A knock sounds on the cabin door and Dean’s on his feet and standing in the center of the room before he’s even fully awake, swaying slightly. There’s a tingle at the base of his skull and at the tips of his fingers and his eyes feel like they were plucked out of his head at some point when he wasn’t paying attention and left out to dry.
He looks back at his bed, his movements sluggish. He’d been in it hardly long enough to leave a dent. His back hurts. He still has his boots on. It’s been two days since he’s taken them off and twice that since he’s had a shower. Time out of mind since he’d had the luxury of hot water.
The knock comes again.
“Yeah,” Dean croaks, barely more than a rasp of air through his dry throat. A rotten taste makes his mouth twist and his tongue feels approximately ten times too big. He licks his teeth, clears his throat, tries again. “What?”
The door opens a fraction.
“Sir?” A voice as quiet as the knock comes through the crack in the door and Dean adjusts his line of sight down a couple of feet. It’s the kid, all skinny arms and skinny legs and swimming in a shirt that had once belonged to someone definitely female and twice his size. His parents had named him Winston, but Dean took care of that pretty quickly. A name like that really gave a kid a hefty pair of shoes to fill, given their present predicament. Years ago, before all this, Dean had seen a zombie flick where people branded themselves with the names of their hometowns, and he’d taken a shine to the idea. Everyone calls the kid Hooper nowadays, after for a tiny burg smack in the middle of Nebraska, population nothing.
He’s the last survivor of some hairy scene that went down with his folks, a couple of demons and a handful of croats tossed in like a cherry on top. Has some spunk to him, though, eleven years old and somehow he’d made it past herds of croats, military patrols and at least a dozen barricades to show up on their doorstep. He’d been half-starved and manic, and Dean, who knows better than most that growing up paramilitary is no sorta life for a kid, had taken him in, put clean clothes on his back and a meal in his belly and hadn’t been able to shake him since. Besides, the camp had needed a go-fer. He’s been useful.
“You should be asleep,” Dean tells him, and it’s some vague hammer to the knee reflex. It’s not like the kid’s got school in the morning.
“Risa sent me,” Hooper says. “She says there’s something you need to see.”
“What’s busted?” Dean asks, resigned. Things are always breaking around here. Cars, weapons, generators. Their supply of spare parts is skimpy and there isn’t time or manpower to keep it all up and running.
“Nothing. I—I don’t know. She won’t let me get close enough to see.”
Warning signals fire up, and it’s enough to get Dean’s feet moving. Risa’s not the type to baby anybody, even if it’s just a kid. She’s cracked from a mold similar to Ellen, tough as nails and plainspoken. Just as loyal, too.
By the time Dean gets his head cleared, his Beretta tucked into the back of his waistband and his jacket straight on his shoulders, Hooper’s backed up onto the porch steps. A shuttered lantern dangles from his grimy hand, and he allows the barest sliver of light to slant toward the uneven ground.
He starts off, darting backward glances over his shoulder every few steps to be sure that Dean’s following. It makes Dean think of Lassie, and for a swift second he misses television so strongly it’s like a punch to the chest. There’s more to it than that, of course. It’s not a boy and his dog that makes Dean’s chest feel tight and sends him skipping through a crash coarse of mental landmines. It’s the motel rooms, the long, unbroken highways, the cold beer and the taco trucks. It's the growl of the Impala's engine and that unique smell of hot metal and sun-warmed leather. It’s the biggest mistake Dean has ever made, and it’s Sam. It was always Sam.
They wind along dipping dirt paths in a general southwesterly direction, between cabins in varying states of falling down. Risa’s place is suspiciously dark, no flickering glow of lamps or blue shine of flashlights. The preacher’s shack is the same, but that isn’t much of a surprise. The man usually rises at the first hint of the sun and sinks with the thing as well. Dean scans the trees, the unnatural straight-line shape of the fence in the distance, the constant red haze on the horizon. The air is filled with the smell of far-away buildings burning.
Further into the woods, the smell of smoke fades and the crackling scent of ozone and sulfur takes over, punctuated with rotting leaves and damp earth. In the foggy non-light from the half-moon, Dean can barely make out the silhouettes of four people standing over a lump on the ground. Someone’s got the business end of a rifle pointed in it’s direction and Dean figures it’s gotta be a croat. It’s been more than a week since one broke through the fence, and Dean figures they’re due.
Dean claps Hooper on the shoulder and pulls him backward.
“Go,” he says, ruffling the kid’s greasy hair. “Get some sleep. It’s past your bedtime.” Hooper rolls his eyes so hugely that he probably did some permanent damange, but complies; his feet drag and shoulders slump unhappily. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” Dean hollers after him on basic principle. “No such things as dentists anymore.”
In the dark, four people coalesce into familiar profiles. Cas is leaning crooked over the handle of his cane. Risa and Nate stand side-by-side. Nate’s the one with the rifle. Predictably, Chuck’s the one talking, squared off clipboard tucked under one arm and he’s gesturing with the other like some kind of neurotic traffic cop.
It’s then that Dean sees it: a sleeve so bright and pure it almost glows in the darkness, and all the air rushes out of his lungs with the force of a punch, leaving him wheezing and off balance. Pointy nose and strong chin. Long hair curling around his ears and fanned out from his head. Tall and big shouldered. Sam. Sam.
