Sam counts the passing of time in Tuesdays. It's a habit he doesn't learn how to drop. One hundred two Tuesdays in a row he saw Dean die, helpless to stop it. For six months he was forced to live—survive—without Dean knowing his brother dead. Twenty-seven Tuesdays filled with nothing but desperation and the grim determination to avenge Dean's death. He didn't bother counting the days in between.

In eight more Tuesdays Dean will die again. For good. Sam's not sure if he'll survive it a second time.

It's like fighting underwater; knowing that every second gone is a second less to live. For Sam, counting Tuesdays feels like drowning. And he has only eight breaths left.

"Pay attention, bitch." Dean balls up one of his dirty socks and throws it at Sam's face. Sam blocks it by reflex and glares at Dean.

"What?" Sam growls, closing the book he was reading with a snap. It's useless anyway. He won't find anything in it.

"Bobby found a case for us. The Morton House, apparently there's some sort of ghost, haunting the house on February 29th every leap year. There are missing people's report going back for almost half a century."

"We have more important things to take care off, Dean." Sam tries to keep the anger out of his voice. He succeeds, barely. "We only have eight more T—weeks," Sam corrects himself. Dean's suspicious enough about what really happened in the Mystery Spot. Sam doesn't need to give him more ammunition.

"Yeah, Sam. I know how much time I still have, thanks for reminding me. Again." Dean turns his back to Sam and starts throwing things into his duffle bag with jerky movements.

"Well, if you'd at least try to work with me here, I wouldn't have to remind you constantly." Sam stands up and takes a step towards Dean, wanting to shake some sense into him, but stops himself in the last second. "We can't waste what little time we have left in pointless cases."

Dean whirls around, a shirt clasped in his hand; the muscles of his underarm jump with tension. "The only pointless case is this one," he growls. "I'm tired of reading and rereading books we already know by heart. We won't find anything new there. The Morton House is a case! People are dying. If we don't go today, it'll be another four years until the opportunity presents itself. This is something I have power over. I want to take a stupid case I can solve for once. Damn it, Sam!"

"Fine," Sam snaps. He closes his eyes and takes a calming breath. "Fine. We'll go," Sam sighs.

He doesn't have time for this.

-------------------------------------


They don't make it in time. A truck accident leaves them stuck in a traffic jam for over three hours; three hours they didn't have. Even the back roads are jammed. They arrive at Morton's House at 3:00 a.m. and can't get in. It's in a supernatural lock-down the likes of which Sam and Dean haven't seen in a long, long time. The house is silent—too silent. Any hopes they had of no one having gone inside that night are crushed as they find a truck with cameras and other high-tech snick-snacks hidden in the bushes.

When they finally manage to get inside the next morning, the house is empty. They find a room set-up with various computers and replay the video-logs stored into the hard-drive. He and Dean watch between outbreaks of static and jumpy camera movements as one by one the so-called Ghostfacers disappear in between the desperate screams and calls of their friends.

Dean kicks the table over with a helpless fury that contrasts the emptiness filling Sam. It sucks when you can't do anything to stop death, Sam wants to say, but it would just start another pointless discussion. The screams still echo inside Sam's mind. He can't quite shake the feeling that this case is an omen of things to come. They were too late to save the Ghostfacers and deep inside Sam knows they're going to be too late to save Dean, too, unless he—Sam—finds a way out.

It takes them four hours to find the hidden door in the basement where the bodies of Morton's victims are kept, displayed in a grotesque imitation of a birthday party. After that it's just another salt-and-burn job. Morton won't be coming again to haunt the house—nor his victims. Yet, the familiar smell of burning human flesh feels more like defeat than like a job well done.

They drive back to the motel in silence. Dean goes out to a bar that night, and Sam's familiar enough with his brother's patterns to know that he'll be coming back well after midnight, smelling of sex and alcohol—if he bothers to come back at all. Sam opens his books and starts again searching for answers he already knows he won't find there. Dean doesn't even ask him if he wants to come.

Ruby pays them a visit some days later, letting them know about Lilith's progress. More demons are falling under her command. Soon, they won't be a bunch of demons possessing humans for kicks, but an organized army bent on destroying mankind and bringing hell to earth.

Dean's going to hell in six weeks; Sam couldn't care less about the rest of mankind. The thought . . . it scares him.

His brother watches him when he thinks Sam isn't looking. Dean might not be able to put his finger on it, but Sam knows that Dean suspects something isn't right with Sam. He wonders at times if Dean still trusts him. Of course, it might be that Sam's projecting; it's Sam who doesn't trust himself.

Something in him died with Dean. Watching his brother die Tuesday after Tuesday—surviving for so long without him—changed him. Even though the Trickster rewound time and brought Dean back, the part of Sam that died with him stayed dead.

He pretends not to notice Dean's worried looks as Sam searches book after book after book, seeking for a way for Dean to escape the deal. Everything is a dead-end.

Ruby can't help him either; that much Sam knows already. If he still had the Colt, he would've killed her for that lie. He smiles sadly at her and pretends that all is well. If Dean goes to hell, he'll need someone who knows the layout.

He can't lose Dean again.

Another Tuesday goes by and he's not closer to finding a way out of Dean's deal. They are investigating a haunted house in Kansas, when two dogs spring at them in the middle of the night. Sam kills them and then keeps shooting until his clip is empty. Dean looks at him with scared eyes, as if he can't quite recognize his brother in Sam.

Sam doesn't care.

That night he dreams of killing hellhounds and wakes up with a smile on his face. He's no closer to finding a solution than he was before, and yet he can feel an idea taking shape in the back of his mind. He doesn't know what it is yet, but he'll figure it out soon.

Bobby tells them about rumors of a vampire nest in Austin and he and Dean go check it out. Dean comes up with a plan to kill them and Sam follows it—just making one or two small minors adjustments. He doesn't want Dean to get more suspicious. This time around, though, he's prepare when the child in one of the holding cells turns out to be a vampire, too.

"Quick reaction time, Sammy," Dean says. "All those hard lessons I taught you are starting to pay up."

Sam snorts. "You're just trying to hide that you didn't see that one coming."

"You're hurting my feelings, Sammy," Dean pouts. "I saw it coming all right. I just wanted to leave the freaky kid to you. Freak calls to freak, you know."

Sam rolls his eyes and lets it go. "We still need to torch the place," Sam says.

"Bitch."

"Jerk."

They watch the house burn to ashes in silence. Sam clasps his hands into fists and tries to breathe through the panic growing inside him. It's like a never-ending déjà vu, only this time Dean is with him.

Four more Tuesdays and it'll be back to how it was.

Dean's high with adrenaline from the fight. Sam listens to him talk and brag non-stop in that Dean-way of his and tries to memorize the words—the sounds. He wants to burn them so deep into his mind they'll never fade.

Dean parks the car outside of their motel and turns off the ignition. Neither of them moves. Sam remains quiet, waiting for Dean to say whatever it is he needs to say. When the words come, they're not what he was expecting.

"I don't regret it. Even if we don't find a way out, even if I become a demon, I don't regret it. If I had to do it again, knowing what I now know, I'd still do it."

"You truly are a jerk," Sam tells him. He's sure that his fingernails are leaving marks in the Impala's upholstery. It's the only thing keeping him from breaking down. He doesn't want Dean to see him cry, not for this, not for him. It'd be an admission of defeat. Dean isn't going to die. Sam won't let him.

"I never claimed I wasn't. The only thing I'm sorry for is that I won't be at your side for the rest of it. When the hellhounds come, I'll go down kicking, but I won't regret my choice. Ever. I want you to remember that." Dean steps out of the car and walks into the motel room, leaving Sam alone with his thoughts.

That night he dreams of the graveyard in Wyoming.

He and Dean are walking side by side towards the gates of Hell. Sam's headache increase with every step closer to the gate but he tries his best to hide it. Dean's worried enough as it is. There are so many things Sam wants to tell him, but he keeps quiet. Some things his brother is better off not knowing.

"You did well, Sammy," Dean says, interrupting the silence. The pride in his brother's voice fills Sam with joy. For a moment it's as if he's seven again and the world starts and end with Dean smiling down at him. "I always knew you had it in you. Here." Dean stops to pull something out of his leather jacket. "I think you're now ready to handle this."

The polished metal of the Colt gleams in the sun light, blinding Sam for a second.

"When did you get the Colt back?" Sam frowns, puzzled.

Dean smiles at him, but the smile feels odd—too bright, even for Dean—as if there's something he knows that Sam doesn't. "I've always had it, Sammy." Dean's smile widens, as his eyes turn yellow.

Sam wakes up panting. The room is dark around him. Dean is sleeping on the bed next to his. Sam wants to wake him up to make sure he's all right—that he hasn't become a demon over night. It's stupid. No demon could get into either Sam or Dean—they made sure of that. Sam traces the edges of the tattoo in his chest as he tries to calm his breathing down. He caresses the ink with trembling fingers. Putting up with Ruby had been worth it, if only for that piece of protection.

A stupid nightmare, that was all. Azazel was dead. Dean had made sure of that.

Sam's head hurts.

He goes to the toilet and splashes water on his face. It's four in the morning. Trying to go back to sleep again is useless. Dean murmurs something unintelligible, starting to wake up, but he goes right under as soon as Sam assures him everything is all right.

Sam powers up his laptop in another useless attempt to find something—anything—that might help Dean. At this point he wouldn't even mind if it involved dark magic. At five a.m. he's as clueless as he was before. It takes all of his self-control not to smash the laptop against the wall. Instead, he turns it off with careful, calculated movements and goes back to bed.

Sleep remains elusive as Sam turns and tosses between the sweat-soaked sheets waiting for morning to break.

Dean's words keep playing over and over in his mind. "If I had to do it again, knowing what I now know, I'd still do it."

The words anger Sam. They make him feel like a selfish bastard. He doesn't want Dean to go to Hell, but more than that—he doesn't want to have to live without Dean again. It bothers him that he isn't quite sure if his desire to save his brother is born out of love or selfishness.

If he—Sam—had to do it again, there are so many things he would change, so many regrets he does have.

If he could do it again, he—

Sam gasps, breathless with the possibilities opening themselves to him, like pieces of a jigsaw falling into place. He doesn't have the power to turn back time, but he knows someone who does.

He gathers his things while Dean sleeps, not bothering to be silent. Silence would wake Dean faster than random noises would. He feels like a coward, sneaking out in the dark and leaving his brother alone.

He can't ask Dean to come with him, though. This is something he needs to do by himself. It's his choice, and Sam will bear its weight alone. If all goes according to plan, Dean won't remember anything anyway, just like he doesn't remember having died.

He hot-wires a car from the parking lot, not having the heart to take the Impala. Dean would never forgive him for that. He leaves a note under the Impala's windshield wiper. His brother will worry anyway, but at least he'll know that Sam's safe.

Even though he knows the ritual he's looking for and what the book looks like, it takes him two more Tuesdays to find a copy. The fact that he can't call Bobby for help slows him down even further. He turns off his cell phone after the third day. Even he isn't masochist enough to listen to Dean's messages as they go from puzzled to pissed off to just plain worried. The desire to call Dean back—to tell him what his plan is, gnaws at him. Only the knowledge that Dean would never approve of his actions stops him.

He remembers sweet little Nancy Fitzgerald and Dean's absolute reluctance to even consider sacrificing one life in exchange for many more. What would he say if he knew that Sam was willing to sacrifice one life in exchange for Dean's and still call it a bargain?



Sam follows US 27 down to Florida not stopping unless his body forces him to. He keeps changing cars with an eight hours interval, hoping it'll be enough to keep the police off his track. And Dean.

The temperature changes, becoming hotter. The air conditioning of the last car Sam steals doesn't work. The last miles before he arrives to Broward County are sheer torture despite Sam being used to living on the road. The air is heavy with humidity. Sweat runs down Sam's spine, tickling him in a maddening way.

He drives faster, not daring to stop.

The Mystery Spot hasn't changed. Same town, same people. Sam still knows everything there's to know about each of its residents from their dirty little secrets to their biggest ambitions.

He still hates each and every one of them with an intensity that staggers him.

He rents a room in the same motel he and Dean lived in—the only one in town. He doesn't dare turn on the radio-alarm in the room.

Too many memories.

He carefully stores all the ingredients for the ritual away from prying eyes.

He's just missing one ingredient: one gallon of fresh blood.

In this town, though, nothing would be easier to obtain. He just needs to close his eyes for the memories to overtake him—every one here has killed Dean at least once, including Sam. It seems only fair that one of them will have to die for Dean now.

It's not like it'll matter. If all goes well, this will never happen. It's the one thought carrying him forward.

He chooses Cal in the end. An eye for an eye. He was the last one to kill Dean after the Trickster had let them go. Sam won't ever forget those endless, dark months, spent on his own. Without Dean. Nor will he forgive them.

Only one night every fifty years can the Trickster be summoned. As irony would have it, it falls on a Tuesday. The last one Dean has to live.

Kidnapping Cal is as easy as a children's game. It surprises Sam how he always manages to forget that the skills needed to kill monsters are the same ones needed to kill humans. Except that killing humans is so much easier.

The FBI was right in being wary of them.

Cal's blood runs warm and red through Sam's fingers onto the chalk marks on the floor. Sam doesn't feel a thing. He expects something akin to regret to blind-side him, but it never comes.

The emptiness inside him scares him.

"Well, kiddo, this time you really outdid yourself," the Trickster says, flickering into existence next to Sam. He traces a finger over Cal's spilled blood and grins. "It's been some time since last I was summoned this way. An innocent human being—how the mighty have fallen. I never would've guessed you had it in you." He sucks the blood off his finger. "Didn't we have a bargain? I bring your brother back, and you two leave me alone. It's not a good thing to go around breaking deals with Gods, Sam. You don't know when they'll get angry."

"I didn't summon you to kill you. It's not as if I could anyway. You wouldn't die even if I were to stab you in the heart with a stake dipped in ones of your victim's blood, would you? You planted that piece of folklore—another one of your jokes. Am I right?"

"Aren't you the clever boy." The Trickster laughs out loud. "So, you've found out my little secret. You have to admit it's amusing, though, all those mighty hunters running after me with a stake drenched in human blood, feeling all-powerful and confident. And you should see the lengths some of them go to get my victims' blood. It never ends to be amusing. You're not laughing though . . . " the Trickster trails off. He frowns, as if offended by Sam's lack of merriment.

Sam forces a tired smile on his face. "I'm sure it's fun when the joke isn't on you."

"Come on, Sammy-boy. You need to live a little. All that seriousness is going to do you in. Listen to me; I've been alive for centuries. People will tell you it's the god-like powers, but," he makes a dismissive gesture with his hand, coming closer to Sam, "I have it on good authority that good humor is what keeps one going. Some have it, some don't. And Sammy— this might comes as a shock to you— but you're lacking in the humor department."

"Dean will die in two more days. I'm having a hard time finding things to laugh about," Sam says.

"If you want to be amused, Sam, you've come to the right place. There's hope for you yet." The Trickster throws his arm around Sam's shoulder, beaming at him. "So, what should we do? We could get Doris at the dinner pregnant with alien babies. That's always good for a laugh. No? Well, what about—"

"Get Dean out of his deal," Sam interrupts him.

"Oh, come on, I thought you wanted to have some fun. Didn't you get the memo again?" The Tricksters paces around him, punctuating each word with a wave of his hands. "Dean sold his soul. No one can get him out of that. Not even me. Besides, where would the fun in that be?" He sighs and his shoulders slump. "I thought you had learned at least something. Yet here you are, and it's still all about Dean. Get a life!"

"I've learned that I don't want to live without Dean. You taught me that!" Sam snaps. "You have the power to break the deal. If anyone does, it's you."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, kid, but not even I have that kind of power," the Trickster says. "Dean sold his soul out of his own free will. No one has the power to break that."

"I know. You, however, have the power to stop the deal from taking place in the first place. You have control over time; not even demons have that," Sam says.

"I'm not sure I'm getting this right. You want me to turn back time a year, until the day Dean made his deal. Sam, if you haven't figured out yet that that's not going to stop your brother, there's not helping you at all. Dean's just going to make the deal again," the Trickster says slowly, as if he were talking to a small child.

"No," Sam says in a dark and vicious voice. "I want you to turn back time until five minutes before Jake kills me. I'm the one who's going to make sure that the deal doesn't take place."

The Trickster looks at Sam with a disbelieving face and then roars with laughter. He ends up clutching his stomach and gasping for air as tears of merriment run down his face. "That's . . . that's the most . . . most amusing thing any one has ever asked of me," he says between chuckles. "Kiddo, you have absolutely no idea what you just asked for." He starts laughing again. "Didn't your daddy ever tell you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? You'd think he of all people would have shared the secret; I mean, look where he landed."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"That's for me to know and for you to find out, isn't it?" The Trickster smirks at Sam in that enigmatic 'I just got one over you, but you don't know it yet'-way of his. With a snap of his fingers the world dissolves around Sam.

-------------------------------------


The smell of fresh blood still clung to Sam's nostrils when he opened his eyes. However, when he looked at his hands, his fingers were clean. It wasn't Cal's body in front of him, but Andy's. His face—like Cal's—forever frozen in terror and devoid of life.

It was Ava who stood in front of him instead of the Trickster. She looked as beautiful and innocent as she had the first time Sam met her. She wiped away her fake tears and laughed. Her voice was devoid of regret as she told Sam how circumstances had forced her to become a killer.

Her words cut like knives into Sam's soul. Sometimes killing was the only way. Now, Sam knew that too.

When she brought her hands to her temples, summoning the demon once more, Sam didn't move to stop her. Couldn't.

The dry sound of Ava's neck as it snapped between Jake's hands took him as much by surprise this time around as it had the first. Sam watched numbly as Ava's lifeless body slid to the floor in front of Jake.

They were all the same: Ava, Jake, him. Monsters. Once you gave in, there was no going back—no clean slate. Not even if time was turned.

Sam tore his eyes from Ava and looked up at Jake. "If I told you that we should leave this place together, you wouldn't even try to come with me, would you?"

Jake gave him a tentative smile, but didn't meet his eyes for long. "I'm sorry, man," Jake said. He even sounded sorry. "The yellow-eyed demon talked to me in a dream. He told me only one of us could get out of here alive."

Sam wondered how he could've been so blind a year ago not to realize Jake's intent immediately. The look in his eyes was that of a soldier assessing an enemy. It was a look that screamed target and not ally.

"That's all right. You don't need to apologize," Sam told him.

The gleam of the moonlight on the edge of Sam's knife was the only warning Jake had. Blood splashed across Sam's face as Jake managed to block his first thrust with an underarm. The metal edge slashed through Jake's skin and muscles, tearing a muffled scream out of him.

Jake's military-issued boots grated against the old cabin floor as they circled each other, telegraphing his every move. Jake tried to hit him again and again, but Sam easily sidestepped his blows, using the opportunity to catalog Jake's weaknesses. He was gifted with super-strength but Sam had been fighting supernatural creatures for as long as he could remember; super-strength wasn't new to him. The creatures that had it tended to rely too much on it. Jake was no exception.

The weight of the knife in Sam's hand felt like the comforting caress of an old lover. It was time to finish it. He shifted a fraction and lowered his knife, deliberately opening his guard. Jake fell for it, jumping forward and throwing a punch at Sam's face. Sam dodged at the last second—the blow just grazing his jaw—and used Jake's momentum to ram the knife into his heart.

