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This story lingered at six paragaphs from done for about four months, got spectacularly jossed by the end of the season (as I knew it was going to be), lingered there some more, and then finally Merry kicked me yesterday and I wrote them.

Many many thanks to Giddy and Terri and Merry for beta!

This story is inspired by It Doesn't Mean You Can Explain The Ocean by rageprufrock, and if by some sad unlucky chance you haven't read that already, go do that first, because it is spectacular and also this won't make sense without it. ♥

by astolat

Sam doesn't ask.

In Florida, when they burst out of the old collapsing mausoleum into afternoon sunshine, covered with dirt and ectoplasm and victory, and Dean punches his fists in the air and looks at him, dirty and grinning and shining so bright that for a minute Sam almost can't see, still he doesn't ask, he doesn't reach out and put his hands on Dean's face, where they belong according to every instinct and yearning he has in him.

In Alabama, when Dean's side is slashed down to the bone, white gleam through red flesh in four narrow rows, and Sam has to pour holy water over the cuts and watch them sizzle, Dean's head buried against his thigh and Dean's arms wrapped around him, squeezing breath out of him as Dean pretends he's not screaming into the denim, Sam doesn't bend down and kiss Dean's bare shoulder, doesn't even put his hand on Dean's back like he could maybe get away with. Instead he says, makes himself say, "You know, Dean, it's okay if you need to cry like a little girl," and Dean says a muffled "fuck you" shakily, and Sam puts him to bed alone.

In Tennessee, when his knee gets wrenched, Dean has to half-carry him back to the car, Sam's arm slung over his shoulders and Dean's arm wrapped around Sam's waist. Dean bitches the whole way; he got drenched in the muck-monster's guts, and Sam slipped while laughing at him. Dean stops outside the car and insists on them both stripping down to their shorts before he helps Sam into the back seat, and he's bending over with his knee planted on the seat between Sam's legs, easing him backwards, and Sam lets go of Dean's shoulders, instead of pulling him down.

It's okay; it's going to be okay, because it has to be.

They settle down for a month in Pendleton, South Carolina, a small town near the Blue Ridge Mountains; they're laying down a complicated trap for a haunting that comes back every forty years and kills a whole lot of people. They work on the trap at night in the church graveyard; during the day Dean works at a local garage and Sam does yard work so they can pay in cash for food and the cheap apartment they've rented in someone's converted barn, since running a fake credit card that long's too risky.

Money's always tight, so they cook instead of eating out, rice and beans and whatever meat is cheapest at the market that week, with something green on payday and canned fruit by the day before. Moving around each other in the tiny kitchen, getting into dishtowel and soapsud fights cleaning up, it's more homelike than anything he can remember. Sam looks at Dean's hand on the table and doesn't cover it with his own, doesn't step behind Dean while he's chopping something up and kiss him on the side of the neck, but he doesn't mind so much that he can't; it still feels like something.

Two weeks in, Dean's running flirtation with the brown-eyed girl who waitresses at the local bar turns into a date, and Sam works in the graveyard alone all that night, long past when they'd usually stay, until dawn turns the sky pink and he has to grab up the tools in a hurry and scoot, before the pastor or anybody else spots him. He goes back to the apartment tired and hungry. Dean still isn't there, he won't be there most nights for the rest of the month until they leave, and it's just a cheap, eighty-dollar-a-month place to sack out, with paint peeling off the walls and a sink that drips endlessly.

Dean harasses him about girls once in a while, and then in Wyoming they come back to the motel from the bar where Sam said thanks, but I'm seeing someone, and Dean slams the door behind them. "What the hell, man, you're turning into some kind of monk. You could've at least talked to her."

It's gone beyond his usual chivvying; Dean sounds half-bewildered. So Sam tries the next time, in a bar in Montana a week later; he smiles, buys a girl a drink, talks to her a while. Her name's Katie, and she's studying organic agriculture at the university, and she's pretty and sweet, and Sam likes her, likes her a lot, but there's no spark at all, and she knows it too. She gives him her e-mail at the end and says to write her, just friends, and Sam thinks he even might. Dean rolls his eyes when Sam comes back to the table and says, "You couldn't seal the deal? This is what happens when you get out of practice."

Except it's not just Katie. Sam tries again with Jennifer, with Gisela, with Renee, really trying by the end, and there's nothing; as though all desire in him has been swallowed up by the one thing he's not allowed to have. He starts to fake it so Dean won't notice: he walks girls out to their cars and finds another bar, or a church when he can, and spends the night sitting in the pews silently. He doesn't pray; he's stopped praying lately. He's already been told no. Instead he lights candles for company, and visions start coming to him one after another in the flames.

Losing himself in the visions helps. He doesn't feel the urge to ask as much anymore, and it helps with the work, too. He recognizes most of the people they meet now, knows their faces and the sound of their voices, knows what they're going to say. He doesn't tell Dean. Instead he pretends to have found new contacts over the Internet, claims to have read things in books that he's only seen in fire, and works the more critical witnesses aside so Dean doesn't overhear what he says to them, the things he tells them that make their faces go pale and their mouths open and spill out their secrets.

One night near the end of the summer, the candle lights up before he touches it with the taper. He puts money in the box anyway, and goes back to the motel. Dean is asleep in bed, his shoulders and arms bare above the white sheet; he mumbles briefly as Sam comes in, without waking up. Sam lies down on the other bed, on top of the covers, and stares into the darkness of another year like this.

Over the next months, power grows in him like a strangling vine, something mysterious and unstoppable, feeding off the rich dark earth of his rotting secret and the vigils he holds. Loneliness grows with it, creeping into moments that used to be safe: long stretches of road in the car, working in silence together at night, overcast days, until there are only brief moments of light breaking through.

Dean prods him awake in the middle of a flat stretch of Colorado and says, "Hey, talk to me, I'm falling asleep here." Sam opens his mouth and for a long terrifying minute can't speak, has nothing to say, nothing at all. Finally he blurts out, desperate, because Dean is about to look at him, "You could try listening to something more up to date than the greatest hits of twenty years ago," and starts a retread of an argument they've had so often that he can say his lines even though he doesn't feel one way or another about it anymore.

One day the thought slides into his head that maybe he should go it alone. Dean is just holding him back now. Alone, Sam wouldn't have to go through all the motions; he could talk keys out of motel clerks and rides out of truck drivers, unerringly find the graves of vengeful ghosts and burn them into ash with a single hot-eyed look, twist the heads off vampires without even using a blade. If he was alone.

In Arizona, Dean finally catches him. "What the fuck are you doing?" he says, his voice rough and scared bouncing off the walls of the church, every candle in the place burning tall and white like a brand, voices whispering louder and louder in Sam's ears. "What are you—" Then Dean stops talking, just grabs Sam by the arm and drags him out, candles going out behind them like the breath of a god.

Back in the motel, Dean shoves him down to sit on the floor, circling around him furious and terrified as he pours salt and flips through their dad's journal and casts one ritual of protection after another, and somewhere around the third, Sam starts getting a feeling like pins and needles, blood creeping back into what had become a phantom limb. When Dean cuts himself in the fifth one, deep, and spills his own blood, Sam jerks and says, "No—" as terror and love and hunger rise up in him, and suddenly there's color in the world again, and pain. Sam bends down over the sharp ache in his gut, gasping, and wonders when's the last time he ate. Dean goes down to his knees on the floor in front of him, gripping Sam's shoulders, and holds him braced through the worst of it, saying things Sam can't hear over the roaring in his ears. As the voices fade away, Sam thinks he hears one low angry hiss.

"It's okay," he tells Dean the next morning. "I'm better." Sitting in the wrecked, bloody room, he tells Dean all the truths he can share, about the growing powers, the steady rise of his visions, and then the next morning, in a diner overflowing with hazy sunlight, Sam tells him the one lie: that it's all gone, desire, lust, that he doesn't feel anything like that anymore. When Dean starts to try and press him on it, Sam says, letting himself sound as low and tired and desperate as he feels, "Don't make this harder on me than it already is." Dean shuts up like a box someone's closed the lid on.

Sam stops the vigils and starts praying again, slowly remembering the things he's still grateful for, the things he still wants to keep safe and ask for. He finds that he can talk to Dean again, the secrets pruned back to the root coiled deep inside his heart. Sam can look at Dean and love him and fear for him and more than occasionally want to beat his head in with a stick. But it also hurts again, it's hard again, especially when Dean looks at a girl across the room, a few days later, and Sam has to tell him to go.

"Don't be an asshole," Sam says. "When you start lighting candles with your brain, then you can be celibate too."

"Jesus, don't even joke," Dean says, and finally he gets up and goes; but afterwards he comes back to the motel room early, and if Sam feels guilty about that—Dean's doing it because he's scared, because he wants to make sure Sam's not out there getting lost inside his head again—at least he still hasn't asked.

