VI. Winners' Platform

chapter twenty-five

Singer Salvage & Auto
Lawrence County, South Dakota
December 2005

The slap triggered something in Sam Polanski that he didn't know he had. Maybe it was something that belonged solely to Sam Winchester. It was dark and scary and bubbled free like a laugh escaping during the somber ceremony of a wake.

Up until that point, the fight had been merely about getting through the exercise with minimal physical damage. Weave. Duck. Jab. Retreat. No one handicapped. No one with an advantage. But the tag on the face, the utter "fuck you"ness of it, sank low into his soul, burning as it traveled, igniting a trail that led to a pool, a bitter, rank well that Sam had always ignored.

Once the bubbles broke the surface tension, the pool jetted up through him, exploding outward in a flurry of incendiary punches. No retreat. Just hit, hit, hit. And without breaking a sweat, his opponent was down. Victory was just a breastbone crunch away.

"Easy, tiger," his opponent crooned and Sam blinked down at his brother.

"Dean?"

Before another blink, he was the one on the ground and Dean was perched on top of him. "This is why you have to go for the kill, Sam. Nine times out of ten, whatever you're fighting's gonna be stronger and faster than you. You have to be smarter. When you get them down, keep them there. End them without hesitation or they will end you."

Panic set in then, the memory of the darkness combined with the revelation that he'd forgotten he was sparring with Dean, that he'd lost himself in the fight, that he could've ended his brother. "Shit, Dean, I could've—"

Dean released him and sat back, easily balancing on the balls of his feet. "No, you couldn't have. And that's what you need to trust—give everything to me. I can take it. I can control it. You can only hurt me if I allow it."

"Bullshit."

Dean shook his head. "I'm not saying I can't be hurt; I'm saying you can't hurt me. You aren't good enough. Now don't take that as an affront to your masculinity," he added, stopping Sam from the quick reply he was planning. "It's just that I've been at this since I was five."

"Yeah, right, man. Dad sparred with you when you were barely beyond being a toddler." Dean was always quick to point out how young he'd been when he started everything, but come on. There was no such thing as a baby fight club.

"Actually, your jack-in-the-box was my sparring partner."

Sam scrambled up to his elbows. "I didn't hit you in the head, did I?" He'd been so lost in the adrenaline rush he wasn't sure what he'd done.

"Dad had this game he liked me to play. I had to anticipate when the stupid little clown was gonna pop up and pop the lid back down before it scared you and made you cry. Eye-hand coordination, Sammy. Act/react. Quite brilliant, actually. I didn't figure out what was going on until after I spent an afternoon at a local fair playing Whack-A-Mole for two hours."

"I thought you had..." Made up with Dad? Forgiven him for all the shit he put you through? Sam wanted to lean back and whack his head against the ground. Had he really trivialized Dean's past like that?

"Relax, I'm not taking a dig at Dad. Without his help, I wouldn't be made of the awesome sauce that I am." Dean grinned and struck a pose.

"Awesome sauce? What's that? Something like arsenic?" Sam said, adding an eyeroll for effect.

"Aw, aren't you cute? Little brother jealous of big brother. I'm kinda glad we didn't grow up together. All the constant devotion would've taken a toll on me." Dean sighed dramatically.

"I'll give you constant devotion," Sam replied, rolling over and reaching for Dean's nearby ankle. Before he could grab it, however, his cell phone rang. He looked over to Bobby's back porch where both their phones resided—after an incident back at the beginning of his training had shown them the wisdom of putting breakables far away from their training site.

Since Dean was closer to being on his feet than Sam, he loped over to the porch and grabbed the phone. "It's Rain," he said, reading the screen. He pressed the talk button. "Hey, darlin'. You're speaking to your one twu luv. What's that? No, I'm not a walking, talking Heath toffee bar."

Sam listened to them joke around, always marveling at how well the two of them still got along. Maybe his brother was made of awesome sauce. He'd put up with training him for over a month with very little visible improvement. He could, at least, load the shotgun now, but hitting his target was still an iffy proposition. He was, however, in the best shape he'd ever been in. Olympic training had nothing on supernatural battle readiness. And he had it easy. He'd watched Dean and their dad push each other much harder, and hadn't detected a single pulled punch. Sam had been kinda glad when Dad left to track down some creature whose name he couldn't pronounce. Dad had checked in after that hunt and subsequent ones as well but he hadn't spent more than one contiguous night at the salvage yard.

Mid-November Bobby drove Jim back home and when he'd returned, the three of them had fallen into a routine; during the day while Dean was at work, Bobby had schooled Sam with books way heavier than law books and then he and Dean worked out in the evenings. The combination of learning something new and the set schedule distracted him enough that he only thought of Jess in flashes. It was a relief.

Sam had wanted to be with his mom at Thanksgiving and Dean had driven him to Arizona. Mike and Dean had finally come face to face and while it wasn't the instant chemistry that it was between Dean and Rain, the two guys had managed to get along. It had helped that Mike had fallen in love with the pie Dean had made.

And that was another thing Dean hadn't exaggerated about; he made damn good pie.

"Hey, Daydream Believer, head's up!"

Sam caught the phone by instinct, then stared at Dean. "Did you just quote a Monkees song?"

"Hell no," Dean sputtered. "Hey, Bobby!" he yelled as he headed into the house. "What have I told you about playing your sixties crap too loud? It's invaded my head!"

Sam laughed and settled in for evil enjoyment as he narrated the incident to Rain.

-:- -:- -:-

"Howdy, Sammy."

Sam stared at the stocky man in front of him. Wherever they were, they were outside and it was cold. There was no artificial light, but the moon was full and as the man turned he could see his eyes were yellow. He tried to remember if Bobby and Dean had told him about anything with yellow eyes, but found himself in the middle of a brain freeze.

"Didn't that bitch who stole you teach you any manners?"

"Um, hello?" Who was this? Where was he? Was he dreaming?

The man touched his tongue to his upper lip as if tasting his words. "Weak, Sammy. You know, you had a very promising start. That John Winchester, hell of a drill instructor. When he had your brother hitting bullseyes at the tender age of six, I said, yes! This man will get my soldier ready for me. So I went on to other things, content to know you were in good hands. Then I returned to find a student athlete instead of a warrior. Oh, the disappointment, my boy, the utter sadness I felt. But I still like you. That's why I'm giving you this heads up."

Dreaming. He had to be dreaming. Dean was just across the hall. Bobby was downstairs. He looked around, trying to figure out why his mind had brought him to a place he didn't know. Was that a bell? With an engraving? How freaky. And the buildings he could make out. An Old West movie set? There was a snapping sound at his ear and he jerked back. The guy/thing stood close to him with his fingers next to his head.

"Pay attention, Sammy. Sheez, kids these days and their attention deficit disorders."

"I'm dreaming, right?" Sam asked, focusing harder now. "Are you my Id or something?"

"I'll show you what I am."

The fingers snapped again and Sam found himself in a room. Not a room, a nursery. There was a baby cooing in a crib. A man stood over him and a woman entered the room. "John?"

Sam looked quickly from the woman to the baby to the being next to him.

"Yeah, that's you. Cute kid, huh? And that's your mom, your real mom." Sam reached out toward her. His hand was batted away. "Sorry, Sammy, this is just a hi-def instant replay. Enjoy the show."

"Is he hungry?" Mom asked.

"Shh," the man replied.

"Okay." Mom shuffled out of the room.

The man over the crib turned and Sam saw the yellow in his eyes. "You're a demon," he whispered.

"Why, yes, I am, Sam. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, are you? Now, look at what's happening." The demon deliberately slowed his speech and Sam flushed angrily. Maybe he was on the short bus of demonology but it wasn't because he was slow; he was just a late learner.

But he obeyed and watched as the demon over the crib sliced his own wrist with his nail and drip the blood onto Baby Sam's mouth.

Twenty-two year old Sam cringed in horror. "What the hell are you doing to me?"

His demon grinned. "Better than mother's milk."

"Does this mean I have demon blood in me?" The demon laughed. "Answer me!"

Before the demon could say anything, Sam's mom rushed back in the room. The demon over the crib turned and she could see his yellow eyes. "It's you," she said in a hushed voice.

"She knew you?"

His mom started to walk forward but the demon from the past pressed her against the wall and inched her upward until she was against the ceiling.

Jessica! "No!" Sam wailed. "No!"

Sam sat up quickly, panting in his bed in his room across from his brother's. Without giving it a thought, he took off and slammed into Dean's room.

"What?" Dean was awake instantly, a knife in his hand. "Sam?" The bedside lamp flickered on.

Sam plopped down on the mattress and Dean pulled the knife back so he wouldn't get cut. "Oh, man. What a dream," he sighed.

The knife disappeared beneath the pillow. "Nightmare?"

Sam nodded and pulled his feet up on the bed. "It seemed so real. I was somewhere else and there was this—demon with me."

"Demon?" Dean pulled back the covers. It was a king-size bed. And it was cold. Sam obediently slipped in beside him.

"He had yellow eyes." Dean stilled beside him and Sam paused for a minute to study him closely. "I thought you said most of them had black eyes."

Dean cleared his throat uncomfortably. "They do. So, what happened in your dream?"

Sam relaxed against the headboard. "As I said we were somewhere else."

"What did you see? Any identifying markers?"

"It was a dream, Dean."

"Okay. What else?"

"He was mad that Mom had stolen me, said when he'd left he was sure Dad was gonna make a soldier out of me, like he had you."

"A soldier?" The lamp clicked off.

"Yeah. But he said he still liked me and that's why he was giving me a heads up."

"About what?"

Sam raised his hands to rub at his temples. "I don't know. Because then, he snapped his fingers and we were in the past. I was—I was in my nursery the night Mom died."

"Fuck." Dean's hand fell against his shoulder.