Jake staggered into Sam's arms, his eyes widening in surprise as his heart stopped beating. "For all that's worth, I'm sorry, too," Sam said as he twisted the rusty knife, plunging it deeper into the other man's chest. He kept looking at Jake's eyes as the life slipped out of him. It was the least he could do.

"Howdy, Sam! Congratulations! I knew there was a reason I chose you as my favorite." The yellow-eyed demon appeared in front of Sam, smiling broadly at him.

Sam pushed Jake's body away from him and cleaned the blade on the hem of the other boy's clothes before pocketing it away. Slowly, he stood up, bracing himself before looking at Azazel.

"Regno terrae cantate Deo, soli te Domino pre fertum super celum. . ." The words were as familiar as breathing. The knowledge of the other time-line still his to command.

"Well, I can see how your Latin would make lesser demons want to go back to Hell," the demon said, interrupting Sam mid-chant. "The language is already dead, Sam; you don't need to slaughter it further. I was around when Latin was still in, and I must confess that hearing your pronunciation makes me ill. The proper intonation is 'regno terrae cantate Deo'."

The air was heavy with the power behind the demon's words, more so than when Sam himself had intoned them. A cold shiver ran through Sam's spine at the implications.

"Really, Sam," the yellow-eyed demon said, amused. "You seem surprised that I can say God's name. You better than anyone should know that being at odds with your father is no reason to fear his name. It's not as if you were scared of John while you lived in Stanford." Azazel stepped closer, invading Sam's personal space. "Do you want to know the real reason why you were my favorite, Sam?" the demon whispered into his ear.

"I thought it was because of how I was raised," Sam said, stepping back.

"There's a certain appeal in a General who knows the weaknesses and strengths of his forces as well as that of potential rivals, of course. However, the other crazy kids would've learned that sooner or later, too." The demon dismissed the advantage with a wave of his hand.

"I wanted you to win," he continued, lowering his voice, "because you reminded me of myself. You know what it means to live under a father who has planned out your life for you from beginning to end, not once bothering to ask you if it suits you. You know what it means to rebel against those expectations, to want more only to be cast out by your father for choosing a different path.

"I know how hard it's to hear your father tell you that if you go 'you should stay gone'." Azazel spat the words as if they were a curse. The ever-present smirk on his face vanished, leaving in its wake a rage and hatred so consuming that Sam recoiled in fear. "It takes strength to hear those words and be brave and proud enough to still leave. We have that in common, you and I, Sam. The war we're fighting—the war you'll lead—started because we, fallen angels, didn't abide to our creator's wishes.

"Yes, I can say my father's name. I can drink his blessed water. I could even chant prayers to him if I so choose." The rage seemed to drain out of him. "I chose differently, though," he added bitterly, "and so did you."

Sam scoffed. "We're nothing alike, you and I. If you think that I'll help you open the gates of Hell, you don't know me at all, Azazel."

The demon stilled for an instant, before he started to laugh. "So, you figured out what the plan was all about. You even figured out my name. Quite clever, Sam, I'm impressed. My sources didn't know you were as far in your research as you actually are. It's not every day a mortal manages to impress me. I was right to root for you." The demon turned his head to the side as if listening to something in the distance. "We'll get company in a few minutes. It looks like your dear brother managed to find you at last."

Sam's heart skipped a beat. From inside the house he couldn't see his brother's approach yet, but the demon didn't have a reason to lie. Not about this. He wanted to run to Dean, make sure he was all right. Yet, at the same time, he wanted his brother as far away from Azazel as possible.

Turning back time—remaking the future—was about saving Dean from Hell. He couldn't let Dean die at Azazel's hands.

"Tell you what, Sam, I'm still in a generous mood," the demon said, rocking back and forth on the ball of his feet. "I've waited millennia to find the right person to open the gates; one day more or less won't change anything. You did well today. I believe it's traditional for winners to get a reward. I'll let you be for now, but I'll be coming back later. And Sam, be ready. Next time I won't take no for an answer."

Azazel vanished into thin air, as if he had never been there to begin with. Only the dead bodies of Jake, Ava and Andy remained in the cabin—each one of them a silent, undeniable proof of Sam's failure to save others, to save himself.

For the first time in longer than Sam could remember the stench of human blood made him nauseous. He ran to the door of the house, yanked it open and stepped outside. He gulped lungfuls of the fresh night-air, trying to calm his stomach and erase the memory of the smell.

"Sam! Sammy!" Dean's voice called him from the edge of the woods.

Sam looked up. In the clear moonlight he could see Dean running towards him. Sam drank in the image of his brother—Dean, alive, his soul free of the threat of hell. It was better than clean air. It was absolution. This was the reason for Cal's and Jake's death. Seeing Dean again, after so many weeks of self-imposed isolation, reminded Sam that it had been worth it.

He ran to his brother and hugged him, practically crushing him between his arms. Dean's embrace was equally desperate. Sam's ribs hurt with the pressure; he could barely breathe but he didn't care. He couldn't let go. Dean was the one thing holding his world together. If Sam let go he'd break into pieces. He couldn't afford it.

"If you ever disappear like that again, I'll kill you myself, bitch," Dean whispered into Sam's ear.

"Whatever you say, jerk." Sam buried his face in into Dean's collarbone, allowing the familiar smell of his brother to soothe him.

Soon he'd have to tell Dean about Azazel's plans. They'd need to find a way to destroy the demon once more. Sam would need to mind his every word, lest Dean and Bobby suspected that he had altered the time-line. Right now, though, all that mattered was the comfort Dean's presence offered.

The world could wait.

-------------------------------------


They burned the bodies before they left. The world didn't need vengeful ghosts with demonic powers.

Neither Bobby nor his brother pressed Sam for details about what had happened, waiting for him to be ready to talk on his own. Sam was grateful for it. Dean drove in silence, every now and then checking to see if Bobby's truck was still behind them. Metallica playing on the Impala's tape recorder was the only indication of how worried his brother truly was. Dean's music choice revealed more about his mood than his words ever did.

Sam leaned back on his seat, watching the blur of trees pass by through the car's window. The loud rumble of the motor was almost as soothing as the fresh air ruffling his hair. He glanced at Dean and smiled to himself. His brother was free. It had worked.

A part of Sam couldn't quite believe it. He kept expecting for the hellhounds to come and drag his brother down, even though he knew it wasn't going to happen.

Dean was free.

Sam wanted to shout it to the world, to laugh out loud, to go dance and drink. Celebrate. He felt alive. For the first time in a year, Sam could breathe again. The weight of the world had been taken off his shoulders. Yes, they still needed to get rid of Azazel, but it didn't matter to Sam—not as long as he had Dean as his side. Together they could destroy Azazel. They had already done it once. The second time could only be easier.

Dean was free.

"What are you smiling about?" Dean asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Nothing. Everything. I'm just happy to be here," Sam said, unable to wipe the goofy smile off his face.

"Yeah, me too." Dean's face softened.

Sam ached to hug him just because he could, but that would only freak-out his brother more. "The yellow-eye demon was the one behind the kidnappings," he said, steering the conversation to a safer ground.

"We figured out as much," Dean told him, turning his eyes back to the road.

"His name is Azazel," Sam went on. "He seems to be a high ranking demon. He might even be the highest. His plan is to open Hell and raise an army of demons. He . . . He wants me to open the gates of Hell for him."

Dean's lips pressed into a thin line and his fingers tightened on the steering wheal. He glanced briefly at Sam. "Why you?"

"Because I'm the last of the psychic children."

"That's bullshit. What about the baby we saved? She'll probably have powers too," Dean reminded him.

"I'm the last one from my generation," Sam clarified.

"Great. How did you find that out?"

"The demon told me."

Dean frowned. "Did he now?"

"Yes." Sam looked at his brother through narrowed eyes. Did he suspect Sam of lying?

"Well, you shouldn't trust him. Demons lie. Why would he tell you his plans? It doesn't make sense. Do you know where this gate of Hell is? We should check it out."

"No!" Sam's heart skipped a beat, and he had to consciously keep his muscles from tensing. "The gate's protected against demons. Only a human can open it. Azazel won't be able to do anything by himself."

"Don't be stupid Sam! If all he needs is a human, he'll find one in no time. There's a bunch of stupid people out there greedy enough to do his bidding. He just needs to promise them riches or whatever it is demons offer." Dean looked at him again, eyes dark with worry. "We need to go there and make sure that door is never opened."

"He can't use just any human." Sam's stomach twisted as the memory of Jake, inserting the Colt into the door, came unbidden, only to be superposed by the image of Jake's surprised face as Sam's knife ended his life. "It has to be a psychic. It has to be me. I'm the undefeated league champion." The words tasted like poison on his mouth. "It was a contest—Azazel's amusing version of 'Survivor'. He wanted us to kill each other until only one of us was left. I killed Jake. I'm it."

"Sam, don't. Don't do that to yourself. It was self-defense. I know you Sam; if you killed him it was because he left you no choice. He was trying his best to kill you at the time. I didn't need to be there to know that," Dean said. "You did what you had to."

'Not this time,' Sam wanted to say. 'It wasn't self-defense. It was premeditated murder. It wasn't even my first one.' "You're right. I did what I had to do," he said instead. "It doesn't make me any less of a murderer."

Dean was free, though. It had been worth it. Sam would do it again if he had to.

"Don't blame yourself, Sammy, please. You—" Dean sighed and shook his head. "Let's not fight about this. We need to concentrate in finding a way to kill the demon. Then it'll be over for good."

"Piece of cake," Sam said. He had saved Dean from Hell. He could take on the world if he had to.

"That's the attitude, Sammy." He dialed up the music volume and started to sing to Metallica's "Fight Fire With Fire"; a clear indication that the conversation was over.


-------------------------------------


The sun was rising above the horizon when they arrived at Bobby's. Its still-weak rays cast eerie shadows around the parking lot. Sam's temples pounded with pain as he stepped out of the car. The air was heavy with the smell of rotting metal and old car oil. Without conscious thought, Sam's hand closed around the knife hidden in his clothes, relaxing as soon as the cold weight of its handle pressed against his palm.

A shiver ran up his spine, followed by the sudden snap of a twig. Sam spun around, knife in hand, ready to attack.

"Easy there, tiger." Dean raised his hands, showing his empty palms and stepped back once. "It's just me."

"Sorry." Sam lowered the knife and smiled with chagrin. "I guess this whole thing has me more on edge than usual."

"You're such a whiny bitch. Come on, Bobby is probably wondering what's taking us so long."

"Jerk," Sam said, bumping his shoulder against Dean's. Together they walked inside the house.

"I think I've found something," Bobby told them as soon as they came inside. "I've been checking for demonic omens like cattle death, lighting storms, things like that. They skyrocketed out of nowhere. Here, all around here." He spread a country map over the dinning room table and hovered with his fingers over the places where the omens had been reported.

"Except for one place," he continued, "southern Wyoming." Bobby tapped with two fingers over it on the map and looked at Sam and Dean expectantly.

Sam swallowed the frustrated scream that wanted to escape him. He had just managed to free Dean. Why could they just let him bask in the triumph for a while longer? It was all spiraling out of control. Bobby wasn't supposed to find out so soon. Last time it had taken him longer—of course, he had been busy helping Dean to cope with Sam's death. For all the good that did.

"Wyoming?" Dean asked, stepping closer to the map to examine it.

"That area here is totally clean—spotless. It's almost as if . . ." Bobby trailed off as he tried to come up with a plausible explanation.

"What?" Dean snapped.

"As if demons are surrounding it. The question's why?"

"The gate to Hell," Dean said, beaming at Sam with excitement, like a beagle which had just scented a prey and begged to run after it. "That has to be it! The demon told you it was protected. I guess he didn't lie about that."

"What are you talking about?" Bobby frowned. "Start at the beginning. What did the demon tell you, Sam?"

Sam shifted, uncomfortable under the weight of Dean and Bobby's eyes. He pulled a chair off the table and sat on it, playing for time. He gave them an edited version of what he knew—not what Azazel told him—but what Sam, Dean and Bobby had found out about the demon's plans before: in the one year that never took place.

"I don't agree, Sam," Dean said, when he was done. "The demon is going to find out a way to break the protection to the gate sooner or later. Our safest bet is to kill the bastard. If he's going to be circling the gates of Hell with his buddies, then we need to go there and make sure we kill him and as many other sons of bitches as we can."

"And how do you plan to do that?" Sam's chair crashed onto the floor as he stood up. The three of them ignored it. "The omens show that there are dozens of demons there, not just Azazel. We'd need as many hunters fighting on our side. The Road House is destroyed! How do you plan we contact them?"

"How do you know that?" Dean frowned. "I hadn't told you yet."

"Vision," Sam said, avoiding Dean's eyes. Let him think he was still ashamed of being a freak.

"When did you start having visions unrelated to other psychic children?" Dean asked, worried.

"I—" Sam wanted to curse, of all the stupid mistakes to make. "Probably the yellow-eyed demon was somehow involved in the destruction. I don't really know. Look, that's precisely my point. We need more hunters, but we can't involve them in this. I don't think Gordon and the likes of him are going to be so hot about the idea of fighting together with me. Don't you get it? I'm a psychic; in their eyes I'm as bad as any demon."

"Don't say that!" Dean growled, eyes blazing with fury. "Don't you fucking dare say that!"

"Enough! Both of you," Bobby snapped. "We're here to figure out how to fight the demons, not how to fight each other. Dean, Sam's right. We can't get hunters we don't trust involved in this." He raised his palm, stopping Dean's attempt to interrupt him before it even materialized. "However, I agree with Dean, we can't let that door unguarded. To judge by the signals all demons are gathering around it; sooner or later they will find a way in. We need to come up with a plan."

"I'm all ears," Sam said dryly.

Bobby scoffed. "Well then, why don't you start checking the books in my bedroom to see if there's anything about exorcising various demons at once. It might give us an edge." He started heading for the door. "Come with me, Dean. If we intend to go to Wyoming, we'll need more supplies. Sam, we'll be back in a couple of hours."

"I don't think that's such—" Dean started to say.

"Sam will be safe here," Bobby interrupted him. "This house is protected against demons. Sam knows the layout and where the devil's traps are."

"I'm not a kid any more, Dean. I don't need looking after!" Sam spat. "That goes for you, too." His eyes bored into Bobby. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing by leaving me here while you take Dean with you."

"Of course you know what I'm doing. I'm making sure the one person the demon needs to open the gates of Hell is out of his reach," Bobby said, matter of fact. "We don't know why he let you go. What we do know is that he has the power to kidnap you at any given time. He already did it once. Excuse me if I want to stop him from doing it again. Now, do the two of you want to argue some more, or do you want to start getting things done? For the life of me, I don't know how John put up with this all the time."

Sam glanced at Dean, chastised, only to find Dean looking at him with an identically chagrined expression. Bobby was right. It was like being on the road with John again. He snorted; Dean echoed the sound. The ridiculousness of the situation hit him all of a sudden and he broke out laughing together with Dean. His brother's laughter, heartfelt and careless—like it hadn't been for so long— was music to his ears.

Bobby left the house muttering to himself. Sam could only made out the words "damn Winchesters".

"We're fine, right?" Sam asked Dean after they had stopped laughing.

"No chick-flick moments, Dude. Haven't I taught you anything?" Dean smiled. "I better go with Bobby before he pops a vein. Don't leave the house, bitch."

"I'll try my best, jerk."

For once Dean's over-protectiveness was a comfort and not a burden.


-------------------------------------


Sam skipped through Bobby's books without paying them much attention. He knew them by heart—had spent months poring over them, searching for a way to free Dean from his deal, or an edge that would allow them to win the upcoming war. He couldn't concentrate on the books anyway. Not with every part of him reveling in the knowledge that he had done it; he'd saved his brother, even if no one but he would ever know it. And the Trickster.

Every couple of minutes he stood up and checked the salt lines and devil's traps hidden in Bobby's house with a thoroughness bordering on compulsive.

Azazel's words came back to haunt him, "I'll let you be for now, but I'll be coming back later."

The yellow-eyed demon wasn't affected by God's name. Sam didn't know what to make of that. It talked about the power Azazel wielded: one of God's children—a fallen angel in every sense of the word. The protections of Bobby's house wouldn't stop him.

The more Sam thought about it, the more he agreed with Dean. They needed to go to Wyoming. Azazel had the Colt. He'd need to give it to Sam as he had given it to Jake. It was the only way to open the gates. Sam should have gone with Azazel the moment he had asked. He should have pretended to cooperate instead of letting his stupid Winchester pride get in the way.

It had been a mistake, but he could correct it. There was no need to endanger Dean's or Bobby's life.

Sam took one of the silver flasks with holy water Bobby kept ready in the kitchen's shelves and strode to the door. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before crossing the threshold, clasping the flask as if it were a lifeline. It wouldn't help him much; holy water didn't hurt Azazel. Nonetheless, it gave Sam a small measure of comfort.

The heat embraced him with its suffocating intensity the moment he left the shelter of the porch. The sun shone in the sky bright and merciless. The light reflected over itself from the abandoned cars' rusty metal skeletons, blinding Sam with its intensity.

Nothing happened.

Sam waited in the middle of the yard for Azazel or one of his minions to arrive until his shirt was drenched with sweat and the skin on his face burned with heat. He didn't know exactly how much time had passed when he saw clouds of dried dust approaching down the road. Even at the distance he could recognize the black shape of the Impala.

Sam hurried to the house, washed his face and put on a clean shirt. He moved Bobby's books to the living room table and opened them randomly, lest they suspected he hadn't been reading them.

The loud bang of the cars' doors closing was followed by Dean's hollers. "Open the damn door, Sam!"

Sam rolled his eyes, but sill did what Dean wanted. His brother's hands were full with sacks of salt, guns and a number of supplies Sam couldn't identify right away.

"Are you going to let me in or what? Some of us had been busy doing hard work instead of sitting in a comfortable armchair doing a bit of light reading," Dean said, an amused smile taking the bite off his words.

"Come in, princess, and stop whining. Do you guys need any help unloading the cars or is that it?" Sam asked.

"Are you kidding? Bobby bought enough supplies to start and end World War III. His truck is full and there's still more in the backseat of the Impala," Dean said. He put down the supplies he was carrying in a corner of the living room and walked back to the cars together with Sam.

Bobby was still emptying his truck. A small pile of weapons and sacks lay on the floor next to him. Sam whistled. "Wow, talk about overkill. We won't be able to use all of these. It's too much for the three of us to carry."

"You changed your mind about going? Good." Dean lifted one of the boxes and grunted under its weight. "Hurry up with those boxes and get into the house. I'm starving."

"Did you find anything useful?" Bobby asked Sam, dropping the next batch of supplies on his arms.

"I've an idea that might work. I'm not sure how we're going to implement it though," Sam told him.

Bobby stopped to look at him. "We'll discuss it inside the house." A small smirk graced his lips. "If it's a good idea, I'm sure we'll find a way to get it done."

The metallic sound of someone stepping on an old piece of car junk silenced them. Mindful not to make any sound, Sam laid the supplies on the ground while Bobby took one of the guns from the car and loaded it. They ran towards the sound, stopping when they saw a shadow reflected on the windshields of one of the abandoned cars.

Instinct took hold of Sam, emptying his mind of everything else but the potential target. He heard with crystal clearness the slide of grit on the ground and the uneven breathing of the person approaching.

He moved on reflex. By the time the world lost the black and white edge it took whenever Sam was hunting, Ellen's arms were twisted behind her back in arm lock, rendering her unable to move.

