This story is also available at this location on The Archive of Our Own, where all my current stories and comments can be found. I am no longer updating this site.

Notes: Written for Sweet Charity for giandujakiss. This goes AU early in SPN Season 3 and right after the first “episode” of Buffy Season 8. Thanks to geekturnedvamp for beta and giandujakiss for accepting a shift in her scenario!

 

 

It went to shit in Waterloo, Iowa. They'd just iced a demon who'd possessed a college professor and had been inducing his students to cheat, steal, and even murder, so that went okay. But when they were on the way out of town, they ran into a roadblock. It looked like a sobriety checkpoint—college town, right?—but no sooner had they stopped, ready to give the sheriff's deputies smiles and fake IDs, than they were swarmed with black-suited SWAT guys and ordered out of the car.

They left the Impala on the road, to suffer who knew what damage from careless towing. Dean yelled out for them to be careful with her, but it wouldn't help unless there was someone on the force with respect for the classics.

Henricksen was waiting for them—smiling like a motherfucker—at the station. He had their legs chained to their chairs and their hands cuffed behind their backs. Small-town station, nothing fancy in the way of security, cuffs as old as the toothpaste-green paint peeling off the walls. It wasn't impossible, as long as they had some metal and some time to work, but Henricksen didn't seem likely to give them either.

Dean grinned up at him, trying to take the focus off of Sam. Sam was already wired, more than ten months of searching for a way out of Dean's deal and nothing to show for it, and there was no telling what he'd say to Henricksen if Dean didn't run his mouth entertainingly.

"I've been waiting a long time for this, Dean," Henricksen began.

Dean sneered. "Why wait any longer, then? We both know what you want, and we both know you've got only one thing to offer."

"You gonna give it to me?" The FBI agent stared hard at him, not as gleeful as he should have been, and that was how Dean knew that he'd set the hook right: it wasn't going to be over for Henricksen unless he beat Dean, not just caught him.

Sam was looking back and forth between them with some confusion.

Dean shrugged, as best he could, and winked. "You want me to say it, fine. Give me a deal that my lawyer says puts Sam clear, I'll roll over. Write the whole thing down. Check my spelling even."

"No!" Sam said immediately. Dean tuned him out.

Henricksen smiled. "You know some of this, it's death-eligible."

No way he'd make it to trial, not unless the justice system magically sped up to match Law & Order. So it wasn't bravado at all that let him smile back and say, "We're all death-eligible, Special Agent."

And that was when the door burst open and the guys rushed in. Dean saw a hood going over Sam's head before his own vision was obscured. He yelled, thrashing against the cuffs. There was a painful pinch in his shoulder. Then, blackness.

****

Dean woke to renewed darkness. He was sitting on something chair-like. The hood was still on his head, the fabric rough against his forehead and one cheek. He could feel a constant current of warm, dry air over his hands. He was inside, then.

Usually his unconsciousness stemmed from a head injury. This was drugs, not a whack to the noggin, and he could tell it in the way the world still seemed slow. His tongue felt swollen and dry; his mouth tasted like bone ash. He smacked his lips a couple of times.

He began wriggling his wrists, which were still secured behind him. The cuffs had been changed to plastic immobilization ties, tight enough that he could feel the welts on his skin as he rubbed against his bonds. Even dislocating his fingers wouldn't be enough to get him out. At least his legs were free, though if he stood up he'd have to take the chair with him for at least a few seconds, and that would hamper his movement. He rocked the chair just a little. It wasn't attached to the floor, and it felt like metal—bad news, harder to break apart than wood. A blind attack just wasn't going to work, even if he caught his captors off-guard.

"Sam?" he said.

"Dean," Sam said, his voice overflowing with relief and terror. Sam was about five feet in front of Dean, slightly to the left.

"You got any idea what's up?" he asked, doing his best nonchalance. Okay, not exactly—his best nonchalance involved him being the one holding the gun, or the cards, or whatever—but as close as he could get under the circumstances.

"What's up, Mr. Winchester," said a man's voice in his ear, "is that you're in the underworld now."

Dean couldn't help himself. He snorted.

"You think this is funny?"

I think you're confused about the whole 'underworld' concept, he thought—but what if it were true? Having Sam near, in danger, but unseen—if they started to hurt him, that would pretty much define Dean's hell, right there. It was nearly a month early, though. No way the demon would jump the gun by three weeks. That'd probably invalidate the deal. Still, no harm in playing cool. "No, but if you're a hot chick, it could be fun."

"Right now," a new voice said, off on the other side—not too near Sam, thanks for small favors—"you two don't exist. You're enemy combatants, and we can do anything we want to you."

"Enemy combatants?" Sam repeated. It was a good use of his snide, disrespectful tone, Dean thought. Also: he agreed with Sam. What the hell?

Someone cut the ties off his hands, and he brought them forward and started to rub at his wrists, feeling for damage beyond the superficial. The hood came off next. He was across from Sam, who looked unhappy but unharmed, and who was massaging some feeling back into his own hands.

Footsteps indicated that at least some of the people who'd brought them in were leaving the room. It was white, undecorated, just a table and a few chairs. No windows. The kind of room nobody left before getting hurt a little. Sam and Dean were the only ones sitting.

Dean could see three men—soldiers, looked like, each wearing fatigues without any identifying labels. He labeled them Black Buzzcut, White Buzzcut, and Hispanic Buzzcut. White Buzzcut had a bunch of file folders, not bulging and dogeared the way hunters' files got, but crisp and neat. Hispanic Buzzcut was holding something rectangular in his hands.

"We need you to do a job for us," Hispanic Buzzcut began. By the way they stood in relation to each other, Dean guessed that Black Buzzcut was in charge, but Hispanic Buzzcut knew more about the operational situation.

"The military is outsourcing," Sam said consideringly. "Don't you guys have Blackwater for that sort of thing?"

Hispanic Buzzcut ignored this as if he'd expected it. "There's a powerful witch and a demon-influenced woman leading a cabal that is a threat to national security. You will infiltrate their group and take out the two leaders. If you do that, we'll erase your records and let you go with the thanks of a grateful nation."

"Say what?" Dean asked, even though he didn't expect an answer. For one thing, that deal was just too sweet to be believed.

White Buzzcut continued. "And just so you don't get any ideas about double-crossing us, we've installed fail-safes. In your chest, right by your heart, there's a device that will take you and everyone around you out if we push the button. It's enchanted against tampering. If you try to disarm it, it will explode. Let's be clear: if either one of you disobeys us, we'll kill the other one. Then we'll go after your pal Bobby Singer."

Okay, they really did have good intel about the Winchesters, Dean had to admit. He kept his face as still as possible, but that really didn't matter.

"Why us?" Sam asked after a moment.

"You're well-known in the supernatural community; you can get in without raising too many suspicions."

And we're expendable, Dean thought, but it was kind of obvious.

They looked at each other, then shrugged simultaneously.

"I'm going to need all the information you have," Sam said.

White Buzzcut tossed a few files onto the metal table. Sam reached out and started reading the one on top.

"Don't you want to read them too?" Hispanic Buzzcut asked Dean.

Dean shook his head. "All I need to know is how to kill them," he says. "And Sam'll tell me that."

"Actually," Black Buzzcut said, "we want you to cut off the Slayer's head. It's the only way to be sure. And there's a special requirement for the witch. We need her heart, and she needs to be alive and awake while you cut it out of her."

Sam looked up, shocked out of his immersion in the pile of paper. Dean controlled his own reaction into not much more than a flinch.

"That's—" he said.

"None of your business," White Buzzcut said.

Black magic. Sam and Dean exchanged another look. Hell, maybe the military wanted the witch's heart for really good reasons. Not like Dean could spit on someone for making a deal with evil things. Sometimes you had to get your hands dirty; that's how they'd been raised, and regular soldiers couldn't be much different.

Still, it was one thing to sell your own soul and another to kill someone else's—because blood magic like that would enslave the witch's soul, no doubt about it.

Screw her, anyway. Came down to her versus Sam, which meant there was nothing at all to consider.

"One more thing," Hispanic Buzzcut said.

Of course there was. "Yeah?" Sam asked.

"Her heart goes in this box," he said, putting it on the table. It was honey-colored wood, incised with a complicated set of knots on the top. Dean picked it up, turned it over, and saw the same design on the bottom, only reversed. Nothing on the sides, but when he opened the clasp, the inner top and bottom had wood blocks attached in a different pattern, this one all right angles and dead ends. The wood was about half an inch high; it looked like a Chinese design, or a labyrinth for ants. It felt unpleasant in his hands, like it was vibrating at some unheard frequency.

"The issue is," Hispanic Buzzcut said when Dean had closed the box and put it back down, "their compound is protected by a magical barrier that will detect the box crossing its boundaries and sound the alarm. So you have to find a way to penetrate the barrier, get the box in, then kill the witch and the Slayer."

Sam didn't react to the term 'Slayer,' so Dean guessed it was in the materials. "Magical barrier?" Sam asked. White Buzzcut rummaged in another file and gave Sam what looked like some sort of report. Sam skimmed it. "It says here the barrier detects occult and ill-omened objects," he said, not looking up at Dean. "Have you tried a concealing spell to get through it?"

"Yes," Hispanic Buzzcut said. White Buzzcut found another piece of paper and put it in front of Sam.

Sam frowned, staring down at the paper. He looked so tired these days, any time he wasn't actively trying to show how confident he was that they were going to break Dean's deal. Dean could see that he was mentally running through possibilities, lore he'd scanned and discarded as irrelevant to a crossroads deal—he was thinking about tricking the barrier, or bashing through it if necessary. And he probably could just crack it open, with all the spells he'd picked up over the past year, but that would undoubtedly attract unwelcome attention.

"You should be able to get it in along with your usual equipment," Hispanic Buzzcut said. "They'd detect it, but you could talk your way around it, what with the stuff you usually carry."

Sam looked up at him. "What do you think we usually carry? That box is nothing like our usual tools."

"It's a dumb-ass idea," Dean said.

Black Buzzcut scowled at him. "That's the plan, son. You don't have to like it."

Dean shook his head. "No, and I don't have to do it. The box isn't the problem, the barrier is. Once we get inside, I'll build one of those things. No need to set the alarm off in the first place."

"That's a complicated piece of—"

Dean grabbed a sheet of paper Sam had discarded and a pen and quickly sketched the top pattern from inside the box, then the inverse from the bottom. For shits and giggles, he added a little picture of the outside, with notations for the dimensions.

"You didn't even measure it," Hispanic Buzzcut said, duly impressed.

"I have a good eye," he said evenly, and let Sam do the smirking for him. (Also, it hadn't hurt that the measurements were clearly mystical numbers—seven by thirteen, and five inches high; he guessed it would have been three high if not for the need to fit in the actual heart.)

Sam went back to his reading, and Dean leaned back in his chair. "You guys serve food here?" he asked. "'cause I could really use a burger."

****

It took Sam another hour to get through the files. Dean had asked for a People or something, but cafeteria food was apparently as far as these guys were willing to go in the accommodation department. White Buzzcut had left after a while, but the others were still there.

"The Slayer's demon influence," Sam said. "You're confident it's not possession?"

"Yes," Hispanic Buzzcut said.

"That's not good enough," Sam said, and gave the guy a look just as annoyed as if he'd been debating hunting procedure with Dean. "We do exorcisms, we do hauntings, but if you want our expertise, you can't just use vague euphemisms and expect us to figure it out. If this is everything you've got, you might as well just kill us right now."

"Now wait a second, Sam—" Dean said quickly, backing Sam's play. Usually Dean was the one with the false bravado, but Sam was better positioned to gather intel. "I'm sure we can—"

"No!" Sam said, slamming the file closed. "If we're going in blind we're just volunteering for the most creative death a witch and a demonic host can think up. Demons have been doing this a lot longer than the U.S. government, so I think we'll take our chances at Guantanamo." They were staring into each other's eyes, ignoring the strangers around them. After years of life-and-death bluffing, Dean could tell that Sam was serious, not just playing serious. If they'd been able to talk, Dean guessed he'd have said something like: I'm done handing my brother over to demons.

He heard rustling off to the side, but he didn't break his gaze. If this was his last day alive, there were worse things to see than Sam, fighting for him to the last.

Black Buzzcut sighed. "You'll get the rest of the files," he said, despite Hispanic Buzzcut's grunt of protest. "It may take you a few days to catch up."

"Dean will work up a supply list while I'm reading," Sam said easily, and Dean nodded at him.

****

They ended up bringing in a computer to go along with the printouts. That was nice because Dean could watch for himself instead of struggling through somebody else's story of what went down.

Dean played the first video again. It still showed vampires using superhuman strength, then this little blonde Slayer girl killing them with seeming ease. Her vampires apparently had more powers and more vulnerability than the ones the Winchesters had encountered—and her vampires were a lot closer to the ones in the movies.

It was a whole other secret supernatural world from the one they'd hunted. It made him think of a road atlas—a really fancy one he'd had once, where there'd be a picture showing all the highways and hospitals and bridges; and then a picture of the same territory, only as a relief map; then an aerial photograph from 1950 and one from now; and with the bigger cities, charts and graphs and statistics that didn't fit on the earlier pictures. Maybe the whole world was layered like that, except that no one was keeping an atlas so you could compare all the different things there were to know about the same place.

"What do you think?" Sam asked.

It wasn't a serious question, since they were being overheard. Hispanic Buzzcut—still no name, despite Dean's requests, which he thought was plain rudeness—was watching them as if he suspected them of being shoplifters. "She's not really my type. Hot, sure, but I like a chick with more padding. Good fighter, though."

He could practically hear Sam roll his eyes. "You can see it's not just going to be a matter of overpowering her. It's going to take magic."

He nodded. "Binding spell, then something to knock her out. Don't need to do the heart thing with her, so it doesn't have to be complicated. Gun should work, right? She nearly died from a gunshot before."

"Yeah," Sam said, as if he were just now realizing that they'd agreed to kill two women—supernatural women, yes, but not exactly inhuman—to save their own asses. But Sam couldn't go thinking of them that way, not and do the job. They'd killed plenty of bad things in women's bodies before.

Dean turned and slapped him on the shoulder, and Sam returned his attention to Dean. "So, you take the witch, I'll do the Slayer," Dean told him.

Sam shook his head. "She's got a little sister. Dad left when they were little kids, Mom died when they were both teens, and the Slayer took custody."

"The sister's in England," their minder commented. "Too well protected to be useful."

Sam looked over, the expression on his face asking quite clearly why anyone would give this guy a gun. Dean kicked his ankle, gently.

He guessed Sam could play up the little brother angle, as long as he remembered it was a role.

****

Before they were set free, another guy came in—older, lines in his face like old pain and anger had settled there. He smiled meanly as he cupped Dean's face in his hand, then Sam's, under the watchful eyes and half-aimed guns of more soldiers. "It's a geas," he explained when he was done. "You can't talk about your little assignment with anyone except each other, and our friends in power here. Betrayal's just another itch you can't scratch. So I say, enjoy your work!"

****

They stood by the Impala, which had been delivered to the compound in excellent condition. Dean looked at Sam, who was staring right back. There really wasn't any point in talking about it—not to mention that they were probably being bugged—but Sam had probably figured it out before Dean had, and watching the girl kill all those vampires had confirmed it: No way would supernatural bad guys welcome the Winchesters into the fold, not now that they'd spent most of a year proving that Sam was not going to play any demon reindeer games.

But—they'd seen nothing to disprove the idea that the Slayer's powers were demonic, and that couldn't be good, could it? At least, it made sense that the Slayer was dangerous. If you were the government, Dean guessed, dangerous was just about the same as actively bad. Kind of like what they'd said about Iraq, from what he'd seen on the occasional bar TV screen or channel-surfing.

He and Sam weren't talking about it, but they were sure acting like they were going to do the job.

It was a few hours' drive to the Virginia suburb where the group was supposed to be based now. Sam insisted that they stop along the way and have a meal. At least they'd been given cash, along with their more unusual supplies.

When they were in the diner parking lot, about to get back in the car, Sam waved him to a stop and pulled out his cellphone. Dean waited as Sam hit a number on his speed dial, then hit speakerphone.

"Hello?" Missouri's voice was wary and a little sad, and it made Dean feel as guilty as ever, like a little kid caught doing something wrong.

"It's Sam Winchester, Missouri," Sam said. Dean leaned in close to him to hear better.

"Why are you calling me, child? You already know what you need to do."

"I need you to tell me about the Slayer, and where to find her."

Dean looked at him in confusion, but didn't protest.

"That's women's magic, boy. You sure you want to mess with that?"

"Give me an alternative, Missouri. Or tell me where she is."

****

"Tell me again why we're ten miles from Washington, DC?" Buffy hammered the last spike through the insulation that was helping to turn a storage space into a training room for twenty Slayers.

"Well, for one thing, I refuse to be driven out of my own country. And it's not like the military left us alone just because we were across the pond." Willow dangled her legs from a pile of exercise mats, levitating the Nautilus machines into appropriate spots.

"No, I get that. But remember California? Sunny, bright, sunshine-y California?" The weather had been zigging and zagging like a cartoon character since they'd arrived, fifty degrees in the morning and ninety and soggy by late afternoon. It was unpleasant, and hard to dress for. "Why couldn't Faith open the East Coast annex of Slayertown? She's from Boston."

"You really want Faith within striking distance—and I'm using those words on purpose—of the Pentagon?"

Buffy contemplated her nails. The manicure had mostly survived the morning's construction work. "She's a lot more responsible now." But it was true: if there was a war to fight, then Buffy wanted to be the one to make the first move on their side. It was more the weather, and a desire to banter with Willow about something, that had made her complain.

It was nice, she thought, to hang out with Willow. Xander and Giles were wonderful, of course, and Dawn was family, but Willow was the only one who knew what it was like to live with the kind of power they had. It seemed like they'd spent so much time running things over the past few years—like two poles holding the whole circus tent up—that their friendship had sustained them but hadn't been fed itself.

"What do you think?" Willow asked.

Buffy inspected the layout. Weight-lifting, boxing, space for free combat, and insulation on the walls to minimize noise and protect the building from Slayer-on-Slayer action. "It looks great. Want to hit the Starbucks?"

One advantage of renting space in a strip mall was the ready availability of foofy coffee drinks. The Starbucks was only five hundred feet from the entrance to their part of the complex, which they had occupied under the disguise of a startup women's magazine. Six of the Slayerettes had rented a nearby apartment together, but the others were bunking down with Buffy and Willow in rooms that could have been offices.

"Sure," Willow said and jumped down from her perch. "Listen, about the three Slayers with the prophetic dreams that were all slightly different? I've got a theory—"

Devendra charged in, skidding to a stop on the exposed wooden floor. "Buffy!" she said, as wide-eyed with excitement as she'd been the first time they met. "There's two guys out front, asking for you."

Buffy frowned. "Are they trying to buy ads? Because we still don't—"

"No, no," Devendra said, practically bouncing. "They asked to speak to you. Buffy Summers. The Slayer."

One of the major annoyances of the Northern Virginia climate was that it was really hard to wear weather-appropriate clothing that could also conceal an ax or two. A stake was easy, but whoever these people were, they'd shown up during the day, which meant that a stake was going to be messy and inefficient at best, if slaying turned out to be required.

Of course there were various weapons hidden in the waiting room, so maybe she was overthinking the problem. Plus, some baby Slayer was on receptionist duty, which meant she'd better get out there—if their visitors meant trouble, Buffy needed to see it.

As it turned out, Nathalie was the one on duty, and she was gaping up at their grinning visitors like they'd walked out of the TV—and sure, they were pretty enough to have done it, if there'd been a TV around, even if the darker one was tall enough that she'd need a stepstool to—

Well. She could feel her mouth drying out just at the sight of him. It had been too long since she'd had an uncomplicated boy. Or even a complicated one. She made a mental note not to let them get away with what they were surely used to getting away with, then stepped forward.

"I'm Buffy Summers," she said brightly. "What can I slay for you today?"

The slightly shorter, lighter-haired one was wearing an amulet that Buffy thought she recognized—some sort of protection charm. Not obviously evil, at least.

Taller smiled, bright as stadium lights. He had seriously shaggy hair along with his killer grin. "I'm Sam Winchester. This is my brother, Dean. We need your help with a crossroads demon."

Behind her, she heard Willow sending Nathalie away, taking her place behind the counter and typing.

"How'd you hear about us?" she asked.

The grin disappeared, and the room dimmed. "A psychic, Missouri Moseley, told us where to find you. We heard you have power, serious power, and that's what we need. What I need, to help my brother."

The brother looked over at him, his face showing some uncertainty. They believed in demons, which was a step in the right direction, but maybe they didn't believe in Slayers.

"What does the demon want with your brother?" Willow asked from behind the desk.

"She's already got it," tall, dark, and suddenly pouty said. "He made a deal: his soul, at the end of a year, in exchange for a resurrection."

The clatter of Willow's fingers on the keyboard stopped. "He powered a resurrection spell with his own soul? That's—"

"Effective," the other one—Dean—said, jutting his chin forward aggressively. "I didn't have a lot of options."

"Other than leaving it alone?" Buffy asked, a sharpness in her tone that had nothing to do with these Winchester boys.

He smiled at her, hard and mirthless, and he didn't seem quite as attractive to her any more. "Like I said."

"He's my brother," Sam said, as if he'd known what that would mean to her. "I need a way to break the deal, before he gets sent to Hell—in sixteen days."

Buffy stared at him. Beneath the shining good looks, there was easily a year's worth of worry. She recognized it.

Willow drew in a breath, the kind that announced 'I've got something big to say, so everyone shut up.' "The FBI thinks you're serial killers."

She expected some reaction, but Sam just stared harder at Buffy. "And what does the FBI think you are?"

Dean looked at Sam as if wondering the same thing Buffy was: why is this guy so angry? "We hunt evil," Dean said, with the rhythm of someone rehearsing an old argument. "Sometimes we get blamed for whatever it was we came to hunt. And sometimes there's a body count."

"Humans?" she asked.

They looked down. Sam was the one who spoke, his voice more conciliatory. "When someone's possessed by a demon—they don't always survive the exorcism."

Buffy turned to see what Willow was thinking. There was no disbelief on her face, which meant that their story was at least worth checking out.

"Wait here," Buffy said.

****

She assigned Nicole and Devendra to guard the guys. When she and Willow were back in the room they were using for an office, she leaned against the doorframe, folding her arms, as Willow settled into her chair. "You believe them, Will?"

"They weren't lying, but they weren't telling the whole truth."

Who does? Buffy wondered. "We can't turn them away."

Willow nodded. "But what if it turns out that the one who's going to Hell is going for a good reason? Is that like aiding and abetting a criminal's escape, karma-wise?"

"You do some more background research. If they really are serial killers—I don't know, Will, we don't kill humans. But we won't help them escape justice." There were cute non-psycho men out there. At least, she'd heard rumors.

****

Dean wondered whether he should have tried to do the talking, instead of trusting Sam to work his mojo. The mojo seemed like a no-go, he thought, and smiled to himself, but kept it off his face because he in no way needed another fight with Sam about taking his situation seriously. Anyway, it was too late for a first approach, so he had to play it as Sam had dealt it.

They worked quickly to secure the motel room, putting up the salt lines, drawing sigils in charcoal and burnt bone to keep them safe from surveillance. The ritual had been designed to keep out spirits, but Sam seemed pretty confident that it would also work on electronic devices.

"What you said to those girls—asking them for help. That's cold, man," he said when they were done.

Sam looked over at Dean, the desire to punch Dean in the mouth so plain on his face that Dean was grateful all over again that Sam's psychic powers had dissipated with Azazel. "It's the truth—which, by the way, they were checking with a spell, in case you were wondering. And if the government comes through, then we can be clear, completely clear—"

Sam's wide-eyed sincerity made Dean's stomach twist, like he'd drunk milk that had gone sour. "That how we're gonna pay them back if they save my soul?"

"I don't have an alternative, Dean! If I didn't ask them, we'd still be watching the clock tick down on you, and we'd still have this job to do."

Hard to argue with that. And just because they were cute didn't mean they weren't demonic; in fact, from all evidence, demons liked the cute ones—hell, who didn't? So Dean picked up the remote control and started surfing for girls in bikinis.

****

According to Willow, Missouri Moseley had vouched for the guys' good intent, if not their good luck, and Willow said Missouri was well-regarded in Wicca circles. From the cautious words Willow used, Buffy thought she'd actually warned Willow in pretty strong terms that helping the Winchesters could be dangerous. But that was nothing special.

The details of Dean Winchester's demon bargain also turned out to be pretty sympathetic, when Buffy and Willow heard them the next day back in the conference room. The Winchesters looked pretty funny in a conference room—they really would have been better placed in some sort of outdoor catalog ad. But she didn't let that distract her, much.

Willow was raring to get to work—aside from the thing with Giles so many years ago, she hadn't done much work on possessory demons and she obviously felt the combination of do-gooding and new knowledge was too much to resist.

Unfortunately, near the end of Sam's recitation of things he'd already tried—long enough that Buffy had some sympathy with Dean's exaggerated yawns, and even cracked a couple of her own—one of the girls came in with a report of a nest of dwarves living under a nearby exit to the Beltway; they had attacked three people who'd pulled their cars over to the shoulder in that area, two of whom were still in the hospital and one of whom was dead. Nathalie suspected them in two other recent disappearances—joggers who hadn't been seen in days.

The description was minimal—small heavy guys, "like midgets," one witness said, who seemed agitated by any movement.

"Sounds like páyiihsa," Sam Winchester said. Next to him, Dean raised his eyebrows and tilted his head as if conceding the point.

"Pizza?" Buffy asked.

"A little out of their comfort area," Dean said, kicking back in his chair.

"They are known for attacking travelers," Sam replied. He addressed Buffy and Willow: "They're Native American monsters, dwarves—generally found near rivers."

"Sounds about right," Buffy said. "How do you kill them?"

Dean shrugged. "Violence works pretty well." He spun a pencil on the tabletop in front of him, turning it counterclockwise.

Sam shot her an apologetic look. Dean was kind of a jerk, she thought, but maybe he'd be nicer when he wasn't going to hell.

"One of you should come along," Buffy decided, standing up. It was a little suspicious that these things would show up just after the Winchesters did, after all. If there was a trap, she wanted to spring it with one of them along.

Sam and Dean looked at each other. They probably knew this was something of a test for them. "I'll go," Sam said.

"We'll both go," Dean corrected him.

Sam visibly restrained himself from rolling his eyes. "Willow might need more information from you about the deal," he said. His voice wavered a little every time he said 'deal.' Buffy couldn't help feeling bad for him. Sending someone you loved to hell to save the world—she'd never done anything else half as hard as that. Having someone you loved go to hell just for you, that didn't seem survivable. Boy, did she understand why he was mad at his brother. It wasn't fair to do that for someone, no matter how much you wanted them back. But she also understood Dean's choice; she'd made it, only she hadn't been forced to hang around afterwards to see what that choice really meant to Dawn.

Also, more immediately: Sam was either very confident that he wasn't leaving a hostage behind, or he was sincere and this was just a coincidence. Slayers encountered new baddies all the time, and someone usually knew what they were. Either way, the immediate problem was the pizza dwarves.

"Do you want to take any Slayerettes?" Willow asked, obviously not having thought out the whole possible trap thing. Buffy kind of loved that about her. So smart, yet so trusting.

"No, I'll just take Sam here and check it out. If it's too much, I'll give you a call—it's only fifteen minutes away."

Willow was still looking at her a little funny, but she didn't protest.

"I'll just go get my guns," Sam said.

"No guns," she said immediately. "Kind of a basic Slayer rule." That wasn't strictly true, of course, but it would help limit the threat he could pose if this was a trap.

"Hey," Dean said, along with Sam's, "What's your policy on crossbows?"

She had to smile at that. "Not opposed."

Dean pulled Sam aside to argue with him, but it didn't really matter; they were going to follow her lead one way or another. And sure enough, fifteen minutes later, when she and Sam got into the communal SUV, Sam was carrying a bow that looked small against his bulk. It was another piece of evidence that they really did hunt bad things, just like that werewolf hunter back in Sunnydale; she wasn't sure whether or not she thought that was a good thing.

Sam looked a little freaked out by the time they arrived at the last street with parking before the on-ramp of death. "On the way back," he said carefully, peeling his hands off of the dash, "maybe I could drive?"

She shrugged.

There were trees all along the strip of land by the exit, which was sort of a puzzle until she realized how dulled the sound of constant traffic was—the trees were helping keep up the insane property values for the nearby houses. As someone who'd authorized the rent on their place, and decided not to buy or rent anything else, she sort of wished the neighborhood was a bit less Neiman Marcus and a little more Wal-Mart. And, bonus, the trees apparently made a home for nasty things. The suburbs were evil, that was all.

They headed for the thickest cluster, right where the on-ramp joined the freeway. Sure enough, somebody had hacked out a space in the center and built a hut there out of branches and what looked like regular lumber, stacked together almost randomly. The door was so small she'd have to bend over to enter, and Sam would probably have to crawl—not the best angle of attack.

She looked at him, silently asking if he had suggestions. "We could ring it with a protective spell, set it on fire," he said speculatively.

Buffy imagined burning to death; it wasn't her favorite.

And then the three-foot-tall dwarves started pouring out of it, like a clown car at the circus only somewhat less scary, and fire was off the table.

They didn't look much like pizza. They were basically shaped like tiny humans—tiny, squat, angry humans—but they had a few extras: green antlers, red eyes, black beards, and multicolored scaly tails longer than they were tall—the tails were an extra weapon, she realized as one lashed out for her like a whip.

She pulled her sleeve over her palm in case the tail was razor-edged and grabbed it before it could land on her, pulling hard enough to bring the dwarf tumbling towards her. She brought it up and over. The dwarf's body slammed into the ground behind her with a crunching sound that suggested that it was out of the picture for now.

And then they were in it. Sam got off one arrow before the dwarves closed on them, and then he dropped the crossbow and pulled out a wicked knife. Buffy watched a few seconds, long enough to be confident that he knew what he was doing, then turned to her own work.

Fighting short, powerful creatures was different than fighting ones her own size. They were close enough to the ground that they were hard to knock down, and she had less leverage than she was used to. But they weren't any stronger than vampires, and kicking them worked just about as well on them as on anything else.

She picked one up and smashed it down on another's antlers, impaling the one on top and blinding the one on bottom. They bled Laffy Taffy green, so that Buffy looked like she'd been on the wrong end of a paintball attack where it splashed on her. A tail caught her in the side and she whipped around, modifying the earlier tactic by grabbing the dwarf and swinging it in an arc like a tetherball, knocking three others off their feet. The tension on the tail ceased abruptly and she staggered back a little; the now-tailless dwarf tumbled to the edge of the clearing and didn't move.

Buffy dropped the tail—icky!—and took the opportunity to pull a knife of her own. She ducked and rolled past a coordinated attack by two of the dwarves, hamstringing one as she went by, kicked out the legs of another whose chest was then in perfect position to be stabbed, pushed to her feet and spun to take out another dwarf with a slash that cut his beard in half.

There was a bad moment when her knife embedded itself in one of the dwarves' antlers, the shock of it vibrating up her arm hard enough to numb it for a moment. Buffy kicked backwards to deter the one sneaking up on her, then launched herself straight at the now-uneven dwarf, using her uninjured arm to grab the knife again and push it at an angle until it sprung free, simultaneously jumping onto the thing's shoulders, avoiding its teeth and claws. She balanced lightly on top for a second, but the antlers were really too sharp for the position to be sustainable, so she somersaulted off, landing behind yet another dwarf and stabbing it between the shoulders.

She looked around; Sam was still fighting one, crouched to be closer to its level. A couple of others were lying around, making small whistling noises. When Sam gutted his, she thought it was over.

Then, one of them appeared through a gap in the trees, right next to Sam—it was holding a rifle, taller than itself. Buffy briefly regretted telling Sam not to bring his own gun.

As she watched, the creature aimed the gun right at his chest—there was a lot of it to aim at—and she tried to figure out if there was something she could throw to knock it down. But, cat-quick, Sam dropped the knife and stepped forward, grabbing the barrel and pushing it to the side, moving as smoothly as if he'd been on rails. The dwarf pulled the gun back, and Sam went with it, throwing his weight forward and simultaneously punching it in the throat with an impact she heard from across the clearing. He kept pushing forward, drawing his arm back for another punishing open-hand strike, the heel of his hand snapping the thing's chin up so hard she almost winced in sympathy.

Sam grabbed the gunstock and twisted his hands like he was snapping a clean sheet out over an unmade bed. The dwarf's finger broke in the trigger guard and it yelled in useless fury as Sam pulled the gun away from it at last, tossed it aside, and kicked it between the legs. By the time he had both feet on the ground again, he'd pulled another knife, and as it hunched forward, he bent his knees and swung the knife down in a clean arc that intersected with the creature's throat, drenching him and the knife in their weird green blood.

With his hair matted in his eyes and his nostrils flared with the effort of fighting, he looked dangerous, and it was actually kind of a relief that she didn't find him hotter like this. She thought she was probably growing as a person.

Buffy walked over to where he was turning over corpses with his foot, checking to make sure they weren't faking. "Not bad," she said. "For a regular guy."

Sam's face twitched as if he weren't exactly used to being called regular. But he smiled easily enough, looking over at her admittedly more substantial body count. "Too bad there's no way for me to get a share of what you've got."

"You've got the wrong equipment," she said, and he turned a little pink.

****

Dean spent the time waiting for Sam in the conference room, telling Willow war stories so that he wouldn't worry too much about Sam. Willow turned out to know every-freakin'-thing about magic, as near as Dean could tell. She wasn't that deep on demon-killing tricks, so he told her about some of his greatest hits. Dean couldn't really say that he'd seen footage of Buffy at work, so he listened attentively in return to Willow's descriptions of vampires and their special vulnerabilities.

She didn't seem like a bad witch at all.

"…. So it turned out to be Akkadian, which no one expected at all, because it totally upsets the scholarly consensus on settlement patterns …" She stuttered to a halt; he looked up. "I'm boring you, aren't I?"

He smiled. "You kinda lost me at the Rosanna Stone or whatever. That's more Sam's thing. I'm just good with my hands."

She looked at his hands, as he'd intended—and then he flashed on what he was supposed to do to her, and clenched them into fists without meaning to. Then he couldn't look at her, and he thought she was staring down at the table as well.

Willow cleared her throat. "Anyway," she said, a little breathy, "my comparative advantage has always been research. Even before it was magic—I started out a computer geek, actually." He raised his eyes and saw her small, unapologetic smile—she knew she was good.

"I bet you went to a really good college," he said, thinking that this was the kind of girl Sam must have hung out with all the time, like Jessica and Becky, smart and driven and not needing to take anyone's shit.

She shrugged. "I went to UC-Sunnydale, so I could keep helping Buffy. And I, uh, had some trouble with magic, so I didn't end up graduating. I think about going back, but it would take so much time—"

"Didn't you want to get your degree?" he asked. "You're so smart."

She sighed. "I did, once upon a time, but then I found out what was going on underneath the regular world. This is more important. I'm really good at it, and that's worth more than a diploma. Still," she said, her eyes dipping, "I kinda wish I had the diploma too. My parents tell people I'm off finding myself."

He felt a little sick, and wished something nasty would come crashing through the wall so he could kill it. But that never happened at the right times, and now was no exception. He swallowed and did his best: "Me, I never—it doesn't help to think about things being different. Anyway, two minutes with you and anyone can see you're a genius."

She colored and showed him her dimples. "That long?" she asked, teasing.

Dean was so pleased to have the mood change that he smiled and gave her a good once-over. "I might've been distracted by other things."

And then she got really red and had to run off to 'find some more books.' But that was okay too, because her absence let him breathe out and stop sitting up so straight.

****

Buffy did let Sam drive back to the Slayer offices, if only because it was funny to watch him wedge himself against the steering wheel until he figured out how to push the seat back.

When they went into the conference room, Willow was sitting way too close to Dean Winchester, leaning even closer as he drew sigils and runes for her. The table in front of them was covered with sketches.

"Hey," Willow said brightly, turning to them. "You okay underneath all that—what is that, Slurpee?"

"Pizza sauce," Buffy said. "Did you guys make any progress?"

Willow's face dimmed like a light bulb had popped. "Not yet. Dean was just showing me the devil's traps they use in their work—there are similarities to some things I've used, but—Actually, I should get a few more books."

"Need help carrying them?" Dean asked. Willow colored a little, and she saw Sam staring at his brother as if wondering—as she was—whether Dean had really just offered that.

But Willow seemed into his act. Buffy sighed internally. She'd gone with "lesbian now" because that was Willow's call, but Willow had totally loved Oz, and maybe the equipment wasn't crucial when the hormones were calling.

"Did she mention she's gay?" Buffy asked, watching Dean follow Willow out of the room.

Sam snorted. "Like that's a deterrent."

"Listen, I gotta change, I'm covered in—you know, I don't really want to talk about what I'm covered in." She hurried out, pausing in her room only long enough to make sure her shoes matched the new outfit—light purple satin shirt with a cute asymmetric tie-thing and skinny jeans, never-washed dark blue.

She was rewarded by Sam's appreciative scrutiny when she returned. Hey, she wasn't gay, and it never hurt to keep the skills up. She smiled at Sam, who shrugged, unembarrassed to be caught looking. He'd managed to clean his hair and face; his collar and the edges of his sleeves were damp, so she guessed he'd found one of the bathrooms, but the shirt itself was still covered with dried and drying gunk. "Do you want to go change?" she asked, realizing that he probably had that less than fresh feeling himself.

He shook his head. "Haven't done laundry in a week," he said, as if that were explanation enough.

"I could go three months without doing laundry," she informed him. "Well, two if we're talking about a slay-heavy schedule."

He looked at her as if she were from another world—Girl World, she guessed. "Jessica—my fiancee, she was going to be my fiancee—she was like that. She had sixty pairs of underwear." He smiled, but it was thin and distant. "All those colors," he said wonderingly. He tilted his head so that his hair fell into his eyes, obscuring them.

"I'm guessing it didn't end well," Buffy said, as gently as she could.

Sam gave a half-laugh. "She died," he said, the words worn as thin with use as the elbows of his flannel shirt. "Because of the demon that came after me."

"Yeah, so, maybe you better explain that whole thing," she said. Even with Willow crushing a little, Buffy trusted her to get Dean's version of the story. But sometimes Slayer instinct could catch a relevant detail too.

As it turned out, telling the story took long enough that Sam ended up doing it over tacos, sitting at a little table at the back of the Mexican place in the complex a few doors down from their offices.

"I've never met anybody else who came back from the dead still human," she said, not mentioning the fact that maybe she wasn't entirely still human, if she'd ever been.

Sam shrugged and wouldn't look at her. "Sometimes I wonder. But, you know, there's darkness in everyone. Blaming it on the—on anything other than free will is a cop-out." He picked up his limeade and drank deeply, wincing a little at the sourness.

Now that they'd fought together, however briefly, she knew him a lot better. His anger hadn't made him sloppy. But for the same reasons, the fight hadn't helped him any; she could still feel the anxiety coming off him, like the smell of chlorine at an indoor pool, filling her lungs. She remembered what that was like, the fear for her own flesh and blood. The fear that she wouldn't be enough to save her sister.

The brothers had been on their own for so long. It sounded like even their father was barely tied in to the larger mystical community. Hunters didn't have Watchers or houses or stipends from the Council. And without backup, he'd been struggling all year to save his brother—without even Dean's help. No wonder he couldn't seem to sit still.

She realized that she was staring at him, and not in a flirtatious way. He wasn't paying much attention, though, steadily working through his tacos.

"We're going to help you," she promised. "Willow's the best. I don't know the mystical stuff, but she'll take care of that and then I'll hit things."

"That usually work for you?" he asked, looking up at her through his bangs. His tone wasn't exactly aggressive—maybe he really was envious.

Buffy tilted her head. "I'm good at it. And I'm getting better at the leadership stuff."

Sam snorted a laugh. "You know, I was supposed to lead a demon army to conquer the world." Then he looked surprised, as if he hadn't meant to say that.

"I stopped one of those," she said, remembering.

He stared at her, his eyes intense. "But now there are lots of Slayers, right? The power isn't just in you."

She nodded.

"That's good," he said, smiling at last. He had dimples. "Nobody should have to carry that weight alone."

****

The ways in which Dean was less than thrilled by the events of the day were too high to count. If Sam had to go off with someone else, Dean figured that the Slayer was a good bet, but waiting to hear from them had sucked like an exhaust fan. And while Willow was an engaging distraction, that made it worse. He hadn't wanted to like her. He hadn't wanted to look at her and see a girl.

So he was already wound up by the time he and Sam got back to their motel room, which looked even crappier than usual in contrast to the clean beige corporate rooms of the Slayers' digs, and Sam started pestering him over every detail he'd told Willow.

"I didn't lie," he said after about ten too many questions. "And I didn't talk about this job, because you know I couldn't, so give it a rest."

Sam ran a hand through his hair, sending his bangs flopping every which way but tidy. "I just—I'm working as hard as I can to earn Buffy's trust, and I don't need you screwing it up with your macho bullshit."

And wow, was that not worth arguing about. But the trust thing, that reminded him—"Tell me you didn't have the military send those things here to make us look more legit."

"I didn't have the military send those things here to make us look more legit," Sam parroted, which brought back annoying-kid memories and didn't make Dean feel better at all.

"Sam—"

"I didn't, all right? But I would have, if I'd thought we needed it."

"Innocent people—"

"If you don't give a shit about yourself, think about Bobby," Sam said, and the evenness of his voice was more terrible than anger. "And I still didn't have anything to do with it, so give it up."

Dean had not been thinking about Bobby. Dean had pretty much been trying not to think about getting out of his deal at all. Hope was too hard to deal with. So he hadn't been imagining any post-deal scenarios. He guessed the bright side of that was that having a bomb inside him didn't bother him much at all. And without him, he was sure, Sam could figure something else out. He had to believe that.

"You seemed to be getting along with Willow," Sam said at last, conciliatory, moving to clean up the remnants of the latest meal.

"She's cute," he admitted.

Sam made a noise that usually accompanied an eye-roll, which Dean took on faith because Sam's face was turned away from him. "Since when do you go for intelligent women?"

"Dude, that's unfair. I'd never hold a hot girl's smarts against her. Too busy—"

Now Sam did turn, and, sure enough, Dean-you-cretin-face. "Yeah, I know, holding 'something else' against her. Do you even have a brain up top?"

****

When they returned the next morning, there was another hot chick waiting for them in a conference room, this one old enough to be legal and dressed in a killer slate blue suit that set off her eyes. She wore a darker blue scarf around her neck. Buffy was there too, leaning against the wall, watching the new girl and looking more hostile than usual.

"This is Lilah Morgan," Willow said. "She's a—well, she's a lawyer. And a hell-minion. Not that I'm implying they're generally the same things! But she's both. We called in a few favors, and here she is."

Dean grinned at her. It was kind of relaxing to be around someone whose anxieties were all about talking to other people; when she talked magic, she was rock solid, so it was easy to find the surface awkwardness cute.

Lilah snapped her fingers, and Dean turned to her. "Hey there," he said, sitting down in a springy chair and leaning back. "Thanks for coming. I mean it must be good to get to leave Hell, but thanks anyway."

She smiled at him, and even though he checked for pointed teeth or glowing eyes, he saw nothing more than an ordinary predatory woman, the kind who'd be a great lay if you found her alone in a bar but deadly to approach if she was with friends. "I never turn down a chance to earn points with the Slayer. So, I hear you have some buyer's remorse?"

He leaned forward and put his forearms on the conference table, steepling his fingers together and staring into her eyes. "No. Get that clear right now. I want the deal, and I won't do anything to break it."

"But I will," Sam said, fitting himself into the chair right beside Dean, his elbows oustretched so that their arms jostled. Dean sighed and pulled back, watching as Sam squirmed in the too-small chair and finally pushed back, putting his ankle over his opposite knee, taking up too much space and radiating cold determination.

Lilah looked at them, her gaze sliding back and forth like a snake trying to hypnotize a mouse. "Yes, Ms. Rosenberg explained the relevant provisions—you can't act to renege, or he turns into worm food. Do you have a copy of the contract you signed?" she asked.

Dean shook his head. "Didn't sign anything."

They all looked at him. He stared at her, refusing to be embarrassed. "Sealed with a kiss, like they say." He smirked, though it probably didn't have the cool he was aiming for.

"A kiss? How medieval," she said, and smirked back. "Not that I blame the demon."

"Sweetheart, you get me out of this, I'll kiss you anywhere you want."

He ignored Sam's irritated snort in favor of Lilah's amusement. "Bravado's cute, Dean, but it doesn't last in Hell. Back to the topic at hand—"

Sam leaned forward, his eyes big and earnest. "Listen, if there's nothing written, does that mean …?"

"There's no deal? Of course there's a deal. There was a meeting of the minds, the demon performed. But there's no such thing as a perfect contract. That's what keeps lawyers in business."

Sam and Lilah talked for a while, blah blah blah, eventually driving Buffy away, though Willow stayed and appeared to follow along, even asking a couple of questions. At the end, Lilah said, "I can't help any further without a copy of the contract. You'd make a good lawyer, Sam. If you ever decide to go back to school, my firm's doing a lot of rebuilding. You could do well with us."

Dean was a little freaked that Sam didn't seem to have much reaction to that, one way or the other.

****

"I found the place where the contracts are stored!" Willow said happily. "It's a hell dimension, of course, but a special one—like a U-Stor-It hell dimension. Not big on people or other creatures. The only downside is—because we don't know what the contract says, I can't summon it. We actually have to go there."

Buffy looked at the Winchesters, both clearly miserable at the thought—Dean probably afraid of going to hell early and getting stuck, and Sam probably worrying about the same thing. "What do we have to do?" Sam said, his jaw as tense as a hand-cranked bow.

Willow looked at him. "I don't think you can do anything. The protections on the contract won't let any involved party get near it. I guess it's something about fraud? So Dean's definitely out, and you're the subject of the contract, which probably counts."

"I guess that means I go," Buffy said. This didn't seem like a part of whatever the Winchesters' deeper game was; even if they hadn't wanted to go, they looked genuinely surprised and unhappy about not being able to do it themselves.

"We go," Willow said firmly. "It's going to take some wacky wicca."

"Is that safe?" Dean asked her. "No offense, but you're not a Slayer, right?"

Willow tilted her head, smiling at Dean as if his concern was sweet and not at all condescending. "I can take care of myself. Plus I'll have Buffy with me."

They kicked the guys out of their offices, with orders to the junior Slayers not to let them back in until the dimension-hopping was done, and Buffy left Willow to set it up. In the meantime, she dealt with some of the horrific administrivia that was the reward of being the senior Slayer on duty. Unfortunately, because there weren't supposed to be multiple Slayers at the same time, organization wasn't part of her skill set. But she'd improved—plus Willow had set up a bunch of computer programs to remind her of stuff.

Xander reported that matters in England were under control. Dawn was still a giant. Giles was still out "walking the earth," in Xander's words, collecting stray Slayers. There had been no further moves against them by the government. At some point, Buffy thought, she'd need to go proactive against them, same as with the First Evil. But it would be nice to know more about their plans and their capabilities first; with the First Evil "destroy the world" was all she'd needed to know, but Buffy suspected that the U.S. Army saw its mission just a little differently.

Before Buffy could get too deep in speculation, Willow buzzed to let her know it was time to go down to the exercise room, where they were doing all the spells that required a little room to move.

Fortunately, the portal-opening ritual didn't much resemble the last one Buffy had been up close and personal with, the one that got her back to the origin of the Slayer's power. This was more herbs and reading out of big leather-bound books that Willow had to struggle to keep open.

The doorway to hell looked like a really big starfish made out of red light. They couldn't see details through the haze of firelit smoke.

"Will we be able to breathe?" Buffy asked. "Or are we going to need masks?" That would be sad, because she bet firefighters' masks left lines on the face.

Willow muttered a few words and then gestured at herself, then Buffy. "We've got a portable air filtration system now. It should be fine."

If Xander had been present, he would have cracked a nervous joke. Buffy missed him, and she didn't feel like taking his place. "Let's go, then."

Hand in hand, they stepped through; as soon as their feet crossed into the portal, a powerful suction pulled them the rest of the way.

And spit them out in the middle of a brightly lit, crisp-smelling … department store.

"This," Buffy said, "is not what I thought hell would look like."

It stretched out as far as she could see in all directions. She could smell a hint of perfumes from the counters off in the distance; in the other direction, racks of belts and scarves fluttered invitingly until they turned into a vague blur of soft color.

"Kinda gives a whole new meaning to 'Forever 21,'" Willow agreed.

Behind them, there was a shoe display that would have made Christian Louboutin weep.

Buffy approached it. Off to one side, where you had to look carefully not to miss it, was a peeptoe snakeskin pump with a heel that curved like a good roundhouse kick, a perfect arc. She picked it up. It was her size.

"Whoa!" Willow grabbed it from her and put it back on the plastic display rack. "This might not have been what we expected, but I know one rule about hells: you never take anything you didn't specifically come for. You don't eat, you don't drink, and you don't try on shoes."

"Fine," Buffy sighed. "Let's do this."

Willow conjured a witchlight to guide them. It was redder and bigger than her usual; Buffy didn't ask, but judging by Willow's somewhat nervous expression that wasn't what she'd intended to get. Hell-influence again.

They passed displays of cashmere sweaters piled like fuzzy rainbows, jewelry like frozen fireworks, handbags that screamed class and fun—but Buffy wondered what the leather in them was from, exactly, and then they seemed to scream something a little different. The witchlight bounced and bobbled, and she kept thinking that she saw people moving out of the corners of her eyes, but every time she turned there were only mannequins.

And the mannequins—

They looked like the standard haughty high-fashion versions, long plastic limbs, jutting hipbones, high breasts, blind smooth eyes. But none of them were exactly the same as any other, and if Buffy looked at one for more than a few seconds, the poses seemed off somehow, uncanny.

Their mouths were all in closed smiles, lips pressed together like there was something inside that might try to get out.

Their feet were loud on the shiny, clean floor. Even creeped out, she still liked the clothes surrounding them; she wanted to step onto the plush beige carpet where all the clothing racks were and take a look at a gaily embroidered top, getting off this hard and unforgiving surface that didn't seem to be leading them anywhere in particular.

She had a sudden flash of being elsewhere, brown dirt and dried leaves under her feet, following a narrow track. Trees to all sides stretched their gray, skeletal branches out towards her, their knobs and twists wrapped in what looked like moth cocoons; the trees were tall as skyscrapers, but leafless, so cold light filtered down to her. She flinched back to avoid scraping against the smallest twig—

And was back in the department store of the gods.

"How far is it?" she asked Willow, nice and quiet.

Willow was focusing on her witchlight, her face tight with concentration. "I can feel it near. I think—" she pointed at a sign about fifty feet away that said 'Customer Service'—"there."

"Good," Buffy said grimly, and didn't point out to Willow the mannequin that used to be with the sweaters, now showing off a bright blue winter jacket over the teal wool.

There was no one at the Customer Service counter—Buffy considered, and decided she was happier with that than if there'd been a mannequin waiting. There was a bell on the counter, but Willow didn't seem eager to ring it, and Buffy thought that Willow was pretty smart.

"Now what?"

Willow hesitated, then flipped open the divider that let salespeople go in and out of the station. Buffy followed her, looking back one last time.

She was almost positive the mannequins hadn't moved again.

Behind the counter, there was something like a freestanding closet, barely big enough for the both of them, lined on all sides with boxes. Willow pulled one off its shelf and opened it—papers, crammed in to overflowing.

"These are all contracts," Willow said wonderingly. "I can't see how—oh, okay, organized by due date. Accounts receivable."

Buffy looked back out at the merchandise. Now she didn't see any mannequins at all. "I'm going to stand guard outside," she said and stepped back out to stand behind the counter.

"Hey, Karl Rove," Willow said, obviously not paying much attention. "That's a relief. Okay, here we go, Dean Winchester. Hmm—"

"Willow," Buffy said carefully, "read the contract later."

"But—"

"Later or we might not get to later," she said, a little more forcefully, and heard Willow stuffing paper into her bag. Then Willow was at her back, looking over her shoulder.

"Oh," Willow said, contemplating the ring of plastic bodies, white and brown, circling them, even creepier for the fact that they hadn't moved while Buffy was looking at them. "Hey, how does a big ol' fireball sound?"

"I'm good with it," Buffy said immediately.

Actually, a big fireball sounded like "whoosh," shooting out of Willow's outstretched hands—very Lord of the Rings, Buffy thought admiringly—and knocking a hole in the mannequin assault team.

Buffy was afraid they still wouldn't move, that they'd only move when she wasn't looking, but open aggression was enough to end their stealth mode, and as one the mannequins still standing lunged for them, their unbending limbs making them totter and stagger towards the two girls.

Buffy wished she could stand on all sides of Willow, even though she knew Willow could take care of herself. Buffy grabbed a plastic hand—it felt slick and cool against her skin, like a giant Barbie hand—and ripped the attacker's arm off.

Willow waved her hands and another mannequin's head, arms and legs popped off at the sockets. The torso flew backwards, knocking over a display of leather gloves. As the gloves landed on the floor, Buffy thought she saw them twitching.

Buffy used the arm she was holding as a club, even though the hand tried to scratch at her; fortunately the fingers were all fused together and the hand couldn't do much but grab. She knocked off three more heads before another mannequin ripped her makeshift weapon from her grasp.

By then they had made it to the burnt area created by Willow's fireball; the mannequins were still avoiding the smoldering body parts, clothes, and other debris. The smell of burned plastic and hair filled Buffy's nose and throat, sickening and sulfuric. "How do we get out?" she asked Willow.

"Back where we came in," Willow gasped out.

But the witchlight was gone, and Willow was busy sending out more bolts of power to keep the mannequins away. Buffy turned a half-circle, looking at the racks of clothes rolling away to infinity, like a beautiful misty landscape seen from an airplane.

She had rarely been so grateful for her keen fashion sense. She grabbed Willow's shoulder, so as not to interfere with her aim, and started guiding her past the displays Buffy recognized from the way in.

The mannequins got close enough to wallop Buffy a good one on her left arm, but by then they were at the perfume counters, and when Buffy doused them with a couple of bottles they burned even faster, so it was okay.

****

The contract was, Lilah said, old-school. It could be terminated either by delivery of Dean's soul or by Dean defeating the demon who came to collect in single combat in a charmed circle. But the contract specified that he could carry no weapon.

Willow pointed out their prior encounter with the Judge, where "no weapon forged by man" had turned out not to include rocket launchers.

Lilah shook her head, still smiling—she was like one of those hell-mannequins except that she also spoke in bitchy quips—and said, "No, it's technology-neutral. He can bear no weapon, and no weapon can be left in the circle for him to pick up when he arrives."

"But the wording—you said there's always a loophole," Sam insisted, leaning over the contract as if maybe the words would change if he stared at them hard enough.

"We could consult an oracle," Willow suggested. Dean looked at her, and she blushed, but held his gaze. "I mean, if we're talking ambiguous language with hidden meaning, to me that spells oracle. Not lawyer. I guess there's some overlap in spelling, isn't there? But anyway—"

Lilah Morgan made a face suggesting her indifference. "I don't have a better idea," she said. "At least it might be kind of funny."

****

Dean was dubious about the oracle, but nobody asked his opinion.

So they summoned her, which involved the usual amount of chanting and funky rocks with runes painted on them, et boring cetera. Also the blood of three white chickens, which was kind of funny in the corporate-drone conference room setting, except that Dean was totally not into being the designated butcher. But Sam glared at him until he gave in, so when the oracle lady popped into being, Dean was the one standing there covered in chicken feathers, looking stupid.

"We need to know—" Sam began.

"I'm an oracle, boy," she said, cutting him off. Dean grinned. She was a wizened little thing, face like a dried apricot, wearing gray-white robes wrapped around her like a badly bandaged hand.

"So this is the answer you seek: Turn the knife on the wielder," she said.

They looked at each other, the unspoken question on everyone's face: does anyone have a clue what that means?

"Could you try to be a little less oracular?" Buffy asked. "We'd really appreciate it, and we wouldn't tell on you."

"You do not need my telling," she said. "The answer to your question lies within and behind."

"Well, this was a big ball of nothing," Buffy said. "Willow, can you shut this down?"

"Wait!" the oracle commanded, which was surprising enough that they all froze. "I would speak with the Huntsman," she continued, gesturing at Dean.

"What do you want with my brother?" Sam said, stepping forward and to the side, putting himself between them.

She smiled, like bones in the desert. "What do you think he has left to give, demon-touched?"

Sam blanched and opened his mouth, but Dean pushed past him. "Don't piss off the magic lady," he cautioned, then turned to her. "I won't do anything to try to break my deal."

She shook her head, still smiling. "This is no interference. Speak with me, child of man."

Sam took a deep breath, then nodded permission at him, which was just aggravating enough that Dean thought to refuse. But the girls were looking at him expectantly, and he had to admit to some curiosity himself.

"Fine," he said, and walked towards her—

As her hand clamped down on his forearm, they were elsewhere, a place that looked sort of like Krypton from the Superman movies, all jagged crystals and spires. A few were lit from within, but more looked like they had been once, and were burnt out now. One that he saw over her left shoulder was flickering, in and out.

"Where are we?" he asked.

She tugged at him, and he didn't see any reason why one patch of glassy ground was any better than another, so he followed. Walking felt weird, and it was weirder when he realized what it was: he couldn't feel any air moving, even the slight currents ordinarily created by motion.

Her grip on him was like a ring of ice. "Queenless man," she said, "you have been much mistaken."

"You sound like all my high school teachers," he said, smiling as if she weren't creeping him out. "Well, not exactly, but—"

"You believe your brother is the only one caught between the under- and overworlds," she continued over him, her voice as relentless and gray as a Texas highway at night. "And were you the sixth son of a seventh son, little would turn on it. But you are one of two—moon and sun, shield and sword, wine and bread. Should you survive this next testing, you would do well to remember your place—if not for your own sake, then for his."

It took him a moment to find his voice. "I don't believe in that destiny crap."

"No," she said, and stopped them in front of a crystal cluster the size of a holly bush. It was singed as if it had been dropped in a fire, but the ground around it was unscarred. "What need for belief, when you know? It does not matter whether you will say what you are. It only matters whether you will act accordingly."

She shrugged and dropped his arm. He resisted the impulse to rub the spot where she'd grabbed him. "But perhaps this is the cycle where your human stories will end. It is of little consequence to me. Demons will have need of me as well. Fare you well, Huntsman." She began to walk away. Looking at her from behind, he could see how her hair grew in patches—parts thick and healthy as a young girl's, parts thinning, coarse and gray.

"Wait—" he called out, and she turned back, her eyes bright in her lined face. "You called me the Huntsman. If—if you're right and me and Sam are some sort of pair, what is he?"

"Ah, child," she said, and he shivered. "In the end, there is only the Huntsman and his heart."

****

"Dean!" Sam said, his voice panicky. "Dean!"

Dean blinked up at him. "What the—?" Buffy and Willow were kneeling on either side of Sam, looking down at him. He was stretched out on the floor, still as cold as a refrigerated flounder. He struggled to a sitting position, shrugging off Sam's hand.

"What happened?" Willow asked.

"She took me to a weird place, said a bunch of mystical crap, then disappeared."

"Standard oracle, then," Buffy said, and stood up. He appreciated that attitude, and showed it with a big grin, which she nearly returned.

"Dean—" Sam's fists were clenched at his sides, and he was pouting.

"She said it didn't matter to the deal, but I'm not taking any chances." He put a hand to his temple. "It's weird—it's like it's already fading. There was something about—a forest?"

"So that's it," Sam said, disgusted. "Just like always, you get the last word, no discussion, no compromises."

Dean got to his feet, the better to have the fight. "Not when it comes to this! You get no help from me, you know that."

Willow and Buffy had discreetly pulled away, and Willow was hastily gathering the objects left over from the summoning. "I'm going to do more research on what she told us," Willow said.

"Sam," Buffy said gently. Even though he didn't look away from Dean, he tilted his head a little. "I've dealt with oracles before. When they get all fortune cookie, they really don't tell you anything specific."

Sam grimaced; Buffy sighed, and the girls left the room as the Winchesters glared at one another.

"The oracle called you Huntsman, Dean. Not hunter."

"So she used some old lingo. What's the big deal?"

"In the Snow White legend, the evil queen sends the Huntsman to cut out a girl's heart and put it in a box. And he doesn't do it. He spares her."

Only the Huntsman and his heart echoed in Dean's head. He didn't like it.

"So?"

"Are you going to go through with this?" Sam stared at him, brows furrowed like he was trying to influence Dean's mind the way Andy had.

Dean stood up and moved towards the door. "Far as I remember, the evil queen wasn't going to kill the Huntsman's brother if he didn't perform. Unless there's some funky European version of the story you never told me about."

"Dean—"

Queenless man. He needed out. "I'm not going to let you die," he said, and left.

****

The argument hadn't been audible from outside, only their low and angry voices, thick with years of sibling history. Buffy thought of Dawn, locked in a giant body that really was as awkward and impossible as every teenager believed hers was, and hoped that Giles and his research minions found an answer soon. She'd give a lot to be able to fight with Dawn in a conference room, instead of needing an open field to do it in.

Dean came out and slammed the door behind him, heading down the hall with barely a glance at Buffy.

Buffy waited a minute, then detached herself from the wall she'd been leaning against and knocked. Without waiting for an answer, she opened the door and went back into the conference room; Sam had slumped back down into a chair. He was staring at the blank, shiny wood of the table as if he could see secret runes if he looked hard enough. He had his head in his hand, messing up his hair, and his chin looked like it wanted to tremble.

"Demon-touched?" Buffy asked.

Sam swallowed. It took him a moment to look up. "What I told you before, about the demon who hunted my family? I told you, he wanted to—he tried to give me these powers. I, uh, he did something to change me. But when we killed him, that all stopped."

Buffy was guessing that this was the one-line IMDB summary, and maybe not all that accurate. But Sam was wide-eyed and spooked, afraid for his brother and maybe for his own goodness, if the oracle was still calling him that.

"Let me tell you a story," she said, and told him about the First Slayer. She wasn't a scholar of slayer history. There were probably facts she was getting wrong. Once in a while, the facts weren't the most important part of a story.

Sam seemed particularly interested in how the demonic powers were transferred into the First Slayer, but he controlled his disappointment well when she pointed out that, as the subjects of the spell rather than its caster, neither she nor the First Slayer had been taking notes.

"So you were always on the side of good," he said when she finished.

"I don't know about that," she said. "Those guys weren't interested in the girl they sacrificed. They didn't ask her, and they didn't tell her what they knew."

"But they weren't trying to raise a demon army to take over the world," Sam pointed out.

Buffy considered. "I never looked at it that way before."

Sam left to track down Dean, which left her to go give Willow the additional information.

Willow didn't think that Sam's potential demon powers were relevant, yet, but she promised to keep an eye out. "But he didn't react to the First Slayer stuff?" she asked.

"No," Buffy said, considering. "He doesn't seem all that deep in Slayer lore. I really think he found out about us by accident—these hunter types seem like they're usually afraid of girl germs. If he wasn't desperate, he wouldn't be here. And his demon thing didn't seem like the First Slayer. He said he was a baby—he didn't know what was happening, didn't even remember."

"You still think about her," Willow said softly.

"All the time," Buffy admitted, picking a stray bit of chicken fluff off her shirt. "She was so scared. And so angry. And that's been a part of being a Slayer, ever since."

"So has being the one girl in all the world," Willow pointed out. "But not any more."

****

Dean wanted a workout to get out of his own head, so he took himself down to the training room Willow had shown him on the earlier tour. About ten girls were already there, doing various things. He recognized most of them from quick introductions in the halls as Willow dragged him from book-filled room to book-filled room. Five of them were doing fighting drills on the blue plastic exercise mats. The mats defined an area about fifteen by thirty feet against one wall. Stacks of equipment and extra mats were scattered around the open sides.

"Watch your form," he called out to Ksenia, who kept trying to do the moves the same way as her sparring partner, only June was six inches taller. "You gotta step in—here, let me show you."

And he hadn't meant to get his hands all over her in her tight exercise clothes, but by God it didn't hurt.

Of course, what they did to him once they realized he was better than a training dummy did hurt, just a little. Maybe more than a little; these girls could punch like demons. But that was okay. It was exactly the kind of thing he needed to keep his focus.

He'd started hearing yelps, off in the distance, behind the walls.

Sam found him some time later. He was starting to flag a little, but the Slayers were just getting started.

"Hey, Sam," he called out when his brother came through the door, looking a little lost. It was kind of funny how much taller Sam looked after a bunch of all-girl time. He stepped away from Sophia—she had a wicked mouth on her, he'd discovered—and jogged to the edge of the mat. "The girls were just beating me up."

Sam looked over at June and Ksenia, who were going one-on-one almost blurringly fast. "You're training with them." His tone was skeptical.

He tilted his head challengingly. "They've got the talent, but most of them don't have formal training. There's better ways and worse ways to use strength, you know that."

"I know that," Sam agreed, a little sharply. "But they could hurt you."

He frowned. "No way! They're still girls." But he said it low, just in case. "They beat me up a little. It's cool."

Sam looked at him carefully. "You're not going to be able to move tonight, and you're going to be whining at me."

"I don't whine!"

Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever."

"Dean?" Ksenia called out.

"With you in a minute," he said without turning.

"Why are you going back for more?" Sam asked, all 'I've always been smarter than you and I didn't need to go to Stanford to prove it.'

Dean scoffed at him. "Dude, they throw me to the ground and jump on top of me! And then they do it again!"

"You're unbelievable," Sam said, mouth all pinched in that hilarious way it got. Come to think of it, he was way too uptight, which was understandable but still not a good idea.

So Dean smiled his best big-brother grin, all teeth and no mirth. "No, I'm a legend. Not the same thing, you know that. C'mon, I need to spar with someone I can actually beat."

He'd guessed right. "Oh, it is on," Sam said and jumped at him, knocking him back onto the mat, and they were wrestling, first just standard moves for warm-up, strike and counterstrike, hands bouncing off arms and bodies just barely whirling past one another. Sam got off a really good back kick, and Dean nodded to show it. Even in the heat of struggle, Dean saw the way Sam's eyes lightened at the praise, and it slowed him down a little, thinking of how he'd spent so many years teaching Sam to defend himself, and how he might not get any more chances.

But then Sam slapped his butt, hard enough to count as a spank, and Dean roared and threw himself back into the moment.

After another flurry of blows, they paused by mutual agreement to collapse and stare up at the ceiling, panting. Sam's head was near his, their bodies pointed different directions like the hands on a clock.

Dean cast his eyes over to where the girls had gathered. They conferred, giggling, and then Devendra—the one with lips like Angelina Jolie's—peeled away from the pack, standing with her hands on her hips, her feet planted between his. He could see a stretch of flat brown belly, shadowed by her crinkly green top. "We think you should take off your shirts."

Dean grinned and sat up as fast as if he'd been popped from a toaster. Then, slowing down, he stripped, turning to make sure that they got a good view of his abs as the T-shirt came off. Half of them were already flushed and open-mouthed. It felt as good as it always did, like a great meal at a diner; of course you'd get hungry again, but was that any reason to skip the meal?

Sam was just lying there, looking mortified. "What's the matter, Sammy? Shy?"

His eyes flicked back and forth between the girls and Dean. "Dean—"

Dean lunged for him and managed to snag the back of his shirt, despite Sam's quick reflexes that had him rolling away. "Shirt's kind of old," he pointed out. "If someone pulled hard—"

"Do not rip my clothes off!" Sam huffed, but he pulled away and complied with the general demands, which produced some more hooting and a whole lot of chortling.

"Ladies," Dean said, nodding to them, then turned to grab Sam, who was rattled enough that he zigged when anybody could have told him zag was the way to go. They closed, grappled, released.

They were sweat-slippery now, fingers squeak-sliding down arms, Sam's chest hot and uncomfortable against Dean's back before a well-placed elbow sent him staggering back. But Sam wasn't done; he returned before Dean could turn around, one arm across Dean's throat. Dean was in bad trouble, off balance with his feet barely touching the ground—

He swung them to the side, letting momentum carry him to the wall, where he could use his feet, pushing back against Sam to get some breath and also to get the resistance that let him go up and flip right over Sam—total Batman, which he would have yelled out if it had just been them.

Unfortunately Sam was too fast to let him close the deal, already turning by the time Dean had landed—but he could hear the girls applauding, so it was all cool.

The dogs were still growling, an infernal engine bearing down on him at a hundred miles an hour.

****

Sam's phone rang that night, an unknown number. He took the call outside their room, which was fine with Dean.

He hightailed it to Sam's computer, silently thankful for Sam's obsessive-compulsive system of bookmarks.

The Huntsman is a figure in many cultures' myths, he read, often associated with the hunt of a woman. The Huntsman represents the forces of order and, contradictorily, uncontrolled passion, a lost soul who accepts no boundaries in carrying out his mission. He is occasionally aided by hellhounds, though some versions of the legend specify that he cannot control them. His prey represents chaos, nature, and/or freedom. Feminist scholars have suggested that the Huntsman in the Snow White myth involves a displacement of male fear of female youth and power onto an older Queen figure.

It was like a horoscope, he thought. It had so many blank spots that it could mean just about anything; you could read your own life into the shape of the story no matter what.

Anyway, having a destiny would mean that he had a future outside of hell. And, God, he could taste the desire to believe that. He was so close to believing it, just because Sam wanted him to have faith.

But the hellhounds didn't sound uncertain at all. And if they did get him, then having believed in some fantastic rescue—well, that would have to be like a whole extra level of hell, he thought.

He went to wash his face.

When Sam came back inside, Dean stayed in the bathroom a few moments longer, putting himself back together, then ran the water for a couple of seconds so that Sam would make some comment about Dean's general grossness.

Instead Sam was just sitting on the bed, staring at nothing.

"Who was it?" Dean said, though he had a pretty good idea.

"I told them we'd do it in two days. They said no. I told them it had to be then, in the early hours of the morning. So we have until 3 am Thursday morning."

It was no more than he'd expected. Sam had negotiated them until just past Dean's expiration date. It would have been nice to have a vacation first, or at least a few brews—but he wasn't thinking like that.

"If you can keep them from figuring out I'm dead," he said, "you'll have time to get away while they try to punish me."

He kind of expected Sam to hit him for saying that. But instead Sam just slumped further, hiding his face in his hands.

Dean approached slowly, but Sam didn't react. He got down on one knee, still ready to take a punch, and put a hand on Sam's shoulder.

"I can't think of anything," Sam said, his voice shredded raw. His skin was warm through the fabric of his shirt. His hair was too long; it covered his collar. They hadn't been thinking much about haircuts recently. Dean squeezed, feeling the solid muscle over the bone.

He wanted to say it was okay, but really it wasn't. The time for lying to Sam had long passed.

"I can challenge her to unarmed combat," he suggested. "You never know."

Sam looked up, his face too white. "So I get to watch you get tortured before—before."

Dean ducked his head. Sam was such a familiar presence; as close to a home as Dean knew. Even the smell of him: it had changed over the years, from the baby sourness to little-boy dirt to a teenager's excessive cleanliness, to the undefinable spice-and-sweat of him now—every version was carved into his memories, with a painful gap near the end. "I'm not sorry," he said at last, even if that was a little bit of a lie. "At least you're here to miss me."

Sam hitched his breath in a laugh, pressing his thumbs into his eyes. "I won't have this conversation with you again, you fucking hypocrite."

"Sam—"

"I can't think of anything," Sam repeated, deadly calm now. "But those girls will, and we are going to do it. And then I'm going to make sure you're safe."

Dean swallowed and held his position, even though it was hard to balance like that, until Sam stood and went back to his laptop. Then he got to his feet.

"Those girls don't deserve what we got told to do," he said, half hoping that Sam's inherent stubbornness would get triggered by the 'told.' Once Sam decided he wasn't going to follow an order, Jesus and the Apostles wouldn't have a chance convincing him and Dean would only have given God Himself even odds.

But Sam said, "We don't deserve the alternative," and that was the end of that conversation.

Dean remembered when he thought he was the one who'd give anything to save the family. That had worked out real well.

If they did succeed, got the job done and walked away, there might come a day when Sam figured out that Dean hadn't been worth switching sides for.

Or maybe—and Dean couldn't decide whether this was worse—he wouldn't. Maybe they'd just keep going, hunting evil as long as they didn't need to cooperate with it to save their own skins.

The crossroads demon had thought his soul was worth making a deal for. These days, Dean wasn't so sure.

He went to clean his guns, just in case he got a chance to use them. He ignored the phantom howls eating away at his brain. They were just noises. Less dangerous than spirits, for now.

****

Willow caught Buffy first thing in the morning, explaining that she'd been doing some independent scrying, trying to figure out whether Dean could be saved. "There's a lot of mystical energy surrounding them," she said, her tone not quite worried.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Willow shrugged. "Hard to say. They're powerful."

"Sam says he doesn't have powers any more."

"He knows an awful lot of spellcraft, though," Willow said thoughtfully. "I don't have powers in the demonic sense. But I wouldn't want to meet Dark Willow in a dark alley, if you know what I mean."

"I wouldn't want to meet Dark Willow in a sunny park," Buffy agreed. "You've been spending a bunch of time with Dean—is he also witchy? Or is it wizardly?"

"People disagree on the proper term," Willow told her happily. "I myself prefer the gender-neutral witch—you could also go with warlock—but no, Dean's not like that. He's more the 'carry a big stick'—uh, big gun—uh, anyway. No, everything I do to figure out why they're important gets a big old 'answer unclear, try again later.'"

"Story of our lives," Buffy sighed. "Demons, threatening. Men, mysterious."

"Women aren't that crystal-clear either," Willow said, her brief glee at imparting information dissipating. "But enough about my personal life! We've got a bunch of decisions to make about how we're going to handle this whole secret government conspiracy against us—"

Buffy groaned and took the folder that Willow handed her.

****

In the end, Buffy had to agree that recon was required. That was, after all, why they'd come to Virginia in the first place. She just wasn't overfond of the idea of breaking into a government facility. It seemed sort of unpatriotic.

Sam Winchester came by to pester Willow about his problem—Buffy didn't mean to be uncharitable, but they'd been spending a lot of time on this side project—and saw the diagrams Willow had laid out.

"This might be none of my business, but why do you have blueprints for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Navigation Data Center?" he asked.

Buffy looked at Willow, who shrugged. "We think they're keeping information about Slayers there," Buffy explained. Sam raised his eyebrows and tilted his head, subtly suggesting they were crazy people. "And when I say 'we think,' I mean 'Willow's scrying spell found a protective shield there,' which spells mystical, plus six months ago somebody sent a memo around saying that everyone without clearance had to keep away from this one part of the building. And when I say 'information' I mean 'things that can hurt us,' so—I'm going to break in and take a look."

"It's going to be well-guarded."

She smiled at him, professionally. "I take a little extra guarding against."

He looked down for a second, then started to say something, paused, and started again, his cheeks pinking a bit as if he was afraid she was going to laugh at him. "If there's a protective shield, they're expecting magic. But maybe they're not expecting good old-fashioned social engineering."

"Social engineering?" Buffy repeated dubiously. It sounded easier than the other kinds, but still—

Willow was nodding, though.

"Dean and I usually pretend to be detectives, or FBI agents," Sam explained.

"They'd never think Buffy would just walk in," Willow said, already spinning around to type at her keyboard. "What do you think—?"

"Office of the Inspector General," Sam suggested.

Willow made an agreeing-type sound and typed faster.

"Can you make him an ID too?" Buffy asked her. If Sam was used to doing this, she could use his help. And even if he wasn't trustworthy, he probably wasn't going to betray her on this job, when the government was after him and Dean.

Sam looked like he wanted to object, but he was smart enough to recognize that Buffy's goodwill was worth more to him than his free time, so they ended up as Francine Miller and Donald Scoville, from the Office of the Deputy General Inspector for Policy and Oversight. The IDs looked great, and Sam agreed enthusiastically, which made Willow get nearly as blush-y as she did around Dean, though Buffy was pretty sure that this time it was general modesty and not raw animal attraction.

Sam produced a suit from somewhere, and she wore a nice powder blue single-breasted suit that had somehow shown up at Bebe; the bottom half of the knee-length skirt was pleated, so that if she needed to run or kick it wouldn't get in the way.

She let Sam drive them to the data center, which was a standard box of a building about half an hour away. This gave her the chance to look around his enormous black car—easily the size of her bedroom in the Slayer complex, but smelling more like old french fries, old blood, and old shoes. There was a box full of cassette tapes wedged into the footwell, a gun in the glove compartment, and a knife taped to the bottom of the passenger seat, and that was just what she found in the first two minutes of exploration.

"So, you guys spend a lot of time on the road?" she asked, mostly making conversation.

"We grew up on the road," he said, not looking at her. "Our dad was chasing the demon that killed our mom."

"That must have been hard." Sam didn't answer. She looked more carefully at the box of tapes. A lot of stuff from before she was born, a lot of tapes with no labels, and a couple of maps jammed in with the music. The maps had been carefully refolded, though, not just wadded up the way Buffy always did when she got frustrated with the mysterious ways of map folding.

She rummaged around further, waiting for Sam to object, but he was apparently willing to let her poke through his stuff. At the bottom of the tape box, there were about a dozen matchbooks—red and white and blue and a pink one that said "Gentleman's Club" and had a line drawing on it that made Buffy blush.

"One of you a smoker?" she asked, holding up a non-obscene matchbook.

Sam glanced over.

"We do a lot of salt-and-burns," he said. She gave him a blank look, which he must have sensed even though he was still watching the traffic in front of them. "We burn the bones of the departed. It dissipates their ghosts."

"Never many ghosts in Sunnydale," she recalled. "Lots of death. Maybe the ghosts felt crowded. Or outclassed. Let's face it, vampires and werewolves and alien snot monsters—that's kind of hard for a ghost to compete with."

"Snot monsters?" Sam repeated, and this time he sounded interested despite himself, so she told him the story, with appropriate credit for all involved, and then, because she was having a good time, she did a few of her other greatest hits.

"You really like your work," he said when she finished the five-minute version of Dracula. They had turned off a large street and seemed to be heading towards a parking lot. He sounded—not surprised, exactly, but almost nostalgic, like maybe he used to like what he did too, but now he was just marking time.

Buffy opened her mouth to say 'of course,' then took a moment to think about it for real. "I do," she said at last, just before Sam had to show their ID to a security guy at the gate. The guy wrote their names down and let them in without any hesitation. While Sam was somehow managing to put his dinosaur into a single parking space, she continued, "Actually, I love being the Slayer. I didn't always, but—saving people from nasty death? Even if it wasn't the only thing I know how to do, it would still be good, right?"

"Well, yeah," Sam agreed, getting out of the car. He stretched up and up, reminding Buffy that he was, like, three feet taller than her. Also, his black suit looked really good on him, even with the narrow tie and slightly rumpled lapels. He clipped his ID to his front pocket, and she did the same.

"But here we are," Sam said, "on the run from the government. Don't you want to be acknowledged instead of hunted?"

She shrugged. "That's their choice. All I can do is keep fighting."

They went into the building, a standard, nearly windowless box, and showed their IDs, which set off a flurry of telephone calls and nervous glances. Buffy wondered how many of these people had things to hide from their bosses. A lot, probably. At Doublemeat Palace almost everybody took stuff, from toilet paper to salt shakers. Government employees couldn't be that different from regular people.

Sam did all the talking, which people seemed unsurprised by, and got them into a big records room that was near the off-limits area. The guy in charge seemed relieved that they only wanted to look at hard copies—reconciling the electronic records with the printouts, Sam had said. "These are all before my time, of course," the guy said before fleeing—so he was off the hook if there was a problem, which explained his happiness pretty well.

Buffy wandered through the aisles. It was like a Home Depot for boxes of paper, big metal shelves with crossbars and incomprehensible labels. Dust was everywhere, a thin gritty layer on almost all the cardboard.

"Any idea what we're looking for?" Sam asked, sounding a little frustrated, like he wanted to restart the argument about breaking into the computer system. But Willow had been pretty certain that nothing relevant was being kept on the system. She'd explained that for a lot of the magic they dealt with, scanning a ritual in would be the same thing as performing it, so even novices would quickly figure out they were better off leaving the books bookish.

Buffy concentrated on finding her Slayer sense, the little thread inside her that drew her unerringly to the supernatural.

She looked up. The shelves were at least ten feet high. But there was a lot of space left after that, the ceiling so high up that the room felt dim even with every switch flipped. On the far side, there was a catwalk, except that it didn't seem to lead anywhere, just stretched from one side of the wall to the other.

"There," she said, stepping out of the aisle and pointing so that Sam could see. "That looks weird, doesn't it?"

He frowned. He had very expressive eyebrows, Buffy decided; what they were expressing now was worry, but not doubt. They crossed the room, disturbing the dust on the floor, and stood underneath the catwalk. Up close, it was evident that some sort of door had been closed up, sealing the catwalk off from whatever was in the walls around them.

"I've got to get up there," Buffy decided.

Wordlessly, Sam got to one knee, offering himself as a sort of ladder. She took advantage, stepping from his thigh to his shoulders, balancing easily as he stood. She only noticed how good he smelled in passing, and she definitely didn't plan to revisit the information later.

