There was something bothering him, something big, but he couldn't really be bothered to find out what it was at the same time. He just wanted it to leave him the hell alone. But eventually, that something seeped through and he shifted a little and felt like he was working against dough. Someone had once told him that trying to swim in the dead sea was like trying to swim through thick molasses, heavy and very hard work, and he could imagine that it would feel like this.

"Come on, Sammy. Shake it off, up and at'em, open your damned eyes here, man."

Dean's voice cut through all the bullshit, but he still couldn't convince himself to obey. Not just yet. He needed to assess his situation, needed to know how much damned pain he was going to be in if he started moving, because the non-feeling he had right now could only translate into a body-wide fire alert. He'd been there before, woken up in a hospital bed with the distinct impression that he wasn't going to be in pain and when he'd started moving, he had been proven wrong on so many levels, he'd had nightmares of waking up like that for about two months after.

"Sam?"

Oh crap. Dean knew he was waking up. He could hear it in his brother's tone of voice. A callused hand touched his cheek and he couldn't stop the groan from escaping him. 'Not yet. Please, let me just sleep a bit longer'. The mantra of his childhood. When he hadn't been plagued by nightmares, he hadn't wanted to wake up, because dreams had always been so much better than real life.

"Sammy, come on. Wake up, dude. We're running out of time here."

He hated it when Dean sounded like that. It implied that something bad was waiting beyond the borders of sleep, something that would probably hurt a lot, and Sam really wasn't interested right now. But he could no more undo his waking up than he could stop Dean from sounding like the world was ending.

"Sam!"

Now, that tone was old familiar ground. Dean was beginning to sound pissed off. 'Wake up, Sam. Dad said so ten times. He's getting angry now.' Yeah, old familiar ground.

Memories invaded his mind, harsh memories that stirred nightmares and pushed him further toward full awareness. One nightmare he couldn't outrun though. The agony of spikes driving through his wrists, the snap of a whip tearing fire across his back, the subsequent healing that had been a nightmare in its own right, the realization that he was handicapped, the sudden change in his vision, the searing light others emitted, the demons that had attacked and hurt his brother, the fact that he would probably never be able to see or use his hands properly again.

Then he became aware of the one thing he hadn't felt since childhood. Dean's hand against his cheek, even now that he was waking up, when Dean had to be aware of that, and still he kept his hand in place. "Thought you didn't do that touchy-feely crap," he managed to say and flinched at how hoarse he sounded and how unused he was to the sound of his own voice. How long had he been out?

Dean chuckled. "Hey, I'm not the one who just spent three days on my damned back." There was a pause, hesitation, and still Dean's hand remained pressed against his cheek. "Well ... technically speaking ..."

Unsure of what he would see when he opened his eyes, Sam still cracked his lids a little and squinted out at a world that was blurry and out of focus at first. He had a tickle in his throat and his mouth was dry. Apart from that, he felt lethargic, but not in pain. Carefully, he shifted a little, his arms first, then his head, and nothing hurt. Apart from a headache. "Where are we?"

"Safe for now," Dean said, but he didn't sound sure. "How're you feeling?"

Sam tried to lick his lips, but it felt like dragging sandpaper over wood. "Like I was hit by a house," he confessed a little shakily.

Dean's hand shifted to the back of his head. "Here. Drink something," he suggested and Sam didn't oppose him on that one. The water that trickled into his mouth was soothing. He wanted to gulp it down, but kept in mind that too much of anything wasn't good.

He shut out the light for a moment by closing his lids again, then took the step and opened them completely. The first thing that came into clear view was Dean. His brother looked worse for wear, like he hadn't slept in ages, but all the bruises that should have been there were gone. "How long?" he asked. He was certain he'd been out of it for a while and couldn't really understand how the hell they'd gotten away from the demons.

"Two days," Dean said and put the bottle of water aside. "Give me a layout of how you feel, dude. Anything broken? Any aches and pains that shouldn't be there?"

Sam considered it for a moment, then grimaced. "I'm kinda hungry," he said, assuming that the fist clenching his stomach was that and not some unimaginable evil. "How'd we get away?"

"By the skin of our noses, dude," Dean said and sighed. "You annihilated the demons. That's a pretty terrifying ability, by the way."

He swallowed and realized one important detail. His vision was back to normal. That thought alone made him sigh. That was always something.

"Sam, we've got some issues that need to be dealt with here. And they need to be dealt with within the next half hour. There's a lot of shit going down right now, but the most important issue is that you need to make a choice and nobody else can make it for you and there's no time to explain this."

