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Saving people, hunting things: Sam had never been one hundred percent about all that, but sometimes, the way Dean talked about it, he sort of thought his brother had a point. It did seem like a very Winchester thing, a way to make their lost childhoods make sense, to use their family tragedy for the good. It was something they needed now more than ever, when everything else in the world was literally going to Hell.

Yet, that all sounded a whole lot better when it wasn’t one in the morning and they were just now finishing the hunt.

It hadn’t been a complicated hunt in a technical sense. After all, if you’ve torched one angry spirit, you basically know the drill. Work fast, dodge faster, and keep the lighter handy.

Still, this one had been a mess from the beginning. Of course it had to be a former art teacher haunting her old classroom--just to make things fun. Instead of throwing simple things like silverware or tree branches, she opted for cans of paint and slabs of clay. That made it a bit safer in some ways, but a whole lot messier.

And then, as if to make things just a little more interesting, she’d remembered that painting with blood was a lot more fun than watercolors.

So after she’d trashed the place, she’d tried to kill them in earnest. Sam didn’t like to admit just how close she’d come, either. Dean had come dangerously close to fitting into a hot kiln, and while his brother would like to joke that was because he was "just plain smokin’," Sam doubted it would really be the best option for either of them.

The problem had been the painting, of course. The one the angry art teacher had left behind, the one she’d been working on when the janitor had killed her all those years ago. Finding the right one had been tricky, and Sam had almost set fire to the sixth grade’s entire charcoal originals just to get the deed done before Dean was returned to him extra crispy.

Even Sam, though, had to admit the kill was always a bit of an adrenaline rush. All that blood pumping, heart pounding--it was a heady sort of thing.

In contrast, the clean up was way more of a buzz kill than Sam ever wanted to remember.

Worse yet, this was a public school. They couldn’t leave it a total mess without causing too much trouble. Sam wouldn’t leave that kind of evidence around; it was just too risky. Too many finger prints, too many questions, too many everything. But after scrubbing the floors on his hands and knees, he was starting to seriously reconsider the whole Winchester family motto.

By the time they finally reached the Impala, Sam was sore and tired, and just plain ready to be done. A night off was in order. Maybe two. Hell, maybe an entire week.

Crashing onto the passenger’s seat, Sam leaned his head back, letting his eyes close. “I could so use a good night’s sleep right now,” he said. “You know, some place with nice beds and really fluffy pillows.”

Dean fell heavily in the driver’s seat. “And maybe soft sheets,” he suggested. “Those Egyptian Cotton ones.”

Sam nodded, smiling at the thought. “And king sized beds,” he said. He rolled his head toward his brother, opening his eyes. “Just for one night.”

Dean shrugged half heartedly. “It is a nice thought, Sammy,” he said. “But you know what a nicer thought is? Not getting arrested. We need to put some serious miles between us and this scene. People have seen us all over town. Even if they can’t come up with a print to match, they’re going to suspect that we’re responsible for the little mess back there.”

Sam groaned, rolling his head back and scrunching his eyes shut. “Come on,” he whined. “Just one night?”

“ Do you want to be brought in for questioning for breaking and entering?” Dean challenged. “You know you suck at lying under pressure. You always fall for that good cop, bad cop crap.”

Sam scowled; his brother clearly did not remember his stony silence in custody back in Boston. “I do not.”

“I’m just saying, it’s not going to be long before someone comes across that scene we left.”

Sam looked Dean again, his frustration mounting. “We cleaned it,” he complained. “Or did you forget the extra two hours we just spent in there wiping things off and mopping the floor? I promise, that place has never been cleaner.”

“So you’re ignoring the fact that we broke the kiln and had to throw away over half the clay supply. Oh and ruined an impressive collection of molded animals.”

Valid points, maybe. But sometimes Sam was tired of being responsible. “One night,” he pleaded, almost begged.

Dean shook his head, a playfully malicious gleam in his eyes. Truth be told, usually their positions were reversed, and Sam knew his brother well enough to know that the sadistic big brother in Dean was enjoying this far too much. “And did you forget how bad you look in orange?” Dean asked. He shook his head with a small laugh. “Seriously, man, washed you right out. And do not even get me started on how unflattering a one piece is on you.”

Sam brought his eyebrows together crossly. “Oh, and you really looked that great.”

Dean’s shrug was confident and undeterred. “Hey, it’s not my fault I have a complexion that goes with everything,” he said. “Good genes you know. Not your fault they skipped you somehow. I always did suspect you were some kind of mutant.”

