Dean sat on the trunk of the Impala in the motel parking lot. It was late, he was tired. He was finishing up some Chinese take out, and waiting for Castiel. And, Castiel was late. Again. Say what you will about Sam, but he was never late. Castiel was supposed to have some intel on some angel/demon smackdown that was pending in Arizona. Yeah, that'll be tons of fun.

Dean sighed and tossed the cardboard container of General Tsao's in the dumpster. One more battle, one more attempt to put a finger in the apocalypse damn to stop innocent people from dying. And, Dean knew it was all necessary, and important. But, here he sat, impatient and irritated, and wasn't sure why. It wasn't the waiting. Sometimes it seemed like he'd spent half his life waiting. He remembered waiting for Mom to one day come back to them. And, waiting for Dad to be that laughing, happy guy he'd remembered from before the fire. And, later, after he understood that neither of those things were going to happen, he'd waited for Dad, night after night, to come home and not be dead. And, waiting for years for Sam to stop fighting with Dad. And, after Dad had kicked Sam out, waiting for Sam to come back. Now, he waited for other things. For someone to tell him what to do about his brother. For heaven and hell to leave him alone. For just a moment of peace in this God-forsaken world.

But, none of that was new. So, why was he dissatisfied and grumpy? Just another night of hanging out, waiting for a renegade angel to swoop by and take him to yet another goddamned battleground where he could get his ass handed to him. Dean rubbed his hands over his face. It was just, everything was so hard, all the time, everyday, and there was no break. And, no Sam. Jesus, do not go there, Dean. It's for the best.

Dean's phone buzzed where it sat next to him on the trunk. He glanced down to see who it was. 'Sam calling.' Speak of the devil. Dean sighed. He really wasn't up for this. He picked it up. "Yeah."

"Hey, it's me. How's it going?"

Dean sighed again. "I'm fine, Sam. What's up?"

There was a pause. He could practically hear Sam thinking, 'ok, no small talk.' Sam cleared his throat, "Um, I found out some things, and I need to talk to you about them."

Dean nodded. "Okay. So, talk."

He heard a restrained sigh from Sam. "In person, I think."

"Sam, now's not really ---"

And Sam's tone became a little more impatient. "It won't take long. Just, a half hour and I'll leave you alone. It's important, Dean."

I seriously cannot take any more of your revelations, Sam. "Fine. I'm in Pittsburgh. Where are you?"

"Oklahoma."

There was another pause, then, in unison, "St. Louis?"

Sam asked, "When can you leave?"

Dean thought about the angel/demon battle he was supposed to be investigating. St. Louis was practically on the way to Arizona, anyway. "Tomorrow morning."

"Okay, see you in a couple days, then."

*****

Dean waited at the Abbott Motel in St. Louis. He'd registered under Jim Rockford. Sam had yet to show and hadn't called again. Dean had called Castiel's cell (and that was never not gonna be weird) and told him where he was going. Castiel had murmured something about 'too soon to interfere in Arizona,' and hung up.

So, here Dean sat, waiting again, absently snapping a rubberband against the formica table in the kitchenette. He was kind of nervous to see Sam, which was odd. Probably, because he'd really made an effort to push all Sam-related thoughts out of his head for the last little while. He didn't know what seeing him again would do toward keeping that going. Yeah, he knew it made him a terrible brother, to admit how much relief he'd felt when Sam walked away. Sam and his sad eyes and quiet angst and demon blood had just been too damn much all the time. At least Castiel was good for some laughs. And if Dean sometimes looked over to the passenger seat of the Impala and felt a pang, well, he could deal with that.

There was a knock on the door. Dean got up, opened it to find Sam standing there. "Hey."

Sam nodded. "Hey, Dean. Thanks for seeing me."

Well, that didn't sound quite right.

