He's aware of pain. His body is a pincushion that's been stuck one too many times. He aches in muscles he didn't even know he had. His head throbs with it, and he's sure he should still be unconscious, or in a coma, with the way his head feels -- swollen, his brain sloshing around inside like a loose bowling ball, slamming into pieces of itself as it rolls along.
"Sam? Sammy? Hey, buddy, I gotcha, you're gonna be okay," Dean's voice is an anchor, a life net in Sam's sea of pain. He opens one eye -- the other one seems to be swollen shut -- and watches Dean's face crinkle into a smile.
"That's it," Dean murmurs, "That's it, Sam, you're okay. Gonna get you to a hospital, get you fixed up. You're gonna be fine."
It's the familiar babbling Sam's done himself too often, and Sam knows it for what it is -- the barely concealed panic of a brother watching the love of his life die in his arms --
And suddenly Sam is absolutely convinced he will not die, no fucking way. Not again. Not like this.
Then Sam's aware that there's someone else there, someone dark and short and nasty. And he's standing just out of sight, at an angle, staring down at the brothers with that sardonic smile of his.
And he's saying something.
"You're going to need to use that special blood of yours to save him."
Crowley's English voice is taunting Dean, and Sam's minimal awareness allows him to feel a shot of anger at Crowley's audacity.
"Fuck you," Dean answers fiercely, voice shaking with rage. "Gonna kill you next."
"You think I did this?" Crowley drawls. "I told you, Dean, there are dozens of factions in Hell now, thanks to you and your rebel-without-a-clue desertion. You know demons, Dean. They need their leader. They need to follow orders. Your refusal to accept your rightful place as my chief of staff has created a leadership gap, and somebody's gonna try to fill it. These demons stupidly believed they could get you to come home if they just eliminated the reason for your desertion in the first place. Namely, your brother.
"But I know you better than that, Dean. I know you've only been trying to recruit Sam. I know what you really want, that having your brother by your side is the primary goal. You've been grooming him this past week, since your return, and now all you have to do is give him what he needs to join you. He's ready, you'll see. He'll be more than happy to give up his humanity for you. It'll be like taking candy from a baby."
"I won't," Dean spits out. "He needs to decide for himself. I won't do that to him."
Crowley sighs. "Ah, Winchesters and their idiotic notions of free will. You're a demon, Dean. Demons don't ask nicely, demons take what they want."
"Not this demon," Dean growls. "Not when it's my brother."
"Ah, yes," Crowley sighs. "Better to serve in Heaven than to rule in Hell. Been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt. But you do realize Sam's purified blood means he's got a one-way ticket upstairs when his life ends here. And last time I checked Heaven doesn't hold visiting hours. So you let his soul go there, you can kiss your chances of seeing him again goodbye. For ever."
Crowley takes a deep breath, lets it out slow.
"Eternity is a long time, Dean," he says, voice soft, almost sympathetic. "And you know you can't end it; the Mark won't let you. Even if you manage to pass the Mark on, get somebody to destroy you, you know where you'll end up. And it won't be with Sam."
He takes another long breath, exhales.
"So you'd better bite the bullet, mate, and accept your fate. Less painful that way, seems to me. Give Sammy a little of the good stuff and you know it'll all be fine again. Winchesters together, like it was always meant to be. Kings of Destiny. Together forever. Peace on Earth, amen."
Dean leans over Sam, closer, so that Sam can almost see the expression in his eyes, can almost count the freckles on his nose.
Damn. Why is it always the little things that matter when you're dying?
Not dying, Sam reminds himself. I am not dying. That is not happening today.
"Hold on, Sam," Dean whispers, and Sam does, closes his eyes as sudden waves of nausea overwhelms even the pain, disorients him to the point where he feels he's flying, clasped close against Dean's chest and Christ -- there must be blood everywhere, all over Dean too -- but Sam's flying, or at least he thinks maybe he's flying, and it's like when they were kids and he was Batman and he leaped off that roof because Dean did it, because Dean was Superman. But everybody knows Batman can't fly so what the hell was he doing --
Sam becomes slowly aware that he's inside a building, that he's still pressed up against his brother's body but there's stone beneath him, stone walls around him, a vaulted, shadowy ceiling above him.
Then he realizes where he is, and even in his half-conscious state it rattles him.
They're in a church. Dean brought Sam to a church.
And they're on the dais, in front of the altar, and as Sam looks up, over Dean's head, he sees the crucifix.
