Author's Note: Just watched SPN in the last few months. If details are off (specifically quotes), please let me know. :)

One of the things that I wish the show would have addressed is Dean being affected by the Mark. We get like two mass killings, which are awful, but that wasn't on a day-to-day basis. I didn't get quite where I wanted to with this, but I hope you enjoy anyway.

Summary: The Mark of Cain is a brand of violence. Sam was an idiot to think that he'd be exempt from it, just because he and Dean are siblings.

Parings: None.

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

Set: S10, after E11 sometime.

Warnings: Abuse, past torture, PTSD, anxiety, violence, some gore. No slash, no smut, no non-con, no incest. Language is all K.


"We'll never get free,

Lamb to the slaughter,

Whatcha gonna do when there's blood in the water?"

-Blood/ /Water, grandson.


Safety in Distance:

The Impala is making a weird grinding-push noise, almost like it's gurgling chunks of rock. It's just on the edge of different to be distracting, and Sam casts the umpteenth glance up at the dashboard, trying to bite back a wave of irritation. It's been doing that since they left the Bunker three days ago, and shows little sign of stopping.

Dean hasn't popped open the hood to see what's making the car so unhappy, and Sam doesn't suspect that he will until they've taken care of the werewolves. Cases involving adolescents and children have the tendency to make both of them work a little faster than normal, forgoing almost everything except the job.

Gurgle, gurgle, pop.

Huh, that one didn't sound good.

Sam checks the chamber of his gun for the fifth time in the last ten minutes, decides that the silver bullets haven't magically disappeared since the last time, confirms that the safety is on and sets the gun down on his leg. Again.

The metal is cool to the touch at the barrel, but the handle is warm.

The silence between them is heavy, like a physical body laying down on top of them. Smothering them. Sam remembers a time that seems like so, so long ago now, where the quiet didn't feel like this. It was actually comfortable.

He glances at his brother, but Dean is resolutely staring forward and doesn't even seem to notice. He probably won't. The Mark has made a habit of stealing Dean's words lately on top of his focus. Which is...it is. Sam's not sure what words to put to it. Doesn't try.

The Impala moans unhappily.

Dean's eyes squint around the edges, but that's the most confirmation Sam has that Dean even heard the car's distress. His brother's hands are shaking, even if he's trying to hide it. Dosing up for another kill. An addict ready for their next hit.

A part of Sam crawls at that realization, knowing what's coming. But Sam remembers that feeling. The burning, gnawing ache inside his bones. The headaches, anxiety, and gut-curling need. Things narrowing down to a single point of focus where nothing else mattered. He knows it's not the same. He's never borne the Mark.

But he thinks, somewhere distant, he understands.

Sam closes his eyes for a moment and breathes out. Clenches his hands on the edges of his jeans. Distraction helped, sometimes.

"Hey, Dean—"

"No." The terseness of his brother's reply makes him hesitate, but it doesn't stop him.

"Do you think that maybe—" Sam tries again.

"Sam." Dean's voice is flat. Dull and edged. A stranger, but his sibling all at once. A feeling that's becoming more and more familiar. "You keep talking, I swear I'm going to hit you."

Sam clamps his mouth shut. He doesn't doubt the validity of that threat, but he wishes that he could.

The Impala continues to fight against whatever's bothering it, and Sam thinks about commenting on it, but Dean hasn't brought it up more than once since this case started, so he doesn't. Lets the silence continue it's asphyxiation, and tries to pretend that this is normal.

It's eleven more minutes before they reach the werewolves' base of operation. Dean parks the Impala down the road some in an effort to hide the noise of the engine. When he cuts it, Sam can barely contain a sigh of relief. The gurgle was really starting to irk him, which is a little funny. They drove for hours from Lebanon to here, and though it bothered him, it wasn't to the extent that he'd wanted to knife the dashboard open and see if he could fix the stupid problem himself.

'Course, Sam also had the case to work on. Something else to think about.

They trek down the road, weapons in hand. Sam's gun, when he checks it again, still has the silver rounds.

Without a word spoken between them, the five minute hike passes in almost aggravating stillness before they see it.

A well-maintained cabin in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota. It's two stories, with outside lights, a grill set on the wrap-around porch, and a flag—it probably even has functioning plumbing.

In the backdrop, the woods are a thick overcropping, blocking out direct sunlight and casting the surrounding area into heavy shadow. A thick mist sets visibly to barely a couple dozen feet, but with the weather being this crappy, it's not unexpected.

Dean snorts softly, pulling out his colt. Sam bites on his tongue. Dean's hands are shaking so badly and eyes so wild Sam doubts he could hit the cabin, even from this distance.

"You think it's a rental?"

Sam almost balks at the words, but forces himself not to stutter a step, or fall over himself. He swallows, forgets how to speak for a second, then pushes words out from behind his teeth. They feel plastic. False, somehow. "Maybe. Probably."

He thinks, wildly, this is Dean attempting humor. It doesn't feel authentic.

"Yeah, seems a little nice for all the murder," Dean remarks, flippantly, almost casual. "Kind of one of the nicer-on-the-outside things, y'know?" He smirks, but it looks tired. "Sorta like you."

Sam's lifting mood dies abruptly.

They followed a trail of thirteen bodies here, most of which weren't even fifteen yet. Death is never funny, not even how they sometimes pretend—hunting forces a gallows humor onto everyone at some point—but adolescents and children is something they aren't typically causal over.

Dean rubs at his right arm absently, over the Mark, hidden beneath his jacket. His fists clench, like it will help the trembling, even though they both know that it won't. Dean must see something on his face, because he releases a bristled sigh, flicking off the safety to his colt. "Let's just get this over with. You go 'round the back."

So you get the first line of fire? First kill? Like an attack dog being released off their chain. Sam bites on his tongue again, keeps quiet, and just nods, swallowing down guilt at the thoughts.

Dean doesn't look at him as he moves towards the entrance. Sam shakes his head minutely and circles around the cabin to the back. Cabin's don't really have a backyard, but it's weirdly well-maintained shrubbery. Sam wonders if they've gotten the wrong house.

But they trailed a body back here. Logically, there isn't any doubt. Visually, Sam is beginning to wonder if the werewolves are florists on the side. Guess they have to have something to do that isn't hunt-kill-eat.

Sam hears the doorbell, distant, muffled, and wonders for a brief, incredulous moment if his brother was stupid enough to ring it. Then comes to the conclusion a second later that yes, Dean would absolutely do that. Especially now.

Sam releases a breath through his teeth, tries to let the frustration go, then quietly slinks up the porch's steps. A prayer of thanks escapes him soundlessly for the long, hanging curtain that cover the large windows. He didn't expect it to be open, not if this is a kidnap-kill zone, but he's thankful nonetheless.

Sam hears two gunshots, then something giving a loud screech within the cabin.

