Apologies for the wait: I really wanted to make sure I got this one right and I've had a lot going on personally.
So this feels really strange, going into this chapter, knowing that it's going to be the last. What a journey this story has been! 17 months, 303,614 words, 182 favourites, 208 follows and 561 of your wonderful reviews later and we're finally here. I'm a little emotional right now! It seems fitting that my mum has the 12x23 finale on with Carry On playing as I upload this!
For the final time: enjoy!
"You never saw me coming
I'm the reaper outside your door."
- The Reckoning, Halestorm
"Sam? Buddy? C'mon, focus for me."
Sam groaned when his chin was grabbed, forcing his head up. The world was dark and swirling, fog snaking around him, drowning him in a sea of doubt. It blocked his vision, blinding him to the silhouette that stood just beyond his reach.
A deep rumble of thunder, soft, familiar – so very familiar – echoed around him.
The fingers digging into his cheeks were ice cold, freezing to his skin. He tried to pull away but they gripped him tighter, holding him still. His heart fluttered. He didn't want to be there.
He needed to see the figure beyond the mist.
There was safety there…right?
"Come a bit closer. I don't think he can see you." Lucifer's laugh shivered against his skin. He felt something tickle his eyelashes, his gaze widening when he saw a blade hovering millimetres away. He went perfectly still.
The thunder rumbled again, the silhouette drawing nearer. It ran slowly, fighting the fog that was like a wave, pushing it back, keeping it from him. The knife dangled closer, almost brushing against his eyeball.
He couldn't move. Couldn't blink.
Broad shoulders glowed, haloed in the darkness, piercing through. Short hair – what colour was it? – was stood up in tufts as though the man hadn't slept in days. His legs were bowed, his run slow and easy despite his urgency. Sam's heart began to pound. He tried to remember the name but it flitted away, mocking him, always out of reach.
The thunder became his name; a panicked, protective shout that called to him.
"That's close enough," Lucifer ordered, the man stopping a couple of metres away as the archangel tilted Sam's head up a bit further, the knife falling away. Sam blinked furiously, frustrated by the fog blocking his vision.
Finally, it lifted, and with it came recognition. Dean's horrified face filling Sam's eyes.
Laughter rumbled around him, dark and menacing as the world turned, spinning, morphing, throwing Sam out of the chair, the frozen fingers falling from his face. It spun faster, whirling too quickly for him to lock onto anything before he was dumped onto the floor, light flooding around him, harsh and vivid.
Lucifer was back in his original vessel, his skin decaying, leaving open wounds oozing at his temples, his mouth curled into a vicious sneer. Beneath him, Dean knelt on the floor, his green eyes open wide, the same look of horror still there. Lucifer's hand was wrapped around his throat.
"No one is going to save you, Sam," Lucifer crooned, twirling a knife in in his free hand, rotating it with easy precision, his eyes alight, hungry. Sam couldn't move; he was frozen. Stuck.
The knife moved closer to Dean's chest, Lucifer's laugh filling his ears.
"You lose, Sam," he jeered, plunging the blade in.
Sam's own shout woke him up, bolting him upright, his limbs tangled in his sheets, the pillow falling onto the floor. It was quieter than it had been in his head – quieter than it had been in the past. He was so afraid of Dean hearing him; he hated his brother having to race down the corridor every time he screamed in his sleep. It was too regular an occurrence.
This time, the bunker remained silent.
His hand shot out, fumbling for the light, pooling the room with its soft amber glow as his heart raced. The Winchester hauled himself upright, leaning back against the wall, his fingers laced through his hair. He ran them through a couple of times, pushing it back from his face, grounding himself with the physical senses around him until he just held his hands there, resting against his head. His hair was shorter now; they'd cut it a few days after they'd got back from Detroit. It no longer flopped into his eyes, irritated his neck. His cheeks were stubbled but no longer soft with downy hair.
Outwardly, he'd changed: he'd found some sense of normality.
Inwardly, Sam was barely holding it together. It had been over a month and still he was plagued by nightmares whenever he closed his eyes. He'd tried to avoid sleeping as much as he could to begin with, but he couldn't sustain it; his body wouldn't let him.
And Dean had worried.
Guilt had ridden Sam constantly, never loosing its grip on him, not even for a moment. He could barely look at his brother on some days: the shame was just too much to take. Everything he'd put Dean through…
He'd thought his torture was over. This was worse.
Dean never once blamed him, never said anything other than reassurances that Sam didn't deserve. They both desperately wanted to make things right, but neither knew how.
But now the nightmare lingered, overrode the guilt, leaving the shadows in his room stretching in towards him. Every breath came in a short sharp heave that he fought to control. He couldn't stay. Sliding off the bed, Sam padded out of his room, walking silently down the dim corridor, almost hugging the wall. The smooth stone was cool beneath his fingertips as he trailed them along it, using the sensations to anchor himself. Everything in his life was about grounding himself in reality, holding onto the truth that tormented him.
