Three weeks later

The time for solutions was past. The day before the deadline had arrived and nobody had come up with anything worthwhile. Sam kept insisting that he would save him, but Dean didn't believe that any more. He wanted to believe. God, he wanted to believe so bad, it was almost a physical ache inside him. But he didn't. He couldn't. And he couldn't let Sam know that he had lost faith. It was important that Sam didn't feel the blame for this, that he knew he had done everything in his power to save Dean.

What Dean hadn't told Sam or Bobby was that he had seen the hounds. They were out there, waiting, pacing, glaring at him whenever he spotted them, and they put the fear of death in him. He knew it was a matter of hours now before they came for him and in part he knew he had to be away from here when they did. He couldn't let Sam witness this. But he was scared shitless of having to face this alone.

He tried to remain his usual casual self, but he couldn't pull it off. Unlike Sam, Bobby didn't try to console him with inane platitudes, but he was there all the time. On top of his jittering concern for what the end of the following day would bring him, his concern for Grace nearly drove him mad. He missed her terribly and feared the worst even while he put on a brave face and kept trying to reassure Sam that she was okay, but that they just couldn't get in touch with her right now.

Some part of him hoped that he could take some of the affection Grace had given him with him, that it might make him stronger, because Heaven knew he wasn't strong right now. He was shaking in his boots, wanted to run like hell to the end of the Earth to get away from this, to avoid this fate he had bestowed on himself, but then he looked at Sam and all he could think was that whatever torment lay ahead of him, it was worth it if Sam made it.

But the acceptance of the cause didn't equate acceptance of what lay ahead. He couldn't quell the fear, couldn't stop the jittery movements of his hands whenever he stopped for a moment. He didn't want to go near the windows, didn't want to look outside, because he knew they were out there waiting for him, but time and time again he found himself staring out into the yard and every time now, he saw them, black wisps of smoke, smoldering red eyes, the recognizable prowl of a predator stalking its prey. And they were moving closer. When he had spotted the first, it had been outside the perimeter of Bobby's salvage yard. It had been standing there, half in shadow, its beady eyes locked on him, and he had recoiled from its presence.

Bobby knew. There was no doubt about it. He knew Dean was seeing the hounds, even when he could not see them himself. The way Bobby looked at him, that mixture of concern and sorrow vying for control in his gaze, told Dean that he knew.

It was past midnight. Sam was trying to read up on something, but kept nodding off. The kid was coming apart at the seams, had slept next to not at all over the past many nights in his attempt to find that solution that Dean by now knew wasn't out there anymore. He was dead meat and Sam would have to accept that soon.

He stopped behind the couch, behind Sam, and looked down at the book Sam was trying to make sense of. A lot of mumbo-jumbo that would do nothing in the end, so he reached down and grabbed Sam's shoulder. "Go to bed, Sammy," he said quietly. "You can barely keep your head up."

Sam glanced up at him, met his eyes. "No, I'm okay. I just ..." He trailed off. Somewhere deep down he had to know he was beaten, that this was it, that there was no going back any more. Not that there ever had been.

"Go to bed," Dean persisted and gave him a smile that masked all the fear he held inside. "Get some sleep. You'll be able to think better if you do."

The grief was already there, building up in Sam's eyes, and Dean hated seeing it there. "Okay," Sam said, nodded and closed the book. "I will get you out of this though."

"Yeah, I know, Sammy," he agreed. Old tactics still worked. Say what Sam wanted to hear and he would back down. Dean just had to make sure it was convincing and there was nobody he could lie better to than his brother. He'd had years of practice, after all, years of making up fibs to cover for dad's absence, of assuring Sam that the bite he'd gotten was nothing on the grand scale of things even while Dean himself was coming apart with concern because that bite just kept bleeding and Sam was so pale. He shook himself mentally, pushed back those thoughts, because they would inevitably lead to the ice-cold feeling of dread that had numbed him and made him incapable of acting back in Cold Creek. Sam, lying there, unmoving, lifeless, pale and cold.

Sam rose at that instant and didn't see the shudder that shook his brother, but it was better this way anyway. Sam needed to think he was still going strong, that he wasn't worried.

Dean watched him go, committed to memory every move, every twist, every little, tired smile. He smirked and Sam disappeared upstairs while Dean remained where he was, alone and scared to death. He balled his left hand into a fist, grabbed onto the back of the couch with his right and nearly dug holes into the upholstery. God, he wanted to run. But he knew there was nowhere for him to go, nowhere for him to hide. They would find him, no matter where he went. And if they couldn't, they would kill Sam. And that was the one and only thing in this world that he could not accept. It stayed his hand and froze him in place.

