Title: Metronome
By: nixa_jane
Pairing: gen
Rating: R
Warnings: Supporting Character Death. Evil Sam. Spoilers up to It's The Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester.
Summary: I see the end of the world in the lines of your hand.

He finds Sam covered in blood and laughing his ass off. That's his first clue.

Still, it takes awhile for it to sink in.

Castiel says, "Dean." He says, "Wake up" and "it's time" and "I'm sorry."

Sam left without any of his things. Castiel's not there either, by the time he opens his eyes. The manager of the motel says he didn't see a thing. The Impala's still there but the guy in the next room over is screaming because someone stole his truck.

Dean calls Bobby but he doesn't know anything. Ellen hasn't heard from Sam in a long time, but she says something's stirring. She says be careful. Missouri knew her way back when and gave her a call on the telephone just last week, told her to lock the doors and stay inside. She wouldn't tell her why.

Anyway Ellen doesn't have doors anymore. Since the Roadhouse burnt down she's been living out of her car.

Dean tells her to get a motel room. He tells her he'll be back in Kansas soon.

John used to know a witchdoctor named Alan. Alan isn't actually a witchdoctor, but he says he is, and he lives in a rundown RV that's painted with purple, and green, and black. He says he knows things no one else does. Dean thinks he's kind of nuts, but John has to buy his guns somewhere and Alan always gives him a good price.

He always reminds them that witchdoctors don't see the future. Alan says not to listen to anyone that does.

"More often than not," he tells them, "it's listening to them that gets you where they say you're gonna be."

John still visits Missouri every Sunday for the next two years, asking if she's heard anything from Mary yet. Dean never goes inside when he does. He stays in the backseat of the Impala, distracting Sammy with a deck of cards.

For some reason, Dean always had a sinking suspicion that crazy witchdoctor was right.

Ellen's on her third pack of Marlboros by the time he gets there. At first, she won't answer the door. Dean asks after Jo, but Ellen won't say much. Just that she's far away from them.

"When'd you last see him?" Ellen asks him, and her hands are shaking. Dean has to take the lighter from her, and spark the flame himself. He hadn't even known she smoked.

"Day before yesterday," Dean says. "He was just gone. I don't think something took him." He doesn't say, I think he just left.

And he doesn't say it was an angel that woke him. He doesn't know how much Bobby told her, or how much of his life is safe to know. He doesn't know how much of this she would even believe.

The thing of it was, Dean could hardly understand it himself. Mary always told him that angels were watching over him, but he hadn't actually believed her.

Looking back, he supposes that was his first mistake.

They go to see Pamela Barnes right after she comes home from the hospital. She's wearing a yellow-checkered dress, and blue-tinted glasses that do nothing to hide the black craters behind them. She knows exactly why they're there.

"Evil and good, demons and angels, Sam and Dean," she says, as one hand rests against the wall, trailing against it as she moves further inside. "You think it's so simple?"

Dean doesn't know what to say to that. It sounds a little like the answer to a question he doesn't know how to ask. Sam won't raise his eyes from the floor. For some reason he thinks this is his fault too.

Pamela's voice is surprisingly gentle. Dean thinks he'd be bitter, if he was her. "It doesn't work that way. Demons used to be either angels or lost souls, and that means two things. It means demons used to be good and angels can go bad. The only difference is what they are, on the particular day you deal with them."

She smiles slyly. Somehow she faces them directly, whichever way they turn. "The same can be said of all of us," she says. "Destiny is fluid. You can still make your choice. Choose your side."

"What if it's been chosen for us?" Sam asks. He finally raises his head, but she has no eyes for him to look into.

"If you believe that, then maybe you've already made your choice," she says. She sits at the table, and folds her hands on the surface. "But if you really believed that, then you wouldn't be here."

Since she's gone blind she sees a lot more than she had before.

Dean leaves Ellen in the room to buy her another pack of Marlboros and call Bobby on the payphone across the street. "Still no news," Bobby says. "I'm sure the kid's fine. I can check with Pamela, if you like."

"No," Dean says. "Don't do that. I'll find him myself."

He buys the cigarettes and sticks them in his back pocket. There's a pretty girl behind the counter but Dean doesn't have the time. He says thanks and then he's out the door.

He knows something's wrong before he gets there. The door is wide open and the salt has spread out into the street. Dean pulls his gun out before he enters the room, but Ellen's the only one there.

She's in three pieces on the floor.

What's weird, the people in the next room will say, is that we never heard a thing.

Three days before Sam disappears Castiel's reflection appears in the mirror as Dean is brushing his teeth. He spins around with the toothbrush still hanging out of his mouth and glares at him. "Do you mind?" he asks.

Castiel ignores him. "Sam troubles us," he says. "He's the last of Azazel's children, and he should be dead."

"Yeah, well, so should I," Dean snaps.

"Three times over, if I recall," Castiel says. "Three is a very special number."

Dean's eyes narrow. He continues to brush his teeth. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You've always been part of His plan, Dean, you've always done His good work. Sue Ann may have not been doing God's work, but Roy Le Grange was. He was telling the truth when he said that God guided his hand. There's a reason he choose to heal you over the rest of them. You're still needed here."

"I've been doing my father's work," Dean tells him. "Not yours."

"Be that as it may," Castiel says, "you might want to ask yourself who Sam is working for."

Dean leaves the room without touching anything. He drives fifty miles before pulling to the side of the road to have a breakdown. He slams the palm of his right hand against the dashboard until it's bleeding and bright red.

He hates leaving her behind. She needs to be salted and burned. Ellen would make a hell of a ghost, and he'd rather not take her on. He knows there's nothing he can do about it now. They'll call Jo when they find her wallet. Jo will have her cremated as quick as she can.

Dean calls Bobby up after he stops shaking and tells him that Ellen is dead. Bobby says to come right away.

Dean's phone is ringing the moment he sets it back down. The caller ID says Sammy, but when he answers it no one is there.

It happens their sixth night staying with Marty.

Dean likes him right away. He's got silver streaks in his hair and a steady grip on his gun, and Dean can't hardly remember another hunter besides Bobby that John would let come along. Anyway, with Sam gone off to school Dean will take all the friends he can get.

He's asleep in the cot that Marty laid out when he wakes to a hand on his forehead. Marty's been crying for what looks like half the night. "You don't belong here," he tells him. "Your daddy never should have let you see this life."

Then he takes Dean's pillow and tries to smother him. "Sleep," he tells him, "God needs you with him now." Dean figures the joke had been on him, because this was always exactly where God needed him to be. But back then he hadn't believed in anything but John, and it's John that saves him.

He pulls Marty off just as Dean's lips start turning blue. In the morning, John tells him that sometimes people just snap. He tells him, it wasn't anything you did.

Dean never asks John what he does with Marty, but he never sees him again.

Dean doesn't knock. The door opens when he turns the knob, and he's careful as he walks in. He remembers Ellen and her wide wide glossed over eyes and holds his gun tight enough to leave red marks on the skin of his palm.

He doesn't call out to Bobby. He steps silently as the door slips closed behind him. He walks through the dining room with its dusty china dishes in the cabinet on the right and the four rifles mounted up on wall on the left and he's terrified suddenly in a way he hasn't been since he stood in that hospital hallway and watched his father die.

He hears a scraping sound coming from down the hall, like metal against metal. He carefully turns the corner. He sees Sam standing there with a crowbar and the first thing he feels is relief.

But Sam is trying to pry his way inside of Bobby's custom-made monster-proof panic room, and he's laughing, covered in blood that Dean's pretty sure doesn't belong to him.

Dean's twenty-one the first time Sam saves his ass. The most embarrassing part about it is that they're not even on a hunt. Dean's hustling pool at this dive bar and Sam tagged along with his books, settled down in the corner to study and watch.

Sam's so tall it doesn't matter that he still looks fifteen, no one ever asks him for ID. Sam keeps telling him he's going to be leaving soon for Stanford. He tells him all the time like he thinks Dean might forget.

