Dad told him what this bird-man-wolf thing was called, but Sam can't remember right now. Instead, all he can think is godgodohpleasegod. He clutches the .45 between his too-small hands like it'll save him, but he's heard from Dad a billion times that a weapon is only as good as the hunter who wields it, and everyone knows Sam's not any good as a hunter. He's not even really a hunter at all, he's just a twelve-year old kid hiding behind a retaining wall holding a gun he's too frightened to use and listening to his father and brother take down a monster.

They're the hunters, Dad and Dean. They don't get scared, and no one makes them hide during battles. They'll kill this thing like they kill everything, and then they'll come running over to Sam, both asking him if he's okay, as if he's done something besides cower on the ground and wish he were anywhere else.

There's a rapid burst of gunfire and a yell, and Sam flinches as something flies over his head. It's his Dad, he realizes a second later as he stares at the dark figure on the ground with a sickening mixture of horror and relief. Dad's moving which means he's not dead, but he's not moving much which means he might be soon.

Then Dean screams and Sam's on his feet before he has time to think about what he's doing. Sam hates that he can recognize his brother's different screams, but it is a relief now to know this is Dean's scream of anger, not pain. Dean is flat on his back on the ground, however, and the bird-man-wolf thing is no where to be seen. Sam catches a glimpse of feathers and fur tearing off into the trees and again he's not thinking but he's running after it.

Dean shouts something at him that Sam doesn't take the time to hear because he's remembering now about the campsite ahead. They'd driven past it earlier that day and Sam had seen families there, kids, some younger than him. This thing liked kids, Dad had said, reason six million three-hundred and ninety-eight for Sam to stay hidden during the fight. Sam can still feel the terror of that coursing through his veins like poison, and he pictures other little kids— ones who don't know about all the things that lurk in the shadows, who haven't been taught to use weapons, who don't have big brothers that fight the monsters for them— and how they'll feel if this thing comes for them.

Sam speeds up, trips over several tree roots but manages not to fall, and finally catches sight of mangled limbs and stunted wings through the trees. He bellows at the creature, his heart beating too fast in his throat for him to form any sort of words, but the inarticulate garble works and gets the thing's attention.

It turns, spitting, snarling, and Jesus Sam has never seen anything so terrifying in his life but he's leveling his gun just like he's been taught and Dean's always saying he's such a good shot and he knows where to aim and those other kids aren't going to be scared like this, not tonight, not when all Sam Winchester has to do to keep them safe is—

The gunshot is the loudest sound Sam's ever heard in his life. His body tries to flinch instinctively but his Dad's voice shouting in his head to stay on the mark! is loud enough to make him fight the motion, every muscle tensing with an agonizing jerk that keeps him upright, his gun nearly steady.

He's barely registered that the bird-man-wolf thing is on the ground not moving at all before something comes barreling out of the trees behind him and yanks him around. His tensed muscles scream in protest and he stumbles into Dean's shuddering chest.

"Sammy!" His brother is breathing like he hasn't for days. "Are you alright? Jesus, don't you ever…"

Dean's hands are on his face, his shoulders, checking for wounds, but Sam pushes them away.

"I'm fine," he says, then repeats it a little louder with a hint of pride as he's realizes it's true. "I'm fine." He didn't fall down, didn't get hit, didn't get grabbed or thrown. The monster's dead, and Sam doesn't have a scratch on him.

"Sammy." Dean is still panting like his lungs are about to burst, and as he cranes his head over Sam's shoulder to look at the creature Sam sees the dark blood his face, hair, and neck.

"You're hurt, Dean." Some of the kids at school have laughed when they've realized Sam keeps a handkerchief in his pocket at all times, but Sam doesn't tell them it's for the express purpose of moping up wounds on short notice. He pulls it out now, feeling a bit of smugness in reaching up to press it against his brother's head. "Is Dad…?"

"He'll be fine." Dean tries to wave away Sam's help but he's too focussed on the dead creature to put much effort into it and Sam stays where he is, one hand gripping Dean's arm and the other with the handkerchief glued firmly to his head. "Wow, Sammy. You killed it."

