Sam failed. Defeat grabbed him by the collar and shook him, rendering him weak and helpless.
A year had come to pass. They had found no way of saving Dean from his ill-fated contract.
Dean said, "I won't sit around waiting to be mauled by Hell hounds. Let's go."
So Sam went with his brother to the crossroads, and he'd taken a secret with him.
All that year there had been no visions, no freaky psychic outbursts of clairvoyance or telekinesis. Dean thought it was because the yellow-eyed demon had died. It had been the source of Sam's abilities and now that it was gone his little brother was back to normal – mostly. They both skirted around the issue of Sam's short fuse. His patience was gone. He had no tolerance for those who opposed him, those who threatened him, his family or his friends. His power to negotiate, his empathy, both of which had been his strengths, had taken a backslide into nearly non-existent. He seemed bitter and angry. Now it was Dean who hesitated to pull the trigger. Sam shot first and asked questions later, and if he made a mistake, too bad.
He hated himself for it. He hated himself for lying to Dean. His abilities were not gone, far from it; they were simply controlled. The key to his power had been taken out of the demon's hands and given back to Sam, who had been utterly dumbfounded by what he found lurking within him. Like Eva had said, there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
He just didn't.
Not that there weren't temptations, such as the one offered him at the crossroads when the she-demon appeared to collect her prize. She had seen him there, sitting quietly on the Impala's long hood, and for a moment met his eye. Both of them knew what he could do. It would be nothing for him to stop her. One command and he could shatter the chains binding Dean to her will. His brother would be free.
The catch, however, was that he would condemn himself, and quite possibly, the entire world as they knew it. Sam Winchester, heir apparent. Ocher flames burned deep behind his eyes. The power to control legions of demon warriors was at his fingertips and both he and the crossroad demon knew it. She studied him to see what he would do, who he would sacrifice.
For a moment she met his eye, and ignored Dean completely. She'd gone to Sam and spoke to him in a soft, sibilant whisper she'd known Dean could hear.
"Noble Dean. He gave up his soul to save his brother. Are you here to bargain, Sammy?"
She forced him to admit the truth.
"No," he'd said.
Her pout was pretty, just like the rest of her. She'd chosen a blond host, rather than the brunettes Dean had encountered. Sam's presence had not been unexpected.
"No? Don't you love your brother?"
Sam had looked over her shoulder to where Dean stood. His brother's expression had been unreadable, but despite Sam's control, he could still pick up the stray thought.
Sammy, don't you dare!
Dean didn't want Sam to do what he'd done. He was scared out of his wits, but he valued Sam so much more than his own life he would humbly accept his fate. If only he knew, Sam thought.
Sam had gotten a glimpse into Hell on more than one occasion. The demon "Meg" had shown him once, when she'd occupied his body and controlled his mind. That had been bad enough, but then, when he had died...
He didn't remember it, not really. He could have easily dismissed the nightmares that came to him later, but something about them was frighteningly more like memory than imagination. When he woke from them it took him a while to realize he was no longer a prisoner of the flames. It took a while for the last vestiges of agonizing pain to leave his mind and body. It had been real once, that pain. He'd not had a physical body then, but the mind remembered, and his body reacted.
If Sam succumbed to temptation, it wouldn't be just Dean who would face the fire.
He had answered the she-demon with the truth. "I love my brother," he'd said softly, and then turned his gaze away from Dean to face her instead. "He knows it, and that's all that matters."
"Trite," she'd scoffed. "You're condemning him to eternal torment, pain beyond imagining, anguish unheard of by man, and neither will never, ever, end. You call that love? He's given himself for you, Sam, and this is how you repay him?"
"He didn't realize what he was doing."
"And so he must pay the price." The she-demon had smiled with a glint of satisfaction in her eye. Nothing she said would change Sam's decision. She'd playing, toying with her prize like a cat would a mouse. "Is that what you're saying?"
"I believe in God."
This had brought her up short. It wasn't what she'd been expecting. "What?"
"It isn't just me," Sam had replied softly. "That he's dying for."
She'd burst into laughter, throwing one arm back to point at Dean. "You're equating him with Christ?" Eyes narrowed, she'd given him more. "Even so, Sam, how long do you think you can continue to deny what you are after he's gone?"
"Long enough. Other Hunters are gathering. The rumors are spreading. How long do you think it's going to be before I get another knife in the back?"
He'd heard Dean's breathy denial, "No, Sammy..." and had met his gaze once again.
You know its true.
A flinch. Dean had looked away, stricken. He had known. Whether it was a recent revelation, or if he'd known the truth all along, Sam couldn't tell. Sam's resurrection had inadvertently tipped the scales in favor of the dark side. Dean had handed him over to the yellow-eyed demon on a silver platter.
It made his sacrifice more poignant. It was the price of his indiscretion, and he was willing to pay it.
"I believe in God," Sam told her. "And more than that, I believe in good."
"You're a fool," she'd whispered. "As if I don't have a trick or two up my sleeve. I make a living playing out negotiations, making deals, turning profit. I'm the epitome of a corporate American success story."
"An appropriate analogy."
"I thought you'd like it, considering your field of study. Corporate tax law? You'd be skirting the edges of Hell there for sure."
Sam sensed Dean growing impatient. Flight was warring with fight. Fear battled resignation.
"And your point?" Sam had demanded. He eased off the hood of the car and stood up, towering over her, letting her know with body language alone that he could change his mind.
"Have you..." she'd sneered, confident that he would not follow through with the threat. "Ever heard the term 'living Hell?'"
He'd frowned. "What?"
She did not reply, or if she did, Sam hadn't heard for the screams that suddenly sliced through the pre-dawn silence. Dean had collapsed to his knees, fists clenched, eyes rolling back so only the whites showed. Sam had heard Dean cry out in pain before, but nothing like the open throated screaming he'd done that night. If he lived forever he would still never forget the sound of those high pitched screams of agony.
The first round of torture had begun. Sam had recognized it for what it was as he'd held on to his brother's body and guided it to the ground. The screaming continued. Dean fought something only he could see, raising his arms in a warding gesture. He lost the battle. His body convulsed violently when wave after wave of unrelenting pain rushed through him.
