warning: lots and lots of foul language and angsty hopelessness. oh, and comfort too.
A/N: I wrote this maybe a few weeks after the end of season two but never really finished it. With how long it was, I decided enough was enough, went back and edited a bit, and finally finished it up. I guess it's slightly AU as of season 3. I wouldn't have minded a nice closure-ish scene in place of Magnificant Seven's small Sam-Spiel, but oh, well. So this is set directly after AHBL II and was written thereafter as well (which explains why the Dean-dumpage is so much weightier than in season 3). Be reminded of how hard you cried during the two-part finale and enjoy as much as you can.
also: I'm quite certain that there are more errors than ever in this story, and I apologize for that in advance.

Still Here:

Sam allowed his head to ease into the coolness of the passenger window and tried desperately to lose himself in the hum of the Impala's engine. Black Sabbath was, as on so many occasions before, accompanying the steady drone, and Sam could no longer hope to pretend that the familiar sound wasn't somehow comforting in a million different ways. It wasn't so much that Black Sabbath was comforting. On the contrary, the lyrics to War Pigs generally brought all thoughts excluding comfort to mind. And yet, he couldn't help but cling to the sound any more than he could bear to lift his head and spare his brother the knowing glance he probably deserved. The truth was, Sam didn't know, not anymore. Black Sabbath, however, was a regularity that he knew. In the same way, the window he rested his forehead against was infallible, as was the seat, and the smell, and the car, all of it, because behind each of these things was the single, solid, unwavering constant behind his entire life; Dean.

He rolled his lower lip between his teeth. What exactly was he supposed to do once that one remaining force was abruptly taken away?

He couldn't stand it anymore. Sam's eyes traveled from the changing scenery of fast passing dark masses to his left and in search of his brother's face. A smile was drawn across his lips; a genuine smile Sam only wished he could sometimes see, and it tore him down to the last fiber of his being. He suddenly felt an intense amount of guilt. They had done it. After all the wasted, pain filled years, they had finally killed the demon that ruined theirs and countless others' lives, and Sam couldn't even muster a smile.

Dean was another story altogether. He was grinning ear to ear and it was so real it almost hurt. Sam watched him tap his fingers to the beat and ignore the dried blood caking his forehead as if it was nothing more than a stain on his shirt. Sam had insisted on driving, but Dean, high on euphoria of the kill, had stubbornly declined. Sam half expected them to run off the road. Still, Dean smiled and muttered along with the song with a glint of peace in his newly brightened, green eyes. And still Sam sat, leaned close to the window and basking in the dark rather than searching for an apparent upside in the proverbial light. For Sam there wasn't much of an upside left to look for. Sure, he was alive, thanks to Dean. Sure, the demon was dead, thanks to Dean. There was an entire life outside of Yellow Eyes to look forward to for Sam. But Dean only had a year, 365 days, 52 weeks, and those twelve minutes people sometimes called months before his time was officially up.

And then he would go straight to hell.

Sam's stomach began to twist itself back into the tight knot of pain and guilt he had only just managed to ease away from and he suddenly couldn't breathe through the growing lump in his throat. He swallowed dryly and managed to turn into the window enough to hide his face, eyes burning with unshed tears. Dean didn't deserve to be bothered right now. It didn't matter that Sam could hardly breathe through the anger, the helplessness, an all consuming pain tearing away at his heart and lungs. It didn't matter because Dean did. And that's what hurt the most. Dean was his big brother, the only person Sam had left in the world, and that's what mattered. That's what hurt so much it was agony to breathe.

"Sam?" Dean's voice became a little louder as he turned the volume down a fraction of a decibel to make his words known.

Sam swallowed, knowing he couldn't really face his brother's concerned eyes without letting the dam break, and tried to think of a way to respond without cracking his voice on the ever present lump in his throat.

"Hey," Dean shook his shoulder a little, "earth to brood boy." He left his hand there, gripping his arm. "You haven't said a word since the graveyard and this grunt and point thing's not gonna work for me. I hate to break it to you, little brother, but cave speak is not my forte."

Sam managed to bite down quick enough to prevent the laugh he knew would sound like a sob from escaping his lips but couldn't hold back the pitiful smile he flashed to the passing scenery of the window. Dean and his way with words would always be a mystery. Until there was no one left to say them. Sam's smile liquefied.

