Thank you to everyone who reviewed the first chapter, much appreciated. Sorry this one took so long to post. Sadly, writing seems to be at the end of my to-do list, behind more responsible pursuits like working for a living. I hope you enjoy what's here, thanks for stopping by. – B.J.

6.12 Like A Virgin tag


Chapter Two – Ten Days, Two Hours, and One Unavoidable Minute

Ten Days…

It had been ten days of waiting, ten days of fearing the worst while hoping for the best.

Sitting quietly by his side or restlessly pacing within confines too small, solemn eyes never left his brother as Dean waited for Sam to return to them, resouled and safe, with a sturdy wall built to withstand the force of Hell and the onslaught of deadly memories. If Dean were to be honest with himself, which was damn difficult these days, a part of him was hoping that if the worst came to pass he'd at least have a moment with his brother, a moment of lucidity and peace. That Sam would be back and the wall would hold…

In spite of his current distaste for honesty he couldn't deny the thought crossed his mind that even if the wall held, it might not hold for long; possibly only long enough to say goodbye. Not that he was ready to say goodbye, he'd never be ready for that. But being with the replicant of his brother, after losing him to Hell and thinking he was back…well, it left a hole in his heart, a hole that only his brother could mend. He needed Sam back…Sammy. He had to know that he'd made the right call, that Sam would have wanted this…even if the worst came to pass.

And dammit, he did know. His head knew he'd done the only thing he could, what Sam would have chosen, the right thing. But his head was engaged in a battle of wills with his heart, a heart broken and in need of care. His heart needed proof…and his heart was waiting to hear Sam's voice, see Sam's eyes, feel Sam's love.

It was everything that had been missing from his time with RoboSam and it was all he'd ever desired.

If he was granted the time to make that connection, to gaze into those soulful eyes and know that Sam was truly back…well, that would mean everything.

Every minute, every hour…every day past that would be a blessing.

The absurd part of this tangled-up mess was Dean didn't believe in blessings, never had, and he certainly didn't now, not with what he now knew of angels and God. They hadn't saved Sam. They hadn't offered him any heavenly reward or rescue. If Sam came back it would be because of Death, because of darkness and a questionable deal. A deal where Dean still didn't know what the full cost would ultimately be.

Whatever the cost, it was worth it…if only Sam would wake up.

Knowing their twisted lives, how intertwined they were with evil and sacrifice, it was almost fitting that Death made the save. Not for Sam, Sam was goodness and light trying to do right, despite the claim of the demon blood…or maybe because of it?

Who else could have overcome? Who else could have taken back control from Lucifer? Who else could have made destiny reverse course and bend to his will?

Sam saved the world, in his own way, through his own choices, and with the ultimate sacrifice.

Which made this whole damn deal wrong.

Not that Dean made the wager, not that Death went against all instinct and retrieved Sam's soul from the pit. The wrongness came from it being necessary in the first place. Sam didn't belong in Hell, didn't belong in the cage with Lucifer. A hero such as he deserved so much more. He'd been there too long. His tortured soul held captive by a perverse twist of fate and the spite of angels.

It was past time to right that wrong and end his suffering. To release him from Lucifer's hold and bring him on home.

Dean never questioned his actions, he had no choice. Sam needed his soul. Even if that soul was flambéed, even if it was skinned to the raw nerve. It was still Sam's soul. It was the whole of him, what made him who he was. Dean wouldn't abandon his brother, would never leave Sam to suffer Lucifer and Michael's vindictive wrath…not if it was within his means to save him.

And that's precisely what he was trying to do here, save his brother.

Cas didn't understand. He couldn't…but then he wasn't human. His capacity to comprehend was severely hampered by his angelic limitations. That's why Dean stoically suffered his outbursts, his recriminations and his fury with no return of malice or rage.

All energy focused on Sam.

