Six days later, Castiel landed in the front seat beside Dean with no warning. Dean barely startled. He was glad Sam was at the library. When Castiel didn't speak, Dean glanced at him. "Well? You gonna make me ask?"
Castiel shrugged, "I thought it was the polite thing to do, yes."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Hello, angel of the Lord. Did you find out who took my brother's soul?"
Castiel nodded once. "It was not an angel. But, I think it was something that sought permission from heaven."
Dean pulled off onto the gravel shoulder. This was getting to be a weird habit, chatting with Cas on the side of the road. "Explain, please."
"Some of the higher angels, the ones working for peace in heaven, told me about a rumor, surfacing about the time Sam was set free. The word was, a being from the underworld sought sanction to release a human from the cage of hell. The phrasing is significant to Sam because no one in heaven calls hell 'the cage.' One can only surmise it was referring to an actual cage."
"Yes. The being was seeking sanction, wanting reassurance that, if God did find out, there would be no punishment for this act."
Dean waited. Finally, he prompted, "And, God gave sanction?"
"It appears so, yes. Or, Joshua or one of God's confidants. Someone gave the 'go ahead,' that much is clear."
Dean considered. "But, the thing that took him, it was something from hell, right?"
"I believe so."
Dean looked at Cas. "So, could you, you know, give Crowley a ring for me? Ask him to-"
"Get his ass here pronto?" Castiel's mouth went up in a slight grin.
Dean bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. "Yes. And you can use those words."
The next moment, Crowley was in the backseat. "Oh, for pity's sake. Can't I enjoy a lady's company without being whooshed away to waste time with the two of you?"
Dean just gave him a stony look.
Crowley sighed. "Apparently not. I was going to pop by for a visit anyway. Seems you were right. There is a renegade demon who's been thinking he can rise to a better station by collecting the power of human souls. I have it on good authority that he happened by your brother as he was being pulled out of the cage and took advantage of his weakened state."
Dean felt that shiver of hope again. "So, Sam didn't make a deal?"
Crowley sighed. "No, no deal. It was a theft, pure and simple. Makes me ashamed to be a demon. I mean, it's not like it's hard to get a human to give up his or her soul by choice. It barely takes a nudge. Why, you know that better than anyone, don't you Dean?"
Dean turned to Castiel, "So, if there wasn't a deal, Sam can get it back, right?"
Castiel turned to Crowley. "It would depend on if there were honor in hell."
Crowley looked offended. "There are rules, gentlemen. Even in hell."
Dean looked back at Crowley. "So, who has it?"
Crowley smirked. "A little piss-ant named Damian."
"He had to the power to pull Sam from the cage?"
Crowley gazed at him steadily. "No. I'm still working on what actually pulled him out. Damian simply saw an opportunity and took the soul."
Why is it never easy? One thing at a time, Dean. He continued to look at Crowley. Crowley gave him a 'what?' glance. Dean rolled his eyes. "Can you get it back from him?"
The demon smiled. "Fraid not, Dean-o. That's all up to Sam. Only the human who was robbed can claim his property."
Dean sighed, nodded. "Okay, I'll take care of Sam. You get Damian up here by tomorrow night?"
Crowley smiled. "Oh, it will be a pleasure, I assure you."
Dean raised a brow. "You're sure he'll come?"
Crowley snarled. "He won't have a choice. That's the fun part."
And Crowley was gone.
Dean turned to Cas. "Thanks, you know, for helping me with this."
Castiel looked as serene as ever. "I hope you can convince Sam that he needs his soul."
Dean turned the car back on to the road. "Yeah. Me, too."
By five o'clock the next afternoon, Dean was starting to feel anxious. Sam had looked at him funny all day, and he knew he'd been quiet. He was trying to come up with reasons why Sam should want to feel all the crap that was his life. How he could convince Sam that feeling was better than not feeling. He wasn't coming up with much. Sam's life had been one long parade of feeling like shit.
But, he didn't know what time Crowley was going to show up, so he knew he had to act. Sam was on his bed, cleaning his guns. Dean came over, sat across from him on his own bed. "Sam. I need to talk to you."
Sam looked up, continued what he was doing. "Yeah?"
Dean rubbed his hands along his thighs. Cleared his throat. "Um, it's about your soul. It's about, maybe getting it back."
Sam tilted his head. "How is that even possible?"
Dean zeroed in on him. "If it were possible, would you want to?"
Sam tilted his head, considered, wiped the handle of his gun. "I don't know. No, I don't think so."
Dean's heart kicked up. He strove for calm. "Why not?"
Sam put down his rag. Laid the gun on a towel. Looked directly at Dean. "You really have to ask? I mean, come on, Dean. Think of it, if you didn't have to feel any of it. Mom, dad…hell. If you knew it all, but, just, didn't have to be drowning in it all the time? Is that really such a bad thing?"