There's four werewolves here by Dean's count, but Sam had thought it was closer to something like seven. Thirteen bodies don't vanish in six days unless there's a lot of mouths to feed. The kills were sloppy, though, which speaks of inexperience. Sam's betting this pack is new to the game, which is why they're hunting targets that wont fight back.

Sam squats down next to the door, fumbling with his lockpick kit as he tries to silently push himself forward faster. Dean's white-hot rages have been getting worse. Sam trusts him, tries to have faith in him, but privately worries that one of these days Dean's not going to stop with what they're hunting.

He hates himself for it. Quietly loathes and picks himself apart for the wariness that feels like betrayal.

If he can trust his brother with his own life, why should he doubt Dean's ability to take care of another?

(Let's finish this game!)

Sam gets the door open and shoves his kit into his pocket, pulling his gun out and raising it up. No mud room, it leads straight to a lounge-like area, where Sam can see Dean approaching from the front, currently engaged in a physical brawl with an Asian woman. There's blood on Dean's face, and down his hands, staining the long knife in his left hand.

Two wolves are already dead near the entrance, which explains the gunshots. There's six total. The woman Dean is fighting, the one attempting to round behind Dean, two already dead. Two in the corner.

The three kids that they tracked here are huddled in said corner, guarded by a bulky man and a shorter, lanker one with glasses. The bite, as far as Sam's aware, repairs most physical ailments, so the glasses are probably more for show than anything else.

Sam shoots the bulky one first. Double tap to the chest. The kids flinch as the body drops in front of him, the only girl voicing a yelped scream, and Sam privately wishes that hunting wasn't so bloody. These kids are going to need years of therapy, if they ever recover at all. Sam knows how horrifying violence was at that age.

Glasses comes at him, claws out and teeth bared.

He doesn't say anything, doesn't shout to defend himself, though that's not unexpected. When you're attacking someone, there usually isn't a lot of time for monologue. Still. There's so much silence lately. Sam has never been a loud person by nature, but it's beginning to grate at him.

Arms in the way of his chest, Sam fires at his head, aiming between the eyes, but Glasses ducks and dives for him.

Sam was expecting a tackle, so when his arm is grabbed and yanked forward, it throws him off balance. Glasses is a foot shorter than him, but height starts to lose meaning when supernatural strength is factored into the equation.

His other hand lifts, claws raking towards Sam's chest, slicing through the zipper. Sam manages to lean back enough that it doesn't nick skin, but the jacket is a lost cause.

The wolf twists his arm, probably trying to dislocate it, growling low in his throat. The pain shoots up from his elbow, but it isn't debilitating.

The woman screams. A body drops. Sam catches a wide-eyed, horrified look from one of the kids.

Sam twists in the grip enough, pulling Glasses away from the three. They aren't restrained, which makes a bitter sort of sense. Kids aren't normally brave enough to try and run by themselves. He catches the eye of the girl. "Go outside, wait for us," he commands, his voice hard. She sits there, panicked. "Go!" Sam shouts and jerks his head towards the open door. "Now!"

The three start to scramble up, tears streaming down their cheeks.

They need gentleness, but Sam can't provide it. Not now. Getting them out is more important.

Glasses hisses, trying to move towards them, but Sam wraps his hand around the man's forearm and throws them both at the coffee table next to a couch that's seen many long years. It crumples beneath their weight, and the edge smacks against Sam's ribs with uncomfortable force. Not hard enough to break, but bruise.

Sam pushes his body weight on top of Glasses to give the kids enough time to make it out the doorway.

Glasses scowls, face going hard, "Hunters," he hisses, digging his claws into Sam's forearm, even as he shoves him off. Sam flexes his hand, trying to loosen the grip, braces his leg to knee the wolf in the stomach. It gives him enough time to make an awkward attempt to reach his dropped gun.

He doesn't make it.

Glasses yanks him closer, enough that Sam can smell the blood in his breath. "They screamed and screamed, y'know. Those kids. But the blood," he sighs at the memory, "oh, the blood. Small hearts, like mini-muffins."

Disgust churns his stomach.

Glasses leans close to him, knee pushing against Sam's stomach, arm twisted in a way that's actually starting to be distracting. "I think I'll eat your buddy after this," he remarks. So casual. Oh, so casual. Everyone is so casual about death. "But he killed my fiancee, and I won't go for that."

There's bloodlust in his eyes.

Distract. Evade.

"Am I supposed to sympathize?" Sam asks, hand scrambling across the hardwood for some sort of weapon. His fingers brush the edge of the broken coffee table. There's a knife in his boot, but he's not in the position to reach it.

In response, Glasses punches him across the face. The blow twists his head, and Sam tastes blood. His vision blurs and he blinks back instinctive tears.

"Dean!" The shout escapes him without much thought. It's instinctive. Sometimes he hates that. Glasses squeezes his arm, "Dean!"

There's a scramble. Another body drops. Sam wonders idly what happened to Dean's gun.

Glasses has a second to look up before his brother is on top of him. Yanking him back and away from Sam. His blows are hard and heavy. Pointless. Just a stab and twist, then it's done. Drawing it out is meaningless, but the Mark is bloodthirsty, like a shark.

The claws are torn from his arm, and the absence of them feels weirdly uncomfortable, more so than their presence. Blood starts to pool into his jacket's sleeve.

Sam pants, slapping his left hand over his right, pushing himself up onto his elbow. He feels a little dizzy, but not nauseous and the world isn't spinning. Probably not a concussion.

Dean is crouched over the werewolf, delivering the final blow with the knife. His entire body is shaking, trembling like he's standing in the middle of an earthquake Sam isn't privy to. He's heaving, gasping, lungs contracting like he's dying, but Sam can't see any blood that's his own on him.

The wolf makes a guttural noise, then falls still.

That's six.

Relief encompasses him, brief, but certain. He starts to get up. He can see Dean's profile from this angle, gray and flushed. He looks like he might pass out, right hand trembling around the knife. "Dean," Sam says, the word feels croaked. He breathes out, and tries to make himself sound more certain, "Dean, hey, hey—"

A feral sound escapes his brother's throat.

Sam hesitates. "Dean?"

There isn't a warning. Dean doesn't turn around slowly to face him, Dean doesn't say anything, doesn't give any indication. One moment he's standing over Glasses' body, the next, his fist is slamming into Sam's face. The little balance he gained collapses, and he topples to the hardwood again.

A panicked noise escapes him.

"Dean!"

(Killing you, that's no choice at all.)

A harsh, wet sound slips through his brother's throat. When Sam catches his eye, he doesn't recognize who's staring back. They aren't black. His brother isn't a demon, he's just not there.

His fist slams into Sam's face again. And again. And again. Sam wont fight his brother. He lifts his hands up in defense, his right pulsing with protest, and tries to cover his face from the onslaught. It's not the first time he's been attacked, but it doesn't make it easier.

