Title: Touch of Grace

Author: MissAnnThropic

Spoilers: mini-sequel to my fic "Saving Grace". If you haven't read that one first, this one will be confusing for you.

LiveJournal: miss_annthropic(dot)livejournal(dot)com

Summary: Castiel makes good on his promise to Dean in "Saving Grace" to free Sam from the cage. Sam wakes to find the world a slightly different place than the one he remembers from before.

Disclaimer: None of it's mine. I'm just a sad little fangirl that spends her days writing fanfic and watching DVDs of her favorite shows :(

A/N: This is a fic for scarecrowqueen, who asked me to write a fic that followed "Saving Grace". You guys have no idea how patient she has been with me on this! I really hope you like it, dear!

Time in Hell has a strange way of twisting the mind, tearing it to shreds just as the soul is ripped to tatters. When Sam is there, he can't fathom a time when he wasn't. There are snatches of dreamlike memories of something else, blurred and impossibly far away. Someplace that doesn't hurt. Someplace where voices are for more than screaming. Where tendons don't unravel, bones don't snap, and blood doesn't glisten in every scrap of light.

In that fantasy world, people exist who don't live to strip his soul. Somewhere, in another universe, there is a man named Dean. A figure whose only mission in life is to see Sam safe. That gives it away as a dream, because no such creature could ever really exist – existence is too consumed with pain and suffering to harbor such a compassionate being – but it's an idea that keeps Sam company. It's real enough that Sam cries out Dean's name, as if he couldbe real. As if Sam could be saved.

But those are only dreamlike wisps of consciousness, and they don't spare his soul the agony of the forever-now of Hell.

All Sam knows is what it is to be the chew toy between two massive beasts: at one end Michael, the other Lucifer. They pull and yank and claw at him, fighting each other for him for eternity until Sam feels like there's nothing left of him but wiry sinew and clotted blood, but then there's more for the beasts to tear at, body conjured from nothing for the beasts' delight, and Sam begins to come apart all over again. Tug, pull, tear, yank, shake, shred. Over and over. Never-ending.

Even the precious imaginary hero, even Dean, can't carry Sam away from the torment. Sam would wish for it to end already, but he knows no such thing exists. There is no end.

Then suddenly, there is brilliant white light, wind, a cavalcade of grace.

And it ends.

Somehow, reality jumped the tracks, because Sam seemed to be stuck in the dream world. The snatches of delusion, the fleeting reprieve from the nightmare that lasted only seconds, became one long held breath. Sam felt mad with the waiting. Waiting for things to rubber-band back to normal: misery, agony, terror, and eternity.

But the endless dreamland didn't shatter. It held. Its hold grew stronger. For a moment, Hell and Elysium stood together side by side, each just as real as the other. That moment was the worst, because Sam didn't know which direction he'd fall. He knew where he wanted to land, but it had been millennia, it seemed, since he'd had the power to affect his own fate.

Slowly but surely, Hell began to creep back, retreating behind the line pushed forth by the dream. Only then did Sam breathe.

"That's it… that's it! Breathe, Sammy!"

That voice… Sam knew it. It was the voice of the figure that belonged in this world of dreams. It was Dean's voice. For a breaking second, the sound of it was too much to bear. Sam had mindlessly cried out to Dean so many times since the beginning of time that actually hearing him answer back brought Sam to his metaphorical knees. There was finding himself lodged in the dreamland, and then there was too good to be true.

Then another reality began to steal Sam away. This one Sam went to willingly. It was a place of darkness and rest.

Hell danced in the corners of Sam's mind as he roused. But this time it was only his mind that went to the pit. His soul, his sensate-flesh, remained unflayed, unscorched, and free of pain.

Sam peeled open his eyes. His eyelids were heavy from eons since they'd last been lifted. At first, all he could distinguish were blurs of color. But they were wondrous, oceanic colors. Blue, grey. Nowhere in sight was there any ghastly crimson or charred ebony. He didn't know his eyes could still discern any other colors until they did.

He would have been content to drift in that hazy sea for a decade at least, but movement in his field of vision made him snap to a heightened state of awareness. Fear swept through him. Maybe it was one of the beasts coming to reclaim him.

The figure stilled. Then it rushed at Sam.

Sam sucked in a breath. He let the cool air, unsinged by fire, crash into his lungs in glorious waves as the beast reached out for him.

The beast grabbed him. Sam's nervous system locked in anticipation of agony.

But nothing dug into his skin and tore. There were no claws. The beast didn't hurl him back into the flames for the next bout of tug-of-war between rival siblings. The touch was firm but had no intention to hurt. That alone made Sam cry out… it was so unknown, so foreign, and it scared him just as much as the beasts with angel names had.

"Hey, hey… easy, Sammy…"

Everything in Sam closed up in panicked disbelief, then it broke open and spilled out, and Sam just melted into the mattress beneath him. He felt something he hadn't felt in so long that it felt like the first time.



Sam focused on the figure looming over him, and he knew that face. He knew those hands. He knew that man.

The ocean was in his eyes as Sam spoke the first word in ages that wasn't torn from him in a scream.


Consciousness was hard to hold on to. For the most part, Sam didn't fight to keep it. It had been so very, very long since he'd had rest; every time he dropped back into that blackness, it was with a sigh.

He might have stayed there forever, but a glimpse of Dean during one of his conscious moments snared him as surely as the beasts Michael and Lucifer ever had. Dean was hovering over Sam when he woke more often than not, and in one particularly lucid moment Sam saw more than just the familiarity of his features.