There's disbelief and amazement and maybe even a tiny bit of awe in Dean's voice, and Sam glows, warmth gushing through his insides.

"Yeah, I did," he says, thinking of the kids at the campground who will all sleep safely tonight, undisturbed by the darkness. He straightens to his full height and tugs on Dean's arm, leading him away from the creature and back towards their Dad. He knows the line that comes next because Dean's said it to him after countless hunts that have ended with bloodshed, only this time it's Dean who's hurt and Sam who will care for his brother.

"Come on." He does his best imitation of Dean's voice when he says it, deep and confident and reassuring, the conquerer fresh from a victory. "Let's get you cleaned up."

.

"Kill it, Sam, please!"

Jess tries to push him forward even as she continues clinging to his arm. He has to laugh a little at her terror; this is a side to her he's never seen before and it finds it incredibly endearing. Of course, Sam is discovering he finds everything about Jessica Moore endearing.

"Okay, okay," he says, reluctant to lose her touch but needing the use of his arm. "You're going to have to let go of me."

Jess releases his arm like it's on fire and backs up until she hits the arm of the couch. The centipede on the wall above her door scuttles sideways a few inches and she squeaks, putting a fist to her mouth. "Sam!"

"I got it," he reassures her, stepping forward and raising the ball of Kleenex in his right hand. Jess squeaks again when Sam snags the centipede off the wall, his long arms making the reach easy.

"It's dead," he says firmly, still smiling because when he's in the same room— or even the same city— as Jess it's hard not too. He looks around the room for a garbage can, then memories of things that can't just be buried and don't stay dead snatch at him. "Is there like, a main garbage in your dorm?" he asks Jess.

She nods, bringing her fist away from her mouth and looking vaguely sheepish. Sam thinks it's the most adorable expression he's ever seen. "Down the hall."

"Be right back." Sam flashes her another smile before ducking out of the room and disposing of the mashed centipede-and-Kleenex ball in the trash room. On the walk back down the corridor he tries not to think about everything else he's killed in his lifetime, or the way his heart had nearly stopped beating and his hands went instinctively to his pockets for a weapon when Jess let out that shriek halfway through their Classics homework.

It becomes much easier to stop thinking when he goes back into Jess's room and she puts her arms around him.

"Thank you," she says, the hug brief and casual but leaving Sam tingling all over. "For killing it and for not leaving it in here. I'm always half-convinced they're going to crawl right back out of the trash…" She laughs, and it's not even much of a struggle to laugh with her, though a tiny part of Sam's brain has a wild urge to suggest salting and burning the corpse next time. "Sorry for being such a wuss."

"Don't worry about it, it…" Sam almost says 'was my pleasure' but he realizes in time how incredibly weird that would sound. Instead he just keeps grinning at Jess like an idiot until she settles back into her spot on the couch, picking up her textbook and waiting for Sam to join her.

He nearly trips over his feet as he does, but the couch is old and worn and it sinks towards the middle, so any two people sharing it automatically end up pressed close together. Jess doesn't seem to mind.

"Anytime," Sam tries, feeling like his tongue is too big for his mouth. "Feel free to call me anytime you think there's the slightest arthropodal threat."

And Jesus, he just said the word arthropodal to her, but Jess is beaming at him and her hand is on his knee and maybe it's alright.

"Sure," she says, even white teeth catching on her bottom lip in a grin Sam thinks is so damn perfect it should hardly even be allowed to exist. "You can be my knight in shining armor. Well…"

She jokingly tugs at a hole in his jeans. He laughs, but then her hand stays on her thigh and her fingers are warm against his skin and he thinks that centipede was by far the best hunt he's ever wasted.

.

"Come on, Sammy," Dean sighs impatiently. "We haven't slept in almost thirty-six hours, we haven't eaten for at least ten, you're still fucking bleeding— and the motel is right up the road. Can we just forget about this for now?"

"It'll only take me a minute," Sam answers dismissively, pulling on his jacket to hide the large bloodstain under his arm. "Go ahead to the motel if you want, I'll meet you there."

