This story is gen, rated PG-13 or so for some violence and language. Sam, Dean, and John, post-Devil's Trap, and AU from there. I learned while writing this that if you can wrangle things so that you get Destina, elynross, and way2busymom all to beta your story, you are in serious luck, and you should not question the kindness of the universe. If you prefer, the story is also available as a text file.

Crossroad Dirt
by Killa

When Sam was seven, his dad ran the Impala into a ditch, and they ended up walking almost three miles in the pitch black and bitter cold to the nearest farmhouse. It was Vermont, he remembers. November. There'd been dead leaves on the roads, and the faint smell of snow on the wind.

He doesn't remember what he and Dean were arguing about, just that Dean was turned around hanging over the back of his seat, trying to grab something Sam didn't want him to have. He was laughing, and Sam was pissed about whatever it was. Things were just starting to get out of hand, and Dad was fed up. Knock it off, you two, if you don't want to spend the night in separate rooms, you hear me-- and his eyes only left the road for a second, but it was just as they came around a curve, and a dark shape materialized in the headlights, a huge bull moose, so big he seemed to tower over the car.

Sam always remembers the way it happened, the tight sound of his dad's startled curse, the way the back of the seat made him see stars when he flew forward and smashed his nose into it, the burst of pain so bright it took his breath away. He remembers the surprised look on Dean's face when he flew forward--backward--into the dashboard, and the way time seemed to slow way down and spread itself out over endless seconds of sliding. Remembers seeing the dark gleam of the bull's flank passing right next to the car, and the scraping sound the fenders made on the trees along the embankment. Remembers his dad's voice shaking when he said Dean's name, the way he'd felt all around the back of Dean's head for blood. Later, Sam would have a black eye from where Dean's hand flew out and clocked him one, and Dean would make it up to him by making flip-book cartoons in the corners of a well-used notepad.

This time Sam's behind the wheel, and it's completely different. No stars, for one thing, and no warning, just a bang that feels like a shotgun blast going off in his head, an explosion of brightness that tastes like copper, a crash of ozone that burns through his sinuses, acid on the back of his tongue. Then, nothing. Blackness slamming down, blotting out the world.

The world, when it came back to him, tasted like blood. A haze of matching red-black fog swam across his vision; the ozone was so strong, his first thought was of lightning. He'd looked right at a lightning strike once when he was a kid, seen it leap up from the ground and split open the night. For an hour afterwards, he'd seen the afterimage of it burned on his retinas.

Sam blinked, trying to clear his vision. His ears were messed up, too, like he'd fallen down a very deep hole, and everything was echo-y and strange. His sinuses were clogged, his wrist felt like it was sprained, or worse, and something heavy was pressing on him, holding him down. He swallowed, and that was a bad idea, because he tasted blood, but trying to move his head turned out to be a much, much worse idea; the wave of pain and dizziness made him groan, and he thought he might be sick. Of less pressing misery but perhaps more potential danger, he was aware of something shifting inside him in a way that was distinctly not right -- cracked rib, most likely, maybe more than one. He made a small, involuntary sound and closed his eyes again, focusing for a second on just trying to breathe.

Memory thrust into him all at once, shoving into his thoughts with blunt urgency. The car. The demon. He'd been driving--

"Dad," he choked, eyes flying open. His voice caught on it, head jerking sideways and breath hitching in his chest as the rest of it came home. He tried to struggle up, heedless now of the pain. Tried to see in the rearview mirror, now knocked askew.

Something had hit them. Something big, blinding lights and a sound like a locomotive, like a mountain sliding down on top of them. It came from the right, some voice of reason whispered. From Dad's side. Sam struggled against the weight that pinned him -- the torqued steering column -- fumbling to push himself up, to see in the blinding white glare from his dad's side of the car. His dad's--

His dad was out cold, not moving. There was blood on his face, bright rivulets of it streaking his hair, and he wasn't-- he wasn't-- Something cold clenched around Sam's heart, but he made himself reach out, shake him gently. "Dad." His voice sounded funny, far away. He shook a little harder, and the cold thing started to spread through him, numbing him. "Dad, come on. Come on, please--" No, the voice inside him said, not reason now, just panic and blunt denial. No. Please, no.

But he knew. He'd known the second he touched his dad's shoulder, and seen the way his head moved.

A sound escaped him, breath pressed out of him by the enormity of it. "Oh, God--"

God can't help us now, Sammy.

"Dean," Sam breathed, the name a sudden anchor against his own blind panic and despair, grounding him. It broke through the heavy numbness of shock, made him forget the dull agony throbbing in his head, the sharper agony of grief. The dead didn't need him now; he had to focus on the living.

The living. Oh, please, God, let him be-- Another frantic glance in the rearview mirror showed him Dean's pale face, unconscious against the window. Was he breathing? Sam's hands shook, didn't want to do what he told them. He fumbled at the door handle on the driver's side, finally grabbing it and yanking it hard. The door didn't budge. Sam yanked it again and threw his weight against the door, barely feeling it, though some part of him was distantly, coolly aware that he'd been right about the cracked ribs. Panic made the pain unimportant.

No accident. He knew that, now. Knew it as he should have known it in the first instant. Should have seen it coming, should have known--

"Come on--" he gasped out, voice breaking on it.

Cold air swept into the car; it ran down his neck like fear. Sam's breath hitched, and he twisted around, trying to see. The back door was open. Fog swirled, obscuring the night sky, but he could see the spidery black shapes of tree branches and something moving in the dark beside the car, something not his brother. Dean was gone. Just-- gone. Adrenaline spiked through Sam in a fierce rush and the driver's side door suddenly gave under his frantic efforts, flew open into the night. He half fell out of the car, caught himself, one foot in the loose gravel beside the road. His heart felt like it might burst.

"Dean!"

In the slanting light from the semi's headlights, he caught sight of a dark, unfamiliar figure only a few yards away. Sam was close enough to see the black emptiness where the man's eyes had been, the bull strength of his meaty frame and the blunt threat of those big hands. Thick muscle bulged in the forearm wrapped around Dean's neck; thick fingers gripped hard in Dean's shirt, half-supporting his weight. Sam struggled out of the car, trying to see if Dean was moving at all, if he--

Don't even think it.

Dad, oh God, Dad, I'm so sorry.

The screech of tires broke across his awareness, jerking him back to a fierce, tight clarity of focus. A late-model sedan skidded on the two lane highway, fishtailing before turning back toward them. Sam could see two shapes in the car, a man and a woman. He didn't have to be able to see their eyes to know they weren't human, not any more. The car slid to a stop and the people got out, bearing straight for him. Three on one.

The first one -- the truck driver, Sam thought -- hitched Dean's weight higher, and Sam saw Dean stir, making a slow, clumsy motion to get his feet under him. Seeing it, Sam's heart leapt so hard against his breastbone, it felt like it might leave a bruise. Relief flooded him, then warred with renewed fear. Dean's captor didn't seem overly concerned with letting him breathe.

"What do you want?" Sam demanded, taking a step toward them. He kept his hands spread at his sides while his mind raced, trying to think of something he could use to bargain with, something he had that they might want. Not them, he corrected, thinking fast. They're just pawns for the other one. The one with the plan. It's me he wants -- me and all the children like me. "Take me. It's me he wants. Let my brother go, and I'll go with you."

"You'll go with us, all right," the truck driver said, black eyes slick as oil in the headlights.

