Darkness embraced him, warm and comfortable. He was so tired. He could stay there forever, in that dreamless sleep. It was so different from the nightmare-plagued days of the past year. There he could almost forget about Dean, and the loneliness, and demons and Samuel—
Samuel? Wait…. What—?
Sam jolted awaked, arms tangled in a blanket that had been tucked around him. He almost banged his head on the car window. He immediately regretted opening his eyes when the pain shot through his head like lightning. Not unlike the lightning that was lancing through the sky outside his rain-soaked window. Where the hell am I?
A voice broke through his stupor, joined by a pair of fingers that were pressing into his neck, feeling for a pulse. "Finally. I was starting to worry that I hit you too hard."
Sam followed the voice, cracking his eyes open slower this time. Dean was behind the wheel of the car. He felt a momentary surge of déjà vu. How long had it been since he'd shared a car with his brother?
"Dean? What—? Where are we?"
"Just outside of Gatlinburg. You must be really tired, dude, you slept all day. And believe me, nowadays these cross-country trips are a total bore without someone to talk to, so you owe me big."
For a moment, Sam just stared at the dashboard, deliriously wondering if they were in the Impala. He must have said it out loud, since Dean answered.
"I wish, man. I never saw her again after he brought me back. I guess when you can control demons that can teleport you anywhere you want you don't need your brother's car anymore. I never found her."
Sam groaned, holding his throbbing head.
Dean tossed him a water bottle that was so cold, it had to have been sitting in ice. His brother confirmed it a second later. "That's the last of our ice, so I hope you appreciate it."
Pressing the cold plastic to his face, Sam tried to reassemble his fragmented thoughts. He'd just been in Wyoming, Sarah and her son—their son?— heading for the buses. Dean had hit him, apparently knocked him out….
"Dean? What's going on? What have you done?"
"I'm getting you back to where you belong."
"You need me here, Dean," Sam protested. The buildings of deserted Gatlinburg filled the view outside as the car entered the main stretch of shops and hotels. Sam ignored it all. "You need every hunter you can get."
"I told you, it won't matter, Sam," Dean muttered sadly, turning onto a side road and heading uphill. "This looks like the road you described. Hey, you think there's any of that jelly left in this town?"
"Dean!" Sam shouted, frustrated by the lack of response. "Dean, listen to me!"
Sooner than Sam expected, Dean stopped the car and slung it into park. He opened the door and climbed out, calling over his shoulder. "Get out, Sam, we're here."
Angry, Sam tossed the blanket and bottle aside, wrenching the door open and exiting into the storm. This was indeed the place. The ruined dwelling was resting on the side of the mountain where he'd left it, and the raging storm was swirling like a whirlpool overhead, centered over the remains of the house. He stalked around the back of the car where Dean was taking the Colt and Sam's phone and canteen of holy water out.
Dean completely ignored his attempts to argue, all but dragging Sam up the hill toward the house. For all the scars and as gaunt and malnourished as Dean looked, he was as strong as a mule. Just like the Dean he remembered. Sam finally planted his feet as they approached the entrance to the basement.
"Dean, stop! You have to listen—"
"No, you listen!" Dean shouted, turning on him. "There's no safe zone in Texas, Sam!"
Sam was brought up short. "What?"
"I haven't gotten any news from San Antonio in weeks. I figure Samuel and his demons overran the place. The same goes for the one in Canada. I told you, he's been busy."
Shocked didn't begin to describe what Sam was feeling. Horrible realization began to dawn on him as he put it all together. "But, the buses…Sarah…."
"They won't find any help where they're going. The world's done for."
Sam swallowed back bile. There'd been hundreds of people in Dean's camp. "Does she know? Do any of them?"
"She does. We didn't tell the others. Better for morale and all that. The buses are locked down, like you did with this car." Dean crooked a thumb back at the car Sam had jury-rigged a week before. "As long as they can keep moving, they'll be safe from the demons. Sarah and I figured it would be better to fight it out on the road if we had to."
"But, Dean…all those people—"
"Are as good as dead sooner or later. Probably sooner. This war is over. We lost it years ago."
Sam looked away, unable to speak. What could he say to all of that?
