Rating: PG-13


Chapter 5 – Stare

"Though the winds of change may blow around you, but that will always be so
When love is pain it can devour you, but you are never alone
I would share your load. I would share your load."

- Led Zeppelin, "In the Light"

"Sammy, where the hell are you? Are you okay? Hey, hey, hey, hey. Calm down. Where are you? Don't move. I'm on my way."

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It now knew pain. And weakness.

And, God, light—light sliced through it, chewing up the sanctity of dark. The light burned, searing and twisting and cutting through devastation with razor-thin intent.

It was vanishing.

Fading…

Dying…

…except there was an opening. An escape.

A way out.

A source of strength. Despair so thick that diving into it felt like moving through wet sand. Pain so fresh that the raw wound was something to be savored. Hopelessness hovered at the edge of reason and the being grabbed hold and dug in, working to rebuild, working to regroup.

Darkness was its ally, and a battle waged on.

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Sam's hands clutched at Dean's shirt in a hesitant, clumsy grip. Dean could feel his brother's body tremble through his knuckles as he twisted his fists against Sam's jacket, tightening his hold. Sam was pale, too pale, and pulling in air as though he were drowning from the inside out.

"What the hell do you mean, inside of him?" Dean barked at Abe, still staring at Sam's wide, hazel eyes. "How could it be inside of him? We banished it."

"Look at him," Abe replied, his voice a helpless command. "We weakened it, but… but it's not gone."

"It's not inside of Sam," Dean declared, as if saying it made it so, thinking of Jones, of Yeats' report of Jones' death. "It can't be."

"It saw a weakness and—"

"I said NO!" Dean roared over his shoulder, his voice low, dangerous. His lips pulled tight, jerking up in an angry snarl. "Bobby gave us charms, man. Sam can't be possessed again. He can't be."

"Dean," Sam pleaded, clutching at Dean's shirt with desperate fingers.

"I'm here," Dean's voice instantly softened, his eyes flying back to Sam's face. "I'm here, Sammy."

"Something's… something's wrong."

Dean closed his eyes for a moment, his body shivering, his world swimming. Not yet… not yet…

"I can feel it." Sam groaned.

Dean felt ice form edges on his heart. "What?"

"Inside me…" Sam panted. "I can feel it."

"No," Dean shook his head. "No, man. It's a vision, or something else—"

"Dean." Sam's eyes were wide, his pupils so large that Dean could barely see any hazel around the edge. He watched as Sam focused on his own fingers, concentrating on tightening them on Dean's shirt. "Dean, don't you let it take me."

Aw, God, Sammy… "I won't. I won't, I promise," Dean whispered, softly shaking Sam. He looked over at Abe. "Give me one of those sutras."

Abe shook his head slowly. "We already tried—"

"Abe," Dean said, working to make his voice a reflection of his father's commanding bark. "Don't argue with me, just give me the damn paper."

Dean tilted his chin slightly over his shoulder, not looking at Abe, but directing the order in the Ojibwa's direction. He needed Abe to listen to him, to follow him, to work with him. He needed it because he could feel himself falling inside. He could feel himself losing. He could feel the wound in his belly, the hole in his shoulder, the bruises on his face spiking a heat through his body that caused him to tremble with a weakness he couldn't afford to give in to.

Dean heard the front door open. Heard it slam shut. Heard voices muffled by wooden walls confront each other. Heard the creak of a car door. Heard the rasp of his brother's breath. Heard the steady thrum of his own blood as it rushed through his body. Heard his heart as it bartered time for strength.

His boots crunched against the broken glass scattered on the floor beneath them as he shifted, resting heavily on his knees as he maintained his grip on Sam. His brother blinked up at him, his weak hold slowly loosening, scaring Dean more than the wide-eyed panic on Sam's face.

"You keep hold of me, Sam, okay?"

Sam blinked, nodding, face tense.

"We're gonna read more of those sutras. Fix you right up."

If Sam heard the tremor in Dean's voice, he gave no sign of it, just pulled in air through his parted lips and shoved it back out with obvious effort. Abe returned with another slam of the bar's main door. Dean kept his eyes forward, feeling dissatisfaction roll off Abe as keenly as he'd always felt from John after a hunt gone wrong. A part of Dean recognized that it wasn't directed at him as much as the situation, but he was too tired and too much had happened for him to process the difference.

"Here," Abe's voice was low.

Dean saw a paper slide into his periphery and reluctantly released Sam with one hand to reach up and grab it. He cleared his throat, squaring his shoulders and dropping his chin to his chest as if prepared to walk directly into a headwind.

"The flames of existence are hard to escape from. They bring us to pain and to sorrow unlimited. Thus I resolve to awake from my slumber…"

Sam slammed his head back against the bar, his back arching into Dean's hand. The tendons in his neck tightened as he groaned, his eyes squeezing shut against an unseen pain.

Tightening his fist, Dean continued. "And, feeling concern for all sentient beings, arouse in myself an intense dedication which lets me withstand all my pain with forbearance—"

"AH! God, Dean, stop! STOP!" Sam screamed, his body vibrating as the skin along his neck and jaw rolled and curled as if small hands stroked it from the inside.

"Sam!" Dean spat, dropping the paper and curling his fists against his brother's jacket. "No. No, this isn't happening. Not again. This isn't happening."

"Let me help," Abe said gently, approaching Dean from behind, resting a careful hand on Dean's shoulder.

Dean turned lethal eyes on him, his mouth a thin line of panic. "No. Stay back. Don't touch him."

"Dean," Abe reached out a hesitant hand toward Sam as he slumped once more against the bar, hanging from Dean's grip, eyes closed, lips parted. "You can't—"

"Don't tell me that I can't take care of him." Dean pushed his voice from his gut, feeling the ice grow around his heart and the fever burn through his limbs. "I've been taking care of him all my life."

He heard Abe draw in a breath. "You're hurt. You are burning up."

"I'm fine," Dean snapped, sliding his right hand from Sam's jacket to his brother's face, gripping his chin with his thumb. "Sammy. Hey. Hey!"

Sam blinked heavy eyes half-open.

"I'm gonna get you outta here. Get this figured out."

"Hurts," Sam whispered, his voice strained.

Dean nodded quickly, absorbing and dismissing the information in one motion. "I'll make it stop, okay?"

Sam nodded, his lips pushed out, giving him the appearance of a much younger version of himself. Dean felt his brows pull together, his eyes burning with the urge to give in to exhaustion and pain. Sucking in a breath through his teeth, Dean twisted sideways, his knees grinding on the broken glass, and reached for Sam's arm, trying to slide it over his shoulder and lift Sam from the ground.

The pain hit him like a sledge hammer to the gut. He vaguely heard himself cry out, felt himself pitch forward, knew he was awkwardly splayed across Sam's chest as his stomach burned through to his throat, gagging him. Words he didn't understand said in a tone he wanted to lean into slid across his ringing ears, soothing him as strong hands gently rocked him backwards, lifting him off his brother.

His breaths becoming sobs, Dean allowed Abe to ease him back for just a moment before leaning away, his shoulder bumping the underside of the bar. I screwed up… I lost him again… dammit, I screwed up…

"Let me help," Abe repeated, his plea now a command.

Dean nodded weakly. "Get him out of here," he said, looking over at Sam. "It's too… dark in here."

"You're right," Abe said. "I think the creature has power here. Something is feeding it."

Dean swallowed, watching Sam arch his neck against the pain ratcheting through him.

"Sam," he said to Abe. "Sam is feeding it."

Abe frowned, leaning forward, gathering Sam's long arms into his grip. With a grunt of effort he lifted Sam from his slouched position on the ground, draping an arm over his shoulders and hefting Sam's semi-limp body.

"I'll come back for you," Abe said to Dean.

"I got it," Dean whispered.

"Dean—"

"I said I got it," Dean snapped. He was a soldier, dammit. The one that got the job done. The protector. "Just get Sam out of here." He reached up with a sweaty, trembling hand, grabbed the upper lip of the bar and grit his teeth as he pulled himself to his feet.

The room tilted dangerously around him, but he kept his balance, watching as Abe half helped, half dragged Sam to the front door, turned the handle, then kicked the door wide enough to allow them both room to pass through. Dean saw Maggie cover her mouth at the site of them and Yeats step forward to take Sam's other side.