Sam walked past him and sat at the table. He sucked in a deep, slow breath and put his hands in front of him. He looked wrecked. Pale and scared and shaky. Finally, he looked up at Dean, tried to settle. "I'm just going to lay it out, and then, you know, if you have any input, we'll go from there. Because, there's only one thing I can think of, to maybe stop this from happening."

Dean closed the door, came and sat across from Sam at the little table. "Well, that sounds ominous."

Sam sighed, the corner of his mouth went up. "It me, Dean. I'm kind of the King of Ominous." Then, the moment of levity faded, and Sam went still and serious again. "Lucifer paid me a visit. It was in a dream, or something weird. He admitted he was having trouble finding me…"

Dean felt his eyes widen. "Lucifer. Came to see you?"

Sam nodded. "Yes. He said ---" And he stopped, looked down, seemed to wilt a long moment. Then, he straightened up, looked back at Dean. "He said that I was meant to be his vessel. That he would need my consent to let him in, but, he was sure he would get it. I believed him."

Dean almost got up and left. Really, it was just about too much. He looked at Sam, and almost felt repulsion. Jesus. Lucifer's vessel. Like the demon blood and the mind mojo and the rest wasn't enough.

Sam must have read the look on his face. "I'm going, I'm going. Just let me finish."

And Dean felt a stab at that. Sam knew there would be no support from Dean at this point. He didn't expect anything better from him anymore. No more, 'I got your back,' from Dean, right? A fissure of shame went through him. Sam had had a lot to deal with in his short life, hadn't he? But, this? I mean, Good God, now it's beyond fixing. Lucifer's vessel.

Sam plowed ahead in his typical 'keep going' fashion. "I told him I'd just kill myself, keep him from possessing me. But, he waved that off, said he'd only bring me back." And Sam gave this sickly little smile. "I tested it out, and, yeah, I just woke up on the floor, all healed up. Anyway, I thought, maybe if I did it, and you salted and burned right away, and then, scattered pieces everywhere, you know? The ocean, the desert, any place that would make it hard for him to gather me all up again, that maybe that would work? Or, if you have any better ideas, or Bobby does, I'm open to those, too."

Dean's heart had kicked up. "Back up. You 'tested it out?' What the hell does that mean?"

Sam shrugged. "Sliced my wrists in the bathroom. Woke up the next morning, good as new. Anyway, what do you think of the salt and burn thing. Might work, right?"

Dean stared. Sam stared back, this odd expression of eager and hopeless on his face. Sam was still trying to find answers. In the midst of this shit storm, Sam was trying to find the best way to kill himself and scatter his remains enough to thwart Lucifer using him as a vessel.

Sam opened his mouth to say something else, and Dean just held up a hand. "Give me minute." He stood up, paced the length of the room a few times. Sam just sat quietly and waited. "How the fuck are you Lucifer's vessel?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "Dean, does it matter? It's just one more thing in the messed up universe that is my life. Just, help me come up with a way to make sure it can't happen, okay?" When Dean continued to just stare, Sam's earnest gaze died. He sighed. "If, you know, it's not asking too much, or something."

And Dean stopped his pacing and looked at Sam. This receptacle of demon blood, this man meant to be Lucifer's vessel, was Sam. His little brother. This was the kid who had followed him around, copied him, amused him, made him feel needed. And Dean had loved him easy as breathing. And he'd stopped connecting that kid with the man in front of him. Or, really, he didn't want to connect them. Because, that would mean this was still his brother, whom he still loved more than anyone, and he was meant to be the ultimate incarnation of evil.

It was too much to wrap his head around. And, he was just so tired. He didn't want to try to make sense of the whole thing. It was just easier to push it away. To push Sam away.

Dean sat down on his bed. "Sam. I don't know what you want me to say. I just, I can't really think about ---" He couldn't go on because he didn't really have anything to say. Sam was Lucifer's vessel.

And, as usual, Sam was able to read him like a book. He didn't even look surprised. "Yeah. Okay. Sorry. This isn't your problem." He stood up, gave a tired laugh and walked toward the door. "You know, just when I think I've hit the bottom of the worst thing to deal with, surprise! There's more." He stopped, turned back to Dean. "Um, do you want me to tell you when I do it, or should I just leave word with Bobby?"

