Measure of a Man (continued)

Disclaimer: See Chapter One.

A/N: Thank you so very much for the reviews and the support and well-wishes! They mean more to me than you could ever know. Sorry to use a cliché there, but it's the truth. ::HUGS to all:: And infinity-thanks to peacejojo for making more pics for this chapter! You can see them in my profile, IF the site isn't being weird… Otherwise you can see them on my LJ entry for this story.

There are only one to two chapters left in this story. It all depends on how long next chapter's climax turns out to be. If it's very long, then another chapter will follow, but if it's short, then I'll put the epilogue right after. Simple :) Till then, here's a super-long chapter for ya: 36 pages! Lotta talking in this one, so I hope it doesn't get boring…


Chapter Eleven: Give a Hoot, Don't Dispute

Dean is hugging his Baby. He can't help himself: It's been so LONG since he's seen his best girl, so when he spotted her on the forest floor, illuminated by the last golden rays of sunset beaming through the trees, he shrunk down to 50' just so he could pick her up and full-on bear-hug her. Carefully, of course—last thing he wanted to do was dent a fender. Now the car is purring right back, and Tyler, watching on from his perch on Dean's left shoulder, is beaming with happiness. He wouldn't dare make fun of the situation—not when he knows just how much these two mean to each other. He's just happy Dean is happy again and hopes that it lasts.

With a quick smooch on her roof (and a gentle rubbing off with his shirt sleeve of any lip marks), Dean sets the car back down and settles into a crouch next to her. He soothes his fingers over her hood like she's got head full of long, soft hair. "Isn't she the most beautiful girl you've ever seen?" he asks Tyler.

"She sure is. Does she have a sister?"

Dean laughs and holds up his index finger for a high-five, which Tyler readily gives. "Sorry, Ty-guy, but she's one of a kind. Don't worry, though—we'll find you your own special lady." He turns and gives the boy on his shoulder a smile. "I know she's out there waiting for you."

"Will you teach me how to take care of her?" Tyler asks, hope and a little longing in his eyes that Dean doesn't miss. He throws out his biggest grin as he nods.

"Can't have you taking care of classic cars half-assed, right? I learned from the best, so you're gonna learn from the best."

The happy scene is interrupted by a rustling in the tall pines above them. Dean's hunter instincts take over, and he sets Tyler down by the Impala while his eyes scan the canopy. The rustling comes again and several branches break loose. Dean lowers his big hands over both boy and car to protect them.

"What is it?" Tyler whispers, but Dean motions for him to stay quiet and put. Standing up, he listens…zeroes in…and grabs the something in the trees. He then crouches down and faces away from Tyler to take a look at his prey, but Tyler runs around him to see anyway. "What is it?!" the kid asks again, but he's soon just as stunned as Dean. Resting in the giant palm is Castiel.

Tyler crawls into the hand at once and slides in next to the angel. Castiel looks haggard, cut up all over, but not by any tree branch. Dean knows they are knife wounds, and several of them are deep enough that his blinding-white grace is bleeding through. His eyes are shut and his face is quite pale.

"Cas?" Dean tries. The angel stirs at his voice but does not wake, and Dean sighs with worry. "Shit. We gotta get him out of here."

"What's wrong with him, Dean?"

"I don't know, but he can't stay here. Hold on…" Dean grows a little more and tucks the Impala under his left arm. Then he stands up and looks over the trees toward the house in the distance. "Think your family would mind having an angel in their home?"

"Are you kidding? They'll go nuts! Mom'll probably ask him to sign her Bible or something."

Dean smiles at that mental picture: Mrs. Durden holding out the Good Book, Cas not understanding why writing down his name is of any use to anyone and looking to Dean to explain. Dean peers down at his stricken friend. "I missed ya, Weirdo," he murmurs fondly. "Let's get you fixed up."

He turns to walk back to the house, knowing he'll make it back in two minutes or less at this size. As he clears the forest, Tyler hears a screech and leans over the side of Dean's hand to look back at the way they came. Two bird-shaped silhouettes fly in contrast to the setting sun behind them. "Uh, Dean? I think we're being followed."

The giant looks back just in time for the birds to swoop past his head and land on the tips of his fingers, a few feet away from where Castiel lies. Two barn owls look up at Dean and cheep in apparent greeting. Dean does a double-take. "No way…" He brings his hand closer to be sure. They're a little bigger now that they're a little older, but he'd know those heart-shaped faces anywhere. "Fluffernutter? Hoots Junior? That you?"

"They insisted on accompanying me," a low voice informs them. Castiel is awake, though barely so, and his tired blue eyes are now fixed on Dean's big greens.

"Cas?" Dean says, just as Tyler yells "CAS!" and gives the angel a hug. "Are you okay?" the boy asks. "What happened? Do you know these owls? HOW do you know them?"

"Give the guy a chance to answer," Dean chuckles. Tyler gets sheepish and apologizes, but Castiel sits up and gives the boy a nod of reassurance.

"It's all right, Tyler. I'm as eager to speak with you as you are to know what I have to say." But just saying that long sentence tires the angel out, and he breathes hard and leans against the closest giant finger.

"Easy," Dean soothes, "you look like you've been to Hell and back…uh, you know, again. We're on our way back to the Durden Ranch, so rest up and enjoy the ride."

"No, Dean, there's no time. Where is Sam?"

Dean's good mood is killed at once. "That asshole boss of yours sent him off to gank Lilith. I'm going after him just as soon as I know you and Tyler are safe."

Castiel looks alarmed. Well, alarmed for an angel who never blinks. "Then we must stop him. Zachariah—"

"—wants the Apocalypse to happen," Dean finishes for him. "Yeah, I know. He bragged about it while I was trapped in the cave. That's why we gotta stop Zachariah and help Sam end Lilith before the last seal breaks and this whole thing goes FUBAR."

"NO, Dean—it's not Zachariah we must stop. It's your brother." Castiel stands straight and looks right at Dean to make sure there is no misunderstanding as he tells him the awful truth: "Lilith IS the last seal."

Dean's face drops as his heart pumps faster, filling with rage as much as blood. A quiet but furious "What?" is all he's able to ask.

"I found out two months ago," Castiel tells him, "but because I could not find you, I went to Sam instead. Unfortunately, Zachariah had given orders to keep Sam under close supervision, and his followers captured me the moment I tried to make contact with him. I've been held prisoner ever since."

"So how did you escape?" Tyler asks. Castiel looks to him and rests his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"You got me out, Tyler." As the kid's eyes blow wide, taking in that enormous notion, the angel looks up at the giant. "The faith of a child is one of the purest and most powerful forces in existence. When Tyler prayed so desperately for me to help you, the cage weakened, and I was able to escape."

"Not a clean getaway, though," Dean points out, looking at Castiel's grace-leaking wounds. Castiel places a hand over the worst one and nods.

"There were guards who fought me," he admits, "but I was able to overpower them and escape. My Father helped me, I know it."

Tyler is awe-struck by the welcome news, but Dean is irritated. "If He really wanted to help, He should've put an end to all of this months ago. Should've AND could've."

Castiel looks away. "That doesn't matter anymore."

"Doesn't matter?! People have DIED, Cas! Angels too! If He's so All-Powerful, why didn't He just step in and DO something?"

"It doesn't work that way," Tyler answers, and Dean scowls at him.

"Don't take his side on this."

"No, Dean, you don't get it. God is good, but evil is evil. He can't stop all the evil, just like evil can't kill all the good. It's a balance. We just gotta trust in Him to get us through the bad times. He always does!"

Dean looks at the boy with a mix of pity and stubbornness. "Sorry, Tyler, but after everything He's put me and my family through…" Tyler's version of Sam's Kicked Puppy look makes him turn his face away. "I don't believe in Him," he grunts. "I can't. I'm sorry."

"That's okay. He believes in YOU."

Dean is taken aback by the simple statement, making Tyler smile. "Why do you think He chose you, Dean? It's cos you're good—you're GREAT! You never let yourself see it, but we all do. God does, too."

The giant looks to Castiel, who isn't smiling, exactly, but seems very happy in his own way. "A child's faith," he says again. "Powerful, indeed."

"Scree-cheep!" Hoots Junior adds. Tyler sees how much closer the owls have moved and cringes away.

"They won't hurt you," Dean promises.

"You sure? I don't wanna get bit."

Dean laughs. "Big brave Tyler, who took on a giant snake and lived to tell the tale, is afraid of a barn owl?! Come on." Tyler still looks afraid, so Dean gives him his warmest smile. "They're nice, I promise." He looks at the two owls. "Fluff, Hoots, Ty," he introduces. "Ty, this is Hoots Junior," he wriggles his middle finger, and the owl perched on it flaps his wings to keep balance, "and Fluffernutter," he does the same with his ring finger.

Tyler reaches out a shaky hand, and Hoots Junior hops onto his arm and rubs his head against Tyler's cheek. Tyler giggles and pets the breast feathers. "He's soft." Fluffernutter now flies onto Tyler's shoulder, careful to keep his talons from gripping too tightly, and gives him a peck, wanting attention, too. Tyler laughs and obliges, and soon both owls are making happy squeaky sounds.

"I still don't understand how they're here," Dean says, and his eyes go to the angel. "If you just got out of the cage—"

"I went to Bobby Singer's first, by mistake. I was a little…disoriented from the fight, so I flew into the garage instead of his house. The owls told me you weren't there."

