam looked over at Dean and smiled stiffly. "Go, I'll be fine."

"Really? You gonna use your bed? I got you one of those awesome foam mattresses, but it looks like you've barely touched it."

"Why are you looking at my mattress?" Sam asked, his eyes already shifting back to the musty book in front of him.

"Because you're never in your bed when I think you are, so all I see is your mattress." Dean stood up and turned to the door, his shoulders suddenly heavy with sorrow. Of course Sam was acting weird. He'd signed up to do all three trials, with no idea what would happen to him. That's probably why he was reading all of the books — to prepare. It was supposed to be me, dammit, he thought again for the tenth time that day.

"No it wasn't. It was supposed to be me," Sam said.

Prickles ran up Dean's spine as he stopped in his tracks. He turned slowly back to Sam.

"Did you just—"

"It has to be me," Sam said. "Don't you get it?"

Dean swallowed. "No, I don't." Sam had heard him think, he'd heard him—

"Go check on Kevin," Sam said, his eyes never leaving his book. "I'm not going anywhere."

******

The drive back to the Batcave felt longer than it should have, every stretch of highway seemed twice as long. Dean hadn't been able to shake the thought from his brain since he'd left, three days ago. Sam had read his mind. He'd heard his thoughts.

He wasn't even sure why he'd left. Kevin was fine. He was busy working on the second trial translation, and sleeping even less than Sam seemed to be, but he was in one piece and he was safe. Garth might be a few cards short of a full deck, but he was a good guy at heart, and he took keeping Kevin safe very seriously.

As he turned down the first side road that took him off the main routes and towards home, Dean pushed his worries down again, trying not to think of yellow-eyes, or Ruby, or Sam with his mouth covered in blood. Sam had been psychic before everything went to hell. Literally. Well sort of psychic, anyway. Maybe that's all it was — reading all the stuff the Men of Letters had collected in the bunker probably triggered his hyper-nerdiness, manifesting as telepathy. That had to be it.

It was nearly 2 a.m. when Dean finally stuck the key into the lock. Sam was probably still up, still reading, still—

The library was empty. Dean let his duffel drop to the floor and took a breath, debating on whether he should call out for his brother, or look for him quietly.

When he turned down the hall that housed their bedrooms, he knew he'd made the right choice by staying quiet. Sam's door was open, just a crack. They kept their rooms closed during the day, but both slept with their doors open just enough to hear the other. It wasn't something they'd ever admit, but a lifetime of sleeping feet away from each other made it hard to sleep without hearing the other one breathing. At least, that's how Dean felt, and obviously Sam felt the same way.

His heart already a little lighter, Dean slowed when he got to his door, but then kept going, his feet leading him towards Sam, out of habit. Carefully he put his fingertips on Sam's door and pushed as gently as he could. Some of the doors here creaked, and even though he'd painstakingly oiled his door, and Sam's, he didn't want to risk waking Sam up from what had to be his first night of actual sleep in an actual bed.

Sam was laying on his bed, face down, right arm hanging slightly off the edge. Even in the dim light, Dean could see the curves of Sam's shoulders and triceps. He'd slimmed down over the last two years — memories of Lucifer and madness making it too difficult to eat well, let alone keep up with their regular strength training drills. But tonight, he looked healthy, his back broad in the white t-shirt that looked snug instead of loose.

Maybe Sam had taken a break from the books after all and hit the gym on the lower levels. The Men of Letters had a hell of a gym, even if it was dated — full boxing ring, a whole row of bags and these huge heavy balls with handles on them.

Sleep tight, Sammy, Dean thought, as he pulled the door shut.

Just before he reached his own room, he could've sworn he heard Sam laugh.

******

Dean fell asleep quickly, the exhaustion of the long drive and his worries about Sam, mixing with the relief at finding his brother sleeping soundly. He dreamt, like he usually did, of the highway — the soothing thrum of his baby's engine running through his bones, and the sound of Zeppelin on the radio. Sam sat beside him, and the sun outside was warm in a clear, open sky.

"Where are we going, Dean?" Sam asked, turning to him with overly bright teeth and a smile so wide it made him look years younger.

