Author:Mirrordance

Title: Steps Behind

Summary:56 seals down, 10 left to open. It's 2009, and Lucifer's standing on the welcome mat. At the eve of the final battle in a losing war, the Winchesters make their last goodbyes, and at this end of days, Dean is finally learning to let Sam go.

Hi gang!

Thanks for sticking with me throughout Steps Behind. This chapter ends this story, and as always, this chapter also contains my Afterword for the method of the madness, and Previews of the new fics I'm working on. Thanks again, you guys are the best, and c&c's welcome as always!

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Epilogue

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2009

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The sound was small but crisp, very precise. Tink, tink, tink, the lighter went, as Sam flipped it on and out and on and out again. It was theoretically negligible, but somehow loud in the glaringly quiet room. It was hypnotic, but not comforting on any level.

He clenched the small, silver lighter tightly, and then slapped it against the side table of the battered couch he was sitting on. He took a deep breath and leaned back.

Bobby's couch never felt quite so alien before, but he felt uncomfortably detached from everything anyway. The lumpy couch didn't mold to his body the way it used to. Old clothes he's always worn didn't feel right, the sun was too bright, even if he felt that he was looking at everything through a screen.

He glanced, lazily, at the door that led to the kitchen. Bobby was making quiet noises of his own; standard grunting complaints about his old bones, clinking glasses from raiding his refrigerator on that perpetual hunt for beer, scuffling feet on weathered wood.

Sam tilted his head back and closed his eyes, feeling exhausted. He drifted, and suddenly Bobby was in the room, regarding him thoughtfully.

"You should stretch out," Bobby said, "Sleep properly or something."

"Nah," Sam said, "I gotta go soon anyway."

It was a lie, something they've both been telling each other since driving up to the Singer Yard a few days ago from New York. They couldn't seem to rid themselves of the other's company, not since Dean died.

Sam remembered the sensation of just... being wrenched and shoved back into his body. It was like waking up again after having been dead for days. It was an inexplicable feeling of just being soul-rushed like a wave crashing, the water going everywhere.

He gasped, and he was back on his knees beside his brother in that warehouse in that goddamn town, and Castiel was still crouched in front of him as if no time had passed at all. If someone had said so, he'd have believed it because everything looked the same except... he looked down at his brother and knew for certain that Dean wasn't in there anymore.

It was a kick in the gut, all the air just leaving the body. Dizzying, too fast, too harsh, too... emptying.

He started sobbing in earnest as he picked up his older brother by the shoulders and just held him close. He buried his head on Dean's shoulder because that space was his, made just for him. The angles fit perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle.

He pressed his face close, looking for the escape of delusion; but the way Dean's head lolled back, unable to be captured by his embrace, limbless, was another punch in the stomach and he thought he was going to be ill.

Dean's body was empty, and so was he.

There was nothing else around him. Nothing else and no one else, even as he knew that life was moving on. It was cruel, how things moved on right away after someone passes. Time ticking, and footsteps moving, and rustling clothes, and tears falling to the ground. How could life move on just like that,not missing a beat, as if it lost nothing important? Didn't they know? Didn't they know? Shouldn't time stop, even for just a little bit?

There was no sympathy he could tolerate. He glared at those who dared try to say they were sorry, or to offer comfort, or even to offer help. He didn't want anything from anybody. The only persons he could stand were those who offered him nothing, those who roughly shared his loss, his level of suffering.

This was Castiel remaining where he was, crouched in front of Sam and his face an uncharacteristically mottled mess of uncertainties, because things stopped making sense again. Bobby Singer soon ran in and sat with them. Weathered hands flailing, not knowing where to go. Mouth moving soundlessly, just robbed of words.

It was almost like the three of them had every intention of stopping time.

Life had to stay still and be quiet, even for just a little bit, because it lost someone important. Sam held Dean, and that was all he did. Castiel stayed crouched before them, quiet and unmoving, just watching, wondering about life and death and how it was disconcertingly sad that he wouldn't get to say 'You gave us a scare, we almost lost you there.' Bobby... Well to Sam's eye, that was the first time he ever thought of the hunter as old.

The first time they buried Dean in '08, Sam had washed his body and stitched the wounds inflicted on him by the hounds of hell. He painstakingly picked the most comfortable clothes for Dean, and then shakily placed a lighter in his curling, death-stiffened hand. Dean would need the light after he comes to inside his shallow grave when Sam gets him back. It was also a symbol of Sam 'keeping the light on,' so to speak; he wasn't giving up hope that he could still save his brother.

Said lighter was now on Bobby Singer's side table, looking forlorn. After they cremated Dean, got coma-drunk, and then alternately drove the Impala across states, through a hangover, with a macabre jar of ashes between them to come 'home,' he had looked through Dean's things and found it. He hasn't let go since, imagining his older brother's calloused hands wound around the silver lighter. He wasn't sure if Dean knew what it meant to Sam, but it was kept in a safe place, and Dean had never used it on their standard salt and burns, so maybe. Sam liked to think so, at any rate.

"Any news from New York?" Sam asked, clearing his throat.

"The clean-up is going all right," Bobby replied, "After we got rid of Lilith and Alastair, the rest of the demon party all pretty much shit themselves and went hiding. All's quiet now. The angels are rebuilding some of the seals up, and strengthening the others. Then you got people getting rid of all the lesser demons mulling around. Looks like the damn apocalypse has been staved off at least, for a good long while."

"Good," Sam murmured, "I was wondering if they needed us back there."

"You've given enough, Sam," Bobby told him quietly, "They got it covered. You gotta take care of yourself this time."

The younger hunter ran a hand over his face, wearily. He's forgotten what day it was and how long he's been here. "I'm gonna take off soon," he said again.

"To go where?" Bobby asked, calling out the bluff for the first time.

