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Key, Soul, and Prisoner

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Sam rolled over, consciousness fluttering barely out of reach, then slowly settling over him. Sensations flowed through him with the feel of childhood or long ago: the smell of earth, cold of stone, and too much sky above him. Waking outside.

When he and Dean were kids, he was the outdoorsy one in the Winchester family. He constantly begged Dad to take them into the mountains or forest, and he’d badgered Bobby about his moldy old Army-surplus tent until Bobby said they could have it. Once or twice he’d even gotten Dad to set it up, on the way to or from a job, in lieu of a motel. But Dad felt too exposed in a tent. Too many things in the dark could smell a human, he said, and come looking for an easy meal. When he was very small, Sam thought he meant bears.

Most of Sam’s memories of waking outdoors weren’t of camping, though. It was never a good thing, particularly when he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. For a moment, as he tried to clothe himself in consciousness that was still full of holes, he felt a pang of missing the smell of the Impala’s upholstery as it pressed creases into his cheek, the feeling of his legs pretzeled up to fit against the seat in front. There was too much room here. His legs were sprawled out around him like an abandoned rag doll.

“Dean?” he murmured. Hadn’t he been talking to Dean just a moment before? He sat up and looked around, and experienced a sharp, sudden disorientation. He had formed a picture of his surroundings as he came awake, and what he saw was utterly different.

He was sure he’d been lying on a stony hillside under a wide vault of stars, mossy stones thrust up through grass, pebbles and clumps of earth digging into his flesh. What he saw instead was a cluster of overstuffed trashcans, their reek filling his nostrils, and faint pulses of neon light regularly splashing against the shadows. The pounding bass of dance music came through the wall next to him. Instead of stars, a weak gray sky, thinned by orange fluorescent light, was just visible above a silhouette of skyscrapers.

He got to his feet, automatically searching the shadows for threats, his eyes seeking the nearest exit from the alley. He noted a hundred details in a moment: that the voices he could faintly hear through the wall of the dance club, shouting over music, had a sharp East Coast flavor, that the odorous air was thick with smog and humidity, that the earth vibrated beneath his feet at regular intervals. The subway. He was in New York City?

He stumbled to the end of the alley, squinting at nearby parked cars to see if a license plate could confirm his suspicion. He spotted an ancient, battered Cadillac with expired New York plates.

With no immediate threat in sight, he took stock of himself rather later than of his surroundings. He ached all over and his head throbbed. Nausea bubbled beneath the rush of adrenaline that had gotten him onto his feet. The sensation was a sickly combination of the feeling he used to get when Cas zapped him somewhere, before he got used to that, and a fairly bad hangover.

He didn’t recall drinking seriously anytime recently, but then, he couldn’t recall much of anything. “Cas?” he tried quietly.

No response. Oh, right. They didn’t know where Cas was. The angels had fallen.

He checked himself for weapons and found none. He glanced around the alley and found a rusty length of rebar next to a trashcan, and clutched at its faint reassurance.

Suddenly the back door of the dance club flew open, and a familiar silhouette stumbled out with a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Sam?” it shouted hoarsely.

“Dean!” Sam hurried over and supported Dean—or maybe Dean was supporting him—and they stumbled together to the end of the alley. It seemed like they must be running from something—weren’t they always?—but nothing pursued them, and once out on the sidewalk, they glanced around. Dean pushed himself upright.

“Know anything?” he asked gruffly.

“Not really,” Sam answered. “You?”

“I thought we were in some… weird-ass New-Agey place. Well. No, the opposite, I guess. Some really old place. Outside, with stone ruins and grass.”

“I remember the same thing, sort of. We’re in New York, I’m pretty sure… I don’t remember getting here.”

Dean was staring at Sam. “You OK?” he said after a minute.

“Yeah… I mean, mostly. Feel like shit, but… why?”

“You look like shit. And you’re all banged up.” Dean looked intensely into Sam’s eyes for a moment. Sam recalled now that Dean had been looking at him like that a lot lately, and he didn’t like it. Even if he knew why. The trials. He was weak, near to death, and yet it seemed impossibly far away. He had closed that door by not closing those gates.

“I’m fine,” Sam mumbled irritably, then winced as he pushed his hair out of his face. His fingers came away bloody. “But I don’t remember how I got banged up.”

“Me either. I don’t like this, Sam.”

“Let’s have a look around.”

Dean performed the same weapons check Sam had minutes before, and finding none, pulled a broken bottle out of a trashcan before they emerged onto the street.

“I woke up on the floor of some skeezy office in that club,” Dean said. “No one there, but I found some of these on the desk.” He handed Sam a business card from his pocket.

It was a plain white card with a drawing of a peaked wizard’s hat and stars around it. It simply said “The Wizard.” Underneath was a phone number with a 212 area code.

“Should we call?” Sam asked, in the same breath as Dean shouted, “Baby!”

He hurried ahead, and Sam followed. Sure enough, there was the Impala, in a parking spot Dean would favor, in the shadows where it would be hard to spot her.

Sam armed himself from the trunk while Dean examined every inch of the car, then followed suit. Sam was still holding the card, looking at it. He pulled out his cell phone and was suddenly startled by a voice directly behind him.

“Ah, I see you have my card,” it said, then gave a muffled shout. Sam turned and saw Dean seizing a skinny, dirt-lipped guy with long, stringy, dirty-blonde hair by the collar and shaking him violently.

“Hey, hey, easy there, Slugger,” said the guy in the overly-mellow voice of an old pothead. “I’m the Wizard.” He held up his hands to show he was unarmed.

Sam had pulled his gun without realizing it and trained it on the guy. Both the guy and Dean eyed him uneasily. He tucked the gun back in his waistband as Dean released the Wizard.

“You do realize that’s, like, a drug dealer’s name,” Dean said.

The Wizard shrugged. “I can get you what you need. But that’s not why you came looking for me.”

Sam and Dean exchanged the barest glance. “Why would we come looking for a guy like you?” Dean asked, carefully neutral.

The Wizard smiled. Clearly Dean’s answer had given him information he’d been after. “Well, why don’t you step into my office and we’ll talk.”

Dean grabbed him roughly again. “I’ve had enough of your office. Why don’t you tell me what I was doing there in the—hey!” Dean flung the guy away and leaped backwards, stumbling. Sam caught him and propped him upright. “What the hell was that?”

The guy held up his hand and bright electricity crackled at his fingertips as he shrugged again. “You don’t rough up The Wizard. Especially when you need his help.”

“What are you?” Dean snarled.

“Haven’t we been through all this? You don’t remember anything?”

Then, like the voice of an unwelcome visitor, sudden in his ear, Sam did remember.

* * *

A case. They were chasing a violently evil fairy who was wreaking mayhem in a series of Midwestern towns. The death toll was mounting, Sam, weakened by the trials, could hardly stay awake, and every time they got close, the creature slipped back through a portal to the world of Faerie where Sam and Dean, according to every scrap of lore they could find, could never safely follow.

Safely being a term that rarely came into use in their line of work, they’d pursued a lead on someone who could get them through a portal to Faerie. It had led them to this very night club in New York, and to The Wizard.

“Oh yeah, I heard about those murders,” the Wizard said casually. “The guy’s a sort of goblin Lucifer. Wants to get in on the action in the human world. Unfortunately his definition of action includes a lot of dismemberment. Anyhoo, he found a crack in the barriers that usually keep the worlds separate, and he’s having a bad-fairy holiday. Figured one of you lot would come along looking to ride in on a white horse and save the day… so I fixed up a noble steed for you.”

It was a drug called White Horse (maybe just by The Wizard). A little too close to slang for heroin, in Sam’s view, but he was way past flinching at that kind of thing. It shared some properties with African Dream Root, but it allowed them to take their bodies with them through the portal into Faerie, located, in a disappointingly prosaic twist, at the back of this sleazy dance club. However, they could not take anything that contained iron with them; it would burn them and anything else it touched in Faerie.

Slipping through a portal into another world, using a drug some random guy handed him in the back of a dance club, with only a bone knife between him and death, wasn’t the craziest thing Sam had done lately. Hell, it hardly even cracked the top ten…

* * *

Sam jolted hard, as if waking or falling asleep. He’d lost the thread of the present, gripped by these memories. Dean was gripping his arm, half holding him up, half shaking him. “Hey! Sam!”

“He’s not doing so hot, is he?”

Somehow they’d gotten back to the Wizard’s office. Dean lowered Sam to sit on a grungy cot in the corner.

“Why’s it worse for him than for me?” Dean said, his tone guarded. “I didn’t go half-catatonic when the memories came back.”

“I think you know why better than I do, Champ,” said the Wizard, and Sam looked up in time to see Dean give the Wizard a glowering, quelling look.

Sam knew there was something—more likely, a lot—Dean wasn’t telling him. About this case, about the trials, about Cas and the other angels, maybe. He gave Dean a hard look, which Dean dodged, turning back to the Wizard.

“We couldn’t remember because of the drug?” Sam said quietly.

“No, you can remember because of the drug. Humans can’t usually remember anything that happens to them in Faerie. You’re lucky how the timelines are running right now. The usual deal is, a guy gets sucked into Faerie, and if he ever comes back, it’s 500 years later, he can’t remember a thing, and he gets tossed in a loony bin for believing he was born around when Shakespeare was.”

The Wizard shook his head. “Prejudice,” he added with mock sadness. His voice seemed to change the longer he was talking to them. He had an annoying, weirdly anachronistic accent that didn’t match his pothead mellowness. He sounded like the snitch from an old gangster movie.

“We didn’t capture him,” said Dean. “We could barely even touch him. For some reason, he went after Sam right away, and he did some pretty serious damage. Sam, we might need a hospital for this.”

Sam fought a wave of intense nausea as he tried to examine blurry snapshots of memory: fighting a huge, thorny-skinned monster using a knife made of bone. “Is it the trials, Dean? Is that why it’s making me sick to remember?”

“Think so,” Dean muttered vaguely. He was glaring steadily at the Wizard now; Sam could feel him willing him not to speak. Dean strode over to the cot and threaded his arm under Sam’s armpits, helping him rise. “C’mon. We’ll… pick this up later. When you feel better.”

There was something wrong—very, very wrong. Beyond the holes in Sam’s memory, which went back before they’d taken on this case. Dean was far too worried. He vibrated against Sam, radiating anxiety and, Sam strongly suspected, guilt.

He planted his feet, refusing to be guided out of the office. “Dean,” he whispered, dread washing over him in powerful, mounting waves. Something terrible… “Dean, what did you do?”

He caught the Wizard’s look out of the corner of his eye, and it made him grope for a weapon—the guy smirked, looking ridiculously self-satisfied in a way Sam had seen far too often, and it never boded anything good. But as Dean met his eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Sam,” the office door burst open, slamming the wall and hanging crooked on its hinges, and a terribly familiar stranger stood there.

“Yes, Dean,” the man said. “What did you do?”

Or not a man. Even with those brief words, Sam recognized the cadences of an angel speaking. He was tall, close to Sam’s own height, and strongly built. It hurt strangely inside Sam to look at him. It made the nausea of trying to remember worse.

Sam, Dean, and the stranger were all startled by the sound of the Wizard clapping his hands, applauding enthusiastically. “Perfect timing! Oh, so perfect, all three of you!” And he waved his hands, spraying them with stinging sparks, and there was a great, sickening, sucking sensation, and then darkness.

* * *

“This is almost too perfect. Somebody pinch me!” the Wizard was shouting as Sam struggled to bring the world back in focus. The problem was, it wasn’t the world—not the one he was used to, anyway. It was familiar, though: green hills, mossy stone ruins, a strange, silent sky that looked unreal.

Sam yelped and rolled over. Something in his waistband burned him like a brand: the gun he had tucked there. Iron in Faerie. As his singed waistband gave way, the gun fell, molten, into the grass and burned a hole there, leaving nothing but smoldering earth behind. He heard Dean shout and saw him dance away from a smoking spot on the ground near his feet.

They could not touch iron here, which meant they were weaponless.

“You’d like to pinch me, I know,” the Wizard was saying to Dean, who now stalked toward the Wizard with murder in his eyes. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance. Taking you down is the last step!”

“Yeah, I remember,” Dean growled. “Didn’t put it together until just now. You’re the goblin Satan.”