The angel had never understood humans, not fully. How could he possibly understand how essential the soul was? How RoboSam wasn't Sam? How T1000 was a massacre awaiting the flip of a switch? How soulless Sam was nothing more than an empty shell of his true self?

Leaving Sam soulless would guarantee his end, of that Dean was certain.

Cas couldn't appreciate the humanity of Dean's actions, the love and compassion driving the decision.

He certainly couldn't understand how much Dean needed his brother.

How Sam would have wanted this…the real Sam, his Sam.

Dean did what he had to do. He sought out Death, he wore the ring, he rolled the dice and now…he waited.

For the first three days what sleep he managed came on the pull-down cot chained to the wall in Bobby's panic room. Not knowing what state Sam would be in when he awoke, whether he'd be panicked or violent, screaming or catatonic, Dean refused to leave his side.

However Sam was when he finally came to, Dean needed to be there. He couldn't bear the thought of his brother being alone for one more second, scared and unsure, fractured and needy. After three days his aching back convinced him to move upstairs to the couch for sleep that was still restless, that would remain fitful until Sam's return.

Throughout the ordeal he hovered nearby, planted in a chair by Sam's side for much of the day and night or leaning against the door frame pensively watching. Solemn eyes awaiting a sign: a shift, a subtle move, a welcome sound. For his breathing to quicken or slow.

For something.

Gradually Bobby and his own restlessness eased him out.

There comes a time when a man of action can no longer remain still, when the weight of inertia demands movement.

In the midst of his waiting his mind never rested, roaming over their shared past and reflecting on all possible futures.

When the vast hopelessness of their plight threatened to bury him under a ton of recriminations and doubt he forced himself to shut down the worry, banishing the upheaval of his emotions to that dark place where he'd shoved so much over the years. It was a conscious choice. The only part of this F'd up mess he could pretend to control.

He made himself get out…out of that room and out of his thoughts, if only for a moment. Out for fresh air and to stretch his legs.

His body needed the respite, even if his mind could never leave Sam behind, locked tight in this nightmare with his brother.

He didn't need to physically be there. The truth was Sam was always with him, an integral piece of his own soul that would never be relinquished. Family, the foundation he'd built his life upon; his brother, all that remained. Sam forever the recipient of all his care and need.

After ten days of waiting he began to think that Sam might never wake up. That Cas was right, that Sam was truly gone.

Those thoughts didn't last long. His heart would never allow him to give up, not on Sam.

As the wait dragged on, Bobby stood beside him in support, offering reassurances. Trying to convince Dean as much as himself, that Sam was strong, that he'd overcome worse. That he was a Winchester and would persevere. That it would be all right.

In the midst of his darkest moods Dean struggled to believe. But then he'd gaze upon Sam lying so peaceful before him and his mind would travel back to other times, previous crises and the end result: Sam alive, by his side, laughing and smiling. He remembered every tense vigil and the relief as the dust settled and they skirted the promise of impending disaster.

Hanging tough, he stubbornly awaited that familiar response to peril, the unclenching of his gut after they'd managed to triumph over yet another deadly catastrophe intent on foretelling their doom. The resultant sweet smell of victory successfully dulling the persistent ache from every prior occurrence of broken bone and torn flesh, silencing every hour of absolute horror and the soul-shattering fear where he thought he'd finally lost his brother.

One memory almost brought him to his knees again as his heart stuttered and froze as he relived that night in Cold Oak. That was the one time they'd truly lost. The only time he'd totally failed in his duty, with Sam paying the ultimate price.

He didn't allow those thoughts to linger.

He couldn't.

Not if he were to remain strong. Besides, thoughts like that served no purpose. Not when he still had a job to do.

Still…ten days was longer than he'd ever willingly spent in one place in his life. Ten days confined within Bobby's four walls. Walls that were closing in on him and his brother, sealing them within a soundproof crypt, cut off from the world and their lives.

Ten days spent no further than a hundred feet from Sam's still form and the growing threat, gnawing on his resolve. The promise of deliverance fading as each day slipped from his grasp and the silence grew more deadly.

