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Apocalypse Now (Absolution Later)

Apocalypse Now (Absolution Later)



Part One....Part Two....Part Three....Part Four.....Epilogue

The apocalypse sucked.

It was sort of a reductive thought, in the end.  Of course the apocalypse sucked; it was the apocalypse, after all.  No one expected it to be all rainbows and lollipops.  But it didn’t suck quite the way Dean had thought it might, with fire and brimstone and people dying and screaming and bloody rivers and all that.  No, it was a more subtle thing.  Demon infestations, a surge of mass murders, crop failures.  Nothing too spectacular, no epic battles: it was like mankind was just having a bad year.

A really bad year, if they knew why people were going off the deep end.  Lucifer was milling about freely, infiltrating even the quaintest little suburbs, and the increase of violence was not due to the recession.

But that wasn’t really why the apocalypse sucked--for Dean, anyway.  It sucked that he had to run interference, trail after small jobs, save people here and there as Castiel directed him.  It was like being John Winchester’s good little soldier all over again, only Castiel didn’t screw around with coordinates on a telephone and opted to bop in and out at will, usually when Dean was trying to catch some z’s or take a leak.

Castiel claimed it was the only time he could find Dean alone.

Dean was getting rather skeptical.

He also wasn’t getting any better at predicting it.

So when he was kicking back in the Impala, watching Sam dutifully pay for a bag of Peanut M&M’s and a bottle of Mountain Dew, Castiel still managed to scare the crap out of him by appearing in the passenger’s seat.

It was nothing more than a rustle of air and a spark of light and that heavy sense of responsibility, but it still made him start.  “Can’t you use a phone?” he asked, barely allowing a scowling glance at the heavenly reject.

“We cannot trust those methods of communication,” Castiel replied simply.

Dean looked back at Sam, carefully making sure the kid wasn’t doing anything other than buying the snacks.  “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered.  “You’re afraid your superiors will find you.”

“Or you,” Castiel said.  “You are still important to Zachariah, Dean.”

“The great warrior of God, I got it,” Dean said with a grimace.  “So why is it that I’m spending my time with these small jobs?”

“Lucifer is still well hidden,” Castiel replied.  “He has his minions doing his work for him and they mask his presence well.  We must keep the damage to a minimum until the time comes.”

“Yeah, and you still haven’t told me how that’s going to happen, yet,” Dean said, drawing his eyebrows together.  The need-to-know stuff had been hard enough to swallow under John Winchester’s rule.  Castiel may have had the weight of the apocalypse to coerce Dean into cooperating, but that didn’t make him like it anymore.  After thirty years and finally shaking off his father’s dominating presence, he wasn’t so thrilled about trading in one obedience for another.  And that didn’t even begin to bring up the task of taking care of his pain-in-the-ass little brother.

As if he read Dean’s mind, Sam came out the door of the gas station then, head down.  When he looked up, he made brief eye contact with Dean before looking in the passenger’s seat.  His face tightened for a moment before he ducked his head again, turning back toward the gas station.  Sam walked toward the pay phone, settling himself against the wall, squinting off toward the highway. 

“I still think we can let Sam in on these little planning sessions,” Dean said, looking back at the angel.

Castiel’s expression didn’t change.  He didn’t even look at Sam, but instead fixed Dean with a cold stare.  The angel had chosen his side, and defied his superiors in doing so.  But, in the process, Castiel’s soft side had gotten considerably less soft.  His compassion for the human race was inherent in every move he made, but the angel had shown no desire in getting bogged down in the apparent trivialities of overall human interaction--especially where Sam was concerned. 

Dean didn’t necessary like it, but he understood it to some degree.  He knew what the battle between good and evil could do to a person.  After all, the weight of being on the run, of saving the world--it was heavy stuff, and Dean had found it hard to know quite what to do with Sam himself.  He didn’t have the luxury of keeping the kid at arm’s distance, but part of him couldn’t blame Castiel, even if it did make things more complicated.  Sam could have had all the good intentions in the world, and Dean was willing to still call him brother, but that didn’t make his deeds any less monstrous.  Cosmically speaking, Dean couldn’t be so sure as to the state of Sam’s soul at this point, and so much of the work he and Castiel was doing boiled down to making up for Sam’s bad choices last year.  So Dean couldn’t push his luck too far on his brother’s behalf, assuming he even wanted to at this point.

He just wanted to keep Sam safe and keep Sam on track.  There wasn’t time for the emotional fallout, there wasn’t time for the questions--so if this was how Castiel wanted to do it, Dean didn’t have it in him to push back on this one.

For his part, Sam didn’t make it any harder.  After walking in on Dean and Castiel a handful of times and finding the angel unwilling to talk in his presence, Sam had taken the hint and avoided the two of them altogether.   Sam didn’t object, but that wasn’t saying much.  Sam didn’t object to much of anything these days.  In fact, Sam didn’t say or do much at all.  He followed orders, performed duties, and otherwise shut up and kept out of the way.  It was the kind of obedience Dean had wanted Sam to have all his life, and it did make things easier.  But it still felt sort of...wrong.

“I have told you before,” Castiel said.  “Your brother has been compromised.  Though he may fight on our side, I cannot risk trusting him.  His desire for good may be strong, but his inherent evil is powerful as well.”

“He’s off the blood,” Dean said, because Dean and Bobby had made sure of that.  Not that they’d had to fight Sam on it, since Sam had suffered through detox without so much as a word of complaint or accusation.  Dean had helped him into the panic room when they reached South Dakota, but one look at Sam’s miserable, pain-stricken face, and Dean hadn’t had the heart to lock him in there alone.

“It still runs through his veins,” Castiel countered.  “And we are wasting time.”

Dean sighed, relinquishing the argument.  There were bigger issues, more important things.  “What do you have for me now?”

“There is a legion of demons, holed up in the back country of Wyoming not far from what you call Yellowstone National Park.”

“And what’s their master plan?”

“We are not sure.  The scout we sent was only able to ascertain their number.”

Dean made a face.  “You know it’s tricky to get rid of them in groups,” he said.

