Dean's Inferno
K Hanna Korossy

He'd learned a lot about his brother in the past three years. Even during the four-plus months Dean had been gone, almost a year if you counted the trickster's little lesson. Much of it had been learned the hard way, in fights and hurt silences, through others' eyes and the small, trusting glimpses inside Dean occasionally offered. But Sam had learned.

Like when there was more comfort and support in just silently being there than in a sincere offer to talk. And how sometimes you could say more with a simple cup of coffee and a jelly donut than with all the sorrys and it's okays in the world.

Dean alternated between sipping the coffee and munching on the donut as Sam leaned against the car next to him, nursing his own bag of Cheetos as they idly watched a group of kids playing. It was some version of kickball, with rules seemingly known only to the participants. Sam's mouth curved at memories of the games he and Dean used to make up depending on what they found to play with.

"You remember Olieball?" Dean suddenly said, words slightly muffled by pastry.

Sam wasn't too surprised to find his brother's mind running on the same track. For all the secrets and disagreements between them those days, they were still brothers. "I remember you calling a touchdown when you landed in the neighbor's flower garden."

Dean huffed a laugh. "Hey, that was totally legit. I'd already made it around the house twice."

"Yeah, after tying my feet together with the hose."

A loose shrug. "No rule said I couldn't."

Which was true. Sam shook his head and ate another handful of neon-orange junk food.

There aren't words, Dean had said, every syllable carved into Sam's brain. There's no making it better. You wouldn't understand, and I could never make you understand. And, tacked on, an unspoken, And I wouldn't want you to.

Sam knew him well enough not to offer any platitudes, apologies, or arguments. They'd only make things worse, and, ultimately, Dean was right. But maybe his big brother didn't know him all that well if he thought Sam would leave it at that.

Oh yeah? Just watch me.

00000

Because he was Sam Winchester, he started with research.

Dean gave him a few sideways looks as Sam dragged him from library to library, but death apparently made you more indulgent. He teased Sam about being a geek, checked out the erotica and weapons sections, then wandered off to do whatever it was Dean did when he got bored. Frankly, Sam didn't want to know.

At least he wouldn't have to explain his choice of reading material.

There was no point in researching Hell. He'd done that enough the year before, and knew already there were precious few reliable accounts out there. Those who witnessed firsthand didn't usually return to talk about it. No, that wasn't what he—or Dean—needed. Instead, Sam detoured into the health section. Chronic Pain and You. Counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dealing with Rape.

He hid the books whenever Dean reappeared. Called hotlines and counseling centers to ask his questions while Dean was out getting food. Read in the bathroom in the middle of the night, until Dean's gasps brought him out. Of course, nothing dealt exactly with their situation. But like Winchesters always did, Sam adapted.

"We should go out and do some target practice," he offered one morning as Dean was lacing up his boots.

A pointed glance. "You getting rusty there, Sammy?"

Sam snorted. "Dude, we both got our asses handed to us by a cheerleader—"

"A thousand year-old witch cheerleader," Dean corrected with an upraised finger.

"—I think we could both use some practice."

"Yeah, okay," Dean grumbled.

But he kept shooting long after Sam got tired and sat down with a beer to watch. And that night he ate everything on his plate at dinner almost hungrily.

If Dean noticed that Sam was trying to be more patient after that, or had become more tactile than even was the norm for them, or made sure he was always there when Dean woke up, he didn't mention it. He slowly drank a little less and slept a little better, though, and Sam couldn't help think that was progress.

00000

The phone was answered in guarded tones. "Yes?"

Sam cleared his throat. Even though the way had been prepared for him, this was still uncomfortable at best. "Miles Staney? My name is Sam Winchester. I'm Bobby's friend."

There was a pause so long, he wasn't sure there would be an answer. Then, wearily, "You're the one who—?"

"No," he said quickly. "That was my brother. Dean. He, uh…he's been back about four months, just got his memories back a coupl'a weeks ago."

