Disclaimer: They're not mine. More's the pity. All locations are fabricated and the lore in this story has been manipulated to suit my nefarious, storytelling purposes.
Spoilers: Season 3. The majority is set after 3.12, Jus In Bello. But there are spoilers for all of Season 3.
Hanging Hills, night
"What's this?" Sam caught the brown paper bag Dean tossed his way as he climbed back into the Impala.
"Supplies," Dean answered cryptically, firing up the engine. He still wasn't using his arm much, but he looked much better than he had before they'd stopped at the abandoned house.
Sam dug through the bag and pulled out sandwiches, beef jerky, bottles of water, Peanut M&Ms, Twizzlers, sidewalk chalk, and tapered candles.
"What, no beer?" Sam teased.
"Nag, nag, nag," Dean muttered, opening the Twizzlers and slipping one red rope between his lips. He bit off one end, allowing the other to hang from his lips like a cigarette before pulling out onto the road. "We have everything else we need to trap, summon, or exorcise a demon. Just needed the chalk and candles."
"What if it's not a demon?" Sam asked.
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it."
"Speaking of bridges," Sam said, shifting the bag to the back and pulling out two water bottles, handing one to his brother, "I stole some wireless Internet connection while you were in the convenience store."
"Atta boy," Dean grinned, downing half his bottle in one gulp.
"The bridge where the first two people died is about half a mile from here."
"Lead on, MacDuff."
Sam glanced at him, wry amusement twisting his lips.
"What?" Dean shrugged one-armed and rotated the wheel in the direction Sam indicated. "I read."
"You know how much sex is in Shakespeare's stuff, man?" Dean retorted. "It's like…ancient porn."
As Sam shook his head with a tolerant grin, Dean balanced the wheel with his knee, reaching over and turning on the radio. Skynyrd's Mr. Saturday Night Special blared from the speakers and he sat back with a happy sigh. Giving into the inevitable and vowing he'd be driving next – and picking the music – Sam directed Dean to the blocked-off road and construction markers.
The rain had stopped, leaving the road wet and the air cool and smelling like clean grass and earth. Clouds were slowly parting to expose the high, white light of a slim crescent moon, stars barely burning through the night.
"There," Sam pointed to a shadowed steel structure, the center lane torn out and turned to rubble.
The gorge it spanned dropped off quickly and even from the car Sam felt his stomach lurch at the height from which those two victims had fallen. Sam had never really been one to feel squeamish about heights, but this was really high. It was the sort of high that had one feeling an inexorable need to jump.
"Let's go check it out," Dean said, grabbing his Colt and stuffing it into his jacket pocket before shutting off the car.
Shoving his sudden sense of vertigo down into his gut, Sam grabbed the EMF from the glove box and followed his brother through the rubble of construction to the bridge.
"Getting anything?" Dean's breath puffed out in front of him in tiny clouds. The air was chilly, but not too cold. Their canvass jackets were enough protection for the moment.
"Nothing," Sam shook his head. "Flatline."
"Rain would've washed any trace of sulfur away," Dean muttered kicking at a pile of small, concrete cast-offs. He looked up, his eyes skimming the dark edge of the horizon. "What do you—"
Sam saw the figure a split second before Dean, but it was Dean who moved first.
Following his brother gingerly across the broken road to the steel tresses that still crossed the deep valley, Sam alternated between watching where they stepped and keeping his eye on the figure balanced precariously on the outer edge of the steel girder, dangerously balanced over the deep crevasse.
"Hey, man, don't!" Dean called out, reaching with his left hand to support himself and his right toward the figure – a boy, Sam realized now. "You don't want to do this," Dean's voice softened.
"Yeah. I do." The boy's voice was ancient, rough, and filled with latent tears. "I really do."
"No, man," Dean shook his head, stepping closer, his boots balanced on the steel beam, the road having given way to the valley below.
Sam felt his heart jump to his nose, his stomach falling flat. He wanted to reach out and pull Dean back, but he held still. Dean was closer to the kid now, and was the best chance they had of pulling him back to safety. Sliding the EMF into his pocket, Sam stayed tense, his body alerted to what they needed to do next.
Speaking low, his voice almost conversational in its care, Dean continued to speak to the kid. "This isn't an answer to anything. I mean it. No matter how bad it is."
"You don't know bad," the kid replied. Sam could see him clearer now. He was probably sixteen or seventeen, bone-thin, acne-pocked skin, shaggy brown hair. He wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers, worn through at the side. His hands were dirty, the fingertips gripping the girder torn and bleeding, knuckles bruised. "You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"Maybe I don't know your bad, but I do know bad," Dean replied, stepping closer still, and leaning against the trestle just below the kid's hand.
The kid looked over at him and Sam saw Dean's wall crash into place, practically heard the slam of it. He glanced at the kid and saw why: the boy's eyes were practically glowing. Tears streamed in watery rivers down either side of his nose, but there was an odd light in his eyes that curled a fist of warning in Sam's gut.
"What are you into, kid?" Dean asked, his voice still soft, but a tone slipping into it that Sam recognized: it was his do what we gotta do tone.
"It's not me, that's the thing," the kid replied. "It's never been me."
"What's your name?" Dean asked, keeping his eyes on the boy's face.
"Clay, I'm Dean. That's my brother, Sam."
Clay glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah? The hell'r you doing here?"
Sam expected Dean to rattle off their usual covers – taking in the sights, just driving by. He took another route.
"We want to know what killed three people in this town, Clay," Dean replied. "Two died right here. Fell from this bridge." Dean tilted his head slightly as he regarded the boy's profile. "But you knew that already, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Clay whispered.
"Who's doing it, Clay?"
As he spoke, Dean moved closer still and Sam saw his left hand hovering just behind Clay's leg. Unable to stand still a moment longer, Sam made his way carefully down and across the still-intact piece of bridge road, holding his breath as he tightrope-walked across the brace beneath the broken concrete. The sliver of moon offered just enough light to show Sam how far he was going to fall if he stepped wrong. His stomach trembled, his heartbeat speeding up.
He glanced up once to see Dean's eyes on him, his brother's face tense. His vision wavered a bit, but as he felt Dean's eyes, he took a breath, balancing. Positioning himself on the opposite side of Clay, Sam looked up at the kid's tear-streaked face.
"I just wanted them to stop messing with me, y'know? Just leave me the hell alone. He said they would. But…I didn't know…I swear I didn't—"
Clay swayed slightly forward and Dean reached up instinctively, catching the kid's wrist.
"Talk to us, man," Dean replied. "Tell us what's going on here."
"You wouldn't understand," Clay replied miserably. "No one would. I don't."
"Try us," Sam encouraged. "We might understand more than you think."
"Oh yeah?" Clay snorted derisively. "You understand nightmares walking around – real as you and me?"
"Yes," the brothers answered together, without hesitation.
Clay looked over at Dean with surprise.
"You come back to this side of the bridge and I'll tell you," Dean promised.
"No," Clay shook his head. "I deserve this. I deserve so much worse than this."
"Did you kill those people, Clay?" Sam asked softly, having pieced together that this was the boy the newspaper reported as a witness to the murders. "Did you…push them? Chase them?"
