A/N: So this is it. And it's out just in time before Kripke has his way and S5 premieres. Hopefully the resolution works--I admit, the hardest part of this was writing the ending, which, I am glad to say is actually somewhat hopeful--or at least intended to be. Thanks again to geminigrl11 and sendintheclowns and for everyone who took the time to read and review. I hope it's been a good ride for everyone :)
Where did I go wrong, I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness
And I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life
How to save a life
-from "How to Save a Life" by the Fray
He was greeted by sunlight, sharp and blinding. It took a moment for him to focus, and this time, it was a place he didn't recognize.
A city street. Quiet and laid back. There were couples eating in an open air cafe across the street.
Squinting, Dean looked down the street, and was immediately greeted with a lanky figure walking toward him.
His brother's gait was obvious, but it was hard to place where they were. Sam's hair was short and his face was still boyish. He had his height but not his bulk, and given the relaxed, easy going smile on his face, Dean could make the logical guess. "Dude, we've been here," Dean said, with a sigh of exasperation. "Come on. Palo Alto. Again?"
Sam didn't seem to be listening to him, though.
His brother paused, looking at the storefront Dean was standing by. With a deep breath, Sam opened the door and went inside.
Dean looked at the name: Palo Alto Fine Jewelry.
It was enough of a surprise to make Dean stop, something tugging at his gut. He could remember the Yellow-Eyed Demons taunts--vaguely. Ring shopping.
Sam was preparing to propose to Jessica.
Seeing Sam with Jess had been one thing. Seeing Sam ring shop? Made Dean proud and brokenhearted all at once.
This had been the future Sam had wanted for himself. This had been what Sam had built for himself. And to think of his brother planning this and knowing how it would end--it was almost more than Dean could take.
He didn't want to go in. He didn't want to see it. He didn't think he could handle it.
He had no choice.
With a sigh, he stepped forward. Opening the door, bells tinkled. Dean smiled at one of the employees and made his way over toward Sam.
His brother was standing at the counter, holding a ring. This time, Sam did look up. His eyes were young and bright and so innocent that Dean could not doubt that this Sam was real.
"Dean. I've been looking for diamonds," Sam said, a grin on his face. "I don't have the money for, not yet. I've been working three extra jobs, saving every cent. I had to give up coffee and I thought Jess would kill me when I got rid of cable. But it's worth it." He looked at the ring in his hand. "It's so worth it, don't you think?"
He looked up at Dean, holding out the ring again.
Dean looked at it, the sunlight catching, sparkling magnificently. It was beautiful, there was no doubt. Dean didn't have to know Jess to know that she would love it. Pure and simple, clean and elegant: it was the epitome of grace and beauty and value.
"Of course," Dean said, and the emotion suddenly took him. Seeing Sam here, seeing how much hope he had. In all of Sam's other incarnations, Dean had never seen him look like this. So happy, so peaceful. Hopeful.
And then Dean remembered the look on Sam's face when Jessica burned over his head, and it hurt to think of that hope being squelched.
Sam looked back at the ring, eyes wide with wonder. "They say that rings have inherent value," he said. "That the diamond is perfect, worth so much for what it is, and when given in love--well, that is the best combination."
Dean took a measured breath, feeling the urge to cry. "Yeah, Sam," Dean said. "It is."
Then Sam looked at him, and Sam wasn't twenty-two anymore, he was ageless, just like before. "Who am I, Dean?"
There was that question again. The one he was asked again and again and again.
But what was the answer? What did Sam want to hear?
Looking at his brother, looking at the hope on his face, the simple need, Dean remembered the day Sam was born, the feeling of holding him and knowing this was his responsibility. He remembered the way it felt to carry Sam out of the house when he was four years old. He remembered the way it felt to sell his soul for Sam's life.
There was only one answer he could give: "You're my brother, Sammy. You're my brother."
Sam thought about that for a moment. He took an even breath, looking at the ring, and then looking at his brother again. "And what is that worth?"
"It's worth getting out of here," Dean said. "Don't you think? We should blow this joint, just you and me. You don't belong here."
"But I don't belong anywhere," Sam said. "I tried to fit in here. I tried to fit in with Jess. I tried to fit in with you and Dad, I tried to fit in at school. I tried to fit into hunting, into being the good son, the good brother, and I failed. I don't know how to not fail again."
"You didn't fail," Dean said, trying to smile. "You just...got a little turned around."
"I failed you. I failed dad. I failed Jess," Sam said, and he looked at the ring again. He put it back on the counter and smiled sadly. "I don't even have enough money for this ring. I almost got there, but I didn't quite. I failed at that, too. I can't be a son, a lover, a brother until I can be myself. I need inherent value, Dean. Not yours. You don't have enough for me. No one has enough for me."
"Sammy," Dean said, and he wanted to make a joke. He wanted to lighten the mood, to tell his brother he was wrong.
But in some ways, Sam wasn't wrong. The failures were clear. Every Sam he met, from the addict to the little boy, was created by failure. Lived it, breathed it, existed in it. From being left out of his mother's memory to not being a good enough hunter to getting kicked out to watching Jessica die. All of it. Their dad's death. The big secret. Dying in Cold Oak. Failing to save Dean from Hell. Killing Lilith only to bring on the end of the world.
Sam had failed. Again and again and again and again. And Dean hadn't seen it. Hadn't cared. Had promised to make it better or hated Sam for it. Because Sam was his brother, simple as that. Sam was John's son, Jessica's lover, Dean's brother, Ruby's bitch, but maybe that was the problem. Maybe that was the failure that mattered the most.
Sam looked at him. "I'm sorry, but you're going to fail at this, too," he said.
Dean cocked his head. "What?"
And the scene flashed out.
This time, Dean was ready for the black-eyed freak.
Without fail, that Sam was standing there, arms crossed over his chest, a small smirk playing on his lips.
"You getting it yet?"
"Getting what?" Dean said, narrowing his eyes at him. This was getting old--redundant and repetitive and pointless. "You're just screwing with me."
Sam shook his head, feigning innocence. "I'm trying to help."
"Oh, whatever," Dean said. "You're just dragging me through memories to see how long it takes before I freak out on you. Is that how you get your kicks?"
"You're really good at making this all about you."
"What else is it about?"
"Maybe about us," Sam said. "Sam. You know, the brother you came in here to save."
"So what's with the magic mystery tour, then? Why not just let me talk to my brother so we can blow this joint?"
"This joint is our consciousness. If we blow it, then we're dead. Which I thought was what you wanted to avoid."
Dean groaned. "I don't understand what you think I'm going to do. They're all nuts. Each Sam after the next."
Sam shrugged. "What? You want an apology for the sad state of our mind? Emotional trauma, man. Surely you can relate."
Dean forced himself to stay calm. As much as he wanted to attack this freak, he had no one else even remotely sane to deal with in here. Whether this was Sam or a version of Sam or something else entirely, this was his ticket out. "Just tell me what I'm supposed to do," he said slowly and purposefully."
"We're trying," Sam said.
"How?" Dean demanded.
"Put it together, Dean," Sam said. "Think about what you've seen. You don't need to go to college to have basic reasoning skills. I know you can figure this out. At least, the rest of them seem to think so."
"Figure what out?" Dean snapped. "How to get Sam out? Because every time I try to talk to Sam, we keep coming back to the same thing."
"Exactly," Sam said.
"Hate to break it to you, but I didn't come here for a self-help lesson."
"Then why did you come here again?" Sam asked, with a tilt of his head.
"To save Sam's life!" Dean exploded. He ran a hand through his hair turning away.
"But what about our soul?" Sam shot back. He stepped closer, slipping around Dean and looking down to meet his eyes. "What about our soul?"
"What about it?" Dean asked, more than a little frustrated. "You think I can fix this?"
"What's the point of saving our life if you don't even want to touch what matters?"
Dean made a face. "What, like you?"
Sam's jaw clenched, his eyes darkening a little reflexively. "I'm part of this whether you want to admit it or not."
"I'll choose not."
"What about the rest of them, then?" Sam asked. "What about them?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "Who are they and what are they worth, right?" he said. "The same damn questions, every Sam I meet."
"Oh, come on, Dean," Sam said, shaking his head. "We're logical, right down to our little baby self. We're showing you this stuff for a reason."
"What reason? To drive me insane? To show me how much of a freak Sam really is?"
Sam gave him a bitter smile. "It's not all about you."
"Then tell me what you want."
Sam rolled his eyes. "That Stanford version is about as obvious as they come," he said. "I was sure you'd figure that one out."
"Figure what out."
"Inherent value, Dean," Sam said with a huff of exasperation. "Inherent value given in love. A diamond is worth something in and of itself. Devoid of context, it has unspeakable worth. And when it is packaged and given in love, as a perfect gift, then it is priceless."
"So think of the opposite," Sam said. "Something worth nothing in and of itself, something conceived of hate and pain and fear."
Dean just shook his head. Sam was speaking in riddles, and this head trip was more than he could take. "I don't understand."
"You do understand," Sam said and his eyes went dark as he stepped closer. "Because you were there, at the beginning. You were there. You know how this began." Sam paused, tilting his head, stepping back. "Or do you need a reminder there, kiddo?"
At that, Sam's eyes went yellow and his smile turned feral.
Dean gasped, his hackles raised, but he had no means to fight this, nothing he could do.
"You're pretty lucky," Sam continued. "When your mommy and daddy made you, it was all love, baby. Two people, coming together. And your mother was so happy when she found out she was going to have you. Your dad, he bought her the entire house. They couldn't afford it and, let me tell you, it was a piece of junk. He spent every free minute renovating it and they picked out all the things in your nursery so it was just right. They took every class, they read all the books. They printed out little birth announcements to tell everyone how proud they were."
Dean couldn't be sure how he knew, couldn't totally understand how this was Sam, how this was in Sam, but he couldn't doubt its validity. Because he knew it, he knew it with the love and joy he remembered of his early years. He knew it with every fiber of his being from the four best years of his life.
"Do you want to know what your mother did when she found out she was pregnant with Sam? She cried, Dean, and not those tears of happiness. Oh no. She cried because she knew. She was a smart woman and she knew about deals and she knew about the price they carried. And she knew that there was no way she should be pregnant, not with the birth control and the condoms she made sure they used. Because she didn't need another baby. She didn't want another baby. She had you, and, more than that, she knew she couldn't risk a baby then. Too bad for her that the pill doesn't protect against demon interference."
Dean trembled. It wasn't true. It wasn't.
"Oh, don't give me that," Sam said shaking his head, yellow eyes boring into Dean's skull. "Sammy's all Winchester, don't worry. But your mother made a deal, you see. And it defied Heaven and Earth, so you'd better believe that human intervention wasn't going to stop it. When little Sammy was born, she held him in her arms and prayed that he would die. Prayed that we would never find out what the cost was for her weakness. Your mother, though, never was very lucky. That's where poor Sammy gets that from."
"Shut up," Dean said, his voice strained and low. This was his family tragedy, only worse, so much worse, even worse than seeing his mother make the deal, seeing her sell Sam out before he even existed. "Shut up."
"You're the one who said it, though," Sam continued with a look of feigned innocent on his face. "That maybe we never were brothers. That I was a monster from the beginning. I may not have had demon blood until I was six months old, but I was damned before I was born. I was created for death and destruction. My inherent value is dependent on the job Hell laid out for me. I was never wanted. I was loved as an afterthought. The world would have been better off without me." He quirked a smile. "Too bad the world never had anything to say about it."
At that, Dean lunged, striking desperately at the thing pretending to be his brother.
The fake Sam just laughed as Dean hit nothing but air. "It's my head," he said from behind Dean. Dean spun, looking at the yellow eyed version of his brother. "You think you have any power? This is the one place where I'm actually free."
"Get out of my brother," Dean told him vehemently.
"But I am your brother, no matter how much you or Sammy boy doesn't want to admit. I have been here since he was six months old. I didn't choose it, but here I am. Sam tries so hard to keep me in check. It takes all of him to keep me under wraps. I don't think you get that, Dean. What it's like to have a monster living in you. Sam may have created the black-eyed guy, but he's weak--sort of a pathetic knockoff that's all good intentioned and screwed up in the head. Me? I'm the mastermind behind it all. I'm the one that can go through all the rest and bring them to their knees. I'm just looking for my opening, and thanks to you, I think I might have finally found it."
It wasn't real. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real. "You are not my brother."
"No?" Sam asked. Then he stepped closer, holding Dean's gaze. The pull was irresistible, and Dean couldn't look away, no matter how much he wanted to. And he really wanted to. Wanted to close his eyes to this nightmare once and for all. "Then tell me, who am I?"
"You're the yellow-eyed son of a bitch that started all this," Dean said.
Sam frowned. "I thought I was your brother, Dean," he said.
"You could never be my brother."
Sam made a noise in the back of the throat and brought his eyebrows together in a facsimile of regret. "I'm afraid you really can't have one without the other," he said.
"I should kill you," Dean seethed, because this was the monster Castiel had warned him about. This was the abomination that Uriel had so hated. This was the evil that Zachariah had harkened to. Maybe it had been there all along, maybe it had developed over time. Maybe a damned demon had highjacked Sam's body. Maybe the blood had twisted some part of his little brother's soul. Dean didn't know, didn't want to find out. He just wanted to kill it. If he could kill this, maybe he could still save Sam.