"He was there. The yellow-eyed demon. In the past, I mean. He stood over my crib and he..." Sam stopped and gave an incredulous laugh. "He slit his wrist and fed me a couple of drops of his blood. How fucked up is that, man? Hell of a nightmare, huh?"

"Did Mom try to stop him? Is that why he..."

Sam turned toward him even though they couldn't see each other. "She knew him, Dean. She looked at him and said, 'It's you.' Then she was on the ceiling like Jess...and that's when I woke up—and ran over here like I was still four years old."

The hand on his shoulder turned into pats. "It's okay, Sammy. Think you can sleep now?"

"Yeah, man. I'll just—" He turned back the covers.

"You're here now, dude. Just go to sleep. And don't kick me or you'll find your ass on the floor. Capische?"

Sam slid down between the sheets and let a yawn overtake him. "Thanks, Dean."

-:- -:- -:-

The light of morning was awkward. Not just because he'd crawled into bed with his big brother, but said brother was now dressed and sitting on the bed staring at him.

"Good morning, Sam. I brought coffee."

So he'd not only slept in his brother's bed, he'd overslept in it. "God, I'm sorry about this, Dean. I'll be out of your way in just—" He stopped as Dean held out the mug.

"Trust me, Sam, you're gonna need this coffee."

Sam sat up and reached for the mug. He didn't like the way Dean was looking, a mixture of sad, determined and sympathetic. "What's going on?"

Dean picked at the blanket for a few seconds before he squared his shoulders and looked directly at Sam. "The demon who killed Mom...had yellow eyes. There's a very good chance that you didn't just have a nightmare last night. You had a vision."

"What!" Sam almost spilled the coffee as his arm jerked in indignation. "I don't have visions. It was a nightmare, pure and simple."

"And the dreams you had about Jess?"

Dean's voice was oh, so soft and Sam hated him for it. "Fuck you for using that against me."

"I'm not using it against you, bro. I'm just pointing out this isn't your first ride on this merry-go-round. You need to face it so we can move on."

"Move on?" Sam sipped the coffee to disguise the shaking of his hands. "Move on to what? According to you I'm a freak. How am I supposed to move on from that? My God, Dean! If this is all true, then I have demon blood in me. Am I gonna get yellow eyes? Will you hunt me now? "

A hand shot out and wrapped itself around his wrist. "Get a hold of yourself, Sam! Nobody's hunting anyone. No matter who or what you are, you are my brother. You might not know what that means, but I do, okay? I lost you once, and I'll be damned if that's gonna happen again. So just shut the hell up about hunting you and focus!"

Sam gulped down the rest of the coffee. "Focus on what?"

"What you saw with your, um, Jedi powers."

Sam handed him the empty mug and laughed nervously. "Jedi powers? You're tripping, dude."

"Use the force, Luke."

"At least you're not calling me Anakin."

Dean waved a dismissing hand. "Anakin was a whiny bitch with too much power and too much attitude. He was only cool when he grew up to be James Earl Jones."

If he hadn't already loved his brother, he would've fallen right then. "Um, I thought you said you hadn't watched the last Star Wars movies?"

"I didn't say I didn't watch them; I just didn't enjoy them."

He had friends that would agree. "So, what do you need from me, Dean? How can I my powers for good?"

"You said you were somewhere else. Tell me what you saw."

Dean didn't have a notepad or anything, but Sam could tell he was preparing to take mental notes. "Um, it was night. We were outside."

"Okay. Could you see the sky?"

"There was a full moon. But the stars...they just looked like stars, man."

Dean nodded slowly. "Was there anything around you? Were you in the woods, on a grassy plain, or someplace more civilized?"

Sam flashed to the buildings he'd seen. "It was more like a movie lot, dude. Old buildings like in a western."

Dean scoffed. "I can tell you come from California. There are a lot of places like that still around, dude. Most of them are ghost towns, but they exist."

Sam just scowled back. "There was something else. A big metal bell. Something was engraved on it."

"A metal bell? You mean like the Liberty Be—Oh!" Dean leapt off the bed. "Back in a sec, Sammy."

Sam took the few minutes Dean was gone to go over to his room and get dressed. It was hard talking about demons in your jammies.

"This it?" Dean was shoving a big book in his direction almost before he entered the room.

Sam took the tome and stared at the black and white grainy picture. "Yeah, that's the bell. How'd you do that?"

"Ghost towns are sorta a specialty around here."

Of course they were. It was still kinda hard to wrap his mind around the idea that things that went bump in the dark actually existed, even after Jess and now this weird visitation by a supposed demon. "Where was this taken?"

"Cold Oak, South Dakota. A town so haunted, all the living said, 'It's yours,' and took off to parts unknown. Okay, so now we know where and when."

A ghost town. How utterly fitting. "When?"

"The full moon. If it's this month, that's the fifteenth."

"You shoulda been a cop."

Dean took the book and frowned at him. "What?"

"You shoulda been a cop. Look, you just interrogated me with a skill that would make real detectives jealous as hell, pulling answers outta me that I didn't even know were there. Then you've assembled those answers into something that makes total, logical sense."

Dean just shrugged and headed back out the door. "Cops get a serial killer maybe once in their careers. Most of what I deal with are nothing but serial killers."

"So, just another part of that awesome sauce you got going on, huh?" Sam asked, trailing behind like a faithful puppy. He knew it both annoyed and pleased Dean.

"Baby brothers," he said with an aggrieved sigh and Sam knew that he could be the biggest freak on the face of the planet and it wouldn't matter to Dean.

And since he dreamed again that night, that was a good thing to know.

"Hiya, Sammy," the demon said with a large, welcoming grin. "Didya sleep well in big brother's arms last night? Ya know, that's frowned upon in some states."

"Fuck you." Sam scanned the area to make sure he was in the same place. Yeah, there was the bell.

"Considering we share the same blood, I'm pretty sure that's frowned upon, too. Not one for living the righteous life, are you, boy? Well, since you're probably eager to get back to your brother's bed, I'll keep tonight's session short. Here ya go, buddy."

Sam caught the balled up piece of fabric and unfurled it. It was a kerchief, a square piece of cloth that looked vaguely familiar. There was a picture of Earth cracking open with fire and blood spilling out. Around the picture were words: Outwit, Outplay, Outlive—Survival. Great. He'd probably found the only demon who liked reality TV. Then again, given the roster of reality shows and how their viewing numbers didn't slip like other shows...it might not be such an anomaly.

"Just remember you're not the only contestant, Sammy. And some of my other kids, well, they can be a little bloodthirsty. Oh, and avoid Lily's touch—sucks the life right out of ya. Be seein' ya soon, champ. Give Dean my love—while you're givin' him yours." With a leer, the demon winked out.

Sam woke in his bed. He thought about not running across the hall, remembering what the demon had implied. But you know what? Fuck letting a demon dictate his actions. The only concession he made was that he walked instead of ran. "Dean! I talked to the demon again!"

"What didya learn?"

No knife tonight, and the light was already on, which meant Dean had been waiting for him. He was doubly glad he hadn't lay staring at his ceiling all night, waiting until morning like a big boy. "He gave me a Survivor buff." Jess had loved the show, making them popcorn every Thursday night and curling up barefoot on the sofa. She had pretty feet, the nails always painted...

"So it's a contest? Winner gets...?"

"To live."

"And be the demon's top soldier."

"Which I don't have to worry about since I suck at fighting." Sam flopped onto Dean's bed.

"You don't suck. You have an incredibly long reach, speed, and agility. Don't let them get inside and you'll be fine. Besides, on Survivor, the contestants are pretty much equal, so hopefully you'll only be fighting humans."

Gee, only humans. Hurray. "So how long have you been this disgusting optimist?" He ducked the pillow aimed at his head.

"I'm not an optimist; I'm a pragmatist. I just wish..."

The silence dragged on for a few seconds before Sam got tired of it. "You wish what?"

"That we knew whether the fight was gonna be real or in your head."

"In my head? How would that work?"

"The same way you visit with him. How fake does it seem?"

Now that he knew it was still South Dakota, the temperature seemed right. The ground was firm beneath his feet. The breeze had brushed against the hairs on his arms. "Not fake at all. So this may not be a real fight?"

"Oh, it'll be real and if you lose, you'll probably be real dead, too."

Sam groaned and buried his face in the pillow Dean had thrown at him. "Did you go to cheerleading school to become this encouraging?"

The bed bobbed as Dean got up and dipped again when he returned a few seconds later. "Here."

Sam raised his head and squinted at the thing stuck in his face. "That's a knife."

"Ooh, can you identify forks, too?"

Okay, it was a dumb comment. He looked at it closer. It wasn't Dean's usual bedmate. This blade was thin, wickedly sharp, and dull in color. "Iron, right?"

"Exactly. And blessed. I want you to study it, then keep it on you at all times—even when you're in bed."

"Study it?" Um, they'd just gone through the "it's a knife" conversation.

Dean gave him an "you're an idiot" look. "I want you to be able to re-create it in your mind. Make it as real as you are."

Oh...Oh! "So I can take it into the Matrix with me."

"Quick thinking there, Neo."

"It's 3:30 in the morning, dude. Any thinking at this time is quick."

"I thought college kids partied all night and still made it to their eight o'clocks."

Not the ones who put in at least three hours of swim practice every day. "Media hype. Of course, it might've been different for you Hardrockers."

Dean hefted the knife and flipped it in his hand. "Between werewolves and salt-and-burns, I had my share of late nights."

"You hunted while you were in school? I thought it was more of a summer thing."

"It didn't happen often, but I couldn't let Bobby go without back-up."

Bobby, or whatever screw-up who needed him like that asshole Trev last Christmas. Last Christmas. Jess was alive, the supernatural didn't exist...

"You're studying the blade, right? Not falling asleep?"

