Author's Note: Warnings for graphic torture and gore, and...well, Hell. I'm a sucker for Hell!fic, aren't I?


In the end, Sam went quietly.

It was so contrary to everything before, all the fighting and defiance and noise, that it just hammered home how wrong everything was – like Dean needed reminders.

There was no chance to say goodbye. A broken neck, snapped cleanly down one flight of stairs during a tussle with a freaking poltergeist (a poltergeist, Dean had always hated them), and Sam's eyes stared emptily up at and through Dean as he rubbed his mouth. Gone for good, and his last expression was nothing but faint surprise. It had probably been nearly painless.

Dean grieved, but he wasn't destroyed as he would have been, had been, before. Things had been so wrong and backward, and he found he was ready to let go. He brought Sam back to Bobby's and they burned his body together, and drank (relatively heavily) to his memory – the good ones, Dean thought a little wryly.

"You okay, boy?" Bobby asked, and Dean could hear the careful way he asked, so he considered it seriously. Thought about Sam and the way things had been lately.

"Yeah," he said, finally. "Yeah, I think I am. Sam's at peace. Maybe we've fought this long enough." And even as he said it, it was like a weight falling off his shoulders, and acceptance that he'd never been good at had never felt so good. For the first time, he didn't have to worry about Sam. He was safe, taken care of, and Dean could let what had become (much as it sucked) more and more of a burden – he could finally put it down.

"What are you going to do now?" Bobby asked.

Dean looked at the still burning pyre. I'll be there sooner or later, Sam. Just wait up for me, okay? His heart lightened. He had choices. Nothing tying him down – and he felt briefly guilty for that thought, but things had changed, and Sam wasn't in Hell, was done with this stupid, fucked up world – so not that much. "I don't know," he said, and that uncertainty was freeing.

See you again, Sam, sooner or later.

~.~

He had nine years.

Dean tried dating a few times. He didn't contact Ben or Lisa, but he checked in on them from a distance, just in case. He got employed once or twice, hunted some. Drove from Mexico to Canada and back again. Thought about Sam.

Dean did that a fair amount, but even if it ached and probably always would, it was a clean and healed wound, like his dad's death, what seemed like eons ago.

He went down fighting, and he'd always expected. A shapeshifter, and he killed it, but not before it ripped him up with a knife. It hurt, but it was fast enough, and he went with the reaper without fighting her.

Heaven was different than he remembered, and that was probably fair – Zachariah had been a dick to begin with, so his heaven had been dick-heaven. All in all, he mused, leaning back against the sleek, sun-warmed hood of the Impala, things were pretty sweet. Now he just needed his soulmate to turn up, and Sam would be along. He always was, sooner or later.

"Dean."

Dean jumped, and wheeling, turned to see Castiel. He was faintly relieved that the angel didn't look any different. He grinned, even if it had been ages and Cas still looked exhausted. "Hey Cas," he said. "How's the war going?"

Castiel gave him a look that Dean suspected was less than pleased. "Poorly enough. There has been a…lull, of late. After Raphael, no immediate leader has emerged."

"So you've got some time? Good," said Dean, amiably. He was in a good mood, so sue him. "Stick around for a sec and you 'n me 'n Sam can go for a ride in my baby."

Castiel blinked. His expression went from faintly exasperated to faintly puzzled. "Samuel is here?"

Dean started to frown. "What, you haven't come to see him? Here I thought you'd be geeking all over the-" He stopped, abruptly. "Cas, you know Sam is dead. Right?"

The angel nodded briefly. "Yes, I heard, but-"

Dean swore he felt his stomach drop, corporeal or not. "So – that soulmate thing was true, right? So what are you telling me? Sam's here, isn't he? Castiel hesitated and glanced away and Dean's unease peaked. "Cas. Right?"

"I haven't ever…sensed him here," Castiel said, too quietly.

That sank in slowly. "You're saying," Dean said, "That Sam never made it to heaven."

Castiel's expression was trying to be impassive, but his eyebrows furrowed, ever so slightly. He said nothing, and Dean's stomach started churning. He had assumed – stupid. "Okay," he said, "Okay. Not here. Then where is he?" Sam, if you're hanging around down there becoming an angry spirit because you couldn't fucking let go-

"I'm not sure," Castiel said, but there was an odd note to his voice, and Dean knew what he wasn't saying, and wanted to explode.

