Finally getting around to posting this (KHK, thank you for saving the finished copy. I am lazy, I admit it, but otherwise, this most likely never would have been seen online).
Originally posted in The Brotherhood 2 in May, 2007. Written just post-"Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things." So it has, most definitely, been Kripke'd. Sorry 'bout that.
More betas than you can shake holy water at: Faye Dartmouth, kalyw, Tyranusfan, carocali, sodakey, and of course, K. Hanna Korossy (I need lots of hand holding).
And still and always, nothing is mine.
Between the Darkness and the Light
The road was deserted, dark and quiet. Little eddies of snow drifted from one side to the other, the currents gentle and capricious.
His boots made a crunching sound as they struck the coated pavement, the snow not deep but solid. The soles left clear indentations that could be traced back nearly two miles. But no one was following him.
He could have driven—would have, normally—but tonight he craved the darkness and the cold and the solitude.
He'd left Sam sprawled out, asleep on a too-short motel bed while he ventured out for a walk. He didn't plan to be gone long, knew he needed to be back before Sam woke up unless he wanted to face the Spanish Inquisition. And he hadn't really had a direction in mind until he'd seen the light.
The glow in the distance looked like a hazy picture on a Christmas card: gray-steepled building, lights shining soft through stained glass. It called to him like a beacon. It felt welcoming. It felt safe.
The door was oak, solid, weather-beaten. When he pushed it open, the hinges squeaked. He had to manhandle it shut. The rest of the church had seen better days as well: scarred wooden pews, faded paint, peeling wallpaper. The corners of the ceiling had water stains, and the carpet had a faint moldy smell.
He'd been in a lot of churches in his life. There'd been Pastor Jim's, for one, and countless others for the purpose of getting holy water and blessed rosary beads. The denominations never meant much. Some had a cross on the altar, some a crucifix, some nothing at all. But they all smelled the same: incense and lemon polish and age.
This one was smaller than most, room for only a few dozen occupants. The kneelers were threadbare velveteen, the benches smooth from use. And it was silent.
The silence went beyond just lack of sound. It was still. Reverent. Like the air itself had weight.
Churches didn't always feel this way; hardly ever, in fact. Usually, they were just buildings, rarely noticed unless he needed them. He had no use for religion, no faith in anything beyond what he could touch. But every now and then, he felt...something. Too hard to describe, but it made him want to linger, made him want to soak up a sentiment he didn't really understand but appreciated.
He hadn't lingered in a while, though. Not since before he'd picked up Sam in Palo Alto. He'd told Layla after the whole reaper thing that he wasn't a praying man, and he'd meant it—though he'd tried once or twice, just for her. Still, it felt good to sit for a few minutes, to let the outdoor chill fade, to let his mind drift away from the hunt and his father and Sam.
He couldn't seem to stray too far from Sam, though. Sam, and the memory of Dad's final words, pretty much dominated his thoughts these days. Sam seemed to think it would be easier to deal with things now that they both knew the secret. But he didn't really understand. It was the thought of him, more than anything, the knowledge that his brother's fate was in his hands, that was Dean's toughest burden to carry. Far more than Dad's sacrifice, more than the supposed coming war.
Sam thought he could share the weight, shoulder his own portion, make it so Dean didn't have to worry anymore, or at least, not worry alone. He figured that was why Sam had taken off at first, back in River Grove: to try to spare him. That thought was the only one that had kept him from being angry—hurt—the way he might have been, waking up to find his brother gone.
But it didn't work that way. Not this time. Not when it was a question of either saving Sam or killing him. It was too big and too volatile, and Dean knew, ultimately, what Sam would say, what he would want: he'd rather be dead than some evil thing's plaything. And while Sam was big on shades of gray with everyone else, with himself, the question of guilt was always answered in black and white.
It was too subjective a decision for Sam to make. It was a burden for Dean alone.
"Can I help you, son?" A plain-clothed man stood beside him. He was middle-aged and soft-looking, like he spent most of his time indoors reading instead of doing manual labor.
He made a move like he was about to lay a hand on Dean's shoulder, and Dean backed away instinctively. "No, I don't think so. It's time for me to get back." He hadn't come seeking advice or comfort, just the quiet. There was nothing anyone could say or do to help him.
The man looked confused, started to speak again, but Dean cut him off with a wave. "Thanks, anyway."
He walked back out the door and into the night.
Another half-day of traveling found them at a rest stop off I-25. Sam flinched as Dean pulled his door shut and started the engine.
"Head still bothering you?"
"No, it's fine."
Sam was lying, knew Dean knew it, but he couldn't help himself. It was an ingrained response. And, in fairness, the headache wasn't as bad as it could have been. Wasn't dream or vision-induced, just a product of staring at white sky and white road and white ground around them. Nothing a little indoor time wouldn't cure, but they had miles to go before they slept. Then, too, they had more important things to worry about.
"So, what's the story again?" Dean knew that, too; they'd talked about it before leaving the motel that morning. But this was what they did: re-hash the details, poke holes in each other's theories, push each other to re-think plans of attack.
They weren't always on the same wavelength when it came to...well, most things. But they'd fallen into a better rhythm since Dean had shared his secret. It was still a little disconcerting sometimes, how the dynamic had changed, but they seemed to mesh together a little better when it came to the hunt, even if they didn't always in other aspects of their lives.
Sam rifled through his notes, pulled out the newspaper story that had spurred them toward Nebraska. "Five mysterious deaths in Hastings. All of them under 30, no medical issues, no suspicious circumstances, and no ties to each other."
"Which is suspicious enough for us." Dean nodded as he passed a semi. A spray of salt and dirt obscured the windshield briefly, the Impala's wipers working double-time to clear the glass.
"Plus, the places where their bodies were found are spaced out like the points on a pentagram."