"Did you summon the dog?" Dean pressed.
"What? No!" Clay looked over in surprise. "How did you know about the dog?"
"I told you," Dean said. "I know bad."
Clay began to tremble. Sam could see it even in the dim light from the moon high overhead. He was beginning to give in.
"How?" Clay asked in a shaky whisper. "How do you know?"
"My brother and me," Dean began, running his tongue along his bottom lip as he kept his eyes on the kid, "this is what we do. Stop evil."
"Well, I'm evil," Clay said. "So you should just let me go."
"No, Clay," Sam shook his head, feeling his heart break a little for this scared, lonely kid. "You're not evil."
Clay looked at him suddenly and Sam felt his skin pull in close around him, as if all the air had been sucked from the space between them. The unnatural heat in the kid's eyes seared into Sam and a vice-like grip began to wrap around his head, filling his ears with a cacophony of sound. Voices upon voices clamored for attention inside of him and the vice clenched tighter causing Sam to cry out, his eyes closing against the onslaught.
He hadn't realized he'd gone to his knees until he felt the grind of broken concrete dig into his legs and the palms of his hands. After a moment, the voices abated, the pain fading. He was panting, sweat running from his hairline and stinging his eyes. He tasted blood and eased back to lean against the steel girder of the bridge, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth.
His nose was bleeding, he realized, opening blurry eyes to see Clay lying prone on the mangled road in front of him, one arm hanging down through the hole in the concrete, Dean on top of him, his knee pressed squarely into the back of the kid's neck.
"Sam! Answer me, dammit!"
"Wha…," Sam swallowed, wiping more blood away. "What happened?"
"Son of a bitch put a whammy on you," Dean growled. Sam saw that he had Clay's other arm twisted up behind his back. "You okay?"
Sam rubbed his eyes, pulling in a slow breath. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay."
Clay cried out as Dean twisted his arm tighter. Sam blinked at his brother.
"How'd you get him to come down?"
"I didn't give him a choice," Dean said, looking over. "You sure you're okay? You're pretty pale."
"My head hurts, but I'm okay."
"You're bleeding," Dean pointed out.
"Yeah." Sam wiped his nose again. "I think it's stopped."
"What did you do, Clay, huh?" Dean asked, bending the kid's thumb at an uncomfortable angle. "Is this how you made those other people jump? You mind-fuck them?"
"No!" Clay gasped out. "It wasn't like that—it was him! He did it!"
"Who?" Sam asked, using the steel girder to pull himself to his feet.
Once there, he saw a spot of wet on Dean's back, near his left shoulder. He reached down, taking Clay's arm from Dean's grip and motioning with his head for his brother to ease back. But Dean was too revved up to sit. He climbed over Clay, crossing the broken concrete and stepping over the hole so swiftly Sam's stomach took a dive.
Dean stood on the intact side of the bridge road, pacing as he talked. "You better give us something, Clay."
"Lemme up," Clay pleaded. "Can't breathe."
Sam looked at Dean, who nodded and pulled his gun. Sam released the kid's arm and sat back, allowing Clay to slowly push himself up to sitting position.
"What did you do to me?" Sam asked when Clay had taken a few deep breaths.
"I just made you hear the voices," Clay said softly.
Sam glanced at Dean. "It did sound like voices."
"Whose voices are they?" Dean asked Clay, keeping his gun trained on the kid. Sam saw the wet patch was in the front, too.
"Everyone he's taken. All of them."
"You mean those three people?" Dean asked.
Clay looked up at him and Sam saw Dean glance down to the kid's throat, not looking directly at his eyes.
"Not just them. Hundreds. Thousands. I don't know how many."
"Start at the beginning," Sam said.
Clay pulled his knees up and rubbed his face, his voice muffled through his palms. "He picked me 'cause I'm no one. Nobody knows me, nobody cares about me. Unless they want to mess with me. Like my stepdad. And my uncle."
"Let me guess – two of the victims?" Dean asked, his gun lowering slightly.
"Died here on this bridge." Clay, sniffed, fresh tears evident in his voice.
"Who was the third one?" Sam asked.
"She was a mistake," Clay moaned. "He said she was supposed to guide me. But I got scared and messed it all up." He dropped his hands. "He…picked her out for me."
"Picked her out…to do what?" Dean asked, lowering the gun completely. He exchanged a baffled look with Sam.
"He's been around a long ass time, man," Clay said, his eyes down, his head rolling slowly back and forth. "Not as the same guy, though. He picks a new person when the old one is wearing out and…becomes them."
"Possesses them?" Sam asked.
"Something," Clay shrugged. "He said he molds them into himself, and that way he lives forever. He needs sacrifices, though. Three sacrifices of people who deserve to die."
"Deserve according to…who?"
Clay buried his face again. "Him. People he thinks have done…bad things."
"And you helped him pick out the candidates," Dean replied, his tone thick with disgust. "Lambs to the slaughter."
Clay didn't reply.
"And because the third one was a mistake, he needs another sacrifice," Sam said softly. "Someone he believes he has just cause in killing."
Dean rubbed the back of his head, his face tight. "Tell me about the Dog," he demanded.
"The Dog is just his cover," Clay replied sullenly. "People around here have believed the Black Dog was a death omen forever. Sometimes deaths were blamed on the Dog and it wasn't even him doing it."
"And the whammy?" Dean pressed, stopping his pacing long enough to stare hard at Clay. "What's that about?"
Clay looked up, slipping his eyes to the side and down. "There was a…ritual. After the second sacrifice. And he…did stuff to me. And then I could hear them. And he said the only way to stop it was to finish this."
"What happens if you don't finish it?" Sam asked, glancing quickly at Dean.
He wanted to get across the trestle. His brother had started pacing again, and Sam saw him holding his arm close to his side. He didn't want to think about how much it had hurt to pull Clay over the edge of the bridge.
"He dies," Clay whispers. "And…I guess I do, too."
Sam stepped away from Clay and jumped across the opening in the concrete to the solid portion where Dean stood.
"No," Dean shook his head. "No, you're not going down for this, man."
Clay looked up in surprise. "But…I just told you—"
"You told me that this freak used you," Dean said. "We have to deal with the consequences of our choices, kid, but not the choices of others. Especially when they're evil sonsabitches."
Clay looked at Sam, then shifted his eyes back to Dean. "You're letting me off the hook?"
"More or less," Sam replied. "I mean, we still need to get this guy…."
"Even after I hurt you?" Clay asked, looking at Sam.
"I've had worse," Sam replied, offering the kid a small smile and ignoring the droning ache behind his eyes.
Clay sniffed, wiping the back of his grimy hand beneath his nose and smearing dirt in its wake. "No one's ever done that for me before."
"Yeah, well," Dean said quietly. "What can we say? We're givers."
"Where is he, Clay?" Sam asked.
"The newspaper," Clay replied absentmindedly.
"Where is that, downtown?" Sam pressed.
Clay shook his head, gaining his feet on the opposite side of the bridge from the brothers. "No, not that one," he said, still not quite focused on them or, seemingly, what he was saying. "The abandoned one. Big brick building, 'bout a mile down the road."
