A/N: Final chapter! Many, many thanks to the faithful few who read and reviewed throughout - your support really buoyed me in my moments of kvetchiness. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that, but it's true. I hope there are others of you out there who've read and enjoyed. I try not to toot my own horn, but I was really proud of how this one turned out.
"Well, fancy meeting you here, Dean," a voice said cheerfully. Anthony. The kid got in Dean's face, tugging the knife away easily. "You weren't going to use that on me, were you? Tsk."
"You little bastard."
"That's really hurtful, Dean." Anthony beckoned to someone Dean couldn't see. "We were looking for someone for Sam to practice on, but I guess now we've got you, the problem's solved."
"Shut up. Sam's not … he wouldn't."
Anthony just laughed.
All the Little Children
Dean really should have thought of this. He was helpless, already trapped by the kids' powers after only a few moments. He didn't have control of his arms and legs, but they moved anyway. Déjà vu. He didn't like it any more now than he had before. Dean didn't think all the kids could be there, but it didn't matter since he was being moved and guided along without visible effort on their part. This wasn't turning out to be much of a rescue, but he couldn't be unhappy they'd take him right to Sam. Once they were together, he and Sam could handle a bunch of kids.
As they walked, Dean's head cleared more. He tried to see if anyone on the street noticed him being guided by a bunch of wrong-looking kids. There were only three of them. They probably didn't look unusual, if anyone could see them at all.
He was right about their base of operations not being in the same vicinity where they picked up their victims. Anthony led them to Andy's van and drove away quickly, with the little girl in the passenger seat. Another boy, one Dean didn't remember from Lawrence, was apparently the puppet master. Every time the kid twitched a finger, Dean's body betrayed him. The kid smiled at him the whole trip, a barely there, infernal little smirk.
"You think this is funny?" Dean said, as the kid made him slap himself across the face.
"Yeah, it's pretty funny," the kid said, laughing outright.
"Knock it off, Patrick," Anthony said from the front of the van.
Immediately the kid, Patrick, stopped and looked cowed. That wasn't a surprise. Even in Lawrence, Dean had pegged Anthony as the one in charge. The boy seemed comfortable with the role, which made Dean wonder how much he really wanted Sam to take over running things.
"Oh, I don't care about that. It's true that I've got a pretty sweet thing going. I think Sam sees how good I've done." Shit. He hadn't spoken out loud. Anthony laughed and sing-songed, "I know what you're thinking."
Yeah, well, fuck you very much, Dean thought.
"Ouch," Anthony said with mock hurt in his tone. "Watch the language, Dean. I'm just a little kid."
Dean tried to keep his mind as blank as possible from that point on. He doubted he did that great of a job, because Anthony kept sniggering in an emotionless way that grated on Dean's nerves. Fortunately, the ride wasn't a long one. Soon Patrick made him get out of the van. The kid gave Dean back motor control just as he was stepping down so that he lost his balance and fell flat on his face. His chin scraped against the sidewalk.
"That's going to leave a mark," Patrick said, and then continued his puppeteer act.
The house was one of those every neighborhood seemed to have. Where the rest of the block was white picket fences and fresh siding, this place was run down, with an overgrown lawn and chipped paint. Dean would find it hard to believe no one noticed a bunch of kids showing up one day, going in and out, except he knew one of them was able to manipulate what people saw. Everyone in the neighborhood was probably under the whammy. Still, he desperately looked up and down the block until he was walked through the front door.
"Take him downstairs," Anthony said.
"I can walk myself," Dean said. "It's not like I can go anywhere anyway."
"All right. Patrick, ease up."
Dean stumbled a little, but quickly regained his footing. He resisted the urge to kick Patrick in the family jewels, the punk. Anthony smirked at him and pointed to a door, which he assumed led to the basement. He looked around the house. All the faces looked back at him with disdain. None of them were Sam. He had a fair idea that Sam was in the basement, where he was about to go. His stomach started to hurt right along with his head. Dean opened the door and went down the stairs as quickly as his shaking legs would allow. He was right. Sam was there.
"Jesus. Sammy," Dean whispered.
If his brother heard him, he didn't show it. Dean found his legs again, and rushed forward. Before he reached Sam's slumped figure, he flew through the air landing on a stained Barkalounger opposite the identical chair his brother occupied. Dean hit the seat with a groaned exhalation; the chair tipped back so far his head connected with the wall. Sam hadn't turned was all he could think for a second. His brother wouldn't be like that if he had gone darkside. Then worry took over, because Sam still hadn't registered that anything was going on around him. That wasn't really any better than turning into a megalomaniac. Dean tried to move, and found he was pinned to the chair. Déjà vu all over again.