"You okay, Sammy?" Dean squeezed his shoulder a little and Sam wondered if he'd be able to feel him breaking.

"Tired," he managed to whisper. He could feel Dean's eyes glued onto him and cleared his throat to strengthen his voice. "I'm just tired." Dean's hand eased away from his shoulder and Sam thought he might lose the battle to control himself.

"Bobby's is still a couple hours out," was all Dean said. It was obvious that his tone was guarded and Sam couldn't decide if he appreciated or regretted it more.

Sam nodded against the window and closed his eyes. He focused on the familiar purr of the engine, the vibration in the glass, and the light thud of the base reverberating against his skull. He couldn't help but breathe in the painful, soothing aroma of the loyal Chevy. The Winchesters had been through a lot in the aging vehicle. Sam had eaten, slept, worked, laughed, screamed, cried, bled, grown up, and more recently laid dead in his brother's arms in this faithful car. What would be left of it when there was no Dean to possess it? Would it still mean anything? He swallowed the bile he could feel rising in his throat. What part of Dean would be left in it?

He clenched his eyes shut and tried desperately to pretend the last few days never happened; that he had bought Dean that stupid pie and they were just on another road on their way to some place new. But when he opened them again he saw a great blur of movement masked by night and knew if he turned to Dean he'd see a gash across his forehead because the last few days had really happened and there was nothing he could do about them. There was nothing he could do and Sam had lied about it, straight to Dean's face. The lump in his throat threatened to dislodge itself just as stomach decided to turn to lead and his heart expanded to encompass his entire chest with an unbearable, aching pain. He shrugged closer to the door and couldn't help but raise his knees to his chest. Everything hurt and he couldn't find the source. He wrapped his arms around his legs and buried his face into his jeans. He could feel Dean's eyes burning into the top of his head and it made everything hurt just a little bit more. What was he supposed to do? He heard the quiet whimper before he recognized it as his own and cursed his weakness.

"Sammy?" Every drop of humor was void from his voice when Dean spoke his brother's name in a way only he knew how and moved to rest his hand against Sam's nearly trembling arm. And it hurt more than Sam could shoulder.

"No." He mumbled and leaned away from Dean's touch and that hurt ten times as much as the contact had. He felt Dean hesitate but obey, and it stung. Still, Sam remained hidden and away from the weary, compassion filled eyes of his brother's gaze because he knew he would crumble with just one look.

He cleared his throat. "Do we have to go to Bobby's?" Sam could feel Dean's eyes lift from his shoulders and noted the return of their presence, the question in his gaze. "I don't think I can –" Sam didn't think anything. He knew he couldn't hold up an act, pretend things were better than before. In some minimal, now almost unimportant way, maybe they were. But in a few months? "I just –"

"Next vacancy sound good?" Dean asked roughly, interrupting his tapered speech with a masked, knowing tone Sam never really got tired of – not that Dean was even aware of his unique ability to interpret Sam's stifled thoughts when no one else could.

Sam nodded into the window, grateful for the indulgence. The demon might be dead, but a large chunk of hell suddenly wasn't, and they needed to start planning for ways to deal with that. But Sam wasn't interested in demons and he didn't really want to think about hell at that moment either. He was so close to breaking he could almost see the crack. He could feel it, knew couldn't hide it much longer, but he could make it to the hotel, and he had to because Dean shouldn't have to see it. As much as Sam was furious with his older brother, he loved him even more. And anger could only mask sorrow for so long.

The hotel wasn't top notch, the door was obnoxiously painted and creaked equally so, the wallpaper could make a six year old dizzy, and the severely lacking theme was, as most always, more than a few decades behind. But it was what it was and Dean could very easily deal with that.

Sam disappeared into the confines of the bathroom the second they entered, shuffling into the room without a passing glance while Dean cleaned his forehead as quickly as he could. Sam took a little longer than usual and his eyes were downcast and red when he finally exited the steamed room but Dean couldn't bring himself to call it. Sam was breaking and it was breaking Dean to watch, not because he blamed himself, but because he couldn't bring himself to feel an ounce of guilt for what he'd done. He didn't care how Sam felt about the deal that he made. And even though it hurt like hell to know his little brother was struggling through an obvious amount of pain, Sam was alive and he could get through whatever came his way. He would survive, and that's what mattered, that's what it came down to. The demon was dead, their dad's spirit was free to go wherever it was spirits go, Sammy was alive, and Dean, living on borrowed time as it was, would be too, at least for a year. Life was pretty good except for Sam.

