Title: A Measure of Salvation

Summary: When an angelic weapon shows up unexpectedly on a hunt, Dean should know better than to think they could catch a break. Takes place after 6.12

Disclaimer: I own nothing of Supernatural. The title comes from the episode of BSG that spawned the idea for this (I own nothing of that show, either)

A/N: Thanks to Sendintheclowns and Gidgetgal9 for the beta.

Part One

This long on the job, if there was one thing Dean was sure of it was that he didn't like surprises.

"Where the hell is everybody?" he murmured. The look Sam flashed his way was equally as confused.

He wasn't sure whether that was a comfort.

Sam signalled wordlessly, waiting for Dean's nod before he broke off to the right, sharing one last frown before disappearing into the gloom.

Dean raised his gun in front of him and pushed forward, spine tingling now his brother was out of sight, unable to shake the feeling of wrong that was causing the hairs to rise on the back of his neck. He could barely see anything in the dim light of the warehouse and he was tempted to flick on his flashlight, even if that would lose them the element of surprise.

According to Bobby's Intel the building should have been swarming with demons, but the only hint of movement his ears could detect came from Sam, mirroring his careful progress across the warehouse floor. Dean knew that things had been tense at Singer Salvage since they'd returned his brother's soul, but surely even Bobby's level of unease wouldn't have sent them on a wild goose chase just for the excuse to get Sam out of the house.

He turned as he moved, gun trained on every shadow. He could see farther now his eyes were adjusting to the dark. High windows to his left let shafts of moonlight pool in the centre of the room, leaving the edges in darkness.

It did nothing to quell his unease. Things had felt off from the moment they'd set foot in here. He couldn't pinpoint exactly what the problem was, besides their lack of prey, but he'd been hunting long enough to know it wasn't wise to ignore his instincts. Not when they were screaming this loudly.

Deserted or not it was time to get out, and get out now.

He turned to signal to Sam that it was past time to make a hasty retreat but his brother was still swallowed up by the gloom. Dean strained, but he could no longer hear Sam's careful footsteps.

His disquiet ratcheted up a couple of notches.

Abandoning his side of the building, Dean cut across to the right to pick up his brother's trail.

Something moved in the darkness, something low and scraping and definitely not his brother. Dean paused, toying with the idea of turning on his flashlight, not wanting to make himself a target for whatever was lurking out of sight.

He pressed onward. It was another tense minute before Dean finally caught sight of his brother's back. Sam was facing away from him, no longer searching the room. Instead, he was frozen on the spot, gaze fixed on the ground a little way in front of him. Dean could tell by the tense set of Sam's shoulders that his brother didn't much like what he could see.

As though sensing Dean's attention, Sam turned to look over his shoulder. It was too dark to see his exact expression but the tilt of his head was quizzical, and when Sam faced forward again Dean could see him tighten his grip on the demon killing knife in his hand, raising it in front of him.

Without a word, Sam continued his progress across the room, away from Dean.

With a curse, Dean shifted his grip on his own weapon and followed. There was a maze of crates littering the warehouse floor and a row of them was now between Dean and his brother, blocking his view of whatever Sam had been looking at. Sam was only visible from the waist up but his attention was focused downward, his movements uneven but cautious - as though he was stepping over something on the floor.

Dean didn't relax when he reached the end of the row of boxes separating him from his brother. Sticking out from behind the last crate, was a leg.

Dean rounded the corner to find a man in his late forties, sprawled on his back. His right leg was twitching and there was bloody foam covering his mouth and chin. His face was locked in an expression of agonising fear, his eyes wide and unseeing.

Beyond this first body was another.

"What the hell...?" Dean murmured.

He took another step forward and the stench of sickness hit him, so bad he had to bring one hand to his face to cover his mouth and nose. He flinched, forcing himself to continue.

Wherever he looked he could see another downed form, their skin green and clammy, hair matted with sweat.

They were dead. All of them. And they had suffered before they'd died.

When Dean looked up his brother was nowhere in sight.

"Sam!" Dean's voice echoed loudly in the gloom but he was no-longer concerned with maintaining the element of surprise. That had been lost a long time ago.

"Over here."

