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Fic: Devil's Arcade (12/14)

ooooooooooooooo

And in between the moon and you
Angels get a better view
Of the crumbling difference between wrong and right
--Counting Crows, "Round Here"

ooooooooooooooo

When Sam finally came to, he felt like he was on fire. His left shoulder was a throbbing mass, his arms were stiff and sore from having been restrained behind him, and his head was pounding from killing the demon. The last thing he remembered was succumbing to unconsciousness on the floor of the barn. From the water-stained ceiling above him, and the threadbare brown drapes he could see out of the edges of his vision, apparently he was back at the motel. He turned his head to the side and saw Dean on the other bed, his chest regularly rising and falling, and he said a quick, silent prayer of thanks.

And then he realized someone else was watching him.

He sat up sharply, and the shabby motel room instantly began to spin. Putting one hand to his head, he fumbled under the pillow with the other, only to feel the stirrings of panic when he couldn't find Ruby's knife. He was groping around more frantically when a voice spoke from across the room.

"Sam Winchester, all is well. You are safe here."

He moved more slowly this time, raising his head to see the dark shape at the far corner of the room moving forward into the streetlight shining through the thin curtains. In the pale orange glow, he could make out Castiel's features, and he felt his shoulders relax slightly.

Then Sam realized what the angel's presence meant for him, and he stiffened again. One step out of line, Uriel had warned. And he'd taken a pretty damn big leap right over that line.

Apparently someone had come to collect.

Turning to the bed next to his, he looked at Dean sound asleep, face pinched with pain even in his slumber. "Is he okay?" Sam asked hoarsely, noting even in the dim light the ring of dark purple bruises around his brother's neck. Will he be okay without me? he wanted to ask. Can you keep him from doing anything stupid this time?

"He is alive," Castiel said, moving closer so that he stood between the twin beds. "He will recover, though he may be in pain for a few days." He spread his hands apart, and Sam had no idea that an angel could look so helpless. "I'm not exactly a doctor."

Sam swallowed, and the movement tugged at something at his throat. He reached up to feel the rough weave of a cotton gauze pad and the smooth lines of adhesive tape around it over the spot where Joe's knife had cut into his neck. Obviously Castiel knew something about patching people up, although it was odd that he had bothered with Sam at all if he was here to take him away. "But you healed Dean before," he said. "When you—when you brought him back."

The slightest quirk turned up the corner of the other man's lips. "That took assistance from a higher source."

"Oh." There wasn't much more that Sam could say than that. Dean's body had been restored by God Himself? He could just imagine the "Huh!" his brother would have given if he'd heard that. "How long have we…"

"I brought Dean here, put him to sleep, and then returned for you. You were already unconscious and have remained so for the three hours I have been here. The woman and the three men are currently receiving medical attention."

There were many parts of Castiel's straightforward statement that bothered Sam, but he latched onto one in particular. "Put him to sleep?" he asked incredulously.

The angel looked down at Dean and a shadow of what might have been regret crossed his face. "He was…reluctant to remain here while I went back for you. He was neither completely lucid nor confident that I was telling the truth about your condition."

Yeah, that sounded like Dean. Sam felt the faintest stirrings of a grin. Then he thought about the question Castiel hadn't actually answered, and his face fell again. "You knocked him out?"

"Not with a blow, no." The brown-haired man's head tilted to the side.

"What did you do to him?" Sam demanded.

"He needs to rest," came the quick reply. "And we need to talk."

Sam would have crossed his arms over his chest if he hadn't been afraid of how much it would pull on his bruised shoulder. And then there was the fact that it would make him look like a petulant teenager. Still, he put as much bravado into his voice as he could as he asked, "About what?"

"You were given a warning," Castiel began.

Lifting his chin, Sam replied, "I've been given lots of warnings." He'd also been struck down by a lightning bolt once already this week, and he wondered if this was going to feel the same way. And then where would he—

He grimaced. There wasn't really much question of where he was going after this, was there? Maybe it was a good thing Dean hadn't told him anything about Hell; he didn't really want to know what he was in for.

Castiel was going on, "And yet you choose to ignore them all. I don't know how much more plainly it can be said to you. You are pushing the boundaries so far that it is only a matter of time before they break."