Sam sat heavily on the side of his bed, cast Dean a pained, pitiful look, and shrugged his way under the sheets. Dean watched as Sam turned his back to him, pulled the comforter tightly around his shoulders, and curled his knees inward. The movement was so foreign, so vulnerable, that Dean almost didn't know what to do. His little brother didn't hide from things like he was hiding from this, and it disturbed him on more levels than he was comfortable admitting.

Dean crossed the distance between them. "You okay, Sam?"

"Sure," Sam whispered more than spoke as he dug a little deeper into his pillow but remained facing the wall, "I'm okay."

Dean heard the definite no in his speech and couldn't help but reach down to run a hand through his brother's messy, wet locks. He rested his palm against his cheek. He could feel Sam's jaw twitch beneath his fingers. "You will be."

Sam started to shake his head no but ended up turning into the touch instead and Dean could feel his heart skip a beat at how utterly defeated Sam had become in such a short amount of time.

"No, Dean," Sam whispered, hugging his knees a little tighter, "I won't."

Dean opened his mouth to respond but lost his voice somewhere along the way. He was torn between screaming in frustration and assuring his brother without physically knocking it into him. What exactly was he supposed to say to something so blatantly hopeless? In the time it took Dean to realize he had lifted his hand in his moment of confusion, Sam had moved farther away, curled even closer into himself.

"Sam?" Dean flexed his fingers, unsure of what to do. "Come on, Sam."

Sam remained facing the wall.

"Man, don't do this."

Dean sat dejectedly against Sam's back and ran his fingers through his own disheveled hair.

"You don't get to do this to me."

Sam gave no response.

"You can't," Dean all but whispered.

"I can't do what, Dean?" Sam caved under the weary tone of his brother.

"Pretend I'm already gone."

Dean said it so casually, so calm and so very, very tired that Sam couldn't take it anymore. He felt his shoulders shaking against his will as he finally began to crack. Then Dean's hand was on the nape of his neck and he could feel his knee against his shoulder and he almost lost all will to control the pain. He let out a single, quiet sob before turning toward his brother and burying his face against his thigh, refusing to lose the battle with his tears by tightly closing his eyes. He brought a hand up to grip against Dean's jeans and managed to speak through his forced silence and rapidly tightening throat, "How could you do this to me?"

Dean simply ran his fingers through Sam's hair again and watched sadly as Sam began to break beyond his current control. He was just so tired.

Sam could barely breathe, "How could you do this to me?"

Dean's fingers hesitated for a fraction of a second before continuing to gently brush away his brother's hair. "I was right there, Sam," Dean whispered, almost like it was meant to soothe. "I was right there and," Dean's voice cracked a little, "I let my guard down, and you –" He ran his free hand over his eyes as thought it had the power to erase the memory. "You started falling and I couldn't get you to stay up, you just kept falling..."

Dean eased Sam's head away from his leg just enough to have him facing his direction as Sam, slightly shocked by Dean's blatantly affectionate gesture, opened his eyes to connect with his own. And Sam's were so scared and hurt that Dean thought maybe he was breaking all over again, too. He gripped Sam by the shoulders and tugged him forward as gently as he could until Sam's back was resting against the headboard and his face was more or less turned toward Dean's. "You didn't get back up, Sam. You quit –you stopped –"

"I died," Sam supplied the simple, devastating truth. He scrubbed a hand determinedly against his eyes and took a shaky breath before staring directly into, almost through, Dean's eyes. "I died."

Dean immediately averted his own gaze and removed his hands from his brother's shoulders, choosing the ugly comforter to look at over Sam. The corner of his lips worked against him, tugging into a thin line of resignation, then a heavily masked frown. "I felt it, Sammy," he finally said, and began rubbing against his chest as though an uncomfortable itch had suddenly overcome him.

"Felt what?" Sam asked, desperately wanted Dean to stop clawing at himself and look at him.

His eyes shifted slowly to Sam's. "I felt your heart stop." Sam blinked as Dean smiled sadly at him and shifted to rest his elbows against his knees. "And mine kept going."