And Dean still felt enveloped in a kind of foggy inertia. He looked up. "What?"

Sam sighed again, like Dean was being tedious. His tone was a little sharper when he said, "Do you want me to call and say goodbye, or what?"

And Dean was still a little lost. "Goodbye? Because you're going, where exactly?"

And Sam looked defeated, again. But, also, kind of pissed. "Nevermind, Dean. You go on with your angels and saving the world, okay? I'll just toddle off, try to make sure my body is in enough pieces that Lucifer will have trouble using me to end the world. But, you know, I'm just the anti-Christ anyway, so, better all around. I'm glad I can give you some relief from all this problematic evil I keep choking on. So, yeah. See ya, or, you know, maybe not."

He stomped to the door. Dean was up on his feet, slamming his arm against the door so Sam couldn't open it. "Just hold on."

And Sam looked angry, non-demonically-fueled angry, for the first time in long time. "No, Dean, I'm done holding on. I've held on and all I've done is messed everything up. So, just, let me go and take care of this once and for all."

Dean pushed him back. "No. You do not get to just ---"

Sam laughed harshly. "Oh, for fuck's sake, why not?! Be honest. It's what you want. I can see it all over your face, Dean. Even before the panic room and the punching and Lillith. Ever since you caught me doing the mind mojo in the warehouse, you've wanted out. You should have just taken off then. Because I knew. I knew I'd given up my place as your brother. I knew that, to you, I was the burden, the one who had demon blood and mind powers and Ruby feeding my power addiction. And, you were right. You were right about me, about all of it. So, congratulations. I did everything wrong, from, well, always. So, sorry about that. You stuck around longer than most would have, I'm sure."

Dean made himself meet Sam's eyes. Sam wasn't wrong. Dean had felt disconnected from Sam, as his brother, for a long time. Sam watched him, nodded. "Yeah, I know. I knew it, then. It's fine." And Sam started pacing, away from Dean. His voice rose in volume the longer he spoke. "I mean, somehow, I must have deserved this, right? Because how the hell does this happen to someone who's born innocent? Somewhere along the line, God or the universe or someone must have known I was going to do a truckload of evil, to earn all of this. Because how else do you explain, an innocent kid being fed demon blood at fucking six months old? And, Jessica burning six feet over my head, blood dripping on my face? Well, hell, that must have somehow been something I had coming, right?" Sam's face was getting red, and he was starting to wave his arms around in his agitation. "And, when Yellow Eyes transported me to Cold Oak, put me in the demon-kid Olympics, I was so stupid! I chose not to kill Jake. He was an innocent kid, I thought. But I should have remembered! He was a kid just like me. What was I thinking, not killing him?" Sam smacked his forehead, hard. "If I'd just put a knife through his heart, you would never have made that suck ass deal with the demon. I would not have been responsible for you going to hell. And, I wouldn't have dealt with that uplifting experience by thinking the demon blood I carried should at least be useful for something! Maybe I could finally get the drop on all these evil bastards. But, wait, it's me, so that had to turn to shit. Instead, I lose you for good, kiss most of my humanity good-by and bring on the apocalypse. So, yeah, I made the wrong choices all along, even though, and this is the funny part, I was trying to do something good! So, this latest little bombshell? Lucifer taking the form of my dead girlfriend to inform me that I am meant to be his vessel? Well, that's just one more page in the fucked up chronicles of Sammy Winchester, so, whatever. Don't you worry. I know it's been a strain on you, putting up with all my evil shenanigans. I only came here because I still thought ---"

And, he stopped. His teeth actually clicked shut as he dropped his arms and took in a couple deliberate, deep breaths. His face went pale, his mouth trembled. But, then, as usual, he straightened his spine. Shook it off. He cleared his throat. "Sorry. Pity party done."

