The black veins blinked above him, beside him, all around him. The hooks dug deep inside, and pulled away skin, muscle, clanking against his bone whenever he moved. If he moved, the pain was too much, and he stilled. If he stilled, however, the sensation of falling came fast.
Down the black veins came crackles of electricity, each one humming when they reached him, each one laughing when he screamed. His clothes were torn away, his skin pulled next, leaving blood and muscle and
Dean opened his eyes and stared into the inky blackness of the room. Not completely black; the light in the bathroom was on, the door mostly shut. Night light, but Sam never said it, wouldn't say it, and neither would Dean.
His heart was hammering fast in his chest, and he felt sick. Two weeks, and this was still happening. Sam had pulled him out two weeks ago and god, he hadn't even been in Hell for a week, and the damage was outlasting the stay.
His skin felt clammy, he couldn't stop shaking, and the room spun alarmingly. He swallowed long and hard, tears burning in his eyes and falling to the pillow below him. Farthest bed from the door, and Sam never said anything about Dean's new choice, but he understood. Head turned towards the back of the room, to hide himself from the door.
He hid from Sam in the same token, though, and couldn't see him. That was the downside, especially now. Now when he could still feel the skin being pulled from his body, now when the laughter echoed in the void around him, now when he could still feel phantom hooks digging through his shoulder and side-
Dean pushed himself up and into the bathroom, his knees hitting the tiles as he hurled violently. Nothing ever stayed down.
He didn't know that Sam was awake in the room, had been awake since Dean had gasped. Sam bit his lip as he listened to Dean nearly sob as he was sick, but stayed silent. Anything said now would only hurt Dean even more. He'd learned that the hard way, the first week, when he'd gotten up to ask Dean if he was okay, if Sam could help, and Dean had shut the door on the bathroom and himself.
This next morning, however, was going to be a different matter.
"You want cheese with that?"
Sam shook his head for Dean, and the waitress blessedly left. Sam hadn't looked for a job for them for ages, not willing to until Dean was where he needed to be. When Dean slid a newspaper article over to him, though, he figured Dean was willing and ready.
Or trying to be, at any rate.
"You know we don't have to," Sam said, deliberately keeping the sympathy from his voice. Dean didn't need it, and really, Sam didn't either. What was past was past; this was the present, and Dean needed to know that while Sam wasn't doing the sympathy route, an open ear and shoulder was there.
"People are getting hurt, Sam," Dean said quietly, picking at the edge of the newspaper. "We gotta do something. And we've been sitting out for the last two weeks."
"There's been no 'sitting out', Dean," Sam stated simply, flipping the newspaper over and spotting the crossword puzzle on the other side.
"Yeah, there has, and I know it," Dean said. He bit his lip, then reached over to flip the newspaper back to the article. Sam kept it down with one hand, and Dean gave in, pulling his hand back to his lap, where the other one sat.
Dean was so still these days; he ate, he spoke, but he wasn't animated like he'd been before. Sam wasn't sure what to do, but whatever Dean needed, Sam would be it.
"No, there hasn't; it's called recuperation. You went to Hell, Dean. We're allowed time to be just Sam and Dean."
"It's 'babysitting Dean' time," Dean mumbled, anger slightly hinting his tone. It wasn't aimed at Sam, though, and that prompted Sam to lean across towards his brother.
"You're not the only one who needs time off. I had to watch you die. I'm not sure I'm ready to jump back into a hunt," Sam said quietly, and it was the truth. Watching Dean get ripped apart right in front of him had brought agitation, nausea, and nightmares ever since. This wasn't just for Dean.
Dean glanced up, surprise written across his face at the admission. Sam met his gaze imploringly, and Dean finally sighed and looked away.
"All right, it doesn't have to be that one. But...seriously, we can't leave people out there, Sam. I can't do that."
And if Sam had ever had doubts that Dean hadn't been Dean when he'd come back, they'd have vanished immediately at that. Dean was still Dean, just a little traumatized, and with damn good reason. PTSD, if Sam had to diagnose, but he wasn't a doctor and he didn't really know all of what went into PTSD in the first place. He was fairly certain Dean was probably suffering from high stress at the least, though.
As if the nightmares at night hadn't clued in him.