"You're coming with us," Dean told him, slipping his gun into his waistband at the small of his back and reaching out a hand to help the kid over the broken concrete.
Clay suddenly looked at him with such intensity that Sam nearly reached out and pulled Dean away. "No," Clay said. "No, you can't…I've gotta stop this. I can stop this."
"Wait!" Dean cried out as Clay turned and leapt over the gaping holes in the bridge and found his footing on solid ground. "Damn kid," Dean muttered, following. "He's gonna get himself killed."
"Or worse," Sam agreed as Clay ran off into the darkness.
They clambered over the concrete toward the road, heading for the car, Dean in the lead. Before they reached the edge of the road, they saw the flash of white as Clay's sneakers carried him down the road and out of sight at a fast clip.
Sam's mind churned over the rush of information they'd just been handed, trying to figure out their next move. He wanted to call Bobby, check on the facts Clay had given them, find out what they were up against and how to kill it – without getting themselves killed in the process.
He was about to suggest that very thing when Dean stopped cold in front of him, causing him to slam hard into his brother's back and knock them both off-balance.
"Dean, what the hell?"
"Tell me you saw that," Dean breathed, his eyes on the wet road shining in the moonlight.
"The Dog—tell me you saw it that time."
Sam scanned the road, but saw nothing. He looked over at Dean. "Same one?"
"Big," Dean said, swallowing audibly. "Black. Real black. Freaky, bright red eyes."
"Think it's his?"
"Gotta be," Dean replied. "It's gotta be, right?" He looked up at his brother and Sam watched him roll his lips against his teeth in thought. "I mean, it's his cover. So it's still out there until he finishes this ritual thing with Clay."
"Well, don't go running off of any high places, okay?" Sam said, trying to keep them focused and steer his racing thoughts away from the lingering meanings of death omens.
"I saw it, Sam," Dean said, his voice slightly desperate.
"I believe you." Sam reassured him, resting his hand lightly on his brother's shoulder.
Dean shook himself. "We gotta stop that kid from doing something stupid."
"We need to rebandage your shoulder first," Sam told him.
Dean looked down as if only just realizing it had started bleeding again. "I'm okay."
"I said I'm fine, Sam," Dean snapped heading around to the driver's side of the car. "Let's finish this."
Hanging Hills, night, outside abandoned newspaper building
"Thanks, Bobby," Sam said, closing the phone and tossing it back into the glove compartment.
"What'd he say?" Dean asked, swallowing the meds Sam had thrust upon him with a huge gulp of water. He pressed a clean towel under his jacket against the seeping hole in his shoulder, his eyes closing, mouth tightening into a grimace.
"Sounds like we're dealing with something called an Asphyx," Sam told him.
Dean glanced at him, eyebrow raised. "I could say so many things right now."
Sam rolled his eyes. "The guy is essentially human. Or was. Until he made some kind of deal, Bobby's guessing."
"Like a crossroads deal?" Dean looked out through the windshield at the darkened brick building across the street from them.
"Could be," Sam said. "Bobby said that Asphyx's are created when someone finds a way to side-step death. They use the sacrifices like…countermeasures. Reapers are distracted by those souls and this guy uses the ritual to slip from one body to the next."
"What happens to the body he leaves?"
"Basically, it's already dead," Sam said, rubbing his still-aching head and trying not to think what he was thinking. "That's why he has to change up; the human body isn't built for immortality."
"So how do we kill it?" Dean asked.
"Like you'd kill any other human," Sam said. "It's as fragile as we are. Bobby said it could do this forever, though—as long as there were humans to sacrifice, it could live forever."
Quiet filled the car for a moment, heavy with meaning.
"I know what you're thinking," Dean said softly. He balled up the blood-stained towel and tossed it to the floorboards of the Impala.
"Can't help it," Sam replied. Tempt not a desperate man, he thought.
"It's not an option, Sam." Dean tilted his chin toward Sam, his eyes following at a slow blink as he thought through the ramifications. "No one life is worth mine. Ever. You understand?"
Sam looked down, feeling his stomach burn with unspoken protests. He never had the chance to say the same thing to Dean. He never had the option of saying don't do this; my life isn't worth your life. He had to just accept his brother's sacrifice and roll forward—regardless of the evil that was out there, searching for him.
Unless they could find a miracle, he was going to have to live without Dean and he never got the option to say no.
"I understand," Sam replied, bitterness crinkling the corners of his words.
"We're better than that." The confidence in Dean's voice battled the loss in his eyes. "We don't need a sacrifice to survive."
"You mean aside from you?" Sam asked, his lips pulling tight to keep emotion at bay. It seemed he'd been on the edge of angry tears since the moment Ruby walked out of their motel room yesterday.
"That's not the same thing," Dean replied, shaking his head.
"How?" Sam demanded. "How is what you did for me any different than what Nancy was willing to do for her friends?"
"You want to do this now?" Dean countered, thrusting his right hand out toward the building.
"Yeah, I wanna do it now!" Sam shouted. "I wanna know why we're here, chasing some Black Dog when we should be finding Bela and the Colt and figuring out how to save you."
"Because this is our job, Sam. This is who we are! This is all I am!"
"No." Sam shook his head, feeling the tears push forward, choking him. "No, you're more than this job, Dean." He looked away, his eyes on the building. "You're my brother."
Dean was silent beside him. Sam could hear him breathing, knew he wanted to say something to ease the painful tension between them, but there was nothing he could say that Sam would accept. Nothing was going to make the ache go away outside of saving Dean from Hell.
"Sam," Dean said, the urgency in his voice changing the subject from their issues to the task at hand with one syllable.
"I see him," Sam replied, watching as a tall, thin man dressed in a dark raincoat opened the main door of the building, glanced around him, then stepped inside. "Where's—"
He stopped when he saw Clay run up to the door, catch it before it closed and slip through.
"Okay," Sam sat back, checking the clip in his gun. "What's the plan?"
Dean pressed his lips out. "We have to get Clay away from Ambrose." He looked over at Sam. "We think it's Ambrose, right?"
Sam lifted a shoulder. "Good a guess as any. He made up the Black Dog stuff in the paper, right?"
"Right," Dean nodded, looking back at the building, clearing the chamber of his gun and slipping it back into his waistband. "We'll go in, you get Clay and I'll take out Ambrose."
"Take him out?" Sam looked at his brother, surprised.
Dean met his eyes squarely. "This guy stopped being human a long time ago, Sam."
And with that Winchester Brand of Justice still hanging in the air between them, Dean stepped from the car and began to cross the road at a slow lope. Sam swallowed his frustration at Dean's ability to justify his decisions even in the wake of his own logic and ran after him.
The dark inside the building was thick; Sam lost sight of Dean almost instantly. The only thing that told him his brother was still nearby was instinct. He could always feel Dean close, like a scent on the air or a sense that someone was watching him. Reaching out in the direction he'd seen Dean head when they entered, he felt the edge of Dean's jacket and tugged him closer.
"You go high, I'll go low," Dean whispered.
"What—" Sam choked off his question as his eyes adjusted and he saw a set of railing-free stairs in front of them.
