Summary: Post 4.22 (because everybody's gotta do one), and I find it hard to believe we're out of the woods quite yet.

Disclaimer: Supernatural and its characters belong to Eric Kripke and Warner Bros. Entertainment. No copyright infringement intended.

Taketh Away

by Liz Bach

The cylinder of light was cold and strangely exhilarating, and Dean had the presence of mind to marvel that this glow was probably originating in Hell. He didn't remember Hell being like this. What he remembered was dark and dank, thick and stifling. And just like on TV and in the movies, it had been hot as fuck. It was red and brown and black, all the colors of damaged souls and damaged flesh. It was sweaty and sticky. He remembered that. So it struck him as ridiculously ironic and amazingly bizarre that the light bearing Lucifer from his prison would radiate so clean and so pure. It was almost angelic, if he was going to allow himself to go there.

Beside him, Sam was frozen, staring into the light. Transfixed by his most awesome act of defiance and destruction to date. It didn't matter what he'd been thinking leading up to this moment: intentions and impressions meant nothing in the face of the Apocalypse, did they? Maybe it wasn't their fault, but it was their mistake. Whether broken by forty years of physical pain and suffering or one month of grief and desperation, they'd both ultimately succumbed to the roles they'd unwittingly been prescribed in this inscrutable plan dreamed up by angels and devils. They'd been pawns. Dean was still a pawn; at least that was what the angels thought. But Sam? He'd just fulfilled his destiny. His role was finished. He was done. And suddenly that scared the shit out of Dean.

"We have to get out of here," Dean declared, tugging on his brother's jacket.

But Sam was as if rooted to the floor. He was taking in great gulps of air, as if this bright and furious light were slowly suffocating him. His eyes were wide, and Dean could see the unadulterated panic in them.

"Sam!" Dean shouted over the rumble of thick, stone walls toppling around them. He grabbed Sam's jacket with both hands and gave him a solid shake.

Sam remained mesmerized by the light for a moment longer, and Dean made to jostle him again. His fingers grasped pale green fabric and he tensed to pull when Sam's gaze shifted to Dean's face. Dean stopped in mid motion, and his stomach sank.

It was one of the worst things he had ever seen. It ranked right up there with his mother burning on the ceiling, his father coding on a hospital bed, his brother stabbed in the back. Sam crumpled and dead in his arms. Hell.

"I'm fucked to shit, aren't I, Dean?" Sam said.

A loose lock of long, dirty, brown hair fell into his eyes, and the look on his face was beyond remorse. It was beyond pain and fear and regret and self-loathing. Then suddenly it was resigned. And then a split-second later it was relieved. And an instant after that it was grateful.

Dean did shake him then. "I'm gonna get us out of here," Dean assured him, gripping him tighter, as if to prove something to someone who had just suggested he let go.

Before he could say anything else, the light flared with vicious intensity. A high pitched wail began to resonate from the source, rapidly rising in volume until it was enough to shatter glass and dislodge stone. The convent was disintegrating around them, Lucifer poised to appear right at their feet. Dean was yelling, but he couldn't hear his own voice. He was pulling frantically at his brother, but he couldn't feel the strain in his muscles, couldn't feel Sam's jacket in his hands. A fierce wind picked up around them, whipping Sam's hair about his face. Sam was watching Dean with a bleak expression, one that clearly conveyed his certainty that there were no more words.

But there were, Dean wanted to say.

Then abruptly, it all stopped. All sensation ceased. For a moment Dean was suspended in a state of complete sensory deprivation.

The next moment the world dropped out from beneath him, and he was falling. Streaking through the black air like a comet or a bullet. It sucked the breath out of him. He choked and wondered how long before he hit bottom.

*****

The room was no longer dark when he opened his eyes, and the din of a building being consumed by evil was gone. In place of ruined pews and a decaying alter were stately tables and chairs more sterile and cold than the angel who had conjured them. Atop the long dining table at the center of the room sat a platter of stale cheeseburgers wrapped in wax paper.

"Hello, Dean."

Dean spun to find Zachariah seated casually in a wingback chair. His legs were crossed at the knees, his forearms and hands settled lightly on the padded armrests. He showed no outward residual effects of Castiel's earlier attack. In fact, he looked disturbingly unperturbed and only slightly annoyed, the glint in his eyes more amused than bothered.

"I didn't realize we were playing hide and seek," he said. He leveled an even glare at Dean, a tiny smirk just bending his lips. "But no matter, right?" The smile deepened sinisterly. "Because look! I found you."

Dean's blood ran cold, and his stomach lurched. Without even looking, he knew Sam wasn't with him.

"Where's my brother?" he demanded.

"Oh, him?" Zachariah shrugged. "Don't know, don't care."

Dean clenched his hands into fists. "Oh, you'd better care, you imperious sonuvabitch."

"Sam's no longer any concern of mine," Zachariah commented noncommittally. "He served his purpose. Even better than I expected, actually. Lucifer's coming; Lilith and that little harlot Ruby are both out of the picture. All thanks to that idiot brother of yours."

"Where is Sam?" Dean repeated desperately. The last he'd seen his brother, the demon to end all demons was possibly seconds away from breaking free from damnation, and Sam had been standing right at ground zero.

"Jeez Louise, Dean!" Zachariah exclaimed, pushing himself up from the chair. "Sam, Sam, Sam. It's like you got a one track mind, kid."

He strode indifferently past Dean on his way toward the table. There he picked up a cold sandwich and examined it for several long seconds. Set it down. "Your brother was broken to begin with. We gave him a purpose, and he's fulfilled it. He would've amounted to a helluva lot less –"

The sound of something smashing interrupted his speech, and he turned to see Dean standing in the middle of a puddle of shattered glass. The mirror from the wall was missing, the busted frame lying on the floor where Dean had dropped it. His eyes were deadly.

"Say one more word about Sam, and I swear I will rip your fucking lungs out." Dean's voice was low with unwavering conviction. "You don't know him. You don't know anything about him. But me? I know that kid. He's made some pretty fucked up decisions, yeah. You all made sure of that. But he's not broken. And even if he was…?" He squared his shoulders resolutely. "I would fix him."

Zachariah just stood there impassively. That maddening little hint of amusement returned to his expression.

"What's the problem, Chuckles?" Dean goaded, fury building in his core. "You said yourself you were done with him. So give him to me."

Still Zachariah made no movement, gave no response, just regarded him with a look of genuine unconcern.

Undeterred, Dean slowly knelt to the floor, and when he rose again there was a large shard of the broken mirror clutched in his hand so tightly his palm was already bleeding. He held the makeshift weapon above his wrist, his hands suddenly very steady.

"You get him," he gritted out between clenched teeth, "or you're done with me, too."

Zachariah held Dean's gaze for several seconds, then rolled his eyes and huffed out a short puff of air. He turned his back, his posture impossibly straight. "Dean. I gotta admit: that's pretty cute. But what makes you think we wouldn't just bring you back?"

Dean closed his eyes. His face crumbled, and his shoulders slumped. He couldn't believe any of this was happening. But of all the things he'd fought against, he'd be damned if it would be an angel that defeated him.

"Don't know, don't care," he murmured, touching the glass firmly to his skin.

Zachariah took two steps forward then paused, bringing one hand up to his hip and the other to rub thoughtfully against his jaw line.

"You know, Dean, all this time we've been standing around chatting…" He glanced down at his watch and then turned to regard Dean coolly. He sighed. "I really wish you'd said something sooner."

Any shred of hope Dean had left fled him, and the broken piece of mirror fell from fingers that had gone numb.

"If it makes you feel any better," Zachariah continued conversationally, "Lucifer really does owe your brother a huge favor."

Before he even knew he was going to do it, Dean had launched himself full body at the angel, aiming to bring the smug bastard to the floor and rip into him with his bare hands.

*****

But in the end there was no resistance: his body sailed clumsily through the spot where Zachariah should have been. Dean closed his eyes, brought his palms up and braced himself to impact with the wall. Instead, his hands met with nothing but chilly yet humid air. He stumbled forward and caught himself on a cold slab of stone. When he opened his eyes, he realized it was the alter from Saint Mary's Convent. But the convent itself was gone. In its place was a pile of smoldering debris.

Sam, too, was gone. Just as he'd felt his brother's absence back in that room, Dean could feel him missing now.

"Sammy?" he whispered, casting his eyes about the ruins.

There was no response, and he slammed his fist down upon the alter top.

"Sam!"

But nobody answered.