I'm posting a little bit out of order here, for those following the series. Tags for 'Frontierland', 'Mommy Dearest' and 'My Heart Will Go On' will get posted eventually, whenever I can manage to finish them. :)

Dialogue at the beginning is from "The Man Who Would Be King", 6x20. It belongs to Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund.


Sam's spitting a mouthful of toothpaste into the sink when he hears the rumble of voices echoing up from the floor below. At first he mistakes it for the gentle rolls of thunder, but after a moment he can make out Dean's gravelly timbre and he grabs a hand towel roughly off the rack to wipe his mouth in his hurry down the stairs. He moves as quickly and quietly as he can; heart in his throat as he realizes he's completely unarmed, and he's pretty sure Dean was too when Sam left him dozing on the couch. The idea of Dean sleep-sluggish and defenseless has Sam's stomach doing terrified flip-flops, but then he skids to a halt just shy of the doorway to the living room – his brain kick-starting and identifying the second voice.

"I don't understand," Cas is saying quietly.

Sam breathes a tiny sigh of relief, and presses his body flat against the wall so he can listen.

"Look, next to Sam, you and Bobby are the closest things I have to family. You are like a brother to me," Dean growls. "So if I'm asking you not to do something … you gotta trust me, man."

His voice fades to pleading toward the end, and then there's a loaded pause. Sam doesn't risk sneaking a look at them, but he doesn't need to. He can picture the two of them standing there, shoulders back and gazes intense as they square off.

"Or what?" Cas asks, almost in a whisper like he's afraid of the answer.

"Or I'll have to do what I have to do to stop you," Dean counters defiantly.

"You can't, Dean," Cas says sadly. "You're just a man. I'm an angel."

"I don't know, I've taken down some pretty big fish." Dean's tone is calmer now; cooler, but Sam still heard that for the clear challenge it was.

"I'm sorry Dean."

"Well, I'm sorry too then."

Then Sam hears the faint flutter of wings signifying Cas is gone. He blows a deep breath out slowly, inhaling and then exhaling therapeutically a few times like if he gets enough fresh oxygen to his brain it'll be able to make some sense of what he just heard. It doesn't seem to be working – everything is still murky like a river with a silt bed. Sam's spent a good portion of his life in various states of confusion so he's not exactly a stranger to that muddy, uncomfortable feeling but that doesn't make him feel better. And of all the times in his life when things have made absolutely no sense, this has got to top the list. Cas was their friend – is their friend. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to Dean; not now. Sam always liked the angel well enough but he never had the kind of bond with him that Dean clearly does. Maybe because of leftover residue from when Cas was assigned as Dean's guardian, or maybe it's something else that Sam just doesn't quite understand but there's always been something there between the two of them – Dean trusted him, that's what's killing Sam the most. Saying that Dean Winchester doesn't trust easily is the very definition of an understatement. Sam can count on one hand the number of people Dean's trusted in his thirty-two years on this earth. And Castiel was one of them, and all along he's been lying to them, working against them, working with Crowley. Plotting hand in hand with the king of Hell, for fuck's sake; helping him to free the mother of all monsters and then pretending to be a player in the fight against her. Personally, Sam's a little bit more interested in hearing Cas's reasons then Dean seems to be; Dean's taking this more like outright betrayal. But then, Dean's always been a black and white kind of person – if it feels good, do it; if it tastes good, eat it; if it's evil, waste it – and Sam can only imagine how much this is messing with his brother's head. Dean probably hasn't been hurt this bad since … well, since his life's last great betrayal; Sam choosing Ruby. And Sam doesn't know how to make it better.

He chances a peek around the corner; Dean's back on the couch now, elbows leaning on his knees and face buried in his hands. He looks so small and dejected in the cold, blue moonlight and it's all Sam can do not to go to him. His whole body aches with the need to touch Dean, to hold him, to fix this, but it wouldn't matter anyway. There's nothing Sam can do. They are so deep in it this time Sam doesn't even know where to start digging themselves out.

"Sam."

