Dean had tried to stay awake. He'd sat next to Sam in Bobby's panic room for almost 24 hours. Ever since Death had jammed Sam's soul back where it belonged, Sam had been lying there, passed out or sleeping, Dean wasn't sure. Either way, Dean hadn't been able to leave. Bobby had asked him to get some rest, said that he would keep watch. Dean, just…he couldn't leave. He had to see for himself that Sam was really Sam.
So, he'd sat, then he'd laid down, then he'd walked the perimeter, then he'd sat some more. He was doing everything but lifting Sam's damned eyelids to see if he was in there.
But, stubborn jackass that he was, Sam remained oblivious. And Dean just waited. Waited for Sam to look at him like…like he was a brother, not a...nothing. He wasn't expecting a movie of the week moment. He didn't really think Sam was going to spring up, wrap him in a manly hug and say 'Dean! Wow, I sure did miss you! And, hey, thanks for going against every principle you've ever had, working for demons just to get my soul back. I really appreciate it, man!'
But, he did expect…something. Because he'd lived with the shell of Sam for too long and it had been fucked up. Sometimes, he'd forgotten, because it had actually seemed like Sam, sitting next to him in the Impala, or lying on the bed next to him, talking about a case. But, then, he'd do something cold-blooded or just…off, and Dean would remember.
Oh, yeah. Not Sam.
It had been like wearing clothes that were too small, or breathing air that was too thin. It had all been wrong.
So, yeah, he'd partnered up with every evil creature he could to get his Sam back. Truthfully, Crowley could have asked him for any damn thing and he probably would have given it or done it. Just…he'd needed to get his brother out of that place and back where he belonged like he needed to breathe.
Sure, everyone kept telling him how Sam's soul was shredded, how being Lucifer's plaything was going to make him jello on a plate if he tried to get him back. But, Dean had enough experience to know that anything was better than being trapped in hell. Dean had been there for four months. He'd had Alistair rip him apart every way he could be torn. When he'd broken, he'd been the one doing the ripping. His time there had carved torment into him, the likes of which he would never fully recover from.
Sam, because his whole damn life was a freaking curse, had not only been there four times as long, but, he'd had Lucifer himself work him over. Dean didn't know what to expect when he returned. But, he did know, it was still better than staying down there.
So, he'd been waiting, sitting on the cold cement floor of the panic room, breathing through the non-stop swoop and swirl of his thoughts…was Sam really back? How messed up was he? Would he remember everything his shell-self had done in the last year or so?
Finally, exhaustion had weighed heavier than his thoughts. Dean had laid down on the floor next to Sam's cot, just to shut his eyes for a minute. And he'd fallen asleep. When he woke up, he was covered in the blanket, the cot was empty, and Sam was gone.
Dean got up, threw the blanket down and, for what felt like the thousandth time, went in search of his brother.
When he got upstairs, the house was dark. He glanced at the digital clock on the oven. 4:30 in the morning. He'd slept for a few hours. The house was cold and the front door was open. Sam could be anywhere by now.
Dean ran out onto the porch and just as he was ready to make a Van Damm leap off the porch, he almost tripped over Sam. He was just sitting there, at the top of the steps leading down to the yard. He didn't turn when Dean came crashing out, just sat there, shoulders hunched, arms folded across the top of his knees. Dean saw him raise an arm, wipe a sleeve across his eyes. Heard him clear his throat. 'Hey, Dean.' He pulled in a breath, and Dean heard it hitch.
Dean almost fell to his knees in relief. You're here. After everything…you're finally here. He walked closer, felt his own chest go tight. "Sam?"
Sam let out another breath. Dean could feel him reaching for control. He wiped his arm across his eyes again. Softly, he said. "Yeah. It's really me this time."
Dean heard the quiet voice, the familiar tone moved through him, and something that had been clenched inside him for the last year and a half, let go. All the, 'this isn't right…something is off' that had been blaring through his head since Sam returned, quieted. Because this kid who was crying, who spoke in that quiet, defeated tone? That was Sam.
Dean sat down next to Sam on the top step, looked over at him. He was about to say 'welcome back,' or some other pithy shit, when he saw the gun in Sam's hand.
So much for unclenching. "Sam?"
Sam wiped at his eyes again, took in a deep breath, slowly released it. Didn't answer.
Dean cleared his throat. "How ya doing?"
Sam gave a tired, sad laugh. He kept his gaze focused on the car-filled yard, but he spoke softly. "Do you ever wonder about the order of the universe? What we're supposed to accomplish while we're here?"
Dean sighed. "Do you think I ever wonder about the order of the universe?"
Dean saw the corner of Sam's mouth kick up in a barely-there grin. "I'm just reviewing, you know? Wondering if I've fulfilled any sort of purpose, with the choices I've made and the way my life has gone."
Dean considered. There certainly was a lot to review. Most of it not too pretty, really. They'd both made some big mistakes. But, they'd done a lot of good, too. He went with that. "You've saved a lot of people, Sam. Your whole life, you've fought to save other people."
Sam nodded. "And, I've killed a lot of people, Dean. I think, probably, I've killed a lot more people than I've saved."
"You stopped the Apocalypse."
"I started the Apocalypse. So, you know, kind of cancels out."
Dean heard the defeated tone, understood where it was coming from. But, frankly, after the last little while, he just wasn't in the mood. "Sam, I get it, okay? I know you are processing a whole lot of shit right now. But, you will work through it. The most important thing is, you are out of hell. Lucifer can't do anything to you anymore, and you're free. Can't we just…can't we be happy about that? Just for a minute?"
Sam nodded. His voice was still soft, sad, when he spoke. "Yeah. You saved me. You did that, and I know what it cost you. I should feel glad that I'm me again, and grateful that you - again - sacrificed so much to get me back." He finally turned so he could look at Dean. "And, I am. You got me out, Dean. So, no matter what happens, thank you for that." He turned back out toward the yard, took in another couple of breaths. "This isn't about me being ungrateful. You are…well, you're an awesome big brother. That's always been true. You never give up on me. I'm not quite sure why, but, you never do. And, I am grateful."
And, Dean was so happy to hear Sam's words, so damn moved that Sam was back with him, with his sappy girly-talk and his sincere eyes, that he almost missed the next part.
Sam shook his head. "Just, I feel like I've messed up whatever role I was supposed to play, like, in life. And, if the universe had somehow picked someone else to be your brother, how much better this would have all gone, for you, for everyone, you know? I mean, anyone would have handled it all better than I did, don't you think?"
Dean snorted. "You mean, some other guy would have handled being fed demon blood as a baby and getting freaky mind powers? Some other guy would not have been seduced by the manipulations of a centuries-old demon? Or, another random guy would have willingly suited up with Lucifer to ride him back to hell? Like, that kind of stuff?"
Sam glanced over at him. "Yeah. That kind of stuff."
"Sam, who's even ever heard of any of this shit? There is no instruction manual for battling demons and angels and power that is beyond anyone's understanding. We did the best we could. Going back and second guessing everything serves no purpose. It's over. We survived. Maybe we screwed up the time space continuum because of it, but, so what? We played the cards on the table at the time. We're here. Can't we call it a win and go forward?"
Sam shook his head. "You haven't made the mistakes I've made." He looked at Dean again. "You always seem to keep your footing, keep your head on straight, no matter what's in front of us. Hell, Dean, you handled every damn thing, and I…" There came that sad laugh again, and his eyes went back out to the yard. "I didn't. And, now…I remember what I did without my soul. I remember the questionable kills, the enthusiastic torture of just about anything. I remember that I can be a pretty ruthless bastard." He started to say something else, then, had to swallow a sudden sob. He clenched his jaw, made himself continue even as his voice shook. "I remember what I did to you, what I let that vamp do to you. I remember thinking 'this will finally get us somewhere' as he bit into your neck." He gave another one of those short, harsh laughs. "I fucking stalked Bobby like I was Ted Bundy." He took in a couple of uneven breaths. Wiped over his eyes with an impatient hand. "I think, just. Maybe it's time to just let it go, you know? To stop. Just, get off the train and call it a day. Let everyone have some peace. Let me have some peace."
Dean's heart pounded with emotion. This was what he'd wanted. He'd wanted Sam back. And, here he was. Careful what you wish for, Dean.
Sam went on. "I know that's not what you'd do. Not what you'd want me to do. I know it's giving up. But, sometimes…I just. I can't really see a way forward, you know? How to live with everything I've done. Everything that's been done to me." He turned and looked at Dean, his eyes alive with pain and questions and grief. "I know it's weak, but, Jesus, Dean. I just don't know how to make it all okay."
Dean hitched closer, until his shoulder was brushing Sam's, needed the contact. "Sam, everything that's happened…everything we've had to do, mistakes we've made, it just…is. We can't undo it or wave a wand and have it not have happened. The only thing we can do…is go on. Keep trying. Look for evil to hunt and people to save. Wondering what we could have done differently? There's no point."
Sam nodded, put both his hands over his face and scrubbed over his eyes. He let his hands drop, looked out at the yard. "Yeah. We're Winchesters, and Winchesters just keep going. No matter the cost. I know that." He shook his head. "I'm amazed at your resilience, man. I mean, really. You take all the hard shit and you just move through it. You handle all the anger and sadness, the betrayal…my betrayal, and grit your teeth and get on with it. But, I can't seem to do that. I feel like…it's choking me, like…it's never going to go away. And, that's without what's waiting for me when I remember what it was like to be in hell. I don't see how to make it make any sense at all."