The other two were almost on him, and Sam braced himself for a fight; the second they grabbed him, he dropped down and back, trying to yank them off balance. For a second, it worked. He had weight and reach on both the newcomers, and didn't hold back, unleashing all the fury of his grief and terror with precise and deadly accuracy.

Unfortunately, there was such a thing as outmatched and outgunned, and even at his most desperate, Sam Winchester was no match for demon strength. In a handful of moments the vacant-eyed, thirty-something couple had him pinned on his knees, pale and gasping, hands wrenched behind him and the man's fist in his hair. Blunt agony throbbed in his chest, through his side and his hamstring where they'd kicked him. His vision swam, and he felt dangerously close to passing out.

He forced himself to focus on Dean, to keep it together. His brother looked like he was in a bad way, blood gleaming crimson on his face and neck, slick and dark on his clothes, but he was still stirring, fighting his way to consciousness, stubborn as ever. It probably shouldn't have cheered Sam as much as it did.

It didn't last. A second later, a hot wind lifted the hair on the back of Sam's neck, raising gooseflesh as it swept over the tableau on the side of the road, the fog swirling and eddying before that unnatural zephyr. The scent of sulfur burned Sam's throat, made his eyes water.

It was coming from the Impala, behind him.

Sam closed his eyes. Revulsion closed his throat, and he swallowed against it. He knew, even before it spoke, but it didn't help. It didn't help at all.

"You know," said the thing that wasn't his dad, "this is so much easier now that old John-boy isn't in here fighting me any more. Mighty kind of him, really, to leave me the keys to the place."

Sam flushed with bitter hatred, so violent he felt himself shaking with it. "Get out."

"Oh, come now, Sammy. You must know by now there's nothing you can do to stop me."

It was standing right in front of him now. It was looking at him, he knew, and he was John Winchester's son. Whatever it cost him, Sam was not about to give it the satisfaction of seeing him afraid, so he opened his eyes and made himself look it in the face without flinching. "Get. The fuck. Out."

Not-John chuckled, as if Sam were the best thing that ever happened to him. "It's a little late to pretend he means anything to you, isn't it? I thought you'd be relieved. Just think how much easier things will be without dear old Dad coming down on you all the time. Maybe now you can stop carrying around that chip on your--"

"Don't listen to it, Sam."

Sam's head came up at the rough rasp of his brother's voice. "Dean." Their eyes met, held. Dean looked like hell, but Sam recognized the steel in his expression. Not out of the fight yet, that look said. Not as long as I'm still breathing.

Hurt clenched in Sam's stomach. Dean didn't know, hadn't seen-- Sam drew a sharp breath against the sudden pressure on his heart. "Dean, Dad--" His throat tightened, then, and words failed. He couldn't. How was he supposed to...?

"It's okay, Sam," Dean said, as if they were the only ones there, the only ones that mattered.

"You two are breaking my heart, you know that? So brave, stiff upper lip to the end. Just brimming over with self-sacrifice, too. You know, he just tried to trade himself for you, big brother. Kind of sweet, really." The demon smiled John's lopsided, familiar grin, for just a moment. Then, it faded. "As if I need permission to take what's mine."

"Nothing you've ever taken was yours," Dean grated out, and Sam wished with everything in him that he could obliterate the thing that had made his brother sound like that.

The demon was done smiling. He signaled to Dean's captor, and the driver forced Dean to his knees with no physical coercion Sam could see, just a little sideways jerk of his head. Dean cried out, surprise wrenching the raw sound from him before he could choke it back.

Sam surged up against restraining hands without thought, fury hot in his throat. "Stop it."

"Stop it?" The demon's glittering eyes turned on him, held him pinned as a snake might mesmerize its prey. "You can stop it, Sam. It's up to you what happens to your brother now, you hear me? You know what I want."

Sam's breath hitched, ragged desperation and loathing choking him. He tried to see Dean's face. Dean was breathing hard now, his face a rigid mask against the pain, but he shook his head slightly and his eyes were fierce, locking on Sam's with unflinching insistence. Don't you even think about it, Sammy. He didn't have to say it. Sam read him loud and clear.

The demon sighed, and shook its head. It made a small, negligent gesture, and Dean doubled over, making a sound that Sam felt like a kick to the gut. "No!" Sam cried, helpless to keep quiet. No, goddammit. It was too much, after everything. "Just stop. Just--" Sharp rocks dug into his knees through his jeans, and pain throbbed in his head as he struggled, but he barely felt it. It was the demon's presence he felt, overwhelming everything else; it squeezed in tight bands around his chest, steel pressure against his thoughts, just like at the cabin. Some part of him fought against that pressure even as he fought against the iron grip of the demon's minions. What the hell good was it to be able to move furniture, to shape the world with his will, if he couldn't do it now, when it counted? He tried desperately to find that current of energy inside him, to tap into it, but his thoughts slipped and shuddered away from the dark, slick weight of that presence, beating helplessly against it.

"The gun, Sam," the demon said, and John Winchester's voice was gentle. "Give it to me, and I'll let him go."

Dean shook his head, and Sam saw him sway a little. "It's lying. It's gonna kill me anyway."

The demon laughed, as if the Winchesters were his own never-ending private joke. He ambled over and caressed Dean's throat, an intimacy that made Sam's stomach turn over. "You may be right about that." The yellow eyes found Sam's, the demon resting the heavy weight of his hand on Dean's neck like a promise. "But you can be sure I'll kill him if you don't."

"Okay! Just-- just stop. Get your hands off him, and I'll give it to you."

"Don't do it, Sam!"

"Dean, I'm sorry." Fear was sick and heavy in his stomach, but Sam forced it down. He couldn't afford it now. Don't think, just-- "I need my hands free," he told the demon. "They have to let me up, so I can break the protection spells."

Those amber-glass reptile eyes pinned him for long seconds, and Sam tried not to think about the chances of a demon keeping its word.

It nodded at last, and Sam's captors stepped back, hauling him to his feet. Sam bit his tongue to keep from crying out; his head was throbbing now, and he could feel something pinching inside of him, a sickening pain that came in waves, and told him he'd done worse damage with all his struggling. He fought the nausea down, trying not to pass out. Don't think about it. Don't look at Dean. Just move.

The driver's side door was still standing open. Sam glanced at the Impala for the first time, the way it had crumpled under the weight of the semi. The inside of the car looked like death, blood spattering the glass. No wonder his dad--

Sam swallowed hard. It's not him, he told himself. Not any more. He moved to the back of the car, sliding a hand across the trunk's cool steel.

"Sam. Think about what you're doing."

Dean's voice sounded weaker, like he was starting to lose his fight to hold on to consciousness. Sam risked a glance at him, trying to put all his apologies and regrets into a look.

Whatever answer was in Dean's eyes, he couldn't let himself think about it, not now. Not and do what he had to do. He tore his gaze away and turned his attention to the task at hand. The couple from the sedan stood close, flanking him.

"Sam."

The defeated sound in Dean's voice hurt him, but Sam couldn't spare thought for that, either. He closed his eyes and drew a slow, steadying breath, wiping his palms on his jeans. And it wasn't praying, not really, but for a second, he felt his dad with him, nothing to do with that thing standing just behind and to his left. With him, where it counted.

It was easy enough to break the protection charms, since he was the one who'd drawn them. All it took was the edge of his thumbnail, scraped through the white grease pencil to break the circle: first one, then the other.

