He woke up with a start and was halfway off the couch before realizing that he wasn't where he thought he should be. Bewildered, Sam glanced around the very familiar living room, at the books littering every surface, the familiar furniture, and for a good long moment he had no idea what was real and what was imagination.

Confused, he rushed to one of the forward windows and sent a long look out into the salvage yard where the Impala was parked, glittering in the moonlight. He turned back to the house, surveyed all he could see, while his thoughts were tripping over each other in an attempt to make sense of this.

"Dean?" he nearly whispered. He swallowed hard, tried to determine if he was awake, alive, dead, in Heaven or in Hell. "Dean?" he tried again, a little louder. When exactly had his train gone off the rails? Which of his memories were the real deal and which were lingering dreams and nightmares?

"Chill dude." Dean's voice broke him out of this vicious spiral. His brother stood there in the doorway in his shorts and a t-shirt and looked like he'd just gotten up. "You okay, Sammy?"

Sam just stared at him for a moment, then took a few steps forward, turned in a half circle and made a sweeping gesture with one hand. "Wasn't this ..." He looked around before focusing on Dean again. "How are we ..."

Dean blinked a little sluggishly. "You make less sense than normal, Sam," he said, took a hold of Sam's arm and guided him back to the couch. "Sit. Take a deep breath. And then try again," he suggested and pushed Sam down on the couch.

Sam sat and just looked around for a moment before eying Dean suspiciously. "Where are we?" he asked quietly.

"Bobby's place," Dean countered and ruffled a hand through his hair while yawning broadly.

"Don't be stupid. Bobby's place doesn't exist anymore, Dean. Bobby's dead. They're all ... dead." Sam was getting upset again, still completely in the dark about what was going on. "We were ... they got me and ..." He frowned while trying to hold onto those slippery memories. "I think I died. I think ..."

"Stop, Sam," Dean said, holding up both hands in a mitigating gesture. "What's the last thing you remember?"

He mulled it over, tried to understand, to remember, to string it all together, but none of it made sense. Then he focused on Dean. "Gaia?" he asked.

"You're on the right track," Dean agreed. "She brought you back. She said you needed to recover. Looks like she was right."

Again Sam glanced around, took in the house they had been to so often, the musty smell of too many books, the smell of burned wood from the fireplace, and a thousand other scents he couldn't identify but knew by heart. "But ... how?" he asked and waved a hand at the house in general.

"Gaia," Dean countered with a small sigh. "When Dick ... killed you, I saw no reason not to pledge my allegiance to her. What did I have to lose? It set her free. And she has turned out to be one of the good guys. For once, things are going our way."

"Oh," Sam muttered. "I don't remember," he added, a little befuddled. He blinked rapidly, scrubbed a hand over his face, glanced around again and tried to put things in order in his mind. "I know I ... died. I ... remember. But ... I don't remember how. And I remember Hell ..." He stopped, shook his head. "No, I know I've been there, but I don't remember it. It's ... gone."

"Gaia again," Dean said with a small smile on his lips. "Seems like all those holes she's left in your memory are a little confusing, huh?"

Sam shook his head, in part to deny it. "No, it's not really. It's just ... how did we get here? Were where we before? That cavern. The sarcophagus? Was that ... Gaia's?"

Dean nodded. "Yup, and we were in Derry, Maine. Dick's dig. Apparently he was after that sarcophagus. He opened it and it drew Gaia in. If he had forced me to pledge my allegiance to her without meaning it ... she would have been at his beg and call and that wouldn't have been good."

"Needless to say," Sam agreed with a nod. "But ..." He stopped again, closed his eyes and slumped back on the couch. "What is she? A goddess?"

Dean scratched the back of his head. "I don't know, to be honest. She doesn't seem keen on being called that, but on the other hand ... she zapped us back here, resurrected the house and Bobby without breaking a sweat and she seems to want nothing from us."

"Bobby?" Sam sat up straight again. "What do you mean, she resurrected Bobby?"

That made his brother smile broader than before. "He's back, man. In the flesh."

"Like ... back-back?" Sam asked, needing the confirmation.

"Yeah," Dean agreed.

Sam frowned lightly at the perceived dewiness in his brother's eyes, but refrained from pointing it out right now. "That's awesome," he muttered, letting his attention drift a little and then focused on Dean again. "What about Dick?"

Dean grinned. "He's dust. Thanks to Gaia."

"What about the other leviathans?" Sam asked, not sure he remembered everything the way it should be remembered.

"Well, according to Gaia, killing Dick has killed the rest too. If that's true remains to be seen, of course," Dean said. "But ... considering what she's done so far ... I don't really see a reason to not believe her."

