Rating: PG-13


Chapter 7 – Glance

"And if you feel that you can't go on. And your will's sinkin' low
Just believe and you can't go wrong.
In the light you will find the road."

- Led Zeppelin, "In the Light"

"…if it's the last thing I do, I'm gonna save you…"

www

Darkness held the power of concealment. Nothing could hide in the light; the dark kept secrets from the secret keeper. Taunted with pacifying falsehood.

Darkness was intoxicating, thrilling. It allowed for pain and pleasure to mix into one without judgment, without contempt. It embraced lies with a dead reckoning.

Darkness knew fear and wrapped itself in it with delicious abandon.

Riding the wave of terror, greed, lust, hate, the being grew strong. Each waning breath opened its eyes further, each memory like a jolt of electrified influence making it solid, real, present.

It wanted…more.

Now.

It wanted…them.

www

The terror in Sam's voice catapulted Dean over the edge of awareness with dizzying speed. He couldn't bring his eyes into focus, couldn't reconcile the sounds filtering in through the maze in his ears with the reality he knew should be grounding him. He tried to reach for Sam, tried to leverage himself up in bed, but something inside of him was broken. He was moving through mud, breathing water, weariness and weakness preventing him from doing what he somehow knew needed to be done: get to Sam.

Sam gasped, a young, frightened sound. A wordless plea that called to Dean with the intuition of birth order. Dean blinked, trying to pry heavy eyes apart, trying to pull the world into focus. But the world was tilting and Dean was falling.

The world was tilting and Sam was scared.

Sam was scared and the world was tilting and God his arm was so heavy…

"Mother of God…"

Bobby… Dean started. That was Bobby's voice. Bobby was here? What all have I missed?

"Sam?" His voice sounded hollow and empty in his head, as if he were speaking in a dream, his body moving in reality, leaving his consciousness behind.

He tried again, focusing his fragile strength into his arm, forcing it to rise from the flat of the bed to touch the sleeve that he knew belonged to his brother. He knew, though he couldn't clearly see him. He knew, though Sam's voice had wavered with denial and disbelief. He knew, because he'd been watching out for Sam all his life.

He'd know him in the dark.

Don't forget in the dark what you learned in the light… Abe's admonishing suddenly sliced through Dean's fever-clouded brain, twisting the blurred colors of his vision to sharpened clarity as though his mind were a camera lens.

And there was Sam.

Standing next to the bed Dean lay on, staring with wide, shock-filled eyes round in a pale, drawn face at something across the room. Something that Dean knew he needed to see. Something that Dean instinctively feared.

"Sam. Answer me." Strength born from the instinct to protect flooded Dean's words, filling them with weight and light that he didn't really have inside of him. He left no room for argument in his demand. He wanted to hear his brother's voice right the hell now.

"Dean, it's—" Sam choked out.

The sound coming from the other side of the room suddenly raked Dean's spine with cold fingers of horror and dread. It was a needle running backwards on a record. It was a slipping fan belt of a car engine. It was a moth beating itself to death against a light bulb.

Rising to support himself on his elbow, his seared, bandaged mid-section whimpering in protest of motion, Dean turned his head and saw the gore that had stilled his brother with revulsion.

The ikiryoh jerked, stuttered, climbing free, impossibly, from Sal's eviscerated body. It raised dark eyes in a smoky face and opened its mouth to once again let out the inhuman cry, causing a chill to snake through Dean's body. He was acutely aware of the others in the room, all staring with shock and disbelief at the creature moving with spidery legs toward the wall behind Sal's body, stepping without thought on Sal's blank face, small feet pressing into the empty, dead eyes.

Dean swallowed, closing his eyes to ward off the slow spin of reality.

"Bastard beat me to it," he muttered, opening his eyes once more, trying to comprehend the sight of the mutilated body sprawled on the floor beneath the boarded-up window. "'Course," he rasped. "I wouldn't have left him as…juicy."

"What?" Sam finally said, looking down at Dean incredulously. "What are you talking about?"

The chittering cackle called Dean's attention away from Sam once more. Shifting his hip up further in the bed, Dean rubbed his eyes. "I have no idea."

"We… we need to… leave… or…" Abe breathed, apparently unable to tear his eyes from the creature. "Sam. We need to get out of here."

"Yeah…" Sam breathed in reply.

Dean looked at Sam's profile, then slid his eyes to Abe. Their faces held the same shocked expression, their eyes unfocused. Worry drew Dean's brows close and he shifted slightly to take in Maggie standing back by the opened door, and Bobby at the foot of the bed.

"What the hell is wrong with you guys?" Dean barked, wishing the sound that had emanated from his dry, cracked lips hadn't been so thin, so weak. Move your ass, Dean. Now.

The ikiryoh's laugh filled even the deepest shadows of the small, square room. It was the sound of mutilated delight, churning Dean's stomach with nauseous dread. He tried to roll to his side, ease the pressure off his abused abdominal muscles, and realized suddenly that he was tethered by plastic tubing. He looked down at his arm, saw the taped needle pulling against his skin as he moved.

Without a word, he reached over and grasped the end of the catheter, pulling the needle free of his arm with a forceful yank, and spilling a thin line of dark-red blood from the crook of his elbow down his forearm to his wrist.

Still no one moved. Frowning, Dean pressed both hands flat on the mattress, pushing himself to a shaking seated position in the bed. The blood from his arm began to soak into the white sheet. A low thrum of his heartbeat climbed up behind his eyes and he shook his head roughly, trying to maintain the focus he'd latched on to moments ago.

"Hey!" He said into the thick silence surrounding the other people in the room.

The ikiryoh mocked him, repeating his call with what sounded like rotting vocal chords. Dean could feel the shift in power, in strength from the last time he'd seen the creature inside the Hideout. It had grown, and with it, its formidable influence over the dark inside them all.

Dean shot his head over to the creature, watching in awe as it began to climb the wall above Sal. Backwards. Its hands and feet affixed to the wall, its naked, pale, child-like body writhed as what passed for muscles moved beneath its translucent skin, its eyes remained up, and pinned to…Sam.

Dean reached out once more, the blood from his arm sliding in a smear around the base of his thumb. He grabbed Sam's arm roughly.

Mine…

"NO!" Dean yelled, looking over as the ikiryoh continued its slow, upward climb. "No, he's not yours."

Sam blinked, as if waking from a long sleep, when Dean's hand touched his wrist, skin against skin, warmth against warmth, reality.

"What—"

"Snap out of it!" Dean shook his arm again. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

Sam looked down at Dean's hand, then his blue-gray eyes traveled the path of blood from Dean's hand and met his brother's eyes. He took a breath, blinking his eyes rapidly.

"Dean," Sam licked his lips. "What did you do?" He reached out and grasped Dean's wrist, turning his arm over.

Dean jerked his arm free. "Forget about me," he said, swallowing a cough he felt climb the back of his throat. "You guys are acting like—"

"We…must leave," Abe whispered again, as if talking were akin to pushing a boulder up a hill.

"Can't you hear that, man?" Sam asked, tears hiding under his voice. "It's… it keeps…calling out… crying."

Dean looked back at the ikiryoh. It had reached the bend of the wall where brick met the wood of the ceiling. Impossibly, as though reality had turned the snow globe of life upside down, the creature began to crawl backwards across the ceiling, staring down at the empty faces tracking it below.

And it laughed at them. Dean felt himself shake with the sound. Anger flared, white-hot and strong.

"You son of a bitch," he growled. "You're not taking him. You're not taking any of them."

The ikiryoh looked at him then, tar-black eyes full of everything and nothing meeting green eyes hungry for resolution, and Dean felt himself begin to bleed inside, his heart curling into a fist as he forgot who he was, forgot why he cared, forgot that he mattered.

"God… it's so… miserable…" Sam's heartbroken voice chewed through the fog that had wrapped around Dean's awareness and he closed his eyes with force, breaking the contact of the ikiryoh.