When he broke the second one, the air stilled, and everything seemed to hold its breath. Then the demon laughed softly, a sound of satisfaction that raised the hair on Sam's neck. "Very good, Sammy. Now back away." Sam did as he was told, sickness rising in his throat. He hoped he knew what the hell he was doing, because if he was wrong...

The trunk's lock popped with the barest flicker of intent from the demon, and it swung open. The woman stepped forward and lifted the false bottom, uncovering the weapons cache beneath. Don't look at Dean, Sam told himself fiercely. Don't move, don't look, don't do anything--

"It's not here," she said, looking up.

"What?" the demon said, head turning sharply. It took a step toward the car.

It was only a second, but Sam was already moving fast, as fast as he ever had in his life, heedless of the pain. In the space of a heartbeat he'd reached under his shirt and found the grip of the revolver, still warm from his body, where it had been all along. Then it was in his hands, the hammer cocking with an audible click.

The demon froze. Its head snapped up, eyes locking on the muzzle of the Colt, pointed straight at its heart. It had knocked the gun from Dean's hands once with the speed of thought. Sam knew that. But he also knew that there was a reason the demon wanted him, that on some level it might even be afraid of him, and if that were true, then now was the time to make it count.

He heard Dean breathe a sharp, startled laugh. "Atta boy, Sammy."

"You son of a bitch--" the demon snarled, eyes blazing brimstone, and it seemed to flare bright with outrage, though Sam felt rather than saw the sudden blast, felt it leap across the twenty feet between them and sear his optic nerves, his mind, as if it would burn him alive where he stood. Sam gasped with the shock of it, but shoved back as hard as he could with everything in him. And the thing that wore his dad's face paled, and fell back a step.

"Do it now, Sam!" Dean ordered, struggling to free himself. "Now!"

"Don't--" Sam gasped out.

Too late. The demon's head snapped around and its rage flared off it like ball lightning, the air rippling as it lashed out at Dean with all the force of its power. Dean didn't even cry out, just choked on a sharp exhale as his body gave way and he sagged, boneless, in his captor's hold. Sam tore his eyes away from the demon's for a precious half-second, long enough to see his brother's face go bone-white and blood gush from his nose. No. Dean--

No time. With a strangled cry and an effort of will that broke something in him, he tore his eyes away from Dean and steadied the Colt with both hands, pointing it unerringly at his father's heart. Now, Sam, his dad's voice said, and it was calm, and sure. He pulled the trigger.

The Colt fired true. For the briefest of seconds, Sam wasn't sure; then the blue-white flashes of electricity burned outward, engulfing John Winchester's leather jacket in a fine web of sparks and crackling current, and Sam could see the small, neat hole at the center, the blackness that curled up from it like smoke. The electrical current intensified, spread over the demon's form as though it were caught in a net of lightning, its stolen body jerking marionette-fashion; then the lightning was inside it, too, skull and bones shining grotesquely through the skin, through layers of clothing, death's imprint stamped hard on the corporeal. The yellow eyes blazed from the inside, and a second later, the lightning leapt outward, grounding itself to a nearby electrical pole, exploding the transformer with a huge boom and a shower of sparks. Sam flinched, ducking instinctively. His arms trembled from strain. He still held the Colt, gripping it as though it could do him any good.

That searing, unnatural wind suddenly blasted him in the face, whipping his hair back, tasting like sulfur and iron, smelling like blood. Sam recoiled, watching in numb horror as his dad's flesh suddenly started to blacken and smolder, red lines of fire cracking the skin of his hands, curling the leather of his jacket and the edges of his clothes. The thing howled, deep and harsh, so alien it made all the hair on Sam's body stand up, made him want to retch. He stumbled back before it, his heart hammering in his throat-- then it staggered, and fell, and Sam saw the light go out in its eyes, saw them shimmer with blue electricity and then just burn away, black smoke burning from the holes where they'd been, from its mouth, face burning away to bone in seconds.

As if it broke a spell, the three demon minions twitched and staggered, howling outrage of their own. They, like Sam, had stood mesmerized by the horror show for long seconds; as their master collapsed and burned away to ash, they snarled in fury, left Dean crumpled in a heap where he'd fallen, and turned on Sam as a pack.

Denial clenched Sam's insides into a knot, burst out of him in some kind of a mental scream he couldn't control, and he didn't even try. It hit his attackers like a wall, slamming them back. He saw fear on their faces, and for a second, he didn't care that these were people, that there were innocent lives still to be spared here. He just... didn't care. Rage seared through him, fed by the backdraft of his grief until it burned with a white-hot ferocity that wanted nothing less than to consume everything in its path. Face twisted into a snarl, he let go of the gun, raised his hands in blind instinct and pushed.

He couldn't have said exactly what he did, or where the power came from. It hollowed him out, burned away everything but the rage, made him into a weapon that had no edges and no form, but against which nothing could stand. It was better than letting himself feel, letting himself think, and he sensed it, the moment the three lesser demons let go and fled.

The humans that had hosted them collapsed like dolls, and it took every last scrap of control Sam had left, to stop himself from just ending them. It would be so easy. As easy as breathing, as wishing it. And for the briefest of moments, Sam couldn't think of why it should matter.

Then he came back to himself, breath hitching on a sob, because he knew why.

The agony in his head staggered him, made him stumble like he was drunk. He wouldn't look at the ruined thing that had been his dad. He turned back toward his brother, made himself cross the little distance between them, though it took more effort than anything he'd done that night.

Chest knotted around his grief like a fist, Sam fell to his knees and reached out, pulling Dean up onto his lap, into his arms, Dean's name locked in his throat. Dean wore his own blood like war paint, but his face was pale and still, at peace. Sam made a sound, low and harsh, unable to stop it. Wetness fell onto Dean's face, streaking the blood where it hadn't yet dried, making it run -- and that's when he knew, because Dean had never been able to watch Sam cry and not comfort him, not tease him or try to make him laugh. "No. No, no, Dean-- oh, God." His hands shook. He made himself gather Dean's hands carefully in his own, made himself draw them up to Dean's chest, willing him to feel it. They were cool. Too still.

He tried to hold it together. Tried not to let himself beg for something Dean couldn't give. He'd already given Sam so much. All their lives, he'd given Sam everything, everything that was in him to give, and then some. Sam's world didn't make sense without Dean in it. Nothing made sense. His stomach cramped and bent him over with the weight of a world like that.

And as it turned out, he wasn't as grown up as he thought, not in this, because in the end it didn't matter that he knew it was hopeless, Sam rested his head against his brother's and begged after all. Please. Please don't leave me. Please--

"--no!"

Sam flung his hand out, fingers splayed against the dashboard as the violent reality of the then inside his head warred with the here and now of the car, the blinding pressure behind his eyes, the familiar scents of gun oil and leather and aftershave that said Dad.

"What is it, Sam? What's wrong?"

His dad sat beside him in the front seat of the Impala, looking at him with that familiar expression, half worry, half impatience. Alive. The pain in Sam's head was so bad it felt like it might split his skull open, but he suddenly didn't care; he clenched his right hand and felt the keys dig into his palm. They were still sitting outside the rickety old cabin in the middle of the woods. His father was still clamping pressure on the gunshot wound in his thigh, but saying nothing about that; his eyes were still flinty and hard in the moonlight, unforgiving. Sam's eyes flew to the rearview mirror and met Dean's, shadowed with pain, but alert enough to look worried.

