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Resistance

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Under Darkening Skies". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: That whole Hart/Huntsman thing comes back to haunt Sam and Dean; Dean turns to his new friends for help.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > GeneralRivkaTFR13125,129016229 Nov 119 Nov 11Yes
Disclaimer: Not mine.

Dean ran.

The forest was loud around him, night sounds popping up and disappearing as he charged past. He wasn’t trying to be heard, but he didn’t worry too much about landing on a stray stick either. He was the most dangerous thing out and about tonight.

He jumped over a fallen log, came down at full speed. His knife, bare in his right hand, tugged at his balance, but he compensated.

The half-moon was as bright as day to him. The forest had no secrets. Through the trees, he saw his prey. Also running full-out, not wasting any time looking back.

Dean forced himself to add speed, already feeling the ache of overstressed muscles. It didn’t matter. He could feel his lips peeling back from his teeth, savage satisfaction as the yards between them became feet.

He waited until there was no chance of mistake, then threw himself forward, pushing them both to the ground, landing heavily, rolling as his target desperately attempted to throw him off. But there never could have been a doubt; Dean brought his knife up between them as smooth as if it was the only thing he’d been built to do.

At the end, the look in Sam’s eyes wasn’t peaceful, but Dean still smiled as he thrust the blade home.

****

Dean jolted awake, knife clutched at just the right angle to avoid the ribs and puncture the heart.

In the other bed, Sam was twitching, far from his usual near-motionless collapse. Even after a day spent only poking through arcane texts and trying to get Dean to look at the diagrams, Dean should’ve needed to get within a couple of feet to tell that Sam was still breathing. Dean thought he was probably running in his dream too.

Dean squeezed the hilt so hard that his fingers hurt. The blade shone blue in the faint light from outside the motel room.

Slowly, he reached under his pillow, where he could’ve sworn he’d left his gun.

Nothing.

He didn’t know whether it would be worse to have his brain playing tricks on him or for the gun actually to have altered form while he slept. He’d chosen the gun—he’d thought he’d chosen the gun—because of what knives were starting to make him daydream about.

This was way past being out of control.

Six feet away, Sam slept. Dean could’ve picked the sound of his brother’s breath out of a stadium.

Or a forest.

****

Twenty hours later, Dean staggered back into the room, hauling ass to get into the bathroom before Sam. Wincing, he peeled off his overshirt and examined the cut on his bicep. It wasn’t going to scar much.

“Dean?” Sam asked, loud enough that he had to be right outside the door.

“’m fine,” he said, putting enough vinegar in his voice that Sam might halfway believe him.

It was even true, except for the fact that the cut hadn’t come from the werewolf’s claws but from Sam’s knife. Dean’s memories of what had started the scuffle were blurry. Okay, in all honesty, he’d said something dickish and when Sam had responded in kind Dean might’ve smacked him on the back of the head. Usually that kind of thing only escalated during downtime, but tonight they’d ignored the deserted pier and the lurking werewolf until the thing had been nearly on top of them. Or, nearly on top of Sam, since he’d been on top of Dean at the time.

Only Sam’s lightning-fast reflexes had saved them both: rolling out of the way, he’d let Dean get his pistol up and shoot the thing in the heart before either of them could be clawed.

“This can’t go on,” Sam said bleakly. Dean flinched, causing a fresh swell of blood from the wound.

Sam wasn’t wrong. Dean could still feel the fierce joy of it, anger transmuted like silver melted down for bullets, blood in his mouth from when Sam had headbutted him and the taste so sweet because he knew it was almost like Sam’s would taste—

Dean didn’t mind being dangerous. But that was never supposed to extend to Sam.

Right after Sam had gotten him out of his deal, they’d visited Bobby and Dean had pulled the man aside for a chat about the Hart and the Huntsman. Bobby’d never heard of them, and Dean hadn’t explained why he was asking. He didn’t think Bobby was entirely over the whole ‘Sam’s got demonic powers’ thing, and Bobby didn’t need another reason to think Sam might be dangerous.

Plus, Bobby wasn’t the one who got him the tiny bit of information he did have.

“Maybe,” Dean said, and listened until he could hear Sam breathing through the cheap fiberglass door. “Maybe I should make a call.”

****

“Hello?”

Buffy’s voice was blurry with sleep, and he cursed himself for being so caught up he hadn’t noticed the time. The moon was starting its descent and the air had the chill of full night. Dean could see Sam’s silhouette through the curtains of their room, a hole in the shape of the world. Sam hadn’t liked the idea, and given what had happened on the hunt Dean wasn’t going to shove it in his face, which left him leaning up against the Impala out in the cold.

“Hello,” she said again, more dangerously this time.

“Buffy,” he said, and made himself man up. “This is Dean Winchester. I need your help.”

“Dean?” she repeated, awake now. “Guy who almost killed me Dean?”

Technically that was Sam, he thought, but figured that wouldn’t help his case much. “Listen, I got a serious supernatural problem here, I think maybe you and Willow could help.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“You do prophecy shit, right?”

There was a little sigh. “So what you’re saying is that you’ve got a problem that you’d like to make mine?”

Dean laughed shortly. “Believe me, I wouldn’t be calling if—”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said through a yawn. “Spit it out.”

“Couple months back, now, tarot reader we did a favor for insists on doing a reading for us. She starts with Sam, tells him some shit about a prophecy. Shows us two cards—the Huntsman and the Deer.” Dean glanced back at the door to their room, as if saying the names might’ve summoned Sam from his pacing. There was nothing. He hunkered down into his jacket, bracing against the bite of the night air.

“Those don’t sound familiar.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “The reader’d never seen them in her deck until we showed up.”

“And I should care why?”

Dean grimaced. It was a fair question. “She’s in the hospital now. Tore out her own eyes.” He hadn’t even wanted the reading, dammit. The memory of her fingers, her nails covered with gore—

He swallowed. “I think it’s big, Sam thinks it’s big, but we don’t have a f—a clue what it is, and you guys seemed to know what you were doing.”

“You’d better come see us,” she told him. “And if either of you try any shenanigans this time I will personally beat you until candy comes out.”

****

“No way,” Sam said.

Dean had brought Sam coffee and an Egg McMuffin, seeing as how Dean was not going to lie down again and risk finding himself back in that dream forest. In retrospect, providing breakfast had probably been a mistake, because Sam immediately suspected some manipulation.

“We need to do something, Sam. I—” He only stumbled for a second. Next time he might be the one with the knife. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep from going after you.”

Sam scoffed, like it was completely out of the question that Dean could gut him in his sleep, and Dean really wanted to live in that world. A couple of months ago he had lived in that world, things between them so open and right that he should’ve known it couldn’t last. Dean couldn’t decide whether it was better that the thing driving them apart was obviously supernatural or worse. On the one hand: not his fault. On the other: he was seriously tired of fate giving them the old two-fingered salute. And maybe the closeness had been the illusion. After all, Dean had entered a cartoon world made out of his own psyche in order to beat the deal with Sam; realism clearly hadn’t been on the agenda. Whatever Sam had felt when he was desperate to save Dean, that didn’t mean it would stick past survival.

He gave Sam his best flat-eyed glare. “I know you’ve been looking into this, and you haven’t found jack we can use, so we need a better plan.” All Sam had was innuendo and mumbo-jumbo. The Huntsman and the Hart were locked together in a battle to the death that was also somehow an eternal cycle, because magic was just that fucking wonderful.

Sam said they just hadn’t gotten the translation from the Akkadian right yet. How Sam had known about the prophecy in the first place was also unclear to Dean, because Sam had found it in the middle of Tennessee during a completely unrelated haunting, back when they were still working together like wheels on a single axle, before the dreams really got going. Dean feared, though he wasn’t sure, that Sam had been drawn to the prophecy, resting unknown in a Civil War document repository of all places. The smell of the archive alone, sweet rotting paper and dust, had been enough to drive Dean away even without the prospect of struggling to read faded cursive on yellowing, cracked papers.

“I’m dreaming too,” Sam told him now, which was the first time he’d admitted as much. “I think I might be able to guide the dreams and find out more.” His fingers tapped nervously on his knee as he ignored his breakfast, drumming like muffled hoofbeats.

“You can do that in Virginia,” Dean pointed out, wrenching his attention away from Sam’s newest annoying habit.

Sam shook his head. “There’s a couple more libraries I want to consult out here.” First Dean had heard of that, and he didn’t know whether to call Sam on it. Sam and his secrets. Almost comforting that he was still keeping them, except for how they always ended up punching Dean in the chest.

“What do you dream?” he asked instead.

Sam’s eyes twitched, just a second of looking away from Dean, long enough that Dean knew that Sam’s dreams were just as bad as his own. For a moment the light around them dimmed towards night and the air had the sharp-sweet smell of a place where humans rarely stepped. Sam stood (bolted) and the moment broke. Sam shook his head like he was throwing off the illusion. “If you think that Willow and Buffy can help, you should go. They can keep you from doing anything too dumb, and I’ll catch up with you in a couple of days.”

Ordinarily, Dean wouldn’t have considered splitting up. Ordinarily, he wasn’t having dreams about knocking Sam out, tying him to an altar, carving him up. In the dreams, Sam’s viscera turned to antlers when he pried them out of the body. Branched and sharp as icicles, they had a velvety nap under the blood that he could still feel when he woke.

“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” he said slowly. “We’ll both investigate, just from different angles. Don’t sit around here on your ass, though.”

Decision made, he rose to start packing. Best to get it done with as soon as possible.

“Dean—”

Dean froze, didn’t turn. Sam sounded like he felt, sick to his stomach at the thought of being that far apart even though it might be safer for the both of them.

“I broke into your hard head to save you last time. I’m strong enough to fix this too,” Sam finished at last. That, at least, was reassuringly normal. If anybody could out-stubborn an eternal cycle, it would have to be Sam.

“I know you will,” Dean said, because he believed it.

****

Indiana to Virginia was an unpleasant drive under the best of circumstances (which, if Dean had to think about it, he’d never experienced, so honestly this time was only slightly more sucky than any other time he’d been forced to go solo). He stumbled into the Slayers’ weird fake magazine offices at a little after ten in the morning, and the girl on duty—he was so tired that all he registered was that she was short and cute—immediately got Buffy and Willow. Buffy came out wearing what looked like pajamas. At least, Dean didn’t think that chicks were generally rocking loose pants printed with hearts and popsicles as other than sleepwear, though she looked good in that and a lavender camisole. He guessed that if you were the Chosen One the way these guys had explained it, you could show up for work dressed however the hell you wanted to.

She sized him up, hands on flannel-covered hips. Dean got it: he was a charity case, especially since he’d arrived without the brains of the operation. He managed not to react beyond clenching his jaw.

Buffy and Willow sat him in the little kitchen and gave him a cup of coffee. The girls opted for hot chocolate with little marshmallows. He would’ve taken that instead of the coffee, but they hadn’t asked. Willow wasn’t meeting his eyes at all.

“Last time we saw you, weren’t the two of you, like, surgically attached?” Buffy asked.

Dean looked down at the table. “That was before Sam found out about the friggin’ prophecy,” he admitted.

During his drive, he’d had plenty of time to think about how nothing as good as beating the deal together could last. Dean had thought different right after they’d gotten out from under the crossroads demon and the feds, but maybe that had just been relief making him dizzy. Sam still had his secrets and Dean was still, once his soul wasn’t in mortal danger, an annoyance.

“What is the prophecy, exactly?” Willow prompted.

Dean forced himself to pay attention and told them what he knew, which was located in the space between jack and squat. Dean even admitted what the damned oracle had told him: how he’d heard her say that it would come down to the huntsman and his hart except that, because he wasn’t a geek, he’d heard ‘heart’ instead until Lilah Morgan had hit the whole ‘Wolf, Ram and Hart’ thing so hard that she had to know more than she was telling.

The best information he had since then came from his dreams, and they were not exactly expository. Dean looked down at the slice of his face he could see in his cold coffee and tried to explain what he saw when he slept, even though that made his pulse pound and his feet itch to be running for real. Buffy folded her arms and leaned against the counter, her expression as closed-off and calculating as Dad’s could get on a hunt, and Willow wanted him to draw the dream-forest, but it was no use: he couldn’t make his hands repeat the images.

“But these dreams are just about Sam, right? No, just to take a random example, urges to take young girls into the forest on the orders of the evil queen. Not that you would actually do that,” Willow hastened to add.

Dean was too tired to be seriously offended or even oddly charmed. “Yeah, just Sam, not Snow White. No little bluebirds either,” he said and then felt bad. “Listen, I—”

Buffy moved to stand between them, and Dean raised his eyes to her face. His head felt like it weighed more than the Impala. “Okay, we’ve officially reached the point where you’re too tired to make sense. Will, you start researching. Dean, you—get out of the way. Try not to kill anyone or annoy anyone into killing you back, and we’ll talk in the morning.” Willow stood immediately to comply, and just for a moment Dean was so glad to have someone else who knew what she was doing giving orders, seeing farther than he could, that he almost couldn’t breathe with it.

Sam having some freaky destiny was survivable, because Sam was Sammy no matter what the rest of the world tried to say about it. For the same to happen to Dean himself was so awful that every moment he spent thinking about it made his skin crawl, and of fucking course Sam would be caught up in Dean’s problem in the worst possible way.

Dean stashed himself in a conference room and left a message for Sam—having a fucking awful time, wish you were here--before putting his head down on his arms and letting himself go, unworried for the first time in weeks about whether he’d wake up turning dream into reality.

****

Dean came to himself slumped up against a door, half-standing, panting like he’d just finished a run. He was cold, but he’d been so warm in the dream, hands gloved with blood so hot and fresh he’d screamed his pleasure up at the sky, the hunter’s moon. “It’s okay, Dean,” Sam had whispered in his ear, and then Dean had looked down to see the antlers burst through his own chest, like trees growing in stop motion. There was no pain, only Sam’s shushing, saying “I’ve got you,” just like Dean used to do when Sam had picked up a fever and Dad was nowhere to be found.

He stared at the wood grain of the door, letting it replace the images of blood on skin, and when he was able to move he checked his phone. Sam hadn’t called.

Still, Dean knew Sam was awake. He was thinking about Dean. He was thinking about Dean’s—

Dean shook his head, forcing the ideas away. Sam had gotten a little cocky what with beating the crossroads deal, which, Dean had to admit, was literally the stuff of legend and song. So if Sam was thinking he could chew through this prophecy and come out the other side untouched, that wasn’t entirely unexpected, but Dean wasn’t sure Sam was still in the driver’s seat, witness the scab on his arm. They were both a couple of pistons short of an engine right now, but Dean was the only one who seemed to get that.

