Chapter 1: Hell
There have been murmurs in the Pit for years. As long as he’s had the ability of memory - for a hundred years, maybe more - the demons have spoken of coming war. He tries not to concern himself with those things as a general rule. The blood of souls is too thick and rich on his hands, and his blades are too bright and perfectly honed for him not to play the music of his craft.
Eternity may stretch on forever for the damned, but for a Disciple like him, forever will never be time enough.
He takes pleasure in perfecting his skills, not just physical but mental, emotional, and spiritual as well. He can get deep inside and rip out the core of a soul, turn it to poison, put it back, and watch it eat a victim alive.
He no longer knows, nor cares, what his true name used to be. He no longer remembers being one of the tortured souls. He no longer knows how he got here, when he came, or why. He only knows this is who he is, and that eternity is not enough time to vent the left-over agony and rage, mysterious internal scars from a long-forgotten past.
There is no day or night here, but if there was, this would be the closing shift. He turns away from the quivering pulp before him with some regret, leaving it to regenerate for its next tormentor. The current soul will be lucky if a demon comes; anything a demon can think up will be a slap on the wrist compared to what they accomplished together today.
He leaves the room satisfied with his work and steps into a long, cramped corridor lined with barred doors similar to the one he just came out of. His next stop, in a while, will be a sweet little thing that by topside reckoning has been here since the 1820s, and still thinks that killing the man who owned her shouldn’t have counted as murder. He chuckles to himself.
House rules, sweetheart. No exceptions.
He smiles gently about her naiveté. One day he’ll convince her it’s useless, begging for forgiveness down here. He’s not in a hurry, though – he has all the time in the underworld to make her see the error of her ways.
His thoughtful grin turns to a scowl as he walks. This close to the exit, the twist of the tunnel creates a serious bottleneck. There are demons here, too many demons, and no matter how many times he brushes against their leather skin as he walks, no matter how deep the scent of sulfur sinks into his skin, it always makes him shudder with revulsion. They are disgusting lesser beasts, feral perversions of humanity – what happens when a soul goes into the pressure cooker – a diamond turning into blackened, scalding coal.
His fingers curl into sharp-nailed fists at the feel of them. If there is actually anything he remembers from before, it is that he hated demons with every fiber of his being. Now, buried deep under the firmer layers of his outer spirit, the dead black ash of his decaying soul has already started to form a solid core, but it doesn’t matter. Not even knowing that he’ll be one of them soon enough can quiet his hatred.
They usually part for him, steering carefully out of his way as he walks, but today one of them is approaching him purposefully. It’s a drone, a simple messenger class. He frowns. Whatever errand it’s running is inconsequential. He doesn’t want it breathing his air.
As it approaches, others join it. He does a quick mental count. There are a few drones, four workers, and seven soldiers. Soldiers don’t spend much time down here these days. If he was an admitting being, he’d reluctantly admit that he’s impressed by their presence.
The closest demon steps to within range of his blade, and he thinks about it. His blow wouldn’t kill the demon, but it would maim it. It would be worth the effort just to hear the smoke-lizard shriek.
“Disciple,” the demon rasps out. Its voice grates, the multilayered bass slide of rock on rock, the tones rolling over each other in an effort to be the sound on top. “We are under attack. You must come.” Its insectoid eyes stare blankly at him as it speaks.
Short sentences so it doesn’t lose its train of thought, he thinks. Out loud he says, “Like I’m going anywhere with you. Move.”
He goes to push the slimy filaments of its wings away, brushing it aside as he would have any other bug, but the others step in behind it, blocking his path. The echoing legion of soldiers' voices cut off the drone’s weak protest.
“Your Master sent us.”
His spine goes stiff, snapping to attention immediately. “Alastair sent for me?”
A ripple of uneasy motion moves through the demonic circle at the sound of his master’s name. He loves his work, he really does – but his fingertips tremble at the thought of being called up, moved out of this wretched basement, away from the reek of sulfur and into the warfront.
The soldier stares flatly into his eyes. The black skin that stretches across the heavy frame of its face is like a shrunken, ill-fitting glove. Scars from holy water and Devil only knows what else criss-cross the frayed hide of its chest. Its sunken arterial red pupils begin to gleam in the dim light of the corridor.
“Heaven has sent for you.“
The demons flinch and duck their heads at the soldier’s words as they drop like acid rain, sizzling in the close air.
He blinks and shakes his head. He doesn’t understand – or believe.
The soldier tries again, but any comfort in the words is overshadowed by a sneering tone. “Your Master wants you taken someplace... safe.”
As the meaning sinks in, he remembers what fear feels like.
There is only one safe place in Hell, and he’s been there. He’s not looking to go back.
He backs away from the group, reaching for his knives and readying them with barely a conscious thought, the motion practiced and fluid. He knows how much weight Alastair carries, and he knows that any demon who failed to carry out his orders would spend eternity wishing it were dead. He tenses for a fight.
The demons growl and hiss, and the seven soldiers move to the front of the group. Talons and wings and fangs extend, reaching for him, and he chokes on the smell of their breath. All hate is born of fear, and his rises to the surface from inside his dark core. Irrational terror sweeps through him for a single instant; it’s enough to give them an opening.
The second soldier lunges through the mob and sinks its claws deep into his left shoulder. He clenches his jaw, refusing to cry out from the pain as brimstone and flame lance out from the demon’s palm, branding his soul to the core.
The soldier’s weight overbears his and he stumbles, buffeted on all sides by the wingbeats of the others as each one struggles to get their hands on him, too. Blackened eyes and gaping jowls slick with drool reflect his image in the dim light of the passageway. The stagnant air is thick with sweat and blood and fear.
His knives seek targets and they both hit their marks, but in the press of bodies it is impossible to tell if any real damage is caused. He suddenly loses his grip on them both. Yellow ichor splashes out from their wounds, stinging his eyes. The soldier’s other hand reaches for his throat and he can see its sunken face morphing into a hideous grin.
The blackness of the Void hovers on the edges of his vision and his soul flutters: the frantic parody of a rapidly beating heart. The burning fire deep inside his upper arm is the only heat he feels as the portal begins to open, because the Nothing of the Void turns everything else the Shadow touches into ice.
He gasps for breath, a useless reflex now. Words fail him, stopping short of taking the form of sound.
I won’t go back! Let me go, let me go, HELP!
He doesn’t even know who he’s calling. The silent call goes out like a punch, but the dank walls of the tunnel absorb all sound, reflecting nothing back. He may as well take a swan dive straight into the Void for all the good it does to try to scream.
The soldier’s gnarled fingers crush his throat. It hauls him off the ground and raises him high above its head, offering him to the Void above. The other demons claw at him from below, making good use of what is left of him, tearing and leeching at his soul wherever they can reach.
Help, he thinks weakly, his resolve useless in the face of fear. Please …
The gravity of the Void reaches for him, and the soldier releases its grip on his throat and rips its claws from his arm.
Somebody help me!
He flies up toward the black. He can feel the permafrost beginning to form in his core. With the return of his fear comes one last single plea, a name he does not even know.
He closes his eyes and gives in to the pull. The wind that lifts him crescendos into a roar, screaming as it whips his body back and forth. He waits for the deafening vibrations to descend into crushing silence, for all sound to be obliterated as though it never was. He falls, up and up, into the endless Void above. He clings to the name, because even though he doesn’t remember who it belongs to, he knows it used to bring him hope. The call goes out a second time.
Light splashes across his closed eyelids.
The wind intensifies, billowing up against him from below and pinning him securely to something rough and solid. The icy feeling vanishes, replaced by a fierce wash of heat. His grasping fingertips feel stone where only the Void existed just seconds before.
His eyes snap open at the sound of his name. He knows it is his name the same way he knows who Sam is - not from remembering, but from instinct. He opens his eyes to acknowledge the insistent tug on his soul, power like he’s never felt before, demanding his attention.
They stay open in shock at the sight of the fire.
A wave of flames thunders toward him. Bracing against the ceiling above, he watches the drones get incinerated by the waves of heat rolling ahead of it. Splinters of flame follow the heat, their tips sharpening like spears as they seek their targets.
The pure fire sweeps the corridor, shimmering colors of red and yellow intertwined with blues and whites. It meets the blackened hides of the remaining worker demons and turns them instantly to ash. The soldiers twist and writhe, shrieking their unearthly screams up at him. Their dark red eyes burst into flames first, then the rest of their skulls follow suit. Their skeletons are still burning as they fall.
The heat is almost unbearable and he yells against it, powerless to stop it from coming any closer. He can feel things beginning to boil.
The invisible grip on him slackens, and he holds his breath and shields his face as he is slowly lowered into the flames.
He shuts his eyes tight and waits for the feeling of his skin peeling off of his bones, but as he comes to rest on a musty floor, he feels nothing. He risks a look.
The flames hover just outside his reach, their heat dissipated. They dance and sway like bolts of lightning that at one point had some job to do, but now have completely forgotten what it was. The ferocity of the blaze is gone, and he is filled with a kind of fear and wonder he has never felt downstairs. He swallows hard.
Heaven has sent for you.
A dark shape parts the shimmering curtain in front of him and he crouches down, wishing he still had his blades. The shape moves closer, and he can see that it has one hand stretched out in front of it.
From the palm of its hand comes the light that feeds the fire.
“What are you?” he yells, mustering all of his courage. Whatever it is, it can’t want him for anything good. On the other hand, it saved him from the Void and it killed at least ten demons. He’s going to roll with what he knows for now. “What do you want from me?”
The shape stills and drops its hand. Instantly the constant wave of power is gone. The shape takes the form of a man, solidifying as an after-image of the blinding fire.
He blinks a little in the absence of the light and looks up at the creature of Heaven. It has broad shoulders and long dark hair. Its eyes glow as brightly as its palm had; a shining iridescence that seems to be no color and all colors at the same time.
It takes small steps toward him and stumbles, barely catching itself. With some surprise, he feels his hands reaching out to catch it if it falls. The feel of power in the air is subtly building up again, but right now the creature looks exhausted from the attack.
“Dean,” it whispers. Its eerie pearlescent eyes drift over him, taking in the deep wound that the soldier left on his arm, as if it wished it could do something about that or the other cuts and bruises that the demons left behind. He feels strangely exposed and struggles not to move away.
There is a feel like a sigh in the air and the creature sinks to its knees, almost close enough to touch him. The light fades from its eyes, leaving a peculiarly worldly shade of green behind. Without the wash of power lighting its face, he can see now that the creature has blood plastered to its lips, its chin, the curves of its neck; some dried and flaking, some slick and new in places.
It reaches out a hand for him and he flinches back, not knowing what to expect.
“Dean,” it says again, and it sounds exultant and somehow sad at the same time. “I know you don’t remember me, but you will. I promise. And I need you to trust me, because everyone is coming for you, and I’ve got to get you out of here now.”
Before he realizes his mouth is open, he hears himself ask, “How?”
It smiles. The air starts to constrict around him, and the invisible grip reaches for him one more time. He shudders, but the grip is nothing like the grip of the Void, cold and implacable. There is a dark edge to the power, a raw energy that hungers for blood, but when he lets it take hold, he knows that the hunger is not for him.
Below the hunger is something else, vicious and absolute in its conviction, a feeling he suddenly remembers grasping for with every tattered shred of the last of his humanity – knowledge he lost a long, long time ago. Something shifts uncomfortably deep inside his soul.
The creature shuffles closer and offers both hands. Its wrists are scarred and bloodstained. He thinks twice, but something in the simple offering gesture intrigues him. He places his hands in the creature’s. Distant growls begin to filter down the passage, and he senses demons. He grips the creature’s hands tighter. It nods tensely and takes a breath.
The glow comes back into its face and the fire begins to build again, surrounding them in a spiral of light and sound that cuts off all pursuit.
The acrid walls of Hell dissolve. He smells something sweet and fresh; air without sulfur, grass, flowers. He feels things against his skin; t-shirt, jacket, jeans. He hears a reckless, abandoned sound from his right side; laughter, cruelty, madness.
His brain snaps the definitions into place faster than he can receive them, and the sky above him spins dangerously.
He is back; Earth, life, people.
He is saved; Lilith, Alastair, Hell.
His whole body should hurt. It doesn’t.
He tips his head towards the sound of the laughter. The creature is crouched over him. Its chest is heaving with the effort of breathing and its eyes are dissolving from the infinite color to a flat, chilling black. It is completely covered in blood, and it clutches a red leather-bound book in its hand.
Dean looks at his brother and finally sees him for who, and what, he really is.
Angel. Demon. Sammy.
Dean looks away, his stomach churning at the sound of Sam’s ragged, desperate cackling. His gaze falls to several still shapes lying at jagged angles in the grass.
People, he thinks.
There are at least four of them, and their mutilated torsos spill dark lumpy smudges out onto the earth. He gags at the smell, bile and iron, feels his hand sink with a squelching slurp into the remains as he tries to sit up.
Sam’s laughter rips apart, transforming into hysterical screaming sobs of horrified exultation.
Sammy, what have you done.
The world, and everything in it, disappears.
Chapter 2: The Book
Dean wakes up in a farmhouse that looks like it should have been condemned years ago on a trundle bed frame covered with sleeping bags. Vivid green ivy crawls in through the windows, and the sun shines brightly outside.
The last thing he remembers is the pull of the Void and the darkness of Hell, the screams of the damned and the cutting pride of Alastair’s cold smile. He sits up slowly, rolling his shoulders and swinging his feet to the floor.
Everything smells like mold and vegetation. Small currents of fresh air wend their way through gaps in the wall’s peeling wooden boards, bringing in the sweet scent of tall grasses and trees.
Nothing smells like blood or feels like danger. The only sound he hears is the chatter of a pair of squirrels outside, no doubt arguing over the rights to a stash of nuts.
Dean grips the metal edge of the bed frame to keep his hands from shaking.
He can’t be back. He can’t be.
A full length mirror stands on the room’s opposing wall, cracked neatly into two triangular shards. Dean rises to his feet and stands in front of it, not very shocked to see a total stranger standing in front of him, dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans.
Dean hasn’t seen his own reflection in over a lifetime.
The two halves of the mirror split him into starkly contrasting pieces. He feels his lips twist into a soft leer at the irony. If a mirror really does reflect the soul, then his is cursed.
On the right side of the mirror is Dean Winchester, a man he barely remembers; a man who sacrificed everything for his family and didn’t live to tell the tale. There are no marks, no scars, and no regrets in the face of that man. Dean tries him on like a warrior tests armor, trying to see if he would be a good fit.
He frowns. The pieces of Dean Winchester are too loose, awkward, as if he was stretched beyond recognition and tossed aside like hand-me-downs. The pieces no longer fit, but he can’t discard them entirely. He folds them away for later, when he can re-examine them more closely.
On the left side of the mirror is a denizen of Hell, branded soul-deep by a demon, with an angry red handprint and five perfect rugged claw-mark scars around the edges to prove it.
That man feels too tight, restricting, and there is a rolling darkness inside of him that makes Dean shudder with a loathing that goes deeper than the brand. The Disciple’s armor is smothering, suffocating; but there is power there as well, and security stemming from decades of familiarity and use.
Instincts kick in, and Dean doesn’t have time to decide which of the two warrior’s instincts they are before he is already moving to defend himself.
A swift elbow strike to the mirror sends the piece on the right crashing to the floor, and Dean grabs a piece of his human half’s reflection and brandishes it at the monster daring to wear his brother’s face like so much second-hand Armani.
“Stay away from me,” he says. Dimly he registers that his voice is smooth and whole and speaking doesn’t hurt, even after so many years of silence and screams.