Relief bloomed so hard in Sam's belly, for a second he couldn't breathe. A vision. Real enough to gut him, to make his chest feel like something had lodged itself there permanently, but a vision. His thoughts beat at the confines of his brain like frantic wings, and he tried to calm them, to think.

"Sam. Answer me." It was an order.

Time was against them, Sam knew that. They had to go -- he'd said as much seconds before.

It felt like hours. He swallowed hard, pressing his fingers to the insides of his eye sockets. "We can't."

John's impatience rose. "Can't what? What are you talking about?"

"Dad, listen to him," Dean broke in. Pain laced his voice, but Sam could tell he was making an effort to stay with them. "We told you, Sam sees things."

John eyed Sam dubiously. "In these visions you were telling me about.”

Sam let out a breath, shaking his head. They didn't have time for this. "If we head south, toward Braxton, they'll find us. It finds us."

"And you've seen this."

Sam's patience frayed. "Yes, okay? I've seen it."

"Maybe--"

"No! No maybe! It kills you, you understand? It kills Dean." He stopped. Just saying it hurt, and if he said any more, he'd have to tell his dad the rest. It kills you, but I get the drop on it, Dad. I kill the demon. Only, I'm alone at the end, and none of it means anything. And he didn't want to know what his dad would say to that, he really didn't. "We can't," he said, leaving no room for argument.

John stared at him for a long second as if he would argue anyway, but something in the set of Sam's face must have made him think better of it. "We'll go north, then. Make for Willow Creek. It's about twenty miles further, but--"

Sam shook his head, eyes straying again to Dean's pale face in the mirror. "I don't think so. If we go where it expects us to, do what it expects us to, all it has to do is send its minions or whatever to take over anybody in our path. If it doesn't catch us heading for Braxton, it'll just find another truck north of the highway turnoff, cut us off that way. There's not enough places we could go."

John's voice turned hard. "Sam, we don't have any choice. Your brother needs a hospital. He won't make it a hundred yards on foot." He didn't say anything about his own gunshot wound, of course -- not that Sam expected him to.

Not that he needed his dad to tell him, either. The awareness of how badly Dean was hurt had been running underneath the surface of his thoughts since the moment he'd seen his brother fall. "I know. Let me think." How much time did they have? How long had he been driving in the vision before the truck had come out of nowhere? Twenty minutes, maybe? It was just over thirty miles to Braxton. "Dean, you still have the map?"

"In the glove compartment."

Sam leaned over and got out the forest service map and a flashlight, the Colt digging into the hollow of his spine. He opened the map and spread it out hurriedly over the steering wheel, shining the light and angling it so his dad could see, too. The service roads made a network of spidery tracks all over the big green areas, interconnected, mostly unmarked.

He fought back the panic that pressed at the back of his throat and made himself draw a steadying breath, let his fingertips skim over the intricate pattern, looking with more than his eyes.

There, at the west edge of the forest. A county road, winding northwest. Sam traced it backwards, following the little lines that connected to it. "Dad, you see that?"

"I see it."

"If we can get to that road, I think we can get out of this. The demon isn't all-knowing. It can't be everywhere at once -- all it can do is guess the most likely places for us to show up. I think if we slip past it, it won't have any way to find us. At least, not for a while, not if we're careful."

"Closest town of any size is at least forty miles."

"I know." His eyes slipped involuntarily to Dean's in the mirror.

"I can make it," Dean said, sounding confident. "I'm okay."

Sam knew him too well to buy it, but none of their options were good. "You seriously better not be bullshitting me."

"Come on, man, would I do that?"

Sam didn't dignify that with an answer. Praying he was right, he slipped the key into the ignition. The Impala turned over, the deep rumble of its engine reassuring, familiar.

He reached for the gear shift, and his dad laid a heavy hand over his, stopping him. "Son, are you sure?"

What-ifs flickered behind Sam's eyes, shades of possibility. Would it make a difference that he'd seen what happened, if they went to Braxton now? They could check the map for intersecting roads, watch the mile markers, be ready for the ambush when it came. Maybe he and Dad together could change things enough that--

But it was a risk he wasn't willing to take, not even if it meant losing their one chance to kill it. Three days ago, he'd felt differently, but that might as well have been a lifetime. He might have to think about that later, but for right now, it was enough to know it in his bones.

"I'm sure," he said, and shifted into reverse.

The Chevy's high beams reflected back off the dense undergrowth, barely showing the rutted track immediately in front of them. The pale glare made Sam feel dangerously exposed, like they might as well send up a signal flare, but it wasn't like he had any choice. It was either that or run them right into a tree. As it was, he took his dad's brusque orders to turn, to bear left or right, pretty much on faith.

Deja vu was strong, and he half expected his dad to bring up what happened at the cabin, to take him to task for failing to follow orders yet again. Why didn't you kill it? I thought we saw eye to eye on this. But it must have been costing all of Dad's concentration to follow the spidery lines on the map, to keep from grunting in pain at the bumps and jounces of the car. Sam's own attention was torn between the twisting dirt and gravel roads and Dean in the back seat, suffering the rough ride in grim, white-faced silence.

When his brother finally passed out, Sam wanted to be relieved, but he was too aware that they were nowhere near help, not even close to near enough. Cold fear gripped him, and he had to fight the urge to drive faster. He was already pushing it. "Why couldn't you drive a four by four?" he muttered under his breath, nudging the gas down anyway, pushing it just a tiny bit further.

He didn't know how, exactly, he did it. But somehow, as they drove deeper into the woods, Sam started weaving himself around Dean, holding him together. Holding him steady. It was nothing he could have explained, and if he thought about it too hard, he'd know that this wasn't something you could do just by wishing it. Things didn't work that way. He knew better than anyone. He did it anyway, holding on for all he was worth.

How long, now? Sam was sure they'd missed the turn, all the turns, that they were going to be driving around these woods until the demon caught them. The road they were on might have once been a wagon track. Deeply rutted, it plunged straight down a hill, high embankments on either side, and the Impala's tires skidded in the dirt a little as Sam tried to control their descent. Then all of a sudden there were rocks under the tires, and then, abruptly, blacktop in front of them, running perpendicular to the track they were on, the gray shapes of trees looming up on the other side. Sam stomped on the brakes, let the back end fishtail a little, then hit the gas and turned into the slide, feeling it when the tires found the road. He slowed the car, checking the rearview, seeing no headlights in either direction. No lights, no signs. Just faded blacktop, a faint white line dotting the middle.

"This is it," he said, his voice sounding strange to his own ears. "Has to be."

"Guess we'll find out."

Sam closed his eyes for just a second, half holding his breath. But no warnings flashed behind his eyes; no inner sight told him what he should or shouldn't do.

He took that as a good sign, and stepped on it.

North. West, at the second turnoff they saw. Six miles, seven, then north again on another county tributary. When they saw a faded sign marked Poplar Hill Road almost hidden in the hawkweed and kudzu, John just nodded and Sam took it, not questioning. He felt like he'd had an ice pick buried in his head for longer than he could remember. His thoughts were slow, disjointed, and it was taking all the focus he could spare to keep the car on the road; his body was so pumped full of adrenaline and endorphins from trying to fight the headache, he couldn't trust his judgment any more.

They'd gone maybe two miles when the small sign appeared out of the fog: County Animal Hospital. And underneath that: Farm Calls • Emergency Services.

"Dad," Sam said, his voice hoarse.

"I see it."

Thirty miles to go before they'd have a chance of finding a real hospital. Sam took the turn, running on blind instinct.

