Darkness I've been your friend for many years
While everyone else was having good luck
Dear darkness, now it's your time to pay
With all the things you took from us
Now it's your time to look after us
pj harvey - "dear darkness"
Two guys walk into a motel.
If this sounds like the beginning of a joke, it's one that stopped being funny a long time ago, if it ever was.
They're fit and tough-looking, tall, one of them intimidatingly so but with a certain earnestness in the features of his face that helps to soften his overall appearance. They're dressed practically, multiple layers of clothes adding to the impression of a thick and impenetrable shell they each seem to have built up on their outsides.
But they're not guarded and impenetrable to each other, that's clear. Maybe there's only so much you can tell about people on sight, but these two seem to share something that's difficult to quite finger yet undeniable, like they walk around in some invisible bubble of their own separate world. They don't exactly look alike in many ways at all, but there's still so much about them that's the same that it's easy to tell they know each other profoundly well.
Someone is always there at the office desk who takes all of this in, whether with conscious curiosity or just naturally passing observations in the back of their mind, and they take down a name from one of them that sounds fake rolling off his tongue somehow and then ask the usual questions.
This has happened a hundred times. "Two queens," one answers. And of course there isn't always some kind of crack in response like "Whatever you say" or "Right..." Like Uh huh, sure you're brothers. It isn't always like that, but there's often something Dean and Sam can see in a stranger's eyes in these various kinds of moments of first meeting, like the other senses some kind of discordance between what they're hearing from the two of them and what they're seeing. It isn't necessarily that they don't believe they're brothers or professional partners or whatever. They just seem to know somehow that there's more to it than that, something that can't be explained in so few words or understood just by watching them together.
There's more to the story.
As Dean lies wide awake on Bobby's floor in the dark, his eyes fixed on the heavily sleeping form of his brother on the couch close by as if he still can't quite believe he's finally here again, it's not lost on him how utterly cliché this is. Not to mention totally saccharine. Watching him sleep. Come on.
Nonetheless it's one of the most reassuring sights he's ever seen. It's the first time he's seen it again since he watched him pitch himself straight into Hell over a year ago, after all.
The peaceful way he looks now may not be the best indication of his present condition. Even without remembering all the time he was dead, so far the experience of being returned to his physical body after spending well over a century downstairs has proven to be an incredibly messy and disorienting ordeal for him, and he seems to have a lot of adjusting to do before he can totally or even mostly regain what he was before.
But right now Sam is breathing steadily and staying completely still, definitely deep in sleep without disturbance. He's sleeping like Sam. Like a generally functional human being who lives and feels.
This is his fucked-up, mutilated, ugly, beautiful brother. Soon enough he'll have to deal with all that he is now and what it could mean, all the damage under the surface threatening to break through, but right now it's enough that he's simply alive again. The rest he can deal with later.
Dean had a rip in his T-shirt. It was a hole at the seam of one sleeve that kept getting bigger every time this shirt went through the wash, and it had torn open a little more after a nasty altercation with a Pagan god in Oklahoma a couple months ago.
Sam who was not Sam, who had learned by then there was no point in them talking more than was needed, stood beside him in silence leaning back against the bumper while he loaded all their supplies back into the trunk. Dean thought he caught him staring to the side at him, not at his face but down at the part of his shirt that was ripped open and the skin and muscle of his shoulder exposed there.
Then the moment Dean had just turned his head, he shifted his eyes up and met his gaze. And for just a second as Sam's eyes burned into his steadily and shamelessly, the corner of his mouth twitched up in a self-satisfied smirk. As if just to fuck with him.
Sam then turned to walk around to the passenger seat. "You feel like eating?" he asked casually, pouring ice over the thick and smothering silence.
Dean slammed the trunk shut, feeling something cold and foreign and dirty squirming inside his stomach.
Sam doesn't dream about the cage.
He doesn't dream about the past year that he wasn't himself, the places he saw, the things he killed, the women and men he fucked without knowing their names, the sad movies on TV after midnight that bored him, the long nights spared of nightmares because he never slept.
He doesn't dream about Jess dying, or about horrific deaths of strangers yet to happen, or about Dean dying. He doesn't dream about the devil inside him making him kill Cas then Bobby then Dean, slowly, feeling his bones break and crumble.
He dreams about the little apartment with tired blue wallpaper where he hated living for a couple months when he was sixteen. It's a stupid and mundane dream involving nothing much that he'll remember when he wakes up except that he and Dean are grown, yet the whole nonsense scenario takes place there, strangely, where they lived for just a little while so long ago. Brown door with a peephole like the eye of John or God watching from outside even with the blinds shut and the whole room dim, wheat colored carpet, math equations all over the blue walls, coffee can on top of the fridge that was their emergency bank. He hated it like all the other places, but quite often when he thinks of an apartment it's the vague layout and space of this one that he pictures. He has always remembered the time they were staying in that town well.
Equations written across the walls, except there weren't. It wasn't until that year that he finally lost the habit of writing the name Sammy on his school papers.
Around 10:30 Dean wakes up, sees that Sam is still sleeping, and follows the smell of bacon into the kitchen where Bobby is standing at the stove. He gives Sam a last glance before turning his back toward the sight of him to take a seat at the table and says, "He been up at all?"