"No," he said, fiercely. "He didn't go to Hell. You didn't let him go there, not after everything he did-" Underneath his words, though, Dean could feel the guilt creeping in. Nine years, and he'd just trusted Sam was at peace. And he was wrong. He should have confirmed, asked Castiel to check-

Did you really want to know? Were you just happy to get rid of him? Dean nearly winced. Sam was wandering, lost – but not in Hell. Please –

"No," Castiel said. "That's not…what I mean."

Dean's heart, or something like it, was clenching. "Spit it out, Cas," he snapped.

"I don't think Sam's soul ever made it out of Hell to begin with," the angel said, and it sounded like he was trying to be gentle, but Dean almost couldn't hear it through the roaring in his ears.

"But he was out," Dean heard himself say, almost pleadingly.

Castiel's face was starting to look squeezed and pained, like he hated what he was saying. That was okay, good, Dean hated it too. "It's possible that it was just his…body. That his soul – remained in the cage."

Dean's own soul was starting to scream. Sam's soul. In Hell. With Michael and Lucifer. All this time. Ten and a half years, his mind gibbered. One-hundred-eighty months. One thousand eight hundred years and he had been sailing around, complacent while his brother screamed-

Physically embodied or not, Dean felt faint. He licked his lips. "Cas…you're telling me. He's still down there?"

Castiel glanced away. "It seems likely. Yes."

Dean felt his throat close, and squeezed his eyes shut. Then forced himself to straighten. "Get me down there."

The angel didn't seem surprised. "Dean…"

His fists clenched. How could he have assumed- "Tell me I'm stupid, tell me it's a bad idea and it won't work. I don't care. I need to-"

"There's nothing you can do!" Castiel cried. "The Cage is impermeable-"

"To angels, sure. Has a human soul ever tried?" Dean stared at the angel, stubbornly. Castiel looked distressed.

"I would help if I could. But it's not-"

"I'm not going to leave him there!"

"There might not be anything left of him to save!"

Dean froze and felt his stomach lodge in his throat. Almost two-thousand years under the hands of two vindictive archangels, one of whom was the single evilest bastard ever created. He'd been ready to break in thirty years, and he'd had an escape, no matter how awful. He wouldn't have bet Lucifer was offering Sam any choices.

God, Sam.

"Don't say that, Cas," he choked out. "All the more reason – to try." Dean could feel the guilt curling up in his chest like an old friend. Over? What an idiot. For him, sure. But Sam'd never been lucky. "I'm not asking you to help more than getting in and hopefully out. Come on, Cas. It's Sam." He swallowed, once, and tried, "He was your friend too."

Castiel closed his eyes and nodded, infinitesimally. Dean was surprised, and then felt bad about it. "You're right," he said, quietly. "I do…owe your brother. Perhaps we can try. Perhaps you're right."

Dean nodded once, firmly. He felt sick and uneasy, just thinking about going back – but Sam was there, and Dean had as good as forgotten about him. That wasn't something he could just let stand. It was something he was going to have to fix.

Somehow.

~.~

He would never forget Hell.

The sticky, wet, heat, the cloying smell a mixture of blood and rotting flowers. The sensory memories had faded, but stepping back into this place with the web of chains overhead and the flesh and blood floor squishing under his feet brought it all back. Dean shrank into himself, wanting so badly to run. Castiel stepped up beside him, hand lighting briefly on Dean's shoulder, and Dean steadied, taking a deep breath through his nose. "Is anything going to…attack us here?" he asked, carefully.

Castiel looked like he was trying not to snarl. Dean figured the angel's skin had to be crawling at least as much as his was, if not more. This place was anathema. "Not directly. Not with me here. But there are…other things they can do. I doubt they'll be thrilled, Dean." He paused. "Are you sure about this? I could try…"

"You'd never get in," Dean said flatly, stealing himself. "And it's my-" Duty? Hadn't that been what he was so happy to set down? Guilt nibbled at him again. "He's my brother," he said instead.

"I know," said Castiel, a little more quietly, and Dean could hear underneath it, but you still shouldn't have to walk here again.

To which Dean wanted to say, Sam should never have had to walk here at all.

