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Since the Day We Parted

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"We have a problem," Toni Bevell said, lowering the phone.

Watt arched an eyebrow. "Which is, ma'am?"

"It seems Dean Winchester isn't as dead as we were informed."

Watt didn't actually say, So Sam Winchester was lying? To you? How surprising, but the insolence showed clearly in her expression. All she said aloud, however, was, "Shall I take care of it?"

Lady Toni hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. Attempt capture, if the odds seem reasonable. If the angel is back, then...we can't risk disruption."

"Understood, ma'am," Watt said, a feral gleam in her eye as she contemplated the fight to come.

Toni saw that gleam and inwardly sighed. She had done sufficient research to realize that underestimating the Winchesters was a grave error. Watt was able, but limited as hunters were, and cocky from the strength she took from the Letters' borrowed artifacts. If she failed...best to have a contingency. "Ms. Watt, before you go, if you would lend me your brass knuckles a moment."

Watt passed over the ensorcelled weapons, lips twisting with confusion or suspicion. "Is there a problem, ma'am?"

"Not at all," Toni said. "I'm just going to make a tiny enhancement. To...give you an edge," and she smiled as she opened her case to retrieve the ingredients for the curse.

 


 

As he and Cas loaded the woman's body into the SUV, Dean took a moment to wrestle the brass knuckles off her fists. It made his stomach twist uncomfortably, to be looting a corpse. Of a human, no less...maybe a human. He didn't ask Cas. He didn't want to know for sure.

But the damn knuckles had hurt like hell. And they could use that kind of muscle, especially if there were more like her between them and Sam.

Dean glanced back at the Impala, where his mother was sitting, pale and shaky for all Cas's healing. Shaking his head, he, stuffed the heavy brass pieces into his pocket and went around to help Cas push the vehicle off the road.

 


 

By the time they got back to the bunker, Mary had dozed off in the backseat, not leaning against the window but sitting up, her head drooping at an uncomfortable angle. Dean debated waking her, thinking she could use the rest, but his indecision was rendered moot when her head jerked up the moment the engine cut.

"We're at Aldrich?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

"No, back at the bunker," Dean said.

"But Sam—"

"If we're going to help Sam, we need a better idea of what we're up against," Dean said. "Cas is heading up to Aldrich now; we'll research here. My laptop doesn't have the juice, but the Letters mainframe might be able to crack the federal servers, let us track that plane."

His mother blinked at him, baffled but trying not to show it. "Servers, okay," she said. "Where do we start?"

 


 

Though Mary was very willing to help, it turned out she'd never learned touch typing. Listening to her hunt and peck at the computer keyboard—tap, pause five seconds, tap, pause eight seconds, tap—was so distracting that Dean finally shoved his own laptop back with a muttered swear.

His mother's hunched shoulders jolted at the sound; her head snapped up, eyes narrowed in wary, weary reaction. "What's wrong? Did you...track the plane?"

Just looking at her—at his mother, sitting across the table from him—put a pin in Dean's ballooning temper. He swallowed back the dregs of irritation. None of this was Mary's fault; hell, it had to be even weirder for her. At least Dean was someplace familiar, working with accustomed tools. At least there was something he could do without asking for directions every five minutes.

Not to mention, the constant alarm bell in the back of his mind—Sammy's gone, Sammy was shot, Sammy's in trouble, Sammy needs you—it must be ringing in her head, too. Sam had been her baby, her infant child, last she knew. It must be killing her, not to be able to pick him up, not to be able to listen for him crying in the next room.

Dean took a deep breath, as steady as he could manage, said, "No go on the plane yet. But I've got this covered, so why don't you—"

Mary's eyes flashed, bluer than his and Sam's hazel green, but just as sharp. "I'm not going to take a nap while one of my sons—"

"Wasn't going to suggest it," Dean lied. "I was going to say—uh—" He looked around the library, casting for an option, and found one, "—You can go through the Men of Letters files. Most of them are paper, not online yet. Look for this," and he took out the brass knuckles, set them on the table. "I've never seen anything like them; if we can track down where they came from..."

"It might be a clue as to who these people are." Nodding, Mary picked up the knuckles, stood.

"The main file room's down that hall, 7-B," Dean said, pointing. "Don't mind the dungeon in the back, if it's open."

"...The dungeon?"

Dean's mouth quirked, close enough to a smile that it felt out of place. "I'll give you...we'll give you the grand tour, once Sam's back."

His mother nodded, her own lips twisting as uncertainly as his own. "I'll hold you to that."

 


 

Mary spent half an hour going through the indexes, then went to the file room and came back with four boxes, stacked on a rolling cart Dean had never actually noticed before. Rather than spread her findings out over the table, she kept to one or two files at a time, returning them to the boxes marked with paper flags.

Dean watched her clandestinely out of the corner of his eye, between reviewing Missouri traffic cam footage and adjusting parameters on Charlie's cracking code. It had been a while since he'd used the programs, as breaking into government databases couldn't have helped them with Amara; even with the help of Sam's notes, he had little success now.

He finally gathered the energy to stand, rubbing his eyes as he asked, "Hey, you want some coffee—" but when he turned to his mother, he found her head was down on the table, pillowed in her folded arms, blonde hair draped over the current file.

Dean hovered over her uncertainly. He almost tapped her on the shoulder, then remembered how she'd flipped him into the dirt and reconsidered. "Um...Mom?"

She groaned something unintelligible and turned her head in her arms.

"Mom?" Dean repeated.

"John?" his mother mumbled, then started awake, coming up out of the chair so fast she knocked it over. She winced as it clattered on the floor, squinting like she had a hangover as she wiped her sleeve across her face, said, "Dean?"

"Yeah—yeah, it's me," Dean said. "Do you..." He looked at her peaked face, the blonde hair hanging lank and stringy over her brow. "Do you, um, want a shower? The bunker's got great water pressure and the hot water pretty much never runs out—it might be spelled, we're not really...uh, anyway, it's down there, if you...?"

His mother just stared at him for a second, then pushed her hair out of her eyes and dragged up a smile, carefully, like she was separately working every individual muscle in her cheeks. "Sure. A shower sounds lovely."

So Dean fetched a bathrobe and a clean towel from his done laundry and ushered her to the main washroom. Once he heard the water running, he went through the bedrooms down his hall, picking out the least dusty, and spent a few minutes exchanging some chairs and boxes to set up the basic amenities.

By the time Mary came out of the shower, he could point her to her room—"You know, if you like it; if you don't, there's plenty of others to choose from, but this is one of the biggest, so—"

"It looks fine, Dean," his mother said. She had on the bathrobe and her hair was wrapped up in the towel; her face was pink from the hot water and her smile looked a little less forced. "Thank you."

"You're, uh, welcome. If you want to look around, or grab something to eat, the kitchen's down that way. I'm gonna clean up myself, I'll be—I'll be right back," and Dean retreated, suddenly all too aware that he hadn't washed or changed in—two days? Three days? When had they put together the plan to take out the Darkness, brought in Crowley and Rowena?

Reminded, he detoured back to the library to stash the bottle of Scotch Crowley had nearly finished, and the kitchen to shove the half-killed six-pack on the counter back in the fridge. Didn't want Mom to get the wrong idea. Or the right one. Then he grabbed a pair of clean clothes and headed to the shower.

The steaming water cleared away the lingering ache in his jaw and skull—Cas's healing mojo was handy as hell but always left your bones feeling slightly out of place, like they had fresh edges that needed to be ground down. Dean dropped his head under the pounding stream, feeling the knots in his shoulders loosen. At least until he remembered that his mom was in a bedroom down the hall, and Sam wasn't, and it had probably been ten minutes by now, so the latest iteration of the cyber cracker should have finished running.

He'd sluiced off the last soap and turned off the water when there was a rattle at the door. Dean jumped, grabbing for his towel—maybe they should get a lock? It hadn't been much of a concern before, since they didn't have many women staying over—but the door didn't open, just vibrated under a knock. "Dean?" his mother called through it. "Do you have any knives?"

"Um, yeah," Dean called back. "What do you need, machete, serrated, trailing point, straight back?"

There was a pause, then, "Butter?"

Right. "Butter knives are in the back of the drawer, left of the sink."

"Got it. Thanks."

By the time he'd dressed and made it to the kitchen, Mary had found the toaster. As Dean helped himself to the sludge of coffee left in the bottom of the pot and put on a fresh one, his mother smeared margarine on some of Sam's whole-grain birdseed cakes that masqueraded as bread.

Then she sat at the table, put the plate of toast down in the middle like it was to be shared, and this was too weird for Dean to handle.

He checked his watch. Two a.m. "Cas should be in Aldrich by now; I better check in with him," and he beat a retreat before his mom could offer him food he wasn't hungry for.

 


 

"When we do find Sam, how am I going to face him? That yellow-eyed thing would never have come for him that night, if I... I started all of this," his mother said, and Dean didn't know what to tell her.

He wished she hadn't heard what he'd said to Cas about overwhelming her. He shouldn't have said anything to Cas; it wasn't like the angel would have any better a handle on this. Cas had never even had a mother, just a father, and that relationship hadn't exactly been something to write home about.