Dean didn’t know what to do, but he knew that he stank, so he decided to wash his face and his pits in the bathroom down the hall and then grab a change of clothes from the car.

But on his way to a new shirt, he found Willow sitting in the waiting room at the front of the Slayers’ complex, reading what looked like a scroll. She looked up when he came into the room. “Breakfast?” she asked brightly. “There’s a place right outside.”

She was handling the fact that he’d almost killed her pretty well, and that wasn’t even factoring in the sex beforehand. Dean was pretty sure that any idea he had about how to approach the subject would be a bad one, basically because it would be a girl-related idea he came up with and therefore bad by definition. If Willow wasn’t going to give him well-justified grief, he wasn’t going to complain, and if she was just biding her time before she ripped his nuts off, well, he did owe her the opportunity to try. So he shrugged his agreement and went to open the door, gesturing her through before him.

They ate breakfast burritos stuffed with chorizo, eggs and cheese, pretty good actually. The food didn’t quite make up for the nightmares, but it didn’t hurt his mood any. And Willow did seem to have forgiven him, maybe because she was such a superpowered witch that she wasn’t insecure about being surprised a second time. She just dug into the food. Dean liked a girl with an appetite, and even if he wasn’t going there again a little bit of admiration was a warm distraction from the overall mess that was his life. She even gave him a little smile when she caught him looking.

Dean regretted fucking up with her, but at least she knew who he was.

“I think the Tarot thing’s a dead end,” she told him after she’d finished her first cup of coffee. “The Hunt in Tarot is sometimes connected to Death, but Death also means rebirth and change, and it’s just not specific enough to be any use. Stags feature occasionally in Tarot art, but the symbolism isn’t particularly focused. They’re used to show power or kingship, and sometimes as the symbol of a shaman. The more promising lead is Wolfram & Hart, except that means multidimensional evil, so it’s kind of like the surprise grab bag—anything could come out.”

It was weird to hear all that knowledge spilled out by someone other than Sam. Like déjà vu, only not quite; like the opposite of meeting Sam in the djinn’s dream world. Wrong, even if Sam was trying to protect him by keeping his distance.

“Why are you helping us?” he asked, because he couldn’t keep his fucking mouth shut.

Willow looked surprised. “It’s what we do. I, uh, kind of thought it was what you did too. So, honor among thieves, or vampire hunters, right?”

Dean eked out a smile for her, remembering Gordon Walker. “Sometimes, I guess. But, uh, I appreciate it.” He didn’t know how, but the smile turned real. “I didn’t believe in ‘em, but you’re the real deal. A good witch. You have every reason to tell us to go pound sand, and don’t think I don’t know it.”

Willow set her fork down and looked at her napkin. “Let’s just say I know what it’s like to need someone to believe that you aren’t just what you do on your worst day.”

“You’ll have to tell me about that sometime,” Dean said, risking a bit of a tease in his voice.

Willow’s smile was small and secretive. “I’ll think about it. In the meantime, there’s your problem.” She met his eyes. “A prophecy doesn’t come out of nowhere. Well, kinda, in the sense that sometimes they just pop up in big glowing letters, but what I mean is that you don’t get a prophecy when you’re twenty-four. You get it when you’re born, if not before; that’s what prophecy means. So, were there any signs when Sam was a baby?”

“You mean, other than the demon that fed him its blood?” Dean asked.

Willow bit her lip. “Okay, yes, but as far as we can tell that’s got nothing to do with the Huntsman and the Hart—though maybe the demon chose him because of this underlying mystical thing you inherited.”

Dean shook his head. “If my dad’d found out about anything like that, he’d’ve made it part of the hunt for the demon.”

Willow was silent for a moment. She took a deep breath, then continued: “What about your mom?”

He felt it only distantly, like going over a pothole with new shocks. “No way of telling.”

“Did you ever talk to her friends, her family?”

He shrugged. “Dad said she didn’t have family. They got married at the clerk’s office, just one of Dad’s friends as a witness.”

“Still, two brothers each with different roles, that’s the kind of thing that runs in someone’s family,” Willow said, and he had to concede the point. They didn’t have much else to go on.

“All right,” he said, sighing and already feeling the ache in his neck. “I guess it’s research time. I’ll figure out where her friends are and then maybe you can mojo me cross-country so I can ask the questions in person.”

Before he started, he checked his phone. Nothing from Sam. He hesitated, then sent another where-are-you, WTF text, because Sam already thought he was a control freak.

****

“Did you know that baby Lubber demons look a lot like kittens?” Buffy asked as she came into Willow’s office, pulling her hair out of a ponytail. “Totally unfair.”

Dean blinked up at her from his slump next to Willow. He felt like he’d been gored. The jaunty spring in Buffy’s step looked so strange it might as well have come from another world; it seemed unfair that anyone could be cheerful in this life.

Buffy frowned at him. “You don’t look so good.”

“They’re dead,” he said.

“That’s awful,” she said immediately. “Who?”

He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Everybody who knew my mom. Her parents. She wasn’t close to her uncle, but he died not long after she was buried. Her high school teachers. George Foreman, the guy she went to the prom with—”

Buffy opened her mouth. “Not that George Foreman,” Willow said quickly. “Just another George Foreman.”

Dean continued, because he didn’t care: “Her college roommates, all three of them. Robert Campbell, Dr. Leonard Hardecker, Corinne Wallace, Ed Campbell, Henry Parrish, Jennifer Donnelly—dead, dead, and deader. Every friend she had in the world, within a year of her death. Accident, heart attack, botched robbery, like someone was workin’ through a checklist.”

Buffy and Willow held a brief, silent Q&A with their eyes, and then Willow dragged Buffy outside the room for a quick consult in the hall. Unlike when he and Sam did that, there didn’t seem to be any shoving involved.

Dean was okay with being left alone. Mom. It was like having a healed-over scar ripped open right down to the bone. He needed to tell Sam that Winchesters turned out to spread death like some people spread the clap (not least because when Sam was listening to Dean again he’d know it wasn’t him specifically that killed everybody he loved; the whole family tree was made of poison). But also he wanted Sam to be able to live without knowing this, just for a little while longer. This time, he didn’t touch his phone.

After a couple of minutes, Buffy marched back into the office, Willow definitely not right behind her. “Okay,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Dean, I know you’re anxious, but it’s time to earn your keep around here.”

Dean brought his head up. “What?”

“I want you to go do some drills with the girls. Most of them have never been in a Slayer-versus-gun situation. We’ve got paintball guns; you know how to shoot. Take a break and we’ll hit this from another angle in the afternoon.”

He blinked at her. “Sam,” he said, which he understood from her confused stare was not an acceptable response. After a minute he pushed himself out of Willow’s chair. “Training room?” he asked, and she nodded.

“When this is over,” she said as he left, “we should go shopping. You know that they sell shirts other places than Sears, right?”

Without turning, he held his hand up in sort-of acknowledgment, because he was guessing she didn’t mean anything by it, not as an insult and not as a promise that there really would be an ‘over.’

****

Dean understood that Buffy and Willow were getting rid of him because he was useless right now. He went because they were right, and because for once it wasn’t on him alone to keep going no matter how bad he needed a break. His head was saying nothing but Sam, circling and repeating and changing pitch like an anthem. And he believed Buffy: he was doing these girls a favor, getting them ready for the real world. Superpowers or not, they’d inherited a nasty job, if not exactly in the same way he had, and he figured he’d be doing his good deed for the day by following her orders.

There were only five Slayers in the training room when he showed up. He remembered a couple of them from last time, Jael and June. The others were new, but they were game when he explained that he was, kind of, a weapons instructor. June showed him where the paint guns were kept, and one way or another he found himself promising to show her how to shoot a real gun when he got a chance.

He started them with one gun against the entire group, and tagged them all the first time they came at him. Four kill shots, though Jael might’ve survived to take him down if she could fight with a round through the shoulder, which he suspected she could. Anyway, that beginning made them respect the weapon a bit more, though in Dean’s opinion the sting of a paintball was hardly enough to be convincing. It would be better to make them see what a bullet really did, take them out and show them a body that had been shot.

Maybe a deer.

God, he wanted Sam around, watching and snarking and running—

He shook it off and they began again.

****

While they were taking a break, sharing water bottles and Dean doing his best to grin at them the way these girls deserved to be grinned at, a shock went through him, like the echo of being electrocuted. Sam, so fucking hungry: empty as Dean had been when Sam had been dead. Sam wanted—just a little blood, only enough to make a point. Mostly he wanted the Huntsman brought to heel. Dean felt it hit his whole body, like walking out of an air-conditioned morgue into deep South summer, and before he could even think he was going to his knees for the phantom Sam.

“Are you okay?” Ksenia asked, raising the bottle she’d plucked out of the air when he dropped it.

“I’m fine,” Dean said, getting back to his feet and starting towards the door. He was fugly-sweaty and should’ve showered, but he needed to be elsewhere. Right now.

He barely saw the hallways around him as he moved. He could feel the pull, like the smell of accelerant in the air drawing him towards bones in need of burning.

He started running as soon as he saw Sam through the open door to the reception area, and only managed to slow down when Sam’s head snapped up and his stance changed, bracing himself to fight.

Dean stopped himself in the doorway, hanging on to it so that he didn’t do anything stupid like grab Sam. Sam had recovered his balance along with Dean, but was still staring at him like a guy about to get his thirty-day chip would look at a bottle of Jack. Sam looked like he’d lost weight since Dean had seen him last, but Dean could tell he would still be just as fast, maybe faster. Sam’s shoulders were drawn in and he was bouncing from foot to foot as he inspected the fake magazine covers on the wall, hands deep in his jacket pockets. He wasn’t going to pull a weapon, though. Dean knew that Sam’s job was to run, not to fight, no matter what tricks Sam was trying to pull.

“Sam,” Buffy said, pushing past Dean.

Sam nearly tripped over his own feet, then let out a breath that seemed to calm him a little. “Buffy!”

They had a brief, awkward standoff, and then Buffy pulled him into a hug. From the look on Sam’s face (since Buffy was a foot shorter, Dean had an excellent view), she got a good feel of his muscles before she let go.

Sam stepped back and smiled at her, full dimples and everything, like he’d flipped a switch. “Good to see you, I need to talk to Dean.” Okay, maybe Sam hadn’t managed to enhance his Zen as well as it seemed.

“Standing right here,” Dean pointed out.

Sam did something in between a nod and a headshake. “Yeah, no, I need to talk to you alone.” He stuffed his hands in his jacket again, maybe so Buffy wouldn’t see how they were clenching into fists, but Dean knew.

“Okay, you weren’t anywhere near this freaked out last time, when you were facing down a deal with a demon and planning to kill me, plus Dean’s staring at you like a vamp at a Red Cross van, so I’m gonna say no to that plan and instead you’re gonna get the help you asked for.”

Dean spared a moment to be grateful that Buffy was the say-what-they-were-all-thinking type, because it would have taken him a while longer to work up to that. Also, he put his poker face back on, or at least he thought he did. He realized that he was shifting from foot to foot just like Sam was, and forced himself still.

“Did you find anything out?” Sam asked, a little stiffly. Dean shoved aside the thought that Sam—or whatever was working its way through Sam--might not want someone else to know what was really going on.

“Willow’s been working on your problem,” Buffy said before Dean could confess. “Why don’t we see what she’s got?”

“Yeah, great,” Sam said, distractedly. “Come on,” like Dean was a dawdling kid, and if Dean had been one hundred percent he would’ve found out real quick what Dean thought of that. But Dean wasn’t sure he could trust himself to put his hands on Sam and stop short of blood, so instead he got ahead of Sam, making sure to keep a couple of feet between them—he could feel every inch of the distance, like the moon must feel the tug of the earth. Buffy stayed behind him, next to Sam, all the way to Willow’s office, which turned out to be empty.

“You know what, let’s check the other common areas,” Buffy said, with the slightly edgy tone of someone who didn’t really want the Winchesters in her life for very long. “So, Sam,” she said brightly as they moved, “what do you know about the Huntsman and the Hart?”

“I think we can get this under control,” Sam said. “There are disciplines we can use to channel them.”

Dean sneered.

“It’s not going away, Dean,” Sam insisted, because of course he hadn’t needed to see Dean’s face to know what he’d think of that. “This isn’t something we can just cut out of ourselves.”

“Why the fuck not?” Dean asked.

“Hey, I’m no fan of mental discipline,” Buffy told him. “But I gotta say, I haven’t seen many of these things go away on their own.”

“Yeah, that’s why we’re here, ‘cause we thought you could help,” Dean pointed out.

Without further conversational gambits, Buffy led them through the complex, searching for Willow. “So, couldn’t stay away,” Dean said to Sam once he was more certain he could make it come out jokingly.

Sam looked like Dean felt, bangs drooping over his eyes and skin so pale it wouldn’t look worse under fluorescent lights. “I wasn’t talking about meditation, Dean. I think there are ways to bind this thing down, so that we won’t keep wanting to kill each other.”

“Bind it down,” Dean repeated. Sam was usually pretty careful with his words, and that was the second time he’d said something other than ‘fix’ or ‘get rid of’ the problem. “So it would still be in us?”

Sam looked at Buffy’s back, and he wasn’t checking out her ass, so Dean had his answer. “There’s power here,” he said. “If I can get on top of it, I can use it—”

“Yeah, ‘cause that always works so well,” Dean said, but Sam wasn’t listening. Dean knew that not just because Sam never listened, but also because he could feel the blood rushing in his own ears, distracting him; he could feel their heartbeats speeding up in sync, urging them out of these bland corridors and out into the open. Sam’s presence was heating him up same as it was cooling Sam down—there was something flowing between them, but it wasn’t seeking an equal level, more like Sam was getting something from Dean and Dean was taking from Sam.

Finally, they found Willow in the kitchen. She had chocolate croissants, which immediately made the day about five times better. Sam refused his share and folded himself into a chair, watching as Dean tore pieces off and stuffed them into his mouth, licking his fingers as he went. Yeah, maybe he was working it a little, but Willow was watching out of the corner of her eye, and it was something to do.

“So, you got any ideas on how to fix this thing?” he asked once he’d reduced his pastry to stray flakes. Sam remained silent, arms folded over his chest, not hiding the pout that said that Dean ought to be following his lead instead.

“We think we can summon your mother’s spirit,” Willow said.

Dean stood up so fast his chair went skidding backwards into the wall. “Why?”

Willow looked at him, arms folded, waiting for him to work it out. Okay, he had to admit that there might just be something in his family’s past that they still didn’t know, and if Willow could raise a spirit without having it go apeshit then it wasn’t the worst idea in the world. After all, Azazel hadn’t killed nearly as many people around the other special kids, just the moms. Whether this Huntsman thing was part of that bastard’s special plan for Sam or something else, if Willow was right that there’d been a Winchester-specific prophecy then Mom might have heard it, either before or beyond the grave.

