First off, disclaimer: I don't own the universe I'm writing in. Scandalous!

Second: Thanks to all my reviewers. You've been my inspiration throughout this story. As I write this, I note that it has been exactly one year since I posted the prologue. That's a long time to wait for updates from a story like this—that you guys have stayed with me all this time is gratifying and flattering.

Third: Thanks to my betas, Wolfschild and especially K. Hanna Korossy. You're wonderful, K. We've never met in person, but I consider you a great friend.

So, I don't know if epilogues are supposed to be like this, but this one ended up being the longest chapter in the story. Apparently I still had a few things left to say.


They faced each other across the wrestling mat, tentative, neither interested in making the first move. There were no words, the mirror-walled room silent except for their breathing and the sticky sounds of their footfalls.

It was good they were here, Sam acknowledged, even if he was a little uncomfortable with the whole trespassing thing. Sure, the gym was closed and no one was using it, but this was somebody's property and they hadn't been invited. Dean's argument that no one would catch them at 4:00 a.m. on a Monday didn't change that. But they badly needed to train, and this was a victimless crime, so after Dean had called him a pussy a few times, Sam had agreed.

Dean stepped in quickly. Sam backed out and away, circling clockwise around his brother. Dean pulled back, keeping the distance. They reset their positions. Nothing gained, nothing lost. A halfhearted attack, a passive defense, a quick withdrawal. This was getting ridiculous. Sam had forced Dean to submit twice already today; his older brother wasn't on his game.

Sam was recovering well, or as well as he had any reason to expect. He hadn't heard anything out of the ordinary in a week, hadn't seen anything in almost twice that. But he was still a little edgy, still prone to mood swings, still battled the occasional delusional thought…like the impression, unjustified but powerful, that he was guilty of something terrible, that sometime recently he'd crossed a fatal line.

That he couldn't remember anything like that wasn't comforting: Sam's memory was maddeningly fuzzy. Between Dean choking him out at Kidney Dude's house and his first noticing Dean by his hospital bed just over two weeks ago, there were a lot of gaps. Most of what he did remember was from early in the hunt; the closer he got to that day on the hill, the less he could recall. He had a few moments of their conversation in the car, before they'd put the plan in motion, but after that he was completely blank until he'd started to recover.

Dean had told him what they'd done, how they'd done it. Told him how Sam's visions had been useful, that they'd figured out at the last minute that gutting the trapped demon on top of the altar would seal things back up.

It didn't sound right. He didn't think Dean was lying, but he couldn't shake the feeling there was something he wasn't being told. He figured this was normal, though. This must be how it felt to lose one's memory, to have an incomplete picture of important past events. Dean could tell him everything, in explicit detail, and it probably still wouldn't feel right; as long as he didn't remember, something would still be missing.

Yet for all of that, Sam felt good. Things were looking up. He wouldn't have been there if he hadn't felt up to it.

Dean stopped, his muscles tensed. Sam could see it coming. Dean shot in, going for his legs. Sam sprawled instinctively, throwing his legs back behind him and dropping his hips toward the mat, landing on top of his brother and denying him the takedown.

"I know you're out of practice," Sam said, looping his right arm under Dean's chin and grabbing his right triceps. "But I've never seen you telegraph a double-leg that badly."

"So you've got a headlock," Dean gritted. "This isn't high school wrestling, dude—that's not a submission."

Sam pulled Dean's triceps in tight against his brother's neck as Dean fought to back out. Too late, Sam was in too deep. He locked his left elbow against Dean's trapped arm and changed his right-hand grip to his own left biceps. His left hand latched onto Dean's back near his right shoulder.

"No, but this is," Sam said, rolling over his left shoulder to his back, walking his body around toward Dean's and squeezing. Dean struggled for a minute, then slapped the mat three times with his left hand to submit to the choke. Sam released; Dean sat up, facing away from him, and coughed. Sam watched the back of his brother's head.

"Good one, Sam," Dean said casually. "I didn't see that coming."

Sam wasn't buying any of this. "You taught me that move," he replied. "It's one of your favorites."

Dean turned his head, looking at Sam out of the corner of his eye. "Like you said, out of practice," he replied unconvincingly.