For over an hour Sam held on, tears running down his face, his voice hoarse from trying to override his brother's screams of pain and terror with soothing words. They had no effect. Dean couldn't hear him, nor see him. His eyes had flickered back and forth as if he were in REM sleep, taking in whatever it was he saw that Sam could not. Sam knew, though, what Dean was seeing. He'd seen it himself in his nightmares.
It ended only when Dean's body could take no more. Unconsciousness claimed it, shutting down the screams, the crying, the flailing arms and convulsions. He'd taken one last gasp of air and suddenly went limp in Sam's arms.
Still alive. The wildly beating pulse beneath Sam's fingers had confirmed it.
But the rolling of Dean's eyes beneath his eyelids had also confirmed Sam's greatest fear. Unconsciousness did not bring with it any relief from the torment.
Sam sat back in his chair and rubbed his face with both hands. He could sense Bobby hovering somewhere behind him. The older Hunter held a gun in his hands. They both watched as Dean twitched and moaned on the bed before them.
It had been over a week since Sam had brought Dean to Bobby's. Bobby had been horrified that first day when Dean regained consciousness. The older Hunter was shown the full effect of what the demon had done when Dean immediately arched his body off the bed and began writhing and screaming at the top of his lungs. Sam had held Dean's face between his hands, trying in vain to reach him. Ultimately they had to tie him down and force a sedative down his throat, hoping he didn't suck it down into his lungs as the screams continued.
After that they kept him drugged, but still he twisted and moaned in his sleep. Sometimes he lay still, sobbing uncontrollably as Sam wiped away the tears with a cool, damp rag. At wrists and ankles Dean's skin was rubbed raw and bloody from constant tugging at the ropes that held him down. He'd visibly lost weight despite their best efforts – liquids were the only thing they dared give him. He stunk of sweat and piss.
This was how they would get to Sam, break down his will and coerce him to their side. As long as Dean lived there was a chance to bring him back. The only chance Sam had of accomplishing that, however, was to do it himself. He could too. He had abilities beyond those of a pure demon. He would not require a "bargain" to resurrect Dean's soul from Hell, but there was still a price to pay, a huge price. Sam couldn't afford to pay it.
Nor could he watch this continue.
Bobby didn't know everything. He didn't know why the demon had spared Dean's life but not his soul. Dean's conscious mind was suffering in Hell, while his body remained earthbound. He was caught between life and death, much like the spirits they hunted. Only they were spirits without a living body. Dean was a living body without a spirit.
To Bobby there was only one solution, and he held it out to Sam in the form of a gun.
"No," Sam whispered hoarsely.
"Sam. Look at him. You wouldn't let a dog suffer like that!"
Dean whimpered in his sleep. His lips moved, forming the shape of words but producing no sound. At times he had spoken, broken fragments of the simplest of thoughts, brought forth in barely audible, barely understandable muttering.
"That won't stop the suffering, Bobby."
"Maybe so. Maybe not for him." Bobby said softly. "But...don't do this to yourself, Sam. Please. Take the gun and let him go."
Bobby didn't know everything.
Exhaustion made Sam's control waver. He turned sharply and leveled a glare at the older man, his voice low and menacing. He felt the fire slip out of his grasp and knew it could be seen burning in his eyes.
"I said, no, dammit!"
The scent of sulfur was unmistakable. Sam saw Bobby's eyes widen and his hand tighten around the gun as he took a step back. For a second Sam thought Bobby would shoot him, but he didn't. He simply stood there, staring at Sam in horror. It took a false start before he could get out what he wanted to say, but when he did, Bobby's hoarse whisper was filled with fear.
"What are you?"
As quickly as it had come, the fury subsided.
Sam slumped in his chair, his face twisting with grief. "I don't know. I don't know anymore, Bobby. I just...I can't let him go, but I can't bring him back either, not without...letting it out."
Bobby's unease did not lessen. Sam hadn't expected it to. "Letting what out?" he asked, and when Sam didn't reply right away, he prompted, "Sam?"
Sam looked up at him and gave voice to the fear that had been plaguing him for a year.
"Their war...it's the Apocalypse."
Another man might have scoffed, but not Bobby Singer. He knew too much, had seen too much. He had recently looked down into the pit of Hell and seen what lay at the bottom and he, probably more than any other man on Earth, fully understood what had been unleashed. Sam watched as Bobby registered this response. One of the biggest mistakes people made when dealing with Bobby was to underestimate his intelligence.
"It was supposed to be you," he said finally, bluntly. "Not Jake. You were supposed to be the one who opened the gate and led them to war."
Sam nodded. "I was its favorite, but I couldn't kill Jake."
"Sam," Bobby whispered. "You did kill Jake."
Rising from his chair, Sam moved over to the window, idly looking out into the darkness. There were demons out there, he could sense them, lurking in the shadowy places between rows of junked cars and stacks of old tires. Most of them had fled far afield, seeking out their own agendas and not worried about any "war." It would have been Jake's job to bring them together as a unit, develop a strategy, and lead the army into battle. As individuals their power was weakened. As an army they could and would, destroy the world.
Most of them had fled, but these few sometimes came to linger around Sam, confused as to why he was not playing the game as expected. They would watch, and wait, and when the time came they would be at his right hand to lead the army to war. It would give them power these particular demons did not have. Sam was their ticket out of the minor leagues.
Sam shuddered and turned away from the window.
"I was changed," he said. "We were all changed. It needed someone to lead the first wave, someone who could go where a demon couldn't go, do what a human couldn't do. I thought I could beat it, Bobby. I hung on to the one last shred of humanity I had left. I wasn't going to give it the satisfaction..." He clenched a fist in a brief fit of anger.
Outside the demons responded to the emotion. They drew in closer.
"But I lost it," Sam concluded softly, letting his hand relax. "I lost it when I died."
"Dean should have never brought you back." Bobby said roughly.
"He didn't know." Running his hands through his hair, Sam shook his head. "They want me, Bobby. That's what this is about." He laughed softly, bitterly. "They want me to save him."
"Christ..." Bobby wiped his face with his hand. "Sam."
