It was late.
Light was falling in through the window and shone into Sam's eyes, making him squint. The sun was standing high in the sky, the sky was very blue with no clouds in sight, and butterflies were dancing in the air on the other side of the glass. It was so idyllic that Sam could swear he almost heard the birds singing.
There were definitely chirping noises.
Sam snorted. He couldn't remember the last time he had the luxury of sleeping in, or the last time he had woken up to such a peaceful scenery (if ever). There was always a case to crack or a hunt to finish. Lingering in bed was never an option and doing it right now was... unsettling.
He should get up, if not for the job at least because his bladder was demanding attention. But he couldn't. Dean was still asleep, drooling into his pillow and enveloping Sam's waist with an iron grip. If he moved now there was a huge chance that Dean would wake up, and he couldn't risk that . Not only because he was feeling kind of comfortable and warm in the cocoon of his brother's arms (which he would never admit to Dean's face), but also because he was a little (or very) terrified of facing him.
Yeah, he was mortified by his embarrassing outburst and subsequent crying fit but that wasn't it. The main issue was that he didn't have the faintest idea where they stood with each other after all that had happened.
And he was scared out of his mind of reading more into it than was really there.
Everything had been crystal clear before. Sure, it sucked, but that was life (his life, at least). He knew his role and what was expected of him: Namely getting out of his brother's way, not giving in to Lucifer and trying not to mess up anything else.
But Dean had come for him (and yelled and hugged and punched and said sorry) and now everything was muddled and confusing. He wasn't sure what it all meant. Wasn't sure what Dean meant. And he didn't want to let himself hope when years of experience were telling him to expect the worst.
Then of course, there was the little issue of yesterday's botched hunt. The fact that he had pushed Dean head first into a dangerous job without sufficient information (ignorance and overconfidence were hardly an excuse). The fact that he had almost gotten his brother killed. The fact that Sam had died in his place.
The fact that he had failed to remain dead.
If Dean asked, Sam still wouldn't know what to tell him. He didn't want to talk about Lucifer's promise (or their nightly chats) and he definitely wasn't going to apologize for saving Dean's life. He would do the same again in a second. Even if it had hurt. A lot.
Not the dying part (that had actually been all right), but the coming back to life part. His body had felt like he was on fire, like a thousand needles were piercing his skin at the same time. For a few agonizing seconds he hadn't been able to breathe, or think, or move. His body wouldn't obey him, like it didn't belong to him anymore (and he really didn't want to dwell on that). And even afterwards, something had felt off. Like he wasn't quite human (nothing new there) or he wasn't quite alive.
It definitely hadn't felt like this the last time he had been resurrected (and damn it, he wished people would stop making decisions for him about his life and death). So the only explanation he could come up with was that Lucifer had done it on purpose, maybe as a warning or a joke. Probably both. He was probably laughing his ass off somewhere.
Shit, Sam really needed to get up. Maybe he could manage to slip out of bed unnoticed if he was really careful. He shifted minutely but as soon as he moved Dean's grip tightened on his waist.
"Where are you going?"
His brother had opened one green eye and was staring at him all disgruntled. Sam just stared back and then looked pointedly at Dean's arm around his waist.
So much for being inconspicuous. "I kind of need to answer the call of nature, if that's okay with you. We can cuddle again afterwards."
It was worth it to see Dean jump and the flush that spread all over his face. Sam got up, leaving his brother's bewildered expression behind. He was starting to think that maybe Dean Winchester was a closet snuggler; they had slept in the same bed when they were kids, but this time his brother didn't even have Sam's fear of clowns as an excuse.
When he came back, Dean was already up, clearly waiting for him, and Sam couldn't help a grimace. This was it. The moment reality crashed down on him and all this expectations were shot to hell. He had hoped for the break to last a little longer.
"Does it hurt?"
Sam was momentarily confused, until he registered the ice pack (now turned lukewarm water pack) in his brother's hands.
He shrugged. "Not really. It's not swollen anymore." There was a vivid bruise spreading across his cheekbone though.
"Do you..." Dean hesitated. "Do you want me to get you another pack?"
That was a Trademark Winchester Apology if he ever heard one. Sam wasn't sure if it changed anything. He didn't really know what to do with it.
"No need. I've had worse."
Dean studied him in silence and Sam wanted to kick himself. He had just given his brother the perfect opening.
Sam readied himself for the questioning.
Dean sighed. "Are you hungry?"
Sam stared, floored by the sudden change of subject. For a moment, before he remembered that was exactly what he wanted, he felt a small pang of disappointment.
"Well..." He couldn't really believe Dean would let it go. There had to be a catch somewhere.
"Because I'm starving, man," Dean added. "We haven't had anything since yesterday."
Oblivious to Sam's inner turmoil, his traitorous stomach decided to growl at that precise moment. Dean smiled softly.
"I'll take that as a yes."
Surprisingly, Sam found himself smiling tentatively in return. "I could use some lunch," he confirmed.
"Let's go, then. Or I'll start contemplating chewing on my own arm."
Dean opened the door but then he hesitated and blocked the way before Sam could pass.
"Sure you don't want to put something on it? People are going to think I hit you."
The words were playful, but there was a hint of doubt and guilt in Dean's eyes.
Sam raised an eyebrow. "You did hit me."
Dean grinned in reply. "That doesn't mean I want everybody to discover my dirty secrets, though."
Hearing his brother's joke, as feeble as it was, Sam couldn't help feeling lighter than he had felt in ages, like a weight had been lifted off his chest. He wasn't as stupid. Not really. He knew nothing had been fixed. But he could recognize a peace offering when he saw it.
He squashed the small voice in the back of his head that was telling him Dean simply didn't care enough to pursue the matter.
"I'm afraid you'll have to live in shame." He smirked, patting his brother's shoulder.
