"You know what's funny?" Dean says loudly as he strolls into the room, making Sam's fingers jump a little against the keyboard in surprise.
Sam has a soft smile on his face as he answers his brother. "What's that?"
"How the Trickster revealing himself as Gabriel barely seemed to bother you."
Scratch that, all at once Sam's blood is ice; he stops moving, stops breathing, his mind screeching to a halt. Dean catches his gaze and holds it, steady and unblinking, daring him to deny it, or to answer at all. Sam looks away from his brother, back to the article on screen about Skinwalker origins. "What are you talking about? I was as shocked as you were."
But his heart is pounding against his chest cavity, much too loudly, Sam thinks. Dean can surely hear it, a betrayal from his own body.
"Yeah, at first I thought you were just… you know, hiding your surprise. I mean you were a damn car when I told you what I thought we were dealing with that time, and that made it kinda hard to read your reactions." Dean continues, and Sam tries not to remember. He tries to block the gaggle of memories that's hurtling towards him like a freight train, by slamming a wall down in his mind. Another wall. His mind must be like a fortress by now.
"Yeah, exactly." Sam agrees, still not trusting his lying abilities enough to actually look at his brother.
Dean is staring at him, he can feel it – two eyes burrowing into the side of his head as he tries to will the words in front of him into some sort of sense. "Yeah, and I'm sure the fact that you barely said a damn word throughout the whole holy-fire interrogation process was just coincidence, huh?"
Sam swallows, his eyes going out of focus. He can't think about this. He won't. "Dean, you seemed to be on top of things, I was a little preoccupied with the whole devil-riding-my-ass situation?"
Sam finally looks up at his brother, and he can immediately tell it was a mistake. Dean's mouth falls open as their eyes meet, and Sam knows that something in his expression has given himself away. "Funny, Sam." Dean says quietly, barely above a whisper. "That's almost exactly what Gabriel said."
Sam makes a 'psh' sound, tossing his head as if he thinks Dean's insane, though in truth he feels like someone is grasping his insides and squeezing. Hard. "How do you possibly expect me to remember-"
"He turned you into a car, Sammy!" Dean replies, striding across the room suddenly so that his denim wrapped thighs are directly behind Sam's laptop screen. Sam still doesn't look up. "How do you not remember? His explanation for doing that, and I quote, was 'Satan's gonna ride your ass one way or another'. Pretty similar turn-of-phrase you two have got there."
"I… I guess I subconsciously…"
"Yeah, that's about where I stop buying the bullcrap, Sammy." Dean says, cutting Sam off before he can finish that half-hearted cover-up. A hand slams the lid of his laptop closed, and Sam leans back in his chair, shocked, unable to keep his gaze from shifting to Dean's firm, set features, leaning towards him over the table now. "All of that, despite myself, I wrote off. All the times I'd mention the Trickster and you'd change the subject, all the times I'd ask you about how you brought me back at the Mystery Spot and you brushed me off, all the sneaking out, the flat out lies around that time – I convinced myself you were just distracted, that I was imagining things."
Sam stares wide-eyed at his brother, his mouth pressed in a tight line. He feels trapped, like a cornered wild animal, about to be hunted and carved up for his meat. Dean's not going to let up, and Sam was stupid enough to think he'd got away with this, after all this time. He resists the urge to shake his head vehemently and deny everything. That would be too obvious, and Dean would see right through it.
"But I wasn't." Dean finishes, and his hand, the one not currently pressing his laptop shut, reaches into the back pocket of his jeans. He's slow about bringing the object he pulls out into Sam's view, prolonging the inevitable, giving Sam plenty of time to think the worst. Then he slams the thing down in front of Sam, letting it lie in plain sight on the lid of his laptop. "Was I, Sam?"
The urge to run out of the room is instantaneous, and it's mere moments after Sam sees what it is – Dean's 'evidence' – that he jumps up from his chair, knocking it over in the process. Dean steps back a little, as if he's preparing to catch Sam, lest he try to run away.
He thinks about it, he really does. The thought is so tempting – if he could just push past Dean, pump his legs a little harder, get to the car first, he might have a shot at escaping this situation, and he wouldn't have to face it. He could go on pretending, living the lie he'd created for himself. The one where he'd never felt the soft brush of two glorious golden wings against his skin.
He glances down at the piece of paper next to Dean's fingers, and Gabriel's face stares back at him.
He screws his eyes shut, trying to stop the nausea from overcoming him. It's worn enough to look like an old photograph, but Sam can tell by the length of his hair that it can't have been more than a couple of years ago. Gabriel's got a strand of it between his teeth, his lips smiling around it, staring unashamedly at the camera, a daring look in his treacly eyes. Sam doesn't look at himself in the photo, he doesn't need to, he remembers it perfectly.
