Dean needed coffee. Badly.
His room was nice, just as Sam had said. The bed was comfortable, the sheets were disturbingly clean, and the walls were thick (or at least there wasn’t any strange sound coming from the surrounding rooms, as was so often the case in the rooms he was used to). All in all, it was a far cry from the usual shady motels they used to crash in back in the States. But still, Dean had been unable to sleep more than a couple of hours.
He had kept reliving last night’s events in his mind again and again, trying to figure out where exactly everything had gone so wrong. If he was honest to himself, his best bet was on the very moment they had separated all those weeks ago. And he only had himself to blame for that.
Sure, it had been Sam’s idea to separate in the first place. But it was Dean who had decided to break contact permanently. He could still remember how his little brother’s voice had wavered over the phone, begging him not to cut him out. But Dean had let his bitterness command his actions and had sent his brother away, just like the fucking manipulative angels wanted. As far as he knew he had steered Sam right onto a self-destructive path that lead directly to becoming Lucifer’s meatsuit.
Now Dean had to find a way to get him out of it.
Not that Sam seemed very keen on cooperating, though. At least if the act of kicking Dean out last night was any indication...
He sighed and knocked on his brother’s door. There were some muffled sounds before Sam opened and Dean needed a moment to take in his brother’s appearance. Sam’s hair was a total mess, his skin was wax-like pale and the rings under his eyes were even darker than the day before. (He wasn’t quite sure how that could have happened.) And was it possible to notably lose weight overnight? Because Dean hadn’t noticed the protruding cheekbones and collarbones the day before.
“Dude, you look like shit!”
Sam grimaced. “Thanks. Sleep doesn’t always agree with me.”
Dean could sympathize with that. “Yeah, maybe we should go in search of some coffee first. What do you think?” He still wasn’t sure if Sam wanted to spend more time with him than strictly necessary.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me grab my things.”
Dean observed him while he stumbled across the room picking up his wallet and boots. The sheets were rumpled, so obviously Sam had used the bed, but he still looked like he hadn’t slept a wink.
It wasn’t like he could give lessons on the subject, though.
They went to a bar just a few steps down the street and Dean was pleasantly surprised to discover this country seemed to have at least four bars per block. (That was a wise decision!)
“Café solo, por favor,” said Sam to the middle-aged bartender, who just grumbled in acknowledgement of his words and looked expectantly at Dean.
He struggled with his poor Spanish. “Uh, dos?”
The bartender nodded and came back a few moments later with two small coffee cups half filled by some kind of thick black liquid. It smelled like coffee, but hell if it didn’t look like tar.
“What’s this?” Dean hissed at his brother, who was sipping the strange fluid contently.
“Black coffee. It’s what you asked for.”
Dean wasn’t convinced. He eyed the cup suspiciously.
“Dean, this is how the Spaniards drink their coffee. Strong. Try it, maybe you’ll like it.”
Dean caved and took a small sip, but he had to keep himself from spitting. Damn it, strong didn’t start to cover it! It was like compressing three cups of normal coffee in half a cup!
“This is not coffee, Sam, it’s petroleum!” And was that the ghost of a smile on Sam’s face?
“Well, they would think our coffee is watered down.”
Once he finished his coffee, Sam asked for another cup of the evil concoction and Dean glared.
“Really, I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said, bumping his shoulder. “Only you could like this freaky stuff.”
Of course, he covered it well, quickly averting his gaze with an unreadable expression. But Dean had seen it. Had felt it. And even if he wasn’t sure how (had it been the bump? It couldn’t have been the joke, could it? It wasn’t even a clever one!), he knew he was the one who had caused it.
The rest of the breakfast passed in silence. Dean finished his coffee in a gulp (even if it was hideous he still needed his caffeine fix) and asked for some toast. His brother refused to eat anything, nursing instead his second cup but not drinking it, still looking by all means like he was about to topple over at any moment. Dean felt his previous good mood vanish and forced himself to have a few bites in spite of the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
If he closed his eyes, he could almost ignore the iciness emanating from his brother in waves.
* * *
“Well, I’m all ears. Tell me about this little pet project of yours.”
Sam seemed unaffected by Dean’s gibe, busy looking through the numerous files on his desk. That was a good thing, since Dean didn’t really want to argue or be given the cold shoulder again. It had been some damn long thirty minutes.
Dean was still feeling kind of guilty, like he should apologize or something... but he didn’t even know why, which in turn pissed him off and made him want to punch his brother. (Yeah, he was a living contradiction, so what?) He wasn’t risking touching Sam again and have him jump away, though. With Dean’s luck his little brother would probably fall down and crack his skull open.
