In Victus

Beta: That Girl Six

A/N: Thanks to our great beta for seeing this story through. Thanks for reading everyone and for all the amazingly sweet reviews! We are both very curious to see what you have to say about this final chapter. Tara has made a wonderful vid for In Victus. It's awesome. We cannot be more pleased at how she brought our ideas to life. Special thanks to her. You can also view the video at The Hunter's Tomb (thehunterstomb(dot)com) on Page 2 of the Videos section. Special note at the bottom from Tidia.

RCJ&TI

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. ~Kahlil Gibran

Dean jerked awake. His heart was beating fast, chest and shoulders tight from the adrenaline-amped nightmare. It served him right for falling asleep. He'd only meant to close his eyes for a moment, gaining a brief reprieve from the stack of journals Bobby had him reading through. The hell hounds were waiting for him.

"Bastards," he breathed. Dean rubbed his eyes, fumbling for the vibrating cell as it pulsed once more on his outstretched legs. Boo stirred beside him as Dean's attempt to answer the phone disturbed the pup from his mid-morning snooze. "Winchester."

Dean pushed himself up on the couch as he recognized Carolyn's voice. Mackland's favorite researcher had promised to call from Wyoming, and despite being pissed off at him, she had followed through. "Carolyn. Hey." He cleared his throat. "How's he doing?"

The news wasn't a surprise. Joshua's condition hadn't improved. His status was still critical, chances of survival as bleak as the night before. "How's Esme holding up?"

It was a stupid question, nothing but hollow words like 'He was a good man'. Dean kneaded the back of his neck as Carolyn explained that Jocelyn and Sandra, Gideon's mother, had arrived while Harland continued to be MIA. There was no way Sawyer didn't know what was happening with his son. Esme was probably better off without him, and at least she wasn't alone.

"Tell her…" Dean faltered, his mouth suddenly dry. "Tell her Mac's at the farm."

The goodbye was clipped, and Dean didn't blame her for being angry. He was a selfish son of a bitch. Mackland had left because of him. They all had. Carolyn saw it as abandonment. She didn't know that while there was a slim hope for Joshua, Dean's own time was up.

"How's our boy?" Missouri's voice had Dean sitting the rest of the way up, giving Boo a nudge so he could bring his feet to the floor.

"Same. But you probably already knew that."

The psychic was carrying a tray with three mugs of Irish coffee and some muffins which she set on the coffee table in front of Dean. "I was hoping I was wrong."

Dean picked up one of the drinks, thankful the slight tremble in his hands didn't show. "That doesn't sound like you." He wrapped his fingers firmly around the chipped mug, relishing in the familiar aroma of Jim's favorite brand of coffee and Johnny Walker Red. Missouri had added whipped cream. Dean glanced up at her and forced a half grin. "Par for the course these days, I guess."

"Don't be too hard on us, Baby." Missouri met his eye. "It's not easy to act normal when your whole world is turning upside down."

"Tell me about it." Dean moved his gaze around the sitting room, his eyes taking in every inch before coming to rest on the mantle over the fireplace. "At least home is always home." That's why he had insisted on coming back to the farm.

"Speaking of . . . " Missouri ran her fingers through his hair, her warm palm coming to rest lightly against the back of his neck. "Caleb and Sam have been holed in that room for hours. Maybe you should take this to them."

Dean exhaled heavily. He'd made them bring him back to Jim's, quashed the detour to Arkansas. But that didn't stop his brother and Caleb from heading straight to The Tomb, desperately searching for a last minute reprieve. "Where's everybody else?"

"Mackland and Bobby are in Jim's study, and I sent Ellen into town to pick up some things for dinner."

He imagined The Scholar and Bobby were utilizing every last second, following any leads that might save him. Dean was tired of chasing his tail but couldn't rob the others of feeling useful. He wouldn't take their last desperate hope. "What's on the menu?"

Missouri removed her touch, her hands going to her ample hips. "Why Pastor Jim's fried chicken, of course. There will be turkey and ham, too. Mashed potatoes, fried okra, corn — all your favorites."

"Your peach cobbler?" Dean quirked a brow.

Dean didn't miss the tear that escaped Missouri's lashes, even though he tried to cover it up with a quick glance away, a brush of fingers across her cheek. "Two batches."

Dean grinned. "I knew I was your favorite."

She waved him away with a flick of her dishtowel. "Take that fleabag of a hound with you, too."

Dean patted Boo, grabbed the tray, and started for the stairs. He found them in nearly the same position as he had the morning Mac showed up with the news about Boone. Dean waited at the door that morning, eavesdropping as Sam and Caleb discussed their last ditch efforts to save him from the deal. It had been hard to put on a front that day, to act as normal as possible. This morning the task was monumental.

"Hey." Dean entered, setting Miss Emma's silver platter atop a pile of scattered papers. He looked at Caleb, who was holding Echnon's Blade. "You two geniuses back to that brilliant plan? Let me guess: now you're considering sacrificing one of old man Gentry's cows?"

"Somebody's got to work while you play happy hostess." Caleb pointed to the muffins and coffee. "And it was his mule we were thinking about, figuring you've got the ass part down pat."

