Author notes: My eternal gratitude to tanaquisga for beta work and text suggestions.
When Dean looked back up, Ruby was gone.
Damned freaky, how demons could disappear like that, without making a sound.
A cold gust of wind sweeping across the empty parking lot made him snuggle deeper into his jacket. He glanced over at the only lit-up motel window. Sam should be about done washing plaster dust from his hair, and they could go out, find a bite to eat. Have a drink, maybe. After all, they came out on top tonight. Should be reason enough to celebrate.
But Dean didn't go in. He turned from the window and started walking away. He wasn't in the mood to face his brother right now. One look at Dean and Sam would know something had happened. He'd ask, and he wouldn't take no for an answer; he never did. And explaining to Sam what Ruby had told him was very low on Dean's list of fun things to do at the moment.
Dean sauntered along the quiet, dark streets, hardly registering where he was going until he found himself outside a bar, light and laughter spilling out onto the sidewalk. He pushed through the door and hoisted himself onto a stool, telling the bartender to pour him a drink.
While he waited, he looked around at the crowd: people talking, laughing, enjoying themselves. A pretty redhead caught his eye and smiled an invitation. Dean didn't return her smile; he barely even noticed her.
They have no fucking clue.
There was a war going on right under their noses, and they didn't even know it.
The bartender finished pouring and set the glass down in front of Dean. Dean threw back the liquor in one swallow, relishing the way it burned along his gullet. He gestured for a refill.
Damn that Ruby chick. She was... What was that word...? An enigma. Ruby was an enigma. A demon who'd saved a demon-hunter's life. His life. And while Dean would never stop wondering why, he couldn't deny it had happened. So, what about the rest of it? Had she really been human once?
But they don't lie all the time. And that was the crux, wasn't it?
The witch-demon had said a similar thing about Ruby's past, and Dean was inclined to believe them. Unless those two had been in it together all along, and it was part of a bigger scheme to mess with his mind...?
No. Dean shook his head. He couldn't think like that; that way lay paranoia, conspiracy theories, and madness. The simple truth, if that was what it was, was insane enough.
Hellfire and agony slowly stripping away the humanity of every stupid bastard who'd sold his soul to the devil... Where did that leave him? Was he gonna turn into one of those... things? The thought brought a bitter taste to Dean's mouth, and he gulped down another slug of whiskey to wash it away.
To become what he hated most in this world... That wasn't something he'd bargained for.
For the first time since the night he made that desperate deal at the crossroads, Dean started to second-guess his decision.
Sam wasn't wrong, of course: the idea of going to hell scared the shit out of him. And Dean knew that if he let himself dwell on it too much, he'd turn into a blubbering wuss—which was one reason why he buried himself up to his neck in jobs. That way, he didn't have time to think. Didn't mean uncertainty and doubt didn't try to worm their way into his mind every once in a while. But when they did, all it took was a quick glance sideways, to Sam slouching or sleeping in the passenger seat, and Dean knew he'd done the right thing.
Sam would live, that was all that mattered.
All that had mattered. Before he found out what he might become...
Dean's eyes stung, and he realized they'd grown moist. Fuck that. He wasn't going to sit here and cry into his drink about his fate. He was a goddamn Winchester, and Winchesters never took shit lying down.
He finished off the shot, peeled some dollar bills from a stack of winnings from hustling pool and dropped them on the bar.
He didn't dare fuck with the deal: the risk of losing Sam was too great. But if there was a way to keep himself whole, even in hell, he was damned well gonna find it.
Over the next days, Dean had grabbed whatever chances he'd gotten to research everything he could find about the origins of demons. Book lore had never been his thing, but he was nearly as adept at it as Sam if he really set his heart to it—and he had plenty at stake to keep him motivated while he scoured one dusty library after another.
The books weren't the problem. The hard part was keeping it a secret. Getting rid of Sam while he visited local libraries or interviewed college professors. Dean didn't manage to do nearly as much digging as he wanted. And each day, hell loomed a little closer.
He started snatching time on Sam's laptop—while Sam was in the shower, or snoring softly in the second bed—to surf the web. Funny how that worked, Dean thought, yawning as he scanned another halfway promising website. Used to be Sam skulking about in the middle of the night, unable to sleep.
One night Sam nearly caught him.
He was concentrating so hard on puzzling through an archaic demonology text written by a medieval monk that he didn't hear the change of rhythm in Sam's breath that heralded his brother waking up until Sam's sleepy voice broke the quiet.
"Whatcha doin'?" Sam raised himself on his elbows and peered blearily at Dean.
Dean snapped upright, swinging the computer round so Sam couldn't see what was on the screen. "Nothin'," he blurted.
It was the wrong answer, and Dean realized it in the instant it took for Sam's gaze to snap into focus and his eyes to narrow.
"Surfin' for porn," Dean amended. "Couldn't sleep, and it helps me relax, y'know?"
Sam stared suspiciously at Dean for a moment longer, before he let himself fell back and rolled over onto his stomach. "Whatever. Freak," he murmured, his voice muffled against the pillow.