"Wait—you can speak owl?"

Castiel nods. "I am able to communicate with all of my Father's creations."

Tyler's eyes are full of adoration as he mumbles, "That is so cool."

"YEAH that's cool!" Dean agrees. "I'm kinda jealous."

"It's not always a blessing," Castiel confesses. "Crabgrass is a complainer and if you don't stop and pay attention to it, it bands together with more crabgrass and complains more loudly until—"

"Cas! Focus. Get back to how you got here."

The angel frowns at being interrupted but returns to his story. "While I was in the garage, I realized I could sense you again. When I told the owls I was going to see you, they insisted that they come along. They told me they've been worried about their featherless big brother."

Dean smiles at the owls. "Aww, I'm part of the family?" They chirrup when he pats them both with his big fingers.

"See, Dean?" Tyler beams. "Everyone loves you."

Dean's big, mushy heart swells with…well, mushiness, and he presses angel, owls, child, and car to his chest in a giant group hug. Thank God Sammy isn't here right now, he thinks mid-hug. I'd never hear the end of it! Dwelling on his missing brother brings Dean out of the lovey moment and back to business. He looks to Castiel. "So how do we stop Lilith if we can't kill her?"

"We trap her between worlds so she can never escape. It will require a highly complex ritual, many ingredients. I must be present to speak the necessary Enochian. You will also need my blood for it, as well as your own, and Sam's, and some from a demon."

"Blood sacrifice? Doesn't sound very heavenly to me."

"The blood represents balance. Angel and demon, and vessel and vessel." He notes Dean's confusion and elaborates, "Should Lilith succeed and Lucifer rise, you and Sam are to be angel vessels. You would house Michael, Sam, Lucifer. You would fight each other in the Final Battle and decide the fate of the world."

To say Dean is floored is far too simplistic—it's more like he crashes through the forest floor, drops through the limestone caverns underneath, falls through the CAVE floor, and winds up miles down in the earth's crust. Fluffernutter seems to sense something is off because he flies to Dean's shoulder and lands near his neck, chittering and rubbing like he's trying to soothe him. But Dean takes no comfort. "I knew they were using us," Dean murmurs at length, "but using us to end the world?!"

"A fight to the death," Castiel confirms. "If Michael wins, the angels return to a new paradise on Earth. If Lucifer wins, Hell will rise up, and the demons will take over."

"And how many people die during their pissing contest?" Dean snaps. Castiel is unable to answer, much less look at him, and Dean shuts his eyes a moment. A picture forms in his mind of a devastated planet, piles of dead bodies everywhere, and Sam and himself in the middle of it all, swords raised to deliver the final blows. Sam's face shifts between the Sam Dean knows so very well and the bloodlust version he'd seen that night with Ruby at the motel. "No," Dean whispers, opening his eyes again. "I won't do it. Sam, either." Castiel opens his mouth to say something, but Dean beats him to it. "They're angels, right? They need our consent to wear our meat suits to the prom. We just won't say yes." He lets out a quick laugh. "That's it! No means no! Do not pass Go, do not collect $200—"

"You won't have a choice," Castiel interrupts, though he sounds very unhappy to do so. Dean stops dead and looks at the angel in his palm. "Angels and demons alike will wear you down until one of you finally breaks. And if one of you gives in, it's only a matter of time until the other does…out of despair." Castiel's voice is barely audible as he says the last few words, and he sets his weary body down, gaze dropped to his lap. For several moments, there is no sound, only pressing realization. Then Dean, voice even lower than Castiel's, asks a question:

"Do you know where Zach took Sam?"

"Yes."

"Then let's go get him. I want all of this bullshit over and done with YESTERDAY." He grows some more and moves through the tall pines, closing in on Tyler's Grandparents' house. But when he reaches the outskirts of the backyard and sets down his passengers and car, he notes the dark look on the angel's face. "Aw crap, NOW what?"

"Your brother is surrounded by angels. Getting to him will be nearly impossible."

Dean can't help but smirk a bit at that. "You do not like making things easy for me…"

"There's more."

"Of course there is."

"The ritual has not been performed in two millennia. Even if we gather all the necessary ingredients and perform the ritual precisely, there is no guarantee it will work."

Dean blows out a sigh as he shrinks down to normal size. "So we're going up against both Heaven and Hell with a risky plan, little chance of success, and only the whole world at stake, win or lose. Does that about sum it up?" Castiel nods again, and Dean grins. "Sounds like good times. Sign me up." The angel stands tall, but the little boy next to him slumps, looking fearful for his hero. Dean puts a hand on his shoulder and says, "Don't worry, Ty-Guy. It's just another day at the office for a Winchester. We'll get through it, starting with saving Sammy's gigantor ass."

"You won't be able to fight your way past that many angels," Castiel warns, "and I'm afraid I'm not up to full strength yet. I won't be able to do much else other than take you there and bring you back."

"You won't have to fight anyone. We're gonna sneak past them."

"They will see you no matter what you do."

"Not if we hide in plain sight." Dean turns his can-do grin to the owls. "Which one of you is up for a little recon flying?"


Sam's near-constant pacing has already worn a groove into the decaying wood floor under his feet. He's been here—wherever here is—for over ten minutes, all alone, no sign of Zachariah or anyone else anywhere. His cell phone has no bars and though the door is unlocked, Sam has remained inside because honestly, where would he go? One look outside revealed he was in a long-abandoned farmhouse somewhere south of Nowhere, an overgrown country road his only landmark. So amidst lit candles and cobwebbed corners, he waits, frustrates, and above all else, worries about Dean. Is he still trapped behind that cave-in? Is he all right? Is Zachariah still there, making everything worse?

"Dammit!" Sam kicks a rickety chair into the wall. "I should BE there, not standing around here with my thumb up my ass!"

"There's a colloquialism I sincerely hope isn't based on fact." Zachariah appears behind Sam, looking just as smug as ever. Sam stomps toward him at once.

"Dean—?"

"—is fine," Zachariah smiles. Sam frowns.

"Define 'fine.'"

"Alive? Breathing? Making empty threats?"

Sam relaxes a tiny bit, but his ire remains. "You didn't need to bury him in a friggin' cave in. I was willing to help—we BOTH were. All you had to do was ask!"

A flash of regret crosses the angels face. "I'm not known for my patience. For what it's worth, I'm sorry it had to come to that."

Sam crosses his arms over his broad chest. "No you're not. Just like I'm not sorry for how I wish I could kill you for what you did to Dean." Sam glare holds Zachariah's gaze for a moment before he turns away. "But we're stuck with each other till this gets done, so let's get it done already."

"Spoken like a true businessman. I think your talents were wasted at law school. You would've made a great corporate shark!"

Sam ignores the half compliment, half insult and gets right to the point. "Where's Lilith?"

"Close by. But before you face her, you'll need an energy boost." He snaps his fingers, and the same angel cronies from the cave walk in the front door—with Ruby in tow. Demon and human see each other at the same time.

"Sam?!"

"Ruby? What are you doing here?"

"ME? Since when do you parlay with angels?"

"Well well well!" Zachariah interrupts, stepping between them. "When I gave orders to bring in a demon, I had no idea they'd capture an old acquaintance." He bends down to look Ruby in the eye. "So this is the demon whore who led you so very astray."

She spits in his face. "I'd rather be a demon whore than an angelic ass clown."

Zachariah laughs. "She's a firecracker! I can see why you liked her, Sam." He motions to the cronies, and they force her onto what's left of the kitchen table and hold her down.

"What are you doing?" Sam asks.

Zachariah produces an ornate knife. "Preparing your drink, of course." He sees Sam's look of disgust and winces. "Ooh, sorry, will the bad blood between you two affect the taste? I'm new to this kind of cocktail shindig so I'm still learning."

Sam gapes at him with disbelief. "You want me to drink demon blood?"

"Well that's how it works, right? We need your powers to kill Lilith, and you need demon blood to make those powers work. So what's the problem?"

"I don't drink that crap anymore," Sam states. "I'm clean, and I'm staying clean. So you might as well get her out of here," he waves in Ruby's direction. "I won't touch her OR drink her blood."

"You don't have a choice." To Sam's surprise, these words come from Ruby, not Zachariah, and he turns his stubborn stare to her now. "Lilith is gonna break the final seal at midnight. We are officially out of dicking-around time and full-on into Now or Never.

"I know," Sam says quietly.

"So what's the problem?"

"The problem is you," Sam snaps. "Him," he points to Zachariah. "ALL of this!"

As the three dig in their heels for a long argument, nature's own stealth flyer closes in on its target. A barn owl flies silently on the wind, twilight skies shrouding him from the crowd of angels far below. The only thing that could possibly give him away is his rider losing his nerve. And since his rider just happens to be Dean Winchester, shrunk down to six inches and holding tight to Fluffernutter's feathers, that possibility becomes more and more plausible by the second.

Why did Cas have to drop us off two miles out? Dean groans in his mind. Why does it have to be so windy? WHY did you think you could handle this?!

Hey, it was a good idea, his inner voice responds. And you're almost there—just hold on a little longer.

Dean opens his eyes a crack, surprised by the support. Did you just say something nice to me?!

Aw, what can I say—I'm proud of ya for believing in yourself for once and busting out of that cave. The voice allows Dean to bask in some confidence a few moments before resuming its normal bossiness: Now do us all a favor and don't fuck this up, all right?