Reaching the door a few down from his own, Sam paused and leaned in close, listening. Nothing stirred.
No one is going to save you, Sam.
He grasped his head with one hand, squeezing his eyes shut and forced the malicious laughter down with everything he had until it was a faint whisper. Opening his eyes, the younger Winchester schooled his breathing before grasping the door handle and slipping into the darkness beyond like a whisper.
Consciousness came slowly, then, like an avalanche, it fell into place all at once, leaving Dean alert and rested. Groaning, he pulled his arm out from under his pillow and pressed the heel of his hand into his eye, rubbing the sleep from it. Blearily, he lifted his head and looked over at the clock beside his bed: 6.15am. Not bad: it was the first five hours he'd slept straight through in…he couldn't remember how long. Twisting himself round, the hunter turned the light on.
"Jeez!" he exclaimed, jumping when the light illuminated the figure sitting in his desk chair. Sam jumped at his surprise, the terror dissipating in an instant, dissolving into a look of sheepish guilt.
"Sorry, I didn't mean…" Sam mumbled, looking away. Dean held up a hand, placating his little brother.
"It's okay, you just caught me out. Guess I had to be out like a light for that to happen," Dean joked, but regretted as soon as he saw the guilt flare higher in Sam's averted eyes. He cleared his throat, sitting up properly. "What happened?"
"I don't…" Sam shrugged, still not looking at his brother.
"Sammy, c'mon, talk to me."
"It's stupid." Sam's reply curved a sad, nostalgic smile on Dean's lips. He sounded thirteen all over again.
"No, it's not. Nothing you do is stupid. Talk to me, man," Dean cajoled. He knew the answer already, but it wasn't about that. It wasn't about what he knew. When Sam was silent, Dean scooted over in his bed, waving a hand. "C'mere. Dude, c'mon." Slowly, Sam got up and shuffled over, sliding onto the bed beside his brother. The bed wasn't huge, but they could sit comfortably side by side, leaning back against the wall, just like they used to do when they were kids in one of the numerous motel rooms.
It was the first time that Sam had come to Dean in the month since they'd shoved Lucifer back in the Cage. In that time, Dean had nursed Sam through physical illness, night terrors, angry outbursts and almost catatonic moments that had lasted for days. The latter had scared the elder brother more than anything: seeing Sam just retreat into himself, becoming totally numb when there was nothing he could do to make it right was unbearable. He'd spent hours, days, researching trauma recovery and how to help his brother. It was never something Dean had bothered with before, but, this time, alcohol and ignoring the problem wasn't going to cut it. So he'd encouraged Sam to talk, pushed him to open up.
Now, the silence stretched warmly before, eventually, Sam broke it.
"When is this gonna end, Dean? When am I gonna stop feeling like this?"
Sam fluttered his hand in a downward gesture at himself. "This. The fear, anger…guilt."
"I told you, you don't –"
"I know. I 'don't need to feel guilty', but that doesn't change the fact that I do. If I could take it all back…"
"I know you would; there's no doubt of that in my mind, Sammy. None at all. And I wish you didn't feel that way," Dean murmured, sneaking a sideways look at his brother. Sam's eyes were downcast, his hair falling over his face. "What did you dream about?"
"The barn. The hotel, the farm," Sam shrugged. "It all merges into one. Sometimes it's a memory, most of the time my mind warps it…changes it into something worse."
Considering how bad the original occurrences had been, dread filled Dean over how much worse Sam's nightmares could be. It worried him that Sam was beginning to be able to hide it from him in the night. He thought he'd been there every time Sam had had a nightmare. He'd raced down the corridor countless times – multiple times a night – to be there, to help bring Sam back from the terrors that gripped him. They'd seemed less frequent in the past week. Maybe it wasn't that at all; Sam just didn't want him to hear.
"Knowing that you were there the last time and I just left you…it kills me, Dean."
"Sammy, you didn't know. How could you have? They did everything they could to make sure you didn't. I don't blame you for that," Dean insisted, gritting his teeth. He hadn't wanted to tell Sam about his involvement, his failure to protect him, but they'd insisted on truth and clarity on everything that had happened. It had become a part of their recovery process. With all the details on the table, every single painful one, they'd hoped it would help. There were some days when Dean didn't think it did, but maybe today was different. Sam said nothing and Dean watched as he fell into his thoughts. "What's gonna help? What do you wanna try? 'Cause staying here ain't workin'."
A single image flashed up in Sam's mind. It made his mouth dry and his heart pound.
"I need…" he swallowed, cleared his throat. Looked up to Dean. "I need to go back. To the farm. Maybe if I go, I'll find…I dunno, closure?"