"Sam? Sammy?" he said again. Sam didn't even twitch. "What did you do to him?"
"Nothing," Anthony said.
The five kids that had followed them down echoed the sentiment. An uncomfortable shiver ran down Dean's spine.
"I think he's faking it. We haven't laid a finger on him."
Like that meant anything. No one had touched him, and yet his ears rang and his head hurt. Come to think of it, his stab wound from their earlier visit had also started to throb again.
Anthony nodded his head.
The tiny little girl that had tossed him around like he was a Nerf ball moved silently until she stood in front of him. The blade that had been taken from him darted at his arm, slicing through his shirt and bandages. It stabbed deeply into his stitched wound. He tried not to let it, but a muffled exclamation of pain escaped from his lips. The blade extricated itself and hovered in front of him. The blood was hot and cold at the same time as it flowed down his arm. He looked at the reopened wound and cursed under his breath. No matter how many times it happened, it really sucked getting cut by his own weapon.
"That tickles," he said to the little girl.
She shrugged and walked away, though he suspected she could do far more damage than she'd done. Anthony came over to him and made a pretense of examining the injury. Dean clenched his jaw when the kid spent more time actually watching Sam with a keen eye, apparently seeking a reaction. He wouldn't mind a reaction from his brother either, but he got a very bad feeling that worse would be done to him before that would happen. Sam still hadn't moved. Dean's imagination went wild with various unsavory thoughts about what might have made his brother like that. At the edges of his mind, there were cold strands like antennae, and it made him feel like he was about to have a nosebleed. He thought about lopping off those invisible tendrils, getting them out of his brain.
"You think you're tough," Anthony said, sneering and leaning close.
"You know that isn't what I was thinking, big man." Dean clenched his jaw once. "I can feel you in my head."
"Sam shouldn't have sent for you."
Dean thought about Playboy centerfolds and bad porn on pay per view available in most of the motel rooms he and Sam stayed at. Anthony blushed, adolescent hormones and anger combined. Dean smiled. He could think about porn all damn day if he had to. Then the cold strands were replaced with hot fingers, digging ruthlessly into his brain. Porn, porn, porn he tried to think but everything was a burst of orange and bright blue and agony like nothing he'd felt before except he had when was it god make it stop.
Someone somewhere said his name, familiar and real but not really there either. His head rolled to the side and he swore his brain sloshed around within his skull, at least partially liquefied. The immediate pain stopped, but echoes of it lingered. He heard a hollow cry of torment he subconsciously realized was his own. His breathing was rapid and shallow and wrong but he couldn't keep from trying to gain oxygen. Something wet trickled into his mouth, hot and salt and copper. Tears. Blood.
"You like that? That was Mason. Let's see, who should we let at you next? Johanna?"
Anthony was walking back and forth in front of his chair, Dean realized as he started functioning again. Disorientation made the pain seem more distant, but it was still there.
"No, because I think you already know how this will end. You don't need to see it first."
Dean's head fell down, chin practically on his chest. He was so screwed. Bobby didn't know where he was, the plan Sam had wasn't put into play and Sam himself was scarily vacant over there. It had only been minutes, Dean thought, though he couldn't say for sure. Time was relative, after all, and his archenemy.
"It's tough, because some of us don't have active powers. I can't hurt you, you know," Anthony continued to prattle. He picked up the knife, which had fallen to the floor. The kid jammed it unceremoniously into Dean's uninjured shoulder.
Dean heard himself scream, as if he were in the room but not in his body.
"Well, except for that."
"You're sick," Dean said when he finally had enough breath and reason back.
In response, Anthony yanked the knife out of his shoulder and plunged it into his right side with medical precision.
Dean wasn't an expert on anatomy, but he knew the blade hadn't hit anything vital. It still hurt like a bitch. He clenched his teeth this time, making the scream more sibilant. He couldn't help it, he looked down at his side. There was blood everywhere. When he looked back up, he saw Sam staring at him with haunted eyes. Dean gasped in surprise.
"Dean." Sam shook his head, blinking his eyes a couple of times. He looked confused for a moment, then his expression was overcome with horror. "No. Nononono. Dean!"