Blinking further, he realized that there was light in the distance; a soft glow of embers. Like candles or firelight. Growing edges in the dark were large tables stacked with rotting rolls of paper and further into the building he made out the hulking shape of an ancient printing press. The smell of mildew and ink hung like thick sheets around him, forcing him to cover his nose and mouth with the crook of his elbow for a moment to catch his breath.
"Be careful," Dean ordered, then moved forward through the dark, somehow managing to avoid crashing into any of the equipment as he did so.
The cold knot grew in Sam's stomach; it had formed the moment he'd seen Clay balanced on the edge of the bridge and now as Dean walked away, leaving him standing alone in the dark, Sam felt it begin to take over every inch of emptiness inside of him.
"You too," he whispered into the space where his brother had been a moment ago.
Making his way quietly up the stairs, holding his breath in hopes that his weight didn't crash through the brittle wood, Sam fought to calm his racing thoughts. He was usually much better at quelling the rush of worry, sticking it into a box inside his mind to be brought out and examined closely when the time was better suited to the task.
But from the moment Ruby had knocked on their motel door and shown them the news of the police station's desiccation at Lilith's hand, Sam hadn't had a chance to breathe, to focus, to accept the ramifications of those actions.
The consequences of choice.
They just kept moving, running, fighting, as if somehow it would all manage to make sense. If they just fought hard enough, for long enough.
He breached the top of the stairs and came to a landing that overlooked a larger room. The wood floor and brick walls of the room were bare save one large symbol painted in the center and reflected again on the far wall. It wasn't a symbol Sam recognized, but he'd bet money that Bobby would be able to find it in one of his old books.
Candles surrounded the symbol, placed at specific intersections. A window high above the symbol painted on the wall let in the slim moonlight, but even then shadows danced and darted around the edges of the large room. Across the empty space, in the corner of the room, Sam saw what looked like a large closet with an iron gate across the opening. The closet stretched up to his level.
"Elevator shaft," he whispered to himself, remembering the death of the third victim.
He could see from this angle that the elevator was an old platform-and-pulley system, covering the height of the easily ten-foot main floor and second floor landing. He didn't know how far down the shaft went—a building as old as this could have a pretty deep sub-basement.
Making his way toward the opposite end of the landing, Sam drew closer to the opening of the old elevator, searching the area below for signs of life—and his brother.
"Dammit, Dean," he muttered, stepping back a bit into the shadows. "Where the hell are you?"
"That won't matter to you," came a voice to his right, startling him and triggering his instinct to train his gun toward the threat, "when you're dead."
"Don't move," Sam ordered, his voice hard and tight, echoing in the darkness.
The thin man they'd watched enter the building stepped from the shadows, his confident approach forcing Sam back a step toward the opening to the elevator.
"You think you came in here unseen? Unheard? You think I don't know everything that has transpired tonight?"
"Ambrose, right?" Sam steadied his weapon, bracing himself to end this on his own, trying to put his fear for where Dean had ended up out of his mind. "What did you do to Clay?"
"Oh," the man shrugged his thin shoulders, still moving forward as if the barrel of Sam's gun were filled with flowers, "he's around here. Somewhere. I'm not worried about Clay, though I fear I may have chosen…poorly."
"This ends. Tonight." Sam worked to steady his voice, forcing himself to breath slowly. He backed up another step, further from the stairs he'd come up, and his only escape.
"And you're the one to do it, are you?" Ambrose said, his thin, dry lips cracking into a ghoulish smile, exposing yellowed teeth. "After a hundred years, some punk kid from the pages of a fashion magazine is going to have the temerity to bring me down?"
"You bet your ass," Dean's voice echoed from behind Ambrose.
Sam shifted his focus, glancing back at the stairs to where his brother stood in the shadows, his gun steady on the man between them.
"Sorry, Sammy," Dean said, not taking his eyes off of Ambrose. "Guess we should have both gone high."
"You two fools mean nothing," Ambrose scoffed, waving a thin-fingered hand at them. "After tonight this will all be over and I'll continue on, just as I have before."
"You're forgetting something, aren't you, pal?" Dean asked. "You need another sacrifice."
Ambrose didn't look back toward Dean; instead, he kept his eyes steady and Sam saw them shift to a black he'd seen too many times in his past. Demonic eyes. Depthless in their emptiness and evil. His face cracked open in what might've once been a smile and Sam felt his stomach turn to water.
"Oh, I haven't forgotten."
Sam had time to gasp, time to hear his brother cry his name, and then a force he hadn't expected—not from something that was essentially human—slammed into him, lifting him from his feet and propelling him backward through the opening of the shaft.
It struck him that he should have seen this coming. Evil was evil, despite what it might have started as. But he didn't have time to beat himself up about being unprepared: his breath escaped him with the force of the hit and his body seemed to almost drift, weightless for a moment, until he crashed down against the unyielding surface of the elevator platform.
Sound slipped meaning around him, voices and words elusive. Everything blurred, wavered. He worked to slow it all down, but it was like trying to grab smoke. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. His eyes burned, his head throbbed, and he could taste blood in his mouth.
"Easy, easy, it's okay."
The voice was vaguely familiar, but Sam was in too much pain to find the significance.
"Take a breath, man!"
Coughing weakly, Sam found he was able to draw in a weak breath as his lungs recovered from the shock. He dragged in more air and fought back the darkness that threatened to overcome his spinning sight, surprised to see Clay near him, working the cables of the elevator platform. It came to him then that he'd not fallen nearly as far as he could have.
"Cl-Clay?" Sam coughed, rolling painfully to his side and squeezing his eyes shut as his head pounded hard in protest of this movement.
"Sorry," Clay panted. "I tried to get it up higher, but I didn't want him to see me."
Sam pushed himself weakly to his knees, his body thrumming, his vision swimming. He didn't think anything was broken, but he knew he wasn't going to be going anywhere fast.
"Dean," he gasped.
"I know, I know," Clay panted, shoving a lever forward and locking the platform in place. "I could only get one of you at a time."
Sam tried to get to his feet, gripping the exposed boards inside the elevator shaft. He felt a tug at one of his ankles and looked down. "The hell?"
A handcuff was wrapped around his ankle and connected to the metal frame of the elevator platform. Looking up and around, he caught sight of Clay climbing up the wall braces a few feet to the first floor of the old building. He'd positioned Sam in the shadows of the floor so that if someone peered down into the shaft, they'd see only darkness.
"Hey!" Sam called weakly. "M-my brother!"
"Shut up!" Clay hissed back at him. "Stay here. Stay quiet. He doesn't know you're not dead. Sorry about the cuffs, man, but you have to stay here. Whatever you do, keep your brother down here with you. No matter what, okay?"
"Wha—" Sam blinked, his buzzing head cloudy with confusion. Keep Dean with him? Where was Dean now?
Pulling himself to the length of the cuffs, Sam peered up through the shaft, realizing he could see the edge of the landing and finally putting meaning with the sounds he'd been hearing since he fell: Dean was fighting Ambrose. And it wasn't pretty.
Sam could barely see his brother's face, but what he did see was bloody. Dean had lost his gun, his left arm hung limp, but he was growling viciously as he attacked, beating his fist against the thin man's face. Ambrose was pressed back against the railing that surrounded the landing, and the sound he emitted in the face of Dean's onslaught had Sam's blood running cold: the man was laughing.
