Disclaimer All recognizable characters/settings belong to their creators. The stories listed here are transformative works, from which I've made/am making no financial profit.

Warnings Language; references/allusions to torture and non-con.

17. The Path that Brings You Lower

Sam shuffles closer, leans down, tries to reach out and cup his brother's ashen face, but Dean snarls at him and scrambles rapidly away past Castiel, dragging the splinted leg along behind him.

He ends up with his back against the wall, and shuffles sideways until he's pressed up into a corner, hugging the knee he's able to bend, his eyes incandescent with terror and rage, and still he drones out the exorcism rite, his voice wrecked and hoarse. Trapped animals are the most vicious, occurs to Sam, they strike and fight to the death because they have nothing to lose. Even so, he crawls a few feet closer, holds out his hand again, only for Dean's voice to rise in pitch, high and desperate.

Sam feels his own uselessness and anger start to boil, shoots a look back at Castiel. "Cas, was he there?" he asks desperately. "Back in the Pit? Was I there with him, is that what this is?"

The angel doesn't reply at first, seems to be considering his response, and when he does speak his voice is dispassionate. "He wasn't there. This is – fear. His fear."

He's looking Sam in the eye but his gaze is back to its usual blank, and Sam suddenly remembers that Castiel said he would never betray Dean's trust, never reveal what he endured. It gives him a sick, tight feeling in his gut, the feeling he's being served by an angel of the Lord again, and that his brother just spent another year screaming on the rack. He wants to ask, even if he knows it isn't the time and isn't even sure if an angel can lie in the first place, but Castiel hasn't blinked yet and even if his eyes were blank when he spoke, now they're alight and piercing into Sam like Cas is reading his mind.

Hudak crabbing up behind him ends the moment, and she ducks reflexively as Dean's babbling speeds up. "Look, we need to move this along," she says urgently. "These demolition crews start work at dawn and there's a very messy body at the bottom of this building, not to mention…" She widens her eyes meaningfully, slants them over towards the elevator bank.

Sam scrubs at his hair. "How are we going to – I mean, what do I do? Knock him out? I don't want to." He's distracted for a second by Bobby's voice, quiet and careful.

"If he wasn't there, does that mean he's free and clear? Of the deal?"

The angel studies the old man gravely for a few seconds. "I don't know," he says finally, simply. "He was waiting. Souls don't immediately depart."

Hudak suddenly nudges Sam hard. "Say it along with him," she whispers. "It's the exorcism rite isn't it? Say it with him. When he flipped out at my place, he told me he couldn't say the rite if he was a demon. So if he hears you saying it, maybe he'll figure out that you aren't?"

Christ, it's so fucking obvious Sam kicks his own butt hard and repeatedly inside his head. He shuffles a few inches nearer to his brother, and Dean's eyes stare at him in blind horror, bruised and shadowed underneath, and he holds his hands up in self-defense.

"You aren't him," he mutters in a monotone, and then he picks it up again, "Vade, Satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae, hostis humanae salutis, humiliare sub potenti manu dei, contremisce et effuge, invocato a nobis sancto et terribili nomine, quem inferi tremunt—"

Sam picks it up too, joins in, "Vade, Satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae," and it's like jump rope rhymes, and they're skipping in unison, Blue Bells, Cockle Shells, like the girls at school used to play. Sam says the words along with Dean, stares intently at him all the while, and he hears his brother start to slow down, start to falter, and then he stops, and the silence is deafening as they gaze at each other until Sam cocks his head. "Are you back?" he dares.

Dean doesn't say anything.

"We have to get out of here," Hudak hisses again beside Samm. "The sun will be coming up soon."

And Sam is at a loss, doesn't know what to do because getting any closer could bolt his brother to the next county. He looks helplessly over to Bobby, and the old man is crouched down low too, shuffling forwards, blanket in hand.

"Dean, it's cold, son," Bobby soothes. "Let's get this blanket around you, get you to the car. It's over. She'll never come back."

"It's over," Dean repeats mechanically. "She'll never come back." But he's still tense, still in fight or flight mode, rubbing at his belly and then his chest. He looks down at himself, frowns, and then his hand meanders up to his shoulder almost unconsciously. When he rests it there, on the newly restored handprint, his face relaxes. He clamps his eyelids tight shut for a minute, sighs out, and when he opens his eyes again, it's just weariness and relief.