"Right." Sam knew he should try to be patient with this, try to take Dean's feelings into account, but he didn't like being coddled, and that was exactly what was going on here.

"You got something you wanna say to me?" Dean asked, suddenly annoyed.

"Yeah," Sam said calmly. They were here right now, doing something normal, because that's what both of them needed. Dean had some stuff to work out, too, and that wouldn't happen as long as he was holding himself back. "Stop going easy on me."

"I'm not."

"I've made you tap three times in the last twenty minutes. That's as many times as I've gotten you in the last six months," Sam said matter-of-factly.

"You know off the top of your head how many times you've tapped me out in the last six months?"

"Dude, I've spent my whole life getting my ass kicked by you. I remember every time I ever beat you at anything," Sam admitted with a vulnerable smirk. He'd hoped that would lighten the moment. It didn't. He noticed the barest trace of a grimace as Dean turned back to the wall. "That's what this is about, isn't it?" Sam realized empathetically.

"Sam, just leave it alone," Dean said, his voice flat and cold. Sam didn't even register how pained his brother sounded until he'd already responded.

"You're a dumbass," Sam said bluntly. "The stuff I saw, heard…it was a supernatural disease. That's all it was."

Dean stood up and turned around, looking down at his brother with an expression Sam remembered seeing before. It was the expression he'd worn when he'd told Sam about the first time their family had encountered the Shtriga, when Dean had made a mistake that had nearly gotten Sam killed. Guilt and self-directed anger. This time, though, the latter was more intense.

"Right, that's all it was," Dean repeated sarcastically. "So you're telling me those feelings weren't real? That you don't ever feel weak or helpless? You don't ever think that maybe you're not strong enough to control yourself? 'Cause I've heard all of that from you before, Sam. This isn't new. The only difference is that I finally get why you feel that way."

"Dean—" Sam protested, a small lump beginning to form in his throat. While Dean had been taking care of him, clearly he hadn't been taking very good care of himself.

Dean cut him off. "What do you want me to do? Pretend it never happened? Pretend that the voice in your head that sounded like me didn't say you sucked and always would? After all this shit, I'm just supposed to go back to trying to embarrass you on the mat every time we roll? If there's one good thing that came from this disease, it's that now I know how badly I fucked you up. I'm not going to do it again."

"You didn't fuck me up, Dean!" Sam fairly roared, his own anger flaring as he shot to his feet. "Dad treating us like soldiers, that fucked me up because I'm bad at being a soldier. Dad criticizing me constantly, even when I thought I was doing pretty well, that fucked me up because it made me think I couldn't do anything right. Mom, Jess, Dad dying because of this demon that's connected to me, that all fucked me up. So, yeah, I'm hurt. Yeah, sometimes I think I suck pretty hard. But you didn't do any of it."

"I beat you at everything, I called you names—"

"You're my big brother, asshole! That's what you're supposed to do! Dad's the one who dropped the ball, Dad's the one whose job it was to make us think he loved us the same. Moving from town to town, no friends for more than a couple of months—you were the one normal thing in my life. An annoying, cocky, overprotective jerk for an older bro."

"So you're saying…what, you liked losing to me?" Dean asked sarcastically.

This time the truth was all Sam had. "I hated it. Of course I did. But it didn't break me down, not like with Dad. You weren't disappointed in me. You expected me to get better, yeah, but you also expected you'd always beat me. You trained hard to stay ahead, and when we went at it, you didn't hold back. Even if I didn't have a lot of wins, at least I knew you took me seriously."

Sam paused, because he needed to be absolutely sure Dean heard what he was about to say next.

"The only times I doubted that? When every once in a while you'd let me win so I'd feel better, or get the extra fucking cookie or a pat on the head from Dad," Sam seethed. "I know you thought you were helping, but knowing that my brother—the one guy who respected me—thought he had to roll over for me? That did make me feel weak. And it still does."

Dean was taken aback, eyes almost comically wide.

But neither of them could hold their anger. Another few seconds brought a pervading sense of weirdness.

"Huh," Dean mused.

"Yeah," Sam said uncomfortably, watching Dean's face. He could see a smile tugging at his brother's lips.

