He went to Hell, and Sam brought him back. It seemed disgustingly simple. Sam let him die, preserved the body, and summoned his spirit back into it.
It only seemed simple, especially to Sam, and Dean wanted it to stay that way.
"Things work differently down there," Ruby said with a shrug. "Time is fluid, easily skewed in one way or another, easy to lose track of too. Imagine my surprise. I died in the fourteenth century. I crawled back out of the pit in the twenty-first." She leaned in closer to him. The smell of her breath was an odd mixture of sulfur and spearmint. "Things have really improved, especially in the area of sanitation, but I'm still not convinced a man really walked on the moon."
Shaking his head, Dean gave her a wry smile. "Never thought of you as a conspiracy theorist, Ruby."
She shrugged. Her eyes were cool as she quietly assessed him for a moment. "What did you tell Sam?" she asked finally.
Dean scoffed. He was sitting on one of the beds in a rented room, cleaning the Colt under the witch-demon's supervision. Ruby sat cross-legged on the other bed. Sam had gone out for food, reluctantly. It had been over a week since Dean had come back but Sam still felt the need to keep a close eye on him.
"I told him I don't remember."
"Lying is a sin," Ruby said wryly. "You could go to Hell for that."
"Shut up." Dean clicked the cylinder back into place, popped it out again, and reached into his shirt pocket for the bullets she'd made for him. If he thought he'd be successful he might have shot her just because she annoyed him. "He doesn't need to know."
"He thinks you were gone for two days."
"Let him think it."
Ruby narrowed her eyes. "So you think he hasn't noticed how much you've changed? Big difference between two days and two-hundred years, Dean."
His jaw tightened. He didn't look at her, but resumed loading the gun. "It wasn't two hundred years."
"Felt like it, though, didn't it? I have to admit, it was a brilliant plan to amp up the volume like that, make you think that much time was passing. Turning you within Sam's lifetime..." She shook her head. "What a coup."
"Not so brilliant" Dean grunted. "It didn't work."
"That remains to be seen," Ruby said quietly. "Because whether you want to admit it or not, Hell left some nasty scars on you."
"I'm not a demon."
"But you're not the Dean Winchester Sam knew and loved either."
Dean made no reply. He couldn't argue with her. He couldn't deny what she was saying. Why should he tell Sammy though? What good would it do? Sam would just wallow in guilt, and when he wasn't feeling guilty he'd be watching Dean like a hawk, searching for any sign that he had gone darkside. Dean knew this from experience. He'd spent a year doing the same thing to Sam.
Not for the first time Dean wondered where Sam had gone when he died. Sam clearly didn't remember. Dean didn't remember what had happened back in that hospital in Nebraska either. This was different. Why? Was it because he'd been brought back by a spell, drawn back from the pit and returned to his body by unnatural means? Unnatural, as if anything that had happened to either of them had been natural.
Was it because of something else?
It took centuries to change, Ruby had told him that before, but his time in Hell had been warped, sped up – or was it slowed down? He was a special case. They had plans for him, wanted to turn him faster, use him against his brother. For every twenty-four hours that passed above, Dean suffered below for one hundred years. He fought every step of the way. He wouldn't become one of them. He wouldn't forget who he was, where he'd come from.
Memory was a funny thing in Hell. Forgetting meant losing sight of your humanity, true, but it was also the only way to escape the torment, and even then the torment never really ended. Fire, rivers of boiling blood, razorblades of ice – every waking moment was filled with agonizing pain, and every moment was spent awake. There was no losing consciousness in Hell. Bereft of a body to house it, conscious thought was all that existed. They tortured your mind, and your mind could produce physical pain even when there was no physical body. Memory was a source of pain. They used it against you, making you relive the worst moments of your life, fooling you into thinking everything you saw was reality. How many times had he watched Sam die? His father? His mother? How many times had he died? Which scenario had been the true one? That memory had been the first to go, and Sam would not talk about it.
Dean would not talk about Hell, telling Sam he remembered nothing when in truth he had tried his best not to forget anything. He would never forget the fires of Hell. They were real, very real, always burning. Human souls were the fuel that fed them. You burned there among them, consumed, drowning in unspeakable pain, unable to escape the flames that held you captive, shackled you. All around, as far as you could see, were the tortured souls of countless others writhing in their own agony within the fire. It was hard to swallow the fact you were just like them; naked, convulsing, screaming, begging, pathetic creatures.
After so much time passed you started looking forward to the times you'd be singled out for more intense torture, more personal attention. Dragged out of the flames you were whipped and beaten, torn apart, eviscerated, crucified, eaten alive by Hell Hounds...the list was endless. The pain was beyond comprehension, and considered priceless. You craved that pain because it was different.
Ruby must have seen something in his eyes.
"How far did you get?" she asked.
When he didn't answer she got up and came over to sit down beside him. He let her take the gun from his hands. She put it down upon the bedspread, making sure he saw it was still well within his grasp should he want it. Her fingers were cool upon his skin as she pushed up his sleeve and took hold of his wrist. From her belt she withdrew a small knife.
She cut him across the arm, all the while staring into his eyes, looking for the flinch of pain that never came.
"First stage," she whispered, letting the blood run down his arm and over her hand. "If Sam hadn't brought you back when he did you wouldn't be taking this, you'd be giving it."
Dean pulled his arm away from her and got up from the bed to get a towel from the bathroom. He pressed it down hard on the cut. "Butcher," he murmured. She'd cut him deep. He'd have to get rid of the bloody towel before Sam came back and started asking questions.
"What? No smart ass comment about sadomasochistic kinks?"
"Sex has nothing to do with it. You should know." He had the first-aid kit tucked away somewhere in his duffel – there. He pulled it out, searching for bandaging.
"Wow, not only has the legendary Dean Winchester libido gone south, but you've lost your sense of humor."
"Pushed it in front of the bus." He shrugged, bit a piece of tape off with his teeth and stuck it to the gauze he'd placed over the wound. "Small price to pay to keep something else."
Wit or compassion. Dean had chosen compassion. As for his sex drive - there was power in celibacy, Sam had taught him that. Hell taught him how easy it was for your primal instincts to be turned against you, and he was much more prudent about engaging them. He snorted softly to himself. He would have paid highly to have memories of those lessons erased – for a number of reasons.
Ruby tipped her head thoughtfully. She knew what he meant. "I kept my wit."
"So I've noticed."
She got up and moved across the room toward him. Dean watched her in the vanity mirror as he finished binding up the cut on his arm. Her eyes went dark. Her body pressed close to his. It was cool, like her hands, but warmed steadily the longer she remained near him. He found himself leaning against her. Since he'd come back, he always felt cold. His mind recalled the fiery pit and translated it to his body. This world was cold. He could never get warm.
"You want me to hurt you?" she whispered. "Or pretend to anyway." Her voice was soothing, patronizing. "Oh, I know," she said, rubbing his shoulders with her hands. "I've been there remember? First stage – you've gotten used to the pain, crave it, want more because after a while you lose the ability to feel almost everything." Her hands suddenly curled into claws, her nails digging into his arms as if to illustrate her point. Before he might have gasped, moved away, now he didn't. "Stage two – you join the ranks of those who dole it out, because it's far better to give than receive. Pain is demon crack."
His voice was rough. "I'm not..."
Their eyes met in the mirror. Hers were filled with darkness, while his remained human.
"Maybe not," she murmured. "But like I said before, you're not who you once were either. You took a walk on the wild side, Dean. You survived what for all intents and purposes was two-hundred years in Hell and retained most of your humanity. But you're still fighting the fight aren't you? It would be so easy to give in wouldn't it? To let go of your soul, to soak up the heat of Hellfire until all the pain is gone?"
Dean felt a shudder run through his body. It was cold here, always cold. Living was a struggle - dealing with emotions he hadn't felt in a long time, trying to be what he was before so Sam wouldn't notice how much he'd changed, what he'd become. He dreamed of the fire every night, longing for its warm caress, but he knew if he were to ever go back, he would cease to exist. If he ever went back, he wouldn't fight. He would forget...everything.
"Yes," he whispered. "Sometimes."
"But you can't, can you? Not until you know Sammy is safe, not until this war is over."
"You won't survive otherwise."
"Tell me something new," Dean snorted.
Ruby nodded in acquiescence. "The battle lines have been drawn. If anyone is going to survive this war, they have to pick a side." Her voice lowered. "Choose, Dean. Will it be your brother or the pit? Just remember, one path leads to more pain, and the other oblivion. Go on," she urged. "Spin the wheel."
Dean stared at her, hardly believing what he was hearing. She was asking for his allegiance, his pledge, as if he weren't to be trusted. "I'm his brother," he said hotly. "I think my choice is obvious."
"You've been to Hell, bucko. I need to know for sure where you stand, for Sam's sake."
"I'm his brother!" Dean repeated, twisting away to face her directly. "Whatever else I've become, I'm that first. That hasn't changed. Sam comes first, just like he always has!"
Rage boiled up inside him. Who did she think she was, dictating to him what was best for Sam? Telling him he might be a danger to his own family! Sam was his responsibility, his job, not hers, and she was not going to usurp his position at his brother's side. He hadn't spent the past two centuries being tortured for nothing. He'd done it for Sam. No one should question his loyalty, especially since he'd fought so hard, so long, to keep it.
"You left him..."
"I brought him back. I sold my soul for him, isn't that enough?"
"You. Left. Him." Ruby growled. "You jumped the gun, Dean." Dean started to push past her but she stopped him with a hand to his arm. "You assumed he was dead."
He jerked his arm away, but remained where he was. "I didn't assume anything. No breath, no pulse, what would you call it? I called it dead."
"He defeated Jake. He won the contest and came into his full power. You had nothing to do with bringing him back. He had the ability to heal himself."
"Well I didn't get the goddamn memo!" Dean roared, his voice ripping his throat raw as he suddenly lunged at her with all the speed and power of a striking cobra. He caught her by the arms, thrusting her hard into the wall, so hard the plaster cracked above her head. "I did what I had to do! All that I knew to do!" He gave her one hard shake. "I couldn't lose him!"
He froze, moaning softly. Out of the corner of his eye he'd caught sight of their reflection in the mirror. Ruby's eyes had gone back to that of a human again, and the smirk had left her face. She looked afraid, afraid of him, and for good reason.
His eyes were filled with darkness, black and shiny like puddles of spilled ink.
Eyes gone black, lips curled back in a snarl, it was obvious he was no longer human. He'd forgotten just enough, lost just enough to tip the scales in Hell's favor – all this despite his desperate fight, his tenacious will to survive the ordeal intact.
"Deny it all you want," Ruby breathed. "You are what you are."
Dean looked away from the mirror, his head bowed, eyes downcast. He let go of Ruby's shoulders. His own slumped in defeat. "And what is that?" he whispered hoarsely, though he already knew the answer.
"A demon who remembers." Ruby's head cocked, slightly. Her smirk returned. "Sucks ass, doesn't it?" Breathing a little heavily, she brushed drywall dust out of her hair. "You were duped, Dean. The crossroads demon knew. You sold your soul and got nothing in return. This isn't a war between human and demon, this is a war between demon and demon." She shot him a glare. "All you did was make Sam weak, more vulnerable, more corruptible, and that's exactly what they wanted. "
Have you ever heard the saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't?
How certain are you that what you brought back is one hundred percent Sam?
"Son of a bitch..."
"You're one of us, and it's just desserts," Ruby continued. "Because now we have to fight that much harder...yes, we. Surprised? There are more just like me, and you. Demons who remember, demons who want to be saved. Sam has that ability. He is our messiah, and we are his army."
Dean struggled to get his head around what she was saying. There were demons...good demons? Or rather, demons who were trying to do good? What about Casey? She said she might have followed Sam too. If Dean hadn't interfered would she be dead now, or would Sam have spared her, saved her? Could Sam save them all?
"Was on our side."
Anger surged, Dean held it back, but he could hear it in the sharpness of his voice. "He killed our mother. He killed our father."
"Your mother was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Ruby returned. "This is war, Short Bus. Humans, innocent people, will get caught in the crossfire. It sucks, but that's the way things are." She shrugged. "As for John - there was no love lost between them. It was a bad decision on Azazel's part to bring you back, but he needed the Colt, hated your father, and liked to play around with your head. He lost sight of the big picture, and nearly sacrificed our cause to satisfy his own desires."
Dean turned away from her, shaking his head. If what she said were true, everything he had ever known, ever believed had just been turned upside-down. His father had been wrong. John Winchester had been wrong – about everything – including his decision to bring Dean back the first time. What was dead should have stayed dead. Everything that had gone awry since their father made his deal with Azazel, had happened because of Dean's very existence.
Sam wasn't different because he had been brought back from the dead, Sam had changed because Dean made a deal that forced him to become something he wasn't. The one who had Sam's best interest had been the one who gifted him with God-like abilities, who made sure he was tempered and trained to stay true to himself when all the others went bad. No one would have believed it.
He was the one who for years had been tops on the Winchester most wanted list - Azazel, the yellow-eyed demon. Dean now realized that by killing Azazel they had set Sam adrift, adrift and spiraling out of control.
Ruby approached quietly. He sensed her presence behind him, felt her hand on his shoulder. "We can't undo what's been done. We have to work with what we have, salvage what we can. Sam has to be convinced to take point, lead us the way he was supposed to do. If we lose this war, Dean, there will be no question about it. We'll go back to the pit, and you can kiss what little humanity you have left good-bye."
Dean turned his head, gazing at nothing, trying to sort out the cacophony of thoughts racing around in his head. What was right? What was wrong? Where did they have to go from here to make things turn out the way they were supposed to?
After a moment he went back to the bed and picked up the Colt. He'd noticed since he'd come back he could sense the power in it. It could hurt them, but it could also hurt him. Newly awakened instincts told him to get away from it.
Instead he curled his hand more tightly around the grip, raised his chin, and gave the she-demon a long, cool, dark look. She would not question his loyalty. As bruised and battered and warped as they now were, Dean's heart and soul belonged to his little brother. They always had been, and they always would be, forever.
"Tell me what we have to do."