Author's Note: Written prior to 6.11, and therefore semi-canon compliant. Ish.
The thing was, he'd known it would be bad.
Fuck knew what the cage was like, or how long Sam's soul had been there. Fuck knew how Sam's soul would deal with what he'd done in its absence.
But he'd still thought, stubbornly, that anything would be better than Sam-I'm-Not with no feelings and no love and no empathy or anything, and –
Yeah. He'd definitely underestimated how bad 'bad' could get.
It was better now, if you could call the fact that when he was awake it was all near constant twitching and staring at nothing, 'better.' If you could call the fact that when he was asleep, Sam screamed until his voice gave out and then just twisted, writhing, mouth open and tendons bulging but not a sound emerging, 'better.'
Less than twenty-four hours after his soul landed, Dean found Sam with the barrel of a gun between his teeth and it was only sheer, stupid luck that he'd been shaking too hard to pull the trigger. Dean had yelled himself hoarse then, beyond furious.
It had still happened twice after that.
Dean didn't leave Sam on his own anymore.
The thing was, his little brother was wrecked, and he didn't look like bouncing back. Not this time.
He'd managed to acquire anti-depressants and seriously heavy-duty sedatives and a whole ton of other things to see if they worked, but the first just seemed to barely keep Sam level and minimally functional, and the latter Sam only took when Dean could slip it to him.
In the first days, after Sam first tried to eat his gun and Dean and Bobby had put him so far under he seemed dead, he'd said to Bobby that Sam would be fine. A week later, he'd brought up hospitalization. "Maybe it'd be better," he said half-heartedly as Sam screamed and sobbed upstairs. "They know what to do. They wouldn't lose track of him and risk something happening – he'd be safe," he said, desperately, and Bobby'd just looked at him.
"Yeah," he'd said. "You could. But you won't, and that's the way it is."
Dean tried not to wonder if he'd mad the wrong choice. Just like he tried not to wonder if Sam had been better off without his soul. Just like he tried not to wonder if it was his fault that enough had been enough and Sam had finally lost it. Just like he tried not to wonder if Sam had been gone for too long and was never coming back.
The thing was, Sam was at his best while hunting. Dean hadn't intended for them to hunt at all, but it was Sam who'd found the first hunt on one of his better days and he'd insisted until Dean gave in because it looked easy. He'd been fine through the duration – other than dealing with the witnesses, because Sam wasn't great with people anymore – and taken down the spirit and kept Dean's back just like he was supposed to.
But when it was over, Sam was gone again, melting into a heap of slag metal that flinched when Dean looked at him and said his name. It was like outside of the hunt, everything else was too much, and really, shouldn't it have been the other way around?
There were bad days and worst days, but Sam always seemed to pull together enough to coerce Dean into hunting, even if he was inevitably worse afterwards.
Dean couldn't decide which was a bigger problem.
"You're staring again. Can't look away?"
It was one of the better days. Sam's eyes were hollow but he was twitching less, and his eyes would almost focus on Dean. He forced a smirk. A long time ago Dean would have made a crack about watching a train wreck, but that seemed a little too apt now.
"Yeah, can't look away from the wall." He let the smile drop as Sam's shoulders hunched and his eyes flicked left, glancing – maybe at something only he could see. Sam wouldn't admit to the fact that he hallucinated sometimes, but Dean could guess, much as he didn't want to. "You all right?" He asked, quickly, and Sam glanced at him, focusing for maybe a second.
"Well enough to lie," Dean said, more sharply than he meant, and Sam flinched.
"I'm not going to kill myself." Sam's voice was caustic. Dean whipped his head around and glared.
"Don't even – Sam." Just thinking about it made him feel sick. "Just don't. Can you even tell me you don't think about it?"
Sam just shrugged, eyes flickering around the room too rapidly. "It's not that bad." Which was so far from a 'no' that it made Dean want to grab his brother and shake him until he admitted that death wouldn't solve anything, and it would be a sucky thing to do to Dean anyway. He kind of thought Sam might know that part and it was why he hadn't…tried again. So far.
"Today," Dean said, persistently. "What about tomorrow, or next week? You might not know where you are or-"
Sam tensed up. "I don't need you to tell me how fucked up I am, Dean." Sam just sounded tired, in spite of the tightness around his eyes and mouth that Dean recognized as usually preceding some of his worse episodes. He pressed his fingers to his temples and Dean frowned.
"Did you take your meds?" A side effect of the Prozac or whatever it was., or maybe just a side effect of life, but Sam's periodic migraines were almost regular occurrences now. There were pills for that, too.
"Not for my head. Everything else, yeah. I've told you I hate how those make me feel."