"Nope," Bobby answers, also looking over at him a little uneasily.
He asks because Sam first went to sleep around 6:00 the night before. As soon as he'd had his soul restored, it already looked like he was just barely clinging to consciousness and then it seemed hard for him to even think about anything but sleep. He also said he felt really cold, which was a little weird. That was why they'd moved him out of the panic room and helped him upstairs where it would be a little warmer and he could lie down on the couch instead of using the bed in that dark dungeon that probably didn't bring back a lot of nice memories for him anyway. He'd been so drained of energy he needed both Dean and Bobby at his sides with his arms around their shoulders for support in order to make it up the stairway.
Dean can't help but keep replaying in his head the few things he said while awake, looking for good signs in the words that he's okay. The initial reunion was so short-lived it kind of feels like he's still waiting in suspense for the real thing.
As soon as Death finished up the reinstallation and blinked right out of sight, the following moments were sort of an excited blur with Dean rushing over to release Sam from the restraints while his blood started rushing in his ears like a deafening hurricane. When he held Sam up with an arm around his back because it looked like it was taking so much effort just for him to sit up, Sam looked all around the room and then up at him with a look of wild confusion, and then the first things to come out of his mouth were "Dean...Oh, woah...Dean, this feels...really fucking weird..."
Then everything felt ridiculously light all the sudden. Dean could feel himself smiling like it seemed he hadn't smiled in a lifetime because this was so Sam, all Sam, Dean could hear it in his voice in those brief first words and see it in his daunted eyes, that it was actually him here and whole again. Dean had to laugh a little just to let out some of his overwhelming relief.
Bobby had come to Sam's other side and he grabbed his shoulder, holding it securely and assuringly with his eyes getting a little misty. "Y'alright, boy?" he asked.
Sam smiled at him in a bittersweet way, his eyes bright and sad. It was incredible, seeing Sam look sad again. "Yeah, I think, it's really...I think I'm just really tired. Oh God, Bobby...I'm sorry..."
"Hey, don't do that," Bobby said, giving his shoulder a firm shake. "It's okay."
"No. What I was going to do..." Shaking his head, Sam looked away from him miserably, and then back over at Dean. As he stared up at him, he seemed to keep thinking about something in more depth. Something he wasn't saying, couldn't say, that was making him look even more horrified.
The dark realization slowly came over Dean then as he saw that slowly settling reaction in his eyes, and for an instant everything seemed to go silent and his blood ran cold. His hold on Sam weakened suddenly without him meaning to let go of him, and Sam had to reach back and hold himself up with a shaking arm.
"Wait...you tellin' me you remember all that?" Bobby asked.
"Yeah," Sam said, and then his eyes widened a little with a whole new thought coming to him. "Dammit. Balthazar. He'll be coming back, I...There was a deal..."
"Balthazar? What're you...?" Bobby seemed to get it before he finished asking, and Dean could also put it together from what he read in his eyes.
"You—He—made a deal with him?" Dean said, not even surprised by that part alone but still pretty unprepared for this. "Balthazar wanted you to kill Bobby?"
"No, that wasn't for him, it was for me," Sam explained with a shake of his head, his voice starting to come out very sluggish and heavy. "For that me, I mean. The idea was to sort of...ruin me, with something bad enough to keep the soul out forever. Patricide."
As if Bobby almost getting killed hadn't been bad enough. Hearing how close he'd come to making it impossible for this to ever even happen made the others fall into a brief but very somber silence.
In that moment, Sam shrank in on himself slightly with a light spasm. Dean just acknowledged it as a disturbed shudder until he murmured, "Why'd it just get so cold down here?"
They only stayed silent with no answer to that, and when Sam glanced up at both of them, Dean knew the looks on both their faces showed they didn't see what he was talking about. He was pretty sure Sam thoughthe meant that the room had just suddenly started feeling uncomfortable to him sometime in the last minute, or else he wouldn't have asked like that. But Dean had a feeling it was the replacement of his soul that had made the difference somehow, meaning his access to the memories from before that moment was so effortless that Sam was actually unconsciously confusing them with what he had been present for.
It should have been mostly a relief. If Sam had some sense of what the empty vessel of himself had experienced before that, strong enough that on a simple and instinctive level it felt like he had been in this room the whole time, then he must have felt almost like he'd never even been gone at all. That had to be easier to deal with than just feeling a great big gaping hole in his mind because all memories of the last century of his soul's existence had been sealed off from his awareness. But the thought of the alternate memories that had just been thrown on him in place of all that was only filling Dean with a growing sense of dread.
What had he brought his brother back into?
As if Bobby was having similar thoughts at the moment, he asked what Dean couldn't bring himself to. "How well do you actually remember everything?"
"Not everything...I don't know," Sam said vaguely, sounding confused. "But everything that recent is pretty much crystal-clear, like it was me. Even how it felt. I remember what it was like feeling nothing...God, it's not pretty..." He sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing at them as if that could wipe the images and memories out.
"Yeah, well, don't matter if it feels like you were there," Bobby said. "I know you, and that wasn't you. You got that?"
Sam didn't stop frowning. He just said heavily, "Guys, I'm so tired, I think I'm going to..."