Dean laughed, and the truce was sealed. Sam still didn't know where they stood, and it didn't change that his brother would have to go back to his real mission and leave him behind when the hunt was over. But the thought of living in the bubble and feigning normality, even only for a little while, was too tempting.
Better go with the flow and enjoy it while it lasted.
* * *
"Or bacon burger."
"Damn it, Dean!" Sam exploded. "I already told you. There are no burgers on the menu!"
"But... seriously? Aren't you pulling my leg?" Dean felt affronted – what kind of restaurant didn't offer any kind of burger?
"You can check the menu yourself."
Dean gazed the sheet but didn't pick it up. "It's in Spanish."
Sam rubbed his temples and sighed. Dean wasn't sure if it was as expression of his exasperation or if he was nursing a headache.
"Of course it's in Spanish, Dean. We are in a Spanish restaurant, with a Spanish menu and Spanish dishes! In Spain."
"But you can't tell me people don't eat burgers in this country, that's outrageous!"
If looks could kill, Dean would probably be dead by now (he was fairly sure Sam wasn't really trying, though – he had proved to be very competent at killing with his mind in the past, after all).
"Of course they eat burgers, but you have to go to a fast food or hamburger restaurant."
"And remind me why we entered here in the first place?"
"Because you were whining nonstop about how hungry you were and we had to enter the first place we found," Sam hissed. "And it happened to be a local restaurant!"
Dean raised his hands in surrender. It was kind of funny to see his brother fuming, and he was fairly tempted to keep at it to see if he could get him to yell or throw something. But then, he probably shouldn't push it.
"Okay, so what are you having then? I bet the local cuisine includes delicious salads."
Sam rubbed his face again, but Dean could see he was fighting a smile.
"They have salads all right. But I'm going to try the Paella."
"Yes. I've heard it's really good."
"What's that?" Dean wasn't convinced, something with a name that strange had to be healthy. "Don't tell me it's a vegetable dish."
"It has vegetables," Sam conceded, "but it's mainly rice with rabbit and chicken."
Actually, that didn't sound so awful. If everything else failed, he could still eat only the meat.
"It's one of the most famous Spanish dishes in the world. It would be a pity to be here and not try it at least once. And God knows you need to expand your food horizon."
Sam was definitely trying to convince him and Dean wasn't very sure why that made him feel a little giddy. Maybe it was simply seeing Sam showing actual interest in something.
"Saben ya lo que quieren?" The poor waitress that had been standing by the table for the last five minutes, witnessing their banter with increasing impatience, finally decided to make her move.
"Paella para mi, por favor," said Sam, and then turned to watch his brother with badly hidden expectation.
And that, more than anything, was what fixed the deal. Not wanting to disappoint him, Dean nodded to his brother and was rewarded with another smile. (It was small, and not on par with Sam's full on dimpled grin, but it was a step in the right direction.)
"Lo mismo para él," Sam told the girl. She wrote it down and walked back to the kitchen with obvious relief.
Of course, then Sam proceed to babble about the merits and ingredients of the dish and Dean let his brother's words wash over him, enjoying the moment but not really paying attention. Ever since they had woken up that morning, Dean could feel something tender and raw between them. Like a previously infected wound that was now clean. Still open, but slowly healing.
If anything had been obvious by last night's discussion it was that poking at it wouldn't do any good. Words were clearly not Dean's forte, so it was time to simply show Sam they were still a team and that his rightful place was by his big brother's side.
The waitress came back a few minutes later with two full dishes, and as soon as Dean looked down at his plate he started wavering in his decision.
"Yes?" Sam was already attacking his share with obvious delight.
"The rice is yellow."
"It's called saffron, Dean," Sam said long-sufferingly. "Just try it."
There was no way to get out of it with his pride intact. Preemptively cringing, Dean put a spoonful inside his mouth and started chewing.
It was actually pretty tasty.
"And?" Sam was watching him smugly.
"It has nothing on a burger," Dean informed, not wanting to give his brother the satisfaction of having been right.
Sam rolled his eyes. "Obviously."
"But it's not... half bad, either." Dean caved.
Sam snorted but didn't say anything else. For a few minutes they enjoyed their food in comfortable silence.
"Well," Dean said when he finally felt he wasn't going to faint from hunger anymore. "What's the plan?"
Sam nearly choked.
"Do you want to talk about a hunt here?" he asked incredulously.
Dean looked around the almost empty restaurant.
"You said yourself that hardly anyone speaks English here. And if anyone does, they'll only think we are two crazy Americans talking folklore."
Sam seemed to think about it and finally shrugged. "I'm not sure where to go from here. There were a couple of old tales that said the black dog was Cerberus, but nothing else."
"Any clue how to kill it? Because the old classics surely don't seem to do the trick."
"Not really. I'd have to research further." Sam ran his fingers through his hair. "I didn't really give any credit to the possibility until now."
"At least we can assume that if Cerberus is here, there has to be a devil's gate somewhere. Congratulations Sammy, you found one!"
A small flush crawled overSam's cheeks, but he shook his head dejectedly.
"Yeah, although it's not very useful if we don't know how to kill the guardian."
"So what? We hit the library and find the way, it's simple."
"It's not, Dean. I already looked through most books about El Escorial in the local library and I could hardly find any information about the legend. There wasn't any section about occultism or magic either." Sam rubbed his eyes tiredly. "The only person who apparently ever gave a damn about it was King Phillip himself and whatever knowledge he had, he took it to the grave."
Dean felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
"Oh no, you don't! don't you dare. I know where this is going so don't even think about it!" Dean couldn't believe Sam was even contemplating the possibility, not after what had happened. "Every time you call on one them the other is not far behind, so nobody is summoning anyone until we know how to kill or contain that stupid dog for good, you hear me?"
"But Dean, it's the only lead we have. We can take some precautionary measures and if everything else fails I can distract it – hold it up so you can escape, it's not like I can suffer any permanent damage any..."
"I'm not using you as a fucking distraction, damn it!" Dean hit the table and one of the glasses fell and broke into thousands of tiny little pieces.
Sam looked at him in shock, until the waitress came with a broom and he had to apologize profusely for the scene. Dean didn't even look at her, he was seething.
"Dean..." Sam tried when she left them alone.
"No," Dean hissed. "I won't stand aside and watch you die again. I just..." He chocked. "I just can't! I don't care if you think Lucifer gave you superpowers, you hear me?"
Sam winced, but didn't reply.
"If you need more information, we'll go to the original sources. After all, if that king of yours was really a hunter, he must have had reference books or kept a journal, so we'll track them down even if we have to level this god-forsaken country!"
For a few moments, Sam seemed too stunned to form full sentences, but then a slow smile started spreading across his face.
"You are a genius, Dean!"
"What?" The sudden mood change left him reeling.
"The library! King Phillip II had thousands of esoteric books and they are still inside El Escorial!" Sam was nearly glowing. "It's probably the oldest and most complete occultism collection in the world but the books were never moved to another location because everybody thinks alchemy and such arts are just crap. They keep it as a museum, Dean!"
"Okay, so that means..."
"That means that if there is a journal, it must still be there! And even if there isn't, we'll probably be able to find something else in the manuscripts!"
Yep, his little brother was definitely geeking it out. "Seems we have a plan, then."
"The palace is closed today, so we can go there and research until tomorrow morning if necessary."
Dean suppressed a groan. He couldn't develope any excitement about reading boring old volumes for hours on end, but any idea that didn't include irrational self-sacrifices had to be counted as a win.
"Well, I'm definitely going to need some pie to get through the night." He made a signal for the waitress.
"You want pie?" Sam smirked evilly and Dean's blood ran cold.
"This is a restaurant, isn't it? There must be pie on the menu." Sam was still smirking. "Please, tell me they have pie."
"Oh, of course they have pie."
Dean breathed a sigh of relief. "You are fucking tease, Sammy. Pie is serious matter, you don't mess with pie!"
Sam raised his palms in surrender and picked up the menu. "Okay, so what flavor do you prefer? Tuna or meat?"
Dean made an anguished sound. "No apple pie?"
Sam shook his head.
"Pumpkin? Pecan?" Dean added weakly. This couldn't be happening.
"Sorry Dean." Sam said, although he didn't sound sorry at all, "I'm afraid sweet pies are a rarity in here. Spaniards mostly eat salad ones only."
Dean stared at his brother in horror. "You brought me to a pie-less country," he accused him.
Sam shrugged. "It was you who followed me. And they do have many kinds of cake. It's close enough, isn't it?"
Dean spluttered, but before he could find the proper words to reply to such heresy, the waitress came by their table to see what they wanted.
Sam looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "What will it be, Dean?"
Right. This had become personal. He really couldn't wait to finish this god-forsaken hunt and get his brother's ass out of this barbarian country.
"Just the check, please," he said between clenched teeth.
* * *
Sneaking into the castle in broad daylight proved to be a lot more difficult than it had been at night. Not only because of the occasional local people passing by or the handful of monks working in the garden, but also because there seemed to be a lot of oblivious tourists who didn't know that most public places in Spain closed on Mondays and were fluttering dazedly around the monument.
After an hour of fruitless waiting, Sam was getting impatient, worried they would spend the whole afternoon outside, and his brother was no better off. In fact, Dean had tried to convince him several times to throw all caution to the wind and climb the wall when they thought nobody was looking. But Sam wasn't risking prison, no matter how much Dean argued that Castiel could get them out of jail.
Besides, if at all possible, he wanted to keep his face and current alias out of the police files. He didn't know how to obtain a fake passport here and therefore he needed to keep his current one clean. When this mess was over Dean would go back to the States, but Sam didn't have a private angel to help him jump between countries.
Finally, after another half an hour, Mother Nature seemed to take pity on them and it started raining heavily. In minutes everybody had run for cover, so they could break into the castle. Both of them drenched to the core, but without any danger of being discovered.
Sam looked at the small brochure in his hands. "The library is upstairs. Exactly on the other side of the castle."
Dean just nodded, taking a long grim look at the corridor leading to the mausoleum before turning away. Sam couldn't blame him; he, too, was relieved to leave that part of the castle behind. As far as he knew, there was still a big pool of his own blood in there.
They avoided the court rooms, just in case there were security cameras keeping watch on the treasures there, and walked in silence through the side corridors that once belonged to the servants. They had to pick a couple of old iron grille doors on the way since the servant quarters weren't interesting enough to be open to the tourists, but at least they didn't need to use the flashlights. There was more than enough light entering through the window panes.
"Dude, this place looks a lot less eerie in daylight," Dean commented a few minutes later, while Sam worked on opening the large wooden doors leading to the library. "I was starting to worry about your beloved king's tastes".
"I'll let you know King Philip II had excellent tastes." Sam replied, finally managing to crack the lock. "But you can judge by yourself."
The doors opened and Sam smiled to himself when Dean gasped in awe. It was really a beautiful room, one of the largest halls in the whole castle. The light was coming softly through the huge windows, illuminating the frescoes decorating the golden vaulted ceilings and the hand-carved wooden shelves that covered the walls, separated only by small marble columns. The result was elegant, peaceful, almost ethereal. In another life (or another world), Sam could picture himself spending hours and hours inside this room just for the pleasure of it.
"Okay, you were right, Bobby would drool all over himself if he saw this place. But how many books did you say the king owned?"
Well, maybe it wasn't the beauty of the room that had taken Dean by surprise. "There are around forty-thousand books and manuscripts here, if that's what you're asking."
Dean rubbed his face. "And we have no idea what we're looking for, do we?"
"Something related to black dogs or Hell's passages?"
"Yeah, that definitely narrows it down." Dean deadpanned. "You aware I don't speak Spanish, aren't you?"
And now Dean was trying to saddle him with the research job.
"It won't be any problem. Most of these books should be in Latin, anyway." Sam smirked, and Dean's face fell. His brother had never been too fond of Latin, but he could handle it, if he had to. Barely.
"But it's going to take ages!" Dean was definitely whining now so Sam just ignored him.
"Then the sooner we start the sooner we'll find something." He walked to the first wooden cabinet and took a look at the books stored there. "By the way, I'd say you can safely skip all the books about alchemy. King Philip was trying to find the potion for eternal life too, but obviously he didn't succeed."
Dean stomped to the other side of the room, cursing under his breath, and Sam felt his smile waver. As amusing as it was, he knew Dean was right. There were too many books to check and even with two pairs of eyes at work it could take them several days to find anything remotely relevant. And staying that long just didn't fit Dean's plan.
With good reason. Dean had a world to save, after all. Sam was (unimportant) only fighting on the sidelines.
Great. Less than two days sharing continents with his brother and he was already getting greedy. Sam shook his head and tried to turn his focus back to the book in his hands. He really had no right to complain. Things were clearly a lot better between them than he would have dared to hope just a few days ago. At the very least Dean was talking to him. That meant that maybe Dean would want to keep some kind of contact when they separated, even if it was just once or twice a month to make sure his little brother hadn't gone bonkers.
"Are you slacking, Sammy?"
Sam was tempted to give him the finger. "Are you watching me instead of reading books?"
Dean just snorted and Sam added the book he had been looking at to the growing ‘useless' pile at his feet. They worked for another hour in silence. It wasn't cozy but it definitely wasn't uncomfortable either
"This guy was all kinds of crazy," said Dean, discarding yet another thick volume. "I just found a book about the medicinal use of leeches."
"You must be in the anatomy and medical section." Sam shrugged. "Leeching was fairly common in the middle ages."
"As I said, crazy." Dean waited for a few seconds until it was obvious Sam wasn't going to comment on it. "You know, this would be so much easier if there was a section for demons or something."
Sam closed his book (a treaty about the cleansing of the soul and the reading of auras) and rubbed his eyes tiredly.
"We are looking for his heretic books, Dean. People were tortured and burned for even looking at them, let alone owning them. It makes sense that he didn't put them all together for easy finding."
Dean just looked at him blankly, and Sam felt his heart skip a beat. He could hear the countdown in his brother's head. Maybe he was just being paranoid, but he was sure any moment now, Dean would tell him he had to go.
"You know, King Philip II took care of this library himself. If we manage to speak with him again he can..."
"Haven't we had this conversation already?" Dean cut in, his voice cold as ice. "There will be no summoning here until we know how to defeat that monster, you hear me?"
Sam sighed, but didn't argue. On the one hand he could understand Dean's concerns – he had lived through too many Tuesdays (and one damn long Wednesday) to ever try to impose the possibility of a temporary death on his brother, but on the other hand it grated him to discard what was clearly the smartest course of action.
It seemed Dean still considered Sam's safety his responsibility, which was kind of annoying and soothing at the same time. But if (when) Dean bailed and found his way back to his real life, Sam could always try to do it on his own. It would be a little more risky doing it without backup, but Dean didn't have to know if there were any undesired side-effects. What you don't know can't hurt you and all that jazz.
And yeah, he knew it was fucked up to think of his own death as a ‘side-effect'. But it was not like it was a big deal. It wouldn't even be permanent anyway.
"I've finished the first cabinet," he informed Dean. "Nothing of interest."
That wasn't exactly true – he gladly would have dedicated several hours to each of the invaluable manuscripts he had skipped over, but he wasn't here for pleasure.
"Great," answered Dean, moving to the next cabinet as well. "That only leaves fifty-eight to..."
Dean choked on his own words, and even without looking Sam knew something was wrong by the sudden drop in the temperature. He turned slowly and followed Dean's horrified look to the dark, yet see-through, figure that had appeared in the center of the room.
"Quizá yo puedas ayudarles," said the King.
* * *
The floor wasn't trembling.
Every time that three-headed nightmare had put in an appearance the ground had shaken like the castle was going to fall on them. Now everything was quiet. No tremors and no howls.
That was the only thing that was helping Dean to keep himself grounded and not go into full freak-out mode. His hands were itching for his shotgun and all his instincts were telling him to start putting salt lines right the fuck now. But last time those had proven to be less than useful. Try counterproductive in fact.
Maybe he could draw a devil's trap in every doorway. That could work. Demon-dogs were still demons, weren't they?
The ghost had assured them (or assured Sam, since Dean couldn't understand a word of what he was saying) they weren't in any imminent danger since the black dog never appeared during the day and the only reason it had found them so easily the previous times was because of the summoning magic.
Dean wasn't convinced.
Still, he couldn't really do anything else than keep watch and see his brother babbling happily away with a dead hunter king who was leading him through the shelves and showing him several books.
His life was fucking surreal sometimes.
Okay, most of the time. But that didn't make it any less frustrating.
"Look at this, Dean." Sam walked excitedly to him. "It's amazing, Philip..."
"Philip? Are we on first name basis already?"
Sam glared him. "Well, if you want to be more accurate, his name in Spanish is Felipe." Dean rolled his eyes. "He told me he suspected there was a passage to Hell here early in his reign and he dedicated his life to try to close it and hide it from prying eyes."
"Is there a devil's gate somewhere, then?"
"No, that's the matter, Dean." Sam shoved a book under his nose. "This whole place is a kind of devil's gate, but totally different from Colt's!" Dean couldn't hide a soft smile at his brother's enthusiasm. "They didn't know about iron or devil's traps so he tried to contain it with religious symbols." Sam pointed to a map of the castle. "The floor-design is like a symmetrical grid, a symbol of martyrdom. He also put crosses in every tower, and built a monastery and a church in the very center of the castle."
"Does it works?" Dean was feeling skeptical after the whole Guard Dog from Hell experience.
"Well, honestly?" Sam glanced to the dark figure at the other side of the room. "I don't think it would have done much by itself. But here comes the genius part. Philip ordered to put holy relics inside every wall, every corner and every ornament of every building, much like we do for a poltergeist, in order to create some kind of energy cage."
"Sam. I'm not going to tell your holy relics are totally useless. But their power is minimal and it certainly cannot hold demons. You know as well as me that powerful demons can step on holy ground."
Sam huffed in frustration. "I agree. But we are not talking about a handful of holy relics. We are talking thousands, Dean!"
"Eight-thousand one-hundred and sixteen relics to be exact," said a grave voice behind them.
What the...? Dean froze and for the size of Sam's eyes, he was as surprised as him. Slowly, they turned to look at the ghost that had decided to pop into the conversation.
"You speak English?" Dean said incredulously.
"Of course I do." The ghost rose himself to his full height (which was still around ten inches shorter than Dean) "I am King. It's my duty to learn all languages of the other royal houses."
"And it didn't occur to you to mention that before?"
The dead king frowned. "That I understand foreign languages doesn't mean I feel comfortable using them, especially the modern versions. Besides, since you are guests in my realm, shouldn't you be the one to make the effort to talk in my language?"
Sam smirked. "He has a point."
"Go ahead, take his side."
As usual, Sam ignored him. "Your Highness, we would be very grateful if you would accept to speak in English with us. My brother doesn't understand a word of Spanish and my own skills leave a lot to be desired."
The ghost smiled. Dean found it kind of disturbing to be honest.
"Please, no need to be so formal. Noble birth or not, we all share the same trade."
Dean grimaced; hunter or not (and he wasn't still sold on that one), he didn't like the ghost. Blame it on his training.
"Could you please move?" he asked, not at all with the appropriate respect and certainly not in Spanish. "I can't see the doors well through you and I don't want that beast to catch us off guard."
Sam scowled. The ghost tilted his head, but didn't move.
"As I told your brother, there no need to worry for the time being. Cerberus is asleep, it very rarely walks by day."
"Rarely. Right. That's reassuring."
"Dean!" Sam barked.
Dean threw up his arms in exasperation. "Well, he's already dead, so excuse me for worrying about our safety here."
"If Cerberus were to wake up, I would feel it. I give you my solemn word nothing will happen to you as long as I'm here."
"We know." Sam was fast to assure the king. "And we thank you for your protection."
Dean rolled his eyes. Trust Sam to get all doey-eyed about a ghost.
"I would still feel safer with a couple of devil's traps," he grumbled, although he had to admit he could feel his muscles relaxing a little.
"Actually, that's exactly what I was talking about with King Phillip a few moments ago. How Colt closed a passage to Hell too, building a gigantic iron devil's trap."
The ghost nodded. "It's a really useful knowledge. I wish I had gotten my hands on it before. It would probably have saved a lot of time, and a lot of lives."
"You achieved more than anybody could have hoped for with the means at your disposal," Sam insisted.
And Dean was feeling utterly lost in the conversation.
"Wait, wait. You mean you did manage to close a passage to Hell? Seriously?"
The king glared. "I did."
"Okay, so what about the demonic watchdog then?"
The ghost hunched a little and Dean felt a small tingle of victory. "I had this land sanctified as soon as I discovered the Hell's Mouth existed, and I also brought all the relics that I could find in the kingdom. But you were right about one thing, young man: holy relics hold only some power, and it was not nearly enough. Cerberus tried to stop me from the beginning." The ghost's eyes turned sad. "There was a lot of ‘accidents' during the construction of this place, and a lot of people died."
Dean had to swallow a sudden lump in his throat. That was definitely Hunter's Guilt. Dean could certainly relate to it.
"Even after the monastery was finished, it still couldn't stop the most powerful demons from escaping. So I sent search parties all over Europe. With every relic that was obtained and brought here, the holy power of the castle increased, weakening the Hell hole. But it was slow... too slow." The ghost shook his head. "Decades passed until I managed to gather enough of them to completely seal the gate. Plenty of time for Cerberus to take my whole family from me."
Dean kept silent. Losing their loved ones was something that every hunter had in common.
"So you closed the gate, but also locked Cerberus out of Hell," Sam guessed.
The ghost nodded. "Regretfully, my successors never saw any need to spend the royal treasure on even more religious items. So the current number of relics is enough to weaken it, to keep him captive inside the walls. But they are not enough to neutralize it completely. "
"No wonder it's not a happy camper, then." Dean muttered.
The ghost stayed silent for a few moments, his expression dark. "Yes, but... it's more complicated than that." Dean swallowed a snort, because (duh!) it always was. "Cerberus is the guardian beast of the gate to Hell. It's connected to it and used to be able to open and close the door at will. As long as it's alive, it will never stop trying to break the seal."
"Well," Dean shrugged. "There is no hurry. If it has failed for five centuries I don't think we have to worry for any imminent breakthrough."
"No!" The king turned his gelid gaze on them, and Dean felt the hairs of his arms stand up, reminding him they were talking with an actual ghost. "We cannot waste any time. You have to help me to kill it and it's mandatory we do it tonight."
Yeah, this wasn't so funny anymore. A niggling suspicion appeared at the back of Dean's mind.
"Why the sudden rush?" he asked, but the ghost just pursed his lips. "What has changed since–"
"Cerberus killed me," his brother said in a flat voice.
God fucking damn it.
"The spilled human blood tainted the sanctity of this place, didn't it?"
"Sam..." Dean could nearly see the wheels turning in his brother's head. Sam was blaming himself for dying, for God's sake! But if somebody had failed here it was Dean. Because keeping his brother safe had always been his job.
"But that's not all, of course. It drank my blood and ain't I fucking special? My blood isn't just human. It must have been like crack for that beast."
"Sam, stop it." Dean hissed, and he absently realized he was panting a little, although he wasn't sure why. He just knew he couldn't bear to hear his brother talking like that.
And he didn't want to dwell again on all the demon blood mess either. It was over and done. (At least he hoped so.)
Sam drew a shuddering breath. "You mentioned you could feel Cerberus, didn't you? You felt it become stronger."
The ghost just nodded and looked guiltily at the floor.
"You must have worked so hard all these years." Sam kept talking, gaze averted. "The legend said you haunted the castle, but that's not true, you were patrolling it. Making sure that the monster didn't hurt anybody and keeping the gate closed." He laughed bitterly. "How typical... Everything was perfect until I..."
Dean tried to catch his brother's eyes but Sam wouldn't meet his. Dean knew he should say something, anything, but even if he had been good with this kind of thing and managed to find the right words, he was fairly sure it wouldn't have made any difference. Sam was stubborn like that.
After some internal debating, he simply put his hand on Sam's shoulder and squeezed, trying to give his brother some comfort and hoping he wouldn't jump away this time. He was surprised when Sam actually leaned into his touch.
"Okay then." Sam raised his head in defiance, his eyes hard. "How do we fix this?"
* * *
Dean stopped to wipe the sweat off his brow. He really didn't understand why kings couldn't be buried in a cemetery like everybody else; it was a lot easier to dig sand than to break stupidly thick black marble. And a lot less tiring. Especially when you only had a tiny chisel and a hammer from the maintenance room.
He sighed in frustration and started attacking the coffin again. After several more minutes of hard work, he finally managed to break through the surface and a small hole was formed, accompanied by a cloud of dust and letting out a gust of stuffy and foul air. Dean coughed and covered his nose, because no matter how much he had gotten used to this smell, this part still sucked.
"For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return..."
"What the...?" Dean jumped at the sudden voice resounding in the room and instinctively made gesture to grab the shotgun.
"I would prefer if you didn't do that. It doesn't hurt me but it's certainly... unsettling," said the King, who was standing just in the middle of the crypt.
"Damn it, dude! Warn a guy next time, okay?" Dean could still feel his heart slamming into his ribcage.
"My apologies. I was merely... curious," said the ghost, staring at the tomb and his own remains.
Dean breathed deeply and started digging out bones and rags and putting them into a large cotton bag he had also borrowed earlier. The hole was too small though, and he probably wouldn't be able to reach them all. He sighed. That was going to mean at least another half hour of chipping stone. He was suddenly overcome by the childish urge to stomp over the bones but swallowed it. He didn't want to offend their host.
"This is a little morbid, don't you think?"
The ghost shrugged. Dean didn't know how a ghost could look so nonchalant.
"Still, this is creepy. I'm not used to the ghost whose grave I'm disgracing to come in peace. They don't usually agree with what I'm going to do."
Yeah, Dean knew that. But that didn't make it any less unnerving, especially since it went against everything he had ever been taught.
"Don't you have something to do elsewhere?" Maybe the ghost would take the hint and leave him alone.
"Actually, my visit entertained the purpose of talking to you privately."
Dean looked at him suspiciously. "Why would you want to talk to me? You don't even like me!"
"I don't know where you got that impression." The ghost seemed honestly puzzled.
Maybe because he had acted like a prick?
"Never mind... What do you want? Anything you want to say to me, you can say it in front of Sammy."
"I know. Your loyalty to each other is certainly commendable." Dean didn't know how to answer to that. "In fact, I've come to thank you."
"Thank me?" He would never have seen that one coming.
The ghost signaled the stairs leading to the room in which the dried pool of Sam's blood was still untouched. Dean shivered.
"Yes. I don't know nor do I understand exactly what you did to save your brother's life, but I appreciate it."
What? Was the ghost seriously thanking him for something that Lucifer had done?
"I know it's presumptuous of me. It's obvious you didn't do it on my behalf. But after five hundred years of fighting to keep everybody who entered the castle safe, it profoundly saddened me to think that in the end, I had failed."
Dean was left speechless. He couldn't even begin to explain the mess they were in. The mess the whole world was in. But he also couldn't accept praise for something that hadn't been his doing. The whole natural order was fucked up and he didn't know how anybody could think it was cause for celebration.
Although Dean had to admit that, deep inside (and not quite as deep), that he was damn grateful to Lucifer right now.
"I–I didn't..." he stuttered, unable to find the right words. "It wasn't me, it's..."
"Complicated?" the ghost offered.
"Yes." Dean sighed, rubbing his jaw. God, he needed to shave. "I guess that kind of sums it up. We are in a really fucked up situation right now and we are trying to put it right."
That was probably the understatement of the century.
"Well, my gratitude still stands. You both are helping me to fulfill my life's mission. So I deeply hope you manage to carry yours to success."
Dean smiled tiredly. "I quite think we have bitten more than we can chew, you know? But hey, if you have waited for five hundred years I can wait for a little while longer too."
The ghost smiled back. "You don't seem the type to be patient."
"Yeah." Dean looked away – that was why he had nearly lost Sam, for talking too fast, coming to all the wrong conclusions and pushing him away. "That's kind of one of the problems."
Not anymore. He wasn't going to be manipulated into getting rid of his brother to arrive earlier to the finishing line. He would not sacrifice Sam. He was going to take Sam's ass back to the States, and if someone was going to do a sacrifice in this stupid angel war, it would sure as hell be the big brother.
"I'm sure you'll be all right. As far as I can see, you both make a strong and resourceful team."
Dean snorted. They weren't, but he was hoping they would be soon enough.
"You know what, man?"
