Death After Sorrow

At The End of His Rope

Sarah shooed the two men out of the room. Once they were gone, she gently closed the door and took up a seat next to the young man. She wanted a good sense of him before she risked his brother’s life, despite Sam's confidence. Closing her eyes, she opened her mind.

"Oh, you don't like me, do you?" she chuckled. "Is it because of what I am, or because of what I'm helping Sam do?" Her smile fell as she felt him weakly try to push her out. "You can't do it, Dean. You can't fight us both."

She frowned as the mind she was gently probing changed tactics, and instead blanketed itself, cutting off her vision. Opening her eyes, she studied the young man. A waste of a thing now, but she could tell there had once been strength and power in that body. In that spirit, too. Both had been weakened almost beyond repair, but that spark of fight was still there, that need to protect his brother. It was the strongest thing she could pick up now, and she had a feeling there was a part of him that was doing it deliberately, somehow trying to explain why he couldn't let Sam in.

"Dean, you can't fight us both," she repeated. "Sam needs this. You have to let him in. I'm only opening the door, then I'll be leaving. There's nothing I can do after that. If you want to protect him, then you have to let him try." She hesitated. "I don't know what you're fighting, but it's a dark, old evil. I can feel that much, and it's tied to you, destroying you. You can't do this alone, Dean. You've tried and failed. It's time to bring in backup."

Having said her piece, she called the two men back in. Sam anxiously checked on his brother, as though he could somehow sense the same unease she could. Giving the hand one final squeeze, he turned to his own bed.

Sarah leaned over him, her lips near touching her ear as she whispered. "Are you truly ready for what you may see in there? Dean is a man with many secrets, many doors. All are locked."

"I know I'm not ready to lose him," Sam growled back. "If anyone holds the key, it's me."

"The deal, Sam- someday-" she couldn't seem to finish her thought, as if picking up on his own anguish at the mention of it.

Sam shrugged. "Someday isn't today."

"There's no turning back, Sam. Last chance," she offered, moving to sit in the chair between the two beds Bobby had prepared for her.

"It's our only chance," Sam countered evenly, glancing at the still form of his brother. Of that, he was sure.

Sarah nodded. "Very well. Let's begin."

Sam opened his eyes to a world of chaotic color. He should recognize it, but it was as if everything was distorted. Patting himself down, he was surprised to feel him whole, hard and healthy. He didn't know quite what he'd expected, but it certainly hadn't been to be corporeal. Did that mean Dean was as well? Could they be hurt here?

Sliding past that thought, he moved into the distortion, determined to find his brother. He was surprised when he rebounded off of it. Huh. Hadn't been expecting that. Was it Dean keeping him out, or whatever held him trapped here?

"Dean, if it's you, man, you gotta let me in." He tried the barrier several more times, and wasn't surprised to find it weakening under each onslaught. He wouldn't give up, and his brother didn't have the strength to maintain it. "Sorry, bro. It's gonna take more juice than that."

His last attack broke through, and the distortion cleared, revealing a front yard with a tree he barely recognized. It was their old house, in Lawrence. He frowned. Why would Dean have brought him here? What had happened here those twenty some years ago had traumatized his brother so much that when they'd had to return, it had taken every bit of control Dean had to force himself into this house. Had he been forced here again, or taken refuge in the only safe haven his brother had ever known?

Sam found him sitting on the floor in their old kitchen, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms tightly wrapped around them, his head bowed over his knees. Sam moved slowly toward his brother, uncertain of what was happening, but recognizing all the signs that his brother was at the end of his rope and about to snap.

"Dean?" he called gently as he knelt in front of him, careful not to spook him. "Can you hear me?"

Dean looked up, and Sam near broke himself. Dean's eyes were red and puffed. He'd obviously been crying for some time. "Sam?"

"Yeah, I'm here. Are you okay?"

Dean shook his head as more tears broke free. "I can't do this anymore, Sammy. I tried, but I can't."

Sam frowned in confusion. "Can't what, Dean? What's happening here?"

Dean closed his eyes, turning his head away from Sam, not wanting him to see the coward he had become. "I'm sorry. I can't."

"Dean! You have to focus! Something is keeping you here. Do you know what it is?" Sam insisted.

"You're not here. Please, just go away."