The Wizard smiled, and his face stretched grotesquely as he did. He was changing as he spoke, stretching and growing, his skin swirling into shadow. He became a sort of tree-creature, covered in thorns, over ten feet tall. The tree-thing shrugged.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about that Lucifer guy, and you know? I kind of get him. Banished to a craphole because humans don’t like the way he operates.” He gestured around himself. “This place is booo-ring! But you three,” he gestured around at Sam and the angel lying on the ground, “are my ticket out, for good. And as you can see, Dean, you’re the last man standing.”

Sam watched Dean closely. He was blinking hard, as if he was trying to remember something. “There were only two out of three pieces. Really only one because Sam didn’t even close the gates,” he said. “You beat him. But I don’t see what Ezekiel has to do with it.”

The angel was quiet on the ground next to Sam. Sam glanced at him now as he felt him stiffen.

The Wizard laughed. He threw back his head and cackled, and the sound was no longer remotely human. It vibrated through the ground under Sam. “That’s what he told you his name was? Just a harmless little angel, willing to help out of the kindness of his heart? But you wouldn’t need The Wizard’s help to deal with that, would you? Oh, Dean. You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

Dean’s eyes were wide. He glanced at the angel he’d called Ezekiel. The angel didn’t meet his gaze. Looking at the angel, Sam thought he looked as bad as he felt. There was something insubstantial about him. When Sam saw him out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw bonds on his wrists and ankles—bonds of thorny vines, which disappeared when Sam blinked and looked directly.

“Remember the words, Dean-o? You’re the one that found the prophecy in that ‘secret’ library of yours.”

Sam thought this did crack that craziest top-ten he’d just been thinking of: watching a ten-foot, bark-skinned monster use fingers like wooden daggers to shape air-quotes, speaking with a forties-gangster accent.

The Wizard held up one of those dagger-like fingers as he continued. “The one who turned the key to lock the gates of Hell. The human soul who returned alive from Purgatory. And Heaven’s oldest prisoner. Defeat these three, and the power of three worlds is yours to wield.”

His grin looked like a chainsaw opening a rotted tree trunk. “If two out of three—” he paused to kick Sam’s foot, then the angel’s, “—were a bit the worse for wear when I got to them, so much the better for me. Now, Dean my boy.” He took on a different accent and the attitude of quoting something. “It is down to you, and it is down to me.” He gestured to himself and then to Dean.

“You realize Vizzini lost that fight and got poisoned to death, don’t you?” said Dean, circling the Wizard warily.

“Yeah, but you’re no man in black, are you, Dean?” The Wizard said. “And Vizzini was a pussy.”

“Sounds about right,” said Dean. He still held the broken bottle from the alley, and he brandished it.

Sam’s mind was racing, dark swirls clouding his vision as he struggled to sit up. He must help Dean. He didn’t understand half of what he heard, but he couldn’t let Dean face a giant monster with nothing but a broken bottle to fight with.

“Don’t think your spell is going to work, asshat,” Dean was stalling, Sam knew, keeping the creature talking while he tried to think of a strategy. “Sam never closed the gates of hell. I stopped him before he could.”

The creature laughed, and the sound, like wood shrieking and splintering as a whole forest fell to axes, shook the ground and hurt Sam’s ears. “Of course he didn’t! You wouldn’t be here if he had! None of us would. He stood at the gates. He turned the key. Before his death could close them, at the last moment, you pulled him back. Meanwhile, your angel buddy was making sure the last piece would fall in place for me—for who should answer your call for help but the very guy I needed?”

Dean was staring at the angel. “I thought it was—he’s not Lucifer…”

“Lucifer! Where’s he been for the last few millennia? You got enough experience to know it ain’t heaven, Champ. Not heaven’s prisoner.”

The creature rolled the angel, who barely stirred in response, over with his root-like foot. “Ah, you Winchesters. You may have disappointed your daddy, but you were all I ever hoped. Your sick addiction to each other is gonna give me everything I ever wanted. I waited for you for generations. These last few human years while you grew up—threw an apocalypse or two our way—man, that was Must-See TV in Faerie. Families gathered around the scrying pool…”

Sam was gathering his frayed strength. He remembered, now, that he had fought this creature. He thought he remembered someone else, not Dean, fighting him. But he couldn’t remember anyone else’s face—only a strange reflection of his own, speaking with a voice his, yet not his… He looked over at the angel, who lay now on his face where the creature had rolled him, unmoving, maybe dead.