"Alright, buddy, we'll get you out of here and upstairs," Dean told him, lifting one of his arms around his shoulders. "Just try not to pass out for a few more minutes, okay?"
After they got him to the couch and Bobby went to grab some blankets, Dean couldn't seem to let himself linger too long and look at him too closely and he moved to leave his side right away. But Sam reached out and grabbed at the front of his shirt to keep him there, still sitting up even though his back kept swaying like his bones had turned to water. "Dean..."
He found his throat very dry when his voice came out. "Yeah."
Sam wasn't looking up at him; his eyes seemed to be gazing at something very far away, like he was lost for the moment swimming through so much fresh knowledge of the last year bombarding his consciousness. His hand stayed against Dean's chest gripping his shirt in a loose fist, as if he needed something physical in the present to hold onto while the confusing bits and pieces of the past year nearly overwhelmed him.
Out of the whole loud and unmanageable sea of details, one thing surfaced with a look of clarity in his eyes. "You kept your promise," he said softly.
Dean swallowed, his eyes sinking to look down at the floor with a lowering of his head. "I meant to, Sammy," he sighed. "I really was trying."
"Yeah..." When Dean glanced back at his face, Sam met his eyes with a weak, regretful kind of smile. "I guess after he came along he really screwed it all up, didn't he?"
Maybe it was just in his head, but he heard a much more terrible meaning in the words than anyone else could have caught in them. He had to close his eyes for a second with the seizing pang of guilt that came back to him along with that night, less than two weeks ago, when he left his phone in the car even though he never does that. His jaw was hurting like hell when he found it there later, a mocking pain with no meaningful resonance because the punch had been delivered with such steady and cool-headed calculation, hurting only distantly as if he was also separated from his soul. He'd stepped over the broken glass going back into the motel room and the crunching of it under his boots had made him think of ice and winter and the severe and empty taste of him that was still stuck in his throat like a cold silver blade, a tasteless taste.
Pushing it back out of mind, he took Sam's wrist and pulled his hand away from him so he could finally stand up straight, only lightly touching him as if Sam might break if he wasn't handled carefully. As he took Sam's shoulders and gave him a light push to the side to make him lie back across the couch, all he could do was say with a shaking, stubborn conviction, "You being alive now doesn't screw anything up."
As he barely still clung to awareness, Sam still had that sunken and regretful look on his face.
"Really, Sam, it's going to be okay," he said, kneeling on the floor in front of him. He was almost frantic in the way he kept fussing over him ridiculously, some rising desperation for assurance breaking through the filter between his thoughts and his mouth and making him unable to just shut up and let Sam sleep. "I know this isn't perfect, man, and it won't be easy, but it is better like this."
Sam nodded, the movement so small Dean's attention barely caught it. His eyes were now only filled with something very soft and warm as he kept his heavy eyelids barely open and peered hazily at him.
"You got to trust me on that. Please, you have to understand, don't you? Just tell me I didn't completely fuck up here, Sam. Please say it's okay."
"Shut up, Dean," Sam whispered. He had finally closed his eyes but he still gave a very faint, teasing kind of smile. "It's okay. I know. This is...It's the right thing."
He didn't know how much he needed to hear it until Sam said the words. Right away it was as if something in him dropped loose and allowed his entire being to finally relax and put everything on hold for now. He stayed there until Bobby came back to toss him a couple blankets to put over him and then still didn't leave Sam's side for a while, sitting against the couch with his head tilted up and staring up at the devil's trap design on the ceiling but not seeing it at all.
Bobby stirs him out of his reflections when he sets a plate full of bacon and eggs in front of him. "Guess it makes sense he'd need to sleep like the dead for a spell," he says.
"Hm?" Dean looks up at him a little absently, still half-distracted.
"That body hasn't had any sleep for over a year," he clarifies with a shrug. "He's running on nothing."
It's already occurred to him, of course, and Bobby probably figures as much, but there's a need to fill the air with something besides the silent waiting. As if the fact that he's been out cold for over fifteen hours worries them nearly as much as what it will be like when he wakes up.
Bobby is bringing the salt to the table when Dean sees him freeze in his steps for a second, jumping in alarm at something, and then he just lets out a mildly irritated sigh.
Dean doesn't even need to look before saying dryly, "Well hey, Cas." He forks a strip of bacon into his mouth and then turns around to see Castiel standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the study, staring over at the couch where Sam lies sleeping as soundly as ever.
Gesturing toward his brother, he says, "Yeah, uh, big news..."
"He's asleep," Castiel observes.
"So you did do it—but how?" he asks, turning to face Dean.
"I decided to try to strike a deal with Death and it was just our luck he has a personal interest in our work right now."
"The Horseman of Death? Hm...I suppose that makes sense." Castiel walks around the table and draws out a chair to take a seat at the same time that Bobby also sits down. For Cas this is very leisurely and human-like body language, giving Dean the idea this is much more like a social visit than his usual appearances. "How did you manage to seek an audience with someone like him again?"
"You don't want to know," Dean answers. "How'd you guess something had happened?"