Dean never spoke about them; Dean never mentioned them. Maybe he thought that Sam was asleep, didn't notice while Dean quietly panicked and freaked in the bed beside him. Didn't know the real reason that Dean was sick every night, that it wasn't just a bad burger or being put back into his body like Dean had suggested after that first night.
Sam noticed. Sam knew.
The waitress came back then with their coffees, and Sam took the few seconds to glance at the article he'd hidden. Missing people in the woods, hikers disappearing every month or so. The cycle wasn't right to be a wendigo, and Sam was going to put his money on a werewolf. They were easy, actually. Simple shot of silver, didn't even have to burn the corpse.
Still. Sam really had no idea of what Dean had gone through in Hell, and he had no idea if there'd been teeth involved. If Dean said he wanted to do this, though, then Sam would do it. He wasn't going to be stupid enough to let Dean go on the hunt, but the trip there, the research...that Dean could do. Positive experience, helping other people. That had always stabilized Dean before.
The newspaper was back flat down once more, and Dean was just turning to Sam while taking a sip of his coffee. "All right, we'll do it," Sam said, giving Dean a smile. "It's not that far out; we can make it by tonight."
Dean nodded hesitantly, taking another sip before leaving the mug cradled against his lips. Sam wanted to tell him it was going to be fine, they'd be okay, he'd be okay, to give himself some damn time, and to let Sam help out.
Dean took another sip, then pulled the newspaper back, gazing at the crossword puzzle. Sam let the words he needed to say linger in his mind for a different time. One thing at a time, and today, it had been the jump to a gig. That was more than enough.
Sam wasn't even crowding him, that was the worst part. Sam gave him space when he needed space, but was smart enough to still not leave completely. Sure, Sam went for lunch runs and stuff, but there was an unspoken rule that when Dean said he'd come with, Sam let him come with.
Being alone for eternity...no, alone for a long period of time wasn't something Dean could do at the moment.
But Sam still wasn't mother-henning him, and while he was grateful, Dean was waiting for the other shoe to drop and, worse yet, sort of hoping it would happen. He felt foolish, wanting to hide behind his little brother who, okay, wasn't smaller than he was now. But he could feel it underneath his skin, begging for something to hold onto, protection from lightning that crackled in the sky and black eyes coming for him.
He didn't want Sam to know. Sam still didn't know about the nightmares, which was good. Well, obviously, he knew that Dean was sick at night, but he didn't know why. Dean just needed to relearn how to deal with it on his own. He'd never been good at doing things on his own, though.
So when Sam gave him part of the research to do, he threw himself into it. When Sam needed more silver bullets, Dean helped melt down silver and make more.
When Sam headed out to face what was obviously a werewolf on his own, Dean freaked.
"What the hell are you doing?" he yelled, standing between Sam and the door. The door was open, the night air cool and cooler still with the breeze, and Dean shivered as it hit his bare neck. Nothing behind him, and if he looked, he was terrified that he'd see the void.
"I'm going, Dean," Sam said patiently, hand on the door. "I won't be gone long, I swear, okay?"
"This is insane. You don't do hunts on your own, Sam."
"I'll be fine, I promise," Sam told him. "You'll be fine, too, okay?"
Dean felt himself flush even though the chilly night air had goosebumps rising up and down his arms. "That's not what I'm worried about," he half lied. He was worried about being alone by himself, in the dark hotel room, with only his thoughts to keep him company.
He was more worried about Sam being out there by himself, in the dark forest, with only himself as back up.
"Things could go wrong, and having someone else there would-"
"Would be better, yeah. Having someone there and letting them help is a huge benefit," Sam said, fingers digging into the wood of the door. Here we go, Dean thought, and could practically see a shoe falling to the floor to join its mate. He'd given Sam his opening, and Sam was taking it.
"So why won't you let me be there for you?" Sam said, giving Dean a too knowing look. "Like with the nightmares?"