Sam rolled his eyes. His big brother had an answer for everything. Always had, and always would. That was just Dean. Perfectly cocky, unswervingly confident. The crappy part was? That Dean was right about it all far too often.

Really, if Sam were honest, that was part of what he loved about his brother. One of the only things that helped him keep going. When everything else was falling apart, his brother was still there, and, more importantly, he was still Dean. They’d almost lost that--they’d almost lost each other and themselves--and sometimes Sam worried they didn’t have it back quite yet, or worse, that they never would get it back.

But after nights like this? In conversations like these? There was a solace that nothing could match. No matter how bad things got, they still had each other. They could count on that. Saving people, hunting things--the family business. It still meant something because they made it mean something. For the first time in a long time--too long--it really seemed to be clicking.

Especially considering the way the last few weeks had gone. Dean had assured him countless times that the hunters had been wrong, that Sam wasn’t evil, but it was hard to shake. It was just another confirmation of what Sam had always doubted, what Alastair had shown him during his demonic mind trip. Sam just couldn't help but think maybe there was something inside him, something dark. It was the reason Bob always looked at him funny, the reason the hunters came after him, the reason Azazel had picked him all those years ago.

Sometimes it was hard to believe Dean’s version of it all: that Sam was a freaky little bitch and out of his mind weird, but as safe and sane as they came.

So hunts like this? Moments like these? Went a long way to help restore the tainted trust Sam had in himself. Sometimes Sam felt like his strongest connection to humanity was Dean and Dean alone, so as long as they were hunting together, Sam could believe he was on the good side after all.

That didn’t change the fact that Sam was bone tired. Or the fact that as the little brother, sometimes it was just Sam’s job to be petulant.

With a sigh, he rolled his head back toward the ceiling, closing his eyes. “Well, fine,” he muttered. “But if you want to blow town, then you can drive.”

Dean grunted from behind the wheel, keys jangling as he slid them into the ignition. “Gee, thanks, Sammy.” His sarcasm was evident even in Sam’s exhausted mind.

“You don’t like me driving anyway,” Sam groused.

“ Because you wrecked the car,” Dean snapped back.

And if Sam had to play the petulant little brother, Dean had to be the domineering know all of a big brother. That was just the way it worked, and when it was working, it was really working. Sam’s annoyance flared up despite himself and he sat up to glare. “You’re still going to bring that up?” After everything that had been going on with Alastair and Dad and angels, Sam really would have thought they’d be past that fun memory by now.

“You’re the one whining about not being able to drive,” Dean pointed out, far too nonchalantly.

Sam’s glower deepened, his bangs almost falling over his eyes. “I’m not whining.”

Dean gave him a bland look. “Do we need to get a tape recorder? I think I’ve got one in the trunk.”

Sam frowned. Okay, so maybe he was whining--a little. But it wasn’t his fault. Being treated like a younger brother made him act like a younger brother. Four or twenty-four, Dean’s needling always got him the same way. The beautiful Winchester dysfunctional functionality.

So it wasn’t exactly what Dean had in mind when he talked about the family business, but at this point, to Sam, it was all about the same.

“Fine,” Sam shot back, keeping with the rhythm. “So do you want me to drive?”

“I thought you wanted to sleep, princess.”

Being belittled was one thing; the girl references were another. Sam would show no mercy. “So you don’t trust me to drive.”

It was Dean’s turn to groan, lifting his eyes to the ceiling as if in supplication. “Whatever,” Dean said with exasperation that was almost genuine. “If you don’t want to drive, that’s fine.”

Sam shrugged. “I never said that.”

Dean plied him with an angry look. “Yes, you did.”

Sam sensed victory, or at least something very close. “So give me the keys.”

Dean sat back, his jaw set. “No.”

Sam held his ground. He wasn’t sure what they were arguing about, but he did know that he really wanted to win. “Yes.”

Dean’s eyes narrowed, his lips pursing together with a steady determination. “No.”

“ Maybe you should give me the keys,” a third voice cut in. The tone was sudden, airy and out of nowhere, unnervingly easygoing for something that should not be there.

Sam startled, hands grappling for his gun, which was still tucked hastily in his coat. He’d never been one for surprises, especially ones that showed up in the car when he was not at his peak. Things like that could get someone killed, and Sam had had enough of life of death situations recently--for himself, and especially for Dean. He would not lose his brother. Not after all this.

