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Cheating Death

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It took whoever was in charge forty days before they decided that the Winchesters should be moved to a less remote facility to be tried. Dean knew because he’d been counting. He’d been left his belt when he was thrown into the cell, and he used the buckle to chip the worn plaster off the wall.

He didn’t let himself wonder why he was left his belt. Maybe whoever stuck them in here thought he’d hang himself with it instead of go on trial for such an enormous crime as trying to assassinate the president. But the thing is, he damn well saved the president as far as he knew, unless the dude had died from something Lucifer had done to his body, so Dean didn’t see the point in agonizing over it.

Dean had no idea where Sam was, though, and that had him more restless than any potential trial ever could. He figured that they’d have to let him see Sam eventually. It sucked that they couldn’t plan their escape together, but they were good at working on the fly. They could pull it off. Dean just hoped that Sam was doing alright.

The prison guard banged on his door and yelled, “Nose to the wall, hands in the air, prisoner!” This was new. Whenever they brought food, they just shoved it in through the slot and walked away. The few times he’d been pulled out of the cell for medical checkups and psych evals, they cuffed him up, but this time it sounded like there was a whole crowd of guards out there, muttered voices and shuffling steps. Dean complied with the order quicker than he normally would. He’d already been thwacked on the head multiple times for giving the guards lip, and he didn’t want to be woozy for whatever was happening.

He hoped Sam was out there, because that meant they had a chance at getting out of this.

Sam hated cells, cages, Cages, and any other enclosed space that had ever been created. It was official. Being locked into this cell with only a too-short bed and a small toilet to fill the space hit all of the memories that he’d been burying for years. All he needed was for Lucifer to start popping up in the corners of his eyes, and then it’d be just like old times.

Sam didn’t bother counting days. He knew exactly why he was left his belt and his shoelaces, and he let them be. He didn’t stare at the camera in the corner, even though he could feel it watching as he sat up late at night staring into space or doing pushups, whichever occupied his mind better. He knew that eventually something would happen. The resurgence of the Winchesters, trying to assassinate the President himself no less, would be the story of the century, and eventually word would get out and they’d have to go on trial, no matter how short the trial actually was.

So Sam waited. And he prayed. He didn’t bother talking to God; who even knew where Chuck had gone. Instead, he prayed to Cas, hoping that when the angels had gone back to heaven, Cas had regained his ability to hear prayers too. He didn’t know where Cas was, or how Cas was doing, but he hoped Cas wasn’t frantically scouring the countryside trying to find them, because that could get him caught, or even just tagged as a person of interest. He’d already been seen with them when Ketch had blown up the Secret Service’s SUV, even if Cas had wiped their memories; who knew what cameras the agents had had on their bodies.

Still, he prayed. He told Cas what was happening (not much), where he thought they were (the continental US), and how he felt (not so great). Sam wondered if Cas could hear him.

When the guards ordered him to get up, he figured that it was now or never. He focused half his mind on the situation, and the other half on relaying everything he was seeing over a (rather convoluted, overly long) prayer. He hoped Cas had his ears on.

Castiel could definitely hear Sam’s prayers, and he could feel Dean praying unconsciously nearby, hoping that Sam was alright. But Castiel couldn’t tell exactly where they were. He had a feeling that he was still hampered by the events of the past few years, his Grace slowly recovering from being removed and replaced with unfamiliar Grace and then returned and then shoved aside by Lucifer and then freed (thankfully).

He could hear the Winchesters. He could even say that they were somewhere in western Indiana or eastern Illinois. But he couldn’t pinpoint it better than that without a much more prolonged and focused prayer from either Sam or Dean that would allow him to follow the energy of it more closely. He’d stayed in the Bunker to ensure that he was in a hidden location, having heard Sam’s idle musings on body cameras – something he hadn’t considered (or even conceived of) when wiping the agents’ memories.

When Sam’s voice came through again, though, Castiel could hear something different in the tone. Instead of bored or on edge, Sam sounded focused but also worried and anxious. Cas immediately began trying to trace Sam through his prayer. Something was happening to the Winchesters, and he needed to find them before something went wrong.