He saw Dean, but also the state of Dean.

Dean's skin was ghastly pale. His eyes were sunken and shadowed; the vibrant light Sam knew should have been there was missing. A face that should have been as strong and unshakable as the Rock of Gibraltar looked ready to crumble.

Dean looked gaunt, thinner than Sam's last memories of him, but there was no telling how old those memories were. Sam's sense of time was screwed up; he didn't know how long that never-ending nightmare of Hell had lasted.

Dean didlook older, but how much of that was years and how much was mileage? Sam couldn't begin to know what Dean had been through while Sam was below.

But there were memories that predated even eternity, and they gave Sam excruciating knowledge about Dean. Enough to understand what he saw when he gazed up at his brother's face.

It was Dean when he was sick. It was Dean ashen and drawn with pain.

It was distressing, and it shook Sam from his stupor. For the first time, Sam shoved away his own troubles to worry about another.

Something was wrong with Dean.

But Sam was already slipping away into the darkness again, and he didn't fight it. He'd let it take him. For now.

But Sam was filled with a newborn determination to lurch fully into that world beyond the respite of nothing. He had to wrest control of himself and really, truly wake up.

Because he had to find out what was wrong with Dean.

The next time Sam woke, it wasn't due to his dogged determination to rise up and help his brother. It wasn't an act of will that was a credit to Sam's unfailing love for his brother in need. Sam wished it had been, but it wasn't. He heard Dean's voice, low with a gravelly scratch of bone-weary, and he followed it.

Sam opened his eyes and expected to see Dean standing over him, coaxing him gently into this new reality. But Dean wasn't there. His voice was, but it was coming from somewhere off to the side. Sam laid still and listened, feeling the anguish and exhaustion in Dean's voice like the grip of one of the beasts.

"He's getting better. You did it, just like you promised you would." Dean stopped. Sam could feel the threadbare, frayed end of Dean's will in the silence. "But this was never supposed to be Sam for you. I can't live without Sam, but I need you, too. So you gotta wake up… you have to. Please."

Sam could count on one hand the times he'd heard Dean plead so earnestly. And it had always been a plea aimed at himself or their father. And since Dean wasn't talking to him, Sam had to wonder just who the hell had Dean so wrung.

Sam rolled his head on the pillow to look in the direction of Dean's voice.

He didn't understand at first what he was seeing. Dean was sitting on the edge of another bed in their blue-gray motel room. He presented a tragic pose. Dean's shoulders were slumped and his back bowed. His whole body screamed exhaustion to the breaking point.

Dean wasn't alone. Someone was lying in the bed, motionless. Sam squinted and looked closer. It was a man. For a fleeting second, Sam thought maybe his brain was scrambled and it wastheir father. Maybe those distant memories of John dying were just delusions brought on by Hell. But no, the person in the bed where Dean was holding vigil was too slight of build for John Winchester. The chest in the plain white t-shirt was too narrow and small. Everything about him was too fine for the bearish Winchester patriarch. Plus the hair was too dark. But still, Sam could swear he knew him. If only his shattered and taped-back-together mind would give him a name to go with the face.

It did.

Sam's eyes widened when he realized the unconscious form in the bed was Castiel. The angel.

Sam had a flash-fire memory of light swallowing him, sweeping him up and away from misery.

He almost opened his mouth to speak, but just before he could, Dean moved. Believing himself unwatched, Dean reached out and curled his fingers around the exposed column of Castiel's throat. A deeply conditioned part of Sam expected Dean to squeeze and snap, because that's what throats were for. Instead, Dean just let his hand linger, gentle and soft against Castiel's neck. Then Dean's hand trailed down to Castiel's chest. It flattened there, riding the faint rise and fall as the angel breathed. With his other hand, Dean touched his own chest. Sam could see the ache that took hold of Dean, it was etched his face.

'Dean had a bad heart once,' Sam thought, because the gesture made Sam remember another hell he'd known.

"Come on, Cas," Dean whispered hoarsely.

Sam wondered how far gone Castiel must be, because surely no one could hear Dean beg like that and not respond. Sam had, and Dean hadn't even been talking to him.

Castiel just lay there motionless, looking too frail and too pale for a warrior of god.

What happened next made Sam question his sanity… and this reality.

Dean Winchester, tough guy extraordinaire, folded. Turning his back to Sam, he curled up on the bed with the angel, lying alongside his still form. Dean sidled closer to Castiel, gathered him up carefully in his arms, and lay holding the guy like he was a living body pillow. Castiel showed no sign of waking, not even when Dean shifted and rested his head atop Castiel's chest.

Sam had to be dreaming. His brother would not snuggle up to anyone like that, much less a man, and certainly not the angel.

"Don't you do this to me, Cas," Dean muttered. He muttered that and more, and he didn't stop. He kept up a constant litany, beseeching Castiel to come back.

Confusion kept Sam from trying to get his brother's attention. Then sleep was casting for him again, and Sam went for the hook.

The next time Sam opened his eyes, Dean was perched on the edge of his bed. His frame was bent, back a tired parabola, elbows on his knees, and face in his hands. Sam recalled the imagery of a dream, Dean holding Cas. This picture of his brother, while so much harder to bear, was at least normal… expected.

Sam cleared his throat thinly, "Dean?"