"It's time for you to go back, Sam," Dean said, sounding sympathetic.
Everything inside Sam screamed no. He could say something to that. "Dean…I can't. I can't let you go, not again. Please."
Dean looked away for a moment, but when he turned back, there was no agreement in his eyes, only sadness. "You have to. Besides, what would your brother think, if I let you die in this hellhole?"
"You are my brother, Dean."
The other man shrugged. "Maybe. But not the same one."
Sam felt the desperation gnawing at his insides. He couldn't just leave, not knowing what awaited this Dean.
An idea occurred to him, and had he been rational at that moment, he would have known what Dean's answer would be. He wasn't anywhere close to rational. "Come with me."
Dean blinked and, for the briefest of moments, looked like he wanted to, but then he shook his head and gestured toward the devastated landscape around them. "Don't you get it, Sammy? This is all my fault. I sold my soul to bring you—him—back to life, and couldn't get out of the deal. I thought I was doing the right thing, leaving Sam alone like that. It hurt like hell, but I knew he could make it without me. I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, he screwed up. I don't know what it was; he never told me. But he made a mistake and the world paid for it, and it's on my head for putting him in that position."
He reached out and gripped Sam's shoulder, not unkindly, and motioned to the stairs. "You don't belong in my world, Sam, any more than I belong in yours. In a few days or weeks, none of this will matter, anyway."
Dean guided him to the steps and followed him down. Sam felt like he was walking to the gas chamber. Defeat engulfed him. He couldn't help this Dean any more than he had been able to help his own. He'd failed his brother again.
They reached the basement. The vortex was right where Sam had left it, flickering angrily against the wall. Sam moved into the room with it, and turned to face Dean again.
The other man was examining the room with a smirk. "Feng shui, very nice."
Sam couldn't bring himself to laugh, not even at his brother's inappropriate jokes.
Dean seemed to be feeling the same way, since the smirk vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "Guess I'll see you around, Sammy."
For an instant, Sam was back on that dark road, watching his brother steel himself before the hellhounds dragged him away. Something inside him broke, and he knew the wetness on his face had nothing to do with the rain. He stepped forward and scooped Dean into an embrace, all machismo forgotten. He was reliving history. "Good-bye, Dean."
An awkward moment passed before Dean's hands wrapped around his shoulder blades. The older man squeezed hard. "Thanks for reminding me who my little brother was. I can't repay you enough for that."
Sam held on for a long moment, wishing he never had to let go. In the end, he forced himself to step back, wiping his eyes but feeling no embarrassment. When he trusted himself to speak, he looked up. "What are you going to do?"
Dean, who was looking decidedly choked up himself, shrugged. "I'm gonna break this circle as soon as you get through, then I think I'll head back west. Like you said, those people need me. It's my job to keep them safe."
Sam nodded, wanting to stall for time. There was never enough time. "So, me and Sarah could have a son…."
"I guess so," Dean confirmed, a devilish smile breaking out. "But I hope if you do on your side, he comes out looking more like his mother this time. Whew, what an ugly kid…."
A laugh that dangerously approached a sob escaped Sam's mouth. "Yeah. I hope so, too."
He couldn't think of any more excuses to linger. Hanging his head, Sam turned toward the vortex and stepped away from Dean. After placing the gun and his few belongings in his pockets, he spoke once more, looking over his shoulder.
"Dean…I won't let what happened here happen to me. I won't become that monster. I swear."
For a moment, he didn't think Dean had heard him.
Then his brother replied, "That's my boy."
This is it, then. Sam tried to prepare, wondering what this would feel like. He hadn't exactly been prepared the first time. He was almost ready to jump when he heard Dean again.
He didn't turn, knowing if he looked again, he'd never be able to leave. "Yeah?"
"Samuel told me once…whatever he found to get me out of Hell, he found it under a cathedral in New York. That's all he said. It isn't much, but maybe that can help you."
Sam took that in, then nodded. "Thanks, big brother."
He didn't wait for a reply, knowing if he didn't go now, he never would. Sam squeezed his eyes shut and leaped forward.
The first thing he was aware of was pain. Someone's hand slapping him across the cheek.