Sam looked sharply at the angel, whose face was still only vaguely visible in the dim light of the room. Did that meant the boundaries had not been broken yet? "This from the guy who was willing to erase an entire town?" he muttered. When Castiel's expression darkened, he hastily added, "I didn't have a choice."

"That's what you said about Samhain," Castiel cut him off. "Sam, I know these are difficult choices you are faced with, but the answer is fairly straightforward."

He stared. "You mean it would have been better to let Dean die? To let that bitch take him back down to Hell where he can be tormented some more until you decide he's useful to you again?" He shook his head, wincing as it made his headache stronger. "No way. They can't have him back, and I don't care what it takes."

Castiel drew in a deep breath and regarded him more sternly. "What if it takes everything you have?" What if it takes your soul? was the unspoken conclusion.

Sam looked back unflinchingly. "Then that's what it takes."

Silence fell. He looked over at Dean to find him apparently unaware of the shouting match taking place above him. Whatever Castiel had done to him had knocked him out good, and he didn't know whether to be further upset for that, or grateful that at least Dean was getting some rest.

"Why do you think Dean's death would send him back to Hell?" Castiel's voice was curious, almost light in tone.

"Because you dragged him out of there," Sam replied, the unspoken Duh! not far from the surface as he laid on the sarcasm so the anger wouldn't take over. "I mean, I'm not exactly up on demon contract law, but I'm guessing that doing what you did broke whatever kind of deal he made."

"Your guess is incorrect." Castiel folded his arms across his chest. "There was no time frame specified. Dean traded his soul for your life, he went below at the specified time, and now that debt has been paid."

Sam stared at him. "Really?" he asked, his voice rising into a higher register as hope that he hadn't been aware he so desperately needed rose within him.

The angel's rumpled head bobbed once. "Really." He tilted his head forward. "Knowing that, would you still have done what you did tonight?"

There was no hesitation as Sam answered, "Yes."

Castiel sighed. "Maybe you don't understand the gravity of the situation we are in."

He let out a snort and reached out for a pillow to stuff between his aching back and the hard wooden headboard. Apparently this was going to be a long conversation. "Armageddon? Yeah, I think I get it."

Castiel's piercing blue eyes continued to rest heavily on him. Sam started to feel like he was a bug under a microscope and resisted the urge to squirm in his seat. If Dean were in his place, he'd be making some smart-ass remark about taking a picture instead.

But Sam wasn't his brother.

"I am talking about you." Castiel came a step closer. "You and these…abilities of yours."

"Why is that all anyone ever wants to talk about?" Sam muttered, that time successfully channeling Dean.

The response was straightforward, as if the answer were completely black and white. "Because you shouldn't have these powers. Having them, you shouldn't use them."

Sam snorted. "Look, you're the one who was willing to destroy a whole town to stop a demon. I don't see how that's any different than what I can do."

"I do not expect you to understand—" Castiel started, but Sam cut him off.

"Like hell you don't," he snapped back, leaning forward where he sat. "Otherwise you'd get rid of me and be done with it." Before the angel could respond, he went on, "Look, it's not what you think. It's not like I get some kick out of using them, or like I'm going on a power trip. It hurts like someone's trying to drill a hole in my head. It wears me out and makes me feel sick for days afterwards. And it makes me afraid of myself." Sam heaved in a breath and spoke words he'd never admitted to a living soul. "I'm afraid of my own head, my own body. Don't you get that?"

His words rang out in the room. Castiel let the echoes fade before taking a seat at the creaking swivel chair at the desk at the foot of the bed. "Tell me what it is that you do, and how it started." The words were delivered in a mild tone, but it was clear they were a command rather than a request.

Sam slumped back against the pillows, feeling like a balloon that had just deflated. "It's kind of hard to describe. At first I didn't know what I was doing," he muttered. Ruby had shown up later in her new body after Sam had already had a taste of what the possibilities were, which was why it hadn't taken much of anything to persuade him to become her pupil.