"Oh, every angel could tell something had happened. I was in the middle of battle and everyone actually stopped fighting for an instant because we were so taken by surprise to feel that the cage had been broken into. We could tell the momentary breech wasn't nearly compromising enough to let Lucifer out, but the mere force of it was still monumental enough to be felt up in Heaven. I could only wonder what would be strong enough and willing to do that...What do you mean he has a personal interest in your work?"
"Somethin' about souls," Bobby says with a shrug. "He doesn't even know exactly what's going on, but he seems to believe he and Sam can get to the bottom of it if they keep digging up dirt on the Alphas and Purgatory. Assuming that was what he meant."
"Yeah...It does sound like bad news," Dean says. "The way everyone seems to be collecting them like limited editions these days and talking like souls and Purgatory are the only promising investments right now. Even angels like your buddy Balthazar, who by the way, is a total dick and a half who told Sam it was a good idea to try to kill Bobby."
"What?" Castiel blinks innocently. Then he thinks about it a moment and his expression sinks with that heavy disappointment he shows when talking about so many of his brothers these says. "You mean to scar his vessel? Believe me, it could have been worse..."
"Well, yeah, do you think?" Bobby says with thick sarcasm. "He could have succeeded."
Even though it really isn't funny, Dean's shoulders shake with a light, mostly contained laugh.
"I don't know if Balthazar informed him of the whole variety of choices, but I meant he could have gone after someone completely helpless," Castiel explains. "There would be a few options for wrongs evil enough to make that spell work. Besides patricide or matricide, there's always the killing of a child or the extreme physical violation of a blood relative or child."
Bobby and Dean both visibly cringe at that. "Okay, see your point," Dean says with his eyes opening wide for a second; he looks down at his breakfast that just stopped being the least bit appetizing with a brief and rejecting glance and sets his fork down. Then after turning all that over in his head he asks, "What about people who are so fucked up they've actually done things like that for no reason? Do they not have souls? Because that would explain a lot."
"No, committing such an act alone does not make one uninhabitable by a soul. It's merely an essential condition that must be met before or during the performing of the spell. Perhaps it can be said that someone needs to have a soul in order to be truly evil just as they need it to be good."
Dean steals a brief look over at Sam in the next room and then leans back in his chair, crossing his arms as he thinks. "I don't know...Lots of days I might still take a demon over the prick he was," he says.
Bobby looks at him doubtfully.
He shrugs. "Demons are souls, aren't they? Sort of. Of course I'd waste every last one of them if it were possible, but at least they're on a side and can be loyal in their way. A lot of them actually care and find some kind of meaning in being evil sons of bitches, I guess. So I've at least got a chance of understanding and predicting them."
"That's the thing about souls," Castiel says, starting to look somewhat deep in thought. "In their nature, they are very constant. They're unbelievably strong and obstinate things, with a certain power and protection that is in some ways stronger than anything; it is the reason no one's soul can even be touched without them first willingly making some concession to give it up. And even once taken and damned, it takes quite a lot and quite a long time in Hell to change a soul and twist it into something new." Some new train of thought makes him look upwards for a moment before he goes on sounding strangely wistful. "With the absence of a power in Heaven, many of my brothers have so easily accepted that there must not be any design or ultimate truth to follow anymore. But even with God long gone and no one giving orders, there is still in each human soul an undeniable and unbendable nature. It's a blueprint by God that is unquestionable in its design, much more absolute than prophecy. It may be one of the only things certain and unchanging anymore, in a time of complete disorder in Heaven..."
After hanging on through at least most of that, Dean blinks with interest. "Is that why they're supposed to be so valuable?" he asks. "You think they might hold some kind of power with a practical use because they can take a lot of beatings without losing integrity or whatever?"
"No. Well, yes, possibly. I don't know..." Castiel shakes his head, looking weary. "But it's all the more reason you should probably get to the bottom of this soon, if the state of many souls is being threatened by Balthazar and others taking an unusual interest in them now. Demons making deals for souls is one thing, but this is getting completely outside the natural order of things. I'm sure Death doesn't even need to have a concept of anything in the universe being sacred to recognize the carelessness of agitating that order."
Dean lifts his brow in easy agreement. "Yeah, he only gave me a one-day mandatory course in being responsible with these things. Poor guy doesn't even have the option of pulling the stick from his ass for one second without something catastrophic coming out."
Cas furrows his brow for a second as he fails to make sense of that imagery, but as usual he doesn't bother asking. An instant later one of Bobby's phones starts ringing and he curses under his breath, getting up to go grab it. As the others can hear him playing FBI agent, they both get up from the table and wordlessly gravitate toward the next room where Sam still hasn't moved an inch.
"Has he been awake at all?" Castiel asks, suddenly seeming to speak a lot more carefully. "Was he...?"
Dean only now remembers what significant detail he hasn't yet gotten to explaining. "Yeah, he's fine," he says, getting an understandably doubtful look from Cas. "More or less, I mean, as far as we could tell. Death said he could put up a kind of wall in his mind so he wouldn't remember."
He looks vaguely surprised, but much less apprehensive than before. "Is that possible?"
Dean crosses his arms again, eyes shifting down to the floor for a second. "It's a gamble," he admits gravely. "He couldn't promise that it'll be completely reliable. Chances are it should give him a lot of time even if it doesn't work forever, which is better than nothing, but...I guess he needs to be really careful. You know, to let it be, even though he's going to feel that there's that wall in there and it might be really tempting to try to poke at it."