But he still wants to. The desire doesn't go away. Sam gets angry in bursts sometimes, sudden choking rage grabbing him and shaking him like a rag doll. It doesn't seem fair, that it's not enough to give up what he wants, he has to keep giving it up, that not asking is a choice he has to make every day. Sometimes, when he's alone in the motel room, he almost wants that cold black freeing isolation again; he wants to just walk out and lose himself in the endless back roads of America, let go of this for good. But then Dean comes back through the door and softly asks, "Sammy?" and there's so much fear in his voice that Sam can't even pretend to be asleep, has to say, "Yeah, I'm here," right away, and he knows he can't go. He can't put Dean through a night where he walks through that door and there's no answer from the dark.

But while he's waiting, alone and silent, he can't help but imagine what it would be like, if. What it would mean to be able to curl up around Dean's body, nights when it's so cold their breath frosts inside a cheap, barely-heated room, and rub warm color back into his skin. To have Dean's hands on him when he's sick and tired and his head is aching with the future; to be able to brush his fingers over Dean's purpled bruises and make sure his stitches haven't pulled free when he's hurt. To know Dean's mouth with his own, slow and tender, under the taste of beer and potato chips and red licorice candy, just an easy kiss in passing. To say, "Hey, pull over," while they're driving by a big overgrown field on a yellow sunny day, and make Dean come out and spar with him until they go tumbling down into crushed grass and kisses.

He jerks off to the images sometimes, sometimes he doesn't, but either way he can't get to sleep until Dean comes back to the room. Then Sam rolls onto his side, whichever way has him facing away from Dean's bed, and listens to Dean rummage around quietly, taking off his boots, the creak of his mattress. It illuminates clear and bright as fluorescent lights that this is what Sam really has: listening to Dean from across the room, and he doesn't so much fall asleep as drift off the edge of the gray off-color world.

They kill a dust devil outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Dean gets picked up by an honest-to-god cowgirl, a rodeo circuit rider who comes up to the bar and steals his shot of whiskey and says, "Sugar, I'm going to take you back to my place and ride you all night long, if that sounds all right to you," which Dean's died-and-gone-to-heaven expression says it damn well does. Sam has a grin plastered on his face before Dean can look over. He raises his glass in a toast, and Dean gets hauled away by the belt buckle.

As soon as they're out the door, Sam pays the bar tab and leaves. There's a church next to the motel, just a little one-story clapboard job probably supported by men of the road, making amends for their visits to the strip club across the street. He stands in the parking lot looking at it, thinking about candles and flame. He doesn't think he can stand going into the room, to lie there awake all night. Instead he jimmies the maid closet for a bucket and some sponges, and he washes the Impala under the one streetlamp in the parking lot. She's gotten a little dusty and a little dinged up from all the desert back roads they've been driving. What she really needs is some body work, but all Sam can do is give her a couple extra coats of wax.

"Dude, what the hell are you doing?"

Sam looks up from where he's kneeling down by the front fender, trying to polish away a scratch that won't be going anywhere; Dean is standing next to the car staring at him. It's about two in the morning. "I—I didn't expect you back," Sam blurts, too honestly, and tries to cover for it. "There were some kids in the next room over making a racket, I couldn't sleep."

"Right." Dean runs a hand over the rear fin, just resting it there. He's carefully not looking over at the church. "You ready to crash?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and puts down the rag. His back crackles as he stands up, and Dean almost puts a hand on his arm, but Sam manages to turn quick enough to avoid it, without looking like that's what he's trying to do.

But the next morning, Dean's out and back to the room in fifteen minutes flat before Sam even finishes waking up, armed with coffee and doughnuts and a plan. "Come on, let's get a change of scene. I'm sick of the fucking Southwest, it's getting too hot down here. Come on, I'll let you pick the music."

They drive twelve hour days, and Dean demonstrates how truly freaked out he is by keeping his word and letting Sam run the tape player. They stop for lunch in Goodwin, Arkansas, at a place next door to a used record store. Sam says he's going to the bathroom and runs over and buys a bag of random cheap cassettes the guy has collecting dust on the wall. He plays Lionel Ritchie and Sheena Easton and Pat Benatar for three hours until Dean finally yells, "Okay, that's fucking it," and yanks the tape and throws it out the window halfway through Love Is A Battlefield. Sam presses the back of his clenched fist to his mouth to stifle the snickers; he lets them out when Dean predictably starts singing the interrupted song under his breath.

"Oh, fuck you," Dean says, when he realizes what he's doing, and Sam cracks up completely and laughs until he cries, wiping tears off on his sleeve, and afterwards his chest loosens up and he breathes deep for the first time in long months.

That good, cracked-open feeling lasts until they stop in New York and clear a poltergeist out of a dance club in Chelsea. Dean ends up at the bar afterwards, flirting with three girls at once. Sam slips away to the far end of the bar, trying not to hear, until Dean comes over and says, "Hey—"

"I'll see you back at the hotel," Sam says, and waits until Dean's gone. Before he can leave, the bartender gets off shift and slides onto the seat next to him with two glasses of whiskey. He's got peroxide blue hair and brown eyes, but he's wearing a thick silver ring on his right hand, and in the dark room his voice sounds a little like Dean's. Sam gets fucked in the trashed back room over the one table left upright, his eyes shut and pretending that he's jerking himself off to hide that his dick isn't hard. He doesn't really want it, but it's something he can have.

They've taken a room with one bed because it was impossible to get anything else last-minute in the city, and Dean slips under the covers at two in the morning, still warm and smelling of sex and sweat, putting one hand on Sam's shoulder to make sure he's there. Sam keeps his back turned and curls himself tight to the edge of the bed, around the hot urgent pressure between his legs, and feels ugly and unclean and sick.

A few days later, Ellen sends them to Rhode Island hunting a demon that's possessed a teenage girl. They split up chasing it through the narrow streets of Providence, and Sam corners it between a churchyard wall and a half-circle of salt.

He's already beginning the exorcism. It shrieks furious defiance at him and then, towards the end, says, "I could give him to you," and Sam's voice chokes off, for just a moment, the shame that's been living in his gut all the way from New York climbing up thick in his throat.

"I could give him to you," it repeats, gaining strength, and then quick as a snake knocks the book out of his hands. It leaps for his throat and he grabs it by the wrists to keep it off, full of terrible desperate fury. With a wordless scream he pushes, casts out, and suddenly there's a pillar of black smoke rising away into the air. The girl falls limply into his arms, crying, and it's like all his bones have been hollowed out. He feels light as air, swept clean.

It's the end of the second year since they left Georgia with a prophecy in their back pocket. Dean comes running up to him from around the corner. Sam gently helps the girl to sit down and then he straightens up and says to Dean, "It's time."

They start hunting the yellow-eyed demon for real, going from one case of demon possession to another. They interrogate the possessed before Sam kicks the demons out of them, and follow a trail of sulfur breadcrumbs and coal-black eyes through the quiet dark towns of New England, then back down south through Connecticut and Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"All right, that's it," Dean says in Maryland, after the fifth demon in as many weeks and states. "This all work and no play thing is getting old." He makes a big show of reluctantly volunteering to be dragged to the Smithsonian, but he spends hours in the Air and Space Museum, and when it's Sam's turn to choose, all he really wants to do is walk along the Mall and stop by the Vietnam Memorial. He puts his fingers on the names carved in black stone and sees flashes of their lives, smiling families, children who grew up without fathers, parents without sons.

Dean watches him with worried, narrowed eyes, but Sam's fine for the first time in a long time. He understands now what it's all been for. His power, it's not evil in and of itself, but it demands the fuel of sacrifice and pain. Mom, and Jess, and Dad, that was enough to set him on this road, but not enough to give him the power to see it through to the end, and there was only one other thing left to give. Giving up what they could have had, what he could have asked Dean for, now he gets it: that's the price of not having to give up Dean himself, not having to open his eyes to see Dean's blood dripping down onto him and watch him consumed in fire, just so Sam can be forged into some kind of avenging sword.

It's worth it, a deal he'd gladly have made, and it almost makes him want to cry with relief now that he finally understands, now that he knows there's going to be an end to all of this. Sam isn't going to walk away from this fight, but that's okay, that's more than okay. Dean is going to walk away, and that's what matters.

They pick up help along the way. Jo pulls up next to them in a motel parking lot in West Virginia with Charlie in tow: a young black man from North Carolina with a voice like cool silver who can communicate mind-to-mind with anyone he's ever met, even miles apart. They pick up Lisa, another telekinetic, in Ohio; a demon-possessed cable guy is slowly strangling her with wire when Dean and Jo kick down the door. He looks up with a kitchen knife protruding from his throat, blood drizzling out of the sides of his mouth, and Sam touches him on the forehead and sends him to his rest while they unwind the cable from around Lisa's throat.

