Author's Notes: Sequel to Orpheus At The Gates and yet more excuse to speculate on little details from the season 4 premiere. Previous story was to document how Dean got dressed and buried like he did; this story is to document how on earth Sam could claim to have "tried to open the Gate again" considering he didn't have the Colt, which is the key to the Gate. Written before 4.09 & 4.10, which explained Ruby's return (sort of).

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Orpheus Descending

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Sam said the last word of the incantation and his tongue burst into weltering boils; his eyes caught fire and his skin sang taut hot and dry, threatening to crack in the updraft from Hell, literally; the air sizzled, little particles of dry earthy matter swept up by the wind off the dead ground of the cemetery all caught fire so that the air was burning, alive and dancing and lights streaking around in Sam's head and through his nose and mouth until he felt like exploding or collapsing into nothing, fire through and through.

and it hurt, it hurt so much he wanted to rip his skin off to get out of it, he wanted to tear his face away, God --

Not God, definitely not God, no

The scream, his own scream, was in there somewhere behind the shrieking metal of the Gate's door, the smell of ozone metal burning; the pentagram around the keyhole was white hot. Just a crack, Sam though through the fire. That's all I need. Just wide enough for one...

Come on, Dean.

He felt the warm bubble of blood in his nose and smelled the iron tang at the same time that he tasted it leaking down the back of his throat. He registered that the spell was killing him, thought briefly about caring, decided against it.

The lock still held. He gathered everything he had left and pushed.

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When he came to, everything was black. He thought I'm unconscious -- until he decided that he had to be awake to be thinking. He thought Something's wrong with my eyes. Maybe they'd burned out of his skull and he was blind. It didn't really bother him, but then, nothing much bothered him right now. Except that he probably hurt -- all over -- a lot. But he wasn't letting himself feel that yet.

The blackness drifted around and Sam saw some grass. He was facedown in the grass. Probably still at the cemetery. He made a small sound between a gurgle and a choke and rolled his eyes to the side, searching.

The black cloud sighed around him, almost protective, almost soothing.

"Dean," he said thickly, through a mess of grass and bile and mucus and blood. He felt a sting behind his eyes beyond the pain that was now making itself fully known; Dean had already turned. In hell less than a month and he'd already become a demon.

That couldn't be right.

The black cloud drifted closer and tucked itself around Sam's head and face, blacking out his vision again. He smelled sulfur and a tendril of smoke tickled up into his sinuses without threatening to fill him, possess him. It was just enough to hear the whisper of a familiar voice in the back of his head.

Hey, Sam,
it said. Long time no see.

"Ruby," he breathed, and blacked out again.

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He was watching her walk toward him. He didn't remember waking up this time.

She'd found a body; he didn't want to ask where, or how, or who she was. There was a foul smell in his nose and he thought he'd thrown up at some point and had rolled onto his back to get away from it, because there were stars in his view now, not grass. His throat felt like it had been ripped out, sandblasted, and inexpertly stuffed back down his neck. Blood and stomach acid had dried on his lips and probably everywhere else, and now it was flaking off.

He had no idea how long he'd been here. Long enough for Ruby to leave and get a body and come back.

She had great strength, being a demon, but she couldn't pick him up outright. He tried to grasp her arms long enough for her to pull him up, but his muscles only responded to commands in fits and spurts. When his hands slipped for the third time and his head hit the ground hard and he nearly sobbed with the pain, she bent down instead. Somehow, with his arms wrapped tightly around her neck, pushing up with shaky, coltish, newly-occupied legs, she got him to his feet. He breathed in the smell of shampoo and sweat from her long, dark curls. From there he felt almost human again, albeit a human who had been hit by a semi, and he ought to know about that.

They only managed to get out of the cemetery before she had to stop. Sam's legs had given out and her arms were shaking with the effort of supporting him.

He remembered her being stronger than this, before.

Being out of the cemetery was enough to let both of them breathe easier, though, and as they sat huddled together with their backs to the same tree, Ruby gasped a shaky, "Thank you."

It took Sam a couple of deep breaths and several swallows to moisten his throat before he could say, "What for?"

She let out a low laugh. He knew that laugh. He'd talked to three different incarnations of the crossroads demon and stabbed them all and then after the last one he'd laughed that laugh until he'd vomited. That had been last week. This week, he'd decided to go for the Gate itself, Colt or no Colt; there were spells, incantations of unsealing from far shadier sources than Bobby. No one had tried to get in his way. Maybe word had gotten around. Maybe they all smelled the hellfire on Sam's breath when he asked, in a low voice, to be given what he needed with no questions asked.

