My lovely and awesome friend Scribble2Much mentioned a follow up to Dante's Penitentiary. I hadn't planned on doing a sequel or a second chapter but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. So, thanks to Scribble2Much for the inspiration :)
Notes: Again, it's pretty much AU because it doesn't follow season 3 or anything after that. Err, it's also AU because technically three years for Sam would be three hundred years for Dean, and I imagine he'd be a demon by the end of that (or at least a lot more messed up). All things considering, I go really easy on him…mostly because if I messed him up as much as he should be messed up, we'd be here forever.
Beware of: Language, a few hell references and generally awful stuff, angst, and bro mos of epic proportions. No, seriously, there's smarm ahead.
The Road Back
The first thing he tells Dean about is Yellow Eyes. The hunt for that demon has been their legacy and mission for years, and it's only right that Dean knows that the bastard is finally dead. When he tells him, Dean kind of blinks in surprise and then breaks out into an honest, proud grin, "Way to go, Sammy," is what he says and then, "Wish I could've been there to see it."
Sam doesn't tell him that he would've traded anything in the world for Dean to have seen the demon take it's last breath. He doesn't tell Dean that after he killed the demon, he drove all the way back down south to the beach Dean disappeared from, just to feel a little bit connected to the family Yellow Eyes had taken. Instead he offers a small smile at the praise and replies, "Me too."
One of the first things he asks about is Sam's weight, or lack thereof, to be more specific. When he does, Sam's face blanks out and his bony body turns rigid. "A hunt went bad a few months before you were set free. Bobby bailed me out."
Dean stares for a moment. "You're gonna have to do better than that, Sam."
A thin line of determination sets across Sam's mouth. It's a look that Dean's familiar with, having seen it countless times before, and it's a look that he loathes. It's not Sam's defiant look, not really. It's Sam's defensive look, the look he gives when he's not ready to talk about something so he's going to dig in his heels. Dean got that look a lot after Jessica died.
"Tell me about hell," is Sam's counter.
Dean immediately shuts down as snippets of agony, terror, blood, and desolation flash through his mind. He shakes his head, mostly to clear the images but also to tell Sam to screw off. He can't talk about that. Even if he could, he doesn't want Sam to know what happens in the pit…what happened to him in the pit.
Instead of starting something he drops the subject. He figures as long as Sam's alive, that's all that matters.
Dean doesn't really talk about hell. Sam wants him to, if not to relieve some of Dean's pain then to distract Sam from his own. But Dean doesn't seem too eager to bring it up. What he does seem eager to bring up is Sam's weight, Sam's sleeping habits, Sam's new withdrawn tendencies, and Sam's nightmares. Basically, Dean wants to talk about all the things Sam is trying to avoid. What does he even say? How does he even begin to articulate the pain and loneliness that sunk into his very soul over the past three years, on top of the whole damn month he spent starving in a cage? How does someone begin to describe that? He can't, so he doesn't.
When he's not thinking about hell or how to get through the next day, Dean thinks about Sam. He thinks about the hunt Sam apparently went on and what could've caused him to drop so much weight. It crosses his mind that maybe it was a gradual thing, that maybe over the past three years stress, grief, and loneliness affected Sam's appetite. He doesn't think that's right, though. He's seen Sam grieve before and it just doesn't add up. Plus it doesn't explain the hunt that Sam mentioned. He briefly thinks about calling Bobby to get the story but decides that it's too early to call in reinforcements. And selfishly, he almost doesn't want to know. If he can't even look his own problems in the face, how is he supposed to face Sam's? Before hell he never would've thought to ignore the fact that something happened to his little brother. He supposes that's part of what makes it hell, though. It strips you of who you are until there's nothing left but helplessness, pain, and humiliation. Truth is, he just doesn't know how to be 'Dean' anymore.
They don't talk much anymore outside of necessary comments. Sam figures it's more out of exhaustion than anything. He's tired of waking up from a nightmare, thinking the darkness of the motel is the actually the solitary confinement of the shapeshifter's cage, or thinking that Dean's still dead. Dean's tired of walling up hell, desperately trying to keep Sam from seeing it. They're both tired of keeping up the facade. So instead of talking, they hunt. For a month or so they cross the country, killing every bad thing in their path just so they can ignore their own bad things. It's a great system…until they come across a shapeshifter.