But they win some, they lose some. Sam calls Andy in Oklahoma every day for a week, and there's no answer. Finally he manages to reach Tracy, after hacking a database to get her unlisted number. She doesn't want to talk to him much, but she says, "He went missing a few weeks ago," before she hangs up, and Sam closes his phone up and looks over at Dean, who shakes his head, unsmiling; the mind control power's one of the ones he least wants to see on the other side.

In a Kentucky rest stop, they run into Reba, a forty-year-old veteran hunter with two sawed-off shotguns she can handle in one hand apiece, blessed and anointed; they can slam a demon back ten yards with a single shot of silver. "I'm on the trail of a whole mess of them," she says. "They've been coming together, don't know why, but odds are it's for nothing good." Hunters don't like to come out and ask for help, but when they leave, she's in caravan with them. Lisa rides along with her so Sam and Dean have the Impala back to themselves.

The hunters become the hunted: they're attacked on the lonely industrial stretch of I-94 that winds through Illinois and Wisconsin, by a pack of the demon-possessed on motorcycles with shotguns and swords. Sam shuts his eyes while Dean swerves madly from one side of the highway to the other. One by one the motorcycle tires burst into hot stinking flames, and the riders go skidding away to either side, leaving black scorch marks on the road. When they've all been taken down, Dean pulls over and they get out with silver and salt and a super-soaker filled with holy water. Jo is already chanting an exorcism over the one nearest her while Reba and Lisa cover her.

The leader of the pack is tougher, red-eyed and snarling, and it takes a real fight to cast him out. In the end, Sam lays both hands on his head, and when he finishes speaking the last words of the exorcism and the demon goes pouring out in a thunder of howling smoke, everyone is staring at him.

"What?" Sam says, looking at Dean. Dean's the only one who isn't looking back, though; he's watching the others, and his eyes are cold.

"Sam," Jo says finally, "you were glowing." There's something strange in her voice, something stranger in the way the others all look at him: awe, or maybe fear; except for Dean, who says abruptly, "All right, quit standing around. Let's get the hell out of here before the police show up and start asking questions," and stalks back to the car.

"Have I... has that ever happened before?" Sam asks him.

"No," Dean says, flatly, without taking his hands off the wheel, and drives straight on through to Iowa without stopping, until finally Jo's two-seater sports car rips ahead of them with a pointed roar, and Charlie says in their heads, We're beat, sorry, as she takes the next exit. "Fuck, I hate that," Dean mutters.

"Aren't you going to pull off?" Sam says.

Dean glances over at him, irresolute, but in the end he takes the exit too. He gets them a room at the far end of the motel strip and parks the Impala right outside the door. It's two in the morning. Sam wakes up in the early afternoon and sees Dean sitting up on his bed, cleaning his guns, keeping a watchful eye on the door.

"Dean, these are our friends," Sam says.

"Yeah, well," Dean says. "Come on, let's get back on the road."

Even with a late start, they hit Nebraska by sundown and pull into the Roadhouse in time for last call. It's crowded and busy, but they still make an impression coming in. Some of Gordon's crowd are there, and they eye Sam and Charlie and Lisa with sidelong glances, testing knife edges with their thumbs. Lisa smiles at them with a lot of teeth and floats the glasses over to their table from the bar. If it was quiet before, afterwards it's as silent as a tomb.

Ellen and Ash have a map for them, of demonic possessions. It looks like just a random pattern of dots scattered through all forty-eight contiguous states and some across the borders into Canada and Mexico, but then Ash lays down a second version, adjusted for population size. Suddenly the spots in the Dakotas turn bigger and the clusters in California and Texas and the eastern seaboard shrink. Then he lays down a third with the dots in four different colors, making four overlapping starburst patterns, larger and smaller, with four focal points. Guthrie, Oklahoma. Saginaw, Michigan. Lafayette, Indiana. And one more small town, almost right in the middle of the country.

"Andy's missing, Max and Scott are dead," Sam says, because no one else will; no one else is even meeting his eyes. "And why us four, anyway? There are a lot of others—why did the demon come after us?"

Nobody answers, and then Dean puts down his glass and says, flatly, "I don't give a fuck." He looks at Ash. "Can you use this to tell us where the next one's going to be?"

"Yeah, more or less," Ash said. "I can put you within a twenty mile radius, if you give me a couple of hours to plot it."

"Fine," Dean said. He stands up, raises his voice. "All right, everybody here, you all know what's going on." Heads turn to look at him, even the ones that were watching him sideways turning full on. "We're heading out first thing tomorrow morning, and we're going to track down every last one of these sons of bitches and send them back to Hell for good. Anybody who's with us, we'll see you at dawn."

They drive three days, through Utah, Nevada, and Oregon, until they're in the mountains of Washington state. It's spring, and the apple trees are all in full bloom; Sam rolls down the window and breathes in the sweet air as they drive down back country roads, smiling at the people they pass, raising a hand.

"Okay, man, you're starting to weird me out," Dean says, after the third time. "Why the hell are you so happy? We're headed straight into a hurricane here."

"We're going to win," Sam says, slouching down into the seat and tilting his head over to smile at him. Dean shaved this morning, and he tossed the leather jacket into the back an hour ago; he's wearing a tight black t-shirt and sunglasses, looking like a movie star, and Sam lets himself enjoy it, drinking in the sight of him like the air: without bitterness, like he hasn't been able to in a long, long time.

Dean rolls his eyes. "You're a crazy bitch, you know that?"

"Takes one," Sam says, peacefully.

They drive a while longer, Dean jockeying to keep in the lead ahead of Jo. "She's gotten to be pretty damn good," Sam says, when she pulls a fast one and slices in ahead just as the road narrows down to one lane.

"She's gotten to be a pain in the ass," Dean says, glaring vengefully at her taillights.

"She might not be bad to work with, once in a while. I mean, after this is over," Sam adds. "You know, if you felt like it."

Dean throws him a narrow look. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

Sam shrugs a little, not even trying to hide his smile. "Nothing." He looks back out the window at her car, zipping along just at the top range of the Impala's speed, taunting them, and he's just glad; not jealous, not resentful.

It's not yellow-eyes, but it's one of his brood; Sam can tell by the oily psychic stink of its presence, sulfurous and black in the empty room where he and Dean pick up the trail. It's no easy job to nail the sucker down; they spread out across the city and lose two hunters, a pair from Louisiana, as the bastard breaks through their ring and takes off in a stolen car. When they find the bodies, Dean closes their eyes with a bloody hand, but they don't stop for a burial. They chase the demon across the state line into the skinny strip of northern Idaho, heading for the Canadian border, and Sam wakes up in the middle of the night with a vision blazing across his mind.

"Bastard doubled back on us," he yells, and Dean whips the Impala around with tires screaming against the asphalt and blazes back the wrong way along the highway shoulder, ignoring the shrieking horns of the passing trucks, and gets to the end of their caravan just as a big ugly Dodge SUV smashes sideways into Riordan's pickup truck that's bringing up the rear, and takes it careening off the side of the road.

Dean pulls over and they're both out in a single movement before the Impala's even completely stopped, grabbing the guns already locked and loaded in the back seat. Riordan's slumped against the steering wheel, blood trickling down from his temple, and the driver of the SUV isn't in sight. Dean jerks his head, signaling silently; Sam nods, and they go opposite ways around the crash. Some of the other hunters are circling back too, the demon doesn't have a lot of time and Sam figures it knows as much; then suddenly it's there, on him, eyes solidly black, hands locked around his throat.

Sam hasn't tried the casting-out on one of the demon's offspring before, and it's choking him hard, spots dancing in front of his eyes as he tries to keep his throat uncrushed with telekinesis. The black weight of it is on him, heavy and sickening. Then Dean's there, shotgun muzzle up against the thing's head, and he blows holy blessed silver right through its skull from one temple to the other. The demon jerks, and Sam brings up his arms and knocks its hands off to either side, gripping it by the wrists and taking it over onto its back.

Dean blows out the demon's kneecaps too, then slams the shotgun down across its thighs and puts his full weight on them. "Better hurry, Sammy," he says, strain in the back of his throat; the demon's bucking under them, too strong to keep hold of, and Sam looks down into the endless black of its eyes and says, "I command you, unclean spirit—"

It hisses furiously and spits at him, writhing, but he's done this so often now the words keep coming without any effort at all. The power's rising in him like a tide to match the blackness under his hands, and this time he sees it too, light under his skin like someone shining a flashlight through a sheet. The demon's face twists and squints away from him.

"Let me go," the demon says, lifting its head up from the ground, and then, "Let me go or I'll tell him," while Sam is saying, "Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning—" and for a second Sam's voice stutters. Dean looks up, the demon grins wide and full of teeth, and Sam says, in a voice that belongs to somebody else, just one word: "Out."

The demon's eyes widen. There's no pillar of smoke; the black just drains right out of the eyes like an sink emptying, and Sam's looking at a young man with hazel irises and brown skin, blood already pooling in his eyesockets. He breathes out once, and Sam lays him back gently to the ground, the light dying slowly out under his own skin.