Dean looked around the now-empty bar. It felt different. Cold. He could smell the blood from Jones' body. The spilled liquor on the floor. The fear left behind. He could smell singed ends of burned wires and melted plastic from the jukebox. With the slow, shuffling steps of someone moving in a dream, Dean crossed the bar toward the jukebox, glass shifting away from his scuffing feet or crunching under his heels.

As if it belonged to someone else, he watched his hand rise from his side, reach out to touch the broken shell of the jukebox, whispers of music drifting to him through flashes of memory.

Feeding quarters and picking every classic rock song… watching Sam at the bar… setting up the hustle…

A faint, musky scent of perfume wrapped around him, lulling his eyes closed. His fingertips squeaked as his heavy hand slipped down the smoky plastic.

Hair falling like rain over slim shoulders… dark, almond-shaped eyes, watching… flashing to him, but watching others… full lips parting to whisper, moisture glistening on the full, red flesh… his gut tightening pleasantly in reaction…

"Goddammit. I missed it," he cursed himself softly.

He'd been so intent on the hustle, so aware of Sam's fall into melancholy, he'd missed what had been right in front of him. Dropping his hand, he turned, realizing the entire scene in his head had taken no time at all; Sam, Abe, and Yeats were moving away from the bar, across the lot toward the safe house.

Mine…

Dean shot his head around quickly, fear slamming his heart against the base of his throat. The bar appeared empty save Jones' mangled body. But…he could smell perfume.

"Claire?" He whispered hesitantly. "That you?"

Mine. Soon. Taken.

Dean frowned at the last word. He'd not heard it before, but it was echoing in the silence all the same.

Mine. Soon. Taken…

Swallowing, Dean slid a hand across his belly, feeling the heat there. Yeats had thought Claire was dead—died as a result of injuries sustained after being attacked by a group of guys in Texas on spring break. And her father had left her. Hadn't even known it had happened until it was too late.

Ghost or notClaire was angry. And the hell of it was part of Dean couldn't blame her. It was an empty feeling to know that you were put last in order of importance in the life of the person most important to you.

Pressing his hand tight to his wound, Dean moved from the Hideout, leaving the door opened behind him.

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"Lay him on the single," Abe said to Yeats.

Sam had sagged in their arms soon after crossing the threshold into the safe house. He was still conscious, but his breath was coming in short, panting bursts, and his skin was clammy and cold.

Sliding out from under Sam's arm, Abe straightened, looking over his shoulder as he sensed Dean enter the house. Abe's breath caught in his throat at the site of the hunter. Two days of stubble framed Dean's strong jaw, bruises standing out against pale cheeks and purple shadows were smudged beneath his bright green eyes.

He saw the careful way Dean was holding himself: left hand pressed tight against his wounded belly so as not to move his damaged shoulder more than he had to.

How is he even still on his feet?

Abe was viciously reminded of a walk through a Minnesota forest, the indomitable strength Dean had shown in an effort to get his brother to help, to safety. Glancing quickly at Sam's pale, wide-eyed face, Abe knew that Dean would have to draw on those reserves once more if he was going to pull his brother through this trial.

Maggie followed Dean into the house, grabbing one of the kitchen chairs and dragging the wooden legs across the worn floor to set it next to Sam's bed. As if he sensed safety beneath him, Dean simply dropped onto the chair, his eyes pinned to his brother.

"We need to cover that window before nightfall," Maggie said. "It's going to rain again."

Abe followed her line of sight to the broken window, dark brown curtains sucked through the jagged glass and fluttering in the increasing wind from the stalled storm outside.

"I got some plywood behind the bar," Yeats said, his rough voice hollow, as if waiting for an inevitable end.

"Go get it," Maggie commanded, meeting Abe's eyes, then raking her sharp green eyes over the brothers. "I'll grab some tools from the bar."

As they left, Abe looked down at Sam, frowning as he remembered Dean's words. It's feeding on Sam…

"We have to stop it," he declared.

Dean seemed to ignore him at first, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his eyes intent on his brother's restless form.

"It's gaining strength from Sam. The sutras didn't—"

"What did it say to you, Abe?" Dean asked suddenly.

"What?" Abe blinked at the sudden question.

"In the bar earlier," Dean didn't look at him, but Abe felt his focus. "I heard it say mine. Sam heard soon. What did you hear?"

Abe felt cold. Flashes of his father slipping away from him as his youthful arms tried to staunch the flow of blood, of his lover's blue eyes pleading with him to save her caused him to search for balance.

"It…" he swallowed. "It said taken."

Dean nodded as if he'd expected that answer.

"What did you think it meant when you heard it?"

"I thought it meant… that those I loved were taken from me." Abe said softly, thinking of Ailen's beautiful eyes emptying and closing.

"I thought it meant that I belonged to it," Dean confessed, rubbing his fingers over his lips, his silver ring scratching across the scruff on his chin. "And that it was going to take Sam soon."

"But, what? You've changed your mind?"

Dean nodded, still looking at Sam. Abe followed his line of sight as Yeats and Maggie returned with plywood, nails, and hammers. They crossed to the back of the small room, silent save the sound of the thin wood dragging against the floor. Abe ignored them, watching Dean.

"You said the ikiryoh had to be summoned or something, right?"

"Right," Abe tilted his head, watching Dean's face tense in thought.

"I think we were hearing Claire's thoughts. Or whatever thoughts she had that…conjured this thing."

"You don't think it had anything to do with us?" Abe asked.

Dean shook his head. "Not directly."

Sam groaned, his head turning from side to side against the white pillow.

"God, I wish Dad were here," Dean whispered, dropping his forehead down against his palm.

"What would he do if he were?" Abe said, his voice matching Dean's, as he crouched low, his knees popping with the motion.

Dean huffed out a humorless laugh. "If Dad were here…this thing would never have gotten Sam," he said. "Dad just didn't screw up like that."

"No," Sam rasped, his dilated eyes sweeping blindly toward Dean. "You're… wrong."

"Sam?" Dean leaned forward, one hand immediately resting on Sam's bicep.

"Pinned you to a wall. That's your M.O. Mask the pain." Sam was panting, reaching for Dean with clumsy hands.

"Take it easy, man," Dean tried.

"Never listened… always talking never listening… scared always scared and never listening…" Sam muttered, pulling at the collar of his T-shirt with one hand.

Dean looked up at Abe. "I gotta do something."

Abe swallowed, his mind spinning. Prayers and herbs and chants rolled through his memory and filed before his eyes, summarily dismissed as useless in the face of this spirit. He rubbed his face, frustrated that he could know so much and so little at the same time.

"I gotta do something," Dean repeated, rubbing the top of his head with the flat of his palm. "I gotta fix this."

"What would your dad do?" Abe asked again, watching Dean's face pull tight as he leaned closer to his restless brother.

"Hell if I know," Dean muttered, reaching for Sam's hand as his brother started to scratch at his throat with clawed, stiff fingers. "The man had more secrets than the government."

"Even from you?" Abe cocked his head to the side.

"Especially from us," Dean winced, one hand going to his stomach, his eyes never leaving Sam's face. "He worked on a need to know basis. I learned more about him after he died than I ever knew about him when he was alive."

Sam was muttering, his eyes slipping closed, then snapping open with panicked intent. His lips moved rapidly, though no coherent sound could be made out. Dean pressed his mouth closed, reaching up and brushing a lock of hair from Sam's forehead.

"Easy, Sammy," Dean whispered gently.

Watching them, Abe had a sudden image of two boys, years stripped away, scars reduced, time allowing for innocence as they sat in the dark comforting each other with false bravado and stories of heroes. He felt his chest tighten for the lives that had been lost so that others could live in the peaceful unknowing of the true monsters that surrounded them. Though they were still there, alive and living were two very different things.

"Fire… I knew and I didn't say I knew and I didn't say and she burned, Dean, she burned up and I didn't say…"

Dean covered his mouth, rubbing his lips with the flat of his fingers, his eyes darting in thought as Sam continued to twist on the bed, rambling through his darkest memories, guilt and pain and self-loathing eating him up.

"You always did the best you could," Dean whispered to Sam, his throat working against obvious emotion. "Even when we were kids, Sammy. You were always doing the right thing."