Dean thinks it could be worse, all things considering. Sam's gaining weight (finally) and sure, his little brother's still distant, but Dean figures it'll straighten itself out in time. As for him, well, he's just thankful that he's finally stopped smelling sulfur. They've been hitting the hunt pretty hard but you won't find him complaining about it. What kinda worries him is that Sam isn't complaining about it, because this is the exact type of unhealthy avoidance that Sam would usually disapprove of. Some days he thinks about bugging Sam about it, asking what has him so keyed up that he's turning to the hunt. Most days he's too relieved to bother. That is, until they run into a shifter in Grafton, Wisconsin. Things kinda go to shit after that.
Grafton is cold, like the rest of Wisconsin, Sam figures. The air is crisp with fall and he can see his breath when he exhales. Dean doesn't seem to mind; he's always liked the colder states, especially since he's been back from hell. Sam's noticed but hasn't said anything, mostly because Dean would shrug it off and it'd make them both think about those three years that they were separated. But they're in this tundra of a state because people are going missing. Some of the bodies turned up, all of them covered in blood with their faces frozen in fear, but there's no obvious pattern or blatant hint to what's going on. Yet the whole thing has Sam's gut churning in trepidation. The case feels too much like Virginia but Sam knows that it's impossible. Even if it is a shapeshifter, there's no way it's the shapeshifter; Bobby killed that one before he saved Sam's sorry ass. Right?
He blinks and realizes that Dean's staring at him, and has apparently been trying to get his attention for some time. His hands are trembling and he quickly, but nonchalantly, shoves them in his jacket pockets to keep Dean from noticing.
"What?" Sam asks and hopes it doesn't come out too defensively.
"You want the library or the morgue?"
"Library," Sam quickly says.
Dean squints at him again but just shakes his head, "Geek."
They separate and Sam can't help but be grateful that Dean hates research.
Sam's acting kinda weird but that's not too out of the ordinary now days. What is out of the ordinary was the flash of terror in Sam's eyes when he spaced out. Dean's seen his brother scared more than a few times before (and after) he came back from hell. He's not blind; he knows Sam's been having frequent nightmares, and he's seen the look in Sam's eyes when he snaps awake. What he doesn't know is if the nightmares are about the hunt that went bad while Dean was in hell, of if they're about all the other missing time. Maybe both.
Dean frowns as he pulls into the hospital parking lot, realizing that he's actually really bothered that he doesn't know what's going on in Sam's head or even what the hell really happened with his little brother over the past three years. It bothered him in the beginning too, but then hell was too fresh and too overwhelming to let him really dwell on it. Now hell's receded enough to let the lack of information nag him. He gets out of the car, thinking that maybe it's finally time for them to have a talk over a beer or something, maybe later tonight after they do their initial case recon.
That plan goes to hell when he gets a phone call from the police station.
Sam doesn't know what he's looking for. The victims are all random and none of them have anything in common except for the fact that they're all dead. The town doesn't have any history that suggests something that works in cycles (like a werewolf) is involved, and the wounds on the body aren't consistent with anything animal related anyways. In a lot of ways, this just looks like a run-of-the-mill serial killer case; tragic, but not anything they can take care of.
Unless it's a shifter.
The possibility has been bothering Sam all day. It's not the fact that it could be a shifter, it's the fact that the victims are random, that the deaths are popping up so quickly, and that they've all been tortured until they're nearly unrecognizable. It's the fact that the case in Virginia was identical, down to the last confusing detail. Sam knows Bobby said the shifter was dead but what if?
Sam sighs and pushes away from the library computer, intending to stand. When he turns to walk away, he's cut off by a college age guy who's walking by.
Sam startles, "Sorry, man. I…"
He stops, starring in fascinated horror as the stranger's eyes flash. A sudden anger, something that may resemble vengeance, fills Sam like a drug. Determination settles across his shoulders as he takes the first swing. Distantly, he wonders if there's anything sharp and silver in the library.
"You what?" Dean asks into the phone incredulously.
Sam sighs from the other end, "I'm in jail. I need you to pick me up or bail me out, or something."
"What do you mean you're in jail? Sam, I left you in a damn library."
"It's a long story. Just come get me, please?"
Dean pauses. Despite the fact that he's annoyed and ok, a little pissed, he can't help but respond to the fact that Sam's obviously upset, and he gets the feeling that it isn't because Sam's in jail.
"Yeah, alright. I'll be there in fifteen."