Dean gave a hard nod, suppressing what would've been a grim smile. That Sam wanted to go out was a positive step and not one that Dean would question.
"…But, I can't do it on my own. I just…can't," Sam admitted, his voice small.
"I'll be there every step of the way," Dean assured him, reaching up to pat Sam's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Let me make a few calls and we'll get the ball rollin'."
The dining room was warm and homely, empty of the family for the moment; lunch had passed and they had all continued on with their separate errands for the afternoon. Garth sat alone at the table, a line of phones sitting to the right of his computer which he was staring at intently. It had been a fairly quiet morning for the werewolf regarding job calls from various hunters across the country. The community still had no idea about his recent assimilation into the werewolf family but, as their research guru, it wasn't often that many ever wanted to visit. Those that did only ever saw what Garth's family wanted every human to see: a close-knit family who lived a quiet life.
Garth's personal phone rang and he smiled as he picked up.
"Yo, Dean. What's up?" he greeted, opening up a new tab on his computer, already knowing where the conversation was going to go.
"You still got that info I asked you to get?"
"Sure do. What d'you want me to do with it?"
"Set up a meet. Emporia, Kansas," Dean's voice was hard, almost a snarl. Garth could relate. He'd offered more than just his tracking services, but Dean had refused. It was personal; Garth got that. So he did what he was good at.
"When for, bro?"
"Can you get tomorrow morning to work?"
Garth tapped on his laptop keys, bringing up a map and watching a small blue blob pulse on it. A few more taps and he quirked a smile.
"Pick a place – I don't care where. It won't matter."
"Will do. I'll text you with the tracker's whereabouts later," Garth confirmed, keeping the window open on his laptop as he picked up one of his burner phones.
"Thanks, Garth. It means a lot," Dean said his tone gruff with emotion.
"Anythin' for you and Sam, you know that. How is he?"
"He's gettin' better. Small steps."
"What about you?"
"Better after tonight," Garth heard the curve of Dean's smile. "Text me the details later."
The hunter hung up and Garth put the phone down, picking up the burner. After three weeks of hard work, it was time to get Dean's plan on the move.
Candlewood Suites, Emporia, Kansas
Night had fallen, cloaking the town in darkness. It was quiet; the residents long since having retired for the night. He'd rolled into town, glad to finally stop. His meeting was at 6am sharp and it had been a long ten hours from Cincinnati. When his contact had called, he almost cancelled – it was a long way and he wasn't meant to be taking jobs again yet – but this had sounded too promising.
And he'd been out of the game for too long. He wanted back in.
In his line of work, the longer he was out, the worse it got. He had a reputation to maintain.
Slamming the door shut of his Dodge Durango, he hefted his duffel bag over one shoulder and carried a bag containing the takeout he'd grabbed on the way. Striding across the empty parking lot, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Stopping, he turned, his eyes narrowing, scanning the whole area. A chilled breeze picked up, ruffling his jacket. Shaking his head, he saw nothing.
In the darkness across the street, a figure watched, his eyes trained on the man as he entered his room and shut the door, the light streaming through the window. The takeout bag was dumped on the table, the duffel bag on the bed. He checked his watch. He had time.
He held his position, waiting.
Inside the room, the man threw the keys down on the table, checking through the window once more before drawing the curtains and turning away. Untucking his shirt, he unbuttoned it, pulling it off to reveal a toned physique peppered with white scars that broke up the smooth, golden skin. Bundling the shirt up into a ball, he threw it on the bed, making his way to the bathroom. Shower, dinner, research. It felt good to be productive again.
Checking no one saw, the figure ran silently across the parking lot, coming up to the room. Through a sliver of a gap in the curtains, he saw the room was empty, the bathroom door closed. Pulling his lockpicks from his pocket, he made quick work of the door, easing it open with a light click. He waited, listening and was rewarded with the sound of a shower running. Without waiting, he slipped inside.
The harsh bathroom light glared down from high above him, exposing the grime beginning to fester in the corners of the bath, staining the white a putrid black. He closed his eyes, blocking it. Ignoring it: he'd be back in better accommodation soon. Instead, he revelled in the hot jets that poured over his head and down his neck. The steam released the tension from his muscles, loosening the knots driving had created. He enjoyed it, braced his hands against the cold tiles. The scent of cheap soap covered the stench of mildew that was ever-present in rooms like that.
Eventually his stomach grumbled, breaking the relaxation of the shower, forcing his hand. Turning the water off, he grabbed the thin scratchy towel that had seen one-too-many washes and quickly dried himself before wrapping it around his waist. His bare feet slapped against the tiled floor. Grasping the handle, he pulled the door open and stepped out into the empty room.
He made for the bed.