Hell seemed to ripple around him, like the place was fabric and someone was beating on the other side. Dean focused his eyes straight ahead and walked, Castiel's presence weighty and solid behind his shoulder, watchful. He'd never been so grateful to have the freaking angel nearby.

"Dean," said a female voice abruptly, like rough silk, like a sigh. "Dean." He looked, and then recoiled as what had once been a woman thrust her leering face into his, the stink of sour milk rolling off her. Her mouth was ripped wide like a Glasgow smile and brimming with teeth, one of her eyes dangling by an optic nerve. "Don't you recognize me?" she said in a husky voice, more half-crushed larynx than bedroom. "I missed you."

Her leer grew wider, and Dean's stomach tried to heave as the corners of her "mouth" tore and bled.

Then he recognized her eye, the one still rolling in her head.

Last time he'd seen it, it'd been terror-filled, body splayed open on the rack as she pleaded, no no no and he stood over her with a knife-

He took a step back and met Castiel's hand against steadying his shoulder. The angel felt abruptly hot, almost searing. "Begone," Castiel said dismissively. "Or be finished. Your choice."

The woman – he didn't even know her name! – hissed, and then vanished with a last leer that was probably supposed to be coy. Dean let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and he almost heard Castiel frown.

"Are you certain you want to do this?" He asked quietly. Dean gritted his teeth.

"What else am I going to do, just leave him there?" Like he had, for almost two-thousand years. Right. "I can't," he continued, before Castiel could agree or something. "I just – can't."

"It'll be worse, more intense, closer to the cage," Castiel said. Dean's muscles clenched.

"Cas," he said abruptly. "Shut up."

Cas shut up, and Dean opened his stride, taking a few steps forward. Then he realized what was odd. "I don't hear any screaming."

"I am shutting it out for you."

Dean glanced at Castiel, whose face was impassive. "Thanks," he managed, and the angel just nodded, slightly. "So do you th-"

In the muffled quiet, the single scream seemed piercingly loud. It was a howl of complete, consuming agony that Dean had never wanted to hear again. He blanched, and as Castiel drew up beside him, Dean could see that he was pale too.

"I can't block out that one," Castiel said, softly. His mouth tugged downward. "That's Sam."

Dean swallowed hard. "Oh," he said.

The sound stopped and started again, and Dean was sickeningly grateful that he couldn't hear his own name. "Are you sure you can't block it out?" Dean said thickly, and there was a flash of sympathy on Castiel's face.

"I'm sure. Lucifer wants him to be heard. I couldn't overcome his power, not here in his domain."

Dean gritted his teeth and tried not to think about what the Devil might be doing to produce that noise. The sooner they got there, the sooner Sam could stop screaming, he thought, as fiercely as he could manage. "Let's get a move on," he said roughly, and forged forward. He heard the angel sigh, and deliberately didn't look back, not even to be sure Cas was following.

He wondered momentarily if being able to hear that one scream was worse than all the rest. At least, he thought grimly, it gave him something to follow.

~.~

The terrain was rough and uneven, like this needed to be harder. The sharp rocks (and shards of bone, but Dean was trying not to think about what he was walking on) ripped at his boots, and Dean didn't want to know what they would do to bare feet.

Of course, the rise and fall of every scream just banished all thought except the need to make it stop, please, make it stop.

At least there were no words, Dean reminded himself again. If he had heard please or stop or, god forbid, Dean, in the midst of those screams, Dean was pretty sure he'd go crazy, and he wasn't so certain he wouldn't get there anyway.

Castiel seemed to be right that the demons couldn't touch him, and they didn't really try. It was bad enough, though.

"Hey Dean," whispered a cloud of pale smoke. "We could use your knife. You're missed…no one so promising as you has come along in such a long time."

"Hey Dean," said something like a man, but twisted and elongated, loping along on all fours like a grotesque sort of animal, "We're hungry. We're so hungry. Think you could lend me your liver again? I promise I'll give it back." It giggled, high and shrill, and opened a wide, black mouth full of buzzing flies.

"Hey Dean," said another with a bull's head and a muscled human body streaked with gore (fairly new, then, to still look recognizably man-like), "Ain't that just the sweetest sound you ever heard? Betcha little brother's taking it up the ass right now, hard and rough and slow."

