I was going to finish the story at the last chapter but it seemed a bit up in the air, so let's continue a little longer.

Chapter 9

Sam combs fingers through his hair and exhales a noisy breath. Driving solo, with the driver window down, he can't shake the feeling of claustrophobia, like the walls are closing in. Two weeks into amnesia Dean still doesn't know that Ruby is a demon. He's surmised that Sam and Ruby are spending time together (although Sam hasn't admitted to it), assumed that the relationship is sexual, but somehow it hasn't been revealed to him that Ruby is a demon, and Sam knows it's only a matter of time, Bobby will tell him, or Castiel will tell him, or maybe even Ruby herself. And the longer it goes unknown, the more frantic Sam becomes to finish Lilith, to finish that quest before his brother knows anything about it. He's chasing her around the country, following every lead Ruby gives him, covering it with hunts as best he can. He's meeting with Ruby more than he ever has in the past, every few days, practicing his skills, dosing up with demon blood, ready, so ready, for a confrontation with Lilith. And it eludes him, he's gets frustratingly close to catching up with her and then she's gone. He feels exhausted, both mentally and physically, trying to live two lives and not have them catch up to each other.

Meanwhile, Dean is unraveling. He's sliding back into the old habit of relying too heavily on alcohol, using it as a crutch to get him through the day. And Sam cares, he really does, it concerns him to see his brother struggling, but he can't focus on it right now, he can't be distracted from his primary focus of killing Lilith and ending the apocalypse. He's frustrated that the angel experiment, of relieving Dean of the memories, hasn't worked. It's actually made things worse, because not only is Dean as dysfunctional as ever, now he's missing skills and knowledge. He really isn't coping without Dad. He doesn't mention it too often, but Sam can tell he's having trouble dealing with the sudden loss, and the lack of support. It was too jarring a break, he wasn't mentally prepared and he can't adjust to the new reality.

He pilots the Impala into the motel parking lot, feeling strong from the demon blood he just ingested, all powerful, and knows he has to hide it. He has food supplies to cover the meeting with Ruby but it's getting harder and harder to explain the extended absences. He's starting to think he should just tell Dean when he's meeting with Ruby, it's what Dean suspects anyway.

Sam walks through the motel room door and stops when he sees Bobby sitting in an armchair, half-drunk beer resting on his knee.

"Hey," Sam greets in surprise, gives his brother an inquiring look, silently asking if he knew Bobby was coming.

Dean doesn't meet his gaze, keeps his eyes firmly averted, and alarm bells ring.

"Hey," Bobby returns, friendly enough. "I was in the neighborhood and thought I might drop by, see how you boys are doing."

"Huh." Sam continues into the room, places the grocery bags he's carrying onto a bench in the mini-kitchen. He feels the tension in the room, and can only guess at what was discussed before he arrived. "I think we're doing okay. Considering. Right Dean?"

Dean is quiet, looks like he's working up to something, and Sam can read the body language, knows whatever is coming is going to be unpleasant.

"I know what you've been doing." Dean's voice is low and dangerous. "I know Ruby is a demon."

Sam raises his eyebrows, playing surprised, while cursing inwardly. "Is that right?"

It's funny that he was only just musing on this subject on the drive over, Dean discovering the truth about Ruby. If he'd known the jig was already up he might have kept driving.

"I know you've been…" Dean pauses, takes a swig of beer and looks so desperately unhappy that it dawns on Sam, the reason for Dean's slide back into alcohol, is in part because of him, of what he's been doing with Ruby, the secrecy. It's not the whole reason, there's a lot more going on than just that, but it's a factor. And Sam has a stab of guilt.

With eyes on Bobby, Sam asks, "What did you tell him?"

"I didn't tell him anything," Bobby defends mildly. "He called me." A wan smile pulls at Bobby's lips as he says, "You know that part of hunting is investigation, right?"

