A/N: I decided that this story was a little too rushed when I posted it and gave it a work-over. I didn't change the storyline, I just fleshed it out a little more, added some moments here and there that I thought were still missing. Personally I think it flows more smoothly now, but I'll let you be the judges of that ;-)

Summary: Sam did his best to save Dean from the deal with the crossroad demon. Dean knows he did. Sam was willing to give everything to keep Dean alive. But sometimes, the biggest sacrifice is letting go of someone you love.

Rating: T. Some language.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made with this.

Author's Notes: Specific spoilers for season 1 "Faith" and season 3 "Mystery Spot". For general spoilers, everything up to season 3 "Ghostfacers" is fair game, though I don't think much is spoiled despite the general storyline which started in "All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2".

This can be seen as a continuation of my other one-shot "Borrowed Time", but it can also stand alone. It doesn't really refer directly to "Borrowed Time" and you don't need to have read it to understand this. But it's kinda written in the same mindset.

Tear-jerker. You have been warned.

I don't know where this story came from, to be honest. I had the very last sentence in mind, and suddenly the rest of the story grew around that.

Enjoy!

No Regrets

Sam was driving the Impala down the interstate as if the hordes of hell were personally chasing them. Ironically, that wasn't so far from the truth, though Dean failed to see the humor in that thought. On any other day he might have, but today he just wasn't in the mood for funny little wordplays. Besides, it was difficult enough to think straight what with the way his brother was gunning the engine and skidding the car along the road.

It was like a rollercoaster ride, only without the safety of the tracks beneath them. But Dean didn't say anything about the speed his brother was driving at. About the breakneck way his brother was driving his car – his prized possession. He had tried to talk Sam into slowing down earlier, and the result had not been pretty. Sam normally didn't have a short fuse of a foul mouth, but today he seemed to have decided to throw all that out the window and channel his darker side. So Dean kept his mouth shut and his eyes on the road, hands clenched in the leather of the seat beneath him, hoping with every turn which Sam took at too high a speed that his little brother knew what he was doing.

Because honestly, Dean wasn't so sure that Sam knew what he was doing.

There definitely was no real plan to what Sam had been doing over the past couple of days. They had run out of plans a while ago. Right now, what was still driving Sam on was sheer desperation and the refusal to give up. Which was exactly the reason why Sam was the one sitting behind the wheel of the Impala right now. Not only because he was the only one who actually knew where they were going, but also because quite obviously they needed to get to their destination faster than Dean would ever dare to drive the car. Sam hadn't even asked to drive, he had simply snatched the keys right out of Dean's hand and had gotten in on the driver's side of the car. Wordlessly. Though the unspoken message behind the action had been clear – get in the car or stay here.

And so they had driven, for nearly the entire day now. They hadn't spoken since the last town they had passed through, where Dean had dared to ask for a coffee break. Which in Dean's world was a perfectly normal request after hours of being stuck in the car without a break. A coffee and maybe even a bathroom break. Ten minutes, fifteen tops. Definitely not the end of the world.

But Sam's answer to that request had been anything but positive. Or verbal, come to think of it. He had blindly fished a thermos with coffee from this morning from the backseat and had tossed it Dean's way. Wordlessly.

Looking at his brother's stony face, Dean hadn't even dared to ask whether he was meant to drink the lukewarm coffee in the thermos, or whether his brother intended for him to use the thermos instead of giving him a bathroom break.

That had been half an hour ago now, and slowly Dean was getting pissed. Royally pissed.

He could understand that his brother was clinging to a last desperate straw with whatever he was about to do now, but Dean would be damned before he spent his last day on earth in silence, drinking lukewarm coffee and maybe even doing that demon a favor by running themselves off the road.

"Where are we going, Sam?"

He had asked that question before. More than once. The response had always been the same.

"Somewhere safe."

Dean had to suppress a manic chuckle at that. Somewhere safe. Yeah, right. Because there were so many safe places for him right now, with a demon chasing after his soul. There were no safe places. Nowhere to run to, and nowhere to hide. Maybe it was about time Sam finally understood this.

"Sam, don't you think…"

"No!" Sam cast a sharp glance to the right before he looked back on the road again. "No Dean, I need to do this. We need to try this. We're nearly there now."

There was a finality to Sam's words which told Dean clearly that there was nothing he could say to make his brother stop the car now. Normally Dean wouldn't have backed down this easily, but normally Sam didn't look as if he was going to punch everybody who dared to contradict him in the face either. So Dean kept silent. Once they had arrived at their destination, wherever the hell that was, he'd hopefully figure out a way to deal with this.