Dean staggered back, clearly exhausted.
"You're dead," Dean rasped, his voice sounding like wet gravel. "You just don't know it yet."
"No," Ambrose mocked, laughing as he thrust Dean back and away. "You're wrong." His voice sing-songed in retort, making Sam's skin crawl.
Sam wanted to call out to Dean, to reassure him that he was okay, but he didn't know what that would do to Clay's plan, and at the moment, the scrawny teenager that no one cared about was all that stood between them and death.
"Ambrose!" Clay suddenly shouted. Sam couldn't see him from his position in the elevator shaft, but the boy's voice was close. "I'm here. I got everything you asked for, see?"
Ambrose straightened and Sam saw Dean's legs give out, his brother going to his knees, catching himself with his right hand before collapsing completely. Ambrose cackled with manic glee and Sam watched as the thin man vaulted the edge of the landing and fell the ten feet to the floor, alighting with unnatural, cat-like grace and making his way out of Sam's eye-line toward Clay.
Sam heard staggered, raspy breathing above him and looked up to see brother's battered face peering down the elevator shaft at him.
"Sam!" Dean's voice echoed down the shaft, desperation sweeping through the name. "SAM!"
Sam waved an arm, hoping that it the motion could be caught within the dark. When he saw Dean's expression twist in anger and pain, he realized that Dean couldn't see him.
"Dean," he breathed, barely a whisper. "Dean, I'm here."
Dean couldn't hear him, though. Sam watched his brother's face crumble, saw his head bow with grief, and something in his heart twisted sideways so painfully he almost cried out. Dean uttered a low keen, like that of a dying animal and Sam saw him gripping the edge of the elevator shaft so tightly his shoulders shook.
Pressing a hand to his chest, Sam closed his eyes to center himself, then looked back up. Dean's face was gone, but the moment was seared into Sam's memory, branded into his retinas like the afterimage of a lightning strike.
That was why Sam hadn't been given a choice. That was why Dean had made such a sacrifice. Sam had never seen such grief, such loss. Not even when they stood side-by-side watching their father's body burn.
Exhaling a shaking breath, Sam pulled himself awkwardly up, gripping the exposed wooden girders of the elevator shaft. He balanced in a half stance-half crouch on the swaying platform, trying to keep it from hitting the sides of the elevator shaft, his ankle twisting painfully, and peered up through the opening.
He couldn't let himself be seen. He'd played along with Clay's plan so far – having just destroyed his brother's hope – he had to see it through.
"I thought you'd run away, Clay," Ambrose was saying, his boot heels clicking dully against the worn wood. "I heard the moment you shared the voices with that other boy."
"Oh," Clay replied. Sam tried to shift his eyes and see the kid's face, but his angle was all wrong. "I, uh, didn't know you could do that."
"I told you," Ambrose replied, his voice undulating as he turned away, walking the circle of the symbol they stood on. "I can do more than you can possibly imagine."
"Like the Emperor, right? In Star Wars."
Sam's heart panged at the innocence in that question.
"Exactly like that," Ambrose replied.
"And I'll be able to do it, too? When this is done?" Clay moved a little closer to the elevator shaft. "The voices…the voices will all stop?"
Sam heard Ambrose chuckle. "If you want them to, they'll stop."
"I want them to. I want this all to be over."
"Then let's finish it," Ambrose said, suddenly standing close to Clay.
Sam could smell the age on the thin man as he hadn't been able to when they were on the landing. There was something wrong; something pricking his subconscious as he strained to see more.
"There's just one thing I need to know." Clay's voice shaking slightly with adrenaline or fear, Sam couldn't be sure.
"Oh, how I tire of your incessant questions," Ambrose murmured. "What is it now, boy?"
"What happens to me if you die?"
Ambrose went completely quiet. Sam felt the air in the room still.
"What was that?" Ambrose practically hissed.
"If you die," Clay repeated, his voice growing steadier with conviction. "What happens to me?"
Sam heard a scratching sound, almost like boots shuffling across sand. He strained his reach and his eyes, but couldn't see Ambrose's face, or anything of Clay aside from the kid's hands.
"You are connected to me, boy," Ambrose said in a cold, emotionless voice. "We began the ritual and there is no going back from it. You become my vessel…or you die."
Sam swallowed. The scratching sound drew closer. Clay and Ambrose didn't move.
"That's what I thought," Clay said, his voice almost resigned. "Too bad they didn't just let me fall." He sighed, then sounding like a kid told he had chores to do, he droned, "Now…I guess I gotta kill you."
"You don't have the nerve." Ambrose mocked, his dead voice like nails on a chalkboard to Sam's ears.
It was Dean's voice, but it sounded nothing like his brother. Without pause for breath or bluster, a gunshot immediately followed Dean's declaration and Sam saw Ambrose spin, crying out in surprise more than pain, and crash against the far wall. Clay rushed forward out of Sam's line of sight.
"Get out of here, kid," Dean growled, and Sam was suddenly very afraid.
Sam heard the sound of a scuffle and saw Dean's booted feet coming closer, Clay's sneakers scrambling to keep up.
"You don't understand—" Clay tried.
"Doesn't matter anymore. This bastard killed my brother." Dean's voice was so dangerous Sam felt his insides tremble.
"No, wait!" Clay yelled as Dean fired again.
Sam heard a howl, like that of a wild dog, and instinctively ducked, his tenuous grip slipping as he tumbled down to the floor of the elevator platform. The sound of his fall was masked by the fight above him. He looked up and could see Ambrose push Clay aside, waving his arms and slamming outward with the same force that had knocked Sam down the elevator shaft. He heard Dean scream in pain and another crash reverberated through the cavernous room.
Candles extinguished, tossing deeper shadows into the room above Sam's head. Whatever Clay had planned was going to hell and Dean was up there in it. Sam opened his mouth to shout and let Dean know he was down there when a figure suddenly loomed in the open doorway. Someone was falling the few feet down to him and Sam curled his arms over his head, bracing himself for the impact.
A tangle of arms and legs sent Sam's breath on exodus once more and as he gasped, he heard Clay shout, "Stay there!"
In a dizzying moment of clarity, Sam realized the figure lying on top of him was his brother. He pushed himself upright as quickly as his battered body would allow, his bruised shoulders and aching head whimpering at the swift movement. He turned Dean's limp body in his arms, awkwardly positioning his brother partly in his lap as he cradled Dean's head close to him.
"Dean?" Sam whispered, tapping his lax cheek. "Hey, man, open your eyes."
The side of Dean's face was smeared with blood from a cut above his eyebrow. His left arm was wet from the torn wound, and his breathing was shallow. Sam ran his hand quickly over Dean's torso, but couldn't detect anything broken on his cursory examination. He shook Dean gently.
"Wake up, Dean," he pleaded.
And then above him, the world seemed to suddenly explode as if every candle in the room turned into a flare of light. Sam ducked and Dean jerked, not fully awake, but instinctively reacting to the sound. Looking up, Sam saw Ambrose looming above them, peering down into the shaft with insanity in his eyes. Sam could feel Dean coming around slowly, turning sluggishly against Sam's chest, not unconscious but tense.