Dean glanced over, brow furrowed. "You're kidding."
"Nope. I plotted it while you were paying for the gas." Sam shuffled out the map, pointing out so Dean could see the dots he'd drawn and connected.
A standard pentagram held no malevolent meaning, regardless of what the movies led people to believe. The opposite, instead, was true: the five-pointed star was an ancient symbol of health, of protection against demons and evil spirits.
Inverted, however, was a different story. With the two points on top and the single on the bottom, it was the foundation of satanic symbolism.
"Huh. Well, that makes things a little more interesting, then, doesn't it?"
Sam didn't answer, but he didn't have to, not missing the way Dean's hands tightened on the wheel. He didn't blame him. His own stomach was in knots, not knowing what might be waiting for them two states away.
"You're sure you haven't...seen anything?"
Cryptic, but Sam knew what he meant. "No visions. Not even a vibe about this one."
"Well, then, we'll just have to do what we always do." Dean flashed him a smile and pressed a little harder on the accelerator.
"And what's that?" Sam waited, expectant.
Sam rolled his eyes, tried not to laugh. He really should have known.
They started with interviews, their least favorite part of the job in situations like this. The only good part about talking to friends and family of the just-deceased was that they were, almost to a person, trusting and open, guileless.
Sam's default earnest expression was useful, of course, but even Dean rarely needed much of a cover story to get them invited in, got away with asking the most bizarre questions, was allowed to wander through rooms and photo albums and memories with impunity. Sam hated it, always had. Dean recognized it as the golden opportunity for information it usually was, swallowed down any sliver of guilt or sympathy that tried to worm its way through his system, and consoled himself with copious amounts of free food and coffee.
Lindsay Mitchell was the girlfriend of the first victim, was in fact his only connection to the area. Her face was already splotchy, her hair limp and unkempt, when they knocked on her door. Sam followed up his introductions with an "I'm sorry for your loss" that had her all but collapsing in fresh tears.
Dean steered her toward the couch and sat her down. When he tried to let go of her arm, she clung to him. He shot Sam a helpless look, but Sam just shook his head. Stay put.
Resigned, Dean shifted a little, trying to get comfortable as Sam asked questions, starting with what they already knew.
"So, Brian didn't have any medical conditions you were aware of?"
"God, no. He was a health nut—ran every morning, took vitamins, the whole low-carb thing. He never even got sick. He used to...to tease me when I did. He'd say 'Lindsay, you've got to take better care of yourself. We want to have a nice, long life together . . .'" Her voice wavered and Dean cringed, patting her awkwardly as she started crying again.
C'mon, Sam. Hurry it up.
"Did anything unusual happen, right before he died?"
Lindsay sniffed loudly. "Like what?"
"Did he go anywhere, see anything out of the ordinary, meet anyone he hadn't known before?"
"Well..." She let go of Dean's arm, finally, and tucked her hair behind her ears. "He had these nightmares a couple of nights before it happened."
Dean tensed, saw Sam lean forward, eyes wide. "Did he say what they were about?"
Lindsay seemed to think a minute, then shook her head. "Just a man with yellow eyes. Nothing specific. Is that important?"
Sam flinched, just barely, but enough for Dean to notice. The smile he offered Lindsay was small and forced. "No. It's fine. You've been really helpful. Thank you."
He stood abruptly, and Dean rose with him, mirroring Sam's movements as he shook her hand, asked her to call if she thought of anything else. And left her looking confused and small when they drove away.
Sam was too quiet, and it made Dean nervous. He shot glances at his brother, willing Sam to say something, because it was sure obvious he was thinking it. But Sam stayed mum. He stared out the window, that godawful stare of his, hands clenched in his lap, knee jumping in a rapid cadence, heel staccato against the floorboard. Pretty much a dead giveaway Sam was just barely keeping it together.
Dean watched Sam at least as closely as he was watching the road. But no amount of looking generated any reaction, Sam putting an equal amount of energy into pretending he didn't notice Dean's stares. Dean put up with it until they were nearly to the Gundersons, the family of the next victim on the list. But that was as much as he could take.
He swerved into the parking lot of a deserted gas station and threw the Impala into Park. "All right, spill."
Sam didn't look at him, but didn't ask for clarification, either. "It's the Demon."
Way to state the obvious, Sammy. There were no such things as coincidences, not in their line of work. But he'd been hoping for something more, some indication of how Sam thought the Demon fit into all this. How Sam thought he fit into this. Sam was probably imagining the worst, that the Demon's appearance in Brian's dream, coupled with the mysterious deaths, were the harbingers of another test. Maybe the test, where the end result would be Dean having to put Dad's last words into action.
Hell, that's what Dean was thinking. And it made his blood run cold. If Sam would just talk, Dean could allay his fears, argue against any doubts, convince him to stay positive. Remind him—while reminding himself—that Dean would save him, period, no second option.
Sam had to be the one to say it, though. If Dean brought it up...it would be admitting he had fears and doubts as well. And that was something he wasn't about to do. Ever.
But Sam wouldn't talk. So Dean couldn't either, except, "Great. Just great."
He grit his teeth and pulled back onto the road.
Sam tried to maintain his focus and at least an outward expression of calm, but it wasn't easy. The Demon was back again—so soon, too soon—and there was no way of knowing what it had planned.
He said that I had to save you, that nothing else mattered, and that if I couldn't, I'd have to kill you. The words had haunted Sam from the moment Dean had uttered them, and now they were all he could think about. Was this it? Was this going to be the final showdown, when The Demon would take him or turn him or whatever it was going to do?
Was Dean going to have to—
Sam swallowed that last thought down. This wasn't the time; they had research to do, more victims' families to talk to, and he couldn't let himself get bogged down in what-ifs and maybes and worst-case scenarios. He had to stay on track, both for his sake and Dean's.