His head smacks against the floor. Again, again, again, again, again, a snapping sound, stars, blackness, his vision feels broken and wrong.

Dean, stop, he wants to say. Scream. Please, please, stop. But he's breathless. Consciousness threatens to abandon him, but mocks him by preventing a release.

He doesn't know how to stop this. He doesn't know if he can. He wonders, almost idly, if Dean is going to kill him.

(I don't want to leave. Not until I've killed you.)

Dean delivers a blow to his stomach, and Sam makes a weird, throaty noise, hands jerking away from his face for a moment. The entire world is blurred and dark. His eyes flash widely to this man that's his brother and that's not, then catch, wide-eyed on the figure standing behind him.

Lucifer tilts his head, looking contemplative. When he sees Sam staring at him, his gaze folds into sympathy, which is bitterly familiar. "Well, Sam," he sighs. "I don't know what to tell you."

The blade plunges into his stomach. Once. Dean pulls it out.

Oh God, he prays, silent and bloody, please.

Dean is still shaking, looking like he might be nauseous. Death is his drug. This isn't going to stop. Dean, please. Stop. Drop the blade. Drop the blade. DroP THE Bla—

Another stab.

A wet gurgle escapes him.

It reminds him wildly of the Impala.

"Ooh, that looked like it hurt," Lucifer is squatting down next to him. Sam's head is spinning. He squeezes his eyes shut. This isn't the Cage. Not real, not real, not real, not—"I think we might have put our trust in the wrong person. He does have the Mark of Fratricide, Sammy."

More sympathy. Sam wishes it was possible to strangle a hallucination. His head rams against the floor. He thinks his skull is going to split. Maybe it already did. There's this weird, animalistic screeching noise of pain and despair. It takes Sam a long moment to realize it's him, and he has no way to stop it.

Three. Four.

Dean is starting to hyperventilate.

Cas, he prays, desperate, but too afraid to open his eyes. He can't remember their address. Or even the city. Cas, please. South Dakota, Dean needs you to—augh!

Five.

Sam chokes on blood, which silences him. It spills out the side of his mouth. He opens his wild eyes to see Dean staring at him. Not the Mark. It's Dean in those eyes, staring down at him with horror, knife still clutched in his right hand. Sam doesn't pull his hands back. He can't. They're clutched over his heart, his neck. He's curled in, but the pain in his torso is beginning to fade.

Hello, Shock. Been a little bit.

"Sammy," Dean sounds strangled. His hand reaches, and Sam flinches back from it. A low groan escapes him. He coughs. More blood. Bloody beginnings, bloody endings. "Sammy, oh g—Sam—"

Dean's hands press frantically down on his chest, trying to cover all the wounds, but he doesn't have enough surface area in his palms. Sam's skin crawls beneath his touch. He hates himself for it. His body is tensing, readying for more blows, and it hurts. "Dean." He spits somewhere between the blood. "It's...okay, it's…"

"No! Sam!"

Dean was stabbed in the heart by Metatron. Death wasn't instantaneous for him, either.

Are you going to let me go? Sam wants to ask, suddenly. Widely. Lucifer tilts his head, a pouty frown pursing his lips. His eyes are deathly serious. "What do you think, Sam, honestly? Fifty grand for a no."

"It's okay," Sam repeats, trying to smile. His teeth are probably bloody, so he doubts it's reassuring. He drops it. His stomach is completely numb now. His headache isn't, though, and he wishes it would split open simply to relieve pressure. "N'y'r fault."

"Sam," Dean is crying. Gasping. Loud. There is no aching silence now, and Sam doesn't know what to do about it. "Sammy, please—"

As his vision starts to darken, Sam realizes with an almost bitter sort of hysteria that Dean's no longer shaking. His hands, pressed against his bleeding stomach, are completely steady.

000o000

Hiss, release.

There's something pushing down on his stomach. It hurts. But what doesn't?

Hiss, release.

"—Concerned about the swelling in his brain. His skull cracked, I'm just not sure—"

Choking, gasp, wet. Gurgle, gurgle.

"—didn't see what I did! I almost killed him, Cas, and you want to just—"

Hiss, release.

"—wake up, Sam? Please...I'm sorry. God knows I—"

Gurgle.

Blood, blood, blood.

000o000

Unconsciousness slips away from him like he fell backwards through ice into freezing water: Stripped with little warning. There's a hand on his forearm. It's warm. Uncomfortable warmth, yet familiar all at once.

Dean.

(Let's finish this game.)

Sam jerks up, gasping, memories cloudy but an insistent voice ringing in the back of his head that he needs to flee, flee, flee. His head aches enough that he doesn't know if he can move, but the voice persists, and he cant stop.

He scrambles, trying to get away. He doesn't—doesn't, doesn't—Doesn't.

"—m! Sam!" Hands wrap around his chest, pinning him, and Sam screeches.

"Let me go, let me go, let me go, let me—"

"Sam! Calm down!"

"No, no!"

He can't breathe. He doesn't want to breathe. Blood choked up his mouth. He was drowning in it. (They screamed and screamed, y'know. Those kids...)

Two fingers press against his forehead, cold. The command is sharp, forced. He can't fight it.

(but the blood...)

Sleep.

000o000

The next time he wakes up, he suspects he's been awake for about fifteen minutes. There's no wild, grasping panic. Just a heavy lethargy that threatens to swallow him; consume him. Sam doesn't want to fight it, and, for the longest time, doesn't.

He just lays there. Eyes closed, listening to a whirring vent.

He can feel someone else in the room, though, and, with considerable effort, Sam pulls his eyes open. The world blurs, like he's watching it through a murky filter. It's slightly gray and cloudy, and for a wild, panicked moment, Sam thinks he's going blind.

Lucifer's cut out his eyes before.

His panicked, hitched breath must have been louder than he thought, because in the next instant, a hand is gently palming his eyes closed. Sam scrambles, trying to push up, to pull away (flee, flee, flee), but when he opens his eyes, the palm pushes them shut once more. His head hurts. The contact aches.

"Don't—dont—" his voice sounds choked. Gurgling. Like the Impala.

"Sam, it's alright. You're safe."

Sam sags, almost collapsing back onto the bed completely. He manages to keep himself up, but only just. "Cas?" he asks, wary.

"Yes." Cas answers, voice oddly gentle. The hand doesn't move from his face. "You sustained considerable damage to your head. Your vision has taken some of the brunt. I've done what I can, but my grace is depleted, and I thought the stabs were more urgent."

All five of them.

Something like a laugh escapes him.

Cas pulls his hand back, but Sam doesn't open his eyes. He can feel Cas' confused stare. He falls flat on his back, resisting the urge to groan. His head protests the movement, and his entire torso aches like one giant bruise.

The room smells faintly of old paper and stale lavender. The Bunker, then.

"Where's...where's Dean?" Sam asks after a moment. He remembers looking up into his brother's eyes, and seeing nothing there but the Mark. His skin crawls.