Even with his brother out, asleep or near death, this was the closest he'd felt to Sam in a year and a half. Whether he lived or died, this was Sam.

He tried to find comfort in that.

With a stern face as he rolled down his sleeve, Cas had confirmed his soul was back, that Sam was again whole. Dean tried not to think on what else Cas had to say, on the wretched state of that soul and the immanent threat to his mind.

He preferred to trust Death's promise. A wall to hold back the tide.

To hold back the memories of Hell, the fire and the blood, the endless screams and the desperate pleas, the constant panic and the crushing defeat that torments those damned to that pit of despair. Dean knew firsthand how skilled evil was at methodically slicing through a man's defenses, stripping him of his last vestige of humanity and leaving him a wild animal howling futile in the dark. Sitting beside Sam, Dean's mind quaked from the imprint of his own time in hell, memories drawn back to the surface as the quiet left nothing to occupy his thoughts.

Tears formed in shattered eyes as he pictured his brother's suffering, and then his gut clenched from the sense memory of his own body being ripped to shreds, his mind ravaged by pure evil, his soul trembling in the aftermath. He remembered how alone he had felt, lost within the torture. Pain becoming all with no means of escape, all fight methodically drained out of him along with his blood. In response his hands shook as he formed the fists they'd made as his screams were torn from his throat. His body tense in preparation for the promised pain, the slicing and dicing as Alastair played with his favorite new toy. The devastation as brutal and real as that first time. His insides seizing with shame and fury as his mind screamed out, 'No…no more…please'…leading to the total annihilation of who he thought he once was.

That soul-crushing decision to pick up Alastair's blade and head down another path leading him to his greatest defeat. A path that promised the end of one pain and the beginning of another.

The pain of what he'd done in the pit was as immediate now as that first slice. As intimate as when he'd tearfully confessed his actions to his brother. The look on Sam's face then, the tenderness and compassion, that desire to comfort and banish the horror, was almost within reach and yet it remained silently masked and unattainable, buried deep within the stillness lying before him.

He missed that connection, knowing that his brother was there for him, standing firm by his side for whatever battle was yet to come. He only prayed that being here for Sam might help, that Sam could feel his presence and would fight to return to him.

Watching Sam and imagining his torment drew forth every terror he'd tried to bury until all he could see was red, fire and blood merging in one horrific memory, one unconscionable fate.

It was within those most debilitating moments that he clutched at his wrenching gut and staggered from the room, brushing past Bobby and his concerned looks and racing out into the light. Fresh air rapidly sucked into parched lungs, sunlight warming overheated skin cold to the touch. The reality of life drawing him out of that hell and back to the world.

He'd tried so hard to bury that time…and with Sam beside him he'd managed to shove it all down…but now, with Sam silent, he couldn't hear his words of encouragement, couldn't feel his love and support. He was again lost, back in the pit surrounded by darkness. Drowning…

When he got a handle on it, when he managed to push all those foreign feelings aside, he'd focus his mind on his memories of Sam before, on his kid brother gazing up at him with love and something just short of worship, back before any strain between them threatened their brotherly bond. He'd concentrate on drawing out those feelings, the way he puffed up to think that Sam admired him and wanted to be just like his big brother. His mind constantly at war with himself as he struggled to silence those nagging doubts that forever lingered and grab hold of the hope that he might somehow be worthy of such respect. It was a comfort to go back to those early days, back to when his family was almost whole and they were relatively safe. Back to the confidence he'd felt that he would always protect them and persevere.