"So I guess I played that one wrong, then," Dean said with an embarrassed chuckle. The tension seemed to completely drain from the room.

"No shit," Sam said, unable to keep a smirk off his face as the relief washed over him.

Dean turned to him with a mischievous look. "So, you really want me to kick your ass now?"

"I want you to try," Sam said with a grin.

They circled each other again, and although things certainly felt better, the larger issue was unresolved. Dean didn't know what to do for his brother.

It wasn't that he had done nothing, it was just that most of what he'd done had been negative: things he hadn't said, things he intended to say when Sam was ready. When he'd realized Sam didn't remember, it had been a gift. The kid was vulnerable, hurt, and while he was much better now, he wasn't out of the woods. He didn't need to know, shouldn't have to know, what he'd done to save his brother. Not yet, anyway.

What had just happened made it hard for Dean to continue pretending this was just for Sam's sake. He knew what Sam's reaction would be, how he'd turn what he'd done into something horrible. Make what Dean saw as an act of love into an act of evil. He wasn't ready for that argument. How was he supposed to explain that he was proud of and grateful for what his brother would see as his closest brush with darkness?

Dean wasn't hiding the truth. He was hiding the facts, because the story Sam would see in those facts was wrong.

Everything else was falling into place, though. Sam really was getting better; that he'd recognized Dean was laying off him showed how much better. Dr. Matthews had let them off the hook, too. He'd put together that they'd done something to fix things. No wonder, what with them coming into the hospital, both beaten to hell, Sam completely insane, the same day he'd stopped getting new patients. After the "diagnostic trial" with Sam, Matthews had gotten the all-clear from a bunch of other loved ones to try the same thing. By now, virtually all of the patients were recovering. Turns out, that was all that mattered to the doctor; as much as he'd wanted to know what they'd done, he didn't ask. He was a good man.

Sam must have noticed Dean was lost in thought, because he stepped in quickly, shooting for Dean's front leg. This time Dean sprawled, and there was a scramble in which Dean ended up on top, with Sam on his back. Sam tried to get his legs around Dean to achieve the guard position to limit Dean's offensive options, but he only managed to trap Dean's left leg, ending up in the less advantageous half-guard.

"That probably didn't end up like you planned," Dean mocked, overcoming some minor reticence and falling right back into the role of cocky older brother. He slid his right arm in behind Sam's neck "Not a bad try, though. If it weren't for my catlike reflexes, you might have gotten that takedown."

"Shut up," Sam gritted from beneath him, gripping Dean's trapped leg tightly as he tried to work his way up to his side where he could improve his position.

Dean knew it was coming, waited for it. As he jostled and pushed, Sam's right elbow briefly came off his side. Dean shot his left arm into the gap and snaked his hand up behind his brother's shoulder. With his right arm hooking the neck and his left controlling the shoulder, he clasped his hands and pushed his hips down and forward into Sam, flattening him out, undoing all his work to get to his side.

"Fuck!" Sam whispered harshly as Dean's weight forced much of the air out of his lungs.

"That's what you get for leaving your elbow out like—"

"I know!" Sam bitched frustratedly. The sound was…oddly comforting. How many times had Sam's voice sounded just like that after he'd made exactly that mistake? Normalcy reasserted itself in odd ways.

Sam started to buck and jerk, something Dean had always counseled him not to do from this position. With neck and shoulder control, Dean could hold Sam as long as he wanted while he worked to free his leg; Sam's exertions were pretty much worthless. It would be better to wait until Dean tried to mount him or pin him from the side, then to try to escape from there. But Sam hated to be held down and always seemed to think he could get somewhere with this.

"Waste-d en-er-gy," Dean sing-songed, tightening his grip on Sam and just maintaining position, wearing his brother down. If he were still playing nice, he'd just pull his leg out already. But since he wasn't, he was going to let Sam continue to exhaust himself. It didn't take long; about half a minute later the younger man was already beginning to tire. Sam had great conditioning, as good as or better than Dean's, but being on the bottom, in this position, was much harder than being on top. Another few seconds, and Sam's grip on Dean's leg was noticeably weaker. Dean pulled it out lazily and went to a cross-body pin. He maintained control of the shoulder and neck.

