When Sam gets back to the motel room carrying a bag of rock salt and a pair of new toothbrushes, Dean's stretched out on the bed staring up at the ceiling like he's dead, but the rise and fall of his chest convinces Sam otherwise. For a moment of confusion, Sam stands in the doorway looking around, but there's not a trace of alcohol in sight, which is… odd, for Dean.
"Hey," he says, hearing that old note of caution slip into his voice that he's been using with his brother since he got Dean back, because he never knows what he says might set Dean off, bring up a memory he'd been suppressing. "Bobby caught a case in Montana. Thought we could head out tomorrow morning."
"Yeah," Dean sighs after a long silence during which Sam doubted he would even respond. His voice sounds all wrong, and Sam feels a pang somewhere in his chest, because Dean just sounds empty, like the culmination of the case at the Carter house and his second roadside confession have drained him completely. "Maybe."
"Maybe?" Sam sets the bag down on the small wooden table by the window. "Not up for it?" He's half-joking, picking at Dean, but he's also genuinely concerned.
Instead of Dean laughing it off and calling him bitch, or maybe grumbling at him, the way Sam expected, he just sighs again, deflating some more. "Not good at this anymore," he says, but it's quiet like it could have been the wind, and Sam has to wait a minute to be sure that's really what he heard.
"What are you talking about?" he asks, slipping into one of the chairs beside the table. The chair's facing Dean and the bed but Sam can't really look at him, not like this, so he stares up at the ceiling while he waits for Dean to reply.
"You know." His voice sounds like scratches on a record. "I used to be good, I know I was. Good at hunting. Saving people." When he laughs it's like someone stepping on a dead leaf, and Sam cringes at the sound. "The family business."
"You still are," Sam tells him, almost chancing a look at his brother but changing his mind thinking about the broken tone that's making him wince. "Trust me. You saved that family back there."
"Yeah, but I couldn't…" Whatever he's going to say he trails off, forgets it, and Sam can hear him rustling around on the motel bedspread. "It's just, I was better. I was good, Sam, I was real good…" If he could, Sam would plug his ears, run out of the room shouting to drown out what he knew Dean would say next, "I was good in Hell."
"I was, Sam, I was a natural. Alistair's a demon but he didn't lie about that."
"Dean," Sam says, hating that his eyes are shut because he wants to help Dean, he wants to be able to comfort his brother but he can't watch him break himself down like this. "Dean, don't do this to yourself."
He might as well have not spoken at all, because Dean just keeps rambling on, "And I was new too. Some of those souls'd been there for decades, centuries. I was the new kid on the block and I was the best."
"Shut up." One breath, two, and he pulls himself together and turns to look at Dean. If it's possible, he looks worse than before, like he's died all over again. "Just shut up, Dean, okay? Just…" Dean's dull eyes find him like he hadn't realized Sam was there until this moment. "You weren't… good down there. You weren't." Dean's mouth twitches up in a look of disbelief. "No, listen. You weren't good because you weren't you. And you… are. Good." He chews his lip, finishing rather lamely.
He thinks Dean might be relieved, but he just looks irritated. "You don't know," he replies, the words harsher than Sam expected. "You weren't there."
"Why don't you shut up, Sammy?" He huffs and starts to roll over, and Sam, fed up with watching Dean pull himself apart this way, forgets whatever aversion to seeing his brother break down was keeping him on the other side of the room. Striding across the stained carpet in three steps, he leans down and grabs his brother by the shoulder, intending to drag him up and look him in the eye, but Dean responds instinctively.
In a tense flash, he rolls up and grabs Sam by the jacket, throwing him against the wall like he would any demon. It's like for a second there, he'd forgotten he wasn't in Hell anymore, forgotten he was in a crappy motel in Nebraska with his brother, and it all sinks into his eyes. Horrified, he looks up at Sam's face like he expects Sam to hit him.
Instead, Sam shakes off Dean's arms and wraps his own around his big brother's shoulders, pulling him into a tight hug and letting Dean mash his face into his t-shirt.
When they were kids, and Sammy would come home upset about something that happened at school, Dean would wrap him up in a hug and let Sam cry into his shoulder, counting off all the terrible things that had happened and all that was troubling him. As he listed off whatever problem it was this time, Dean would run a hand over his hair and mumble, "I know, I know," until Sam knew he understood.
Now, Sam's holding Dean like if he lets go Dean'll run away forever, and Dean's still deflated but he's got his brother holding him up, almost like when he was dying the first time, and he says over and over against Sammy's shoulder, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Sam holds him tight and says, "I know, I know."