Castiel was unruffled.  “The majority of them lesser demons, mostly devoid of sentient thought.  Their purpose is only to follow orders.  For now, they are inhabiting the wildlife.  Their current state is unthreatening, but their end goal is not.

Dean drew his lips together.  His father had at least humored him ill-placed sense of humor.  It kept things from sucking quite like they did now.  “You said the majority of them,” Dean said.  “What about the others.”

“Just one,” Castiel said.  “Possessing a park ranger.  It seems to be mobilizing the rest.  We fear they plan to disrupt the ecosystem.”

“I do this to save lives, Smokey.  Not nature.  Go find Greenpeace to help you on this one.”

“Disrupting the balance of this region of the earth could have devastating effects,” Castiel warned him.  “Possibly resulting in the equivalent of a nuclear explosion.  It would destroy most of the western part of this continent and negatively impact the air conditions worldwide.”

The explanation was solid and to the point and exactly what Dean had needed and asked for.  Which is perhaps why it sucked even more.  Dean asked how bad it was in part because he hoped it really wasn’t as bad as he thought it was.

He never could catch a break.  Savior of the freakin’ world, and he was still just following one miserable order after the next.  “So you want me to go and take her out, right?”

Castiel nodded.  “We feel this threat justifies a prompt and swift response.”

“But you guys can’t handle it yourself,” Dean said with a sarcastic grin.  “Funny how that works.”

“Dean, you know our numbers are few.  Many of the angels have sided with Zachariah in a bid to conquer the demons on our own playing field.  Those legions have largely been decimated.  The few who have joined with us are needed in reconnaissance and for the endgame.  I was unprepared to do the right thing once, and it cost humanity gravely.  It is not a mistake I will make again.”

And it wasn’t a mistake that Dean could make either.  A year of uncertainty, of trying to play to the middle and keep himself clear from the coming war had ended in disaster.  It was time to do the right thing, no matter how much it sucked.  “It’s a day’s drive from here,” Dean told him.  “We’ll take care of it.”

With that, Castiel was gone, and Dean found himself alone.

-o-

Alone wasn’t quite the right term for it, though sometimes it still felt that way, and, other times, Dean wished it was that way.

Sam was a renewed constant presence in his life, always there, but something was missing from his little brother.  Sam was quiet now, almost a void, and despite his physical presence, it often seemed to Dean that the kid was locked down deep within himself.

Which, most of the time was okay, because when Dean let himself think about what had happened, he almost didn’t want Sam there at all.

After all, this was the kid who had lied to him.  For an entire year.  From the moment Dean got out of the grave, the lies had started, one wallop after another.  Not that Dean didn’t understand lying from time to time, but about Dean’s dying wish?  About the powers?  About Ruby?

And that didn’t even begin to cover how repulsed Dean felt every time he thought about Sam downing demon blood.  After what demons had done to all of them, Sam went and tried to turn himself into one.  He may have even been successful for all Dean knew.

None of that was to overlook the fact that the kid had tried to kill him.  Wrapped his hands around his neck and squeezed just to show that he could.

But who’s weak now, Dean had to think, and it took all his self control not to say it to Sam’s face.  Because the moron deserved it.  For his selfishness and pride, the world was ending, and it was up to Dean to clean up the mess.

So, sometimes it was hard to remembered that he’d said he’d take his brother back, no matter what.  The bonds of brotherhood were for better or for worse, and this was definitely the worst.  This was what family did, though.  And every time Dean thought to doubt it, he could hear Bobby telling him to suck it, Princess.

Easy for him to say.  Bobby didn’t have to live with a quasi-human, reformed blood addict who didn’t seem to actually want to do anything at all.  Dean supposed he should be grateful for that.  After the years of Sam bucking orders just for the hell of it, this certainly was easier, but it was tiring to remind the kid to eat. 

The first days had been hard--harder than just about anything else.  The weight of failure was nearly more than he could stand, and Sam was no help whatsoever.  His brother had been a mess; after crying himself to sleep the first night, he’d awaken stony and silent, not even speaking when the pangs of withdrawal started up in earnest. 

Sam had even tried to kill himself once on the way back to Bobby’s, disappearing behind the back of a gas station while Dean was making a pit stop.  Dean found the kid with the pistol in his mouth, but his hands had been shaking too hard to pull the trigger.

Dean had reamed him out, both terrified and angry, and Sam had slunk back to the Impala and sat in the passenger’s seat with his shoulders stooped the rest of the way.  Simple orders did the trick in making the kid eat and sleep and shower, and when Dean asked questions, Sam answered, with so much painful honesty that Dean couldn’t doubt that it was full disclosure.  After all, admitting to allowing murder and draining an innocent girl dry was more than Dean had expected, even from Sam, and yet Sam had told him everything, staring straight ahead and without intonation.

It made things easier, to say the least, and with hellfire breathing down his back and heaven pulling him forward, easy was really the way to go.

And yet--it felt wrong.  Not that anything really felt right, but watching Sam obey so simply, watching Sam cater to Dean’s every whim--it carried the surreal sense of a bad dream come true.  They were united again, better than ever, and there were no lies and no secrets.  No demon blood and no questionable allegiances.  Sam went with him to bars and drank whiskey with him.  Sam listened to his music and let him sing along as loud as he wanted.  Sam didn’t ask why, he didn’t complain, he didn’t even try to defend himself. 

It was contrition in the truest sense of the word, so much so that Dean hadn’t really had the heart to tell the kid I told you so.  At least, not as often as Sam deserved it.

Yet, it didn’t make it Dean feel better.  It didn’t make him feel any less alone.  The only improvement over the past year was that now, Dean didn’t have to worry about Sam lying to him.  All things considered, with Lucifer risen and all, it didn’t seem like much of a tradeoff.  He still didn’t have his brother back, though, which was all he had wanted when he made the deal to begin with.  If anything, Sam was further from him than ever before.

Which just made it all so much more tiring.  All the hunts, all of Castiel’s missions, all the long hours in the car--there was nothing to fill them with, nothing to make them worthwhile.  Every injury hurt worse and every mile seemed longer, and Dean felt older than he ever had before.