Sam wrapped his arm tightly around his brother, pulling him close against him and covering Dean's mouth with his hand. He dragged them both as deep into the shadows as he could, the platform rattling with the movement. He knew Ambrose's ritual wasn't working; he still had a third sacrifice to make.
"He's not dead!" Ambrose declared. "Get down there and finish him! We are wasting time."
"No." Sam heard Clay's voice behind the surprisingly imposing figure of Ambrose. The kid sounded terrified and defiant at the same time.
Sam broke out into a sweat, knowing exactly what was about to happen and realizing in that same moment that he was going to let it.
He felt Dean's breath change; his brother was awake. For a moment, Dean struggled against Sam's hold, but then Sam felt him go still, realizing who it was holding him. Dean's lips moved against Sam's fingers—his name, Sam knew. He looked down and met his brother's eyes in the shadows.
"I'm okay," Sam whispered. "Stay still."
Dean frowned, his eyes cloudy with pain and confusion. He tried to push Sam's arm away, but Sam held him firm. Above them, a battle waged. Sam heard Ambrose rail and roar at Clay, and Clay's young voice resisting as he put in motion the plan he'd inadvertently started on the bridge.
Sam felt his stomach twist nauseatingly; he knew the only way to save Clay was to also save Ambrose – and that would kill a lot more people. Dean's arms trembled as he tried to pull at Sam, twisting and turning, protesting the hold, but too exhausted to break it.
"Don't fight me, Dean," Sam insisted, his mouth close to his brother's ear. "This is the only way."
Dean shook his head, resisting still the idea of an innocent dying to save them. But Sam knew that this time Dean's way wasn't the right way. This time, they had to let it play out, had to let Clay make his choice and end this struggle. This time, there were acceptable losses, and his brother was not going to be among them.
"You do this, and we're both done for," Ambrose shouted.
"I know," Clay replied, utterly calm.
Sam jerked as the sound of gunfire blasted through the room upstairs. Two shots, three. Dean flinched in his arms, his trembling hand still gripping Sam's wrist. A fourth shot and then all was quiet.
After a moment, Sam slowly released Dean's mouth and they lay tangled together gasping quietly in the dark.
"Sam?" Dean rasped.
"I'm sorry," Sam said. "I'm so sorry."
"I'm okay. Bruised, but—"
"Alive," Dean said, gingerly pushing himself off of Sam's lap, his eyes large in the shadows, roaming Sam's face as though he could never look enough. His right hand fumbled from Sam's cheek to his chest. "You're alive."
Sam nodded. "I wanted to call out to you, but—"
"Clay," Dean realized, glancing up. "Clay stopped you."
Sam rattled his leg, showing his brother the cuff around his ankle. "He told me to keep you down here, no matter what."
"He knew," Dean swallowed, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth, looking sick for a brief moment. "He knew what was going to happen the minute he ran off that bridge."
Sam nodded, feeling inexorably tired, his body aching in multiple places, tears burning behind his eyes.
"And we just…let him die." Dean finished miserably.
"We didn't have a choice, Dean," Sam protested.
"God dammit," Dean groaned, dragged a hand down his face. "We should have saved him…we should have tried." Dean bowed his back, curling over himself, cradling his bleeding arm against his chest.
Sam watched, unsure what to say, how to offer comfort. "Dean—"
If they'd never gone on this hunt, Ambrose would have taken over Clay and the cycle would have continued until another hunter stumbled across the pattern. If they hadn't saved Clay at the bridge, both would still have died, but Clay would have died defeated.
"He was a hero, man," Sam offered. "He sacrificed himself to save us—and a whole lot of other people."
Like Dad, Sam wanted to say. Saving Dean had saved countless lives—people who wouldn't be here if it weren't for his brother. But Dean hadn't moved, hadn't so much as taken a breath, and Sam didn't think it was the best time to bring John into the mix.
They sat that way for several minutes, Dean's body in a tight fist, Sam helplessly watching him.
"He leave you a key?" Dean asked, his voice muffled by his position.
Sam shook his head, only then realizing that his tears had fallen. The droplets tucked themselves into the corners of his mouth and he dragged a hand down his face, wiping them away.
Dean straightened and Sam saw his wall was back, turning his eyes dead, his face stoic. "You got your gun?"
Sam shook his head, searching his brother's face for some sign that they were going to be okay—that this was okay.
Dean nodded, then started to shrug out of his jacket, grimacing as he moved his left arm.
"What are you doing?"
"Keep a paper clip in the liner," he said. "Just…can't reach it…."
Sam realized that the light in the elevator shaft was increasing. He had lost track of time, but he was pretty sure they hadn't been inside long enough for it to be daylight. He looked up past Dean's head.
"Oh, shit," he breathed.
"What?" Dean asked looking up and then around.
The building was on fire.
"Son of a—"
A loud pop followed by an explosion that rattled the elevator shaft sent Dean tumbling against Sam as the platform shifted. Sam shoved him back up into a sitting position, noticing how his brother's arms trembled. Using his teeth, Dean tore out one of the seams in the lining of his coat, removing the paperclip and bending it so that he could snake the piece of wire into the lock at Sam's ankle. Sam held still, practically ceasing to breathe, as Dean worked.
He felt the cuff give and pulled his foot free from the awkward angle, rubbing the skin. Standing, he made his way to the pulley and brake, releasing the latch and running the cable through his hands, over and over, until they were level with the burning main floor.
Dean cursed, surveying the damage the fight had done to the room and the two bodies lying within. "We can't leave him here, Sam."
Sam saw his eyes were pinned to the prone body of Clay several feet from the worn-out husk that had once been Ambrose. He looked as if he were asleep, until Sam saw the blood pooling beneath him.
The fire had spread outward from the symbol and was busy eating its way along the outer flooring, up the staircase, and chewing through the printing press and several random barrels filled with who-knew-what. The sound of the flames was deafening, the heat suffocating. Sam began to cough into the crook of his arm, his eyes streaming tears that had nothing to do with emotion.
"Take him out and come back for me," Dean ordered.
Frowning, Sam looked down. Dean was still sitting, the gray T-shirt he'd put on earlier that day now streaked with dirt and blood, his eyes red from both smoke and tears. Sam hadn't realized how beat his brother was until he didn't stand up.
"Not a chance," Sam declared.
"Shut the hell up," Sam shouted. "I'm not leaving you here."
He bent, slinging Dean's right arm over his shoulder and straightened slowly, pulling his brother to his feet. Dean grit his teeth, stifling a cry of pain before finding his feet, his legs wobbly and fragile. They moved from the elevator platform and dodged the fire, unsteadily weaving their way across the room, both coughing from the increasing smoke.
Dean spied his gun and they paused for him to pick it up. As his good hand was busy gripping the hell out of Sam's shoulder, he held it loosely in his left as they picked their way past the burning press and floating bits of flaming paper. Sam felt Dean shaking against him as a gut-wrenching cough overcame him and they went to their knees, trying to catch their breath.
Crawling forward, below the smoke, they finally reached the door. Sam pushed it open, grabbing Dean against him and stumbling out into the chill of the night air. Seconds after their escape, Sam realized he heard swiftly approaching sirens.