He looks up; there's a half-circle of hunters standing around them, and their faces have that weird twisted look on them, unwilling awe. Sam looks around helplessly at Dean, who's sitting back on his heels. Dean meets his eyes, and stands up. "Okay, people, we need to get back on the road—"

"Hey," Jo says, shoving through the circle. "Looky what I found in Mr. Demon's mommy car," and she holds up a big silver goblet, carved inside and out.

Back in the car and back on the road, getting away from the car crash and the two dead bodies, Dean says, without looking over, "What was it going to tell me?"

Sam swallows, shrugs a little. "I don't know. It's a demon, they lie."

Dean doesn't push it, doesn't say another word, until they're in the motel, salt across the doors and windowsill, curtains pulled tight, weapons cleaned and reloaded. Then he sits down opposite Sam, facing him across the narrow strip between the beds, and says quietly, "You know this slick bastard we're up against, you know what he's capable of. What he's done to us, to our family."

Sam drops his eyes to his hands, the good old Colt .45 lying there. Trust Dean to haul out the heavy-hitters for this. "Dean, don't—"

"You want to tell me," Dean goes on, mercilessly, "that you're going to just give him this? Because you know damn well, Sammy, that yellow-eyed bitch is going to save it for the right moment, he's going to wait until we've got him pinned down, and then he'll let me have it, whatever it is you're keeping from me, right between the eyes."

Sam closes his eyes and lets his head fall forward, because Dean might be right. And he even knows exactly how to tell Dean; he's had almost three goddamn years to work out the details. But he doesn't know how to tell Dean without asking, without letting on the way he wants, bone-deep and endless, what Dean would die trying to give him. "I can't," Sam says quietly, and Dean stands up and turns away from him, hands braced on his hips.

They turn off the lights; he lies on his back and tries to sleep, but Dean's not breathing regularly, and Sam knows he's awake too. He wants to get up in the dark and crawl into Dean's bed and curl around him without saying a word, let his hands and his mouth tell him the truth, take just one night with him to remember. He closes his eyes and makes himself remember Jess instead, the soft wet plucking of her blood dripping onto his face, fire blooming around her in a cloud, her voice saying "Sam" as she died. It's probably pretty sick that it's the only thing that lets him get to sleep.

They take the cup back to the Roadhouse and hunt through all the references and online sources they can find. They try one ritual after another, the cup carefully standing in a devil's trap, but none of it does any good, and they're not going to try the last one, the one that calls for the life's blood of a mortal man. "Told you, waste of time," Gordon says, watching across the room with unfriendly eyes; he didn't come north with them.

Then Charlie says, softly, "Let me have it," and when it's in his hands, his eyes go milky white, the way they do when he's speaking mind to mind. Then he gives one scared sharp gasp and a swirl of inky black starts to rise in his eyes. Sam lunges across the room to cover his hands where they're clasped around the bowl, pushing back. The strength on the other side is like nothing he's ever felt before, and there's a low amused laugh echoing inside his skull, hollow and nasty and familiar, and it asks, You really think you can stop me?

Where are you? Charlie's voice says, brave and terrified. Tell us where you are.

The demon speaks to Sam, though, instead. Why don't you and that brother of yours come on home, Sammy? See what I've done with the place. You're more than welcome. But, hm, I think I'm going to have to get an unlisted number.

Charlie screams, inside, and the noise reverberates in Sam's head like thunder, knocking them both to the ground, hands pressing against their temples. Dean's there, grabbing him by the shoulders and bracing him up, and by the time Sam can pick up his head, Jo is holding Charlie's head in her lap: there's blood trickling from his nose and his ears, and he's coughing weakly. The cup is rolling loose on the ground in a rattling circle, cracked, black smoke curling up from the bowl.

Dean's still holding him by the shoulders. "Goddamn fucking useless," Dean says. "Should never have let him—"

"We got it," Sam interrupts, his voice rough. "Charlie got it out of him. We know where he is."

They cross the state line the next morning, all of them locked and loaded, the Impala up front leading the charge. "Stop," Sam says abruptly, one exit before Lawrence. "Get off here." Dean pulls off and turns into the parking lot of the first motel, puts the Impala in park. The lot is empty otherwise, and though the Vacancy sign is lit, there's no sign of a manager or anybody else in the office.

Sam stands in the lot facing the direction of Lawrence. He can feel the pressure of it on his face, a storm in the distance, about to break. "Tomorrow," he tells Dean. It's not completely true; they don't have to wait. This train's being held in the station for them, and it'll go whenever they get on board. But Dean looks tired, and Sam wants one last night. It won't change anything.

Dean doesn't ask if he's sure, and neither does anybody else. "Okay," Dean says to the other hunters. "Everybody gets eight hours' sleep. We'll take shifts keeping watch. Let's go."

It gets dark early, even though it's summer. Dean carries all the weapons into their room and starts cleaning them, loading. Sam lies down on the other bed and shuts his eyes and lets the familiar comforting noise sink into his bones. He won't be using weapons tomorrow. He's going to be one.

"I need you to tell me something," Dean says, without turning around; when Sam opens his eyes, Dean's back is hard and rigid, his hand with the Glock resting against his thigh. "I need to know you're planning on coming back from this thing."

Sam pushes himself up to sitting and takes the easy way out. "With what we're up against—"

"Yeah, it's a crap shoot, that's not what I'm talking about, and you know it," Dean says. He doesn't turn around. "You've been doing a lot of that looking out the window, smelling the roses, saying goodbye to the world thing, man, and I need to know you're not looking for a blaze of glory to go out on."

Sam doesn't say anything. He can't.

The silence stretches. Dean breathes out. "Right," he says, low. "In that case, so you understand, if you don't—if you don't make it, I don't either."

He tries to say something, can't manage anything more than, "That's not—"

"Don't even," Dean says, his head bent over the gun. "Don't you fucking say another word to me." Sam gets up off his bed and goes to sit down next to him. Dean doesn't look up, still working on the Glock with steady hands. After a minute he says, softly, "I wouldn't even want to, Sammy."

"Because you're a stupid jerk," Sam says, fear making his voice a rough snarl. "Just because—if one of us—if something happens—"

"You're the one who ever wanted some other kind of life outside of this," Dean says. "Not me."

"You're the one who wanted this life," Sam says. "Protecting innocent people, the helpless—you think just because we take out this one demon there won't be more?"

Dean shrugs. "Somebody else's turn."

Sam stands up and walks far away as he can get, which is about three steps in the tiny room. "Dean."

"Sam, I get it, man, you're scared," Dean says. "And I don't blame you. All this crazy shit that's been happening to you, maybe it looks like this is all part of some big heroic destiny thing where you take that yellow-eyed son of a bitch down with you and leave me behind to tell the tale, but I'm telling you right now, fuck that noise." He stands up and Sam can feel it without even turning around; he can see the look in Dean's face with his eyes shut, that smile he wears when he's telling the whole world to go to hell. "One way or another. You want to ride out all the way to Valhalla, I'll go there with you, but you're not getting away without me even if I have to eat my own gun to catch up."

Sam whirls around and grabs him, shoves him up hard against the wall. "Don't you fucking even say that."

Dean's not yielding an inch, eyes cold and steady as the grave. "That's how it is," he says. "You don't like it, you'd better start working off a game plan that doesn't involve you taking a bullet for me or anybody else." He smiles then, and it's something broken and askew. "I'm not getting left behind again, Sam. I'm not."

Sam just stands there, his hands clenched into Dean's shirt and his mouth trembling; the room's making rattling noises, lamps and furniture and the scattering of keys and loose change stirring uneasily. All his power's useless to protect Dean against his own stupid fucking determination, and he should have seen this coming, because Dean's never forgiven Dad, and he's never believed he should be alive.

"Don't," Sam whispers. His eyes are stinging; they've been dry, and he hasn't been sleeping a lot. He's ready for it to be over. He's ready to lay this down. These last few weeks, seeing the end of the road up ahead—being able to just feel this love without jealousy or resentment, it's been like getting out of a cage. What is there to step back inside for—power he doesn't want and a fight he's done with, feeling like he's strangling Dean's life the days he's not choking to death himself?

"We don't have to keep doing this," Dean says, his hands coming up to cover Sam's, wrapping over his fists. "Sammy, after this is over, we'll—we'll go somewhere, I don't know, Mexico or something, get ordinary jobs, build a house—you can read five fucking books a day and sleep twelve hours, man, anything you want, just—"

He's desperate, laying everything on the table, anything he can think of. It would be so easy. All Sam needs to do is let his hands slide up from Dean's chest to cup his face, lean in, just a little, and Dean will know, know everything. And he won't even hesitate. He'll put his hands on Sam's waist and pull him close, kiss him deep and take him to the bed fast as he fucking can, just to seal the deal, guess and fumble his way through the whole thing, and Dean'll be grateful for the trade, no matter what it does to him.