Castiel gives an intensely pondering look over in Sam's direction, staying silent for the moment.
"Uh...Cas?" Dean asks a little uneasily, something bothering him. "What you were saying about how souls can't just change easily..."
"Well, I know...He could be fine, and he could survive like this a long time, but I know underneath everything he's always going to be a complete mess. Everything he went through downstairs is always going to be a part of him that can't just be fixed, right?"
"I'm afraid so. If this was the most even someone as powerful as Death could do..."
"Right, but does that mean...?" He struggles to find a way to word the question, not wanting to address what he's thinking very directly, but he can only be so vague about getting at it. "What about when Sam dies? For good this time, whenever that is. Does that mean he'll remember everything then, and he'll still be...?"
Something understanding and almost gentle comes into Castiel's features as he sees what Dean is trying to ask. "No, that's different," he tells him certainly. "I mean yes, he will remember everything after that, but in Heaven...When he is finished and resting there instead of where he was before, it won't matter. He will know it's over and nothing can ever hurt him again. If anything, the memory of suffering can only make it an all the more welcome solace to reach paradise."
Dean swallows, a little overwhelmed by how much it actually means to hear it. "He'll be happy."
"Yes," Castiel says, his eyes acknowledging the deeper meaning of this conversation.
He gives a quick glance toward Bobby in the kitchen, who has hung up the phone and is now writing something down. Nodding, he forces out, "It's just...You were trying to talk me out of this. You didn't seem to think trying to get him out of there had any chance of paying off at all..."
Frowning in his own way that's all in his eyes, Castiel looks almost like he's had some kind of cover blown. "I knew it could be for the better in the end, looking at the big picture, and of course I understood the need to do something about the person Sam had become. But this was still your brother, and I had doubts that you were looking at it in such a realistic way and able to seriously consider the most horrific possibilities you faced by doing what you meant to do for him. I feared you couldn't possibly be prepared for that, especially the kind of choice you could be left with if he was suffering too much, and...I want you to survive, too."
As Dean chews on that uneasily, he must look like he isn't entirely understanding him or just doesn't want to see his whole point, because Castiel gives a quiet, reluctant-sounding sigh and amends more bluntly, "All I was certain of was that I didn't want you both to be dead in a year or two because things were difficult but manageable before and then you had to take this risk and the consequences were unbearable. As long as you're hunting, at least, you and your brother need each other. You've proven as much time and time again. You would keep going, perhaps, but after having to lose him again, you'd practically be useless. I don't need a thorough understanding of humanity to know that. Practically everything evil out there that hates you knows it, and now that you're active in their world again you would be an easy, wounded and careless target."
Dean innerly flinches at hearing it so openly discussed. "I just barely stopped him from cutting Bobby's throat," he points out. "You call that manageable?"
"That was later," he says, only conciliatory now. "I didn't know it would get that out of control."
"Yeah...neither did I," Dean admits.
"I really should have seen it, though."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he did sort of threaten to kill me at one point..." At Dean's raised eyebrow he adds, "I know. The idea was so laughable I didn't take it all that seriously."
Dean smiles in amusement, shaking his head. "So...you wouldn't be offering to help us look into this business with the souls, would you?"
It is easy to see Castiel's somewhat reluctant defeat in the moment he hesitates. "I don't know, are you trying to convince me it's in my interests to help? It would be quite a change from when you simply try to tell me what you need from me."
"Oh no, I'm not telling you to do anything," he says lightly. "I'm not even asking. I wouldn't. You're a very important angel with very important things to do instead of wasting your time down here with us, I get it."
Castiel actually rolls his eyes. "I'll see what I can find out when I have the chance. And first..." His brow creases in thought for a second. "I'm going to look into something else. For Sam."
That makes Dean perk up in surprise. Bobby, who has just come to lean against the doorway and caught the recent bits of their conversation, says, "For Sam? Like what?"
"There may be something I can do," Castiel answers vaguely. "If it will work for him. I'll be back soon."
And just like that, the spot where he was standing is empty. As he and Bobby exchange looks, Dean just shrugs cluelessly.
It was 1999, a cool and rustling night in early autumn, back when they'd been staying in a tiny craphole of an apartment in Indiana for a while. Their dad was supposed to be gone until well past midnight and Sam was spending most of his time bent over some books in preparation for an upcoming test even though it was a Friday night. Dean watched something intolerably predictable on TV until Sam finally took a break and emerged from the bedroom, itching to go out and stretch his legs for a while. So they took a few bucks from the coffee can their dad always kept some extra cash in on top of the fridge and walked to the store down the street to get something cold and carbonated to drink, passing a house with brightly lit-up windows and tons of cars outside where it looked like a bunch of kids were having a party. When they came by it again on their way back to the apartment, Dean's eyes were drawn transfixedly to all the cute girls they could now see hanging out on the porch.
Light and music were pouring out of the storm door, the front entrance left open. They decided to crash the party. "I guess, just for a while," Sam said, mostly indifferent, because they hadn't left a note or anything in case John got back a little early but the very idea of going back to that quiet and empty void of an apartment was unbearably boring right now.