"I ran away and left you and I didn't know… I didn't know and you came back… you came back for me… you found me… every time you found me… you didn't let anything happen to me…"

Dean's jaw jumped as he pulled in a breath. He lifted hot eyes to Abe. "I need your help."

Abe felt air leave him. He wanted to take a step back, but held fast. He'd been a loner. He'd had Running Horse to go to for spiritual healing and Doc to turn to when his body failed him. When Ailen had died, he'd made a point of never needing anyone aside from those necessities and never allowing others to need him.

Until he stumbled across two young hunters, wounded, in the Minnesota woods and his life had taken a hard left into a strange, supernatural world.

"What do I have to do?"

"Call Bobby Singer," Dean said. Abe saw Dean's eyes dart toward the duo working to block the opened window, then shift back to his face. He winced inwardly when Dean's eyes hit him again. It was like looking into two open wounds. "Use my phone," Dean tilted his head to the side, indicating his leather jacket. "Tell him what's going on here."

"And then what?"

"He'll tell you."

"Why don't you call him?" Abe asked, his chest tightening in time with the bounce of muscle in Dean's jaw. He moved over to grab Dean's jacket, fishing out the silver phone.

"I'm not leaving Sam."

Abe looked at Sam as the young hunter reached for his collar again, pulling at the cotton as if the material were too tight. His raving had quieted slightly; his lips still moved incessantly, but Abe couldn't make out individual words. He flipped open Dean's phone and saw that the reception inside the safe house was non-existent. Glancing over his shoulder at the silence that now surrounded Maggie and Yeats, he met Maggie's eyes for a brief moment, then stepped from the confines of the safe house to the porch, then down the stairs.

The cool of the afternoon felt like a jolt of caffeine to his over-taxed system. A low rumble of distant thunder teased the tops of the trees and Abe looked up, letting the wind caress his warm, weary face. He heard footsteps behind him and knew it was Maggie.

"Are you going to call him?" Her voice was soft, young, uncertain. It was a side of Maggie he'd never heard before.

"Yes."

"Why?"

Abe closed his eyes. "Because Dean needs him."

"You know how I feel, Abe."

"You took them in, Maggie," Abe pointed out.

She came around, squaring off in front of him and forcing him to meet her bright, unyielding eyes. "They're just kids, Abe. They didn't have anywhere else to go."

"You took them in because Bobby asked you to," Abe challenged, dropping his chin, his eyes boring into hers.

Maggie shifted her gaze away, flicking over something past his shoulder. Abe surmised that Yeats was watching this entire exchange, having not let Maggie out of his sight since they found her unconscious in her kitchen.

"Fine," she relented. "But he doesn't have to come. He can help them without coming here."

She began to turn away and Abe reached out to grab her upper arm, stopping her retreat. "Why, Maggie?"

Maggie snapped her eyes up to him and Abe found his breath stolen for the second time inside of five minutes. Without realizing it, he had caused her to expose her heart and it was more than he was ready to take in.

"Because I love the bastard," she all-but growled. "And he knows it."

Wrenching her arm out of Abe's confused grasp, she backed up a step.

"I'm going to the house to see if I can find something to calm Sam until we can figure out what to do next," she said.

"Calm him?"

Maggie nodded and looked up at Yeats as he approached quietly. "Yeats told me what happened to Jones. No way am I letting that boy rip himself apart." She sighed, then rubbed her face tiredly. "Call Bobby. Get help."

With that she turned and stalked toward the red pick-up, wrenching the driver's side door open, and grasped the steering wheel to lift herself in. Yeats followed, climbing into the passenger side and looking back at Abe with empty eyes. Abe pulled his lips in, realizing that he was looking at the personification of defeat.

As they headed up the hill to Maggie's house, Abe flipped Dean's phone open and scrolled down until he found Bobby's name.

"Please be there," Abe whispered as he felt the first fat raindrop fall on his upturned face.

"Yeah," came a rough, no-nonsense voice from the other end of the line.

Abe almost dropped the phone in relief.

"Bobby Singer?"

"Depends on who's askin'."

"You don't know me."

"No shit."

"My name is Abe Nokomis. I am a friend of Dean Winchester."

"Where is Dean?" Bobby's voice changed immediately.

It was the sound Abe had heard once before. It was a scared parent, suddenly realizing their child was not where they were supposed to be. It was a father processing the fact that he'd arrived two hours too late. It was a guardian hearing his charge had been threatened.

It was love.

"He's here, but he's hurt and Sam is…"

"Wait. Abe… from Minnesota, Abe?"

"Yes," Abe answered, surprised.

"The two wendigos, right?"

"That's right."

"What have you got?" Abe could hear Bobby moving around on the other end of the phone.

"Well, I'm not sure, but Dean said you could help."

"Boy has more faith in me than he does himself."

"Won't argue with you there," Abe said. As the rain fell harder, he stepped up to the overhang from the bar. He could see into the narrow window flanking the door through the Coors Light sign. The interior of the bar looked like a nightmare come to life.

"Start at the beginning and be quick," Bobby commanded.

Taking a deep breath, Abe said, "It started in Texas."

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Heat and darkness. They weren't supposed to go together, but both wrapped around him. Sam was sure if he could just move he could find something cool, find some air, but he kept backing into something. And it was so hard to breathe.

He tried to close his eyes, but all he saw was Jess burning. He opened his eyes and all he saw was Dean bleeding. He looked to his left and his father was begging him to shoot him in the heart and then was lying on the floor of the hospital. He looked to his right and saw the silver blade of a knife slice through the flesh of Steve Wandell's neck as though it were butter.

Sam called out for Dean, for Dad, for Jess, for someone to find him and wake him up. He was scared.

I'm scared! Dean. DEAN! Dad! I'm scared.

Fingers, tiny but strong, rolled under his skin, making him thrash with the sensation of invasion. This wasn't like before. This wasn't the same—he wasn't pushed aside as another used his body. He was trapped and forced to share his heart, his secrets. He was forced to see his darkness.

No, but it'll hurt like hell…Dean slamming back through a wall. Dean handing him a gun. Dean asking him if he hated him. Pulling the trigger.

The shock of that act shook him again and he tried to get away, tried to hide, felt his back hit something again, denying him escape. He closed his eyes against the sight of Dean's betrayed gaze and saw Jess surrounded by flames, stomach a slash of deep crimson, her lovely face frozen in confused terror.

Why Sam?

He shook his head, and felt something heavy on his chest, trying to suffocate him.

NO! No, I can't breathe. DEAN! I can't breathe!

He looked wildly around for his brother. His brother that had always been there. His brother that had shielded him, protected him, saved him, told him that everything was going to be all right. His brother who had never lied to him. His brother who was going to kill him.

NO!

Dean's crumpled face, blood trickling down his forehead, from his nose, peered up at him, pleading for release, pleading for forgiveness, pleading for safety. Sam felt his hand curl into a ball and felt the sick satisfaction settle into his heart as Dean's head snapped back with the impact of his knuckles.

I can see it in your eyes, Dean, you're worthless…

Shaking his head, Sam tried to claw away the fingers that climbed up the back of his neck. He felt them tickling the edges of his mind, searching.

Stop, just stop… God, Dean, please, please make it stop…

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"I'm trying," Dean whispered in reply to Sam's desperate plea. "Goddammit, Sammy, I'm trying."

Dean was exhausted. Beyond exhausted. His whole focus was Sam. The world could have blown up around him and he wouldn't have torn his eyes away from his little brother's wide, terrified eyes. He'd kept no more than two feet between them as Sam scrambled around the small safe house trying to escape his waking nightmare, bouncing off of furniture, slamming his back against the brick wall, ending up in the corner next to the foot of the bunk bed.

Dean was crouched in front of him, gripping Sam's wrists with both hands, leaning forward and holding them against the wall to keep Sam from doing further damage to his already scratched up face, but Sam was so strong and Dean was so tired.

"Don't let it take me... Dean, don't let it take me…"

Dean closed his eyes, lowering his forehead to Sam's. He felt his brother's breath against his face, felt the tremble beneath his fingers as Sam fought for release.

"You always were a strong little bastard," Dean grunted as he adjusted his grip. "Stubborn, too. You always knew what was best," he continued, words tumbling softly from his memory to spill over Sam's frantic form. "At least you were convinced you knew. I had to make sure you thought the idea was yours in order for you to do it. Except when it came to hunting. You would always listen to me when it came to hunting. You believed me then. You believed me, Sam. I need you to believe me now, man. I need you to know it's okay, you're okay. Don't let this thing win, Sam. There's light out here."