Dean took the empty seat by his brother, the déjà vu unshakeable. "You're the one who was bitching about how I wasn't showing any of Jim's genteel southern hospitality. Make up your damn mind, dude."

"Missouri made these," Sam said, taking a bite into one of the chocolate chip muffins. "And the coffee, too. It doesn't count."

Dean smirked at his brother. "I cooked your meals for nineteen years. Show me some respect, little brother."

Sam smiled. "There's a reason I hate Spaghetti-Os and Raviolis to this day."

Caleb slammed his fist onto the table, rattling the mugs on the tray. "You two either get your heads in the game or get the hell out of here so I can work."

"Damien." Dean leaned back in his seat, waiting until his friend finally met his gaze. "It's the bottom of the ninth and we're scoreless. No bases held, and despite the fact there's nobody I'd rather have pinch hitting than you and Sammy, no one's knocking one out of the park today."

Caleb shoved away from the table, dropping the knife to the floor as he stood. "So what the hell are we supposed to do? Watch the clock? Play some cards? Pretend that in less than thirteen hours you're not going to be ripped to shreds by hell hounds?"

"Caleb," Sam said.

Dean held up a hand to cut off his brother. "Actually, I thought you could take a hike."

Caleb's anger disappeared behind a look of complete exasperation. "You want me to take a hike?" He glanced to Sam as if Dean's brother could somehow translate. "Is that some kind of metaphor? Or have you just completely lost your mind?"

Dean stood. "No. I really mean take a hike, just you and me, Damien."

Caleb ran his hands through his hair. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Maybe some air would do you good, man," Sam joined in. "I can stay here and continue to look through the journals, touch base with Mac and Bobby to see what they've come up with from the European Brotherhood."

Dean clasped a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Let Sammy keep up his Scholarly practice. We've got other business to attend to." Caleb shook his head and Dean grinned. "Come on, Damien, don't force me to make this an order."

"You have to live long enough for Mac to retire before you can give me orders, Dean."

Dean let the smile fade, held his best friend's gaze. "Then I'm asking you. Please."

"Goddamnit," Caleb growled, picking up his cap from the table and stomping towards the exit. "I'll get my boots and meet you at the fucking barn."

"Grab a shovel while you're out there," Dean called after him, his grin returning. He gave his brother a wink. "I'll give him a chance to work off some of his frustration."

"Dean." Sam caught his sleeve as he turned to go. "About the research…"

Dean squeezed Sam's wrist. "Forget the research, Sammy."

"But —"

"You really want to do something for me?"

"You know I do." Sam stood. "Anything."

"Missouri's making dinner, the full spread, you know: Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday all rolled into one, nothing spared." Sam's gaze was so intense and earnest, hanging on every word. Dean had to swallow hard to keep his throat from closing up. "There's just one thing missing, and I thought you could help with that."

"What is it, Dean?"

"Peanut butter cookies. I can't have a last meal without them."

At first he thought Sam was going to get angry, but the kid surprised him by giving him a full-on grin. "I'll burn them on the bottom just like Mom used to do."

"That's my boy."

Caleb was waiting at the barn just as he said he would be with Boo and Harper dancing at his feet. They seemed to understand there was an adventure to be had, or maybe they craved a moment away from the intensity of the farm. They were ready to go, as was Caleb, who shoved a pack and canteen of water at Dean when he arrived. "Here's your goddamn gear, Sir."

Dean took the pack, grabbing another bag he'd stashed behind some hay bales earlier that day. He grinned. "Thanks, Private." Caleb had been notorious for caving even before Dean's death sentence. Now he was a shameless pushover. Dean loved the guy for it. "Let's move out." To his credit, Caleb merely rolled his eyes when Dean donned the backpack, handed him the collapsible shovel, and whistled for Boo and Harper.

The reprieve didn't last long. Halfway up the mountain Caleb reverted back to his surly ways. "This is stupid, Dean," he said for the fifth time. Dean smiled. It reminded him of Sam asking Pastor Jim how much further over and over again.

"I think you've mentioned that, Damien."

"We should be fucking doing something."

"Like what?"

"Anything besides taking a goddamn nature stroll," Caleb snapped. "This isn't you, Dean. This isn't us. We're not quitters. We fight to the end. Johnny would be pissed as hell."

"Maybe I'm tired of fighting." Dean wondered if Caleb realized how many times he had said Dean's name in the last few weeks. Dean. It had become a buffer between them, a barrier. Mackland had noticed, too. Dean watched at the hospital as the doctor's whole body had stiffened as if his given name was an omen of another kind of death. Esme wasn't the only one in jeopardy of losing a son.

"Fighting is all we know."

That was the point. Dean was tired of fighting, but he didn't feel like he was throwing down his sword. Instead it felt as if Dean was taking up a new gauntlet, the most important challenge of his life. He had to protect those closest to him from his death, offer them some kind of road map from which to carry on without him. They were barreling through uncharted territory with no brakes where just around the bend lay a world Dean would never exist in. Dean wasn't sure how to navigate that journey, was pretty damn sure he was going about it all wrong, but he would ride with them for this leg of the trip. It was the best he could offer. Seeing Kathleen with Riley had driven that point home.