"Was it worth it?" Dean asked, speaking almost directly into Sam's ear. After all, Sam's efforts hadn't stopped him from getting here.

"Fuck you," Sam replied, trying to buck him again as Dean was still shifting his weight. Dean reacted quickly, sliding his left knee over Sam's body and mounting him. He freed his left arm from under Sam's armpit and put his forearm across his brother's throat, gripping Sam's left shoulder to lock it in place. With Sam's neck caught between his arms, he pushed his left elbow toward the mat and pulled his right elbow toward the sky.

Sam resisted stubbornly, like the little brother he was, but after a few seconds tapped his brother's side in surrender.

Dean released Sam, got off his brother, and sat down beside him on the mat. Sam coughed a couple of times.

"Choked from the mount. Pretty embarrassing," Dean taunted as Sam got to his feet.

"Get your ass up, we're going again."

Sam lay spread-eagle on the mat, his sweat-drenched shirt balled up in one outstretched hand, huffing and puffing like he'd just finished a marathon, consciously trying to spread himself out as much as possible so as to cool off more quickly. His whole body ached already, even though his muscles were still warm. The rest of the day was going to suck.

Dean came back from the front of the gym where they'd left their bags, carrying their water bottles. He sat down next to Sam—plopped down, actually; Sam recognized with some satisfaction that Dean looked pretty wrecked himself—and handed Sam one of the containers.

"You okay?" Dean asked. Sam wasn't looking at his brother's face, but he could see the grin.

"Everything but my pride," Sam lamented, and he wasn't entirely joking. He was embarrassed. He was even a little angry. But he knew, from recent experience, all the different varieties of embarrassment and anger. What he was feeling now was healthy, appropriate, untainted by self-doubt and hatred. He was embarrassed and angry because Dean had schooled him yet again; it was familiar, it was right. He was also elated, happy that Dean had gotten to let go a little bit and have some fun. And, as poorly as he'd fared, Sam had to admit he'd had some fun, too.

None of which meant he didn't want to break Dean's smug, smirking face. He'd just have to wait until he could once again move under his own power to try.

"Seven in a row. That's impressive even for me," Dean said.

"Eight," Sam corrected with a self-conscious wince, "it was eight."

"But who's counting," Dean said with a chuckle. Then he paused, and Sam looked up at him, just in time to catch his older brother's eyes as they scanned his face. The grin was there, like he'd known it would be, but there was something more to it. Before Sam could figure it out, though, Dean gave it away. "The way you kept getting up, though? You are one tough S.O.B."

"It's because I freakin' hate you," Sam groaned.

"Love you too, big guy," Dean said, slapping his hand against Sam's bare chest hard enough to leave a mark. It stung like hell, and Sam's yelp was pretty undignified.

"What was that for, jerk?" Sam whined, bringing his arms in protectively and rolling away onto his side, too exhausted to do anything further about it.

"Didn't know I needed a reason, bitch," Dean replied with an intolerable amount of glee.


The sound of Sam calling his name and pounding on the passenger side window pulled him out of his thoughts. He looked up at Sam, shook his head, and quickly reached across the empty seat to unlock the door.

Sam dropped in beside him, wincing a little. Dean was glad he wasn't the only one who was sore; in fact, Sam probably had the worst of it. Still, the kid had volunteered to go get the food. He'd even told Dean to stay in the car while he did. He was asserting his independence, a good sign.

"Why'd you lock the door?" Sam asked, pulling his door closed and resting the bag of burgers on his lap.

"Don't want just anybody getting in," Dean answered absently. He'd meant it to sound like a joke; it hadn't.

"You all right?"

"Yeah," Dean deflected. "My order better be right."

"Hey, if it isn't, it's not my fault," Sam defended. Dean didn't even notice the pause that followed until Sam ended it. "Aren't we…going home now?"

"Right," Dean said, reaching for the ignition before realizing the car was already going. There was no way Sam didn't notice. Dean managed to put the car in gear and get them back out onto the main road, bizarrely without any more questioning from his brother. He guessed the kid had his own stuff on his mind.

"You look guilty as hell," Sam said bluntly after a long silence, catching Dean off guard. He'd thought he was in the clear.