Dean ends up getting the story from the cop. Sam "brutally" attacked some kid in the library after he almost bumped into Sam. The guy, 24 year old Casey Pollick, is in the emergency room with a busted face, a wrenched arm, and a few broken ribs. The cops tell Dean that witnesses described the attack as one of "pure rage," and "completely spontaneous…the guy just snapped."
But they don't know Sam Winchester like Dean does, and Dean knows that no matter how screwed up Sam is, he'd never attack a civilian unless he had a legitimate reason to. He just needs to find out what that reason was.
"Ok. Can I see him?" Dean asks.
The cop eyes him, "You have five minutes. I suggest you use that time to discuss a lawyer."
Sam looks awful. He's twitchy, sweaty, and his eyes are rimmed with red. To an outsider, he'd probably look like a druggie, especially with his still too-skinny frame. Good thing Dean isn't an outsider and knows that this is Sam freaked right the hell out.
"What happened?" Dean asks through the cell bars.
"I thought he was a shifter," is the dejected reply, "Thought I saw his eyes flash. It was just a reflection of the computer's screen."
Oh. That makes sense. What doesn't make sense is why Sam looks so positively wrecked.
Sam shrugs, "And what? I screwed up."
Dean rolls his eyes, "I mean, why do you still look spooked?"
The reaction is instantaneous. Sam tenses up and sets his mouth, his classic, "I'm not talking about it," pose. Dean clenches his jaw and digs in his own heels.
"We're talking about this, Sam. You just attacked some poor bastard in a library and you've been acting off for weeks. Something's up, so spill."
"You mean the way you spill about hell?" Sam replies.
Dean's eyes narrow at the deflection, "It's not gonna work like that this time."
He can see that Sam has something absolutely scathing on the tip of tongue but the police officer interrupts, saying that visiting time is over so unless Dean has bail, he needs to get his ass out. Dean does plan on using their emergency cash to bail Sam out, but he has another stop to make first.
The jail doors slide open to reveal Dean waiting with his patent "big brother" expression. Sam winces and almost wishes he was staying in jail, because facing Dean while he's like this is never fun.
"How'd you get me out?" Sam asks.
"Posted bail and talked to the kid you annihilated. I told him you had some PTSD issues, convinced him to drop the charges."
Sam swallows, feeling simultaneously ashamed for his actions and grateful that he has Dean for a brother.
Dean grunts in response and leads the way out to the Impala. Sam hesitates for a second and then follows him. They drive for a while, passing the motel they've been staying in, and then breaking through the city limits. Sam throws a questioning glance at Dean but Dean faces forward resolutely.
They end up on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Sam tenses up, "Dean…"
Dean doesn't saying anything, just gets out of the car and lets the sound of crashing waves fill the car. Sam doesn't want to get out. Being back at the beach, even if it's not the beach, only reminds him of losing Dean. But he can't stay in the car and he's genuinely curious why Dean brought them here when they both have something against sandy shores.
There's a giant log on the shore a few yards away from where the water is making ripples in the sand. Dean sits on it and waits for Sam to catch up. After a few moments Sam doesn't disappoint and plops down next to Dean.
"What are we doing here?" Sam's voice is tight with restrained anger and Dean imagines, anxiety. Even Dean's feeling a little twitchy being here so he imagines that Sam's feeling it too.
He shrugs, "I figure the demon's taken everything else from us, I don't think he gets to have this too. Do you?"
After a moment Sam shakes his head but he's still tense, clearly uncomfortable.
"What happened while I was gone, Sam?"
"What happened while you were in hell, Dean?"
Dean is ready for the response, counting on it even.
"I'll tell you if you tell me," Dean replies, trying to keep the nervous tremor out of his voice.
He feels more that sees Sam look at him in surprise, "Really?"
Sam's silent for a moment, unsure of how to start. He thinks back over the past three years and feels the residual pain that was always present in his chest. He thinks of all the hunts he went on alone, wishing Dean had been there to back him up. He thinks of the injuries he had to patch up himself and the few hospital stays that he withstood without his brother. He thinks of the shifter and holds back a shudder.
"The first thing I did was go after Jake," Sam starts, "I went to Bobby's like you told me to and we went after him."
"All the signs pointed to this old cemetery in Wyoming. Yellow Eyes was planning something, never really found out what. But he sent Jake there to set something in motion and I…" Sam pauses, remembering how the gun felt in his hands, the way Jake hit the ground, "I emptied a whole clip in him. Think I scared Bobby."
I scared myself is what he's really saying, but he knows Dean will hear it even without the words.
"If you hadn't of done it, I would've," Dean replies, and it's forgiveness and acceptance all at once.
"I know," Sam says but what he really means is, Thank you.
Sam half shrugs, "Nothing much. Hunted a lot."
"C'mon, Sam," Dean says, "Thought we had a deal, here."
"I know. It's your turn."
Dean breathes out through his nose, "What do you wanna know?"
"Nothing," Sam replies, "I just don't want you to be in it alone, that's all."
Dean smiles softly and shakes his head because that's just so Sam, wanting to know the most horrific things a person could know just so that Dean didn't have to suffer through it alone. It's things like this that remind him why he made the deal, of why he just can't imagine his life without Sam in it.
"Time moves different there," he starts, starring into the endless dark horizon of the lake, "Here it was just a few years but there…it was centuries. Three hundred years."
Sam stays silent but Dean can hear the way his next inhale trembles with oncoming tears.
"Each soul is assigned a demon. Mine was hell's best, or so I was told. Sure felt like it. Some of the things he did…" Dean pauses as his own breath catches in unforgotten fear. If he closes his eyes long enough he can feel the way the metal rack seared into his skin; he can see Alastair looming over him with a twisted grin.
"At the end of every day he'd make me an offer. He'd let me off the rack if I was willing to start torturing souls. And every day I told him to shove it. I told him that for as long as I could, but then…"
Sam doesn't need Dean to finish the thought to know what happened. At some point - it might've been fifty years, it may have been two hundred - Dean wasn't strong enough to say no anymore. He also knows that the thing that's been tearing Dean up the most all this time wasn't that he was tortured, it was that he tortured.
"The last day I was there," Dean continues and Sam can hear the tears in his voice, "They put you in front of me. I guess they wanted to send me off with a bang. I knew it wasn't you but they had you down to the last detail - right down to your scars. And I just couldn't. God help me Sammy, I got right back on that rack because I couldn't…"
When Sam puts a hand on Dean's shoulder, wanting to support but not crowd, he can't help but think ignorance is bliss. He always tried not to imagine the awful things that were happening to his brother in hell, but now that he has a glimpse of reality, he wishes he was back to just running scenarios through his head.
Dean has his head bowed into his palm, hunched foreword as if he has a headache. Sam can see him trying to get himself under control, trying to reign in the tears and stomp out the fires of hell. He doesn't know the details of Dean's time in hell and he probably never will. What he does know is that it was beyond the realm of agony and horror, and that Dean's probably never going to be the same. But he also knows that his big brother is the bravest, strongest person he knows, and if there's anyone in the world who can get through this, it's Dean.
Sam squeezes his brother's shoulder one last time as Dean straightens and wipes his face. One day he'll tell Dean that there's no shame in what he did, and that his actions in hell doesn't make him any less of the hero he is on earth. Dean won't listen if he tells him now, but one day, maybe over some beer, he'll let him know.
"It's your turn," Dean says after his walls are firmly back in place, just as high but maybe not as strong.
Sam snorts lightly, "It kinda pales in comparison."
"Don't care," Dean replies, "I don't care how small you think it is, it's been tearin' you up for weeks. I know I was gone for a while but I'm still your big brother."
Normally, years ago, the statement might've sparked some annoyance. But now, after everything that's happened, Dean's reassurance is nothing but comforting. For three years he didn't have a big brother and he missed it more than he can say. To hear Dean reassure him, to just be there for him, means more than he can say.
"It was in Virginia, a few months before you were set free. Got wind of some murders that were going on, really nasty stuff, you know? No suspects, no evidence, no patterns, just a lot of bloody bodies."
Dean shifts next to him and Sam wonders if it's because he's making the connections between the Virginia case and this case.
"Wasn't even in town a day. Don't know if I was just clumsy or if the bastard was just that good, but he got me in the back of the head in the motel parking lot," Sam says and shakes his head at how easily the shifter took him down, "When I came around, I was in some sort of storm shelter…in a cage, welded shut."
He's never really talked about this. Bobby already knew what happened because he was the one who found Sam, and outside of Bobby, no one else would care. Being forced to talk about it is like being forced to admit that it's not just a reoccurring nightmare; it really happened and it was really bad.