Sam blinked at him in surprise, "I was... was thinking of going on a road trip or something. Mom's... mom's grave. And dad's tags are there too."

His eyes watered again, reminded of how much of an orphan he was.

"I'm gonna figure out," he said, taking a deep breath and swallowing past the lump on his throat, "Gotta figure out what to put of Dean's, there. You know. Something I can stand to loose," he said, chuckling mirthlessly, " And... and where the ashes get to go."

"You want some company?"

"Nah," Sam said, after an honest moment of thought "I gotta... gotta sort my head out, about all this. I'm not... not running away to do something crazy like the last time, Bobby, I promise."

"How can I be sure--"

"I can't take him away from where he's at," Sam said, "He's... he looked... he looked just relieved, Bobby. Haven't seen him look like that in a long time, he looked like a kid. I never thought of Dean as a kid, ever. Big-brothers, I guess. I can't stomach the idea of taking him from wherever he is that makes him so happy. I can't stomach being here on my own either, though. It's always been a zero-sum between him and me I guess. Someone has to leave, someone has to stay, someone has to be happy, the other sad. But I can't do that to him, I can't take him from there and drag him back here-- blind, deaf and stuck in his head and his nightmares-- just because I'm sad. I just... I gotta sort out what I'm gonna do with myself."

"Well you know where I'll be."

"I know," Sam said, sincerely. In afterthought, he added, "Unless you need me around. Dean said... I kinda got an earful from him, the last time he... well. He said you had a hell of a time yourself, and I just ran off."

"You had a right to go a little bit insane after he died," Bobby said, and 'died' made them both wince, "And I had a right to drink a little bit."

"His term was 'liquor store,'" Sam said, mildly.

Bobby just shrugged, "Well if you don't get to go crazy this time around, then I don't get to have a house party. It's kinda sick, but by round two I guess you're supposed to do a better job of things."

"I guess," Sam murmured.

"What are you gonna do now?"

"I don't know," Sam admitted, "Dean said... he said I don't have to be hunter."

"That's true," Bobby affirmed, "Why don't you go back to school?"

"Can't go back to being who I was," Sam mumbled.

"You don't have to be, to go back to where you were," Bobby said, "Maybe you're even better now."

"Nah," Sam said, shaking his head, "I'm rusty."

"With the work?" Bobby frowned, skeptical, "I don't think so."

"No," Sam said, "With... with people. And with just sleeping at night, and just sitting down to read things, to listen to teachers, to be bored sometimes, to go out... I'm just... rusty."

At being a person...

"Better rusty than rotted," Bobby said, "Get back out there, kid. That's life, no one's rusty for too long. Go see what you can do. You got time, now."

I do, Sam thought, glumly. That was kind of the sad part.

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Castiel came to see him the night before he was set to leave the Singer Yard.

One moment he was sure he was dead-asleep on Bobby's couch and the next, the angel was sitting on the armrest where his feet were, back to him, shoulders slumped.

"Hello, Sam."

Sam stared at Castiel's back for a long moment, before carefully sitting up. The last time he had seen the angel was after they burned Dean's body a couple of days ago.

"What," Sam said, "You have a job for me or something?"

"No," came the casual, dismissive reply. He was here for something else, apparently, and Castiel turned to face him then, regarding him carefully. "You used to pray a lot."

"Lodging a complaint?" Sam snorted.

Castiel shrugged, "You would think, that one's prayers would be reinforced upon confirmation of the existence of a being who truly exists and watches over you."

"Maybe not-knowing was better," Sam said softly, looking away, "Now that I know He's around, and that He can hear me, but does-- how can anyone... never mind. You know, you're not going to answer. No one is. So it doesn't matter."

"How can anyone let these things happen," Castiel filled in, "You are right. I do not have the answer."

"Most prayers go unanswered," Sam pointed out, "It's kind of like a fucked up relationship. I keep calling, she never picks up. The day I stop she wonders why. It makes no sense, and it's tiring. Why pray, why ask for anything? He'll do whatever he wants anyway."

"Some prayers are answered," Castiel insisted.

"I generally don't care about prayers that aren't mine."

"Your brother was the answer to mine," Castiel said.

"Jesus," Sam whispered, pinching at the bridge of his nose, frustrated because Castiel just seemed to know the damn buttons to push.

"He was the answer to many others'," Castiel said, "Losing him makes you doubt, and yet it restores the faith of many."

"So what," Sam snapped, "Too bad, so sad?"

"Maybe yours will be restored too, one day," Castiel said, "Why are you angry with me?"

You woke me was the initial sarcastic remark that came to mind, and it reminded Sam that Dean had mostly raised him. The memory was softening; Dean's loss was not Castiel's fault, and Dean had liked the angel so maybe he could be more civil.

"I'm not," Sam sighed, "I'm just... I'm just kinda winded, you know. A little bit bent. How can't I be?"

The anger bled out of him, making him feel emptied again. Exhausted. He jumped at the anger and it had been welcome because it filled a void that was now just making itself known again. The only ways he'd ever been able to weather loss before this was by anger and purpose, just like his father had. But this time around... in place of anger was an understanding that Dean had died doing something good, and that he was now in a good place, and that the job was done, and that there was no one left to kill. And Castiel was right... it was comforting to think of his brother being the answer to someone's prayer. Still... that didn't make the hurt any less. All he had was an empty life to keep on living. He wished he could be angry instead of understanding,... of being this shell, and a passive cooperator to letting go.

"I've been thinking too," Sam added, "If I could just have gotten to him sooner. All the times I promised him I could save him, I mucked it up. First time was in Nebraska, brought him to a faith healer. Unknowingly leased up someone's life to save my brother's then. And then I couldn't save him from dying in a hospital after a car crash, dad had to give up his soul. And I couldn't save him from the hell hounds, and I couldn't save him from hell, and then I didn't get to him on time this time too." He laughed, bitterly, "I suck. And I promised I'd get to him. I promised, and he was counting on me. I suck."