"No, I don't," Dean replied with as much incredulity as he could manage.

"It's all over your face," Sam continued, his voice betraying annoyance. "And like I told you at the gym, I'm fine. You can stop worrying."

"You know what, Sam? It's not always about you!" Dean spat, suddenly angry. It only took a split second for him to realize the many ways in which that was exactly the wrong thing to say.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sam turn to look at him. Dean kept his eyes on the road and thought about how he could salvage this. Nothing immediately came to mind.

"Ouch," Sam finally said, stunned and at least a little hurt. "Okay, sorry for being so self-centered."

"Sammy…" Dean started, because that wasn't what he'd meant at all. But there was no way to explain that without telling Sam what he did mean.

The car was quiet again. Dean didn't know whether to be relieved or worried.

"So, what is it about?" Sam asked quietly, breaking the silence once more.

"What?" Dean pretended.

"If it's not about me, what is it about?"

"There's nothing, Sam," Dean replied, his own voice betraying him as it cracked under the strain of yet another painful lie.

"Don't bullshit me, Dean."

Something was wrong; something was damaged. Like a piece of shrapnel from a past battle, one he'd never realized was there, something was ripping him apart from the inside. He didn't get it, he just didn't get it; it shouldn't have been like this. He'd ignored it this long, hidden it, but now that he was actually facing the question, he found he couldn't lie anymore.

Dean jerked the car off the road and onto the dirt shoulder and stopped. He gripped the wheel tightly, turned to his brother, and glared. He was angry, furious even, but he still couldn't think of anything to say but the truth.

Sam looked at him with empathy he didn't deserve. Dean didn't know who he was mad at anymore.

He let go of the wheel and looked down at the floor, weak, ashamed. He wondered how many times his brother must have felt exactly like this in the last few weeks. But Dean kept his mouth shut. It was all he could do. His last defense.

"I lied to you, earlier today," Sam said quietly. "There is one thing you did that screwed me up a little. When I was hurt, when I was afraid, when I needed somebody to be proud of me, you were there. You were always there to help."

"Sounds horrible, Sam," Dean snarked humorlessly. "Where is this—"

"But you never let me help you. I never got to give you anything back," Sam interrupted, as though Dean hadn't said anything at all.


"Just let me finish," Sam said sternly, his voice steady despite the ancient tears pooling in his eyes. "I knew I needed you, Dean. I wanted to know you needed me, too."

Dean's heart skipped a beat, his stomach turning over at the absolute absurdity of that, of Sam doubting he was needed. Words failed him. Sam jumped in again before he could protest.

"I always knew you guys loved me," Sam quavered. "But I didn't know why. It's like you were stupid or blind or something, and sooner or later you were going to figure out that you'd be better off without me."

God. That made the worst kind of sense. Dean's voice sounded like he'd swallowed a handful of rocks: "So you left."

"That's not why. But it made it easier."

Dean looked at the floor again because he could feel he was about to lose it. He needed Sam, but he couldn't just say that. He needed him to knowit. Needed him not to doubt it.

There was only one thing to do. "I killed Washington," Dean finally confessed.

"I know, you told me. Self-defense. That's not your fault," Sam replied.

"It wasn't."

"He could have tried again—" Sam said after a concerned pause.

Dean didn't even let him finish. "Not for a couple of centuries."

Sam was silent and attentive, looking at him with deep love and sadness.

"I caught him out at an old cabin he used—I found a map in his journal. Waited for him to come out and then bull-rushed him up against a tree. He fell down, I drew my gun. I told him to apologize." Dean was forcing himself to continue, not knowing how his brother would react but knowing he needed to finish regardless. "He wouldn't, so I shot him in the knee."

Dean looked forward, at the windshield.

"He screamed and said he was sorry. I didn't believe him. I shot him in the other knee. Then the elbow. He just kept screaming he was sorry, over and over," Dean paused, his voice trembling. "I said, 'good,' and I shot him in the head."

He wiped his eyes on his sleeve, half-glancing at Sam but not able to meet his eyes. He wasn't trying to hide—he was done with that, at least for now—he was just afraid of what he'd see. The truth was so ugly, he couldn't imagine Sam would ever look at him the same way again.