Sam gave him a wry smile. "I don't think he has anything to do with it." The smile faded. "Just a taste of power corrupted almost all of the others. What do you think using it to save Dean will do to me? Me, the one it chose as its favorite. I'm barely holding on as it is."
There was no immediate reply. Bobby looked away, cleared his throat, and when he turned his gaze back to Sam his expression was unreadable.
"Then," he said. "It would probably be in everyone's best interest for me to shoot the both of you."
He and Sam stared at each other, and it was Sam who gave ground and turned away.
"Maybe you should."
"No," Bobby replied quickly. "Not now. Not yet." As Sam's eyes found him again, he made a show of putting the gun he held away in one drawer of the dresser and shut it firmly. "I knew your father," he said, and it was all he said before he turned and walked out of the room, leaving Sam to ponder the meaning of that statement.
I knew your father.
It translated to:
I know you'll find a way out of this.
Sam reflected back on the vision of his father in the graveyard. The spirit of John Winchester had to have known what had happened to his sons, and yet he had smiled at them both. If, against all odds, a man could drag himself up out of the pit of Hell, surely there was a way out of the current situation.
Time was what Sam needed. He just needed a little time to think.
Returning to Dean's bedside, Sam knelt down and put a hand to his brother's forehead. The touch did nothing to soothe him. He moaned pitifully. One arm jerked upward, stopped short by the rope that bound it. Fresh blood oozed from the raw places on his wrist.
"I'll be back," Sam whispered. "I'll be back. I promise."
The keys were in Dean's coat pocket. He passed Bobby on the way out the door, throwing out a request for him to take care of Dean. Bobby didn't question him, nor try to detain him in any way. It gave Sam pause. He stopped.
"Don't do anything, Bobby, until I come back. Please. Just...keep him sedated...for now."
After a pause, Bobby nodded, and Sam slipped quietly out the door.
He didn't know where he was going, only that he had to move, get away from Dean. Sitting there witnessing his brother's agony muddled up his mind with emotion. He needed a clear head to figure out what they were going to do and right now, his head was anything but clear.
The Impala was sitting out back, out of sight from the road. Sam hadn't been exaggerating about other Hunters wanting him dead. There was a great deal of disagreement among them regarding the Winchesters. Some believed Sam and Dean had been the ones who had released the demons from hell in an effort to save their father. Others believed they'd been possessed and had not known what they were doing. Only a scant few knew the truth, and even they were divided between wanting Sam dead, and wanting to save him. In every opinion, however, one thing was certain. Whatever had happened most certainly traced back to the night Mary Winchester died – the night when the demon came for Sam. Sam was the source of the problem. If he were killed, well, it would be for the better, wouldn't it?
Could they kill him? If Sam took that last step and set his power free, would a normal weapon be able to destroy him? There was a good possibility that it wouldn't, not completely. Perhaps the body he now occupied would die, but he knew for a fact he would be able to return.
Sam sensed the demons following him at a distance. Among their kind these were lesser demons, unable to possess people. They were not any less dangerous. They could have easily pushed a stack of flattened cars over on Sam as he walked through the junkyard, or impaled him with a piece of steel torn from a bumper. These demons were often mistaken for poltergeist due to their penchant for throwing things. They were also good at creating strife. They fed off of negative emotions. It should not have been a surprise that they were lurking around Sam now, regardless of what else he meant to them. He was a walking smorgasbord.
At other times, when he had been more confident in his ability to control the power seething within him, Sam would simply order the demons to go away. Tonight his confidence was at an all time low, his control close to snapping. He wouldn't risk pulling even that tiny amount of power to dismiss them. Instead he ignored them as he got into the car and started her engine. He let her idle for a while, watching the demons swirl around in the vapor coming from the car's tailpipe. They'd follow him. No big deal.
He picked a random direction and began to drive.
There was no moon over the South Dakota prairie. The Impala stalked the roadways, her headlights cutting through the darkness like twin machetes hacking through overgrown jungle. Sam hunched over the steering wheel trying to think, but his mind kept turning back to Dean, left behind at Bobby's. He couldn't get the sound of his brother's screams out of his head, nor erase the sight of Dean's face twisted in pain. There had to be a way of relieving his suffering.
Yet even if Sam did save him from the current situation, Dean might not be safe in the coming war. The demons would kill him, and kill him slow if they got the chance. Sam wasn't even sure if he wouldn't turn right around and do it himself. He would no longer be himself. What would Dean mean to him then?
He had no idea how long he'd been driving before he felt the need to stop. He had no idea where he was either as he stepped out of the car and paused along the roadside to take a leak. As he zipped up he turned around to get the lay of the land and spotted a lone house directly across the road from him. It wasn't fancy, just a simple wooden clapboard building, but the shape of it was familiar and Sam realized it was no house. It was laid out in the shape of a cross, a design used by architects for many centuries in the construction of churches.
Without thinking, Sam crossed the deserted road and walked up the path toward the front doors of the church. He was surprised to see light in the windows, light he hadn't been able to see from the road due to the large trees surrounding the building. He was doubly surprised to find the door unlocked.
His voice echoed through the interior. Sam repeated himself and again came the echo, but no other response. The place was deserted.
Sam went inside. It was warm and dry within the walls. The air smelled of dust and incense. Sconces along the walls illuminated the nave with a subdued amber glow that harmonized with the reddish light coming from votive candles. There was a rack of them along one wall – a telltale sign of what religious denomination met here. The statues of saints in nooks below each sconce confirmed it. This was a Catholic church.
With a sigh, Sam slumped down into a pew midway down the aisle, directly before the altar. Behind the altar stood a large statue of Christ, and in a break from all the other Catholic churches he'd been in, the Savior did not appear upon the cross. Instead he stood, arms held down and out to his sides as if bestowing a blessing upon the congregation gathered before him.
Sam leaned forward, folding his arms across the back of the pew in front of him. He bowed his head into his arms and for a the first time in a very long time, just let himself succumb to the pain, frustration and fear that had been his torment for the past three years. What better place for him to show weakness than here on holy ground? The demons following him had been stopped at the door.
It was a long time before he could raise his head. When he did, he sat back, wiped his tear streaked face on his sleeve, and stared up at the statue.