Once more, Sam slumped back on the couch. He was beat, felt wrung out, stretched too thin right now. "I ... remember ... flashes."

This made Dean frown. "Flashes?" he asked. "Of what?"

The half-memories stuttered through his mind again, making him flinch. "I don't know. It's ... " A shudder rippled through him, making him hunch his shoulders. "Worse than before," he finished.

Whatever sleepiness had been left in Dean vanished in a flash. "What's worse than before?"

"I keep seeing ... sensing ..." Sam scrubbed both hands over his face. "I can't ... I have no words for this," he added and focused on Dean. "It's worse than Hell. Worse than Lucifer. And it's getting stronger."

Dean rose. "GAIA!"

"You called?" The fact alone that she appeared the very second Dean called for her made Sam a little apprehensive.

Dean waved a hand in Sam's direction. "You said he wouldn't remember Hell," he said, his tone full of accusations yet unspoken.

She eyed him for a moment, then turned her attention toward Sam. "You can't possibly remember Hell," she said. "Those memories are gone."

"Not Hell. Worse than Hell," Sam clarified. "I ... don't know what it is. It's ..."

She nodded when he stopped talking and settled down next to him. "I know what this is," she said. "I missed it in the first round," she added quietly and held up a hand. "May I?"

He eyed her hand for a second, met her eyes, and then glanced at Dean. "Yeah," he agreed. Right now he would have made a deal with Lucifer to get rid of those slimy memories rippling through his head.

She slipped her hand onto his brow and it seemed to suck the reality out of the room. He drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes, not sure he would ever be able to describe the feeling. It went beyond words, beyond feeling.

For a moment she held on, her hand warm against his brow, then she let her hand drop away. "There," she said. "That should do it."

"Sammy?"

When he opened his eyes again, Dean was hunkered down in front of him, one hand on his knee, while he watched him intently. Sam blinked rapidly a few times, focusing inward. And he found nothing there that reminded him of ... "It's gone," he muttered and couldn't help the smile from spreading over his lips. "It's gone."

Gaia smiled back at him. "As it should be," she said and rose. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of something."

***

Dean rose after eying Sam closely for a second more, his attention now on her. "Sorry. I just ..."

"No need to apologize, Dean. I will always have time for you," she said, then grew serious again. "Whenever you're ready, Dean, I can do the same for you."

The thought was enticing. But then again ... "I'm not ready," he said quietly.

Gaia nodded. "I know. But when you are, all you have to do is call," she said and disappeared again.

For a moment longer he just stood and stared at the spot where she had just been and then he turned back to face Sam, who sat there on the couch and looked like someone had just spiked his drink with roofies. "You think you can sleep now?" he asked.

Sam looked up and to Dean he looked so much younger than he had only moments before, like he had regained some of his innocence. "Yeah," he agreed and got up. "I think ..." He stopped and looked around. "This is so weird, being back here."

"Yeah, it is," Dean agreed and waved toward the stairs. "Get your butt to bed, Sammy. It's been a tough couple of years."

With the lifting of the weight came more than Dean had immediately anticipated. Sam stopped next to him and eyed him closely. "You should say yes to that, Dean. You should let her remove the memories. You have no idea what a load off that is," he said.

Dean smiled, but was a bit unsure of whether it came out right, because Sam looked a little disappointed. "I'll think about it," he promised. "Now, let's get back to bed. I'm asleep on my feet here," he added even though nothing was further from the truth.

Sam was almost asleep before his head hit the pillow, but Dean stayed awake for a long time after. And when he finally did slip off, he had nightmares. He knew that Sam thought all his nightmares were about his time in Hell and a fair share of them were, but those that bothered him most were the reenactment of all his failures in life. And how could Gaia remove those without removing his essence?

***

Dean felt more worn out than he had in a good long while and he knew that the lack of sleep on his way to Derry and the constant worry about what would happen next had taken its toll on him. He slept longer than Sam, which wasn't uncommon, and he felt a bit like a zombie when he finally made his way down the stairs.

Bobby was up. And he was having an argument with someone. "That's not what I'm saying," he declared. "And no, I didn't."

"I know a deal when I see one, Bobby Singer. You are out of your mind."

Now that voice he knew and it made him stop dead in his tracks halfway down the stairs. The fact that this voice belonged to one of the dearly departed made his gait hitch. "Ellen?" he muttered, then rushed down the remaining steps and skittered into the kitchen. And there she stood, hands on hips, temper flying high.

