I'm 'round the corner from anything that's real, I'm across the road from hope
I'm under the bridge in a riptide that's taken everything I call my own
--U2, "One Step Closer"
As if seeing Sam's freaky powers on display at extremely close range wasn't enough, Dean had now been treated to two follow-up revelations that told him things he had never wanted to know about what his brother thought he was capable of. Not only had he tried to make a deal, but the stakes he had played for were absolutely horrifying. And if Sam thought that agreeing to lead a demon army meant he could tell them to chase their own tails, well, he really had no clue.
Dean had seen demon armies. No amount of super-powered Sammy could possibly be enough to hold them back. The kid didn't know how to bargain, either. An offer that big better have gotten Dean alive and kicking, not just dead in a nicer location. The unknown demon he'd pitched his idea to had probably done the whole world a favor by keeping his brother from following through on such a monumentally stupid idea.
And now Sam's earlier words were coming back to haunt him, about their father putting him down. Given the seriously dark magic Sam had apparently come within a hair's-breadth of trying out, not to mention the whole demon army thing, Dean was terrified that he was finally being faced with the choice their father had laid on him.
Was this what John Winchester had meant by not being able to save his own son?
And then before Dean could ponder it any more, their captors apparently decided they'd gotten what they wanted and were ready to make an end of it. He barely had time to comprehend what was happening before Sam was on his knees with a gun at the back of his head, and then the blood froze in his veins and he knew deep down that he had already made his choice, that he would keep doing everything he could to save his brother, right to the bitter end. "What are you doing?" he choked out.
Standing ahead of him and to his left, Tom had a familiar, grim look on his face: a look Dean recognized from the times he'd killed something that used to be human but wasn't anymore. It twisted his stomach to see it directed at his brother.
Then he saw a flash of metal right in front of him, and his stomach clenched further. Apparently Harry had reclaimed his knife, and his towering height made it easy for him to reach over Dean's shoulder and hold the blade warningly before his face.
"Give me one good reason why we shouldn't do this," Tom said. "One explanation why the two of you aren't traitors to the human race."
"Dean hasn't done anything wrong," Sam said quickly, his breath coming as hard and fast as if he'd been running up the mountainside. "There's nothing supernatural about him, no reason to hunt him." He licked his lips. "Do whatever you want to me, but let him go."
"Sam, shut up!" Dean barked. "You haven't done anything wrong, either."
"Are you kidding me?" Sam cautiously turned his head sideways, mindful of how the gun moved along with him. "You saw what I just did. I can't stop it, Dean. I can't not do this thing if it means saving you, or me, or somebody else. But I'm not going to turn into one of them while I'm doing it."
"Demons lie," he snapped back, wishing Harry wasn't holding the knife right in the center of his field of vision. He'd already had more than a lifetime's worth of seeing blades at close range. "God damn it, you know that!"
"They also tell the truth." Sam visibly swallowed and gave him a meaningful look. "And you know she's not the only one who's told us that."
Dean's eyes narrowed as he thought of their angelic visitation a few weeks ago. "That's not what they meant and you know it."
"You don't know what they meant," Sam retorted. His eyes flickered up to Tom and Harry as if to remind Dean that they weren't alone. "You don't know that they weren't talking about this exact thing." He jerked his chin in the direction of the dark spot on the floor and the still-unconscious woman next to it.
Tom broke in. "Look, this is all very interesting, but—"
"Shut up!" both brothers snapped at him before turning back to each other.
"Dean, let it go." Sam's voice cracked on the last word as he stared pleadingly at him. "Remember what Dad said."
"Like hell!" Dean barked back, the fear inside him suddenly doubling in strength. Sam, don't you give up on me.
"Look, you have no idea what it's like." Sam shifted slightly, leaning towards Dean and away from the gun. "You don't know how it feels to be able to do these things," he went on, his voice curling in disgust.