Sam bucked against him and Dean tightened his grip.

"Abe, where the hell are you?" Dean almost whimpered.

"He's staying out of the rain."

Dean jerked violently at the sound of the foreign, female voice. He looked over his shoulder and saw a woman standing in the doorway of the safe house, looking around the small area. The scent of her perfume hit him like a wave.

"Claire?" he rasped.

She pivoted on her left foot, turning to face him, her dark, straight hair wet from the storm outside, her almond-shaped eyes snapping from a storm inside, and a pink, puckered scar running from the flat of her right cheekbone down the entire length of her long, slim neck, disappearing inside the collar of her black leather jacket.

"You can't save him," she said, her voice a mockery of sadness.

"Like hell," Dean snapped automatically, wanting to release Sam's wrists and face her, but reluctant to allow Sam access to his face again.

"I have lost it," she lifted a shoulder as if she were speaking of a penny and not an insatiable evil being. "It feeds on its own now."

"Because you conjured it."

Claire shook her head, stepping further into the house, running a slim finger over the top of the small, round table. "Not with intent."

"That doesn't really matter, does it?" Dean grunted with pain as Sam tried to thrash again, muttering.

"…couldn't shoot him, shot you but couldn't shoot him, you were always there and he wasn't and I couldn't shoot him but I shot you…"

Dean tried to block Sam's ravings out, but the words were like a punch to the gut. They were Sam's guilt tossing a mirror up to Dean's soul and finding all of the cracks and crevasses in the wall he'd so carefully constructed to protect Sam from himself.

"He's almost gone anyway," Claire said calmly.

"Shut up," Dean snapped.

"The ikiryoh will find all of his darkness, all of the hate he has for himself, all of his doubts, fears…"

"Shut up," Dean growled, shifting a look over his shoulder, his eyes burning, his shoulder on fire, his belly a shivering ocean of pain. Not yet… not yet…

"It will chew him up and when there's nothing left, it will emerge stronger than before and will tear into all of you, one by one—"

"I said shut up!" Dean roared, releasing Sam's arms, surging to his feet and crossing the room to back Claire up against the wall next to the door. "It is not going to take Sam!"

"It already has!" Claire yelled back, her whiskey-colored eyes cold, her scar rolling and bunching as she strained forward.

Dean slammed his fist against the brick wall next to her head. "Make it stop!"

"No!"

Beyond reason, beyond calm, and beginning to fall over the edge of hope, Dean reached out a scuffed, bloody hand and wrapped his fingers around Claire's throat. It was only once he actually touched her that he believed she was flesh and blood and not a spirit.

"Make. It. STOP!"

"No," Claire whispered, challenging him to squeeze with defiant eyes.

Dean felt her scar twist beneath his fingers as the tendons in her neck tightened when she lifted her head. His stomach kicked a hot burst of pain. With a gasp, he released her, covering his belly with his left hand and backing away. Sam was rambling softly in the corner, looking wildly around the room. After a second, Dean heard his name.

"Dean, please don't go, please, I can't do this without you, you can't leave me here alone, Dean, you don't give up on me, okay?"

Dean took another step back from Claire, rubbing his face with a trembling hand.

"What happened to you?" he whispered, lifting wounded eyes to hers.

She blinked, surprise obvious on her face. "What?"

"What happened to you, Claire? How can you…hate so much?"

"How can you not?" She returned.

Because, I have Sam…

Dean reached out a hand to brace himself on the table, his eyes shifting between Sam and Claire. Sam hadn't reached up to claw at his face or the back of his head again, but he was getting agitated and Dean felt time ticking away as the heat in his body rolled through him like waves, pulling at his balance as the tide captures sand.

"They raped me," Claire said suddenly and Dean brought his focus back to her marred face. She was no longer looking at him, however. Her eyes were now fixed on a figure shadowed in the doorway. "They beat me. They cut me. And they left me to die next to a dumpster in an alley."

"Oh, God…" a rough, heavy voice whispered in response.

Dean swayed, narrowing his eyes, trying to focus on the figure, but knew there was no one else it could be.

"And you let it happen," Claire finished, slamming the last nail into Yeats' coffin with finality.

"I thought… I didn't…" Yeats' voice was strangled as if he, too, were fighting the effects of the ikiryoh.

"You were there," Claire whispered.

"What?" Maggie's incredulous voice sounded behind Yeats.

They had returned from Maggie's house apparently empty-handed to walk into a shit storm of emotion and confession. Dean would have felt sorry for Yeats if he'd had the energy. As it was, he was torn between the overwhelming urge to simply sit down on the floor where he was and give in to the call of oblivion and answering the soft keening pleas emanating from his brother.

Not yet, Dean. Stay on your feet, soldier. Do not stand down.

Dean took another step back, his boots sliding over the ropes that had been left behind when he and Sam escaped Sal's attempted torture fest. Cringing at the pull on his gut, he bent low and grabbed up the length of white rope. As the room filled with shocked and shaken people, Dean edged around to Sam once more.

Sam was panting, his chest heaving with an effort to breathe, his face bloody from four deep scratches down his scruffy cheeks where his desperate fingernails had sought to remove the pain. His pupils were wide and his lashes were clumped together from frantic sweat. He pushed himself further back into the corner, the pads of his fingers skipping and stuttering as they ran up and down the brick wall.

Dean felt the sting of his own knuckles where he'd hit the wall as he knelt carefully in front of his frightened brother.

"Hey, Sammy," he whispered. "It's me."

"Dean?"

"Yeah," Dean nodded with abbreviated relief. "You with me?"

"Hurts," Sam whimpered.

Dean closed his eyes briefly, then looked back at Sam. "Yeah, I know, kiddo."

The others in the room had continued to talk, but all Dean heard was Yeats' broken I'm sorry

Regret was a different kind of pain. It was loneliness wrapped in the dark paper of loss and guilt. It burned with a secret fire that you can never extinguish, even with the forgiveness of others. It was the impossible forgiveness of self that would combat this pain, and Dean had no idea how to offer Sam something he didn't know how to acquire for himself.

"I can't make it stop," Sam said, his chin trembling as his voice broke. "It all keeps happening and I can see it and I can't close my eyes."

"I'm gonna make it stop, Sammy," Dean promised. "But I need you to sit real still, okay?"

"'Kay." Sam's eyes rolled back and he dropped his head forward.

Dean licked his lips, hating himself so strongly in that moment he wouldn't have been surprised if the ikiryoh abandoned Sam and climbed inside of him.

Why you, Sammy? Why you and not me? You don't deserve this… after everything you've been through… you don't deserve this…

Gently grasping one of Sam's hands, he looped the rope around his brother's wrist, then tied his hands together tightly.

He slid the other end of the rope through the iron bars of the bunk bed, securing Sam in place, his hands too far from his face or chest to do any true damage. Sam kept his neck bent, his chin to his chest, his body shuddering with the effort of breath. Running his hand lightly over the top of his brother's shaggy head, Dean used the wall to push himself to his feet, turning to face the trio in the room.

"You told me you saw a body," Maggie was saying, bright green eyes pinned to Yeats' face.

"I did," Yeats said, his back to Dean.

"In a morgue?" Maggie challenged.

"You made that assumption," Yeats said. "I just didn't correct you."

Maggie was shocked into silence, unable to look at Yeats. She turned to Claire. "Are you doing this?"

Claire was facing Yeats, but Dean could see her eyes off to the side of the burly bouncer's frame. They were still cold. Cold, dead, empty. As if any humanity that had once been a part of this girl had been destroyed along with her innocence.

"I am."

"Can you make it stop?" Maggie asked.

"No."

"She's lying," Dean spoke up. "No way a witch doesn't know how to control something she conjures."

Behind him Sam started whispering in bursts of short desperation. Dean heard the iron frame of the bunk bed rattle.

"I told you," Claire said, blinking her gaze over Yeats' shoulder to Dean. "It was without intent. My plan was not to bring the ikiryoh to life."

"Yeah?" Dean stepped forward, wary of his rubbery legs, squaring off his stance so his weakness was camouflaged. "So what was this master plan?"

Claire looked back at Yeats. "To kill them all."

