The diner was noisy.
A pair of truckers were sitting at the counter, one snarfing up a hamburger while the other told jokes that he laughed at with his own raucous laughter. A trio of young women were arguing about the best route to get to Reno, and a man in a business suit slurped his coffee while nursing a runny nose.
The wait staff was slow and inefficient, marking the floor with muted squeaks between snaps of gum. Somewhere in the kitchen, there was the constant barrage of orders, which not even the constant clink of silverware on plates could entirely cover.
Life. Just going on and on, like nothing was different. Like everything was normal.
That thought almost made Sam want to laugh. For all his pining, it turned out he didn’t even know what that meant. Not then, and especially not now.
He sighed, bringing his attention back to his own booth. He had a plate of food in front of him--some kind of chicken sandwich, but it was overcooked and the lettuce was soggy.
Sam let his gaze flicker across the table, where Dean was shoveling an onion ring into his mouth. His brother barely paused to swallow before he picked up his chili dog again and stuffed it in his mouth, tearing off a sizable hunk.
Sam made a face.
How Dean could do that, was beyond him. And it wasn’t just the food. It was the fact that Dean could sit there and eat lunch with pleasant alacrity, like everything was fine, like everything was, well, normal.
Sam almost choked on his own incredulity.
Nothing was normal. Not Sam, not Dean, not their dad--not even the world. Their Dad was part demon, Sam had been raised from the dead, Dean could hear angels, and the apocalypse was coming--
The entire world was off its axis. There was a war coming, the war, and the Winchester brothers were smack dab in the middle of it.
Really, it was old news by now. Nothing more than they hadn’t known for weeks already. But, sitting there, in that diner, watching the world go meandering by, Sam just couldn’t get it out of his head.
The Trickster’s message was still there, after all. Lingering and undeniable, telling them in no unquestionable terms that it was time for them to play their part in all of this. They were merely actors in a play that the universe had penned a long time ago.
But what part were they playing, anyway? Everyone had something they wanted from the Winchester brothers but none of them seemed overly keen on letting them in on it. If growing up Winchester had taught Sam anything, it was that he wasn’t very good at taking orders on faith alone.
How did everything fit together? How did Bobby’s interpretation of Revelation fit with their father’s reappearance as a demon? What did Dean’s special angel powers really do? Could they really trust the angels? And how did Sam’s resurrection fit with all of this? What did Azazel want? What did the angels want? What did the Trickster really want?
And why did everyone seem to want them?
“Dude,” Dean’s voice cut into his thought. “Aren’t you even going to eat?”
Shaken from his reverie, Sam focused on his brother again. “What?”
Dean nodded toward Sam’s mostly untouched plate of food. “Aren’t you going to eat?” his brother repeated.
Sam eyed his food again, his stomach roiling in disgust. It looked even more unappetizing than it had before. He shook his head a little. “I’m not hungry.”
His brother rolled his eyes, sighing a little. “Yeah. Right,” he muttered.
“I’m not,” Sam protested, and it was true. He didn’t feel hungry at all. He didn’t even know how to think of food when life was like this.
Dean scoffed. “The food isn’t even that bad,” he insisted. “I know you like to be a princess most of the time, but this is ridiculous. Even for you.”
Sam couldn’t help but scowl. “I’m not a princess.”
Dean gave a small laugh, eyebrows raised. “Dude, you do remember that summer when we were kids when you wouldn’t eat anything but grilled cheese, right?” He continued. “I thought for sure Dad was going to tie you down and force feed you some fruit after you got constipated for the third week in a row.”
The memory wasn’t as much of an exaggeration as Sam wished it was. His scowl deepened, and he slunk back in his seat, sulkily. “Yeah, man, thanks for bringing that up.”
Dean shrugged, taking another large bite. “That’s what big brothers are for,” he said through a mouth full of food. He took a noisy drink from his glass of soda. “So, what do you think? You need me to order you a grilled cheese? I saw one on the kids' menu.”
At that, Sam did roll his eyes.
Dean chuckled a little. “Seriously, Sammy,” he said. “You’ve got to eat. Hunger strikes really aren’t so effective.”
“Because if you get weak enough, I’ll knock your ass out and stuff a candy bar down your throat.”
Sam shook his head. “No, I mean, what’s the point? Of this? Of going on like nothing is different? Eating in diners, chasing hunts?”
Dean paused, his humor fading. He took another drink before meeting Sam’s gaze with certainty. “Because that’s what we do.”
It was the cliched answer, the kind of line he’d been given all his life when he asked hard questions. He hadn't accepted it then, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to accept it now. “What is?”
Dean sighed, and for the first time since they’d gotten away from the Trickster, Sam saw his brother’s facade falter. Behind it, Sam could see exhaustion and resignation on his face. “Hunting, Sammy,” Dean said plainly. “We have to keep fighting the good fight.”
