Title: Hell Is Empty
Characters: Dean, Sam, Crowley
Summary: Tag to 9.23, Do You Believe In Miracles. There's no pill quite as bitter as regret. Two brothers realize the impact of choices made and words said in the heat of the moment when their future lies broken and bleeding before them.
Disclaimer/Warning: They're not mine. More's the pity. Title and opening quote come from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Also, this tag deals with death, though if you've seen Episode 9.23, you're pretty much already dealing.
Author's Note: I didn't think I wanted to write this. I was asked to and resisted, thinking that watching the finale had been hard enough. But a week after viewing I realized I was still thinking about it and knew that one of the only ways I was going to be able to process was through writing. This is a one shot; I thought about taking it further but then decided I didn't want to get too far down the path of possibility this early in the hellatus.
As with all stories, this is simply one interpretation, one speculation, and one possibility. I had to pick a direction for my hero and I picked the one I thought I could deal with…but, that said, I look forward to seeing how our Show will move forward from the end point of the finale and how they'll mend our broken hearts.
So, this is for those of you who PMd and Tweeted, asking me to write a tag. It feels somewhat twisted and wrong to say I hope you enjoy this, knowing the angst and sorrow I'm about to put you through, but if nothing else, I hope you're able to process, as I was. And that we all feel a little bit of hope again.
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
- The Tempest
The moment he opened his eyes, before his vision had completely cleared and the buzz in his head had abated, he knew what Dean had done. And he was pissed.
In his mind, Sam was on his feet and running toward the warehouse seconds after regaining consciousness. But in truth, his brother packed a punch, and he found himself rolling carefully to his left, propping himself up on his elbow, reaching for the rear bumper of the Impala for leverage just to get to his knees. The world shifted, lurching with his change in elevation, then leveling out as he blinked rapidly, breathing through his nose to stave off the surge of bile that burned the back of his throat.
His jaw ached, beating a tattoo up through his eye socket in time with his heart. Loose pieces of gravel pressed into his knees as he cautiously tested his jaw with his fingers. There would be a bruise for sure. Using the car as a brace, Sam pushed to his feet, the tip of his tongue brushing the abraded skin of his inner cheek where it had made contact with his teeth, thanks to Dean's unexpected fist.
Once more, Dean had taken the choice from him.
Once more, Dean had protected him.
Even after agreeing to do this together. Even after all Sam had said. Dean still acted on his instincts, doing what he thought was best. To hell with anyone else.
"Damn you, Dean," Sam whispered, spitting saliva and blood on the ground as he cautiously pushed away from the Impala, testing his precarious balance. "Arrogant, stubborn, stupid son of a bitch."
He began moving toward the warehouse, his pounding head feeding his irritation and turning it into anger.
Dean agreed to be partners, hunters together, but when the shit hit the fan, he chose to deal with everything by himself, without consulting Sam, without asking for help. Sam had wanted Dean to see what it was really like to be on his own.
He'd wanted his brother to show him the respect he deserved as a fellow hunter – not a big brother's all-assuming protection. He'd closed Dean out so Dean would ask to come back in.
But…Dean never asked.
He simply did as he'd always done: put his shoulders back, his head down, and moved forward. Getting from one moment to the next. Sleeping less, drinking less, eating less. Sam had seen all of these things, had watched his brother look at the world through eyes older then they had any right to be, and simply let Dean go.
Watched him spiral away, knowing something was not right, seeing the emptiness inside Dean grow, and choosing not to care because Dean had tricked him, dammit! He'd lied to him before to protect him, but this had been different. This time had been a betrayal. This time couldn't be forgiven easily.
Dean needed to know what he'd destroyed as a result of his choice.
Sam had made sure of that over the last several months. Dean had accepted Sam's new rules, moving through life like the night was at his heels; like he knew the darkness had his name in its pocket and it was coming for him and he wouldn't be strong enough to fight it.
"After all this…after all this you still think you can face Metatron on your…."
Sam's muttering faded as a cold spike of fear suddenly speared his heart. Something wasn't just wrong with Dean. Something was taking Dean away from him.
Sam had been losing his brother a little bit each day and he'd ignored it. On purpose. Because he was hurt. Because Dean needed to learn that…that….
I'm gonna take my shot, for better or worse…no matter the consequences.
Sam began to run.
His boots slapped the pavement, the sound echoing against the night. Air hammered in and out of his lungs, anxiety making him breathless long before exertion had a chance to. Images, memories, voices teemed in his head. Things he'd noticed but hadn't truly seen; impressions made and then filed away under deal with later.
Dean's empty eyes as he'd informed Sam he was leaving; the way the word poison seemed to spill from Dean's lips and hover in the air between them. The give of Dean's shoulders as he accepted the Thinman's sentence of death; the quiet coldness in the way he stabbed the killer through the chest. The tremble in Dean's arm as he gripped the First Blade; the borderline-insane rage in his brother's eyes as he killed Abbadon.
Sam's own hand reaching out, burning Kevin's eyes, his soul, the life from his body.
Sam reached the place he'd seen the homeless camp during his earlier scouting and felt his pulse speed up as the people stood, gathering closer together as if in protection. The night seemed to still; even the crickets were quiet. A fire burned in a trash barrel nearby, tossing shadows against the pavement. Sam could smell the ash and heat, but he couldn't hear the crackle of the flames over the roar of blood in his ears.
Swallowing, his ears buzzing with possibilities and ramifications, Sam waded into the crowd, eyes searching for Dean. Two of the people drew closer to him, a warning in their eyes. Sam reacted instinctively, pulling his gun and pointing it at them.
"Back! Stay back!" he bellowed, unable to find Dean. His fear spiked, nearly choking him with its certainty. "Where's Metatron?"
One man tilted his head curiously, then rotated, pointing to the large building behind them. Sam pushed through the crowd, his size and a strength born of fear parting the people like a cresting wave. If Cas and Gadreel didn't destroy the tablet…. If Dean didn't time it just right….
Killing an angel with the powers of God wasn't the same as killing a Knight of Hell.
Sam took the stairs two at a time, crashing through the door and into the empty warehouse, the strange red-gold of the lights dazzling his eyes for a moment as he searched frantically for Dean. He heard a crack, a grunt of pain, and he ran forward, blanking his mind to any other possibility except finding Dean.
When he saw his brother, Sam's world stopped. Dean was beaten bloody, slumped against a wall, the Blade in his hand, and Metatron looming over him. Before Sam could take his next breath, Metatron shoved an angel sword through his brother's chest with brutal strength and deadly accuracy, twisting the blade viciously, a smile on his face.
And Sam's world ended.
Dean curled in on himself, all of the air rushing from his body, the First Blade falling loosely from his grasp as Metatron jerked his sword free.
"NO!" Sam's cry was torn from his heart, his whole being in denial. This was wrong. This was not supposed to happen.
Dean wasn't supposed to lose.
In slow motion, Dean turned his head, his shattered eyes finding Sam's, surprise, sorrow, and gratitude smearing together on his battered face. Sam felt each emotion like an individual blow. In the space of a heartbeat, though, the expression faded and Dean slumped over against the floor.
Ignoring Metatron completely, Sam ran to his brother, his whole focus on Dean and the blood that poured from the grievous wound. Grabbing Dean up from the floor, Sam cradled his brother close, his hands trembling as he tried to cover the hole in Dean's chest.