It's all too obvious what brought his brother back down to earth, and Sam glances over at Castiel, sees that the angel is poised, tense and almost trembling with anticipation, coiled up like a cat about to pounce. Castiel looks sideways at him, and Sam can see the unspoken request in his eyes. He reaches out to Bobby, snags the blanket and hands it over. "He'll let you help him," he says dully.

Castiel stands wordlessly, walks over and squats down to drape the fabric around Dean. He puts his hand on Dean's cheek, and his voice is gentle. "It's over. You're safe." Dean nods, and Castiel helps him rise to his feet, puts an arm around him, propping him up as he stumbles. He starts leading Dean past them towards the stairwell, whispering reassurance to him.

"It's twenty-eight flights," Hudak pipes up. "Can't you just zap him there?" She shrugs as they all look at her. "Well," she finishes defensively. "It makes sense. He looks fit to drop."

Castiel replies patiently, in the kind of voice teachers reserve for the slow child. "I can't. It will take some time for me to recover my—"

"No one's giving me the finger," Dean croaks. "I can manage." He shivers in the circle of the angel's arm, pulls the blanket tighter around himself, and then he looks right at Sam and reaches out. "With some more help."

It's like the foot that's been pressing him into the ground, pinning him in place beneath its weight, lifts off him, and Sam rockets upright, his turn to pounce. And then he's right there, under his brother's left arm, helping to support him, and it really is over.

Bobby picks up the call, and Sam can hear him through the open window.

"Oh, you know. Fumbling along, joining the dots. Drinking me dry. Can't talk about things to save their lives. Emotional cripples, the pair of them."

Sam hears his brother's low snort from beside him.

"He wouldn't know what the fuck to do with us if we started pouring it all out," Dean says gruffly. "The Winchester sisters."

Dean has told him nothing and Sam sees the opening, clears his throat, rocks the porch swing slightly as his brother gulps his beer. "Well. It might help to get some of it out—"

"No," Dean says firmly. "It wouldn't help. It wouldn't change a damn thing, in fact. Anyway. I'm fine. Good as new, thanks to Cas. Again. It never happened."

"But Dean, it did happen," Sam persists. "It's been two days and you haven't said much beyond—"

"Am I going to have to walk away from this, Sam?" his brother says harshly. "I told you—"

"Walk away from what?" Sam cuts in, suddenly nervous, and he knows he sounds it. "This conversation, right? That is what you mean? You don't mean walk away from—"

"Yes," Dean says, and Sam can see he's pressing the heel of one hand up against his eye.

"But you can't just… I mean, what will you – Lilith, she's still out there, the seals, you can't do this by yourself, you need me with you, it…" Sam trails off, because Dean is looking at him with an expression of irritation touched with fondness.

"I mean the conversation, not you," Dean says, and he rolls his eyes theatrically, knocks his boot against Sam's. "Fuckin' idiot."

He offers Sam the bottle and Sam takes a slug of his own, feels it steady his nerves slightly. In his peripheral vision, he can see his brother's right leg start to jog up and down, the barest tremor, and he braces himself mentally because it's been Dean's tell ever since the woods, and maybe this time it signals more than his brother's intention to drink himself into a stupor so he can sleep through his nightmares.

"You know, there was a moment there back in Duluth when I did think about just walking away from it all," Dean says abruptly. He throws Sam a sidelong glance, waits a few seconds before he continues. "I knew you had the hexbag stashed somewhere, Sam, even before this all happened."

Sam waits, waits for the accusations, the questions, the attack, waits to be judged, readies himself for the onslaught.

"I thought about taking it," Dean says instead. "Just hitching out of there, and dammit all to Hell." He sinks another mouthful, gazes at the horizon.

Sam nods, blinks hard, and his voice catches on its own dryness because he isn't sure what he expected, but it wasn't this. "How do you feel about that now?" he ventures finally, and there's a second where his heart leaps for joy, where he imagines himself calling Ruby, getting a couple more of the tiny pouches from her, and driving off into the sunset with his brother just like…

"You mean do a Thelma and Louise?" Dean cuts into his train of thought, and Sam looks over, sees that his brother's eyebrow is raised, that his lips are curled in a wintry smile that doesn't reach his eyes. He shakes his head. "Not going to happen, Sam," he says sadly. "I'm doing this. Me. It's my responsibility, and I can't let the world go to Hell." He takes another mouthful of the liquor, clears his throat. "I know you're with me on this. But you have to stop what you're doing with her. And at the end?" Dean nudges Sam. "You have to let it go down like it's meant to."