Dean shrugged, wondering why Sam had never asked him that before. In these dreams, they never had anywhere to go, they drove, because that's what they did — the open road was their home, it always had been. But they had a home now, a bunker with walls, and beds and they didn't have to drive every day, they could rest and be safe.

"You think we're safe?" Sam asked, his smile fading a little. His mouth was still curved up, hints of dimples in his cheek, but his voice had lost its warmth. "Because we've got a door to lock, and beds?"

"And showers, and a friggin' library that you love — don't even pretend like you don't love those books. I see how you look at 'em." Dean shifted his hands on the steering wheel, the grip softer than it should be, feathery, like his pillow, instead of the solid, slightly cracked vinyl over metal it should be.

The sky outside faded from light blue to grey as Dean fought against his own subconscious, trying to ground himself in the dream's quickly tilting equilibrium. Something was wrong.

Really wrong.

The back seat of the Impala moved underneath him and felt warm and alive like a body, two strong arms squeezing around his ribs, and Sam's voice was in his ear, saying, "That's not why we're safe, Dean."

Dean woke up, gasping for air, his chest tight. He leapt out of his bed and turned back to stare at his mattress, but it was empty.

******

The next morning, Sam was already in the library, drinking coffee as he studied one of the five books on the table in front of him.

Dean walked groggily up the few steps to the library and watched Sam drinking. He looked fine — better than fine. His eyes and skin were clear, and he was wearing one of his soft grey t-shirts, no flannel in sight. "You're not cold?" Dean asked, pulling his robe tighter around him. The hairs on his bare legs thought it was cold, and he rubbed his left calf with his slippered foot wondering why Sam hadn't raised the thermostat.

"No."

"Good morning to you, too," Dean said as he grabbed the metal coffee pot on the warmer in front of him. It felt suspiciously light. "You didn't leave me any?"

"Thought you'd be asleep longer." Sam looked at Dean, and narrowed his eyes. "You got home late."

Dean grabbed an empty mug and filled it with what was left of the coffee. Half-filled it. "I didn't think you heard me."

Sam's mouth twitched in amusement. "Lifetime of sleeping with one eye open — not easy to shake."

"You got that right," Dean swirled the half cup of coffee around and then downed it in one big swig. "I'm gonna make more, you want more?"

"Sure." Sam leaned back in his chair, holding a small red book up close to his eyes. Small print, probably. "Actually, breakfast would be awesome. You hungry?"

Dean's stomach rumbled as he tried to remember when he'd last eaten. "Yeah. Omelette? We've still got a bunch of those peppers and mushrooms left, I think."

"Yeah, that sounds great," Sam smiled up at him. "Thanks."

Dean smiled to himself as he walked to the kitchen. He wouldn't admit it, but he loved the kitchen more than any other part of their new home. He could cook, and he was getting better at it, now that they had a refrigerator and a stove.

He whistled 'Bad Company' to himself while he got the omelettes ready, and set them on plates a few minutes later, his fingers curled around two forks and the salt shaker.

The smell of eggs, vegetables, bacon and potatoes had filled the hall and he walked towards the library, proud of his work. He took the steps slowly, careful not to tilt the plates and raised his head just in time to see a book floating across the room right into Sam's hand.

The plate in his left hand shook precariously, but Dean kept it steady and forced himself to take the last few steps up and cross the floor to the table. He set Sam's plate down in front of him, expecting his brother to be flustered, or embarrassed, or giving him the full puppy-eyes treatment.

"Smells great," Sam said, his eyes still on the text in his new book. The one that he'd floated through the air.

Dean sat down across from him and let go of the two forks. He put the salt shaker down in front of him and stared at it, then back at Sam.

Without looking up, Sam held his hand out and one of the two forks obediently slid across the table and into his waiting fingers.

"Okay, what the hell, Sam?"

Sam lowered his book and cocked his head. "What?"

"You just Magneto-d that fork over to you! And that book!" Dean pointed angrily at the small, brown book Sam was holding.

"Magneto controls metal. The book's not metal."

