The World as We Know It

So there was light, and the light was not good, but Dean kept a hold of his brother's stupid green jacket.

"Dean. He's coming," Sam said, and Dean could feel the truth of it under his skin. Sam was hanging onto him, Dean was doing the same, and they clung to each other like two scared kids in this place that had been stripped and plundered of everything holy. It reeked of sulfur.

But the light was ancient and beautiful and damning. It demanded worship. It wanted him to bow before it.

"Sam!"

More than anything, Dean wanted to grab his brother and run. He reached for Sam's hand and pulled, but there was resistance, and it wasn't Sam this time. Whatever had staked its claim wasn't letting go. Playing tug-of-war with hell was not going to work, not with his brother's soul up for grabs. Castiel had promised Dean paradise but he wasn't banking on that eternity including Sam. And Dean was never going to leave Sam behind again.

"Sam? Sammy! Close your eyes!" Dean put his hands on both sides of Sam's face, trying to divert his attention away from whatever was coming. "Don't keep looking!"

It was so loud. Sam couldn't hear him, wouldn't hear him, so Dean covered his brother's eyes before shutting his own as tightly as he could. They were so out of time. Perdition was howling, a demon chorus all around them.

Ridiculously too late, Dean knew where he'd gone wrong. He'd been an easy mark, persuaded that he could have a destiny apart from his brother. Zachariah was a born salesman and had known exactly how to play him.

Dean would never be a man of faith, but neither angels nor demons seemed able to resist a desperate man. It was the only card he had left to play.

As loudly as he could, he screamed, "If you want me, take us now!"

Dean threw his arms around Sam and buried his face against his brother's neck. The ground was shaking under their feet, starting to crumble. This was it. They weren't going to make it.

Then there was a change. It was thunder and a voice like the wind over dry plains, but it was also a gentle whisper. Sometimes a burning bush was only a bush, yet this time, the fire didn't burn them.

Dean whispered back, "Please save us."

Dean clung to Sam and braced for the other side.

***

When Dean opened his eyes, birds were singing, a warm breeze was blowing, and overhead, a squirrel made an impossible leap from one branch to another. He was in a forest, a freaking Disneyland forest, possibly inhabited by bunnies along with the birds and squirrels, and with sunlight streaming through the branches of the redwoods. It was kind of terrifying because redwoods didn't grow in Maryland and – and he was lying on something hard, some sort of rock or tree root, and he reached underneath to feel his Colt revolver still tucked under his belt.

That was when Dean remembered. He remembered the defiled convent, death and demons all around, and the beautiful light rising up from Lilith's blood...

… and Sam. There had always been Sam, and for an unforgivable moment, Dean had forgotten. But it was only a moment because thank God, Sam was lying flat on the ground next to him, looking like absolute crap but gloriously alive.

Not even trying to be gentle about it, Dean shook his brother as hard as he could. "Sam. Sam!"

Sam moaned and wrapped his arms tightly against his chest, instinctively protecting himself. To Dean, it meant that Dad's teaching was in there somewhere, and Sam was still Sam. Kid had always hated waking up. Always wanted to keep the real world away a little bit longer.

"C'mon Sammy, wake up."

"Dean?"

"Right here, c'mon Sam, you're all right. Shake it off."

Sam groaned and pushed himself up, shaking his head as if to clear it. His eyes weren't focusing, but they were still swamp-green, the color Dean had dubbed them when Sam was a kid. Eyes that were not-black were a good thing.

"Where are we?"

"Somewhere, hundred acre wood, I don't know. Northern California maybe."

"How did you…? I don't know… don't remember."

When he was confused, Sam looked like he was all of ten years old, and somehow that was also reassuring. It was another source of hope that maybe Sam was still Sammy… that maybe this was something that Dean could still fix.

"Touched by an angel's my best guess. C'mon, Sam, you gotta sit up."

Sam was either in shock or hyperventilating or both, but they didn't have time for it. Dean tried to keep his own breathing calm and steady, but he could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

"Breathe, Sam. Man up, dude, you're just making it worse."

Sam clutched Dean's jacket, and just like that, it felt like they were back in the convent again. "He's coming! You gotta get out of here, Dean, he's coming because of me."

"It's okay. We got out of there. It's all right, we made it."

"I did it. I did it. I killed her. It's me." And damnit, Sam was scrabbling away from him, and this was not the way this was going down. Dean had been given this second chance, and he was damn well going to make the most of it.

"Sam!" Dean used his command voice, the one he'd learned from Dad, even though it hadn't worked out so well last time he'd tried it out.

If you walk out that door…

"Calm down or I'm gonna have to knock you out."

Sam froze and nodded, still breathing weird, but that was good - it was okay. Dean could work with that. They'd made it. Against all the odds, they'd survived, and Sam was alive and hyperventilating next to him. Sure, they'd screwed up in the biggest screw-up in the history of the world, but it was a new day, and Dean wanted to stretch out with the warm earth against his back and listen to the birds sing.

"I won't stop you," Sam said quietly.

Startled, Dean wondered if Sam could mind-read now on top of everything else. He forced himself to stop thinking about the ridiculously loud birds.

"Stop me from what?"

"You still have your gun." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yeah. How come?"

"Just get it over with. I won't fight you."

"What the hell, Sammy?" Dean couldn't believe it. He would have appreciated at least a couple minutes to enjoy their miraculous deliverance, but Sam was already starting with the crazy.

"You were right, what you said on the phone. You were right about all of it. I don't blame you, Dean. I won't try and stop you."

Dean was about to tell Sam to starting making sense, but something nagged at him.

"What do you mean, what I said on the phone?"

Sam was starting to cry, tears welling up even as he swiped them away.

"We killed her," he said. "She was awake, she was watching me, and I drank her blood, and she… I don't know if she was who she was…she was screaming. Dad said to do it, and you have to. If it's too hard, I can do it myself. I will, Dean. You don't have to do it…"

Sam wasn't exactly expressing himself all that clearly, but Dean was getting it anyway. Something bad had happened and not just the part about killing Lilith and letting Lucifer loose. Dean remembered the look of smarmy satisfaction on Zachariah's face when he'd talked about their plans, and he felt like screaming. They used his brother. They used Sam. They'd both been played and manipulated from the beginning, but Sam was broken in ways that Dean didn't understand.

"Okay Sammy, I get that you did some bad things, and I don't know the half of it. You can fess up all you want, but do it later. I've had about all the emo I can take right now."

Sam shook his head. "I can never make this right again."

"Shut up and listen to me. I'm not letting anything bad happen to you. We're not going to worry about things we can't fix until we know what we're up against. And I don't know about you, but all this nature crap is freaking the hell out of me. Have you ever heard birds this loud? I'm out of here."

Dean stomped off through the undergrowth, feeling sticks and twigs rip right through his jeans, but he didn't care. Without looking over his shoulder, Dean knew that Sam had gotten up and was following him. Dean had always known the sound his brother made when he was trying not to cry.

In the honeymoon suite, after the fight that Dean never wanted to think about again, Sam had said that Dean would never know him, had never known him, but that wasn't true at all. Dean knew his brother. It wasn't a lot, but it was better than nothing. And all things considered, that was the most Dean could ask for.