... Kevin, I...
... what have I...
... it's all my fault...
... I wish I hadn't...
... I wish I'd...
... God, I'm so sorry...
I wish I could take it back, I wish I could fix it, just one do-over, God, please...
Dean doesn't know if anyone can hear him.
"Sammy, looks like we found the Batcave." Dean pauses. "We should bring Kevin here."
Sam turns, blinks, shrugs. "Sure."
Two days later, Kevin's still trying to argue with Sam that reading a massive dusty tome he found in the back of the bunker's library does constitute a study break because at least he doesn't have to translate anything when Dean drags in three memory foam mattresses that he found on sale. Later he brings Kevin food and coffee instead of NoDoz and makes him take a shower and sleep for at least three hours.
Kevin frowns, confused. "Dean, why are you being so nice to me all of a sudden?"
Dean doesn't have an answer.
As the Impala speeds away from Lucifer's Crypt, Dean tries not to let Sam see it, but he's reeling. Meg's just sacrificed herself to save them—Meg, their oldest and dearest enemy—and Cas has gone psycho and snapped out of it and taken off with the angel tablet, not trusting Dean again and also claiming that Sam's messed up in ways he can't heal. They're short on allies and long on problems, and this time Dean can't call Bobby even to vent.
Sam drifts off on the way home but coughs wetly even in his sleep, and it's all Dean can do to keep his eyes on the road. The car's not exactly silent, given the noise of the road and the purr of his baby's engine, but there's a certain kind of stillness that settles heavily around him. And he finds himself doing something he almost never does.
God, this is Dean Winchester. Look, I know... you and me, we got our problems. But Sam's doing these trials in your name, and he hurtin'. He's hurtin' bad. And this one was supposed to be on me. Cas says he can't be healed, but... if-if there's some way, let me take on some of his burden. Let me be the one to suffer, or... at least share it somehow. The road is straight and empty, and Dean risks a worried glance at his brother. I know what he said he wants for me, and I'm okay with that as long as he's alive and happy... but I can't outlive him again.
He thinks he feels... something he can't quite put his finger on, almost like something like a rope or chain being pulled out of his chest and hooked to Sam's. He can't tell if it's his imagination or not. Whatever it is, though, he suddenly feels both drained and relieved. So he pulls himself together and gets them home.
Sam's still coughing in the morning, and Dean feels a little like he might have the flu, but he doesn't think anything of it.
In fact, it doesn't truly register that anything's odd until two weeks later, when Sam finishes the second trial and collapses and Dean can feel his own strength draining away as he hauls Sam to his feet and gets him to the car. By then, he barely remembers his plea. All he can think about at the moment is getting Sammy home—but when they reach a town with a motel, Dean's feeling rotten enough to pull over and get a room. It's a king, and he doesn't care. He just hauls Sam inside so they can both collapse on the bed, and somehow he winds up cuddling Sam as if Sammy were 30 months old instead of 30 years old.
Dean wakes to find his shirt spattered with the blood Sam's been coughing up. He takes the shirt outside and burns it before getting coffee and doughnuts from the continental breakfast and collecting Sam, who's barely awake by the time he gets back. They could stay another night, probably, but Dean's not going to feel safe until they get home.
Sam sleeps most of the morning. Not until after they've both eaten lunch does he wake up enough to really look at Dean and ask, "Dean? Are you okay?"
Dean shrugs. He doesn't really know what to say.
Sam sits up straighter. "What did you do?"
"Not what you're thinking."
"I don't know, okay? But it's not a deal or anything of the kind. I... I prayed. I don't even remember what I said."
"You prayed? To Cas?"
"No." Dean doesn't even know where to start figuring out what he thinks about Cas right now. And he doesn't know how to admit the truth.
"Then..." Sam pauses long enough to figure it out. "God? Seriously?"
Sam looks like he's torn between being shocked, impressed, and amused, but he lets it drop. "So what happened?"
