Chapter Nine/Count Your Blessings

Assorted crapiola: COMPLETE, Gen, PG13. OCs galore. This chapter contains plenty of swear-words and loads of blood and poutine. Brotherly love (no, not that kind) and obligatory angst. I am forced to concede once again that I own none of these characters and make not a thin dime.

Merci beaucoup, tout le monde: My incredible betas, jmm0001 (who has just started a really great multi-chapter fic called For Once, Then, Nothing on this web site) and Lemmypie can share the doorprize, because without them? Yeah, I'm all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

STF: Like you don't remember where we left off. Sam, ready to become a human sacrifice while Dean, a demon and Céline Dion look on. No worries if you don't remember, because we start off with the same scene, reverse angle.

For one appalling minute, Dean thought he was too late. Not even too late to save Sam, because he didn't doubt for a second that the fucking zubir could kill you dead without breaking step, no matter what puny Dean Winchester and his loaded Glock did. No, Dean knew somewhere that Sam would be making his own decisions about whether or not he sacrificed himself. What was the word that Sam had used, over room-service artichokes? Submit.

Sam was not, normally, the submitting type. These were not normal circumstances, however, and for once Dean did not know what Sam would do.

No, what Dean was afraid of, what he was terrified of, was that he'd miss it. That he wouldn't be there when it happened, wouldn't be there in any way that was meaningful, except to pick up the pieces. His desire to be there wasn't to stop the zubir from stomping on Sam's stupid ass, or to prove the Trickster wrong. It wasn't even to see the demon exorcised. It was for Sam.

Sacrifices like this, ritual ones, demanded witnesses, and although Dean didn't give a fuck about fulfilling whatever shitty prerequisites were involved in seeing Sam dead, he did care very much that no matter what Sam decided, he would not have to be alone.

Running headlong down the moonglow dirt road, Dean sensed a freeway nearby, or a quarry in full operation, some kind of industrial machinery rearranging ancient pieces of solid ground – shit, an open-pit mine? The dirt beneath his feet quivered; he thought 'earthquake' and 'construction site' and 'underground blast' based on the soles of his feet, not on any sound heard with his ears.

Hearing with his feet surprised him so much he stopped, dropped to his knees and splayed one hand out on the dirt road, glancing at the forest for the missing wolves. A train coming, maybe. Ah, Jesus, think where you are Winchester, what you're heading toward. Shook his head, remembering Sam dreaming, stopping short when he got to the part where Sam whimpered, because that near broke Dean's heart, every time.

Buffalo, fuckwad. And got to his feet, kept running, because he hadn't heard Sam scream for a few minutes now and maybe that wasn't a positive sign.

I'm too late, he thought, clearly, crested the hill, recognized it from earlier in the afternoon, knew that he'd have a good view of the meadow and the tree, that the sun-bleached grass would provide needed contrast in the moonlight. He'd forgotten a flashlight, but had the zippo in his pocket. What? Gonna start a grassfire, Winchester? That'd be useful.

Depends, he answered back, knew that he was having a conversation with himself only because he really didn't want to think about why Sammy wasn't screaming anymore.

He found out soon enough.

Sam wasn't alone, not by a long shot. There would be witnesses aplenty, no matter what he did. Thirty buffalo circled relentlessly around the tree, kicking up dust and flying grass. Dean blinked grit from his eyes, wished for daylight so that he might make sense of the bizarre scene enclosed by the buffalo.

Sam was standing, but only barely, t-shirt in tatters, pale torso running with what could only be blood, faced uphill. Dean doubted Sam could see him, this far away with the dark forest behind him. Not to mention that Sam had more pressing distractions, including, in no particular order: three wolves running amongst the buffalo herd; one huge buffalo – the zubir – close enough to Sam that Dean could only discern one from the other by Sam's pale body; a twisting dark hole possibly leading to hell directly in front of Sam and his buffalo friend; the white-suited demon a flame in the night; and, of course, Céline Dion. And she was singing.

That hole looks like a shitwagon full of nasty, Dean thought, slowing to a trot, thinking it through. Demon hole to someplace he really wasn't quite ready to face – the zubir standing there, as though poised to go in with a little prompting. Yes, starting to make sense, old gods and new ones. Struggled to connect the dots and then heard Sam shout, "NO!" to something Dean couldn't see, and it didn't sound scared or agonized, it sounded like the kind of voice that would make a demon listen up.