It's that suffering human god again, he thinks with what little oxygen his brain has left, knowing he's loopy and half-dreaming anyway.
Then he feels pressure against his mouth, realizes with a shock amongst all the shocks that Dean's kissing him -- pressing his lips gently since Sam's so sore and hurt everywhere, even there, where the blood is bubbling up between his lips and Dean's tongue is there, lapping as he kisses Sam's lips, slow and tender and careful because Dean knows it hurts --
Then Dean's pulling back, letting go, and Sam can see the blood on his mouth, on Dean's full, plush lips --
"Cas, I know you're here," Dean says, running his tongue over his lips, licking away the blood.
It should surprise Sam, after what Castiel told him, that Dean could be here, praying to angels.
"Hello, Dean," the familiar voice, deep and resonant with power, fills Sam's senses, and Sam is swept away on a wave of relief.
Castiel came. He's here.
"Okay, Cas," Sam hears Dean say, because he's drifting again, out of it with pain. "You know why I'm here. Now fix him."
Castiel says nothing, and Sam's aware of Castiel moving closer, stopping when he's close enough to touch, looking down at Sam, expression sorrowful and serious.
"Hey," Sam manages, before his lungs fill with fluid and he can't choke out a coherent sound to save his life, just coughs blood for a few minutes while Castiel watches and Dean cries -- fuckin' cries!
"Fuck, Cas, you can do something," Dean sobs desperately.
"Is this what you want, Sam?" Castiel asks softly. "I could take you to Heaven. You could be with your family there. Your mother. Your father."
Sam manages to focus enough to shake his head.
"Dean," he chokes out, coughing shallowly, suddenly aware that he's drowning.
Panic wells in his chest as he struggles to breathe, can't. It's terrible -- this is unbearable, and he's had pain before. Lots of it. But he's never been awake for his own death before. And this is the definition of sucky.
He's so far gone he doesn't even feel Castiel's fingers on his forehead. Just barely registers the moment the pain goes away, the choking in his chest clears and he's gasping, taking long, sobbing breaths of air and just sucking it in.
His eyes are clear -- the blood is gone, and his vision is restored. He's rolled onto his side, and now he's pushing himself up on one arm, still taking deep breaths, still pulling sweet oxygen into his body and he's never been so grateful to be able to do it.
Dean's there, kneeling next to him, hand slipping through his hair, cupping his face.
There's blood all over Dean. Sam's blood. His hands are sticky with it. It's on his face, in his hair. Reminds Sam of the way he looked the last time Sam saw him human, the day Dean died.
And he's pretty sure he didn't imagine it. He's pretty sure Dean kissed him. Ingested his blood.
Sam nods his reassurance at Dean, watches the laugh lines around his eyes fold together as he smiles back, relief and gratitude mingling with worry. Dean takes a deep, shuddering breath, sucks back his sobs and wipes his arm across his face, smearing it with blood and tears.
"Okay," Dean says. "Okay, Sam."
He glances up at Castiel, and Sam realizes the angel has been standing there the whole time, watching, his gaze trained on Sam. He still can't look at Dean full on, but he glances at him when Dean speaks.
"Thanks, Cas," Dean says.
Castiel looks uncomfortable, shifts his feet awkwardly the way a human would when he's feeling guilty about something.
Or when he's doing his best to avoid facing his own feelings.
"I didn't do it for you," Castiel says. "I did it for Sam."
Sam and Dean exchange glances and Sam pushes himself all the way up so he's sitting, looking up at Castiel with Dean still kneeling beside him.
"Thanks, Cas," he says.
Castiel nods grimly as Dean helps Sam to his feet, 'cause he's feeling pretty weak and wobbly from shock, his body not yet fully aware that it isn't in extreme pain and dying anymore.
"I have something I gotta do," Dean tells him. "You hang out here with Cas. You'll be safe here."
"Wait -- what? No," Sam argues. "You're leaving?"
"I have to take care of something," Dean says.
"Take me with you," Sam grabs Dean's arm, needing to hold onto him. Needing him. Not liking the grim expression on his face.
"I can't, Sam," Dean growls. "Where I'm going, you can't come."
Hell. He's going to Hell.
"What're you going to do, kill Crowley?"
Dean smirks, shakes his head. "Nah, I need him to run the place," Dean says. "He's a natural bureaucrat. Best boss Hell could have. No, he just needs a little back-up, that's all. Gotta get his troops back in line."