As soon as he realized what he had done, Sam let go of her. His cheeks burned with embarrassment. "Sorry," he muttered, stepping back.

Bobby snorted. "You'll have to forgive Sam. Trouble is rising, you know how it is."

"It's all right. Better safe than sorry," Ellen said, smiling at Sam while she rolled her shoulders and arms slowly, easing the pain.

"How come you didn't die at the Roadhouse?" Bobby asked, approaching Ellen and placing a hand on her shoulder.

"Dumb luck," she said, voice almost breaking.

Sam swallowed and looked away, hiding his discomfort. Listening to Ellen's story once had been bad enough; he didn't want to do it again. He had been so bent on saving Dean that he had forgotten all the other people who had died that day. Guilt ate at him, but he shoved it away.

A shiver ran through Sam, leaving goosebumps in its trail. He looked around, but couldn't see anything suspicious. "Let's go inside. You can tell us all about it in there," he said.

The sense of unease didn't leave him. Even after they finished carrying all supplies into the house, and Bobby opened a new bottle of whiskey and poured each of them two lines straight from it, Sam still had that tingling feeling of approaching danger crawling under his skin. It was like the edge of a vision that wouldn't materialize itself. It drove him crazy.

He half-listened to Ellen's story, just making the appropriate noises here and there. It was hard to feign surprise when Bobby brought the map of the railways in Wyoming and they discovered—again—Samuel Colt's biggest work: a devil's trap that went on for miles on end.

He thought he could hear whispers coming from the back of the house, but whenever he concentrated on them, the sound disappeared. None of the others seemed to have noticed it.

So, the mind games were starting. Sam knew Azazel wouldn't leave him alone for long. Sam didn't mention any of it to the others. The last thing he needed was for them to order him to remain behind. He had to go to Wyoming. The yellow-eyed demon would only give the Colt to him. It was Sam's responsibility to kill him.

"Everything all right?" Dean asked, when Sam shifted in his seat yet another time.

"Yeah. I'm going to recheck the lines just in case. I'll be back in sec." He didn't wait for a response.

The lines were intact. He listened carefully to any sounds coming from outside the house, but heard none. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying to reach the place inside him that he had always associated with his visions. It felt as dead as it had during the last year. He shied from trying harder, fearful of the consequences.

"And?" Dean asked him when he sat down again.

Sam just shrugged and leaned back on his chair.

"So, this plan you mention to get rid of the demons, how does it work?" Bobby asked him.

Sam smiled to himself, remembering Dean's eyes shining with mischief when he had told Sam his plan. "Basically, it comes down to keeping all the demons in a place they can't leave, recording an exorcism and forcing them to listen to it through speakers," Sam said, amused despite himself for presenting what had been Dean's idea as his own. "I'm not sure how we could implemented on the graveyard, though."

Ellen and Bobby sat up upright, eyes wide with surprise, while Dean hollered with laughter. "That's my boy! Brilliant," he said, still chuckling. "I'm impressed."

Sam smiled back at him, wishing he could tell Dean the truth. "It wasn't actually my idea. I just heard that it worked once. Of course, the demons were trapped inside a building, easier than in a graveyard."

Dean's grin widened. "Oh, that's the easy part. We break one of the railway lines, bait the demons to come inside and close the line again once they are in. Then we exorcise them all at once. It's a brilliant plan, really."

Bobby's eyes narrowed. "And dangerous."

"Live a little, Bobby," Dean said, still grinning.

"How do you plan to bait the demons?"

"Summoning ritual," Ellen said, leaning forward. A spark of interest shone in her eyes. It reminded Sam that she, too, was a hunter. "Give me a minute," she said, taking a piece of paper and a pen and scribbling something down. "Here." She pushed the paper towards the middle of the table for all to see.

The scribbles turned out to be words in Latin. Judging by the ingredients, the words and the symbols, the ritual would summon any demon within in ten-mile radius. Sam had never encountered it before. However, in the year-that-never-took-place he had learned enough about rituals to recognize the gist of what it would do.

"Where did you learn this?" Sam asked, looking at her with surprise. It was exactly what they needed.

"A girl doesn't kiss and tell, Sam," she said with an amused smile. "Let's just agree that in all those years working at the Roadhouse I've learned a thing or two."

Dean gave her a sultry smile and raised his whiskey glass. "To women with hidden depths."

Sam huffed, shaking his head in disbelief. Trust his brother to turn everything into an opportunity to flirt. "Fine, that ritual should work. However, we have the small problem that it will be impossible to keep the demons inside if the railway line is broken."

"Not necessarily," Bobby said. "We could take a heavy iron bar with us and used it to cover the place where the rail was broken. We pour as much salt as we have on it, making sure the smallest cracks are covered with it, and it should keep the demons inside. Powerful demons might still escape, but most of them will be trapped. If we manage to send them back to hell, it'd give us an edge in the upcoming battle."

"It sounds doable," Sam said. Hope blossomed inside his chest. They might pull this one off after all. "Let's gather what we need."


-------------------------------------


Sam and Dean drove to Wyoming in the Impala while Ellen and Bobby followed them in Bobby's truck. When Sam asked, Dean told him he was all right. However, the absence of music, blasting with deafening intensity from the speakers of the car, belied his words.

Sam let him be, too worried about his upcoming encounter with the yellow-eyed demon.

"I want you to promise me something," Sam said in a small voice.

"What?" Dean asked, glancing at him.

"If . . . if I'm killed today, please don't do anything stupid to bring me back."

Dean chuckled. "Don't worry, Sam. You won't be killed. They'd have to go through me first. None of them would dare."

"Your modesty never ceases to amaze me, but I'm serious. Don't do anything stupid. If I die, I stay dead. I don't want—don't do what Dad did, please. Not for me. Life is not worth knowing that one day you'll come back as a demon because you sold your soul in exchange for me, so don't."

"Interesting insight on demonic lore." Dean looked at Sam, not bothering to hide his curiosity. "How do you know that's what happens when you sell your soul?"

"I read it some where," Sam lied.

"And you hadn't told me this because . . ."

Sam looked away. "It didn't turn up. I don't even remember where I read it. It was months ago."

"Uh-huh." Dean didn't sound convinced. "What about you, Sam?" A small, teasing smirk played on the left corner of his lips.

"What about me?" Sam frowned, facing his brother.

"Would you sell your soul if it keeps me from dying?"

Sam looked at his hands. His fingers were stained with Cal's and Jake's blood. He remembered Cal's pleading, terrified face as Sam slit his throat and the betrayed expression on Jake's eyes as he shoved the knife into his heart. If he had to, he'd do it again.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

Dean snorted, but didn't comment on Sam's evasiveness, the same way Sam didn't comment on Dean's lack of promise.

Sam would have to make sure that they weren't killed.

Dean slowed down the car as they approached the railways, turning off the engine a couple of feet before it. "We're there."

"Yeah," Sam said, wary. It was too quiet. The air was cold and stale, carrying the smell of rotten flesh. No birds could be heard; even the trees seemed dead, their leaves unnaturally still, frozen at the edge of eternity. "They probably sense that Hell is near," Sam muttered to himself.

"What?"

"Nothing, just talking to myself."

He saw Bobby's car approaching in the rear view mirror. The noise of the old engine cut through the unearthly silence, easing some of Sam's tension.

Bobby stopped the car behind them and Ellen stepped out, followed an instant later by him.

"We better start then," Sam said, glancing at Dean.

"I've been waiting forever for you to say that," Dean told him with that cocky smile of his.

Sam walked to the railway and studied it. The grass grew wild over it, hiding it completely from view every couple of feet, but it was still intact. He touched it, testing its strength. "The fastest way to break through this will be if we use C4."

"I always liked how your mind works," Ellen smiled at him. She walked to the truck and checked through their supplies until she found what they needed. "Here," she said, going back to Sam and throwing him one of the backpacks.

"Let Sam handle it, Ellen," Dean told her. "You can help Bobby iron out the final steps of the summoning ritual. I'll start hooking the speakers we brought to the car's tape recorder. You';ll be fine on your on, right Sam?"

"Of course," Sam drawled out.

He set two small charges, one on each rail. The art was in blowing a hole that was big enough to let the demons in, but small enough that they would be able to seal it with their limited supplies.

"It's done. Let's take cover, just in case," Sam said, walking toward the cars.

They knelt behind Bobby's truck, which was farther away down the road. Sam didn't miss the way in which both, Bobby and Dean, crouched on each side of him, giving him further cover. He didn't call them on it but promised himself to exchange words with Dean about it if they got out of this alive.

Sam's finger hovered for an instant over the charge button, unsure. It was too late to start second-guessing his actions. He took a deep breath and pushed his finger down.

Even though he was ready, the strength of the explosion still caught him by surprise. C4 was a step beyond their usual arsenal, and even though John had taught them how to properly use it, the knowledge was seldom needed.

Sam waited for the smoke to settle down, before going to inspect the damage. Dean trailed behind him.

"Ouch," his brother hissed, touching the still hot iron with a careful finger. He stepped over the broken rails. "Come on, let's check out the landscape. We wouldn't want to summon all those demons without knowing the layout first."

They walked side by side for a while. Sam's ears still rang with the echo of the explosion. He couldn't shake the sense of déjà vu that accompanied his every action. The past and the present had become a tangle web of threads too difficult to separate and Sam couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. It was like walking in a dream, knowing that if you stretched your imagination you could find out what would happen next, but being unable to do so anyway.

"You did well, Sammy," Dean told him. "I always knew you had it in you." He stopped and pulled something out his leather jacket. "Here," he said. "I think you're now ready to handle this."

Sam looked at Dean's hand, knowing what he would find there. The polished metal of the Colt gleamed in the pale day light, beaconing Sam to take it.

"You," he said, looking at Dean—Azazel—with dawning comprehension. "That's impossible. We're protec—" Except that they weren't, Sam realized. The tattoos, the ritual involving them, it had been Ruby's idea. Not even Bobby had known that it was possible to block oneself against possession.

In this timeline they hadn't met Ruby yet and if Hell remained closed, they wouldn't meet her ever. It had been up to Sam to warn them—to tell them how to protect themselves. Yet, the tattoos, the security they represented had been a part of Dean, Bobby and him for so long that Sam had simply forgotten they haven't been there a year ago. His overwhelming relief at having managed to save Dean's soul had made him forget everything else. Stupid! Sam should have known better.

He had been taught better.

"It's been you all along," Sam said. He searched through his memories, trying to find the moment when Dean had stopped being Dean.

Dean's eyes turned yellow as his smile widened into a broad smirk that looked too bright, too out of place on his brother's face. "Not all along," Azazel said. "But long enough. I was starting to despair that you'd never figure it out. I need you sharp, Sam. If you're going to lead my army, you'll have to notice this kind of things sooner. Don't worry, though. I'll get you into shape in no time."

"I'm not going to lead your army," Sam growled.

"Hmm, shouldn't you be pretending to agree with everything I say until I give you the Colt? I distinctly remembering that being part of the plan," Azazel said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I'm willing to overlook that slip, though. Here, take the Colt." He pushed the handle of the gun into Sam's limp hand.

Sam closed his fingers around it on instinct, too stunned to react. The gun vibrated with power. He traced a finger over the perfect, almost artistic engravings on the metal. The shape and weight of the gun felt familiar in his hand, like putting on a pair of comfortable gloves. He pulled the hammer and rotated the cylinder, making sure that there was a bullet inside the chamber.

As in a dream he raised the gun and pointed it at Dean's forehead. Azazel's smile didn't waver. Sam's hand trembled as he raised the cock of the Colt.

"All you need to do now is press the trigger, and it'll be over. Mission accomplished. Daddy will be so proud, Sammy. Of course, you'll render his sacrifice to save your brother's life useless. That'll be a comfort to his screaming soul down in Hell," Azazel said, using Dean's voice, even Dean's body language.

Every word, every small gesture, ripped another piece of Sam's world, until he wasn't sure if there was anything left to hold on to. Somewhere, the Trickster was laughing until tears ran down his face. Sam hoped he choked on them.

"You kill me; you kill your big brother." Azazel stepped closer, until the muzzle of the gun touched Dean's forehead. He lowered his voice. "Between you and me, that's what Dean wants. He's right here, in the back of my head—technically it's his head I suppose—screaming at you to kill him.

"Usually I repress the host's memories all together. Well, to tell the truth, usually I'd kill them, but you Winchesters, for you I'm always willing to make an exception. I knew all along you were the one, Sammy. I was right. You are the birth of a new era," he said with almost fanatic zeal. "Your brother should witness it first hand."

"Shut up," Sam said. Tears ran down his face. His finger trembled on the trigger. "Shut the fuck up!"

"Are you going to kill your brother, Sam? Just to kill little old me? Is revenge that important to you? You could save Dean," Azazel told him. "There's power in you, enough to control an army of demons, enough to control even me."

Sam laughed, brokenly. "If I had the power to control you, do you think you'd still be here, inside of Dean?"

"Having the talent is not enough; you need the practice. Sweet Ava was right. Once you start, the learning curve is a steep way up. In weeks most demons will bow to your will; I'll teach you all you need to know."

"Except how to get rid of you," Sam said.

"You already know that. Press the trigger," Azazel's said with Dean's smile, the one his brother had used when Sam had come to him with childish questions whose answers should've been obvious. "You're on the verge of a thrilling opportunity. Help me, and your brother lives. You're a clever boy, Sammy; sooner or later you'll figure out a way to throw me out. Meanwhile you need to bide your time."

"What I need is you out of my brother," Sam growled. Torn between fury and desperation Sam lowered the Colt and pressed the trigger. Azazel staggered as the bullet impacted on his shoulder. Drops of Dean's blood splattered Sam's face. His brother's shoulder flickered with light, small lightning bolts coursing through it, as Dean fell to the ground unconscious.

Sam ran to his brother and knelt next to him. "Dean, Dean, please wake up," he called, but Dean didn't move. Blood ran out of his shoulder, drenching through the layers of his clothes. Sam pressed his hand against the wound, trying helplessly to stanch the bleeding.

"Regno terrae cantate Deo, soli te Domino," he chanted, hoping against hope that in Azazel's weakened state the exorcism would be enough to throw him out.

Dean's eyes fluttered opened. The familiar, green color filled Sam with warmth. "Sorry, Sammy," his brother whispered in a weak voice. "You should've killed me. Sorry, I'm not strong enough to fight him."

Sam wanted to scream at Dean to hang on, to wait, but he didn't dare interrupt his chanting, not when he was so close to the end.

"Amen," Dean said, echoing Sam's final word. When he opened his eyes they were once more sulfur-yellow. An invisible power threw Sam against the nearest tree. His feet dangled over the floor. He fought for breath as pressure closed around his windpipe, chocking him.

Azazel stood up with a grace that denied the gravity of Dean's injury. "That wasn't nice. Moreover, it wasn't clever. Now you have no bullets left, Sammy. Did you truly think the same trick would work twice on me? You disappoint me. It's not healthy to do that." He brushed away the hair from Sam's face and the invisible hands throttling him vanished.

"You only have one choice left." Azazel smiled. "You open the crypt for me and I'll make sure your brother's body survives your so carefully placed bullet. Or, we wait here until Dean's bleeds out and dies. I don't care one way or the other, Sam. I've kept him alive as a treat for your good behavior. If you don't behave he is of no use to me." Azazel's smile vanished as if it had never existed.

"If you let him die, you won't have anything to control me with," Sam said.

"Oh, Sammy, you still need to learn so much about demons. I thought daddy had taught you better. Why do you need to make everything so hard for yourself?" Azazel sighed. He closed those unnatural, yellow eyes of his, and for an instant all that Sam could see was Dean's face.

"You called," Ellen said, approaching them. "Hello, Sam." When she looked at him her eyes turned pitch-black.

Sam would have recognized that mocking-saucy smile anywhere, still remembered what it felt for it to be a part of him. "Meg."

"He's getting better," she said, turning to Azazel.

"He is." The demon's voice was full of pride. "But he still needs some help."

Sam twisted inside the invisible bonds holding him, trying uselessly to break free.

"My pleasure," Meg said, smiling wider. She walked to Sam and started searching him, plastering Ellen's body against his. She stepped back, holding Sam's knife in her hand. She placed the tip in the middle of Ellen's left wrist and started to press, slowly cutting along Ellen's under arm until she reached the elbow.

Sam screamed at her to stop, but Meg ignored him. Blood gushed out of her arm, following Ellen's heartbeat, until all of Ellen's clothes were drenched with blood and a pool of it had formed at her feet. When the bleeding finally stopped, Sam had no voice left with which to plea or scream.

"Stop blubbering, Sam. It's not becoming of a future leader." Meg smirked. "Thank you, father," she said, turning to Azazel. "Her useless attempts to regain control of her body were starting to wear on me."

"Don't thank me; thank Sam. If it weren't for his stubbornness dear Ellen would still be alive. So what will it be, Sam?" Azazel asked. "Keeping your brother's body alive is becoming more difficult by the second. Choose! Do what I want and Dean lives. Refuse and he dies. Keep refusing, and Bobby will follow. And after him another one and another one until you change your mind. It's not as if I'd ever grow weary of killing humans. It's been one of my favorite hobbies for centuries."

The cocking of a gun's hammer yanked Sam's attention away from Azazel. Meg's raised gun was aimed at Dean's abdomen. "This might help you decide faster."

"No! Stop it. I'll do it," Sam shouted.

Defeat tasted bitter in his mouth. With a certainty that until that moment he had only associated with visions, he knew that destiny had caught with him. His whole life—from the moment he was born—had been leading up to this day, this instant. Even the lifetime in which Jake had killed him had been just a temporary detour on the road here.

"That's my boy," Azazel said. "Up and at it!"

Azazel's power stopped holding him, and Sam fell to the floor. He rose on unsteady feet. Guided by the demon's power the Colt lifted itself from the ground and flew into Sam's hand.

With heavy steps he walked towards the crypt. Azazel and Meg trailed behind him. The familiar, comforting sound of Dean's footsteps guarding his back was a sharp contrast to the nerve-wracking knowledge that his brother couldn't be farther away from him. Twice his steps faltered, but when he turned around, it was Dean's face he saw. His familiar, lazy, knowing smile was at odds with the poisonous, yellow tint of the demon's eyes, but it was Dean's nonetheless.

Sam couldn't be his brother's executioner

The way seemed to last forever. A part of Sam wished for it to never end. Dusk loomed in the horizon by the time they arrived. Colt's crypt dominated the graveyard with its magnitude. Sam approached it as if in trance.

This was bigger than killing Cal and Jake. The moment he opened the door to Hell he'd be betraying the world. He'd become the monster Gordon had feared. He laughed at the irony. Dean's life couldn't be worth this. There had to be a limit to what Sam would do for his brother. But there wasn't.

The weigh of the Colt in his hand seemed to multiply as he lifted it towards the pentagram that separated earth from Hell. Such a small thing carrying so much power: Samuel Colt's masterwork. For centuries it had kept Hell at bay and now Sam was inches away from rendering it useless. He placed the tip of the gun at the center of the star.

The whispers in the back of his head intensified, becoming louder and clearer. Thousands of voices begging him to free them, promising him anything if he just gave in.

Sam stepped back with a whimper and pressed his hands to his ears, trying to stop the noise. It was like having hundred of visions at once.