"How long have you been seeing them?"

He exhaled explosively, then focused on Bobby. "About three weeks now," he managed, his voice a little rusty. There was no sense in denying the undeniable.

Bobby nodded. "I take it Sam doesn't know?" he asked quietly.

"Nope," Dean confirmed and sent another look toward the doorway. "He can't know. Sam will do something stupid if he knows."

"What exactly are you planning on doing, Dean?" Bobby stepped closer while never taking his eyes of him. "I mean, come midnight tomorrow, one way or another, he'll know. Unless he comes up with a freaking miracle."

The snort that escaped him was equal parts terror and nervous energy. "I need to get out of here before then, Bobby. Sam's not gonna let me go and he's likely to get himself hurt on the way. I need you to stall him."

"Are you aiming at walking out of here?" Bobby asked, pushed his cap back a little and rubbed his brow. "'Cause there ain't no way that Sam won't be able to hear that engine rumble. He knows it too well. He'll know you're trying to leave."

The mere thought of stepping outside this house and not having the safety of his car to escape to made him shudder. "Then what the hell am I supposed to do, Bobby? I don't want Sam to see this. Hell, I don't want either of you to see it."

"Dean ..." Bobby looked like he was about to spill the biggest secret in the world and then reconsidered. He sighed, shook his head, scrubbed a hand over his lips. "I wish to God there was something I could do here, kid. I promised your dad I'd look after you two if anything happened to him and, so far, I've been doing a piss-poor job of that."

"This isn't your fault, Bobby. It's mine. I didn't ..." He stopped short at the sound he heard out on the porch. "Shit," he muttered and put a little more distance between himself and the front door.

Bobby glanced toward the hallway. "What? You hear'em?" he asked.

Dean nodded. "Right outside the freaking door," he agreed. "They're early."

"They won't come for you until tomorrow at midnight, Dean. You've still got a little under twenty-four hours left. But they'll stick around to remind you of what's ahead," Bobby said.

"Thanks for the pep-talk, man," Dean growled. "How the hell am I gonna ..."

"Get away from me?" Sam stepped back into the room. He didn't look any less tired than he had before, but he was more alert. "If you think I'm going to let you face this alone, you've got another thing coming." He was angry now and it gave him more stamina.

"Sammy ..." Dean tried, but the look in his brother's eyes stopped him.

"Don't Sammy-me. I'm not going to let you leave. If you want to go, if you want to try and win more time by running, I'm coming with you," Sam said, his tone even more forceful.

"What good is running gonna do me, Sam? It'll put you at risk and it won't gain me anything in the end."

"No, it won't, but it might give us a little more time," Sam tried, stubborn to the last.

"Don't you get it by now?" Dean demanded, tired of the discussions, tired of the constant fear. "It's not gonna happen, Sam. There's nothing you can do. They've got the upper hand. They've already blacked out half of the United States, for pity's sake. You think you can fight odds like that with a bit of telekinesis?"

"Let'im try. It won't hurt," Bobby tried.

"No!" Dean snapped. "No! This stops right now. Whatever demon holds my contract is gonna come for me and I don't want either of you around. I'm gonna get in my damned car and I'm gonna drive like hell and when the time's up ... it's up."

"Forget it," Sam countered, his tone even, tight, angry. "You're not facing this alone. If there's anything I can do, I can only do it if we're together."

Dean just stared at him for a long, breathless moment. Any amount of anger and commanding on his part would bring him nothing. He could see that in Sam's eyes. And there was still that tiny little spark of hope somewhere in the pit of his stomach that Sam might actually be able to do something. It was a hope he didn't dare to acknowledge though.

***

Twenty-four hours later

They had been driving since before midnight, a frantic dash for a freedom that wasn't his anymore. Dean was desperate, barely containing the fear that governed his every move. He drove like mad, the gas pedal floored most of the time. Sam had heard the hounds, but he hadn't been able to see them. But Dean had and his reaction had been predictable. He had made a run for it and Sam was along for the ride despite all efforts of Dean's to make him stay behind.

"Dean, we can't keep going like this," he tried. It was well past midnight now and Sam hadn't heard anything that resembled the baying of the hounds for more than half an hour now. He knew it was too much to hope for that they had given up. But they couldn't keep running away from them either.

Dean kept flexing his fingers on the steering wheel, kept tightening and releasing his hold while he watched the street ahead and kept glancing in the rearview mirror at regular intervals.

"Dean," Sam tried again and finally gained some sort of recognition from his brother when he glanced at him. "We can't keep going like this," he pressed.