With a sigh, he shifted in his seat.  Even the Impala, once his pride and joy, seemed irrelevant these days.  She had seem him through everything, but she didn’t sing to him like she used to.  She was nothing more than metal and leather now, a tool to get from point A to point B.  The idea of his father’s legacy, of the place he called home--well, it couldn’t mean anything when Dean didn’t want the legacy his father left and he really didn’t want to return to anything resembling what he’d believed was home.  His father had used him.  His family had betrayed him.  And the Impala was just a car.

Glancing over, he let his eyes settle on Sam.  His brother was still in the seat, his long legs jammed beneath the dashboard.  The kid had a vacant look on his face, the same one Sam wore all the time now. 

Dean thought maybe some conversation would make the time go faster, but he couldn’t think of much to say.  He’d already told Sam the basics.  There was no need to go into the details.  At this point, he was pretty sure Sam could be trusted with the details, no matter what Castiel thought.  Yet, Dean didn’t see the point.  His brother didn’t seem to want to know any more than Castiel wanted to tell him.

And Dean was too tired to fight either of them.  Saving the world was a full time job, and a thankless one at that.  After a lifetime in his father’s army, forty years in Hell, and surviving the year of his brother’s fall, Dean was ready for a break and the apocalypse really wasn’t what he had in mind.  So, now it was just do or die, get it done, once and for all. 

Then, he could rest.

Then, maybe, sometime after he’d enjoyed his forty virgins, he could think about making the rest of his life make sense.

Not tonight, though.  It was another night before a battle, another night of preparation.  There used to be a thrill with that, but that seemed as fleeting as his partnership with Sam.

Fingers tensing for a moment on the wheel, Dean wished he could remember how it used to be.  This new Sam made things easier, and so much more lonely.  There was so much to say between them, but neither of them seemed to know how to start the conversation.

So Dean asked the simple questions instead.  Gave orders, made commands.  It was safer that way.

Glancing back at Sam again, he sighed.  “You tired?” he asked.

His brother was poised in the seat, shoulders slumped but head upright.  He was staring out at the dark road ahead, almost unblinkingly.  “I’m fine,” he said, not even looking at Dean.

Dean scoffed a little.  “Yeah, sure,” he said.  “We’ll pull off at the next town.”

If Sam had an objection, he didn’t voice it.  Dean pushed his foot to the pedal a little harder, and drove deeper into the night.

-o-

The next town showed up about fifteen miles later.  It was a small town, without much to its name.  At first, Dean was worried they wouldn’t even have a motel, but as drove out of town, he saw the run-down inn on the side of highway.

Small and dirty, with a flickering neon sign.  All in all, it was perfect.  Part of their nightly routine.

Everything was routine now.  Pulling into the hotel, leaving Sam in the parked car, clearly within viewing distance from the main office.  Then unloading their gear and setting up shop for the night; Sam in the far bed, Dean by the door.  Sam took first shower by Dean’s request, and stayed up on the laptop doing the latest research.  Dean would finish his shower and pop a beer as he settled on the bed, while Sam would debrief him on the latest.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was efficient, and it made sure that Sam was staying clean.  The kid had OCD tendencies even under normal circumstances, so setting up a simple life could only help Sam stay on track.  Besides, it made it easier for Dean to keep track of everything.  Between Sam and the apocalypse, that kind of order was sort of a necessary evil, which seemed to be a common theme of his life these days.

They piled out, and set up wordlessly.  There wasn’t much to unpack, but they took the usual on-hand arsenal and their duffels in order to make it through the night.  Their protection measures were more extreme than they used to be--salt lines were standard and a consecrating ritual or two never hurt matters.  Dean was on the demons’ list of most wanted, so attacks weren’t out of the question.

Sam laid the salt lines, straight and precise, while Dean blessed the room with holy water and a prayer Pastor Jim had taught them years ago.  When they were done, Sam settled in front of the computer and Dean laid back, remote in hand.  He turned on the TV and started flipping, but he couldn’t help but steal a glance or two at his brother.

Sam had always been focused--Dean could see now that his father’s obsessive traits were strong in his kid brother.  But this wasn’t the same.  There wasn’t the same passion and vigor in it.  Avenging Jessica, saving Dean, going after Lilith--those were things Sam had needed like he needed air.  While Dean wouldn’t necessarily say they had made Sam happy, they had been true obsessions, things that carried inherent weight with Sam for better or for worse.

The steady research now had all the same precise execution without any of the heart.  To Dean, it was suddenly unnerving how stark the difference was.  Not that he’d liked Sam during all those times, but it had still been quintessential Sam.

This was like living with a stranger.  Worse, a stranger devoid of interest and personality.  Basically, it was like living with an emotional nothing, and for a second, Dean craved the way it used to be. 

Back when they joked around, when they were comfortable with one another.  When Dean would sneak porn on the laptop and Sam would scowl through Dean’s taste in music.  Back when Dean was a jerk and Sam was a bitch and all was right with the world. 

Dean knew when they lost it.  Dean also knew why.  Until he could trust Sam again, until Sam had atoned--then it could never go back.  Even then, Dean wasn’t sure.

Still, this life was so much emptier than it was before.  The moments of refuge weren’t refreshing like they used to be.  But every time Dean wanted to make it better, every time he wanted to extend the olive branch, he remembered his brother’s hands around his throat, and he couldn’t find the words.

Keep to the plan.  That was what Dean had to do.  Keep to the plan.  Deal with the details--deal with Sam--later.

That didn’t mean they had to live in silence, though.

Clearing his throat, Dean let his eyes linger on Sam.  “How’s it going?” he asked.

Sam didn’t look up.  “I’m just checking into a few more reports about the area,” he said.  “Seeing what the locals are reporting.”

“Sounds good,” Dean said.  A moment lapsed.  “You think we’ll have any problems?”

“The area is remote,” Sam said.  “It doesn’t get much use, anyway.  The rangers have told hikers to stay out due to the damage.”

“Good,” Dean said with a nod.  “You sound like you have a feel for it.”

“I still have some more work to do,” Sam said.

“Yeah, well, you can finish up in the morning,” Dean said.

At that, Sam looked up.  “You want to go to bed?”

Dean was surprised.  “Oh.  I mean.  I just meant we have time.  And you look exhausted, man.”