Dean nods into the feathers. Fluffernutter banks right and flies them down to an abandoned farmhouse. He settles on the sill of the sole window that isn't boarded up and looks back at his rider.

"Great flying, Fluff," Dean praises, patting his feathery steed as he dismounts. He does a quick check to make sure no angels are around and then peers in through the filmy glass. He spots Sam immediately, looking tall and really pissed off. Zachariah is in the background, along with two angel goons standing on either side of a woman lying on a table. Dean spies her long, dark hair and says, "Please don't let that be Ruby…" The woman turns her head, arguing with Sam, and Dean groans when he sees that yes, it is her. "I have to get in there," he mutters. Looking around, he spots a hole near the roof. "Think you can get us up there, buddy?"

The owl cheeps and leans down to let Dean climb back on. Flapping hard, Fluffernutter lifts up and, holding his feet out, grabs onto the decaying wood siding and pulls his body in through the hole. It's a tight fit—too tight, in fact, and Dean gets pushed off the owl's back. But he only drops for a split second before Fluffernutter grabs his shirt with a talon and pulls him back up. Setting him down, Fluffernutter squeaks and Dean pats the owl as he nods that he's fine. The two of them creep forward toward a light in the small space. It opens into another hole that allows them to enter the rafters high above the kitchen, and the loudness of the argument below them nearly knocks them both off their perches.

"I already told you, Sam, you're the only one who can stop her," Zachariah says. "All we're asking is for you to take your medicine—"

"—and become some mindless junkie that you can use to do your dirty work," Sam bellows. "Well I don't like being used!"

"Damn straight," Dean comments under his breath. "And that's all those two ever do."

"Getting hooked on demon blood cost me everything," Sam goes on to say, "and just about every-ONE I care about, and now you expect me to chugalug and throw it all away again?! How is that right?" He throws his arms wide at the question. "How is that anywhere near FAIR?"

"Oh boo-hoo, Sammy—since when is LIFE fair?" Ruby tries to get up, but the angels continue to hold her down, so she glares at them. "Do you mind? I like to do my point-making sitting up." Zachariah nods the okay, and they release her. Ruby sits up and turns to Sam. "WOW you look grumpy."

"Save the spin job," he sends back. "You're not changing my mind."

"Okay, fine—how about a reality check?" She waits till she has his eyes on hers before going on. "You're right, I did use you. There, I admitted it. But guess what, Mr. Morals—you used me right back."

"I beg your unbelievable pardon?"

"Oh please. How many nights was I there for you? I brought you back from the brink, like, a thousand times. I betrayed my own kind and gave you everything I had, my time, my protection, my blood. My love…"

Sam looks at Ruby and finds the demon vulnerable. "Yeah, you dick," she spits, "I fell in love with you. And demons don't do love, but dammit, you made me feel again. You wanna talk about unfair…" She shakes her head in disgust. "Whatever. I knew you didn't see me that way. I dealt and I kept going. But fuck it…despite everything, I still want to help you kill the bitch. And if you drinking me dry is the only way to do it, then go for it. Knock yourself out." She holds out her arm for Sam to take. "Just end Lilith before it's too late."

Sam doesn't speak or move, so Zachariah does instead. "That was strangely moving. For a demon…"

"Ruby's not like most demons," Sam points out, a small smile playing at his lips. Ruby responds in kind. He takes hold of her hand. "I'll stop Lilith." Then he gently folds her arm back to her side. "…but not that way," he says. "I won't drink demon blood—period."

Dean looks down with pride at his little brother. He wanted to believe Sam back in the cave when he said he was clean—GOD he wanted to believe, but he just couldn't. Not after all the lies and hurt Sam had put between them. But now he's got his proof. Now he really, truly has his Sammy back. He turns the smile he wishes he could give his brother to the owl next to him. "Things are finally looking up, Fluff," he whispers, petting the soft feathers, and Fluffernutter squeaks and rubs his head against Dean's body.

Then Zachariah has to go and ruin the moment by being an asshole. No surprise there, of course, but still. Tightening the left cufflink on his expensive suit, he says, "You disappoint me, Sam. You're supposed to be the smart one, right? And yet here you are, chance in hand to save the world, and you're turning it down." He sighs and tightens the right cufflink with one twist. "Very well. There are other ways to go, one easy, one hard." He checks his Rolex. "And since we're running short on time, I pick the easy way."

With a snap of the angel's fingers, Sam's legs break. He drops to the floor in agony, and two polished shoes walk toward him. Sam grabs at the approaching ankles, and Zachariah snaps his fingers again and breaks Sam's arms.

"And they call demons bad," Ruby remarks.

"Angels aren't bad," Zachariah corrects her, "just ruthless." He grabs a cup from the musty cupboard and holds it out to Ruby. "If you don't mind filling this up…" Ruby hisses but takes the cup anyway, knowing she really has no choice.

Dean is beyond pissed as he watches all of this unfolding. He wants nothing more than to drop, grow, and crush that asshole for daring to hurt his brother. But he keeps a cool head, knowing that barging in like that won't do any good—not when there are three angels and a demon in a room. If he doesn't want to be held against the wall, put to sleep, or teleported to the South Pole, he has to be sneaky. He leans in to Fluffernutter as he starts to shrink even smaller. "I need a favor."

Below them, Zachariah kicks Sam onto his back. The younger Winchester is now struggling to breathe through the relentless pain, and Zachariah smirks, cup of blood now in hand. "That's right, open wide…"

"SCREEEEE!"

Zachariah drops the cup and joins everyone in a group jolt at the sudden sound. He looks up as a barn owl flaps around the rafters, feathers flying everywhere. Zachariah points his finger at it, but Sam scoffs loud enough for the angel to hear.

"So what, you're gonna kill an owl for being an owl?!"

Zachariah ignores him and looks back, but the bird is gone. If not for the still-flying feathers it shed, there would be no evidence it had ever been there at all. The angel straightens his tie, picks up the cup, and looks back to the demon. "I'll need a refill."

Ruby rolls her eyes. "I'm not a keg y'know…"

As she cuts open a new 'tap,' a lone white feather drifts toward the top of her head, only to be steered away by its tiny passenger. Dean, now only half an inch tall, is holding on to the ends of the small feather and using it as a parachute—and doing his best not to look down more than he has to. Just get to that douche bag's bald spot, draw the sigil, and banish his ass, Dean coaches himself. As Zachariah moves in to take the cup from Ruby, Dean leans left and kicks his legs out to drop toward the angel's head. And, naturally, Zachariah moves again just as Dean's about to land, and the wind kicked up by the giant body in motion throws both feather and hanger-oner far off course. Dean spins and shoots higher into the air.

"This is NOT how this was supposed to go!" Dean hollers, knowing he's far too small for anyone to hear him. "Fate, Karma—whoever is currently screwing with my rescue efforts, KNOCK IT OFF!" Concentrating hard, he doubles his size to an inch to use his body as ballast and regain control. The new weight proves too heavy for the feather, so Dean shuts his eyes tight as he drops one…two…three seconds, before he shrinks again and becomes, literally, feather-weight. Shaking hard, Dean looks down and instantly regrets it. Why does this have to be so fucking scary? Sweat is now loosening his grip, so he wipes his hands one at a time on his jeans and forces air through his mouth and into his lungs. "For Sammy," he breathes, focusing on his giant brother's pain, still FAR too far below him. "You can do this for Sammy."

Meanwhile, Zachariah sets the cup on the counter and stands next to Sam, making sure to step on his hand with his heel. Sam cries out from his newest pain and Zachariah smiles. "You know, I never did understand the whole Free Will idea. You humans get chance after chance to make your lives better, or happier, at the very least, and yet all you ever seem to do is make yourselves more miserable. Take you for example: sure, you had a rough childhood, I'll give you that, but you also had a brother who got you through it."

"Dammit, don't bring me into this," Dean begs, still en route to his landing spot.

"Dean gave you his food, his money, his attention…stole presents for you just so you could have a birthday, gave up the one season he could've played baseball so he could finish both your chores while you were in the school play…even dropped out of high school so his teacher couldn't recommend him for that engineering internship." Sam's eyes widen, and Zachariah grins. "Ooh, didn't know about that one, hmm? It's true. He gave up his ONE CHANCE at being a Somebody just so he could stick around and keep acting as the punching bag for you and your dad. And how did you repay him?" His hand comes up at the question, knocking Dean off course—again—as the angel leers at the stricken Winchester. "You left! Didn't speak to him for YEARS! You ruined his life, Sam—you, the kid brother, the person Dean loves the most in the whole world. He gave you everything, and you still demanded more."

If this were a normal situation, Sam and/or Dean would be telling the jackass to shut up already. But this is not a normal situation; both Winchesters have lost their voices and are very close to losing their fight as well. Dean is so despondent that he's ready to stop, drop, and go splat, while Sam's heart and soul now hurt as much as his broken body. But Zachariah isn't finished. "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy," he says, clapping a hand on the busted leg. "All Dean ever wanted was for you to stick around, but even that was too much to ask, am I right? It's no wonder the guy has abandonment issues." Zachariah shakes his head in faux concern. "But God bless him, no matter how many times you left, he'd still keep the door open so you could come back. Free will," another head shake, this time in 'I Don't Get it.' "Or stupidity—I'm really starting to think it's a fine line. Like how he stuck by you even when he KNEW you were running around with a demon in a short skirt—what was THAT about?"