"Whatever!" Dean stood up angrily. "Were you gonna tell me about this?"

Sam set the book on the table and cut off a piece of the omelette with his fork. "This is me telling you." He brought the forkful to his mouth and chewed. "Eat. This is delicious."

Apparently his body was hungry enough to override his angry brain, because Dean found himself sitting down again, mouth full of egg before he could protest that he'd lost his appetite. "When did it happen?" he asked after his fourth bite. "When'd you start—" He waved his fork around.

"After the first trial."

"That was weeks ago."

"Yeah," Sam ate another bite of potatoes. "It was the hellhound blood, I think."

"The blood?" Dean's throat closed as he fought back memories of Sam strapped to the cot in Bobby's panic room, covered in his own sick and sweat. "I thought— you bathed in it, right? Like the tablet said. You didn't drink—"

"Not on purpose," Sam leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "But a few drops hit my tongue."

"A few drops?" Dean tapped the end of his fork against the table. "And that was enough to flip your powers back on?"

Sam shrugged. "I was covered in that thing's blood. It soaked through my shirt, into my skin."

"Yeah, I remember. You spent twenty minutes in the shower, with your clothes, and your shirt was still ruined." Dean set his fork down, and walked over to the coffee-machine to refill their pot.

"Hellhounds aren't demons," Sam said quietly. "They don't possess anyone when they're up here. Their blood is pure. Undiluted."

Dean's hand clenched on the coffee-pot as he turned to head back to the table. His vision flashed with the most horrific image his brain could conjure — Sam in the shower, back at that ranch in Shoshone, wringing the hellhound-blood-soaked shirt over his mouth, sucking the black ichor down like it was nectar. "So that's what did it?" Dean sat back down and offered Sam more coffee. "Those few drops."

Sam nodded at the coffee pot and then at Dean. "Looks like."

"And you're not..." Dean exhaled sharply through his nose. "Feeling the need for more?"

Sam smiled and shook his head. "It's not like demon blood. It doesn't go away."

"Come again?"

"It opened doors and…they're not closing. If anything, I'm still getting stronger."

Dean took a few healthy sips of his coffee. "Okay."

"Okay?" Sam cocked an eyebrow. "You're not gonna freak out?"

"Would that change anything?"

"No."

Dean's eyes landed on Sam's book. It was hand-written in a language Dean didn't recognize. All lines and arrows and triangles. "Since when do you read…whatever that is?"

"Cuneiform."

"Cuneiform. Don't you need your laptop for that?"

Sam nodded towards where his computer sat, at the other end of the table. "Who says I'm not using my laptop?"

The laptop's battery light was off, and he hadn't seen Sam open it in days, come to think of it. Dean's eyes started to ache with confusion. Or maybe annoyance. "It just looked like you were, you know, reading the book."

"Not that hard a language, really," Sam shrugged and drank his coffee, his eyes still on Dean.

"Kevin's doing fine, by the way. He isn't done with the second trial translation yet, but he will be — soon," Dean brought another piece of potato to his mouth but it had gotten cold.

"Good. What does he have so far?" Sam leaned forward in his chair. He looked genuinely interested.

"He's not done," Dean shrugged. "He showed me what he had on the wall, but it was all jumbled and most of it wasn't even translated into English."

"What do you remember?" Sam asked.

His brother's voice sounded odd, and Dean suddenly felt a pulse in his temple — the start of a headache, probably.

"Uh…" Dean closed his eyes against the suddenly over-bright lights in the library and tried to remember. Kevin had pinned up hundreds of post-its and scraps of paper with symbols — some of them had been Enochian, he recognized the curvature, but others he'd never even seen before.

"Did you see the tablet?" Sam's voice asked. He sounded far away.

Dean pressed his fingertips against his temple which had gone from a mild ache to a heavy throb — a piercing pain shooting through his skull.


"Kevin's half of the tablet, did you get a look at it?" Sam asked again.

