A/N: And we've made it to the end, folks! Thanks so much for sticking with me! I pretty much wrote this chapter in one sitting, so I apologize if it feels rushed or if there are blatant errors. All mistakes are obviously mine.

If you've got a spare moment, do please leave me a note to say how you liked it!

Chapter 5

When the yellow eyed messenger shows up that night at Sam's bedside, Sam knows he's dreaming. He'd been sending out furious messages to the universe, to the messenger, to Lucifer, since his conversation with Pastor Jim ended, so it's no surprise to him that the messenger has finally shown up. Now that Sam knows the truth, it seems the giant jerkface can spare a minute to talk to him after all.

"I didn't make a deal," Sam announces without preamble, arms folded stubbornly across his chest. "My Dad's a hunter – I know how these things work. You have to make a deal, have to agree to all the terms of the deal, and I didn't, so we didn't make one. Lucifer can't have my soul. We didn't agree."

Those sickly yellow eyes swirl with malice, and the messenger grins like a snake.

"Anyone ever tell you you'd make a heckuva great lawyer?" the man beams proudly. "Always getting down to those picky little details. See, that's what I like about you Sammy. You're my favourite, you know. My father's, too."

Sam glares at him, sickened by the compliment, and by the revelation.

"Father?" He bites his lip in thought, his guts churning because he should have known better. He should have known. "Lucifer's your father…? So that means you're… you're a…?"

"Demon," Yellow Eyes asserts with a nod. "Though I suppose Father's a bit too literal a term, really. I like to think of him as my very own Dean Winchester. Technically a brother, but more like a father figure. Steering me on the right path. That's what big brothers do, right Champ?"

Sam really hadn't been expecting that.

"So you were an angel?" he blurts out incredulously.

The demon winks and grins that snaky grin again.

"Back in the day," he admits thoughtfully. "But I guess things change when you start making so many friends in low places. Though compared to being a stooge up in Heaven, I gotta tell ya Sammy, what I got for my troubles Downstairs was like a big promotion."

It's like a viper strike, the way he snaps his words out, pump and pizzazz and flare embellishing his words like a used car salesman on speed. It makes Sam's skin crawl, makes him want to punch the smug look off the stupid monster's stupid face.

"Well I don't care what you are," Sam defies stubbornly. "I didn't make a deal so you can't have my soul."

"Right again, Sammy-o," he winks. "I knew I couldn't pull a fast one on you, so I didn't even bother trying. That thing with Dean? That was a gift."

Months of suppressed panic return on Sam all at once, making his hands run hot and cold in flashes, making him lightheaded and nauseous. He sits back heavily on his bed, a light tremble shaking its way through his entire frame, and he has to fight back the urge to cry.

Hearing the demon say those words – confirmation of Sam's guilt – is enough to gut the child.

"I didn't ask for it," he manages through gritted teeth. "I would never want that to happen to my brother."

"Means to an end," the demon shrugs. "You wanted your Daddy to stay here so you could all play normal, so Lucifer gave him a reason to stay. Call it a freebie."

"But I don't want it!" If a few rogue tears slide down Sam's cheeks, he's sure no one will blame him for it. "Take it back and undo it – I never wanted this! I just wanted us all to stay in one place and be a normal family."

Those yellow eyes glow in the lamplight, eager and wide.

"Normal families go through illness every day," he says somberly. "They fight, they cry, they gnash their teeth and demand to know why and curse God for giving them such a raw deal. It's all perfectly normal."

Sam shakes his head no but the demon goes on.

"They suffer together, as a family. They eat crappy hospital food and get ulcers together. They go bankrupt from hospital bills and live in slums just to get by together. They sit by, helpless, and watched their loved ones die together. And it's all. Perfectly. Normal. The circle of life, Sammy!"

"It's horrible," Sam laments as tears run in rivers down his cheeks. "And anyway, God didn't do this – you did. You and Lucifer. You did this and I want you to undo it!"

