Chapter 3

xxxx

They stayed in the panic room almost four days.

The experience this time was nothing like it had been the week before, and Sam wasn't sure why. None of them were.

There'd been withdrawal, but the symptoms had been significantly less severe – mostly just nausea, the shakes. There'd been one aborted hallucination of Dean that had been stopped by his brother's actual presence beside him, hand on his knee, careful "Sam?" breaking through, dissipating the angry, hostile version of his brother scowling down at him.

The ache, the want, hadn't gone away completely, but Sam felt like he had a handle on it. And he'd told Dean as much. He wasn't going to hide or pretend any more.

When they'd made it through 24 hours of "normal," Dean had called for Bobby.

"Go take a shower, Sam," Dean said as the door swung open. "You stink."

Sam allowed his lips to twitch upward as he edged past his brother and Bobby. "You're not exactly a bouquet of roses yourself, man," he responded. The enforced time together had eased some of the awkwardness between them. Though nowhere near all of it.

"Yeah, yeah," Dean muttered. "Go."

"Sam?" Bobby's voice forced Sam to make eye contact with the older man. He braced for whatever restriction or censure was coming. But Bobby just said, "I put clean clothes on you boys' beds this morning."

Swallowing heavily, Sam nodded. "Thanks," he managed.

"Yeah. Well. Don't get used to it. I ain't'cher maid."

Sam gave Bobby a brief smile and made his way slowly upstairs, aware of the low conversation following behind him. But he forced himself not to think about what was being said. Instead he gathered clothes and kit and towel. Turned on the water and stood under the spray, trying to keep his mind empty and not think about the "what next."

Bobby had kept them apprised of what was going on in the world while he and Dean had been confined. There'd been no indication that anyone had figured out that they were at Bobby's, and there didn't appear to be any big signs that something catastrophic had happened on Lucifer's release. Sam couldn't decide if that was something to worry about or just to be expected. Because if Sam had learned anything from his experience with Ruby it was that demons could be subtle. And that big gestures weren't necessarily the most effective means of drawing humans into demonic plans.

Sam dried off and got dressed. It felt surprisingly good simply to be clean again, and he felt a surge of gratefulness that had tears pricking at his eyes.

Sam pressed finger tips against closed lids, trying to stop from falling apart one more time. Over the last several days he'd wavered between the odd numbness he'd experienced directly after Lucifer's escape and an embarrassing fragility that had him ping-ponging between equally inappropriate reactions to whatever was happening around him.

But as much as Sam hated the emotional rollercoaster, it was making him realize how little he'd actually felt over the last months. Even when Dean had suddenly been returned to him, he recognized now that his reaction had not been normal for him. Yes, there'd been an initial jolt of relief, joy, confusion. But it hadn't lasted. And what he'd settled into had been a cold annoyance that Dean was there to frustrate and question his plans. He'd told himself it was banked rage, held in check—controlled—emotions tamped down until he could execute revenge on Lilith.

But in reality it had been nothing.

Sam shuddered when he thought about the times he'd snuck out even in those first days and weeks of Dean's return, leaving his shattered, alivealivealive brother alone and unprotected in whatever motel room they were staying in.

He'd told himself (and Ruby and Castiel) that Dean was weak, that his brother couldn't do what needed to be done. But Sam had felt no compassion for that weakness. Only impatience and an awful kind of superiority that finally he would be the one who would be able to make things right. He'd used Dean's vulnerability as an excuse to justify his actions. But for all his telling himself he was protecting his brother, he'd never really done that. Instead he had repeatedly left Dean on his own to deal with the fallout from his time in Hell in whatever way he could manage.

Who was that person? Sam wondered, in a haze. That detached, uninvolved guy who had put an iPod in the Impala and sat through Indiana Jones and asked, with more curiosity than care, what Hell had been like?

Whoever he had been, Sam could see now that even from the beginning, his dealings with Ruby had been changing him, hardening him, preparing him. Even before he'd taken that final step off the cliff into drinking demon blood, he'd been altered by each of the "little" choices he'd made along the path Ruby had led him down.