Another long pause. "'F you expect me to have all the answers or to make it better, kid, I gotta tell you, that ain't happening."

"I'm not," Sam said more quietly. "It's just…I don't know what he's going through." It hurt to admit it. "And I think he needs…y'know, someone who does. Just to…talk."

"Talk." The guy sounded as skeptical as Dean tended to, and Sam decided that was a good sign right there. A deep sigh. "Your brother want this?"

"He doesn't know yet, but I'll tell him. I just, uh…I wanted to make sure you…"

The answer was soft, as unguarded as he'd heard Staney so far. "I've been in Hell, kid. Nothing's gonna be worse than that."

He swallowed. "Thanks."

It was easier than he'd expected to get Dean to agree. He knew Dean, knew his brother's buttons, and a guy who'd come back from Hell as part of a crossroads deal and who could really use someone to talk to who knew what he'd been through…well, Dean had never been able to turn down someone in need. Even when it killed him to help. Sam saw the gallows look in his eyes as Dean climbed out of the Impala.

And maybe saw a little lightening when the passenger-side door creaked open almost four hours later.

"Did it help?" he asked, trying to be casual.

"Him or me?" Dean answered laconically, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, and that was that.

But borrowing Dean's phone the following week when his own died, Sam found Staney's number programmed into it, and that had to count for something.

00000

The fourth time in one night he woke his frantic brother from a nightmare, Sam started research of another kind.

When he found it, it wasn't blood magick, wasn't the soul-tainting level of ritual that Bobby would have strung him up for messing with. But it was serious, and permanent, and life-altering, and Sam walked around with a handwritten copy of it in his wallet for a week before he finally talked himself into starting to gather the ingredients.

That had been a little harder to slip past Dean; his brother hadn't come back from the dead any less sharp, and he knew as well as Sam about the kind of heavy mojo one could work with verbena and betony and Lethe's bramble. And there was only so much Sam could explain away.

Still, he wasn't prepared for the bleakness that darkened Dean's face as his brother stepped into the bathroom doorway, the wrinkled and worn spell held up in one hand. "Care to explain this, Sam?"

He spit out the toothpaste, rinsing to give himself a moment to gather his thoughts. All that came out, however, was, "What were you doing in my wallet?"

"Seriously? You're walking around with black magic in your pocket, and that's all you care about, what I was doing in your wallet?"

Sam dropped the towel and set his jaw.

Dean's eyebrows unexpectedly drew together, as if in pain. "Is it that bad?" he asked softly.

"What?" Sam startled. "No…"

Dean snorted in quiet disbelief. "Right. So you just looked up amnesia spells for kicks. It's got nothing to do with what you went through over the summer."

Sam blinked. "What I…? Oh, God," he groaned, irritation snuffed out. "It's not-it's not for me, Dean, I promise, okay? It was, uh…" He winced, scratching the back of his head. "…for you."

Dean's head reared back. "Me?" A different darkness gathered in his face. "Sam—"

"No, wait, just listen to me, okay? I wouldn't have done it without asking you first." He hadn't been sure of that until this moment, but looking his brother in the eye, Sam knew he couldn't have lived with it any other way. "I just…I wanted to make sure it was an option first before I…asked."

Dean stared at him a long time with some mix of incredulity, anger, and doubt. But he finally settled into an almost sad fondness. "Sammy…"

"Please, just…don't say you're okay, all right? Don't lie to protect me—I'm not eight anymore, Dean."

His brother's eyes were as soft as they had been out on that pier, when Dean had first admitted he remembered. "Look, I'm not gonna say this is…easy, okay?" He glanced at the paper, jaw muscle bunching. "But this isn't the way, man. Not losing a piece of myself. What happened, happened—it's part of who I am now. I don't want it gone, not like this."

Sam grimaced. "It wouldn't have to be all gone. You'd still remember you went, and it was bad, you just wouldn't have to remember…everything."