Sam blinked, focused on his brother and frowned. Dean didn't get anxious, yet for all intents and purposes, he sounded like it right now. "What choice?" he asked. "What are you talking about?"

Dean grimaced. "You unleashed something big when you opened that book, Sammy. And now you need to make a decision on how to end this before everything goes back to square one and this all starts over again."

"You're not making any sense, man," he tried. He didn't understand half of what Dean was trying to tell him.

Before he could consciously put things in order, Dean suddenly rose and stepped back from his bed. His brother seemed a little unsteady. Sam watched him for a second, then shifted his attention in the direction Dean was looking. A woman stood there, tall, willowy, and she had an aura of power around her that nearly blew him away. She eyed Dean for a second, then shifted her attention to him. Her eyes were nearly glowing and it was impossible to tell what color they were.

"It is time," she said quietly.

Dean nodded. "He has no idea what's going on," he warned.

She didn't reply, but stepped up to Sam's bed and settled down on the edge of it. "You must make your choice. We have little time left."

"What choice?" Sam asked, glanced up at Dean then back at her. "Who are you?"

"I am Gaia," she said. "Terra Phasmatis."

Sam blinked. The text in that book. He frowned, focused on Dean, then back on Gaia. "The book," he muttered. "I ... you ... it was a summoning spell. It awoke you."

"Yes. What is your choice?" she pressed. "We have little time left, Sam."

A little helpless right now, Sam looked up at Dean again. "Choice? What am I supposed to choose? I don't know what you're asking me to do."

"You released me to restore balance. You must make a choice on how that balance is achieved," Gaia said. "Much knowledge has been lost to the ages. Your predecessor was supposed to teach you, to give you the knowledge you need."

"My ..." Sam trailed off and carefully pushed himself up on his elbows. "Who's my predecessor? What are you talking about?"

Dean settled down on the edge of the other cot. "You're saying that our parents had the same roles?" he asked.

"Yes. The key and the protector," Gaia agreed without looking at Dean. "You must choose."

"The ... what?" Confused and more than a little unsettled, Sam looked over at Dean again.

"You are the key," Gaia said. "He is the protector," she added and nodded toward Dean. "For the first time in eons, the blood lines have come back together and have forged a stronger bond than any pair before you."

"Sammy, this is a bit like a genie-wish. You can end this. You can stop the demons. All you gotta do is make a wish. But you gotta think it through. You gotta make it count," Dean said, obviously aware of how confused Sam was by this.

"Think it through?" Sam blinked, focused briefly on this woman, then back on Dean. "Uh ..."

"Time is of the essence," Gaia repeated calmly while his brother was fidgeting and that alone was enough to drive him nuts. "You must choose."

"And if I don't?" Sam asked.

"Then I go back to sleep until I am needed," she said.

Sam glanced at Dean, who eyed her with a frown furrowing his brow, then back at Gaia, who watched him with an expressionless face. "Does that mean ..." He paused, then focused on his brother. "They have the book?" he asked. "The demons? They have the book? If she goes back to sleep, they have the book and that means they can wake her up again. That means ..."

"No, they don't. We have the book," Dean cut him off. "So ... choose. Make whatever choice you need to make and lets end this."

"Choose what? What am I supposed to choose, Dean?" Sam shot back, a little rattled by the whole thing. What if he made the wrong choice? What if the world ended in chaos and flames because he made the wrong decision at the wrong time?

"I don't know. This is your choice, Sam," Dean countered, his tone bordering on exasperation. He had probably discussed this with Gaia before Sam came to. "I don't know," he repeated and focused on Gaia again. "What's he supposed to choose? What exactly are you asking of him?"

She met his eyes dead on. "It is not for me to say," she said. "It is his choice."

Dean hissed out a sigh. "For pity's sake! We're running out of time and you're spouting riddles? That's just fucking great, isn't it? Take an interest, will ya? We need a little help here. He wasn't taught because the 'key' died too early. We don't know what to do."

Gaia eyed him for a second, then shifted her attention to Sam. "Your decision will end this. By the turn of the new day, you must decide."

"That's midnight. Why?" Dean asked.

"Those are the rules," she said cryptically.

"And who made those rules? Maybe we should talk to whoever made the rules, huh? Get an extension? Something along those lines?" Dean pressed on.

That suggestion made her frown lightly. "An extension?"

"Yeah, a time-out. I mean, it's not fair, you putting that much pressure on Sam when he doesn't know what to do," Dean said.

"This is not about fair. This is about choices," Gaia said.

Dean rolled his eyes in exasperation. "How the hell is he supposed to make a choice when he doesn't know what the outcome is?"

"Wait a minute," Sam said when an idea suddenly hit him, "... if I choose ... to send all demons back to Hell and lock the gates forever ... you could do that?"

She eyed him closely. "I can if that is your choice. But I cannot promise forever. Other generations will come and have different ideas. Some may find a way to reopen the gates."

"But if that was my choice? Then all demons would disappear from the face of the Earth?" he asked. "Could I choose to eradicate them?"

"No," she said. "For there to be good, there has to be bad. For there to be happy, there has to be sad. Balance is of the essence."

"Sam, we gotta think this through," Dean said. "You can't make any decisions before ..."

"The choice is made," Gaia interrupted him.

"What? No," Sam spurted out and sat up fully. "No, no, no, I didn't make a choice. It was just an idea. I ..."

"You have chosen," Gaia insisted.

"Dammit Sam," Dean growled.

"I didn't ..." He stopped, at a complete loss for a moment. "What did I choose? What choice did I ..."

"You chose to rid the world of demons. The demons are gone. They will not reappear in your lifetime," Gaia said and rose, then glanced toward the ceiling of the tent. "It is almost time," she added, then returned her attention to Sam. "You have done the world a great favor. Do yourself a favor and take care of this world. She is all you have." She took a step back. "Teach your successors what you know. Prepare them for the eventuality that this may happen again. Renew the tradition. And be kind to one another."

That said, she turned and left the tent again.

Sam just sat there and stared at the opening, not at all sure what had just happened. Then he glanced over at Dean, who was watching him with an unreadable expression. "What did I just do?"

Dean pursed his lips. "Well, if she's right and she's not just another ... creature with delusions of grandeur, you've just rid the world of demons." The thought made him smirk. "We could have used a little more time to think this through, I guess. I mean ... if you'd said 'rid the world of all evil' instead of just demons ... well, then we'd be out of a job, wouldn't we?"

"Uhm ..." Sam reached up and rubbed at his right eye. "So ... you think that the demons are gone?" he asked.

"I don't know, Sammy. But I wouldn't mind a world where we don't have to fight off ugly-assed critters like that all the time," Dean countered.

Before he could say more, the tent flaps opened again and another woman stepped in. She looked happy, at ease. "Thank you," she said. "For making the choice, for restoring the balance."

"Elaine," Dean said. "Meet Sam."

"Could someone please fill me in?" Sam asked. "I feel like I've missed half a play here."

Elaine smirked and Dean looked about ready to. "I'll tell you the legend of Gaia. Maybe that will make sense to you," Elaine said.

***

After Elaine had repeated her tale of Gaia, they sat quietly for a while until the quiet started to bother Dean. "So, what exactly did that book say?" He eyed his brother curiously. It felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, like he could actually enjoy himself again without having to pay attention to deals and demons and other nasty stuff. The world felt fresher somehow, more alive.

Sam was still taking it all in, still looking a little perplexed by the whole deal, and Dean didn't blame him. He wasn't so sure he'd be this calm about it. But maybe Sam was just too worn out to get worked up right now. "Well, if I remember correctly, it said: Suscitatio, terra phasmatis. Awake, earth spirt," he said and frowned in concentration. "Suffragium mihi. Aid me. Reverto ut vestri radix. Return to your roots. Suscitatio. Awake. And that was it."

Dean grinned. "You always were nosier than hell," he said. "Good thing too. Otherwise the demons would have been able to choose and we would all have been well and royally screwed."

"Truer words were never spoken," Elaine agreed and smiled a little ruefully. "Although, I would have preferred a cleaner word choice."

"Why? Are you gonna write this down or something?" Dean asked and grinned. "The Winchester Gospel?" He laughed, couldn't help himself. If this was all true, if the world was now rid of demons, life sure as hell looked a lot brighter. And it really settled him to know that Sam hadn't been corrupted by a demon, he'd been born like this. It made a difference. Then he suddenly focused on Sam. "So ... all this ability mumbo-jumbo. You still got it?"

Sam frowned, considered it for a moment, then arched both brows. "I don't think so. At least my vision is back to normal, I can't sense anyone's feelings. I don't know if I can still burn things down with my mind, but it doesn't feel like it. It's like ... I don't know ... it's all gone."