Sam forced his eyes wide open. "Studying."

"Right." Dean gave a chuckle of disbelief. "In case you're actually gonna be at Cold Oak, I told everyone to meet us there the fifteenth, the night of the full moon."

"Everyone?" Bobby was away on a hunt with Jim; since the attack Jim hadn't been "allowed" to hunt on his own.

"Dad's down in Oklahoma but he'll be there on time."

Dad. An enigma wrapped up in a puzzle and tied with a WTF bow. Man, he could feel the love from the guy, but it was so intense. He was so intense. His mom had often asked where he got his ability to focus from; now he knew.

"'Night, Sam."

What? He looked around. The light was out and he was tucked under the covers. How the hell had that happened? Guess brothers were handy to have around. Still, he couldn't just let Dean get away with it. "Jess used to rub m'belly."

Dean rolled over and farted.

Sam laughed and fell soundly asleep.


U.S. Highway 14A
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Sam ran at a gentle lope beside his brother. They had spent the morning refining his knife-fighting skills and were now taking a rather long run. Sam had asked earlier why Dean had given him a knife instead of a gun.

"Think you can re-create a gun in your mind? The firing mechanism? The formation of the bullet itself?" Sam had looked at the knife in his hand. Blade. Handle. Sharp sides. Yep. Way easier. "Besides, if you don't go into the Matrix, a knife is easier to hide if you get frisked. Just strap it to your inner thigh and you're golden," Dean continued.

"Inner thigh? I'm not a girl," Sam had declared indignantly.

"No, you're a guy. And guys as a rule don't wanna go anywhere near another guy's junk. So, unless you happen to get a frisker who's gay for sasquatches, your knife won't be found."

"You need a break?"

Sam came out of his memories to see his brother was running backwards ahead of him. "Just giving your stubby legs a breather," he said, stretching out his stride to catch up. Dean's legs were shorter, but he had stamina.

"I don't need—"

Sam's head quickly turned to the side when Dean's words were cut off. Instead of being beside him, Dean was flying through the air and crashing into one of the pines that lined the road. He took one step in his direction, then felt a presence behind him. Before he could turn, something hit him. He felt himself falling and the world around him went black.

When consciousness returned, he was lying flat on his back and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bell.

chapter twenty-six

U.S. Highway 14A
Lawrence County, South Dakota

Dean had woke up face down in the dirt enough to know it was never a good thing. Especially when there was a tree root beneath his nose which meant there was a good chance there was a tree nearby and said tree was probably the reason he was on the ground.

He groaned and slowly accessed the damage. Concussion, but not bad. A cracked rib. Legs and arms were good, though. What the hell had he been hunting? A Wendigo? He looked down at his ratty Hardrocker sweatshirt, track pants, and running shoes. Wait a minute. These weren't the right clothes. He hunted in layers and jeans—better protection against claws and teeth and splinters. Steel-toed boots. This was more his train—

Sam! Ignoring his aching body, he forced himself up to his knees. "Sam!" No answer. Had he gone for help? No, his brother would've at least checked him out and not left him crumpled at the base of the tree. That meant—

Picking himself up, he hobbled to the edge of the road where the grass had been scraped away during construction. Their footprints. Damn, Sam had big feet. Crossed over by tire treads. Two other sets of prints. Work boots and dress shoes. And—he bent down to make sure—sulfur. Fuck. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. "Bobby, they got 'im. The sonuvabitches got 'im."

"When? How?"

Dean glanced down at his watch. "Maybe half an hour ago. We were out doing a run. Must've been laying in wait for us."

"Us? You alright, boy?"

"Yeah. Just my usual close-up with the nearest tree."

"Uh huh. You say this happened about a half an hour ago?"

"Yeah."

"That how long were you out?"

Damn. There went his usual play of not revealing how badly he was hurt—as if that plan ever succeeded with Bobby. "Yeah," he admitted reluctantly.

"Shit, boy. That's a damn concussion and you know it. Where are you?"

"My usual route along the 14A. Where are you?"

"Just outside Sioux Falls."

"Jim with ya?"

"What d'ya think?"

"I think we'll get to Cold Oak about the same time. I'm about six miles out, so I need to haul ass to get to my car. Call Dad for me?"

"You got a concussion, you idjit. Don't even think about—"

"I'll call you when I'm on the road. Gotta go." Dean hung up quickly before Bobby could start a rant. Yeah, he had a concussion and a cracked—okay, maybe two cracked ribs, but the demon and his pals had his brother; no way he was waiting around for someone to pick him up, take him to the ER, wipe his ass, or whatever else Bobby wanted done before he could go to Cold Oak.

The first feet yards of his run he felt like a drunk trying to toe the line in front of an unimpressed traffic officer. But despite his pounding head and really angry ribs, he soon fell into a slow, but steady rhythm. As he headed for home, he thought about Sam's training, hoping it was enough for him to survive long enough for them to get to him. He'd started with Sam's strengths—his long limbs and powerful legs. Swimming made him a hell of a kicker. His roundhouse kick, when it connected, could easily break bones or snap a neck if the jaw was hit at the right angle. They'd worked long hours on kicking (and its variation—stomping) and in throwing a punch that landed solidly with the full force of Sam's gargantuan frame.

However, Sam's weaknesses were big ones: he sucked at taking a punch, he gave his anger too much control, and he lacked the killer instinct. Pain mattered a great deal to Sam and after taking a hit, it took him too many seconds adjust and react. Like earlier in the week. He'd reeled from a simple slap and in a real fight, Dean would've had him out of the game before Sam knew what hit him. Then to compound the problem, Sam's anger had come out to play. He'd hit without purpose, losing track of his opponent. Never ever forget who or what you were up against. A sure of way of getting yourself killed.

As for his third weakness, that was why Dean had been hoping for the Matrix scenario. Killing a mental construct was morally a slam dunk. Didn't matter if the person ended up dead in real life because at the moment you killed him, he wasn't real. Fighting in the real world, killing in the real world, was messy and visceral and clashed with morality and conscience. He really, really had his doubts that Sam would be able to seal the deal when the time came.

The house that had become home appeared in the distance, giving Dean the impetus to get just a little more speed out of his ailing body. He bypassed the inviting sofa and pulled himself up the stairs, everything jarring more now that he'd slowed down. He quickly washed off, losing the dirt without paying attention to the injuries, and dressed in appropriate fiend-fighting wear. Thankful that the Impala's weapons cache had already been prepared for the trip, and her gas tank filled, he sped out of town. Due to saving the county sheriff from a poltergeist back in 2001, he nor Bobby had to worry about the law slowing them down.

His phone rang just as he was about to call Bobby and Jim to let them know he was on the way. He looked at the call ID. Dad. Shit. "Bobby call you?" he asked as soon as he hit the talk button.

"What the hell happened, Dean? How'd you let them take your brother?"

Dean took a deep breath. His father was worried. Worried John equaled Asshole John. He knew that. He'd always known that. But he didn't have to take it. "Well, gee, Dad. They offered me pie for him and you know how I loves me some pie."

"Too bad your brain isn't as smart as your mouth."

"Meaning?"

"Bobby says you were ambushed. Another word for that is 'unprepared.' You're the hunter here, Dean, not Sam."

So they were back to that. Should've known Dad had been lying about not blaming him for Sam's 'death'. "Yeah, I suck as a big brother. I get it, Dad. See ya at the rendezvous."

He clicked off and then keyed in Bobby's number before John could call him back and bitch about being hung up on. "Hey, Bobby, I'm on my way to y'all."

"And?" Bobby demanded.

"And what?"

"Why does it sound like you're counting the hairs on a snake's belly?"

That low, huh? He usually covered better than that. "Just talked to Dad. He blames me for losing Sammy again."

Silence. After five seconds of it, Dean realized what he'd done. "Bobby, it's okay, man. I know he has issues, okay? I'm not taking it personally. Lettin' it roll off like water on a duck's back. You listenin', dude?" More silence, even though he could tell the line was still open. "Put Jim on, Bobby. Just quietly hand the phone over, okay?"

"Hello, Dean."

Ah, Jim. The only calm, sensible "parent" he had. "Can, you, um, keep Bobby from attacking my dad when you meet up? I was running my mouth and—"

"I heard. Bobby doesn't know how to get his phone off of speaker phone mode after accidentally putting it on."

"Oh. Well, I'm really okay with what Dad said, Just needed to vent, that's all."

"Of course, you did, son. Don't worry about it. I'll make sure Bobby leaves John alone."

Dean relaxed and slumped a little behind the wheel, settling in for the drive. "I owe you one, man."

"All right. So how are you feeling?"

They chatted for a few minutes before hanging up. Dean fell into the zen state he always reached while behind the wheel of his baby and before he knew it, he was coming up on the empty parking lot of an abandoned bait shop, the rendezvous point right before the outskirts of Cold Oak. Bobby's Chevelle was there, along with John's truck. Good, the gang was all there.

"So, anyone wanna let me in on the plan?" he asked as he got out of the Impala. He was sure that the three veteran hunters had already scouted the area and devised a foolproof plan of attack. No one said anything and he took a moment to study the three men before him. Bobby was sitting on the hood of his car. Jim was leaning against the passenger door, his elbows on the roof. John was sitting in his truck—a coldpack pressed against one jaw. Damn it. "Bobby!"

Bobby just smirked. "Don't be yellin' at me, boy. Jim wouldn't let me near the jackass."

That meant—"Jim!" He looked at the pastor in shock.

Jim just flexed his fist, which Dean could now see was a little swollen, and shrugged. "I did what you asked. So, you owe me one, right?"

Dean shook his head. "Can't take you guys anywhere." He turned toward his father. "Still busy trying the patience of saints, I see."