"Hey," Dean says softly as he knocks his knee into Sam's, "You with me?"
Sam can hear the worry blatantly in Dean's voice and it makes him feel ashamed. Dean went through things Sam can't even imagine and still managed to talk about it, even if it wasn't the full blown story. Sam was in a tight spot for a month and he's having trouble getting through the first sentences.
"It was a shifter," Sam forces himself to say, "A really, really disturbed shifter. He murdered all those people just because he could. But he said I was different."
Sam swallows the lump in his throat and tries not to think of anything but the lull of Lake Michigan, and his brother's presence.
"He left me in the cage with four gallons of water and a choice," Sam shrugs, "I knew it was a long shot but I figured if I could hold out as long as possible, Bobby might figure it out and bust me out of there. Good thing I did."
"How long were you down there?"
"About a month, give or take a few days."
Dean hangs his head for a moment and then rubs a hand over his face, "Jesus."
"It's not that bad," Sam says, even though he can still smell the dirt and feel the way insects would crawl over his bare skin in the dark.
"Don't you do that," Dean protests fiercely, "Don't you dare try to treat this like a paper cut. You were left in a cage to starve to death for a month. You're still a bag of bones four months later. Don't try to tell me that it's no big deal."
"It's not. Compared to what you went through. I wasn't tortured."
"You weren't? What would call what happened to you? This isn't a competition, Sam. What happened to you was every bit as awful as what happened to me. And at least I knew I was bustin' out one day, you…"
Dean stops and stares at the side of Sam's face. Sam faces straight ahead, jaw stiff with remembered fear and held back tears. It's then that the whole story starts to sink in. A whole month with no food and nothing but the sound of your own existence, darkness at all hours of the day, not knowing how much time has passed or how much longer you were gonna last. Dean had been in hell a long time, he can imagine a lot of awful things; what Sam went through would definitely be on his list.
"You didn't think you were going to get out, did you?" Dean asks softly, sympathetically.
Sam shakes his head in small, jerky movements.
Dean pauses for a minute before asking, "You wanna tell me anything else?"
The younger Winchester thinks about the pain of the stomach cramps, never ending and sharp as a knife, and hearing Dean's voice in the darkness. He thinks about having no choice but to urinate in the corner, just feet away from where he slept. He thinks of how much he wanted it to end even though it would mean never seeing Dean again. He thinks of all that and knows that he'll never be able to voice it out loud, just like Dean'll never tell him about some of the things that happened to him in hell.
"No. Nothing else," Sam says.
He can feel Dean's eyes on the side of his face, as if he doesn't quite believe Sam. He can feel the moment where Dean decides to drop it.
"And that's why you freaked out on the kid at the library. Guess I wasn't too off the mark when I fed him that PTSD story."
"Yeah, guess not."
"You think it's the same shape shifter?" In a twisted way, Dean kind of hopes it is. He doesn't want Sam to be in that kind of danger but he does want to tear apart the monster that hurt his brother so badly. If he ever came across the shapeshifter who locked Sam in that cage, he'd have no problem showing it the skills he picked up in the pit.
"Don't think so," Sam replies, "Bobby said he killed it before he found me."
The possibility still hangs in the air between them. In their line of work making assumptions will get you killed.
"Guess we have a case to solve then. Let's shake a leg."
Dean stands and waits for Sam to do the same, and they walk back to the car shoulder to shoulder.
"Hey, Sam?" Dean says as he opens the driver side door. Sam looks up at him from over the roof of the car. "It's ok, if you're not over it. You don't have to hide it from me."
Sam nods and looks down, but not before Dean catches the look of gratitude and love that flashes across his face. When Sam looks back up he simply says, "You either," with honest sincerity and his patented puppy dog eyes.
Dean snorts, "You're such a girl." Despite the ribbing, he makes sure that the same gratitude is on his face when he says it. He knows Sam will get the message; they're brothers, after all. The first full dimpled grin he's seen on Sam's face in months lets him know that Sam heard it loud and clear.
They're still messed up, sure. There's still some horrible thing or person out there slaughtering people, and there'll probably be another one just like it next week. But the Winchesters are together again and Dean thinks that in the light of things, that's the best he can ask for. Actually if he's honest with himself, it's probably all he'd ever ask for.
A/N: Ok, now this time it really is complete lol. I hope you enjoyed it!