"But just think," the demon offers, smarmy like a food stand vendor at a carnival with a candy apple. "When your brother dies, your family will be tied to this place forever. You and your Daddy can go to his grave to lay down flowers every year, and knowing your Daddy, he won't be able to leave his good soldier behind. That tombstone will be like an anchor around the old man's neck, tying him here until the end of his days."

Sam can't hold back the sob that claws up his throat, can't keep his shoulders from shaking as he weeps in the face of such a horrible image. Dean can't die. He can't. Even though he complains about him a lot, Sam loves his big brother. Dean's always there when he needs him, always looks out for Sam, and he makes the dark days seem lighter with his endless stream of bad jokes and infectious laughter. There isn't supposed to be a world without Dean in it. But right now Dean is so sick and weak that Sam can't even be around him because his germs could kill him. He's so sick he can't breathe on his own, has a machine doing it for him. And it's all Sam's fault. It's all his fault.

"Dean can't die!" Sam moans, tears and snot dripping over his lips. "Please, please, please don't kill my brother. Please!"

"Wish I could help you out, there, Sport," the demon fake laments and turns away as if to leave. "But hey, I promise to put in a good word for him with my brothers and sisters Upstairs when the time comes. How does November 2nd, sound? I know you humans like anniversaries. We could make this one a double-whammy, huh? Mommy and Dean."

"NO!" Sam pleads. He feels broken inside like someone smashed his soul apart with a hammer. And he's never felt so lost, alone, or terrified in his life. November 2nd is just over a month away.

"Please! I'll do anything!"

That gets the demon's attention. He turns slowly, eyes glinting victoriously, smile tight and predatory.

"Now, I think, we might be ready to make a deal."


They're letting him see Dean today, and for the first time in months Sam feels like maybe things are going to be okay. They've taken Dean off the ventilator and he's no longer in isolation because his white and red blood cell counts are looking much better, so Sam can finally see his brother again for the first time in over two weeks.

Sam walks down the familiar corridor of the Peds ward and tries not to let his jitters show, not wanting to draw unwanted attention from his Dad when right now all he wants to focus on is Dean. Dean, whose life is literally in Sam's hands, whose entire existence depends on Sam's answer. A simple yes or an equally simple no.

'It won't cost you your soul,' the demon had promised, offering up reassurance. 'In fact, Lucifer doesn't need you to give him anything, or do anything for him. All you have to do, when the time comes, is say yes.'

Yes to what, the demon wouldn't say. But Sam figures, considering it's the Devil and all, it can't be yes to anything good.

'No need to make a hasty decision,' the demon had placated. 'Why don't you go visit your brother first? Take a good, long look at him and decide how much he's really worth to you. Could be that maybe your life would be a whole lot easier without him – without him bossing you around all the time, or making fun of you, or shoving your face in his armpit until you cry uncle.'

It was like the thing was reading his mind, because really, Sam would likely never miss that about his brother.

'Watch him in that sickbed and ask yourself, "Can I say goodbye to him in a few weeks and never see him again? Do I really need him in my life?" If the answer's yes to my last question, then we all walk away from this happy.'

When they get to the door to Dean's room, Dad pulls Sam aside and gives his shoulder a firm squeeze. His eyes are tired and dark, but there's a spark of hope in them that makes Sam want to believe in the power of his old man. It also makes the weight of his decision press all the more heavily upon him.

"He's awake," Dad says bracingly, "but he's real tired, Sam. You gotta brace yourself a bit before you go in there, okay? Don't let it show on your face if you're scared, 'cos he'll see it and he's uh… he needs to believe he's gonna be okay. We gotta make him believe that."

Sam nods, gulping in preparation for the big, scary reveal, and takes a tentative step into the room. It's semi-private this time, no sharing with a half-dozen other kids, to keep germs from spreading. Dean's bed's on the left side, separated from some other cancer patient by a curtain pulled all the way around his bed. Sam hears the machines beeping to the steady rhythm of his big brother's heartbeat before he actually sees him. And when he does, he has to choke back a gasp.