And the hits just keep on coming, he thought, holding onto Dean as he tried to maneuver around the side of the building.
"Sam, the kid," Dean reminded him, gasping as the clean air filtered the smoke from his heavy lungs.
"Cops," Sam shot back.
He continued to haul Dean around the side of the burning building, the bricks shielding them from the worst of the heat. In the light of the flames he saw a small house several yards behind the building.
"You hear a dog?" Dean asked, trying to pull away and take some of his weight from Sam.
About to deny it, Sam realized that he could hear a dog's frantic barking over the roar of the flames. Dean tugged his arm free and staggered forward heading toward what Sam could now see was a chain-linked fence surrounding the house. Behind them, Sam heard shouting and felt the cast-off of sprayed water. He looked over his shoulder and saw firemen holding a hose on the flames while others ran inside. He knew they'd be pulling Clay free.
"Sam," Dean called.
Sam stumbled forward, meeting his brother at the edge of the fence where a large, black, German Sheppard-looking dog was going nuts, terrified by the flames and strangers.
"Is that it? The Black Dog?" Sam asked, his voice sounding weak and rough to his own ears.
"It's a black dog, alright," Dean said. He straightened up and looked past Sam toward the road where their car waited for them, his gun held loose in his hand, blood drying his T-shirt to his shoulder. He reached up and rubbed at his mouth with the back of his right hand. "But it's not the Black Dog."
"What? How do you know?"
"Because," he shifted his eyes to Sam and the look of hopelessness caught inside them had Sam's stomach bottoming out just as it had when they'd been standing on that bridge. "It's right over there."
Sam turned so sharply he nearly lost his balance. He looked in the direction where they'd parked the Impala and saw only the chrome of the car reflecting in the light of the fire. The Sheppard barked insanely behind him, the fire roared to his left, and still he stared.
"You see it now?" Sam rasped.
"Yeah," Dean replied in a hollow voice. "It's just…looking at me."
Sam turned back to his brother. "Dean…."
Dean looked down and then turned toward the fence. "Hey, there," he said quietly. "Hey boy, easy. It's okay. You're gonna be okay."
The dog stopped barking, but continued to growl low in its throat, its teeth bared, the hair along its spine raised in warning.
"Let's go," Sam encouraged. "They'll find him."
"I know," Dean said. "And they'll probably put him to sleep."
"What do you want to do?"
Dean looked over his shoulder toward the Impala, and Sam saw him square his shoulders, his face pulling tight as the motion cost him. He reached over to the latch at the gate stepped back as he set the dog free. For a moment, the Sheppard stood there, looking at him, confused. Then it looked at the fire burning so close.
"Go," Dean told it.
With that order, the dog leapt free of the fence and ran down the road toward the wooded area they'd driven through earlier that evening. Turning from the fence, Dean sighed and took a step forward. Sam saw Dean's eyes roll up just before his legs gave out. He felt as if he were moving underwater as he lunged, catching Dean awkwardly, going to his knees with his brother in his arms.
"No, no no," Sam shook his head, tapping Dean's cheek. "Not yet, not yet."
Dean rolling his head sluggishly, and Sam shook him. "Open your eyes, Dean," he demanded. "We're not out of this yet."
"Fuckin' dog," Dean slurred. "Watchin' me…."
Sam felt him straighten slightly, coming around, opening his eyes wide and peering into the dark. He pull Dean's good arm across his shoulders and shoved to his feet, dragging his brother with him. He needed to get them to the car; he didn't have much left by way of reserves.
"It could have been a shadow," Sam offered, trying desperately to warm the ice in his stomach with alternatives, with hope. "Maybe a trick of light from the fire."
"Maybe," Dean conceded, his head drooping as he leaned against Sam, doing his best to cooperate with the effort of forward movement.
"I mean, the dog we set free…that had to be the one he was using to fool people, right?"
"Right, Sammy." Dean's voice was barely audible as they reached the Impala.
"Doesn't mean there was a real Black Dog here...," Sam muttered as he dug out the keys from Dean's pocket. "Doesn't mean a thing."
He was rambling, he knew, but he couldn't seem to stop. Dean's silence was forcing him to fill the space with alternatives to what his gut told him was truth. Sam eased his brother into the passenger seat. Dean bit back a groan and dropped his head against the seat, his face pulled into a fist of pain. Sam saw him shiver and shrugged out of his coat, covering his brother's bare arms with the material still warm from his body heat.
"Thanks," Dean said.
Sam jogged around to the other side of the car, slipping behind the wheel and firing up the engine. He glanced at the burning building, wondering if anyone fighting that fire would ever figure out what had really transpired inside. He saw two stretchers behind an ambulance, sheets pulled over the figures lying on them. He glanced over at Dean, hoping he, too, had seen that Clay was out of the building.
But Dean was looking at something else. Something that Sam couldn't see. Something that Sam desperately wanted to deny.
…to see the Black Dog the first time means joy…a second sighting means misfortune. Seeing the Black Dog a third time is a death omen.
"I won't let it happen," Sam declared. "I won't, Dean. There's still time."
Dean looked over at him and the pain and weariness of the evening seemed to finally catch up to him. Sam felt his heart constrict as his brother's eyes filled with tears.
"There's still time," Sam repeated quietly, his voice choked.
Dean nodded and rolled his lower lip in against his teeth.
"Dean? You believe me, right? We'll find a way out of this. We'll figure it out."
Dean looked down and Sam saw a tear drop to the back of his jacket where it covered Dean. "I believe you," Dean said softly, but in his voice Sam heard a note of something that sounded too much like acceptance.
Something that was tired of losing people, no matter how hard he fought, no matter how long he fought.
Sam shifted into reverse and turned to head back the way they'd come, glad they'd parked the car far enough from the building they didn't attract attention as they left. The sound of the tires on the dark road seemed to spin names up to him: Jessica, Jim, Caleb, Dad, Henricksen, Nancy, Clay…Sam. He knew Dean counted him even though he was back, even though he was here.
He knew Dean counted his loss every time he felt his heart beat.
And then there was Lilith. Some great, demonic power who'd set her sights on Sam; one more brick in the wall between him and peace, one more coil in the rope destined to hang him. Sam rubbed his face, Dean's blood on his hand. Some days it was enough to make a guy want to quit.
"Where'r we goin'?" Dean asked, his voice slurred.
"You promised me a Hilton, remember?" Sam said. "But, first, I think we need to get your shoulder cleaned up."
"Can't go to a hospital, Sam," Dean said, straightening. "Gunshot wound. They report those."
"No hospital," Sam promised. "I saw some other place on the way in."
The sun was bruising the night sky with the promise of dawn as Sam picked the lock of the small clinic. A quick check showed him that Hanging Hills Prompt Care hadn't invested in a security system, trustworthy folks that they were. Dean was almost dead weight against him as they stumbled into the supply room. He eased his brother down to a chair and started to clean his wound by cutting the dirty, gray T-shirt from him.
"You're a mess," Sam said, shaking his head at his brother.
"You're no picture of health yourself, Princess," Dean muttered, his head canted back against the wall. "You fall down an elevator shaft or something?"
