That Perches In The Soul
A/N: You can all thank PADavis for this chapter, because if it wasn't for her prodding I probably would have left the fic where it was - or at least, taken a heck of a long time to get here. Kinda had major writing block. I'm not going to say much, because I've been on a non-stop writing spree for the past two or three hours and it's 4 in the freaking morning right now, but please read and tell me if this was a bad, bad idea, because there were several ways to take this, and I kind of just closed my eyes and randomly picked one.
If it was a bad idea, you have my full permission to pretend this chapter never happened.
Warning: Spoilers for all episodes up to 4x16.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune-without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm...
"…You never let me have any fun."
There's a loud snap as the sawed-off's reloaded. Dean grins easily, carelessly. "Little known fact, there's a height requirement. You are officially too short to have fun."
"I'm not short!"
"Dude, I've met pixies taller than you."
"That's not – that's not true! Dad!"
"Dean." Dad says the name with a sigh, as he often does. He continues packing. "Stop provoking your baby brother."
"Sorry, sir," Dean replies cheerfully. "Sorry, baby brother."
Sam scowls. "Dean!"
His brother smirks the smirk he always wears when something's just too amusing to keep a deadpan look for. "Watch it with the face, baby brother. You never know, it just might stick."
"Your face might stick," he throws back.
"We can only hope," Dean agrees. "Seeing as how I'm the pretty one."
Sam widens his eyes indignantly. At a loss for a reply, he turns once more to a higher power. "Dad!"
Absently: "You're pretty too, Sammy."
Dad blinks owlishly at them. "What?"
Useless. Sam growls under his breath and turns his attention back to his jerk of a big brother. "I should be coming with you! I'm old enough! I'm ten!"
"Ooh, I'm so scaaaared," Dean drawls, wiggling his fingers. "Except I'm kidding. Frankly, Sammy, the only threatening thing about you is your hair, which is only because I think it might be hiding a small third world country inside. And like, three zoos." He pauses, then grins. "Methinks it's time for a haircut…"
Sam steps back, hands flying protectively to his head. "No way! Don't touch my hair!"
"Hey, it grew out last time -"
"After three months! I looked dumb for three months!"
"You look dumb twenty four seven. Your hair was short for three months," Dean says. "Besides, mohawk's a good look on you," he adds, after which he wisely darts to the bathroom and locks the door before Sam can attempt fratricide for the second time in as many days.
Sam wracks his mind for the most horrible insult he can think of. "You… you jerk!" he hurls at the door.
Dean just cackles.
He scowls, then rolls his eyes. It's not like Sam doesn't know how to pick a lock, but bathrooms have been agreed upon safe spots in the Winchester rulebook since the Nair incident, so for the moment Dean is safe. Sam isn't about to mess with truce rules, and anyways, he has bigger fish to fry.
He turns to the bed, and definitely doesn't whine when he repeats, "Dad!"
"Sorry, Sammy," his father says while eyeing the blade of his Rambo knife, "Deano's right. You gotta stay behind on this one."
"But I'm ten," he says again. "And I've already gone hunting millions of times."
"Twice," comes the totally-uncalled-for correction from the bathroom.
"No one asked you!" he yells back.
"Shut it, both of you," John orders, and after a second of contemplation he tosses the knife into the duffle bag. When his sharp gaze finally turns on Sam the boy can't help but gulp a little, because sitting down doesn't cover for the fact that John's a huge man, and even now his head has to crane down to look his son in the eye. "You're not coming with us, and that's final. This hunt is too dangerous for you."
"Then why does Dean get to go?" He's not whining. Sam never whines.
"'Cause I'm awesome, obviously!"
John's the one to roll his eyes at the door this time. "Because we're hunting a werewolf, Sammy, and I need backup."
"So why can't I come?" he retorts more quietly, shooting a covert glance at the bathroom door. "I'll be Dean's backup!"
A rare smile spreads over John's face. "Someday, kiddo. Just not today."
"Dean got to hunt black dogs when he was ten, Dad," he points out, glaring. "And I'm just as good a shot as he is!"
"First off, he wasn't doing any shooting -"
"But he was there! Why am I any different?"
He gets off the bed and crouches to Sam's eye level, pinning him with a thoughtful John Winchester gaze, then prods Sam's ribcage with every word he speaks, as if to drive it further in. "Because Dean is Dean, and you are you, and…"
Sam blinks, then stares pointedly.
His dad sighs and runs a hand through his hair, as if suddenly realizing that what could pass for an explanation at the age of four maybe won't quite cut it at the ripe old age of ten. He sits back on his heels and continues more softly, hand settling on Sam's shoulder. "What I mean is… Sammy, you can't do everything Dean does, just like Dean can't do everything you do. I need him to come with me, and I need you to hold down the fort while we're gone. That's just the way things work for now, all right?"
Sam crosses his arms, unimpressed. "That's discrimination," he sulks.
His dad shakes his head in wry amusement. He unfurls his legs and ruffles Sam's hair as he rises.
"Sorry, kiddo. You can't change who you are." John smiles again, quick and sad. "You can only be you."
The light dies.
Sam and Cas find themselves facing a markedly different world. All traces of life have wilted, trees and grass gone dry and skeletal as if there has been here a drought for years, decades. The soil itself has turned desiccated and parched; studding it are little lumps of what might have been small mammals or birds not five minutes ago. The only constants are the solemn graves and the blue of the sky.
One small and impossibly-distant part of Sam notes that he's never actually experienced the actual, uninterrupted lack of sound before; even when Sam was in the middle of nowhere with no car in sight, whether at three in the morning or three in the afternoon, Oregon or Louisiana, there was always something happening, a coyote calling or the car starting or the wind blowing or just his brother, just his brother breathing, living, being.
No, this isn't a normal silence. This is, this is more – this is absence. All the sounds Sam's ears hadn't acknowledged before, crickets and bird calls and the rumble of cars on the highway, are gone as completely as if they've been lost in a vacuum.
…Except Sam suspects that isn't exactly the truth.
The wind begins again to rustle quietly, as if called into being by Sam's mere thought. There's a thickness to the air, a solidity that cannot be seen, only felt, and he's not altogether sure what it is, exactly.
But he thinks it might be death.
The circles Lilith had inscribed so painstakingly have disappeared, although some blood does remain. Where there were corpses there are now piles of ashes and charred bones. And in the middle of it all Dean stands, Lilith slumped by his side like a lost porcelain figurine.
Nothing appears all that different about him, initially – he's wearing the exact same clothes, his hair is still cut the exact same way. But Dean's turned to face the sun, light flooding what little of his features they can see, and Sam has the strange, fleeting thought that maybe the only reason the sky is the same is because Dean wanted it that way.
Sam and Castiel step together into the remnants of the circle – one body, two minds. Sam doesn't even know if it's the angel's will or his own, but it doesn't matter anymore.
…Very little matters anymore.
"I still think it's stupid," Sammy complains three days later, even as he grins in relief when the door unlocks and opens to show both Winchesters smiling, safe and sound.
"Your face is stupid," Dean returns archly, and proceeds to noogie Sam into submission.
Dean shakes his arms, his legs, as if they've been asleep for a very long time. He looks away from the sun with a blank expression that makes the back of Sam's neck crawl.
"Master," Lilith says in a reverent whisper, touching a bloody hand to his knees.
Dean gazes down at the little girl, face impassive.
He says nothing.
"Dean?" Sam croaks and steps forward, bracing himself but hoping against hope anyway because ironically here, at the end of everything, he can't be anyone but Sammy after all.
Dean's head turns. Their eyes meet.
And Sam feels something inside him wither.
...Dean's green is gone, replaced with a gleaming, pupil-less white that every now and then seems to flicker from the inside with the charred yellow and blue of candlelight. And yet somehow his face has collected more shadows rather than less; they soften and perfect the contours of his features while dimly obscuring his expressions, as if despite everything he is standing under a midnight sky rather the burning ball of afternoon summer sun.
His shoulders are straighter, somehow broader, but he is lithe now rather than stocky; relaxed rather than tense; his posture is so easy and graceful it almost seems unnatural until Sam realizes that it's what Dean might have looked like, if not for burdens and regrets and life. If not for disappointments. If not for family.
If not for Sam.
Dean's mouth opens, elegantly shapes itself around the words.
Sam's throat tightens.
"Lucifer," he whispers.
The lord of hell stares at him distantly for a moment, as if checking something in his head, then uses Dean's mouth again to speak.
"This vessel of mine seems to have been causing problems,"it says, the voice a strange mix of Dean and other.
Lilith suddenly looks terrified. "We didn't expect an interference, Master, your true vessel was under complete submission until – "
"Spare me your excuses."
She shuts up.
"My army is delayed. Angels are holding my horsemen at bay."
He spreads his arms and takes a long breath, suddenly smiling widely as he lets it loose.
"…But damn, this feels good."
Sam gapes incredulously. "Dean?" he can't stop himself from blurting.
That familiar smirk. "The one and only."
!Don't fall for it, Sam. It's not him.!
Dean's eyebrows rise. He steps closer, delight almost brightening his face. "Castiel? Is that you in there, brother?"
"Return to hell, Lucifer," Cas says with Sam's mouth, more desperate than Sam's ever heard him. "Let your vessel go. Please, this doesn't have to end with death."
"Probably not," he agrees. "But I'd really like it to."
"You know you cannot win," Cas tries again, voice low and intense. "Our Father would never let you."
"Oh? He's let me get this far, hasn't He?"
"That means nothing -"
"How would you know Father's will, Castiel? You've never even seen him." He smiles, razor sharp. "…Or has that changed while I was down there?"
Castiel grits Sam's teeth. "You must stop this," he says, ignoring the jibe.
"Must I?" the other angel says. "No, I think I'll stick around for a while yet. One trait I do happen to share with our old man, Castiel – we both like to keep things interesting."
He circles Sam's body, considering them thoughtfully.
"And speaking of interesting, what a unique combination we have here," he remarks. "A human, a demon, and a third-tier angel." Dean's lips quirk. With a twist of his hand, a pillar rises from the ground, quickly shaping itself into a sleek black throne. He sits down languidly, resting his chin on his hand, propped up by an armrest. It all takes barely an instant. "Sounds like the start of a bad joke. Is this really the best God can do?"
A demon. Sam feels his hands tremble at his side.
Blood or no blood, Dean would never say anything like that. Dean would never –
"Get out of him," he says, trying to be intimidating and sounding anything but. The words exit his mouth in a mumbled whisper, one by one, each threatening to drown him in grief (this isn't Dean, this isn't isn't isn't him) and terror (power so much power this is Lucifer God God this is Satan he's never felt this much power, never came close to having this kind of power they're so screwed everyone is).
Lucifer blinks at him.
"Sorry?" the angel inquires politely.
Sam raises his voice shakily, heart aching hopelessly with the void Dean left behind. "Get out of my brother. It's me you want. I'm your vessel."
White eyes examine him in idle curiosity. "…So?"
He spreads his arms widely, desperately, because there's nothing more to lose, nothing more to gain, after all these years of pushing everything away Sam finally has nothing left but himself. "So, I'm your vessel, take me! I'm right here, take me instead of him!"
A long moment passes. Dean's eyebrow rises dubiously, the white gaze even and unblinking. Sam drops his arms and swallows, mouth dry, and can't help but feel somewhat ridiculous.
"Come, child," Lucifer says reproachfully, his tone so very Dean even if his words are not. He bats his free hand carelessly at Sam as he leans back. "I appreciate the offer, don't get me wrong, but you do know it's too late, don't you? The binding's permanent; for all intents and purposes now I am your brother. As I would have been you, if not for someone letting an angel near the seal," he adds, turning to Lilith, voice as light as if merely rebuking her for drawing on the walls in crayon. "You disappoint me, darling."
She actually cowers, throwing herself onto the ground in absolute terror. "Master - " is all she gets out before she is hurled into the trunk of a tree, the pale neck snapping with a loud echoing crack.
Sam stares. The angel has barely moved a finger.
"Like I said." Dean never sounded so cold. "Disappointing."
She rises slowly from the ground to her feet, groaning a little as her vertebrae click back into place. "Master," she breathes, and her whisper strangled and hoarse.
"That said, however…" As he reclines in his throne, Dean's body seems somehow elongated, his build even leaner than before. His legs stretch, one at a time, as if itching to pace. "You did free me, and this body suits me well enough – if not perfectly. For that, you will be rewarded."
Lilith relaxes, head bowed.
His eyes narrow. "But first learn your lesson. Return to hell, daughter, and lead your brothers."
He points at her idly, then snaps his finger up. Sam and Castiel watch as Lilith throws her head back and shrieks, a cloud of black smoke rising out of the little girl's mouth until her body crumples to the earth, finally dead.
"Shame about that," Lucifer remarks almost regretfully, drawing Sam's attention. He's gazing at the corpse with unmistakable desire. "The kid's kinda cute, don't you think?"
Sam's arms creep with goosebumps. He turns away in disgust.
!My brother has fallen far,! Castiel whispers to him sadly.
Lucifer laughs at that, the sound deep and clear and resonating like a bell. Red roses grow and unfurl by his feet, thorny black stems growing, stretching, as if seeking to draw closer to its source. He caresses their bloody petals absently.
"Oh, Castiel," he says merrily, flames receding from his eyes. "I've forgotten your fondness for stating the obvious." His grin widens. "I am the lord of Hell, after all."
"More like its prisoner," Sam mutters, and instantly regrets it.
!That was foolish,! Castiel agrees.
Lucifer doesn't miss a beat, though his eyes narrow as he peers at Sam closely, the white gaze more than disconcerting when fully focused on him.
"Samuel, isn't it?" he says suddenly.
And Sam flinches.
Despite everything he knows, everything he's seen, despite the finished ritual and the hard facts and the alien eyes – this is still Dean's face looking back at him without any real recognition, still Dean's voice declaring him nothing but a stranger. Still Dean, except for that one single question, that one single word which means that one step into a circle had been enough to change everything –
Castiel's bright, sorrowful warmth sweeps through him like a rising tide, and Sam frowns in confusion before he comes to realize that this is the angel's attempt at comfort.
He smiles inwardly, brokenly. Much as he's grateful for the effort, it does little. Only one thing could really do the trick. One person.
…And that's gone.
Your fault, he thinks to himself, lump in his throat making it impossible to utter a word. You stupid, delusional idiot, you did this, this is all because of you –
Lucifer doesn't seem to be expecting a reply. He searches Sam's face impassively for a long moment - although for what, Sam has no idea.
Abruptly, the thoughtful expression changes. A thin smile spreads across the shadowy face.
"No," Lucifer murmurs softly, and Sam forgets to breathe. "Not Samuel. Sammy."
His eyes sting. He clenches his fists.
"Or will you tell me it's Sam now?" The fallen angel smirks and rises gracefully from his throne. He strides nimbly down the steps of the dais – he really is taller, Sam notices bewilderedly – nonchalantly ruffling Sam's hair as he passes.
The gesture is warm, familiar; both Castiel and Sam recoil.
Lucifer doesn't give the impression that he cares. He shrugs John Winchester's old leather jacket off his shoulders and lets it fall to the ground without a second thought.
"Tell me, little Sam," he says, pausing some yards away, eyes expressionless and frigid as they survey the vast old cemetery. "How many times did you regret it? How many times did you wish I hadn't saved you from death?"
It takes Sam a moment to find his voice.
"Cut it out," he says quietly. "You're not him. You could never be him. My brother's gone." He squeezes his eyes shut for a second. "He's gone, and he's… he's not coming back."
That tentative warmth. !I'm sorry.!
Lucifer rolls his eyes at them.
"Well, if we must use that particular interpretation of events," he says dryly. "Then would you care to know what Dean's last thoughts were before I wiped him from existence?"
Sam doesn't stop to think.
!That bastard,! Castiel snarls, then !No, no Sam don't - !
Sam's fist comes flying at Lucifer's head (Lucifer and not Dean, a fallen angel and not Dean), and as he does the part of him that is not drowned in rage and blood wonders, softly, if there's any way back from this.
If there ever was.
"Oh, Sammy," Lucifer says with a familiar put-upon sigh. He lets Sam hang in the air, motionless, and with one gesture tosses Sam onto his back. "I forget how stupid you are sometimes."
Sam just grunts as he hits the ground. He looks up at the thing that used to be his brother. Used to be, because Dean had never been that lean, his cheeks never that sharp.
For all their lives put them through, Dean had never looked like he was hungry.
It hits him again. Dean is gone.
"Why can't you leave him alone?" he whispers, staring dully as the world around Lucifer blurs and gleams.
Lucifer smiles at him kindly from above. "After all the trouble I went through to get here? Oh, Sammy, I don't think so. This party is just getting started."
"Lousy party," he croaks out, and feels Cas agree wholeheartedly.
Laughter. The sound makes Sam shiver. "And here I always thought you had no sense of humor," Lucifer says, eyes crinkling sharply at the corners.
It's too painful. "You don't know me," Sam says. "You never knew me."
The angel smiles at him indulgently.
"According to my… host, it's kinda cliché for a villain to offer the hero to join him," Lucifer says, out of the blue. He gazes at the sky, almost wistfully. "Mostly because the hero's usually too noble to give a shit." He smirks. "So. Tell me. Should I even bother?"
Sam glares. "Go to hell."
His brows rise peaceably. "I'm sorry, was I talking to you?"
Sam's eyes widen.
Cas, he thinks urgently. Cas, you can't... can't you? I know Dean's gone, I know I'm not him, not anything like him, but you can't, you can't possibly -
Cas doesn't reply, but he does take control of Sam's mouth for a moment.
And he says, simply, "Get out of Dean."
Lucifer narrows his eyes. In the time it takes Sam to blink his hand darts out, takes hold of Sam's collar and pitches him across the cemetery. Taken by surprise, it's only with Castiel's help that Sam manages to force down the lethal velocity - he throws out his arms and stops himself mid-air just before hitting a headstone. He lands clumsily, and staggers to his feet.
Nice teamwork, he thinks.
!Yes,! Cas replies. !I believe we'll shortly have an opportunity to perfect it.!
His eyes narrow. Bring it on.
Meanwhile, the fallen angel grins over at them, sitting high on his throne.
"In case you were wondering," he calls out brightly, "that was a no."