"He certainly didn't think so," Castiel said, "He told me that as long as he phrased it like a job, you will move forward with your mission and no one's going to be better."

"Well he's an idiot," Sam said, after a long moment.

"He doesn't blame you, Sam."

"Doesn't?" Sam asked, head shooting up and eyes alight, "Present-tense. Have you... have you seen him, talked to him? Where is he? How is he?"

"I haven't," Castiel said, "But I know that for a fact."

"But will you?" Sam asked earnestly, "See him, I mean? I mean... he said he felt like he could fly. He felt good, he felt... like he could see our mom and dad. Is that... is that heaven? I mean I have to ask, 'cos I let him go, and I just want to make sure, you know, that he goes to the right place? Because he used to doubt, used to be scared that he'd never be forgiven."

"I told Dean before," Castiel said, "That there is no imagining my Father's capacity to love, to give, to forgive, especially those who loved and gave as freely, and those who sought remorse. He is well where he is. When I told you to see him home, I meant what I said."

"Good," Sam said, quietly, "Good."

"There is..." Castiel said, peering closely at him, "Something else on your mind."

"It's nothing."

The angel sat and stared like he had all the time in the world, looking unflappably expectant. Sam rolled back his eyes and indulged him.

"Lilith said I was headed to hell," Sam said, "Because of my powers. Can... can bad things be made good, by what we do with it?"

"When you were told you walked a thin line on a slippery slope," Castiel said, "They weren't lying. But the good cannot be discounted. You just have to be careful."

"I just wanted to be sure," Sam said, with a tight, ironic smile, "Because I think I've found out the biggest motivator to walking the straight and the narrow. If I ever want to see my family again, if I ever want to see my brother again, I'm going to have to be a nice guy or something, otherwise you guys'll never let me in the gates. I bet that's not what you had in mind when you told Dean 'Stop him, or we will.'"

Castiel smirked a little bit too.

"I didn't think so," Sam said, quietly.

"I should be leaving soon," Castiel said, "This vessel, this world. My work is done."

"Long road for you too, I guess," Sam said.

"Indeed," Castiel said, rising to his feet and drawing his hand out to shake Sam's, "It was an honor to have stood with you and your brother, Sam. I truly mean that."

Sam shook the angel's hand tightly, "Thanks, Cas. Tell Dean... that is, when you see him..." he racked his brains, but then just smiled to himself, "You know what, never mind."

"Why is that?"

"It doesn't matter," Sam said, wistfully, "I was gonna say to tell him I'm fine, he doesn't have to worry about me. I'm gonna be great, just as he said, after I figure things out. I'll make him proud. But you don't have to tell him anything. He'll know. He always knows. And if I'm not good? He'll always know how to find me anyway."

The End

February 9, 2009

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Afterword

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Contents

I. Reservations on Posting Steps Behind

A. The Tragedy

B. Interpretation of Faith and the Church

C. The Inevitable Torture

II. The Time-Looping Style of Steps Behind

III. The Characters

A. The Winchester Brothers

B. Castiel and the Angels

C. Ruby

D. Bobby

E. Alastair

F. Lilith

IV. Massive Thanks and Replies

V. The Next Project/s: Open, Shut Preview


I. Reservations on Posting Steps Behind

A. The Tragedy

Okay, this damned ending, haha. I was clear from the very start of the story that it was going to be a tragedy and this is why: basically, when I write stories I get inspired by scenes and lines that I build a story around just so I can get to that scene or line. In Steps Behind, that line would be when Castiel tells Sam to do Dean better and take him home, instead of bringing him back. Since the fic was born out of a scene where Dean dies, I couldn't let it go after I started it. It's a handicap of course, haha, especially since I knew I was going to lose readers to that simple fact.

Another reason is that I think I was reaching a point where I felt that knocking Dean out of his misery by having him kick the bucket is almost merciful... I don't know why I've been inexplicably growing sorry for this character in the last few epi's... does that make any sense and does anyone feel the same way? :) I mean the hell-thing was bad enough, but the real kicker for me lately was that Sex and Violence thing, to be told he was both weak and a burden was harsh in many ways: first, to hear this from the very person you gave up everything for and second, he's only started opening up about how he feels about things and suddenly he's sorry for himself all the time. It just stung on many levels, and really denting.

You can also choose to think of Dean's sacrifice as his pay-off for the things he did in Hell; it's hard to imagine how they would depict his redemption in the series, but I guess this is my effort at trying to figure it out :)

Also, whenever I wavered, Pearl Jam's Last Kiss buffered up my guts in continuing the tragic ending. One of the lines of that song is that the protagonist is saying he should live life as a good person so that he could be with the ones that he loves when he dies. I think that's an excellent motivator for a practical guy like Sam to behave, going back to Dean saving him again, haha, a reasoning he invokes in the epilogue with Castiel.

So in short, while angst is always rewarding just because it's angst, the tragic ending is also firmly entrenched in my reasoning and consequently irredeemable haha.

B. Interpretation of Faith and the Church

I had some apprehensions about my depiction of the Church as borderline conspiracy-theorist in terms of its wealth and power. I guess it's pretty plain that the one I'm referring to in this fic is the conventional-perspective of the very wealthy and powerful Roman Catholic one. And for those who are familiar with my other theology-slanted fic Tightrope, Roman Catholicism is staunchly in my background and it's a topic I enjoy writing about. The philosophy is pretty layered in this religion, and Steps Behind asked "Why does God let evil things happen?" in a lot of ways, didn't it? Of course, if I could answer that, I'd be a gazillionaire, haha, so Steps Behind doesn't contain the answer, although it does the philosophical thing and just keeps asking, haha! Seriously though... the most I could postulate is what Dean said to Dolores in Chapter 3: Wait: that you have to believe you're worth a lot, and that there are some things worth your life. I really do love Arthur C Clarke's The Star, and it really raises the question about a god-figure's grand designs, and the things that get bulldozed along the way.