"Sam, I'm not leaving you to walk five fucking miles back to the motel when you can barely even stand up straight. Will you stop being such a little bitch and come with me? Please? We can come back here tomorrow."

The 'please' makes Sam pause in the act of opening the Impala's door, but he squares his shoulders and says stubbornly, "We won't come back here and you know it. Really, I'll just be a minute."

Dean lets out one of his special I-can't-believe-I'm-stuck-with-such-a-loser-freak-for-a-brother groans and drops his head against the steering wheel.

"You've been to every one of these places we've seen for the past seven-hundred miles. What are you looking for that's so damned important anyway?" Dean grumbles, giving in for a moment before something hits him and he snaps his head back up. "If this is something to do with getting me out of my deal, you can just—"

"It's not about that, okay?" Sam snaps, shutting the door behind him. "I'll be right back."

He turns away from Dean's glowering, disbelieving face and plunges into the second-hand shop.

There are two other customers inside, an old man with his jeans tucked into his socks and a teenager with dreadlocks and far too much eyeliner. They glance at Sam as he moves past them, and he knows he must be quite the sight. Dean was right, Sam can barely stand up straight; the burning pain in his side is intense, and coupled with a pounding headache Sam feels like he's two seconds away from throwing up or passing out or maybe both at the same time. But he's on a mission, so he shoves aside his various hurts and strides resolutely to the back of the shop.

Three minutes later Sam's sliding into the passenger seat of the Impala and beaming.

"What?" Dean stares at him like he's declared himself Miss USA and started murdering people with daggers made out of kitten bones.

Sam laughs, exhaustion and blood-loss and triumph pushing him close to hysterical. He flicks out the first two fingers of his left hand, a cassette tape held between them.

Still staring, Dean reaches out and takes it.

"Ride the Lightning?" he reads from the back. "You… you bought a Metallica tape?"

"Yep." Suddenly Sam can't hold his aching head up anymore. He slumps back in his seat, every ounce of energy that he's been using to get himself through the past few days evaporated. He thinks he actually blacks out for a moment before opening his eyes to find Dean still looking at the tape, turning it over and over in his hands.

"I knew yours broke," Sam says, a cold spike of worry shooting up his chest as he wonders if Dean doesn't understand. "And dude, cassette tapes. Not exactly the easiest thing to buy since no one but you listens to them anymore."

"You don't like Metallica," Dean says quietly, and Sam thinks maybe they're both so tired they've stopped being capable of holding a comprehensive conversation.

"Whatever, man." Sam's grin is gone and he feels sicker than ever. "You were all set to go to the motel a minute ago, think you maybe wanna turn on the car now and you know, drive?"

Sam expects some sort of retort but Dean just sets the tape carefully on the dash then turns the keys in the ignition and pulls the Impala back out onto the road.

They leave the motel the following night. Metallica bursts into the air the second Dean starts the engine, making Sam wonder when Dean put the tape in. But he doesn't say anything, he just watches the smile on Dean's face and the way the tightness around his eyes and mouth starts to relax.

A tiny bit of warmth that's been missing for weeks sparks in Sam's chest, and when Dean plays the tape two times in a row and sings along to every song, he doesn't even complain. Much.

.

The girl is huddled in the corner, face buried in the arms wrapped around her knees. She's sobbing quietly, rocking back and forth. The sound penetrates the buzzing fire in Sam's head and he turns towards her. She's fourteen, he remembers. The eight-year-old boy the demon is possessing is her little brother.

"Sam." Ruby steps up behind him, pressing her body to his. He's been cold, so cold for weeks now, but Ruby is always so warm and her touch helps him make sense of the flames in his head. "Focus now. He's here."

Sam turns towards the door and right there is the boy— the demon. Tiny hands and shaggy blond hair but black, black eyes. The demon says something with the child's small, pouty mouth, but Sam can't hear it over the blaze roaring inside him.

"Do it, Sam." Ruby's voice is perfectly clear. "You can still save him if you do it now."

The demon lashes out with a wave of power that makes the girl in the corner scream but Sam only takes a step back. He reaches out with his mind, hand unconsciously mirroring the motion, feeling the boiling, bubbling acid of the demon inside the tiny body.