"Hey," he gasped, drawing Dean's wavering attention. "Hey, hey, hey, hey…."
As if on cue, the building around them shook and Sam saw Dean's eyes shoot open, searching for a threat, unable to let his guard down even for a moment. Only then did Sam remember Metatron, standing over them, his angel sword dripping with Dean's blood. Sam grabbed the First Blade from where it had fallen from Dean's limp hand and stood, but before he could make a move, the angel vanished, leaving Sam alone with his brother.
He knew Castiel had been successful, but it had been too late. Metatron was the angel's problem now; Dean had done all he could.
Sam was shaking. He grabbed a piece of cloth from the pocket of his coat – not knowing or caring where it came from – and pressed it against Dean's chest, putting his brother's hand over it to try to hold it in place. There was so much blood…so much blood. And he couldn't stop shaking.
Dean grimaced in pain, his breath wet and weak, eyes unable to focus on anything for long.
"Sammy," Dean rasped, trying in vain to lift his head and look at Sam's face, "you gotta get outta here before he comes back."
Sam couldn't listen. Wouldn't. There was too much noise in his head. Too many voices screaming regret and denial in his direction.
"Shh," he tried to quiet his brother, needing Dean to hold still so he could stop the bleeding. "Shut up. Shut up. Just save your energy, all right?" There was so much blood. Dean was shaking and Sam was shaking and there was so much blood. "Oh, man. We'll stop the bleeding. We'll – we'll get you a doctor, or – or I'll find a spell. You're gonna be okay."
God, please, he needed Dean to be okay. He couldn't lose him, not now. Not after everything he said. Not after everything he didn't say.
I was ready to die. I should have died, but you…. You didn't want to be alone, and that's what this all boils down to. You can't stand the thought of being alone.
As if somehow, once again, reading his thoughts, Dean managed to lift his head, staring at Sam, drawing his attention.
"Listen to me," he managed, his words pained and breathy. "It's better this way."
Sam gaped at him, shocked, unwilling to hear the words his brother was saying. "What?!"
"The Mark," Dean gasped. "It's making me into someone I don't want to be."
Frowning fiercely, Sam shook his head. "Don't worry about the Mark. We'll figure out the Mark later."
There would be a later. There had to be. There always was.
"Just hang on, okay?" Sam continued. "Get you some help."
Sam lifted Dean's arm over his shoulder and grabbed him around the waist, pulling his brother to his feet as Dean groaned in agony. Sweat gathered at Sam's neck and ran down his back as he began to move them toward the entrance, fear bringing images from his past into sharp focus.
Dean hauling him from his burning apartment. Dean gripping his arms as a vision rocked through him. Dean grabbing him up when he woke in the old cabin in Cold Oak. Dean holding him close after returning from Hell. Dean gripping him tight as Lucifer rose. Dean letting Lucifer beat him bloody just so Sam wouldn't be alone. Dean holding vigil as Sam's soul repaired itself. Dean hugging him fiercely when he climbed free of Purgatory. Dean carrying him from the old church as the angels fell.
I'll give you this much. You are certainly willing to do the sacrificing as long as you're not the one being hurt.
He'd been wrong. Dean's whole life was a sacrifice. And Sam knew it. He knew it and he hated Dean for it. He hated how much he needed it.
He hated how much he loved him for it.
Dean grew heavier against him, his breath ragged and brief as they moved toward the door of the warehouse. Sam was trying to think how he'd get Dean up the stairs and through the throng of homeless when Dean stumbled. Reaching over, Sam pressed his hand over his brother's, keeping the cloth against Dean's wound. It was already saturated with blood; Dean's hand was slick from it and Sam's hand slid as he tried to keep everything together.
"What happened," Dean rasped, "with you being okay with this?"
Sam felt bile burn the back of his throat.
If the situation were reversed, and I was dying, you'd do the same thing.
No, Dean. I wouldn't.
"I lied," he told his brother grimly.
"Ain't that a bitch?" Dean snorted.
Sam didn't reply, but that didn't stop the words, the voices from haunting him. He hefted Dean closer to him and pressed forward, ignoring how Dean's feet began to drag, how he practically hung from Sam's arms, how the blood now covered both their hands.
Long as I'm around, nothing bad's gonna happen to you.
Dean gasped and Sam shifted his grip.
We got you out, Sammy. Believe in that. Believe me, okay? You gotta believe me. You've gotta make it stone number one and build on it.
Dean's body shuddered as a wave of pain hit him.
Don't you dare think that there is anything, past or present that I would put in front of you! It has never been like that, ever! I need you to see that. I'm begging you.
They reached a ledge and Sam felt Dean's shaking increase.
"Sam. Hold up. Hold up," Dean gasped.
Turning him carefully, Sam propped his brother against the ledge, thinking to let Dean catch his breath before they continued forward. He stood close, feeling Dean's weakness in the tremble of his body, seeing fresh blood staining his brother's mouth. Dean's breath grated through his parted lips, thin and fading as Dean blinked slowly up at him.
"I gotta say something to you," Dean whispered, his words slurring, his hand gripped on Sam's shoulder.
Sam's was acutely aware that his grip was the only thing keeping Dean upright.
"What?" Sam choked out, searching Dean's eyes.
Dean looked at him and a gentleness spread across his features, one that lit Dean up from the inside out, turning his eyes soft and pain-free for just a moment. It was an expression Sam remembered seeing only one other time: in Indiana just before the Hellhounds tore Dean from his life.
"I'm proud of us." Dean's grimace of pain relaxed into a brief smile.
Sam felt his brother's hand cup the side of his face, Dean's blood smearing on his cheek, and he wanted to lean into that touch, to pull the warmth from it that he'd allowed to cool over the last months. His eyes never left Dean's.
As he watched, Dean seemed to sink back slightly, a look of bafflement briefly crossing his features as his hand fell. Sam felt the breath leave Dean's body as his brother went boneless, falling forward, his head on Sam's shoulder.
"No, no." Sam shook his head, unwilling to accept the truth. "Hey, hey, hey. Hey, wake up, buddy."
He pulled Dean back away from him, his large hands cupping his brother's wounded face, but there was nothing there. He could feel that his brother was gone.
"Hey," he shook Dean slightly. "Dean. Dean!"
It was over. The fight was over, and Dean was gone.
Sam didn't register the tears at first, but as they fell he pulled Dean close to him, rocking his brother's body against him, sobbing as the pain of loss and sacrifice and regret washed over him in unrelenting waves. He didn't think he would ever stop crying; there weren't enough tears.
It wasn't right. None of this was right. They shouldn't even be here. Fighting some God-like megalomaniac, saving the world from devils…. Dean had done his time. They both had. It wasn't right that he was gone. Not like this.
Sam groaned, the pain of truth overwhelming. He buried his face against Dean's shoulder, sobbing, breathless, his knees trembling from the effort of standing. He felt sick, a well full of rage and sorrow so deep he couldn't find the bottom of it.
Tears soaking his face, he bent and tucked his arm beneath Dean's knees, lifting his brother into his arms. He staggered a bit from the weight, hefting Dean until his brother's head rolled limply against his shoulder. He'd carried Dean before, but somehow the absence of life was heavier than the presence of it.
Sweating, his arms shaking with effort, Sam made it out of the building. He didn't realize he was still crying until the cool night air hit his face, drying some of his tears. The homeless groupies turned to face him, heads tilted in confusion and suspicion. Sam cradled Dean close, hiding his brother's battered face from their curious stares, and moved through the crowd.