"What am I supposed to do?" he whispered. "I don't know what to do."
There were no answers here. The statue remained still and silent. No divine presence made itself known. There was no God.
That's not what he'd told the crossroads demon.
I believe in God.
Sam couldn't remember when he'd last prayed. He hadn't been bullshitting Dean the time he claimed to pray every day. He had prayed every day, and when he could get away from Dean for a minute on a Sunday, he'd slip into a church service – any church service – just to make it official. Jessica had been raised a devout Catholic. They had gone to mass together on a regular basis.
How long had it been?
The answer was painfully obvious – a little over a year. It had been a year ago, when he'd turned away from Jake and gave thanks to God not only for giving him the strength not to kill the son-of-a-bitch, but for Dean's unexpected presence. He remembered the joy he'd felt when he'd heard Dean's voice. His brother was alive. Sam had survived the demon's test in more ways than one. He would be leaving that horrible place behind.
Sam's hands tightened around the rolled edge of the pew in front of him. He'd always insisted there had to be good if there was evil in the world. He'd always tried to convince Dean that just because you never had a personal encounter with something didn't mean it didn't exist. It was Dean who had come to believe there was something out there other than a demon with its own dark plans for humankind. Dean had seen God's justice – or claimed to have seen it anyway.
Many religions saw demons not only as the souls of damned humans, but as fallen angels. If this was true, how could anyone doubt the existence of good? Surely not all of them had fallen prey to sin. And if angels could fall, was it possible for demons to be redeemed? Could Sam be saved?
Sam realized it wasn't his strength or his self control that had been faltering over the past year; it was his faith. God had left him to die at Jake's hand, and that's where all the trouble started. Sam had not been able to forgive Him for that.
Maybe it was time he did.
He rose, and made his way over to the altar where the votive holders were lined up in rows upon a wrought-iron rack. Sam selected a candle that had not yet been lit. Pulling a lighter from his pocket he set the wick aflame and replaced the candle among its brethren.
I might be beyond saving, but my family isn't. The world isn't. I have to save my brother. What happens afterward...I have to trust in you not to let the worst come to pass.
He remained there, staring into the flickering flames, shuddering at the dream-memories of a brief time spent among them in Hell. Dean was there now, enduring never ending torment. There was no way Sam could leave him there. No way.
As he turned to leave, Sam flinched as something fell from above; a blur streaking just past his shoulder. He heard the clatter when the object hit the wooden floor. He heard it roll to a stop somewhere near his feet and paused to crouch down and investigate. The object lay just before the toe of one boot; metallic and ovoid in shape. Sam pinched it between thumb and forefinger and stood up to look at it in the light of the candles.
It was an unspent bullet. Specifically it was a .45 caliber bullet, made of silver, with the number thirteen inscribed on one side. Sam had seen three others like it before, numbers ten, eleven and twelve.
His brows creased. "It can't be..."
Sam closed his fist around the bullet and hurried from the church, paying no attention to whether or not there was any traffic on the road as he crossed back to the Impala. He immediately unlocked the trunk and started to dig around for the specific weapon he sought. He found it tucked away in its wooden box, wrapped in a piece of black silk. They hadn't had it out for a year. They had other, modern weapons they could use with more efficiency. This gun's usefulness had become obsolete with the spending of its last specialized bullet.
That last bullet had been made of silver, and inscribed with the number twelve.
His hands shook as he popped out the cylinder.
The bullet slid into the cylinder with ease. Sam snapped it back together and felt the whole gun radiate with a barely perceptible warmth. There was no longer any doubt. This was the thirteenth bullet Samuel Colt had made for his special gun.
As Sam realized the portent of his find he felt his heart quicken its pace. Slowly closing the trunk once more, he pocketed the gun and turned to look at the church standing there across the road. He had been inside longer than he'd thought. Dawn was slowly breaking along the horizon. The skies were growing lighter and thus, the church became more visible.
Sam saw a statue he'd missed before, standing beside the sign bearing the name of the church. She seemed to be looking right at him, fixing him with her benevolent gaze, a beautifully rendered statue of Saint Mary. He'd found his answers in a small chapel in the middle of nowhere, a chapel named Saint Mary's.
"Thank you," he murmured, and climbed into the car.
Dawn was breaking by the time he reached Bobby's place. Bobby sat where Sam had left him, looking drawn and tired. It had been, the older man said quietly, a rough night for Dean. Sam hurried to the tiny ground-level bedroom where they'd put his brother. Dean was conscious, his eyes open and staring up at the ceiling, his breath came in heaving gasps. Fresh blood stained the sheets beneath his arms, dripping down from his wrists. His hands were slack, with blood slicked palms. He'd made deep, crescent shaped cuts in his palms where he'd dug in his nails. The wrists, the palms...it reminded Sam of stigmata.
Sam pulled the Colt out of his pocket and handed it to Bobby before shedding his jacket and sitting down on the chair beside Dean's bed.
"I can see that." Sam heard a click, and surprise in Bobby's voice. "It's loaded! But I thought..."
"I found another one," Sam replied softly. He turned to look at his friend. "Don't ask how, don't ask where. I can't explain it."
Bobby correctly interpreted the set look to Sam's expression. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to save my brother, and you're going to save the world." Nodding toward the Colt, Sam continued. "As soon as you see Dean is safe, shoot me."
Their eyes locked.
Bobby nodded. "I won't."
Sam smiled wryly, "And don't let him do anything stupid again, okay?"
"That'll be the hard part," Bobby joked quietly. His expression, however, was solemn. He stopped short of saying good-bye.
It was easier for Sam that way. He turned back to the bed, and placed a hand on Dean's chest. Beneath it he could feel the rapid fluttering of his heart. Fear born adrenaline made it beat fast, almost too fast. Sam wondered how long it would be that the demons could keep the connection between Dean's spirit and his physical body intact. Long enough to let Sam in to save him? If Dean's body died, that small portal would close. Sam risked both of them being trapped in Hell.
The difference? Sam could come and go as he pleased. He wouldn't remain there for long, but coming back as a disembodied whatever-the-hell he was, would make it a lot harder for Bobby to kill him.