It had been endearing actually, how Sam hadn't given up on Dean over the past days. Of course he had grown more and more desperate the closer Dean's deadline had come, but he hadn't given his brother up. Dean hadn't encouraged him, but he hadn't thwarted his brothers attempts to save his soul either. After all, if anybody could find the loophole in a contract with a demon, it was probably Sam. Dean would be stupid to try and stop him, for as long as Sam didn't do anything that the demon would consider them trying to break the contract. The demon couldn't have a reason to go after Sam, that was the only limit Dean set his brother's researches.

But all that didn't matter because Sam hadn't found a loophole.

He hadn't found a way to get Dean out of the deal.

There simply was no way to get Dean out of the deal.

Dean had been aware of that brutal fact for two weeks now, and actually Sam should be aware of it, too. Two weeks ago they had finally caught up with the demon. Or rather, the demon had allowed them to catch up with it. As it turned out, it had been following them around for a while now, always lurking at the edge of their vision without ever stepping out of the periphery and allowing them to detect it. Watching them. Making sure that neither Sam nor Dean were going to do anything stupid like trying to get Dean out of the deal.

It was just Dean's luck that the demon who held the contract to his soul was actually looking forward to collecting his pay. The demon was counting the days in anticipation, just like Sam and Dean were counting the days in dread.

The moment Dean had looked into the demon's eyes he had known that there was no way to get him out of this deal. And the only reason why both he and Sam survived that meeting with the demon was that it wasn't stupid enough to jeopardize the contract that would grant its price. The demon had the patience to wait just a few more days. And it seemed to be greatly enjoying the thought that they knew it was watching them the whole time.

Dean had understood it then, he had understood that he'd go to hell.

He had known it for a while already, but faced with that demon's glee he had fully understood.

Sam wasn't yet that far.

Sam didn't understand.

Sam still believed, he still had that unshakeable faith, and he still clung to the desperate hope that there was a way to create a miracle. It was ten in the evening on Dean's last day on earth, and still Sam believed in a miracle.

A few months ago, Dean had still imagined the last day of his life to look different. Back then when it all had still been a year away, and when the thought of a definite end to his life had still somehow seemed like a freeing thought, he had imagined it all differently. Dean had been convinced that a lot of booze and girls would be involved in that last day of his life, and he had never believed that he'd face his end sober and without music pounding in the background. Now it seemed he was going to face his death without beer, without girls and without music. But with Sam by his side.

Sam.

That was what it all came back to in the end.

Dean was going to die tonight, and Sam was going to be left behind to deal with the consequences. He was the one who was going to drop into that dark hole of being alone in this world, and there was not much Dean could do to help him deal with it. A year ago Dean had been where Sam was now, or where Sam would be in two hours time. And his way of dealing with it had been to fall apart completely at first, and then he had taken the Impala and had gone to sell his soul.

That definitely was no piece of advice he could pass on to his brother. Not that he had much to pass on in general.

There was only one definite advantage to knowing exactly when you were going to die. Dean had brought his affairs in order as much as he could. It wasn't easy if you lived a life off the grid, but he had done all he could. He had tried to use the little time left to teach Sam everything he knew about hunting, about surviving, about dealing with this life.

He had tried.

But Sam had been so full of damn hope that he hadn't been a willing recipient to his brother's lessons. He had listened to his brother's words for Dean's sake, but the expression in his eyes had told another story. Sam didn't believe that once the contract was up he was going to have to face a life without his brother.

Dean wished he could have as much faith as Sam did. He wished that just for once he could believe so strongly in something good that it was going to carry him through those dark times. But his life as a hunter had taken that away from him at an early age already.

Dean's faith wasn't strong enough to still believe in miracles.

Sam had too much faith to face reality.

The differences of their whole lives in a nutshell.

Another fifteen minutes passed in silent driving. Sam had slowed down somewhat and was maneuvering the Impala over a dirt road through the darkness. The road was bumpy, and each hole they hit sent a shiver down Dean's spine as he thought about what this was doing to the undercarriage of his baby. This car had been made for roads, not for some off-road cruising. He should have reinforced all his lessons about taking care of his car a little more, because obviously there were a lot of things Sam had missed the first time around. True enough, Dean had never explicitly mentioned not to drive the Impala over bumpy dirt roads at high speed, but he had thought that little piece of advice to be a given. Obviously, he should have said a lot of things far more explicitly.

Finally, Sam drove the car along a gravel road and stopped it in front of an old stone building. He got out of the car, reached for his bag on the back seat and slammed the door shut.

"Come on Dean. We need to get inside."

Dean slowly got out of the car and looked around.

"What the hell…"

They had parked in front of a church. It was an old stone building, obviously no longer in use but in good shape. They were a little way out of town, and in the small town they had passed through just a few minutes ago Dean had seen a newer church building on the main road. The clearing this church stood on was overgrown, but the building was still in perfect shape, with all the windows intact. It might no longer be used for services, with the community having moved on a few miles further south, but somebody obviously took care of the building nevertheless.

"Dean!"