"I've been thinking about doing this for a while now," Dean said. He stopped, running the back of his hand over his forehead to wipe away the sweat. The sweet smell of new blossoms was on the wind. Dean inhaled, closing his eyes briefly before he cut his gaze to Caleb. "Now seemed like the right time." It was the only time he had left.

The other hunter snorted. "You want to play gardener, Dean? I can think of a hell of lot more fun trips we could have made."

Dean forced a grin, although a part of him wanted to shake Caleb. "The Red Caboose is too far away, Damien, and we've already done Vegas once this year." He wanted to spend his last hours at the farm. Dean would have the last say. "And I think Missouri would be crushed if she didn't get to serve me my last meal. She's made two batches of peach cobbler. I can't let her down." He couldn't let any of them down, indulging in their request to have one huge family supper. Mackland, Bobby, and Ellen would join them. Mackland would be carving the turkey, Caleb and Sam would sit at his side. Dean would be the brave soldier for one more day, but everyone would leave afterwards. Everyone but his brothers.

Caleb rolled his eyes and kept hiking. "I know what you're thinking, Dean. Planting some stupid ass tree in Miss Emma's garden isn't going to help me. It's not going to do one damn bit of good."

"Maybe this isn't about you, Damien." Dean stopped, knew without looking they had reached the tree line that would open up into the field of wildflowers where three lone oaks stood sentry. He turned and grabbed the shovel from Caleb. "Maybe it's about me and doing something I need to do."

"And I'm here to bear witness? Is that it?"

Caleb stared at him, his gold eyes hidden behind the wrap-around Ray Bans he was wearing, his face shadowed by the baseball cap he'd pulled low. It was a new look, one Caleb had taken to sporting over the last few weeks as time ran out. A disguise to what end, Dean wasn't sure. Or maybe it was a mask. Either way, Dean knew him too well to be fooled, could read Caleb's emotions without effort. It would be as about as effective in shielding his best friend from his death as the use of 'Dean' would be in distancing him from the pain of the loss.

"You should have brought Sam. I didn't get into this Arbor Day ritual the first time around."

Dean shook his head. He remembered Pastor Jim's attempt to make Mother's Day bearable. This day was a hundred times worse, yet Dean had to try. For as accountable as he had always felt for Sam's safety and physical wellbeing, he'd felt just as responsible for Caleb's heart. "You once said you'd do anything for me." He played his trump card, which just happened to be the wild card, the deuce of spades. "I'm the closest thing you've got to a brother."

Caleb looked momentarily stricken, seemed to shrink from his six-three stature before Dean's very eyes. Then his friend rallied, straightening his shoulders ramrod and gave a John Winchester worthy swear. "Give me the goddamn shovel." He grabbed the tool and shoved Dean roughly as he passed by, muttering as he went. "And you are my brother — a pain in the ass, idiot of a little brother — in every way that counts."

Dean never doubted it.

Caleb threw another shovelful of dirt to the side. They had been at it a while now, working in silence. Dean could feel the reprieve come to an end as he dropped the first sapling into the hole.

"Planting a couple of trees for you isn't going to make it all right. It doesn't change anything."

Dean glanced up at the tallest oak, the one Pastor Jim had helped Emma plant; then to the two smaller trees, one for Mom and the other he and Sammy had planted for Amelia Reaves. "They're not for me." He unwrapped the second sapling. "They're for Pastor Jim and Dad." It was a final goodbye. "You and Sammy can plant one for me next spring when things are better."

"Better?" The word was broken. Dean glanced up quickly, shielding his eyes from the sun. He'd miscalculated the outcome of his sentiment.

"You think a fucking year is going to make it better?" Caleb threw down the shovel, falling to his knees. "Holy shit." He slid the sunglasses off; they hung limply in his grip. "What the fuck is wrong with you, Dean?"

The sight didn't invite compassion or empathy, but fired Dean's own pent-up anger and frustration. "For one, I'm fucking tired of you calling me 'Dean'." He thrust an accusing finger towards his friend. "You've spoken my goddamn name more in the last few weeks than you have in a lifetime, you fucking sonofabitch! So what the hell is wrong with you?" Dean dropped the sapling. "I need you to be normal. I need one fucking thing in my life to be normal. And what do you do? You start wearing ridiculous sunglasses and stupid ball caps and saying Dean as if it was some kind of solemn vow or a hex to ward off evil. Well, you know what Caleb…" Dean emphasized each syllable as if a punch. "It feels more like a curse, like one of those fucking four-letter words Jim would wash your goddamn mouth out for."

"I'm sorry." Caleb pulled the cap off then let it drop on the rich dark dirt. "I'm sorry if I'm doing it all wrong. I'm sorry if I don't know how to be whatever it is you need me to be at this moment, because in case you haven't noticed I've been spending every second of every goddamn day trying to save your fucking life. It's all I can think about. I can't sleep. I can't eat. So if my subconscious has somehow made this impossible situation the least bit uncomfortable for you, then I'm sorry." His face crumbled then, and Dean almost prayed for Caleb to put the sunglasses and hat back on. "I'm so fucking sorry, Deuce."

"Damien…" Dean dropped to the ground facing him, all his anger fleeing. "This is not your fault."

Caleb grabbed Dean's shirt, his hands twisting desperately in the front. "I'm so sorry I couldn't save you, Deuce." He choked back a sob, his head dropping to rest against Dean's chest. "I would do anything to save you."