Which was true.  Sam did look exhausted.  If Dean was honest, he had to admit that Sam always looked exhausted.  Worn and weary, far beyond his twenty-seven years.

“I can keep going if you want me to,” Sam said.  “I’m fine.”

“Dude, really,” Dean said.  “There’ll be time in the morning.”

“I just want to make sure we’re ready.”

“We’re ready,” Dean said.  “Trust me.”

“I do,” Sam said, with an intensity that took Dean back.  “I didn’t mean to question that.”

There was something in that, something that made Dean pause.  Sam did trust him, completely.  Every request was abided by.  Because Dean had been right.  Dean had been right about everything, and they both knew it.

Dean just wished he could believe Sam that same way.

“Get some sleep,” Dean said.  He hesitated, just for a second, smiling a little.  There was distance and there was penance, and then there was making things easier--for both of them.  “Bitch.”

Sam’s brow creased and something flickered in his eyes.  He ducked his head, nodded.  “Yeah, sure,” he said.  “I’ll just power down.”

The moment of grace passed, offered and not taken.

Disappointed, Dean watched as Sam closed out of his browser, shutting down the laptop.  Placing it neatly on the table, Sam efficiently pulled back his covers.  Adjusting himself in the bed, Sam paused, looking at Dean.  He looked like he wanted to say something, but the moment passed, and Sam rolled on his side away from Dean and settled into silence.

Sighing, Dean looked at the ceiling and tried to convince himself that it was better this way.

-o-

Dean flipped channels for another hour, the sound on low.  When he was sure Sam was asleep, he eased off his bed, giving Sam one last peak before carefully opening the door. 

Stepping into the cool night air, he let the door close quietly behind him.  With a breath, he looked up at the moon, digging his phone out of his pocket.  The role reversal was not lost on him--the way Sam had spent a year sneaking out and lying, and now Dean was doing the same.  But there were some key differences.  While Sam had been out with Ruby, drinking blood and turning himself into a demon, Dean was trying to save the world.  Save the world from Sam’s mess, more precisely.

Besides, he wasn’t going far.  He just needed to make a phone call.

Holding his phone to his ear, he listened to the ringing, glancing around him as he waited.

“You better have a damn good reason for getting me out of bed,” the voice groused on the other end of the phone.

Dean grinned.  “Hey, Bobby.”

“Dean?”

“The one and only.”

“Well, Your Amazing Highness, maybe you should be getting your precious beauty sleep instead of bothering me.”

“Aw, you know you’re glad to hear from me.”

“I’d be more glad in the morning.”

“We have a hunt in the morning.”

Bobby groaned.  “Another one?  That angel friend of yours sure isn’t giving you boys much of a break.”

“The apocalypse, Bobby,” Dean told him.  “It doesn’t really take vacations.”

“Or naps, apparently.”

“Well, sometimes we have to take one for the team.”

“We’ve been taking them every week for the last few months,” Bobby said.

“So you should be used to it.”

“What is it this time?”

“A demon in Yellowstone,” Dean said.  “Cas wants me to clean it up.  He says there’s one big one, and a bunch of groupies following him.”

“I still don’t see why we can’t talk during the daylight,” Bobby grumbled.  “I”m too old for this dead of night crap.  Unless we’ve got an immediate demon problem, wouldn’t we be better off catching some sleep while we can?”

“We do have an immediate demon problem,” Dean reminded him.

“Those couple up in Yellowstone will wait, at least until the morning,” Bobby said.  “Or your buddy Castiel would have booked you there pronto.  Use that angel flash forward thing of his.”

“That doesn’t fix the problem of Sam,” Dean said, rubbing the back of his neck as he looked around the parking lot.

At that, Bobby sighed.  “Still can’t trust him?”

“It’s not like he comes with a trustworthiness meter built in,” Dean griped back. 

“It’s called talking to him,” Bobby returned.  “Has he lied to you?”

“No.”

“Has he tried to get away?”

Dean sighed.  “No.”

“So what exactly aren’t we trusting here?”

“You seem to be forgetting how he lied to me, trusted a demon, got addicted to demon blood, and, to top it all off, started the apocalypse.  We’ve got some work to do yet.”

“Boy, I know what Sam’s done,” Bobby said.  “But it’s been months.  That brother of yours hasn’t shown any signs of relapse.  He hasn’t shown the slightest inclination toward anything evil.”

“That’s what I thought for nearly 25 years,” Dean said.  “And look where my trust got me?  I can’t let the kid screw up again.  I won’t.  I don’t like it, but I think Castiel’s right about this one--keep Sam on a need to know basis--for his own good and ours.  Hell, who knows if he still feels drawn to demons?  Maybe his blood is connected to them.  Letting him in on too much planning could just be a temptation he doesn’t need.  We have to keep it together this time, and I’m doing it the best I can.”

It was Bobby’s turn to sigh.  “And you’re doing good work,” he said.  “It’s just...hard.  You know your ritual to get rid of this demon?”

“A straight up exorcism should work on the big gun,” Dean said.  “Cas thinks the rest will just crash and burn without her.”

“You have a back up plan?”

Dean scoffed.  “Of course I have a back up plan,” he said.  He couldn’t stop the sheepish grin from spreading over his face.  “Why do you think I’m calling you?”

He could practically see Bobby rolling his eyes.  “You want something for a mass exorcism, right?”

“Yeah, that would be great,” Dean said.  “Thanks for asking.”

Bobby grumbled something about damn fool ingratitude and selfish brats never change, and Dean just grinned.  It felt good to know at least one person out there loved him.

“I’ll have it in the morning,” Bobby said.  “Call me back when you’re on your way.”

“Awesome,” Dean said.  “Get some rest.”

“Not likely,” Bobby groused.

“At least you never change,” Dean said, and it was true.  When the world was falling apart, when Cas got all stoic and flighty, when Sam got silent and withdrawn, Bobby was still Bobby.

There was a pause.  “You sure you two are okay?” Bobby asked, and Dean could hear the concern in his voice.