"Sam will be as happy to see you as I am," Dean said, because that, at least, he could be sure about. "When we get him back from wherever he's at."

Mary nodded, face pensive. Then she yawned, mumbled, "Excuse me," as she stretched, spine popping. "Maybe I should leave you to working on that, and go test out the mattress in that room you've given me?" she suggested.

Dean glanced past her to the boxes and files on the other table. The brass knuckles gleamed dully under the lamp. But she hadn't found anything useful yet, probably wasn't likely to. "Sure," he said, trying not to sound grateful.

"Wake me up if you learn anything," Mary said, getting up. She put her hand on his shoulder as she passed, very lightly, and she pulled away before he could respond, as if she wasn't sure how he would and didn't want to find out.

Dean wasn't sure himself what to do. Not when he didn't know what she'd want from him. This was going to take some getting used to on all of their parts. But they'd figure it out.

For now, he had a job to do.

 


 

None of the databases Dean managed to hack into had any useful information. It didn't help that he was getting tired enough that text was blurring on the screen. His cup of coffee was empty, when he reached for it.

Dean yawned wide enough to crack his jaw, rubbed a hand down his face as he closed the laptop. The databases would still be here tomorrow; no reason to work himself into the ground. Especially not when his mother was here—if he got up a little early, he could put together a real breakfast for her. Fried eggs, hashbrowns, bacon—she liked bacon, didn't she? She had to, didn't everyone? He should take a rasher out of the freezer before he turned in.

He'd gotten up, taken two steps toward the kitchen, when he saw the stains at his feet. He hadn't had a chance to more than cursorily wipe them up, leaving dull brown smudges across the concrete. You needed bleach to really get out bloodstains.

Sam's blood, streaked along the library floor—Dean had hoped it was something else, someone else's, when they'd first spotted it; but he knew better now. His brother had been shot, and dragged out by whoever the bastards were who'd taken him. Who still had him, were doing who knew what to him even now.

Between the distraction of their mother and the effort of the computer work, some of the urgency of the search had dulled. The sight of those bloody traces slammed it back home, and Dean grabbed for the edge of the table to steady himself.

Whatever was happening to him, Sam would make it through. He was strong, in every way that counted; he'd survived Lucifer's Cage, after all. How much harm could a few humans do—just humans, not anything truly powerful? In spite of their toys, and Dean picked up the brass knuckles from the table. They were made for smaller hands, uncomfortably tight on his fingers, but maybe they could be repurposed. Or Mary could use them. He ran his thumb over the runes stamped into the ridges.

Then he idly stuck them in his pocket, pulled over his laptop and started searching again. Sleep could wait, and breakfast, too, until they got Sam back.

 


 

Around six a.m. Dean finished off the coffee pot, put on another one and then ended up dozing off at the table while waiting for it to percolate. He jerked awake half an hour later with his heart pounding, adrenaline like an electrical charge in his veins, certain he was forgetting something, something crucial, imperative—

Then he came a little more awake, rubbed his eyes clear as he took a mental tally. The bunker was quiet around him, even the vent fans dropped to low, and Dean allowed himself a moment to relax in that peace. Mom—Mom was, presumably, still asleep in the room she'd retired to a few hours before. Cas was out in Missouri, busy on their latest case; he should be visiting the local realtors as soon as their office opened. And Dean himself had research to get back to, trying to track down the people who Sam had left with.

Dean frowned, giving his head a shake as he dragged himself up and shuffled to the coffeemaker. The people who had taken Sam. Which was why Sam wasn't here now to do the research himself, leaving Dean the headache of wrestling with the computer, and really, how inconvenient was it, that these assholes couldn't leave a clear electronic trail? They were almost as good at vanishing as Frank Devereaux, if not quite Charlie's league—and the sting of those memories dispelled what ease the nap had granted. These British bastards weren't going to get away with this. If for no other reason than Dean didn't want to give them the satisfaction of pulling the wool over his American eyes.

Dean grabbed a fresh cup of coffee and resignedly made his way back to the front room and the waiting research.

 


 

Mary slept in until past nine, emerged rested and ready. Dean, his eyes gritty from staring at the computer screen, was fleetingly envious. Then uncomfortable as she mentioned her dreams, mentioned his father. Cas's call came as a reprieve he eagerly grabbed. "Cas, what'd you got?"

"I may have found Sam's location," the angel reported, and Dean sat up, moved by instinct more than rational reaction. A woman with an English accent—sounded like a long shot, probably not worth the drive out, until Cas mentioned the wards.

"Powerfully warded? See, buddy, that was your headline right there," Dean said, half teasing, half annoyed. That probably did warrant the trip, exhausting as it was going to be.

"...Are we still discussing the same thing?" Cas asked. He sounded confused, like he'd never heard Dean be sarcastic before, before he agreed to text the address.

Aldrich was six hours out and Dean wasn't looking forward to the drive already, but then his mother wanted to come along, and that...it was weird enough with a whole bunker to spread out in; he had no idea how being trapped together in a car for that long would go. There were so many things she could ask him about that he didn't want to answer. So many stories that she'd never want to hear.

Mary had come along before, but then Cas had been there too, and they'd had a shared goal to focus on, something more important than reminiscing about the past. Now...well, they still had a job to do; but they had other things on their minds. Mary was thinking about John, and Dean was...

Dean was losing this argument. "I can't do my job if I'm worried about you," he said, and it wasn't until after Mary had smiled at him, patronizingly, and left to get her newly purchased coat, that it occurred to him how unconvincing that claim was. He'd hunted all his life keeping one eye on his father or on his little brother; it had never slowed him down before.

But then, this wasn't the usual job anyway, chasing down some crazy Brits. So maybe his mother had a point.

It proved to be moot anyway, when they got to the garage and Dean realized he hadn't yet fixed the smashed window. The dented body could wait, but six hours would be a long drive with wind and rain incoming.

He had a replacement on hand, cannibalized from the salvage yard. But by the time he finished the repair and swept out the broken glass, it was late enough that Mary suggested lunch before heading out. So Dean dug through the deep freeze and scrounged up enough bread and cheese for grilled sandwiches.

Then, to avoid putting her on the spot with just the two of them eating at the table, he brought his laptop into the kitchen while they ate. The networked searches of the public diplomatic databases were still running in the background, while he browsed the usual hotspots, crime reports and weird news stories, looking for possible jobs. With Halloween approaching, ghost stories could be disregarded, but there were a couple murders in Oklahoma that might be a rugaru.

Mary got up to do the dishes before Dean could get to them, humming to herself over the running water. "Let It Be," and for a moment Dean couldn't breathe, for the sheer unanticipated domesticity of it. He grabbed the computer, retreated back to the library.

He wanted a drink, something stronger than coffee, to quiet his uneasy nerves. His heart was hammering in his chest, had been for hours. For a day or more. Dean wasn't even sure what had him so rattled. Why this felt so wrong, when it should be more right than anything in his life.

The library's liquor cabinet had the pricey Scotch, what was left after Crowley's binge. Demons aside, they'd been saving it for a special occasion. But hell, if getting Mom back wasn't special, what was?

Dean had his hand on the cabinet door when his phone buzzed. He dug it out of his pocket, checked the display and frowned. "Hey, Cas, what's up?"

"Dean?" Cas said, even raspier than usual, "where are you? I expected you here half an hour agowere you attacked again?"

"No—it's fine, Cas, everything's all right," Dean said. His near-death experience must still be getting to the angel, for him to be this shaken.

"How far out are you?"

"A ways," Dean admitted. "We're still at the bunker."

"You...haven't left yet?"

"We'll be heading out soon," Dean said. "Just had a few things to take care of."

"'Things?'" Cas repeated, his tone bewildered, like Dean had made some obscure '80s reference that hadn't been included in his literary upload. "Dean, is something wrong?"

Dean sighed. "I told you, things are...weird around here."

"Weird how? Do you require assistance?"

"No, it's not anything that needs an angel blade. It's just, with Mom... We're still adjusting."

There was a pause, before Cas said, "I understand this is an unusual situation, and of course your relationship with your mother is important; but I'm limited in what I myself can do against this warding. I have yet to determine for certain that Sam is even being held here; if he isn'tor if they realize my presence and relocate himthen we're back at square one."

Sam. Right. No need to find a job, when they already had one. Dean rubbed his stiff neck to alleviate the burgeoning headache. "Yeah, yeah, I get it. I'm on my way."

"Drive quickly," Cas growled, and hung up.

Dean blinked at his phone's dark screen. "What's crawled up his ass this time?" he muttered, and went to throw together his bag for the trip.

 


 

Dean debated trying to cut out without Mary, but decided it would make more trouble in the long run. Also she heard him on the stairs, came out and cleared her throat, and for a single trying, touching moment, Dean knew what it would've been like to have grown up a typical teenager, trying to sneak out to some high school party past curfew.

It would've been really difficult, with a hunter for a mother. But there were advantages, too.