I was also scared that the operations side of this war would seem implausible. I mean, I'm pretty sure the RC church owns a number of buildings in Manhattan, haha, but the ambitious ala-Alias set-up in Steps Behind felt like a stretch. I figured though, that no matter what your faith affiliation is, anyone would appreciate that if something like Lucifer and the seals is going on, you'd want your church to be ready and fighting and have your back in that efficient way, haha :)

Speaking of efficiency... I also hope the angels' willingness to use Sam's powers toward their own objectives does not seem to heavily questionable. I tried to address it within the fic with Castiel telling Sam that he just has to work with caution, and that they've been willing to sacrifice entire civilizations before, so he was willing to do what he needed to do. If this sounds scarily like the ends justifying the means... well that's something I'm pretty sure the Church wouldn't be standing for; and yet personally it didn't feel wrong to me, so I hope you thought the strategy made sense too, haha :)

Another apprehension is in one of the main operational theses of the battle-scenes in Steps Behind: basically, the fic postulates that power-stuff belong to the angels and the demons, but material stuff and dirty things were human expertise. I liked the idea that if the war was on our turf, we had to have a contribution and even better, a unique strength as humans too. I think one of the driving forces of the Dean-character is that human-ness, particularly, so I guess that's why it had to have a place in Steps Behind as well.

Finally, I sincerely hope that the religious angle is not a turn-off; it's not written to promote my personal faith or to exclude those who do not share it. Steps Behind just has a plot that I felt would be enriched by philosophical discussions on religion.

C. The Inevitable Torture

I'm sure you could tell that I'm an uneasy writer of visceral scenes. I'm not great at describing bodily hurt, so to emphasize the 'torture' aspect of this fic, instead of concentrating on volume and intensity of inflicting physical pain, what I did was to use one of the most 'inviolable' tortures in this fandom. This means I had to dent Dean's face, haha... seriously though... I wanted to do the unconventional and unacceptable, because I wanted the torture to feel uncomfortable and upsetting for the reader. I wanted it to feel like an irrecoverable mess, which is a fraction of what Sam would have felt. Honestly speaking, this fandom has done a lot to the brothers Winchester, but I don't think there's a whole lot that dented them in horrifying, irrevocable ways. The face is so sacred, really (especially if you're that good looking, haha), so it felt just supremely offensive to cut it up like that.

II. The Time-Looping Style of Steps Behind

I've said it before and I'll say it again, haha... when I write, I like the idea of the medium being the message, as it adds to the dimensions of a story. What this means is that if I want the characters to feel that time is confusing, I want the reader of the story to share that torn feeling. That's why Steps Behind dances from one timeline to another, with trigger words in the present always leading up to a related memory from the past.

I actually had a great time playing with time in this story. Time-travel is so mind-blowing to me, it's so ridiculously layered a concept. One of my favorite efforts to tackle this idea is locked up in a line from the impossibly-average movie Kate and Leopold. In it, they mentioned something about efforts at time-traveling and toggling with the past as all part of the future. I forget the exact line, but they said something about trying to loop around with time when it's already a pretzel. That perspective of time is why Steps Behind kind of ended with the beginning, with the Winchester brothers in the car and Sam having to tell Dean he was going away, and Sam sensing that someone was in the backseat, not knowing it was him and Dean of the future. When I first posted Chapter 1, I wondered if any of the reviewers would ask what Sam heard and sensed from the backseat, haha... no one did, but I do hope the importance of the nuance is emphasized now.

III. The Characters

A. The Winchesters

Essentially, Steps Behind is a coming-of-age story. Granted, the boys are a little too old to be coming of age at this point, haha, but that's how I looked at this story fundamentally. Basically, that entails a lot of changes that either inspires growth in the characters, or allows them to discover something very defining about themselves.

For both brothers, one of these would be them allowing themselves to be separated for an assignment. Is this uncharacteristic? Maybe, haha, but I tried to address this in the first chapter, when Dean tells Sam that life had become too short not to do the right thing anymore. Corollary to this is their ability to now let each other go. When I think of their relationship, the idea of them dying for each other in a vicious cycle is shared by a lot of fans. I guess I just really wanted to write a story that somehow makes it acceptable to break that, and show that when one of them dies or goes away, they're still not alone. The title of this fic was actually inspired by Def Leppard's Two Steps Behind. Kinda old school, but this band is still awesome in my book, and I loved the lyrics in that it says something like 'Walk away if you want to,' but that the person who loves you won't be far behind you. Dean letting go of Sam to me (both for Stanford and in death), is a lot like that :)

Another source of growth would be the reversal in the brotherly command structure. In the earlier seasons, it really had been a bossier Dean (off the top of my head I can remember him just making quick, strategic decisions and ordering Sam around in Faith, Wendigo, Route 666, Crosrroad Blues, Bedtime Stories, Fresh Blood, etc.) In this fic, I wanted to show that more assertive Season 4 side of Sam, which I really, really like, the same way I like that Dean is learning to step back a little.

Steps Behind also raises two separate questions regarding these characters: 1. How can someone like Dean be saved? Did his sacrifice save him? Did he want to die? And 2. Do his powers really make Sam 'evil?' I really had a hard time with these two things.