He startles a little, rapidly blinking himself out of his head and then going as still as he possibly can – not even breathing. He doesn't want Dean to know he was listening. Dean would've come upstairs and told him everything anyway, there was really no good reason for Sam to be spying. Not one that he can think of off the top of his head, anyway.

"C'mon, I know you're there."

Alright fine, caught. Sam smiles a little in spite of himself and leans around the corner. "I thought I was being so stealthy."

Dean looks back at him with sad eyes, but manages a small chuckle in return. "You can't hide from me, kiddo."

"Guess not." Sam's chest floods with warmth at the familiar nickname. Dean doesn't call him that nearly enough anymore. When he was a teenager he hated it – it made him feel young and stupid; inadequate. Now it makes him feel loved, and protected. It reminds him that he's still the little brother.

"You get all that?" Dean asks despondently, nodding briefly to the spot where Sam assumes Castiel had been standing.

"Some of it. Sorry I – I heard yelling, I just … I wasn't trying to eavesdrop."

That's only half true; Sam did come downstairs because he heard voices when he thought Dean was sleeping, but after he recognized the second voice as Cas, Sam couldn't seem unglue his feet from the floor. He barely resisted the urge to just barge in there and grab that damn angel by his wrinkled lapels and force him to tell them what the fuck, but Cas usually has those heart-to-heart kind of conversations with Dean instead, so Sam held himself back and just listened; unseen. Which, he now realizes, he exactly what they were all so mad at Cas for doing earlier. Sam moves into the room and drops down onto the couch beside Dean, not saying anything for a few long minutes. The steady ticking of the clock in the other room is making Sam's skin itchy as he waits for Dean to speak first, and when he doesn't Sam gives in and ventures cautiously forward.

"Are … are you okay?" he asks gently.

"I – no," Dean says flatly. "Not really."

Sam nods. He appreciates the honesty, usually in this type of situation he'd have to spend a good twenty minutes negotiating around Dean's roadblocks before his stubborn brother would give in and tell Sam what's really going on. But it still freaks Sam out a little. He hates seeing Dean so drained; so resigned. On instinct, Sam's body moves to put his arm around Dean, but then at the last second he reconsiders and pulls back.

"What're we gonna do?" Dean asks breathlessly.

"I don't know." Sam runs the back of his palm over his mouth just to have something to do with his hands.

"No, seriously, what the fuck are we gonna do?" Dean repeats, a little louder this time. "I … I mean we can't just let Crowley … right? But I don't wanna have to … damn it, Cas is still our friend! He's clearly been pullin' a lot of crap behind our backs but he's … he's my friend. I can't just …"

As babbly and nonsensical as that sentence was, Sam thinks it just about sums everything up. "I know. It sucks."

"This is so fucked up," Dean mutters, leaning his head forward onto his hands again. "Like, way passed our normal level of fucked up."

"I … I know." Sam's starting to feel like a broken record; his brother is clearly asking for help here and Sam has no idea what to say. Because he doesn't know the answer – he doesn't know what the hell they're gonna do. It really doesn't seem like letting Crowley get a hold of all the souls in Purgatory has any chance at a happy ending, but what's the alternative? What if Cas is telling the truth; what if he really did do all this to keep Raphael from starting the apocalypse back up? It's not like they can just let that happen; Sam already sacrificed himself once to save the world, he's not so sure he'd be willing to do it again. Especially knowing what it did to Dean.

"What do I do?" Dean asks, voice muffled by his hands but his desperation comes through nonetheless. "Really, I'm actually asking, m'not just venting or something. I mean, it's not like we can start hunting Cas. We wouldn't stand a chance anyway. So what? What'm I supposed to do, Sammy?"

Dean sounds exhausted and miserable and Sam hates it. He draws his bottom lip between his teeth to worry at it; his whole body rolling hot and then ice cold. God, he wishes he had an answer for that. But he doesn't. This situation is the embodiment of being stuck between a rock and a totally fucked place, and Sam's just as lost as Dean is.

"I really don't know," he admits sadly, hand twitching as it itches to reach for Dean but he holds back again. "I wish I did. We'll talk tomorrow I guess, see what Bobby thinks."