"Hush," Dean's voice said, and the voices quieted down, leaving Sam blissfully alone. Dean's fingers caressed the back of Sam's neck, stopping Sam's approaching migraine before it had time to take. "You'll be fine; I'll take care of you, Sam."

Sam jerked away from Azazel, furious with his body and its ingrained reflex to relax into his brother's touch when it was hurting.

With a helpless curse, Sam shoved the barrel of the Colt into the hole at the center of the pentagram and took a step back, watching with sick fascination as the star started to spin on itself, over and over.

For a second it stopped utterly still, before the doors were blasted open. Sam stood motionless as the black cloud of demons burst through the gates, entering the world once more. For a never-ending moment all the light vanished from the sky as the demons surrounded Sam. The faint tang of sulfur clang to his nostrils even after the demons left with the same pervasiveness with which the fading whispers of their voices entrenched themselves inside Sam's mind.

"Well done, Sammy." Azazel clasped him on the shoulder.

"Fuck you," Sam said, but didn't pull away. He wasn't sure for how long he could defend his sanity if the whispers returned. Azazel's touch at least vanished the voices.

"If that's what you want, it'll be my pleasure to oblige you," Azazel chuckled. "Our work here is done, let's go home."

-----------------------------------


The first thing Sam noticed when he woke up was the softness of the mattress he was lying on. Then, the memories assaulted him: the black cloud of demons surrounding him, their overpowering voices, the pentagram on the crypt spinning and spinning until the gates of Hell opened, Ellen bleeding to death in front of Sam, and Dean, with his yellow eyes, laughing out loud as he ripped Sam's world to pieces.

If Sam let them, he knew the memories would destroy him. He couldn't afford that, not if he wanted to rescue Dean and himself from the mess he had created. With grim determination he pushed the memories down, forcing himself to stand up.

The room had two doors and no windows. A fluorescent lamp clung to the ceiling, bathing the sterile, white walls with its cold light. One of the doors, Sam soon discovered, was locked. The other led to a small, Spartan bathroom. Except for the furniture—a bed, a small chest of drawers next to it, and a desk with its chair—the room was otherwise empty. Sam had seen cheap motels with a more personal touch.

He tried the locked door again without any luck. The picklocks he carried with himself had disappeared, along with his guns and mobile phone. Without them he felt naked.

The door's knob started to move and Sam stepped aside. He stood still next to the door, ready to jump. He held his breath and waited for the person—or demon—to enter the room. He hoped the element of surprise would be enough to overpower it.

The door hinges grated as Dean walked in. Sam hesitated for just a second, but it was enough. Yellow eyes turned to look at him and Sam's body was tossed across the room. The impact of his back against one of the walls knocked the air out of his lungs.

Azazel rolled his eyes in annoyance. "I can't say that was unexpected. Sammy, Sammy, I'm inside your brother's body and I've been inside your daddy. You have my blood in you. Do you think you can surprise me?" He caressed Sam's cheek with Dean's forefinger, tracing the purple welt Jake's grazing blow had left behind. "I've spent centuries waiting for you. Your whole life I've been watching you. I knew you'd leave your family before you sent out your first application for college. I knew you were planning to marry sweet, little Jess before you did, just as I knew that if I killed her you'd leave your apple-pie life behind and go back to hunting. I know you, Sam. You'll never be able to escape me," he whispered into Sam's ear.

Sam stumbled as Azazel let go of him, but managed to find his equilibrium. Wary, he stood there, at a loss of what to do. He glanced at the open door, assessing the distance, and knew he couldn't make it.

"I've an offer for you," the demon told him.

"The kind of offer I won't be able to refuse."

Azazel chuckled and Sam had to remind himself that it wasn't his brother, even if it sounded just like him.

"In case you've forgotten, my dear father gave you all, ungrateful humans, free will. A refusal would end with everyone you hold dear dead, but you can refuse if you want to."

"What do you want?"

"No need to sound so cautious. I've your best interest at heart," Azazel said. He walked to the bed and sat down, leaning against the headboard and putting his legs on the mattress, not bothering to take off his boots. "Don't even think about it, Sam." The door of the room slammed with a bang and the lock fell into place. "Sit down. There's no point for you to be looming around with that sad face."

Sam's mouth narrowed with anger and he straightened his back. If nothing else, he could defy Azazel in this.

Azazel raised an eyebrow, more amused than annoyed. "As you wish. I'll make you a deal."

"No," Sam snapped. "I'll do you what you ask, but I won't make deals with you."

Azazel laughed. "Not that kind of deal. I don't need your soul. It's been mine since before you were born. You'll have to thank dear mommy for that, but that's another story. I want you to train those freaky powers of yours as hard and as best as you can. In exchange I . . . won't do anything."

"How kind of you," Sam drawled.

"I could always start hunting the hunters, one at a time, beginning with Bobby, who so conveniently happens to be under the control of one of my children," Azazel said. "What's to be then, Sam? You train and I do nothing; you refuse to train and I start killing."

"And after I'm done with my training? What'll happen then?"

"Ask me again when you've finished honing your powers."

"I want to know now," Sam said. "What are your big plans for me, for your army?"

"You already know."

"I won't help you destroy the world," Sam said.

Azazel smiled and stood up. "You already have." He walked closer to Sam. "Think of it as a new chance. If you play your cards right you might be able to get rid of me along the way. No one and nothing will be able to control you then. The world will be yours to do with as you wish. You'll be able to reshape it, turn it into something better, something purer."

"And you're going to be so easy to get rid off?" Sam asked with sarcasm.

"No," Azazel said. He caressed Sam's face. "Getting rid of me will be the hardest thing you'll ever do. I'll make it as hard for you as I can. You might never be able to, but the possibility is there. You should strive for it."

"Why are you telling me this? Shouldn't you want me meek under your command?"

"Meek?" Azazel bore his teeth in something resembling a smile. "No, Sam. I don't want you meek. I want you sharp! I want you trying your best to outsmart me, to betray me, to kill me. I want you to resent the chains that hold your will under my command. You should crave the power you'll need to get rid of me. Fight for that power. Do anything it takes to get it. I want you ruthless.

"If you ever want to get rid of me you'll have no choice but to become all that and more, and you will. Meekness is the last thing I'd want in you. You, my dear boy, are meant to lead an army of demons. You need to start thinking like one."

Azazel walked to the door, letting Sam alone with his thoughts. "You may rest today," he told him. "I'll come back tomorrow. Then your training will start."

Sam let his body slide to the floor after Azazel had left. For hours he sat there, going over everything the demon had said. Azazel was right; he could become that person. In a way he already had. This was just one more step along the same road. He could play the game until he learned what he needed to free his brother and then. . . . He'd just have to hope that Azazel wasn't lying. If he had enough power to reshape the world to his will, he could always make sure that the new world was exactly like the old one, not purer, not better. Just the same, but with Dean in it.

Sam wouldn't break. Azazel was counting on that, of course, on Sam changing so much on his way up that by the time he got there—if he ever did—he'd be just like any other demon: A soulless monster bent on destruction. Just another Azazel. Yet, Sam knew one thing that Azazel didn't. It was doable. Ruby had managed it. She had retained something of the human she had been, and Ruby had nothing on plain Winchesters' stubbornness.

Sam could do it.

He had no other choice.

-------------------------------------


Ava had been right. Once Sam gave into his psychic powers, they started to strengthen and multiply like zombies in a town without hunters.

His first day of training was a failure. No matter how hard Sam tried, he could not call any power to serve him, not even visions. Azazel didn’t seem to care. He regarded Sam’s useless attempts with a condescending smirk that grated Sam’s nerves. At times Sam could almost forget that the demon was wearing his brother’s body. Almost. He longed for the Colt he no longer possessed, wanting to wipe the smirk of the demon’s face forever. Then Azazel would blink, and for the fraction of a second the nightmarish yellow of his eyes flickered out of Sam’s perception. And it was Dean once more, standing in front of him, as trapped as Sam was.

So Sam swallowed his rage and tried harder.

The third day of his captivity Sam woke up to Dean watching him. “Dean?” Sam asked, rising slowly from the bed, as not to call the unwanted attention of the demon.

The clear green color of his brother’s eyes was a cruel reminder of all he had lost.

Dean sat down on the bed next to Sam. “It’s so easy to fool you, Sam,” he grinned. “You want him back so badly that even the fantasy of him would be enough, wouldn’t it?”

Sam looked away, chest twisting with pain. His nostrils flared as he tried to calm his breathing. It’d have hurt less if the demon had rip Sam’s heart out and fed on it while it still beat.

“We’ll try something new today,” Azazel said. “Get ready. We’re visiting a . . . friend.”

Sam pressed his lips into a thin line, swallowing the words wanting to break free. He stood up and went to the bathroom. He splashed icy water on his face until the chill drove away all traces of anger.

Azazel was waiting in the room when he left the bathroom. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

The demon took Sam to a small town in the middle of nowhere. The kind of dusty, almost forgotten town Sam and Dean had lived in when they were still kids and John had wanted them to go to school.

Vapor rose from the asphalt under the intense midday sun. It blurred the contours of the empty streets with its brightness. Drops of sweat ran down Sam’s back under the pervasive heat. He walked next to the demon without protest. Escaping seemed an unattainable dream. As long as Azazel owned his brother’s life Sam wouldn’t go anywhere. The risk was too high.

They stopped in front of an old town house which better days lay at least a century behind. The old iron gates of the garden opened on their own accord with a grating sound when Azazel touched them.

“After you,” the demon said and stepped aside, waiting for Sam to enter.

Sam trod warily inside. The temperature seemed to drop as soon as he stepped past the gates. Wind gusted through the branches of the ash trees, which hid most of the house from view. A soft breeze caressed his nape like ghostly fingers, rising gooseflesh up and down Sam’s arms. The shadows in the garden darkened as Sam approached the house, and the wind started to blow with increased strength, almost forcing him off the footpath. The darkness deepened and the house disappeared from view. Sam could barely see the way in front of him. Every instinct in his body screamed at him to flee.

The desire to leave overpowered all his other senses and Sam turned back. His body bumped into something hard.

“Really, Sammy, you need to watch your steps,” Dean’s voice said from far away. In the darkness Sam couldn’t even make out his brother’s silhouette. “It might help if you’d open your eyes,” his brother chuckled.

“They’re open,” Sam protested, but as he said it the world around him seemed to flicker, loosing its sharpness for a second.

Sam closed his eyes and cleared his mind of the irrational fear clawing at it. That alone should have told him something wasn’t right. Sam was no stranger to fear, but he seldom allowed it to rule his actions.

When he opened his eyes again the sun shone once more merciless on the sky. The white porch of the house lurked among the trees in the distance; it didn’t seem threatening at all.

“Who lives here?” Sam asked. Now that he’d become aware of it, he could sense the illusion trying once more to pry open a way into his mind.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Azazel said with an enigmatic smile.

The door of the house opened by itself as soon as they stepped on the porch. Azazel grabbed Sam’s upper arm and dragged him inside. In the living room an old lady sat on a rocking chair and knitted, humming to herself. She looked up when they entered. Her glassy blue eyes focused on Azazel, ignoring Sam altogether.

“She won’t be happy to see him here,” she rasped, and her eyes turned black.

Azazel gave her one of Dean’s trademark cocky smiles. “Oh, I’m counting on that. She’s nothing if not predictable.”

The old woman snorted. “Some might same the say about you, father.”

“Never to my face,” he said, voice laced with warning.

The old woman lowered her eyes and went back to her knitting. “She’s in the back. Pandora’s with her.”

The yellow-eyed demon turned to Sam. “Follow me.” He prowled to the back of the house with Sam trailing behind him.

The last door in the corridor led to a small playing room. Inside, a woman watched over two small girls playing on the floor. She bared her teeth in a growl as soon as she saw Azazel. Sam wasn’t at all surprise when her eyes, too, change color and became black.

“Get out,” she hissed.

“Is that a way to greet me? You’re setting a bad example for impressionable minds. What will your daughter think?”

“How dare you—”

“Enough!” One of the girls whispered and the demon stopped speaking at once, bowing her head and taking a step back.

Azazel didn’t seem surprised by the interruption, quite the contrary. He only had eyes for the girl, as if everyone else in the room, including Sam, was meaningless.

“Leave us,” the girl said. Her eyes, too, were fixed on the yellow-eyed demon’s.

The woman curled her lips in anger, but didn’t protest. She took the hand of the other girl and stomped outside the room, bumping Azazel in the shoulder as she passed by him.

The yellow-eyed demon snorted. “Ask nicely next time, and I’ll let you keep the arm.” He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “Children.”

“I like children,” the girl smiled and stood up. She stepped closer to Azazel and ran the fingertips of her right hand from the hollow of his neck to his waist in a slow caress. “I also like your new body,” she said in a sultry voice that a child her age should not possess. Except that she wasn’t a child, but a demon wearing a child’s body.

Sam almost retched with disgust when he saw an answering smile appear on Dean’s face. The same small, seductive slope of his brother’s lips, which countless women across the country had fallen for. Without stopping to think, Sam grabbed Dean’s arm and wrenched him away from the girl.

“Don’t you fucking dare!” he growled. “As long as you’re inside my brother’s body you won’t touch a child like that. I don’t care if she’s a demon. Stay away from her!”

“Don’t mind him,” Azazel said, prying his arm off Sam’s grip and turning back to the girl. “He still has much to learn. Allow me to make the introductions. The knight in shining armor over here is Sam Winchester.” He gestured vaguely in Sam’s direction. “Sam, meet Lilith, one of my oldest partners. She and I have worked together to create a new world order for longer than your petty human mind can even grasp. Do refrain from futures outbreaks of chivalry, please.”

“You’re Lilith,” Sam gasped in surprise.

She ignored him and addressed Azazel as if Sam wasn’t even there. “Hmm, all those centuries plotting and planning, and this is the best you could come up with?” Lilith huffed. “I don’t like him.” She looked at Sam then, eyeing him from head to toe. “His father’s screaming soul was more entertaining than he is.”

“Don’t write him off just yet. He grows on you,” Azazel said.

“Maybe. So, you’ve heard of me,” she said, turning around and beaming at Sam.

“Nothing good,” he sneered.

She giggled, a sweet, innocent, little girl sound that belied everything she was. “You say the nicest things. Maybe I was wrong about you after all.” She turned to Azazel and the laughter vanished from her face as if it had never been there. Her eyes hardened and her face twisted with cruelty. “What’s he doing here?”

A chill ran up Sam’s spine at the power in her voice. No wonder Ruby had been wary of her. Sam had the impression that even Azazel was.

“He’s your leader. I thought you might want to present your respects.”

Or maybe not.

“My leader?” she drawled, raising and skeptical eyebrow. “I am my own leader.” She glanced at Sam and snorted in derision. Her eyes turned suddenly white and an uncanny light enclosed her. She raised her palm and hurled Sam across the room.

Sam crashed against a wall, and his vision blackened for an instant under the force of the impact. He screamed in pain as invisible claws dug into his chest and tore the skin away. The agony increased as the claws dug deeper and deeper, shredding his flesh. He struggled against her hold uselessly. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth and Sam coughed, chocking on it. Lilith laughed with glee.

Amid the pain a dark rage swamped Sam. He wasn’t going to die like this. He wouldn’t! If he died now it would all be for naught: Sam’s sacrifices, the chunks of humanity he had traded in exchange for his brother’s soul, for his brother’s life. He wasn’t going to leave Dean behind, a prisoner of the demon who had destroyed their family. He wasn’t.

Hatred filled every pore of Sam’s body, until his body shook with the power of it. A fury so vast that it spilled out of Sam into the world around him. The windows rattled in their frames. The toys in the room flew through the air in a mad vortex. Even the wooden planks on the floor quivered under the onslaught of Sam’s anger.

The claws slicing Sam’s flesh retreated, and the pain disappeared as it had never been there. His body was lowered to the floor with almost gentleness. Around Sam the world still spun out of control, but neither Lilith nor Azazel seemed affected by it.

Azazel walked closer and knelt down next to Sam. "Are you all right?" he asked. For a moment he sounded just like Dean would have.

Sam’s snort transformed into a wet cough as he spilled blood over Dean’s favorite leather jacket. He looked away from his brother's face, unable to bear the not-quite-Dean look in his eyes. The silence stretched and Sam realized that the room had stopped shaking. Exhaustion washed over him. The room drained of color, its objects becoming blurrier and blurrier.

“I’m fine,” he coughed.

“Such a liar you are," Azazel smiled down at him. He ripped open Sam's shirt with his hands.

Long, bleeding slashes ran across Sam's chest. The worst of it was inside, where not even Azazel could see. It would be over soon. It was as if the exhaustion had stolen his will to live. The rage had drained out of him. Only hollowness remained. It swallowed Sam from the inside. He’d rather have the pain. At least it was something he could feel.

"You'll have to find another leader," Sam told Azazel.

"How little you still know, Sam." Azazel slashed across Dean’s left wrist with the fingernail of his right thumb. He placed his wrist over Sam's mouth. "I told you once that demon's blood was better than mother's milk. Drink!"

Sam tried to turn his head away, but Azazel held him in place. "Don't make me force you, Sam. You know I will."

Despite the warning Sam tried to scramble away. With inhuman strength the demon dug his finger into the hollow of Sam’s cheeks, forcing his jaw to open. Drops of Azazel’s blood—Dean’s blood—fell over Sam’s lips and tongue. The taste of it awoke something in Sam, a hint of a memory. It didn’t taste like blood, not quite. Sam has been confronted with enough blood in his life to know the taste of it by heart. And yet, it seemed so familiar.

He licked his lips, wanting to place the memory. Needing to. He tried to make out the difference between Azazel’s blood and his own, but it stayed out of his reach, at the edge of his memory, like a word that wouldn’t come when you needed it.

“That’s enough now,” Azazel said, pulling his wrist away.

Sam opened his eyes, surprised. He didn’t remember having closed them just as he didn’t remember Azazel’s wrist descending to his lips, or the exact moment when he started sucking the blood out of it, instead of just licking off the few drops that fell.

He looked at Dean’s bleeding wrist, mesmerized.

“Sleep,” Lilith said in that childish voice of her that chilled Sam to the marrow. “You’ll heal faster.”

Sam wanted to protest, but his eyes were already becoming heavier. He was too exhausted to withstand the command in her voice.

Sam dreamed of home: The Impala speeding along dusty roads through the countryside and Dean, smiling down at him. Always Dean. Sam knew it was a dream. It was all right, though. He was just happy to have his brother next to him, even if he was ignoring Sam and talking to a girl in Sam’s class instead. His brother always acted stupid around girls.

“You’ll help with his training,” Dean said.

“If he needs that much help, I don’t see how he can be the one,” the girl answered.

“You saw what he did.”

“Any of our children could do five times more.”

“Yes, but they aren’t human. We need a human to finish this war. It’ll be fun. When was the last time you took the time to play with humans? Consider it a vacation,” Dean said.

The girl sighed. Girls could never resist his brother’s cajoling tone; Sam could have told her that. It was something Dean always used to his advantage.

“Fine, but I won’t be gentle. If he doesn’t survive his training, you’ll need to find yourself a new toy.”

“He’ll survive,” Dean said in a dark, promising tone. It was his hunter voice.

“Come back in two weeks. Either he’s dead or he’s ready. And Azazel, you’ll owe me for this. More than you already do.”

Dean laughed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Sam started away the next day. The demon who had been in the room with Lilith and the other girl hovered over him, a frown on her face.

“Get up,” she said. “Mother is waiting for you.”

