Prompt posted by chaos_slave, written for the ohsam Sam-focused hurt/comfort fic challenge: S6 Gen or Wincest. Sam wakes up after he gets his soul back; he's confused and stiff after lying there for ten days. He notices when walking up the stairs one of his knees or his hip feels worse than the rest of him but he doesn't think about it-he needs to find Dean. As time goes by his leg doesn't get any better and the pain grows worse. Finally Dean drags him to the doctor and it turns out Soulless!Sam ignored an injury because it would mean too much downtime between hunts and now Sam has to deal with the consequence of it.

Spoilers: Prologue is a missing scene (aka a gratuitous shower scene) from episode 6.12 (Like a Virgin) to fulfill some of the prompt elements. Main story contains spoilers for events in early season 7 and is set immediately before episode 7.08.
Warnings/credits: No warnings. Title comes from a song title by Black Sabbath, which in turn is a reference to an H. P. Lovecraft short story of the same name.
Thanks: I couldn't have done this without the SupernaturalWiki and the invaluable beta services by geminigrl11 - thank you! Title card is courtesy of the wonderful scullspeare.


"His soul is in place."

Dean stood at the doorway to the panic room like a sentinel, glancing from the angel rolling up his sleeves to his unconscious brother lying on a dirty cot. "Is he ever gonna wake up?"

"I'm not a human doctor, Dean."

"Could you take a guess?"

Castiel frowned. "Okay. Probably not."

"Oh, well. Don't sugarcoat it."

"I'm sorry, Dean." Cas didn't sound sorry. "But I warned you not to put that thing back inside him."

"What was I supposed to do?" Dean was at the end of his rope. "Let T-1000 walk around? Hope he doesn't open fire?"

"Let me tell you what his soul felt like when I touched it. Like it had been skinned alive, Dean. If you wanted to kill your brother, you should have done it outright."

Dean's vision blurred, hot and stinging, and he turned away from Sam, back to the gloom of the cellar. But with a gust of dank and dusty air, Castiel was already gone.

Cas was wrong. Sam was fine.

Ten days after falling into a coma, Sam was sitting across from Dean, elbows on that wobbly kitchen table Bobby couldn't be bothered to fix, wolfing down the PB&J sandwiches they'd slapped together after Sam had emerged from the basement and announced he'd woken up hungry.

Bobby watched him from a cautious distance, leaning against the stove with his arms crossed.

Dean, on the other hand, gazed at Sam with an almost fond expression on his face, as if he was seeing his six-year-old kid brother again, legs dangling and kicking at the chair leg, pestering Dean with problematic questions. Where's Dad? When's he comin' home?

The new questions must have been just as challenging. Dean's answers felt tentative. Evasive? Sam couldn't be sure. It was a little overwhelming waking up and finding out you'd missed the last eighteen months.

"Is there anything else I should know?" Sam still sounded dazed.

Dean didn't meet his brother's eyes. "No. Another beer?"

Sam nodded, taking a longneck bottle from Dean's hand. When he looked up again, Dean was watching him with such an odd expression that Sam straightened, puzzled.

"Dude. You're staring. What-did I take the last beer?"

Dean cleared his throat. "No, man. It's-to be honest, you're kinda ripe."

"Huh. I guess I am." Sam wrinkled his nose. "Ripe." He climbed to his feet, leaning a bit on the scarred kitchen table before straightening. "Mind if I-"

Bobby uncrossed his arms to wave in the general direction of the stairs. "Knock yourself out. Bathroom's right where it's always been."


He could feel Dean's eyes on him as he shuffled out of the room, still staring at Sam like he was a brand new sawed-off shotgun, gleaming under the pathetic handful of dying branches that passed for their Christmas tree.

"Dean." Bobby's rough voice rumbled behind him. "You think the kid has a clue where you put his duffel? You might want to take his clothes up to him. Unless you want him parading around the place naked as a jaybird."

Dean snorted, "Nobody wants that!" and Sam heard the scrape of his chair as he pushed himself away from the table. Sam grinned at the exchange, grabbed hold of the banister, and started hauling himself stiffly upstairs, unconsciously favoring his right hip.

Sam leaned one hand against the tile and let the hot water pound the back of his shoulders. Rivulets streamed down the nape of his neck from wet hair plastered to his scalp. His arm trembled with the strain—he was still a little wobbly-and he blinked to realize that there was a jagged scar on his upper arm that he didn't remember getting.


His fingers found other more familiar scars, faded and no longer painful. There was the bullet wound near his shoulder when Bela shot him. The burn on his right forearm when he'd been possessed by Meg. The thick knife scar across his spine, courtesy of Jake. And so many tidy, deliberate nicks and slices on his arms from monsters human-and-otherwise that any doctor who saw him might jump to a conclusion of self-harm.

Dean had emerged from hell scar-free when Castiel had raised him from perdition, all but that new handprint on his shoulder. But it looked like Sam's scars hadn't been erased. Not that Sam was going to complain. They'd told him it was Death who'd freed him-maybe it was only being raised by someone with the 'grace' of an angel that ipso factoresulted in spontaneous healing. Whereas the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse…. Sam huffed a rueful laugh. Death hadn't gripped him tight enough to leave a handprint; maybe he'd dropped him and Sam had landed wrong-that would explain why his leg felt sore now.