Regarding Dean, as a total fangirl, it's already a bitter pill to hear that he tortured souls, and then it was a kick in the head to hear he enjoyed it. Alastair's monologue here actually reflects my own sentiments: "If you lost it, you wouldn't be back here, still feeling like yourself. You'd be someone else entirely, someone brutal and unforgiving and indiscriminate and bloodthirsty, molded by your time in Hell. But you're not. You're not crazy. You're still you. You know what that means? That means that you own the acts that you did." His enjoyment of others' torture was hard to reconcile with the hero that we loved. I had no answer, really... which is why I had to include an epilogue where Sam was asking if Castiel was sure that Dean was saved. The best answer that I could think is what Castiel tells Sam in that conversation, that god's capacity for forgiveness, love and generosity can be boundless. As for his attitude toward his death... I think my depiction of that in Steps Behind is a kind-of peace about that constant possibility since the war started. A recurring theme of the story after all, if you've noticed, is people resolving to do things better the second time around. When he told Castiel midway through the fic that he wasn't thinking about redemption, he really was just thinking about what was the right thing to do, that's really my stance on this. Of course, the desire to sacrifice oneself and atone for mistakes is also highly, highly possible and a very accessible sort of feeling for Dean in Steps Behind; he just wasn't seeking it out actively.

As for Sam... I am perfectly onboard with his idea that he can 'purify' his evil powers by doing good, but this is, again, tempered by the angelic advice he receives in the end to use it with caution.

B. Castiel and the Angels

The angels had a fairly small part here; you know a character isn't very defined or large if you can just switch around the names and the story would still make sense. Except for Castiel, this is the role of the angels in Steps Behind primarily because I already felt like I was hefting around a heavy storyline and didn't want to confuse myself. I just hope that these smaller characters contributed to the story-telling.

As to the matter of Castiel... I think his depiction here is pretty standard; disciplined, reasonable, wistful... it might be the sense of humor that's questionable, haha. I think you'll find that this is a dry streak I like putting in the character when I depict him. But like I wrote in Underworld/For Perdition, Castiel said something like God equips him with what he needs, and in dealing with Dean, a good guardian angel definitely needs a sense of humor. I didn't find anything too overboard with depicting that mild sense of humor and depicting some vulnerability with regard to his beliefs in Steps Behind. I hope the portrayal was fair, because the fandom hasn't had this great a reception for a new character since Uncle Bobby haha :)

C. Ruby

Here we are again with the ever-tricky Ruby situation, haha... I guess those who have read my other fics have an understanding that I have an open mind about this character, and Steps Behind is also illustrative of that. I honestly don't mind her. I think the concept of a character like her is excellent, it was just the execution in the series that was a little tricky. By this, I mean that I not only have a renewed appreciation for Katie Cassidy, I sincerely miss her depiction of the character too, haha. Anyway, as she relates to Steps Behind... maybe the series will give firmer reasons for her dedication to Sam, but in the meantime, I hope her depiction in my fic is both fair and believable. She's not such a huge part of it, of course, but her conversation with Dean was my own attempt to understand why she's sort-of good: she doesn't believe in her personal salvation, so she just tries to evade hell by staying on Earth and keeping hell from overtaking it. Incidentally she falls for Sam which, haha, I'm sure is very believable to us fans of the show :) Anytime I use this character prominently, as in Home Road, I hesitate about how intrusive people would feel she is, and I just hope I depicted her fairly for fans of the character, and depicted her relevantly to those who are not.

D. Bobby

I've said it before and I'll say it again, haha... put 'Uncle Bobby' in anywhere and he's like, the fanfiction panacea – he can make anything all right, haha. Seriously though, his role here is quite limited, but I just. could. not. leave him out! I was actually initially tempted to give him a larger role, and had even already started a (now completely scrapped) goodbye scene between him and the boys. But the story already felt 'crowded' to me; I didn't want to dilute the brotherly dynamic. Still, as I said, I just had to have him in the story, haha. My next one, Open Shut will feature him prominently :)

E. Alastair

I am, of course, not yet well-versed on this character who is actually quite frankly still on the developing side in terms of how much we've seen of him in the series. I think you can tell that I had some fun with him here though, haha. The philosophical torturer... I was trying to figure out what kind of archetype to depict him as, and I decided on an afficionado of torture; someone who appreciates it as art, who is knowledgeable of its history. I didn't paint him out as diabolical at all, just someone who enjoys and is very good at his job. Which is kinda sick, haha, but for lack of an expansion from canon about this guy at present, I had to just figure it out myself :)

F. Lilith

Not much to say, really, as unfortunately this character hasn't really captured my imagine very vividly. I think it reflects here too, unfortunately, but anyway, in terms of her depiction in Steps Behind, I think it was pretty conventionally drawn.

IV. Massive Thanks and Replies

I would like to thank all those who read, alerted, favorited, and most especially all who reviewed Steps Behind. I really worked faster after your thoughts and feelings started to come in, so thank you very, very much for the fuel. As per always, I'm writing down my thanks by name, and also raising some interesting review points that other readers might be interested to note. If I missed thanking you, please do not hesitate to call me out and I will happily make the changes, since everyone deserves their proper shout-out :)

Thanks to reviewers: Aimi kin, Anahni, annie 200, anonymous, apieceofcake, Batman's Beauty18, bhoney, Cbloom2, cheetahluke, cynistermommy, Dark Austral, ecat, Eeyore08, Galahdsgurl, Gadget Girl 25, Jamieykay, J.E. Apple, Jusmine, kalen241, Krimson, Mandy!, Maz101, MkofGod, Mish, mtee1958, neonchica, singerfan, Sirnonenath, staceycj, Tari Roo, TopazGirl86, tvfreak2201, winchesterfan, winky79, and Zubeneschamali.

Also to:

anon: I was absolutely floored by your review re: the story as feeling both part of canon and comparable to the show. Bumping little ol' Steps Behind next to the sheer loveliness that is Supernatural absolutely made me glow. Thank you for reading and the generous review.

cozmikfaerie:Thank you for the ultimately humbling review. I am happy that I got you involved, especially when you said that you looked at your own faith, which (I think you can tell by now, haha) is something very important to me.

