There were no happily ever afters.
Happy endings only existed in fairy tales, and their story wasn't one of those. Theirs was an anthology of horror, ghost stories. After all, he and Sam were no more than shadow men hiding in the dark to kill other things hiding in the dark. Everyone knew ghost stories ended tragically, usually with blood, often with agony. The lack of a fairy tale end for them was a fundamental truth for Dean Winchester. He had understood it since he was a terrified four-year-old carrying his baby brother away from death and fire. It was ironic that fire and death would catch up with them eventually, kill them only after they'd lived out depressing, short and futile lives.
But today wasn't the day they died. Dean might not believe his own ending, or Sam's anymore, would be anything but bloody, but he truly didn't want that for all of humanity. If they stood here for much longer it would mean the end of the world.
"He's coming," Sam said, fear and maybe awe choking his words.
Sam had never fully grasped the lesson. He had spent his life turning page after page in the book of their lives, hoping that by the time he got to the last chapter there would be rainbows and glorious sunsets. Even now, standing there in the intense brightness of the coming apocalypse, Dean thought that somewhere deep down Sam still probably believed the myth. It was why he'd done the things he'd done, suckered by the lies in a more brutal, visceral way than Dean had been.
"Sam, we have to get out of here now," Dean said, shielding his eyes with one hand and holding onto his brother with the other.
But no. When Sam pulled away from the stark light, all the hope was gone. His eyes were gutters, haunted by something too familiar. Dean saw forty years of Hell looking back at him and he almost lost it right there. He couldn't, not yet. Today wasn't the day they died.
"Lucifer was an angel once. If we stick around, we'll be blinded," Dean said, his voice rough and harsh. Blindness wasn't his main concern. "And that's before the really bad stuff. Come on, Sam."
Sam didn't move.
Nodding at last at the long-unused nickname, slowly as if in a fog, Sam managed a couple of unsteady steps.
It was all Dean needed. He tugged Sam forward, ignoring everything but one foot in front of the other for the moment. Their big issues were still big, still chomping at their heels much like Hell's fucking king was about to be. It didn't matter that he felt hollowed to the core, empty and yet at the same time full of too many things to name. It didn't matter that Sam looked about half a second away from falling flat on his face. Everything would wait until they were on the road, away from this godforsaken place. He let go of his brother's sleeve as Sam picked up the pace into a wobbly run.
Their footsteps echoed down the convent's barren corridors, but they weren't going to be fast enough. Dean felt scorching heat, real or imagined, singeing the back of his neck. Hellfire a tangible thing reaching out to reclaim him, and he was afraid it wasn't only him it was after. Their silhouettes stretched out in front of them as if trying to get away where their physical bodies couldn't. Panic turned to determination, and Dean ran faster to catch up with his elongated shadow. His brother, though, weaved. He grabbed for Sam's arm again, willing his own determination through the contact. It wasn't enough. Sam was falling out of his grasp, then he was just falling, falling and Dean tumbled after him. The light was in front of them now as well as behind. It came from all directions, brilliant and suffocating. He shut his eyes, lids a vibrant flame-red.
And then everything went suddenly dark.
Cool, damp air blanketed Dean, and he could hear the blood pumping through his veins, a dull swishing sound punctuated by his heartbeat. He heard nothing else, but he knew he wasn't where he had been. Hellfire was gone. His forehead pressed against something rough, his arms up and hands planted against the same surface. He was kneeling like a penitent. Opening his eyes, the first thing Dean saw was a dusty concrete floor, and an intermittent flash of gold as his pendant swung in and out of sight.
His brother wasn't there next to him.
Dean couldn't keep the thought out of his head: demons either wanted Sam dead, or they simply wanted him. He closed his eyes again, squeezing them tight this time as he bumped his forehead against the wall. He'd called Sam a monster. He hadn't meant it, but he had all the same. He was here and Sam was not. Sam was dead or Sam was worse than dead. Sam wasn't a monster, but he was. Dean didn't think he cared if the world burned, after all.
"Sam," he said to the empty room or wherever he was, the name sour and sweet on his lips.
He snapped his head up, finally looking to see where he was. Bobby's basement, down on his knees in front of the panic room slash detox center. Dean scrambled to his feet, opening the small hatch and peering in. He was half expecting to see nothing, but there Sam was, strapped to the little cot and squinting toward the door.
"Sam," he said again, confused.
His hands fumbled at the heavy latch, adrenaline still pumping though him. The events of the last few hours – days, months – replayed in his head, in fast-forward and out of sequence. Disoriented by everything, he tried to focus only on one thing: getting to Sam. Yanking the door open, he rushed to his brother's side and started messing with the handcuff around his left wrist. Dean didn't have the keys. Or a paperclip.
"Don't," Sam said softly, "Just leave it."
"I can't," Dean protested. "I'll go upstairs. Bobby'll have –"
Sam cut him off.
"Yes, you can. You have to. I think … I think I'm going to need … I want this over with. You can't let me free." Sam glanced up at Dean with a shamed, hurt, vulnerable expression. "Dean, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry about all of it."
"Later, Sam." It came out harsh, like a rebuke, but that wasn't what Dean meant it to be. He sighed and sat down on the edge of the cot, his fingers still clasping the handcuff and chain. He wasn't going to brush this under the rug. He couldn't do that. But now wasn't the time. "I'm sorry too, but we'll deal with all that stuff later, okay?"
Right now all he could handle was the second round of detox. Satan and heart-to-hearts would both have to wait. Sam looked awful already, as bad as before, ill and weak and deflated. He looked as if the guilt alone could slay him. God, Dean was glad that bitch Ruby was finally dead, but he wished he could resurrect her and kill her again and again. A sliver of Alastair's prodigy coiled through his gut, cold and feather-light.
"Okay, Dean. Later," Sam said, voice already trembling. "How'd we get here, anyway?"
He forgot Sam had never experienced an angelic insta-transport. They'd been on such different paths for so long, he hadn't even realized how separated the angels had skillfully kept them. Dean clenched his jaw, staring at salt-crusted walls, the shattered glass and overturned table. Zachariah believed Dean would stop Lucifer, after an apparently highly anticipated slasher movie and a little culling of the human population, but that asshat didn't give a damn about Sam; he'd have left him to be a plaything for the devil. He glanced down at his brother's bound wrist. It almost seemed like someone was putting right what once went wrong. He had an unhappy thought about how Sam had escaped a Bobby-created fortress in the first place. He didn't think it had been Ruby.
"Castiel," Dean said, angry and grateful at the same time. "I guess that means he's alive out there somewhere."
"That's a good thing, isn't it?"
Dean wasn't actually sure. Maybe. Probably. Castiel had been too damned wussy about taking a stand, and he had only come through at the last minute. It was something but it was too little. It might still prove too late. The way Dean had been screwed by the supposed good guys was a story for another day, when Sam was well again. If he could ever be truly well again. He frowned.
"Yeah, I suppose that's a good thing."
He stood, suddenly antsy, but he quickly learned he didn't like the view of his brother from up above him. Sweat was beading on Sam's forehead and his face contorted to keep the pain silent. It wasn't like last time, when he'd been unable to hold back the screams. Dean didn't know if he was strong enough to watch Sam suffer like this, but he had to. Hell, he didn't know if Sam was strong enough to survive this. But he had to. Dean had always thought Sam was so much tougher than him where it counted, but it wasn't true. It had always been unfair pressure on Sam, and a cold comforting lie to himself. He should go let Bobby know they were here. The guy was probably frantic. He looked out into the dim basement and swore he saw someone moving in the shadows. He didn't know if it was real, or if that someone wore a beat-up trucker's hat or a disheveled trench coat. Either way, it didn't matter. Dean wasn't leaving. He shook his head at whomever might or might not be out there.
He sat on the floor, leaning against the cot. He pretended the rattle of chains didn't bother him.
"We'll worry about angels and demons tomorrow too," Dean said, eyes on the floor and the hypnotic moving shadow from the huge vent fan above. "Let's just get you better, huh?"
Sam's answer was a small groan, immediately muffled when he leaned to the side and buried his face in the thin mattress. His arm tensed and pulled against the cuffs.
Twenty-some years of habit and instinct took over. Dean stopped avoiding the sight of his baby brother in pain. He pulled himself back up onto the cot and grasped Sam by the shoulder. Holding him down, just holding him through the worst of the shuddering agony until Sam weakened and went lax, face still buried in the mattress.
"It's okay," he said, not knowing or caring if it was a lie. "It's going to be okay, Sam."
Sam twisted to squint at him, disbelief on his face as well as that hopeless, haunted look he'd had at the convent. All of fifteen minutes ago.
"Dean, you should go. Thu…uh..this was easy," Sam said thickly. "It's going to get bad. You should go and lock the door behind you."
"I'm not leaving, Sam."
"But last time, you –"
"We... I did it wrong last time." Dean pressed his lips together for a second, because he was afraid he was about to do something girlish like wibble before he continued, "I am not leaving you here to do this alone."
Sam choked out a sob, and Dean barely held his own emotions in check. He rubbed Sam's shoulder, wishing that would give his brother the comfort he needed. He wished he could give absolution.
"Dean, the things I've done are unforgivable. The thing that I am," Sam said, and he didn't bother hiding the wibble. He probably couldn't even if he wanted to. Tears streamed unchecked down his temples, into his hair. "Why are you being nice to me? How can you even still care?"
Dean got it at last, why Sam's expression was so familiar. He'd spent forty long years in Hell, ten of them doing some damned distasteful things. His guilt had nearly killed him when he'd first got out, and was still a threat on bad days now knowing what it all meant. He'd fallen, hard. Twelve months on Earth doing some damned distasteful things was not worse than what he'd endured, but it wasn't any better either. Everyone knew what Dean had done, but few had actually seen it. Sam had fallen, hard, and his brother's descent had been there for all to witness and judge and he'd only done it because he believed it was right.
And no one had helped because no one had wanted to. Either of them.
Being set up and knocked over like a bowling pin wasn't an excuse and it didn't make the choices Sam had made, or Dean's own, more palatable. But Dean understood his brother's pain and guilt better than any human being on the planet could. They were the same, both of them manipulated by two sides of an unnecessary war. The means were different, but the falls so alike, and their biggest fall had turned out to be the one away from each other. But it hadn't killed them. They were in this together, again. If he was going to end the apocalypse, it was only going to be with Sam at his side.
"Because that thing you are, Sammy," Dean said, swallowing past a lump in his throat, "is my brother."