Because he sure didn't remember hurting it.

It worried him a little, the things he seemed to have forgotten. Like that rough, uneven scar on his arm that looked fairly recent. His palm skated over another unfamiliar wound—a puckered scar near his hip. But those injuries couldn't have come from his time in the Cage. Not unless he also brought back a blue, gray and yellow shirt as a souvenir. Because he had no memory of the shirt he'd woken up wearing in the panic room, either. I went to Hell and all I got was this lousy plaid shirt.

No. The only explanation had to be that he'd come back with Swiss cheese for brains.

What else had he forgotten? How would he even know? He didn't feel any gaps.

The pipes groaned as Sam fumbled to shut off the water, and then the plastic rings rattled across the metal rod as he swept the shower curtain aside and stepped into the cloud of steam that filled the bathroom.

He recognized his duffel, left on the floor by the door, and Sam thought about what that meant. He'd been dead, for all practical purposes, for a year and a half, and Dean had kept it. Hadn't given up hope.

He pulled out underwear, his most comfortable pair of jeans, and a soft gray tee shirt. It was pathetic, but the meal and hot shower seemed to enervate him, not revive him, and right now Sam craved nothing more than a nap. In a real bed. Or a couch-he wasn't picky. As long as it wasn't the panic room.

He felt safe, knowing his brother and Bobby were close by.

He reached deeper in the duffel to find a pair of socks without holes. His knuckles brushed against two or three small plastic bottles, and he frowned, lifting them up to the light to read the labels. There were different patient names on each: Roark, Kilmister, Copeland... all aliases Sam used. But the medication in each was the same.


Something else he didn't remember.

For the moment, he didn't let the lack of recall throw him. In the grand scheme of things, he could live with Swiss-cheesed memories. It was a miracle that he was back at all. And if he was missing something important, he knew his brother would fill him in. Dean had his back. Always.

But would he-always?

Sam hadn't thought to ask yet if Dean had kept his promise and made a life with Lisa and Ben. If he'd been with them for the last year and a half. It occurred to him: maybe Dean was just here for Sam's resurrection, and soon enough-now that Sam was awake, now that Dean could see his brother was okay-he would be driving back to suburbia and his new family.

It took Sam's breath away for a moment, how much it hurt to think of Dean leaving him behind, now. He wanted Dean to be safe, to be happy, and Sam really thought Lisa was good for Dean. And Ben was lucky to have Dean. But yearning for the best for someone else instead of himself made his chest ache. Ached like using a muscle that had atrophied from disuse.

Ached enough to take his mind off the sore leg as he dressed and stumbled off in search of his brother.

They caught a case in Portland, Oregon and hit the ground running.

It wasn't long before Sam discovered why he was missing some memories. His time in Hell, in the Cage with Lucifer and Michael, and the months hunting without a soul, were all locked away behind a barricade Death had erected in his mind to protect him.

Dean, on the other hand, seemed to have nothing to protect him and struggled with things he couldn'tforget. He dealt, though. His policy was just to "shove it down, and let it come out in spurts of violence and alcoholism." Sam worried about him, but couldn't deny that Dean could still do the job.

They caught another case in New Jersey… and another and another. The war in heaven spilled down to Earth occasionally, and evil from the other direction surfaced as well. And in between, there was always the simple Winchester family business-saving people, hunting things-that kept them on the road together. Learning to be brothers again.

The soreness in Sam's hip faded, replaced by other aches and pains. It was by nature a rough life. Neither of them found it worth mentioning if the other sometimes shuffled like an old man upon arising in the morning, or winced while digging up a grave, or limped more noticeably after getting thrown around by something with supernatural strength. As long as no-one was bleeding out on the Impala's upholstery, life was actually pretty good.

And so, because they were Winchesters, of course it all went to hell. Or more precisely, when Castiel broke the wall in Sam's mind, Hell came roaring back like a raging inferno. And it wasn't just Sam who remembered its searing flames.

~end of prologue~

The familiar 'ding' of the fuel pump in a gas station roused Sam from his doze. He cracked his neck and saw Dean in the rearview mirror, filling the tank. There were no other patrons in sight, but across the tarmac he could see the small convenience store where Dean must have pre-paid, now that they were trying to stay off the credit card grid. Sam looked at his watch, figured it was his turn to drive, and debated if he needed a cup of coffee to wake up more thoroughly.

Stiff and cramping, he pushed the car door open with his shoulder, swung his feet out and unfolded himself gingerly outside the car. One second, he was straightening-a hand clutching the doorframe-and the next he was crashing to the ground, grabbing at his knee, too blinded by pain to see Dean react until he felt his brother squatting on the pavement beside him.

"Sam? Sammy?" Dean reached for Sam's shoulder and Sam curled toward him, shuddering.

"It's-it's getting better. Just give me a minute."

"What's getting better?" Dean looked around wildly, seemed to find no threat, and then went back to patting the top of Sam's shoulder.

Sam rolled onto his back, knees bent, one broad hand covering his eyes. After a moment, he gritted out, "Dude. Quit petting me like I'm a dog or something."

