Dean is quiet on the ride back from the hospital.

He's barely said a word since he woke up that morning, but Sam can't really blame him when the bruises on his neck from Alistair's hands are still swollen and purple and pulse sickeningly every time Dean swallows. The few things he did say— "No" "Yes" "If you try to put me in a wheelchair and wheel me to the car I will kick your ass"— came out in such a wrecked croak of a voice Sam's own throat throbbed in empathy. He knows better than anyone what it feels like to be strangled within an inch of his life.

That thought has him glancing over at Dean for the seventh time that minute, gaze flicking over every cut and bruise on his face. White hot rage boils up in Sam's chest, so strong that for a moment he can't see or breathe. He makes an embarrassing half-growl, half-grunting sound and his hands shake on the wheel.

Dean doesn't say anything.

Sam glances over again to see if he's sleeping. His head is propped against the window but his eyes are open, staring at the road ahead. He doesn't blink when Sam drives right past the turn off to their motel. Except for the painful, deliberate swallows coursing down his throat, the body in passenger seat might as well be a corpse.

The anger inside Sam surges back to the surface. If he could kill Alistair again, he'd do it a hundred times over, each bloodier than the last. He can barely stand to think of the damage done to his brother in the Pit; if he stops now to consider the consequences of Dean's time with the demon a few days ago— what wounds have been reopened, what dark place Dean has been shoved back into— then Sam is going to crash the car and send them in a fiery hailstorm straight down below.

Except, the angels like Dean now. Or they prize him enough anyway that he would most likely be spared Hell a second time. Castiel and Anna would get their hands all over him at last and bring him back to life or else just drag him up to Heaven, a direct flight.

Sam is under no illusions what sort of help they would offer to him. It's become pretty clear that since he was six months old, it's been his destiny to burn.

Sam drives for several more miles before pulling into the parking lot of a hotel. It's at least three-star, and has a name that doesn't include the words "highway" "discount" or "by the hour." Sam looks at Dean, trying to gauge his reaction.

"I thought we'd get a room here for a couple of days," he explains when Dean doesn't move, but continues to stare out the window. "I figured you could use some real rest, and some decent water pressure, and hey, free cable…" The words sound dumb the moment they come out of Sam's mouth. As if a decent mattress and HBO can fix forty years of torture revisited in a single night. "Don't worry about the money either, we're not paying for it, a Mr. Jeffry Stanwick of Arkansas—"

"Whatever, Sam." Dean opens the door to the Impala and gets out, moving like an old man. Sam scrambles to get his own door open, ready to help Dean if he needs it or stop him if this is the beginning of some freaked-out escape maneuver. But as soon as he's out of the car, Dean just stands there, staring at the clean white walls of the hotel in front of him like it's the only thing he knows how to do.

"Are you… Um… I'll just go get us a room." Sam hesitates, wondering if he should make Dean get back in the car or tie a pillow to his head in case he falls over or something, but he seems perfectly stable and Sam knows this is one of those times when picking his battles is going to be vitally important.

He gets them a room on the exact middle floor of the hotel, which he knows is all kinds of fucked up if anyone's looking at it symbolically, but Cas and Ruby gone for now and the hotel receptionist was a seventy-year old woman who called him "dear" so Sam doubts anyone will be. Dean certainly doesn't notice. He just follows Sam quietly through the lobby and into the elevator, and doesn't even throw a fit about the fact that Sam carries both their bags.

Once inside the room Sam sets down the bags then takes Dean by the arm and leads him to one of the beds. Dean makes no effort to fight him off, and that scares Sam more than anything else has these past few days. Even when Dean was dying from taking several thousand volts of electricity to his heart he was still grumbling and making faces and dodging Sam's touch every chance he got. Now he lets himself be handled like a giant doll, and once placed on the bed he just lies back and stares.

"Dean." Now Sam's voice is the one that's messed up, ridiculously high and cracking. "Do you… Your throat… it must really sore. Do you want me to make you some tea? I'll make you some tea."

"I don't want any tea, Sam." Dean chest shudders in something resembling a sigh. "I don't want you to do anything. Just leave me alone, okay?"

Sam tries not to flinch at the request. Dean's been through a lot in the past few days, it makes sense that he wants to be left alone. Even if Sam is dying to find Dean's pulse and push his fingers against that confirmation of life until they can both believe Dean is back from Hell, he's safe, and nothing is taking him away again, he can respect his brother's wishes.