Mostly he thought of all the moments where pride filled him to the brim with as much contentment as a hunter was ever allowed. Moments focused on his kid brother, every minor triumph and major victory that took him out of this reality and to a better place. He was certain Sam would approve of the little moments that stood out, touching big brother's heart and bringing a smile to his lips. Those bouts of normal where Dean relished Sam's many accomplishments as he escaped the demands of his own life and living up to Dad's expectations. His success in soccer, his scholastic achievements, that shy smile when the girl he'd been crushing on acknowledged him and they embarked on that first awkward date. All moments that Dean had unrelentingly teased his brother about and yet silently respected how Sam took the chance and pursued his dreams, determined to make his life as normal as possible. He'd always admired that about his brother, his ability to move beyond their dad's demands and choose his own path. Maybe he was even envious, wishing he could have been so bold, strong enough to stand up to Dad and be his own man.

He didn't want to think on Dad now, on all the mistakes and missed opportunities. There were too many and the path too convoluted to travel unassisted. He pushed aside any thoughts of how it should have been and regrets for how things were, there was no changing them now. He needed to focus on Sam's needs, hold tight to Sam's victories…praying for one more miracle to see them through.

His lips turned up in a sly smirk, twisted half in regret and half in pleasure, as he remembered the more expected moments, the early signs he'd treasured in his own development amid the warped perception that being a good hunter made them worthy somehow. His gut again longing for that validation even as his mind railed against the implication. His heart wishing he'd felt that approval for something other than hunting or protecting his brother. As complicated as it all was, he still felt a sense of rightness in Sam's expertise for weapons and the job. The image of that first kill bringing back that glimmer of pride that flickered across their dad's face as he acknowledged that Sam was a hunter. How fierce and capable Sam was once he set his mind to doing the job: saving people, killing evil, making the world safe for all those other children, the ones lucky enough to still believe in goodness. Pride in a job well-done lifting him above his burdens and making it worth it.

His mind settled on the familiar comfort he took from having his brother beside him in the hunt, sharing a life and watching his back. Miles of blacktop rolling by as the years wore on. His brother riding shotgun in the front seat of the Impala, ready for the next hunt but also there for the down time, times when it was just two brothers, laughing and joking. Every memory drawing him closer to his brother…to the hope that he'd once more see that dimpled smile, hear that mellow voice, feel that loving heart.

The most important role he'd ever taken on, that had been the one constant in his life and the only thing besides hunting that he felt confidence in, the role of big brother, dependent on Sam being there.

His heart demanding it.

Caught between his memories of life with his brother and his memories of hell, he rode a constant wave of emotion. Reflections and reactions lifting him up and then bringing him crashing back down again. An emotional roller coaster detailing the unsettled nature of their lives and how their only stability came from each other. He'd been on this ride for too long now, was at the point where he just needed to get off. Needed to hear the roar of his baby's engine, needed to shake off these cobwebs and move again.

He wouldn't be gone long or go far. Not with Sam's fate still in the balance.

But he couldn't just sit here, could no longer simply wait. He was never the waiting sort.

So he asked Bobby if he could use some help on the case he'd just started, offering a run to the library for research…anything to release him from this purgatory of waiting.

And then the waiting ended.


One word, soft and low and heartfelt, made everything grind to a halt, including his heart. Once he turned and reacted to the sight of his brother standing there before him, his heart rejoiced while his mind remained numb, unable to grasp the reality, still on edge for the coming fall. Sam smiled, warm and true and inviting, and then he was moving, bridging the distance between them and pulling his brother to him in a bear hug of an embrace based in need, possessed by the fierceness of longing and love too long withheld. It was an embrace that could never be, would never have been, if fate had held all the cards.

Somehow the Winchesters got their miracle.

The weight and warmth of Sam's arms wrapped around him, firm muscles gripping tight, wiped the slate free of any angst or turmoil, all hesitation crumbling as Dean hugged his brother back with a fundamental yearning that time had only deepened. His fists dug into Sam's back, the solid presence within his grip giving him back his life and offering him peace.

After a moment cut much too short Sam released him and moved towards Bobby, wonder in his voice as the man he thought dead stood before him. "You're alive?" Sam whispered in awe as he crushed the older man to him, latching on to his own miracle.