"Where is he, by the way?" Dean asks, lifting his head up but still looking anywhere but at Sam.

"Passed out," Sam grins. "I figured he's on the wrong side of fifty for gettin' thrown through a window so I spiked his whiskey with Vicodin. He's out."

Dean snickers. "Well that's not date-rapey at all. Sounds like a good call, but remind me never to leave my drink alone while you're in the room."

Sam laughs back and bumps Dean's shoulder with his own. "Pretty sure I don't need narcotics to get you to give it up."

"I should probably be offended by that." Dean shakes his head and bumps back, and Sam enjoys actually smiling for a few brief moments before Dean heaves a sigh and the mood in the room darkens again to match the stormy sky outside the window.

"What?" Sam asks.

"Do you …" Dean sighs again, his voice small and despairing. "You don't really think Cas brought you back soulless on purpose, do you?"

Truthfully, Sam doesn't really know what to think about that. It was enough of a landmine to find out that Cas was the one who brought him back in the first place, and then they got interrupted and had to bail before Sam had a chance to push for more information. He doesn't want to believe Cas would do that, but up until today Sam wouldn't have thought their friend capable of any of the other things they now know he did.

"I … I don't know," he starts. If he has to say that one more time he's gonna scream. "Sorry, I … I just don't know what to think, you know? I wish I could say for sure one way or the other, but I just …"

"You don't know," Dean finishes, nodding shortly.

"Yeah." Sam winces apologetically. "Sorry."

"Not your fault." Dean scratches absently at the back of his hand.

Sam still feels like it is his fault somehow, though he can't really explain why. Maybe he's just tired of always letting Dean down.

"You know I …" Sam pauses for a minute to regroup his racing thoughts. He doesn't want this to come out backwards and have Dean take it the wrong way. "When Cas said he was the one who … it was kinda my immediate reaction, that he left my soul behind on purpose. But now that I have a chance to think about it, I can't really see him doing that to you."

Dean looks up slowly. "To – to me? What about you?"

"Well it … it didn't really do me any harm, did it?" Sam reasons. "I mean, I didn't feel anything without it, and I don't remember anything now, so … I kinda got the better end of that deal. But you, well you thought I was dead for almost a year, and then you had to deal with the asshole version of me for six months."

"You were an asshole," Dean mumbles, and Sam smiles in spite of himself again. "But it was still better."

"Than what?"

"Than when you were gone. I hated it." There's this edge, this weight to Dean's words that's making him sound older and more weathered than he is. "I mean, I – not all the time. It sucked at the beginning, but it did get better. I … there were times when I was actually almost happy, with her. And Ben. The three of us, we were sort of a family. But it never really went away, you know? That you weren't there. I still kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see you. I still had to wake up every morning with her there beside me instead of you."

Sam nods. He isn't really sure what to say to that. He really does know what Dean went through – he watched Dean get ripped to shreds by hell hounds and then he lived without Dean for four months, and he was such a mess that he let Ruby twist him around in circles until he didn't know which way was up anymore. He remembers bargaining with every demon he could get his hands on, begging and pleading and negotiating and groveling; he would've done anything, anything to get Dean back. He remembers throwing himself ruthlessly into hunting, taking on entire nests of vampires by himself and not sleeping for days at a time. He remembers crying until he couldn't anymore; until his eyes burned and there was no more liquid left in him to come out and he'd crumple into a dehydrated, shivering pile on the floor. One time, he forgot to eat for an entire week and Bobby walked in on him right as he collapsed from malnutrition; it took him an hour to convince the man not to take him to the hospital. He remembers all of these things just as sharp and excruciating as if it were yesterday, but there still isn't anything he could say to make Dean feel better. Somehow relating to shared experience doesn't seem like it would really help.

So he just runs a hand through his hair and changes the subject back. "Yeah. Well, that's kind of my point. If I came back as, you know, me, I … you wouldn't have had to go through all that. I would've found you the second I got topside, you have to know that."

"I know that," Dean agrees quietly.