He turned and glanced at Dean again. "I let you get turned into a vampire, Dean. How do we get past that?"
Dean looked at Sam, willed him to understand. "It wasn't you."
Sam made a dismissive sound, didn't look away. "How many times have you had to tell yourself that, hm? I was possessed, I was on demon blood, I was soulless. My God, let's call a spade a spade. I am your worst nightmare, man. I make a life that's already pretty damn hard, like, a thousand times worse. When do we just agree that it's enough? I mean…really, enough."
Dean continued to hold his gaze. "Never."
Sam snorted and finally looked away.
Dean let out a long breath. "Sam, for whatever reason, this is our life. We wade through evil shit and we handle it. That's it. We suffer for it, okay. Sometimes, we suffer for it a lot. But, we save people that, otherwise, wouldn't have a chance."
Sam didn't look convinced. Dean nudged him gently with his shoulder. "Remember what you said to me after the djinn first got me, when I had the whole other life with Mom and Jess and you being all lawyerly? When I came back, you told me that our life, what we do, it wasn't fair. That, it hurt like hell, but it was worth it. The people we save, the fact that we're doing this together, that it was worth it. You remember that?"
Sam nodded, still looking out at the yard. "Yeah, I remember. But, Dean. That was a long time ago. So much has happened since then…"
Dean nodded, looked out, watched the fog move slowly among the cars in Bobby's yard. "Yeah. A hell of a lot of stuff has happened. But, Sam, we're still here. Through all the unbelievable shit, we're still here. You and me. And, if I've learned anything the hard way, it's that, if we stick together? We can do just about anything. Doesn't mean it's easy. Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like hell. But, we will find a way to get through whatever it is, you know?"
Sam folded his arms, dropped them back to rest on his knees. Dean again saw the gun glinting in the light of the moon.
He felt the despair rolling off his brother. He understood it, but he couldn't let it stand. Sam had to see the good in what they did, or he'd drown in the rest. Dean dropped his arm across Sam's drooping shoulders. "You can do this, Sam. I promise. We will figure out whatever we have to figure out. In the meantime, same old, same old. Hunting evil, kicking ass and taking names."
Sam turned his head and glanced at Dean. "Right. Because you say so."
Dean smiled, gave the wide shoulders that had carried so much a gentle pat. "Because we will. We always have. Sam, all we can do is what we can do."
Sam scoffed. Looked out for a long moment at the night. The eastern sky was growing lighter. He took in a deep breath, seemed to settle. The stillness between them felt calm. For the first time in a long time, there was no urgency, no unresolved tension, no arguments or battles to wage. Just, a quiet night slowly turning into day. Sam nodded. Slid a glance back at Dean. His face seemed less weary, his demeanor less heavy. "All we can do is what we can do, huh? Who are you, Yoda?"
"Hey, that little gnome made some good points." A cold gush of wind came across the yard and Dean felt Sam shiver. He reached down and took the gun out of Sam's lax hand. Sam's head came up at that. Dean dropped an eyebrow, gave Sam an 'I-am-not-even-kidding' glare. "Forget this and the horse it rode in on. You will find your way, Sam. You always do. Just, be patient. I'm here. Bobby's here. We'll get through it. Just," he waggled the gun, "no more of this shit, okay?"
Sam sighed, seemed to accept that. Then, he stiffened, and pulled back. "Oh my God. Bobby. What do I -"
Dean held up a hand. "Sam. Bobby understands. He doesn't blame you for not having a soul, for christ's sake." Dean stood. "He's probably up making you a freakin' grilled cheese right now."
From beyond the still-open front door, they heard a gruff, "It's tomato soup, smart ass."
That, finally, got a small smile out of Sam.
Dean grinned. "See? You are just that lovable, man."
Sam stood, still didn't move to come inside. "You know I'm sorry, right? For everything you've had to live with the last few months, how I treated you -"
"Sam. Stop. Seriously, can we not re-hash the greatest hits of RoboSam?"
Dean pulled Sam's arm, to bring him toward the now warmly-lit house. "One of the nicknames we had for soulless you."
"I had nicknames?"
"Well, you were a weird dude."
At the threshold, before he would step inside, Sam gripped Dean's sleeve. "This is really gonna be okay?"
Dean smiled. Felt like it was the first real smile he'd worn since Stull Cemetery. "It's really gonna be okay."
"Doesn't feel like it's gonna be-"
"Jesus, shut up and get inside. I'm freezing out here. I'm not even wearing shoes...move your gigantic ass, will ya?"
Sam pushed him into the house. "Nobody made you come out with no shoes…"
And the door shut as they both went inside.