He stood absently, mind miles away, and didn’t even notice Mary walking in. She’d been staying in the Bunker as well, and they had been getting along well enough. They both were distracted by the Sam-and-Dean shaped holes in the Bunker, Mary probably more than Castiel since she could not communicate, no matter how one-sidedly, with them as Castiel could. Mary had been attempting to cook, and although Castiel could not truly taste food, he still indulged her in what was most likely a stress reaction. He wondered idly sometimes why she seemed so nervous in the kitchen when Dean had extolled her skills so often, but he could find no fault in the simple recipes she put together.

Mary obviously noticed his abnormal focus, because she approached, asking quickly, “Castiel? Is something wrong?” Castiel noticed her features already shifting into a more focused set, and he could see the focused and effective hunter that Mary Winchester was.

Castiel nodded once. He divided enough of his attention from tracking Sam to answer her question. “They are being moved,” he said. “Sam does not know where, but they were unwise enough to bring the brothers together again. They have planned to escape. It was a rather marvelous example of silent communication.”

“Well, where are they?” Mary asked, already casting around for a weapon. “If they’re escaping, they’ll need to get out of there, and they have no idea where they are, never mind having any boltholes planned. They need backup.”

Castiel tilted his head to look at her, giving her more of his attention. “I am trying to pinpoint Sam’s location. I almost have him…”

A bolt of adrenalin shot through the connection Sam still hadn’t broken, his thoughts still feeding to Castiel. “They’re moving,” Castiel said tersely, returning all of his focus to narrowing Sam’s location down to a smaller radius than the mile-wide one he currently had.

He could hear Sam cursing as he caught the impression of gunshots and being all too exposed. He heard Mary ask something loudly but kept his focus on Sam. He had a bad feeling about this escape.

Dean broke off and ran after a count of thirty, just like he’d signaled Sam. He heard the winded grunt as Sam slammed his shoulder into a guard standing too close to him and followed on his heels. The guards behind them and in the transport, caught by surprise, shouted after them before pulling out their pistols. Good, Dean thought, we need all the chances we can get to get into the treeline before they start shooting.

His wrists were locked behind him but he could manage to run without them. He bent in half to minimize the target he presented and sprinted towards the trees. He heard Sam’s footsteps right behind him.

They’d just barely made it to the trees when the guards started shooting. Dean heard some of them in pursuit, stopping to shoot every few steps. Bark and splinters flew as the bullets impacted trees on his left and right, and Dean felt small branches whip across his face, opening small scratches.

He heard Sam whuff out a gasp right after a shot, but he still heard footsteps behind him, so he didn’t stop. Sam could handle a gunshot wound to most of his body. Dean just hoped that it hadn’t hit his gut or an artery.

He kept running, trying to focus on the footsteps behind him, listening for any faltering, but he lost the sound of Sam’s footsteps while running through a large pile of dead leaves whose crunch overlaid every other sound.

When he got out of the leaves, he couldn’t hear Sam behind him. He stumbled to a stop, heaving for breath, and turned around.

Sam was gone.

Sam heaved for breath, wishing his hands were uncuffed so he could put pressure in the hole in his gut. He lay where he’d collapsed mid-step, his legs finally giving out. The tree at his back was a relief, as was the dark forest around him and the low-lying brush that hopefully hid him slightly from anyone blindly running through the forest around him.

He could feel too much blood running down his midsection, just to the left of his spine. He tried again to shift to get his cuffed hands over the wound but succeeded only in straining the wound and almost making himself yell in pain and give away where he was to anyone still following.

He relaxed back, trying to get his heart rate to slow. Hey Cas, he prayed, Now would be a really damn good time to show up. His heart kept pounding, and he thought maybe the wound was worse than he thought, because the edges of his vision were fuzzing over.

He closed his eyes, praying Please Castiel please I don’t want to die almost unconsciously. The world went dark.

Fuck!” Castiel shouted.

“What?” Mary asked, on-edge, gun in her hand and eyes focused on him. “What’s wrong?”

Castiel shook his head, already spinning around and preparing himself to stretch his still-healing wings. “I know roughly where Sam is, and I need to leave now.”

Mary walked closer, “Why, did something happen to Sam?”

“Sam’s been shot,” Castiel said. “And he’s already gone unconscious. I need to get to him immediately.” He drew in a breath, readying himself to stretch his wings, but Mary grabbing his arm startled him out of his focus.

“Take me with you,” she demanded.