The tabletop underneath Dean's fingers felt cool and he found himself leaning forwards, eager to touch his burning skin to its surface. Images flashed through his brain, like a film-reel in reverse and he saw the boathouse: Kevin's pasty skin; his sad little fridge with nothing but hot-dogs, cans of spam and go-ghurt; the wall with dozens of pastel squares covered in lettering and the desk — the desk with Kevin's iPod and the tablet.

"Hell," Sam said. It sounded less like a curse, and more like a revelation.

Dean's headache disappeared and the table was so gloriously cool when he laid his head down on it.

******

It was a weird afternoon. Dean found himself downstairs in the armory, standing in front of the two big doors — the only two he and Sam hadn't been able to open since they moved in.

That wasn't the weird part. What was weird was that Dean couldn't remember telling Sam that he was heading down, or why he'd decided to. Well that wasn't right either. He remembered saying he thought there was a tank behind those doors, or maybe an old transport — or a garage, if he was lucky. The impala was in need of a tune-up anyway, and if he was right and there was a garage then it'd be filled with classic Men of Letters style equipment — antique, but pristine and fully functional. Of course they'd never found a back entrance to the bunker, but there had to be one — how else would they get their tank in and out?

He just couldn't remember when he'd told Sam he was heading down, or what Sam was up to. Every time he tried to remember there was a fog in his brain, and he gave up, focusing again on the doors. The lock was straightforward enough, just insanely heavy — there was a large, galvanized gear in the center that should have turned when Dean turned the crank mounted to the right of the two doors. But it just wouldn't turn. He'd have to go into the wall to see where the mechanism was failing. He'd been putting it off, unwilling to take a pickaxe to the wall, but this was the day. He'd figure out what was on the other side, and then take a break for lunch— dinner with Sam.

******

After a solid three hours, Dean had made it through a sizable chunk of wall, revealing solid metal underneath. He'd have to go further, but his arms were shaky from use and his shirt was soaked with sweat.

He walked back up the stairs to the main level slowly, intending to go get food, but then thought better of it and went to take a shower first. A storm had started outside — loud enough that he heard the thunder strikes reverberating through the heavy walls. Lightning flashed as he passed by one of the few sections with a slim window and he smiled, thinking, Baby needs a wash anyway.

The water pressure was awesome, and the heat relaxed his tired muscles, making him sleepy.

Coffee…or nap? he asked himself.

Coffee was the best choice if he was going to keep going, but a nap sounded like a really good idea.

******

He woke up, some time close to eight at night — in his bed, and completely confused. His headache was worse than before, and his arms hurt like he'd spent hours…oh right.

"Getting old," he muttered to himself. He padded down the hall in his socks, heading instinctively towards Sam. Dinner‚ they had to have dinner. Sam was probably starving — knowing him, he hadn't had anything since breakfast.

"Sam?" Dean called out when he got within a few feet of the library. "Pizza?" He didn't feel up to cooking — not with the way his head was pounding, but there was a pizza place fifteen minutes away by car that was decent.

"Sam?" Dean called again, but he got no answer.

Thunder crashed again from outside, so loud and so close Dean could've sworn he heard a tree crack.

The library was dark, and for a minute Dean wondered if Sam had gone to bed, but then he saw something move.

He couldn't make it out in the dim light, but he picked up his pace, feeling deep in his gut that something was off.

His feet crunched and he looked down to see a shard of glass underneath his sock. Luckily he'd stepped on a flat piece.

"Sammy?" Dean called out, his heart starting to beat faster. "You okay?" He picked his way carefully, but as quickly as he could, through the shards until he reached the steps to the library. There was something moving on the table — something alive. The room stunk of ozone, sulfur and blood and whatever was on the table was making a sound — whimpering and low.

Dean leapt up the last few steps and stopped when he finally saw what it was. A hound — a hellhound made of shadow and power and burned flesh — spread out on the table like a grotesque centerpiece. And by its side was Sam, his head bent down over the beast's front right leg.

Sam's head moved ever so slightly as he drank mouthful after mouthful of its blood.

Minutes passed, and all Dean could do was watch — his feet locked into place.

When Sam finally looked up his mouth was covered in black and his eyes glowed as red as the hound's. "Did you open your doors?"

Dean shook his head.