Dean sat back on his heels and snapped his fingers. "Speak, Sammy, speak." Then he slipped his hand across the nape of Sam's neck to help him roll into a sitting position. "Seriously, dude. What the hell? And I better not mean that literally."

"No." Sam poked tentatively at his right knee. "It's not—that. I just got out of the car-"

"And went splat. Seriously, Sam?" Dean got to his feet and held out a hand. "You survived the freakin' Cage, and you were taken down by, what? A four-inch oil slick?"

"I didn't slip, Dean." Sam grabbed Dean's wrist and let his brother propel him up.

"What then. A cramp? A charley horse?" Dean's teasing grin didn't hide the relief in his eyes. "It's the car, isn't it. Admit it. Your freakish limbs miss the Impala too. You just need more practice riding shotgun in a Dodge Challenger."

Sam finished rolling to his feet and then he blanched, the jolt of agonizing pain sucking his breath away, leaving a string of strangled curses trapped in his throat. He collapsed against the hood of the car, leaning on it so he could take his weight completely off the bad leg and turned frightened eyes toward Dean. "I don't know what this is. But, God! I can't even straighten my leg."

Dean yanked the car door open fully and then ducked his head under Sam's arm and guided him back to the passenger seat, positioning Sam sideways, both legs out the door, one bent, one straight. Once settled, Dean crouched beside him and laid a hand gently on the right knee.

"How long's it been bothering you? Did you do something to it last week, when you were-" Dean waved his arm abstractly.

Sam knew what his brother meant. They'd parted company, heatedly, after running into psycho!Butch-and-Sundance, their Leviathan doubles, in Iowa. Bitter truths had come out then about Dean's betrayal and Amy's brutal death. Sam had had no intention of meeting Dean when they'd crossed paths ten days later, each stumbling across the same case in Lily Dale, New York. But they did, and when it was over, it looked like they were making progress on the whole honesty thing, and Sam could see the situation from Dean's point of view. Fences had been mended; they were a team again.

"You piss off anyone capable of this kind of spell work while you were gone?" Dean suggested.

Sam shook his head. He'd spent his days visiting rare books libraries, tracking down copies of some of their more valuable references that had been lost when Bobby's house was destroyed. His evenings had been even simpler-consisting of take-out dinners and the occasional free cable movies while holed up in cheap motels. "I was the poster child for inconspicuous and boring."

"You sure? Lucifer's taken you on a Magical Mystery Tour before, dude. You positive he didn't convince you to take up skateboarding, or something?"

Sam curled over his leg and ran a hand through his hair to push it away from his face. "No. This leg's been-temperamental. Ever since I woke up." At Dean's look he clarified, "Wokeup. In the panic room. But it wasn't even the knee then. And it wasn't anything I couldn't handle." Hell, Sam had even been able to jog on it, up until that case in Indiana a few weeks ago. Since then the discomfort had seemed to settle in the back of his knee, and he'd started icing it when Dean went out drinking in the evenings. But the pain had migrated around to the side of his knee now. And that previous ache had been nothing like this.

"C'mon. Get in." Dean slid his hand under Sam's right ankle and steered him the rest of the way into the car, careful to jostle the leg as little as possible. "You think you need a hospital here? Or you wanna try to tough it out, pop some pills, and hook up with Frank as planned?"




Dean climbed back behind the wheel, not a word of complaint about the hours he'd be driving. And they took to the road again.

For a long time, then, it was quiet. Night deepened and they found themselves driving into a storm front, rain drumming against the roof of the car. That, the hypnotic swish of the wipers, and a fistful of over-the-counter analgesics that warned for symptoms of drowsiness almostlured Sam to sleep.

But he couldn't turn off his restless thoughts, and figured he might as well make conversation to help keep Dean alert. "You know a doctor's gonna ask." Sam twisted uncomfortably in his seat. "What happened to my leg, I mean. I don't have any idea. What'm I supposed to tell him?"

There was a pause. "Tell him you were abducted by aliens, and this is how you came back."

Sam rolled his eyes. "You're joking, right?"

Dean glanced at him with a hint of mischief. "Never mind. Guess when Cas filled you in, he didn't know about that one."


Dean just smiled cryptically, amused by something Sam couldn't begin to guess at. But his smile faded, mouth tightening, and then Sam knew where Dean's thoughts had gone. He was grieving for his lost friend, and beating himself up over the fact that Castiel had betrayed them in the end, and Dean hadn't been able to stop him.

Sam turned back to stare at the rain sluicing off the windshield, wrapped in thought. Wanting to direct Dean's thoughts anywhere but there. After a minute, he said, "Something must've happened before I came to get you. Maybe when I was hunting with Samuel." It's not like he could ask his grandfather, Sam thought bitterly. Not since he'd put a bullet in the man's skull.

"Well, don't poke around in the rubble, looking for those memories. Geez." Dean slapped the steering wheel. "Just because Satan's exhausted all the other tortures he could think of and figures messing with your sanity is the most fun thing ever, that doesn't mean you want to revisit Hell. Trust me." Dean's grip tightened. "It's a minefield inside that noggin of yours, Sam. Last time you tried to remember what you did while you were a soulless dick, it almost killed you."