"Who?" Maggie asked. "The ones that…attacked you?"

Claire raised an eyebrow as if to say try to keep up. "Everyone responsible."

"You were just a kid…" Yeats began.

"Exactly," Claire cut in. "I was a child in need of protection and when you saw what they'd done, you left me there."

"I thought you were dead!" Yeats protested. "I went after them!"

"You were wrong," Claire spat. "And you failed. But I found them. I found them all."

Sliding her slim hand into her dark jacket pocket, she drew out a ring, then tossed it at Yeats. He didn't move to catch it. The gold circlet bounced off of his body and dropped to the floor with the dim sound of a bell. Dean's eyes caught it, seeing the yellow stone reflecting in the wan overhead light of the small room.

"That's the ring from the bar," he said.

"Red Lake County Central. Spring break. 1992," Claire said. "It took me sixteen years, but I found them. And I killed them. All but two."

"Sal," Dean guessed.

"And you, Father."

"No…" Maggie whispered.

"How'd you do it, Claire?" Dean stepped forward once more, flanking Yeats, who was silent.

"Belladonna is very easily slipped into a drink," Claire said, watching Yeats. "The right amount will tear you up from the inside out."

Dean narrowed his eyes, thinking of the clues he and Sam had gathered in West Texas before Meg. The clues that had led them to think it was a Death Spirit. They had been wrong. It had been Claire and the start of the ikiryoh.

"What about the hunter in Nebraska?" Dean pressed, stepping in front of Yeats, drawing Claire's eyes.

"How did you know about him?"

"He wasn't part of your plan, was he?"

"He's none of your business," Claire's eyes sparked a quick shot of life.

"And Jones? Was he part of your plan?"

"He was in the way," Claire tilted her head defiantly so that her scar stood out starkly against the light.

"What about Sam?" Dean yelled. "Was Sam in the way?"

"I told you!" Claire yelled back. "I lost it. I used it until it grew beyond my power."

"Well, you goddamn better find it again!" Dean stepped close enough that he could feel Claire's cool breath on the heated skin of his neck. "Because it's killing my brother and I won't let that happen."

"Dean!"

Abe's voice was as welcome as a safety parachute in a freefall. Dean stared down at Claire, trembling with anger and pain, his hands aching to reach out and grasp her shoulders to shake her, force her to somehow stop the ikiryoh.

"Tell me you've got something," Dean ground out to Abe, willing himself to stay steady.

"I've got something."

The relief that washed through Dean made him weak. His knees shook and he would have fallen if Maggie hadn't reached out to grab his arm, easing him away from Claire and helping him to the chair closest to Sam.

"Well?" Maggie prompted, crouching next to Sam and checking the ropes binding his hands to the bed.

Dean lifted his burning eyes to Abe's face, watching as the Ojibwa shot his gaze from Claire to Yeats and finally to Sam's tied up form on the floor next to Dean.

"We treat Sam with pilocarpine," Abe said. "I had some in my truck—had to wait until Maggie and Yeats brought it back."

"So that's what took you so long," Dean whispered, watching Abe nod. "What's it gonna do?"

"The ikiryoh is mirroring the effects of belladonna poisoning based on the method it was summoned. The pilocarpine will combat those effects."

"That won't stop the ikiryoh," Claire announced.

"No," Abe shook his head and Dean bit his lip with a slow shake of his head to keep from groaning with helpless frustration. "For that, we have two choices."

"And?" Dean barked, rolling his hand impatiently in the air.

"We trap it in the host—"

"No fucking way," Dean declared with a decisive shake of his head.

"—or we kill the source."

"The source?" Yeats asked, speaking for the first time since he'd tried unsuccessfully to defend his actions.

"Claire," Dean guessed.

"The ikiryoh is summoned by one with great hatred and takes the form of that hatred—in this case, Claire's lost childhood," Abe said.

Dean looked at Claire, who impassively watched Yeats.

"You're not killing my daughter," Yeats stated flatly.

"We're not trapping it inside my brother, either," Dean returned.

Yeats turned away from Claire, facing Dean.

"She's been through enough!"

Dean stood so suddenly the backs of his knees shot the chair away from him, tumbling it across the floor and causing Sam to shrink back and cry out.

"What, and Sam hasn't?" Dean bellowed. "Y'know, it's really interesting that you could dump her when she was a kid and now you're all about the father role. Sam's not going to pay for your screw up."

Yeats stepped up to him, his gray eyes flinty. "He's a hunter! He knows the risks!"

"She's a fucking witch! She murdered people!" Dean shoved his face close to Yeats, fury finding strength where fever had stolen it away.

"Because of what I did!"

"Not my problem, man! Sam is not paying for your mistake!"

"I'll kill you myself before I let you touch her," Yeats drew his hand back, fingers curled into a meaty fist.

"HEY!" Abe pushed his way between the two hunters, shoving Yeats from Dean with an upper arm against his larynx. Dean stumbled back, shaken, dizzy. "No one is killing anyone."

"Well, not now anyway," Maggie pointed out from her crouched position next to Sam.

Dean looked at her, terrified for a moment that Sam had succumbed to the power of the ikiryoh when he hadn't been watching. Maggie sat next to Sam, her arms wrapped around his gasping, trembling body, her strong, work-roughened hand stroking a ceaseless pattern of comfort across Sam's furrowed brow.

"What?" Dean panted, wanting to curl in on himself to ease the fire in his belly.

Maggie looked pointedly behind Yeats. Dean, Yeats, and Abe followed her gaze to see an empty room. Claire was gone.

"Dammit," Dean breathed.

Abe's shoulders shifted with breath. Keeping a hand on Dean's arm, he looked over at Yeats. "You, get out of here and cool off."

Yeats glared at Dean, then looked down at Sam. Without another word, he turned and stalked out of the small house.

"Maggie," Abe angled his head her way. "We're going to need your help."

"I'm not going anywhere," Maggie said, still soothing Sam.

"I swear if I hadn't touched her, I'd think that girl was a spirit," Dean muttered, looking at the empty space where Claire had been standing moments ago.

"She's not," Abe said, turning Dean and guiding him to the single bed. He pushed Dean down so that he sat, slumped, on the mattress. "Bobby told me that she's wanted for the murders of Sean Harper and Lewis Wells. The cops in Oklahoma and Nebraska have her description and everything."

"What about that hunter back at the Roadhouse?"

"Emerson Frye," Abe said, leaning over the bunk bed to untie Sam. "I gotta hand it to Bobby. In two phone calls, he gave me more than I found after a month or so of searching."

Dean lifted a shoulder. "What can I tell you, man, he's been at this a long time."

"Uh-huh," Abe slid the rope free, untying Sam's hands as he slumped into Maggie's arms. "And maybe some of us just aren't cut out for this."

"Maybe," Dean rubbed his face, watching as Abe and Maggie lifted Sam from the ground and moved him to the bottom bunk. "Do you want this bed?"

"You stay there," Abe commanded. "You're as white as a sheet. I don't want you passing out on me."

"I'm fine," Dean said automatically, his face tightening as Sam searched the room with wide eyes.

Ignoring Abe's order, Dean slid from the bed to his knees, slumping low to shield his belly from the sting the movement caused, and shuffled close to the lower bunk. He was at Sam's head the moment Maggie stepped away.

"Hey, Sammy."

"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam's broken voice cut into Dean, deeper than any bullet.

"Nothin' to be sorry for, man."

"I hurt so many people," Sam twisted away from him, his back arching up as he gasped for breath. "I did it. I did it all. I killed them." He thrust his feet out, kicking Abe away. "I killed them."

Dean leaned close, his hands automatically going to Sam's arms, keeping his brother's hands away from his already wounded face. "Who are you talking about, Sam?"

"I killed them…"

"Sammy…"

"God, Dean—" Sam jerked twice, as if convulsing. His dilated eyes searched the dimly lit room as if for absolution.

Dean ground his teeth, tightening his grip. "You didn't kill anybody, man. 'Cept the monsters, okay?"

Sam bucked against his arms and to his horror, Dean felt the skin beneath his hands ripple as though something other than muscles were rolling under the surface. Swallowing the sudden rush of bile, he shot a look over his shoulder to a stone-faced Abe.

"Where's that stuff you said would help him?"

"It's not going to stop it."

Sam cried out again, nearly twisting out of Dean's hands.