Dean looked to find his brother approaching the church, flashlight in hand and his head darting from the left to the right as if he was expecting the demon to suddenly jump at them from behind a bush or one of the trees in the distance.

With a shake of his head, Dean picked up his own flashlight and followed Sam towards the church door.

"What are we doing here, Sam?"

Sam shook his head as he picked the lock of the front door with ease coming from year-long practice and opened it, ushering his brother inside.

As the door shut behind him, Dean let his flashlight roam through the interior of the church. It was a small room, just six rows of pews to the left and the right of the middle aisle, with candle holders at the end of each row and beside the stone altar in front of the pews. All the decorations had been taken from the church when it had been abandoned, only the wooden cross still hung on the wall behind the altar.

Dean looked around the room for a moment, then turned back towards his brother.

"What…"

But he stopped mid-sentence. Still holding his flashlight in his hand, Sam had pulled a pack of salt out of his duffle bag with the other and was drawing lines of salt in front of the church doors and the two small windows in the eastern wall.

And then Dean understood what his brother was about to do. Why he had picked this particular place. Hallowed ground. One door and two windows in an otherwise very sturdy building with stone walls that would withstand a lot before they gave. Easy to defend.

On any other occasion, Dean would have been proud of his brother. But now all he felt was a painful stab in his chest as he realized just how big his brother's desperation was.

"Sammy."

Dean flinched at the sound of his own breaking voice.

Sam packed away the salt and pulled a pack of candles from out his duffle bag, not looking up to meet his brother's eyes.

"Help me with those, would you?"

He took out some of the candles and tossed the pack to Dean who caught it more out of reflex than anything. Dean didn't want to start placing candles in the church, he wanted to talk to Sammy and tell him that this plan was ludicrous, but there was such a determined expression on his brother's face that Dean found himself sticking candles into candle holders and lighting them despite all his doubts.

Once that was done and the candles cast a flickering orange glow on the stone walls, Dean turned towards his brother again.

Sam was rummaging through his duffle bag, but he wasn't searching for anything. He was evading his brother's gaze, Dean could tell by just one look. Their father had taught them how to pack a bag. If there was anything John Winchester had taught his sons then it was that when it came to the crunch, you had to be prepared. You didn't have time to rummage around searching for something. You needed to be sharp. Ready. You needed to have everything within reach. If Sam was truly looking for something, he'd have long found it by now.

"Sammy."

Sam shook his head and stuffed his arm deeper into the duffle bag.

Dean chuckled despite the fact that he didn't feel like it. "What are you trying to do? Crawl in there?"

Sam sighed and tossed the duffle to the side, finally looking up to meet his brother's eyes.

"What?"

Dean sighed and sat down in one of the pews. "What are we doing here?"

"Keeping you safe." Even as he said it, Sam went over towards the window and checked the lines of salt, never minding that he had only placed them a few minutes ago.

Dean shook his head with a sad smile.

"Sam. You can't keep me safe. Not from this."

"I can."

The defiant little boy Sam had been all those years ago suddenly shone through again – chin jutted out, jaw set into a tight line, a slight pout on his lips.

Yes I can help you place the salt lines, I won't spill anything.

Yes I can go hunting with you, I'm old enough.

Yes I can take the first watch, I won't fall asleep.

"I can keep you safe Dean."

"No Sam."

"Yes I can!" Sam ran his hands through his hair in frustration, eyes cast to the dusty ground. "I have to."

Dean got up and went over towards his brother. "Sam, all this here," he gestured around the small church. "This won't work."

"Yes it will. It's hallowed ground Dean. Ancient hallowed ground. This place has never been desecrated since the first church has been built here. It's the most ancient sacred ground in the entire eastern United States. For as long as you're here, the demon cannot get to you."

"So what? I'm supposed to stay here from now on? I hate to rain on your parade dude, but as soon as I step outside that door, my soul is still free for the taking. And if there's one thing demons really don't appreciate, then it's people trying to screw with them. I can't hide here forever, Sammy."

Sam shook his head. "Only until I figure out a way to get you out of this deal."

"There is no way out of this deal, Sam!"

Dean wanted to grab Sam by the shoulders and shake him until he came to his senses. It was one thing to hope, even if realistically there was nothing to hope for, but this was taking it too far. Sam was making things even more difficult than they already were.

Sam drew breath to say something, but Dean cut him off with a shake of his head.

"No. I appreciate what you're trying to do, Sam. I really do. And I understand why you're trying to do this. But I've got less than two hours left and I don't want to spend them arguing with you."

Sam stared at his brother for a few long seconds, then he sank down in the nearest pew with a deep sigh. Deflated, but not yet ready to admit defeat.

"I can't just let this happen."