Dean stepped forward and pulled the door from Sam's hand, shutting it behind him. No more nothing and everything to think about, and he didn't want someone passing by to hear this. Not when Sam had heard enough already, and dammit-
"I'm supposed to be the big brother, Sam, and...and I can't find that man anymore, okay?" he blurted out. "I-I shake in bed at night, because I'm back there, back in Hell, with the hooks pulling my skin and then the demons are pulling the rest of my skin off-"
Sam looked as if someone had shot him, and Dean immediately wished someone would shoot him so he'd shut up and stop talking, stop hurting Sam. "They didn't, but that's all I can see, you know? Because they said they would, and if Ruby hadn't shown up, hadn't gotten me loose and you hadn't come and caught me-"
"I'd have found my way to you and gotten you out on my own," Sam said, quietly but firmly, and Dean took a breath. "Look, this doesn't have to be a chick flick ordeal, but...I don't think it's healthy to have all that up in your head, all on your own."
"You've known about the nightmares for awhile," Dean said, dully gazing up at Sam.
"Yeah, I've known. I knew I'd hurt you more if I just came up and tried to help, though."
Dean looked away towards the wall. "Dean, I don't think less of you, and yeah, okay, maybe you're the big brother, but you did the ultimate big brother thing already. You went to Hell for me. If you're trying to top that, you're out of luck. And I don't know how I can repay you for it. So let me do this much, okay? Let me help you. You're hurting because of me, what happened to me."
"It was my choice," Dean said, turning back to Sam. He pursed his lips but the tears still came, and he wanted so badly to be the Dean he'd been before Hell, but it didn't seem possible anymore. Hell had changed him, turned him into someone he didn't know he could be. "And I'd do it all over again if I had to."
Hell had been horrible, terrible, unbelievable. Life without Sam on Earth had been worse.
"Then...let me help. Please? I feel useless here, dude," Sam said, giving a watery laugh. "I couldn't protect you from Lilith or the deal, I can't seem to protect you now-"
"Sammy, you got me out," Dean whispered, pursed lips trembling. "If you're trying to top that, then you've got another thing coming."
"I still need to do something now."
"And I still need to get back to being the big brother," Dean said, equally as soft. "I still need to be Dean. I don't know how to do either."
Sam took a deep breath. "Maybe we can help each other out," he finally said. "Think on it, and when I get back...we can go over it."
He went to open the door, and Dean caught his hand before he could. "I'm going with you," he said, breathing in deeply.
"You're not ready for a hunt, Dean."
"I'll wait in the car," he answered stubbornly. "I'm not leaving you out there alone, Sam. I can't do that."
Sam gazed at him, before he finally nodded. "And you're worried that you're not a big brother anymore," he said with a smile, and Dean felt something inside release a little at that.
Maybe he wasn't so off the mark as he thought. Maybe Hell hadn't changed everything.
Even when the damn thing lunged, Sam's thoughts immediately went to Dean sitting alone in the Impala. He dove to the right and felt claws rake across his left arm, causing him to shout. Shit; he'd forgotten how fast older werewolves could be.
Young werewolves were still human in appearance, but the longer they were a werewolf, the more humanity they lost. The one in front of him now was a full fledged wolf, yellow cat's eyes the only thing to denote that this wasn't your average wolf. That and the fact that its limbs were long and gangly, but just the right size to knock Sam around.
He'd left Dean in the car, the windows rolled down so Dean could hear him. Sam had offered to yodel so Dean would know where he was, but Dean had declined. He had smiled, though, the first real smile Sam had seen since Dean had come back from Hell.
If Sam died out here, Dean would never forgive himself. He'd withdraw even more, die a little inside, and Sam wasn't letting that happen, not on his watch. So he just wasn't dying tonight, couldn't do it.
The werewolf had other ideas, and even as Sam was hurrying over to take cover and take aim, the werewolf lowered its head and knocked into Sam. Sam went flying until he was stopped by a tree trunk, trying to get air back into his lungs. The werewolf was slinking forward, growling at him, and he couldn't breathe because the air'd been knocked right out of him, and Dean was alone, what if the werewolf-
"Get away from him."
Air finally came back into Sam's lungs, and he coughed as he and the werewolf turned to see Dean in the clearing. He had a handgun held steady, but the look on his face was pure panic. His eyes were locked on the werewolf, and Sam cursed and started pushing himself up. The werewolf snarled, Dean paled to an almost white and didn't shoot, and Sam dug for the backup piece he'd put in his jacket. He should've left Dean back at the hotel, instead of bringing him here to face what had to remind him of a frickin' hell hound-
A shot rang out, and the werewolf whined as it fell back. Another shot, followed by a third, and the werewolf hit the ground and didn't move.