The tone of it stopped Dean cold, vacillating. His little brother, yes. All grown up, manifestly. Leaving Dean and all his big brotherliness...where? He trusted Sam to make his own decisions, didn't he? Couldn't he?

Sam took a step to the buffalo, avoiding the hell maw, reached out, and sank to his knees. And then the zubir bellowed and it was a challenge from prehistory, shook Dean to his core. Stopped Céline Dion from making that infernal racket. Snapped Dean out of his momentary consideration of Sam's options. Screw Sam's options.

Dean broke into a sprint, suddenly become a running 'fuck you' to anything in his way, any notion of witnessing gone because he had to get Sam out of there. A gunshot, from René's hand, another bellow. Fuck, the demon was shooting the zubir. The ancient Lithuanian god didn't seem hurt, however, was still solid on its feet, was getting pissed off. This whole set-up was nuts, and that was his little brother bleeding and shaking in front of a demon, a hell mouth, a god, and a Grammy-award winning diva. Time to haul ass, Sammy.

The wolf-maddened buffalo herd was going to be a problem, though, because the buffalo didn't give a shit that Dean Winchester, demon hunter, was trying to get past them. He skidded to a halt when the buffalo herd refused to part for him, trying to find a break, like merging in Montréal traffic: the rules were all different, and none of the animals were offering anything resembling an 'oh no, after you, I insist'.

Dean still had the high ground though, so he saw what happened next, saw it through the sudden spray of blood as the wounded zubir shook its enormous head. He saw the one step the god took towards the demon. Sam reached out, and Dean's lips moved silently, pleading for him not to, though Dean wasn't sure why the gesture was so dangerous, considering the range of lethal crap around the tree. The gesture was dangerous not because the zubir would hurt Sam, because that Dean could deal with, one way or another. It wasn't what the zubir would do, then. It was what Sam would do by reaching out. It was the reaching out that was dangerous, in fact, because of what would follow. That would change Sam, would make him something other than what he was.

Would make Dean admit that Sam was something different than what he was.

The silent prayer did no good; Sam was immune to Dean's prayers, always had been. He was a tall man with an orangutan's reach and if Sam Winchester wanted to grab something, he usually did. From his angle and in the darkness, Dean couldn't tell the moment that the two made contact.

An arc of lightning, illuminating Sam's stern motionless face, between his fingers and the god and the hole straight to hell, and the demon with the gun, which had its back to Dean. Too bad, because Dean had always relished the look a demon got just before it died.

The roar the zubir gave then flattened Dean. He went down as though smashed from above by a cartoon anvil, and hit a rock – a relatively fortunate outcome, despite the inevitable bruising, because otherwise he would have rolled downhill under the feet of the herd. As it was, he was covered in dust, spat grass from his mouth. As he lay across the broad field stone, ribs singing with a startle of pain, an animal rushed over him, almost too fast to inflict true hurt. Sawing carnivorous breath, sandy fur, brush of ivory and nail. Gone. A wolf. He'd just been run over by a wolf.

A long inhuman scream ripped the night, and Dean knew that it wasn't Sam, knew all the sounds Sam made in this world, and that wasn't one of them. That was a death-knell for a demon. As Dean struggled to his feet, the earth jumping under him from the hooves of frightened buffalo, a woman's shriek pierced the silty air, surprised and overwhelmed. Céline must have come to her senses, whatever those were. Dean had no pity in him, because he was listening for another voice above the ceaseless pounding of the hooves, and it wasn't coming.

Not quite to his feet, he shouted his brother's name, hoarse from the dust and the night and, goddamn it, all right, from the fear. Standing and watching was all he could do, though, because jumping into a buffalo herd would be the same thing as stepping in front of a Mac truck on a long haul. It wouldn't save Sam, would only make Dean dead.

He still had the Glock, though the salt rifle had been dropped somewhere in the long grass, possibly when the zubir had roared. Dean stood on the rock, trying to get a better look at what was happening next to the tree. Thirty feet away, thirty buffalo in between. Might as well be the moon.

Sam was on his knees, and the black hole was gone. Céline Dion cradled her husband's head in her lap, weeping, head bowed over him.