Sam fumbled with his gun just for a moment longer, before leveling it toward the back seat. Dean beat him to it, though. The knife off his belt was in his hand, poised with the blade outward and ready to strike at the new figure in the back seat.

It wasn’t until then that Sam realized that his fears were misplaced. Sitting in the back, under the aim of Sam’s gun and the path of Dean’s blade, was none other than Bob Marvin, their personal angel extraordinaire.

Dean cursed.

Sam breathed heavily, trying to will his heart to slow down.

“Boys, I’m flattered,” Bob said with his lips quirked into a smile. “Though a simple hello probably would have done the trick.”

Sam put his gun down first, rubbing a hand over his face. As comforting as bantering with his brother had been, Bob’s intrusion was just another reminder that it wasn’t that easy. “You shouldn’t do that,” Sam said.

Almost reluctantly, Dean sheathed the knife, keeping a wary eye on their visitor. “Not unless you want to end up minced.”

“ You think it’s possible that you two are spun just a little too tightly?” Bob mused conversationally, crossing his legs and throwing one arm over the seat.

Dean laughed incredulously. “Can you blame us, dude?”

Bob seemed to consider that, nodding, completely nonplussed. “That’s probably a good point.”

“You think?” Dean said sarcastically.

“What are you doing here?” Sam asked, too tired to deal with the small talk now. Playing the game with his brother was one thing; sitting around and making chitchat with an angel was really another, no matter how many times he'd saved their lives.

Bob shrugged. “You told me to stop by.”

Sam closed his eyes for a moment, trying to regain his composure.

Dean was not so self restrained. “It’s called a phone,” he snapped. “You know, hand held device? Lots of buttons? They’re super popular these days.”

Sam would probably agree, but he did have to admit, the angel had never exactly been...conventional. Of course, all that made it particularly difficult to adequately gauge Bob. Sam did know this: he trusted Bob, more or less. In everything, Bob had helped them, even saved their lives. With the apocalypse coming, a little divine intervention surely seemed like a good thing. In so many ways, Bob was the best ally they could have in a world that was increasingly hard up on friends.

Except Bob wasn’t exactly what Sam had envisioned when he thought of angels. He wasn’t the Hallmark version with wings and a halo, but he also wasn’t the fierce warrior Sam had sometimes fancied. He was...Bob Marvin. He’d picked an earthly name from two important singers from completely disparate musical genres. He wore REM t-shirts and fretted over his appearance. He seemed to want Sam’s help, but never quite seemed to like him.

More than that, Bob knew more than he was letting on. For every piece of information he told them, he kept two more back. It was like being a kid on the need to know all over again. That hadn't work out so well the first time around for Sam. It was hard to trust that this time it was going to be much different.

Bob just rolled his eyes, unaware of Sam's doubts. He dropped his hand from the seat back with a flourish. “For some reason cellular companies just don’t accept heavenly payment plans. Believe me, I tried. Until then, the pop and go style of communication is it for you two lucky guys. Of course, if you'd just let me use the old noggin, we wouldn't have to deal with this at all.”

"I told you, stay out of my head unless it's an emergency," Dean told him shortly, his face pinched.

Bob gave them an innocent look. "When it's the Apocalypse, isn't it always an emergency?"

Before his head exploded, Sam cut in. “So you're here about something important, and not just to torment us,” he surmised.

Bob’s expression darkened, the humor fading. “I am.”

“Not that you would ever start off by telling us that,” Dean muttered, shaking his head and looking out the windshield.

“You’re the one still talking about nonsense, not me,” Bob reminded him with a huff, crossing his arms in indignation.

“ The reason, Bob,” Sam interjected, with a purposeful glance at his brother. "Tell us why you're here."

Dean just shrugged.

With a lingering look of moderate annoyance, Bob continued, “I believe I have a case that you really should check out.”

“You believe?” Dean's tone was skeptical.

“Believe, was ordered to get you on board,” Bob said with a noncommittal frown. He uncrossed his arms, waving his fingers lightly in the air. “I’ve heard it both ways.”

“What kind of case?” Sam persisted, choosing to ignore the concept of the angel hierarchy for the time being.

“What other kind of case is there?” Bob echoed. “As I keep telling you, we’re in the middle of the Apocalypse here. I’m not sure why you two keep heading off on these smaller cases to begin with.”

“How about because you won’t tell us enough to do anything else?” Dean queried pointedly.