He’d already confronted his mother’s ghost once. Just a remnant, an echo, couldn’t hang around too long without going bad, he knew that. Which meant--“She already—we saw her spirit, but it left.” Burned up, he didn’t say. Went out fighting to save us just like Dad did, he didn’t say. “When ghosts go, they stay gone.”

“Well,” Willow said, “that’s kind of a matter of degree, at least when you’ve got a powerful enough witch, which you do. I’m not saying we can bring her back for long, but we can at least ask her if there were signs and portents. You know, like the prophet Dean met.”

Dean turned away, looking at the back of the kitchen door with its brightly colored chore schedules. He wished he were just some idiot signed up to do the cooking Thursday night. “Do we have to?” he asked.

Sam was watching the show with a slightly pained expression. This was all theoretical to him: nothing but Dean’s recycled memories to go on, and Dean had never been any good at explaining what a mom was. “We could get out of here—”

“No,” Dean snapped. He brought his hand up to cover his eyes, working up to it. “Sam, I can’t tell you I won’t—unless you can make your yoga mind control crap work right away, it’s not gonna work.” He shook out his shoulders and took a deep breath. “I guess we try Willow’s spell. But don’t you need something of hers to summon with?”

“We have something of hers, Dean,” Willow said gently. It took a second, and then Dean really needed to look down, remembering how he’d run towards her to tackle her into a hug, loving how big and strong he felt when she oofed and bent down to hug him. ‘My beautiful boy,’ Mom had always said, and he’d felt like it, so young and stupid that the very thought of himself back then made him want to punch something.

That kind of killed the conversation.

****

Buffy ordered them to find something useful to do while Willow set up the spell and Buffy did whatever a Slayer did while not slaying. Ordinarily that would’ve been Dean’s cue to ask where the weapons were stored, but he was going to have to take a pass just now.

“Aren’t you gonna complain about this whole ghost-summoning thing?” Dean asked Sam when they were finally alone.

“I’m leaning more toward complaining about how I’m taking out the trash,” Sam said, throwing another bag up into the dumpster.

“Hey, it was that or cleaning toilets,” Dean said, chucking his own contribution into the reeking metal hulk. “I checked. No freeloaders in this place, that’s for sure. And I don’t know if you noticed, Sam, but we kinda owe these girls for, you know, not killing us.” Then he had to back away to keep the buzz of chase-hunt-kill down to a tolerable level. Sam noticed.

“You see?” Sam said. “The faster you accept that these people don’t have any solutions to offer and that we have to deal with this ourselves, the faster we’re gonna start getting control of this thing. I shouldn’t have let you come here. I don’t think they can accept this kind of power in someone else’s hands.”

Dean wasn’t entirely sure that was the problem. Hell, he didn’t like the look in Sam’s eyes when Sam said ‘power.’ “What do you want me to do?” Dean managed. If Sam had a real plan that didn’t involve facing Mom, Dean was all in.

Sam gave Dean the wide-eyed look he only used when he was hiding something. “I picked up some supplies on the way. I just need more time. And privacy,” he added, which made Dean itch--these girls knew what magic was, and they also knew what black magic was, so Dean felt justified in assuming Sam’s plan had sketchy bits.

Dean didn’t even bother to shake his head. He’d wait for Willow’s solution, for now.

****

Dean went out to the parking lot to check on the car. He wondered if he’d have fewer dreams if he slept inside her, surrounded by cold iron and the leather smell of home.

“Hey,” Buffy said. He looked up and nodded at her. She was carrying a sack of groceries. Dean was used to meeting people with separate, ordinary lives—that’s what they did, swept into town and fixed things for those people—but it was weird to see someone who knew what was really lurking in the dark carrying a plastic sack filled with milk and Oreos. Sure, he knew Bobby must shop, in theory, but it wasn’t the same as seeing Buffy and knowing that she had a whole group of Slayers to look after, not to mention afternoon snacks to grab. Somehow she’d made a life that wasn’t all highway miles and strangers.

“You about ready—what is that?”

Because Buffy was not likely to be trying to fake him out, Dean turned--and saw the pack of horses. They were heading straight towards the Slayers’ compound. And straight towards included going through the parked cars.

Ghost horses. “That’s new,” Dean said.

“They don’t look very much like the pony I always wanted,” Buffy said back. Their heads were too large for their necks, and they were so scrawny that every tendon stood out, like they weren’t much more than skeletons with skins wrapped around. Their mouths were foam-flecked and red.

He heard the milk and cookies drop to the ground as Buffy bolted towards the office door, and he figured that was as good an idea as any.

The first horse hit what must have been some kind of mystical barrier about ten feet in front of the office windows—that was new too, and smart, Dean thought—and disappeared in a flash of sick-making green, and then another two. The others tried to stop, squealing and whining, but two more crashed and flared out before the pack managed to halt itself, stomping and neighing in place. From his position with his back to the door, Dean could smell burnt and spoiled meat.

“Hey!” Buffy yelled before Dean could figure out the right words to say to the sole rider, at the back of the hissing and shuffling group.

The thing that looked over them was—first he thought it was a man more beautiful than Brad Pitt, and then it was a flayed corpse, and then a grey-haired Helen Mirrin type, and then its face was covered with huge yellow pimples—

“Stop that!” Buffy demanded, raising the long knife she’d taken from her back sheath. Amazingly, it worked, though less amazingly the thing settled on the version with the yellow pimples.

“Give me the Huntsman and the Hart,” it said, into Dean’s head without using any sound. The sensation was like having the inside of his skull rubbed with rough bricks. Dean raised his gun and thought about the silver knife in his ankle sheath, if he had time to go for it.

“Okay, one, I really prefer to do this kind of thing out loud,” Buffy told it. “Two, and maybe I’m assuming here, but if you’re not here to give them hugs then we’re going to have a problem. Actually, if you are here to give them hugs, they’re probably not going to be any happier, but that’s their macho issue and not mine.”

“Hey,” Dean said out of the side of his mouth.

“You do not understand the danger in which they put us all,” the thing croaked, its voice like the sound of an engine grinding itself up.

Buffy didn’t lower her knife, but she stood a little straighter, maybe because the thing was playing by her rules. “So educate me.” Dean thought about speaking up for himself, but she was doing pretty good, plus he saw the point of not reminding the dude (?) that the Huntsman was standing right there.

The horses pawed at the concrete, which sounded really awful, and Dean didn’t like the low, wheezing sounds of their breath. “Already their corruption spreads,” it said. “The Great Tree should be watered with the blood of their sacrifice, but it is blocked.”

Buffy sighed. “You’re gonna have to break that down some more.”

“Can you not sense it?” the thing demanded. One of the horses lost patience and charged the barrier, and worryingly got a good two feet inside before the magic managed to burn it up. Dean readied himself to fight and hoped the Slayers had noticed the oncoming battle. At least the horses seemed fully solid now, none of this I-can-grab-you-but-you-can’t-grab-me shit that the incorporeal tended to pull.

“The cycle is blocked,” the thing (Dean was just going to call it Captain Cryptic if it kept on like this) said again. “The Hunt makes the seasons flow, seasons of man and seasons of beast, but they will not hunt.”

“You mean they’re not trying to kill each other,” Buffy said. “Can’t say I see that as a bad thing.”

“Then you are a fool,” Captain Cryptic said. Like that was the starter pistol, the rest of the horses, except for the one it was riding, charged the barrier in a group, and Dean’s ears popped as it broke.

Then it was just Buffy and Dean outside; Dean hoped the girls inside knew enough to stay inside, protected, as long as they could. “Get back,” Buffy ordered Dean, which: like fuck. Buffy headed straight towards Captain Cryptic, closing the small gap between them. Dean fired around, catching one horse in the neck and another in the eye, but they were just too fucking big to slow down like that. He ducked and swerved and nearly got smushed by a hoof. Fortunately, none of the horses seemed to have brains of their own, which made them an awful lot like regular horses in Dean’s opinion. He put a couple more slugs into the pack and managed to take down one right before it got Buffy from behind, her own momentum carrying her away from its collapse.

Captain Cryptic’s horse reared so that Buffy had to dodge its hooves, but she got in a good slash as she went under it. Its belly sagged open and grey guts spilled out, but nauseatingly the horse didn’t seem bothered, trampling its own intestines as the smell of rot and bile grew so intense that Buffy had to stop her attack to retch. She narrowly dodged Captain Cryptic’s arm—Dean couldn’t even tell if it had a weapon, that was how hard it was to look at the thing—and fell back against the brick wall beside the door, which shattered under the horse’s weight.

Dean dove inside to follow it, dodging huge shards of glass, at which point he realized a key fact: while Captain Cryptic was really intimidating, and while the ghost horses had been pretty good weapons against a magic shield, a big guy (thing) mounted on a horse really didn’t have much room to maneuver in a standard-sized front office.

There was a lot of screaming, and a couple of crossbow bolts went in the wrong direction entirely—Jane needed a refresher course and Dean was going to have a couple of words with her about that when things calmed down--but with Sam, Buffy, and the three other Slayers who’d been ready to help when called, both the horse and the rider were put out of their misery in under a minute.

Not out of Dean’s misery, though, what with the smell, and two of the Slayers went the distance by throwing up onto the mess.

“I’m gonna find Willow,” Buffy said through her pinched nose. Dean nodded at her unhappily. Dean had some talking to Sam to do himself.

****

Dean managed to grab a shower first, because of the phantom horse guts (and also grabbing his duffel gave him an excuse to make sure that those ugly hooves had been nowhere near his baby), but the water felt like a rainstorm trickling down through the leaves and when he closed his eyes he could have been in the forest.

Sam was waiting for him when he got out, not even waiting for him to get dressed. “Do you know what the fuck that was about?” Dean asked, pulling a semi-clean T-shirt over his head.

“No,” Sam said. Dean checked his expression, and couldn’t tell what it meant. “This is what I’m talking about—I need to step up and get this power under control, and you need to help me, or weird horse guy is just going to be the first.”

Dean tugged a pair of jeans on, then his boots. Those needed cleaning too, but he didn’t have extras.

“Still waiting on some specifics from you, Sammy,” he said, and decided that, yes, he did need to put his weapons back in place, as tough as that was with Sam in the room. That meant he was kind of distracted while Sam talked about some mystical metal he had a line on, some kind of bracelet he wanted Dean to wear. “Like a dreamcatcher,” he said, but Dean had the strong impression that this wasn’t the usual ‘simplify it for Dean because he doesn’t give a shit’ explanation but instead was a ‘don’t tell Dean what it actually is because he will freak the fuck out.’ When Sam got to the part where it was somehow going to feed off of Dean’s blood, Dean might’ve flipped out a little regardless.

Through superhuman self-control (okay, through walking out and ignoring Sam as he followed Dean through the halls), Dean managed not to punch him out. Fortunately, when he found Willow in her workshop, she was just about ready for the summoning. She chattered about the extra power required to reset the spell barrier around the Slayers’ compound, and it was something for Dean to hang on to that wasn’t about cutting Sam open to see what made him tick, so Dean was nothing but grateful.

The summoning ritual itself was completely unfamiliar to him. Dean had never been one to buy trouble. Scratch that: Dean had never been one to buy ghost trouble. Okay, so Dean had never been one to buy ghost trouble if the ghost wasn’t asking for it.
Unlike Dean, Sam seemed to recognize the spell enough to engage in a scholarly discussion about its echoes in subsequent rituals with Willow while Buffy checked her weapons. Dean forced himself to play his own role—his real role, not this bullshit Huntsman stuff—and leaned up against the wall, smirking. “Aw, Sam, you’re so erudite,” he cooed, and it made Willow blush.

“Erudite, Dean?” Sam snarked back. “Where’d you get that, some porno starring fake college girls?”

“Come on, you know I never listen to the dialogue,” he shot back. It didn’t feel comfortable, more like the first grief-dazed weeks after Stanford, but they were both trying, and that had to mean something.

“I’m going to take your blood now,” Willow announced.

They turned, each of them starting to roll up his sleeve.

“Dean’s,” Willow clarified. “He’s older, and, no offense, Sam, I just don’t know what effect traces of demon blood could have.”

“None taken,” Sam said. Dean checked his expression, but he didn’t seem hurt or guilty like he’d used to when the topic of his demonization came up. Unfortunately, turning his Sam-radar on reminded him that he really kind of wanted to grab Sam and—and—his mind refused to elaborate on what next, but nails and teeth might be involved.

Dean thought about the emergency flask in the trunk of the car. Whiskey hadn’t been able to dull the push-pull he felt towards Sam, but Dean had the idea that he hadn’t given his all to the project just yet.

Willow coughed. “If you’re ready,” she said, and she did have a lot in common with Sam, since she didn’t even have to say ‘stop wasting my time’ out loud. The Winchester way would have been a nice clean cut, but Willow insisted on a full Red Cross setup, needle and bloodbag and everything. At least it meant she spent some time rubbing his skin clean, and even if they weren’t going there again she still smelled nice and touched him with concern. A pint of blood was a fair trade for that.

****

Dean knelt where he’d been put and stared at his mother’s ghost.

Mom didn’t look like she had last time, in Lawrence, even though she was still in her white gown. More translucent maybe, blurrier; Willow had mentioned something in the flood of words about how this version wouldn’t be exactly the same as a restless spirit, since this time they were doing the invoking. Dean couldn’t figure it out, not when Mom was there in front of him.

She disappeared from the casting circle and instantly reappeared in front of the bowl full of his blood, raising it in cupped hands and drinking it down with a vampire hunger that made Dean twitch with the wrongness of it. Dean wanted to stand up and run away, and he wanted to reach out and grab her, let her drink directly from him if that would keep her longer.

Beside him, sitting crosslegged like a kid in front of a campfire, Sam wasn’t even breathing hard. All he saw was a face from a picture, another ghost. For a moment Dean couldn’t breathe for being angry.

Mom closed her red, shining mouth with a snap. The bowl was instantly back in its place on the floor. “I’m sorry, Dean,” she said, looking only at him, maybe because his blood made him more real to her. Her voice was full of slithery noises, like it was put together from the sound of a nest of snakes. Her lips were pale underneath the blood.

“Oh, baby,” she said. “I wish—I don’t have much time.” She flashed forward again, putting a translucent hand on his forehead.

Willow stepped forward before Dean could offer something he really shouldn’t. “Do you know anything about a prophecy about your family? Maybe something about your blood?”

The ghost stiffened and flickered, pulling back from Dean. “No,” she said, “no, that never happened.”

