In a Darkened Room
Things went wrong from the beginning. It wasn't a nest of imps, it was demons, the demon, and they were totally unprepared.
He realized that too late, when he was lying half-buried in a heap of bodies, feeling blood pool in his punctured lung, run down his chest from the slash across his throat. Nothing was going to save him now. Not even his brother.
Oh, God. He had to—he had to help—he couldn't help, it was too late—but he had to, he owed him that—nothing could help—
Heat. Warmth. Life.
His mangled throat couldn't form the words. Who are you?
A prisoner of the one you fight. I can help you. I can help your brother.
Never make deals with the devil.
As if I were a mere devil, came the prompt answer. For a second, he imagined that he could feel flames licking at his skin, smell burning flesh— This is what I am. What I can give you.
He could feel the blood slowing in his veins. Feel his heart weakening, muscles stiffening. He was dying. But I'm—
Not yet. As long as there is still life, I can help. But you have to ask.
Ask. Ask a question when he couldn't even talk. When he could hardly breathe. And ask it of a creature he couldn't identify—
This is who I am, came the answer, and the tunnel burst into light, dazzling his eyes.
Help me, he whispered, and the light became part of him.
Dean woke someplace cold and dark. His entire body ached, like he'd just fought off a dozen guys.
Oh, wait. He had. Demon-minions. Minor demons? Whatever they'd been, it had been a hell of a fight. He remembered that, even though he didn't remember losing. By the way his head hurt, he'd be willing to bet somebody had hit him with something hard. Maybe the same something that had connected with his ribs and made breathing a painful proposition. The ankle was hardly noticeable under all that, which was impressive, since he thought it might be broken.
"Sam?" he whispered.
There was something wrong with the voice. It was Sam's, he'd know Sammy's voice anywhere, but— He couldn't put his finger on it. "Where—"
"Right here." The room lightened, as if a dimmer switch had been turned. "Lie still. You took a hard hit. Luckily, just your head."
"Yeah, yeah." Rocks. The room was made of rocks. Dark square rocks. Training kicked in, informing him that that meant a man-made structure, possibly underground. "Where are we?"
"Safe," came the quick answer. "For the moment, anyway. I've got the entrances salted."
"Dean, what's wrong?"
Sam loomed over him suddenly; there was blood all over him, matting his hair, but none of it seemed to be his. He pulled Dean's shirt up. "Oh, man, that looks bad, Dean—" Fingers gently explored the injury, but no amount of gentleness could prevent another flood of pain; Dean bit his tongue choking on the scream. "God, I'm sorry, Dean, I didn't mean it, I'm sorry—"
The pain eased off. Dean swallowed the blood in his mouth. "Okay," he whispered. "Not your fault."
"I think your ribs are broken—"
"Yeah." Careful. Had to be careful. "Get out of here." His head hurt. "After you—"
"I'm not leaving you, Dean."
"Have to. Kill—"
"You think they won't kill you?" came the sharp answer.
"Haven't spent years trying to catch me." Pointing that out took all his strength, and he lay there trying to catch his breath. The floor beneath him was damp, the water soaking through his shirt. Jacket. Where was his jacket?
"I took your jacket off while you were out," Sam said, anticipating the question. "I wanted to make sure you didn't get stabbed or shot—"
"I know. I didn't want you hurting yourself."
"I had to wait until you were awake to see how bad the injuries were. I'm sorry, Dean, I tried to get to you, but there were too many—"
"It's okay." If he took careful breaths, his ribs didn't hurt as much, and he could talk. "Sammy, you gotta leave. Now. The demon was here, I saw it, it'll kill you—"
"Nothing can kill me, big brother. Not now." Yellow flickered across Sam's eyes. "Not ever."
He placed his hand against Dean's broken ribs, and heat and pain surged up and dragged Dean screaming into unconsciousness.
Dean woke again in darkness, but not cold, not damp, and no stone floor beneath him. In fact, he felt like—like—
The light gradually came up, the same dimmer-effect as before, and that was when Dean realized he was suspended in midair, wearing only his jeans; even his ring and amulet were gone. He couldn't move his arms or legs.
"Right here." The light became bright enough for him to make out a chair carved from the same stone as the rest of the room, directly in front of him; Sam—no, the thing that had taken over Sam lounged in it, watching him with eyes that periodically flickered golden. He still wore the bloody shirt, but most of the dried blood had been scrubbed off his skin and out of his hair. "Does it still hurt?"
"No," Dean answered automatically, and it surprised him to realize it was true. There wasn't even a residual ache in his ribs. "What did you—"
"I fixed it." Yellow flared. "I have some healing powers."
"You're not my brother."