“Who?” Sam stalled, trying to assess the unfamiliar surroundings.

“Lilith. You better hurry. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

The memories of the day before came back to Sam. His hands flew to his stomach and he patted the unmarred flesh there with surprise. It wasn’t possible. How on earth?

“Azazel’s an angel, albeit a fallen one. His blood is powerful,” the woman said, as if reading his thoughts. “Now, wipe that stunned expression of your face and get ready. I won’t repeat myself.”

Lilith’ tutelage was as thorough as it was cruel. Every morning, the woman—who Sam later found out was called Pandora—woke him up and brought him to Lilith.

Sam never remembered making it to bed. Every lesson ended with him panting from exhaustion and pain at Lilith’s feet as she ordered him to sleep in a tone so persuasive that Sam couldn’t fight against it. His rage and hatred grew with every passing day. It spilled out of him every time he heard her innocent child-like laughter, belittling him and his family, being sweet one minute and horribly cruel the next. Sam wondered if he’d ever be able to bear the presence of children without wanting to murder them on the spot.

Migraines became permanent, trusted companions as did the whispers of the demons’ inside his head. The pain was negligible, though. Lilith had taken great pleasure in teaching him what true pain felt like. His tolerance, already high from his life of hunting, increased under her, as did Sam’s thirst for violence.

The more he tried to fight it, the more Lilith used it against him, until Sam learned to give into it, to use it. Any weapon was good if it meant keeping her at bay: pain, fury, hatred. Whatever it took.

Unavoidable the time came in which Sam finally managed to freeze Lilith into place with just the power of his mind. Having her at his mercy awoke something primal in him. He strode to her and placed a hand over her heart. Power flew through his fingers, and Sam closed his eyes, savoring the way in which Lilith’s heart fluttered liked a trapped bird under his palm until it stopped beating altogether.

“Well done, Sam,” she beamed at him. “Azazel will be so proud. That was the last power you needed to master. He might get his leader after all.”

“No, that wasn’t the last one,” Sam said and smiled. He concentrated, listening to the whispers in his head instead of blocking them, seeking what he needed: the small dark thread of power connecting him to Lilith herself. He yanked at it with all the strength he could muster, until it broke free from the rest.

Lilith gasped. Her unnatural white eyes widened and a small frown of pain marred her otherwise beautiful, child-like face.

Sam had her.

It was so easy. Now that he had seen her weakness, it was just a matter of shredding the thread to pieces. In front of him, Lilith screamed and felt on her knees. She opened her mouth and black smoke started to pour out of it. Sam ordered it to leave the house, the country. Earth. It resisted, lashing out at Sam’s mind, trying to break through his defenses. Sam clasped his teeth and rode the burning pain, taking it into him, using it to fuel his rage even further. It could have lasted a minute or an eternity, Sam didn’t know, but finally the black cloud of smoke left, leaving Sam behind with the broken body of the ten-year-old girl he had just murdered. He cradled her corpse to him and rocked it. He didn’t cry, though.

He had no tears left.

When Azazel came minutes later, still inside Dean’s body, holding the hand of another white-eyed girl, Sam wasn’t even surprised.

“Sam, I’m back!” Lilith said and ran to hug him, placing her little arms around his neck. “Did you truly think it’d be that easy to get read of me? I must thank you, though. Hell’s lovely this time of the year. By the way, daddy says hi.”

Sam ignored the jab.

“Really, Sam,” Azazel said, “what’s there a point in exorcising her? The gates of Hell are still open. You’re cursing that oversight right about now, aren’t you?”

“Not at all,” Sam said. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Lilith giggled. “This is our war, Sam. We’re your allies, not your enemies.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Sam deadpanned. “You’ve taken great pleasure these last weeks showing me the lengths you’ll go for that alliance. The least I could do was return the favor. I have it on good authority that that’s the demons’ way. I just want to fit in.”

Azazel laughed. “Oh, Sammy, you learn so fast. You’ve done a marvelous job with him, my love.” He smiled at Lilith.

“Yes,” she said, watching Sam out of narrowed eyes. “Marvelous.”

“Let’s go, Sam. It’s time you’re officially introduced to your army,” Azazel said, stepping closer to him.

That night, one after the other Sam forced all demons to kneel at his feet and swear him fealty. All of them but one, Azazel himself.

Waves of power lapped at the edges of Sam’s mind, becoming bigger and rougher with every demon that came. It was just a matter of time before he could overcome Azazel, too.

Ava had been right about another thing, though. Sam didn’t like to think too much about it. The thought crept upon him every now and then, but Sam was fast to squash it whenever it surfaced, until it became another background noise lost between the demons’ whispers. Using his powers, well, after a while, it wasn’t just easy.

It was kind of fun too.

-------------------------------------


"Twenty-nine persons were killed and over forty wounded in what started as a passive protest against the uncontrolled rise of food prices. This is the fifth pacific manifestation in the last two weeks to escalate into a violent outbreak. Crop failures and the rising numbers of cattle deaths due to an uncontrolled spread of another bout of foot-and-mouth disease worldwide, as well as the newly outbreak of bird flue in the United States and Latin America, have caused food prices to quadruple over the last two months. Families with low incomes are no longer able to buy enough food to sustain themselves. The White House has pro—"

Sam changed the news channel the moment he heard the doorknob turning. He didn't need to ask who it was. Only one demon would dare enter Sam's room without asking for permission first. Even Lilith knew better by now. He leaned back on the sofa and rested his head over his laced finger, as if he didn't have a care in the world.

"Good morning, Sam," Azazel said, sitting down next to him.

Even after four months his heart still twisted in pain whenever the demon flashed one of Dean's lightning smiles at him. He tried his best to ignore it.

"Morning," Sam answered. He'd learned over the last months that it was best to indulge Azazel. It made things easier for Sam and for Dean, too.

"Congratulations, Sammy! Your plan is starting to work. I was skeptical at first, but I see the beauty of it now; it's so much more fun to let humans destroy themselves with their greed. All they need is a tiny, tiny push and next thing you know they are killing each other all by themselves. Ah, and to think Father preferred them to us. How pathetic!"

Sam forced a smirk on his face. He was becoming better at those. "It's a good thing you have me. I'm a human; I know how my race thinks. If we had started an open war they would have found a way to fight us. This way, they don't even know what's causing the deaths and the diseases. Famine and pestilence down, we only have war to go."

"And death," Azazel said.

"Death always follows. We don't need to worry about it," Sam said, voice devoid of emotion.

"Yes," Azazel whispered into his ear, tracing his fingertips along Sam's cheeks.

Sam recoiled and stood up from the sofa, putting some distance between himself and Azazel. They had been playing this dance for weeks now.

"Bune was successful. With him in possessing the president it'll be easy to open the way for other demons to possess the Senators and the members of the House of Representatives. Here," Sam said, handing Azazel some papers. "I've made a list of the demons best suited for this. They'll need to lay low at first. We don't want anyone suspecting foul play. It'd be suspicious if all important political members of this country start killing and torturing humans in their free time."

"You don't think they already do?" Azazel raised an eyebrow.

"No where they can get caught anyway." Sam walked to the window in his room—Azazel's last present for his good behavior—and looked outside.

"So, Sammy, what's your next big step after the White House is ours?"

"Europe, and then the rest of the world. Country by country. I guess our beloved president is going to request a lot of meetings with his fellow government counterparts over the next couple of months."

Sam saw the plan unfold in front of his eyes. He shouldn't be so good at this. It was wrong.

"Clever and underhanded. I knew there was a reason what I liked you best, Sam." Azazel chuckled as his eyes traveled up and down Sam's body. "More than one reason, actually."

"Don't," Sam said, turning to face Azazel.

"Don't what, Sam? Talk to you? Touch you? Use you?" The demon stood up and walked to where Sam was leaning against the window. He put his hands on either side of Sam's head, crowding him with his body.

It had been a long time since Dean's height had made Sam feel small in comparison, but Azazel managed to pull it off every time. "Just don't," Sam said, pushing with his hand against Dean's chest.

Azazel stepped back, allowing Sam to shove him away. It only increased Sam's unease. The yellow-eyed demon was only so agreeable when he had something even more sinister in stock.

"Oh, but I want to, Sam."

"Then just take what you want and let me be!" Sam screamed. "That's what you always do anyway."

The demon laughed. "Now you've offended me. When have I ever taken something from you that you haven't freely given?"

"My Mom, Jess, my Dad, and now Dean. It's the only thing you know how to do. Take!"

"Oh, but they weren't yours, Sam. I took each of them against their wishes, except for your daddy. He chose for himself, as did you. You chose to open the gates of Hell and you chose to train under my command. You even chose to fight this battle for me. It's your plans the ones we're following. Don't tell me now that I forced those upon you."

"Yes, those were wonderful choices you gave me," Sam spat.

"It was more than your brother ever had."

It was on Sam's lips to tell the demon to go fuck himself, but he bit his tongue on time. It would be just more ammunition for Azazel. "Fine, I don't want you to touch me. How is that for a choice?"

"You haven't heard what I'm willing to give you in exchange," Azazel said.

"I don't want to hear it."

"Not even if it means you get Dean, free of me or any other demon. Say. . . for one hour."

"Not even if it was forever," Sam spat.

The demon arched an eyebrow, a small smile spreading across his lips. "Really?"

Something in Azazel's tone made Sam stop. If—Dean free of the demon. Forever. There wasn't much Sam wouldn't do for that.

"Are you offering forever?" Sam asked with hesitation, no daring to hope.

"I'm offering one hour, Sam. It was you who brought forever into the equation. How about two hours? Would that be enough to sway you?"

Sam looked at Azazel, thinking it over. For the first time in his life he looked at his brother body and wondered what it would be like if he said yes. How much was he willing to pay to have Dean back in his body instead of the pretense of Dean. A monster that didn't resemble his brother at all.

Dean would never forgive him. Sam knew that. Then again, it wasn't as if Dean would ever forgive him anyway. It wasn't about Dean forgiving him. It was about Sam saving Dean, from Hell—from Azazel, from Sam, from Dean himself. It had always been about saving Dean.

"A decade," Sam said after a while.

"How stupid do you think I am, Sam?"

"How badly do you want me?"

"Four hours."

Sam snorted. "Nine years."

Azazel narrowed his eyes. A tentative prodding at the edge of Sam's mind told him that the demon was trying to break through his defenses, but with Sam's current level of power it'd take Azazel a full-fledged attack to manage it. Sam hoped that Azazel wouldn't go to such extremes. Just in case, he strengthened his mental barriers.

"Six hours."

"Eight years," Sam said.

"Oh, for—fine." Azazel raised his hands as in surrender. Sam knew better than to trust him. "One week, you and your brother alone. No one will interfere, not even me. Of course, you won't be allowed to leave whatever place I deem safe enough to contain two Winchesters at once. That's my last offer, Sam. Take it or leave it."

"One year," Sam countered.

"No, one week and not another minute."

"One year and nothing less," Sam said.

"Fine, then nothing."

"Fine," Sam said, hating that a part of him was relieved that Azazel had not taken him on his offer. He didn't know if he could stomach the demon touching him while wearing Dean's face.

"The offer is still open, in case you change your mind," Azazel said.

"Ditto."

They glared at each other. Sam ached to strike at Azazel, but he clamped down on the impulse, not wanting Azazel to know how much his power had already increased. Better to let the demon underestimate him.

"We should summon the demons that will be taking over the Senate and the House of Representatives," Sam said, changing the subject. "They need to be told what laws to change and what laws to pass. Did you get me the books I asked about demonic contractual magic?"

"There are no books written about it," Azazel told him. "Our laws are implicit. Every demon knows them; we need no books for them. Grimoires and other demonic books have all been written by humans in their useless attempts to pin down what little they know about us."

"Well, I'm not a demon, am I?" Sam asked, trying to fill his voice with sarcasm. Still, he could hear the shadow of a doubt at the end of the sentence.

Azazel smirked. "Well, Sammy, you do have my blood in you. That makes you special. It always has."

"I don't think that your blood comes with an included insight into demonic law," Sam said.

"Think again. And while you're at it, try using the part of your mind that comes from me. I thought you'd know better by now. Still shying away from the darkness inside?"

"I—of course not. It never occurred to me that—" Sam trailed off, his mind wondering to Before: the year-that-never-was. If he had only known! All those months searching uselessly book after book for an answer, and the knowledge had been inside him the whole time, waiting for Sam to discover it.

He had been too much of a coward. He glanced at Dean and had trouble meeting the yellow of Azazel's eyes, knowing that had Sam been braver his brother wouldn't be a prisoner of the demon.

Now the only thing left to him was to make up for it, buy time for Dean. And for the world.

Sam closed his eyes and searched for the knowledge he needed inside himself, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't find it.

Azazel clasped Sam's shoulders and pulled him closer until Sam's back was flushed with his brother's chest. Dean's breath tousled strands of Sam's hair, sending gooseflesh across his nape. Sam forced himself to relax within Azazel's hold, knowing better than to break free.

"Listen to my blood singing inside of you, Sam," Azazel whispered into his ear. He was so close that Sam could feel the brush of his lips against his earlobe. Sam shivered in disgust, yet he obeyed the command.

This close to the demon, Sam's powers sang inside him with renewed strength, as if the proximity to their source boosted them further. As usual the whispers in Sam's head quieted down the moment Azazel touched him, leaving Sam blissfully alone in the confines of his own mind.

Images started to flash behind Sam's eyes, of rituals long gone and knowledge that had never made it beyond the gates of Hell. Secrets protected with blood and deaths. It was as if Azazel had ripped open a veil inside Sam. How had been so blind as not have seen this before?

Now that he knew where to search, the knowledge became a part of him, as if it had always been there. It was like walking; Sam knew there had been a time in his life in which he didn't know how to do it, but he couldn't remember it. Intellectually he understood that, minutes before, he had not known any of this, but he couldn't fathom why.

The trained lawyer in him rejoiced in showing him loophole after loophole in Dean's contract—all the countless ways in which Sam could have saved his brother and didn't.

Disgusted, Sam broke free of Azazel, not able to bear the nearness to Dean one more second. He wanted to scream, to curse, to kill. Anything.

With a growl he turned around, using the rage and disgust threatening to overwhelm him to feed his power further. He hurled it at Azazel, using all his might to force the yellow-eyed demon to leave his brother's body.

Azazel just laughed as the objects in the room flew around under the display of Sam's increasing rage.

"Oh, Sammy," the demon said, knowing how much it hurt Sam to hear him use that nickname, with that voice, in that tone. It was like a knife being twisted into Sam's gut. "It's not enough. It'll never be enough. Your power comes from me. You can't use it to fight me."

The moment Azazel said it, the knowledge flashed into Sam's mind, as if it had always been there.

Sam would never be able to force Azazel to leave his brother's body. No matter how much his power grew, it would always obey Azazel first. It was Azazel's. Sam knew this, as he knew all of Hell's laws. He had known it for as long as he could remember.

Other rituals came to him, rituals that could force a demon, even one as powerful as Azazel to leave a host against his will, but the first step to each an everyone of them started with ripping the heart of the host out.

It was hopeless. All of it.

Sam staggered at the implications.

"Get out!" Sam said. "Get out now! I want to be alone."

Azazel laughed. "Of course, Sammy. When have I ever been able to say no to you? If you want Dean back so badly, my offer still stands."

Sam clenched his fits and looked away. He stood like that, frozen, long after the door had closed and Dean's steps had faded away.

Tears, which he had long ago thought forever dried, ran down his face. There was no way around it, no loophole, no new power to be gain. Sam could do nothing to free his brother from Azazel. Even the demon's offer to leave Dean temporarily wasn't enough.

Azazel wouldn't possess another host while Dean was free. In his pure demonic form he was untouchable. No ritual, not exorcism was powerful enough to force a demon of Azazel's caliber back to Hell if he wasn't bound by the confines and weaknesses of the human flesh. He was too strong.

The knowledge was branded into Sam's mind. Azazel was only vulnerable while inside a human.

Sam had hoped to find a way to free Dean given enough time. There was none. He knew that now.

Was being possessed better than being in Hell? Was being the slave of a demon better than becoming a monster?

Sam, who was both, monster and slave, didn't know. He couldn't sentence his brother to either faith.

That only left him one other option. He remembered the emptiness, the hopelessness of those countless months spent without his brother. He didn't think he could bear it.

For an instant he wished for it to be Tuesday again, to be back at the Mystery Spot. At least then, he had had the certainty that no matter how badly he failed in his efforts to save Dean, there would always be another Tuesday, another chance to see his brother and try and save him again, even if it was doomed to fail.

He would have given his life—his soul—to have that certainty back.

Sam didn't remember the last time he had missed a Tuesday.


-------------------------------------


The demons waited for Sam inside a church; Azazel took great pleasure in that kind of irony. Sam walked to the altar and faced them, conscious of Azazel's body so close to him that they were almost touching.

"Soon the world will become what it always should have been: a place were demons rule and humans obey. The war has begun. Our advantage lies in stealth," Sam said, looking over the heads of the demons. "Demons live in the shadows and until the world has been swallowed by darkness in the shadows we will remain. You've been selected because you're the best and more powerful among your brethren. A host has been assigned to each of you; find a way to possess him or her and keep a low profile until you're ordered to act."

All demons lowered their eyes in acceptance, even if some of them took a second longer than necessary to do so. Sam bit back a smile. He sought out those demons with his mind, separating the threads that connect him to them from the others. Their hate and contempt at having to obey a human was barely canceled. They resented the control Sam had over them, when all they wanted to do was break free and destroy the world. No wonder the hunters had had it so easy the first time around. Lesser demons were so simplistic in their needs and cravings. No plan, no organization, no backup. Without a leader they had been lost.

One of the threads pulsed brighter than all others, full of fury, wounded pride and a thirst to prove himself better than anyone else: Sam, other demons, even Azazel. Especially Azazel.

Sam fed the demon's fury further until the thread pulsed bright red with hatred.

"Some of you think you're better suited to lead this war, but you're wrong," Sam said, his eyes seeking out the demon from the crowd. "You lack the vision of what this world can become. That's why I'm here; that's why I was created. If any one of you still think you're better, come here and prove it."

Pride looked at him from between his siblings, teeth bared in a snarl, as if there was nothing more in the world he'd rather to do than kill Sam in front of every one.

'Do it! Kill me! Prove to them than no one is better than you are!' Sam whispered the command directly into the demon's mind, using every trick that Azazel and Lilith had taught him. Pride obeyed.

He never had a choice.

He leaped from the crowd and launched himself at Sam. Wind blew inside the church, beating against Sam. All the objects in the altar flew themselves at him, aiming to hurt, to kill. Sam stood his ground, altering the trajectory of the objects just so that they flew harmlessly past him. Other than that he didn't react.

"What are you waiting for? Fight him," Azazel commanded directly into Sam.9;s mind.

"No," Sam said. He opened his mind to Azazel, allowing him to sense Sam's desperation.

It was easy to make him belief that this was what Sam wanted. His only way to escape destiny. Death.

Pride closed his fingers around Sam's throat and squeezed. Had Sam been any other human the demonic strength behind those fingers would have immediately snapped his windpipe. Sam used his powers to keep the fingers from squeezing too hard too fast but still enough as to make it believable.

Azazel reeled with fury next to him, but Sam knew he wouldn't interfere. There was no point in having a leader who couldn't control his soldiers, if Sam didn't fight for himself, Azazel wouldn't fight for him. Sam knew that much about the inner politics of demons. He was counting on it.

