Title: Thicker Than Water
Characters: Dean, Sam, Castiel
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize is mine.
Author’s Note: This is more of a “director’s cut” missing scene…with me as the director. It’s what played in my head while Sam cured Dean of his demon self. I enjoyed the episode but felt like we missed out on some of the “show don’t tell” aspect of the story. Probably would have had more impact if I’d posted closer to the episode, and while I haven’t taken time to look (bad Gaelic) I know there are most likely dozens of other stories out there just like this only better, but, well, there you go.
I’ve mostly played along with the canon events as they transpired; however, if it doesn’t follow the script of the episode to the letter, please don’t throw things at me. There has been some creative license applied here. I’m trying to see if the muse still has it in her when it comes to SPN.
If you read, I hope you enjoy.
Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
It was quiet in Dean's room.
Which was an odd realization in and of itself because the entire bunker had been quiet for four months. Oppressive, suffocating quiet. Dean had always been the noise in their little family: music playing to cover awkward silences, brash words to mask unspoken doubts, and movement, always movement – hands, strides, weapons being checked, food being prepped, and life happening in general, all because of his brother.
Without Dean, the quiet had wrapped around Sam like another presence, a spirit that could not be warded off by salt or banished by a symbol or rite. He'd been wandering through webs of quiet since the night he'd entered this room, weighted by the knowledge that his brother was dead, and found it shockingly empty.
And yet, this quiet was worse. Deeper. Frightening. Because Dean was back. He was in the bunker once more. Alive.
Except he wasn't. That person, that thing trapped in the dungeon where they'd held Crowley for so many months…that wasn't his brother. Not really. He'd lost Dean a long time ago. Not just at his death, before that. Before the Mark of Cain.
Sam stepped into his brother's room, eyes skimming the familiar layout. Bed neatly made, the note Dean left folded on the pillow long since tucked into a drawer, out of sight. Sam hadn't been able to do more than read it; he'd wanted to burn it, but…it was in Dean's handwriting, so.
Asian skin magazines were still tossed on the couch where Dean had left them. Sam hadn't touched them either.
Well, maybe once, but it was only to skim through them.
And he'd been very lonely.
The piece of pie he'd purchased last week during a particularly painful bout of nostalgia sat half-eaten and slightly moldy on top of a stack of pictures that Dean had kept close at hand. It had surprised him, discovering these pictures. After everything they'd been through, all the nomadic years, all the fights and struggles, departures and betrayals, Dean had kept his family close, if only in pictures.
Sam moved the plastic container of pie aside and gathered up the photos, sinking down to sit on the edge of Dean's bed. His favorite photo was the one of their mom and dad, Mary's smile happy, light, and hopeful. It was Dean's smile, when he wasn't weighed down by the world.
It was a smile Sam hadn't seen in years.
He paused at the picture of the two of them, taken years ago, when they'd first started hunting together again. If he wasn't mistaken, Bobby had taken this picture, and had mailed it to Dean at a hospital where they'd been recovering from a particularly bad hunt. To cheer him up.
Sam set the other pictures aside and stared at the young faces, the expressions in the eyes of these two brothers. It was almost as though he was staring at two strangers, not himself and Dean. Circumstance had marked them, but they still had hope then. They hadn't yet learned how truly cruel destiny could be, or how dangerous. They hadn't yet learned how deeply they would betray each other. They hadn't yet watched each other die.
He wanted to reach into the photo and warn them, tell them to turn back, to leave the world to fight on its own because they wouldn't make much of a difference. He wanted to tell them that they would lose themselves and each other. He wanted to save them.
We don't get to quit in this family. This family is all we have ever had!
He thought of Dean, tied to a chair, sitting imprisoned in that Devil's Trap, looking at him with cold eyes. They weren't black, but they may as well be. The person looking back at him in that room wasn't the brother he wanted back, anyway. Not the brother who'd died in his arms.
Which one of us is really the monster?
The sound of Dean, screaming in pain—pain that Sam was causing—haunted him. Dean didn't want the cure, didn't want to lose the demon, become human again. Sam pointedly ignored his logic, his rough-edged pleas, his hollow-voiced cries of misery as he injected him over and over.
Because it was the right thing to do…wasn't it?
Setting the photo down on top of the pile, Sam rubbed at his heart, feeling the ghost of an imagined pain. One that had haunted him for years, through the loss of Bobby, through the Leviathan, through Amelia, through Dean returning from Purgatory, through the trials. It was the pain of his soul returning to him, after he'd said he hadn't wanted it back, after he fought to keep himself free of it.
It was the pain of that twisted, broken, human piece of him returned.
…even when you mess up, you think what you're doing is worth it because you've convinced yourself you're doing more good than bad...
What the hell was he doing? He didn't even know if the cure would work; he hadn't been able to complete it on Crowley. Dean had wanted to die rather than become this…this thing. He'd sacrificed himself trying to set things right. He didn't want this, didn't want to live with the pain of what he'd done, what he'd become. Should he be trying to cure Dean…or kill him? Who was he fighting so hard to save Dean for when Dean resisted this so vehemently?
I was ready to die. I should have died, but you... You didn't want to be alone, and that's what all this boils down to. You can't stand the thought of being alone.
Before he'd returned to discover Dean was missing, Sam had been ready to make a deal to bring him back. He'd even tried summoning Crowley; definitely a low point in his career. In that moment, he'd understood so very clearly how great his mistake had been, condemning Dean for his desperation. How much damage his anger had caused.
Because, Dean was dead and there was nothing Sam wasn't willing to do to bring him back.
He felt the same now. Dead, demon, what was the difference? He wanted his brother back in this life, all noise and irreverence and fire and lust for life and fighting the good fight. He wanted the man who had saved him time and again; who stood in front of the bullet, who was his foundation and anchor.