"I don't know. All I know is, that trial hit me as bad as it hit you." Dean holds up a finger. "But don't you dare think about backin' out or tryin' to undo whatever that prayer did. You're closing Hell. That's final. And if this is what it takes for me to get you through it alive, then so be it."
Sam sighs. "Dean, you've suffered enough. I just want you to be happy."
Dean looks him in the eye. "I can't do this without you, little brother."
Sam looks at him for a moment and nods slowly. "Okay. Thank you."
They stop for the night in Joliet and both sleep like they've been drugged. Kevin barely acknowledges them when they get back to the bunker, but Dean's too zapped to care, and when Kevin finally comes to his room to ask about supper, he mumbles something incoherent and goes right back to sleep. Somehow Kevin manages without him.
Two more days of rest get both Sam and Dean mostly back on their feet, although they're both still feeling pretty rough and Kevin's decided they're in bad enough shape to be a decent distraction from his own worries. Not that Kevin can do much, but he's tolerable at making soup. And he's hit a brick wall—the last column of the tablet half he has breaks off in mid-sentence. There won't be a third trial until they get the other half back from Crowley, which will take a miracle.
Then they get a call from Charlie. "Hey, um... I was gonna call you anyway, because I think I found you guys a case, but then a friend of yours showed up and said she needs me to bring you something. Her name is Meg?"
"Meg's alive?!" Dean asks, and Sam echoes him a second later.
"Hang on," Charlie replies. "She's right here."
A second later, Dean hears a familiar nasal drawl of, "Howdy, Dean."
Dean's eyes slip shut on their own. "Never thought I'd be this glad to hear your voice."
Meg chuckles, but it sounds pained. "Hey, listen, Crowley's off chasing Clarence, so I stopped by his office while he was out. Guess what I found?"
"Y—seriously? Which tablet?"
"Well, it's busted. That's all I know."
Dean sighs. "Bless you, Meg."
"No call to get nasty," she teases. "Me an' Red, we're in Topeka. Why don't I stay put and let her bring it to you?"
"Sounds like a plan. And Meg... be careful."
"'M always careful," she purrs and hands the phone back to Charlie.
Charlie sounds nervous when she speaks again. "We've got wards up. I think she'll be okay for a few hours."
Dean nods. "All right. Lemme give you our 20—but don't write it down. Don't even repeat it back to me."
He rattles off the coordinates for the bunker. "Whatever you do, do not tell Meg where you're going."
"Got it," she replies. Then there's the sound of a door closing, and she lowers her voice. "Dude, she's in really rough shape. I don't—"
"Charlie. She's a demon."
He can almost hear her pale. "But..." Then she gasps. "Wait, Meg as in Azazel's daughter? That Meg?"
He blinks. "How the hell do you know that?"
"I... found these books by Carver Edlund."
He sighs heavily.
"But if she's that Meg, then..."
"Look, Chuck may not have known what was coming the last couple of years. It's kind of an 'enemy of my enemy' kind of thing. She won't hurt you. But she's still a demon, and you can't trust her."
"Okay." She pauses. "Are you sure it's safe to leave her here?"
"Better than bringin' her with you."
"Okay. I'll, um... I'll be there in a few hours."
"See you soon. And Charlie? Thanks."
He hears the smile in her "Anytime."
It's a little over three hours later when she arrives with burgers and beer and pie and the missing half of the demon tablet. After a round of hugs and general updates and Sam trying not to cough in her ear, as well as a brief geek-out session between her and Kevin, Kevin gets the tablet put back together and starts looking for the info on the final trial. And Charlie fills them in on the case in Salina. Neither brother is anywhere near full strength, but it's definitely a hunt, so they go.
Meg kills the coroner-djinn when it turns up in Topeka to try to nab Charlie. Unfortunately, she doesn't kill it fast enough, so Dean has to dreamwalk to help Charlie break the loop while Meg and Sam go back to Salina to gank the djinn's son, and then Dean and Sam go with Charlie to say goodbye to her mom. That's a long way from awesome.