Then he felt a large hand, warm and heavy, on his shoulder. He looked up, looked at his brother. Nothing in Sam's eyes had changed; the love was still there.

"I'm a killer, Sam," Dean said uncertainly, unable to correlate his admission with Sam's absolution.

"Yeah," Sam answered, "You shouldn't have done that."

Dean looked away.

Sam's hand stayed on his shoulder. "I'd have done the same thing."

"No, you wouldn't."

"You don't think I'd kill for you?"

Dean knew he would. He had.

Dean couldn't hold it in any longer. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against the steering wheel, burying his face in his arms. Sam's hand slid to his brother's back as Dean trembled.

"Why does it feel like this?" Dean asked, because he hadn't gotten an answer the last time.

"Because you're a good guy," Sam said. "Even if you don't feel like it."

He didn't feel like it, but Sam was the smart one; Dean would have to take his word for it.

Sam came out of the bathroom fresh from the shower, clad in shorts and a t-shirt. Even now, almost an hour later, he was still flushed from the exertion at the gym; he felt hot despite his light clothing and bare feet. He crossed the room, past Dean's bed, to his own and sat down on top of the covers, back against the headboard. It felt good to rest.

Dean, who had showered first, was reclined in a position similar to his, similarly dressed down, his food beside him on the bed. It was largely untouched, which was a little weird considering that Dean was usually an eating machine. Sam figured it made sense given the context, though. His brother was working through some pretty serious stuff. The triple bacon cheeseburger and onion rings were probably the furthest things from his mind.

The TV was on, a History Channel presentation on the Battle of Leyte Gulf. That was…surprising. Enough so that Sam decided to break the quiet. "So," he started. "How about that Second World War?"

"I like the explosions," Dean replied.

Sam gave his brother an appraising look before realizing he had no reason to: Dean wasn't hiding how he felt. He turned back to the bag of food on his bed and started unpacking it.

They sat there for several minutes. Sam made good time downing his crispy chicken sandwich and fries, watching TV. Dean was onto something with the program. Watching ancient footage of battleships unloading broadside fusillades at each other was bizarrely soothing.

Out of nowhere, Dean suddenly picked up the remote and muted the television. Sam turned his head to look at Dean just as he finished crumpling up the packaging from his now-gone food and depositing it in the takeout bag. Dean slowly swung his legs over the side of his bed, planting his feet on the ground and curling his toes as he faced Sam.

"I have something I need to tell you, Sam," Dean started in a low, quiet voice, looking primarily at the ground but occasionally glancing up to meet Sam's eyes. "I thought I could keep it from you, I thought you didn't need to know. It's hard for me to get it through my skull that you're not a kid anymore, but after everything…you deserve the truth."

An anxious knot started to form in Sam's stomach, and he sat forward a little, off the headboard. He turned to face Dean, right leg going to the floor, left folded in front of him on the bed. "What is it?" he asked.

"It's not bad," Dean said quickly, punctuating the last word with one of his glances up at Sam. "At least, I don't think it is. Before I say it, though, I need you to promise me you'll let me finish explaining before you freak out."

Sam nodded wordlessly; he needed to know, of course he'd promise. He just hoped it was a promise he'd be able to keep.

"I lied to you about what happened on the hill," Dean started.

The knot in Sam's stomach tightened. He put his right arm across his chest defensively, grabbing his left arm at the biceps. He'd known something wasn't right, but he'd dismissed it. How stupid was he?

Dean stopped looking up at Sam completely now. "The plan didn't go smoothly. Some shit went down, things got crazy. The demon got out and he had us."

Even though Sam still couldn't remember the details, this sounded familiar, triggered familiar emotions. He recalled a sense of panic, of guilt, of total desperation. His heartbeat quickened, breath shortened, throat constricted. His feeling of exposure intensified, and he pulled his foot off the floor and sat cross-legged on the bed.

Dean paused for what felt like a long time. Sam's trepidation kept him from pushing.

"He started working on me. Made you watch. You were hallucinating too, I think, and whatever you were seeing wasn't nice. Then, right when he was about to finish me off, you…changed," Dean continued ominously. "I don't know exactly what happened—I was out for a few minutes—but when I woke up, you were fighting the demon, one-on-one, and you were beating the shit out of him. You were hitting him really hard, dodging stuff you shouldn't have been able to see coming, just tooling him with everything you could get your hands on."