The demon shrieks, the sound unheard by Sam's ears but deafening in his head. The flames waver, writhe. Ruby pushes on his arm, grounding him, and he pushes back against the demon. Heat and death and stench and pain. It tries to attack but Sam catches the blow, turns it around. Somewhere he thinks he can hear a little kid crying. Acid burning his fingertips, leaking from behind his eyes. Or not his eyes. He breathes coal, spits diamonds. The demon bubbles away through the floor.

Sam collapses, knees giving way and head pulsing so strongly he can't remember where or who he is— Brother, the only part of his brain that isn't turning to lava and ash supplies, save the brother, save him, Dean…

Then Sam coughs, wipes the blood away from his nose and ears, and looks up. The girl is holding her brother, holding him like she'll never let go, babbling and giggling and crying and repeating a name over and over again. The little boy is quiet and unresisting in her arms, looking over her shoulder at Sam with wide, green eyes.

"You saved them, Sam." Ruby's voice is low and breathy and Sam knows if he looks at her now he'll see a different warmth in her eyes, the one that says Sam is powerful, Sam is victorious, Sam is right.

He keeps watching the kids for a moment longer, however, savoring Ruby's words. He saved them, these kids, fought the forces of Hell and saved them. And if he can save them, he can save others. He will save others. Brother. The word lingers in his head.

He will save Dean.

.

"Holy shit," Sam says, holding Castiel's shoulders as he retches over the toilet for the third time in fifteen minutes.

"There's nothing holy about this," Cas mutters back between heaves. "I think… I'm dying."

"You're not dying," Sam sighs, handing Cas the damp paper towel to wipe his mouth, then trading it for a glass of water.

"Well I wish I was," Cas answers back churlishly. He glares at the glass of water like it's the source of all his problems.

"You're supposed to drink it, not try to commune with it." Fuck, Sam is tired. He can't remember ever being this tired in his life. Tired of fighting, of running, of watching Dean move around like an automaton, and of angels who are definitely not the beautiful, benevolent creatures Sam used to imagine.

Cas makes an undignified noise almost as though he can read Sam's thoughts, which actually Sam could believe on any day but this one when Cas can hardly find his own hands at the ends of his arms. When angels get drunk, apparently they get drunk.

Cas groans and Sam leans him forward, the movements well practiced now as they've passed the hour mark for time spent in this motel bathroom. Cas doesn't actually throw anything up this time, thankfully, but his body jerks painfully and Sam rubs a comforting hand on his back. Part of his brain flashes to a memory of Dean doing this exact same thing for him the first time Sam got this drunk, while another part seems inclined toward hysterical laughter at the irony of sitting in a bathroom with an angel of the Lord, watching him puke his guts out. Sam doesn't listen to either part, knowing if he does he's likely to start sobbing.

"Everything sucks these days," Sam murmurs, unaware that he spoke out loud until Cas giggles weakly, shaking under Sam's hands.

"It's the Apocalypse!" he crows, eyes unfocussed as Sam helps him lean back against the glass of the shower door. "It's not supposed to be… lollipop puppies in the sunshine."

Sam twitches his eyebrows at that mess of a metaphor but Cas's head is lolling back and forth and he's muttering under his breath in what seems to be French, of all languages. Sam thinks he'd likely heard the phrase, or something a little more comprehensive, from Dean at some point. And that flares to life the part of his brain that Sam is definitely not listening to, the part that thinks Dean has been gone for a long time and wants to fixate on the dead look in Dean's eyes and the way his shoulders seem permanently slumped and he doesn't eat much or smile and moves like the dead—

No, he's not listening to that. Instead he stands, leaving Cas to his babble of French which has now gained something of a tune and heads to the tiny kitchen part of their room.

They'd brought the simple groceries a while ago, all things that didn't need to be kept cold and could easily be eaten in the car. It had been Sam's idea, and Dean, with his new found lack of interest in just about everything, had made no protests. Sam starts pulling things out of the crumpled paper bag now, laying them on the counter.