Given that they didn't have a clue what they were walking into, Mary needed to be properly armed, so Dean showed her the sidearms selection. A few rounds on the firing range proved her time in the suburbs or in Heaven hadn't made her that rusty. The Beretta 9mm she eventually decided upon was one of Sam's preferred pieces, but Dean didn't bother mentioning it. It didn't seem especially important.

By the time they actually headed out, it was nearing dinner time, so Dean took a detour down to Salina, home to one of the best pizza places west of the Mississippi. The fresh pepperoni was more than worth fighting through the post-rush-hour traffic, and his mother seemed to relish it as much as he did.

Once on the highway, though, the night deepening around them, a silence fell, oppressive, heavy with everything he should be telling his mother and didn't know how. Dean dropped his foot on the accelerator—then glanced sidelong at Mary and lifted it again. It was starting to rain, and she'd already been in one accident, in the couple of days she'd been back. Had gotten concussed, then healed, then killed a woman.

And here he was, dragging her into something likely even worse. Dean shook his head. "I can't believe I let you talk me into this."

"I'm your mother," Mary said, and he could already recognize the teasing smile in her voice without looking at her. "You have to do what I say."

She had better reasons than that, of course; it was obvious that their hunting instincts hadn't come solely from their father. Who Dean hadn't been meaning to talk about at all, not wanting to wreck her idealistic image of him, not this soon. But then he was saying it, confessing to her how the hunting life had taken John, like it had taken him.

Even without her saying anything, Dean could sense his mother's disappointment—and worse than that, her pain. Not even knowing what they'd been through, and she was still hurting for it.

He groped for something to say to make it better, to give her some reason to have hope in the family she'd been taken from. "But Sammy..." and the name felt strange on his tongue, unfamiliar, incorrect; but it was what Dean had always called his brother, what Dad had called him, growing up. "Sammy, he was different. He wanted out. He went to school—went to Stanford," and it took Dean off-guard, the surge of pride he felt to say it.

It had been so long since Dean had thought about that, how he'd looked up the place, after seeing the application shoved in the back of Sam's backpack. He'd heard of Stanford, but he hadn't realized what a big deal it was. Not just a good college, but one of the best. Dean had always known Sammy was smart, but he'd thought it was their kind of smarts, learning enough to stay alive, to stay ahead of the monsters. Sam hadn't shown him a report card in a couple years by then, and Dean had kind of assumed the high scores he'd used to get had dropped and Sam was just embarrassed to admit it. Like grades were anything that would matter to Dean.

But no, it turned out Sam was every other kind of smart, too, and a decade and a half later, Dean could still feel the admiration, the satisfaction. He'd been so proud—even as he'd been terrified to know he wouldn't be able to protect his little brother anymore, even as he'd been miserable to see their family broken up, he'd been so proud that Sammy had the brains, the strength, the sheer will to do what he wanted.

Dean was happy to be able to give his mother that much now. And he didn't want to rip it away, not yet. So when she asked about Sam coming back to hunting, Dean pared it down to the essentials: "Sam and I looked around, and something became very clear—the only thing we had in this world, the only thing, aside from this car, was each other."

Because that was it, wasn't it; they were family. Were still family, and that was why they were driving through the night, because Sam might need them, and that was what family did, helped when no one else could or would. Dean tightened his grip on the steering wheel. Sam was his brother, was Mary's son. That counted for something; it had to. It always had before.

In the passenger seat, Mom was watching him; Dean could feel her gaze on him. But she didn't say anything, didn't ask more about Sam, or what they'd done, apart or together, good or bad.

Dean put on the gas, and the car roared down the dark highway.

 


 

They reached Aldrich by midmorning, after pulling off for a couple hours for Dean to rest his eyes, and another stop for coffee and breakfast sandwiches.

Cas was looking awfully pissy when they drove up to the farmhouse, even by ornery angel standards. Rather than give him a chance to gripe, Dean skipped the "good mornings" and asked about the wardings instead. He could've guessed for himself that they were invisible to mortal eyes, but taking the time to explain cooled Cas down.

Cas even stepped up to intercede when Mary wanted to come along on Dean's reconnaissance. The place wasn't that big; faster for him to cover it himself, get it checked off the list if no one was around. And if someone was here and jumped him, better to have an ace in the hole waiting outside.

Dean made it most of the way around the house and was about to write it off when he found the locked bulkhead. Instinct told him there was something behind it—but instinct wasn't quick enough to stop him from stepping on the seal. Even before he saw the light, he recognized the prickling frisson of an enchantment.

He had just enough time to swear, before the light engulfed him. At close range the ward went off like a stun grenade. Momentarily blinded, deafened, and disoriented, Dean had no defense against the hands that grabbed him, dragged him stumbling over the rough ground.

Through the ringing in his ears he heard the slam of a door. Dean shook his head, blinking back the spots over his vision that had gone from bright flashes to murky red as they came in out of the sun. When he tried to raise his hands to rub them clear, he found his wrists were weighted down by steel manacles.

A sharp tug on those restraints made him stagger. "Don't move," ordered a crisp female voice. Same accent as the one he'd heard on the phone a couple days before.

Dean squinted at the blurry figure in front of him, struggling to bring the details into focus. Fairly young, fairly short, fairly slender. She was holding a pistol, .38 caliber but it looked awkward in her hands, like she wasn't comfortable with it, and her finger was carefully off the trigger.

No match for him normally. But if she was anything like her cohort in the SUV, she wouldn't be normal. Dean kept his head dropped, didn't try to stop his unsteady swaying. Let her assume he was still incapacitated by her magical flashbang, as he took stock of the situation.

"Dean Winchester," the woman said, sounding annoyed. "What are you even doing here? I'd thought I could at least count on you to behave like a typical hunter..."

No gun—he'd dropped his Colt when the spell went off, or else the woman had taken it. And the knife holstered at his back would be hard to reach, with his hands bound.

But in his pocket—he shifted, bumping his thigh against the weight there. The brass knuckles might give him the edge. Keeping his head down, he brought in his arms, sliding one hand into his pocket, forcing his fingers through the ridged brass.

"Well," the woman said, "as you are here, I might as well make use of you," and she touched his forehead, started reciting, "Mentem tuam"

Dean heard the first words of the spell and acted, swinging up his arms—both arms, manacled as they were. That and the dizziness from the stun seal slowed him just enough that the woman had time to throw herself backwards. He missed her chin but clipped her arm with the brass knuckles, knocking the pistol out of her hands before she could get off a shot.

But she let the gun go flying, tottering back on her heels and shaking out her hands as she stared at the knuckles. "You do have them!"

Dean took another swing at her, but she snapped her fingers, snapped, "Kabatu!" and Dean's hand dropped—the brass knuckles suddenly seemed to weigh a literal ton, dragging his arm down, and the rest of him with it. The metal clanked like a hammer on an anvil as it slammed into the floor.

Dean fought to yank his fingers loose, but before he could free himself, the woman pressed her palm over his forehead and quickly blurted, "Mentem tuam ac voluntatem adsumo!"

—and Dean stopped. His arms fell slack to his sides as he dropped to his knees, his mouth half-open with threats and invectives that were simply no longer there.

Deep, deep inside, muffled and buried beneath the smothering magic, he recognized the feeling, or the lack of it, like he'd recognized the words. Cuthbert Sinclair had cast the same spell, draining the will from him. It was a far cry yet from Amara's blissful emptiness; but it left him as helpless, as useless.

It wasn't paralysis or unconsciousness; Dean still could clearly see the woman, waving her hand experimentally before his blank eyes. She nodded in satisfaction when he failed to react; then she tapped one fingernail on the brass knuckles, whispered a word and lifted Dean's lax hand to drag off the again lightweight weapons. "So you did take them after all. Just like a hunter; magpies, the lot of you. But if they've been with you for all this time..."

She held them up into the light for scrutiny, murmured a few mystic syllables. The symbols stamped into the brass flared briefly green, and the woman shook her head. "The death curse definitely activated with Ms. Watt's demise," she muttered to herself. "So then how..." She cocked her head at Dean, lips pursed in puzzled frustration. "Do you even know why you're here? Or did that pet angel of yours simply drag you along? I've noticed him outside, but with the wards here, I'm afraid he won't be rescuing anyone.

"Now," and she grabbed Dean's arm, pulled him to his feet to draw him toward the basement door. He shambled along with her, unresisting. It was all he could do to lower his lashes to block the sunlight glaring through the windows, even that reflex a strain; so much easier to simply let himself be guided. "You won't be talking for a little while yet. But your brother should be conscious by now. Let's see if your company loosens that stubborn tongue of his."

 


 

Sam stared at Dean as he was brought downstairs. Continued to stare as the woman hooked Dean's manacles to the ceiling like he was a slab of beef, as she added the brass knuckles taken from him to the array of implements spread across the table.

The spell wore off gradually, willpower slowly filling back up, like a bath with a plugged drain. The first clear sense Dean had that his cognizance was returning was the growing irritation that Sam was watching him like that. Playing right into the bitch's hands. It didn't even make sense; Dean obviously was failing at any rescue attempt, so there was no reason for Sam to look so pathetically...grateful. Like he was just happy to see Dean at all, for some reason.