“What?” all four of them asked, overlapping. Dean had forgotten Buffy was even there.

“My family always knew magic was real,” Mom said. Dean’s mouth fell open and he shook like he’d been electrocuted, barely managing to stay seated. “We saw it all the time. When I was a girl, they took me to a seer. When she tried to tell my future, her eyes bled. She said,” turning away, looking out into nothingness, “she said that my children had been foretold. That I’d have twins, two beautiful boys, and that they’d destroy the world.”

The room was grave-silent for a moment, until Willow, who had less skin in the game, said, “But you didn’t have twins …?”

“No,” she said, and Dean sagged, gripping his jeans and rocking forward. Sam took a step forward to put a hand on Dean’s shoulder, and as quickly fell back, as if the touch had stung. Mom’s ghost continued: “I found a witch, old and powerful. She did a spell she said would make sure I’d never have more than one child.” Dean’s head snapped back up. Mom’s eyes welled with tears. “When I got pregnant with Sam, I was so afraid—but then he was born, and I thought she’d just got the words wrong.”

“Witchcraft like that always has a price,” Dean said, rough as old wood.

“I’m not proud of what I did,” she said, and Dean couldn’t ask more about that. “But it worked. I thought we were going to be safe. Then Azazel came.”

“So why did the prophecy start up again?” Buffy wondered.

“The Sumerian spell,” Willow said, consideringly. “When we put them together to destroy the crossroads demon, we made them the psychic equivalent of twins.”

Sam nodded, like all the pieces were falling into place. “Symbolism matters more than reality to magic. It was us.”

“It was my deal,” Dean said, and snapped his mouth shut. He felt blank, like his brain had been left in the fridge overnight.

Mom was wavering, her outline blurring into the wall behind her.

“How does this world-destroying happen? Can it be stopped?” Willow asked quickly, but Mom shook her head helplessly.

“I loved you,” she mouthed and fragmented into mist.

Dean put his head in his hands and bowed down, hiding his face as he made a noise like tearing metal. Then he got up and punched the wall.

“Dean,” Sam yelped, jumping to his feet, and Willow was looking pretty freaked, which he hadn’t meant to happen.

“Sorry,” he said, shaking his hand out. One knuckle had split, and the cut on his arm stung like a motherfucker, so he’d probably opened that up too. “I just—”

“Twins,” Willow said. “That’s a good lead, I’ll get right on it.” She fled before Dean could say more, and Buffy followed after, not without a long, considering look at Dean that Dean took as a warning to behave.

“I was never supposed to exist,” Sam said, finally.

Dean growled an immediate protest. “You were supposed to—” He stopped, breathed out hard, and wiped his hand over his face. “Four years or four minutes, doesn’t make any difference. You’re still my brother, we’re still fucked.”

Twins. Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick. Obviously Dean was always supposed to be the oldest one, the one in charge, but still: no wonder Sam was such a snot-nosed rebel. He always must’ve felt the unnatural delay between them somehow. If it hadn’t been so wrapped up in the whole Huntsman/Hart disaster, finding that out would have been pretty freaking cool, actually. Dean had always been closer to Sam than was comfortable, but with twins it was different. Justified.

Oh, and also, Mom was a hunter, and knew about prophecies and witchcraft, all the mystical shit Dad had only picked up after her death. Dean was sorely tempted to pour out another serving of blood and ask her why she didn’t ever tell Dad—though once he thought about it he kind of doubted that pre-Azazel John Winchester would have believed any of this bull for a second. He had so many questions for her. He knew that most of them weren’t of any importance to anyone but him, and it was probably—definitely—a mistake to be worried about the past when he and Sam were so close to meltdown.

Plus he was exhausted. If he closed his eyes he was pretty sure he was going to be back in the forest, and he didn’t know whether he’d wake up as good old Dean Winchester.

Sam went over to where Dean had punched the wall and put his hand out, touching the smear of blood Dean had left behind. He stood there, but Dean could tell he was only calm by force, like he was waiting to be frisked. The sight of him, back to Dean like that, made Dean’s blood run faster and his hands curl into fists. The table he was standing by looked flimsy enough; it would break in a real fight, and then Dean could get a leg, all jagged-edged, and—

“Twins destroy the world when they’re in opposition,” Sam said into the wall, muffled. “But it doesn’t have to be like that. Romulus and Remus founded Rome together.”

Dean remembered catching a special on the History Channel that told the story a little different—the brothers did fine until their war was over, then split up when they couldn’t agree how to handle the peace, and one of them ended up dead, which was why the city was only named for one of them. Still, he wasn’t about to start arguing ancient history with Sam. They had enough history of their own, and Sam already sounded like he was trying to convince some prosecutor that really, they were nice guys who didn’t deserve any of the nasty things being said about them.

If Dean had been a different guy, he would’ve told Sam how fucking scared he was. If Sam had been regular Sam, open about his feelings, he would’ve gone first. But this was some supernatural shit, not even Sam’s real emo.

He was losing Sam. Again. Not to college or to grief, and he should probably care more that they were likely to do some collateral damage, but all he could feel was the poisoned connection between them, twisting them both further and further away from what they should be. It was like watching Sam sink down under water, face blurring into unrecognizability—and the worst was that Sam was seeing the same thing in reverse, and Sam had always found it easier to look away from Dean in the first place.

They stayed there, unable to break the silence. It was worse even then when Dean’s deal had been coming to a close because of how Dean wanted to claw his way inside Sam and stay—the only way he’d ever get to stay, to keep Sam from running. Dean had thought they’d gotten zipped up tight again, but it was understandable that Sam would run again, eventually, and end up the Hart to Dean’s Huntsman. This time Dean would get to catch him for good, keep him, Sam under his nails and running hot over his teeth--

Dean realized that he wasn’t so much standing as tensed to lunge, leaning forward so that when he leapt he’d be on Sam faster than Sam could react, and he forced himself to sit down, pressing himself into Willow’s chair until the wood was digging into the flesh under his shoulders.

Eventually, long after Dean had gotten his breathing under control and shoved all the stuff he couldn’t afford to care about back out of his head, Willow stuck her head back in the room. “Good news,” she said. “Well! Some news is better than no news, I guess? I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right myth now. Twins are big in a lot of legends, and a lot of times you get them having a frenemy thing going on, but I found this really ancient story where one of them is specifically the hunter and the other is the prey. If I’m right, then you two connected to the same mythos as the Powers That Be.”

“The what now?” The anger was simmering in Dean, looking for a target, and it didn’t much care about what the target deserved.

Sam coughed. He was watching Willow with a wary (hunted) expression. “Enigmatic and ancient forces usually on the side of good.”

Willow nodded. “The Powers are members of a broader pantheon, which includes the Huntsman and the Hart. Unlike the Powers, those guys manifest in humans, or the human-equivalent, in various dimensions and, um, tend to herald apocalypses of one sort or another. That part’s unclear—think that monologue in Ghostbusters.”

Dean snorted, remembering that Willow was in many ways exactly his kind of girl. At least Sam hadn’t turned into the Keymaster. Except: “Hey, we’ve got these fancy anti-possession tattoos. Why don’t they protect us?”

Willow frowned. “I don’t remember seeing—uh, I mean I wasn’t paying attention to your—oh, darnit!” Her face was so red it clashed with her hair, and her discomfort was really harshing Dean’s already limited mellow.

He summoned his best smile, or whatever he had left of it, and tilted his head for improved effectiveness. “Hey, I get it. But it sounds like a lot of people could get hurt, so can we please pretend—really pretend, not the fake thing where we don’t look at each other—that we’re just two good guys working on the same side?”

Her color subsided, and she smiled back, a little crookedly. “Does the charm offensive thing work for you a lot?”

Sam snorted, proving that his little brother was still in there. Dean shrugged and relaxed a few degrees. “Usually it gets me smacked around, but sometimes it pays off.”

She smiled, just a little, and waved her hands at him. “Show me the tattoo already.”

Dean unbuttoned his shirt enough to pull it aside and show off the Devil’s Trap.

“That’s easy,” she said as soon as she’d examined the whole thing. “Those are only directed at demonic possession. The Huntsman and the Hart don’t possess a person, they inhabit him or her.”

“That’s a crappy distinction,” Dean said, offended on behalf of the supernaturally challenged everywhere.

Willow shrugged helplessly and nodded her agreement. “Listen,” she said, “now that I’ve got a line on this thing, I’ve got to talk to some other witches I know, and then figure out what to do with Buffy. Will you be okay?”

“Sure,” Sam said, always the better liar between them, and Willow slipped out without confirming anything with Dean.

Dean wanted to get up and pace, but that would mean coming close to Sam, and he wasn’t sure he could handle that right now, so he just jittered in place at his seat.

“The Powers That Be,” Sam said consideringly, and Dean thought about expressing his very deep annoyance that he could hear the capitalization. Shitty name for a bunch of pumped-up supernatural goons, anyway. “Dean, if that’s what this is, then it might not be so bad. We need to see where it goes.”

Dean was already shaking his head. “Where it goes is me killing you, or didn’t you notice that part?”

Sam frowned and pushed his hair off his forehead, which made Dean notice that he’d gone well past ‘need a haircut’ and almost all the way to ‘swamp monster.’ “I don’t think it’s a one-sided fight.”

Dean waved a hand at him. “C’mon, Sammy, you’re freakin’ Bambi.”

“The Hunter isn’t just some indestructible Terminator,” Sam argued, his leg jittering like he’d had eighteen cups of coffee without a bathroom break. “There’s danger in the hunt, and overcoming that danger is the point. Look, Dean, there are ways to open ourselves up to—to whatever this is, make it work for us.”

Because Dean was really good at ‘opening himself,’ yeah. Dean made a face and Sam scowled right back. “What have we heard from Willow that’s better? Maybe we need to take the power for ourselves instead of relying on witches and Slayers.”

“Witches and Slayers did pretty good for us last time,” Dean said, keeping his voice down only with effort.

Sam shrugged that off. “They don’t know everything,” he said, conspiratorial, and Dean couldn’t help but lean forward.

“Sam?” It was a warning as much as a question.

Sam took a deep breath, and something in his eyes reminded Dean of how he’d looked right before announcing his full ride to Stanford. Half thrilled, half angry, all heading away from Dean. “I have to win, Dean. There’s something different about me, something that makes me stronger than the Huntsman. I don’t know if it’s the demon blood, or what Mom did, or something else, but I don’t think you can beat me.”

“I don’t want--” Dean began automatically, but even aside from the bullshit Huntsman stuff Dean kind of did want to smack Sam around some, just for giving him so much trouble. “Sam, what’s going on with you? What do you mean, stronger?”

“You know,” Sam said, eyes wide and intense. And the problem was, Dean really didn’t, but Sam would expect him to deny it even if he had understood what the fuck Sam was talking about.

“Pretend like I don’t,” Dean suggested.

Sam jumped out of his chair like he’d been flung by a slingshot. “The chase doesn’t have to be eternal. If the Hart wins, we could break the cycle entirely. We could be free.”

That didn’t make any sense to Dean, and the sheen of sweat on Sam’s temples wasn’t doing anything to convince him either. Plus Dean was starting to worry about whether he could stay in his seat with Sam prancing around just begging to be tackled. Dean could practically smell--

He couldn’t be here, not with Sam so close but still ignoring him when Dean’s only idea for making him pay attention was to make him bleed.

He thought again about trying to sleep, but even with the fatigue making his skin feel like lead and his bones like iron, he was too worried about what he might see in his dreams. “I’ll be down in the training room,” he said. If Dean got himself knocked unconscious by one of the Slayers, at least he’d get some rest.

“If you’d just let me--” Sam said, some kind of warning. Dean was going to deal with him just as soon as he got himself under control.

****

The six or seven girls hanging out in the training room were easy to tease into a workout, and they were amazing. They were as sleek and fast as the Impala, working together as smoothly as if they’d done it all their lives, the kind of teamwork it had taken him and Sam years to figure out. Dean was a little shocked he was keeping up, honestly, what with the somersaults and cartwheels and backflips around him like he’d wandered onto the floor of a cheerleading competition.

He blocked every hit, though, ducking and diving easily, smiling wide as they grinned back. He felt awake for the first time in days, letting himself enjoy the purity of their violence.

Then the energy pouring into him seized up and flipped over, white to black.

Sam had left. Sam was running. Sam was running from him. Dean felt it like a scab tearing open over an infected wound, releasing a torrent of blood and pus, filthy but still a relief. Sam was running and he wanted—he needed—Dean to catch him.

And Dean wanted help. Sure, he could do it alone if he had to. But these girls, they were better than any gun, better even than any knife. They were here, with him, breathing in the same hectic rhythm, and he knew they’d go with him if he just waited a little longer, until they felt it too.

Jane nearly got him with a sweep kick while he was daydreaming, and he hit back hard enough that she slammed into the wall, her grin all teeth as she launched herself right back. Dean felt part of himself that wasn’t really him, but that was just as bloodthirsty, rising through his body like a tide, calling the Slayers to him. They’d go, and they’d run, and they’d catch.

The girls were still moving, but they’d started to coalesce into something more directed. Something like a pack.

“Hey!” Buffy said, her voice cutting through the fog that surrounded him.

He blinked, not sure what her problem was. He was going to be out of her hair soon, they all were. He’d catch Sam and he’d—

He shook his head. He’d catch Sam—

He’d catch—

His head snapped to the side with the force of Buffy’s fist. “Let them go,” she was saying, making no sense at all, and he hit back because that’s what you did when you got hit. Buffy took the blow and darted away, right outside his reach. He wasn’t interested in hunting her, and Sam wouldn’t have told her anything before he left, so he let it go.

Sam was out there, calling to him.

Dean clenched his fists. The Slayers fell into place one by one, until they were ringing him, all except Buffy, still glaring at him like she had something to say. He frowned; shouldn’t she be helping him?

“Dean, you—” she said, then gulped. He could feel the thing in him reaching out to her, like it had drawn in the other Slayers, promising them the best of chases, heedless through the forest, every nerve ablaze. And then the end, red with blood, a perfect victory over the very best prey. Behind him the other Slayers shifted, nearly as eager as he was to begin the challenge.

But Buffy set her shoulders and yelled, “Willow!”

The witch sparkled into existence next to Buffy, waving her arms in an evident attempt to keep her balance. “Urk?” she managed.

Dean probably would have thought she was cute, if he could have been interested in that kind of thing right now. He started moving towards the exit, and he felt the Slayers, his pack, following him.

Buffy and Willow’s voices faded in and out. “… Wild Hunt … superstrong …” Dean’s fingers flexed and closed on empty air. His blood pulsed in time with the others’, and beyond that there was Sam, calling to him. The room was too small and hard; he needed to run, to feel his feet hitting soft ground and leaping over leaf and branch.