"Oh please," Ruby groans, "Dean was hardly cheering him on when it came to his powers."

"But he didn't ditch him, either," Zachariah points out. "He stayed. Day in and day out, lie after lie, betrayal after betrayal, he STAYED." The angel turns back to Sam. "Until you crushed him and forced him to leave." Zachariah gives a cruel smile. "How's it feel knowing you were your brother's last straw?" He doesn't wait for an answer, just stands up, finally releasing Sam's hand from the bottom of his shoe. Sam's only response is a tiny moan at the back of his throat; the tears flooding his eyes say much more.

The sight breaks Dean's heart—and strengthens his will. Despondency retreats as renewed purpose marches in. For Sammy, he thinks again, this time with determination. As Zachariah picks the blood-filled cup off the countertop, Dean veers in toward his new target, this time using the wind stirred up by the mammoth angel to his advantage. He takes aim and makes a perfect landing on the tip of Sam's nose. The skin beneath him wriggles at once, and Dean realizes he must be tickling him, so he kicks the feather clear and turns around to face his brother. Sam doesn't see him, so Dean waves to get his attention. The huge hazel irises cross to focus on the miniature man, then widen when they realize at whom they're seeing. Dean throws him two thumbs up just as a shadow comes over them both: Zachariah is back, this time with the blood in tow. Time to move, Dean thinks, and he takes off across Sam's tear-stained cheek.

Sam in the meantime keeps glancing between where Zachariah is and where Dean just was, wondering where his tiny big brother went. He pictures a Dean-shaped splat on the floor and prays that he's wrong. "Back to business," Zachariah says, grabbing Sam's attention once again. "This is your absolute last chance. I'll fix your broken bones if you drink this. Fight me in any way and I'll break your spine. Do we have a deal?"

Sam's about to tell him to go fuck himself when he hears Dean's voice: "Just go with it, Sammy. Drink but don't swallow."

Dean? Sam's head moves around as he tries to locate him, but then he feels a tapping on his left earlobe.

"Stop moving before you squish me!" Dean shouts. "I'm in your left ear and I'm fine. Now tell that fuckwad you agree before he breaks your back."

Sam looks up at the angel and says, "Fine. Just fix me first."

Zachariah snaps his fingers and Sam is healed. Sitting up, Sam takes the cup in shaking hands, glaring at the smug angel as he takes a tiny sip. "There now," Zachariah chides, "was that so terrible?"

Sam frowns, flushes red, and bolts over to the sink, spitting out the awful stuff with a fair amount of gagged-up spew. Dean covers his nose at the yucky stink and says, "Wow, way to go method."

"That wasn't acting," Sam mutters back. The moment the demon blood hit his taste buds, all he could taste was death. I can't believe I ever thought that stuff was sweet, he thinks with disgust. Both brothers are relieved by Sam's revulsion, but Zachariah is furious.

"Don't tell me you've got a sensitive stomach…"

"I told you, I'm clean!" Sam yells as he turns to face him. "I can't stand that shit anymore."

"No matter: There are other ways to get it in your system." He produces a syringe from his coat pocket and holds it up with a smile.

Time for Plan C, Dean thinks, or D…E maybe? Whatever, I lost track, pick a letter.

A second later, Sam hears a faint tearing sound. "Dean?" he whispers, wondering what's going on, but he gets no reply from his brother.

"I should've just done this from the start," Zachariah says, more to himself than anyone in the room. As he draws the blood out of the cup and into the syringe, he adds, "I suppose it's my fault for thinking you would ever—" He stops and stares at Sam's shoulder. Sam frowns, confused, and looks at his shoulder as well but finds nothing. Zachariah's face goes red with rage, though, and he lunges forward.

"Don't you DARE!"

But Dean, now a few inches tall again, presses his bleeding hand to the angel banishing sigil he just painted on the side of Sam's neck. The room erupts in blinding white light, and when it clears, Sam and Dean are alone. Dean looks at the crimson symbols and whistles.

"Angel Zapper! Leaves no mess and only the fresh scent of pine."

"Dean?"

"Yeah, I'm here, Sam, I'm fine."

"I can't see."

Dean notices Sam groping at the air with his long arms stretched out. "Why didn't you close your eyes?"

"Cos I didn't know the room was gonna blind me! A little warning would've been nice!"

"I didn't have time," Dean says. "To be honest, I wasn't even sure that would work."

"You used Anna's sigil, right?"

"Yeah. Cas taught it to me before I came here to rescue you."

"Cas is back?! Where's he been? Is he okay?"

"He's fine…ish. I'll fill you in on the rest once we're out of here. Right now, I need you to grab that syringe of demon blood. We're gonna need it."

"What? Why?"

"I TOLD you, explanations later. Now crouch down and don't move your feet—it's right by your boot and still in once piece. Let's keep it that way."

"Can't Ruby get it?" Sam asks.

"Ruby isn't here," Dean replies with a sigh—not because he misses her in any way, but that Sam thought to ask for her help. "Am-scrayed the moment the angels did. It's just you and me, pal. Now get crouching!"

Sam eases down and feels around for the syringe. "To your left," Dean instructs. The fumbling hands go right. "Your OTHER left, genius."

"Yeah, I'm practically blind here? Thanks."

"So? Left is still left whether you can see it or not." Dean nods in approval when the giant fingers finally enclose around the glass tube. "Nice job. Think you can put it in your pocket without pricking your finger?"

"Think you could survive a fall if I flick you off my shoulder?" Sam stands back up and drops the syringe in his jacket pocket. "Why haven't you grown back yet, anyway?"

"Uh…cos I'm stuck."

"What?! I thought you were an expert with your powers now!"

"I am!" Dean insists.

"Then grow back!"

"I can't!"

"Why not?"

"Cos I'm stuck."

They both sigh. "Well there has to be a reason for it," Sam thinks out loud. "When did you get stuck?"

"I don't know…when Zachy got that syringe out, I tried to grow enough so I could jump to the floor and do the sigil there. But I only managed four inches, so I stayed on your shoulder and cut into my arm right there."

"Were you scared?"

"For YOU, yeah! I couldn't let that bastard give you a demon blood enema!"

"So it was before that," Sam muses, stepping forward.

"Sam, be careful…"

"When Zachariah was talking…"

"Seriously, there are candles everywhere—"

"When Zachariah was talking about ME." Sam nods as it dawns on him. "That's it, Dean! That's what makes you get stuck! It was the same way back in the cave when—" His arm whips out and connects with something. A second later, a clank-and-thud pattern hits Sam's ears. "Oh shit, what'd I do?"

"You hit a candle on a candle stick, which fell on the floor and started a chair on fire."

"SHIT." Sam steps forward and his knee smacks into something else. He then stumbles back and his hip knocks into the table.

"Stop hitting things!" Dean shouts.

"I can't SEE!" Sam shouts back. By now the fire has spread to the ratty curtains. Sam starts to cough from the smoke.

"Hang on, Sammy, I got this." Dean scrambles up the back of Sam's hair and emerges on top of his head. Then he grabs several tendrils of hair in each hand and pulls up. Sam straightens out at once.

"OW! What the hell, Dean?"

"Walk! I'll steer!"

"You're doing the Ratatouille thing?! You hated that movie!"

"I didn't hate it!" Dean yanks with his left hand, and Sam veers left around the burning table. "I hated that you LIED to me about it! You said it was a movie about food!"

"It WAS about food—owwww, not so hard!"

"Sorry." Dean guides Sam right, then left again. "It was a movie about RATS! You KNOW I hate rats!"

"They were cute rats!"

"But still rats!" Dean yells. "That part at the beginning when the hundreds of rats fell through the ceiling? Scarred me for LIFE, Sam!"

Sam winces as Dean pulls hard to the right. "I thought the food parts would balance out the rat parts!"

"You thought WRONG!"

Part of the roof crashes down in front of them, and Dean yanks hard, getting Sam to fall back onto his ass. The windows burst from the rising heat and pressure, making Dean's worry triple. He hears Sam calling for him, and he pats him on his head. "It's okay, Sammy, I'm still here. Now get up, we don't have a lot of time here…"

"Yeah, I had a feeling…" Sam gets to his feet but remains crouched over, trying to breathe through the smog. "Is there any part of this place NOT on fire?"

"Me and you. That's about it." The fire spreads to the frame above the front door; Dean knows they only have seconds. "Okay, you're gonna have to run for it. The door is three feet in front of you—smash and bash." The roof begins to collapse, and Dean kicks his boots into Sam's scalp. "Go! NOW!"

Sam darts forward and slams through with ease, the ancient door breaking upon impact. Careening blindly, Sam trips down the porch steps and topples forward, rolling over several times before finally sliding to a stop. His still-spotty vision is drawn to the orange blur in the background as his ears pick up on the farmhouse's death knell. He breathes hard but smiles with relief. "Thanks, Dean."

"Don't mention it," Dean coughs as he finishes patting out the embers in Sam's hair. Sam calls out his brother's name, sounding frantic, and Dean realizes he can't hear him. Dean grows a little—with no trouble this time—and jumps off so he can return to normal.

"Dean?! DEAN!"

"Right here, Sammy." He rests his hand on his brother's shoulder as the younger Winchester relaxes. "You okay?"