Sam’s outline hovers in the shadows of the door frame, taking up the majority of the space. He’s bigger than Dean remembers, and his voice is rougher, darker than before. He doesn’t move to enter the room, but he doesn’t back away from the threat either; instead he laughs, a short hollow sound.
“Dean, it’s me,” he says, voice lilting up on the last syllable like he’s expecting the statement to be more ironic than comforting.
Dean circles, angling for a better view. The voice coming from the darkened hallway is infuriatingly calm, and there are no familiar tones in it to help Dean tell if the words are lies. He retracts his previous warning.
“Step into the light.”
The figure complies, moving silently across the splintered boards. Sam’s face comes into view, and Dean feels himself lock up.
Sam’s hands and face are bright pink, scrubbed almost to the point of rawness, but the neckline of his t-shirt is a dark rust color, and smudges to match adorn the sides of his jeans where he must have wiped his hands. His eyes are dark and sunken in, and he swallows twice, like he can’t get any moisture into his throat. Sam’s shoulders slump a little at the edges but his back is straight, like he’s daring Dean to call him out.
“I know what you’re looking for, Dean. Go ahead and look.” Sam circles an index finger around his face. “I’m not a demon,” he adds, flashing a bitter, chilling smile.
Dean grips the shard of glass more tightly, and a small streak of red wells up from his palm. It starts to drip across his fingers, and Sam shifts in response.
“I said stay away,” Dean snaps, taking another step back.
Sam takes a step forward. “I know what you saw, Dean. Go ahead. Fucking kill me like you promised.” He spreads his arms wide in challenge. “Go ahead!”
A surge of recognition blows through the half of him that remembers, and his human side threatens to buckle under the strength of it. Dean clings to the Disciple’s armor, hiding in its solidity and strength. He shakes his head. Something isn’t right.
Sam strikes then, and Dean Winchester readies a warning to stop, don’t come any closer, it’s not safe at the same time the Disciple readies himself to kill. Dean freezes, unable to choose one voice over the other.
Sam catches Dean’s outstretched wrist in a painful twisting motion and the glass falls, shattering like the final shards of ice from the Void across the weatherworn floor.
Dean stares at his brother. There is no second skin beneath Sam’s own, no reek of sulfur and ash, no burn to the touch of his hand. His aura is dark and tinged with blood, but inside …
The first piece of Dean Winchester falls into place, fitting like it was never removed.
The impassive iron curtains in Sam’s eyes flicker and weaken. He blinks, and suddenly he looks just like Dean remembered.
Relief creeps in at the edges of Sam’s face. His fingers loosen on Dean’s wrist.
Dean searches back in time for his last earthly memory. He remembers Sam screaming and the taste of his own blood in his mouth as his chest was ripped to shreds. He remembers gurgling uselessly in protest at the glowing eyes of the hellhounds, and a bright flash of light.
He remembers, distantly, calling Sam’s name after he was dragged under, and then clinging to the hope that Sam was still alive, and then just remembering that there was someone that he used to call for, but not who that someone was, or why.
Dean shakes his head, but he doesn’t pull his hand away. Sam’s presence tugs at him like gravity, anchoring him as he tries to sort out which memories go where.
“They told me you were dead,” Dean remembers, “I thought … “
Then suddenly there is no more space, and Dean is in Sam’s arms, and Sam is hanging on to him tight enough to steal Dean’s air away.
Sam seems solid and alive in Dean’s arms, but Dean remembers how many times they showed Sam to him in Hell; how many times he fell for this only to end up watching Sam get ripped apart, powerless to stop it.
Sam’s grip is like iron and Dean wonders if Sam is thinking the same thoughts, sharing a similar fear - that Dean might vanish into thin air and leave him alone. Dean’s throat tightens and he blinks back a threatening wash of tears.
Sam pulls free abruptly, but he holds on to Dean’s shoulders with both hands, a small smile on his face as he nods his affirmation, seemingly satisfied that Dean is real. His fingertips tremble against Dean’s shirt, and his skin is dull and grey.
A fresh memory rushes to the forefront, and Dean remembers the blood-soaked grass, the bodies, and Sam’s shattered laughter. He feels power in the air, and a thickened cloak of magic cast by invisible sigils and wards that only a Disciple could sense.
Dean releases Sam and pushes him away, his building despair turning into an empty laugh.
“Sammy, damn it. What did you do?”
Sam almost seems to crumble at the question. The fleeting joy fades from his eyes and he looks tired, old beyond his years. He drops down onto the trundle bed and places his head in his hands. Dean catches a glimpse of thin white scars running longways up both of Sam’s arms.
Dean’s heart picks up speed, and the thump of his pulse seems loud in the still, warded space.
“Sam.” His voice seems stretched thin, shaky. “What did you do?”
Sam reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the book Dean had seen in his brother’s bloodstained hands.
Sam holds the book out, and Dean takes it warily. The red leather binding is clean and soft. On the cover is a blackened seal; a dragon and a snake locked into a circle, each one trying to eat the other. He tries to place where he’s seen it before, back when he was alive, but his growing unease is making the memory slippery.
Sam is watching him closely now. Worry and doubt are evident all over his face, and tension radiates from the rest of him as he grips the metal frame of the bed like he’s trying to keep his hands from shaking.
“You don’t remember?” Sam asks, his voice thickening with pain.
I can read the formula for you. Immortality … forever young, never die …
Dean’s mouth goes dry. “You… No. Tell me you didn’t go to Benton.”
Sam flinches, but then his eyes go hard and he gives a sharp nod as if he’s been preparing this argument for months. He rubs his temples, distracted.
“I couldn’t leave you down there, Dean. I tried to, but … things have changed. You have no idea what was coming for you,” Sam says flatly. “Hate me all you want, but it was the only way.”
Dean’s nails etch deep ridges into the leather cover. He opens the book, turning the fragile pages roughly. In between the lines of ancient text, new ink markings on each page denote Sam’s precise handwriting.
I can’t do it. I would rather go to Hell.
Dean glances back at the remaining half of the mirror and sees his reflection, this time taking in his physical state. His body seems to be in perfect condition. Doc Benton’s withered, patchwork face smiles a rotten smile in his mind. Dean runs his fingers over the thin fabric of his T-shirt, noting a clear absence of any kind of claw marks or ridges.
Sam follows Dean’s gaze and answers his unspoken question in the same quiet tone he uses to convey bad news to victims, sincerity mixed with apologetic frankness.
“It’s mostly yours. I only had to reconstruct the inside.”
Dean looks at Sam’s reflection, crouching behind him like a shadow. He seems diminished and yet still somehow twice the hunter Dean remembers. There is a kind of hardness to Sam’s bearing that has nothing to do with scars. It’s the look of a man who has grown accustomed to being a killer.
Dean knows it because he feels it in himself.
Dean’s mind shies away from recalling his time spent on the rack and focuses instead on the important fact at hand: that it takes years of a special kind of torture to get a Winchester to turn into that kind of machine. He studies his brother, trying to see the full extent of the toll that his time away has taken on Sam.
Sam, the one he was trying to save.
Sam, who had walked into Hell wielding white fire and a power like Dean had never seen.
“You were actually there. You pulled me out.” Dean tries the phrase out, testing it for implausibility.
Sam’s reflection folds its long fingers together and presses its clasped hands to its lips. Sam’s eyes break away, and he closes them. “Yeah.”
“How long was I gone?”
Sam sniffs, tilting his head up towards the ceiling and pinching his nose.
“Just over a year,” comes the muffled reply. “I’m sorry, man. It never should have taken me this long.”
Dean blinks. There is no way this is Doc Benton’s method, not after a year, not in Dean’s own body.
“Over a year? How did you – what’s wrong with you?”
Sam takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. His eyes open again and he simply looks at Dean, waiting for him to solve the puzzle on his own. He looks exhausted, like he’s working off a serious bender.
Or a bitch of a migraine.
I’m telling you, you can save your brother. And I can show you how.
Dean had shoved the mental picture of the night before out of his mind, but now it came rushing back.
Sam covered in blood and surrounded by corpses. Sam with thick liquid dripping from his lips, his chin, his fingertips. Sam with black eyes and broken, wild laughter.
Something in Dean’s stomach lurches violently and he throws the book, letting it fall loudly to the floor.
That’s all this is, man - Ruby’s just jerking your chain down the road. You know what it’s paved with and you know where it’s going.
Dean’s chest aches and he feels too constricted, too walled-in. He needs air, he needs to get away, go somewhere, anywhere.
The tightness triggers his gag reflex and he gasps, holding his gut and heading for the door.
Sam is on his feet instantly, and he crosses the space between them, reaching for Dean’s elbow to steady him, but Dean pulls away.
“No,” he snaps. “Get away from me.”
Sam flinches again, but he drops his hand and holds himself very still, pleading with just his eyes. “Dean, please, just let me expl-“
“There’s nothing to explain. You promised me, Sam. You promised.”
All of the remaining color drains out of Sam’s face, but he sets his jaw and glares at Dean, defiant.
“Yeah, I did! I promised to keep fighting, and this was how. And I was wrong, alright? I was wrong, and I …”
Sam staggers, reaching for the wall to steady himself. He runs his right sleeve under his nose and the light plaid pattern comes away bloody. Sam stares at the bright red stain with obvious frustration.
“Shit,” he mumbles, slumping against the wall and starting a slow slide to the floor.
“Sam?” Dean fumbles to climb over his anger and fear and get to his brother.
Dean crouches in front of Sam just in time to see Sam’s head loll off to one side. More memories rush through the open gate and Dean sees Sam limp in his arms, feels the cold mud soak through the knees of his jeans as he kneels in the rain, screaming threats into the impassive night sky.
Dean shakes him roughly, jostling his head against the wall with a loud thump. Sam’s eyes flutter open, and he chuckles at the look on Dean’s face. Dean wants to punch him for it until Sam slurs, “S’okay, Dean. Let me die, doesn’t matter. Told him, you know. Told him I’d kill myself first. Never took. Pointless.”
Dean doesn’t understand but he grunts, “Don’t say that,” as he pulls Sam bodily from the floor because he can’t think of a situation where Sam saying that kind of thing would ever be alright. He manhandles Sam over and flops him down into the sleeping bags.
With Sam half conscious, the shaking he was trying to hide is more evident, and when Dean brushes his hair back to dab the blood off of his face, Sam’s skin is burning up.
Sam turns his face into the pillow. “Thirsty,” he groans, and Sam pours so much disgust into the word that Dean doesn’t know what to say.
“I’ll get you some water.”
Dean moves to leave, but Sam’s hand clamps down around his wrist. “No. Leave it.” Dean sees the scars again, this time with new insight.
Told him I’d kill myself first. Never took.
“Sam?” Dean shakes his wrist, jiggling Sam’s arm. “Sam.”
“Who did you tell? Who made you …“ The room spins a little. “… Why did you…”
No. He wouldn’t. Not Sam.
“Where did you get these?” Dean runs his thumb over one angry white line.
Sam pulls his arm free and burrows deeper into the pile of sleeping bags, slipping away. He whispers something Dean can’t make out.
Dean leans down and tilts his ear closer. “What?”
“Read the book,” Sam sighs, and then he’s gone.
Dean tucks the sleeping bag up firmly around his shivering brother and runs a hand through his hair. He tries to process Sam’s words, but they don’t add up.
Let me die, doesn’t matter.
Dean’s eyes fall on the book, lying open and face down on the floor. It’s thicker than he remembers, and he recalls seeing Sam’s notes inside. The thought of picking up that book fills him with revulsion, but he has to know what he’s dealing with.
He retrieves it and settles in against the wall by the bed, trying to focus on the words and listen to Sam breathe at the same time.
Soon he is lost in the pages, and Sam is just another player in the story he reads – a story about the end of the world.
Chapter 3: Burn The Ships
Once he closes the back cover of Benton’s book, it doesn’t take Dean long to decide what his first move is going to be. Sam is still asleep, and Dean isn’t too worried about waking him on accident. Not in his condition.
The words that he had read drive him. He lets them flow over him while he makes his plan, a thousand tiny cuts that equal enough pain to channel into anger, enough anger to channel into action. Sam recorded Ruby’s calling card in there and it glows like a beacon, summoning Dean’s hate up from the place deep inside him where Hell lives.
It’s so simple to take the fragile chalk and make the marks across the floor, to pour the sulfur into bowl and strike a match, to let the incantation roll off of his tongue like a prayer for vengeance.
She doesn’t make him wait long.
“Ruby. You’ve changed.”
Her innocent human eyes go wide at the sight of him, but he can see the monster underneath. He feels his lip curl into a twisted grin, and he balances the weight of Sam’s knife comfortably in his hand as he greets her.
“Dean,” she says, only sounding mildly surprised. “Long time.” She tilts her head to look around his shoulder, back toward the room where Sam lays like he’s dead, trying to sleep off the poison that she hooked him on. “Where’s your brother?”
“You get past me and you can see for yourself,” Dean taunts, spreading his arms wide.
Ruby smiles sadly, turning her pressed lips down at the edges. “He’s not doing so good, is he?” She takes a step closer, craning her head for a better view of the hallway. Dean shifts, firmly blocking her view. She crosses her arms over her stomach and rolls her eyes.
“Please tell me you called me here for a reason.” She nods at the knife in his hand suggestively. “Or maybe you just want to go a few rounds for old time’s sake?”
Dean smiles, for real this time, remembering the feel of her sharp claws wrapping around his insides, of the way she put on a damn good show for Lilith downstairs before she got sent back up for good behavior.
“You know, in all my time downstairs, I never once had a demon on the rack,” Dean says, ignoring the question in favor of displaying the carved blade so that she gets a good look. “Always wanted one, though.”
He wanted one for the way he hated them, how good he could imagine it would feel to dismantle the monster scale by scale until every single speck of thick reptilian skin bled yellow. He wanted to choke one with salt and holy water until the lining of its throat sloughed into pleghmy, foaming bubbles so thick it wouldn’t be able to breathe. He wanted to flay it, muscle layer by muscle layer, just to see how they wove together and if he could reweave them into new patterns with his blades, new shapes, twisting the demons the way they tried to twist a human soul.
She laughs, disbelieving. “You hate demons that much? Please, that’s like Hitler hating the Jews. Look at you. You’re not human anymore, Dean. Neither is your brother.”
Suddenly she’s in his space, her bottomless black eyes burning beneath delicate brown irises. “I need to see him,” she’s insisting, “I can help him. I know how to save him.”
But Dean sees her.
Dean can feel the rush starting deep inside his gut. He’ll have to be careful, he knows. She isn’t lying about one thing; Sam needs her. Waste not, want not. Still, there’s no reason he can’t have a little fun first.
Dean lashes out, sliding Ruby’s knife perfectly into her side, placing it just shy of where the demon meets the host. She lights up in his hands, choking on her surprise, grasping uselessly at his arm as she starts to burn.
“Oh, I know you do,” he whispers into her ear, catching the front of her shirt and lowering her to the floor, “And you’re gonna tell me.”
Ruby’s voice is pouty as she looks around his head, searching for a clue that will tell her where he is.
“Sam, I’m hurt. You haven’t called me.”
Sam crosses his arms, keeping his distance. “I lost your number,” he says flatly.
The shadows roll away from Ruby’s shape as she moves, reconstructing the dreamscape into something more comfortable. The abandoned shack Sam had passed out in begins to shift and change. Small points of light appear and float down from the ceiling, surrounding them both in a soft glowing circle of red candles.
Cinnamon, like they used to keep in the apartment back before Sam’s life went to shit.
Sam backs away when she reaches out to touch him, stepping across the ring of flames. They flare angrily, and Ruby’s eyes snap with lightning.