Cas takes a second, like he's trying to figure out how best to say something. His voice is careful. "You were reacting negatively to his presence, so he left."

He panicked at feeling Dean grabbing his arm.

Curses.

"Where is he, Cas?" he tries to make his voice a little more forceful.

Cas sighs softly, "Not here. Still in the Bunker, I suspect. He asked me to stay here, with you."

Which, he would, the selfless idiot. Sam shakes his head very softly, biting back a groan of discomfort. He's had much worse than this. Sam blows out a breath and squints his eyes open. It takes a few moments to adjust to the murky, grayed world, but then he's pushing up.

Cas grabs his shoulder. "Sam, I really wouldn't—"

"Dean needs help more than I do right now." Sam says. What he doesn't say is he almost killed me, Cas. It feels weirdly like tattle-telling, even though Sam suspects Dean would have told Cas every gritty detail to fuel his guilt complex.

Cas' blue eyes stare at him. Contemplative. Concerned. Everything beyond him, the familiar ridges and bumps of his room, are just hazy blurs. "You should stay lay down."

Sam snorts. "This is hardly the first time I've done something AMA."

Cas' pushes him back. Gentle, but firm. "It's not a request, Sam. Or a suggestion. Your head injury is severe. The only reason you don't feel it is because of medication."

That would explain the floaty feeling.

Sam chews on the inside of his cheek. Instinct demands he get up and shove the pain aside for later, but a very soft voice insists otherwise. Sam relents, sagging. "Will you go get him, then? Or tell him that I don't hold it against him. It was the Mark. He wouldn't…"

Try to kill you?

This isn't the first time.

Dad did make him promise.

Cas' expression twists. Sympathy. Sam's nerves grate. "I'll find him," the angel assures, and starts to move for the door.

"Cas," Sam calls. The angel stops, turning to look back at him. "Hey, um, my head. Is it…" how does he even phrase this without making it obvious what the problem is? "I was, uh, seeing things. That was just...the injury, right?"

Something like a shudder rushes up his spine.

Cas' brow furrows. He presses his lips together. There's a knowing look in his gaze, but Cas thankfully doesn't say anything. "I expect so. Are you seeing anything now?"

Such a vague, vague open-ended question. The world is murky and grayed. He can't really tell. Sam gives a slight shrug. He can't hear anything that shouldn't be there. "Uh, no. I guess not."

Cas nods. "Let me know if the symptom persists. Because I'll need to heal you in stages, if it gets worse, I'll try to see if I can help with that."

Sam thinks he tries to smile. But he only grimaces. He closes his eyes, and the image of Dean's still hands, wrapped around the knife—five, five, five—burn there. Pulsing. Sam tears his eyes open. Cas is gone.

000o000

Dean stands in the doorway a few minutes later. The red shirt Sam privately wishes Dean would stop wearing is missing. He's changed his clothing, at least, which is good. That means Dean probably showered, which means Dean felt comfortable enough to shower, which means that the self-punishment may be a little less extreme than Sam was expecting.

Dean's hand clenches around the doorframe as he looks at him, eyes lingering on the swathe of bandages still wrapped around his chest. Cas is behind him, peering over Dean's arm, expression perfectly blank.

Sam releases the inside of his cheek. He doesn't know what to say, and tries for humor. "I'm pretty sure you're not a vamp, you don't need my permission to enter," not even a twitch, "I won't bite, Dean."

"I might," Dean mutters, expression dark.

Flattened and tread over. Okay. Sam's stomach pulls with discomfort, and he feels even more wordless than he did before. But not making a mess of everything isn't really in his nature, so Sam plows forward. "Dean, it's okay. I'm not...I'm okay."

Dean's hand shifts on the doorframe, sliding down. Sam feels himself stiffen a little at the movement, and he tracks the arm until it's still. He closes his eyes, breathes out very slow. You're afraid of him. The thought is sudden and striking, like a backhand. You're afraid of him. Afraid, afraid, afraid.

It isn't. He isn't. It's not. No.

"Dean, you are achieving very little by remaining in the doorway," Cas says, and Sam internally winces. Cas' tone is oddly gentle, but the words themselves aren't.

Dean releases a breath, like a huff of disagreement, then there's movement. And just like that, Sam's eyes pop back open and he slinks back. (You're afraid of him.) Sam stares, Dean stares. Neither of them dare to breathe.

"Sammy," Dean says at length. Sam can't place the tone.

"Sorry," Sam clears his throat, shakes his head minutely, regrets it, and looks away. "Sorry. I don't…"

Dean takes another step forward, and Sam forces himself to remain still. When nothing overtly bad happens, Dean moves forward again, until he takes a hesitant seat on the end of Sam's bed, as far away from anything vital as he can be while still being "close."

"You need more meds or anything?" Dean asks, addressing the floor. His hands are clenched over his knees tightly, and the flannel he's wearing is covering the Mark.

Sam hasn't needed meds for pain since he left the Cage. Probably won't ever again. Topside pain just doesn't compare to the Pit. "No. No, I'm okay." He shifts awkwardly, trying not to grimace as he pulls on his abdominal muscles. Giant bruise, he reminds himself.

"That's good."

When did simple communication get so hard? Before the Mark or after? Before Gadreel? The Trials? Purgatory?

Cas sighs in the doorway, arms folded across his chest.

Dean grips his right knee harder, like he wants to say something, but isn't sure how to.

"Are you okay?" Sam asks. Stupid question. He can't remember the last time any of them answered it honestly. Dean smooths his hand over his knee, expression contemplative. "I just, I know that this can't be easy, with the Mark and everything and I just—"

"Feelings? You want to talk about feelings?" Dean's voice is sharp. Sam didn't realize it'd lost that edge it carries now until it was gone. Dean's anger is like a firecracker: bright, fierce and loud. "I nearly killed you, and your priority is feelings?"

...Yes? Dean is angry that Sam is prioritizing him?

"Um," Sam fumbles. His hands flail across his lap.

Dean digs his nails into his knee. It looks like it hurts. "You're ridiculous," he shakes his head, then lifts his gaze to meet Sam's, "and I'm a walking time bomb. This isn't something that can be fixed, Sam. You're just fooling yourself because it makes you feel better. Guilt is a nasty motivator, ain't she?"

Sam flinches. "This isn't—isn't some sort of guilt complex—"

"Really? Because after I saved you it was all you could do to be done with me. And then Metatron gave you what you wanted and you didn't even send him a fruit basket."

He held his brother's lifeless corpse against his body. He carried him back to the Bunker. He drove for hours with it in the backseat, and nearly crashed the Impala six times because he couldn't see through his tears, and Dean thinks that this—

Sam sits up straighter, leans forward. He thinks, somewhere very distant and hollow, he's actually furious. But it's tempered, and cold; not allowed. His voice, when he speaks, is steady. "Do you think that that's funny?"

