Here we are, the third way Sam came back….

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IV.

One moment, Sam was...somewhere, and the next he was standing on a sidewalk in front of a house.

Another moment went by before he realized he wasn't moving at all. Sam blinked. Once. Twice. His hands clenched and unclenched. Whose house was this?

A man and a woman were eating together, a small boy across the table. A family. They looked familiar, but— Sam blinked again, focusing on the man. He looked so... Dean?

"Dean?" Sam whispered as he collapsed, his back hitting something cool and hard. He vaguely registered the streetlamp pole against his back as he slid to the ground. He sat there, panting as the memories of Lucifer's possession washed over him like a tide. He remembered Lucifer confronting his brother Michael—in Adam—at Stull, Dean appearing, Castiel and Bobby dying gruesomely, Dean falling under his fists as Lucifer tried to beat him to death.

Oh, he's in here, all right, and he's gonna feel the snap of your bones. Every single one!

He dropped his head into his hands as the visceral images flooded through his mind. Dean's bloody face. The blood on his fists. It all would have been over if he hadn't seen—

Sam looked up. A few yards away, the Impala sat in the driveway, black paint gleaming in the glow of the moon and the nearby streetlights. Shakily, Sam struggled to stand, then half-walked, half-crawled to the Impala. He steadied himself on the sleek steel rear fender as he staggered to the passenger side. Sam leaned heavily on the car, peering into the dark back seat. There, just barely visibly in the moonlight, Sam could make out the small green shape of the old army man, poking up out of the ashtray.

At Stull, when Sam had all but given up trying to wrest control of his body away from Lucifer, his attention had been drawn to the Impala. The car had been Dean and Sam's home for as long as he could remember. They slept in motels and squatted in empty houses—but they lived in the Impala. She was the only member of their family that had stuck with them through everything. A sturdy rock in the river of crap their lives had become. She had given Sam the strength to fight back and stop Lucifer from killing his brother.

Sam ran his hand over the cool metal of the roof. "Thanks."

A glint of light off the chrome caught his eye and he froze. The memories flowing through his consciousness twisted and changed. The glint of a razor. Ethereal lightning flashing all around him as he writhed and screamed on the rack. The glittering energy and smoke of demons in their natural forms. The eye-melting blast of light when Lucifer and Michael discarded their vessels—

"Ughhh..." Sam dropped his head to the roof of the Impala with an anguished cry, overwhelmed as it all came crashing back to him. Forty years of torture and enduring the demons' depraved games... He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force the images and the phantom pains of all-too-recent torments away.

"Hey!" An indignant shout from somewhere on the other side of the Impala pierced the haze of the nightmarish flashbacks. "What are you—?"

The voice broke off, and the scuff of boots on the cement driveway skidded to a halt. Sam raised his head slowly, trying to shake off his painful reverie.

"Sam?"

Sam's eyes finally focused on the man who was creeping around the back of the car. When he saw the face, he whispered one word. It was a prayer that had gone unanswered many times the last four decades. "Dean?"

Dean stopped by the trunk. His face was a mix of joy and sadness, but tinged with suspicion and fear. "Sammy, is that you?"

A feeling of wholeness welled up inside Sam. He couldn't quite grasp it, but it was like a hole being filled. Something missing being returned. The sensation was so powerful it brought tears to his eyes. "Dean..."

He staggered forward just as Dean crossed the few yards between them and scooped him up into a ferocious hug. "Sammy!"

Sam sagged, wrapping his arms around his brother. It was like only one word occupied his brain, bubbling up through the memories of screams and pain. "Dean..."

"What— How are you here?" Dean asked, speaking into Sam's hair. Sam shook his head slowly.

"I...I don't know. One minute I was, uh—" In Hell? Being cut to ribbons by demons? He wasn't sure how to finish the sentence. Sam began to shake as the memories continued to assault him behind his eyes. The flashbacks were getting worse. "A-and, um, the next I was out here."

Dean seemed to understand. He'd had a similar experience, after all. He patted Sam on the back. "Okay. It's okay, Sam. We'll figure it out later."

His brother released him, pulling back a bit but still holding Sam by his arms. "I can't believe it..."

"Me either," Sam breathed. "Um, can I—? I need to...sit down..."

"Are you okay?" Dean asked, fear of a different kind replacing the joy on his face. He dug his keys out and unlocked the car door, then guided Sam down onto the front seat.

"I...I think so, it's just...a lot to take in," Sam said shakily.

Dean knelt in front of him. "I'll bet. We should get you inside." He thought about it for a moment, then amended. "Let me go talk to Lisa first. She thinks you're— Um..."