Sam grinned. "Hey, and that's something that the rest of them agree with. We don't deserve to live. Inherent value, remember, Dean? Inherent value, given in love should be cherished forever. The opposite should be forgotten. Neglected. Destroyed. Just like us."
It was a jump in logic Dean hadn't been expecting, and that he hardly knew how to follow.
Sam stepped back, hands out. "So do it," he said. "Do it."
And suddenly, there was a gun in his hands and all he had to do was pull the trigger. Dean looked at it in disbelief, then looked back at Sam. His eyes were glowing now, deep and bright in the blackness of Sam's mind. It was so evil, so wrong, and it would just take one bullet...
"Don't look so surprised," Sam said. "You've had it in you all along. You've always thought I was the special one, when really it was you all along. You're the one who can do this. You can destroy what's evil."
God had work for him to do. To stop Lucifer. To stop the Apocalypse. He had failed in stopping Sam before. And he had to wonder, if he'd had this choice then, if he'd had a gun and no other choice, could he have pulled the trigger? To stop all this? To stop the Apocalypse, to stop Sam, to stop this endless take, take, take of brotherhood?
"Come on, big brother," Sam mocked. "Don't disappointment me now. Follow that order. Be the hero Heaven meant for you to be. Save the world and start by eliminating me."
He was right. He was destined to this, to save the world. Maybe he should have realized this years ago, when his father had died, but he'd never had the guts. He'd traded his soul for Sam at Cold Oak and it had been the worst decision of either of their lives. Maybe he could make this right, though. Eradicate the evil in Sam, once and for all. Kill the source, kill the thing that made Sam evil, and life could go on, better than it was before.
"You wanted to let me die before," Sam said, and he was right. Sam shouldn't have known, but Sam did. Sam knew everything, he knew the secrets Dean tried to keep, the feelings he tried to deny. "You wish you would have left me for dead at Cold Oak. Sparing me is your only regret. Because I'm the same demon that ruined your life, that took everything from you. This is only justice, in the end. Only right."
Sam's logic, as usual, was flawless. Dean had no counter arguments. There was no reason to let this Sam live. Dean couldn't let this part of his brother exist with all the rest. It was too much of a threat, and there had been too much pain--he had had too much pain. His entire life, his mother, his father, himself--
"Do it!" Sam screamed.
The tension built and the inevitability struck him, washing over Dean hot and cold all at once. Kill him or save him, at least he'll die human, if he ever was my brother--
Dean pulled the trigger.
The bullet hit Sam straight in the heart, and Sam staggered. For a long second, it was silent, before blood started seeping out, staining his shirt. Sam looked down in wonder, wide-eyed. Then he laughed. "You did it," he said, and there was amusement and there was pain and there was relief. "You finally did it."
Then, to Dean's horror, Sam looked back at him and he was twenty-two again, eyes clear and his face young. "I've been waiting for this," this Sam continued.
Sam morphed again, younger still until he was eighteen, lanky and bruised and scared but ready. "For a very long time."
It was only a second before Sam changed again, to fourteen, to eight, to five, until the puppy dog eyes were looking up at him. When Sam spoke, it was in a child's voice, clear and grateful. "Thank you," he said. "Maybe it'll finally be safe now. And this time, you can totally have the prize."
Just like that, Sam collapsed, the small body limp in the darkness.
On instinct, Dean rushed forward. He had only wanted to kill the one, the yellow-eyed Sam. Maybe the black-eyed one. This wasn't what he had intended--this wasn't it at all--this couldn't be happening.
On his knees, he scooped the young child up, pulling him close. "Sammy," he said. "Sammy, no."
Sam's eyes cracked open, and there was blood on his teeth when smiled. "You can't fight what's inside you," he said. "We don't like to admit it, but we're all connected. Where one goes, we all go. This is why we've worked so hard to separate ourselves. It's to keep the world safe. But it's hard, Dean. It's so very hard. And we're sorry this duty fell to you. We're so very sorry, but it's over now. It's over, and now you can rest."
The child's eyes went black, then yellow, then stopped seeing altogether.
Sam was gone.
All of them. Yellow eyes, black eyes, college Sam, teenage Sam, child Sam. Gone. Dean had only shot to kill the one, and had taken them all as a consequence.
He shook his head. "No," he said. "No, no, no."
Because this wasn't what he wanted. This wasn't what he intended. This wasn't worth it. Dean wanted his brother and if he had to take the good with the bad, the maybe that was an okay price to pay after all.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, cradling the child closer. "Sammy, I'm so sorry."
He was crying then, holding the boy close, and wondering how he had forgotten this. How he had forgotten what Sam meant to him. Not as an object to be protected, not even as his brother, but as Sam.
And he thought about what he would give to get a second chance.
But the child in his arms was still limp, and Dean closed his eyes to it all.
When he opened his eyes, the child was gone. The black room was gone. He was back in the hospital room.
He startled to awareness, jumping out of his chair, tense and ready. He hadn't found the door, but maybe it had found him. Maybe he'd been kicked out. If Sam were waking up, or if Sam were--
He remembered the blood. He remembered his bullet.
Swallowing, he looked to his brother who was still on the bed. Unmoving and pale, the tube was still taped to his face and the monitor above his head beeped with unwavering consistency.
Sam wasn't dead.
Dean felt himself relax, breathing out slowly. Sam was alive.
But was Sam still there?
He leaned forward, sweeping his hand across Sam's forehead. His brother's skin was warm, but there was no flicker of movement.
Sam's psyche wasn't a physical space, but Dean had gone there to pull Sam out. So it had to be possible to affect change of Sam's condition...for better or for worse.
He swallowed hard. He had killed Sam. He'd watch Sam bleed out. What if he had killed what was left of his brother's mind?
Guilt stabbed at him and he chewed his lip, trying to figure out if there was a way to tell. He was reaching for his cell phone when he saw the figure behind him.
At first, he thought it was Bobby, then maybe a nurse. But the figure was unmistakable. Tall, floppy hair. Clad in a hospital issue gown, a vivid display of bruises covering his face and a slice sutured across his forehead.
"Sam?" he asked. "What the...?"
"You know the answer, Dean," Sam said. "You know where you are."
It clicked. "We're still in your freaky head, aren't we?"
Sam just nodded, but he didn't look at Dean. He was studying himself, watching his mirror image on the bed.
Dean looked between them, shifting uncomfortably. "So, um. What are we doing here?"
"Thinking about the situation," Sam said practically. "We have to be here in order to understand the risks and the benefits. Until we understand all that, we can't make the right conclusion."
"What decision are we making? I mean, if it's a toss up between bed pans or catheter, I got to tell you, you really should have opted for the bed pan."