The tight grip he had on his emotions worked, for the most part. It got him through the rest of the drive, up the cobblestone walkway, and through Mrs. Gunderson's front door as she invited two of her professor husband's former students in to pay their respects.
Moments later, though, his resolve was wrenched away.
The vision slammed into him with the fury of a tsunami. One minute, he was asking a question, voice pitched gentle and soft, a hand reaching toward Mrs. Gunderson's. The next, he was on the floor, all but blind with agony.
Distantly, he felt Dean grab him, pull him up, heard him mutter something about seizures and medications and how Sam would be fine. He stumbled, would have fallen if Dean's arm wasn't wrapped around him, caught a litany of curse words as he was thrust ungracefully into the Impala. He clawed at the door handle the way he wanted to claw at his brain, to get OUT, get it OUT, but Dean latched onto his hands with an unforgiving grip, pushing them against his chest to hold him in place.
"Just take it easy, Sammy."
He tried, he really did. Tried to get his breathing under control and quell the dizziness that blacked out his vision. The pain seemed to increase exponentially every time he saw the future, and this was, by far, the worst he'd ever experienced.
"Dean." He didn't have the strength to say more but hoped like hell his brother understood. Because whether Dean did or not, he was going to be sick.
The world tilted even more, and he smelled fresh air again, felt a hand push his head down as the first spasm hit. By the time he could exhale without puking, the pain had receded a bit. Enough to take in Dean's concerned face hovering inches from his, to be able to bring his hands up to cup his forehead. His shoulders shuddered with each ragged breath he pulled in, and he was shaking.
"Damn it, Sam! What the hell was that?"
Sam could hear the panic in Dean's voice, that edge he got when there was nothing he could do to fix things, when it was out of his control. And it was always so much worse when what he couldn't fix was happening to Sam.
Sam knew the feeling.
"Come on, little brother. You've got to give me something here." Dean's hand was on his knee, strong and unyielding. Sam tried to draw some comfort from that, but it wasn't anywhere near as much as either of them wanted.
Dean deserved to know what he'd seen, but Sam couldn't tell him, not yet. If there had been a way to avoid telling Dean at all, he would have, the images too sharp and cruel, coiling around him like razor wire. Things he didn't want to think about, didn't want to talk about, didn't want to believe.
He tried to escape from the vision, but he couldn't escape from the pain. He embraced it instead, let it take him, let it buy him a little more time before he had to see the horror in Dean's eyes.
He fell back against the seat with eyes closed. "Need to...sleep first. Just let me sleep."
Dean was frantic from the moment Sam collapsed, as close to terrified as he'd been in a while. He concentrated on getting Sam back to the motel, into bed, loading him up with painkillers and waiting for him to finally sleep, even though the urge to press for answers hadn't faded. There'd been no point in asking again; Sam had been barely coherent as he'd staggered from the car to the room, still needing Dean to keep him upright. Even pulling off his boots and laying down had made Sam groan with fresh pain.
It wasn't until Sam's breathing became slow and even, until his hands uncurled to fall boneless over the edge of the bed, his body motionless except for the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed, that Dean let himself really think about what had happened.
Sam had been hurting—beyond hurting—and it stood to reason he needed some time before he could talk about what he'd seen. Even so, the thought nagged Dean that the vision-induced headaches, no matter how intense, had never stopped Sam from telling him right away before.
Not once, not once since the first time, had Sam tried to keep his visions to himself, even briefly. He'd held back his dreams about Jess, yes, but that was different. That was past. Everything since they'd been on the road together had been an open book, especially once they'd figured out the visions were tied to The Demon. Sam had trusted him to handle whatever it was he saw, even when it was Dean killing...
Sam had handled everything up to now, too, however awful it was: Max murdering his uncle, father, and stepmother, Max shooting Dean, Dr. Jennings shooting the gun store owner, Andy's mother setting herself on fire and his girlfriend plunging off the dam, Dean shooting Duane Tanner. Every vision one of death, every time a different person the cause. The only thing he hadn't had to deal with, the one person consistently missing from all Sam's visions, was...Sam.
It made sense, really: this time, Sam had seen himself. And Dean knew his brother, knew he wouldn't freak like this over seeing himself die.
Which meant that, this time, it was Sam doing the killing. And since Sam would rather reason than threaten, would rather pull his punches and hold his fire even in the face of clear and present danger, it was pretty likely something had gotten to him, gotten in him, forced his hand.
At a loss to do anything else for Sam, at least for the moment, Dean set out the guns and started cleaning. The familiar actions were usually therapy for him, calming him, grounding him. But this time they didn't have the desired effect.
As he disassembled the shotgun and ran a brush down the barrels, Dean heard his father's voice—so quiet, so serious—telling him not to be afraid, and cursed the man for the thousandth time since the night he'd given up. Because it sure wasn't sacrifice, what Dad had done. To lay the whole burden on Dean's shoulders without a scrap more of information or, hell, even an idea of what signs to look for. And then, on top of it, to tell him not to tell Sam, the only other person left who had a prayer of helping Dean figure things out.
Dad had taken the easy way, chosen his half of a literal devil's bargain, taken himself out of the game with time still on the clock. That wasn't sacrifice. It was cowardice. And he'd left his sons behind to deal with the fallout, alone.
Dean clenched his jaw so hard his teeth ached, remembering the weight of the Colt in his hand, aiming at the Demon in his father's body. In this moment, if he were back in that godforsaken cabin, he wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. The fallout, in the end, couldn't possibly have been worse than what they were dealing with now.
But the thought didn't help him, wouldn't help Sam. He didn't know if anything would. That was the bitch of it. He didn't know if, once the Demon's plan—whatever it was—was set in motion, there would be any way to stop it. They didn't have the Colt anymore. And they hadn't come up with any other airtight idea.