Dean smiled. "Jerk." But Sam had already fallen asleep again. Dean turned his attention back to the web page.
But no amount of research told Dean what he wanted to know. Sure, he found plenty of theories on the origins of demons in the small libraries in New England and the Midwest, Christian lore being the most prominent. According to those texts, demons were fallen angels, cast out of heaven. Other religions made them out to be demigods, or malevolent spirits, or lesser deities with jealous tendencies... Nothing indicated that they had been human once, except Ruby's story. But nothing said they hadn't been, either...
Dean grew desperate. So much time wasted, and he was no closer to finding an answer than he'd been the night Ruby revealed his future to him. At last, at his wit's end, he decided to take a chance and call Bobby.
"What happens to a human soul in hell?" Bobby had repeated after Dean had explained what he wanted to know. "What kind of a question—?" There was a sudden, long silence at the other end of the line as Bobby remembered. At last, sounding resigned: "Dean... I just don't know. All I can give you is rumor and speculation. It's not like anybody ever came back and wrote a book about it." He hesitated again. "I could try make a few calls but..."
Bobby went on talking, apologizing, but Dean was no longer listening.
Because Bobby was wrong. There was one man who'd crawled out of hell with his humanity intact. John Winchester. His dad.
Once the idea took root, it refused to die. His father was the only man Dean could rely on to tell him the truth about hell, the only one he'd believe implicitly. But he couldn't ask him. John was dead, and in a better place—or so Dean fiercely hoped—and he wasn't about to mess with any of the dozen ways he knew to... make contact.
But each day after Bobby unwittingly planted the idea in his mind, his need to know grew stronger. Finally, he could no longer resist.
He waited until Sam went on a laundry run, knowing it'd be a while before his brother came back. Dean knew he hadn't exactly been the best of company over the past weeks, and as Sam left, he'd seen the relief on his face, quickly hidden but real enough, at having an excuse to spend a few hours away from his brother.
Determined now that his mind was made up, Dean didn't hesitate. He quickly drew the sigils and symbols he needed on the grimy carpet of the motel room. A wood or flagstone floor would've been easier, but beggars can't be choosers and he didn't have time to go and find another location. Sam wouldn't be gone that long.
He carefully placed the candles in the right places, mixed and ground the herbs in an earthen bowl, and set the bowl in the center of the innermost circle. Finally...some of his blood was needed.
Dean grimaced. Why did it always have to be blood? At least he should only need a tiny droplet for the spell to work. Or that was the theory.
He pressed the tip of his knife to the pad of his left thumb and watched blood well from the small cut. Lifting his hand, he let it drip on the herbs and spoke the words of the incantation he'd copied down from a musty, old book.
For a long minute, nothing happened. Dean didn't know what he'd expected—thunder crackling, lights flashing, the ground shaking, perhaps—but it damn well wasn't such a complete silence.
Somewhere down on the highway, a car backfired, the bang muted by distance and the thin motel walls. Dean cursed below his breath and tried to imagine what he'd done wrong. The spell obviously hadn't worked and—
He spun on his heel at the tremulous, confused mention of his name. His breath hitched.
The specter of John Winchester shimmered in front of him, insubstantial at first but growing more tangible with every passing second. Dean watched in fascination, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, as his father's presence firmed up before his eyes.
"Dean, what... what's going on?" John still sounded a little disoriented but his voice had grown stronger as his body became more solid—and a hint of his old determination had crept into his tone. Dean couldn't tear his gaze away from him: John looked younger, somehow calmer, the lines around his eyes less pronounced. He looked... at peace.
And Dean had ripped him from it, had brought him back...
"Dad... I'm sorry... I shouldn't have..." Dean's voice caught in his throat on the last word and he tried to swallow down a lump.
"I'd say that pretty much sums it up," John said dryly. He nodded at the circles on the floor, the bowl and the candles. "I thought I taught you better than to mess around with stuff like this." There was no anger in his voice, not yet, but Dean knew it was just a matter of time.
"I'm sorry. But I need your help..."
John crossed his arms over his chest and, although he looked solid enough, Dean could tell his father wasn't really there. His body rippled whenever he moved, and for an instant Dean could make out the square of the TV through his father's chest. Bile rose in his throat and he took a deep breath. He was grateful when John stopped shifting.
"I really fucked up, Dad. With Sam." He hung his head, no longer able to look his father in the eye. "I thought I was doing the right thing but..." He scuffed at the carpet with his toe, "... I think I did something incredibly stupid instead." He waited for the inevitable outburst of criticism and disapproval.
Instead of condemning him, his father said mildly, "Why don't you tell me about it?"
Dean risked a glance at him, eyes narrowing with suspicion. Dad—his real Dad—would be pissed right about now, chewing him out.
John caught the expression on his son's face and his lips quirked in a wry smile. "It is me, Dean," he said. "Death sort of... mellowed me out, I guess. I see things a little bit more in perspective, now. And being with your mother again helps, too."
"Mom's there?" Dean whispered, incredulous.
"Yeah. She's very proud of you. Both of you, Dean. You and Sammy."