There was something genuine about the way Dean said it, but it wasn’t enough. Not with Heaven and Hell pulling them in all directions. “Why? Because the Trickster told us to?”
Dean face puckered. “No,” he said, his voice sharp. “I’m not doing anything for that son of a bitch."
“Then what?” Sam pressed. “The angels?”
His brother looked a little uncertain at that. Dean had told him most of what had happened during his encounter with Bob Marvin, but Sam had a feeling that the description didn’t do it justice. “I don’t know,” Dean said, softly now. He shook his head, as if to convince himself. “What else are we supposed to do? Roll over and quit? Let the damn demon win?”
Sam had to consider that. As appealing as walking away was sometimes, he couldn’t deny how hard it was. It had been hard enough when he was a teenager, and now the stakes were so much higher now. Too high. “We just...don’t seem to be helping anything,” Sam said finally. “I mean, the more we get involved, the more messed up this whole thing gets. If I had just stayed dead--”
Dean’s face went rigid, and his eyes sparked with a furious grief. “I wouldn’t finish that sentence,” he said tightly, daring Sam to contradict him.
Sam swallowed the thought back. He’d seen what Cold Oak had done to his brother. He nodded. “Okay, I'm sorry,” he said. “I just--sometimes, I don’t know if we can do this.”
“Of course we can,” Dean said.
The way Dean could talk, the certainty he could put in his inflection--Sam wanted to believe it. He wanted to believe it with every ounce of his being. But it was harder than it used to be. Harder than it should have been.
Licking his lips a little, he didn’t have the heart to disagree. But he couldn’t believe it yet. “And how can you be sure?” he asked, tentative and hopeful.
Dean didn’t even hesitate. “We’re Winchesters,” he said with confidence. “As long as we’ve got each other’s backs, we can handle anything. Even this.”
“You’re sure?” Sam asked.
Dean just rolled his eyes in an over dramatic show of annoyance. “Dude, ask me again, and I’m going to get offended.”
There was something in that--something in Dean’s cocky assurance that still hit Sam where it counted. As a big brother, Dean was almost unfaltering, and this was no exception.
Sam’s doubts, though many, could assent to this much. Together, maybe they could handle everything. The times when things really fell apart, the times that hurt the most, were always when they were separated. When their father sent Sam away in the hospital back in Missouri. When Azazel kidnapped Sam to Cold Oak. When Sam had been dead.
Yet, they were together now. Somehow, Dean’s right about that, it was enough. They’d always come out on top when unified, even when the odds were almost insurmountable.
Not to mention the fact that the game was still changing. While the demons were ramping it up a notch and their father was a wild card they didn’t want to predict at this point, there were angels in on it now. No matter what issues Sam had with them at the moment, no matter what doubts they caused him to have about himself, he couldn’t deny that having a little divine intervention was somehow heartening--something to hold onto.
Which was what they needed--now, more than ever.
Everything had been building. Ever since the fire took Jessica at Stanford, the events had been cumulating, slowly ebbing toward some kind of climax, a tipping point that Sam couldn’t fathom--didn’t want to fathom. After Jessica’s death, he had been certain he’d been through the worst, but every time, the bottom fell out and things just got worse. Azazel possessing their father. Dean almost dying in the cabin. A semi smashing the Impala. Finding his father dead.
But it didn’t end there. It never ended. Not with their father’s last secret, the growing mystery of Sam’s past with Azazel. The other psychic children. Cold Oak.
Even now, with their black-eyed father and mysterious angels who talked to Dean and were repulsed by Sam--how much more could they take? How much tragedy and heartache could one family actually bear? How many failures, how many twisted plans could they circumvent? Between Azazel and the Trickster, the angels and their father, Sam sometimes felt like they were nothing more than wayward buoys in a raging and unyielding storm.
Dean interrupted his thoughts. “By the way,” he said, swallowing down the last of his burger. “I found us a hunt.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it all seemed pretty obvious now. Dean’s pep talk was not merely for Sam’s benefit. Sure, that was part of the reason. But the other part? The other large part?
Was that Dean had a hunt in mind and he needed Sam focused if they were going to go after whatever it was.
Really, that was more reassuring than anything else. That in the midst of all of this, they could still find something to hunt, take care of it, and move on. Maybe that kind of hunt wasn't so pointless after all.
Sam laughed a little. “Yeah?” he said. “What is it?”
Dean settled back on his seat, a smug expression on his face. “You’ll never guess.”
“Yeah,” Sam said. “That’s why I asked.”
Dean’s chest seemed to swell. “A duppy.”
Sam paused. “A what?”
Dean’s grin grew to epic proportions. “A duppy.”
“You mean a Caribbean ghost?”
Dean’s face fell. “Dude, how did you know that?”
It took a great deal of willpower for Sam not to roll his eyes. “I’m a hunter.”