Except angels didn’t die like that…

While the creature seemed distracted, talking, Dean suddenly attacked. He seized one of its arms and vaulted up the “trunk”, slashing at a seam that formed the creature’s throat. It was the only part of it that looked slightly vulnerable. Sam sat up, energized when Dean appeared to have succeeded in wounding the thing, opening a tear in its bark.

But the thing laughed again, and Sam clutched his head to shield his ears from the terrible sound. It flung Dean a dozen feet across the hilltop, slashing at him with his dagger fingers, and Dean hit a stone slab and crumpled there, bleeding.

“No!” Sam shouted—or tried to shout. All that came out was a wet cough. The Wizard was still laughing and seemed in no hurry as he advanced on Dean’s prostrate form. Sam coughed harder, covering his mouth as he tried to struggle to his feet. His hand came away bloody.

“Sam,” came a hoarse whisper beside him. “Sam… I have little power in this place, but if you help me, I can help you.”

Sam looked over at the angel. He’d managed to sit up. Sam stared at him distrustfully. He could feel clearly that he was not Lucifer, but he had apparently lied to Dean about who he was, and Sam still didn’t understand his place in all this. His mind, panicked, still swirling dizzily, was trying to solve the puzzle, even as he tried to force himself to his feet.

“Heaven’s oldest prisoner,” Sam muttered. “Who are you?”

The man looked at him measuringly for a moment. “My name is Gadreel.” He said it as if it were something never spoken out loud. The words were heavy, a weight in Sam that he did not understand. “And I’m the reason you’re still alive.”

* * *

Dean groaned, the horrendous, tortured-wood laughter of the monster reverberating through his skull. Fight, he told himself. Get up. You have to get up.

He did, somehow. He clutched the broken bottle, but blood ran down into his hand from where the monsters wood talons had torn his shoulder, making the glass slippery. His numbing fingers couldn’t grasp it; it slid to the ground as he staggered back from the advancing monster.

God damn it. God damn fairies. He’d come here to kill one, not make deals with it. If he’d known what the Wizard was… it was bad enough, making deals with witches or human weirdos who dabbled with things they really shouldn’t—things he ought to be killing.

But the Wizard said a trip to Faerie would cast Ezekiel, or whoever he was, out of Sam. Covering up what might have been Dean’s worst fuck-up ever, and saving Sam’s life in the process. The Wizard promised that if they got to Faerie and killed the monster, Sam could be healed by the power of Faerie, and Ezekiel would be cast out to fend for himself. The last part had come true. The angel had been forced out. He’d fought this same monster, in some sort of insubstantial form too bright to look at, and he’d lost.

“I couldn’t kill him,” the monster was saying. Could it read Dean’s thoughts? “He only half-exists in this realm. But that wasn’t the requirement. I kicked his ass back through the portal. I won! Beat your brother, too. Now there’s just you, and the three of you will make me the best power cocktail of all time. All right, Dean! The wait is over! Toodle-oo!”

He raised a huge, taloned hand and slashed down toward Dean, who slewed sideways with all his strength, falling—

—into Sam, who grabbed him and held him up, and the monster was screaming in pain. The angel had seized the monster’s arm and ripped off half his hand; two of the talons and a large splinter of forearm, and the wood ignited in his fingers, blazing into a great torch.

“Dean!” shouted the angel. “Take it! He’s already defeated us. You must beat him—”

“With his own weapons, you feathery asshole,” shouted the monster, backing away from the flames. “He can only use what he brought!”

“He brought me,” said the angel, thrusting the torch into Dean’s hand. Sam and the angel shoved Dean forward, holding him up, and Dean struck at the monster with the torch, lighting its mossy hair on fire, then hitting its trunk again and again. Bursts of fire blossomed all over it, and it screamed, exploding into a tower of flame. Sam, Dean, and the angel staggered back, out of reach of the flames, as the creature crumbled, abruptly stopped screaming, and the air of the hilltop was choked with a heavy, greasy cloud of smoke, and sudden silence.

