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Sam opened his eyes to fluorescent lights and antiseptic smells, turned his head and saw he was not alone. The question shot out of him before anything else processed.

“Are my brother and dad okay?” It came out as a croak, his throat abused and his face swollen.

The man in the chair did not answer, but stood up and offered Sam a cup with a straw. He sipped cool water eagerly, coughed, and tried again.

“Is my family okay? They were with me, in the car,” he said, and now his voice was just pathetic, uneven and weak.

The man sat back down in the chair beside the bed, unhurried, precise. “They’re both alive,” he said quietly, and Sam shut his eyes in relief. He swallowed hard around the lump in his throat.

“How bad are they hurt?” he asked, and opened his eyes again.

This time, he took at look at the man. He was in a serious suit, and he had a serious face. He didn’t look like a doctor. His hands were folded on his lap in a serious way.

“They were seriously injured,” the serious man said. “But they’re both alive. As are you, Sam.”

Sam blinked at the man. “Do I know you?” he asked. A catalog of pain was started to process its way to his brain – face, ribs, back, neck, hand. He looked down and saw a light splint on his left hand.

He turned his head and saw that his right hand was cuffed to the bed rail.

Sam hissed out a startled breath and tugged instinctively at the restraint. His upper body jerked away from the gurney in a vain attempt to sit.

“Who are you?” he demanded, panicked.

The serious man calmly produced a badge from his jacket. “I’m Special Agent Aaron Hotchner of the FBI, Sam,” he said gravely, “and I’ve wanted to meet you for a very long time.”

* * *

Sam thought he was owed the big giant meltdown that followed Agent Hotchner’s introduction. He’d been in a terrible car accident, he’d had to shoot his possessed father, he’d been beaten to a pulp by a crazed demon, and he’d help perform a really nasty exorcism, all in the past 24 hours. Screaming hysterics seemed in order.

He woke in a real hospital room, in a real bed, so he was out of ER. His hand was still cuffed to the bedrail, but at least he wasn’t in five-point restraints.

And Agent Hotchner was still sitting beside his bed.

“Hello, Sam,” the agent said politely, and again offered him some water. Sam accepted the straw, swallowed the soothing water, and then looked the agent in the eyes and said, “Christo.”

Hotchner sat down. “I’m not a demon,” he said.

Sam was silent.

A doctor came in next, and Hotchner stepped outside. Sam could see his polished shoes, right outside the door. The doctor did a neuro exam, satisfied himself that Sam knew what year it was and could count to ten, then talked to him about the broken hand and ribs, the fracture around his eye socket. Sam tuned him out, then interrupted with, “What about my brother and dad?”

The doctor glanced toward the door, but if Hotchner gave him a signal, Sam didn’t catch it. “Your father should recover,” the doctor said. “There’s a fracture in his knee, compounded by the bullet wound. Broken shoulder, internal bruising, whiplash. We’ll be keeping a close eye on him for a few days, but given the circumstances, he’s very lucky.”

Sam swallowed. “My brother?”

The doctor looked down at Sam’s chart, then back up. “He’s comatose,” the doctor said. “Severe swelling in his brain. Significant internal injuries, some of which have been addressed by surgery, some of which just have to heal.”

“Is he gonna wake up?”

“We’ll see,” the doctor said, and left the room.

Agent Hotchner returned to his chair. “Do you feel well enough to talk to me, Sam?” he asked, measured.

Sam didn’t look at him. “No,” he said.

“I think you do,” Hotchner said. He opened a file that he’d brought back into the room with him, pulled out a glossy piece of paper. “We have a lot to talk about. St. Louis, for one. Hibbing, Minnesota. Burkitsville, Indiana. Meg Masters. But we’ll get to all that. Why don’t we start at the beginning?” He held up the picture, and Sam recognized the burnt-out remains of the apartment he’d shared with Jess. “Why don’t we start with Stanford?”

Sam turned his head, shut his eyes. “Am I being charged with a crime, or do you just like to play with handcuffs?” he asked, and thought, pain compressing his chest, that Dean would have been proud of that dig.

“Aiding a fugitive,” Hotchner said. “For now.” Sam heard him put away the picture, take another one out. “We can talk about that later. Right now, I’d like to talk about what your father was doing in Palo Alto when Jessica Moore was killed.”

Sam opened his eyes despite his best effort. Hotchner was holding a photo in front of his face. The apartment building burned bright in the background. In the foreground was a monster truck. A man leaned against the door, watching the conflagration.

* * *

Sam had thrown up. Dean would not be proud of that. Hotchner had put his evil photographs away and said he’d be back later. For now, Sam could think.