Dean's heart was pounding, his own emotions barely contained. He gripped Caleb's shoulders, closing his eyes with the wish he would just wake the hell up from the ongoing bad dream. Agonizing pain tore through his chest, shaking his voice, the words nothing more than a whisper. "You did save me. A hundred different ways, man."

Caleb lifted his head, bringing his hand to rest against Dean's face. "Not the way that mattered. You're still going to die." Caleb let him go, pulling from Dean's grasp. "I promised Johnny. I promised myself all those years ago I wouldn't let anything happen to you. I'd do whatever it took to protect you. I wouldn't lose another family."

Dean felt his eyes begin to sting, his throat burn. "Did you have a vision?"

"What?"

"A vision about my death?" Dean's last resort was a little underhanded but had the ring of Jim-worthy logic. "I know you had nightmares, but did you actually have a full-on psychic moment where you saw me being killed by the hell hounds? Did you have a vision of that night in the crossroad before I kissed the bitch in the first place?"

"No." Caleb shook his head. "No visions."

Dean reached up and squeezed the back of Caleb's neck, giving him a slight shake. "Then maybe you weren't meant to stop any of this or save me, Damien. Not this time."

"But you were supposed to make it to thirty." If Caleb's face hadn't held a complete look of sincerity, Dean would have laughed. "We were going to crash The Playboy Mansion. I promised you a night you'd never forget."

"It's okay, Dude. I'll settle for a night out at the pond and a bottle of Jim's finest brew." There wouldn't be any hot Bunnies, but it was their typical way to celebrate. "We'll put some ears and a tail on Sammy if it makes you feel better."

"I don't want you to die."

It was said with such fierceness, such heartbreaking innocence that Dean had no problem picturing the six-year-old little boy who'd watched his whole world disappear in a whirlwind of blood, sulfur, and gunpowder. He couldn't hold back the hysterical chuckle. "If wishes were horses…" It was one of Dad's favorites. Caleb would understand.

His best friend's lip trembled before his face contorted into a half-grin. "We'd be rich motherfuckers."

"You are rich," Dean pointed out. Caleb laughed, and even though he caught the hitched breath and mixed sob, it sounded so damn good. "And I'm practically a land baron."

They laughed harder.

Caleb fell back on his ass in the dirt, wiping his eyes. He took a deep shuddering breath. "Damn, I miss Johnny."

Dean swallowed, sitting back against Miss Emma's tree. The earth was cold and hard beneath him, but the bark of the oak was warm from the sun. "Me, too." He wanted to see Dad one last time.

Caleb picked at a clump of grass. "Too bad money can't buy shit these days."

Dean sighed. "American dollar can't hold its own with the Euro or bribe a faction of demons. What's our economy coming to?"

"Just one of the many punch lines you won't be around to get, Deuce."

Dean knew what the levity was costing his best friend. Caleb was forcing it for his sake, but he was too selfish and afraid not to play along. He had to keep it together. Just a few more hours. "Damn, dude, I'll never know if Britney and K-Fed gave it another go or how they wrap up Lost."

Caleb kicked his boots. "Tough breaks, kiddo."

"I can live with it," Dean shrugged. "Or die without it as the case may be." He glanced up at the blue sky framed through the green leaves and raised branches of Emma's tree. There were other things he couldn't leave without knowing. He looked to Caleb, who was watching him. "But I have to know that Sammy will be okay."

"You know I'll watch out for him. I'll protect him, no matter what. You have my word."

"I want him to have a life, not just keep breathing."

"Okay."

"I want him to go back to school, finish his degree. Maybe even settle down and have some kids."

"The school part I can probably swing, but I'm not an authority on the Carol and Mike Brady shit. I can score him all the hot chicks he wants, but your little brother…"

"Doesn't need a dating service," Dean interrupted. "He needs a good swift kick in the ass every now and then." The best way to handle a Knight was to give him a new charge, a new mission.

"Now that may fall under my line of expertise."

"You bet it does." Dean licked his lips. "He needs a big brother, man."

Caleb lifted his hand, started to shake his head, but Dean beat him to it. "That's something you're an expert at, too. You've had years of practice. No need to waste it just because I won't be around, Damien."

"You're willing me your cape, Captain Onehelluva Big Brother?"

"You don't need it. You've always had your own." Dean pinned him with a hard gaze.

Caleb looked down at the ground, pulling more grass from the upturned earth. He picked up a handful of soil, crumbling it in his hand before letting it slide through his fingers. He looked at Dean, wiping his hands on his jeans.

"I have another dying wish. You can't deny me that. Right?" Dean fingered one of the leaves on the newly planted sapling.

Caleb pushed to standing, grabbing the shovel. He dug it into the ground and then stepped on the back of the blade. "All that set-up means this is going to be something I don't like." Caleb dug into the ground again with a disgruntled snort.

Dean followed his friend to make it shakily to his feet. The emotional roller coaster they were on made the one in Vegas look like a kid's merry-go-round. "Start painting again."