Sam's voice drifted from behind a nearby crate. He skirted it to find Sam crouched at the side of a young blond woman; Dean recognised her from the surveillance footage they'd been scanning earlier that day. Sam's brow was furrowed - Dean couldn't tell if the expression stemmed from concern or pity - and his fingers were resting on the pulse point at her neck.

"Careful," Dean warned.

"She's dead," Sam told him, leaning back on his heels and turning to face him. Dean could see the level of unease in Sam's eyes for the first time, and it chilled him. "They're all dead."

Sam turned back and lowered one hand, gently closing the dead woman's eyes.

Her hand shot out and grabbed Sam by the wrist, startling him so much he let out a bark of surprise. The blond woman's eyes had flicked open, and while she had one hand clamped around Sam's the other was clawing at his shoulder, trying to draw him nearer.

"Son of a…" Dean quickly closed the distance between them and raised his gun. Sam held the knife loosely in his free hand but seemed to be making no effort to use it.

"The hosts might be dead, but the demons sure as hell aren't," Dean told him. Now he'd realised it he could hear them, groans and gasps and gurgling breaths all around him. The dull dragging sound, and the slow scrape of flesh along concrete.

They weren't dead, but they were clearly dying.

"Help us." The voice was hoarse and she winced as though she'd swallowed glass. Blood bubbled and popped on her lips. "Please, help us."

"Sam…" Dean warned.

"I know," Sam agreed, low and pained. "Give us a minute."

"What...?" Dean let out an exasperated hiss as Sam leaned closer.

"What happened here?" he asked gently, using the hand she's pulled close to tilt her chin in his direction, forcing her focus on him. "What made you so sick?"

"She's a demon, Sam. She's not going to…"

"They found it…" she whispered, breaking off to cough. Sam winced as bloody phlegm splattered onto his sleeve. "It was an accident really. A little death, a little mayhem – that's the only reason we were here. The apocalypse is over; the angels are too busy cleaning up their own mess to care what we do.

"It was just waiting for them in the Seminary. The priest was already dead. They figured Belial had got bored and started the party without them - not that he was inside the body when it…"

She broke off and turned her face away, coughing brokenly. Sam spared him a brief glance of consternation. They'd been in town nearly two days but nothing had been flagged about any Seminary in their research.

When the demon turned back to fix her gaze on Sam there was blood on her teeth and lips. Her grip on Sam's wrist tightened. Dean could see Sam's jaw clench but his brother made no effort to pull away.

Dean swore.

"Its power was…" she sighed in awe. "Oh, you could feel the hum of it. Of course they took it. Without question… brought it here. We didn't know what we had. We knew it was old, was important, but we didn't… not until they started to die."

"What..?" Sam cleared his throat and leaned in closer. "What did they take?"

She looked away from them, reaching with her free hand to something neither of them could see.

"Glowing… it was so beautiful."

The hairs tingled on the back of Dean's neck. He rose and took a step in the direction of the demon's gaze, eyes searching, but could see no glow other than the moonlight.

"But the power… it was wrong. It changed them."

Dean squared his shoulders and raised his gun, throwing Sam a look that told him sternly to hurry it up, before turning his back on the pair, guarding against any further movement in the dark.

"The headaches and the chills… we mistook them for the host's reaction to possession. By the time the bleeding started it was already too late…"

Dean refused to turn as she groaned and gagged behind him.

"We're demons. It shouldn't be possible, but it killed them from the inside out. They couldn't flee their hosts. The five that returned with the device – they were all dead within a matter of hours. By then it was too late for us. It had already started." She coughed again, wheezing and choking on her own breath.

"Okay," Sam murmured. Dean could hear his brother shifting position, her groan of loss as Sam leaned away. He swallowed and stepped backwards. Sam was whispering to her – demon or host he didn't know but either way he didn't want to listen. His brother had a soul now, Dean was a coward for walking away but he knew what was coming and didn't want to see the look on his brother's face when it did. The cold mask Sam had worn for the past six months had been chilling, but he couldn't help but feel the expression he was sporting now would be so much worse.

He only had to move a few feet away before he saw it. It had been placed on top of a crate, given prime position in the centre of a small clearing in the supply area, metal glinting in the moonlight.