Cynthia: Anytime I can get anyone to delurk makes me unbelievably happy. Thank you for following my work and for dropping me a line, much appreciated.

deangirl1: I found your review very perceptive, when you mentioned that Dean has more in his head than given credit for. I think that's a very accurate assessment of the character. He couldn't be doing what he does and carelessly spouting pop culture nuggets without having some considerable brain power after all :)

ladie red: Sigh! You're absolutely right about the budgetary constraints of our favorite show, haha. It's like the little-show-that-could, if you know what I mean, haha...

masondixon: I am especially grateful to you for sticking around despite your aversion to the tragedy genre by virtue of the ppl you have recently lost. Thank you for taking this leap with me and trusting me to deliver something worthwhile from a genre you don't ordinarily read. I sincerely hope that I still managed to give you some joy somehow.

Miyo86: Thank you for your commentary on the discussions on God and faith. This is really something that I enjoy tackling in my stories (I'm sure you can tell by now, haha)

Phoebe: When I marveled with your perception before, and said that I had a feeling we occasionally thought alike, I really meant it, haha... the 'interesting things for Sam to do in college,' you mentioned is actually going to be one of my future projects as noted below, and when you said you liked the "Take him home" line, you might have noticed at the first part of this afterword that Steps Behind was written just to get to that line. Finally... I'm not quite sure this tragedy bug is completely out of my system yet, but if I get my way, the next project should be slightly cheerier :)

Zatnikatel: Loved your musings on the 'human' side of Castiel, and the sheer creativity of evil. I told you this before but I'll say it again: your reviews are really great. Encouraging, well-thought-out... they're so great they even deserve a review, see? :) Thanks for taking the time :)

V. The Next Projects

I hinted in an Author's Note at the beginning of Chapter 3 that one of the flashbacks was a preview of a fic I'm working on. That one's entitled Heaven and Earth and is just an interesting concept for me, but if you want a small idea of what it's about, the plot is as follows:

Sam may have given up the hunt in college, but not on doing other good things. He goes missing during peacebuilding fieldwork overseas. Dean gets on a plane because Dean may have given up on Sam ever returning to their family, but can't lose him either.

The other fic I'm working on is much more concrete and should be posted as soon as I get in the proper mindframe to devote more time to it (I'm a little over 20 pages in, I think, so I'm fairly committed haha). After Underworld, I wanted to place the boys in another impossible situation, so that's the main premise when I started writing the fic Open, Shut. A clip of this was also featured in Chapter 4 of Steps Behind, so the plot may sound familiar. Anyway, without further ado, a preview:

Author:Mirrordance

Title:Open, Shut

Summary:A street prophet foresees a natural disaster & the death of an entire town. He goes to the only people who would believe him: the Winchesters and Bobby Singer. It's an open and shut case, except the only solution is...how do you empty a town of four thousand people? Set Season 4.

" " "

Open, Shut

" " "

Preview

" " "

"It's like walking into Paradiso Perduto," Sam muttered, looking up at the looming, vine-plagued, rusted gates of the address Bobby provided.

"You sure we have the right place?" Dean asked.

"Yeah," Sam said, craning his head to take a look beyond the wild grass and untamed foliage around the iron gates and beyond it. "I can see one of Bobby's cars parked somewhere in there."

Dean craned his neck too, and both brothers blanched at the sour sight of one of the weirder occupants of the Singer salvage yard. It was a compact, chick's car in scarred, faded matte-pink. Dean knew that Bobby had it tricked out to go insanely and enviably fast; it was the only way any right-thinking man could justify driving that piece of crap around, short of it having any superpowers, or if Bobby had gotten some action at the backseat from a Victoria's Secret angel.

"I wanna see you in that thing," Dean smirked at Sam.

Sam snorted at him, "I can't fit in there, I'm too tall. You on the other hand..."

"Shut up," Dean muttered, as he pressed on the buzzer by the gate, not really expecting it to work until a surly voice retorted, "What?!"

"Looking for Bobby Singer and Paul Reade," Dean replied.

"I'll buzz you in," came the short reply, "You can drive up to the rotunda."

"You heard the man," Dean said, slipping back inside the driver's seat, Sam doing the same on the other side. The heavy gates whined, but opened inward. Dean drove the Impala up the cobblestone driveway, and glanced at the rearview mirror as the gates shut behind them.

"This place must have been something a couple years back," Sam said, glancing out the windows. Old, shady tress lined the two-lane, curving, cobblestone driveway, their thick roots creeping and cracking into the cement, like curling fingers reclaiming what once was theirs. The road was strewn with fallen branches and leaves, and the brothers drove past untamed gardens. The wild greenery surrounded a colonial home in an odd shade of mossy green-gray-white, just the sick color of neglect. The Impala rounded a fountain that looked like falling into it ensured dying of some exotic disease, and stopped at the main entrance.

Heavy, carved double-doors opened, and Bobby stepped out of the house, looking relatively immaculate despite the permanent sand and soil and oil that trailed after him, compared to his disheveled, slightly squat, fifty-plus-year-old companion.

Paul Reade looked like he was on the tail-end of a hangover. His already-lined face was screwed up in pained irritation, and his clear blue eyes were mostly hidden in a photo-phobic squint. They widened a little at the sight of the boys, but then re-settled when he frowned.

"You said you were bringing in help," he snapped at Bobby, "Not two kids."

"Overgrown ones, I promise ya," Bobby said, wryly, extending his hand out to shake the brothers' in warmer welcome, "Boys, this here's Paul Reade."

"I'm Sam," Sam said, "This is my brother Dean. Bobby said you needed some help."

"Not from you, get outta my house," Reade said, venomously, "Outta my damn town."