He had no idea what time it was. The drive turned to gravel; he followed it for maybe five hundred feet before a rambling farmhouse appeared off to the left. The windows were dark, but a single light shone above the door of a second building behind it, the words Animal Clinic visible in the gloom. A black F-250 was parked behind the house beside an extended cab with a horse trailer. Sam pulled in next to them; John laid on the horn, three sharp blares, jarring in the night.

Sam had a hard time prying his hands off the steering wheel, and when he finally managed it, finally opened the door, his legs were so shaky he almost fell. He was past speech, but his dad was indestructible, coming around from the passenger side, opening Dean's door. Limping badly, but otherwise same as ever, strong, steady. It got Sam moving.

Wordlessly, he shouldered his dad aside. He thought it was a close thing, whether Dad would let him, but he didn't really much care about that. They could argue about it later. And John must have agreed, because after a long second he stood aside and let Sam reach into the car, let him slide his hands under his brother's body and lift him, as gently as he could, into his arms.

For a second, the headache was so bad he couldn't see. John steadied him, one hand on his back, the other resting against Dean's chest. "It's okay, Sammy. We got him. It's gonna be okay." He said it like he had when Sam and Dean were small, like saying it gave him the power to make it true.

Sam didn't know which of them he meant to reassure, and didn't care; a light had come on inside the farmhouse, and the front door swung open, a figure silhouetted on the porch.

The woman reminded him of his dad's friend Caleb. Wiry, wide-set cheekbones, quick gray eyes and competent, strong hands that looked like they were used to gentling horses. She took one look at Dean and didn't ask questions that didn't matter, just led the way to the clinic and hustled them inside.

Sam was having a hard time tracking. Dad exchanged a few words with the woman -- quiet, tense -- as she led the way to the treatment rooms in the back, flipping lights on as they went. The sudden brightness made lights flare and dance in his peripheral vision, then close down to a dark halo, like he was walking down a long tunnel. He held Dean closer against him, trying not to bump him into doorways. They went into a big room that had a wide counter down the middle, and the vet got Dad to help her put down padding on top. His brother wasn't light, but Sam barely felt the weight of him, didn't register how tightly he'd been holding on until they were done and Sam had to make his arms unlock to lay Dean down on the makeshift exam bed.

"You, sit," the doctor ordered, not looking at John. "Help me get his jacket off." This was directed at Sam. He was clumsy, hands reluctant to do what he wanted them to, but he did his best to help her. "Bring that light over here," she said when they were done. Sam saw an examination lamp on a stand nearby, and brought it over, turning it on. His dad sat down on the edge of a plastic chair, not looking happy about it, but unwilling to argue while the vet was focused on examining Dean.

Sam's eyes fell on the bloodstained, makeshift bandage his dad had tied around the wound in his thigh -- one of Dean's old T-shirts from the car, ripped into a long strip. The stain was still wet, which meant the wound was still seeping. God knew what else his dad had been through in the last twenty-four hours, but he still looked a hell of a lot better than Sam felt, like he could get up and fight again if he had to, like he could run a marathon if he thought it would help Dean.

Sam hovered. He'd patched Dean up more times than he could count, had seen him gored, bitten, mauled, sliced up, cursed, given him CPR when his heart stopped, and a dozen other variations on a theme, but he didn't even have words for the icy fear knotted in his stomach right now. Whatever elusive sense he'd had of his brother in the car, it had slipped away with his own exhaustion. Dean looked deathly pale, far too much of his own blood soaking his clothes. Sam watched a stranger put her hands on Dean and felt his own shaking, helpless. He slid them into his pockets.

"Sammy." His dad's voice, pitched low. Sam looked over at him, feeling slow and stupid, numb.

John touched his upper lip, a frown darkening his face; it took Sam a second, but at last he lifted his fingertips to his own face. He brushed them under his nose and they came away wet, crimson. He rubbed the blood away with his fingers and thumb and wiped it on his shirt.

"Son--"

Sam just shook his head slightly and turned back to watch the vet as she worked. If his dad could sit there with a bullet hole through his thigh, a nosebleed just didn't seem like much worth worrying about.

The vet finished her initial, cursory examination, and pulled her stethoscope out of her ears. She moved to a cabinet nearby and started pulling things out. "He's in shock, and he's lost a lot of blood. I want to get him on oxygen. Can you bring me that cart in the corner?"

Sam did as he was told, hovering again as she hooked it up. It took some doing to fit the plastic cup to a human, but she managed it, holding it in place manually and getting Sam to help her with a length of clear plastic tubing. When the cup was tight over Dean's pale face, she said, "We'll need that rolling hanger. Can you grab it?"

Again, Sam obeyed. She'd already laid out a bag of saline, a tube, and a needle in plastic, and started setting them up. Sam couldn't help feeling a little reassured by the quick, competent way she handled everything. "I don't even know your name," he said, watching her.

She looked up for a second at that. "It's Madeline. Madeline Wells."

"Sam. This is Dean."

Her focus had already returned to her patient. "Dean, huh? Well, let's get some fluids into you, Dean, what do you say?"

"How's he doing?" John asked when she had the drip going.

"He needs a hospital," she said shortly. "I don't see any evidence of external sharp force trauma, and I can't account for all the blood loss, but I'd say he needs a transfusion." Her hands kept checking Dean as she spoke, feeling now for broken bones.

"Will he live?"

Sam heard the brittleness in his dad's voice, felt it scrape across his nerves like gravel.

Madeline Wells looked up sharply, giving John a hard stare. "Are you not hearing me? I said he needs a hospital." She looked back at Dean, opening his eyes one by one and checking them. "I don't see obvious signs of organ failure, but there's a lot of bruising on his chest and abdomen and he needs a CT scan. Cerebral hemorrhage is a distinct possibility, in my opinion. I don't know what the hell happened to him, but this doesn't look like any car accident I've ever heard of."

"Doctor Wells-- Madeline. Look, I told you. We can't go to a hospital. You're the only one who can help him."

"Can't you give him a transfusion here?" Sam asked. "He's my brother -- we're the same blood type. I've donated for him before." He felt his dad's sharp glance at that, but couldn't spare time for it now. The woman's gray eyes were on him, cool and penetrating. "Please," he added softly, desperation welling up. Cerebral hemorrhage. God-- "Please, I know how this looks. I swear to you, we haven't--" he'd been about to say, we haven't hurt anyone, but the lie stuck in his throat. He couldn't even say with any certainty that they weren't wanted by the police. "We're in trouble, but we're not dangerous. Please, just do the best you can. You're all we've got."

She gave him a long, searching look. Finally, something in her eyes relented. "I do have a mobile equine CAT scan unit that would probably do the job," she admitted.

Sam breathed again, relief a painful ache in his chest. "Thank you."

She shook her head tightly, as if already regretting it. "Don't thank me yet."

"Then just tell me what to do."

John watched the vet put Sam on an intravenous catheter, and looked at his youngest with new, grudging respect. When they were in Salvation, Dean had joked about Sammy's puppy-dog looks and how they broke the hearts of little old ladies everywhere, but John hadn't realized before how easily Sam won people's trust. He'd always thought that sweet-faced, pleading look only worked on Dean; he hadn't seen it work on a stranger like that since Sam was six, and adorably precocious, and few mortals could resist him.

Things he'd seen Sam do these last few days came back to him, then, and the troubling thought occurred to him that there might be more to it than just sincerity and a harmless face.