Sam reached out and grabbed his brother's arm tight enough to hurt, finally drawing those haunted green eyes back to his own. "I'm here, Dean. Really here. Now you need to help me figure what's happening so we can end this!"

Dean blinked, and frowned. But as he opened his mouth to reply, his eyes turned toward the other room, a deep seated terror Sam had never seen before entering his expression. "No, not again. Please, not again," Dean begged.

"What is it? What's happening?" Sam demanded, tightening his hold on Dean's arm. It seemed to be the only thing that was keeping him at least semi grounded. But nothing seemed to be truly reaching his broken brother. "You have to tell me!"

"I can't do this again," Dean sighed, his exhaustion clear in his voice.

"Yes you can!" Sam insisted harshly. He was beginning to suspect that what he wanted to know was at the end of whatever was about to happen. Instinctively, he knew they had to see this through one last time. On that same level, there was a part of him that suspected Dean wouldn't survive it. He pushed that thought to the back of his mind. This time would be different. He was here now, he would help. Dean didn't have to go through it alone. "I'm here, Dean. One last run through and then we can kill this son of a bitch!"

"We can't kill it, Sammy. I've tried, but I can't. I'm never strong enough to make it to the end," Dean whispered. "I'm sorry."

Sam ground his teeth at his normally invincible brother's defeat. "Then we die trying, Dean. Remember? We go out swinging."

Dean shook his head furiously. "I can't watch you die, Sam. Please, not again."

"Then help me! Because I'm not leaving here without you!" Sam growled.

Dean glanced over at the other room again, and sighed. He didn't have a choice. If he wanted Sam out of here, they'd have follow the trail. He was almost positive his mind couldn't handle another loop, but he knew he had to try. He felt broken a thousand times over, and clear thought was getting harder to hang on to, but this was his Sammy, once again asking for the impossible, and never once stopping to consider that Dean might not be able to deliver.

Sam stood, reaching out a hand to help his brother up. "Let's finish this." There was no question, no chance to doubt him. It was an order.

Dean nodded and reached out. His hand shook. He didn't want to do this. He had barely survived it the first time around. This continuous loop was eating away at what little was left of his fighting spirit. But then, that was the point, wasn't it? Weaken him to the point where he couldn't fight back? Was that what this was about?

Sam watched his brother carefully as he pulled him up. The broken man who had sat huddled on the floor was slowly leeching away as Dean's will to fight sparked once again. It was a feeble flicker, but he would take whatever he could get. "What's going on here, Dean?"

Dean shook his head. "I don't know. Nothing makes sense. I keep being dragged through my memories, always the same ones, over and over, just like it was real. The worst moments of my life in full techno color. I've tried to stop it, but when I don't move, the memories come to me. I can't get out." Dean forced a chuckle, and Sam ignored the hint of hysteria that flavored it. "Gotta tell you, Sammy, I've got a hell of a headache."

"Then what happens?" Sam pushed as he followed his brother through the house he remembered seeing in Lawrence, happy to hear his brother trying for that inappropriately timed levity.

Dean hesitated. "I don't know. I've never made it to the end."

"You know this isn't real?" Sam asked. "You're actually in a coma."

Dean frowned. "Real or not, it's got me trapped. And now you too, dumb ass. What the hell were you thinking? How are you even here?"

"A psychic has us connected to each other. I couldn't wake you, Dean. It's been almost two weeks. You're dying and no one knows why. I had to try something. Do you remember Lily? She told us you were trapped in a world of your own making. Knight just kept saying over and over that it was too late, that no one could stop what you had begun. I couldn't find anything in the books. I couldn't even match the symbols Knight carved on your back. I was hoping you might have a better idea of what's going on."

Dean stopped and sighed. "If what you're saying is true, I think I do." The pieces were ever so slowly falling into place, Lily's hints and the condition of his physical body filling in some blanks.

Sam glared at him. "If?"

"Look, I'm not above self-awareness. It's entirely possible you're something I've dreamed up to help me cope with what's happening. And before you do it again, bruising my arm doesn't prove anything beyond that I'm desperate enough for your help that I've totally convinced myself you're here," Dean pointed out.

Sam sighed, unable to deny his brother's surprisingly insightful logic. "Okay, so what do you think it is?"