Sam watched Dean's layers shedding and almost didn't know what to do. Dean was always the one to pick up the pieces, not Sam. His mind wandered to previous months, their father's death, and the faith healer back in Nebraska as he studied Dean's rigid jaw. He couldn't exactly imagine what it would have been like to actually watch his brother die. "I'm sorry," he finally whispered.

"Goddamn it Sam, don't apologize," Dean lashed out, barely glancing in Sam's direction before glaring hard into the carpet. "'Wasn't your fault."

"Then whose was it, Dean?" Sam bit back, ashamed and somehow relieved of the anger he felt bubbling inside. "I was too soft to finish off Jake, to at least watch to see that he was down. I made a mistake, not you. Damn it, Dean, why does it always have to be your burden? Why do you have to be the one fix every goddamn thing? Why can't you just accept that you can't stop everything? That you're human too?" He swallowed, suddenly aware that he was nearly shouting in his brother's ear, poised on the edge of the bed, daring Dean to look him in the eye even though it was Sam who couldn't accept the last bit. "This wasn't something to fix," his tone softened moderately. "It wasn't something you could have fixed. What's dead should stay dead, right?" He ignored the seething scowl he received at the use of Dean's philosophy being thrown back in his face. Sam felt a twinge of guilt for his choice of words, but refused to acknowledge that guilt. "I was dead, Dean. And you went and did the stupidest fucking thing you've ever done –"

"Stupidest thing I've ever done?" Dean was swiftly interrupting, "Stupidest fucking thing I've ever done?" He stood before Sam could react and had him pinned against the headboard, fist entangled in Sam's shirt collar and pressing hard against his chest. "What the hell gives you the right to say that to me?"

"What gives me the right?" Sam lost the attempt to push away Dean's arms and settled with a glare. "You've been here, Dean! Think hard. I'm sure you can figure it out."

"It was my decision!" Dean bellowed breathlessly as he watched Sam's face crumple from a triumphant scowl into a defeated frown. "Just like Dad's." He took a breath before grinding hard against Sam's collar to express his point. "I made the decision on my own, college boy. That means it's on me, not the crossroads demon, and not you. And if it was really that stupid do you think I'd have fucking done it? I mean, what the hell, Sam? How could you say something like that?"

"It –"

"No," Dean interrupted with a fierce glare, "you don't get to talk. You didn't watch your only family die because you distracted them the only time it really counted." Sam opened his mouth but Dean wasn't finished. "Shut the fuck up, Sam, that's how it went down and I don't really give a shit how you try to sugarcoat it. You didn't see it," he huffed a breath as if he had just realized he had yet to take one, "and you sure as hell didn't feel it. I spent my life making sure nothing happened to you, to dad, and even though I've sucked out loud lately I never really considered you dying being a possibility," 'dying' caused a slight break in his speech. Dying; the word tasted bad. "It never even crossed my mind. It wasn't going to happen. I wouldn't fucking let it happen. And damn it if we didn't find you with that stupid vision in one piece. And then I let my guard down and..." Dean unconsciously bore down harder on Sam, nearly eliciting a pained grunt before he could stifle the reflex. "I couldn't do a thing to make it right. You don't get to tell me what I should and shouldn't have done about that. Don't tell me what I did was wrong. You were all for Dad's choice, and, screw ethics, this was mine. And don't you dare tell me what I did was a fucking mistake. Don't you dare."

"But it's okay for me to go through that?" Sam frowned heavily, eager for an honest to God answer. "It's okay for me to watch my only family die because of me?"

"Damn it, Sam, I said it isn't your fault!"

"But it is!" Sam glared ruefully.

"It isn't! It was a choice. My choice," Dean reiterated softly as he released his hold of Sam and sat back down facing his direction with wary contempt for whatever it was he had to say. "And I'd make it again."

"Why?" Sam slumped a little in defeat. "Why would you possibly do that?"

Dean chuckled softly before shifting toward Sam and smiling wryly. "Dude," He grinned, but it was far from real. "Why the hell do you think?

Sam felt the corners of his mouth tugging downward even before he had a chance to process the information he had just consumed and felt the familiar pang of pain and guilt. "Damn it, Dean." He pressed his palms against his eyes in frustration. "This isn't right. This is the furthest thing from right."