Dean sat down in another pew so that he was facing his brother and leaned his arms on his thighs. "But you have to. And I can imagine how hard this is for you. But this isn't the solution. Hiding here isn't the solution. We've had one year to come up with a way out of this deal and we found nothing."

"But we can buy some more time."

Dean shook his head. The desperate tone of his brother's voice with that fragment of hope that was still sounding along with it, tore at him painfully.

"We can't buy time by hiding away on sacred ground. How many provisions do you have in that duffle bag of yours? Enough for a couple of days? A week? And then what? We cannot leave Sammy. As soon as I step over the salt, the demon will take my soul. And if he doesn't get it, he'll think I'm trying to cheat my way out of this deal. Then he'll take your life as soon as you leave this church. There is no other way. I know how you feel…"

"You know crap about how I feel!" Sam jumped up from his seat and started to pace up and down the aisle. "You have no fucking clue what I feel like, so don't try to tell me that you do!"

"Oh no? I have no clue?"

Dean got up and stood right in front of Sam, their faces only inches apart. "I have no clue? I watched you die, Sammy. I had a front row seat when that bastard Jake rammed a knife into your back. I held you in my arms while you died, and I had your blood all over me, so don't tell me that I have no fucking clue about how you feel. I know damn well what you feel like, and I know how hard it is to accept that I'm going to die, but you'll have to."

Sam laughed mirthlessly. "Oh, like you accepted it when I died?"

"That was something different."

"How? How was it something different Dean, because I don't understand."
Dean sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair. His voice when he spoke was very low, but it echoed loudly in the small room.

"It's been my job to protect you. You got hurt, you frigging died, because I failed to protect you. I had to set it right, no matter the cost."

Sam shook his head. "You don't have to protect me anymore. I'm no longer five years old. And your soul is too high a price to pay for this."

Dean shook his head. "If that's what it takes to make sure you're alive it's not."

Sam was still shaking his head. "Dean, for the past twelve months I felt like I was talking against a brick wall whenever I tried to talk to you about this. So right now you're going to listen to me, all right? I can't accept this. I can't just accept that in less than two hours you're going to be dead and on your way to hell. I can't. I won't. I won't accept that you made this sacrifice because I was stupid enough to turn my back on an opponent. It's not fair, Dean. It's not fair that you forced this upon me."

"It was the only choice I had."

"It was the selfish choice."

Dean's head snapped up. "What?"

"You heard me, Dean."

Dean shook his head. "I sacrificed myself for you. I sold my soul for you, Sam. Tell me, in what screwed-up worldview is that a selfish decision?"

"It's selfish because I was dead. I died. Knife in the back, fatal injuries, the whole deal. No matter how stupid, it was my time to die. And because you're a stubborn idiot who couldn't stand it, you made a selfish choice. Rather than living without me like you were supposed to, you turn the whole world upside down and force me into the same position. In two hours you'll be dead, and I'll have to live with that for the rest of my life. If that isn't selfish, I don't know what else is."

Dean sighed. Sam just didn't get it. He was running out of ways to make his brother understand.

"Sam, listen to me. My whole life, I had one job and that was keeping you safe. My whole life revolved around keeping you safe."

"I'm no longer a kid, Dean. I'm sorry that Dad forced you to grow up far too early, that he forced this upon you, but I'm a big boy now. And even back when we were kids Dad would have never wanted you to give up your own life to save me."

"This isn't about Dad! This…gosh Sam, it's so not about Dad, or what he told me when we were kids. It's about the fact that you're my little brother, and if anybody in this screwed-up excuse for a family has the chance of ever leading a normal life, it's you. You didn't chose this life, and you didn't earn this life. You're a good hunter, a great hunter, but you could be so much more. You've earned to be happy, and if there's a chance in hell that you'll get that happy life with the doting wife and the 2.6 children that you've earned, then I'm going to do whatever it takes to make sure that you take that chance."

Sam was shaking his head, staring at Dean with an expression of utter disbelief on his face.

"Why do you think that your life is worth so much less than anybody else's, Dean? Why do you think that you haven't earned anything, that you haven't earned others to sacrifice something for you? You're not worth less than I am."

Dean shook his head, but Sam cut him off before he could say anything.

"No, it's true. You've spent years sacrificing your life for the sake of others and you're too blind to see that you're so much more than a mere tool to fight evil? Maybe not to the people who call you when a poltergeist is turning their house upside down, but to me, Dean. You're my brother. My brother. The only family I have left, and the one person in this world that I'd do anything for. You put your life on the line for me every time we go out on a hunt and yet you can't understand that I would do the same for you, without thinking? I'm not going to let you go out of this world thinking like that, all right? Back when you electrocuted yourself and that doctor told me you were dying, don't you think that I was willing to do anything to stop that? Don't you think that if I had thought about calling a crossroad demon at that moment, I'd have done it without second thoughts?"