"Son of a bitch," Dean cursed as his brother's thrashing pulled his belly roughly up against the edge of the bottom bunk. He felt Maggie's hand on his shoulder, knew she was about to ease him away. "Don't touch me," he growled jerking his shoulder free.

"Stay with him, Dean," Abe said softly, approaching from the side.

"What the hell does it look like I'm doing?" Dean snapped.

"No, I mean, hold him," Abe said. "The effects of belladonna poisoning are slowly devastating but reversing them is like… a sudden rush of blood to the head only ten times worse."

"Okay, I got it, I got it," Dean said, pulling himself painfully up next to the bed, adjusting his grip on Sam so that he could hold him to the bed with the flat of his arm.

"It's a serum," Abe said, hesitating.

Dean shot a look to Abe, speaking volumes with his eyes.

"Right," Abe said, taking a breath. He leaned over, gripping the bottom of Sam's jaw, then tapped two clear drops onto Sam's tongue from a small green bottle.

For a moment nothing happened and then Sam's eyes flew open. He convulsed violently, shoving Abe away, loosening Dean's grip, grabbing air like a drowning man. Dean curled his fingers into Sam's shirt, closing his eyes as Sam's motion tore at the cauterized wound in his belly and the torn skin on his injured shoulder. Groaning low in his throat, Dean buried his face on the pillow in the crook of space between Sam's head and his shoulder as the world spun crazily around him, threatening to spill him over the edge.

The only thing holding him together in that moment was the same thing that was ripping him apart.

Suddenly, Sam stilled. He was so quiet that for a split second Dean was afraid to open his eyes. Then Sam's breathing eased and Dean realized that his brother's T-shirt was soaked through with sweat. He lifted his face cautiously to see Sam's eyes facing him, no longer dilated, but no less tragic.

"Sam?" Dean whispered.

Sam swallowed. "I'm so sorry, Dean."

"Hey," Dean pulled back slightly, forcing his fingers to open and release Sam's sweaty T-shirt. "Nothing to be sorry for, man."

"All this… all this… everything you've been through… it's my fault," Sam whispered.

Dean wasn't conscious of Abe or Maggie. He wasn't aware of the rain outside. He ignored the sticky wetness creeping across his belly. His only focus was the eyes of his brother, now filling with tears. Aw, Jesus Sammy…

"How do you figure?" Dean forced out past the grip around his throat.

"Mom… died in my room. Because it was after me—"

"We don't know that."

"Dad… turned you into a soldier to keep me safe—"

"I got to play with guns."

"You never had a childhood, never had a real life…"

"Hey, I have a life. I got my car, my kid brother, some kick-ass music—"

"Jess died because of me. And Wandell… And all those people we couldn't save—"

"What about the ones that are alive because of you? What about them, huh?"

"Doesn't matter…what I do doesn't matter…"

"Sam."

"I watched myself shoot you… watched myself hit you… heard my voice—"

"Sam!"

"I am going to turn into something awful… Dad told you… and you will have to kill me and what is that going to do to you… how are you going to survive that…"

"SAM!"

Sam jerked, blinking. Anger spiked so fast that Dean didn't take time to think. He simply reacted. Logic told him it was the ikiryoh talking, but part of him knew that somewhere inside, Sam believed what he was saying. And that made him angry.

"That's enough!" Dean ground out, pushing away from the bunk, using the iron rail to pull himself to his feet. "You want to beat yourself up for this? Fine! You shot me. You beat the shit out of me. You found the cracks and you dug your fingers in. And man, I was pissed. Pissed! But that's enough, okay?"

Sam lifted himself to his elbows, staring at Dean, tears streaming down his face. Dean knew they were more a product of the pilocarpine than real emotion, but they still got to him.

"If you really cared about me, you'd believe me. You'd forgive yourself because I was never mad at you."

"You—you just said you were pissed…"

"But, not at you," Dean finished, softly. "Never at you."

"You can't tell me it didn't hurt," Sam challenged. "I saw your face when the demon was inside Dad. I saw it break you, man. I know I did the same thing."

"Dad isn't you," Dean replied simply. "I won't forget what happened, Sam. Any more than that burn on your arm is going to let you forget."

Sam twisted his right arm over, eyes on the healing burn.

"But I could never hate you, man. And I stopped being mad at you about an hour after I realized you were missing."

Sam looked back at Dean, lower lip trembling with tears and hope. "You mean it?"

Dean closed his eyes, seeing the child he raised and not the man Sam had become. "I promise," he whispered, remembering a time very recently when he said those words to Sam with a completely different intent. "I have never meant anything as much as I mean this."

Sam dropped his head back.

"If anything," Dean continued, "you should be mad at me."

"Wha—" Sam started, then cried out as his skin rippled under his T-shirt, crawling up his chest to his throat. "Oh, fuck…"

Abe stepped up next to the bed. Dean had completely forgotten he was still there.

"What do we do?" Dean asked.

"We have to stop the ikiryoh," Abe said. "The pilocarpine will only stall the effects."

"We're not trapping it inside of Sam," Dean declared. "It'll kill him."

"Dean," Sam gasped, reaching up for Dean's arm. "Will… will it die, too?"

"Forget it, Sam."

"Dean—"

"I said forget it! No fucking way am I letting you be some noble martyr thinking it's going to make a difference. You're staying with me, you got that?"

Sam dropped his hand from Dean's arm, reaching for the collar of his shirt. "Can't breathe."

"Son of a bitch," Dean breathed, closing his eyes again and reaching for the top bunk bed frame as the room swayed slowly around him. "In and out, Sam. Slow and easy, okay?"

"'Kay."

"You fight this, Sam. You hear me? You fight this." Dean opened his eyes to watch Sam's face twist with effort.

"I… I hear you."

"How much of that stuff can we give him?" Dean asked, turning to face Abe.

"I have no idea," Abe confessed.

"We have to find Claire," Maggie said.

Dean turned to look at her. She stood against the wall, one hand across her middle, the other pressed against her lips. Her face was pale, making her blonde hair appear more gold than yellow. Her eyes were steady, determined.

"You know Yeats will fight us," Dean said.

Maggie dropped her hand, licking her lips. Dean blinked, watching tracks of emotions leave footprints in their wake as they journeyed across her storied face. He's been with me a long time… Yeats would lie down in traffic for Maggie… He gets a little protective…

"I know," she said finally. "But I'm not letting another innocent life pay the price for a mistake he made thirty years ago." She pushed away from the wall, sliding past Dean, trailing her hand across Abe's back as if to steady herself. "He should never have denied that girl a father."

With that parting line, she stepped from the safe house and out into the rain. Abe lifted the chair Dean had knocked over earlier and set it next to Sam's bed. Dean sank into it gratefully.

"You still with me?" Abe asked him.

Dean nodded.

"You don't look so good, Dean."

"I'll be fine as soon as we fix this."

Sam pulled at his shirt again and Dean reached for his brother's hands once more, stopping with a hiss of pain and curling his arm across his belly.

"Don't move," Abe said, reached down to the foot of the bed and grabbing the rope there.

He pulled out his survival knife and cut the length in half, then slid his knife back into its sheath. Softly crooning words that Dean couldn't understand, Abe leaned over Sam, tying his hands to either side of the iron bed, down at his sides where he couldn't harm himself.

Sam twisted and whimpered, closing his eyes tightly. Abe opened Sam's mouth once more, placing another clear drop on Sam's tongue. With a shudder and a gasp Sam relaxed and seemed to almost doze in reaction.

"He's gotta be beat," Dean commented, watching.

"Dean, I need to help you."

"You are helping," Dean said, keeping his eyes on his sweaty, slumbering brother. He couldn't sit up straight without shaking visibly from the pain. He gripped the edge of the chair with this right hand, leaning into that grip, and held his left tightly against his stomach.

"Let me check your wound."

"No." The thought of anyone touching his belly at this moment made him dizzy and nauseous. He suppressed a shiver.

"Can I get you some aspirin?"

Dean opened his mouth to deny again, but changed his mind. He needed to be vigilant for Sam and the pain was making him fuzzy. "Yeah," he said, relenting, looking up at Abe. "And some coffee."

"You need to rest."

"I will," Dean promised. "Soon as I know he's okay."

"And what happens if you're not okay?"