Sam sighed. "You know, that never works." He shifted in his seat, the painkillers starting to wear off.

"What doesn't?"

"Okay, here's me planting an idea in your head. I say to you, don't think about elephants. What are you thinking about?"

"I'm thinking about elephants, Dumbo. What is it with you? First clowns and now elephants!"

"Telling someone not to think about something is guaranteed to make them think about it." Sam surreptitiously pressed the heel of his hand down the top of his thigh, as if he could somehow block nerve signals from his knee traveling to his brain. "Didn't you see Inception?"

Dean sighed, and leaned forward to turn up the car stereo.

This is why he couldn't tell Dean not to think about Cas, Sam thought. Or Lisa and Ben. Or everything else that Dean was carrying on his shoulders. Even though it seemed to be crippling Dean-worse than whatever felt like it was gnawing away inside Sam's knee right now.

And Sam had no idea how to help.

Oddly enough, Sam had come back from Hell in some ways happier than before. The slate's never wiped clean,he'd told his brother. But now he could let the past go-a lifetime of crappiness and the guilt for everything he'd done.

Dean was like a clenched fist.

Sam wished he knew how to give him peace-even just for a day.

But as the pain in his knee grew, he lost the ability to think of anything more than just hanging on.

In the end, they only made it as far as Kentucky. About the time that Sam thought he couldn't hold back the whimpers any longer, Dean took the next exit they came across with a square blue hospital sign.

Sam could have wept with relief that after everything that had driven them apart over the last few years, Dean could still sometimes read his mind.

If he did swipe away a tear with the heel of his trembling hand when the industrial-strength narcotics kicked in, Dean didn't say anything.

It wasn't the first time Sam realized he didn't quite fit on damned hospital gurneys. His head was elevated and a pillow supported his bent knee, but his left foot hung out over the edge of the metal frame. He didn't care though. Oxycodone and cyclobenzaprine were his new favorite words, and they were running through his veins as he listened to Dean bemoan the loss of their rock star aliases. Dean must have heard the murmur of voices approaching, and quickly changed the subject before they were rejoined by Dr. Bancroft Cameron, followed by a new nurse wearing vee-necked ceil blue scrubs.

Dr. Cameron held up a large manila envelope and slid out an X-ray of Sam's knee. "Good news, Mr. Grimm!"

"Jake." Sam was worried about their literary aliases being suspected; the less anyone said 'Grimm', the better off they'd be. He used his elbows to lever himself more fully upright. "Good news, as in…?"

"Let me show you." The doctor clipped the X-ray to the light box hanging on the wall. With a click of a switch, the soft charcoal-colored outline of a lateral view of Sam's right leg appeared. Lighter gray bones stood out brightly: femur, patella, tibia, fibula, all looking perfectly normal. What wasn't normal at all was a glaringly white chunk in stark relief wedged unnaturally where the fibula joined the knee.

Dean was the first to verbalize it, shock written on his face. "That looks like—"

"A bullet. Yes."

Sam's heavy brow furrowed. "I don't understand." He knew perfectly well there were no bullet holes in his knee, but he couldn't help looking down where a blue thermal blanket was draped across his legs. "How could-"

The nurse-'Leigh', Sam read on her nametag-patted the hand that was tethered to the IV. "Your brother Bill here explained to us about your past drug addiction, Jake. How bad it got, high all the time. And how you really have no memory of that lost year." She gave him what he supposed was meant to be a sympathetic smile. "That's a dangerous lifestyle, in more ways than one. So it's not that unreasonable to learn that you must've been in some altercation back then, even if you don't remember anything from that time."

Sam wasn't thrilled with the cover story, but it beat the alien abduction theory. He'd had a moment of panic when it occurred to him they might not give drugs to a recovering addict, but they'd assured him they'd manage that carefully. So now there was just one thing that still bothered him. "But. I don't-I don't have any scars on my knee."

"It's not unheard of," Dr. Cameron told them. He was animated in a way that made Sam feel like he was a butterfly pinned to a box for show-and-tell. "Bullets don't necessarily have to be removed," he explained. "As long as it doesn't penetrate an organ, as long as there isn't any foreign matter to be debrided—sometimes going in after the slug is more risky than leaving it in place."

Sam caught Dean's eye. He supposed they were both wondering if Sam-sans-soul had been advised to leave it alone, or if he'd just found it too inconvenient to bother with.

Dr. Cameron went on, unaware he was losing his audience's attention. "You know, President Andrew Jackson walked around with a bullet in his arm for almost twenty years before he had surgery to have it removed," he told them, patting the breast pocket of his lab coat for a pen.

"Why'd he even bother, then?" That was Dean's worried-therefore-belligerent voice.

Dr. Cameron's face lit up even more. "Retained bullets or fragments sometimes migrate. Over months, or even years, a bullet can work its way through the body. Which can eventually cause trauma and complications that weren't an issue in the original wound site." He paused to jot some notes on Sam's chart. "Pretty much any prison doctor could tell you about a time an inmate came in reporting pain – pain that maybe came and went but eventually became too severe to ignore. And they end up discovering a migrating bullet. Sometimes, though rarely, far from the initial entry wound."

Cameron turned to point back at the foreign body on the X-ray. "From your symptoms, Jake, I'd say that bullet's pressing against the superficial peroneal nerve right now. Which, frankly, I'd expect to be off the scale on your pain questionnaire." He glanced down at Sam's chart in his hands and nodded. "Yes, of course."

"And this is good news—how?" Dean growled, clearly annoyed that the doc seemed pleased to confirm how much pain Sam was in.

Cameron slid his pen back in his pocket. "Normally a retained bullet isn't cause for concern. The lead won't be absorbed if it's surrounded by tissue. But it issoluble in synovial fluid. The joint space," he added. He glanced again at the X-ray. "Once that foreign object had worked its way into the joint, it became life-threatening. In a way, you're lucky. If it hadn't lodged against a nerve and driven your brother here to me, to seek medical attention, he could have died from lead poisoning."

"We'll test your blood," Leigh added, preparing the blood draw kit. She deftly twisted a tourniquet around Sam's left upper arm and began swabbing the inside of his elbow with alcohol. "You haven't reported any of the symptoms of long-term toxic lead levels, so hopefully that bullet hasn't been in the knee capsule very long," she reassured him.

He felt the needle stick and watched the bright red fluid fill the vial.

"After we measure your blood lead level," Cameron continued, switching off the light box, "we'll start an EDTA chelation therapy as needed. That's administered by IV over a couple hours; it traps the heavy metals in your blood and forms a compound that gets eliminated in the urine. And it'll also minimize any risk of lead getting mobilized from the bone as a result of the surgery."

"Surgery?" Sam blinked. It wasn't a surprise really. As soon as he saw the bullet practically glowing on the film, it had been obvious it would have to come out. But everything felt like it was moving too fast. He was having trouble processing it. It didn't feel real.

The nurse still held one arm, preventing Sam from digging his thumb into the scarred palm that helped anchor him in reality.

"We don't want to delay surgery," Cameron said briskly. "We'll book the OR for this afternoon."

Sam looked to Dean, but Dean was pawing the floor, tugging nervously at the edge of his jacket, and Sam knew his thoughts were on the silver flask in the pocket inside.

Leigh pulled his attention back as she slapped a Band-Aid on Sam's elbow and then handed him a clipboard with surgical consent forms. When Sam looked up, Dean had slipped out of the room.

Procedural sedation, they called it. Twilight sleep. It was safer than a general anesthesia; no intubation needed, for one thing. And Sam would have no memory of the surgery.

They hooked him up to a pulse oximeter, nasal cannula, blood pressure monitor and electrocardiogram, and new meds were introduced to his IV.

In all the bustle, Sam caught a glimpse of something out of place: a figure in street clothes leaning against an unoccupied wall in the room. Lucifer crossed his arms and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "You know, Sam," he said, "the Leviathans probably have a sample of your blood from the hospital back in South Dakota-when Edgar whupped your asses. Remember?" He nodded to himself. "They probably know all about the lead poisoning. I get the impression they're organized well enough to track you down, just by this."

Sam squeezed his eyes shut tight. You're not real!

He felt Lucifer's whisper against his ear. "If I'm just a figment of your imagination, Sam, then these are just yourthoughts-and everything I tell you must be things you already know to be true. Right?"

"Dean!" Sam groped for his brother's arm, but Dean wasn't there.

And then Sam couldn't remember what he urgently wanted to tell his brother. He felt warm and woozy. The sedative flooded through his veins and he drifted off.

He came to in a dimly lit bedroom he didn't recognize, lying on top of a white chenille bedspread with a frayed quilt tossed over him. His mouth felt like unpicked cotton. His brain did too. He wet his lips. "You know, waking up with no memory of what happened isn't as much fun as you'd think," he muttered to himself.

"Preachin' to the choir, dude."

Sam hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud. His eyes adjusted to the near dark and he saw he was in a large room. A warm glow and the smell of pine came from a wood-burning stove in one corner, casting shadows over a small table and the figure hunched over it nursing what was likely a fifth of whiskey.


"I didn't know what else to do, Sammy." Dean's voice was gruff, flat. He eyed his glass and then reached for the bottle.

Sam struggled up to his elbows. "What happened?"

"Turns out you can't have anesthesia, Sam." Dean splashed some whiskey into his glass and then thunked the bottle back down against the table. "You had a damn seizure, man."

Lucifer's chuckle rumbled from the other corner of the room. "There's just no escape, is there, Sam?" He stood up, strolled toward Sam, and Sam recoiled violently, shifting his weight as far back against the headboard as he could.

Lucifer parked his skinny ass on the foot of Dean's bed. Dean cupped his hands around the glass but didn't drink, waging some inner battle and oblivious to everything else.

"That bullet that's fraying your last nerve? True, it's been keeping me on the bench, but that's not a very satisfying long-term solution, is it Sam? Did you know that pain can actually kill you? Assuming you're not already dead, of course." Lucifer chuckled. "Unrelenting, excruciating pain can send you into shock. And-" His lips thinned into a satisfied smile. "Shock can kill."

"Shut up!" Sam hissed. He tossed a glance at his brother, but Dean was staring into his amber-filled glass like it was new anime porn.