"Oh, ouch," Sam said, theatrically clutching his chest, his eyes dark again. "That hurts."
"Dean, I'm not a demon."
"You're the fucker that killed my mother—"
"No, that was a demon." Yellow again. He'd never seen a demon switch so rapidly. "Several years ago I took a host. What I didn't know at the time was that he was possessed. I wound up in the demon. We struggled for years, each trying to take control, but while we fought, he used my powers to gain dominance over the demon world and start his war. He used me as much as he used any human he possessed."
"Gotta give you credit. I've never heard a demon claim to be possessed before."
"I knew that was how you'd take it." Sam sighed. "Look, I know this is confusing. I know it's not what you've believed, because it's not what I—"
"Get out of my brother."
"It doesn't work that way." Sam stood and came over. "It's me. It's Sam. I'm not possessed—"
"Your eyes were yellow!"
"They're not right now!"
"It's sharing my body. Fire just wants a host, Dean, it's not taking over, it's just sharing what it knows and what it can do— The demon took advantage of all the powers that came with it—"
"I'm not listening to you!"
"Well, you don't have a choice!" Sam shouted back.
He sounded just like Sammy, and it hurt, it hurt so much. Everything they'd done, everything they'd fought, and now it had Sammy anyway—it wasn't fair, goddammit, it wasn't fair and it wasn't right and if this wasn't evidence against Sammy's precious God and angels he didn't know what was—
"Who are you?"
"Sam told you who I am." Yellow again. "I am Fire."
"That's not a—"
That's not a name. Names were important to demons, he remembered reading that in one of Pastor Jim's books; their power was bound up in their names, and they'd kill each other over the slightest impersonation. What's more, none of them would take an element's name, because—
Because the Element itself would come after them.
"Now you know," the thing in Sam said.
Elementals. True Elementals, ancient, predating pesky concepts like good and evil, not those wimpy little things that anybody with the right incantation and a handful of herbs could summon and bind as a familiar. No wonder they'd never been able to pin down that demon, he wasn't a real demon at all. Even if they had gotten a good shot at him with the Colt, the Elemental's power might have still kept him alive.
"It's both of us, Dean, not just me. It's not like when the demon had me. I'm awake, the whole time, even when Fire speaks, I know what it does, and I can argue. These powers, the kids like me, the war—that's what the demon wanted, but it's not what Fire wants. It just wants a host. A place to live."
"So do demons."
"Demons want vessels. There's a difference. I never got it until now. Vessels are controlled. Hosts—hosts share."
"You're Elementals!" Dean shouted. "Why the fuck do you need hosts? You guys are more powerful than that!"
The flames danced in Sam's eyes again. "We were, once," he—it said. "In the beginning, the four of us were one. All matter in the universe was part of us. Nothing material existed outside of us. And the gods, the demons, all the bodiless ones, they despised us for it. There were no worshippers, no worlds to dominate. So they joined forces and pooled their powers and they forced us apart."
The flickering yellow disappeared from Sam's eyes. "Come on, Dean, you're not stupid. You've heard of the Big Bang. That was the result of the Sundering. Ever since, the Elementals have been trying to reunite. Not necessarily as one, but as—as family. That's all they want. To be together again. You can understand that, can't you? You of all people?"
It took everything he had not to look at Sam's earnest face and pleading, human eyes. If he did, if he saw Sammy there instead of the demon, he'd be lost. Sam might be Dean's biggest weakness, but Dean knew that, and that gave him a little advantage. It wasn't much, but it was something.
"The gods and demons, they didn't want them to reunite. The Elementals are too powerful. So they made it so they had to have hosts, human hosts. But they can only take a host with a certain gene. A marker. Fire can only inhabit people with Fire markers. It's been that way throughout history. It was meant to keep them distracted, because not everybody has a marker, and the ones with more than one don't survive. Until Mom and Dad. They each had two markers. Nobody ever survived with two before."
"No, but they didn't find them then. Not until the demon hunted me down. See, it's not just Mom and Dad. Me and you, Dean, we have all four. Whatever it was Mom and Dad have that kept them from dying with the multiple markers, we have it too."
"So what? More than one of you can take a host at once?"
"No, they'd destroy each other. But that means that it can be permanent. They never have to take another host. And they can keep us from dying. They'll make us immortal, Dean—"
"Sam wouldn't want to be!"
Sam sighed, and the yellow glazed his eyes again. "Not alone," said that voice that was and wasn't his. "But with a family?"
"Yeah, well, you killed our family, and I can't see him—"
"I did no such thing!" Fire had a temper. "I killed none of those people! The demon used me!"
"You were there!"