"Sam!" Dean called, curling his legs to the side, intending to push himself free of the bed to grab his brother's wide shoulders and shake some sense back into him. The room spun around him, drawing his eyelids down, and forcing him to grab the edge of the bed to still the motion. "Sam, please…"

Hear me… focus on me… find me… don't let go… I'll fall if you let go…

And then time turned inside out. Dean saw with startling clarity the movement on the edge of his periphery while the motion directly in front of him became blurry, distorted, distant. It was only when he felt the burning-cold touch of the creature's dead fingers on his bare chest that he realized the ikiryoh had dropped from the ceiling to land on top of him, straddling him with the tenacious, monkey-like grip of a child, its head tilting sideways with curiosity, its mouth opening to emit a nails-on-chalkboard sound of light dying.

"Aw, fuck me…" Dean breathed, and then sound and motion ceased.

He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, could do nothing but stare, open-mouthed, at the embodiment of pain and suffering. At his demise.

"DEAN!"

Sam's hands on his arm. Sam's voice in his head.

"Son of a bitch."

Bobby's curse breaking free from imprisoned lips. The sound of metal scraping across wood as the Glock was retrieved.

"Oh, God in Heaven."

Maggie's whisper like a screamed plea for mercy, the sound of thunder rolling across the sky through the opened door behind her like an answer. Boots shuffling across a worn floor as she backed away.

"Maajaan azhigwa!"

Abe's sturdy voice cracking like a bow breaking beneath the weight of the world, the sound of leather against denim as he reached for Sam, to step in as protector when the guardian had fallen.

A click of a chamber, the burn of a bullet through the air, the smell of gunpowder, the screech of indignation, and Dean was free.

"Holy shit!" Dean exclaimed, shaking uncontrollably. He tried to scramble higher in the bed, away, just away.

The ikiryoh jerked and spasmed again as Bobby fired round after round into the creature's pale, thin body. Dark bursts of dust seemed to plume up from its chest as the bullets bore into it, forcing it away from Dean, backing it down, but not killing it.

Dean continued to move, away not being far enough. He didn't register that he'd been naked beneath the sheets until his backside cracked hard against the worn floor and the chill shocked him into clarity. Pressing his now blood-smeared hand against the bandages tightly wound across his belly, Dean looked down at his bare legs with honest surprise.

"Where the hell are my pants?" he breathed to no one in particular.

Lightning blinked like a far-away strobe, warning of the coming ferocity that would come with the rocking of the thunder clash. Sam immediately crouched down beside him, Bobby's shots having freed them all from the humming thrall of the ikiryoh.

"You okay?"

Dean looked up at his brother, noting with immense relief that Sam was Sam again, clear-eyed, his face lined with concern and urgency.

"I'm naked," Dean replied.

"You bleeding again?" Sam pulled Dean's hand away from his bandages.

"Dude, where are my pants?"

Sam swallowed, his shoulders relaxing a fraction with relief when he saw the blood was from the IV site and not the infected belly wound.

"You're still pretty warm," Sam said, his hand on Dean's bare shoulder. "But not as bad."

The stuttering uh-uh-uh of the ikiryoh's guttural inhale drew their eyes up. The being had retreated to the far upper corner of the room, only its eyes glinting in the gray light of the stormy dawn, showing half-crescents of silver intent.

"Maggie, out," Bobby said, the Glock still pointed at the corner of the room, his dark-blue eyes not leaving his prey. "Abe, help Dean. Sam, get the bag of weapons."

"Bobby—" Maggie started.

"Move your asses, people! Now!" Bobby's command left no room for questions, only motion.

Dean shot his eyes over to the door and saw Maggie dart out into the rain, her white-blond hair plastering against her skull. Sam started to tuck his hand under Dean's arm to pull him upright as Abe approached.

"Hold on!" Dean said, trying to resist his brother's strong arm. "I'm not going out there naked."

"You gotta be kidding me," Sam grumbled, rocking back on his heels and pulling Dean up on legs as steady as a newborn colt. Abe grabbed the white blanket from the bed and wrapped it around Dean's shoulders.

Still frowning, Dean allowed the Ojibwa to grip his upper arm as he tried to take a step forward and nearly pitched onto his face. Sam scurried to the table to grab up the bag of weapons as Bobby kept the gun trained on the ikiryoh. It hissed like a caged cat, its tiny teeth glinting briefly in the light.

"Sam," Dean's eyes caught on the flask of holy water lying next to the bag. Sam grabbed it, stuffed it in the bag, then pulled out Dean's Bowie knife.

"Here," he said, thrusting the hilt toward his brother. "Get dressed."

Dean gratefully reached his hand through the gathered blanket and took the weapon from Sam's outstretched hand, feeling the cloth move against his fever-sensitive skin as he made his way out of the door, Abe's hand guiding and supporting him.

Sam followed close behind and Bobby backed out with him.

MINE!

"Go to hell, you tar-eyed bastard," Bobby growled in reply to the screech that bowed them all, pulling the door shut. "Sam," he snapped. "Tell me you have some salt in that bag."

"Uh…" Sam dug through the bag quickly as Abe helped Dean down the stairs of the porch to stand in the rain. "I have salt in the bag," Sam told him, grabbing a half-filled can and handing it to the older hunter.

Dean felt the cold mud squish between his bare toes, the rain beating through his thin barrier like a Swedish masseuse. Bobby handed the Glock back to Sam, then poured the salt at the base of the door, windows, running around to the other side of the small house to cover the broken picture window in the back.

When he returned, he pointed to Abe's truck. "Get in. Everybody rides."

"Where are we going?" Sam asked as Abe obediently turned Dean toward the truck, herding a shell-shocked Maggie before him.

"To Maggie's."

"What about Yeats?" Maggie asked, turning to face Bobby, rain traveling her face like tears.

"We'll come back for him, Mags," Bobby said gently, cupping her face and turning her to face the truck.

Dean felt the mud pull at his feet, splash up his legs, weariness twisting around his legs like vines and anchoring him to earth. He heard Sam toss the weapons back in the bed of the truck, heard the door creak open, and felt hands lift him inside, mindful of his wounds. He wanted to squirm, push against the help, resist, but his body was hollow and his heart beat too hard behind his eyes.

"Just take it easy, Dean," his brother's voice was inside his head, his body close, trapping the thin, wet blanket around Dean's scarred body.

Dean nodded wearily and dropped his head back as Bobby climbed in on his left, Sam pressing close to his right as Maggie perched on Abe's lap and, impossibly, all five adults rode in the cab of the truck up to Maggie's house.

As their wet bodies steamed up the windows, Bobby leaned forward to wipe away a clear spot. Dean was momentarily surprised when Bobby didn't ask for directions, then remembered it had been Bobby who told them where to go, who to ask for.

"Salt's not going to hold it forever," Sam pointed out.

"I know," Bobby returned.

"It's tied to her," Abe interjected. "To Claire."

"We know where Claire is?" Bobby asked.

"No," Maggie whispered brokenly. "She left after she killed Yeats."

"I thought you said—" Sam started

"Doesn't matter who pulled the damn trigger, she killed him," Maggie spat at Sam, daring him to contradict her.

Dean was silent as they pulled up to the front door and clamored out, Sam keeping his hands on Dean's shoulders, Bobby grabbing the weapons bag from the back. They stood in the entrance of the house, dripping on the area rug, panting as if they'd run up the hill to Maggie's instead of cramming into the truck.

Dean shivered, and that motion prompted Sam to push him further into the house. As he felt his body shutting down like a computer system going off-line, Dean allowed his brother to guide him into the kitchen, ignoring the way the wet blanket hung on his shoulders, clinging to the muscles of his arms, back, rear-end, legs. Ignoring the way the bandages absorbed the wet of the cotton. Ignoring the pointed way no one looked directly at him.

"I need a drink," he whispered, dropping gingerly into the chair Sam pulled out for him.

"I'll get you some water," Sam offered, starting to move away. Bobby set the weapons bag on the kitchen counter, and began pulling supplies free, laying them side by side next to the bag.

"That's not a drink," Dean grumbled, propping his elbow on the table and dropping his forehead into his upturned palm, gripping the knife hilt and blanket together in his other hand. The rain had washed away the blood on his arm, and the small puncture wound had closed up, but the stain of pink was splashed across the white.

"You're not getting alcohol," Sam informed him. "Do you know how much medicine we pumped into you last night?"

"No," Dean replied sullenly, his voice directed at the table, shivering as the warmth of the house combated the wet of his covering.

"You need clothes," Maggie declared.

