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How They Have Fallen

by Liz Bach

He recognized pain before anything else. Before the damp stench of decaying meat, stagnant water, and molding rodent feces. Before the muffled rumble of tires gripping asphalt, starting and stopping, and the disconnected, ghostly echo of horns blaring in alternating alarm and contempt. Before the pervasive chill that gripped his hands and his neck and his feet and warred with the gnawing ache of vital things broken or displaced.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been out. For all he knew, it was minutes. For all he cared, it was days. He opened his eyes slowly, and the first thing he saw was the slime-encrusted ceiling. It was cement, and it was rounded, held up over time by rusted but solid metal struts. Heavy piping hung in bundles from thin, steel ties, and ranged in thickness from the circumference of his own arm at the biceps to that of a wheel on a semi-truck.

He was strapped securely to a chair with metal legs and a metal back and what was once a dark green plastic cushion that was now torn in three places and flattened against the plywood seat. His hands were bound to the arm rests, both his ankles lashed to the legs. His entire torso throbbed in rhythm with his heartbeat. It was like torture, but it was the main evidence he had he was still alive. So he embraced it, the pain, like it was good news.

His skull was as if made of lead, and he found he couldn't lift it without sending sharp splinters of hot pain down his neck and back. So he let it hang, chin bowed low toward his chest. From that position he became aware of a warm yellow light glowing weakly off to his right. It was an old camping lantern, made of metal and with its handle resting against one side of the thin glass chimney. He shifted his eyes to the left and realized he was sitting very close to the cement wall, his shoulder nearly touching the muculent sludge that seemed to simultaneously grow out of and drip off of the porous surface.

Gradually, the noise of traffic above him quieted, like rush hour tapering off to an end. In the resulting stillness, he could hear the soft trickle of running water somewhere in the immediate distance. Several of the pipes rushed with liquid: chlorinated water or maybe sewage. Something with small legs skittered behind him, stopped, then disappeared into the darkness.

He was focused so hard on just breathing, on sucking in that dank, heavy air, that the stark echo of thick heels against concrete seemed to come out of nowhere, someone approaching from the darkness ahead. Whoever it was moved slowly, but without caution, as if they knew he was there. A twinge of fear was all he could muster. He couldn't even remember what he'd been hunting, couldn't remember it gaining the upper hand. All he really remembered was being alone when he found it…or when it found him…or whatever.

At first it was just a sound and a shadow. Then he forced his head up, and as it neared the faint light from the lantern, it began to take shape. Small, but powerful. And definitely pissed off. It was a person, and she didn't stop until she was standing right in front of him. Brown boots, dark jeans. Then she dropped to a knee, and they were face to face.

Even in pain, his smirk came naturally.

"Ruby," he said.

Her eyes narrowed, and she didn't smile back.

"Dean."

***

He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or furious, so he settled for a little of both. He still couldn't move his arms and legs, so he sat motionless and just sighed. Long and slow, like it came from the one place within him that was still in one piece. He closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them again Ruby was standing, her arms folded across her chest and her lips pursed in disdain. She walked over to the lantern and nudged it with a booted toe. It made a small scraping sound against the ground and wavered but didn't go out.

"He send you here?" Dean asked suddenly, and Ruby snorted.

Her back still to him, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She put one hand on a hip and slowly rubbed the smooth patch of skin between her eyes with the fingertips of the other. For a moment her shoulders slumped, but then she straightened them again.

"No, he did not," she said quietly, her voice low and controlled. She didn't elaborate.

"Then why are you here?" he pressed, ridiculous in his predicament. Here he was barely conscious and trussed up in the middle of a sewage tunnel. He had no real recollection how he'd gotten there, had no plan for how he was going to get out. He couldn't even be sure whether or not the creature he'd been hunting was still an immediate threat. His current situation didn't exactly scream winning side of the battle, so he figured probably yeah. But Ruby's presence was like a bubble around him, keeping the other dangers out and trapping them, together, within. He hated to admit it, but he felt safe now that she was here. Almost protected.

Ruby turned at the waist and regarded him with her lips slightly parted, those round doe eyes sizing him up and obviously finding him lacking. A scornful expression crossed her face, like even she wasn't sure why she was there and damn Dean for asking. Then she rolled her eyes and turned around completely. She took two steps closer and then just stopped, glaring, eyes smoldering.

"Why are you here?" he repeated, lifting his head slightly higher.

"I'm here to get your ungrateful ass out of this mess," she explained, still just standing there, staring at him.

He stared back for a long moment, waiting. Then all patience left him. He tugged roughly, almost frantically, at his bindings. Desperately enough to draw blood. "Well, you're doing a bang-up job with that, sister," he ground out, his voice breaking somewhere in the middle of the sentiment. "Either cut me loose, or get the hell out of here!"

"Settle down, Dean," she warned calmly, not making a move other than to fold her arms across her chest again.

"Fuck off, bitch," he bit out between clenched teeth.

The pain of struggling with the ropes was blinding, but he could feel it. He could feel it almost as strongly as the anger and disappointment that had been like physical injuries for the past he couldn't remember how long. And if they could somehow balance each other out, he thought he might be able to continue. Continue hunting. Continue being. Continue ignoring. Continue trying to forget.

He wrestled violently with the rope for another minute before the surge of adrenaline started to wane. When he finally stopped, still tightly bound, he was panting and sweating from the exertion. Like he'd just sprinted a mile and never caught what it was he'd been chasing.

"Are you done?" Ruby asked, the flickering lantern light bouncing dark shadows across her face.

He let his head drop forward in exhaustion and defeat. "Are you going to cut me loose, or what?"

"That's a loaded question," she muttered softly, as if to herself. She reached into her jacket and extracted a small knife. Not as fancy as the one they'd lost to Alastair, but in this situation just as useful. She examined the blade closely for a moment, then her eyes slid over to Dean's face. He was dirty and bloody and pale. A fucking train wreck.

She still hadn't made any movement to help him, and he eyed her warily, typically suspicious of her motives for being there. If she was going to set him free, he wished she would do it already. If she was going to kill him, he was just as ready to get that done and over with as well.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Dean," she sighed, as if reading his thoughts. "I am going to get you out of here." She frowned briefly, then tucked the knife back into a pocket. "But there's something I want to say to you first."

"Ruby – " he started, but choked on the name. He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head. "I don't give a shit about anything you have to say."

"You wanna know why I'm here?" she demanded.

His eyes were closed, but he could feel her looking at him. "Lemme guess. Because you're a demon with a fucking heart of gold?"

She didn't respond, and that silence was the last straw. His nostrils flared, and when he opened his eyes they were blazing. "Or is it because you wanna help me? Like you fucking helped– "

He almost said my brother.

She was looking at him the way one might look at a bigot or a racist: a complicated mixture of pity and contempt. She shook her head, her gaze dropping to the floor. When she looked back up at him, it was with renewed venom.

"I'm here," she said slowly, "because he would've wanted me to be."

Dean swallowed audibly. She'd chosen her words carefully, knowing he would pick up on that fact. He restrained himself only seconds. "Is he…?"

"Not yet." She shook her head again, then breathed a quick puff of air through her nose. There was a small smile on her lips, but there was no humor in it. "I should just abandon you here," she said, taking two steps back the way she'd come. Then she stopped. "Like you abandoned him."

Dean shook his head fervently, enough to make his vision dim and then waver. He closed his eyes against the vertigo. "I didn't," he insisted. "He left me. He made that choice." God, it had been like Stanford all over again. Only so much worse. "I tried to stop him. To save him– "

"To save him?" she repeated incredulously. She turned and in two quick strides was knelt before him, a small, warm hand on either of his bloody wrists. She squeezed, and although it was without malice, he still had to bite his bottom lip against the fresh pain it caused him. "Do you know where your brother was back when you made that deal, Dean?"

He didn't answer, just stared down into her dark eyes. They were brimming with the truth, and they stole his breath away. He was suffocating, but the way she looked up at him, it didn't matter.

"He was in Heaven, Dean."

He squeezed his eyes shut again.

"He doesn't remember it, and he probably never will."

He couldn't breathe. He swore he was dying.

"It was a noble and brave thing he did back in that God forsaken town. He resisted Azazel's plans for him; he didn't kill that kid like a lot of the folks downstairs were hoping he would. And because of that, he died a good man.

"But when you brought him back? You brought back more than just your brother, Dean. You brought back everything you should have ever been fighting to save him from. You did this. And now you're angry with him for doing what you forced him to do? For being who you forced him to be?

"He never left you, Dean. He drove you away because that was the only way you would ever let him go. Because there's a bigger picture here. One that you were never able to see past your pathetic little family.

"This world you humans inhabit? It's on the brink of destruction, and it needs someone to save it. And there's only one person on the whole face of the planet who can do it, Dean.

"As much as he loves you, and as much as he doesn't want to hurt you; as much as the way you've treated him and the things you've believed about him have caused him pain, he understands hurting him was never your intent. But he also understands his life is no longer his own. Hell, it never was.

"He persevered back then, Dean. He wasn't perfect, but he tried his damnedest. When everything was stacked against him, he clung to his humanity. And because of that, he died good. He died because of a conscious decision he made to not let Azazel control him, to not let that bastard win. And you took that good, clean death away from him.

"And do you know how he's going to die now? He's going to die soon, and he's going to die painful, and he's going to die alone believing his brother never understood the terrible sacrifice he made. And when he gets to the gates of Heaven this time, Dean? They're not going to let him in.

"So yeah, you stew there in your self-righteous self-pity and anger. Make this about you. How he hurt you. How he left you. How he lied to you.

"He did this for you, Dean. He did it for you, and for everyone the two of you ever fought to save, and everyone who will never even know they were in need of saving.

"I can't see the future, Dean; but I can tell you what's going to happen. He's going to do what you and John trained him to do. You didn't know the extent of it at the time; there's no way you could've. But you should hang onto that, Dean. When it's dark, and you're by yourself, and you know he's gone, but you know you're safe. Hang onto the knowledge that you did that, too.

"You helped make him the man he needed to be."

***

She'd looked at him the entire time she'd been speaking, but he never opened his eyes. He didn't open his eyes when she cut the rope from his hands and feet. He didn't open his eyes when she lifted him from the seat, tucked her shoulder under his arm, and guided him back up to the streets.

She took him to a motel and cleaned his wounds and watched him sleep.

And she was gone when he woke in the morning.