Dean simply looked at him, not bothering to answer. Abe turned away and Dean knew he heard the word stubborn mingled in his mutterings.

"I have to go up to Maggie's for the aspirin," Abe said, pausing in the opened doorway.

"Fine."

"We'll find Claire, Dean."

"We better," Dean said, his eyes once more on Sam.

www

It's all you… you did all of this…

No. Dean said no and I believe him.

You killed them… they're dead because of you…

And others are alive because of me.

It's dark in here.

I can see light.

You hurt him. You tried to kill him.

He doesn't blame me. He forgives me.

You killed a hunter. Slit his throat.

I…

Slit his throat.

Shut up. Go away.

Felt his blood on your hands.

Go away go away go away.

It's getting darker.

I can still see light. You can't take the light from me. You can't take him from me.

You scare him.

He won't leave me.

You'll be the death of him.

No.

He's gonna die because of you.

No. No, he'll live. You can't take him from me. He asked me to fight. He ordered me to fight.

You don't obey orders.

I do now.

www

The room was silent save Sam's labored breathing. The rain was soft outside, soaking the edge of the porch and the steps but not breeching the opened door. The clean, fresh smell of the water smacking the earth and raising tufts of mud in miniature eruptions conflicted with the heavy, guilt-ridden sweat that rolled from Sam due to the pilocarpine.

Dean sat very still, watching Sam's chest rise and fall, listening to the muted static of the rain, feeling the rough rub of his own clothes against his fevered skin. He could sense his strength escaping as the minutes ticked past. He could feel the heat build in his belly and knew that avoiding treatment for the sake of Sam was going to come back and bite him in the ass, but he could do nothing else.

"Why did it take you, huh?" Dean whispered, his dry lips cracking slightly with the motion of speech. "Why not me?"

None of them were without guilt. Without darkness. To Dean, he was darker than Sam ever hoped to be. Dean knew how to turn off his emotions in the moment, knew how to do what needed to be done now and convince himself later that it was what he'd wanted to do all along. He knew how to shove deep the need for validation, the need for encouragement, the simple need to be loved and appreciated.

But Sam… Sam wore that need like a beacon in the dark. It was plain for all to see. Dean's eyes slid closed of their own volition. Weariness was a shadow that was growing in strength and density. He could almost reach out and touch it.

Shoulda seen your face when you thought he killed that guy… pathetic.

Dean's eyes shot open. Sam hadn't been vulnerable then. His face has been twisted and angry. His features had become hard and cold. With a shiver, Dean realized that though Meg and been controlling Sam, his brother was indeed capable of those expressions. Of the right level of stoicism so that even Dean had trouble reading the cards he'd kept close to his chest.

It was a frightening thought. If Sam was destined to become something evil—something Dean couldn't defeat—Dean suspected he'd look just like he had when Meg had taken him. Dean rubbed a hot, dry hand over his mouth. How was he going to save Sam from something neither of them wanted to believe could happen?

"Kinky," came a high-pitched voice from the doorway. "Didn't know you two were into bondage."

Dean jerked at the sound, grunting with pain as his stomach protested.

"Son of a bitch," Dean growled, his eyes first hitting the barrel of his silver .45, then traveling up the wet, muddy arm of Sal Jeffers to hit the hustler's bruised face, his thinning hair plastered unattractively to his scalp. "They'll let anyone in here these days."

"Where is Jones?" Sal demanded, edging through the doorway toward Dean's duffel sitting on the kitchen table.

"Dead." Dean knew he needed to stand. But he was having a hard time convincing his legs. Get up… get up… now

"You're lying."

"Dude, he's dead. Go see for yourself," Dean waved his right hand toward the bar. "He's in the Hideout with his chest ripped open."

"Right, where some alien creature climbed out of it, huh?" Sal kept Dean's empty gun pointed at him, fishing through the duffel with his other hand.

"I see you ran into Lloyd," Dean guessed.

"Just tell me what the hell is going on here," Sal demanded.

"Or you'll what? Shoot me with an empty gun?" Dean gripped the back of the chair, pushing himself carefully upwards.

"Won't be empty for long…" Sal muttered, taking his eyes off Dean to look into the duffel.

"Won't find what you're looking for in there," Dean informed him.

Sal's eyes lit up and he tossed Dean's gun to the ground, reaching into the bag and grabbing Sam's Glock. Dean pulled his lips tight against his teeth.

"Wouldn't be too sure about that," Sal crowed. "You boys don't mess around do you? This baby don't even have a safety on it."

"What do you want, there, Bubba?"

Sal narrowed his eyes, waving the gun in Dean's direction. "I want my money back. And I want you boys gone."

Dean closed his eyes, shaking his head. "You really have no idea what's going on here, do you?"

"I know I got a friend in jail now because he was raving about Gollum crawling out of Jones' chest and apparently I got another friend gutted inside the bar. Guess that means the money's all mine."

Dean took a shaky step forward. "You remember a coupla guys named Sean, Lewis… Liam… that ringin' any bells there, Sal?"

Sal blinked. "What?"

"Spring break… Texas… 1992… anything?"

Sal started to lower the Glock, confusion plain on his face. "How do you…"

"You guys attacked a girl. Raped her. Thought you killed her."

"Holy shit," Sal breathed.

For a heartbeat, Dean felt sympathy for the hustler. He didn't know the whole story—didn't know who specifically was responsible for hurting Claire sixteen years ago. Mistakes that happen in the heat of the moment can be erased and even forgotten in the effort to live.

Then, a blink later, sympathy was chased away by disgust as Sal's lips twisted into a feral grin. "I remember that bitch. Jap chick? Wanted it bad. Lewis got a little anxious with the knife. But man, was she good."

"Good enough to track down your friends," Dean informed him. He took another step forward, ignoring the barrel of the gun as Sal jerked it up once more. "Good enough to kill them all."

"What?"

"They're dead, Sal. All three of them." The world tilted, making forward motion a challenge. Dean held fast, searching for a reserve of strength that would keep him on his feet. "She's… after you next."

"So?" Sal lifted a nervous shoulder. "Not like she's gonna find me way the hell out here."

"She already has," Dean took another step forward, eyes pinned on Sal's beady, nervous gaze. "She's here, Sal. She's gonna find you, too."

"My ass," Sal shot back. "Give me the fuckin' money and I'm outta here." Sal leveled the weapon on Dean's chest.

The world around Dean slowed. He heard the beating of his heart, the sound of Sam's breath, the fall of the rain. He reached out in the empty space between one heartbeat and the next and smacked the barrel of the Glock to the side. Sal lunged for Dean and instinct brought Dean's hands up in time to deflect the blow.

Time resumed its normal cadence and Dean felt Sal slam him back against the brick wall next to the opened door, next to the foot of Sam's bed. Dean cried out, and as his sight fled with a white flash of pain, Dean went crazy.

His arms lashed out, legs scrambled, fingers clawed, teeth gnashed. He no longer heard Sal's insults or cries, he simply fought like a wild thing. He felt the flash of wetness on his belly spread, but ignored it for the kill. He wanted to rip Sal's throat out with his bare hands.

"You bastard…" Dean panted, slamming his bruised fist into Sal's face. "You don't deserve the last sixteen years." His fist crunched cartilage in Sal's nose. "I saved your worthless life…"

Sal's ring caught Dean across the mouth with a backhand and the world spun again, sending Dean to the floor. The flash of adrenalin abandoned him quickly and as clarity began to return, he realized he was suddenly losing the fight.

If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to save you…

"Sam…"

Sal was panting. "Sam's tied to the fuckin' bed," he growled, blood streaming down his face, from his nose. He reared his fist back. "No one's going to help you now."

The sudden growl was amplified by the rain and a blur of wet fur flew through the doorway into the room. Dean echoed Lobo's ferocity and slammed his foot into Sal's middle, shoving the hustler to the center of the room where Lobo attacked, sinking his teeth into Sal's arm and dragging him further away from Dean.

Sal screamed and thrashed, but Lobo shook his head rapidly, mouth still clamped firmly on Sal's arm, tossing Sal's ample body across the floor like a rag doll. Dean lay on the ground next to Sam's bed, panting, aching, bleeding. He watched the wolf-dog release Sal's arm, his large front paws planted firmly on Sal's chest, his teeth dripping saliva and blood as he lowered his mouth to Sal's throat.

"Lobo, no!" Abe's voice echoed through the small space.