Tears filled Dean's eyes. "That's..." Words failed him and he scrubbed at his cheeks with the back of his hand.
John smiled. "Yeah. I know. But catching up on the family isn't why you summoned me, is it?"
Dean shook his head. "Sam died," he blurted out. "Before... before you got out of hell and we killed Azazel... Yellow Eyes."
John paled, as much as a ghost could. "Then how...?"
"I made a deal." Dean's voice dropped to a whisper. "Sold my soul. They gave me a year."
"What the fuck?" The famed John Winchester ire was very much in evidence in his bark. "Dean, what the hell were you thinking?"
Dean shrugged one shoulder. "That Sam died. On my watch."
"Shit." John took a deep breath, and Dean thought that very weird. Did ghosts even need to breathe? Or was it just force of habit?
After a moment, John added in a calmer tone, "Well, I guess I can't really fault you." He offered Dean another sad smile. "You're only following my example. And if anyone's to blame, it's me. I put the responsibility for Sam on your shoulders when you were far too young to carry it."
Dean straightened up. "Dad, I never—"
John waved him to silence. "I know. Doesn't change the fact that I did what I shouldn't have done. And I'm sorry. But Dean... there's no way I can help you get out of that deal. You should know that. You made your bed and—"
"That's not why I brought you here," Dean interrupted. "But Dad, I do need to know. What happens... down there... in hell?" He hated the way his voice sounded small, like that of a ten-year old, but he couldn't help it. The thought of becoming a demon frightened him far more than the prospect of eternal agony.
Sam pulled the Impala into the space in front of their motel room and killed the engine. He sat for a moment, thinking. He hoped Dean had cooled off some; his brother's recent behavior was really beginning to worry him: driving like a bat out of hell, snapping at Sam and everyone else who happened to end up in his way, ignoring pretty girls smiling at him. Then there were those nightly sessions on the internet—surfing for porn, my ass. Something new was going on with Dean, had been going on since the night they killed that witch coven in Massachusetts, and Sam wished he knew what the heck it was so he could help.
But Dean was being his usual pigheaded self about it, and kept his cards close to his chest.
Sam sighed, grabbed the bags of laundry and headed for the door, searching his pocket for the keycard. Muted voiced coming from the room stilled his hand. One voice was Dean's, though Sam couldn't make out the words. The other also seemed familiar. An unbidden shiver ran down Sam's spine.
His fumbling fingers finally found the card and he shoved it into the slot. The light blinked green and he pushed down the handle to open the door. Dean was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale, his eyes large and shining.
He was also very much alone.
"Who were you talking to?" Sam asked.
"Nobody," Dean said. "Phone."
Sam snorted. "Right. Dean, I could hear two voices." He set the laundry bags down on his bed and took a good look around the room. There were chalk marks on the carpet and the air smelled of incense and candles. Sam's eyes narrowed. "Dean? What were you doing?"
Dean stiffened his shoulders. "Nothing." Sam knew that tone: it meant none of your business and back off, Sammy. But he wasn't about to give way so easily.
"This is about your deal, isn't it?" He scrutinized the hastily scrubbed-out designs on the floor, and the knife on the table, its point stained dark with blood. It all fell into place. "You summoned something!"
"Did not." But the fire was already going out of Dean, far too quickly for Sam's liking. It worried him even more than Dean's usual defensiveness.
"Who, Dean? Who did you summon? Please tell me it wasn't the Crossroads Demon!"
"Dad. It was Dad." Dean spoke so softly that Sam could barely make out the words.
That second voice... Sam's knees suddenly gave way and he plopped down heavily on the corner of the nearest bed. The bags of clean clothes bounced on the mattress.
"I summoned Dad," Dean repeated. He didn't look at Sam.
"Good god, Dean!" Sam's voice cracked with outrage. "Of all the stupid things... What the hell happened to 'what's dead should stay dead'?" He clenched his fists, forcing himself to take a breath. "You don't muck around with that stuff. Do you have any idea in how many ways that could've gone wrong?"
"Yes, Sam, I do," Dean snapped. "But I had to. I needed to know..."
"K now what?"
"About hell." He swallowed. "Ruby told me that..." Dean's voice trailed off.
"Ruby told you...?" Sam echoed. "Dammit, Dean. You can't believe what she says. Demons lie, remember?"
Dean let out a wry bark of laughter. "Yeah."
Sam took a deep breath. "Did Dad know how to break the deal? How to keep you from going to hell?" He struggled to hold back the hopeful note that threatened to edge into his voice.
Dean finally met Sam's gaze, and Sam knew the answer before he spoke. "No, Sammy. He didn't."
Sam regarded his brother in silence for a long moment. There was something else, something Dean wasn't saying. But right now, Sam couldn't bring himself to ask what it was. There was only so much he could deal with at one time.
Disclaimer: This story is based on the Warner Bros. Television/Wonderland Sound and Vision/Eric Kripke/Robert Singer series Supernatural. It was written for entertainment only; the author does not profit from it nor was any infringement of copyright intended. Please do not redistribute elsewhere without the author's consent.