Dean suddenly feels lost, drifting, blown very far off course. Every muscle tightens up, fast as electrocution, some strange disconnect going on between his brain and the rest of his body. He should be moving, or shouting, doing something. But instead his skin goes clammy, the gun at his back is abruptly hot, and a quiet voice tells him that pulling it out might not be a bad idea. A louder voice questions exactly where he should point it; at Sam, at himself, or at that son of a bitch who has the balls to take a bead on his brother. All three of them look to be an equally appropriate course of action.
He doesn’t know the circumstances that led his brother to letting the devil in, has spent the last five years too busy dealing with the consequences to devote a lot of time to pondering the how’s and why’s of it. In his deepest, darkest drunks Dean convinces himself that the blame’s probably resting square on his own shoulders. It’s easier that way. Hell, even maybe a little bit true. Truth is relative anyway, everybody knows that, and it’s probably even more relative since everything fell apart.
Cas shuffles over to him, awkward and wooden, one foot still in the brace on account of the broken bones. The other is bare, toes filthy like he's some kind of kid who’s spent all day playing in the dirt. The frayed cuffs of his jeans scuff across dead leaves and send them scattering. The grip he has on the handle of his cane looks painful, knuckles white and bloodless.
“Dean,” he starts, “it’s Sam.” He’s only walked a very short distance and already he’s winded. It could be the barbiturates or it could be the pain. Anybody’s guess, nowadays.
By some unfathomable miracle, Dean’s legs start working. “You don’t say,” he grunts, and it’s good to know that regardless of whether or not Cas is still in possession of his celestial mojo, his talent for stating the obvious will forever remain unchanged. Dean latches onto that for the sparse comfort it gives him. “Who found him?” He’s already thinking about damage control, keeping this knowledge to an inner circle. The smaller the better. He doubles his pace, sets his jaw, eyes stuck like superglue on his brother. Cas has trouble keeping up.
“Nate,” Cas informs him. “He was on watch. Chuck got the call on the shortwave.”
Someone had covered him up with a thin, drab green army blanket. Probably Chuck, if Dean had to put money on it. Dean approaches slowly, haltingly. One of Sam’s arms isn’t covered, sprawled out and left that way, as if no one wanted to touch him. It’s an understandable point. His hand’s pale, blood splattered fingers curling limp toward his palm, spider-like.
“Lower your weapon and tell me everything you know,” Dean commands, voice carefully neutral.
Nate blinks, like he’s coming out of some sort of daze, eyes wide and his face white with shock. “There’s a lotta blood, Dean. I—I don’t think it’s his,” he stammers.
Dean bites down hard on the inside of his cheek. “We’ll get to that,” he says. “Start at the beginning.”
“It got quiet. I knew something was wrong when it got so damn quiet. And then he was just there. I swear, man, out of nowhere. I’d covered that section of less than five minutes before. He was stumbling kinda?” Nate’s inflection tips upward at the end, like he’s asking a question. He tilts his hand this way and that. “Like. Like one of those puppets. Y’know. With the strings attached.”
“A marionette?” Chuck supplies.
“Yeah, that’s it.” Nate licks his lips and continues. “He started walking toward me, but it was like I wasn’t even there, like he was staring through me, and I shoulda shot him. Any other time I would have…” He trails off, shaking his head.
“Keep going,” Dean says.
“He was talking, nonsense mostly. Then he looked right at me and said the strangest thing. He asked if he was in Detroit.” With a puzzled expression on his face, Nate adds, “Does this look like Detroit?”
A bolt of ice lodges in Dean’s heart, and he barely registers what Nate says next.
“Then the guy just collapsed. Hard. Like a building falling down.”
“Is he?” Dean can’t finish the sentence. He looks down at his own hands and knows he can’t even check for a pulse, adrenaline coursing through him and giving him the shakes. Instead he bends low, kneels with his ear to Sam’s chest and his hands spread wide on Sam’s ribs. Mud soaks into his jeans and he sinks fractionally into the ground.
He’s spent the last five years trying to forget what it’s like to touch his brother, and now he’s right back into the thick of it. He’s started and he’s not sure if he’ll ever be able to stop.
A heartbeat, thready and barely there. A faint movement of air from Sam’s open mouth. Sam’s ribs expand and contract beneath his fingers. It’s simultaneously the best and worst news to come his way in a very, very long time.
“You got any intel on this?” Dean asks Chuck, and he’s almost able to strip the tremor from his voice. “Tell me you know something.”
Chuck shrugs, his face pinched in an apology. “I wish I could. The angels aren’t talking. There’s been nothing. Not even static. I’m tapped out.”
“It’s not you,” Cas says, his slurring monotone oddly grounding in the face of all else. “They’re the ones who tapped out.”
Nate clears his throat, takes a half-step toward them. “Dean, who—“
“Back off,” Dean growls at the first hint of movement, sitting back on his haunches, palms on the ground. Dirt collects under his fingernails as his hands claw their way into fists.
Nate steps forward again, his rifle now slung harmlessly over his shoulder. Good man. Hell of a shot. He used to be an accountant. Tax lawyer. Something. Risa stands at his elbow, feet spread shoulder-wide in a fighter’s stance and her hand quaking a little around the grip of the semi-automatic pistol strapped to her hip.