“Ah, point taken.” Bob smiled grandly, wagging one finger in the air. “Which is why I’m telling you now.”

The excessive roundabout made Sam remember why hunting with his brother was that good. He and Dean didn’t waste time; they didn’t need to. They knew each other well enough to avoid it. “So, what, it’s a seal?” Sam asked, his voice hard, trying to ignore the throbbing in his ears.

“Of course,” Bob said readily. “There is a lot of talk out there about demons rallying to knock off another one. This time, it will unleash a great pestilence on the land.” Bob finished with a dramatic wave of his hands, his words careful and enunciated, as if he were reciting it.

Dean smiled banally. “Wow, the excessive use of Biblical language really doesn’t make me want to go after this at all.”

Bob did not miss a beat. “It’s hard to jazz up the apocalypse in modern language. Trust me, I’ve tried. It comes out like a cross between Stephen King and Harry Potter. Gory details with a fantastical magical backdrop.”

“Have you even read Stephen King?” Dean challenged.

“Have you even read Harry Potter?” Bob returned.

“I’ve read both,” Sam growled, the throbbing building to a full blown headache. “But unless either one of them will help us with this seal, I really would rather not waste time talking about them now.”

Bob raised his eyebrows.

Dean gave an apologetic look. “He gets pissy after a long hunt.”

“Clearly,” Bob said.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, rubbing between his eyes ineffectually. “The hunt, Bob,” he forced out through a clenched jaw. He opened his eyes and glared. “The hunt.”

“Yes, yes,” Bob said, as if remembering what he wanted to talk about. “We’re picking up increasing amounts of demonic activity around a farm outside of Broken Bow, Nebraska.”

“So maybe they’re planning a party,” Dean suggested.

Bob nodded. “It’s quite a party. Heavy on the meat.”

“Animal deaths?” Sam questioned.

“In excess,” Bob confirmed. “All the livestock within a mile radius have turned up dead. The radius is growing.”

“Demons often fry the local livestock,” Dean said. “What makes you so sure this is a seal?”

“The sheer volume,” Bob answered. “Demons enjoy death and destruction, but killing livestock is not necessarily their idea of a good time. It’s usually necessary, though.”

“Most rituals require animal blood,” Sam said, his tired mind trying to keep up with the information.

“And the amount suggests that what they’re planning is huge,” Bob agreed.

Dean shook his head. “So I don’t really understand these seals,” he said. “Sometimes we can stop them, sometimes we can’t. How are they even in place?”

Bob gave a vague shrug. “The seals were set up to protect the earth, but there’s only so much we can do to keep them in place. When they start falling, they really start falling.”

Dean's expression scrunched a bit, and he adjusted himself to look more easily at Bob. “Seems like kind of a crap ass security system,” Dean critiqued.

Bob sighed, almost as if Dean's assertion were too far below him to bother with. “Any one could fall at any time,” he explained airily. “But when they all fall in rapid succession, one right after the other, then it’s sort of like setting up a chess board, moving all the pieces in place. Checkmate can be stopped at any time, but the more and more that slip by, the less likely it is.”

“So you’re trying to tip the board in your favor,” Sam surmised.

Bob nodded. “More or less.”

“Fantastic,” Dean said, his lips pursed in frustration. “But why us? You still haven’t told us how we fit in with all of this. Why not go stop this seal yourself?”

Bob looked uncomfortable, his eyes going to his hands. “You two are very important,” Bob told them, glancing at them again.

“Right because I’ve got angel radio in my head and Sam’s got demon fans all over the world,” Dean commented wryly.

Sam flinched, swallowing hard. Demon fans was a bit of an understatement given Azazel’s meddling in his life. From his six month birthday to Jessica’s death to his unnatural resurrection. But that still didn’t tell them why.

“Those are part of the reason,” Bob agreed with a slow nod. He bit his lip for a second before continuing. “But you just have to trust me when I say it’s a whole lot more than that.”

“We’re not so good with the blind trust thing these days,” Dean said. His smile was forced. “We’ve had some kind of rough times with it.”

Considering their dad, considering Alastair, considering all of it--rough didn’t really begin to describe it. Sam shook his head. “Can’t you tell us why we’re so important?” he asked.

Bob grinned, his hesitations melting away. “Because you are both so very awesome.”

“Bob, come on,” Dean said with a hint of exasperation. “We’ve been good. We’ve done your little hunts, we’ve done them your way. We deserve answers before we keep throwing ourselves out there for you.”

