A/N: After this episode, we'll be having a short three-week hiatus. Keep checking back with us for information on the next episode! Thanks :)
Dean had almost died before. At least twice, in fact, but more if he counted up all the close calls and near misses. But the two times that mattered, the ones that had really affected him, were more vivid than the rest.
The rawhead had done a number on his heart, but left his soul intact. Even Azazel's worst in the cabin had ripped his body apart but kept his spirit whole. He would never admit it, but he'd been scared both times, frightened of leaving the safe and warm, into the expansive unknown.
Laying on Alastair's altar, death still frightened him. But life frightened him more.
It was a paralyzing dichotomy, the lesser of two evils he could never choose between. The terrifying, unknown release of death or the painful clinging to a life that would never be the same again. A life he wasn't even sure he wanted.
In the end, it was a moot point. The decision was not his to make. Alastair, for all of his cutting and poking, mocking and belittling, had no reason left to let Dean live. Dean had nothing left to give, nothing left to fight for--the demon had taken everything, things Dean didn't know he had. Things Dean didn't know he could give up.
That should have bothered him more than it did, but right then, Dean couldn't bring himself to care. Not anymore. His entire existence was pathetic. Nothing more than a shoddy collection of failed promises and weak lies. For all of his efforts, for all of his good intentions, there was nothing to show. The only thing he'd ever wanted--the only thing he'd ever really fought for--his family--and he hadn't come close to saving any of it. To keeping them together, to saving their lives. From his mother, to his father, to his brother, Dean's best was never good enough.
How long did he have to fight to just keep failing? When would he just learn that there was no happy ending? A shudder rippled through his weak form as he remembered his father's black eyes and the twisted look of concentration on his father's face as he'd strangled Sam.
There would be no family reunion. There was no hope in family.
There was no hope in anything.
That wasn't entirely true, though, and the thought buoyed him to partial awareness yet again. With effort, he turned his head, straining to get a look at his brother.
Sam was limp on the other altar, bloody and broken. His cries had tapered off awhile ago, and Dean could see the mottled red on Sam's throat and wondered briefly if Sam even could scream anymore. There was blood everywhere, and, in truth, Sam looked worse than he ever had before--worse even than when he was dead.
But his brother wasn't dead--not now. Not yet. Dean could see the rapid rise and fall of Sam's chest, shallowly moving air in and out, in and out. Sam was alive--if only barely so.
That fact didn't hurt as much as it would have before all this, but Dean couldn't fight the surge of regret that settled over him. He couldn't save his brother from this. He'd promised Sam, just before this hunt began, that they could do anything together. That Winchesters were invincible.
Another white lie that could get them killed.
This time, that would get them killed.
Sam deserved better than this.
"Who first, who first?" Alastair's voice mused from someplace above him.
Dean turned his head away from his brother, squeezing his eyes shut. Was it horribly selfish that he hoped that he could go first this time? That he wouldn't have to witness his brother's death again? Even this close to the other side, even this aware of his innate failure, Dean wasn't sure he could take it.
There was movement, soft and subtle, and he knew it should worry him, but he didn't have the energy. Instead, his broken mind wandered, flitting in and out of awareness, drifting into an increasing haze of oblivion.
He remembered then, what Sam told him about the afterlife. It was suddenly very clear to him, the hurt on Sam's face when he told Dean the truth about what happened to him. Sam never moved on. He never followed the infamous bright light. He didn't disappear like their mother and he didn't let go like Molly. He just wandered, hurting and lost and alone for what could have been eternity.
Dean couldn't help but wonder if it would be the same this time. If Sam would cling brokenly to the remnants of this wasted life. If they would see each other again, two lost and wandering souls. If they would even still recognize each other for the people they had once been.
There was a solace in that thought: him and Sam, a pair of ghosts for forever more. The havoc they could wreak without bodies to worry about. The times they could have with nothing like life to slow them down. Hell, Dean would even be able to fly without hyperventilating. It might be kind of awesome.
The thought made Dean smile, almost drunkenly. The idea of being together with Sam in a place where they would always be strong, stronger than just about anything they might face. A place where there wouldn't be angels to tell them what to do or demons to taunt them or their father--
It was a beautiful thought.