Sam was terrified that there was no going back. That was what Dean had said, there's no going back.

But in a strange way that fear, the despair that threatened at the thought of that being true, comforted Sam. Because maybe the fact that he could feel meant he was redeemable. That he wasn't beyond help, that he might still be capable of returning to at least some version of himself. Some form of "Sam" that his brother would forgive and trust and love again.

Sam had to admit that there was a tempting numbness in the blanket of nothing that came over him from time to time now. He didn't want that, though. Sam knew he needed to figure out a way to function somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. But at the moment that particular life-skill was evading him completely.

"Sammy?"

Dean had entered the room and was rifling around his duffle for something, giving Sam a questioning look as he turned to shuffle through the stack of clothes Bobby had left on his bed.

"Don't call me that," Sam said without thinking.

Dean straightened in surprise, confusion on his face at the sharpness in Sam's tone.

"Ru- she called me that," Sam explained hoarsely. I gave her that. I let her… He cleared his throat. "Just. Don't. Please."

Dean's face went blank as Sam stammered out his explanation, uncertainty giving way to a flash of anger and then weary resignation before settling into unaffected. "Sure," Dean muttered. "Whatever."

Sam's heart hurt at the expression on his brother's face, knowing full well what that careful façade really meant—hurt and exhaustion and an unwillingness to engage, to fight. Giving up.

Dean turned to go, then stopped. He turned around.

"You know what?" Dean said evenly. "No."

Sam blinked.

Dean took a step forward, and Sam fell back slightly in spite of himself, startled.

"'Sammy' is mine," Dean said. "And she can't have it."

The air left Sam's lungs in a rush. "Dean," he whispered.

"No. I don't care what that skank called you. What you let her call you when you were…" Dean broke off. A muscle jumped in his jaw as he struggled for control. "'Sammy' belongs to me," he went on. "And you don't get to give that away."

Sam could only stare.

"You got it?" Dean glowered.

Sam swallowed. "Yeah," he managed.

"Good," Dean snapped and stomped out.

xxxx

After Dean was gone, Sam sat down on the bed struggling to figure out what was going on with his brother. They hadn't spoken much in the panic room beyond surfacey checking-in kinds of questions or comments, testing things between themselves, trying to get their bearings with one another again. And they definitely hadn't touched on the specifics of what had happened either between them or with Ruby. But the discrepancy between the message Dean had left on Sam's voicemail just days before and how Dean was currently treating him continued to unsettle Sam, leaving him on edge and confused.

Sam had heard the anger and the bitterness in that call. The determination in Dean's "You're a monster" and "There's no going back."

Where was that now? That harsh bite of rage and contempt?

In the last several days there had only been careful wariness and a detached, but strangely gentle, solicitousness. The lack of any kind of recrimination from Dean in light of that last message was incredibly unsettling.

Sam got up, casting around for the jeans he'd shed in preparation for his shower. When he found them where they'd been dropped in the corner, he patted the denim down in a search for his phone. Finding it in his front pocket, he pulled it out. Sam bit his lip, staring down at the innocent-seeming gadget. Finally, he pushed the appropriate button and put the phone to his ear.

"First saved message."

Sam closed his eyes, bracing for what was coming.

The beep sounded, and then there was a moment of dead air. "Hey, it's m-me." Dean's voice came across gruffly and hesitantly. "Uh," Dean cleared his throat, "Look I'll just get right to it. I'm still pissed. And I owe you a serious beat-down… but…." There was a long pause. "I shouldn't have said what I said. I'm not Dad." There was another silence. "We're brothers, you know, we're family and, uh, no matter how bad it gets that doesn't change." Beat. "Sammy, I'm sor—" The message ended.

Sam couldn't breathe.

He listened to the message again.

Hey, it's m-me…

Dazedly, he checked the information on the message. Date and time matched with when he'd gotten the message notification. He listened again.

Hey, …

"You miss a lot of calls over the last few days?" Dean asked. Careful tease, testing. He had his jeans on, but no shirt, towel around his shoulders. "Sam?" The tone changed when he noticed his brother's face.