"Dean…" Sam's voice floated across the distance, tone wary.

Dean ignored him and kept moving, pausing a couple of feet away from the artefact. It was small, almost disappointingly unimpressive, narrow and cylindrical within an intricate cage. It had a tripod base. Every inch of its surface was carved with markings. Whatever power it might have, Dean couldn't feel it.

He took a hesitant step backwards. Maybe that was a good thing.

A flash of light illuminated its surface momentarily; the accompanying crackle of energy told him his brother had finally put the demon out of its misery.

It was a few more seconds before Dean could hear his brother's footsteps. Sam paused behind his right shoulder. Dean gave him a moment to take the sight in.

"Is that..?"

"Enochian? Yeah," Dean confirmed as Sam reached his side.

"But what..?"

"I think I know how we find out," Dean muttered grimly. "Cas, get your feathery ass down here."

Nothing.

"I think we found one of heaven's missing nukes," he continued coaxingly. "And I think it went off," he added under his breath.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Sam asked him. "We don't know what it is, just that it's killed everyone who's come into contact with it, so…"

There was a flutter of wind behind them and they turned to find Castiel striding towards them out of the darkness. The angel stopped when he took in the bodies of the demons surrounding them, then his eyes locked with the metallic device at the centre of the casualties.

"Ah," he uttered. His face was expressionless, but that didn't hide his surprise.

"That good, huh?" Sam asked him.

"This can't…" Castiel moved forward cautiously and bent at the waist to examine the object on its plinth, his face grim. "I was assured that this didn't exist."

"I think someone lied to you," Dean pointed out the obvious.

"What is it?" Sam asked.

"A weapon."

"We gathered that much, genius," Dean muttered.

"The demon said they started getting sick within hours of finding this thing. We're probably already exposed." Dean's little brother, ever the optimist. "Are we in danger from it too?"

"No," Castiel replied, not wholly convincing enough for Dean's liking. Castiel glanced at Sam as though trying to decide something. "At least… No."

Sam looked away.

"Want to try that again to be a little less reassuring," Dean asked, pulse quickening.

"This weapon… from what I can feel, it's designed to give off a very specific pulse. It only affects energy on a particular frequency."

"Demons," Sam supplied.

"Yes," Castiel confirmed.

Sam flinched.

"A biological weapon?" Dean would have had a hard time getting his head around it if not for the bodies surrounding them.

"But it shouldn't be possible," Castiel continued. "The power to do this, it simply doesn't exist."

"It does now," Dean pointed out.

"I can take it from here." Castiel turned his back on them to focus his attention on the device, holding his hands out towards it as though he was trying to warm his palms on its surface. Reading its energies, Dean guessed. "You can leave the bodies too," the angel continued when they'd made no effort to move. "They will be taken care of."

"Cas..?" Sam took a step forward, eyes wide.

"I need to think." Castiel turned back to face them; voice surprisingly earnest, expression gentle. "I'll bring you answers, Sam. I promise. But it would be better if you were not around while I'm seeking them."

Sam nodded hesitantly but Dean wasn't nearly satisfied. Before he had time to voice his dissatisfaction, the angel and the warhead were gone.

"What do you think that was about?" Dean asked.

"I don't know, but I suggest we do as he says and get the hell out of here." Sam's face was grim, the set of his jaw tense. Dean got the distinct impression he was missing something.

"What..?"

Sam had already turned away from him and was striding towards the exit, giving the bodies around him a wide berth, sidestepping a reaching hand.

"Cas can clean up here a lot more easily, and a lot more effectively, than we can. We're going to have a hard time explaining this to the night-watchman if he's conscientious enough to check back here in the meantime," Sam called out as he walked. "And I, for one, wouldn't mind some fresh air. And a shower," he added with a wince. Dean could see him tugging the bile-stained shirt away from his skin, face scrunched up in disgust.

"I hear you," Dean shuddered. "But is that all this is?"

"All what is?" Sam turned, perplexed.

"Your speed to get out of here. You sure there isn't something else? You sure you've never seen something like this before?"

"You know I haven't," Sam frowned.