"I did not make a frigging deal, woman!" Bobby proclaimed, just as temperamental as Ellen.

"Then how to do you explain this?" Ellen thundered and made a sweeping gesture to encompass herself and ...

Dean's gaze caught on the second addition to this little scenario and couldn't stop staring. "Jo?"

She sat on a chair by the kitchen table and watched her mother and Bobby have this argument. Sam sat on the chair across from her and he looked a little concerned.

"What the hell is going on here?" Dean finally managed.

The combatants stopped and both turned their attention to him. Ellen's expression immediately dissolved into a welcoming smile. "Dean," she said.

Jo met his eyes too and smirked, then shrugged.

"You're back?" he asked, looking from one to the other and back again. "But ..." He turned his attention to Bobby. "Gaia?" he asked and the older hunter nodded. "You asked?"

"And she delivered," Bobby agreed. "Says she can only do it if the souls are rearing to come back. And these two were."

Dean again shifted his attention back to Jo, then to Ellen, then back to Jo again. "Oh crap, it's good to see you guys."

Jo rose and Ellen closed the distance to give him a strong hug. "Right back at ya, sweetie," she said and released him again, before swatting him lightly upside the head. "Would it kill you to listen to my words of warning?" she added sternly.

Dean flinched and involuntarily ducked his head a little. "Sorry. I ..."

Jo pushed her mother out of the way and wrapped her arms around him. "Don't listen to her. She hasn't really gotten a grip on being alive again yet," she said.

He wrapped his arms around her too and hugged her tight for a moment, then leaned back a little. "I'm so sorry for everything, Jo."

She smirked. "Forget it. We're back. And from what that woman said, the Roadhouse is up and standing again, so it's not like we've got nothing to come back to," she said.

"That woman must be a demon. A crossroads demon," Ellen inserted.

Dean eyed her sharply. "Gaia is no demon, okay? She's legit. Anything she does ... it's without a price," he said and could actually see the humor in that he was vehemently defending a supernatural being.

"Dean's right," Sam intoned and rose too.

"Yeah, I am," Dean agreed. "So stop giving him a hard time about this. He just came back from the dead too," he added, nodding at Bobby.

Ellen looked unconvinced and turned back to face Bobby. "If I find out that you've sold your soul for us ... I am so hauling your ass to Hell myself."

Bobby gave her a dark glare. "Shut up and sit down, woman," he advised her none too kindly.

Ellen gave him a look that would have made John whither, but it had next to no effect on Bobby. "It's not that I'm not grateful," she said more calmly. "I'm just worried."

"And I keep telling you. There's nothing to worry about. This is not a demon and nobody has sold any souls to bring you back," Bobby countered, a little exasperated.

"Where's Gaia?" Dean asked, hoping that maybe she had time to clear this up.

"Right here," she said right behind him, which made him jump.

"Dammit! Would you people stop sneaking up on me?" he exclaimed and pulled back until he had the wall at his back.

Gaia eyed him for a second and then turned her attention to Ellen. "No deals were made to bring you back, Ellen," she said. "He asked. I delivered. And only because the two of you were so not ready to be dead."

For a moment Ellen just stared at her. Then she breathed in deeply and held it in for a moment. "Okay, fine. You're not a demon then," she said as if stating a fact she had long been aware of.

"No, I am not a demon," Gaia agreed calmly.

"Can I have a word with you alone?" Dean asked and nodded at the door. "It's getting a bit crowded in here."

Gaia agreed with a nod and followed him outside to the yard. Dean trailed over to the Impala, a little surprised to see her there. Last he remembered, she had disappeared into hiding, curtsy of Frank the nutcase. But it was obvious that Gaia knew what he liked and had supplied him with it in ample amount.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked and turned back to face her. "It's my experience that nothing comes for free in this life. Anything we've ever had we've had to earn the hard way. So ... all of this, the house, Bobby, Ellen, Jo, my car even ... and you want nothing in return?"

"I want nothing in return," she agreed.

"How is that working out for you?" he asked.

Her expression turned a little thoughtful. "Fairly well I would say," she said. "And I think I told you already why I'm doing this."

"It's a reward?" he asked, to which she nodded.

"You have both literally been to Hell and back. You have played a part in a game that was not of your choosing. You have freed me from the bonds of an age-long curse that would have kept me either captive or abused for the rest of eternity. My debt to you is boundless. It can never be repaid. And I think I know you well enough to know that you will not abuse my gratitude."