At the look of impatience on Castiel's face, he went on, "It started a couple of weeks after Dean was gone. I—it was the first time I'd encountered a demon since Lilith. It had possessed this teenager in Texas and at first made him do things that just seemed like a reckless teenager, you know? But then it started doing things that were definitely more…demon-like." The smashed-up car and the liquor store robbery were one thing, but the teenage girl ripped inside-out was not something your average sixteen-year-old was capable of.

"How did you hear about it?" Castiel asked.

Sam looked down at his fingers, fidgeting with the edge of the scratchy sheet. "I had been tracking omens, hoping to find Lilith. I suppose I was looking for a fight." He looked across at his sleeping brother, watching the rise and fall of his chest the way he'd done so many times since his return, watching to make sure he was really there. "And when I got there, he—he looked so much like Dean had at that age." He let out a soft snort. "Not that Dean really looks much different now than he did at sixteen, but anyway. And then when I caught up with it, it knew who I was and it started taunting me."

He could still hear the snarling voice in his head, listing all the tortures that Dean had already been subjected to, how many times his body had been torn apart and put back together, how many times he'd suffered worse agonies than any Sam had ever seen him endure, and how it was going to go on forever. He shut the door on the memory and started speaking again.

"So I lost it," he said quietly. "And then, all of a sudden, I could see the demon inside him. It was like the person had faded into the background and there was only this thing left. And I reached out towards it and I…started pulling."

A sudden movement made him look up sharply, and he realized that he had been unconsciously demonstrating his movements. His arm was outstretched towards where Castiel had been sitting a second before, his fingers partially extended, and he realized with a start that his mind had been reaching in front of him as well. "Sorry," he said, shaking his head and lowering his hand.

Castiel didn't respond, and Sam frowned as he slowly realized the angel was standing at the foot of Dean's bed. Suddenly tired of the half-dark room, Sam reached for the nightstand and flicked on the cheap motel lamp, bathing the room in a pale yellow glow. In the other bed, Dean didn't shift at all.

When Sam looked up at Castiel, who had somehow traveled six feet to his left without Sam noticing, he saw in his face traces of the same wariness he'd seen when he'd first met the angel and been rebuffed. Sam's mouth set in a grim line. Fine, he thought, be that way. You're the one who asked.

"So you exorcised this boy?" the other man asked.

Sam nodded, dropping his eyes. "He was already dead. His neck had been broken when the demon possessed him." One finger traced the faded floral pattern of the bedspread as he went on, "It wasn't until the next one that I realized I didn't know how to kill the demon without killing the person as well."

"The next one." Castiel's words were spoken carefully. "How many were there?"

"You mean you don't know?" Sam retorted, looking up sharply. "You seem to know so much about me, about my tainted blood and my demon powers." He spat the words out, but no matter how many times he said the words in his head, hearing them out loud still sent a chill through him. He had to look away at Dean, obliviously sleeping beside them. He still cares about me, he thought. He still thinks I'm worth it. Even if no one else does. The events of tonight had taught him that much, at least.

Silence fell. Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw Castiel moving, coming close enough to perch on the edge of Dean's bed. Dean rolled slightly onto his back as the mattress shifted, and Sam's throat hurt all over again at the sight of the torn skin around his neck. He swallowed and looked back at the other man, who was regarding him patiently.

Then something struck him, and he examined the angel more closely, scrunching his forehead into a frown and narrowing his eyes. He thought for a moment that it was double vision from when his head had hit the ground after he was shoved out of the pickup, but that was many hours ago.

Besides, he knew better than that.

After a moment, he said slowly, "I'm not seeing the real you, am I?"

Castiel shook his head. "You're seeing a man with no living relatives who died three months ago from inoperable cancer. In another context, you might say he willed his body to science."

Sam looked at him a moment longer, absorbing that information. This wasn't an angel in front of him after all. Well, it was, but he was possessing a human. No, it was more like he was borrowing a body from a human who didn't need it anymore, which paralleled Ruby's situation a little too closely for comfort. That explained why it looked like he could see something else sitting inside the other man's skin.

Something not unlike what he saw when he concentrated on a person possessed by a demon.

The connection slammed home in his brain, and he blinked. "That's why you're—" he bit his lip, hesitating to use the word "afraid," even if it was what he meant. "So cautious around me. What I can do, this power I have…I could do the same thing to you that I can to a demon, couldn't I?"