Okay, the poor bastard looked pretty roughed up; he might not be thinking that clearly. The woman had said something about breaking him, and while he didn't look totally cracked, he might be close. If Sam hadn't expected anyone to come for him—he would have seen Cas blown away, didn't know about Mom coming back. You couldn't blame him for being relieved now.

But the woman holding them could see it, was feeding on every twitch and nervous swallow, like a vampire that drank pain instead of blood. "Passcodes, Sam," she requested, but hardly gave him time to answer.

When she asked about Benjamin Lafitte, Dean just stared at her, trying to figure out her game. Whatever he said couldn't hurt Benny; he was out of anybody's reach in Purgatory. But Dean wasn't about to give her the satisfaction; he wouldn't trash the name of a good man, a good friend, just to win a moment's reprieve.

It wouldn't last longer than that; whatever grudge this woman carried, it obviously went too deep to be assuaged by a few confessions. Maybe Sam had figured that out, too; maybe that's why, for all he flinched in sync with every punch Dean took, he stayed silent. But it wasn't his words the bitch was really after anyway. It was Dean who took the hits, but Sam was the one she was watching, her lips pulled back in a barely suppressed smile. Eating up every second of it.

Brass knuckles would do a number on anyone, even without an enchantment. Bound as he was, Dean couldn't duck or block. His head was ringing like a bell after the first blow, blood filling his mouth. By the third he was seeing double.

By the sixth he wasn't seeing anything at all. He thought he heard, muffled and tinny like it was coming down a copper pipe, his name being called.

Then she hit him again, and Dean was out.

 


 

He came to not much later, by his inner time sense. Long enough that the British bitch had stepped out, though; when he failed to stifle a groan, she didn't answer. The only response was an anxious, "Dean?"

"Hey," Dean said, delaying while he gathered himself through the throbbing ache. He'd been hanging from his arms; his shoulders were killing him almost as bad as his buzzing skull.

"I thought you were dead," Sam said, and right, yeah, Dean had forgotten about that twist. Still, no reason for Sam to sound that shaky. He hadn't been the one last used as a punching bag.

"I'm not sure that I'm not," Dean said, trying for light. The reassuring tone he'd use with an innocent on a hunt gone wrong. Needed to keep calm—keep Sam calm. The guy had better hold it together; he knew enough to wreak real havoc, if he broke. "I'll tell you everything, okay, but first off—who's Angry Spice?"

Apparently she was from the British branch of the Men of Letters, and Dean didn't have time to process how fucked up that was before she came back, smiling and chipper and malicious as any demon or monster they'd ever hunted.

She prattled on about the Men of Letters' intellectual superiority, as if she actually thought any hunter could survive a job without knowing the lore. As if she thought that her knowledge of torment and terror was any match to Dean's, that reading a few books could equal decades of tutelage under Alistair himself.

Dean didn't contradict her, made no effort to hide his pain. The more she thought she had over him, the more off-guard she would be. And every moment she spent indulging in his agony was time she wasn't watching her back.

Though when she grabbed his face and raised the knife, Dean momentarily wished she'd divide her attention a little more evenly between him and Sam. It was a cowardly thought—a wrong one; even just in passing, it made something in his gut twist. Like he was going to throw up, his heart pounding against his ribs, though he'd been through way worse than this.

The woman of Letters thought she was the one who had him freaked. Her eyes were bright as she asked, "Do you know it's possible to die from pain?" like it was a revelation, as she put the point of the blade to Dean's eye.

Sam was staring, was opening his mouth—damn it, she wasn't Lucifer, not even a demon, but he was still going to crack—

Then a gun cocked, and Mom was there, full-on avenging angel, and Dean couldn't restrain his triumph.

Of course it couldn't go as easily as that, and when Mary started suffocating from the woman's spell, Dean's own breath stopped in his throat. With his arms shaky from being strung up for the last hours, he couldn't trust his aim to drop the bitch, not before she could complete the spell.

But even two against one, she was as arrogant as she was cruel. Dean didn't usually get satisfaction out of taking down someone smaller or physically weaker, but after what she'd tried to do to his mom, with how his head was still ringing, he could make an exception.

The woman was out for the count, Mom was okay, and Dean was unlocking Sam's cuffs to get him out of here, mission finally accomplished, when the wildcard turned up. "Call me Mick."

Dean suspiciously watched the new guy come down the stairs. Cas was shadowing him, looking increasingly perturbed as his gaze fell on Mary, then Dean, then Sam in turn. But the angel said nothing, standing mute as the Englishman went on, "From the London chapterhouse, same as Lady Bevell," and he nodded to their torturer. "Who I see went off-script—but did she present our offer to you?"

"Offer?" Dean demanded.

"She wanted information about hunters," Sam said. Cuffs undone, he pushed himself to his feet to face the newcomer. Upright, he wavered unsteadily, and Cas took a step toward him, only to stop at a casual glance from Mick.

Sam collected himself with visible effort, straightened up and continued, "She wanted to teach them—us—better ways of doing our jobs. Supposedly."

"Now what you were told was basically true," Mick said, and went on to deliver a pitch about as trustworthy and convincing as one of Dick Roman's, even if it hadn't come with a side of torture. By the end of it Dean was itching to punch him out, too, screw his smarmy olive branch—but the odds were against them, with Dean and Mary both beaten to hell and back, and Sam pretty much useless; anyone could see it was taking all he had to stay on his feet. And Cas looked untouched, but he was watching Mick warily, for all the man's protestations of being unarmed. Dean wondered what the guy had done or said before bringing down the wards; Cas didn't scare easy.

So they did nothing, as Mick handed over his card and headed back up the stairs. Lady Bevell swept up her bag of torture tools and limped after him, shooting them a look in passing that showed no hint of gratitude for their forced mercy. She wanted them hurt; barring that, she wanted them dead.

"The feeling's mutual," Dean told her, pulling his lips back from his bloody teeth. She curled her own lip back at him, and hobbled up the steps.

When she slammed shut the door at the top of the stairs, Sam jumped, a full-body flinch, then staggered. He caught himself on the back of the chair, breathing hard. Then Cas shoved past Dean to grab Sam's arms, steered him back into the chair and put a healing hand to his forehead.

With that being dealt with, Dean turned to his mom. "You okay?"

"Fine," Mary said, a little raspy—she must have torn up her throat, fighting the mind-control spell that had choked her. "What about you?" and she reached a tentative hand toward his bruised face.

She was gentle, but still drew back at the wince he couldn't quite suppress. "Don't worry, that's nothing," Dean told her. "Can be fixed up in no time—Cas, you finished over there yet?"

"There is still—" Cas began, but was interrupted by Sam's weary voice. "I'm fine, Cas. Heal them."

"Mom first," Dean demanded, giving the angel a push toward her.

Behind Cas, Sam stared up at Dean, wide-eyed and pale with the blood cleared off his face. "Mom...it's...it's really her?"

"Yeah," Dean said. "In the flesh—living flesh, not a zombie. She's got a heartbeat and soul and everything."

"And...you?"

Dean frowned at his brother's open-mouthed gape. He looked like a fish that had taken a blow to the head. "What about me?"

"You're alive...?"

"Yeah, we covered that already," Dean said impatiently.

"How?"

"It's a long story," Dean began.

"Which I also would like to hear more of," Cas said. When Dean turned toward him, Cas pressed a pair of fingers to his forehead, flooding his body with a healing warmth. Dean straightened up, released from the burden of the aches and bruises—just in time to catch Cas's arm as the angel reeled. He maybe wasn't sweating, but his face had gone gray.

"Hey, you good?" Dean asked worriedly. "That Mick guy didn't do something to you, did he?"

"No," Cas murmured, "simply made it clear that he could. But after spending that long in proximity to the wards, it seems my grace is more depleted than I thought."

"Sorry we didn't get here sooner," Dean said. "Let's get you out of here." Slinging Cas's arm over his shoulder before the angel could protest the help, he glanced back at his mom to make sure she was okay, then at Sam, still slumped in the chair for all Cas's work fixing him up. "Come on, up and at 'em," Dean told him. "Time to blow this joint."

 


 

Eating a family dinner was strange, no two ways about it. Not bad-strange. But it was definitely bizarre, even by their standards, for Dean to be sitting at the bunker's situation-room table, with his mother on one side and his brother on the other, scarfing down a bucket of fried chicken.

Cas didn't join them, choosing instead to retreat to the far corner of the library, and that wasn't awkward or weird at all, that he opted to sit and read with the lights off while they ate in the other room. The angel claimed that after the drive back, he was still tired—or that his grace still required replenishment, close enough—but Dean had a feeling that there was something else going on. Certainly Cas's look had been pointed, as he told Dean to spend time with his family. Dean just wasn't sure what he was trying to point at.

But he wolfed down the chicken and devoured the provided pie with gusto, and tried his best not to smile too widely at his mother suggesting they "call the internet." Because wasn't that something that most modern kids had to put up with, correcting the folks about technology? While Dean was no geek himself, and Mary would doubtless figure out computers once she had the time, it still moved something in his heart, more warm than amused. Like nostalgia, only for what he'd never had.

