A/N: I know it's been quite a while since I updated this story or posted a new fic. Life got very hectic towards the end of last year. I have to thank everyone who PMed me asking about updates. This is for all of you and for all the true fans who are sticking with our favourite show.
It was two full days before Sam's fever broke and Dean never left his side. Illness had a way of making Sam clingy and compliant and as Dean felt his little brother's physical and emotional dependence it seemed like the distance between then was getting smaller.
Sam spent most of his time sleeping; but when he was awake he didn't let Dean go too far away from him. In his fog of fever, Sam sometimes wondered if his brother was real. To him, it seemed like a dream that after everything that had come between them Dean could have been caring for him as if he was as innocent as a newborn. Each time his brother came to his bed or sat down beside him, Sam would hold on to whatever part of Dean was closest and he wouldn't let go until sleep relaxed his grip.
Dean didn't know if Sam's actions were driven by delusion or sincerity but he drew a great deal of contentment from his brother's dependency. After all the distance and secrecy between them it was a relief to be needed and to be able to give.
By the time Sam's fever broke, Dean was exhausted and it was Sam's turn to insist that Dean get some rest. Dean slept for almost an entire day and woke in the late evening to see his brother's bed empty and the motel room door open.
In a flash Dean was on his feet and searching. Since he'd been back topside he'd had too many memories of waking up to find Sam gone and being left with only his fearful speculations about what his sibling had been up to.
The sight of Sam sitting on hood of the Impala just outside their room door instantly calmed Dean's fears. Even more reassuring was the clear signal Sam was sending; now that they were both well and rested it was time to talk and they needed to do it on neutral yet familiar territory.
As Dean approached the Impala, observing his brother, he was glad to see that Sam was clearly feeling better but he couldn't suppress a small pang of regret. The feeling was not unfamiliar; he could recall experiencing it in several instances during Sam's adolescence. It generally occurred when some form of sickness had made Sam revert to preadolescent levels of neediness and affection. While he didn't like to see Sam in any form of distress, Dean always savoured the joy of having his baby brother back, even if it was only for the duration of Sam's illness. And in those cases, recovery was always bitter sweet and each time Dean would briefly mourn the loss.
"Hey," Dean called out softly to get Sam's attention. "How're you feeling?"
"Better," Sam said.
Dean joined Sam on the hood of the car, looking out as dusk settled on the almost empty parking lot. "How long has it been since we've done this?" he asked.
"Too long," Sam responded. "And I can still remember the days when I sat here by myself."
Sam swallowed hard as the grief and desperation of those lonely months resurfaced suddenly. He supposed one day he would be able to forget the pain and torment of being separated from his brother; but even as he sat here with Dean, he knew that day was still some way off.
Sighing deeply at the memories, Sam continued. "It was on those days that I actually realised that grief can kill you. Nothing, not losing Dad or even losing Jess, ever made me feel that dark and hopeless."
Dean could tell from his brother's tone that the hurt was far from gone.
"If it's any consolation I'm right here with you," he offered, trying to keep his voice light.
"It is," Sam conceded. "But nothing will ever take away the pain I felt while you were gone. There were times when I thought it would kill me. The only thing that got me through it was thinking of all the ways to make Lilith pay. At first it was just a pipe dream, and then Ruby found me and finally I had a way to get what I wanted."
"Revenge," Dean sighed. "The Winchester's curse."
"I didn't care. She took you away from me Dean; she made me watch you die. Anyone who put me through that was going to pay."
Dean didn't respond. He had been through the same thing and the horror of seeing Sam die had left him desperate enough to make the deal that had ended up sending them both to hell.
"So much of this is my fault," Dean confessed. "If I'd done my job and looked after you I would never have had to make that damn deal in the first place."
"What's done is done Dean. We can't change it."
"Yeah but if I'd been here you wouldn't have taken up with Ruby."
"You can't take responsibility for that one Dean. That was all me. She had what I needed. Or at least, what I thought I needed."
"No. It was never about that."
"Then what was it about?"
"A sense of purpose. Ever since I found out that I had this evil running through my veins I'd been living in fear. Between Dad's warning to you and Azazel's plans for me I felt like I was some kind of walking time bomb and like it was only a matter of time before whatever was dark in me took over completely."
"And hooking up with a demon was a way to prevent this?"
"Yes. I thought Ruby was showing me how to use what I had been cursed with for something good. When I started exorcising demons for once I felt like I had a purpose. I felt like something that everyone - even Dad - felt would make me evil could be a gift that I could put to good use. And she was showing me a way to get what I wanted more than anything else, Lilith's head on a platter."
Dean could only imagine the torment and confusion Sam had endured at being labelled devil's spawn by even his own father. It must have been such a relief to see a light in that dark, desperate, tunnel. The piercing irony of his little brother being classified as evil had always made Dean bitterly angry. If there was anyone he had ever known who he had thought was intrinsically good, it was Sam.
"You know what made me angry," Dean said. "I tried so hard to get you to see that you were the best person I knew in spite of what Dad or Azazel or anyone else said and you wouldn't believe me. It's ten kinds of twisted that a demon was the one who got you to see the good in yourself and I couldn't."
"She was telling me what I needed to hear."
"She was messing with your head and I told you as much."
"Well you've had the last laugh on that one."
"You think there's anything in this whole sordid mess to laugh about?"
"No Dean, but you can at least take some pleasure in knowing you were right."
"You think that's what this is about? I just wanted you to be OK. I just wanted to know that you weren't ..."
"That I wasn't going dark side? See, even you were afraid that could happen."
"Well, when I find you shacking up with a demon I'm bound to wonder."
"I didn't have anyone else Dean. You were gone."
"Yes but even when I came back you trusted her more than you trusted me. We used to be partners Sam. We used to do everything together, our way. Then I come back and you've replaced me with a demon."
"And speaking of replacement," Sam looked meaningfully at his brother. "I think it's fair to say I was upstaged by an angel."
"It's not the same."
"No, I don't suppose it is, but it didn't hurt me any less."
"It didn't have anything to do with you."
"It has everything to do with me."
Dean stared at his brother, flabbergasted.
"Look, I may be slow, but I'm not seeing the connection. I have every right to have wanted to see Ruby dead. She messed with you; she turned you against me and brought you closer to hell than I ever wanted you to go. What's your beef with Cas?"
"He got you out of hell Dean," Sam argued as if the conclusion followed logically. "For one year, I tried everything to break that deal and then for four months I tried everything I could think of to bring you back and then he flies in in his trench coat and rescues you without thinking."
Dean scratched his head, genuinely perplexed. "I think you'd be happy about that."
"Of course I was happy that you were out but saving you was my job. All my life you've been saving me. You went to hell because of me and I just felt..."
"I felt if I could get you out then at least everything you gave up would have been worth it and I would have somehow managed to earn even a fraction of what you've given to me all these years. But it wasn't me, it was Cas."
Dean silently contemplated his brother's words.
"You can't earn love Sam, you can't work for it, it's just about who you are. You're my brother and how I feel about you has nothing to do with what you deserve it's about who you are. And I think that's what I was afraid of when I came back, I didn't want you to change; I didn't want to lose my little brother."
"But I have changed Dean, whether or not you want to admit it. After the demon blood, Ruby and the panic room, I am different Dean and you know it. I can see it every time you look at me."
"Don't even try to deny it Dean. I know what you think of me. You told me as much just before I went off with Ruby."
There was no denying what Dean had said. He'd called his little brother a monster; and even though he had said it at the height of his anguish over what he saw as Sam's betrayal, there was no way he could ever take it back.
"I had no right to ever say anything like that to you. All I can remember is how hurt and betrayed I felt that you decided to side with Ruby instead of me and I just wanted to hurt you back. I'm sorry."
Sam looked at his brother, eyes filled with both accusation and understanding. "It's O.K. Dean. Considering what I did to you after, you weren't too far off the mark. Face it Dean, I'm not the same person I was before you went to hell."
"Neither am I Sam," Dean countered. "And I can see that in your eyes when you look at me." When Sam turned away, Dean knew he had touched on the truth. "I know you think I came back weak and broken, but hell changes you in ways you wouldn't imagine."
"But you never would have been there if it hadn't been for me."
"That's not your guilt to carry Sammy. That was my choice. That's all on me."
"It won't ever be all on you Dean. I'll never be able to look at you and see that pain in your eyes and not feel I'm somehow responsible."
"Well I'm telling you here and now, you're not responsible so let it go."
When Sam's only response was to turn away Dean grabbed his shoulder. "Sam, I'm serious. Let it go."
"Fine Dean." Sam held his brothers gaze for the requisite moment and then looked off into the distance again.
"So," Dean pressed when it became clear Sam didn't intend to say anything more. "Are you OK?"
"Yeah," Sam lied. They had finally had the talk but he still felt so far from his brother and the distance was unsettling. "You?" he turned the tables.
"Yeah," Dean parroted.
"So we're good then?" Sam prompted, hoping Dean would give even a hint of reassurance.
"We're good," Dean shrugged but he couldn't have felt worse. He stole a glimpse at Sam who seemed to have developed a fascination with the empty parking lot.
Just like that, Dean thought feeling the bitter sweet sentiments again. Time was when Sam couldn't have made it through a conversation like without breaking down completely. Somewhere in the heated exchange or the heartfelt confession, his little brother usually lost it and the flood gates would literally open up. Even if Dean was at the peak of his own anger, a little brother breakdown was always the cue for him to transition to his role as comforter.
In spite of his occasional token protests, or his labelling of Sam as the emotional one, it was a role that Dean had come to deeply relish. To know that in the midst of any turmoil, confusion or pain, all this little brother needed was Dean's shoulder to lean on or Dean's arms to support him made Dean feel needed in a way that was so gratifying he had decided long ago he would rather not live without it. Not even Sam fully understood how much it meant to him.
But it seemed Sam really had changed in the months they had been apart. And now, his new and not necessarily improved little brother could have such an overwhelming heart to heart and then shrug it off like it was nothing.
Suddenly Dean felt tears welling up his own eyes.
"Let's get something to eat," he said, swinging his legs over the side of the car and standing with his back to his brother. "I don't want you to survive your fever and then die of starvation."
Knowing Sam couldn't see, Dean quickly used the back of his hand to wipe his eyes and then started to walk away. As his big brother moved, Sam felt the space beside him open up and swallowed hard to fight down the panic. They'd both said their piece but somehow the distance between them hadn't closed. Maybe it was because he'd been uncharacteristically invulnerable even as he'd spilled his guts to Dean. Fighting with his big brother over personal issues always left him feeling a little raw and exposed but Dean had always had a way of reassuring him and making him feel safe. But now, after they had both spilled their guts, Dean was walking away without giving him the usual big brother reassurance. And how could he give it when Sam hadn't asked. And Sam hadn't asked because he didn't know if he would get it, even if he did.
Dean had only taken a few steps but Sam felt the distance between them widening and in that instant he knew, embarrassment and rejection, he could handle. Losing his big brother again, was simply out of the question.
"Dean," Sam called after him.
Dean turned to face Sam but found his brother was looking down at the bonnet instead of meeting his eyes.
"Can we just stay out here for a little?" Sam asked, studying the Impala's hood.
Hopefully, longingly, Dean stepped back to the car.
"Will you sit with me?" Sam still wasn't looking up, but his voice was wavering, brimming emotions.
"Sure," Dean slipped back up on the hood, shouldering close to his brother.
Sam raised his head, but kept his eyes straight ahead. "There were so many times when I sat here by myself, just wishing you could be here with me, just wishing we could do this one more time."
Finally, Sam turned to look at his brother and the emotion in his eyes was undeniable.
"Dean, sometimes I can't believe you're really here. I still get scared that one day I'm going to wake up and you'll be gone."
And the admission of his greatest fear, forced the floodgates and Sam shuddered as the tears flowed down.
Dean slipped an arm around him and ushered Sam's head down to rest on his shoulder. Was it wrong to feel a sense of calm with his brother crying against him? Was it selfish of him to feel just a little elated that he was still the only one who could really comfort Sam in his deepest distress?
No, Dean immediately decided. He'd been doing this for Sam since the day he was born and not even the forces of hell could get him to stop now.
"I'm right here with you Sammy," he said softly. "We can sit here for as long as you like."