“Did I stutter? Stay back,” Dean says.
Nate licks his lips, eyes darting in all directions, trying to make sense out of the murky darkness, distinguish between tree trunks and possible threats. “You might wanna…” he pauses. “Could be a croat.”
“He’s not,” Dean says. “He’s immune.”
Nate looks to Chuck for confirmation, and Chuck steps between Nate and Dean, using his body as a roadblock, clipboard held across his chest like a shield. “It’s true. Listen,” Chuck continues, mollifying, “you gotta give him a pass. Please.”
Dean makes it to his feet, bends to pick Sam up, his jaw set and his back steeled against the weight of his brother. He gets Sam off of the ground, hardly a foot, then Cas limps forward.
“No,” Dean grits out as Cas puts one hand beneath Sam’s back and starts to hoist him. Cas shoulders Sam up, moves Sam’s arm to loop around Dean’s neck. It helps, shifts Sam’s weight the tiniest amount and makes it more bearable. “No,” Dean repeats. “I got him.”
“I know you do,” Cas says, and looks at Dean in that piercing way of his, glassy-eyed, all stoned and sympathetic.
Chuck closes in on them then, head bowed, covers Dean’s hand with one of his own and Cas does the same. The three of them stand like that for a few moments, no one saying a word, until Dean sways slightly.
His breath burns on the way in, rattles unsteadily on the way back out again, his throat hot and aching. Something breaks open in Dean’s chest, a thing that’s hollow, vast, and infinitely lonesome. Something like homesickness, only that can’t be quite right. Sam is right here.
“What sorta fresh hell—“ Risa says when Dean starts the march back to the encampment.
Dean pauses, turn to stare her down, eyes half lidded. He sets in face in a cold, emotionless mask. It’s a good fit, well-used and worn in over the years. For the first time in a long time it also feels fake. He shifts Sam’s weight, forgets himself and presses his mouth to the crown of Sam’s head.
“I’ve never really understood that expression,” Dean says in a careful monotone. “You know that I spent a summer there once.” His steady tone starts to splinter, a pulse of venom rising up through the cracks left behind. “Bit of an expert, and you know what? Hell is blood and bone and rotting flesh.”
Her face loses all its color, looks silver in the moonlight, but Risa keeps her chin up in some sorta unspoken challenge, her throat working as she swallows.
“There’s all that, sure, but that’s just the easy stuff. I’ll tell you the truth about hell. Hell is repetition.”
Risa’s jaw clicks closed audibly and her gaze flickers from Sam to Dean. “Let me know if you need anything.”
“We’ll be fine. We’ve been more banged up than this.”
“Wait a minute. Is that?” Risa doesn’t finish the thought.
The people who know about Sam are few and far between. Chuck and Cas, of course. Bobby too, but Bobby went on radio silence a few months back. Dean tries to not think too hard on that. He has enough trouble keeping the forty-two souls entrusted to him here in one piece, relatively well fed and as safe as can be expected.
Some folks here know that Dean had a brother, and Dean has rationed out information about him in bits and pieces. Small snapshots of the kid in gold picture frames. People know that Dean had a brother, and that he was smart and strong, a hell of a good hunter, and better than Dean in every possible way. They know that Dean’s brother fought, and they also know better than to ever mention him.
Finally, Dean answers her. “Maybe. I don’t know.” As he spins on his heel and starts marching toward the center of camp, Dean mutters against Sam’s temple, “I hope so.”
Sam is dead weight, jack-knifed at his waist, legs hooked over Dean’s forearm and his head tucked under Dean’s chin. Dean buries his nose in Sam’s hair, stringy and sticking in clumps to his skull and reeking of blood and dirt. Cas and Chuck walk at his back, side by side as if they’re flying in formation and Dean is point-man.
Dean pauses at the base of the sagging stairs that lead up to his place. “We’re good,” he says, thinking that there are some things that have to stay in the family. “Just get me some water, would ya?”
Dean thinks about Cold Oak as he shoulders past the door, his brother’s limp form hugged close to his chest. He lays Sam out on his bed now and strips him down to his shorts, dropping the white suit to the floor, then kicking it across the room a second later, like it might come alive any second. He wants to take gasoline and a match to it, but that will have to wait.
He lights a lantern instead and places it on the small table beside the bed. The angle of the low light is odd, changing all of Sam’s familiar features into something strange and sinister.
Three square meals a day hadn’t been too high up on the devil’s agenda, it would appear. The basic scaffolding is still there: Sam’s mile-long legs, the wide plane of his shoulders, and his strong, sinewy muscle. Dean can count every single rib, though. His cheeks are hollow, high cheekbones pronounced. Sam’s stomach dips in, and his skin is stretched so tightly over the bony jut of his hipbones that it looks painful. His eyes are sunken, bruised a deep shade of purple beneath them.
Sam’s got blood on his face, on his mouth, more of it collected in the hollow of his throat and that never has sat too well with Dean.
The door opens with a soft click and Chuck enters without a word, back hunched under the burden of two buckets of water, lazy tendrils of steam rising from one of them. It makes Dean wonder how long he’s stood by the bed, dazed. Long enough for Chuck to come up with clean towels and heat some water.