“So, I’m a hunter and I’ve never heard of it before.”
“So how did you know what this one was?”
Dean’s defenses flared, and he hunkered forward, shoulders hunched. “I can research.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sam said. “But we’ve been driving for two days straight. When did you have the time to look up duppies?”
Dean’s smile crept back on his face surreptitiously. “Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I heard about it from Karl Barnes.”
Sam’s mind worked to make the connection. “Wasn’t he an old buddy of Caleb’s?”
“Yeah,” Dean said, taking a drink. “Pretty random. We’d done a hunt together while you were in college, but we haven’t crossed paths since then. But last night I got this phone call from some unknown number and he had this tip for me.”
“Apparently he’d heard we were in the area.”
Sam frowned a little. “How would anyone know we’re in the area?”
Dean gave a shrug. “Bobby probably let it slip,” he said. “That old man’s been watching us like a hawk these days.”
There was no denying that. Bobby had been there for them through some hard times in the last few years, and the worse things got, the more of a mother hen the wizened hunter proved to be. “You think he’s keeping tabs on us?”
“Wouldn’t put it past him,” Dean replied nonchalantly.
“So did Karl tell you how to get rid of a duppy?”
“A ghost is a ghost,” Dean said. “Caribbean, American, or Russian. A simple salt and burn.”
“Is the duppy a human manifestation or an animal?”
Dean sat back, looking equally impressed and appalled. “You really know your crap, don’t you, Sammy?” He shook his head. “We need to get you some more porn.”
Sam just stared at him, mouth set firmly.
Dean rolled his eyes. “Animal,” he said. “Apparently it’s a pissed off alligator, haunting a warehouse in Council, Georgia.”
“Do we know what set it off?”
“You really want to know the story of an alligator before we go and get rid of it?”
When Dean said it like that, he did have a point. “What kind of trouble is it causing?”
“At first it was just sightings,” Dean said. Then he pulled out the newspaper, which was sitting abandoned at the far end of the table. He flipped a page, folding it before laying it in front of Sam. “Then we started getting a body count.”
Sam skimmed the article. “Three attacks in two weeks,” he said. “How do we know it’s not a real alligator?”
“Because how many alligators do you know that massacre people in a warehouse?”
“It could happen.”
“With no trace of an animal anywhere.”
Sam cringed. "You sure it's not the Trickster?"
Dean's face was set tightly. "That son of a bitch won't be coming anywhere near us, not as long as we're on track."
Sam sighed, knowing his brother was probably right. The Trickster liked to screw with them, but two sightings so close together was not likely. “Okay,” he said. “So how do we find our bones?”
“I figure, this thing a gator. It can’t be very smart. So it’s probably haunting the exact place where it died. I mean, a warehouse? If it wandered up that far, it probably got cut off from its food and water and croaked.”
“The warehouse,” Sam said, following his brother’s line of thought. He looked again at the article. “You know, the lore on these things is that they're spirits that escape an improperly secured grave site. If it’s still a new duppy, then it couldn’t have gone far.”
Dean snickered across from him.
Sam scowled. “What?”
“You said duppy.”
He shook his head, very much not amused by his brother persistent lack of maturity. “That’s what it is.”
Dean chortled again. “Duppy.”
“Are you done now?”
Sam pursed his lips. “I’m going to go pay the check.”
“Okay, okay,” Dean relented. “It’s just...this is what we need, Sammy.”
“You acting like a twelve year old?”
“No, a simple hunt. Something easy, in and out. Get us back on our game.”
For all of Dean’s juvenile behavior, he was right about that. Sam nodded resolutely. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I know it.”
Dean reached for his coat, sliding toward the edge of his seat. “Okay, then,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
Sam followed suit, feeling somewhat buoyant. It had been awhile since they’d done something easy. Since they’d stuck to the family business.
Though there were many things Sam wasn’t sure about, there was one thing he could never doubt. The Winchester brothers were together and stronger than ever. Angels, demons, duppies--here we come.
Duppies. No matter how many times he thought the word, it was still as funny as the first time.
This hunt was so awesome.
Between the alligator spirits and the bar connected to their motel, Dean wasn’t sure how it could possibly get better. Especially since it was going so damn well.
It was the textbook definition of the perfect case. They’d found the joint, cased it out, found the bones within five minutes, and had the thing salted before the thing even had a chance to rear its head. One strike of the match, and poof. Their scaly friend was gone.
The simple victory was one of the best natural highs Dean had ever known. Sometimes, in all of the mess of angels and demons, Dean forgot that he actually liked to hunt. Saving people, hunting things: the family business. It had always been everything he wanted, and it always would be.
The fact that Sam was there with him was just all the more awesome. And Sam was in good form, to the point and focused. This was good for them. Back to the basics. With all the crap they’d been through lately, it felt good to fight the battles they actually had a chance at winning.
