Word Count: 3094
Warnings: some language; angst galore
Author's Notes: Thank you to my fab betas, H & J (esp J who helped me settle on how to end it).
Summary: Dean wakes up strapped to a bed in a white room, and the last thing he remembers is screaming as Michael took him over. Now he can’t tell if he’s trapped inside an archangel-induced hallucination or if he really did break apart.
The first thing that Dean felt when he opened his eyes to find himself strapped down to a big white bed wasn’t panic.
His thoughts were sluggish and foggy, but he was more confused and irritated than worried. This was a dream, maybe, or an illusion. He wasn’t sure yet, as he jiggled the restraints around his wrist, but he didn’t think he was supposed to be here—wherever here was.
If it was a dream, his dream, then he should be able to bend it. The restraints are open, he thought. When they stayed locked, he tried imagining they weren’t there, letting go of the idea of the bed entirely. And then I get up, and go to the door, he thought. I wake up.
Nothing shifted, nothing shimmered. Not a dream, then.
Illusions were harder—it depended on what monster was putting it on and why. Since his greatest desire was not to be locked up in a mental ward somewhere, then he could safely rule out djinns and at least half a dozen other things.
There wasn’t a lot to the room: bland walls, no furniture save the bed, and one barred window on the wall to his right. Dean frowned, and his confusion flickered into worry.
Then the door opened, and Sam came in, followed by an orderly with a folding chair.
“Sam, what the hell,” Dean said, and jerked at his wrist restraints.
Sam thanked the orderly and opened up the chair. When he sat down, it was slow and heavy as though he were carrying the Titanic on his back. All of him seemed dragged down, ragged and exhausted.
“You’re kinda scaring me, here. Sammy. What the hell happened?”
“You don’t remember?” said Sam, and for some reason, he looked heartbroken.
“Where’s Cas?” Dean watched the door where the orderly had exited.
“Try to think, Dean,” Sam said gently. “Do you remember?”
Dean tugged at his restraints. “I think you’re being weird as hell, and I want to get out of—whatever the hell this is. Get me out.”
“Dean, please.” Sam pressed his hands to his face. “This is the fourth time you’ve gone through this. I need you to remember.”
Dean stared. His heart tumbled around his ribs and now, now the panic started to slither into his veins.
“What...what do you mean?” he managed, and Sam’s shoulders bunched tighter when he looked at Dean.
Sam sighed. “You said ‘yes’ to Michael. And then he took over after you killed Lucifer—he wasn’t supposed to…”
We had a deal!
That, Dean remembered. The searing and clawing of an archangel in his guts, slashing through his mind, wrestling control away from him. Knowing Michael betrayed him—the shame that he wasn’t even that surprised that it had happened.
The split second of horror on Sam’s face, the paralyzing sensation of not being in control of his own body, his own voice.
And since he couldn’t remember anything after that, there were only two logical outcomes: either this was some false reality deep in his brain designed to keep him trapped while Michael wore his meat suit, or else he’d cracked and went crazy after Michael had used him up.
“How’d you get him out?” Dean asked, carefully watching Sam—if it really was Sam.
Sam sighed. “Remember after the Trials? I was shredded, and you asked Gadreel to fix me.”
Dean swallowed. That was putting it woefully lightly. He didn’t regret saving Sam, but the guilt of letting an angel control Sam without his permission—the consuming guilt of Kevin’s death—never went away.
“And I was still a mess afterwards, for a long time. It took a lot to get Gadreel out, in the end, didn’t it?”
Exhaustion lined Sam’s face. “With Michael…. Dean, it took everything we...everything Cas and Jack had, and then some.”
“But he’s out? He’s gone?”
“Dean…” Sam closed his eyes. “You were...shattered.”
“Yes or no, Sam, simple as that. Is there a giant dick angel still kicking around my skull or did you get him out?”
It didn’t feel like there was a winged asshole in there somewhere. There wasn’t a strange, pressing presence in his mind, no itchy thoughts or voice telling him what to do and how to do it, like there had been back in the church.
