The beat of your heart, the slow burnin' away
Of the bitter fires of the devil's arcade
--Bruce Springsteen, "Devil's Arcade"
Daylight crept in and around the cheap motel curtains, washing across Dean's face. His eyes snapped open at the touch of the light, and he looked around the room without moving his head. From the complete silence, he appeared to be alone.
Then he remembered the last thing he saw—the angel leaning over his brother—and his heart started to pound.
"Sam!" Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to rise, calling out his brother's name again with a voice like sandpaper. It reminded him of nothing so much as the weak sound of his voice calling for help in the pine box in Illinois, and his fear deepened at the memory.
"I'm here, Dean."
Sam's voice came from the far corner of the room, and Dean turned his head to see him standing up from the small table in front of the open laptop. He quickly ran his eyes over the younger man, noting the bandages around his wrists, the cuts and scrapes on his face, the gauze pad across his neck, and the black eye.
"You okay?" he rasped, feeling his pulse rate start to return to normal.
Sam nodded as he walked over, stiffness apparent in his movements. "Yeah. How 'bout you?"
Now that he was sure Sam was safe, Dean paused to do a mental inventory. Throat was on fire—to be expected. Ditto with the brutally sore shoulders and arms and the headache. He nodded. "Think so," he whispered.
Sam dropped onto the bed opposite him. "How's your head?"
Dean frowned. "I told you didn't hit my head hard, Sam. It's fine." If he kept his voice really low, it didn't hurt so much to speak, even if it made him sound like he was gargling with gravel.
"I thought maybe when you went down…" Sam trailed off, and Dean remembered keeping his eyes fixed on his brother as he lost consciousness.
"What about you?" Dean asked. For the first time, he noticed that his own wrists were wrapped in white, and he frowned. "How'd you get us back here and patched up, anyway?"
"I had a little help," Sam said, the corner of his mouth quirking up.
Dean tilted his head forward, silently prompting him to go on.
Sam shrugged one shoulder. "Cass says hi."
Dean arched an eyebrow at hearing his nickname for the angel come from his brother's mouth. "Didn't realize you two were on such friendly terms."
A familiar huff emerged from Sam's mouth. "I don't know if 'friendly' is the right word, but yeah, we had a conversation."
And you're still here, was on the tip of Dean's tongue, but he held back the obvious observation. "And…?" he asked instead.
"I learned some things." Sam lowered his gaze to his hands, which were clasped between his knees. "Guess we both did last night, huh?"
"What kinds of things?" Dean ignored the invitation to share his feelings and concentrated on what the angel had had to say to his brother.
Sam reached up and scratched the back of his head. Then he took a deep breath and blew it out, apparently deciding to dive right in. "Turns out that this thing I can do with demons? Apparently I can do it with angels, too."
Dean contemplated that for a moment, slotting it in with what he already knew about the freaky things his brother could do and somehow finding it not all that surprising. Then his eyebrows went sky-high as the implications sank in. "Sam, you didn't….?" he asked warily.
Sam stared at him for a moment before his face dissolved into a scowl. "No, I didn't. God, what kind of a stupid question is that?"
He shrugged in response. "Just wondering why our angel buddy isn't here, that's all."
Sam's head turned towards the doorway, and for a moment Dean expected to see Castiel's rumpled figure standing there. But the door was closed, the room empty other than the two of them. "Must have had had other things to do." Sam's gaze dropped back down to the faded carpet. "I think he wanted to get away from here."
The weariness in his brother's voice tugged at something inside of Dean. "Hey, I know he's not a member of the Sam Winchester Fan Club, but he doesn't have it in for you." Or you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me, he thought with a measure of thankfulness.
Sam raised his head, his eyes warmer than Dean would have expected. "Yeah, I know," he replied softly.
Dean felt surprise wash over his face. "You telling me there was a little reconciliation going on in here while I was getting my beauty sleep? Sammy, that's so sweet."
The roll of his little brother's eyes was completely expected. What he blurted out was not. "Dean, he said you're safe."
"Come again?" he asked, brow furrowing.
The beginnings of a smile were lurking at the corners of Sam's mouth. "The deal is over. Castiel didn't break the contract when he hauled you out of Hell. You don't have to go back. Ever."
The rush of relief that filled him was swept away just as quickly by the gnawing guilt that had become his closest companion. "'Less I've already earned my own way back," he muttered.
"What?" came Sam's incredulous tone as his face fell.
Dean shook his head, feeling the pull against the torn skin around his neck. "Never mind," he muttered. Then, louder, he said, "Hey, he didn't give you any crap, did he? For dealing with that bitch in that barn? Because if he did, I swear…"
"Dean, he's not a bully that you can pick a fight with after school." For a moment, Sam's eyes were those of a fourteen-year-old kid, grateful for his big brother standing up for him. Then they darkened, turning back into the jaded hazel of a twenty-five-year-old who'd had to deal with more in his life than most people twice his age. "It's okay. I took care of it."
Dean raised an eyebrow, impressed with the confidence with which his brother spoke. Then he looked more closely at the way Sam was blinking. The little twerp is totally faking it, he thought. Big twerp. Whatever. He carefully cleared his throat. "So what else did you two talk about?"
Sam shrugged one shoulder and dropped his gaze to the dingy carpet, displaying one of his clearest tells. "Nothing important."
A moment passed. Dean rolled his eyes. "Okay, what is this, you figure 'cause you had to share two, no, three big secrets yesterday, you've got room to keep more now?"
"Give me a break." Sam's voice was suddenly cold, his eyes angry blue-green as he lifted them to Dean. "Like you have any room to talk."
"Hey, I only have one thing I'm not telling you about, and you know what it is." He spread his hands apart, keeping the range of motion small to keep the screaming pain in his shoulders down to a minimum. "Seems like you got all kinds of things going on in your head that I have no frickin' clue about."
"Yeah, well, I guess it sucks to be you," came the muttered response.
Dean stared for a moment at his normally sharing and caring brother. The words How did we get to be like this? were on the tip of his tongue, but that sounded way too much like something out of a Lifetime movie for him to actually say out loud. Instead he said, "It's a hell of a lot more than that, Sam. Sounds like you pulled some really stupid shit while I was gone."
Sam lifted his hands in a frustrated gesture. "How many times do I have to say it? I didn't make any deals, Dean. I didn't do anything to get you out of Hell." His voice cracked slightly on the last word.
"Tom was right about one thing, you know." Dean waited until his brother's wary gaze was fixed on him before going on, "It might not have worked, but it still matters that you tried."
Sam scoffed. "In case you weren't paying attention, I didn't actually get to try. Either no one was listening, or I changed my mind. So let it go, okay?"
"No, Sam, I can't." Dean shifted forward, folding his legs Indian-style under the covers. "'Cause you don't get to make decisions like that. It's one thing to trade your life for someone else's, or even your soul." He shook his head, the dread he had felt while hearing Sam tell his story back in the barn rising in his throat once more. "But you can't play with other people's lives. You can't unleash something that has the power to do a whole lot more than drag you into Hell. Dad and I, we made our choices. We didn't give up anything but ourselves. You were planning on doing a whole lot more than that."
"I had it under control." Sam's voice was low, but his gaze had dropped to the carpet. "I had all the precautions in place and I knew what I was doing."
Dean didn't know whether they were talking about opening the Devils' Gate or Sam leading a demon army, but at this point, it didn't really matter. "You can't say that you knew what you were doing when it comes to demons. You just can't. They say things, they tell lies on purpose because it's part of what they do. You can't believe a word they say." His voice trailed off, and for a moment, he saw a red-haired woman strapped to a rack, her wide blue eyes closing with relief as Dean told her it was over for now—then opening again with a scream as he showed her how much of a lie that had been.
He cleared his throat, welcoming the minor pain as a reminder that he was no longer the one holding the knife. "Look, I know it was hard for you without me, but—"
"You have no idea how hard it was." Sam shot to his feet, unable to hide a wince at the movement. "You couldn't even last a freaking week when I died before bargaining away your soul for practically nothing. I saw you die in front of me a hundred different ways thanks to the Trickster, and then I went six months without you." His voice was rising as he went on, "And then I got to lose you all over again after I promised to save you. I promised, Dean, I swore I would keep you out of Hell. But I failed." Sam's voice trailed off to a whisper as he sank back onto his bed, dropping his head forward so that his forehead rested in one large hand.
Silence fell in the room. Dean chewed on his lower lip, watching his distraught brother. Talking wasn't on the list of pain-free activities at the moment, but someone obviously needed it. "Sam, if that's what this is about…dude, I didn't think you were actually going to be able to stop the deal from coming due."
Sam's head shot up, his wide, hurt eyes fixed on Dean. "You didn't think I could save you?" he asked in a small voice.
Dean let out a sigh. "You said you promised to save me. I guess I heard it as you promising to try. And God knows you did. Man, you put everything you had into it, and I do not want you feeling like you screwed up. There was nothing that could be done, that's all," he ended with a tiny shrug.
There's nothing that can be done for me, Sam, he added in his head. Just accept it.
Sam stared at him for a few seconds. "Don't you get it?" he asked, looking so intensely at Dean that he felt like Sam's eyes were burning right through him. "I failed you so completely and utterly…" He shook his head. "I mean, I know you have this whole big brother complex going on, but I'm responsible for you, too, you know? And there's no bigger way to let you down than what I did."
"Hey, listen to me." Dean leaned forward, mentally cursing at how weak his voice sounded. "It is not your fault that I went to Hell. You got that?"
Sam shrugged one shoulder and fidgeted with the cuff of his shirt. "It's just…sometimes I can't help but wonder. Maybe things would be better if you hadn't made the deal."
"No." Dean barked out the word. "Don't you ever say that. I'm glad that I did it, and don't you forget it."
There was silence for a moment. Sam's eyes shifted back and forth between Dean and the motel room door, and Dean looked over his shoulder for a moment, half expecting to see Castiel there. But they were alone. Finally Sam cleared his throat and said quietly, eyes fixed on the door, "If you'd known what I…what I was going to become, would you still have done it?"
"What the hell are you talking about, 'what you were going to become'?" Dean growled, an uncomfortable feeling stirring in his stomach. "You're not anything but my pain-in-the-ass little brother, and that's the way it's going to stay."
Sam shook his head and said so softly Dean barely heard him, "It's why I never said anything about my blood. What the yellow-eyed demon told me." He visibly swallowed and went on, "I mean, you had just made this stupid deal for me, and here I found out I wasn't even human anymore. There was no way I was going to tell you that."
"Will you quit it with the 'not human' crap? God, you're as bad as the losers from last night," Dean grumbled, wishing this conversation would end already.
"Dean, angels have told me that I'm not human, okay?" Sam's face was anguished. "It's kinda hard to argue with that."
"They said you had demon blood, not that you were a demon. That's not the same thing. Believe me, Sam, I know demons." Dean swallowed hard, forcing back forty years' worth of memories and ten years in particular. "And you're not capable of becoming one."
Sam lifted his head, argumentativeness written all over his face. And then he stopped, looking into Dean's eyes and apparently reading something that the older man didn't even know was there. His Adam's apple moved as he swallowed. "If you say so," Sam almost whispered.
Dean looked back at him for a moment. Then he gave a solemn nod. "I do. And I'm the big brother, so I'm always right."
That got him only a shadow of the grin he was hoping for, but hey, it was something.
Silence had fallen in the motel room, and Dean took advantage of the pause to stretch a little and look around, hoping the smell of coffee he was just now noticing was coming from two cups and not one. He gave Sam a hopeful look, and his little brother returned it with a long-suffering roll of his eyes as he got to his feet. Dean watched him carefully as he made his way to the table, noticing the stiffness in his left shoulder and the way he didn't let his right leg bear his weight for very long. When Sam returned with the coffee, he brought his own, nearly-empty cup as well, and for a moment they sat sipping in companionable silence.