Shifting his weight, twiddling his fingers and cracking his knuckles like he’s not sure what to do with his hands, Chuck says, “I’ll scrounge up some clothes for him. See if I can find something that’ll fit. It’s getting cold at night.”
“Yeah,” Dean says softly. “Thanks.”
Kneeling by the bed, Dean pulls the soapy water to his side. The uneven floorboards creak and groan and do a real job on his knees. He grabs his toothbrush and takes Sam’s hand in his own. Sam’s fingers are limp and lifeless, but Dean feels his pulse. He can see it when he turns Sam’s hand palm up, then traces the intricate network of veins in Sam’s wrist to feel the faint flutter of thin skin every time his heart beats.
Methodically, Dean goes about the task of cleaning Sam’s hands, scrubbing beneath his fingernails until the blood there fades to a watery pink. His last good toothbrush gets ruined but it’s a small price to pay.
After, Dean smoothes Sam’s hair back, fingers catching in the knots. It’s too long, it’s always been too long. Sam’s forehead is unlined and there’s something about him that looks young. Curiously so, like time has stood still for him. Like the last five years never happened. His lashes form a dark brushstroke in the hollow of his eyes. Sam’s mouth is turned up slightly at the corners, as if he is right on the edge of a smile. Dean wipes the blood from it with his thumb, thinks about fireworks.
Getting Sam's hair clean is more of a production, Dean pouring water over Sam's head and the mattress taking the brunt of what spills. Dean's fingers are pale and wrinkled by the time the water rinses out clear. Throughout this, all of it, the stripping and the dousing and the cold rag wiped across his face, Sam hasn’t moved an inch. No flinch or protest, no sympathetic reaction to heat or cold. His breathing remains steady, his heartbeat the same.
Dean arranges Sam, straightens his legs and folds Sam’s arms over his chest and takes a step back.
“Jesus. Sorry, Sam,” Dean says. Sam looks like some sorta Bela Lugosi knock off so Dean stretches his arms by his sides instead, finds every available blanket and tucks them snugly under Sam’s chin, then looks down at Sam, at a loss for what to do next.
The closest functioning hospital is half a day’s drive away through a hot zone twenty miles in diameter and past at least five military checkpoints. It’s been six months since Dean was there, and at that point the place had already been picked pretty clean, a single doctor and a handful of nurses left to man the joint. Dean doesn’t know if it’s still standing.
Dean bundles up the white suit, holding it far away from his body like it might become sentient at any moment, and kicks open the door.
Cas is sitting on the porch, slowly see-sawing in a spindly rocking chair. He has holes in the knees of his jeans, more around the collar of his t-shirt, and his hands tightly grip the shotgun resting across his thighs. It’s been a while since he’s shaved and right about now he looks like heaven’s answer to the Hatfield’s or McCoy’s.
“Supply run in the morning,” Dean says, knuckling across his eyes, exhaustion smacking into him suddenly. “Talk to Chuck, see what we need. Take Risa and Nate with you.” He keeps his voice pitched quiet, almost drowned out by the droning, high note of crickets and cicadas. He looks across the camp, the cabins laid out in a familiar huddle and barely visible, inky spots set against the darkness. This place must have been great once, before everything fell apart.
“Keep them out of the way, you mean,” Cas says. “Buy you some time.”
“Yeah. That too.” Dean pulls in a deep breath, holds it until his lungs burn and his ribs start to ache. “There’s a mountain of fucked up, and it’s comatose in my bed right now.”
“He’ll wake up,” Cas says with certainty.
Dean barks a sharp laugh, scrapes his knuckles against the raspy skin of his jaw. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” He stands up, stretches massively and throws the knotted lump of Sam’s suit into Castiel’s lap. “Burn these, would ya?”
Sam hasn’t moved an inch since he left. His arms are still lifeless by his sides, legs stretched out straight as matchsticks, the blankets smooth over his body. Dean drags a stiff-backed chair beside the bed and sits, tipping it backward and balancing it against the wall. He opens up an old issue of Life magazine, a relic from a couple years ago when magazines didn't seem like such a novelty, and starts to read aloud. It's halting, and Dean feels stupid, but he keeps going and makes it all the way to the end, flips back to the first page and starts at the beginning again, reading until the words start to swim and double, like ants marching across the page. Dean might as well be speaking Latin for all the sense it’s making to him, but it feels good to talk to Sam, to think that there’s the smallest chance that Sam might be able to hear him.
Planting his forearms on the bed, Dean leans in close, covers one of Sam’s hand with his own. It’s a chick move, something he’d never in a million years allow himself to do if Sam was awake. He can’t help it, and doesn’t really want to. He rests his head on the edge of the bed.
“Are you in there, Sam? Tell me you’re in there.”
Dean is not a good man by any reckoning. Two weeks ago, he’d shot one of his very own men point-blank after the guy had been infected when a recon mission had gone south. Dean had walked away and let other people deal with the wreckage of it. He’d do it again in a heartbeat. He wouldn’t even blink.
Dean doesn’t get all the reasons folks have settled here, laid their stake to this little bit of land, and probably laid their stake to Dean too. It might have something to do with fear.