His eyes burn and for one insane minute Sam considers taking a nap, which is about the best idea ever when he's babysitting a soon-to-be-hungover angel in the middle of a demon infested town with his brother gone AWOL. Sam snorts over the food, knowing even if he did just throw away every single bit of his common sense and pass out right this second it wouldn't do anything for how tired he feels. It's an exhaustion that has settled deep in his bones, and no amount of sleep can fix it, not when Dean is walking around with that look on his face or Bobby is breaking down during rituals or Cas is sitting on the floor of their bathroom, half-conscious and trying to pull the shafts of sunlight off his pants.

Grabbing a paper plate for the food, Sam heads back into the bathroom.

"Here," he says, grabbing Cas's hands and guiding them to the plate, only letting go once he's sure the angel's got a decent grip on it. "Eat that, it'll help a lot."

Cas gazes down at the plate for several minutes before he processes what he's seeing. "You… made me a sandwich?" he asks, looking blearily up at Sam.

"It's just peanut butter and bread." Sam shrugs, closing the lid of the toilet and taking a seat. "Try and not hurl it all over the floor, okay?"

"I…" Cas is back to staring at the sandwich like it's the most awe-inspiring thing he's ever seen in his life. Fucking hell, Sam hopes he never drinks again. "Thank you, Sam. Really, thank you."

Sam starts a little at the sudden gravity of the angel's tone and looks down to find Cas regarding him with surprising clarity for a moment before tearing into the sandwich and making noises that border on obscene.

"Best thing I've ever eaten," Cas mumbles around a huge mouthful, and Sam almost laughs out loud. Almost, but not quite, because of course it's not that easy, there's still the whole town of demons to deal with and an apathetic God and where the fuck is Dean and oh yeah, the whole goddamn Apocalypse and Lucifer wanting to climb inside his skin…

And one peanut butter sandwich is not going to fix any of that, but just for the moment, it does sort of help.

.

"Are you happy now? Are you pleased with yourself?"

Sam has trouble focussing on the bitingly sarcastic voice, but he is having trouble focussing on much of anything at the moment.

He thinks he sees Adam, but then not. He thinks he sees Michael, except he can't possibly be looking at Michael because his eyes aren't burning out of his head. He thinks he sees Lucifer too, not Lucifer-in-Nick or Lucifer-in-him-in-the-mirror, but actually Lucifer and then he's spinning and shaking and coming apart piece by piece.

"Well?" the voice demands again, and Sam realizes he's sitting in the corner of a not-quite-room in the not-quite-dark. It's empty— or maybe it isn't. Maybe it's actually full of people, screaming and running, or maybe they're all like Sam, still and silent.

"You just couldn't leave it alone, could you?" The voice is rigid with hatred, actual hatred, and that tells Sam it's not Lucifer, because as much as he didn't want to Sam knows Lucifer, and Lucifer never, ever hated Sam. "You and your brother, so unbelievably stubborn."

The word 'brother' triggers something in Sam and he looks up. Michael's there in front of him, he's sure of it, and though Sam is looking straight at him he's not really seeing him and he feels insanely, stupidly grateful for that.

"Well look where it got you," Michael spits, and Sam flinches as the words seem to strike his skin. "Still feeling like the savior now? A big hero?"

"No."

Even though he can't see Michael, Sam can see he looks surprised, as though he didn't expect Sam to be able to speak. Sam's standing suddenly, and that surprises Michael even more.

Sam's word reverberates in the not-empty not-room like the chime of a bell, clear and strong. It's the truth, a shining, unbreakable truth that Sam seizes and holds out like a shield.

He did it. He overcame Lucifer. He jumped into the pit. He stopped the Apocalypse, saved the world, and Heaven, and Hell, and Bobby and Cas. And Dean.

But Sam isn't some savior, some superhuman or demi-God. He thinks about what Dean's face would look like if he heard his brother described as a hero, and he smiles. Michael takes a step back.

What he did wasn't heroic, Sam thinks, now picturing Dean back at Lisa's house, having a beer and maybe reading a book to Ben before putting him to bed. He moves forwards, and Michael falls back several more steps. What Sam did was just necessary.

It was right.


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Reviews are extremely appreciated. I swear to you, I will get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears.