The forest outside Kettle Falls
Washington State
The following night

With Sam's tracking abilities and Dean's sheer determination, they had pinpointed this particular demon's hunting grounds as being about two hours away from where they were staying. It took a little more time than anticipated to pinpoint the exact location and by the time they got there, it was getting dark.

Finding the demon hadn't been the tricky part. Keeping it in one place long enough to send it back to Hell was. It moved faster than they could track it, but it didn't seem overtly eager to get away from them either. They ended up running in circles for half the night before Sam got the gist of what it was doing.

A little out of breath, he stopped running and dropped down into a crouch. Dean stopped a few steps ahead of him and turned back to face him. "What?" he asked, obviously of the belief that Sam had found something on the ground.

"It's playing with us," Sam said and looked up. "We've been through this patch of forest about three times now."

Dean frowned, then glanced around the area. "How can you tell?"

"Because our boot prints are all over the place, dude," Sam countered and rose again. "The damned thing is having fun, Dean." To be honest, it was pissing him off. Demons and their annoying ways were really getting under his skin and he wanted nothing more than to waste it so they could go back to the motel and get some sleep. With that in mind, he glanced down himself, then turned his flashlight toward his jeans. "Look at me, man," he added. "I'm a mess." A couple of falls on the less than dry forest floor had pretty much made laundry day an necessity right now. Sam's jeans were caked with mud from the ankle to the knee. His hands were dirty and the light drizzle had pretty much drenched him by now.

"We don't have time to whine about dirty clothes, Sam," Dean said, his tone a bit stand-offish.

"Yeah, well, your precious car isn't going to be looking too good after we sit in it with all this mud on us," Sam countered, well aware that he was hitting the ever-present weak spot in Dean when he threatened his damned car.

Dean's eyes narrowed. "You're not getting in the car in that getup," he huffed and Sam couldn't help grinning.

"Look at yourself, dude. You don't look any better," he said.

Dean grimaced, then glanced down himself. "Crap," he growled, then sent the cone of light dancing over the dark trees. "Where are you, you son of a bitch? Are you afraid to face us?" he yelled.

Retribution in their world was swift and brutal most times and this time was no different. Dean was hit in the chest by an invisible battering ram, which sent him flying into the nearest tree trunk. But it didn't stop there. An invisible force squashed him into the trunk and started pulling him upward, the coarse bark of the tree making short work of his denim jacket and shirt and t-shirt underneath.

Sam rushed forward and barely managed to grab Dean's ankle before he was out of reach. With a hefty pull, he yanked his brother out of the demon's grip and back onto the ground, but had misjudged the angle, which sent Dean crashing down on top of him. They struggled for a moment to get untangled from each other, which gave the demon plenty of time to come up with a new ploy.

Dean was ripped away from Sam and then the demon pounced on Sam instead. But what made Sam angry wasn't the attack on himself, but rather the yelp of pain from Dean when he hit the ground several feet away. Something snapped in Sam's head and he focused up at the black smoke now forming above him as the demon tried to solidify to get a better angle of attack. He sneered, baring his teeth, and used a psychic push to disperse the demon. Without hesitation he began reciting the exorcism ritual, which manifested the demon first and foremost, but his recitation of the ritual went so fast that it didn't have the slightest chance of stopping him. The black cloud exploded and rained fine ash down over him, which he protected himself against by ripping both arms up to cover his face for a moment.

But a groan from Dean brought him back to his feet within seconds after getting rid of the demon. He sent a quick glance around to make sure the damned demon was gone, then rushed over to Dean's side. "Hey, Dean. You okay?" He dropped to his knees next to his brother, well aware that Dean had to be hurting badly for him to stay down this long.

"Give me a second," Dean rasped, pressing the words out through clenched teeth, one arm draped over his chest. "Oh man," he added and finally struggled to sit up. Pale and tightlipped, he sent a quick look around. "Is it gone?"

"Yeah, I exorcized it," Sam agreed and gave his brother a hand up. "Must have been a lesser demon. It didn't manage to put up much of a fight before it turned to dust," he added.

Dean arched his back carefully and hissed. "Man, that thing did a number on my back," he growled.

"Let me see." Sam picked up his flashlight and stepped around Dean to inspect the damage done. "Ouch," he added. Dean's denim jacket, shirt and t-shirt were shredded on the back and so was the skin beneath. "That's gonna hurt in the morning."

Dean glanced at him over one shoulder, his eyes dark. "It hurts now, you bitch," he snarled, then grimaced again. "I swear to God, if I have broken ribs I'm gonna be pissed."

"Yeah, okay, fine, you jerk," Sam countered with a small smile. "Let's just get back to motel and get you patched up," he added and took a hold of Dean's arm.

"Get off me. I'm not an invalid," Dean snapped and pulled his arm out of Sam's grip.

They made their way back to the Impala and for once Dean didn't raise a stink about dirt on the damned seats. Without a word being said about it, Dean handed Sam the keys and eased himself onto the passenger side seat where he didn't even make a halfhearted move to lean back. Instead he shifted around so he was sitting sideways.

Sam slid behind the wheel and eyed Dean for a moment.

"Can we go already?" Dean growled, obviously not in the mood for anything other than getting back to the motel.

"You shouldn't have pissed it off," Sam said. "This is what you get for not being able to keep your trap shut."

"Shut up," Dean countered flatly, "and start driving, dude. I'm bleeding to death here while you're yakking about nothing."

Sam made a face. "Jerk," he muttered, revved the engine and pulled the Impala around and back onto the forest road back toward the motel some two hour drive from where they were now.

"Bitch," Dean countered with feeling.

***

The motel
Near Oroville
Washington
Two and a half hours later

The cleaning solution stung like hell and Dean most of all wanted to lash out at Sam even though he knew very well that none of this was Sam's fault. Unfortunately, Sam was the one holding the rag that was causing him this pain right now.

Twisting as much as his bruised chest allowed for right now, he managed to slap the rag out of Sam's hand with an ill-contained curse. "Dammit, what the hell are you pouring on my back there?" he snapped heatedly. "Feels like goddamn acid."

Sam eyed him patiently, then picked up the rag and tossed it into the trash can before grabbing a new piece of cloth, which he doused liberally with the cleaning solution before proceeding to try and wipe off all the dirt that had gotten into the various cuts on Dean's back. "Stop being such a baby. You've had far worse before," he said.

"Worse my ass," Dean snarled and tried to twist away from the offending cloth. "Enough, Sam," he snapped when Sam tried again.

"Don't have a spas-attack, man," Sam countered and shook his head. "You've got dirt in those cuts. You want an infection? It'll make it worse."

Dean hissed under his breath, squared his jaw and leaned back a little. "Just get it over with, Samantha. You're enjoying this way too much," he growled.

"I am not enjoying it, okay?" Sam countered, obviously starting to tire of the situation. "I'm trying to help you, you jerk," he added and slapped the rag onto a particularly nasty scrape.

"Ow, dammit," Dean snapped, but somehow managed to stay in place when all he wanted to do was get the hell away from the pain.

Sam continued to torture him for another ten minutes before he was satisfied and finally bandaged Dean's back as much as he could. "There, that should hold for a bit," he said. "Let me see your chest."

"No," Dean decided and got up. "I've had enough of your ministrations for one night," he added.

"What are you so bitchy about? We got the demon. You should be happy," Sam stated, somewhat annoyed now.

Dean inhaled deeply and let out a sigh, trying to calm himself down. "One down, one hundred and ninety-nine to go. Get the picture?" he countered.

"With that attitude we might as well throw in the towel right now," Sam said and finished packing up the first aid kit that would put most smaller hospitals to shame. "Speaking of towels," he added and got up. "I'm gonna hit the shower."

Dean made a face and eased down on the chair, careful not to lean back. Sam disappeared into the bathroom and seconds later the water was running. Dean just sat there and stared at the door for a bit, trying not to be too worried about the thoughts that were tumbling through his head. The demon had gone for both of them, but oddly enough he was the only one with any bruising at all. And he had seen how that black smoke that had been the demon had been ripped apart when Sam had glared up at it. There was no doubt in his mind that Sam still had his abilities and that in and off itself worried him more than anything else. Granted, Sam only seemed to reach for those abilities when he was in trouble and that was the good part of it. But apparently, the majority of the other special kids had gone bad once they had started to tap into their abilities for real.

When Sam emerged from the bathroom a bit later, Dean hadn't moved. He still sat there and stared ahead of himself, lost in thought. Sam eyed him while toweling his hair dry, then dropped the towel on his bed. "How's your mood? Any better?" he asked.

Dean sneered. "No," he admitted. "My back hurts, but not as much as my damned pride," he added.

Sam settled down on the edge of his bed and eyed him for a moment. "What's wrong with your pride?"

Dean rolled his eyes. "It caught me off guard, Sam. The damned demon caught me off guard. That sort of crap gets you killed, you know," he said.

"Yeah, I know. But, as I said earlier, if you hadn't pushed it, it wouldn't have gone after you," Sam said and shrugged lightly.

"Yeah right," Dean muttered. "Look, Sam, I'm sorry about my mood, okay? I'm just ..." He trailed off, not sure how to say what was on his mind without sounding like a complete wuzz.

Sam eyed him for a moment, then shrugged again, grabbed a t-shirt and pulled it over his head. "Don't worry about it, Dean," he said. "Let's just get some sleep. We're both wasted. It's been a busy night."

For a moment Dean considered really getting into this, then shrugged it off. "Yeah, you're right," he agreed, got off the chair with a little effort and withdrew to the bathroom himself.

By the time he came back in, Sam was asleep.

***

One week later
Route 95 toward Lovelock
Nevada

"Do you think they want to be found?" Sam knew it was probably a stupid question, but they hadn't said two words to each other for the better part of an hour and the silence was starting to bother him.

Dean glanced over at him, his brows arched. "What do you mean?" He sounded a tad confused about that question.

"The demons. I mean ... this is the second one we've tracked down in the span of one and a half months. It just seems a little too easy sometimes," Sam said and made a face.

"Too easy, huh? You think it's easy, being thrown into a tree and having your back ripped to shreds by the bark?" Dean countered. "Oh, right, I forgot," he added in mock-surprise. "That sort of thing doesn't happen to you."

Sam rolled his eyes. "You're such a drama queen sometimes," he muttered. "And that's not what I meant. Usually, demons are good at hiding, aren't they? These guys ..."

"... seem stupid, yes. Which probably makes them lesser demons. Which again makes it that much easier to deal with them. I don't think we've been up against anything nearly as high-class as ... Meg," Dean countered and made a face. "Not that I'm dying to ..." He stopped, his eyes on the road.

"I get you," Sam agreed quietly.

"It's gonna be down there, you know. Unless it got out when that moron opened the gate," Dean said, his expression dark.

"I'm sure it has other things to worry about than you right now," Sam countered, hoping to settle Dean's obvious anxiety. All in all, there was no doubt that his brother wasn't too keen on facing that particular demon again. Whatever its name was – to the both of them it would always be Meg – it had seemingly decided to blame Dean for all its shortcomings.

"Yeah, probably," Dean muttered under his breath. "Let's find a place to hole up first of all," he added.

Sam nodded, but said nothing more.

***

They found a motel a bit further on and settled in before doing anything else. Dean, who had always been the easy-going one, wasn't so much any more. He paced. Sam understood why, but it was no less distracting. "Would you sit down, please?" he finally said and looked up at Dean, who had come to a stop, his expression tight.

"Sure," he countered and dropped down on the other chair while Sam continued researching this latest demon. It took Dean exactly one minute before he was back on his feet, pacing restlessly around the room. "You know, ten months always seemed like such an awful long time before," he said and came to a brief stop at the window facing the front. He eyed the parking lot outside for a minute, then started pacing around the room again.

Sam watched him for a bit, but said nothing. What could he say that he hadn't said a million times before, after all.

"Doesn't seem all that long any more. Actually, it seems kinda short," Dean continued.

Sam wasn't entirely sure Dean was aware he was talking out loud. "We'll find a way, Dean. Don't worry," he said.

Dean snorted and continued pacing. "Ten months. That's like nothing at all. You can't even start something and finish it in ten months." He stopped in the middle of the room and raked all ten fingers through his hair, then laced his fingers behind his head.

"Dean," Sam tried, but Dean didn't seem to hear him. He just stood there and stared ahead of himself. Then he glanced sideways at Sam and it was at that point that Sam realized that this went beyond nervousness and unease. Dean was scared out of his mind right now. "Dean, I promise you. We will find a way to get you out of this deal. Maybe I can trap that bitch and exorcize her or something," he said.

"And maybe not. You're not going up against her alone. She's too crafty," Dean countered and let his arms drop. "And I doubt that exorcizing her will help. You'll just send her back to Hell. She won't be gone for good. It might buy me some time, but not enough for it to matter."

"Dean, I really think we should put the demon-hunting on hold for now and focus on this. I'll call Bobby again. Maybe he's figured something out in the meantime," Sam said and grabbed his phone.

"Don't. If he had figured something out, he would have called," Dean countered and dropped back down on the chair. "Let's just bag this bitch. At least that gives me something else to think about for now," he added.

Sam nodded lightly. "Okay," he consented and returned his attention to the laptop.

***

An old warehouse
Outside Lovelock
Nevada

Dean knew that Sam knew that he was scared and that wasn't what he had been after. Actually, it bothered him beyond compare that Sam was aware of it. To his brother's credit, though, he didn't say anything about it.

"Okay, forests, old warehouses," he said and swung the EMF around to locate the demon. "What's next? Suburbia? Someone's kid?"

"Probably," Sam agreed while keeping a close eye on the infrared camera. "You getting anything?" he asked after a moment.

The old warehouse was abandoned, but there was still a lot of stuff lying around. Broken crates, old tarps, lots and lots of debris. It was hard to distinguish anything worth while and Dean couldn't really understand why this damned demon would choose to hang around here when there were plenty of people out in the streets to possess. "Do you think they're actually afraid of people?" he asked and glanced at Sam, who was on the other side of the rather wide corridor they were working their way through.

Sam stopped and glanced back at him with a frown furrowing his brow. "Afraid?" he countered, then made a face. "I don't think so. I mean, all things considered they have the upper hand with all this psychic stuff they can do," he added. "Why do you ask?"

Dean shrugged. "No real reason. Just wondering. I mean, why the hell is it hiding out here of all places when there are loads of people out there in the streets?"

"Don't know," Sam countered and lowered the camera. "There's nothing here," he added. "This place seems to be just what it looks like. An abandoned warehouse."

With a heartfelt sigh, Dean switched off the EMF. "Looks like you're right," he agreed.

They stepped through a door into the main storage hall, which was pretty big and pretty empty.

"Well, this sucks," Dean commented and glanced around. "I so had my heart set on blowing a demon away today."

Sam made a face. "Looks like you're going to have to wait until we can actually track it down," he countered with a vague smile on his lips.

"That is so not funny. The longer that bastard is out there, the more people it can mess up," Dean growled and glanced around. "Why is there so much empty property sitting around in every damn town we come through?"

"I don't know," Sam muttered and switched the camera off. "Too many ghosts? Too few of us around?"

Dean snorted, but in an amused way. "Could be," he agreed. "Okay, let's call it a day. I'm tired and hungry and I really can't be bothered anymore."

Sam smirked. "I was hoping you'd say that," he said and dumped the camera into his bag. "I'm kinda hungry too, actually," he added.

"Yeah, considering that you eat like a damned bird. You're too big to eat that little," Dean countered and kicked a lump of debris across the floor. It clattered along the abandoned hall, then got stuck on nothing near the center. "What the hell?" Dean added.

In mere seconds, anything and everything that wasn't nailed down was hurled at him. Instinctively, Dean dropped down into a crouch, ripping both arms up to protect his face, and was pummeled with everything from small pieces of rock to wooden planks twice his size. He was knocked over, which turned out to be an advantage in the end.

It took a moment before everything settled down again. Battered and bruised, Dean slowly sat up, pushing boards and debris away from him as he did. "Sam?" he called and twisted around to look for his brother.

"I'm okay," Sam responded at once, having faced the same trouble as Dean. He too was on the floor, covered with debris, which he was slowly struggling his way out of. "Damn, that's one pissed-off demon," he added.

"Not nearly as pissed-off as it could be," Dean countered and got to his feet. "Man, I am getting majorly fed up with being target practice for those bastards," he added, pulled out the EMF and switched it on. "And this whole place is a time bomb," he added and took a cautious step backwards, nearly falling on the debris that surrounded him. "I think we should get the hell out of here."

"I agree," Sam said. "But how are we going to get out if it doesn't want us to leave?"

"We'll find a way," Dean assured him and backed up until he was standing next to Sam near the door they had just come in through. He eyed the area in search of any sign of where the demon might be, then glanced toward the door, then back at Sam. "Sam?"

Sam was tense, yet alert. "Yeah?" he countered.

Dean glanced toward the door again, sent another quick look around the hall and made a decision. "Run!" he snapped, turned and raced for the door. Sam was hot on his heels and the whole hall behind them exploded in activity as the floor boards were lifted off and thrown after them together with every bit of debris that could move.

They ran like hell, being pummeled by minor debris while the corridor behind them was ripped to shreds in their wake, but somehow they managed to get out with minor bruises.

The second they were out the side-door they had come in through, the havoc inside stopped as suddenly as it had started, but that didn't mean they stopped running. They didn't stop until they reached the Impala and even then Dean couldn't get the key out of his pocket fast enough.

Once in the car, he reversed and floored the gas pedal, ripping the Impala back out on the street, where he tore the car around and got them the hell out of there.

Sam was breathing hard while looking back over his shoulder for a moment. Then he glanced at Dean. "Run?" he asked. "That was your big plan? Run? We could have gotten killed in there."

"Yeah, well, we didn't," Dean countered breathlessly.

Sam merely shook his head, sent another brief look out through the rear window, then settled himself more comfortably into the seat. "I really think we should reconsider these hunts, Dean," he said for the umpteenth time.

"And I really think I don't want to talk about it right now," Dean countered and gave him a sideways glance.

***

Some hours later
The motel
Outside Lovelock
Nevada

"I'm starving." Dean had stopped in the middle of the room after pacing around for about an hour, his right hand placed flatly against his stomach, while he stared almost helplessly ahead of himself. The botched-up hunt hadn't done much for his peace of mind, but apparently it didn't affect his hunger.

Sam, who was lying on his bed, his hands folded behind his head, raised it off the pillow a bit and squinted at his brother. One and a half months with a death sentence from Hell hanging over Dean's head, and all the man could think about was food. Sometimes, it worried Sam. Sometimes he thought Dean was in denial. Most times, he knew Dean wasn't. He was just trying to live as normally as he could in the time he had left. "So, eat something," Sam suggested helpfully.

Dean glanced at him and made a face. The scar from his encounter with the headstone was still visible on his brow, mainly because it had dragged a fine line through his left eyebrow. "There's nothing left in the fridge. We should stock up," he countered, his tone almost suffering.

"Kinda impossible with the way you eat," Sam said and sat up. "Dean, are you okay?"

Dean arched an eyebrow. "Yeah, just hungry is all," he said and sighed deeply. "I'm gonna go out and grab us something to eat. You want anything?" he added, grabbed his jacket off his unmade bed and shrugged into it.

"I can go," Sam suggested.

"Nope, you're staying here. The last two times I let you go out for food on your own, you first vanished for a week and wound up possessed by a girl and then got yourself abducted by that demon and wound up in the ghost town of all ghost towns. Don't want that happening again," Dean said and gave him a saying look.

It sent a ripple of anger through him and Sam consciously had to fight it back to not let it show. It took him a second to gather his wits enough to reply to that one and Dean noticed. But he said nothing. "You're never going to let me live that one down, are you?" Sam finally asked with a slight frown furrowing his brow.

"Nope," Dean agreed and smirked. "Be back in a few. There's a movie on later that I wanna catch," he said and left the motel room without another word.