Some things really didn’t change.  Bobby had been asking that question for months now, ever since he’d called about Sam’s little problem.  The concern meant something--it meant a lot--but Dean needed less conversation and more action.  With the apocalypse breathing down their necks, Dean was pretty sure he didn’t have time to worry about okay.  He just had to worry about winning.  “We’ve got freakin’ angels in our corner,” Dean reminded him.  “We’re as well off as we could be.”

“No, I mean, you and Sam.  Have, you know, you two dealt with it any better?”

Dean thought about that.  It was sort of all part of his denial.  If he could pretend like it was okay, if he could just act like Sam following orders meant that they were a team again, then things were as good as they could be.  For now, anyway.  Maybe there would be time--later.  “You mean dealt with the fact that my little brother became a murdering blood addict who started the apocalypse?  No, we’re avoiding that one for a little while longer.”

He heard Bobby sigh.  “Dean, come on,” he said.  “This isn’t all Sam’s fault.  I’m worried about him.  The way he’s so quiet, withdrawn.  It’s not right.”

“I’m keeping an eye on him,” Dean assured him.  “I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid--to himself or others.”

“But he needs to deal with it,” Bobby said.  “If your brother is anything, it’s strong willed.”

As if Dean didn’t know that.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, and his voice took on an edge.   “And we both know how much good that did him.”

“Damn it, boy, listen to me,” Bobby said.  “Your brother screwed up, there’s no denying that.  And you and I both know he’s sorry.”

“Like that’s enough?” Dean asked.  Because sorry wasn’t enough.  Sorry wasn’t enough to undo what he’d done in hell.  And sorry sure as hell wasn’t enough to undo what Sam had done to himself, to the world, to Dean over the last year.  “He’s my brother, and I will be there for him no matter what.  But we’ve got bigger things right now, and you know I don’t have time to hold his hand.  He’s dealing with it.  We’re getting rid of demons together, no demon blood or freaky ass powers involved.”

There was a pause.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Bobby said.  “You know, you can put him on sometimes.”

“He’s sleeping.”

“And you can’t call when he’s awake?” Bobby asked.

“Why don’t you call him?” Dean said.  He was his brother’s keeper, apparently, but he had given up on his brother’s social life. 

“The idjit won’t talk to me,” Bobby said.  “Just says yes or no until I give up.”

“That’s all I get out of him half the time, too,” Dean said. 

“That’s why I’m thinkin’ something’s wrong,” Bobby continued.

“Of course something’s wrong,” Dean said.  “He started the apocalypse, okay?  If he wasn’t a little sorry, then we’d really have to worry.”

Bobby sighed.  “Yeah, I suppose,” he said.  “Just...be good to him.”

“He’s my brother,” Dean said, and that was the heart of it, in the end.  What made it so hard and so easy all at once.  “If I didn’t love him so damned much, I would have had to put a bullet in him back in Maryland.  But I can’t do that--if I’m supposed to save the world and all that, it starts with Sam, no questions asked.”

“It’s just good to hear that you two are sticking together,” Bobby said.  “That’s a force no angel or demon could ever break.  You damn Winchesters are too bullheaded to be stopped.”

If anyone would know, it was Bobby.  For that, Dean was grateful.  Bobby was a man of rough sentimentality, but Dean could see through him.  For the gruff and gall, Bobby was in their corner.  For that, Bobby was more than their go-to guy for exorcisms and demonic lore.  For that, Bobby was family.

The only family who hadn’t betrayed him.

“I’ll call you in the morning,” Dean said.

“Get some sleep,” Bobby said.

“You, too.”

“Not likely,” Bobby grumbled, and the call ended.

Shaking his head, Dean closed his phone.  Angels might have been in their corner, but those winged SOBs didn’t mean half as much as Bobby.

Feeling a little better, Dean let himself back into the room.  He gave Sam’s sleeping form a once over before kicking off his shoes and taking off his jacket.  Shrugging out of his over-shirt, he stripped down to his boxers, crawled beneath the covers, and went to sleep.

-o-

Sam was at his laptop when Dean woke up.  He was dressed, but still looked disheveled.  Apparently, his brother seemed to think that the apocalypse was the time to forgo personal grooming.

Dean rolled onto his back, trying not to groan.  The hunt had gotten monotonous over the last few years--constant and draining, with loss and failure and regret everywhere he looked. 

And to think, those were the good old days.

With a sigh, he threw one arm over his head.  He wanted to stay in bed forever, pretend like today didn’t exist.  Another day of hunting demons, of doing God’s work--for whatever that was worth.  Another day of trying to live with Sam.

He couldn’t avoid it.  Miserably, he got out of bed.  The coffee pot was already going, and Dean poured himself a cup, walking sluggishly to the table.  Sitting down, he took a sip.  “How long have you been up?”

“A few hours,” Sam said quietly.

It seemed typical enough.  “You got our coordinates, then?”

Sam pushed a piece of paper to him.  “It’s on the north end of the park, up in a pretty remote area.”

Dean looked at the place circle on the map, nodding as he took a sip of coffee.  “Any idea who our victim is?”

“Cecelia Rodgers,” Sam replied readily.  “She’s been a ranger there for about seven years.  She lives on site with her boyfriend.  Then she just stopped showing up to work about two weeks ago, right when the whole thing started.”

“Sounds like a good bet, then,” Dean said.  “Local law enforcement have any leads on her?”

“They think she’s missing in the woods.  Possibly killed in the storms that went through there.”

“I’m guessing we’re not talking thunderstorms.”

Sam pushed a pile of meteorological reports at him.  The important points were circles, including the dates and descriptions.  “There was no atmospheric reason for them,” Sam confirmed.  “Came out of nowhere, caused extensive damaged, and vanished.”

“Just another trait of our lovely apocalypse,” Dean muttered, shaking his head.

Sam flinched a little at that, but reined it in quickly, turning his attention back to the computer.  “We’ll have to hike to the site,” he continued, his voice sounded more strained than before.

“Well, then,” Dean said, shuffling the papers.  “Sounds like we have quite the day ahead of us.”

Sam didn’t reply, just kept clicking away.

“You know, it usually helps if you say something back.”

Sam looked up, eyebrows raised.  “Like what?”

“Like you want to pet a buffalo or you’d like to steal the towels,” Dean said with a shrug.  “Anything.  It’s like living with a black hole.  You suck all the life out of anything.”