Sam didn't laugh. In fact, Sam didn't even move. "We have to decide whether we should live or die," Sam said simply.
Dean sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "After everything I've been through, this is where you bring me? The question of life or death? I hate to sound a little Trainspotting for you, but the answer is choose life, okay? So can we get this show on the road and hightail it out of here before you hand me any more guns and yell at me until I shoot?"
Sam barely seemed to hear him. "I've gone over it all very carefully," he explained. "I thought, I just have to weigh the pros and the cons. What are the reasons I deserve to life? What are the reasons I should die?"
"You can't count the geekiness against yourself," Dean cajoled. "It's your most endearing quality."
Sam sighed, pushing to his feet. "I have tried to think of everything but the list never changes."
Sam turned and was pacing. Then he stopped, looking at Dean. "Maybe you can help me," he said. "Maybe you can help finish the list."
Dean swallowed. "Yeah. Sure," he said. "I think we should put great genetics down in the pro column."
But Sam wasn't listening again. He had turned to a dry erase board that came out of nowhere. It was divided into two and Dean recognized Sam's neat print . One side was covered, overflowing. The other was empty.
"I went through, year by year," Sam said. "I thought about the time I stole candy from the grocery store when I was five. I didn't know it was stealing, but it was still wrong, so I think it counts. And I know I wasn't sorry for the time I lied to dad about the debate tournament, which is why it's on there twice. Once for the lie and then once for not feeling guilty. I suppose I need it a third time for not confessing."
Dean stepped closer, squinting to make out the list. His stomach turned as he took it in. It was everything. Every sin of Sam's life. Every lie, every omission. Every fight with his father. Every time he made Dean feel bad. The time he took the last of the Lucky Charms. The time he didn't shoot fast enough on the hunt when he was fifteen. Leaving for Stanford. Not calling Dean when he thought he should. Lying to Jessica. Lying to Dean. Choking Dean, trusting Ruby, killing the nurse, drinking the blood, letting Lucifer out, not saving Dean: the list was overwhelming.
Swallowing, he looked at the other side. He noticed, then, that it wasn't empty. There were a handful of name written there: Lori Sorenson, Matt Pike, Charlie in Toledo, Sarah Blake. The people from their successful hunts. The list was full and complete, Dean realized, and painfully bleak in contrast.
"You see it now, right? That you were right? That I don't deserve to live."
Dean's heart was in his throat. "Sam--"
"You pulled the trigger for a reason," Sam told him plainly.
"It wasn't you."
Sam nodded. "It was me," Sam said. "That was who I've always been. It's part of me, just like this is. Just like all of them are. If one deserves to die, we all deserve to die. Tell me I can die now, Dean. Please."
Sam had asked him to kill him before. Sam had begged for his gun and for Dean to leave before. But this--this was different. It was stark and cruel, not because Sam was leaving it up to Dean to make the choice, but because the only thing holding Sam back from the brink was Dean. His brother wanted to die.
He'd known Sam was messed up, but he'd had no idea....
"Sam," he breathed, looking at the list again. "You can't--judge it on that stuff."
"Why not?" Sam asked. "Actions, right? You told me it was what I did. It was my actions. That's what condemned me. Nothing inside of me, just the simple stuff. So I did it your way. I looked at it all and you were right. You were always right."
Dean shook his head, feeling the words rumble in his throat as if he'd just said it yesterday. If I didn't know you, I would want to hunt you. It's the lies. It makes you a monster. "No," he said, looking at Sam again. "I was wrong. You're more than this."
"Then who am I, Dean?"
Dean ran his hand through his hair, his frustration mounted. He'd been asked that, again and again and again. And none of the answers were right. None of them. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."
"You do," Sam replied. He stepped closer. "You've known for awhile now. You've known since you made the deal for me and lived to regret it. You knew that first day in Hell. You knew that I am nothing. And I've always been nothing. And if you'd just figured it out sooner, you could have spared yourself so much pain."
His eyes burned and he shook his head, but his voice wouldn't work.
Sam nodded, relentless. "I am a monster," he said. "I am an aberration. An abomination."
Dean breathed hard but couldn't find his voice.
Sam was closer still. "And can you tell me what that's worth?"
Dean just closed his eyes.
Sam kept talking anyway. "I am worth nothing. I never should have been born. Most souls have inherent worth, and most of them are made more precious because they are born of love and hope. I was born of an evil deal. I have no worth. The world would be better without me at all. You would be better without me."
The logic was powerful and pervasive. Dean's heart ached to disagree, the words sat on his tongue, the arguments were in his head, but he couldn't do anything with them. He was paralyzed here, trapped by Sam's inevitable conclusions. Numbed not by what his brother had done. But by the lessons Sam had learned. Where there was tragedy, Sam saw failure. Where there were heroics, Sam saw too little, too late. Where there was pain, Sam saw blame.
Where there was Sam, his brother saw monster, freak. Where there should have been love and compassion toward him, Sam felt only hate.
Seeing it now, it seemed obvious. This was what Sam was trying to tell him. This was the point Sam was trying to make. That he was a monster. That he was worthless. That Dean should let him go.
He opened his eyes. Sam was still looking at him, almost unblinking. "Can I go now, Dean? I'll fight only as long as you tell me to, but when you're ready to quit, you can just say the word."
He shook his head. "No, Sam..."
Sam's eyes filled. "I don't deserve this favor," he said. "I know. But--it might be for the best. For you. For the universe."
"Sam, no," he said again, shaking his head.
"But why?" Sam asked. "You're tired. You're angry at me. You told me I'm a monster. You did your job as well as anyone could. You don't have to keep doing this."
It would be easier, Dean thought. A life without Sam was a life without burden. A life free of responsibility. No one there to drag him down. No one there to hold him back. No one there to check up on. No one there to worry about. He could save the world and just walk away and never look back. But with Sam--
With Sam, he had to worry about the blood. He had to worry about the powers. He had to worry about the target Sam had painted on his own back.
Part of him wanted to say okay. Sam's logic was good. Damn near perfect.
But this wasn't a logical decision.
This was a compassionate decision.
It was so foreign, and so right.
Dean swallowed and found his voice. "I want to do this," he said. "And I want you to."
At that, a tear slipped from Sam's eyes. He looked back at the list and dropped his head. "Okay," he said.
Then the monitors wailed and commotion broke out and Dean was forced aside as doctors and nurses flooded the room.
In horror, Dean watched as they cut open Sam's gown and put paddles to Sam's chest. A charge of electricity jolted through Sam's body, and Sam arched off the bed.
Again and again.
Terrified, Dean pulled himself into a corner. He closed his eyes to the scene, closed his eyes to the sight of his brother's unresponsive form, and just let himself melt away.
He was back where he began. The endless void. Bleak nothingness stretching as far as the eye could see. The black-eyed Sam was gone--so was the Yellow-Eyed one. This time, Dean was alone.
For a moment, he couldn't move. Didn't want to move.
And then, he didn't have to. The scene came to him, a light illuminating the expanse and Dean saw Sam curled up on the floor. His brother was trembling, too skinny and too pale, pulling at his hair.
And, after all of it, Dean still didn't know how to help him.
He watched for a moment, listened to Sam's murmurs and observed the slow rocking.
It was wrong, Dean realized. Not just creepy and unnerving, but wrong. But, after everything, Dean suddenly understood how it ended up like this. From the five year old just wanting to belong to the eighteen year old clinging to hope to the twenty-something who had lost it all. Sam's life was one of lost hopes, broken dreams. It was a slow deconstruction, dismantled piece by piece until this was all there was.
Because Dean couldn't leave Sam like this. He couldn't.
Licking his lips, he hesitated. He wanted to reach out, to touch Sam, but he was afraid the rest of Sam would unravel before he could. He opted to speak instead. "Sam," he said. "Sam, you can stop now. We can talk about this. We can make it better."
Dean had to believe that. It had to be true; it was all that mattered. He'd seen Sam's memories. He'd seen Sam's inner demons. Now he just wanted to bring Sam back.
To his surprise, Sam stilled.
Dean's breath caught in his throat. "Sam?"
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Sam turned his head, looking up at Dean through stringy hair and deep set eyes. "Why are you still here?"
His voice was strained and muted, a little ragged around the edges from too much use, but it was surprisingly coherent.
Dean swallowed. "I have to get you home, little brother."
"I don't have a home," Sam said. "I don't deserve a home."
"Well, good thing you don't get to choose then," Dean said, trying to keep his voice from cracking. "You belong with me."
"I don't deserve to be anywhere near you."
"Sam, come on," Dean said, feeling desperate.
"I wish I could."
"You just want that to be true because you're here," Sam told him. "You didn't even want to come here."
How Sam could know that, Dean wasn't sure. Dean wasn't sure about a lot of things. He wasn't sure what parts of his brother were real and what parts weren't; he wasn't sure if Sam could ever be the person he once was or if this was who Sam had always been. He couldn't be sure if he hated Sam or just hated how much he didn't know Sam; if he resented Sam or just Sam's weakness.
"It's the question you ask yourself every day," Sam told him.
Sam looked at him, and the eyes were the same. The same as the five year old, the teenager, the one in the hospital room, the evil one who took him around. Open, wide, simple: vulnerable. "Who am I, Dean?" he asked.
All his answers came back to him, each wrong answer after another. All questions have answers, you just have to find the right one. And suddenly, he only had one answer to give. "You're Sam," he said, a little desperate, because that's all there was. "You're Sam."
His brother held his gaze and it was the puppy dog look Dean remembered from a long time ago. Dean hadn't realized until now how long it had been. "And what is that worth?" he asked.
Dean's breath escaped hard and his shoulders sagged. "It's worth waking up, Sam," he said. "It's worth waking up."
Sam looked at him, hard and simple. Then he nodded. "Okay," he said.
And then Dean was gone, the expanse around him sucked away, as Dean hurtled backwards, once and for all.
He came to with a gasp, like a newborn baby. For a moment, his eyes couldn't focus, too assaulted by life and living and alive.
He sucked in another breath and realization came back to him along with his senses. Sitting up straight, he looked around, overwhelmed by the sense of deja vu. Sam on the bed, still and unmoving.
Then, Bobby's voice: "Dean? Dean, you with me, son?"
Blinking, Dean looked up. The older man was standing over him, looking frazzled and more than a bit frantic.
Looking from Bobby to Sam then back again, reality settled over him with a newfound certainty. He was back.
Not just another illusion, not a manifestation of his brother's head. But back. In his own consciousness.
"Dean, you better say something quick before I call the nurse to check you out," Bobby threatened.
With a breath, Dean shook himself back into full awareness. "I'm fine," he said, surprised by the strength of his own voice. "I just--I'm back."
Bobby raised his eyebrows. "You're back?" he asked. "You didn't leave."
Dean's brow furrowed and he stood. Edging past Bobby, he went to Sam's side, peering down at him intently. "There's no change?"
"I've been more focused on you for the last few minutes."
Dean mentally assessed his brother. Lifeless and colorless, Sam appeared unchanged. Dean winced. "He said okay."
"You made it?" Bobby pushed. "You found Sam."
Dean licked his lips. "I found a lot of Sams."
"So he's still in there?"
"He's still in there," Dean confirmed. He looked at his own feet as he tried to make sense of it. "Just...lost."
"Like he can't find his way out lost?"
Dean cast Bobby a short look. "Like he doesn't want to come out lost."
Bobby's face went hard for a moment, before he seemed to deflate. "So did you get through to him?"
"I thought so," Dean said. Because after everything. After each memory and each question, Sam had said okay. Dean had thought it was enough--he had hoped.
"Maybe it takes some time for it to kick in?" Bobby ventured. "The kid has been pretty out of it. The list of injuries is going to take more than some dream walking to come out of."
It was a logical argument. Dean wanted to believe it.
But he'd seen Sam. He'd seen the desire to give up. He'd seen the self-hatred. He'd seen the regret, the loathing, the misery. He'd seen the list. He'd seen his brother's eyes go black then yellow then clear again and Dean couldn't even be sure if Sam waking up was a safe bet with that kind of thing running around.
But there was also a broken Sam. A vulnerable one. One that hurt and that ached and that just needed to know. That just wanted to be happy.
He wanted that Sam back.
He just had to ask himself, if it was an all or nothing deal, would he still take it?
"So what do you want to do?" Bobby asked. "We can try again--"
Dean shook his head. "We wait," he said, looking full into his brother's face. "We wait."
So they waited. Another night passed with no change. Sam's condition was stable but still critical. The odds continued to worsen.
Bobby left in the morning to wash up at a motel. He said something about a few leads to check out, and Dean had let him leave with so much as a second glance. Because he couldn't take his eyes off Sam.
It had been months since he'd let himself really look at his brother. Not just the cursory glances or the necessary hunting exchanges--but really look at Sam. The man he'd become. Not just the addict or the boy with demon blood, but Sam. There were battle scars Dean didn't recognize, some he probably should, and he tried to figure out when he'd lost track of so much. Maybe when the Apocalypse started, maybe when he got back from Hell. Maybe when he made the deal, maybe when their father died.
Maybe long before that.