Sam eyed the door for a moment, grimaced and dropped back down on the bed. He was tired and annoyed and frustrated; from reading too many ancient books that made little to no sense, from surfing the internet ceaselessly without finding anything worthwhile, from calling everyone and everything he could think of for a solution that didn't seem to exist, from hunting demons that threw debris at them. One and a half months and he was no closer to how he could get Dean out of that damned deal. Frustration was walking up the path to his front door, ready to start knocking to be let in, and it was walking hand in hand with desperation and deep-rooted anger that he couldn't control any more. One and a half months and counting and as of yet he had no inkling of an idea how to break the deal without killing himself in the process. And even that was not an option, because Dean would never let him do it in the first place.

"Shit," he muttered, closed his eyes and let himself drift. Alone time was rare these days and not something he really cherished. Most of the time they stuck together like glue, never going anywhere on their own just in case.

One and a half months had decimated the escaped demons by two, which wasn't much in Sam's book, but better than nothing he supposed. They'd managed to find two of them and send them right back where they'd come from. "And that leaves one hundred and ninety-eight," he muttered and made a face without opening his eyes. At this rate, he'd be hunting demons alone in ten months time and the thought alone raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Not so much because of the demons, but because he would have to do it without Dean. "Dammit, I need to find a solution," he growled and sighed deeply, opened his eyes again and sat up once more. He grabbed his phone, stabbed the redial with one finger and waited until the other end picked up. "Hey Bobby. Any luck?" he asked.

"No, Sam. No more than the last time you called." Bobby didn't sound annoyed, just tired, and Sam grimaced.

"Sorry. I'm just pulling a complete blank on this one and it's really starting to bug me. I mean, one and a half months into this and there's not even a flicker of a way to do this?" It was a painful thing, having to admit that he wasn't able to find a way, a solution they could use. A quick glance at the door to assure himself Dean wasn't on the way back already, he leaned forward a bit and scratched the back of his head pensively. "Bobby, we need to get him out of this one. I can't even begin to imagine how I'm gonna cope if he isn't here."

"Don't worry, Sam. We'll find a way. Just give me some time to figure this out, okay?" Bobby countered. "I take it he's out?"

Sam smirked joylessly. "Would I be talking about this if he wasn't?"

"Point taken. How's the hunt going? Any luck?" Bobby asked.

"Not so much. We found one here in Nevada, but it was just a little bit too pissy for us to take on. It basically threw a whole warehouse at us, so we hightailed it out of there. And there are others in the vicinity. I'm sure of it," Sam said and pursed his lips, aware of Bobby's expression when he said things like that.

"A vision?" Bobby asked.

"No, I haven't had one of those since ... you know," Sam said and sighed lightly. "I just need to get Dean out of this. I can't focus on the damned hunt with this crap hanging over his head. It's not fair. He shouldn't have to ..." He trailed off, well aware that he sounded like a cranky kid right now.

"I know, Sam. And I promise you, we'll find a way. There has to be one. Somehow," Bobby said, but he didn't sound very hopeful.

"Yeah, I know," Sam said and really didn't know. "Anyway, I'll let you go. Dean's going to come back any minute now and I just know what he's going to say if he realizes that I'm calling you again."

Bobby chuckled a little halfheartedly. "Yeah. Well, Sam, I'll catch you later. Gotta hit those books again. And you do some more research. Together we'll come up with something."

"Sure we will," Sam said with little conviction. "Catch you later, Bobby," he added and hung up. For a long moment he stared at the phone in his hand, then put it back on the night stand and stretched out on the bed again and folded his hands behind his head once more. His mind kept circling around the problem and continued to come up with nothing.

Again he drifted, allowing himself to drift off to a light doze. A car pulling up close to the cabin yanked him back to full awareness and he sat up on the bed, blinking a little sluggishly at his surroundings. Then he yawned heartily. Something was niggling at him and he couldn't really pinpoint it at first. Then he glanced at his watch and froze. "What the hell?" he muttered and tapped the face of the watch. Then he grabbed his cell phone and eyed the display and the watch there.

Before he could give it any conscious thought, he was off the bed and out the door, but once outside he had no clue where to go or what to do. He had been asleep for a little over two hours and Dean had yet to come back.

***