Dean shrugged. "Yeah, so you found a way to save me without selling your soul. Congratulations."

Sam shook his head, an exasperated expression on his face.

"But that's exactly my point. Finding that faith healer was pure luck. It was a desperate attempt, but it was something I was willing to give a shot to save you. And honestly? I don't know if I'd have acted any differently even if I had known that this young man had to die to save you."

"Sam, don't say that."

"But it's the truth. Sam Winchester the hunter wanted to stop the reaper, wanted to end the spell and save people. But I'm not just a hunter. As a brother, on a purely selfish level I don't care about that guy who had to die so that you could live. Because you lived. As cruel as it sounds, I don't care about that guy. Not as much as I care about you. Not nearly as much as I care about you. Is it so hard for you to understand that you're the most important person in my life, and that I want you to stay alive?"

Dean shook his head. "No. But you selfishly don't care whether that guy had to die, yet at the same time you rip me a new one for selfishly deciding that I didn't want you to die? I don't have my dictionary with me, but I'm pretty sure that's exactly the definition you'll find there right next to the word hypocrisy."

Sam sighed and buried his face in his hands. "I just don't want you to die, Dean. I don't want to be left behind after you're gone. I don't want you to die for me."

"Sammy, the dye is cast, no pun intended. It's not as if we could still change anything about this. And we tried. God knows we tried."

Sam shook his head. "No. I tried. You gave yourself up."

Dean smiled. "I trust you, Sam. I know that if there was any way to stop this, you'd find it. But you have to understand that I couldn't get my hopes up. It's not as if I blindly ran into this, all right? I was in my right mind when I called the crossroad demon. True, I thought that I'd be given ten years, but that's what happens when you hunt down these things and blast them straight back to hell – you don't get the usual discount. I knew that. The moment I closed the deal I knew that I had one year left. And I accepted that. It was one year for me and a whole lifetime for you. All in all, compared to the alternative, it was a fair deal. And if we had found any way out of this, I'd have gladly grabbed it the instant we saw it. But I couldn't hope for that to happen, because, let's face it, it wasn't very likely that it was going to happen in the first place. I don't want to die, and I really, really don't want to go to hell. But now my time is up and that's what's going to happen. At least let me do this with my head held high, Sammy. I don't want to prolong things by hiding in here like a coward."

Sam shook his head silently, staring at his brother as if Dean had lost his mind. "I can't lose you, Dean."

Dean smiled. "You have to. You could have lost me hundreds of times over the past years, without any warning. I appreciate everything you've done to save me, I really do, but now you just have to accept this and let me go. I did this to save you, and I'd do it again. In a heartbeat. Just let me go with the feeling that I did the right thing. Can you do that?"

Sam swallowed hard, not meeting Dean's eyes. Dean could clearly see the tears in his brother's eyes and he knew that Sam was still far away from accepting that this was the end of it. It was hard to let go of hope, Dean knew. Until this moment, they had always somehow managed to get out of all the tight spots they had ever been in. No matter how impossible it had seemed. Sam still had a lot to learn, and he was about to receive the hardest lesson in his life so far.

Chewing hard on his lower lip, Sam shook his head.

"I…do you know how hard this is? Do you know what you're asking of me?"

Dean nodded. "Yes, I do. I know that I'm asking a damned lot of you, but I also know that you're strong enough to do this. I've been where you are now a year ago, and I wasn't strong enough. I couldn't do this. But Sam, you're so much stronger than I am. You're strong enough to get through this and live your life. But I need to know that you're going to do it. You have to promise me, Sammy. You have to promise me that you're going to live, and not just exist all bent on revenge. I want you to live and be happy, whatever that means for you. Hunting, Law School – whatever you're going to do, do it because you want it to be your life. Promise me that, Sammy."

Sam was still biting his lip, so hard that Dean was worried that he was going to draw blood if he didn't stop soon. Dean knew that Sam wanted to brush the matter aside, that he didn't want to think about what was going to happen. But at this moment Dean needed to hear Sam make that promise. He really needed to hear him say it.

"Promise me, Sammy."

"I can't Dean. Do you even know…I can't. I don't even want to imagine what's going to happen if you just resign no and let that demon take your soul. Look at the life we've led, this crazy excuse for a childhood we had. Moving around, hunting things most people didn't even know existed, changing schools every so often. I never had any real friends, I only ever had Dad and you. Dad is gone now, and if I…"

His voice broke and he swallowed hard, turning his face away for a moment.

"You're all I have left." He continued in a voice barely above a whisper. "You're the only person who has been in my life for as long as I remember. And now you tell me that you're just giving up, that you'll readily die and want me to live my life as if nothing had happened? I'll be alone Dean. Alone. How am I supposed to deal with that?"

Dean shook his head. "You'll be fine, Sam. You've always been fine. You did great at Stanford, you had friends, you had Jessica, and you'll find that again. You don't need to live this life."