They introduced themselves to any random people who took notice of them as if they actually belonged there and then nobody suspected otherwise. There was a table full of plastic cups with some kind of red mixed drink. After Dean picked one up and handed another to him, Sam stared down into it with uncertainty.
"Didn't Bruce always say not to drink anything that wasn't mixed in front of you?" he said with a slightly raised eyebrow, referring to the health teacher from one of their past schools who they used to trade ridiculous stories about and affectionately make fun of.
Dean just laughed, and his words were lightly teasing. "Yeah, whatever. You're with me, you're safe."
Then Dean was the one who ended up needing a little bit of looking after. After a while Sam had to pull him away from a girl he was sloppily chatting up and take his sixth cup out of his hand because he was clearly starting to lose track of time and Sam was still just sober enough to acknowledge that he really didn't need to drink any more.
They were making their way through a dark hallway, stepping over a group of people sitting on the floor and passing a joint around, when a girl turning from a doorway walked right into Dean and sloshed half of her drink onto his shirt. Laughing as Dean just stood there rolling his eyes afterwards, Sam took off his hoodie.
"Here," he said, coming close and dabbing at Dean's shirt with it to soak up some of the drink.
"Great, now I'll be walking down the street underage and stinking of booze," Dean muttered with a lazy, barely-articulate tongue.
"S'not that bad..."
They were both sluggish and staggering on their feet; Dean had leaned back against the wall at the dimly lit end of the hall they'd reached, and without really realizing it Sam was leaning in toward him a little.
"Shit...When did you get as tall as me?" Dean murmured, as if half to himself.
They were so close that as he spoke, his breath landed on Sam as a delicate, barely tangible point of heat. He felt Dean's voice as a deep vibration in him, a solid ground under their swirling surroundings. Something unknown and unknowable stirred in him warmly, and his hands slowed and then rested where they were on Dean's chest like the world was slowing to a pause.
He closed the tight distance in a motion as easy as falling and this is what happened, he can't say now how it all got there after the many years this has always been three seconds in his memory that his mind always flares at and skips over like a singular erratic heartbeat breaking the steady rhythm of a pulse, but oh it got there, he did do this.
Kissed. Was what happened. He was kissing Dean and he had started it.
In his state, it took Dean a moment of delay to react. But as soon as the sensation and everything else sharpened around him he stiffened all over and grabbed Sam, his hands firm on his shoulders and pushing him back.
"Sam," he said softly, breathless with shock. He shook his head in one tiny, twitchy movement. "Sam, no..."
And remarkably, whenever Sam has looked back on this in the vague and never-lingering way that he could bear to, the thought of it has never been overwhelmed with a deep pit of shame in his stomach, but more with an awed recognition of the depth of his brother's love for him. Because he didn't get angry, even though it obviously scared the hell out of him and anyone would be forgiven for reacting to this in a much less controlled way. He was firm about giving the message that no, that was wrong, no matter how many other ways their family was already totally lost and screwed up, but he didn't shove him away roughly in horror. He didn't say "What the hell's wrong with you?" or "What do you think you're doing?" like he was disgusted. It was already bad enough without him doing anything to make Sam feel worse about it.
He just kept his hands on his shoulders and didn't let go while Sam could no longer meet his the eyes, part of him suddenly starting to feel like he wanted Dean far away from him right then. Not staying put and looking at him, impossibly and unflinchingly still looking at him, trying to understand.
"I..." It was all that came out of Sam's throat, a raspy sound. Saying "Sorry" seemed so beside the point, and he probably looked in that moment like he could cave in on himself with guilt anyway.
Dean gave him a light shake. "Hey," he said gently, his voice still sounding a little shaken. He waited until Sam would look at him again, with just a nervous and quick shift of a glance. "It's okay. Let's just...We should be getting back, right?"
It's what happened after they got back to the apartment that he remembers much more clearly. They'd really lost track of time, and their dad had gotten back by 1:00 and had no idea where they were. It didn't get nearly as ugly as things could sometimes get with him, but he was pretty pissed. They were expressly forbidden to ever give him the slightest reason to worry like this. They were supposed to call, to check in, to be on call, and Dean hadn't even remembered his phone.
But of course this wasn't about the fact that they'd been at some wild party at a stranger's house full of teens getting naked and getting drunk and high on everything under the sun. Of course he wasn't mad about that. This was just the usual paranoia, his irrational fear of what it could mean if his sons weren't always completely in his control. In his mind, there was always the risk of anything he'd hunted before and let get away managing to track them, the general danger it brought them that they were connected to this world of things they didn't have the luxury of not knowing are out there.
He mostly took it out on Dean. As if Sam was all his responsibility like he'd always been when he was still a little kid, the same old tired story. It was easy for Sam to see why he would assume this was all on Dean, considering when he'd left them at 7:30 Sam had been holed up in his room hitting the books in silence and with no apparent intention of doing anything else all night, and this kind of behavior wasn't exactly like him either. But the way Dean just took it as usual, not standing up for himself at all and apologizing dejectedly like this entire night was all the consequence of his failure to ever do anything right, just made him sad to look at in that moment. It had been a while since Sam had still looked up to Dean in quite the wide-eyed and idealizing way he had as a kid, but somehow this felt like the final culmination of all the things that had gradually torn down that image he once had of him as some impossible hero with all the answers. And it was too much for him to just stand by and watch.