Hell was worse than everything, Dean had no doubt. That was why it was Hell. But with his torture, Dean had been given something greater than he'd ever realized: hope. The possibility of making it right was a powerful tool, even if he didn't agree with the way the angels wanted him to do that, even if he wasn't sure he could do it, it was the idea that it was possible. The notion that there was at least an opportunity to make right what he'd broken. The reality that maybe his story didn't end in Hell, but somewhere in the realms of glory.
That was what made getting up each morning worthwhile. That was what made his fight worth it. It was who Dean was, mind, body, and soul. It was more fulfilling than anything he'd had growing up, to finally be someone other than John Winchester's good little soldier. To be something more than Sammy's big brother.
Sam had no such hope. Sam had no such role anymore. Sam had nothing. Sam had shot his load with Lilith, he'd fulfilled his role to a terrible T, and he'd brought the world down in his fall. Sam should have known better, and yet Sam had maybe never had a chance, and ultimately, it didn't matter. It would never matter because Sam's part in this was over. Dead or alive, the story would go on just as it should without him.
And that was more horrible than even Alastair's rack in Hell. It was worse than anything. Dean remembered waking up in the hospital after Alastair had gotten loose--he remembered the despair and the anguish and just wanting it to end. He remembered wishing that he could just go back to Hell where he could forget who he was, once and for all, and let it all go.
He hadn't agreed with Zachariah's methods or even his motives, but, in the end, living as not-Dean for a day and seeing what his life was worth in fresh eyes was enough to keep him going. He had told Sam it ended sad and bloody and that was probably still true, but not before he fixed it.
And in the months since Lucifer had been freed, Dean had never felt stronger. In so many ways, Sam's weakness had justified him. Reassured him that he was right.
He just never considered the impact for Sam, on what it was like to be that wrong.
Sam was wrong, of course, about a lot of things. How much penance was sufficient? But how long was long enough? Were some sins unforgivable or should he have let his brother lose himself in the self-inflicted darkness of his mind?
Dean dropped his head, rubbing his hand over his face. He didn't have to kill or save his brother anymore--it was a moot point. So what was he doing now? What were they doing now? Dean was saving the world and Sam was following because he felt too guilty to do anything else.
Who am I, Dean?
Mary's son. John's soldier. Jessica's love. Hell's bitch. Heaven's pawn. Dean's brother.
And what is that worth, Dean?
Sam was still the man who had broken the seal. He was still the man who had trusted a demon, and drank blood and let a woman be killed. Sam was still the man who had broken Lucifer out, the one who had choked Dean and lied to him.
But Sam was more than that. Sam was still the man Jess fell in love with. Sam was still the teenager just looking for a way to be happy. Sam was still a little boy who just wanted to know why. Sam was a kid who just wanted to feel safe. Sam was still a baby who had to be loved even when he shouldn't have been there at all. Sam was still the man who fought by Dean's side, even when all he wanted to do was to curl up and die.
"Enough," Dean whispered. He looked up, taking in his brother's pale face. A tear tracked down his face. "God, Sammy. It's worth more than enough."
He had nothing left to give, and he feared Sam had nothing left to offer. But Dean wasn't ready to let go yet.
Carefully, mindful of the IVs and other tubes, Dean took his brother's hand and held on. Watching the rise and fall of Sam's chest, Dean remembered everything, and he didn't let go.
There was no change that night. The hours dwindled on, long and endless. Bobby came and went, bearing coffee or candy bars, even a stale plate of mashed potatoes at some point. Dean ate enough to appease the older hunter, but he had his task now, and he could not be swayed from it.
When dawn broke, it found things still unchanged: Bobby slumped in a chair, Dean leaned forward at Sam's bedside, and Sam, still all but lifeless on the hospital bed. When breakfast came, Bobby roused, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He did the courtesy of thanking the nurse, who left with little more than a sympathetic look at Sam and Dean.
Dean didn't care. He didn't need her sympathy. He just needed his brother.
Stretching, Bobby groaned, his joints popping. "I'm too old for this," he groaned.
Dean gave him a sideways look. "I told you, you should have gone to the motel last night."
"And I told you, you needed to eat something."
"I'm fine," Dean said.
Bobby snorted. "Like Hell."
Dean shot him a look. "Sam needs me."
Bobby just shook his head, looking a little bemused. "Yesterday ,you were ready to let go," he said. "What exactly did you see in there?"
Dean held his breath for a moment, casting Sam a look. He remembered his little brother, the things Dean had never seen before the Dream Walk, never understood. He let the air out, and shook his head. "He's still in there, Bobby," he said softly.
"I know," Bobby said. "But he always has been."
Dean caught the implication. He could still hear his own voice, saying maybe Sam never was his brother. He'd been foolish and angry then, but part of him had believed it. More of him had believed that everything good in Sam had been consumed by the demon blood. He'd almost given up on Sam for those reasons.
But not now. Not when he knew his brother was fighting to hold onto himself more than he was fighting to hold onto his life. Not when the only thread that kept Sam tethered to reality was Dean himself.
"I know that now," Dean said. He let his fingers linger on his brother's.
Bobby smiled a little, and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You sure I can't do anything for you boys?"
"You've done more than enough," Dean told him tightly. "Why don't you go back to the motel now. Get cleaned up. You can check back in when you're done."
"Will you take a break when I get back?"
"I'll take a break when Sam's awake."
Bobby sighed. "Will you at least eat something?"
"I ain't moving unless you promise me that much," the older man said. "Think about what Sam would want."
It was the right leverage. Dean sighed. "Okay," he said. "I'll eat. Now go."
"I won't be long," Bobby assured him.
Dean nodded his assent. "Hey, Bobby," Dean said.
The hunter paused in the doorway, looking back.
"Thanks again," Dean said. His eyes flicked to Sam. "For everything."
Bobby grunted affectionately. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you boys," he said. "And you two like to push it to the limit. All that dying and coming back to life and nearly dying again."
"Take care of your brother," Bobby said gently.
"You don't have to remind me of that."
"Well, at least one of you has woken up," Bobby said. "I trust Sam won't be far behind. You two can't do anything alone."
With that, the older man left, and Dean couldn't help but smile. This time, he had no doubt that Bobby was right.
It was only a half hour later when the duty nurse came in. "How are you two doing today?" she asked with a friendly smile.
Dean offered her a small smile in return. "We'll be better once we blow this joint," he said.
Her smile turned a little wan. "Well, let's see how Sam is faring today, huh?" she said, making her way to Sam's side. She checked the IV first, then gave the monitors a read. "No changes or anything, right?"
Dean pursed his lips. "No," he said.
She nodded expectantly. She fiddled with a dial on the ventilator, and carefully rearranged the tube in Sam's mouth. "We don't want him to get sore," she told Dean.
She sounded reassuring enough, but it wasn't consolation Dean wanted.
Oblivious, she continued on in her work, jotting some notes on his chart and changing the IV bag. She made short work of Sam's cath bag as well, before looking at the monitors again.
Dean saw her pause. Her head cocked a little. "Have you touched anything?" she asked uncertainly.
Worry flared up in Dean. "No."
She pushed a button or two, then raised her eyebrows. "Excuse me," she said. "I need to go get a doctor right away."
Dean sat up straight. "What's going on?"
"Cut the crap," Dean said. "Why do you need a doctor? Is Sam okay?"
"He's more than okay," she told him. "I think he's waking up."
With that, she left, the door closing behind her. But Dean didn't hear it. Didn't see her go. Her words resounded in his head I think he's waking up.
Dean watched the doctor's examination anxiously. Every test, every probe, Dean was keenly aware of it. He flinched as the doctor's hands passed over Sam's surgical scar and he had to wince when she pushed at Sam's broken ribs.
When she was done, she took off her gloves and turned to Dean with a smile on her face.
"What?" Dean asked.
The doctor gave a sigh. "Well," he said. "Your brother is still in serious condition. The surgical site is healing nicely, but the broken ribs are still going to take some time. I expect he's going to need further therapy for his shoulder to get it back to functioning, but I do think he'll get there with some work."
Dean shook his head, confused. "His shoulder? But--the nurse said--"
The doctor just smiled, shaking her head. "Dean, I haven't talked to you much about Sam's recovery because he hasn't had any hope of one," she said. "I wasn't worried about rehabbing his shoulder because your brother was clinically brain dead."
Dean's brow furrowed, his mind feeling sluggish.
The doctor's smile widened. "That's not the case anymore."
She laughed a little. "I can't explain it," she told him honestly. "Your brother's tests from yesterday indicated no activity. There was no hope for any meaningful recovery."
Dean felt hope surge within him. " But now?"
"But now his brain waves are decided stronger. I can't say for sure when, but I can say he's waking up."
"He's waking up?" Dean asked. He looked anxious at Sam. "He'll be okay?"
"Well, that's hard to predict," she said, her tone carrying a hint of warning. "Your brother still sustained a significant head injury. There is still a high probability that he'll have incurred some kind of damage."
Dean snorted. "You mean like your high probability that Sam was never going to wake up."
The doctor had to look chagrined at that. "I'll just say that I'm very happy to be wrong," she said. "Now, please be aware. This process is bound to be slow. The trauma to your brother's body is still severe. I'm moving him off the critical list, but I don't expect him to return to full awareness for at least a day or so. Maybe longer."
"Well, clearly you haven't met Sam," Dean said. "He's a bit of an overachiever."
She looked down at her patient. "Well, I can say I'm looking forward to it," she said. "I just don't want you to get your hopes up too high. Sam has a long road ahead of him."
"Yeah, well," Dean said. "That's nothing new."
But this time, Dean promised, Sam wouldn't have to go it alone.
It was a long day--maybe even longer than the rest. Because each moment was measured with the weight of possibility now. Every moment, every second, Dean spent at his brother's side--just watching, just waiting.
Bobby came back, and reamed Dean out for not calling him. After his angry diatribe he'd pulled Dean into a hug and said, "I might finally get both of you back. I've been waiting so long for that."
Grinning, Dean could only imagine what kind of greeting Sam had in store.
He glanced at the clock, then back at his brother. One thing was certain: he was ready to find out.
It happened by degrees. Sam's hand twitched that evening. Overnight, he started fighting the tube in his throat. When his eyes started moving under their lids, the doctor took the tube out, and told Dean to keep waiting.
Over the course of the day, Sam moved more--small, spastic movements, little twitches. Then there was moaning and a mumble or two. Then, out of nowhere, Sam opened his eyes.
For a second, Dean thought he was imagining it. After all, he'd spent most of the day thinking about this.
But when he blinked his eyes and realized that Sam's eyes were really in fact open, he nearly fell out of his chair in surprise.
Swearing, he fumbled to his feet, leaning over Sam intently. "Sam? You with me? Sammy?"
Bobby was there in an instant, hovering on the other side of Sam.
Sam's eyes darted between the two, confused and scared. Then his mouth twitched and his brow creased. He licked his lips and tried to swallow. His lips parted, and he tried to speak, but the sound that came out was grating and rough.
Dean winced, and Bobby produced a cup of water. It took some work, but with Dean's hand behind Sam's head and Bobby's hand around the cup, Sam managed a few sips.
They settled him back down, and Dean realized that in all of his anticipation he hadn't thought about what to say. About what to do. He'd been so intent on getting Sam back, that what happened next was still a mystery to him.
Sam beat him to it. Swallowing hard again, Sam frowned a little. Sam's voice was barely a whisper, muted and strained, but the words were unmistakable: "I'm sorry."
Those were the words Sam had offered him when he let Lucifer out. And Sam had said them in many ways over the last few months. For Dean, they had always been too little, too late. A meager penance. Lip service.
Now, they just broke his heart.
"Hey," Dean said. "You have nothing to be sorry about."
Sam's eyes lost their focus though and he seemed to sag a little. "'m tired," he murmured, his voice trailing off unintelligibly.
Dean put a hand on Sam's good arm, pressing lightly. "Sam? Come on, Sammy, stay awake."
But Sam's eyes drifted, his eyelids growing heavy. Then the tension in his body eased and he slipped into sleep again.
Dean called his brother's name one more time, and was about to try again when Bobby cut him off.
"The doc said this was likely," Bobby told him. "Kid's exhausted."
That was true. And it wasn't the quick nap that turned Dean's stomach. It was the apology.
Bobby grinned a little. "Did you see that?"
"Yeah," Dean said.
"He's okay," Bobby told him. "He's going to be okay."
It was true that Sam was alive and well. His eyes had been coherent and his speech had been clear. Dean didn't need a doctor to tell him that Sam was going to make a full physical recover, her dire warnings aside.
But physical healing wasn't the problem. Sam was strong--he was resilient. His body would rebound.
His soul was another question entirely--one that Dean was afraid to ask. A question Dean couldn't ignore any longer.
With a sigh, he settled back into his seat. Sam being awake was only half the battle. Recovering from significant brain damage and clinical death was hard, but doable. Recovering the balance between two estranged brothers was so much more difficult.
And that much more important.
Dean settled in, and waited.
Needless to say, the doctor was impressed with Sam's recovery. He passed his cognitive tests with flying colors. Within a day, Sam was alert and aware, and was already asking about physical therapy for his arm. The doctor called it nothing short of a miracle. Bobby was so relieved that he actually let himself be talked into going to the motel to sleep.
And yet, in all of the tests and friendly celebration, Dean could see the problem was still there. The distance between them--Sam's hesitation. His brother said as little as possible, offered few real insights. His answers were simple and to the point and Dean knew that there were parts of his brother that still needed to be fixed.