“Mary, there are still agents with guns–” Castiel tried to start, but was cut off by Mary’s angry gesture.

“No. Take me to my boys.”

Castiel considered for all of a second before realizing that not only did they not have time for this, Mary had been in dangerous situations before and had obviously survived them, so he could expect her to take care of herself. “Very well,” he conceded. “Please do not make a sound when we land; I do not know where or near who I will land.”

“You don’t know–” Mary began just as he stretched his wings, wincing as the still-healing Grace twinged rather like a hot poker between his vessel’s shoulder blades, and pulled. They took flight, Castiel doing his best to focus on where he had last felt Sam.

<hr width=“25%”> Sam stood uninjured in a very familiar landscape. He’d not had many occasions to explore his mindscape and memories, but he’d made sure to do so at least once to ensure that certain areas of his mind were locked up as tight as he could make them.

So he stood and looked around at the Bunker, devoid of inhabitants or the smell of Dean’s tar-like coffee and old books. I’m dying, he thought, randomly. I’ve been here before.

But he wasn’t meeting Death so easily this time, he resolved. He trusted that Cas and Dean could get him out of this; he just had to stall for time. So instead of doing the calm thing and waiting for the reaper to show themself, Sam took off deeper into the Bunker, where he knew the rest of his mind was archived much like the Bunker itself.

He heard someone shout behind him and pushed himself faster. He started mentally reciting the reaper-banishing chant he’d found deep in the Bunker’s archives when he began to research how best to take full control over his own mind and life. He had to have it down perfectly.

When he was sure he could recite the chant fully and quickly, Sam paused in his memories from Stanford, watching Jess tease an avatar of him from afar. He felt the reaper bend the pathways of his mind behind him, stepping into existence at his back.

“You know,” he said, “Sneaking up behind someone you’re trying to convince to come quietly isn’t the best strategy.”

He felt more than heard the reaper pause. “Are you going to come quietly?” he heard the reaper ask.

He turned and assessed the reaper. They had chosen to appear as a college-age man, dark skinned and fine-boned. Probably to appear less intimidating, or possibly to play on the odd comradeship he’d built with the Banes twins in the short time he’d known them. Even so, there was an air of Other around the reaper, and Sam knew that no matter what form the reaper took, Sam wouldn’t feel at ease.

The reaper shifted under his scrutiny. Odd. Most seemed to be made of stone until you made them angry. Was there such a thing as a young reaper? Sam wondered idly. He mentally shrugged. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going quietly into any good night that day.

“I don’t think I am,” he finally said, after letting the silence drag on. He let the reaper stare in blatant shock – obviously untrained if not brand new, he figured – before he started the banishing chant. The reaper screamed and flickered out only a few lines into the chant.

Obviously not used to their targets fighting back, Sam reasoned. He shrugged and kept running. Either that one would come back or another, more hardened, one would be sent. Either way, he needed to stay on the move.

Sam moved through his memories, stored as doors on a seemingly-endless hallway in the Bunker, dodging the doors that were covered in warded chains and finding the doors with the fewest chips and cracks. To avoid repeating any of his destinations, he’d have to endure some of his more traumatic memories, but he had enough that he could avoid the worst for a while. And really, if he needed to get into the warded areas for any reason, he’d given himself a backdoor. Just in case.

He felt the surface of his mind warp around him as something entered and he stopped dead, staring at himself arguing with his father. He turned around to find an all-too-familiar reaper eyeing him with as much distaste as she was eyeing him. “Tessa,” he greeted, voice dark, eyes already darting around for an exit. He ignored the argument in the background; he knew every word anyhow.

“Sam Winchester,” she greeted. She sighed. “Look, I don’t want to be here either, but the boss ordered me to take you in when you roughed up Odom. Don’t you feel even the least bit bad for that? The kid was new to the job – you were their first soul assignment! And instead of going nice and quietly, you banished them. Do you know what a banishment does to a reaper’s being?”

“No,” Sam said. “The Men of Letters were less worried about potential effects. And I’m not going.” He started moving backwards, hoping that the shift Tessa’s entrance had caused hadn’t changed the basic geography of his memories. If he remembered correctly, there was a backdoor right…

“Sam,” Tessa sighed, walking towards him as he backed away. “Why do you even resist? As we’re talking, you’re losing blood at a frankly impressive rate. Your brother has no idea where you are and your angel is hundreds of miles away. You’re helpless.” She eyed him with pity. “Do you really want to deny me and spend the rest of your existence as a ghost, if my boss even lets you? Do you really want to become what you hunt?”