That was what they needed. That was why Dean had jumped at this case. No matter how simple or unimportant it seemed, it was an important hunt for them. The Trickster had screwed with their heads at the wrong time, and Dean knew himself well enough to know that when things got too hard to deal with, it was time to kill something ugly and evil.
More than that, he knew Sam well enough to know that when the kid was about to fly off the rails with the stress of it all, he needed order and structure, something to check off his cosmically imbalanced to do list.
Yet, with the entire hunt over in less than five minutes, Dean had to stop and wonder: was it really that easy?
Sam stood next to him, watching the smoldering remains of the forgotten alligator. “That’s it?”
Dean gave the warehouse a look. It was empty, and he’d seen the duppy’s spirit vanish with a screech. “Yeah,” he said. “You know the lore better than I do. Salt and burn, and our friend duppy is no more.”
Sam fell silent for a moment. “I know,” he said. “It just...seemed, I don’t know. Too easy?”
Part of Dean wanted to agree. He was too well trained as a hunter not to be suspicious of something so wonderfully simple. But what could they have missed? They’d found the bones. They’d salted the bones. They’d torched the bones. They had watched the thing appear and disappear with the painful angst of a tortured spirit. There just wasn’t anything more than that. Doubts aside, sometimes they had to get lucky. “Are you going to complain after all of this that it was too easy? Really?”
Sam shrugged. “I guess not.”
Dean snorted. “Smart choice there, genius,” he said, shoving Sam a little. “So what do you say we celebrate our dearly departed duppy with a few beers?”
Sam’s forehead was still creased with concern, but he nodded. “I guess.”
Dean grunted with over the top annoyance. “You guess?” he said, turning toward the door. “You need to make up your mind, Sammy. First, things are too much. Then, things aren’t enough. If you’re going to keep playing Goldilocks, I’m going to put you in a blonde wig.”
Sam glared at him with familiar little brother gusto. “You’re a jerk sometimes, you know that?”
“Better than a little girl,” Dean joked.
There was a look of mild consternation on Sam’s face, but it was in good humor. His younger brother shook his head. “You’re--”
But the sentence was cut off abruptly, and before Dean could ask what was wrong, Sam was wrenched from his side, flying across the warehouse at an impossible speed.
Dean tensed, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. He pulled the gun from his jeans, pointing it wildly, trying to find their attacker. "Sam!"
There was nothing. No crazed duppy, no snapping alligator jaws. Just an empty warehouse and his brother sprawled at the base of the far wall.
“Sam!” he called out again, fear taking hold in the pit of his stomach. He took a step toward his brother, intent on helping him, when an invisible force pulled at him as well.
Before he could blink, the air was rushing past his ears and he was flying. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a duppy. It was something worse. Something much, much worse. Sam had been right, maybe this had been too easy, maybe it wasn't just a duppy--
His mind flashed to his brother, prone on the floor, and his last thought was of Sam before everything went black.
The first thing Sam was aware of was that he was tied down.
It was a disconcerting feeling, needless to say, but one that he’d had before. With moderate frequency, in fact. That didn’t make it any less unsettling, however. Sam supposed there were just some things in life he’d never get used to.
His second thought was that this wasn’t quite the same as normal. He’d been bound in a variety of ways, especially over the course of the last two years. Tied to a metal post in a sewer with a rope around his neck. Hands bound in front of him while he watched a shifter wearing his brother’s face taunt him. Roped against a beam while hunting Meg in Chicago. Tied to a chair by a handful of vegetarian vampires.
But this time was...different.
It took him a minute to put it all together. The cold feeling of shackles on his wrists, his ankles, biting into his exposed skin. His shoes were gone, but that wasn’t the only thing that was gone. His shirt had gone missing somewhere along the line, and his back was pressed firmly against cold, flat stone.
All in all, he was wide open and vulnerable. He could finagle knots and he could pick handcuffs, but breaking shackles? Was a bit out of the realm of his experience.
He gave an involuntary shiver. From the cold, from his vulnerability, he wasn’t sure. Both, probably, and more. It was enough to make him want to panic. After everything they’d been through recently, all the ups and downs, this was a turn he hadn’t been expecting and that he didn’t know what to do with.
It was the tipping point, all over again. Everything building and building, so uncontrollably that he had no choice but to be swept away in it, no matter where fate took him.
With a steadying breath, he heard Dean’s voice in his head. As long as we’ve got each other’s backs, we can handle anything. Even this.
But Sam didn’t know what this was.
His mind reeled at that, trying to piece it together and remember where he was and what happened.
The memories of the hunt came back to him. Sam could remember Dean’s simple pleasure in a job well done. His brother had wanted to get a drink to celebrate--
The thought of his brother brought Sam back to full awareness. If Sam was trussed up and vulnerable, that meant Dean was probably not doing so well himself. For as unsettling as Sam found his own situation, the idea of his brother being in a similar position was simply unbearable.
