Characters: Sam, Dean, Bobby, Ellen, Others (Gen)
Summary (from the original): In the years after Dean's death, everything goes to Hell for Sam and the other hunters.
Warning: Character deaths.
Author's Notes: This was my story for kamikazeremix, a retelling of the gorgeous and heartbreaking story The Ashen Apple of These Days, by embroiderama. The setting is slightly AU owing to the original being written early in S3.
Please read the original story first, as it is a mystery and this story will spoil the suspense (@7900 words for both).
Thanks so much to my beta, deadbeat_nymph.
Dean wasn't the kind of guy to run from a battle, and he didn't run from the last one. He'd lost it before it began, but he was still Dean Winchester. He did not run.
The weeks coming down to the end had been as hard as the beginning, back when he'd made the deal for Sam's life. Harder, even—he had to keep reminding himself of how it'd been, with Sam lying cold and still on that bed and his own soul already dead inside of him from the guilt, the agony, the sheer emptiness of surviving the brother he'd promised he'd always protect.
Dean hadn't wanted to live the life that waited if Sam wasn't part of it. There was no point in dragging himself through the endless days of misery that were left to him, and he didn't deserve to be there instead of Sam. So he'd offered up to the demon the life and soul that were suddenly worthless to him apart from their value in bargaining for his brother.
It was a good trade. Dean still believed that, even at the end. The fact that he'd had to stare down the closing distance to his fate for an entire year didn't change anything. It had been the right choice. That didn't make it any less painful to live with.
The nights had been the worst, not always but often. Sometimes Dean had lain in the dark, feeling the seconds slipping away like water, becoming part of the rushing stream carrying him toward the end. Other times (so much harder, always the worst) he'd heard the quiet, nearly-suppressed sounds of Sam crying and known he was the cause of it. Sam had tried to keep the burden of his own grief from Dean, and too often Dean had been selfish enough to let him do it.
On his last night, Dean ate his favorite foods (forcing them past the lump in his throat) before driving the Impala through the moonbeam-mirror of back roads with the window cracked open and cool air rushing past his face. Then he stopped at the viewpoint for a canyon (so tempting to drive the car over the edge, but he knew it wouldn't help and Sam was right there beside him) and turned off the engine.
He scanned the heavens, the desert sky so impossibly beautiful at night with its thousands of brilliant stars. Finally, he reached over and pulled Sam down against his shoulder, holding him there and making sure neither of them let go. It wasn't Dean and it wasn't easy, but it was for Sam and all the broken sounds spilling out of him. It was all Dean had left to give.
Ten minutes before midnight, Dean started the car up and headed back toward the last crossroads he'd passed. Driving a quarter mile beyond it, he stopped and turned the keys over to Sam.
"I don't want you following me, Sam. You don't need to see this. It'll only make things harder for both of us. Then after it's done, you can—" Dean swallowed, knowing how much the words would hurt, "Just promise me you'll burn what's left, all right? Promise. Don't take any chances."
Sam nodded wordlessly, his face already wet and desperate and ruined.
"You're the best of us, Sammy. Don't ever forget that." Dean patted Sam's arm, suddenly drowning in visions of him from the past—baby cheeks and wispy hair, trusting hand clasping his own, stubborn adolescent jaw above stiff shoulders… and the deathly stillness that had brought them to this moment.
He couldn't look at Sam again and still walk away, and so he didn't.
Opening the door, Dean rose from the car and turned toward the horizon. Head held high, legs distant and numb beneath him, he followed the road to its junction.
"I didn't think you'd be so eager."
The Winchester boy surprised her—she'd never thought to take his kind so easily. Yet here he was, resignation and defiance warring each other inside a package that smelled of salt and leather, fear and sorrow and ash.
He was perfect.
How unfortunate, she pouted, that she was only the collector after all. He was marked for another, as were all of the souls she transported.
Her position on the ladder didn't even afford her a taste.
The door to Dean's eternity spread open, pulling him in and locking behind him.
The silence was not stillness, not anger, not the late-night edge of sleep. It was an awfulness broken by the sounds of anguish, motion halted until the storm within had passed.
It was unalterably wrong.
Under the moon's soft beacon the Impala gleamed, her finish cleaned and polished so carefully by the one who'd cherished her and restored her to glory.
But all of that was past, gone forever in a single night. A chariot of death now, she could do no more than to carry him in style.
The sound of the engine brought Bobby to the door, a mixture of dread and hope rising in his stomach.