"But maybe I want it."

"Sam, you don't know what you're saying. You have all the chances in the world."

Sam shook his head, his face a determined mask.

"I can't turn my back on all this just because you're willing to surrender to a demon. I can't turn my back on hunting because I'll always know that these things are out there. I know that they're hurting people, and I can't just pretend that it's not happening. But that's not even what I'm talking about, Dean. You might have accepted that you'll just go and offer your soul to a demon tonight, but I'm the one who has to take care of your body tomorrow. I'm the one who'll have to get in the Impala and drive off. Where am I supposed to go then? What am I supposed to do? You don't need to worry about that, you don't need to think any further than a few minutes past midnight, so don't give me any advice on how to live my life after you're gone."

It was surprising how quickly Sam's mood had changed from despair to outright anger. And even as the last words had burst from his mouth, Sam seemed to sag in on himself, still standing in that aisle between the pews, one hand buried in his hair and the other arm hanging loosely by his side.

"I can't do this, Dean."

Dean took a careful step towards his brother, close enough to reach out and touch him, but not too close so that he'd intrude in his brother's personal space. Carefully he placed a hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed, but quickly let go again when he noticed how tense his brother was.

"Yes you can. And nobody expects you to drive into the sunset with a song on your lips tomorrow. But I need you to promise me that you won't allow this to break you. I can only do this if I know it hasn't been in vain."

A small smile showed on Sam's face. "Does that mean if I don't promise you won't leave this church?"

Dean shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. He was getting tired and his eyes started to burn.

"Sammy."

Sam swallowed hard, but after a moment he nodded. "All right." His voice was rough, barely above a whisper. "I promise."

Dean didn't believe Sam meant it fully, not yet. But he also knew his brother well enough to know that he'd keep his promise. Sam always kept his promises. It was just a small step, but it was a step to make sure that his brother was going to be all right. That was all he could ask for right now. And it seemed like the right moment to stop all this serious talk. Dean was sure that if they kept on talking about what was going to happen, they'd only end up fighting again.

And he was tired of fighting.

"Good. Now, you wouldn't happen to have some beer in that provisions bag of yours, would you? Because I really, really don't want to go out sober."

A small smile showed on Sam's face and he walked over to the previously discarded duffle bag. "I might have packed in a few beers in the vain hope to make this hiding place more appealing to you."

Dean sat down in one of the pews again as Sam brought over the duffle bag and unzipped it. "Scoot over."

Dean shifted to the side and Sam sank down on the pew beside him. He pulled two bottles of beer out of the bag, unscrewed the caps and handed one to Dean.

"You could at least have put it in a cooler," Dean baited with a grin as his hand closed around the non-too cool bottle.

Sam shoved his elbow into Dean's ribs. "Just be glad that I didn't put superglue on it." He chuckled. "Though it actually might have made the demon reconsider if it really wants the soul of somebody dumb enough to fall for the same trick twice."

Dean laughed. "Yeah, but don't think that I'd fall for it again."

He turned to the side and held his bottle out to his brother. "To us. Danger and evil sons of bitches all the way, but we'll be damned if we didn't have a good time."

"To good times." Sam clanked his bottle against Dean's and they both took a deep gulp of their beer. Cool or not, it was the sweetest thing Dean had tasted in a long time. He was going to miss this. Of course he was going to miss other things a lot more, but hey – nobody said he couldn't have a whole list of things he was going to miss. If he made a list of things he was going to miss in hell, beer was definitely amongst the top three. Beaten only by Sam and his baby.

For a few minutes, the two brothers silently sat side by side in the pew, staring ahead at the empty stone altar. It was one of the good silences, one that didn't need any words to fill the stillness. But Dean knew that the silence was not going to last long. He knew his brother too well for that, but for now it was comfortable not to say anything.

And it lasted longer than Dean had anticipated. They slowly emptied their beers, the raise of their arms in synch even though they didn't look at each other. After they were done, Sam pulled two more bottles out of his duffle bag. Dean wondered if his brother had decided to get drunk tonight. Everything from two beers upward was heavy drinking for Sam, and there were at least two bottles more in the bag. If Sam drank them, he was not going to be coherent for very much longer.

Maybe that was actually a good plan.

Sam cast a tense glance at his watch as he handed the second bottle over. Dean didn't want to know what time it was exactly. He was glad that the mood between him and his brother had settled into this calm ease, he didn't want to turn it into a countdown. He was sure that he'd know when his time was up.

"This is all happening too fast." Sam finally said from between clenched teeth.

Dean shook his head with a sad smile and took another sip of his beer. "No, it isn't Sammy. It's been twelve months, and they didn't pass any faster than any other twelve months did."

Sam shook his head. "There's still so much to say."