He startled awake, flinching in his bonds, and quickly finding that he couldn’t get far. The cold was sharper now, and the prickling of his exposed skin suddenly seemed even more unnerving. Sam was a modest kind of guy, and he liked his layers of clothing. He would be uncomfortable shirtless anywhere outside a motel room. So shirtless and bound? Was high on his list of really crappy things.
At least he still had his jeans, for what solace that was.
Which wasn’t much, if Sam was honest. Awake now, he realized that it wasn’t just stone he was on--it was an altar. He’d been in the hunt long enough to know that flat surface rock formations weren't all that common naturally, especially in rundown warehouses. More than that, altars were among some of the favorites for a variety of supernatural entities.
That also explained the shackles. If something had taken the time to erect an altar, then it had also taken the time to secure its victims properly.
But why here? Why the warehouse? Why hadn’t they seen these during the hunt?
The thought of the hunt made Sam’s head spin. It had been easy--too easy. In and out, piece of cake. Nothing went that well.
Except when the hunt was just the set up.
Sam shuddered against, swallowing hard against a growing lump in his throat.
The hunt had been a trap. It had been easy because it had been nothing more than a decoy to bring them here. For what, Sam didn’t know. He didn’t want to know.
First things first; he had to get back on track. Where was Dean?
Craning his neck as best he could, Sam tried to get a better view of the place to find his missing brother. It was dark and nondescript, illuminated by flickering candlelight. There was a single bare bulb from the ceiling, casting a pallid glow over the area.
They were still in the warehouse. Sam remembered the bare bulb from their hunt, and the drooping ductwork on the ceiling. But despite those vaguely familiar landmarks, he was beginning to realize that things were different, too. Straining, Sam could make out a sizable shape to his right that had not been there before. Gray and sturdy, Sam recognized it for what it was.
Another altar, complete with shackles and chains and Dean.
His brother’s face was turned toward him, squinting in the dimness. “You with me yet, Sammy?”
It took a moment for his eyes to really focus, but soon his brother’s form came into clearer view. While seeing that Dean was alive was a relief, the fact that his brother was also half-naked and shackled only added to Sam's growing panic.
Sam swallowed again, trying to ignore the fluttery feeling of butterflies in his stomach. “Yeah,” he said, and his voice wavered a little. “Did you see what it was?”
Dean snorted a little. “Didn’t see a damned thing,” he said. He turned his eyes to the ceiling appraisingly. “But I know one thing. The duppy--”
“Was a trap,” Sam finished for him.
“Yeah,” Dean agreed, a twinge of somberness in his tone. “Figures, you know? A nice easy hunt. We get rid of the thing, go about our business. Simple for everyone involved. That’s really not so much to ask for every now and then.”
Sam held back a grimace. “Apparently it is,” he said, pulling experimentally at his bonds.
Across the room, Dean scowled. “No, it’s not,” he said. “And don’t start up with the woe-is-us crap again, okay? This is a coincidence.”
That was almost funny to Sam. “Getting knocked out and shackled is one hell of a coincidence,” he mused.
“Yeah, well, we’ve seen weirder,” Dean groused.
Even with things as they were, Sam didn’t have the heart to contradict him. Besides, they had bigger issues to worry about. “So what do you think it is?”
Dean yanked at his chains, bucking a little, and the clatter echoed off the ceiling. “Something with way too much time on its hands,” he said. “I mean, altars? And shackles? Driven into stone?”
Sam sighed a little, chewing at his lower lip. “And how come we didn’t see them before?” he asked.
“Beats me,” Dean replied. “We scoured this place. It was clean.”
“But not secured,” Sam said.
“We didn’t need it to be secure.”
“So we could be dealing with anything,” Sam said, thinking.
Dean huffed, his chains clinking again. “These altars are real,” Dean gritted out while squirming fruitlessly. “I’m not thinking we’re looking at something noncorporeal. Ghosts can do some crazy ass stuff, but altars?”
Sam nodded a little, twisting his wrists, looking for a weakness. “And these are too refined for some kind of cut-and-dry monster.”
Dean jerked, falling back panting against his altar. “And they’re too damn secure to be built by a human,” he said. “Not in that little amount of time--we couldn't have been out that long.”
Sam frowned. That didn’t leave much. “You thinking maybe it’s a demon?”
In disgust, Dean grunted, giving a loud pull on his chains again. “I guess that’s kind of like c,” he said.
Sam looked at him quizzically.
Dean turned his head back toward him, grinning. “The answer you’re supposed to pick when you don’t know something on a multiple choice test. C. It’s the most common answer.”
As dire as the situation was, Sam had to shake his head at his brother persistent ridiculousness even in the face of unknown dangers.