The zubir seemed five times the size it had before and a bullet wasn't going to stop it. The demon had tried that already.

Dean watched, though the muscles in his legs twitched from keeping him still. Oh, god, Sammy, don't. So much blood, and that look on Sam's face, a cousin to the one he'd worn before storming out the door to Stanford: resigned. No fear this time, though, no anger. Simply unwavering determination, which god alone knew Sam possessed in spades.

But just before Sam closed his eyes and the zubir moved forward to claim him, Dean saw one other thing in his brother's eyes. Release.

Strange that for all the distractions, as soon as he closed his eyes, everything came to a halt: no noise, no vibrations, not even the little voice in his head that always sounded like Dean after a few beers. Just the zubir and an abstract notion that felt like justice, but older. Less formed. Just the way it is, maybe. The way it should be. That's like justice, isn't it?

If he'd opened his eyes, he'd see the zubir not a foot in front of him, curved horns sharp as sabers, hooves like sledgehammers, big head the size and weight of a boulder. So many ways he could die right now, faced with this.

It's okay, Sam said out loud for the zubir to hear. For Dean to hear. Or maybe those words were only in his head. Difficult to tell the difference now. I'm here. This will make everything right.

Thought: justice. And the breath of the zubir was old and wild and was everywhere. Sam became the breath, let go of all that was Sam – the curiosity, the stubbornness, the joy of discovery. Handed them over. Fur and blinding, numbing cold, welcome for all the pain in him. He didn't hurt anymore.

Thought: Dean.

That, he was allowed to keep. And with that one thing lingering still, the zubir came.

Dammit, Sam. Not like this. This is not how you surrender.

Dean realized a little sound had escaped him, in the back of his throat. Denial, maybe. Recognition, less likely. He'd made it an art, giving himself away, bit by bit. Knew the mechanics of the act intimately, no matter that he never acknowledged it.

Abandoning a sense of self like garbage at the curb, whether it was putting his body between Sam and an attacking spirit, or giving in to anger, or getting blind drunk. But at its extreme? Le petit mort. Complete and utter release. Going so far with a woman that everything was obliterated, was burned clean.

And fuck it if Sam couldn't even get that right.

A hard knock to his sternum swayed but did not fell him, forced his eyes open. He was still there, blinking away the sparkling stars. Ears assaulted by screams and lowing and growls. Ground moving like a natural disaster. Sam blinked again.

The zubir was maybe six inches from his face, so close Sam couldn't see its eyes, only its broad poll, black in the night. It huffed gently, then turned.

Done. It was done. A tap, that was all. Sam had offered, and the zubir had nodded its head, given assent. It had been enough, the offer. The zubir did not need Sam body and soul, was more powerful than that.

Sam did not for a moment think that they were friends: you didn't make friends with the gods. But he had made it right, everything, and that was enough, for all of them.

The night was warm and Sam noticed the warmth, noticed that along with the horrific coursing of blood through his extremities, the sudden blaze of pain along his back glowing like lit magnesium. He looked at the bull buffalo slowly moving away from him, the rest of the herd calming at its presence, and realized that the zubir had left.

He dropped to his hands and knees, brushed his forehead to ground wet with his own blood. Wailing French from nearby, the unmistakable sound of a man running, and then – "Jesus Christ, lady, he's fine," but the known voice was moving, was coming towards him as Sam knew it would. He didn't budge, waited to hear the hiss of Dean's breath as he took in what the demon had done to Sam's back.

The hiss was worse than he remembered it.

Wanted nothing more than what Dean now did, which was to hunker down beside him and silently place one hand on the back of Sam's head, fingers entwined in his long hair. A very long moment held.

"You stupid shitforbrains. Dimfuckwit, in what twisted fucking universe was this a good idea?" And now was picking at the remains of Sam's shirt, trying to cover or to staunch, and Sam could hear the worry and the love beneath the warm rush of obscenities.

Perhaps it wasn't fair, but he started to laugh then.

If the day got any hotter, Sam was going to take off his shirt, no matter how much his scarred back terrified the Japanese tourists. An idle thought; it would be awhile before he'd feel comfortable going shirtless in public.