The problem was, he hadn't seen that Dean in a long time. Years, if he were honest with himself. Dean had gotten lost somewhere along the way; Sam had lost him. Dean had defined himself by what he was able to do for others, by what he was able to do for Sam. If he were honest with himself, Sam had lost Dean the moment he'd returned from the Cage without his soul.
His brother had broken then, managing time and again to repair the cracks inside himself with tape and fill the holes in his heart with paper, but the world kept burning through him and the tape kept coming loose. If Sam stopped to think about it, the only reason Dean had been in a position to accept the Mark of Cain was because he'd lost all hope of any other possibility of light.
Any hope Dean had left after his dance with Death to find and return Sam's soul, was crushed in Purgatory. He'd been a hero without a cause, a solder without a mission. Sam had yearned for his own identity, his own life and in pursuing that had left only one motivation to Dean, the one that had always driven him: their father's war.
Dean hunted monsters with such a singular focus that he became one himself.
Sam sighed, letting his sore shoulders hunch, the ache in his arm a dull, throbbing reminder of what could happen when he hunted alone. God, he was tired. So damn tired of this.
He wanted to not feel the guilt that pressed on him, making him rethink every choice he'd made in his own search for identity and redemption. How could anyone expect Sam to see the Hell his brother was living when he was so busy turning his own life inside out? He may not have ended up a demon, but he'd suffered through a world of trauma and fear. He knew what it was like to be a prisoner in his own body, to be unable to stop the evil he wrought.
He knew the taste of hate and the texture of wickedness. He knew what it was to want to kill. To desire death. He knew the dark on the flip-side of light better than anyone. Better even than Dean.
Sam ran his fingers over the faces of the two brothers in the photo. The brothers who still knew innocence, who had not yet felt the intimacy of death. Who only thought they knew how quickly it could all be lost.
That was why he had to save Dean – for those brothers. For the boys they had once been and the men they could be again.
What had come before, all the betrayal and pain and loss, it couldn't matter. It was done, over. A line in the sand separating then from now. The lies were finished. Dean wasn't the man he used to be, but then, neither was Sam. One does not simply walk through the maelstrom of terror and heartbreak that they'd survived and emerge free of scars, unstained by the darkness.
Dean had to learn that there was light still in the world. Enough, at least, to cast the shadows that sought to hide them, disguising truth as false promises. Sam had to show him that light, as Dean had once shown him. He had to be his brother's anchor this time.
He stood, heading with purpose toward the dungeon where he'd left Dean. The silence of the bunker fueled his determination to push Dean beyond his point of endurance, to ignore the screams of pain, the shaking body, the cruel words, and turn the dark eyes of the demon into the clear eyes of humanity that had once shown from his brother. He was ready for this; he'd been waiting for a chance to save Dean since he'd abandoned him to Purgatory.
It came as quite a shock, then, to find the dungeon silent, the chair empty, and Dean nowhere in sight.
It was like remembering two lives at once.
He didn't know which life he wanted back, because they were both him. He was the brother and the hunter and the killer and the demon. He cared too much and not at all. He wanted to protect and he wanted to walk away. His head spun and his stomach churned and the pain made him angry. Made him rage.
Each time Sam shoved those goddamn needles into his skin, he felt the blood burn through him like acid, filling him to a point where the pressure was overpowering, fire licking him, melting him, searing him. He wanted to cut himself and bleed out to find relief.
He thrashed, he railed, he shook. He screamed.
It was the only way to find release. His body shuddered in reaction, sweat matted his hair to his forehead, his shirt to his chest and back, and he felt the skin beneath his bound wrists chafe as he struggled.
No matter the curses, no matter the insults, no matter the threats, Sam kept at him. Injecting him every hour. Tearing him apart. Pushing Dean until he saw double, saw both lives, and couldn't distinguish between the two. He was losing himself.
There was too much of one of him and not enough of the other and it was shredding him. He felt himself cracking from the inside out like a fault line threatening to bring it all down, caving in on top of him and he was afraid.
Fuck. He hadn't been afraid in months.
He hadn't been anything. Indifference meant peace. Caring about things hurt. It hurt so much he wanted to rip his fucking skin off so that he could feel something else. He roared with the pain of it.
The sound of his lungs curling up inside him, wringing out resistance as he thrashed against the goddamn restraints – bonds that he had used on other demons in this other life he remembered – echoed against the walls of his prison and inside his aching head.
Sam came in, jabbed needles, ignored his insults, spouted some shit about family and then left. Left him to writhe in pain and misery, raging as truth spilled from him, poisoned by the darkness inside of him. It was the truth of two lives – one who would never acknowledge it, let alone confess it, and another who couldn't wait to use it to inflict pain. Especially in retaliation for the pain currently visited upon him.
He never expected to break free.
The life that cared about Sam, the Dean who knew what it meant to love and to sacrifice and to feel loss and heartbreak and loneliness and fear, surged forward and burned brightly inside of him. So much so the bonds lost their power and he was suddenly on his feet, the human body swaying with momentary vertigo.
The light from this life, this Dean, was so bright it hit the back of his eyes, causing them to well in reaction, burning as he blinked and staggered forward, going to his knees.
What the fuck was this? Tears?
Lip curling in genuine disgust, Dean drew a hand across his eyes and pushed upright, slamming the sliding shelf sideways, half expecting to see Sam standing like a gargoyle, stopping his escape. He moved through the cold, silent halls, ignoring the musty smell of close air, the dust of disuse, and sought the exit. The further away from the Devil's Trap he moved, the stronger he felt. The less he hurt. The more care ebbed from him, returning the numb indifference to his heart and sealing the cracks in his soul.
That wasn't who he wanted to be; that wasn't who he was.
The Dean who loved Sam died. That Dean was weak. A failure. Pain marring his every choice, his every move. Everything he ever tried to do was tarnished by that pain, turning his decisions sideways, rotting his life from his core outward. That Dean deserved only one thing: oblivion. He'd had his chance at life and he'd fucked it up.