Dean takes four guys for three hundred dollars and they drag him out into the alley to get it back. Dean takes one out at the back of the knee and knocks another to the pavement with a sucker punch, but a third grabs him from behind, and the fourth starts punching him in the gut.

Sam comes out the doors calm as anything and pulls a gun. He tells them they had better let his brother go if they'd like to live. Dean falls gasping to his knees as they go running off and Sam carefully helps him back to his feet.

"You probably shouldn't hang out with guys like that anymore," Sam says. Like they ever meet anybody else.

Dean raises his gun to aim at his brother. "Just stay where you are," he says.

Sam looks so happy to see him that for a moment Dean is sure he has it wrong. Sam smiles and the crowbar clatters to the floor. "Oh," he says. "There you are."

Sam's hands are covered in dry, flaking blood. It's beneath his fingernails. It's in his hair. He doesn't seem to notice. "Sammy," Dean says, and he feels sick. He prays to the God he only just started believing in that Bobby's locked up in that room safe. "What are you doing?"

"I was looking for you," Sam says, in that 'duh' tone of voice he developed before hitting thirteen. "I didn't know where you were."

"You're the one that left," Dean says.

Sam looks confused. "That wasn't my choice," he says. "Castiel made me leave. He forced me out of the room. I couldn't get back in. I tracked you to Ellen."

Dean thinks he might throw up. He doesn't lower the gun. "You killed her," he says.

Sam shrugs. "She wouldn't tell me where you were," he says.

At first, Dean really liked Gordon Walker. Dean's never been the best judge of character. He'd looked up to Marty too.

When Gordon has him tied to that chair, and he's setting up the bombs meant to blow up his brother, he decides that Gordon's actually pretty screwed up in the head. Sometimes people just snap, his father had told him.

Gordon doesn't look apologetic, but he does look--something, not hesitant, maybe. Penitent. That's what it was. He says, "You're a damn good hunter, Dean."

The charges are all set. Gordon dusts off his hands and gets to his feet. "The problem is that you're also a man with a good heart."

"You say that like you can't be both," Dean says. The best men he knows are hunters. It doesn't matter that the worst men he knows are hunters, too.

Gordon pulls a handkerchief from a duffle bag and walks over to him. "You can't be," he says.

Gordon gags him then, so that's the end of that.

"You made me promise," Dean says, but moves no closer. "Do you remember that, Sam? Or are you too far gone?"

"I was drunk," Sam says. "I was drunk and you know it, and you only made that promise to shut me up. You never intended to follow through." Sam steps forward and Dean steps back.

"You're wrong," Dean says. "I always intended to follow through. I would have done it even if you hadn't asked me to. It's just that back then, I still didn't really believe I'd have to."

"You still don't have to," Sam says. His eyes are wide and innocent. Dean's suddenly glad that Sam's covered in blood. He wouldn't be sure otherwise.

"I think Ellen would disagree with you," Dean says softly. He presses the trigger just slightly further down. There's a click as it catches and he lets it go again.

"That wasn't my fault," Sam tells him. "She got in the way. I did what I had to."

"Don't we all," Dean says, and fires the gun.

Dean used to sign all of Sam's field trip permission slips and forge all of his doctor's notes for the days they were too tired from the hunt the night before. Dean knows John's signature better than his own by the time he's eleven years old.

Dean always worries a little about the way Sam and his father fight. He tells himself that it's only because Sam didn't know their mother. It's to be expected. He didn't know what John had been like before.

Dean tries his best to remember Mary. He tells Sam all the stories that he can. He tells him she was beautiful and used to sing them to sleep. He tells Sam that John used to make her laugh all the time, and she had a beautiful laugh. They both did. Things had been so different then. His stories always felt slightly like fairytales.

But Dean never once told Sam that angels were watching over him. Dean promised him that he'd do the job himself instead.

Sam takes the gun from his shaking hands. Dean's never missed a shot that close before.