Willow was chanting now, an unseen wind rising to rustle her skirt and blow sweetly across Dean’s overheated skin. Then the wind grew stronger, until it was an effort to stand in it. He could feel the Slayers separating from him, like the bones of a skeleton coming apart when the rest of the body was no longer there to bind them.

It didn’t matter. He would have liked the company, but this hunt was his. Sam was his. The air around him seemed brighter, almost golden, as if he were caught in a shaft of sunlight in a forest clearing. The Slayers were staring at him now, shifting uneasily, fear turning to anger the way it did when civilians got too close to the truth.

“I’ve got it locked down into him,” Willow said, the strain evident in her voice even through the roaring in his ears. “It’s pretty brilliant, actually—Sam is pumping power into him through their mystical link, and it’s raising the Huntsman aspect. There’s some sort of focus on him, an object--”

Buffy was in front of him. Dean advanced, because he’d wasted too much time already. It was so good not to worry about anything but the hunt. He’d spent so many days, years even, on all this pointless bullshit.

She was a pleasure to fight, even if it was a distraction from his goal. Sweep kick, back flip, uppercut, high kick, knee to his thigh, and back away, breaking contact. He hit her upper back before she got out of range and she staggered; he kicked out to finish her off, but she was too fast.

“If you’re in there,” Buffy said, inches from his chest, “I’m really sorry about this.” She dodged left, avoiding his fist, and scissored her legs to trip him, spinning in the air to land facing him while he hit the floor. But he was already bouncing up like a rubber ball, raising his hands. Side kick that hurt bone-deep, his return kick on her hip rocking her back before she went into handspring to land both feet on his chest. He went down as she somersaulted over. It was like a game where the prize was not dying, and he’d always loved those. Jump back to his feet, dodge the punch, sweep kick.

He stuck a hand out and sent June flying back against the wall, her attack defeated before it began. He frowned, because Buffy was a challenge, but if all the Slayers piled on he might waste valuable energy on not-Sam. His knee caught Ksenia in the stomach, propelling her out of range. He heard her start to vomit as Buffy took advantage of the opening to land a kick straight between Dean’s legs.

Dean staggered back—that fucking hurt, and why were they doing this again? There was something wrong, the air all hot and dry, his thoughts evaporating like water.

Buffy rushed him, boxing his ears as she leapt up and over his head, doing a half twist to land facing him. Before he could turn, she pounded his exposed neck, two solid punches from each fist, and then grabbed the leather strap that held his amulet and pulled.

When it parted, the amulet came with her. Buffy tossed it towards Willow as Dean yelled his outrage—that was his, Sam’s, and he’d kill anyone who—and then the shock hit him and it was lights out.

****

Dean woke up raging, struggling against the chains holding him down. Some small corner of his mind wanted to lie back and figure out what had happened, but mostly he was just furious, his body starving for something it couldn’t quite define but knew well where to find. If he could have formed words, he would have been yelling for Sam, but all he could do was growl.

He could still hear Sam’s voice, whispering, asking him to come out and run. They’d fight, they’d dance, and it would be better than ever because Sam really wanted it now, he was fully committed. Around the edges, Dean knew that Sam wasn’t actually speaking for himself, not any more. But it was still such a goddamn attractive offering that even hearing it sent through mystical means—which, again, was not Sam’s standard method of communication, now that Azazel was dead and gone—wasn’t enough to deter Dean from trying to follow.

Cool fingers stroked his temples, sending relief through him like injections of icewater. He jerked once more and then his muscles slackened.

He breathed in, out, just like he’d been trained, until his heart slowed and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t sound like a homicidal maniac. “Let me up.”

“How much do you remember?” Willow asked him, just outside his peripheral vision even when he twisted to see her. Her voice was soft and didn’t calm him at all.

He closed his eyes and counted his breaths again until he got to fifteen. “I was sparring, and then—I was hunting. I feel him. He’s not far.”

“Are you going to go after him if we unlock you?”

Yes, every cell in him shouted. He panted, fighting the desire, because it was sick, bloodied. He had to be smart, or this thing in his head would hurt Sam. He could feel the spirit crawling inside, wanting the same thing he did except that it wanted to go further, tear Sam open and spread his guts across the earth. Then he’d be the only one to have Sam. His fingers clenched, scraping against the bedframe. Metal rattled and his chains groaned. If he gave it his all, they’d never hold him.

He was way over his head and the only person he needed was the one he wanted to kill.

Dean forced himself still. He ignored the sounds—running, yelping, cracking branches—that weren’t coming from anything real. The Huntsman was going to take him over soon enough, but he wasn’t gone yet. “Can you—help me. Please.”

Buffy’s voice came from further away, but when he turned his head he could at least see her, standing by the door with her arms crossed over her chest. He gulped air, holding it together.

“If you can take us to him, we can try to contain you both. Separately,” she emphasized, which Dean got even as he hated it. Even imagining seeing Sam was enough to make him want to throw himself against his bonds until he could get his hands on—in—his brother.

He let the desire go through him like electric shock, arching up, and then forced himself to lie back. “Yeah, okay. Just—I might not be much help.”

“You’re doing great,” Willow said, almost like she meant it. “With all the magic pouring into you, it’s kind of a miracle you’re still sane.”

From the expression on Buffy’s face, she didn’t find that any more reassuring than Dean did.

But they let him up, Dean not even bothering to rub at the welts on his wrists. He could barely hear them talking plans over the buzz of SamSamSam in his head, taste of copper in his mouth that was Sam’s blood as well as his own. He got lost on the way out of the complex, trying to go in a straight line towards Sam instead of following the corridors; Buffy said something about the Road Runner and outlines in walls that Dean figured he would at least have smiled at, under other circumstances.

Outside the sky was a strange bright gray, like behind the layer of clouds the sun had gotten ten times larger. As Dean watched, purple lightning erupted in four different places at once, and from the booms he heard, he’d missed some. The air was still but hot and his face instantly itched with sweat. Without a breeze, Sam would be harder to track by scent; on the other hand, the light would keep him from hiding. Maybe the elements were taking sides.

His phone rang.

“Sam?”

“I’m ready,” Sam said, unhesitating but laced with an underlying jitteriness that Dean recognized from years ago, every time Sam had to go to a new school and prove himself smarter than everyone else all over again.

“Yeah?” Dean said, and then another wave of bloodlust took his words and washed out his vision like a flash. Dimly, he felt small fingers uncurling his grip on the phone.

“—all pretty worried, Sam,” Buffy said as Dean fought to stay still. Somebody else—Willow—grabbed his elbow, and the world tuned back in again. Dean wanted to tell her that maybe witches were useful after all, but he couldn’t spare the energy. “We’re not sure you’re thinking clearly right now.”

Sam laughed. Either he was loud enough to be heard by anyone around or Dean was hearing him in his head. “I stopped thinking clearly when a demon burned my girlfriend to death. I know this is screwed up, believe me. But if you let Dean come to me, I can keep him from killing me. I mean, ever. I can end the cycle. I’ve been given this amazing power, and even if it was a demon who gave it, that doesn’t mean I can’t use it for good.”

Dean knew that song. He couldn’t rightly say he was sure it was a hundred percent wrong. Sam’s powers had saved his life before, with Max, and then with breaking his deal. But Buffy was talking for him. “That might be true,” she admitted. “But does that mean you’ll live forever? I’ve never seen that work out well. Are you and Dean supposed to chase each other across the universe like those guys on Star Trek?”

Star Trek?” Willow asked, like she couldn’t help herself—and even in the midst of all this Dean had to admit he didn’t think Buffy was a Star Trek kind of girl—and Buffy mouthed something that must’ve been a name.

Sam didn’t care, though, and huffed out an irritated breath. “Dean doesn’t have the same role to play,” he said, sounding just like he was explaining why he had to go away to Stanford and dump the family business, because they weren’t the same people, Dean, and he wanted something better for himself. “Have Willow take those spells off him, let him come to me.”

Dean reached for his phone, but Buffy danced away, and with Willow hanging on to him and his head spinning like a ball bearing he wasn’t in any shape to grab her. “Why don’t we meet—”

“No,” Sam snapped. “He’s my brother. He’s my Huntsman. We don’t need you.”

Half of Dean was ready to agree. Buffy was still out of reach, though. “I think you need to calm down before we talk about that.”

“I like you, Buffy,” Sam said, switching to casual sincerity, which was almost creepier than the anger because it sounded just as real. “But if you try and keep me and Dean apart, we’re going to have a problem.”

“We already do,” Buffy said, but Sam hung up—Dean swayed on his feet, like Sam’s voice had been holding him up as much as Willow—and then Dean’s head felt like about half the contents had been poured out.

“Thanks,” he said to Willow, because he had the feeling he was going to forget pretty soon how much he owed her. She let go of his arm and blushed.

A pop-music ringtone blared out, and they both turned to Buffy, who looked at Dean’s phone in her hand for a second before figuring out that the noise was coming from her own phone and tossing Dean’s back. She answered, then listened for a bit. “Where? They do what? How did you—okay, that’s creepy. Yeah.”

She hung up and looked away from them for a second, as if trying to figure out how to break some bad news. “Giles just talked to a friendly neighborhood seer who says that there’s something about to start eating a ton of people out in Loudon.”

Dean consulted his internal map of the country, then his sense of where Sam was (and seriously, could he keep that? It was the only worthwhile thing the Huntsman had given him). “That’s where Sam is,” he said.

“Buffy,” Willow said, “you know what that means.”

“Starts with t, ends with p?”

Top? Dean thought, and then was glad he hadn’t said that out loud.

“We were going to follow Dean to Sam anyway,” Willow said, speculatively.

“Doesn’t matter.” Buffy turned to go back inside. “We can’t let anybody get killed over this.”

“Sam wouldn’t—” Dean said, and had to hurry to get beside her. “You of all people should know, he’s not gonna let anybody get killed either!”

“Yeah,” Buffy said indifferently, sticking her head in the door and ignoring Dean, “Ksenia! Grab everyone! Full weapons, five minutes in the parking lot!” She turned back to him. “I hope you’re right. But Giles says these monsters have to be summoned, and that they could wipe out a city if they get a day and a half to breed. So do you think he might think he’s more in control than he is?”

Dean swallowed and followed her inside to arm up.

****

At least Willow had warded most of the crazy away from him. She was a fucking awesome witch, and he’d tell anyone who asked.

He watched the girls efficiently passing out swords and axes. In his head, he made a smart remark about how much better guns were. In reality, he had difficulty keeping himself from grabbing one of the bigger blades, hefting it in his hand and going to find Sam. He leaned against the wall, nearly shaking with the effort of staying still.

Okay, even Willow’s superpowers had their limits. Dean checked his gun, just to remind himself that it was there.

Realizing that they weren’t taking his car brought him back for a moment. But the thing in him wasn’t a fan of machines and might just wreck the Impala because it was a fucking unnatural being that didn’t care about physics or engines or anything that wasn’t forged directly by human hands. So he ignored the stab of concern and let Buffy direct him into a big panel van.

Being surrounded by a well-armed, whispering group of hot chicks was a good distraction (and even if he’d been careless about condoms in his early teens, they were all a couple years too old to be his kids, and anyway he hadn’t been careless, so he was entitled to look, plus he was just looking, no damage done by checking out the menu). They were amped, nearly as ready for a fight as he was.

“C’mon,” he said sharply as two of them jostled each other, ignoring Willow’s explanation of what she’d found out from this Giles guy and his pet seer about the monsters they were looking for. “You don’t pay attention, you could get somebody else killed.”

They lost their grins and Dean felt a lot like his Dad must’ve, which made him feel old and sad, so now everyone was unhappy. Buffy stuck her head around from the front passenger seat. “Everything okay back there?” She had a disgruntled expression that said that she was wondering about her ability to play mom herself.

“Fine,” Willow said, not looking at Dean, like there was a brace on her neck preventing her from turning towards him. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure they’re protecting their babies.”

“Babies that eat people,” Jane said, in case anybody needed a reminder.

Willow nodded. “And they’ll only get more aggressive as time goes on. There’s nothing wrong with the Gryzwort in their natural habitat, but gated communities aren’t their natural habitat.”

Dean snorted and thought about how annoying the job could be sometimes, protecting rich assholes because they were people too. Ghosts and vampires aside, a lot of the things he’d killed were just doing what they did to get by. Protecting their families, like these monsters were doing, only in the wrong place and the wrong time. For everybody else to survive, these things were going to have to get out of the way, or be gotten. Tough luck, but there it was.

He rubbed at the back of his sweaty neck. Too many people in the van, no matter how cute they were.

When they piled out of the van in the middle of an abandoned subdivision, houses half-constructed, Dean could feel the death in the air. Sam was teasing him, he could feel it: a relief and an ache that Sam wasn’t here, but had left him this present, something for him to kill. This wasn’t hunting instinct, not like he knew it; this was the thing taking him over, wanting the thrill of the chase and the burn of the blade across flesh. He ground his teeth together and followed the girls, already far out ahead of him.

The first of the Slayers found the first nest almost immediately, and then the monsters—big snakey things, with too many legs and way too many teeth, swinging their long-necked heads at him like baseball bats edged with fangs—were everywhere, swarming through the unpaved streets and the abandoned ditches. Dean ducked and swung and fired and then did it all again.

He could feel each one of the Slayers, moving like extensions of his arm, or like he was the combined product of their power. This was their hunt, their coordination and trust in one another, moving like individual waves in the greater ocean, and he was the current tying them together.

It felt good, cookies-and-milk-from-mom good: safe, even as a small part of his brain was screaming that nothing was right.

One girl used him like a ladder, running up his back to get the height she needed for a spectacular flip-kick, and he just bent and pushed when she needed it most. He caught another out of the air, stopping her from taking a header, and she put her hands out so that the fall turned into a backflip. He’d lost his gun somehow, and his shirt was soaked with monster blood.

The babies were nesting in the basement of one of the show homes, in the media cave with the fake cardboard HDTV still perched on the wall. Small, the monsters didn’t look that awful, more like lizards than anything else.

They squealed when he stomped their heads in. One eeled away and got to the stairs, except that it wasn’t even big enough to climb up the first step. Dean picked it up, its little needle teeth trying uselessly to chew through his sleeve, and he looked at it. Inhuman; not malicious, but malice didn’t matter so much as blood did.

The bones of its neck snapped like twigs when he squeezed.

****

Buffy found him standing there, though at least he’d dropped the corpse. “Hey,” she said sharply. “You got any idea what Sam’s up to?”