Dean just watched him, a lump the size of Texas in his throat. He'd known all that, of course. Hell, he'd had a ring-side seat to all of it. But, it occurred to him that Sam had shouldered one hell of a burden of his own. Dean had always kind of thought that, as the older brother, all this shit had been on his shoulders. But, Sam? He had really lived it, hadn't he? He'd had to come to terms with demon blood in him. Yellow Eyes had killed his girl and ridden his ass like a weirdly proud surrogate father. Sam had been baptized by evil almost since the beginning. And, for the most part, he'd tried to look for the good, shut out the bad. There was no part of Sam, Dean knew, that wanted to be evil.

And, yet, evil ran through him. Real evil ran through his brother.

And Dean's response had been to tell him to stop. Stop having it, stop letting Yellow Eyes talk to him, stop trying to use it for anything. He'd punched him and yelled, and thought of it as his burden, not Sam's. If Sam would just listen, and do what he said, and just stop¸ everything could go back to the way it had been. Like Sam could have 'stopped' having demon blood.

And, while Dean grappled and railed, Sam had kept struggling to find a way to live with it. And Dean, well, Dean had mostly not wanted to believe it, wanted to still be able to have some control over all this, and save Sam.

And, when he'd thought that maybe Sam was beyond saving? Dean had locked him up, chained him to a cot and left him there. Sam had escaped, and Dean had been done. Because he was mad, and hurt. But, mostly, because he had failed. He'd failed to save his little brother. So, now, Sam was on his own and Dean was relieved that he didn't have to look at his failure, 24/7?

Dean had been on a John Winchester style mission, and he hadn't even realized it. "Save Sammy or Kill Him." Not once had he thought, 'help Sam learn to live with this.' Because that would mean he was letting evil live, right? And his father's voice still rang in his head. 'There is no middle ground.' Sam was either good or evil. But, Dean couldn't kill him. It was just never going to happen. Even now, after everything, Dean wanted Sam alive, somewhere. Just not next to him. So, where did that leave them?

Sam sat on the bed across from Dean. "Dean, I know it's too much. Me, and all this…stuff. Frankly, most of the time, I've felt like I'm barely holding on myself, you know? Like, from the moment Yellow Eyes told me he'd fed me the blood, I wasn't John and Mary's son, or Dean's brother anymore. I was, God, I was just another evil force in the world. Still, I tried to have hope…" He gave that tired, sad laugh again. "It's beyond ironic, isn't it? I mean what are the chances that I grow up hunting evil, and then, you know, end up being evil? Too bad Yellow Eyes didn't pick you that night. You would have handled it, better, I'm sure."

And, for the first time, Dean wondered how things would have been different if yellow eyes had given Dean the demon cocktail? What if he were the one having psychic death visions, and demons vying for his leadership? What if Sam had died bloody in front of him, because of him? In Cold Oak, Dean had had one bad day, the day Sam had died, and he'd hooked up with a demon faster than you could say 'Bob's your uncle.' So, where did he get off being on his high horse about how Sam had handled all this evil shit badly?

What if it had been him, instead of Sam?

Sam would never have given up on him, he knew that much. The kid was stubborn as the day was long. He maybe wouldn't have seen things as black and white as Dean. He'd always looked for the gray. Dean, not so much.

He looked at his brother, this kid who'd been screwed by fate. This wasn't some stranger. This was Sam. Even after everything he'd had dumped on his plate, he still tried. He was here, trying to strategize about how to mutilate his corpse, for chrissake. He knew he had evil in his veins. And, that was all Dean had been able to think about for a long time. But, right now, Dean made himself let all that go. This was just Sam. His hair was too long, he was too damn tall, and he was kind and weary and sad. He'd lost everyone he'd ever loved to demons. But, he hadn't become evil. Right now, he was worn out and ready to end it. And what had Dean's response been? Just, 'take it somewhere else, would you, Sam?'

