Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content, extreme violence and gore, morally ambiguous/dark!boys. Read the following warnings only if you do not mind getting spoiled for the story (reveal happens pretty early, so it's not a huge spoiler). [Spoiler (click to open)]Current canon (up to 10x13), demon!Dean, forced possession and blood drinking, cannibalism (in a demon-y way).
Word Count: 19,998
Author’s Note: Written as my second humble entry into this year's round of spn_reversebang and inspired by uh_tiramisu's beyond fantastic prompt. I was really taken with the summary for claims on the comm; it sent me in a darker direction than I was expecting. I know I swore up and down I would never write a fic like this…*open mouth, insert foot*. The muse wants what she wants. The art for this story is absolutely stunning, and you have GOT to check it out. It is a little bit spoilery for the fic, though, so proceed with caution! Thanks so so much to my lovely artist for being a joy to work with. Your enthusiasm and feedback and the fact that we shared so many views on this season and wanted to see the same things in fic if not in the show allowed me to truly explore this prompt. Thank you also to: riyku and tebtosca for being my writing buds (we'll always have Zablah) even though I didn't get much done and brought down the group impressiveness rating, the always flawless reversebang mods for accommodating my million date changes (a chocolate bribe to everyone who agrees to pretend this is posting on Feb. 10), and to my beta, all_the_damned, for making me be a better me. Hope you readers enjoy!
Summary: The champion's name is Sam, and sitting high upon his throne, Dean hates him.
AO3 // PDF
It's quite a show.
The blood sprays up so high it almost reaches the spectators. Not Dean, not all the way up to where Dean is. But higher than he's ever seen it go.
His strongest minotaur collapses into blood-soaked sand, ten feet tall and as solid as the walls of Dean's palace. The entire coliseum shakes when the beast hits the ground, and there's stunned silence in the wake of it.
He almost wishes he were closer. Placement is key in these things. It's a sign of status, the lower down, the nearer to the fighting, the less you are. Dean sits above everyone, emperor on his throne, all powerful, beyond rebuke, servants circling to anticipate his every whim, bringing him delicacies on platters.
But he would almost trade it all to be down in the front, close enough for the blood to splatter up and sully his pristine white robe. Close enough for it to sprinkle into his dark red wine so he can taste the victory. He wants to see the gladiator's muscles strain as he fights against impossible odds, see the fire in those eyes as he takes apart all of Dean's best monsters.
It's always quite the show when this one is in the ring.
This fighter is nothing, lower than the lowest of Dean's subjects. Just a gladiator, fodder to feed the beasts, and he's doing it all wrong. He keeps winning. He keeps being better than the horrors Dean throws at him. The man's name is Sam, and sitting high upon his throne, Dean hates him.
The champion lifts his hand to signal his win, long sword dripping ruby red down his arm. He doesn't care, of course. He's covered head to toe in blood, most of it his own. Dean's fingers curl, itching for the same. Sometimes, being emperor is entirely too clean for his taste.
The crowd cheers. Sam gives them hope, even though it's too late for them. By the time you're in the crowd, it's too late. You've already lost. You're supposed to cheer for the monsters by the time you're in the crowd. Before the fight, and after it, Dean sneers at their foolishness. Yet when the match is in full swing, when the tension is high and every moment seems suspended in time, when it's Sam or the monster, Dean finds himself holding his breath.
It's glee that fills him when Sam inevitably comes out on top, first instinct and stronger than the disappointment that comes next. He doesn't know what it is about this one. This insignificant insect. He worries sometimes when it looks like Sam won't win. His heart gets stuck in his throat. It makes him angry, but he can't shake it. A feeling this strong—it has to be hate. Dean hates him more than he's ever hated anyone, and that's saying something.
"How many is this now?" he asks, taking a sip from his wine and wearing a mask of indifference.
Beside him, Jezebel gives a half-smirk, one that says she knows Dean is full of shit and isn't afraid to let him see that she knows. But she plays her role in public, and that's how she's lived as long as she has. Dean likes her, she's smart, she makes a good lieutenant, and she's not too proud to play a minion when other eyes are on them.
"That's his seventh," she says. "He's quite magnificent, isn't he? No one else ever made it past four."
"Yes," Dean agrees, taking a grape from the servant next to him and shrugging. "Well, he's certainly a gifted fighter. He makes for much more momentous matches."
Jezebel nods and looks back out to the arena. Sam has dropped his sword now and is being surrounded by guards, put back in his chains. He always submits without a struggle, and that's strange, too. If he made a break for it, Sam could take out at least a third of the guards on the ground before they could restrain him. Instead he holds his wrists out, looking bored as the shackles clamp shut around them. Dean isn't used to seeing killers go quietly.
"Do you think he'll manage it?" Jezebel asks, genuine curiosity in her voice. "Nine wins?"
They learned long ago that their new slaves need a little motivation to make the game worth playing. So they promise salvation. Freedom to any gladiator who can live through nine fights. Of course, it's futile. Dean has creatures these weak little souls could never imagine, all at his beck and call. Starved until they're released into the ring, hungry and restless.
He had good intentions, when they made the rules, to play by them. Release anyone who gets to nine—they'd certainly have earned it. It was easy to be magnanimous when no one was ever going to come close.
Dean snickers at the implication that Sam might win and flicks his grape off the balcony, watching as it hits one of the spectators below. "I'd hate to think what will happen to him if he does."
There's a moment of quiet before Jezebel looks over at him, her gaze questioning. Then her eyes go black, and she grins with all her sharp teeth. "Hell's a much more interesting place since you took over."
There are eight demons in the ring today, to celebrate Sam's eighth fight. Fierce sons of bitches all, old and strong and sadistic. Impossible for one man to overcome.