"That's because it's not necessary any more. You've done what you had to do and there will not be need for this again in your life time. The torch, if you will, has been passed on," Elaine said.

"To whom?" Sam asked and eyed her closely.

Elaine smiled. "To the next key in line. Your offspring. Your child," she said.

That seemed to worry Sam a little. "But ... I don't have a child."

"Well, if the legend is correct, you will have children. Both of you," she said and shifted her attention to Dean.

"Really? Any idea who the mother of my kid is gonna be? Just so I don't waste the opportunity," Dean countered.

Elaine chuckled. "No, I'm sorry. I can't see the future. But so far the legend has been true. I have no doubt that this will come to pass as well." She rose again. "Some of the others have picked up your car. It's ready and waiting for you. We're going to break camp at daybreak and will head out to our respective homes."

Dean rose too. "Well ... thanks for that. I hope ... we don't meet again."

Elaine obviously took that the way it was meant, because she smiled and held out a hand to him, which he took. "If there is ever anything we can do for you two, you be sure to let us know," she added and handed him a piece of paper. "My number. And Bobby knows how to get a hold of Susan if need be." With that, she took her leave of them and left the tent again.

Dean settled back down, folded the piece of paper and slipped it into his wallet. "We should celebrate," he proclaimed.

Sam just sat there and looked thoughtful. "We should head back to Bobby's and let them know," he countered, then met Dean's eyes. "Then we can celebrate."

"Yeah, good idea," Dean agreed and struggled to subdue a yawn. "But first, we get a little rest. It's still a few hours till daybreak."

The thoughtful look on Sam's face remained. He just sat there and stared ahead of himself. Then he suddenly frowned and looked down at his hands lying in his lap. The frown deepened.

"Sam?" Dean didn't much like that look. "Something wrong?"

Slowly, Sam raised his right hand and stared at it. Then he slowly flexed his fingers. All of them. His ring and little finger followed suit just like the rest of them. He stared at his hand, almost perplexed for a moment, then shifted his attention to the brace on his left hand.

Dean's response was immediate. He grabbed Sam's left wrist and pulled the velcro holding the brace in place off, then pulled it away from Sam's hand, fully expecting to see his fingers curl in on the palm. But nothing happened.

Sam's first response was to pull the sleeve of the heavy sweater up and expose unmarred skin on his left wrist. Then he flexed the fingers of his left hand before looking up to meet Dean's eyes. "You were pretty banged up by that demon, weren't you?" he asked.

Dean nodded and realized that he hadn't thought about that since waking up, but his face didn't feel swollen or bruised. Hell, he couldn't feel anything wrong. Without hesitation, he yanked the sweater off and noted that the gauze patch was gone and there was no sign of a wound on his shoulder. Not even a tiny teeny little scar. "Well, I'll be damned," he muttered, then shifted his attention back to Sam's hands. "She healed us."

Sam kept flexing his fingers, obviously enjoying the fact that he had full movability back. "Yeah ... but ..." He trailed off and looked up to meet Dean's eyes again. "How?"

With a sigh, Dean pulled the sweater back on. Despite the stove in the corner, it was a bit chilly. "Dude, you don't look a gift horse in the mouth," he stated. "Let's get some shuteye," he added, then tossed Sam a grin. "You can drive tomorrow. I'm through being your chauffeur." That said, he stretched out on the cot and pulled the heavy blankets up over him.

He was fully aware that it took his little brother a while to get his act together and all he could do was smirk lightly at that.

***

On the road
The following day

Despite his good intentions, Dean hadn't let Sam drive. Not so much because he didn't want him to, but because Sam had declined. And the way Sam's attention kept drifting made that a good decision.

After taking their leave of their rescuers and a very befuddled woman named Dawn, who was Gaia in human form with no recollection of who she really was, they had hit the road and were heading back toward South Dakota.

"Is it just me or is the sky out there bluer?" Dean asked after a while. Sam had been uncommonly silent while he kept flexing his fingers. His healing was complete. There wasn't a scar left on him. Even the scar from the removed sigil was gone.

"Huh?" Sam muttered and glanced at him. "What?"

"Man, where the hell are you? Crack a smile, Sam. The world's good right now and it owes it all to you," Dean tried and grinned broadly at him.

Sam's response was to frown lightly before he again stared out the window and didn't see anything.

"Sam?" Dean tried again. He was starting to worry that something had gone wrong after all. "What's with you?"

For a moment longer Sam just stared out of the windshield, his attention miles away, then he sighed lightly and glanced at Dean. "I don't know, Dean. I ... we're catalysts in all this. This wasn't my doing. Anyone could have done this."