Lucifer leaned forward. "They put you under, and-funny thing, that subconscious of yours. Or is it your consciousness? Whatever. It took one look at me, sitting on the top of the rubble of that wall, and went running the only place it could-through the cracks and into the dark crevices that were hiding so much worse."

Sam jerked.

"Did you ever wonder what pain in your subconscious can do to you? For example—what do you think happens when you relive memories of your meat-suit being slow-roasted till it's so tender it drops off the bone?" Lucifer beamed. "For five hundred dollars, Alex, the answer is What is a seizure?" Lucifer took a slight bow. "Good times. Did you know there are more than thirty different kinds of seizures? I bet that big collegiate brain of yours finds that fascinating."

Lucifer stretched his arms, linked his fingers and cracked his knuckles. "But enough about your Hell. Been there, got the tee shirt. I'm much more interested in how Dean reacts to his memories of Hell. Aren't you?"

"You leave my brother alone!" Sam lunged at the figure. His leg tangled in the quilt and buckled as soon as his feet hit the carpet. A cry of pain tore from his throat, and Lucifer's image flickered like a short circuit in a graphics card before the screen went dark. Sam heard a crash like glass shattering, and then he felt warm, rough hands grabbing his upper arms. Panicking instinctively, he tried to pull away, but then he recognized the voice by his ear, even as his vision started to clear.

"Sam? Sam!"

"Dean." He wanted to sob with relief, but he couldn't let himself do that. He needed to not be another burden to Dean. "Help me up." Sam gritted his teeth and Dean yanked him up. Then they sat facing each other on the pair of queen-size beds, Sam digging his thumb into the muscle above his knee like he was trying to plug a hole in a dam.

Dean wiped his mouth with the back of a shaking hand and shook his head. "I guess the drugs're finally wearing off, huh."

He didn't ask Sam what had happened. Maybe Sam had only yelled at Lucifer inside his own head. And Dean just figured his brother had gotten up to take a piss and face-planted. Sam debated telling Dean that Lucifer was back – he was done keeping secrets from his brother. But Elvis had left the building – at least for now - and Sam had other things to worry about right then.

"Drugs?" Sam thought hard. "I remember signing the paperwork for the surgery. Getting the IV started. That's it." He didn't remember anything from the moment they added the sedative to his IV drip until now. There was a fading sense of smell, like flesh burning, and that was all.

"You had a seizure, Sam. Just like that night in Rhode Island, after the arachne. Except this time, you were screaming, Sammy. I could hear you from the waiting room!" The memory filled Dean's face with horror. He scrubbed his jean-clad legs with damp palms. "They canceled the surgery. Wanted to keep you there in the hospital and analyze your freaky brain first. Probably try other drugs." Dean stood up, started pacing the small room. "I panicked. I just-I couldn't take that chance."

"What chance?"

"That whatever drugs they give you would send you—back there."

Sam didn't have to ask 'back where?' He recognized the haunted look in Dean's eyes, the inability to hold Sam's gaze. The tightness in Dean's shoulders, slumped but still rigid with tension, like an abused animal cowering in a corner. What Sam held buried under the rubble of a shattered retaining wall, Dean fought to suppress with no supernatural help at all. Just the experience of a lifetime of burying pain and trying to stay on his feet.

No wonder Dean drank.

"When you woke up in the hospital, you insisted on leaving, wouldn't even let them try it with a local anesthetic. You kept yelling that the Leviathans were gonna find us. I tell you, Sam, they were all set to dig out the straitjackets and book you into a padded room."

It wasn't funny. Not at all. Well, maybe it was a little funny. Sam pictured the scene and felt a smile start to creep across his face. "Bet we ruined Dr. Cameron's day. I think he was really looking forward to telling his buddies how he saved my life."

Dean's frown eased. "Laugh it up, fuzzball. While I was signing you out, you dressed yourself." He raised his eyebrows and Sam tugged the quilt aside to look down at himself. Tee shirt and sweat pants. Both on backwards.

Sam rolled his eyes. Now that he knew it was on wrong, the collar of the tee shirt started to irritate his neck, and he tugged at it. "So, what happened?"

"Dude, I don't know why you thought we were in danger there, but I listened to you anyway—"

"First time," Sam muttered, knee-jerk reaction. He gave up worrying the neckline of his tee shirt. His bad leg was demanding more and more of his attention.

"—and piled you in the car and drove until I couldn't drive anymore. This is one of the safe houses Frank told us about. In Kentucky somewhere." Dean stopped pacing to pull back the curtains and look outside. Nothing appeared to raise his hackles and he turned back to Sam. "You've been conscious off and on, by the way. We've been over this before; you just don't remember. That drug cocktail they had you on-I think it's like the movie The Hangover. Only no baby in the closet and no tiger in the bathroom." Dean made a brave attempt at a smile.

"Well, that's a relief." Sam tried for levity, too, but it didn't help. His leg was rapidly waking up. It felt like it was being stabbed by the metal jaws of a rusty coyote trap.

Dean stared longingly at the nearly empty bottle back on the table, the broken glass lying in shards on a wet patch of carpet below. "That bullet's gotta come out, Sammy. You know it."