It was time for a new Dean, one who was strong and devoid of the burden of care. One who could annihilate demons without worrying about human collateral. One who would do what was necessary without the weakness of guilt or the hesitation of doubt. One who was free from the weight of something as complicated and messy as love.
Sam was smart, he'd give him that. Before Dean could get close to exiting the bunker, Sam had locked it down, causing Dean to have to back track. It was clear that if he wanted to be free to live as he chose, he was going to have to remove Sam from the equation. He couldn't figure out why that concept gave him pause. Why his hand hovered over the knife, but then shifted to the hammer, why he wanted to find the electrical room and escape more than he wanted to kill Sam.
Life was filled with shitty choices. Taking out Sam was just one of them.
Something of the light from before flickered inside him when he saw Sam standing on the other side of the shattered electrical room door, a familiar blade in his hand. It was enough of a flicker to piss him off and he pressed it down, pushed it away. He didn't want that light. He didn't want that Dean. He didn't want that pain.
It was so much easier to feel nothing. To care about nothing. To want nothing.
"I don't want to use this blade on you!" Sam's voice shook with warning, with intent, fear rolling from him in waves.
"That sucks for you, 'cause you really mean that."
He was going to have to make Sam act. Force him to fight. Force him to do what he was trained to do. Force him to hunt the monster.
"If you come out of that room, I won't have a choice!" Resolve gave Sam's tone shape.
He knew then. Knew how to force Sam's hand. Knew how to end this damned struggle once and for all.
"There's just enough demon left in me to kill you."
He wanted it over. The only way was to end it himself. To find Sam and end it. When he missed crushing Sam's head with the swing of the hammer, he was surprised, but when Sam's equally-capable left arm came up, pressing the edge of the demon-killing knife against his throat, he was relieved.
For one brief, clean moment, he saw release in sight.
"Do it! It's all you."
God, he wanted Sam to follow through. To pull that blade across the vulnerable skin and stop the chase, end the pain, draw the line in the sand and declare it finished. He wanted Sam do to what he had never been able to, even as a demon. He wanted Sam to have the balls to do the right thing: kill him. Let him die.
The sudden look of gratitude in Sam's eyes confused him, until he felt the iron grip wrap around him from behind. The arms of that damn angel, capturing him and holding him and goddammit NO! He roared, the edges of his vision graying and spreading to the red-tinged vision of his demon eyes as the last of his power hit the surface, resisting with everything in him as the angel insisted that it was over.
It wasn't over, didn't they see? It was never going to be over until one of them was dead. At this point, he didn't even care which one of them it was. Apparently, though, Sam did.
The angel hauled him to the dungeon, twisting his arms behind him and forcing him into that chair, demonic protection chains anchoring him once again as he'd let that side of him surface. Face like stone, Sam approached him with the needles and stabbed him in the arm, injecting the consecrated human blood into his system without remorse.
They watched as he writhed, as he screamed, as he shook from the fire cutting through him and tearing him in half.
"You son of a bitch!" he yelled, arching back as the pain slammed into him. "You are fuckin' dead, you hear me?! I get free of this and I'm gonna end you."
"You can try," Sam replied, jabbing him again.
Uncaring that it was ripping him apart, that he was bleeding to death inside, that he was helplessly watching one life destroy the other, caught in the middle as both tore at him.
The other Dean slipped in, the memories alive and vibrant like a bad acid trip. He saw his youth and his father and Sam. He watched them all bleed and suffer and die. He watched it over and over, feeling it more keenly each time Sam injected him. He felt his body shudder in reaction, shaking with chills as the sweat plastered his shirt to his body, burning up as it rolled down the sides of his face.
"Please," he breathed, barely able to focus, his eyes mere slits as he saw Sam approach. "Please, no more."
Sam ignored him and the pain continued. It was killing him. He knew it, Sam knew it. Maybe Sam even wanted it.
Maybe he'd been right: Sam was just as much of a monster as he, only without the cloak of a demon to explain it away. Maybe Sam knew how much this hurt, knew exactly how it tore at him, slicing his heart, deflating his lungs so that he gasped helplessly for breath. Maybe Sam designed this whole thing so that he would suffer before he finally died.
Suffer for the choices he'd taken from Sam. Suffer for forcing his soul back into his body against his will. Suffer for allowing an angel to possess him. Suffer for all the times he'd saved him when all Sam had wanted to do was die.
"Let me go, Sammy," he muttered, head hanging low, no energy to lift it upright as another needle was shoved into his abused skin.
His vision was too blurred to register Sam's reaction, but it hardly mattered. Each dose brought a new level of pain and he quaked from it, wracking his body back against the chair, his wrists pulling reflexively and ineffectually at the restraints.
Aw, God, it was too much.
He was on the rack again, feeling his skin peel from his body. He was in Purgatory fighting black-eyed monsters just like him. Fighting himself. Torturing himself. He was facing himself, pulling his own skin from his body, his eyes black and devoid of care.
You're gonna die, Dean. And this is what you're gonna become!
"Stop," he heard himself whisper, his lips numb, his voice destroyed. "Stop it."
But it didn't end. It wouldn't. The pain would continue until he was dead.
One way or another.
"What the hell are we doing to him?" Sam stepped back into the shadows next to Castiel, his eyes on his brother's quivering body, Dean's head hanging low. "He didn't want to be cured, Cas. He…didn't want to be human."
Castiel, his tone ever mild, nodded sagely. His calm blue eyes never left Dean's form as he replied, "I see his point. Only humans can feel real joy, but also such profound pain." He tipped his head forward in a nod toward Dean. "This is easier."
Sam was exhausted. Spent. Emotionally wrung out.
It had been hours since Castiel arrived and it seemed all they had been able to do was slowly hollow Dean out until he was little more than a trembling shell – no long full-on demon, but also not-quite human. He would lash out with expletives and insults one minute and beg for release the next.