The back of Dean’s neck itches and he knows that people are staring, shadowy forms at the windows and half-seen movement behind the corners of cabins. He’d been living in the hut closest to the entrance of the place, the battered wooden sign visible from the eastward facing window, and he’d done that pretty much without thought, the same way he’d always taken the bed closest to the door when it was just the two of them on the road.
He’s left Sam alone. Sure, there’s a devil’s trap under the bed and Dean’s bolted him down with iron chains crusted with salt, but it still makes him twitchy. He’d run the gamut of tests on Sam this morning: exorcized him, thrown holy water in his face, nicked him with a knife made of silver and had gotten exactly zilch for his efforts.
Now he’s moving house, and he’s not looking too closely at the reasons for it, taking up residence in an empty cabin near the rear of the camp. The crew he’d sent out this morning to repair a hole in the fence file past him and Chuck as they struggle to haul a mattress down the potholed path. They've got tools under their arms and two guys in the back are dragging extra chain link behind them.
Huffing, Chuck says, “Weird vibe around here today.”
Dean grunts, already wondering how the hell he’s going to get Sam moved without anyone seeing him.
“They know something’s off,” Chuck goes on when Dean doesn’t reply. “They’re afraid of you.”
“Let them be. Doesn’t change a thing.”
“Is it better to be feared than loved?” Chuck asks, with a sarcastic twist to his mouth.
“You tell me, Machiavelli. I leave that kinda thing up to people who are a lot smarter than I am.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
Dean backs into an ankle-busting hole and barely saves himself from toppling at the last second. “I don’t need credit. I just need to get this the hell over with.”
His new digs aren’t particularly any better than his old place, but it is a little larger and a bit more private, and that gives it two check marks in the plus column.
The place smells musty, abandoned. Old bird nests clog the rafters and there are a few suspicious holes in the walls. Weathered planks have warped and pulled away from the frame in places, leaving gaps large enough to fit a deck of cards through. Dean patches them up using scrap lumber, installs a fresh set of locks on the door and hangs the keys around his neck.
He’s not sure if he’s locking other people out or if he’s locking Sam in. It’s probably a little of both.
Dean sits by Sam while his men go on scouting missions, and search further and further afield for supplies. He brushes Cas off, and barely touches the food that Hooper leaves on his doorstep. He watches the light change on Sam's face for hours at a time.
It turns out that three days is Dean’s limit. Three days of sitting by Sam’s bedside, and of turning odd jobs around the hut into hours’ long affairs. At one point, he touches Sam’s arm and it might have been his imagination, but he thinks he sees the slightest flicker of change in his brother’s expression, some mild distress creasing his forehead and a tiny shift of movement behind Sam’s eyelids. Dean’s heart skips a beat and he clamps down on Sam’s hand, feeling the crush of bones grinding together. He doesn’t want to hurt his brother, not in any conscious sense, but he’s aching for a reaction, any indication that when Sam wakes up—and Sam will wake up—that it’s going to be Sam he sees and not the devil.
Obviously Sam’s not talking, and none of Dean’s sources are saying anything that Dean doesn’t already know. Five more days and Houston is slated to get napalmed. An oil refinery exploded right outside of New Orleans and the fires spread to the city. The president is in some secret bunker somewhere and military personnel are going AWOL in droves. Whole communities are downing Kool-Aid Jamestown-style. Meanwhile, Chuck keeps breathing down Dean's neck about penicillin and toilet paper, and now Dean might just have the devil locked behind a deadbolt hammered into a flimsy door. There’s some sorta joke in there somewhere. A cosmic one.
There's a storage hut on the outskirts of camp, corrugated steel and locked up as tight as Fort Knox. It used to be a storage space when this place was home sweet home to dozens and dozens of kids in the summer, and a few canoes still hang on the brackets drilled into the interior. Now, the outside walls are graffitied with angel proofing, layers and layers of it, tagged like the undersides of overpasses if any decent sized city. A chair is bolted to the floor in the center of a devil’s trap, and the bench along one of the walls holds Dean’s tools of the trade, a gallon of holy water, a series of wicked serrated blades, silver and iron and salt.
Reverend Parsons stands by the door. He’s known as Sonny to his friends, which Dean finds kind of hokey, and offers Dean no end to amusement. He’s a good guy though, the type of man who still thanks Jesus and God and all His angels before passing the mashed potatoes. A man who still has faith in all the things he cannot see. He’s got a demon by the neck now, and the thing squirms in his grasp, its hands tied behind its back, gagged under a black hood and bound by heavy iron chains.
Dean unlocks the door and kicks it open, sweeping his arm wide in a welcoming gesture. “Table for one,” he says as Parsons tosses the thing inside. “Thanks.” Dean claps him on the back and sends him on his way.
Still blindfolded, the demon skitters across the floor like a mutated beetle, scuffing its shoes on the ground and sliding backward on its ass. Dean yanks it to its feet and rips off the hood. They’d given the poor sap the once over, split lip and a gaping hole where his two front teeth had been. Trickles of blood seep from half a dozen head wounds. The body probably won’t make it, but that’s none of Dean’s concern.