Not fixed, Dean reminded himself. Just understood. He'd tried to fix the Yellow-Eyed Sam and killed them all. It was a mistake Dean couldn't make in real life.
But fear of the mistake didn't mean that he could avoid it. If anything, Dean realized that would be the greatest mistake of all. He'd been trying hard to avoid dealing with Sam on every level--he'd taken a strict hand with regulating the hunts and had kept a wary eye on Sam's extracurriculars but that had been about it. They didn't talk about it, except to remind Sam how stupid it all was, and they certainly didn't get into how or why it all went down.
And he'd nearly lost his brother to it. Not just physically, though, yeah, they'd cut that one close, too. But mentally. Emotionally. Sam was still hanging by a thread, and Dean knew that waking up didn't change that.
It was all easier said than done, and after sitting making awkward small talk with Sam for about twenty minutes, Dean knew there was no time like the present. Hell, the present might be all they had left.
"So, uh," Dean said. He scratched his head, feeling uncomfortable. "What do you remember?"
Sam shook his head a little. "The demons," he said. "Throwing me around. I remember looking down over the landing but that's about it."
"So, nothing from when you were unconscious. Nothing weird or anything."
Sam thought for a moment and shook his head. He looked at his hands. "So I guess I screwed up," he said.
Dean's brow creased. "What?"
Sam looked at him from under his bangs. The bruise around his eye was still vivid, but faded to shades of red and pink. "The hunt," he said. "I left you to face them all alone."
Dean felt a little incredulous. "Dude, they were too well organized," he said. "You weren't going to be able to stop them with a little Latin."
"I should have researched it better," Sam said, shaking his head a little. "I just--I've been so sloppy--"
Dean forced himself to control his frustration. It wasn't Sam he was mad at, and he needed to be careful. "Sam--"
"Sam, seriously," Dean interjected forcefully. "Stop."
Sam obeyed, his lips drawing closed tightly.
Dean sighed, rubbing a hand through his hair. "I don't want to talk about the hunt."
Sam's head dropped forward and he nodded.
"Not because I don't think we should but because that's not what matters."
Sam looked up at him, a little confused. "We have to stop Lucifer," he said. "I mean, you do. And I know I can't do much, but I need to help as much as I can."
"Sam, it's not that," he said.
Sam shifted on the bed, uncomfortable. "Then what is it?"
"It's--you. Me. Us."
Sam looked uncertain.
"I mean, you and I, we're hunting together, we're still doing all the same old things, but it's--different now, you know?"
By the guilty look on Sam's face, it seemed like his brother did know--probably better than Dean did.
"But, uh, I don't want it to be like that," Dean said. "Not that I want it to be like it was, because we were pretty screwed up last year. But, I don't know. I just think we can do better. Both of us."
Sam's eyes narrowed and he looked suspicious. His posture had stiffened and he was frowning tightly. "You have nothing to be sorry for."
Dean snorted a little. "Yeah, sure, whatever," he said.
"I was the one who screwed up," Sam persisted.
"Yeah, I remember that," Dean agreed. "But you weren't the only one."
Sam just shook his head, his face set. "What I did--"
"I don't really want to talk about it," Dean told him. "I mean, not what you did. We need to talk about why."
Sam laughed a little, rough and humorless. "Why? Because I was selfish and blind. I started the Apocalypse because of my own arrogance."
Dean couldn't help but wince. He'd thought as much a few times himself. But there was more to it than that. He'd ignored it once, and the results had been disastrous. This was his atonement--to help Sam find his. "Yeah, well," Dean said, shrugging. "Welcome to the human race."
Sam actually gaped. "You can't be serious."
"Of course I'm serious," Dean said. "Look, I was selfish and got myself dragged down to Hell. I got off that rack and started torturing people and set this whole damn thing in motion. Seems pretty bad, right? Well, for whatever reason, Cas dragged me out. Gave me a second chance. I'm not sure I deserved it, but I got it. What makes you any different?"
"You went to Hell for me."
"And gee, aren't you so grateful?" Dean quipped.
Sam refused to be distracted. "Dean, I get what you're trying to do. This is why you deserve a second chance, right here. But I--I don't. I never will. I will spend the rest of my life just trying to make up for a fraction of what I did to the world." He stopped, his eyes burning bright. "What I did to you."
There was a latent intensity in Sam's voice and an unbridled desperation in his eyes. It was all rooted in guilt, which seemed to hang heavily over everything his brother did.
It hurt to see. It had been hard to see in Sam's head, but to see it so plainly in the real world--was almost more than Dean could take. "Sam, you lied to me, and it pissed me off," he said. "And I lied to you, and it pissed you off. I think we're kind of even on that."
"It's more than that," Sam insisted.
Dean groaned a little. "You thought the blood was the only thing you could do. I should have figured it out sooner, man. I should have asked you about it."
"That wouldn't have made a difference."
"We don't know that."
"We know I'm a monster," Sam told him, and his voice was raw and harsh. "I know it, and you do, too."
"Maybe some of you," Dean conceded. "But I know who you really are."
Sam's head cocked, his eyes wet. "Who?"
He knew this answer--he knew it. And this time he only had one shot to get it right. "You're Sam. You're a guy who's lost everything," Dean told him. "You tried hard and you lost your hope anyway."
Sam's features flickered as he struggled for composure. "And what's that worth?"
Dean almost wanted to laugh as much as he wanted to cry. "It's worth fighting by your side," Dean said. "It can't make everything right, but it's enough to start again, Sam. It's enough."
For a moment, Dean thought Sam would deny it. He thought Sam would shut him off again, pull back in.
Instead, a single tear broke free from Sam's eyes. A sob caught in his throat. "Do you believe that?" he asked.
"No," Dean said. "I know it."
Sam laughed, hard, and sucked in a sob. But it was different--Sam was different. There was something open in his face, something vibrant in his eyes. Something Dean recognized from long ago, but hadn't seen in a very, very long time.
More powerful than medicine, more important than a brotherly bond. Dean couldn't save his brother. Dean couldn't make it better. But hope could. Hope would.
Hope that they could come together. Hope that they could make the Apocalypse end. Hope that they could become better men than they were before. Hope that they could be better brothers to each other.
Sam needed it.
Dean did, too.
Sam breathed raggedly, wiping at his nose. "I just--I'm so sorry," he said. "For everything."
"Yeah, well," Dean said. "Me, too."
Sam's eyes were red and his body was still weak. There were still demons to contend with and angels to please. But, in it all, Dean felt better than he had in months. Years. Because for the first time in a long time, Sam wasn't his burden. He wasn't Dean's responsibility. Sam was just his brother. And there was strength in that--there was hope in that--that mattered more than anything else.