Sam nods. "Thanks to you." He relaxes even more when he feels Dean's hands go to his face, then his arms: big brother doing his Make Sure Sam Is Really Okay administrations. It's so familiar, so welcome to Sam that he could cry. Instead he just sits still and relishes the fact that he's back in his brother's care. Then he feels Dean's hand go into Sam's jacket pocket. Sam winces as he remembers the syringe—and all the tumbling around he did. "How is it?" Sam asks.

"Just fine—no leaks, no breaks." Dean pockets the tube of demon blood and looks back to Sam. "How are the peepers?"

"Better. I can see blobs."

"Blobs are good. Lemme signal Cas and he'll get you patched up. Course, I'm not sure if he'll be able to fix your hair." Dean smirks as Sam's big hands go at once to his long locks.

"What's wrong with my hair?"

"You caught the fiery end of the doorframe in there. I put out what I could, but…" He trails off, biting his lip so he won't laugh.

"But what? Dean?!" Sam is patting and soothing around every hair on his head now. "Are you shitting me? You'd better be shitting me…"

Dean just laughs and waves to Fluffernutter, who is circling overhead. The owl lands on Dean's jacket-clad arm and squeaks a greeting while rubbing against his chin. Dean pats the bird back and then, seeing Sam still fussing and cursing, decides to take pity on him. "You're FINE, Goldilocks."

Sam drops his hands and does a blind bitch face. "Don't call me that."

"You got it, Rapunzel." Dean gets a short sigh for that one, so he chuckles as he helps Sam stand up. Then he shuts his eyes and sends out a prayer to Castiel: "Beam us up, Scotty."

I am not Scotty and I do not beam, the angel replies in his mind.

"Just get us out of here, would you? Please? Before the Z-Team gets back here and they put Sam back on seal-breaking duty?"

"Wait, WHAT?!" Sam yells.

"It was Lilith the whole time. Total snow job." Dean begins the explanations as they disappear from the scene. Moments later, Ruby emerges from where she'd been hiding and listening in.

She is not happy.


Two hours later, the good guys are gathered around picnic table near an old barn, busy preparing the ingredients for Castiel's witches' brew, as Dean christened it, much to the angel's utter befuddlement. "Oh come on," Dean had said when inevitably questioned by said angel, "we're hiding out in secret, full moon above us, throwing a crazy list of ingredients into an actual cauldron…" He'd snatched the list from the angel's hand and looked it over as he kept talking. "I mean, there's no eye of newt on here, but you've got everything from a cup of sugar to a child's tear to a piece of freaking lava rock, are you serious? All we need are some pointy hats to go with this toil and trouble and we're official!"

"Official what?" Castiel asked. Dean sighed and told the angel he was on lava rock detail.

Now, 120 minutes and 93 ingredients later, the mixture is nearly complete. While Tyler takes his turn stirring the cauldron, Hoots Junior flies overhead and drops a sprig of juniper into Dean's waiting hands. "Thanks Hoots!" Dean calls, placing the sprig on the stuff-to-be-added pile. Castiel had insisted on putting all the ingredients into the cauldron himself, and since he's out gathering the last of what's still needed, the small pile will have to do until he returns. Dean checks the juniper off the list and nods at Sam as he sits down across from him.

"How do you know which is which?" Sam asks as he watches Hoots Junior land in a nearby tree.

"Don't you mean who is who? Y'know, owls? Who?" Dean grins at his lame joke. Sam doesn't. Dean clears his throat. "Fluffernutter's wing feathers are peanut butter brown mixed with bread crust brown, like the top and bottom of a Fluffernutter sandwich. Then in the middle you have the tummy feathers, which are the same color as marshmallow fluff and white bread, just like in the middle of a Fluffernutter sandwich. Put them together and—"

"You've got a Fluffernutter sandwich," Sam finishes with an eye-roll. "Yeah, I get it. Though I still think you named him that just so you could say 'Fluffernutter' more often."

Dean grins. "It's a great word for a great sammitch."

"Okay, so why Hoots Junior?"

"Well it was either that or Snickers. And I'm already craving a Fluffernutter sandwich so I figured I'd spare myself the hunger pains."

They hear a squeaky cheep from overhead and look up just as Fluffernutter flies in, a bit of snow white fur in his beak and a dead chipmunk in his talons. He lands on the table, drops the fur on the ingredient pile, and then nudges the rodent toward Dean and looks at him. Sam fights a grin while Dean gulps down the vomit in his throat. Fluffernutter nudges it again and cheep-squeaks, hopping forward and looking so cute, in complete contrast to the grossness of the bloody chipmunk corpse on the table.

"Uhh, no thanks, bud. Not hungry. Y-you enjoy."

"Oh come on, Dean!" Sam teases. "You just told me you were hungry!" Dean levels a glare at his little brother, who only grins. "I bet it tastes just like chicken."

"Shut up, Sam."

"Maybe a little gamey, but you know you like it rough—"

"Shut UP, Sam!"

Tyler giggles, too, until Dean turns his glare to the kid. The humor wipes off his face at once, and he picks up his cauldron stirring. Dean turns back to tell Sam where to go, only to get an eyeful of barn owl ripping the rodent in two, cheeping at his brother to join him. Hoots flies over, and Dean stands up and puts his back to the feasting.

"Did you know barn owls can eat over a thousand rodents a year?" Tyler asks, reading straight off Sam's laptop, which he has been using to find out more about owls whenever he isn't stirring.

"That's great, Tyler," Dean remarks flatly, closing his eyes.

"And they don't just eat chipmunks! Says here they'll eat mice, rats, voles, shrews, gophers, fish, insects, frogs—even smaller birds! Wow, and I thought reptiles had a broad diet…" Tyler glances at Dean and finds his friend looking green. "Dean? You okay?"

"He's hungry," Castiel answers as he appears, and he places a wrapped cheeseburger in Dean's hands. Dean's pallor goes from green to grey and Castiel cocks his head and blinks, looking a bit owlish himself. "Did I not get you the right kind?"

"No—'s great, Cas, thanks. Just lost my appetite for some reason..." Dean sets the burger down on the table and then points to the burlap sack in Castiel's hands. "That the rest of it?"

"Yes." The angel pulls out one item at a time, naming them as they're set on the table. "Holy oil…sand from the depths of the deepest ocean…a tuft of cloud…and cool whip."

"Cool whip?" Sam repeats with a look.

"It's on the list," Dean confirms. He reaches out to touch the cloud tuft, which looks like a large cotton ball floating an inch off the picnic table, but Castiel pulls his hand away.

"It will dissolve into rain if you make contact. Only an angel can grasp it, for our wings are of their kind." Castiel drops it into the cauldron, where it hits the boiling contents with a soft whoosh! and disappears.

"Show off," Dean mutters.

"So do we finally have everything?" Sam asks.

"Almost. Once I mix these final ingredients, I must let the matter simmer for another 20 minutes. Then there will only be this." Castiel holds up a small Tupperware jar that contains the mixture of blood from Ruby, Sam, Dean, and himself. "I cannot add the blood until the ritual is underway."

"So we're good to go for now?" Dean assumes, and when he gets the affirmative from Castiel, he nods a few times and looks away. "Good. I can get some practice time in."

Sam frowns. "Practice?"

"Size shifting. Can't get stuck again when we're going up against Lilith…" He jogs toward the barn before anyone can object, yelling that he's just going to the other side and to call if they need him. Sam watches him go, his frown lifting into a pensive look.

"You are worried about him," Castiel says, and Sam nods. "So am I. He is not eating and is very nervous. I don't enjoy prying into your brother's mind, but his thoughts are like screams right now and only getting louder; I can't help but hear them."

"What are they about?"

The haunting blue eyes look to Sam. "You."

Sam clenches his jaw, not needing the angel to explain what he means. "You two finish up here. I'm gonna talk with my brother."

He turns toward the barn and heads off. His heart is already pounding after only two steps, so he forces his legs to make slow, deliberate strides as he breathes deep. His thoughts, however, are allowed to race on ahead of him. He believes he knows why Dean is nervous, and why he's practicing when he doesn't need to, even why his thoughts are all about Sam. A hunch has been forming in his mind for some time now, and as he pours over memories, that hunch strengthens, first to instinct, then to fact. Sam's studious brain then compiles everything into a neat list of evidence, ready to be called upon when needed. By the time he reaches Dean, he's ready to make his case.

Now comes the hard part: Making Dean listen. Sam takes a final deep breath and walks past some trees, emerging onto the far side of the barn. He watches as Dean stands, grows to about 40 feet, and then drops forward as if to do push-ups, only to shrink back to normal the split second before his palms hit the ground. Then he gets up and does it again. Sam marvels for a minute before he makes his presence known, timing it so that he clears his throat just as Dean is falling forward. He knows Dean's hunter instincts would never allow him to lose concentration from something so trivial; Dean should roll over and get right into attack stance. Instead, Dean falls flat on his stomach and fails to shrink. The resulting THUD shakes the area, and several nearby pine trees lose their needles. They fall like rain as Sam walks forward, smiling with concern as Dean picks himself up and scowls at his little brother.

"Dammit, Sammy, warn a guy!"

"I did." Sam gets a glare for that, but he doesn't rise to it—he knows Dean is just embarrassed and trying not to show it. "Go ahead, Dean. I just came to watch."

He expects Dean to deflect him with a sex joke, but instead, Dean frowns and asks, "Why?"