Then Dean looked at Sam, who was wincing, muttering, "Yeah, it was close," like he was embarrassed by their mother, like he would rather be spared this, and the warmth turned to annoyance. What was Sam even doing here, really? He'd just picked at the chicken, looking more uncomfortable than happy; if he wasn't going to eat anyway, he could've just sat and sulked in the dark with Cas.

Except that wasn't fair, was it; Mary was Sam's mother, too, and Dean offered the pie as a conciliatory gesture. Which Sam turned down, and what did Dean expect, anyway; why should he bother? Once Sam might have been the only family he had left. But Mom was back now, and Cas was there for him. That was enough. Dean had done what he had to, done his job, gotten Sam out of trouble like he'd said he would. It didn't go any further than that.

Following the blackberry carnage, Mom confessed to being tired, and they both sent her off to bed, as if they were the parents. Once she was out of the room, Sam sat back in his chair, a dazed, dumb look on his face. Like he was still tired himself, for all his snoring during the car ride home. "Wow," he said. "Mom is...wow."

"Yeah," Dean said, because what were you supposed to say to that?

"Dean?" Sam asked. "Is something...?" He shook his head. "Forget it. Pass the pie?"

Dean shrugged and pushed the pastry box over to him, then went to put away the leftover chicken.

By the time the kitchen was cleaned up, Sam had cleared out, leaving most of the pie behind. Relieved, Dean helped himself to another piece, then stuck the box in the fridge and snagged a couple of cold beers. He ducked into his room to grab his photos off the nightstand, and went to share them with his mother, like he'd been meaning to do.

Except Sam had gotten there first, low voices murmuring down the hall. And as much as Dean wanted to spend time with his mom, enjoy himself with his family, he wasn't up for dealing with the extra company.

He went back to the kitchen to put the beers back. Opened the fridge, then shut it again, dropped the photos onto the counter to pop the cap on one of the bottles instead. It was late; he should just go to bed. But his heart was still thumping a little too fast and hard in his chest, like it had been all day, as if the last of the adrenaline from the morning had yet to wear off. Another beer or two might settle it enough for sleep.

When he reached for the next bottle, his elbow bumped the stack of snapshots, sliding half of them off onto the floor. Sighing, Dean crouched to pick them up.

The picture fallen on top was of him and Sam. They were laughing at something, Sam grinning at him while Dean's head was down. Dean couldn't remember the joke, or when the picture had been taken.

But he knew he'd been avoiding meeting his brother's eyes because he wouldn't have been able to keep himself from cracking up. He could remember sharing that humor, laughter multiplied.

Like he could remember the pride he'd felt, and the fear, too, when Sam had gone to Stanford. But that had been years ago.

The couple photos Dean had of his mom were creased and faded with age. He loved the woman in these pictures, always had. But that was an accustomed, assumed sentiment, nothing like knowing his mother was here now. That he could walk down the hall and hear her, see her; that he knew what a gun looked like in her hands, and where her meatloaf had really come from. Not creased and faded grief, but a feeling as sharp and fresh as a new cut, and he was still holding his breath, waiting for it to start to sting.

But looking at these snapshots of Sam, Dean felt no more than a glimmering nostalgia, a sentimental fondness for the little brother he'd grown up with. An affection that he could not associate with the man who he had eaten dinner with tonight, who he had seen tied to that chair, bruised and bleeding. He'd pitied the poor bastard, sure. But no more than he would any vic.

Dean sat on the floor as he drained the next beer, opened another, flipping through the pictures. Him and Sam. Him and Sam and Bobby. Him and his baby brother and their mom. The brother he'd taken care of for so long; who'd taken care of him, saved him, more than once. Shouldn't that count for something?

Hadn't it, once? When had it stopped?

Dean remembered this, too. Not any feeling, but its lack. Reaching reflexively, not out of longing so much as habit. Like going somewhere unarmed—your knife no longer holstered where it should be, so that in a moment of danger, you grabbed for what wasn't there.

Emptiness. Not Amara's indescribable void, but something darker, a pitch-black hole where your heart should be—Dean knew this, and a sudden panic shot through him. The photos scattered across the kitchen floor as he lunged to his feet. A momentary lightheadedness told him the last beer had been a mistake—usually he wouldn't notice, but after three days on as many hours of sleep, he was feeling it.

He shook it off, went to the library. Cas was sitting in the same chair, just a shadowy silhouette until Dean flipped on the lights. "Dean?" the angel said, not squinting at the sudden brightness, as he set aside a tattered paperback and stood. "What is it?"

Dean set his hands flat on the table, leaned over it toward him. "What color are my eyes?"

Cas stared at him. "What?"

"My eyes," Dean repeated, blinking them. "What color are they?"

"Green," Cas said slowly. "They're green."

Not black. Still human. Dean exhaled, not in relief, let his shoulders drop. "Okay. Okay, thanks."

He started to turn away, but Cas moved, almost as fast as if he still had his wings, to stand in front of him, arms crossed. "Dean, what's this about?"

"Nothing." Dean ran a hand over his face. "Nothing, just...something felt off."

"'Off'?" Cas repeated.

"It's nothing," Dean said again. "Only...I care about Sam, right?"

Cas paused, totally motionless, like a video glitching. Finally he said, "I don't understand...?"

"I mean, he's my brother, you know?" Dean said. "So I have to...I should care about him. Like I care about my mom—like I care about you. Sam should matter to me, too, shouldn't he?"

Cas frowned. "Dean, how much have you had to drink tonight?"

"Huh? A few beers, what does that have to do with anything?"

"If you're not inebriated, then you're using a metaphor I don't understand."

"No metaphors," Dean said. "It's not a trick question. I'm just wondering—"

"—If you care about me," said Sam behind him.

Dean winced, turned to see his brother enter, limping slightly on the couple of steps up to the library. He'd assumed Sam was asleep, had been hoping to avoid this. "Um, yeah."

Sam glanced at Cas, who was glowering at Dean again, like he had been for most of the last day. Sam's own expression was even harder to decipher, as he asked, quite calmly, "So what you're saying is, you aren't sure if you care about me? Or that you believe you don't care, and you're looking to verify it?"

"Um," Dean said, really wishing he'd stopped at the second beer; the alcohol wasn't making this any less awkward.

Sam gave him a long look, his face still unreadable but for the narrowed concentration of his eyes. "You're serious, aren't you." He rubbed his forehead like he could smooth away the furrows gathering there. "I thought you seemed awfully calm, down in that basement."

"I told you, that was the damn will-draining spell," Dean said, irritated. "It wasn't like I was enjoying getting the crap beaten out of me. And it wasn't any fun seeing you all torn up and bloody, either."

Sam's eyebrows went up. "So you did care?"

"What do you think I am, a sadist? I don't like to see people hurt. And it's not like I don't like you, dude. But I don't..."

"I don't mean anything in particular to you," Sam said. "Like you've forgotten about me?"

"No, I know who you are," Dean said. "You're my little brother. Sam. Sammy. And that should mean something to me, I know it should. ...Thought it should."

"Dean," Cas said. "Do you remember how we met?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "Kind of hard to forget that, Cas."

"Humor me," Cas said, sounding about as far as it was humanly or angelically possible to get from humorous.

"You pulled me up out of Hell."

"Do you remember why you were damned?"

"Because I sold my soul," Dean said. "To bring Sam back to life—see, that's what I'm talking about. If I did that, I had to care, didn't I? Or something—it was a fucking stupid thing to do, and I knew it was; but I did it anyway. I remember that just fine."

"You remember it, but you don't feel it," Sam said, his tone like he was trying to identify the target of a hunt, abstractly thoughtful.

"I remember what I felt. Same as I remember what I felt after your swan-dive, or when I called in the angels after the Trials, or when I overdosed to talk to a Reaper—"

"You did what now?" Sam said, his calm fracturing slightly.

"After the werewolf shot you," Dean said, "but I didn't tell you, because I didn't want to upset you, because...that mattered to me. Then."

"But it doesn't now." Sam sank down to sit on the corner of the library table, eyes fixed on Dean below his drawn brow.

"Dean," Cas said, "how do you feel? At this moment in time?"

"How do I feel?" Dean grimaced. "Confused. Exhausted. Kind of getting annoyed with how you guys are staring at me." Cas's gaze was disconcertingly—if not exactly judgmental, then more complex than an impassive evaluation. He was concerned. Sam...Sam was concerned, too, Dean thought, but wasn't sure. Maybe he was tired. Or exasperated. Dean wished his brother would just give up on this and go to bed.

Only that wouldn't be fair to Cas, to make the angel deal with this on his own. If there was really anything to deal with.

Now Cas and Sam were the ones exchanging meaningful glances. Dean snorted an aggravated exhalation through his nose. "So do I pass the soul-test?" He shook his head at their surprised looks. "I might be buzzed, but I'm not that stupid. It feels like I've still got something in here," and he thumped his chest, over his heart. "But maybe you should double-check, Cas."