Spinning a couple of heavy padlocks from his two first fingers, Dean kicks the demon in the center of his chest, sending him backward to land in the chair. Dean locks him in and removes the gag.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the demon says, grinning, his tongue lolling out in the space where two front teeth used to be. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? How long has it been, Dean?”
“Not nearly long enough.”
“Aw, don’t tell me that you don’t remember me? I’ll admit that I don’t have the same kinda star power as Alastair, but I certainly must have left a mark.”
“Small fish, big pond,” Dean says dismissively.
“Tell me Dean, how’s your brother, anyway?”
Dean manages to hide his flinch, but it’s a near thing. “Thought you might be able to tell me.”
“You’ve got it all wrong, my good fellow,” the demon says, affecting an uppity accent that makes him sound like one of those Hyde Park Roosevelts. “The only thing that Lucifer hates more than you monkeys are demons. He makes it a point of taking us out as often as he can, unless we can find a way to make ourselves useful.”
“Looks like the devil and I have something in common then,” Dean points out. “Speaking of. Don’t get me wrong, great chat we’re having and all that but there are a few things I need to know. Where is he?”
“Really wish I could help, but I don’t think that’s in the cards. I don’t know where he is.”
“You’re lying.” Dean's getting very tired of this, very quickly. “We’ll get to the truth eventually. There’s a reason that I was Alastair’s pet, you know.”
The demon’s leering grin disappears and it ticks its head up, like a bloodhound testing the air, breathing in through its nose and its open mouth. “Shhh,” it hushes him.
“Oh, hell no,” Dean says whirling to the workbench, picking up a syringe and loading it up with holy water. When he turns back, the demon is shaking, the heavy locks rattling against the chains. The thing is scared, petrified clear through, and Dean's not sure why, but knows it has nothing to do with him.
“Let me go,” the demon begs, a harsh whisper through its clenched jaw. It starts to kick at the floor, claw at the arms of the chair. A few fingernails break and skitter off, leaving bloody smudges on the metal. “Please, I’ll do anything.”
Two and two finally add up to four and Dean drops the syringe, shattering it on the concrete floor. He has the presence of mind to lock the door on his way out but only barely, and sets off at a dead run toward his place, ripping the chain from his neck that holds the keys to his cabin. Sam’s alone. He should never have left Sam alone.
He’s wheezing, panting, dark spots swimming across his vision as he fumbles with the locks to his place. He pushes the door open so forcefully that it slams against the wall and ricochets back at him, splintering the frame, and fuck, he’s gonna have to fix that later, but none of that matters because Sam is sitting up. He’s sitting up and looking at him, legs crossed Indian style in the bed and his hands folded complacently in his lap.
Sam peers at Dean. Dean’s holding his breath, as if the simple act of inhaling might tip the scales in one direction or another. Everything about Sam is familiar in that moment, right down to the tiniest detail: the determination in his small frown, the way he opens his mouth and ticks his jaw to the side, and the hint of a crooked and crowded lower row of teeth. He looks at Dean as if he’s trying to solve a riddle, like Dean is number eighteen across in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle and if Sam stares long enough he’ll be able to figure it out. The sight of it flings Dean backward, a decade at least, to this one diner in Missoula where they’d tracked down a poltergeist that had a habit of busting open the hearts of young men. For a second, just one fleeting nostalgic moment, Dean’s mind misfires and he swears he can smell bacon grease and hear the sizzle-pop of frying eggs.
“I know you,” Sam says. He’s hoarse, his voice scraping like old rusted hinges. Sam’s purses his lips, pensive. “I broke your neck.”
Dean falls against the doorframe, knees buckling. The ground rushes up to meet him and he hits the floor hard, teeth clicking together painfully. Splinters from the busted frame pierce through his shirt and puncture his skin. “Sam,” he whispers.
“I thought so. I wasn’t sure.” Sam nods, he looks toward the ceiling and a speculative expression dawns on his face. Dean’s seen this happen uncountable times; Sam’s processing the information. “Good,” Sam says. “That’s…that’s very good.” With that, he turns his back to Dean, sinks into the bed again, draws his legs in close to his body and pulls the blanket snugly over his shoulder.
“Goddamn,” Dean says, badly shaken. He gets up, winces as he pulls his shirt away from his scraped up back. By the time he makes it across the room, Sam’s out cold, fists tucked under his chin and Dean wants to shake him. Yank Sam out of bed and toss cold water in his face. Maybe throw up afterward.
He retraces his steps to the interrogation shack, and shoots up a silent prayer, more out of habit than with any real intent, that he at least remembered to keep the salt lines intact in his hell-bent dash back to his place.
Dean starts before he’s even through the doorway. “I take it you’re sensing that there’s been a disturbance in the Force.” He slams the door so hard it makes to whole place shimmy.
The demon is still struggling, making these wracking cries that sound torn out of its throat. It’s shaking its head, preternaturally fast, fighting the restraints. Small puddles of blood have collected on the floor beside the chair, glinting and black in the shadowed interior of the hut.
“Let me go. Please. Anything. I’ll do anything.”
Dean can smell the thing’s rotten breath when he gets close enough to unlock the restraints, and lets the bolt holding the chains fall to the ground. The sob the demon lets out sounds relieved.