"Ya think?" Dean retorted, in no mood to coddle anyone.

"I've got some," Maggie informed him and turned from the room.

Abe disappeared around the corner and returned moments later arms laden with several towels. He handed one to Sam, one to Bobby, and set three in front of Dean. Helping Dean slide the wet blanket from his shaking shoulders, Abe wrapped a warm, dry towel around him, opening one for modesty's sake, and helping Dean pull the wet blanket free before covering up with the other towels.

Sighing in satisfaction, Dean dropped his head back onto his hand, beginning to feel an odd weightlessness as if he were no longer a part of his body. In the world, but not of it. Sam started to dig through the cabinets, and Dean rolled his head on his hand as he watched his brother pull out fixings for coffee.

"I could kiss you right now," Dean muttered when the rich aroma off the coffee wafted from the bag of ground beans Sam opened.

"Dude, we've got company," Sam quipped, not looking at him.

Abe dropped into the chair across from Dean, then rubbed his face. "What are we going to do?"

"What we always do," Bobby and Dean replied in unison.

Abe looked at Dean, his dark eyes weary, his lined face pulled tight across sharp cheekbones, his wet braid lying over his shoulder. The silver earring dangled, catching the light from the storm outside as lightning chased itself across the sky.

"What is that?" Abe asked. "How do you always do something?"

Dean frowned, feeling a sadness roll from his friend like clouds over a freshly-dug grave. "We have to," he tried to explain. "We know what's out there."

The coffee maker began to gurgle in the background and Dean saw Sam lean a hip against the counter, rubbing a hand over his wet hair, wiping his palm down his face. He had flipped the towel Abe handed him around his shoulders like a cape, soaking the wet from his long-sleeved shirt.

"How can you…how do you live like this?" Abe asked, looking uncomfortable in his helplessness.

"We didn't always," Dean started. "We were a normal family once. A long time ago." He kept his head in his hand, not trusting his body to hold itself upright. "We had dinner together, and went on walks. We watched TV and went to Sunday school. We didn't always know that nightmares were real and that monsters really did live in your closet."

Dean shifted his eyes to Bobby watching the older hunter load up the sawed-off shotgun with rounds of rock salt, checking the clip of Dean's .45 and Sam's Glock. Sliding a knife out from beneath Maggie's counter as though he'd placed it there himself. Maybe he had…

"When did the curtain get pulled back?" Abe asked, and Dean felt his eyes. He met them.

"When I was four."

Abe cursed, rubbing his face again.

"I didn't really know exactly what the deal was, though. Not for awhile at least. And Dad tried to keep it from Sam," Dean glanced at his brother, who was leaning on the counter, arms crossed over his chest, feet crossed at the ankles, eyes on the ground. "But there's only so many times you can explain away the reasons why Dad came home bloody, late, or not at all. Sam was always too smart for his own good."

"Why don't you just… quit?" Abe asked.

"Quit?" Dean asked, incredulous. "What, just walk away? Leave that…dead kid ghost thing hanging out in Maggie's back yard?"

"Not quit this…hunt," Abe placated. "Quit this life. Quit hunting. Live… regular."

"You can't quit what you were born to be," Sam replied, still looking at the ground. He lifted his eyes and Dean registered their bleak stare. "You can't run from destiny."

"Bullshit," Bobby commented, shoving a clip into an extra 9mm they'd picked up along the way, and turning to face Sam. "No such thing as destiny."

Sam narrowed his eyes at Bobby. "You really believe that?"

"Hell, yeah," Bobby nodded. He tipped his hat-brim up with the tip of his index finger. "You always got a choice. You remember that." Bobby pointed a finger at Sam and Dean watched his brother's lips thin, unable or unwilling to contradict their mentor.

Dean sighed, shivering again as his worn and weary muscles protested being upright. The skin on his stomach was hot; he was sure if he looked down steam would be rising from his still-damp skin. He sighed and looked at Abe.

"We can't quit," he told him softly. "You can't… stop knowing something is out there, stop knowing you can do something about it… We'd let the darkness win."

Abe nodded, his eyes registering understanding and reluctant acceptance. "But just because you know…doesn't mean you have to fight…"

Dean lifted a shoulder. "What else can we do?"

Abe looked at him. "Prepare? Educate?"

Sam poured a mug of coffee and set the hot, black beverage in front of his brother. Dean still didn't let go of the knife hilt, allowing the towel around his shoulders to drop to his waist as he reached for the mug.

"Prepare for what? Educate who?" Sam challenged. "It's all about fighting, Abe. Fighting who you are. Fighting what they are. Fighting…" Sam looked at Dean and pulled his lips together. "Fighting what you might become."

"Sam," Dean tried, feeling Sam's dread cloak him like a cloud, but was interrupted by Maggie's return.

She had changed into dry clothes; her blonde hair ruffled up in short spikes, her bright eyes red-rimmed and swollen. She stepped into the room, clothes over her arm, and gravitated to the coffee maker. Pouring herself a mug, she took a bracing swig before turning to Dean.

"Here," she said, holding the clothes out individually. There were socks, jeans, a white T-shirt, and a red and black flannel shirt. "There are boots in the hall, but I don't know if they'll fit."

Dean reached for the clothes. "You used to date a lumberjack?"

Maggie slid her eyes to the side. "They're Bobby's."

"What?" Sam bleated.

"Mine?" Bobby's shocked voice cracked like static on a phone line.

"You left them when…" Maggie cleared her throat, taking a sip of coffee. "And I just never bothered to get rid of them."

"Mags…" Bobby breathed.

"We've got work to do," Maggie looked away from Bobby, her eyes hitting Dean with the impact of an accusation. "You need some tending."

"We left the medicine in the safe house," Abe lamented.

"I'll be fine," Dean tried.

"Stop it," Sam cut him off. "Don't try that macho bullshit with us now, man. You were on the edge last night."

"Yeah," Dean took a sip of coffee. "But I didn't go over."

"Not this time," Sam gripped the back of an empty kitchen chair, thunking it firmly on the floor in frustration. "But you don't know when to quit!"

"Thought we just told Abe—"

"You know what I mean!" Sam snapped, irritation clouding his face.

Dean sighed. He didn't have the strength to keep pushing Sam. He didn't think he had the strength to change into these clothes. Bobby's clothes. He shook his head. The universe has a twisted sense of humor…

"That's what your Dad said," Abe interjected softly.

Dean went cold. It took a conscious effort to remember that he had to pull in breath to stay conscious. "Wh-what?"

Abe cleared his throat, looking at Dean with warmth in his dark brown eyes. Dean allowed that look to seep into him, buoying his suddenly heavy heart. The reminder that Abe had a moment of understanding, a moment of conversation with his dad that he hadn't been a part of, that he'd barely missed, caused him to literally ache.

"He said that you didn't know how to quit," Abe said. "He said it with pride in his voice."

Dean pulled up the side of his mouth in a quiet, rueful grin, glancing down at the table. When Abe spoke again, Dean kept his chin down, looking up at the Ojibwa through his lashes.

"But," Abe went on when the quiet pressed in around them. "There's a difference between quitting, and deciding to stop."

"Dean," Bobby said, taking charge once more as the group faded into the thick of exhaustion, each staring into their own middle distance while memories and fears danced a jig on their hearts. "Go get changed. Sam, you help him. Abe, we need to get our weapons cached. Maggie—"

"Don't." Maggie's voice was clean and cold, decisively separating herself from Bobby's group of Musketeers. "Just… just don't."

"Right," Bobby said softly, his eyes taking in Dean, then resting on Sam. "Boys?"

"We're going," Sam assured him. He took the clothes from the pile on the counter, then turned to Dean. "Need a hand?"

"I got it," Dean shook his head, trying to work out how he was going to keep the towels up and carry both the coffee and the knife.

"Leave the knife, Dean," Sam instructed.

"Like hell," Dean shot back, lifting his hot eyes to his brother's face.

Sam sighed. "Fine," he grumbled, picking up the coffee mug. "Let's go."

The trip down the hall to the guest bathroom was slow going. Dean used the wall and his shoulder to keep himself moving in a semi-straight line. He felt Sam close behind, heard him breathing, sensed him thinking. Just once I'd like to have a clean hunt, no higher meaning, no deep angst, no life lessons… just a salt and burn and the worlds down one ghost.