And gave a gruff yelp of surprise when someone barrelled into him, knocking him to the floor, landing on him, a knee shoved in his back, the cold muzzle of a gun pressed roughly into the back of his neck, his cheek pressed into the threadbare carpet. He went still, his eyes widening when a familiar face towered over him.
"My brother told you I'd come for you. Enjoy your hell tour," Dean snarled, cocking his gun. The mercenary opened his mouth and Dean felt him tense underneath him.
He pulled the trigger.
Griff Andrews slumped against the floor, his eyes wide and unseeing, blood pooling at the base of his skull. Dean climbed off him, grim satisfaction filling him.
No one hurt his little brother and got away with it.
One down. One to go.
Dean could wait.
Budget Host Inn, Emporia, Kansas
Sam looked up when the door opened and Dean appeared, a bag in one hand and a six pack in the other. It had felt like forever since he'd gone out and it had frayed Sam's nerves to be alone even though he knew, feasibly, that he wasn't in danger; the danger had gone. But trying to convince his mind of that was exhausting. He'd wanted Dean to go though; he had to start doing normal things. Things like staying in a motel room on his own without anything happening. It was the only way he was going to get past the thought that someone would come and take him.
"How was it? You okay?" Dean asked, putting the bag and the beer down on the table, his green eyes full of concern as he did a visual check of his brother. Sam was sat on the bed furthest from the door, his long legs stretched out, his gun on top of the covers within reach. His laptop was balanced on his lap. He looked almost…normal again. Until Dean saw the exhaustion living permanently inside his eyes.
"It was…okay. Not great, but, y'know," Sam shrugged.
"Small steps. What you doin'?" Dean nodded to the laptop. Sam gave a small smile, turning the screen. Dean looked at the news pages, his eyebrows lifting. "You're lookin' for cases?"
"I thought I'd see what we've been missing."
"Sammy…I don't think we're at that stage yet," Dean frowned softly, unease creeping in. Sam turned the laptop back round, closing the lid and putting it on the bed as he swung his legs off. He leaned forwards, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped.
"I know. I wasn't looking for something we could go after, but I just…I need to start going through the motions. Think about something else besides how crap I feel."
"Did it help?"
"Not really," Sam frowned, getting up and moving over to the small dining table as Dean opened the six pack, passing him one. "It just reminded me that while I'm sitting around moping, people need us. They've needed us for over a year."
"That's not on you, Sam. It's not on me, either. Look, we will get back in the game, we will, but not until we're ready. Sometimes we gotta come first. I know you don't like hearin' that but, let's face it, we're no good to anyone at the moment. There's always gonna be monsters to gank. The other hunters will have been on it. Jody's even picked up a few, so has Donna from what I've heard. The world will be fine without us for a little longer," Dean insisted, his words full of force, even though his tone was gentle, patient.
"Yeah, I guess," Sam conceded as he watched Dean pull dinner out of the bag. The younger Winchester watched his brother, his eyes narrowing curiously. Dean looked up at him as he passed a boxed salad his way.
"You look…different," Sam answered, still scrutinising his brother without judgement as he opened a box containing his burger. "Dean, you didn't just get food, did you?"
Dean opened his mouth, a lie on the tip of his tongue, but it jammed in his throat when he locked eyes with Sam again. He sighed, putting his burger down.
"I ran an errand, one that Garth was helpin' with. There's one less scumbag in the world, let's leave it at that."
Understanding dawned on Sam as Dean took a long mouthful of his beer. Dean had been hurting as much as he had and he'd needed to get back control, just as much as Sam did.
"Thank you," he murmured, softly, sincerely. Dean nodded, looking away, his throat working. Sam didn't know how he'd found the mercenary, but that wasn't important. He'd protected his brother and that was what mattered.
"C'mon, your salad's gettin' cold," Dean grinned through a mouthful of burger. Sam rolled his eyes, a smile tugging on his lips, chasing away the fear of tomorrow just for a little while.
Outskirts of Geneva, Kansas
The farmhouse stood isolated in a sea of green, towering over the grounds. Its walls were flaking dismal scabs of curled grey, ripped by the elements for too long. A single beige dirt track leading up the side of the property. Grass grew down its centre, the rest worn down after years of abuse from heavy machinery rolling over it. The makeshift fence made from bent tree boughs, broken in two places, the beams lying on the ground, snared its way around the property and what had been a small trimmed garden area was now overgrown with weeds and long grass.
The snarling rumble of the Impala broke the isolated silence, the sleek black car bumping and jostling its way slowly up the dirt track, the tyres crunching across the dry earth.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut.
We're nearly home. Thomas' voice rang in his mind, accompanying the sound of the gravel, sparked by it. He remembered the panic that had welled up as he'd been transported to the farmhouse, the sheer helplessness he'd felt.