They'd been at Yosemite Falls – transport via Angel express of course – acting like first-time tourists cause it was funny as hell, or so it seemed at the time. Gabriel had even gotten that stupid 'I'd rather be at Yosemite Falls!' baseball cap he was wearing in the photo, insisting on having it on his head the whole time, and Sam had protested, being damn well sure he hadn't paid for it. But Gabriel had just clicked his fingers, grinning at Sam's 'ridiculous sense of morality'-
"You're Lucifer's vessel, Sam! I think you're allowed a little five-finger discount!"
-and suddenly there was a camera round Sam's neck. Not a shabby one either, a Canon something-or-other. Sam was pretty sure it was all kinds of HD, so they clambered up on one of the jutting rocks overhanging the lake at the bottom of the falls, laughing because people were staring at them, tutting and calling them foreigners. Sam held the camera at arms-length, throwing himself around Gabriel with as many limbs as possible until they were both cackling, trying to stay upright, and Sam just kept clicking the shutter, snapping picture after picture.
When they'd got their breath back and Gabriel had stopped his tickling – naughty – Sam kissed him, right in front of everyone, and damn wouldthat have made a romantic picture, what with the giant cascading waterfall behind them, had anyone thought to take it. As it was, Sam was a little too distracted by the warm fizz of Gabriel's lips to press any damn buttons.
It was when they pulled apart, just a fraction, that Sam realised he'd been in such a hurry to plant one on his Angel, a chunk of his hair had been trapped between their lips the whole time. Gabriel didn't seem to care though, and he opened his mouth, drawing the strand in with a flick of his pink tongue that made Sam's eyes widen, and his mouth fill with saliva. When Gabriel had the lock of hair caught between his teeth, holding Sam in place just centimetres away, their noses practically touching as they stared into each other's eyes - that was when the idea of another picture flew into Sam's head. He held the camera up high again, not bothering to look at the position – there was something better in his line of sight. Gabriel turned though, pulling Sam's hair a little as he did so, but Sam didn't mind. He saw the Angel smile, but he clicked the shutter, seeing the flash out of the corner of his eye.
When those pictures were printed, that seemed like the only one worth saving. They couldn't be too careful about that kind of thing after all. Pictures were tricky things; anyone could find them. And they couldn't risk their secret being discovered.
"No." Sam says, finally. Dean looks like he lost all hope of Sam answering him a while back, but his eyes widen a bit at that. In truth, his elder brother looks torn. One side of Dean is clearly itching to cry out in triumph and give Sam a world of misery for doing something so utterly reckless, and lying all this time to boot. Sam completely understands that side of him, the one that half wants to kill him for siding with what must seem to Dean like the enemy, like Ruby all over again. But Sam knows what the other side of Dean is thinking, and it probably has something to do with the tears currently spilling down his little brother's cheeks. "You weren't imagining it."
Sam wonders if Dean will stop him as he reaches for the photograph, but he doesn't, staying unmoving, seemingly shell-shocked. He wonders vaguely where Dean found the damn crumpled thing. They're at Bobby's house, so Sam supposes it's highly possible there would be something still lurking around here from those days, maybe in the guest room, where it'd fallen out of Sam's pocket, or bag, and landed in a dusty corner for over a year now. Sam was thorough though, so it's a bit of a shock – he thought he'd burned everything. Anything that reminded him of the Angel. Because he doesn't need to remember, he physically can't, and Dean just doesn't get that.
"Sam…" Dean says tentatively, apparently having found the words at last. His eyes flick several times between the picture in Sam's hands and his brother's tearstained face. "I'm… I'm not mad. I just wanna understand."
Sam doesn't answer, lost in a time when he had an Angel watching over him, and a secret kept between them, to whisper under the covers, safe in each other's arms while Dean was sleeping next door.
"Sam…" Dean tries again, and he starts to move, stepping cautiously around the table holding Sam's computer, towards his little brother. Sam jerks away, and in a flash, he's screwed up the photo, thrown it into the corner of the room, his eyes never leaving Dean's.
"It doesn't matter, okay? It was a long time ago. Yeah, I should've told you, and I'm sorry, you're right, but you don't just get to throw this in my face! You don't get to… to…" Sam gestures to the air, every movement tracked by Dean's wary eyes. He still feels like an animal, perhaps a lion, in the presence of a cautious tamer, attempting to calm him down. Sam can feel the tears are still coming, and he blinks furiously, hating himself for it.
"But Sam… Gabriel?" Dean asks, sounding like he doesn't quite want to say it. "It doesn't make any sense! The guy killed people-"
"Killed." Sam spits, before Dean can get another word out. "Past tense. He was in hiding, he had to at least make the Trickster thing seembelievable. And he only went after assholes, Dean you know that."
"Oh, so I'm an asshole?"
Sam rolls his eyes, and his heart throbs in pain. "No, of course not. Look, Dean. Part of the reason I never told you is because I knew it would have been impossible for you to understand! I was furious with Gabriel, I wanted to kill him for what he did to you. I actually tried to, a couple of times, in the early stages."
Dean doesn't comment, just standing passively in front of Sam, letting him explain. Sam sighs, and shakes his head. He doesn't want to talk about this. The one miracle he'd been thankful for this whole time was that he'd never have to.
"He told me he only-" Sam falters, his voice breaking a little around the sob threatening to break free of his constricted throat. He swallows, forces himself to go on. "He only did it for me. To show- to show me that I couldn't be so dependent on you, because it would be our downfall. Which it was! It always is, in the end, isn't it? He was trying to help, Dean. In his own fucked up way, he was trying to help."
"He killed me, Sam. Over and over." Dean replies, sounding a little incredulous still. Sam's shoulders slump at his tone. He always knew that nobody would understand. It would always be hopeless to try and explain. Hopeless and gut-wrenchingly painful.
"Maybe I can't make you understand-"
"I don't understand, Sam! You were with some murderous monster this whole time?!" Someone is clawing out Sam's heart, scraping away the skin layer by layer with just their fingertips. Dean doesn't let up. "And you knew! You knew he was Gabriel, all through that damn TV-land experience and you just chose not to say?! Fuck you Sam, that is not cool. We could have saved ourselves time and-"
"He asked me not to tell anyone!" Sam cries out, face flushing with anger as he cuts Dean off. Suddenly he's flying forwards, gripping Dean by the shoulders, fingers digging into flesh because he needs him to shut up- I can't do this I can't do this. "Yeah I knew while we were in his TV-world, so what? Don't you think his world was preferable to what's actually out there? We were in there for days! Days when Lucifer could have found me, and Michael could have found you!" Sam can feel himself getting a little hysterical now, but he doesn't stop, and barks a manic laugh before continuing. "God, do you have any idea?! I loved him, fuck, I still love him. I would have done whatever he'd asked, and before you say he was playing me, he would have done anything for me too. Do you honestly think it was a fluke that he decided to change his mind about the whole killing-the-devil thing? Just- just shut up, Dean please, because I can't do this- I can't-"
His grip slips from Dean's shoulders and he takes a stuttering breath. Dean doesn't seem to care. "Wait, what?" He cries, trying to hold Sam's gaze and failing. "He helped us cause of you? You mean the night he…"
Sam's knees buckle, and luckily he falls onto his chair, the one he'd been sitting on while he was looking at Skinwalker articles what seems like a lifetime ago. He presses his face into his damp hands, resting his elbows on his knees and trying to breathe. He hasn't let himself feel this for a long time. Not since he'd spent an entire night waiting on a clifftop viewpoint in the cold for an Angel who said he'd see him there, and to wear his tightest jeans. It wasn't until later, when he drove the 'borrowed' Impala back to what was left of the Elysian Fields motel and saw two charred wing prints on the ground that he truly died inside. That was the moment he ceased to be Sam, at least in the way Dean knew. He doesn't know how long he spent holding Gabriel's empty vessel, his tears falling like rain onto his face and clothes. If it was a movie, those same tears, born of Sam's pure, raw heartbreak, would have brought him back to life. He couldn't even move him from the spot – it would risk someone finding out he was there, though at that moment, he found it difficult to care. He had to leave him there, his Angel, the one being in this universe that had told him he'd never leave him alone, lying in the dirt and rubble of the battle where he'd fallen, and it was all Sam could do to press a final kiss to cold, dead lips, and drag himself away.
Dean knew he was off of course. He figured it was due to the impending Lucifer stand-off Sam was about to run headfirst into, but Cas sensed it was more, so Sam took a few days to himself, just driving, aimless. That was after being made to watch his dead boyfriend's Casa Erotica video of course, because Gabe has a sick sense of humour, and he thought Sam would like a damn porno to remember him by. Sam still has the video of course. He can't bring himself to watch all of it though, not yet. At length, he lifts his face, letting his hands fall across his lap. His eyes are glazed, and he stares at a space in front of him.
"You still have your Angel, Dean." His voice is barely a whisper; his throat is so dry. Dean can't seem to move, suddenly.