Sam looked a little dumbfounded, and Dean could almost here the bitchy comeback.

Instead, Sam licked his lips, knit his brows together.  “Sorry,” he murmured.  “I just...get so focused.”

Dean sighed.  This wasn’t worth the effort.  There was too much there, too much that Dean just wasn’t ready to deal with.  If Sam wasn’t focused on the hunt, Dean didn’t want to think what else the kid could fixate on.  It was probably better not to find out.  Maybe ever.  “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered.  “I’m going to go take a shower.”

Sam just nodded, looking uncertainly at his brother again.

Dean felt like he should say something, but there was nothing to say.  Just a shower to take and a hunt to finish.

With another swig of coffee, he headed to the bathroom, turning the shower on as hot as it could go.

-o-

When he got out of the shower, Dean found the room packed and organized.  The beds were made and their duffels were placed near the door.  Sam was at the table, still poring over his notes.

It was familiar, yet not quite.  An approximation of how it used to be, without any of the real trust that used to anchor it.  He could trust Sam to do research, he could trust Sam to follow  orders on a hunt, but Dean wasn’t sure what else was beyond that.  He couldn’t trust Sam’s opinion--he didn’t know how to trust the kid’s choices.  And he sure as hell couldn’t trust Sam with emotions--Dean’s own, as well as Sam’s.

It might have been efficient, but it was nothing like it used to be.  The Winchester brothers were reunited, but they were brothers in name only.  The intimacy of their emotional bond was still broken, and Dean wasn’t sure he wanted to know how much of their blood connection was gone now as well.

If he didn’t ask the question, he would never have to know the answer.  Instead, he tossed his towel to the bed and rolled his shoulders.  “You about ready there?”

Sam pushed his notes into a pile.  “Yeah,” he said.  “The stuff’s by the door.”

There was more to it than that--at least there should have been--but whether it sucked or not, this was the apocalypse.  Dean could play that card for as long as the damn thing lasted.  Besides, Sam should be grateful they were focused on the hunt and not the crap that had gone down between them.

Sam didn’t look particularly grateful, but that was Sam’s problem.

Dean smiled.  “Awesome.  Let’s roll out.”

Shouldering his own duffel, he opened the door.  Sam followed him, ducking out the door, head down in the sunlight.  Dean let the door shut behind him, and looked out at the daylight.  “Hard to believe it’s the end of the world sometimes.”

Sam didn’t reply.

With a sigh, Dean popped open the trunk, throwing his bag inside.  Sam repeated the action and as Dean closed it, he met Sam’s eye briefly.

Pausing, Dean licked his lips.  “You sure you’re up for this?”

Sam nodded.  “Sure,” he said.  “Castiel said it needed to be done, right?”

“Yeah,” Dean said, and he looked at the keys in his hand.  “It’s just--”

It was just that Sam didn’t seem okay.  Sam didn’t seem evil, but he didn’t seem like he was fighting with all he had.  Sam didn’t deal well with demons--Sam didn’t deal well with anything anymore.  It made every hunt a question mark, an uncertainty.  Not that he thought Sam would betray him, but that he just couldn’t trust him.

He sighed.  “Nothing,” he said, unlocking his door.  He’d call Bobby from the road, have Sam copy down the exorcism.  But for now, he wanted to make tracks, and make them fast.  The sooner they left, the sooner this was all over.  “If we hurry, we can get there by mid-afternoon.”

Sam climbed in, settling himself in the passenger’s seat.

Dean gave his brother one last look before throwing the car into gear with a grimace.  He squealed the tires out of the lot, just because.

-o-

It wasn’t hard to find their demon.  Everything within a five mile radius was dead, and the closer they got into deadened forest, the more charred things looked.  Dean adjusted his grip on his backpack, squinting upward through the vacant woods.  “How the hell are they explaining this?”

Sam was walking two steps behind him, loaded down with his own gear.  “Freak lightning storm,” he said.  “Started a brush fire so intense that it burned itself out like a fireball.”

Dean grunted.  “And people believe it?”

“They don’t know what else to believe,” came Sam’s quiet reply.

Dean just shook his head.  “Poor ignorant saps,” he muttered, glancing at his brother with a shake of his head.

Sam didn’t say anything, but kept his face composed.

Turning his attention back to the trek ahead of him, Dean almost wished there was something to say.  Some kind of peace he could offer Sam.  The guilt factor was a large reason why Sam’s panties were continually in a twist, and if nothing else, alleviating it would put some of the spark into the hunt.  Dean understood it was the apocalypse, and that would never be fun, but as wearing as the first thirty years of his life had been, the last six months had been a whole new kind of trial.  All the expectations, all the hope riding on him.  He wasn’t just trying to carry his little brother out of the fire, he was trying to carry the whole world.  As flippant as he might be with Castiel and as defiant as he could act with Zachariah, the headiness of such a proposition was not lost on him.

Rather, it weighed on him.  Heavier than anything else.

Which was why a little levity in the day to day was so damn important.  It was why he made sure to eat the best food, to sleep with the prettiest girls.  If it was the end of the world, he was going to try to make the best of it.

Hunting with a guy who couldn’t even smile wasn’t exactly make things all fun and games.

And yet, what could he tell Sam?  It’s okay, you only thought you were turning yourself into a monster, not destroying the world.   Or maybe You didn’t actually end the world, you just made everyone’s life a living Hell.

All he wanted to say was, I told you so and who’s weak now, bitch? but Dean didn’t figure that would do much for the morale.

So he said nothing at all.

Instead, he kept on, just like always.  He wasn’t actually totally sure where was going, but Sam had said the coordinates were due east, so trekking in that general direction seemed to be his best bet.  If Sam had any complaints or bright ideas, the kid wasn’t sharing, which was fine with Dean.  Because then Dean would probably have to go through the trouble of doing the opposite just to be safe.

Overkill, perhaps, and he didn’t actually live like that.  Though it was always a consideration, given Sam’s completely crappy track record.  Still, Sam was there, by his side.  Or, rather, two steps behind him, so as long as Dean was pretty confident that they wouldn’t have a bout of fratricide, things would be just fine.