"Do I? None of this is ringing a bell somewhere in that head of yours?" The look he'd shared with Castiel had meant something. "Because if it is, you can just… un-ring it."

"You're asking me to remember whether or not I remember something, so I can be sure to remind myself to un-remember it?" Sam asked, a smile pulling at his lips. "I'd tell you, I promise," Sam continued, expression turning serious.

Dean nodded, trying to accept Sam's reassurance. Leaving a scene full of bodies behind wasn't ideal but they had to trust that Castiel knew what he was dealing with. Disposing of that many bodies would have been a major undertaking, one he wasn't sorry to delegate.

"You think maybe we dodged a bomb on this one?" Dean voiced as they headed back to the car.

Sam scrunched his face up in confusion.

"A whole nest of demons and all of them are dead?" Dean clarified. "Seems like someone did us a favour if you ask me."

"Yeah, well… Cas didn't exactly look ready to start handing out gift baskets to whoever put this thing together. In fact, he looked pretty concerned."

"Cas always looks that way."

"Yeah, but, more worried than usual."

"Something specifically designed to target demons? Not really seeing a downside, that's all I'm saying," Dean shrugged. "Could make our lives a whole lot easier."

"Maybe…" Sam relented with a sigh. He looked thoroughly miserable, tired and dirty, and Dean grinned.

"What?" Sam scowled, which just caused Dean to grin even harder. The Sam from a couple of weeks ago would have killed to get his hands on a weapon like that. To see his brother showing compassion and concern, no matter how messed up the situation… Dean wasn't going to be letting go of the joy in that simple action any time soon.

The mixture of exasperation, amusement and suspicion that was crossing Sam's face was one familiar to older brother's everywhere, and Dean was fairly certain was only possible with a soul.

Dean waited until Sam was in the shower before calling Bobby to tell him someone had beaten them to the kill. It was easier to hear the other man enquire whether Sam was a drooling mess yet, or slipping poison into Dean's morning coffee, without his brother in the room.

"You up for pizza?" he asked as Sam re-entered the room.

Sam scrunched up his nose in disgust. "After tonight? I don't think I'll ever be hungry again, but thanks."

"Wuss," Dean grinned, shaking his head. "Fine, I guess that means there'll be more for me then."

Sam tugged on some sweat pants then sat on his bed, towelling dry his hair, while Dean phoned in his order. When he hung up the phone, Sam was sitting with his head bowed, towel a crumpled heap at his feet, damp hair sticking up in all directions.

"You okay?" he asked, not liking the way Sam was staring at the floor.

No answer.

"Sam." Dean swatted him on the arm as he passed, causing his brother to jump. "What's gotten into you?"

"What? Nothing," Sam shook his head as though trying to clear it and Dean couldn't help the reflective flicker of worry. The scene at the warehouse had been pretty nasty, even by their standards, and Sam hadn't faced anything like that with a soul for a while now, but his head was not somewhere Dean felt comfortable letting him retreat to. Not with all the crazy that was locked up in there.

"They were demons Sam, and Bobby had been tracking the omens for a while. The hosts were probably all dead before… you know?" he offered.

"Yeah, I guess." Sam sighed, snatching up the towel and rising to his feet. He tossed the wet towel through the bathroom door as he passed and Dean rolled his eyes, knowing he'd have to pick it up and move it out of the way before taking his own shower.

"You cold?" Dean asked, watching as Sam pulled a hoody from his bag. "Dude, it's like a friggin furnace in here." Sam just shrugged again and finished dressing. Dean shook his head but decided to drop it for now. His brother liked layers, liked hiding behind them when he was down, and Dean wouldn't take that away from him now. Not something that was so Sam it almost hurt.

"I spoke to Bobby," he said instead.

"Oh yeah," Sam was perched back on the edge of his bed again. "I'm guessing he was just as surprised by this as we were."

"You got that right. And he's just as much of a killjoy as you are," Dean continued, grinning to himself when Sam rolled his eyes. "Seems to think something with that amount of power turning up unexpectedly, even in the hands of the angels – or perhaps especially in the hands of the angels, given the state of heaven right now – is unlikely to be a good thing."