But when he gives a quiet "okay" and sits down on the other bed, Dean makes that sighing sound again and Sam finds himself climbing back to his feet. The rage is back, lighting Sam up like a nuclear explosion. He wants to scream the angels down from Heaven so he'll have some kind of flesh to sink his fists in to. Or better yet— he could call Ruby. He could call Ruby and see if she knows of another demon he could rip from its stolen body and burn into ash. He could ask her for another hit— she'll say yes, Ruby always says yes— but instead of waiting for her to bring out her knife he could break her skin with his teeth. He could suck up her blood, the heavy heat filling his mouth, fireworks in his mind, lightning in his veins, making him strong and powerful and capable of stopping anyone from hurting him or his family ever again—

Sam stops, suddenly realizing he's been pacing the space between the beds, hands clenched, breath coming fast and sharp. Dean's noticed. There's no way he hasn't noticed. He's noticed and at any second he's going to ask Sam what the hell he's doing and Sam is… Sam is going to tell him.

He's been trying to protect Dean and protect his secret, because either of them is likely to destroy the other, but he doesn't want to do it anymore. Dean looks so sad and broken right now that Sam is going to tell him. He's going to him Dean doesn't have to be the strong one anymore, that Sam is learning to be strong enough for both of them. Even though Dean came back from Hell, Sam hasn't really gotten him back, and he's going to tell Dean how he'll fix that. He'll tell him how the angels and the demons and everyone else in the whole damn world might be trying to take Dean away again, but Sam won't let them. He's going to tell Dean how he's going to put an end to this, spread Lilith's insides all over a wall, and then the two of them can feel safe again, and happy, and human.

"Sam," Dean croaks, and Sam is ready, ready to lance the boils and let all the poison spill out. "Do you remember when we left the gas on in that house in Minnesota and almost blew the whole place up?"

Sam is so caught off guard by the question his answer is a barely intelligible garble of sound. It doesn't phase Dean, however. He keeps staring at the ceiling in talking in a low voice, gravel-rough and gunpowder-thin.

"We made frozen pizza for dinner. Pepperoni and sausage. You picked off all your sausages, and put them on my plate. You were a meticulous little brat about it too, like if you ate even a piece of one you'd die."

"I was seven," Sam says faintly. He can barely remember the incident, and Dean's sudden desire to discuss it, as well as his near-perfect recall of every detail, is baffling.

"I was the one who forgot to turn the stove off. The pizza was my job. You set the table. We both did the dishes. I should have turned the stove off, but I forgot."

"Dean—" Sam doesn't know if Dean wants him to be apologizing or yelling or crying or what. He feels a bit like doing all three. He takes a step forward. Dean continues like he didn't even hear him.

"It was on for hours. We watched King Kong. You hated it when the monkey died, but you thought you were getting too old for me to hold your hand. Still, at the end you got up real close to me, and I put my arm around your shoulders. You were so small then, remember? This scrawny little thing, wearing my hand-me-down t-shirts and looking ridiculous in them."

Sam sits back down on the edge of his bed. For some reason, his legs feel shaky and his eyes are pricking uncomfortably at the corners.

"After the movie, you wanted pancakes." Dean makes a sound that might be a laugh. It's only slightly less horrible than his sigh. "Man, you and those fucking pancakes. Didn't matter that we'd had pizza before. Didn't matter if it was eleven o'clock at night, or if you had the flu, or if one of us had been shot in the leg. When we were growing up you would eat pancakes anytime you got half a chance. 'Course that's changed now. You don't eat anything."

Sam has about a hundred responses to that, but all of them seem to have trouble making it to his mouth. He wants to say of course he eats, it's just hard to have an appetite sometimes when demons and angels are hounding your every waking second, your brother has a head full of Hell and you have a gut full of blood. He wants to tell Dean about the way Jessica used to make pancakes every Sunday, with strawberries on the side and powdered sugar on top. He wants to remind Dean of the several dozen times he sat across from him in the same diner on the same day and watched Dean work his way through a stack, sometimes choking on them, sometimes being poisoned, once drowning in maple syrup. He gets as far as "I—" before Dean cuts him off.

"All the windows were closed but that whole damn place smelled so badly neither of us noticed the gas. You got out the bowl, and put the skillet on the stove, and I mixed up the batter. Your eyes were droopy and I felt sort of sleepy but I figured it was just cause it was late. You were sitting on the counter, right next to the stove, when I went to push the button to light the pilot. Your feet kept hitting me in the thigh. And I almost did it, Sammy. I almost pushed the button and blew us both to bits."