Pride's hold of him strengthened and it was all Sam could do not to flatten him then and there. He had spent days planning this, searching for the perfect moment. It was like moving chess pieces on a board. He couldn't afford a mistake now; too much was at stake.

He felt it more than saw it—the slight jerk of Pride's hand, before his hold on Sam slacked and his hand fell lifeless to his side. Sam rubbed his throat slowly and watched with detachment as Pride's black eyes flickered with a gold light twice, before they regained their original human color. Pride's body fell to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Ruby stood in front of Sam, knife held loosely in one hand as her other arm let go of the corpse. She looked at Sam with a mix of wariness and puzzlement as if she didn't know what to make of him.

"Thank you," Sam smiled at her.

Knight G1 to F3, he wanted to shout directly into Azazel's mind, but his father had taught him better. The best prey was the one that wasn't aware it was being hunted. John had trained the need to brag out of Dean and Sam with the same intensity with which he had drilled into them how to use their weapons and know at any give time where all the exits in a room were.

When the other six sins launched themselves at Ruby, Sam was ready. The knife flew out of her hand and landed with a solid smack into Sam's outstretched palm. He sidestepped Wrath's attack and thrust the blade into his back. The flicker of golden light where the blade pierced Wrath's lung flashed through Wrath's whole body. Next to him Ruby was engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with Lust, Sloth and Envy. Gluttony and Greed advanced on Sam, eying the knife in his hand with fear.

Sam shifted his weight, dropping the harmless facade he so thoroughly cultivated, even among demons, and letting them see the killer John Winchester had trained him to be. Sam moved first, leaving an opening in his defense he knew Greed would take. Sam twisted in just the last minute kneeing Greed in the stomach using the super strength his power gave him. It felt good. He used the momentum to pull Greed's head up as the demon double over in pain and slashed his throat with one fast movement.

Without even looking Sam stopped the candelabrum Gluttony threw at him inches before it reached his head. It spun in midair, caught between the opposing forces of Sam's and Gluttony's power. Sam laughed, feeling alive for the first time in a long while. He had missed the hunt. If only Dean—he vanished the thought before it had time to form and used his fury about Dean's absence to fuel his power.

The candelabrum flew to the ceiling of the church and imbedded itself in the core of the old stone. With lighting reflexes Sam moved on his opponent, easily blocking his clumsy attempts to fight. Demons were good at manipulating forces of nature and putting unwanted thoughts into people's mind, but they knew nothing about hand-to-hand combat. Another thrust of Sam's knife, another flicker of gold light and Gluttony felt to the ground, dead.

Ruby was still engaged in her fight with the other three demons and although she clearly was handling herself well, without the knife she could not make any real progress.

"Enough," Sam growled. Every demon in the room froze, bound by the strength of Sam's command. Even Ruby stood still, her fist inches away from connecting with Lust's solar-plexus.

Sam walked to them with slow, measured steps. Without hurry he cut through Lust's, Sloth's and Envy's throats like it meant nothing. It didn't. The hosts had been dead for long now. The lack of blood as he slashed their jugulars was just another reminder. The only sound in the rooms was that of the corpses hitting the ground as the demons inside them died.

Sam looked up. A morbid part of his mind calculated how long it would take him to kill each and every one of the demons in the room if he started now and worked his way through their frozen lines.

The sound of clapping hands broke the silence. Sam turned around and was confronted with Azazel's—Dean's—proud smile. "There was an instant there when I wasn't sure you'd be able to handle it. I'm glad to see that I was wrong."

Sam gripped the handle of the knife tighter as Azazel approached.

The yellow-eyed demon followed the subconscious movement with his eyes. "You're only going to hurt Dean if you do what you're thinking, Sam. That knife can't kill me. I'm a Fallen. The only weapon in the whole world that could kill me was the Colt, and it no longer exists; I made sure of that. Think carefully before you act."

Sam searched through Ruby's memories, open to him like a book wanting to be read. Azazel wasn't lying; he seldom did. The blade wasn't powerful enough to kill him. It might hurt him, but no for long. It didn't matter, though. Sam had contingency plans in place.

It was as if a part of him had known that only the Colt could destroy Azazel. Full circle.

This had just been Sam's opening gambit.

Sam snorted and put the knife away. "Happy now?"

"Very much so," Azazel said, equally amused. He turned to the immobile demons. "Let this be a lesson to you. Sam is your leader. You swore fealty to him. Now you know what happens to those stupid enough to question his power over you—my power over you. Remember this day carefully. Now leave! Get out of my sight!" He looked at Sam. "Let them go."

Sam did.

The demons hurried to the door. Those with the power to disappear blinked out of existence almost immediately. Within seconds the hall had emptied. Ruby too stood up to leave.

"No so fast." Azazel grabbed her by an arm before she could move away. "We need to have a talk."

She lowered her eyes. "Of course. Sir."

Ruby's submission to Dean—when in the other timeline she had taken so much pleasure in goading him—made Sam want to grit his teeth. It was another reminder that his brother was lost to him. His only solace was that it was just a show on her part. Ruby had shown the same cowed, semi-worshipful expression to the demon that initiated her when she was nothing but a witch right before she tried to stab her in the back.

Azazel waited for all the demons to leave, before he turned to Ruby once more. "Why did you help Sam?"

"I swore fealty to him. To you," she answered.

Sam frowned. She was lying; in itself nothing he hadn't expected. What bothered him was how badly she hid her true thoughts. And yet, Azazel didn't seem suspicious. Sam had learned to read him over the last months and he wasn't showing any of his, or for that matter Dean's, usual signs of distrust. Interesting.

"And the idea of rising among the ranks of demons wasn't in your mind at all," Sam spat.

She whipped her head around and narrowed her eyes. "I'm a demon. What do you think?"

Azazel chuckled. "Of course, my dear. Sam has trouble accepting that a bit of ambition can go a long way. He gives up too easily. I'm kind of disappointed. Really, Sammy, suicide?"

Sam looked away, avoiding Azazel's eyes. With any luck the demon would take it as a sign of guilt. "I didn't let them kill me," he said in a subdued voice.

"It took you too long to react. You could've stopped Pride before he had time to lay his hands on you, yet you didn't. If—what's your name, dear?"

"Ruby," she supplied.

Sam could almost taste her anger at Azazel's condescending tone. He glanced at Azazel, who seemed unaware of it. Sam didn't know what that meant. Yet.

"If Ruby here hadn't interfered, he would've killed you," Azazel continued, fixing his eyes on Sam.

"It wouldn't have been that great a loss," Sam whispered.

Azazel strode to him and jerked Sam towards him. His yellow eyes glowed with fury. "Yes, it would have. I've waited millennia for you, Sam. I won't let you destroy my plans in a misplaced pang of conscience, no when we are this close to winning."

Sam yanked his arm free, allowing his fury and helplessness to show on his face.

"Well, flash-news, Azazel: You can't stop me! If I decide to end it here, now, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. What? Are you going to kill my friends? Dean? Humanity? Once I'm dead I won't mind. I failed today, but there'll be other days and other demons and other opportunities. Short of following me around every second of every day you can't stop me, and we both know you don't have the time or the resources. It's a bitch when demons turn against you the moment you stop supervising them personally."

Dean's face took on a calculating expression. "You always underestimate me, Sam. It's your worst failure and my greatest advantage." Azazel turned to Ruby. "Come here, my dear. You want to climb in the hierarchy, is that right?"

"Yes, I do," she ventured, approaching Azazel with reticent steps. Her apprehension got under Sam's skin like the noise of fingernails scratching on a blackboard.

Azazel flashed her one of Dean's lightning smiles. "Good, just the demon I was looking for. I have an offer for you. Sammy here needs a bodyguard, someone to protect him from other demons, and from himself, of course. Would you like to take on that job?"

"You can't put a babysitter on me!" Sam spat, taking step forward.

The yellow-eyed demon looked at him, and the air solidified around Sam, becoming an invisible barrier that held him in place. He pushed with his mind against it, but his power was no match for Azazel's.

"Stay out of this, Sam."

Ruby's eyes wandered from Azazel to Sam and back again. "It's not that I don't feel honored by the offer," she said. "I just don't think I'm the best candidate for the job. Sir." She shifted on her feet. "I could fight other demons without problem, but I have no control over him." She pointed vaguely at Sam. "He can freeze me with just a mental command as he did today. If he wanted to . . . do something you wouldn't approve of, there's not much I can do to stop him."

"Well spotted, my dear. I see that I made a wonderful choice with you." Azazel beamed at her. "This is the entrancing part of the deal I'm offering you. You'll partake from my blood, my power. That will not only skyrocket your position between your fellow demons, it'll also guarantee that Sam has no control over you."

'Don't accept!' Sam commanded Ruby in silence, but he put too much strength behind it, didn't do it subtle enough. She jerked under the force of the command, gasping in pain as she brought her hands to her temples.

Azazel caught on immediately. He wasn't stupid; Sam knew that—counted on it.

"I told you to stay out of this, Sam," he growled. A wave of power hammered its way into Sam's mind, tearing down almost all his mental defenses.

Sam bit his lips, swallowing the scream wanting to escape. The pain was almost too much to bear. He didn't try to influence Ruby again, too focused on keeping the last remains of his defenses intact.

"I'd be completely under your control, too," Ruby said, calling Azazel's attention to herself.

"Aren't you already?" the yellow-eyed demon asked, turning to her.

"True enough," Ruby conceded in a distant voice, as she weighted the advantages and disadvantages of the deal. "All right," she said after a short while. "I accept."

"Good. I knew you wouldn't disappoint me," Azazel said. "Come here." He signaled the spot on the floor in front of him.

She knelt down with subtle grace and looked up, licking her lips in anticipation.

Azazel slashed Dean's wrist and blood started to pour out of it. Sam's nostrils flared. He hated the hunger Azazel's blood awoke in him. Sam panted with the memories of its power. Even now the blood sang to Sam, calling him.

Ruby lapped at Dean's wrist tentatively, before she closed her lips around it and drank.

A small, helpless whimper escaped Sam's ferrous control and Azazel looked up at him, a knowing smile curving his lips.

Ruby kept on drinking, but Azazel paid her no attention. His eyes were fixed on Sam. "That's enough," Azazel said, jerking her head away. He walked towards Sam, who was still frozen in place, unable to move.

Slowly, Azazel raised Dean's bleeding wrist until it hovered half an inch away from Sam's lips. Sam turned his head aside. Resisting the temptation to move forward almost broke him. Azazel's smile widened as he licked clean the blood in front of Sam's hungry eyes.

"I misjudged you, Sammy," Azazel whispered into Sam's ear, so low that only the two of them could hear it. "I thought having Dean back was the thing you wanted the most, but I was wrong. Is it my blood? Its power? You know what it tastes like. You've known it since before you knew your own name. Is that what it would take to make you spread your legs for me of your own free will?" He chuckled. "Or maybe it isn't the power in my blood at all what has you panting with need, but the fact that it's Dean's. What a sick puppy you've become, Sammy. You know what you have to do; say the word and it's yours: the blood and the body, and whatever traces of your brother are left inside of it after I've left. Dean misses you so much, Sammy. You have no idea."

Azazel stepped back, roaring with laughter.

Sam fell to the floor, awkward and uncoordinated, the moment Azazel's hold of him was lifted, too shaken by the demon's offer and his own reaction to it. He closed his eyes, doing his best to gather the shambles of his scattered thoughts.

"I'll leave the two of you to become better acquainted," the yellow-eyed demon said. He turned to Ruby, who hadn't moved from her kneeling position on the floor. "From now on, his life is your responsibility. If he dies, you die with him. Is that clear?" All traces of amusement were gone from his voice.

"Crystal," Ruby answered.

Azazel vanished, leaving Ruby and Sam alone in the empty church.

Sam stood up on shaking legs and walked to her. "All things considered, it went better that I had dared hope," he said, dropping down on the floor next to her with a sigh.

"You knew this was going to happen." She eyed him with suspicion.

"A perk of being the boy-king," Sam scoffed, amused at his own joke.

She studied him carefully, somehow failing to hide her curiosity. Sam shouldn't have been able to see through her ruse, but he had the advantage of knowing her from Before.

"Uh-huh," she shrugged, broke her kneeling position and sat down, crossing her legs in front of her. "So, it was you the one behind those visions I kept having, wasn't it?" As questions went it wasn't much of one.

The corners of Sam's lips rose, and he lowered his head in acknowledgement.

"I don't like when people muck about with my brain. If you want something, boy-king," she spat the word like a curse, "you ask for it first."

"I did ask. You've known for days the attack was going to happen and that it was up to you to kill the demon behind it. I could've forced you to do it without bothering to warn you first."

"Yes, you could have forced me. You could've forced Pride to stop, had you wanted as well. Why didn't you?" Her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she looked at Sam straight on.

"Didn't you hear? I'm suicidal," Sam said.

"I don't know what he thinks he knows, but you don't look suicidal to me, boy-king. Why did Pride attack you? Even he wouldn't have been that stupid."

"Oh, the stupidity was his all right. Although I do confess he needed some . . . prompting. Nothing too overt." Sam gave her a small smile, as if he was letting her on a secret. In a way he was.

"Of course, nothing too overt. Why?"

"I wanted Azazel to put a bodyguard on me. Without an actual attack he would've never agreed to it, especially if he thought I could handle it. If, on the other hand, he suspects that I don't want to protect myself to begin with—well, you heard him. He has a vested interest in my continuous survival."

"Wait a second. You wanted a bodyguard, then why did you fight him t—" she trailed off as the puzzle pieces started to take shape in her mind. "I see. What do you want with a bodyguard?" she asked after a while.

"Not just any bodyguard, Ruby. You."

"Hence the visions," she concluded by herself.

"Hence the visions," Sam agreed.

"Why me? What exactly is your great plan?"

"You know about the weapon Samuel Colt created." It wasn't a question.

"Who doesn't?"

"I want you to build me another weapon exactly like that. With the bullets to match," Sam said point-blank.

"And I want world peace. Pull another one," she said.

"I don't know about world peace, but you don't want to see this world destroyed. That's why I wanted you. You're the only demon I know—and trust me, I've met more than my fair share—who still remembers what it's like to have been human."

She started. With barely contained fury she slapped him across the face. "I told you to stay away from my mind!"

Sam staggered under the strength of the blow. He touched his jaw with careful fingers and moved it left and right slowly. His cheek tingled with pain, but already he could feel Azazel's blood in him, starting to erase the bruise before it had time to form. "That was uncalled for. I didn't go into your mind to find that out. You're practically screaming it to anyone who cares to listen."

"Do you think I've made it this far in Hell's hierarchy if I let other demons read me so easily?"

"I'm not another demon, am I? You shield your thoughts against them, very well at that, not even Azazel suspects a thing," he complimented her. "You're a bit more careless around humans."

Her eyes bored into his. Sam opened himself up, showing her the things she might want to see: Sam's desire to stop the destruction of the world, his hate for Azazel. It was a risk, but one he needed to take. Without her he'd never be able to destroy the yellow-eyed demon.

"Not every human has demonic powers. I might have been a bit too careless around you. I'll keep it in mind for the future. You want to kill him, then. And here I thought that he had you in his pocket."

"And you want to help me. Imagine my surprise," Sam deadpanned.

"I've always been a bit of a freak. Becoming a demon didn't change that. What makes you think I'll be able to reproduce the Colt? That gun is one of a kind."

"I've always been a bit of freak myself." Saying those words aloud reminded him of Dean. It still hurt. The pain tore at him, as fresh and raw as the first day, when he had realized that he had saved Dean from one hell to send him into another. He didn't think it'd ever stop hurting. "It comes with the job description, knowing exactly what every one of my subjects is capable of doing and how to help them unfold their potential at best. That includes you."

"I don't know if I'll be able to build that weapon," she warned him.

"You will."

"Fine, let's pretend I do. What then?"

"I kill him," Sam whispered, eyes distant.

"You couldn't the first time around," she said. "Everyone knows that."

"It wasn't the same. Back then I still had Dean. Now, I have nothing left to lose."

"Your brother is still alive in there," she pointed out.

Sam balled his hands into fists and swallowed down the pain and the anger. "I know."

Ruby nodded. Understanding? Acceptance?

Sam didn't care. "Build me that weapon," he growled, inches away from turning the words into a command.

"I'll try my best, but I want to be there when you kill him." Her eyes shone with anticipation.

"You're my bodyguard. Where else would you be?"

She laughed and Sam wanted to laugh with her. He couldn't, though. If he started laughing, he would never be able to stop.


-------------------------------------


Ruby became Sam's shadow, always at his side, regardless if he wanted her or not. Most of the times, Sam didn't mind. A demon who remembered having been human and a human who was a demon in all but name; they were a good match.

The days passed, each one bringing apocalypse just that tiny bit closer. Sam hated how good he was at it. He wondered if Jake would've been as good, or Ava. Was it born into all of them? Or was it just Sam? Even his Stanford years, his one chance at normal, had become just another twisted weapon of destruction in Sam's hands. All those classes he took, his knowledge of laws and national and international politics, were nothing more than another tool to show him where to twist, which allies to possess, what economies to break first.

Destroying the world shouldn't be so easy, Sam thought with desperation.

Still, when his demons took over all the OPEC countries' governments and the world oil production was more than halved, the economies of the industrialized world were brutally shaken. Oil prices skyrocketed, making the bleakest price forecasts seem optimistic. Panic took over the world. Power blackouts and fuel rationalization became common once more. Combined with crop failure and the shambles the world agriculture had become, violent outbreaks US-wide stopped being something to be surprised about. No one dared leave his or her house without some sort of gun for self-protection. Thus the numbers of human casualties increased.

The air reeked of fear and desperation, of hunger and blood. It was easy to blame it on other countries, easier still to convince the nation that war was the only solution. Those who protested were silenced. The press, controlled by Sam with the same ruthless efficiency with which he controlled the government, only reported the news that suited Sam's needs.

Venezuela was the first country to be attacked. Easy, so easy, to convince the world that yet another dictator needed to be put aside. The seeds had been planted before. The NATO went in with intelligent bombs and deadly weapons, all for the sake of peace. War started, and as Sam knew it would happen, hunger followed, illness and death. Prices became even higher as the war stopped oil production instead of increasing it.

A careful mistake here, another mistake there and bombs started to fall in neighboring countries: small, unforgivable failures of a supposed faultless technology. War expanded across the continent, governments fell and dictators rose.

Nuclear power plants worldwide became prompt to accidents. Nothing too dramatic, Sam was careful with that. Let them think it was just bad luck, fate. He was always oh so careful, a leakage of radioactive material here, a security failure there. "It should never have happened; the odds were one in hundred millions, one in thousand," the PR speakers said to the press. They didn't have an explanation, but they were investigating. They were always investigating. All clues pointed to human failure, negligence, too much stress due to increasing violence and too short salaries, which were no longer enough to feed a family.

Images of devastation played just like another background noise. Most times there weren't even bodies behind, just the imprint of ashes where bodies used to be, and despair where hope used to blossom.

Sam watched the news every day. It was his penance. He needed to know. It was almost an imperative. Cal, Jake, Ellen. The mental body count of all those killed by him to keep Dean alive rose by hundreds everyday.

Sam had once told Dean there was nothing he wouldn't sacrifice for him. The world, obviously, wasn't an exception.

Developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa—those which still had large forests and countless of towns living at the edge of civilization—were the first to break. They had always been closer to nature and were dependent on its whims. Its people still remembered the old gods and respected them. When disaster after disaster struck, they turned back to them. Blood rituals and animal sacrifices became popular once more; with some persuasion by Sam's chosen demons, human sacrifices soon followed.

Gods long ago forgotten awoke again as powerful as they had been in the first years of mankind. With them, other creatures came, crawling from the dark back into the light, feeding on human fear.

Those who managed to escape back to civilization talked of demons and half-leopards walking the night and day, of gods who lived among the people and rode their bodies as humans ride horses, their godly powers all-consuming and undeniable. They controlled the weather and the wind, the water and the sun, the darkness and the light. Without them there was no life, no survival, only death. One by one the cities fell, taken over by the newly awaken gods as the tribes came from the wildness to reclaim what had once, long ago, been theirs.

PTSD, specialists claimed, when the survivors wouldn't stop talking, warning others of what they had seen, of what the future held in storage for the world. They were all put away in white, padded, sterile cells, where their voices could no longer be heard.

Mankind, Sam thought, mercy almost a foreign word in his vocabulary, deserved whatever it got. This was the world he was creating. At times it was hard to remember that there was something wrong with it.

Azazel was always there, all teeth and smiles, always a bit too close, acting so much like Dean that looking at him blinded Sam. It was like looking at the sun. Most of the times, though, Azazel cast aside all pretense of humanity, as he bathed in blood and rituals and gathered followers like a dark messiah offering protection. Those times it took all of Sam hard won self-control not to try to kill Azazel then and there.

The one occasion Sam's self-control snapped, Azazel punished him with so much brutality that, were not for the demon's blood inside him, Sam would have died. It was meant as a reminder; Sam's power, no matter how strong, came from Azazel and ended with him.

Azazel's cult spread like a wild fire over the country. Those who painted Azazel's sigil over their doors or inked it into their skin were left alone, hunger didn't strike their families, violence didn't touch them, even death hesitated at their doors. The rumors started, at first unnoticed, but as the world crumbled to pieces, and only those with Azazel's protection remained untouched, they took force and became stronger.

Azazel was the new God, the true messiah, who had come to save them. If this messiah wanted blood and human sacrifices instead of love and forgiveness, it didn't matter, at least not for those desperate or ambitious enough. What was one more death in a world were survival had become the exception instead of the rule?

The worst part, Sam thought, was that he—Sam—was the one to blame.

It had been his idea: a way to buy time for Dean and for himself. Azazel had wanted an open war, but Sam had convinced him that stealth and subtlety were the better option. He had hoped to stall the destruction of the world.

He realized now that mankind would have had a better chance of survival had it been confronted with an open war, a clear enemy. As it was now, humans were just fighting themselves and losing.

Sam had never expected his plan to work so well.

Japan was the first industrialized nation to fall. Five typhoons and three powerful earthquakes within a month was more than any economy could handle.

USA could barely withstand the blow as its third biggest import source suddenly stopped producing.

The day the White House declared war against China, Azazel gifted Sam with a glass filled with blood: Azazel's blood—Dean's blood.

Sam's body trembled with hunger, a craving that became harder to control each day. He froze, unable, unwilling to take a single step lest he ran to Azazel and agreed to give him everything, his body, his soul, even his plans, in exchange for that one glass. His muscles quivered with the stress of staying still when every instinct in Sam's body screamed at him to move closer.

Ruby, his ever present companion, placed a hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed, digging her fingernails into his flesh, grounding him.

"Good evening, Sir," she said to Azazel, bowing her head in greeting, but her eyes, too, were fixed on the glass of blood in Azazel's hand.

The yellow-eyed demon ignored her, looking at Sam instead. "You did well today."

Sam tried to gather his wits. How did addicts do it? How could they withstand the temptation?

"Thank you," he said, trying to concentrate on Azazel's face. Only his face. He didn't dare look lower.

Azazel smirked at him. He knew what his blood did to those unfortunate enough to have tasted it, to Sam. "This is my present to you," he said, raising the glass briefly before placing it on the nightstand.

"I won't—" Sam started and stopped, transfixed by the red liquid. He licked his lips. "I won't give you what you want." He tore his eyes away, looking back at the demon.

"Are you sure? Your resolution fades further every passing day. I'll be patient. I've waited this long after all." He walked to Sam. "The blood is a gift. You did well; enjoy it. I don't want anything in exchange today. Maybe next time." He left the room, closing the door behind him.

Sam collapsed on the bed, drained. "What the fuck is his game?" he muttered to himself.

"I thought that was clear. He wants to break you, Sam," Ruby said.

"Tell me something I don't know. If we don't hurry, I'm afraid he will. Even if we—there's no stopping this. The world is crumbling to dust around us. Even if we vanished the demons, it will continue to crumble. I've done my work too well.";

"Drop the self-pity, Sam," she snapped. "You'll do what you need to do. Forget the world. It'll either save it self or it won't. Humans are more resilient than you give them credit for. Get your act together. This is the breakthrough we needed."

"Come again?" Sam frowned, confused by the sudden change in her tone.

"The blood of a fallen angel. If I were him, I wouldn't leave the stuff lying around like that." She shrugged. "He probably thinks you'll be unable to resist temptation."

Sam looked at the glass and swallowed. "He might be right."

"Don't be an idiot. If I have to, I'll freeze you in place. He gave me that power after all, thoughtful demon that he is." She tapped her foot on the floor. "What are you waiting for? Guard the damn room."

Sam shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. He took a chalk piece out of his pocket and traced a devil's trap in front of the threshold. Afterwards, he sealed the doors and windows with thick salt lines—a precaution Ruby had somehow convinced Azazel Sam needed.

As soon as he was done, Ruby moved the bed aside effortlessly and started to pry the wooden planks from the floor, careful not to step on the devil's trap painted on the ground underneath it.

Sam stepped into the trap and took a box situated in the middle of it. Carefully, he handed it over to Ruby.

"A breakthrough for the Colt?" he inquired.

"Yes, the blood of a fallen angel is the closest thing we have to God's direct blessing. It's even more powerful than using holy water to forge the metal."

"He isn't exactly on God's good side," Sam pointed out with a frown.

"It doesn't matter. God made him; his blood is God's creation."

"I don't understand the logic. His power corrupts. It—you've seen what's done to me and to you."

Ruby sighed, rolling her eyes. "Stop being so dogmatic, Sam. You know better. Azazel's powers corrupt you, and even me to a lesser extent, because we are—or were as the case might be—human. Azazel's blood comes from God; it's part of Him. That's why it's so addictive. Every time you drink it, you take a bit of God into you. The church has that part right. There's power in drinking God's blood. Humans are just not strong enough to handle it. Probably the reason why they use wine instead."

"Oh, come on. By that reasoning humans are too God's creatures. Our blood should be just as powerful," Sam said.

"It is. Or it was. Too many generations have passed since God created the first humans. The power has become diluted over time. Some of it is still there, of course. Why do you think that demons and other creatures are so hot on blood sacrifices? There's power in blood. This, though—" She took the glass with almost reverence. "This is the closest we'll get to God himself. I don't know how Samuel Colt did it, but all the information I've found says that we need God's blood to forge the metal of the weapon."

"There's no way Azazel's blood is similar to God's. Colt must have done something else," Sam said.

"I told you to drop the dogma, Sam," she growled. "He's not a demon. He's a fallen angel! Demons are humans without soul. He was never human to begin with; nor did he ever have a soul. He might not get along with Daddy any longer, but—and that's the important thing—he's still His son. Trust me on this; I know my lore better than you do. I've learned it from those who were there, and not from a book which has been translated more times than you have years."

"I just—Fine, if you're sure that's all we need, then—"

"I never said that's all we need," she interrupted him. "Just a breakthrough. Now comes the hard part; we need to make the revolver. I don't know about you, but I've never made one before. The sketches you drew of the Colt and its markings are good. However, it's easier to take a revolver apart to see how it ticks and put it back together, than it is to build one from scratch, which is what we need to do. For all that Samuel Colt was big on manufactured, interchangeable pieces for his revolvers, there's nothing standard about the one we need to make. The casting of the metal, the assembling of the parts, all needs to be done using specific rituals. I know the rituals, but contrary to Samuel Colt I know shit about how to build a revolver. I don't think you're better off."

"I hadn't actually thought about that," Sam admitted, feeling a tad sheepish. Last time Ruby had helped them fix the weapon, but they had used the parts of the original Colt as basis. It had been naïve of him to think than taking any other Colt and carving the symbols into its surface would be enough.

Sam had painted with careful precision every detail of the Colt he could remember: the engravings it had in- and outside, its mechanism, even the symbols carved into the bullets. He had used his psychic powers to put visions of the Colt—those he had from when Dean, Bobby and him had tried to fix it—into Ruby's head so that she, too, could study the weapon.

Ruby scoffed. "I noticed as much. It's a good thing I'm on your side or mankind wouldn't stand a chance. I've found someone who knows how to build revolvers in the old, traditional way. Not as easy as you might think in this modern world, but there's a crazy asshole for everything. I'll possess him, and we'll have access to his knowledge."

"Oh."

"You need to come with me. Azazel would be suspicious if I leave your side," Ruby said. "Use that Machiavellian brain of yours and find a reason why we need to go to Texas. That's where the guy lives. It'd be best if it's the kind of reason that requires Azazel to stay behind."

"I'll think of something," Sam said, already going through possible scenarios in his head and studying their advantages and disadvantages.

"That's not all," Ruby said.

"What else?"

"You'll need to stop my current host from escaping, make sure she doesn't do anything we might regret later." Her eyes bored into Sam. "It'd be difficult to explain why I suddenly decided to switch bodies. We don't want to call unwanted attention to our plans."

Sam started. He had known her for so long that he had kind of forgotten she, too, was wearing a body, an unwilling body at that. Just like Azazel was wearing Dean. How could he have forgotten that? He looked away. "Yeah, I can do that," he said in a dead voice. "Yeah."

That was the kind of monster he had become.


-------------------------------------


Sam wasn't brave enough to talk to Ruby's host, not even to learn her name. He was afraid that if he did, if he started to think of her as another trapped human, another Dean, somebody else's sister, he would never be able to keep her prisoner. So, the instant Ruby left her Sam used his powers and ordered the host to sleep. It was easier that way.

Ruby inside of a man was different and yet the same. Sam was morbidly fascinated with her ability to take over the host's mannerisms with the same ease with which she took the body and still be recognizably Ruby.

Between the knowledge that Dan—Ruby's new host—had about making revolvers and Ruby's own knowledge of demonic rituals they managed to build the weapon in no time. Sam handled the blessings and the engraving of the symbols that Ruby, due to her demonic nature, couldn't draw.

The steel of the weapon was cast with blood and salt, embedded with ritual magic and blessings, with Sam's and Ruby's powers. With Azazel's blood.

Sam hoped it'd be enough. When it was done, he took the Colt in his hand and felt its power call to him the same way the original Colt's power had.

Sam summoned another demon and forced him to take possession of Dan. Relishing every instant of it, he cocked the hammer of the Colt and, holding his breath in anticipation, pulled the trigger.

The bullet impacted on the demon's forehead and light flickered from the host's skull. Black threads spread across the demon's skin and Dan's body fell to the floor with a thump.

Sam caressed the handle of the Colt with tenderness. Soon, it would be Azazel the one falling.

The hope tasted bitter on Sam's mouth.

"It worked then," Ruby said, once more inside her original body.

"Yes, it did." Sam studied the revolver. It was as perfect a copy of the original as they could make it. "Will it work on him?"

"It should."

"We used his blood in the rituals," Sam said. "It might not work."

"I put some of Lilith's blood in it, too. She's not quite as powerful as he is, but God made her, too. More important, contrary to Azazel she once had a soul. According to demons' lore she traded it for demonic powers. Lilith was the first human to turn into a demon. Set quite the trend."

Sam snorted, amused despite himself. "How did you get her blood?"

Ruby's smile took a twisted and lascivious edge. "Lilith has always been a creature of carnal pleasures for all that she prefers children's bodies. One just needs to know how to approach her properly."

"She lives inside a child!" Sam said, repulsed.

"She is a demon. An old one. I needed the power, and she was willing to give it. Everything else is meaningless."

"In exchange for what?" Sam asked, suspicious.

"What do you think? Information on your plans. She doesn't quite trust you," Ruby smiled. "Women are so much more clever than men."

"She suspects?" Sam's eyes widened in surprise.

"Of course she does. I made sure she did," Ruby chuckled. "Don't worry; she suspects all the wrong things. It'll keep her occupied for a while."

"I hope so," Sam said.

Someone knocked at the door and Ruby spun around, holding her knife in front of her.

"Don't worry. I'm expecting company," Sam said. He looked at the door and it opened.

Dan's neighbors, an elderly couple without children, came inside without prompting and sat on the coach in the living room.

Ruby looked from Dan's corpse to the elderly couple sitting perfectly still next to it and then back at Sam again. "Your doing?"

"Yes."

"Care to enlighten me?"

Sam's response was interrupted by two more arrivals: Bobby and Victor Henriksen.

As usual, seeing Bobby's eyes tainted black made Sam want to lash out in fury. This time, though, he could do something about it.

"Ruby, meet Bobby and Victor," Sam said, giving the demons his best imitation of Azazel's smile.

"My name is Barian," the demon inside Bobby said through gritted teeth. "I'd appreciate if you'd call me by my name and not by the name of the meat I wear."

Sam's smile took an almost predatory edge. "Of course, Barian. Crator," he nodded to the other demon. "Now, take over the meat-suits waiting on the couch, and leave your current hosts. I have issues to discuss with them."

Crator obeyed at once. Henriksen fell to the floor unconscious as the demon fled his body to take over the old man sitting on the couch.

Barian hesitated to obey, under the delusion that as Azazel's son Sam would think twice about messing with him. He was wrong. Sam was looking forward to proving him just how much so. In a matter of seconds Sam had forced him to leave Bobby's body and move into the old woman. He didn't bother to be gentle about it.

Sam's first instinct was to check on Bobby, who lay unconscious on the floor, but he couldn't afford breaking his concentration. He needed to make sure that neither Barian nor Crator tried to contact Azazel. All depended on that.

"Ruby, do the honors," Sam said.

She smiled at him. "Why, thank you, Sam."

She walked to the two immobilized demons and with two practiced movements, slashed their throats open. Blood poured out of the wounds, splashing her clothes and the walls next to them. The bodies fell the instant Sam stopped holding them with his power. A pool of blood formed around them, soaking Ruby's shoes.

"Ah, days like these being a demon is a wonderful thing," she said, practically bouncing on her feet.

Sam scoffed, almost amused. Somewhere along the way killing humans had stooped mattering as long as it brought him closer to his goal.

He went to Bobby and checked him for injuries. Considering how demons usually treated their bodies, Bobby was none the worse for having been possessed. Sam knew he had Azazel to thank for that.

Bobby opened his eyes, and Sam was tempted to let go of him, too afraid of what the other man would say.

"Sam," Bobby whispered in a rough voice. "Thank you."

Sam did let go of him, then. In all the occasions Sam had mentally rehearsed his conversation with Bobby, he had never imagined that those would be Bobby's first words.

"Don't. You know what I've done. Don't you dare thank me," Sam said through clenched teeth.

Henriksen coughed, and Sam went to him, grateful for the excuse to put some distance between him and Bobby. Sam hoped this time around he wouldn't have to explain everything to Victor. He had been possessed by a demon long enough to know what was really going on.

Sam had needed Henriksen alive, and the only way to guarantee that in the brave new world he had created was through possession. He had made sure that Crator knew that Sam would be highly displeased if his host died. For all his other failings, Crator had been an obedient solider.

Most demons were.

Henriksen stood up slowly, watching Ruby with wary eyes. "I . . . I've . . . I've killed hundreds of people. I—Oh, my God."

"Cut the crap, baldy. God has nothing to do with this," Ruby interrupted him with her abrupt no-nonsense tone. "Everyone in this room has killed more people than they care to count. Besides, you didn't kill them. Crator did. Don't go around taking credit for his good work. It's not nice."

"Demons are real," Henriksen said slowly, as if saying the words aloud would make the truth dissolve.

Ruby looked at Sam and rolled her eyes. "You brought him here; you deal with him."

Sam snorted. "Yes, demons are real," he said. "And werewolves and ghosts and doppelgangers. Can we skip the supernatural 101 lessons and go back to business? We don't have time for this."

"Your brother is possessed, too, isn't he?" Henriksen asked. "All those deaths, it wasn't your brother at all."

A vase crashed against the wall behind Henriksen, inches away from where the FBI agent stood. Victor flinched and raised his hands in front of his face, protecting his eyes from the shards.

"Sorry," Sam said, sheepish. "Dean's a sore point." Understatement of the century, Sam thought with bitterness. "Just. . . . Yes, he's possessed, too."

Bobby made an abortive noise, but didn't say anything when Sam's eyes turned to him.

Henriksen looked around, the FBI agent in him taking in the three bodies on the floor and the fresh blood everywhere, especially on Ruby's clothes.

She sneered at him and made her eyes turn black.

Henriksen took a step back. "Are you possessed, too?" he asked Sam, his tone more curious than afraid as if this was just another case file he needed to put together.

Sam laughed mirthlessly. "I wish I had the excuse, but no, I'm just your everyday, garden-variety sociopath."

"Sam, don't say that. You did—" Bobby started to say.

"Shut up!" Sam enforced the request with his psychic voice, wanting, needing to make Bobby understand the kind of monster he had become. "Don't try to justify it. I betrayed you, Ellen, my family, the whole fucking world. My father sold his soul in exchange for Dean's life and Dean hated him for it. And when Dean s—It's just my luck I guess. I sold my soul, too, or as good as, but it didn't bring Dean back. It didn't do anything at all. It just brought destruction and pain. So just shut up. I don't want to hear it."

Henriksen's eyes widened. Sam could almost smell his fear. Clever guy. He knew his murderers when he saw them.

"Anyway," Sam said. "That's not why I brought you here. I'm assuming that the two of you want to end this war as much as I do."

"Yes," Henriksen said.

Bobby nodded, still unable to speak.

"Good," Sam continued. "I need you to lay low the next two weeks, while I prepare everything. Go to Wyoming." Sam turned to Bobby. "You know where in Wyoming. I'll make sure the demons leave you alone. Here, put this on and don't take it off, not even to take a shower." He threw two amulets to Bobby and Victor. "It'll stop demons from possessing you."

Sam gave Bobby a piece of paper with some notes scrabbled on it. "This ritual will make it permanent. I should've told you immediately after you and Dean came to get me." Sam sighed, "The story of my life: Shoulda, coulda, woulda."

Bobby took the paper from him and held on to Sam's hand. His fingers dug into Sam's skin as he tried uselessly to speak. He gave Sam a warning look, the same he used to give him when he and Dean had done something he didn't approve of and he expected and immediate apology. Sam's heart twisted and he looked away.

"Don't. Whatever you're going to say to try and make it better, just don't. I don't want to hear it." He lifted the command of silence anyway.

Bobby pressed his lips, but when he spoke again he didn't say anything about Sam's choices. "What do you need us to do in Wyoming?" he asked.

"You need to close the gates. Right now it's a moot point to exorcise demons since they can come back out of Hell within seconds. It's why most hunters are dead. As soon as a hunter strong enough to defeat a demon appears, the same demon he defeated comes back with reinforcements and kills him. It's like betting against the house. Sooner or later you lose and you lose good."