His fingers had twitched last minute and the bullet had gone wide. It was buried somewhere in that metal door. Sam doesn't look all that bothered by the attempt. Dean doesn't fight him as he takes his other gun, the one strapped to his ankle. He just lets him do it.

This way it's not his fault. Sam's taken the matter out of his hands and there's nothing he can do. He couldn't kill him if he tried.

Sam blows his bangs out of his eyes. They're stuck together with Ellen's blood. It's streaked halfway across his forehead. "This is all that angel's fault," Sam says. "He should have just saved you and left it at that., but I suppose nothing comes without a price."

Sam's close enough that Dean can smell the death. He feels dizzy with it. Ellen had looked so terrified. She hadn't died easy but at least she had died quick. Dean hadn't been gone more than ten minutes.

Sam's eyes are still green though they're a little wild. Dean thinks how much easier things would be, if they were black.

"Christo," Dean whispers, but Sam doesn't flinch.

Dean hadn't really expected him to.

That time they were working at the circus Dean met a palm reader. On the decorated wooden sign outside the tent it said the Magnificent Magdalene, but her name was Edna Devine. She was nearing fifty and dressed head to toe in shimmering silver and blue, with sequins and a belt made up of sand dollars that had been pained black.

She watches Dean very carefully. "There's something about you," she says, and grabs his hand when he turns to leave.

She lets it go again with a gasp and backs away. She moves herself five feet away with the table between them, she's so afraid to touch him again.

She says, "I see the end of the world in the lines of your hand."

She tells him he'll either start it or he'll stop it. She tells him that it's up to him.

Dean pushes his way out of the tent. He figures it's a good thing he's never believed in palm readers anyway.

The funny thing is that Sam's the one that believes in God. All this time the only thing Dean's had faith in was the evil in this world. So he's not quite sure how they end up where they do.

"Don't look at me like that," Sam says. "Everything's fine. It is. You don't know, Dean, you don't know all the people I helped when you were away."

"You know, they say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions," Dean tells him. "And I would know the truth of it better than most."

Sam puts one of the guns in the waistband of his jeans. He taps the other against his thigh. "It's not like I meant to do it," he says. "I never touched Ellen. It just happened."

Dean closes his eyes and takes a breath. "Are you going to kill me?" he asks.

"No, Dean," Sam says softly. "You should know you don't have to ask me that. Everything I've done has been for you."

Dean forces his eyes back open. Sam's eyes are still bright and clear. "I can still help you, Sam," he says. "I can still save you if you let me."

"It's too late for that," Castiel says, from where he stands at the door.

The Campbell line has dealt in blood and bargains going way back. Samuel Campbell wasn't the first. His granddaddy taught him everything he knew. But that part isn't important, that's too far back. No one cares about them anymore. No one even knows where they're buried or if they even were.

What's important to know is this: Mary sold her second-born for her husband-to-be. John sold his soul for Dean's. Dean traded his in for a year and Sam's resurrection. An angel gave Dean his soul back while Sam tried his damndest to sell his.

It's all so ridiculous that Dean can't help but laugh every single time he thinks about it. It's not actually funny, but it's a case of there isn't anything else to do.

He got to see his mother once more after she died. She looks beautiful and just as he remembers. She looks Sam in the eye and tells him she's sorry.

All she says to him is Dean, but that's okay. She obviously had other things on her mind.

Castiel drops Sam to the ground with a touch of his hand.

Dean's beside him in an instant, searching for a pulse. Castiel tells him that he's still alive. Dean lets his hand rest on Sam's neck anyway. He carefully counts the beats. Sam's heart's always been a little faster than his.

Dean lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. He kicks the gun in Sam's hand across the floor. He can feel Castiel's eyes steady upon him. He's waiting to see what Dean will do.

Dean looks back towards the panic room. "Bobby?" he asks.

"Bobby's safe," Castiel says. He takes the gun from Sam's waistband and presses it in Dean's hand. "I suggest you keep it that way."

Stop him, Castiel had told him. Stop him or we will.

