Dean woke abruptly, listening for what had pulled him out of sleep. He was in his room, in the bunker. His concern level dropped a notch. Protected. Nothing evil. He waited, keeping his breathing quiet and even. There. The clink of the main door closing. He must have woken when Sam pulled it open. It was a heavy ass door and made stealth impossible. Dean checked the clock. 4:03 am. That Sam was up? Not unusual. That he was going out? Unusual enough that Dean pulled on his jeans, grabbed his knife and 9 mm and went to check it out.

Topside, it was a cool evening, still dark. Dean glanced around and was relieved to see Sam sitting on the trunk of the Impala, leaning against the back window, his hands behind his head, looking up at the sky through the trees. Dean debated leaving him to his solitude, even though Sam must have heard him come out. But when Sam ran his sleeve across his eyes and left his arm over his face, Dean noticed the small hitched breath.

Well, shit.

So. Stay or leave him to his solitude? God knows, they lived in each other's pockets enough that a little space was sometimes just what the doctor ordered. But, Dean hesitated. He didn't like that Sam was out here trying to get comfort from the damn car, instead of his perfectly serviceable brother. It had been a rough couple of weeks and maybe they were due a little caring and sharing.

Dean walked over, letting Sam hear his approach. He hitched himself up next to Sam, looked up through the trees, just letting Sam know he was there. Sam sighed, didn't speak. Dean waited. Sam could talk or not. As long as he knew Dean was there, that was enough.

Finally Sam dropped his arm. He breathed in a sigh and sat up. Dean stayed where he was, lying against the back window. Sam was working up to spill something, and that was always a delicate operation. It didn't take much to make him clam up and walk away. One wrong word or response, and it would be months before Dean got the chance again. He wasn't going to blow this.

"Dean, I um…I just wanted to say…" He didn't finish and Dean didn't interrupt. Come on, Sammy. I'm right here. Just spit it out. It was frustrating that this Sam was so different than the little brother who used to run at the mouth about any damn thing that came across his agile mind. That kid had assumed Dean wanted to hear everything he could think to say. But this Sam was so locked down and buttoned up, getting anything personal out of him was like prying open a friggin' clam. Dean didn't like it, but, hell, at least Sam was still willing to talk to him. Because there were certainly times when that hadn't been the case. At all.

So, Dean waited. He looked up through the trees and thought he could see the night sky lightening, but maybe his eyes were just adjusting to the darkness. Sam shifted his position, rubbed his hands along his thighs, shook his hair out of his eyes, all his usual tells that he was working up to something.

Finally, he started. "I'm sorry about Benny. Sorry that he's gone now because of me. I know you said he was the only friend you had who never let you down. And, he got trapped trying to help me and…yeah. I'm really sorry."

Dean sighed. Benny's loss was painful, true. But, in a way it made sense to Dean, why the vampire would have elected to stay down there and fight, to help Sam get out rather than come back himself. In Purgatory, Benny hadn't had the cravings to feed, he'd said. Brutal as it was, Benny was freer down there. He wasn't at the mercy of that thing in his blood that made killing - innocents or evil - a necessity. Killing in that war zone was always justified, because everyone was always trying to kill you first. Besides, Dean hadn't given up hope that there was some way to get Benny out of Purgatory, and free of the need to kill, once things calmed down up here. So, for now, Dean was okay with Benny's gift of getting Sam to the portal so both he and Bobby could be released from that hellhole.

Before he could tell Sam some of what he was thinking, Sam cleared his throat. "And, um. About the other thing." He looked back and made eye contact, and Dean was surprised by the sadness and defeat in his brother's eyes. "The not-looking for you after you, um, exploded…"

Dean didn't want to go back to over that whole thing. "Sam-"

"Bobby gave me hell about it, when he found out. That I hadn't tried to find you. And, you probably don't even want to hear it, but…that whole time, I thought you were-" Sam turned away, then, his shoulders slumped. "Nevermind. It doesn't really matter, does it? I didn't try to figure out where you'd gone, and that's on me. Just, I'm sorry, so sorry that you were suffering down there, probably expecting me to work out some kind of a plan, get you the hell out, and I just left you hanging there. I mean, thank God Benny got you out, but now…shit. Benny's gone and I'm here." Sam got up from the trunk and stood next to the car. "I'll keep looking for something that might get him out. If we can't find another Rogue Reaper I'll-"