"Oh, so you're Crowley's hired gun," Sam accuses. "Gonna go clean his playpen for him."
Dean raises his eyebrows, lets his eyes flash black for a minute.
Sam drops Dean's arm like a shot and stumbles back, almost running into Castiel, who's moved up beside him.
"I'm nobody's anything, Sam," Dean growls fiercely. "You saw what happened back there. Crowley's got a rebellion on his hands. Most of those demons were followers of Abaddon, and she promised them end-of-the-world chaos, like what they did to that town. Well newsflash, Sam: I'm a master demon-killer now. It's my job. And these goons need to know they can't just walk into a town, possess all the humans, then kill my brother and get away with it."
Dean clenches his fists, glaring from Sam to Castiel.
"Keep him here," he orders Castiel. "I'll be right back."
Then he's gone.
"Dean!" Sam stomps forward into the empty space where Dean stood until a moment ago. "Damn it."
He whirls on Castiel, and his hands are clenched into fists. He needs to hit something. Badly.
Sam hates this. Hates this feeling of near-obsolescence. He's worse than useless to Dean like this. He's like a real ball-and-chain and a total liability. If Dean has to worry about his safety all the time they can't really hunt together. If the balance of power between them is so great that Dean has to leave him on hallowed ground while he goes off on a hunt by himself --
This is never gonna work. Sam's not a partner in this. He's a child.
In fact that's exactly how it feels, which is why it's so familiar. It's like all those times Dean and Dad went off together when Sam was little, and they left Sam in the car with strict instructions to "Stay put!" And then when he was a little older, they left him in the motel with food and the t.v. and they might be gone overnight but he was to "Stay here!" with the doors and windows bolted and salted.
He hated that. Hated it every goddamn time. Needed to be old enough and big enough to help, to go along.
Remembers vividly the first time they let him. He was fourteen, still small for his age, still pretty useless and helpless, but squirly and fast, so Dad was confident he could duck and run if necessary. It made him feel so proud, he even wrote about it in a school paper the next year.
Now it's like he's gone back to being that little kid again. Worse than useless really because those things were targeting him for being Dean's brother, for holding Dean back.
"Jesus, Cas," he says now, "Those demons want Dean to be their leader."
Castiel lowers his eyes, and Sam sees he's got his fists clenched too. Sam's not the only one itching for a fight.
"I have to do something," Sam says, starting down the aisle to the front of the church.
A sudden thought pulls him up short and he whirls back around to face Castiel.
"I thought you said we could trap him here," Sam accuses. "I thought this was hallowed ground and it would hold him."
Castiel looks pained as he raises his face to Sam, frowning.
"I was wrong," he says. "Dean is a powerful demon. Much more powerful than we realized. It may be that the only one who can stop him is the one who created him."
Castiel shakes his head.
"Cain lost much of his power when he transferred the Mark to Dean," Castiel says. "He may no longer be able, or willing, to help us."
"So who then?" Sam asks.
Castiel considers for a moment.
"Lucifer," he says darkly. "If we could get Dean to go into the cage with Lucifer -- "
"Oh no," Sam puts his hand up to cut Castiel off, horrified. "No fuckin' way. That's just ludicrous. No way would I send my brother into that cage. And obviously we're not letting Lucifer out, so just forget him. There has to be another way."
Castiel's expression softens and he looks sorrowful again.
"There might be no other way, Sam," Castiel says. "If Cain can't stop him -- "
"We have to try," Sam insists. "I'm gonna go see Cain. I know where he is, or at least where he was when Dean went to see him the first time. I'm gonna start there."
He turns to go, then turns back.
"You coming?" he asks the angel, but Castiel shakes his head.
"You're on your own this time, Sam," Castiel says. "I still have work that needs attending to in Heaven, and I don't want to see Dean again, especially when he finds out you've disobeyed his order to stay here. He will be very angry with both of us, I'm fairly certain of that."
"Well, fuck that," Sam spits. "He's not my boss, we're partners. Equals in this business. And if he thinks he can just order me around, especially now that he's lost all moral authority -- well, fuck that."
Sam whirls around and stomps down the aisle to the door, where another thought hits him.
"Did you bring your car?" he asks, turning back to Castiel again. "Can I borrow your car?"
Castiel closes his eyes for a moment, opens them again.
"The car is outside with the keys in the ignition," he says with a small nod, his eyes betraying just the hint of a smile.
Sam nods, takes off without a backwards glance.Next Chapter Back to Masterpost