What is awesome is what Sam, Dean, and Charlie find when they get back to the bunker. "Castiel stopped by," Kevin informs them, waving the angel tablet. "He said he's going to keep Crowley and Naomi busy for as long as he can. And I found the third trial."
Dean hugs him on principle. "What's the trial?"
"To cure a demon."
Sam turns to Charlie. "Are you needed back in Michigan right away? We could use your help figuring out how to do this."
"Are you kidding?" Charlie replies. "Dude, this is way more important than anything that might be waiting when I get back to work. And besides that, I've got one of the pieces you need, back at my place."
Catching her drift, Dean looks at Sam. "You and Kevin start on the files. We'll go talk to Meg."
"And I am driving," Charlie insists.
Dean smiles and lets her.
Sam calls about the time they get to Topeka; he and Kevin have found not only a promising lead on a file but also a storeroom that has a dungeon in it. Said dungeon has warded chains and a devil's trap on the floor. They all agree that it's both awesome and perfect.
In Charlie's apartment, Meg paces as Dean brings her up to speed. "Lemme get this straight," she finally says. "You've got a way to close Hell's gates for good, and all it takes is turning me back into a human."
"Pretty much," he replies. "And let's face it. You got no clout Downstairs anymore, and you've been working with us. Not to mention whatever it is you and Cas got goin' on."
Charlie looks slightly weirded out by the mental image.
Meg keeps pacing. "Y'know, Crowley said you guys were up to something like this. And I don't care what happens to him. I really don't. But there are perks, y'know?"
"Oh, sure," Charlie chimes in sarcastically. "You can throw people around and make 'em scream and cry, but you can't touch salt, and the right kind of scribble can stop you cold."
Meg glares at her but comes to a stop in front of one of the windows and looks down at the salt line pensively.
"Meg," Dean says, surprised at his own gentleness. "You're barely alive now. You run into Crowley again, and he will kill you. But you've got a shot at being human again. You can do it right. You can be happy. Hell, you try hard enough, maybe you can even make it to Heaven."
The look she shoots him isn't half as venomous as she probably wants it to be. She's still a demon, true, and still has a demon's relish for causing harm and havoc, but he knows what she thinks about Hell, how she yearns for release from its torments. That's why she keeps turning up topside, why she hijacked Sam all those years ago. He still won't trust her if they all get out of this alive, but... isn't there some saying about being nice to your enemies being the equivalent of pouring burning coals on their head?
"How does it work?" she finally asks.
He shakes his head. "I can't tell you."
She stares out the window for a minute longer and then sighs. "Okay. I'm in."
He ties her up, securely but not tightly enough to hurt, and blindfolds her and sits in the back seat with her all the way back to Lebanon. She doesn't try anything. And she doesn't struggle as he and Sam get her chained up in the dungeon (which really is pretty awesome).
When Dean takes the blindfold off, all she does is smile wearily and say, "Hey, Sam."
Sam's smile is just as tired. "You'll be safe here."
Truth be told, the only person in the bunker who doesn't look tired is Charlie, who teams up with Kevin to get supper and bully Sam and Dean into calling it an early night. The next day they all watch the film Sam and Kevin had found, and Charlie tracks Father Simon to St. Louis. But before they can discuss who's going to talk to him, Sam has a massive coughing fit and Dean's too tired and focused on him to notice Charlie snagging the bunker key until she and Kevin are halfway out the door.
"We're getting worse," Sam wheezes as Dean brings him some tea.
"Hey," Dean replies, ignoring the way his own chest aches. "We're in this together, Sammy. And you heard what Charlie said."
"No 'yeah, but's about it. You're gonna cross that finish line, and you're gonna take me with you, just like you promised. So shut up and drink your damn tea."
Sam shuts up and drinks his tea with a fond smile.