A high place, with all the kingdoms of the world laid out for him, and Sam lets himself have this much: for one moment he leans close and puts his arms around Dean and just holds him, buries his head against Dean's neck to shut out the light. Dean grabs back on to him just as fiercely, and Sam spends the night in Dean's bed after all, chastely, his head pillowed on Dean's shoulder and Dean's arms wrapped tight around him, and he shuts his eyes while the cage door closes back on him.

They cross into Lawrence the next morning. When they cross the line, Sam gets a weird feeling like his ears are popping, and afterwards the sense of pressure is gone. Everything looks normal as they drive through the streets: there are people walking on the sidewalk, mowing the lawns, kids playing, but there's something wrong about all of it; he's gripping the door, instinctively, and his other hand's braced on the dashboard.

"What the fuck," Dean says. "The town outside was empty, why is everything okay here?"

"It's not," Sam says, shaking, and when they roll up to a traffic light, the driver in the Camry next to them looks over with solid black eyes.

"Jesus," Dean says, groping for the bottle of holy water, but the light changes, the driver turns his head forward again, and the car pulls away. Sam looks out the window on his side: there are a couple of kids drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. They're drawing Satanist runes and sigils in pink and cornflower blue and sunny yellow, and their eyes are black and empty when they look up at him. A woman is sitting on the bench behind them like she's watching over them, a kind of sick mockery, her eyes big glossy jet beads.

Dean's staring over his shoulder. "Why aren't they doing anything? Why aren't they trying to stop us?"

"Nobody's going to stop us," Sam says. "Not unless we try to turn back. Keep going. Dean, please. Keep going." It's stupid, because it's only going to get worse from here, but Sam isn't sure how it could; he can't bear to look at those hollowed-out puppets. Dean puts the Impala back in gear and rolls off slow, like someone walking carefully away from a sleepy predator.

The street widens, and Dean kicks the speed up some, taking them past the other cars on the road fast as he can. "Take the next left," Sam says abruptly, almost not in time, and the Impala squeals some as Dean catches the turn. They're looking down a long straight road, lying under that strange thunderstorm kind of light, where the trees are sunlit in the foreground and the gray sky is full of black clouds with brilliant glowing edges. In the distance, at the end of the road, there's a tall metal gate standing.

They drive towards it for what feels like a long time without getting closer, and Sam doesn't think it's an optical illusion. There are no people along the street anymore, only empty houses with their windows like gaping eyesockets, and the trees flashing past them look strange, tall and black and leafless, twisting in a wind they don't feel. He wonders if maybe there's something they didn't do, some protection they needed, and now they'll be trapped here on this road endlessly, driving forever. He looks over at Dean, his profile etched against the winter gray sky outside the window.

"This is getting ridiculous," Dean says, his mouth set and grim. He pats the dashboard. "Come on, baby, get us there," and he puts both hands on the wheel and slams the gas down.

The Impala roars. Dean's tended her with his own hands since he got the keys on his eighteenth birthday; Dad used to joke that it was even odds he was conceived in the back seat. Sam's drawn sigils and runes on her skin a hundred times, made circles around her with salt and holy water, said silent prayers and cast spells out loud. Dean rebuilt her from a demon-crushed wreck stained with Winchester blood. They've slept and eaten and fucked in her seats, she's carried guns and spirits and demons and taken them through every state in the continental union, and she's always given Dean everything he's asked her for.

Her whole frame shudders now like she's putting her head down to push one hundred miles per hour up a steep incline though the road is level all the way out before them, and suddenly the sky starts getting darker overhead. It's the solid black of night without moon or stars when they abruptly get to the end of the road, dirt and gravel spraying when Dean has to slam on the brakes.

Three cars out of eleven make it through with them: Jo and Charlie in her Mustang, the old, old rosary Ellen gave her hanging from the rearview mirror; Reba's four-wheel-drive Subaru station wagon with runes etched into the bumpers all around and Lisa gasping and sweating against the dashboard from pushing; Gordon's Firebird, pentacles smoking on the hood and the trunk, where he'd put them on with his own blood under the last coat of paint. There's no sign of the others on the road behind them. There's no town behind them at all.

"But where—?" Lisa says, shakily. "What happened to—" She stops. It's not a question any of them really want an answer to, not when there's nothing they can do about it.

They turn to face forward instead, seven together at the gates that say Stull Cemetery. They shouldn't be able to see anything; the sky is pitch black empty, and there's no source of light. But everything around them is clear as a photograph, visible without illumination. A path of pale stones leads up to an old white-painted church standing on the hill.

"Looks like we're the only ones made it to the party," Dean says, calmly as if he's walked into Hell a hundred times before. "Let's load up, people. Silver bullets and rock salt shells." He turns to pop the Impala's trunk. Sam watches him load up: small silver knives on both ankles, the silver-plated machete over one shoulder, shotgun slung over the other; Glock to hold, the Heckler & Koch shoved in his waistband for spare, and his pockets loaded up with ammo. Dean takes out his whiskey flask and they each take a long swallow, burning all the way down, and then Dean pours the rest of it out on the ground and fills it with holy water instead.

Then Sam spots something poking out from under the pile of loose knives. He leans in and digs out his old claw-knife, holds it across his palms: To Sammy From Dad engraved along the arc of the blade.

"Wish he was here," Dean says, pouring salt into a canister. He's not looking over.

Sam knows Dean would undo Dad's deal in a heartbeat if he could. He's never told Dean before how he feels about it, because he wasn't sure it wouldn't hurt Dean worse to hear. It hurts Sam to say it out loud, to mean it, when he says softly, "I'm glad you are."

Dean flinches too, and just stands there for a moment, staring into the trunk, his hands stilled. Then he swallows, his throat working, and he says roughly, "You ready?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and they slam the trunk shut. Dean rests his hand on the lid for a moment, and then they're turning to form up with the others.

Dean puts Gordon up front with him, and Reba with Jo bringing up the rear, Sam and Lisa and Charlie protected in the middle. "You figure they're going to come at us soon as we go in?" Gordon says, his thumb rubbing over the guard of his Sig Sauer.

"I figure we plan on it, and we won't get surprised," Dean says, and they rush the gate and stop just inside, crouched and waiting. Nothing happens, which is kind of an anticlimax; Lisa giggles once, nervously. She stops right away. Laughter's not a sound that lives here, and the echoes come back to them with sharp mocking edges.

"Okay," Dean says. "Up to the church."

They walk up the path slowly, tense, but nothing approaches them. Nothing seems to be moving. As they get closer, Sam notices there's a tree standing next to the church, a big old oak with heavy, massive branches spread out to either side, ten feet off the ground. Out of the corner of his eye, he keeps catching glimpses of things hanging from the branches, long black shapes swaying from nooses in the nonexistent wind. When he looks at it directly, it's bare.

"Showtime," Dean says, sharp and fast, and Sam jerks his head back.

"Hey guys," Andy says, standing in the doorway of the church, smiling and relaxed. "How about you all just hang out right there? And why don't you put down those guns."

They'd talked about this play, how they'd run it: Charlie would fuzz everyone's heads with telepathic noise, Sam would keep them from being used against each other, Lisa would try and neutralize Andy. But the last time he saw Andy, Sam didn't even notice his commands; the pressure of his power was like nothing more than a faint breeze on his face. Now it's like running headlong into a brick wall. Sam's stopped in his tracks as much as the rest of them, halted, and the guns are rattling on the pebbles of the walkway.

Andy comes down the stairs of the church to look them over. "Andy," Sam says, thickly; even moving enough to turn his head to look at him is an effort. "Listen to me, whatever he's said to you, you don't want to do this—"

"You didn't listen long enough, Sam, so you don't understand," Andy says, gently. "That's okay, though. He's a pretty patient guy. You'll have a chance to come around—all of you will," he adds, "you and Charlie and Lisa. You guys are going to come with me and see him, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Charlie says, swallowing, and Lisa's head moves in a jerky nod. Sam's head bobs along even though he tries to stop it. He takes a step forward.

"No," Dean says, helpless but protesting, and Sam grabs onto it with everything he's got, listens to Dean's voice instead of the rolling echoes of Andy's inside his head. He stops and catches Lisa by the arm, and says to Charlie, Don't listen to him. Listen to me. Don't go.

"Hey, you know, Dean, I was just going to leave the rest of you to play with the mop-up crew, but if you want to do this the hard way," Andy says condescendingly. He turns towards the graveyard and beckons. There's a sound like a train rattling over a crossing, and pale silverfish-gray hands come clawing up through the sod. It's not like bad zombie movies where the dirt explodes out of the way and rotting corpses rise. It's something worse, something wrong, the way the earth just stirs and shuffles and lets them emerge: translucent wasted things that maybe used to be human and now are just emptiness, hungry eyes and hollow mouths, shadows inside them like parodies of human organs, thin veins of blue tracing over their skin, pulsing.