In the end, though, only one thing mattered.
Dean reassembled the gun and flipped it open, stuffed the chambers with combo rounds of salt mixed with chrism oil. Pulled out the half-empty magazines from his handgun and Sam's and put in full ones of blessed iron and silver. Checked the sights. Made sure the safeties were on, and set the guns in close reach.
I'm not killing my brother.
If the rest of the world went to hell instead, then that was the price that would be paid. Sam was his to protect. Always his. No matter the reason, if Dad had really believed Dean was capable of ending Sam's life, he'd been a fool.
Sam woke to darkness. For an instant, he was disoriented, couldn't remember where he was or what had happened. But then, he took in the familiar outlines of cheap motel furniture, the sprawled shadow of his brother in the bed next to him, and realized he was back in the room. Vaguely, he recalled the rushed journey back from the Gundersons, remembered Dean's panicked voice and incongruously steady arm around him.
The pain wasn't as distant a memory. It throbbed dully behind his eyes, muted but still uncomfortable. His mouth was sticky, nasty-tasting, his throat dry. He felt his way to the bathroom, brushed the light switch on as he closed the door.
The water had a mineral flavor, but it beat whatever else was on his tongue. He stuck his mouth under the faucet and drank. Brushed his teeth, washed his face, and found he couldn't look at his own reflection. He turned instead, back facing the mirror, hips against the cracked Formica vanity. Tried to rein his thoughts in, but didn't have much luck.
He'd dealt with the secret pretty well, initially, he thought. Oh, he'd been angry at Dean, not because of the secret but because he'd kept it from him. They didn't lie, not to each other. Avoided, evaded, ignored, yes. But he'd asked Dean, point-blank, if Dad had said anything, and Dean had lied.
By the time Sam had made the decision to leave after River Grove, though, he'd let that hurt go. Dean was scared, after all. Dad had violated the Prime Directive of 'Protect Sam,' told Dean that Sam might have to die at his hand. Not just a bitter pill to swallow but an impossible one. For either of them.
They'd been raised to cover each other, protect each other, for as long as Sam could remember. They were two halves of a whole, even if it was a thought that went unacknowledged in words most of the time. Being the one to cause the other's death was unimaginable.
At the time, Sam couldn't comprehend how John could have asked that of Dean. Dean, of all people.
Now, knowing that his might be some inescapable dark destiny, that he might become the very evil they'd hunted all their lives...Sam wasn't so sure. He'd had a lot of time to think. About Dad's words and Dad's bargain and what, if anything, Dad had believed about his youngest son. None of it seemed too promising.
Dad had avoided them for months, then, after reuniting, had told them to stay away, only returning when Daniel Elkins died and shed some light on the existence of the Colt. Dad had never divulged anything he'd been thinking to Sam, never revealed what he'd guessed or known, apparently hadn't trusted either of his sons enough to share in his conjectures, to make a plan, to stand together.
He'd extended Sam an olive branch before he'd died. Not wanting them to fight anymore, saying he didn't know why they ever had. But in the end, he'd sent Sam away, dropped the heaviest of burdens on Dean's shoulders, and then cashed in his ticket without so much as a goodbye.
There were other things, too, subtle things that cropped up in Sam's memory. Dad calling from Sacramento, saying, "You can't be any part of this." A lifetime—his lifetime—spent chasing the Demon, and when the moment had seemed imminent, Dad hadn't wanted him there. Dad telling Dean, when finally confronted with Sam's visions, "Something like that happens with your brother, you call me." No disbelief, no questions for Sam, not even as much plain old shock as Sam had anticipated. Instead, it was like...
Dad was waiting for signs. For confirmation.
It made sense, now. The kind of sense that had Sam not just doubting his abilities but who he was.
Dad had been afraid of him. Afraid of what he might do. What he might become.
Sam was, too.
He understood a lot better now why Dean had kept the secret for so long, why Dean had been more inclined to take a break—run—than face the truth. Dad had believed there was a reason Dean might have to kill him. Regardless of the issues they'd had over the years, he knew his father loved him, knew they were words he wouldn't have said lightly, wouldn't have said at all unless he was certain.
Sam couldn't make the leap completely, couldn't just accept the fact that he was evil, even having seen what he'd seen in his vision that afternoon. But the doubt had taken hold and spread like a cancer.
He pictured Dean, flung unwittingly between the abyss and his brother, forced into making a choice between one and the other. Put in the middle again, by Dad, by Sam himself, and having to maintain the balance. Between the darkness and the light.
This was one decision that wasn't going to be Dean's responsibility.
Sam wouldn't let it.
Dean woke just as gray light was starting to peek through the gaps in the curtains. He made a pot of coffee, grabbed some food from the lone vending machine that stood at the corner of the building, and waited.
When Sam finally woke, he still looked like hell. Dean knew he'd been up in the night, had watched light limn the bathroom door for a long time before Sam had stumbled back to bed. Knew he wasn't the only one who'd spent long hours staring at the ceiling, trying to figure things out.
He tossed Sam a Danish and handed him a mug before sitting on the opposite bed. "So . . ."
Okay, Sammy. Guess we're doing this the hard way. "So, who are you supposed to kill?"
Sam paled and drew back, and Dean cursed. Obviously, levity wasn't the right approach. "Look, I didn't mean it like—" He sighed, ran a hand through his hair. "What did you see?" Kinder this time, an apology lining the question.
Sam hunched his shoulders. "How did you know?" There was something in his voice, a current of resignation Dean didn't like at all.
"I didn't know, Sam. It's not like I thought something like this was going to happen."
Sam raised his eyebrows, disbelieving.