"Why bother with exorcism when you can kill them permanently?" Victor asked, glancing at the bodies lying on the floor.

"Weapons powerful enough to kill demons aren't that common. I only knew of one until now," Bobby said, glancing at the blade on Ruby's hand with suspicion. "And most times demons wear bodies of people you love, a wife, a brother. It's hard to kill them under those circumstances."

"Some people manage," Sam said with bitterness, taking a small vindictive pleasure in the started look in Bobby's face.

"Yes, and they spent their whole lives regretting not having found a better way, or least having tried to," Bobby said. "I understand—"

"Don't force me to take your voice again, Bobby, because I will."

The silence stretched, filling every corner of the room with its heaviness.

"So, we just go to Wyoming and close those doors?" Henriksen asked, trying to lighten the tension.

"No, you go to Wyoming and lay low until I tell you to close those doors. Azazel will sense the doors closing the instant it happens. I need to get everything into place before that. It would be a moot point to get rid of him if it leaves an army of demons wandering around causing havoc."

"Can you do it alone?" Bobby asked.

"Ruby will be with me," Sam said.

"No offense, Sam, but she's a demon," Bobby growled.

"I know how to deal with those in case you have forgotten. It's what brought the two of you here."

"You need a hunter at your side who—"

"The last thing I need is a hunter who'll become trigger-happy in his hurry to destroy the Bringer of the Apocalypse. I need to kill Azazel first."

"They would never. . . . Yes, they would. Maybe if I—"

"I need the two of you in Wyoming, guarding that door, ready to close it when I give the signal. You're the only two persons I trust with this. I know you have no reason to trust me, Bobby. I've fucked up. Hell, my fuck-up is apocalyptic in its magnitude. Literally. Still, I'm asking you to do this one thing. It took me a while to come here, to this point, but I know now what I'm doing. I need you working with me," Sam said, underlying his voice with a hint of command, just enough that Bobby would do what Sam wanted without suspecting that he was being manipulated.

It pained Sam that he had become that much of a bastard.

"All right," Bobby and Victor said at the same time. "We'll do it."

"What's the signal then?" Victor asked, always the FBI agent.

"You'll recognize it. The moment you see it you'll know. Don't worry about it. Get out of here now," Sam said, closing his eyes with weariness. "Ruby and I will get rid of the bodies."

They left, but not before Bobby forced Sam into an awkward hug, ignoring the stiffness of Sam's body with the same stubbornness with which he ignored John's disapproving looks when Bobby spoiled the boys.

It hurt.

"That went better than expected," Ruby said after they were gone.

"Depends on what you were expecting, I suppose."

"I thought your hunter-friend would try to kill you the moment he was set free," she said, shaking her head with puzzlement.

"It would've been better. Hate is easier to bear than forgiveness."

She didn't answer.

Sam didn't think she understood, didn't think she could. It reminded Sam that there was still something human inside him. He forgot at times that he still had a soul left. It'd be better if he didn't. It wouldn't hurt so much.


-------------------------------------


It took Sam less than two weeks to get everything ready. He hid the Colt in the room beneath the devil's trap. At nights, behind the protection of his room's guarded doors he would take it out and clean it with a thoroughness bordering on compulsive.

Ruby found it funny; then again, living in each other pockets for months had taught Sam that she tended to laugh at pretty much everything. Sam hadn't known that Before. He wondered if Dean would have been like her after he turned into a demon.

Sam could've learned to live with that.

In four more months the constellations would align again just so that the Trickster could once more be summoned. The world didn't have four months. Sam's actions had been too thorough. Mankind was at the edge of another world war. This time Sam wasn't sure if they would survive it. One more month and Sam would run out of excuses as to why they needed to wait one more day to launch the first nuclear bomb.

Azazel wanted to tear the world to shreds. Without industry, without civilization, the few survivors left would have no other choice than to go back to a tribe culture or perish. The age of the old gods and the demons would return.

Time was running out.

Sam had no guarantee that the Trickster would listen to him once more. The Trickster was one of the old gods. In the new world, he would no longer need to walk in the shadows.

"Kiddo, you have absolutely no idea what you just asked for." The Trickster's laughter still echoed in Sam's ears. "Didn't your daddy ever tell you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions?"

The Trickster had known. He had known all along what would happen and had sent Sam back anyway. Maybe because of it.

No, Sam wouldn't summon the Trickster a third time. What was, was. At least that lesson he had learned.

There was not point in bargaining with powerful creatures for things you wanted. Their price was always too high. He should have known that from the beginning, but it seemed that it was the kind of lesson every Winchester needed to learn for himself.

Sam would live with the consequences of his actions, even if it meant. . . . He stumbled over the thought every time. Yes, even if it meant killing Dean.

"Everything is in place," Ruby told him one and half week after Bobby and Victor had left them. "We can do it in three days just as planned."

"No," Sam said. "We do it now. I want it to be over."

Ruby narrowed her eyes and frowned. She studied Sam for a moment and then nodded. "Good, if you're ready, now is as good a time as any. Will you be able to do it?"

"Yes." Sam's voice left no room for doubt.

When Sam opened his eyes again he was no longer in his room, but in the cemetery where his mother had been buried. It had started with her; it was only fair that it should end with her.

Sam studied the layout. Long rectangular iron plates as thick as Sam's wrists were buried into the earth deep enough than even an earthquake wouldn't break them. It might crack them, but it wouldn't break them. The iron lines stretched for about fifteen feet, intercrossing each other in the form of a devil's trap with Mary's gravestone in the middle. Nine smiths had worked on it non-stop day and night for the last ten days.

Of all the powers Sam had, Andy's would be the one he'd miss the most once Azazel was dead along with all of Sam's psychic abilities. It was nice asking people to do things for you and having them obey without questioning it. Yeah, Sam would miss that.

"Send the signal," Ruby said.

Sam did. He projected the image of the gates closing into Bobby's and Henriksen's minds. They would know what to do.

Soon, soon Azazel would know what Sam had done and would come to punish him.

He caressed the butt of the Colt with his thumb and stepped into the devil's trap.

Soon.

Sam opened the connection between him and the demons who had swore fealty to him. They opened themselves to Sam, hoping for the final command that would give them free reign to prey on humans without having to keep useless appearances.

Sam smiled, letting them sense his anticipation.

"Regno terrae cantate Deo, soli te Domino pre fertum super celum..." Sam whispered directly into their minds.

Even Ruby, who was prepared and blocked her mind from Sam's, recoiled. She retreated until she could no longer hear the words he spoke.

"Adjuro te, serpens antique, per judicem vivorum et mortuorum, per factrem tuum, per factorem mundi, per eum, qui habet potestatem mittende te in gehennam," Sam continued.

The demons screamed, lashing at Sam, trying to close the connection, break free of him, but Sam's hold was too strong. He had been training for this, preparing himself. He rode the pain as the Latin words came to him like a well-known lullaby. "Domine, exaudi orationem mean," Sam chanted. The demons' desperation and fear tasted like honey to Sam. He savored it, relished in it, took pleasure from it. He used their fear to feed his power, binding them even further into his mind.

"What do you think you're doing, Sam?" Dean's angry voice broke through the litany of Latin inside Sam's head.

Sam looked up and smiled. "Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo. Amen." He didn't give Azazel time to react, didn't give himself time to think. He raised the Colt in a sharp movement and pulled the trigger. The bullet impacted in the middle of Dean's forehead.

Perfect shot, Sammy.

Light flared behind Azazel's eyes as black tendrils spread from the bullet's hole across Dean's forehead. The yellow eyes sparkled once last time before the light drained out of them, leaving behind the clear, forever empty green of Dean's eyes.

At the same time thousands of demons left their hosts and vanished back into Hell, to rot in there forever. The threads connecting Sam to them were ripped from his mind. The pain was almost too much to bear. It was a cleansing pain, though, like the cleaning of a festering wound. Sam welcomed it.

He stumbled out of the devil's trap and fell next to Dean on the floor. He gathered the lifeless body of his brother into his arms, but no matter how hard he tried tears wouldn't come. Instead there was only the brutal and dry pain of having lost Dean once more. How come it never stopped hurting? How come the pain didn't so much as waver? Sam should be immune to it by now, constant exposure. Yet it only hurt more every time.

He didn't know how long he sat there, rocking his brother's body back and forth, mind numb with grief. When he looked up again, Dean's body was cold and stiff in his arms and dusk was approaching.

"Done now?" Ruby asked, walking closer to him with careful steps.

Sam studied her as if he had never seen her before. "Yes," he said after a while. "I'm done."

Slowly, he disentangled himself from his brother's corpse and stood up, or tried to. His legs were numb and Sam faltered, his muscles unable to bear his weight.

Ruby was instantly there, grabbing Sam's arm and supporting him, before he could fall down again.

"Thank you," he said, gingerly shifting his weight from one leg to the other.

"You're welcome."

"I mean it," Sam insisted. "Thank you."

He walked to the devil's gate with unsteady steps and picked up the Colt from where he had dropped it on the floor. He cocked the revolver once more, hearing the next bullet fall into place. He raised the gun and pointed it Ruby's head.

Her eyes widened in surprise.

Sam pulled the trigger and watched without emotion as her body fell to the floor. "I'm sorry," he told her. "Demons are no longer welcome in this world."


-------------------------------------


"That, I didn't see coming.";

Sam spun around. He would have recognized that amused voice anywhere. The Trickster had become a recurring character in his nightmares during the last months.

"You? What are you doing here?" Sam looked around, hoping to see Dean's body dissolved into nothing as Bobby's had.

It didn't.

"Oh, your brother is dead all right, if that's what you're wondering," the Trickster said. "I had already lost hope that that thick skull of yours would ever get it."

"Get what?" Sam asked, trying in vain to make sense of the conversation.

"Your lesson, kiddo," the Trickster beamed. "I told you, sacrificing yourself to save Dean wouldn't end in anything good. You didn't listen. This time, thought, it seems to have finally sunk in. Congratulations, Sam! You passed the test with flying colors. Full-ride to Stanford and whatnot. Daddy will be so proud. Oops, right, sorry, I forgot," the Trickster said with mock-embarrassment. "He wasn't that proud the first time around, was he?"

"What do you want?" Sam said, too wrung out to play the Trickster's games. "I didn't summon you. I wasn't going to summon you."

"Really, Sam, your presumptuousness is a bit jarring. I'm not some kind of demon. I don't need to be summoned to do as I please. Where would the fun in that be?"

Sam sighed. "Just tell me what you want and let me be. Please."

"I don't want anything." The Trickster swung one arm over Sam's shoulder and pulled him closer. "I just came here to congratulate you. Watching you struggle with yourself has been really amusing. Well, OK, I'll admit it." He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "After the first month it turned kind of boring. 'Oh, Azazel wants me to end the world. Oh, my poor brother is trapped by Azazel. What will I do?'" he sing-songed. "I've seen more entertaining soap operas to be truthful. However, the unexpected end more than made up for the boring part in the middle."

"Fine, you've congratulated me. I'm glad I could provide you with entertainment. Really, I am, my life couldn't be more fulfilled. Now get out of it!" Sam screamed.

"Temper, temper. Such extreme emotions are not good for your blood-pressure, you know."

Sam deflated. "Just tell me what I have to do to get you out of my life for good."

"Do? Nothing. You already did what I needed you to do," the Trickster said. "I'll leave you in peace, and we'll pretend that this little encounter never happened."

He clicked his fingers and the world around Sam dissolved into nothingness.


-------------------------------------


Sam comes to himself with a start, a grimoire opened in front of him.

"Pay attention, bitch," Dean's voice says and Sam spins around, his hand automatically reaching for the Colt that's no longer there. A pair of Dean's rolled-back dirty socks hits him squared on the face and fall to the floor.

Dean roars with laughter. "Score!"

Sam stays frozen. He can't even breathe. His mind is utterly blank, empty.

"Sam, are you all right?" Dean asks. His laughter fades away as his worry increased with Sam's lack of response. "Sammy?"

Sam racks his brain for something appropriate to say. This has happened before, he knows, but somehow he can't come with a suitable reaction. This is what shock feels like, he realizes. The knowledge doesn't help any.

"Sammy, Sam, come on, man, you're scaring me here. What's the problem?"

Dean grabs his shoulders and shakes him. "Sammy, Sammy, damn it. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"What the hell is wrong with me?" Sam repeats and giggles. Actually giggles. It's just so funny, he can't stop laughing all of a sudden, because really, Dean should be the last person on earth to ask Sam about Hell.

"OK, OK, I can deal with this. I know how to deal with this," Dean says, but he's talking more to himself than to Sam, which is good, because Sam can't stop laughing. He's not even trying.

Dean pulls Sam towards him and some how manages to get the two of them on the floor. He presses Sam's face into his shoulder and puts his legs around Sam, caressing the back of Sam's head with his right hand, while his left arm presses Sam into his body.

Sam remembers this from long, long ago, when they were still kids and dad was gone. Whenever Sam was scared at night Dean would hold him like this and tell him that everything would be all right.

Sam buries his head in Dean's shoulder, breathing in the clean smell of his brother. No traces of sulfur, just clean sweat and Dean. Sam brings his own arms around Dean and presses himself further into his brother's embrace. He knows he will leave bruises behind, but doesn't care.

He doesn't care one bit.



"Oh, God, Dean. Dean," he gulps down the tears that want to break free. He wants to tell Dean everything, wants to come clean, but he can't. Dean would forgive him—would blame himself for putting Sam in a position in which he was forced to make those choices.

It isn't Dean's fault, though. It's Sam's. Only Sam's. For being too weak and too stupid and too lost without his brother. He buries his head into Dean's collarbone, wishing he could be five-years-old again. Then, he could still believe that Dean would protect him from every demon and monster out there.

But not even Dean can protect Sam from himself, from the monster he has become. It isn't his brother's fault. Just Sam's.

"Sammy, hey, Sammy, it's all right. Whatever it is, it's going to be all right," Dean whispers into his ear.

"It's not. Nothing it's all right," Sam says, trembling with tension and pent-up emotions. He tries to pull away, put some distance between Dean and himself. "I'm going to lose you. There's nothing I can do to stop it, Dean. I tried everything. Everything, and I couldn't save you. I can't save you. You don't know the lengths I went to save you, and it wasn't enough. It wasn't!"

"Hey, hey," Dean pulls him back, muffling Sam's words against his shoulder. "Shh, don't worry, don't worry. We'll find a way. And if we don't Sam—listen to me; this is important—if we don't find a way, it's not your fault. It was my choice. I'm sorry that I was so selfish, but I couldn't let you die, Sam. I couldn't."

That had been Sam's failure, too. He thought he couldn't let his brother die, either. He almost destroyed the world because he couldn't let his brother die. Sam wants to chuckle at the irony, but bites his lips to make himself stop. If he starts laughing again he's going to lose what little control he still has left.

He doesn't want Dean to know how broken Sam truly is.

"I lied," Sam says. "I told you once that you were my big brother, that there was nothing in the world I wouldn't do for you—to save you. I thought I meant it, Dean, but I didn't. There are things I won't do, not even to keep you alive. I'm sorry; I thought I could, but I can't."

"Jesus, Sammy!" Dean jerks back, grabbing Sam's shoulders and shaking him. "Please tell me that you didn't try to make a deal for me! Damn it, Sam, tell me that you didn't try to make a deal for me!"

"I—" Sam starts. I did something worse, he wants to say, but that would mean telling Dean everything. He can't. It's his burden to bear, not Dean's. "I almost did," Sam says instead. He thinks of Azazel's yellow eyes looking at him out of Dean's face, remembers the world crumbling around him as civilization destroyed itself under Sam's careful guidance. He remembers the slight hesitation of his finger, even in the end, when he knew that it was either his brother's life or the world.

Dean's life or the world

And despite everything, for just a second, the world had seemed a fair price for having just the pretense of Dean next to him.

"I thought I could, but I couldn't," Sam continues. His ears still ring with the echoes of the shot, Dean's surprised face as the reaper finally claimed him. Third time is the charm.

"God, Sammy," Dean says and pulls him towards him in a fierce embrace. "I'm glad you didn't. So glad. Thank you. I. . . Fuck . . . For a moment I thought that you—I'm sorry. I'm sorry for doing this to you, for putting you in this position. So glad you didn't do it. Thank you."

"I didn't . . . and now you die. Again."

"Not yet, Sammy. Not yet. We still have eight weeks."

"Eight more Tuesdays, yes," Sam says. "I remember now."

"Sammy."

"No," Sam says, standing up. "Drop it. You're right. We still have eight weeks." It's more than Sam had five minutes ago. "There are things I won't do. I know that now, but maybe there are other ways."

"Yes, other ways. Just don't. . . . Promise me you won't try to close a deal. Even if we don't find another way, promise me that you won't make a deal." Dean's voice is desperate.

Sam looks at him, and for an instant all he can see is Azazel. Sam wants to kill him. Again and again and again. He looks away, swallowing the hatred. He needs to remind himself that this is Dean. The real Dean.

"I promise."

"Good," Dean says. "You're not going to start crying again or something, right?" Dean asks skeptically.

"I didn't cry," Sam huffs. "I laughed."

"You giggled," Dean reminds him with a wicked, teasing gleam in his eyes.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Sam groans. It's been months since he felt this light.

This was Dean, his Dean, not an impostor.

"You bet ya!" Dean says. "So, now that yet another awkward moment has been averted can we go back to the important things?"

"Those being…?"

"Bobby called. He found a hunt for us: The Morton House, every leap year as February 29th starts everyone who enters the house dies. The trail goes back for almost fifty years," Dean says.

"Fine, let's go."

Sam has eight more Tuesdays with Dean—the real Dean. He intends to make them count. He won't waste time arguing with Dean about stupid things. If Dean wants this hunt, they will go.

Dean narrows his eyes, probably suspicious of Sam's easy acquiescence, but then he just nods and starts throwing things into his duffle-bag.

Sam turns around. He doesn't remember where he left his bag. It's been almost nine months since he last was here.

It's more habit than actual intent what makes him call his bag to him. No one is more surprised than Sam himself when the bag lands softly on his bed.

Sam licks his lips and swallows nervously. He glances at Dean, but his brother's back is turned to him. Slowly, oh so slowly, Sam calls one of his knives. It flies silently from under the pillow and into Sam's waiting hand.

Sam's heart thumps with a mix of fear and excitement. He had thought that with Azazel gone his powers would disappear, too.

Carefully, he lifts one of the barriers he himself had built inside his mind to protect it from the demons. Sam hadn't realized they were still there; during the last months, keeping the barriers up had become second nature to him.

The moment the barrier is gone demonic whispers start to fill Sam's mind, calling to him, promising him the world. He closes his mind again, a small smile playing on his lips.

Maybe, just maybe, all isn't lost. He can save Dean still. This time Azazel isn't there to control him. Without him, no demon, not even Lilith, has more power than Sam does. They are all his to command.

The knowledge fills him with fierce joy.

He helped destroyed the world once because he had had no choice.

All things being equal, it's only fair that this time around he uses his powers not to destroy but to build. He can make the world a better and safer place. There are so many things that Sam can change for the better.

He intends to start by saving Dean.

This time, when they drive to Morton House Sam insists they take a different route. They arrive on time to stop Morton from killing the Ghostfacers.

It's as good an omen as Sam could ever hope for.


EL FIN


Thanks for making it to the end! I hoped you enjoyed both, the story and the art.

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