"Dean?" Sam's voice dragged him to a stop in front of the bathroom door. "You, uh, need to go in and…"

"Right," Dean nodded, realizing for the first time that Sam was right. It had been awhile. Using the sink as support, the knife blade clinking against the porcelain, pushing aside the med kit balanced on the counter's edge, Dean relieved himself, sighing with the satisfaction of eased pressure, then dropped down on the closed lid to catch his breath.

"Safe?" Sam called.

"Yeah."

"Let me check your bandage," Sam ordered, dropping the clothes on the floor, sitting on the edge of the bathtub next to Dean.

Reluctantly, Dean set the knife down on the countertop, uncurling his stiff fingers from the handle. He leaned back, his bare skin against the cold tank, closing his eyes and breathing slow, even breaths as Sam carefully peeled away the bandages. He heard his brother's abbreviated hiss of worry and looked down.

"Damn," he muttered at the sight of his wounded belly. The bruising around the puncture was dark purple edged in yellow, his muscles tender to the touch and weeping from his movement. The skin was crusted and scabbed from the burn, and there were cracks in the shallow puncture that caused an instantaneous reaction of wetness in Dean's mouth.

"Nasty," Sam commented.

"Aw, stop, Sammy. You're gonna hurt my feelings."

"Believe it or not," Sam shrugged, lifting an eyebrow. "It actually looks better than last night."

"How would you know?" Dean asked. "You were… hey!"

"Hmm?" Sam prompted, using the med kit Maggie had left sitting out on the counter to clean and re-wrap Dean's wound.

"You were… playing sushi to that Japanese spirit… how… how did it get into Sal?" Dean finished his sentence through teeth clenched against the hot needle of pain that sliced him from belly to spine as Sam taped the gauze in place.

"I put it there."

"You did?"

"Yes," Sam sat back, exasperated. "Why does everyone keep saying that?"

"I just… you were…" Dean swallowed. Sam had put the ikiryoh into Sal. The ikiryoh had killed Sal. Like it would have killed Sam. "I thought I was gonna… lose you, man."

"Yeah, well," Sam grabbed the T-shirt and handed it to Dean. "That's karma for you. I've thought that about you twice now in two days."

"I hate karma," Dean grumbled, carefully pulling the T-shirt over his head. "So," he said, catching his breath once more. "Did Bobby bring the IV?"

"Abe did."

"Abe?"

"Got it from someone…" Sam shrugged, rolling the socks up and starting to slip them on Dean's bare feet.

"Dude, what the hell?" Dean exclaimed, jerking his foot back.

Sam lifted an eyebrow, looking at Dean's wounded middle. "Can you bend over and reach your feet? I didn't think so."

Dean sighed, grudgingly allowing Sam to help him with the socks. His hands were starting to feel like lead weights hanging at his sides and pulling at the strained muscles of his shoulders, so he brought them up and rested them in his towel-covered lap. "This is one messed up hunt," he muttered, letting his heavy eyes drift shut.

"Hey, don't do that."

"Hmm?"

"Open your eyes, Dean."

"I'm just resting."

"No." Sam's voice was suddenly too young and too old at the same time. Dean opened his eyes and lifted his head. "Not yet, okay? Just… don't go anywhere yet."

"Sam, I'm right here."

"You don't get it, man." Sam pushed himself to his feet. "I mean, I… I thought that… that the more people I saved, the more I could change, and I... I killed someone today."

"What?"

"And…I did it because I didn't know how else to save you." Sam's eyes were bleak as Dean tried to see past his own reflection when he looked at his brother.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Sal."

"You didn't kill him," Dean shook his head once. "That… iki…Japanese thing did."

"Because I put it there," Sam pointed to its chest. "I knew what it was going to do to Sal. I wanted him to pay for what he'd done to you."

"Well, so did I, but—"

"No, see, that's just it. You said you wanted to kill him, sure, but you wouldn't have."

"I didn't exactly get the chance," Dean hedged, keeping a close watch on his brother.

Sam started to pace the tiny bathroom like a large, gangly tiger. His hair was drying from the rainstorm, curling up at the edges giving his face a mask of innocence that his eyes denied. Sam had seen too much to ever be innocent again, Dean knew.

"Maybe… maybe this is it, Dean."

Dean reached out to grip the counter as Sam's pacing made him dizzy. "Maybe what is it?"

"Maybe what I'm gonna become isn't gonna be some sudden transformation. Maybe it's a slow… dying process."

"Sam—"

"Maybe I'm already that person that Dad said you would have to kill. Maybe—"

"SAM."

Sam stopped pacing, turning to face Dean, his mouth clicking shut with a snap of teeth.

"I want you to listen to me very carefully."

Sam blinked.

"I remember what you said last night. I remember you said you believed me. That I didn't blame you."

Sam nodded.

"You still believe me, Sam?"

Sam nodded again.

"You. Are. Not. A. Killer."

"But—"

"Eh! No. You said you believed me."

"I do, but—"

"Then shut up," Dean sighed, dropping his chin to his chest. "And help me with these pants."

For a moment Sam didn't move. Dean held his breath, not sure he had the strength to keep arguing. The swiftly tilting planet had a mind of its own and it seemed as far as Dean Winchester was concerned, balance was not a criteria.

Sullenly, Sam shuffled over to Dean, picking up the jeans and lowering his shoulder so that Dean could grip it and stand up. Dean felt Sam turn his head away as he stepped into the leg, then held his breath once more as Sam helped him ease the waist up.

"Dude," Dean exclaimed, buttoning the worn fly. "I can't friggin' believe I'm going commando in Bobby's jeans."

"I'm sure they've been washed." Sam assured him.

Dean tossed him a look, his eyebrows in inverted V's. "So not the point, man." He sat down once more, reaching for the long-sleeved shirt. "At this rate, that ghost kid is going to be attending college before I can get out there."

"You're not going back there." Sam declared.

"Says who?" Dean pulled his head back, eyes narrowed in surprise.

"Me."

"Why?"

"Why?"

Dean lifted his eyebrows in a did I stutter look.

"Because you still have a fever. Because you can barely stand. Because you have a hole in your stomach—"

"Everyone has a hole in their stomach."

"—because your shoulder isn't healed. Dammit, because I said so."

Dean barked out a laugh, pulling the flannel shirt on slowly. "You forget who the oldest is, Sammy?"

"No." Sam shook his head. "No, I didn't. I didn't forget because I almost lost you. And I can't lose you, Dean. Not like that. Not like Dad. I'd rather die first."

Dean looked up, surprised, chagrined, horrified. Tears hovered on the edge of Sam's large eyes and he was clenching and unclenching his fists with an urgent, desperate energy. The image of Sam's face, devastated because he couldn't save the people at the hotel in Cornwell slid over Dean's memory, only to be washed away by the sight of Sam handing him a gun, asking him to shoot. Begging him to keep his promise. His promise that would go against the one thing Dean had worked for his entire life: keeping Sam safe.

I'd rather die…

"You're all I got, man," Sam whispered.

"Same goes for you," Dean replied softly. "It's the same, Sam."

Sam nodded. "I know." He swallowed, his eyes speaking words Dean knew he couldn't say. Dean pushed his heart up, out. Showing Sam the silent words weren't met with emptiness. "Dean, it's… I mean, I know what I said. I know it's our job. I know it's what Dad would want us to do—"

"We don't know that, Sam," Dean said softly.

Silence held sway for two heartbeats.

"It's just not worth it to me. It's not worth you," Sam confessed.

Dean swallowed, nodding as Sam's lips folded up in resistance to the single tear that fell. Sam slid his eyes to the side, working to gather himself, to still the tears of tragedy averted, crisis passed. Dean knew it was always after the near-miss that he started shaking. He was seeing that in Sam now.

John would have pushed forward. Would have finished the job. Would have made sure the bad guy was toast. Would have left them behind to do it.

"You're right, Sam."

"I am?"

Dean nodded once more. He wasn't John. No matter how much he'd wanted to be, no matter how much he'd tried, he'd never be his father.

"So, we, uh… we tell Bobby that… we… quit?"