Mercy. Alastair was right. This would be mercy.
"As much as your sudden enthusiasm is quite charming, I wouldn't smile about it all just yet," Alastair crooned, his voice lingering in the stagnant air. "I can't say quite what's on the other side for you, Dean-o, but for Sam here, I'm afraid it's not going to be very pleasant."
The dream vanished for what it was, and Dean stiffened. He blinked slowly, his gaze working to focus on the demon once again.
Alastair was standing closer than Dean expected, hovering by his side with a smirking half-grin on his face.
"Think about it. He's got demon blood in him," the demon explained. "You couldn't possibly think that there is anything for him on the other side that's good, could you? Your angel friends may find him, shall we say...useful, but that is hardly a heaven-sent acceptance letter. To them, he's as useful a nuclear bomb, and just as deadly, if they play their pieces right. But after all that boom and death, little Sammy's soul is heading right after your daddy's."
It was an awful truth, and one Dean had no defiance left to overlook. He had never thought of it like that--never allowed himself to think of it like that. Bob Marvin had always been somewhat put off by Sam, and while Dean had found it inconvenient, he'd never thought it was dangerous. Angels wouldn't condemn someone who was tainted as a baby, would they? For something Sam never had any say over?
Bob had shown compassion for Sam. Saved his life.
But even angels had their motives. Bob had never been overly forthcoming, and it was a hard notion to swallow. That, in the end, Bob could be using them just as readily and easily as Alastair was. As their father was.
They were nothing more than pawns in a cosmic game of chess, and the sacrifice might not just be their lives, but their souls.
Dean felt like hyperventilating. Hot tears slipped from his eyes, and he shook his head in pathetic denial.
Because as bad as the idea of Sam wandering as a spirit might have been, the idea of committing Sam's soul to the hands of demons? To be stretched out on a rack for eternity?
He couldn't bear it.
"But much better things for you, I would guess," Alastair assured him.
Dean had given up begging long ago, but this was worse than before. Worse than anything. He swallowed, willing his voice to work, but the words were garbled in his throat, and he choked them back down into his chest.
Alastair raised his eyebrows, appraising Dean with something akin to curiosity. "What's that now? Please, hurry up? Well, all right then. Send my regards to the big guy, and I'll make sure Sam gets top-notch accommodations down under."
Dean's eyes darted toward Sam again, a last-ditch effort to see his brother--to see him one last time--
Sam looked so young. So painfully and horribly young, like he was nothing more than a sleepy eyed eight-year-old who had cried himself to sleep in an empty motel room.
He looked so innocent then. He looked so innocent now.
It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair. The sheer injustice of it made Dean want to scream.
Then a wave of pain overtook him with at fast and relentless pace. It crested, easing just slightly before it ransacked his body again, tearing him loose from the very deepest places.
And then he did scream.
Loud and wrenching, with a voice he didn't know he still had.
It was worse than before, stronger and encompassing. No knives this time, no precise flaying of the skin. No spells or hallucinations. Just simple, agonizing pain, tearing him apart from the inside out, raking across each organ, each synapse, until it was all he knew.
He'd felt this before--or some version of it. In the cabin with their father, with Azazel, where he felt like he was drowning in his own blood and screams.
Only, this time, he heard Sam screaming, too. He couldn't be sure he wasn't hallucinating it, but the timber of Sam's agony was too resonant to be imagined.
And yet, there was nothing to be done for it.
Dean's body bucked, convulsing with the intensity of it all, but the electric current of pain was unwavering, zinging deeper and deeper. The unyielding torment eclipsed his entire awareness until he forgot about the sound of his brother's voice, he forgot about the despair of his brother's fate, he forgot about everything except that this was the way that he was going to die, as nothing more than a broken puppet in Alastair's sadistic hands, just waiting and waiting and waiting for the end.
He saw red and then black, and something acrid burned in his throat and up his nose. He gagged on it before his mouth clamped shut as a wave of spasms overtook him with a ferocity that nearly wrenched his limbs from his body. His knee sang out with a discord of fresh hurt, and his body heaved itself upward in a desperate attempt to breathe.
This ordeal had bled him dry and now the demon intended to rip his very soul from his body, millimeter by excruciating millimeter.
Falling back to the altar, Dean's vision went entirely blank, and the only way he could measure his existence was by the measure of the pain. Throbbing, searing, grating, weeping--
It seemed like much later when he heard a voice, different now, loud and demanding. There was an order, firm and unquestionable: stop.
Dean's instinct was to obey, to follow the order, to find some possibility of reprieve, but it was more than he could manage.
The pain skipped a beat, but did not abate, and Dean felt like he was stretched so thin that he might just be invisible.
When the voice cut the air again, though, Dean realized he couldn't deny this voice anything.
Stop, it said, echoing in Dean's ears.
This time, his body obeyed, giving up its fight and submitting itself to this new presence. The tension of the torture left him with a rush, and, with nothing to keep him up, he slumped limply to the altar, defeated and broken.
It was over, at least. Dean thought of Sam one last time, wondering if his brother had found this same end, but it was closer than Dean thought, and he slipped into unconsciousness with no fight at all.
Humans were such fragile beings. All that flesh and blood, barely bound together by the easily frayed stretch of skin. Not even an inch of malleable substance to protect the precious inner workings.
And they were so soft. Impressionable. They bruised like peaches, and healed just as slowly.
Souls were much less easily damaged; they withstood the plaintive torture much better. Souls could feel pain, they could imagine the blood, but they would never bleed out until they surrendered completely to their fate. It was often a drawn out process, a psychological game of push, push, push.
It was fun, of course, but nothing like this. Real blood. Real flesh. Real incisions. Alastair's handiwork was an indelible masterpiece that his victims would carry with them like scars. He got to experience this so rarely, and every time he did, he could hardly stand the intoxicating high it gave him.
But, oh--how quickly they were spent. Faster than sand through an hourglass, their strength and will were fleeting things, so easily brought to climax and then discarded.
Sam and Dean Winchester had been an apt pair for torture; that much was undeniable. Even without Azazel's claim on them, they had such defiance, such strong-willed dispositions. They were a perfect pair of gnats who fancied themselves as eagles in this fight, and Alastair loved nothing more than providing his pupils with a timely lesson in humility.
All good things, however, surely did come to an end. His final act of mercy--the overture to his beautiful, painful symphony. They had sung for him right on key, and he'd played them like fiddles at all the right moments, and now it was time to take that final bow into oblivion.
Facing the reality of their lots had been harder than he'd anticipated; it left them without as much left to give during this last act. Nonetheless, they did not disappoint.
Dean was the stoic one in the end, his body contorted and mouth open, but nothing more than choked gurgles came out. And his eyes were open, bless his precious little heart. Open and fading. Alastair savored it as the last vestiges of hope died in the human's bloodshot eyes. Sam's had gone much quicker, fading almost before the games began. Dean was just more fun like that.
But Sam--he was certainly the one to watch writhe. That long, human body was more than a perfect canvas for his work; it was the perfect performer for his finishing number. Sam's elongated limbs vibrated with pain, twisting and turning with unmitigated anguish. The boy's screams echoed through this host's body, pristine and raw, ripped cruelly from his bloodied and swollen throat.
Killing them both at once had been something of a whim--Alastair had to admit, he enjoyed his theatrics. The building pitch of their joined torment had been something of a fantasy that he simply could not overlook.
But watching the blood well up from Sam's damaged throat, watching him choke on it until a blood vessel burst in his eye was just too much fun. This one would have to go first. He could dislocate the other shoulder first, then pop both hips, perhaps tear them clean off in something akin to an old-fashioned draw and quarter. See how long Sammy was when laid out in a line.
It was beautiful. Beyond what he'd imagined. More than he'd dared to hope.
So much so that Alastair didn't even hear the other voice until it was too late to mount any kind of preemptive defense.
It was a low growl. Strong and sure and...familiar. "Stop."
Though danger was present, the curiosity overwhelmed it. He knew that voice. He knew that voice well. Only...with a different timber. When it was begging for mercy.
Or pledging its undying and eternal allegiance.
"Stop, now," the voice ordered again, as though it did not doubt it would be heeded.
Yet, Alastair had no reason to heed it. No creature on heaven or earth posed much threat to him, of that much he was sure. He was an able fighter, and methodical in his techniques. Rising to the top in Hell was no easy task, and yet Alastair had wormed his way up there without as much as a viable threat.
Decisions, though. Decisions. Alastair liked to have his cake and eat it, too. These two could die now, or they could die in five minutes; either would be just as lovely. And this little addition to his symphony? Was far too tempting to pass up.
With a chuckle, Alastair dropped his hands, each Winchester brother collapsing lifelessly as he did. Dean's head lolled on the altar, exhaling a breathless gasp, while Sam fell immediately into a pervasive stillness that suggested that Alastair had perhaps misjudged how much that body had had left to give.
There were other pressing needs, though.
"You know," Alastair began, conversationally. "Time up top has made you more confident of yourself." He turned leisurely toward his guest. "Makes me think you've forgotten your place. Right under me." His eyes settled on the figure, the excitement of it all flaring deep within him. "Have you truly forgotten so soon, John?"
His eyes held steady, pinning his former apprentice with a knowing look.
John kept himself steady, raising his chin and meeting the gaze unrepentantly. The familiar features were stony, darkened with unflinching black eyes. "This is no business of yours."
Alastair's scoff was genuine. "I beg to differ. Azazel's master plan of sorts is business of all of our kind."
John remained stiff, unwavering. "You want to bring about the end just as much as we all do."
Alastair raised his eyebrows with good-natured incredulity. "A bit presumptuous these days, aren't we, Johnny? You know what I want, and Azazel's silly endgame isn't really at the top of my list."
John's replied was quick, almost reflexive. "You want pain and destruction. Chaos and havoc."
It was like a child reciting a line. Accurate, but totally missing the point. Alastair made a low noise of disappointment in the back of his host's throat. "All that time with me, and you never really got it, did you?"
John's jaw tightened, but he did not reply.
Alastair continued. "It's not about chaos. It's about order. My methods...they are cruel, this is true, but there is logic to them. Each cut I make, I make it in accordance with the balance of the universe. It's only right. All those souls in Hell are there to receive their punishment for what they've done. I offer them quintessential absolution."
A smile twisted John's lips, turned feral with what Alastair recognized as disbelief. His black gaze held nothing but hatred. "And what about them?" he asked, nodding toward his broken sons.
He followed John's gaze, looking at Dean's limp form and Sam slumped figure. He winced a bit with a semblance of empathy. "I will admit, my choices here are a bit...unorthodox." He turned his gaze back to John. "But surely you understand that I don't merely pull the wings off a butterfly just to watch it squirm. They have to die. To stop Azazel's plan. To stop his unnatural attempt to tilt the playing field in his favor. He's stacking the deck, and no one--angel or demon or Lucifer himself--should do that."
Alastair held his hands out, beseechingly. "Azazel brought your boys into this, not me. It's not personal, John. Surely you know me well enough to know that."
John growled. "You say that with their blood on your hands."
Alastair looked down, grinning in embarrassment. He dropped his hands. "What's a little torture between old friends, eh?"
John did not return the smile. "They are off limits."
"Oh, really?" Alastair asked, his voice taking on a pointed tone. "Isn't that interesting? So says the servant who betrayed his master for the highest bidder?"
John stepped forward, boldly. "So this is about revenge? Getting back at me for joining forces with Azazel?"
Alastair's good humor faded, just slightly, but enough for his face to twist into a sneer. "For joining forces with a demon who has no sense of respect. No sense of order. After everything I did for you, you threw it away on something like him. What was it, John, that turned you? He offered you a nice, new body? Is that it? I could have given you that, and so much more. I could have made you greater than he ever will. And I could have protected them."
John's eyes darkened and he edged forward again. "Is that what you're doing now? Protecting them?"
Alastair shrugged. "I'm offering them a chance at mercy," he replied with as much truth as he could muster. He lifted his head and squared his shoulders, appraising his former student. "You do know what awaits them, don't you? If they are what Azazel has planned? Or has your new master not told you the whole story--about how this ends?"
"He told me," John snapped, his voice brittle.
It was almost a surprise. "And you still went along? To condemn your sons to that?" When John made no reply, Alastair's was almost awed. "So much for the loving father."
"I have my reasons," John seethed.
Alastair smiled a bit, his swagger returning. "And so do I."
"You know I can't let you do this."
Head cocked, Alastair could not resist the question. "Which John is speaking now? Azazel's pathetic lackey? Or Daddy Dearest?"
John bared his teeth in a feral grin. "Both."
There was barely time to brace for the burst of energy that emanated from John's body. Alastair's instincts were strong, though, and he deflected it in time. The effort left him more rumpled than he would have liked. "Why, John," he said. "You've been practicing."
John lowered his chin, eyes narrowed. "You have no idea," he said, throwing another powerful volley Alastair's way.
But Alastair was prepared this time, and shielded himself well before following up with a burst of his own.
It had been a long time since Alastair got his hands dirty in a fight, which made this his lucky day. Two measly humans to torture and a demon to fight? His maniacal side was going to get quite the workout today. And to think of all the years he'd spent with the souls in Hell. He'd been missing out. At least he could understand that much about Azazel--hanging around with the human folk was far more entertaining.
Entertaining and productive. After all, he'd gotten his information, and he'd had his way with the brothers. Whatever happened next--was just icing on the cake. Dead or alive, whole or broken, Alastair knew what was necessary to stop this so-called plan from unfolding. Even if he didn't end it here and now, the power of the information he held was enough to unravel the entire thing whenever he felt like doing it.
He ducked a blow from John, following up with a lashing of his own.
Win, lose, or draw--Alastair didn't need to stack the deck to know he'd come out on top.
Not just in every part of his body, every part of his soul--but who he was.
Dean was pain.
His entire existence pulsed with it, he was embodied by it, and he had no will to fight it off. Not anymore.
He could be dead.
Dean hoped he was.
There was nothing for him here, nothing tethering him to this life. He willed himself to let go, to let everything go, but there was nothing there to surrender to. He was a captive to this oppressive state, ensnared by his own hopelessness and pain.
He couldn't go back. He couldn't go forward. He was just stuck, shackled to this altar of failure and agony.
His mind wandered. Past helplessness, into memory. At first, it was nothing more than the pain--slices, burns, flaying--but there had to be more. There had to be more.
Something good. Dean wanted to remember something good. Good must exist; it had to exist as a counterpoint to this unending misery.
Something positive. The satisfaction of a hunt ended successfully. Bones burned, people saved. A beer in celebration, a warm girl in bed.
The way Sam slouched in the passenger seat of the Impala. The way his nose scrunched up when he was deep in thought. The sound of Sammy's laugh.
They were cold comforts. The memories are too distant to penetrate this place he was in. This place he was forever bound to.
Failure. Another failure. He couldn't even comfort himself in his dying moments. He added it to the list, right after getting Sam killed--again.
Then, he blinked. He blinked again, and there was light. Somewhere, far away, but he could see it.
Scuffles across the floor. Thumps and pounding, grunts and curses.
He wasn't dead--not yet. The realization came to Dean, pulling him just far enough from the pain to recognize his plight. He was still on the altar (always on the altar). Shackled and bleeding, but Alastair was--
He didn't know where Alastair was. Just that he wasn't here.
With this semblance of awareness, Dean rolled his head. His vision was hazy, dim around the edges. Sam was still stretched, forgotten and discarded on his altar. His body looked broken, shoulder still visibly out of joint, his whole arm a wretched mess, and Dean couldn't tell if Sam had been lucky enough to let go first.
Then, the noises were louder, clearer. The fight, he reminded himself. Alastair had to be in a fight. Dean wouldn't be alive any other way. Someone had to have stopped his death. Someone or something.
Dean wondered if he should be grateful or angry. This needed to be over. He already had an eternity to suffer for his failures. He didn't need anything in life to prolong it, to add to it.
His eyes blinked again, slower this time, resting closed just for a moment. He didn't know who had stopped this, but they were putting up a fight. One hell of a fight. Alastair might actually laugh at that.
Maybe Alastair would win. Maybe whatever had interrupted would win and end this even faster.
Then, his body went rigid, almost suspended off the table.
"You pick, John," Alastair's voice said, and it was familiarly taunting, but different, too. Ragged. Tired. "Me, or the boys."
For the first time, he heard the other presence speak. "Coward," the new voice seethed, with a low growl.
Alastair laughed. "Self-preservation," the demon returned. "Something you should understand all too well."
There was a pause, long and indefinite. Dean's fate hung in the balance. A merciful death, or an unknown destiny.
Then, came the gruff reply. "Leave them alone," the second voice ordered, with something of resignation. Defeat.
"As you wish," Alastair said, his suave tone returning to normal. "For now, anyway."
With that, Dean was released. The space shook, rattling the ceiling and breaking a window. The entire room resounded with an echoing boom that faded in time with the still frantic beating of his worn out heart.
The pain was acute now, readily available to his senses. He could taste the blood in his throat, feel the snot clogged in his nose. His foot tingled from the shock and his knee was swollen in his crusted and shredded jeans.
Breathing was a daunting task, staggered efforts leaving him even more winded.
The pain was drowning him, a slow and horrific way to go, feeling every part of his body slowly die away while he was awake and too weak to stop it.
A sob choked him and he shuddered with it, his despair overwhelming him.
Then, something warm touched him, nothing more than a soft caress smoothing along his forehead. "Easy, Dean," the voice soothed. It sounded rough like gravel, but still warm. Familiar. Safe. "I've got you."
Something was pulling at the chains around his hands, then his feet. The shackles fell away almost effortlessly, and the taste of freedom settled over him with a bittersweet futility. Free, but too weak to take it. Too weak to even curl in to protect himself.
"You're going to be okay," the voice said. "I'm going to take care of it."
The promise almost made Dean want to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it. After the torture, after having his body ripped and his mind shredded--I'm going to take care of it.
But then, Dean wanted to believe it. Needed to believe it.
Because he knew this voice. He knew this presence.
He blinked, willing his eyes to see once again. Craning his neck, he turned his face toward the voice, swallowing dryly with his raw throat. "Dad?"
Then, his eyes focused, and the image was clearer than anything else.
His father smiled. "Hey, son."
A smile spread brokenly across Dean's face. "Dad," he breathed with relief and comfort.
A line of worry flickered across his father's face. "Take it easy, Dean," his father ordered gently. "I need to go take care of Sam, too."
Dean nodded at that, because it seemed right. Like it always had been. Like it was always supposed to be.
His father was here now. His father would take care of them.
That was all Dean needed to know.
Lazily, Dean let his head roll to the side, watching as his father moved to the altar where Sam was. John's motions were careful, measured, loving--removing Sam's restraints before rolling him gingerly onto his side.
Sam remained still through the ministrations, lax features not so much as twitching. His brother looked dead, but Dean trusted now that he wasn't. Their father wouldn't let that happen.
And their father was here now. Their father was here to save them.
John looked up, meeting Dean's eyes, his face flushed with worry. "Dean, we need to get you two some help. Do you understand?"
Dean just nodded.
His father wet his lips, appraising Dean with knowing eyes. "Do you trust me?"
The question was simple, but it made Dean pause. He remembered reasons to say no. He remembered his father's sudden disappearance when Sam was at Stanford. He remembered his father keeping them at bay for almost an entire year. He remembered his father's scathing disappointment when Sam didn't kill him in Missouri. He remembered his father's last words, the order that nearly ruined all of them.
And Dean remembered his father's black eyes. Choking Sam. Killing his brother.
Things were fuzzy again, and Dean felt his consciousness ebb precariously. He wasn't sure what was real anymore--it was all a mess in his head--but it was with certainty that he knew this: their father saved them. Just like he always had. Just like he always would.
"Dean," John said again. "Do you trust me?"
Swallowing hard, Dean forced his eyes to focus, meeting his father's crystal brown gaze. In that moment, there was no other answer to give.
He nodded, once, but definitively.
A look passed over his father's face before it settled into resolve. Then, his father flicked his wrist, and the world went black.