"Dad?" Sam asked, glancing over and catching his look.

John closed himself around the thought like a fist, saving it for later. He looked away.

It was a long night. Dean showed no signs of consciousness, just lay still and pale under the vet's hands as she put him through the scanner. The results showed pretty much what John might have guessed: extensive vascular damage with no single critical site; a hairline fracture on his skull, from where the demon had flung Dean against the wall. He was concussed, and showed some cranial bleeding, but his breathing stayed steady, and seemed to be responding to the blood transfusion. His color was better, at least. On the down side, Wells warned them that smaller hematomas might go undetected on her equipment, and she wanted to keep an eye on him for a bit before they moved him. "Come on," she said to John at last, when the first hint of dawn was just starting to show at the windows. "Let me take a look at that leg."

"I can do it," Sam said, pushing himself away from the counter. "You stay with Dean." Wells looked over at him, one eyebrow quirked in surprise, and faint color rose in Sam's face. "You said you wanted to keep an eye on him."

"Shouldn't take me more than twenty minutes. He should be all right for that long."

John started to get up, and Sam closed the distance between them, standing close in case he needed someone to lean on. John said, "It's not that serious. Trust me, I know. Sam's a good field medic -- he can take care of it. You worry about Dean."

Wells looked from one of them to the other, as if she didn't know which of them to tell off. She settled on John, with a hint of exasperation. "You would've gotten on with my ex. Stubborn as hell, and thought he was indestructible, too."

To John's surprise, he felt more than heard Sam's huff of amusement. "Was his last name Winchester?" he said under his breath.

"What's that?" said Wells.

"Nothing, just that sounds about right."

The corners of her eyes turned up a little, and she turned away, pulling a chair close to where Dean lay. "Well, suit yourselves. Holler if you need me."

Sam helped John into the adjacent room, cutting his bloody jeans away from his thigh without comment, cleaning and dressing both the entry and exit wounds in silence. Sam's face was pale from giving blood and gray with exhaustion, the bruises and contusions he'd suffered back in Jefferson City drawn in ugly, sharp relief under the harsh fluorescent lights. Neither one of them felt much like talking, and what was there to say, really? John knew Sam wouldn't let himself breathe until Dean was out of the woods, and if John let himself think about what had happened at the cabin, about the fact that he was still alive thanks to Sam, and what that meant, he was afraid he'd lose it, afraid he'd say or do something that would drive the last nail in the coffin of their already-strained relationship.

Sam hadn't forgotten his first aid skills, and did a decent job of patching him up. The pain was bad, but John had had worse; Sam was a good shot, too, the bullet hole passing clean through the large muscle of his outer thigh, missing the bone and major artery. Watching him clean up after, John felt the clenched, bitter thing inside him ease a little after all.

"Sam."

Sam stilled at the sink, not turning. He held himself stiffly, and John realized he was expecting a reprimand -- had been bracing himself for it. "We safe here?" John asked instead, his voice gruff. He wasn't too comfortable with the idea of having to ask his youngest for intel, but Sam's instincts had gotten them this far, and he needed to know.

"I think so," Sam said, resting his hands on the edge of the sink. "For now."

"Where's the Colt?"

Sam glanced over, meeting his eyes, then looked away. "I've still got it."

There was another silence, harder than the last, and John's hands twitched with the urge to make demands. As if sensing his scrutiny, Sam turned to meet his gaze head on and withstood it in defiant silence, challenging him to argue. No part of that look was suspicion, and John knew, they both knew, the demon wasn't in the room with them. But it was suddenly between them, inescapable, that Dean had paid a high price to keep that gun out of John's hands, and Sam wasn't about to let it go easily.

John wrestled with it for a span of silent heartbeats, but finally let it go with a half-shrug. "Good," he said shortly. "Won't do us much good if we don't keep it close." Some of the tense brittleness went out of Sam, and John took a good look at him, seeing that he was near the end of his rope. He recognized the look. "You should put some ice on that," he said, nodding at the bruised swelling around Sam's eye and cheek.

Sam looked down, shrugging a little. "It's fine. Too late to do much good, anyway."

"You're probably right." John watched him for a moment more, wishing he thought Sam would listen to him if he ordered him to lie down for a little while, to try and rest. But since when had Sam ever let John tell him anything?

John pushed himself off the table, bracing himself and grimacing against the wave of sudden dizziness; Sam watched him struggle with his balance for a second, then moved, slipping under John's right arm and taking his weight. "Come on, let me help you," he said, and John let him.

The sky was pale and gray by the time Wells judged Dean's condition stable. He still hadn't regained consciousness, but his vitals were better, and his pupils were responding evenly to light, which the vet said was a very good sign. She pressed again for them to consider taking him to a hospital, but she seemed unsurprised at their resistance, and let it go.

"I wish I had a stretcher to take him to the house," she said, watching him sleep. "He'd be a lot more comfortable in a bed."

Sam, who felt as though he'd gone several rounds with a wrecking ball, got to his feet with effort. "I can do it, if you think it's safe to move him."

She shrugged. "Safe enough, long as you're careful."

Wells rummaged up a cane for John, then carried the bag of fluids while Sam carried Dean. It seemed a small eternity before they made it to the guest room at the back of the house. Whatever reserves Sam's body had managed before, they were long used up, and by the time he got Dean into the single bed his arms were shaking from the strain. "You are so gonna owe me for this," he told Dean's sleeping self. He didn't even try to keep the relief out of it.

"Thank you," he said again in the hallway, when Wells had checked his brother over one last time and pronounced him resting comfortably. "Seriously. We can't thank you enough. I don't know what we would have done."

"What Sam said," his dad said from the other side. "We owe you, and we won't forget, believe me."

Wells shrugged. "Yeah, well. I'm probably crazy for helping you, but most of my friends think I'm crazy anyway, so what's one more on the books?" She stretched her back until it popped, and scrubbed a hand through her short dark hair. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready for some shut-eye."

Sam glanced at his father. "We don't want to put you out any more than we already have--"

"Doesn't seem likely," she countered, and a smile hovered around her eyes for the first time. "My friends call me Maddie, by the way. Come on," she said, and started down the hall. "I'll put you in the TV room. It's not much, but it's better than sleeping in your car."

She showed them the bathroom and left them with towels and half a dozen Percocet tablets, which Sam knew better than to think Dad would touch -- not now, not with the demon still out there. When she'd gone to bed, Sam forced himself to go out to the car and get the necessities, what clothes they had, knowing they'd sleep better in clean T-shirts, at least. Dad was probably out of luck when it came to jeans; Sam didn't think he'd fit either his or Dean's. He hesitated over weapons, extra ammo, but nothing in the trunk would do them much good if the demon found them here, and in the end, he left them.

Some time later, cleaner for having showered but no closer to sleep, Sam shifted, trying to get comfortable on the couch that was too small for him. There was no part of him that wasn't sore and stiff. He turned his head toward the other couch and watched his dad sleep with the blunt, straightforward efficiency of a soldier who'd learned long ago to sleep when he could, even if it meant lying down in the mud with his boots on.

Sam should have been able to do the same, tired as he was, but his head was a disaster area right now, wound up and wired from exhaustion, fear, and too many questions. Pale dawn shone through the slats of the blinds on the windows, too bright. He felt shaky, scraped raw, and images he'd pushed away for hours crowded in on him, vivid in his mind.

You mean why'd I kill Mommy, and pretty little Jess?