"Not today." Sam's voice was almost firm. "It's not that bad. Let me have a little control of my life for a day. All right?"
Dean deflated. Sam sounded so close to his old self that Dean couldn't say no. "Okay. If you're sure."
"I'm sure." Sam's smile was weak and forced, not a trace of dimples to be seen, but he tried. "It'll be okay. I'm better today. Really."
Dean knew it wouldn't last; that better was just an illusion that would probably exhaust Sam more to maintain, but in a selfish way he was glad that Sam was trying, no matter how bad tomorrow might be. "Okay, Sammy," he said, and on an impulse reached out and ruffled his little brother's shaggy hair. Sam just looked at him and Dean let himself laugh, just a little. Not quite a bitchface, but almost.
He knew pretending was dangerous, but he couldn't help himself. It was too much of a relief to be able to act like Sam was sane and stable and all that. He realized, belatedly, that Sam was now watching him – actually watching, not just looking vaguely in his general direction.
"It's just funny," Sam said, his voice quieter. Dean frowned.
"You look all…wistful." Sam waved a hand vaguely, starting to look awkward. "Are you sure you don't want to go see – anyone? I could go to Bobby's if you want to try to-"
Dean knew who that 'anyone' meant. And knew just as much that it meant Sam was probably ripping himself up over that even on top of Hell. Ouch. "No thanks, I'm good. And that's not what I was thinking about."
Sam's eyebrows quirked. "What were you thinking about?"
"What we could do today."
Sam squared his shoulders in the way that meant he was going to say something Dean didn't like, and Dean stiffened. "I thought," he said, eyes doing that flickering thing again, "That maybe we could go out. Find a quiet bar and have a few drinks – well, you'd have a few drinks," he said, quickly, as Dean opened his mouth. "I'd just have water…"
Dean stared at Sam, incredulous. Sam could barely deal with the witnesses or random people on the street who wanted to ask for directions, let alone a bar, even a quiet one (if there was such a thing). "Are you serious?" He asked, trying to inject all his skepticism into his voice.
Even if it would be nice to get out, see some pretty girls – that he couldn't take home, and couldn't leave with, he reminded himself. It just wasn't worth the risk.
"Dean," Sam said. "I don't want to keep you inside all the time. I'm feeling better right now and you won't go without me, so-"
Dean hesitated. He had to trust Sam a little to know what he was talking about since Dean couldn't exactly check the temperature in his head. And he did want to get out of this musty room, and he wasn't about to leave Sam on his own. "Okay," he said, finally. "Okay. We'll find someplace quiet, but only for a couple hours, and if you start feeling – anything, let me know and we'll leave, no matter what. Are we clear?"
"We're clear." Sam's eyes glanced at that corner again, and actually fixed on it for a moment the way they wouldn't on Dean. Dean tensed, but –
"I promise. Come on."
They slipped out, and Dean kept Sam a few steps ahead of him, just in case. Sam hadn't been in a place to deal with it, but Dean knew his brother was a magnet for trouble, always had been, and now he was vulnerable, and supernatural things always seemed to recognize that kind of thing.
Dean wasn't letting any supernatural baddie get to his brother again.
The evening went well. For a while.
They found someplace fairly quiet, inhabited mostly by veterans and older folks. Sam tried not to flinch at the cautious glances thrown their way, and Dean put a hand on his shoulder, steadying him, and wondering if this had been a bad idea. Sam straightened with apparent new resolve, though, and actually chose a table. Decisions were rare from him these days.
Dean ordered a beer and a lemonade from the bartender, and sat down across from Sam, shifting his chair automatically so he could watch the whole room and Sam, just in case.
His brother looked okay, though, and Dean relaxed. Marginally.
"Sorry there aren't any girls," murmured Sam, and Dean tried to smirk.
"Hey, I'll get another chance."
"You know, you can leave me alone for a couple of hours if you want a one night stand, ever."
Dean tensed. "No. I can't." They both had dreams they didn't talk about. Dean's were about finding his brother's brains blown out across the wall in a familiar spattering pattern. Sam made an exasperated huffing noise that was so vintage Sam that it made Dean almost want to smile in spite of the memory of nightmares.
"Do we need money?" Sam asked, abruptly. Dean blinked at the sudden change of subject, then followed Sam's gesture to the pool table, where a few people were already playing. Dean tensed.
"So we do," Sam corrected, "But you don't want me to play. Dean, I can't just…I need to figure this out. And it'll only happen if I work at it. It's just pool, and these people don't talk very much. I'll be fine."
Dean grimaced. "I could do it."