"Great," Sam muttered.

"Yeah. Oh – but he did say the situation sounded familiar somehow, like maybe he'd read an account of it somewhere before. He's looking into it."

"Maybe we should head back, give him a hand," Sam suggested.

Dean hesitated. "I don't think… I'm sure he's got it covered."

"Oh… yeah," Sam's shoulders visibly slumped and he went back to the long distance staring, at the wall this time, the muscle in his jaw twitching.

"Sam, come on, man," Dean offered quietly. "It's not like that."

"No, it's okay – I get it. I do. After what I did, I wouldn't want me around either, so…"

"Hey. None of that was you and Bobby knows that. Just give him some time; he'll come around, okay?"

Sam remained silent.

"Okay?" Dean pressed a little more forcefully.

"Yeah, I guess," Sam relented, but he didn't look convinced.

Dean would have pressed the issue further, but he couldn't face the inevitable argument that would follow over who, or what, was responsible for Sam's actions while his soul has still been trapped in the cage. Also, the scent of grime and sickness from his clothing was starting to get to him.

He turned his nose up in disgust. "I have to shower. Try not to eat my pizza if I'm not out by the time it gets here."

"I'll do my best," Sam promised dryly and Dean smiled at his tone, reassured enough to leave Sam alone for a few minutes with his thoughts.

Dean needn't have worried about Sam honing in on his supper. He'd barely opened the box when the aroma had Sam pulling a face and retreating to the other side of the room. Dean just shrugged and purposefully took an extra large bite that made his brother issue a little snort of disgust and turn away.

The room fell silent as Dean concentrated on his food and Sam settled on his bed across the room, sorting through the piles of articles and print outs they'd compiled over the past few days. Dean knew he was working through them to see what could be thrown away, if any pieces of intel should be saved, or if there were any loose ends they might need to follow up on. Given that the demon's main source of fun, and the place they'd discovered the angelic weapon, was still un-investigated it was possible they weren't as finished here as they'd like.

Although if Castiel's demeanour tonight was anything to go by, the angel would probably be more than willing to pick up their loose ends unaided.

Dean was content to leave Sam to it for now. He knew this Sam, the one who was trying to distract himself by keeping his mind busy, recognised him and knew exactly how to deal with him, trusted that he would share what he was thinking in time.

Dean was reaching for his forth slice of pizza when the industrious movement from the other side of the room stilled.

"What?" Dean was distracted enough to look up. "We miss something?"

"No… I just…"

One look at the blood dripping from his brother's face and Dean nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to get off his bed. He stumbled as he grabbed at some tissues on the nightstand, not liking the way Sam was watching him with a strangely wistful smile.

"Thanks," Sam whispered, clearing his throat as he raised the offered tissues to his nose.

"Put your head down," Dean instructed, perching beside Sam on the bed, one palm flat on his brother's back, the other hand hovering in front of Sam's face.

"I know, I'm okay," Sam mumbled through the hand clamped against his face.

"Sure you are," Dean agreed, trying to block all of Bobby's warnings and dire predictions from his mind. It was a nosebleed, nothing more. Not a sign that there was anything deeply wrong in his brother's brain. Not proof that Hell was quite literally busting through the seams.

"You said you weren't remembering anything," he chided softly. Sam had been quiet since the warehouse. Dean had thought he'd merely been troubled by what they'd seen, not that he'd been sat in silence picking at the damn in his brain for the past three hours, until it had quite literally started to leak.

"You promised you weren't going to do this."

"I haven't."

"I know it's hard, but you have to let it go."

"It's not the wall," Sam issued gently. "It's not Hell. Well…" he shrugged and leaned further forward, avoiding Dean's eye. The hand holding the tissues to Sam's face was shaking slightly even though he was now bracing it on his knees, and Dean could feel the tremors through his back.

"Then what?"

"Dean…?" Sam's voice was thoroughly miserable, as though pained Dean had had to ask; would make him say it out loud.

"Sam – I don't…"

The headaches and the chills… we mistook them for the host's reaction to possession. By the time the bleeding started it was already too late.

Jerking his hand away from his brother's shoulder was purely reflex, but he could feel Sam tense and draw away as he did so, mouth grim.