He closed his eyes, turning his attention inward. He was well aware of the power hidden inside him. He knew where it was, how to keep it contained. Now his motive was not to strengthen his hold over it as he had done before, but to explore it. Releasing it all would defeat his purpose. There were specific abilities he needed. Those he would summon, and only those if he could help it.
It wasn't long before he found what he sought. Eva had described it as flipping a switch. The allusion held true. Sam flipped a few switches and felt his body shudder.
He opened his eyes and invoked Sight. The world around him shifted into a kaleidoscope of color and movement. He could see the aura encircling both Bobby and Dean. Bobby's spoke of nervous tension and fear, radiating light in shades of brown and green. Dean's was aflame, and pulsed back and forth between the brightest red and darkest black.
Sam took his vision inside Dean's mind. There were no thoughts there, only pain. Sam could easily find the thread tying Dean spirit to his body. It was stretched thin, near the breaking point. He concentrated on this, and only this, sending his senses speeding down along its length. It twisted and turned through utter darkness. Sam got the sensation of being watched. He picked up the random burst of pain, the occasional flicker of thought, of memory.
"Sammy. Sammy, please don't go. We're a family. We have to stick together..."
He stood at the bus stop, dufflebag thrown over his shoulder. It contained all his worldly possessions, and those were few. He had no idea what he would do once he arrived in Palo Alto. He had a scholarship for tuition, but he had not signed up for a dorm room, and he had no money for conventional housing.
Dean staggered up to him, clutching his side. He'd run all the way from home to catch Sam before the bus arrived. He couldn't breathe, and pressed the envelope he held into Sam's hand without a word.
"What's this?" Sam opened the envelope and peered inside. His eyes widened. "Dean, there has to be over a thousand dollars in here!"
His brother nodded. "Nearly four," he panted, swallowing heavily. "Take it."
Sam was suspicious. "Where did you get it?"
"Started my own racket."
Dean frowned. "Nah, don't go giving me the disapproval face, Sammy. The only people who got robbed are the credit card companies, and they deserve to get ripped off if they make it so easy to commit fraud." When Sam hesitated again he took a hand and wrapped it around Sam's, crushing the envelope into Sam's palm. "Take! It! Sammy, please. You'll need it."
Sam tucked the envelope away in his pocket. His voice was thick with emotion as he'd embraced his brother. "Thanks."
A flash of light obscured the vision, bringing with it bits and pieces of other memories, all flashing by at the speed of light.
"He wants us to take up where he left off, saving people, hunting things..."
"Do you really hate me that much?"
"Where's our dad, bitch!"
"So tell me, what could you possibly say to make that all right?"
"I'm going to take care of you. I'm going to get you patched up and you'll be good as new. Sam? SAM!"
The light flared brighter, blinding him. He neither saw, nor heard anything else. Seconds later he felt himself falling, and his body struck something hard and unyielding that abruptly stopped his momentum. He lay on his back, gasping for the breath that had been knocked out of his lungs, squinting upward as his eyes slowly adjusted to the light above him.
All he could see at first was the color blue. It stretched out above him in a sun-filled, cloudless, sky. Raising his head he saw tall, golden stalks of wheat rustling in a cool, gentle breeze. Puzzled, Sam levered himself up to his elbows, and from there, rose to his feet.
He stood in the middle of a massive field of wheat stretching out for miles on all sides. The plants whispered as the wind caught them again, but that was the only sound Sam could hear. There were no automobile sounds, no birds, no insects. It was this silence that made him believe he had found the right place. Invoking Sight again confirmed it. He could see the thread he'd been following cutting a path through the tall stalks of grain.
Sam brushed himself off and began to follow it.
This was not the Hell Meg had shown him, nor what he'd seen for himself. He didn't know why this was but had the sickening feeling he would find out soon enough. For the present he had no choice but to plod along through the wheat, following the path he hoped would lead him to his brother. As he walked he also realized he was very much alone. That too was unusual. At one point he stopped and shouted Dean's name.
The shout was swallowed up by the sky. Sam heard nothing in response.
He kept walking, staying alert to his surroundings, searching for any signs of impending attack. For what seemed like hours (his watch had stopped working) he walked, always feeling as if he weren't making any progress. The view remained exactly the same all around. More shouting brought more silence. Despair began to rise. Where was Dean?
The question was answered just over a small rise, where Sam could make out something tall and dark standing upright from the golden wheat. His path led straight to it. Immediately he broke into a run.
As he drew closer, Sam's pace faltered. His run dropped down to a jog, and from there a fast walk, until finally he stopped. If he had doubted this was Hell before, he didn't now.
She was mocking him.
The dark object Sam had seen from afar was revealed to be a wooden cross, set up in the field upside down so that the crossbeam was at the bottom. On it Dean had been crucified, his feet pinned to the crossbeam with thick iron nails driven through each ankle. Stretched out far above his head, his hands had been bound to the top of the stake by several loops of barbed wire wrapped around the pole and his arms from wrists to elbows. The wire had been pulled tight so that the barbs dug deep into skin and flesh. Blood ran down his arms. More blood flowed down from deep cuts across his bare chest , staining the only clothing he still wore – a pair of nearly shredded jeans.
Sam shook of his momentary shock and went to him. "Dean?"
Dean raised his head. His face was as bruised and bloody as the rest of him. There were burns there too, blistering the skin over his right cheek bone. There were burns on his body, blackened and ugly beneath the blood from his other wounds.
His eyes slowly focused on Sam and he let out a fearful whimper. Tears filled his eyes. His cracked and bleeding lips moved. Sam could barely hear him.
"Don't hurt me any more. Please. Please, Sammy. Don't hurt me."
Sam took a step forward, his intent to get a closer look at the wire binding Dean's hands. He stopped when his brother tried to jerk away from him with a cry.
"Dean, it's me. It's all right. I'm going to get you down, okay. I'm taking you back."
He was appalled when Dean began sobbing like a child. Sam could barely make out what he was saying. When comprehension finally dawned he realized Dean was begging Sam not to take him back there.
Sam tried again, attempting to explain that he would be taking Dean home.
His own voice interrupted him. "I wondered how long it would be before you showed up."