Bobby hugged him back, giving a strong pat to his back even as his eyes traveled to Dean, a silent question hanging between them.

Dean stood there gawking, his voice tentative as he prodded his brother. "What do you remember?"

Pausing, reflectively rewinding the tape, Sam wiped away a year and a half with his reply. "I remember the field, and then nothing…" He looked to Dean for answers, for his big brother to again show him the way.

In an instant the past was gone, forgotten in the joy of the moment and Dean only wanted to stay here, safe with his brother in this temporary refuge. No thought of losing Sam to Hell, no thought to what came after, for Sam's tortured soul or for those left with the ruthlessness of his body here on earth.

Dean gave no thought to the future and what might happen.

He only wanted to revel in having Sam back, that's what mattered…the rest could wait.

Two Hours…

For once Dean didn't want to eat, couldn't bear for anything to steal focus from his brother. He sat at Bobby's kitchen table, the same one where he'd brokered the deal for Sam's soul, and drank in the sight of his brother, watching him scarf down food like a man newly rescued from a deserted isle. The image wasn't so far-fetched, aside from how Sam looked. He looked good, like Sam…Sammy.

It was as if the past year and a half had never happened, as if time had reset and made things right. Sam didn't remember; thank god…or more appropriately Death. He didn't remember Hell or being Lucifer's whipping boy. He didn't remember a year of brutal, methodical hunting with no regard for collateral damage. Most importantly, he didn't remember the months of lies leading to the betrayal of his own brother, offering him up as a human petri dish to a vampire. He didn't remember the mounting duplicity and how close he'd come to killing Bobby, one split-second away from patricide.

Dean remembered, but now, with Sammy back, he was ready to forget.

That was the past…that was RoboSam. This was Sam. And all the other crap was over, swept away by this new beginning. Whatever happened before was inconsequential considering they'd beat the devil. A new start awaited them, and Dean was damn sure ready to rewrite their story with a happy ending.

Bobby appeared on edge, judgmental and scolding within his eyes. Offering barely contained indignation to both brothers, one for things he didn't even remember, the other for allowing the sham to continue. Every time the conversation veered away from a safe topic, Dean tensed, alert to the danger and quick to push it aside. It was his job to protect Sam…and dammit if that didn't allow him to protect himself this time. Whatever danger might come, from stray memories or distant truths, as long as he could keep them sequestered in the safety of Bobby's kitchen he could forestall the fallout. Tomorrow was sounding better all the time…or the day after.

"Sammy, you want another beer?"

Sam looked up, his cheeks stuffed full, sensitive eyes open and relaxed, lazing in the safety of his family, the comfort of home holding him close. "Yeah, sure."

Returning quickly with two long-necks, Dean passed one to his brother before sitting down and popping the cap off his own and drawing it to his lips for a satisfying swig. The back of his hand brushed across his lips, the beer cooling, hitting the spot. The ease he now felt had been so long distant, a faint memory before wrapping him with long-sought contentment. "I can't get over how good you look. How you feeling? You want something else to eat?" Appearing over-eager, rapt attention on fulfilling all desires, Dean waited for Sam's response. "Anything? I could run to town…"

"Dean." Sam half-laughed, a huge grin plastered on open lips. "I'm fine. Stuffed…I feel like a Thanksgiving turkey."

"Well…yeah…but you said you were hungry…Just, ah, anything. You need anything…you just let me know." Dean looked hopeful, expectant, like having the chance to provide had fulfilled his Christmas wish list.

"Just relax, dude. I'm good."

"Really? Good…that's good." Dean nervously chuckled, not unaware of how hyper he was acting. It was a nice break from the lethargy of before. Like he'd been weighed down by all the condemning what-ifs and the anxiety of what was coming and now he was set free, finally alive again, floating high above any doubt or guilt, satisfied that all was well with the Winchesters. For the moment…

Bobby shifted as he leaned back against the stove, beady eyes studying the scene before him. His lips curled shut in a dismissive scowl. Dean was the only one who seemed to notice, Sam's attention fixed on his food and his brother, barely acknowledging anything except the base need for sustenance and comfort. Dean ably providing both.