Dean sat up. "Sam. Stop. Jesus, you don't have to be sorry that you got out of friggin' Purgatory, even if it did send Benny back down there. Hell, I was the one that asked him to go. If anybody's to blame-"

Sam interrupted. "No. You expected me to make sure he came back, right? And, I did try, Dean. I was pushing up my sleeve to make the cut, to carry him out, and he just gave me this look, like, maybe he didn't want to come back. I mean, I was still telling him to hurry up, make the cut so I could take him with. But those vamps showed up, and Benny said he'd take care of them, and I was afraid that if I stayed to help him, Bobby would somehow lose his chance to get to heaven. Not to mention screwing up the damn trial, and I just...Fuck. It was all happening so fast, and I just made the decision to get Bobby out." Sam walked about ten feet away, leaned against one of the big trees that towered over the bunker. "It always seems like, I live and everyone else dies. And I know I shouldn't complain, it's not like I want…it just doesn't feel fair."

Dean slid down off the trunk until his feet hit the ground, stayed leaning against the car. "Sam," Dean shrugged. "What can I say? Life sucks. Nothing's fair. Hell, you know that. But, as far as I'm concerned, you did the right thing. Bobby shouldn't have been down there to begin with. If I'd a had to choose between Benny and Bobby, there wouldn't even have been a question."

Sam turned to watch him, gave Dean a sad smile. "Yeah, but you probably would have never even been in that position."

Dean gave a short laugh. "Right, sure. Because of all my experience rescuing souls from hell. Do it practically in my sleep, for God's sake."

Sam shook his head, but the corner of his mouth gave a slight twitch, and Dean took that as a win. "Sam, come on. You know how this life is. One part victory over evil, ten parts suck-ass. That's just the way it is."

Sam's head dropped, his feet kicked at the twigs and fallen leaves that covered the ground. "Yeah."

Dean folded his arms against the slight chill and cleared his throat. "Sam, earlier, you said you wanted to explain what you were thinking when Cas and I disappeared in the Dick Roman Balloon Burst."

Sam looked up at that, his face equal parts vulnerability and defensiveness and Dean knew he had to tread lightly. But, damn it, Dean wanted to know. Sam had been like a damn vault, not explaining himself other than to say he decided not to hunt anymore and to have a normal life. It was so not Sam that Dean knew there must be more to it. But, as usual, they'd been busy with one crisis after another and Sam, as was his mojo these past few years, never took the time to elaborate and explain himself.

Well, it was 4:30 in the morning, they had no place to be, and Dean wanted to know. It was that simple. "Tell me, Sam. What did you do after we disappeared?"

Sam shook his head, and looked back down at his feet, one boot kicking lightly at the tree roots.

Dean waited, willing Sam to answer and not stalk back inside without a word. Dean wanted to yell and demand, but he forced himself to get past that. His voice, when he did speak, was soft. "Hey." Sam's head came up, their eyes met. Dean gave him a sad smile. "Come here, Sammy. Please?"

The fear and apprehension on Sam's face went up exponentially. Whenever Dean called him over for a sit down, history proved that Sam had no powers of resistance whatsoever. When they were little, Sam would do it himself. He'd find Dean where ever he was, climb his way onto his lap, or hold his arms up to be carried, or, later, as they got older, plunk himself right next to Dean on Dean's bed. He'd start talking with no prompting, confess whatever it is he'd thought he'd messed up. He'd pour out his own disappointing behavior, detail everything he'd done wrong. Just wanting Dean to know. When he was four, it would be something silly, "I gots the last of the foot-loops and there's none more for you. Sorry, Dean." Or when he was seven, "I played with your comic book and two pages got torred up. Just a little. I taped 'em. Sorry." Later, at like 13, it was more like, "I'm sorry I didn't help you with the weapons cleaning. I went to soccer practice instead. Please don't tell Dad. I'll do extra next time, okay Dean?"

But, as they'd gotten older, Sammy had started to need some prompting. He didn't come to Dean anymore. Either he thought Dean wouldn't want to hear it, or he thought Dean would take Dad's side, whatever it was. Bottom line, it was harder to get him to talk about stuff. Oh, he was perfectly willing to get Dean to talk about Dean's issues. Was practically a ninja with that shit. But, revealing his own thoughts? Not so much.

Luckily, Dean was good at all things Sammy. He'd learned to see the signs of a guilt-ridden little brother, and if he timed it right, he could get Sam to spill. All it would take was Dean sitting down beside him and raising an eyebrow. "You wanna tell me what's going on in that head of yours?" Sam would initially hem and haw, try to change the subject, but if Dean waited him out, he'd finally start spilling whatever had been eating at him. Basically, Sammy was powerless once Dean sucked him into his 'tractor beam of truth.' Dean just hadn't used it in a long time. "Sam, come here. I just want to talk to you, man."

Sam looked up at him finally, his eyes still anxious, but a little bit yearning, too. Dean suppressed his smirk. Oh, I've got you now, little brother. Dean just smiled and patted the trunk next to him.

Sure enough, Sam started with the eye-rolling and the foot-shuffling, but within a minute or so, he had huffed his way over to sit next to Dean. Dean turned to him, and up went the eyebrow.

Sam pulled his knees up onto the trunk, sat there Indian style looking about 6 years old. "It's just…okay. When Bobby and I were looking for a way out of Purgatory, he was asking questions about the past year, I told him how you had been in Purgatory, and he said how hard it must have been on me to know you were suffering down there, and that I must have been going crazy looking for a way to get you out. And, well, obviously I hadn't been working on a way to get you out. And, I just wanted you to know how sorry I am for that. Leaving you down there. You were right to be expecting me to do something, and I didn't. And, I'm sorry." Sam looked over at him, gauging Dean's reaction.

Dean, for the first time since coming back, tried to get past his anger and disappointment around this whole thing. Because there was something here he was missing. No way would Sam leave him rotting in Purgatory. Girl or no girl. But he had. And, Dean had never thought to just ask him 'why?' What had Sam been thinking, that he hadn't lifted a finger to find him? It just didn't make sense.

But, before Dean could formulate a question about it, one that wouldn't make Sam defensive, Sam turned his head away and spoke again. So quietly, Dean almost didn't hear him. "I thought you were in heaven."

What? Dean shook his head slightly. "What?"

Sam sighed one of his trademark world-weary sighs and nodded. "When you just, ceased to exist, right in front of me, and both you and Cas went poof, I thought…Well, I assumed you were dead, and that Cas had taken you right to heaven. I mean, where else would he have gone, right? And, I was standing there, with Crowley going on about me being well and truly alone, blah blah blah. And, all I could think was, you were free. I really thought you were maybe, possibly, finally at peace." He glanced quickly at Dean, then back to the ground. "Course, it's us, and it had to be something way worse, involving the usual dose of pain and suffering, right? But, and this sounds so bad now, but, at the time, I was happy for you. I sort of pictured you up there with Mom and Dad, Bobby and Ellen and Jo and just about everyone else we've ever known or loved, hanging out, no more pain and sadness, no more disappointment and devastation. And I was…I don't know, man. I was just relieved, you know?"

Dean was caught off guard, because all this time he'd sort of assumed that Sam had somehow known that he was languishing somewhere needing rescue. I mean, Hello? Evil creatures take you someplace evil. Duh. But, all Sam had seen were Dean and Cas disappearing in a Dick Roman Explosion. In retrospect, it made sense that he'd have assumed Dean had simply, finally, actually died. And, why would he have tried to bring Dean back from that? Dead was Dead. All Dean could say was, "Huh."

Sam nodded, gave a sad laugh. "I did consider joining you, of course. I mean, not like there was a lot left for me here."

Dean looked over sharply at that. "Sam-"

Sam continued. "I got in the car and just started driving. A couple of weeks at least. And, I tried to come up with reasons to stay here, you know? Keep on fighting the good fight, all that stuff. But, I was just sort of…done. I'm sorry if that sounds weak. I mean, I know Winchesters keep fighting, no matter what. But, I just…couldn't. I wasn't thinking of Kevin, I wasn't thinking of anything, really. I was just driving. I would sort of have these fantasies of what you might be doing, at that moment, with everyone upstairs. Stupid, right? Just you and Dad sitting around fishing or something, Mom making you lunch, Ellen and Bobby on the porch, bickering. Just, stupid bullshit. But, that's what I was picturing. It honestly never occurred to me that you'd gone somewhere else."