"No argument there, Dean." It wouldn't be pleasant, but it wasn't exactly his first time around that block either.

Dean sat back down at the table and glanced down at his hands. "There's a problem. I don't think-I don't think my hands are steady enough to do it." When he raised his eyes to Sam's, they were wide and wet. "I know we need the alcohol to sterilize the incision. And you'll need whatever's left to dull the pain. But-I need it, too. For myself. I can't cut into you without it." He laced his fingers together to try to still their trembling. "Who the hell sets up a safe house in a dry county? I have no idea how far we'd need to go to get more booze."

The pain in Sam's knee was growing worse fast. "Dean, please." His voice wavered and he was afraid he was going to start to cry any second. "Drink it all. I don't care. Just get this bullet out." Sam lifted his foot back on the bed and his vision blurred at the agony caused by just touching his leg now.

Dean had to be able to do this. Please, don't let him be too deep in that bottle yet.

"You sure?" Dean wrapped both his hands around the dark brown bottle and rotated it slowly.

"I'm gonna have to chew off my leg if you don't."

"All right." Dean stood, leaving the bottle on the table for now, and began moving clumsily through the room and Sam thought—this wasn't the agile big brother who Sam had envied and wanted to be just like, back when he was a kid. This was a man so broken by his burdens that he couldn't carry on any more without booze to help him through the day. Sam lay back down and shut his eyes, too consumed by pain to watch. He heard a screen door bang, followed shortly by the slamming of the car's trunk, and then Dean was back, dropping something on the floor between the two beds.

Sam felt Dean's hand squeeze his shoulder and then withdraw, and the unexpected touch almost brought tears to his eyes. He forced his eyes open, dragged himself back up to a sitting position on the bed and saw their med kit on the floor beside him. He stretched a long arm down to haul it up onto the mattress with him.

He opened it, dry-swallowed some more pills and then reached deeper, fighting the sense of dread. His probing fingers found the X-acto knife they kept in their supplies for just such emergencies. Its razor-thin blade was finer than any of their weapons. While Dean puttered about, readying more supplies, Sam held the carbon-and-steel point over the quivering flame of his lighter, staring.

His vision narrowed to nothing but the swirling colors of the fire. He could lose himself in that orange-red dance of remembered agony.

But he didn't. He wouldn't. He was here. Now.

With Dean.

The Dean in his hallucinations was scornful; he would never have made the gesture this Dean just did.

Sam was here, in Kentucky, with his brother. The flame wasn't hellfire. It was sterilizing. Cauterizing. Healing.

In his tunnel vision he didn't see Dean approach, but he felt his brother peeling his fingers away from the lighter and then from the handle of the knife. Sam blinked and the room came back into view. A camping lantern was propped on the apple crate serving as a nightstand, making the area bright with light. Dean had a threadbare bath towel over his shoulder, and Sam bit his lip as he raised his leg an inch or two so Dean could slide the towel underneath, padded to keep the limb slightly bent.

"Hey, Sammy. I just realized. They shaved your leg!" It was a brave attempt at banter to take Sam's mind off what was to come.

It did help, a little. "Shut up."

The splash of alcohol on his bare knee was shockingly cold. Sam saw a finger's width or two of liquid left in the bottom of the bottle. Dean held it out to him.

Sam shook his head. "Keep it. I took more painkillers from our med kit."

"And they aren't doing squat for you. You think I can't tell? I'm not going to take the last of the liquor when you need it."

Sam could see how hard Dean was concentrating to keep his right hand steady. "Rock, paper, scissors for it?"

"Let's just get this over with. Whoever needs it more afterward can finish the bottle off."

Sam nodded reluctantly and lay back, panting. Dean grasped Sam's knee with his left hand to line up the cut.

At the simple touch, it felt like someone was taking a razor blade to raw nerve, slicing it to threads. Sam's back arched off the bed and tears ran down his face. Dean punched the knifepoint through the skin quickly, making a short incision where the lump had been visible, Blood poured down to be soaked up by the towel, and Dean didn't need forceps. He just angled the blade under the bullet and popped it out.

Just like separating Gordon Walker's head from his body with razor wire, Sam thought groggily. As if from a distance, he heard Dean's frantic, "Don't you go into shock on me, Sammy!" and then he passed out.

When he woke, it was the middle of the night. He felt the pressure of an elastic bandage pulling too tightly against the swelling around his knee. The fire in the wood burning stove had burned down to small curling flames on a bed of glowing orange and black embers. There was just enough light to make out the shape of Dean sprawled asleep but tossing restlessly on the other bed.

After a minute, Sam's eyesight adjusted enough to discern the X-acto knife sitting on the makeshift nightstand, and Sam reached for it, and then bent to saw through the bandage on his leg. The incision wouldn't have needed more than a handful of stitches; he was sure he didn't need the bandage any more. Fumbling to put the knife back, he bumped his hand against the bottle of Johnny Labinski's Kentucky Whiskeyresting there, and caught it by the neck just before it spilled.

Just before it spilled?

Sam swirled the bottle, confirming his suspicion that it wasn't empty. Dean had left the rest for Sam.

Stupid martyr.On top of everything else he carried on his shoulders, he still wore the big brother super hero cape, too.