The night seemed to breathe around him, compensating, it seemed, for the still body in his arms. The darkness was cool, damp, and clung to him. He felt it tug at Dean, could almost see it wrapping around his brother like corporeal shadows, eager to steal his brother's light from the world.
The usual night sounds retreated as he moved away from the warehouse, cloaking them in silence so thick it felt they were the only two people left in the world.
"I gotcha," Sam panted, hefting his brother in his grasp. "I gotcha, big brother."
He went to his knee once from Dean's weight before he made it to the Impala, but pushed himself to his feet, reaching the car at last. When he realized that the keys were in Dean's pocket, tears came once more, the enormity of his loss hitting him like a punch to the gut.
They were all each other had in the world. Friends, angels, demons, hunters…those were nothing outside of their brotherhood. And now Sam was alone.
"It feels real this time," Sam whispered, leaning Dean against the Impala as he dug into his brother's pocket for the keys. His face crumpled as the tears overwhelmed him. "It feels real this time."
It didn't have to be, he knew. There were ways to bring his brother back. It had been done before. His father had done it, Dean had done it, and Sam had tried—
No. No, he couldn't think about that. He refused to.
He couldn't remember Indiana. He couldn't think about burying Dean. He couldn't think about the months of trying to find a way to bring him back. About the deals he made and the bargains he'd bartered.
He couldn't think about it because it couldn't happen.
He shook his head, sniffing. It couldn't happen this time. Not after he'd raked Dean over the coals for doing whatever he could to save Sam. Not after he'd shut his brother out for taking his choice away.
He had to let Death win this one.
"Dammit, Dean," he sobbed, pulling his brother's head to his shoulder once more. "Why'd you have to be so stubborn, huh?"
Dragging his hand beneath his nose, Sam unlocked the car, but hesitated before he opened the rear door. Something wouldn't allow him to lay Dean in the back seat. Not like last time. Not like he was gone. He couldn't handle that yet. Not yet.
Hefting Dean up once again, Sam carried his brother around to the front passenger seat and set him gently inside. Dean's head lolled back and Sam shifted him so that he rested leaning toward the driver's seat. Moving back around to the trunk, he thought of the blood Dean would be smearing on the upholstery and grabbed a towel and a bottle of water.
It was suddenly vitally important to get rid of that blood.
He couldn't seem to complete a thought. There were things that he knew needed to be done and things he should do, but they didn't seem to mesh. All he could think about was blood. So much of it, all over his brother, staining Dean's beloved Impala.
As Sam sank into the driver's seat, Dean slid limply toward him, his head coming to rest on Sam's shoulder. Taking a shuddering, tear-heavy breath, Sam wet the towel and instead of cleaning the car seat, he began to gently wipe the blood from his brother's face. He turned sideways in the seat, holding Dean up, and continued to move the towel over Dean's slack features until the material was stained pink and all the was left on Dean were the bruises and cuts that would never heal.
"There," Sam whispered. "That's better."
Only it wasn't. It would never be.
I'm proud of us.
Sam felt the stab of loss once more cut up through his heart, burning his throat and tearing forth into the quiet car in a bleat of pain. He rested his forehead against Dean's, the memories assaulting him in such rapid succession he couldn't separate them.
His brother had the uncanny ability to be a world-class asshole and one of the best people Sam had ever met at the same time. He'd meant it when he'd told Dean he was a genius. Dean was fierce, loyal, smart, and truly to-his-soul good.
But he'd never believed that about himself. He saw himself as poison, as a grunt, as a weapon. He'd never seen the bright light he'd been in the world. And Sam had stopped trying to show him. He'd grown tired of being protected, of being sidelined in the decisions of his own life. He'd lost track of who his brother was and he let him go.
Dean had been falling for months and Sam hadn't reached out to catch him.
And yet, at the end, Dean had used his last breath to make sure Sam knew he was proud. Of them. Of all they'd accomplished, of all they'd survived, of all they were to each other. The bad and the good. They were family – brothers – and where Dean was concerned, there were no words harsh enough to take that away from them.
It's better this way.
The only times Sam felt truly alone in his life were when he thought Dean dead. Hell. Purgatory. The suffering his brother had endured, yet he'd always come back. Either powers greater than him had found use for him, or he'd fought his way free, but he'd always come back.
"You're not coming back from this one, are you?" Sam asked, looking at Dean's closed eyes and bruised face. Tears found a home at the corners of his mouth. "I need you, Dean."
Stop. No more. Sam shook his head again, swallowing a painful lump in his throat. He wouldn't think about what came next. He wouldn't think about anything. He would just take Dean back home. That's where they needed to be. Home.
Pulling the door shut, Sam turned on the engine, the rumble of the Chevy's engine kicking up through his gut as he pulled away from the sidewalk, Dean's head heavy against his shoulder. He didn't push his brother away. He couldn't. Instead, he turned on the radio and found the classic rock station Dean always gravitated to and let the music fill the car with fiction for hours.
Pulling into the garage of the bunker, though, brought reality crashing back. The place was silent, tomb-like. And Sam figured that was fitting. Because he had nothing left, and it was his fault. He'd let it all go.
Before Sam lifted Dean from the Impala, he peeled his brother's blood-crusted jacket from him, leaving it in the car, the back of it having dried to the seat. He would clean that later. Dean was all that mattered now.
He carried his brother through the quiet bunker, past the table covered with stacks of files pulled for their search for Abbadon, past the sword Dean had delighted in playing with when they first arrived, past the floor where Sam could still see Kevin's body fall in his dreams, down the hall and to Dean's bedroom.
Laying him carefully on the bed, Sam straightened, staring down at his brother's bruised face, marveling for a moment how still he was. Dean was never still; he was noise and movement. He was chaos and confidence. He was a storm and shelter.
Until recently that is. Until the Mark of Cain and the super-human control it had taken Dean just to get through each day. Then Sam had seen Dean go still. Then Sam had noticed his brother paralyzed as if by something truly terrifying inside of him.
But this stillness broke Sam's heart. It wasn't right, it wasn't natural. He stared at his brother's chest and willed it to move, praying for a miracle.
"What am I supposed to do now, man?" Sam asked his silent brother, his quivering chin sending waves through his words and drawing the tears forward.
Dragging a hand down his face, Sam turned away, his eyes catching sight of something on Dean's dresser: two photos. One of Dean at about three, Mary leaning over his shoulder with a mischievous grin on her face, the other of the four of them, baby Sam cradled in John's arms, sitting on the hood of the Impala, each one of the smiling impishly into the camera.
Family. Home. For all his faults – and there had been more than a few – Dean had never strayed from the one thing he'd first promised to do when he was four years old: watch out for Sammy. He'd taken the beatings and suffered the losses and allowed Sam to fight him and rail and push him away, and had remained constant through it all.
A bitter snarl twisted Sam's lips as he moved away from Dean's room, leaving his brother alone for the moment. He couldn't stop shaking. He couldn't stop remembering. He felt breathless and lightheaded and much, much too heavy. The neck of the whiskey bottle clinked against the tumbler as he poured two fingers, needing the bracing effect to clear the tangles from his brain.
This wasn't right. Dean shouldn't be gone. Not like this. Not now. He deserved another chance. One that didn't come with a heavy price. Sam owed him that chance. They'd been screwed up since Dean was sucked into Purgatory. They'd never really come back from that.