"You're good at this," she told him; he was as stable as the ground underneath her, and he wasn't grabbing her ankles or anything stupid like that.

"You're a lot lighter than Dean," he said, his voice softer than necessary. He wasn't trying to look up her skirt, which she appreciated.

She calculated the distance, bent her knees, and jumped, grabbing for the bottom edge. Hanging from the metal grid, she brought one hand up to the railing, then the other. After she'd curled herself over the edge, she wrapped one leg around one of the supports, bracing her knee, and lowered herself down to hold out her hands for Sam. "I think it'll hold both of us," she said.

Sam looked at her for a second, then nodded and jumped, grabbing her wrists and only looking a little nervous as she pulled them both up to the catwalk. He brought his feet up to wriggle onto the catwalk for himself as soon as he could, and gave her a nod of thanks.

She stared at him. After a moment, he started to look worried, and glanced down at his suit as if checking for food stains.

"Most guys are freaked out by the strength," she explained.

He stopped shuffling around, looked straight at her, and smiled in a way that made every warning light in her head flash bright. "I think this is the part where most guys would say, 'I'm not most guys.'"

It was a good thing they were on a covert mission in hostile territory, she thought, because otherwise she might have gotten distracted. Instead of jumping on him to see what other uses he might have for Slayer strength, she looked past him, to the sealed-up door at the end of the catwalk.

The fluorescent lights on the ceiling were almost level with them, and the light was directed downwards, so everything was grayed out even without the dust. She smelled old paper, not quite as sweet as the scent of the ancient books Giles and Willow kept around, more chemical, like ink was bleeding into the air.

Behind that, though, there was something else.

Blood was really very distinctive, once you were paying attention.

She approached the end of the catwalk. The door there had been painted over, institutional mint green, and there were dents in the paint where a handle had been removed, but it didn't look as if anything extra had been done to seal it off. There was no way to open it without doing some damage, so they'd just have to figure out something stealthy when they were done.

Fortunately, the hinges were on the other side.

Buffy kicked, up and out, and the door groaned, paint splintering all around the edges. The freed door quivered. Buffy frowned and prepared to go again, but with a wheeze and a whoosh it fell back, into darkness.

Sam handed her a little flashlight. He was holding one of his own.

"I wish I had my gun," he whispered, leaning down so that his breath ruffled her hair.

Buffy, though, had no need to feel any more like Scully than she already did, so she ignored him and moved forwards, playing the flashlight along the black walls.

It was a corridor with doors on either side. Heavy, reinforced metal doors, with tiny gridded windows and reinforced slots that must be for putting meal trays through, like in a movie about a high-security prison that was surprisingly easy to break out of. Buffy wasn't too worried about what might be behind those doors, but those movies were right that overconfidence was a major mistake.

The floor here wasn't dusty, and the note of blood was mingled with … sandwiches and coffee, she thought. They were lucky, she realized, that no one was actively using the place right now. It would have been pretty funny to bust in on an active bunch of secret agents, though.

She had to stand on her tiptoes to look into the first door they came to. But it was nothing but blackness, and the flashlight just bounced off the heavy glass and blinded her.

"There's a door at the end of the hall that's different," Sam said, gesturing with his flashlight.

He was right: the last door before the big one with the emergency exit sign didn't have a window or a slot, but someone had taped a Dilbert cartoon on it. Buffy reached out and tried to turn the handle, without success.

They looked at each other. Sam shrugged and got to his knees, putting his flashlight on the floor, where it rolled a few inches away. "Can you shine your light on that lock?" he asked.

"You pick locks too?" she asked as he removed a small case from his jacket. "So the whole felony thing, that wasn't all a misunderstanding."

His lips twitched into a smile that didn't show his teeth. "We're not well-funded," he said.

"I hear that," she agreed. "Life was a lot better once I got a stipend from the Council."

"Council?" he asked absently, his hands busy with the little silver instruments that looked like they belonged on a dentist's tray.

"Long story, tell you later," she said as something clicked. Sam pushed down on the handle, and the door yawned open.

"I wouldn't do that just yet," a voice said behind them.

They both spun, Sam scrabbling for his flashlight and Buffy dancing hers all around the blackened hallway, seeing nothing.

"It's coming from one of the locked rooms," Buffy realized.

"I hear you, little mice," the voice crooned. "Show yourselves, or I'll make enough trouble that my minders will come down to see what's the matter. And I think you wouldn't like that at all."

Sam looked at her, his face tight with worry, waiting for her cue.

She knew that voice.

Buffy jerked her head at Sam, telling him to go on, she'd deal with this. He stood and hurried into the room. Buffy approached the grille that was the source of the voice.

"Ethan Rayne?" she asked.

"Buffy Summers!" he said, sounding delighted. "I thought I smelled … different magic. But never mind, never mind. What are you doing here, my dear?"

"I'm kind of wondering the same thing," she told him.

Light spilled out through the open door at the end of the hall; Sam had flicked on a switch. She chose to take that as a sign of progress.

"Oh, me?" he asked, coy as ever. "I'm just an honored guest. You know the U.S. government is possibly the greatest force for chaos operative today—New Orleans, Iraq, global warming denialism, the list goes on. So I'm quite at home here."

"Yeah, love the décor," Buffy said, letting her disbelief come through her voice and bracing herself for an annoying conversation. "You don't mind being held prisoner and used in somebody else's plans?"

"Darling Slayer," Ethan said, "anyone who tries to use me deserves what happens next. Though I suppose that sentiment is appallingly anti-chaotic, isn't it? Ideally they wouldn't deserve anything."

"Get to the point, Ethan," she said tightly.

"Or what? You'll huff and you'll puff and you'll blow my house down? I don't think so," he said. She could imagine his dismissive, superior grin, and it made her fingers itch to be curled in fists.

"Tell you what," she said to Ethan. "Don't make a fuss about us being here and I'll think about coming back to get you out."

She could imagine him pouting. "That's not a lot of incentive for me."

She rolled her eyes at the darkened hallway, glad he couldn't see her. "How about: if I get out, the chaos potential when these guys come after me on my own turf is a lot higher."

He chuckled. "Well, you certainly know my weaknesses. Go on, before I change my mind."

She did.

When she entered the Dilbert room, Sam was just closing a filing cabinet. He held up a digital camera in her general direction. "I took photos. We can read up later."

Buffy looked around. There were tables piled with lots of things that wouldn't have looked out of place at the Magic Box, a couple of ancient, boxy beige computer workstations, about ten industrial-size filing cabinets, and a big, empty metal table in the center surrounded by faded blue plastic bucket chairs. At least the guys plotting against her would have aching butts at the end of the day.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

She looked back over at the junk on the tables.

One of the piles was moving.

"What's that?" she asked, as papers and candles and something that looked like an orange covered with cloves shifted and fell away, revealing a sort of trunklike box, its metal-reinforced top jerking up, down, up, as if something inside was bouncing itself out.

Sam produced a knife from somewhere (somewhere tasty, Buffy presumed) and advanced slowly towards it. "It didn't start up until you got here," he said. As it continued to rattle, the top getting closer to flipping open each time, it was clearing a space for itself on the table. Past Sam's bulk, Buffy could see one side of it, a dark leathery green, half covered with blackened runes and half blank. Golden metal with an oily sheen ran along the edges.

"I think," Sam said, "it's a Kamchatka box. A device that delivers supernatural attackers to a particular target—"

That was when the top gave up the struggle, flipped open, and the golden retriever puppy jumped out.

It landed on the floor, paws splayed adorably, and looked from Sam to Buffy with its big, doggy, brown eyes. Its fur looked soft and curly, like frosting.

"Attackers?" Buffy said, raising her eyebrows. The puppy blinked at her and made a high whining sound, then shuffled a few steps closer to her, sniffing as it came. Buffy squatted down to get a closer look.

"I don't think the box was finished," Sam said dubiously. "See how the—"

The puppy yawned, revealing three rows of shark-like teeth. Then it leapt at her.

Spinning, Buffy grabbed a bucket chair and used the legs to keep the puppy back. It growled and dodged—fast little bastard—and she whirled with it, managing to keep the chair between herself and the teeth.

Plop! Another dog was ejected from the box, this one a little bigger, just as cute, and just as toothy. It landed badly, but righted itself and joined the first one, advancing on Buffy.

Sam's knife whistled over her shoulder and pinned the larger dog to the floor. The littler one took its chance and bounded forward, but Buffy had figured out the best use of the chair now. She thrust fast enough to knock the dog back, and then impaled it on the chair leg.

Both her dog and the one Sam had accounted for made pathetic whimpery noises. Instead of blood, what came out of them looked like greasy smoke, puffing up into the air a bit before puddling back down around the bodies.

Plop! Plop! Plop!

Three more dogs, each a little bit bigger than the one before, landed in a pile, squirming around to free themselves. Each was just as cute as the first, except for the slavering jaws. "Isn't there a Dr. Seuss book like this?" Buffy wondered, shifting into a better fighting stance—and then hoped the process stopped, because otherwise they were going to be fighting dogs the size of elephants pretty soon. Behind her, she heard Sam jump down, and then rummaging-type noises, as if he were searching the other tables for something.

"Hold up your right hand," Sam called, and she did, not looking away from the dogs, who had spread out and were moving to encircle her. A short sword thunked into her palm. The hilt felt oily and sticky at once, and she had a sense the weapon didn't like her, but it moved well enough when she swung it.

Plop! Plop!

She twirled the sword, watching their bright eyes follow the blade. The largest one took its chance and lunged. Buffy took its head off, but the next one leapt right after and got its jaws around her forearm—except it was still small enough that all it could do was bite down and hang on as she jerked back. Buffy shook her arm rapidly, still dancing around to avoid the other dogs. The dog's teeth ripped through her sleeve; she felt them rake her skin, but then it tore loose and flew back, arcing through the air to land with a thump against one of the long tables against the wall, then tumbling to the floor in a shower of paper.

Plop!

"Can you close the box?" Buffy suggested, stabbing another dog in the stomach and kicking its body into two others, bowling them back for a few moments.

Sam edged past the dogs, which paid him no attention, and peered inside the thing. Immediately he pulled back, dodging the next dog-missile, but Buffy stepped forward, swinging the sword as she turned to put her back to Sam's, and managed to cut it in half even before it landed on the floor.

Four left, shoulder to shoulder and growling at her with identical expressions of fury. At least they no longer seemed to be getting bigger.

Sam turned—she could feel him looking at the situation from over her head (she'd have to stand on a box to be his height, and not a shoebox either, she thought regretfully)—and then quickly ducked past her, retrieving his knife from where it was embedded in the rapidly decaying remains of the first demon dog.

"I can't close it until it's out of ammo," he said when he'd resumed his position behind her—there was a wet noise as the box coughed out another dog, and its body landed to her left, its throat cut—"but I can take care of these."

"Right," Buffy said, and stepped forward to deal with the pack in front of her.

As with the pizza dwarves, their small size was a challenge, since the dogs could twist through spaces no ordinary opponent could use. But she had a sword and a bad mood—that dog had torn her nice suit up—and she knew how to use them both. Lunge and twist and strike, and the pack was down to three.

She heard the box slam down on the table twice more. A dog yelped—no, she was pretty sure that was Sam—and something warm and disgusting dripped down her neck. "Sorry," Sam said, and he did sound embarrassed.

Two dogs jumped at her simultaneously; she ducked and rolled, kicking her feet out to knock the third across the room, where it crashed into one of the ancient computer screens and stuck there, squealing. Buffy pushed herself to her feet and spun, the sword arcing around her, gutting the closer dog and sending the other one dancing back, its black and shiny jaws bared at her.

She pressed her advantage, darting forward and scoring a hit across the dog's muzzle. It cowered, pressing its belly into the floor, and for a moment she saw a helpless little dog, beautiful and brainless like something out of a commercial for antidepressants, or maybe real estate.

Buffy hesitated, sword raised—and in an instant it went for her throat, one last desperate push. She put the sword in position and let the dog slide its throat right through.

She shook the remains off then turned to the last one. That dog was just now fighting its way out of the crushed computer, which it had managed to knock to the floor. She heard more noises from the box—it reminded her of popcorn, when a bag was just finishing up in the microwave—but Sam seemed to have that under control, so she hurried over to the remaining dog and quickly made sure that it would never cause problems for Animal Control.

Like the others, it seemed less doglike in death, collapsing into something more like a decayed stuffed animal as the animating spirit ebbed from it.

She looked over as Sam finally flipped the top over the now-unmoving box. Now, with all the papers and other debris shaken away from it during its performance, she could see that the box hadn't been quite done. The runes were lopsided, with whole sections of the box unmarked.

"So much for covert ops," Buffy said regretfully, looking at the mess they'd made. Along with the displaced junk from the tables, piles of what looked like old rags covered the floor—all that was left of the spirit dogs.

"Actually," Sam said, looking thoughtful, "Kamchatka boxes are notoriously unreliable. If we get out clean, they'll probably just think that it exploded on its own."

Inspecting the damage with a more careful eye, she thought he might be right—all the disarray could be explained by a big kablooey. She shook her head. "Why doesn't anyone ever take 'don't try this at home' seriously?"

He snorted. "This one time, we were on a movie set—" She looked over and he stopped, something like pain flickering over his face.

She handed him the sword to put back where he'd found it, and heard a noise from outside the room.

They froze.

Someone was trying to get through the big door, the official one they'd ignored on the way in. She could hear a keypad singing out tones, then a buzz as the code was, to everyone's surprise, rejected. Ethan giggled, loud in the silence, and a male voice said something blurry and annoyed. With any luck, the military guys behind this place would blame Ethan for the mess—and Ethan would probably let them, because he was just that way.

She grabbed Sam's arm and pulled him out into the hallway. The big door was still closed, but people were discussing the matter just outside, and she could hear someone punching the numbers again, distinct and deliberate this time.

They ran past Ethan's door without looking in.

On the way out, they propped the once-painted-over door back in its hole. When they were back on the catwalk in the records room, Sam fiddled with the burst lock until it stuck out enough to keep the whole thing in place, and then he pulled out a piece of paper and copied out some symbols that he said would work a minor glamour to keep anyone from paying attention to the damage.

Buffy put her ear to the door, listening as people poured into the hallway on the other side, arguing and then yelling as they discovered the mess in their workroom.

They didn't sound the alarm on the whole facility, though, so some combination of blaming Ethan and their own incompetence had worked out.

****

Dean was plenty pissed that Sam had taken off without him, again. If he bitched, Sam would just say he was learning Buffy's fighting style, her weaknesses, whatever. But Sam wasn't even around to hear Dean complain. And it wasn't like these girls could do anything about Sam's sudden desire to spend all his free time with Buffy, so he tried just to sit in the front office, smile at any girls who went by, and not get into any trouble.

That all worked fine until he heard something crash against the glass doors out front. He put down the Cosmo and got his ass out front, where Devendra was staring in horror at the mass of things banging at the entrance, trying to get in. They were bouncing off something—must be those wards the military guy had mentioned—but they didn't seem all that deterred.

Dean stepped closer to get a better look. In the lead were three—sweet mother of Jesus, they looked like lizards in the shape of men, green-brown leathery skin with ridges and horns distorting their faces. They were big: taller than Sam, dock workers' arms, and fists the size of babies' heads. They looked murderously angry.

There was a clatter of heels as more Slayers poured into the waiting room. There was a brief whispered conversation, and then he heard Devendra take off down the hall, towards Willow. "The fuck are those?" Dean asked the world in general.

"M'Fashnik demons," one of the girls—Claudia, he thought—said. "We studied them."

"Yeah?" he said, low, not turning his head. "How do you kill them?"

"They're strong, but I don't remember special powers. I think you just, you know, hit them until they fall down."

As the attackers massed in front of the doors, Dean could see them a little better— behind the M'Fashniks were a bunch of pasty-faced guys in robes, like monks but nastier.

"What about the guys in the robes?"

Nobody answered; Dean took that as evidence that none of them knew. He really, really hoped that these were also killable by conventional means. He really, really missed his guns.

The monk-types started chanting. That also couldn't be good.

Finally, Devendra returned with Willow, who stared at the scene outside the glass doors for several moments. She took a deep breath. "Okay, the fellows in the robes are Lilliad demons. Their collective magic is going to get them through the wards in a couple of minutes even if I reinforce them—they just weren't built for this kind of direct assault."

"What do they want?" another girl asked. Dean thought her name began with 'J.'

"Usually they use the bones of children to make magical soup," Willow said absently. "Most of you are young enough you might count, if they wanted to try with Slayers. I guess they were waiting for Buffy to go out? If you think about it, it's the opportunity of a lifetime."

"A short lifetime," Dean said. "Can you keep them from using magic against us once they're through the wards?"

Willow frowned in thought. "Maybe. I need to get to my workroom."

Dean realized that having this discussion in front of the attackers, even if they were separated by ward-reinforced glass doors, might not be the smartest idea. Fighting the instinct that told him to stay away from the giant lizard-men, he walked deliberately up to the front of the room and pulled the shades down, blocking their view of the outside.

"Why'd you do that?" J-girl asked, her voice high with adrenaline.

"We know they're coming in," he pointed out. "Now they don't know how we're setting up."

She seemed to see the sense in that.

But now they needed to use the remaining time well.

"Okay," Dean said, "June, Jane, and Jael, you take the back exit. Keep anything else from getting in. It's our escape route if necessary, so keep it clear. Sophia, Lourdes, Claudia, go with Willow, protect her while she's doing her thing. The rest of you, grab whatever weapons you can, we're gonna fight these bad boys."

"Wait a second," J-girl—Jane—said, crossing her arms over her chest in what Dean already recognized as an unconscious imitation of Buffy. "Who put you in charge?"

"I'm not," he said, biting back the 'sweetheart,' staring at her and hoping that this girl would think he was sincere, just for once. "But I've been doing this since I was twelve and I do know about hunting in a team, so I suggest we get going." Grinning would probably be a mistake, so he tried to relax, stand up straight, and do that thing Sam did where he just sort of radiated certainty and reassurance. He thought he probably looked like a big dork. But hopefully a big dork who knew how to kill stuff. If they didn't go along, he'd have to stick with Willow—

But Jane nodded shortly, and that was enough for the rest of them to agree, secretly happy that someone else had issued the challenge. The J-girls slipped out, heading silently down the hall, while Ksenia opened the armory hidden under the reception desk, handing out short swords and a couple of crossbows. Dean liberated a machete for himself.

"When the doors go, that whole wall of glass is going to come down," Devendra pointed out. In fact, the blinds were shaking steadily, rattling against the glass, and magic or not, they were going to be lucky to avoid getting their eyes put out if they stayed here.

He nodded. "Fall back to the hall," he said. There was no door between the waiting room and the rest of the Slayers' complex, but defending at the door would still give them a better bottleneck, with a real structural wall that would be hard for even demons to widen very quickly.

The girls were naturals, that much was obvious, he thought as he followed them out. They moved like they were weightless, balanced like gymnasts. What they didn't have—what showed in every twitch, every time one stepped into another's line of attack—was experience.

Hell of a way to get it, he thought.

Dean wasn't the only one who jumped when the wards—and the glass doors—gave out. There was a huge crash, and then a rush of something past them, like standing next to a highway while cars sped by, but not physical. The demons outside roared and stampeded inside.

Sophia stepped forward and swung her axe as the first M'Fashnik charged through the doorway. Dean expected her to be thrown back—she was about a third the size of the thing she was attacking—but the blade went through its chest like it was a ghost instead of a demon, and she followed up the strike with a kick to the nuts that sent the M'Fashnik stumbling back into the other two.

After that, things got a little more confused. The demons kept coming, the sheer weight of their bodies pushing the Slayers back through the hall. Dean had rarely been in big fights, and it was hard to keep track of what was going on when he was just barely keeping his own arms and legs attached—the monk-types had wicked knives to go with their robes. At least friend and foe were pretty clear; every identifiable she was a friend.

He dodged a blow, ducked and let one demon go over his shoulder—Claudia yelled behind him as she gutted it—kicked and feinted and cut; with them packed so close, it was as hard to miss a strike as it was to be missed. One of the demons managed to score a line along his arm, burning like molten lead, but he jerked back and dodged and got it in the neck on his next swing.

"Get back!" he heard one of the girls shouting. "Fall back!"

They didn't seem to be losing, but the Slayers all obeyed, and he wouldn't last long fighting alone, even in the confines of a hallway, so he scrambled backwards with the rest of them, nearly slipping on a trail of blood like a smear of paint down the center of the floor.