Dean's head snapped up and his eyes went immediately to Sam. For a split-second, there was naked honesty in Dean's expression… the truth before Dean had a chance to master his features to tell whatever story he wanted to tell. He looked even more ragged than the last time Sam had seen him, and that was worrying. Concern for Dean became foremost on Sam's mind in the span of a heartbeat.

Then Dean's face lit up, despite the sick-and-tired pale to it, and he crowded closer. "Sammy!"

"One and only." Sam offered what he hoped was a passable smile.

Dean grinned, but it looked brittle. Dean looked on the brink of flying apart. But still, he smiled for his little brother, and damndid Sam appreciate that. The only teeth he'd seen in ages were the ones that tore into him, biting to the bone.

"Damn, it's good to hear your voice," Dean said. "You had me worried."


Dean laughed. Even that was rough. "You actually are." Dean looked inordinately delighted that Sam was sorry, which was perplexing to say the least. "Man, it's good to have you back." Dean reached out to touch Sam's face, probably under the pretense of checking for fever, but Sam had caught on to that move when he was twelve. As usual, Sam let him think he was being sly and relented to the touch.

But it wasn't Dean being touchy that Sam noticed this time. He frowned when a tremble translated into his cheek through Dean's fingers.

"Dean… you're shaking."

Dean snatched back his hand and averted his eyes. "Been a rough few weeks."

Sam made an 'if you say so' noise and reached for his brother with his near hand. He found Dean's wrist, and the jolt of taking hold of it and touching, being the one to reach out and not fearing retaliation at the contact, sent a shot through Sam that did more to wake him than anything ever had. Dean was still trembling, Sam could feel it in the bracelet made by his fingers, but Dean looked too damn happy to have Sam there to pull away from him just to try and hide the tremor.

That said a hell of a lot, because Dean put 'keeping up the façade' insanely high on his list of priorities.

"You okay?" Sam croaked. "You look like shit."

Dean snorted. "You want shitty, let me get you a mirror."


Dean sobered, but it only made him look sicker without the mask of humor to disguise it. He must have known his look was telling, because he looked away as he grumped, "I… later, Sam."

It might have been lifetimes, but Sam knew better than to try and out-mule that tone. While Dean's glance was averted, Sam's gaze was pulled over to the right.

Castiel lay as he had in Sam's dream, still as death but for the slight up and down of his chest as he breathed. The identical appearance of Castiel in life and Castiel in his dream made Sam fidget. Sam reasoned he must have woken up at some point and seen Castiel – it must have given his imagination the grist it needed for that weirdly cozy dream.

His gut told him it was more than that, though.

"What's wrong with Castiel?"

Dean looked abruptly at Sam, startled agony in his face. He obviously hadn't expected Sam to ask that. Sam was taken aback by the intensity of Dean's reaction. The last that Sam's memory served him, Dean and the angel were weirdly up in each other's business, but not to the point where Castiel being in trouble would hit Dean so hard. But fact was that Dean looked like Sam had punched him in the gut.

"What do you remember?" Dean asked grimly.

For the first time, Sam tried… he'd honestly been avoiding examining any of it too closely. "I… I remember Detroit. The devil. Fighting." Falling. Tightness clutched at his chest, making it hard to say more. "It's kind of jumbled up." The beasts at head and foot. Sam sucked in a breath and stiffened. "I remember the cage, Michael and Lucifer."

Dean's free hand clamped down over Sam's fingers where they clutched at Dean's wrist. He squeezed, and it was actually enough to hurt, but for once it was a good kind of hurt.

"I'm sorry you were down there so long, Sam."

Sam shook his head. "I told you not to save me."

"Yeah, well, when have I ever listened to you?"

Sam chuckled… a chuckle that turned into a cough. Dean was up and gone in an instant, soon back with a glass of water. He helped Sam take a few swallows, and the feel of cold water rushing into his stomach almost bowled Sam over. It was incredible. He'd been parched and boiling for so long. He started to gulp with gusto.

"Easy, Sam…"

When he was finished, Sam eased back against his pillow and said, "You saved me."

Dean blanched and his jaw tightened as he put the empty glass on the nightstand. "No… Cas saved you."


"Yeah…" Dean tried to smile, but he failed pretty miserably. "He has this pesky habit of rescuing Winchesters from Hell. I've told him it's bad for his health, but he listens about as well as you do."

Sam remembered the light.

"Is he going to be okay?"

Dean looked stricken at the question. If Sam was expecting hollow reassurances in answer, he didn't get them. Dean just didn't have the energy for it. "I don't know." Dean lifted his hand and scrubbed at his face. He hadn't shaven in several days, and the dark stubble of his pseudo-beard only accentuated how starkly pale his skin was. When Dean's hand left his face, it migrated down to his chest. Dean massaged his sternum, like he'd taken a kick square in the chest from something.

By the look of him, Sam would guess Dean had been off his feed for days, if not weeks. Like a dog, if Dean wasn't eating, Sam knew something was really wrong.

"Dean… what's going on?"

"Not now, Sam… you just rest."

It sounded like something for Sam's benefit, put it off until Sam was stronger, but Sam could swear that the delay was actually for Dean. That was the only reason Sam let it go… for the time being.

The next time Sam woke up, it was completely on his own. It was disorienting not to hear or see Dean right away… Dean's presence in one way or another had been so reliable that Sam had come to expect it. His brother's absence was surprisingly distressing, and it compelled Sam up out of bed for the first time.