"Hold on," Sam said. "That's...getting your soul touched sucks."

"Yeah, I've seen it done enough to have gotten that," Dean said. "But it's how to be totally sure, that there's...if I'm going black-eyed again, you could pick up on that, right, Cas?"

"Dean, you're not turning into a demon," Sam said, his voice dropped low, like he was angry. "That's not what's happening here. You still care about Mom, right? And Cas?"

Dean glanced sidelong at the angel, listening attentively. Cleared his throat and admitted, "Of course."

"So it's not that. And whatever is wrong, we'll fix it," Sam said.

"Sure," Dean said. "Whatever you say."

Sam's eyes narrowed again. "You don't believe me. Like, at all."

Dean shrugged. "Nah, I do—I mean, I do remember you; I know you're the best hunter out there, and smart enough to crack most puzzles. I just don't know if there's anything actually wrong here to be fixed."

For a second Sam was still, breath held. Then he let it go in a hiss, said, "Yeah, there is. And we're going to figure it out. I get that you can't trust me now, but...we will." He shook his head at Dean's skeptical expression, appealed to Cas, "Tell him?"

"We will try," Cas said obediently.

"Then start by ruling out the obvious." Dean faced the angel. "Let's do this."

"You should sit down," Cas said, so Dean pulled one of the wooden chairs out from the table, sat. Cas put a hand on his shoulder, looking pensive even for him. "This will be uncomfortable. I'm sorry."

Dean looked up at his friend, drew a deep breath and nodded. "It's okay. I trust you."

Cas nodded back, pushed up his sleeve and plunged his hand into his chest.

Dean had witnessed Cas reaching out and touching someone a few times; had seen the aftermath a few times more than that. Enough to have an idea of what kind of agony he was in for, or so he thought.

He'd thought wrong. He'd expected physical pain, was ready for it. He'd had his gut ripped open by hell hounds; he could take a hand stuck in his chest for a minute.

Except it didn't hurt like that. There was no tearing of flesh, no burning or blistering skin. The fire that seared him didn't touch a single nerve ending. Instead it was shame, despair, horror, loss—every feeling that could make your heart seize, your stomach clench, concentrated into a blade of anguish, the point of a knife thrust between your ribs and into your very being. It was violation, a trespass against everything that should be yours and yours alone.

Then it was over, leaving Dean gasping, hunched over. Cas's hand was still gripping one shoulder. So the hand on his other shoulder, heavy, holding him in place when he might slide out of the chair, must be Sam's.

Dean shrugged it off as soon as he gathered the strength. Hauled up his head to look at Cas and asked hoarsely, "So what's the diagnosis, Doc?"

"I'm not a..." Cas gave his head a shake that was more of a twitch, started again, "Your soul appears intact."

Dean slumped back in the chair, eyes down, not wanting to see either of their faces. "Told you—"

"But not unaffected," Cas finished.

Dean snapped his head up, but Sam was already there, looming over Cas. "What do you mean?"

Cas frowned. "There is a...residue, it could be called. The consequence of a curse, I would say; but it would take a powerful one, to influence a soul directly."

Dean felt his gut sink like a stone, then bob up again just as fast, like a buoy dropped into deep water. "A curse—like, a death curse?"

"Death curse?" Sam repeated, carefully, the strained tone of someone disarming a bomb with ten seconds on the clock.

"That woman—Toni Bevell—she said something about a death curse," Dean said. "Put on those brass knuckles, the ones she was schooling me with. I thought she meant the lethal kind, assumed it hadn't worked, since I was still breathing. But there's another kind of death curse...."

"The one that's cast when someone dies," Sam said. "Using the power of the soul's passing, like a sacrifice."

"Bingo," Dean said. "I took those knuckles off the body of the hatchet woman she sent after us. If killing her triggered the curse...would that be strong enough magic, Cas? To fuck up my soul?"

"Conceivably, yes," Cas said, and his frown deepened. "I never touched the knuckles myself, or I might have realized they held another spell besides the physical enhancement. And it was after you lifted them, that you decided we should return to the bunker, rather than continue on to Missouri."

"Yeah, but that was just common sense," Dean said. "We needed the resources—"

"I've never known you to rely on sense, common or otherwise, when Sam was in trouble," Cas said, his tone sharpening, like it had been for the past few days, with an unaddressed anger.

Dean glowered back at him. "Hey, is this why you've been on my case lately? Because you were picking up on this curse?"

Cas's shoulders fell as he looked from Dean to Sam. "No, I didn't perceive the curse directly," he admitted. "Only its aftereffects."

"So what does this spell do?" Sam asked. "Could you tell that now, Cas?"

"It seems to loosen bonds," Cas said. "Undo connections between people—a particular connection. The spell used your blood, Sam. It worked that sympathetic magic to diminish your presence, your significance—to disentangle your existence from the lives of those cursed."

Sam glanced at Dean sidelong. "Making them forget about me?"

"How many times do I have to say it, I remember you fine," Dean said.

"As far as I can tell, the spell affects the spirit, not the mind," Cas said. "So memories remain intact, but their meaning is diluted. If the curse had continued, both Dean and your mother would have lost any attachment to or affection for you, until you meant no more to them than a stranger whose life they'd studied, like any victim or suspect on a hunt."

Sam looked stricken, going as white as if he'd been stabbed in the back and was bleeding out.

Dean couldn't really blame the guy. It must be a shock, to hear your own mother might have dropped you like a bad check. "This spell got Mom, too?"

"I believe so," Cas said. "Was she in possession of the cursed object for a time?"

"When she was researching the knuckles, yeah," Dean said. "We were trying to figure out where they came from—who had grabbed you," and he frowned uneasily, recalling how determined Mary had been—how determined he himself had been. It had seemed so important, somehow, to figure out what had happened to Sam.

But there was a new enemy to watch out for; of course they had been worried...

"But..." Sam swallowed. "I just spoke to Mom, and she...she sounded like she cared."

"Once away from the cursed object, the soul can recuperate," Cas said. "Especially divided as it was between two people, the curse wasn't as powerful as it might have been. If the bonds had been entirely severed...but they weren't; and now they're mending."

"Dean, though," Sam said, with another sideways look.

"Dean was under the curse's influence for longer," Cas said. "And there's so much more to recover, so many more places for the magic to have spread. Your relationship with your mother is still quite new; potent, but largely unformed, and so more easily re-established."

Sam leaned back on the table, folded his arms. "But all we have to do is wait for this to wear off? How long will it take for Dean to get back to normal?"

"Judging by the extent of the stain, a few weeks? Perhaps a month."

"No," Dean said.

"No?" Both Cas and Sam had been eyeing him already, but they blinked now and refocused, like they were only just noticing he was a conscious human being, rather than some tragically cursed creature.

It was a feeling he knew all too well. "This residue, how do I get rid of it?" Dean demanded. "There's got to be a purification ritual or something."

"Maybe," Sam said, "but it'd be difficult when we don't have the cursed object itself on hand. They took the brass knuckles with them."

Dean turned to Cas. "What about you? Can you reach back in there, give my soul a divine dry cleaning?"

Cas tilted his head, brow furrowed. "I may be able to dispel the curse's effects...but it'd be difficult. The spiritual equivalent of debriding an open wound."

"Vivid." Dean grimaced. "Okay, do it."

Sam was wincing. "That doesn't really sound safe—why not just wait a couple weeks and let it wear off on its own? It wouldn't bother me..."

Dean frowned at him, confused. "What does that have to do with anything? I'm the one cursed here, not you."

Sam glared back at Dean. "Don't be an idiot. If all this curse affects is how you feel about me, and you don't care about me now anyway, then why does it even matter to you to get it off?"

Dean shrugged. "That's not the point. Cas, you sure you can do this?"

"I believe so," Cas said. "Hopefully with minimal long-term risk."

"Wait," Sam said, putting out his hand to block Cas as he drew a visibly deep, calming breath. "Dean, please. Take a second and think about it—there's nothing stopping you from looking at this rationally, for once. This curse, it's not hurting you. You can still hunt. And you and Mom are fine, it's not messing up anything there. There's no reason for you not to simply ride this out—"

"There's a reason," Dean said. "Which is that I'm not going to sit here and let this magic screw with me for a month. I bore a curse long enough to last me a lifetime. I'm not doing it again."

What color had come back to Sam's face fled it again. "This—this isn't anything like the Mark, Dean. It's not—You're not—"

"I'm not myself," Dean said. He looked from his brother to Cas. "Am I?"

"No," Cas said, definitively.

"Am I, Sam?"

Sam exhaled through his nose, finally shook his head without speaking.

"So, yeah," Dean said. He took hold of the arms of the chair, curled his fingers tightly around the wood. "Do it, Cas. Please."

Head down so that his hair fell over his eyes, Sam stepped out of Cas's way. The angel took Dean's shoulder again, met Dean's eyes.

He didn't say any apology this time, but Dean saw something like guilt in his face.