Dean stares at him. His eyes are ice. His right hand is clenched. Sam can see the veins throbbing. "A little, yeah."

Yeah. Well. He would find death funny. It's his drug. Sam grits his teeth at the bitterness of those thoughts. "Get out."

Dean's expression flares with surprise. He was working up for a fight, and Sam isn't going to indulge him. Or the Mark. Whatever it is. "What?"

"We're not accomplishing anything productive. I don't want to fight you, Dean. I'm tired." Achy, broken and hollow, but Dean has it so, so much worse than him. Sam doesn't have a brand that makes him lust after death. Just blood that's corrupted him since he was six months old. "Just, maybe we should—Dean!" the shout escapes him like a panicked hiss.

Cas all but teleports across the space, in the doorway one moment, gripping Dean's arm the next. The arm that was raised, poised, ready, to hit him. "Dean, stop," Cas' voice is heavy. He's shifted, so he's blocking Sam if Dean decides to leap.

A protective gesture.

Against Dean.

The pulse of rage in his brother's face dies as abruptly as it arrived and it's replaced by one of horror. Dean's right arm drops, sagging inside of Cas' grip. His forearm is streaked faintly with glowing red veins. As Sam watches, they calm, but that doesn't make Sam un-see it.

He feels sick.

Dean was going to hit him. Again. (It was the Mark, it was the Mark, it was—)

Without another word, Dean gets to his feet and leaves. Sam follows his footsteps away until he hears the outer Bunker door slam. His body sags with relief, an unconscious reaction. (You're afraid of him.) Sam closes his eyes, and feels them burning with unshed tears. He's going to fall apart.

"Sam," Cas says softly.

Sam shakes his head. "Just. Go after him. Please."

Last time he ran away as an emotional mess, he got the Mark of freakin' Fratricide burned to him. It's an unfair thought, he knows that. It doesn't stop him.

"Sam—"

He shakes his head again. Cas sighs heavily, and then leaves the room.

Sam sits alone in the dark. And thinks.

000o000

Sam doesn't see Dean again until the next night. He knows that he returned last night, because he heard Cas and Dean talking distantly, but that's about the extent of their interaction. Sam is working through the books he's already read a dozen times with any mention of the Mark, Cas across the table from him, fighting with the laptop and doing the same.

Sam has a pair of sunglasses on, and Cas turned off all the lights save a single, dim lamp Sam is working with. Everything still feels too bright. His headache has lessened to the point that he can actually move now—courtesy of Cas—but he probably shouldn't be reading.

It's not like that's really an option at the moment.

Dean is getting worse.

And it's Sam's job to find the cure. Dean is starting to give up, but Sam won't. He refuses to.

"We prepping for a blackout?" Dean asks. His voice is strained, and when Sam looks up, the hazy figure of his brother looks weird. Maybe uncomfortable? Sam's too tired to figure it out. Dean stands in the doorway to the library, and doesn't come any closer.

"Uh," Sam squints, confused, then, "oh. No. I, uh, headache."

Dean shifts, but doesn't say anything.

Sam fiddles with the edge of the page. He opens his mouth, but doesn't know what to say. So he closes it, and returns to squinting at the book. The Latin blurs.

His head hurts.

Cas looks up from the laptop. "Do you need something, Dean?" he asks. His tone is odd. Cas isn't...well, gruff, not exactly, but his voice seems to have lost an edge.

"No, I uh," Dean sounds uncertain. Sam lifts his gaze again, and thinks he sees his brother fiddling with the edge of his sleeve. He's pulled the flannel down to his wrists today, hiding the Mark beneath the cloth like that will actually do something. "Sam wasn't in his room."

He says that like it actually explains something. Sam squints, trying to make sense of the statement. The majority of him wants to tip his head and simply ask so? Dean hasn't really cared where he's been—how he's been—since the Trials ended. (Failed.) Which is fine. Dean's had a lot on his plate. It's fine.

Cas releases a slight breath, almost like it was meant to be a private sigh. "Why don't you sit down with us?" the angel gestures towards the table, and the empty space.

Sam feels disgusted. His automatic thought is please don't. He remembers a time where he felt safer with Dean in the room. It hasn't been that way in a long time.

Dean enters the library. He skitters across it like he's uncertain he belongs, and Sam only feels worse for wishing Cas hadn't invited him in. It's been hours, but he still wishes he could get space. He doesn't know how to ask that without sounding like he's five or a brat, so he just ducks his head and tries to focus on the book.

Small mercy: Dean sits on the other side of the table, next to Cas.

Dean picks up one of the seven books that Sam grabbed before sitting down, and scoots his chair closer to Cas so he can read by the dim light of the laptop. Without a word, Cas angles the laptop lid so it shines across the pages as much as possible. The sight makes him ache.

Minutes pass, an hour drags. Sam becomes aware of the fact that his hands are shaking.

He can't focus on the pages. The world is beginning to blur. He hasn't turned in a page in over ten minutes, and it takes him until now to realize that. Dean is flipping through the book, obviously skimming to make better use of time. The rustle of the pages is making him nauseous.

His breathing sounds weird. Too long, but shallow.

Cas keeps shooting him concerned glances every few minutes, but Sam has mostly ignored them. Dean has only looked up at him once, long and hard, and Sam had shrunk beneath the weight.

Sam stares at his trembling hands. The book is shaking too much for him to actually read.

What is wrong with him?

It's not like this is the first time they've tried to kill each other. Hunting doesn't exactly keep a clean slate in that area. It's not the first time Dean's hit him, either. Especially since the Mark was strapped to him. But the helpless feeling of his head splitting open, and the hallucination...maybe...maybe it's just because when he'd looked up his brother just—wasn't. There's no way to describe it.

Dean wasn't there. It was an absence.

But every other time that Dean has slipped into those rages, when he's struck him or someone else, what he did to Charlie...Dean was there for that. Present, enough, to be called back. This wasn't like that. Dean slipped away and it's an awful dread that's settled somewhere inside his ribcage, next to his heart, that whispers it's going to happen again. And this time Dean's not going to come back.

Every time Dean slips, Sam knows there's that chance. Dean's periods of lucidity—of calm—are getting smaller.

Death made Dean a demon, but the Mark made Sam afraid of him.

(Lucifer used to play this game with him. What he created was close enough to be his brother, but off enough that he couldn't pretend it was real. This—version, for lack of a better term, feels like one of those games. He just wishes he could find a way to end it.)

Dean throws the heavy tome onto the table with a thump. Sam flinches involuntarily, shaky hands clenching around the book. Dean sighs and runs a hand through his hair, pushing back from the table. "I think my eyes are going to fall out," he groans.

"That's highly unlikely," Cas assures, not looking away from the laptop screen. "I've never heard of reading actually doing that to a human before. Eye strain, yes."

Dean flicks his gaze up, annoyed.