It was worse when he closed his eyes. Worse when he remembered being on his knees in the dirt, Dean slipping away in his arms.

Because they got in the way.

At last, nagging unease drove him from the haven of the couch, and compelled, he got up, padding quietly back down the hall. He'd seen the door to the kitchen when they came in. Within a few moments, in the slanting light that came through the blinds, he found what he was looking for.

Dean slept on, never stirring as Sam moved around him in the shadows, pouring careful lines of salt across both windows. When he was satisfied that the lines were solid, he pulled out his pocket knife and crouched down near the door to the hall. Carefully, listening for footsteps, he sliced a neat line through the carpet where it met the tack strip at the doorway; he lifted it up and poured a smooth, even line of salt across the door. With equal care, he pressed the carpet back down.

The roiling turbulence of his thoughts hadn't quieted much when he came back and lay down again, but in the end, he slept, the waking nightmares becoming real ones without him noticing.

He woke in shadows to a rumble of thunder, and the steady spattering of rain against the window -- and to Dean, shaking him awake. He had rain in his hair. "Hey."

"Dean?" Sam pushed himself up, responding to something in his brother's voice, his brain struggling to throw off the haze of sleep. "What--?"

"Something's wrong. Dad's gone. I checked the clinic, too, but he's not there."

Sam sat up, looking over at the other couch, now empty. "The car still here?"

"Yeah, I checked it out. All the weapons were still there, too."

"Well, then he can't have gone far."

"Sam, trust me, something's wrong. My spidey sense is tingling. Come on."

Dean led the way down the hall and out the back door into the rain. The gravel parking area was a lake, deep puddles splashing up around their boots. Madeline's truck was still in its spot, and it occurred to Sam belatedly to wonder where she was. He followed Dean across the parking lot to the clinic, then around the side toward the barn. "Dean, where we going?"

"Just following a hunch. Bear with me, Sammy." He went another twenty feet, then stopped, spotting something on the rain-soaked ground.

Sam stopped beside him, following the direction of his stare. The rain had almost washed it clean, and for a second, he missed it. Then he realized what he was looking at, and something cold came to rest in his stomach. A footprint in the long wet grass, and in the depression, edging the broken blades, traces of blood.

Expression grim, Dean looked at Sam and pulled his weapon. He moved forward, heading for the barn.

Sam followed, unwilling to let his brother get too far ahead of him, but he didn't like it. "Dean, wait. If it's the demon, we can't just go in there."

"It's got Dad. We're goin'. You got the Colt, don't you?"

"Yeah, but--"

"All right, then. Let's finish this thing."

The rain fell harder as they crossed the yard. Lightning flashed, close, momentarily outlining the dark shape of the barn; maybe a second later, thunder boomed and rolled, vibrating through the ground. Sam stuck close to his brother's flank but left the Colt where it was, safely dry and tucked into the small of his back.

They drew near to the barn and stopped on either side of the big double doors, listening, but the hollow echo of the rain on the barn's wooden roof made it impossible to hear anything inside. One of the doors was very slightly cracked. Sam met Dean's look, and Dean nodded. Sam pushed the door open into inky darkness. He hesitated for a moment, then drew the Colt and stepped inside.

He felt Dean close behind him. Shadows swallowed them immediately, the faint gray light from the single window barely reaching the floor below. They stopped inside the door, letting their eyes adjust for a few seconds before slowly moving forward in tandem.

It almost felt right, almost fooled him. He was listening hard for things moving in the dark, bracing himself for an ambush, and he almost let himself gloss over that tiny moment at the door and what was wrong with it. But somewhere, some part of him must have been telling him to be ready, to brace himself for another kind of ambush, because when he felt it -- the awful, unmistakable drip of something warm and viscous hitting his forehead -- he froze for half a second and then moved before he could think about it, turning with the revolver in his hands and drawing an unmistakable bead on the thing that was not his brother.

"Sam, what the hell?"

Sam's skin crawled, chilling certainty sluicing over him in icy waves, but he didn't let it own him, not yet. "You son of a bitch." He felt another drop of blood splash wetly against his scalp and shuddered, felt himself start to tremble. He was desperate to look, but he couldn't, not while Dean was so close. "Get back. Now!"

Dean's face closed like a door slamming. His lips curved faintly. And when he spoke again, his eyes didn't change, but there was something else in his voice -- something not-Dean. "What tipped you off? It was when we came in, wasn't it? Damn, I knew I should have gone first. I didn't figure you'd be so quick on the uptake. You're almost as much trouble as your smart-ass brother."

Sam felt sick. "Shut up. Just shut the hell up." Dean raised his hands, conciliatory, and backed off. Finally it was enough, and Sam made himself look up.

He'd known, of course. He'd known the second he felt the blood who it had to be, what he would see when he looked up. A sound escaped him anyway, anguish and denial clutching at his throat. "Oh, God. Dad."

The demon laughed with his brother's voice. "Looks like your dad was right, Sammy. Should have shot him when you had the chance."

Sam tore his eyes away from his dad's lifeless eyes, from the wide slice that had opened his belly like a grotesque, bloody smile, fighting the waves of reaction that shuddered through him. He tightened his grip on the Colt, feeling his arms tremble with the effort. Don't think about it, he told himself harshly, you don't have time. It's got Dean. His eyes flicked to his brother's pistol, held negligently at Dean's side. Shooting his dad in the thigh had weakened it, made it let go of its human host. Sam could get a shot off, get the thing out of Dean, then maybe together they could--

Madeline Wells appeared out of the shadows then, eyes black, holding a shotgun, and Dean grinned. His eyes glittered, still Dean's own sea-green. "Now whatcha gonna do, little brother? Can't shoot us both. One bullet, remember?"

"Don't call me that," Sam grated out.

Dean laughed. And finally, at last, the thing inside him showed itself, Dean's eyes changing from green to reptilian gold. It blinked, and Sam felt the pressure of its will like iron shackles, like a battering ram. He went to his knees.

Not-Dean closed the distance between them, smiling as Sam fought to keep the gun trained on him, fought the violent trembling of his arms. The leg. The shoulder-- anything.

Last bullet, he thought then, desperate. Last chance. You shoot me in the heart, son.

No. Not Dean. Not that. Another drop of his dad's blood hit his face and ran down his cheek, and Sam gave a broken, half-choked sob, deep in his throat. Fire, damn you, he told himself.

But Dean grinned like he'd invented him, and with a slight jerk of his chin, the grip of the revolver was suddenly white-hot in Sam's hands, searing the flesh of his palms. The pain was blinding, excruciating. Sam cried out and tried to hold on, but his body rebelled and the Colt hit the ground, spun; Dean drew near and nudged it away. "Too bad. He really wanted you to shoot him." Dean's head tilted, and the gold eyes burned into Sam's, feeling like a snake slithering in his mind. It shoved Sam back without touching him, and a suffocating, unseen pressure pinned him to the concrete floor. "Last time we met, I let myself get distracted. Let myself have a little too much fun. You Winchesters are a laugh a minute. Not this time." The demon's eyes flared, and a circle of flame erupted from the floor around them. "This time I'm going to finish what I started twenty-three years ago."

Sam fought to move, but like before, he was helpless under the crushing weight of the demon's power. Rage and despair throbbed through him. "What do you want with us?"

"Same thing I've always wanted. Your dad spoiled my plans, the night I killed mommie dearest. He showed up before I finished what I came for." The demon's malicious fury surfaced in Dean's smile. "You were always special, Sam. You were supposed to be the one I gave to my son. I was saving you."