John gave a weak smile. "Not my fault they rile so easily." He tossed the cold pack into the passenger's seat and got out of the truck. "About earlier. I didn't mean to imply—" Two clearing throats behind them interrupted John and he glared over Dean's shoulder. "I didn't mean to say you were at fault, Dean. What happened would've happened even if I'd been there."

Dean fought the urge to snort. So, if even the great John Winchester couldn't save you, you couldn't be saved? And they said he had an ego. "Fine, Dad, whatever. Can we get on with the plan now?"

Jim motioned them over to the Chevelle where he'd laid out computer printouts.

"Matt and Tim still keeping you computer savvy, I see," Dean commented. The two teens in Jim's congregation were tech geeks who were determined that their pastor not be left languishing in the Stone Age.

"Yes, they shared the joys of Google Earth with me and then a few extra places that aren't exactly strictly legal, bless their hearts. So here's the layout of Cold Oak. Pretty compact area. Except we have one problem. A flood back in the nineties took out the bridge on the other side of town which means there's only one way in and one way out."

Dean nodded. Automatic trap like the one-horse mountain passes back in the old west. "So what's our workaround?"

Crickets chirped.

Okay. Enough was enough. "Are we on a hunt here," Dean barked, frustration deepening his voice, "or just having a girls night out, ladies?"

"One goes in through the woods while the other three spring the trap," Jim said quietly.

"And the problem is?" Since no one was answering, he made a guess. "Everyone wants to be the one going in, right?"

"Not quite, Mr. Know-It-All," Bobby spat out. "Jim and me think it should be you. You're the one training Sam. You know what he can do. You can anticipate his actions. With any of the rest of us, it'll be like trying to get out with a civilian. You can use Sam as a partner."

"So. What. Is. The. Problem?" Another question he could answer himself. "So, Dad, still not trusting me, huh?" It was expected, so why did it hurt so much?

John balled his fists on the Chevelle's roof. "What's so wrong with not wanting to have both my sons in the hands of the demon who killed my wife?"

And that right there was the reason why Dean had forgiven John for dumping him in Iowa. He knew that beneath, beside, along with the obsession of finding THE demon, there was a father who loved his boys just as obsessively. The love made John human and with humans you got flaws. "There's nothing wrong with that, Dad," Dean said, reaching out to squeeze John's shoulder. "But I am the best man for this particular job and that's what matters at this moment. For once, just trust me, Dad. Please."

John wrapped Dean in a tight hug and Dean felt a kiss fall against his hair. This was the dad he remembered from before—before Sammy was lost, before Mom... John let him go and took a half-step back with a subtle sniff.

"Let's do this," John said. "Everyone get outfitted, then, Dean, I want you in the back of my truck. There's a trapdoor there and you can slide out undetected. Bobby, you lead with the Chevelle and Jim, you'll be on our six in the Impala. We'll move in as far as we can, then I'll give Dean the signal. Go outfit up and we roll in five."

Dean smiled at how much John hadn't changed. Once his dad made his mind up, he was ready to take charge and kick ass. No dithering, dillydallying, or delaying. No wonder Marines took the lead in most battles. "What about the demon sensor grid?" Demons could sense humans in their area.

Bobby tossed a small sack in his direction. A hex bag. "Keep that on ya and you'll stay under the radar."

Dean nodded and he made his way to the Impala's trunk. Opening the weapons compartment, he strapped a pistol to his left ankle and a knife to his right. Two guns went into his waistband—the Desert Eagle because he figured he was gonna need the extra knock-down power and Sam's favorite Taurus. A couple of flashlights were secured as well. Finished, he walked over to the truck and his dad.

He looked at the gun that John was slipping into the back waist of his pants. "Old school Colt? Never seen that one before." It hadn't been among the ones that had been blessed in November.

"A friend left it to me."

Ah. Wills were a good thing. It'd probably be worthless going up against a demon, but who said everything laying in wait was a demon. Maybe it was a good idea to use the anointed bullets sparingly. But he'd made his choices and his dad was closing his weapons box. He'd just have to make do with what he had. He pulled himself over the side of the truck and looked around for the secret hatch. As soon as he found it, he was covered with a dusty tarp. "Gee, thanks, Dad," he said after his coughing spell finished.

'You used to love hiding under blankets."

"I was three, Dad."

John just laughed and Dean heard him get into the truck and the back window slide open. "Hear me okay?"

"Better question is 'can you breathe okay?'" Dean said, then emphasized his words with a sneeze. "Damn, did you fight a dust devil with this thing?"

Another laugh from his father. "If you can bitch, you can breathe. We're getting ready to pull out."

Dean estimated they'd gone about three miles when he felt the truck lurch to a stop. "What the " he heard John say.

"Dad?"

"This is your stop, son." Dean reached down for the hatch. "Go get your brother, kiddo."

"I will."

Dean slipped down to the road and rolled out from under the truck. He kept low until he reached the woods and finally hid behind a tree to look out. Blocking the road was a a roiling mass of...smoke? No, not smoke. Demons. Body-less demons, that swarmed around each other like an infestation of maggots. It made his skin crawl and he really wanted to go back and help the other three men, but he knew what his mission was and stayed the course.

Without looking back again, he headed deeper into the woods.


chapter twenty-seven

Middle Of Main Street
Cold Oak, South Dakota

As defensive postures go, this sucks.

Sam was scrambling to his feet looking around for his brother before he realized Dean's voice was in his head. Okay, he could work with that. Because if he couldn't, then that would mean he was on his own and he didn't know enough to be on his own. So...

"Talk to me, Dean."

"Name's not Dean, dude."

He swiveled on his heel and saw an average guy—maybe shorter than average, but to Sam most folks were short so he was never sure where the line was drawn. The guy was in a hoodie and his pupils were big. Wait a minute. Was he stoned? "Are you stoned?"

Instead of asking questions that really matter.

Thanks, Dean. Maybe he should call him Obi Wan Dean.

I'm flattered, padawan.

""I was in the privacy of my van in Oklahoma, enjoying the quality company of my favorite bong when I was taken; so, yes, my state may be less than legal. And speaking of, you aren't carrying anything, are you?"

Anything? Sam shifted and felt the weight of the knife on his thigh. Could the guy tell he was armed?

Anything as in illegal substances, Sammy.

Obi Wan Dean had the nerve to sigh. Yeah, well, he didn't have any experiences in crap like this, okay?

He's a stoner. How hard can it be?

"Sorry." Sam shrugged and gave the guy a wicked smile. "I'm staying with my brother for the holidays and he's really straitlaced."

Obi Dean howled with laughter.

The guy tried to look sober. "Yeah, I got a mean brother, too."

"He always preaching 'just say no'?" Sam hazarded.

"Nah. He makes people do bad things, then kills 'em."

Oookay. So outta his league now. Help, Obi!

"Who's the new guy, Andy?"

Enough was enough. How had—he counted quickly—three other people sneaked up on him? This was reality, right? Two females and a male. One of the women had asked the question. She was brunette and looked to be about his age. Actually, they all looked to be his age. "How old are you?"

"Rude, aren't you?" the blonde chick asked.

Smooth, Sammy.

Shut up, Obi. It was bad enough Dean's influence had him calling her the blonde chick. Jess would have his ass for being so sexist. Except... "I'm sorry. I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth when I'm anxious and since I don't know what's going on, I'm definitely on the anxious side. I was running with my brother and...and now I'm here." He hunched over just a bit, trying to look defenseless and lost. Oh, who was he kidding? He was defenseless and lost. "Does anyone know what's happening? Is this all of us? I'm Sam, by the way, and I'm a student at Stanford," he said quickly, trying to make amends.

"I'm Ava," the brunette said. "And, it's okay. We're all a little awkward here." She gave a nervous chuckle. "I'm twenty-two and a secretary from Peoria. And I definitely don't have a clue about how I got here or anything."

"I'm Andy," the stoner said. "I'm twenty-two, too. Oh, and I can make people do anything I want them to do so I don't have to work or anything."

After sneering at Andy, the tall black guy dressed in camouflage spoke next. "I'm Jake and I'm twenty-two like the rest of y'all. The last thing I remember is heading to the airport. I was supposed to ship out to Afghanistan—" he locked at his watch—"seventeen hours ago. I'm in deep shit, guys."

"We all are," Sam agreed. Then he turned to the final person, who rolled her eyes at them.

"This isn't some stupid camp or sleepover," she snarled. "I doubt we're gonna sing songs or braid each other's hair. Besides, I wouldn't be any good at it because these hands," she held them up for inspection, "can kill ya."

Ava took a step back, Andy looked fascinated, Jake snorted disbelief, and Sam remembered what the demon had told him. Her name was apparently Lily. Best not to act like he knew more than they did. "Well, my brother has said on occasion that my hair is long enough to braid, but I agree that it's not something we probably want to do. It'd help a lot of you gave us your name, though. Unless you want to be called 'Blonde Chick'?"

She bristled and gave him a chilly look. "Lily, age twenty-two, hailing from San Diego, and extremely tired of you lame people. I'm getting out of here."

Sam shook his head. "You can't leave. There are miles of woods between here and anywhere else, and it's getting dark fast."

Jake looked at him suspiciously. "How do you know there are miles of woods?"

Lie, padawan.

"I did a...a paper in high school about ghost towns and I recognize the bell. This place is the most haunted of all ghost towns."

Another nervous laugh escaped from Ava. "Ghost towns? Wow, and I thought I was sad. Are you saying this place is haunted?" She looked around as if something was going to jump out and say "Boo!"

"There are no such things as ghosts. Right, Sam?" Andy shifted uneasily.

Obi decided not to help. "I just did the research, man."

"This is whacked," Jake said, disgust clear in his tone. "Woods or no woods, I'm getting the hell out of here. I—" His jerked his head to the side. "What was that?"

Everybody looked in the same direction. "What was what?" Sam demanded.