“Admit it. You miss me.”
Ruby’s pale skin is highlighted in the sultry light, and perfect lines of red run just underneath her fragile outer layers. The heat of the flames mirrors Sam’s desire. His lips twist into a rueful smile.
Ruby always did know how to set the mood, but Sam never says the word yes anymore.
“No. Leave me alone.”
She tilts her head, whispering each phrase like she is revealing an exciting new discovery. “You do. You miss me. You miss the way I make you feel, you miss the way I taste – you can’t live without me, Sam. You don’t have the stomach for it, not anymore. “
“Shut up,” Sam growls. “You lying bitch.”
Sam shuts his eyes. A single burst of wind plunges the dream into darkness, snuffing the candles out. The rising smoke burns his nose and throat. It smells like Jess.
“Oh, Sam,” she sighs, her footsteps drawing near. Ruby comes close, ghosts of fingertips tracing along the neckline of his shirt. “I know you’re mad, but you’ll see, one day soon – you’ll see that I would never hurt you.”
She searches for him in the dark, placing her palms on either side of his face. He can picture her looking up into his eyes. “You’ll be taken care of, Sam. Loved. Exalted.”
Sam shudders, lifting his head free of her touch. “Yeah. Right.”
Ruby has the nerve to sound wounded. “Sam … please. Just come with me.”
Sam snaps then, reaching blindly for her throat and connecting. She struggles, grabbing at his wrist with both hands, but he drives her back, slamming her firmly against the wall. Sam regains control of his surroundings, letting light pour through the shack’s cracked windows, grounding himself again in familiar territory.
“How do I reverse it?” Sam snarls, “And don’t spin me some bullshit story. Tell me the truth, for once.”
Sam loosens his grip so that she can breathe enough to answer. Tears are starting to form at the edges of her long lashes, and she slowly shakes her head.
“You can’t.” Ruby tips her chin up, pushing into Sam’s hand. “The blood,” she whispers, “was for you.” Ruby runs a hand lightly over Sam’s heart. “To keep you safe.”
The demon’s fangs descend, ripping gently into the lower lip of Ruby’s host. Sam flinches and tries to shift away, but her fingers curl around the fabric of his shirt and tug him closer. His eyes are drawn to the droplets coating her lips, and he can’t stop it as his body starts to tremble.
Ruby steps around Sam, using her leverage to reverse their positions until Sam is against the wall. Sam’s hand slips from her throat and down onto her shoulder; his other hand comes up to tangle his fingers into her hair.
She smiles, encouraging, pulling him down. “That’s it,” she murmurs, “it’s okay.”
“God,” Sam chokes out harshly. His eyes mirror hers, tracking the bright red swell of blood. “Don’t,” he gasps, hating himself for not knowing if it’s a protest or a plea.
“It’s okay,” she insists, barely touching him, waiting for Sam to move the last inch. Her breath ghosts over his lips when she speaks. “What could happen? It’s only a dream.”
Sam strikes with a cobra’s speed. His mouth closes around hers, and she moans as he pulls her up into his arms, locking her in place as he sucks every drop of blood from her lips.
He wants to rip her apart and drink from the deepest possible place, drink until she runs dry, and then scatter her bones like the ashes of his life to the four winds. He can almost hear the sound of her screaming as she begs for mercy. Yes. His heart kicks against the tattoo on his ribs.
Ruby meets his hunger with her lust, kissing him roughly, widening the cut until her blood flows freely, letting him take what he needs. Sam controls her head but not her hands, and she pulls at him, clutching and tugging him even closer, gasping out her pleasure in between great breaths of air.
“Sam,” she moans, touching his hair, his face. “Sam.”
“Shh,” he admonishes, wrenching her head back to face the ceiling. He nuzzles at the hollow of her throat. He can hear the pounding of her pulse. The distant screams grow louder in his mind. Yes.
“Sam,” she says again, insistent.
He draws his lips slowly up the length of her neck, waiting.
She looks deep into his soul, leveling him with her black eyes, and kisses him slowly as she watches. He stares back, transfixed.
Ruby is breathless when she finally breaks the kiss. “You did miss me,” she whispers. “You want me inside of you.” The bright glint of her small hunting knife flashes in her hand, promising more blood, more power. “Say it, Sam,” she asks, “say you want me.”
Ruby pulls the knife down and out of his reach, and it’s only then that he realizes he was reaching for it, for her. She raises her eyebrows, underlining the question, waiting on his answer. Sam can’t think with the taste of her blood coating his throat, the feel of his power buzzing underneath his skin. He shakes his head, distracted. “What?”
Her eyes go hard. “You heard me.”
A piercing scream rips through the dream, and pieces of the wall begin to shatter, twist, fall into dust. Sam startles, trying to push Ruby away. She grapples with him, grasping for his face as he pulls out of reach. “Sam, answer me!”
Something twists deep inside Sam’s gut, signaling danger. A surge of adrenaline cuts through the haze, and he can see.
“You’re not Ruby,” Sam accuses, raising his hand like he can ward off the devil.
Lucifer’s smile turns cold. The shack falls away in a rush of flames, and the sound of the screaming swallows them both.
Dean gets lost in it. Everything in the world is strange to him now, barely a memory. Responsibility, loyalty, choice … only Sam reminds him of those things. Much closer to him are blood, terror, anguish and pain.
His knives sing as they cross her, and his pulse quickens with the thrill of experimentation as he discovers that a host, even one long dead, can still deliver the demon pain. He doesn’t know if he can save Sam, redeem himself from Hell, or stop the devil… but this?
This, he can do.
Sam bolts up out of the dream gasping for air, still fighting the sleeping bag wrapped around him like a shroud.
Muffled, enraged shrieking filters through the thin wall and Sam shoves the covers away, ignoring the sharp pain that flares in his temples at the motion. He rushes through the door and stumbles down the hallway. His vision narrows as his senses hone in on the smell of sulfur and the sound of a frantically beating heart.
The living room is dim and the air is thick with steam. It swirls around the two figures crouched in the center, propelled by errant drafts that blow through cracks in the walls. Sam skids to a stop, gripping the wall for support.
Dean looks up from his captive audience just in time to see Sam nearly take a header into the living room.
Ruby’s scent is everywhere, so Dean isn’t too shocked that it got his brother out of bed. From what he’s read, he figures it does the same trick as fresh-brewed Folgers.
“Hey, there he is,” Dean says cheerfully to the writhing demon at his feet. Her cries reduce to little gasps of air and he smiles coldly, dropping his voice to a whisper. “Guess playtime’s over, sweetheart.”
Dean sets the slowly dripping flask of holy water down and draws the knife that used to belong to her from the waistband of his jeans. He backs away, giving Ruby time to collect herself enough to follow.
“You’re too late,” she stutters, a note of triumph in her voice. “You couldn’t stop us.” She sneers, turning her pale face upwards to Dean, smiling with triumph.
Dean rolls the knife with practiced ease, settling into his own frame as heavily as she is settled into hers. “I don’t care.”
Ruby transforms from a cowering young girl and into a slavering monster, cornered like a feral animal and ten times as strong. She launches herself at Dean, coming off of the floor with inhuman speed. Dean sidesteps her, taking out her legs with one swift reverse sweep. She lands hard on her back, and before she can recover her balance Dean drives the knife straight into her abdomen, burying it inside of her until he feels the metal tip set deep into the wooden floor.
Dean watches the arcing waves of flame play across the demon’s skin, lighting up the host and blistering Ruby’s scaled hide until it bubbles. It’s not near anything vital to the demon, but she won’t be able to stand again unless he pulls it out. Dean listens to her screams escalate, watching with satisfaction as pain crosses the face of the corpse-like sight of her true form; a form that he is grateful Sam will never see.
The sigil he carved into her chest curves around the circles of her ribs like a red tribal tattoo, enhancing the movement of her gasps as her charred lungs seek air.
The binding lock is much more effective than a devil’s trap. The lines are shallower than Dean would have liked, but he didn’t want to waste a precious resource too soon. He has Sam to think about.
Dean beckons Sam over with a wave. “Hope you don’t mind, Sammy. You were out a long time, so I went ahead and got you breakfast.”
Sam eases into the room slowly, wide-eyed at the light show. He doesn’t see the deeper effects, or how the demon’s body batters at the walls of the girl’s skin like a bird trying to shatter a window pane.
She tries to tug at the knife, but the tip of the handle is smooth and slippery from the new wellspring of blood, and her shaking fingers can’t find purchase. Her screams have already shredded her throat, and when she coughs flecks of bloody foam spray into the air.
Dean leaves the blade in place and steps away, rifling through the pile of Ruby’s discarded clothes. He wipes his hands on what’s left her t-shirt before pulling the small hunting knife she was wearing out of her boot .
For all he’s been through, Sam sounds like a scared little kid. Dean reaches for the tone he used to use to soothe Sam’s fears, locating it easier than he thought he would.
“Don’t worry, she won’t smoke out.” Dean gestures at the angry swirls painted across the demon’s skin. “I picked up a few new things we can use while …” Dean stops. Another time, maybe. “She ain’t going anywhere.”
Sam appears at Dean’s side. His frame easily dwarfs the delicate human body at their feet, but he swallows hard and trembles, emotions warring for dominance across the shadows in his eyes. Dean offers the hilt of the small knife to Sam.
Sam shakes his head.
Dean figured as much, but he already had a plan for that. He tosses the small knife away.
Dean shrugs off his jacket and goes to one knee, sliding his fingers deep inside Ruby’s body to curl them around the handle. The knife’s magic stings his skin where it brushes the taint on his soul, but he shrugs it off, firming up his grip and ripping the knife free.
Ruby’s body goes instantly limp, only the sounds of shallow, ragged breathing giving it away that she is still alive. Dean presses his jacket against the jagged hole in her abdomen, stemming the flow of blood. He stares at the darkened stain spreading up through the fabric, both elated at the easy damage and annoyed at the sudden time limit he just imposed.
A roughened hand takes his, and Dean looks up into his brother’s pale face. “I’ve got it,” Sam says, and Dean shifts away, letting Sam take over.
Sam’s hand nearly spans Ruby’s entire midsection and the flow of blood slows under his weight. Small smears of fingerprints begin to work their way across the smooth white of her skin as Sam absently strokes her outer thigh with his other hand, trailing his fingers back and forth in a repetitive motion that seems to calm his shaking.
Dean scoots around until he is kneeling by Ruby’s head. He pulls her by the shoulders awkwardly up into his lap, and moves her right arm up close with his free hand. He adjusts the knife’s position and drags it across the delicate skin of her wrist longways, matching her wound with his brother’s fading scars.
Her skin separates like melted butter. Sam hesitates, flicking dark eyes to Dean, questioning.
Dean nods his encouragement and offers the motionless limb to his brother. “Go ahead.”
Sam’s jaw clenches and he whets his lips, an unconscious movement. Dean can practically feel Sam’s thirst.
“Sam. You need it,” Dean adds, dropping his voice and making it an order. Some of the doubt in Sam’s face clears, only to be replaced by confusion.
“Dean …” Sam frowns, searching Dean’s face. “How can this be okay with you? I’m part demon. You don’t know what the blood –“
“We’re blood,” Dean says, cutting that off at the pass. “That’s all.”
Sam’s voice jumps an octave, tense with desperation. “No, we’re not! We never have been. I’m not human, Dean!”
Dean snorts at that. He’s immortal now, a freak. Sam should know that – Sam made him this way. He sees it in Sam’s eyes how badly he wants to be wrong. Dean can’t give Sam that, can’t erase the past, but he can give his brother something else instead, something he hopes will be enough.
“Neither am I.”
Sam looks away. Ruby’s blood drips hotly into Dean’s lap. Sam traces the sigil on Ruby’s chest up her midline, swirling the tip of his finger over the arcing patterns. She stirs, moaning mindlessly from his touch, the start of their familiar ritual of blood and pain.
Sam whispers, “But I never was,” and he watches the stain spread until Dean’s jacket turns black.
Dean’s heart cramps painfully in his chest. Even in Hell he’d had Sam. Alastair had tried to cut him out, but Dean had never lost him, not completely. Sam is deeper than blood, deeper than flesh and bone. Soul deep. Dean snaps another piece into place, rejecting prejudice in favor of loyalty. He raises Ruby’s arm to his lips.
Sam starts to reach out a hand to stop him, but he can’t, he doesn’t really want to. “Dean, no.”
Dean pulls steadily against the flow, dragging the liquid out in long gulps. The blood is hot and tastes like the atmosphere of Hell, and Dean pulls as long as he can stand it before he takes a breath. Malice and loneliness pour down his throat and settle deep into his gut, sinking desolate fingers into his soul.
From somewhere far away he hears Sam’s voice and feels Sam tugging on Ruby’s arm, prying it away. “Enough, Dean, please. Enough already.”
Dean’s senses waver and then widen, and Sam’s power becomes a living breathing thing. Dean sees Sam’s horror interrupting the steady sustaining waves the same way he sees the fluttering reptilian eyes of the creature he holds. He folds his fingers around Sam’s, locking them in place, and pushes the limb to his brother.
“Now you, Sammy. You need it.”
Sam’s eyes flash, fluctuating between black and green, filling with uncertain tears. “Are you sure?”
Dean just waits for Sam to choose, and he doesn’t have to wait long. Sam’s eyes close as his lips touch the torn wound, and he shudders, drawing down as much power as he can before time runs out. Sam’s grip is crushing and only gets stronger as he drinks until Dean hears the grinding of bone on bone. The small light overhead flickers and the shutters on the windows rattle on their rusted hinges.
Sam falls into the rush, leaning down until he is draped across Ruby’s body entirely. Without looking, he finds Ruby’s knife on the floor and slashes a small cut across her throat. Sam repositions, shifting to take advantage of the heavier flow.
Dean watches his brother feed. Sam’s power expands and contracts, rolling through his body in waves. It dances just beneath his skin, darkness covering the dim light of Sam’s soul and taking on a new hue, black gold infusing Sam with an extended half-life. Sam’s skin flushes as he drinks, the act returning vibrant color where before he was white and worn. Dean feels Sam’s mind regaining control of itself, fragmented pieces of thought waves converging to form whole sentences again.
After several long minutes, Sam’s pace begins to slow. When he finishes, he buries his face in the crook of her shoulder and just breathes, taking what comfort he can from her warmth one last time.
Dean takes the knife gently from Sam’s lax grip. He is surprised to see Ruby’s wide eyes staring up at him, dim but well aware. She mouths the words again, jutting her chin weakly upwards in exultation, smiling.
You’re too late.
The unspoken words slither up Dean’s spine like roaches, worming their way into his mind.
Dean slides Ruby’s knife smoothly into her heart, striking true. Her twisted bruised face sparks and vanishes, leaving the empty shell of the dark-haired girl behind.
Sam sits up slowly, wiping his chin on his sleeve. He sees the blood staining Dean’s lips, his shirt, his hands. Guilt flashes across Sam’s face and he looks away, his expression falling into blankness at the sight of the body on the floor. He runs a distracted hand through his hair, and his fingers paint the brown strands red with Ruby’s blood.
“I’m sorry. Dean, I’m sorry,” he says dully, and it feels like the end of the world.
Dean shoves Ruby’s corpse aside and moves closer to Sam, pressing their shoulders together, hoping the solidity of the touch will ground them both. Dean stares at the body, barely recognizable, and idly wonders who it used to belong to.
Sam’s shoulders hitch and he grips Dean’s jacket sleeve, accepting the anchor.
“It’s okay, Sammy. I’m here. I’m not gonna leave you.”