"Since when do I give a shit about right and wrong?" Dean huffed. "Didn't we have this conversation like a year ago?"

"This isn't killing someone! This is," Sam removed his hands and scowled from the bad taste in his mouth, "It's suicide, that's what it is. You're giving up."

"If it's between you and me, then yeah, I am." Dean smiled gravely. "No contest."

"You're a selfish bastard, you know that, right?"

"I can live with that," he grinned smugly.

"This isn't a joke!" Sam pushed forward away from the headboard to be eye level with Dean.

"Who exactly is it that you're trying to convince?" Dean continued before Sam's flapping jaw could pursue an insult, "Believe me, Receiving End fully understands. But honestly, what do you expect me to do about it?"

Sam ducked his head to pick heatedly at the corners of the sheets. 'Make it better' sounded a little too childish, but admitting that there was next to nothing he could do about it was a little too realistic for Sam to accept. "I wish you'd never made the deal."

"Does literal suicide sound all that better to you?" Dean asked almost amiably in response.

Sam whipped his head upright, eyes wide as he was left in stunned silence, incapable of fully comprehending the question. Dean contemplating suicide, the shrouded actuality of it, maybe, but the blunt acceptance left him speechless. They never spoke about the River Grove incident for a reason, and a damn good one. It was past, a natural reaction for someone as consumed with misplaced guilt as Dean had been, but it was past all the same. Dean never voiced the thoughts, never admitted the weakness; it just wasn't something a Winchester would do. He moved on just like they both knew he would; only Sam never figured out that he was the one factor rooting Dean to the ground.

"Don't look so defeated, Sammy, there's no way in hell I'd go out in the pansy ass way you're thinking of," Dean snorted and continued, a thoughtful expression plastered to his face. "I don't think my pride would allow me to do something that pitiful, but I don't honestly see myself having lasted very long. I bet Freud would say it was my subconscious' way of doing it for me."

"Dean –"

"It'd probably be with some crazy-ass hunt I deluded myself into taking."

"Dean?"

"'Might not give a shit, though."

"Stop..."

"But I'm not sure I could actually screw up on purpose during a job at this point. It'd have to have been something seriously bad ass."

"Dean."

"Maybe I'd have summoned old Yellow Eyes. That'd be the way to go, wouldn't it?"

"Stop," Sam's voice rang out loud and clear as he brought his hands back to his eyes, refusing to focus on the calm acceptance Dean carried in his steady voice and determined gaze. "Just, stop."

Dean frowned but held his position as Sam fell silent, a grim expression of honesty drawn across his features. "So maybe I am a selfish bastard," Dean admitted, "but I'm not exactly nature's upstanding citizen either. Why waste perfectly faulty time when I should be long gone anyway?" He paused, to run his hand against the stubble of his chin as he added thoughtfully, "It's a hell of a better deal than Dad ever got."

With that single statement, Sam felt the lump in his throat make a dramatic reappearance that left him struggling to breathe without letting on to the deliberate restraint of tears. The utter hopelessness of the situation, looming in the distance, ticking slowly away, too quickly, was too much. How was he supposed to accept something as fatal as this to his existence? How was he supposed to live with knowing Dean had willingly sacrificed his soul to hell for his life? Sam pressed firmly into his shut eyes with the heels of his palms as if the eruption of white flecks in midst of solid darkness could somehow sway his attention. A dead weight in his stomach was now accompanying the growing knob in his throat, determined to break his barriers, and he hated himself for his body's unauthorized acts of weakness and that he blamed Dean entirely. He understood why Dean did what he did; he came too close to losing him twice too many times to pretend otherwise. But Sam would never accept it, never condone it, and certainly wouldn't let go. A sudden bought of panic gripped fiercely to his heart, sharp and icy. What could he hang on to when Dean was gone? His shoulders gave an involuntary lurch as he pressed harder into his eyes, willing the building tears to recede into his skull and barely stifling the sob ion his throat.

Dean's hand was against the nape of his neck, squeezing gently in a silence with so many words Sam didn't know which to choose from. He had always admired that about Dean. The way that he could communicate with a single look, a slight touch, whether it be a knock to the back of the head or lingered assistance, or how he could pour out an answer without taking a breath. He supposed Dean could read him just the same, maybe better, but in that particular touch all Sam could do was understand the drifting silence as a plea for abandonment, and it was probably the one thing he had ever failed to do for the sake of his brother. "I'm not giving up," he managed to whisper as he pulled his hands away to stare defiantly. "I'm getting you out of this."