"I didn't, okay? It was just the first time you didn't tell me as soon as you had your vision. And since you've seen other people, seen...me...I just guessed."
Sam still looked defeated but a little less betrayed. It was a start. Even so, it took a visible effort for him to make himself talk. "It was a...little girl."
Dean couldn't keep himself from wincing. Worst-case scenario, apart from losing each other, was endangering a child. Letting one die, like Lucas, Asher, or Michael, who almost had.
Killing a child was unthinkable.
"Could you tell where you were?" What Dean wanted to ask was how, but he couldn't. Not now, not with Sam looking shell-shocked and guilty for something that hadn't even happened.
"Big room—a warehouse, maybe? There weren't any windows. Could have been underground." Sam was talking too fast, the words tumbling out like they were trying to escape. "It was bright. And she was...she was screaming."
He hunched even more, not meeting Dean's eyes, and oh, no, Dean wasn't going to let that happen. Wasn't going to let Sam pull away, let Sam believe this was inevitable. Whatever the Demon was planning, however it thought it was going to use Sam, it hadn't counted on Dean. Or, if it had, it had underestimated him.
He'd been too cautious when they'd faced it the first time. He wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
But first, there was Sam.
Dean switched beds, sat so their shoulders touched. "All right, so what we need to do is zero in on where this all goes down. Whatever building's in the center of that pentagram, that's our target."
Sam nodded, shook himself a little. "I found a couple new rites in the Key of Solomon. I think it takes a lot out of the Demon to be corporeal—makes it more vulnerable. If we can keep it distracted long enough, we might be able to exorcise it."
Sam's voice was stronger now, and Dean patted his knee as he stood. "I've got something for you, too." He reached for Dad's journal, pulled out a piece of paper with a set of complicated-looking markings. "Missouri mailed it to us at Bobby's. Said it might help keep the Demon from getting into you...ward off possession."
Sam's mouth tightened, but he took the paper, looked it over carefully, even though Dean was pretty sure the runes didn't mean any more to Sam than they had to him.
"And on the plus side, you know you've always wanted a tat."
They spent the morning doing recon. There were two buildings on the outskirts of town that fit the profile: an abandoned games-manufacturing warehouse and a machine supply company that was still in operation. The warehouse was the safest bet. They surveyed it carefully, cataloging exit points and vulnerabilities.
The henna was actually harder to find. Dean had been ready to resort to Sharpies when they'd found a small art store that had just what Missouri recommended. The afternoon was spent painstakingly transferring the symbols from creased paper to Sam's body.
The henna was sticky, hard to manipulate, and it had a funny smell. Sam was ticklish, and Dean watched his skin flinch and shudder as the brush swept over it. It took a while, and they were both grateful when Dean was finally finished.
"Your turn." Sam grabbed the brush before Dean could set it down, overriding his token protests. "You think I'm the only one the Demon can get in?"
Their eyes met, Dean's flat with denial, Sam's soft and hard at the same time. Cajoling but uncompromising. Neither of them verbally acknowledged Sam's oblique reference to their father, but the memory hovered between them.
Dean growled, but pulled off his shirt and sat on the edge of the tub. "Just make sure you stay inside the lines this time, Sparky. Don't think I've forgotten the scribble-horrors you brought home from school."
Sam gripped his shoulder hard, turned it so Dean was facing away from him. "Dude, I was six."
"Yeah, and you say that like your skills have improved. Seems to me you missed a few spots when you were painting that frat kid in Ankeny." Sam's turn to growl this time, and Dean chuckled. "Good times, right, Sammy-boy? I'm sure that brought back a lot of great college memories for you, too."
"Shut up, Dean." And maybe Sam wasn't laughing, but neither of them were freaking out either, so, mission accomplished. Plus, Sam got through his share of the painting in about half the time it had taken Dean.
The brushes took a while to clean, the henna sticking to the bristles like tar. Dean watched Sam in the mirror while washing them, saw him turn his arms over and stare down at his chest, trying to see the full scope of symbols.
"You really believe in this stuff?" Sam's expression was clearly skeptical.
Dean looked down at the sink, clenched his jaw and swallowed. "No, Sam. I believe in you."
He didn't have to look back to know Sam would have that look, that damn puppy-dog look complete with tear-filled eyes, gratitude, and remnants of not-so-long-buried hero-worship shining in them. But he looked anyway. He owed Sam that much. And he was right about all of it, down to the hang of bangs over Sam's forehead.
Something inside welled up while another part died. For as long as Dean could remember, his brother had been this golden boy he would give his life for, gladly. He knew Sam understood that on some level, knew Dean would sacrifice anything for him. But Sam also needed to know that he did believe. In Sam. They weren't just words, not even close.
"Thanks, man. For everything." Sam's voice was touched, humble. "Listen, I want you to know—"
"Stop." Dean twisted off the faucet and turned so they were eye-to-eye. "Don't you even think about giving me the goodbye speech. I told you last time, I don't want to hear it."
Sam started again, mixed protest and supplication, but Dean cut him off with a rough pat on his cheek.
"Don't worry. You're going to have plenty of time to show me how perfect and special I am to you. You can start with new rims for my car. I'm feeling the need for a little bling."
Sam choked on a breath of surprised laughter, and Dean grinned, wide and unabashed, relishing this moment and hoping with everything in him there would be many more to come.
The vision hadn't shown Sam a day or a time, just a vague impression of location and a pressing sense of soon.
They didn't talk much as they drove back to the warehouse after dusk, just parked near the back door and gathered weapons, as many as they could hold. Guns. Salt. A small container of accelerant. Matches. A silver crucifix. A flask of holy water each. Two exorcism rites.
They hadn't felt this out of their league going into a hunt since they'd taken on Meg at Bobby's.