Sam finished his whiskey, staring at the table, trying not to think, trying not to remember. Trying not to wonder if Dean had known how important he was to Sam. Trying not to wish for just one more minute to tell Dean all the things he'd not said.
And suddenly the fact that Dean had been upright, staring at him, when he died hit Sam like a physical blow. Dean had made his choice; he'd wanted to die rather than let the Mark change him. He'd fought to the end, to his very last breath, and he'd faced death on his feet, his last thoughts of them.
And that realization nearly killed Sam.
Standing so swiftly he knocked the chair he was sitting in back, Sam threw his glass against the far wall with a ferocious growl.
"To hell with it," he snarled.
Screw everything he'd said. Screw all his posturing and hurt feelings. Screw sticking to his principles. His brother was dead – had chosen to die to stop the effects of the Mark of Cain.
Dean shouldn't have had to make that choice. He should never have had the Mark in the first place. And Sam knew exactly who was going to pay for that. Dean had left the summoning materials in the dungeon. All Sam had to do was say the spell.
"Dammit, Crowley," he growled. "You got him into this mess. You will get him out... or so help me, God."
This wasn't right.
He was dead, he knew that much.
Dean remembered dying. He remembered the pain that ripped through him, indescribable, unimaginable. He remembered Sam holding him up, the desperation and panic in his brother's eyes. He remembered the frightening knowledge of breath – his last breath – escaping him.
And then darkness. He could deal with darkness. He expected darkness.
He didn't expect this.
He wasn't supposed to be here. He was supposed to be in Hell. Or Purgatory for the monster he'd become. But not…here.
Everything around him was faded, a pale reflection of what it had been in life. The air was saturated with forgotten spirits, like cobwebs in the corners of an abandoned house. He couldn't distinguish one from another, but he felt them all. He felt them brush against him, felt their sorrow, their anger, their confusion and pain.
He didn't really sense his body; he could see himself, move his limbs, but he lacked the sensation he was accustomed to. He clenched his fists but couldn't feel his fingers against the palm of his hand. He rubbed his face but couldn't feel the stubble of his scruff against his hand. He was displaced, out of sync.
Heaven was closed, he remembered. Besides, he'd seen Heaven once. And since he hadn't killed Metatron, he wasn't all that put out by not being rewarded. If that's what it would have been.
Hell was complicated, Crowley had said. Still, Dean knew he deserved to be there. Ruler of the rack. Torturer or souls. It was the thing he was good at and he was prepared to embrace that fate. An endless existence of darkness seemed to be the appropriate penance for the mistakes he'd made in life.
The one thing he'd done right was to die.
But, now he was here – a spirit of the Earth, but not on it – and he wasn't sure what to do.
When he saw Sam, he felt a jolt shiver through him. He didn't think he was supposed to be able to feel such a pang of longing; spirits were echoes of emotion, not emotion itself. But he did. He felt. And oh, how it hurt.
He watched Sam carry his body into the bunker, his brother's eyes swollen and red-rimmed from tears. He stepped aside as Sam moved past, his long hair shading his face as his head hung low. His steps were heavy, bearing a weight he should never have had to carry. Dean kept his eyes pinned on Sam's face, noticing when Sam glanced, as he always did, at the space where Kevin had died. He followed Sam into his room and watched his brother lay his body on the bed with more gentleness than he'd ever shown him in life.
Sam's hand lingered on Dean's chest, his breath hitching slightly with barely-suppressed emotion.
"Aw, dammit, Sammy," Dean whispered, watching pain etch lines on his brother's face.
He stood next to his bed, resolutely not looking down at his body, knowing it was a mess, and watched his brother grieve.
"What am I supposed to do now, man?" Sam asked. The air. The universe. Him.
"Live your damn life," Dean said. Or at least he thought he did. He didn't really register his mouth moving. "Leave all of this shit behind you. Burn it down and walk away."
Sam took a shaking, shuddering breath and started to turn away, pausing as he caught sight of something on Dean's dresser. Whatever he saw there caused his shoulders to tighten and he stalked out of the room like he'd just been scolded.
Frowning, Dean moved over to where Sam had been standing, unable to remember what he'd kept there that would have triggered such a reaction from his brother. When he saw the pictures, he sighed.
"Hi, Mom," he whispered. "Kinda thought I'd at least be able to see you again."
He looked down at his ethereal self, confused by the blood that stained the shirt he still wore, thinking that death should be different. He'd made the right choice, he was sure of it. So why could he still feel a phantom pain from the wound? Why could he feel sorrow like a rock in his chest? Why could he still feel at all?
"Your brother, bless his soul, is summoning me as I speak."
Dean jerked at the sound of the voice, stumbling backwards. He would have crashed into the dresser if his being had any substance to it. As it was he drifted, filtering to nothing then coalescing once again. He stood next to himself, staring at Crowley's shadowed figure with disgust and hatred turning his heart to lava. If he didn't know better, he'd imagine it was glowing red in the center of his chest.
"Make a deal. Bring you back. It's exactly what I was talking about wasn't it? It's all become so... expected."
Crowley moved into the room, stepping from the shadows and sitting heavily on the chair next to Dean's empty desk. Dean was slightly surprised to see what appeared to be…regret…lining the demon's features.
"Crowley, you son of a bitch," Dean growled as Crowley stared with closeted eyes at the body on the bed. "You stay the fuck away from Sam."
"You have to believe me," Crowley continued, completely unfazed by Dean's empty, silent threats. "When I suggested you take on the Mark of Cain I didn't know this was going to happen. Not really."
"Sure," Dean scoffed. "You were hoping, though. Gambling I'd get myself killed before I took your damn head from your shoulders."
"I mean I might not have told you the entire truth." Crowley leaned forward, addressing Dean's body with complete focus. "But I never lied. I never lied, Dean. That's important. It's fundamental."
Dean scowled, feeling something pull at his heart, the hairs on the back of his neck – if he had one – standing up. He moved slightly closer to the body on the bed as if in protection, but never took his eyes from Crowley.
"But, there is one story about Cain that I might have forgotten to tell you. Apparently he, too, was willing to accept death rather than becoming the killer the Mark wanted him to be. So he took his own life with the Blade. He died. Except as rumor has it, the Mark never quite let go. You can understand why I never spoke of this. Why set hearts aflutter with mere speculation?"
Dean felt his spirit shudder as Crowley stood up, drawing from the depths of his ever-present black coat the one thing Dean never wanted to see again: the First Blade.
"It wasn't until you summoned me…no it wasn't truly 'til you left the cheeseburger uneaten...," Dean backed away, watching in horror as Crowley put the Blade in the limp hand of the body on the bed, "that I began to let myself believe. Maybe miracles do come true."
Tearing his eyes from his own battered body, Dean stared at Crowley, seeing the gleeful light that began to shine in the demon's eyes as he lifted the hand holding the Blade and rested it on a bloody, broken chest.
Dean shivered again, but this time it wasn't with horror, or with pain, but with anticipation. Something was happening. The cobwebbed spirits at the periphery of his perception were retreating and the world was suddenly sharpening into bright focus. He wanted to take a breath and found he couldn't.
"Listen to me Dean Winchester," Crowley said, his voice suddenly a command, strong and determined. "What you're feeling right now is not death; it's life. A new kind of life."