And for a moment, Sam can almost, almost pretend. That this is before the Mark got worse. Before everything got worse. When they were just three almost-brothers running around, dealing with the supernatural.

Then he notices that Dean's hands are trembling minutely, and his little bubble pops.

Sam was unconscious for three days after South Dakota. Dean took him to a hospital once he'd regained control of his facilities, along with the three kids. (Sam doesn't know what Dean told the kids happened to him, and he doesn't really want to.)

It took Cas about a day to drive there, and longer to heal Sam enough that they felt safe to move him back to the Bunker. It's been, what? Six days since the attack? Dean's...Dean's…

Oh, God, please no. He prays silently. Not now, I can't do this now.

It used to take so much longer for this to happen. Weeks. Now it's days. It's only going to get worse from here. Dean's tried to abate it, but this isn't a drug, even if Sam likes to pretend to himself. The one time Dean had pushed too far, he'd ended up bloodying himself and Sam.

They'd decided it was better to just work hunts back to back after that. Sam has been exhausted ever since, but always on the lookout for something. He has to be. For both their sakes. He has to keep reminding himself of that. Dean is not the same.

Cas looks up at him, brow furrowed, and Sam wonders with mild embarrassment if the angel heard his plea.

Dean closes his fist, expression something Sam can't read. Resigned, maybe. Sam grips the edge of the book harder, suddenly finding it hard to breathe. He won't. He can't. He's not. No. He won't be on the receiving end of that again.

Dean busted his skull open, and all the pretty little glitter glue he's been using to keep the hallucinations at by cracked for a time. If he does that again...who knows if it will stop with just a headache? Cas can only heal so much.

"I think it's time for breakfast." Dean says, and Sam feels himself go rigid. "You eat yet, Sammy?"

It's weird, in retrospect, that it's not the fact that Dean stood up that breaks him. It's not the casual tone of his voice. Or the realization that they have a few days at most to find something for Dean to kill before he loses it. It's the direct addressal.

Sam makes a noise in the back of his throat, sick to his stomach. Then he's fumbling up to his feet on shaky legs and throwing his book onto the table, all but running out of the room. He hears the twin exclamations of his name behind him. He makes the turn down the hallway, and squeezes his eyes shut with pain when the bright light assaults him.

He staggers, leaning against the wall, trying not to lose the last thing he ate. Which, to be honest, he's not really sure what that was. Or when that was. He thinks he should probably be hungry, but he's not.

A hand ghosts his shoulder. Sam flinches back from it, pressing his back against the wall to stop himself from tumbling. The hand returns, supporting him, rather than trying to get his attention. His skin crawls. "Don't," he whispers.

The hand is still trembling. He can feel it.

"Sam?" Dean asks, voice too loud even though he's only whispering, "Sam, what is it? Are you okay? Tell me what's wrong."

"Dean, stop," he croaks.

"Stop what? Sam, I don't understand," Dean's voice has patience. It surprises him.

"Dean," Cas says, somewhere to Sam's left.

"Please," Sam whispers.

"Sam, I—"

"Dean, let him go," Cas instructs. His voice is also lower, and Sam appreciates the effort. His eyes are still squeezed shut, but it doesn't stop the pulsing ache. It's not just a tension headache, or a migraine. It feels like an evil, conjoined cousin. "He doesn't want you to touch him."

"What?" Dean says, but his hand draws back. Sam nearly crumples, but doesn't, laying a hand flat on the wall behind him. "Sam?"

Sam shudders. No. He's shaking everywhere now. He opens his mouth, but doesn't have an explanation. Not a fitting one. He means to explain it, means to say that just not right now, because I want to peel my skin off, but instead there's only "you're going to hit me. I don't. I can't." He turns his head.

Somewhere deep, deep inside, he's panicking.

Sam feels the air go rigid between them. Hears Dean take a step away, and Cas shift slightly forward. Sam presses his hand harder into the wall. He's going to tip over. Or throw up.

Dean breathes a soft cuss. "Sammy…"

Sam squints his eyes open. The light assaults him, and he swallows thickly. Dean is staring at him, opened mouthed, horrified. Cas is similarly wide-eyed, but there's a tightness to his mouth that suggests a quiet anger.

His head hurts. "I don't." He tries to explain, but his tongue is thick and heavy in his mouth. Dry sandpaper. Black blinks at the edges of his vision, waving hello and goodbye.

"Sammy, I'm not gonna—" Dean makes a choked noise. "I won't—"

Nausea rolls through him. His head hurts.

"You will. You have," Sam says, flat. He doesn't want to talk. Help, help, help, help— "I don't. Oh my—I can't—augh." Sam presses his hands against his temples, pushing, staggering forward a step. And despite it all—"Dean," he whispers, pleading. Dean doesn't reach out to grab him as he starts to crumple, though—Cas does. Dean doesn't move, frozen. Stuck. Horror etched onto every muscle.

Sam lands on his knees, head bowed, swallowing back bile. Cas' hands rest over his, and he hears the familiar soft whine of angel grace, sees a bright light past his eyelids, and then the pain is—well. It's not gone, and he's not better. It's almost like he's numb, but catatonic. He can't speak. Can only breathe, and exist in a plane that's not quite unconsciousness.

"Hold still," Cas murmurs. His face is strained.

Sam wants to tell him that he doesn't have to do this, but to do that he'd have to open his mouth.

Cas exhales sharply, and then the headache is back to manageable levels. Sam's body releases, and he crumples back, elbows smacking against the wall. It hurts, but in a dull, distant way. He breathes out heavily, placing one palm flat on the floor as he braces himself upright.

"Thanks Cas," he breathes. Cas makes a noise in the back of his throat that could be anything from you're welcome to ask again and I'll stab you. He blinks, vision still blurry, eyes still strained, and looks up.

Dean is rigid, looking between the two of them like they're strangers. His hands, clenched and tucked at his sides, are still trembling softly.

More gathered together, Sam feels mild embarrassment at his words. He breathes out and shoves up a little. He needs...needs to fix this. Somehow. "Dean," he says carefully. "Are you okay?"

Dean blinks, then scoffs. "Am I…?" he shakes his head sharply, once, and looks away. His jaw is jutted. He swears softly.

Cas rises up to his full height, and Sam, abruptly, feels small. Having both of them tower over him is odd and a little uncomfortable. He'd get up, but he's not sure his legs would actually hold his weight. Cas holds Dean's gaze without flinching. His shoulders are tense.

"Have you been physically harming Sam?"

Sam flinches, closing his eyes. That's not—that's not how that should be asked. Not with Dean. He tenses, holding his breath.

"I—" the syllable sounds strangled. Sam opens his eyes, tries to catch Dean's gaze, but because of the sunglasses, or something else, Dean doesn't even bother. He runs a hand over his face, looking worn. Tired. His eyes are ancient. "I...the Mark—it's like a...Cas, I don't even know how to…"

"Dean, have you been harming Sam?" Cas pushes. There's something in his tone.