Dean didn't say anything, just stepped in front of Sam as he opened the door, a hand on Sam's chest to make sure he stayed behind him. Sam followed close, shortening his stride so he wouldn't step on Dean's heels.
The corridor was narrow and dark, and there were no doors. They advanced slowly, carefully, silently poised for an attack.
A hundred yards beyond, the hallway opened into a large room lit by huge fluorescent lights mounted on a high ceiling. Bright, like Sam's vision. No windows. And a little girl about five or six, gagged and bound to a chair in the middle of a pentagram with two circles of what looked like blood painted on the floor around it.
She'd been crying, and when Sam made eye contact, she started to again, shaking uncontrollably, sobs muffled by the cloth covering her mouth. Instinct almost impossible to ignore demanded he go to her. A strangled curse told him Dean was fighting the same urge.
Feeling cold sweat trickle down his back, Sam edged closer to his brother. "You see anything?"
Sam shook his head, and they moved forward, cautious and deliberate, shoulders touching, guns sweeping 180 degrees.
They reached the first blood circle, the girl almost convulsing now, hands and feet flexing against ropes with no give, smothered cries growing in intensity.
"Shhh. Calm down, sweetheart. We're not going to hurt you." Dean's words were low and soothing but didn't make much of an impact.
The runes on Sam's skin throbbed as a teasing voice answered, "No, but I will."
Sam turned so fast, his stomach lurched. Dean took a step in front of him, made himself a barrier between Sam and a small, dark-haired woman. Her features were smooth and even, a feral smile painted on her face. And her eyes were yellow-gold.
"How sweet, Dean. You're still protecting him. Even though you know what he's meant to be."
"He's meant to be my brother. End of story." Dean widened his stance, tried to put Sam even further behind him. Sam tightened his grip on his gun.
"You still don't get it, do you? Your father told you, Dean. He knew all along how his little boy was growing up to be so very special. He couldn't handle it, though, could he? Dumped it all on you." She made a displeased sound, shaking her head. "And now you have to decide, don't you? Does it keep you up at night, Dean? Wondering when you're going to have to put a bullet in him?"
"You shut up, bitch. No one is killing Sam. And no one's taking him."
Sam felt as if he were hearing everything from under water, her words ringing in his ears, giving voice to every fear he'd been harboring. His hands were clammy, his pulse racing beneath his skin, and he had to force himself to concentrate. To not believe everything she said.
"I don't really think that's your decision to make."
Sam recoiled as his runes seemed to erupt. He felt like he was burning, being flayed, and only just managed to bite back a scream. Something almost solid pressed against him, and he pressed back with everything he had.
"Sam!" Dean was reaching for him, grabbing an arm so hard it hurt.
"It's...it's..." He couldn't make any other words come.
And then the pain stopped. As abruptly as it had started. Dean's fingers still dug into the soft flesh above his elbow, and Sam drew in a harsh breath, trying to regain his composure.
He nodded, still feeling shaky. He didn't pull away from Dean and Dean didn't let go.
"More parlor tricks, Sam? I'm disappointed. You really have a nasty habit of wasting my time." The woman—the Demon—advanced on them, and Sam's finger tightened on the trigger. But he didn't fire. The body the Demon inhabited wasn't just a shell; it was a person, just like it had been his father, and he couldn't, he couldn't bring himself to shoot unless there was no other way.
"You boys are really starting to bore me."
And with that, Dean was ripped away from him, tossed to the center of the pentagram at the feet of the little girl and pinned to the floor.
"Dean!" Sam shouted, but Dean didn't answer. He watched Dean claw at his throat like he was trying to pull words out but couldn't speak. He gasped instead, hard and desperate, struggling to draw a full breath.
"Let him go." Sam turned on the Demon. The rage that filled him was so deep, so fierce, it nearly choked him. The runes were pulsing now, almost breathing with a life of their own.
"Aw, what are you going to do about it, Sammy? Are you going to shoot me like you shot your Daddy? You don't have the Colt anymore." She leaned toward him in a grotesque display of feigned sympathy. "Seems to me you were too weak to use it even when you did."
Sam began the words of the Sumerian rite he'd memorized, praying his pronunciations were accurate.
The Demon flinched but didn't pause. She took another step toward him, sneering. "Cute, Sam, but I don't do subtitles. Maybe your brother can translate."
She stopped suddenly, head tilted to the side like she was listening. "Either way, I think it's time to switch partners." Her eyes opened wide, shifting from gold to black to brown in an instant. A dark mist exploded from her mouth and then disintegrated. She collapsed, eyes closed, body limp as a rag doll's.
Shocked, Sam started to reach for her. Then something crashed behind him and his eyes went to Dean.
The chair was overturned, the little girl free from her bonds. She was kneeling on Dean's chest, fingers pressed against his temples. Dean's head was thrown back, body arched in agony, a soundless scream contorting his face.
"No!" The word was ripped from Sam's throat, piercing him, and it was all he could do to make himself finish the rite.
The girl swayed, hands now at her own temples, and Dean was coughing, twisting weakly to dislodge her.
"Get off him!" Sam made a move toward his brother and felt the pressure hit him once more. It pulled at his bones, made him feel like he was being turned inside out. He gathered himself and pushed back again, hard.
His efforts paid off as they had before, freeing him from a pain that defied description. But the aftereffects were far worse this time. He felt drained, shattered, shaken down to his core. The floor beneath him seemed to dip and sway, and his vision was blurry.
He clenched his hands around the gun and took another step forward.
Yellow eyes met his, and the Demon laughed, a hollow, malevolent sound that was even more unnatural coming from the mouth of a child. "It's your choice, Sam. Your brother or yourself? You know Dean would die to save you. But will you kill for him? Stain your soul with murder? Will you?"