Dean was starting to feel the caffeine hit his bloodstream when Sam set his styrofoam cup on the nightstand between the beds. "Hey, uh, Dean," he said, reaching up and scratching the back of his head again.
The tone of voice was one Dean recognized, and he raised a hand to cut it off. "Oh, no. Injured man here." He pointed to his throat. "I am not in good enough condition for a chick flick moment."
Sam's rueful grin was a mixture of affection and exasperation. "I'm that easy to read, huh?"
"Like a large print edition outlined in highlighter," Dean replied with a lifted eyebrow.
The grin remained for a moment before fading, but the affection remained. "Seriously, man, I'm sorry. I should have told you."
Dean paused, waiting for more. Almost reluctantly, he asked, "Which part?"
That got him a grimace. "About the lightning. I should have known it could get in the way. I blew it in the middle of a hunt, and I'm sorry."
"Well, it's done now, right?" Dean replied. "You're not gonna freak out next time there's a thunderstorm?"
Sam shook his head firmly.
"All right then." He took a gulp of warm coffee and winced as he swallowed it down. Damn, if eating was going to be this painful for the foreseeable future, he was not going to be a happy camper. "Now the rest of it, I'm still pissed about. Plus whatever you're not telling me that Cass told you."
That got him an incredulous look. "That's none of your business, Dean."
"That means a lot less after what happened out on the trail yesterday," he rasped out. "It's my business if it's something that might affect me."
"Oh, that's rich." Sam glared at him. "Meanwhile, I gotta take your word for it that there's nothing you're keeping from me that might cause you to freeze up like I did. No fire or smoke or God knows what that might give you a flashback that I have no way of predicting because you won't tell me a damn thing about what happened to you." His voice rose with practically every word until it was almost echoing off the walls.
"You done?" Dean asked quietly, sipping his coffee and thanking God that Sam had never found out about the lap dog that he'd misinterpreted as a hellhound while under the influence of the ghost virus.
Sam stared back at him. "You've got to be kidding me."
"Nope." He carefully set the cup down and took a deep breath. "I'm gonna say this once, Sammy, and that's it. I can't talk about what happened. Hell, I can't even think about it, okay?" He paused for a moment, but was unable to gauge anything from his brother's blank face. "Okay?"
"Yeah," Sam muttered, dropping his head.
Dean grimaced as he realized the emotional moment he'd wanted to avoid was flying straight at them, and worse yet, he was the one steering them into it. "Look, I don't want you to think I'm sorry I did it. Ever." He waited until Sam's hazel eyes were looking into his to make sure he got it, and then he went on, "But don't ask me for any more. Don't try to take…" He trailed off, unsure of how to put it.
"Don't try to take more from you than I already have," Sam said in a low voice, his eyes starting to glisten.
"That's not what I meant," Dean growled.
"It's not what you were going to say, but it's what you meant." Sam looked back challengingly. "Tell you what, I won't ask any more as long as you tell me something: would you still have made the deal if you'd known what it was going to be like in Hell?"
Pain and redness and screams and terror flashed across his mind for a second, and his eyes slammed shut against the memories. When he opened his eyes and met his brother's gaze, he said too quickly, "Of course I would, Sam."
But the pause had been a fraction of a second too long, and the corner of Sam's mouth quirked up knowingly, sadly. "It's okay," he replied, getting to his feet and grabbing his empty coffee cup off the nightstand.
"Sam, I don't—"
"It's okay," Sam repeated, holding out a hand towards him to stop him from saying more. "I don't blame you one bit. And I won't ask again, I promise."
Silence fell for a moment. Then Dean spoke up again, saying the first thing he could think of to get his mind off of what felt uncomfortably like a betrayal of his brother. "So, uh, maybe we should do what you suggested a few days ago."
"What's that?" Sam asked, slightly wary.
"After we blow this town," Dean began, "we could use a couple of days off. Find a good pool hall, get our wallets happy, maybe get something else happy…" He waggled his eyebrows at Sam.
Predictably, the younger man rolled his eyes at the last comment, but he gave a nod of agreement. "Yeah, but we probably want to get a few miles away from here first."
Suddenly Dean realized why the younger man had been looking at the door so often as the sudden realization that their captors were still out there swept over him. "Damn it, we gotta get moving," he muttered, trying to rise to his feet.
"Hey, take it easy," Sam said, leaning down to wrap a gigantic hand over his shoulder and keep him in place.
"Dude, those guys are still out there, and we're in the same damn motel room they got us from the first time," he retorted, struggling against the pressure of Sam's hand.
Sam was shaking his head. "It's okay," he said, patting Dean's shoulder before releasing it. "Castiel did something to make them forget why they were here."
Dean looked at him sharply. "He can do that?"
"Yeah." Sam bit his lip. "He, uh, can do it if it's something small. Not like…" He gestured at Dean's head and flushed slightly.
"Oh." Dean sat back against the headboard, not sure if he should be pissed at Sam for talking about him behind his back or grateful that at least he'd tried. Told you nothing can be done for me, he thought bitterly. Still, he was touched, if not surprised, that Sam had thought to ask.
It was why he hadn't admitted anything in Concrete about his memories of Hell until Sam told him the enchanted coin was melted down. Dean knew that despite his stated desire to get back at Lilith, Sam would have tried to put the coin to use on his older brother if he'd known it could be used to erase even four months' worth of remembered torture, much less the forty years it had actually been.
And that wouldn't have been right. He'd done things down there that he didn't deserve to forget. As hard as it was to wake up every morning with the memories lurking like dark wolves in the corners of his mind, as much as Sam was right to worry that the wrong thing would trigger a flashback at exactly the wrong time, it wouldn't be right to wave a wand and make them go away. He had ten years to account for, and wishing it all away would be way too easy.
"Don't worry about it," he said casually. "He'd probably erase a little too much by accident and then I wouldn't be able to remember that hot blonde down in Dallas."
"Who, Debbie?" Sam asked, deliberate innocence pasted all over his face.
Dean shot him a mock glare, relieved beyond words that he'd taken the bait. "Didn't realize you were familiar with the classics of porn, little brother."
"Hard not to be when you're around," Sam retorted, raising his arms to make a three-point shot with the coffee cup into the garbage can on the far side of the room. He pumped one fist in triumph and then looked at Dean. "So are you gonna lounge around in bed all day or are we gonna get out of here?"
Dean opened his mouth, a stinging retort on his lips, and swallowed it at the twinkle in Sam's eye. He hadn't seen playfulness and teasing on his brother's face nearly enough since he'd been back, and damned if he was going to be the one to wipe it away. "Just for that, you're doing all the packing," he retorted in the gruffest voice he could manage.
"Okay." Sam agreed too readily, but for once Dean wasn't going to call him on it. Instead he focused on standing up and hobbling over to the shower, shutting the door firmly behind him in case any overprotective little brothers got any ideas about checking up on him.
The hot water felt fantastic, and he could literally feel the aches in his shoulders fading away as he stood there. Okay, so he couldn't talk or swallow too easily right now, but nothing needed stitches and none of his injuries were permanent, so all in all, it wasn't a bad outcome. There were obviously some discreet inquiries they'd need to have Bobby make as to how the Three Musketeers had gotten the crazy ideas into their heads that they had had, but they might get out of this relatively unscathed.
Of course, Sam was clearly hiding something big that Castiel had told him, and then there was the can of worms that was Ruby that needed to be opened, and Dean was going to stop that metaphor right now before it got any farther into his brain. Then there was the angel's oh-so-cheerful comment a few weeks ago about not envying the upcoming decisions Dean was going have to make, plus the ever-looming threat of the end of the world. Not to mention the ticking time bomb in his own head of post-traumatic stress that he could guarantee was off the charts of any earthly psychiatrist.
Then he heard Sam yelling at him to hurry up, and a smile crept over his face. "Keep your pants on, Princess," he shouted back, not minding the scrape of his voice over his abused throat. It meant he was alive and here and with his living, breathing brother in the next room, and if it took nearly being hung to death to remind him of how valuable that was, well, it was worth it.
And he would hold on to that thought for as long as he could.