Dean closes his eyes, looks away, and gives a slight nod. His entire body is practically radiating regret, guilt and shame, and the single movement seems to break him. Sam hasn't seen Dean cry in a long time. Wet, thin lines fall down the sides of his brother's face.

Sam feels clenched.

"I see." Cas' voice is toneless, his electric blue eyes searching. Dean sucks in a sharp breath. Sam waits, looking between the two of them, for Cas to ask. For Cas to take Dean's side or hear Dean's explanation and support it, because that's what Cas does. Cas to justify what Dean's been doing. Cas to latch onto their "more profound bond."

Cas doesn't say a word.

Instead, he leans down and grabs Sam's arm, pulling him up to his feet. Sam sways a little, and Dean lifts out a hand like he wants to help. He doesn't make contact. Sam tries not to let that hurt, and then feels awful when relief takes it's place.

"Sam, pack a bag." Cas says. Sam stands still, and stares, wide-eyed at him. He can feel the weight of Dean's gaze behind him.

"What?"

"Pack a bag," Cas repeats. "You need to leave."

"I need...and—and what?" Sam says. Fumbles. "Why would I…?" He can't leave. Not now. Dean needs him.

Cas turns to face him. "It's not safe for you here." Sam makes a choked noise of protest, and Cas shakes his head, giving Dean a side-eyed glance. "The Mark is a compulsion to kill. Do you honestly think that you are somehow exempt from that?"

He would have said yes, before South Dakota. He feels like he's betraying Dean when he doesn't.

When he glances at him, his brother looks gutted.

Cas' expression softens slightly. "I'm not saying this to be cruel. You both need a break. A few days, at least. Please, Sam."

Sam's gaze flicks up. Dean stares at him, mouth twisted. Sam opens his mouth to protest further. "Sammy," Dean's voice is weird. "Cas is right. You should...it's safer for you if you aren't here. You...I almost killed you, little brother."

A coil of relief untwists in his chest. Sam feels sickened.

He should fight. He should protest. He should demand to stay here because that's what he's supposed to do. A pattern of a lifetime. But Sam can remember the feeling of Dean stabbing him—five, five, five—and he can remember the steady, ugly rage that has followed Dean like a cloak for months.

Sam feels a little like the Impala. Functional, but there's still something wrong.

He doesn't say a word.

000o000

Any motel within the general vicinity would have been fine. Sam wouldn't have protested, and honestly—it's what he was expecting. Cas doesn't drive ten minutes out and then drop him off, though. They'd left Dean at the Bunker, alone. Worry sits in his stomach at that, but Cas hadn't given much room for protest and when Sam had tried to suggest otherwise, the angel had only said "it's what he needs right now."

Sam, having lived with a marked Dean for months, would like to have protested otherwise. He'd only clamped his mouth shut and that had been that.

They're thirty minutes out when Sam finally asks. "Where are we going?"

"Somewhere safe." Cas says, crypt.

Is that anywhere? Sam wants to ask. Where is really safe? When Cas doesn't add, Sam softly pushes, "And that would be…?"

"Dean contacted one of your friends," Cas says. Sam wants to say, I don't have any. "They agreed to let you stay with them for a few days. Someone named Charlie."

Oh.

Sam rubs a hand along his forearm, thinking. He doesn't even know where Charlie is. They were texting on and off before Charlie decided private messaging would be safer. For the most part, they've kept in contact on a weekly basis. Charlie has reported she hasn't had much luck with the Book of the Damned, and Sam isn't really surprised on that front.

He is that she'd agree to let him crash wherever she is.

"Okay," Sam says. His words feel awkward and jumbled in his throat, "That's good. She doing okay, did she say?"

"I don't know. I didn't talk to her," Cas says.

Sam wonders what Dean said. He'd retreated to his room to pack after the whole hallway fiasco and hadn't left until Cas come to get him. He and Dean had traded an awkward, long glance and Sam had made him promise to call if he needed something, to which his older brother had responded that he would, only if Sam did the same.

It's not permanent, this separation. Sam reminds himself. And until the Mark is gone, he's not sure if it's a threat or a relief.

The silence lapses for a while as Sam stares out the window and lets the scenery pass by. He looks over at Cas and sees that the angel's jaw is still tight and his hands are clenched around the steering wheel like he's going to break it in half at a moment's notice.

"You don't have to do this," Sam says, shifting his feet, "We would have been fine."

Cas releases something that's close to a derogatory scoff. "No, you wouldn't have."

"I've seen him do worse. To other people. Monsters. I, uh, came off easy."

"Your brother stabbed you five times." Cas' words are flat. Sam tries not to clench at them, but he goes rigid despite himself. "Dean isn't getting better. Why do you think that Cain lived alone, Sam? Why do you think that we let him? Isolation was the safest solution for everyone."

Sam feels a little sick.

"This isn't permanent." Sam says, "Dean doesn't...Dean doesn't do good by himself."

Something in Cas' expression tightens. "I know. I don't intend to leave him there by himself. Once you're safe, I'll return."

Sam feels a surge of—of something. Deep frustration, maybe the edge of anger. Why is he the one that is always coddled and stuffed away like he's fragile? Placed in some sort of closet, on the top shelf, like he's a possession to be guarded?

"What makes you a better candidate than me for that?" slips out before he can stop himself. "Why do you have to be the martyr, Cas? We were fine—You know what this is stupid. Turn around."

"No."

"Cas, this isn't your decision to make. It's mine, and I already made my choice a long time ago."

"Unless we can remove the Mark—if we can—Dean is going to kill you, Sam." Cas' voice is strained. He won't kill you? Sam wants to ask.

He remembers standing in the church to a similar statement, Crowley almost human behind him, Dean broken and panicked in front. The Trials burning through his veins like acid. Sam is quiet for a long, heavy moment. His answer is the same. His voice, when he speaks, is calm. "So?"

"You don't—" Cas sounds flabbergasted, then his expression blanks. His hands, if possible, tighten on the steering wheel. "Even if you don't care, Sam, I do. I won't lose you. You're too important to me."

Sam's gaze flits away. He doesn't want to fight. He's not sure if he can come up with a compelling argument.

The words sit on his chest.

"Dean needs you more than I do." And you need Dean, he leaves unspoken.

Cas gives him a long side glance. He doesn't say anything, as if the answer should be rather obvious. It isn't.

000o000

Charlie is in Minnesota, staying in a shabby apartment building that looks like it's listing to the left. Having lived in worse places growing up, Sam isn't fazed. She greets them at the door, her eyes go up and down Sam once, lingering on the sunglasses he's refused to ditch since he got vertical. The sling she was wearing the last time he saw her in person is gone, replaced by a simple pink cast.

"Hey, Sam," Charlie says.

"Your Highness," he tips his head and regrets it, biting on a wince.