Her hands dropped back to Dean's face, and this time, Dean's scream had volume. The sound of it almost drowned out the sound of Sam shouting the words of the second—thankfully shorter—rite and firing his gun.
There was only a split second, maybe less, between his fingers compressing the trigger and the girl's body dropping. But it was enough for her to throw her head back as a torrent of black poured out of her mouth and dissolved into the air before she hit the floor.
Red flew out behind her as she fell, pooled beneath her as she landed half-in and half-out of the circle. She started wailing then, high-pitched, reverberating shrieks of pain. They didn't sound demonic anymore. Instead, they were all too human, the sounds of a little girl who thought she was—who just might be—dying.
"I'm okay, I'm okay!"
Sam wasn't so sure, but Dean was moving, rolling up to his knees, head bowed, hands on his thighs. And there was no blood—not on Dean. The only blood was around the girl.
"Oh, God." Sam's gun clattered to the floor and he slid to her side, brain stuck on the mantra of I killed her I killed her I killed her.
Dean was shouting something but he couldn't hear, couldn't focus on anything else. He couldn't even say anything, just pressed his hands over the center of the bullet wound high on her shoulder. There was blood everywhere, sticky and warm, slicking his fingers so he couldn't keep good pressure. Her eyes were wild, white-rimmed with panic. As soon as his met hers, she went silent, her mouth a horrified O, chest heaving.
"You're okay, you're okay. I've got you." I'm sorry so sorry oh God please . . .
Dean was next to him, hands fluttering like he wasn't sure where to put them.
"We've got to call an ambulance." The girl was shaking underneath him, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes. The screams had stopped, her tears now soundless. She brought a hand up, gripped Sam's wrist. "You're okay. It's going to be all right."
"What's going…" A female voice cut through the stillness, and Sam heard halting footsteps behind him. "Oh, my God! Is she okay? What happened?" The woman's voice was edged with hysteria. Dean was on his feet before she could get any closer. Sam heard scuffling, and it was obvious Dean was pushing her away.
Sam ignored them both, focused solely on the girl and the blood and finding some way to keep her from losing any more of it. "I'm sorry." He wanted to run a hand over her head, give her some kind of comfort, but his hands were stained and the thought of blood streaked through her hair made him gag. "I'm sorry."
Someone was pulling on his hands, pulling him away, and he tried to wrench free.
"Sammy, come on, man. Let go."
Even once Dean's voice registered, it was hard to follow his directions, hard to follow much of anything as Dean field-bandaged her and herded them all back to the car.
The drive to the hospital was surreal. Silent but for the roll of tires over asphalt and the girl's pained whimpers.
Dean spent almost as much time looking in the rear-view as he did keeping his eyes on the road, watching for the hospital turnoff. It was hard to say who looked worst: the girl with the rough, torn cloth wrapped awkwardly over her shoulder; the shell-shocked woman, still big-eyed with terror...or Sam, white-faced, mouth set in a grim line, eyes hooded and dark.
As for himself, there was a heaviness in his chest, an ache Dean remembered all too well from their first—second—run-in with the Demon. But it was only an ache this time, not the grind of organ against organ, feeling like he was being torn in two. No outward sign of injury and no permanent damage within.
He talked the woman into taking the girl into the hospital alone, gave her a simple cover story of a carjacking gone wrong, convinced her without trying too hard to leave them out of it. She remembered just enough, it seemed, to know that whatever happened hadn't been their fault, at least directly. Whether she remembered the rest at some point was moot; by the time she carried the girl through the emergency room doors, they were long gone.
They were at the city line when Sam finally spoke. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Are you?"
Sam didn't answer right away. When he did, his voice was hoarse and raw, like he'd been the one screaming. The jagged edge to it made Dean wince.
"It's still pushing, Dean. It's not going to stop, not until it gets what it wants." Sam hunched into the seat, staring unseeing out the windshield.
"No, Sam, it's not." No point spinning it. They both knew it wasn't over.
"I almost killed her."
"But you didn't." Dean barely even let Sam get the words out.
"But I would have. If that's what it took."
Dean had no answer for that. He would have, too.
"I don't know what other tests it has planned, Dean. I don't know what else to do."
"Well, we'll just have to figure it out as we go."
"You don't get it!" Sam's voice was loud, angry.
Sam was looking at him now, and Dean figured it was probably a good a time to pull over, before things got out of hand. The day had been long enough already. "And what is it I don't get?"
With his full attention on Sam, it was impossible to miss the anguish underlying the fury in his brother's expression. Sam was pressed against the door like he needed to keep as much distance between them as possible. He pounded a fist against the dash, hard enough to rock the car.
Startled, Dean couldn't keep from shouting. "Hey!"
But Sam just kept going. "It'll kill you, Dean! Don't you understand? It's going to take you, because you're all I have. And then—"
"There is no 'and then,' Sam. It's not going to happen." And Dean ignored the twist of simultaneous joy and pain Sam's words brought. You're all I have. We're all we have. The cruelest of double-edged swords.
"You beat it, you hear me?" His voice was quiet now but just as intense, trying to quell the denial in Sam's eyes. "You did, Sam. You beat it. It didn't get you and it didn't get me. You did that."
Sam was shaking his head, and Dean fisted his jacket, dragged Sam forward until they were eye-to-eye. "Yeah, it's going to be back. But you beat it this time, and you'll beat it then. And next time, we're going to send it straight back to hell."
Dean had nothing to back up the promise. They still had no foolproof weapon or plan; so far the best they had been able to do was hold the Demon off, not get rid of it. But he promised anyway, needing to convince them both it was true.
Sam's hand gripped his shirt, so hard it caught skin. "I can't lose you, too. Don't you see? It's taking everyone—everyone I . . ." His breath hitched and he stopped. Didn't try to say anything else.