Sam rolls his eyes. Great. Dean followed him. Ironic, given it was how Dean found out about Ruby the first time around. Sam honestly didn't expect it of his brother in his current state, didn't expect him to be so suspicious or sneaky. He keeps thinking of Dean as naïve without his memories, and he's not, it's a foolish underestimation. Now he's wondering what exactly his brother saw, and says pre-emptively, "Look Dean, we've been down this road before. I know how you feel…"

"You have no idea," Dean interrupts emphatically. "You have no idea, or you wouldn't be doing it. I saw you…" he shakes his head, swallows. "I saw you drink her blood."

Bobby looks alarmed, eyes go wide. "You sure about that?"

Dean tilts his chin in Bobby's direction and says quietly, "I'm sure."

Sam chuckles, a nervous reaction to being trapped. It's worse than he thought. He anticipated a clash about practicing his skills, but Dean didn't just catch him with Ruby, he really caught him, saw everything.

Deny? Admit? He has no idea how to minimize the damage.

"It's not what you think," he offers.

Dean's eyes narrow and he repeats slowly, "You drank her blood." The muscles in his jaw tic. "Tell me how I misunderstood that."

Sam purses his lips, anger welling. He knew this would be Dean's reaction, it's exactly why he's been meeting Ruby in secret, what he's been trying to avoid. Dean doesn't even know the full story, doesn't know that the demon blood enhances his powers, which is to their benefit, but already he's passed judgment. There is nothing he can say that will placate his brother, no argument he can make that Dean will find reasonable. So he goes on the offensive.

"Why is Bobby here? Did you tell him to come?"

Dean juts his jaw. "Don't change the subject."

"You couldn't discuss this with me in private? I don't appreciate being outnumbered. We could have worked this out."

"I doubt it," Dean retorts, but gives Bobby an apologetic look. "I asked Bobby to come because he knows more about what's going on than I do. I wanted him here so you couldn't mislead me, tell me things that I have no idea of knowing are true or not."

"When have I done that?" Sam exclaims, outraged, amid a certainty that whatever misleading he might have done was to protect Dean, he was trying to be sensitive. "You trust him more than me? A week ago you couldn't stand him. I'm your brother. I know what I'm doing. You should trust me, before anyone else."

"Sam." Dean says the word quietly, with a plea for understanding. "Ruby is a demon…"

"I know what she is," Sam fires back sharply. "She is an opportunity to win a war. You have never understood that. You are so blinded by black and white. She is a short-cut, and it is to our advantage to use her." Dean's expression is closed, unmoved, and Sam clicks his tongue impatiently. "But there's no use talking to you about it. You won't listen." He shifts his gaze to Bobby, pleads, "Tell him. Tell him that we need to use every resource we have available to prevent the apocalypse?"

Bobby gives Sam an even look, draws in a breath and says slowly, "You need to think real hard about what you're doing. I would hate for you to find yourself on the wrong side."

Sam grits his teeth, hands ball into fists. Typical for Bobby to throw his weight behind Dean. A strained silence descends. Sam considers whether to pursue his argument, but quickly decides it's a lost cause, both of these men are too fixed in their views to contemplate something unconventional. He snatches up the keys that he just placed on the counter and storms out, needing space.

He drives for 15 minutes then pulls into a Walmart carpark, leaves the keys under the seat, texts Dean the location (because even he isn't heartless enough to deprive his brother of his most prized possession), and steals another car nearby. He drives for 2 hours, into the next state, replaying in his head, over and over, what went down and how he could have handled it differently. And how he should handle things from here. He comes to the conclusion that he should stay away from his brother for a while, until he has finished with Lilith. Once he has dispensed with Lilith he can say sayonara to Ruby and return cap in hand to Dean. And Dean will forgive him. Dean always does.

Dean goes jogging at 5 in the morning. He hasn't done it in weeks, without Dad acting as drill sergeant he's slackened off. But he needs some fresh air and movement. He tried drowning his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey overnight and that didn't help, didn't give him any ideas on how to deal with Sam, so he's hoping some physical exertion will clear his head and give him a new perspective.