Then he forced his hand against Dean's soul, and Dean couldn't see anything through the white-hot agony. Not physical but emotional—you could talk about trauma, about psychological damage and scarred psyches, but this was an assault on the spirit directly, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. A nightmare you couldn't wake from, a phobia you could never get over, because it wasn't just happening; it had already happened, was going to happen, all you could recall and all you had to look forward to, on and on and on—

The first thing Dean noticed was that he was breathing—that he could feel his lungs through the pain, could feel his chest pushing up and sinking down, the expansion of his diaphragm against the waistband of his jeans. He could hear the rush of air coming in and going out, drying out his tongue, chapping his lips.

It took a little longer for him to make out other sounds over that rhythm, lower, but louder, piercing syllables—"—ean! Dean? Can you hear me? Dean!"

"Ow," Dean said, opening his eyes and then immediately squeezing them shut as light stabbed into them like shining knives. "Yeah, I hear you, Sammy, so can you keep it down?"

Fingers gripped his arm, curled under his biceps and pulled him upward. Dean swayed where he sat, finding his equilibrium with difficulty as he registered the change in orientation. Vertical now, so he must have been horizontal before. His arm was numb and tingling where it had been trapped under his side, pressed against the floor.

"Dean," Sam was saying, "what hurts?" overlapping Cas's equally anxious, "Dean, how do you feel?"

"Like I'm never gonna complain about a Jäger hangover again," Dean mumbled. His head flopped back, bumped into carved hardwood. By the cold concrete under his butt and the hard-edged corner digging into his back, he was leaning against the chair rather than sitting in it.

He waited until he had the strength and coordination to lift his head before he risked opening his eyes again to confirm. The nearest table lamp had been switched off, leaving a marginally more comfortable dimness. Sam and Cas were crouched on either side of him, both peering worriedly into his face—into his eyes, though Cas had assured him they'd never gone black. Dean blinked them hard, struggling to keep them focused and uncrossed. "Well, that was fun."

"Not so much," Sam said tightly. His mouth worked like he was trying to smile but couldn't remember which muscles to use. "You were out for five, ten minutes. And you weren't breathing right for all of it. I was about to take you to the ER."

"And told them what, I was touched by an angel?"

Cas was looking at least as pale as Sam. "I didn't—"

"Not on you, man," Dean told him, clumsily patting his arm. "This was my bright idea."

"But he could have said no," Sam said. "Since you wouldn't," and he abruptly pushed himself to his feet, towering over Dean and Cas, glaring down at both of them. "But why bother, when you can leave it to me to think things through, and then ignore me anyway—"

"Sam, hey," Dean said. He made an effort to get his legs under him, which wouldn't have gone anywhere if Cas hadn't taken his arm and hauled him up. And he couldn't have stayed upright without grabbing for Sam's arm.

That was a calculated risk; if Sam had stepped back out of reach, Dean would've taken a nosedive to the concrete floor. But Sam caught his arm and steadied him, worry all but wiping out the anger in his face.

"Thanks," Dean said. He shut his eyes to settle his spinning head, mumbled through it, "Sorry, Sammy."

Sam tensed. "Sorry for what?"

"Being a dick about this—going ahead and doing it and making you pick up the pieces."

"Yeah, well...did it work?"

"Dunno," Dean said. "Cas?"

"I was able to remove all traces of the curse," Cas said, but he sounded so shaken that Dean slit his eyes to check on him. "It isn't a method I would recommend repeating."

"Me neither," Dean agreed. "But you're sure it's gone? I don't feel...well, I feel different. But mostly just like crap.—Getting better, though," he added, when he caught Sam staring at him. Like Dean was going to faint or melt or something, and Dean made an effort to straighten up, pull his arm away and balance on his own.

He managed it by propping his hip against the edge of the table and grabbing the back of the chair. Sam looked at his white knuckles gripping the wooden back and snorted. "Yeah, you look great, dude."

"I'm good," Dean insisted.

"Come on, sit down before you fall down," Sam said, and moved to take Dean's arm again, only to stumble himself. His face twisted in a grimace of unexpected pain as he came down hard on his right foot.

Dean threw caution to the wind, lunged for his brother before he could go down. "Sam?" They wavered together like two sides of an unstable bridge, clutching each other's arms, only steadying when Cas braced both of them.

Sam was panting for breath, complexion gone ashen. "What's wrong with you?" Dean demanded. "Cas, what's wrong with him? I thought you healed him."

"For the most part," Cas said, "but I wasn't able to repair all the damage—"

"I'm—fine," Sam said, belied by how he was struggling to level out his breathing. "Just—stepped the wrong way."

"On what?" Dean said. "The bullet wound?" He looked down Sam's leg, to his foot, the bulk of bandages showing under the slipper. His foot had been bandaged back at the farmhouse, Dean remembered; his thigh as well. "I thought you were shot in the leg?"

"I healed that injury," Cas said, "but the burn was more severe—I eliminated the infection, but the tissue needs further repair, that I wasn't able to complete."

"Burn?" Dean repeated. "How'd you get burned?"

"It's nothing," Sam said, in a firm, certain tone that meant it was definitely something—Sam never sounded that sure when he was being honest. Dean maneuvered to sit Sam down. His brother resisted, but one disadvantage of such long limbs was that they offered a lot of leverage, and Sam was tired or hurt enough to fold into the chair when his knees hit the edge of the seat.

Once he was out of danger of falling over, Dean swung back to Cas. "Can you heal him up now?"

The angel reluctantly shook his head. "Unfortunately, no; I'm still depleted from the wards, and..."

"And cleaning off that stupid curse," Dean finished, scowling. He should've taken better stock of the situation—should have noticed Sam was actually still hurt. He could've lived a little longer with the spell, given Cas a chance to take care of what was most important. "Damn it, you should've said—"

"It's all right," Sam said. "Cas healed enough; it doesn't hurt much, as long as I'm careful." But his face was still gray and drawn.

"Cas, can you go get the first aid kit?" Dean asked.

Cas studied his face for a moment, then looked to Sam, who managed a smile, tight but not false. "S'okay, Cas," he said. "Pretty sure it worked."

The angel nodded, if not smiling then at least shifting a couple degrees up from grim, and headed for the medical room. Dean switched the table lamp back on—his eyes had adjusted; the brighter light hardly made his head throb any harder—and knelt to pull off Sam's slipper. Sam tried to tug his foot away. "Dude, it's okay. You heard Cas, there's no infection—"

"Unless one's come back—that was hours ago, and you know burns can get nasty," Dean said, as he rolled off the sock. The bandages underneath were spotted with a little brown, and Dean unwound them carefully, glad his hands had steadied.

Sam still hissed through clenched teeth, as the last layer peeled back stickily from the wound, and Dean's own gorge rose, from more than the pounding in his head. The burn looked a week old rather than a couple days, advanced by Cas's healing, but still raw and oozing—third degree, deep tissue damage in lines as straight as a ruler, and Dean growled through his own gritted teeth, "What the—the fuck did they do?"

Sam had curled over, elbow propped against the chair arm and his head dropped to his fist. "Blowtorch," he got out, between ragged pants.

"They—she used a fucking—" Vampires and rugarus needed to feed; even demons craved pain to fill up the holes in their shredded souls. But the Men of Letters were supposed to be human.

And Dean had let them walk out the door, because his head had been a little sore and he'd been a little tired—"Those bastards—I should've—next time I'll tear their fucking spines out of their—"

"You already got her," Sam said.

Dean jerked up his head, staring at his brother's pale face through the miasma of red rage.

"The woman you killed, she was the one who did this," Sam said, quietly, like an apology, or absolution.

It didn't help. "Not me—I told you, Mom did that. Saved me and Cas." Dean flexed his fingers, curled them into a fist tight enough for his nails to mark crescents into his palm. "And I only—I took those damn brass knuckles off her, and then—"

"And then you were cursed," Sam said. "But you came for me anyway, you and Mom, even under that spell."

"Not fast enough," Dean said. "Not before they roasted your foot like a fucking marshmallow."

"It's not that bad," Sam said. "That wasn't the..." and then he shut his mouth.

Dean frowned up at him. "What?"

"Cas," Sam said instead, looking past Dean to the angel, returning to the library. "Thanks." The edge of desperation in his voice suggested the gratitude was more for the interruption than the first aid kit Cas was carrying.

And Dean wasn't in any position to push it. If Sam said he was dealing, he was dealing—not like Dean would've even noticed if he wasn't. Back at the farmhouse, he'd seen how slowly and carefully Sam had climbed those stairs, and he'd just told his brother to pick up the pace—

Dean swallowed back bile, grabbed the kit from Cas and rummaged through it for the antibacterial cream and lidocaine gel.

Even braced, Sam shuddered at the first touch to his blistered flesh. "I am sorry, Sam," Cas said, over Dean's head. "I should be recuperated enough tomorrow to complete the healing."

"It's all right, Cas," Sam said. "Take as long as you need, don't push yourself."

"Yeah," Dean said. He finished spreading the ointments and started wrapping the wound in clean bandages. "You did everything you could, Cas. This wasn't your fault."

"Right," Sam said. "It was those Men of Letters—London chapterhouse," and he contorted the vowels in a crude imitation of their accents.