Actually, Sam felt surprisingly pain-free. Like a dislocated shoulder feels when you pop the bones back in the right place, he thought. The relief was overwhelming.

Dean muttered in his sleep, incoherent pleas that made Sam's heart ache.

"You know what he's dreaming about?" Lucifer's self-satisfied voice sent chills down Sam's spine. "Slicing you open? Was a lot like cutting up all the people in Hell he tortured. He's reliving that right now, in fact. Maybe if he hadn't saved that for you-" he gestured at the bottle. "He'd have been able to have a dreamless sleep..."

"Get out!" Sam dug his thumb into his palm and Lucifer disappeared like someone had pulled the plug. But Dean's nightmares did not.

Sam lay awake a long time, too.

He remembered all the nights Dean had fallen asleep fully clothed, afraid of the dreams that came. The bottle that had definitely become a crutch. He wondered if Dean had finally started to put that behind him when he'd been with Lisa and Ben. If they'd been able to fill the aching, hollow spaces with new, better memories.

Before Sam came back.

As long as Dean was with him, Sam knew his brother would be reminded of hell. Worry about Sam's memories would trigger his own. Or worse—Dean's fear of being burdened by a dependent brother who'd become a drooling mess would become reality.

Dean was barely holding it together. Sam could see that. He could hear Lucifer's unctuous voice, back again, crooning in his ear. "Tell him about me. He's thinking about it anyway, you know he is. Every time he looks at you, he thinks about where you've been. Where he's been." Sam could almost feel Lucifer breathing on his neck. "You want to be close again. This is the perfect bonding opportunity. Sharing and caring..."

"No." Sam couldn't help arguing with Lucifer. "He doesn't need to be reminded about-this. I won't lie to him. Not anymore. But he's protected me his whole life. If I can protect him, even a little, by letting him think I've got everything under control..."

"Everything, meaning me, you mean," Lucifer said. "You don't, you know."

"Dean deserves better," Sam said, and needed something that would keep Lucifer gone longer. He shoved back the blankets and got to his feet. His knee sent spikes of pain up his leg, but it held his weight. He pushed his feet into his sneakers and slipped out of the room.

It was pitch black outside. Too dangerous to run far even without a risk of busting open his stitches. But Sam started off in a slow jog anyway, down the road. One hundred yards. That's all it took to make him quit, and he made the return trip with a heavy limp. But the intruder was gone.

When he got back to the cabin, he didn't go in right away. He hoisted himself up on the hood of the Dodge, mourning the Impala, and stared for a few minutes up at the stars.

Sam didn't pray to deities or angels. Not anymore. But all that he had lived through (and died through) hadn't been able to crush the ability to hold hope in his heart. Sam supposed it might have something to do with the fact that he grew up feeling protected. If you have that foundation as a kid, knowing that no matter how bad things get, someone is looking out for you to keep you safe…. Well, some religious folks would say that's faith, that everything has a purpose and will turn out the way it should. Sam didn't have faith-but he had hope. Instead of the beaten-down despair that life will never get better, that he wasn't sure he could do this-he had this foundation of believing that someone was keeping him safe. And therefore he could imagine that things could turn out okay even now.

He understood why. He knew to whom he owed this.

Maybe he couldn't give Dean a childhood of being the protected little brother. But he had hope. Maybe he could lift Dean's burden for a day. He longed to see that carefree glee on Dean's face again.

"Sammy, you okay?" Dean stood in the open doorway, flashlight in hand.

Sam cracked a smile. He slid off the hood of the car, tested his knee. The strain against his stitches was enough to keep Lucifer at bay, but he could walk well enough. "I was thinking about our next stop."

"Of course you were." Dean sighed. "You wanna head out to Rufus's cabin. See what Bobby's come up with and heal up a little more? Or are you chompin' at the bit to check in with Frank? Or find another hunt?"

"I was thinking that we're overdue for our sacred annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas."

There it was. That spark in Dean's eyes. "You. Really?"

Sam just grinned.

It was contagious. It caught the corner of Dean's mouth, tugged it up in a tentative smile. "When you were the T-1000, dude, it was always, 'I like to work'."

"Well, I guess having a soul means enjoying just hanging out."

Dean's posture shifted, tension melting away like frost on the windshield under a relentless morning sun. "What do you know. I guess that means I have a soul, too."

"We didn't go last year, right. When I—?"

"It's never been exactly 'annual'," Dean reminded him. "Despite what we planned."

"That's what we do, though, right? Keep trying, despite everything."

"-to make our sacred annual pilgrimage to Vegas."


That did it. Dean's smile broadened until laugh lines crinkled by his eyes, which shone clear and happy. "I guess we could do that."

Hope nestled in a comfortable curl around Sam's heart. He couldn't give Dean everything Dean had given him. But maybe he could give him something.

Dean came down the porch step, crossed the gravel, and climbed up on the hood of the car, leaning back against the windshield to look at the stars through the treetops. Sam grinned and joined him.

Dean had brought the bottle with him. He tilted his head back, his throat worked, and then he pulled the bottle away from his lips and passed it to Sam.

There was a swallow left. Sam took it in a silent toast.

To looking for peace. One day at a time.

~ end ~