"Don't worry, you wont catch it," Sam said coldly, lowering his hands to his lap.

"That wasn't…" Dean closed his eyes and shook his head, mentally willing himself to stay calm.

"You shouldn't have caught it either," he pointed out, resting his hand on top of Sam's, the one curled in his lap and still clutching the bloodstained tissue.

"Don't," Sam tried to move his hand away but Dean only tightened his grip.

"Sam?"

Sam looked away, Adam's apple bobbing.

"Cas said this thing was tuned in on demon DNA," Dean said. "Last time I checked you…"

"Demon blood," Sam mumbled, then cleared his throat. "I have demon blood in me. I guess that counts…" he trailed off with a shrug.

Dean went cold. "You don't get to do that," he said through gritted teeth. "You don't get to just shrug as though that's it, as though…"

"Well what the hell do you want me to do?" Sam raised his voice at last.

"Anything! Something. Not just give up. There has to be a cure for this thing. There had to be something we can…"

Sam raised his free hand to his mouth and laughed, a slight tint of hysteria colouring his voice, and broke off in a sob that had Dean pulling him closer. Sam didn't resist.

"You knew," Dean accused softly into the back of Sam's neck. "Back at the warehouse, as soon as he said it, you and Cas, you knew."

"I didn't know for sure," Sam sounded congested and impossibly young. "Not until now."

"Why the hell didn't you say something?"

Sam shrugged again, pulling away from Dean and clambering off the bed. "It's not like there's anything you could have done."

Dean leaned back, feeling as though he'd been struck. Sam would rather sit and worry in silence, confronted by the possibility of his own gruesome death, than share that burden with his brother. He knew Sam had gotten used to having to rely on himself but he'd thought they were past that now, that Dean's presence could at least offer something.

Sam deflated and looked apologetic. "That's not what I meant," he said gently, as though reading Dean's thoughts. "I just… there was no use you worrying too. Not when it could have been for nothing."

"Well that's where you're an idiot. Next time you tell me, okay?"

"Yeah, okay," Sam whispered, but at least he was smiling now, even if there was a slightly pitying edge to it.

"Where the hell is Cas," Dean ground out, rising to his feet. "He needs to…"

"He's looking into it; we should leave him be. If he's going to get answers, he needs to be given time to get them. He'll come as soon as he has something to tell us."

"We should at least tell him you're showing symptoms, hurry him along."

"He knows."

"How could he..?"

"Never underestimate the power of prayer." Sam smiled ruefully. "Besides, the way you're yelling he's probably guessed. We don't know where he is or where he's going to have to go for answers, we're probably better off not getting in his way. Let's just wait and see what he comes up with."

It made sense, but sitting back and waiting while Sam's life was at stake had never been something he was any good at.

"There has to be something we can do," Dean protested. He wrestled the laptop out of its case and flicked it on, tossing it on his bed while he waited for it to warm up. Sam was still standing at the far side of his bed watching him, arm curled protectively across his middle.

"Bobby said he'd heard about this weapon thing before," Dean pressed. "If there's something out there that can help, we'll find it."

Sam nodded and took a breath. "Okay," he agreed, striding around the bed to pick up the discarded laptop. Dean let him take it – Sam had always been better at web searches, better at pulling up something from nothing than he had, and Dean guessed he could use the distraction. At least there was some sign of Sam's usual stubbornness back in the set of his shoulders, the light of determination back on his face.

They'd been away from the warehouse for a couple of hours; Sam's symptoms didn't seem to be moving as quickly as the demon bitch had indicated. Nosebleeds he could handle; maybe they would get lucky and the vomiting and haemorrhaging would pass them by.

"Are you gonna eat that?" Sam asked, pointing to the half eaten pizza on Dean's bed. "The smell's kinda making me nauseas."

-0-

Sam lay back on the bed, trying to will the pounding in his head down to more manageable levels. The laptop was closed and abandoned at his side, anything to block out the light. The glare of the screen made his eyes ache and he couldn't decide what was making him feel more ill, the computer or the accounts he was reading of demon plagues that caused people's blood to boil or liquefied their insides.