"What do you mean, anyone? That's bull, bro. You're the key, the big guy in this equation. None of this would have happened without you," Dean tried.

"And think of how easily it could have gone wrong," Sam countered and balled both hands into fists. "If I hadn't opened the book, but only brought it back to the demons, they would have read the text and Gaia would have been bound to do their bidding. Do you have any idea how the world would look now if that had been the case?"

If he hadn't been driving right now, Dean would have wacked him over the back of the head for that. "Are you nuts? We're finally rid of all the uglies. Everything's gonna go back to normal. No more dying because of demons. And you're playing what-ifs with the dark side? Snap out of it, man. This is a good day. A day for celebrating. Hell, I aim at celebrating for at least a month. We need beer. And lots of it."

Sam eyed him for a moment, then finally displayed the first hints of a smile. "Everything starts and ends with a beer for you, doesn't it?"

"Hell yes," Dean agreed. "Right now, we're gonna go back and share the good news with Bobby and Grace. And then I plan on getting stinking drunk. And I'm not going to hunt anything for a good long while."

That made Sam's smile grow. "Sounds like a plan. Apart from the stinking drunk part. That you can do on your own. I just wanna enjoy the fact that I can actually use my hands again."

"What better way than finding a girl to shack up with? You can get an awful lot of ... exercise in that way," Dean countered and smirked when Sam blushed lightly and dropped his gaze to his hands.

"That's your deal," he muttered.

"Lighten up, man. You're fine, I'm fine, we're all fine," Dean tried, not sure what it would take to brighten his brother's mood completely.

Sam shrugged lightly. "Yeah, I guess you're right," he agreed, but remained borderline somber for the rest of the drive.

By the time they rolled into the junk yard, Dean had given up on cheering him up. At least for the time being. He cut the engine and then just sat there for a minute. "You know what I don't get?"

Sam glanced at him. "What?"

"This whole key and protector deal. I get your part in it. And it's big. It's a whopper of a responsibility. But ... what am I doing that's so important?" It wasn't really that important right now, but he kinda felt he had to say something and since this was obviously on Sam's mind right now, he figured a little reverse psychology might do the trick. "What? I'm your guard dog? That's what my role in this is?"

Sam stared at him for a second. "If that was all, Gaia wouldn't have needed you for the ritual. And ... from what she said ..."

Before he could go on, Dean noticed that both Bobby and Grace were on the porch, watching the car. "Yeah, you know what, Sam? It doesn't matter. You heard her. We're not going to have to do this again in our lifetime."

Sam nodded. "That's just the point, isn't it? Is this really something you wanna pass on to your kid, Dean?"

Dean frowned. So that was the core of Sam's concerns. "Look, from where I'm standing, it's not even sure I'll ever have kids. But if I do – and that's a big if right there – preparing him ... or her ... will be my biggest damned job. I think it's better to walk into this with your eyes wide open. Think of how much easier this all had been if we'd known about it from the start. All dad's assumptions ... man, I don't know what he thought he knew. But it was wrong. You beat the odds. You were stronger than that damned demon blood. And you kicked ass, Sammy. You saved the world. Can't you just enjoy that for a bit?"

"Did I?" Sam muttered. "I'm not so sure. If I'd had more time ..."

"Sam, stop it!" Dean demanded. "You did good out there. We did what we could with the knowledge that we had at the time. Not our fault that someone somewhere forgot to inform the rest of the class about what was going on. You heard Gaia. The knowledge was lost in time. Not our fault. We know now. We can do better. We can change things. We can make sure that this doesn't happen again. By telling our kids, by teaching them what we know."

Finally he seemed to be getting through, because that heavy blanket of a darkness seemed to lift from Sam. "You think so?"

"Hell yes. Of course I do. We're special, Sammy. You and me. We make a difference here." And the funny thing was, he believed it too. For the first time in his life, he actually felt like they'd made a big indent. And they had. And it was a liberating feeling. "Come on. Bobby and Grace must be wondering what we're up to," he added, opened the door and climbed out of the car.

It took a second or two, but then Sam followed suit.

"About time you two came back," Bobby said.

"Did you ... find what you were looking for?" Grace asked.

Dean grinned. "Yeah, you could say that. And then some," he agreed and glanced at Sam over the roof of the Impala.

His brother glanced back at him and for the first time in months, he saw a genuine smile on Sam's lips. And that made everything right with the world.

The End