“It is not my place to say,” Bob replied evasively, situating himself primly on the seat. “You both have special destinies, ones that are closely intertwined. I can tell you that Heaven is very aware of everything you do.”

Sam sighed. Dean groaned, turning himself back to face forehead. “That’s not what we want to hear.”

Bob’s smile was wide and brilliant. “Remember, Dean, Sam. You can’t always get what you want.”

Dean's forehead wrinkled in disbelief, looking back over his shoulder at the angel. “You go from quoting scripture to throwing the Stone at me, man?” he accused.

Bob nodded quite seriously. “Very insightful, the Rolling Stones. No wonder they have transcended multiple decades and numerous ethereal planes.”

Sam was simply not amused. It had been too long of a night. The hunt had been too close, the clean up had been too extensive. His head hurt and he wanted to sleep, and he was just tired of the endless runaround. From Dad, from Alastair, from Bob. From all of them. “So what can you tell us?” he asked in utter exasperation.

Bob was pensive for a minute. “Well, if you try sometimes...”

Dean groaned again, rubbing a weary hand over his face, keeping his gaze forward. “Yeah, yeah, you might just get what you need.”

Sam was too frustrated to even bother speaking. He had expected God’s mysterious ways, but this? Was crap.

Bob gave them a Cheshire Cat grin. “You got it.” And then he was gone.


It took two days to get to Broken Bow.

Driving long distances, spending hours on end in the confines of the Impala’s front seat--those things were kind of par for the course, but that really didn’t make them any easier. Or particularly pleasant.

It probably didn’t help that Sam had sulked the whole way.

The kid did have some reason, Dean supposed. It really didn’t look comfortable to be a gigantic freak of nature squeezed into a car that was made for someone half his size. Apparently, cool was not something that came in freakishly large back in the 60s.

As it was, the kid was sprawled out as best he could on the seat, head lolled back and mouth open. Sam's legs were practically squashed against his chest as Dean flicked on his blinker to turn toward town.

Sam snuffled in his sleep, trying to shift, but his legs hit the dash and he curled up again with a pathetic mewl.

Dean rolled his eyes. Even asleep, Sam would try to play the little brother card. It would be more effective had Sam taken more turns while driving, but between Sam’s fits of complaining and his pouting sessions, the kid hadn’t really gotten around to it.

With a playful slug, Dean jarred his brother. “Rise and shine, sleepyhead.”

Sam came to with a snort, flailing a bit before groaning and letting his head flop back down. “You’re a jerk,” he murmured, closing his eyes again.

“And you’re a bitch,” Dean shot back pleasantly. “But we’re pulling into town and I thought you might want to go over the details before we pull onto some farm and get ourselves killed.”

Sam frowned, looking at the ceiling. “We would be better off getting a good night’s sleep first.”

“Oh, gee, really, Sam?” Dean asked pointedly. “Then you should be good to go since I drove ninety percent of the way.”

Sam sat up. “Sixty percent, tops.”

“Eighty, no question.”

Sam harrumphed, but didn’t disagree. He sat there for a moment, blinking in the sunlight. “So, you sure you’re up to this?”

Dean stopped at a stoplight, looking around the streets. Typical small town America. Midwest, through and through. It was quiet, maybe a bit quaint. Pretty boring. Hardly the place where the next seal of the Apocalypse was going to break. “What’s not to be up to?” Dean asked, shrugging. “It’s a bunch of demons. We round them up, exorcise their sorry asses and move on with saving the world.”

Sam did not look particularly convinced. “I just wish Bob had told us a little more information. I mean, how many demons are we talking about here? How soon are they planning on breaking the seal?”

“Well, there are a lot of things I wish Bob would do,” Dean muttered. “But that’s why we’re hunters.”

“Because we like to go on suicide missions?” Sam asked.

“ Because we can research,” Dean countered. He raised an eyebrow at Sam. “Or have you forgotten that you’re my resident geekboy?”

Sam glared. “I’m just tired of feeling like I’m walking into things blind,” he grumbled.

Dean held back a shudder. He wasn’t so big on it himself. The last time they’d walked in with someone else’s intel, they’d wound up in Alastair’s clutches.

But what were they supposed to do? This was a freakin’ angel of the Lord. They were trying to stop the Apocalypse. In a long list of failures in Dean’s life, this was one he still had going for him. And his best bet of doing that, whether he liked it or not, was their resident metrosexual angel. Bob didn’t always give out all the details, but the angel had always seemed on the up and up, even if he did have a strange taste in cultural phenomena. That meant as far as stopping the Apocalypse went, Bob had to be counted as a reliable source.