Inside what’s left of the girl, there is a pile of ashes where the demon used to be. Dean smiles in satisfaction.
“Fuck,” Sam whispers. “Fuck, Dean, I’m …” Sam trails off as if weighing his train of thought against the scale of his morals and finding that he doesn’t care.
Dean nods his agreement. “It’s okay, Sam. We’re both monsters now.”
Chapter 4: War and Peace
Sam doesn’t stay still for long. One minute he sits as though he could be carved from stone, staring somewhere in between Ruby’s body and the space beyond, and the next he’s all motion, lifting from the floor fluidly and without a single trace of weakness.
“We need to move,” he says, holding out a hand to Dean, “I should have left here weeks ago.”
Sam’s palm is a dark rusty brown, flakes of dried blood curling up at the creases. When Dean reaches to take it in his own, they match. “Can’t go anywhere looking like this,” Dean offers as he stands, shrugging at their clothes, “and what about her?”
Sam scans the room once before pulling off his shirt over his head, not bothering with the buttons. He tosses it into the pile of already shredded fabric lying next to the corpse instead of draping it over her, leaving her untouched now that his need for her has passed. Dean raises his eyebrows, but Sam just starts unbuckling his jeans.
“Leave anything bloody and follow me. We can wash up out back.”
They strip to their boxers and Dean follows Sam through the farmhouse and out into a wildly overgrown field. Dean breathes deeply, relishing the fresh scent of the air around him, the feel of grass between his toes. He follows Sam into the trees. He keeps sight of Sam even in the dark, the moonlight painting his brother with a blue tinge, highlighting his movements. Sam passes through the high grasses without a sound.
They don’t have to go far. Sam holds up a hand to signal Dean to stop in the shadows of the tree line, and then bends to splash clear water on his face. Dean hesitates, scanning their surroundings. He remembers Sam’s voice in his head, weeks before he died, acting as an eerie narrative to a real life horror movie. According to this, Benton is picky about where he sets up his lab. He likes dense forest with access to a river or stream, or some kind of fresh water.
Dean steps down into the creek and the water feels like ice. He rinses his chest two handfuls at a time, watching the clear water run in red rivulets down his arms, and he reminds himself that Sam isn’t the only one who has changed.
Everything was in the book. Everything.
The way Sam had retrieved it one desperate night after a demon told him his soul wasn’t worth a deal. How Ruby had bought her way back in by showing him a path to walk. How she took Dean’s place as Sam’s only ally. That Sam had learned to save people even while knowingly damning himself.
How everything had come down to Lilith, and all of Sam’s hopes for vengeance and retribution had turned to betrayal and blood and ashes in his hands.
Sam moves deeper into the water, setting off ripple patterns as he moves. He ducks down until he can lean his head back, scrubbing his fingers through his hair. Ruby’s blood lifts away from him, forming a dark halo against the glow of white sand underneath.
Dean finds himself watching his brother, trying to catalog the changes one by one like so much inventory. Lucifer had tracked Sam down after he escaped the convent, coming to Sam in his dreams and offering him the world. He’d promised that Dean would be returned safe and sound, if only Sam would say yes.
But Sam said no.
Sam pauses with an odd look on his face, and Dean realizes that he’s been staring, looking for a clue as to what Sam will do next. “What?”
Dean may have summoned Ruby but Sam is calling the shots on this fight, and Dean feels like he’s going in blind. “I think I’m all caught up,” Dean says, deciding not to skirt the issue. “A few questions, though.”
Sam raises his eyebrows expectantly. “Sure.”
“How come we don’t have angels knockin’ down our door? If everybody’s looking for us, shouldn’t we be in lockdown somewhere by now?”
Sam shrugs, like it’s as simple as putting Dean’s number on the ‘do not call’ list. “Sigil. Carved it into your ribs.”
Dean’s stolen heart thumps hard against those same ribs, and he remembers again the corpses in the field. Demons, Sam had written, don’t leave people alive much these days, but they keep their parts running nice and smooth.
Dean’s eyes wander the gentle slope of the tree line. All traces of weakness or exhaustion have vanished from his brother, leaving a darkly shimmering field of restrained energy behind. Sam feels like a nuke about to go off, but Dean knows he won’t see it if Sam turns to meet his eyes.
I only had to reconstruct the inside.
The image of Sam’s knife inside his chest, Sam’s hands slippery with his blood as he carves into his bones, rises unbidden from his memories. Dean can’t think about that now. He won’t.
“And who carved yours?”
Sam huffs a small laugh. It sounds raw and thin. He looks at Dean and taps his chest with one finger, then looks away again. “An angel.”
Dean nods, recalling what Sam wrote about his only contact with the other side. “So what’s the plan? Hide out? Check out Amsterdam before it goes up in flames?”
Sam’s eyes glitter, reflecting back the moonlight. “We’re gonna kill the devil.”
Dean feels his jaw drop, but the hunter’s instinct inside him kicks off a promising rush of adrenaline.
Sam stands abruptly and heads back to shore, shaking a spray of water out of his hair. “C’mon, I’ve got your clean stuff in your duffel. Packed it for you.”
Dean checks himself. He can’t tell if there are any spots he may have missed in the dark, but he feels lighter somehow. He follows Sam without a word, shivering a little as his skin adjusts back to the air around him. When they break the tree line he glances down at his chest, curious, and sees that his tattoo is still in place.
As they near the farmhouse, Sam turns off the path. He stops to wrestle open a cellar door, barely noticeable under an overgrowth of vines, and gestures Dean onward. “Go ahead, I gotta grab a few things.”
Dean finds his bag near the front entrance, packed and ready like it was waiting for him. He shucks the wet boxers in favor of a fresh pair and sighs as he pulls on his favorite jeans. Underneath his t-shirts and button ups, rolled neatly into the bottom of the bag, is his green jacket. He takes it out and shrugs it on. Something jingles in the pocket and when his fingers sink into the folds of fabric, they brush something familiar.
“Thought maybe you could drive if you’re up for it,” Sam says from the hallway. Dean didn’t even hear him come in.
He lifts the keys and he feels himself smile. “Yeah, thanks.” He zips the bag shut and throws the strap over his shoulder. Sam is dressed already and he carries two bags; his duffle from the bedroom, and a thicker canvas bag that Dean has never seen before. “What’s that?”
Sam shifts his grip on the bag as he skirts the mess in the living room, and Dean realizes that whatever’s in it, it’s heavy. Sam looks straight at Dean, like he’s trying to get a read on him. “Freezer bag,” he says.
Dean waits a full thirty seconds before prompting, “… for?”
Sam’s expression becomes almost amused, like Dean is missing a major point somehow. “For supplies.”
“Oh. For your -?”
Sam laughs then, one time, and shakes his head, pushing past Dean to head outside, where the Impala’s silhouette waits for them at the end of a worn dirt road. “For you. Think immortality is easy?”
Dean’s mind shies away from that thought a little bit, but he can feel himself clicking into some sort of rhythm, remembering how this being alive thing works, and so he just shrugs. For now, he’s with Sam. The rest, he can figure out later.
The click of the key in the lock of the trunk echoes through the empty spaces in his soul, bouncing around until it amplifies almost loud enough to hear. He lifts the false trunk up and looks inside, expecting a stunning display of Sam’s OCD tendencies, but instead his old life whispers to him, calling him to resume the road he walked before.
Nothing is different, but everything has changed.
Sam grabs a can of gasoline and leaves Dean to the loading, going back inside the house without a word. He returns a few moments later just as silently and climbs into the passenger’s seat. He rests his head gratefully against the leather, smiling softly.
Dean grins at him. “Hit the road?”
“Hit the road,” Sam agrees.
Flames begin to rise behind them, reaching to lick the early morning sky as the house, with all of its blood and secrets, starts to vanish. Dean concentrates on the rumble of his baby and the heartbeat of his brother, and he leaves the fire behind.
They drive for a solid eight hours before Sam clears his throat and asks Dean if he’s hungry. Dean doesn’t know jack about Heaven, but compared to Hell the idea of a burger with bacon and smothered in extra cheese sounds just about as close as he can hope to get.
They find a diner and Sam guides Dean to a booth on the far wall, places his back to the door. Their waiter, bright yellow nameplate cheerfully displaying ‘Neil’ in bold black letters, asks what he can do for them today. Sam grunts, “Just water, thanks,” and Dean hides his frown behind his menu.
“Cheeseburger, double bacon, extra onions, hold the pickles, cheese fries. Coke. Oh, and a chocolate milkshake. Thanks.” Dean waits until the Neil rounds the corner to the kitchen and snaps his fingers in Sam’s face. “Sam. What’s wrong with you?”
Sam looks surprised. “What do you mean?”
“You gotta eat something, man. I’m guessing that wasting away to nothing and passing out on me isn’t part of your brilliant plant to ice the devil.”
Sam’s eyebrows draw together and he looks down at the table and lets his hair fall across his eyes. His voice is quiet and low. “I’m not hungry.”
Dean shrugs, ignoring the way he can almost hear Sam’s heartbeat in his head. He chooses to pretend that the light bulb over their booth is only flickering because it needs to be changed. “Suit yourself,” he shrugs. “More for me.”
Sam nods absently, scanning the diner in a rote pattern like it has become a habit so ingrained that he doesn’t know he’s doing it.
Dean leans back against the booth cushion. “So what’s our next move? We got a destination on this little reunion tour of yours?”
Sam looks at Dean like he only just noticed him sitting there. “What?”
Neil interrupts then, setting down the cheese fries in between them and asking, “Would you like any sauce?”
Dean nods and requests Ranch, relieved when Neil scurries away. He edges forward in his seat and grabs a handful of the fries. “What do you mean, what?”
Sam rubs his eyes tiredly. “Yeah, sorry. Look, I’m still working on the plan. Let’s concentrate on getting you adjusted first; Lucifer will still be around tomorrow. Relax a minute.”
Dean really wants to argue that he’s fine, everything is ticking and there is no reason to wait, but it turns out that cheese dripping over warm fried potatoes is very, very distracting.
When they stop for the night, Sam heads on to their room while Dean sifts through the contents of the Impala’s trunk, taking a moment to marvel that Sam still has all of his stuff. He hefts his old Colt 1911 in his right hand. It seems heavy and cumbersome, an awkward and unbalancing extension of his arm; nothing like the finesse of the weapons he has become used to. Without Sam at his side, here alone in the parking lot, he can hear the sound of screams. Tinnitus of the soul. Fantastic. He snorts bitterly.
He’s about to push his key into the lock when he notices that Sam isn’t alone.
Hushed, angry voices drift through the thin wall, and Dean drops into a crouch. Sam is arguing with someone, a guy from the sounds of it, but Dean can’t quite make out the words. He inches toward the window, not daring to touch the doorframe. Sam probably has superhuman hearing these days, and chances are his brother has sensed him already.
“There is no more time,” the stranger’s voice is saying. The sound is deep and rough, hovering over a weirdly intense register. “The horsemen are driving across the land. Michael is considering another vessel.” The voice takes on a slightly more desperate note. “Sam, what I have done … even just speaking with you is grounds for being cast from Heaven. You and your brother – “
Sam shifts and Dean ducks closer to the window’s edge to avoid being seen. Sam’s voice is flat and leaves no room for argument.
“Dean just got back,” Sam hisses coldly. “I’m grateful for your intel, I am. But I’m not throwing him right back in before he’s ready just because your brothers can’t keep it in their pants!”
The voice hesitates. “I regret your involvement, perhaps more than you know.” Then it grows stronger, as if gaining conviction. “War has risen. He rides East, approaching Colorado.”
“How do we stop him?”
The stranger doesn’t answer.
Dean pulls up to the window frame, trying to see the strange man. Sam’s broad shoulders block any chance of a glimpse of the stranger, who is standing just out of Dean’s line of sight.
“One more thing,” the stranger says. There is a long pause and then he adds, “There are still powerful demons helping to advance Lucifer’s plans. Your brother’s mentor is among them.”
A chill runs through Dean. Alastair is number one on his list of demons that he would rather not run into, and for good reason. On the other hand … taking him out would be the sweetest kind of revenge. He can even think of a few ways to make it last forever.
Sam’s hands curl into fists, and Dean feels his brother’s power flare out, boiling with anger as Sam has similar thoughts.
“We have not been able to locate him. Perhaps you can.”
Sam answers instantly. “It’s done.”
There is a ripple of electricity in the air, and Dean yelps in spite of himself, pulling his hand away from the metal window frame. The shocking sensation dulls quickly into an annoying ache. He freezes, holding his sore hand in the other, and listens.
The door cracks open and Sam sticks his head out. “You know, your car makes a lot of noise.”
Dean shakes out his hand, shrugging nonchalantly.
“You’ve never been a good eavesdropper,” Sam adds.
“Tell that to the Berkley twins,” Dean says, grinning widely.
Sam laughs, but he doesn’t smile. “Get in here. We need to talk.”
Dean follows, taking a seat on the nearest bed. “Who was that?”
“He’s a contact, and I need you to stay away from him,” Sam answers.
Dean grins. “Aw, Sammy, I never figured you for the jealous type. Come on, I won’t try to steal your boyfriend.”
Sam fixes Dean with a flat stare, dead serious, and Dean’s grin falters. “He’s an angel.”
“Oh,” Dean mumbles. He thinks back to what he overheard, and he decides to start with the least daunting prospect the angel had laid out for Sam. “So … War. As in the horseman?”
Sam sighs. “Pretty much. Guess we gotta check it out.”
Dean waits for Sam to elaborate, but he only starts unpacking a change of clothes from his bag, subject closed. “You’re serious. War. Just the two of us.”
Sam nods tightly. “Yep. “
Dean’s throat goes dry at Sam’s don’t-ask tone. He asks anyway. “What about Bobby, what about El-“
Sam slashes his hand through the air like a blade. “Forget Bobby. We got nobody but us, Dean. Nobody.”
Sam takes his change of clothes into the bathroom and starts the water running. Dean stretches out on his bed and tries not to imagine the sounds their voices probably made when they died.
The scene in Colorado is a massacre. In the midst of all the wreckage, a cherry red Mustang gleams in the afternoon sun. Dean parks the Impala next to her, and Sam nods his grim approval. “Think he’s still here?” Dean asks.
Sam closes his eyes for a second, then smiles. A chill touches Dean, light like the feather touch of spider’s feet. When Sam opens his eyes again, they are solid black. “Absolutely.”
They split up, picking their separate ways across bodies broken and bleeding out into the dirt and grass and skirting the burnt-out husks of cars. Distant gunfire echoes down the street from an old white-planked two story, and Dean heads that way. An overturned baby carriage and some stuffed kid’s toys are strewn around the lawn next door. Blood smears stain the asphalt where somebody was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suddenly the noises stop, plunging him into a dead zone.
“That your car back there?”
Dean spins around. A man with peppered grey hair in a slick business suit is standing behind him, cleaning his glasses on the edge of his tie. Smoke from a burning hardware store forms a wall for him to lean against. “You’re War,” Dean accuses. The man seems to be made up of straining, mutilated corpses and held together with ashes, the blaze of destructive fire spitting out hatred where his eyes should be. Dean’s vision stutters and blurs.
The horseman sighs dramatically. “Always late, my siblings. Think they have all the time in the world.”
The horseman’s voice is made of chopper blades and gunfire, tinged with women and children screaming. Everything seems washed in a red haze. Dean touches his cheek with his fingertips and pulls them away to find them stained with blood. The horseman tilts his head. “I saw that car of yours and I thought, vintage makes sense. Too bad. Hoped you were my brother.”
Dean drops his gaze away and blinks to clear his eyes, clear his head. “What did you do to this town,” he growls.