"What?" Caleb stopped digging, leaning into the handle. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"You heard me." Dean picked up the second tree. "The whole brooding artist routine — you love it." He glanced at his friend while Caleb put the shovel down to help him. "But none of that dark, demonic shit. I know you think it's you, but I have this demon x-ray vision thing going on, and I got to tell you, you're just average ugly, Damien." Dean placed the sapling in the hole, pushing the loose dirt in around it. "So stop signing your work 'Thomas Seaver'. That person doesn't exist, never did."

Caleb patted the dirt. "And what great moniker should I use, Deuce?"

"Try 'Ames'." Dean's fingers brushed against Caleb's as they finished their task. "Caleb Ames. That guy is real."

"Shit." Caleb pulled his hand away, rubbing his jeans to remove the dirt. "Any other requests?"

"Buy a fucking car, Dude. Lay Dad's truck to rest in the barn with your old Jeep." Dean smiled, dusting his hands together. "Get Bobby to change the oil on a regular basis or get Sammy to teach you to do it yourself."

Caleb propped his hands on his hips. "I can't make any promises."

Dean studied their handiwork. "As long as I know you'll try. Give me that." Dean held out his hand. "Please."

Caleb took a step forward. "It's you, Deuce." He clasped his arm with a pained grimace. "And I'd do anything for you."

Rcj&Ti&Rcj&Ti

"How about it, Damien? Are you drunk?" Dean looked from Sam on his left to Caleb on his right. They were huddled together against the overturned row boat at the edge of the pond where they'd built a fire to fight off the early spring chill. Boo and Harper Lee were curled at Dean's feet, seemingly asleep after having their fill of marshmallows. Their ears twitched at every noise from the forest, letting out the occasional low rumbling growl. He wondered if they sensed the coming danger.

"He's jealous because the Cassiopeia I see has pasties and a garter belt, too. Tiny Einstein's mind just doesn't grab the abstract concepts."

Laughter filled the night. The stars twinkled from above appearing to chuckle at the inside joke. "The constellation Cassiopeia is shaped like a 'W', Damien."

"Right." Caleb lifted his hand, drawing an invisible letter in the air. "'W' for woman. That's how I remembered it when Pastor Jim used to quiz us."

"Like I said, drunk. You should take the bottle away from him," Sam said.

Caleb snorted, puffs of condensation punctuating his breath. "Not drunk enough." He handed over the bottle of Jim's finest without a fight. "But you get the last shot."

Dean toasted them both, hoping the smooth burn of the whiskey would take away the fear threatening to bubble through. His last hours had quickly dwindled. Dean tossed the bottle past the edge of the fire. "Nothing good lasts forever."

He stared at the flames to savor the hiss and crackle of the coals as the light cast shadows on the moonlit water. Dinner had gone too fast, a momentary refuge from reality. They had laughed and talked while eating Missouri's fine food. When it was over, he'd said his goodbyes to the women, watching as they drove away just before dusk.

It had been so much harder to let Mackland and Bobby go, a small taste of what it would be like to send Caleb and Sam away before the stroke of midnight. They hadn't wanted to leave but honored his wishes. Seeing the two of them like that, two of the strongest men he'd ever known, the heroes that had shaped his life. . . Dean shuddered.

"You okay?"

Sam bumped his shoulder and when Dean turned, the look on his little brother's face was almost his undoing. "Just a little cold." It took the last of his reserves, but he forced a half-assed grin. "Not hearing any hell hounds yet."

"We could try to take them."

Caleb's soft declarative didn't surprise him. "Damien, we already had this discussion." Dean had argued with all of them when they'd ambushed him with a planned intervention. They had tried every avenue, investigated every path that Dean would allow, and still found it impossible to accept he was going to die. He appreciated it, loved them for it more than he could ever say, but placing his family in needless danger only to have them watch him die for their trouble in the end was not something he was going to cave on. He wouldn't give their enemy the satisfaction.

"I don't understand why you won't let us try. At least stand together…"

Dean closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Caleb had watched his parents die. Sam had watched Jessica go up in flames, found their father in the hospital. He didn't want to leave them with a similar memory of him. The good moments that they shared together, their past, were all he had left to offer. Jim's words rang in his mind. 'Only love remains.' "No."

Caleb turned towards him, his gold eyes shiny wet in the firelight. "You really expect us to just walk away?"

"Don't make this harder, man."

"Leaving you here will be the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

Dean knew from experience watching him die would be worse. "Trust me, Damien." He stood, offering Caleb a hand up. "I'm doing this for your own good." It was time. He had set things straight with Caleb and made sure his best friend would take care of his little brother. But now he needed to talk to Sam alone.

Caleb hesitated, looking out towards the woods before finally accepting the help up. He stumbled slightly when he was on his feet, bumping into Dean. "That's the problem, Deuce…" Dean steadied his best friend, feeling Caleb's weight as he leaned against him. "You're always thinking of what's best for everyone else."

Dean kept one hand on Caleb but used the other to reach into his pocket, his fingers closing around the object he'd remembered to bring with him. "You know it." Dean slipped the compass from his coat, keeping it shielded within his grasp. "That's why they all call me 'Mr. Sensitivity'."

Caleb met his gaze, holding it for a long silent moment. "You're Deuce to me."