The single grave nod he got in response made his heart sink. Oh, God. He could—well, "exorcise" probably wasn't the right word—send an angel out of its human host and presumably back to Heaven. Sam folded an arm over his midsection and fought back a wave of queasiness. If any of them could have done this, any of the "special children" that Azazel had chosen, it would certainly make them a powerful addition to a demon army, able to vanquish the heavenly host and thus their greatest foes.

The hunters' words had been right after all. What kind of a creature was he?

"I'm afraid that's not all."

His head snapped up towards Castiel, who for the first time was looking at Sam with the kind of look he would have expected an angel to have: compassion and understanding. But instead of reassuring him, it made the knot in his stomach grow tighter. He lifted his other hand to his temple, where a pounding rhythm had begun to beat in time with his pulse. He was exhausted from the six miles they'd hiked earlier in the day, plus his battle with the demon on top of being kept awake all night. His shoulder and chest muscles ached from fighting against his restraints, and the torn skin around his wrists was joining the chorus of pain that was driving him crazy.

And yet, he knew he had no choice but to listen to what the angel had to tell him.

He licked his dry lips. "What else?" he asked in a hoarse voice that sounded as rough as the last words he had heard Dean say.

Castiel let out a sigh. "At the end, in the barn. You were reaching out towards one of those men."

"I thought they might be possessed." He hadn't really—it was all too realistic that hunters would be after him or Dean for legitimate reasons in their minds, especially given what they had witnessed in the barn. But it had made sense at least to check.

"What did you see when you looked at them?" Castiel's voice was low and intense.

Sam suddenly couldn't look away from his clear blue eyes. "I didn't see any demons. I just saw a person."

"And what did you do?"

He frowned, trying to remember. Dean's feet had barely been brushing the ground, and he himself had been losing his fight against panic as Joe appeared to have been gaining the upper hand in the struggle for the gun. It had been clear that there was no way they were going to be able to talk their way out of the situation, even if they gave the answers the men had wanted to hear. Panic had led his powers to bloom unexpectedly before; maybe it would this time as well.

"I tried to move something," he finally said, slowly. "I tried to get the gun in my hand, and when that didn't work, I tried to move the rope away from Dean's neck." And to his frustration and terror, the telekinesis from Max's house had continued to be a one-time fluke.

"And then you looked at the man attacking Dean." Castiel sounded for a moment like a defense lawyer, leading him through a prepared speech. That is, if Sam's side was the one he was defending, which wasn't entirely clear.

"Yeah, I did." That was when Sam had reached out with his mind, hoping that there was a demon inside the man that he could destroy, assuming that he could somehow find the strength within his battered body to do so. "And I saw something…but it wasn't a demon." He looked more closely at Castiel. "What was it that I saw?"

Castiel's mouth drew downwards. "You are right: it was not a demon's soul that you sensed."

Sam frowned. Did demons even have souls? But if it wasn't a demon…

"It was the hunter's soul?" he asked incredulously. "But how is that possible?"

"For what purpose were you reaching out to him?" Castiel pressed.

Sam felt like his brain was on half speed. There was something extremely important here that he simply wasn't getting. It reminded him of sitting in classes as a freshman and struggling to keep up with his classmates who'd gone to elite public and private high schools while he'd patched together an education from dozens of random schools and stolen library books. He'd felt sluggish and stupid as they raised their hands to answer the professors' questions while he needed a few more minutes to get it. Eventually he had, in fact, caught up, but that bewildering feeling of not getting something when he knew someone expected him to had bothered him excessively ever since.

But this was much more important than a question in a lecture or a final exam. What was Castiel getting at…?

Then it hit him right between the eyes, as hard as any of the blows that had landed on him last night. "Oh, my God," he gasped out, putting both hands to his stomach as the nausea returned in full force. In another situation, he'd be worried that it was a symptom of a concussion, but he knew it was simply a physical reaction to the gut-wrenching truth he'd just figured out with Castiel's prodding.

He hadn't been trying to exorcise a demon when the barn door broke down and shining white light filled the room.

He'd been trying to remove a man's soul from his body.

(Chapter 13)

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