Jake rubbed at his eyes. "I thought I saw—" He shook his head.

"You're playing with us, right, man?" Andy said. "We get it. Ain't no such thing as ghosts. Just bad trips, right?"

"I—" Jake stopped again, then took off running toward one of the abandoned buildings lining the street.

"Jake, wait!" Sam scurried after him. By the time he reached the correct doorway, Jake was pinned in the far corner by what appeared to be a ragged child with...talons? Reacting quickly, Sam scanned the room and saw a rusty iron poker leaning in the corner. He picked it up and took a swing at the threatening figure. The creature dissipated on contact.

"What the fu—" Jake stared at the empty space, wide eyed and breathing hard. "Was that a ghost?"

Sam shrugged, not because he was keeping quiet, but because he really wasn't sure. Could've been a ghost or maybe some kind of demon.

"What did you do to it?" Andy asked, standing in the doorway.

"Iron. My research for the paper said that supernatural things don't like iron. And salt. Think there's some salt around here?"

"Me and the girls can go look," Andy volunteered. He looked behind him and called out. "Ava? Lily?"

Neither answered. The guys all looked at each other and ran into the street. "Ava! Lily!" the three yelled.

Jake made a hand motion that Sam figured out meant he was going one way and Sam and Andy should go in the other direction. Before they separated ten yards there was a scream. Racing around one of the buildings, they saw a water tower—and from it hung a limp body. Lily.

Ava screamed again. She was standing in front of an open door. "Is she—" she asked hoarsely.

Jake found a metal bucket and stood on it. "Yeah," he said, his hand on her neck.

"Ava, what happened?" Sam glanced down at his watch, trying to figure out how far Dean was behind him. He remembered Dean had been tossed into a tree, but he was an expert at being tossed. Said that was the reason he didn't like to fly; in his experience the landings were all a bitch. But he could land without major injury, land and get up to fight the good fight. Dean was on his way. Sam was sure of it.

"We thought you guys were just fooling around, trying to scare us. We went in search of a little girl's room. There's a kinda bathroom in here." She pointed to the room behind her. "I was just gone for a few minutes."

"Neck's broken," Jake said. "Wasn't done by this lame-ass noose either."

"So hanging her is just a scare tactic, huh?" Sam reasoned.

"Well, it's working," Andy said, rubbing his arms. "This is really harshing my mellow, dude."

"You are just a waste of space, aren't you?" Jake spat out.

Andy's eyes flared with anger and Sam sought to diffuse the situation because Jake looked like he could really kick Andy's ass. "Andy, why don't you and Ava go look for the salt? Jake and I'll go see if we can find some more iron."

"Salt?"

Sam nodded to Ava. "If you lay a line across the window sills and the doorways, spirits can't cross."

"Cool. C'mon, Andy," Ava urged, tugging on his arm. "And you can tell me if you boys really did see something."

"I gotta go to Afghanistan to defend freedom for people like that little shit?" Jake huffed as Ava and Andy walked away.

"Your choice, dude." Sam was not about to start in on his thoughts about the military because Jake looked like he could kick his ass, too. "I'm gonna go in and check on this 'kinda bathroom' Ava found. Give me a minute, yeah?"

"Knock yourself out. That looks like some kinda barn or something up ahead. I'm gonna check it out."

"Okay. Meet you there."

Sam went through the doors Ava had exited, then looked back to make sure Jake was gone. Pulling down the track pants, he removed the knife from his thigh and stuck it in his waistband for easier access. If something or someone was starting to kill, he wanted to be prepared.

If? You think blonde chick not only broke her own neck but strung herself up as well?

Such keen commentary from Obi Dean. He made sure his jacket covered the knife, then headed toward the nearly collapsing barn. He walked in and saw Jake easily breaking the iron spoke out of an old wagon wheel.

"Andy's not the only one with a special talent, is he?"

Jake jerked around, the spoke coming up defensively. Sam made a mental note that apparently it was easy for them to sneak up on each other. Part of the game?

"Would you believe the iron's rusted?" Jake tried gamely. Sam just looked at him because, really? Such a lame excuse didn't deserve a reply. "Okay. This just happened, like, a month ago, man. I was in the motor pool killing time with a friend when suddenly the car he was working under started to slip. Something went wrong with the hydraulic lift. Anyway, I just ran forward and held the car up until he was safe. We wrote it off as an adrenaline thing, but... I can bench-press eight hundred pounds."

Shit. Really. Shit. He was supposed to take out Superman. They hadn't covered that in training.

Yeah, we did, man. Remember what I said about fighting supernatural sons of bitches? They're gonna be faster and stronger, but not smarter.

Uh huh.

And you have a knife.

Now that was a good point. Still, no reason to make enemies just yet.

Now that's called being smarter, padawan.

Shut it, Obi Dean. "I take it you haven't shared this with the others?"

"Nah. That Andy guy can be all happy about being a freak, but not me."

"Cool. I get it. Might come in handy when we're trying to get out of this place." Sam gave him a reassuring smile.

"So what's your talent?"

"Death dreams."

Jake shook his head. "That's jacked, man. I haven't appeared in any of them, have I?" he asked belatedly.

"I can honestly say I've never seen you before today."

Jake looked relieved. "Let's go rescue the deadweight before that ghost-thing gets them." He picked up the iron rod he'd secured and led the way down the street. Sam wondered if it was the military training that made Jake always take the lead. He'd seen the same thing in Dad.

They met Ava on the street. "Hey, guys, we found some salt. I left Andy drawing the lines like you said while I went hunting for some more."

"Good. We'll have a secured room before nightfall. Nice work," Sam praised.

"And in the morning we can get out of here?" Ava asked.

"That's the plan."

"Okay. Andy's here in this building. It still has doors and everything."

They walked through the door and stopped. Andy lay on the floor, his abdomen a bloody mess. Sam fought to control his stomach when he realized he could see Andy's intestines.

"Andy!" Ava cried before slamming her face into Sam's chest and sobbing madly.

Jake gave him a look that said, "Better you than me, man," and held up the rod. "Iron works, right? Think I'm gonna go hunt that thing, leave you to take care of stuff up in here."

"Coward," Sam mouthed in his direction. The bastard just shrugged and backed out the door. Sam awkwardly patted Ava's back, frowning as he felt wetness sink through his tee shirt. At least Jess used tissues when they watched chick flicks.

Not that he made it a habit to watch chick flicks with her.

Focus on the job, Sammy.

Andy was dead. Lily was dead. Ava was falling apart. Jake was freakin' Superman. What was there to focus on?

Look around you, man. What's wrong with this picture?

Well, it certainly wasn't Survivor. It was more like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. They were all getting picked off one by one. But it was going so fast. Why?

Hang on, help is on its way. I'll be there as fast as I can.

What? Why was Obi Dean singing a Little River Band song? One of his mom's favorites, but—Oh. The demon was picking up the pace because he knew Dean was coming—Dean, Dad, Bobby, and Jim. That was enough to put a crimp in anyone's plans.

What's wrong with the fuckin' picture, dude?

Sam scanned the room. The salt was down in huge heaps so how had the ghost or whatever managed to get in? He squinted at the window. There was a break in the salt line. A deliberate break made by dragging a finger through it. What the hell?

He shoved and pried until Ava was standing away from him. "Sam? What's wrong? Oh, God, look at your shirt. I'm so sorry."

"You think Andy was suicidal?" he asked, carefully trying to circle the room. At the moment Ava was between him and the door. That wasn't a good position to be in.

"What? You mean because he was missing his bong? What makes you think that?" Her eyes narrowed just a little.

"Because someone broke this salt line and if it wasn't him..."

Ava wiped her eyes and grinned. "Funny how a secretarial school graduate had a Stanford student going for a while. Not quite as smart as you think you are, are you?"

"That thing killed Lily and Andy, and you're what? Controlling it?"

"It's not a thing; it's an Acheri demon. Makes a nice pet." She sneered at him. "If you have the power to control it." The window opened and the demon slid through the broken seal. "Too bad you'll never have that power."

"Too bad you're a cocky bitch," Jake said as he came in behind her. With a gesture that was just too easy, he snapped her neck. Ava's body dropped to the floor with a thud that echoed through the thin boards. Jake took a step back and assessed Sam from head to toe. "You know, when I first saw you, I knew it would come down to the two of us. Thought the other three would be easy. Guess I have to thank you for outing this girl and Fido."

Fight smart, Sammy.

He needed to get out of the room. He needed space to maneuver, to keep out of reach. "So does that earn me at least a five second head start?" he asked, hoping to play on the soldier's sense of fairness, just in case he had one.

Jake shrugged. "Whatever. I'll count to ten, then I'm coming after you. Nothing personal, man, just survival, you know?"

Sam gave a sharp nod, then moved around Jake and out the door. Apparently the demon had given everyone the same speech. Going a few yards, he stopped to look around. Where should he go? Should he pull the knife?

Don't show your hand before you have to, Sam. Knives are up close and personal. Flash it if you think it might make your opponent back off. Keep it a surprise if he's gonna come after your ass anyway.

Dark had fallen quickly. In the gloom, Sam made out the remains of a corral. Empty. The ground was a little uneven with clumps of grass and dirt which he hoped would keep Jake off-balance. At least, there were no sides of buildings for Jake to smash him into. He leaped over a broken railing just as Jake stepped outside.

"Thought you were gonna hide." Jake took his time as he walked toward the corral.

"Maybe my powers require me to be outside."

"What?"

Sam silently cheered himself for coming up with that one. Now Jake would be looking for something to happen. He'd be distracted, wary, waiting for some outside influence. It could create a window of opportunity during the fight. A small, brief window. But, hopefully, it would be enough to make a difference.