Dean's always been Bobby's favorite. He's tried not to let it show, but Dean's always been so pathetically grateful for the attention. Sam was everyone's favorite. It's not that Dean blames them. Sam's his favorite, too. Except Bobby, his favorite is Dean.

But Bobby never quite forgives him for selling himself the way he does.

Dean wants to explain it to him. He wants to say it wasn't much of a trade at all, because he was lost either way. Lost without Sam, so he may as well be lost with him. Bobby just doesn't get it. Bobby always believed Dean was worth something, with or without Sam. Dean never much came around those years Sam was away, so Bobby doesn't know what it was like. He doesn't know that Dean can't do it again.

Dean knows that his father, at least, would have understood. Everything he knows John taught him anyway.

The things Bobby had tried to teach him, he never quite learned.

Dean tells him that he's not going to kill his baby brother. He's just not. He'd sooner turn the gun on himself.

Castiel is expressionless, but his eyes are searching. Dean thinks maybe he honestly wants to understand. "He's gone," he says. "He's chosen the wrong side."

"No, that's not, he won't--" Dean can't say the rest.

"He's chosen his side," Castiel says again. "I suggest you choose yours. Are you with us, Dean?"

Dean still has his fingers pressed against Sam's pulse. He feels sick at the thought of making it stop. "Or what?" Dean asks quietly. "You drag me back to hell?"

"If you don't fight for us, Dean, I'm sure you'll get back there without any help from me," Castiel tells him. "You saw what he did to Ellen. She was your friend."

"My brother had that demon blood forced on him," Dean says. "It's no different than being possessed."

"Maybe," Castiel agrees after a moment. He kneels down beside Dean. He takes his hand and pulls it away from Sam. "But it's a possession that can't be exorcised. There's no cure."

"I don't believe that," Dean says.

"That's always been your problem, Dean," Castiel says. "You don't believe."

John's been acting strange for awhile now. He won't tell Dean what he's working on. Dean figures he's just angry about Sam. Sam's been packing for weeks. He's only got enough to fill a single suitcase, but he keeps putting everything in, and then taking it back out again.

Dean looks in his journal when John goes out for a drink. All that's written on the last page is Mary's maiden name.

That night John comes home smelling like alcohol, but his eyes are clear. He doesn't look drunk. "I've been thinking," he says. "You should probably keep an eye on Sammy."

Dean does not remind his father of Sam's plans to leave. He does not point out the suitcase sitting by the door. "You know I will," he says, instead. "I'd die before I let anything happen to him."

"That's not what I meant," John says, but he never explains it any further than that.

Dean always feels a little strange this close to Castiel. It's not like being close to anyone else. He makes no sound except for when he speaks. "Sam said you made him leave," Dean says. "What did he mean?"

"I could feel him turn," Castiel says. "I wanted him away from you so he was."

Dean glares at him. In the back of his head he's still counting out the beats of Sam's heart. "You shouldn't have done that. I might have stopped him."

"You couldn't have stopped him," Castiel says.

"I can still fix this," Dean insists.

"Look at him," Castiel says. Look. Look.

So Dean looks. Sam's eyes are all scrunched up they way they get when he dreams. One of his hands is resting with the palm spread against the floor. He looks like he had when he was five years old except that he's covered in blood.

Since Dean's acquired his very own guardian angel, he's been thinking a lot about what Pamela said. Angels aren't anything like those cute little cherubs on postcards or those Hallmark plastic figurines. He hasn't seen Castiel smile once. Dean supposes it all made a lot more sense once you remembered the devil had once been an angel himself.

Dean knows that body Castiel is wearing isn't his any more than that pretty little brunette is Ruby's. Castiel tells him that this man prayed for this like it makes the difference, but Dean doubts he knew what he was really asking for. He bets he got more than he meant to.

He doesn't know if he remembers everything the way the hosts of demons do. Maybe half those crazy people that say they see angels really do.

He wonders if when Castiel leaves he still feels those wings stretched out behind him like a phantom limb.

He wonders if it hurts.