"If I'm right, we're dealing with a demi god. A very old one. It's got a hundred names, but the Catholic Church once called it 'Nex Secundum Moestitia'. Literally translated it means Death After Sorrow. Which would explain a lot. In ancient times the Templar Knights would actually undergo an exorcism performed by the Pope himself to banish Moestitia from their shadows so as to secure victory. The first concrete writing goes back even farther to ancient Egypt where it was actually worshiped as an important religious icon in rituals to fortify the pharaoh," Dean explained as he moved toward the stairs. He didn't need to move. They would come to him if he stayed, but the action of going toward it focused his mind on hunting this thing, on being the one in charge. It was a thin thread, but he was desperately clinging to it.

Sam's eyebrows rose in surprise, and he made a mental note that though Dean hated research, he obviously retained a hell of a lot more than he let on. Sometimes it was easy to forget how smart Dean really was. "So, how do we kill it?" And how come the exorcism didn't work on you? But he refrained from asking. His brother was barely holding on. The information was a way to latch onto something, make it a normal hunt, and somehow keep what little was left of his sanity. But one look at Dean let Sam know exactly how thin the ice they were skating on was.

Dean shook his head, not having seen Sam's expression. "We can't. To feed it was a great honor that was highly treasured, so much so that the Egyptians actually hand-picked children to be raised as the sacrifice. These children were raised hellishly, led the worst kind of lives one could imagine so it would have plenty to feed on. Those who survived the upbringing would fall asleep, and eventually die. Modern scientists have decided it was due to dehydration and starvation, but the ancient Egyptians believed it came for them during their slumber. Socrates once speculated that if one could discover its true name, then its physical manifestation would be banished forever."

Sam shot him a look. "How do you know all this?"

Dean smirked, but didn't answer, instead continued the flow of his knowledge. "Problem was, times were changing, and it changed names a hundred times. Monks spent centuries trying to discover a way to banish it, but failed."

"Okay, well that tells us how it started, but not how to end it," Sam pointed out. "Were you able to find any of the rituals used? The exact exorcism?"

"Nope." Nor was he going to mention that he'd never looked. When he first started Hunting, John would demand that Dean hand in weekly research papers. Thankfully, by the time Sammy was old enough, he'd gotten too busy for the habit. But still, there were pieces missing. There was something he should know, something he should be getting by now, but it escaped him at the moment. God he was tired. Why couldn't Sam let him rest? Let him just stop? Swallowing it down, he forced himself forward. For Sam, he would keep going, he would try.

They moved silently through the house, and Sam noticed that Dean's steps slowed as they reached what he knew had been his nursery. "This is that night, isn't it?" he asked gently.

Dean drew in a deep breath and nodded, but remained silent.

Sam was unprepared for the sight that greeted him. Dean had rarely spoken of the night his mother died. What little Sam knew, he knew from his father's rants of revenge as they were growing up. With the demon feeding on sorrow, he was momentarily surprised when what he saw was a happy family. Little Dean was leaning over the crib, kissing baby Sam good night.

John appeared in the doorway, and opened his arms for his oldest son. "Hey, Dean."

"Daddy!" Dean flew into his father’s arms, and was lifted up. John gazed lovingly at his prize.

"Hey Buddy. So what do you think? You think Sammy's ready to toss around a football?"

Dean giggled. "No, Daddy."

"No," John agreed with a smile.

Sam turned to his brother, surprised to see the raw grief on his face. He had expected to walk directly into the horrible moment when their mother died. He saw a happy family in front of him. There was no sorrow here.

"Dean, I don't understand," Sam whispered.

Dean sniffled, and chuckled. "No, you wouldn't. You don't remember this."

And then Sam thought he did understand. "You lost this. Our family." He reached out and touched his brother’s shoulder in sympathy, and was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of loss, grief and regret. It was a constant cascade of emotions he knew weren't his own. He was confused until he realized he was feeling his brother as they watched the happy scene play out. Somehow, the psychic had plugged him right into Dean, not just his mind, but his emotions as well. Had it been done intentionally, or was it just a by-product?