Dean didn't say anything. Sam and Cas had both been at the farmhouse; they knew as well as Dean did, that Cas could've had more juice to spare for healing Sam, if Dean hadn't called him away. Healing Mom had been important, but Dean had taken a beating plenty of times before. He could've waited then.

Could've waited now, just let the curse run out like Sam had wanted, and Dean pushed himself to his feet. He managed to find his balance without grabbing for the table this time—good for him.

"Dean," Sam said.

"That should last your foot 'til tomorrow," Dean said. The numbing gel was helping, he could tell, by the lessening lines of pain around Sam's mouth. "You should get some rest—"

"Dean," Sam said again, "this wasn't—"

"Down in that basement," Dean said, not quite able to bring himself to look at Sam, running his thumb over the knuckles of his closed fist. "You knew something...that something was wrong with me? You could tell?"

Sam paused, slightly too long, before he said, "I could see you were out of it—that will-draining spell, and then the beating..."

"So that's all—you thought I'd just..." Dean shook his head, but couldn't shift the memories in his head. "She had you tied up and cut up and bleeding, and I didn't—I never even asked how you were doing, what she'd done to you."

"It's all right," Sam said. "It's fine. I didn't care."

"You didn't..." Dean swallowed. "Before, you said it didn't bother you—"

"It didn't." Sam shoved himself up out of the chair, standing without obvious difficulty, though putting his weight on his good foot as he looked Dean eye to eye. "Dean, you could've walked down those stairs and punched me—you could've stabbed one of those knives into me yourself, and I wouldn't have...it was you. It was you, and I should've realized you were cursed, but right then...

"I thought you were dead; I thought I'd never see you again. And then you were there, and—I thought maybe you were pissed with me, that you knew what I'd told her, that'd I'd almost broken—but I didn't care. Because you were back, and I figured whatever was wrong, whatever I'd done, I'd have a chance—there was a chance to fix it, as long as you were there," and Sam's voice was catching, yet it was calm; his eyes were dry, fixed on a point past Dean's head, more remote than they'd been in the cemetery.

Only a few days ago, and Dean could vividly remember fighting to breathe around the mass of souls burning his chest. Could remember how Sam had barely been able to look at him then—how he wasn't looking at Dean now, and Dean said, "Sam—hey, Sammy, you were right—you're right, I'm here, see? Not dead, I swear."

He nudged Sam's elbow, jostled him lightly, and Sam shuddered, a full-body tremor, then threw his arms around Dean. He squeezed tight enough to trap one of Dean's arms against his side; the other he worked up enough to wrap around Sam's shoulders, grip him close.

There was no Darkness to deal with this time, no universe on a deadline; Sam held on, and Dean held on back, feeling a deep inborn panic leaching out of him. The thudding of his heart, that had started pounding as soon he'd seen the blood on the bunker floor and hadn't let up since, curse or no curse, finally got back to its normal rhythm; he felt it settle in his chest, like an engine dropping into first gear.

When Sam finally let go, Cas was watching, not quite smiling, but the soft understanding in his eyes was even worse. Dean ducked his head, about the most embarrassment he could fake on short notice, and Cas nodded and stepped aside, retreating to the situation room to give them space.

"Dean," Sam said, dragging his hand across his eyes, which weren't so achingly bone-dry now. "I'm sorry—"

"Whatever you told those British bastards, it doesn't matter," Dean said. "They were torturing you, you should've—"

"Not that," Sam said, shaking his head. "I didn't tell them much anyway, I don't think—I don't remember all of it, but...but it's a damn good thing that she didn't know me as well as she thought she did. I knew she couldn't break you; but if she'd tried to kill you, I'd—I would've—"

"But I wouldn't have—I wouldn't have told them anything, then," Dean said, and it hit like another magically enhanced punch to the head, his ears ringing from the shock. "With the curse—she could've put that knife to your eye, and I wouldn't have even—"

"No, Dean," Sam said, and when his voice dropped low this time Dean knew the anger wasn't with him. Though not who deserved it, either. "You were cursed. And I should've seen it, the moment you looked at me down in that basement, and didn't really see me—I should've known she'd done something to you, messed with you, more than just the will spell—"

"Known how?" Dean frowned at the conviction in his brother's voice, feeling his own temper flare in his chest like a bonfire. "She fucked with your head, too, didn't she."

Sam's breath stopped in his throat. Then whispered out in a soft, "...Yeah."

There was enough shame and doubt for the both of them in that single word. Dean swallowed his anger and waited, until Sam added, "I wasn't cursed. It's nothing that...it was temporary. Just some other interrogation techniques."

It hurt to remember, but Dean made himself think back to the farmhouse. To before Cas had healed Sam. There had been marks on his neck. Injection points, maybe, that Dean had somehow noted without reaction at the time, without acid and anger clawing up his throat. But there was no one here to take it out on, and that wasn't what Sam needed from him. Dean breathed out, banking the rage, pushing it down to smoldering embers until he could use it. Asked his brother, "You want to talk about it?"

Sam's face paled, like he'd stepped wrong on his foot again though he hadn't moved, and Dean reconsidered. Gave an exaggerated yawn and mumbled around it, "Actually, dude, if we can save the chat, I'm beat."

Sam's gratitude showed in the relaxed slump of his shoulders. Later, Dean marked on his mental calendar, because it might be easier in the short-term to wall everything off, but those barricades never lasted forever. And they'd be seeing the Men of Letters again, whatever they decided; Dean had done enough deals to know you don't get out of them that easily.

But it had been a long few days. The bunker was safely locked down again, Cas would finish healing Sam tomorrow, and their mom—their mom—was bunking a corridor away. They deserved a break. They'd saved the world, after all. And God had left it in their hands—Dean would have to tell Sam about that sooner or later, once he'd gotten his head around it himself—but the planet could keep spinning on its own for one damn night.

So for now Dean yawned again, made a show of stretching that was mostly method acting, then looped an arm around Sam's back to help him walk without putting too much weight on his foot. Sam didn't resist, and his heavy slump against Dean's shoulder told him just how tired his brother was, even after Cas's healing and a six-hour nap in the car. Dean shifted to stabilize Sam against his hip as they limped down the library stairs, said, "Don't know about you, but I'm going to turn off my alarm and let the birds wake me."

"I didn't know you could hear the birdsong this deep underground," Cas remarked, falling into step beside them to draw Sam's other arm over his shoulders. "Your ears must be quite sensitive, since I can barely listen to the crickets outside now myself."

"Yeah," Dean said, "because angel ears can hear everything except jokes."

"Not so; I'm perfectly capable of hearing jokes that are actually funny," Cas said, as utterly level as always.

"Okay, now I really don't believe what I'm hearing."

Sam snorted a drowsy chuckle between them, and Dean whispered a thank you just loud enough for angelic hearing. It was for way more than just this moment, but Cas could hear that, too.

When they reached Sam's room, Dean started to slide his brother's arm off his shoulder, asking around another yawn, "You good from here? Or should we make a bathroom stop first?"

But Sam clutched at his sleeve, fingers netting the flannel. "Hey, you want to watch something?"

"Watch...?" Dean blinked in sleepily sluggish confusion. "Like, on TV?"

"I was thinking, Netflix—Cas, weren't you on the last season of Deep Space Nine?"

"I am," Cas confirmed.

"Sam, it's past midnight," Dean said, totally bullshitting. He was at the wrong angle to see his watch; it had been around eight last he checked, but that could've been two hours ago or ten. All he knew was how heavy he felt, not from the beer's long-faded buzz, but so exhausted he could feel it to the roots of his hair. "I feel like I've been up for days, and you were just, you know..."

"I know, I was there," Sam said. "I just...Never mind, forget it. You're right, it's late. I—I'll see you tomorrow—"

Tomorrow—like he hadn't seen Dean last night, or the night before—because he'd been too busy being tied up and cut and drugged and burned, and not knowing anyone was coming for him; not knowing Dean would ever be coming.

And Dean had slept just last night in the Impala, napping halfway on the way to Missouri, halfway to his brother, and not even speeding...

"DS9, you said?" Dean said. "How many eps in? Think we could get to the finale by morning?"

"No," Cas said. "Unless we watch it at double speed, which both you and Sam have told me spoils the pacing."

"Well, we won't know until we try," Dean said.

 


 

Sam almost made it through the opening credits of the first episode before he dozed off, lanky limbs pretzeled to fit onto his half of the bed and his head nudging Dean's hip.

Dean, sitting up propped against the headboard, managed to keep his own eyes open until the second commercial break. Distantly he was aware of Cas catching the remote as it slipped out of his fingers, the audio dropping to a muted and accelerated buzz. He almost roused when he heard the rattle of the door, the murmur of voices closer than the TV speakers, but couldn't find the energy to drag up his eyelids, even when he felt the weight of a blanket settling over him.

But Sam's head turned, shifting against his side with a querulous mutter. Dean scrabbled through the enfolding flannel to settle his hand on the too-long hair, waiting for that anxious seeking to still, before following his brother the rest of the way down into sleep.