His hand dropped, but Dean's didn't. "Sam, we're going to figure this out. You have to believe that."
A moment passed.
"Okay." So soft, Dean could barely hear it, but it was good enough.
He let Sam go, patted him on the chest. "Okay."
They were back on the road, heading west again. And when he finally got Sam to smile—just barely—at the lamest of jokes when they stopped for gas, it felt pretty damned close to victory.
A familiar motel, a familiar town, but miles and states away from where they'd been. They were parked and registered before Sam realized it. He was exhausted, mentally and physically, barely had the strength to grab his bag and stumble after Dean into the room.
He cleaned up cursorily, only changed his clothes because there was blood on them. That was something he'd have to process later: the memory of the girl's screams, the warmth of her blood, the jump of the gun in his hands when he'd shot her.
They hadn't followed up on her, hadn't even called the hospital anonymously to see if she was okay. They hadn't followed up on the other Hastings deaths, either, hoping the Demon's disappearance—for now—would end the killings.
Every ounce of energy Sam possessed was gone. He let himself roll back, stretched out on the bed, just barely had the presence of mind to ask Dean if he was okay again before closing his eyes.
Dean said yes—no surprise there—and Sam was too wrung out to argue. He knew Dean was hurt somewhere, at least, subtle signs no one else would have noticed. But he couldn't do anything about it tonight.
Tomorrow, though. Tomorrow they were talking. No more secrets, ever.
He heard Dean huff a laugh and realized he'd said it out loud. He cracked an eye open, tried to glare, and realized Dean was stuffing his keys and phone in his pocket rather than setting them on the nightstand. There were neat salt lines by the door and windowsill, an uneven circle around his bed.
"Where're you going?"
"Just taking a walk."
Alarmed, Sam sat up, swung his legs down to the carpet. He put a hand out, caught in a wave of dizziness, and felt Dean grab it.
"Relax, Sam. Sometimes a walk is just a walk."
Sometimes it was. And sometimes, it was walking away. Sam had to swallow against the irony of it; for every step he'd taken away from Dean when he'd left for Stanford, Dean had matched each one and more in the aftermath of Dad's death.
Dean had let him go then, however unwillingly.
Sam couldn't let Dean go now.
It wasn't even the fact that he was pretty sure Dean was the only thing standing between him and evil. Between him and becoming evil. It was knowing that Dean was at the top of the Demon's hit list now. He'd be a target until the Demon was destroyed, once and for all, because he was the only sacrifice Sam was unwilling to make. Anything, anyone but Dean. Nothing else mattered.
"You sure?" The words were thick, slurred, and he knew Dean was laughing at him, just a little. Didn't really bother him, though. Maybe it meant things really were okay.
Dean clapped a hand on his shoulder, pushed him back to the mattress. "I'm sure. I'll grab some dinner while I'm out."
Sam nodded, yawned deep. "Be careful."
He forced himself to wait until Dean agreed before letting himself sleep.
The snow had been gone for days, but the wind was fierce and cold. His boot heels thumped against the bare asphalt, and he flipped his collar up against the chill.
The church glowed the way it had the first night, called to him the way it had then, too. It wasn't that it was a holy place; he didn't believe, couldn't, after all he'd seen. But Dean had felt more at peace there than he had anywhere in a long time. It was part of the reason he'd headed the car this way when they'd left Hastings, needing distance but craving familiarity in a way he usually didn't.
He didn't analyze it much. Sam would have given him a dozen reasons, no doubt, would have tried to say there was some underlying power or faith that brought Dean here. But Dean had no plans to share the details of this little sojourn with his brother.
He was inside in minutes, in a pew in the very back. He closed his eyes and sat. Just...sat.
"Did you find what you were looking for, son?" This time, it was obvious the man was a priest. He wore a simple floor-length white tunic with a knotted white rope belt at his waist. His vestments were crimson.
Dean stared for a moment, not sure how to answer. Not sure if he could.
The priest didn't press, just nodded his head. "You're welcome to stay while I celebrate Mass."
Dean looked pointedly around the empty church before raising an eyebrow. "Uh, you might not have noticed, but there's nobody here."
The priest laughed as he walked toward the altar. "Priests say Mass every day, regardless. And today's special—the feast day of Saint Margaret Clitherow."
Dean leaned back in the pew as the priest set out his prayer book and chalice. "Oh, yeah? Who was she?"
"Well, she's the namesake of this parish. And she was a martyr."
That hit a little close to home. Dean clenched his hands, remembering the look in Sam's eyes as the Demon tried to take him. Imagining the look that had been in his own.
"What did she die for?" He was surprised at how quiet his own voice was. Like the answer really mattered.
The priest's eyes met his. It might have bothered him, except there was no judgment behind the man's gaze, just gentleness...and maybe understanding. "She was arrested for letting Mass be said on her property, for sheltering priests. But she died because she wouldn't surrender her family."
For a moment, Dean couldn't breathe. That reverent quiet blanketed the room again, so still he'd swear he could hear his own heart beating. His vision tunneled and he could feel the blood rushing in his ears.
And then, like a switch being turned on, everything went back to normal. His chest rose and fell, the priest moved about the altar lighting candles, the wind moaned a little as it raced around the steeple and snaked through the gaps in the windows.
Dean stood abruptly, needing to be moving.
"God bless you," the priest called after him as he turned away.
Dean paused, cringing a little, the priest's words unfamiliar if not unwelcome. Damning, he was used to. Blessings? Not so much.
But they needed all the help they could get.
"Say a prayer for my brother, would you, Father?" He pushed the door open, hesitated. "And...one for me."
He stepped back out into the cold of the night, headed back to the motel.
Back to Sam.
A/N: For those interested, St. Margaret Clitherow is real, and that is the gist of her story. Her feast day is March 25.