Dean's curled up on his side in the bed, arms and legs tucked in close to conserve body heat, and he looks tiny. He's just this little huddled form in a bundle of blankets, with long skeletal wrists peeking out beneath them lying listlessly on the thin mattress, as though Dean simply doesn't have the energy to lift them. And he's bald and white like a ghost, no beanie hat to hide the damage the chemo's done to his hair. From across the room, his large eyes look like two saucers sunk into the milk white canvas of his face.

"Hey," Dad greets in a warm whisper. "Look who I brought."

Dad urges Sam forward, and Sam watches as Dean's eyes travel slowly, so, so slowly, upward to take in the sight of his baby brother coming towards him. They don't light up like they're supposed to, and Dean doesn't smile, but they soften at the edges, and there's relief there. Sam wants to ask what's wrong, why Dean isn't happy to see him, but one look at his brother's wasted body and tired eyes and he just knows: Dean doesn't have the strength to do more than just look. But there's a tiny spark in there, Dean's big green eyes blinking up at him tiredly, and then Dean sighs, looking peaceful and serene.

And in Sam's mind, he can see his brother slipping into a contented sleep and never waking up again.

The tears come unbidden. Sam means to be brave, he does, but seeing Dean looking so frail, the life literally leeched off his bones and leaving a brittle, wasted version of his larger-than-life big brother in his place, makes everything about this horrible situation too real and too final. If what the demon says is true, then Dean has just under three weeks left before he… Less than three weeks left before November 2nd. And Sam doesn't know what to do.

His heart says 'say yes.' Nothing can be worse than losing Dean. And Dean doesn't deserve what's happening to him anyway: this is Sam's fault and Sam has to be the one to fix it. Say yes. One simple word: yes. Then Dean'll get better and they can put this whole nightmare behind them.

But his brain kicks in and says, 'hold up. You want to make a promise to the Devil to say yes when you don't even know what you're saying yes to? Could you do anything more stupid?' What if, in saying yes, Sam is committing to something really evil? What if the Devil wants to use him to hurt a lot of people, or steal souls or something equally horrifying and sinister? He is the Devil, after all. His intentions can't be good. And will Dean ever forgive him for recklessly saying yes when innocent people could be at stake? Will he ever be able to look his father and brother in the eye, knowing that he's made a deal with the Devil himself, knowing that he's promised to say yes to something that's probably unfathomably evil?

Can one person's life be worth whatever hell the Devil could unleash if Sam says yes?

Facing his brother now, Sam honestly doesn't know what he should do. His heart's screaming at him to just do it – say yes and save your brother! – but his head says that he could be doing something really terrible. And Dean wouldn't want him to be dealing with demons or devils, not even if it meant saving his own life. Sam knows his brother enough to know that Dean would kick his ass if he knew Sam was even considering this.

"Hey," Dean croaks in a voice rough like broken glass. His spindly hand reaches up to wipe a stray tear from Sam's cheek, and Sam sniffs loudly to try to calm himself down.

"It's okay, 'lil brother," Dean says, voice whisper-soft as his hand trembles and drops back to the mattress, spent. "I know it looks bad, but 'm not goin' anywhere. C'mere." And then he flips the blankets open with a tired flick of his wrist, inviting Sam to crawl inside.

The doctors told him not to, that he isn't allowed, but Sam obeys his brother and climbs up onto the bed with him, needing the familiar warmth, needing to be held close. He snuggles in under the covers and presses in close as long, skeletal arms close around him. He feels Dean's cheek press against the back of his head and takes comfort in the familiar weight there, trying not to notice the bones of his too-skinny brother poking into him from behind. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend that he's 4 again and he and Dean are sharing a bed in the latest no-tell Motel while Dad does research at the nearby table. He can pretend that he'll have this forever.

Dad watches the whole scene in silence, his eyes dark and unreadable. Sam thinks maybe the man is angry with him, pissed that Sam went ahead and lost it instead of keeping it cool like he'd been told. Or maybe he's sad. Dad's sad a lot these days, grieving and frustrated at his inability to fix this. Sam wonders what his father would think if he knew that Sam was the reason all this was happening, and that Sam had the ability to make it all better. He's pretty sure his dad would hate him if he knew the truth.