You're not helpless this time. Open your eyes.
The hunter's voice was strong and commanding, and Sam did as it said, glancing quickly over to Dean, needing the confirmation that his brother was there with him. Dean looked straight ahead, a muscle ticking in his jaw as he clenched his teeth behind pursed lips. He exuded strength and Sam drew on it. Sucking in a shaky breath, Sam looked through the windshield, looking up at the house, taking a proper look at it for the first time in the light. Every other time he'd been moved, he'd been blindfolded. He'd run from it in the dark – the one night he'd thought he'd nearly succeeded in escaping – and he hadn't looked back. It looked so…normal. Like any other farm. To a civilian, that's all it was; they would've passed by without a single thought while it hid the true horror of what Sam had faced. What he was going to face again.
The Impala slowed, rumbling to a stop in the shadow of the main house. Dean cut the engine and they sat there, not moving. Sam's hands clenched into fists on his knees, his shoulders tensed, lips pursed.
"We can still leave, Sammy. You don't need to do this," Dean murmured softly, his tone free of judgement. Everything was in Sam's control as far as Dean was concerned, but, for Sam, there was no choice – not if he ever wanted to move forward.
"I'm okay. We just…I want to get it done," he choked out, his hand snapping out to grab his door handle. Sam paused for a moment, centring his breathing. The door squealed as he jerked it open, pulling his tall frame out of the car, Dean mirroring his movements. The doors slammed shut in unison. Dean waited, looking at him over the roof of the car. Sam was the lead. He didn't want to be – hell, everything in him was screaming at him to jump back in the car and run – but he needed this.
Kill or cure.
"Let's go," he instructed, his voice rough as his throat closed. Moving around the Impala, he walked forwards, his brother falling into beside him, keeping close. Together, they walked down beside the house, following it around to the front lawn. A chilled breeze snapped across them as they rounded the corner. It ruffled Sam's jacket, brushed through his hair. They got to the steps leading up to the porch before he stopped, gazing up at the ageing farmhouse. Dean stayed still, his concern growing as Sam just stood there, not moving.
Sam turned his gaze away, staring out over the land in front of the house.
"It was dark when I ran," he murmured, his voice soft as he started to walk, almost in a trance. "Thomas had let me in the house – it was the only time he did. I got out, ran down and went this way." His feet disappeared in the sea of long grass, Dean following in his wake as he talked. "I left the car – I didn't have the keys and it was dark – so I ran. I saw those trees." He pointed to the small copse in the distance. "I thought if I could get there, I could lose him." He reached the makeshift fence, stopping at its boundary. The wind brushed his hair from his face as he looked out over the land. "I hid in one of the trees. I think I knew, deep down, that he would find me. It was a game."
"It wasn't. Not for you," Dean whispered, seeing a vision of his brother running, terrified, across the open landscape. He blinked, banishing the image.
"No, but I don't know why I thought I could get away." He gripped the fence, his knuckles white.
"You're a fighter, Sam. You always have been. You had to try: it's who you are. Who we are."
"Until I gave up. I'm so sorry, Dean. I know I keep saying it, I know it doesn't make it better. If I'd kept fighting, we wouldn't be in this mess." Sam kept his eyes forward, fighting the tears that threatened to well. He couldn't give in – not yet. He'd only walked across the damned lawn.
"That's not true. Sam, you did the best you could. You lasted longer than anyone else could've. Me included. You gotta stop beatin' yourself up for the things that happened. You had no choice," Dean admonished gently, watching the internal struggle rising to the surface of his brother's expression. "Now you do. And you're makin' a difference. You're makin' it right – not for me but for you."
Sam nodded silently, shoving away from the fence, sticking his hands in his jacket pockets. Turning, he held his breath, his head turning towards the small raised mound hunched in the corner of the lawn. He began walking, mechanically, putting one foot in front of the other. The angled entrance loomed up: the steel door was caked in dirt, its surface dulled in the sunlight. It was shut, the bolt shot home, sealing the cellar.
Blood roared in Sam's ears.
He stopped. Stared. Forgot to breathe.
"Easy, Sammy," Dean's hand clasped his shoulder gently, making him jump but Dean didn't let go. "I'm right here."
"I don't even know how long I spent down there," Sam whispered, his eyes wide, his breathing shallow.
"You got out. That's what's important. No one is gonna keep you down there again," Dean reassured him, keeping his gaze locked on his little brother. He hated this: he didn't want Sam to put himself through this. Dean would give anything to not have him go through it. But Sam needed it, so Dean did the only thing he could: be the strong one.
"Fuck," Sam cursed, running his hand back through his hair, his hands trembling. He didn't want to do this. He wanted to run.
No more running.
"Open it," he ordered and Dean's hand dropped away as he leaned forwards, unbolting the door. The elder brother looked over his shoulder.