"Dad, stop blaming him," he finally cut in once he'd gotten too angry to even keep listening. "I was the one who wanted to go out. He didn't convince me to do anything!"
"Shut up, Sammy!" Dean snapped, barely looking at him, as Sam's attempt to interfere and defend him seemed to nudge uncomfortably at some deeply buried frustration in him.
"I'll talk to you later, Sam," John said in a very hard tone. "Don't think you're not in trouble. But Dean's the one who should have known better."
"I'm not a stupid kid!"
Dean was the one who said it. "Yeah, you are!" he shouted, turning to him with as much anger as his dad was still blowing off as if this was suddenly between them. "You're sixteen fucking years old, for Christ sakes, you're supposed to be!"
With Dean looking at him the way he was then and nobody in the room to plead to, Sam had nothing to do but turn around and go shut himself up in his room again. The pages of scribbled notes and math equations spread out on the desk now seemed to frown up at him pathetically in this cramped little room like a cell, keeping him smothered and pressed in so tightly with no room to grow.
Sam still has some of the same clothes he owned before he died. When Bobby first saw him alive again shortly after, having no idea yet there was a vital piece missing, he hadn't yet gotten rid of all the clothes he'd been keeping at his house before.
Since waking up, he has changed his outfit and put on one of his oldest jackets. As he sits in the study with the others, he keeps idly smoothing his hands over the sleeves and other parts of it, recognizing the texture and comfortable fit of it, yet waiting for it to feel more familiar like he thinks maybe it should. In a way his body feels no more like a part of him than this jacket, just an added layer.
The jacket is several years old, he recognizes every detail, but now he finds there's a hole torn in one of the pockets. That's new. He thinks. With his hand buried in the pocket, the tiny hole at one bottom corner of it feels kind of familiar as if from a habit of picking at it with his finger. But no, he doesn't remember doing that, he never ripped it there. What the hell did that piece of shit do to his—
A wet street in a dark alley somewhere, he sees it. He was trying to fight off Christian and get a knife out of his hand, stuck struggling with him on the ground for a moment in a position that made the pen stuffed down in his pocket poke into his side, and later he found it had pierced through the seam. But why would Christian—Oh, not really him, a shapeshifter, now he remembers this, must have been when they were after one in Richmond. Yes, the alley was by that club they'd traced it to, and then Gwen caught up to him just in time to save his ass, and after that—
He looks up at hearing his name from Dean. From the way he said it and the way he and Bobby are now looking at him, he can tell it isn't the first time he's tried to get his attention.
Sam shakes his head quickly and says apologetically, "Yeah, I'm here..."
There is a whole mess of multiple layers of concern on Dean's face, but he seems to force all of it aside in favor of letting them all focus on something not so dire and troubling for now. "I said do you want to come along?"
Come along. Come along where? Dean has a list in his hand. That's right, he was talking about getting out of the house for a while, running to the store to pick up some things they all needed.
"Sure, why not?" he finally answers.
"Yeah, get outta here for a while before you both go crazy," Bobby mutters, seated at the desk looking through one of his massive tomes. He must be digging up some lore for whichever hunter just called him about an hour ago, and Sam gets the feeling that no matter how much quiet they can give him to concentrate, their very presence right now is making it too easy for him to get consumed with distracting nerves. Both he and Dean can't help but keep looking at Sam like something that could explode any minute.
He's sure it doesn't help that he isn't quite himself right now and has spent most of the last few hours since he woke up staying quiet and still contained to the same room, but he can't really help it. His body still doesn't seem completely woken up yet after he had so much rest, and he feels so strangely disoriented that just walking is awkward for him; he has to consciously think about the balance of it and putting one foot in front of the other. It isn't making him much slower than is natural, just unbelievably clumsy. Even the size of himself feels weird to maneuver around, like he's never even been in this body before. When he tried to describe this to Dean earlier, he pointed out that "Robo-Sam" as he called him obviously got a little more intense about working out and he's never actually been quite this size before, but it definitely doesn't feel like that's all there is to it.
When he and Dean step outside it's the first time he's been out since waking up, and the brightness of the daylight and the feeling of the sun on his skin is unexplainably surreal. Is it always like this? It's a sensation he knows he recognizes as second nature, but at the same time he's almost uncomfortably sensitive to the warmth, to every sight and feeling and sound.
Looking over his shoulder, Dean notices him looking up at the bright sky. "Does it feel like it's been a while?" he asks, not having to explain what he means.
Sam shakes his head in bewilderment as he catches up next to him. "It does...and it doesn't," he says.
He almost walks into the bumper of a car they're passing, and the quick movement he makes to miss it which would usually never throw him off so much makes him almost stumble. Grinning a little, Dean reaches out and catches his arm as he steadies himself again with a sigh of frustrated annoyance.
"Jeez, you're even worse now than when you were going through your first growth spurts," he says.
Sam gives a half-hearted laugh. "Don't remind me."
And then, with a glint of sunlight shining off a black surface and finding his eyes, he realizes they've reached the car.