“Who, me? Next to nothing. You know, people don’t really need a reason to kill each other. I’m Jell-O shots at a party, pal. All I do is remove inhibitions.” He licks his lips and laughs, a rolling, grating sound. “Although, in your case…”
War raises his hand and twists the ring on his finger, a smug grin on his human face like a salesman who just sold his first junk car to an unsuspecting teenager. War’s true form shrinks and fades away, leaving just the salt-and-pepper haired man behind. “Can you see me now?” The human host’s smile is wolfish, all pointed teeth. “Got a lot of friends that are lookin’ for you, kiddo.”
The red haze fades, leaving only a dull ache behind. Dean rubs his eyes with one knuckle and flicks the horseman off with his free hand. “Screw you, buddy,” he reiterates, “I’m nobody’s puppet.”
“Oh, I doubt that. Where’s your brother, Dean?”
A swift shadow reaches out from the fog and encircles the horseman. “I’m right here,” Sam hisses, and he twists War’s arm behind his back and pulls with the knife. War vanishes in a burst of flames, and when the air clears, the black that Dean had seen inside Sam’s eyes is gone.
Sam holds out his hand and Dean walks over for closer inspection. War’s ring is a simple band of yellow gold, and Dean grins. “So … side trip to Mount Doom?”
Sam regards the ring thoughtfully before dropping it into his pocket. “You’re bleeding.” Sam swipes his thumb over Dean’s cheekbone, and it comes away red. “What happened?”
“Dude was an eyeful,” Dean waves him off. “It’s no big deal.”
Sam frowns. “You could see him?”
Dean blinks again, but the red haze and dark spots in his vision don’t clear. “It’s fine,” he answers honestly, “doesn’t even hurt.”
Sam purses his lips, but seems to think better of arguing. Instead, he points to the house in the distance. “Come on. Maybe there are survivors.”
Dean rounds the hallway corner into a sun room full of shattered glass. His eyes see the boots first, then the slim-cut jeans, then the pale hand still wrapped around the stock of a 12 gauge. His breath catches in his throat.
She’s sitting against the wall as if she could just be asleep. Dean wants to believe that, but the blood tells him different. It wasn’t a demon that killed her; it was a bullet, high caliber, probably from the same rifle that broke the window. Dean kneels down on one knee and tilts her face towards the fading stream of sunlight glittering off the jagged shards left behind. Her soft hair falls back uncovering her sightless, staring eyes.
“They had a sniper,” Dean whispers. It’s almost as if she’s looking at him, listening. There is something about her that’s different from before. He realizes with a touch of pride that it’s the absence of fear. He can almost see the hunter she became.
Slow footsteps approach from behind, signaling the end of his recon. Dean eases the shotgun from Jo’s hand and pushes it away. Then he pulls her close, pressing his lips to her forehead in a brief farewell before laying her down on the floor. He brushes her hair down across her shoulders, but he pauses before shutting her eyes.
He wants to say he’s sorry, but he’s not. Cradled in the afternoon glow, Jo is the perfect image of a fallen warrior; a fierce opponent who died as she lived, with passion and purpose. Jo had taken the path Dean always planned to tread, fighting to the end to protect the ones she loved before taking a reaper’s hand and leaving the battlefield for good.
Dean’s palm hovers uncertainly over her staring eyes as he tries to read her last thoughts. Inexplicably, he wishes she had a message for him. Suddenly he wants to keep something of hers, something to carry her with him always. Something to remind him of the kind of man he used to be; of what it meant to be a hunter – a human.
Dean’s hovering hand comes to rest on her cheek, and he runs his thumb across the high bone beneath her fixed stare.
Sam enters the room and comes to a stop behind his brother, resting a light hand on his shoulder. Dean can sense Sam nodding his silent understanding. There is a dull clatter on the wood floor next to Dean, and he can see a wobbling handle out of the corner of his eye. “Rufus is dead. Meet me back at the car when you’re ready.” Sam squeezes Dean’s shoulder, then takes his hand away. “You know, she always did have eyes for you.”
Dean rips his gaze away from Jo, but Sam is already pushing past them and in three steps he rounds the corner, leaving Dean alone.
Dean reaches for the knife, and it fits perfectly in his hand. The shards of glass reflect his face in multi-faceted pictures, a window to what is left of his soul, tiny shimmering snapshots of what he has become. The images are frightening, dark and swimming with tainted blood.
Dean carves for himself innocent eyes, eyes that have never seen the fires of Hell. It’s a start.
Chapter 5: Death and Taxes
After War rises Pestilence.
It’s nine in the morning when Dean hands some cash to the clerk behind a gas station counter in Colorado, trading a few stolen dollars for a red bull and some M&Ms while Sam waits by the car. Five miles after that, Sam tenses, closes his eyes, and tells Dean to turn around. The searching reach of Sam’s power is smothering at close range, but his accuracy is absolute.
“Horseman?” Dean queries.
“Minnesota,” Sam responds.
“How do you know?”
Sam presses his lips together and looks out the window.
“Hey, humor me for once, would you? I’m ridin’ blind, here.”
Sam sighs, a long-suffering sound. “I feel the demons around him. And I see what they see.”
Before nine AM the following day, Dean sees for himself.
Sam mows down the demons surrounding the horseman with a simple wave of his hand, glowing nearly golden in the sunlight. He gives a satisfied nod. “All clear. Sure you don’t want me along?”
Dean spins the hilt of Ruby’s knife around and around in his hand. As much as it’s a part of him, it will always bear her name, her blood legacy. He nods firmly. “I’m sure. Just keep the car running.”
Pestilence is wearing an older man in a lab coat. Underneath, a greenish, purulent ooze rolls through the man’s veins, and he smells of necrosis and disease. The plague of the horseman causes Dean’s nose to bleed and his stomach to turn to acid, but in the end Pestilence falls, just like the rest of them will.
Dean tosses Sam the ring, gets behind the wheel, and demands first shower every night until the world ends.
Sam grins faintly. It seems to Dean that Sam has retreated into himself, much like a bear curls up for hibernation in the winter. The constant presence of his power has become muted, and there are no signs of blackness in his eyes.
“How many. Sammy.”
Sam rubs his eyes and leans his head back, sliding down into the curve of the passenger door. “Fourty-seven,” he says finally. Then, in a whisper, “fourty-seven demons, eight people.”
Dean’s hands tighten on the wheel. He knows Sam is exhausted. He knows he needs to recharge his batteries, and soon. He knows their lives depend on it. “Get some sleep, Sammy,” he murmers, watching his little brother drift off. Dad used to say Sam fell asleep so fast that the sand man could never catch him. The road is silent except for the steady rise and fall of Sam’s chest.
He pulls them into the first halfway decent motel he sees. He settles a shuffling, mumbling Sam into bed, then he takes his own advice and follows Sam to dream land.
They hunt the sand man together, but they don’t remember it.
Dean snaps awake to the sound of a shotgun racking over his head, and the first thing he sees is another one pointed straight into his brother’s face.
“Don’t move,” comes a muffled voice. “Just sit up nice and easy.”
Sam’s lips twitch into a fleeting smile and Dean raises his eyebrows, straining over his shoulder to get a better look at his assailant. “Well, boss, which is it?”
The thin twitchy guy watching Dean shifts uncomfortably, looking at the thick steady guy trained on Sam for instructions. They are both wearing muggers’ masks, but there is something familiar about them. A third similarly disguised figure hangs back, clinging to the shadows and clutching a weapon of his own to his chest, not aiming it anywhere in particular.
Thick and Steady rolls his eyes comically through his mask holes. “Sit up,” he commands. “No sudden movements or I’ll shoot.”
Dean slides his legs slowly off the edge of the bed and sits, checking on Sam as he goes. Sam looks a little tired, maybe, but he has hazel eyes and color in his cheeks and there is nothing about him that screams monster any more than there ever was, back when Dean only had Gordon to deal with.
“Geez, Sammy, your guy sounds pissed.”
Sam gestures to Thin and Twitchy. “Your guy’s about to take a piss,” he retorts. Twitchy responds by taking a bold step forward, shoving his barrel right into the curve of Dean’s jawline. The third guy in the shadows flinches noticeably, pulling his shotgun in even closer.
Dean puts up his hands. “Woah, hey, easy pal.”
“We ain’t pals,” Twitchy snaps. “Sit still and shut up.”
Dean complies, trying to stem the uneasy feeling in his gut. Thick and Steady drops the barrel of his shotgun to Sam’s chest. “Think you can flip the switch on the Apocalypse and just walk away, Sam?”
Sam’s eyes narrow and Dean can feel his brother’s muted power simmering in the air, crouching, ready to strike. “I’d point that thing somewhere else if I were you,” Sam says, in a tone that would warn off anyone with half a brain in their skull. Twitchy re-grips his shotgun as if reassuring himself that it’s still there.
Dean closes his eyes, groaning inwardly as the voices click into place. “Walt? Come on man, you know better than this shit.” The sudden silence confirms he’s hit his target. Dean feels the steel against his jawbone ease off a little. He cracks one eye back open, angling his gaze up at Twitchy. “And that would make you Roy. Been a while.” Dean cranes his neck, trying to get a read on the figure in the shadows. “And who’d you be, Mickey? Donald? Dumbo?”
The men Dean has only ever known as Walt and Roy – aliases on a ghost gig up north one winter – both raise their knit masks. “You never mind him,” Walt orders, never taking his eyes off of Sam. He flips off the safety on his piece, and Dean mentally kicks himself for not noticing it was on. “Doesn’t matter,” he mumbles to Roy, “All be over soon.”
Walt’s finger tightens on the trigger and Dean tenses, stopped from diving for the barrel only by the sharp dig of metal into his neck and the sound of Roy flipping his safety off as well. Dean can’t die, but he can’t help Sam if his head ends up on the other side of the room, either. Sam’s presence withdraws, pulling inward as Sam braces for impact. “Don’t,” Dean hears himself croak.
Sam doesn’t turn his head but his gaze leaves Walt and settles on the third man. “It won’t do you any good,” Sam whispers to the shadow. Walt raises the tip of the gun an inch, aiming straight for Sam’s heart.
Sam smiles, and he almost looks sorry.
The gun kicks in Walt’s hands.
Sam’s chest collapses, and the force of the slug drives him into the mattress.
Told him I’d kill myself first. Never took.
“Now Dean. Do it. Roy, pull the trigger!”
Flecks of blood and chunks of meat and bone splash across the sheets, the mirrored wall, the carpet.
“Killin’ Sam was right, but …”
Told him I’d kill myself first. Never took.
“He made us and we just snuffed his brother, you idiot!”
The shadow in the corner flickers in Dean’s periphery, leveling a rifle at Walt.
Dean’s body snaps into action. He ducks backward, clearing the barrel, and pulls the shotgun from Roy’s shaking hands only to reverse trajectory and slam the butt of the gun up into Roy’s face. The snap of bone echoes the sound of gunfire and Roy crumples, dropping like a stone to the motel room floor.
As Dean moves, so does the stranger. A second round fires and Walt pitches forward, the deep red swell of blood blossoming from between his eyes. Dean stands up, ignoring the man who just saved his life long enough to flip his gun around, stick both barrels into Roy’s ruined face, and pull the trigger.
For a long moment, the only sound is the two of them breathing over the sudden silence. The stranger drops the tip of the rifle to rest on the carpet, and Dean circles around to Sam’s bed. He racks the gun and aims at the unguarded man one-handed, taking Sam’s wrist in the other hand and thumbing for a pulse, feeling the raised line where Sam’s horrific scar starts.
Told him I’d kill myself first. Never took.
“Mask off. Now.” Dean snaps the orders out in a low growl, barely trusting himself not to empty his rounds into the man just on principle. Sam is completely still under Dean’s fingers, and the only blood flowing from his brother is moving in small rivulets down Sam’s chest to spill over the edge of the bed, dripping relentlessly into the carpet.
The man seems to deflate a little as he pulls off his mask, and watery eyes over a grizzled beard stare sorrowfully down at Sam.
The firm grip of betrayal grabs Dean’s heart and squeezes, tighter than Alastair ever could. He throws the shotgun away.
“Bobby… you? Why?”
Bobby looks up from what’s left of Sam, blinking back tears even as he aims the rifle at Dean. “I’m sorry, son,” Bobby says, and his voice is a ghost of what Dean remembers, thick with alcohol and regret. “You weren’t supposed to be … we tracked Sam from Ohio. Trail of bodies thick as a highway pointin’ right to him.”
“Bobby …“ Dean starts.
“He’s off the rails, Dean.” The older man looks tired, worn thin. Dean notices that he holds his weight different than he used too, favoring his right knee. “I saw the signs, you know? With Sam. By the time I cottoned on to what he was plannin’, it was too late. Or maybe I just didn’t want to believe …” Bobby shakes his head sorrowfully. “I’m sorry, Dean. I am. I tried to look out for him.”
Dean’s fingers are so tight around Sam’s wrist that he can’t feel them anymore.
“Then killin’ me is the least of your worries,” Dean says as Bobby’s finger tightens on the trigger, “Because the Apocalypse ain’t gonna stop just because some half-cocked yahoo slunk in here and put a bullet in my brother.”
Bobby’s face is pale under the knit cap, and he shakes his head as the tears start spilling over. “I don’t want to kill you, Dean. Just … tell me it was all Sam. Tell me Sam went darkside. Tell me he’s safe from Lucifer. Tell me you’re you - dammit, Dean – just tell me that. Boy, don’t make me beg. ”
The pain in Dean’s heart changes pitch from betrayal to pity. “You won’t kill me, Bobby. It doesn’t matter what I say. You can’t.”
Sam’s pulse flutters against Dean’s thumb.
“No. I can’t see them take you alive.” Bobby shakes his head again. “I’m sorry.”
The rifle kicks in Bobby’s hands.
Dean feels a tug in the center of his chest, but nothing else. He looks idly down at the hole the bullet left, marveling at the size of it. Bobby’s eyes widen with horror and he raises the rifle higher, repositioning for a second shot.
“Bobby, please,” comes Sam’s voice, and the older man startles, sending the shot wide. Sam sits up slowly, running his free hand over the remnants of his most comfortable shirt, massaging away the last vestiges of pain from a wound that no longer exists.
“Sam?” Bobby’s mouth drops open, and he shakes his head. “No, but I thought –“ If anything, Bobby looks even more hurt and weary than before, and Sam nods like he understands.
“Please,” Sam says again, sadness and longing for home in his voice. “You can’t save me, Bobby. Please just go.”
Bobby’s shoulders slump as he searches Sam’s face. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, and he takes a step toward the door, lowering the rifle. When Dean makes no move to pursue him, he steps awkwardly backwards over Roy’s headless corpse, old leather boots tracking bright bloody prints into the carpet.
Dean turns his back on the older man, and the small click of the motel door is the only indication that the other hunter is gone. He pulls Sam up out of the blood, onto his feet. Dean looks slowly into his brother’s face.
Sam is still staring after the man that helped set up his execution with something like regret in his eyes. “He’ll be back, with reinforcements,” he says softly. “Next time might not go so well.” Then he looks down at his bloody shirt, frowning like he’s just realized what happened. All of the color drains from his face. “Oh, no.”
Dean grabs his arm to steady him. “Sammy? You okay?”
Sam shoves Dean’s hand away and lunges for his bag. Faint tendrils of Sam’s power surround Dean, brushing his consciousness aside as Sam throws an appraising look over his shoulder at the hole in Dean’s chest. “We gotta move. You’ll need a new heart. Probably lungs too.”
“I feel fine,” Dean protests, crossing his arms protectively.