"No…yes. Shit. Just…yeah. Do it before I lose it," Sam swallowed, his nerves jangling almost agonisingly. Dean nodded, taking a deep breath before yanking the door up and open, revealing the darkness below.
The stale stench of the unused space exhaled out, hitting the boys full blast. Sam reeled back, a surge of memories smacking him in the gut.
You know the drill; the more cooperative you are, the easier it will be.
Of course, you can avoid making me do any of this if you choose to do as your told and eat what I give you. Which would you like?
I used to be a dog breeder and trainer, long before I was Lady Bevell's head of house. Do you know how we used to deal with uncooperative dogs? We'd muzzle them until they learn.
Dean is dead, Samuel. The real Dean, not the imposter you've been clinging onto here.
Sam staggered away, falling to his knees and retching violently, bringing what little he'd eaten up on the lawn. Dean was at his side in an instant, kneeling beside him, his hand rubbing circles on his back.
"Easy, Sam. It's okay," he soothed as Sam vomited again, his breathing ragged. They stayed like that until Sam had nothing left to bring up.
"This is so stupid," Sam mumbled miserably, flopping back so that he was sat with his knees drawn up, his elbows on them and his hands in his hair.
"No, it's not. This was never gonna be easy. If you wanna go, we can," Dean replied, watching as Sam shook his head without looking up.
"I gotta do this, Dean."
"Alright, just wait here a sec, okay?" Dean instructed, jogging off across the lawn. Sam watched him go, his heart thrumming as he left. He reached the Impala, opened the trunk and pulled something out before jogging back, never once leaving Sam's line of sight. "Here," he offered a bottle of water, staying stood up but close as Sam rinsed out his mouth, spitting the water on the ground. Drinking a few mouthfuls, Sam finished the bottle, screwing the cap back on.
"Thanks," he murmured, accepting Dean's hand when he offered it, pulling himself up again. Taking a shaky breath, he stepped towards the cellar, stopping at the top. Looking down, he peered into the darkness, squashing the whispering memories that tried to rise again.
"You want me to go first?" Dean asked.
Sam shook his head. "No. Just…don't go."
"Never," Dean affirmed, giving Sam a reassuring smile when he looked over his shoulder. "You got this, Sammy."
Sam ran a hair back through his hair with one last nervous gesture, before he took the first step down. It was the first time he'd descended voluntarily; the first time Thomas had carried him, the second he'd been unconscious.
Their footfalls echoed as they stepped down and in, brushing alongside the memory of the soft, clipped footsteps of Thomas. Reality overwhelmed his imagination, their footsteps louder and heavier, drowning it out. It felt like they were going down forever.
Sam sucked in a breath as they reached the bottom. Dean fumbled for the light switch.
Claustrophobia hit as the pale yellowed light illuminated the dull interior. Sam backed up a step, bumping into the warm solidity of his brother who was stood on the step above him.
"It's okay, you're okay. I'm here," Dean soothed, reaching down and put his hands on his little brother's shoulders, feeling the trembles vibrate through him, his fear humming throughout his whole being. Dean rubbed his thumbs in soothing circles, helping Sam ground himself.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut, clenching his jaw until his teeth ached, focusing on the warmth spreading from his brother's hands, using it to stay in the present when his mind wanted to send him back. Slowly, he breathed out, opened his eyes and looked.
Nothing had changed.
The walls were still the unpainted, dull grey that felt like they were closing in on him. It was still bare: the wooden shelf hung on one side, still laden with what was left of Thomas' equipment. The table and two wooden chairs were still there. Sam's eyes swept to the right, falling on the single metal cot which sat against the wall. Lying across the bare mattress, a single chain was coiled, one end snaking up to the loop on the wall it was attached to. The ghost of a sensation locked itself around Sam's ankle, tight, familiar.
Almost in a trance, he stepped forwards, leaving Dean's reassuring touch behind. It only took a few strides to reach the edge of the bed. He looked down, the ghost of himself etching itself onto the small frame. Fragile. Bound. Helpless.
He looked away, clenching his jaw.
Sam's eyes roved around and he turned on the spot until he saw the camera up high in the corner. The light was off now, the lens dim and dusty.
"Get off on watching, do you?" Sam snarled, giving the camera a pointed look. Thomas studied him carefully.
"It serves the same purpose as the one in your accommodation in London; it's there to protect you."
"Funny. You keep going on about all this 'protection' and yet somehow I don't exactly feel the benefit," Sam retorted sarcastically. He nodded down to the necklace. "That supposed to protect me too?"