It's late the following afternoon when Charlie and Kevin get back. They bring in several boxes of notes and reel-to-reel tapes, plus one badly battered Cas. Dean's glad Cas is back and safe but still ticked off about everything that's happened in the last year, so it's just as well that Charlie puts Cas straight to bed. There's too much else on Dean's plate, and he just doesn't have the energy to deal with Cas as well.
Going through Father Thompson's notes takes another couple of days, even with Charlie's help. Kevin works on the angel tablet—mainly just reading, to see what's there—and Cas recuperates more slowly than he hoped. By the time he's back on his feet, Charlie's apparently decided to run interference between him and Dean, which is fine by Dean. He's got nothing to say to Cas right now.
But then Sam figures out that getting the purified blood they need for the demon cure involves going to confession. Sam's blood is what has to be cleansed, of course, but Dean doesn't know if whatever this bond is between him and Sam will transfer his sin as well as his strength. So while Sam goes off to do his own confessing in private, Dean apologizes individually to Kevin (who just looks at him funny) and Charlie (who cries and hugs him) and Cas (who looks even more like a kicked puppy than usual). Then he goes to his own room and tells God everything.
As drained as he feels when he's done, it doesn't surprise him at all that Sam's already given Meg two doses by the time he gets down to the dungeon. What does surprise him is that Meg's the one who tells him so.
"You feeling anything?" he asks.
She huffs. "Oh, yeah. It burns. But I chose this. May as well get it over with so I can get out of here and we can all get drunk."
Neither Dean nor Sam can hold back a wry smile at that.
Charlie brings them beanbag chairs. Cas brings them snacks. But Sam doesn't really want to make small talk, and truth be told, neither does Dean. They both feel worse and worse as the process drags on, with even Dean developing a fever that spikes when Sam gets a power jolt, and conversation seems like way too much work. So for the most part, they just sit together between doses, resting and taking comfort from each other's presence. For Meg's part, the first sign any of them have that the treatment's working is that Cas comes in to collect their tray and she doesn't make a pass at him. She usually hollers when Sam injects her, but that seems to be involuntary; she's pretty quiet otherwise. The cries slowly reduce in volume, and Dean thinks he spies tears rolling down her cheeks a time or two.
Finally, though, after a dose that garners no more than a grunt, Meg says thickly, "Sam... I'm... I'm sorry I..." She doesn't seem to have the strength to finish the sentence.
Sam puts down the syringe and caresses her cheek briefly.
She draws a deep breath and looks him in the eye. "Even if this doesn't work... thanks."
Sam smiles, draws a knife, and looks over at Dean.
Dean manages to nod once—Finish it.
Okay, Sam nods back. Then he cuts his palm, recites the altered exorcism, and puts his hand over Meg's mouth.
Dean feels like he's on fire.
"Kah-nuh-ahm-dahr," Sam wheezes.
And everything goes black.
There shouldn't be earthquakes in Colorado, Metatron realizes as a tower of paperbacks in his suite collapses. Puzzled, he steps outside for the first time since the hotel was built and opens his mind to the voices of his brothers and sisters.
It's done, he hears in joyful chorus. It's done! Sam Winchester has closed the gates of Hell!
Metatron blinks rapidly. Someone found the demon tablet and pulled one of the Great Levers?
The boy with demon blood has demon blood no more!
Lucifer's vessel—who would have believed it?
Can you imagine? He who opened Hell has shut it evermore! Raphael would never have dreamed that this could be!
Metatron frowns. Is Raphael dead, then? What about Michael and Gabriel?
But what will become of the Apocalypse now?
Oh, who cares? Haven't the Winchesters done enough by returning Lucifer to his Cage? Haven't we lost enough brothers in this war?
He missed the Apocalypse?! What—why weren't there any hints of these things in his books?
Enough, finally cuts through the heavenly chatter. It sounds like Naomi. Hell is secure, but Heaven may not be so. Find the angel tablet. Find Castiel. And bring them to me. NOW.