"Well, Castiel is doing his Test Kitchen thing and Tyler is spending time with the owls, so I thought I'd come see how you were doing."

"I'm fine," Dean says, but his big eyes are filling with suspicion. "I don't need a babysitter."

"But I could use some company," Sam replies, playing the Sympathy Card. He sits down on a stump. "Keep practicing. I'll be quiet."

Dean stares a moment before he grunts out a "whatever" and backs off. He switches the way he's facing so that he'll fall well over to Sam's side, then shuts his eyes, gets ready, and drops. BAM! He only shrinks down halfway, and his 20-foot body lands hard. Dean grumbles and tries again. THUD! This time he only manages a few feet. He avoids looking at Sam as he picks his aching frame up for another go.

"Dean…"

"Quiet!" The giant shakes out his arms and legs. "I can do this. I have DONE this." He drops a third time, but he overdoes it and he's toddler-sized as he hits the ground. His knee is bleeding through a new hole in his jeans, but he ignores it as he stands up and grows again. "Quit jinxing me!" Dean yells down at Sam.

"What?! How am I jinxing you?"

"Well I was doing just fine till you got here!"

"I know." Sam gets up. "I saw."

Dean looks at him with his frustration. "I don't get it. I'm not doing anything different. I've got this, I KNOW it! So why am I fucking up so royally?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Sam asks. Dean gives him a blank look. "It's me. I'm not jinxing you or anything, but I'm…I'm the problem."

Dean balks. "Come on, Sam—"

"No, Dean, think about it. All the times you've frozen up. Back at that farmhouse with Zachariah—I was there. Months ago, when Meesh was running her tests on you, I was THERE."

"Yeah but I got stuck lots of times while we were separated."

"I bet you were thinking about me, though," Sam murmurs. "What I'd think or say if I was there…watching you fail." He knows the words are going to hurt, but he also knows he has to get Dean talking. Dean doesn't say a word, though, just gapes at him, face full of thunder, but too stunned to strike. So Sam heaves a sigh and looks up at him. "Dean, we have to have the talk we've been avoiding."

Sam swears he can hear the bricks and mortar as the emotional defense walls build up around his brother. He starts with a joke when the walls are halfway up: "I already know about the birds and the bees, Sammy."

"Dean…come on. You know I'm right about this."

Walls now in place, complete with sharpshooters aiming their arrows at nosy little brothers who don't know when to quit, Dean snaps, "No amount of sharing and caring is gonna fix my problems. And even if it could, which it can't, we don't have time to bear our innermost. Lilith—"

"—can't break the last seal unless I kill her," Sam says. "And I'm not going to. But there's no way I'm facing her when you're not at 100 percent."

"So you're gonna sideline me?!"

"Of course not! I'm done doing things alone, Dean. I have to have you there, by my side. But you won't have my back if you get stuck, right?" Sam knows he's played both the Little Brother Card and the Protect Me Card in one hand, and he hopes it's enough to get Dean to fold, because honestly, if this doesn't work, Sam doesn't know what will. Full-out begging, maybe, he thinks, but he really hopes it doesn't come to that.

Dean in the meantime is ruminating. Part of him knows Sam is right and that they really do need to talk, but most of him really, REALLY doesn't want to, knowing it's only going to lead to more hurt for the both of them. Still, one look at Sam and he can tell there's no way out of this. Even if I grow and walk away, my problems will just follow along. Dean breathes in and sighs out. It's time. He sits his giant body down next to the barn and leans his back against it, facing Sam but not looking at him. He drops his hands when they start to fidget.

"So, ah, how are we doing this?" Dean begins. "Twenty questions? Truth or dare?"

"Why don't you cut to the chase and just tell me what's bothering you?"

"Pff. What doesn't bother me these days…"

"I mean about ME." Sam waits for Dean to speak, but the giant only looks away. "Is it the demon blood?"

"No," Dean answers. "I know you're clean."

"But you're worried I'll start drinking it again." Sam's guess brings the big green gaze down upon him.

"Do you get cravings?"

"I did at first, but not anymore. Not even when I tasted it again. It was just…gross." He makes a face. "I can't believe I used to guzzle that stuff…"

Dean gives a grim smile. "Yeah. Me neither."

It grows silent for a few moments before Sam ducks his head and admits, "I don't miss the blood, and I definitely don't miss being hooked on that crap, but I miss the power." He can feel Dean looking at him again, but Sam can't look back—not if he wants to get this out. "When I sent a demon back to Hell, it felt…incredible. Not just physically, but, like…it was my right to do this, y'know? Like I'd earned it. After all the shit demons have done to me—to US—to be able to beat them like that…destroy them… God, Dean, it was exhilarating. I felt…free! Like I was finally in control of my life for the first time IN my life."

"Calling all the shots, making and breaking the rules…" Dean offers a smirk. "Yeah. I can see how that'd be pretty sweet. Too bad it wasn't legit, huh." Sam looks at him. "You know, Ruby turning you into a junkie so you'd kill Lilith and free Lucifer…"

Sam nods, thinking back on his very long and extra winding road to the truth. "You owe me the world's biggest 'I Told You So' on that one…"

"I'm saving it for a rainy day. Or the next time you're so sure you know better than me. That'll be in what, ten minutes tops?"

Sam gives the toe of Dean's boot a kick, and Dean chuckles. Then Sam's face grows serious. "I was really gonna do it, too. Kill Lilith. If you hadn't found me at that cabin, Zachariah would've given me that blood…" Sam smiles now, out of disbelief. "…and that would've been IT. The devil would be walking the earth again. All thanks to me…"

Dean's hand cups around him in support. "Well it didn't happen, and it ain't gonna happen. Don't beat yourself up when you didn't do anything wrong." He gives his little brother as gentle a pat on the back he can at his size and then lifts his hand away. But Sam doesn't look comforted. If anything, he seems more troubled than ever. "What?" Sam ducks his head, not wanting to answer, so Dean pokes him in the side with his finger. "Dude, WHAT? Out with it."

"I still want to kill her, Dean." Shining eyes peer up at the giant. "I can't kill Lilith, and I won't, I promise…but I wish I could. Trapping her isn't enough. I want her to suffer, like YOU suffered. She dragged you to Hell. It's only right I send her back there, too."

"Still on that, huh?" Dean mumbles. Sam stares at him, aghast.

"Well, YEAH, Dean, I'm still on that! I'll ALWAYS be on that! She took you away!"

"No, Sam, I left." Dean holds his brother's gaze for a few seconds to make sure it sinks in. "I sold my soul to save yours. All Lilith did was hold the contract, and when my time came due, she sent the hellhounds to collect. So drop the grudge already. You only want to kill her because you can't take it out on me."

Sam laughs once in outrage. "Are you serious? Dean, I nearly squeezed you to death! How is that not taking it out on you?!"

"That was the demon blood," Dean dismisses.

"No, it wasn't. You KNOW it wasn't." He glares at Dean, who only returns a tired look in the moonlight.

"Good talk, Sammy." He starts to stand up, but Sam bellows at him to sit back down.

"How can you possibly think we're done here?!"

"Because there's nothing else to say," Dean replies. "You were pissed at me, I get it."

"You do," Sam says, doubtful.

"You got mad at me for cramping your style. You said yourself you liked the power you had, and with me around, you couldn't use it. You resented me for that. But you were pissed at me way before that. You hated who I'd become—all broken and haunted, avoiding demons instead of going after them with both barrels…" Dean stares past his brother and looks at the ground behind him. "I wasn't your hero anymore. I wasn't even your partner. I was a soul torturer who spent all day hating his guts, and you couldn't stand it."

Sam swallows hard at the all-too-true accusations. Dean is looking at him now, daring him to dispute any of it, but Sam can't. He won't, however, give credence aloud, so he makes a counter statement instead. "You never would have broken in Hell if I'd found a way to get you out."

"But I still would have suffered," Dean says quietly. "Even if you'd brought me back five minutes after I left, I would've been in the pit a few hours. Long enough for them to tear me a new one a few hundred times over."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"NO, I'm just pointing out that there's nothing you could've done."

"That's the whole point!" Sam fumes. "There was nothing I could do to help you, Dean! NOTHING. And you wonder why I can't just let it go?" Dean shakes his head, about to deflect him again, so Sam yells, "I FAILED you! I couldn't keep you out of Hell, and I couldn't get you out, either. I will NEVER be okay with that."

"But you HAVE to deal with it," Dean slams back. "It happened. I made the deal—I did, Sam, NOT you. It was my call, my punishment."

"You never should have made that deal in the first place!"

"Well then YOU never should've been stabbed in the back!" Dean's booming voice crashes through the area, but Sam doesn't duck down, even when Dean leans down and puts his huge face up in Sam's small one. "You want to know what failure feels like? Try being five feet away when your brother gets a knife in the back. Try running up to him and only being able to hold him while he DIES in your arms. Try sitting next to his dead body on the bed and deciding that a future in Hell is better than life on Earth without him!"

As his statement echoes away to silence, Dean looks up at the moon—this is going just as badly as he'd feared. "Wow, I sure am glad we had this talk," he mutters after a long moment. "I feel SO much better now." He looks down again, but Sam isn't there. A quick glance at the scenery and he finds Sam up in a nearby tree, now roughly level with his chin. His little brother is looking at him with all kinds of emotions…sadness, gladness, understanding, bewilderment… Dean ignores all of them and plays dumb. "What, something on my face?"