They had been walking for nearly twenty minutes when he heard Sam clear his throat.

Dean braced himself.  Sam didn’t just clear his throat.

Ignoring it, Dean pushed on, feeling a bead of sweat trickle down the small of his back.

“Dean,” Sam said finally.  “You think we should stop?”

“And let her have free reign?” Dean asked without missing a step.  “Sounds like an awesome plan, Sam.”

“No, I mean, think about where she could be.”

“You gave me coordinates, didn’t you?” Dean asked.  He looked pointedly over his shoulder.  “Or should I doubt what you wrote down?”

“No, not like that,” Sam said, a little quickly.  His brow furrowed and he looked down.  “I just thought maybe if we did a summoning ritual, we might get her here faster.”

There was truth to that, and it wasn’t really a bad idea.  Dean didn’t mind getting physical on the job, but extensive hiking at high altitude was not something he enjoyed.  He wondered fleetingly if this was how Sam felt all the time.  Freakin’ giant.

He trusted Sam with research, he trusted Sam to have his back, but major decisions on a hunt?  Were they ready for that?  Sam was sticking with him, and that meant something, but Dean just wasn’t sure it was enough.  Sam had stayed with Dean while skanking around with Ruby.  Sam had even stayed when he was sucking down demon blood.  Just because Sam hunted with him, planned with him, didn’t mean that the kid was to be trusted.

It was a fine line and Dean had to go with his gut to figure it out.

And his gut didn’t want to give Sam another inch.  Sam could play back up and he could play research boy, but that was all Dean was ready for.

“We’re talking about one demon in an entire deserted portion of woods,” Dean said.  “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

As if to prove his point, a rustle startled them both, and Dean didn’t have time to duck as he was bowled over by a running form.

He hit on his hands and knees, swearing as he pushed himself up.  At least he’d been right about this.  Apparently their demon wasn’t going to be hard to find, since she’d found them.

The demon was wearing a short woman, maybe 5’2’’ if Dean had to guess.  She was wearing khaki shorts and a matching button up shirt, with a bushel of curly hair pulled back into a ponytail.  It might have been funny to see, this small woman physically manhandling his enormous brother to the ground, but the fact that she was possessed sort of took the humor from the situation.

It was a bit worrisome to watch Sam fight these days.  Dean had always prided himself in being able to kick the kid’s ass (one exception notwithstanding, and it was not lost on Dean that Sam had to down demon blood to have a chance), but Sam’s skills had slipped in recent months.  He wasn’t as strong, wasn’t as powerful, especially in the hand to hand.  As a result, Sam’s tendency to get thrown around was stronger than ever, especially when it came to demons, who still took some kind of joy in showing the once Boy King just who was in charge.

Without his mind mojo, Sam just wasn’t as good, and it was a truth that was bittersweet.

Still, the hunt relied on not getting killed, at least for the time being.  Besides, they didn’t have to be on top of their game to still be good.  Sam hit her with a face full of holy water.

Angry, she writhed backwards, hissing as she went.  Sam scrambled to his feet, pulling back defensively in the opposite direction from Dean.

With a inhuman tilt of her head, she sent Sam crashing backwards, and Dean saw him land hard in the deadened remains of the thicket.  He twitched once and went still, limbs sprawled in a tangle around his large body.

With a feral grin, she turned to Dean, eyes are dark as night.  “God’s chosen savior,” she cooed.  “I didn’t realize I was worthy of such attention.”

Dean smirked.  “Yeah, your picture will look so nice on my wall of conquests.”

“That’s a nice thought,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on him.  “But last I checked, I’m the one with the superpowers.  You’re just a human.  Sammy could have taken me before he jumped on the wagon, but now I’ll have to kill him, too.  Slowly, though.  Because he’s just for fun.  You--you’re all business.”

“Then trust me when I tell you that this?  Is so not personal.”

She looked confused for a second, before her body was racked with a shudder.  She convulsed hard, nearly doubling over.  Panting, she looked up at Dean.  “But--how?”

“A little human trick,” Dean told her with a smirk.  “Called a diversion.”

She convulsed again, this time going to her knees, her entire frame trembling. 

Then she heard the Latin.

Turning, she looked over her shoulder.

Sam was standing behind her, his steady stream of Latin rising in intensity and volume.

She looked back at Dean with a shudder, laughing through clenched teeth.  “An exorcism?” she asked.  “The savior of the world uses an exorcism?”

“So simple that it works,” he said with a shrug.

With a cry, she went to all fours, tears streaming down her face.  “It won’t kill Lucifer.”

“It doesn’t need to kill Lucifer,” Dean told her.  “I just need to kill you.”

She dropped her face again, crying harder now.  She laughed through it, strained and desperate.  “It’s not even you,” she said.  “You’re using Sam.  You don’t trust him to take a piss on his own, but you let him do this.”

“Well, there’s one thing I know for sure,” Dean said.  “If anyone hates demons as much as I do, it’s Sam.  Always.”

She gave him one more look, peering up at him through her hair before she gasped, her back going rigid.  Eyes wide, her mouth opened.  Blackness streamed from it, fast and furious, disappearing into the sky with a roar.

When it ended, the woman’s body collapsed limply to the ground.

Dean looked at his brother, standing on the other side of the fallen ranger.

“You had me worried there,” Dean said.  “You looked pretty out of it.”

Sam took a step forward, wincing.  “I landed on a tree stump.”

“I always thought you had a stick up your ass,” Dean said.

Sam did not look amused.  “What about you?” he asked.  “You only kept her distracted for, like, a minute.  Cutting it kind of close there, aren’t you?”

Dean shrugged.  “You can read quickly,” he said.  “I mean, I’m sure it would go quicker if you used your mojo like you used to, but this straight and narrow stuff isn’t so bad.”

Sam’s posture stiffened a little, and he looked down.  When he looked back up, he didn’t meet Dean’s eyes.  “We should get started on the next part.”

Dean didn’t have time for sulking, so he had to agree.  “You study up on the exorcism a little more and I’ll get the stuff set up for the summoning ritual.”

“You sure we can handle a whole group at once?”