"Lilith," said Sam. "Said she sent you away. Far away."

Ruby's new body was crying freely, silently, and staring up through the shadowy canopy at the stars. "You could say that," she said eventually, her voice hoarse.

Sam's face screwed up and he could barely ask, "Did you see my brother?"

"No," she whispered, wiping her eyes and nose. "No, Sam, I'm sorry."

He turned his body away from her, curled up on the hurt that permeated every cell of his being, and let the outpour happen. Ruby sat silently through the screams, the tears, the rage.

Sometime later -- he might have slept again -- he opened his eyes and Ruby was gone. He realized that he could almost breathe without feeling like his ribs were breaking, and also that he was hungry. There was faint gray dawn light filtering through the trees and the stars had all vanished but one.

Ruby came back with a four-wheeler. Sam really didn't want to ask.

He clung to her tiny waist and tried not to fall off the seat or let the jostling make him throw up again for the fifty careful, arduous miles over pathless terrain until they reached the broken section of railroad and then the blessed comfort of pavement. He tried not to nod off, he swore he did, but by the time they reached a town, he couldn't remember much of the journey. He was starting to really worry about the time he kept losing, never quite knowing if he'd fallen asleep or just blacked out.

Ruby looked more respectable than he did, so she walked into a Super 8 lobby and got a room for two nights. Key in one hand, she managed to drag him off the four-wheeler, where he had slumped over the handlebars, and walk him to the door of their first-floor room.

He hit the bed and slept.

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When he woke up again, he was ready to stop being so damn useless. Falling asleep and blacking out every other minute was driving him up a wall. So he tested the strength in his arms and the general level of pain in his torso, found the former to be much improved and the latter to be wanting, and he managed to lever himself upright in the bed.

The first thing he noticed was that he was under the covers; the second, that he was in only his boxers. He looked around blearily. His brain coughed up "Ruby" and he half-expected to see the familiar sheet of blonde hair and the set of shoulders that said they would kick your ass without a second thought.

Instead, an angular young body with strange lips and a mass of stringy, loose, dark curls stepped out of the bathroom, towel in one hand, dressed in loose sweatpants and a t-shirt that hung low over an anemic-looking frame. He remembered thinking the word "coltish" earlier. It was a good word.

"Hey," she said without smiling.

Sam eyed her. The uncomfortable question hung in the air: who are you?

"She had a wallet," said Ruby. "No ID, just some money. I found her wandering on the side of the road. I figured... fellow hitchhikers, helping each other out." She smiled at last, but it was a dead expression.

Sam shivered, but it was probably just a chill. He pulled the blanket back up around his bare chest and shoulders, looking away from her.

"Modesty?" Ruby asked, unbelieving. She walked over to the side of the bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress.

"Cold," Sam said, and as he said it he realized that he really, really was. Another shiver wracked him and he slid down the headboard a little to get more intimate with the blanket.

Ruby put a hand to his forehead, then pulled his eyelids wide and peered in close. "Shock," she said. "Here." She reached down to the foot of the bed and pulled up the comforter that he must have kicked off at some point. He pulled it up gratefully, but his skin still felt cold, dry, taut, like he was a drum waiting for the first tap to start his whole frame reverberating. As if on cue, a headache flowered into steady, rhythmic life.

"You did a stupid thing, Sam," Ruby said softly, looking at him with big doe eyes that just weren't her and made him uncomfortable. She wasn't the Ruby he remembered. He would have rather had her strength and her attitude. She would have slapped him and told him to get over it, and maybe that would have called up some fighting spirit in him, to bitch right back at her...

Only that was a lie. Nothing could dig any fight out of him right now. He felt like he was about to vibrate into tiny pieces at any moment. His teeth chattered, quiet and steady, making his whole head feel like it was about to pop.

"G-g-gate," he managed.

Ruby shook her head. "Hell would probably welcome you, you know," she said, "if you just knocked nicely and asked to come in. Getting out again would be another thing. But breaking and entering with a spell like that, though, you set off all the alarms... you got bounced at the door. It's old magic, Sam, older and nastier than I would ever have tried even when I was alive, and the stuff I did was bad enough."

"Y-y-you were w-w-w-wait-t-..." Sam gave up with a huff, closing his eyes and trying to still the racking shivers that had reached his guts and were making him nauseous.

"Lucky me," said Ruby with the faintest ghost of a smile. "I happened to be near the Gate, yeah. Don't talk anymore, okay?" she added, when he opened his mouth again. "Lie down." She stood up.