The animal froze, his dangerous teeth inches from Sal's throat, the wet fur along his back standing at attention, his growl competing with the thunder that gained strength and momentum as the battle inside the small safe house paused.

"Don't kill him yet," Abe said softly. Lobo didn't move. Sal whimpered. "Easy… easy boy…"

"Get him offa me!" Sal tried to push away and Lobo leaned closer to his throat.

"Keep your mouth shut and stay very still," Abe instructed Sal.

Dean tried to get to his knees, but his body denied him. He was spent. Used up. Shaking from fever chills wracking his body and exhaustion from fending off Sal's attack. He was able only to roll to his side and relieve the pressure on his now-bleeding belly. As he did, something under the bed caught his eye.

"Lobo…" Abe breathed. "You gii-mino-izhichige."

Dean could only see Abe's boots and jean-clad legs from his vantage point. He didn't understand the softly spoken words, but he sensed Lobo responding.

"He ayaa."

Abe carefully approached the animal, resting a steady hand on Lobo's back. Dean watched as Lobo's large paws eased off Sal's chest, and the wolf-dog sat next to Abe. Dean's eyes slid closed once more the weight of them impossible to deny.

"Lemme go!" Sal whined.

"I am not finished with you," Abe returned.

Dean opened his eyes again, seeing once more the glint of light in the corner beneath the single bed. Taking a breath, he focused on the reflection, pulling himself along the floor by his right arm and left hand. As he got closer to Sam's bed he heard his brother's raspy breath and smelled the heated sweat that soaked through Sam and into the sheets beneath him. He raised his eyes and saw with regret the raw marks on Sam's wrists where his brother had strained against the ropes holding his hands against the bed.

"What the hell?" Sal squeaked.

"You have much to pay for," Abe grunted.

Dean couldn't see what Abe was doing, but didn't take his focus from reaching the reflected light at the head of the single bed. Something told him he knew what it was. That this was the answer to his question of why Sam had been vulnerable to the ikiryoh's attack.

"Are you nuts, man? What are you—" The rest of Sal's tirade was lost as Abe muffled his protests with something just as Dean's outstretched hand closed over the object.

Sam's charm.

"Son of a bitch," Dean whispered. "God, Sammy… what where you thinking?"

He rolled to his back, the charm clutched in his fist, his hand resting on his sternum. He felt a heat in his hand. Swallowing, he lifted the small charm, looking at the carved eagle on one side, rubbing his thumb on the smooth surface of the other. Taking a breath he grabbed the edge of the iron bed and pulled himself up to a slumped, seated position.

Blinking slowly, he looked over at Sam. His brother's eyes were open, his lips tinged slightly blue from his struggle for breath.

"Sam?" Dean's voice was barely his own. "Sammy?"

"Still… here…" Sam panted, his eyes his own as he watched Dean's face. "Still… here, Dean."

"Don't you leave me, man." He meant it as an order but heard the plea in his voice.

"You… either."

Dean shivered, opening Sam's hand and rolling the charm into his brother's fingers. He closed Sam's hand around the small piece of metal, then curled his fist around Sam's.

Okay… now…

In that moment, Dean surrendered, allowing the greedy fingers of dark that had been tapping the edge of his consciousness for hours to gather him inside their grip. He slumped forward, his forehead against Sam's shoulder, his body against the wall.

www

Abe shoved the sock he'd pulled from one of the duffel bags—unsure and uncaring if the garment was dirty or clean—into Sal's mouth, silencing him. The straps of the duffel bag, cut free with the use of the survival knife, had served nicely as ropes to hold Sal's arms behind him and trap his feet together. Lobo kept his eyes pinned to Dean's assailant, his growl ever-present.

Sal finally silent, Abe stepped back, looking at the damage done to the hustler both by Dean and by Lobo. He would need medical attention before too long. But that could wait until he'd taken care of the boys.

Abe's heart thudded twice in his chest. Oh, God… the boys.

He'd always had keen instincts when it came to hunting, always known when danger loomed, when he needed to dodge left rather than right. As he turned to face the sight behind him, he knew that the danger he sensed this time was not for him.

Dean's profile was as white as the sheets his brother lay upon. His head rested on Sam's shoulder, his body curved against the frame of the bed and the wall. Sam was barely breathing, his fists clenched tight, his eyes closed.

"No," Abe shook his head in denial. "Not again…"

He stepped away from Sal, trusting Lobo to keep him in line, and crossed to the brothers. Crouching in front of Dean, Abe gently turned the young man's face toward him. The heat of Dean's skin shocked him. He pressed anxious fingers against Dean's neck and felt the answering thrum of Dean's heartbeat.

"Good, good," Abe nodded. Shifting to the side of the hunter, Abe slid his arms beneath Dean's, hefting him up against his chest, then leveraged him momentarily to his feet before turning and laying him on the spare bed next to Sam.

Dean didn't stir. Didn't so much as blink. Lifting Dean's legs onto the bed, Abe saw the tale-tell splotch of red seeping through the bandages on Dean's belly.

"Mmmrpphh!" Sal exclaimed.

Abe glanced up briefly to see that Lobo had inched forward until he was barely inches from Sal's face, teeth bared. Turning from Dean momentarily, Abe checked Sam's pulse. It was rapid, matching the shallow pants of breath that keened through Sam's parted, dry lips. Abe blinked in surprise to see that Sam's eyes were open.

"Sam?"

"Help… .him…" Sam panted.

"I'm going to."

"Needs… him…"

Abe leaned closer. "Who does he need, Sam?"

Sam closed his eyes and Abe thought he heard the word Dad slip through his lips, but thunder blocked out coherence. Rubbing his mouth, Abe looked between the two brothers, torn about who to go to first. Dean's wound needed care; his fever was high. But the ikiryoh was tearing Sam up from the inside out.

Abe bent down and looked at Sam's fisted hands. The ropes had rubbed his wrists raw. He needed to put some padding between the ropes and Sam's skin if he planned on keeping him tied up much longer. Quickly sliding the knot free, Abe eased Sam's hand loose, rubbing circulation back into the young man's fingers. As he did, a small charm fell out and landed on Sam's chest.

Sam gasped a deep, lung-filling breath. His skin shimmied with motion under the surface.

Frowning, Abe picked up the charm and Sam resumed his quick panting. Turning the charm over Abe blinked in astonishment at the sight of the carved image of the eagle.

"Migizi…"

Pulling a slim leather strap from around his neck, Abe removed the thin silver bangle he'd kept there since Ailen's death—he'd removed it from her wrist before they took her away—and transferred the charm onto the strap, sliding the bangle on his own wrist. Next, he gently lifted Sam's head, sliding the leather strap around his neck and resting the charm against Sam's chest once more.

Sam's breathing eased immediately. As it did, color began to return to his face and his eyes flew open. The ikiryoh trapped inside of him thrashed and writhed, causing Sam's body to jerk and twist, but Abe saw life return to the boy's eyes.

"She's back," Maggie's voice announced from the open doorway. "Claire's back."

"I wonder if she ever left," Abe said softly. "Where is she?"

"In the bar." Maggie said, approaching the beds. "With Yeats."

"He's barricaded them in there, hasn't he?"

Maggie stepped around Abe to stand between the brothers. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand. "God, Abe, what have we done to them?"

Sam groaned, keeping his eyes on Abe, his neck tightening as his skin rippled from the ikiryoh's hands.

"We need help," Abe said softly.

"Bobby's on his way," Maggie looked at him.

"You called him?"

Maggie looked down at Dean, sinking down to sit next to him on the bed without answering. She brushed a hand over his bruised face, stroking an imaginary hair from his forehead. Abe watched, seeing Dean shiver with fever, his lips trembling with confession of pain he would never voice while conscious.

"He needs a hospital," Maggie said in a tight voice as she lifted Dean's T-shirt, easing the sodden padding of the bandage away from his wound.

"I know someone that can bring the hospital here," Abe said, thinking of Doc. "But that's not going to help Sam."

Lowering the bandage back into place, Maggie looked over at Sal, tied up in the corner, guarded by Lobo. She shot a glance over her shoulder at the bar, then rested her eyes on Sam's face. Abe watched Sam look back at her, as if challenging her to voice the thoughts that balanced on the razor's edge of decision.

"I have an idea," Maggie announced.