Dean wheeled, and the thing cackled, oozing over like it was made of slime. "And here," it said, "I'm just sorry I can't have another Winchester…"

Dean snarled as another wailing scream tore through his brain, and then Castiel was in front of him. The demon recoiled, but not fast enough, and in the flare of white light Dean just saw it…melt. Dean realized he was breathing hard in the sudden silence as the other demons drew back.

Castiel's expression when he turned was one of fury. "Move faster," he said, voice vibrating with power. Dean blinked, and tried to focus.

"Don't need to tell me twice," he managed, and wondered who Castiel was angry for. He decided not to ask. And tried not to picture Lucifer riding Sam in a whole new way.

There might not be anything left of him to save!

But there had to be. God, there had to be.

"Using my power will draw more powerful things to us," Castiel was saying, his voice rougher with urgency. "Things you don't want to have to deal with. Perhaps if we are quick enough-"

"How far?" Dean asked. The crowd was still moving with them, but at a distance, and if he kept his eyes directly ahead – he could almost pretend not to see them.

"I don't know," said Castiel. "Distance is different, in Hell."

Sam didn't sound any closer, and it didn't take the demons too long to overcome their fear. A woman stepped up alongside him. She looked like his mother, and Dean wanted to vomit. He'd hoped- "Dean," she said, her voice soft. "Dean, why are you here again?"

"Castiel," he said, but no one answered, and he couldn't see the angel, all of a sudden. Dean's stride faltered. Don't stop. Don't listen.

"You shouldn't have come here in the first place. Not the first time. You were never meant to come here." Dean clenched his jaw because answering meant giving them something, and he didn't want to give them anything, didn't want to let them use anything and he knew everything he said would come out wrong and twisted, because that's what Hell did. Took everything good you tried to do and twisted it up until they could show it to you turned inside out. Gutted. Ruined. "Dean, turn around. Go back." Her voice lowered, and this time, because he was listening, Dean could hear the hissing rasp in it. "You don't even know if it's him anymore."

One foot in front of the other. It couldn't be that far.

"Look at me, Dean," she said. "Look at me, look at me, look at me," but he didn't have to look to see the thing pretending to be his mother flaking away to ash. Dean blinked and Castiel was next to him.

"Don't slow down," the angel said. "Whatever they show you – don't think about it."

"Can you see it?" Dean asked, and Castiel shook his head minutely.

"Not anymore. The deeper in Hell, the more…personal it becomes." He didn't need to say more. It was as good as a you're on your own, but Dean had known that going in, hadn't he? This was his to do, maybe with a little angelic help, but at heart – just his task. His brother.

His mistake.

"Got it," he said, as solidly as he could manage. "Keep moving, don't think. I can do that." He could almost hear Alistair's voice. I know everything about you, Dean. All those little secrets, even the ones you didn't know you were keeping.

Just don't think. Easy. Sure.

Sam screamed again.

~.~

It got colder, the farther they went, until Dean started to shiver, wrapping his arms around himself. The ground crackled under his feet, frozen now. The ground melted under Castiel's feet, Dean noticed, but not under his own.

When he saw Castiel, anyway, when it wasn't something else like Sam splayed open just off the path and screaming for him as a demon plunged a hand into his chest with a crunching, wet sound. When it wasn't something else like Dad telling him it was okay, he could turn back.

When it wasn't something like an empty rack and the whisper of we're waiting for you.

He kept moving forward, though, dragging one foot in front of the other, refusing to stop even when every step felt like wading through mud. How many times had he done the same thing before? Keep going even when it seems impossible, because there's nothing else to do.

(Except turn back. He could do that. No, no, no.)

It was so cold. Dean felt like his skin was going to burn off, and thought that it wasn't probably only because of whatever Castiel was doing. "I don't think it's so far now," the angel said, and it sounded like he was breathing hard.

"Are you okay?" Dean managed to ask, emerging from the haze of nightmares and detachment he had managed to form. He felt Castiel nod as a stirring of the only being radiating warmth down here.

"It is – draining to be here. But I'm fine." Castiel's tight expression belied that.

"Yeah," Dean said dryly. "Me too."

They pressed on. "Bring him out," one of the demons said, pressing closer, "And we'll take him off your hands." Something tittered, laughter high-pitched and awful. He won, Dean wanted to snarl at them, and forced himself not to turn his head. Is that why you hate him? He saved your sorry asses too.

They fell silent very suddenly, and Dean paused. "Castiel?" he said, uncertainly. Nothing seemed to have changed, except that everything was quiet.

"Go," said the angel's voice. "I'll wait for you here."

Dean took one more step forward, and nothing seemed to change, but he felt it. Another step, and the demons were gone. The ground was still frozen, flesh and rock and blood and bone, and it was even more frigid here, but something had changed.

The air seemed to crackle, like it was charged with an electrical storm.

"Sam!" he yelled. The silence should have been a relief, but it just felt oppressive, heavy.

"Hello, Dean."

The voice was like a rumble of thunder. It made Dean want to shrink. He didn't, just turned around and stared at the devil, wearing – Dean's face. Well, crap. "Huh," he managed, still shivering and trying not to, "That's hilarious."

"You'd like this better than my true form," he said casually. "It's as good as any, isn't it? So you found your way here. I might as well offer you congratulations, I suppose."

Dean bared his teeth. "Where's Sam."

Lucifer smiled, and it looked wrong and too gentle on his own features. "We'll get there," he said, with an air of soothing. Dean didn't want to be soothed. He took a step forward.

"Where's my brother?"

"With mine, at the moment," said Lucifer, and for a moment something flickered through his eyes that Dean suspected was genuine – hatred, love, some combination of both. "It's quiet, you're thinking? That's not necessarily a good sign. Michael has always had the capacity to be far crueler than I."

His smile, Dean thought, was almost affectionate. It made him feel nauseous, almost more than the possible reasons for Sam's silence. Lucifer extended his hand, abruptly, holding something. "Here."

Dean stared at it. "Why would I take something from you? I'm just here to get Sam the fuck away from here."

"Took you long enough," murmured Lucifer, and he shrugged. "It only took about forty years to stop screaming for you. After that…" Dean held himself still with an effort. "Take it," the devil continued, "It is yours."

Dean reached out carefully, and realized that it was a knife. His hand wrapped around the hilt seemingly of its own will, and Lucifer laughed softly. "Feels familiar? It should. Come. I think you might want it. And don't waste it on me."

He sounded amused by the prospect. Dean hesitated, but after a moment, trailed after his own retreating back.

He saw the crumpled form on the floor before Lucifer indicated it, and broke into a run, vaguely hearing the devil laugh behind him. "I'll be back," Lucifer murmured. "You can have a little time."

In a flash of light, the illusion of himself burst and above there was a sound like two thunderstorms colliding. Dean didn't look up. He looked at Sam.

Sam who looked like a bloody, torn mass of quivering flesh, badly mended, the ends of his fingers blackened. His body was crisscrossed with clumsily mended scars, ridges of raised flesh. Dean's stomach heaved, and whether it was there or not suddenly didn't matter.

There had been years of seeing bodies like this, created by his own knife – but it was different, it was worse, it was Sam. And Dean doubted this was the worst it had been. One-thousand eight-hundred years pounded in his head, and right on its heels it only took forty years to stop screaming for you.

"Sam," he said, voice feeling like grating across his vocal cords, and to his amazement, Sam's eyes opened.

The left was cloudy and unfocused, clearly sightless. The right focused on him, though, on his face. Sam's mouth moved, and Dean leaned closer. Sam didn't appear to be restrained. While Lucifer was gone –

"Finish it," he heard, ever so faintly.

Dean choked. "What?"

"D-d-dean," Sam said, a little louder, teeth clattering together, and if Dean was cold- "P-please. Please." His eye moved, Dean realized, and he followed Sam's stare to the knife he was holding.

You might want it.

"No," he said, and forced himself to let go of the damn thing. "No, I'm here to get you out-"

Sam's whole body heaved, jumped, and he made a strangled sound somewhere between choking and screaming. His back arched, pushing his scarred chest upward, his ribs showing through skin that was pale and thin, seeming about to tear. "Can't – can't – please just – now, n-n-now-"

Dean reached out, hands fluttering a little, not knowing where to touch. "Hold on. Just a second. It's okay." Sam was panting, though, like the pain was increasing, and Dean could feel his own heart thudding faster in response. "It's okay," Dean said again, and Sam's eyes rolled back.