The begging was what impacted Sam—more than any insult thrown his way out of desperate rage—because Dean simply did not beg. He rarely even asked for help. He had been beaten, shot, stabbed, ripped apart by Hell hounds, and the most he had ever done was tell Sam to leave him.
He never exposed his misery, never confessed his pain. Not like this. Not with this…tone…like he was shattered and empty.
Sam knew he felt it. Knew Dean wanted to ask for help. He heard it in the nightmares years ago when his brother had returned from Hell. He saw it in the side-eyed glance before Dean thought to mask his expression. He recognized it in the tense, tightly-wound stance that buried lines in Dean's face when he didn't realize he was being watched.
If he bothered to give thought to it, each choice that Dean had made – especially those Sam objected to – were made from a place of pain. It wasn't that he didn't want to be alone; it was that he felt he was nothing without someone else there for him to care for, protect. He was nothing without Sam there.
The pain exposed by the demon cure was real, raw, and nothing like Sam had expected to see.
"What happens if this doesn't work?" Sam asked Castiel softly as he watched Dean twitch, head hung low from the effects of the consecrated human blood. "We've been at this for hours…longer than when I tried it on Crowley."
"You've killed demons before," Castiel replied. "This should be no different."
"That's bullshit and you know it," Sam growled, irritated at the angel for daring to attempt indifference. If there was another being on the planet who cared for Dean as much as his own brother, it was Castiel. "Would you be able to kill him?"
"I nearly have before," Castiel reminded him, turning his gaze to rest heavily on Sam, sorrow riding the back of regret in his expression. "As have you."
"That's different," Sam argued. "This would be…permanent."
Castiel looked back at Dean. "Perhaps that is the answer."
Sam looked back at his brother, wincing inwardly as Dean's hands convulsed, feeling a strange longing for something impenetrable to draw a line behind today. Dean had gone up against an unbeatable foe, sacrificing himself for Sam, for Cas, for all the angels, for the Earth in an attempt to stop Metatron. He had known he wasn't going to survive. Had counted on it.
He just hadn't realized the curse of Cain would follow him into death.
"Dean…died, Cas," Sam said softly.
"I am aware."
"He was, what? Reborn a demon?"
"So it would seem."
"What…," Sam swallowed audibly. "What are we trying to bring back?"
Castiel looked askance at Sam. "I had hoped that question was something you'd answered prior to starting this…ritual."
"I just wanted to stop him from hurting anyone."
"I feel that is not entirely true," Castiel turned to look at him. "You could have stopped him by killing him."
Sam felt himself squirm under the angel's searching gaze. "I wanted…my brother back."
Castiel frowned. "You condemned him for making a similar choice," he pointed out. "You punished him for ignoring your say in matters of your life."
"Yeah," Sam nodded, looking at the edge of the Devil's Trap.
"Have you forgiven him for his actions?"
Sam nodded, unable to speak. The weight of family, of brotherhood, of debt and obligation, of love pressed on his heart and he found it hard to draw a full breath. Dean moaned a bit, low in his throat and Sam flinched at the sound.
"What if…when he comes back," Sam's brown pulled close together in a frown, "he's not…not him anymore? What if it's not like when you pulled him outta Hell, or when he fought his way free of Purgatory?"
Castiel didn't reply for a moment and Sam caught his breath, waiting.
"When I pulled you from Hell, leaving behind your soul," Castiel began, "Dean was by your side. Despite the fact that you were not you."
"When I broke the wall in your head, Dean helped hold you together."
"Starting to think I should stop hanging around you so much, Cas," Sam teased, the joke falling flat as Castiel continued, his sharp gaze now on Dean.
"When he returned from Purgatory, he welcomed you with opened arms, though you'd abandoned both hunting as well as him."
"Is this going someplace? Because right now it just sounds like—"
"Does it matter if he is not himself, should the cure work?"
Sam closed his mouth with a click, turning his gaze back to Dean. Did it matter? Could he handle Dean being damaged from this experience? Could he handle working with Dean to solve the issue of the Mark of Cain? Could he handle Dean remembering life as a demon?
"Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends," Castiel said quietly. "You both have done this. Accept that your brother is that man, in his heart, and the person who emerges from the cure will be someone you can embrace. No matter what he may have done in the past."
"Forgiveness is easy," Sam said quietly. "Forgetting is the hard part."
"If you haven't forgotten," Castiel looked at him solemnly, "then you haven't truly forgiven."
In that moment, Dean brought his head up, slowly as though his neck muscles were made of concrete. He blinked, his lashes tented with sweat, his eyes blood-shot. He shook his head as though to clear his mind of cobwebs and looked over at Sam and Castiel. Sam felt his heart seize in his chest, his breath stall in his lungs.
It was Dean. His brother's eyes, his brother's expression, his brother's worry and care and weight. He was back.
"You look worried, fellas," Dean rasped, his voice thrashed from hours of screaming.
His hand shaking slightly in anticipation, Sam stepped forward, opening the cap to a flask of Holy Water and tossing the contents on Dean. His brother flinched from the motion, blinking as the liquid hit his eyes and licking it off his lips. No smoking, no recoiling, no burning, no screaming.
Sam felt his whole being relax. "Welcome back, Dean."
Dean blinked back at him, his expression understandably confused, but then Sam saw it shift to something worrisome: disappointment. He didn't yet know how much Dean remembered of his time as a demon, but if he was sad to be alive and staring back at his brother, he definitely knew something.
"How 'bout we get you out of those restraints, huh?" Sam said, moving forward slowly, cautiously, still not all-together trusting that Dean wouldn't lash out and attack him.
Dean nodded quietly, looking down at his arm. Sam saw the track marks from where he'd injected his brother repeatedly over the last hours. The puncture marks were beginning to show signs of bruising. As Sam carefully unfastened the wrist restraints, he saw bruising there as well, along with raw, torn skin from where Dean had pulled against the binding.