Dean blinked. Bobby was here. With Abe's help he could defeat the ikiryoh. Maybe this time… maybe they didn't have to be the ones who stopped the madness. Maybe this was how he could save Sam.

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but… yeah."

With an exhale of relief, Sam reached out for Dean. Dean lifted his hand, grabbing his brother, thumb to thumb, and gripped him back, letting Sam pull him to his feet.

"We're not gonna…hug or anything, are we?" Dean asked with trepidation.

"Nah," Sam chuckled. "I might break you."

Dean grinned easily, taking a step forward, the jeans big at the waist and settling low on his narrow hips, dragging a bit at the foot. He rolled the sleeves of the red flannel shirt up to the mid-point of his arm. He grabbed his knife, holding it easily at his side.

"Can't believe ten years ago Bobby was the same size as you," Sam commented. "Well, almost."

"What do you think the deal is with those two?"

"Which two?"

"Bobby and Maggie."

Sam lifted a shoulder. "Think they had a thing?"

"You don't keep someone's clothes 'cause they did your taxes."

Dean took another step toward the door.

"Maybe he got rid of a spirit or something for her," Sam mused. "She said that there's all kinds of ways people get into this life, right?"

Dean nodded, opening the bathroom door. He jerked in surprise at the sight of Abe standing on the other side, then pressed his hand to his belly.

"Wait," Abe said softly.

"For what?" Dean replied, matching his tone. Sam stepped up close behind him.

"For them," Abe tilted his head to the side and Dean heard the raised voices from the kitchen. Abe beckoned them out and the trio stood along the hallway, leaning against the wall, listening to the past played out in stereo around the corner.

"…were scared, weren't you, Bobby? You were scared and you left."

"That's not fair," Bobby's voice was barely recognizable to Dean. He'd heard anger, fear, hope, joy, but never… heartbreak. Never regret. "You know exactly why I left."

"So what happened to her wouldn't happen to me."

"Right."

"That's bullshit, Bobby."

"Mags—"

"NO! You don't get to be noble. You don't. Not this time. I'm not her."

Her who? Dean mouthed to Sam.

Sam shrugged. Dean frowned at him.

"I know you're not."

"Do you? Because the minute you realized you felt something for me, you were gone. Middle of the night, no explanation, no note. For all I knew, that vampire killed you, took you, turned you."

"I killed it."

"Well, I figured that out after about five years of worrying myself sick."

Something heavy clattered on the counter and there was silence. Sam and Dean passed a look between them, but Abe stopped their motion with a quick shake of his head.

"You had Yeats," Bobby offered.

"YEATS?" Maggie's voice was a bleat of incredulity and pain. "My God, Bobby Singer, even after all these years, you're still a jackass! Yeats is—was—more screwed up than even I could fix. He just didn't have anywhere else to go."

"Maggie," Bobby's voice grew soft. "I never meant to hurt you."

"Bang up job you did on that."

"I thought that leaving was the best way to protect you."

"You thought wrong. I loved you. Do you have any idea what that means?"

Bobby was silent. Dean felt an ache where his heart slammed against his ribs. He'd never heard someone say those words to him before, had no idea what it meant, had no idea howto say them to another, not even Sam. Not even John.

"Bobby," Maggie's voice buckled, need and want slicing through pain and anger. "I never stopped."

"Aww, Maggie."

"I never stopped. You need to know that. You need to live with that. Ten years is a long time."

"It is." Bobby's voice held the sound of crushed gravel as he agreed.

"But six months was longer."

"Six months?"

"You were with me six months, almost to the day, and I woke up to an empty bed and a decade of wondering if you were alive. If you were safe. If you were fighting your demons."

"There are always demons," Bobby said softly. "Fighting all of them is going to take time."

"You don't have to fight them all."

"I have to fight mine, Mags. I have to help these boys fight theirs."

"You really love those boys, don't you?"

Dean looked at Sam, the conversation they'd just had hanging loud in his mind. Sam's eyes were shadowed with obligation.

"Yeah," Bobby answered. "Yeah, I do. They're pretty much the only family I've got. And, well, they've been through hell, Mags."

"They aren't yours, though, Bobby."

Bobby's sigh was weighted and Dean closed his eyes as the sound trickled out to a short stint of silence.

"Maybe not," Bobby said softly. "But they're the closest I'll ever get."

Dean felt a nudge on his shoulder and opened his eyes to see Abe nodding toward the kitchen. Dean rolled his shoulder along the wall, sliding down the hall. He could feel his body leaving him, hovering two steps behind his mind, three behind his heart. He sought his reserves of strength and found only hollow echoes of empty silos surrounded by thick, well-constructed walls.

This sucks out loud…

They stepped into the kitchen and Dean watched as Bobby and Maggie jumped back away from each other like two teenagers caught by their parents.

"Hey, there, kids," Dean smirked, dropping into the first chair he found and setting his knife on the table. "Leave room for the Holy Ghost," he teased, waggling a finger in the open space between them.

"You get that spell?" Bobby asked Abe, ignoring Dean. Abe pulled a paper from his back pocket. Dean could see a print-out of a web site.

"Right here."

Bobby took a breath. "Okay, boys," he started.

Dean swallowed. "Bobby, Sam and I—"

"Will need some weapons," Sam interrupted, shooting a quick glance at Dean.

Are you sure? Dean asked him silently.

Sam blinked, an unspoken assertion. We have to, his hazel eyes told his brother. We have to.

Just don't leave me, Sammy, Dean returned silently, not sure what he meant, except that the emotion behind those words was true.

"What is going on with you, two?"

"Nothing," they said in unison, looking back at Bobby.

"Well, I got you weapons. I got plenty of weapons," Bobby grumbled, looking at the arsenal behind him. "Problem is, only half of them will work, and the other half will just slow it down. This thing is strong now. It feeds on hate and darkness, and by the rate it… grew… I'm willing to bet there was enough darkness in that bad guy to make it stronger than any Buddhist sutra."

"Well," Dean nodded, bouncing his knuckles on the table top. "That's just swell."

"It's my fault," Sam whispered.

"Sam," Dean sighed.

"No, Dean, it is. I was so… angry… I just wanted to punish him. I didn't think—"

"Well, who else were you going to put it in, Sam?" Maggie broke in. "Your brother? Abe? Me?"

Sam looked at her, silent.

"Stop taking the blame for every damn thing that goes wrong around here. Guilt doesn't solve anything," she finished with a soft grumble.

Sam pulled his bottom lip in, subdued.

"Besides," Abe said into the minimal silence. "I was your talisman."

Sam turned, facing Abe with confusion plain on his face. "Huh?"

"Migizi, on your charm."

"Mi-what-zi?" Dean asked.

"It is the Ojibwa word for eagle. My name," Abe thunked his chest once with the blunted end of his thumb.

"Well, how do you like that," Bobby breathed.

Dean looked at Bobby. "You knew about this?"

"Well, not this," Bobby gestured to Abe. "But I put a protection on the charms so that they would keep you from harm… keep you from being possessed, like I told you."

Dean pulled his charm from his shirt collar, trying to see the etching on the surface that he'd never noticed before.

"It's a wolf," Bobby explained.

Dean looked at Sam, quickly making the connection. "Lobo."

"Like I said," Abe shrugged, "fate draws intersections where we create parallel lines."

"So, if you're my talisman," Sam tilted his head, "long as you're around… nothing bad can happen to me, right?"

Abe looked down. "It would seem that isn't exactly true."

"No, no, wait," Dean shook his head, patting the air with one hand. "He wasn't wearing the charm when the iki-whatever took him."

Sam shook his head, his eyes searching Abe's closed face.

"I thought I told you—" Bobby started, but stopped when Maggie placed a hand on his arm, quieting him.

"That's right. I put it on him," Abe nodded, looking up at Sam.

"And he had the strength to exorcise the… spirit," Dean pointed out. "So, you're good luck, there, Abe."

"A talisman is more than…luck," Abe said.

"Well, whatever," Dean sighed, rolling his neck. "Unless you've got Jedi powers or something, you better be careful when we take out this…spirit thing."