Dean shook his head. No. Not this. This wasn't right. He'd died. He'd died and he'd been ready. He'd been ready, dammit!
"NO!" Dean shouted, his cry tearing the seam of the world around him, shaking him from whatever precarious hold he had over death and sending him somersaulting away from peace.
"Open your eyes Dean. See what I see; feel what I feel. Let's go take a howl at that moon."
For a moment there was nothing. No breath. No sound. No sensation.
Then Dean opened his eyes.
And the world changed.
Gone were the spirit webs and softened edges. Gone was anything remotely recognizable. He was staring at the ceiling and could also see the floor. Every corner, every edge of the room was brought into stark focus without his having to move his eyes. It was as if he were seeing it in 3D, accented by neon colors and black-light effects.
"I knew it," he heard Crowley whisper.
He tried to breathe and felt himself choking. He blinked rapidly, disoriented as his vision shifted, retreating to a recognizable normal. He was dying all over again, unable to drag air in through his broken lungs.
"Easy," a voice crooned. "Take it easy."
"You don't need to," Crowley informed him. "There's a difference. You can. You simply don't require breath any longer."
Dean swallowed, instantly calming, and blinked up at Crowley who stood over his bed like a doting father. He commanded his lungs to inflate, relief rushing through him as they obeyed. He realized as air filled and released that he felt no difference between the two.
"What the hell'd you do to me?" Dean growled, pushing slowly up in the bed. His body was clumsy, barely responsive.
He could feel the wound on his chest, but as if from a distance. It was like the sensation of watching a violent movie. He knew it should hurt, but couldn't quite connect to the pain. He touched the edge of the ragged hole through his torn shirt with the tips of his fingers.
"I expect that will close in time," Crowley said, straightening away from him and clasping his hands behind his back. "You're something of an…anomaly."
"Is that what you call this?" Dean shoved himself further up in the bed, away from Crowley, trying to get feeling back in his legs. Everything felt numb, awkward. As if he were trying to move someone else's body. "What am I? A zombie?"
Crowley tilted his head. "Wouldn't that be interesting?"
Dean tightened his grip on the hilt of the Blade and watched as Crowley's eyes darted to the weapon, then back to his face.
"Answer me, dammit!" Dean managed to lift the Blade slightly off the bed.
"No, Dean," Crowley said mildly. "You're a demon."
"The hell you say," Dean growled, once more feeling that odd detachment.
He wanted to feel enraged, disgusted. Horrified. He wanted to feel the urge to silence Crowley for good. But all he felt was…heavy.
"Admittedly, you haven't gone through the typical…transformation." Crowley shrugged, moving to lean against the wall next to Dean's dresser. "It usually takes a soul centuries to burn the humanity from them. But…," his lips twisted in an amused smirk, "they haven't got what you've got, now, have they?"
Dean glanced down at his arm, the Mark covered by his sleeve, and realized that for the first time since Cain had branded him, he didn't feel it, either. For months it had sat like a hook in his flesh, digging slowly deeper as it sucked away his heart, his compassion, leaving him feeling hollowed out, a husk of his former self.
And when coupled with the blade, the rush of raw power that had surged through his system had been addictive, sending Dean's senses spiraling, his body trembling with the need to kill, to use the power to kill. But now…his arm felt like lead. Heavy and unmanageable, no power, no rush. Simply a lump of flesh on a body.
"The Mark brought you back, Dean," Crowley said, smiling slightly.
Dean slowly swung his legs over the edge of the bed, looking at the floor, feeling as though he'd lost something. Something vital. Not just the need to breathe, but need entirely. This wasn't right. It wasn't natural.
Dad brought me back, Bobby…. I'm not even supposed to be here!
Dean swallowed, looking at the Blade still resting in his hand.
"A thank you wouldn't be out of line, y'know," Crowley grumbled.
"I don't believe you," Dean said dully.
"How else do you explain the fact that you're sitting there talking to me now with that gaping hole in your chest?"
"I'm in Hell."
"Not my Hell," Crowley scoffed.
Dean growled, surging to his feet, but the room swayed around him, sending him stumbling to the side. He reached out to grab his dresser, desperate to balancing himself.
At least this way something good can come out of it. My life can mean something!
He lifted his eyes, looking at himself in the mirror above his dresser, the pictures of his family tucked safely in the corners of the glass. Bruises marked his features, but he couldn't feel them. A cut was open above his eye, but the wound didn't bleed. His eyes looked normal – large, green, desperate and alone. It was the expression he'd seen too many times staring back at him over the last few months.
"You are something new, Dean," Crowley crooned, stepping close to him.
As Dean stared at his reflection, Crowley put a hand on the back of his neck, his face near Dean's shoulder.
"You are special."
"I'm dead," Dean muttered.
"Not any more than I am," Crowley countered. "As a human you were unable to contain the power of the Mark and its Blade, but this…."
Dean shook his head. No. It wasn't right. He'd died. He'd felt himself die. He'd watched Sam fade from him and let the breath leave his body. He'd chosen death rather than become…this.
You're gonna die, Dean! And this is what you're gonna become!
He was numb. He could feel nothing. Not even pain. Not even grief. He'd felt more as a spirit than he did now inside his own body. It should have been terrifying, but instead it was, he realized, a relief.
I wish I couldn't feel anything, Sammy. I wish I couldn't feel a damn thing.
"You are going to put order to chaos," Crowley said, gripping Dean's neck as if in camaraderie. "You are going to help me un-complicate Hell and together we will take control of Heaven, give those pussy angels someone to foll—"
Dean roared, turning and grabbing Crowley by the jacket and shoving him against the wall with such force that the impact rattled the dresser, sending it sideways. As he pressed the blade against Crowley's throat, Dean suddenly realized that he could see everything. He could see every corner of the room at once without tearing his murderous gaze from Crowley's hideous, demonized face. Everything was illuminated, accented by sharp outlines.
What's more, he could feel. He could feel everything.
He could feel the blood flowing in his dormant body, the rush of it pounding in his ears. He could feel the stir of the air around him, moving the fine hairs on his cheeks and neck. He could feel the wounds, the cuts, the bruises on his body and he drew on the pain to fuel the most overwhelming sensation, the purest emotion he could identify at the moment: rage.
Pressing the blade against Crowley's throat, he felt alive.
"Yes," Crowley whispered, his chin up, eyes gleaming. "Embrace this part of you, Dean. You are powerful. Don't fight it."
"I'm gonna kill you, you smug bastard," Dean growled.
"If you were going to, you would have done it already," Crowley said, reaching up to press Dean's hand slowly away from his throat. "You need me."
"The fuck I do," Dean yelled, surging forward once more, the edge of the blade drawing blood as the noise in his head amplified and his arms trembled with power.
He wanted to kill and Crowley was as good a place to start as any.
He froze. That voice. He knew that voice. Sam was standing in the doorway. He could see him without even turning his head.
But he looked anyway and in heightened 3D saw Sam flinch, pulling back and away from the sight of his brother.
"Oh, God…your eyes…."
"Sammy…." Dean stepped away from Crowley and felt the heat drain from him, the strength retreat until his arms felt like lead weights once more.
He loosened his grip and let the Blade fall to the floor. The moment he did, his legs stopped working, his knees all-but disappearing as he crumbled to the floor, catching himself on the edge of the bed. Sam crossed to him, drawn by blood and habit and obligation, regardless of what he'd just seen.