"You need to open them. It's important."

"No," Dean said. Or that's what he thought he said, but Sam wasn't there, and he wasn't in the library. He was standing by himself down in the armory, staring at the locked doors.

******

Dean dreamt, like he usually did, of the highway — the soothing thrum of his baby's engine running through his bones, and the sound of Zeppelin on the radio. Sam sat beside him, and the sun outside was cold and red against a pale grey sky.

"Where are we going, Dean?" Sam asked, turning to him with overly bright teeth and a smile like a shark's.

"I don't know," Dean said. "Away. We have to get away from here."

"From where?" Sam asked.

"The...Men of Letters HQ...the Batcave, it's doing something to you. We've gotta find somewhere else."

"What's it doing to me?" Sam lowered his window and the air smelled like ashes and burning flesh.

"I don't know. All those books, maybe — maybe you read something, or touched something. There's stuff they had locked up that we opened — cursed stuff. It did something to you."

"No. You know what happened. You saw what I did. What I've been doing every day since we got back from Shoshone."

Dean's thumb tapped nervously against the rim of the steering wheel. "You've been pushing yourself too hard — not getting enough sleep. You're always in that room."

"That's right. The library has a summoning circle built right into the floor. Holds just about anything — even Hellhounds." Sam brought his long arms in front of him, interlaced his fingers, and stretched. His t-shirt was straining against his shoulders, and the muscles in his arms were thick and corded.

Dean's stomach clenched as he found himself saying what Sam wanted to hear. "It wasn't just a few drops, was it? You fell off the wagon."

Sam let out a soft huff. "More like jumped." He brought his left hand down on Dean's thigh and squeezed. "I had to. To keep us safe."

The sky outside had turned as red as the sun, and the only brightness came from Sam's eyes — red as embers.

Everything around them disappeared, fading into nothingness until all Dean could see was those eyes. He asked Sam what was happening, or he thought he did, but his mouth didn't work and something was holding him down — pinning his legs and his arms where he sat.

"You keep bringing us here," Sam's voice said, his breath warm against Dean's skin as he leaned over his throat. "You're scared. You're terrified of losing me, of the trials, of the whole damn thing."

The Impala's seat was long gone and Dean felt his body expand as he laid himself flat.

His bed was soft underneath him, the foam mattress curving itself around his back as the grips on his wrists and ankles tightened and somewhere, Sam was laughing — low and deadly.

"You don't have to be scared Dean. I figured it out. I get it now. It's Hell, Dean. I know Hell. And Hell knows me."

******

The doors were made of a metal Dean had never seen before. Iron and titanium, mostly, but there was something else running through them — veins of black streaking the surface that shimmered wet even though they were completely dry.

Dean had taken huge chunks out of the surrounding walls, one swing of the pickaxe at a time. He'd thought about switching to a jack-hammer, or C-4 at one point, but he couldn't leave the doors. He had to get them open. Now.

The gear in the center of the door seam taunted him, shining bright despite all the dust in the room.

Dean dropped the pickaxe and glared at the new blisters on his fingers. One of them had burst, leaving his pointer finger open and raw. He brought it to his mouth and tasted salt — sweat and a bead of blood.

He walked to stand in front of the gear, staring at it again. It should turn counterclockwise to open the massive bars holding the doors shut, but the crank on the wall just wasn't working. The black veins on the door looked thicker, closer to the gear, and on further inspection Dean saw that they were moving. Undulating ever so slightly, like they were alive. They were starting to spread, the smallest branches curling up around the pale metal of the gear.

Tentatively, Dean brought his raw finger to the center of the gear, and immediately pulled it back. The metal was hot — horribly, painfully hot. Hissing, Dean brought his poor finger back to his lips — another, larger blister already forming.

"Son of a bitch," Dean muttered. He'd have to stop and bandage his hand, douse it in antiseptic before going on. Sam wouldn't be happy about that.

Dean stopped short of the stairs, replaying his last thought. Why did Sam care about the doors?

As he climbed the steps and headed for the closest bathroom, Dean's mind spewed images at him — Sam covered in blood; Sam standing in the center of the library with every book they now owned suspended in mid air; a hellhound sliced open and dead and Sam by its side, laughing.