Sam slowly removed the ankle restraints, hampered by the sling limiting his motion, then stood up, taking a step back.
"You, uh…you know where you are?"
Dean swallowed, blinking. "Dungeon."
"Yeah," Sam nodded. "Do you remember why?"
Dean's brow folded, his mouth bowing down in a frown. He looked at the edge of the Devil's Trap, then over at Cas, waiting near the entrance, and finally slid his eyes up to Sam's. The despair caught in that glance threatened to crush Sam's heart completely and he felt his knees shake. He'd done it; he'd brought his brother back, but in that look he realized he'd destroyed a piece of Dean in the process.
Sam pressed his lips closed, forcing his shoulders straight. "Do you remember, Dean?" He had to know. Had to be sure, be safe. Because if he let him out and the demon returned….
Dean lifted a shaking hand to rub at the top of his head. On a stuttered exhale, he nodded once, his eyes slipping to the floor, his head hanging low as though he simply lacked the strength to hold it upright. Sam felt himself relent, his heart shifting.
"Okay," he nodded. "Okay, then." He glanced back at Castiel, meeting the angel's eyes and offered him a tremulous smile. Turning back to his brother, he offered, "Wanna get outta here? Maybe head to your room?"
Dean nodded one last time, but didn't lift his head. For a moment, Sam felt another flash of fear, bracing himself for Dean to look up and expose black eyes, the ritual having been powerless against a demon with the Mark of Cain. Dozens of scenarios shot through his brain, super-charging his panic as he took another step back, now fully outside the Devil's Trap.
Then he saw his brother shaking.
"I, uh…I can't, um," Dean managed, unable to draw the sentence to conclusion.
Sam felt something tap his arm and looked over to see Castiel handing him a bottle of water from the collection Sam had left on the table with the cooler of blood. He blinked, shaking his head much like Dean had done when he came around.
Of course. The demon could ignore the demands of the human body. There was no telling how long Dean had been without necessary nutrients and after what they'd put him through, he was more than likely severely dehydrated. Taking the opened bottle from Castiel, Sam approached Dean cautiously again. He crouched down so that he was eye level with his brother, catching the other man's lowered gaze. Dean lifted his head gingerly, his blood-shot eyes meeting Sam's with an unspoken plea.
Sam felt something give in his chest, the burn of tears present for the first time in months. He wanted to reach up and grip the back of Dean's neck in gesture of reassurance. Instead, with Dean blinking at him, lashes tented and eyes unfocused and lost, Sam simply lifted the water bottle, gently holding it to Dean's lips, easing it back so that the liquid filled his brother's mouth. Dean drank greedily, tipping his head back when he'd had his fill. Sam set the bottle on the floor, watching his brother carefully.
"Want some help?" Sam asked softly, pitching his voice low so that only Dean could hear.
Dean nodded, though his gaze skittered around the outline of the Devil's Trap as if wary of moving. Sam glanced back at Castiel, willing the angel to read his mind. He exhaled in relief when the familiar trench coat slipped into the shadows, offering the brothers some privacy.
Turning his focus back to Dean, Sam wrapped his hand around Dean's bicep and lifted, leveraging Dean up to stand on very shaky legs. The barely-suppressed groan told Sam that the only way Dean was leaving this room was with some help.
Once upright, Dean wavered slightly, the toll the ritual had taken on his body clear in the labored breathing and indistinct gaze. Sam felt the tremors slip through his brother in the grip he had of his arm. Without a word, Sam ducked, sliding Dean's arm across his shoulders and wrapped his free arm around Dean's waist.
They moved from the dungeon and down the hall, memories of their macabre game of hide-and-seek played hours before flitting across Sam's vision. Dean was quiet; he seemed mostly focused on breathing and not keeling over, but when they rounded one corner, the wall dented where his hammer had nearly taken off Sam's head, Dean flinched.
"You okay?" Sam asked, pausing.
Dean had grown heavy in his arms, as though his knees had vanished on him. He was staring at the dent with a stricken expression, his loose hand flexing into a fist. Sam tensed, waiting.
"Just…trying to, uh…," Dean muttered, looking away from the wall and back to the floor. "Trying to remember."
Don't, Sam wanted to say as he propelled them forward once more. Don't remember. Clean slate. Let it go. But he remained silent until they reached Dean's room. At the doorway, he paused once more, unable to head inside. It was too much; it was all just too much.
"Sam?" Dean's broken voice caught him.
"The last time I carried you into this room," Sam confessed tightly, "you were dead."
The words shook through Dean. Sam felt it, the emotion rippling through him. Dean leaned flush against him for a moment, but then pulled away, stepping into the room on his own power. He stumbled forward, reaching for the bed almost immediately, but then was able to pull himself upright, hissing slightly at the movement.
"What is it?"
Dean shook his head. "Nothing."
"Dean," Sam admonished, stepping into the room. "Talk to me."
"Just…hurts." He began to rub distractedly at his bruised arm.
Sam turned to the desk behind where Dean stood and pulled out a first-aid kit that he knew his brother always kept there. Retrieving anti-bacterial cream with a pain reliever and some gauze, he turned back to Dean.
"'m okay, Sam."
Dean sank onto the bed, still not looking directly at him.
"I'm going to need you to be my other hand here," Sam said, crouching down in front of Dean and spreading the cream on the puncture wounds he'd created on Dean's arm and the torn skin at his wrists.
"Did I do that?" Dean asked, staring at Sam's sling.
"You don't remember?" Sam asked, unable to help the instinctive hackles that went up at the seed of doubt.
"It's all kind of…jumbled up. Like…like there's two of me. Only," he frowned, his eyes tracing invisible patterns on the floor, as if he were reading the script of his life, "only there's not really. It's all…it was all me." He closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead in a clear, silent, indication of pain.
"You didn't do this to me," Sam reassured him.
"But, you got it because of me."
Sam handed the end of the gauze to Dean and began unrolling it to wrap around his brother's arm. "I got it because I wasn't paying attention."