"So were you!" Flames exploded from the walls. Sam jumped back, startled, visibly shaken, and fought for control. The fires died down. "Dean," Sam pleaded, his eyes normal again, "please. We can be a family again, the way you wanted—"
"Sammy wouldn't ask that," Dean growled. "Sammy doesn't want—"
"Then you don't know me as well as you think you do. What do you think I was looking for, all those years I tried to have normal?"
"We were a family!"
"We were what was left of a family!" Sam shot back. "Mom's death destroyed us!"
There was too much truth in the accusation for Dean to argue. Suddenly exhausted, he sagged against the magic holding him. "Just kill me," he said. "Get it over with."
"Dammit, Dean— Dad, help me here."
Dean laughed. "Sammy would never ask for Dad's help! Not to mention, he's dead! We—"
The familiar gravelly voice nearly made his heart stop. John Winchester stepped into Dean's view. It was him, as much as Fire was Sammy, alive and whole, breathing even. "You're dead," Dean said flatly. "We salted and burned—"
"There is nothing you can burn that I can't re-create," Sam said evenly, with a flicker of gold in his eyes. "I am Fire."
"No, Dean." John moved so that he was face to face with Dean. Mossy green filmed his eyes, obscuring their normal dark brown, and then faded. "I'm here. I'm alive. Fire re-made my body and pulled me out of Hell—"
"I'm not falling for it!" Dean shouted, squeezing his eyes shut against the sight. If he didn't look, maybe this whole nightmare would cease to exist, and it would just be him and Sam and the thing possessing Sam—
"My poor boy."
Oh, sweet Jesus, no. No.
A hand caressed his cheek, gently, lightly—a touch that sparked a flood of childhood memories, all the things he tried his best not to remember, and in that moment Dean was convinced his soul had just died. "You don't have her," he snarled.
"Listen to your brother, Dean," the voice said softly, and she kissed him on the cheek.
His eyes opened of their own will. "Mom?" he whispered.
Mary smiled at him, the smile that he remembered so well, the smile he tried not to remember for fear of opening wounds that had never really healed. Flickers of white, like racing clouds, obscured the blue of her eyes. "We can be a family again, Dean," Mary said, stroking his hair. "All that was taken from us, we can reclaim."
"No." Hold on to that. Believe that. Don't let it go. "It doesn't matter what you are. What you say you are. This wouldn't be family." Not family. Never family. Never his family.
"Told you he'd be stubborn," John said. He'd used those same words to Pastor Jim once, when they were trying to convince Dean that he didn't need to be in the same classroom as Sammy to protect him.
"Dean, they share. It's not like being possessed by a demon. Come on, wouldn't I know?"
Dean met his brother's pleading eyes evenly, then pointedly shifted his gaze to the rock wall above Sam's head. The only way to resist the puppy-dog eyes was to not look. Years of experience had taught him that.
Sam was Fire. Dad—green could only mean Earth. The similarity to clouds in Mom's eyes couldn't be accidental; Air. That left—
"Find another host," he spat. "I'm not letting some overgrown swimming pool share my brain."
"Why? Worried that the chlorine will clean out that dirty mind of yours?" Sam retorted.
"My family likes my dirty mind."
"Your family puts up with it," Sam snapped back. "Because we love you. We want you to be part of this, Dean." The golden haze again. "We want you for Water, no one else," said Fire. "Sam wants his brother."
"And your parents want their son," Air said.
"What do you care what they want?" Dean shouted. "You're possessing them!"
"We cannot exist without them," Earth rumbled. "Everyone benefits."
"We do not possess," Fire added, a bit snippily. "The Sundering requires us to ask."
"Sam would never—"
The yellow disappeared, and it was Sam looking at him, his eyes dark with guilt. "I did, Dean. I had to get to you. There wasn't any other way."
"You would have—"
"I was hurt!" Sam yelled. For an instant, Sam stood there beaten and bloody, with an arrow in his chest and his throat slit, and then it was gone. "One of the demons got me! Fire saw its chance to get free of the demon and jumped to me and offered to help!"
"No," Dean whispered.
"If Fire leaves now, I'll die, Dean, I'll be as dead as Mom and Dad were! Is that what you want?"
"I would be, Dean! For a minute, I was! I felt that arrow go into my lung, I felt the demon cut my throat, I knew it was too late! And all I could think was that I was letting you down, because you needed me and I couldn't get there to save you—" There were tears in Sam's eyes. "Dammit, Dean, I was trying—"
"You weren't supposed to save me." It wasn't Sammy's place to do the saving. That was Dean's job. Always had been. Always would be.
Except that he'd failed. Sam was dead. All the possession in the world couldn't change that.
He'd fucked up, and it had cost Sammy his life, and maybe his soul.
It was too much.