Spotting a motel, Dean put on his blinker, turning easily into the lot. He put the car in park and sighed, sitting in the seat for a moment. “Bob hasn’t screwed us up yet,” Dean said, then sighed. “I don’t know. Seems like we could use the ally.”

Sam nodded, chewing his lip for a moment. “Then I guess we better hurry this up, huh?”

Dean looked at his brother, and had to smile. Sam had his doubts, but the kid knew when to pull it together. “That’s the spirit,” he said, clapping Sam on the shoulder. “Besides, I think by now we’ve probably had our fill of surprises. What more could there possibly be to know about Sam and Dean Winchester?”

Sam laughed. “I’m not sure I want to know."

Dean opened the car door, stepping out. “As far as I’m concerned, we don’t ever have to,” he said with finality. He looked to the motel office, cracking his neck decisively. When he looked at Sam again, his face was all business. “Once I get a room, we’ll get our stuff together and head out.”

“Sounds good,” Sam said unenthusiastically, but the kid was clearly trying.

Dean shut the door, tapping the roof once to rally himself, before heading inside. Besides, it wasn’t so much a question of trusting Bob. It was the consequence of not trusting him that worried Dean. The risks were big--huge--and if they had any hope of coming out on the other side, they would need any help they could get.

And if it had to come with pedicured wings, then Dean would take it.


Bob had been right about the omens. With a little research, they’d uncovered a bazillion more. Lightning storms, crop failures, the whole nine yards.

Finding the farm hadn’t been difficult. Looking at the incidents, there was only one farm smack in the middle, undoubtedly where their unfriendly contingent of demons was holed up.

Sam had wanted to do a little asking around first, but Dean was tired of the small talk. What they really needed was hard intel on how many demons they were looking at, and that wasn’t something that the waitress down at the diner could help them with.

No, that required some field work. A nice stint of reconnaissance.

Sam had reluctantly agreed and had even found them the perfect spot to get started: a smaller property, about a half mile from the point of origin. Once they'd narrowed in the centralized location of where their demons were probably holed up, finding a place just shy of that had been their next tactical move. Sam’s research had found that it was occupied, but had a nice selection of out buildings, including a barn with a view of the farm in question. All in all, it wasn’t a bad plan.

Drive in, hide the car, fortify the barn and stake it out. They might have to come up with some clever lies to get the folks that lived there to vacate, but that stuff was the easy part. Prepping themselves for a showdown was going to be the trick. But, from the barn, they could get a better sense of the demons hanging around and what activities they were up to, which could help them better plan their attack. Demons in groups were damn tricky things, and Dean didn’t intend on getting caught by them again anytime soon. He’d had enough torture for one lifetime. Hell, for two or three lifetimes.

So this plan worked for him. Nice and safe. Measured. Dean did fancy himself to be a maverick from time to time, but occasionally it paid to stay the damn course and spare himself the risk.

Sam fiddled with the map in the passenger’s seat. Dean shook his head. “I don’t think we’re going to need that.”

Sam squinted at it, using a flashlight to illuminate it in the dark. “I’d rather not end up in Kansas,” he said.

“Well, I think if we just follow the signs, we’re going to be just fine.”

Sam looked up. “What signs...?” The question died on his lips. “Oh.”

Oh. Out the windows, even in the fading daylight, the evidence of demonic activity was stronger than anything Dean had ever seen before. The plant life was dead--not just some of it, but all of it. The grass in the ditch was wilted, the flowers bent over in half. The crops were starved, browned and shriveled in the fields.

Even the air seemed dead. Like a vacuum, sucked dry and supernaturally still. The faint tinge of sulfur was evident, even through the closed windows.

Sam swore. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” he asked.

Dean couldn’t help but snort in disbelief. “It’s the friggin’ Apocalypse, Sam. What do you think?”

Sam wet his lips, pressing them shut.

It wasn’t like there was anything to say, anyway. They’d seen some weird stuff, especially in the recent months, but seeing it like this, seeing what the world could be if the demons won...

Well, it gave Bob a hell of a lot more credibility.

If this was the demonic power before the seal was broken, Dean didn’t know what to know what they could pull off if they really did harness the power of Hell.

After everything that had happened to him, Dean liked to think he’d be ready for just about anything the Apocalypse threw at him, but the total stillness, the utter lack of life was a harsh lesson to the contrary.