"Good to see you again, little brother," Dean said in between heaving for air.
"You're bleeding. Why are you here? You shouldn't be here," Sam said, now sounding slightly panicked. He breathed sharply for a second, then swallowed audibly and glared at Anthony. When he spoke again, his voice was deep, angry. "Let him go, Anthony."
"He came here all on his own, Sam. And I have to admit I was thinking we gave up our bargaining chip way too soon before," Anthony said. The kid was relaxed, as if he didn't know he was prodding Sam on. "I think we should let Wilson at him now." Anthony looked at Dean with a sly grin. "Wilson's one of Sam's favorites."
"No!" Sam shouted. "NO!"
And that was when Dean's world shattered into a million pieces. Every fiber of his being literally felt as though it was being splintered apart, and he saw nothing, heard nothing. Felt everything. It lasted forever. It lasted a second. He shook all over, couldn't stop. There was screaming now, and smoke and coldness and … firecrackers? He blinked but there was still smoke and screams. He wanted to lie there and not move ever again. He didn't know how he got on the floor. He sat up.
Chaos surrounded him. Children screamed. There was a fire somewhere, Dean heard it crackling now as he choked on the smoke. Things flew about the room. Chairs and lamps and oh shit body parts. In the middle of it all, Sam stood terrible and tall and covered in blood. One look and Dean knew his brother was not his brother. Jesusgoddamn. This could not happen. Sam. Sammy.
Dean got up on his hands and knees, muscles threatening to give out on him. He couldn't take the time for himself. His side pulled, his arms were leaden and he wasn't sure his insides were where they were supposed to be. He ignored all of it. His pain didn't matter at the moment. He shuffled toward Sam, past the screaming kids and lumps he knew were legs and arms. He had to stop this. He reached out a hand, grabbing at Sam's forearm. He didn't know what was happening, not really, only that Sam wasn't Sam and Dean was terrified out of his mind.
"Sam," he said.
Sam didn't hear him, his attention solely on something else. Dean wavered slightly, shifting his gaze to where Sam was looking. Anthony, beaten and bloody and … laughing. The chair Dean had sat in landed on top of the kid, and then raised up again. Anthony just kept laughing, growing weaker, with a splatter of red on his chin, trailing out of his mouth. Jesus. Sam?
Please stop please be my brother not this.
"Sam, stop, you have to stop."
He got a good grip on Sam's arm at last. Sam was hot, not from the fire in the room, but from something else. Hellfire. Demonblood. His notbrother turned and looked at him. For a moment, Dean swore he saw black eyes instead of hazel. He sailed through the air toward the nearest wall, projected there by Sam. Dean knew it was going to hurt. Nothing could hurt more than knowing Sam was this thing before him. He closed his eyes and braced his weary body the best he could, for impact. For defeat. Neither came. He opened his eyes. He was floating above the floor, about six inches from the wall. He was eased down then, muscles too sore to be of much good.
"Sam?" he said, but couldn't even hear himself.
"Oh, God." He heard Sam, though, husked out and scared. "Dean?"
Sam was at his side then, the real Sam, pulling him up and they moved together. Dean couldn't tell if he was still shaking like a newborn lamb or if it was Sam. It was probably both of them. They coughed against the smoke and destruction, picked their way to the stairwell and went up, out of the burning house. Dean saw the sky and he saw the grass, individual blades of it. He let everything go and saw nothing.
They'd killed Veda, ripped her apart like she was a rag doll and laughed when she wasn't stuffed with cotton but with organs, bones and veins. Blood and screams and all his fault. Sam didn't remember much about what happened between Veda's brutal death and when he finally realized Dean was there, or so he told himself. The memories were there, of course, unnamable and unmentionable. He didn't have to share them with his brother for Dean to know about them; he'd been there. Then again, maybe Sam just couldn't bring himself to put the horror into words. He honestly didn't remember how they'd come to be at Bobby's, though, or the first few days they'd spent there.
"Thanks, Ellen," Bobby said into the phone and hung up. Dean gave the older hunter a questioning look. "We think all the kids died in the fire."
Bobby said it like it was capitalized. The Fire. Sam knew he had created The Fire. It was one more thing he didn't know how to talk about. None of them had mentioned any of it, really, choosing incredibly awkward silences and inane discussions instead. He didn't quite know how to bring up in casual conversation how his whole being had become malevolence incarnate.