Dean breathed in, breathed out. He felt like he was arguing in front of the Supreme Court for Sam's life. He couldn't screw this up. He was going to have to reach him without the connection that had always been between them. He felt lost. Just tell him what you really feel. Maybe that will reach him. So, Dean consciously tried to drop his walls, to speak to his brother like he had in his head all those months he'd thought Sam was dead. "Sam, this is really, really important to me. If you ever listen to me, listen to me now, okay? I heard you out, I listened just like you asked me to, right?"
Sam looked so still, so uninterested. He just kept his steady gaze on Dean, almost no expression on his face. If Dean had to look at that for the rest of his life, he was going to eat a bullet. Jesus. Dean sighed. "This is your soul we're talking about, Sammy. The essence of who you are. Without it, you're just…"
Sam nodded. "I know. I'm not the same. If you don't want to deal with me, I get it. It's okay. You don't have to-"
"Fuck that! Yes, I do have to!" Dean stood up and started to pace. "You're my brother, Sam. My family. It's…" everything to me. He swallowed around the emotion climbing up his throat. "And, this" he gestured to Sam, waving his hand, "this is fucked up! You are not a robot. You're a person. Your soul makes you everything that you are. Everything that I -"
Sam raised his brow in question. Like he didn't quite get what Dean was trying to say. Dean tried to calm down. Think, Dean. Reach him through his head, if you can't touch his heart. "Sam, you remember when we were in Stull, don't you? I mean, Lucifer was in control, but he said you were in there, that you could see everything. Could you?"
Sam looked down. Dead feelings or not, Stull had to get some reaction out of him. He spoke quietly. "Yes, Dean. I remember Stull. I remember Lucifer wanting to break every one of your bones, and using my hands to do it. You think I want to feel that helpless rage again? This is not helping your argument."
Dean noticed Sam's breathing had gotten a little faster. It gave him hope. "Do you remember what I said to you while you were-while Lucifer was beating the crap out of me?"
Sam swallowed. "I remember."
Dean raised his brows.
Sam sighed. "You said you weren't going to leave me. That you were there, and you weren't leaving."
Dean nodded, felt his chest tighten with the memory of that moment, when Sam took control. When he stepped back from Dean and told him it was going to be okay. "And, you took control of that evil bastard, and saved the world."
Sam looked away again. Dean sat down next to him on the bed. Put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "That's what it means to have a soul, Sammy. That you would do the hardest thing, the worst thing for yourself, because it was going to help somebody else. That's who Sam Winchester is. That's the guy I want at my side. My brother. The kid I've..." Dean cleared his throat again. "The kid I've loved since the day he was born. The kid that's made me so proud to be his brother. Not this, not some emotionless hunter who punches the clock and cleans his guns and doesn't give a shit. That's not you."
Sam nodded, looked up to Dean with his neutral eyes, his calm expression. "You're right, I'm not that guy any more. But, I'm glad, Dean. I'm glad I'm not him anymore. Because I remember more than Stull." He sighed. "I remember getting Jessica killed. A sweet girl whose only crime was loving me. I remember waking up in Cold Oak, knowing something was wrong, that I shouldn't be there. And, finding out that you had made a deal to save me. That you were going to hell and for what? To bring me back? Who the hell was I to cost you so much, huh? And that whole year, Jesus. Feeling like the stupidest, most useless thing on the planet, because I couldn't get you out of that deal. Oh, and that oh-so-heart-warming memory of watching hellhounds rip you apart. And burying you. That was some good clean fun, wasn't it? Should I go on? That golden time with Ruby, when she convinced me that drinking demon blood was the only way to kill the evil that was Lilith? And, I believed her? And, I did that, just to let Lucifer free to kill how many people again, before we stopped him? It's bad enough that I have to remember it all. That I have to live with it all. But, I don't have to feel it. I don't have to lie awake at night wondering how the hell I'm ever going to sleep again, with all the shit I've done. So, yeah, maybe this isn't me. But, it's what I can live with."
Dean felt his own temper spark. "Yeah, Sam. You lived through all of that. You and me, we fought our way through it. So, what? None of that matters anymore? You're so full of self-pity you're gonna live like a mannequin the rest of your life? Remember what Hendricks said when he threw us in jail? 'Life sucks, get a helmet.' And, sometimes, especially for us, life really does suck. But, Sam, it's us. And, what do we keep learning over and over again? That, if we stick together, we can get through all the evil shit the world, or heaven or hell throws at us. Somehow, after everything, you're here with me and it's a goddamned miracle. Whatever came before, you can deal with it. You can let yourself feel it, it can't hurt you now. That stuff is over. And, you're robbing yourself of what might still be out there for you to feel. Jesus, you don't laugh, you don't bitch, you don't even smile at puppies or babies."