Dean did his best attempt at a shrug. “These days, for us,” he said. “Seems like demons are popping up all over the place. Our good old supernatural fallback.”
“Yeah, some fallback,” Sam said, eyes scanning the room again. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re kind of screwed.”
“We’re not screwed,” Dean said. Then he grinned again. “We’re shackled.”
“Dean, come on,” Sam said, feeling a surge of familiar annoyance.
“What?” his brother asked innocently. “Shackled is better than screwed. Trust me.”
Sam just shook his head, letting his gaze linger above him. “Yeah, and do you have a plan to get out of this one?”
“We have to meet the son of a bitch first.”
Sam glanced back at his brother. “You think it’s working with Dad?”
Dean’s face hardened a bit. “We don’t know what Dad’s up to,” he said. “And why would he chain us?”
“Why did he try to kill us last time?”
“It could be your old friend Azazel,” Dean muttered.
Before Sam could respond, a new voice cut him off. It was as cold as the stone beneath him and as light as the dancing shadows of the candlelight, lilting with an uneven accent Sam didn’t recognize.
“Interesting speculation, boys,” it said, smooth and sickeningly sweet. It came from the dark, ringing across the room with an atemporal quality. “The rumor has it that the pair of you is quite special. I’m not sure why, though. So far, I must admit, you haven’t quite lived up to the zealous expectation.”
Sam struggled, moving his head as far as he can to get some kind of glimpse. Finally, he could see a figure loitering in the shadows, just beyond the hazy light. From what Sam could tell, the figure was tall, maybe a little taller than Dean, but skinnier than either one of them. It was standing, back to them, facing some kind of table.
“Yeah, well, sorry to disappoint,” Dean said. “Maybe if you’d called first, we would be able to put on a better show.”
There was a soft laugh. “At least you’re twice as entertaining as they said,” it countered. “So maybe not all is lost.”
That piqued Sam’s interest--the first palpable clue as to who this was and what it wanted. “They who?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady. “Who are you?”
The figure shook its head. “So many questions,” it said, almost in amusement. Then it picked up a something off the table. At first, Sam couldn’t tell what it was, but then Sam saw the glint of polished, gleaming metal, and recognized the blade.
The figure seemed to inspect the knife, continuing his leisurely conversation. “I hope you can answer questions as well as you can ask them.”
“Depends on the questions,” Dean mocked, his bravado strong. "I don't get personal until the second date."
It was reassuring in a way. Even shackled and vulnerable, his brother could pull out all the stops. Dean was an artful poker player sometimes, with falsities so ridiculous that they had to be respected.
The thought bolstered Sam, and he locked his jaw as the lean figure turned toward them.
The long face was twisted into a grin, which looked more than somewhat macabre in the uneven glow of the surrounding candles. There was a well-trimmed beard, and it donned a simple dress shirt, buttoned to the top.
But that wasn’t what caught Sam’s attention. No, it was the eyes. Even from a distance, Sam could see them clearly, gleaming with the sinister blackness of the demonic.
Its eyes lingered on Sam before flickering to Dean. “I do disagree,” it said.
Glancing at his brother, Sam saw Dean stiffen, but he belied it well. “Well, you can disagree all you want,” he said. “Just tell us what the hell you want.”
The demon inclined its host’s head. “It’s not what the hell you want,” it said, with dry amusement. “It’s that hell wants you. Isn’t that right? Sam and Dean Winchester?”
At that, Sam went rigid with anxiety. This wasn’t a random trap. This had been set specifically for them, and they had fallen for it. Now, they were nothing more than worms on a hook, with nowhere to go.
Dean, ever the big brother, remained obstinate. “How do you know our names? You been checking out Hell Quarterly?”
The figure did not respond to Dean’s harsh humor. Instead it stepped forward, looking far too conversational. “I know everything about you,” the demon told them simply. “I know your birthdays. Your favorite foods. I know how old you were when you went on your first hunt, Dean, and I know that Sam believed your father was a traveling salesman until he was eight.” Then, it frowned. “I know everything except the one thing I really need to know.”
Sam’s voice was gone, stuck painfully in his throat.
Even Dean sounded strained when he spoke. “Yeah, and how would you know anything about any of that?” It was as much of a challenge as it was an honest question.
Lifting the knife, the demon fingered it, letting it slide through his fingers with a supernatural dexterity. “Let’s just say, I spent some...quality time with your father when he was down under.”
It was Dean’s turn to blanch, which did nothing for Sam’s growing fear. He felt himself tremble, from the cold, from what this demon had to say. “You knew our father in Hell?” Sam asked, almost afraid to know.
The face lit up. “Knew him? Why, I was his mentor. John and I grew very close.”
“You’re a liar,” Dean seethed, and out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw his brother straining against his bonds with a newfound intensity.