Struggling with muscles that last remembered being pulled apart, Sam sat up in bed. His head swam at the change in position, and he clutched at the edge of the mattress briefly while stars exploded in his vision. When it cleared, he found himself facing the second bed in the room.

He froze and stared. Apparently his weird dream hadn't been a dream after all. Because Dean was there again, his body lying flush against the comatose angel. His head was pillowed on Castiel's shoulder and his right hand rested solidly atop Castiel's chest. Dean's left hand was pinned between their bodies, trapped in a position where it was curled loosely against Dean's own chest. Dean was on the opposite side of Castiel this time, so Sam could clearly see Dean's face. He would have thought sleep would dispel some of the deathly pallor from Dean's face. It didn't. Even sleeping, he looked just as sick and wounded as he had awake.

Normally, Sam would be at his brother's side in a second trying to tend to him, despite his protestations. But the intimate pose of man and angel stopped him. Sam frowned. He was missing something. The Dean he knew wouldn't do more than share long looks with the angel… now here he was, sharing a bed with him.

It was like Sam had woken in the wrong reality. Suddenly, he had no idea where or ifhe belonged.

Sam levered himself out of bed. He took care not to wake Dean. He shuffled over to the bathroom and gently shut the door to use the facilities. When he came out, he turned to the sink and rested his hands on the counter while he looked at himself in the mirror. He recognized his face, but somehow it seemed half stranger to him. Not so unlike Dean. Sam reached up and touched his cheek. He traced a finger over the line on his brow when he scowled. The skin felt whole, but Sam remembered being skinned.

If duration determined one's place, then did that mean the cage (where he'd spent centuries) was where he belonged now? Was that the only way this feeling of being out of place would end?

He couldn't stand going back there. So where did that mean he belonged now?

Sam put a stop to his ruminations when he heard Dean getting up out of bed. It wasn't long before he was strolling up behind Sam. Their eyes met in the mirror… Sam's lost and Dean's wrecked.

"You okay, Sam?"

"Honestly? I have no idea."

With an all-too-understanding nod, Dean came up and put a hand on Sam's shoulder. The touch felt good, but so alien for not being bent on the destruction of his soul.

Dean put his other hand on the counter next to Sam and let it take some of his weight. He let loose a breath, as if the walk from bed to bathroom had been taxing.

"What's the matter?" Sam asked.

"Told you… rough few weeks."

Giving no hint he meant to do it (because that would have given Dean time to retreat), Sam reached up and cupped Dean's cheek with one hand. Dean grumbled and pulled out of the touch, but not before Sam got what he was after. He was checking for fever, but Dean wasn't hot. He was cool to the touch. Sam was sure it wasn't just his whacked sense of temperature, either. Dean felt clammy. Entirely too corpse-like for Sam's liking. Fear, like an old friend, returned to Sam full-force.

"Dean… what's wrong?"

"I should be asking you that, genius. You're the one just sprung from the cage." Dean turned a look on his brother. "Want to talk about it?"

Maybe it was Dean's intention all along when Sam pulled back. "No… not really. I mean, what would be the point? You know." The only human on earth who could. Only now did Sam really understand what Dean felt like when he was freed from Hell (and by the very same angel that had rescued Sam, no less).

Dean dropped his gaze. "Yeah… sucks ass."

"Pretty much. Where are we?"


It made sense, but it still made Sam's body jolt.

"Cas figured… thought the easiest way to get into the cage to bust you out was the same spot where you went in. Something about scar tissue on this plane of existence or something, weak points… I don't really know the gnat's ass details."

Nor was Sam really up for angel physics. "Another silly question… what day is it?"

Dean's expression went carefully neutral. Sam was braced even before Dean answered. "Sam… this is going to kick your ass, but… you were down there over a year."

The revelation didn't stun him like Dean must have thought it would. "Huh… seemed like longer."

"Yeah, I know." And Dean did. The Winchester luck left a lot to be desired.

The atmosphere was getting too thick, almost suffocating, so Sam moved away from it. He stepped out of his brother's touch and meandered back toward his bed. He needed to sit down anyway. "So… what, you were up here over a year trying to break me out? You and Cas?" It was a subtle way of trying to get back to sorting out what this new closeness between Dean and Castiel was about that made Sam squirm.

"Well… not exactly. You don't remember?"

"Remember what?" A cold knot formed in his stomach.

Dean came to the bed and sat down next to Sam. "While your soul was in lockdown with the dick brothers, you were here."

Sam gave Dean a puzzled look.

"I mean, not you you. There was a walking, talking Sam Winchester living your life… but it was just your hard candy shell."

Understanding finally hit him. Sam's stomach bottomed out. It was a good thing he was already sitting, because the world spun underneath him. Dean just sat there watching him, and his miserable and wary expression said a lot about what that husk-Sam, Sam without his soul inside, had been like.

"I think you better fill me in," Sam said lowly, a chord of threat to his tone. Dean had better tell him… Sam had right to know. He would not stand for being protected against this 'for his own good'.

Dean hesitated briefly as if to fight, then he just sagged and gave a weary nod. "Okay, Sam."

While he prepared himself to learn about his soulless double, he wondered at this new level playing field between him and his brother. Maybe sharing the horror of Hell at last put them on even ground. Dean was going to talk to him man to man, not older brother to little brother. Seemed like Sam had wanted nothing more for a large chunk of his life than to be treated as more than just the baby brother that needed to be cared for and coddled.

But right then, Sam would give anything not to have deserved the honor.

As Sam sat there quietly, listening to Dean tell him about this alter-ego Sam Winchester, he supposed he should feel guilty about what the other Sam had done. But the truth was, all he could really feel for that soulless, callous copy of himself was jealousy. After all, that Sam was here, up top, while the real Sam was being torn to pieces over and over by two brothers with the greatest of all sibling rivalries. It was hard to feel bad about the guy who'd been wearing his face being a dick when, at the time, Sam was downstairs doing his chew toy impression.

It wasn't long before Sam stopped listening. His resentment toward the other Sam just grew the more he heard, so he just stopping hearing it. Instead of focusing on what he heard, he zeroed in one what he saw.

And that was Dean looking like three kinds of shit on a hot sidewalk. More than once, the impulse rose up in Sam to reach out and support his brother, because Dean looked like he was fit to topple over any second. Or throw up. More than once, Sam's eyes skittered to the trashcan near the door.

Sam's eyes went to Castiel a lot, too… but that was because Dean's did, and Sam just followed them. That struck Sam as so significant, if only he could figure out why. And sure, Dean and Cas had always been leashed by gazes – tethered by glances like Sam had never seen before in anyone else – but somehow this was different. Like Dean was hanging on every shallow breath from Castiel.

Then Sam's gaze took in the dimensions of the room they were in. He gauged the distances to walls, the lowness of the ceiling, the solidity of the floor. He tried to guess the measurements. Twenty by twenty. No. Fifteen by fifteen. Fifteen by twelve. It was hard to tell. The furniture crammed into it made it seem smaller than it was. Or maybe it really was just that small. But surely the contracting sensation was imaginary. But then, it had been so long since Sam's reality had static boundaries. He was used to the walls of his cage squeezing, like a heart muscle crushing him in pulses. Or those old west stories of Indians wrapping cowboys up tight in wet leather and leaving them out in the sun to be slowly crushed to death. No… ten by ten. Much closer to ten by ten.

He realized Dean had stopped talking. He glanced up and Dean was frowning at him. "Sammy?"

"I need to get out of here."

That wasn't the response Dean had been expecting, obviously. His eyebrows rose.

Sam was antsy. "You know, what all you just said. Lot to take in." His voice dropped with no conscious intention for it to happen. "I'm sick of being caged up in here."

Dean blinked, taken aback. And fuck if the next thing that went through his expression wasn't understanding. The look that said Dean totally got it. That was so monumentally fucked up and so quintessentially Winchester.

"Don't go far, okay?" Dean simply asked.

"Aren't you going to…" Sam started to ask, because he'd fully expected his very own big brother escort/shadow on his first excursion outside after the pit. That was just over-protective Dean all over. Sam wasn't even going to fight it, because there were some things not worth fighting. The tide. Hurricanes. Dean Winchester in mother-hen mode.

But not this time. Instead, Dean's eyes cut over to Cas. Sam could tell Dean was torn. He wantedto go with his brother, but something even more powerful kept him locked within eyesight of Castiel.

"I shouldn't leave Cas. He needs… he needs to be looked after."

That was certainly not what Dean started out to say. He was going to say who Castiel needed, not what. Sam would bet whatever money left to his name on that. Something was definitely going on here.

Dean passed over the room key card and a cell phone Sam didn't recognize. Sam took them, stood, and edged toward the door. He kept expecting Dean to change his mind and go out with him. But Dean just went over to Castiel's bed and sat on the edge. If he could see them, Sam imagined the paleness of Dean's face would match the whiteness of Castiel's wings.

Visions of blinding white fingers/feathers/streaks of light hit Sam like a sledgehammer. He hurried out the door before Dean could see his brother having some kind of episode.

Sam didn't make it far from the motel. A run-down park nearby offered reprieve in the form of a rickety bench. Sam stumbled over to it and all but collapsed onto the ancient wood. He gasped for breath. That's when he realized he was crying. The sky, the wind, the grass, the smells, the textures, the breeze combing through his hair, the blessed way his insides stayed inside. It was all so overwhelming. He hadn't been prepared for the onslaught of beauty. Beauty in every blade of grass.

He shook and sobbed on the bench like a mental case for a good ten minutes before he was cried out. Then he started to get himself under control. He ended up staring down at his hands. One held a card key. The other a cell phone. What a meager showing for something as remarkable as busting out of Lucifer's cage.

His next thought was to call Bobby. It was almost second nature, a knee-jerk response buried even deeper than his scar tissue from Hell. He knew Dean was alive – now he needed to find out if Bobby was.

And maybe Bobby would be able to tell him what the hell was wrong with Dean.

Sam sniffled and opened the phone. His thumb moved more out of ancient muscle memory than anything. He accessed the address book. Sam discovered he had Castiel's phone. Bobby was one of only two names in the contacts. The other name was Dean. His name wasn't even there. Sam swallowed the taste of bile. How alienated had he become in this world? What if it was a break that couldn't heal?

Before he could reconsider, Sam scrolled to 'Bobby' and hit send.

It was barely two rings before Bobby picked up. Sam couldn't even get a word in before the older hunter was talking, and he wasn't happy.

"Damnit all to hell, Castiel! It's about fucking time. I've been trying to reach you and Dean for over a week! Why in the hell haven't you two taken my calls? What hare-brained scheme have you and Dean been up to? You two all right?"

Sam's tongue stuck in his throat. Bobby asked about what Dean and Castiel had been up to lately… Dean and Castiel, with no mention of Sam. Apparently it was natural now to assume Dean and Castiel were together, wherever they were… and Sam? Where was he? Where was his place? Clearly it wasn't with Dean anymore… Bobby had stopped expecting him to be there.