Sam felt the shape of the backdoor against his palm behind his back. “See, unlike you, I believe in Dean,” he said. “And in Cas. They’ll find me.” He shoved on the door, willing it to open, and fell backward through a curtain of hellfire. He saw Tessa’s eyes widen as she lunged after him, the door already closing.

She made it through the doorway, barely. Sam wondered if she knew that he had lured her in here, the area he had walled off for years. If she knew that she’d just lunged into a trap. It didn’t matter.

He could see her trying to ignore the horrors that could only be seen out of the corners of their eyes – looking at them head-on was out of the question, even for a being like a reaper. Some things weren’t meant to be relived. Sam had practice ignoring things in the corners of his eyes, and focused on looking just deranged enough to drag her on, keep her engaged and unaware of the fact that this entire area of his mind was warded against entry, and against exit by anyone but himself. He eyed the reaper trap he’d placed into the ground when he’d warded these memories, realizing that if he ever needed it, this would be the best place to “store” the reaper and keep them occupied. He kept stepping backward, willing Tessa to follow him right into the trap.

She did. Her attention was divided so badly, by watching Sam and not-watching the memories on constant replay, that she didn’t even notice the trap until it closed around her. The moan that escaped her when she realized she couldn’t escape almost had Sam pitying her, but he didn’t, really. She’d been the one to pursue him, the one to try and reap his soul.

He wasn’t going to let that happen. Cas was coming. Dean was coming. He’d get out of this alive.

Billie wondered idly while watching over the poor young reaper Sam had banished where Tessa was. Surely she’d been able to reap Sam by now. She glanced around to realized that it had been far too long. She rubbed Odom’s back one last time, suffusing them with a little bit of their power to heal the damage done by the banishment before moving away. She tried to ignore the piteous moans that Odom was letting free, because if she focused on them too much, she’d go and find Sam Winchester and make sure he felt every inch of his soul being dragged from his body for hurting such a young reaper under her care.

She focused on Tessa’s being and noticed a curious amount of distress and an almost dangerous level of terror; that also wasn’t a good sign, and even though she didn’t like the reaper – her near-death at Dean’s hands seemed like the mark of a reaper gone rogue, no matter how much she insisted that it wasn’t – she still had a responsibility to all of her reapers that she would fulfill.

Billie reached out and pulled herself into Sam Winchester’s mind, absently stopping time for his body so that she could solve this mess without his body dying before he could be reaped. When she found Tessa cowering in a trap in the area of Sam’s mind that housed his Hell memories, she had to be impressed at the boy’s strategic abilities, but she was still enraged that he’d just left Tessa in the most dangerous area of his mind, the only area that posed any harm. Freeing Tessa with a thought and sending her to where Odom still lay injured, she unleashed her full power and let it lash through Sam’s mind and moved toward where she could feel his soul hiding. Dark clouds gathered around her and lightning lashed at her heels, and she raged.

Castiel landed heavily, almost stumbling. Mary fell, barely catching herself without yelping. He heard crashing in the undergrowth behind him and spun, blade drawn and held out in front of himself, wings flared to protect Mary, still vulnerable on the ground, only to find Dean, out of breath, rushing toward him, hands still cuffed behind his back.

“Cas? Cas? What the hell are you doing here? You should be with Sam!” Dean hissed. Castiel noted absently that Dean’s wrists were chafed and near bleeding from the friction of the steel cuffs and touched them, unlocking them and grasping Dean’s wrists to heal them and check for other damage. When he found none, he sighed in relief and addressed Dean’s increasingly loud questions.

“Dean,” he said. “Even though I can fly now that my Grace is returned, it took so much damage, both when used by Metatron and when caged by – by Lucifer that it is taking longer than I am accustomed for it to heal fully. I could not pinpoint Sam’s location perfectly, but he is somewhere nearby. He is also in dire shape. To be blunt, you two are fortunate that I am healed enough to fly.” Castiel saw Dean wince.

Then Dean noticed Mary, who was brushing the twigs off of her arms and checking her gun. “Mom?!” he hissed. “What the hell are you doing here? You could get hurt!”