Dean was carried back to a long ago Christmas Eve. "Thanks for knowing how to share, man." Under Mac's direction, Caleb had given him one of his presents from under the tree. The hand held video game was great to a six-year-old, but Damien had given him something more that day and every day since.

Caleb pulled him into a hard embrace. Dean clung to the older man, felt Caleb's crushing grip. "I love you, Deuce."

Dean closed his eyes, remembering countless times when Caleb had provided him a shield from the world they lived in. "I never doubted it, Damien. Never."

Caleb was a constant reference point, never changing, unfailing, not unlike Orion or the North Star. Dean held onto his best friend for a few seconds longer before slipping the compass Sam had given him in Caleb's jacket pocket. The inscription inside was the only direction one needed; home was more than a coordinate on a map. Maybe it would help Caleb find his way once Dean was gone.

He pulled back slightly until Caleb grudgingly let him go. Damien laid a strong hand against his cheek and then he was gone. Dean watched him go until the darkness swallowed him. Fear gained ground, and on the wind Dean was sure he heard a distant howl. He fought back the panic, forcing himself to do the unthinkable. Now it was his turn to do the hardest thing. Dean had to say goodbye to Sammy.

Rcj&Ti&Rcj&Ti

"He won't go far." Sam felt Caleb's struggle as he fulfilled Dean's request. It was the same battle Sam was currently waging. "Neither will I."

Dean moved back to the fire. "As long as you're not here, little brother."

"I've been thinking about that, you know." Sam gestured over his shoulder towards the glow of lights from the farmhouse in the distance. "This is all protected land. Maybe it will be enough to keep you safe." He doubted their answer would be that simple, but he was past logic, encroaching on desperation. As every second passed, he understood more and more what his brother had been thinking that night that had brought them here in the first place.

Dean tossed another piece of wood onto the fire. "I think I negated that kind of sanctuary when I swapped spit with the sexy Crossroads Demon."

"But you're a Guardian. Merlin's magic has to offer some kind of protection."

Sam watched as Dean studied the inky waters of the pond, running his thumb over his silver ring. "The most I can hope for is that maybe there will be something waiting on the other side, besides the bad guys."

Sam pulled his knees into his chest, wrapping his long arms around himself to stare into the flames. Dean's answer didn't bring him any comfort, nor was his brother's last attempt at a fireside chat going to help. He had loved this ritual as a boy. Roasting hot dogs, making smores, and listening to the stories Pastor Jim would tell, none of which contained any ghosts. They had celebrated the same way when Dean killed the Yellow-Eyed Demon. That night felt light years away. "You made that deal because of me, and I promised you we'd find a way out."

Dean's shoulder brushed against his. He felt his brother's heavy sigh. "I made that deal because I couldn't let you go, Sammy. You're my weakness. A year ago right now, you were dead. I didn't know where you were, if you were scared or what was happening to you wherever you were. I couldn't leave you like that." Sam turned, resting his head on his arms. Dean forced a smile. "It's not your fault. I just couldn't stand the fact you were dead. You're my brother."

Sam placed a hand on his tightening chest, feeling his heart beats slowing to punctuate, trying to get a lifetime of 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry' in before there was no time. "Then you should understand that I can't sit by and watch you go to Hell."

"That's why you'll be leaving."

"But Dean…" He would beg his brother whose dream was to be surrounded by family. It was an unsaid last wish which was in his power to grant.

"This discussion is over, Sammy. No more deals. No more last minute rescues. That kind of thinking got us into this mess, and I for one am tired of being fucked over by demon kind."

Sam wished his father was here. As life and decisions got harder, he wished he could talk to his dad. He knew now John's advice would be invaluable. Fathers were needed for those life lessons.

His brother provided different life lessons. Everyday Dean was sharing his life with Sam as they crisscrossed the country, and it would be in the mundane moments where he would miss his brother's presence the most. "Then what the hell am I supposed to do, Dean?"

"Keep fighting." Dean licked his lips. "Take care of my wheels. Watch out for Caleb." Sam watched him take a silver ring from his pocket. He held it out to Sam. "Make sure The Brotherhood continues on."

"What?" He was numb to The Brotherhood. He had seen his brother transform into The Guardian with pride. It was a job fitting his brother, but The Brotherhood was tarnished for him. It didn't provide Dean with a way out.

"This is Pastor Jim's ring. There will need to be a new Guardian. I've talked to Mac, been reading up on some of Jim's journals. It won't be traditional like Jim hoped, but we can't be without a Triad. I'm not sure exactly how it all works, but I think if I nominate someone to serve in my stead, they'll be judged accordingly." Dean didn't give him a chance to speak. He thrust the ring towards him. "Elijah."

Sam shook his head, unwilling to accept what his brother was saying. "Caleb will never…"

"Damien will do what needs to be done. Same as you." Sam realized he was suddenly speaking with The Guardian, not his brother. "When it's time, you two will take this to Elijah. It needs to be soon, because The Brotherhood has been on shaky ground as it is. Mackland has Jim's journals and mine. They'll go to The Guardian, but I've deeded the farm and everything here to you and Caleb. I think Eli will understand."

Sam took the ring, the weight of it heavier than he imagined. His was tucked away with a faded photograph of his mother and Jessica's scorched locket. "How long have you been planning this?" When had his brother had the time to plan, let along put his affairs into state?