As Bobby turned toward the arsenal of weapons, preparing to distribute them, Dean shivered. He knew with more clarity than he'd ever known anything that taking on this spirit now could be the end of him. His body was heating up, his skin rubbing uncomfortably against the clothes Maggie had provided for him. Rolls of chills spread from his belly through his chest to shimmer through his vision, distorting the images around him, blurring the faces, deadening sound.

Dean licked his lips, unconsciously gripping the edge of the table. He needed to focus, to shove this weakness back, to find his balance. In that moment, Dean felt Sam bounce off his chair as he slid behind it to sit next to him, his forearm stretched out on the table as he leaned forward, his fingers weaving together. Closing his eyes briefly, Dean mirrored Sam's position, allowing his arm to brush his brother's, drawing strength from that contact.

"We can't defeat it without Claire, you said," Maggie challenged Bobby.

"No," Bobby shook his head. "But we can't just leave it in there forever."

"So, what's your plan?"

"We weaken it," Bobby replied, letting his flinty eyes stray from her to Abe, then finally rest on the brothers'.

Dean began to hum, softly, only to himself.

"Claire conjured this thing, right?" Bobby asked.

"She said it wasn't on purpose," Dean said, the melody continuing in his head as he spoke.

"Doesn't matter, it began because of her, it's tied to her."

Abe leaned forward in realization. "Claire has appeared when… when the creature is at its weakest…"

"That's what I'm counting on," Bobby said.

Dean felt the muscles in Sam's forearm flex and he looked down, watching, as his brother tapped softly against the table, in time to the tune that resonated in the back of Dean's throat.

"So… you think that we go in there, weaken it, and she'll just… show up?" Maggie asked, doubt clear in her voice.

Dean's hum turned into whispered words.

"…we know you've got to blame someone for your own confusion. But we're on guard this time against your final solution…"

"Exactly," Bobby nodded confidently, seemingly ignoring Dean's now-vocal effort at remaining with them, coherent, alive.

"She's not some ghost, Bobby," Maggie said. "She's a real girl."

Bobby looked down. Dean continued to hum, feeling Sam's fingers tap in time with him. He watched as Bobby pulled at his beard, stroking his fingers along the wiry hair in a familiar gesture of thought.

"Mags," he said finally. "If there were any other way, I promise you…" He looked from Maggie to Abe and the boys again. "I don't want to kill her. I don't want anyone to have to die," he lifted his shoulders in an almost helpless gesture.

"We know you're out there. But in these new dark ages…There will still be light…"

Bobby met Dean's eyes. "But she—whether she meant to or not—brought this thing into the world. Into our lives. And it's killing people because of her."

Dean felt Sam stiffen next to him. He held still, silent, letting his strength bleed out and seep into his brother's broken heart. Dean knew that bad guy or not, Sam's guilt about Sal's death was eating him up inside.

"We have to end this," Abe agreed softly. "One way or another."

"All sounds really great when you say it in the safety of this kitchen," Maggie scoffed. "But it's gonna look a whole lot different if we go in there against that thing and leave with another body on our hands."

No one contradicted her.

www

Sam was scared.

He recognized the feeling for what it was, tried to capture it and hide it instead of drawing attention to it, but random images of possible outcomes slid through his periphery. Every time he looked away from Dean.

Sitting next to his brother, he felt the fever-chills shift through Dean, and couldn't help but admire the way a seemingly iron rod of will maneuvered down Dean's spine and set him firmly in the fight even as his body begged for release from reality. While Dean's inability to simply stop moving frustrated and worried Sam, he found himself absorbing it, respecting it, depending up on it.

He needed Dean to keep going… just a little bit longer. Because he didn't know how to move on without him.

"You going to make it, boy?" Bobby was asking Dean. Sam bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from answering in his brother's place.

"'Course," Dean replied, licking his lips.

"Be honest, Dean."

Sam watched as Dean raised his head, meeting Bobby's eyes directly, squaring his shoulders. "I'm in this fight, Bobby."

Sam released the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Reaching up to unconsciously rub at the sore muscles across his chest, Sam met Bobby's stare.

"All I know is," Sam said before Bobby could ask. "I'm gonna sleep for a week when this is all over."

"Amen, bother," Dean muttered.

"Okay, then," Bobby nodded. "We go."

He handed a sawed-off shotgun to Sam, the .45 to Dean, and the other shotgun to Abe.

"There's a rifle in the bar," Maggie offered suddenly. "Yeats—" She broke off, on emotion.

"He gave it to me," Abe said. "It's actually back at the safe house."

"Oh," Maggie said weakly.

"It's okay, Maggie," Bobby assured her. "We've got plenty with the boys' stuff here."

He handed her the Glock and a knife. Sam watched as Maggie's shoulders instantly relaxed at the weight of the blade in her hand. A burble of manic laughter hit him when he looked down at the Bowie Dean had curled his hand around.

"What?" Dean asked.

"Nothing," Sam chuckled. He didn't really know what was funny except that… "I spent a week possessed by a demon. I shot and beat up my own brother. I killed a hunter. I tried to hurt Bobby. And… after all that… this ikiryoh gets stronger after being in Sal. Not me."

He looked at Dean, seeing the incredulity splashed across his brother's face, worry resting in his green eyes. He laughed again.

"See, the trick is to keep breathing," Abe commented, startling Sam into sobriety. "You keep breathing, you gain clarity. And with clarity comes the realization that none of what you just said was done by you. You had a devil inside blocking your light, keeping you from seeing the way."

Sam looked down at his joined hands.

"Sal," Abe continued. "Was dark inside."

"How do you know?" Sam asked softly, not raising his eyes, genuinely hoping for an answer he could believe in.

"When faced with the reality of what his actions toward Claire had resulted in—how many lives he had ruined with one selfish, sinful act—he did not show remorse, regret, or sorrow." Abe's voice was silk. The smooth cadence rocked into Sam and pulled his eyes up, hope glistening in the air between himself and the Ojibwa. "Light had given up trying to break in. You have much light inside of you, Sam Winchester. Never forget that."

"In the light, you will find the road…" Dean muttered, his lips tipped up in a small smile.

With that, Bobby grabbed up a flask of holy water, the remaining salt, and herded Maggie from the kitchen toward the front door. Abe smiled softly at the brothers, then stood to join them. Sam and Dean sat silently, both staring at their hands.

"Y'know," Sam said quietly. "Abe asked me yesterday if the situation was reversed… y'know, with Meg… if I would have killed you."

Dean said nothing.

"I didn't answer him," Sam confessed. "I didn't know how. All the what ifs and consequences of both sides of the decision just…I mean, what if I chose wrong? What if I got more people killed? What if…"

Dean simply blinked, rubbing his thumb slowly along the hilt of the Bowie.

"How did you know?"

"I believe in you, Sam," Dean replied softly. "Always have."

"I couldn't quit thinking about what Dad would have done."

"Did you figure that one out?" Dean asked, looking at him askance.

"No."

"I dream about him," Dean confessed.

"You do?"

Dean nodded. "I dream that he's watching us. That wherever he is… he knows what's going on. He knows how what he said to me—what he didn't say to you—he knows how it is… what it is doing to us."

"And?"

Dean huffed. "And nothing," he pushed away from the table. "He knows, but…"

Sam watched as Dean stood on shaky legs, then opened his hands in a shrug. "You said it yourself. We're all that's left. We believe in each other, we'll make it through this."

"This hunt?"

Dean turned to the doorway of the kitchen. "This life."

Sam nodded to the empty room, then got up to follow his brother. The font door stood open; Bobby, Maggie, and Abe waited for them in the cab of the truck. The rain had tapered to minor drips from the tree limbs and roof gutters. Dean was trying to work his foot into the boots left for him.

Sam knelt in front of him and wordlessly worked his brother's foot into the boot, tying the laces backwards, as Dean had taught him to do.

"Thanks," Dean rasped, grudgingly.

"The answer is no."

"Huh," Dean bounced his head as Sam finished tying the other boot. "Usually the answer is you're welcome."

"I couldn't have killed you."

Sam looked up at Dean, noting the wry grin that said no shit, Sherlock. "I know, Sammy."

They made their way to the truck, Sam keeping hold of the back of Dean's collar as the vehicle bumped back down the road, noting the tense set of his brother's jaw, and the protective hand wrapped around his damaged middle.

"Sam," Dean asked as they stepped from the truck. "She killed the dog, didn't she?"