Mary rolled her eyes. Castiel admired her for not simply capitulating. “My boys were in trouble,” she said, “And if I could help in any way, I would. So here I am. And you will not argue that point.”

Dean sighed, dragging a now-free hand over his face. “Look, I dunno where Sam is. I know he was behind me until I hit that big patch of leaves just over there, but I lost his footsteps in the crunch of the leaves and I don’t know where he fell. He should be somewhere over here but I’ve been looking and haven’t found anything.”

Castiel cast out his Grace, hoping to feel Sam’s soul now that he was closer. Instead, he felt a curious absence. He hovered around it, wondering what had caused this oddity in the middle of this forest in Indiana, when he caught the aura of Death and realized what he was seeing. He came back to his body to find Dean still explaining what he didn’t know and Mary listening raptly. “I believe I have found Sam,” he said, interrupting Dean. “But I’m afraid Billie found him before I did.”

He leads their little group quietly, mindful of those still searching the forest, through the underbrush to where he had felt the anomaly. There, at the base of an oak tree that looked to be more than 150 years old, lay Sam’s body in a pool of still-cooling blood. Dean paled and knelt by his side to check his pulse while Mary stared in shock. Dean stood, face blank, and shook his head. Mary let out a wounded sound. Castiel could sympathize, but luckily the situation was not as bad as it seemed to a human’s eyes.

“Do not worry,” he said. “Sam’s soul is still intact. For some reason, Billie has paused time only for Sam, thus pausing his heartbeat. We still have time to save him. But…” He trailed off. He would need much more power than he currently possessed to do even half of what he must to save Sam. He would need enough power to heal his mortal wound, likely all of the power he currently possessed, but in addition to healing Sam he needed to be able to enter Sam’s mind and expel Billie, or at least drive her away, which would require even more power. He needed a boost, he realized.

He knew that Dean would offer in a heartbeat if he vocalized the need, but he also knew that for the amount of power that he needed, Dean’s soul was too torn by years of Hell and the traumas of his life to hold up and stay whole under the strain. His only hope to gather enough power to fully heal and save Sam was Mary’s soul, mostly pure excepting the miniscule taint from her deal with Azazel and the odd tinge from her resurrection.

Dean asking, “But?” pointedly drew him out of his musings.

“But,” he continued, “I require more power than I currently possess.”

“I’ll do it,” Dean said, even as Mary looked between them in confusion. Dean looked almost injured when Castiel shook his head and turned to Mary, but he did not have time to assuage Dean’s hurt feelings. This was truly a matter of life and death, and the more time he spent talking about it, the more time Sam had to fall prey to Billie’s machinations.

“Mary,” he asked gently, “I require more power to save Sam. I can pull power from human souls in times of great need. May I gather some power from your soul?” He watched Mary glance at Dean and glance back at him, and saw the resolve tighten her eyes.

“Will it kill me?” she asked. Castiel wondered if his response would change her answer.

“No,” he responded.

“Will it hurt?”

“Some,” he said, remembering how Dean had cried out in pain years ago when he had reached into his soul to gather power, and how Sam’s soulless body had tensed and clenched his jaw.

“Then do it,” Mary answered. “If it’s the only way to save Sam, I’ll do anything.”

Castiel nodded, conceding the point. It seemed like a Winchester trait was also a Campbell trait. “Very well,” he said. “Please brace yourself.” He stepped forward and extended his hand, reaching for Mary’s soul.

When he contacted her soul, he was almost overtaken by a wave of faith and the mantra of the Hail Mary washing over his Grace. Her soul was fully open to him, all of its strength bared and offered, and Castiel made sure to hold back. This was one soul that he could not harm. He took what he believed that he needed and just a little more, just in case, and backed away, selfishly letting the holy words of the Hail Mary wash over his Grace one more time before withdrawing. He barely gasped out “Catch her,” to Dean before Mary’s knees gave out.

He lowered himself down to a clear spot by Sam’s prone form and laid a hand on his heart and his head. He gathered all of the extra power, converted quickly to Grace, that Mary had given to him, and lunged through the bubble of stopped time around Sam, quickly entering his mind.

He landed in chaos.