With an audible sigh, Dean nodded and finally slowed down until the Impala rolled to an uneasy stop at the side of the road. Sam had no idea where they were any more, only that there was nobody else around. There were fields out there, fields and darkness, the moon half obscured by the clouds. "This is crazy," Dean muttered, peeled one hand off the steering wheel and ran it through his hair. It was trembling. "I can't ..." He shook his head, his eyes darting all over the place. "I can't outrun them."

"No, you can't. So let's face them instead," Sam said. He was afraid to, scared out of his mind that what he wanted to do wouldn't work, that he would mess it up and lose Dean anyway, but he had to try. He couldn't while being afraid for his life, though, and the way Dean drove was enough to put the fear of death into anyone.

Dean glanced at him, wide-eyed with fear. "Are you nuts? We can't ... how're you gonna ..." He stopped, either at a loss for words or just too damned scared to be able to come up with the right ones. Before Sam could come up with an appropriate comment to that one, Dean's gaze snapped up to the rearview mirror. "Oh shit," he hissed and paled.

Sam glanced backward, but saw nothing. Obviously Dean did, though, because he revved the engine and floored the gas pedal again. The Impala tore back onto the road, her engine roaring angrily, and behind them, fading into the distance, Sam heard the baying of the hounds again.

He braced himself against the dashboard, hoping against hope that Dean didn't end up killing them both. If he did, Sam wouldn't be able to help him and that just wouldn't do. But he also knew that he couldn't talk sense to his brother right now. Dean was frantic, scared out of his mind, and with good reason. So he kept his trap shut and they raced on for a while until the Impala started to slow down again.

Sam glanced at Dean and realized that the slowing down was none of his doing. "No, dammit. Not now," he pressed out through clenched teeth.

With the engine choking, the big muscle car rolled to a final stop, unable and unwilling to go any further, and the fact that one of the few things he put his faith in had let him down furthered Dean's almost rabid fear to such an extent that he was unable to move or act. He just sat there, hands wrapped harshly around the steering wheel, his eyes on the gas-meter which was halfway between F and E, his breathing so shallow he almost seemed to be holding his breath.

And then his gaze suddenly snapped up and he stared at something outside, ahead of the car, something Sam couldn't see. He made no sound, but sucked in a lung full of air, pushed the car door open and nearly fell out of the car in his effort to get out.

Sam followed suit, his heart pounding in his chest. He was scared too, scared of failure, of losing Dean. And he still couldn't see the damned hounds.

Dean stumbled backwards, then turned and ran, dashed around the back end of the car and into the field beyond and the hounds started baying again. Sam took up pursuit, attempting to keep himself between Dean and the as of yet invisible hounds. As he ran, his fear changed character, became harsher, more hot, and finally shifted gear into anger. And the anger fueled his abilities. He knew that by now.

Ahead of him, Dean stumbled and dropped down on his right knee, but Sam grabbed him and hauled him back to his feet, propelled him forward, ahead of him. He needed to keep Dean moving until the anger rising in him became fatal to the dark forces following them. He knew it was coming, could feel the foreign strength rising in him, but he was still too scared to use it properly.

His brother managed to keep moving for a bit longer, but he was dragging his right leg, slowing down further and further until he stopped and dropped to his knees again, gasping for breath. Sam stopped too, turned back to face the invisible horrors stalking them, and spread out his arms in an attempt to ward off an attack.

It was the feeling that he was failing that got to him in the end; the sense of anti-feelings he'd experienced during those months where the Trickster had forced him to live without his brother, the hatred that had burned out his compassion and left him with nothing but seething anger so hard, it had made him ignore all else in favor of finding the Trickster and making him pay.

Although he shouldn't have been able to, he finally saw them, the hell hounds, ugly creatures with glowing red eyes and maws full of razor-sharp teeth, saw them stalking closer, growling, drooling, ready to sink fangs and claws into his brother, and Sam snapped. The dam in his mind broke, his reason for holding back disappeared and the only thing that mattered was preventing them from getting to Dean. Whatever powers Azazel had had in store for him came rushing in, filled him body and soul and nearly made his head explode. The intense searing pain ripped through him and he would have screamed in agony and hatred, but the pain was so acute it blocked him for a few seconds. But he would not and could not back down. Dean's life was at stake and nothing else mattered.

He threw his hands out further, palms facing forward, while the fires of Hell burned through his mind with an insane strength. And it was then that he realized what he could do, how much damage he could inflict just with the power of his mind. Everything within a one mile radius of him was incinerated immediately, the shockwave of the blast of energy carrying even further out. The hell hounds went up in flames, whining pitifully while they writhed in the searing fire that devoured a whole field of corn in mere seconds, before they disappeared in a glitter of sparks.