"What's with the attitude?" Dean asked, looking at Bobby.

"I don't know," Bobby admitted, turning to Reade, "Paul, what the hell?"

Reade stared at him, and then jerked his head in a shaky "Nothing. I'm being a jerk. Come on in, boys." He opened the doors wider, and then stalking inside ahead of his guests.

Sam glanced at Dean, and then at Bobby. "What's his problem?"

"He's hungover," Bobby said, "And spent a night in jail. He's a nice guy, I promise."

The three hunters stepped inside the mansion, and Dean gawked at the high-ceilinged, sunlit, marble hall. The entrance led to a massive lobby lorded over by two curving staircases meeting at the middle, and leading to rooms above. The lobby was lined by anterooms, and everything was lit by the sun streaming in from long, slim windows that let in both light and the view of the untamed gardens from outside. There were more windows than furniture, as a matter of fact, because the neglected house was empty save for the occasional, battered chair.

"You're squatting in your old house?" Dean asked, calling after Reade, who emerged from one of the side rooms with bottles of beer. He handed them around, and then kind of just... plopped on the ground wherever he was standing.

"Please, sit," he said, motioning for the floor, almost graciously.

Dean and Sam exchanged a look, but did as they were invited to do.

"Tell us about this vision you had," Sam said, quietly, "Exactly what you saw, every single detail you can remember. I can guarantee you everything that your mind has shown you will matter, even the ones that you don't think mean anything."

"You guarantee?" Reade scoffed, "And how would you know?"

"I promised you help, Reade," Bobby said, mildly, before Dean could open his mouth in defense of his brother, "Just do as he says."

Reade took a fortifying gulp of his beer, before beginning. "Maybe I should get more of the heavier stuff."

"Later," Dean said, tone clipped, "Vision?"

"I don't usually see myself in them," Reade began, "It just looks and feels like it's real, like I'm already there. I remember standing by my door, right where you just entered. It was nighttime, I was just standing by my door. I do that sometimes, get some air. But this night, the air was just... thick, you know? Sick-carbony or something. Fucking toxic, like those wacky super-glues I used to work with, and it was sticky-warm. Just thick, stinky air. Something was going on, 'cos there was this tick-tick-ticking sound, small and crisp, and I could see worms and insects kind of just come out from the wood, you know, and they're all headed in the same direction. Even the birds taking to the sky, all of them headed in the same direction, against the wind, like they all knew something we didn't.

"The flapping of the wings," Reade continued, "That's what got me to look up to the skies. The moon was full, and then a massive plume of smoke just rose up to the sky, and made it black, and the moon - perfect, full, glowing- was just gone. The sky turned black, and then I heard the screaming, and the cars screeching and running, and the sirens.

"My house was far from everything," he went on, "But the air was bad. I was coughing. I thought maybe I should go back inside my house, so I did. And then suddenly, there was this... this white-hot blast, like Superman pushed me or something, sending me to the wall. The windows burst. Glass rained everywhere. But there were no more sounds, I could just see them. I thought I had just busted my ears. I think I blacked out, but I stepped outside a bit after that, and everything outside my house was just gone, you know? The tress, the ground. My gates were melted or something, and there were buildings and houses outside my property, but there was nothing. Just... this flat wasteland. And I was all alone. End of the world. It looked like I Am Legend. Did y'all see that?"

"When did you dream this up?" Dean asked.

"About a week ago," Reade replied.

"Have you ever had a dream like it before?" Sam asked.

"The last time I dreamed up something that made me feel like the fucking Earth was ending," Reade gulped, "I saw my wife cutting at my car's brake-lines. Got outta that one by the skin o' my teeth. Then I saw her pushing me off my own damn stairs. That was close too."

"Have you ever heard of a song that goes 'I have a funny feeling,'" Dean said wryly, making Sam's eyes roll, "'You don't love me--'"

"Dean, shut up."

"I gave her another chance," Reade said, "But she's in jail now, you know."

"Your... your visions," Bobby said, tossing Dean a warning glare, "When did they start?"

"I've always had them," Reade replied, "As long as I can remember, I guess that's why I never thought of it as useful or weird, or all that much of a big deal. I can't control them, I can't get them at will. I just dream, like once in awhile this time-door opens and I'm allowed inside, you know? This ex-girlfriend of mine in middle-school, she taught me the term 'deja vu.' I was like, oh! Cool! Sometimes I'd wake up finding the headline on the newspaper familiar, or knowing how many lines my toasted bread would have, or what the kid in front of me in class would be wearing. Little things, I said. Random stuff. I was always like, 'Oh, deja vu!' I had a word for it now, and so it stuck. When I got older, I dreamed up the lotto fucking numbers, right? And when I woke up, I was like, 'When I see the numbers on TV tonight, it's gonna be like deja vu.' Then I suddenly felt like I got hit by thunder. I was a fricking idiot all this time! So I bet on the numbers, and that was my first forty million. The lotto was the first time I realized I wasn't feeling deja vu after something happens. I know them ahead of time!"

"Forty mil, huh?" Dean said, "At least you made up for lost time."

Reade gave him a sour look. "Anyway, after what I saw... I talked to the local shrink, who was trying to convince me I was nuts. I talked to the cops, they didn't bother with me. I went to the Church, and the priest told me some mumbo-jumbo about the changes I was supposed to make in my life. The only one who would listen to me was the fucking bartender."

"You were preaching the end of the world in front of the supermarket too," Bobby added.

"That's probably from spending too much time in the bar," Reade said, smiling sickly, "So the cops picked me up, the only guy I could think of to call and who'd believe me is you and your hunting buddies, Singer, so now here we all are."

"Do you ever get dreams that don't mean anything?" Sam asked.

