Title: These Days Mercy Cuts So Deep

A/N: I gave up hope on this show awhile ago, especially in terms of its finales. I am so happy to say that Kripke and company (finally) proved me wrong. This ep wasn't totally perfect in every regard, but I thought it was a beautiful ep that brought the show back to what I've always loved most about it: family. The epic love story of Sam and Dean that really does overcome all odds and wins the day. And it's strange to me that though Sam's hero moment was the thing I've been desperate to see for five years now, it was actually Dean who I fell in love with all over again in this ep. His decision to go to Stull, to be there for Sam even when it looked hopeless--that's Dean. And my heart so breaks for him now. (And my heart also breaks for Sam, but on a whole different level. And in a whole different fic, if I ever manage to gather my emotions enough for that.)

A/N 2: Title taken from the song "Oh My God" by Jars of Clay. Betas by geminigrl11, sendintheklowns, and then geminigrl11 again.

Disclaimer: Not mine.

Summary: Dean still keeps his promise. Post 5.22.

-o-

Dean still keeps his promise.

In some ways, it's an easy promise. It doesn't take any work. Living with Lisa is effortless; she's even more perfect than he remembered. Ben takes to being fathered with a child's joy, and working from nine to five does wonders distracting Dean.

Dean barbecues and he goes to soccer games and he lives, just like Sam wanted. It's all Dean has left to give his brother, because Sam gave him everything. Sam gave him his purpose, his job. His life.

The entire world.

So Dean does this, a daily penance. Smiling for Lisa, kissing her on the cheek. Grilling out and talking to the neighbors. He mows the lawn, checks Ben's homework. All the right things. All the best things.

He doesn't keep in touch with Bobby. He doesn't seek out Castiel. He doesn't read the newspapers and when something unexplained happens on the news, Dean changes the channel. The Impala sits unused in the car port out back, dust and grime collecting on her with days (weeks, months) of disuse.

It's not who he is anymore. To acknowledge any of it would be too hard. To keep this promise, Dean must separate himself from all the impulses inside of him. It's a hard line to walk, because his mind never stops working, never stops wondering. About what Cas is doing in Heaven. What things Bobby is hunting in this new world.

About the ways he might be able to save Sam.

It's a hard line to walk, but not impossible. Dean does the best he can. Most days it seems not so bad.

Other days, though...

Other days it's almost more than he can take. Wearing and exhausting, a thousand tiny sacrifices, day after day after day of his too-long life. Sometimes Dean can't breathe like this, he can't be like this. Living someone else's dream in someone else's life. Things he might have wanted, but not like this, never like this.

Lisa is asleep in the bed next to him and Ben is tucked up tight. The house is locked and the street is quiet and Dean feels it all inside of him, feels Sam's fist on his face, feels Sam's torture in Hell, feels the sense of loss as the gateway to Hell closes up once and for all.

Dean even feels the betrayal of seeing Sam choose Ruby, seeing the rage twist his face until Dean hardly recognizes it. He feels the aftermath of Hell, weighing on his soul, Alastair's knife cutting through his brain like a knife in warm butter. He feels the lingering resentment over his father's last words, save him or kill him, and the reality that Dean succeeded at neither. He feels the weight of Sam in his arms that night in November when Dean was only four, the night his life ended, the night his life began.

He feels the amulet around his neck, the emptiness when he took it off. The sound of it hitting the bottom of a trash can, never to be seen again.

Dean feels it all, the good and the bad, the best and the worst. Moments, a lifetime of moments, all he is, all he's been, all he'll ever have left.

Too much and not enough. Too much and not enough.

Lisa's sleeping, Ben's tucked in, and Dean leaves, just leaves. Fumbles for his keys in the back of a dresser drawer, hand slipping on the handle as he opens the door for the first time in what feels like years. It's instinct, though, coming over him. The engine stutters before coming to a rumbling purr and Dean backs up with force, brakes screeching and tires spinning as he takes the Impala onto the road.

It's coming back to him by degrees, and he lets it happen. Lets her run out on the road, like she's always been meant to. There's something good about it, feeling her engine hum, the warm leather seats beneath dirty, stained jeans. She almost feels alive, almost breathing with a vitality that is so acute that it nearly makes Dean ache.

He doesn't go very far, and not far enough to make it count for something. Even in this, he knows it's a temporary respite, a momentary lapse of control. But he takes it for what it is, and pushes himself to the limits of what he can handle, letting the car do all the hard work for him.

He takes her on the winding county roads in Indiana, doesn't look at the signs and just follows the curve of the road wherever it goes. Up hills, around bends, across open fields, and slicing through groves of trees. She knows where she belongs, and Dean doesn't believe in destiny, but he believes in that.

Dean rolls down the windows, cranks the radio, sings extra loud to all the songs Sam griped about. He screams on the choruses and imagines his brother's smirk of dissatisfaction, pissed off and prissy.

It's enough to make him want to cry, so he just sings louder, drives faster, goes farther.

Dean stops when she tells him to, pulls off in the middle of nowhere. The night is impossibly clear, it seems, and Dean cracks a beer and sits on the hood and looks up and up and up.

Into the sky, the twinkling stars. Through the darkness, into the light, higher and higher to a place Dean knows is real but not in a way that counts. Heaven exists, and maybe it's better than it used to be now that all is right with the world, but it's still not paradise, never will be paradise. Not for Dean.

Because there is no peace without Sam. There is no freedom without Sam. There's just a lonely road and an empty sky and a house that he helps pay for but will never be his home.

This, this, is home. Cold metal, smooth glass, and all the stars Dean will never be able to count. They used to be promises, small pieces of hope, but now they're the dreams Dean's lost, the ones he's reached for but will never hold.

It doesn't matter that stars aren't meant to be held. It doesn't matter that they're burning fires that would kill you just as soon as grant you all your whims. Hope's kind of the whole point, or so Dean's been told.

There is no hope now. Just the stars that Sam will never see again. Maybe Sam can't even remember them now.

Dean has no delusions in this. There are no happy endings here. Sam's in Hell, condemned there for eternity. There will be torture, there will be pain. There will be unanswered pleas, soul-rending misery, until the eons slip by and Sam is no longer Sam. Sam is gone. Now and forever. Sometimes Dean has to wonder if his brother really existed at all.

When Dean thinks of it like that, pining over a star-filled sky seems rather moot.

It still hurts, though. It just hurts. Because Sam deserves this much. Sam deserves the apple pie life, a wife and a kid and a normal job. Sam deserves the open road if he wants it, the hunt if it calls him, the open sky and all the stars in the universe, not to have, but to see. To dream of. To reach for. To hope for.

Dean's not asking for Heaven; he's not asking for paradise. He just wants his brother here, by his side. Not perfect, but whole.

It's a funny thing to Dean, how the big picture can be so right even when the details are all off. He forgot that for awhile, in between the hunts and the losses, but Dean knows it now. That in the end, no one's perfect. It's not the mistakes that make the man, though. It's how he deals with them that matters.

No one can be perfect; the best anyone can hope for is to be whole. Complete.

Dean's only seen it once--perfect completion--and sometimes he wonders if he imagined it. He often wishes he had. It's the moment Sam fell back, that last time he saw Sam, when his brother closed his eyes, held his arms out in total surrender--that had been it. That was what it meant to be whole, right, complete. That was what it meant to be redeemed.

It had been such a hard moment. One of tears and pain and failure and regret and grief. They'd fought so long and lost so much and they'd come so far and for that one moment, that complete moment, it had all come to a head, all come to a purpose, and then there was nothing but peace. Acceptance.

Sam had accepted it all. Not just his fate, but himself. Not just Hell for an eternity, but the man of failure and redemption that he'd become.

So different from the angry boy Dean'd raised. So different from the frustrated man who'd let Lucifer rise.

Sam had let go. Sam had had it all in his grasp, every choice, every option, and he'd let go. Let go of the revenge, let go of the rage. Let go of the destiny that strangled them, let go of the path they were supposed to take. Let go of the familial ties that always pulled them down and lifted them up. Let go of life, of Earth, of reality. Let go of Dean.

And for a moment, Sam had had both. Peace and freedom.

And now Dean has nothing.

A piece of metal, a starry sky, and a lifetime of memories that hold onto Dean so tightly he can barely breathe.

Dean's not looking for a reward. He's just looking for the part of himself that fell down a hole to Hell and closed up like it'd never existed, never to be seen again. Not perfect, just completion. But Dean's a ying without a yang, light without dark, half of a whole he can never hope to make on his own.

The night seems endless; the sky seems vast. But the hours pass and life goes on and as morning comes, Dean gets back in the car and drives to the place he lives now. But it's just his name on a mailbox, and his body in a house, with the Impala in the carport and Sam still in Hell, and Dean can't let go, won't let go, just never lets go.

end