* * *

Sam woke in a mild panic. Images swirled in his head as he tried to piece everything together… the painful journey back through the portal, which Gadreel hadn’t been sure he had enough power to accomplish. Coming to briefly in the nightclub, the shrieks of terror and pounding footsteps of people fleeing the burning building, and Dean. Dazed, bleeding, but still in better shape than Sam, he’d dragged them out of the club that had gone up in flames when the monster did, burning away the portal it had created just as they came through it for the last time.

They’d won. Sort of. All that Sam had learned, the wrongness of his life, settled over him. True to his promise, Gadreel had produced the holy fire with which to burn the creature, helped Sam heal as much as he could with the understanding that it would not be all the way, and returned them to their own world. In return, they’d had to vow silence about his existence, his presence in the world, and his name. There was a spell, sealed in blood. Sam assumed it had been done.

And I’m still here. Something prickled his wrist and his breath felt stilted. He opened his eyes and stirred, feeling an IV in his arm and a breathing tube in his nose.

“Hey,” said a familiar, gruff voice beside him.

Sam sighed, closing his eyes again. “Hey.”

There was a short silence. “Speaking to me?” Dean asked.

“I’m not sure yet.”

He wasn’t sure. He did not know how to digest what he had learned. He had been willing to die to save the world. He would have died rather than let an angel control him again. He was ready to die. All of which Dean knew.

Dean had been willing to do anything to keep Sam with him in the world. Sam didn’t feel the same. He didn’t know where to go from here. So much pain and betrayal. Was he innocent of it? He thought back over his actions when Dean was in purgatory. He’d gone off the rails then, lost the thread of his life. As shitty as it was, it was his life. Here he was in it, again. No sense trying to change that, not even, it seemed, to save the world.

As if he’d heard his thoughts, Dean said, “Well. We saved the world. Again.”

“Yeah. After we almost destroyed it. Again,” Sam answered.

“Aww, come on—”

“Dean.” Sam interrupted flatly. “I need something from you.”

There was a brief silence. “What is it?” Dean asked, and the guarded suspicion in his voice hurt Sam’s heart.

“A promise. You never, ever make a decision like that for me again.”

“Sam. You would have died—”

“Never, Dean. Not that. You can ask me. Like you asked me not to close the gates. But if you ever betray me like that again—”

“Hey, it wasn’t—”

“DEAN. I know, OK? I know everything. And I’m sorry, too. Sorry I didn’t tell you I knew I was going to die in the trials. Sorry I didn’t look for you when you were in Purgatory. I’ll tell you, or ask you, but you have to do the same for me. You have to, or I’m done. Make the promise, Dean.”

Here was another brief silence, and Sam looked over at Dean. He was bruised and bandaged, and he looked as tired as he ever had. It went through Sam like a shock, then—Dean was getting older. They both were. They weren’t kids anymore. Those lines around Dean’s eyes would show up around his own soon enough, if they weren’t there already, and the ache in his body, the depth of fatigue that felt like an ocean he could dive into and never find the bottom—well, maybe it wasn’t all from the trials.

“I promise,” Dean said quietly. “I’m sorry, Sam. But I need you here.”

And there it was: I’m sorry, the words of a grown-up. A man. When had it happened? All the years in hell hadn’t done it for either of them.

“Thanks,” said Sam. “You ever think, Dean… maybe we could just start over? Like none of this, not since the Yellow-Eyed Demon… none of it ever happened?”

“Yeah,” said Dean quietly. “I think that. But you know it would come and find us, Sam. We can’t put this aside. Look what happens when we try.”

“I still might… want to try, sometime, Dean,” Sam said.

“You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t,” Dean answered.

After a moment, Sam said, “You OK? That tree thing sliced you up pretty bad.”

“I’m OK. You? The doctors… and the angel… said you’d be OK.”

That was the spell working. Dean couldn’t say the angel’s name, or even anything significant about him.

Sam pulled the tube out of his nose and sat up a little, taking a deep breath of real air, the air of the world he lived in. And loved, despite everything. He looked at Dean’s face—haggard, but still ridiculously handsome. Worn down, older, but still, always, the first face he remembered, the last he’d forget, and still here with him. Always here. His brother.

“Yeah,” Sam said after a minute. “Yeah, I’m OK.”

The End