“Not so fast,” Dean says, seeing red, his anger self-righteous and misdirected. Dean tosses the demon to the ground so hard it bounces. Something’s wrong, though: the demon’s neck sits at a slightly unnatural angle, just a little off kilter. That’s permission if Dean has ever seen it and he plants a heel in the thing’s throat, sneering at the satisfying crunch of bones and leaving a muddy boot print on the tender underside of its jaw. The demon gasps, mouth gaping and bloody, and claws impotently at Dean’s ankle.
“Just think, if you’d gone along with the program from the start, you coulda been dead by now,” Dean says, “probably better off for it, too.” Dean shifts his weight, turns on the heel still embedded in the demon’s throat and steps across the body to tinker with a nasty-looking meat hook. Behind him, the demon crawls toward the door, body twisting painfully, reaching for the curved boundary of the devil’s trap.
“Where do you think you’re going?” A voice says from the doorway. It’s calm; there’s a hint of a smile to it and that’s the most frightening thing that Dean has run across in a month. Dean doesn’t have to turn around to know it’s Sam; he bites back a snarl and wonders how someone so big could be so goddamn quiet.
Sam is as solid as a mountain, standing with his feet spread apart and his shoulders back.
The demon’s howls reach a fever pitch and it shrinks back as Sam holds his hand out, fingers splayed. A look of supreme concentration morphs across Sam’s features and his eyes flash hot as cinders. Crackling energy fills the room, standing the short hair at Dean’s nape on end, and for a second Dean thinks that he’s going to do it, that whatever juice it took to house the devil for this many years is still alive and well and within his brother. But then Sam falters, brow bunching up in confusion. Dean approaches him hesitantly, and when he reaches him he wraps his hand around Sam’s wrist and lowers it.
“No, Sam. You can’t do that anymore. That’s over for you.”
Sam shakes him off, easy as swatting a fly, like Dean’s not even there, then tips his head and cracks his neck like a prize fighter heading into the knock out round. He begins to recite an exorcism, definitely not Latin but just as affective. It might be Enochian, It’s very, very old and that’s for damn sure. The demon smokes out, a swirl of inky blackness sinking into the ground, blue lightning threaded through it, leaving a ring of red in its wake.
The only possible way to describe it is that Sam seems to wake up, takes in his surroundings like they are all news to him, then scratches at the back of his head in a way that’s almost timid and unsure. “Ah,” he says. “What was that?”
“That was a good one, Sam.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Sam says, then stumbles out of the building, spinning in a slow circle as if he’s trying to get his bearings. Dean can relate. “Where am I?” Sam asks.
Dean comes up behind him, presses his hand to the small of Sam’s back. Heat bleeds through his shirt and it’s sweat damp, wrinkled and pasted to Sam’s skin. “You’re safe. You’re someplace safe now.”
“I wasn’t before?”
“I wish I knew,” Dean tells him, with a slight pressure on Sam’s back to get him moving.
“There’s this thing. A feeling in my gut,” Sam says, leaning in close to Dean and talking in a conspiratorial whisper, although there’s no one around to bear witness. “I think I’ve been looking for you.”
“Okay,” Dean says cautiously.
“But I don’t know why.“ He looks to Dean then, hopeful, like Dean might just be the one who has all the answers. “Who are you?”
The hits just keep on coming. Dean’s been crazy to expect anything less than that. “I’m—I’m Dean.”
When they step away from the hut and its bloody remains, the sun is bright and the sky’s a faded shade of blue, like the color of old, soft denim. Not a cloud in sight. Birds are singing like they don’t have a care in the universe. It’s not exactly the backdrop that Dean expected to see when what is left of his world goes crashing down around his feet.
“I’m hungry,” Sam says.
Dean balls his fist in front of his mouth to hide the strange laughter that has smacked into him out of nowhere, knows it would come out hysterical and insane. Even still, it’s good to have a problem he can fix.
“C’mon,” he says, taking Sam by the elbow and switching direction on him, heading toward the camp kitchen. “Let’s get you fed.”
The mess hall is deserted. Sam seems wiped out, terribly disoriented, so Dean gets him situated on one of the low benches, sets him up so that his back is to the corner.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Dean says, and puts a gallon jug of water in front of him. “Hydrate.”
Sam’s looks around the open space, taking in the rows of tables lined up like soldiers and the rough-hewn rafters of the ceiling. “Where would I go?” he asks as Dean heads toward the kitchen.
Dean dashes into the kitchen and nearly falls bodily over Chuck, who’s hunkered down in front of the industrial shelving, counting cans.
“A little warning mighta been nice,” Chuck gripes, wiping his dusty hands on the seat of his pants.
“It’s Sam,” Dean says.
Chuck flinches. “Oh god, Dean. Is he?”
“He’s awake, and he’s fine. Well,” Dean muses, as he scans the shelves. “Fine might not be the right word for it, but he’s Sam. More or less.”
Chuck’s twitchy, almost vibrating. “A bit of advice: you might want to lead with the ‘fine’ part next time. This is pretty important information. What do you mean by more or less?”
“He’s not too sure where he is, or who he is, or who I am for that matter. Still knows how to dispatch a demon very effectively, though.” Dean picks up the biggest can of chicken soup on the planet, casts around for a pan and dumps it in. Bending over to light the stove, he says, “Keep an eye on him for a sec, would ya?”