Turning, Sam saw a vision of himself standing there behind him. It was almost like looking in a mirror save for the fact his doppleganger carried what looked to be an electric cattle prod.
Sam struggled for something to say. In the meantime his twin took two strides past him and jabbed the cattle prod into Dean's chest. The resulting scream made Sam's heart ache, the scent of burning flesh made him feel ill. Dean twisted, arching his back convulsively as the electricity pumped through his body. The abuse did not stop until Sam himself went forward and wrested the weapon out of the other Sam's hand.
He heard his own laughter. He watched as his face morphed into another, and the laughter rose in pitch to that of woman.
The crossroad demon smiled. She shifted her shape again, this time becoming Jessica. Sam moved away from her, throwing the cattle prod away into the field.
"In my territory I can look like whoever I please," she said, and morphed into Dean. "And I can make this look like anywhere I please."
Sam felt a rush of vertigo as the sunny wheat field vanished. The cool breeze disappeared with a blast of hot air and the stench of sulfur. There was another smell too, one with which Sam was regrettably familiar. It was the scent of burning flesh and charred bone. He'd smelled it many times in the course of burning human remains to vanquish spirits.
He forced his stinging eyes open to see a vision of Hell more like what Meg had shown him. They stood in a pit of stone where broiling hot vapor poured out from cracks and fissures in the rock surfaces around them. At regular intervals along the walls were huge openings filled with fire much like old coal burning furnaces. Two huge beings, dark and only roughly human-shaped, shoveled fuel into the fire. Here, however, the fuel was not coal.
Bodies lay writhing all over the floor around the stokers. Some appeared whole and alive. Others were in various stages of decay, all were screaming and moaning in terror as they were fed to the flames. As Sam watched one of the demonic stokers bent and plucked a single body out from among the others. He hung limp in the demon's grasp, head lolling toward his chest, but Sam knew who it was.
Dean raised his head, eyes narrowing as he tried to see through the smoke and burning vapor filling the space. His voice was barely a whisper but Sam heard it all the same. "Sammy?"
"No!" Sam vaulted forward as the stoker shoved Dean backward into the flames.
Sam struggled toward the furnace opening, wading through tortured, mutated things that clung to his legs with desperate, claw-like hands. Inside the furnace he could see movement, and was horrified to discover those who had been thrown in alive were still alive. Their skin burst and burned away as their roasting flesh swelled inside it. Fat sizzled in the heat while limbs were pulled askew by tendons tightening as they burned. None of them lost consciousness, none of them stopped screaming.
Dean's voice was among them.
Sam turned away, choking on a sob. He heard Jessica speak in a whispering voice near his ear.
"There's no death here. Only pain."
There was an abrupt silence. Sam opened his eyes upon the wheat field again. Before him the crucifix still stood in place, the wood soaking up Dean's blood as it dripped down from his hands to his feet. All around the base of the structure were was a glistening pool of blood. Sam could see himself reflected on its crimson surface. His eyes burned yellow. Frightened, his resolve crumbled.
A drop of blood fell and shattered the mirrored surface, obliterating the reflection. Sam looked up at his brother just as the demon moved in once again, this time to open Dean's abdomen with one slash of a wickedly sharp dagger. Sam felt bile rise in his throat.
No. There was no turning back now.
"Tell me my future," the demon mocked, laughing. "Come on, Sammy. What do his guts say to you?"
His shout silenced her, but not Dean, who moaned and sagged heavily upon the cross. Blood and entrails spilled from the new wound, a wound that had gone so deep it nearly severed his spine, nearly cut him in half. Only the barbed wire held him upright. It sliced deeper into Dean's arms as his full weight pulled against it, shredding the skin and exposing bone. All Sam could see were the whites of his brother's eyes. A quick check revealed that the thread binding Dean to his physical body had grown considerably weaker.
Sam spoke again in the tone of command. "Let him go."
The demon took on the appearance of a dark haired woman, someone Sam did not recognize. She bowed low, her expression still mocking. She had no choice but to do as he said. It didn't matter. This was what they wanted him to do anyway.
"As you wish, master," she purred, and snapped her fingers.
Again Sam was swept up with a sense of vertigo, and again the scenery changed. This place he recognized. They stood at the crossroads, just he and Dean. The demon was gone. Dean's wounds were healed. He stood looking at Sam with a pained expression.
"I couldn't leave you here."
Dean turned his head, nodding toward a place at his left. "You may have to, Sam. The door's closing."
Sam followed his gaze toward a place in the woods nearby. There the fabric of this reality seemed to ripple and tear, revealing a gap through which Sam could see another place and time. He saw himself slumped on the floor, his head resting on the edge of Dean's bed, his hand outstretched toward his brother's chest. His eyes were closed. He was barely breathing.
Upon the bed lay Dean, bound as he'd been when Sam left him, but for the first time in nearly two weeks he seemed to be sleeping peacefully. A closer look revealed the truth. Dean's body had not survived. He was dead.
They might not get back. The tie between Dean's body and soul had been severed, and the portal was closing fast.
"Go, Sam," Dean insisted. "Don't do this. What you've done already is bad enough."
"I'm not going without you." The wind picked up, blowing Sam's hair into his eyes. Angrily he pushed it away as he grabbed his brother's arm. "Dean..."
Dean jerked away from Sam's grasp. "No!"
The air grew warmer. The scent of sulfur surrounded them. Heat waves rose up from the pavement beneath their feet. They began to hear the screams of the damned, the cries slowly increasing in volume. Sam saw the color drain from Dean's face as he heard the sound, but he remained resolute. He'd return to the fire, give himself back over to the pain and torment, if it meant Sam could be saved.
"I'm supposed to save you, Sammy!" Dean shouted. "Let me do my job!"
"I'm not your fucking JOB!" Sam screamed back. "I can take care of myself!"
"I'm not worth what you'll be sacrificing, Sam. No!"
"Dean!" The ground beneath their feet shook. Nearby a small stand of trees burst into flame. "You have to trust me! You have to have faith. Come back with me, please!"
The portal was fading. Sam could barely see through it to the other side. The darkness beyond it became visible as the opening grew smaller and the view it held grew fainter. They would be trapped if they didn't go now.