Sam shakes his head no. "Dean," he says in a soft voice, "for the hundredth time, it's not your fault I got stabbed, all right?"

Dean gives a single nod. "And for the millionth time, it's not YOUR fault I went to Hell. You didn't fail me. I chose to go. Will you please accept that and get on with your life?"

Sam nods as well, and then the two look on each other for a few seconds before Sam says, "I still feel guilty."

"Me, too," Dean admits. He leans back against the barn. "Catholics got nothin' on Winchester Guilt."

Sam smirks. "So what else?"

"Hm?"

"What else about me is bothering you?"

Dean heaves a long sigh to match the look he throws Sam's way. "Knew that wasn't the end of it…"

Sam shifts his weight and dangles a leg from the tree bough as he waits for Dean to gather his thoughts. He even gives him a jumping off point: "I know trust is gonna be an issue…"

"Yeah," Dean says absently, turning his face away while he scratches his scalp. "Some of the things you said back at Bobby's…" He cuts himself off and sums up: "It's gonna take a while, y'know?"

Sam nods. "Yeah, I know. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry I hurt you and broke your trust." He looks Dean in the eye as he says it, hoping his brother knows he means it. "You gotta know I never meant to hurt you…never wanted to, either, but I did…and I hate myself for it." Sam is starting to get worked up, resembling a 6'4" toddler as his chest heaves in and out, "I don't deserve your forgiveness…and I know you'll probably never trust me again, why would you…fuck!" Brushing a sleeve across his face to clear the wetness, he declares, "I ruined everything! You should've let Zachariah break my spine, I deserve it, I'm always hurting you instead of helping you and—!"

"Whoa, hey…" Dean picks up his brother and holds him in his palm at eyelevel. The little man keeps his chin down. "Sammy, look at me." He waits until the tiny eyes are upon him before he speaks three simple words: "I forgive you."

"But I don't deserve it!"

"Yes you do, and it's done. And for the record, you don't always hurt me. I mean you HAVE hurt me…let's see, you shot me twice," he holds out his thumb and index finger to count, "had me chased by a racist truck…laughed at me when I couldn't get my ghosting mojo to work right away, so, y'know, pride injuries, and yes, they do count…"

"Uh-huh. And how many times have you punched me in the face?" Sam fires back, fighting a grin.

"Hey, you deserved those. Mostly…" He smirks, and Sam kicks him in the thumb. "Ow! That almost hurt! What is it with you and kicking me lately? And don't say I deserved it."

"No, but you earned every single one, just by being you." Sam grins in triumph, sure he's won this round, but when Dean's smirk vanishes behind a frown, Sam fears he's gone too far yet again. When Dean sets him back on his perch in the tree, he knows he has. "Dean? What'd I do wrong now?"

"Nothing," Dean answers. "This time…well," he laughs, "lots of times…it's all on me." He straightens his back a few moments in a stretch before he sighs out, "I've got a lot of apologizing to do myself."

"What for?"

"For letting you down," Dean states. "For not being my best. For all of my screw-ups." He lowers his voice for the last item: "For driving you away…"

Now Sam's the one to balk. "Dean, you can't possibly—"

"What, think it's my fault? 'Course I do. You want to talk about holding a grudge…I've got the world record for longest and strongest." He allows a tiny smirk. "Everyone's got a talent, right? Mine just happens to be blaming myself for everything that goes south. Damn good at it, too. Lots of practice." He glances at Sam and notes the deep frown escorting the worry lines to his brother's forehead. "It's not gonna stop," Dean tells him. "I've just been this way for too long. I can't quit. Don't know how…not even sure I wanna find out."

Sam diverts all power to the Puppy Eyes and looks at Dean. "I wish you'd try," he says. "I mean, I can be hard on myself, but you…you actually think there's nothing good about you, like you're a Mistake, capital 'M.' But you couldn't be more wrong."

"So you're saying I'm perfect?" Dean grins, though the light doesn't reach his eyes. Sam doesn't fall for the misdirection, either, but drills his eyes into his brother's as he speaks from the heart:

"I'm saying you're Dean Winchester. And you should be happy you're you. I know I am."

Dean nods, touched. "Thanks Sammy."

Sam nods back. "You still think you're worthless though, huh…"

"You know what they say about the lives of old habits…" Dean endures a long sigh from Sam and then cuts him off before he can start a new lecture. "If it makes you feel any better, my usual…methods of dealing with all of life's crap don't work as well as they used to." That gets Dean an interested eyebrow. "Haven't for a while," he goes on. "I can't just take another one for the team, say it's all my fault, and call it a day. Things've changed…I'VE changed…and I can't…" He looks at Sam. "I won't take all the blame. Not anymore."

"That's…good?" Sam both says and asks, not sure what to make of it until he hears the full story. "When did it start?"

Dean stares at the base of the tree. "Do you remember when I told you I didn't want to go to Hell?"

Sam nods. "One of the proudest moments of my life."

"Same here. There was something I wanted and I said it out loud. Something BIG, y'know? Not just a slice of pie or a girl's phone number. Something more, something…important." Dean's eyes drift from the tree trunk to his knees. "Well, since then, I haven't been able to go back to just accepting things like I used to. Just by admitting I didn't want to lie down and let life run over me anymore…I dunno, man, it was like I planted my flag and took my stand. And now I can't go back. I want more…I've earned it. Starting with my own NyQuil."

Sam blinks and frowns. "You want cold medicine?"

Dean looks at him with a small grin and explains: "Do you remember Escanaba in '88? I got that bad flu and was down for nearly a week?"

"Yeah," Sam says, thinking back, "vaguely. I remember you making me stay away from you so I wouldn't get sick."

"But you got sick anyway cos you wouldn't listen. 'Course, you didn't have it as bad cos you got the NyQuil."

"I don't understand. If we had NyQuil, why didn't you take any?"

"Because we only had a tiny bottle of it and I knew that if you got sick, you'd need it. And I was right." He sees Sam's facing settling into a frown again and he holds up his hand. "Don't. Dad didn't know—he never did. He was always short on cash, and bitching about it would just earn me 10 extra laps, so I did what I could with what we had. It was my choice, Sam. I chose to save the medicine for you same way I chose to skip a few meals now and then to make sure you got to eat."

"And that's why you gave up an engineering internship, right?" Sam challenges, recalling what Zachariah had told him earlier. "It was all for me." Dean looks to the side, resentment in his eyes at the truth coming out. Sam in turn glares at the world with his own resentment for what Dean had to sacrifice. "You never should've had to make any of those choices," Sam growls, and to his astonishment, Dean nods in agreement.

"No shit, but it's done. I took care of you. It was my job, and I did it without complaint." Dean looks down at his big boots. "Only problem is that underneath it all, I knew there was a part of me that WANTED to complain. Why didn't anyone ever save ME any medicine? Why did Dad always check to make sure you were okay but never even asked me how I was doing? Why would the two of you fight and fight, but you both treated me like the bad guy for breaking it up?"

His voice has softened to the point of cracking, as if the thick filters Dean put up to make sure none of this stuff ever came out of his mouth are still working hard to keep the truth inside. "That part of me was dangerous, Sammy. That Dean wanted MORE. And I couldn't take care of you and Dad if I was thinking about what I wanted. So I shut it down…buried it deep. But every once in a while, I'd hear it speak up, asking the questions I was afraid to answer." He settles one knee down and readjusts how he's sitting. "Fast forward to that sewer in Geneva and our first run-in with Skippy. Ever since I got these Hydros powers, that part of me that wants more has gotten a lot stronger. I can't shut it up like I used to, and when I try to ignore it, it just shouts at me to pay attention. Sometimes it keeps me up at night—which isn't so bad, cos hey, it keeps the nightmares away, but at the same time, it's not a whole lot better. The worst was when I'd wake up and find you gone…" Dean rubs his temples just thinking about it, willing the headache away before it begins to throb.

Still sitting in the tree, Sam is dumbfounded at Dean being so open about all of this. He dearly wishes he had a calendar on hand so he could circle the date: THIS is the night that Dean finally let Sam IN. And it hurts. And it's not over yet. As curious as Sam is about what else Dean will say, he also fears what he'll hear. But he knows that if Dean is ever going to get better, he has to get out as much of this stuff as possible. Sam therefore dons his brave face and asks him, "What did it say on those nights?"

The big green eyes fall on Sam, and Dean says, plain and painful, "Why is he always leaving me behind?"

A lump the size of Pluto forms in Sam's throat, leaving him unable to answer. Not that Dean expects him to: "You know, I hated falling asleep, cos I'd be back in Hell, tortured by all my memories of what they did to me and what I did to all those souls. But waking up and finding you gone again…" He shakes his head in slow 'no's… "That was a whole different kind of torture. A living nightmare."

"I'm sorry," Sam whimpers, failing to keep the emotions out of his voice. "You have to know that I never wanted to leave you behind—"

"Yeah, you did," Dean states. "C'mon, Sam, you want me to be honest, you owe it to me to do the same. You can start by admitting that you wanted to leave."

"I didn't!"

"Sam…" Dean leans forward a bit, looking into the little face as he waits for an answer. Sam is fighting a losing battle with his waterworks, and Dean feels for him—he does. But that doesn't change his need to know. "It's okay," Dean utters. "Well, it's not o-KAY okay, but you need to say it, and I need to hear you say it."