Dean was outside getting some air. Sam knew he was on the phone to Bobby – he could hear the dull murmur of desperation in his voice and watched his shadow passing the window as Dean paced.

Sam curled miserably, hit by a coughing spasm that didn't seem to want to stop. There were tears in his eyes, pain in his chest and throat before he finally felt able to uncurl, wiping the blood from his lips with a shaking hand.

This wasn't fair.

He'd gone to Hell in the hope of redemption and his body had been topside doing who knew what the whole time. But he had a chance now to make that right – to at least try.

He'd barely had his soul back for a week, and it was over.

The door opened and Dean slipped back into the room, his eyes immediately seeking out Sam's. He didn't need to say anything for Sam to know exactly what he was thinking. Dean had given up his family and his normal for Sam, had gotten him out of Hell only to have to sit and watch him die.

"Bobby's on his way over now. He should be here in a couple of hours," Dean told him quietly. Sam took a shaky breath and nodded. Dean didn't need to say it. Bobby wouldn't give up the hours it would take to get here, away from his research, if he believed there was anything to find.

"What about Bobby's lead?" he asked anyway. "That a bust?"

Dean looked away. "He said he found a couple of references in some of his more obscure texts about attempts to make poisons or viruses to kill demons, and they quote a lot of rumours, but he tends to agree with Cas. The general consensus is, it isn't possible. Whatever it was, it doesn't exist..." Dean continued, still avoiding eye contact.

"Which means no one's ever recorded a cure," Sam finished for him. "Doesn't mean there isn't one," he offered. Although the odds of them finding it in time were slim.

He could tell by the look on Dean's face that his brother was thinking the same thing.

Sam pushed the laptop aside and swung his legs onto the floor. He'd only half raised from the bed before Dean was hovering at his side.

"Where the hell are you going? You should rest."

Sam swallowed against the nausea, and the light of panic in Dean's eyes, and pointed one shaking finger at the bathroom door in answer.

"Oh." Dean took a step back but remained within reaching distance. "You need a hand? You gonna hurl?"

"Not unless you keep talking about it," Sam warned and took a hesitant step away from the bed. "I'm good," he said, unable to keep the surprise out of his own voice as his legs continued to support him. "Thanks."

Dean nodded but didn't move away, rocking from one foot to the other as though totally unsure what to do with himself.

"I'm not a demon," Sam told him, needing to do something to erase the lost look from his brother's face. "I know it's in me, but that isn't who I am. What I am. Not any more."

"I know," Dean nodded, and for maybe the first time Sam believed him.

Dean had called him a lot of things in the past and he knew the demon blood, the powers, were things it was hard for Dean to see past. Sam had wanted for so long for Dean to be able to look at him and see his brother, not just the damage and the obligation. Maybe Sam had had to go to Hell for them to get there, but he knew in that second that it had been worth it. Even if a week was all the time they got, Dean was no longer looking at him as though he was waiting to be disappointed again. It made Sam feel as though he could breathe for the first time in a long time, and it was worth it.

But not for Dean. Sam knew from experience how hard it was to be the one left behind. Dean had only just got him back.

"This thing, whatever it was," Sam continued. "It was designed to kill demons. And since I'm not one, we don't really know what it's going to do to me."

"That's not really comforting, Sam."

"What I mean is… we don't know how this is going to play out. I'm not affected by salt or holy water or anything else that's designed to work against demons. I might still have the blood in me but I'm not actually a demon. We don't know it's going to kill me. My symptoms are milder than what we saw; you know you've been thinking it yourself. Maybe it's slower because it isn't going to affect me as badly."

Or maybe it would just take him longer to die.

"I don't want to always assume the worst, Dean. I can't be constantly on edge. So can we, I don't know… unclench a little."

Dean stopped fidgeting and stood a little taller.

"Okay then," Sam nodded. "I still gotta…" he tilted his head at the bathroom door but waited for Dean's nod of acknowledgement before he left the room. He wasn't stupid enough to think his words would have done anything to make Dean feel better, not really, but he would take even Dean's forced calm over watching his brother unravel.