Feeling numb, Dean pulled the car off early, leaving it hidden as best he could behind an outcropping of dead trees. Wordlessly, he and Sam unloaded.

Outside, the stillness was even more oppressive. The air itself seemed laden with it, and each breath was work to push out.

Together, he and Sam headed out. Their chosen barn was within visual distance. Dean had expected to be in stealth mode by this time, but now that he was there, he could see there wasn't any need.

Because there wasn’t anyone around--anywhere. There wasn’t even a sound--not a bird, not a cricket, nothing. Even the flies were dead on the ground as they approached.

They walked carefully, and Dean was too aware of the sound his boots made on the gravel. Sam kept to his back, shifting from side to side, as if trying to discern some threat.

But there wasn’t a threat.

There was just nothing.

Dean was more than a little relieved when they reached their destination.

Meeting Sam's eyes, he nodded at his brother to take the other side of the door to scope the place out. The barn's position was even better than Dean had anticipated, and without trees in the way, they’d have a clear view, for whatever that was worth.

Sam gave a slight inclination of his head when he was in place, bringing his gun up, holding it ready.

Dean gritted his teeth, moving the latch slowly, carefully.

There was a small screech of metal that made Dean’s heart skip a beat. He paused for a long moment, swallowing hard, before continuing to open the door.

It swung open easily. Dean slipped inside, Sam right behind him. Dean fanned right and Sam took left, sweeping their guns in smooth motions.

They both saw the figure at the same time.

At the far end of the barn, was a man. Tall, darkly dressed, with his back to them. He was moving, his arms going up and down in fast, clean movements.

At first, Dean thought maybe it was a civilian. The landowner maybe. A demon would have been all over them by now.

Sam took a step closer, his gun lowering. He swallowed convulsively. “Dad?” His voice grated and threatened to break.

As soon as Sam said it, Dean knew his brother was right. Slowly, John turned to them, his hands purposefully at his sides, leaving himself completely open. He was looking at them with large, black eyes and a sympathetic smile on his face.

Dean swore. As if they hadn’t been through enough lately. This was not something he was ready to deal with. Stopping the Apocalypse was hard enough; doing it when his dad was at the helm was a damn near impossibility.

Next to him, Sam seemed frozen. Apparently, his kid brother wasn’t handling this much better than he was.

And why the hell should they? Their father had come back from the dead with black eyes and a psychotically inconsistent personality. From teaming up with the Yellow Eyed Demon who started this, to trying to kill them, to finally playing the hero and saving their lives, Dean was having a hell of a time keeping up with his feelings regarding his old man these days. His dad was a demon, or a part demon anyway. Dean would be stupid to trust him, all things considered. It just wasn’t their dad.

Except sometimes it was.

Because Dean wouldn’t say it--couldn’t say it--but he remembered his father’s presence at the warehouse in Georgia. Remembered his father’s gentle hands and reassuring eyes. Remembered his warm, familiar voice telling him that everything would be okay.

Do you trust me, Dean?

Dean hadn’t been in a position to say no then, and he wasn’t in a position to say yes now.

To make it even more frustrating, their old man was smiling.

Another planned meeting no doubt. Dean had known his father well, and figuring out the planning and tactical maneuvering of the demon variation wasn’t that much harder. John being here was no accident.

“Sam, Dean,” John said, and there was something strange in his voice. “It’s...good to see you.”

Dean spared a moment to look at his brother. Sam still wasn’t moving, a mix of wonder and terror on his face. Though Sam had agreed that there was still something good in their father that was worth fighting for, Dean knew his brother didn’t remember his father’s interference at the warehouse. He’d been too out of it at that point to be aware of anything.

Cautiously, Dean nodded, working to find his voice. “Hey, Dad,” he managed finally, keeping his disposition tempered. He wasn’t sure what version of his father they were dealing with yet: the maniacal murderer or the ennobled father. “Fancy meeting you here.”

John glanced vaguely over his shoulder, and for the first time, Dean saw that there were markings there. A lot of them. Scrawled in blood and chalk, stretching intricately across the wood planks. “It’s unfortunate what’s happening here,” he said. He looked back at them, his eyes clear and brown. “But unavoidable.”

Dean’s fingers twitched, keeping his gun trained on the older man. “So you are here to break the seal?”

“No,” John said. “I mean, maybe sometime, but the seal is not at risk. Not here. Not yet.”