Sam was acting normal now, at least. Or as normal as this new and improved personality allowed him. Dean guessed he should count his blessings.
“Here, take a look at this.”
Sam handed him a couple of folders and Dean quickly scanned through them. It was a collection of photos, articles printed from the Internet and some newspaper cuts. He recognized some photos of the Spanish castle they had been in the day before, but the others were a strange mix of old ruins and nature landscapes, like caves, deserts and forests. He was about to give up and ask Sam to enlighten him when he noticed a small piece of notebook paper sticking out. It was a list of places scribbled in Sam’s nearly illegible writing.
He looked up at Sam. “This is it? Your itinerary?”
“Yeah, it’s not nearly a complete list but...”
“Why?” Dean wasn’t even sure what he was asking for.
Sam sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Well... you know that Samuel Colt didn’t construct the Devil’s Gate, don’t you?”
“I’m pretty sure we have solid proof on the contrary.”
“No, I mean...” Sam frowned. “Of course he built the iron door and rails of the devil’s trap. But he didn’t actually build the gate to Hell, Dean. That gate, passageway, whatever you want to call it, existed way before. Maybe from the beginning of time.”
Dean just looked at him flatly.
“You don’t get it.” Sam sighed. “Demons hate Hell, Dean, you know that. They are always talking about how much they wanted to escape and how difficult it was to find the way. The Devil's Gate can’t be the only gateway to Hell in the world, Dean, it's just the only one that Colt knew about.”
Dean looked down at the list in his hands; he didn’t like where this was going. At all. “Okay. I admit that kinda makes sense. But what’s it to you?”
Sam looked at him like he was crazy.
“Just think about it, Dean. If I manage to find those passages, and close them somehow, then the demons wouldn’t have any way to come over anymore. We’d only have to deal with the ones that are already here. We would be closer to winning the war!”
Dean swallowed loudly. “So... huh... okay... let me get this straight. You’re travelling around the world looking for devil’s gates? Do you even know how many are there? Or how to close them?” He could feel the dread lodging in his gut. “That’s a heck of a one-man job, Sam!”
Sam huffed in frustration. “Well, tough luck, Dean! At any moment Lucifer is going to...” His voice grew strangled and he hesitated. “...going to get his way and destroy the world.” He scrubbed a hand over his face and sat down wearily in the other bed. Dean would bet his right hand that wasn’t what Sam had originally meant to say. “After what I did, the least I can do is to make sure he doesn’t have an army at his feet.”
Dean stared at his brother. There were so many things wrong with this plan that saying he was speechless wouldn’t cover it. This mission is suicide, he wanted to say. Demons can be summoned too. There can be thousands of gates out there that you won’t ever find. You don’t even know how to close them. You’ll be just giving yourself to the demons on a silver plate. But Dean worried if he said anything, even just one of those sentences, his brother, who was radiating misery in waves, would break into a thousand pieces in front of his eyes. Therefore, he did what the Winchesters did best: He didn’t say anything at all (not about what he was thinking anyway). He just swallowed his worries, and moved on.
“All the places on the list, then.” Dean looked down at the paper in his hands, giving his brother some time to gather up. “Are they for real? Because you sure as hell weren’t in Mexico or Argentina long enough to built an iron trap.”
Sam cleared his throat. “Well, actually, I didn’t have any clear start. There isn’t any lore that I could find which stated exactly where the passages are situated, so I decided to check the places that local people associated with Hell.”
“Of course. Because people don’t like to give gloomy names to places or anything.”
Sam looked slightly ashamed at that. “Mexico sounded promising, though. A bottomless pit in the middle of nowhere. Strange sounds in the night. Lots of people missing...”
“Well, there was evil there, that’s for sure, just not of the demonic kind. It seems La Boca Del Diablo is one of the favourite corpses’ hiding place of the local bands and mafia. Lots of poor tortured souls that had not passed on, but no trace of sulfur.”
“Fucking humans... getting crazier every frigging day.”
“I did a ritual to help the souls pass on. The place should be clean now. At least until the next body batch.” Sam kept his eyes glued to the floor. It had probably been a disturbing experience for him. He still retained his faith in humanity, after all.
“No luck there either.” Dean wanted to argue that finding a gate to Hell couldn’t be considered good luck, but he kept quiet. “There is a small island that according to the legends used to be a ghost island. It disappeared and appeared again, and was inhabited by voracious spirits that killed everybody on sight.”
“Sounds right up our ally.”