Dean opened his mouth to tell Sam to shut up and not give their captors any more ammo when he noticed something. Sam was kneeling sideways from Dean's perspective, his back towards the chair he'd been tied to and his left side towards Dean. So when he started doing something with his bound wrists, Dean had a pretty clear view. A flash of metal set off a spark of hope within him. Sam must have been carrying a belt knife that he hadn't been able to get to while strapped to the chair. Now that his arms were free, it looked like he had managed to tug it out enough to make the sharp edge available for use.
Which meant there might actually be a way out of this after all.
Before the pause could grow long enough to make anyone suspicious, he plunged on, not taking the time to think about whether he meant what he was saying or not. "Sam, it doesn't mean anything. You're right, it's not the abilities, it's how you use them. You're doing a good thing, pulling demons out of people like that. So what if you don't need to chant a little Latin first."
"So what?" Harry's incredulous voice rose behind him. "So he's practically a demon himself, doing freaky shit with his mind like that."
Dean whirled around in a fury, momentarily forgetting about the knife until he found its tip pricking the underside of his jaw in front of the rope that was still wrapped around his neck. He was still angry enough to spit out, "You have no idea what you're talking about, so shut the hell up."
Harry pressed the knife upwards ever so slightly, and Dean suddenly figured maybe he'd better take it down a notch or this method of distracting everyone's attention from Sam wasn't going reap any benefits.
"My son may be exaggerating, but he has a point," Tom's voice rang out.
Dean slowly took a step back. When Harry didn't press forward, he turned sideways, keeping both father and son in his sight. "He has a crock of bullshit is what he has."
Tom shook his head and addressed Sam, whose fingers abruptly stilled. "Boy, we can understand to some extent that your survival instincts have overridden doing the right thing. You probably haven't run into too many suicidal werewolves or vampires, right?"
Thoughts of Madison sprang into Dean's head, and from the stricken expression on Sam's face, he could tell he was thinking the same thing.
"So it's not surprising that you're still alive and kicking, knowing what you know about yourself. But you." Tom turned to Dean, his voice growing sterner. "You were raised to fight evil, boy. Hunt it down and kill it, no matter what form it takes. Your daddy taught you better than that. Even if it's your own flesh and blood, if it's on the dark side, it's got to go down. And the fact that you've been standing by all this time, not doing a thing to stop this creature—" his arm swung back as he pointed to Sam—"makes you just as guilty as him."
"He is not a creature." Dean's voice was low and cold, and he was practically shaking with fury. "He's my brother. He's as human as any of us."
"You can still say that after what we all saw right here in this room?" Tom shook his head. "Maybe he used to be human. But he's not anymore. That's what we hunt, boy, all of us. Or at least some of us used to."
"There's a big fat difference between 'not human' and 'evil'," Dean retorted. "And Sam is neither one of those."
He remembered when his brother had made that same argument about supernaturals to him, before he'd even known what was coursing through his veins, back when Lenore had let Sam go and he had uselessly pled his case to leave the vampires be. There were plenty of times since then when Sam had had to take the same position when it was clear every time that he was arguing for himself as much as for the poor soul they were trying, usually unsuccessfully, to save.
There was no reason to think their captors thought any differently about him now.
"You're wrong," Joe spoke up. "You know better than that. You know."
"No, you think you know." Dean knew he had to keep their attention focused on him, but it was also good to have an opportunity to let out the anger that had been building inside of him ever since he walked into that punch in the motel room. No, actually, ever since Sam told him he had freakin' died three days ago and wasn't planning on sharing. His voice rose. "There's a whole lot more going on here than you have any clue about, so why don't you shut up and stop playing hunter."
"Dean," Sam warned, the undercurrent in his voice clear, a combination of Don't piss them off any more and Don't let anything slip about the Apocalypse.
Tom took two quick strides towards him, knocking Harry's knife aside with one hand and grabbing Dean's chin in the other, fingers digging into his cheek. "I've been a hunter since before you were born, you good-for-nothing traitor. I've killed more evil than you can possibly imagine."