“That won’t last.” Sam rummages in his bag and tosses Dean an Ace bandage. “Wrap it in the car, we gotta go.”
Dean catches the bandage one-handed. He eyes the two men lying on the floor. “How much time you think till the cops get here?”
Sam shakes his head. “Least of our problems. How long was I out for?”
“Three minutes?” Dean answers with a shudder, “I don’t know. Long enough.”
Sam shoulders his bag and palms the car keys. “I think an angel saw me,” he explains quickly. “We gotta move, now.”
Sam clears the door one step ahead of Dean, so the last thing Dean sees before hands clamp the wet cloth over his mouth from behind is three men grabbing Sam and pushing him to his knees. He thinks he hears Bobby’s voice say Hey, go easy, and then everything goes black.
Dean comes to slowly, cataloguing evidence before he is fully awake. From the coolness of the rough concrete floor against his face, the damp smell of mildew, and the dim light surrounding him, he assumes he’s in some kind of basement. His chest is tight where Bobby’s bullet still sits lodged in his heart, and his vision is fading in and out in the dim light. He tries to move to rub his eyes and finds that his hands are cuffed tightly to the floor behind him.
“Well, look who’s awake.”
Dean cranes his neck to see a wavering pair of boots. He struggles to sit up, but a wave of nausea overtakes him. He breathes slowly and spits, trying to clear the chemical taste from his mouth. “Chloroform,” he accuses, and he is rewarded with a slow clap.
“Yahtzee,” his captor beams. “Put you both out like a light. Gotta say, I thought you’d be tougher to bring in.”
“Walt and Roy beg to differ,” Dean retorts, getting his knee under himself just enough to push up into a shaky crouch. The man is tall, middle-aged, and he stands in a beam of light streaming down from the holding room’s only entrance - a trapdoor in the ceiling above them.
Dean’s eyes are adjusting now, and he makes out Sam’s body lying on the opposite side of the room, slumped against the wall, still unconscious. He swallows hard. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The man grins down at Dean, all yellowed teeth and hard eyes. Then he moves to kneel next to Sam, takes Sam’s wrist in his hand, and pulls it up in front of his face. He peers over it at Dean, smiling when Dean starts to pull against his restraints.
“Don’t touch him,” Dean growls. “I’ll rip out your heart.”
The man snorts. “Something will, sooner or later. Thanks to your brother here.” Dean shivers at the fierce hatred in the stranger’s voice. “Just because we can’t kill you don’t mean we can’t keep you out of this war,” he continues. He pulls a knife from his belt sheath and brings the edge to Sam’s wrist, matching the blade up to Sam’s scars. “For starters, I think your brother could do with a little less demon blood, don’t you?” Without preamble, he flicks his wrist and rips Sam’s arm wide open.
Dean’s anger is a sudden, white-hot force that burns the rest of his disorientation away. Everything becomes hyper focused. Sam’s eyelids flutter and he groans, struggling to wake up, fighting against the drugs. “Sammy, no! Leave him alone!”
“You should be thanking us!” the man yells. “Do you know how many hunters are looking for Lucifer’s vessel? How many think that the only way to stop the Devil is to cut your brother into microscopic pieces and scatter him across the earth so that that bastard could never find him?”
He slits Sam’s other wrist viciously, and this time Sam’s eyes open, glazed over and swimming from disorientation and pain. He makes a choked noise and tries feebly to struggle as the man produces a pair of police-issue cuffs, pulls Sam’s ruined arms behind his back and cuffs them tightly to a D-ring bolted into the floor. “Count your blessings, Dean,” the man snarls, “When this is all over, your brother might just be human again.” He looks Dean up and down, then spits in his general direction. “Shame I can’t say the same for you.”
Dean lunges against his own cuffs with all of his strength. “Stay with me, can you hear me? Sammy!”
The man stands. For a moment, he watches Sam’s blood spread across the floor. Then he smiles, tipping his hat to Dean. “You boys have a good evenin’, now.” He climbs the ladder out of the basement and pulls it up behind him, closing the hatch and plunging them into the dark.
“Talk to me Sam,” Dean orders firmly, but the only sound is Sam’s shallow, frantic breathing. “Alright, hold on –“
Dean doesn’t hesitate. He opens his left hand, setting his thumb against the hard ground, and adjusts his shoulder until the angle begins to put pressure on the joint. He takes a deep breath and twists, satisfied with the resulting snap of bone. He pulls his hand free and turns around, feeling for the connection between the chain and the wall. His fingers brush metal; another D-ring. He curses under his breath. “Sammy, you with me?”
There is a slight rattle of chains, and the sound of a boot scuffing against the floor. “Stay down, Sam, okay? Don’t move.”
The darkness gets deeper when Dean closes his eyes, and he can taste sulfur in the air. Sam’s power is fluttering, struggling to surface like a drowning man claws at the waves as his life force spills out onto the floor.
Dean pushes the empty cuff closed and threads it through the D-ring, freeing himself. He feels his way to Sam’s side, shuddering when the palms of his hands splash into his brother’s blood. He follows the bend of Sam’s arm down to the floor.
“Dean,” Sam gasps. The word is drenched in pain and laced with fear, and Dean knows that it isn’t death that his brother is afraid of.
“Easy, easy, I got you,” Dean murmurs, tugging uselessly on Sam’s restraints. “I’ve gotta get your hands free, okay?”
Sam is starting to shiver violently under Dean’s touch. “Wards,” Sam breathes, “they can’t get in. The angels. Can’t ...”
Dean runs his fingers across Sam’s palms and already knows it’s no good. Sam’s hands are too damn big and his wrists are too slender; Dean can’t get Sam loose the same way he freed himself. He shrugs out of his jacket and presses the fabric between Sam’s arms, estimating the position the best he can in the blackness. He wraps his fingers around his brother’s blanketed wrists and squeezes as tight as he can. “Have you got a pin on you, anything?”
Sam struggles to twist toward Dean’s voice, grunting harshly as the motion tears at his wounds. The heated feel of his power is fading fast, leaving Dean cold and emptied out inside. “Dean – Dean, listen, it’s okay.”
“Dammit Sam, no!”
“Trust me,” Sam pleads faintly. “Just ...”
“Oh, no, no. Come on, man, don’t –“ The rapid throb of Sam’s pulse against Dean’s grip flutters and goes still with his last exhalation of breath, leaving Dean alone in the dark.
Chapter 6: Occam's Razor
One last drop of blood spills onto the basement floor, and the struggling golden light of Sam’s soul fades out.
Dean pulls Sam into his lap as best as he can. He rocks backward gently, ticking off the seconds by timing his own breaths. The lyrics to every song he ever knew are inaccessible, buried under a darkness far worse than this. In, that’s five. The heels of his boots slip in the blood, and he can’t pull their combined weight far enough to reach the support of the wall. Sam’s head falls against Dean’s chest, out for six, and his skin is freezing where Dean’s arms are wrapped protectively around his body.
As Dean’s count rises, it becomes more difficult to breathe. He briefly wonders if he could actually suffocate but he disregards the idea, remembering how Benton had survived even after John cut out his heart. Four minutes. Still, the sensation is getting uncomfortable and to top it all off, his whole left side is going numb. The only thing that makes it easier is imagining that the rise and fall of Sam’s chest in the circle of his arms isn’t due entirely to his own faltering efforts.
Dean squeezes his eyes shut against the hallucination of Sam’s blood leeching across the floor and spreading up the walls in long, malignant reddish-black tendrils, flames of power hovering and licking above them. His own soul stirs with heat, as if the Disciple within him is hailing a kindred spirit, and he grits his teeth in revulsion. Without Sam to wield the flames, Hell’s power is a dark, malicious poison. In for five. He pulls Sam closer, resisting the urge to shake him awake. Out for six. Dean’s fingers tighten over Sam’s still heart. “Come on,” he whispers through clenched jaws, “don’t make me beg.”
In for five. Several more long moments pass with no sound except the occasional tapping of muted footsteps overhead and the wheeze that echoes somewhere to Dean’s left whenever he exhales. Out for... He stops, a sinking feeling telling him that it’s been far too long. There doesn’t seem to be a point to counting now.
He doesn’t know if it is night or day, but the temperature in their prison has dropped significantly since they first arrived. An uneasy chill settles into Dean’s spine. The flames are freezing, whispering icy notes across the back of his neck and drifting down to caress his legs, and he’s about to start yelling obscenities at the ceiling when Sam jerks out of his arms, his sudden gasp of breath nearly deafening in the swarm of silence.
“Sam! Hey, it’s okay, I got you.” Dean keeps Sam balanced as he curls forward, coughing the stale air from his lungs. He thumps Sam on the back with his good hand. “Took you long enough,” he grumbles, suddenly grateful to be surrounded by darkness. He swallows the lump of relief in his throat. “You okay?”
He feels Sam nodding, and then Sam clears his throat and answers, “Yeah, mostly, I think. You?”
Dean feels his way around to face Sam, steadying himself on Sam’s broad shoulders as Sam pulls himself up onto his knees. “Livin’ the dream.”
Sam snorts faintly. The chain clangs against the D-ring as he tries to roll his shoulders, and Dean can feel the fine tremors that mark the first stages of shivering. “You figure out where we are yet?”
“No, not yet.” Dean retrieves his jacket from around Sam’s wrists and shakes it out. Satisfied that Sam isn’t going to fall over, he moves back around behind him and checks his arms. Sam’s skin is still cool, but the only scars that Dean can feel on his wrists are the old ones, the ones the devil chose to let his brother keep. Dean massages Sam’s wrists and forearms to restore circulation, and then drapes his jacket over Sam’s shoulders.
“Thanks,” Sam sighs. His fingers search behind him and his wrists rattle in the cuffs. “Can I reach the wall with these?” Dean blinks a few times, pushing away the image of black tangles emerging slowly from the crevices in the wall and scuttling closer. He helps Sam shift over the chains to settle his back against the wall. More rattling accompanies Sam’s shoulder rotating under Dean’s palm as he tries to reach his front pocket. “M’guessing they took my lock pick.”
“Yeah.” Dean rests his hand briefly on the top of Sam’s head before standing to feel his way around the room.
“How’d you get loose?”
“Broke my hand.” Dean moves left, reaching up as high as he can with his good arm, but he can’t quite reach the ceiling.
Sam says, “Oh.” He falls silent as Dean follows the edges of the room, cold fingers rasping over crumbling seams in the concrete. He tells himself the prickling sensation as he passes is only his muscles battling with his guts for what little circulation he has left. He drags his left foot under him and leans forward again, step by step. From the opposite corner, Sam stirs and asks thoughtfully, “Which part of your hand?”
Dean chuckles. “Hey, you’re not breaking anything on my watch. ‘Sides, it won’t work for you. We’ll figure something else out.”
Dean grimaces at the lack of argument. “You sure you’re alright?”
“Tired,” Sam answers briefly.
“You lost a lot of blood,” Dean says, completing his frustrating circuit around the basement. There are no doorways, not a single window, nothing. He reaches Sam and sinks down next to him, wondering if the result of his search is obvious from his clipped sigh. “By the way, don’t pull that shit again. ‘Trust me’? What am I supposed to do with that?” Sam shrugs and groans briefly, and Dean notes with a frown that Sam’s shivering has gotten worse.
“Not my blood,” Sam ignores Dean’s question, his voice tight with fresh pain.
Not shivering, not cold. Shaking. Dean kicks himself. He closes his eyes, searching for Sam’s heartbeat, and he can barely sense him there. Soft air brushes his face as he concentrates, and his eyes snap open. He could have missed a vent, but then again, he should have felt it before. A faint crackle drifts from the far reaches of the room, a hissing sound, a warping and splitting that is growing louder. He shouldn’t see it, but he does. The flames, the loosened reddish coils of dark power that were mounting the walls have shifted, sucking on the thin air to float back again, gathering to Sam like vultures circling around rotting meat, crawling all over him, clawing for a way back into his soul.
“I’m gonna get us out of here,” Dean promises, keeping his voice steady. He puts a hand on Sam’s knee. The sickly fog shies away from his touch, but it leaves his hand tingling. He can taste sulfur in the back of his throat and his stomach rolls uncomfortably. He grits his teeth and slings his good arm around Sam, pulling him back against his chest. The blackened tendrils recoil, a static spark in the freezing cold, and then creep upward again. Dean rubs Sam’s arms and chest, brushing them away. If Sam can sense it, he doesn’t say so.
“Need to take care of that bullet,” Sam mumbles. “Can you even move your arm?”
Dean tries to flex the fingers in his left hand. He can’t. “Just try to stay awake, okay?”
“He comes into my dreams,” Sam whispers. “He pretends to be … did you know that Jess…” Dean blinks at hearing Jessica’s name. Sam sighs heavily, sinking deeper into Dean’s grip. “She used to always write these notes and stick them to everything. Like, 'don't forget the garbage' on the trash can, and 'call Deb' on the phone. You know?"
Dean nods against the side of Sam’s head even though he doesn’t know. Sam’s voice is fond and gentle, as if he is afraid of driving the fragile memory away. He laughs softly. “Like I wouldn't have to already be doing that in order to find them." He tenses and his tone turns bitter. "He used her first. Came to me in a dream, and I thought …” Sam shakes his head to knock the counterfeit loose and send it scattering with the rest of his dreams. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even remember what she looked like."
Something deep inside of Dean flinches. “Sammy –”
Sam cuts him off, quiet but firm, and none of the gentleness remains, only implacable determination. “I always try to stay awake.”
Dean realizes then: Sam is a cornered animal, stronger than his captors, dangerous and waiting for the chance to fight back. For an instant, he almost feels sorry for the devil.
Time stretches out in the dark. The hunters guarding their prison are content to leave them alone, and hour after hour ticks by with no hope of a change in situation. When Sam lapses into silence for the third time, Dean decides to let him rest. His steady breathing and the warmth of his skin where he lays curled under Dean’s good arm lulls Dean into a weariness of his own. He closes his eyes to rest them for a moment and he drifts away, too.
A low groan jolts him awake. Sam’s breathing is shallow and erratic, and he is twitching in his sleep, fighting nightmares. “Woah, hey. Sammy, wake up.” Dean places his palm over Sam’s forehead and Sam flinches violently. Dean swears under his breath; Sam might as well be a furnace. “Sam, wake up. Talk to me,” he commands, giving his brother a gentle shake.
Sam grows increasingly panicked and starts to thrash. Dean tightens his grip and shifts his hold into a restraining posture so that Sam won’t dislocate a shoulder in the struggle. “No,” Sam protests suddenly, his voice sharp with fear, “stay away from me!”
“Sam –“ and then Dean sees. The sulfuric fog that was surrounding Sam before must have returned while they were sleeping, and now Sam is suffocating beneath the weight of it. Dean tries to tear it away, but it has already burrowed deep beneath Sam’s skin, tightening poisonous claws around the dim light of his soul.
A quick search of the rest of the room confirms Dean’s worst-case scenario: what remains of the freed demonic power is turning on Sam.
The rest of the hovering flames swirl and coalesce, folding in on each other to take on a form that emerges from the darkness to step into Dean’s second sight. A sudden surge of adrenaline floods Dean. Even without the demon nestled inside its human wrapping like a withered, skeletal pupae, Dean would know that smirk anywhere. Sam begins to plead incoherently, words tumbling end over end, and he scrambles as far away from the encroaching form as his cuffs will allow. The world shrinks to just the three of them as the mirage gains strength, and Dean lays worried eyes on his brother.