The smooth smile returned. With undeterred calm and confidence, the demon sauntered over to Dean. Sam tensed at the movement, his first instinct to protect his brother.
But he was helpless. He just had to lay there--and watch.
The demon got closer, standing easily in Dean’s line of sight, his back toward Sam again. “He knew you’d never forgive him if he broke,” it said. “For years, I tortured him on my table. Twisting my knives, deeper and deeper, carving up his skin and his insides until there was nothing but blood and guts. Anything to get him to give in. To get off the table and join me instead of continuing his pointless resistance. It was you, Dean, that made him stay strong as long as he did. He made it longer than most. You should be proud of that.”
Though it was hard to see, Sam watched his brother writhe, muscles bunched with a pent-up tension as he thrashed against his bonds.
Then, the demon turned, smirking in Sam’s directions. Sam’s heart skipped a beat, and he fidgeted, wishing he had something he could do to protect himself, to shield himself.
“He always sort of figured you’d understand though,” the demon continued.
Up close, Sam could see the host’s face more clearly. There were crow’s feet around the eyes and friendly wrinkles around his mouth. In his real life, this man might have been friendly. Benevolent. But the unnatural emptiness of his eyes made the expression sadistic.
“That was the solace he had in finally getting off the rack. He knew one son would always join him down there someday. Isn’t that right, Sam?” It paused, wetting its lips as it leaned closer. “By the very blood that flows in your veins.”
On the other side of the room, Sam didn’t have to see his brother to know that he was going ballistic. Sam heard his brother’s voice ground out a string of obscenities that are almost lost beneath the sound of metal on stone.
For his part, Sam just went numb.
The demon didn’t stop, keeping his dark gaze keenly on Sam’s face. “You feel it, don’t you? You feel the darkness that’s in you. Just waiting for you to give in.”
Sam tried to shake his head, but he was frozen.
“They always give in,” the demon continued. “Maybe we should just speed things up.”
The demon straightened, the knife flashing in the air as he raised it swift and easy above Sam’s head.
Dean was still yelling, but Sam couldn’t hear anything now--nothing beyond the pounding of his own, tainted heart.
The knife descended before Sam could blink, and for a second, Sam knew he was going to die.
The second passed, and Sam breathed, blinking in confusion, his eyes wet with tears.
The knife was next to him, standing erect, embedded in the chiseled stone of Sam’s altar.
The demon laughed, stepping away.
“Sam?” Dean called. “Sammy, did that son of a bitch hurt you? Sam!”
Sam tried to find his voice, tried to find his courage, but the doubt was almost overwhelming now. It was worse than at the diner, it was worse than seeing their father. Almost worse than dying. Because, for the first time, he never saw it coming.
“Pardon me, boy, where are my manners?” the demon crooned. “I don’t believe I formally introduced myself. My name is Alastair.”
“Yeah, well, Al, I’m going to give you one chance,” Dean said. “Let us go and I won’t rip your black smoke out of that body and stuff it back to Hell, okay?”
Alastair gave Dean an appraising look. “Such defiance,” it mused. “Just the way I like it. Makes it all the more entertaining to break you.”
“Why?” Sam asked, almost surprised to hear his own voice. Because this was a demon--it didn’t need a reason. They craved death and destruction, chaos and control. Yet, Sam knew it was more than that. There were no such things as coincidences. Not in life, not in death. Not in torture.
Alastair looked at him, something akin to surprise on the host’s own benign features. “Why?” it repeated, almost as if it couldn’t believe what Sam had said.
Sam fought the dryness in his throat, keeping the growing fear at bay. “Why us?”
The demon looked pleased at that, his head cocked ever so slightly, entertaining Sam’s inquiry. “There are many reasons, of course,” Alastair said easily.
Limber fingers plucked a new knife from his belt, twirling it and catching it by the hilt before tapping the blade thoughtfully against his chin. “John was my student, you see. More than a student, really. My best pupil. My star. All my years in Hell--and trust me, they were long--I had yet to find a worthy protege. But John Winchester.” The demon sighed, in something like wistful fondness. “He would be the one to stand by my side for the centuries. Together, we could have been unstoppable. The Demonic Duo.”
Sam kept his eyes on Alastair, too aware of his brother’s muffled attempts to find a weakness in his bindings. Monologuing was a demonic weakness, one that Sam hadn’t intended to exploit, but might as well utilize now that he had the chance. “Funny, my dad’s always been more of a solo flyer. His way or the highway.”
Alastair lifted a single brow quizzically. “Allies may be convenient on Earth. They are vital in Hell. I saved John’s life.”
Sam smiled grimly, willing himself not to look at his brother and give away the game. “You tortured him.”
“I broke him of his foolish human pride.” Alastair shot back. “He didn’t need it. It would only hurt him--hinder him. I made him what he is. Strong and beautiful. And then, after everything, John went and joined him. That Yellow Eyed idiot.”