He couldn’t though, not with his head pounding with every heartbeat. He concentrated on breathing, letting his mind settle, finding his center. He didn’t know what kind of shape Dad was in. It might be up to him and him alone to get them out of this mess. He had to be ready.

As promised, Hotchner came back, and Sam must have dozed off because he jerked when the chair slid back. He stared at Hotchner, wide-eyed.

“Sam,” the agent said politely. “It’s Sam now, right? Not Sammy. You left that name behind when you went away. Didn’t you.”

None of it was a question, so Sam didn’t answer.

“How did that go?” Hotchner not-asked. “I’d say not well, considering John cut off all contact with you. Well, contact that you knew about. He doesn’t like anything he can’t control, does he?”

Sam had screamed that at Dad, just a few days before. You were just pissed off that you couldn’t control me anymore.

“You got away,” Hotchner said. “For good, you thought. But then everything came down on you, didn’t it, right when Dean was there to help pick you back up, bring you back into the fold.” Hotchner held up another one of his evil photographs, this an enlarged snapshot of Jess, golden and smiling. “You loved Jessica, didn’t you?”

This time it was a question, and Sam nodded before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry,” Hotchner said, sober and sympathetic. “It must have been a terrible loss. And there was Dean, ready to step back in and take care of you. Like he did when you were kids. It felt good, to go back home.”

They were back to non-questions.

“I want to talk to my father,” Sam said. “I want to see my brother.”

“No, Sam,” Hotchner said, carefully putting Jessica’s picture back in his folder. “You’ve spoken to your father for the last time.”

Sam shook his head, felt hot, shameful tears pricking at his eyes. “Why?” he ground out. “What are you charging him with?”

Hotchner smiled for the first time, a small, sinister twitch of his lips. He stood up and went into the hallway. He came back with a file box and set it near Sam’s bed. He left and returned with a second, then a third. He stood, resting one hand on the stack of boxes, looking at Sam.

“Where do you want to start?” he said, and Sam was ice cold and shaking. He wanted to douse this man in holy water. He wanted to pin him in a Devil’s Trap. He wanted to take the Colt and put that last bullet between this man’s eyes.

“What are you?” Sam demanded, clutching at the blankets in desperation.

“I know all about you, Sam,” Hotchner said. “I know you’ve never known a home, a normal life. I know your childhood was subsumed by terror and chaos and your father’s iron fist. He made the shape of your world, didn’t he, Sam? Out of ghosts and monsters and demons.”

“You don’t know,” Sam said, even as he told himself to shut up, to not let this guy get under his skin.

“What don’t I know?” Hotchner asked evenly. “What’s really out there? That monsters are real? Trust me, Sam, I do know that monsters are real. I know their true form. I know that demons reside inside human flesh. I know what they do to innocent children, how they eat them alive and reshape them into their own twisted image. I know it all too well.”

“You don’t know anything,” Sam panted. He tugged at the handcuff, instinctively, futilely.

“I know you hated it,” Hotchner answered. “You couldn’t wait to get away. You had to plan it all by yourself, didn’t you, Sam? Dean couldn’t know, because he never keeps anything from your father. And John certainly couldn’t know. He would have found a way to stop you, to keep you. In the end, he did anyway,” and he held up a close-up of the earlier picture, the man leaning against the truck, in profile, and Sam knew that face.

“No,” he said, and shook his head. “Maybe he was there, but he didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Hotchner set the photograph down on the hospital tray at the foot of Sam’s bed. He pulled out another one, the gutted bedroom, the remains of the scorched ceiling.

“You left after the funeral,” he said. “Some of your friends left you messages, e-mails. Did they tell you that the fire marshal wanted to talk to you?”

They had, but Sam hadn’t answered. There wasn’t anything the marshal could tell him that he didn’t already know, that he hadn’t grown up knowing.

“Your alibi checks out,” Hotchner said, fanning the gruesome photos out on the tray. “Dean’s too. Maybe he dragged you away on John’s say-so, but I doubt it. That’s not how John operates, is it? No, he left a trail and disappeared down it, then waited for Dean to do what he knew he would – get his brother, go looking for Dad. But you weren’t going to stick with it. You went for Dean, because he asked, but you weren’t going back to the life. Were you, Sam.”

“Shut. Up,” Sam said, and had to suck in snot, because he was disgracefully crying. Hotchner turned and took a box of tissues off the bedside table and set them on Sam’s lap.

“You had too many things going for you at Stanford, and John knew it. More than anything, Jessica. Were you talking marriage yet, Sam? Thinking about it, certainly. No, if John wanted you to come back, really come back, she needed to be out of the picture. And you had to be driven, like he had been,” Hotchner said.

He sat back down in his chair and leaned forward. Sam grabbed the tissue box and fisted his hand into it, ripping and crumbling it.

“What do you want?” he whispered.