“Looks like someone beat me to it,” Chuck says, nodding toward the open doorway.
Cas is sitting beside Sam, his cane placed on the table in front of him. He’s spinning it idly with his fingers and talking to Sam. He catches Dean’s eye and shakes his head the smallest amount.
When Dean makes a break for it, Chuck holds him back.
“Give him a minute,” Chuck says. “Cas might have a…a bit of a unique perspective.”
Cas talks to Sam for a few minutes longer. Dean grits his teeth and waits it out, staring daggers at them the entire time. He’s able to draw a deep breath again when Cas rises and limps in his direction, his expression as enigmatic as ever.
“It’s Sam,” Cas states with conviction.
“Hell of a newsflash you got there,” Dean says.
Cas rolls his eyes. “What I mean is that he’s not Lucifer.”
“Get ‘em while they’re hot,” Dean counters. He looks over Cas’s shoulder at Sam, who’s staring with intent at a spot about two feet over his head.
Chuck asks, “How sure are you?”
Cas seems to consider it for a second. “On a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a seven. The memory loss is puzzling.” Cas rubs at his bottom lip, a gesture that is still disconcertingly human. “It’ll be interesting to learn the extent of it.”
“Listen,” Dean says, a fierce protectiveness hitting him all at once. “Sam isn’t some sorta science fair project. The guy had the devil banging around his head for over four years. Some stuff is bound to break loose. He’ll come back. We’ll find a way to jog his memory and—“
“I wouldn’t advise that,” Cas interrupts. “We don’t know what made Sam say yes to Lucifer.”
“It was me. It was my fault,” Dean says. Sam is the one most responsible for the world taking a nosedive, and Dean’s not too sure what it says about him that he’s still making excuses for the kid.
“Your enormous guilt complex aside,” Cas continues, “the fact remains that if he did it once—“
“—then he could do it again,” Chuck finishes.
They’re right. Dean hates that they’re right. “Maybe Sam found a way to beat him.”
“Or maybe he found a way to bring Lucifer to your doorstep,” Chuck points out, “to Michael’s only remaining vessel.”
Cas cuts in. “Or maybe Lucifer still has eyes and ears on Sam, and by bringing him in here we’ve basically signed a death warrant for everyone living in this place.”
“And maybe I’ve heard one too many ‘maybe’s.’” Dean says, glancing at Sam again. He’s still zonked out on that one specific spot. “Cas, you didn’t give him anything, did you?”
Cas holds up his hands, all innocent offense. “I only offered him uppers, to help with the grogginess. He didn’t take them.”
Dean wipes a tired hand over his eyes. “The former devil shows up and you offer him methamphetamines. Real stand-up operation we have going here.”
A bowl of soup hugged to his chest, Dean makes his way back to Sam. Chuck and Cas follow and sit on either side of Dean.
“Thanks,” Sam whispers. He hunches over the bowl and his hair spills into his face, and Dean has to fight the bizarre urge to tuck it behind his ears for him.
Dean speaks in quiet tones, like Sam is some sorta skittish animal about to bolt at any second. “Do you know where you are?”
“I keep waiting for someone to tell me,” Sam answers. He sounds so much like the sarcastic teenager he once was that Dean’s whole body aches with it.
“You’re at a camp. We’re all hunters. You’re safe. Do you know who you are?”
“Not particularly, but I’m working on getting used to that,” Sam says, impatient.
“Do you know how you got here?” Chuck asks.
“I was looking for him.” Sam levels his gaze directly at Dean, stabbing his spoon in his direction. “I know you. How do I know you?”
Dean stutters, and every impulse in him is commanding him to tell the truth. For once in his life, just tell the goddamn truth. “We’re—“ Cas jabs him hard in the side, wakes up the injury to his ribs that he’d sustained a few months back. He never thought that he’d end up taking lessons in subterfuge from a former angel of the Lord. Dean shoots Cas a murderous look and says, “We’re old friends. Kinda grew up together.”
“Makes sense. As much as anything does right now.”
The door bangs open and Nate walks in, a shocked look slapping across his face the instant he sees Sam. At any other time, Dean might find it downright comical, but this isn’t any other time. “Can I help you?”
Nate makes a strangled sound and rushes toward the kitchen. He’s about to go on watch if the assault rifle strapped to his back is any indication.
Dean turns his attention back to Sam. “Do you remember anything else? Anything at all? C’mon, man. Give me something.”
“I remember a lot of things.”
“Any specifics?” Dean urges, ignoring the warning looks he’s getting from Chuck and Cas.
Nate appears from the kitchen again, heading back toward the door at a near sprint.
“Hey,” Sam says. “Can I see your weapon?”
Dean tenses, nods anyway when Nate looks to him for approval.
Straightening his posture, Sam runs his eyes appreciatively up and down the length of the rifle, the same way that Dean might look at a pretty girl. Then he locks eyes with Dean, places the rifle on the table and proceeds to field strip it twice as fast as anyone in camp could ever hope to do. He reassembles it just as quickly. His eyes never leave Dean. Not once.
“That’s pretty impressive, soldier,” Nate says when Sam hands the weapon back to him.
“Yeah,” Dean mutters, “he learned it from the best.”