Dean shook his head sadly, "Not up to you." He removed his hand.

"The hell it is," he replied. "If it's supernatural –"

"Not this time, Sam," Dean sounded weary, suddenly much older, "I won't let you."

"Won't let me?" Sam gaped. "How could you possibly –"

"Technicalities, Sammy. Can't live with 'em, can't exactly make a solid contract with the devil without 'em."

"What did you do?" Sam's heart thudded painfully against his chest at the prospect of finding yet another earth-shattering piece of information.

Dean sniffed nonchalantly, "We mess with this, we weasel in any way, shape, or form," he unconsciously gripped his hands into fists, "you die."

Sam stared in silence, overwhelmed by the feeling of being sucker punched, winded, and quite suddenly very alone. He wondered vaguely whether or not his face fell in sync with his stomach as he seriously considered emptying its contents. Dean just smiled his tired, old smile that had sympathy and fierceness all wrapped into one grim line of acceptance. He seemed to be saying 'let go, let go' but all Sam could think of was facing everything alone. "How could you go along with that?" Sam couldn't really recall thinking the words before he had suddenly spoken them.

Dean shrugged, carefully detached from the real consequence of his actions. "Wasn't exactly something I couldn't go along with."

"Yes," Sam could only hear the slight buzz in his ears, not the hitch to his voice or the desperate plea in his tone, "it was. Damn it, Dean! How could you do this to me? What the hell am I supposed to do without you? Did that even cross you self-centered mind?" He failed miserably to ignore the pained expression Dean quickly masked behind a veil of indifference but continued all the same. "You can't sit there and tell me you've forgotten what you felt like when you found out what Dad did for you. You can't pretend you didn't know you were doing the same thing to me." Sam visibly sagged in defeat as he searched Dean's eyes for any hint of a solution he feared he would never have. The lump in his throat threatened to dislodge itself as he leaned forward to sit next to Dean. "What am I supposed to do?" he whispered, voice hitched and strained as he looked to the floor for a sign from God.

Dean opened his mouth to respond but seemed to think better of it. He shifted just enough to have his arm pressed lightly against Sam's. "Live," he suggested almost hopefully and leaned his head to lock gazes with Sam as if it would somehow get the point across. "Just live."

And that was it. The lump in his throat swelled at an unstoppable rate as Sam's eyes began to sting and his chest constricted tightly in pain. He felt himself swaying to the left and couldn't bring himself to stop until his head rested against Dean's shoulder, tensing in reaction to the unexpected contact. Sam wasn't sure he'd ever wished he was dead more than he did in that instant, feeling the slight heat coming from Dean and knowing in a year's time he would never feel it again. The dam began to crack.

Dean pursed his lips to keep his emotions firmly in place. Sam shuddered a little against him, so obviously fighting tears it physically pained Dean to acknowledge. He hated himself more than he could admit for what he had done, but he could never apologize, would never regret it. He could still remember the last beat of Sam's heart as it painfully thudded against his chest and fell silent, leaving his own alone, a mere shadow of what it once had been. His family made him what he was, kept him going, ensured his existence and held it all together. When John died it was like a part of him died too. Sam was the one who unknowingly held it all in place in his own annoying little brother way. He had hovered incessantly, pissed Dean off to an extent he never thought Sam could possibly manage, and pushed him far enough to consider taking a crowbar to more than just his car. Yet, in some unexplainable, slightly infuriating way, Sam's actions held him together in a way he knew he wouldn't have been able to do on his own. When Sam's heart stopped beating, he knew with absolute certainty his wouldn't be far behind. Sam had wanted so much more than another town, another hotel, another hunt, and he really deserved it. Sam wasn't meant to go out the way he did, caught in a war he should never have had to experience, too young for death to take. He was meant for college, a job, a wife, kids, everything he wanted, and Dean was already long overdue. Because of this, he could never apologize and would never regret. He was scared as fuck, even if it was only a shadow of fear to what he sensed was coming, but he would never regret the outcome of his deal. Dean forced his muscles to relax and leaned his head against Sam's.

Sam drew in a rather shaky breath before turning slightly into the crook of Dean's neck. "Who says I want to?" he managed to speak just before his throat collapsed and his breathing seemed to fail him in a silent sob he knew Dean could feel through the way his shoulders pitched against his will. The way Dean tensed meant he also heard the words he never meant to remember.

Then Dean's arms were suddenly surrounding him and roughly pulling him closer, and all his restraints seemed to slip away beyond his control. He dug greedily into his brother's collar and clung to the folds on the back of his shirt. Dean was stroking his hair again and he thought he heard a whispered, "Sammy," before the buzzing in his ears picked up again and his tears betrayed him.

Dean shut his eyes and rested his chin atop Sam's head. "It's okay, Sammy. You're gonna be okay. You can – can keep going, hunting, school, whatever you want, man."

And Sam broke a little more because he knew it wasn't going to stay okay, he would never be okay, and he sure as hell didn't want to be okay and keep going as though nothing had happened. He never knew his mother the way Dean did. All he had of her was a hole he learned to fill and the memories Dean sometimes left for Sam to keep for himself. Jessica was exactly what he wanted, everything he ever needed, and she was taken away, right in front of him as Dean pulled him safely away. The days following her death were still a blur of pain, misery, and more than anything, Dean. After years of absence, his father was suddenly back in his life, the family Dean wanted, and then he was just as quickly gone again, this time for good. But he died for Dean and for Sam. Sam knew without a shadow of doubt that John had consciously chosen Dean over himself for Sam's sake as much as Dean's, and he would always, always be grateful because he knew his father had been right. When everything else when to hell, left him dried up and alone, Dean was always there. He needed Dean more than his brother seemed to understand.

Sam muttered incoherently into Dean's shoulder so softly he wouldn't have detected it had his breath not heated the skin through his shirt.

"Help me out a little, Sam," Dean said quietly.

He shook his head. He was supposed to be dead, not waiting on Dean to take his place and then, worse than anything else he could imagine, go to a literal hell. He twisted his face but refused to pull away. "I don't want to."

"Sam –"

"You can't ask me to."

Sam's tone was both firm and brokenly insistent, and all Dean could do was nod. He got that more than he was willing to admit.

"God, Dean," Sam breathed, face crumpled as he somehow twisted his frame to fit perfectly against Dean. It was like he was seven again, too scared to sleep alone when he could just as easily curl up next to Dean, and he couldn't bring himself to care. It would have been much easier had Dean still been the superhero he was, even at eleven. "Please –"

"I'm right here, Sammy," Dean assured him, Sam's unfinished words unnecessary. He would be there for the blame and the tears while he tried to pick up as many pieces of Sam as he could before it was simply too late. So he simply held his sobbing brother, unable to offer any words of promising solutions as Sam quietly, sometimes loudly, wore himself out against Dean's offered shoulder.

He curled his thumb against the back of Sam's neck, content with his brother's light sleep as he sagged more wholly against Dean in exhaustion, and gently shifted to ease from Sam's grip. He fought to keep his emotions in check at Sam's franticly mumbled argument as he nudged his way back under Dean's chin and tightened his hold on his shirt.

"'S okay, Sammy, I'm still here."

Embarrassment or not, Sam's breath could only hitch in some form of irrational fear. "Dean, please."

"I know, Sam," Dean clenched his teeth in resentment and determination and love. "I won't." He managed to maneuver Sam to his side and ease them both to the mattress, never relinquishing his hold, fearful of the consequences as much for himself as for Sam. His brother, all six foot, four inches, fit into Dean's side as he shrugged an arm over Sam's shoulder and accepted the arm that wrapped snuggly across his chest. He could detect the slight catch in Sam's breath and the hesitancy to sleep that came with it as he stretched to turn out the single lamp on the nightstand.

"I'm not going anywhere," Dean reiterated softly. "I'll be here."

Because Dean knew what it felt like. He understood what it was like to expect someone to just fade to nothing if you took the time to look away. And because Sam knew what it felt like, too, he just nodded and let the weight slip off his shoulders. "Me too."

If only for the night, he let himself ease into the smell of leather and ammo and car upholstery and Dean, drifted, and finally fell asleep, promised the will to live at least another day.