“I want you to understand,” Hotchner said. “I’m sorry, Sam. I’m sorry this happened to you. Your childhood was a fantasy, constructed by a tormented man who couldn’t come to terms with witnessing the horrific death of the woman he loved. So he built a world where her death made sense, terrible as that sense was. And he brought his sons up in that world. What was your first kill, Sam? An animal? What did your dad say it was? How old were you? Would you have known the difference? Your dad points at it and says, ‘That’s a monster, son.’ Why wouldn’t you believe that? What comparison did you have? Lights flicker, and your father says, ‘That’s a ghost, son.’ Who are you to say it isn’t? Your father brings home a man, tied up and crazed, and says, ‘That’s a demon, son.’ How could you believe anything else?”

Sam shook his head. “You can’t understand,” he said. “Not without seeing for yourself.”

“I understand, Sam,” Hotchner said, and Sam shook his head again.

“There are other people,” Sam said. “They could show you.” It was a desperate move, and Sam knew it, but he was cuffed to a hospital bed, trapped in a room with a man who knew everything about him, while Dean lay in a coma and Dad was probably being grilled by his own FBI agent. They were screwed, but good.

“Other hunters?” Hotchner asked. “Like Jim Murphy? And Caleb Nichol?”

Sam sucked in a startled breath.

“How’d they die, Sam? Demons? Monsters? Something that’s after your family, right? That’s why the Winchester family reunion’s been going on, right? And you Winchesters, you’re going to stick together, until you’ve avenged the death of your friends, right?”

This ends now. I’m ending it. I don’t care what it takes.

“How’d you find out, Sam?” Hotchner pressed. “John told you, both times, right?”

“He got calls,” Sam said numbly. “I was with him.”

“Did you talk to them?” Hotchner asked. “Jim or Caleb? Or did John relay the conversation?” He laid out more glossy photographs, Pastor Jim, Caleb, throats cut. “When, Sam?”

Sam shook his head. He didn’t even know what day it was, how could he tell?

“It’s been three days since the accident, Sam,” Hotchner said. “Jim Murphy died three weeks ago. Caleb Nichol, almost a month. Before or after you met up with John, Sam?”

Sam reached for the photographs with cold hands. His fingers rested on Pastor Jim’s kind face, that had welcomed him so many times. He looked at Caleb, who used to grab Sam under the arms and swing him around until he thought he would throw up with the dizzy joy. He shook his head.

“Before you met up with John,” Hotchner answered his own question. “You were willing to do anything after that, weren’t you? You loved these men, they were like family to you. And John knew it.”

“No,” Sam said hollowly, but he didn’t look up from the photographs.

“What happened the night of the accident, Sam?” Hotchner asked. “You were beaten before it happened. So was Dean. In fact, some of his internal bleeding came from injuries he sustained shortly before the accident. Who shot John in the leg, Sam?”

Sam sniffed. “Me,” he said dully. “He was going to kill Dean. But it wasn’t him.” He leaned his head back on the pillows, suddenly exhausted and dizzy.

“Okay,” Hotchner said, his voice far away. Spots swan before Sam’s eyes, and he heard the nurse button buzzing. “Sam,” Hotchner said urgently, and his voice was strangely familiar.

* * *

It was night when Sam woke. Agent Hotchner was sitting in the dark, backlit from the hallway, watching him. Sam stared blankly at him.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” the agent said, still in shadow. “I have bad news.”

A heart attack. Probably a blood clot had been knocked loose in the accident, and it had settled near Dad’s heart and burst.

He’d gotten out of his cuff and was in street clothes when the nurse found him on the floor in his room. One last plan, thwarted.

Sam was out of plans.

“Dean’s awake,” Hotchner said after they sat in silence for several minutes. “And he’s – Dean.” He paused, swallowed. “So I’m led to understand.”

Sam nodded. His chest eased, but he couldn’t look up.

Hotchner stood up. “We can talk again tomorrow, Sam,” he said, and then laid a hand briefly on top of Sam’s. “I know you probably don’t believe this right now, but I really am here to help you.”

Sam nodded. Hotchner left.

* * *

Hotchner was a damn fool, and if he could have thrown himself down on the ground and kicked himself violently, he would have, because the Winchesters were gone in the morning.

Incredibly, hours after awaking from a coma, Dean Winchester had unhooked himself from numerous pieces of medical equipment, evaded the agent stationed outside his door, stolen some clothing, evaded the agent stationed outside his brother’s door, gotten Sam out of his cuff, and smuggled the both of them out of the hospital.

If the Impala weren’t totaled, Hotchner had no doubt that Dean would have stolen it back and driven off in it. As things stood, they’d also managed to leave with John Winchester’s body.