And sure, all that was the otherSam, but it felt like Sam had nothing left to him but the place where that soulless Xerox left off.

"Castiel?" Bobby growled. "I swear, you hang up on me and I'll –"

"Uhh…. Bobby?"

Bobby's end went dead quiet a second. "Sam." That sounded coldly distant and measured.

Sam swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Bobby, it's me."


"No, I mean me. Really me."

"Right, course it is." Again, that unbearable silence. "What are you doing with Castiel's phone? Is he all right?"

God, Bobby said that like he was talking to a hostage-taker.

"Jesus, Bobby… it's me! Can't you tell just from my voice? That was all Dean needed…" Sam felt like he was on the cusp of a panic-attack. Bobby Singer was treating him like a dangerous criminal let out of prison too soon. The man who'd been like a father to him and Dean was giving him a wall. Before he could stop it, he was crying again. He curled a hand into his hair and pulled at a fistful in frustration.

After a small eternity, Bobby's voice issued from the phone tentatively, "…Sam?"

"Yes! Yes, Bobby." Sam clutched the phone tightly. Without it connecting him to Bobby, he might just explode.

"I'd like to believe you… I would…"

"It was Castiel. Castiel saved me. He went into the cage and he pulled me out of Hell," Sam blurted desperately.

There was a very tense hesitation through the phone. "Let me talk to Dean or Castiel."

Sam's jaw dropped. Bobby didn't believe him. He wanted to hear it from someone he trusted.


"Just hand the phone to one of the boys."

Sam felt disgustingly close to throwing up. Once upon a time, 'the boys' meant the Winchesters, Dean and Sam.

"I… I can't. Castiel's… I don't know. He's sick or hurt or something. He's in a coma."

"Crap," Bobby muttered. "How's Dean doing?"

That made a chill crawl up Sam's spine. "Why would you ask how Dean's doing when I tell you Castiel'sin a coma?"

Suspicion filled the empty seconds. "Nice try, Sam." Bobby's bitterness ebbed just a little. "I hope you're him, kid… I really do. I'd give anything to have the real you back again. I know it would mean the world to Dean. But if you're not you, I'm not about to walk into your trap. Now either put on Dean or Castiel and let me talk to them, or I'm hanging up." Bobby's anger grew fiercer with a heavy helping of hurt. "I can't take this. I know you couldn't give a rat's ass, but you're killing me with this." Sam could hear Bobby's voice cracking. "And if it's really you… god, if it is you… shit, if it's true, next time you two are here I'm letting all the air out of the Impala's tires and never letting either of you idjits out of my sight again, but this… just don't." Bobby stopped to take a breath. "Now let me talk to Dean or Castiel, damnit."

"Bobby…" Sam croaked.

Sam's heart sank at the sound of the line disconnecting.

For a second, Sam could only stare at the phone is shock and disbelief.

Then he got up, braced a hand on the back of the bench, and threw up in the grass.

It took an hour wandering around the ill-tended park, but Sam finally came to grips with his phone call with Bobby. After the hurt faded, it made Sam think. It made him think beyond Hell and himself and really take into consideration the broken family he'd left behind when he threw himself into the cage.

Until that moment, he'd thought only about what he'dbeen through, but it hadn't been a walk in the park for anyone. They all went through their own kind of hell. Sam knew that all too well… when it was Dean in the pit, Sam was the one left behind. And he'd barely lived through it. Without the help of a demon, he probably wouldn't have.

It hurt that Bobby had thrown his attempt at reaching out back in his face, but he couldn't blame Bobby. After some time to think, Sam got that. Robo-Sam must have done plenty to make Bobby react the way he had, because Bobby wouldn't turn on one of the Winchester boys without damn good reason.

Sam finally felt accountable, in some small measure, for everything the otherSam Winchester had done in his name.

Sam was going to make things right with everyone. Maybe not all the random strangers that had crossed his double's path, but definitely the people that were important. And on top of that list was Bobby Singer. But for that, Sam would need Dean to call the grizzled hunter and vouch for his newly re-soulled brother.

Resolute, Sam turned and started back toward the motel. Time to start fixing his life.

Strangely enough, having a mission pushed so much of it all – Hell and the ages of torture and the anger – into a corner. There was a new cage, in Sam's mind, where all that shit was shoved. It wouldn't go away, Sam knew that (he only had to look at his brother, the model of the escapee from Hell, to know that), but he couldn't let it stop him. He had a lot of fences to mend, because while it might not have been his soul that betrayed his loved ones, it had been his face, his voice, his hands. He had to take responsibility for that, because no one else could.

He felt a little bit like his old self, driven and focused, when he swiped the key card and opened the motel room door. He walked into the room and drew up short. Some of his impetus faltered at the sight before him. Dean was in bed with Castiel, substituting the angel for a pillow again.

Sam frowned. Bobby had all but confirmed that there was something going on with his brother and the angel, but he wouldn't say what. The sight turned something inside Sam sideways… not exactly wrong, but not quite right either.

He stood there and stared while his mind worked feverishly.

Sam had turned to a demon when he'd been in Dean's place, so it wasn't out of the question that Dean would turn to an angel. But Sam couldn't help but think of exactly how he'd turned to Ruby. He just couldn't see his brother like thatwith Castiel. He couldn't see Castiel taking his weird fascination with Dean that far.

