Notes: Takes place shortly after 7.03, The Girl Next Door. Spoilers through that episode. Tell me what you think.

Warnings: non-explicit references to rape and torture (no more detail than in the show itself, I believe). Swearing.

"Dean, do you think there's something wrong with me?"

Dean shot an incredulous look at his brother, who was staring out the passenger side window, avoiding his eyes.

"What, you mean besides your new imaginary friend?"

Dean immediately regretted his harsh words. Sam didn't quite flinch, but his jaw tightened in that way which meant he was forcing himself not to.

"No, I mean, with me. As a person."

Dean frowned. He could think of a dozen things that were wrong with Sam as a person – his self-righteousness, his inability to admit when he needed help, his taste in music – but nothing that they hadn't already hashed out over a couple beers and an apocalypse. Nothing that would put that pinched, shamed look on Sam's face.

"What are you asking?"

"Nothing, it's just – Cas and Anna, they seemed to like you a lot, and with me it's sort of . . . the opposite."

Dean's frown deepened as he tried to work out what the hell Sam was on about this time. This wasn't some stupid sibling jealousy thing, was it? Cas was out of the picture now, anyway (and Dean had to shove down an entirely different mess of emotions at the thought). And what the hell did Anna have to do with anything? Even when she had been on their side, Sam had barely had anything to do with her. He had been a bit busy with –

Oh.

So that was what he meant by 'the opposite.'

"This is about Ruby?" Dean asked, still a bit incredulous. The kid really needed to learn to let things go. "Look, man, I can't tell you that what happened with her was good or right or even okay, but that's ancient history."

"No, that's not –" Sam shifted restlessly in his seat, obviously getting frustrated. "It's not just her. Don't you see? It's a pattern. Meg and Ruby and Lucifer, and even Madison and Amy; they couldn't help it, but there was still this – this evil inside of them –"

He kept talking, but Dean's brain had stalled a sentence back.

"Whoa, whoa, hold on. Lucifer?" Dean thought that he had some idea what Sam was getting at, but that did not fit. At all. Just . . . no. "You were his vessel, dude. He wanted to ride you, not . . . ride you."

A deafening silence was the only response he received.

"Sam?"

He glanced sideways at his brother. Sam was digging his thumb into his palm, his jaw clenched, his eyes fixed firmly on his knees.

Dean's mouth went dry.

"Sammy?"

There was a horrible realization forming in the back of his mind, something he really, really did not was to recognize or even acknowledge, but it was quickly becoming impossible to ignore, and no, no, oh god please no.

He reached out to touch Sam's shoulder, but pulled back as though burned when he flinched away.

Oh god, Sammy.

The car was way too small and Dean's stomach was heaving and ohgod ohgod ohgod and he was really, seriously going to be sick.

He tumbled out of the car as soon as he got it to the shoulder, sucking in lungfuls of none-too-clean air and fighting to keep his lunch down. When he finally looked up again, Sam was watching him over the top of the Impala, eyes deep and pained and so damned sad that Dean felt another wave of nausea at the sight.

"You alright?" Sam asked gently, as if Dean was the one who had just remembered nearly two centuries of hell, who was hallucinating the sick son of a bitch who had –

"Yeah, I'm just peachy."

Sam grimaced apologetically, looking away, and no, no, no, this was all wrong; Sam shouldn't be apologizing for anything; Dean was fucking this up. Before he could think was to say to fix it, Sam was talking again, still refusing to look at him.

"So I take it Alistair never . . . ?"

"No." Knives and hooks and chains and constant, constant pain, but never that. Never anything close to that. Alistair hadn't been half as creative as he thought he was.

"Yeah," said Sam, with a bitter twist of his lips and a huff of air which was maybe supposed to be a laugh but sounded more like the noise he made when he was punched in the stomach. "Didn't think so."

"No," said Dean again, and this time it wasn't an answer to Sam's words but to his expression. Dean was still cold and shocked and scrambling for a foothold but there was self-loathing written all over his little brother's face and that was never, ever okay. "No, dammit! No. This is not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. This is on Lucifer and whatever sick, psycho problems he has. Got that?"

Sam was silent, his throat working, eyes downcast. He looked shattered and shamed and so damn young, and god dammit Dean was going to shred Lucifer with his bare hands.

Except Lucifer was in the Cage, and Sam was here.

"Hey." Dean was around the car in an instant, seizing Sam's shoulders, tamping down on the rage and guilt at the instinctive, fearful recoil. "You hearing me?"

"Yeah." The word was barely audible, and Sam licked his lips before continuing. "Yeah, I get it."

"Okay. Hey, look at me." Dean gave him a shake, just a little one, just to get his attention, to make sure that he was listening to him and not some asshole voice in his head.

Hazel eyes met his, teary and shining with everything that Dean had known was hiding beneath that too-calm exterior and it was enough to take his breath away. He couldn't fix this. He couldn't seem to fix anything these days. But if he could erase just one tiny bit of that pain, that guilt, that self-hatred . . .

"Okay?"

Sam swallowed hard, and nodded.

"Okay."

It wasn't enough. Not enough for Sam Winchester, the impossibly strong man who had saved the world, and definitely not enough for Sammy, the bitchy, soft-hearted, pain in the ass little brother who Dean had entirely failed to protect. Probably nothing ever would be.

That didn't mean that Dean would ever stop trying.