"But you didn't." Sam remembers that part, if only for the wide-eyed look of terror in Dean's eyes when Sam had shouted and grabbed his arm. "I noticed the gas was still on, and I stopped you. We opened all the windows and doubled all the salt lines and everything was fine." Laying on his back, Dean looks like he's about to cry, so Sam feels the need to reemphasize his point. "I stopped you."

Dean swallows hard. His voice, when it comes, is barely above a whisper. "I wish you hadn't."

And then he starts sobbing.

"I wish you hadn't, Sammy," he gasps as his chest heaves and the bruises on his neck twitch like they have a life of their own. "I wish you hadn't stopped me. I wish that had been the end for us, right then, you and me. Gone out with a blast. Nothing to bury and nothing to burn. We were happy that night, and I wish it could've ended there. It should've ended there. Then we wouldn't be here, this wouldn't be happening, I wouldn't—"

His words choke off and he gags, jerking on the bed. Sam's on his feet and moving the next second when he realizes Dean's not breathing. He gets arm beneath his brother's shoulders, hauling him into a sitting position and muttering inane things like "it's okay, Dean, deep breath now, come on."

Dean thrashes a bit in his hold, body reacting to the lack of air, and Sam is forced to sit down, one leg off the bed and his back against the headboard in order to hold on to him. Dean's back ends up pressed against his chest, and his head drops back to land on Sam's shoulder. His eyes are rolling back into his skull, tears still streaming down his cheeks. Sam puts one hand against Dean's ribs, pressing firmly.

"Dean, you need to breathe," he says in his most authoritative voice, even though he's pretty sure he's crying too at this point. "Right now, come on. Deep breath in. That's it. Now let it out. Good, again. Deep breath in. Come on, Dean, I need you to do this for me. Deep breath in. Okay, and let it out. Slowly, Dean. Now do it again."

Eventually, Dean calms enough that Sam stops his verbal commands, but he leaves his hand against Dean's ribs, feeling every expansion and contraction. Dean turns his head, bruises straining, and his breath gusts warm and still stuttering from his tears against Sam's neck.

"It's okay," Sam mutters, the big brother words, because his big brother died and went to Hell and still hasn't really come back, so Sam's had to step up and take his place for a while. Dean's limp and heavy against Sam's chest, but he can support the weight. Even after it all these years, it always surprises him to remember Dean is smaller than he is. "I'm going to take care of it, Dean. All of it. I had to be strong when you were gone, and I'm even stronger now. I'm going to take care of this."

Dean says nothing. His eyes are closed now, his breathing evening out. Within minutes he's asleep, and Sam wonders how much of this he'll remember, or admit to remembering, in the morning. Not that it matters. Sam means everything he says, whether Dean remembers it or not. He is going to take care of the angels and the demons and anyone else who comes along. He's getting stronger by the day. Not too long ago, he couldn't banish a demon without practically having a hemorrhage, and in the past twenty-four hours he killed one of the strongest demons in hell without so much as a headache.

For a moment Sam feels a sick twist in his gut as he thinks about the way Castiel looked at him after that particular feat, and the way his own hands were shaking when he was to talking to Ruby. The blood hadn't felt disgusting or wrong going down his throat, it had felt good. Right.

Because it was right, Sam tells himself. Desperate times, and all that. He needs to protect himself and Dean right now. If he hadn't shown up when he did, Alistair would have probably killed Cas and taken Dean right back down to Hell.

Sam is never going to allow that to happen.

Dean shifts against his chest, snorts, and Sam smiles a little to see his face relaxed. For now, at least, Dean is sleeping without nightmares.

"Let's keep it that way," Sam whispers. Thinking about killing Alastair has made him want to call Ruby again, to reopen the cut on her arm and bring himself back to full power where nothing can stop him. But he doesn't want to move Dean right now, doesn't want to risk disturbing his sleep, so he pushes those thoughts to the back of his brain.

Cas looked at him like he was some sort of monster, but he doesn't understand. Sam is doing this to fight the monsters. Dean is unconscious against him, tears drying on his cheeks, blood under his fingernails, bruises on his throat. The things that did this to him, that's what Sam is doing this for. That's who he's going up against.

And that's who he's going to destroy.

But for now, he sits on a bed in a hotel room, holding his brother's battered and exhausted body, and listens to him breathe.