Sam made the mistake of glancing up while washing his hands; he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror above the sink and flinched. His eyes were bloodshot, skin pale and chalky. He couldn't smooth the wrinkled of pain from his forehead even though he tried.

The bathroom light was making his head pound, and he couldn't seem to stop shaking.

He turned off the tap and lowered his head, breathing deep while he steadied himself against the sink.

His breath caught and the bout of coughing took him by surprise, grating and fierce, echoing through the tiny room. He bent double, resting his arms on the counter while he rode it out, vaguely aware of his brother's voice in the background and the rattling of the bathroom door. By the time the spasm had passed he was panting and exhausted.

Sam lifted his head with a groan, then leaned to the side to flick back the lock. By the time Dean had recognised the sound and pushed the door open, Sam was upright once more and had wiped the tears from his face. Dean's jaw tightened as he took in the blood flecked sink but his face softened when he looked at Sam.

"Come on, let's get you to bed," was all he said, placing one hand on the flat of Sam's back, the other gripping his elbow as he guided Sam gently out of the room. Sam couldn't stop shaking, had been afraid that if he let go of the sink his legs would refuse to hold him, and he sniffled in gratitude.

He sighed with relief when they made it back to the bed. Dean tossed aside the laptop and turned down the covers and Sam didn't have the energy or inclination to protest, just sank into the mattress as Dean fussed with his blanket and pillows, propping him upright just enough so that he could rest without struggling to breathe.

"Thanks," Sam whispered again when he was settled, earning him a tight nod. His eyes tracked Dean's movements back to the bathroom door and remind there after his brother had disappeared inside.

The tap was running for several minutes but when Dean emerged, red eyed and with a damp shirt, he was carrying only one glass of water.

"Works better if you close your eyes," Dean told him, placing the glass on the nightstand.

"What does?"

"Rest, sleep..."

"I don't want to sleep."

If possible, the expression Dean threw him was even more pained.

Maybe it would be easier if he did, but he felt as though he'd slept away enough of the last year. There was so much he'd already missed. Even if this was going to be the end, he didn't want to lose more of himself.

He couldn't tell whether or not his brother got it. Whether it would be easier on Dean in the long run if Sam did what he asked – would sleeping now be robbing his brother of time, or making it easier for him to bear what they had left?

He sank back into the pillow. His heart was pounding as though he'd been running – either the brief walk from the bathroom had left him more exhausted than he'd realised, or his fear was starting to get the better of him.

Stepping into Hell had been one thing, the most difficult and most important thing he'd ever do, but beneath the gut wrenching terror there had been a sense of purpose that somehow made it easier to throw himself into the unknown.

This was such a pointless way to die. Pain and suffering and indignity; and a big glaring question mark over what came next. Now was not the time to mention it to Dean, but he somehow didn't think being Lucifer's vessel would have earned him a place in heaven.

He felt a stab of nausea so painful he closed his eyes, willing his stomach to settle. He rolled onto his side, biting his lip to keep in a moan, flinching in surprise when something damp and cool settled on his forehead.

He opened one eye to see Dean's worried face, the instant before his brother smiled and lowered his mask back into place. Dean had pulled up a chair beside his bed. He was leaning forward in it now, one hand pressing the damp wash cloth against Sam's brow, fingers absently rubbing circled through his hair. He doubted Dean was even aware he was doing it, but it was bliss against his aching head.

He hummed his thanks and closed his eyes again. Moisture tickled his cheek; whether it was a tear or a stray drip from the cloth he didn't know. He didn't want to open his eyes and find out.

Bobby might have had no luck with the book research, but Sam still had sites he'd bookmarked, accounts he hadn't looked through, searches he hadn't tried. He had to believe that Castiel would find something, would be here soon to bring them news.

He had to get up. He had to open his eyes and get off his ass and he had to prove to his brother that he wasn't going to be defeated. Wasn't going to let either of them be defeated. Wasn't going to let the curse in his veins rob them of anything more.

But before he did any of that, he just had to take a minute to breathe. It wasn't giving up, it was re-grouping. He was just going to stay here until the pain killers kicked in and he could open his eyes without screaming. He was still in the game, and he was going to prove that. Any, minute, n…

TBC