Wordlessly Sam held the phone out. With a frown Dean took it, putting it to his ear. His eyes went swiftly to Sam when the message started. He lowered his hand slowly when it was over.

"Sam?" he asked again.

"Is that…?" Sam could barely speak around the sand in his throat. "Is that… you? Did you… leave that? For me. After?" Sam wasn't sure he was making much sense.

Extending the phone back to Sam, Dean nodded, watching closely. "Yeah."

Numbly, Sam nodded. "Oh."

"Sam?" Dean prodded when Sam didn't say anything else.

Sam shook himself. "I just… That's not… That's not what I heard when I … listened … the first time."

Sam closed his eyes.

"I was having second thoughts. After our fight. After…" I almost killed you. After I choked you and told you you didn't know me… "And I… I got the message and I… wanted … to listen… to…" hear your voice, to see if you were calling to make up, like you always do, like you've always done, taking the first step to make things better, to… "But I was afraid…" that this time it was too much, that you were going to…

"Ruby told me to listen." What are you, a 12-year-old girl? Just play it already. Sam rubbed a hand over his eyes and down his face. "God, I've been such a moron." He sat back down on the end of his bed.

She'd pressed every button he had when she came at him the second time after Dean had died. She'd implemented a strategy that had taken into account every fear and insecurity he'd ever had. This time she hadn't questioned his intelligence or his morals, but had played to them. Had let him think he was in charge, talked sympathetically about Dean, told Sam he was special, the only one… She'd given him the feeling that he was in control, had talked about the greater "good," said he was being self-sacrificing—protecting Dean and the world…. Given him a taste of power that had…. He shuddered. Even now he wanted it.

"What did you hear?" Dean's question broke into Sam's thoughts. He was seated on the end of his own bed.

Sam studied his clasped hands.

"Sammy."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut, wiping in frustration at the wetness that escaped. "You…" Shook his head. No, not Dean. "The message… It said you were done trying to save me. That I wasn't me anymore and that there was no going back."

He looked up at Dean. "And when I thought…."

Dean nodded when Sam didn't finish. "That was when you went ahead," he said.

"Yeah," Sam whispered. "Ruby must've screwed with the message. God, Dean…."

"Maybe," Dean said quietly. "Or the angels…"

Sam looked at Dean in surprise.

"Zachariah said they wanted you to kill Lilith and break the last seal." He paused. "I got enough of a signal that I could call and leave that message. But I couldn't ever get another one. Maybe they let me make the call so they could change it…" He shrugged.

"Dean…"

"Don't, Sam, OK? Let's…" He trailed off, not looking at Sam, not looking at anything.

Sam thought he'd never seen Dean look so defeated. And he realized he'd spent most of his life watching his brother be beaten down in one way or another. Hell hadn't changed that. It had only accelerated the process. And done it so well that it had taken Dean longer than Sam was used to to get on his feet again. Hell hadn't made Dean weak, hadn't defeated him. It had just taken so much out of him he hadn't been able to fake it with Sam the way he usually did. At least, not successfully.

"Dean," Sam tried again.

"Sam," Dean interrupted him again.

No," Sam said. He needed to do this. Dean needed to hear this. "Please let me say this, OK? I won't say it again. I promise." Even with that Sam could tell that Dean didn't want to hear it. So he pulled out the big guns. "I need to do this."

Dean's shoulders bowed in acceptance. "Fine," he huffed

Sam drew in a breath, gathering himself. "I'm sorry," he said, felt an unexpected confidence in doing this. "Not just for… the Lucifer thing. But for the way things have been between us… since you got back. I'm sorry for everything I said…." In spite himself, Sam's voice trembled. "You're the strongest person I know, and you know me better than anyone ever has or ever will." He continued his examination of his hands. "I missed you so much when you died." He paused. Then whispered, "And I was so mad. That you'd brought me back and then left me. That you'd managed to save me, and I couldn't do the same thing for you. I… When I hooked up with Ruby I thought it was the only way to… show that, to get revenge for what Lilith had done to you. I knew… I knew I had compromised… everything, everything you had ever taught me or stood for, but I… I didn't care. I just wanted her dead." He cleared his throat. "But then. Then you showed up. And you were alive and an angel had raised you up for some purpose God had for you. While I'd been working with a demon," he said bitterly. "And I couldn't…. I just couldn't admit that I'd screwed up. I wanted to be right. For once, I wanted to be the one who knew what he was doing, who could fix something. Not the stupid little brother who wasn't ever good enough."