He did as she said, back to feeling useless. But these chills were like the worst flu he'd ever had times a thousand. If he shivered any harder he'd think he was having a seizure. His vision was going blurry at the edges.

"R-Ruh-Ruby..." he managed, trying to keep the edge of panic out of his voice and failing.

He felt the mattress dip again when she returned. A warm, damp washcloth pressed against his forehead and he couldn't decide if it felt good or made him want to throw up even more.

"Gonna have to ride it out," she said apologetically. "I'm here, Sam, just tell me what you need."

"Gonna," he gasped. "Gon' puke."

There was a trash can by the side of the bed and small hands holding his shoulders and rubbing his back almost before he'd finished getting the thought out. There was nothing in his stomach to bring up, really, but even after he was out of watery acid it felt like the dry heaves would never end. Tears, unwelcome and uncalled for, dripped off the end of his nose into the plastic lining, and he didn't want to admit to himself that they were from anything other than the pain, because she wasn't Dean and she wasn't Mom, she was a demon. She was a dead soul occupying an unwilling human body. But she held his hair and rubbed circles between his shoulders and kept saying, "It's going to be okay, Sam, it's almost over," and he wanted to believe her so fucking badly.

The weak sobs continued for a few minutes after the heaving finally stopped. When he felt Ruby get up again, her absence was an almost physical ache.

She brought him water, helped him sit up again, and held the glass to his mouth so he could sip. She made him drink it all. He spent the next few minutes fighting to keep it down.

"Where are we?" he asked, determined, at least, to stay awake for a decent amount of time.

Ruby sat back and shook her shower-damp hair off of her shoulders. "Muddy Gap," she said. "Still in Wyoming. You were out for most of a day. I went out, got some groceries, but that was it for the money."

"My wallet..." Sam muttered.

"Couldn't find one on you," Ruby said.

Sam remembered at last. He'd been so blindly focused on what he was trying to do with the Gate that he hadn't really been paying attention to things like money or... sleeping, or eating. Well. That probably wasn't helping the way he was feeling right now.

"The car," he said finally. "It's in a parking garage in Casper. I hitched out to the railroads and walked the rest of the way."

"Fifty miles?" Ruby asked.

"Camped for a night."

"Well," said Ruby, "I can get us some wheels when you're recovered and we can head for Casper."

"We?" Sam asked without thinking.

It fell between them like a lead weight and they looked at each other, Ruby inscrutable as ever. Sam took in her new face and body, decided that she might really have rescued some girl from starvation. He wanted to see her eat a few square meals and get some life into that frame.

"I..." Ruby began. She broke first and looked away from Sam's eyes. Definitely not the Ruby he remembered. "I just thought," she said quietly.

It was like this sad shred of girl in front of him was the first thing he'd seen since Dean's glassy eyes, like a black-and-white TV suddenly switching back to color. For the first time in a month since Dean's death, Sam spared a thought for the rest of the world. For himself. He'd go completely fucking crazy living like this, he really would. Bat. Shit. He shivered again, almost contemplatively.

She already knew everything, how beyond shitty all of this was, so he wouldn't have to say any of this out loud, which was the best he could ask for. And he wouldn't have to fight her every step of the way like he would with friends like Bobby, which was better than he could ask for.

No chick flick moments.

"Yeah, okay," he said. "Just, when we get to Casper. We'll see where it goes."

A wisp of a smile passed over Ruby's face again.

He thought about asking what had happened to her in hell, then thought about Dean, still there, and decided he didn't really want to know.

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The two days Ruby'd checked them in for got extended to three, then five. Sam's chills had segued into a fever which only broke about thirty seconds before Ruby was finally about to take him to the hospital, against his protests. His memory of the worst days was patchy at best, but he remembered Ruby's gaunt presence hovering beside him through even the worst humiliations, when his body was far beyond his control. She fed him and then cleaned up when he couldn't keep it down. She hauled him to the bathroom, plunked him into warm baths and forced him to stay awake while she washed him. She kept the sheets changed on his bed and occasionally ended up sleeping on a bare mattress herself.

He remembered calling her Dean a few times when he was delirious; she always shook her head, her stringy hair pulled back into a ponytail which emphasized the thinness of her face, and kept on working wordlessly.

On the sixth morning Sam was feeling better about himself and the world in general because he'd managed to make it to the bathroom and back to the bed on his own without waking Ruby up. She needed the rest more than he did now. Her face, in sleep, was not quite peaceful -- but at least she no longer looked blank or in pain. Just neutral. Almost... dead.