When they were all gathered at the end of the hallway like a pack of Twizzlers, only with more sharp edges, Willow pushed her way to the front. Dean wanted to put himself between her and the advancing monks, who had taken a moment to figure out that the Slayers had all disengaged and were warily moving forwards. But then Willow raised her hands and he thought better of the impulse.

She was muttering, one long string of syllables in a language Sam might have recognized. A ball of light roughly the diameter of a steering wheel flared into existence right in front of her face, then broke into dozens of baseball-sized streaks of flame and headed towards the demons packing the hallway.

The world flared into oily rainbow halos over black, like he'd been hit hard enough to close his eyes, and the hallway shook like a semi had plowed into it. The noise was like a shotgun going off by his ears. Someone behind him lost her balance and fell into him, pushing him forward, but he didn't dare bring up his machete just in case Willow had moved.

Slowly, his vision returned to normal, except that the demons were invisible now.

No, not invisible.

Dean stared at the piles of ash dotting the floor for a second before Willow wavered. He stepped forward to catch her with his free hand, keeping the machete away from her. He kept his hand light on her arm, not moving towards any places it might be unwelcome. With the power she'd just shown off, he didn't want to give her any reason to get angry.

"Are they dead?" she asked blearily.

"The deadest," he reassured her, shifting so that he could put his arm around her shoulders. "Hey, maybe you should sit down." He jerked his head at Claudia, who snapped out of her surprise and came around to support Willow from the other side.

"Well, that was fun," Willow said, and then let them take her weight.

****

Buffy and Sam waited fifteen minutes, and still no alarm sounded. So they took their chances and just walked out.

The man who'd let them was waiting just outside.

Buffy tensed to fight, but there was no one else around.

"Did you find everything in—?" he began, then stopped, his mouth open as he stared at them.

Buffy realized the bites on her arm were visible through her torn sleeve. Also, she and Sam were covered with dust, Sam had a bruise on his cheek, her hair was a mess, and there was a crusty patch on the collar of Sam's formerly white shirt that was, at best, blood. 'Office of the Inspector General' seemed a little less plausible now, but they were stuck with it.

Sam smiled at the guy. "Don't worry, we took care of it."

"Took care of what?" he asked, bewildered.

"We're not at liberty to discuss it," Buffy said, which she thought was pretty good. "And you're not either," she added, doing her best Woman in Black, even if she was wearing powder blue. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a muscle twitch in Sam's jaw, but his pleasant expression didn't change.

"Okay," the man said, and rabbited down the hall, leaving them to figure their own way out.

"What did you get?" Buffy asked when they were safely on the road.

Sam waited a second before answering. "You want the good news or the bad news?"

"There's good news?" she asked, surprised. That was so rare.

He shrugged without looking at her. "The Kamchatka box was one of about a dozen different strategies for killing you, Willow, and every Slayer who isn't willing to pledge allegiance to the flag."

She nodded. "What's the good news?"

Now his lips compressed in what was almost a smile. "That was the good news. They haven't figured out an optimal strategy and they're a ways away from making a move. It means you've got the opportunity to plan, maybe even choose a time and a place." He turned onto the entrance to the freeway.

"Okay," she said slowly. "So, the bad news?"

"Diplomacy isn't one of the options. As far as they're concerned there's no negotiating. It's you against the government of the most powerful, most heavily armed nation on earth."

Put that way, it didn't exactly put her in a kittens-and-cookies mood. On the other hand, the First Evil had been a worse enemy than Uncle Sam. She leaned back into the creaky seat of the car, closed her eyes, and thought about the future.

****

The Slayers' place was pretty trashed from the battle, but by general agreement (which Dean had a part in creating—nothing wrong with leading people who wanted to be led) they were too hungry to straighten up just yet. Instead, they ordered pizzas from the place three doors down, and Willow paid out of the special Slayer account. They threw some sheets over the broken glass and ate in the reception area, the girls all sitting cross-legged and telling themselves how hard they'd fought.

One of the awesome things about Slayers was that they ate like guys—more than twenty pizzas, and he was forced to root around in the empty boxes to find one more slice.

Dean was just making Jane trade the beer she'd bogarted for a Coke when Sam and Buffy came in through the place that used to be a door. After about two seconds, they both got identical 'I thought I left adults in charge' expressions and opened their mouths.

Willow stood as the younger Slayers froze. "Buffy! We got attacked by Lilliad demons and a couple of M'Fashnik!"

"We kicked demon ass!" Sophie crowed, waving her soda like it was a lighter at a concert.

"We'll clean up!" Devendra added hurriedly. "As soon as we've had dessert."

"Dessert?" Buffy said after a pause, and the cannoli came out. Dean waved Sam over and handed him the pizza box he'd been hiding. The slices were only barely warm, but Sam didn't seem to mind.

****

When they got back to their room, Sam didn't want to hear about the battle. His unwillingness to listen to Dean brag wasn't all that surprising—Sam was never one for fight stories. Instructions on how to kill something, that was like studying, so Sam was okay with it, but he'd always turned up his nose at hunters' yarns.

Instead, Sam wanted to talk about his little expedition to FedWorld, and how the guy who'd put the geas on them had been locked up there.

"If Buffy hadn't sent me to get the files alone, she would have seen the file on us," Sam said as soon as he made it into the room and the safety of their wards. He stalked over to his bed and plopped down, ignoring the way the mattress creaked dangerously beneath him.

"Yeah, I got that," Dean told him, leaning back against the door. "Good thing she didn't, then. So now that you've had a look at it, you think they'll keep their promise if we do this job?"

Sam gave a short, sharp bark of laughter. "They don't even think we'll survive this job."

"But if we did," Dean prompted.

Sam's jaw tightened, which was as good an answer as Dean needed. "It doesn't matter," Sam said. "I know how they think now. I just need time."

As if they'd heard Sam, the hounds bayed, the sound embedded deep in Dean's skull.

Sam was just sitting there, shoulders slumped, hands draped over his knees. He was still wearing his G-man suit, the tie almost dragging on the bedcover between his legs like the tail of a worn-out dog.

For a moment Dean thought about how Sam's life might have been, wearing that suit for real, using Latin to win legal cases instead of exorcise demons.

"This isn't right," he told Sam.

Sam looked up, and the fury in his eyes made Dean think of their father's funeral pyre. "You lost your privilege to judge when you made that deal. I said I was going to save you, and I am. You didn't look at the fucking price tag when—"

"The fuck I didn't!" Dean said, coming off the door and stalking towards Sam as if taking a swing at him might make the whole mess more bearable. "But that was different! That was just—"

Sam was up like a gunshot, fisting his hands in Dean's shirt, nearly dragging him off the floor. Dean's hands came up, flailing at Sam's forearms, unwilling to do anything nastier to get himself free. "Finish that sentence," Sam growled, "and I swear I'll break your nose."

Another time, another lifetime, Dean would have made a joke about destroying perfection. As it was, he just thought about some movie he'd seen once where a character explained that, in some cultures, if you save someone's life you're responsible for them forever. He'd always been responsible for Sam, of course, so the deal hadn't changed anything on that account. He guessed, though, that he was also racking up points for the people Sam killed now.

Their faces were inches apart, Sam's brows knotted with frustrated anger. "I'm not thrilled either," Sam gritted out, "but these are your rules. We do the job and we don't whine about it."

Sam let him go; Dean staggered back a step as Sam spun around, raising his hands to his face as if to cover the expression Dean couldn't see. "Don't make this harder than it already is," he said, muffled. Dean had the unwelcome thought, not for the first time, that Sam had to feel like the grown-up now, making all the decisions because Dean wouldn't, couldn't.

And maybe the difference between trading his own soul for Sam's life and trading someone else's wasn't as big as he wanted it to be. This thing the government wanted them to do, it was rotten all the way down. But he guessed he was already corrupt. It was only what this was doing to Sam that had him worried—that, and that Sam didn't seem to care enough to fight it.

He had to have faith in Sam. That was the only thing that made the rest of it worthwhile.

****

When Willow called them into the room the next morning, her voice was high with glee. Buffy was already proud of her, without having to hear the specifics of the plan. She knew Willow hated to be called reliable—but she was glad to be able to think it.

"Within and behind," Willow said once they'd gathered. "I think I know what the oracle meant. Buffy, you remember the enjoining ritual we did to defeat Adam?"

"But that was four of us," Buffy said. "And, guys, as attractive as you are—" she paused a moment to check; yep, still attractive—"I'm just not comfortable doing a soul-merge with you."

"I think, because they're brothers, I can make it work with two," Willow said. "If I guide the ritual, I can anchor it twice in them—head, hand, spirit and heart."

"Sammy's the head," Dean said cheerfully. "Guess that makes me the hand."

Sam looked pissy. "Oh, and you think you're the heart?"

Dean actually stopped moving, like he'd been hit in the head. "Nah," he said after a moment. "You're the one who loves puppies and chick flicks and all that. You're definitely the heart."

"Okay!" Willow said, clapping her hands together, before the testosterone could poison the atmosphere further.

"It doesn't matter," Dean said, sounding a little bored. "You know I can't try to get out of the deal."

Sam gaped at him. "This isn't trying to get out! This is part of the deal!"

"I gotta go with Sam on this one," Willow said. "Like, when your cellphone agreement says you can cancel it, cancelling it isn't breaking the agreement."

Dean went thinky-face for about one second, then his expression hardened. "You think the demon's going to see it that way?"

Buffy had heard enough. "Don't you even want to live? Are you that excited to get sent to hell? Because let me tell you, I know people who've been—"

He shook his head and stood up. "I don't want to go to hell," he said, the words separate and smooth as stones. "But I can't help you." He looked at Sam, and it was almost painful to see the naked hope in his eyes.

"Wait a second—" Buffy tried as he walked out, but Sam caught her arm before she could go after him.

"He's not going to help," he explained, his eyes soft. "But he's not going to get in the way. And actually," his mouth quirked, "Dean's never been all that keen on the preparation part of ritual preparations anyway."

"I never asked with Adam," Buffy realized, "but—what happens if Dean loses the fight? What happens to Sam?"

Willow winced. "He—he'd probably be fine. In the long term."

She looked at Sam and thought that wasn't true at all.

****

That night, Dean left Sam and Willow talking high magic, hid out in one of the unoccupied offices, and built the box. He'd come back for it when he needed it.

****

Neither of them slept well. Dean kept wondering whether he ought to try to give Sam some last brotherly advice, or whether that would be harder on Sam, in the end. So he stared at the textured wallpaper, a few inches from the edge of the bed, and waited for the morning to come.

Sam went out to get breakfast. Dean took the chance to check over the guns one last time. He knew it was stupid, but Sam wasn't likely to call him on it, not this morning, and touching them did make him feel better.

He heard Sam's low mumble before the door opened. Dean looked up from the Colt to see Sam looming in the doorway, Willow barely visible behind his shoulder.

"It's time," Sam said.

He shrugged.

Then Willow stepped past Sam and threw a handful of purple powder in his face. In the middle of sneezing, he discovered that he could no longer move. At least, not on his own; his body responded perfectly well to Willow's commands, and the only consolation was that Sam didn't try to make him stick his finger up his nose or something like that. But it was a damned lucky thing for them that the spell extended to speech, because he had a hundred good lines he would have used if he could.

They put him in the passenger seat of the Impala—that made him mad, that Sam hadn't waited, at least let him drive her one last time. But he was stuck deep inside his own skin, and they got him out and led him like a dog on an invisible leash to the exercise room, where a witching circle had been laid out on the floor where the mats usually were.

"I've made the modifications we talked about," Willow began, and Dean tuned out the rest of the discussion between her and Sam, opting instead to see if he could wriggle free of the binding spell. He could just about shift his hand towards the knife at his waist, except that there was nothing physical to cut.

He figured that struggling wasn't required—if going along for the ride while Sam tried to work a way out of the deal was enough to break it, Sam would have been dead again ten months ago. So it was okay to stop, to just wait and see what would happen.

That resolution lasted about ten seconds. He didn't want to lose his soul, of course he didn't. But he couldn't stand being helpless like this.

As usual, it didn't matter what he could stand. He stayed frozen like a mannequin while the other two jawed and got themselves ready.

There were tarot cards and candles and other objects Dean classified as 'Sam's business,' though he really wished he were able to make a joke about the magic gourd. He sat where they put him and—not without wanting to grimace—let Willow join his hands with Sam's across a weird, heatless flame.

About a minute into the spell, the world darkened and went out, like half an hour of blood loss compressed into a second.

When his vision came back, he and Willow were standing on an endless expanse of brown, grassless dirt. He turned in a full circle and saw nothing on the horizon, the sky like a threadbare motel sheet above them. Even though the sun was hidden behind the white wash of clouds, its light diffused into a glow without a single source, it was hot, like standing next to an engine that had just been shut down. The dirt had been baked to the hardness of ceramic. There were cracks running through it, but when Dean poked at a fissure with the toe of his boot, the dirt didn't even crumble.

"Where's Sam?" he asked her.

She was also looking around, nervously. "He should be here too. This is where the merger has to work, on the psychic plane—you're really taking the concept of 'plane' way seriously, Dean, I'm pretty sure this is your mental landscape."

"I knew there was nothing much there," he joked, but he felt his shoulders hunch a little. "So, where's Sam?"

"If this is your show, you need to bring him here. Concentrate on him, imagine him."

"Can't do that," he said immediately, even though his mind went to Sam, wanting him there—not to save his ass from Hell, just because this was a freaky place and he wanted his brother at his back.

There was a distant rumbling off to one side. Willow and Dean turned towards the sound. It was a wall of water, at least three stories high, rushing right at them—on top of them now, slamming Dean off his feet, unable to see what had happened to Willow. His lungs screamed for air; every cell of his body was yelling that it was drowning, drowning, and the wave dragged him along the harsh ground like a sponge over baked-on grime.

And then his face broke into the air. The water was draining into the cracks in the soil, evaporating into steam so fast that it was like being in a sauna, but the ground was still hard. Too much, too fast for it to have been absorbed.

"Willow?" he called out. "Sam?"

Willow reappeared, dripping. Her sodden hair made runnels on her shoulders—and still the water coming off her didn't touch the ground. "Your mental landscape? An environmental disaster area! I think that was supposed to be Sam. I'm gonna go out and try and bring him in myself, okay?" She winked out, leaving Dean to contemplate the absolute suckitude of his surroundings and wonder whether he could find his car somewhere around.

There was a whooshing sound, and when he spun around, Sam was standing ten feet from him, glowering. He was wearing the clothes he was wearing when he left for Stanford, a ridiculous button-down shirt and chinos. Compared to him, the surroundings looked faded, like he was taking up all the light and air.

"Okay," Willow said from right beside him, "now you just have to let him in."

"Just?" Sam repeated pissily.

Dean looked at his little brother. Willow gulped and said, "I'll be … elsewhere. See you!" She gave him a little wave and disappeared.

"So how's this work?" Dean asked. "Can't have a heart-to-heart if you're the heart."

Sam's shoulders were set—damned if they didn't look even bigger in the awkward clothes of an earlier year. He was examining the landscape, staring as one last puddle from the earlier flash flood disappeared. "No, I guess not," he said. "What about hand-to-hand?"

Puzzled, Dean turned towards Sam just in time to take the punch square on the cheek. "Ow!" he said—it hurt like the dickens, as a matter of fact—stumbling backwards. "Christo."

Sam shook his head and settled more comfortably into his stance. "It's me, Dean. The guy you traded your soul for. The guy you cursed with your stupid sacrifice."

"Sam," he said, conciliatory, but Sam's fists lashed out, one-two, followed immediately by a rolling kick that glanced off Dean's left thigh. Felt like a concrete block hit it.

Nowhere to run, and anyway Sam could catch him, so Dean gave himself to the fight. It was a relief, truth be told. Every bone-jarring punch, every vicious lunge was one more thing he could still be alive for.

Sam had more reach, more weight, and just as much speed, plus he was mad enough to fight dirty, as Dean discovered when he narrowly missed a knee in the balls. He staggered back, limping a little, and his heel caught one of the cracks in the ground. He went down like he'd been clotheslined.

Sam was on him in a second, hitting his shoulders, his face, hard enough that he felt blood spatter from his nose. Pinning Dean to the ground with his weight, Sam sat up, knees under Dean's armpits, hands still fisted, panting.

A properly executed roll could have unseated him, but Dean was kind of curious what was supposed to happen. Also, his head was ringing from being slammed into the ground, and it would be humiliating to try and fail to get away.

So he stared up at Sam, whose face was set in a snarl, and waited.

Sam put his hands on Dean's chest and shoved, even though Dean was already pressed into the dirt. "What's it gonna take to get you to stop throwing your life away?"

It was like there was an oil cap in his throat, keeping the words in, thick and dirty. He moved his mouth, but nothing came out.

"When are you going to forgive me for leaving you?" Sam asked hoarsely, his fingers falling away from Dean, his eyes trembling closed.

"I don't—" he said, then lost whatever it was that he didn't. He wanted to push Sam away, wanted to be fighting again, anything other than seeing Sam like this. "I wish it was different," he managed, meaning the deal, the fighting, their whole screwed-up lives.

"I need you to open up to me, Dean," Sam said, soft as summer rain on a windshield. When Dean blinked, there was a knife in Sam's hand, Sam's favorite knife. Sam raised his other hand and grimaced as he sliced the palm, deep, right across the lifeline. He held his arm out a little, away from Dean's body, and they both watched as the blood dripped down, the smell of it thick in Dean's nostrils.

It hit the ground with a sizzle and was gone. After a beat, Dean looked back up at Sam.

"Fuck!" Sam said and put his hands to his head. With the blood and the knife, Dean thought, he looked pretty crazy. "Why didn't that work?"

Dean pushed Sam away and got to his feet. Sam was still sitting in the dirt, pressing his hands to his temples like he was having a vision, but Dean thought he probably wasn't, because having a vision inside a vision seemed too weird even for them.

"Sam?" he asked, experimentally.

Sam looked up, his eyes wild. Dean extended his hand; Sam took it, his palm still slick with blood, and pulled himself up. The balance of Sam's weight against his felt like the pivot point of the whole world.

Sam stepped closer, too close, and brought his hands up to cup Dean's cheeks. Dean cut his eyes away and tried to twist, but Sam had him in a vise. "Open up."

His brother's blood dripped steadily down his right cheek. He could feel it soaking his collar, sending damp fingers down his chest. "Open up," Sam repeated, his voice almost breaking, and for him, Dean would try.

The world shook, throwing them down to the ground, Sam sprawled half on top of Dean. The ground rumbled like a thousand engines revving, and there was an enormous booming noise right by Dean's ear. He rolled them away from it on sheer instinct, feeling the earth give way beneath them.

When they were on solid ground again, he relaxed his grip on Sam and looked over his shoulder.

"Holy shit!" he yelped and pushed Sam further from the edge.

After Sam shook free of him, they scrambled to their hands and knees and peered down into the crevasse that had split the earth like an axe into a sapling. It was night-dark inside, even near the top, but a sick angry red, the color of infection, was visible at the bottom.

"How far down is that?" Sam asked, sounding dazed.

"All the way," Dean said. He didn't know how he knew, but it was true, sure as the stuff at the bottom was hellfire.

"Okay," Sam said shakily, pushing hair out of his eyes. "Jesus, my hair—Dean, my hair is not this long. You're—" He stopped, lost in thought.

After a moment, he focused on Dean again and set his shoulders. "I'm doing this all wrong."

Sam closed his eyes, scrunched his eyebrows, and suddenly he was wearing his hunting clothes, ugly box print over jeans and shitkicker boots. "You're not in charge here, and this place isn't who you are, no matter what you think."

Sam's hands fisted and his shoulders hunched. He looked like he was about to have a temper tantrum, which was actually pretty funny. Dean was trying to figure out the best insult to use when the world exploded into head-injury white, turned inside out, and spat them back out changed.

The first thing he noticed was that the ground was smooth now, a uniform tan the color of the kind of M&Ms that they got rid of a few years back. "Okay," Sam said, and Dean looked up.

Sam was a cartoon of himself, tall and spiky-haired and scowling. An actual Looney Tunes cartoon, brown hair and white skin outlined against the background. Dean closed his mouth. "Hey, your hair actually looks good," he managed after a moment.

Sam hit him again—so they were back to that—knocking Dean to the ground. Dean turned his head away, because looking at Cartoon Sam was freaking him the fuck out. He was a few feet from a box made of planks, with lines and circles drawn on the absolute flatness to indicate that it was supposed to be wood. The box was stamped ACME on the side. It had the same design on top as the box for the witch's heart.