"What did you think I was doing while you and Damien had all those clandestine meetings?" Dean slapped him in the gut, Guardian reverting to big brother again. "A guy can only watch so much porn."

"You never believed we'd save you?" The idea disturbed Sam on a level he couldn't explain. His entire life, he'd never felt unprotected or at-risk. To some degree he had always been Prince Samuel sequestered in a magical castle. Even at his darkest moments Sam believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that his brother would make things right. Dean would save him. The fact he couldn't return that single gesture to his brother in Dean's greatest time of need was a shot to his heart.

Dean must have recognized the look of torment in his eyes because he moved closer, sheltering Sam under his wing, hell bent on putting Sammy's world right even though his life was collapsing around him. "I never lost faith in you, Sammy."

Dean believed in his family above all else. Sam used to hate that his brother put so much belief into Dad, a man Sam felt completely unworthy. Now he was grateful for Dean's unshakeable loyalty. "I should have been able to save you. You've taken care of me my whole life, and I can't even do this one thing."

Dean squeezed his shoulder. "I know this sucks, kiddo. I know it's all my fault, but if it makes any difference this is definitely not what I had planned. I thought I'd be there to make fun of your kids, be your best man and give you a crazy bachelor party." He laughed. "I mean, that's the dream. Right? We believe what we have will last forever." Dean let him go. "I wanted to believe it would last forever."

Sam didn't know what to say, how to sum up the myriad of emotions threatening to overwhelm him. When he did speak, the words could have come from a seven-year-old version of himself. "You can't die, Dean. You're Captain Onehelluva Big Brother. You're Athewm."

"I'm not a superhero, Sammy. Never was." Dean choked on a hoarse laugh. "And I hate to break it to you, but every dragon has its St. George, even a jade protection dragon like Athewm."

Sam looked down at the ring in his hand, closing his fingers tightly around it. The prince's castle was crumbling.

"But you know what happens to a dragon when it dies?"

Sam looked up to meet his brother's jade eyes. "What?"

"It rises from the ashes as a mighty phoenix."

Sam nodded. "We won't stop trying to save you." He swallowed thickly. "I'll get you back. I promise."

"You're a good brother, Sam. Best wish I ever had answered was getting you for a little brother — even when you were a pain in my ass, which was pretty much the last, oh…" Dean glanced at his watch. "Twenty-six years. Give or take a few minutes." He cocked a brow. "Don't think I've forgotten what today is."

Sam's chest tightened further. He would never celebrate another birthday again. "Dean…"

Before he could protest further, his brother was presenting him with a crudely wrapped brown package. Dean's goofy smile kept him from refusing. His brother never missed his birthday. Even in the quiet years at Stanford, Sam never came away empty handed.

"Open it," Dean encouraged. "And don't bother saving the fancy wrappings. They're recycled."

Sam almost smiled when he tore into the paper and realized it was part of Boo and Harper's discarded dog food bag. "Great time to go green, Dean."

Dean laughed. "Better late than never."

Sam continued unwrapping, recognizing the black cord instantly. The silver protection amulet was the final blow to his defenses. "No. I can't keep this." He tried to give it back to his brother. "I gave this to you…"

Dean was having none of it. He pushed the necklace back towards Sam. "You know we Winchesters are notorious re-gifters."

He didn't bother to wipe away the tears that streaked shamelessly down his face as he shook his head. "Bits and pieces of you aren't going to make it better."

"I know that." Dean opened Sam's hand, placed the amulet inside, and closed his brother's hand around it. "But at least I know you have something left of me, that everything I love, everything that's important is still safe over here. No matter what those bastards do to me, they can't touch the best parts." He lifted his gaze to Sam's. "I'm proud of you, Sammy. So are Mom and Dad."

Sam struggled to piece together something to say. "I'm proud to be Dean Winchester's little brother." He wanted to tell Dean he realized all his brother had sacrificed during his life, way before any deals had been made.

"I want you to promise me something, Sammy." Dean raked a hand through his hair.

Sam would agree to anything. He had already agreed to limit the use of his psychic abilities. It was an easy promise to make. Sam nodded, not trusting his voice.

"Go back to school. They don't just give every geek a full ride to Stanford. I want you to have it all — a slice of normal you always wanted."

Sam smiled at his brother's unselfish nature. Dean was giving him permission, the permission he wished he had asked for and gotten before going to college. "I will after we get you back home." He wanted to make Dean proud.

He found himself jumping when Dean's gaze suddenly whipped to the surrounding forest. Boo and Harper Lee stood, growling. The sounds of their vicious snarls were deafening in the night that had grown eerily quiet.

"Dean?"

Dean gripped his wrist. "You need to go."

"Why? What's going on? Do you see them?" He felt anguish building up. He wanted his brother to stay with him. He didn't want Dean to die. He was scared of what would happen next and of what his life would be like without Dean. He had spent his entire life being someone's son and someone's little brother. It had been too long already that he was no longer anyone's son. He didn't know how to not be someone's little brother.

"No." Dean shook his head, making it to his feet with Sam in tow. "I hear them."

"The Tomb," Sam said as he tried to manhandle his brother to taking a step to the farmhouse. "We could barricade you in. Use the goofpher dust and The Dragon's Talon. I have Ruby's knife."