He pushes up, stretches, sways on his feet for a second. "Whoah, head rush." He sweeps the lot with his eyes, squints at some indeterminate wreck in the middle distance. "Looks like an old Challenger," he muses to no one in particular, and he bends, picks up the toolbox he left on the top step, hops off the porch and ambles towards the junker, beer bottle hanging loosely from his fingers as he goes.

Sam stares at his brother's back as he walks away, and bitterness rises unexpected, from deep inside him, because it's resignation, passivity, it's fucking submission. He clenches his fists, wants to yell that he won't allow it, that it doesn't have to be this way, and he steels himself to holler it across the dusty lot. But he swallows back the cry because it means explaining the whys and hows, and seeing his brother's faith in him die a little more as he lays it out, exactly what it is he has been doing, what he can do. And what he will do if he has to, because there is no way his brother is going back to Hell now he knows he might just be strong enough to stop it.

"Kathleen says they're closing the case," Bobby says suddenly from behind Sam, and he jumps.

The old man crosses in front of him, and then sits down heavily, his knees popping as he does. "They dynamited the building this morning, chances are they may never find the kid," he continues. "Everything ties back to the jumper. The truck was his, and there was plenty of DNA in it. Body parts up there where they were squatting, too."

Sam shrugs. "He was involved, we know that," he says dispiritedly. "He must've helped her dump the bodies, and Dean said they ran him down outside the motel."

Bobby sniffs. "He told me it was a car that ran him down," he comments absently. "Said the streetlights flickered on and off as well. That's why he thought it was Lilith." He tugs at his beard. "Don't make sense. Still, I guess he was under a lot of stress, could have gotten confused."

Sam nods slowly, but he's only half listening because there is something he has to know now Bobby has broached the topic of the kid. "Do you think I was right?" he fishes awkwardly.

Bobby waits a long moment. "If you're asking if I think you were right to use whatever it is that's in you to get your brother out of that mess, well. Tacit approval springs to mind, since it was me who told you to. If you mean the girl…" The old man leans forward, elbows on his knees, chin on his hands. "Does it matter what I think?" he continues cagily. "You thought you were right. So did Kathleen. I heard what she said back there. It's…" He stops, flaps a hand. "A kind of justice. I guess." He glances back at Sam. "Have you told Dean what you did?"

"No," Sam replies shortly. "I told him she jumped." He pauses a beat. "That's the story if he asks, Bobby."

Bobby raises an eyebrow, turns his focus back out onto the lot. Dean has the hood of the car up now, and clanging noises drift across to where they sit.

"I don't know what I'd have done if it was me in your shoes," the old man ventures after a few minutes. "I don't have any problems with the death penalty whatsoever. She wouldn't have gotten that in Minnesota. And I'm thinking maybe the families of those poor bastards she slaughtered might prefer their tax dollars didn't go to keeping a roof over her head and food in her belly, even if she did spend the rest of her years in a maximum security cell." He stops then, and the silence is loaded.

"But," Sam says.

"But. This is about you, Sam. You came to me, what, six years ago now? With your letter from Stanford and all your dreams shining out of your eyes? You were going to be a top-notch lawyer, you were going to fight the system." He laughs, but it's hollow. "It's just fuckin' ironic, son," he continues, not unkindly. "That Sam would have been Missy Bender's defense lawyer." He shakes his head, looks back and nudges Sam with his knee. "Do you see the irony?" he says pointedly, and Sam nods dumbly.

"Like I said," Bobby continues. "I don't really know what I'd have done if it was up to me. But I do know that when you did that to her?" He shakes his head. "You weren't the Sam I know. Or knew. So I guess it just has me thinking. About what your brother said, about how he's afraid of what this, this—" He throws up his hands. "Messing about with Ruby," he finally ends, "is doing to you. And maybe you need to do some thinking about it too."

Sam doesn't reply, keeps his eyes facing front. Bobby shifts next to him, moves to get up. "What do you think Castiel meant when he said Dean was waiting?" he blurts out. "Do you think it meant he would have gone there when he – departed?"

Bobby pulls a face, settles back next to Sam again, gruffs out a harsh sound of frustration. "No clue. If we ever get a straight answer out of that guy, it'll be a cold day in Hell."

"Dean said that back in Duluth he thought about running," Sam confides. "About taking the hexbag and running." And he puts it out there. "Do you think that's an option?"

Bobby laces his fingers together across his belly, shrugs. "I think it's an option," he concedes. "Just not one your brother would take. He obviously didn't in Duluth." And then he digs Sam sharply in the ribs, glowers at him. "If you're thinking about sneaking one of those things on him and heading for the hills, you need to stop and take stock of what just happened after he got hold of one by mistake." He pauses a beat and his voice softens. "And anyway, it isn't up to you what happens, Sam."

