Title: Hell Is Empty
Characters: Dean, Sam, Crowley
Summary: Tag to 9.23, Do You Believe In Miracles. There's no pill quite as bitter as regret. Two brothers realize the impact of choices made and words said in the heat of the moment when their future lies broken and bleeding before them.
Disclaimer/Warning: They're not mine. More's the pity. Title and opening quote come from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Also, this tag deals with death, though if you've seen Episode 9.23, you're pretty much already dealing.
Author's Note: I didn't think I wanted to write this. I was asked to and resisted, thinking that watching the finale had been hard enough. But a week after viewing I realized I was still thinking about it and knew that one of the only ways I was going to be able to process was through writing. This is a one shot; I thought about taking it further but then decided I didn't want to get too far down the path of possibility this early in the hellatus.
As with all stories, this is simply one interpretation, one speculation, and one possibility. I had to pick a direction for my hero and I picked the one I thought I could deal with…but, that said, I look forward to seeing how our Show will move forward from the end point of the finale and how they'll mend our broken hearts.
So, this is for those of you who PMd and Tweeted, asking me to write a tag. It feels somewhat twisted and wrong to say I hope you enjoy this, knowing the angst and sorrow I'm about to put you through, but if nothing else, I hope you're able to process, as I was. And that we all feel a little bit of hope again.
Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.
- The Tempest
The moment he opened his eyes, before his vision had completely cleared and the buzz in his head had abated, he knew what Dean had done. And he was pissed.
In his mind, Sam was on his feet and running toward the warehouse seconds after regaining consciousness. But in truth, his brother packed a punch, and he found himself rolling carefully to his left, propping himself up on his elbow, reaching for the rear bumper of the Impala for leverage just to get to his knees. The world shifted, lurching with his change in elevation, then leveling out as he blinked rapidly, breathing through his nose to stave off the surge of bile that burned the back of his throat.
His jaw ached, beating a tattoo up through his eye socket in time with his heart. Loose pieces of gravel pressed into his knees as he cautiously tested his jaw with his fingers. There would be a bruise for sure. Using the car as a brace, Sam pushed to his feet, the tip of his tongue brushing the abraded skin of his inner cheek where it had made contact with his teeth, thanks to Dean's unexpected fist.
Once more, Dean had taken the choice from him.
Once more, Dean had protected him.
Even after agreeing to do this together. Even after all Sam had said. Dean still acted on his instincts, doing what he thought was best. To hell with anyone else.
"Damn you, Dean," Sam whispered, spitting saliva and blood on the ground as he cautiously pushed away from the Impala, testing his precarious balance. "Arrogant, stubborn, stupid son of a bitch."
He began moving toward the warehouse, his pounding head feeding his irritation and turning it into anger.
Dean agreed to be partners, hunters together, but when the shit hit the fan, he chose to deal with everything by himself, without consulting Sam, without asking for help. Sam had wanted Dean to see what it was really like to be on his own.
He'd wanted his brother to show him the respect he deserved as a fellow hunter – not a big brother's all-assuming protection. He'd closed Dean out so Dean would ask to come back in.
But…Dean never asked.
He simply did as he'd always done: put his shoulders back, his head down, and moved forward. Getting from one moment to the next. Sleeping less, drinking less, eating less. Sam had seen all of these things, had watched his brother look at the world through eyes older then they had any right to be, and simply let Dean go.
Watched him spiral away, knowing something was not right, seeing the emptiness inside Dean grow, and choosing not to care because Dean had tricked him, dammit! He'd lied to him before to protect him, but this had been different. This time had been a betrayal. This time couldn't be forgiven easily.
Dean needed to know what he'd destroyed as a result of his choice.
Sam had made sure of that over the last several months. Dean had accepted Sam's new rules, moving through life like the night was at his heels; like he knew the darkness had his name in its pocket and it was coming for him and he wouldn't be strong enough to fight it.
"After all this…after all this you still think you can face Metatron on your…."