Both boys fall asleep curled up in each other's arms, content in the familiar. And Sam dreams that Dean died while he slept, dreams of waking up to the empty shell of his brother behind him, cold arms clinging tightly even in death. He sees his whole life spread out before him: going to the funeral with Dad, crying over a fresh grave while Dad grips his hand so tight he feels the bones snap; sitting at the kitchen table eating supper, Dad sipping at a tumbler full of Jack Daniels, while the empty seat where Dean should be sitting is a silent reminder of what they've lost; growing up, growing tall, growing strong, throwing himself into school work because, even though he teased him mercilessly, Dean was always proud of how smart his little brother was, and Sam wants to do his big brother proud; he sees himself graduate from high school, sees himself smiling and accepting that diploma, while Dad looks on from his seat in the audience, proud but sad that someone else isn't there to witness this moment; Sam sees a montage of visits to the gravestone, sees himself laying wreaths and bouquets, sometimes letters, on his brother's grave, while grass springs up thick and green from the mound, and birds chirp and the sun shines. He sees himself growing up and growing old, living a life with a beautiful woman by his side, and children at his feet. He sees his hair lighten and lines form around his face as age withers him until one day he's bathed in light and he's reached his journey's end. And Dean is there, fifteen years old and grinning from ear to ear, eyes bright and sparkling with mischief, and he says, "Took you long enough, little brother." Reaches out with his hand and Sam takes it, walks into the light, and feels peace.

Dean's so exhausted he doesn't wake when Sam jackknifes into a sitting position, heart hammering against his chest as the after-images of the dream continue to flash behind his eyelids. Sam's so panicked by the dream he can scarce draw breath, has to lay his fingers to his brother's throat to feel the steady thrumming of his pulse to believe that Dean's still here. And then Sam notices the steady beep-beeping of the machine, and relief washes over him like a cool wave. Dad's slumped back in his seat, jaw slack and drooling. They're still okay. It hasn't happened yet. Dean's still here and they're still together.

And Sam still doesn't know what to do.


For the first time in almost two weeks, Dad joins Sam and Pastor Jim at home for supper. Dean had finally put his foot down and ordered their father to go home and get a damned shower, and for once the ornery drill sergeant had deferred to his son, bowing out with promises to be back in the morning. Jim's pretty good in the kitchen and has prepared some kind of chicken goulash with rice, which both Sam and John devour as if they haven't eaten in years. It's easy and familiar, in spite of the underlying tension behind everything they do these days. Still, Dean's chair is empty, and Sam can't help but think about the dream.

"What will you do if Dean dies?" he asks. Sam's really not sure where the question came from, but there's no taking it back once it's left his lips.

Dad pauses, fork midway to his mouth, and stares. He looks at Sam as though Sam is some kind of changeling or alien body-snatcher, like he doesn't even know his own kid. His mouth open, gaping.

"In times like this, it's important to have faith," Jim offers unhelpfully as his eyes dart between father and son.

But see? Sam's had faith, has done more praying than probably any other kid on the planet, and it didn't help. Besides, he's not sure God gives a crap when you bring this kind of thing on yourself by sending wishes to the Devil. Sam figures he's on his own on this one.

"Why would you ask me that?" Dad demands, dropping his fork on the table with a clang. "Why the hell would you ask me that?"

"John…" Jim tries.

"What'll you do if Dean dies?" Sam asks again instead of backing down. He really wants to know. "I wanna know what'll happen to us if—"

"Dean's not dying!" Dad barks, like this is the end of this discussion, like saying it makes it so. "Your brother is going to get better, and we're going to put all of this behind us."

"But what if he doesn't?" Sam presses. "What if he doesn't, Dad? Because Dean's way sicker than we thought he'd be, and he's not doing so good, and it could happen."