"Dean?" called a woman's voice. "Dean!"

Dean turned towards the voice and tried to remember what he'd just been thinking about. "Sheriff Mills?" He walked towards the sound of her voice.

The sheriff rounded the corner into the hall Dean was in and jogged the last few steps towards him. "You're okay, thank God." She put her hand on his shoulder and looked up at him, eyes filled with concern.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Dean asked.

Jody flinched and she stammered. "You called me, told me to hurry." She raised her eyebrows. "You said you were in trouble. I drove twelve hours straight to get here." She looked around. "This place is incredible, you weren't kidding."

Too confused to answer, Dean kept heading towards the bathroom and grabbed a roll of gauze and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the medicine cabinet. "You sure Sam didn't call you?" Dean asked as he headed back down the stairs to the armory, the sheriff trailing behind him. "Sorry, I just— I haven't picked up a phone in days."

"You—" Jody stepped in front of Dean. " You said Sam disappeared. You said he's been gone for over a week and you have no idea where he went. Dean—" She turned and looked at the huge holes he'd made in the wall on either side of the doors. "What the hell is going on?"

"I don't know." Dean shook his head, and moved closer to the wall. The lock in the center of the doors looked different. The black metal veins had covered it almost entirely except for one small circle in the center. It was bright silver. It shouldn't be. It should be red... Absently, he dropped the gauze and the bottle he was holding.

"What are you doing?" Jody asked. "Why'd you do that to the walls?"

"The doors won't open," Dean said as he moved forward, drawn towards the small silver spot.

"Doors? What doors?" she asked, her voice tight with fear.

The gear was almost solid black now, Dean had to hurry. He had to fix it. He reached out with his wounded finger, which was bleeding freely now, and touched the center of the lock. The small circle pulled on his skin, filling with red as it drew the blood out of him.

The veins covering the doors flooded with a brilliant red and pulsed like a giant heart. The seam between the two large metal blocks lit up bright white and then grew as the doors slowly opened inwards — away from Dean.

Out of the corner of Dean's eye, he saw Jody collapse. He tried to turn, to keep her from falling, but his feet wouldn't move, his head was frozen where it was and all he could do was watch as the light expanded, blinding him.

He tried to close his eyes, and thought maybe he did, but he couldn't be sure, too dazed by the brightness.

Then finally, the light started to recede and he heard his brother's voice.

"You did it," Sam said, his voice filled with awe. "You actually did it. I knew you wanted to, but I couldn't be sure, I thought—"

Strong arms folded around Dean pulling him in close, and Dean could smell Sam underneath the overwhelming stench of Hell — familiar and nauseating.

"It's over. It's done," Sam said, pulling back.

Dean blinked until he could start to see again — first a silhouette of his brother's head, his long hair, his broad shoulders, his arm as it moved to grab him by the shoulder. Sam was standing between the doors — they'd opened just a few feet, enough for him to stand in between them. His skin was streaked with blood, covering not just his face, but his neck, his clothes, everything. "The trials?" Dean asked, still blinking. There were still spots dancing in his vision and his head ached like he was finally waking up after sleeping for far too long. "Did you finish the trials?"

Sam tilted his head and his lips curved — not quite a smile but nearly, and his eyes shifted from hazel to yellow streaked with white. "We don't have to worry about them anymore."

"What are you talking about?" Dean asked, his whole world narrowing down to his brother's eyes.

Sam stepped all the way through and the doors behind him flaked away — turning into dust behind him. There was a gaping wound in the world, and it was growing — red flesh riddled with black veins spreading through the armory until the whole room was made of flesh and blood.

Dean took a step back, his foot touching bone instead of cement. He tried to turn away from Sam but he couldn't — he couldn't move and he couldn't think clearly and why couldn't he remember what he was supposed to be doing? He was supposed to be doing something. He had to get away — they had to get away. He had to keep Sam safe.

"Hell made a counteroffer." Sam placed his hand on Dean's shoulder, smiling down at him. "And I accepted."