It was ticking.

Beyond that, the backdrop was somehow two-dimensional and three-dimensional all at once. Dean could tell that it was a painted panel, but it was both infinitely far and near enough that he could have reached out to touch it—if he could have reached out, which he couldn't because Sam was sitting on him.

There was something in front of his—wait, he had a muzzle! He crossed his eyes and saw a hairy (well, black-lined) gray cartoon muzzle with a pink triangle on the end. "I'm Wile E. Coyote!" he accused. "How come you're still Sam?"

"You're lucky I didn't turn you into Elmer Fudd."

"So what now, genius?" Dean asked.

Sam grimaced at him. The cleft in his chin was way too defined, and his forehead was alien-broad; all Dean could do was stare. "You are so fucking literal. Open up," Sam ordered. Then his hands found Dean's chest—ripped into it—Dean wanted to say that he didn't know how, but his mouth was full of cartoon blood, and it didn't matter anyway because Sam was inside him, crawling inside him, shoving inside him, folding impossibly into his chest—

The cartoon world fell away, into something with even less form. He was lost inside himself, flailing against what he felt for Sam. It was so big, like an animal so large you couldn't see it all at once, like the whale that swallowed Jonah and could maybe keep swallowing everything on Noah's Ark. Sam—Sam turned his face towards it, that endless swimming thing, Sam was turning his face and at the same time he felt Sam's hands on his own face, turning his head to see it, because they were the same.

And Sam was feeling it just the same. Dean realized with a shock that it was familiar to him. It was Sam's just as much as it was Dean's. Dean wanted to be sad about that—or he thought he should be sad about that, because they both knew that Sam had dreamed of other things—but he was still a selfish bastard, and he felt instead a fierce happiness, and it was Sam's happiness as well because they were, oh, they were—

Something else he knew now: Dean was terrified of that vast suboceanic being, that love that guided his every move.

Sam wasn't scared of it at all.

He/they opened his eyes and were back in reality, sitting inside the charmed circle Willow and Sam had created. It was different now—there was an overlay on it, like something out of a video game, except he couldn't see all the names and histories of the objects and symbols; he just felt them, knew them.

He felt a rush of power, like what Willow had described from her own experience with the ritual of joining. Will and spirit, doubled. Willow had warned that they wouldn't have as much strength as Buffy had gained, because they didn't have any connection to the Slayer. But he could feel corridors blowing open in his mind, the way Ava had described accessing her demon attributes.

What he was feeling wasn't demonic. Or if it was, they'd get it under control/he really didn't care.

"We're ready," he said, his voice unfamiliar but his own. And now that they were back in the world, he could hear the hellhounds howling again, louder than before. Part of him was surprised, and felt a gout of fresh terror, an arterial splash, but he clamped down on it, twisted it up and away. Fear later; fight now.

Sam's body was outside the circle, sitting cross-legged, looking asleep. It was odd to see himself with his eyes closed, in the flesh—in some ways creepier than seeing himself duplicated by the shapeshifter, because he'd known all along that it wasn't him. But this was him.

He was so still, and for a moment he was reminded of how it had been when Sam was dead—the pain like a thousand-ton stone on him, impossible to think under the crush of it, unbelievable that he could even move, and a part of him wanted to groan in surprised agony at the memory—but it was nothing like that really. Sam was breathing evenly, just empty—more like when Dean had been in the hospital, lost to the world, spirit trapped elsewhere.

Now, though, he wasn't trapped. He was exactly where he needed to be.

Buffy and Willow were standing to either side of Sam's body, watching warily, prepared to kill anything that came out that wasn't human. Willow was perfectly dry, her long rust-red skirt pristine and her white blouse no longer transparent with the phantom water from the dream-world.

They'd be safe outside the circle. He knew that all the Slayers around had been charmed against possession, on the off chance that their natures didn't inherently resist demonic interference.

There was a little paper twist at the center of the circle. He remembered making it, a thing of crossroads dust and dried grasses, so stiff they'd cut his fingers and sucked up the blood like cotton balls. He stood up and walked over to it, crushing it with a solid stamp.

The hellhounds yowled. They'd caught his scent.

She appeared in the circle, not ten feet from him. She was short, dark-haired, curvy, impressive rack showcased by a deep V-neck top—not really his type/just his type.

"That anxious to get it over?" she asked, smiling and swaying her hips as she stepped closer.

"I'm invoking my right to single combat," he said evenly. "Under the contract, if I beat you, I go free."

"Who told you that?" she crooned.

He shrugged. "My lawyer."

She threw her head back and laughed, full-throated. "Maybe your little brother could have pulled this off, if he'd embraced his heritage. But you, Dean? You think you can beat me, unarmed?"

"What are you gonna do if I can't—send me to Hell?"

She tilted her head. Her eyes were as red as roses. "There is that. And hope tastes so sweet when it dies."

He watched her, feeling his face twist in a snarl. "Let's get this party started."

Immediately she threw a hand up, and an invisible fist punched him in the stomach, sending him flying through the air to bounce off the barrier around the circle, his arms and legs jerking uncontrollably at the impact.

"I can't tell," the demon said, advancing on him, "whether you're more stupid than you are stubborn, or whether it's the other way around. Don't you have any dignity?"

Panting, he pushed himself up from where he'd fallen. His right arm wanted to collapse on him, but he wouldn't let it.

She let him stand—even let him hit her, right on the chin. It felt like hitting the side of a truck. His knuckles split open, smearing blood on her skin.

She waited for him to appreciate the extent to which that hadn't worked. Then she hit him, and it was like having a truck swung at him. He felt his cheekbone crack, and tumbled backwards, biting his tongue as his head hit the edge of the circle with a slam.

Spells, he knew spells—he stuttered them out, the blood thick on his teeth, pouring down his chin.

The demon staggered back a few steps, her face changing from gloating to fearful. He reached frantically for the next spell, anything to keep her off balance—and then she stopped, straightened, and laughed delightedly. "Just fooling!" she said.

He swung at her, but she evaded easily and hit back, her nails raking down the side of his cheek, stinging in his neck.

"You never could measure up," she taunted. "Not good enough for your dear ol' dad, not good enough for your brother, not even worth the standard ten-year deal. You went at a discount, Dean."

It wasn't anything he hadn't thought himself, he realized with grim incredulity; it was what had let him believe—pretend—that he'd be just fine after the year closed and the constant reminder of the trade left his side. And now, even though it was a distraction he didn't need, there was a sour sweetness in knowing that he'd had it all wrong.

He watched her, waiting for an opening that didn't come.

The demon snorted. "Let's get this farce over with." She snapped her head down, sharper than a nod, and blew him over like she'd hit him with a pound of buckshot. He tried to focus, to get all his carefully prepared spells to work, but they slipped away like blood sluicing away in the shower.

He gasped for breath but couldn't get any oxygen, lying there, feeling the defeat in every cell.

He was going to hell, and he was going to have to live with him being stuck there.

He'd suspected for a while that he belonged in hell. The things he'd done, the people he'd killed without blinking. The excuses he'd made.

But—he knew now, understood, that there was no saving just one. He'd doubled down a long time ago.

He didn't leave his brother alone. He closed his eyes, drawing together all his strength.

He felt the impact of a pointed toe against his lower ribs—bruised, maybe cracked—and gasped. "That's all you've got?" the demon asked, her voice dripping honey. "How pathetic. I wish I had a video camera. Wouldn't that be funny, seeing yourself bitchslapped on YouTube? Of course you're not going to be doing any surfing any time soon."

He'd fought with broken ribs, with a concussion, with his guts hanging out of his stomach. He'd survived a demon rummaging around his chest like it was a messy closet, an electrocution, a couple of actual deaths, shotgun blasts and gunshots through the shoulder, too many chokings to count offhand, clawings and stabbings and burnings. He'd survived the death by fire of his mother, the abandonment of his brother, the death of his fiancee, the death of his father, the shattered mirage of an imaginary perfect life, the temptations of demons, and that list was just getting started.

This was kindergarten trouble.

And nobody got away with hurting his brother.

He opened his eyes.

She'd moved a few steps away, the better to gloat.

Smoothly, he got to his feet, half-crouched but coiled to spring. He smiled at her. "That all you got?"

She peered at him, watchful in a way she hadn't been before. "What happened to your eyes?" she asked, and there was a note of fear in the question.

She lashed out, buffeting him with power, and he rolled backwards with it, to the edge of the circle, where he pushed off the unbreakable barrier like a boxer using the ropes, altering his angle and ducking under the next blast of demonic energy she sent his way, barreling towards her.

He hit her low, smashing into her stomach, sending them both tumbling down to the floor, and before she could recover, he punched her hard, snapping her jaw to the side. Quickly, he pinned her arms with his knees—reminding himself she was a demon, not a woman—and hit her again with the heel of his open hand, slamming her head into the floor so hard it bounced back up again and blood spattered around her like sparks.

Her eyes were red again. She screamed, her voice taking on the same howling anger as the hellhounds', and he was flung off her, cartwheeling backwards until he hit the spell-barrier once more. He fell nearly five feet to the ground, landing with his knees bent but still feeling the jolt in his bones, leaning back against the invisible wall for support.

The demon shook her head, as if gathering her thoughts.

Now or never. He swallowed, tasting blood, and imagined every padlocked door in his mind bursting open.

He'd never had any trouble understanding and memorizing spells, but spells were more than just words; they had a shape in the mind that was hard to hold on to without a diagram in front of him. He'd never been any good with spells, whether reading (the words always mistimed to his thoughts somehow) or remembering (boring, confusing, blurred together). But now the structures formed, rose up, building themselves in his head like parts of an engine, parts of a logical argument, clicking into place sweet as a cartridge into a handgun.

Power flowed through him like blood.

He'd been so afraid of this, but in the end, it wasn't that hard at all. He knew, now, he'd never abandon him, and that knowledge was no longer frightening. It wasn't one more responsibility. It was freedom. Cut everything else away, and he was the only thing that mattered.

He put his hand out and pushed up, squeezing the air—Darth Vader! he thought, and didn't need the color commentary, so he told himself to shut the fuck up. The demon flew upwards, legs kicking uselessly against empty space. Her hands went to her throat, struggling for breath.

"All this bullshit about the boy king," he said—boy king? he wondered—"but nobody ever asked who fostered him. Who'd raise someone like that with enough strength to get the job done."

Her eyes were wide and scared now, feigning humanity. "What—are—you?" she wheezed.

"I'm a Winchester, bitch," he said, and clenched his hand into a fist.

Her mouth gaped, her tongue hanging out, as she gagged; he could see her neck compressing under the invisible pressure. Her eyes rolled back in her head; her nails broke as she clawed vainly at her throat, scratching red lines along the curve of her jaw.

At last the thousand flyspecks of black began to buzz from her slack mouth, but he waved his other hand, a little circling motion, like putting the cap back on a bottle of painkillers, and the black cloud stopped, hovering, curling in the air like a question mark.

"The contract doesn't specify combat to the death, does it?" he asked. Of course the demon no longer had a mouth to answer with, so it didn't respond. "But you know what they say—better safe than sorry." He mouthed the Sumerian words, the ones he and Willow had agreed were most likely to work, and a golden haze began to form around the demon, the air wavering as if with heat even though he felt no change in temperature.

The demon's buzzing roared louder in his ears. Surely he imagined the terrified question: "Master?"

Black flared like charcoal, red-yellow-white, and disappeared into nothing, the demon eaten piece by piece. The woman's body collapsed to the ground and winked out too—he hoped it had been a construct.

He wondered if it was that bad for a demon, dying. Leaving hell forever. Maybe even demons could be grateful for release.

That was the last thing he thought before the circle broke apart, and so did he.

****

Dean blinked up at the exposed pipes and dangling insulation on the ceiling. It didn't look too much like hell.

He sat up, his abused abs complaining, and prodded at his cheek. Sore, but nothing broken, same as his ribs.

He turned his head and saw Sam, rubbing his head. There was a bruise already rising on Sam's cheek, but it didn't look that bad. The spell must have split up their injuries with their—souls, whatever.

Buffy and Willow were staring at them, wide-eyed, like maybe they weren't sure it was all over.

Dean stood up, still feeling a little bit like his body should be different. Like there should be more of it.

It was weird, looking at Sam and remembering what it had been like to be twisted up with him like the wires in a dashboard, threading through each other, working together, like hunting but closer, better, stronger. He wanted—he almost opened his mouth to say something sappy, but that just had to be leftover Sam.

"I want a drink," Dean said instead, feeling the adrenaline rush in to coat all the empty places Sam had left behind. The sudden need ran through his body, to every nerve and skin cell, itching to move, to touch, to drink, to fuck. "Who's in?"

Sam shook his head. "I—I think I have to lie down." Sam did sound tired, but a quick look confirmed that it was only fatigue, nothing worth worrying about. "I'll see you soon," Sam told him, and it was a reminder that they had another job to do in the next few hours. But not yet, not yet. Right now Dean could just be alive—and boy, did he feel alive.

Buffy was watching Dean with wary interest. Some of Sam's respect for her had rubbed off, and he wouldn't mind going for a drink with her, not at all. Willow—his eyes locked with Willow's, and he saw her cheeks flush, imagined the heat of them against his hands.

"I think I'm going to turn in too," Buffy said quickly. "Big training day tomorrow."

"Just you and me, Red," Dean said, low enough that she leaned a little bit forward to hear him. "You in?"

She took a deep breath, pushing her chest out, and looked around nervously. "This place is a mess—"

"So let's clean it up," he suggested, bending to start collecting the spell debris. "Sam, I'll see you later."

He didn't really notice Sam and Buffy leaving. The song in his blood was too loud; if Willow said no, there had to be a bar around somewhere, and bars had girls and he needed a girl. Nice if it was a girl he actually liked, but he could live with the alternatives.

Willow stayed. The cleanup wasn't that difficult, especially after Willow produced a big sweep broom. Soon enough he was brushing off his dusty hands over a trashcan and staring at her as she closed the doors of a storage cabinet off at the side.

"Willow," he said, and she stopped, not turning around.

He came up behind her, every muscle twitching with excess energy, wanting more than anything just to grab her and spin her around, push her against the wall and put his hands all over her. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and apples.

"Okay," she said, to no one in particular, and turned around. Their faces were inches apart. "So obviously there's an, an attraction here, and although I consider myself primarily woman-identified, I do remember the good parts of—" She stopped, blushing redder than a second-degree burn.

"Willow," he said with complete honesty, "I really want to show you my good parts."

She snorted, a little, but didn't move away when he leaned down to kiss her, and when he put his hands on her shoulders she gave a little twitch and swayed forwards, pressing their bodies together.

And Jesus, he felt like an engine after the spark plug went off, energy exploding through him, pushing outwards with unstoppable force. It was all he could do to stand still and kiss her, both hands on her jaw, putting everything he had into the sweep of his tongue through her hot, wet mouth. She tasted like mint tea and sugar.

Her hair swung against his hands, feathery-soft. She made a little noise without breaking the kiss and put her hands on his chest, not pushing him away but smoothing her hands over his shirt, feeling his muscles.

He dropped his hands to her shoulders, her back—the soft cotton of her blouse moved loosely over her skin—skimming down to her ass. She was just a little skinny, but there was still enough worth grabbing there, which he did as she pushed forward, plastering them together from chest to knee.

Dean groaned and moved his mouth to her neck, pushing her hair aside with his nose as he sucked at her soft, peachy skin. Willow mewled as he grabbed handfuls of her long skirt, crinkly and full against his hands, and hiked it up until he got his hands on the hot skin of her upper thighs, the edges of his thumbs tight against what felt like plain cotton panties. His mouth was at the hollow of her throat now, her head thrown back, and with her hands moving up to knead at his shoulders he took his chance and lifted her, pressing her groin against his hardening cock, blindly stepping to the side and forward so that he could reach a clear space on the wall. Her legs came up, wrapping around his thighs, and she sighed with pleased surprise.

He had to put a hand up to protect her head from contact with the painted bricks of the wall, and when he shifted his other hand to balance her properly he felt hot dampness through her panties and had to groan again.

They ground together like that for a bit, every kiss and nip winding him tighter. The smell of her surrounded him, all soap and herbs and sweet girl, so pure he almost couldn't stand it. He rubbed his fingers between her legs, the angle terrible because he was coming in from behind and had to keep her from sliding too far down, but she shuddered and jerked against him and panted out his name.

He kissed and nipped his way from her temple down to the sharp curve of her jaw. "Oooh, gonna get beardburn," she said, but it didn't sound like she minded, so he didn't stop nuzzling her.

He pulled his head back to look at her. Strands of hair were sticking to her flushed cheeks; her eyes were bright, the black-ringed green of them bright as traffic lights saying go, go, go. She tilted her head forward and her sharp little nose brushed his cheek.

"I wanna fuck you," he managed, because it was never a good idea to have a misunderstanding with a girl, much less a powerful witch.

"I could do that," she said breathlessly, and then grinned. "How about my room, in case someone feels the need for a midnight workout? It's been known—"

He cut her off with another kiss, this one a little nastier, his tongue sliding over hers, tapping against those white California-girl teeth, fluttering against her lips. Then, reluctantly, he pushed away from the wall and moved his hand back to her hip, letting her slide down to the ground but holding on until her legs were back beneath her. They both grimaced as he stepped back. Her eyes flickered to the tent in his jeans, then up to his mouth.

She held his hand all the way down the hallways to her room. Dean had a moment when he thought about the near future, and he almost pulled away from her, but the drumming in his blood was so powerful and it was so easy to fall into it. It wasn't like there were worse things he could do to her, so he just let thought blur in his head like headlights in fog, disappearing into heavy weather.

"Please tell me you have a condom," she said breathlessly as she closed the door behind her, turning to him.

He smiled at her and tried to convey just with the look in his eyes that he hadn't been unprepared since age fourteen. That, or at least his reaching for his wallet, made her grin and back towards the bed, reaching for her blouse as she went.

She was wearing a plain white bra not thick enough to conceal her hard nipples. When she stepped out of the skirt he saw that the panties matched. She wouldn't look at him head-on, and he realized he needed to catch up. "You're beautiful," he told her, and wrestled his own shirt off. His amulet was warm against his chest, a reminder that Sam—

He stepped forward, toeing off his boots as he went, grabbing her hips and pulling her into another kiss. Her hands explored his shoulders, his arms, stroking down the sides of his chest in a way that was almost ticklish, then working at the buttons of his fly. He unsnapped her bra, sliding it off her shoulders and bringing his hands around to cup her breasts, small and as beautifully shaped as scoops of peach ice cream on a hot day.

His jeans loose around his hips, he knelt in front of her, kissing a nipple on the way down, pressing his cheek to her flat belly, then taking the elastic waist of her panties in his teeth and tugging. She giggled and helped him peel them off, shivering a little even though the room wasn't cold.

She was a true redhead, and she tasted as awesome as she was, that special salt-sweet of pussy that couldn't be mistaken for anything else. She cried out and leaned forward, her thighs pressing against his cheeks, one hand twisted in his hair and the other on his shoulder. He stabilized her with both hands, kneading her ass as he worked his tongue over and around her clit.

She was tight and bubbling hot around the finger he slid into her, working her with short strokes in time with his tongue until she came again, scraping her nails along the skin of his scalp and upper back.

He tumbled her naked onto the bed, shucking his jeans as he followed her. She blinked up at him with unmarred happiness, her shyness faded, and watched him roll the condom on himself with flatteringly wide eyes.

"You good?" he asked, just to see her nod enthusiastically, and pushed her legs up so that her knees nearly touched his shoulders.

As good as she'd felt on his fingers and his tongue, it was nothing to the relief of having his dick inside her, gripped hot and slick, so exciting that he couldn't go slow even to start with, slamming in with one thrust only checked by the press of her thighs against his sides. Willow gasped, not in pain, and arched her back. Because of the angle, he could see her breasts perfectly, shaking just inches from his face, and it didn't help him stay in control.

He framed her breasts with his hands, the pale skin and dark nipples contrasting with his tanned fingers, buttercream-smooth skin against his gun calluses. He bit his lip and concentrated on giving her a rhythm that would keep her making those little squeaking noises.

"Touch yourself," he suggested, and she made a soft embarrassed noise, but after a moment she complied, which was awesome because he got to stick with squeezing her breasts and could look back and forth between that and her hand between her legs, getting herself off while he fucked into her. They were a tangle of arms and legs, skin smacking against skin, his knees digging into her mattress as he thrust forward, pressing their bellies together.