"What the hell happened to us, Sam?" Dean whispered brokenly.
Sam finished wrapping Dean's arm, tied off the end, the treated his opposite wrist with the same care before placing the gauze back into the kit. He couldn't answer Dean because he honestly didn't know.
How had it come to this? To defying death once more? To being so far from human they could no longer navigate their own emotions? Did they cling to one another so tightly out of need? Habit? Desperation?
"You want anything, man?" Sam said, straightening up, needing to escape the wounded gaze Dean turned his way.
"How about you rest a bit first?" Sam suggested.
Dean pressed his bandaged arm to his chest as though he was trying to keep something inside. "I remember…so much. Too much." He looked at Sam. "I remember dying."
Sam flinched, feeling his eyes burn. "Dean—"
"It…God," he shook his head helplessly, his eyes drifting downward, unfocused, "it hurt so much. I haven't hurt like that since…Hell."
"Metatron," Sam said, hearing his voice crack, "he beat you. Stabbed you with—"
"No," Dean shook his head. "It wasn't that. I can take that. I can take that all damn day if I have to."
Sam frowned. "Then…what?"
"I left you." Dean looked up at him. "I fucked up everything and then I left."
Sam took a step back, unable to block the hot flush of memories. Finding Dean just as Metatron stabbed him. Picking him up, desperate to stop the bleeding. Half carrying, half dragging his brother from the room. Propping him on those boxes. Seeing the light leave his eyes. Feeling Dean go boneless against him.
I'm proud of us.
Resting his free hand on his hip, Sam rolled his bottom lip against his teeth as he watched Dean's gaze slip from his face to stare once more at the floor with a broken, hollow expression. Tears pressed against the backs of Sam's eyes, burning their way to balance on his lashes. Sniffing, he tried to look away, but found, suddenly, that he couldn't.
He'd had more than enough time to wonder what it was Dean had been proud of: that they'd kept fighting their father's war, long after it made sense? Or that they'd managed to stand up to another enemy in a long line of seemingly unbeatable foes? What had they done in the mess that was their world that Dean had felt compelled to choose those words to leave him with?
Looking at Dean now, though, he realized it was simply that they'd been together.
Despite anger, betrayal, loss, despair, despite all the bad in the world that continually tried to overpower them, each time when that end had come, they'd been together. They'd once more chosen each other, and for Dean, that was all that he needed.
It was the only thing that really mattered.
"You came back," Sam whispered. "You took the long way around," he admitted with a teary chuckle, "but you came back."
"I don't want to leave again, Sammy," Dean confessed, his face paling as he flattened his hand against his chest, a frown folding his lips down.
"I know," Sam nodded, his eyes roaming the room, searching for something to rest upon. Something that wasn't Dean.
He saw the collection of pictures sitting on Dean's table, the younger image of them mocking him, demanding to know why he held himself so distant from his brother now. Accusing him and rejecting him in one 2D stare. He had wanted this, fought for this. He'd put his brother through Hell for this. So why could he not reach out to him now?
Dean slouched forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his head hanging low. "Man, I feel like shit," he muttered toward the floor.
"You hungry?" Sam offered. "Feel like you could eat something?"
Dean huffed out a quiet laugh, his shoulders bobbing with the effort, his head still low. "Yeah, man. That sounds awesome. Can't remember the last time I ate."
Sam knew it had been at least forty-eight hours. About as long as it had been since he'd slept.
"Get some rest," Sam implored. "I'll be right back."
Without waiting for Dean to reply, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him. He needed to step away, take a break, breathe. He needed space to think about what happened next.
Because he'd done it: Dean was back. Human again. No matter that he'd never wanted to be a demon; no matter that he'd not wanted to be cured. This was their reality now and they had to find a way to cope, to find balance. Clean slate. Forgiveness.
The people they'd been before didn't matter anymore. Those younger selves no longer existed. The men they were now didn't have to hold onto what used to be. They didn't have to hold roles they'd once held simply because they'd always held them. It was a new reality. They would figure out how to navigate it, together.
He just wished he knew where to start.
Dean hurt too badly to sit still.
Pacing helped, but only with the sore muscles. The ache in his bones, in his heart, it wasn't going away. It was only increasing as his memory caught up with him. He tried to align the images in his head that seemed impossible to accept as real, though he knew in his heart they were.
He could remember what it was like to not feel, though that sensation was fading. He could remember the heady rush he got from having power. From being stronger than his opponent for once. Knowing without one qualm that he would win before a fight even started.
The wariness he still saw in Sam's eyes was warranted. The dent in the wall – he'd done that. Trying to hit Sam. Not just hit him, no. Kill him. End this all by ending one of them. He hadn't wanted this. Hadn't wanted to feel again. Hadn't wanted to hurt.
Because that's all life was, he thought as his pacing took him to the pile of photos he'd left behind, one long string of hurt. With a trembling hand, he picked up the pictures; a knock at his door startled him and he turned, dropping the photos onto his bed as the door opened and Castiel stepped inside.
"You look terrible," Castiel commented, a friendly smile on his face.
Dean felt every word. He tried not to stumble backwards as Castiel came further into the room, tried not to show his friend how very much he wanted to simply collapse onto the bed and sleep for a week.
"Are you…back?" he asked, revealing that he remembered Castiel's plight at least.
Castiel shrugged. "It's a long story. Crowley, some stolen grace, there's a female out in the car—" Dean guessed his alarm and confusion showed plainly in his expression because Castiel waved his hand as if he could physically brush his words aside. "Another time."
"Thank you, man," Dean offered, sincerely. "For, y'know…well, everything."
Castiel smiled, saying nothing.
"So, uh, what'd Sam say?" He began to pace once more. "Does he want a divorce?"
"Sam knows – better than anyone – that what you did and said…it wasn't you."
Dean paused, glancing over at his friend with an eyebrow raised. "I tried to kill him, Cas."