Sam bites his lip. "But it could be," he insists. "I could use whatever it is that's in me to get him out of this mess too, Bobby. I can't let him do this alone, he isn't—"

"But maybe this mess is down to your brother, like Castiel said," the old man cuts in, his tone sharp again. He pushes up then, moves past Sam, pauses at the screendoor. "I think about him going back there and I can't even put into words how it makes me feel," he says quietly. "And I understand your instinct is to try to protect him, Sam. But maybe you aren't supposed to be involved in this one. And maybe it'll be okay, maybe his angel will see to that." He sighs. "Look, son, I remember what you said… about wanting control, feeling powerful. And I think you need to take a long hard look at what you're doing, because it's starting to sound like you're using your brother as an excuse."

The door slams shut behind him and Sam studies his boots for a long moment, then looks up and out over the lot again. He can't help the frown that forms as he sees Castiel standing next to the wreck. He chews on the knuckle of his thumb for a minute, sees the angel bend and take something out of the toolbox by his feet.

"No one's taking my brother away from me again," he breathes.

He roots out his phone, and she picks up straightaway.

The engine is a mess, its heart frozen and locked, caked with sand and the crap of years of misuse and lack of care, driven into sheer exhaustion until every precious moving part gradually slowed down, gasped its last, and simply stopped. Dean wonders if it's even worth it, wonders if it can be saved.

He senses Castiel before he cranes his neck to glance up and back, because he feels a sudden surge of peace, feels comforted. It's mildly unsettling and he can't really work out why, or maybe just doesn't want to face up to it, so he puts a stop to it then and there. "I see you're back," he grouses childishly. "Got something new for my to-do list?"

Castiel wears his intrigued and maybe affectionate look for just a second. "No," he replies. "And I wasn't gone. I've been here."

Dean scowls. "I thought you didn't watch."

"I don't watch," the angel says snippishly. "I guard."

Dean rolls his eyes. "I don't need guarding."

He turns back and squints down at what he's doing for a few minutes, still feels comforted despite his efforts not to. "You may as well be useful while you're here," he snaps from the bowels of the engine. "Hand me that wrench with the red handle. No, hang on. Be better doing this from underneath."

He backs out to find Castiel pointing laser-intense eyes at him.

"Are you alright, Dean?" the angel says.

"Super," Dean replies with a smirk. "Never better. I guess totally losing it when threatened by a teenager must be good for me, huh?"

Castiel considers him some more, eyebrows rising a little. "You were confused," he offers. "And under a great deal of stress. It seems to me that—"

"Oh for Christ's sake, Cas, stop with the psychiatrist's couch crap," Dean scoffs though a wave of annoyance. "Or no, wait a minute. Use your angelic powers to tell me how exactly I'm going last more than a heartbeat against Lilith when a sixteen-year-old girl can have me shitting myself in terror with nothing but a pigsticker and a pack of Camels at her disposal."

Castiel doesn't react at first, then, "Dean," he says on a sigh.

It's low, gentle, it's tender, and there's no expectation of any kind, no judgment, no pressure for Dean to bare his soul at all. And that's all it takes, and out of nowhere it bubbles up and over suddenly, and he's slamming the wrench down into the engine, over and over, feeling tears of misery prick his eyes until he's exhausted, and he sits down heavily in the dirt. "You're pushing me towards this," he chokes, scrubbing at his eyes as they sting, "and I know it's my responsibility and that it's all pre-ordained, and so much crap. I know you're following orders, Cas, doing your job. But I can't even talk to my brother about this. You sonsofbitches even took that away from me, because if he knows how fuckin' terrified I am he'll just, he'll. Jesus. Damn himself to Hell right behind me. Or laugh in my face and tell me I'm a coward depending on his mood." He barks out a derisive laugh. "Like I said. You're pushing me towards this final conflict deathmatch rumble in the jungle, whatthefuckever. And you know what's really ironic?"

The angel stares back, doesn't reply.

"You're the only one I can talk to about it," Dean says. "You're the only one who understands what it really means. For me, I mean, at the end of it all." He leans over, snags his beer from where he parked it, gulps the booze down.

Castiel hovers, seems uncertain, uneasy. And then he huffs out, sits down next to Dean, shoulder to shoulder.

"Sam said he told you to bring me back," Dean mutters. "You should have just left me."