"You could." Sam put his hands on the table, and his eyes actually stayed still and focused on Dean for longer than a few seconds. "But I need to."
Dean stared at Sam and finally dropped his eyes as the bartender brought over the beer and lemonade. You can't keep him tucked away forever, a small voice nagged in his brain. It's not healthy, it's not right. "Okay," he said, "Okay, fine. Go ahead. I'll be right here if you need – anything."
"You mean rescuing," Sam said, and again there was that forced curl to his mouth, but maybe it was a little less forced this time as he stood up, hands in his pockets and shoulders slouched, and went over to the pool table.
Dean watched him talk them into a game. He looked awkward, but not tense, at least not visibly; kept his distance but didn't twitch or look around too often. Dean couldn't tell if his eyes were flickering from point to point from here.
He sipped his beer and watched closely as Sam lost the first game, then won the next. He looked natural, relaxed, almost, and if it weren't for the fact that he'd lost weight in the last couple months, he could almost have been normal.
Until halfway through the second game Sam's gaze came up, looked past Dean and into the dark, and he flinched, starting back and dropping his cue. His face froze and he started twitching. Dean came to his feet and started toward the table, but not fast enough to keep his current opponent from stepping up and reaching out to touch Sam's shoulder, looking concerned. A good-natured loser. Godsend, but not enough.
"Hey, you all right?" Dean could see the guy's mouth shape the words and his hand made contact.
Dean had seen Sam move like that before. It didn't make it any less surprising when it happened; in seconds, the guy was down on the ground, clutching his nose, and Sam had crammed himself into a corner, shaking violently and his eyes staring way ahead at nothing.
He reached Sam, finally (too late), grabbed his shoulders and shook him gently. "Hey," he said, "Hey, Sam. It's okay, it's me, you're okay-"
It didn't seem to be reaching him, and people were eddying closer. "What the hell," one of them was saying, and Dean squeezed his eyes closed and fisted a hand in Sam's jacket.
"He just," Dean said, and then gritted his teeth and said, because it was something people understood and it was probably close enough, "PTSD. Sorry. We'd better go."
He hauled Sam to his feet, though it wasn't easy and Sam still wasn't fixing on him or anything. Shit, shit. He never should have agreed to this. He never should have let Sam try to deal with people.
"It's okay," the guy from the floor was saying. "It's – Jesus, haven't seen someone move that fast in years…"
Still had his reflexes, then. Congratulations, Sammy. Now, if we could just get your freaky head sorted out…
Sam shook himself abruptly, twitched once more, and then looked at Dean, eyes focusing back down before they darted away. He blinked twice. "Hey," Dean said. "You okay?"
"Fine," Sam said, but Dean knew even better than last time how much that was a lie. He wrapped his arm around Sam's bicep and squeezed once.
"Come on. We're leaving."
"But we just got here," Sam said, and he sounded confused. Dean winced and sighed. He managed to turn to the bar tender.
"Can I – come back in and pay?" The guy was looking at him with pity in his eyes. God, if Sam saw that he would be so pissed. If he even recognized it.
"Nah, it's okay. Call it good." Someone else pressed cash into his hand and said, "Here, he won this. Good luck."
Dean wanted to wince all over again. Sam's head swiveled around and looked at him without recognition, his brows drawn down. How had he slipped so fast? "Thanks," he managed. "Thank you. We appreciate it."
He managed to get Sam out to the car without further trouble, and eased him into the passenger seat of the Impala, where Sam leaned forward until his head hit the dash with a solid thunk.
"Hey, Sam," Dean said, immediately worried, because Sam's shoulders were shaking.
"I'm sorry," he said, and he sounded coherent. Sort of. "Sorry. I ruined it. I wanted – you to have a night – where you didn't have to worry about me-"
Dean squeezed his eyes closed and put a hand between Sam's shoulder blades, spreading out his fingers. "You didn't ruin anything. I'm hanging with my brother. That's good enough for me."
Sam made a noise like he wanted to cringe but couldn't find the energy. "Crazy," he muttered.
"No," Dean said, "Just messed up. It's okay."
It wasn't. It wasn't even a little, but they'd done more with less, and Sam had his soul back, and he had to be grateful, dammit. What was it he'd said to Cas? They'd 'deal with the consequences?'
Well, that was what he was going to do. Deal with the consequences, as long as he had to.
As long as Sam was still here, that was going to have to be enough. Even if it never got better than this.
He started up the car with one hand, leaving the other on Sam's back. "It's okay," he said again, and this time it might have been mostly to himself, but he could have sworn he still felt Sam relax, just a little bit.
The thing was, it was enough. It had to be enough.