"What are you waiting for, Jake? Gotta wait for your master to whisper instructions in your ear? Or is Jake the Strongman afraid he might step in old horse shit out here? I heard that bitches always worry about their shoes," Sam taunted, channeling his brother. Or maybe it was just his inner Winchester. He braced himself as Jake charged at him. He was a Winchester, damn it. If his dad and Dean could go up against legendary monsters and fantastical creatures, he could do this.

He easily dodged Jake's blow and followed with one of his own. Jake looked like he barely felt it, while Sam's fist felt broken. That was so not good. Because he was contemplating his hand, he was too slow to react when Jake's fist took another shot at him. He sailed through the air and landed with a thud that reverberated through his entire body. So, yeah, Dean definitely had reasons not to like flying.

Keep your head in the game, Sam. Use your legs. They're fifty-fuckin' feet long for a reason, dude.

Jake approached and Sam kicked out. Jake stumbled back and Sam, feeling more secure, kicked him again, the hit landing solidly against Jake's gut. Jake scrambled backward, an arm bent protectively across his abdomen.

Sam took the opportunity to get to his feet. Ignoring the pain in his jaw and fist, he kicked again and again until Jake found out how it felt to fly. And land. He was surprised when Jake didn't immediately get to his feet.

Careful, Sammy.

Sam agreed with Obi Dean and approached cautiously, pulling the knife as he moved. He kicked lightly at Jake's feet. The man shifted a little and Sam saw he'd landed on a rock and knocked himself out. Now what? Could he hide in the dark until Dean and the others arrived?

When you get them down, keep them there. End them without hesitation or they will end you.

But Jake was just as human as he was. Surely, he could tie him up or—

Or he could sneak up behind you and finish the job.

Sam looked at the knife in his hand.

Then it'd be open season on me, Dad, Bobby, Jim... Is that what you want, Sam? Would it be easier on your conscience to have my death on it instead of Jake's?

Low blow.

Sam's fingers curled around the knife's handle.

Do you trust me, Sam?

He did. He'd only known his brother for a little over a year, but he trusted him implicitly. More than anyone. It didn't make much sense. Mike was his oldest friend. He had been thinking marriage with Jess. His mom had shattered his trust with the whole kidnapping thing, but still...even without that he would've trusted Dean more. He was starting to think he'd trusted Dean on sight. Why had he spilled his guts to a stranger on a plane, talking about Jess and everything? So a thousand times yes, he trusted Dean.

Then kill him.

Sam sighted the place where Jake's heart lay.

Do it, Sam.

The knife slid in easier than he'd expected. Jake gasped, then sighed. It was a quiet sound, peaceful even. But it tore Sam apart, rattled his soul so badly that he started shaking.

"I—I k—k—killed him, Dean," he stuttered out.

"Good job, Sammy."

Sam opened his burning eyes to see Dean jogging toward him, gun held competently in his hand. "Dean?" he asked just to make sure his brother was actually there.

"Anyone else around here?"

Sam turned back and stared at the knife hilt. "He was the last one. I killed him," he said again.

"Was he gonna kill you?"

Sam nodded.

Dean gripped his shoulder, then released him. "Then you did what you had to do. I'm proud of you."

"I'm not."

Dean knelt beside him and reached for Jake's neck. He gave a grim smile of satisfaction. "Were there others?"

"This girl, Ava, killed two, Jake killed her, and I..." Sam wiped at his eyes. "They were my age. I think maybe the demon fed them blood, too. They had powers. Like me."

"But they weren't like you."

"Yes, they were."

"No, they weren't."

Sam's eyes left the knife to stare stubbornly at Dean. "Yes, they were."

"No, they weren't. They didn't have an awesome brother like me."

Sam stared at him incredulously, then burst out laughing. Dean's hand fell on his shoulder again and squeezed comfortingly. Sam leaned into the grip and tried to hold it together long enough to get the fuck out of there. "Can we go?"

Dean nodded and drew out another gun, the one Sam favored. "Just in case," he said as he handed Sam the weapon.

Sam took it and stood, reaching out a hand to help Dean up. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Sammy the Slayer," a voice said behind him. "You did it, champ. I'm proud of ya!"

Sam looked at Dean's pissed face and turned slowly to look into yellow eyes.


chapter twenty-eight

Main Street
Cold Oak, South Dakota

Dean thought he knew anger. Knew it in the feelings he'd had for John. The initial reaction to finding out Sam had been kidnapped. At the idiot who'd tried to jump a river in a car with one of his engines. But seeing that yellow-eyed sonuvabitch standing behind his baby brother let him know that he'd never felt true, red-inducing anger before. "Get away from him!" he shouted, pulling his gun.

"Now, now, Dean, don't be jealous. I'm proud of you, too. What would our boy be if it wasn't for your teaching. In just over a month, you took a pathetic little boy and turned him into a man killer. We wouldn't be here without ya, Deano. Bravo, kid!"

What do you want?" Sam was proud of the fact that his voice steady as he tried shifting enough to give Dean a clear shot.

"Um, world peace? Nah. To go to Disneyland? Already rode Walt, who cares about his other rides. Hmm? What do I want? Maybe for you to put away that gun, Deano. It can't hurt me and you don't want Daddy blaming you for shooting Sammy, do ya? He already blames you for everything else."

"Fuck you."

"Tsk, tsk. Everything is sex with you boys, isn't it? Should've known with those cute little matching necklaces you have." He reached down and grabbed Sam's medallion. He dropped it immediately, smoke coming from his hand. "Where do you get these wonderful toys?"

Dean rolled his eyes at the misquote from the first Batman movie. "What do you do? Watch cable all night?"

The demon shrugged. "This meatsuit's a janitor; what d'ya expect?"

"Better material."

"Ha ha ha. You're a real piece of work, Deano. That's why I have your brother in my clutches and not you. See? What I want? Your daddy has."

Dean wasn't surprised to hear the Impala roaring up the street just then. This demon seemed to like a good show. "So, you're gonna hold my brother hostage for something my dad has? You really think that'll work?"

"Of course, it will, Deano, because I'm holding Sammy hostage, not you. We all know Johnnie wouldn't bother to spit on you if you were on fire. But for Sam, he'd cut open a vein to dampen the blaze." Yellow eyes looked at him with fake pity. "Poor Dean: first born, second best."

"Leave my brother alone!" Sam spun and raised his gun.

The demon laughed and waved a hand. Sam was slammed into Dean, knocking Dean to the ground. His brother continued moving until he slammed into the railing around the corral. Before Dean could react, thanks to his previous damaged ribs, he too was flung around until he landed not too gently against a post. He tried to get up but found himself frozen in place. His head could move, though, and he turned to glare at the demon who was between him and Sam. Then he had to close his eyes because of the sudden brightness of car lights. When he opened them, he could see his dad walking toward them.

"Boys?"

"They're a little indisposed right now, Johnnie. I'll do the talking if you don't mind," the demon drawled.

"So talk."

"So you're a 'wham, bam, thank you ma'am' kinda guy, huh, Johnnie? Foreplay's just for the bitches? I can respect that, meet you on mutual ground. Here's the deal: I have something you want—these two wonderfully talented sons—and you have something I want."

John reached around to his back and pulled out the old-fashioned Colt Dean had seen earlier and aimed it at the demon. "You mean this old thing?"

"Cute, John. And I mean this old thing."

Dean gasped as something pushed hard against his breastbone. The pressure left as quickly as it'd come. Great, he thought, as he tried not to cry out. Some things never changed; John Winchester pissed something off and it retaliated by hurting him. Back in the day, he'd figured he deserved whatever pain because Sam was dead. Now, he was just pissed at his dad.

"Hurt him again and we'll see what's fact and what's mere legend about this gun," John threatened.

"I can kill both of them before the bullet reaches me. This isn't the O.K. corral, pardner. The white hats aren't gonna win because we both know there aren't any white hats involved, Johnnie. Well, maybe poor Sammy who was brought up as the All-American kid," the demon said, his disgust evident. "But your other boy, nothing white about him, is there, John, thanks to you. Teaching him to kill when he was just a child. How tragic. Then he sells himself to a pervert, a child molester, Johnnie, just so he can pretend someone cares. When he winds up in hell with you, you can point him out and proudly say, 'I did that.' You're a man after my own heart, John Winchester." The demon smiled and gave a shallow bow.

Dean could see that the demon's words had shaken John and he wished he could speak, could tell his dad that the supposed pervert was just a female school counselor, that he'd been seventeen, that there'd been no selling involved. Just a lot of convenient sex and her assistance in getting him into college.

"If I give you the gun, do you promise to let them go, without any additional damage?" John bargained.

"Can they really be damaged any more? One kidnapped and never looked for. Not even a milk carton for your youngest, John? And did you tell your eldest about the time you showed up at a hunt he was on, saw that precious black car of his, and drove away? Didn't even check to see that he had the hunt under control. Could've been in that house dying, and you just kept on rollin'. Ah, the love between a father and his son. Makes me shed a tear, Johnnie boy."

John gave an exaggerated yawn. "You're starting to bore me. We gonna do this or what?" He uncocked the Colt's hammer and turned it around in his hand.

Dean stiffened, or would have if he were capable of getting any stiffer. His dad caving? Nah. That wasn't right. No, not caving. Planning something. He cut his glance over to Sam, hoping his eyes were telling his brother to get ready. Sam's eyes narrowed in confusion, then widened with understanding. Both turned their gazes back to their father.

"I'm just gonna toss it over and then you're gonna disappear, okay?" John said casually.

"Whatever you say, Johnnie." The demon was very agreeable to the plan.

John threw the gun, not a gentle toss, but hard and fast. The missile flew right at the demon and he had to dodge in order to get out of its way. In the second he dodged, he lost his control over his two hostages. Dean, realizing he was free to move, lifted the gun that was still in his hand, sighted his target, and pulled the trigger. He heard other gunfire and a quick scan showed that Sam and their dad had also made a shot.