Sam's thoughts reeled, struggled to find purchase. Buy time, he told himself. "Why not just take me, then?" he managed. "Why do you need Dean?"

"Because I want more than just the use of your body, Sammy. I want your big, psychic brain. I want what you can do. That takes a little extra mojo, you know what I'm saying?"

The blood, Sam thought, and if it were possible, his inner sense of horror and denial deepened. Invocation. That's why it killed Mom. That's why it killed Jess. Some kind of ritual, to consecrate the joining of a demon and a human soul. The blood, and the fire. How long? The circle of flames was closing in on them, a wall of heat against Sam's back, his face. He struggled harder, to no avail; the vise-like pressure on his chest and throat worsened, and he made a choking sound, spots darkening his vision.

At the sound, something flickered in the demon's expression, as though it had heard a far-off warning bell.

Sam seized on it like a lifeline. "Dean. Listen to me. I know you can hear me."

The demon laughed, but it sounded strained. "Dream on, little Sammy. Dean can't come to the phone right now."

"Don't listen to it, Dean. You can fight this thing. You fight it, you hear me?" In his desperation, Sam fell back on the one central truth of his life -- the one imperative he knew his brother would never fail to answer, if there were even a chance. "I need you to fight it, Dean. Please."

Dean's breath hitched, too quiet to hear over the steady crackle of the flames. Fire licked up Dean's legs, but didn't seem to hurt him; Sam could feel it burning his skin now, not much more yet than a bad sunburn, but that would change soon. The gun in his brother's hand wavered, and a tremor ran through him, so slight it might have been Sam's imagination.

"Dean!" Sam cried, willing him to fight, to push the thing out of him.

Dean blinked. And his eyes cleared, just for a minute. "Sam," he said, a fervent plea, or a prayer.

He crouched down, and before Sam had let himself believe it was really him, before he'd even fully registered that he could move again, Dean slid the Colt over, through the flames. Sam caught it without thinking. His hand closed around the grip.

Unshed tears choked Sam, and for a second, his voice failed him. He sat up, pushed himself to his feet. The smoke was worse, choking him, and he tensed, trying to see if he could jump through the fire. "That's it, Dean. Hold on. Keep fighting it--"

But the fire was closing on him, and on the other side of it, Dean was losing. He shook his head. "Dad was right," he rasped, eyes knowing it. He straightened up, then shuddered hard, and Sam's heart leapt into his throat. On some blind instinct, he raised the Colt. "It's now or never, Sammy. I love--"

His breath caught on the last word, and his eyes changed, and before he could let himself think Sam fired, straight into his brother's heart.

The nightmare ended in a crash of lightning.

Sam sat up in the filtered shadows of the TV room, shaking from the aftermath and reeling under the headache that blinded him; his face was wet, as though he'd been standing in the rain.

"Sam?" his dad asked groggily, awakened by some sound he'd made, but Sam was already staggering to his feet. He rushed to the bathroom and barely made it before he was violently sick.

Too much was clear now, knowledge like weights threatening to pull him under the dark, glassy surface of a weariness that seemed to run straight through his bones. Not real, an inner voice insisted, holding on to the living, breathing reality of Dean's sleeping face, the small movements of his eyelashes and the steady rise and fall of his chest. He should have known even as the nightmare gripped him -- maybe some part of him had known -- but in Sam's heart, in that small, knotted place inside him that had always guessed, always known that he was the cause, the vision or nightmare or whatever you wanted to call it felt like a truth he'd carried inside him for too long.

Mom and Jess. Dad, in some future he had no intention of allowing to come true. How many times would he have to watch someone he loved die so that this thing could try to... what? Claim him? Own him? Use him like some kind of psychic weapon, for some purpose he didn't even want to imagine?

Questions crowded in on him, pressing on the backs of his eyes along with the familiar misery his visions always brought. At the cabin, it hadn't tried to take him. Why? Why torture Dean, instead of killing him outright and using his blood to initiate whatever dark ritual it had planned for Sam? Was the whole thing really just to amuse itself, as a warm-up to the main event? Or maybe it knew forcing Sam to watch his brother and father suffer would weaken him, make him more vulnerable to possession. As emotional distress went, that ran pretty high on Sam's scale.

The gut-wrenching muscle memory of shooting his dad, his brother in his visions, lay stark against the real memory of how the demon had eluded them when he'd shot it back in Salvation. Like it dissipated, then reformed, as if the Colt couldn't hurt it. But Sam knew he hadn't missed, and he was equally sure he'd hurt it when he'd shot his dad in the leg. Maybe it had to possess a human for it to be vulnerable. Which, if it was true, was... yeah, just great, and not exactly the best news he'd had all day.

He closed his eyes, pressing against them with his fingertips. One bullet left. God, who was he kidding? He'd already seen two versions of reality in which the price he paid for beating those odds was unacceptable, unbearable. The ghost-memory of Dean dying in his arms still hurt like a punch to the heart, and this latest nightmare landscape made him feel even more intensely that they were living on borrowed time.

Sam wished fervently that he'd seen something to tell him how it found them here -- how it would find them, Sam corrected himself. Maybe a couple days, maybe more; he couldn't be certain, but he felt like they had at least that long. Had it tracked them here, somehow? Would Madeline Wells eventually get suspicious of what, or who, exactly, they were running from, and call the cops? Or maybe she'd just mention it in passing to someone in town, and that would be enough.

Or, maybe she had nothing to do with it. A cold feeling surfaced, and Sam remembered Meg finding them at Bobby's place. He didn't really want to think about it too closely. But it wasn't the first time she'd found him, was it? Indiana, Chicago-- Sudden memory opened up at the center of his unwelcome thoughts: his dad calling them, Sam saying, Let us help, and his dad telling him, You can't. You can't be any part of it. Even us talking right now -- it's not safe. How sure his dad sounded. How sure he'd been that the demon would come after Sam and Dean in Salvation, while he went to Lincoln with the fake Colt. Maybe his dad knew something he wasn't telling them -- as if that were even a question, Sam thought bitterly -- like that this thing was connected to Sam somehow. Maybe Sam was the one that betrayed them every time, just by virtue of his presence. Maybe Sam was the reason it was dangerous for them to stick together.

Maybe the demon couldn't afford to take him until it was sure that Dad and Dean were out of the picture, so it would have a way to track them.

Feeling sick, Sam let his gaze trace over his brother's face, open and vulnerable in sleep, and thought about his dad leaving Dean without a word all those months ago. About how Dean still wasn't over it, even though he'd forgiven Dad probably about as fast as it had taken him to realize the man was gone. Dean had always been quick to forgive both of them. Didn't mean it hurt him any less, cost him any less. Dad must have known that when he did it, known that he was already forgiven when he'd tried to cut across the thing's path and left Dean in danger -- left him with Sam -- without warning him, without telling them the truth. Thinking about it now, Sam found himself suddenly furious all over again, maybe as furious with his dad as he'd ever been. We all have a part to play, Dad had said in Chicago. Well, Sam was damned if he'd let Dean's part be expendable.

Not happening, he told Dean, feeling a little of his exhaustion drop away at the hot spark of anger and determination. Not in this reality or any other.

The brief flare burned bright in his chest, then subsided, determined, grown-up Sam giving way to the part of him that just wanted to see his brother open his eyes, make one of his bad jokes, and let Sam know they were going to be okay.