He looked away and closed his eyes, breathing in and out deeply. It was still greying to dawn outside and chilly in the room, so he slid back down under the covers and turned to his side, facing away from his erstwhile demonic companion and caretaker. At least the cold was no longer internal. His abdomen still felt like a sheet of rubber from all the seizing during the chills. The whole time he'd felt ice-cold right down to the marrow in his bones, even when his temperature had been over a hundred -- not that this had been any kind of normal illness, and he knew he couldn't judge it by any textbook standards. Who knew what aftereffects he might still be feeling a week, a month, maybe years from now. Who knew what damage he'd caused in his recklessness.

He closed his eyes and wished he could just go back to sleep, but the retreat of oblivion was long gone. He was finally thinking clearly again after days of muddled delirium, and his brain had an annoying habit of seizing on any chance it could to beat up the rest of him.

He was rescued from his thoughts by Ruby's murmured "Good morning" from behind him. He rolled over and saw that she was curled up small, just a little lump under the bedspread. After studying her face for a moment, he decided that it was a little more flushed, a sliver more filled-out, than it had been a week ago.

"Good morning," he replied after a long moment.

"I think you can travel today," she said, not moving from beneath the covers. It was too early and too cold.

"No rush," he said. "We'll leave at checkout."

Her eyes trailed away from his to study the lamp on the table between the beds instead. "Go alone, Sam," she said.

He blinked. "But," he began.

"It was wrong of me to presume," she said quietly.

"No," said Sam. He shifted, levering himself half-upright. "No, come with me. It's good to... not be alone. I don't want to be."

She didn't meet his eyes, but after a moment she nodded jerkily.

Sam hauled himself upright and sat crosslegged, talking his body into relaxing while it still wanted to seize up in fits and starts. "Tell me," he said, folding his hands in his lap and letting his eyelids drift to half-mast, breathing in time with his heart. "The spell I did."

Ruby didn't move from under her covers, but he felt her eyes on him. She was quiet for a while before he heard her voice, low and dreamlike. "I heard the word of power all the way on the other side," she said. "One of the words of unmaking, they say, not meant to be spoken until everything runs down and whoever created this universe puts the chairs on the tables and turns out the lights on his way out."

Sam hmmed softly. "Do you believe?"

"In God?" There was a long silence. "Don't ask me that."

Sam thought for a long minute, then said, "I do. But I'm starting to think He might be kind of a bastard."

He heard her chuckle softly.

Birds were beginning to sing the morning down, outside. The windows were a warmer gray and it wasn't so cold anymore. Sam felt a shiver of warmth up his spine for the first time in the last week -- in a month, really.

"But I don't need that stuff, do I?" he said at long last, opening his eyes. He felt stronger. "I have my own power."

"Sam," Ruby murmured.

"Teach me," he said.

"I can't get to Dean," she said. "I don't know anything that can. I don't know if you can."

"Teach me," he all but growled.

A beat.

"Yeah," she said. "Everything I know."

He nodded. Closed his eyes again and concentrated on breathing.

It was time to stop letting this helplessness control him. It was time to own his own destiny. And it was time to show Hell exactly what it had bred its generals to be.

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In a parking garage in Casper, a day later, the two of them climbed off a lifted motorcycle and walked around a corner pillar. Sam pulled off the helmet he'd found with the bike and reached out a hand to smooth over the painfully familiar black enamel. A fine layer of dust drifted up where he touched.

"Sorry," he muttered.

It felt strange for a moment, almost too strange, to slide the key into the driver's-side door and feel the solid click of the lock tumbling back. Ruby had walked to the other side of the car. Sam looked up and met her eyes over the low top of the Impala.

He trussed and gagged the inner voice that screamed betrayal! at the back of his eyes, the Dean who still lived on in his mind looking out through him at the girl-demon touching his car.

Sam broke eye contact with Ruby first, unable to look at her as he slid into the seat behind the wheel and reached over to unlock the passenger door. Ruby got in, shut the door, looked anywhere but at Sam.

"Where to?" he asked.

"South," she said. "I fucking hate Wyoming."

He gunned the engine and backed out, silently apologizing to the Impala or leaving her alone for so long. She whined with underuse. He stroked his thumb over the steering wheel and thought, for the first time, that she was his.

He glanced at the tape deck and had a wonderful, terrible thought. For later, he decided.

"You think they got a demon problem in Mexico?" he said aloud, swinging the wheel around to navigate out of the garage, back to the open road.

Ruby's smile was almost real this time.
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