The demon was the paralyzed one now as the blessed bullets tore through his body. A second later, tendrils of dark smoke oozed out of the holes, hovered in the air for a second, then disintegrated into ash before the wind scattered them. The human body that remained toppled to the ground.

"Dean!" Sam scrambled over to his side. "How bad are you hurt, man?"

Dean tried to take a deep breath and instantly regretted it. Bruised sternum, then. He felt it gingerly. No shifting. No cracks. "I'm good. Or will be. Nothing 911 worthy," he added, seeing the concern in Sam's eyes. He looked over to where John was examining the corpse. "He dead?"

"Oh, yeah. Guess that rock of yours wasn't pure bullshit after all. But, Dean, we need to talk. I hit the sonuvabitch in the heart. Sammy got him through the back. Center mass shots just like you're supposed to take. Yours got him in the back of the head and came through his forehead. What the hell were you thinking, taking a risky shot like that?" John asked angrily.

"Wasn't risky if he could make it," Sam pointed out heatedly. "Your son could be dying and all you can do is bitch about a perfect shot?"

"Dying?" John left the body and jogged over to Dean's side. "You doing all right, kiddo?"

"I'm fine, Dad. Just a little bruised. Where are Bobby and Jim? Are they okay?"

John nodded. "They're watching our six at the edge of town."

"What the hell was that thing blocking the road?' Dean asked as John took his wrist for a pulse check.

"Demons without meatsuits. Bobby and Jim are cleaning up the rest of them. I came on in to give you some backup while they secured the area." He pulled a knife out of his pocket and in a flash had Dean's shirt sliced down the center.

"Hey!" Dean protested.

He was ignored as his dad palpitated the area. "Take a deep breath," he ordered. Dean tried, but the pain kept him from complying. John frowned. "Sammy, get me the med kit from the car."

Before Dean could reiterate that he was fine, the Chevelle and the truck came driving up. "We heard gunfire," Bobby explained, shotgun in hand.

"Demon," John explained, angling his head toward the body. "Sam, the med kit?"

"I got one." Jim pulled a kit from Bobby's car. "What happened, Dean?"

"I ran my mouth and Dean paid for it," John answered quickly. "Some kind of invisible punch to the chest?"

"More like a ton-sized boulder pressed against it." Dean gave up the idea they were just gonna leave him alone.

"Pressure injury rather than impact," Jim diagnosed. He pulled out a stethoscope and Dean remembered the man had been a medic in the Marines. "Breathe for me."

While Dean suffered through the exam, he could hear Sam talking with John and Bobby.

"Why did he want the gun, Dad?" Sam asked.

"It's just a story—a legend, really. Back in 1835, when Halley's Comet was overhead, the same night those men died at the Alamo, they say Samuel Colt made a gun—a special gun. He made it for a hunter—a man like us, only on horseback. The story goes he made thirteen bullets. This hunter used the gun a half dozen times before he disappeared, the gun along with him. The legend said this gun could kill anything."

"By anything you mean anything supernatural?"

"It must be true since the demon wanted the gun so badly."

"How'd you get it?" Bobby asked.

"Daniel Elkins. Don't know how he got his hands on it, but he did and I persuaded him to give it to me."

"Yeah, I've seen your version of persuasion, John. These two the only bodies we gotta take care of?" Bobby asked.

Dean realized he'd forgotten about the dead soldier. The one who'd tried to kill Sam. The one Sam had killed.

"There—" Sam stopped to clear his throat. "There are three more. Kids my age. I can show you where they are."

"Sam," Dean croaked, surprised by how raspy he sounded.

Sam turned and kneeled down beside him.. "It's okay, Dean. I can handle it. How is he, Jim?"

"His sternum's just bruised, I think, but that's just as painful and as dangerous as a break. But if the demon just pressed here in the center of his chest, I don't understand why a couple of his ribs feel a bit wobbly."

"The tree," Dean muttered. Everyone looked around, searching for a tree. "From before," he explained reluctantly. "When Sam was taken."

"You hit your head," Bobby accused.

"Yeah...and maybe cracked a couple of ribs."

"Fuckin' idjit," Bobby cursed before stomping off a distance.

Jim gave one of those sighs that made Dean feel guilty as hell. He hated those sighs. "Well, I'm gonna wrap you up, son, because I just don't trust you to take it as easy as you should. Understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Pierre's not that far away," Sam offered. "I could take him to an ER, say he fell off a ladder or something?"

Dean silently pleaded with Jim and finally the older man shook his head. "Nothing they can do for him that we can't at the moment. But I'm gonna keep an eye on those ribs, his blood pressure and his breathing. We'll get him help if he needs it, I promise you, Sam."

"Maybe I should switch majors and go to med school instead," Sam murmured.

"Nah. I break the law way more than bones." Dean hoped he'd managed to keep the pain out of his voice this time.

"How we gonna do this?" Bobby asked impatiently, giving Dean the stink eye.

"A salt-and-burn should do it," John answered.

Sam frowned in disagreement (Dean was slowly getting adept at reading Sam's faces again). "But...What about their families, Dad? They should know their kids aren't coming back."

"It's kind of you to worry about their families," John said gently, while sparing Dean a glance that said, See, I'm trying. "But these people were used by a demon and we don't want them to be used anymore."

"Couldn't we send them their ID in the mail or something?"

"And have an investigation started? Sam, we can't—"

"I have an idea," Dean interrupted, because although his lungs didn't want to work properly, his brain was doing quite well. "Sam, you and Dad go round them up and bring them back here. Roll 'em for their ID, jewelry, whatever while you're at it. Bobby, look in the Impala's trunk. I have some cans of spray paint rolling around back there..."

"Dean," John began.

"It'll be okay, Dad. Trust me." And, yeah, he knew he trapped his dad with that one. John sighed and moved off with Sam.

Jim took out a blood pressure cuff and unfolded it. "So now that we don't have an audience, how are you really feeling?"

"I've had worse."

"Not what I asked."

Dean rolled his eyes toward heaven, asking for help. Of course, none was forthcoming. "Anything that moves my chest is bad," he admitted reluctantly. "Therefore, breathing is bad. But I'm a stubborn bastard who's gonna do it anyway."

"Good answer." Jim slipped the cuff around his upper arm and inflated it until it pinched like a mother. "Doesn't appear to be any lethal damage done. But you're restricted from hunting for at least six weeks."

"Six—Jim!"

"Keep it up and we'll make it two months even. And don't think Bobby won't enforce it."

Hell, he wasn't stupid; when Jim and Bobby double-teamed him, he always came out on the losing side. And Dean wasn't about to push an already unstable situation. With Bobby being in the fine mood he was because Dean hadn't told him about his ribs, his housemate was already planning a long list of chores he could do from the sofa, long list of boring chores like darning socks or translating some old text that ended up being a rice recipe instead of a supernatural fixit. "Fine. Most of the time I'll be with Sam anyway, getting him through Christmas and setting up new living quarters in Palo Alto."

"As long as you let him do the heavy lifting."

"There are names I could call you," Dean threatened softly.

"I've always been partial to Benevolent One, but Magnificent One works, too."

Dean started to laugh, then grabbed his chest. "Not nice, Jim. Not nice at all."

"Behave." He pulled out a packet of pills. "Bobby, bring a bottle of water!"

Bobby came over, hands full with water and two cans of fluorescent spray paint. "When did I become everyone's danged servant?" he grumbled. "How ya doin', kid?"

"He's on six week restriction," Jim answered before Dean could.

"Just in time for holiday baking. Got that county potluck thing comin' up."

"So civic-minded, Bobby. I must've rubbed off on you." Jim handed Dean the pain medication.

"Gotta keep a good cover. Nobody would suspect us of grave desecration or being experts on demons—not those sweet men who rescue kittens from trees and participant in local activities."

"Kittens from trees. Really." Jim looked at them in disbelief.

"Werewolf chased one up a tree, didn't he, Dean? Cat came down when we filled the evil sonuvabitch with silver. Sounds like a rescue to me," Bobby reasoned. "Now what am I supposed to do with this paint?"

"Devil's Trap with the pentagram," Dean said. "Big one right here on the ground. Doesn't have to be accurate. Just enough to fool the civilians."

"Ah, gonna blame this on devil worshipers. The law's always reluctant with that. 'Fraid of what they might find out. Set each body in a pentacle, bury their ID in an obvious hole next to 'em like an offering... Pain always did make you think, boy."

"Don't get any ideas 'bout that, old man," Dean warned with a glare.

"Stop irritating my patient and do as you're told," Jim said sternly. Bobby moved away with a mutter. "So, what do you think that cost me? A bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, perhaps?"

"If you're lucky." Dean had given up on figuring out how Jim and Bobby worked out their differences. It was a ritualistic puzzle of interlocking IOU's and bribes. But it worked for the two of them so Dean didn't complain or ask for explanations. "So how'd you get rid of that big ass ball of demons?"

"Well, we started off by saying that exorcism that Paul wrote. Pretty powerful stuff, but we noticed some of the demons were breaking away before we could finish it. So I got out that cross of yours and—"

"Wait a minute. You carry that thing around like a Leatherman pocket tool?" Dean tried to snort but his chest wouldn't let him.

Jim handed him the bottle of water. "As I was saying, I got out the cross and tossed it into the gathering. It started burning them—"

"Same thing happened to the yellow-eyed sonuvabitch when he tried to take Sam's medallion."

"Yes, it seems it was most fortuitous for us that you 'hooked up' with your oracle friend."

And yeah, it hurt, but Dean had to laugh at Jim's expression. "It hurt, didn't it, Pastor, to compliment me on an out of wedlock act of fornication?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "I have never been that regimental or judgmental, Dean Winchester. I just—worry about you, that's all."