Between the dislocated shoulder and the stitches on his back, Sam hadn't been able to find many positions that didn't result in pain, which meant he spent a lot of time lying on his stomach, or hunched over a table propped up with his right elbow, or just sitting upright, as he was now. His long legs dangled from the promenade wall; the Ottawa River was busy this summer's afternoon, just about dinner time, the pedestrian pathways clogged with government workers heading home, photo ID tags swinging ubiquitously from their necks as though they wouldn't know who they were otherwise.

Sam sighed, not unhappily. Sore, but sated. Comfortable in his own skin. Felt that he had earned it, his own skin. Had been willing to part with it – shit, had parted with it – and now it was truly his.

Still, the letting go had been hard. He shaded his eyes with his right hand, stiffly turned to look at the museum directly behind him. The sinuous shape of its design didn't bother him as much now. Maybe it was growing on him. Maybe the idea that he didn't have to understand everything, didn't have to put everything into neat rows, wasn't quite as anathema as it once had been.

After an entire day split between the air-conditioned Museum of Civilization and the equally air-conditioned National Gallery just across the river, Sam had forgotten it was a blistering hot day. A dislocation: he'd seen pictures of the river in winter when it froze solid, covered in snow, the Parliament Buildings a fairy-tale ice castle on the far shore. This place changed dramatically, it was a locus of power and transformation.

Goddamn, what was I thinking, wanting to go into Law? I shoulda been an anthropologist. A sociologist. Grinned outright at the thought. Right now, a hunter, like it or not. Stanford wasn't going anywhere. One day, when this was all over. Still time.

"You winning the argument?" And Dean sat down beside him, handed him a cardboard cup brimming with fries, maggot-white cheese curds, and clotted gravy.

Shit, had he been waving his hands around? Or just talking out loud?

Sam eyed the cup with suspicion. "You're going to kill yourself with this shit."

He hadn't brought any plastic forks, either. Dean reached over, took one fry, a long string of cheese forming an attachment to the container. Dean twirled the fry, winding the string like a spool of thread. Jammed it into his mouth with more gusto than was strictly necessary. Masking, as usual. Sam knew what he'd just come from.

Reluctantly, Sam selected one fry, just to humor his brother. Tried not to think about it as he chewed it.

"Have a good day?" Dean asked, finally, but his attention was out on the water. He'd seen some sun in the last while, as Sam had rested up. Sam sometimes forgot that Dean had been a freckly little kid, until late summer hit and Dean's nose turned a perpetual pink and his hair tipped more blond than not.

Sam nodded. "Took it easy. Saw this wall of decaying fish and an amazing meat dress over at the Gallery..."

And Dean held up a hand. "Please. I'm eating."

How an art exhibit could put Dean off cup-o-hardened-artery was beyond Sam, but he dropped it. "Didn't go back into the Lithuanian exhibition."

Dean gave a shruggy nod, a lazy gesture. "Don't blame you. How's the back?"

"Dion's doctor took the stitches out. Good to go." He banged his heel rhythmically against the stone wall, took another fry. The salt of the gravy was making him thirsty. "She gave us tickets to the Vegas show, said we could go anytime." Wouldn't look at Dean as he said that.

A long silence, only interrupted by Dean reaching over for another handful of poutine. Sam didn't want to see the look on Dean's face. It would either be disparaging or stricken, and both were too much for him right now.

"She said that René is grateful."

"Does grateful come with a reimbursement for your...troubles?" There. Getting a little closer to the truth of things. Ice had crept into Dean's voice, and he'd been trying so hard to keep it light, Sam knew.

Sam did look at Dean then, braced himself for it. Dean's eyes were flint hard. "I didn't take it, Dean. We still have a fair bit of the casino's money."

One blink, then two. "Well, I guess we're square with Céline Dion and her demon-possessed husband, the Trickster that's been on her staff for the last few years and all the dead girls. Oh, and the buffalo god that the Lithuanian circus freaks called in to protect them. We're square with the zubir, right? 'Cause I wouldn't want to owe a buffalo god anything."

Sam grimaced. Dean was going to want to cut lose tonight, maybe starting now. He knew him well enough. "I'm square with the zubir, Dean. It basically said 'thanks but no thanks'."