Sam just nodded. "Yeah. Awkward. I know."

"Will you be okay out here? I'll just be a minute, I promise."

"It's okay," Sam breathed quietly. His vision seemed to be blurring around the edges. "I'll be okay. The hole's gone…I can't feel it, anymore."

Dean's unnerved voice cut through the feeling of contentment that was finally settling around him. "Sam…what?"

He blinked, eyes re-focusing on Dean. What did I just say? "I'll be all right, Dean. Go on."

His brother gripped his shoulder for a long moment, then nodded and ran toward the house. Sam stayed seated, closing his eyes against the onslaught of images and sounds that came rushing back as soon as Dean left his field of vision. He groaned, sliding back against the seat, only vaguely registering the sound of the house's front door opening and closing in the distance.

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Sam had a chill he couldn't seem to shake. Dean watched his brother, wrapped up and shivering in a blanket on Lisa's couch despite the warm September air. His eyes were squeezed shut, but Dean knew he wasn't sleeping. The lights were turned down, though, in case that changed.

"I just can't believe it," Lisa whispered next to him. "Back from the dead, and he doesn't even have a scratch."

"Nothing we can see," Dean murmured, grimly. Sam seemed fine physically, but his eyes told another story. Sam claimed to remember nothing of the last few months, but whether he was dodging or it simply hadn't returned to him, yet, Dean didn't know. He knew from his own experience that a lot of it would come back gradually.

Hell wasn't something you forgot.

"Have you asked him about it, yet?"

"A little," Dean shrugged. "He's kinda jumbled up in the head right now. I didn't want to push."

"Well, I'm going to check in on Ben. Come get me if you need anything," Lisa said quietly. Dean leaned over and kissed her.

"Thanks."

When she left, Dean watched Sam a little longer, then stirred from his place by the door and stepped into the den. He made sure his boots made noise on the hardwood floor, not wanting to startle Sam.

His brother opened his eyes slowly, and fixed Dean with a stare as he dropped down onto the couch. "Hey."

"Still cold, Sammy?"

Sam nodded slowly, pulling the comforter tighter. "He wasn't lying about burning cold…."

Dean didn't have to ask who Sam was referring to. He changed the subject, not wanting to start prying into all that. Sam deserved a little rest, first. "You should try to sleep. I think Lisa has an electric blanket stashed somewhere. Might help."

"I, uh…" Sam faltered, stealing a glance at Dean. "I— Could I just stay here a minute? I'm just…I'm just so—"

"Hey, take your time, Sammy. There's no rush." Dean said, patting Sam's back.

They just sat for a few minutes, Dean watching Sam, Sam staring into the shadows, his expression growing more haunted. When Dean had built up enough courage, he broke the silence. "I— I missed you, little brother. You have no idea…."

To Dean's surprise, a small smile broke out on Sam's face even as he closed his eyes again. "Me, too."

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Sam stayed on the couch, bundled beneath the comforter and Lisa's electric blanket. Dean lingered, stealing naps in chairs nearby, but checking on Sam periodically.

No nightmares, so far. That was good. Dean hoped.

Lisa had left around 7:00 to take Ben to school. Dean kept a quiet eye on Sam, who had finally settled and fallen asleep around 2:30 in the morning. Dean needed to call Bobby. He hadn't seen or spoken to the older hunter all summer, and wasn't sure how to begin. Bobby would certainly jump to the conclusion that Dean had made some deal.

I wish I had…. Dean couldn't help but feel like he'd betrayed Sam somehow, not trying to get him out of Hell himself. Sam had insisted, forced him to promise…but it wasn't that simple. Sam probably wouldn't blame him, but Dean still felt responsible.

The doorbell rang. Dean frowned, looking from the door, to Sam—who didn't rouse—and then to his watch. 8:05.

Who the hell would be here this early?

Or what. Dean tucked his handgun into his waistband, grabbed a flask of holy water off the end table, and headed over to the front door. He stayed carefully behind the salt line, and just inside the devil's trap painted under the rug.

He opened the door to find a man with an oddly happy expression plastered on his face, dressed in a Fed Ex uniform, holding a box. The delivery man was well-inside the trap Dean had concealed under the welcome mat.

"Dean Winchester? Am I disturbing you, sir?"

Dean was instantly suspicious. He hadn't added his name to any official papers. The house and address was in Lisa's name, and Dean was still legally dead. With a practiced smile, Dean shook his head and used a line he'd been waiting to use for weeks.

"No, not at all. Just watching The Count of Monte Christo on cable."

The man didn't flinch, just nodded pleasantly. "Great movie, Mr. Winchester. I have a package for you."