Dean took that in. All this time, he'd been pissed that Sam hadn't even tried to find him. That, while he'd been slicing and dicing his way through Purgatory, Sam had been topside just kicking back with his girl and his dog, not giving Dean another thought. But, if he'd thought Dean was safely tucked away in Heaven, then-

Sam was looking out at the trees, his voice getting softer. "I um, I was pretty lonely, I guess. And, after like a month of really not doing anything but driving around and occasionally sleeping when I couldn't keep my eyes open, I was in pretty rough shape. I mean, I was getting sort of obsessed with the idea of all the good times you were probably having with everyone up there and…well, I decided finally to just join you."

"Join me? What the hell does that mean, Sam?"

Sam shrugged. "I couldn't really come up with any reasons to stay here. Everyone I knew or loved was dead and gone. So much sacrifice, so many good people dying, and somehow I'm the last one standing? It didn't fit, Dean. Life here alone, trying to find some kind of purpose…it just wasn't working. At all."

Dean tried to see Sam's eyes, but Sam wouldn't look at him. He pressed at his brother's shoulder, turning Sam toward him. "Sam, what did you do?"

Sam still wouldn't look at him, even though his body was now angled to face Dean.

Sam glanced at him, then used his strength to turn back toward the woods. "You won't like it. I know it's not-"

Dean let him go, but didn't take his focus off Sam. "Tell me." Sam rubbed his hands along his thighs, chewed on his lip, shook his hair back. Dean just waited him out. "Sam."

Sam nodded. "I did some research, actually. There's a road called The Great River Road in Wisconsin. It's beautiful, a National Scenic Byway, as a matter of fact. And, it runs along the Mississippi River for 250 miles. Great views, sometimes along huge bluffs that are right up against the river."

Dean did not like where this was going.

Sam continued in his soft, sad voice. "So, I packed up all Bobby's books, Dad's and our journals, anything that might be useful to other hunters, you know? And, um…I sent all that to Garth. And, I packed the rest of it, our family momentos, favorite weapons and stuff into the Impala. It seemed fitting to take her with me, you know?"

Oh, Sam. Goddamnit.

"And, I figured I'd just pick a spot along this scenic road, that I'd know it when I saw it, and I'd just, finally end it. So, I went to Wisconsin. It was summer and the whole drive was just…peaceful. The scenery was really unspoiled, you know? Just pretty and calm and lots of trees that would give way to these wide, dramatic views of this huge placid river just meandering it's way, like it had probably done for centuries. Like it would continue to do for all time. I don't know. I guess it seemed like a good place to exit."

Dean drew in a deep, calming breath. "But, you didn't."

Sam nodded. "I found the spot. There was even a break in the guardrail, like a sign that this was the right spot. Anyway. I turned the car around to go back down the road a bit, get up enough speed to make it past the rocks and grass on the edge. I was just cranking it up, aiming right for the break in the rail, and…this dog comes out into the road. Like, in the middle of nowhere, sunset on a Thursday, and a big Golden Retriever is just there, in the middle of the God damned road. I tried to stop, slammed on the brakes. But, I hit him. It was just instinct to pull over and see if I could help him. I didn't see it as a sign, not at first. I was a little too shaky for that. But, when I took him to the closest vet, that ended up being Amelia. And, I was just going to leave him there, get back to my plan, but she acted as if he were my responsibility now. That I couldn't just abandon him. I wanted to. God, Dean. I really wanted to just get on with…well. But, she was insistent, even bitchy about it, and that's when I thought…" Sam let out another of those sad, short laughs. "I thought maybe the whole thing was a sign. From you."

Dean was surprised. "From me?"

Sam shook his head ruefully. "It's stupid now. Especially knowing that you weren't even in heaven at all, but, I thought it was you looking out for me, telling me it was okay to stay here, to go on living. Even, that you maybe wanted me to go on living. I don't know. I was still pretty messed up. But, I took the dog, got a crap hotel room. And, as he got better, Amelia and I kept crossing paths. I could see she was in rough shape as well, and I took it as another sign. That, maybe I was supposed to be here to help her, to help us both, find a way to keep living, you know? And, so, I tried. I tried to find what I thought you would have wanted for me, which is some kind of normal life, with a girl and a dog and a little place in Texas. I genuinely thought I was doing what you would have…well, it doesn't matter really, does it? Because it was all just made up shit in my head. You were fighting for your life in Purgatory, and I was…repairing A/C units and making spaghetti dinner."