His eyes flew open, and Sam found himself staring into the deeply concerned face of Bobby Singer.
"Sam? You with me? Jesus, boy! You scared the heck outta me!"
Sam blinked, trying to get his bearings. He glanced around, noting the dusty walls and cobwebbed ceiling past Bobby's head. He was in a basement. The basement.
"Yeah," Sam rasped. His throat felt like a desert. "How— How long was I…?"
Bobby helped him sit up. "I don't know. When I didn't hear from you after a whole day, I headed this way. Have you been unconscious for two days? Damn, son, I told you to call me when you found this place."
Two— What? That couldn't be right. "Two days? That's…that's impossible."
Had it all been in his head? Sam looked around frantically, spotting the possessed man he'd been forced to kill before he'd been pulled into the vortex. Someone—Bobby maybe—had placed a blanket over the dead man's body.
Speaking of which, the vortex was still there, warping the air around it and still tugging at the room. It was sucking in air, forming a stiff breeze in the room, but it wasn't nearly as powerful as before.
Sam pulled the Colt out of his jacket and opened the revolver. He had to be sure. There were three bullets missing. One for this demon. Two for Samuel. It hadn't been a dream.
"Sam? Are you all right?" Bobby asked, turning Sam's head back to him so he could look at him. "Looks like you've been hit in the head a couple of times."
His head was still throbbing from where Dean had hit him. Or was it from the trip back? Only two days?
Sam gathered his thoughts enough to accept Bobby's hand and stand up. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay."
Fighting off a wave of vertigo, Sam focused on the demonic circle surrounding them on the floor. Glancing past Bobby, he saw the other one in the outer room. Bobby must have cut down the bodies of the unfortunate family, since they were set aside and covered up like the other one.
"We have to break these circles. Get a knife and scrape away the paint and the blood. We'll get the lighter fluid and salt and burn the floor, too. And the bodies."
Bobby looked dubious. "Sam—"
"It's the only way to close this thing," Sam broke in, stronger than intended. He frowned. "Trust me, okay? I know what I'm doing."
He'd salt and burn the whole basement. The concrete floor would keep it from spreading. But, honestly, he didn't care if he had to burn the whole damned house.
Sam kneeled down as Bobby went into the other room, pulled a knife—Dean's knife—out of his weapons bag, and started scraping at the chalk and paint that formed the circle. His eyes drifted up to the vortex as he worked.
For a moment, he caught of glimpse of something, or someone, deep in the murky interior of the whirlpool, posed as if it—he?—were doing the same thing as Sam.
He clenched his jaw, forcing his hand not to slow, and to finish the job.
The vortex abruptly shrank, then collapsed entirely in a rush of light and noise, then it was gone. An eerie silence descended over the room.
It was over.
Sam blinked away the sudden moisture in his eyes, trying to ignore the overwhelming feeling of sadness that threatened to drown him.
Dean's words echoed in his ears. That's my boy.
"Sam?" Bobby reappeared, stepping into the room, holding lighter fluid and matches. "You sure you're okay? You look like hell."
His friend's gruffness brought a smile to Sam's face. He nodded before setting his jaw. "We have to get to New York when we're done here. I got a lead on how to help Dean."
The older hunter frowned, looking like he was going to argue.
"Bobby, please. I'll explain on the way. You've got to trust me on this one."
"Okay." Bobby nodded. "You got it."
As he stood and started helping Bobby with the bodies, it occurred to Sam that Dean hadn't specified New York City, but it was a place to start. Hell, he'd turn every church and cathedral in the state upside down if he had to.
Then, maybe, when it was all over and he'd rescued his brother…maybe he'd stop by Sarah's and pay her a visit. It'd been a long time.
Author's Note: May 12, 2009. Within a week, Jeanne Gold's next fanzine, Blood Brothers 3, goes on sale. In it, I've published the sequel to this story, "Out of the Fire and Into the Pan," in which Sam follows the clue given him by the mirror universe's Dean and goes off in search of a way to release his Dean from Hell.
At Jeanne's and K Hanna Korossy's suggestion, this has become a trilogy. Part 3 will appear next year.
Thanks for reading, everybody!