"What do you mean, think?" Dean said, still sounding unwell but so much better than he had a week ago, when he was limp, bloody and motionless on the charring grass.
"Ellen's source said the Detroit Fire Department identified the remains of twenty separate victims so far. From teeth, and, uh, bone fragments."
Both Bobby and Dean were looking at him with matched expressions on their faces. Sam could tell it even though his eyes were pinned to the floor. He felt sick to his stomach all the time now, and there was always something else – the cold knowledge he could do that again someday. He wasn't fit to live in this world, something he'd known before this had happened but hadn't fully understood. Now he did.
"There were at least ten bodies in the freezer," Sam said, not sounding like himself.
Something rustled, papers falling. Sam realized it was the first thing he'd said in hours, and had probably startled someone. A hush fell on the room, the kind of quiet that comes when someone's said the wrong thing. He felt even queasier, and he concentrated on keeping his breathing quiet, and the contents of his stomach where they should be.
"No one could have survived that fire," Bobby said uncomfortably.
Sam looked up at last, and found he'd been wrong. Bobby and Dean were looking at the floor the same way he had been, not at him. They couldn't look at him, and he couldn't blame them for that, or for anything. He stood slowly. Those things he chose not to remember out loud had left a lasting impact on him bodily, too, but his injuries were nothing compared to what Dean had suffered because of him. He looked at his brother, who was still too pale and favored his right side noticeably. Sam went into the kitchen, pouring himself his third cup of coffee of the day. It didn't really help prevent him from sleeping. Nothing did, but his rest was so fraught with nightmares he ironically didn't rest much anyway. After about a minute, Bobby joined him.
"You okay, Sam?"
It was an honest question Sam didn't have an honest answer for, mostly because he was never going to be certain if that inquiry was meant to convey plain concern or was code for are you really you? And because he didn't think he knew what the word okay meant anymore.
"I'm not sure, Bobby," he found himself saying. "Yes, but no. I can't … I can't…."
Bobby didn't say anything. Sam floundered, as if the room had suddenly filled with water and there was no way out. He leaned on the table, weakened again by his thoughts as well as his injuries. Bobby was at his side in a second, showing rare worry through physical contact, a hand on Sam's back, rubbing. It felt like the absolution that he didn't deserve but needed so badly. He appreciated it but it wasn't Bobby he needed it from. It wasn't Dean either.
"I think I need some air. I'm going to go for a walk."
"Don't get too far, okay?" Bobby said. "Your brother will worry something fierce."
Sam nodded, fleeing the kitchen and the house. He kept running, away from his brother's concerned call. He just needed to get his head clear once and for all, learn to filter through all the shit jumbling through his brain all the time. Hate and death and monster, monster, monstermonster.
There was an ash tree on the far side of Bobby's property he and Dean used to climb around in like monkeys when they were kids. Sam found himself standing below it. He clambered to the lowest branch that would bear his weight. Leaning against the rough bark, he closed his eyes. Like always, terrible things played out on the inside of his eyelids, his very own horror movie. In them, nothing was good and everything was bad, except one thing. Dean. Dean was the one true thing in his life, and Dean was going away. The mere thought almost paralyzed him with anxiety. He thumped his head softly against the tree trunk in a soothing rhythm.
"You used to do that when you were little, sometimes. Dad always worried you were going to hurt yourself," Dean said.
Sam sat up, startled. His foot fell off the branch, setting all him off kilter. He scrabbled a bit, regaining his balance. He held himself stiffly, unable to relax.
"It seemed to make you feel better, though, when nothing else would work. I would try everything, man, but what does a six-year-old really know about making the bad things all better for his little brother?"
Dean stood at the base of the tree. The sun was already setting. Sam didn't know how time had sped up the way it obviously had. The sky blazed orange, embossing his brother with the glow. Dean looked like he should be in a movie or something make-believe. Sam had to look away. All of it hurt too much to see, the bruises on Dean's face, the way he held himself stiffly from injury, and just Dean down there, not knowing how to make things all better for his little brother. Sam heard scuffling sounds below. He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Dean was circling the tree, slowly, pacing and leaning now and again to rest.
"Are you going to come down, or are you going to make me climb up there?"