They're approaching the passenger seat side and something in the back seat is catching his eye, something he can't even see from this angle, just remembers. Something he's always been so used to being there he hardly even sees it most of the time, except now it's the most prominent thing that grabs him, a distinct shape in his mind's eye.
"Sam?" Dean is watching him attentively now that he's gone very still. "You okay?"
He steps farther forward, just enough to see into the back seat, and there it is. The toy soldier stuck in part of the door, right where it's been since they were kids. And right here where he's standing is where he was standing then, beating Dean within an inch of his life while he tried relentlessly to reach him by telling him it was okay, he wasn't going to leave him...
Before it was all over, he stared down into the unfathomably dark and deep hole and then looked back at Dean, preparing himself for the hardest thing he'd ever done. The last thing he knew was that fear and the straining pain of his determination while he saw Dean's face for a last moment, the will power it took to keep control of his body and then tear himself away from him and leave him behind. Beyond that moment and the fall down there was nothing, the past fifteen months a void of walking around numb after how horrible it felt to do that, God he doesn't ever want to feel like that again, doesn't think he could take the two of them being torn apart any more. By now his heart is tattered raw from it, his heart with the memory of Dean's face that he held onto desperately through his fear like he did his favorite teddy bear as a little kid while petrified of the thing in his closet, swearing from the moment he and Michael started falling that nothing in Hell would take that away from him, while forever they fell and fell—
Oh. There it is.
"Sam?" Dean says again, starting to sound more unsettled. He comes right in front of him, getting between him and the Impala, and grabs his arms. "What is it? Is it the wall?"
The wall, holy shit. It is so immense and everywhere, containing so much of him. It hangs over his head like an inescapable black sky, pushing down heavily, and the pressure...
"Ignore it, Sam!" Dean says urgently. "You can't scratch the wall, remember?" He shakes Sam to make him look up at him, and then he reaches a hand up to the back of his neck. "Just stay here, with me, right? You're here now and you're fine. Just remember that."
"I know," Sam says with a quick nod. "I'm okay..."
But he's sure he doesn't look okay. Maybe he isn't trying to peek into it yet, but it feels like this dark gaping hole has just been ripped open inside him now rather than just discovered as something that's been there this whole time. He finds himself reaching up to grip onto Dean's shirt like he suddenly needs to be sure he's really right here in front of him and can hardly believe it. He feels like they're back there in the cemetery with the mouth of Lucifer's cage opened up behind him, except this time the last thing he should do is jump in, and if he doesn't hold onto Dean he'll fall right in backwards.
"Jesus," he whispers in shock. "I really was...gone."
The look in Dean's eyes now makes it all the more real. It is grief too deep to stare into and fathom, even if it's just a phantom remnant still lingering from that year. "Yeah," he says, his voice tight.
And maybe he doesn't remember, but while he's seeing it all in Dean's eyes it's like he doesn't have to. To a part of him it may seem like he's been seeing Dean all the time the past few months, but now everything in his gut is reacting like that isn't so and making him pull Dean closer. As they grab each other into a tight hug and then just breathe deeply holding onto each other, he can feel how much, for how long, how hopelessly he has missed Dean. The feeling of this and the way they fit together is so familiar, as it could never stop being to him, but also like something from long ago. So very long ago that it brings tears brimming in his eyes as he's overwhelmed with the mere sense of time, of age.
The vague but deep understanding of how much of him there is now that is not connected to Dean or in any way shaped or defined by him comes over him like the sudden recognition of a horribly vast and desolate desert within him. It's a devastating sense of loneliness, as if he's gone through his whole trying and tiring life without anyone to share his burdens or truly understand him, as if he wasn't born with a brother at all. The momentary surfacing of it and knowledge that it's there, over a hundred years of separation and torture shaping him into something unrecognizable as Dean's brother, makes him hold him even tighter and bury his face in the smell of Dean's leather jacket.
Dean is breathing like he might also be close to crying, smoothing his fingers in his hair. "Hey, I know," he mutters softly. "Never again, right? I'm getting sick of these weepy intense reunions every time one of us has to get yanked back from the grave."
"No...Not gonna leave again," Sam murmurs, pulling back a little. "I promise." He lets out a heavy sigh, the tightness in his chest releasing a little. "I mean...I'm kind of pissed about that idiotic stunt you pulled just to get Death to come to you, and just so you know I really don't feel right about how this whole escapade pretty much unmade the whole other life you were building for yourself while living without me...But I'm here, so I'm just going to have to figure out a way to make up for all that and set things right by being here. I'm not going to screw this up, so don't worry."
The chances that that will actually work and keep Dean from worrying about him scratching at the past are pretty damn slim, but Dean does look reassured for the time being to hear him say it. He touches him lightly on the chest before turning to go around the car.
"You better not fucking die on me again either," Sam says as they both get into their seats.
"I don't think that'll happen any time soon," Dean says with an easy shrug. "Not with the connections and influence our client has. We've got Death watching out for us right now."
There's a moment of silence between them as Dean starts the ignition. Then Sam shakes his head with a short, dark laugh as a delayed reaction.
"What?" Dean asks.
He shrugs. "Nothing. That just might be the most ironic thing I've ever heard."