“Yeah, but it seems the whole land was blessed and all the spirits vanished long time ago. I checked just in case but couldn’t find anything. It was a shot in the dark anyway.”
“And of course, after the those fruitful experiences you decided to change continents and come to Spain.”
“It was the next place on the list.” Sam shrugged.
Dean could feel the beginnings of a headache forming behind his eyes. “Okay, tell me about it.”
Sam handed him another folder. “To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m really unto something or not, either.”
Dean was not surprised. He was pretty sure that if those paths to Hell really existed, they were perfectly hidden and protected. In fact, he was glad Sam hadn’t managed to encounter any. He couldn't imagine that ending well.
He looked half-heartedly through the files (quite sure his brother would bring him up to date) when one of the photographs made him stop cold. It was a print of a painting... just a painting but... Dean’s hands went suddenly clammy, he could feel cold sweat falling down his back and there was a sharp ache drumming in his temples. Images of hooks, blood flashed in front of his eyes, and he could nearly hear the screams...
“What...” he croaked. “What the fuck is this?”
Sam leaned over him and Dean forced himself to tear his eyes from the disturbing picture.
“That’s the left panel of the triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. It’s supposed to represent Hell.”
(Click to see full HQ version)
Dean looked again at the at the painting, the flames, the dark beasts feasting on human flesh, the cries... He closed the folder with a snap.
“It’s... pretty accurate, yeah.” He shuddered.
“King Philip collected Bosch’s paintings, he sent parties all through Europe to find them. In fact, he asked for this one to be brought to his deathbed. He died looking at it.”
“Wait, wait! Why the hell would anybody want to die looking at something this...” Dean tried to find the correct word. “…utterly gross?”
“That’s the key, Dean. King Philip II was at the center of Catholicism in his time, but he went way further than faith demanded. He considered fighting evil his ultimate mission in this life, he collected pictures of Hell, holy relics, amulets, and it’s said he even dabbled in alchemy and magic. Heck, El Escorial’s library would put Bobby’s to shame and most of the books it contains were considered forbidden and heretic. If he hadn’t been a king he would have probably been burned by the Inquisition!”
Dean tried to catch up with what his brother was saying. “Sam, are you insinuating he was a hunter?”
“Either a hunter or a madman. Not sure yet.” Sam shrugged. “That’s why I wanted to talk to him.”
“Okay, so that would be the creepy spirit dressed in black. What about the howls?”
“Well, that’s the black dog of El Escorial. I wasn’t even sure it existed until yesterday.” Sam took the file from Dean’s hands and looked through his notes, eventually showing him an old drawing of a skinny black dog with long fur. “According to the legend, Philip II saw it for the first time during the death of his son. In fact, he was convinced it was the black dog who had killed him. And the same happened during the death of his wife and brother. In his last years he locked himself in the castle, and he started seeing it everywhere, hearing its howls every night.”
“Sounds like a demon’s deal to me.”
“Could be. But I honestly doubt it. On the one hand, it haunted him for way longer than ten years. On the other hand, Philip II’s soul obviously didn’t go to Hell. I don’t think it’s a hellhound.”
Dean smirked. “If it’s not a hellhound then there probably isn’t any gate here either.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sam dropped his shoulders in defeat. “I have to check and be totally sure, though.”
Fair enough. But there was something that didn’t quite fit.
“Okay, so medieval hunters and their pets aside, I still don’t understand why you thought this specific castle could hold a gate.” Dean considered it his duty to point that out. “It’s a world heritage monument visited by thousands of people every year, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be more likely that those passages were situated in isolated places?”
“Well, it was an isolated place until Philip II decided on a whim to build his home here,” Sam insisted. “In fact, he was pretty fixed on this spot. And if you dig deep enough you’ll discover this hill has always been considered a source of evil and dark powers. Human sacrifices were offered during the pre-Christian era and the people feared and avoided the place like the plague.”
If Sam was trying to convince Dean this spot was actually a class-A candidate for a gate to Hell, he kind of failed. “Did you find any trace of sulfur?” Dean asked. “Demon posession? Any strange death that doesn’t date back to five centuries ago?”
Sam locked gazes with Dean.
“No but... the locals used to call it Hell’s Mouth,” he said softly, as if that proved anything.
However Dean looked at it, it seemed like Sam was grasping for straws. “Nothing substantial, then.”
Sam grimaced and looked away. “I guess.”
“So what’s the plan? Gonna try to speak with his highness again?”
Sam kept his eyes on the wall. “I don’t think I need to anymore. I wanted to ask him about the black dog, and we already know it’s real.”
“Are we going to hunt it?” Dean grinned; he was looking forward to some action. He had done nothing but talk and sit on his ass for the last few days.
“Yeah, tonight. This way we get our answers, whatever they may be. And even if it’s not a hellhound in the end, at least there’ll be one less black dog running around.”
And Sam would be one step closer to accepting this quest was total nonsense.
“Great. The sooner we end this, the sooner we can move on and get back to our lives.”
Sam’s voice was barely a whisper. “Yeah...”
* * *
Sam looked up to the wall. It was close to midnight and the streets were dark and empty. They had decided to infiltrate at a later time than the day before to make sure all the monks would be deep asleep. Black dogs were something of a wildcard among the supernatural – it was impossible to anticipate exactly how dangerous was the beast you were facing actually was until it appeared, so Sam and Dean couldn’t risk any interruption. Thankfully it was Sunday, so the next day the monument would be closed and hopefully they would have enough time to finish the hunt properly.
There was no moon and it was difficult to see anything, but Sam was already familiar with the place and he had no problems climbing the wall and running through the courtyard. His brother followed easily, a silent presence behind him that had been reassuring once but now only made him feel inadequate.
Sam tried to tell himself he was only imagining things but he could feel Dean’s eyes boring into him, watching his every movement and finding it faulty. After all, Dean hadn’t even tried to hide that he thought this hunt, this whole mission, was simply ridiculous. A useless eccentricity. But still, he seemed to feel the obligation to tag along, probably to make sure his useless little brother didn’t mess up a simple job. It was obvious Dean couldn’t wait for it to be over and go back to his life. A life as far as possible from Sam. (A life away from the freak.)
Because yeah, maybe Sam didn’t have his brother’s hunter instinct but he wasn’t totally stupid. He knew the odds of finding a gate here were very slim. But this was... this was all Sam had.
The angels had been pretty clear, Dean was the knight in shinning armor, the only one who had any chance of defeating Lucifer and saving the world. Sam may have been relegated to the bench but that didn’t mean he couldn’t keep trying to do something before it was too late.
Something besides hiding like a coward.
Sam had had the faint hope he would receive some kind of support from his brother – after all, it had been Samuel Colt’s idea, so it couldn’t be that far-fetched. But that hope had been meticulously crushed. He guessed he should have been thankful Dean hadn’t outright mocked him, but then again, maybe he was just waiting until the big bluff, maybe he had joined Sam out of amusement after all.
“We shouldn’t do the summoning in the crypt this time,” Dean interrupted Sam’s musings. “It’s too narrow, and has only one way out. If the black dog get us there it could be dangerous.”
Sam bit back his answer (I don’t need you to give me fucking amateur lessons, I’m a hunter too) and just nodded like it hadn’t even occurred to him. He started picking the lock to the king’s rooms without saying anything at all. Dean wouldn’t trust him anyway.
While they ran through the corridors towards the mausoleum, Sam absently wished they would find something big, something terrific and lethal, something that would leave even the great Dean Winchester speechless.
Maybe that way Dean would at least acknowledge him.
When they arrived to the large anteroom that lead to the royal crypt, they stopped at once and started with the preparations, not needing words to agree that it was the most suitable place. Dean started salting the room and Sam knelt in the center and started mixing the ingredients for the ritual. He would have reveled in the feeling of still being somehow in sync with his brother if he hadn’t been busy trying not to suffocate under Dean’s scrutiny. Sam could feel the prickle of his brother’s eyes on him all the time.
“All done. Need some help there?”
Sam clenched his teeth and just shook his head, refusing to look up at Dean who had finished salting the arch to the corridor and the stairs that lead down to the Crypt in record time and now had come to stand besides his brother and observe his work. Sam placed the five candles around the bowl but before he could reach for the lighter in his pocked, Dean had crouched down and offered his own. Sam didn’t have any option but to take it.
“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?”
Sam shrugged, trying unsuccessfully to turn on the damn lighter. Dean sighed, grabbed the lighter again and gave it back with a large flame. A lump formed in Sam’s throat. Dean had always been the only one who could make that old thing to work at the first try, but it still felt like failure.
“Last time it was pretty fast. Maybe we’ll be lucky and get to sleep the rest of the night.”
Sam lighted the first candle
“Or maybe we could hit some bars, try some weird dishes and check the local chicks. Just like the old times. What do you think?”
Sam didn’t think. Didn’t want to think. It hurt too much.
He lighted the second candle.
“Sam, you haven’t said a word for hours. You’re seriously creeping me out.”
Well, nothing new, then.
Sam lighted the third candle.
“Would you stop with the silent treatment already? If there is something you want to tell me, just do it!”
He used to think that talking was the answer to everything, but they had done nothing but talk at the hostel and it had only served to widen the gaping hole inside his chest. Now he had lost all the words.
Sam lighted the fourth candle.
“Damn it, Sam. Look at me!”
Dean reached out and grabbed his chin, but Sam kept his eyes on the task. He knew what he would find if he looked into his brother’s eyes. He saw it everyday reflected in the mirror.
Sam lighted the fifth candle
Dean let go and his shoulders slumped. He rubbed his face.
“Sam, please... just... ”
A howl sounded in the distance. Dean jumped immediately, charging the sawed-off and readying himself, and Sam let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. It was a relief to finally have Dean focus on something else.
He stood slowly and drew out Ruby’s knife. He hadn’t wanted to take it, since it was one of their most valuable weapons, but Dean had been adamant, insisting that Sam was ‘rusty’. At this stage, it shouldn’t have felt like a slap in the face, but it had. Sam hadn't had the strength to argue, though. If it helped his brother to believe he was less of a hindrance, so be it.
Another howl, overlapped by a second. And a third. Sam’s eyes widened. Three howls? At the same time? That could only mean one thing, but the lore had been very clear on it, there could only be...
“There’s more than one, damn it!” Dean put himself in front of his brother, facing the corridor.
The ground started trembling, and they could hear the beast (beasts?) running towards them, its paws pounding and scratching at the marble floor. An icy wind tore through the room, blowing out two of the candles. Sam’s mind was running a mile a minute, trying to remember if he had read something about there being several black dogs, but there was nothing.
The rattling kept getting closer and louder, until it suddenly came to a halt. They couldn’t see anything – beyond the arch there was only darkness. But they could clearly hear soft growling and panting on the other side. Sam looked at the salt line; at least it was intact in spite of the wind, so whatever it was, it wouldn’t be able to cross into the room yet.
That, at least, was the theory, until suddenly an enormous black paw stepped right on the salt line and broke it as if it wasn’t even there.
“What the hell is that?” Dean sputtered. “A lion?”
Certainly the size would match. But as more and more parts of the beast materialized, and another paw proved unaffected by the salt line, it became increasingly obvious that it was definitely not a lion. Dean cursed under his breath while Sam realized that he shouldn’t have discarded some of the most outrageous testimonies and theories. Because that settled it. Not a black dog. And not a hellhound either.
At least not a normal one.
“Cerberus...” he gasped.
And Sam could have sworn the three-headed monster was smiling, studying them with an intelligent yellow gaze and sniffing the air like it was savoring their scent. Hadn’t he wished for a dangerous hunt to impress his brother? Well, there he had it. And he could have laughed at the irony of the situation if it weren’t for the ringing in his ears and the pounding in his chest.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sam could see a familiar dark figure appear on the stairs to the royal crypt, unable to cross over the salt line there. One of the heads stared at the ghost and made a strange sound. It sounded like it was laughing.
“Por el amor de Dios, ¿qué habéis hecho? ¡Dejadme entrar! ¡Dejadme entrar!”
Something clicked in the back of Sam’s mind, and he was abruptly aware they (he) had made a terrible mistake (again). He finally understood why there hadn’t been any supernatural deaths surrounding the apparitions of the black dog along the centuries. Why Philip II still haunted the castle. Why wherever the black dog appeared, the spirit wasn’t far behind.
Those were each other’s nemesis. And apparently, he and Dean had locked the good one out.
Clearly satisfied with the situation, Cerberus started advancing on its preys. Its three pairs of eyes locked on the younger Winchester. Sam couldn’t look away.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Dean raised his shotgun. “Don’t you dare, Lassie!”
“No! Dean, wait!”
It was too late, Dean aimed an iron buckshot at one of the heads, but most of it just bounced off and did little more than annoy the beast that let out an outraged cry. Horrified, Sam watched in slow motion as the monster changed positions, fixed its gaze on his brother and prepared to pounce.
It was a matter of milliseconds.
Sam crouched, threw the knife across the floor in order to break the salt line at the stairs, and jumped towards his brother.
And who would have thought? Even the guard dogs of Hell attacked exactly like normal dogs. Going for the throat first. He had to admit it was damn effective.
Everything became kind of blurry afterwards.
"No... nonononono Sam! Sam!"
Sam struggled to open his eyes. Dean was all over him, pressing both hands against the wound on his neck, even though like Sam he had to know it was useless. Actually, Sam was pretty sure not only his throat, but also his chest was ripped open and he could feel the blood gushing out between his brother’s fingers.
“Come on, Sammy, stay with me. Hold on. I’m gonna call for help okay? But you have to hold on!”
Dean’s voice was soothing. Sam felt a wave running down his body, and it could be pain or cold, but damn if it didn’t feel like relief. Because this was it. This was finally it and it was so much better than he had imagined. He had been so afraid of dying alone. So sure it was exactly what was going to happen. But here he was, dying in his brother’s arms.
“No! wake up, Sam! You have to stay awake!”
He absently thought he should feel sadness, or maybe anger. But the truth was he didn’t feel anything at all except a strangely detached sense of contentment. Everything was how it should be. The universe was righting itself.
Sam forced himself to blink and looked into his brother’s eyes, for the first time that night and for the last time ever. He could almost pretend the worry he saw reflected in Dean’s eyes was because of him, and not just because someone had died on his watch.
Sam smiled. It wasn’t such a bad way to go.
* * *
Dean couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t feel. It was like being inside of one of those nightmares in which you were trapped and you couldn’t move. But Dean knew one or two things about nightmares, and this was no dream. This was real. This was his brother’s body pressed against his chest. This was his brother’s blood soaking his knees.
“Sam! Sammy! Damn it!” he called, and begged, and rocked Sammy in his arms. But Sam wasn’t listening. Dean had been too late. He had failed to save his little brother.
It was like Cold Oak all over again.
Or maybe it was worse. Because this time there was no convenient crossroads demon waiting at the next corner. Both angels and demons already had what they wanted, they had used them and pulled them apart to get it, and now they wouldn’t be interested in Dean’s sorry excuse of a soul anymore.
He tightened his arms around Sam, an ingrained instinct of protection now useless. He didn’t know what had happened to the monster. One moment it was there, tearing into his stupid little brother who had jumped unarmed in front of it. And the next it was gone. For all Dean knew he was about to become its next dish, but he didn’t care. Just a few days ago he had been shown what was in store for him when he was without his brother, and it wasn’t a future worth living.
Feeling a presence besides them, Dean forced himself to raise his head. There, looking down at his brother’s body, was Philip II.
“Lo siento,” the ghost whispered sadly, and then vanished.
Dean ignored it and hid his burning eyes in Sam’s hair again. Apologies didn’t make any difference. Sam was still getting colder by the second and Dean still didn’t know how he was supposed to keep on going without him. Last time he had barely lasted twenty-four hours with his brother dead before crumbling – how was he supposed to live now? How had Sam done it for four whole months?
Badly, supplied a voice inside his mind and Dean wanted to laugh. Funny how a little perspective changed one’s views. Dean could admit now that two years ago he had taken the easy way out: he hadn’t wanted to survive without his brother, so he didn’t. But Sam hadn’t had that option. He had been forced to keep on fighting, and since no demon would buy his soul anymore, he had taken the scenic route and started giving himself away one painful piece at a time.
Today it was Dean’s turn to carry on alone, and he wasn’t sure he could do it without falling into a pit of despair and losing himself in the process, too.
Dean drew a shuddering breath. Sam looked peaceful, with a faint smile on his bloodied lips. And Dean wanted to be sick, because that didn’t make it better, it made it worse. His brother had died smiling. Sam had seemed happier in his last painful moments than he had been in the last few months, maybe years, and how fucked up was that? Who the hell smiled when they were gasping for air? What did that mean?
And why did he feel like it was his fault?
It was too much. The guilt, the sorrow. He had to pull himself together and start moving. There was no window in the room, so he had no idea how long he had been kneeling there. It could have been hours for all he knew. Dean grasped for the last shreds of self control and let his more rational part take over, feeling a cold calm wash over him. He had to take his brother’s body out of here as soon as possible, find the way to...
Sam started shaking.
For a moment Dean thought he had imagined it, but then the shaking gave way to full body spasms and he hurried to restrain the flying limbs. The small part of Dean’s brain that hadn’t gone into shock worried faintly his brother was having a seizure, because if that was the case maybe he should make sure Sam didn’t bite his tongue or choked on it.
Except he was pretty sure dead people couldn't have seizures so that didn’t make any sense.
Suddenly Sam opened his eyes and drew in a long, violent breath, like he had been drowning in deep waters and now he couldn’t find enough oxygen in the air. But Sam hadn’t been drowning either. This wasn’t Baywatch and there wasn’t any blond busty lifeguard who had dragged his brother to the beach and performed a miraculous CPR session.
No, Sam had been gone, his throat sliced open by a gigantic three-headed black dog, and he had bled to death before Dean could even spare a few minutes to call Cas to fix him. Dean had not hallucinated it or dreamed it because not even in his most macabre moments could he have ever made up something like that. And now Sam was coughing violently, and Dean was muttering reassuring nonsense, while patting Sam’s back with his right hand and feeling a strong, fast heartbeat below his left.
Finally the coughing fit seemed to subside and Sam started breathing normally again. (Again!). Dean wanted to say something, anything, but before he could manage to connect his brain with his mouth, Sam stood up in a fast movement, getting out of reach. He patted his clothes, like the stains could come off like dust, and looked down at Dean apparently unfazed to see his big brother sitting in the middle of a large pool of blood.
Of Sam’s blood.
“We should go. I really need a shower.” Sam wrinkled his nose. “And you could use one too.”
Dean couldn’t speak, because he was too busy staring at his brother’s long, unscathed, intact neck. And maybe it was true most of his brain cells had gone on holiday because he only could mutter a faint “Wha..?”
Definitely, not his most articulate moment. But Sam seemed to understand anyway.
“Guess Lucifer comes in handy sometimes.” He shrugged.
* * *
Sam opened the door and let his brother enter the room before him. He still didn’t quite understand why Dean had insisted on coming up with him instead of going directly to his own room. There was only one bathroom per room, so it definitely would have been faster to split.
“You can have the shower first.”
Dean just looked at him for a few moments. He had been uncharacteristically silent the whole way back. Maybe he was upset things had gotten messy at the hunt but there was no need to overreact. They could get back to it in the morning to finish the job – after all, the monument would be closed the whole day. Or was he mad because of the dark stains on his clothes? Blood was a pain in the ass to remove. Sam would offer to pay for the dry-cleaning, but he was fairly sure it would end up being more expensive than simply buying a new pair of jeans.
Whatever Dean was looking for in his face, he didn’t seem to find it. He just sighed and headed to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him.
Sam walked to the window and pressed his forehead against the glass. There wasn’t much of a view, but the condensation droplets on the other side of the pane were painting nice patterns in the polished surface. He followed two of them with his eyes as they fell, making a mental bet over which one would arrive first at their goal. If drops of water had goals, that was.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on the darkness behind his eyelids. He was feeling strangely disconnected from his own body. Like his mind was floating in space and there was only a tiny fragment left in him. He probably should have felt something about what had happened. Maybe surprise at being alive or anger at being robbed of any control over his own existence. But there was nothing.
The moment the shower stopped running and Dean opened the door, Sam sidestepped him and went inside. He turned the thermostat all the way up but the water still felt cold against his face and back, even after the bathroom was filled with steam and his pale skin had turned an alarming shade of red.
When he finally stepped back into the room, his used clothes in his hands and dressed in fresh ones, it could have been minutes or hours. But his brother was still there, sitting on the bed and watching him like Dean was a hawk and Sam was the skittish rabbit he wanted to eat.
“Okay.” Dean cleared his throat. “I think it’s talk time.”
Sam didn’t necessarily agree with that statement. In fact he was fairly sure they should be researching instead. Talking would be useless and impractical to the hunt. But he didn’t feel like arguing right now either.
"You were dead." Dean snapped. And Sam realized his eyes were red. He wondered if his brother had gotten soap into his eyes, or if the exhaustion was getting to him.
Ironically, Sam hadn’t felt this rested in ages himself.
"Yeah, I suppose I was." He couldn't remember anything though. He wondered if his soul had gone to Heaven or Hell, or it had simply been stuck in the middle, rejected by both factions.
"And Lucifer brought you back to life." Sam couldn’t really read Dean’s tone. Angry? Accusatory? It used to be so easy to interpret it but now he only came up blank. He wondered when he had lost that ability. Maybe it was the moment the first drop of Ruby’s blood touched his tongue.
"He told me as much in my dreams. So it was definitely a possibility." Damn, now that he looked closer he saw that his trousers were ruined. He would definitely have to buy new ones. For some strange reason, this country wasn’t too fond of public laundromats.
“He told–” Dean choked. His voice was kind of rough, maybe he was coming up with something. “And does this happen often?"
"It was a theory." Sam could probably try to salvage his shirt. Or not, since the tears in the front seemed beyond any kind of mending. "I hadn't tested it yet."
There was a strangled sound, but Dean didn’t answer. Sam looked up from his clothes and realized his brother was staring at him like he was crazy or a stranger. Both of which Sam guessed he possibly was. After all, he had quite forgotten what it was to feel like himself lately.
Whatever. If Dean wanted to waste time moping, he could do it by himself. Sam deposited the clothes on the bed and turned to the desk, going though the files quickly. There was still so much work to do. In the end he had been right, Cerberus was definitely a black dog, but obviously not your average one. He had to go back to the sources, check some of the legends and testimonies he had initially dismissed because as it turned out they weren’t so far-fetched after all. He had to back to square one, maybe go back to the library and...
“Did you do it on purpose?” Dean wasn’t exactly shouting, but it was a close thing.
“Did you step in front of that beast, unarmed, in order to test your theory?” He spit the word like it was the most disgusting thing in the world.
“Of course not.” Something small snapped inside his chest, and Sam absently rubbed it. He didn’t want to fight, he wanted to start working on the case. Why couldn’t Dean just let it go?
“You sure? Because that’s exactly what it looks like. Would you care explaining to me what the fuck happened there?”
Dean stood, menacing. And Sam took a step backwards. He didn’t want to think about it.
“I was just doing my job!” His chest felt heavy, and breathing hurt. It was like he had a dead weight beneath his ribs. “I saved your life,” he whispered.
“Did you? Because at least I was armed! You had thrown away the fucking knife!”
“I had to break the salt line.” And everything was fixed now. Nothing had happened. Couldn’t Dean see it? “I don’t know what you’re thinking but–”
“No. The question is what the hell were you thinking? Because from my standpoint it looks like you’re on a suicide mission, so fucking certain that if something happens Lucifer will save your ass!”
“That’s not...” Sam shook his head. There was nothing that Lucifer could offer him that he wanted. Not even his life.
“Well, that makes it better. Because that means you were hoping that he wouldn’t!”
“AND WHAT DO YOU CARE?” Sam’s sudden outburst took them both by surprise, but it was too late now, something had broken loose inside of him, like a dam that was overflowing, letting out feelings he hadn’t even known he had contained within. “Or wait, are you disappointed I came back to life? Is that it?”
Dean opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
“Is that it? Did you think you were finally free from your burden, Dean? That you wouldn’t have to keep watching me like a dog to make sure I didn’t mess up again? That I wouldn’t betray you again?”
“Or maybe you thought that little mistake you made two years ago had been righted. After all, you made it crystal clear that you couldn’t wait to get rid of me. That you didn’t care for me at all anymore. But wasn’t it enough to disown me? How much do you regret having ever gone to that crossroad? No apocalypse, no vessel for Lucifer. No worries! Did you finally realize you sacrificed yourself in vain? Because it wasn’t worth it, Dean. You know now that I wasn’t worth...”
Dean punched him.
Sam fell against the wall, and slid to the floor. But the pain had barely registered in his mind before Dean was pulling him up again and hugging him like his life depended on it. Sam wanted to fight him, wanted to push him away, but he couldn't remember the last time he had been hugged like this, like he was something important, like he mattered. He could hear somebody sobbing and dimly realized his face was wet. Dean was repeating the same words in his ear, again and again, and they sounded a lot like ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’
So Sam clung to his brother’s shirt, hid his face in his brother’s neck, and just cried.
He didn’t know how long they stayed like that, squeezing each other like the moment they let go one of them would simply slip away into thin air. But when finally they separated, the first rays of the morning were timidly showing through the window.
Sam felt pliant and malleable, but utterly exhausted. His throat was raw, his eyes were puffy and his whole face felt swollen. Dean didn’t say anything, just helped him to bed and then he walked out. Irrational panic started to lodge in Sam’s throat, but before he had the time to really register it, Dean came back with an ice pack, a pill against pain and a glass of water. And Sam let go of a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.
After feeding him the pill with a sip of water, and pressing the ice to his cheek, Dean crawled into the narrow bed with him. It was a single bed, so there was hardly enough space for the two grown up men, but Sam wasn’t going to complain. He let himself be manhandled into his brother’s arms again and faintly wondered if he should remind Dean that he had his own room two floors down. After all, he still didn’t want him to know about Lucifer’s nightly visits. But he couldn’t summon the willpower to talk and, to be honest, he didn’t want Dean to go.
He forced himself to stop thinking and just let the feeling of relief wash over him. He knew it was ridiculous and maybe a little pathetic, but here, soaking in his brother’s warmth, he felt safe, cherished and protected. Like nothing and nobody could reach him.
He drifted away.
And for the first time in many many weeks, Lucifer didn’t come.
 Black coffee, please.
 For God’s sake, what have you done? Let me in! Let me in!!
 I'm sorry.