Besides…Dean knew his brother had seen worse.
"What's…how…what happened, man?" Sam asked, gathering Dean up. "I didn't make a deal…I couldn't get him to—"
"No deals," Dean muttered, using Sam as leverage to get his body back on the edge of the bed. "No more deals, Sammy."
Sam's red-rimmed eyes were darting from Dean to Crowley, confusion and anxiety drawing question marks on his face. "What the hell, man?"
"I don't…," Dean shook his head.
"You were dead, Dean," Sam informed him. He stood from where he'd been crouched next to Dean and moved to the other end of the small room, one hand on his hip, the other gripping the back of his neck. "I watched you die. I held you…and…and felt your heart stop."
Dean nodded. "I know."
"Your eyes were black, Dean. Demon black."
Dean swallowed. "I know."
"So…," Sam lifted his chin, his face directed to Dean but his eyes on Crowley. "What. The. Hell?"
"The Mark," Dean and Crowley replied in unison.
"The…Mark?" Sam repeated slowly. "The Mark…what? Saved you? Brought you back?"
"It is the Mark of Cain, Moose."
"You shut up!" Dean snarled, wishing he didn't feel so weak. Not after he'd felt such power. "You don't get to talk to him like that. Not anymore."
Crowley pushed away from the wall and glared at Dean. "Oh, and why is that? Because he's been so willing to help you navigate this new power of yours all this time? Or because he volunteered to stop that freak show currently running Heaven? Oh, no, I've got it – it's because he forgave you so quickly for saving his bloody life."
Dean lifted tired eyes, leveling them on Crowley. "Because I fucking said so, that's why."
To Dean's surprise, Crowley closed his mouth, narrowed his eyes, and turned away.
Sam's voice sounded young. So very, very young.
Dean looked up at him.
"What's going on, man?"
Dean swallowed, thinking. Remembering. Knowing what he was capable of, what he'd done in Hell. In Purgatory. On Earth. He'd been deemed worthy to bear the Mark but it wasn't a reward. It was a curse. A curse that came with a price, a burden. He'd been warned, but he hadn't listened. Hadn't cared.
"Cain said the Mark came with a burden," Dean told his brother, his voice sounding like it was coming from far away, echoing inside his hollow body. He was the Tin Man. "I never asked what it was."
"So…immortality?" Sam looked so heartbreakingly hopeful that Dean almost felt something stir where his heart had been. He couldn't give Sam hope.
"Not exactly," Dean said, sighing. He stood, his legs wooden, and glanced at Crowley. "Will I still know him?" he asked.
Crowley's scowl deepened. "If you're asking me if you'll kill him as your true self, you're the only one who can answer that."
Dean swallowed, then bent over slowly and picked up the blade.
"You don't need that, Dean," Crowley informed him. "This is your true self. You only have to embrace it."
Frowning, Dean dropped the Blade onto the bed, then looked back at Sam.
Sam's question broke off with a gasp as Dean's perception shifted. He knew the moment his eyes went black. He felt like a predator: strong, powerful, virile, hungry. The world shifted to infrared. He could see Sam's heart, his body lit up like a beacon, heat all around him, drawing Dean closer. Dean forced himself to stay back, keeping himself in check, feeling his bones tremble with the effort.
"I was always headed this way," Dean told his brother, his voice a low growl. "Ever since I sold my soul at the crossroads."
"No, Dean." Sam shook his head and Dean was surprised he could see his brother's tears. They trembled on Sam's lashes like diamonds, a cool space in a world of heat. "That's not true. You…you're the best man I know! You were a vessel for an archangel; no way were you meant to be a demon! You're a hunter—"
"Was a hunter," Dean interrupted, the effort required to keep his power in check becoming almost overwhelming. He could feel so much; the world was trembling around him. "I killed things like me."
He couldn't – he didn't know how to – contain it. He wanted to explode, to rage. His body burned with the pain from his wounds, his chest throbbing. He closed his eyes, sagging for a moment and leaning heavily against the bed, a hand over the hole from the angel sword. If the wounds were going to close he wished they'd hurry the hell up.
"What about me, huh?" Sam shouted, dragging a hand down his face and banishing the tears. "I was a…a thing once. You didn't kill me."
"Maybe this isn't about you, Moose!" Crowley shouted.
"Shut up!" the brothers yelled.
"No!" Crowley bellowed, stepping forward. "I will not be silenced by the angst of two denim-clad imbeciles who were too busy letting their damn pride choke them to death they never took the time to have caring and sharing hour while they were both alive!"
Dean blinked at Crowley in surprise, his vision dimming, returning to normal, his body sagging around him. He felt Sam instinctively shift closer to him.
"You lost your chance, Moose," Crowley snarled. "He's beyond you now."
"No—" Sam shook his head.
Crowley closed the distance between himself and Sam so quickly Dean didn't even register movement. The demon had Sam pressed against the wall, his hand at Sam's throat, breath suddenly a precious commodity.
"You lost your chance," Crowley was growling. "He's had this Mark for months and all you had to do was a little bit of research to find out that it was killing him. Slowly tearing him up from the inside out – not unlike your ridiculous angelic trials."
"Crowley," Dean snapped, moving forward, his body too heavy to do so quickly.
"You want to stop me, Squirrel, you know what you have to do," Crowley shot over his shoulder. He turned his attention back to Sam. "You let your brother die, Sam. Not by Metatron's blade, but slowly, every day. You let the Mark take him and you did nothing."
"Crowley! Let him go!" Dean yelled, seeing that the demon was no longer choking his brother, but unable to bear the tears in Sam's eyes.
He might not feel the pain of his wounds without his demon-self taking over, he might not be able to feel his own breath or his heartbeat, but Sam's tears unraveled him just as much dead as they had when he was alive.
"Your brother died in that warehouse," Crowley was saying to Sam, his voice cold and devoid of emotion. "What came back is mine, now. And only Cain himself can change that."
"Crowley!" Dean roared, feeling the world change around him once more as he grabbed Crowley's shoulder and ripped him away from Sam, throwing the demon across the room.
Crowley stood quickly, thrusting out his hands and sending Dean flying, his back connecting with the concrete wall of his bedroom. His wounds throbbed, sending liquid pain through his body and causing him to cry out. He channeled it, using it to fuel his rage. Strength and power surged through him and he mimicked what he'd seen Crowley do, thrusting the power outward from his fingertips and retaliating, Crowley's body cracking the wall itself as it hit.
"I knew you had it in you," Crowley gasped, climbing to his feet.
Dean pushed upright as well, pressing his hand to his chest to try to stave off the empty pain.
"You can end that, Dean," Crowley shouted. "Heal yourself!"
"What?" Dean muttered, confused, staring across the room at Crowley, seeing the man's true face, his demonic face, and wondering what his own face now looked like with demon sight. "What are you talking about?"
"Close the damn wounds!"
Dean saw Sam look at him in fear, his brother's being the only light in the room. He ripped open his shirt, and looked down at the ugly, gaping wound. It didn't seem possible, but neither did the fact that he was standing here. He willed the wound to close.
It felt as though he were being branded, a hot poker shoved into his chest. He cried out, his face folding in a grimace of pain, and he went to his knees. But as he watched, the wound shrank. He could feel the cut above his eye sealing as well and he clenched his teeth, groaning as the pain shifted from hot to cold, a fusion of human sensation and demonic power pulling his body back together.
