The next morning found both brothers out of bed at the crack of dawn, facing off.
Not directly, of course, but Sam had his knife drawn and held out in front of him as he attempted to mimic Dean's fighting stance.
Because of his curse as a child, Sam had missed out on the regimen of training John had put Dean through growing up to prepare him for life as a hunter. Hand-to-hand combat, target practice, weapons training... Dean excelled at self-defense and was built for combat. Sam, though toned and muscled from years of climbing, was thoroughly unprepared to face someone on the same scale as him. It had never been necessary before.
Sweat dripped down Sam's neck, part exertion and part nerves. Facing down the colossal hunter in a fighting stance, his own knife drawn and held at the ready, was not for the faint of heart.
Dean's knife alone was over twice Sam's size, and this was one of the rare occasions it had ever been leveled in his direction. While Sam was standing on the desk against the wall, Dean had cleared out the center of the floor to give himself plenty of room to demonstrate moves.
Sam had to work to follow his brother's broad, sweeping motions, but after each demonstration Dean would come over and watch Sam's attempt carefully. He'd offer tips and pointers and on occasion would adjust Sam's stance or his arms with the light touch of a finger. Sam couldn't help but feel like Dean was adjusting an action figure, the way those huge fingers would cautiously extend his arm or move his feet in the correct direction, but those worries were always dispelled after a simple glance upwards.
Dean had been serious the entire morning, focusing on Sam's training with complete dedication. Not a single joke had come out since they started, not even a nickname. They both understood that Sam would need those moves soon enough, when he faced off against Ilyana. If he lost, they all lost, and there would be no way for Dean or Bobby to help him once he was sealed off from them.
"Make sure to keep your wrist locked when you attack, but remember, if she gets hold of your arm she could knock the knife out of your hand," Dean explained. "Be ready to move at any moment and don't drop your guard for a second while you're in there."
Sam adjusted so his wrist was locked, holding out the knife for Dean to check. A finger gently came up under his arm, nudging it to see how solid Sam's grip was. "Good..." Dean muttered. "Now, if she disarms you, what's your play?"
Sam considered his options, thinking of the small dragon-like girl. He would only need to take on the one, thankfully, so they didn't have to cover multiple opponents in this lesson. "Don't let her grab me and keep clear of her arms. I need to get the knife back as soon as possible, but an unarmed fight isn't out of the question."
"Right, and remember, the baddies we fight are usually stronger than us. You gotta keep them from getting a hold on you. The second a werewolf or vampire digs its fangs or claws in, it could all be over. Chances are it's the same with the sprites. She grabs you, there's no telling what happens."
Dean straightened again, moving back to the center of the room. "Now, we should cover some defense before we finish up for the day... this is the reverse knife edge out grip..."
The lesson continued.
After around an hour more of training, Dean decided it was time to call it a day. Sam would need his strength for the upcoming fight, that was for sure, and wasting it all on training would do more harm than good.
Dean grabbed an older shirt, using it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. "I think that covers it. We'll have to do this again, but for what we're planning, you should be ready to face Ilyana."
Sam contemplated his knife before slipping it into his jacket. He'd been keen on the lesson, learning each grip Dean demonstrated with a single-minded dedication. In fact, he'd taken to the style of fighting faster than Dean had. There was no way of knowing if that was because he was older while he was learning or because he was a natural. There was more than a little pride in Dean at his brother's adaptability.
Dean tossed his dirty shirt on the bed. "Alright, so I'm gonna run downstairs and grab us a little snack before we head out. Anything you want?"
There was no reply.
Surprised, Dean glanced back at Sam. After all that training right off the bat in the morning, Sam had to be starving. Dean sure was. "Sam?"
What he saw dropped his heart through the floor and collapsed the building on top of it.
Sam was crumpled on the surface of the desk, his arms up over his head and shaking violently. He gave no reaction to Dean coming over and leaning down, trying to find out what had caused this reaction in Sam.
When Dean was close enough, he could make out the quiet, stuttered words from Sam.
"N-no, never, you'll never own me, Dean'll hunt you down, he'll never give up..." As though in response to something in his mind, Sam writhed, crying out in pain and clutching his wounded arm.
Dean froze up, frantically scouring the last few minutes, trying to figure out what had happened. What had made Sam freak out like this?
The blood drained from his face when he recalled what Sam had told him about his abduction, that first night he'd been back...
"They didn't want to permanently damage their prize. Just make me pliable and compliant. The perfect pet. Isabelle's little snack..."
"They told me 'Little snacks like me shouldn't talk back to their betters.' "
"Shit..." Dean breathed, realizing what he'd done. I'm gonna run downstairs and grab us a little snack...
Dean dropped to his knees, hovering uncertainly over Sam. "I didn't mean it... please, Sam, I didn't mean it... you have to believe me..."
None of his words broke through to Sam. At the sound of the deep, thundering voice over him, Sam curled into an even tighter ball with his hands held defensively over his head and neck. Trying to protect himself from a human.
What those people had done to Sam... Dean suddenly wished he'd done more than knock out and tie up Chance and had the others thrown in jail... they deserved so much more for what they'd done to Sam... what they'd put all those people through.
"Sam, you're okay. You're here, with me." Tentatively, Dean reached out a finger, brushing over Sam's head to tussle his hair for reassurance like normal.
The reaction was instantaneous. Sam's entire body seized up, desperate to avoid the finger. He quivered in place as Dean drew away, a crushing ball of ice forming in his chest.
"Okay..." Dean said, lowering his voice. He switched tactics. "No hands. I get that. I wouldn't want to be touched either. But you're not there anymore. You're here, with me. We're at Bobby's, in our own room where no one can hurt us."
While he spoke in a low voice, Dean settled down on the floor, leaning against the desk. He continued talking, trying to reassure Sam and let him know he was safe.
"Those people can never touch you again, Sam. I promise. We took care of them and they'll never hurt anyone again. You made it out, kid! And you saved all the others. Without you, they'd still be trapped." Dean's voice grew urgent as he went on, desperate to break through the wall separating them. "Sam, you're with me. With Dean. I promise... I promise I'll always be here for you, no matter what. Even when you can't accept the help, it'll always be there waiting."
He continued on like that for a good long time, eventually tapering off to catch a breath. The silence dragged out between them, nothing changing. Then...
"D-Dean?" Sam's voice came, small and wavering. It was so quiet Dean almost didn't catch the words.
Hearing his name in that soft voice made Dean's face blossom into an unexpected smile. "Yeah, Sammy. I'm here."
Sam sat up unsteadily with a hand held against his forehead. "Wh-what just happened...? How did I get here? I was just with --"
"You had a flashback," Dean interrupted gently. "You were never there with them. You were here with me the whole time. Safe. I won't ever let them near you again."
Sam rubbed his hands up his arms uncertainly. "Y-you sure? I... I really thought..."
"Absolutely certain." Dean searched Sam's face for any trace of his fear, but found nothing. "You need anything... maybe a drink of water?"
"N-no. No. I'm... I'll be fine. I will. Yeah. Just... give me a few minutes, okay?"
"No problem." Dean started to reach out to ruffle Sam's hair again but stopped as the reaction he'd received during Sam's panic attack rose to mind. He stood instead, hoping to give Sam some space. "I'm gonna... go grab us some food downstairs. You want anything?" Dean rubbed the back of his neck while he talked, wishing he didn't come off as so big and threatening around Sam. All he wanted to do was help.
"Food? You're gonna go downstairs?" Sam's face turned ashen. "Don't... don't leave me alone in here. Please. I can't..." His face flushed with embarrassment. "Can I come with you? I mean... I don't have to... I just don't..."
"It's okay," Dean managed to slip in between the stutterings. "Of course you can come. I won't leave you here alone if you don't want me to."
He held a hand out to Sam slowly, keeping a gentle expression on his face. He didn't want to startle Sam anymore than he already had, and this panic attack had been more severe than the last. He fervently hoped they would taper off, but who knew... for now he just needed to make sure Sam knew he'd always be there for him.
Once he had Sam in hand, they both went downstairs to get ready for the coming battle.
A little over an hour later, all three hunters were gathered downstairs, ready to head out. Dean and Bobby were checking their ammo and handguns while Sam made sure for the seventeenth time since leaving his bedroom that his knife was on him and in a good place in his jacket.
Bobby had run out at the crack of dawn to grab supplies for the summoning ritual along with food for the house. He'd tried to go out before anyone else was up, but of course Sam and Dean had been hard at work training. He did manage to get it all done and get back before either brother realized he wasn't around, however.
Breakfast had been fast and cobbled together, but still good. Dean had poked grumpily at the fruit Bobby had brought back and stuck with cereal, while Sam got to have fresh banana and apple slices, leaning against Dean's cereal bowl the entire time. It may have been a simple breakfast, but all of them got enough energy to face the day (and Dean slid a pack of beef jerky in his pocket for later when no one was paying attention to him).
As Sam readied himself on the table, Dean grabbed his keys.
Bobby snorted at him. "Where do you think you're going with those?" he asked dryly.
Dean was about to shoot a comeback at him when rememberance flashed over his face. The Impala was out of commission.
"You got a better plan?" Dean grumbled.
Bobby dangled his own keys at Dean and raised his eyebrows.
"Shotgun!" Sam called out innocently before Dean could shoot out a retort.
Both of the other hunters just stared at Sam.
You could technically say Sam was riding shotgun, if by 'shotgun' you meant 'sitting on the shoulder of the guy riding shotgun.'
He'd foregone his normal spot on Dean's right shoulder and moved over to the left, opting to sit where he could be included in the hunters’ conversation over him. He wanted them both to take him just as seriously as any other hunter and felt the need to prove himself, being constantly surrounded by huge and intimidating hunters like Dean and Bobby. It didn't matter that they'd never given him a reason to think he was looked down on at all, but...
After encountering John and his clear opinion that Sam was incapable of surviving without Dean, it was just the way he felt.
"Y'know, I totally called this spot, jerk," Sam joked, elbowing Dean in the neck with a sharp jab.
Dean couldn't help but smirk at Sam's brashness. "Oh yeah? Lemme guess - you wanted the leg room, right?" he jabbed back.
Sam leaned pointedly back against Dean's neck, right near the reassuring thud-thud that marked a pulse. He stretched out first one leg, then the other, making sure to let the heel of his boots dig in a little deeper in the muscle than normal as he stretched out. "That's right. I wanted the leg room. We all know which of us is the tall one here."
Neither of them could hide a smirk at the not-so-subtle reference to Sam's first time being drunk, when he'd declared himself 'taller' than Dean or John. Bobby, having no idea what Sam was referring too, let his eyes flick quickly between the two, trying to hide his confusion.
The light banter helped keep the cloud of worry at bay. Nixie sat protectively cupped in Dean's hand at the moment, seeing yet not seeing with her expressionless, emotionless white eyes. She was a constant reminder of how dire their situation was, no matter how much they joked.
Bobby had managed to track down an abandoned house out in the boonies. There were no other houses around, and no trees or forests nearby, so if it went up in smoke no one would care.
The plan was to do the summoning ritual on a table, leaving Sam on his 'own,' with Dean and Bobby in hiding nearby. With any luck, Ilyana lacked Nixie's ability to sense minds and emotions and they'd be able to surprise her. Sam would summon her, and the moment Dean was certain Ilyana was distracted, he'd slam the vase over both of them, leaving Sam to finish the fight. Bobby would watch Dean's back, taking out any other fire sprites that tried to interfere, and Nixie would focus on her enchantments with no other choice.
Foolproof, or so they hoped.
Once Ilyana was gone, the hold on the other sprites would fade. Because they were not the ones that had made the pact, they would have no interest or desire on their own to finish the job given to Ilyana. They would return to Aeternum. Dean just needed to make sure that Ilyana was cut off until all of the other sprites left, otherwise the battle would continue on as though nothing had happened.
That was the key.
Sam sighed as he leaned back. He could barely sit still with the nerves in him from the upcoming battle. He'd been in tough situations before, but he'd never known ahead of time what he'd be facing. Here, he knew exactly what needed to happen. And he was nervous.
Once this started, there would be no one that could help him. Bobby and Dean might as well be in a different world once that vase closed over his head. Sam gave a slight shiver at the thought, remembering how it would be Dean himself trapping Sam like that. It's not like it's what he wants to do... it's the last thing Dean would ever do if we weren't desperate. He'll get me out, no matter what.
I can trust him to do this.
Sam swallowed as the house came into view. Dean held up a hand, gently nudging him in the side. "You ready for this, pint-size?"
A calm settled over Sam as he steeled himself. "I'm ready."
He didn't blink as Bobby parked. "I can do this."
The ritual was simple.
In broad strokes of the chalk, Bobby drew the summoning circle on the table, carefully filling in the elegant designs that stood for each of the four sprites at each pole, with a larger symbol in the center for the fire sprites. There was no question in anyone's mind that the moment Ilyana sensed the summoning from Sam, she would be the one to answer. Her desperation had been clear in the way she'd reacted when Sam refused her advances.
The pact she'd made for Sam's life must be for something she wanted more than anything else in the world.
Once everything was set and a shallow bowl sat in the center of the circle overtop the image of the fire sprite they hoped to summon, Bobby and Dean took their leave. Bobby was now holding Nixie in his hands and Dean had a tall, clear vase held in his own. Sam's heart thumped with nerves every time he caught sight of it, knowing he would be trapped helplessly in it soon enough. Already the blue sheen of a protective barrier lit up the glass, held in place by Nixie's soft chants. She'd done the same to the three hunters as well, after Sam made sure Ilyana would not be able to sense the barriers ahead of time.
As it turned out, each of the four sprites had their own mental ability. Nixie, naturally, was an empath, able to understand the hearts around her and share in their emotions. Ilyana, being a fire sprite, was able to influence minds. It wasn't full mind control, but a subliminal influence. She could peck and pry at mental walls until they collapsed if she was given the chance. Even control other sprites, like the fire sprites she'd summoned to help in her dangerous quest.
He was a bit unclear what the other two varieties of sprites had for abilities. From what he could tell from his readings on the air sprites, their ability had to do with some type of mental block - very useful when you deal with empaths and controllers on a daily basis. The earth sprites hadn't even been mentioned. They were so reclusive, and so rarely seen, that no one even suspected their innate abilities.
Now, Sam waited, watching Dean slip into a broom closet nearby and Bobby into the other room. The door of the broom closet stayed open just enough for Dean to be able to see what was happening in the room beyond. He needed to be able to catch Sam and Ilyana both in the vase on his first try. Anything less would mean failure and Ilyana would figure out their game plan.
Sam shook his arms out, trying to limber up for the coming battle. With the vase out of sight again, that same calm settled over him. The calm of battle. He could do this. He was ready.
With everything in place, Sam stepped up to the shallow bowl. A few dried herbs that Bobby had brought with them sat in the center. He began to chant the summoning ritual, holding his knife against his palm. At the very end of the chant, he sliced his hand open, squeezing out the blood.
With the ritual done, he waited.
Dean was almost holding his breath as Sam completed the summoning ritual. His entire body was on edge, watching as Sam put himself in danger for all of them.
But what choice did he have? If it wasn't Dean here, holding the damn vase, it would be Bobby. He couldn't stop Sam from doing this - that would make him as bad as those people who kidnapped Sam and held him against his will. No, what he could do was make sure he was there to haul Sam's ass out of the literal fire Ilyana would throw at it the moment she figured out their plan.
Dean's only choice.
His hands tightened nervously on the vase. If anything, he was more nervous than Sam. In a few seconds or minutes, that same vase in his hands would become Sam's prison, held in place by Dean himself. Trapping his brother the way he'd sworn he never would.
But it had to be done and Dean refused to trust anyone else with Sam's life to that extent. Not even Bobby.
Through the crack in the door, Dean watched Sam's slight frame as the other hunter sliced open his palm, letting the tiny blood drops hit the dried herbs in the bowl.
Luckily, the spell hadn't specified a specific amount of blood for it to work, otherwise Dean or Bobby would have had to do it. They could both afford to lose a lot more blood than Sam. The problem was, the summons wasn't compulsory, and Ilyana would see through their trap instantly if it was anyone but Sam. There would be a good chance of failure.
With Sam doing the summoning, she would be drawn to them like a fly to honey.
Sam stepped back from the bowl, waiting patiently. Dean tensed, ready to leap out the moment he spotted an opening. Ilyana would have to be close to Sam for this to work. Dean needed them both inside the vase on his first try. Anything less would be courting failure, which was unacceptable for him.
"You boys are in a lot of trouble," came a bright voice from right next to Dean's ear.
Caught off guard, Dean did a full body flinch, reminiscent of Sam when he was caught off guard by Dean. He twisted in place to see who was talking, barely avoiding the door as he did so. Bumping it like that would give away his hiding place.
Suspended in midair, delicate wings extended, was a fire sprite. Her longer, brighter red hair and sinuous tail derailed the initial assumption that it was Ilyana herself hiding behind him, though the bright red-eyed glare was the same.
"Can you not just leave?" she asked, her voice pleading. Tendrils of thought wound their way into Dean's mind as she spoke, infecting his thoughts and taking root. The hunter was as helpless to her control as he'd been to Nixie's empathy. Her eyes glowed. "We will not harm the small human. There is only danger so long as you are here, child."
Dean's grip on the vase wavered. Surely Sam would be safer if he left... after all, they only wanted to take Sam with them. They hadn't tried to kill anyone until Dean had appeared. It had been his fault. It was always his fault.
At the sight of Dean's weakness, the sprite came closer, drifting on a nonexistent breeze. She had found the chink in his armor that she could use. She dug in her advantage, pushing through Dean's sudden doubt. "If you leave, he lives. If you stay, he dies. All die. This is not what you want, therefore what you want is to leave."
"Yeah..." Dean said, beginning to agree with her twisted, circular reasoning. He lowered the vase, blinking slowly. The roots of her control curled deeper into the crevices of his mind, latching onto Dean's drive to keep Sam safe and turning it against him.
A soft buzzing began to fill Dean's mind, trying to free him from the insidious tendrils of the fire sprite control. Dean shook his head, trying to clear his mind of all the intrusions.
The sprite pushed harder, using her will like a hammer now that she had her weapon. "If you remain, Sam will die. You will be the one to kill him. You will kill your brother. Sam will die at your hands. You know this to be true."
Dean quailed at the thought. Images were pried free of his subconscious, repressed fears brought into the light of day. He was forced to live through them as though he was there, his hand clenched around Sam and squeezing... Sam's trusting expression transforming to horror and betrayal even as the fragile bones begin to snap in Dean's unforgiving grasp.
An immense boot pressed down, catching Sam off guard. He went sprawling and could only stare in horror as the boot moved over his entire body. His mouth was open in an unheard cry as the boot came slamming down, killing him just like the spider Dean had stomped on.
The buzzing in his mind solidified into a calming blue presence.
You will not harm your brother.