See, Dean has figured it out now. He's been playing this wrong the whole time. Monsters are good for scaring novices, they can crush nearly anyone, but they're just hungry. Mindless, running on instinct. Predictable. Dean was never going to beat Sam with a monster. Sam is smart, skilled, and fast. He may be small next to Dean's great beasts, but he's strong enough to last until he can use his knowledge to overcome them.
Demons are smart, too. Not as flashy as minotaurs or Cerberus or Geryon or any of the other beloved nightmares Sam has slaughtered. They don't make for as good of a show. But they're stronger than Sam, chaotic and unknowable, and much, much more creative. Eight of them, eight at once. There's no way some puny human soul will overcome that.
Sam has been given a knife this time. Not a sword or harpoon or ax, just a sad little dagger. No shield except for the red leather strap and shoulder plate, his bare chest showing the scars of his past victories.
Dean feels a hunger like he's never known when the gladiator steps into the ring, his skin tan from all this fighting in the sweltering Hell heat, every muscle defined thanks to the constant combat. Dean needs to see him dead. He has a lust for Sam's blood that follows him no matter how he tries to ignore it.
That's all it is. He just needs Sam to be defeated, and then the rest of it will go away.
The demons don't even wait until the gladiator has been unchained to descend. They've been promised the same thing Sam has, a much better motivator than the meal the monsters were striving for. A way out of Hell, freedom to roam in the land of the living, to whoever takes Sam's pretty head off his sturdy shoulders.
It's bad news for the ones that got overeager. They're so intent on jumping Sam that they don't see that little blade flashing. Two demons in male meatsuits: one with black hair, the other blond. Blondie's neck is open so fast Dean hardly sees it happen, and the other guy has the knife through his eye not long after.
That's a quarter of Dean's demons wasted in under a minute. His grip on his wine glass tightens until the chalice shatters, spilling liquid on Dean's olive green robes, but he couldn't care less. He won't tear his eyes away from the fight long enough to see to it.
An acheri comes next, sweet little girl in a bright pink dress, her nails set to rip Sam's eyes out. Dean has an absurd thought for a moment: that she can't do it, because he's never been close enough to see Sam's eyes, and he can't let Sam die without knowing them.
It's a welcome distraction when Sam swings his chains at her. Testing to see if they're iron, Dean would bet. Of course they're not; his demons could never handle them if they were. But it's a good thought, and while it doesn't dissipate the demon, the metal strikes her hard enough to throw her off her feet.
Sam does the last thing in the world Dean expects. He bends over, puts his hands over the cut on the first demon's throat, and gets them covered in blood. Then he stands, wraps those long fingers around his own neck, and when he pulls them away, the acheri screeches.
A red ribbon around your neck, that's how you keep an acheri demon at bay. Sam knew. How the hell does Sam know just how to fight everything Dean throws at him?
Furious that she can no longer touch Sam, the girl lashes out at one of the demons nearest to her instead, and they fight until Sam comes up behind, buries his knife in the back of the demon she's grappling with, then the little girl.
That's half. Half of them down, and Sam hasn't even had to try yet. He grabs one of the bodies and throws it, tripping up the demons advancing on him, then takes a step back, clearly looking from one to the other, trying to assess which to take down next.
His luck has run out. The remaining demons finally understand what they're up against, and they band together, creating a barrier in front of Sam. Backing him up against the arena wall.
Sam looks up, like he's trying to determine if he can climb his way out, but that's as hopeless as trying to climb out of Hell. Dean didn't build a prison you could save yourself from.
As he's scrambling to find an escape, staring up at the wall and the rows and rows of gaping demons yelling for his death, Sam's eyes meet Dean's. It was bound to happen; Dean hasn't taken his gaze off of Sam since the fight started, tracking him as if compelled by witchcraft. But, oh. Dean should have known better than to let this happen.
Sam's eyes, they're unknowable, even when he's staring directly into them. He's too high up and he can't pin down a color. He wants them closer. Wants them on him. Wants to learn every shade they can shift into.
They're wide now with terror, but more than that, they look relieved. His gaze is fixed on Dean, like he expects mercy to rain down from the emperor's throne. Or maybe like he knows there's no mercy to be had, as if Sam recognizes he's dead meat and this is what he wants to be looking at when it happens.
Two of the demons are close enough to touch now, and they reach out. Pull Sam closer. He didn't even see them coming, too busy staring up. He's going to die, and it's all Dean's fault.
That's what he wanted, he reminds himself. He wants Sam dead. He hates Sam. Everything will be better once Sam's intestines are on his dinner table. Everything will go back to the way it was before: simple and straightforward, bloody and fun, uncomplicated and unfeeling.
Sam punches the demon on his right, but the one on his left grabs his other hand, twists it until the dagger drops into the sand at their feet. Such a little blade he gave Sam for this. It wasn't fair.
"Looks like our champion is finally going to get what he deserves," Jezebel says from beside him. She's got the spark in her eye she always does when she can sense something about to die. The moment before an orgasm, that's what it reminds Dean of. "I've gotta say, I think I'll miss him. Boy sure knew how to put on a fight."
"I wish they would just do it already," Dean growls, twisting his robe in his hand.
Despite appearances, the fight isn't over yet. Sam jerks his elbow back, hard enough that the demon holding him rears away, clutching its face. He kicks another, and tries to bend over to grab the knife. He won't have time. The demons will tear him apart before he can stand again.
He only needs a few seconds. If something could just buy him those few, impossible seconds, Sam would have a fighting chance.
Dean grips the arms of his chair too hard, closes his eyes and turns his face away. Then he realizes what he's doing, all these things he's thinking. Just because some little human soul is going to die, same as thousands have on Dean's watch.
This one is no different. He'll die in the arena, and he'll go where all those other souls have gone. Right onto the rack. A few centuries of torture and Sam will make a magnificent demon. Dean wants this to happen. Maybe he'll make an exception to protocol, let Sam become his special project and be the one to torture all the good out of him. Dean was a master at that once, before he was king. He could turn Sam in half the time a regular soul takes. There's already so much potential.
He uses those fantasies to calm himself and forces his eyes open, ashamed by his moment of weakness. Sam is still grabbing for the knife. One of the demons behind him has taken its true form. It'll swallow him in darkness in just a few—
Everything stops. For several seconds, the demons freeze, both in the pit and the rows of spectators surrounding it. Nothing moves, except for Dean and Sam.
There are rules against this. Tampering with the fights, especially using powers to help someone in the ring. Dean has personally supervised the torture of the demons who have even tried it in the past, made sure they suffered worse than anyone in Hell.
He feels fury bubble up inside him now. Begins a blueprint of the torment he will inflict when he finds the demon who is ruining this fight for him. Then, in increments, things start to move again. Sam grasps the blade, slices up at the black cloud of smoke behind him as he stands. It breaks up, scattered to the wind. Toast.
Everything slams back into motion in the same moment, Sam hitting the nearest demon, the crowd cheering wildly.
No one else noticed what happened in that strange minute of calm, and Dean realizes with horror that it was him. He saved Sam. It had been instinct, he hadn't even noticed until he came back to himself, his fingers rippling with the power he just used.
First one, then another demon falls at Sam's hand, but Dean doesn't care about the fight anymore. It's clear how it will go.
He snaps and a demon appears, standing at his side in moments. "I want to know what he did. I want to know how he got here. What made him sell his soul and who held his contract? I want to know everything."
"Of course, my lord," the demon says, bowing idiotically. Dean lashes out at it, and it cringes back, clutching at whatever he managed to rip open in his attack.
"I can save you some time," Jezebel tells him. "I looked into him myself."
"And?" Dean demands, his ever-black eyes turning on her.
"It's…odd," she begins.
Dean curls his hand into a fist, squeezing until she's choking. "Get on with it."
"He didn't make a deal!" she gasps. "We don't have a contract on him."
Dean releases her, feeling his whole body begin to surge with joy. "He's a sinner. He's here because he's a sinner."
Yes, Sam will make something of himself in Hell. A soul this skilled and naturally damned is…promising, to say nothing of Dean's own personal plans for him.
"Well, no, not really." Jezebel holds her hands out, trying to block Dean's attack before he can make one, but he's not bothering. He wants to hear what she has to say. "He isn't dead at all."
Dean can feel his face twisting in confusion. "Why is he here then?"
She shakes her head. "He just showed up, that's what the senators said. They said he showed up a few days before his first fight and claimed he belonged in the arena. So they threw him into it. A human soul, with one of their weak sacks of flesh to boot? They all thought he would be dead in seconds, no harm done."
"No one thought to tell me this?" Dean asks.
"We've never had someone volunteer for Hell. It was a free soul. They didn’t think to argue with it."
"Someone snuck into my kingdom. And you thought it was okay not to question it?" Dean lashes out with fire, striking one of his servants dead. "I saw to it personally that this was not possible."
"It isn't," Jezebel assures him. "All the reapers are running scared. They're walking the line, no one would dare smuggle a soul in or out."
"So he knew how to get in on his own," Dean says. "Is that what you're trying to tell me? He came by because the fighting would just be so enjoyable?"
Jezebel licks her lips, turns her black eyes away from Dean's. "We thought you let him in, my lord."
"Why would I have welcomed some human into my kingdom?"
She lifts her head, almost defiant, and holds Dean's gaze this time. "When we checked his soul for a contract, we didn't find one. But we found who he belongs to."
Dean sits back, shaking his head, trying to understand how those things could be related. "He…?"
The demon swallows hard and nods. "That soul is already yours. We thought you had a contract of your own, and I was not about to come demanding that you produce it."
Below him, the arena erupts into shouts and applause. Sam has just killed the last demon. Victorious again. "Eight wins out of nine," the onlookers are crying. "He'll make it out!"
He'll never make it out, Dean knows that now. His hands curl into fists as he thinks, he's mine.
It's a mystery not worth unraveling, that's what Dean decides. How Sam got here or why, who he is, these are details and details lead to sympathy, caring. Above all, they lead to weakness.
That's how Crowley fell: too interested in the specifics, soul all tangled up with its human ambiguities. Crowley was a serviceable king once, but he had his fondnesses. He had a very real love for the demons that he believed served him loyally, with Dean his personal favorite.
Now Dean rules Hell and Crowley's charred bones hang on his wall for decoration.
What he does know is enough; let unsolved mysteries distract a lesser ruler.
Today is a special fight, and Dean has welcomed every soul in Hell to the festivities, even the ones on the racks, only half twisted and still too squeamish for the bloodbath they'll be seeing. Dean has a new toy to play with, and he'll be letting it loose. There won't be a gladiator left standing by the end of today.
All of his best pets came to him as presents, from some demon or former deity trying to stay in his good graces. He hasn't made a secret of his fondness for beasts, for new monstrosities to try out in the coliseum, but he will confess, this one was the most thoughtful.
Dean thought Sam was just another soul. Just another gladiator. Now everything is clear to him. Sam isn't the gladiator, he's the monster. He's Dean's most terrifying weapon.
True, there isn't much to him on first glance. That's how things got so confused, but it's also what makes Sam so special. The fighters will think they're catching a break when they see what they'll be up against. But Dean's new pet is going to tear them to shreds.
First, they let three men out into the arena. These are good fighters, each having won three matches on their own, and hand selected by Dean because their fighting styles all have different strengths. They'll be working together, blending all that talent against one enemy, and if they win, that's it. They go free, all three of them, back to their sick wives or mansions or whatever they sold their souls for ten years ago. One more fight instead of six. It's a hell of a motivator.
Of course, they have no chance at beating Sam. But Dean is eager to watch them try.
Sam thinks he's still in their shoes, that they're all fighting each other, and if he wins this battle, that's his ninth and he can go back to the Earth he abandoned to come fight in Hell. As if Dean would ever give up a creature stronger than dragons and hellhounds, wendigos and minotaurs, demons and even the angel Dean managed to capture and keep caged long enough to throw it into a match.
When they see him being led into the arena, the three gladiators look around at each other, clearly confused. They must have been expecting a behemoth considering the terms of the combat. And that's just what they’ll get.
As soon as Sam is off his chain, the three men band together, waiting until they're alone in the ring to circle. They each have long swords and thick armor, while Sam stands in the center of their attack, his shoulders hunched, with nothing but his bare hands and less cover than a bed slave would wear.
He doesn't seem afraid, but the anger and aggression Dean was hoping for isn't there, either. He's just standing, waiting for the gladiators to pounce.
It's not long before one does. He looks to his teammates and Dean sees them nod, realizes they rehearsed this in advance. Good. Let Sam finally see an animal as well-prepared as himself. They were forbidden from practicing, but Dean has always respected a little cheating in healthy doses. It won't help them, but it may even the odds a bit, make this fight more exciting.
If one survives, Dean will discipline him for ignoring the terms, but he already knows no one is walking away from this ring except the hunted animal the gladiator is driving his sword toward.
Sam swerves so that the sword runs in front of him, kicks the man's feet out from under. He nearly follows his enemy down, trying to take the weapon, but both of the other men seize him and pull him off. They swing at him, but their movements are slowed by their armor, and Sam in nothing but his skin is faster than all six of their arms can grasp.
He reels around one of the men and catches his shield, pulling the heavy metal back at an angle that makes the gladiator cry out in pain. As soon as Sam lets him go, the guy falls over, his arm clearly broken and unable to stand the weight of the shield.
Sam is there to catch him, punching him hard in the face repeatedly, until the man's head drops, unconscious. Instead of grabbing for his sword, Sam tears the straps of the shield, managing to rip it away and lift it over himself just in time to catch a blow from one of the other fighters.
The guy stands there, trying to find an angle he can drive his sword through, until Sam launches himself forward, using the shield to knock his attacker's legs. The guy falls onto his back, and Sam climbs up, kicking the sword away first, then the enemy. He even looks like he's enjoying himself, but he only gets two or three good kicks in before the third gladiator is running toward him.
Sam hears him coming, swings the shield out so that it strikes a powerful blow to his opponent. But as he turns his attention to the last man standing, Dean sees the second gladiator begin to crawl toward his discarded sword. Sam is distracted by the third fighter; he seems to have ruled out the other two entirely.
The gladiator Sam is fighting is smaller than him, a man much more skilled in hand-to-hand combat than swords. He's no idiot, either. Half a minute up against Sam and that shield, trying to make his sword hit home, and he tosses the thing to the ground along with his protection, allowing himself to match Sam in speed.
Sam pushes the shield at him, so the gladiator stumbles back, but he's lithe, able to find his feet and spring up onto them before Sam reaches him. The two fight and fight well when they finally reach each other, no weapons or armor, just bare animal instinct and adrenaline.
They put on a hell of a show, but Dean watches tensely as the man Sam had left on the ground finally makes it to his sword and stumbles to his feet. He limps across the arena, slow but steady, and when he's right behind Sam, he raises the weapon, ready to plunge it in and end this for good.
Dean had assumed Sam didn't know the second gladiator had risen from the way he's stayed focused on his fight with the last standing competitor, but just as the knife should plunge into his back, Sam turns, taking the man he's fighting for a spin as if they were dancing.
The sword ends up buried in his opponent's back, leaving only the first unconscious gladiator and the badly beaten one who is blinking at his sword and his dead teammate as if he still hasn't caught on to what happened.
Sam doesn't waste his time. He punches the last gladiator and grabs him by the collar, repeating the hit until the man sinks to his knees, signaling surrender. Sam pushes him to the ground and turns toward the senators in the stadium, raising his arm to signal his victory.
"But they're still alive," Dean says, sitting forward. "Tell the senators to announce that this was a fight to the death. He needs to kill the last two."
Jezebel leaves to see that Dean's orders are carried out, and the crowd waits in a buzz of confused noise until finally she comes back up, a lost look on her face.
"My lord, he says he's won. He says he won’t kill a human soul needlessly."
"The man will kill an angel without blinking but for some low little human he wants to show mercy?" Dean laughs. "Mercy? Does he know where he is?"
She shrugs. "I'm just telling you what he said."
Dean sits back on his throne, feeling annoyance tickle at him. Mercy is the very heart of weakness. What good is a weak monster? He hasn't kept Sam for his heart.
"Make it clear the fight will not end until they are dead."
He watches her go and smiles to himself, suddenly overjoyed, maybe even relieved. He'd thought Sam was something else, something that might challenge him. But Sam is frail. Dean has been waiting for Sam to show weakness as long as the man has been fighting in the game. And finally whatever hold Sam had that made Dean take an interest in him has dissolved.
Sam isn't the devil Dean thought he was. As it turns out, this is just a human soul after all. Nothing worth noting about him.
Still, there's something to be said for tenacity. When Jezebel walks out into the arena, wearing her true form, Sam doesn't flinch in the face of it. He spits blood at her feet when she tells him the terms Dean sent.
The gladiator who had surrendered is told the same thing Sam was. At first he looks sick over it, terrified when he glances in Sam's direction. But Sam is watching him with a complete lack of interest, and it's clear he doesn't plan to attack.
So the guy takes the sword up again and walks his way to Sam, taking a sorry swing before turning the handle toward Sam, offering it to him. Sam won, fair and square, and the gladiator is telling him to just put him down already. End this.
Sam shakes his head, pushing the blade away. He turns toward the stadium, raising his arms in victory again, and the crowd cheers for Dean to let him have it. He won, and they have chosen him for their champion.
Then the gladiator's face changes. He sees an opening, and despite Sam's kindness in allowing him to live, he takes it.
He lunges forward while Sam's back is still turned to him, and Dean's entire body feels as if it's become ice. He has a strange feeling that this has all happened before: the fight to the death, Sam winning, refusing to kill, the betrayal, and a knife through Sam's spine. It feels so real that Dean can almost see it: Sam walking just far enough to fall into his arms, cradling that body as they kneeled in mud. Sam dying. Sam dying and Dean not being able to stop it.
The vision is horrendous, more than Dean can bear. He raises his arms to his head, trying to block whatever it is—a memory or a premonition, he isn't sure. He tears at his hair, hisses, feels his body shifting between his true form and the human vessel he so rarely bothers with in Hell. He can't stop this. It's going to happen again.
Dean is on his feet in seconds, and the gladiator behind Sam splatters in every direction. Sam's expression twists in confusion, until he turns to see the sword, sitting in a pile of liquefied organs. Then he raises his head up, looking toward Dean. He's smiling. It's a bright, beautiful, little boy's smile. Like Dean is his hero.
"What happened?" Jezebel asks urgently as soon as she reaches Dean. It's clear she ran all the way up the coliseum's stairs to reach him. "You killed the gladiator? He was about to end the fight!"
Nodding, Dean leans over the railing, looking down at the arena. Sam is standing there, and aside from a corpse and a puddle of what used to be a person, the only other soul is still knocked out, right where Sam left him at the start of the fight.
"I wasn't about to watch my best fighter fall to some puny human soul just because of mercy," Dean says. "If he's going to die, it'll be at more worthy hands."
"Nothing else can kill him," says Jezebel. "This one only had a chance because Sam let him."
"There's still one thing we haven't made him fight." Dean lifts his head, meets her questioning gaze. "He's mine, and if anything is going to kill him, it will be me."
Jezebel looks over the railing. "And the last gladiator? The unconscious one? He's refusing to kill that one, as well."
Dean grins. "Have him sent to me at dinner. Have them both sent to me."
The table is set for two, one place for Dean at the head and another for Sam on the other end. Their third guest is on it.
Sam is escorted in by two demons on each side, still wrapped up in his chains. He takes one glance at the table and then turns away as if he's going to be sick. That makes Dean smile.
"Won't you join me for dinner?" he asks.
The demons leading Sam snicker and push him into his chair, about to bolt the chains in place. Instead, Dean holds up his hand, requesting his wine glass be refilled, and waves the others away.
"Take the chains off," he tells them. "My guest won't be needing them."
"But, my lord, he could—"
Dean laughs, letting his black eyes linger on the servant. "He could what? Hurt me?"
"He is a very gifted fighter," the demon says. "And he doesn't like demons."
"Maybe he just hasn't met the right one yet." Dean smiles kindly, turning his gaze on Sam, and the gladiator meets his black eyes with only the slightest of flinches. "You wouldn't do anything stupid, would you now?"
Sam shakes his head, just once, and immediately takes his seat at the table once his chains are removed.
"You can leave us," Dean tells the guards standing scattered through the room.
A few of them move to obey, but some of the bolder ones stay put, exchanging glances, until one steps forward. "Your highness, I don't recommend you stay in a room alone with him, especially not if he's unchained. There are potential weapons available for—"
"Your name is Zablah, is it not?"
The demon, one of Dean's most loyal, nods. "It's an honor that you know my name, emperor. As I was saying, I don't think it's wise to—"
"Thank you so much for your input, Zablah." Dean curls his hand into a fist, the sweet smile not slipping from his face as the demon falls to his knees, grasping desperately at his neck as if that will lessen Dean's hold. He dies slowly, loudly, and with no dignity to be spoken of.
Then Dean drops him and looks to the rest of his guards. "Does anyone else have any friendly suggestions?"
The remaining demons nearly fall over themselves shaking their heads and then begin to scatter out of the room like cockroaches.
"Someone take Zablah out, will you?" Dean asks. "You're all free to feast on him if you're so inclined."
Dean feels the thrum of their excitement at the treat, but no one says anything. He watches three demons drag the corpse out and then the door shuts behind them.
He takes a sip of his wine and turns his attention back to Sam. "Now then, where were we? Welcome to Hell, Sam."
Sam's face gives nothing away. All he says is, "Winchester."
It kind of catches Dean off guard. "What?"
"Sam Winchester," Sam clarifies. "That's my name."
"I didn't ask," Dean replies with a cut off laugh. "Why would I care?"
"The name Winchester doesn't mean anything to you?" Sam asks. As if he has a right to demand things from Dean. Dean almost wants to ask if he wasn't paying attention to what just happened, if he should try another display.
Instead, he sets his glass down and pretends the conversation doesn't puzzle him in the slightest. "It's a gun," he answers. "Not my favorite kind of weapon, not personal enough. But I like to watch you humans try to stay noble when you have one in your hands."
"That's all." Sam swallows hard and looks down at the table. "And you don't know me."
"I know all about you," Dean tells him.
Sam's head snaps up, a wild look of hope in his expression that Dean is looking forward to crushing.
"I've been watching you fight for months now. I like the way you kill."
Sam laughs at that. "I learned from the best."
"You disappointed me today," he says. "What you did—kindness, pity, nobility. These things make me sick, you understand?"
"They were people," Sam reasons. "It would have been murder."
"You've murdered many things on my watch," he says. "Creatures much more valuable than the men you tried to save."
"Monsters." Sam gives Dean a tight-lipped smile. "I was taught to kill monsters. The man who taught me, he wouldn't like me killing people. Not unless I had to."
"Maybe you don't understand where you are and who I am," says Dean. "I'm the King of Hell, and you're just a slave in my domain. You do have to kill. You kill anything I feel like watching you kill, or I'll teach you what happens when my slaves disrespect me."
Sam listens without seeming to hear. No fear flashes across his face, and when Dean is finished speaking, he smiles. "I disobeyed your order in front of all your subjects today. You retaliated by saving my life."
"I've got better things in store for you than an easy death," he replies.
Sam's smile widens. "I'm flattered that you've taken such an interest."
Dean feels the human's insolence grating on him, but he checks his anger. If Sam wants to play this out with smiles, Dean can be a gracious host. He waves at the table. "Please, won't you eat? My cooks worked hard preparing this meal, just for you."
Sam looks at the serving platter in the middle of the table, at the top half of a man sitting on it, his insides spilling out of his ripped open chest.
"It's a good thing you refused to kill him," Dean taunts. "He wouldn't have been nearly as fresh."
"I'm not hungry," Sam replies, his face twisting in obvious disgust.
"Don't be rude," Dean says, his lips turning up. Finally, he's making some progress. Unsettling Sam's unruffled façade. He waves his hand at the meal so that some of it floats onto Sam's plate and some of it to his. "He was a good man, you know. His daughter had leukemia. Eight years old. He sold his soul to save her and the hellhounds dragged him down here just as she was crossing the stage for her high school graduation."
"Please, stop," Sam says, closing his eyes hard against the sight of the piece of meat in front of him. It's no good, Dean is sure. There's no blocking out the smell.
"If you'd lost today, he would have gone right back up. Seen her go to college, get married. Instead he's here, sitting on your plate. Too bad your mercy couldn't save him." Dean takes a bite and frowns. "Though I do wish just once they would fry the skin like I asked."
Although Sam still isn't moving to eat, he does smile faintly. "It's not good for you," he says, looking up at Dean. "Consuming as much fried food as you do."
"That's what they tell me," he replies, rolling his eyes. "Nutritionists for the King of Hell. That's how you know even the mighty are punished."
"You think that's bad, you should see where they keep Lucifer."
Dean blinks a few times in confusion. There are places in Hell even he has never been, places Crowley shuddered to mention. He knows the Devil is locked up down here somewhere. But how Sam could know that, and even seem to know what the prison is like, is intriguing to say the least.
"Who are you?" Dean asks. "My servants tell me you strolled up to them and requested to fight. That alone makes you interesting." Dean drums his fingers on the table. "I'll need to know why. And just how you found your way in, of course."
"I've been here before," Sam says, as if it's that simple. "As to why, well. I came to save you."
"Save me?" Dean snorts. "Save me from what?"
"From yourself," Sam responds. "From this place. From being damned."
Dean laughs. "There's no saving me, boy. All you'll do is lose your soul trying."
"Maybe," Sam admits. "But I'm here. I'm trying."
He stands, leaning forward on the table and staring Sam down. "I could tear out your heart for even suggesting it."
"Yes," Sam says simply. "And yet you haven't."
"You think that means I can be saved?" Dean asks, raising an eyebrow.
Sam shakes his head. "I think the fact that you're you means you can be saved."
"And who am I?" He smiles. "Other than the demonic King of Hell."
Oddly enough, that question is the first thing Dean has said that seems to truly upset Sam. "If you can't remember, there's no use in me telling."
Dean slams his hands on the table. "I want real answers."
"These aren't questions you should have to ask," Sam tells him. "You haven't been here that long. You shouldn't have forgotten who you are yet and you must—you must know who I am." He looks up, into Dean's eyes, pleading. "Dean, don't you know me?"
What Dean sees in Sam's eyes makes him sick. Love and devotion and a twisted feeling in his gut that wants him to mirror it back. Instead, he stands and crosses to the end of the table, picks Sam up and shakes him.
"What do you know?" he demands.
Sam, who Dean has seen choke a hydra to death with its own long necks, just dangles there limply. He doesn't fight. He doesn't even try to resist.
Dean drops him to the ground, punching the gladiator in the face several times before Sam lifts his hands to try to block the blow. But that's all he does.
"Too afraid to strike back?" Dean growls. "What happened to my mighty fighter, Sam?"
"I won't hurt you," he says. "I'll die before I hurt you."
Dean kicks him right in his mouth to shut him up. "You can't. You're too afraid to even try."
The gladiator wipes blood off his face and looks up at Dean. "If it helps you to believe that."
"Fight back!" Dean yells, picking Sam up with one arm and punching him repeatedly with the other.
He pushes Dean with just enough force to make Dean stumble back, dropping him, but he doesn't strike while Dean is finding his footing. That infuriates him enough that he breaks one of Sam's legs with a twist of his wrist, and Sam falls to the floor with a shout.
Sam crawls forward, grabbing onto Dean's leg and looking up at him with tears in his eyes. "I forgive you."
Dean kicks him away, kicks him a few more times, and Sam curls up against the hits. "I forgive you," he says again as he rolls on the floor. "Dean, I forgive you."
He grabs Sam and shakes him, leaning down just enough to hold Sam so their faces are only inches apart. "Stop saying that!" he yells. "Fight back!"
Sam lifts his hands, and Dean is anticipating a hit. Instead Sam strokes his face, smiling with lips Dean busted. "I forgive you, Dean. I always will."
Dean throws him hard, watches Sam's powerful body go crashing into the table. "I'll kill you."
"Maybe you will," Sam replies as he stumbles to his feet. Dean watches him wince in pain, then lift the leg he broke. "Maybe you will, but I don't care. I forgive you. And I love you."
Dean roars, shifting into his demonic form and enveloping Sam in smoke. "Say that again and I'll—"
"I love you," Sam says, even as he coughs on the smoke wrapping around his neck. Dean drops him, and Sam falls to the floor on all fours, but he doesn't stop like Dean so desperately wishes he would. "I loved you when you covered me in garbage bags because it was raining and we didn't have raincoats and I didn't want to miss the first day of school. I loved you every time you saved me, even when I wished you hadn't. And I love you now, when you're like this. When you eat flesh and beat me, I still love you, Dean. Whatever you do to me or to anyone else, I forgive you."
"I don't know what you’re talking about," Dean screams, lashing out at the nearest object. It's a vase, and it goes tumbling, shatters just inches from where Sam is trying to prop his battered body against the wall. "Nothing you're saying happened. I never saved you. I don't even know who you are."
Sam smiles, resting his head against the wall. "If that were really true, I would be dead already."
Dean yells for the guards, and as soon as the door is open, they swarm around Sam, all of them sharing grins when they see the state he's in.
"Not so strong now, is he? Do we get to watch you kill him?" one asks. "You do kill so beautifully, my king."
The ass-kissing only upsets him more in the wake of Sam's disobedience and his own failure to punish Sam for it.
"I wouldn't let him off that easy," Dean responds, though he knows it's something else keeping Sam alive. Some faint niggling in the back of his mind. The way Sam's eyes light up when they look at him, even as he huddles in the corner, arms wrapped around his legs and not an inch of him that isn't blue, purple, or red from the force of Dean's attack.
"Take him back to his cell," Dean says. He points to the body on the table. "Throw that in with him. And make it very clear he won't be let out again until it's been eaten."
The next time Dean sees Sam, he has a thick chain around his neck, securing him to the arena and ensuring he can't walk more than a few feet without being yanked back. His body is whole again, healed from Dean's attack despite the fact that it's only been a little over a week since Dean broke him open.
Hell has a funny way of doing that. Gluing you back together so something new can rip you apart. Dean likes to think it's poetic.
He watches Sam struggle against the metal holding him in place and smiles. "If he's here—he ate the body? The whole thing, as I ordered?"
"Well," Jezebel says, drawing it out. "Not…not exactly."
Dean's smug expression drops. "I thought I said he was to remain in his cage until he'd finished it off."
She bounces her head from one side to another and finally speaks, "He fed it to the hellhounds that guard him. You said it needed to be eaten, not that he had to—"
"You let him outsmart you?" Dean asks. "A human?"
"Technically, it was your wording, so he outsmarted—"
Dean clenches his hands and Jezebel's entire body is crunched between them, his demon powers a vice that will grind her into powder. "I dare you to finish that sentence."
"Us," she gasps, and Dean releases her. "He outsmarted me and my senators, my lord. I'm sorry. He's…he's just very intelligent for a human."
For some reason, that makes Dean's body hum. Hearing someone praise Sam's intelligence, even when it's being used to humiliate him…it makes him feel oddly like a proud parent.
He watches Sam's face as they lead his opponent out and is pleased to see that it stays impassive. Unmoved. Maybe Sam will prove himself in this battle, even if he found a way out of his punishment for botching the last one.
"You told him everything I asked you to?" Dean swishes his wine and looks over to Jezebel, who nods her head respectfully.
"The old man's name. That he was a good man, one of the best we've ever seen in Hell." She smiles as she speaks. "Spent his whole life doing what little he could to lift up his poverty-stricken neighborhood, sold his soul without asking for five minutes so that his grandson's killers would be brought to justice."
Dean gives her a satisfied look before taking another sip from his drink. "And the terms?"
"He goes free if he wins the fight, or if Sam shows him mercy the way he did the last humans he fought. Back up to his family to die a natural death."
"How did he take it?" Dean asks.
She shrugs. "Hard to tell. I guess we'll find out when the fight starts."
Down in the dirt, the old man has just been handed a sword and left alone as the demons that escorted him in exit. He looks frail enough that just holding the heavy metal might be too much, but he steels himself, approaching Sam, his trepidation obvious even from where Dean is sitting.
It's hard to tell what to expect with Sam, but Dean never gets much of a chance to wonder. As soon as the old man is within his reach, he pulls him in, forcing him to drop the sword, and Sam snaps his neck without hesitation.
He cradles the body as he drops it to the ground and then raises his arm, signaling his victory. Every movement is like clockwork, and Sam's expression is far away. Removed from what he's done.
The demons in the crowd are all jeering now, laughing at the old man, and at Sam, too. Teasing him about his tenth win, about how he'll never get out, about how weak he had been in letting those other men live and how their emperor would never give him freedom now. A week ago, they had all been arguing for fairness, for Dean to let him go, but then, that's demons for you. Happy as long as someone else is suffering more than they are.
Jezebel sounds duly impressed as she looks down on the carnage. "Looks like you finally taught him some obedience."
"Yes," Dean says, his tone cocksure to cover his unease. He had watched Sam's expression when the demons had carried him away after Dean beat him. There wasn't a drop less of determination, and Sam going with this kill so easily isn't sitting right with him.
"Bring him to my palace tomorrow morning," he tells Jezebel. "I'm not done teaching him."
"Leave us for a few minutes before you send in my first appointment," Dean instructs his servants as they bring Sam in and shepherd him into a chair set up at the right of Dean's throne. "I'd like to have a few words with my champion."
The demons all bow their heads and Dean waits until the door has closed behind him to turn to look at Sam.
"Good morning, Sam," he says, with a grin. "I hope you slept well with all that innocent blood on your hands."
"He didn't bleed," is all Sam says.
Dean clucks his tongue and hesitates for a long minute before finally he can't resist asking the question he's been dying to know the answer to. "Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?"
Sam looks up with a sarcastic expression. "You finally broke me," he says. "Isn't that what everyone in the kingdom believes?"
"The mob, yes. But now it's just you and me. And I know I—I don't like to admit it. But I didn't break you. I didn't come close." He drums his fingers on the arm of his throne. "So what was the real reason?"
The gladiator licks his lips, and his voice drops almost to a whisper, "You weren't going to call me here again unless I interested you, and I don't interest you when I'm not killing."
"And that was worth damning a good soul to Hell for?"
Sam shrugs. "He sold his soul himself."
"For just reasons. You could have saved him."
"I'm not here to save him," Sam says. "I can't save you if I can't speak to you."
"You can't save me period," Dean replies with a soft laugh. "You threw that man's soul away for nothing."
"I will save you." Sam looks down at his hands. "I don't care how many souls it takes."
"You'll damn your own like that," Dean tells him. "It's not too late to give this up. Leave Hell the way you came. Go back to being a good guy where your efforts might make a difference."
He doesn't know why he's offering the gladiator an out after all his disrespect, why this possibility bothers him so much. Sam losing his own soul in the misguided attempt to save Dean's—that's comedy gold. But the thought makes his stomach turn.
"This isn't about being a good guy," says Sam. "I'm here for your soul. If I lose mine in the process then…" He swallows hard and turns away. "There wasn't ever much hope for mine anyway."
"But you think there is for mine?" Dean shakes his head. "You don't know the things I've done, Sam. You can't imagine. There's no soul blacker than mine in Hell. Do you think they made me king because of my strength of character?"
Sam meets his eyes with a fire in his expression, and he replies in a tone Dean hasn't heard since he killed the last of the demons that truly tried to challenge his rule. "You don't know what you've done, either. You don't know how good you really are. I know you better than you'll ever know yourself. You were so good you had to make yourself forget just to carry on being a demon."
"That's not why!" Dean barks out, but Sam just laughs at him.
"What do you know?" he says, a nasty smile taking over. "You don't know anything. You're just a scared animal trying to hide from your memories so you can keep things easy. You think you're a king. You're an embarrassment."
Dean slaps him and Sam spits out blood, but he looks up at Dean with no less defiance in his expression.
"Who do you think you're going to help?" Dean asks. "Even if you saved me, what difference would it make? Hell is Hell. It's been here longer than I have, and if you pulled me out, someone else would just take my place. You can't make a difference. You're just a weak little human soul and I'll kill you if you ever speak to me like that again."
Sam shakes his head mournfully. "You sure are stupid as a demon, Dean. I just told you, I'm not here to shut down Hell or save people or be a hero. I'm here for you. That's it. And I will save you."
"Why me?" he shakes Sam by the shoulders. "Why this obsession with saving me?"
"You know why," Sam replies. "I won't play along like your demons do. I know deep down you still remember who you really are."
He releases Sam and yells for his guards. "I'm going to show you who I am. You’re going to sit right there and watch me for one day, and you'll see what kind of soul you're trying to save."
The demons bring in his first appointment of the day, a soldier, one who fought for Dean well and made an easy mistake accounting for soul revenue. Normally, Dean would let him go with a simple flaying, but with Sam at his side, he's feeling the need to show off.
It becomes a busy day. Each soul that is brought before Dean for punishment is dealt with more creatively than the last, regardless of the crime. He gets carried away, forgets that Sam is even there and that he has a reason for this carnage. There's only him, his need to destroy things, and his prey.
It's been a long time since Dean had this much fun. He's been letting the monsters in the coliseum handle his problems for far too long.
He cleans his blade off on the last of his victims, then takes a casual bite from the intestine in his other hand. "Mmm," he says turning to Jezebel and offering her some of the charred flesh. "See, this is what I'm talking about. Good old fashioned barbeque."
She accepts the offering and gestures for the body and the rack it's still hanging on, begging for mercy despite the fact that all its internal organs are dripping across the floor, to be removed.
"He was loyal to you," she says once the corpse is gone, and Dean realizes that she looks as disturbed by the days' events as he'd been hoping Sam would be. "All of them were, why did you kill them?"
Dean shrugs. "Felt like it."
Jezebel licks her lips. "I've been loyal to you as well."
"Yes," he agrees. "And I don't see becoming disloyal as less likely to get you killed."
Dean snorts. "Why is Crowley dead?"
"Because he trusted you," she replies.
"And why has no one dared to challenge me since he fell?"
"Because you're a Knight. You're stronger than us."
"Good." Dean puts his hand on her shoulder. "Demons don't respect loyalty. They don't bow to birthright. I reign because I'm powerful. You want to stay alive? Don't be loyal to me. Be useful to me."
"Yes, my lord." She bows her head. "Anything else for the day?"
"No, that's all. You're excused."
Dean tosses his snack aside and licks his fingers clean as he turns his attention to Sam. The human is watching him with a mix of revulsion and something else Dean can't put a name on. There are tears on his cheeks.
He laughs, giving Sam a couple of rousing slaps and not minding the way the salt in Sam's tears stings his fingers. "What's wrong, hero? Did I upset you?"
"You're going to be so guilty when you get back," he says. "You'll hate yourself for doing this. Just like last time."
Dean rolls his eye. "Still think I can be saved, then?"
"Always," Sam tells him, meeting his eyes. "Always."