“Sam, listen to me, he’s not real. Sam!” Dean rises shakily and crouches between them, trying to fill Sam’s field of vision, but Sam’s eyes are wide and unfocused. He is completely trapped in the hallucination, too weak to fight it off, and he’s dragging Dean along for the ride. “Sam, look at me, dammit…he’s not real,” Dean repeats the words again, willing them to have power even as he looses touch of who they are intended for. “He’s not here, it’s not real, it’s not -”
Then Dean feels a tap on his shoulder. “No, no don’t... don’t,” Sam pleads. Dean squeezes Sam’s hand and swallows hard, his throat as dry as sandpaper.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Dean whispers, and he slowly stands to face Alastair.
Alastair smiles dismissively. Then he tilts his head, looking over Dean’s shoulder to regard Sam. The gesture is so intimately familiar that for an instant Dean hates Sam for taking his place, his right, his master’s affection.
“Dean, Dean, Dean,” says the whisky colored voice, lilting into a reproachful tsk and a small shake of the head. “This inherent failure of yours, this weakness, was always so difficult for me to forgive,” Alastair touches Dean’s throat and instantly Dean is gasping for air, his lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. Black spots dance at the edges of his vision, and he is just aware enough to mentally curse his earlier curiosity about suffocation. Alastair sighs. He’s got that disappointed look in his eyes. “You should know by now, your reach can never exceed your grasp.”
The tip of his finger slides up Dean’s neck and soon Alastair’s hand is cupping Dean’s jaw and lifting, removing him as an obstacle. “I believe your brother,” he continues, depositing Dean on the floor to gasp and cough, “is a good student. Surely he knows this lesson. Maybe he can teach you some new tricks.” Dean doesn’t have to look to know the smile his master is wearing now, all dripping blood and quivering flesh between his fangs. “What do you say, Dean,” he taunts, “should we ask him?”
Sam’s boots scrape frantically and the chain slams hard against the D-ring as he tries to lurch away. Alastair’s long razor, his favorite pet, reaches out to caress Sam’s face. As Sam starts to scream, the tiny basement prison fractures and blows away. Sulfur and fog wrap around Dean like chains, and he plummets into Hell still reaching for his brother.
Alastair is peeling off his skin all in one piece, taking his time around the edges, being careful not to tear it as he pries his fingers under the dermal layer, pushing, prodding, loosening what holds Dean’s body together with his hands, prying at what holds Dean’s soul together with his words. “My offer still stands, Dean,” he says, soothing, caressing, pulling back the skin of Dean’s upper thigh with the utmost care. “Just say yes, and you can feel this for yourself. It’s like nothing else, Dean. Humans really are exquisite creatures, on the inside. So many layers in those minds of yours. Don’t you want to know yourself?”
Sweat pours off of Dean, and his mind defies the ability to explain it. It’s been months, decades since he tasted moisture, since he breathed air. Blood flows down his throat, a seemingly endless supply, bubbling from the twisted stump of muscle left over where his tongue used to be. This is Alastair’s favorite game; asking an endless flow of rhetorical questions while Dean is helpless to utter even the single word he most longs to say, the one he’s been screaming with his mind for days now: Yes.
One leg undressed, Alastair slides his right hand up Dean’s side, slowly separating the skin from his ribs, wending a slow, lavishly attentive trail to his heart. His left hand slides across Dean’s stomach and down, skimming sensitive nerves and igniting them to searing fire, wringing out faint pleasure masked by wild, untameable pain. Dean screams Yes with all of his mind, his entire soul, but the only thing that escapes his lips is the sound of frothy bubbles popping as he gurgles, choking on the infinite supply of blood. He growls in frustration, wishing he could move, nod, anything.
“You’ll say yes to me, Dean. It’s in your blood to be a killer.” Alastair holds up one dripping, gore-stained hand. “See?”
Dean closes his eyes, and Alastair chuckles and pats him the way one would soothe an agitated pet. Hate and jealousy flood Dean. He wishes, more than anything, with his entire being, to turn the razor on his teacher, to show what he has learned. To see him bleed.
Alastair continues to strip him, time as meaningless and implacable as ever, inch by inch until the job is done. When he is finished, he holds up the skin proudly. It’s perfect, completely intact, an empty wrapping for a shattered soul. Alastair’s eyes gleam, and he tilts his head as though he means to speak. Yes, Dean thinks,please yes.
“How about it, Dean,” Alastair inquires thoughtfully, and Dean’s exposed heart jumps in anticipation. Tears of relief stream from his lidless eyes as cell by cell, his tongue begins to regenerate. Hope, an alien emotion, sparks to life in his chest. Finally, today, maybe Alastair will give him the chance to answer. “You really don’t need this old thing anymore, do you? Let’s put it to good use.”
The demon holds out his free hand, and in his palm appears a soul. Made of pure light, it flutters in terror like a flame buffeted by the wind. Alastair places the soul against the empty skin and the skin begins to glow, morphing to encompass its new tenant. Dean swallows roughly, gulping down saliva instead of blood. The answer perches on the tip of his tongue. He is ready, he’ll say anything, do anything.
Alastair drops the soothing tone. “Time to choose, Dean. Say yes, and I’ll heal you. I’ll take you off the rack – and he will take your place.” The demon shoves the ensouled remnant toward the rack. The blinding glow fades quickly, and Dean’s eyes, unable to close, struggle to see.
Alastair’s voice slithers snake-like into his ears, worming into his brain as he stares at the macabre effigy of his brother; his determined, frightened eyes, the stubborn set of his jaw. “Last chance for today, Dean. What’s it going to be?”
Dean can’t even turn his head away. His answer dissolves into the ether, replaced by a sob of all-encompassing heartache. The soul isn’t really Sam. It can’t be, he’d know if it was, he knows he would, but it doesn’t matter. He can’t do it. He won’t.
“No,” he rasps. The word barely makes a sound. He is overcome with sudden terror that Alastair might not have heard, or that he might have mistaken the answer, and he thrashes, pulling his wet wrists against the restraints until the gleaming white tendons begin to fray. “No, you hear me? No!”
The demon’s eyes glitter with amusement. “Ah, well. There’s always tomorrow.” The soul encased inside the skin vanishes, and the skin folds in on itself like a worn, overused blanket. Alastair drapes it over a hook in the wall, and it hangs bizarrely crooked, winking at Dean from one gaping eye-hole. “Sleep tight, Dean.” He sweeps out the thick metal door, taking salvation with him.
Dean weeps bitterly, and the salt from his impossible tears stings his bare cheeks while he whispers again and again through his sobs, yes, but there is no one there to hear.
He is writhing against the wall on numb legs, dull fingernails scratching at the parts of his body wracked with throbbing pain, unnameable tremors that he hasn’t felt in ages. The blistering edges in his mind break loose and slip down the sides of his face. The thick phlegm in his throat drips from his open mouth as he yells to drown out the sound of his brother’s begging.
”That derision deep in your guts, Dean? That’s what your brother did for you. Your hero. He stole a nearly perfect armor, made a mockery of my greatest gift. Stealing is a sin, Dean.”
“Fuck you.” Dean spits and wipes at the moisture, cloying blood and pus, keeps his eyes on the demon so he won’t have to watch Sam thrash against the chains of the rack, see the way his back arches as the demon’s blade sinks deep again and again; hear the way he screams with everything he has, a harrowing sound of despair.
”He brought you here, didn’t he? He stuck you in that stretched out skin-suit. He cut you apart and tore out all the rot.” Alastair waves the razor and it snicks shut. “He smiled when it worked. He laughed, just like I did.”
“No.” Dean staggers forward.
”Oh, yes. You love him for it. Don’t you. He’s trying so valiantly to make you a real boy again. But we both know better, don’t we, Dean? You said yes. A new beating heart down your gullet won’t change what you are. You know there is no going back.”
The words fall like a death sentence.
“No, please! Please stop, don’t, don’t! No!” Sam’s cries break through, hauling Dean forcibly into the present, and he swallows hard and blinks his watering eyes. Alastair is leaning over Sam, carding long fingers lazily through his guts. Cold fury engulfs Dean, and his twisted bond to the demon snaps. Without thinking, he grabs for Alastair.
His fingers connect. A sickening, burning cold chases up Dean’s good arm. He watches transfixed as the threads of Hell forming Alastair’s ghost stutter and collapse, falling from the air to seep into his skin. Sam’s screams choke off and he crumples, falling limply to the basement floor. Sam’s strength is drained, nearly gone, but Dean can feel the rise in temperature all around him. Instinctively, he understands. No going back.
Dean throws down his guard and beckons the demonic power home, letting the Disciple inside of him draw it like a magnet from the air. It fills his lungs with acid as it flows inside, black smoke and sulfur and ash, and for a moment he is screaming, burning; but then he’s soaring, his chest swelling with the feel of it.
Power, absolute in its white-hot rage, rushes through Dean. It surges to the tips of his fingers, and he curls his broken hand into a fist. Suddenly the roof of the basement feels like a cage, and he can sense the thin lines of spray paint marking wells of gravity, pushing down on him from above. Dean growls from deep in his gut, feral, and lashes out against the walls themselves.
“Let us go!”
The building rumbles on its foundation, and a deafening crack like a shotgun sounds. Plaster and earth rain from the ceiling. The sound of footsteps on the floor above them seem oddly loud and clear. Dean peers through the house, stretching his senses, and pinpoints six bright souls. As he focuses on each one, images of their memories flood his mind. He sifts through the hunters quickly, snuffing out each light with a thought as soon as he confirms their names. He finds the one he wants and breaches the soft spot in the hunter’s armor, letting his power settle around the man’s soul. When his grip is firm enough he drags it forward, pushing and prodding until the hunter is exactly where Dean wants him. He sends his command with a thought, and the trapdoor above them slides open.
Light spills into their prison and reveals Sam, bound and trembling against the frozen floor. His clothes are stiff with his own blood, which has long since dried and is starting to flake. The rust stains everything. It looks like there’s been a massacre, but Dean feels the void inside, hears it whisper for more. He sends a second command, and the hunter above them lowers the ladder down.
Dean fumbles for Sam’s wrists and the rolling wave of energy leaps from his fingers, tearing the cuffs off of his brother as if they were nothing more substantial than paper. Sam immediately curls in on himself, shivering from shock and pain. Thankfully his eyes are tracking, and Dean crouches down, speaking softly. “Hey, Sam. It’s okay. Come on. Let’s go up. Come on.”
Dean untangles Sam’s rigid limbs and manages to get him upright, then situates himself under one of Sam’s shoulders, lifting him gently. They shuffle forward. He places Sam’s hands on the rails and steadies him, following a few steps behind.
Sam barely manages to reach the top. He stands upright unassisted for only a second before dropping to his hands and knees. He topples and lands hard against the wall, narrowly missing the hunter lying rigid on the floor. Dean can see Hell’s power lingering inside of the man who had lowered the ladder. It took refuge in the depths of his body, hoping to be overlooked, but Sam’s starved senses notice and the scent is overwhelming. He stares hungrily as he struggles to catch his breath. Bobby stares back, eyes bulging with fear.
Dean catches Sam’s gaze and shakes his head minutely; the scrap of power lurking inside of Bobby isn’t enough to get Sam back on his feet, and Dean has other plans for that.
“Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii.”
Dean turns his attention down the hallway to the man with bad teeth and worse manners, knees bent like a linebacker with a crucifix in his hand and an open book of rites in the crook of his arm. Dean regards him placidly. “You killed my brother.”
The man snorts, glaring at Sam with hateful eyes. “Apparently not.”
Dean feels the wild storm settle, a grounding weight inside of him. He lets his eternal patience show in his eyes. He reaches for the man’s memories, unsurprised to find the answer he seeks right at the surface. Dean’s voice is quiet but commanding as he advances. “You’re Kubrick’s brother.” He tips his head in recognition and his lips twitch up at the edges. “I’ll be damned.”
“In the name of God, get behind me, demon,” snarls the man defiantly. He retreats into a room at the end of the hallway and picks up a larger volume.
“I’m not a demon,” Dean retorts, suppressing a flinch at the rasping feel of the man’s words. He pursues slowly, choosing his words with care as he turns the man’s thoughts over in his mind. “You think we’re even now, is that it? Newsflash - you mixed up your monsters. Sam didn’t kill your brother. Gordon Walker did.” Dean smiles flatly. “Ripped his heart right out of his chest,” he says, and he taps the bloody hole in his own shirt suggestively, “Just like I’m gonna do to you.”
Slight tremors in the hunter’s hands are the only clue that Dean’s words have hit home. He narrows his eyes and snorts out a clipped laugh. “Demons lie.”
“I’m not a demon,” Dean snaps. He presses the man into the hallway, and he feels a slight resistance in the air. He glances quickly up at the drab spray-painted scrawl of a devil’s trap on the ceiling.
The man stands up straighter, flipping the pages of his book with trembling fingers as he resumes his chant. “Ergo, draco maledicte et omnis legio diabolica--”
The words feel like electricity against Dean’s skin. He looks at Sam, watching with wide eyes, and at Bobby, still immobilized by Dean’s command. Dean stretches out his arm and Ruby’s knife flies from Bobby’s belt and into his hand. Dean raises the knife and lets his eyes drift across the hunter’s chest in clinical assessment.
“I told you. I’m not a demon.” He lowers his eyes and welcomes the refreshing coldness that floods his vision. He advances through the trap with a shrug, and all of the color drains out of the hunter’s face.
The man’s chant stutters and dies as he stares at the edge of the blade. “Then what the hell are you?” he whispers.
Dean relieves him of his book and flips through until the correct summoning sigil lays sprawled across the pages. He nods in satisfaction before answering, “A guy who could use one.”
Chapter 7: One Dream Rush
Dean’s voice echoes up the stairs. “When did Bobby build a safe room?”
Sam’s voice floats back, edgy and distracted. “I don’t know, Dean, it’s not like I’ve been here lately.”
He peers through the doorway with one hand tentatively resting on the cold iron plating. In response to his shout, dust spins and hovers noiselessly in the shafts of light illuminating rusty shelves, spare rations, and used auto parts in varying conditions of dismemberment. Between the shelving, he can make out slices of the concrete floor and walls. Old lead paint has been carefully crafted into sigils, some recognizable and others unfamiliar, and Dean can feel the air crackle when he takes a breath. The room doesn’t seem to have been used for anything important in a very long time.
It’s tempting to go in, to set foot on the lines and see how much this body could take. Thresholds took years to properly examine, decode and conquer and the opportunity of ones like this could still make the back teeth in his skull leave a gritty powder under this tongue. But something about this room doesn’t challenge his attention. It’s as good a place as any for storage, so he deposits his burden and swings the heavy door shut, making his way up the stairs.
When Dean rounds the corner into the living room, he finds Sam staring at the kitchen. “What’s with you?”
Sam doesn’t answer, doesn’t acknowledge him with a blink or even a shift of his weight, like Dean’s not even there.
He clears his throat. “Sam, snap out of it.”
There is still no response. The silence stretches out and Dean starts to grind his teeth.
“Hey,” reaching out with his bad hand, he grabs Sam by the shoulder.
Sam is standing by the kitchen table. Black dirt is caked on his fingers and ground into his bleeding palms. There are dark, puffy circles under his eyes. His stare is dull and lifeless, and the sight of it makes Dean shiver.
“Son, please,” Bobby is begging, “Don’t do this. Try to think about what Dean…”
Sam’s trembling fingers clench into angry fists and Bobby’s gaze wavers, dropping to the ground.
“Don’t,” Sam snaps, his voice like broken glass, “you dare. Don’t say that to me.”
“What?” The quiet register of Sam’s voice makes Dean blink. Sam is looking at him with guarded eyes. “Dean, what is it?”
Dean pulls his hand away, his tongue suddenly lifeless in his jaw. “Nothing.”