"Sammy."

But Sam was on a roll, and he wasn't going to stop. He shook his head, plowing on, "More than anything I'm sorry I chose her over you. That I was so stupid…"

"Stop." Dean's bark cut straight into Sam's rambling , desperate apology. He stood abruptly, pacing away from their beds.

"No, Dean, please. I need…," Sam realized suddenly that he was shaking. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"Stop," Dean own desperation bled through his voice.

But Sam couldn't. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm…" Sam could hear the words falling out of his mouth, but was helpless to halt the outpouring of remorse and regret. He grabbed at his knees, fingers curling and uncurling in rhythm with his body as he rocked back and forth. "I'm sorry…."

Suddenly Dean was crouched in front of him, hands on top of Sam's, gripping hard, stopping the convulsive clutching.

"Sammy, stop. It's OK, it's OK."

Sam was still shaking his head in denial. "I…"

"Sam. Stop." One of Dean's hands came off Sam's knee and took hold of his chin, stilling the back and forth motion. "Stop."

Sam couldn't disobey.

"Look at me," Dean went on.

Sam opened his eyes, lips parting to speak.

"Don't," Dean said firmly, giving Sam a quick shake. "Listen to me, OK? Sam, I need you to listen to me." His voice was gentle, but implacable, and Sam nodded as best he could in Dean's tight grip.

"Good." Carefully, watching his brother closely, Dean released Sam's chin and rested his palm lightly on Sam's knee. He drew in a shuddering breath and cleared his throat. "I forgive you, Sam. I do."

Sam felt more damn tears start down his cheeks. It couldn't be that easy. It couldn't. He started to apologize again. Just to make….

"No," Dean said. "You said you were sorry. I said I forgive you. We're done." He gave his brother a mock-stern stare. "You got it?"

Sam blinked wearily, still unsure. But he nodded. Because that was what Dean seemed to want.

Dean gave a sigh that was pure relief. "Good. Now it's my turn."

And Sam started to shake his head. No.

Dean's fingers gripped Sam's face again. Yes.

"Sam, you got to say what you wanted to say. Let me say what I need to say," Dean said quietly.

Eyes on his brother's, Sam nodded his agreement.

Dean let him go. He unfolded slowly from his crouch on the floor, groaning somewhat melodramatically when his knees cracked, and sat down next to Sam on the bed.

"I'm sorry, too," he offered softly. "I'm sorry that I left you, that I put you in the position I did. I'm sorry that when I got back I was so caught up in my own crap that all I could do was yell at you and hit you when you wouldn't do what I wanted you to do."

"Dean…"

"Don't, Sam. OK? I just… I don't want to play some messed up game of "Who fucked up more," with you, alright? We both had our part in what went down," he said heavily. "I forgave you." He turned and looked at Sam. There was a sadness and a longing in Dean's eyes that cut Sam to the quick. "Will you forgive me?"

Swallowing, Sam nodded. "Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah."

Dean sniffed and wiped his face against his shoulder. "OK," he said hoarsely. Nodded. "OK."

After a minute, Dean stood, reaching out a hand to grip Sam's shoulder firmly, slid it down to rest on his brother's arm.

"Well, I guess since the two of us bookended those goddamn seals, maybe we should go see what we can do about fixing this whole apocalypse thing."

Sam looked up at his brother, the solidity of Dean's hand warm against his bicep, the steadiness in Dean's quick smile warm against his heart. He stood.

"Yeah," he agreed softly. "Maybe we should."

End.

xxxx