"Oh, Sam," Jim says sadly. "Your brother's fighting very hard, but—"

"I won't let it happen!" Dad yells as his face grows steadily redder. "I'll be cold and dead in the ground before I'll ever let you or your brother die before me! Is that understood?"

Sam feels his blood go hot and cold, looks to Jim for an explanation, but the kindly pastor is looking at Dad like Dad's the alien-changeling now. His eyes are wide, his expression shocked and disgusted, his mouth tight with disapproval. Whatever Dad meant by that, it's obviously bad for Jim to look so thrown by it.

"I think we're all very close to saying things that we'll regret later," Jim says delicately. "Sam, why don't you go upstairs and finish your homework while I talk with your father?"

"Don't coddle him, Jim. You're not helping." Dad's voice is a growl, his eyes hot and angry. Then he turns those dark eyes on Sam and the determination there freezes Sam's blood. "If you wanna just throw in the towel and write your brother off, that's your prerogative. Just make your damned mind up now because I'm not lettin' you near him if you've already decided that he's not gonna make it."

"That's not what I meant!" Sam pleads, panicked and desperate in light of his father's threat. "I don't want him to die!"

"Well it sounds like you've already made your peace with this," Dad accuses. "Sounds like you've pretty much decided that your brother's a lost cause."

"No, no!" Sam insists as tears flood his eyes and blur his vision. "I just wanted to know what we would do if he did… What—what happens if he dies, Dad?"

He just wants to know. He wants his Dad to tell him that they'll be okay, that they'll get by somehow, that life will go on eventually if there's no Dean in it. He wants to know that it's okay for him to say no, that he won't have to make a deal with the Devil. He wants to know what he's supposed to do.

"I won't let it happen," Dad says solemnly. "I won't let it. I'll sell my soul if I—"

"That's enough!" Jim snaps. "John, that's enough! Stop talking nonsense and terrifying your eleven year-old son." Then, turning to Sam. "Sam, I must insist now. Please go to your room so that I can talk to your father."

Sam can't even manage a nod before he's scrambling down the hall and burying himself beneath the blankets. He's too terrified to cry.


"So how'd that visit with your brother go?"

The demon's there before Sam realizes his head's hit the pillow. He blinks up at him, blood cold and stomach hollow, and wishes that he could trade places and be anybody else, anybody who isn't Sam Winchester, right now.

"I gotta say, he's not looking too good," the demon taunts with false regret. "The 80 year-old man look just doesn't really suit him."

It's decision time and Sam knows it. The demon's come to hear Sam's answer, and Sam still doesn't know what he should do. He wishes he could talk to Dean – Dean would know what to do.

"What happens if I say no?" he asks instead. Might as well try to make an informed decision.

"Well," the demon drawls, sitting down on Dean's empty bed and clapping his hands over his knees. "It's not gonna be pretty for your brother, I can tell you that. Since he's on a break from the chemo for the next while to get his immune system back up to speed, those cancer cells are gonna multiply like horny bunnies. And the next time he goes in for a lumbar puncture, they're gonna find it all cloudy with disease – through his spine and swimming around his brain. He's gonna be so full of cancer it'll be coming out his eyeballs."

The demon reveals that last bit with relish, eyes bright and gleeful.

"Not literally, of course," he amends. "But you get the idea."

Yes. Sam gets the idea.

"Then he won't have enough healthy blood cells to fight anything off, and he'll get a cold and he'll waste away a little bit more every day until his heart can't take the stress anymore and he just…" the demon makes a double-handed wing-flapping gesture, "…slips away. Real peaceful-like."

Sam wants to ask how the demon can know that, but feels pretty sure he knows the answer. The demon, or Lucifer, is making this happen. And if Sam doesn't say yes, it'll happen on November 2nd. Three weeks from now.

"Will he go to Heaven?" If Mom is there, then it won't be so bad for Dean, Sam thinks. He could… he could be at peace, be happy even. Sam doesn't want to think about it, but maybe—.