Well, wasn't this a proud moment?

Bobby had tried to tell him. Dean had just been annoyed. Now, he asked himself when he'd given himself permission to abandon his brother? Because he knew, all this time, that Sam was in real trouble. Granted, it was extremely draining, because Sam was always in trouble.But he was also the one person in the world who meant anything to Dean. From the time he was little, with the exception of his time at Stanford, Sam had watched his back, trusted him, tried to be there for him. Yeah, he'd lied and snuck around and drank the blood of a demon bitch, but, Dean could see where Sam thought that had nothing to do with Dean. He hadn't been trying to betray him, he'd just been on a mission of "save the world at the expense of everything else." Dean had finally clued in to what he was doing, and tried to 'help' by locking him in the panic room, and sending him into violent withdrawal. He wondered how that had come across to Sam? Not too caring, probably. One more page in the Chronicles, as he'd said. Dean had been doing what he'd thought was right, even though it was damn near killing Sam. It hadn't helped. Instead, it had convinced Sam that he had given up on him. In Sam's world, that meant it was time to run away.

And wasn't perspective a bitch. Because Dean knew, he knew that if he let go of the walls between them, he was in for a world of hurt. His brother would wring every last bit of will and energy that Dean had to give.

Because, Dean also knew, his brother was damned. Through no fault of his own, Sammy hadn't stood a chance since he was a baby.

"Sam, I'm sorry." And Dean really was. This whole screwed up situation, all the things that he'd been blaming on Sam, he was just so damn sorry about all of it.

Sam gusted out a frustrated sound. "Dean, you don't have to be sorry. God, the things I've…I'm sorry. I'm sorry I lied to you, sorry I chose her, that I didn't handle this…that I got lost and you paid a price for that. I never meant to hurt you. But, I suppose that's hard to believe after the whole punching, choking thing, huh?"

Dean shrugged, "Hell, I've punched you plenty of times."

Sam gave a tired laugh. "Yeah. But, usually the bad guys are the ones choking me."

Dean nodded, gave a small smile. "I know you've had a hell of a time, and I know I didn't handle it that well."

Sam sighed. "Well, I guess it wasn't really yours to handle. It was mine, and I messed it up. But, you know, none of that matters now, Dean. What matters is coming up with a way to make sure Lucifer doesn't get me for his damned vessel."

And, there it was. Sam was ready to die to make sure Lucifer didn't use him, like demons - and apparently angels – had been using him his entire life. No hesitating, no histrionics. Sam's little outburst earlier had been the closest he'd ever come to saying life just hadn't been fair. And, suddenly, Dean wanted to do the same. Make sure the angels, make sure Michael, couldn't use him the way Lucifer wanted to use Sam.

"Sam, first I want to tell you, you said that if it had been me, that I would done so much better with this demon blood stuff. I don't know that that's true. You have manned up to the evil shit that's been heaped on you. You've tried to find some good in it. Now, true, you've hit some rough patches –" at this Sam laughed briefly. "But, overall, the load you've carried would have broken a lot of people. Hell, those other psychic kids went down like bowling pins."

Sam shook his head. "Well, you're generous to call them 'rough patches' instead of huge, glaring fuck ups that cost…everything. But, you tried to help me. I know you did. I just, I think there wasn't anything you could do. Not really."

Dean waved his hand. "Right now, there is something we can do. We can come up with a plan."

Sam scoffed. "Dean, there is no plan. There's damage control, maybe. There's ending me, before I can be used to hurt more people than I already have."

"Sammy, what if we call bullshit on this whole vessel thing?"

Sam shook his head. "Dean, we can't just say 'bullshit' and get a do-over. Jesus. This isn't kickball."

Dean sighed. "Okay. Well, they need our consent, right? Michael and Lucifer? What if we tell them to get fucked?"