Sam looked over at his brother, surprised by the bleakness in his tone. "I don't know."

"I can't explain it, but…"

"You don't feel him around," Sam guessed.

"Yeah."

"I'm sorry, man."

Dean lifted a shoulder, trying to look nonchalant. "Maybe we're not all supposed to have a talisman."

Who protects the protector? Sam wondered as they lined up in front of the truck, an eerie echo of the night before, only facing the house rather than the bar, and with Bobby rather than Yeats.

The crackle of breaking branches caught their attention, and Sam felt Dean tense as they looked toward the woods. Like a wraith appearing from the mist, Lobo stepped forward, his gentle eyes on Dean, his smudged muzzle up in the air, blood smeared and dried along his side and down one leg.

"Atta boy," Dean said, a smile plain in his voice, relief at seeing the animal alive evident in his stance. "You're a part of this."

Dean tipped his head, beckoning the wolf closer. Lobo stopped in front of him, sitting and looking up, silently. Hesitantly, Dean reached down, running his fingers down the flat of Lobo's head, rubbing behind his ears.

"She didn't kill you," he whispered. "Too tough for her, aren't we?"

"Guess the gang's all here," Sam commented, watching his brother's ease with the wild thing. Dean never ceased to amaze him.

"We go in," Bobby said, looking forward. "We turn loose on that son of a bitch. And when Claire shows up, Abe reads the spell."

"And then what?" Maggie asked.

"We…pray," Bobby said.

Sam swallowed, his first rocking step bouncing him lightly against his brother's flannel-covered shoulder. He watched Bobby take a breath, then shove the door open, stepping across the salt barrier into the darkness of the unlit house.

The screech hit his ears seconds before the stench assaulted his nostrils. The five of them poured into the room, Lobo trailing behind, blocking the light from the door, coughing and gagging in the tight air. It was more than death, more than the visceral carnage left behind by Sal's demise. The air was full of wickedness.

"You see it?" Dean barked, his arm up, nose pressed into the crook of his elbow.

"I can't see shit!" Sam returned.

It was as if the room had faded; Sam had the distinct impression that he could walk through the furniture, that clouds of disease wafted around him, that he was going to suffocate on the smell of evil.

Abe's voice filtered through his consciousness, speaking a language he didn't recognize, words flowing from the Ojibwa's mouth like water, wearing down the darkness as water beats on rock. Lobo began to growl, a wild, dangerous sound.

He's praying… Sam realized. It didn't matter that he didn't know the words, he understood the passion behind them. He searched for Abe in the dingy room, resisting the urge to lift his hand and push away the impression of fog. He found Abe with his eyes, standing near Maggie, one hand on her lower back, the shotgun out and resting in point position.

Ditto, Sam thought, lending his will, his strength to Abe, hoping against hope that whatever higher power listened to this hunter before hadn't abandoned him now.

The screech that greeted them sounded again, inside of him, all around him, and without warning, Sam was bowed by the intense pain of a vision, except… there was only black.

"Aw, fuck," he breathed, dropping his gun and grabbing his head as his knees crashed against the floor.

"Sam?" Dean's voice was too far away, light years away.

The blackness consumed him, rolling over him, around him, climbing into him and pressing outward. Groaning, Sam dug his fingers into his hair, pressing the heels of his hands against his temples. Stop…stop it…

And Dean's hands were on him, holding him, pulling him back. He hadn't realized he'd stumbled further into the room. He felt Dean, knew it was his brother. He'd know Dean in the dark.

So dark…

A voice. A voice in his head. His brother's voice. He grabbed for it, latched on like a drowning man to a life line.

"…not real, okay? Remember? It will go away…"

But it didn't go away. It slammed into him. Again, and again, until he heard someone screaming, crying out for it to stop to just for God's sake STOP.

"…that fuckin' gun!"

He heard Dean yelling over his screams. His screams. Oh, God he was screaming. A roar flared through the suffocating black in his head. It was the sound of enough. Of the end of a rope, the sound of someone breaking. Of is brother breaking.

The roar was followed by a blast that even in his pain-fogged haze Sam recognized as the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun. The horrendous, amplified sound of bees trapped in glass stopped for one blessed moment, and the darkness lifted.

Gasping, Sam fell forward on the floor, gradually becoming aware that someone held him. Someone not Dean. He was sweating and shaking, but the pain in his head was gone. The darkness was gone.

"D-dean?"

The room had shifted. The bed Dean had laid on last night was flipped to its side and Maggie was pressed back against the wall behind it, Bobby standing next to and over her like a guardian angel. Lobo stood between Sam and Bobby, his head low, his hackles high, his teeth bared. The growl hadn't ceased.

Dean stood in the center of the room, feet planted solidly apart, shotgun held in both hands at his waist, his Bowie knife embedded in the floor near his feet, still swaying with the force of impact.

Abe's arms tightened around Sam, offering him balance and protection in the only way the man knew how.

"Wh-where—" Sam croaked.

"In the corner," Abe replied in a hushed whisper.

Sam darted his eyes around quickly, searching, and found the ikiryoh in the upper corner of the room, dark eyes glinting in the wan light, the taunting smile gone from its face.

Mine… It declared, the sound both marshy and brittle.

"Not anymore," Dean returned and Sam was bolstered by the strength he heard in his brother's voice. Without raising the shotgun, Dean fired another round into the creature and stood fast as the scream of a wounded child filled the room.

Sam shuddered. The sound of crinkled paper shot around them as the ikiryoh slid across the ceiling, its dark eyes searching. Unable to help himself, Sam turned his face away. He couldn't take another turn with the black. He wouldn't survive it again.

"Gah!" Maggie's gasping cry of surprised pain brought Sam's head around.

"Maggie!" Bobby bellowed, blasting at the ceiling as the creature darted, its eyes still pinned on Maggie's pale face.

"Bobby! Shells!" Dean demanded and Sam saw two red rounds with brass ends sail through the air and into his brother's outstretched hand. He's still standing… how is he still standing…

"Oh, god, oh, god, no, no, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't try hard enough, I should have tried—" Maggie babbled.

Bobby dropped his gun, kneeling in front of Maggie and grabbing her shoulders. He shook her, roughly, her head bouncing to and fro on her neck as she sputtered apologies to empty memories.

"Maggie! Mags!" Bobby pleaded, his voice going from rough to gentle in a breath. "Margaret Anne. Look at me. Maggie… that's it. That a girl. Easy, honey, it's okay. Just look at me, okay? It's not real. It can't hurt you. I won't let it."

Sam heard the shells slide into the chamber of the shotgun and jerked his eyes to Dean, watching his brother's lips press out, his eyes tight and focused as he fired again into the back of the pale-skinned creature, the child's scream losing its horrifying effect.

Sam tried to get up, needed to help, but his legs had disappeared. He was shaking from the inside out and the only thing keeping him from sprawling on the floor were Abe's sturdy arms.

"Again, Dean!" Abe bellowed, his deep rumble reverberating against Sam's back. "Shoot it again." He began to chant, his rolling cry hitching and flowing across the gunsmoke-filled air. Almost in response, Lobo howled. It was mournful, commanding, chilling, but it drew the attention of the ikiryoh long enough for Dean to reload.

This time the creature seemed to literally fade as it crawled away from Maggie and Bobby, retreating to the ceiling corner where only its eyes were visible.

"Stop! Stop it!"

Sam whipped his head around at the sound of the woman's voice.

"Claire," Dean stated, and Sam looked back at him. He had turned his back on the ikiryoh in favor of facing the woman standing in the doorway, the pearly light of a day washed by an early morning rain falling around her shoulders, tossing her scarred face into shadow.

"Why does it… it hurts!"

"Well, it should fuckin' hurt!" Dean returned and Sam saw him waver for the first time since the blinding dark vision had swamped him. "Your little buddy up there has killed a few people for you, y'know."

"I didn't know—" Claire stepped forward into the room, her almond-shaped eyes running quickly over the crumpled form of Maggie wrapped in Bobby's protective arms, then sliding over to Sam collapsed against Abe, cleverly dismissing the formidable figure of the wolf, then back up to Dean, the last man standing.