A smile tugged at the corners of Dean's mouth. If there was one thing he definitely hadn't planned for this night, then it was unloading emotional baggage.

"No Sam. There isn't. We've said all that needed to be said. All the things that start with I'm sorry, or with I wish things had been different. And even if you didn't say it, trust me that I know. There's no need to make a laundry list of all the times you yelled at me. Besides, you were right most of the times anyway, and we both know it."

Sam shook his head. "Why do you pretend that all this was easy?"

Dean shrugged. "It isn't, but if we sit here and whine about it it's only going to make things a lot more complicated."

Sam shook his head, staring at the bottle in his hands as if it was the most interesting thing in the whole world at this moment. Dean shook his head with a sigh and reached out to squeeze Sam's shoulder. Sam was tense, all cramped up muscle and sinew, and Dean didn't know what was still holding him together. The only good thing about what was going to happen tonight was that he wouldn't be around to see Sam fall apart. Though the knowledge that Sam undoubtedly would fall apart sooner or later was bad enough in itself, he didn't need to see it actually happen.

And he couldn't do anything to comfort Sam through this. He wouldn't be there anymore when things were going to get really bad.

So Dean remained sitting like that, beer bottle in one hand and his other hand on Sam's shoulder, silently waiting as the minutes ticked by.

Truth be told, Dean had always imagined his end to be different. Unexpected. Whenever he went on a hunt there was a small part of his brain that was aware of the fact that this could be his last time. Death had been a constant companion for him for many years, but Dean had always managed to jump out of its way. Sometimes at the last minute, and a few rare times even after the last minute had actually passed, but he had always escaped. Leading the kind of life Dean had led could give you the false impression of immortality. But maybe a perverted life like the one he had led needed to have at least one little advantage, even if that advantage was only a false impression.

But even if silently waiting the last minutes for his death was the last way Dean had ever thought he'd go, it had been worth it. Just looking to his right proved Dean that it had been worth it. Sam was alive, Sam would get a chance to live his life, and that was enough for Dean. Enough for him not to regret what he had done. Enough for him to know that it had been the right choice. Sam didn't see that yet, but he would see it in time. Eventually, Sam would forgive him.

They didn't open any more beer bottles. In fact, Dean didn't even finish his second beer. He didn't want to face hell sober, but he did want to stay clear in the head during his last minutes with his brother. And it was good this way, just sitting here, next to Sam. Screw the booze, the girls and the music. He didn't want to be anywhere else right now. He didn't want to be with anybody else.

If he already had to go, this was the only way he wanted to go. With Sam by his side.

What could have been ten minutes or even an hour passed without incident. Without anything breaking the stillness in the church, the silent companionship between them. It was peaceful. Too peaceful to be true.

And then a loud bark sounded in the distance.

At his side, Dean felt Sam flinch underneath his hand, and his own heartbeat sped up no matter how prepared he thought himself to be. That was no innocent stroller taking a walk with his dog out there.

"That's no dog." Sam pressed out, voicing Dean's thoughts.

Dean nodded wordlessly. It had been no dog. No normal dog, at least. That had been the baying of hound. A hound that had come for him, and a hound that wouldn't let go until it got him. Dean checked his watch, even though he already knew what it would say.

"It's past midnight."

Sam swallowed and put his bottle down on the ground and turned to his left. "I…Dean…"

Dean shook his head and got up. "Sam, don't. Please. Don't start trying to change my mind. Just let me go."

If Sam started trying to persuade him now, Dean knew that he'd be swayed. He'd fold like a stack of cards if Sam asked him not to go. His façade wasn't strong enough to withstand his brother for long. He wasn't strong enough. Seeing the pain etched on Sam's face was bad enough, hearing it in his voice was unbearable.

He stepped past Sam into the aisle and turned towards the door. This was it. There was no evading this now. No last-minute miracle, no instant wonder, no savior who appeared right before the hammer was going to fall. But he was going to do this with his head held high, with at least his dignity still intact. He drew a deep breath and took a step towards the door.

"Dean."

Dean closed his eyes and his steps automatically faltered as he heard his brother's broken voice behind him.

"Please don't do this, Sam. Don't make this even more difficult."

Dean drew a deep breath and turned around. Sam was standing a few feet away from him, looking at him from eyes shining with tears. Dean shook his head. "Sammy…"

Sam took a few determined steps in his direction and before Dean knew what was happening his brother wrapped his arms around him. It wasn't a tender embrace, the Winchesters didn't do those. It was fierce and possessive, just like it had been the time Sam had hugged him in that motel room after the trickster had screwed with them so badly.

Dean was a little overwhelmed. He didn't know how to deal with openly expressed emotions. It hadn't been on his Dad's agenda, Dean had never learned how to deal with them. For some strange reason Sam had no qualms where this was concerned, and this one time in his life Dean decided to just let go. Damn it, this was the last time he was going to see his brother in his life, if he could make Sam feel a little better about him leaving, then so be it. God knew it helped him.