He could feel it coming up from behind him, like a wrecking ball, all the anxiety of the past weeks falling apart, everything in him falling apart. He tried to hold back, just long enough to let her get there too, and he realized that he was talking, begging her to come for him, do it, do it.

She jerked against him, her wristbone sharp against his stomach, and that was it: he yelled and came, feeling the pleasure in every cell in his body.

****

It took him a while to come back to himself. When he remembered what came next, he wished he hadn't.

Willow was already half asleep, but he wasn't taking any chances. He fished in the pocket of his jeans and took out the twist of paper Sam had given him days ago. Her eyelids fluttered as he unrolled it and blew the gray powder inside across her face; then she subsided into sleep with a soft sound, almost like a child.

He dressed quickly and covered her with a sheet—not so much for her dignity as his own. He wasn't going to ogle her. She was a witch; it was no great trouble to find chalk and other supplies in the desk by her bed, so he didn't even need to duck out to his room. He did a quick incantation to keep her sleeping first, then began the binding spell. Once he screwed up a crucial symbol and had to start a whole section again, but he wiped his face and kept on working.

When it was finished, the circle was as strong as any he'd ever made, and double-sided, keeping interference out and disabling magic within.

Shit, he'd forgotten the box in the unused office. He could carry—he could wrap it in her skirt, it was already dark and it would absorb what it needed to, even if he ran into someone in the halls.

She had a good selection of ritual knives, too.

He tested a couple against his arm. He couldn't decide between a half-moon-curved one that was wickedly sharp, but inefficient for deep work and a straighter blade that would require more strength but would probably allow more precision. Eventually he ran out of testing space and had to decide.

He went with the straighter one. He had strength to spare.

Willow slumbered on, like Snow White in the story.

Dean swallowed and leaned over her, saying the words that would wake her but not let her move.

It must have been terrifying to be frozen like that, and still aware. She realized her difficulty almost immediately, her eyes widening and flitting around desperately.

"Dean?" she asked.

"This isn't what I planned," he told her. "You've got no reason to believe me, but—this isn't what I wanted."

She looked at him, and her face lost all color. Then she ignored him, and whispered words in a language he didn't recognize. But the binding spell held fast.

"What are you doing?" she asked at last, when her third set of incantations had failed.

"Funny thing," he said, and his voice was hoarse and broken. "You worked so hard keeping me out of Hell, and here I am ready to buy myself a ticket right back." He pulled down the sheet enough to expose the tops of her breasts and the vulnerable space between them. His blood smeared across her shoulder; she saw, and she saw the knife in his hand, and couldn't stop her sudden indrawn breath.

"Why didn't you just do it while I was sleeping, then?" she asked, her voice shaking. He couldn't begrudge her one bit of the bitterness and anger. "It's great that you feel guilty, but wanting me to know, that's just sick."

He tried to speak—she deserved an explanation—but no words would come. The geas, he realized, still active. "They said she had to be awake," he told himself. He raised the knife.

Her eyes had turned dark, almost like a possession—it wasn't just a trick of the light; it was some power she was calling up, but it wasn't working. "Let me go," she ordered, in a voice much deeper than her natural tone. It should have made the whole thing easier, but instead all he could think of was Sam, drawing on darkness because it was the only thing that offered any chance of safety.

God, he was pathetic. He could barely breathe, and he was still just fucking crouched there by the bed. They're going to kill Sammy, he kept telling himself, and it was just going to be worse when he gave in and did it.

This was his life: get something good, lose something else. Kill the demon, let a hundred others out. Break the deal, make another one.

And still he couldn't stop thinking. For his own self, Sam would rather be dead than have him make this trade. A couple of years back, that might not have mattered to him, when Sam was more of an ideal who'd left, who'd wanted a life outside of the Winchester family business. Now—well, even if they survived getting out of the Slayers' grasp, and even if the military had been telling the truth and let them go, and even if the next set of bad things didn't kill them—at some point, you had to say that it wasn't worth it anymore. A lot of people were already dead because the Winchesters were alive, and too many of them hadn't had it coming.

He stood up, and the sudden change in position made him lightheaded. "I gotta stop Sam," he said. "I'll come back—I'll send someone to let you out."

****

Sam had been hanging out with Buffy a lot over the past few days. She could have invited him to her room, and no one would dare bother her there.

He hurried through the halls, past the comic strips and messageboards and pictures from magazines the girls had hung on their doors, into the corridor reserved for Buffy. Buffy's door was closed, but light was bleeding out from under it, orange-red.

The door was locked, but a couple of lunges against it made it pop right open. He nearly fell inside, stumbling and grabbing for the doorknob to keep his balance as he entered a scene nearly as freaky as the one he'd left. At least everybody had their clothes on.

Buffy was tied up, sitting on a chair, her eyes hard and glittering as bullets. Sam was still chanting, and didn't stop just because Dean had interrupted him, though he had brought his gun up without looking away from Buffy.

"Let her go," he said. The words came out soft, not how he'd meant to say them. He could have been telling his little brother a bedtime story in some crappy motel, hushed down and pretending that there was nothing outside the room.

Sam did turn now, looking at him with frank skepticism. "What are you doing, Dean? You really want me to stop? You want me to let you die?"

Like that was a hard question. He nodded. "Yeah, I do."

The gun had drifted down, but Sam's finger was still on the trigger. Sam's eyes were wild. His skin had that tight look, pale and too dry. "And you want me to die?"

It should have hurt, but there didn't seem to be any more hurt in him, and anyway, when had wanting ever made anything happen? Dean swallowed. "There's worse things than dying. You and me, we know that better'n anyone."

Sam laughed. Buffy, who was listening carefully from behind Sam's bulk, winced; it wasn't a good laugh. "What's different now? After what you did for me—"

"I know, Sammy," he said, and took another step forward, raising his hands. Buffy had returned to struggling against her bonds, but he trusted Sam's knots and spells enough to ignore her for a bit.

"I know that what I did is what got us here. I know we've spent the past few years going from death to death, and the price tag just gets higher, and I got us used to paying." He looked up into Sam's eyes—he would have put his hands on Sam's shoulders, if not for the fear that Sam would get skittish and knock him unconscious to finish the job.

"But I'm asking you—I'm begging you—be better than me. Be stronger."

Dean looked at Sam—really looked, allowing himself to notice all the strain and grief written on his face and in the hunch of his shoulders. A bad year for Winchesters, he thought. Maybe a bad generation. Sam was staring right back, searching for something in Dean's face, but since Dean didn't know what, he didn't try to give it. He just remembered that Sam was his brother, and was all that mattered in the world, and maybe the only way for the world to be worth saving was to be willing to let it end.

"… Okay," Sam breathed.

Dean closed his eyes for a second.

"We don't have much time," Sam said. "They might give us fifteen minutes after the deadline, but—"

"What?" Buffy interjected, apparently reckoning that she could afford to participate now.

The geas stoppered his mouth, a problem he didn't need. But—"Guys who sent us put bombs inside us to make sure we followed orders," Dean told Sam, just to shut her up, as he tried to think. They could get on the road, but that was just rolling the dice, hoping they weren't next to a bus or something when the explosives inside them went—

"The training room," he said. "Thing's built like a bunker."

"Evacuate the building," Sam said to Buffy, as if he hadn't just been about to kill her, and with a wave of his hand the ropes fell off her.

"And, uh, you gotta break the circle in Willow's room," Dean said, which checked Buffy's move towards them, a good thing since contact with Buffy would undoubtedly have ended in pain and suffering. "Tell her—tell her I'm sorry. Also," he turned back to Sam, "there's a guy who could use Buffy's help 'cause we won't be around—Bobby Singer out in Sioux County, South Dakota—I don't know if they'll really take it out on him when we're out of the picture—but they might."

They hustled out of the room. Buffy followed; he heard the slap of her feet running the other way down the hall, towards Willow.

****

Dean selected a pile of mats stacked waist-high and sat down, his back pressing up against the rough squared edges. They smelled of plastic and girl-sweat, not quite what he wanted to go out with—story of his life—but not too bad, given the alternatives.

Sam plunked his gigantic self down right next to Dean. Then he reached for Dean's hand. Dean didn't say anything, just gripped right back. Sam's hand was warm and dry, and when he leaned against Dean's shoulder, his hair brushed Dean's cheek, spiky and familiar.

"This isn't too girly for you," Sam said after a minute, "holding hands like this?"

Dean snugged his arm a little more comfortably against Sam's, so they were pressed together from shoulder to hip, and looked down at their joined hands. "Got nothing better to do," he pointed out. It kind of annoyed him that Sam's feet stuck out so much further than his—he suspected Sam of slouching to increase the differential—but not enough to complain about the sight of it.

Sam tilted his head back against the mats, looking up at the dim ceiling. "I always kind of thought we'd go out in a hail of gunfire, like Butch and Sundance."

Dean snorted. "Dude, no way. Drive the car off a cliff. Can't leave my baby alone."

"You wanted to be Louise?"

He rolled his eyes. "You're Louise, Sam. Thelma was smoking."

"Thelma was, like, six inches taller than Louise."

"Always with the height with you," Dean groused, smiling. "Susan Sarandon's hot too, don't get me wrong. White Palace? Burgers and sex, it doesn't get much more awesome than that."

"Yeah, speaking of that, did I mention that the connection didn't go away all at once after we killed the demon?"

"Hunh?" Dean thought about that for a second. "Oh, hey, yeah."

"Well?" Sam asked, like he was waiting for an apology or something.

"If you can't get laid on your own, little brother—"

Sam groaned, not in real pain, and brought his free hand to cover his eyes.

"Anyway, I always told you I was the best, and now you know—"

"Actually," Sam said, still not looking at him, "I don't know, because all I got was what you were, uh, experiencing."

They sat in silence for almost a minute. Dean could practically feel the seconds tick by, faster than the gas gauge had spun when he had filled up the Impala.

"Dean—"

"Hey," he interrupted. "Let's pretend we said all that stuff already, right? Like, you saved me, you were an amazing brother, all that."

Because of how close they were, he could feel Sam's resigned, amused shrug through his whole body. "Whatever. You think anything comes after? Or are we just … done?"

Dean closed his eyes. "Dunno. Anyway, we'll—" He stopped, because it wasn't really a pleasant thing to say, even if he sort of felt good about it.

"What?"

He shook his head.

"Dean, last minutes on earth, I think I deserve to know what you were going to say."

If he looked over, he knew he'd be getting Sam's moon-calf eyes, the ones that always got him the last cookie or the less oven-hot side of the backseat when they were growing up. "Just, I guess we'll find out together."

Sam squeezed his hand. "I'm good with that."

And then there was nothing.

****

"They look so cute like that, I almost don't want you to unfreeze them," Buffy said, looking at the brothers.

"We can't yell at them until we unfreeze them. I mean, I guess we can yell at them, but it just won't be any fun, because they won't hear us."

She nodded to acknowledge Willow's point.

"Okay then!" Willow said, and broke a stick. Willow always said she liked the symbolic magics.

"Hey, guys," Buffy said.

They opened their eyes simultaneously and stared up at her. Dean dropped Sam's hand immediately. "Why aren't you gone?" he said, as cranky as if he were the one who was the attempted assassination target.

"Uh, it's two days later, we had you in stasis until Willow figured out how to get the bombs out of you—can I just say, ick?—and now you can tell us all about it."

"I don't think we can," Sam said. Buffy was about to get annoyed with him, but then she thought about his tone: matter-of-fact, not snide.

"Let me guess: more magic."

Dean shrugged sheepishly.

Buffy sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. "Do I need to have Willow freeze you again, or are you going to stick around until we figure this out?"

They looked at each other. "I guess that's up to you," Sam said at last, after Dean nodded at him.

"Well, it's kind of obvious you weren't volunteers. So I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. But you can stay right here while—"

"No, I got it," Willow said. "I know this magic, just give me fifteen minutes to put together a potion."

She left. Buffy decided that glaring down at the Winchesters was working for her, and they didn't seem inclined to stand up or try anything else. They didn't hold hands again, but they sort of leaned against each other, almost as if they didn't mean to be doing it.

"The spell was designed to explode if the bombs were removed from you," she told them, just to pass the time. "But Willow figured out that—okay, I didn't get the details. But she ended up moving you, then disabling the bombs, then moving you back. Uh, most of you, anyway." This made Dean start patting himself frantically, while Sam just got even more statue-still, which was funny enough that she let it go on for a bit before continuing. "Willow says that your eyelashes and similar hair will grow back."

"Similar hair?" Dean managed, sounding strangled. Sam just looked like he wanted to sink into the floor and keep going until he reached the center of the earth.

"Trust me, I'm not the one you want doing your full-body checkup right now," she pointed out, and he had the good sense to look embarrassed.

They were pretty quiet after that until Willow returned. And then they talked for a while.

****

Much later, she found them back in the training room. Dean was trying to beat the hell out of the heavy bag. His hands were wrapped, but the wrappings were coming loose, and there was blood on the bag and on his knuckles. Sam was watching him, helpless sadness on his face, practically vibrating with the need to go over and stop him, but just as clearly afraid to make matters worse.

"Let me talk to him," Buffy said as she came up behind him.

He looked at her—really looked, for the first time since he'd come out of the time-freezing spell. "Are you sure you want to do that?"

She shrugged. "I'm not that mad any more." That was true; she'd spent a lot of time thinking about what she might have done for Willow, or for Dawn, if somebody had one of them hostage. She wasn't not mad—they could have figured out a way to tell her about the problem a lot earlier than they did—but being willing to die to protect other people earned them some slack with her. "And some things come easier from someone who doesn't really know you."

Sam nodded, his hair falling over his eyes, and backed away.

Buffy walked slowly over to him and put her hand on the bag, stopping its wild swings instantly. Dean kept punching at it, the sounds of impact almost louder than his grunts of effort. There were beads of sweat caught in his hair and sheening his arms, and his gray T-shirt was ringed with it. His smell had gone past 'sexy boy' to 'rank,' and she wrinkled her nose a little.

"I know what you're going through. Really," she said when he snorted, without looking away from the bag. "You were done. You fought hard, did good, died well. But now you're back, and 'the end' turns out to be just the last scene before the preview for next week's episode."

Dean was slowing down now, still fighting, or trying to fight, swinging his arms, but he was also listening, even if he wouldn't look at her.

"And it's like you've been carrying this weight for years and years. It's always hurt, but you couldn't put it down. Then you did, you got a chance to rest, but it turns out that you're not done after all. And everyone around you expects you to pick that weight right back up, and you expect you to pick it up, but you don't want to. Maybe you never wanted to, but that didn't matter before. Now—you can't make yourself pick it up again. But you can't stop thinking you should."

At last, Dean stopped, holding out one shaking arm to stabilize the bag, even though it was barely vibrating now. "What did you do?"

She grabbed a towel off of a nearby stack and handed it to him. He wiped his face. "I'm the Slayer. Coming back from the dead didn't change that. So after about a year of whining and hurting myself and hurting people who cared about me, I accepted it. Then I changed the rules. But it turns out I'm still the Slayer.

"I don't know if what I did makes sense for you, anyway. Willow seems to think you've got some sort of mystical destiny too, even if you'd like it to go away. I don't have any answers for you. Just—it gets better. Not fast, and not all at once. But after a while, it gets better."

Dean looked down at the towel, twisting it in his hands. "Your friends—they're there for you. Me and Sam—other hunters think we're dangerous. Maybe they're right."

She wasn't going to disagree. "Dangerous isn't evil. It just means powerful, that's all. And you've got new friends now."

He looked up, and the desire to believe her was written all over his face. In that moment, he reminded her a lot of Xander, and how much Xander just wanted to do his part. Dean couldn't be a Watcher—for one thing, his brother would never let him, and for another, the girls would never get any work done—but she wasn't going to turn anyone away from fighting evil.

****

Epilogue:

They sat around the conference room table, looking at the box in the center. "You made that, hunh?" Buffy asked. "Because I could totally use something like that for my earrings."

Dean grinned, playing along. "Next time I'm in town," he said.

Which would be a long time from now, if everything went as planned. Willow had kept a monitor on the bombs, which had yet to be triggered—the military must be keeping its fingers crossed for a few days longer. And the Winchesters were going to play it that way, pretending to be just late getting the job done.

They needed to be well undercover by the time the truth came out. Willow and Buffy were going to head for England for a few weeks to give them a little extra breathing room.

As for the rest of it, once Willow had broken the geas, they'd called the guy, Bobby Singer, Dean had asked them about. But he'd refused to move and said slightly disturbing things about Waco and Ruby Ridge. Sam and Dean seemed to have their fingers crossed that the military would have other things to worry about when they discovered Buffy and Willow still among the living.

Willow's spell embedded in the box should have infiltrated their operation, seeding the place with little magical bugs that would give the Slayers advance notice of future operations against them, and an all-access pass if they needed to get inside on short notice.

"The cow's heart was a good idea, Sam," Willow said. Willow could have come up with something at least as good on her own, but Buffy suspected Willow was trying to make sure Sam stayed friendly, and when Sam had reminded them of the oracle's Huntsman business, it had made sense. They'd gotten the cow's heart from the supermarket at the far end of the strip mall, and Willow had just enchanted it to look human. "We know there's power in myths and legends," she continued.

"And oracles," Buffy pointed out.

"But I gotta wonder: Does that make me Snow White? Because I was never in a coma. And I'm not sure Snow White had red hair."

"She probably wasn't Jewish either, Will."

Willow smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess it's the general outlines that matter. So, are you guys ready to do this? Go back into the belly of the beast?"

Sam shrugged. "Seems like the least we can do."

It was too hard to let that one go, so she didn't. "You mean, after you almost killed us?"

Sam opened his mouth to say something, but Dean put his hand on Sam's upper arm, and that shut him up. Buffy wasn't really all that angry; she just wanted to remind them that they owed her. If she refused to work with anyone who'd ever flirted with evil— heck, if she refused to work with anyone who'd ever slept with evil—she wouldn't have many friends left, not to mention having to disqualify herself.

There was a knock on the door. Buffy looked at Willow. "Were we expecting anyone?" Willow shook her head. "Come in," Buffy called.

Lilah Morgan strolled inside, as spiffy and smug as ever. Evil bitch from hell or not, she could sure wear a suit, Buffy thought admiringly. "Just checking to make sure my clients are all satisfied," she said.

This time it was Sam poking Dean that ensured silence, but Buffy figured Dean's annoying grin was more eloquent than any words.

"Yep," Willow said—and was that a hint of jealousy in her voice? Oh, this was going to be good for years of teasing. Obviously Dean was just for play, but play had to include your friends making fun of you, right?

"Excellent," Lilah said, and yes, she was staring right at Dean. "Well, boys, any time the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart can be of assistance—"

Dean went pale, except for the red of his lips and high on his cheeks. "What did you say?"

"Oh, Dean," Lilah said, too fondly. "It's the—older—name for the firm."

"What does it mean?" he gritted out, rigid in his chair.

Buffy could see him trembling a little, and the room suddenly had the feel of violence barely contained. Not that she wanted to do Lilah Morgan any favors, or even thought that Dean could do Lilah much damage, what with her being undead and all, but it was still a frowny-face moment.

"They're animals, Dean," Sam said placatingly, moving his chair closer to his brother. Buffy saw how Dean swayed towards Sam, and felt the chance of disaster diminish, even though Dean didn't look any happier. "'Hart' is an archaic term for 'deer.' What's the matter?"

Dean shook his head slowly, somewhere between denial and trying to wake from a nightmare. Sam put his hand on Dean's shoulder, his face knotted with concern.

"Nothing," Dean said, even though there was practically a pop-up speech balloon in front of him that said 'I'm lying.' It was worrisome, but not, Buffy thought, her worry—not yet, anyway. If the Winchesters wanted to take on Wolfram & Hart, Buffy couldn't say she'd be sad.

Willow was staring at him, her brow furrowed. In classic Willow fashion, she tried to help by offering more information: "They represent the three relationships beasts have with humans: hunter, domestic partner, and prey."

If anything, Dean looked worse now, like he was three pints down after a vamp attack, but he put on a smile for Willow anyway. Sam's head was turning back and forth between Lilah and Dean, his knuckles white where his hand twisted into Dean's shirt.

"It's okay," Dean said. He shook his head again, bowing his neck to hide his eyes, and deliberately pulled away from Sam.

"I'm glad we had this little lesson, but I'm needed down below," Lilah said, and some of the tension went out of the room—or at least pulled itself back into Dean. Lilah smiled, wide and carefree. "Happy hunting, Dean."

END

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