Dean closed his eyes. “He’s close,” he admitted. “I think maybe—you should send the girls back.” Out here, in unfamiliar territory, they were exposed, and every person was one more potential hostage. His sense of the other Slayers had faded now that they weren’t fighting any more, just having their wounds tended and cleaning up. If they were like his Hounds, Sam would have no hesitation in taking them out.

Buffy nodded, obviously following his logic. “Willow thinks she can shield me, and you, so you don’t go any crazier than you normally are—” which Dean was a little hurt by, even if they had met under extreme circumstances, and his face must have shown it, because Buffy sighed. “Anyway, if the three of us can’t get it done, then more Slayers probably aren’t going to help.”

So they climbed up into the afternoon light. The weather was freaky again, the air that strange mix of dark and light that signalled a summer thunderstorm. He could feel it on his skin, raising the hairs on his arms. At Buffy’s order, the van took off—jeez, someone should teach Jael to drive, because whoever’d done it the first time had missed a few spots—and then it was just the three of them standing in the empty road.

Sam was ready for him now. Dean started walking. “Hey, uh, Willow,” he managed, just before it really hit: a wave of bloodlust so intense it felt like coming his brains out. He was done thinking or talking; he started moving.

It was like breathing through caramel. Dean couldn’t see anything except the path in front of him. His heartbeat was an engine, roaring in his ears, except that it wasn’t really an engine he was hearing, something familiar and real. He was hearing hoofbeats.

At last, they came to an open place, a parking lot for some big box with cars scattered around like fallen leaves. Sam was there. There was nothing in the world but the distance between them. Dean felt so disconnected that it was like being drunk, and he should have stumbled. Instead he his body knew exactly what it was doing. He started running, leaving Buffy and Willow behind.

Every step made him lighter, faster. Parts of him were dropping away, good fucking riddance because he didn’t need to lose any of his focus in worry. This was a hunt. Buffy hauled ass behind him, keeping pace easily. There was some kind of link between the two of them now, but it felt fragile and anyway he didn’t need help to catch his own damned brother.

Seeing Sam was both physical relief and pain like being skinned: they were nowhere close enough. Sam’d found them a nice big place to fight. He grinned at Dean, dimples flashing, happy to see Dean like he hadn’t been since before he’d left for college, maybe since before he’d hit puberty. Dean’s heart lurched. He loved Sam so much he wanted to tear the flesh from Sam’s bones, scrape them clean with his teeth.

“You left,” he said.

Sam shrugged. “I had a couple of things to figure out. You had to know I was coming back for you.”

Dean tilted his head back and forth, cracking his neck, getting ready. “Or I was coming for you.” He was so light on his feet he might as well have been filled with helium. Just being near Sam was a relief, like when his shoulder had gotten infected when he was eighteen, after the antibiotics finally kicked in and the fever started to go down. The buzzing confusion in his head, the little lost-boy whimpers at the edge of his hearing, they were all calmed now.

They circled each other easily, moving like counterweights.

“I know what to do now, Dean,” Sam said, showing off, happy as when he’d gotten an A+ on a school paper.

“Yeah?” Dean feinted. Sam maintained perfect distance; that invisible rope between them wouldn’t have lost any tension. Dad would have been proud enough to please even Sam. Dean dodged Sam’s playful strike in return, leaning back, enjoying the tug of gravity and the strain on his own muscles.

“It was easy once I started thinking about it. Everyone assumes the Huntsman wins eventually, because he’s the human and because that’s how a hunt usually ends, when the predator decides it’s over.” Dean ducked under Sam’s fist, teeth bared in joy as he nearly took out Sam’s knee. Sam’s breaths were starting to come faster as Sam danced backwards, bobbing on the balls of his feet to keep Dean guessing about which way he was going to break. “We don’t have to do it that way. All you gotta do is submit to me. Then you’ll be safe, we’ll both be safe.”

Even in the midst of delivering a punch, Dean had to roll his eyes at Sam’s expectation that he’d just follow orders. His blow clipped Sam on the shoulder, but Sam had just been setting up his own kick, narrowly missing Dean’s kidneys. They whirled full circle and faced each other again, Dean crouching in readiness.

“I’m serious, Dean. The only solution is for you not to fight.”

Dean indicated what he thought about that with a leap that bowled Sam over, Dean’s boots pounding Sam in the stomach and thigh as they tumbled to the ground. Dean got in two more good kicks before Sam disengaged, not smiling any more.

Sam might be taller and broader these days, but deep inside he knew the same thing Dean did: he was prey.

“Run,” Dean said, half a command and half a plea.

Even if the Hart was more than Sam, an invader in his body, Sam was also still inside, so Dean’s instruction worked just about as well as it ever did.

His next hit sent Sam flying back across two lanes of cars as if Dean had Slayer powers. He bounced right up like a Superball, and Dean frowned. “You can’t hurt me,” Sam said, his eyes narrowed playfully.

Dean’s vision had never been sharper, his ears never so attuned to the world around him. He put a little red car between him and Sam, wanting to see if Sam had brought any more surprises. Sam’s resistance to damage was a bit of a puzzle, but there was a difference between being hard to kill and hard to hurt.

And then Sam raised his hand and the car flew up and over Dean’s head like there was a rocket launcher underneath it. The wind of its passing whistled in Dean’s ears and tore at his hair. It landed behind him with a horrific crunch. Somebody screamed. Dean was annoyed at the thought that civilians were going to get in the way.

Fuck, this was a Target or something—there were probably kids here. Dean shook his head to clear it as Sam advanced, only dancing out of reach at the last second. “Not playing fair, Sammy,” he said, ducking behind another row of cars. “Where’s my superpowers?”

While Sam was circling, Dean pulled his gun. A bullet would slow him down enough that Dean could take his time, he figured. He dropped and rolled underneath a truck, just in time to hear Sam blow away the entire row behind him, the sound louder than machine-gun fire. He got his shoulder up against a big concrete block in the middle of the parked cars, the base of a lamppost, and crouched behind it as he listened for Sam.

Where the fuck were Willow and Buffy? He wasn’t ashamed to admit to himself that he’d be grateful for backup. But they were probably helping the civilians, and he wouldn’t put it past Sam to have created some barrier just to keep out anything supernatural that might interfere with his plans. No, this was Dean’s job, and he was going to do it.

At just the right moment, he popped up and nailed Sam in the shoulder. Sam went down like a target at a carnival, hands flying up in a way that was hilarious even in the middle of everything. Dean barrelled forward, jumping over a stray fender, to get in close enough that Sam’s car-throwing powers wouldn’t be quite as useful.

He was on Sam before Sam could even sit up, punching him in the face once, twice, three times, one knee in his stomach to keep him down. Sam’s head slammed into the concrete. He would’ve killed a regular human, but Sam got his arms braced and shoved up, and he flung Dean off like Dean was a clingy three-year-old instead of a grown man. Dean landed on his feet, crouched to go again.

Sam stood to his full height and grinned at him, mouth bloody. Dean could see a black dot through a tear in his shirt where Dean’s bullet had bounced off. Dean grinned right back at him. This was more awesome than any sparring they’d ever done. This was them, but better—the best challenge either one of them would ever face. The gun had been a mistake, that much was obvious now. He needed to use a man’s weapon, something with an edge.

“Throwing a car at me,” Dean chided, “that’s weak. Do it yourself.”

In response, Sam lunged at him, and the impact sent them both skidding like something out of The Matrix, nothing a human could’ve handled. Dean felt the scrape and bump of a curb, then soft grass, and then they were rolling into a street. Sam ended up on top, practically sitting on Dean’s legs, and fisted his hands in Dean’s jacket. “Like this better?”

Dean twisted a knee up and nailed Sam in the balls, which apparently weren’t anywhere near as invulnerable as the rest of him. (See, he could learn new things—thanks, Buffy.) Sam wheezed and fell back.

Dean jumped to his feet—and stared at the bus that had shuddered to a halt five feet from him. The driver cringed away from him, even behind her shield of glass and metal. She looked at him like he was one of the monsters.

Behind him, Sam yelled, high and furious. Dean spun and saw that he was headed back to the parking lot. Running, just like he should be: running so Dean could catch him.

Dean bit his lip, hard, trying to see Sam, Sammy, not the wavering shape in front of him who made Dean’s blood sing out with the call to chase and cut. But the Hart held his hands out at his sides like a sacrifice, and Dean knew that it was the hunt that bound them together, made them equals. Leave the hunt and he’d lose Sam forever. Pursue and the Hart would be his world.

It wasn’t surprising that there was a knife in his hand. He swung it up, towards Sam’s stomach, and Sam didn’t step away.

The impact went through him like a car crash. Sam barely twitched back, and the knife shattered to the hilt.

“Told you so,” Sam said, sing-song, the way he’d always done when he was making fun of Dean’s homework. “I deciphered the prophecy. I’m safe. This time around, I can’t be hurt until I’m already mortally wounded. Great paradox, right? Good planning.”

That made Dean’s brain itch, a buzz overwhelming the shock still vibrating in his arm. He dropped the remains of the knife. “Whose plan, Sam?”

Sam shrugged and raised his hand. His irises were huge, almost obscuring the whites, pupils distorted like they’d been melted in some fire.

That was when the world went white. The pain was indescribable, all-consuming, burned alive but the nerves refused to die. Dean felt himself collapse to the—he wasn’t outside any more. He’d fallen onto a hard, cool floor. Smelled like girlsweat and disinfectant: the training room. He couldn’t control his twitching limbs, jerking like he’d been electrocuted again, until girls’ hands—four or five girls, felt like—grabbed on and kept him still.

“The transport spell isn’t supposed to do that,” Willow said from somewhere above him, which didn’t surprise him much. It wasn’t the transport, Dean knew. It was being pulled away from Sam.

“We got you out when we saw the thing with the knife,” Buffy told him, kneeling as he shook and struggled to stop his whimpers. “He’s got powers he shouldn’t have, not if this is just the Huntsman and the Hart. Letting you go to him was a mistake. We need to rethink our approach, get some more intel. Willow’s got this place warded ten different ways, he won’t get within a mile, but we need to figure out how to fix him.”

Dean turned his head towards the floor and watched his tears drip onto the ground-in dirt. They were right, he was sure. He’d tried to knife his own brother in the gut, which meant that he was so far wrong he might better have gone to Hell. And Sam being unkillable, that should’ve been the best news he’d ever had. But he couldn’t help but think that Sam was in deep fucking shit. Worse, Dean had maybe signed up with people who were willing to pile it higher and deeper to save the rest of the world.

“There’s something else we could try,” he managed. Probably a bad idea, but they needed information to match Sam’s secrets. The connection to the Slayers he’d felt during the fight with the Grizzlies was too powerful to be kept under wraps; someone had to know more about it.

****

“Let me say again that I am not one hundred percent behind this plan,” Willow said as Dean completed drawing the symbols around the pentagram.

“Just so long as you stay behind the lines,” Dean said. Willow’s mouth pursed, unamused.

But she was efficient with the ritual, the Latin spilling off her lips the way Dean could list the tracks on a Metallica album. A whirling black cloud appeared inside the spell circle, making the candleflames lie down almost horizontally; the air filled with the smell of rubber and rotten eggs.

The black coalesced into a skeleton, red light streaming from inside the skull through the eye sockets, the hole for the nose, the gaping teeth. Then flesh materialized around the still-blackened bones, fading into the image of a blonde girl a few years younger than Buffy.

“Ruby,” Dean said, and stepped into the circle.

“I was in the middle of something important, dickwad,” she snapped, and punched him in the mouth.

Dean rocked on his heels, but didn’t stumble backwards or scuff the lines on the floor. “Fuckin’ bitch,” he said, muffled by the back of his hand.

“Excuse me?” Buffy asked, her hands on her hips, as Willow glared.

“She’s a demon!” he protested, muddy through his bleeding lips.

“And you still don’t get to call her that,” Willow said.

Dean didn’t think much of that, but he couldn’t bother with an argument and turned back to Ruby. “So, what’s going on with Sam?”

She gave him a look equally rich in contempt. “You think I don’t have better things to do than follow you and your weakling brother around?”

“Uh, yeah.” Dean pushed closer to her, backing her up to the edge of the circle. “Talk or bleed, Ruby.”

She tried to shove him back, then blinked when he didn’t move the way a normal human pushed by a demon would have. Her eyes flashed completely black, irises and pupils and whites all gone. “What’s with the strongman act?”

Dean gave her his best poker face. “That’s what I want to know. I’m in this circle so we can fast forward through the part where I show you I’ve been eatin’ my Wheaties to get to where you tell me what the fuck is happening.”

She folded her arms and pouted. “Typical. Now you’re Superman with a lobotomy.”

He bared his bloody teeth at her. “I’m good with beating the answers out of you if you are.”

“Fine,” Ruby said, just before Dean was about to punch her again. “Azazel had a backup plan,” she said, like a bored kid doing a class report. “In case the door-to-Hell thing didn’t work out and he bought it somehow, he set up a fail-deadly to use Sam to destroy the world. Kind of a surprise at the bottom of the box thing.”

“Like Cracker Jacks?” Dean asked.

Ruby shook her head slowly. “No, brainstem, like Pandora.”

Dean glanced at Willow and Buffy, to make sure they knew what he had to put up with. Buffy narrowed her eyes at him, so he guessed the B word was still a problem.

“But what’s the point of making Sam invincible?” Willow asked.

“It’s amazing, Dean, you’ve found allies as thick as you are,” Ruby said.

Now that was just uncalled-for, Dean thought, but if he said something they’d probably all gang up on him. “Hey,” Buffy said. “Wanna find out how hard we punch, too?”

Ruby shrugged. “Azazel did something so that Sam can’t be killed and the Hart can’t move its incarnation from him. The Huntsman has to chase the Hart and the Hart has to run. If they aren’t equals, if one of them can’t be killed, it’s like sticking a spoke in the Great Wheel. The Wheel stops turning, and so does the world.”

By the look on Willow’s face, that was end-of-the-world bad. “What keeps the Wheel turning?” Dean asked.

Ruby’s duh-face was getting very, very old. “Changing the incarnations of Huntsman and Hart will restart it.” From her expression, changing the incarnations would require exactly as much dying as it sounded like.

“Does it have to be both of us?” Dean asked, his voice as raw as if he’d been screaming for hours.

“No,” Willow said, gently. “If the demon did something to fix the Hart into Sam, then it has to be him.” Dean stood like a mannequin.

“Except that he’s invulnerable,” Ruby said, as if she were reminding a forgetful child.

“Nothing’s invulnerable,” Buffy pointed out, and she sounded like she knew that from experience.

“No one,” Dean grated out.

“What?”