Sam hissed out a breath when something entered his mind with all the subtlety of a freight train going 70 entered a tunnel. He felt pure power lashing out at the detailed organization of his mind, and the sky over his head, a memory of a quiet day on the road, blackened. Trees in the distance began burning spontaneously. He could feel himself losing his well-organized memories, little bits disappearing quickly and larger chunks faster, until he could only tell what he’d forgotten by logically running through what he should have experienced and finding gaps. Sam felt something like a headache pulse behind his eyes and between his ears, and he felt something warm begin trickling down his neck. He didn’t have to reach up to know that it was blood.

Whatever was on the horizon, it was powerful enough -and angry enough – to injure his soul without ever touching him.

Just then, an empty power rushed over him, and he realized: he’d finally attracted Billie’s attention. And she wasn’t inclined to talk this time; in fact, she felt pissed like he’d never seen her before. Maybe leaving Tessa in his Hell memories took it a step too far. Sam hunched behind the memory of the Impala; he had no time and, he was realizing, no energy to run any more. He felt more than saw the clouds build over his head.

He prayed desperately, Cas, I sure as hell hope you’re nearby, because I’m about to die whether I want to or not. He readied himself to stand and face Billie and her power head-on; he had no other options. Well, he had one, but it was as likely to kill him as Billie was.

Just as he finished the prayer, he felt his mindscape shift just the littlest bit, like someone had nudged a curtain aside to slip through. Cas appeared at his side, looking down at him with a combination of focus and horror. “Hey, Cas,” he managed, smiling roughly.

Cas seemed to pay no mind to the destruction around them, to the lightning and the dark clouds and the fire. Instead, he reached out, and Sam could feel the power pulsing in his hand, and Sam let Cas lay his hand on his head. The surge of power that bolted through him felt like a massive hit of caffeine and adrenalin, and Sam watched in wonder as the black clouds melted away and the fire snuffed out as if it was never there.

On an instinct, Sam stood and turned to face where the cloud had originated, noting Cas doing the same, and found Billie standing just yards away, mouth flat but eyes full of rage, something he’d never seen before. “Sam. Castiel,” she said, nodding to each of them. Sam could see the restraint in her face, the way that she refused to lash out without knowing whether Cas would just heal the damage. “Castiel, I’d ask where you got that power, but I’d know the sense of Mary Winchester’s soul anywhere. So tell me, how is dear momma Winchester now that you’ve drained her to save her son?”

Sam noted that Cas didn’t deny it, and he realized that obviously, the Winchester trait of self-sacrifice wasn’t strictly a Winchester-specific trait. “Is Mom okay?” he asked Cas, not even turning his way, not wanting to take his eyes off Billie in front of him, sure that giving her an opening would end with him reaped and Cas dead.

“Your mother is fine, if a little woozy, Sam,” Cas responded, and Sam nodded.

Billie cleared her throat. “You used a lot of power there, angel,” she stated. “You may have healed the surface wounds, but did you make sure to heal all the damage? It sure would be a shame for Sam to live but go insane, you know. Such a waste.” Her face twisted when she said that, and Sam was sure that she considered it less of a waste and more like just desserts. He wondered, in that moment, if Tessa was alright.

Sam heard Cas scoff. “Any mental wounds were caused by your indelicate entrance,” he replied. Sam felt him shift, felt his mind’s reality bend around his sword hand. Before they could passive-aggressively (or aggressively, if this escalated any further) attack each other anymore, Sam stepped forward and cleared his throat, consciously drawing Billie’s attention.

“Aren’t you supposed to be convincing me to come with you and be at peace, it’s my time, yadda yadda?” he asked. He placed a hand on the memory-Impala and soaked in the remembered feel of heated metal, dulled by time. He pulled up a memory that he wished he never had to, but that would prove useful this time, but he made sure to keep the influence of the memory out of the landscape.

Billie laughed. “You’re already dead, Sam,” she said. “Your heart stopped, reapers arrived, the whole shebang. You know that, because you almost killed one of them and left the other to slow fall into insanity. Now? Now you’re just delaying the inevitable. And I, unlike the old Death, don’t find your persistence endearing. So I’m going to ask you this once: come quietly and I will deliver you peacefully to the Empty, where you’ll go peacefully into Nothing and you won’t even know that you’re gone. Otherwise, I’ll drag you kicking and screaming to the same result. And it will feel so good to give to you some measure of what you gave to my reapers.”