"You made me forget Hell. Most of it, anyway," Dean says. "You can make him forget this."

Castiel looks up, away from Sam. He frowns. "You didn't belong there. That's how I took you out of Hell. That's how I took Hell out of you."

"If Sam just forgets the last few days, it could be different. I'll watch him closer this time," Dean says. He hates to plead. He does it anyway. He's made worse concessions than this to keep his brother safe. "You can have my life, you can have my soul, you can throw me back in Hell. Take everything but him. I don't care."

Castiel watches him pityingly. "You're entirely missing the point," he says. He reaches out and runs a hand through Sam's blood-soaked hair.

Sam starts screaming like he's being burned alive.

He wraps a holy water soaked rosary around the palm of his hand. He holds the cross at the middle with his thumb and forefinger like it’s a knife. He finds her not very far away. She pretends she's surprised when she sees him.

"Look at you," she says. "Looking good for someone damned."

He says nothing at first. He wraps his hand around her neck, with the cross pressed between them. Steam starts rising up where they touch and her eyes melt to black. "You stay away from my brother," he says. "You don't go near him. You don't touch him. You don't call him up."

He holds on until she nods. There is a bloody cross burned into the skin, imprints of little tiny roses on either side, and it doesn't escape Dean's notice that its not really Ruby he's hurt. He backs away from her. The rosary doesn't feel hot in his hand. It feels the same as it had before.

He wonders how he's never believed in God before this, when he's seen all his life what just a drop of blessed water can do.

"You think I've made him what he is?" Ruby asks, before he can leave. "Baby, I've been the one holding him back. Trust me, you're not gonna like Sammy loose in the world without supervision."

Dean feels a little light-headed as he moves away. He doesn't like that he believes her.

Dean thinks Sam is dead he's gone so still. "What did you do?" he demands.

"Only what you asked," Castiel tells him. He raises himself to his feet. "It will just happen again."

"You don't know that," Dean says.

"Your brother's been on borrowed time since he was six months old," Castiel says. "You should be grateful you had as long as you did."

Dean pulls his brother to him. Sam doesn't stir. Dean tries to wipe the blood off his brother's forehead and it flakes off into his hand. "If you really believe that, if you think I've got no chance," Dean whispers. "Then why did you try?"

"Because you asked," Castiel says, and he's gone.

Dean drags Sam back to the Impala. He buckles him into the passenger seat and drives away. He drives him far away from Bobby. He doesn't say goodbye.

Dean's making Sam pancakes. He had to drag a stool to the oven to do it, but John says he'll be having a growth spurt any day. He promised Sam one too.

Dean finds the recipe on the back of the Bisquick box and Sam insists he's never had one in his life. He wants to see what it's like. John hasn't been home for three days. He called yesterday, all he said was behave.

Sam's leaning across the table chewing on a pencil. Sometimes he doesn't look only nine years old. "Dean," he says. "I need your help!"

The first pancake burns black. Dean takes that one for himself. "What?" he asks.

Sam smiles over at him. "I have to write a report on the person I admire most," he tells him. "Can I interview you?"

Dean frowns. "Dad should be home tonight," he says.

Sam looks confused by this non-sequitur. "I'm asking you," he says. "You're the one I admire most."

He says it like: who else?

They're eighty miles out of Kansas before Sam wakes up. Dean holds tightly to the wheel. He doesn't call him Dorothy. He doesn't tell Sam where he's been.

The last Sam remembers they were going to sleep at a Motel 6. The last he remembers they were three states West of here. Dean expects Sam to ask more questions than he does, but eventually he just says, yeah, okay, and well, where are we going now?

Dean knows that if there's a next time he can't afford to miss. He knows he better not let it get that far. So he says they're going to do what they do best. Save people. Hunt things. Sam grabs a newspaper from the back seat and starts drawing neat little red circles around the oddest things.

Dean just keeps driving. He doesn't mention it, but he thinks it's a little strange that the one thing Sam doesn't ask him is why he's covered in blood.

Castiel says he'll be watching him. It's nothing like his mother made it sound.