Bewildered, Metatron decides to take a peek at the state of affairs back home. What he finds infuriates him—but before he can return to Earth, he runs smack into Bartholomew. And Bartholomew smiles like the Cheshire Cat and takes Metatron straight to Naomi's office.
Metatron's hate is incandescent, but he doesn't stand a chance.
As the shockwave of the trial's completion passes far enough away for the bunker to stop shaking, Castiel leaves Kevin and Charlie to make sense of the suddenly blaring alarms and computer alerts and runs to the dungeon. He finds Meg weeping, her mouth smeared with blood, Sam collapsed on the floor, and Dean unconscious in his beanbag chair. The Winchesters are barely alive, and Castiel can tell at a glance that the damage to both men is so extensive that he doesn't know if he'll be able to heal them.
"Clarence," Meg sobs.
Not knowing where else to begin, Castiel swallows hard and goes to her. She's human—her soul battered and scarred by her centuries as a demon, but free of its old taint and bound to this flesh as if it were her own, its former occupant long since released to a Reaper. He heals her body and releases her from her chains, and she falls into his arms and cries on his shoulder.
"They're dying, flyboy. They... I've been so awful, and... S-Sam d-d-did this..."
"I know," is all he can say as he rubs her back. He feels as heartsick as she does.
It's a long moment before she asks, "Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Rather out of your hands, I'm afraid," replies a quiet male voice with a British accent. They both look up to see Death standing between the brothers. "Nor is it entirely in mine."
He looks across to the empty space beyond Sam, where Naomi appears as if on cue. But gone is her stern, hard aspect; she looks distraught. She manifests her sword but puts it on the ground and kicks it away. "Castiel," she says, her voice close to breaking, "I have wronged you greatly. You were right. The angel tablet's not for us. Our mission was to protect God's creation; I don't know when we forgot that."
Castiel scowls. "What are you talking about?"
"The trials flushed Metatron out of hiding. He came back to Heaven to find out what's been going on, and when he saw what it's become—"
"What you made of it!"
"What we all made of it. None of us is blameless—neither you nor I nor Raphael nor Michael. In any case, Metatron intended to perform a spell to cast down all the angels, as God cast down Lucifer."
"You're lying. Where is Metatron?"
"Dead. He wished to usurp Father's throne. I couldn't allow that."
Castiel doesn't want to believe her. But while he knows the tablet would be able to confirm what she's saying, he can't tell her that Kevin has the tablet and risk her killing Kevin and Charlie to take it. He's not sure what to do.
Naomi looks close to tears. "Please, Castiel. If you will come back, I promise you in Father's name, I will listen."
"How can I believe you?" he snarls. "You twist everything."
Naomi looks at Sam and Dean, then back at Castiel. "I can heal them. And I will give the order that they are to be left alone."
Death looks faintly amused. "A happily ever after, is it? Or would it be more merciful to let them die and have done with it? They have suffered quite enough already, you know, and it is high time they stopped mucking about with the natural order."
Castiel looks at Meg, who looks as lost as he feels. Then he shakes his head. "I can't make this choice. If death were true release, it would be a mercy, but it seems unjust for them to die this way."
"Castiel," Naomi says gravely, "Sam should have been dead already. That was always God's intention, the ultimate sacrifice. The only thing keeping him alive is Dean."
"Yes, curious, that," Death agrees. "Seems Dean asked to bear some of Sam's burden for him. Now their souls can't be separated. Whither one goes, the other shall go with him."
And now, if he squints, Castiel can see what Death's talking about—a golden chain between the brothers, linking heart to heart. It pulses feebly in time with their weakening heartbeats, but there are currents along its length. One carries strength from Dean to Sam; another carries pain from Sam to Dean. Yet woven in and around and through the links, running in both directions, are streams of love, pure and shining and unbreakable.
"They stand upon the brink, Castiel," Death states, as if he still expects Castiel to decide.
But he can't. He shakes his head. "They're my friends. I can't make that choice for them. You'll have to let them decide together."
Funny thing about wishes... sometimes they come true.