He finally looked over at Dean and angled his body back around, so he was facing Dean. "So, I'm sorry Dean. I didn't know where you were until I found you at Rufus' cabin that day. And, once you told me, and I could see that you had expected me to…well, to do everything different than what I'd done, I just didn't know what to say. It all seemed so stupid then. Thinking you were kicking back in heaven with the family. The 'signs' I'd thought were from you. The normal life I was trying to live. It was all so fucking wrong. And, there was nothing I could do to make it better. There will never be anything I can do to make it better. And, for that, I really am sorry. Now, we've got these trials, Benny's gone, Cas is in the wind, Kevin either booked because of his crazy paranoia, or Crowley's got him. Everything is…fucked as usual, and all I can think about is, I wish I could go back." He tossed his head back and this time his laugh was bitter and pissed. "But, hell, I'm always wishing I could go back. Do things differently. That's the Sammy Winchester M.O., isn't it? Fuck it all up, then wish it had been different. That I had been different. But, I can't. So, there it is."

Finally, he seemed to run out of steam. His shoulders slumped and he put his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands.

Dean looked up at the sky and saw that it was a royal blue. Night turning into day. He thought about the past year, and kind of wished he could do some take-backs himself. He'd come back from Purgatory a hardened warrior. It had been beyond him in those first few months to look at Sam like a brother. Instead, he'd judged him as a fellow soldier and found him wanting. He hadn't really thought about what Sam might have gone through with his absence, didn't care, really. He'd only thought, Sam had left his brother on the field of battle. He'd packed up and gone home and left Dean to fight it out on his own. That was simply the worst thing a fellow soldier could do. There were no excuses for leaving a fallen brother behind. It hadn't occurred to him that Sam hadn't thought he'd been on the field at all. He'd thought Dean had been upstairs, with Mom and Dad. Having friggin' bar-b-cues with Bobby and Ellen, for Christsakes. He'd thought Dean was finally happy. At peace.

And, then the kid had almost driven off a God damned cliff to come join him.

That was dedication of a different sort. Sam had thought he'd been getting signs from Dean, doing what Dean would have wanted if he'd been looking down on Sam from heaven. And, he wasn't wrong. Sam knew Dean well enough to know that the biggest part of Dean would always want Sam to finally have his normal life. If he hadn't been clawing out his existence in Purgatory, fighting for his life 24/7, that's exactly what Dean would have wanted.

Sam cleared his throat and slid off the car. "So, anyway, I just wanted you to know. It doesn't really change anything. I'm still sorry for not doing all I could to find you and pull you out. Still sorry for Benny." He turned to look at Dean. "I'll always be grateful that he got you out."

Dean nodded. "Yeah."

Sam watched him another moment, then started walking back toward the bunker. When he got to the door, he turned to face Dean again. "And, sorry I woke you."

Dean pulled himself out of his thoughts. "Hey Sam?"

Sam paused in the open door. Dean shoved off the car, came walking toward his brother. "You're mostly right. I do want you to get your 'normal' one day, if it's possible."

Sam nodded. "Yeah. I know."

Dean pushed the door open wider, they both stepped through. "But, next time one of us disappears, let's just assume something horrible has happened and hit the books, hmm?"

Sam barked out a startled laugh. "Yeah, okay. Don't know what I was thinking. Heaven. As if we'd ever catch that kind of break."

Dean shoved his shoulder. "You and your Pollyanna tendencies. Jesus. I'm always pulling you back down to earth."

Sam looked right at him, kept his smile. "Yeah, well, thank God for you, then, right?"

Dean glanced at him, a sarcastic remark on the tip of his tongue. But Sam was looking at him with a real smile, the one he rarely wore any more. The one that said he really meant what he said, and didn't mind that Dean knew it. Dean thought he might actually have blushed. There was nothing to say other than to punch Sam on the arm. "Yeah. Well. You're lucky to have me, bitch."

Sam still didn't lose the smile. "I am. I really am."

Dean took it in for about ten seconds, then rolled his eyes. He shoved Sam. "Oh, shut up. Go make me some coffee, Samantha."

Sam shoved him back, hard enough to send him into the wall with an impact that would probably bruise. "You got it, Doris."

And as Sam took off toward the kitchen, Dean could see that he was still smiling.

Job well done.

THE END