"He would tell me everything was to protect me, to keep Lucifer out," he murmured as Dean watched him curiously. The elder Winchester crossed his arms, moving into the room, closer to his brother, but still giving him his space. He said nothing. Sam moved to the shelf, running his hand hesitantly over the equipment Thomas had left, his fingers shaking until they touched cold metal. He frowned, grasping the metal rod and pulling it from the shelf. He stared at it curiously, touching the rounded end briefly with his fingertips, jerking them away as if it burned. "I couldn't understand how it happened. He told me my mind had subconsciously done it to protect me from Lucifer. I believed him…eventually. I shouldn't have. Deep down, I knew he'd done it. I remember feeling groggy, falling in and out of it. Then there was nothing but fire and pain."
He reached over his shoulder, his fingers ghosting over where the brand had been, closing his eyes as the memory surfaced.
Two weeks earlier
"I found the symbol in the catalogues," Cas explained, holding one of the bunker's huge tomes in his hands. He turned it towards the brothers, pointing to the symbol that mirrored the scar on Sam's back. "It's exactly as we thought: it blocks all angels from being able to communicate with the wearer. Traditionally it's worn –"
"As a necklace," Sam finished for him. Both Dean and Cas looked at him. "Before I was branded, I saw a necklace with the same design. Thomas knew I'd take it off the first chance I got so he made it permanent."
"So why didn't it come off when you healed him?" Dean asked, taking the tome and studying it.
"It can't be removed like that: it needs a spell."
"Of course it does," Dean grumbled.
"Luckily for us, the spell we need it right there," Cas pointed to the incantation opposite the symbol, "and I believe we have all the ingredients we need here too."
"Awesome." Dean pushed up from his seat, taking the tome with him as he headed off towards the stores. Castiel took a seat beside Sam who was staring at the doorway where Dean had gone.
"Sam," he turned his head back towards the angel when he spoke. "Do you…do you want it removed?"
Sam frowned; he hadn't expected anyone to ask. He looked at Cas quizzically.
"If you choose to keep it, you're safe from all angels if I put the warding back on your ribs too. Yes, it cloaks you from me too, but it will from all angels," Castiel explained, his voice low and grave. They'd admitted to removing Sam's warding when they'd got back to the bunker. Dean had expected backlash, but Sam hadn't found it in himself to argue; he could see why they'd done it. Sam mulled the idea over, feeling exhausted at having to make a decision. He felt exhausted most of the time these days.
"I want it off," he admitted, finally, looking at the angel. "If we'd been able to communicate, half of this wouldn't have happened. And I don't…I don't want a reminder of what happened stuck on me."
"And your ribs?"
"Put them back how they were," Sam instructed. They both looked up as Dean reappeared, the tome, a bowl and several jars balanced in his arms. He spread it out on the table, opening the book back on the relevant page. He looked up expectantly.
"What'd I miss?"
"Nothing. I'm going to put the Enochian sigils back when we're through," Cas explained. Dean nodded, setting to work on the ingredients.
Sam watched him work, barely able to focus on him. It took everything he had to stay present and this was the longest he'd been awake in the two weeks they'd been back. Dean and Cas talked as he worked, but Sam wasn't listening; he found his eyes drifting around the library aimlessly.
"Sammy?" He blinked, snapping back to reality again, looking up at Dean's concerned eyes.
"Sorry," he apologised, knowing that his constant zoning out worried his brother.
"It's alright," Dean smiled reassuringly, holding the small bowl in his hands. "I need you to take your shirt off."
Sam nodded, leaning forwards so that he could pull off the blue plaid shirt he was wearing, followed by the black t-shirt he had on underneath. The cold brushed against his skin and he shivered involuntarily.
"It won't take long," Dean promised. "I'm gonna put this on your shoulder, say the incantation and then it should work."
Sam nodded, peering over his shoulder as Dean dabbed his fingers into the paste he'd made, smearing a thick coating of it over the puckered skin of Sam's right shoulder. It was cold and smelled faintly of cinnamon. The bowl clattered against the table as Dean set it down, wiping his hand on his outer shirt before picking up the book.
"You ready?" he asked. Sam nodded. "In noctibus levate signum."
They all waited, watching Sam carefully. The younger Winchester frowned.
"Nothing's happening," he remarked, looking up at Dean.
"Maybe I said it wrong," he grumbled, looking at the page. Cas held out his hand for the book.
"It sounded right," Sam insisted, "maybe–" He stopped, gasping as his shoulder crackled beneath the paste, making his whole body convulse.
"Sam!" Dean exclaimed, dropping the book. Sam's eyes widened as his skin burned, ripping a pained howl from his throat. His hand automatically rose to claw at his shoulder, but Castiel grabbed his wrist, holding it. Dean copied his actions with Sam's other wrist, the pair holding the younger brother as he shrieked, fighting their hold, drowning out Dean's murmured comforts. Hiis shoulder was on fire, the paste eating into his skin like acid.