They don't have claws, just ragged dirty fingernails and mouths full of broken jagged teeth stained with dried blood. They creep closer, closer, until one of the dead things touches Jo's arm. She makes a small noise, choked off, but she still can't move, even though it's lifting her arm to its mouth like a drumstick. Another one is pawing at Dean's jacket, dragging one sleeve down and exposing his shoulder and the joint of his neck, bare and vulnerable under his thin t-shirt, and he's just standing there, he's just going to stand there—and Sam quits fighting on two fronts, lets go of Lisa and Charlie, and yells "Dean!"

Lisa and Charlie are already moving again, backing towards the steps, Andy's last command taking hold all over again, and Sam's only a little behind them, stumbling as his feet carry him against his will. But Dean's loose, slamming an elbow back into the ribcage of the revenant, and then he's got the Glock off the ground and aimed dead center between Andy's eyes.

Too late: even as he's moving, Andy says, "Why don't you put that in your mouth, instead." Sam's "No!" comes just as fast, but it hits Dean like a cross-check, and he's shuddering all over with pain, the pistol sliding loose out of his fingers.

Andy laughs. It's not a nice sound. "Good job, Sammy. Looks like you're going to fry his brains before he gets around to—" and he's looking down, confused, at the knife-hilt sticking out of his chest. Charlie's looking at Reba, hard, his eyes milky. Her guns are all down on the ground in a neat row, and her feet haven't moved from where Andy stopped her, but her jacket's open and she's got a strap full of throwing knives under it. The next one takes Andy in the throat, and he sinks to his knees, mouth opening soundlessly, looking confused, and falls over.

"Oh, fuck," Dean says, gasping with relief, and sinks forward onto all fours, his head sagging down.

Gordon grabs his Sig Sauer up from the ground and pumps three rounds point-blank into the head of the thing tearing at Jo's arm, pulping its head into a splatter. Her teeth are clenched, and though tears are sliding down her face, she just nods once when he says, "You okay?" and bends to grab her semiautomatic back up from the ground.

The revenants are still coming, faster now. Lisa starts bodily knocking down the front line and Sam torches them, making a firewall out of their burning bodies; Jo's mowing the others down in swaths through the fire, her slim frame shaking with the recoil but planted and steady, one leg braced back and her knees bent slightly. They keep coming and coming, though, more of them limping and creeping over the hills of the graveyard that just go on into the distance, and the weight of numbers starts to press them back.

"We can't do this forever," Gordon yells, over the double-barreled fire of his guns.

"What, you're not having fun?" Dean says, holstering the Glock. "Cover me." He pulls out the salt canister and makes a run to lay down a line just inside the firewall, a semicircle around the stairs, Gordon blasting any of the ones who reach through the flames. They all pull back inside the limits and stop, watching, breathing hard. Sam's head is aching and hot, and there are spots in front of his eyes like he's looked into the sun by accident.

The revenants stop at the edge of the salt line and stand there with mouths gaping and swaying a little back and forth, blocking the path with their bodies like a wall. There are more of them in back, a solid mass that makes Sam's stomach churn to look at, and the salt is holding them back, but there's nowhere to go but inside.

"Nobody forgot anything in the car, right?" Dean says.

The church is full of neat wooden pews in rows, banks of votives burning in clear glass, and a plain altar on a low stage at the front, underneath a simple wooden cross on the wall. It's empty, but as soon as Sam steps over the threshold, he's struggling to breathe against the thick smothering pressure, voices rising like a tide in his head, and the candles jump high, laughing. Dean grabs his arm; behind him, Charlie and Lisa are both twisted up with nausea, hanging back. "Protection," Sam gasps.

"Get those pews out of the way," Reba says, slinging down her backpack and pulling out a couple of sheaves of protective symbols. Gordon and Dean are already shoving back the front rows of the pews, and Jo's got her own salt canister out to draw the pentacle with. Dean has to practically carry Sam into it.

The pressure recedes a little, enough so Sam can get his feet back under him. They all huddle inside the heart of the star symbol. The same unnatural glow is working here; the candles aren't actually shedding any light at all, just glitter. "Now what?" Lisa says. "Do we just wait here for somebody to show up?"

"They're here," Charlie says, and suddenly Sam sees them, demons like caricatures of wolves, twisted hunched shadow-things made of smoke, white and gray and black, with their edges sharp as knives, crouching behind the tipped-over pews, mouths open and slavering. There are more of them on the steps up to the altar, and there's a woman perched coyly on the altar, her legs crossed at the ankles and swinging.

"Ava," Sam says, and then she smiles, a black-eyed girl, and Dean says, cold and hard as six feet of ice, "Meg."

"Hey, boys," she said. "Sweet of you to come by and see me like this. And you brought your friends."

The pack of demons is drawing close around them, shoving at each other, fanged mouths all grinning, and Sam looks down to see the salt of the pentacle whispering away, a few grains at a time, across the floor. He can still feel the voices, the demons all around him, and he shuts his eyes and breathes deep, pushing out, until he hears them start to snarl and whimper, and when he opens his eyes there's a deep pearlescent glow under his skin, warm, and Gordon shakes his head like someone waking up and says hoarsely, "What the fuck are we waiting for, let's waste those sons of bitches," and blasts one of the demons with rock salt and consecrated iron.

It's one long blur after that. The guns are roaring like a burning house, spent shotgun shells rattling on the floor like bones. Charlie's got one of Jo's backup pieces and is shooting grimly, steadily, while Lisa uses the telekinesis to drag wooden pews around the pentacle like barricades. The demons are torn into smoke, melted, and come wheeling back again, over and over. Meg laughs, bright and cheerful as a knife sharpened up on a whetstone. It's nothing like the laugh Sam remembers, Ava's delighted glee in that motel room, and then suddenly he slips his hand into the pocket of his jacket, down to the little hole into the lining, and his fingers find it buried in the corner down by the end of the zipper: the cool hard band of her engagement ring, still a little dry with her fiancé's blood.

He's got nothing to go on but an instinct, but he's sure of this: they haven't got a lot of time left. The salt lines keep creeping away. So he steps out of the pentacle, the ring warming up in his fist, and the light glowing around him. The clawing thick taste of black demon-smoke and gunpowder is all around him. "Sam!" Dean's yelling, behind him, but Sam thinks maybe this is the only chance they've got and he takes another step towards the altar, fighting for every inch.

The demons are all milling around, trying to decide if they're going to take their shot, nervous and wincing away from the glow spilling out from his skin. Sam gets almost to the base of the stairs before one of them finally dashes in, snarling, and Sam falls to hands and knees, splinters from the wooden floor digging into his palms. His leg's burning, he's been hamstrung. The demon's howling and clawing at itself, mouth smoking where Sam's blood is on its lips and teeth, and the others have backed off, but they'll work themselves up again in a minute and come after him.

Sam drags himself back up onto one leg, hopping stupidly, and Ava—Meg—laughs at him. "Cute as a one-legged bunny," she says, Ava's sweet honey voice, Meg's hard edge, and she jumps down off the altar and comes to stand at the top of the stairs, leaning down. "Think you can beat them up here, Sammy? Because I think I'm going to stand here and watch them gut you on the stairs while you're trying to crawl."

And maybe she's right, but he's still got to try, and then a shotgun blast takes out two of the wolf-demons as they're coming at his back. Dean's there, and Gordon, and Reba, and Lisa: pushing out with her hands against the demon horde: they've come out of the ring to give him the chance with their own lives, and the demons are all howling in delight and leaping on them, savage.

Sam doesn't look for more than a second, just long enough to see Dean get one with a machete, to see Gordon shoot one that's about to drag Lisa down, to see another one claw Reba open from shoulders to hips, and then he jerks his head around and lunges up the stairs. Meg's face twists with anger, but Sam's got her by the wrist, saying, "Ava—Ava, I know you're in there. Come on, help me—"

Meg grins and kicks his leg out, dumping him to his knees with a groan that he can't swallow. She grabs him by the hair and the throat and slams him into the altar, ribs cracking like matchsticks and his skin hissing smoke, even though he's pushing back with the telekinesis, with all his own strength. It hurts where she's holding on to him, they're both burning, but she's holding on, pinning him down and pressing. Sam chokes for breath, struggling too hard to pull anything together but words, still trying to reach Ava and gasping, "Ava—it's Sam, it's me, listen to me—we can fight her, together, just—" but he's not sure he believes it, and with a shadow creeping in around his eyes, it's making her face look more like the demon-wolves than like Ava's, all hard cruel lines.

Then there's a kick like a horse; she coughs, and her hands loosen. She tilts her head down: there's a gaping hole in her chest, smoking where iron filings and salt cling to the edges. Dean lunges forward and wraps his arm around her neck and hauls back, dragging her off Sam.

"Okay," she says, weird and slurred; Sam can see the edge of a crumpling lung moving inside her ribcage. "Now I'm getting a little annoyed."