Dean made a face.  “Dude, you question?” he asked, only half-joking.

Sam offered him the shadow of a smile, before looking back at his notes.

-o-

Dean was almost there.  He had lit a few candles, said a few Latin prayers, and was steadily working on blessing the ground, when something first seemed off.  There was a twittering, like wind in the leaves.

Which might have been normal if all the trees within a five-mile radius weren’t gone.

Perplexed, he went back to work.

Then he heard it again.  Louder.  Like a whisper but somehow more. 

Uncertain, he looked at Sam, eyeing his brother critically.  The kid was sitting on a tree stump, flipping through the pages of Bobby’s exorcism.

Eyes narrowed, Dean turned his attention back to his summoning ritual.  He had almost convinced himself it was nothing, when it rustled again.

“Dude,” Dean snapped, looking back at Sam.  “What are you doing over there?”

Sam looked up at him, wide eyed.  “Just reading the exorcism,” he said.  “The more I know by heart, the faster it’ll go.”

“No, I mean--” Dean tried to explain.  “You didn’t hear that?”

Sam listened for a second.  “Hear what?”

“Hear...oh, never mind,” Dean said, and he turned back to his work.  He was so intent on it, that he didn’t see the little bunny until it was right in front of him.

The sight startled him.  Not because he was scared of bunnies, but because the damn thing had come out of nowhere.  Dean liked bunnies, but he didn’t need Peter Cottontail distracting him from killing demons.

At least that explained the rustling.  Dean grinned at it, shaking his head a little.  He was getting jumpy in his old age.  It was just a bunny.  A cute little thing with perky little ears and a cotton ball tail.  It sat there, head quirked to the side.  Just watching.

It was an odd sight, especially given the lack of life in the area.  There wasn’t a green plant for miles, much less any critters.  So how this little dude got so far off the beaten path, Dean wasn’t sure, but he felt a little sorry for it.

Maybe it was bored or lonely, which would explain why it just wanted to sit there and watch.  And, really, who could blame the bunny?  Dean was pretty awesome.

But then it kept watching.  And watching and watching and watching.

“Dude,” Dean said finally.  “What’s up with this bunny?”

Sam looked up, a little perplexed, his eyes settling on the small creature.  “That’s...weird,” he said.

Suddenly, another bunny appeared, hopping from the charred foliage.  Dean cocked his head, watching as it joined the first.  “That’s really weird,” he said.

Both brother watched as another bunny followed, and then the whole trio was joined by a pair of squirrels.  When a mountain goat lumbered onto the scene, Dean’s heart skipped a beat.  “You don’t think demon blood attracts wildlife, do you?” he asked, glancing furtively at Sam.

Sam was standing now, coming closer.  “Dean,” he said.  “I think they’re possessed.”

Dean made a face, looking back at the bunnies.  “Possessed?  What kind of demons possess bunnies?”

“Lower level lackeys,” Sam said.  “Did Castiel say what form they’d be in?”

The answer to that was no, but then again, Dean hadn’t thought to ask.  He wasn’t sure what he’d assumed or even what would show up when he summoned them.  He had been hoping for the nice black smoke variety, but maybe he’d assumed wrong.

The air quaked a little, and the hissing whisper grew louder. 

Sam swallowed hard next to him when a bear lumbered into the picture, followed by a small herd of elk.  Birds were landing around them, and slowly but surely, the entire area was filling with animals.

“But why the bunnies?” Dean said.  “I don’t want to hunt bunnies.”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Sam said, his voice low.  “Because if we don’t, I think they’re going to hunt us.”

As if on cue, the growing horde tittered, edging closer as their eyes turned black.

Comments

Posted by: Dani (pinkphoenix1985)
Posted at: August 17th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)

Faye- this is so painful to read and I know that it's only the first part but this line: The Winchester brothers were reunited, but they were brothers in name only. just KILLED me! I'm so afraid that this is how it's going to be in S5 and I don't know if and how they'll fix it again :((

My heart is twisting and bleeding for both the boys but especially for our Sam...

Posted by: spoilerwolf (spoilerwolf)
Posted at: August 22nd, 2009 07:30 am (UTC)

I'm SO sorry Faye! I honestly didn't see this posted until just now. *Makes the Sam watery puppy dog eyes that say 'forgive me' *

Man so far this fic is painful. It's hard to swallow that there's so much distrust and distance between the boys and my heart bleeds for Sam :(

I LOVED the convo between Dean and Bobby. Reminds me so much of LucR, and I think a few more verbal butt kickings is what Dean needs.

But the wee little bunnies? Yeah, that's golden :p Bunnies always get a crap deal out of things, don't they?

Love so far. Very dark and depressing, but good. Can't wait to read the rest.

~ Jess.

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
breathless

Hi! I'm glad you found it! And I thought the post S4 context worked well to remind Dean of just how awesome Sam is.

And bunnies...I don't know why my mind went there. But I think it works :)

Thanks!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
alone

I am living in denial about S5. It's easier for me :)

Thanks!

Posted by: Dani (pinkphoenix1985)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)

Agreed! I'm lowering my expectations so I don't get disappointed...but on the other hand having watched the promos, I'm excited. I'm praying that it won't be a repeat of s4 in terms of Sam...

*hugs*

Btw- this fic inspired the one that I'm writing- mine's different but at the beginning as I started to write, I was thinking of your Sam :)

Posted by: deej1957 (deej1957)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)

Found it, thanks. Reading now *G*

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 05:50 pm (UTC)
christmas awe

Awesome! I'm glad you were able to follow my really random directions to find it here :) I actually wasn't going to post it on ff.net at all but today the whim sort of struck, so I went with it.

Posted by: deej1957 (deej1957)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)

Pssst? Sam is only 26.... Jared's 27 *G*

Posted by: deej1957 (deej1957)
Posted at: August 26th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)

Yes, well. If this wasn't YOU, I'd stop reading right now, because you KNOW you've hit every one of my Season Four Pissed Me OFF, buttons, and right now I'm hating Dean with a passion!

But this is you, so I'm going on to the next chapter....

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: August 28th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
bruised sam

I feel your pain. But I had to set Dean up just right for his realization. He is on an awful high horse right now....

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