"Can you guarantee that?" Dean asked quietly. "You promise it wouldn't take any more? Not from when you were a kid, or what Dad taught us, or even why I made the deal? You willing to take that risk, Sam? Because I'm not." He tore the paper carefully in half, then quarters, then into as small pieces as he could, his steady gaze never leaving Sam's face.

Sam didn't make a move to stop him. He just stepped aside when Dean was done, watched his brother dump the shreds of paper and some very expensive herbs into the toilet, and flushed them himself.

Dean looked at him a moment, too many emotions there to sort through, then walked out.

Sam sank down on the closed toilet lid. Okay, that one was a bust.

He wasn't done yet.

00000

He stayed close to Dean, renewing in silence the daily promise of I'm here, and you're with me. Found him places that made good pie, a tape he didn't have, another jacket like the one the hellhound had ruined, bringing back his shiny treasures like a little magpie. Woke him from nightmares and eased him back to sleep without Dean even knowing it. Played the fool to make Dean laugh, and came to him with problems to make him feel needed. Tried hard not to think about Lilith, or the power that burned in his belly.

Dean's nightmares weren't going away, though, and too often Sam had caught him looking anguished or, worse, so empty when he didn't think Sam could see him. He wasn't getting better, at least not fast enough.

Sam chewed his nails down to the quick as he debated his one final plan.

His opportunity came sooner than expected, when Dean expressed interest one evening in a bar down the street. He didn't go out nearly as much as he used to, more tired, more weary than before, and Sam willingly gave his blessing. He propped himself up on his bed with a new Agatha Christie, and smiled an innocent goodbye as Dean left.

He read one chapter, attention skipping between the words and should I? Then he threw it aside and stood up.

"Castiel."

Silence.

Sam suddenly felt a little foolish. It wasn't like the angels were at their beck and call, and they didn't especially like him anyway. But he had no other options left. "Castiel," he repeated, "please. It's about Dean."

"I am not used to being summoned."

Sam spun at the quiet voice, spying the trenchcoated figure in the corner, and cringed. Even with his unfavorable first impression of angels, some part of him still stood in awe. "Yeah, I'm…sorry about that, but I need your help." And told him why.

Castiel stepped forward, movements casual, graceful. "Your brother doesn't know what you plan."

Sam resisted stuffing his hands into his pockets. "Uh, no. He doesn't."

"Dean would not approve of this."

The corner of Sam's mouth pulled up. "Dean doesn't think anyone should sacrifice for him. He's wrong."

The angel's eyebrow went up. "You realize what you're…sacrificing?"

Sam faltered, just a little. "I'm not…I'm not asking for the full experience. I really don't want to stay. Just…a taste. Just so we have some common point of reference. You can…you can do it, right?"

Castiel stared at him with furrowed brow, and Sam found himself fidgeting the way few besides his father had ever been able to make him. Then the angel said quietly, "If that is what you want."

Before Sam had a chance to say, yeah, it was, or to brace himself or anything, Castiel's warm fingers brushed his forehead.

The next moment, he was there.

And it was terrible.

And without description.

And without relief or hope or—

He was gasping on the motel bed some time later, nose still filled with the stench of sulfur, phantom pain curling him into a ball. Some part of his mind realized that this was why Dean had returned without his memories, because if he'd been yanked back into his grave whole, he'd never have found the strength to crawl out of it. It was all Sam could do to stop screaming.

The next thing he knew, familiar cool hands were lifting his burning face, brushing his hair back, worriedly patting down his body. A glass of cold water nudged his lips, and he drained it desperately, then another.

His senses slowly settled from their overload, leaving him panting but no longer blind and deaf. He could hear the rising worry in Dean's questions, see the panic in his brother's eyes.

He grabbed Dean's hand, stilling the older man completely.

"We c-can talk. Now. Please. I-I get it."

Dean's bewildered look deepened, but he snagged a chair with his foot and pulled it up to Sam's bed. Listening, attentive, never able to turn down someone in need, especially if it was his brother.

Sam knew exactly how he felt.

The End