It only took a few moments and when he was whole, he let the power retreat, lifting his eyes and staring at his brother in bewilderment. Sam was breathing hard, as if he'd just experienced the same level of pain and torment, and was staring back at him with wide eyes.
"Hell will fall at your feet." Crowley's voice was soft and filled with triumph. "No one will question my rule when you're done."
At that, Dean saw Sam's eyes harden and his mouth thin to a grim line. He looked over at Crowley and Dean knew then that his brother was going to try something really, really stupid. Pushing to his feet, Dean leapt over his bed and landed in a crouch next to Crowley, standing between the demon and Sam, and looked up at Crowley's smirking face.
"You can't rule anything if you're dead."
Crowley tilted his head, his expression mild. "You can't kill me, Dean. You need me. How else are you going to learn how to control these powers?"
Dean stood, clenching his fists, his hands trembling as he held himself in check, listening.
"Without me, you could kill someone you used to care about," Crowley darted a glance over Dean's shoulder. "Of course…then you wouldn't have to worry about that pesky weakness."
Dean growled and launched himself once more at Crowley not registering that his power had automatically taken over. He grabbed the demon's coat and shoved him against the dresser, knocking it to the side, and plowed Crowley into the wall. Without missing a beat, Crowley pushed back, the force of his blast lifting and pushing Dean to the far corner of his small room.
The bed was shoved to the side, the desk flipped over, cracks crawling up the heavy cement walls as the two battled. Dean lost track of where Sam was, he lost track of where even he was. All he knew was that Crowley was to blame for all his pain, for the fact that he could no longer feel pain, for the fact that he was a demon. It didn't matter that he'd made the choice – that he'd practically asked for the Mark. If it weren't for Crowley, he wouldn't have even known about Cain, his Mark, or his damn Blade.
Crowley had him pinned into the top corner of the room; Dean's newly-healed face was once more bloody, and Crowley had a cut on his forehead.
"You have the chance to eliminate the demons who don't fall in line," Crowley was shouting. "Order to chaos, Dean. Think of it! We would control Hell."
"You think I want that? You think I give a damn what happens to Hell?"
"Yes!" Crowley blasted Dean across the room, staggering back as Dean slammed into a wall. "Yes, I do. Because you care about them." He pointed toward where Sam was standing just outside of the doorway. "You care, Dean. That is why you are an anomaly. Not because you were demonized outside of Hell, but because you maintain your humanity."
Dean pushed himself to his feet, spitting blood from his mouth and wiping the back of his hand across his lips.
"Humanity made you weak."
"Yes, well. I was a weak human," Crowley replied, straightening his coat and smoothing his hair now that he was safely on the other side of the room from Dean. "You were not."
"What do you expect me to do, huh?" Dean snarled. "Fight 'em all?"
"Of course not," Crowley sighed, shaking his head with an air of schooling a small child.
He kicked at something on the floor at his feet and Dean saw that it was the First Blade. Lifting it on the toe of his boot like it was a soccer ball, Crowley tossed it across the room.
Dean instinctively opened his hand and called the Blade to him. He closed his fingers around the hilt as it found its home. He looked back at Crowley with his human eyes, feeling the distinct shift in his strength and power, his body once more leaden and numb.
"I, as you should know by now, have a plan," Crowley continued. "You follow that plan, and we can live like kings." He tugged at the lapel of his coat. "With me being High King, of course."
Dean looked down at the Blade in his hand, forcing himself to take a breath because it seemed like the natural thing to do.
"Dean, no…." Sam whispered.
Dean had almost forgotten about him. He looked over at his brother and swallowed. Sam looked like a kicked puppy, staring at Dean with large, frightened eyes.
"You two clearly have things to talk about," Crowley said, eyes darting between the brothers. "I'll be waiting outside." He started to turn away, then paused, looking back at Dean. "This is your life, now, Dean. The longer you resist it, the harder it will be and until one day it consumes you. Think about who you want in the blast zone."
With those parting words, Crowley vanished.
Sam stepped into the wreckage of a room, pushing the bed to the side with his leg so that he was standing near Dean. He looked down at the Blade in Dean's hand, then back at his brother. Very deliberately, he put his hand over Dean's, covering the hilt of the Blade, and lifted it up so that the sharp edge of the jawbone was pressed gently against his chest.
"What are you doing?" Dean asked, hearing a ragged edge of need and fear quaking at the end of his words.
"You won't kill me, Dean," Sam said quietly, confidence stamping his words on the air.
"You spent your life keeping me safe."
Dean huffed out a humorless laugh. "And you hated me for it."
"I don't hate you," Sam whispered.
Dean tightened his grip on the Blade and felt Sam do the same over his hand. "You could."
Sam shook his head. "I won't."
With a sigh, Dean released the Blade, letting his brother toss it behind them on the bed.
"Crowley's right, though," Dean said, turning slightly away from his brother. "I need him."
"The hell you do."
"I don't know how to…to use this, Sammy."
Dean stared at his brother. There was no way he could explain what it was like – how he felt nothing except for when he allowed the power to take over. His true self, as Crowley put it. How he could feel everything then. How the rush was different now; it didn't shame him, didn't overwhelm him. It enhanced him. It felt right…good.
With Sam's eyes on him, Dean willed the cut on his cheekbone and split lip from Crowley's attack to heal, grimacing only slightly from the quick, searing pain, and forcing himself not to flinch from Sam's recoil at seeing his eyes go black.
"This isn't a magic wand, man," Dean said quietly. "It's not something I can just set down or put away. It's me." He forced Sam to meet his eyes. "I. Am. A. Demon."
Sam shook his head. "You're my brother."
Dean started to move around Sam, wanting to get away from this conversation. Sam grabbed his arm and stopped him, waiting until Dean looked up at him again.
"We're family," he said, tightening the grip on Dean's arm. "That's all that matters."
"What?" Sam's brows puckered in confusion, but Dean could see in his brother's eyes that Sam knew exactly what he meant. He saw the guilt there. The regret.
"Now family is all that matters. Few months ago, though, you wouldn't even call me brother."
"People change," Sam tried.
Dean rubbed at his chest where Metatron had stabbed him. "Yeah."
"Don't go with him, Dean," Sam pleaded. "We can figure this out. Together."
Turning Dean fully around to face him, Sam held up his palm, so close to his face Dean had no choice but to see exactly what Sam wanted him to: the scar. The scar Sam had given himself when Lucifer sat inside his head, turning him slowly crazy.
"You remember this? Stone number one, right?"
Dean nodded hesitantly.
"Why don't you let me in, Dean?"
"It's different, Sam," Dean said woodenly. He pulled away from Sam's grasp. "Always has been."
"Because you're not worth it, that it?"
Dean stepped back, tugging off his blood-stained, destroyed shirt, and dropped it in a pile on the floor next to his displaced bed. He shoved his furniture aside until he reached his dresser, tugging a drawer open and grabbing out a Henley and a T-shirt.
"I did what I had to do, Sammy," he said as he disrobed. "So did you. Everything you said to me…it was right. You were right. I took your choice away because…," he glanced over at his brother, not wanting to see the pain in Sam's eyes but needing his brother to feel it so that he would step away, "because I couldn't live with you dead. I caused all of this." He pulled the clean shirts over his head. "Everything happened the way it had to happen."