"I was—" Sam cleared his throat and looked away from Dean. "I was using my abilities?"


Sam's stomach completely turned over and his chest tightened. Tears welled in his eyes. Only the promise he'd made prevented him from disintegrating entirely.

"You…electrocuted him or something, pinned him on top of the altar." Dean's eyes were pained, too. Apparently there was a way this could get worse. "Something let the demon out of the pastor's body, then smoked it. You…had the machete."

A gasp came up in Sam's throat. "I…," he started, unable to finish.

"You did what you had to."

Dean reached out and put a hand on his brother's knee, but Sam pulled away and stood, walking shakily over to the opposite wall, leaning into it, pressing both his palms against it. After a moment's consideration, Dean stood, too, coming up behind his brother. Not too close, but close enough to convey that he wasn't going away. He looked at the back of his brother's head, since he couldn't see Sam's face.

"You didn't do anything wrong," Dean said softly.

"I went darkside. I killed an innocent person," Sam replied, anguished.

"You used your powers. Stopped the demon. Saved the town. Saved me," Dean said. "And yeah, you killed a guy who had a few awful minutes of life left. It was the only thing you could do, the best option you had. It would have been wrong not to." Dean came up even closer, leaning in, trying to get a look at his brother's face.

"I lost control," Sam grunted.

"You didn't," Dean interrupted. "I saw it, man. The last thing in your eyes before I went out. You made a decision."

"That's not better," Sam half-whispered, probably because he was having trouble speaking normally.

"Yes, it is. It means you were in charge. That you can control it," Dean said. He paused as his own emotions began to overcome him, pride swelling his chest. "You had a choice. You could have given up. You could have let the whatever-it-was win. God knows no one could have blamed you. But you didn't. No, you faced the thing that scares you the most, and you used it to kick that demon's ass. You're a hero, Sammy. I'm proud of you."

Sam didn't say anything, but Dean heard him whimper. He took another step in.

"And you did it to keep me safe," Dean continued, his own voice starting to strain now. "That means a lot to me. Don't make it into something ugly."

Sam slowly turned around, leaning back against the wall and facing his brother, folding his arms across his chest. He was fighting back tears, unsuccessfully from the looks of it, but he wasn't hiding anymore.

"You did the right thing," Dean repeated.

"I know," Sam whispered, quickly nodding his head. "It just—doesn't feel like it." His face contorted in pain; some feelings just wouldn't be denied.

Sam looked at Dean, briefly met his brother's eyes, and Dean could tell that there was more to it than that. He thought that he might have to prod his brother further, but before he could, Sam spoke again.

"I'm scared, Dean," he admitted simply, honestly. "Of what I am. What I can do. Why aren't you?"

"Because you're standing here crying over something you did, even though you know it was the right thing. You're the best man I know, Sam. And nothing that demon did to you changes who you are."

Another wave of anguish seemed to hit Sam. He was pretty much at his limit. "Can I freak out now?" the kid asked meekly.

"Yeah," Dean replied, almost relieved.

After a moment of hesitation, Sam lurched forward, arms enveloping his brother, head dropping to Dean's shoulder. Dean had to overcome his surprise and his instinct to pull away, but once he did, he embraced his brother back. It was weird; neither of them ever reached out for the support they needed. Comfort was almost always forced on the recipient after things had broken. This felt better, so much better.

As Sam cried quietly against him, Dean hoped today's honesty would survive the things they'd face tomorrow.

Sam clung to his brother, aware of how strange this was but unwilling to let go. He needed this. He'd needed it for a long time. Almost two years of pent-up fear and self-doubt was flooding out of him as he sobbed on Dean's shoulder. He wondered how they'd let it get this far, why he hadn't truly faced it before now.

His disorder had been horrible, had wrought pain, confusion, and chaos. But in its wake they were left with knowledge of their weaknesses, and a chance to build a new, stronger order between them.

In the warmth of his brother's embrace, Sam realized he wouldn't trade that chance for anything.