"You look terrible," Charlie says after a moment.

He feels the part, too.

"Thanks," he murmurs. Charlie looks toward Cas, standing behind him, and though he's pretty sure they haven't met before, she only perks a little visibly, but otherwise remains where she is, looking at him. She releases the door after a long moment and gives a grimace he thinks was supposed to be a smile.

"You, uh, you good for hugs, or no?"

Sam answers by awkwardly wrapping an arm around her shoulders, trying to keep his balance, and his laptop bag and duffle from smacking her in the face.

Charlie wraps an arm around him in turn, and he bites on the inside of his cheek as the bruise-like pain grumbles with protest. He pulls away quickly, and Charlie backs out of the doorway. "Here, why don't you sit down?" she offers, gesturing inside.

Sam slips inside the space. It isn't big, and he didn't expect it to be. There's a small kitchen and living room with a door leading towards a bedroom and probably an adjoined bathroom. There's a couch that's seen better days pushed against the wall, it looks mostly unused. A table with three chairs is set up next to the counter, and one of two laptops is open and humming quietly.

"Sorry, I know it's not much for looks. Or smells." Charlie apologies. "You can put your stuff over there, I hope you're okay with the couch."

"Yeah." He assures, trying for a smile. "Believe me, not the worst place I've slept."

Charlie's grin fades a little, but she nods.

Sam dumps his stuff next to the couch and turns to join Charlie beside the table. Cas walks up to them. "I need to go," he says without prompting. "Will you both be alright?"

Charlie looks at him. Sam ignores her. "Um, yeah, I think so." He answers.

Cas pulls out a chair, "Here, sit. I'll check your wounds before I leave. I'm sorry I won't be here to do more."

Sam sits. Charlie shifts so her hip is leaning against the table, folding her arms across her chest, and watches them. Cas rests two fingers against his forehead, and Sam bites on his bottom lip to keep himself grounded. There's that slight humming whine, then a bright light that makes him squint, and the pressure in his chest eases considerably. It feels normal. No bruises, no stabs. Just...normal.

Cas staggers a little, leaning against the chair.

"Whoa, you okay?" Sam asks, on his feet. He grabs Cas' arm to help keep him up. Cas' grimace is pain-filled, but eases out. He breathes out stiffly, and straightens, like nothing happened. Sam tightens his grip a little, and remembers those long weeks searching for Dean after Metatron, and how sick Cas had gotten. Not for the first time, Sam wonders how truly "fine" Cas is with his stolen grace.

"I need to leave," Cas says, pulling his arm away.

"Dude, can you even drive?" Charlie asks. It's a valid question. "Maybe you should sit here for a bit. I don't mind."

"Dean shouldn't be alone right now," Cas says.

That's what I said, Sam thinks, and tries not to be bitter.

Charlie frowns. Sam tightens his lips into a thin line of protest. Cas leaves anyway.

000o000

"You got pain meds or anything?" Charlie asks hours later, breaking the silence.

Sam looks up from where he's buried his head inside his arms, head resting on the table, laptop shoved in front of him with the screen dimmed as much as possible. "Hm?"

"Pain meds. You know, like Motrin?" Charlie glances at him, "Or morphine?"

"I'm okay." Sam assures.

Charlie looks doubtful. Sam looks away from her, picking his phone off the table and squinting to see if he has any new texts. He doesn't. Not from Cas, not from Dean. "You look wiped," Charlie's gaze returns to her computer, tone casual. "Maybe you should lay down for a bit."

Sam feels like he should protest, insist that he can keep working, but his head promises otherwise.

"Yeah," Sam says. He closes his laptop and staggers over to the couch, all but faceplanting on top of it. Charlie's eyes follow him.

It's fine.

Fine, fine, fine.

000o000

Dean shows up a week out, with Cas in tow and the Impala. His brother looks a little better than before, more put together, cleaner. His hands are still. Cas looks none-the-worse for wear.

Charlie smiles like nothing is wrong, but Sam can see underlying tension.

Sam wishes he didn't share it.

"You're looking better," Dean says, eyes sweeping up and down him once, lingering on his stomach. Sam doesn't have so much as a scar from the wounds. He couldn't even tell you where they'd been exactly, because he never saw them. Only felt them.

"Yeah. Feeling the part." Sam assures. It doesn't feel like a lie.

"Good." Dean says.

"Good." Sam echoes.

They stand there, motionless. Charlie clears her throat. "Okay. Who wants some food?"

Dean perks, but it's forced. Sam stares at him and aches for his brother. ("You know, I got really close with this one," Lucifer says, hand on his shoulder as Sam sobs to himself. "There's just that...something that I can never quite get. It's close enough to be passable, but not close enough for you to fully immerse yourself. Talk to me, Bunk-Buddy, let's figure out where we went wrong. Try again?")

Cas gives him a critical once-over, but seems satisfied as he passes him that Sam isn't about to break to pieces. Sam doesn't know for sure.

He feels stiff and tired sitting across Dean. Waiting. Body ready to bolt.

Dean looks equally worn keeping himself calm.

They don't laugh. They hardly interact. They treat each other like strangers forced to socialize.

When they leave, Sam hears the Impala. The engine is a soft rumble, and completely cleared of any and all debris. Dean's been taking care of her, which Sam feels an odd comfort at.

000o000

Sam's trying not to vomit. Shuddering and on the edge of hyperventilation, because Charlie moved too fast and he reacted like it was Dean. And now he's standing in the bathroom, realizing that he's been expecting his brother to hit him for a while.

Charlie is standing in the doorway, expression pinched.

Sam chokes, feeling like he's swallowing his tongue. His fingers dig into the counter. He avoids his reflection in the cracked mirror.

Charlie takes a step forward, "After...after Dean, well, y'know," she lifts her cast up, "I was kind of twitchy. It really only takes one actual hit and after that, it's game. But," Charlie is quiet for a second, "I'm doing better now...and I just...can I touch you, Sam?"

He's doesn't…he closes his eyes, and forces himself to nod.

Charlie moves slowly, like he's a wounded animal. She toes down the toilet seat with more flexibility than he'd given her credit for, then guides him to sit on the lid with a hand on his shoulder. She runs her hands through his hair for a second, then splits one side off into three sections. "Full disclaimer, you can remove these whenever." She promises.

Sam makes a noise in the back of his throat.

Charlie starts to braid, and starts to talk to him. Mindless rambling, but reassuring.

Sam starts to breathe between his sobs.

(He keeps the braids in for days.)

000o000

A few months later, Sam releases the Darkness. Charlie's dead and buried—that should be you up there—and Sam's started another apocalypse. (Because that's what he does. That's what he's always done. Apocalypse after apocalypse like he's collecting stamps.)

But for the first time in months, Sam feels completely safe next to his sibling.


A/N:

I just joined Tumblr! Come talk to me at (blog/GalaxyThreads). :)