"No," he said, and, "Guh," and then his chest exploded, ribs splitting outward, the force jerking Sam's whole body, and Dean had an up close and personal view of the last few stuttering beats of Sam's heart as he choked on blood before he stilled entirely.

Dean finally gave up and heaved, throwing up everything he'd never eaten in the afterlife. Sam's corpse steamed in the cold. Both of his eyes, unseeing together now, stared blankly upwards.

The cold of the ground burned Dean's knees, and he was helpless all over again.

~.~

He blinked only once and Lucifer was back, wearing a different face this time, one Dean didn't recognize. He looked battered, but he sounded smug. "Said you should have used the knife." Lucifer's hand rested on Sam's forehead, ran through his hair and down his cheek. "A vessel is for life, you know. He invited me in. That makes him mine, forever and ever, as if you humans even know what the phrase means." His hand trailed further down, dipped into the blood spilling out of Sam's chest, caressed one of the bare, shattered ribs, and Dean wanted to vomit all over again.

"Get your hands off him," he snarled.

Lucifer glanced up, seeming disinterested. "Truth be told, though," he said, not obeying, and Dean hated how handsy he was being with Sam's corpse, "I don't want to make you leave without feeling like you did something, Dean. So I'll make you a deal."

"No," Dean said, "Whatever it is, no."

"I'm not asking for anything," Lucifer said, coolly, and Dean noticed absently that as Lucifer ran his hands over Sam's body, it seemed to be knitting back together, ribs bending back into place, fusing back together. "Call it a challenge, then, if 'deal' doesn't work for you. All you have to do is carry Sam out of here on your own, and you can have him back." He smirked, slightly, and said, "Whatever's left, at any rate."

If it hadn't been so cold, Dean's blood could have boiled. "You won't interfere," he said, gritting his teeth, and watching Sam's body crackle back together, the skin now closing, reknitting, and this time it was smooth.

"I won't interfere," said the devil, and stepped back. "Go on. Let me see what you can do, Michaelsword."

Dean didn't bother to respond. He waited for the healing to finish and for Sam to gasp in his first gulp of air, and then knelt next to him. "Which way?" He asked. Lucifer just smiled. Dean didn't let his face twitch. Yeah, could have expected that.

Sam made a keening sound in his throat and Dean bent down, trying to catch his eyes. They were both clear now, at least. "Sam," he said, "I'm going to get you out of here."

He tried to lift his brother, which even at the best of times wasn't easy – but he couldn't, not more than an inch. Tried to pick him up bridal style – that didn't work either. Dragging it was, though it made Dean wince, remembering his boots. Sam was all bare skin right now, and there was no way the ground wasn't going to tear him up.

But at least he would be out.

Dean grabbed under his armpits and pulled. Sam slid with a sticky sound out of the blood he'd been lying in, and to Dean's surprise started to struggle.

"No," Sad said, his voice hoarse, nothing more than a low moan. "No, stop, don't – do it, don't-"

"It's me," said Dean, pausing. "It's Dean, Sam. I'm getting you out. Do you understand?" He glanced up. Lucifer's arms were crossed, and he was still smiling.

Dean focused on Sam, whose face was screwed up like he was bracing for pain. Dean leaned down and squeezed his shoulder. "Just hold on," he said, determinedly. "It'll be all right."

He didn't know that, not even a little, but it had to be, and sometimes that was enough. They hadn't walked far. It couldn't be far to the edge. He dragged Sam a little further and felt his little brother's whole body go rigid.

"Hurts," Sam said, "hurts, please-"

"I know," Dean said, and swallowed hard. "Look, not that much farther. I promise." Three more steps, pulling Sam along, and then he screamed, high pitched and awful. Dean stopped at once.

"Stop! Stop it, stop it – Lucifer-"

"It's not," Dean started to say, but Lucifer cut him off.

"He's asking for me." His smirk had only grown.

Dean's stomach roiled. "Fuck off," he snapped, and set his teeth and pulled Sam a little further. Sam screamed again, and writhed, clearly in pain. Dean glanced down to see if he was getting cut up, but his back looked – incredibly – intact. "What are you doing," he demanded, and Lucifer shrugged.

"Nothing. At least, nothing new. I couldn't have him walking out, could I?"