It felt like it lasted for hours, but was no more than a few minutes until, finally, the burn subsided, and he slumped forwards, exhausted. Dean wiped the paste off with care.
"What the hell, Cas?!" he exclaimed. "It's still there!"
"Hang on, Dean," Cas instructed, looking down at Sam. "Are you ready? I'm going to put the sigils back first."
Sam nodded. The angel spread his warm hand across Sam's bare chest and he gasped in pain as he felt his ribs heat. It died off quickly and the angel pressed two fingers to his forehead.
The skin was smooth once more under his shirt, the brand completely gone. It had been yet another piece of his life that Sam had gained back. He grasped the branding iron with both hands, holding it in front of him like a sword. He looked up at the shelf, lined with the implements that had been left. That had caused him so much pain and fear.
The metal smashed down on the wooden shelf, splintering it in an instant. Sam hit it again and again, giving it everything he had until the wood gave out and fell to the floor, the restraints, the vials, the boxes clattering across the floor. Sam wheeled around, banging the rod down on the metal cot, striking it over and over. The end snapped off pinging across the room, hitting the wall just to the right of Dean. The elder Winchester stepped forwards towards his brother, the younger man panting heavily, a sheen of sweat glistening on his brow.
"Let me," he murmured, holding out a hand and gently pulling the metal rod from Sam's hands. It clanked against the concrete floor and gently, he turned his brother towards him, wrapping his arms around his shaking form. Sam's arms lifted and clung on as he buried his face in the crook of his brother's neck. "It's alright, Sammy. You're okay," Dean whispered to him softly, holding him together.
Sam clung on, finding his grounding, using Dean's strength to keep himself from losing it.
Stone Number One.
He was starting from the foundations all over again, but that first stone was there. It was always there. Dean wasn't going to leave him. They would move forward together. Always together.
"I want to burn it down," he murmured into Dean's shoulder, his voice muffled. He felt Dean nod.
"I'll get the gas."
I-135N, Outskirts of Smokey Hill, Kansas
The Impala breezed along the highway, its rumble loud and comforting as it ate away at the road before them. The world had turned to darkness, leaving the car alone on the road; the remaining cars few and far between as they roared through the silence. Metallica's Nothing Else Matters drifted through the speakers quietly, adding to the warm familiarity of the car. Dean drove with one hand on the wheel, the other resting in his lap, his lips silently miming the words to the song. Sam sat with his head leaning against the cool window, his eyes trained on the road ahead when he wasn't taking in the small details of the car. Every now and then, he could hear the comforting little rattle of the Lego blocks in the air vents.
"You can sleep, y'know," Dean remarked, breaking the silence. Sam looked over at him, taking in the sight that he'd seen thousands of times before.
"I know. I was just…pretending everything's normal again," Sam admitted ruefully. "Like we're just coming back from another hunt."
Dean laughed, lifting his shirt to his nose, before dropping it.
"Well we definitely smell like we've burned a few bodies," he chuckled drily. Watching the farmhouse go up in flames had been cathartic for the both of them. With the pyre burning in the background, they'd left, another weight lifted.
"Is it weird that I'm kinda looking forward to that again?" Sam asked and Dean grinned.
"Not for us. That is normal. We'll get there, one step at a time. Maybe we can start with somethin' small."
"No Jefferson Starships or Leviathans?"
Dean huffed a laugh. "Hell no. Maybe a vampire nest. If you're lucky."
Sam laughed and it felt like another piece of normality falling into place. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed properly. He looked to his brother again, saw the laughter lines crinkled at the edges of his eyes. It had been too long for the both of them.
But this was the start.
Sam cleared his throat, sobering.
"Dean…I just…" Dean glanced over at him as he started. "Thank you. For everything. For not giving up on me. For putting up with all the crap I've put you through. I know it's not been easy."
"You know how it is, Sammy; we're in this together. Always. That's never changed. It won't ever," Dean replied, the humour gone from his tone, replaced with gruff emotion that brought Sam the comfort he needed. They lapsed into companionable silence once more and Sam yawned, his eyes heavy as he fought it. "Dude, go to sleep. I'll wake you when we get home."
Sam nodded, sliding down the seating, leaning against the window again, his body twisted towards his brother, knowing he was there, that he would keep him safe. Just like he always had.
In the darkness, Dean grinned.
So I just wanted to say a final, MASSIVE thank you to you all, the readers! Honestly, without your follows, reviews and messages, writing is a whole lot harder. An especially big thank you to the guests as well as named reviewers, in particular Kirsten and those of you who have followed this all the way through. Thank you for taking this journey with me. I hope you've loved it as much as I have.
I'm gonna take a little break for a while (not a long one) and I may do a few one-shots now and then before I get stuck into a new project.
If you've enjoyed this, please do leave one final review for me.
See you all soon!