"Oh, that you can count on," he agreed and settled down on the hood of the Impala. "I just ..." He paused, stared at the ground for the moment it took his mind to settle into a new track, and then focused on her again. "Nobody has ever done anything like this for us before. I guess I'm just having a hard time believing in this. When the angels turned up, I ... hoped. I've never believed in them, but I had hope. I thought ..." He shook his head sadly. "I got my ass handed to me by them. They turned out to be major dicks. So ... you gotta have a little patience with me here."

Gaia settled down next to him and just sat there for a moment. "I understand your reluctance to believe in this, to take this at face value. It makes perfect sense that you're apprehensive. Truth be told, your pledge of allegiance ... it wasn't something I really believed I would get. After all the hardships you've endured at the hands of anything supernatural ... I feared your ability to believe might have been dead and gone."

Dean nodded. "Fact is ... I'm not sure I really meant it, you know. I was a little surprised that it worked, that Dick didn't end up as the ruler of the universe," he admitted.

Gaia smirked lightly. "That's the one thing about this that you haven't understood yet, Dean," she said, which made him glance sideways at her. "You didn't mean it, but Roman wasn't the one who forced you to say the words. You said them of your own accord, which makes you the one with the power." She arched an eyebrow while surveying the junk yard. "Technically speaking, I am at your beg and call."

Something about that made him feel a little faint. "Excuse me?" he asked and sat up a little straighter. "Are you saying that ..."

She nodded, confirming what he left unsaid. "If you so choose, you can be the ruler of the universe ... so to speak. I just get the feeling that this is not exactly what you want out of life."

"Hell no," he huffed, got up and walked a few steps away before stopping again, his back to her. "No, I don't want that. I just ... want things to go back to the way they were."

"Anything you ask, I can grant you," Gaia said.

He turned around and eyed her darkly. "Anything?" he asked, which made her smile a little ruefully.

"Well ... almost. There are limits. I can't bring back those that have moved on. It's their choice, not yours. Forcing a soul to return to the land of the living when it has settled in on the other side ... never a good idea. It breeds chaos. And chaos ... well, let's just say that creatures like Leviathan thrive on chaos."

He nodded. "Okay. Is there any way that I can ... give up the right to order you around?" he asked.

This made her chuckle. "I think you already have. What I do I do of my own accord and not because you order me to," she said. "That said, I am still in your debt. And I will help you in any way that I can."

For a moment he just stared at her, but then he trailed back to her and settled back down next to her. "I was thinking about your offer ... you know ... to remove the memories. But ... they're not affecting me like they affected Sam. And ... I'm not sure removing the memories will give me much peace of mind."

"Because the things you dream about are not off Hell?" she asked. He was a little startled, but then settled for a nod. "No, I understand. To remove all those memories that cause you pain would probably leave too many holes in your life. But ... I can ease the tension, make it seem less relevant. And, personally, I do believe that removing your unnecessary memories of Hell will make you feel ... lighter."

He considered it for a bit while weighing the pros and cons. Then finally he glanced at her. "Do your best," he suggested.

She smiled. "I know how much this must cost you and I promise you ... your mind will not suffer."

That said, she slipped a hand onto the back of his neck.

"Just relax, close your eyes, let it happen," she said quietly.

It took a moment before he could work up the courage to follow her advice, but when he did, he was flooded with such a sense of peace, it made him choke a little. The bliss - in want of a better word - overwhelmed him, sucked him under and stripped away all fears, all sorrow, all hate and all bitterness and for however long this lasted, he was at peace.

Then his conscious mind broke the surface again and for a second there he felt no different than he had before, because he still remembered everything. But then the thought that all those memories were irrelevant, no longer of any consequence or something he should worry about settled on him and he basically felt like she had given him an injection of muscle relaxant. "Holy crap," he muttered. The weight of the world was lifted off his shoulders like a heavy cloak.

"Are you feeling any better?" she asked and let her hand slip onto his shoulder.

"Better?" he asked as if the word made no sense to him. Then he grinned at her. "I feel great. I feel ... high."

"But it's a good high, yes?" she asked, to which he nodded.

They both rose and he turned to face her fully and just looked at her with new eyes. Then he wrapped his hands around her face and kissed her. "Thank you," he whispered.

"You're very welcome," she said. "And now, if you will excuse me, I have much to catch up on."

"By all means," he agreed and took a step back. She winked out of existence and he just stood there and enjoyed his newfound freedom. He could relate to Sam's reaction now. And he realized that she had removed his memories of Hell completely. Everything else was there and he knew he had been there, but he couldn't remember any of it.

Tilting his head back a little, he looked up at the clear blue sky while the sound of the bickering in the house drifted over to him. And all he did was smile, because who could be unhappy on a day like this?

The End