"And … I mean Cas must've known that I wouldn't be the same person if he left my soul in the pit, right? He must've known it would hurt you." Sam shrugs. "Whatever he's done, he at least still cares about you. So … why would he? Do that, I mean."

Dean chews at his lip and studies a spot on the stained rug for a minute before he answers. "Maybe because Crowley needed your help."

Sam cocks his head; confused.

"If they'd come to you, the you that has a soul, and asked you to help them find alphas so they could open Purgatory, would you have done it?" Dean asks.

"Oh." Now Sam gets it. "Uh … no, probably not. I … I didn't really think about it that way."

"I don't know for sure either, I'm just sayin'."

Dean sniffs and shifts a little on the couch; moving his body unconsciously a little closer and Sam lifts his arm reflexively. He lets it hover there for a minute but then drops it, and Dean finally turns and meets Sam's gaze – fixes him with a funny look.

"Why do you keep doing that?" he asks, eyes narrowed curiously.

"Doing what?"

"You keep going to touch me and then you don't." Dean's eyes flicker back down. "You can, you know. I'm not gonna freak out or something."

Damn. He really can't hide anything at all from Dean anymore, can he?

"I just … I hate seeing you look so sad," Sam says softly. "And all I wanna do is – I dunno, hold you, kiss it better, but sometimes … sometimes I think maybe that helps me more than it helps you. I know the whole touchy feely thing isn't your … thing."

Dean shrugs noncommittally, but doesn't offer anything else in the way of explanation so Sam reaches over and lets his hand rest heavily between Dean's shoulder blades. He rubs back and forth a few times and tries to figure out why the air between them is suddenly colorless and thick with tension. He's never felt this uncomfortable touching Dean before. He's been touching Dean since the day he was born, always reaching for his big brother's warmth and strength to make everything better when nothing else can. And right now, for a reason Sam can't quite get a grasp on, it feels like they're strangers. But then Dean sniffs again and leans into Sam, melting against Sam's chest like he isn't strong enough to hold himself up anymore and that scratchy, awkward feeling dissipates like sugar into warm rain. Sam inches closer and slides his arm all the way around Dean's shoulders, pulling him in close so he can press his forehead into the crook of Sam's neck. The heat from Dean's body, the weight of it pressed against Sam's is more soothing than words ever could be.

"I'm so sorry," he whispers, letting his dry lips drag against the silky skin of Dean's temple. "This isn't fair. We – you shouldn't have to deal with this. Not after everything else."

Dean nods, the tips of his gelled hair tickling Sam's chin. "You know, when we were kids? Everything was so ... uncomplicated," he starts quietly, so quietly that Sam has to strain to hear him. "Didn't matter what kind of trouble we got into, Dad was like this superhero who could just fix anything."

"Yeah." Sam vaguely remembers feeling like that too, back when he was still young and optimistic enough that he didn't resent every move John Winchester made.

"And ever since he died, everything's just been so out of control," Dean continues. "God, I mean think about it. Dad was a hunter for twenty-five years and the only thing he ever dealt with that wasn't a simple salt and burn was the yellow-eyed demon, and he never even managed to gank the son-of-a-bitch. And in the five years since he's been gone, we've ... we killed the demon, we've both died and come back more times than I even remember, we've been to heaven and hell, shit, we started and stopped the honest-to-god apocalypse! Sometimes ... sometimes everything's spinning so fast I feel like I'm barely hanging on. But we … having an actual angel as back up … I don't know, lately it's felt like we had a really good thing goin' on here, y'know? You and me and Bobby and Cas, it felt like …"

"What?" Sam prods gently, wrapping his free hand around Dean's fingers.

Dean takes a deep breath. "Like you and me weren't quite so alone."

Sam tries to come up with some kind of intelligent response to that, but the words he doesn't have die in his throat anyway.

"I used to think we were invincible," Dean says, laughing humorlessly. "But we're not. And I … I guess it was just nice to have Cas on our side." He shakes his head and pulls away, huffing as he stands up and takes a few steps towards the door. "I don't know. I'm being stupid."