He thrust the box forward. Dean took it hesitantly.

A pen and a receipt came next. "Please sign here, sir."

Dean sighed and scribbled a barely legible name on the ticket. The Fed Ex man tipped his hat and sauntered off down the walkway. Rolling his eyes, Dean started to close the door—but something bothered him. It took a second to click. No delivery truck in sight.

He turned and stuck his head out the door. The delivery man was no where in sight, and he hadn't heard a truck or car start. With a frown, Dean glanced down at the box, carefully turning it around and examining it. His eyes stopped on the return addressee.

Chuck Shurley.

"What the…?" Dean closed the door and placed the box on the coffee table. At least that explains how they found me. Didn't really explain the disappearing act, but….

Dean drew his switchblade and cautiously cut the tape open along the box's sides. Nothing jumped out at him. He found a large—very large—book inside, wrapped in plastic with a shipping receipt blocking view of the cover.

Grumbling, Dean stripped away the plastic and the paperwork to get a look at the book—and blinked.

Supernatural: The Unabridged Anthology

Looked like Chuck had published his books anyway, despite Sam and Dean's objections.

"Why the hell would he send me this?" Dean asked aloud. He'd lived it, he didn't need the prophet's transcripts. Out of a curiosity Dean didn't fully understand—or want to admit to—he opened the leather cover. The title page made him stop.

Volume One: The First Test.

Dean's mouth dropped open. "First? Oh, hell no."

Something fell out of the book and hit the floor. Dean looked, finding a folded piece of white paper. Placing the heavy tome on the table, he bent down and retrieved the paper. It was a handwritten letter.

Dean,

By now, I know you have a lot of questions. How did Sam get out? Why? Is Sam himself? Did Lucifer escape? I'm happy to tell you that the Devil is still in his cage. You don't have anything to worry about on that front. Lucifer won't be getting out again for a very, very long time.

Sam, though, is another matter. It really is him; you don't need to worry about that. But, you were right, his Hell was worse than yours. Lucifer and his minions made sure of that.

He's not showing it much right now, but they really did a number on him down there. You could say he was "tranquilized" before he was returned to you, but that'll wear off soon. When it does, Sam's going to need you Dean, more than ever. If anyone on Earth can relate to what he went through and the things he saw, I know it's you. Just do what you do best, and he'll be fine.

The how he got back isn't important. As to the why, well, that has more than one answer. For starters, his work isn't done, yet. Neither is yours, Dean.

I know you don't want to hear that, but that's just the way it is. It's not fair, and I am sorry.

You should also know that what Ash told you was true. There are such things as soul mates. Sometimes two souls just can't live apart from one another. The pain is too great. The hole created by the other's absence torments them. Separation drives them mad, and they'll do anything to get the other back.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, keeping you and Sam apart would have been cruel.

I wish I could tell you what's coming next. I wish it could be someone else's problem, but it's the price you pay for being the right men for the job. Goodbye, Dean.

You friend,

Chuck

P.S. – About that "deadbeat Dad" crack you made in the Garden? Seriously man that hurt! I don't call you names!

Dean shook his head, rereading the letter a second time. His brain didn't want to wrap around it, but it really did sound like Chuck was—

"Dean?"

He dragged his eyes from the letter to find Sam at the doorway of the den. He was standing with his arms wrapped around his midsection, hunched over a little, but he'd shed the blankets.

"Morning," Dean mumbled.

"You okay?"

Dean grimaced. "Yeah, I guess. I was just reading this let—"

When he looked back at the paper, the words were gone. It was just a shipping receipt. Dean blinked, flipping the paper over. Chuck's words were gone.

"What is it?" Sam asked, slowly moving toward Dean.

"Uh," Dean shrugged, motioning to the book. "A gift from Chuck."

Sam moved to his side and watched Dean flip through the book. All the novels were inside, all one hundred and four of them. At the back of the book, there were several appendices, including two that chilled Dean's bones.

Dean's Time in Hell.

Sam's Time in Hell.

Beside him, he felt Sam stiffen. Dean glanced at him warily, remembering what the note had said about Sam's tranquilizer wearing off. But, Sam was simply frowning.

"Adam…."

"What?"

Sam turned to him, looking disoriented. "Adam, Dean. I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. He was right next to me the whole time. I—I don't know what happened to him. I think he…." Dean watched Sam as he tried to wrack his brain. Sam shuddered. "He disappeared. One minute he was there, the next he wasn't. I—I don't know…."

Hefting the book in his hands, Dean nodded gravely. "Let's see if we can find out what happened."

END