"Yeah?" and Dean's voice rose a little, caused a group of women with Environment Canada emblazoned on their lanyards to look over at them with concern. If Dean noticed, he apparently didn't care. "Well I guess we're okay then."

Just because Dean needed a fight didn't mean Sam was going to give it to him. "We've been through this, Dean. You just didn't like to see me let go. Feet off the pedals."

You've got to let me go. Had said that once, and that was enough, for both of them.

Sam shifted his seat, but didn't break his stare. Neither did Dean. "You do it all the time, Dean. Do you know what it's like, watching you do that?"

Dean's mouth worked, then the gaze slid away to the sunbright water. "Yeah, I do." But quiet. And Sam thought that he'd probably never truly know how many things Dean had given up. Little pieces of Dean were scattered all over – across space and time. And Sam hoarded: ideas, knowledge, independence, his own skin, and one particular lodestone that had been his from birth. Dean.

Count your fucking blessings.

He handed Dean the half-empty container, looked back out over the river. Might as well scour the pan while it was in the sink. "When does her flight leave?"

Too much of a pause. "Already gone."

"We could go to Vegas," he offered, knowing what Dean would say, if not the exact words, the tone. The sentiment, and all it covered. "Free passes."

"Ah, shit, Vegas, Sammy? Another Céline fucking Dion show? Did you not hear that woman sing? Don't think so." Shook the container to better cover the remaining fries with gravy and curd. "And your dumbfuck psychic powers are only good on slots; we don't have to go all the way to Vegas for that."

Okay, Sam could let it lie, flat as week-old Pepsi. No need to dig around that suppurating wound. He wondered if Béa had made promises. It hurt Sam in a deep place, both her going and the fact that Dean cared so much. But there were secrets. And then there was privacy, and Sam could give Dean that.

He was onto other things, in any case. "Hoser. Hosehead. Hosed."

"What?"

Dean gave him a quicksilver smile. "Trying out some of the local lingo."

Sam shook his head. "I don't think anyone actually says that."

"Etienne Marcoux is such a hoser. He royally hosed the Cirque by disappearing. If we can't get back across the border, we are so hosed. That René is a complete fucking hosehead."

"He didn't ask to be possessed by a demon, Dean."

"Anyone who marries that freak of nature is a hosehead. And he made out like a bandit. Think that she'd have sold so many records if she wasn't backed by forces of evil?"

Trust Dean to equate Céline Dion's material success with demonic possession. Still, he had a point.

The last of the fries disappeared down Dean's throat, making Sam think of a cormorant gulping down herring. He tried to keep the disgust from his face. Once done, Dean wiped his hands on his jeans, adjusted his expression to something lighter, in keeping with the sunlight and the water. In keeping with the fact, maybe, that they were both alive and together, money in their pockets and a belly full of greasy poutine.

"Next time, Sam, do you think you might manage to dream about a different fucking Canadian diva?"

Sam laughed, surprised. "What? Like who?"

"Shit, even Shania fucking Twain would be better than that spastic space alien."

"I didn't figure you for a country fan."

Dean's brows twisted. "Shania isn't exactly country, Sam. And she's hot."

"Can I remind you of that when you're hung over tomorrow morning?"

Dean wasn't taking it, was compensating hard enough for the both of them. Soon, any feelings of loss would be overcome by Dean's practiced charm. Shit, Dean's charm even worked on Dean.

"Or, like, Alanis Morissette, maybe."

Sam groaned. "You've got to be kidding! She's ever bit as all kinds of nuts as Céline Dion. Alanis would just fuck you and then write shitty verse about how you'd screwed her over. And then you'd be featured in some lame-ass video with her moaning about what an asshole you are." Sure, he could play this game. "Nelly Furtado. I'd do Nelly Furtado."

One look at Dean told Sam that Nelly Furtado was off his radar. His loss. Sam would take Nelly over Shania any day of the week.

Then, together, like it was an actual good idea: "Avril Lavigne."

They looked at each other, halfway between laughter and something else.

Dean crumpled up the cardboard container, looked for a garbage can. One was nearby, because this was Canada and there was always a garbage can. Then he suggested a beer, and Sam agreed.

"La Maudite," Dean said, helping Sam to his feet. "Means damn fine."

And Sam already knew that.

-30-

a/n: That's it. Show's over, folks. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.