Sam nodded. "Okay. And when they line up little kids and start cutting their heads off, you gonna tell them to get fucked, then? Or, when they boil the blood of good people right in front of you, are you gonna ---

"Okay, okay, I see your point." But, Dean was on to something, and he felt a crack in the despair that had gripped him for far too long. "What if we can do this our own way? What if we find a way to make sure the angels and demons, and Michael and Lucifer, damn well leave the Winchesters alone?"

Sam was trying to follow his reasoning. "And, what? We just tell them to stay away and they do? Have you been drinking?"

Dean was feeling the old juices flowing now. They may both go down. Hell, Dean had expected that for years. But they damn well were not going to go out as bitch-boy vessels for any angel or exiled angel that came along. "What if we stay hidden from all of them long enough to find another way to end this thing?"

Sam raised his brow. "'This thing?' You mean this apocalypse thing?"

Dean nodded. "That's what I mean. We can do it, Sam. We can figure this thing out and end it some other way. We were both wrong, thinking it was better to split up. I think, if we stick together, if we find a way to make sure they can't use us for whatever purposes they have, we can figure out a another way to fix this."

Sam, looked at him a long moment, gave a weak smile. "Dean, I love you, I really do, but, you are crazy."

Dean scoffed, "No, I think we've been too wrapped up in how big this feels. What if we make it smaller? Just ---" He stared at Sam. "Did you just tell me you loved me?"

Sam's eyes widened. "Did I?"

"Hell, yes, you did."

Sam ducked his head. "Well, Jesus." He let out a brief sigh, then, looked right at Dean. "Well, of course. I mean, you know I do, right? Just cause we've had our issues, there really hasn't ever been a day, my whole life, when that wasn't true."

And Dean knew, right there, why he was going to go to the mat with Sam. Because, in this whole screwed up, demon-infested, violent, painful world, he had his brother. Sam was his family. And that, in the end, was worth dying for. Or, it was worth finding a way to live with demon blood, and Lucifer, with dickish angels and brothers who were imperfect and messed up. Because if he let Sam go, if he let himself salt and burn and scatter the kid, Dean would lose his heart. He'd be alive, but he'd be one cold, empty bastard.

Sam may bring complications and pain and hair-pulling frustration, but he also brought love and understanding and always, the willingness to try. He owed it to himself, to Sam, and to their parents to honor that. To protect it and make it valuable. Sam hadn't asked for any of the shit that had happened to him. And, he was tired of blaming him for not doing things better. He was tired of blaming himself for the same thing. It was time to man up, be Winchesters and start fighting.

"Sam, we are changing up the game."

Sam sighed, looked leery. "What does that mean, Dean?"

"It means, we're done being fate's bitch. Or, bitches, I guess. We were taught to fight, to help people and to look out for each other. And that's what we're gonna do."

Sam shook his head. "Who are we going to fight, Dean? Destiny?"

"If destiny wants a taste, that's fine."

And, Sam looked at him, really considered what Dean was saying. And Dean could see when Sam signed on. Just like that. His mopey, sad eyes brightened. He knew it was probably futile, just as Dean did. But, there was always that small sliver of hope that they could figure it out. "We take on all comers, huh?"

"Line 'em up, knock 'em down."

"Back to back, kicking ass and takin' names?"

And Dean felt lighter than he had in months. "Damn straight. And if Lucifer comes, or Michael drops in, we take them on, too. They're not gonna have us, Sam."

And, Sam tilted his head, looked toward the middle distance, and started processing. "I guess we have to study up on rituals for repelling angels. And, I found a Vatican archive that has a lot to say about why God banished Lucifer. Maybe we can learn something that would be useful if we confront him? There's also a book at Bobby's that has something called a 'blind' spell, where you can be in the room with a supernatural being and it can't see you. I think it calls for herbs that are going to be a bitch to track down…"

Dean was so distracted by the light in Sam's eyes that he kind of stopped listening. There he was. There was his Sammy. Trying, thinking, trusting Dean and believing they could do this, if they stuck together.

And just like that, Dean believed it, too.

The End