And once the threat was gone, once the immediate danger had been vanquished, the pain ceased and the fire died. Breathing hard, Sam lowered his arms slowly, his palms tingling with the absurd strength he had felt while he stared at the blast radius and felt nothing at first. And then it came. It crept up on him like a rabid wolf stalking him in the dark. He liked it. The feeling of power rippling through him. Despite the pain, he was powerful now, able to protect the protector.

But then he stalled. This was what dad had warned Dean about, that he would lose control, that he would become this, able to destroy just with the power of his mind. And the doubt rising in him brought it out of hiding, the demon that had come to collect on Dean's deal. It could sense his doubt, his wavering confidence. It looked picture-perfect except for its eyes. He stared at it, the demon that held the contract for his brother's soul, and the anger again welled up in him and this time he welcomed it. And with acceptance the pain diminished. He didn't feel like screaming. He felt like destroying it.

"YOU CAN'T HAVE HIM!" he roared at it and it stopped, sudden doubt etched into its pretty face.

In one solid flash of devastating fear and sorrow, he had been transformed. And the transformation was almost perfect. It stood there, halfway through the blast radius, with nowhere to run, wearing a stolen body, while it glared at him with pitch-black eyes.

The anger grew, swelled inside him and he sucked in air and focused on its destruction. And it withered and died right in front of him, without any great effort on his part. The body crumbled to dust and the demon inside was incinerated along with it. "You can't have him," he whispered hoarsely.

With his newfound abilities came other senses too, senses that stretched out and sensed life around him, the current running through all things. And there were more coming. He could feel them in the distance, sense their presence. One was closer than the others, closing in fast, but then he realized that something was amiss.

He stopped while his sense of reason kicked back in and forced a rippling reduction of the power surging through his veins, which took away his ability to sense the approaching demons. He sucked in a breath, held it while his eyes widened. What would Dean think? He wouldn't be happy about this. Not at all. And it mattered more than anything else in this world what his brother thought.

Uncertain, he rubbed the back of one hand against his chin and stared at the destruction he had caused. "Dean, I ..." He stopped, didn't dare to look back at his brother for a moment out of fear of what he would see in his eyes. Then he shifted a little, turned his head and realized that Dean wasn't behind him anymore and it sent fear rushing up his spine while a cold, hard hand clutched his heart. Slowly, breath caught in his throat, he turned around, searching the area behind him for his brother. And then he spotted him, half a mile away, lying crumpled, unmoving on the ground, smoke rising from his jacket. "DEAN!" he yelled and started forward, desperate to undo what had just happened, but he didn't get further than two steps in that direction when someone grabbed his arm.

"Leave him! He's dead!"

Ruby's voice was harsh in his ears. He glanced back at her, raving with fear, and shook his head. "No, he can't be. I ... I ... I did this to protect him. I ... I let loose to protect him."

"Yeah, and you lost control, dimwit," Ruby snapped angrily, her eyes wild with emotions he had no sense to read. "Others are going to come soon and they're going to be after you in a big way until you learn to keep this under wraps until you need it. There's nothing you can do to help your brother now. You killed him. You have to leave. Now!!!" She sounded frantic, looked the part too, and maybe that was what convinced him.

But it was also those three words that slammed down the breaks in his head and sucked in the power until there was nothing left but terrified grief. He had killed his brother? Dean was dead and it was his fault? Oh god, that couldn't be true. He hadn't saved Dean from the hell hounds, he'd delivered him right into their greedy little clutches. "No," he gasped, tried feebly to drag toward Dean, but Ruby was stronger, faster. She dragged him in the opposite direction, away from the crumbled form of his brother. "No! Dean," he tried, but he couldn't bring up the strength he needed to break her hold and rush back there.

***

Later he would not be able to recount how they had left the area. All he could focus on was the pain inside, the sheer agony of having been the exact thing that dad had warned Dean about. One minute they were in that field, the next he was sitting on the edge of a bed in a cabin somewhere, the loss so deep he thought it would eat him alive.

Ruby watched him for a while, said nothing, did nothing. Then she sighed. "Stay here. The others won't understand," she said, opened the door and left the cabin.

He didn't care about these others. He didn't care where he was. All he cared about was the gaping hole in his life, the abyss that was threatening to devour him. All he could do was to just sit there and stare ahead of himself, dumbfounded by what he had done, emotionally crippled by a loss he would never get over. Never again, he promised himself. Never ever again would he let loose like that. It killed the people he loved, had taken his brother away from him, and it hurt so bad he didn't know what to do, could barely breathe around the pain that was threatening to consume him. Never again.

The End