"Bullshit," Dean challenged. "You knew. You knew the moment you set out to find those men that hurt you. You can't taste vengeance like this thing can give you," Dean pointed with the end of his shotgun blindly into the corner, "and start jonesing for it again and again."

"I used the belladonna," Claire protested. "I wanted them to pay—"

"They paid alright," Dean said, stepping forward with grace that belied the weakness his body was combating. He grabbed Claire by the upper arm and pulled her forward so that she was forced to stare at the gory mess that had once been Sal Jeffers. "They tore themselves inside out. That what you wanted?"

Claire whipped her head around to face Dean, her eyes snapping dangerously in the dusky room. "Yes," she practically hissed at him. "Yes I wanted that. I wanted that and more! I wanted them to hurt and to know why."

"Even Yeats?" Maggie bleated. "Even your own father?"

Claire didn't turn away from Dean, seemingly challenging him with her stare. She pressed her body closer to his, tilting her head so that she held his eyes. "Especially him. What he did, he did to himself. I gave him a choice to feel my pain, to hold the ikiryoh inside him forever… and he chose escape. He ran away again. Just like he'd done all his life."

Maggie sobbed brokenly, as if finally realizing that Yeats was truly gone. There was no coming back for the burly bouncer who had been her companion when all other lights had left.

"Fine," Dean growled low, not moving away from her body, not releasing his grip. "You won. Send it away."

"No."

"Yes," Dean grit his teeth, twisting his hand on her arm. "Unless you want me to hurt it some more."

Claire hesitated. Sam watched Dean stare at her, watched the puzzle pieces in his brother's head slip into place. Waited for the connection that he had just made himself.

"It's Emerson, isn't it?" Dean said softly. "Emerson Frye… the hunter from the Roadhouse."

Claire started. "How did you..."

"He conjured the spirit," Dean said. "Not you."

Claire swallowed.

"Son of a bitch," Bobby breathed.

"It wasn't with intent," Claire insisted and the sound of paper crackling and tearing began to fill the room as the ikiryoh moved slowly from its hiding place. "He wanted to stop me… to show me how to stop."

"He hunted you, then… what, fell for you?"

Claire smirked, rotating her hips so that they pressed against Dean's groin. "I can be very persuasive."

"And you killed him," Sam whispered. "With the belladonna."

Claire didn't look away from Dean. "It was fitting. And when I realized he'd pulled the ikiryoh from my psyche…"

She shrugged, reaching up a long, slim finger to trace Dean's jaw. The revulsion she felt for herself while she stroked Dean's face seemed to seep from the cracked edges of her will and slide around the room. Still propped against Abe, Sam swallowed hard, willing the nausea to climb back down his throat.

"You used it," Dean accused, pulling his face away as her finger traced his lips.

"Girl's gotta do… what a girl's," she leaned close to his mouth, whispering, "gotta do."

When Claire's lips touched Dean's, the ikiryoh growled. It wasn't wild. It was wicked.

Dean pushed her away, staggering back as his strength evacuated, the back of his hand rising up to smear across his lips, abject disgust plain on his face. Cocking the shotgun with one hand, he fired his last round into the skittering creature and Claire doubled over, a cry of pain breaking free as she wrapped her arms around her mid-section.

"Abe!" Dean bellowed, tumbling against the wall. Lobo began to bark.

Sam blinked, feeling as if he'd just left his body, his head swimming. He tried to shake it off, but the sensation dug in and held fast.

"Sam," Abe's voice was in his ear. "You listen to me. It can't get you. You are protected. You believe that and you will be fine. You hold onto that light, son."

Sam couldn't even nod. He wanted to blink, his eyes watered with the need, but he was transfixed, watching as Bobby turned to face Maggie, gripping her shoulders and forcing her to look at him, his constant you stay looking at my eyes command met by her scared nods of affirmation. Claire straightened and Sam watched as Dean slid bonelessly to the floor, his legs outstretched, his hands limp at his sides.

Claire took a step forward and the ikiryoh dropped from the ceiling, perching on her back like a shadow, its dead hands wrapped around her shoulders like a sweater of dark memory. She stepped between Dean's outstretched legs and Sam took a breath as he watched his brother's chest still, his eyes roll back, his body quake.

"DEAN!"

Abe's deep voice permeated the room. "Lux lucis in obscurum, animus fused ut unus, contemno an cassus canvass, diligo est laxo."

Claire's head snapped up, shocked, and she looked at the Ojibwa, her mouth creating a perfectly round O. Lobo's barking continued, incessant, necessary.

"Exsisto iam ut vos errant, reverto ut pectus pectoris, haud magis mos vos ago, illa lacuna ego affero."

Claire dropped to her knees between Dean's legs, her head falling back, her eyelids fluttering.

"Close your eyes!" Abe ordered, and Sam finally, finally obeyed. "Keep them closed, don't look, no matter what you hear!"

The child inside of Claire cried out in pain, in denial, in desire for a life it never got a chance to live. Sam heard the scream, then heard wings beating against the walls, felt air rush around and past him. Dean cried out, and it was all Sam could do to hold still, to not search for him.

With one final blast of super-heated air, the screams stopped and silence filled the small room.

www

Slowly, as if he were afraid his eyes would tumble from his head and roll across the room, Dean lifted his heavy lids. There was not one place on his body that didn't hurt. His hair ached. He looked down and saw that Claire was sprawled across his legs, blood streaming from her nose and ears, her eyes open, dull, but alive.

He tried to reach out to her, tried to open his mouth, tried to call her name, but he had nothing left.

Movement soon became apparent around him. He could see Bobby standing across the room, Maggie pulled to her feet and held close to him, both looking as if they'd been plucked from a fire. He could see Sam rolling to his knees, Abe using the wall behind him to rise as well. In moments, they were all approaching him, and still Dean couldn't move.

"She's alive," Abe declared, surprised.

"The spell would have killed her if she'd conjured the creature," Bobby said, his voice gravely. "As it is…"

"It's trapped inside of her," Maggie said, crouching down next to the fallen girl.

"Will it…escape?" Sam asked. Dean heard dread in his brother's voice.

"It's part of her." Abe surmised. "It was pulled from her, and it's been returned to her. It has nowhere left to go."

Dean swallowed, wanting to say something, anything. Wanting to turn Claire's eyes away from him. Wanting to sleep. To just sleep and make this all go away. No more lost childhoods. No more fathers who didn't understand. No more darkness. No more memories. Just oblivion.

"Dean?"

Sam's voice was a soft whisper across his raw ears.

"You okay, man?"

Running his tongue across the inside of his lip, Dean was able to shake his head slowly.

"Let's get you out of here," Sam said, resting his hand on Dean's shoulder, inadvertently touching the bullet hole he'd put there and sending a shockwave of cold and pain through Dean like a shiver.

The tears came hot and unbidden. Dean felt them smack the back of his eyes and linger, burning the edges of his lashes like the acid of remorse. He didn't dare blink, knowing that they would spill, and all would see his weakness.

Dean would rather die from belladonna poisoning than cry…

He felt the weight of Claire lifted from his legs and looked up to see Abe cradling her in his arms in a gentle hold.

I'm not alright, not even close, but neither are you, that much I know…

They'd almost quit, almost stopped the job…

I lost Jess, we lost Dad, and now I'm going to lose you, too…

Sam's eyes when he fired the gun, Sam's face twisting when he said Dean was worthless…

You're tail spinning, man…

Sam's grin, John's smile.

Don't let go… I'll fall if you let go…

"Sam," Dean whispered.

"I got you, brother," Sam replied, tightening his hold. "I won't let go."

Dean leaned into Sam's grip, his forehead brushing the material of the cloth on Sam's shoulder. Dead bodies to explain, comatose witches to care for, a wounded wolf, a broken heart… it all faded in that moment.

"I won't let go," Sam repeated, and Dean closed his eyes, letting a heated tear fall in the safety of the shield his little brother provided.

Lobo limped forward, licking Dean's limp hand, tucking his muzzle under Dean's fingers, then lay next to the wounded hunter, waiting. Dean fisted his hand in Sam's shirt, holding on as he waited for the sounds of the others to leave. He was done. He couldn't fight anymore.

Sighing, Dean slipped free of his will and melted against his brother's chest, trusting in the strength that had always been there to catch him as he fell.