"No." Dean pointed to the boat. "You and I are going to get this old girl in the water, and then you, Cujo Boo, and his buddy Fang the fat Beagle are going to go find Damien."

"No, Dean…" Sam gripped his brother's army green jacket to keep him tethered to this world and himself attached to his brother.

Dean didn't shake off the grip. He bent down, shushing the dogs before grabbing the edge of the boat to flip it over. "Then I'll do it myself."

Sam glanced to the tree-line. Boo and Harper had quieted some, but Boo was still whining loudly, his body quivering in anticipation. Dean was smart to have leashed them. "I don't know what to do."

He hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud until Dean spoke. "Help me."

Sam released his brother's jacket. He clenched his fists, looking from his brother to the pitch black forest around them. Every instinct his father had drilled into him kicked into gear, demanding he go against his brother's plan. Stand and fight. Save the family. Save your brother.

"Sammy. Please."

Sam pulled the protection amulet over his head, feeling it rest against his chest. He shoved Pastor Jim's ring in his pocket along with the crude gift wrapping before bending to lend his brother a hand with the boat. They got it right side up, dragging it to the water's edge.

"I don't understand how this is going to help." He didn't understand how his world was crashing around him, and he was helpless just as he had been with Jessica and his father. He couldn't control the stream of tears falling or the hitching of his breath.

"If they're going to take me out, they're going to do it in my territory."

Sam licked his lips, tasting the salt. "The pond's blessed." He hoped God was watching, waiting for the right time to help them.

"It won't stop them, but I'm hoping the bath will hurt like hell."

Sam caught his brother's arm, stopping him from shoving off. He pulled him into a hard hug, holding on for the last time, trying to memorize every sensation. He couldn't help but to think of Dad, the last moments they had shared, the words never spoken. "I love you, Dean."

Dean gripped him back just as fiercely. "I love you too, little brother."

Then the moment was over. Dean pulled back, his attention zeroed in on the far side of the pond. Boo and Harper began barking, pawing at the sand, pulling at their leads which were staked in the loose earth. "Get the dogs and go. Now!"

Sam was helpless to stop him as Dean pushed the boat hard, jumping in at the last minute. Dean balanced, turning to face his brother as he launched across the pond. "Go," Dean shouted. "Don't look back."

Sam could barely see through the tears as he stooped to untie Boo and Harper. It took all his waning strength to hold Boo back as the dog lunged against his tether, Harper adding his own bulky measure to the battle. Sam imagined what they could see, wondered if it was the same visage Dean would know or just a sensation of evil.

He heard splashing and strained to keep sight of his brother and the boat as it drifted further from him, away from the safety of the firelight into the darkness. Sam backed into the forest, dragging the resisting dogs along with him. Dean was only a shadowed silhouette when the hellhounds reached him. Sam didn't see them, but he felt his brother's fear, the pain as the boat rocked and more splashing erupted. The screams broke the night. Sam doubled over, biting his lip to keep from adding his own voice. He tasted blood. His brother's cries added sound effect to the agony he felt inside as a fiery sensation ripped through his mind.

Another inhuman howl echoed from just behind him. He thought the hellhounds had come for him, almost welcomed the chance to tear into the evil bastards until Caleb reached him. Sam watched him move to the water's edge and fall to his knees. They were sharing the same loss. Their connection to Dean was gone, the unbreakable thread disappearing like a spider's web under the sun. Only this wasn't a mirage or a trick of light. Their link was broken, dissolved, torn asunder. Dean was gone forever.

Sam collapsed to the ground, releasing the dogs, knowing that the danger had passed as quickly as it had come. He rolled onto his back, the night sky a blur of pin prick luminaries. Orion blinked down at him. He heard a long ago conversation from light years away.

"Show me my constellation, Dean."

"Right there, little brother. Draco the dragon."

"Where's your favorite?"

"There's my favorite, Sammy. Orion."

"Why's he your favorite?"

"Because Pastor Jim says he watches over all hunters. He keeps our family safe."

Sam turned over and shoved to his feet and ran. Sam didn't stop when he hit the farmhouse's front porch, slamming through the screen door, pounding up the stairs. Only when he reached his and Dean's room did he come to an abrupt halt. He was accosted by the suffocating loneliness of the room.

The door was ajar with one bedside lamp on. He walked to loom over the small dresser beneath their one and only window. Five tiny dragons and a winged horse greeted him.

Sam swung his arm to scatter the sentries from their post, clearing the bureau top with one blow. He watched the dragons fall. Dean might have been the only one physically gone, but Hell had claimed them all.

Sam's gaze fell on the silver horse from his mother. He lifted his foot and brought it down swiftly, crushing the toy beneath his boot.

Hell had no place for Hope.

RCJ & TI

Not enough angst?

Watch Tara's video at the website typed out below!

http(colon)//www(dot)youtube(dot)com/watch?v=imSy5yVRkMY

Ti's Special Note: Please go to The Hunters Tomb (www(dot)thehunterstomb(dot)com for information about our new campaign. The last one to get Ten Inch Hero released worked out well with a dvd release date of Feb 2009. Now, we want to try to have an east coast convention with both Jensen and Jared.