The ghost looked at him in barely hidden irritation , clearly not used to being addressed in such a casual manner. "Yes?"
"You are not so bad yourself. For a stuck-up."
The ghost spluttered (and really, since when could ghosts splutter?) and disappeared in a loud and annoyed puff.
"Blessed privacy." Dean muttered, smiling slightly to himself, and got back to work.
* * *
Sam placed the small box on the floor, right in the corner. According to Philip II, the highest concentration of relics in the whole castle was here, in the basilica (which kind of made sense, of course), and Cerberus tried to avoid it as much as possible. Bringing all the portable reliquaries situated in the surrounding quarters to this place would help to increase the holy energy levels, and although Sam thought it would probably be barely noticeable, sometimes small changes made all the difference.
"I see you finished collecting the relics," said the King, who had appeared in the middle of the room and was surveying Sam's work.
"Yes, but there weren't many, just a couple of reliquaries here and there." Sam sighed, pushing his bangs out of his face. "I kind of wish you hadn't put so many charms inside the walls where we can't reach them."
"If I hadn't done that this whole cage would have been useless."
"Point," Sam conceded.
"Cerberus will be at its weakest in here. Let's just hope this level of concentration will confuse it long enough for our plan to work."
That was if the plan worked. Cerberus seemed to be one of a kind and there was exactly zero reliable lore on how to kill it. They were trying to get away with a mix of instinct, experience and wishful thinking. And that without taking into account the energy boost the beast had received thanks to Sam's damned monster blood.
Enough. He had messed it up and it was his duty to fix it. Period. He could waste all the time he wanted on self-pity trips afterwards.
Sam knelt on the floor, picked the jar he had left there earlier and started drawing. "Can I ask you something?"
Though he wasn't looking, he sensed the king moving closer. "Go ahead. If it's in my power to answer, I shall."
"It's just... what's exactly your story?" he blurted, and then cringed. Great. Dean's sense of diplomacy was rubbing off on him.
"I was under the impression you were mostly aware of my life, already." Sam could hear confusion in the ghost's voice.
"No, I mean..." He sighed and looked up. "How did you end like this? You were a powerful king. You had all the riches you could desire and you could do anything you wanted. But you chose to do this... to become a hunter. I really don't understand."
The ghost remained silent for so long Sam was beginning to lose hope he would answer at all.
"I wouldn't say I chose it," Philip finally said, his voice grave. "As far as I understand, it was my destiny. There was simply never an other option for me."
Destiny. Sam had to swallow around the lump in his throat. "I see," he whispered, his voice hoarse.
The king paused again; Sam could feel his eyes boring into him. "Am I right to think this is a question of personal importance to you?"
"I..." Sam shrugged. "I seem to have a bit of a destiny as well."
Philip II nodded, like he had expected no different. "I was born with a curse. Or a gift. I guess it depends on how you look at it. But I could see things ever since I was a child. Things that nobody else could see. "
The king smiled sadly and spread his arms. "Everybody can see ghosts, son. You don't need any special skill for that." Sam wanted to smack himself. Duh. "No, I mean darkness inside people. Evil."
"You could recognize demons. Probably you were some kind of psychic."
"Is that how people call it nowadays? No physician ever had a name for my affliction." The ghost turned his gaze to some point far away. "I learned soon enough to hide my discoveries, but I understood it was also my duty to use the power at my disposal to fight against the invisible poison spreading through the Kingdom."
Sam got it, maybe too well. You couldn't ignore what was part of you.
"My whole life may be a curse too," he said quietly. "There is evil in me, and it doesn't matter what I do or what my intentions are, everything I touch becomes twisted and warped."
"I can recognize evil, son, and there is none in you."
Sam shook his head. "You don't know what you're saying." How to explain you were destined to be Lucifer's puppet? Or that you had started The Apocalypse in the first place? "No matter what path I choose, they all seem to lead back to the same point."
"Destiny is a tricky thing," the ghost admitted. "We all have may have one. But we can decide whether we follow it or fight it. Nothing is written in stone."
Sam scoffed. "Did you fight against yours? Because, no offense, but it doesn't seem to have worked very well for you."
No sooner had the words come out of his mouth that he realized what he'd said and felt a surge of guilt flood through him.
"I'm sorry." Sam could feel the king's disapproving eyes on him. "That was unfair and completely out of line."
"It doesn't matter," the ghost replied sternly. "Being right is not an excuse for rudeness, but I guess you haven't said anything that isn't true."
"No, I'm really in no position to judge anyone's situation."
The ghost didn't answer and Sam worked for a few minutes in silence, wondering if there was a way to actually kick himself in the face.
"I don't know what that destiny you are trying to fight against is." The ghost's voice snapped Sam out of his reverie. "But still, I daresay you are very lucky."
"Lucky?" He could think of many words to describe himself or his life, but ‘lucky' definitely wasn't one of them. Hell, it probably wouldn't make the top five-thousand list.
The ghost nodded and looked at his hands. "When I showed myself to you at the library, neither you nor your brother were surprised."
"That's not true. We weren't expecting you to show up out of the blue."
"You were startled, then," the ghost conceded. "But not surprised. And when I explained about my work here, you were clearly impressed, but you believed me."
"Why wouldn't I?" Sam furrowed his brow in confusion. He didn't understand what the king was trying to get at.
"My whole life, nobody could see what I could see," the ghost explained. "I had to mask the real reasons behind most of the decisions I made. My eccentricities, as my subjects used to call them, were only accepted because I was King and everybody wanted to be in my good graces. Even my closest and most valued advisers probably never believed one word I said. "
For a moment, Sam remembered Stanford. How difficult it had been for him to hide his past and his awareness of the things that were lurking in the darkness. How tiring it had been to pretend all the time to be someone he wasn't. How much he had relied on the knowledge that there was at least one person out there who knew him for what he really was (a person who in spite of all the hurt was really only a phone call away).