Sam grabbed his brother by the collar and pulled him in close, glaring into Dean's eyes. "This time I'm not asking."
He tipped his chin upward, and Dean flew from his hands, propelled by a burst of telekinesis. Sam waited until he knew his brother had made it through before taking a running dive toward the portal himself. It was not nearly as easy as he thought it would be. Unseen forces tugged at his limbs. Wind tugged at his body. He hit the ground just inches from his destination.
They weren't going to let him leave.
Sam struggled to his feet, calling one more time on his abilities. He felt the power rush through him, and and raised his hands to ward away those who were trying to hold him back. They fell away from him, their cries joining those of the men and women burning in the fiery furnaces. With one last lunge, Sam punched through the portal just as it sealed itself shut.
He drew a deep breath and raised his head from his arms. Dean's eyes were open, staring at Sam in confusion. Sam saw his lips move, whispering his name in the form of a question.
And Sam realized nothing had changed. He could still sense the power inside him, but he still controlled it. It did not control him as he'd expected it would. His faith had not been misplaced.
God, thank you. Thank you.
Relief did not last long. Sam whipped his head around around at the sound of a gun cocking. It was the Colt. He found himself looking down the gun's long barrel. At the other end was Bobby, tears in his eyes and a grim look of determination on his face.
"Bobby, no! Wait!"
Sam aborted his turn, angling his body instead into a dive for cover behind a bookshelf. He heard the roar of the gun discharging and knew he would be too slow.
The bullet punched through his chest just below his right collar bone. Pain flared up inside him, marking the projectile's course through his body, and addling his senses. He crashed to the floor and lay there struggling to catch his breath. He couldn't get air, only blood. It choked him, made him cough violently.
"Sam!" Dean's voice was hoarse, but also frantic and angry. "Dammit Bobby! What did you do? Untie me! Christ! Sam? SAM!"
Sam pushed himself up on his hands and knees, blood pouring from his mouth. Searing pain suddenly drove into his skull, and he fell to the floor again, clutching his head in his hands. Had he been able to he would have been screaming. He felt as if he were on fire, but instead of being hot, the fire was bitterly cold and burned from the inside out.
He heard Dean's voice again, this time from what seemed to be a long way away. He felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his face. "Hang on, Sammy. I'm not losing you again, not now. You hear me? Sam!"
An attempt to nod only brought with it more pain.
What's happening to me? What now?
Another voice spoke to him then, a soft, gentle voice he thought he recognized. It provided an answer to his question.
Sam opened his eyes. She stood just beyond Dean's shoulder, her fingers lightly brushing his brother's hair as if soothing him as well. When she saw Sam looking at her she smiled. All around her an aura of brilliant white light swelled and fluttered like wings...and then she was gone.
It was the sweet and sour scent of ketchup that brought him around. After three years of traveling with his brother, Sam had come to despise the smell of ketchup. If you were what you ate, Dean would have turned into a giant bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup years ago. He consumed gallons of the stuff.
Sam cracked his eyes open to see his brother enthroned in a chair at the foot of the bed, his booted feet propped up on the bed, and his gaze turned up toward a television bolted to the wall. One hand held a cardboard "dish" full of onion rings slathered in ketchup. The other hand was busy stuffing said onion rings into his mouth.
A brief debate as to whether or not Sam wanted to end his comfortable sojourn into unconsciousness went on inside his head for a minute or two. Ultimately he decided he'd lain around enough and he painfully reached for the bed control. The whirring of the bed's motor as Sam raised himself into a sitting position attracted Dean's attention.
"Hey," he said, swallowing his last bite. "Just in time. There's a good movie coming on. Plan Nine from Outer Space."
Dean obviously needed to reevaluate his definition of good movie.
"You okay?" Sam asked.
There was a brief hesitation. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"Well, since you didn't..."
Sam shrugged and instantly regretted it. "Ow," he hissed.
"I'm okay. Just...sore. What happened?"
"Bobby shot you."
"I know that. What happened after?"
Dean finished chewing another onion ring. "Called 911. Told them it was an accident. Doctors patched you up." He regarded Sam with a solemn expression and then put down his food, licking ketchup off his fingers. "They said if you'd been shot with a modern weapon you'd be dead, or paralyzed. It's still in there, Sammy."
"What is still in where?" Sam knit his brows. "I'm not following."
"The bullet. It's still in you."
Sam blinked. "What? Where? Why didn't they get it out?"
"Safer not to. It's too close to your spinal cord. They go in and dig it out, and you're talking permanent disability."
"Great." With a sigh, Sam idly scratched at the bandaging on his chest. Just a few minutes back in the real world and he was ready to get moving. He watched Dean resume eating. "You never answered my question."
Dean spoke around a mouthful. "What question?"
"Are you okay?"
"Sure." Indicating his meal, Dean grinned. "These are fantastic. There's this little Mom and Pop restaurant down the street..."
"Dean. I'm serious."
There was a pause before Dean lowered his eyes. "I'm okay, Sammy," he murmured.
Sam had no choice but to take him at his word, but in that brief instant before Dean turned away, Sam had seen the look in his eyes. Sam knew he remembered everything that happened over the course of the past week and a half. He desperately wanted Dean to have forgotten, but apparently he hadn't.
Memories of his own brief stay in Hell came to Sam in nightmares, but unlike Dean, Sam had died first.
The crossroads demon had called it "Living Hell," and Sam wondered if his brother would ever truly be free of it. The memories would certainly stay with him for the rest of his life, memories of torture and pain. If Sam had come back scarred, Dean returned bearing raw, open wounds.
Sam was afraid those wounds would never heal.
"I should have done something sooner," he said softly.
Dean didn't look at him, purposely avoiding eye contact. "It all worked out in the end."
"Yeah maybe. There's still the question whether or not I..."
Sam stopped abruptly.
Before Jessica died, after the first of many nightmares predicting her death, Sam had felt something – wrong – inside him. That sense had grown stronger with each passing day, until he realized he was developing more and more abilities, and those abilities were becoming harder and harder to control. When the demon had shown him the past, and told him of the blood he'd been given, Sam began equating it with lycanthropy, or vampirism. He was changing. He was a changeling – something no longer human, but not quite demon either.
