Hollow Men

They weren't prepared to a face a demon.

In hindsight, Sam recognizes the irony of that. All they've been doing lately is refusing to face demons, even though the suckers have been popping up all over the place. Ruby, with her honey-vinegar smile and the glint in her eye that says she knows Sam can hear the flies buzzing beneath her skin. Lillith with the smell of a thousand rotting corpses and stolen time that can't be returned. Inside Dean's head, clawing and biting and sucking the light from his eyes. Inside Sam.

A simple salt-and-burn they'd called this one, as if anything was simple anymore, as if a bag of salt and a Zippo were still the tools to fix the dark holes in their world. Run of the mill. Sam had run through a mill once, chased by a spirit full of anger at the people trying to tear down its abandoned home, clinging to the last and weary bones of its decaying life. Sam was thrown into a wall and down some stairs. Dean blasted off a round of rock salt. Their Dad tossed a match into the bottom of the silo. Cleansing fire lit up the night like a baptism, only the opposite. Sam had two broken ribs and Dean let him eat ice cream in bed for a week.

He was eleven years old.

It was a lifetime ago.

Salt won't fix this problem, and there's nothing to burn but the body of investment banker who can't even control his own arms enough to push the glistening mess of intestines back inside his body. Dean scored that hit, the first hit, a long slash to stomach with an iron blade before they realized this wasn't a spirit, it was a demon, the ever-present poison of their lives.

The demon doesn't care about the wound, but the banker does when the black smoke pours from his body and he is left gasping and choking on the floor. Sam's brain screams that he was too slow and that makes him frozen, ready to slice himself open on the edge of a knife.

The demon brings forth a new body, maybe the banker's wife or maybe someone else, and Sam can't move but Dean charges forward, a blur of anger and splintered whole. He doesn't score any hits this time, he takes them all.

The crack of fist to bone snaps Sam into action so fast it's like moving through parallel universes. One second he isn't, then the next Dean is bloodied and breaking and Sam is. The demon doesn't leave him alone, sparing several blows and a push that sends him through a window onto the hard dirt outside, but it leaves him there because its fury is reserved for Dean.

Sam doesn't know if this is Lillith, or one of her minions, or just twisted, bitter evil with too many years spent in the pit. But he knows it is hurting Dean like a punishment, and he doesn't want to know if there's a part of Dean that's letting it.

He crawls back through the window, over the broken glass. It cuts his hands and knees but really, it's nothing new, Sam has been crawling through broken things for a long time now. He knows what he has to do but it will be hard, because he hasn't had a boost in a while, because he was trying to be good, except being good gets him Dean on the floor in a puddle of blood so maybe he hasn't been being good at all. His flask will have to do so he drinks down all of it. He has to get Dean through this, and if Dean doesn't get through this it doesn't matter if Sam does either.

The thought of an exorcism never crosses his mind, but Sam has found filling his brain with Latin helps keep his focus on the demons and off the way it feels like the skin is being pulled from his bones. This time the demon is powerful and Dean looks so helpless, paler than ever should be allowed, so Sam needs something extra.

He settles on the Lord's prayer, because it carries with it the weight of a childhood memory he used to own, sitting at the table with a Pastor who will die bloody, being taught the words in a way that means strength, and hope. Sam doesn't have a lot of hope anymore but he needs the strength, so he repeats the words over and over in his head while he reaches for the demon and wraps it with his soul.

He includes the last line, the forgotten line, because Pastor Jim told it to Sam like it was a secret and he's wanted to keep it ever since. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. He rips the demon from its stolen body, crushes and banishes it, and though a tiny piece of him always seems inclined to follow he hauls it back, falls to the floor, goes to Dean.

There's blood already on Sam's hands but there is so much more on Dean. He can't tell whose is whose but that seems about right because there is no difference, really. Dean is slashed and open and Sam wants to crawl inside and fit himself under the ribs, against the heart where he's always belonged.

But if Sam can get in it means other things can get out. Dean's soul has been plucked from Hell by heavenly hands and forced back into his body, but after being twisted and bent and damn near broken it doesn't quite fit anymore. There's times when Sam can see it, straining to escape at corners that don't overlap, a soft glow that burns his eyes like the sun. There's nothing to stop it seeping out now, hitching a ride on the steady stream of blood, nothing but Sam's hands pressed to the wounds and his desperate pleas of Dean, please, Dean, no.

He rips up his shirt into piece after piece but it's not enough to stop the blood. Sam thinks of ripping up his skin next, because he knows it will fit on Dean's like it was meant to be there, but now that the demon's gone his skin seems attached to his body once more, and he can't figure a way to get it off.

Dean shifts and and groans and Sam fumbles for his cell, knowing the call to 911 is far too late, blood-slick fingers stuttering over keys that light up like they care. He drags them up against a wall because if they can't go out fighting or standing at least they'll go out sitting, and Sam needs to be next to Dean for this.

He props Dean up and feels for a pulse instead of broken bones or burst organs. It's a rule they learned early and often in childhood— count the things you have, not the things you don't. Sam doesn't want to die here, in a sad empty building with his sad empty hands unable to put the pieces back inside his sad empty brother.

But if Dean's decided it's time to go then it's time to go. Even with the past few months when Sam's been walking down dark streets and leaving Dean behind in the halo-glow of a lonely streetlamp, he's always listened to his brother, jut sometimes he can't answer or won't follow. He will this time. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.

"T.S. Eliot used that in a poem," he tells Dean, trailing fingers in the small lake of blood that's forming around them. They are the island in the center, deserted. We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. "You'll probably make fun of me for this, but I always liked when we read his stuff in class."

Dean's breath has started to hitch, a sure sign of shock or a punctured lung, or maybe just sobs that this is where it stops, right in the conflict of the story with no climax and no resolution. Sam tugs him closer, puts Dean's head down on his shoulder so he can feel the last of those shuddering breaths against his skin, each one a bright spark of lightning against the coming oblivion of rain.

"T.S. Eliot was kind of a pessimist. He looked at the world and he saw a dark place without a lot of hope." Sam's hope is all but gone now, the last of it resting in the rise and fall of Dean's chest against his arm, sharp and short like knives. "But the way he wrote about it was still… beautiful."

He looks down at Dean and finds there's tears in his eyes, dripping on Dean's head like a baptism, only the opposite. The tears don't matter except for the way they're clouding Sam's vision and making it difficult for him to take this last look at his brother. He shifts his hands, moves the rough-cut flesh until it connects with Dean's. He links their fingers together because they've been pulling apart and if everything else has to stop then that does too. He can't feel Dean's breath against his neck anymore, but that doesn't matter much either except for making Sam vaguely annoyed that Dean went first. But then Dean's always gone first, and Sam has always followed.

"So this is it," he whispers to Dean, and presses a kiss to the top of his head. It's salty with tears and wet with blood, just like it should be. "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a—"

White light explodes in front of Sam's eyes. Before he has time to nudge Dean and explain to him the irony of that it explodes behind his eyes too, then everything goes dark.

.

Sam wakes up in a motel room, another parallel so achingly familiar he can't tell if it's supposed to be Heaven or Hell. He sits up and finds Castiel standing at the foot of his bed, which doesn't answer the question because Dean is sitting in a chair by the door, silent and still.

"Your wounds have been taken care of," Castiel tells him, then like he isn't sure Sam knows it, "You both survived."

Sam looks at Dean and Dean looks at the floor. Castiel begins to talk about Lillith and the seals but all Sam hears is You failed. Once again, he couldn't save Dean, and Castiel had to step in and do it for him. Sam was too slow, too weak, too helpless. This is the way the world ends.

Castiel leaves with a flutter of wings that sound like admonishment. Sam wants to touch Dean's pulse and hear his breath, but Dean is sitting like the dead and there's a throbbing in Sam's head that makes him afraid if he moves everything will fall apart.

"Dude." When Dean speaks, Sam breaks, a tiny part inside that been so abused the past few years he's always surprised by the force with which it can still hurt. "Did you recite fucking poetry to me when we were dying?"

Sam blinks, and looks up, and starts to smile. His face struggles like it can't quite remember how, but he's willing to learn again, so willing if things are going to change. He doesn't want them back to where they were— he won't be weak again, won't hide in cold corners while everyone around him faces the flames— but he wants more than anything to move forward, to have Dean look at him and actually see.

Then Dean stands up and there are his wounds, healed over but not gone, raw and pink and spit-shiny, touching him all over like whip lashes, like home. Sam tries to stand too but something slams through his bloodstream, knocking him to his knees. He just manages to grab the garbage can before he's throwing up everything he has inside, blood and bile and guilt and fear and lungs and maybe even his heart.

Dean doesn't move to help him, doesn't try to put any of the pieces back in. Sam's okay with that, he doesn't think he wants them anyway.

"Dude," Dean breathes again, and he's not looking anymore. His hand is over his eyes, and Sam wonders if he's crying. "We are so fucked up."

There's no point in trying to stand again, so Sam flops down on his back, lying with his arms stretched out, the position of the cross. He won't be dying for anyone's sins but his own. They're more than enough.

"Yeah," he says to Dean. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. "Yeah, we are."

Amen.