The shots continued to be fired into the still body, though, and Sam finally managed to pull himself up. Dean was standing practically on top of the werewolf, his finger pressing the trigger in again and again and again until the clip was empty. There was a brief tussle as Sam fought for the gun, before it was pulled from Dean's shaky grasp. Dean inhaled sharply and stared down at the werewolf, his fingers still twitching as if he could fire off more bullets.
Sam might've had to watch Dean get torn apart, but the attackers had been invisible to him. They hadn't been to Dean.
He found that Dean was leaning against him, and leaned back a little, just to show that Dean wasn't alone. It had nothing to do with the fact that Dean was alive and breathing next to him, and he'd just now realized what a miracle it was. Not at all.
The door opened, Lilith laughed, Sam screamed, and the hound was on him. He could feel it tearing at his flesh even as it sank its teeth into his leg and yanked him off of the table. Claws dug viciously into his chest, digging down and into muscle. Teeth sank into his shoulder, claws turning him over to hold him immobile, unable to fight back.
All throughout it, Dean couldn't stop screaming. He was being eaten, torn apart, the flesh ripped from his body. Sam was begging and sobbing for it to stop, and god, Dean hoped it would, hoped someone would hear Sam, hear Dean, let it stop please-
Dean's eyes shot open, panting heavily. The light was on in the bathroom, door partially ajar. The front door was far behind him, and Sam between it and him. The room was quiet and calm, and it was everything Dean couldn't be. If anything, the stillness only amplified and quickened his already taxed heart, beating against his ribcage wildly.
The nausea rose suddenly and swiftly, and Dean closed his eyes, swallowed it down, and whimpered. He couldn't do this anymore. The nights without sleep, the sickness, the paralyzing fear that engulfed him every single time he dreamt of Hell or what had led him to it.
Sam was awake behind him, he was sure of it. He could easily call Sam over.
He didn't want to do it, couldn't do it. His big brother, crying out for help like a four year old lost in the night without his mom. He'd been there once, and he didn't want to be there again.
But the memories were overwhelming him, the jaws that had torn at him still there in front of his face, and his gut twisted, causing his panic to flare. He was a bundle of nerves, trying not to shake himself apart, and he didn't want to do this anymore. He couldn't do this anymore.
"Sammy?" he whispered with a gasp, swallowing hard as the nausea threatened to flare up. Suddenly he couldn't bear to be alone, and he turned to the left to find Sam, to beg him to help and not leave him alone.
But Sam was already there, sliding in next to Dean and wrapping his arms around Dean. Dean wound his fingers tightly in Sam's t-shirt, and couldn't help but think of how they'd reversed their original positions of twenty some odd years ago. Sam had his arm on Dean's shoulder, pulling him into a nest of safety that he knew nothing could breach. "I've got you, I'm right here, not going anywhere," Sam soothed and whispered, and Dean couldn't close his eyes yet. He wound up gazing at Sam, and Sam gazed right back. "You're gonna be okay," Sam told him, and Dean believed him.
His heart was settling, the nausea was all but gone, and he was beginning to honestly feel sleepy for the first time in weeks. Sam's weight was solid and soothing against him, still murmuring assurances, and it finally occurred to Dean that Sam was doing what he'd learned to do from Dean. How to be there for your frightened sibling and soothe away fears, how to protect them from something that couldn't be touched.
It was the mark of a big brother who'd done it right, and had passed the lesson on to a diligent pupil of a younger brother. Dean found himself not minding being protected, really. Not now that he knew.
"You know, that werewolf would've had me."
Dean glanced up sleepily at his brother. "But you showed up in time," Sam continued, voice quiet and sure. "Even at your worst, you still came through, still managed to save my ass. That sounds like my big brother to me."
That did sound like him, and Dean let himself breathe, let himself relax even more at that. He was still Dean, still the big brother, just...dealing with crap he'd never had to deal with before. He had Sam, though, and with him, they'd manage.
He let his eyes close at last, burning from fatigue and previous fear, and found no hounds waiting for him in the dark, no demons tearing him apart. Only soothing relief for his eyes, mind, and soul, and a little brother who refused to give up on him.