Castiel spread his hands. "You two have been through so much. You're brothers." The emphasis he put on the word caught at Dean's frayed heart. "It would take more than you trying to kill him with a hammer to make him walk away."
Dean wanted to believe that with every last ounce of energy he possessed. He swallowed, trying to dissolve the lump that had formed in his throat, needing to blink away the burning in his eyes.
"You realize how screwed up our lives are that that even makes sense," Dean remarked, covering his emotion with sarcasm, his only defense.
Castiel simply looked at him, his eyes seeming to strip away the pretense and see the wounds beneath Dean's layers of protection, and for one moment, Dean wanted to be seen. Wanted someone to see the battered, broken, ruined man who stood bent and alone at the center of him. He wanted someone to understand him and know and accept.
He wanted someone to tell him how to fix that man.
"I'm glad you're here, Cas," Dean whispered, honesty coloring his words.
Castiel searched his face, frowning a bit at whatever he saw there. "Take some time to heal, Dean. It's…quiet out there." He started to turn, but paused, looking back. "You are more than a hunter, you realize."
Dean huffed. "Is that right?"
"Yes." Castiel frowned. "You must remember that."
"I remember too much," Dean confessed, looking down at the pile of pictures, seeing the image of his mom and dad peeking out, Mary's grin infectious. "I need to forget."
"It is a folly of humanity," Castiel said softly. "To remember the things that cause you pain and forget the things that bring you joy."
"Joy," Dean repeated, as though the word was foreign to him.
"Humanity's greatest reward," Castiel replied, as if defining the word for him. He rested a hand on Dean's doorway, smiling over his shoulder. "Search for that instead. Pain is too easily found."
Once more alone in the room, Dean looked down at the photos, spreading them out with the tips of his fingers. The bunker was quiet, the silence all but beating against his ears. He needed music, or for Sam to return with food, or for Castiel to come back. He needed to not be alone, not right now. There were too many ghosts around him, tugging at him, accusing him, taunting him.
His fingers found the image of himself and Sam, so many years ago, looking at the camera with defiance in their eyes, no clue what they would have to face. Picking it up, Dean rubbed at the image with his thumb, the ache in his throat growing, his vision blurring as memory continued to play catch-up, realigning with his reality.
He remembered the cruel things he'd said to Sam, tied to that chair. He remembered why he said them. He remembered meaning it. Wanting to hurt his brother, to inflict so much pain Sam would give up. Walk away. Leave him.
Agony cut through his heart and he swayed, stumbling sideways until his reaching hand found the wall. His vision blurred, his trembling legs finally giving out. Knees disappearing, Dean went to the floor, barely catching himself on the edge of his bed. His breath stuttered, slipping through his parted lips in a low keen, giving voice to his pain.
The photo clutched in his hand, he rolled to a seated position, shoving his back to the wall next to his bed, his legs drawn up. Resting his elbows on his bent knees, he pressed his the palms of his hands against his burning eyes, the picture crumpled against his forehead, trying in vain to grind the tears away.
He didn't want this. It had been so much easier to simply not feel. To be indifferent to everyone and everything around him. He'd been searching for that emptiness since he'd crawled out of his own grave.
He was so damn tired of being lost.
Jerking with surprise, he carefully removed his hands, blinking at the doorway.
"You okay, man?"
Sam. Standing in the doorway, a bag in his hand.
"Yeah," Dean croaked, clearing his throat, desperate to sound normal. "Yeah. Just…, y'know. Demon cure hangover, I guess." Normal was becoming increasingly impossible, however, as he realized he was visibly shaking.
Sam entered the room slowly, as if he were navigating a mine field. He set the bag down on the desk without taking his gaze from Dean's face. His cat-like eyes were big, worried, young. Dean wanted to find the words that would erase that look, but he was finding it difficult to draw a full breath.
"You don't look so good, man," Sam informed him, sinking down to sit on the edge of Dean's bed, his boots centimeters from Dean's. "Should've read up on the after-effects of this."
"You m-mean, y-you didn't read the warning l-label?" Dean teased, dismayed to hear his voice shake in time with his body.
It wasn't the cure, he wanted to tell Sam. It was humanity. It was life.
It was every responsibility and obligation and wrong choices and the person he'd not saved and the person he had saved and every choice he ever made and God dammit, it was family and brothers and sacrifice and forgiveness and apology and absolution and hatred and betrayal and love and pain…holy shit so much pain and it hurt…it hurt so much to feel like this, to feel it all and he couldn't breathe through it…he hadn't wanted it back and now it was here and he couldn't fucking breathe….
"Take it easy, man," Sam was saying to him, his voice echoing in Dean's head as though he were standing at the other end of a long tunnel.
"What the hell…?" Dean muttered, breathless.
"You're gonna be okay, Dean."
Sam was touching him, a hand wrapping around his clenched fist, moving up his arm and when the hell had he gotten so close? He wanted to push him away and grab him tight at the same time and damn but he hurt. Everything, every breath, every blink of his sweat-seared eyes.
"I'm right here. Not goin' anywhere."
He was kneeling in front of Dean, one hand on the back of Dean's neck, pulling him forward so that the blood slamming crazily through Dean's system moved back to his head where it belonged and slowed the feeling of vertigo that threatened to drag him downwards.
"In and out, okay?" Sam instructed. "That's it. You're okay, man."
Dean focused on that voice. That one thin constant in his life. The only hope he had left for light after so much darkness. In and out. There was balance in the motion. After several minutes, he felt the slam of his heart begin to slow.
"Son of a bitch."
"Yep, sounds like my brother," Sam said, a smirk in his tone. He eased up on his grip by increments, allowing Dean to sit up slowly. "Take it easy."
"'m okay," Dean mumbled, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes when Sam finally let him go. "Promise."
"Yeah, well," Sam replied. Dean heard him shift so that he was sitting with his back to Dean's bed, his legs tented before him. "Don't guess being cured of demon...ness is something you just bounce back from."