“No one’s invulnerable. You said ‘nothing.’”

She had no answer to that.

“He can’t be invulnerable,” Willow said quickly. “I know this demon was powerful, but there’s always a loophole.”

Ruby looked thoughtful. “Weave carefully and the loopholes can be pretty small. Way I heard it, he can’t be killed until his life’s blood’s been spilled. Azazel was no dummy, even if he did let Dean-O here blow him away.”

“Where did you hear that?” Willow asked.

Ruby examined her, up and down, somewhere in between a girl at a club and a shopper at the meat counter. “I read the spell—he had it give Sam protection as long as his life’s blood hasn’t been spilled. I mean, it’s not English, but that’s as close to an exact translation as you’re going to get.”

“Someday you’re gonna tell me how you know all this shit about Azazel and his plans,” Dean said.

“No, I’m not.”

Dean stepped backwards out of the circle, not bothering to look down.

“You could say thanks!” Ruby yelled as Willow started to banish her.

****

Dean woke on his back in the middle of an empty conference room. The last thing he remembered was barreling after Sam, so close he could taste Sam’s blood, his own blood, in his mouth. Demon trickery be damned, he was going to tear Sam to pieces with his fingernails—

Then the rest of it, so much worse that it was no wonder his mind had given him the easiest part first. Ruby had gone and he’d just walked out, found this room where no one was trying to talk to him, and laid down until sleep punched him out.

He was so fucking tired of this crap. And the trick of it was that his own weariness made it tempting to give in to the Huntsman, to think that loving Sam and hunting him could be the same thing. It wasn’t that different, after all, from what Dad had demanded of him, what Sam had made him promise: if it became necessary, take Sam down. Dean’s promise had been a lie, but with the alien presence in his blood, twined through his soul it felt like, Dean was having a hard time remembering that.

“Hey,” Willow said as she pushed the door open. “I, uh, thought you might like to get something to eat. So I grabbed you a burger.”

He turned to her and smiled, almost real, because that was the nicest thing that had happened to him in a while, and it didn’t look like the rest of his list of nice things had much chance of happening.

“Dean,” Willow said carefully, and he jerked his head back up, meeting her eyes. “I’m, um. Getting reports that major ocean currents are slowing to a halt. From what I can tell, the cause is mystical. But the effects won’t be.”

The world stops turning, Dean remembered. “How’d the Huntsman get to be responsible for the ocean?” he asked, not really curious, just needing something to say to prove that he was still functioning.

Willow perked up a little—like another geek he knew, she did enjoy her explanations. “It’s a metaphor, the cycle of life. And the ocean is the biggest cycle of them all.” She opened her mouth to say more, but stopped, brushing her hair back behind her ear. “I’ll just … let you rest a while. Some of the witches I know are working on speeding up the currents, and I think we can do it for a couple of days, but we’re going to need to get at the root cause before too long.”

Dean nodded as she closed the door behind her and thought about root causes. He never put down roots, himself, but he still had that family tree, twisted and black as a nightmare.

What would Sam do, he wondered, ignoring the burger. The first time they’d met Willow and Buffy, Sam had been unable to sacrifice innocents to save Dean’s life and his own, and Dean had never been prouder of him. The stakes were a lot higher now.

Trouble was, that logic fit in too damn well with what the Huntsman wanted. Mostly Dean didn’t care about other people except as counters in the long game he was playing against bad things. When he was daydreaming about how sweet Sam’s fear would taste, how soft his skin would be when Dean slit it open, it was hard to pretend that there was anything noble about trying to bring Sam down.

He was so fucking sick of people—things—the world telling him that Sam needed killing and that Dean was just the one to do it.

****

In the end, he went where he always thought best: his car. He didn’t go anywhere, just sat in the parking lot with his hands on the wheel, keys not even in the ignition. They’d let the car get messier than usual what with the recent events, bags from ten different takeout joints cluttering up the footwell, plus enough cans and bottles rolling around to make it worth their while to find a recycling center. What with his recently upgraded senses, he could smell the sweat, blood, and french fry grease that normally was just background to him.

Buffy opened the passenger side door and got in.

Dean didn’t say anything while she looked around and settled in. She was so tiny compared to Sam that she made the car seem bigger.

He knew it was time for the uplifting speech, the promise that it was important to save the world no matter how hurt you and yours got in the process. He wasn’t going to make it any easier on her by inviting her to start.

Buffy took a breath and began. “We don’t get fair, you and me. If we’re careful and we’re lucky, other people get fair because of us.”

Dean didn’t look at her. “And Sam? What does Sam get?”

“Sam’s not here. He doesn’t get to choose.”

Slowly, he lowered his forehead so that it was resting on the top of the steering wheel, between his hands. “I wish I’d gone to Hell,” he said, clean and distinct.

“I know,” she told him, and for some reason he believed her. “After you guys explained, I wondered what I would’ve done if it had been Dawnie. We give so much, doing what we do. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between sacrificing yourself for someone and sacrificing something you have no right to give away.”

Dean didn’t answer, didn’t let her see the tears sliding down his face.

“You know what we have to do.”

He raised his head at last, all pride gone. “Save the pep talk for someone who needs it,” he said, but there was no fight in it.

“Want to go for a run?” she asked.

It was like having his deal ticking down all over again, his body going wild with all the things his mind couldn’t handle, and the alternatives were fighting and sex. Neither of those were a good idea, but action might be a survivable substitute. “Yeah,” he said, and reached for the door handle, not bothering to try to smile.

****

Running with Buffy would have been awesome any other time: she was as fast as a vampire, and he could keep up with her because he was the Huntsman, the two of them side by side and tireless. Most of him yearned to be chasing after Sam, even though he knew that Willow had done her witchy thing to shield them from each other. The rest only wanted to be with Sam, letting Sam set the pace from pride even though Sam could run him so hard that his legs didn’t even remember how to stop working.

After he’d been freed from his deal, before this latest curse had settled on them, they’d been good. He remembered a month back, the two of them laughing in the car as they headed towards Altoona. Sam had let Dean get away with playing Metallica three times through before he cracked and threatened to break the tape open and let it unspool out the window like streamers on a just-married car. Dean had sworn that Sam would wake up bald if he did, and they’d gone back and forth with insults and threats, like kids, like guys who couldn’t ever do the kind of harm they’d been bantering about.

Without Sam, without the steady certainty of the little-h hunt, he was spinning out, and knowing that Sam was doing the same somewhere nearby was no help at all.

There were worse things than dying. He remembered that well, from when he thought he had to choose between killing Willow and letting Sam die. But the world was asking him to make the same choice again, like maybe it hadn’t hurt enough the first time.

He knew what Dad had meant, now, when he’d talked about how much he wanted their work to be over. It wasn’t about vengeance. It was just about getting some rest.

Sam wasn’t going to get his happy ending, that was pretty clear. The only thing Dean had to offer him was peace.

****

Buffy told Willow that Dean had found a spell in a book in the trunk of his car that they thought would allow Dean to wound Sam. Willow’s job would be to create binding circles to channel Sam and Dean’s fight to the right places.

“Isn’t she going to ask why I didn’t give her the spell?” Dean had asked. “Seeing as how she’s the witch and you’re not?”

“I’ll tell her it’s all about the Slayer-Huntsman connection,” Buffy had said, managing a tiny grin.

From what Dean overheard, Willow accepted the explanation—Buffy clearly didn’t lie to her on a regular basis—and went straight to planning her part in corralling Sam.

They drove back to the same area in Loudon where Sam had been earlier, where Buffy found them found a big, undeveloped chunk of land and Willow made it repel outsiders, keeping any civilians out.

“So, uh, I called my friend Bobby, good guy. He can—he might be some help,” Dean told Buffy as he pocketed his key, needing to talk about something other than what was about to happen. He could feel himself trembling, almost invisibly, desperate to get into the fight.

Buffy nodded, as if she understood.

“I—you’re good,” he said, not really a question, looking straight into Buffy’s eyes.

“Sure,” she said, because there wasn’t anything else. Dean moved off, towards the center of the open field, leaving Buffy and Willow to get behind a concealment spell and wait for Buffy’s part.

Dean could feel Willow’s wards lifting, like having a bandage unwrapped, coming back to life. He had to stay where he was, as much as he wanted to find Sam, because Willow had also set up a smaller magical circle, supposedly to protect Dean and make sure Buffy could easily reach Sam with her spell.

Sam showed up after fifteen minutes, there between one blink and another. Dean felt a twinge of resentment—Sam seemed to have mastered this whole avatar-or-whatever business much more easily than Dean had. Except that wasn’t Sam any more, not really, just another evil bastard using him as a puppet. Demons and gods weren’t that different when it came to the fine print on the contract. That was why Dean had to keep going: Sam deserved so much better than to have his body taken over again. Motherfuckers who did that couldn’t be allowed to win.

Sam reached the edge of the whitish haze that had sprung up around Dean. He tested it with a kick, like a nervous horse, then drew his foot back sharply at the crack of power, the sound like a hundred lightbulbs blowing at once. He walked around Dean like he was starving and Dean was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Ruby had said Sam’s life’s blood had to be spilled before he’d be vulnerable. There was only one way to make that happen. Buffy had figured it out too, told him about her sister and this weirdo Glory, pretty much the same deal. Blood calls to blood. Most days it felt like Sam’s heartbeat kept Dean alive even without the mystical nonsense, so he wasn’t much surprised. Hell, he was grateful that he didn’t have to live without Sam.

Sam was trying harder to get to Dean now, punching at the barrier even though it made him wince every time.

“Not like I didn’t know you have a plan, Dean,” he called. “I showed up anyway. You know what has to happen.”

Dean clenched his jaw and refused to respond. Waiting for Sam to get through to him was a physical pain. Dean felt it in his bones every time Sam hit the barrier. He wanted to reach through and pull Sam in, share the shock of it, sinking his nails into Sam’s skin and tearing down.

He shook his head and made himself wait. Buffy needed time to prep.

Sam raised his hands and, holy fuck, a ball of lightning appeared between them, blue-white and blazing so that Dean had to drop his eyes or go blind. There was a crash and Dean felt the rush of air and power as Willow’s protective inner circle collapsed. Now all Dean had to do was make sure they stayed in place, or close enough.

He moved without needing to look, dodging Sam’s grasp, going to one knee just long enough to pull out his knife. He knew it wouldn’t be able to get where it needed to go, but he still needed its weight in his hand. He rolled away, on his feet again like he was spring-launched, and turned so that he was facing Sam.

Sam was unarmed, which of course he would be. Even Dean had picked up enough of the lore to know that the Hart’s magics were defensive. But he was holding something, two somethings, bulky and metallic in his hands. They were like weird clamshells, hinged to close around something, but open on both ends.

“Are those gauntlets?” he asked, startled back into himself, because the Huntsman had nothing on Dean in a mood to mock his little brother.

Sam looked at him with typical disappointment. “Actually, they’re vambraces.”

As if it made a pig’s fart of difference.

“Okay,” Dean conceded, getting ready to fight again. “What the hell are you doing with Comicon castoffs?”

“It’s in us both,” Sam said, fervent and trembling. Dean could see how he was flushed with tension and felt an answering heat: they should be running already, but Sam was too brave and stubborn for that. “I know you feel it too—you want to bring me down. The Huntsman needs his hunt. This is the only way for me to keep us both alive and together.” He held out the braces, as if he thought Dean would really take them. Looking closer, Dean could see that what had looked like tarnish on the silver was actually some kind of writing, one of those dead languages he’d never been able to learn. They yawned open in Sam’s hands like hungry mouths. There was a row of needles on the inside of each, ready to pin him through to the bone.

“So, what, those will make me your slave or something?” He said it with all the defiance he could muster, even though Sam knew him a lot better than that.

Sam shook his head, not a denial. His hair was curled up at the edges, as poufy and ridiculous as ever, and it made the steel gleaming in his eyes even harder for Dean to accept. “Come on, Dean. What good did free will ever do you, anyway? Not like you used it. You followed Dad around like a goddamned dog, and you were so lost without me you traded your soul for my life.” Sam took a deep breath, and when he spoke again Dean heard only his brother. “You and me, Dean. As long as we’re together, what difference does it make? All you have to do is put down that weight you’re carrying and let me do the leading. And let’s face it, the only choices you’ve ever made for yourself were shitty ones.”

Dean rocked on his heels, swiped his thumb over his mouth as he swallowed that. “Yeah,” he said roughly when he’d got his balance back. “You might be right about that.”

Sam’s face lit up, like a second sun in the sky. God, he wasn’t even old enough to have the little lines around his eyes Dean saw every morning in the mirror—he was still just a baby. Sam needed his big brother, and they both knew it.

“Sammy,” he said, and folded Sam into his arms, holding on as tightly as if a poltergeist were trying to rip them apart. Sam hugged back, hard and joyful, his muscles wild-animal tight under Dean’s grip. Dean brought one hand up to clasp Sam’s neck, run his fingers through that messy hair, the other hand hard on the center of Sam’s back. He had to lift up on his toes a little to put his mouth next to Sam’s ear, which was a crappy thing to notice in the middle of a fairly crappy experience overall. “I don’t want to be the Huntsman,” he got out, feeling Sam fumbling with the first binding bracelet, reaching for his right wrist. “And I want you to get your fucking antlers out of my brother.”

That was when the arrow slammed through them both.

****

Dean wasn’t dead.

That was kind of annoying.

Also, the light was so bright that having his eyes closed was doing him no damn good whatsoever.

He opened his eyes, and then he realized that he was still hugging Sam. Awkward, since they were no longer stuck together with an arrow. He let go and stepped back far enough that you could at least have inserted a piece of paper between them. Well, tissue paper.

He couldn’t feel the Huntsman.

“Where the fuck are we?” he asked, since Sam was just staring at him, mouth open.

When he bothered to look around, they were on a featureless white plain, white all around them in every direction as far as he could see, so he was probably going to have to revise that whole ‘not dead’ thing. But he was here with Sam, so he wasn’t in Hell, and honestly that was so far beyond what he’d been prepared to consider a win that he was okay with waiting around for more information.

There was a noise from behind him, and so he turned, keeping his shoulder brushing Sam’s. Buffy and Willow were tiny but recognizable figures in the distance.

Dean looked back at Sam. Sam boggled at Dean.

“I guess … we should go to them?” Sam offered.

Dean shrugged and they went.

One of the benefits of being in someplace not-real was that you didn’t actually have to haul ass across enormous distances. Beginning to walk towards the girls was enough to bring them together in a few steps. Maybe they were already ghosts, doing that ghost-jump-cut thing—except Dean really didn’t want Buffy and Willow to be dead, so scratch that hope.