"Funny," Sam muttered, turning on the water in the utility sink and wetting a rag to clean Dean's shoulder.
"Sam," Dean said suddenly, pulling Sam's attention with the quiet devastation in his voice. "Don't ever do that to me again, okay?"
Sam hung his head, feeling his heart tug at the memory of the look on his brother's face. "I'm sorry, Dean," he said sincerely. "I wanted to answer you when you called out to me, but, if I had—"
"I know why you did it," Dean reassured him, "but just…don't. Not again. I can't handle it."
But you expect me to, Sam thought with a pang. You expect me to handle you dying. What if I can't, Dean? What if I can't live with you dead?
"Promise me," Dean insisted as Sam approached with the rag.
"I promise," Sam replied, meeting Dean's eyes.
Dean went quiet as Sam pulled the soiled gauze from his wounds, then cleaned the skin around the holes in his shoulder with hot, soapy water. His mind raced as his hands moved automatically—cleaning the wound, injecting Dean's shoulder with lidocaine, stitching up the worst of the tears, applying ointment, taping it up once more.
He cleaned the cut above Dean's eyebrow, noting the bruises framing his brother's eye. The cut wasn't deep; butterfly bandages closed it nicely, which was good because Sam's hands had begun to shake from stress and fatigue and he wasn't able to keep his vision focused for longer than a few seconds.
The entire time, Dean stayed quiet and still, flinching when he couldn't help it, but not saying a word.
Sam's thoughts filled the quiet with enough what ifs and could we haves he almost wished Dean would talk, just to distract him from his own feverish doubts. He searched the bottles on the shelf until he found more antibiotics and pain medication, handing Dean a dose with some water.
As an afterthought, he swallowed some pain meds himself, his head, neck, and shoulders reminding him that he wasn't made of rubber. He looked at himself in the reflection of the medicine cabinet. He looked worse than rough. He looked bruised and broken.
"You bring the money?" Dean asked wearily.
"Yeah," Sam nodded, pulling a roll of bills from their last pool hustle out of his pocket and setting it on the shelf near the bottles of medicine. "Hey, Dean?"
"Hmm?" Dean's head was resting against the wall, his bare chest half soot-covered, half clean from Sam's ministrations. His eyes were closed and he looked about ready to slip from the chair and puddle onto the floor.
"If someone had to summon the Black Dog, but Ambrose made it all up with a real dog to scare people and cover his tracks…who summoned the one you saw?"
Dean opened his blood-shot eyes slowly. Sam could see his gaze was unfocused, his pupils large enough there was barely any green around the edges.
"Maybe it was real. Maybe…it was a warning," Dean said quietly.
"I don't want to believe that," Sam replied, barely above a whisper.
"Me neither," Dean confessed. "Me neither, Sammy."
Sam handed him a long-sleeved shirt and helped him pull it on over his wounded shoulder. Dean buttoned it clumsily, his fingers not cooperating with him. Standing under his own power seemed to be the extent of his strength, so Sam ducked under his arm, helping him from the clinic—locking the door behind them—and to the car as the sun rose high enough to filter through the tree tops.
They pulled from the empty lot and headed west. Sam turned the radio on as Dean slumped against the door, sleeping with Sam's jacket draped over him once more. Twisting the dial, Sam paused as he heard Linkin Park's Numb climb through the airwaves.
He was so tired; he hoped the driving beat of the music would keep him alert and aware until they were able to stop once more. They both needed rest. They both needed answers.
Listening to the lyrics, he looked over at his brother, truly afraid both were destined to elude them.
"I'm not gonna quit, Dean," he said softly to his sleeping brother. "I'm not gonna let you go to Hell."
Pontiac, IL, now
"He fought, Sam." Bobby's voice was rough from sorrow, his words tearing apart the quiet of the night that pressed close around them. "He fought until the end. Damn kid wouldn't give up. Always admired that about him. He always believed there was a way…."
Bobby's voice cracked, dying. Sam knew he was right; Dean had fought until the end—all-but challenging the Hellhounds to get him and drawing attention from Sam. But there was a part of Sam that knew Dean had accepted the truth weeks ago.
He remembered the moment, exactly. Before Ruby's Hail Mary plan. Before Indiana. Before the hallucinations.
He remembered the quiet tear splashing the back of a soot-covered jacket. He remembered the hollow echo of hopelessness in his brother's voice. Maybe it was real. Maybe…it was a warning.
"You want to know why?" Sam asked the older hunter, his voice like a rusted hinge.
Bobby startled at his words, and Sam realized they were they first he'd spoken since Dean had been taken from him.
That's how he thought of it. Dean hadn't just died. He'd been ripped from this world, torn apart and dragged below right before Sam's eyes.
"Why, kid?" Bobby asked, softly.
Sam forced himself to look again at Dean's face. They'd closed his eyes, cleaned the blood from it. He could be sleeping, Sam thought, and for one wild moment wanted to check, but it was pointless. He could be sleeping but for the horrific tears in his body, Sam knew.
"Because he's going to need a body when I get him back," Sam informed his friend.
Ignoring the note of horror in Bobby's tone, Sam knelt next to the crude wooden box they'd built for his brother. He reached behind Dean's cold neck and gently shifted his brother's head, removing the amulet that Dean had worn for so many years. Lifting it from his brother's body, Sam stood and dropped it over his own head, closing his eyes as he felt the weight rest like a gentle hand against his chest.
Oddly, the metal still felt warm, even hours after Dean had gone cold.
Sam took a shallow breath, images of his brother assaulting the darkness behind his eyes. Dean angry, Dean smiling, Dean in tears, Dean teasing him, Dean singing in the car, Dean in pain, Dean bleeding, Dean fighting, Dean holding him, Dean protecting him….
"I'm gonna get him back," Sam vowed, unable to watch as Bobby placed the lid on the box that held Dean's body.
He helped his friend lower the box into the grave, swaying dizzily as Bobby dropped in the first shovel full of dirt. It hit the box with a dull thud that nearly sent Sam tipping over the edge to join his brother.
"I know why you did it," Dean had said once, "but just…don't. Not again. I can't handle it."
Sam felt himself breaking inside, his own shovel slipping from his sweaty grasp. He dropped it, stepping away, watching numbly as Bobby finished the job.
He couldn't bury his brother. He couldn't handle it. He knew Dean had done the only thing he could when he'd saved Sam at that crossroads. And he knew his brother had fought right up until he realized one more swing would take Sam with him.
He knew Dean hadn't wanted to die, but would rather be dead than live without Sam. And now Sam was left in a world of demons without his protector, without his brother.
It's not gonna last, Sam promised himself. I'm gonna get you back, Dean.
The moment Dean had accepted his fate was the moment Sam had vowed he would get him out of it.
No matter what.
a/n: Thank you for reading.
FYI, I took the idea of the Asphyx from a movie by the same name. I pulled a Nester Ambrose, though, and made the lore my own for the purposes of this story.
I've a few one-shots planned for people as very sincere thank-yous. The requests are intriguing and I am looking forward to bringing them to life as time permits. I look forward to your thoughts as always. My best to you.
Mr. Saturday Night Special by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Numb by Linkin Park