It's before dawn and cold. He wears sweatpants and a t-shirt and the chill in the air motivates him to move faster. He winds his way through neighboring streets, pays minor attention to the passing houses, wonders idly about the people living inside and if their lives are as complicated as his. He gets completely lost, which is good, it makes him run further, it's nearly two hours later when the motel finally comes into sight. He slows to a walk and breathes deeply as he approaches, hands on hips, working to get his respiration back to normal.

As he nears the room he sees a man standing next to his car, waiting. Dean doesn't recognize the guy; older, balding, solid, well dressed, looks a bit like a lawyer. His pace decreases and he's immediately on the alert. He can't enter the room without passing the man and sizes him up from head to toe, judging if he could take him in a fight, figures he could if it came to it.

"Hey Dean," the man greets him warmly, voice like Brando. "Bobby said you would be along, and here you are."

A little tension leaves Dean at the thought that Bobby has vetted him. "Here I am," Dean returns with a taut smile.

"I heard that you and Sam had gone your separate ways…" the man begins.

Dean's eyebrows shoot up. Sam only left yesterday. And he would hardly call it going their separate ways. He wonders who this guy is, that he knows already that Sam left. One of Bobby's friends? "Boy, are you misinformed," Dean cuts in brusquely.

"No, it's fine," the man raises a hand dismissively. "I know how these things work. You fight, Sam flounces off, you make up. I know Sam will be back. But I wanted to return something to you." He slowly and carefully reaches behind his back and pulls from his waistband a large hunting knife. It seems incongruous, a brutal weapon being produced from expensive clothing, it makes Dean wonder anew who is this guy? "You gave this to me a few weeks back. I thought you might need it if you don't have Sam watching your back. Seeing as how it kills demons."

Dean tilts his head, clarifies, "The knife kills demons?"

"Of course." The man stares at him intently, like it's something he should know, and Dean wonders why he doesn't, why Sam wouldn't mention a demon killing knife, and comes to the conclusion that Sam would have, the guy must be deluded.

"Right. Yeah," Dean says noncommittally.

The man moves cautiously toward him, with the knife passively laid across his palm, offering it up. Dean raises a halting hand, alarmed at being approached by a stranger with a knife, no matter how submissive the demeanor. "Hold up. Let me grab the car keys and we can put it in the trunk." He edges toward the motel room door, feeling vulnerable without a weapon.

"Just take it, Dean," the man says impatiently, still approaching. "I need to get going."

"Stop," Dean growls, irritated that he doesn't know if the guy is friend or foe. "Bobby!" he calls, kinda surprised the old guy hasn't ventured out already, heard the voices. Suddenly it occurs to him that if Bobby greeted the man at the door, the stranger would be waiting inside, or Bobby would be waiting outside with him. Bobby wouldn't allow Dean to encounter a stranger solo, he's too protective.

With the man almost upon him, Dean realizes that he is in danger, but there is little opportunity for defense. He snatches for the knife in the man's palm, but his hand is blocked and eyes flit to black as the stranger slides the hilt into his grip and thrusts the blade into Dean's chest, up under his ribs.

The blow knocks the breath out of Dean, he doubles at the waist, gulping in air, and squeezes his eyes tight against a hot flash of pain that sweeps him from head to toe.

"We used to do this all day," Alistair murmurs into his ear, intimately close. "I can't tell you how much I've missed it."

Dean grasps the man's jacket lapels with both hands, initially to push the man away, but then to keep himself upright because as he sinks lower the knife penetrates deeper, and he can feel his knees about to give way.

"When I heard you were solo, I had to come," the demon jeers. "And get reacquainted. It hurts that I've been expunged from your memory, the angels took away the best part."