Dean wrapped his own arms tightly around Sam's back and held on for dear life. Sam's heart was thudding so rapidly that Dean could feel it against his own chest, and his shoulders were shaking, but Dean didn't care. He didn't care if Sam was crying, he didn't care if Sam was swaying on his feet. Because Sam was still here. For now, for a few seconds, Sam was here, he was safe, and they were together. For once in his life he simply held on. He simply felt. He simply let himself fall into this, all consequences be damned.

Sam was clawing at his shirt, holding on as if he never intended to let go. And Dean gave him the time. He'd have gladly given his brother all the time in the world for this, but the longer they took the more difficult this was going to become. Dean knew that they couldn't prolong this forever.

"You need to let go, Sammy."

Sam shook his head and pulled Dean even tighter, every bit the stubborn little brother that Dean had known for over twenty years. But Sam had to let go, and not only of the embrace. Dean put a hand on Sam's shoulder and gently pushed him away a little.

"You need to let go."

Sam looked up, either unaware of the tears on his face or simply not caring about them.

"Dean…I, I want you to know that I…"

Dean nearly flinched. Inwardly he prayed that Sam wouldn't say it. Not now. Dean didn't know if he could deal with that, especially now. Not with those words. He knew, he had always known. They were brothers, of course he knew. There was no need to say the words out aloud.

Sam drew a deep breath, as if to gather courage. "I know we were never big on all this, and that you hate all this emotional talk, but I…I need to…Dean, I…"

Sam's voice broke and Dean squeezed his shoulder again.

"I know, Sammy. Me too."

Dean forced himself to smile at his little brother, and in a moment of impulsiveness he reached out and ruffled up Sam's hair. It was a gesture Sam had hated from early childhood on, a small gesture that immediately took Dean back fifteen years, back to a time when life had still been comparatively easy. Not as easy as it should have been for children their age, but easy compared to what was happening now. He'd much rather have Sam remember the teasing big brother than the emotional wreck Dean was right now.

"You'll be okay."

Dean's voice was hoarse, and he could only hope that it was able to carry as much conviction as he had wanted to put into those words.

Drawing a deep breath, Dean turned around and walked towards the church door. He already had his hand on the handle when he remembered something else.

"Promise me something, Sammy."

"What?"

"Promise me that you will stay inside. Promise me that you won't leave this church until daybreak. Promise me that you won't look."

There was a long moment of silence during which Sam contemplated why Dean would ask this of him. Dean knew that it was an irrational request, that daylight or nighttime didn't matter to a demon, and that if the demon stuck to the deal there should be no reason for Sam to be in any danger. But Dean didn't want Sam to witness this. He didn't want him to see anything, and he didn't want him to hear anything. He needed to know that Sam was going to be as far away from Dean and the demon as he could be.

The silence stretched so long that Dean was tempted to turn around again, even if turning around and looking at Sam meant that he was going to reconsider his choice and take a shot at having a demon besiege them in this church. If Sam wasn't going to make that promise, Dean wouldn't leave this church. But then, right before he moved, Sam's voice sounded from behind him.

"I promise."

Dean breathed a sigh and nodded. "Good. Thank you, Sammy."

But he didn't turn around. He couldn't turn around. More than anything, he wanted to turn around and take one last look at his brother, but he couldn't. He was barely hanging on as it was, the slightest thing would break him now. But he couldn't falter now. He had to see this through to the end. For Sam.

He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking about Sam. It wasn't as good as turning around and look at his brother in the flesh, but it would have to do.

He had had his last look at Sam already.

After a moment, Dean squared his shoulders, took a breath and opened the door. The night outside was dark, a black hole only waiting to swallow him. A black hole in which the silver lightning at the end of the tunnel was hellfire. But he had known that for the past twelve months.

Not giving himself the time to reconsider, Dean stepped over the protective line of salt and closed the door behind himself. In the distance, the hound was barking again.

And nothing happened.

Heart beating fast in his chest, Dean walked away from the church, until the darkness had swallowed him entirely. The night was silent. The hound was still barking, but no other sound broke the silence. No cars driving in the distance. No birds. No crickets. Nothing.

Dean wondered for a moment why the hellhound wasn't attacking him, why it wasn't killing him so that the demon could take his soul.

"You're late."

Out of nowhere, a darker shadow detached itself from the shadows to Dean's left and he found himself looking into a pair of glowing red eyes. So this was how it was going to be. The demon hadn't brought he hellhound to kill Dean. The demon was going to take care of this personally. So now Dean finally knew how it was going to be.

And knowing this, he wasn't afraid anymore.

Dean straightened up to his full height and looked the demon straight in the eye.

"I'm here now."

And the demon smiled.