She grabs Dean's arm and pushes it the wrong way back, the elbow cracking. Dean grunts out a short tight breath, and it brings Sam back out of the fog clinging to his brain, in time to scream, "Dean!" as Meg turns around and smashes a backhand fist across his face, and spills him down the stairs.

Sam heaves himself off the altar, sliding to his knees. She turns around, smiling, Dean's blood and Ava's on her face, but he's on the right level and he grabs her wrist and slides the ring back on her finger and closes her fist around it. "Ava," he says, looking up at her, and the black eyes flicker even while Meg grabs his throat again with her other hand. "Ava," Sam says again. There are tears sliding out of the corners of her eyes, and he closes his eyes, grabs on to her wrists. Ava's helping him now, pushing from inside; together they force the demon out in a roar of black smoke that goes on and on, until at last Ava tumbles down limp to the floor. Sam crumples with her; her head lolls back and she smiles at him, just for a moment. Then the light goes out in her eyes, and there's a feeling like a silent thunderclap in the room, a shockwave that strains the cracked ribs inside Sam's chest, and she's gone.

He can't move; it's all he can do to keep breathing. Ava's dead body is huddled up against the altar, and everything's quiet—no guns, no snarling demons. The pressure's gone and the voices are silent. It feels cool and damped-down inside his head. He's got nothing left.

Footsteps sound on the wooden floor, coming up the stairs. "Dean?" Sam says, whispering. His throat's too raw for more.

The footsteps come closer and stop. "Afraid not," the yellow-eyed demon says, and crouches down next to him. He takes Sam by the chin and turns his head so he can see the floor of the church, and Dean lying rag-doll limp at the foot of the stairs, blood in a puddle around his body.

"No," Sam says. "No."

"Them's the breaks," the demon says. He turns Sam's face up again. "Did you really think you were going to beat me on my own turf, Sammy? Thought you had enough juice for that?" He smiles. "Well, you know what they say about pride."

Sam doesn't say anything. Tears are leaking out of the corners of his eyes, forced out one after another by the breaths he has to suck in hard one at a time against his scraping ribcage, stabs of hot pain all up and down his side with every one. He doesn't mind. Pain's good. Pain means this is almost over.

The demon laughs. "Nonsense. This is Hell. Pain is part of the condition, and it can go on a very, very long time." He strokes the back of one knuckle down Sam's cheek. "Unless, of course, we can come to an arrangement."

There's a bluff to be made here, a final gambit that Dean would have gone for, but Sam's got nothing left to try with. "No," he says.

"I can keep you here anyway, Sam," the demon says.

"No," Sam says, and shuts his eyes. He's not going to believe that, not if this lasts a thousand years. He can believe that they've lost, that their best wasn't good enough and whatever plague ate River Grove is going to boil out of Lawrence, out of this cemetery, like a swarm of devouring locusts. He can believe that millions will die and more will suffer, that demons will walk the earth in countless hordes. But not that he can be kept alone in hell for trying. The world's not fair; it hurts, it's cruel, and effort doesn't count, but even so there's too much grace in it for that to be true. He shuts his eyes and thinks, Dean.

"Shame about him, really," the demon says, ruminatively. "But then I suppose that's how he was always going to go out. Pointlessly."

"Shut up," Sam says. "Don't you dare talk about him."

"And you never even got to bang him," the demon says. "That's what you wanted, isn't it? To push your big brother down on his face and put it to him, maybe see that pretty mouth of his stretch around your cock?" He makes a tsk tsk sound. "What would Daddy say?" Then he leans forward and says softly, "You want to find out, Sam? Should I pull John on up here, let you have a little confessional moment about the lust in your heart?"

"It's not him," Sam says, willing himself to believe it. "You don't have him."

"Oh, but I do," the demon says. "Looks like I've bagged the full set of Winchesters, in fact."

"Then why are you even talking to me?" Sam says. "Why don't you just stick us up on your trophy wall and move on?"

The demon makes a rueful smiling shrug, you-got-me. "Well, it's just not as good unless you hand yourself over." He sways close and turns his head to pass his nostrils over Sam's mouth, inhaling his breath like someone sniffing a glass of wine. "I don't get the real savor of the thing. And you, oh, you, Sammy. You're too delicious. All that noble sacrifice and all that hot, nasty boiling lust right underneath. Just the kind of soul I really want to sink my teeth into, if you get my drift."

Sam shudders away from him, or tries to; the cold marble floor doesn't give.

"Tell me, Sam, why didn't you ever ask?" the demon inquires, his thumb tapping at Sam's lower lip. "Did you think Dean would say no? Too busy fucking every truck stop slut to have time for his little brother?" He waits, but Sam doesn't answer. "Oh, well. Dean's not going to be fucking anyone ever again." He winks. "Maybe that's how you wanted it?"

"Go to hell," Sam whispers. It's starting to be real. He doesn't want to look, he doesn't want to, but his head turns anyway. Dean's so pale. The blood under his cheek is brilliant red over the white stones, and his skin looks like chalk next to it. His lips are purple-blue, and his hand's lying half-curled over the Glock. He's still beautiful, the soft curve of his cheek under the day's growth of stubble, the bow of his mouth; still everything Sam wants in the world.

I love you, Sam thinks, silently, because he won't give that to the air in this place. He doesn't remember the last time he said it out loud. Not since he was a kid, young enough to say it without worrying about pride or burdens. He'd said other things instead, easier things, or things that seemed easier at the time. I'd die for you. I'd do anything for you.

"Anything, Sam?" the demon says softly. "Anything at all?"

"Yes," Sam says, never looking away from Dean's face.

"Well, how about it, Sam?" the demon says. "I can wake him up easy as snap my fingers, just say the word." He waits a moment and prods. "I'll even toss in a few sweeteners. Dean and Daddy and all the good little boy and girl hunters can go on home, all for one low price." He drops to a stage whisper. "And don't let this one get out—but I'll even let you have a last hurrah. One last night on the earth to say a real goodbye, take a little taste of Dean to remember him by. Trust me, Sammy, he'll say yes." The demon smiles toothily. "What do you say?"

Sam looks him in his sulfur-yellow eyes and laughs, brokenly, because Dean's never going to know; he's never going to know that he saved Sam after all, last night, when he took that option away. It hurts, and he still laughs, and warms himself at the demon's narrowing eyes.

He laughs until he's tasting blood, and this is what love is, he thinks; love is lying here with Dean's body cooling on the floor, iron wet and bitter on his own lips, and turning down everything he wants to keep something that's no use to him, only because Dean wanted him to; giving Dean this one last thing, the last piece of himself he could have called his own, body and heart and life already handed over. "I will. I'll do anything for him," Sam says. "I'll even keep my promise. And my answer to you is no."

The demon is silent. The only sound Sam hears is his own breath, the scrape-scrape of his broken ribs and the blood thickening in his throat. The edges of his sight are darkening, and he thinks, thank you, even though he's saying it to someone who let Dean die, because it means there really is mercy after all. He's going to believe, he's going to trust, that even if he'll never see Dean again, Dean's somewhere beyond pain, and so is Dad, and so are Jo and Charlie and Lisa and Reba, Gordon and Andy and Ava; so are Jess and Mom, and all the people the demon's killed and hurt and taken.

He'd like to look at Dean one last time, but it hurts too much to move his head. Instead he just turns his eyes to the church windows, even though there's nothing outside but black. It's better to look at than the demon, anyway. The strange sourceless light is fading away fast, and it's almost completely dark. The roof overhead is vanishing.

Sam shuts his eyes and waits, breathing slow and shallow and patient, and when nothing happens he opens them again. It's not quite dark. He can just make out the window frames, white bars stark against the sky that's turning pearl gray with morning. Sam stares, then looks over sharp.

The demon's not there anymore. There's someone else instead.

Sam is looking up at the sky, confused. He's not sure what just happened, but the roof of the church is gone. Most of the church is gone, actually; he's lying inside the blackened shell of a building that maybe was a church once, a long time ago, a handful of cracked and glazed panes of glass left standing in window frames. There's a crumpled yellow potato chip bag next to his head, and he's watching the last bright stars fade into morning, and the sun is coming up. His side still aches some, but his ribs aren't grating against each other anymore; the blood on his mouth has dried.

He pushes himself slowly up on his elbows and looks. The pews are gone, and the altar, and the pentagram's just a faint smoky broken outline on the floor. There's no blood left, only Dean's body lying there.

"Dean," Sam says, and crawls down to him from the altar, past beer cans and broken glass bottles, empty candy wrappers and brown paper bags, cigarette stubs and scraps of plastic, relics of kids playing in a graveyard. Sam's knees sting and his side throbs by the time he gets there.

He drags Dean into his lap and curls over his body. "Dean," he says again, and it's a sob.