The voice was familiar, but ancient. The blue washed over Dean's mind like a gentle stream, loosening the mental hold the fire sprite had on him just as a stream washes away the pebbles at the bottom. The images of him hurting and killing Sam wavered, then vanished.
Sam trusts you. Sam is counting on you.
New images came, this time from Dean's memory.
Sam, sitting trustingly on Dean's plate, ignoring the giant fork next to him as it spears food as big as he is.
Sam, climbing up Dean's arm without any qualms. He barely notices when Dean shifts in place, impatient to leave.
Sam, jumping off a countertop in a raging firestorm. Dean, his only hope of survival, is only at the stairs. Time stands still as Dean runs to catch Sam in his hands. For a moment he's afraid to look at what he caught, afraid he hurt Sam in his panic. His brother is so small and so vulnerable while Dean has the subtlety of a brick wall. But the other hunter is fine, more concerned about the dangerous sprites circling them than his last-second rescue.
You will not let him down.
With that solid assurance, the mental influence Dean was under shattered, washed away like debris in the ocean. With a gasp, Dean almost fell over, tightening his grip on the vase once more.
Shocked, the fire sprite backpedaled from him. "Impossible!" she exclaimed. A fireball flared into existence by her side.
"Think again, Tinkerbell," Dean growled. He slammed forward at her with the vase as her fireball shot right for his face.
He had a job to do.
Sam paced back and forth on the table, wondering pensively how long the summoning would take.
A breeze drifted through the room, scattering some of the herbs in the bowl nearby. Without warning, the constant prickling on the back of Sam's neck, the one way he could tell that he was being watched, vanished.
Sam's heart froze. Dean.
Something must have happened to him. He'd never take his eyes off me otherwise.
His eyes reflexively sought out the closet Dean was hiding in, but could see nothing past the small crack in the door.
And then it was too late.
Sam slowly turned around to face the person he knew was standing behind him. Ilyana.
She was perched on the edge of the shallow bowl with both wings outstretched. Her soft pink toes curled around the edge for balance. "You have summoned me," she intoned, "and I have come. Have you decided to accept my offer?"
Instead of answering, Sam prowled around the outskirts of the bowl, taking himself away from the sheer cliff at the edge of the table. He'd have to stall for Dean. There was nothing else to it.
"Ilyana, why are you doing this?" Sam asked pleadingly. "Me and Dean never did anything to hurt you, why do you want to kill us?"
Only her head turned to follow him, large, liquid eyes tracking his progress. "It matters not what you have done in the past," she said in a clipped tone. "What is important is a pact has been made that I shall uphold."
"What pact? " Sam pressed. "What's worth so much that you'd risk hurting innocents for?" He took a few cautious steps in her direction. "What's worth fighting Nixie, your sister?"
Her eyes lit with anger. "Nixie," she spat. "A water sprite. Eternal, unending. They act as though they are better than us just because they live longer. " Her wings fanned open impatiently. "If you will not come willingly, I will make you come."
That was the only warning he got before she clapped her wings together and shot at him. Sam dove into a clumsy roll to escape her attack, another technique Dean had taught him that morning.
Clumsy or not, it worked. Ilyana sailed harmlessly by, catching herself seconds later with a fast, midair spiral. She came at him again.
An explosion from the closet caught them both off guard, upsetting Ilyana's second attack. Sam tossed his hands up in surprise before remembering he was warded against fire. Dean tumbled out of the closet, vase still in hand, followed by a second sprite.
Gunshots from the living room signaled the start of Bobby's own encounter with the fire sprites.
Sam shared a glance with Dean. We need to finish this now, he thought to himself.
Dean nodded silently, holding up the vase. He was ready.
With that, Sam dove at Ilyana. He tackled her in midair, sending them both tumbling across the tabletop tangled in each other’s arms.
A thunderous explosion signaled the vase landing around them, sealing them off from the world.
The real battle began.