Sam closed his eyes, let his head drop. Dean hoped he was still listening. "Sam, this is no way to live. You can't really enjoy anything if you can't feel anything. And, besides the way you're cheating yourself, you're cheating me. I need you to be here with me. Not this machine. Not the guy who looks out the window thinking of the next hunt. Just, you. Just my brother. I need it like I need nothing else, man. I need you with me, Sam. Please."
Sam sighed, like the argument for his soul was getting tedious. "Dean, I'm sorry if I'm a disappointment, but this is my choice. I-"
In the next breath, Crowley and a demon whose skin was still smoking were standing in front of them. Crowley smiled, holding the vessel, an older looking man, by a rope around its neck. "Well, I believe Damian here has something that belongs to you, Gigantor."
Sam looked from Dean to Crowley and back again. He didn't sound happy when his eyes narrowed at Dean. "You did this."
Dean didn't cower. "You're damn right I did."
Sam's voice was almost stern. "I told you I don't want it."
At that, Damian smiled. "Well, then. There's no problem, is there? Looks like we went through all this for nothing, Crowley."
Crowley gave the rope a good yank, and Damian's eyes lost their smirk. The noose tightened, the demon gasped and Crowley looked bored. "You have about two minutes here, Sam. Before Damian has to go downstairs for a little corporal punishment. This offer will expire at that time."
Dean looked up at him. "What?"
Crowley shrugged. "A human soul is a hot commodity, Dean. If Sam here doesn't want his, well, I can put it to excellent use."
Dean turned to Sam. "You hear that? You want your soul in some demon's hands, so he can bargain his way up the chain of command in hell? Is that why you beat back Lucifer and jumped into the pit? So demons could use you like a freakin' poker chip?"
Sam shook his head. He looked at Dean with real concern in his eyes. "Dean, I don't think I can stand any more. I…I don't want to feel what it was like down there. Please."
Dean put his hand back on Sam's shoulder. "Sam, you can handle it. I'll help you. I'll be here the whole time. What I told you in Stull is still true. It's always gonna be true."
Sam's voice was soft, when he finally spoke. "I'm afraid I'll go crazy."
Dean smirked. "As if. You think a little hell PTSD is gonna take you down. Please." He pulled Sam in closer, leaned their foreheads together. "Please, Sam. I want you back with me. The real you. I'll help, every step of the way. Whatever you need. Just, don't give up - on me or yourself. Please, Sam." Dean put all of his will into his words. Prayed like he hadn't in a long time. Please let him say yes. I'm begging. Let him say yes. Please…
Crowley huffed out a breath. "Going once…going twice…"
Dean looked at Sam, ready to get on his knees and beg, but Sam had his eyes closed, and he was breathing fast. Did that mean-?
With barely a whisper, Sam said, "Give it back."
Crowley said a soft, "Well, damn it all…"
An overwhelming white light filled the room, causing Dean to close his eyes. When he opened them again, Crowley and his demon were gone, and Sam was on the floor, curled in a fetal position. Dean thought maybe he was unconscious, but Sam was groaning, and his head started thrashing from side to side.
Dean got down on the floor next to him, pulled Sam's shoulders into his lap, tried to get a look at his face. Sam was trying to pull away from him, and damn, the kid was strong. Dean grasped harder. "Sam, stop! Stop fighting me. Just, try to relax."
But, Sam was too strong. He pulled away, rolled to his feet. His chest was heaving, and his eyes were streaming. He kept putting his hands to his head, over his ears, then over his eyes. He yanked on his hair, then covered his eyes again. He was murmuring, "No…no, no, no. Stop…Oh, God. Fuck. Stop!"
Dean felt a wave of guilt. I did this to him…But, he pushed it back. They could do this. A hurting, overwhelmed Sam was better than a feel-nothing robot Sam, any day. If that made Dean a selfish asshole for wanting his brother, his real brother back, well, then. So be it. He was. He walked over to Sam, put his hands over Sam's where they covered his eyes. As gently as he could, he spoke to a reeling Sam. "Hey…hey, it's okay. Take it easy. We can do this. Just, try to breathe, okay? That's all you have to do right now, Sammy. Just breathe. You can do that, right? In and out…come on." He steered Sam over to the bed, sat them both down, side by side.
Sam's breathing started to slow. He lifted his hands away from his eyes and grabbed onto Dean's wrists. He put Dean's hands up to his face, tried to slow his breathing. His grip was tight and panicked. Dean let his hands relax, and opened them so he was holding Sam's head gently in his grip. He let his fingers stroke the shaggy hair. "That's it, you're doing great. Just like that, Sam. Just, in and out. I'm right here, man."