Sam's stomach flipped a little. For as much as Dean had always centered him, now there was this element of distraction when he was around his brother. Tense fear, uncertainty that his brother could no longer love him because of what he'd done, what he was. He wanted to run. And he wanted to stay. He heard Dean sigh and start climbing, making noises that made it clear it wasn't easy. Wracked with this new guilt, Sam jumped down, landed gracelessly and stumbled back against the tree, legs tangled slightly. Sam slumped and rearranged himself until he sat, shoulders stiff against the trunk.
Dean stood next to him for a moment, then slid slowly down the tree until they sat shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the dying sun. Sam studied his hands, which were discolored by the sun's rays so that they looked red. He wondered how the same sun could cast such different light on him than it did on Dean.
"Bobby thinks we should talk about what happened," Dean said.
Darkness inside him, slick, cold and merciless.
"I don't know if I can," Sam whispered.
"I don't know if I can, either."
The sun was almost gone now, and chill was in the air. Sam shivered, drew his legs up and tucked his arms into the space between them and his torso. The bark was rough against his back, through his sweatshirt. Sam smelled dirt in the air, dusty and dry and nomadic, as it mixed with the dampness of the encroaching night. Everything was somehow filled with life and death at the same time. Shadows were all around them. Dean didn't push him, and he didn't push back.
"She was right," Sam said suddenly, too loud somehow now that daylight was gone, and unexpected even to him.
"There was…." Sam stopped. He couldn't, he had to. "There was this girl, she was the one who tried to help me. Her name was Veda. She told me she thought I could stop them all, but I wanted someone else to do it. I saw the answer in a vision."
"Demons, I know," Dean said, heaving a soft breath. It wasn't a sob but it wasn't a laugh either, something in between. "You know they would have killed you too."
"Yeah." Sam did laugh, but without humor. "But I remember thinking, maybe it'll be better this way, maybe it's okay if demons wipe them out and me along with them."
He stopped talking. Dean was rigid next to him. Sam dug his hands into his armpits, hugging tightly to feel the warmth he was afraid he'd never have again.
"That'll never be okay." Dean sounded shaky.
"I could feel it, Dean, something awful deep inside. I still can," Sam said. "I still can. Veda was right about me all along. She died for nothing, for me."
"Hey," Dean said and pressed his shoulder into Sam's, bolstering him without even thinking about it. He didn't know how Dean could always do that for him, but god, he took and took. "Sam, no. I refuse to believe that was you, the real you, back there, and you're sure as hell not nothing. Not to me."
Dean didn't really believe that it hadn't been Sam who had killed and raged. He could see it but Sam also saw something else in Dean's expression. Desperation, unwavering support, and the love he had feared lost forever. Warmth seeped into him, from where their shoulders touched. Just like that, most of the uncertainty was gone and it was just Dean, like it had been just Dean who'd drawn him back to himself in Detroit, and so many times before. Sam felt the tears come and fought them. He looked at his brother, vision wet and blurred, but he saw Dean staring back at him with wide eyes, silent.
"Yes. It was me, Dean." Dean closed his eyes tightly then, shook his head, like that would stop what Sam said from being true. "When I saw you, finally saw that it was you and not some hallucination, and that there was all that blood and you were screaming … it came out of me. I couldn't keep it from happening. To tell you the truth, I didn't want to. I wasn't going to stop. It was you. You stopped it."
His brother opened his eyes again. Sam could see, even through his own tears, the helplessness, the regret, the fear Dean radiated. And the ever-present love, mixed in with everything else, somehow stronger than it all. Sam didn't think he deserved it any more than he deserved absolution, but, oh, he needed it.
"You think it'll all be okay after you die. You think I'll live on without you, fighting the good fight, or, god, I don't know, raising the perfect family. How could I do either of those things? You act like you're the only one who loves someone so damned much you'd do anything to keep them alive. I won't live when you're gone, Dean," Sam said. The lump in his throat made it painful to speak. He swallowed, wincing before he continued. "You have to know that."
"No. I wouldn't have lived before all this happened, and now it's more than that." Sam spoke quickly. He couldn't let Dean interrupt. "You've always been the onlyone keeping me from becoming that thing, that monster I wasback there. You've seen it with your own eyes. The things I'll do for you scare the shit out of me sometimes, the things I'll do without you are too awful to think about. Do you understand why I can't let you die for me?"
He knew Dean did. It was in his brother's eyes and in the way his lips trembled with emotion. Dean's gaze slid away from him, toward the horizon. Sam leaned forward until his head was on his knees. They sat together under the tree without speaking, Dean staring where the sun used to be and Sam huddled in darkness of his own making.