He extracts the knife with a sharp pull back of his arm and Dean collapses heavily to the ground with a choked cry, clutching his chest. He drags himself a few feet toward the door, intent upon reaching the safety of the motel room.

Alistair watches for a moment, allows him to make some progress, finding it amusing that Dean thinks four walls could provide any protection. But his amusement turns to vexation when Castiel appears.

"What are you, his lap dog?" Alistair taunts, shoulders slump a little at the premature end to his entertainment. "Don't you have better things to do with your time than keep an eye on this human?"

Castiel doesn't dignify a reply, narrows his eyes menacingly, ready to do battle.

"Fine. Have him," the demon accedes ungraciously. "Consider yourself lucky that I have bigger fish to fry. But I'm keeping the knife,"and he disappears before he can be challenged.

Bobby stumbles from the motel room, goose egg on his temple from being roughly dealt with by the demon. He quickly takes in the scene, drops the flask of holy water he had grabbed for protection and races to where Dean lays. He shifts the young hunter onto his back and exhales in dismay at the gaping wound. Castiel is standing protectively a few steps away, which makes Bobby nervous, unsure if he is sensing the demon still nearby. He gives the angel a few seconds to come and help and when he doesn't, figures it's up to him to render aid and quickly shucks off his flannel shirt and presses it hard over Dean's injury, trying to staunch the alarming flow of blood.

Dean raises a hand and weakly grips Bobby shirt, tries to say something but can't get words past the gasping and choking. No way, Bobby thinks. We're not doing last words. "You're alright, son," he reassures, then raises his voice to address the angel. "Little help?"

The angel shifts his focus to Bobby, fury in his eyes. "I should have been here," he remarks in disgust, berating himself.

"Nobody's perfect," Bobby says quickly, no time for recriminations. "Could you come and heal Dean before he expires on me?"

Castiel kneels beside the injured man, places a hand on his chest, just above where Bobby is applying pressure, and closes his eyes in concentration. He opens his eyes, looks at Bobby and says solemnly, "I can't. He is too badly damaged."

"He's what?" Bobby is incredulous, thinks he must have misunderstood. "You're an angel. Just produce a miracle."

The angel's lips thin at the simplification. "Producing a miracle doesn't mean that I can heal him. This injury is intricate, I don't have the skill to fix it."

Bobby's mouth drops open, aghast, and suddenly he's very afraid, goes cold all over. He can feel Dean trembling under his hands, going into shock. With an angel right beside them he has the unwelcome thought that Dean may die. It seems unbelievable.

Castiel gazes at Dean, deep in thought and says hesitantly, "I can slow the bleeding, keep his heart beating, but he will need medical assistance."

"Okay, then do it," the older man retorts, the squeeze in his chest loosening a little, relieved that Castiel has some skills, that they're not going to sit here and watch Dean bleed out.

Castiel wrinkles his brow in offence, looks down at the hand still resting on Dean's chest then back to Bobby, silently conveying what do you think I'm doing? "I would suggest you get him medical assistance quickly."

"Yeah, thanks," Bobby replies sarcastically and races inside to retrieve his cell phone, using fingers slippery with blood to dial for an ambulance.

Bobby sits in a chair beside Dean's hospital bed with his arms folded across his chest. He had shed a few tears earlier, in the waiting room, tipped his cap down low over his eyes and let them fall, momentarily overwhelmed by the violence in the boys' lives, the amount of suffering. He's seen both of them dead! Dean ripped by hell hounds not even a year ago, Sam knifed in the back. He doesn't know how much more he can take. He doesn't know how much more they can take.

Sam sits across from him, on the other side of the bed. Credit to him, when Bobby called, he hustled, got there in about half the time he said he would. There have been very few words between them. Other than Bobby reciting what happened, they have waited together in silence, lost in their own thoughts.