Sam got a hold of himself, finally. He pushed Dean's hands off his head and turned away. He fell face down into a pillow on the bed, gripping it in his hands, pressing it to his ears. Dean let his hand rest on Sam's back. That Sam didn't push it away, Dean counted as a victory. A long time passed. Maybe half an hour. Dean just sat there, with his hand on Sam's back. After a while, he'd started to stroke up and down, telling Sam he was doing great, that he could do this, that it was going to be okay. Mostly, he just wanted Sam to know he was there.
When Sam started to loosen his grip on the pillow, Dean stopped his stroking. He just let his hand rest on the middle of Sam's back. And he waited.
Sam finally turned his head so he wasn't face down in the pillow. He let out a long breath, kept his eyes closed. He groaned a soft, "Oh, God…"
Dean leaned down. "You want some water or something?"
Sam kept his eyes closed. Tears were drying on his face, he was still breathing hard. "How about some frickin' tequila? Jesus, Dean, water? How about a band-aid and a lolly-pop. Then it will be all better. Shit."
Dean couldn't help it, he laughed. He tried to hold it in, but it was just so Sam. After over a year of missing this, missing him, Sam was back.
When Sam opened one eye and gave him the mini bitch face, Dean felt so damn happy he actually leaned down and kissed the side of Sam's head. "Welcome back, Sammy!"
Sam closed his eye, sighed. "Shut up. This just sucks so hard…I hope you're happy."
Dean sobered a little at that. He was happy. Sam was suffering, but Dean was freaking over the moon. "I'm proud of you, Sam."
Sam sighed and rolled onto his back. Dean sat back to give him room. "It's all there, Dean. Everything that was done to me down there." His voice came softer. "Everything I did down there. All that shit I didn't want to ever feel again."
Dean nodded. "I know. But, Sam, you can handle it. I promise, you can. I'll help you if you need it."
Sam gave a short laugh. "Oh, you bet you will. Every time I freak out and want to run screaming into the night, I'm gonna wake your ass up and make you fix it."
Dean smiled, nodded. "I can do that."
Sam scoffed. "Sure, you say that now. Wait til it's 3:00 am and I think I'm in the cage again. That'll be some fun times."
Dean didn't lose his smile. "No problem, man. We can play Scrabble and you can cheat with all your non-words."
Sam raised a brow. "You play Scrabble?"
Dean looked affronted. "Hey, I have an extensive vocabulary."
Sam sighed. "Dean, you can't use sexual positions or cuss words."
Dean's heart was doing a frickin' dance, he was so happy. Sam must have seen it on his face, because, for the first time in forever, Sam gave him a little sardonic smile. "You're really stoked about this, huh? All my pain and craziness, it's really making you happy?"
Dean's smile dimmed. "Your pain will never make me happy, Sam. Jesus. Having you back, really having you back, that's making me pretty damn happy, yeah."
Sam sighed, closed his eyes. "Honestly, Dean. It was really nice not to have to feel any of it."
Dean nodded. "It was easy, you mean."
Sam opened his eyes. He looked tired and spent and slightly pissed off. Dean had never seen anything so beautiful. Sam huffed out a breath. "Yeah, it was easy, okay? God, you make it sound like a crime."
Dean shook his head. "Not a crime, Sam. Just, not the Winchester way."
Sam's laugh was meager, but there. "Ain't that the truth. Lucky us."
Dean put his hand on Sam's chest, right over his heart. "Right now? Yeah, I feel pretty goddamned lucky."
Sam put his hand over Dean's. His smile was a little more genuine. "That's cause you're a freak."
Dean tilted his head. "True enough." He signed, rolled his neck. "You hungry?"
Sam considered. "Actually, I am."
Dean stood up, slapped Sam's leg. "Well, come on. I'll treat you to a steak. It's not every day you get your soul back."
Sam rolled to his feet. He stood there a minute, looking around the room, then his eyes landed on Dean. "It's weird. I feel heavier because I know there's a shitload of emotions to wade through. But I'm lighter, too. Like, it took more energy to move around without…you know."
Dean pulled on his jacket. "Without 'Essence of Sammy?'"
Dean took his car keys out of his pocket. "Sam, you weren't yourself. Whether you thought it was easier or whatever, you were not really you. That has to take a toll, don't you think?"
Sam shrugged. "Maybe. But, you know, being me takes a pretty big toll all on its own."
Dean opened the door, felt the crisp fall breeze roll over him. "You and me, Sam. We'll take care of it, okay?"
Sam walked through the door with him. "Yeah. Yeah, I hope we will."
"Damn right we will." Dean felt his appetite kick in like he hadn't felt in forever. "Now, let's eat. I'm starving."
"Dean, always with the food. How are you not 300 pounds?"
Dean was unashamed to admit to himself that he felt real joy in that moment. His brother was back, really back. And, for Dean, nothing else mattered. Nothing else would ever matter more than this.