Sam's muttering faded as a cold spike of fear suddenly speared his heart. Something wasn't just wrong with Dean. Something was taking Dean away from him.
Sam had been losing his brother a little bit each day and he'd ignored it. On purpose. Because he was hurt. Because Dean needed to learn that…that….
I'm gonna take my shot, for better or worse…no matter the consequences.
Sam began to run.
His boots slapped the pavement, the sound echoing against the night. Air hammered in and out of his lungs, anxiety making him breathless long before exertion had a chance to. Images, memories, voices teemed in his head. Things he'd noticed but hadn't truly seen; impressions made and then filed away under deal with later.
Dean's empty eyes as he'd informed Sam he was leaving; the way the word poison seemed to spill from Dean's lips and hover in the air between them. The give of Dean's shoulders as he accepted the Thinman's sentence of death; the quiet coldness in the way he stabbed the killer through the chest. The tremble in Dean's arm as he gripped the First Blade; the borderline-insane rage in his brother's eyes as he killed Abbadon.
Sam's own hand reaching out, burning Kevin's eyes, his soul, the life from his body.
Sam reached the place he'd seen the homeless camp during his earlier scouting and felt his pulse speed up as the people stood, gathering closer together as if in protection. The night seemed to still; even the crickets were quiet. A fire burned in a trash barrel nearby, tossing shadows against the pavement. Sam could smell the ash and heat, but he couldn't hear the crackle of the flames over the roar of blood in his ears.
Swallowing, his ears buzzing with possibilities and ramifications, Sam waded into the crowd, eyes searching for Dean. Two of the people drew closer to him, a warning in their eyes. Sam reacted instinctively, pulling his gun and pointing it at them.
"Back! Stay back!" he bellowed, unable to find Dean. His fear spiked, nearly choking him with its certainty. "Where's Metatron?"
One man tilted his head curiously, then rotated, pointing to the large building behind them. Sam pushed through the crowd, his size and a strength born of fear parting the people like a cresting wave. If Cas and Gadreel didn't destroy the tablet…. If Dean didn't time it just right….
Killing an angel with the powers of God wasn't the same as killing a Knight of Hell.
Sam took the stairs two at a time, crashing through the door and into the empty warehouse, the strange red-gold of the lights dazzling his eyes for a moment as he searched frantically for Dean. He heard a crack, a grunt of pain, and he ran forward, blanking his mind to any other possibility except finding Dean.
When he saw his brother, Sam's world stopped. Dean was beaten bloody, slumped against a wall, the Blade in his hand, and Metatron looming over him. Before Sam could take his next breath, Metatron shoved an angel sword through his brother's chest with brutal strength and deadly accuracy, twisting the blade viciously, a smile on his face.
And Sam's world ended.
Dean curled in on himself, all of the air rushing from his body, the First Blade falling loosely from his grasp as Metatron jerked his sword free.
"NO!" Sam's cry was torn from his heart, his whole being in denial. This was wrong. This was not supposed to happen.
Dean wasn't supposed to lose.
In slow motion, Dean turned his head, his shattered eyes finding Sam's, surprise, sorrow, and gratitude smearing together on his battered face. Sam felt each emotion like an individual blow. In the space of a heartbeat, though, the expression faded and Dean slumped over against the floor.
Ignoring Metatron completely, Sam ran to his brother, his whole focus on Dean and the blood that poured from the grievous wound. Grabbing Dean up from the floor, Sam cradled his brother close, his hands trembling as he tried to cover the hole in Dean's chest.
"Hey," he gasped, drawing Dean's wavering attention. "Hey, hey, hey, hey…."
As if on cue, the building around them shook and Sam saw Dean's eyes shoot open, searching for a threat, unable to let his guard down even for a moment. Only then did Sam remember Metatron, standing over them, his angel sword dripping with Dean's blood. Sam grabbed the First Blade from where it had fallen from Dean's limp hand and stood, but before he could make a move, the angel vanished, leaving Sam alone with his brother.
He knew Castiel had been successful, but it had been too late. Metatron was the angel's problem now; Dean had done all he could.
Sam was shaking. He grabbed a piece of cloth from the pocket of his coat – not knowing or caring where it came from – and pressed it against Dean's chest, putting his brother's hand over it to try to hold it in place. There was so much blood…so much blood. And he couldn't stop shaking.
Dean grimaced in pain, his breath wet and weak, eyes unable to focus on anything for long.
"Sammy," Dean rasped, trying in vain to lift his head and look at Sam's face, "you gotta get outta here before he comes back."
Sam couldn't listen. Wouldn't. There was too much noise in his head. Too many voices screaming regret and denial in his direction.
"Shh," he tried to quiet his brother, needing Dean to hold still so he could stop the bleeding. "Shut up. Shut up. Just save your energy, all right?" There was so much blood. Dean was shaking and Sam was shaking and there was so much blood. "Oh, man. We'll stop the bleeding. We'll – we'll get you a doctor, or – or I'll find a spell. You're gonna be okay."
God, please, he needed Dean to be okay. He couldn't lose him, not now. Not after everything he said. Not after everything he didn't say.
I was ready to die. I should have died, but you…. You didn't want to be alone, and that's what this all boils down to. You can't stand the thought of being alone.
As if somehow, once again, reading his thoughts, Dean managed to lift his head, staring at Sam, drawing his attention.
"Listen to me," he managed, his words pained and breathy. "It's better this way."
Sam gaped at him, shocked, unwilling to hear the words his brother was saying. "What?!"
"The Mark," Dean gasped. "It's making me into someone I don't want to be."
Frowning fiercely, Sam shook his head. "Don't worry about the Mark. We'll figure out the Mark later."
There would be a later. There had to be. There always was.
"Just hang on, okay?" Sam continued. "Get you some help."
Sam lifted Dean's arm over his shoulder and grabbed him around the waist, pulling his brother to his feet as Dean groaned in agony. Sweat gathered at Sam's neck and ran down his back as he began to move them toward the entrance, fear bringing images from his past into sharp focus.
Dean hauling him from his burning apartment. Dean gripping his arms as a vision rocked through him. Dean grabbing him up when he woke in the old cabin in Cold Oak. Dean holding him close after returning from Hell. Dean gripping him tight as Lucifer rose. Dean letting Lucifer beat him bloody just so Sam wouldn't be alone. Dean holding vigil as Sam's soul repaired itself. Dean hugging him fiercely when he climbed free of Purgatory. Dean carrying him from the old church as the angels fell.
I'll give you this much. You are certainly willing to do the sacrificing as long as you're not the one being hurt.
He'd been wrong. Dean's whole life was a sacrifice. And Sam knew it. He knew it and he hated Dean for it. He hated how much he needed it.
He hated how much he loved him for it.
Dean grew heavier against him, his breath ragged and brief as they moved toward the door of the warehouse. Sam was trying to think how he'd get Dean up the stairs and through the throng of homeless when Dean stumbled. Reaching over, Sam pressed his hand over his brother's, keeping the cloth against Dean's wound. It was already saturated with blood; Dean's hand was slick from it and Sam's hand slid as he tried to keep everything together.
"What happened," Dean rasped, "with you being okay with this?"
Sam felt bile burn the back of his throat.
If the situation were reversed, and I was dying, you'd do the same thing.
No, Dean. I wouldn't.
"I lied," he told his brother grimly.
"Ain't that a bitch?" Dean snorted.
Sam didn't reply, but that didn't stop the words, the voices from haunting him. He hefted Dean closer to him and pressed forward, ignoring how Dean's feet began to drag, how he practically hung from Sam's arms, how the blood now covered both their hands.
Long as I'm around, nothing bad's gonna happen to you.
Dean gasped and Sam shifted his grip.
We got you out, Sammy. Believe in that. Believe me, okay? You gotta believe me. You've gotta make it stone number one and build on it.
Dean's body shuddered as a wave of pain hit him.
Don't you dare think that there is anything, past or present that I would put in front of you! It has never been like that, ever! I need you to see that. I'm begging you.
They reached a ledge and Sam felt Dean's shaking increase.
"Sam. Hold up. Hold up," Dean gasped.
Turning him carefully, Sam propped his brother against the ledge, thinking to let Dean catch his breath before they continued forward. He stood close, feeling Dean's weakness in the tremble of his body, seeing fresh blood staining his brother's mouth. Dean's breath grated through his parted lips, thin and fading as Dean blinked slowly up at him.
"I gotta say something to you," Dean whispered, his words slurring, his hand gripped on Sam's shoulder.
Sam's was acutely aware that his grip was the only thing keeping Dean upright.
"What?" Sam choked out, searching Dean's eyes.
Dean looked at him and a gentleness spread across his features, one that lit Dean up from the inside out, turning his eyes soft and pain-free for just a moment. It was an expression Sam remembered seeing only one other time: in Indiana just before the Hellhounds tore Dean from his life.
"I'm proud of us." Dean's grimace of pain relaxed into a brief smile.
Sam felt his brother's hand cup the side of his face, Dean's blood smearing on his cheek, and he wanted to lean into that touch, to pull the warmth from it that he'd allowed to cool over the last months. His eyes never left Dean's.
As he watched, Dean seemed to sink back slightly, a look of bafflement briefly crossing his features as his hand fell. Sam felt the breath leave Dean's body as his brother went boneless, falling forward, his head on Sam's shoulder.
"No, no." Sam shook his head, unwilling to accept the truth. "Hey, hey, hey. Hey, wake up, buddy."
He pulled Dean back away from him, his large hands cupping his brother's wounded face, but there was nothing there. He could feel that his brother was gone.
"Hey," he shook Dean slightly. "Dean. Dean!"
It was over. The fight was over, and Dean was gone.
Sam didn't register the tears at first, but as they fell he pulled Dean close to him, rocking his brother's body against him, sobbing as the pain of loss and sacrifice and regret washed over him in unrelenting waves. He didn't think he would ever stop crying; there weren't enough tears.
It wasn't right. None of this was right. They shouldn't even be here. Fighting some God-like megalomaniac, saving the world from devils…. Dean had done his time. They both had. It wasn't right that he was gone. Not like this.
Sam groaned, the pain of truth overwhelming. He buried his face against Dean's shoulder, sobbing, breathless, his knees trembling from the effort of standing. He felt sick, a well full of rage and sorrow so deep he couldn't find the bottom of it.
Tears soaking his face, he bent and tucked his arm beneath Dean's knees, lifting his brother into his arms. He staggered a bit from the weight, hefting Dean until his brother's head rolled limply against his shoulder. He'd carried Dean before, but somehow the absence of life was heavier than the presence of it.
Sweating, his arms shaking with effort, Sam made it out of the building. He didn't realize he was still crying until the cool night air hit his face, drying some of his tears. The homeless groupies turned to face him, heads tilted in confusion and suspicion. Sam cradled Dean close, hiding his brother's battered face from their curious stares, and moved through the crowd.
The night seemed to breathe around him, compensating, it seemed, for the still body in his arms. The darkness was cool, damp, and clung to him. He felt it tug at Dean, could almost see it wrapping around his brother like corporeal shadows, eager to steal his brother's light from the world.
The usual night sounds retreated as he moved away from the warehouse, cloaking them in silence so thick it felt they were the only two people left in the world.
"I gotcha," Sam panted, hefting his brother in his grasp. "I gotcha, big brother."
He went to his knee once from Dean's weight before he made it to the Impala, but pushed himself to his feet, reaching the car at last. When he realized that the keys were in Dean's pocket, tears came once more, the enormity of his loss hitting him like a punch to the gut.
They were all each other had in the world. Friends, angels, demons, hunters…those were nothing outside of their brotherhood. And now Sam was alone.
"It feels real this time," Sam whispered, leaning Dean against the Impala as he dug into his brother's pocket for the keys. His face crumpled as the tears overwhelmed him. "It feels real this time."
It didn't have to be, he knew. There were ways to bring his brother back. It had been done before. His father had done it, Dean had done it, and Sam had tried—
No. No, he couldn't think about that. He refused to.
He couldn't remember Indiana. He couldn't think about burying Dean. He couldn't think about the months of trying to find a way to bring him back. About the deals he made and the bargains he'd bartered.
He couldn't think about it because it couldn't happen.
He shook his head, sniffing. It couldn't happen this time. Not after he'd raked Dean over the coals for doing whatever he could to save Sam. Not after he'd shut his brother out for taking his choice away.
He had to let Death win this one.
"Dammit, Dean," he sobbed, pulling his brother's head to his shoulder once more. "Why'd you have to be so stubborn, huh?"
Dragging his hand beneath his nose, Sam unlocked the car, but hesitated before he opened the rear door. Something wouldn't allow him to lay Dean in the back seat. Not like last time. Not like he was gone. He couldn't handle that yet. Not yet.
Hefting Dean up once again, Sam carried his brother around to the front passenger seat and set him gently inside. Dean's head lolled back and Sam shifted him so that he rested leaning toward the driver's seat. Moving back around to the trunk, he thought of the blood Dean would be smearing on the upholstery and grabbed a towel and a bottle of water.
It was suddenly vitally important to get rid of that blood.
He couldn't seem to complete a thought. There were things that he knew needed to be done and things he should do, but they didn't seem to mesh. All he could think about was blood. So much of it, all over his brother, staining Dean's beloved Impala.
As Sam sank into the driver's seat, Dean slid limply toward him, his head coming to rest on Sam's shoulder. Taking a shuddering, tear-heavy breath, Sam wet the towel and instead of cleaning the car seat, he began to gently wipe the blood from his brother's face. He turned sideways in the seat, holding Dean up, and continued to move the towel over Dean's slack features until the material was stained pink and all the was left on Dean were the bruises and cuts that would never heal.
"There," Sam whispered. "That's better."
Only it wasn't. It would never be.
I'm proud of us.
Sam felt the stab of loss once more cut up through his heart, burning his throat and tearing forth into the quiet car in a bleat of pain. He rested his forehead against Dean's, the memories assaulting him in such rapid succession he couldn't separate them.
His brother had the uncanny ability to be a world-class asshole and one of the best people Sam had ever met at the same time. He'd meant it when he'd told Dean he was a genius. Dean was fierce, loyal, smart, and truly to-his-soul good.
But he'd never believed that about himself. He saw himself as poison, as a grunt, as a weapon. He'd never seen the bright light he'd been in the world. And Sam had stopped trying to show him. He'd grown tired of being protected, of being sidelined in the decisions of his own life. He'd lost track of who his brother was and he let him go.
Dean had been falling for months and Sam hadn't reached out to catch him.
And yet, at the end, Dean had used his last breath to make sure Sam knew he was proud. Of them. Of all they'd accomplished, of all they'd survived, of all they were to each other. The bad and the good. They were family – brothers – and where Dean was concerned, there were no words harsh enough to take that away from them.
It's better this way.
The only times Sam felt truly alone in his life were when he thought Dean dead. Hell. Purgatory. The suffering his brother had endured, yet he'd always come back. Either powers greater than him had found use for him, or he'd fought his way free, but he'd always come back.
"You're not coming back from this one, are you?" Sam asked, looking at Dean's closed eyes and bruised face. Tears found a home at the corners of his mouth. "I need you, Dean."
Stop. No more. Sam shook his head again, swallowing a painful lump in his throat. He wouldn't think about what came next. He wouldn't think about anything. He would just take Dean back home. That's where they needed to be. Home.
Pulling the door shut, Sam turned on the engine, the rumble of the Chevy's engine kicking up through his gut as he pulled away from the sidewalk, Dean's head heavy against his shoulder. He didn't push his brother away. He couldn't. Instead, he turned on the radio and found the classic rock station Dean always gravitated to and let the music fill the car with fiction for hours.
Pulling into the garage of the bunker, though, brought reality crashing back. The place was silent, tomb-like. And Sam figured that was fitting. Because he had nothing left, and it was his fault. He'd let it all go.
Before Sam lifted Dean from the Impala, he peeled his brother's blood-crusted jacket from him, leaving it in the car, the back of it having dried to the seat. He would clean that later. Dean was all that mattered now.
He carried his brother through the quiet bunker, past the table covered with stacks of files pulled for their search for Abbadon, past the sword Dean had delighted in playing with when they first arrived, past the floor where Sam could still see Kevin's body fall in his dreams, down the hall and to Dean's bedroom.
Laying him carefully on the bed, Sam straightened, staring down at his brother's bruised face, marveling for a moment how still he was. Dean was never still; he was noise and movement. He was chaos and confidence. He was a storm and shelter.
Until recently that is. Until the Mark of Cain and the super-human control it had taken Dean just to get through each day. Then Sam had seen Dean go still. Then Sam had noticed his brother paralyzed as if by something truly terrifying inside of him.
But this stillness broke Sam's heart. It wasn't right, it wasn't natural. He stared at his brother's chest and willed it to move, praying for a miracle.
"What am I supposed to do now, man?" Sam asked his silent brother, his quivering chin sending waves through his words and drawing the tears forward.
Dragging a hand down his face, Sam turned away, his eyes catching sight of something on Dean's dresser: two photos. One of Dean at about three, Mary leaning over his shoulder with a mischievous grin on her face, the other of the four of them, baby Sam cradled in John's arms, sitting on the hood of the Impala, each one of the smiling impishly into the camera.
Family. Home. For all his faults – and there had been more than a few – Dean had never strayed from the one thing he'd first promised to do when he was four years old: watch out for Sammy. He'd taken the beatings and suffered the losses and allowed Sam to fight him and rail and push him away, and had remained constant through it all.
A bitter snarl twisted Sam's lips as he moved away from Dean's room, leaving his brother alone for the moment. He couldn't stop shaking. He couldn't stop remembering. He felt breathless and lightheaded and much, much too heavy. The neck of the whiskey bottle clinked against the tumbler as he poured two fingers, needing the bracing effect to clear the tangles from his brain.
This wasn't right. Dean shouldn't be gone. Not like this. Not now. He deserved another chance. One that didn't come with a heavy price. Sam owed him that chance. They'd been screwed up since Dean was sucked into Purgatory. They'd never really come back from that.
Sam finished his whiskey, staring at the table, trying not to think, trying not to remember. Trying not to wonder if Dean had known how important he was to Sam. Trying not to wish for just one more minute to tell Dean all the things he'd not said.
And suddenly the fact that Dean had been upright, staring at him, when he died hit Sam like a physical blow. Dean had made his choice; he'd wanted to die rather than let the Mark change him. He'd fought to the end, to his very last breath, and he'd faced death on his feet, his last thoughts of them.
And that realization nearly killed Sam.
Standing so swiftly he knocked the chair he was sitting in back, Sam threw his glass against the far wall with a ferocious growl.
"To hell with it," he snarled.
Screw everything he'd said. Screw all his posturing and hurt feelings. Screw sticking to his principles. His brother was dead – had chosen to die to stop the effects of the Mark of Cain.
Dean shouldn't have had to make that choice. He should never have had the Mark in the first place. And Sam knew exactly who was going to pay for that. Dean had left the summoning materials in the dungeon. All Sam had to do was say the spell.
"Dammit, Crowley," he growled. "You got him into this mess. You will get him out... or so help me, God."
Continued in Part 2:
He was dead, he knew that much.
Dean remembered dying. He remembered the pain that ripped through him, indescribable, unimaginable. He remembered Sam holding him up, the desperation and panic in his brother's eyes. He remembered the frightening knowledge of breath – his last breath – escaping him.
And then darkness. He could deal with darkness. He expected darkness.
He didn't expect this.