He feels so horribly stupid. He never told Dean that it would work both ways. He never told Dean he wouldn't go on either. He wonders what the idea is now, if he's supposed to get up off the ground and walk out of here and go on with his life. Find himself a job and a house and a picture-perfect family, a boy named Dean and a girl named Jess and maybe another two named John and Mary for good measure. The idea's a faded photograph, scratched up and dog-eared, and Sam doesn't think he can recognize his own face inside it anymore. The only other thing he can think of is to pick up Dean's gun and get in Dean's car and get back on the road, just keep going until he drops in his traces. But Dean said it: somebody else's turn, and shouldn't that go for Sam too? Nobody could ask him to do this; Dean wouldn't ask him to do this, to go on alone.

He wouldn't; but he'd want it, Sam realizes. Dean would want him to live. Sam shuts his eyes against the knowledge, because it's not fair, it's unbearable, and he can't, he can't, and he's crying helplessly, rocking back and forth clutching Dean's body, like a child just saying no, no, and Dean stirs in his arms and says weakly, "Dude, are you getting snot on me?"

"Oh, God," Sam says, a benediction, and fumbles at Dean's clothing desperately to get Dean's heartbeat under his hand, shoving aside Dean's hands when they bat at him feebly. It's there, it's real, and Sam's got his cheek pressed against Dean's close enough to feel his breath, so he really is smearing snot and blood and tears all over him now and ignoring Dean's half-hearted flailing, so happy, so happy, and he's crying even more.

Dean finally quits even paying lip service to trying to push Sam off and slides his hands up under Sam's ragged clothes and wraps him tight. "I've got you," he says against Sam's skin, his lips moving and soft on the curve of Sam's jaw. "I've got you, I'm here, we did it. It's over. I've got you," and Sam gasps out, "I know, I know," unable to stop crying. Dean stops talking and holds him closer, one hand cupping Sam's head, just his face warm and wet against Sam's cheek, his breath coming hard.

Then he turns Sam's head and presses his forehead against Sam's and says, "Sam. Sam—" and Sam's still gulping sobs when Dean covers his mouth and kisses him, just once. It doesn't actually register. Sam's shaking so hard, and he's cold, and it just feels like comfort, the most natural thing in the world, like Dean's hand on his face, Dean's breath mingling with his. They're still clinging to each other when Jo's cell phone rings out behind a pile of trash and she says groggily, "Mom?" and Charlie stirs in the pentagram, lifting his head slowly, bloody but alive.

They all stagger outside together, make it down the steps and get out of the shadow of the church and into the sun. Sam slides to his knees then and topples over, taking Dean with him, still clinging and tangled together on the grass. Jo gets two steps further and bends double and starts vomiting, Charlie grabbing her by the waist to help steady her; her arm is still horribly torn and bleeding from the revenant bites.

Tires on gravel. Sam vaguely wonders if they're all about to get arrested. Whatever happened must have made at least some noise, he thinks. He doesn't care all that much. The police will take them to a hospital first, and make sure Dean is okay. Anyway right now he could go for a few years in jail, as long as they don't try to take Dean away from him.

The footsteps stop. "Guess we missed a hell of a party," Bobby says.

Six other hunters are with him, hard-faced men and women whose hands are gentle laying Gordon and Lisa and Reba straight, and helping the rest of them into back seats. "My car," Dean says, half asleep but awake enough for that, while he and Sam are all but lifted into the back of Bobby's Subaru station wagon, which has the rear seats folded down and filled with a layer of blankets and old defeated pillows.

"Don't get your panties in a bunch," Bobby says. "I'll pull her off into the bushes, bring you out here to pick her up once you're on your feet."

"Don't scratch her paint," Dean says, eyes already closing again.

"Yeah, yeah," Bobby says, rolling his eyes.

"Hey, what kept you?" Sam asks Bobby, just on the edge of fading himself but fighting it off as long as Dean's awake.

"What do you think?" Bobby jerks his chin at Dean. "Nobody else in this world I'd let talk me into playing second-string," he says, and shuts the hatchback on them.

The sun comes in through the windows, and the pulse of the engine idling underneath them is familiar. Sam nudges Dean's cheek with his nose. "You were scared we were going to lose."

"Was not," Dean mumbles. "Knew we had it in the bag."

"You had a backup team."

Dean cracks an eye and glares at him. "It's called taking precautions. Now shut up and go to sleep."

"I love you," Sam says.

"Dude, seriously," Dean whines.

"I love you," Sam says, grinning against Dean's cheek. "I love you. I—"

Dean turns his head and bites Sam's ear, hard; it's the softest bit in reach.

"Ow!" Sam says, and he'd smack Dean but he's not willing to risk hurting him.

"Shut up," Dean says, and throws a leg over Sam's hip and presses his face against Sam's head and sighs into sleep. Sam waits until he's breathing evenly, then he worms his hand back into Dean's clothes and spreads it over Dean's heartbeat again, slowly and carefully so he doesn't wake him. He doesn't really feel tired, somehow, but his whole body relaxes as Bobby puts the car in gear, and they're on the road and moving.

Dean needs twelve stitches, and at the hospital they put him through an overnight stay and two CAT scans before they grudgingly agree that he's avoided a skull fracture and he's allowed to leave. "Although I have to tell you, Mr., uh, Reynaldo?" the doctor says, looking over his chart, "I'm seeing signs of a couple earlier head traumas. You keep this up, you'll be at significant risk of suffering permanent brain damage. It's time to start avoiding extreme sports."

"Yeah, I've been thinking about giving up the snowboarding," Dean says, his thumb running over Sam's knuckles. They're holding hands because Sam pretty much hasn't let go of Dean except for the tests and bathroom breaks. He's knows he's going to have to detach at some point, but as long as Dean keeps leaving his hand conveniently in reach, Sam's going to postpone it. The nurses whisper about them, and some of them smile.

"Come on, let's get out of here," Dean says. "I want my car."

The front seat of the Subaru isn't meant for three big men. Bobby eyes their clasped hands and says, "You two still look like death warmed over. Go lie down in back."

Sam's ready to be careful, to lie down on one side and just hold Dean's hand and nap, but that goes out the window after Dean crawls in after him, shoves him flat and gets settled on top of him, leg between his and arm curled around behind Sam's head for a pillow. Sam opens his own jacket and pushes most of Dean's layers out of the way until they're pressed up close enough to feel each other's breath through their t-shirts, and they both sleep all the way back to the car.

Bobby parked her down a side road a good quarter-mile away from the cemetery entrance, which turns out to be a damn good thing: there are a couple of police cars at the scene now. Aside from the usual handful of cops talking on their radios, there's a forensic team working on the gate and up by the church, and it looks like they're lifting fingerprints. Dean tucks his face against Sam's shoulder until they're by. "Mexico's looking better by the minute," he says, muffled.

"You're going to have to ride in the trunk just to get over the border," Sam says, taking the chance to stroke his fingers over Dean's head, through his hair.

They climb out of the back seat and shake hands with Bobby, Sam's hand on Dean's shoulder, thumb sliding over the back of his neck. "You boys be good now," Bobby says, eyeing them sidelong. "You sure you don't want to come stay a while, just until you're rested up?"

"Too many people know to look for us at your place," Dean says. "Come to think of it—" He digs his cellphone out of his jacket and tosses it to Bobby, and reaches into Sam's back pocket to take his out too. "We're going to hole up somewhere, lie low a while."

Bobby's eyebrows are rising. "You planning on ever coming back?"

"We'll see," Dean says, and unlocks the driver's side of the Impala and steps back to let Sam get in and slide over.

They drive out through Lawrence and back onto the interstate, their hands still curled together, except when Dean needs his for the wheel or the shift. They stop before dark, after only a couple hundred miles. Dean closes the door of the motel room behind them, and Sam's heart is pounding crazily all of a sudden. "Sam," Dean says. "Sam," pushing him down to the bed, pressing his lips to Sam's eyelids, to his cheekbones, to his jaw, to his mouth, and Sam's shaking and clinging to him when Dean stops and presses his forehead against Sam's, panting, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Dean," Sam says, helpless, dazed.

Dean says, "I know you said—if you don't—" and then he stops and says, "Fuck it, just tell me if this is okay," and kisses him again, lick of quick heat into Sam's mouth.

"Yes?" Sam says inaudibly, his mouth forming around the word, when Dean stops.

Dean's eyes are dark dark green. "You're sure? Sam, you've got to be sure," he says.

"Yes," Sam says. Dean shrugs out of his jacket and shirt and then he's got Sam's off too, pulling the shirt up and over his head while Sam raises his arms obediently, and then Dean's pushing him back down against the pillows, possessive and hungry, saying, asking, "Can I, let me, I want," and Sam says yes and yes and yes.

= End =


The scene in the church of Sam clutching Dean's body was completely inspired by this gorgeous illustration (the second one down) by joosetta and the associated scenario by balefully. ♥ ♥

All feedback much appreciated!
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