He wasn't aware of the magic around him fading, allowing him to crumple in on himself, until his mother pulled him into her arms, and he dimly realized he was sobbing into her shoulder, the way he had when he was little, after a bad dream, or the time he'd broken his wrist. Back when life wasn't about being strong for Dad or Sammy.
"Let us help, Dean," she murmured, rocking him. He was aware of Sam, putting a worried, reassuring hand on his shoulder, and Dad, kneeling close by, and it only made things worse. Dead, all of them, dead, and all he had left were tears.
He shouldn't be the only one left. He didn't deserve it. If he did—
We can help, something whispered, in the darkness of his mind, a voice that seemed made of tears. All you ever wanted was your family. I can give you that. I can give us both that.
His world was gone. What did it matter?
Dean jerked awake.
Sunlight streamed through the window onto his bed.
His bed. Not some lumpy motel bed, but a real, honest-to-God bed, with a nice headboard and fish-patterned sheets and a blue-and-green comforter. Not a motel room, either, but a real bedroom, in a house—second story, if the tree branches outside the window meant anything.
He sat up. The room was large, cluttered, lived-in, strewn with dirty clothes and weapons. Desk, laptop, a kickass music collection, a gorgeous gun cabinet, a fish tank without fish, a few posters on the blue walls—posters he might have picked out, if he'd ever had a room of his own to decorate. It felt—it felt like him, like his place, if he'd ever had one. Even that silly fish tank, which seemed set up more to showcase aquarium gadgets than any fish (and who the hell put a ceramic Impala in their fish tank?), seemed right.
He reached under a pillow and found the reassuring weight of his hunting knife. If this was a hallucination, he wouldn't have any reason to keep a knife within reach while he slept. Right?
It was so peaceful. Motels, all you heard were car engines and slamming doors and sirens, and sometimes the hooker next door. But here— God, he could hear birds.
He crawled out of bed and went over to the window, stepping gingerly over a pile of denim and a box of ammo. Second story, definitely; the tree shaded a massive lawn, and there was a flower garden, and the Impala parked in a driveway next to a black truck and a sky-blue sedan, with a fourth car, red, on the far side of the truck, and no neighbors' houses as far as he could see.
Dean pulled on a shirt and a pair of jeans out of the pile and slipped into the hall. Across the hall was another bedroom—this one way neater than his, and crammed with so many books that he couldn't even see the color of the walls. The comforter on the bed was a fiery red, and there were lots of half-burned candles scattered around.
Stairs opened up to his left, and he crept down them, knife in one hand. Laughter floated out of the kitchen—familiar, Saturday-morning laughter, the kind he hadn't heard in years. His eyes stung at the memory.
In the kitchen, Mom and Dad were playfully fighting over space at the stove, Mom brandishing a skillet and a package of bacon and Dad blocking her from interfering with the waffle iron—
Son of a bitch.
Waffles. Dad was making waffles. He'd done that every Saturday before Mom died, maybe even before they were married. Definitely since before Dean was born.
Waffles had disappeared from the Winchester menu after Mary's death. Sammy must have asked a thousand times why Dad and Dean never ate them, even in restaurants.
"Somebody slept in." Sam grinned at him from across the kitchen table, where he sat with a book and a glass of orange juice, guarding a plate of sausage, which was not entirely unlike trusting the fox to guard the henhouse. "You've been out for three days."
Sam saw the knife in Dean's hand, and the grin widened. "Were you wanting to kill breakfast yourself?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "This is the twenty-first century, you know, we have things called grocery—"
"This isn't right," Dean said. Mom and Dad turned to look at him. Her eyes were white, his were green, just for a second before the illusion vanished and they were normal again. "We never— Not after— Sammy—" His choked on the emotion rising in his throat.
"We can't undo the past," Sam said—gently, coaxingly, like he might to a stubborn kid. Yellow leapt across his eyes, a heartbeat of flame. "We can only live in the present."
Mirror. He needed a mirror.
He whirled around, stalked back into the den, where the mirrored back of a curio cabinet reflected the room back out. He stood in front of it, searching his reflection for—
Sapphire blue rippled across his eyes, just for a moment before it was gone.
Ripples. Like water ruffled by the breeze.
"Water," he whispered, and there was an answer from somewhere deep inside, a voice that wasn't a voice, speaking silently of waves and currents, deep silence and liquid darkness. Not him, clearly not part of Dean, but living in this body alongside him, merged with the tides of the blood, sharing knowledge and power and—and existence.
And grateful. Grateful for the tortured, desperate, half-choked whisper that had finally allowed it entrance.
A hand touched his shoulder, gently, and he turned to look into his mother's eyes. White flickered in them, and the slightest hint of a warm breeze danced through the air. "Welcome home, Dean."