Sam throws a glance back at the kitchen, then refocuses, eyeing Dean’s chest with a frown.
“Come on, let me take a look at that.”
“It’s fine,” Dean protests, wiggling his fingers to prove it but Sam grabs for his elbow and starts to steer him to the couch.
Sam is chugging whisky straight from the bottle while Bobby digs a bullet from his thigh. “You mind tellin’ me what you were thinking?” The bullet drops with a clang into an old tin can, and Bobby threads a needle. Sam doesn’t answer, and Bobby shakes his head and sighs tiredly, “I’m supposed to be taking care of you, boy.”
Sam rouses at that, pulling away with a growl. He stands, swaying back and forth as he waves the bottle at Bobby’s face. “Don’t act like you want to help me,” he spits. “I can take care of myself.”
Bobby starts to scramble to his feet, but Sam is already walking away. His eyes reflect the dancing yellow of the fireplace, and his tone is ugly and cruel. “Thanks for the whisky.”
The slight flush in Sam’s cheeks and his intentionally even breaths tell Dean that he’d much rather be yelling. “I don’t see why you won’t just let me replace it,” he says.
Dean tracks Sam’s sight-line downward, trying to remember when he removed his shirt.
Sam has the first aid kit open and he’s dabbing at Dean’s chest with a damp washcloth, clearing away dried blood and loose tissue. Sam doesn’t bother with the forceps. He just closes his eyes, hovering his fingers over the wound, and flicks his wrist inward in a twisting motion, beckoning. Something tugs deep in Dean’s chest, and he flinches awkwardly at the pull. Sam catches the mangled bullet and drops it into the trash. The gaping hole doesn’t hurt like it should.
“It, uh,” Dean stammers, trying to pick up the thread of conversation, “I don’t think it matters,” he mumbles lamely, blinking sudden moisture from his eyes.
Sam’s jaw clenches, but he doesn’t argue. He unscrews the cap off of a clear bottle of antiseptic from the library desk drawer and splashes it over the open wound. Dean flinches, anticipating the sting, but it just floods him with cold. Sam presses a gauze pad down over the blackening wound. “Put pressure on that,” he commands, shifting his attention to Dean’s left hand. He stares at it for a long moment before giving Dean a nod. “This might hurt,” he warns, and he wraps his fingers firmly around the thumb joint. With an expert pull, he sets the broken bone.
Sam is holding Dean’s lungs in his hands, gasping for air in broken, panicked sobs as he tries to put everything back where it goes. The long, torn ribbons of Dean’s flesh slip wetly away from his fingers as he tugs at the edges, trying to close the gaps where Lilith’s hounds had ripped Dean wide open. Dean’s eyes are empty, staring at nothing, but underneath the mantra of Sam’s useless prayers, underneath his frantic, searching hands, he can hear the screaming.
Sam is staring at him quietly. His arms are folded over his chest as if he’s being careful not to touch anything. The constant buzz around him is muted and still, lost behind an impenetrable wall. His expression is unreadable. He only watches, waiting for the questions floating in Dean’s eyes to bubble to the surface.
A stinging sensation in Dean’s hand becomes a throb, like the drum of a heartbeat straining against the new splint on his hand, tightly and neatly wrapped. Dean studies it, then forces a rough swallow into his dry throat before asking the question that’s been pricking at him the longest. “Sam, what happens when you die?”
Sam’s eyebrows raise a fraction. He doesn’t answer, but his slight frown indicates that he is giving the question serious thought. Dean can feel the sensation in his hand crawling its way slowly through the rest of his body. Whether it’s just the dull memory of muscle and nerve, reflex and instinct or the real thing, Dean can’t begin to guess. But Sam’s eyes bore into his with an intensity that’s bordering on the physical, and Dean is unable to retreat. The pressure eases up only when he finds the strength to break eye contact and turn his head away.
A strained sigh escapes from Sam. “Do you really want to know?” he asks softly.
Dean hesitates, suddenly unsure. Then he nods. He hears Sam take a deep breath. “Okay. But it’s better if I show you,” Sam says, and he presses one hand into Dean’s good one and lays the palm of his other hand over Dean’s heart.
Dean hisses at the bite of a blade running up his right wrist, then his left, but when he looks down, it’s Sam’s hands that he sees. He shakes his head, tries to apply pressure to the wounds, but Sam’s voice is in his ear, close enough to be inside his mind. “It’s just a replay,” Sam says, sound weightless in its register, “there’s nothing you can do about it now.”
The rotting walls of the cabin that Sam is squatting in start to flicker and fade to black. Dean struggles to relax into the pain and let the vision roll.
Sam’s tone is dispassionate, analytical. “This is the first time. I was drunk and angry, and I didn’t really think it would work, but I just felt like finding out. Let’s face it, we’ve never been that lucky.”
Dean’s – Sam’s – hands are going numb, cold below the cuts. Hot blood pours away and down onto the aging floorboards. It starts getting hard to breathe. Dean tries to open his mouth and gasp for air, but he’s so tired. Nothing is working. All he feels is Sam’s relief that he’s alone, that no one is going to come looking for him and find him this way. Dean’s eyes start to sting. It shouldn’t have been like this. Someone should have been there.
“Easy,” Sam admonishes, the sound eerily disembodied as Dean begins to float away. “Almost there.”
The pain fades into warmth. Dean finds himself staring into a brilliant light made of pure, twisting cascades of colors; whites and oranges and golds, and some that he would be hard pressed to name. The light envelops him, fills him up, surrounds him with music, melodies he’s never heard before and could never describe. He’s never felt so awed, so at peace.
Sam’s voice is silent.
Dean steps into the light and it folds around him, drawing him in closer. He is completely blinded by the brilliance, but he feels the gentle softness of a hand brushing against his cheek; a welcome warmth of belonging.
“Sam,” sighs the light, and Dean shakes his head, disbelieving. But he sees her.
His mouth opens and he hears Sam’s wavering answer.
Sam is pulling his hand away. He folds it back into place, watching Dean carefully. Dean gasps for air, still blinking away the brilliance of it, still seeing the retinal afterimage of his mother’s shining golden hair and the pitying smile on her face.
Dean feels wrong, like he’s too hot inside, burning from the inside out at the memory of so much glory. “That was ...” Dean starts to say, but he stops at the flicker of reluctance passing across Sam’s face.
“You okay?” Sam doesn’t move a muscle, but his power reaches out, acting as a soothing balm against the flames.
Dean catches his breath, but not his racing thoughts. It takes too long to form words around gulps of air. An uneasy feeling settles into the pit of his stomach and he winces. It’s the first real pain he’s felt in as long as he can remember. A raw pain, barely contained, and it ripples through the energy and echoes between them like an answer. Sam knows what he saw. Of course he knows. “That was Lucifer,” Dean finally whispers.
“He said we could be a family again,” Sam says slowly, one shoulder rising in a shrug, “Once he took back Heaven. Said I could have anything, see anyone I wanted.”
Dean can’t respond. He rubs at his eyes but the image is still there, a burn blistering underwater. It was still her reflection, his mother and all of the summer heat laden memories of his innocent self, the return of things safe and full and loving. A thousand tiny unfinished thoughts were scabbing over his mind, caught inside the blue throbbing veins of his body and his silenced blood is raging vainly against the mirror that will never shatter, never set her free. Never set them free.
The emptiness does what every hate-engorged, murderous being in the world couldn’t do. Dean’s armor shatters, crumbling through his fingers, and it’s all he can do to hold it together. How Sam resisted the pull, how he’s still resisting it … it’s beyond him.
“Hey. Dean.” Sam edges closer, leaning in with his shoulders and ducking his eyes to search his brother’s face. “Talk to me.”
First time, Sam had said. Dean needs to know. “And after that?” Dean whispers, dragging his chin up. And after that, and after that? How many were there, Sammy, but he can’t, he can’t know the answer to that.
Sam nods his understanding. “It was Lucifer, the first time. But not since.” He allows himself a begrudging smile. “I get,” and Sam makes air quotes with his fingers, “‘intercepted’ now. The angel from the hotel, remember?”
Dean nods weakly, the matter-of-fact tone in Sam’s voice making bile rise in the back of his throat. Nothing about any of this is routine, nothing about it is okay.
“Anyway, I was never looking for angels. He found me. But he’s kind of cut off right now, so he sent someone else to keep an eye out. Actually, it’s someone you know. She calls you ‘the one that got away’.”
“Tessa.” The name is more a dream than a memory, floating unbidden to the surface of Dean’s mind, but Sam bobs his head in acknowledgement.
“This last time, you wanted to know what I meant by asking you to trust me.”
“It took you forever to come back,” Dean retorts, and the harsh rasp buried deep in his chest makes him sound angry. He doesn’t expect Sam to nod in agreement.
“Tessa had intel for me,” Sam continues. “Good news, for once. Something I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now.” He sits up straighter, and the darkness around him crouches like a predator. Dean can almost picture a panther twitching its tail in excitement.
It can only be one thing. “She knows a way to take down Lucifer,” Dean supplies, and Sam’s fingers dig into the worn fabric seat of his chair.
“Lucifer is more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen. He can’t be killed – not unless God does it. Personally.”
“How is that good news?”
“Because we can bind him. We can lock him back in the cage and throw away the key. When I saw her, she gave me this.” Sam reaches into his pocket and pulls out a silver ring set with a large white stone. It crackles with an old, deep energy. “Sometimes it pays to spend a lot of time with Death.”
Dean’s eyebrows shoot up. “Death? As in the reaper’s top mob boss?”
“As in the horseman,” Sam grins. “Three down, one to go.” He carefully places the ring back into his pocket, then reaches down to thread a needle from the suture kit.
When Dean shrinks away from the needle, Sam pauses. “What’s wrong?”
“When you touched me before –”
“It won’t happen again,” Sam answers. He swats Dean’s had away and removes the gauze pad. Dean flinches, but when nothing weird happens Sam tilts his head as if to say I-told-you-so.
Leaning back a little to give Sam room to work, Dean watches him thoughtfully. “So, how did you do that? Let me see in your head?”
Sam rests the needle for a moment to review his work and his lips press into a twisted smile. “I didn’t do it. You did.” When he meets Dean’s eyes the look says, Come on. This is nowhere near rocket science. “You’ve been doing it all day.”
Dean feels like he’s been caught in a lie. His skin flushes with shame at the thought of brushing against Sam’s private memories uninvited. “Hey, I didn’t realize –” he starts to explain, but Sam cuts him off with a wave of his hand.
“Don’t, man. It’s nothing.”
Dean barely has his mouth open, it’s not nothing, when Sam’s eyes flash solid black. “I said don’t,” he snaps, and he pushes back his chair and stands up, turning away from Dean to rub a hand over his face.
For the first time, Dean feels the silence between them like sand filling his lungs while Sam regains his composure, squaring his shoulders and wiping his fingers dry against his jeans. He stares fitfully at the fireplace for a moment before continuing. His tone is one of quiet accusation. “Why’d you bring me back to this shit hole?”
We’re here because you were seizing and I had nowhere else to go. But Dean can’t answer because he gets it now, why Sam is distracted and curling into himself like he’s hiding from a nightmare, why this house can never be home again. “Sam, you know I had to.”
Sam rounds on him. “You had to? Do you have the slightest idea how wrecked I was without you? How bad it got?”
“I do now,” Dean responds weakly.
“You made a deal with a demon. You did the one thing that you hated Dad for doing and you never once thought about the rest of us!” The glass panes of the windows creak and rattle with Sam’s fury, shaking loose months of collected dust from the thick curtains. “It never occurred to you that we needed you, that you leaving was a death sentence for me?”
“I’m sorry,” Dean struggles to his feet. He wants to grab Sam, to make him see that he gets it, that he feels guilty as hell, but he can’t take it back, would never take it back. But Sam advances toward him and Dean lurches back, nearly falling as the edge of the couch catches him behind the knees.
“You’re sorry?” The fireplace roars to life, and hungry blue flames reach past the grate to devour the wallpaper above. “You didn’t stop to think that if you went to Hell, your psychic freak of a brother might be able to hear you scream?”
Sam’s words plunge Dean into ice water. The crackle and heat of the fire snuffs out in a burst of wind, and the house settles back into its foundation. Sam backs away like he’s been whipped, carding both hands through his hair.
The weight in his chest becomes a thousand pound anchor, tugging him back down in a spiraling morass of screams and Dean can’t breathe around it. A hundred years of darkness, unearthly sounds from beneath him, from above him, spiking through him on lances of metal and bone dull and stuttering from centuries of use, until he was falling into a place that had no name and where all names are stripped away, where every fear and every regret has a sound, a taste, a rot, a portion that is identified, labeled and peeled away with perfect precision, a place of forgetting that no one on earth could possibly fathom ... and Sam had lived through it all, boundary-less, dream-less, watching helplessly as they became something else, inhuman and repulsive and dead. It flayed Sam alive and he remembers.
“That’s how you knew him. In the basement, that’s why Alastair knew you, and–” Dean swallows hard, almost choking on his own throat. “You saw him.”
Sam’s face goes hard, dark, and the sick feeling in Dean’s stomach turns white-hot. “You see him? Sammy – did he follow us? Is Alastair here?”
Sam looks away, searching far beyond the walls and settling his gaze on another plane. “Yes.”
“Do you know where he is?” Dean’s hands begin to tremble. His hatred is so loud in his own head that for an instant, all he sees is red. “Sam,” Dean barks his brother’s name like an order, “Do you know where he is right now?”
Sam’s eyes are cold, glittering wells of calculation. He doesn’t hesitate to answer, and he doesn’t lie. “Yes.”
Sam’s arms cross over his chest. “No.”
“Tell me right now, Sam. Tell me or I swear to God I’ll –”
“You’ll what? Leave me here and go after him?” Sam snorts a derisive laugh. “No. He’ll rip you to shreds.”
Sam’s will is a sea wall, and Dean’s pleas are sparse ripples in the ocean. He’s not above begging. If Sam did it, it would work on him. “I have to kill him, Sammy. You can’t stand in the way of this one. You don’t know -”
“Let’s get one thing crystal clear, alright? I do know. I was there.”
Dean’s vision swims. Can’t be just a dream. Was any of it a dream?
“You’re going to sit down, you’re going to shut up, and I’m gonna finish closing that hole in your chest because you owe me that much.”
Everything weighs double what it should and Dean complies wordlessly, returning to the couch and leaning back stiffly. Sam resumes his work, shoulders tense and jaw set, and Dean tries not to breathe, or move, or admit that the thin needle carefully re-stacking the tissue in his body feels the same now as when demons leafed through his mind and erased the words inside, stroke by stroke. Thankfully, there is weariness here, too, and Sam scrubs out the blood and pus with a satisfied sigh. He throws Dean a fresh shirt. He says they’re leaving in the morning. He leaves the room without looking back.
It isn’t a sound that wakes Dean in the dead of night, exactly. It’s the light whispering touch of spiders walking on his grave, the feeling that someone somewhere is thinking about him. His thoughts roar to life, blood-spattered and black, and destroy any chance he has of falling back asleep.
He can’t sleep with Alastair still out there. All it would take is one clue, one instant of poking his head out from under the bushes, and they would find each other. He knows it the way he knows that Sam’s not sleeping either, feels it the way he feels his brother’s power running restless through the house.
Still, Sam’s not omnipotent. It’s easy work to slide away, to steal far enough across the salvage yard to wire some piece of shit car. He grunts as he throws the stubborn clutch into second. “Sorry, Sam,” he mutters out loud.
Tonight, all Dean knows for sure is that revenge may be a dish best served cold, but he’s the one that’s starving.