But there was something.

But then, maybe he was making too much out of this. Maybe it was nothing more than Dean finding comfort in the only person who'd ever managed to get past his guard that didn't have the family card to play.

And maybe he was climbing into bed with Castiel because Dean, in his self-sacrificing way, wanted to give Sam a bed to himself. That was just the kind of thing Dean would do.

Figuring he could at least do this much, Sam put down the key card and cell phone and went to the bed where his brother and the angel were lying. He studied the knot of their limbs for a moment before he reached down and started to carefully untangle his brother. He'd haul him up (robo-Sam had certainly been working out with his meatsuit… Sam could probably carry Dean easy), put him in the free bed, and maybe the worm in his gut would stop twisting. Dean would no doubt appreciate having his own bed.

Or not. As Sam started to pry Dean away from Castiel, Dean began to struggle. He didn't wake up, but he fought being taken from Castiel's side all the same. "No… no…" Dean mumbled. He strained against Sam's hands, trying to go back to Cas.

Sam let go and Dean reclaimed his previous spot, half-draped over Castiel. There was the first sign of movement from Castiel when the angel, in his coma/sleep, turned his head toward Dean when the hunter curled back up against him.

So yeah, definitely something up. Sam would get answers out of Dean, even if it took all the powers of persuasion in his arsenal.

But for now, Dean looked comfortable. Sam hated it a little, but he looked like he was where he belonged. When that happened and how was a complete mystery, but Sam had time. He didn't intend for Dean to ditch him for a long, long time.

In the meantime, there was a shower with Sam's name on it. It felt like a lifetime since he'd felt water cascade over his body.

He planned to take his shower cold.

Sam came out of the bathroom after what was easily the longest shower in his life and found Dean sitting on the empty bed. When Sam came into the room, he looked up. "Hey."

"Hey," Sam returned. Then he stopped and considered Dean. He didn't look quite as ashen as he had been looking lately. "You look better."

A smile toyed with the corners of Dean's mouth. "Yeah… Cas is feeling better."

They hadn't been talking about Castiel, except apparently now they were. Sam looked to the other bed, where Castiel was still unconscious. "He woke up?"


"Then how do you know he…?"

Dean's smile slipped and he glanced away awkwardly. "I just know."

Sam scowled. "Dean… what is going on with you two?"

"Sam… it's not…" Dean frowned. "Do you trust me?"

"Of course."

Dean grinned.

"What?" Sam asked.

"Dude, just… you have no idea how great it is to hear you say that and know you meanit."

"Wow. That other me must have been a colossal douchebag."

"Complete and total assbutt."

Sam snorted. Then he eyed Dean. "You're changing the subject."

"Yeah, I am." Dean stood and made his way toward Sam. He looked kind of nervous. "Sam, there's something… me and Cas… let's just say some things happened while you were gone."

Sam knew his brother's body language, and it was screaming right now that it, whatever itwas involving him and Castiel, qualified as a chick-flick moment. Which Dean was doing his damnedest to avoid.

Sam's eyebrows rose as an outlandish yet somehow not thought occurred to him. "Are you and him together?"

Dean cocked his head in a freakishly Castiel-like gesture of question.

"You know, like… gay?" Sam asked awkwardly, and he sounded like he was all of twelve when he finally spit it out.

Apparently Dean had to have clarification of Sam's definition of 'together'. That meant something, Sam knew it must.

"No," Dean answered. But it was that he answered so calmly. The old Dean would have had a shit-fit at the mere suggestion that he was having sex with another guy. The fact that Dean denied it with as much indignation as he might have denied reading Soldier of Fortunewas so utterly unlike Dean.

"Then what?" Sam pressed.

Dean turned to look back toward Castiel. When he turned to his brother again, his expression was downright earnest. "Here's the deal… Cas is going to be around a lot more from now on."

"He is."

"Yeah… is that going to be a problem?"

Part of Sam wanted their old dynamic back, the two of them against the dark. Part of Sam wanted Dean all to himself. But he reined in that initial reaction and looked toward where the angel lay. Fact of the matter was, Castiel had been making a place for himself in the Winchester world for years now. Not to mention this was the angel that had saved bothWinchesters from Hell. For that alone, Sam figured he owed Castiel everything and then some. Sharing Dean with him was a small concession… small, and yet fucking huge at the same time.

The hope in Dean's face sealed Sam's final answer. "No, it's fine, Cas is cool." Besides, if Castiel was around, that would make discovering the truth that much easier. Dean's defenses had a way of cracking when the angel was around.

Genuine relief flooded Dean's eyes. "Good… that's… thanks, Sam. That means a lot."

And Sam could tell that it did.

Standing there watching his bother loosen up, Sam noticed a small hint of lightness to Dean's presence that had never been there before. Like gravity wasn't all that heavy on his shoulders.

"And are you going to tell me what this is all about?" Sam asked.

"Absolutely… someday."

Sam groaned.

"I just… we just got you back, Sam. I don't want you… I want you to look at me like you used to. Like I'm just your big brother."

"And you think whatever it is you're not telling me would make me look at you differently?"

"Bobby does." Dean looked dejected at that.

And suddenly, Sam was behind Dean one-hundred percent. All it took was that look of rejection, even in its smallest measure, and Sam was ready to throw all his support in Dean's corner. That was what brothers did.

"But you're cool with… whatever it is?" Sam asked.

Dean fought a smile. "Yeah… I'm good."