"I don't believe that," Sam snapped. "I don't believe you believe it, either."
Dean shrugged. "Some things are true whether you believe them or not."
"Listen," Dean rested his heavy hands on his hips, looking at his brother with as much sympathy as he could project, knowing it was a thin veneer of emotion. "I can actually do some good, y'know? All of this... My death might actually mean something. I mean, thinning out the demon population can't be a bad thing."
"But at what cost, Dean?" Sam shot back, his jaw tight, his eyes shining with unshed tears. "I'd just as soon live in a world of devils rather than lose you, man."
Dean looked down, addressing the floor. Even his head felt too heavy to lift. "You already lost me, Sammy."
"No, Dean." Sam's voice wavered and Dean looked up again. "I don't…I don't want that to be true."
Dean pressed his lips flat, searching for the right words to leave his brother with, knowing it may be a very long time until he saw him again.
"I need you, Dean," Sam confessed quietly.
"No you don't, Sam," Dean crossed to stand close to his brother, separated by barely an arm length. "You haven't needed me for a long time. You proved that over the last few months."
"I was wrong. I lied."
"So you said, but you still managed just fine." Dean forced his mouth into a half grin. "Your biggest problem was me."
"You're gonna be okay, Sam," Dean said, putting his hand on his brother's shoulder. To his surprise, Sam tilted his head, leaning close to Dean's hand. "I'm proud of you, man. I always have been."
"Please, don't do this."
"I gotta make…something good come out of this, Sammy. I chose the Mark. I chose death. Now…I just gotta figure out how to use those choices. Make this world a better place."
Sam stood quietly for a moment, his throat working furiously as he tried to quell his emotion. Dean dropped his hand from his brother's shoulder. Sam looked exhausted. And no wonder, the number of extreme emotions his brother had navigated over the past 24 hours. If Dean could feel, he wagered he'd be exhausted, too. He dropped his chin, leveling his eyes on his brother.
"I want you to take the Impala," Dean said.
"I don't…," Dean paused. This caught him. Even the thought of this burned. His last toe-hold on his regular life, released. "I don't need her anymore. Not like this. I want you to, uh…keep her safe. Okay?"
Sam nodded. "But, Dean," he tried once more. "There has to be a way. I mean, we have a whole bunker of information here! The-the Men of Letters! They cured a demon before! We could try it – just use my blood like we did with Crowley—"
"Sam, hey, hey!" Dean broke in, trying to quiet his brother's rushing words. "Those demons lost their humanity. You heard Crowley. You're lookin' at me. I still got mine."
"But killing is going to burn it out of you, Dean!"
Dean shrugged. "Hasn't so far."
Sam frowned, tilting his head in confusion.
"It's the only thing I've ever been good at, Sam." Dean offered his brother a small smile, not even having to force it this time. "Dad knew it. It's why he knew he could make me promise to kill you if I couldn't save you. Alistair knew it. Hell, even Cas knows it. It's why he let Uriel call me in to torture Alistair. It's why he had us question Ezra. I'm good at killing. I'm a weapon." He glanced at the Blade. "I just don't have to worry about a safety switch anymore."
"You listen to me," Dean said, pointing at Sam and narrowing his eyes, making sure he appeared as human as he possibly could. "You don't follow me. You don't look for me. No matter what you hear, no matter what anyone says to you. You stay as far away from me as you can. You hear me coming? You run the other way."
"Like hell." Sam's jaw tightened and his eyes went firm and stubborn.
"I don't want you in the blast zone, Sammy."
"You might not have a choice, Dean," Sam snapped, his voice hardening with determination. "Crowley said that Cain was the only one who could change this."
At that, Dean did react. He felt his perception flare hot and he knew his eyes flashed black from the way Sam involuntarily flinched.
"You stay the hell away from him, Sam."
"If he can help you—"
"He is a killer. The killer."
Sam squared his shoulders. Dean forgot how big his little brother could be when he wanted. "There is no way I'm not going to find a way to get you out of this, Dean."
"What if this is my choice, huh? What if this is what I want? You gonna take that away from me?" Dean challenged, knowing it was below the belt, but ready to do whatever he had to in order to keep Sam safe.
Sam brought his chin up, taking the blow, accepting the judgment. "Is it?" He volleyed. "Are you choosing this, Dean?"
Dean worked his jaw. "If Cain can help, I'll find him. He asked me to do something for him anyway."
Sam tilted his head. "You'll find him?"
"I'll find him."
Sam narrowed his eyes, still not believing. Before Dean could stop him, Sam bent and grabbed the First Blade from where it rested on the bed. He quickly drew the sharp blade across his scarred palm, drawing blood.
"What the hell are you—"
Sam grabbed Dean's wrist and sliced Dean's hand, then dropped the blade.
"Sam, have you lost your friggin' mind?"
"Promise me," Sam shouted, then slapped his bloody hand against Dean's wounded palm and gripped his brother tight.
Dean felt a strange sensation burn up his arm to the Mark as their blood mingled. It was like a limb coming to life, pins and needles pricking his hand, his arm, centering on the brand. Sam blinked rapidly, looking down at their clasped hands, blood running from their palms and slipping down their wrists.
"I promise," Dean whispered. "As long as you promise to stay away from him."
Sam swallowed, nodding. "I'll stay away from Cain…but I won't stop looking for a way to save you. I…," he frowned down at their hands, seeming to be unwilling to release Dean, "I owe you that much."
"You don't owe me a damn thing, Sammy."
"Just…don't go down without a fight," Sam said softly. "You…you died on your feet." He met Dean's unwavering gaze. "You died looking life in the eye. Don't just accept this. You're the best man I know. The best, Dean. I won't…I won't lose you to…to Crowley. You get me?"
Dean felt something clench inside of him, something echo in the hollow of his Tin Man chest. He felt the breath he didn't need catch in his throat. He felt his jaw tighten. He felt.
"I get you."
Sam nodded and released their hands, grabbing Dean's discarded shirt and wrapping it around his palm as a make-shift bandage until he could get to something better. Dean grabbed the First Blade from the bed, then picked up a jacket from the floor where it had fallen during his fight with Crowley. Pausing in the doorway of his room, he turned and looked back at his brother.
"Don't give up on me, Sammy."
Eyes bright with tears, mouth tight from holding back emotion, Sam shook his head. "Never."
Dean's mouth pulled up in a half smile without his even having to try. He turned away and headed out of the bunker, walking through the door to find Crowley standing in the road, waiting for him. Dean shrugged into his jacket as he crossed over to the demon king.
"You do realize you no longer need to use doors."
"Go to hell," Dean growled.
"Lead the way," Crowley replied smugly.
Dean narrowed his eyes, but didn't reply. He simply gripped the Blade tighter, his palm still smeared with Sam's blood. That was one wound he wouldn't heal. Not unless he was human again.
Crowley clapped a hand on Dean's shoulder. "Let's go be bad guys."
Dean closed his eyes, felt his world shift, and when he opened them again, a very familiar vista met his sight: Hell.
He raised the Blade; once a hunter of evil, now…an assassin.
a/n: Not an easy one to write, and I'm 99.9% sure Dean won't have this much of his humanity when we see him again in October. But I'm hopeful that there is some of our Dean inside. Hope this met at least part of the expectations of those who requested this tag.
I promise not to write anything else until I reply to each of the story reviews and Ramble comments! See ya'll later!