"Sure, like everybody," Reade replied, "I dreamed about this broad I thought I was gonna get in the sack, once. I was so so sure and I even started getting sweet on her, until she started calling the cops. I don't think that's a premonition. I think I just had that dream because I haven't gotten laid in awhile."

The three hunters blanched, but otherwise kept their mouths shut.

"So what you saw," said Dean, "Probably isn't the end of the world, just the end of this town."

"Probably," Reade shrugged, "I don't know, that's why you people are here. I guess I just said that because it copies better. You know, if you're standing outside the supermarket you can't get very specific. It had to be catchier."

Sam's brows rose, "Right," he agreed, only to indulge the older man.

"Listen, I got an idea," Reade said, "I got a really good dream on some sporting numbers from last night. What's say we use that as a test, huh? I'll give you the winning numbers now, and let's see if I'm the real deal and what I saw is something you wanna work on? If not, then you can just pony on out of here, pretty as you please, and at least someone took me seriously for a couple of hours."

"Sounds great to me!" Dean said, eyes lighting up, and Sam could have heard the actual ka-ching! on that green gaze.

"Okay," Reade grinned, "In the meantime, you can bunk here at my house. God knows I have a lot of rooms. No furniture, but I turn on the electricity at night, I got working bathrooms and running water. At least it's free."

"We've stayed at much worse places, I can guarantee that," Dean said, "And we got a couple of sleeping bags and camping gear in the car, so we can just grab them and settle. Thanks, man."

"You got sleeping bags?" Reade asked.

"Standard hunter's supply fare," Bobby affirmed, "Why?"

"Got one for me?"

" " "

"So how much did you bet?" Sam asked, as the brothers listened on the Impala's stereo to find out if they've won anything, later that evening. Paul Reade's house had the basics, but no TV or radio.

"Almost everything we saved up the last couple of weeks," Dean grinned, "Oh, we are gonna make a bundle, Sammy. Bobby says this guy's the real deal, and I can live with that."

"It's a test," Sam told him, warily, "You know that, right? What if he's wrong, Dean? He said so himself, he gets meaningless dreams too."

"This'll work," Dean said, determinedly, shushing his brother as the results of the track was being announced, "Here we go..."

" " "

The frustrated, primal scream echoed across the property.

"I think you'd better hide," Bobby told Reade warily, who was cooking them dinner from canned food in the kitchen.

The double doors slammed open, a few rooms away. Reade's eyes were wide as saucers. He looked around the glaringly empty kitchen. When he decided to do without the furniture, he never imagined he would be needing them just to have something to hide behind.

"Reade!" Dean hollered.

"Dean," his kid brother said, trailing after the huffing elder Winchester, "He never said it was the real thing, he said it was a test--"

"Reade!" Dean bellowed.

"Help me," Reade said to Bobby in a small voice.

"Oh for god's sakes," Bobby muttered, looking around the room, just somewhere he could stuff the little man into until he could calm Dean down.

"I smell food," they heard Dean exclaim, "I smell food!"

His pounding footsteps sounded nearer and nearer as he followed the smell of canned chili toward the kitchen.

"Oh god," Reade yelped, just as Dean burst into the room with fury in his eyes and Sam trailing after him. Reade jumped, let out a squeal, and then ran for the back door.

Dean, spotting his prey, followed like a beast.

"Dean!" Sam exclaimed, grabbing for his jacket. He shook it free and ran into Bobby who blocked his way.

"Get your wits together, boy!" Bobby managed to say, as Dean struggled against him.

"I'm gonna wring his neck!"

"He said it was a test," Sam reasoned from behind him. He pressed a hand to Dean's shoulder, "Dean. Man, come on."

"Lemme go," Dean told his two companions through grit teeth and flaring nose, "I'm not gonna hurt him, I'm just gonna tell him it's not nice to mislead people."

Sam bit back a laugh, but his shoulders were quaking, and Dean could sense changes in Sam's mood any day. He threw his younger brother a glare.

"We lost a thousand dollars, Sammy," Dean said darkly, "Of our hard-earned, too little money."

"We'll get it back, man," Sam assured him, "You've got two hustlers in this family now. It shouldn't take the two of us too long to get it back."

Dean's eyes narrowed in irritation, but he had calmed, and he really did mean what he say about not hurting the man. He rolled back his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled.

"Good," Bobby said, releasing his hold on Dean with a pat, "Come on, you boys get started on the food. I'm gonna pick up the quivering mess of our host before he pees himself. You boys talk it over and figure out if you wanna stick around for this case or not."

" " "

Bobby found Paul Reade cowering in the backseat of the Impala, parked on the rotunda of the house.

"Last place he'd look," Reade said with a shrug, but he was still wide-eyed, staring at Bobby, "Am I safe?"

"From him?" Bobby said, as he opened the door as he pulled Reade out, "Yeah. From me, though... not so much."

"But you didn't bet nothin'!" Reade exclaimed, "You were with me all this time!"

Bobby grabbed Reade by the collar and pressed him against the car. "You have been acting funny around those boys since they got here, and I got a feeling you gave them bad numbers and I wanna know why."

"It's not my fault they used the damn numbers," Reade spat out, "Whoever told that guy to bet whatever he bet anyway? We said it was a fucking test!"

"You knew by how he looked he was gonna bet whatever he had," Bobby said, "He trusted you because I trusted you. They're here because I needed them, so this is all on me. And you are pissing me off. Now, seeing as I have to both dent my account finding a way to get them back their thousand bucks and dent my brain trying to find a way to make it appear that I'm not giving them any money, I figured the least you can do is give me an answer."

Reade stared at Bobby, "You gotta get them outta here."

"Why?"

"I don't know them," Reade replied, shakily, "But I saw them in my dream too. If they stick around, they're gonna die."

May or may not be continued...

Thanks for reading through my rants, guys, really. C&C's if you can spare 'em, and 'til the next post!