"Can't make any guarantees," the demon evades. "My guess, though? Probably. He's young, after all, and hasn't had much of a chance to dirty up that soul, yet. Heck, he's still virginally pure, and we know those angels like 'em pure. So sure. Why not? Your Daddy, though?" and here the demon raises his eyebrows as if to say, 'Hoo-boy!' "Him, I'm thinking, not so much."

That's another one Sam doesn't quite get. Sure, John Winchester can be a major jerk sometimes (tonight, for example) and sure he's not the greatest father in the world. But he saves innocent people. Surely that's got to count for something. And anyway, why would the demon be talking about Dad dying anyway? It's Dean who's got a clock counting down the days left.

"Come on now, Sammy," the demon prods. "Use that big, squishy frontal lobe of yours. You heard what your Daddy said earlier – about selling his soul. You think he's gonna just sit back and watch his perfect soldier die? Think he'll accept it and move on like you're preparing to?"

Sam feels equal parts guilty and terrified: guilty because he has been contemplating just that – accepting Dean's death and moving on; and terrified because his father had said it, had said that he'd sell his soul, and Sam had seen the manic, desperate, determined gleam in his father's eyes. Dad will do it.

And Dad doing that, selling his soul, is far more terrifying than the thought of losing Dean. It's… it's evil, wrong, unnatural, and moreover, it's Sam's fault. His Dad would sell his soul to keep Dean from dying, and it'll be all because of Sam. It'll be Sam's fault.

"But hey, don't take my word for it," the demon placates. "The Big Guy wants to talk to you in person anyway, give you the official sales pitch. Straight from the horse's mouth. Whaddya say?"

Sam would like to say a lot of things. He'd like to say that Lucifer can go screw himself. He'd like to make threats about cutting the Devil's heart out and feeding it to him. He'd like to make promises of dire retribution. But, y'know, it's the Devil, and Sam's pretty much tongue-tied in absolute terror. Because he doesn't want to talk to the Devil. Not even a little bit.

"Don't be scared," the demon says as it takes his hand and pulls him to standing, leading him towards the ancient dresser so that he can stand before an even more ancient mirror that's warped and distorts his reflection. "The Morning Star really is the most beautiful angel of them all."

That's when Sam's reflection shifts. At first he just sees himself, sees his own wide hazel eyes straining like lamps at full glow, sees his pale face looking tiny and terrified. He sees his shaggy brown mop falling over his eyes, sees the tiny mole next to his nose. But then the image shifts, growing and morphing, until he's looking at someone else, someone older, someone huge and solid and made of porcelain perfection, cut out of stone with the fine angles of his jaw, his brow, his cheekbones. The man looks at Sam benignly, a small smile curving up the corners of his mouth, and his eyes glint with warmth that Sam knows, instinctually, is genuine.

The Devil likes him.

"Hello, Sam," the reflection says. The handsome features are kind and soft, for all that they're carved to a sharp finish. "I've been waiting a long time to meet you."

Sam doesn't know what to make of that, can feel his knees trembling as he stands before Lucifer and watches those sharp, hazel eyes taking him in. The Devil looks almost familiar, though Sam isn't sure he wants to know how that is. He notes the wide nose, the strong, cleft chin, and longish brown hair and feels his mouth go dry. And a mole, matching his perfectly, next to his nose.

"I'm going to give it to you straight," Lucifer says evenly, everything about him speaking of sincerity and earnestness. "I won't lie to you. I will never lie to you. Okay?"

Sam gulps and nods, doesn't trust his own voice to make any kind of reply.

"I admit, we've backed you into a bit of a corner here. I don't like doing it, I'd rather you came to this decision freely, but desperate times…" He pauses and waits to make sure Sam is listening.

"So here's the deal. Some day, many years from now, I'm going to give you a choice. You can say yes, or you can say no. As to what you'll be saying yes to," he tilts his head slightly to the side and eyes Sam with a knowing, penetrating gaze, "well… I think, deep down, you already know."

Since Sam's pretty sure he's looking at his own reflection, himself reflected back as an adult, big, and strong, and with the Devil looking out through his eyes, he's got a fair guess now as to what Lucifer wants him to say yes to.

"I can't take a vessel without his permission," Lucifer admits. "And you're my vessel, Sam. So when the time comes, I'm going to ask you. And you're going to say….?"

Sam gulps again, licks his lips and wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans.

"I don't know," he whispers. "I don't… I don't want Dean to die, but it can't – it can't be right to say yes. I don't want you to be – to be in me."

The Devil smiles warmly and nods in acknowledgment.

"Fair enough," he admits. "Though, you might change your mind some day. But I tell you what – what if I told you that there's a chance I won't ever get out of my cage here? Would that help you make up your mind at all?"

"What do you mean?" He can't dare to hope yet.

"As your Pastor friend must have told you, I'm trapped in here. In Hell." This is the only point at which the Devil's expression darkens, but it's enough to chase away the warm feeling of his smile. "And breaking me out of here's going to take a lot of planning. Certain elements have to be in place, and to be honest, it might never happen in your lifetime. I won't pretend that I don't want it to, but I've got no guarantee that it will."

"So you could be stuck there forever?" Sam hopes. "You might not be able to bust free?"

Lucifer nods.

"And if you don't, and I say yes, Dean will stay healed? You won't get angry and take it back?"

The smile returns and the eyes soften once again.

"Of course," the Devil promises. "You say yes and your part of the bargain is fulfilled. I heal Dean and you guys can go back to your lives. If I don't bust out of my cage, you never have to think of me again. But if I do…" He holds Sam's gaze in his, expression hardening. "If I do get out, I've got a lifetime pass to ride yours truly. And you don't get to take it back. Ever."

Sam Winchester's never considered himself to be much of a gambling man (he's only 11, after all), but he knows a thing or two about odds and about bluffing. He knows that, if he says no, Dean will be dead in three weeks' time. And he knows that, if he says yes, there's a chance that his bill will never come due because Lucifer's plan hinges on the fact that he has to escape Hell first.

In the end, there isn't really a choice at all.


A week later they get the results of Dean's latest lumbar puncture: no sign of cancer cells anywhere in his cerebrospinal fluid. It's another four days before the doctors are able to determine that the cancer cells are gone, but they inevitably clap themselves on the back and chalk the entire business up to a sound chemo treatment regime and their own genius. Dad's beside himself with relief, squeezing his boys so tightly they cough and choke for breath, and his big, dark eyes going all dewy with tears of joy is possibly the best thing Sam's ever seen in his life.

He tells himself that, no matter what happens, it was worth it.

Dean doesn't bounce back to miraculous health like Sam had hoped he would, but the news that the cancer's gone brings the light back to his eyes and dimples his cheeks with the brightness of his smile. He finds the strength to start joking again, gets his appetite back and starts eating again (albeit, in very small portions). He lifts himself up in bed and manages to stay awake for a few hours at a time without sinking into exhaustion.

November 2nd comes and goes without incident: Dad doesn't disappear off to a bar to drink himself stupid in memory of Mom's death like he usually does, and Dean doesn't die. It's the best November 2nd Sam's ever had.

When they release Dean from the hospital, he's wobbly and weak like a newborn kitten, trembling under his own weight and barely able to keep himself upright. He's nothing but skin and bones, and he's still pale enough that he could easily pass for a ghost. But he's breathing, and talking, and joking around, and Sam knows that soon enough he'll be big and strong again. In the meantime, Dad takes the weight off his eldest son and allows himself to be Dean's crutch, helping him out of bed or off the couch for bathroom breaks, preparing protein-rich meals to get some meat on his bones, and in general acts the way a father's supposed to.

Days turn into weeks, and before they know it Dean's got a downy soft head of dark blonde new growth, which he relishes in running his fingers through at every opportunity. As the hair grows back, so too does Dean's weight begin to settle back onto his bones. He starts going for walks and takes Sam to the park every Saturday to toss a baseball around.

Sam allows himself to dream that it'll always be like this, that he and his brother and father will stay here and live their lives together, like this – happy, safe, and healthy – forever, but he knows that's just a fantasy. And sure enough, by February Dad's packed all their stuff and moved them to Blue Earth to stay with Pastor Jim for a few weeks while he takes off on his first hunt in over six months.

Sam supposes he should just be grateful Dad stuck around for Dean's 16th birthday. Deep down, they'd all feared never to see the day.

By the time Sam turns 12 things have pretty much returned to the Winchester normal. Dad's still not taking Dean on hunts because he's waiting for Dean to get back in fighting form, but it won't be long before that happens. Sam knows it.

For his part, Dean's as happy as Sam's ever seen him. He's training hard and looking good, handsomer every day in a way that makes Sam privately seethe with jealousy. It's really not fair having a big brother who's so pretty. And there's a constant stream of girls following him around and calling him, which only fuels the fire for Dean's insatiable sex drive.

Sam's pretty sure Dean hasn't been a virgin for months.

And he's also got his license, which he happily flashes at Sam with the most ridiculous grin on his face every single damned time he gets behind the wheel of the Impala. Dad's let him take her out more and more since Dean turned 16 – even letting him drive it by himself, without Dad being there to supervise – and Dean's been using the car to pick up chicks. Apparently they dig hot dudes with muscle cars, Dean says.

Life goes on, as it is ever so fond of doing, and Dad and Dean do their best to forget that the cancer thing ever happened. Dad makes sure that Dean goes to the hospital every six months for a full check-up, just to be certain the cancer hasn't come back, and Dean complies because he always does what he's told. But aside from that, it would appear to the casual observer that leukemia had never touched the Winchester family at all.

Sam settles back into the routine of school and tries to bury himself in his work. He works hard, harder than most kids his age, and sets his sights on the honour roll. With each passing month he finds himself more determined to steer himself away from the path his father has chosen for him. He dreams of safety and security and family, with holidays celebrated in front of a warm hearth, with steady jobs and happy homes. He visualizes himself further and further away from Lucifer and his plans, thinking that if he runs away far enough, maybe the Devil won't be able to find him.

When Sam reaches his teen years he reaches new levels of volatile, the likes of which would rival even his old man. His youthful innocence has been leeched away by more of the same from a father he'd hoped and prayed would change after everything they went through with Dean. Disappointment has sharpened Sam's tongue and resentment over the choice he was forced to make hardens his heart.

When he reaches his senior year of high school, Sam has got his sights firmly set on escape: he wants to go to college. He applies himself with a zeal so dedicated and manic even Dean can't make fun of it (too busy shaking his head in wonder and apprehension at whatever bug's crawled up his little brother's ass). He wants a full ride to a good school, and he knows that if he just works hard enough, he can get it.

When he does, it's a shallow victory.

Dad is enraged that Sam's plans don't involve hunting and taking care of his family (but that's Dean's job, and Sam tells him so). He accuses Sam of being selfish and self-centered, and Sam takes it with righteous indignation because his father couldn't possibly know how wrong the accusations are, how far from the truth.

In reality, Sam's running away because he's afraid of what staying will do to his family. Now that he's old enough to get gone, it's finally within his control to put some distance between himself and Dean – something he's been itching to do since he was about 14 and realized how close he'd come to killing his brother with a thought. It won't be easy leaving his brother behind, whose lust for life has multiplied tenfold since he 'kicked that cancer's ass!' But Sam's willing to do it if it'll keep Dean safe.

As he stands on a lonely stretch of highway, the dark night illuminated only by the flickering street light above, every item he owns stuffed into a worn old duffel bag that used to be Dean's, Sam knows he's made the right decision. He walks determinedly onward, waiting for someone to stop and offer him a ride, and feels relieved for the first time in seven years.

There's an open road ahead, and California calls. He tells himself that nothing is going to stand in his way, privately praying that Lucifer never manages to break free of his cage.

It's a long way to go to get to Stanford.