“He’s gone,” said Sam. “But so are Cas and Jack. Mom, Bobby, Rowena… Dean, everyone’s gone. And so are you.”
“What, I’m dead?” Dean joked. “It’s not like it’s the first time that’s happened.”
Sam’s eyes glistened and he buried his face in his hands again.
“Hey, Sam—Sammy, I’m sorry.”
“You’re not listening to me. You never listen.”
“That’s not fair. I am—I just—I don’t know what the hell is going on.”
Sam’s voice was a horrible, cracked whisper when he said, “I don’t know how to keep doing this.”
“Doing what? Sam, hey, doing what?” Dean jerked against his restraints again. “Hey.”
“Watching you come apart at the seams,” Sam answered. “When you finally come to terms with reality, you...you break apart. Again, and again. And I don’t know how to keep telling you that everyone is gone and you...you refuse to believe it’s real.”
“It can’t be,” Dean murmured. He was at once both completely sure and absolutely unsure.
Sam stood to leave.
“Hold on,” Dean said. “Did he do this to me?” What he meant was, Did Michael break me?
There was so much worry and hurt and helplessness pouring off of Sam in waves that Dean thought he might drown in it. That had to be real—it could not be real.
“He did this to me?” Dean repeated, barely a whisper. He clutched his fingers into the bed sheets to stop their shaking and took a few deep breaths.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” said Sam.
Dean closed his eyes.
If Michael was going to break him, he would have to pull out all the stops. Tearing Dean away from everyone he knew and loved was a good start. Stripping his memories or wiping them clean was another good option—Dean couldn’t sort through memories he didn’t have.
Michael would have to get creative, though. This wasn’t going to be enough.
This couldn’t be real. Sam wouldn’t ask him to stop fighting, of that, Dean was certain. They didn’t cheat and swindle death, they didn’t conquer apocalypses, and they didn’t sacrifice themselves for nothing. Sam wouldn’t stop fighting—neither would Dean.
He opened his eyes and scowled at the blank, white tile ceiling.
“You’re going to have to do better than this, you self-righteous shithead.”
Dean wanted to hate his appointed therapist, Dr. Miller. He was just as fake as everything else in this dream or illusion or whatever the hell, but his face was calm and open and trustworthy—like somebody’s beloved grandfather, like Tom Hanks. Even Dean couldn’t hate Tom Hanks.
“How are you doing today?” Dr. Miller asked, and his smile was warm and comforting.
Dean turned away from it. “It’s not real.”
“You. This place—this whole thing.” Dean kept his arms tucked tight against his chest. He wasn’t going to give in a single inch—a single thought to the alternative. Fuck you, Michael.
“Do you always feel like that, Dean?” Dr. Miller asked.
Dean glowered at him. “Only when it’s not real.”
“How do you know it’s not?” When Dean didn’t answer, he tried, “What part of your world is making you feel this way?”
He eyed the doctor, hating his gentle demeanour. Was this Michael in disguise? Some piece of subconscious manifesting to keep him complacent?
“I’ve been through djinn hallucinations,” said Dean. “Been trapped in dreamscapes, comas, parallel worlds, purgatory…been to Hell and back. I can’t always trust what I see or even what I feel, but I know—I know in my gut, sooner or later, when it’s not right. This isn’t right.”
Dr. Miller nodded. “Yes, you’ve talked about some of those experiences, in our previous sessions, before your latest setback.” His tone was empathetic and soft, but Dean refused to be comforted, refused to be charmed.
“Setback,” he bit out.
“I don’t like the terminology,” said Dr. Miller, leaning back in his chair. “Your diagnosis started with a significant psychotic break that has fractured your reality. It is periodically recurring, every time you accept this reality as the truest one.”
“Well, that’s convenient, isn’t it.” Dean rolled his eyes.
“It must feel like that,” said Miller. “Given everything you have been through—losing so many loved ones, encountering so many impossible monsters, rarely allowed to engage with the rest of the world while you do your hunter’s work.”
Dean eyed him again. “Hold on—I told you? About the monsters and demons and everything?”
“And you, what, believe me? As if it isn’t why I’m in the damn loony bin in the first place? I’ve been in one of these before, you know, and I’m—”
“With the wraith.”
Dean stared. “You pull that from my memories?”
“As I said, you told me about these things in some of our earlier sessions,” said Miller. “I believe that you believe these things have happened, Dean.”
“Yeah, okay, that’s what I thought.” He stood, ignoring Miller’s soft protests. “You think I belong in a straight jacket and a padded room.”
“I think you need to come to terms with a significant trauma that occurred—”
“Which one?” Dean said, so desperately bitter that Miller actually flinched.
“No, Doc, we’re done here.”
“I’m not your enemy, Dean.”
“Yeah, Michael, you arch asshole, you are.”
Miller frowned, but it was sad and knowing, and Dean had the uncomfortable notion that they’d had this fight before. That Miller genuinely wanted to help and Dean would never let him.
Dean cleared his throat and put his hand on the doorknob. Even if this was real life, nobody could help him. He was damaged beyond hope of repair, and he had been for ages. All that was left was to protect Sam and do the job, which he couldn’t do from inside this hallucination of a funhouse.
“I want to go back to my room. Now.”
“Okay, Dean. We’ll talk again when you’re feeling better.”
Dean flipped him the bird and opened the door.
Dean pushed out of bed and stood by the barred window. The night twinkled with city lights and cars driving idly by and it was all so desperately normal. He shook his head and smacked his hand on the window frame, hard enough that a little shock of pain spidered through his wrist.
He shut his eyes and brought himself back to the church, to the moment when Lucifer was dead, to the ash and sulphur and blood in the air. The way Jack hunched beside Sam, and the pure weightless relief on his face when Sam said, He’s gone.
The moment when Michael seized Dean’s insides. The strange, horrific pain as his body was wrestled away from him.
“I’m not giving in,” he murmured, opening his eyes. He focused on the faint, blurred shadow of his own face reflected in the window. He half-expected to see the shape change into Michael’s arrogant grin.
But you did in the Pit. The memory of Alastair came back to him and Dean turned away from the window. You gave in the Pit.
He had nothing to throw, nothing to break, so he punched the wall instead, as hard as he could. The pain was sharp and hot and grounding. He deserved it and so much more, but for now, he had to figure out how to get out of here.
The first time Dean managed to escape the building, he made it to the street and shouted out curse after curse at Michael.
“I know this is fake, you bastard!” he hollered, flinging handfuls of dirt and gravel at the sky. “Let me out! Let me the hell out!”
When they brought him back to his room, heavily sedated, Dean was aware enough to recognize Sam. To realize Sam was crying.
He couldn’t picture the last time he’d seen Sam cry like that—so devastated and genuinely upset. It cut his heart to ribbons to hear it, but Dean was so groggy, he couldn’t form proper words. He flung his hand out in an effort to comfort Sam, to tell him it was okay, that he was going to get them out of this nightmare.
Sam caught it and gave it a squeeze, but he didn’t stay very long.
When the sedative wore off enough for him to be properly aware, Dean was alone and his room was softly dark for sleep. He tucked his knees up to his chin and wondered if this was how Sam felt when the wall came down in his head and Lucifer was frying his brain.
In his next session with Miller, Dean worried at some loose threads on the armrest of the old chair.
“How do you feel today, Dean?”
“It’s not real,” Dean said, but it sounded more like habit and less like conviction.
“Are you worried about what might happen if you decide that it is real?” Miller asked.
Dean sealed his lips and refused to meet Miller’s grandfatherly gaze. He hated that Miller actually cared, that he actually wanted to help. It made Miller feel human instead of an evil-ass angel in disguise.
A significant psychotic break, Miller had said. Periodically recurring. Every time Dean chose this reality as the right one. So yeah, hell yeah, he was worried. The panic inside was a feral little animal, gnawing on his gut and the longer this went on, the harder it was to ignore.
“That’s what Michael wants,” he blurted. “For me to lie down and give in. Then he wins.”
“And then what?”
“Then the world ends,” Dean said fiercely. “I can’t stop an apocalypse from my damn room.”
“Ah.” Miller leaned back in his chair and Dean hated the compassion in that one syllable.
“I have to get out and I have to fight. There are always more monsters and more demons and more pain and more…”
“Angels and apocalypses?” Miller nodded slowly.
“If Sam and I don’t fight, then who does?”
“Dean,” Miller hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “Have you considered that this last act—this last, massive trauma—was the end? That it is over?”
“It’s not over—it’s never, goddamn over.” His eyes stung. A hunter’s life ended in bullets and blood. It didn’t end in psychiatric hospitals and eventual retirement.
It didn’t end being broken into tiny, irreparable pieces by a bastard archangel.
“You’ve paid the cost of being the world’s hero, a thousand times over. You can finally rest.”
“It’s not real,” Dean whispered.
The second time Dean made it out of the building, he treated the whole thing like he was in fucking Inception. If he was trapped in some archangel-constructed illusion, if Michael was determined to keep him inside, then Dean had to find the seams, find the vault, and avoid all the subconscious attackers.
So he ran hard and fast before they knew he was out of his room, and he stole a car, and he didn’t call Sam. He drove like a boring, everyday civilian to avoid attention, and he switched cars twice before he hit the outskirts—he was in Kansas City, he learned as he blew past the city limits sign. Then he took backroads and zig-zagged the four-and-a-bit hours all the way to Lebanon.
To the bunker.
To the crater where the bunker used to be.
Panic stole over him then, full and acrid, and his heartbeat thumped between his ears. Dirt and twisted metal and splintered wood spread over the area; a big, orange construction fence warning people of danger and excavation lined it. But everything was faded and dusted, like several seasons had gone by with nobody touching the place.
What the hell, what the hell…
Had Michael done this? Had, by extension, he done this?
Dean crushed the heels of his hands to his eyes, desperate to remember. He climbed over the fence, desperate to find the edge of the arena, the edge of the maze, the edge of Michael’s illusion.
All he found was aging debris and the barely-there stains of dead angel’s wings.
At a diner in town, the pie was tasteless, though he couldn’t be sure if that was because of the cook or the overwhelming dread pulsing through him. Either way, apparently somebody recognized he wasn’t supposed to be there in his jumpsuit and bathrobe, and a couple of officers showed up to escort him to the station. Dean went, without a word.
“You alright, son?”
“You need us to call somebody for you?”
“Can you talk?”
“Son, are you all right?”
And they gave him some coffee and a blanket, though he wasn’t cold, and eventually, Sam was there. He thanked the officers for taking good care of his brother, explaining that he wasn’t well and had broken out of his room at Saint Peter’s Home earlier that day.
It was the look on Sam’s face when he brought Dean to his car—not the Impala, but some unremarkable bluish sedan—that finally tugged Dean from his numb detachment. Sam looked wrecked: unshaven, unshowered, and the circles under his eyes so dark, Dean worried his brother had been punched.
“Sam…” Dean began, but he didn’t know what to say. Was this still the illusion punishing and manipulating him? He was terrified to consider that it maybe wasn’t—terrified that maybe he was starting to believe it wasn’t.
“It’s okay, Dean.” Sam started up the car and started driving. And there it was again—that awful, strangled feeling that this had happened before.
This is the fourth time you’ve gone through this, Sam had said. I need you to remember.
But Miller said Dean shattered again every time he did remember. And Sam said everyone was gone, that getting Michael out of him had taken everything. Guilt burned up his throat—if that was true, if all this really was...happening, then everyone was dead and the bunker was gone and Sam was a miserable shell because of his deal with Michael—because of him.
All because of him.
“I’m...I’m sorry,” Dean whispered. It didn’t cover it, it didn’t even touch it—it never could.
“I know,” said Sam, but there was a note of pure relief, there, like Dean had finally done something right.
And when they were back at Saint Peter’s, “I’ll see you in a few days.”