Dean is settled in a double room, with the other bed vacant. His prognosis is good, miraculously so, but he still had to undergo surgery and isn't expected to wake until morning. It's only late afternoon, and Bobby is eyeing the second bed speculatively, considering it a shame for it to go to waste when he is feeling bone weary, his head pounding. He turns when he hears a rustling sound, and discovers Castiel in the room.

The angel moves to Dean's side, places his hand on his chest and nods in satisfaction. "He will be fine," he pronounces.

"Give him back his memories," Bobby demands in a low angry voice. He surprises himself with the lack of preamble, he should at least thank the angel for saving Dean, but he's had a lot of time to reflect on what happened, and he's furious that Dean was made vulnerable by the angels' interference. He should have recognized Alistair. The situation would have gone very differently if he had.

"That is not within my power," Castiel returns mildly, attention still on Dean.

"Don't give me that crap," Bobby huffs. "I know that you can."

Castiel turns and regards him coolly. "I can only do it if Dean asks."

"Bullshit," Bobby snaps. "Don't make up rules. This is on you. Alistair got this close to him," he stands up and shuffles toward the angel until they are toe to toe, "and Dean had no idea who he was. No clue." He narrows his eyes and warns, "Give him back the memories. Before you get him killed."

Castiel glares at Bobby, tilts his head at the man provokingly standing his ground, staying in his space. It's a silent showdown and Bobby knows he's woefully outgunned, that Castiel could smite him with a snap of his fingers. But he's angry enough not to care, Dean is a cause worth dying for.

"Do it Cas," Sam interjects quietly. "Give him back the memories. Taking them away hasn't helped."

Castiel presses his lips together. "I have orders to follow. It is not up to me."

Bobby lets out an irritated breath, shakes his head in disappointment, steps back and mutters, "Bullshit. You could do it if you wanted."

Castiel casts his gaze back to Dean, regards him pensively for a few moments, then disappears.

Bobby sighs, give Sam a weary smile and says, "Glad we're on the same page."


And they descend back into silence, neither of them feeling talkative.

Castiel doesn't leave the room, he continues to watch invisibly. He feels responsible for Dean. Ever since he rescued him from hell he feels like Dean is his personal charge. It's not proper, there should be an arms-length between angels and humans, he cannot be one man's personal savior (and Dean has never asked it of him). Nevertheless, he can't shake the feeling. When it come to this human he is in constant turmoil.

Dean rests peacefully and Castiel knows he will recover fully, he has made sure of it, shored up the work of the doctors and cleansed Dean of anything that could cause infection. He should be doing other things, heaven is losing the war against hell and he is needed, spending time at Dean's bedside is an egregious luxury. But he is incapable of directing his attention elsewhere while he is disquieted, torn between what he should do and what he has been told to do. He resents the interference in Dean's life, it feels like an affront, like his guardianship was found lacking. He's always been a good soldier, not the sort to make waves, but he finds himself questioning the wisdom of his brothers.

While Sam and Bobby sleep, deep into the morning hours, Castiel moves toward Dean. He stands close beside him for many minutes, staring at him, considering, trying to decide what is right. He needs to reach a resolution now, to return the memories or not, the issue has lingered too long and is proving distracting.

Finally, he whispers, "I'm sorry," and places a hand on the injured man's head.

Whatever decision he made he was going to be sorry.

Dean sucks in a breath, his body stiffens at the touch, but he doesn't wake, and after a moment he relaxes back into slumber. Castiel places both hands on the bed's edge, and drops his head, feeling every bit his age. He is going to be seriously reprimanded for countermanding instructions. And he's not sure he did the right thing, at least that would be some consolation for the punishment. Dean isn't in danger from the unknown anymore, which is right, but he no longer has any protection from the memories of hell, and it nearly broke him before. If he could remove just a year of memories, or isolate all that occurred in hell... But those more skilled than him tried and were unsuccessful, it had never been the intention to relieve Dean of so much, the human brain is not a simple organ to manipulate. And his amateur interference could cause irreparable damage.

For better or worse, Dean is now whole again.