Dean let out a bark of a laugh. "My imagination's pretty much unlimited at this point," he spat out. "Or are you dumb enough you've already forgotten where I've been?"
Tom's eyes narrowed further. "And yet you're still defending him," he said, shaking his head back and forth. "You know what pure evil is like better than any of us, and you're still willing to let him run loose."
"That's because I know he isn't evil." Dean pitched his raspy voice loud enough to be sure Sam could hear it, too. "And you're right, I would know better than anyone else. So leave him the hell alone."
The older man looked at him for a second more before shoving him away. "Answer me one question," he said, "and I'll think about it."
"Tom!" Joe protested from his position behind Sam. Dean saw him lower the gun a little, saw that Sam had noticed it too. Harry's knife was down at his side, and if Dean could strike out at him once Sam's hands were free, they had a shot at this.
"What is it?" Dean asked, lifting his chin, willing everyone's eyes to stay on him.
Tom looked him in the eye. "Tell me how you got out of Hell."
Dean quirked up the corner of his mouth. "If you're looking for something you can pass on to your friends, I think it was kind of a one-time-only offer."
"All right, that's it." Joe brought the gun back up to the back of Sam's head and cocked it, the sound echoing loudly in the quiet barn.
"No, wait!" Dean called, panic replacing his smart mouth. "He said he was an angel, okay?"
Sam's head shot up, and he stared accusingly at Dean. Dean made a face back that said, What else am I supposed to do?
"You're kidding me. An angel? Fluffy white wings and a halo?" Tom snorted. "I been hunting for forty years and I've never seen anything like that."
"More like prickly than fluffy," Dean muttered. Then louder he added, "Yeah, that's what he said. And since none of our wards or seals did a thing to hold him back, and something that can kill a demon didn't do squat to him, I'm thinkin' he was telling the truth."
Behind Tom, he could see that Joe had lowered his gun again, staring at Dean as if he had suddenly announced that he was really a woman and was about to perform a ballet dance for all of them. And below Joe, Sam was once more working the knife back and forth, and Dean saw a glimmer of triumph on his face as he looked back at him. Okay, here we go, he thought as Sam gave him a small nod.
"Why the hell would an angel bother with you?" Harry growled. "My mother died ten years ago, and no angel ever thought she was worth bringing back."
Dean's lips tightened. "Look, we can play the dead family game all night, if you want. I don't know." He shifted his weight as he lowered his voice and snarled, "All I know is that you're going down."
And with that he leaned back on his left leg and brought his right up in a swift kick that landed right in Tom's midsection.
The older man doubled over, and Dean smashed his knee up into his chin before spinning away from Harry, who fortunately hadn't reacted right away, considering he was still holding the silver knife.
A few feet away, he saw Sam shooting to his feet, the top of his head slamming into Joe's jaw and knocking the other man back. His hands flew out from his sides, but he retained his grip on this gun.
Dean's vision blurred for a moment as he moved away from a downward attack from the suddenly-active Harry, and he realized with a curse that the noose was still around his neck. He started fumbling with the ropes binding his wrists, painfully aware that his range of motion was going to be limited. At least Sam should be able to move around freely.
But then he realized with horror that he'd misjudged what he'd seen. Sam had cut through one strand of the ropes, but not all of them, and his hands were still trapped behind him, the small knife flashing back and forth as he tried to cut himself free before Joe recovered. "Son of a bitch," Dean muttered, dodging a swipe from Harry as he desperately fumbled with the ropes around his own wrists. If he could just get that one knot loose…
The rope gave suddenly, and he frantically pulled at a loop of it while Harry raised his arm, the knife pointing downwards. The rope slid free and he brought his hands up just as Harry's arm swung down.