As soon as he saw Sam driving it—only Sam there in the front seat—he knew it was over.
Dean was dead. There'd been no miracle or reprieve.
He'd tried to find a loophole, a countering agent, anything that would save Dean from that crossroads bargain. But he'd found nothing. No one had ever gotten out of a crossroads deal, and Dean had gone one better by asking for Sam's resurrection in return for his soul. Even if the deal could have been reversed, Dean never would have agreed to it.
In the car was the boy that Bobby couldn't save, had never saved—not from the life John Winchester had mandated for him (the life Dean kept to when the choice became his own), and not from himself when he so easily threw it away.
These boys were as close to family as it got for Bobby, the sons he'd always wished he'd had. It only made this moment harder. Wanting Dean back meant wishing Sam dead all over again, and Bobby found he couldn't.
The choice had never been his.
Sam pleaded for his help, naked desperation in his eyes. "There has to be a way," Sam whispered brokenly, "something we can do. Even if everything goes back to the way it should've been a year ago, that's fair. I'll do it—or anything else I have to. Just bring him back, Bobby, please, can't we fix this before it's too late?"
Bobby couldn't do it, of course, wouldn't do it. There were worse things than being dead, and Dean had gone that route himself. Anything more would just compound that first mistake.
Sam stayed outside that night in the car with Dean, and Bobby knew better than to try to talk him out of it. The boy would have to give his brother over to the flames soon enough.
That thought was so painful that it followed him through the dark and kept him awake for most of the night.
In the morning they built the pyre, struggling against the betrayal of unsteady hands to bind the wood correctly. There was no one to do it for them.
Neither of them could watch, once the flames caught and rose toward Dean's body. Sam clung to Bobby, grief collapsing him inward until he was no taller than Bobby himself. His sobs echoed between them, tethering Bobby to every lasting minute of that terrible vigil.
John had never given him his boys, but Bobby'd kept them all the same, close to his heart.
He was paying for every bit of that now.
Standing by his bed was the tallest man Ti-Jean had ever seen, book in hand and smiling wearily. He seemed young for someone so tired, but it was hard to be sure with the room still spinning.
"You'll be fine now," the man said, his voice rasped-over like he hadn't spoken in ages. He might have been kind—had to be, coming to these forgotten woods to help a stranger—but he'd already turned to leave, his shoulders slumped like he didn't care who saw.
In the corner, Pere prayed while the tears ran down his face.
In the sea of unnamable agonies, Dean burned and bled with all the pain of the flesh he no longer had. It was an illusion, unshakable and unforgiving, too powerful to escape.
Far crueler than the worst reality, where in the end a man could die only once…
Through the worn pathways of endless torture, Dean dredged up the myth of a man forever doomed to have his entrails eaten by an eagle. Greek, he thought, and the Greeks didn't have Hell but their afterlife was pitiless and unchanging. The man had gotten off easy, by the standards of the Hell Dean was struggling to endure.
The demon who owned Dean's contract took delight in finding new ways to destroy what little of him remained. She relished his fear as if she knew how fiercely his living self had hidden it. She reveled in his despair, repeatedly trying to deepen it in a test of how far it could go before the subject finally lost the ability to care.
With enough time, Dean was utterly convinced, she would make him into the same sort of ruthless evil as herself.
After the beginning (days, weeks, longer—for there was no sense of time anymore, only what was and what used to be), there were moments when Dean almost welcomed the pain that tore at his flesh, invading his mind while tormenting his body.
Only the most extreme physical suffering could ever drive him to stop thinking and worrying about Sam…
Ellen recognized the flatness in Sam's voice, the way his words were barely loud enough to carry over the phone. She'd been there herself, those first months after Bill was gone.
"Just wondered where you were traveling these days, Sam. Anything new?" Not, How are you? or any of the other things she wanted to say. She remembered how demanding those questions had seemed back then, how impossible it was just to lie.
"Baton Rouge—woman in white. Tallahassee last week, for vampires."
"Need anything, Sam? Money, or weapons?" The words underneath were I'm sorry. I know it hurts.
"I'm good. Thanks." The answer was automatic, like Sam's thoughts were somewhere else.
"All right, you take care now. You come this way, we'd be glad to see you."
We're here if you need us. Just making sure you don't forget.
When the demon first gave Dean the chance for a new deal, the choice had been easy. She would ease the misery of his existence, and all he had to do was give her a hunter. Dean could hardly wait.
He had someone in mind: Gordon Walker. The man had stopped being a hunter a long time ago, taking down ordinary people who fit his misguided profile. Coming after Sam had been the final straw. For Dean, this would almost be justice.
On Halloween night, Dean walked the world he'd missed second only to Sam. Houses were clothed in cobwebs and their porches lit with pumpkins, and costumed children passed in and out of shadows along sidewalks and streets. The air was cool and crisp, bringing a flood of memories back—the feeling of Fall, of woods carpeted deep with crackling leaves, of the Halloweens he'd longed for after Dad had turned his back on even the simplest childhood celebrations.
Dean drank in the sights and sounds of all that surrounded him as he wandered, moving like mist through the trees.
When midnight came he was clear across the city, sliding purposefully through concrete walls and into Gordon's cell.
The first year was the hardest, Bobby knew. Missing a person so much you could hardly talk about them even though memories of them filled your head. Too many moments you'd turn around expecting that person to be there, and then remember they were gone forever. Too many mornings of waking up and thinking life was back to what it used to be, and then realizing all over again the shape of the world you had to live in now.
All of that was hard enough but when you had a part in that person's death (or felt responsible for it), even the most basic aspects of grieving became more complicated. Questions about how the person died were impossible to answer; the questions you asked yourself—in sleepless hours while waiting for daylight—were even worse.
Sam was going through that now, lost in grief in some unknown part of the country while Bobby sat staring out the kitchen window and looking for answers in the January snow. Suddenly, a flash of red glinted past, interrupting his thoughts. A cardinal lit on the ground near John and Dean's gravesites, the whiteness underneath it gleaming like glass in the winter sun.
Dean had been seven when Bobby had first met him, all shining blond hair and surface-level seriousness that broke into bubbling laughter when he chased Sammy through the grass in front of the trees. Bobby's eyes stung, thinking how quickly that Dean had disappeared completely just a few years afterward, how quickly all of Dean's life had passed.
Then he picked up the phone and called Sam for the second time that month.
Demons lied. It was their nature—Dean knew this.
Whatever had happened with the promise the demon had made him was something he should've seen coming.
Not one hunter. Four. The first for him and three for her, and a year of waiting in between each one.
He had only her word that it had been a year since he'd killed Gordon Walker. The continual horror of his hours-weeks-months made it all seem so much longer, but either way he had to find another hunter to offer up if he wanted any kind of release from his current conditions.
No question that he wanted it.
Coming up with a hunter would be harder this time—he had no enemies to choose from anymore. But the part of him that could keep him from making that choice was already gone, burned away along with his soul.
In the rare spaces between his bouts of suffering, he weighed the options and decided on a name: Jo Harvelle.
Jo hadn't been hunting that long, and the fight against evil wouldn't lose much after she was gone. Who else was he going to pick? Dean hadn't met that many hunters to begin with, thanks to his father's close-mouthed ways and most of the few having lost the battle long ago.
It wasn't like he knew Jo all that well anyway.
The picture of Jo Harvelle at the Wilkins' funeral home looked just the way Eddy Mabrey remembered her—smart with a sparkle, like she knew something and she'd get you when you least expected it, pulling you along almost to the bitter end before breaking down in helpless laughter.
He used to love laughing with her back in high school, loved every little thing about her, though it never went anywhere after that impulsive summertime kiss under his grandpa's apple tree.
Eddy could still feel that kiss like it was yesterday. He'd spent years hoping that someday things would be different, that she might think about him the same special way he'd always thought of her.
Now that chance was gone.
The longer Dean bled and burned in Hell, the angrier he got.
He hated the living with a murderous envy. No matter how terrible their existence might be (never as bad as this, his thoughts raged), it was finite. And they could end it early if they ever got desperate enough.
Hour after endless hour Dean was forced beyond the breaking point—frozen there—because death could not come to spare him. He began to hate himself almost as much as he hated the choice he'd made that had brought him here.
There should have been a way out of it. Why hadn't he and Sam found it? Why hadn't their friends who had all that knowledge and experience found the answer for them?
The more Dean thought about it, the more certain he was of which hunter in particular should have helped him back then and didn't.
Dean was far enough gone—broken beyond rescue—that he looked forward now to spreading around all the misery he possibly could.
The salvage yard was almost beautiful at night, a landscape of abstract shadows rising under the half-light of the moon.
Ellen had finally passed out, thank god. Halloween could never be the same for her now that it marked the anniversary of Jo's death, and Bobby had only whiskey to offer against her pain.
A hole that deep took a lot of filling up.
Bobby used to enjoy Halloween as a boy, long before he found out all the things this life had taught him. He still did the jack-o-lanterns (though not this year with Ellen coming), but he was just as glad to be far away from trick-or-treaters and the problem of deciding whether what showed up at his doorstep might be real.
The air was cold tonight, and he pulled his jacket tighter as he sat and watched the glimmering stars. A dog barked in the distance, the only sound for miles until the sudden crackling of leaves not ten feet away.
Bobby turned to look, expecting a night bird or some other small animal.
On the second Halloween, Dean had taken a detour to look in on Sam. He'd been mad as hell that he hadn't done it the first time, but back then he'd thought he'd be getting out as soon as Gordon was dead.
Dean hadn't been about to waste a chance like that twice.
He hadn't known what to do once he'd found Sam, though, and it had surprised him. Seeing the ghost his brother had become—the loneliness in Sam's eyes, the aimless movements through the too-long evening in a run-down motel room—Dean had almost forgotten to leave in time to go after Jo Harvelle.
He'd been drawn back to Sam again like that was all he'd ever known. But Dean had changed by then into something he'd never expected to become. Something twisted and ruined.
The helplessness had reached inside him, finding some vestige of humanity there. It had been enough to make Dean frustrated and angry at himself, at the demon who held his chain. Two more years, at best (if she'd been straight with him after the first time). He hadn't the slightest hope of doing anything for Sam until then, if ever.
On the third year, Dean didn't try to see Sam at all. He wasn't sure he could follow through with Bobby if he visited Sam first, and then afterward he couldn't stand the thought of going to see Sam with Bobby's death on his hands.
Guilt was an unfamiliar feeling by then, but Dean remembered it all too clearly when it found him.
When the time came around to choose his fourth hunter, Dean's options were gone. He had only two candidates, and one of them was off-limits no matter how bad things got.
That left him with Ellen.
She was hardly a hunter but the demon accepted her as such, and Dean was desperate to fulfill the last part of his contract. Ellen would do. Maybe—and the last traces of who Dean once was grasped at the idea—maybe it would even be the merciful thing to do, now that Jo was gone just like the husband Ellen had lost years ago.
Dean wasted no time. Ellen was at Bobby's old place (he didn't wonder why, didn't care in the slightest), and he went there as soon as the day became night.
But something was off. Someone was waiting.
It all clicked in at once, as the Devil's Trap bound Dean where he stood. He should have realized Sam would put it all together eventually, but he'd been so close to the point where none of that would even matter again.
Nice to see Sam's timing still sucked as much as ever.
In the earth, red as the life-force that once flowed in Dean's now-absent veins, was an offering that puzzled him: an apple. Maybe Sam was being ironic, or maybe irony was so much a part of Dean's existence that he saw it everywhere he looked.
He bit it for the sake of curiosity, but it had no taste. Just as he'd expected.
"Seriously, Sammy, you couldn’t do any better than an apple?"
It felt good to tease Sam, it felt normal. Dean could handle that a whole lot better than the look Sam was giving him now, a combination of hope and grief that threatened to distract Dean from his purpose.
"It’s traditional," Sam whispered, sounding so innocent—so like the little boy Dean had protected all his life—that Dean reached automatically for the humor he'd always used to push away moments like this. He needed no reminders of what he'd become.
But it didn't work. Sam didn't fall for his crack about wanting a cheeseburger instead.
"How could you—"
And this was the part Dean would've dreaded if he'd realized Sam would be here, this litany of wrongs he'd committed against the people they both once knew. He had no defense except the truth, and it wasn’t the kind of answer Sam had ever wanted to hear.
Part of the truth was that Dean wasn't all that bothered by what he'd done. It was seeing the effect it'd had on Sam that was hard, even with so little of Dean left that was able to care anymore.
But the desire to be free was just as strong. Dean couldn't pass up the chance to spell out what was at stake if Sam stopped him from completing this final stage of the contract. Or worse—that he'd be forever doomed to the same eternity he was right on the verge of escaping—if Sam exorcized him as if he were any other demon.
They both knew Sam owed him more than that.
"I don’t think you can do that, little brother, not when I came here to save you." Dean was not above lying at a moment like this. He needed Sam's sympathy, or he'd never escape.
"Where did they go? Gordon and Jo and Bobby? Their spirits?" Sam asked.
Dean hadn't seen their spirits afterward, though Hell honestly wasn't where he would have found them anyway. "Don’t really know," he shrugged. “Wherever they would have gone if something else had killed them."
That seemed to matter to Sam—no surprise there at all. But Dean missed the next part of whatever Sam said because Sam stepped over the lines of the Devil's Trap circle then and joined him.
"Sammy?" Dean stared in disbelief. Sam wasn't letting him out to kill Ellen, but he also wouldn't risk coming into the circle for an exorcism. Sam being here inside with him could only mean one thing…
"I want us to be a family again," Sam said, and he reached out to grasp Dean's hand in a move that sealed both their fates.
The touch on Dean's skin was sweetly cool, soothing as water quenching fire and as welcome as air after breathing smoke. It spread through him slowly, awakening and healing every forgotten piece of him along the way.
Finally, it reached his heart.
Sam, Dean thought—not the barren label or scattered memories of before, but the entirety of all Sam was and who Dean had been when Sam was with him. The sharpness of those feelings was dizzying after everything being defined so long by pain and desperation and hatred.
When Dean opened his eyes Sam was smiling, and the sight was so beautiful—all of it for him, for them— that Dean's heart lifted for the first time since returning from the crossroads deal and finding Sam alive and well again.
He moved as if in a dream, pulling Sam close and holding him tight. "I can't believe you did that, Sammy, why did you do that?"
Sam whispered hoarsely, "It was never really living, after you were gone."
"But you don't know—I don't know—what happens now. What if you're trapped here with me?"
"So long as it's not Hell, I think we'll both be a whole lot happier."
Dean pulled back, his eyes searching Sam's face. "I'm sorry, Sam—for everything. I just couldn't let you die." But here we are, and it's happened anyway, and all of it was for nothing. I made everything so much worse…
"I can't say I didn't think about doing the same thing after you were gone," Sam said, "so I understand why you did it. Probably more than I want to."
Dean rubbed Sam's arms, trying to soothe away his own regrets. It struck him then that something should have happened by now. Sam was the fourth hunter and the contract should have been completed, but as far as Dean could tell nothing had changed from before.
He shuffled his feet, growing more uncomfortable by the moment. "So I guess I'm supposed to go back now and see what's waiting for me. But not right this second, I'll stay as long as I can just in case, no reason to rush."
Sam smiled suddenly and shook his head, turning Dean around as he spoke. "I don't think that's the plan at all," he said, "Look over there."
Dean stood there speechless for the longest time and just looked, spellbound by the implications of what he saw. Then finally he reached out and took Sam's hand, pulling him along as the two of them walked gratefully toward the light.
------ fin ------
Extended Author's Notes:
This was my first remix, and what a great challenge it was. My goal was to create a companion piece to the original that would honor its intent and expand on its story. Maybe that's limited thinking, but it's what seemed right to me. I had a moment of floundering after reading the original, because its POV is all Sam and the obvious remix would be Dean's POV. Except that he's dead. In Hell. I really didn't want to write about that! And if I wrote just Dean, doing a prequel and coda, I feared I would lose one of the most important parts of the original, which was the vividness of Sam's pain.
The other characters in the original mostly wind up dead by the end too. So then it occurred to me to write a lot of POVs instead of a single one. I had a list of ideas, and wrote all but the abstracted salvage yard POV. Once I got going, however, I found myself writing the Dean-in-Hell scenes I'd shied away from before. We could assume that Dean becomes evil as soon as he reaches Hell, but it seemed much more intersting (and more 'logical' in a Hell-like sense) to have him slowly lose his humanity, mourning the pieces as they go and watching himself turn into the thing he hates.
In writing the Ellen and Bobby POVs, it occurred to me that they know parts of Sam's pain very well-- they have parallels of their own. I hadn't written Ellen at all before this, and hadn't written more than a few drabbles for Bobby, so both were an expansion into new territory for me.
And the "Impala POV" is done only as an abstraction because the tone of this story is somber (as it should be), and I didn't want anything that might seem quirky or humorous to alter that.
The original story moves very skillfully backward and forward in time, which I rarely attempt in my own writing. By the time I'd gotten halfway through the remix, it seemed just as well that the retelling was linear, as the changes in POV would be challenge enough for the reader.
My thanks to embroiderama for such a fascinating original piece, and the chance to play with it for awhile. I truly enjoyed it. :)