The demon’s tone was mocking and resentful. Demons certainly weren’t above such petty emotions, but there was something more to this. Something Sam hadn’t counted on. “You mean Azazel?”
At the name, Alastair sneered. “John was meant for better things than that. He is the one, you know. The one who started all of this. This beautiful chaos.”
“Started all of what?” Sam pushed, as much to give his brother time to escape as to know the answer.
The black eyes danced, a pleased smile on the face. “The Apocalypse, of course,” he said. “Surely you know the prophecy. As well-read as you are. Even Dean, who is rustling pointlessly in his chains, should know it.”
Across the room, Dean stilled.
Alastair turned to him with a wicked grin. “You’d be more effective with a Latin chant than going after the chains,” it advised. “Demons have their vulnerabilities. Cast iron, might stop some of the lesser of us. Might even give me a good tickle. But a bullet to chest? Would be only somewhat bothersome.”
Dean cursed, yanking at his chains hard, rattling them loudly.
The demon seemed unfazed. “There are seals, yes? You know of them?”
“Revelation 6:8,” Sam said. “We already saw the first one.”
“Yes, that one was quite nice,” Alastair agreed. “But it was hardly the first one. No, the first one started before, on a torture rack in Hell.”
Sam’s heart skipped another beat, his throat constricting further. Even his brother was silent.
“You really don’t know this?” Alastair asked. He shook his head. “Your human texts are more flawed than I believed. That a righteous man shall break in Hell and set the whole thing in motion.”
“A righteous man?” Sam questioned.
“I know, who would have thought your daddy as such a thing?” the demon mused. “But it was the nature of his death. A soul for a soul. The moment John sacrificed his very essence to bring Dean here back, he became the epitome of selflessness. Our malleable, righteous sacrifice. I had to work for years on him to get him to break.”
“Years?” Dean said. “He was only there--”
“Time works differently in Hell, silly boy,” Alastair chided. “Which is why I expected earthly millennia to pass before the next seals fell. The natural order is often very slow. Methodical. But Azazel--your yellow-eyed friend--is trying to pervert it. Manipulate it for his own personal gain. We’re not supposed to make it happen. We’re supposed to let it happen. But there he is, defying cosmic order and making the entire thing one sloppy mess.”
There was something true about that--the means and ends, an age-old human debate. Sam had always thought of it as an us or them proposition. Evil was evil was evil, and the proof was always in the actions. While some creatures might have had the will to deny their base desires, some of them couldn’t fight their inevitable calling. Sam had always been able to see the shades of gray, but he clearly knew the black and white of it all, too. These layers of evil, these factions--they were things Sam hadn’t considered.
Things Sam wasn’t sure he wanted to consider.
Dean grunted with laughter. “You’re worried about the mess?”
Alastair’s borrowed eyes narrowed. “My chaos is rooted in order. My destruction is grounded in methods. Azazel is breaking all the rules, letting evil buck untamed in earth and hell.”
“Oh, that’s rich,” Dean countered, with a distinct air of mocking, but Sam could tell, the entire conversation was just as unsettling for his brother as it was for him.
“Do explain,” Alastair prompted, with genuine curiosity.
“Power,” Dean said. “I get it now. Why you set us up. This is nothing more than a pissing match between you and Azazel. He got your student, and now you want to get back at him by screwing with his latest pet project.”
Alastair’s grin was as wide as the Chesire Cat. “Perhaps,” it agreed. “Though not as many demons as you would think actually back your friend Azazel. John Winchester is one of the few. And I need you two to tell me why. Why him? Why you two? Why did he pick your family out of all the little families?”
Sam shook his head in protest. “We don’t know anything,” he said, and it was mostly the truth. Because what did they know? That Dean could talk to angels? That Sam couldn’t because he’d been fed demon blood as a baby? That Azazel had pulled him from the dead?
These were things they knew, but they were useless facts without any context. Just a garbled mess of tired and twisted facts. No master plans; just the same Winchester tragedy.
“Time will tell,” Alastair said, clearly not convinced. “And in the end, even if you don’t know, you two do seem to be linked to his plans. He foiled my plans, and by taking the two of you, I may very well foil his. Revenge.” He sighed, almost in contentment. “It is sweet, isn’t it?”
Sam had heard demons make threats for the better part of his life. He knew of their overconfidence, the propensity to make bigger claims than they could back up. He’d been trapped by them before, he’d been taunted by them and hurt by them.
And they had never terrified him more than now.
The tipping point, he couldn’t help but think. Only he was bound to fall into despair, him and Dean both, with nothing and no one to catch them.
Moving forward again, Alastair pulled the knife out from beside Sam’s head with his free hand, brandishing both in front of him with a grin. “Now,” he said. “Who first?”