How Stanford had been by far the least painful of their separations.
Suddenly, Sam felt dread rising in his throat. Because he understood. He knew what the ghost was getting at, what he was trying to tell him.
And the ghost was wrong.
"To be completely honest, you are the first person I've ever spoken to about this kind of matter who I'm completely sure really believes me," the king continued, oblivious to Sam's inner turmoil. "So yes, I think you're lucky. Because even though there seems to be a heavy burden that you carry on your shoulders, you still have something that I never did."
It was like watching a train wreck, Sam couldn't help but watch.
"And what's that?" he asked softly.
"Someone to share that burden with. Your brother."
(Not for much longer.)
The words felt like a stone lying in Sam's chest.
"Having someone by your side, someone to talk to and watch your back. That's more powerful and valuable than any weapon."
Sam shook his head. He knew those words were meant to make him feel better, but they didn't. Because the king had it all backwards. Sam used to have something like that. Love, trust, loyalty, the whole pack. Unwavering and unconditional. But not anymore. He had lost it. What he had now was a partnership with an expiration date.
He didn't deserve any better.
"He has gotten to you too, hasn't he?" Sam tried to smile, although it probably looked more like a grimace. "No wonder, Dean has a way of endearing himself to all he meets... But yeah, you're right, my brother is pretty awesome to have around."
And he was going to be grateful for every hour he had left.
"Well, it's nice to see you two doing all the hard work while I was down there chatting, sunbathing and having fun," came a gruff voice from the other side of the room.
Dean was standing by the door, looking kind of ridiculous trying to glower at them while covered head to toe in stone dust, and Sam couldn't help a real smile forming on his lips at the same time another small pang echoed inside him. He hadn't known it was possible to miss someone before they had gone away, but this moment already felt like a distant memory.
"Did you take everything?" The ghost floated towards his brother.
"Until the last rag." Dean took the bag off his shoulder. "Where do you want me to put it?"
"Behind the altar, we must hide it well."
Dean raised his eyebrow in annoyance at being ordered around by the ghost, but did as he was told. "I still don't understand why we need your bones here," he complained under his breath.
To be honest, Sam wasn't very clear on this point either. It was certainly unusual for a ghost to actively encourage the uncovering of his own remains, but it was obvious there was a deep connection between Philip II and the castle. At least Cerberus seemed very keen on avoiding the ghost so maybe his remains would serve as some kind of amplifier or...
"To burn them."
"What?" Dean's look of disbelief mirrored the one on Sam's face.
"It's the only way." The ghost shrugged. "At least the only one we have at our disposal."
"But what does it have to do with...?" Dean frowned but the ghost didn't elaborate. He was apparently unperturbed by the upcoming events, and Sam suddenly realized he was a total idiot.
"You feel it," he whispered in awe. "You said you could feel Cerberus and locate where it was at every moment." The king's face was unreadable. "You're not connected to this place, you're connected to Cerberus!"
"Wait, wait! What you mean connected?" Dean looked at him in outrage. "You don't mean that monster and him are..."
"Bonded," the king confirmed, like it wasn't a big deal. "I wouldn't recommend it. The act was kind of painful."
"You did it yourself?" Dean wasn't yelling, but it was a close thing.
The ghost looked at them in silence for a few seconds, but finally caved with a long sigh. "I had just barely managed to close the gate when I realized that Cerberus had escaped. It wouldn't have taken long for the beast to open it again and there was no time to locate and bring new relics. I searched for a way to kill it, but all my attempts were unfruitful. So when I came across a soul-binding spell, I thought I could try to tame it."
Sam remembered what he had read during his research, how Philip II had died between deliriums after weeks of suffering under an unknown agonizing sickness. "It killed you."
The ghost nodded. "An undesired side-effect I hadn't taken into consideration. But it was successful."
"And it prevented you from passing on."
"True, but it goes both ways. As a ghost I'm tied to this place, but Cerberus cannot leave either."
"This is madness," Dean muttered and Sam had to agree with his brother. "Does that mean that if we salt and burn your... uh..." He gestured towards where the bag was hidden. "It will kill that monster, too?"
"I think so."
"But you're not sure." Dean narrowed his eyes at him, crossing his arms.
"It's not so easy. The bond is stronger the closer we are to each other. That's why Cerberus hides from me. My presence hurts and weakens it."
"So if we do it when you're too far from each other there is the possibility that it would just sever the bond and that monster would be set free."
"Exactly. That's why..."
"Wait a moment!" Sam broke in, looking at his brother in disbelief. "We are not seriously considering this?"
Dean had the grace of looking a little guilty, but the ghost stuck up his chin.
"Of course we are."
"But... but... you will... " Sam was at a loss for words.
The ghost let out a weary sigh and hunched over himself. "I've been hunting Cerberus for five hundred years," he said tiredly. "For a long time I thought my fate would be to keep doing it for all eternity. Or until I failed and that monster succeeded in opening the gate again."
Sam opened his mouth to object but the ghost raised a hand to stop him.
"That's why I am immensely grateful to both of you. Thanks to you I have an opportunity I never thought I'd have again. I can help to complete the work I wasn't able to while I was alive."
"We can still do that," Sam interjected. "But there must be another way."
"There isn't," the ghost insisted. "Cerberus is too powerful for any of your normal tricks to work. I couldn't kill it, but I could become its weakness. Please allow me to finish what I started. Allow me to go down with honour."
It wasn't fair, it simply wasn't fair. Half a millennium of fighting only to end up fading into oblivion.
"Remember what you said about my destiny?"
Sam nodded slowly, unable to speak. Dean came to stand by his side and Sam tried to extract some comfort from his silent presence.
"You are not killing me, son. I'm already dead. You are going to set me free."
 Have you decided yet?
 I'll have the paella, please.
 He'll have the same.
 Maybe I can be of help.