He fumed on the plane, and no one dared to speak to him.

Back at Quantico, he took his three file boxes back into his office, told Garcia to get him everything she could find on Meg Masters, and starting going over every piece of paper, one by one. When people kept coming in to offer him food and coffee and “fresh air,” he locked his door.

He’d had Sam. He was sure of it.

* * *

It took a week for the call to come in.

“Agent Hotchner?”

“Sam.” He gripped the phone, made himself unclench his hand before he broke it. “Sam, are you all right?”

Sam sniffed. “I think . . . I think you might be right.”

“Okay.” He waited, patient.

“I’ve been checking some things out,” Sam said.

“That’s good, Sam,” Hotchner said. Gideon scuttled into the room and picked up a phone to listen.

“I’m . . . I’m so tired,” Sam admitted.

“I know, Sam,” Hotchner said. He reminded himself to breathe.

“Dean,” Sam said. “Dean . . . My dad. My dad went to see Dean before he died, did you know that?”

“No, I did not,” Hotchner admitted. He had, in the end, underestimated John Winchester. At least he was in good company, he thought.

“He told him,” Sam started, stopped. “Dean and I had a huge fight. About everything you said. And then Dean said that Dad, Dad told him . . . Dad said he had to . . .”

“What, Sam?” Hotchner prompted when the silence stretched on too long. “What did your father want Dean to do?”

He knew. He hated to make Sam say it, but it needed to be done.

“He,” Sam hitched.

“What did John tell Dean to do about you, Sam?” Hotchner asked quietly. “If you didn’t come around? If things didn’t go the way John wanted?”

Sam was crying on the other end of the phone. “He told Dean to kill me,” he said.

“Okay,” Hotchner said, and Sam began sobbing.

“He told my brother to kill me,” he said.

“Where are you, Sam?” Hotchner asked.

Sam couldn’t answer, just sobbed on the other end of the phone. Hotchner looked around and Morgan, on another line but listening to everything happening, wrote on a piece of paper and held it up for Hotchner to see.

“Sioux Falls, Sam? Is that where you are?” Hotchner asked.

“Yeah,” Sam said, his voice shaking.

“And where is Dean? With you?”

“No, at . . . at a friend’s. He doesn’t know about any of this,” Sam said hastily. “He doesn’t know we escaped custody or any of this stuff. He’s just letting us crash. I don’t want him to get in trouble.”

“That’s fine, Sam,” Hotchner assured him. “We just want to make sure you’re all right, and that we get to Dean before anyone else is hurt.”

Sam was quiet, breath still hitching, and Hotchner let him think.

He gave them the address.

* * *

Hotchner scanned the shelves at the airport bookstore. The Lincoln office could have brought Sam in, but he wanted to do it himself. He thought he owed Sam at least that much.

He’d spoken to the DA on the way to the airport, and it looked like Sam could expect to spend his time in a mental facility. Hotchner had personally requested one of the nicer ones, and the DA had promised to do what she could.

Bobby Singer was being held for questioning, but had not been charged. Hotchner expected that would change soon, maybe even by the time he landed. Search warrants were being executed, and Hotchner was sure there were bodies buried in the salvage yard. In fact, he knew just where to find them, in case the FBI didn’t come across them on their own.

He hadn’t had to see Dean, and he was profoundly grateful. Some unfounded and illogical superstition within him insisted that Dean would take one look at him and make him. Besides, it had been difficult enough seeing Sam. He didn’t think he could handle seeing Dean.

He glanced at the clock. It was almost boarding time. Time was, he didn’t need commodities like airplanes, but those days were gone, and he’d acclimated to this new life. Deep undercover, the FBI would call it, and he’d learned to think like they did.

He found the book he wanted and slid it out, took it to the counter.

“Fantasy fan,” the clerk said. “Wouldn’t have pegged you.”

Hotchner gave a flicker of a smile and took out his wallet.

“Guess we all gotta escape from reality sometime, huh?” the clerk said, and handed Hotchner his change.

He slipped the book into his bag and headed for the terminal. There was a lag, between current events and publication, so it was only Dead in the Water. The story had not changed yet.

It would. It had to. Things would be different this time. True, he hadn’t been able to stop John from making his deal. That had been a surprise. But Sam and Dean were going to separate, secure facilities, and even if Sam did get whisked away for the psychic kids showdown, Dean wouldn’t be there to make his own deal if Sam didn’t make it. Which he wouldn’t, not after the head job that he’d just undergone.

Every time he’d faltered, he’d remembered what Sam’s face had looked like wearing Lucifer’s cruel smile, and his resolve had held. He was too tapped out for another attempt. If he didn’t set it right this time, he would perish with the world, fallen and failed.

They called his row. Castiel boarded the plane.