"Then so am I." Dean had done so damn much for Sam his entire life… the least he could afford Dean, until he had more information, was faith.

Dean's grateful smile was so sincere. Bizarrely enough, the look on his face made Sam think of light.

And just like that, the hurdles in the way of rebuilding his life didn't seem so high.

Sam woke in the middle of the night to Dean's voice. It was pitched low and warm, and it wasn't directed at him. He opened his eyes and saw, by the light of the nightstand, Dean sitting at the edge of Castiel's bed. It was god-awful-o'clock, but Dean looked pretty damn pleased.

"I know you're awake," Dean said softly, a smirk on his lips.

An amused hum came from the bed, and Sam's eyes shifted to Castiel. The angel slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Dean. For a second, he looked like a mussed ten-year-old rousted rudely out of dreams for school. Dean's presence clicked and Castiel's intent expression softened. "Dean…"

"About time. I've felt you coming around for over an hour. What took you so long?" Before Castiel could answer, Dean added in a serious tone, "You scared me."

"I apologize. That wasn't my intention. I was very injured."

"I know."

"Yes, you do." Castiel moved. He lifted his arm and placed his hand on Dean's chest. Dean brought up his own hand and trapped Castiel's against him. They sat quietly a moment, neither saying a word, but Sam would never presume to suggest they weren't having a whole conversation.

"Don't ever do that again," Dean said.

"If you and your brother would stay out of Hell, I would be happy to desist."

Dean chuckled. He placed his free hand on Castiel's chest and let it stay there. As Dean had done, Castiel covered Dean's hand with his own, holding palm to sternum. They both seemed to draw from the touch, Castiel's hand on Dean's chest and Dean's hand on Castiel's, like a circuit finally closed. Sam imagined he could hear the electricity humming between them.

"Sam?" Castiel asked.

"He's here. He's fine. You did it. I don't know how I can ever thank you for that, Cas."

"You never need to." Castiel paused deliberately. "Does he know?"

"Nah… not yet."

"Are you going to tell him?"

"I will… but later. I just… I want to enjoy this first. Sam's back, you're back. I'm not in a position very often where I have everything I want… let me wallow in it a little."

"As far as I'm concerned, you are welcome to wallow until the second coming."

Dean chuckled again. Another charged moment settled between them.

"So… um, now what? I mean, we got Sam back. Mission accomplished. Does that mean you're going home?"

Sam didn't know if Castiel could hear the brink of anguish in Dean's voice, but Sam certainly did. He knew his brother's tones too well. Seeing how close Dean and Castiel had gotten while he was gone, though, Sam would bet money that Castiel didhear it.

Sam found himself holding his breath.

"Home, for me, has come to encompass a very different definition than what it once did." As Castiel spoke, the fingers he had splayed against Dean's chest curled, fisting Dean's shirt in the process. "I want to be somewhere I belong."

"You are, Cas."

Sam could not begrudge them. Not when their stolen moment was so heartfelt. Not when he could tell from Dean's voice that Dean neededthis.

"Will Sam be amenable to my increased presence?" Castiel asked.

"Yeah, I talked to him. He said he was fine with you hanging around. And he's probably listening right now, and since he hasn't squawked, you're probably good."

That startled a chuckle out of Sam. "Well, it's hard to sleep with you two yakking away."

"Hello, Sam."

"Hey, Castiel… you have the mother of all thank yous coming your way, but do you think it can wait until morning? And on the topic, could you twogo to bed? Trying to get some shut-eye over here."

Castiel huffed… a noise that Sam had come to associate with a laugh in the angel.

Dean snickered. "See? Told you. Sam's fine with it."

"Yes, I see that."

The sense of gentleness and play between them was almost too much.

"Come on, guys," Sam pleaded, "we've got a long drive ahead of us tomorrow."

"We do?" Dean asked, looking in Sam's direction with a puzzled expression. "Where are we going?"


"Bobby's?" Dean frowned.

"Sam is right," Castiel concurred, "Bobby should be included in this reunion. He isone of the family, is he not?"

"Of course he is," Dean answered off-handedly, but what Sam heard was Castiel's words, echoing in his thoughts. The choice of 'the family' instead of 'your family' felt significant. Like there wasa family all right, but to catch up with the times Sam might have to revise his math on the matter.

Since John Winchester died, the family had been a measly three. It shouldn't be too hard to add just one more.

"Morning comes early," Sam said, "so save the Lifetime Network moments for later."

It was dark, the room lit only by the nightstand lamp, but Sam got the feeling of brightness from bothof them in the other bed. Dean smirked. "Bitch."

"Jerk… you need me to scoot over, Dean?"

Dean looked down at Castiel in the other bed. "Nah, I'm good."

Sam tried not to smile.

While Dean turned off the light, Castiel moved over in the bed to make room for Dean.

Sam rolled over and snuggled down in his pillow. "Good night, Castiel."

"Good night, Sam."

"Good night, Dean."

"Good night, John Boy."

Sam snorted.

Then Castiel said in all seriousness, "Good night, Dean."

Dean sighed in surrender. "Night, Cas."

Sam smiled into his pillow. Yeah, they could totally make this work. It was weird, sure, but that was synonymous with Winchester. If this odd arrangement, whatever it ended up being, made Dean happy… well, Sam could go along with just about anything to finally give Dean what he deserved. And he might just find peace in the process, too. Stranger things had happened.

For the first time in centuries, Sam felt hope.