"I'm careful, dude."

Jim looked at him, eyes warm with concern. "Perhaps too careful—with your heart."

"I'm not the only one in this posse without a woman, Jim," Dean pointed out uncomfortably. Did he trust women with his heart? Maybe. And maybe he wasn't gonna get close enough to one to find out. "Damn. What the hell did you give me, man? It's making my thoughts go all gooey."

Jim brushed a hand across the top of his head. "Since it would be unfair of me to take advantage of you being all 'gooey,' we'll have this discussion later, all right? Maybe get a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue of our own."

"Sure, Jim," Dean agreed, confident that he could drink Jim under the table long before any deeply-embedded secrets could spill out. However, he didn't like the smile Jim gave him in return.

Maybe he needed to talk to Bobby first.

Before he could retract his agreement, Sam and John returned with the first body. John reluctantly accepted the beauty of Dean's plan and soon all the bodies were put in position and their ID placed nearby.

"John, Sam, get Dean over to the car before you start pouring accelerant. He doesn't need to be inhaling chemicals in his condition," Jim ordered.

"I don't remember him being this bossy," John muttered as he helped Dean to his feet.

"It's the medic in him," Dean explained. "Bobby tangled with a bunyip once. I was running and fetching for days."

With his brother on one side and his father on the other, Dean started across the field. He stopped as they came upon the body the yellow-eyed demon had worn. The exit wound gaped darkly on his forehead. "That was for our mom, you son of a bitch." He wanted to give the body a parting kick, but knew how much that would hurt. He'd just have to settle with seeing its ass burn up. Besides, kicking it would probably end up messily; the body was quickly deteriorating without the demon's essence.

They tried to put him in the back of the car, but Dean insisted on the shotgun seat. "I breathe better sitting up," he told them.

"Fine." John looked at Sam. "The keys are in the ignition. Drive down to the end of the street. Keep him out of the smoke." Dean wanted to protest, but he knew John was also protecting Sam—watching and smelling bodies burn could be pretty awful if you weren't used to it. "And, Dean, don't think we're not gonna talk about what the demon said."

Fuck. "Demons like to warp the truth, Dad. There was sex but completely mutual, and I was only underage for a few months."

John just patted his knee and closed the door. "Like I said, we'll talk. Get him outta here, Sammy."

Who'd come up with that wonderful honesty plan with his dad? Oh, yeah. Sometimes he ran his mouth way too much. "Don't get used to driving my car," he bitched as Sam drove away from the corral. And yeah, take your own stupidity out on Sam. "Pick one out at Bobby's and we'll get it fixed up for you," he added in apology.

"You don't have to give me a car, man. I can get a used—"

"No brother of mine is gonna drive some factory-made piece of shit that won't make it to the Palo Alto city limits, much less all the way to South Dakota and back. And turn this car around so I can at least see the glow from that son of a bitch. Better than a fuckin' sunrise, man." And speaking of... "Little Brother, there comes a time when a man must learn the things that a man oughtta know."

Sam rolled his eyes at the words. "And what should a man know, Big Brother?"

"The difference between a full moon and a waxing gibbous moon. That up yonder," he pointed at the moon which was quite high in the sky now, "is a waxing gibbous moon, so noted because it isn't actually full yet."

Sam squinted out the windshield. "Oh, I see what you mean. My bad."

Dean shook his head in disgust. "Remind me never to go on a werewolf hunt with you."

"Definitely not a problem." Sam grinned before slumping behind the steering wheel and settling in, his legs splaying wide in order to fit in the small space. "So what are you and Dad gonna do now?"

Dean shrugged. Although that was the end of the demon who'd killed his mother, it wasn't the end of the evil that went bump in the night. And after all these years, they mattered as much to him as the yellow-eyed demon did. "Same thing we do every night, Pinky."

"The end of an era and nothing changes?"

"Not for me, man." Dean smiled softly at the light that was growing fainter. "The real change came in August of 2004. This—this is just closure."

Sam nodded, a finger reaching up to his face to either worry a frown or scratch an itch. "When I got on that plane back then, Dean, all I could dream about was winning an Olympic medal. Didn't even know there was something greater to dream about."

"What will you dream of now? Was this closure for you as well? Not that you're gonna forget Jess, but..."

"There are so many questions that remain. Like why did I get the demon blood? Why did he kill Jess? Was all this just to get hold of the gun because it could kill him? Seems to me if he was afraid of the gun, he could've just avoided it or something. He's dead, and I'm glad of that, but he had answers that we won't get now." Sam threw his head back against the seat. "I'm happy. I'm sad. Hell, man, I'm all over the place. Think Jim's got any Prozac in that bag of his?"

"When I get like that, I head to the garage and lose myself in doing what I know how to do. That's what's gonna get you through, too. Go back to school, get lost in all those heavy law books, and the next thing you know, you'll have regained your path."

Sam gave a small chuckle. "My brother, the zen master."

"What can I say? Painkillers always send me into a higher orbit."

"So, does that mean you won't hit me if I say something?" Sam turned his head toward Dean and gave him a soft smile.

"Oh, God. As soon as I learned you lived in California, I knew this moment was coming. Fine, share with me, Sam." Dean sighed dramatically, then frowned when his body didn't appreciate the gesture.

Sam leaned over and dropped his head lightly against Dean's shoulder. "You're my brother and I love you. But it's not only that: I like you. I couldn't have made it this past month without you. You have been my rock, my touchstone and if I ever lost you again, I think I'd lose myself."

Dean lowered his head against Sam's. "I always wanted a little sister." He gave a shallow laugh. "Yeah, you better be glad I'm in a pharmaceutical haze, dude. Love you, too," he murmured.

Relaxed in his car with his brother at his side where he belonged, all the people he loved with in yelling distance, and the menace he'd chased his whole life currently turning to charcoal, Dean succumbed to the drugs and fell asleep, a smile crossing his lips briefly before they became slack with slumber.


epilogue

U.S. Olympic Trials
Qwest Center
Omaha, Nebraska
July 2008

"Watch out, China, the Brothers Winchester are gonna kick your ass!" Dean shouted as he walked out to the Impala with Sam, who'd just secured a spot on the 2008 Olympic Swim Team. Dean had qualified in Shotgun weeks before.

"You know I'm retiring after this, right?" Sam said, dodging a crying kid being dragged by his mom.

"Aw, you can't retire, man. Bobby has errands set up for us for the next three Olympics. He has entirely too many friends in exotic places." He popped open the trunk and Sam tossed his bag inside. Then Dean pulled out a cardboard shoebox and handed it to Sam.

Sam opened the box and grinned. "Flashcards! In Mandarin? Bobby was a Boy Scout in a former life, wasn't he?"

"You're lucky—I got Cantonese."

"Another book to pick up?" Sam was already excitedly flipping through the cards.

"Something about a white dragon. I'm hoping he means a figurine." He popped an eyebrow in Sam's direction.

Sam looked up from the cards and frowned. Then his eyes widened. "You don't think..."

Dean shrugged. "Ya never know with Bobby." He closed the trunk and slid into the driver's seat.

Sam got into the passenger's side a little more slowly. "Any idea of what repels a dragon?"

"Not a clue."

"Never a dull moment around you guys, is there?" Sam carefully put the lid back on the box he held on his lap.

Dean gave him a bright smile as an answer. "Speaking of dull, what are you gonna do when you retire from swimming? Head back out to Cali or down to Arizona? I know your mom would like you closer."

Sam ran a hand through his hair, which he'd cut short because of the swim cap. "Don't know, man. Damon offered to cut me in as a partner." Damon Shuckman was the lawyer Sam worked for in Rapid City. After he'd graduated, he needed a job that would give him time for practice and meets. As long as he got his assignments done, clerk-work mostly but he'd seconded in the courtroom once or twice, Shuckman didn't care about his hours.

"That enough of a challenge for you?" Dean didn't want to discourage Sam from staying in South Dakota, but he knew his brother liked to be pushed to his limits. Shuckman was a working man's lawyer. His clients consisted mostly of small town dirty laundry: weekend drunks, the occasional workman's comp case, foreclosures, and single moms in search of deadbeat dads.

"Surprisingly, yes," Sam answered as Dean pointed the car northwest on the highway. "I like working with people, not corporations or millionaires. I feel like I'm helping, that I'm making a difference. Wonder where I get that from?"

Dean smiled. Saving people from the bad in the world. That was the family business. John still hunted full-time, although he stopped by the salvage yard more and more. He'd even shown up at a couple of shooting comps, mostly to bitch and point out Dean's competitors' faults. He'd attended three of Sammy's meets, trying not to look painfully bored (Dean knew the feeling; when Sam wasn't swimming, he really didn't care).

Dean also continued to hunt and help newer hunters, which included Sam on occasion (Sam kicked ass at research). Bobby and Jim were still in the game, managing to awe Dean with their knowledge and skill. Saving people. Athens 2004. Beijing 2008. South Dakota and the US—anytime. Didn't matter where they were or when they were. His family always gave their best.

Gold medallists each and every one of them.

Yeah, he could be excited about being in China with Sam. A shiny medal around his neck, the two of them making their way through the ancient land on some freaky scavenger hunt for Bobby... That would be a fun adventure. But the Olympics didn't really matter. The medals were just basically trinkets.

"We could try hypnotism."

Dean risked taking his eyes off the road to look at Sam. "What?"

"For your fear of flying."

"Oh, hell no!"

"C'mon, Dean. I know this guy..."

Dean argued fondly with his brother as the Impala ate up the road that led toward home. Gold? Just a color to him; he'd already won the treasure of a lifetime.

The End


Part I ◄ ► Part II ◄ ► Part III ◄ ► Part IV ◄ ► Part V ◄ ► Part VI

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