"Demon-ness?" Dean opened one eye to regard Sam.
"Shut up, you moron," Dean grinned tiredly. They sat quietly for a moment. "Thanks, man."
"Sure," Sam said, and Dean heard him start to rise. "I think it was just all catching up to y—"
"Sam," Dean reached out and caught his brother's arm, arresting his movement. "Thank you."
They looked at each other then, really looked, for the first time since the moment in the hallway where Sam stood with a knife at his throat that could have ended it all. Dean held his brother's eyes, waiting, needing to see the trust there, the belief that the darkness was gone and the light inside of him was beginning to flicker back on.
He needed Sam to believe it.
Because if Sam could believe, then maybe he could, too.
"I had to do it, Dean," Sam said, still looking right at him. "I couldn't let you live like that."
"You did the right thing," Dean nodded once, easing back, but not releasing Sam's arm. "You probably saved a lot of people."
"I didn't do it to save a lot of people," Sam said, an edge to his voice. "I did it to save you."
Dean blinked, his hand falling free. "Me?"
"You're my brother, Dean," Sam said, incredulity lacing his tone. "Don't you think there is nothing I wouldn't do for you?"
"I-I, uh," Dean shook his head helplessly. "I guess I thought…I mean, you'd said…."
"You've screwed up a lot," Sam said, looking down. "And you've made some really…bad choices."
"No arguments from me."
"But, so have I," Sam looked at him. "We're both pretty messed up, y'know?"
Dean nodded, feeling oddly balanced in that statement.
"But, man, what you've put yourself through to save me…to protect me, I couldn't just…." Sam stopped, shaking his head helplessly. "You are a good man, Dean." He looked back over at Dean, pinning him once more with a look. "And good guys like you aren't demons. It's not supposed to work that way."
Dean stared at his brother for another moment, before looking down at the picture now crumpled in his hand. "There's probably a metaphor in all this about staring into the abyss or becoming the monster you hunt."
"Probably," Sam nodded, a half-smile on his face, "but neither of us has slept enough for that."
"You got that right," Dean groaned a bit, letting his head fall back against the wall once more. He wanted to apologize, to erase what he'd said, all those cruel words, said purposefully, said to hurt. But he didn't know where to start, what words he could use that would cancel out the memory.
The quiet sat between them, heavy with unspoken words, until Sam took a breath.
"Bobby said something to me once," he began. Dean tensed, listening with his whole self for what his brother would say next. "Said that when you're a soldier in a war, it's hard to figure out how to just…be when you're not fighting something."
Dean nodded, opening his eyes and looking at his brother. Sam stared out into the middle distance, his eyes a thousand years away, his legs sprawled in front of him, one canted sideways to rest on Dean's bent knees like that familiar contact was the most natural thing in the world.
"Some stuff you leave in the battle. But, some stuff you bring home with you." He turned to look at Dean. "And it's our job to figure out how to carry it."
"Think we can carry something as heavy as this?" Dean ask, his voice a low rasp of sound.
Sam lifted his good shoulder. "Don't know that we have a choice anymore."
Dean took a slow, steadying breath. "Do you…want to?"
"If you do," Sam replied immediately, nodding, "I do."
Dean felt the edge of his mouth tug upward even as his heart wept, bleeding from the wounds that lost chances and wrong choices had cut. Sam answered his hesitant smile with a soft one of his own and somewhere deep within Dean, a wound began to heal.
"Feel like eating something?" Sam clambered to his feet, his movements awkward with the sling.
"Hell, yeah." Dean glanced at the sack. "Cheeseburger and fries?"
"Yeah." Sam reached down and helped Dean to his feet, the room immediately tipping sideways the moment he was upright. "Whoa, there, take it easy. You just went a whiter shade of pale on me."
He pressed Dean one-handed against the wall; the world swam around him, tilting on its axis and threatening to toss him off. Dean closed his eyes, pulling in slow breaths through his nose in an attempt to keep his balance. Sam kept his hand in place, holding him up, bracing him.
Dean didn't push Sam's hand away for a few minutes, letting himself feel, if just for a moment, a closeness that had nothing to do with fighting or hatred or resistance or protection. It was simply…help. Just brothers, keeping each other steady. Keeping each other upright. He nodded when he thought he could step away without falling over and Sam dropped his hand. Sitting on the edge of his bed, Dean opened the bag and pulled out a Styrofoam container of food, ignoring the bottle of Johnny Walker for the moment. There'd be time for that later.
"Eat the lettuce this time," Sam ordered. "It's pretty much the only way to get vegetables into you. And if I know you, it's been nothing but beer and chicken wings for four months."
Dean wrinkled his nose in response, but didn't argue. He was too tired and it felt too good to have a regular conversation with his brother.
"Cas thinks we should take a break from hunting for a bit," he said around a mouthful of cheeseburger. Sam leaned his rear on the edge of Dean's desk, watching him eat. "Says it's quiet out there right now."
"It's not a bad idea," Sam nodded. "No reason to go looking for trouble. And, uh…it would be nice to…y'know. Reconnect."
Dean continued to eat silently, feeling better as the food hit his system. Sam waiting quietly, as though somehow sensing that Dean didn't want to be left alone quite yet. They didn't discuss the ritual, the cure, the four months apart, the events that led up to Dean's death, none of it. They simply sat in comfortable silence, breathing in tandem.
"You think we're gonna be okay?"
Dean swallowed, looking over at his brother, absorbing the changes he saw there, wrought by time and circumstance, transposed over the face he knew as well as his own.
"We're sure as hell gonna try."
a/n: Thanks for reading. It's been awhile since I tried my hand at an SPN story. I hope it was worth your time. I'm going to continue to dabble in a couple of other fandoms, predominately The Musketeers, but I could never leave our boys.
As an aside, Castiel quotes John 15:13, "Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends."