Interlude

Sam figures Dean's heart only has so many close calls left. It's been damaged and made whole again, given up the fight just to be brought back with a jolt, shredded and burned in the pit then granted a surprise return trip upstairs.

"Tell me how it's fair. You get saved from Hell – I die. Why do you deserve another chance, Dean?"

He thunders into the kitchen to find the ghost of Victor Hendrickson meaning business with a handful of his brother's heart, and Dean is just standing there and taking it with a foreign look on his face.

Like he deserves it.

Yeah, Sam tripped up earlier at the gas station, a momentary lapse into what the hell did we do? But it was momentary, and his head's back in the game now. He wishes he could say the same for Dean, because that's a rule passed down from Dad, and a damn important one. You never, EVER listen to the shit they're slinging.

Not today, asshole. Sam lines up the shot quickly and blasts the spook in the face. He's never been a fan of the guy, and there's no hesitation to be found with his trigger finger, not with Dean's life on the line. He owes the son of a bitch one for the headache, anyway.

Hendrickson disappears and Dean drops like his strings were cut, in a boneless way that doesn't at all fit the familiar strong and swaggery movements of the big brother he knows.

This isn't the big brother you know.

Sam recoils from the thought as Dean sags against Bobby's kitchen cabinets. His face is a study of pain and exhaustion and he clutches a fist to his chest as his heart struggles to rediscover a normal rhythm.

Gripping his shotgun, Sam crouches nearby and swallows roughly. "You all right?"

His concern is genuine and the inquiry is a reflex, drawn from a fraternal habit that's proven so useless it really should have been broken by now. He's had more hands smacked away than he can count. Dean is always all right, but Sam needs to take into account the fact his brother clawed out of his own grave just a couple of days ago. Bruised fingers and scabbed knuckles tell the terrifying story that Dean won't put words to.

Dean glares up at Sam like he's just asking something asinine, like if he's ever considered trying his hand at crochet. "No."

Raw honesty of any kind is difficult to come by in this family, and this rare nugget as good as slaps Sam across the face. Dean says quit cryin' and get the hell offa me, Sam. He doesn't say no, I'm not all right. Not ever.

Dean is always all right, even when he's not. That's a certainty and a truth Sam's grown up with and come to depend on, like sunrise or sunset, or gravity. Or at least it had been, until he died.

Until Hell.

But he isn't dead now. He's back, and Sam realizes he may have taken for granted all of the little, indescribable, unquantifiable things that have always made Dean so DEAN. Those little things might not have come back with him.

He's used to the way Dean bends and bends and bends but doesn't ever break. A ball of cold dread forms in Sam's gut with the sudden understanding that his brother came back broken. Surprisingly whole, but broken all the same.

Sam grabs Dean's arm and hauls him to his feet, and they join Bobby in the study to finish the spell, which is easier said than done.


They're all feeling beat up, inside and out, but the wind's been taken out of Dean's sails; that's the only way Sam can think to put it, to describe the expression on his brother's face. Unguarded, weak, and so, so tired.

Weak?

Since when does Sam think of Dean as weak? Sam's been looking up to Dean his entire life.

But four months is a long time in a life like theirs. And in those four months Sam had run the gamut, from inconsolable and desperate to grieving but coping to determined and strong in spite of losing him. There's no doubt that things are different now, between them, and with each of them as individuals. Sam's done things Dean wouldn't understand, and Dean's been through things he won't even give Sam the chance to understand.

So since when does he think of his brother as weak? Since Dean started exhausting himself from just keeping up the façade of acting the way Sam and Bobby expect him to. He's always been something of a night owl and never needed more than a couple hours' sleep here and there, but he's passing out now at absurdly early hours. In the middle of research, halfway through a beer or picking at a box of chili cheese fries. A weary body and broken mind teaming up to cry uncle with no real intention on Dean's part as he slumps fully clothed and face down onto the pages of an old book of Bobby's, too tired to thumb war over the couch or lose in standard spectacular fashion at a quick round of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

It's become so easy to sneak out on Dean since he's been back, Sam can't even feel guilty about it.

Dean toes off his boots and wads up his coat and stretches out on the floor in the study while Sam and Bobby are still finishing their last round. He's out within moments.

Bobby swallows a mouthful of whiskey and squints as Dean looses a light snore. He leans around Sam to peer into the other room. "S'up with him?"

Sam turns and follows his gaze. "It's been a long few days."

"Right."

Sam knows what Bobby's thinking: A long few days has never stopped them before. Never dropped one of them like this.

Bobby finishes his drink in a long gulp, scoots his chair back with a squeak and a scrape. "Think I'm gonna take a page from Dean's book. Call it a night."

Sam looks down into the bottom of his now-empty glass. "Yeah. Yeah, me too."

Bobby leans over the table and stares at him a moment. "You all right?"

Sam squirms guiltily. No. "Yeah, of course. Like I said, s'just been a long couple of days."

Bobby nods, in a completely unconvinced way. In the way of a professional caller of bullshit. After he heads upstairs, Sam stays at the table for a while, helps himself to another drink and shifts his chair around to face his brother.

Dean's sleeping in a twisted manner that screams of the lingering pain and discomfort he won't otherwise acknowledge. It can't have tickled, having his heart squeezed like that. Sam pays no mind to the way his brother tics and twitches on the floor, because Dean's never been a sound sleeper.

Sam slams back his drink and steps past Dean almost too easily, escaping to the relative calm of the front porch. It's chilly outside, but quiet. He digs his cell phone from his pocket, feels an odd flash of hesitation before pressing speed dial.

She answers on the first ring.

"Sam. Didn't expect to hear from you so soon. Not now that Dean's back in the picture."

Sam leans on the railing, keeps his voice low. "Yeah, I know."

"Does this mean you told him about what we're doing?"

"No."

"Look, I already told you, I don't mind being your dirty little secret. But when Dean finds out, it's gonna be bad."

"Let me worry about that."

"Sam, I'm not gonna be on your brother's Christmas card list, okay? So no offense, but I do worry about it."

"I know."

Ruby sighs, a curious mix of exasperation and concern that Sam can sure empathize with. It's a familiar feeling.

"So then why did you call? Do you need…"

"What? No. No, I'm fine." Sam straightens, rubbing a phantom itch on his forearm that says otherwise. "I just…Ruby, do you remember what Hell was like?"

There's a long pause, uncharacteristic of the snappy, fast-talking demon.

"There are some things you don't forget, Sam."

Sam blows out a slow breath, rolling his eyes skyward. I knew it. "Dean says he doesn't remember a damn thing."

"Then he's either lucky, or lying out of his ass. My money's on lying. Where's yours?"

Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. Their dislike of each other is going to get one of them killed. Again. "You were okay, though, right? After?"

"After what? Hell? Yeah, but Sam, I wasn't human when I got out."

"Yeah," he sighs. "I know."

"I fought my way out of the gate and hopped on the first pretty, insecure piece of ass I could find."

And started looking for me. "I know. I wasn't thinking. I just…wanted to ask."

"I get it, Sam. Dean's an ass, but he's your brother. Look, I'm on the trail of a couple of Lilith's henchmen, and I'm getting close to something. I'll call you soon."

"Yeah, okay."

Sam shoves the phone back into his pocket and sighs, staring out over the yard. He shouldn't be surprised, should be used to Dean not telling him everything, or anything. And, hey, he's not exactly innocent of lying here, either, if they're going to get picky about it.

By the time Sam steps back inside and quietly closes the door behind him, Dean's shaped his limbs into a brand new, extremely uncomfortable-looking configuration. Even as he stands there, Dean jerks and fights through whatever attack he's undergoing in his dreams.

Damn it, Dean.

Sam toys with the thought of nudging him awake, of forcing him to talk, but gives up on the idea fairly quickly, because Dean would demand a two-way street of truth. Sam's not ready for that, not yet.

He collapses onto the couch above Dean and lies awake for hours, listening to his brother struggle through nightmares before finally falling into a restless slumber, himself.