The tears finally overwhelm Sam's defenses and spill down his face. "I wanted to leave," he admits quietly. Dean nods and looks away. "But I wished I could stay," Sam adds. "Every time. Not just since you got back from Hell, but earlier, all the way back to the night I left for Stanford. I wanted to leave…but I hated leaving YOU. Please tell me you get that."

Dean glances up, sees the sincerity in Sam's red eyes, and nods. Sam relaxes so much in his relief that he nearly tumbles out of the tree, but he grabs onto a branch at the last second and pulls his upper body back up. The first thing he spots is the palm of Dean's hand slowly retreating back to Dean's side. "You're always right there to catch me," Sam says, "and I don't think I've ever thanked you for it. I just took it for granted that you'd be there, cos you always were. Just like Zachariah said."

"Okay, time out," Dean says as he makes the T-shape gesture with his hands. "That's the second time you've mentioned that asshat's name in this conversation. You want to keep talking, fine, we'll keep talking, but only about me and you—that's it. We're not discussing a single thing Fuckariah said."

"But he was right!"

"About what? All he did was monologue about stuff we never talked about so that we'd both feel like shit. Well, mission accomplished. I feel like shit, you LOOK like shit with those red eyes and puffy cheeks, and we're right back where we started: I'm stuck as a giant, and you're stuck with me. Thank you and good night."

"I'm not stuck with you, Dean," Sam insists. "I want you to be here."

"Why? You don't even like me." Dean's right eyebrow lifts when Sam chuckles at his statement. "What? You don't! Admit it!"

"There's nothing to admit. Don't be stupid."

"So you do admit you think I'm stupid."

"I never said that."

"But you thought it."

"No I didn't!"

"You think it every day."

Sam stares at his brother a moment. "Why are you trying to pick a fight?"

"I'm not, I just want to hear the truth."

"About…?"

"What you really think of me."

Sam rolls his eyes. "What I think is that you're throwing me against the ropes cos we're getting too close to The Forbidden Zone in your head." Dean snorts and looks away again. "In fact," Sam persists, "since you didn't get all cranky until I mentioned Zachariah—"

"Don't say it!" Dean yells at the same time said name comes out.

"—it means whatever it is you don't want to talk about has something to do with what he said." Sam crosses his arms over his chest and looks smug. Dean glowers at him.

"Whatever, Sherlock. This table ain't turning, all right? If you're not man enough to tell me the truth, that's your deal, not mine."

"What was it, exactly, that hit your sore spot?" Sam presses, ignoring Dean's further attempts at deflection.

"Dammit Sam…"

"He was trying to make ME feel bad, and yeah, he did and then some, but it also made YOU feel bad…"

"I'm not some puzzle for you to figure out!"

"He was calling me out on not appreciating you," Sam recalls, ignoring his brother's annoyance because he knows he's closing in on the truth. "And then he pointed out that I kept leaving. Right, again, much as that sucks…"

"Bye Sam," Dean says, getting to his feet. "You wanna keep on ignoring me, I don't have to stay here and take it."

"No, Dean, wait! We have to figure this out! It's the key to your size problems, I know it!"

"Bullshit!" Dean yells down at him, nearly squashing Sam and the tree with his voice. "I had this problem a long time before Mr. Greasy Grin slimed his way into my life. He's a manipulator, just like Ruby, only instead of telling you what you wanna hear, he says just the right thing to piss you off. And thinking back on what he said just pisses me off even more. So enough with the analysis already: nothing he said matters!"

"Oh really? Then why are you growing?"

Dean looks down and sees the ground falling away from him; he's shot up 30 feet in three seconds. "I knew it!" Sam beams.

"Oh don't read into this," Dean whines, shrinking down to 10 feet as he talks.

"You're fluctuating! Just like back in the cave!"

Dean wraps his arms around his torso as he fights another growth spurt. "No I'm not…"

"Yes you are!" Sam points when Dean gradually grows again. The wheels in Sam's brain spin like crazy, spitting out idea after idea. "And you've done it before…back before you left, you started fluctuating after you shrank the first time."

"Yeah," Dean says through clenched teeth as he shrinks once more. "Great, Sam."

"We were fighting over you…" Sam laughs as it all becomes so obvious. "And when you got stuck it was usually after someone said something about you! Holy shit, Dean, do you know what this means?"

Dean is growing again as he groans, "No, but I'm sure you'll tell me…"

"It means I'm not the problem, Dean! YOU are!" Sam gets a deep glare for that. "I'm not saying you ARE a problem, but you think you are! It's just like you told me: you're used to blaming yourself for everything and putting everybody else first, but the Hydros in you doesn't want that! So when the two of you are at odds, you get stuck or you fluctuate!"

"And that helps me HOW, exactly?"

"Think about the pattern, Dean! Like, okay…remember those tests Meesh ran, and the helicopter? After you saw Ruby, you were in pain cos you were trying not to grow. Meesh told you to let go, so you did. And then you two had a talk, and you admitted some stuff that I know was really hard to say."

"And you eavesdropped," Dean reminds him, shrinking a little again.

Sam makes a gesture like he's pushing something aside. "Another time, stay with me on this. What happened after your talk?"

"I got pissed."

"Why?"

"Because Meesh was trying to make me feel better about myself, and I didn't want to feel better." The fluctuation stops at the statement, leaving him about 8 feet tall, but Dean doesn't notice.

"Why not?" Sam pushes.

"Because hating myself is easier than liking myself. Liking myself means putting me first."

"But you just told me you want more—that you'd like to be first for a change."

"Of course I do, but I can't! You KNOW I can't."

"WHY?"

"Because that's not the way the world works!" Dean yells, though he doesn't size shift at all. "I can't have what I want, cos then I'll just want more, but I'll get jack squat for all my trouble and that'll just make me think about everything I don't have! It's poison! So I ignore it. I push it down, walk away, use any distraction I can, until it's gone, and I can pretend I'm okay. Only I'm not okay, as every fucker out there just LOVES reminding me. Angels, demons, monsters of the week, hell, even YOU, all of ya just too happy to list off every single mistake I've made and tell me just how much I suck. Like I could ever forget… But that's my life, right? Everybody line up and kick me when I'm down, cos I am always down, buried up to my eyeballs in the mud…"

Fat tears are falling from Dean's eyes now—not his signature single drop, but a deluge, and they fly off his face as he shakes his head in raw frustration. "What about all the stuff I've done right, huh? All the lives I've saved, all the sacrifices I've made…they don't count? Why? Because I don't count?!"

"You do count," Sam swears. "Zachariah was right about one thing: I don't appreciate you like I should. I never have. I'm so sorry, Dean. I swear I'll do better." He's surprised by a look of skepticism from his brother. "You don't believe me?"

Dean gives him a frank look. "You stopped believing in ME a long time ago. I can't just snap my fingers and be great in your eyes again, same way you can't just wake up tomorrow and change your tune."

"But I can try. I can START."

"But you won't," Dean sniffs. "Why should you, right? Nothing I do will ever be enough."

Sam is tearing up again, and in a quavering voice, he says, "Dean, I promise—"

"Oh, you promise. Just like you promised you'd remember what me and Dad taught you, but I get back and you're sleeping with a demon. Or how you promised me you knew what you were doing, and that all the lying and sneaking around were perfectly acceptable and I didn't have to worry?" Dean directs his deepest, most hurtful glare at his little brother. "You promised me that you had your powers under control, and then you crushed almost every bone in my body."

"I'm sorry!" Sam cries.

"So am I," Dean says. "Maybe even more than you are. Because the thing is, Sammy, I want to trust you again. I really do. But how the hell am I supposed to do that after everything you pulled, huh? You tell ME." Both brothers wipe tears away, unable to look at one another anymore. "Now you know why I hate it when we talk," Dean mumbles at length. "It always ends with one of us a wreck."

"But I'm glad you did," Sam sniffles. He meets his brother's watery gaze and holds it as he repeats his brother's words from minutes before: "You need to say it, and I need to hear it."

Dean grunts and backs off. "Yeah, for all the good it does..."

Sam gives a weak smile. "It's already done wonders. Look." He hops down from the tree and stands in front of his brother, looking down at him. "You're back to normal."

Dean looks up and realizes he's right. "I'll be damned…" Now he looks himself over. "How the hell…?"

"Equilibrium," Sam answers. "Those two parts of you got back in balance, just like after your talk with Meesh. When you spoke up for yourself and admitted how you really felt, the hydros part of you was appeased, and just like that," he snaps his fingers, "you shrunk back down and got yourself a beer."

"Could use one now," Dean murmurs, looking around even though he knows there's no cooler of cold ones anywhere near them. Blowing out a sigh, he says, "So what, that's it? I do some yelling next time I get stuck and I'm good to go?"

"Or, there's option two: Don't get stuck again. Talk to me whenever something's bothering you instead of bottling it up and waiting for it to explode."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Great. Now my life gets to be one continuous chick-flick moment. Just what I always wanted."

"Oh please," a third voice groans, "if anything, your lives are one big sudsy soap opera." Ruby appears from behind the tree, hands in the pockets of her tight leather jacket as walks toward them. "And if you want to live through end credits, you're gonna need my help."


A/N Additional: I know, I hate her too. I promise she'll get what's coming to her in the next chapter. For now, please let me know what you thought of this one! I'm really worried I didn't get the Talk right, so please tell me what you thought of it. I'll truly appreciate it. Thank you!