Dean wanted to scream. So this was how it was going to be. He was going to have to drag his brother for who knew how long, causing him excruciating and potentially fatal pain, and he was going to have to listen every step of the way and know that he was causing it?

He looked up at Lucifer, and suddenly found that he didn't have the words. Lucifer smiled at him. Dean gritted his teeth.

It was that or an eternity of torture. Was he really that selfish, sparing himself a little bit of guilt and leaving Sam here for more millennia of agony?

"Come on, Sam," he said, lowly. "Work with me here." Sam choked, and keened, but at least he didn't ask for Lucifer again. Dean tried to close his ears and resumed moving. The sooner they were out of here, the sooner it would be over.

The sooner Sam could be free.

~.~

Dean had thought that a lot of things felt like eternity. But pulling Sam along through every agonized scream and begging cry was up there. Distance is strange in Hell, he remembered Castiel saying, and it seemed longer out of the cage than in.

Eventually, the screaming died away into speechless twisting, writhing that made pulling Sam's nearly dead weight along even harder, and keening sobbing that dug into his soul. He wanted it to end.

It never became white noise, like it should have. For years, Dean had been attuned to every discomfort of Sam's. It wasn't helping him now. Apparently the skill hadn't receded as far as he'd thought.

But they made it. They made it to the edge, and Dean felt the change again, the shift and the sudden roar of sound that enveloped both of them, and Dean dropped next to Sam in utter relief and exhaustion. "Cas," he said. "Cas, we're out."

Then he realized that he couldn't see the angel, and Sam whimpered faintly. Dean looked at him, and Sam's eyes were wide, fixed on him.

"Dean," he said hoarsely, in some combination between exhaustion and resignation, and then he closed his eyes.

"Sam," said Dean, urgently. "We're out. Out of the cage, and when Cas gets here he'll-"

"Dean," said Sam again, like a sigh, like he hadn't heard, and started to – unravel like a piece of cloth. Little bits of him spooling out like thread and Dean tried to catch the ends before they vanished into the ground or the air but it was like Sam was thinning out and fading, and that couldn't be good-

"Hey," Dean said, not quite desperately. "Hey, hold on, Sam, you've got to – keep it together, you can't just – let go, not now, not-"

The first demon that reached them wasn't one Dean recognized. It slid through his guard and ripped a chunk out of Sam's leg, and his brother didn't even scream, just shuddered. The thing looked up at Dean and grinned at his indignant yell before hopping off into the darkness, too swift to catch. The second got his shoulder, and more of them were closing. Dean tried to fend them off, wishing for the knife he'd left behind, but they didn't seem interested in him, just in freaking Sam who was coming apart and being torn apart and they really needed-

"Cas!" He yelled, as loud as he could manage.

"I'm here," said a deceptively quiet voice behind him. "Close your eyes, and cover your brother's."

He scrambled to cover Sam's eyes, squeezed his own shut, but Dean could still feel the blaze of heat and light and power wash over and through them both, and thought he could hear Sam screaming again, but it no longer mattered, because everything felt wonderfully safe.

~.~

He could feel the engine of the Impala running, and a heavy weight in his arms. The warmth of the car against his back, and Dean forced his eyes open to look, to see-

Sam's face was buried in his shoulder, and he was shuddering violently, like he couldn't stop, like he was going to break with it. "Light," Dean heard him say, "It hurts – hurts-"

Castiel was standing a few feet away. Dean cleared his throat, watching the angel's gaze light on his brother with pity. "It's okay," he forced himself to say. "You're here. You're out, you're-"

Sam's hands grabbed his shirt, his jacket, and tightened. His body shuddered and jerked again. Dean swallowed hard.

"Cas?" he said, hesitantly, and the angel just shook his head, slightly.

"He won't let me near him," he said, quietly. "I don't think he knows me."

But he knows me, Dean thought. Even if he gave up…he knows me. He shifted as much as he could with Sam resting most of his weight on his chest and managed to tuck Sam's head under his chin. "Okay," he said, after a few moments. "As long as you need, we can stay like this. That's fine, Sam. It's just fine."

"The light hurts," said Sam into his shoulder, muffled, his voice cracked and ragged, and Dean closed his eyes and breathed deep.

"It'll get better," he said, because dammit, believing had better make it so. "Wait and see."