Time period: Early season 7

Sam is already awake by the time Dean shuffles into Bobby's kitchen around six, scrubbing a hand over his eyes and staring down at his feet to avoid catching a bare toe on one of the random stacks of books, because that's happened before. But Sam being up isn't that unusual. He's always been an early riser. It's his posture at the table that's off, head bowed into his hands and shoulders tense, back rigid. This is not Sam peacefully contemplating the day ahead or enjoying the quiet of early morning before the rest of the house awakes. This is Sam locked in his own head again, troubled and quiet and going it alone.

He takes a deep breath and walks over, laying a casual hand on his shoulder. "You all right?" he asks lightly, not prying if Sam's not talking. Sam doesn't look up, doesn't answer, just nods into his hands. Dean gives his shoulder a squeeze and goes to make coffee.

With his back to Sam, he has all of his senses attuned to his brother, listening on a cellular level, and he gets that Sam is in shut-down mode. What brought it on is almost irrelevant at this point. Sometimes he wonders what keeps either of them upright on any given day. He can see through the fine Sam is feeding him about Hell and Lucifer since the wall came down, and the uneasy truce they've struck over Amy. Whatever it is that has Sam teetering on the edge this morning, whatever combination of horrors, he needs help and, being Sam, he's too stubborn or proud to ask for it.

Dean takes a bowl out of the cupboard and pours half a serving of corn flakes and milk, then brings it over and sets the bowl down in front of Sam who looks up with bleary disinterest, his elbows still perched on the table and hands on either side of his forehead.

"Breakfast," Dean says, as if it needed an introduction.

"I… can see that."

"Yeah, well. Eat it, then."

Sam's eyes drift away from the bowl to the surface of the table. He's disengaging again. Dean watches it start to happen and then reaches out and grips Sam by the shoulder, giving him a gentle shake. "Hey," he says. He picks up the spoon and holds it out, issuing an order. "Eat your breakfast."

It feels like he's played this role his whole life. One he was born for.

A slight frown crosses Sam's face. Then he grimaces, takes the spoon, and just does it. Because doing is easier than thinking. Easier than putting up a fight, because his mind is already doing enough of that.

Halfway through the cornflakes, Sam's spoon dips into the bowl and never comes back out, and he's staring intently at an empty spot against the far wall in a way that makes Dean nervous.

"You done?" Dean asks, hoping to draw Sam back.

Sam just stares. Caught half in Dean's reality and half in Lucifer's. "I don't…"

"You're done," Dean concludes, picking it up and taking it to the sink. "Go get dressed. Your jeans are still on the floor by your bed, and uh, wear that blue flannel, the one with the buttons that aren't really buttons."

Sam blinks, his shoulders noticeably relaxing, and he sinks back with a heavy exhale. "Yeah. Okay," he says. He stands and stops to lean for a second against the back of the chair before something like confusion crosses his face. He looks back at Dean. "What about… which t-shirt?"

It's because doing is easier than thinking. Dean knows. This is Sam asking for help without actually asking, getting Dean to take point on the little things while Sam feels his way back.

Sam always finds his way back. From torture, from addiction, from grief, even from his own insanity, he's fought his way back to Dean every time and he's somehow never let any of it harden him or strip him of his humanity.

And so yeah, if every so often he needs to shut down and be told when to eat and which shirt to put on, Dean figures he can do that for Sam.

"Aerosmith," he says, giving Sam a reassuring nod. "You like that one."

It must have been a suitable answer, because Sam gives the chair a slight push in toward the table and turns to head upstairs.

Watching him go, every instinct in Dean wants to pry all the hurt out of him and make him talk about it, beg him to give the burden of it to him and let him help, just let him carry it, just for a little while. It kills him, not knowing the details of what happened in the cage, and at the same time he knows that if Sam ever did give him the tiniest glimpse of it, it would quite probably destroy him.

He wants to shake Sam by the arms and scream "what did he do to you?" while at the same time he just wants to hold him and sob "please don't, don't ever tell me, I can't."

Dean does neither. Because that's not what Sam needs.

From the next room, Dean hears Sam say, "You bought me Aerosmith."

"That's why you like it!" he returns, and the tone of Sam's voice sends relief running through him. Because he hears some of the frightening distance dropping away, more Sam than shell-shocked soldier. Because Sam is letting him help. Because Sam always finds his way back.

If he didn't, they would both be lost.