For the past year, since his death and resurrection, he'd felt his power growing, straining against what little control he still held over it. He'd been monumentally surprised when he'd held on to that control after Dean's rescue.
Now, suddenly, it was all gone. His abilities were gone. The heaviness of his spirit, the weariness brought on from trying to keep the darkness at bay, had been lifted. He felt human again. He was himself again.
"Sam?" He realized his lengthy silence had alarmed his brother. Dean was definitely looking at him now, his expression anxious. "Sammy?"
"It's gone," Sam whispered. He turned his attention inward, searching...
No. He was wrong. The power was still there, just now inaccessible. Had it been there all his life then, only awakened by the demon? Is that why it had come for him in the first place?
There was something else too. He could feel the bullet in his back – not physically, but rather he could sense its presence. It had its own power. He had become something other than human. It should have killed him.
It hadn't killed him. It had cured him, or at the very least, slapped a band-aid over the problem.
He didn't know how to explain it any other way, nor did he even try. Nearly a month after he was released from the hospital he still hadn't told Dean everything. It wasn't as if they had time to do much talking either. Sam might not have been their prospective general anymore, but the demons that remained from the mass exodus from Hell still needed to be dealt with. The Winchesters and other Hunters were busy nearly twenty-four-seven.
Dean wasn't asking many questions either. He tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, but often his lightheartedness rang false. Eventually he grew subdued, quiet even, and completely focused upon the job they had to do. He refused to discuss the nightmares that plagued his sleep. Sam started to pretend he didn't know about them, but it was hard to ignore the moaning and sobbing he sometimes heard at night. Dean brought up what was on his mind only once, and he'd been completely trashed at the time.
"It changes 'em," he said. "They get bitter and angry and forget everything but the pain. Can't feel sorry for 'em though. They put themselves there – for the most part. But ya can't tell the difference between the really bad ones and the ones who just got screwed, so ya blast all of 'em."
Demons, Sam realized later. Dean had been talking about demons; specifically those who were once spirits of the damned, souls cast down into the pit for their sins. They had started out as humans - demons made, not born. Had he stayed in Hell, Dean himself might have one day come back as a creature like Meg.
There was an old saying that said what didn't kill you made you stronger. Sam certainly felt stronger. As long as he carried bullet number 13 around in his back, his troubles were few. Dean might not have come out of his ordeal stronger, but as time passed, he seemed to grow wiser. He was no longer the wise-ass John Winchester wannabe he'd been in the past, but his own person with his own plans for the future.
It was a future, and it did not include Hunting.
Sam gazed out the Impala's window and tried to picture Dean bouncing a baby on his knee - and failed miserably – but the thought brought a smile to his face. The smile faded, however, when he caught sight of a familiar little building along the side of the road.
"Dean! Stop the car."
"Stop the car!"
Grumbling, Dean pulled the Chevy off onto the berm. "This better be good, Sam. We're already late. Bobby will be pissed."
"Dude, Bobby owes me one. He can wait." Sam turned and held out a hand. "Give me that money."
That money was a large bank-roll Dean had won playing poker in a little hole-in-the wall casino where many winning players often wound up getting shot by sore losers. Needless to say they had left Vegas in a hurry, and the money had been the subject of heated debate ever since. Dean wanted to blow it on something fun because (and Sam actually found this hard to deny) they certainly deserved it. Sam's more practical side pointed out the fact that the Impala needed new tires and that their cache of weapons required some serious upkeep. He couldn't say just how many guns they lost or had destroyed in the course of a year's work. Not to mention the knives, swords, and other miscellaneous sharp and pointy objects they used on a daily basis. The bill could go pretty high very quickly when shopping for weapons. Sam would have liked to buy real EMF meters.
"What?! Are you joking?"
"No. Hand it over."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Pay a debt."
"With all of it?" Dean clapped a hand protectively over his heart. The money was kept secure in a zipped up inside pocket of his coat. "Four thousand dollars? Sammy!"
"All of it, and if you had more, all of that too." Sam thrust out his hand. "Come on Whoopi, give it to me."
"You've lost your mind." Dean stared at him with mouth agape, unused to Sam being the one to make pop-culture references. After a long pause, however, he drew his brows together. "You're serious."
"I'll explain later. Just give me the money."
With marked reluctance, Dean reached into his pocket and withdrew the envelope. Sam took it, and tucked it into his own coat pocket as he got out of the car. "Stay here," he ordered, and was surprised when his brother did as he said.
In the light of afternoon, the little chapel looked rather shabby. The front lawn was tangled with weeds. The clapboards needed painting. The statue of Mary that had seemed to stare at Sam so poignantly was chipped and battered, her once vibrant paint faded. Sam worried his lip with his teeth as he pushed at the doors. They were unlocked and opened creakily on worn hinges. He slipped inside, inhaling the warm scents of dust and incense he had smelled before.
He made his way up to the altar where he paused to nod respectfully at the sculpture of Christ, and to light a candle before taking a seat in the front row of pews. The prayer was brief, but the sentiment heartfelt.
The creak of the door, and footsteps on the wooden floor made him raise his head and turn around. He expected Dean, but it wasn't. It was an elderly priest who smiled and nodded at Sam as he walked down the aisle. The old man was bent with age, and used a walker. Sam rose from his seat and met him halfway.
"Father McKenzie." The old fellow shook Sam's hand. "Can I help you with something?"
"Actually, Father, you can."
When Sam returned to the car, Dean wordlessly put it in drive and pulled away from the church. "You gave my money to that old guy didn't you?" he asked after a few miles.
"Father McKenzie? Yes. I did."
"You wanna tell me why?"
"Because I figure he's as close to God as I'm gonna get for a while."
"Let's hope," Dean muttered, and added, "You wanna elaborate on that just a little bit, Sammy? 'cause you're not psychic anymore and I never was."
"My debt was to God," Sam replied bluntly.
Dean was quiet for a moment, obviously reflecting on some of the things he himself probably owed to the big guy. He finally shot Sam a quizzical look, and said softly, "Anything in particular?"
Sam grinned. "Had to pay him back for a bullet."