He doesn't know if he's imagining it, but he swears he can feel a brief nudge of pressure against his shoulder.

"I didn't bring you back just because your brother told me to, Dean," the angel ventures acidly. "And before you say it, I didn't bring you back for the final conflict deathmatch rumble in the jungle whatthefuckever, either."

Dean is mid-swallow, sprays out a mouthful of beer, actually laughs, and it feels good, and it feels unusual. "Well, I had a good idea where I was headed at the end of all this," he sputters. "And now I know. Corrupting an angel of the Lord into breaking the second commandment must be the eighth deadly sin for sure."

But Castiel is ignoring his deflection, doing that fascinated head-tilt thing he does, looking at Dean like he hung the moon, and his eyes are full. "I brought you back because I promised I wouldn't leave you there, Dean," he says simply. "And for – other reasons."

Dean stares back, and suddenly the need to be honest overwhelms him. "I know," he says, because he remembers it all, remembers how those reasons radiated from the angel in the dreams, remembers the comfort, the solace. The love. He doesn't really know if he can think about that too closely, although he's known all along really, since he first looked into the light down there and saw salvation, because he isn't sure if he really understands it, and he thinks it might be more than he deserves. And he can't resist ending the moment, so he snipes, "Did you close that doorway to doubt behind you, Cas?"

He sees the answering smile in his peripheral vision, and they sit in the dust in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Dean finds he's rubbing his brow. "What I said in Shoshoni, in the hospital, after Alastair," he mutters, and he swallows hard. "I meant it. I can talk the talk to Sam about taking Lilith down, but it's crap. I can't do this, Cas. Find someone else."

It's quiet for a minute before the angel replies. "Dean. You're the best man I know, and—"

"Tool," Dean cuts in crabbily. "You know a grand total of three men, and two of them don't even like you."

"Like I said before," Castiel continues patiently. "You're… different. Much good will come from you, Dean. I believe this."

His tone is assured, utterly convinced, it's faith, and Dean knows he's gaping back at the angel. "Don't you get it, Cas?" he says finally. "I folded for that kid, and you expect me to go up against Lilith? I can't do it. It isn't in me to do it."

Castiel is looking back at him and his face is set in stone, but there's something in his
eyes that might be sympathy.

"Fly away home, buddy," Dean says softly. "Tell the man upstairs he picked the wrong guy."

Ruby leans down, nips at Sam's neck as she licks away sweat. "Dean would have a cow if he knew we were using his car for this," she sniggers, but Sam's mind is only half on her.

"He's still saying he can do this alone," he murmurs, reaches up to wipe the red smear from his lips. "He damns himself, and he damns me too, when we could walk away."

Ruby stiffens slightly, looks up into Sam's eyes. "Walk away how?" she says sharply. "I didn't think there was an out clause."

Sam shakes his head, scowls. "There isn't, not officially. But he said something about using the hexbag to hide from the angels, and just leaving it all behind. We could do that, both of us, leave them to sort out the mess. You could make us some new hexbags and I could—"

"I don't think that's an option," Ruby cuts in, suddenly shrill, and it pulls Sam out of his reverie, has him looking up in irritation.

"I mean… it's too late, it's been set in motion," she continues, quieter now. "It can't be turned back, or postponed. Lilith's going to see this through. Hell on Earth, Sam, Violence, Cocytus, all of your brother's rambling – it's real, and it's coming to a theater near us if you and Dean don't step up to the plate and—"

"She'll kill him," Sam interjects, and his voice breaks on it. "She'll drag him back to Hell."

Ruby is shaking her head, her eyes glowing comfort at him, and something more than that, something like loyalty. Faith.

"No, no, no… it doesn't have to be that way, Sam," she races out. "That's where you come in, isn't that what I've been telling you all along? You're the ace up our sleeve, don't you see? No matter how you feel."

It makes something swell up in Sam, something that casts his worry and fear aside. "I'll tell you how I feel," he spits. He can see his knuckles flare white as he clenches his fists, and digs his fingernails into his palms, and his jaw is set so tense he can barely speak. "I'm holding something inside me," he grates out through gritted teeth. "It's like it's simmering. And I want to let it go, Ruby. I want to let it go right now, so badly. I'm this close… I want to hurt and destroy. I want to turn it all into ashes and dust. I want to make holes in the world, and switch off the sun, and boil the oceans."

Ruby nestles closer, rubs circles on his chest, and croons in his ear.

"That's good, Sammy. We can use it to make things right again. We can use it to make everything go the way we want it to."

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