"No you're not," Sam argues, the whole left side of his body prickling at the loss of Dean's warmth. "We're gonna figure this out, we … you know, what you said about Dad? … that's kinda how I've always felt about you. And I know I treated you that way, like you were the superhero who could fix anything. I remember just … coming to you, telling you all my sad little kid problems, and you'd just swoop in make everything better. Like it was just that easy. And I loved that, but maybe … maybe it wasn't always such a good thing."

Dean turns around, eyes widened slightly in interest but he doesn't ask, he just waits.

"Maybe it made you feel like if you ever couldn't fix something, it meant you were letting me down," Sam continues slowly, aware that Dean's probably not gonna be happy about that statement but knowing he needs to hear it anyway. "But you aren't, okay? You and me and Bobby, we can figure this out. I have no idea how but I know we can. We, not you. This doesn't all have to be on your shoulders. Just … tell me you know that."

Dean fixes Sam with a long, strange look; like he's caught halfway between wanting to scream and wanting to cry. Sam kind of knows the feeling, and it isn't a good one. It's kind of like being on one of those medieval torture machines that drag your limbs in four different directions, and you'd give anything to just let your body pick one but all four ropes are tugging with equal strength so you can't – you just have to give in and let yourself be ripped apart.

But then Dean nods, ever so slightly, and whispers "Okay", and there's a tiny flicker of hope in his eyes that allows Sam to believe that just maybe he's gotten trough to Dean this time. At least for a while. Sam smiles, holding his hand out and smiling even wider when Dean takes it and lets himself be led back to the couch. Sam lies down and hauls Dean down on top of him, shifting enough to the side so that Dean falls into the slot between the back cushions and Sam's body. Sam slips his arm around Dean's shoulders and pulls him in as close as he can, and Dean snakes his free arm across Sam's ribs; grasping a gather of Sam's shirt in his hand and holding on. Sam sighs happily and buries his nose in Dean's soft hair – breathing his brother in like he's oxygen. In a way, he is.

"We're gonna figure this out," Sam repeats. "We always do."

"Yeah, I heard you the first time. Knock it off with the after school special, would you?" Dean complains, but Sam can hear the smile on his face even if from this angle he can't see it.

"Okay, okay, fine." Sam kisses the top of Dean's head. "You win, we'll just cuddle."

Dean snorts and buries his face in Sam's neck to muffle his laughter. "Your words."

Sam smiles back and hugs Dean a little tighter. Dean rolls in a little so he's tucked against Sam's side like he was carved to fit there. The heat from his body sears right through Sam's and burns him up from the inside out. It's always like this when Dean's this close – too hot to touch but Sam can never pull away even if he gets sunburnt. But right now it's comforting too; Sam's body squished up alongside Dean's on a too small couch; a tiny bit of solace in the middle of chaos like the eye of a hurricane. Like they're finally a united front again even as everything else falls apart around them.

"Hey Sammy?"

"Mhm?"

"Promise me something?"

"Okay."

"I … I don't know what's gonna happen, but it's startin' to look like things're gonna get a lot worse before they get better," Dean says in a worn-down, resigned sort of voice.

He stalls for a moment, loosening his grip on Sam's shirt and then tightening it again, and Sam waits patiently. He lets his own fingers trails lightly over the back of Dean's hand until it relaxes, and then he tangles his fingers in Dean's. Dean sort of scoffs like he always does whenever Sam forces tender moments, but Sam can feel his brother's lips smiling against the column of his throat.

"Just … promise me that whatever happens, we're gonna stick together this time."

"'Course we will." Sam rubs Dean's back reassuringly – there was never any doubt in his mind. "We've made that mistake too many times already. Nothing good happens when we split up."

"Yeah," Dean breathes, probably trying not to sound relieved but Sam sees through him, like always. "So we're in it together?"

"All the way," Sam promises, and it sort of takes his breath away how much he means it.

"We're in so far over our heads this time." Dean exhales heavily and pushes his forehead back into Sam's neck.

"I know," Sam whispers; holding Dean close because at this point it's really all he can do.