They sat at that kitchen table for a long time, talking and then not talking, simply spending time together, gentle with no pressure from either side. Dean's eyes never left his brother, watching, absorbing every second. Every so often Sam would look up, catch his eye and smile; that slight twist to his mouth like he was trying to decipher something flickering before him before the thought appeared to vanish, demanding too much effort.

"So, how'd I get out? Was it Cas?" he finally asked.


Dean barely had time to get that out before Sam pushed, his own remembrance of previous sacrifices prodding him as he jumped to an unsavory conclusion. "Then how? Dean, what did you do?"

Remaining calm, steady and sure as always, Dean replied, "It was Death, he pulled you out."

Time seemed to still and then speed up, racing toward an inevitable clash of wills. That sweet brotherly moment when all Dean need do was gaze at his brother beside him quickly vaporizing. "You made a deal with Death? The Horseman?" Sam choked out, all his fear rumbling deep in his voice, trembling within desperate eyes.

The cost of a deal was familiar, even if the circumstance here was slightly different…but then, how often would a man be faced with a soulless brother and a compelling offer from Death? So while it was not totally improbable considering the Winchesters' lives and the seemingly endless list of bizarre events they'd lived through, this particular happenstance was new nonetheless.

Dean shifted, thoughtful before offering a considered response, time finally instilling the need for restraint, for caution and tact on occasion. So unlike the early years when right and might had led the way. Now he was more accustomed to stealth, schooled in examining all the angles and easing into a decision…unless of course the moment was screaming for action. Soulless Sam was an instance of the latter. Hesitation wouldn't change matters and change was what the situation had demanded. He'd done what he had to do and he'd be damned if he'd apologize now. Still, he didn't want to upset his brother unduly. Sam was newly back and peace was desired. They'd already suffered enough heartbreak. "Sam, relax…it's over. You're back and that's all that matters."

Sam twisted his lips into a tight grimace, his eyes demanding, worry based on love speaking volumes through those tender eyes as he spoke in a halting voice, just short of cracking. "What'd it cost, Dean?"

"Nothin'," Dean matter-of-factly replied. "I asked, Death agreed. You're back." It was the condensed version, the raw truth without the implication of payback. Since Dean didn't know the full story, it was hard to present it in a favorable light that Sam would buy. Maybe this was one time Sam would accept the short answer…

The scrape of his chair against the worn floor as Sam violently reacted to the news brought tension, his eyes full of fury as his mind took him back to another deal and the inevitable outcome. "Dean, what did you promise? Death…" he struggled with reignited emotions, his eyes soft and wounded as fear gripped him. He attempted again to get the words out, stuttering as he tried to drive to the heart of his terror. "Death…he didn't just do this out of the goodness of his heart. What did he want?"

"I had leverage," Dean calmly replied, his voice holding steady, no trepidation present, a master again holding back those hidden terrors.

Shifting slightly, rolling the thought around in his head, Sam shuddered through one frustrated expulsion of breath and then he seemed to relax. Maybe it was trust or belief in his brother, held tight after the strains and demands of their warped lives, or perhaps it was simply exhaustion, the toll of a year and a half with no sleep making itself known…or just maybe it was the same desire to outrun any coming nastiness and simply stay in the moment, safe with his brother beside him.

Whatever it was Sam seemed to accept Dean's rational. Seemed willing to sidestep the desire for the bare and brutal truth and relax into the serenity of this brotherly moment.

The choice made, they embraced this time of refuge, this moment in Bobby's kitchen where they could simply be brothers sharing a beer.

The rest would come soon enough.

One Unavoidable Minute…

It felt good to be back on the job. It felt really good to be working together, the Winchester boys back in the game.

They had slain the dragon, saved the virgin and were once again back at Bobby's. Dean was giddily playing with his pot of gold, the reward and wealth so long denied. He had his brother back and they'd actually saved a passel of virgin girls. Not bad for a day's work. He was feeling good…accomplished. He wasn't expecting his world to collapse in on him just yet…but then life doesn't wait for the opportune moment.

The apology was unexpected and unwelcome, forcing him to face the harsh reality lurking within the shadows. The sight of his brother before him, serious and repentant, defining the danger: the challenge of the wall and the urge to scratch, leading to the need to make amends that would inevitably bring on a greater desire to uncover the truth and start scratching, with the whole process dooming them to a never-ending spiral until something gave…something like the wall.

Sam knew. How much was still unknown, but enough. Enough to want to know more.

Cas is a child, an innocent in the broad scheme of things, easily tricked and maneuvered by a man with Sam Winchester's skill. And Sam is smart, too smart to not pick up on the missing pieces, to not wonder and dig deeper.

Dean should have realized this would happen…and he did, eventually. He just never expected it so soon, too soon.

For all his preparedness as a hunter, Dean wasn't ready for this. He wasn't ready for the heartbreak as Sam revealed he knew: what he was…some of what he'd done. The most damning element was the wounded look in his eyes, the plea for forgiveness when he wasn't responsible for what soulless Sam had done. It wasn't him!

Like every mistake that had come before, Sam insisted on owning his actions, refusing to release himself from that high standard that all Winchesters seem to fall victim to. It didn't matter that his soul was trapped in Hell and unaware, didn't matter that Dean had stopped him from patricide or fratricide and god knows what else.

All that mattered was Sam was sorry.

Sam looked so broken, on the cusp of fracturing away from the weight of his guilt. He may not know all that he did, hell, Dean didn't know all… But what he did know cut him to the bone, taking back the joy of coming home and making him ache for something unknown.

To Sam it felt like he'd lost a limb, an integral piece of himself and all that remained was phantom pain. An itch that can't be scratched. Forgiveness that could never be accepted. You can't welcome forgiveness if you can't feel the truth of what you did. He was in the shadows seeking out the light.

Dean had seen his light, his soul flaring bright as Death returned it to his body. Dean always knew Sam burned bright…brilliant. But to witness it, and then to see that light back in his eyes. He only wanted to move forward, forget the past and the misdeeds and live in the now.

Sam didn't want to forget; instead he only wanted to remember. To atone…

Their time together was now at odds, standing on opposite sides of the soul issue.

Sam then widened the gulf with the one question Dean had refused to face.

"Dean, did you ever think about using that ring on me?"

"What?" Dean grunted out in shock, his voice tunneling deeper, as determined as ever as he banished the thought. "No!" His eyes widened, blinking back the terror, the very concept. Those eyes turned fierce, stubborn and firm. "No, Sammy…never!"

"C'mon, Dean, it wasn't me. Cas…Cas said I was ruthless, relentless." Those tender eyes were searching, open to the truth and trying to forge a connection. His words were distant, detached…as if he was talking of someone else, someone not himself. Which he was and yet…he wasn't. "Soulless guy would have killed Bobby. Bobby!" Sam gasped out in disgust. His eyes stared through his brother, brutal in their intensity. "How could you let it walk around? Who knows what it might have done, might have killed? I mean, once you knew…once you saw just what it was capable of…" He paused, tender in his reaction to the sight of his brother, gentle as he expressed his own desires. "Dean, you know I wouldn't have wanted that, wouldn't have wanted to be this soulless thing out there killing people with no conscience."

If not for the inherent strength that always won out, Dean would have appeared broken. His eyes misting slightly at the memory, his heart reacting to the loss of his brother's compassion and goodness as he stared into the depths, facing down the total devastation and terror of what would have had to be done if Sam's soul was irretrievable. He'd been at wit's end, unable to face the possibility…the responsibility of ending it. It had almost come to that…if not for Death and that slender hope. Dean knew his brother, knew what his brother would have told him to do, something he couldn't…and yet might have to. He softly whispered, "Yeah, Sam, I know. That's why I made the call."

It had been a risk, but a risk that at least offered hope.

"Thank you." And those sensitive eyes were back in all their glory, the thoughtful, empathetic eyes that reveal all. Eyes that truly cared and desired to do good. Eyes that bore the weight of every misdeed and wrong call. Eyes that might have been forever extinguished if Dean's plan hadn't worked.

Offering a slight smile, his eyes downcast before rising, Dean's words were low and heartfelt. "You'da done the same for me."

And then the brothers just sat there, beside each other, sharing another moment. There was no need for words, their minds traveling over the same thoughts, the same worries, the same hopes. For now they were together and whatever came, they'd handle it, just as they always had.

Waiting a respectable amount of time, giving Dean a moment to breathe before badgering him further, but ultimately unable to ignore the nagging doubts, Sam was the one to breach the subject, to push further. "Don't you think we should find out just what exactly Death wants?"

Retreating, still longing for the safety of denial, Dean responded. "Why go looking for trouble?"

"Because it has a habit of finding us whether we're looking or not."

"Exactly." Dean was hunkered down, determined to wait out the bad in hopes of avoiding further conflict. He wasn't hiding, he was there in plain sight and he had no doubt Death could find him. "If something's coming, it's coming." Dean's eyes were hopeful, filled with need. He fixed them on his brother, squinting into the afternoon sun. "So I say let's chill out 'til it gets here."

"What? Just pretend everything's all right?" Sam struggled within conflicting needs, between allowing Dean his bold and cocky response to danger and facing head-on that which they both knew was lying in wait. He settled for mildly contained disgust. "Ignore that your ass might be on the line?"

Dean paused, his mind replaying the cryptic words of Death. He solemnly raised his eyes to his brother and spoke. "I don't think it's about that."

Impatiently Sam blurted out, "Then what?"

"He said he wanted me to keep digging."

"Digging for what?"

Dean smiled, the give and take of his exchange with Death now almost amusing, more so than at the time. "Wouldn't say. What he did say was it has something to do with the souls."

"Souls? My soul?" There was an edge to his voice, not fear, at least not fear for himself. If anything it was concern for where this might lead them, if his soulless journey was truly past or if there were still roadblocks up ahead.

Dean was reassuring, steady and sure, as always. "No, not your soul…souls in general."

"So, what? Someone's collecting souls or using them? For what, Dean?"

"Don't know." Dean then offered the last cryptic piece of information, something that only muddied the waters further. "He said I was an 'intrepid detective'. Said he wanted me to keep doing what I do."

"And what's that?"

Dean smirked, his dimples standing out as fine pin points to punctuate the joy he was determined to take in the moment. "Hopefully going all badass on whoever is messing with the souls." His grin broadened as his brows arched and he quirked his head to the side. "That is what I do best."



May 2011

All standard disclaimers apply.

There will be at least one more chapter in this story. A chapter again dealing with Death and what he meant by Dean digging as the intrepid detective. It only seems fitting to bookend the story with two chapters focused on that fascinating conversationalist, Death. I'm holding off posting until I see where the real writers take their story. I'd rather expand on what they give us rather than strike out on my own and be totally off base. I'm sure they'll give us more soon…if not, I will pursue my own story out of the seed they planted.

In the meantime, I have several other stories that will be posted in the days ahead. My hurt/comfort/angst brotherly-care story is almost ready to go to press. And if you thought it took a long time for this chapter to post, that one's been in the works since December 2009. Talk about not wanting to let a story go… lol

Then the Safe Haven Challenge #2 will post on May 13th to tide us over with no new Supernatural for a week. Are y'all ready for the kickass Season Six Finale? Me neither…I mean, I want two hours of our boys; I just don't want the months of nothing that follows. These Hellatuses kill me!

Thanks for reading. Take care, B.J.