Sam winced, debating on apologizing for that. He didn’t actually know that the banishment was so harmful to reapers, to be fair, but Tessa…Tessa was intentional. Even so, he wasn’t okay with dying. “Sorry, Billie,” he finally said, “I don’t think so.” He pulled all of his strength into his soul, feeling the landscape dim a little and the warmth of the Impala under his hand fade, and began to recite the Binding of Death ritual that Lucifer had taught him what seemed like eons ago on a whim in the Pit.

He’d committed it to memory, for no reason other than he had nothing else to do, and for once Lucifer wasn’t injuring him. That is, until Lucifer forced him to recite it. The ancient Enochian tore at his body and soul in the Pit, and Sam felt the same agony that he’d felt back then. Hellfire crept up the plains around them slowly as he pushed the syllables through his throat.

He realized partway through that he didn’t remember the full incantation, but he kept going forward without faltering. If he played this right, they could still pull this off.

Even as he felt his soul tear, he felt Cas’ hand settle on his back, Grace pouring through him and healing the damage he was causing as he caused it. He watched Billie stare in confusion and anger as he continued the incantation until she realized just what he was reciting. Then she began stalking forward, avoiding patches of Hellfire that his now-unleashed memories were spreading. “You think that you, a human with an incantation you can barely speak without killing yourself and willpower, could hope to bind me? You think that you have the right to bind me and control me after all you did to my reapers? You think you have the right?!”

Sam almost responded that he wouldn’t have done this if she’d just accepted that he was healed and left, but he was reaching the end of what he remembered of the incantation, so he raised his voice, gesturing meaninglessly but grandiosely.

He finished with an air of finality, the final words tearing at his throat as he screamed them at her and shoved his hands at her. Billie tensed and paused for a few crucial seconds, as if she expected at any time to be bound. In that pause, Sam felt Cas expel an enormous amount of power, and a veil over everything that he hadn’t even noticed before dissolved. He heard his heartbeat start again.

Billie snarled, but she knew as well as they did that without Sam’s heart stopped, she had no claim over his soul. If she’d taken his soul while she had him trapped in stasis, she could have argued to Atropos that Sam would have died outside of stasis. But with him out of stasis, even she couldn’t twist that to a normal death, and Atropos wouldn’t accept it, even if the death happened to be one of the Winchesters. Sam smirked as Billie left much quieter than she came, although Cas still weakly sent a small pulse of Grace through his mind just to ensure that no harm lingered.

As Billie vanished, Sam awoke, his eyes flickering open. In the real world, he found Cas seated beside him, face ashen and hands shaking, and Dean supporting a half-aware Mary. He blinked and watched Dean glance around the forest, still looking hunted. He wondered how long he’d been out.

As Sam gathered himself to ask that very question, Dean said, “Cas, can you please get us out of this goddamn forest and to somewhere not populated with government goons looking to put a few extra holes in us?”

Sam watched Cas gather himself, straightening slowly, and declined the hand Cas offered when he managed to stand; Cas looked like he was about to fall over already. He didn’t need to help Sam up. He could do it himself. And he did. Barely. Sam’s legs felt oddly like jelly; he wondered if it was a left-over remnant of having technically died (again). His hands drifted to his gut and the hole in the back of his shirt, still tacky with blood. His blood. He breathed out, amazed that he still can.

He was alive.

He looked up to find Cas offering a hand to hold. Sam took it, sure that if Cas needed physical contact to fly them anywhere the ride was going to suck.

It did. Sam almost hurled when they landed, even as he went to his hands and knees. Dean, on the other side of Cas, collapsed to his knees, still holding on to Mary, who roused enough to groan and cuss. Cas apologized breathlessly, and Sam looked up to find him tilting ominously. Sam barely managed to catch him before he hit the dirt, and he looked around to find them a hundred yards from the Bunker’s entrance. He hefted Cas’ arm over his shoulder and stumbled his way to the door.

When he and Dean finally managed to drag their respective companions into the Bunker, they both paused at the top of the stairs and just breathed in the old-book and coffee smell.

“Man, it’s good to be home,” Dean said.

Sam couldn’t agree more. He needed to go back into his mind and fix all the damage Billie’s rage caused, but that could wait.

That could wait.

He was home.

They were home.