One of Dean's hands grabbed the younger man's wrist, one grabbed his upper arm, and then he twisted in a direction the human elbow wasn't designed to bend. Harry let out a scream and bent forward, the knife sliding out of his hand. Dean gave him an extra shove and scooped up the knife as he shook off the rest of the ropes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tom rising to his feet, and he leaned forward, putting all of his weight into a punch that felled him once more. But the move put him off balance, making it easy for Harry to grab his shirt with one hand and hurl him to the ground.
Dean rolled, feeling the pull of the rope around his neck, trying desperately to both keep hold of the knife and not stab himself. While he was still on his back, Harry started to bend over him, leaving himself wide open.
It was an automatic reaction to reach up with the blade and bury it in the younger man's shoulder.
Harry let out a screech and toppled to the ground, Dean rolling away to avoid being crushed while simultaneously pulling the knife free. He unsteadily made his way to his feet, still clutching the knife, willing his shaky arms to stop trembling, and looked for his brother.
His throat tightened when he saw Sam and Joe struggling for the gun, Sam's arms finally free but locked in a battle with the red-haired man. They looked evenly matched, Sam's superior size undermined by his injuries and stiffness and the rope still dangling from his wrists. Someone's finger reached the trigger, and a shot echoed through the barn, thunking into one of the rafters.
Suddenly a movement caught Dean's attention, and he whirled to see Tom rising from the floor where he'd been checking on his son, who was bleeding freely onto the straw-covered concrete. "You son of a bitch!" Tom roared, advancing on him.
Dean lifted the knife as best he could given that his arms weren't really cooperating at the moment. Too late, he realized Tom wasn't headed towards him, but towards the end of the rope still sitting on the floor.
Knowing he only had seconds to act, Dean scrabbled at the rope around his neck, trying to loosen it enough that he could bring the knife up to cut it without fear of slicing his own throat. He got his fingers around it and had just started to pull when there was an almighty jerk from the other end. He cast a glance over his shoulder to see Tom, his face alight with anger, wrapping both hands around the rope.
Close to panic, Dean raised the knife and tried to saw at the rope around the back of his neck. He felt the strands start to part under the blade and worked harder, desperation rising within him.
It wasn't enough.
Another tremendous jerk lifted him off his feet, sending the knife slicing upwards into his scalp as the rope started to cut off his air. He had enough presence of mind to drop the knife and tug at the rope with both hands, becoming more frantic when it became apparent his dead weight was counterbalancing his efforts. His view of the barn was becoming infected with blurry black spots, and then his peripheral vision started to go.
"Dean!" The terror in Sam's voice matched what he had heard when the hellhounds had been shredding his flesh, and the memory of the horror and inevitability of that moment overwhelmed him like Sam had earlier been overcome by the lightning flash. He tried to pull harder, but his muscles were losing their strength, and even the need ingrained in his very bones to fight for Sam's sake was ebbing away as his lungs remained empty.
He dimly saw Sam turn towards Tom, reaching out his hand, but without a gun or any kind of weapon in it. Fat lot of good that's going to do, he thought to himself. Not like this guy's possessed.
Then, just as he was sliding into unconsciousness, a blinding white light filled the room. Huh, this isn't how it happened last time, he thought, confused, a spark of hope blooming within him, even if it was too late. Maybe I'm headed in the other direction?
Dean used the last of his waning energy to drag his eyelids open. For a disorienting second, he thought another thunderstorm had started up, given the way the wind was howling, but then he realized the light was coming from the wide-open barn doors. A figure stood silhouetted in the light, arms outflung. In another second, Dean's eyes slid shut again, but not before he saw something that made him question whether it was really arms that he had seen outlined against the light.
Something settled underneath his feet, and the relief from the pressure on his neck was so great that he almost passed out anyway. He stood there for a moment, gasping for air, feeling precious oxygen slide down his throat and into his lungs, before opening his eyes again.
He realized he was standing on the chair he had earlier been tied to, though he had no idea how it had gotten under his feet. Dean had to lift a shaky hand to shield his gaze from the light, but there was too much of it filling the barn for him to make out much of anything. He turned his head and saw Harry as a crumpled heap on the floor. Behind him, Tom was frozen in place, jaw open, hands still wrapped around the rope.
Forcing his fingers to curl around the rope at his neck, Dean finally pulled it away, wresting it over his head and tossing the noose onto the floor in disgust. The cold wind sailing through the barn hit the open scratches on his neck, and he grimaced as he jumped down from the chair.
Sam was lying on the ground, cautiously raising himself up, eyes squinted against the white light that was filling the room. Joe was on the ground behind him, dazed but stirring, gun still in his outstretched hand but pointing off into the back corner of the barn. As he watched, Sam pulled the last of the ropes free and turned around to reach for the gun.
"No!" came a roar from behind him. Dean spun around to see Tom charging him, a knife in his upraised hand, his eyes wild with hate and anger. Dean started backing away, wishing that Harry's knife was still in his hands. Then he tripped and fell over the noose he'd dropped earlier, sending him crashing hard to the ground. Tom was looming over him…
…and then he wasn't.
"Shut your eyes, Dean," a familiar voice suddenly murmured in his ear. His soldier's instincts took over, and he slammed his eyes closed before it had fully registered whose voice it was.
When recognition set in, combined with the vision of wings at the barn door, it took every remaining shred of willpower to obey and not open his eyes to look at Sam. He couldn't even shout out a warning or a command of his own with his damaged throat. All he could do was sit there like frickin' Indiana Jones while a gusty wind swirled around him and white light shone, bright enough to burn his eyeballs.
In front of him, Dean heard the thump of a body hitting the floor, and he lifted his hand to clamp over his eyes. He wasn't keen on having his vision burnt out, but damn if this wasn't the hardest thing he'd had to do all night. Another gust of wind buffeted him, and he bent double against it as he staggered to his feet, bracing himself for whatever might come next. He strained his ears, but all he could hear was the howling of the wind.
Then everything went silent.
A touch on his arm sent him leaping about a foot in the air, and he hoped to hell that Sam hadn't seen him jump like a girl. "It is safe now," said Castiel's calm voice. "You can open your eyes."
Dean obeyed to see that he and the angel were the only ones still standing, although in his case, he was pretty sure it was by sheer willpower alone. His gaze swept quickly around the room, seeing all three of their captors out cold on the floor.
Then he saw Sam, sprawled on his back, fresh blood staining his upper lip, and his heart sank.
"Sam!" he croaked and started forward. But his legs suddenly gave out on him, and he collapsed onto the concrete floor, cursing at how his body was so damn weak as to betray him like this, after a day of being bashed against rocks before being strangled by a demon and hung from his neck.
When he managed to lift his head, fighting against the pain radiating from every muscle in his body, Castiel was moving forward, kneeling beside his brother and reaching out to touch his forehead. For a moment, Dean wondered if the angel had some special magical healing ability, and if so, why hadn't he used it on Dean, considering the condition he was in? Fear rose up in his throat. What was wrong with Sam?
Then suddenly, Dean remembered the last time they'd spoken to the angels and the threats Uriel had made to Sam, and his fear intensified. What if Castiel wasn't here to help his brother? What if he was here to take him away for the demonic powers he'd been forced to use in order to save Dean? "Get your hands off him," he hoarsely demanded.
Castiel said something that Dean couldn't make out through the roaring in his ears. Sam stirred slightly under the angel's touch and then went completely still.
"God damn it, don't you touch him!" Dean cried, fighting to hold onto consciousness, barely able to hear his own words between the hoarseness of his voice and his own fading senses. "He didn't have a choice. Damn it, Cass," he went on, his voice dropping lower and lower. "Please…"
The last thing Dean saw was the grim set of the angel's expression as he looked over his shoulder, and despair followed him down into darkness.