“So, wait, this is all a hoax?” Dean demanded. “You planned all the omens and signs just to make us think there was a seal?”

John looked positively proud. “I knew you’d come for a seal,” he said. Then he paused, a wistful look passing fleetingly over his features. “I just wasn’t sure you’d come for me.”

Dean clenched his jaw. “So you decided to kill off all the plant life within two miles just to talk to us?”

“Why?” Sam asked suddenly, such a simple question that carried so much.

John looked at Sam, and it was a look Dean knew. One of regret. One of love. “Because I knew you’d come.”

“ Yeah?” Dean asked accusingly. He had to keep it together. No matter what John had done to save them, he was still part demon. He couldn’t be trusted--not completely, not yet, and they had to remember that. “You been checking up on us?”

“I know you’ve been with an angel,” John said simply. “They’ve recruited you to help.”

“Well, it seems like everyone is getting recruited these days,” Dean said with a shrug. “It’s a cosmic game of kickball and Heaven picked us first.”

John smiled. “Heaven simply asked first,” he said. “You haven’t heard the rest of the story yet.”

“Oh, yeah?” Dean shot back, squaring his shoulders in defiance. “And when are you going to fill us in about what’s really going on? Why are you really here?”

John’s smile faded, and he nodded. “It’s a fair question. But I told you the truth. I came for you.”

“Seems like no one remembers how to use a phone these days,” Dean quipped, his voice tight, reigning himself in cautiously.

“We all have to be careful,” John said evenly. His eyes went from Dean to Sam and back again. “You have many enemies.”

“Yeah, and thanks for that,” Dean growled, keeping his position tenuously. “Met up with an old buddy of yours. Alastair?”

Next to him, Sam flinched but didn't move.

John visibly paled. “You have to believe me when I tell you that I’m so sorry about that." He actually sounded sincere, eyes drooping at the corners in an approximation of Sam's puppy dog face. He held out one hand. “I had no idea...”

Dean's jaw clenched, the memories still stark and painful. “So it’s okay for you to try to kill us but when another demon tries it, you think it’s off limits?”

“You have to understand the big picture, Dean,” he said. He wet his lips, keeping himself almost unnaturally steady. “Both you and Sam know that. You know better than to walk into things blindly.”

“We’re not blind,” Sam interjected, his voice sounding strangled.

Dean’s protective instincts flared. His brother was taking this badly, his entire body tense. The wounds from Alastair were still fresh--for both of them--but the entire ordeal had done a number on Sam’s self confidence. It took everything Dean had to remind himself that no matter what Alastair said, Dean could still do something about that. He would always protect his brother, help Sam protect himself--even from their father.

John looked almost hurt by the answer. “You came here with nothing more than a tip from an angel,” he said. “I expected better from you, Sam.”

Sam blanched so badly that Dean felt it. Before Sam could attempt an answer, Dean interrupted. “I always thought blind faith was the status quo for the Winchesters.”

John just looked disappointed. “You know better than that, Dean.”

“ Really?” Dean asked with an edge in his tone, inclining his head slightly forward. “Because right now, I’m not sure what I know.”

“ I can tell you what you don’t know,” John supplied. “You don’t know what the angels are trying to do. They won’t tell you what they really want from you, or what their plan is. They’re asking you to be pawns in a fight you can’t even begin to understand.”

“What do you mean?” Sam asked, his voice trembling. There was something almost oddly hopeful in his brother’s tone. Dean knew these were the questions Sam had, ones he’d been trying not to ask.

Dean wanted answers, too, but he wasn’t sure that his father was the one who could give them. “Who are we supposed to trust then? You?”

John’s eyes darkened to black for a moment. “You could do a whole lot worse.”

Dean shook his head. “I know you saved our lives once, but I don’t think so. Not yet. There’s too many mixed signals.”

John shrugged. “Maybe we should make it a bit clearer then?”

Sam cocked his head. “How?”

John’s smile was genuine. “That’s why I’m here. All you have to do is brace yourselves.”

“What for?” Sam asked, sounding as confused as Dean felt.

John was moving, his back to them once again, his fingers flying over the wall almost faster than Dean could see.

Then, Dean realized what his father was standing in front of. Before, he’d thought it was a spell to break the seal, something to bring about the apocalypse, but he could see now that he’d been wrong about that. The symbols were different. The markings weren’t demonic. They were something else, something--

But before Dean could figure it out, the world was moving, reeling, falling--and all Dean could do was hold onto his brother and hope for the best.

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