“So,” Willow said, hands on her hips, “when you said ‘spell,’ you meant ‘arrow.’ I thought there was a plan!”

“There was a plan,” Buffy told her, pretty clearly not for the first time.

“A crappy plan doesn’t count!” Willow protested.

“Did it work?” Dean asked, since that seemed like a fairly significant question.

“It was his decision,” Buffy said, setting her shoulders.

“This isn’t you and Dawn!” Willow snapped.

Buffy glared at Willow. “That’s right, and you don’t get to decide for them!”

“Uh, guys?” Sam said, waving a hand hesitantly. Dean wasn’t as willing to get into the middle of what looked like more history than he really needed to know about.

Willow’s face was white, her hair whipping against her cheeks even though Dean himself didn’t feel any breeze. “You know what, maybe I was wrong to bring you back. I’m sorry I took you out of Heaven. But there’s one big difference: neither of them is dead yet!”

“We aren’t?” Dean asked. “’Cause either you’re ignoring us, or we’re also ghosts on the astral plane, and I don’t even know how that would work.”

Willow turned, eyes flashing, angry enough to have forgotten that she was apparently doing the Marathon of Shame instead of the standard Walk. “Despite your best efforts, no, you’re not dead. Not quite.”

“Okay,” Sam said, using his patented calm the witness tone. “So where are we, and what happened with the Hart?”

Willow sighed. “When Buffy shot you two, I used the mystical energy that the process of your dying threw off to transport us to the realms of the Powers That Be. If anyone can fix this, it’s them.”

“I see the realms,” Buffy said. “If by realms you mean whiter than rice-covered marshmallows. But I don’t see any Powers.”

“Who are those guys?” Sam asked, and they all swung around. Dean edged himself a hair in front of Sam, out of habit.

The beings were not what Dean had imagined as The Powers That Be. They were short and kind of pudgy, and they were wearing what looked like costumes kids might wear for a Thanksgiving play at school.

“So I bet you’re wondering what’s going on here,” Buffy said brightly. Dean glanced at Sam, who seemed willing to let Buffy do the negotiating. Dean didn’t have any better ideas, and while ordinarily he’d have no problems mouthing off to any asshole who thought he, she or it could push Winchesters around, Willow seemed to think there was some chance that Sam could walk away from this and Dean didn’t want to get in the way.

The, uh, person nearest them turned shallow blue eyes towards Buffy. “The Huntsman and the Hart are dying, killed by the Slayer.”

Buffy only paused for a second. “Yeah, so that’s the thing. I want you to release them—let them not be the Huntsman and the Hart any more.”

Blink, blink. “We do not intervene.”

“Uh, what?” Buffy said, and Dean started to reconsider whether she was the right negotiator for the job. “The Powers That Suck do nothing but intervene. If you don’t intervene, you don’t exist.”

Now they were both looking at her, sort of like a person would look at an ant crawling across his path, trying to decide whether to change his stride to avoid stepping on it. That one didn’t ordinarily go well for the ant.

Dean cleared his throat. “This demon, Azazel, he did something to stitch the Hart into Sam so he could destroy the world by disrupting the cycle.”

The Powers turned their heads towards one another. “Mere facts,” one said. Dean couldn’t even tell if it was the first one who’d spoken.

“Yeah, okay,” Dean said. “But what happens if the Hart dies with Sam here and now, instead of moving on to the next incarnation?” Dean didn’t have any idea himself, but since Azazel had done his best to fuck up everyone else’s lives, maybe he’d kicked the Powers in the pants too.

The blue eyes flashed a sudden sun-gold. One Power turned away from them and grabbed his/her/its companion’s arm, fingers sinking deep into flesh. They had an urgent and unintelligible conversation.

Then the Power swiveled to fix Dean in a stare that suggested that he was lower than an earthworm. Given how his schoolteachers used to look at him, though, the look didn’t faze him. “We will remove the instantiation,” the Power announced. “This will preserve the cycle.”

“Does that mean that Sam gets to live?” Dean demanded. “Hey, I’m talking to--!”

Then it was like he hit the ground at ninety miles an hour without even a fall to start it off. Ears popped, world black, slammed into nothingness like driving straight into a wall. Shi--

****

The sound of Sam groaning shouldn’t’ve been the most relaxing wakeup call Dean had gotten in weeks. Dean opened his eyes and discovered that he’d been sleeping on his side, facing Sam, who was in a bed that was too small for him. As, Dean quickly determined, was he. Every muscle hurt, with an extra swell of pain below his shoulder where the arrow had gone through. (Also, Buffy was a fucking amazing shot.)

“Hey,” he said, soft enough that Sam could’ve ignored him if he’d wanted to pretend to be asleep still.

Sam’s eyes opened and they were clear and human. “Hey,” he said.

“What do you remember?” Dean asked, rolling until he was sitting upright.

Sam’s face got stiff, but he didn’t look away. “Everything.”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Dean said, mostly meaning it.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, curling in on himself.

This, Dean knew. “Being picked by a demon to destroy the world is not the kind of thing you oughta blame yourself for. Now, leaving your wet boots on the backseat with nothing between them and the leather –”

“Dean—” Sam sat up, pulling the thin blanket covering him so that it stayed above his waist. Still trying to protect himself from Dean, as if he expected the Huntsman to have left echoes.

“No, shut up,” Dean said, his voice coming out rougher than he wanted. “I am so sick of you taking the weight for Azazel. That fucker did everything he could to hurt us, you and me, Mom and Dad, and you’re not gonna carry that. Besides, if you want to blame someone for this round, you can blame me. It was breaking my deal that got us in this, triggered the avatar thing, so don’t you dare take it on yourself.”

Sam took a couple of deep breaths. When he looked up, he was smiling, just a little. “Yeah? What’re you gonna do to me if I do?”

“Don’t need to be the Huntsman to kick your ass,” Dean warned him, meaning: I was really afraid for you this time. I’m glad you’ve got your mind back. Let’s never do that again.

“You wish,” Sam shot back, meaning, Dean thought, pretty much the same thing.

****

Dean planned his next step as carefully as he ever planned anything, which was not very. He did go to the kitchen to grab a bottle of that pomegranate soda all the Slayers seemed to like to go with his own beer when he saw Buffy watching the sunset from the sidewalk in front of the Slayers’ offices. It was all cleaned up, no sign that skeletal horses had tried to break every piece of glass in the place not forty-eight hours before.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked. She shook her head, allowing it, and returned to her contemplation of the view.

The bottles clinked as he sat down, squinting into the sky. She accepted the soda and he saw her look him over out of his peripheral vision. She knew he hadn’t brought an offering because he thought he could get in her pants. He took a pull from his beer, watching the fading sunlight glint off his ring.

They sat like that for a few minutes, taking occasional drinks in no particular rhythm. The crazed weather had disappeared with the Huntsman, and the sky was pink and orange, the clouds lit up and looking so solid that he could almost believe that he’d be able to bounce from one to the other without magic if he could get up that high (not that he would, because hello: if people had been meant to fly, cars would do it).

Dean tipped his beer up, finishing it off, and put it down to his side. “I’ve decided,” he said carefully, “that my life pretty much blows.”

Buffy’s gaze went to his shoulder, which was actually feeling fine thanks to Willow’s super-healing potions. “I get that,” she said. “So, now that you’re not the Huntsman any more, you want out?” She sounded wistful, like she knew she couldn’t go herself but liked the idea that somebody else could.

He shook his head, tilted it and smiled up at her, doing his best to stay as far away from sleazy as possible, even though he knew he was probably at least several inches within the sleazeball boundary. “I want in.”

That took her a second. “In? Like, a guy’s auxiliary?”

Dean shrugged but kept his eyes locked to hers. “I’ve got the experience. I can work on non-vampire stuff—I got no problem leaving that to Slayers—and, no disrespect, but you guys are kind of short on people who’ve been doing this for more than a couple of years. I’d do a good job—and I’d keep my hands off the girls,” he added belatedly. “The Slayers, I mean. Not all girls.”

Buffy smirked at him but didn’t comment. “What about your brother?”

His shoulders hunched for half a second, and then he straightened and stared blindly at the blazing spot in the sky where the clouds covered the sun. “Sam told me a long time ago that he wanted a normal life.” He picked up his beer bottle and rolled it between his palms, then put it down again. “I figure, I work with you guys, he gets his chance at that. I mean, once we deal with the arrest warrants and all.”

“This isn’t a job, you know,” she said, but she wasn’t saying ‘no,’ not yet. “It’s a family.” She scraped at the bottle label with her thumbnail, and her mouth quirked like she was keeping a joke to herself. “And when you meet Cousin Andrew, you might regret asking.”

“He’s not all covered with hair, is he?” Dean asked. “I could deal with that, don’t get me wrong. A guy just likes some warning, is all.”

“I think that’s Cousin It,” Buffy said, smiling outright. “Andrew is—you know, actually, Andrew is the kind of person who really has to be discovered, not described.”

Dean had known more than a few hunters like that. “I’d like the chance,” he admitted.

There was a short pause while Buffy looked him over from top to bottom, nothing sexy about it (except that a hot girl evaluating a weapon was inherently sexy, but Dean could put that off for now, given what he was asking from her). “You get that I’m the boss, right?” she asked.

He wiped his hand across his mouth to hide his hope. “You say frog, I say which toe,” he agreed.

“Okay then,” she said, and he recognized it as a dismissal and stood up, not wanting her to think that he was anything other than obedient. “Dean,” she added, before he could turn away. He froze, standing next to her. “The invitation includes Sam too. You need to tell him that.”

Dean started to snort, then cut himself off. “Thanks,” he said instead, his voice rough.

****

He started the conversation about ten times in his head. Sam, he said, I want to stay with them. Hey, Sam, guess what? I found a place where they want me. Sam, Sam, Sam—

Finally, Sam did it for him, which was kind of what he’d been going for all along. They’d taken a quick salt-and-burn a couple of hours away, nothing anybody needed a Slayer for, and Dean had figured it would be a chance to say things that needed saying. “Dean,” Sam said, with that special intonation that meant I Am Serious.

Dean closed the trunk and looked over at him. “Yeah?”

Sam stepped closer. “We haven’t talked about what I said to you while the Hart had me.”

Dean’s shoulders tensed up. They needed a talk, but he was pretty sure he didn’t want this talk. “Wasn’t you.”

“But it was,” Sam insisted. “It used what it got from me, just like a demon. Dean, I know you haven’t liked some of my choices, but at least I’ve made them.”

That still stung. “You think staying with Dad, staying with hunting, wasn’t a choice?”

Sam’s eyes were practically melting with sincerity, all big and hazel and slanted, just like he was when he worked a source. “I think nobody ever gave you a real chance to make a different one, because you were too busy taking care of me and Dad.”

See, if Dean were Sam, this would be the moment to point out just how insulting Sam was being: nobody had ever given Sam any more chance, but somehow Sam had enough inner strength, or whatever bullshit you wanted to call it, to strike out on his own. And yeah, Dean’d admit that it had been brave of Sam to start over, fake normal, all that. But it hadn’t been exactly relaxing to stay, either.

He sucked in a breath. “Whatever. If that’s what you think, I’ve got great news for you: I asked Buffy if I could work with her and the Slayers, and she said yes.”

It took a few seconds, but then Sam’s eyes widened and his lips parted, his whole face open with surprise.

“And she’ll take you too. Or not, it’s up to you,” Dean said, getting it out there. He’d thought up all kinds of pitches: Willow would match Sam geekout for geekout; Sam could keep saving people without living out of crappy motel rooms any more; all the obvious things. But if Sam didn’t bring them up himself, Dean saying them wouldn’t help.

If Sam was going to stay, he was going to stay for his own reasons, not because Dean begged him to and not even because they were fated to be together. Fate was a trick and a lie, and family had to be more than a trap. If Dean didn’t believe those two things then he might as well have died back with the Huntsman.

Dean opened the car door and started getting in, not least so that he wouldn’t have to watch Sam think it out. “Come on,” he called out. “You can brood about it while we’re driving back there.”

Sam spent the next few hours staring at Dean like he’d suddenly turned into Tyra Banks, or maybe a cute little kitten. Occasionally he’d say something like, “And you’re okay taking orders from a girl,” and Dean would have to push his sunglasses further up his nose and just ignore him.

“What if I say I want to keep hunting on my own?” Sam asked at last. Dean knew the question was only offered to get a rise out of him, but that didn’t make it any less effective.

He eased up on the gas. “Don’t say it unless you mean it,” he warned. He wasn’t sure what he had to back up the threat with, but he’d have no hesitation using decades of experience to make Sam miserable if Sam defied him on this.

He could feel Sam chewing at his lip, hunched over in the passenger seat, trying to figure out what was going on in Dean’s head. Actually, having Sam’s attention felt kind of good, despite the empty certainty in his chest about how this would end. “Why? Why would you ask her to take you in?”

Being asked was like getting off of gravel and onto new-poured pavement, a surge forward, a roar of freedom. “Because I don’t want to live like this if I don’t have to! It would be really sweet if the rest of the world knew what we were, called us the good guys, stood up and cheered when we rolled into town. But that ain’t gonna happen any time soon, and at least these girls understand.”

He let Sam gape at him for a bit before continuing. “I know you think I get off on being James Friggin’ Dean or whoever. And if I gotta be an outlaw, then you can bet I’ll be the coolest goddamn outlaw there is. But at the end of the day, it’s saving people that matters. If I can do that –” He stopped, because if Sam didn’t get it after that, there was really nothing left to say.

When Sam spoke, his voice was thick, almost syrupy. “Dean, I—”

He shifted in his seat and stamped down on the accelerator. “You in or out, Sam?”

Sam laughed, sounding congested. “Fuck you, you’re going to listen to this before I say yes.”

And then it wasn’t so bad to have to hear Sam go on about love and all that shit, because the road unspooled in front of the Impala and the wind was loud around him and he knew he was getting everything.


END

End notes: I didn’t really mean to revisit this crossover, but there were a couple of requests, and this is what came out.

Sadly, you will just have to imagine the cut scene where Buffy comes to the door of the room Dean’s staying in and watches Jane and June exit together, giggling, and two minutes later Ksenia leaves as well. This is, however, before Dean promises to keep his hands off Slayers, so he’s not breaking his word. Or maybe Buffy tells him she doesn’t expect him to keep hands off, and the girls make a roster so that nobody gets left out.

Beta by giandujakiss, shoofus, and counteragent, who were polite but firm. In Millennium Theater, I always hear Ani DiFranco sing “the resistance is still waiting to be organized,” but the lyrics sites say “the resistance is just waiting to be organized,” which is a much more hopeful sentiment. I wonder what it says about me that I hear the former.

The End

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