He could feel it all. The simple joy of having their father tuck him in, immediately followed by a sharp pang of remorse for that pleasure. The emotions were two fold as he realized he was feeling little Dean's emotions as well. When John turned off the light to Dean's room, Sam felt his own heart break as, with his new insight, he finally understood what it was about this that caused Dean so much pain.

"My god, Dean," Sam gasped. "Your grief isn't even about what you lost tonight, it's about what I never knew." And that was just so typical of Dean.

Dean shifted uncomfortably, aware of the source of Sam's sudden understanding, but lacking the ability to shut it down. His carefully built walls had crumbled a long time ago, and he didn't have the strength to rebuild them. "You never got to call him 'Daddy'," he whispered. "This is it. This is what you've always wanted, but couldn't remember. What your quest for 'normality' has always been about, trying to get this back."

Sam wiped his own eyes, removing his hand from Dean's shoulder, cutting off the shared emotions. It was too much, all those emotions Dean had spent his life bottling up suddenly loosed and out of control. He had felt as Dean struggled with it, and locked it away in a box in the back of his mind as they watched. It felt like a surging tide, there and then gone, buried so deeply it would never see the light of day again.

"Daddy!" called a terrified four year old Dean in the hallway.

"Take your brother outside as fast as you can and don't look back. Now, Dean, go!" John ordered as he placed the bundled baby in his brothers little arms.

They followed Little Dean outside, and watched as he snuggled the baby to him. Unable to resist, Sam lightly touched his brother, and closed his eyes against the flood of emotions. It was as if Dean was reliving each emotion he had felt at the time, as well as his own emotions in reaction to seeing the memory again, knowing what he did now. One had the sense of an echo to it, while the latter was strong enough that Sam could sense Dean trying- and failing- to keep a good deal of it from him.

Sam felt the terror of that little boy, felt the surge of protectiveness, the ownership of that baby. Layered on top of that was a deep sense of failure, pain and confusion. This was it, this was the moment Dean ceased to exist, and simply became Sammy's big brother and protector.

It was all encompassing, this need to protect the helpless life in his arms. Sam watched and felt as Dean grew into a man that night, forcing back his terror, locking it away, and focused on Baby Sam.

"It's okay, Sammy," Little Dean whispered as he stared at the burning house, knowing even in his innocent mind that his life would never be the same. "I'll protect you. Always."

Sam watched as they sped through memories of the days following, suddenly realizing that those four words had been the last Dean had spoken. John went to his friends for help, barely managed to make it through the funeral. The man was a mess, emotionally broken. Watching, Sam also realized that John rarely held him, and usually only for moments at a time, then handed the baby back to his oldest. Dean seemed to develop a hyper awareness of Sam, every movement watched, every expression carefully noted and processed. He hadn't realized that Dean's ability to read his mind, which had so annoyed him over the years, had been carefully honed. If Dean could anticipate what his younger brother needed, then there was less and less need to disturb their grieving father.

The pattern continued as the boys grew up, and John learned more and more about the world that had taken away his wife. Sam was surprised to discover that a year had passed, and still Dean hadn't said a word. His fierce ownership of Sammy was obviously encouraged by John, who rarely took the time to speak to either of his sons, except to issue an order to Dean.

Even when John left them at a friend’s house, his last words to the silent boy were never 'I Love you', but 'Take care of your brother'. Sam watched as it became the mantra of communication between them. And poor little Dean took it so seriously, caring for Sam, comforting his father whenever he could, trying be everything to everyone, to fill the shoes of the woman that was so obviously missing from their lives. Caring for his family in whatever way was asked or needed. Learning to anticipate them both so he could deliver without having to be asked.

He followed his brother’s feelings, and never felt a morsel of regret, or even resentment. This was his role now. Sam felt each time that Dean shoved down a personal desire, or need, in order to look after what little he had left of his family, taking a piece of Dean's own identity with it. Moments taken from years of pain, abandonment and Little Dean clinging desperately to the only thing he had left.

Dean's combat training had started when he turned five. His weapons training when he was six. By the time Sammy could run, Dean was a near perfect marksman, could dismantle and reassemble the guns blindfolded. He felt Dean's simple pleasure as he ran laps with his father, leaving Sammy to be cared for by Bobby, or Pastor Jim, or Caleb. There were no words spoken, merely time spent together. He felt Little Dean's pride when he kept up with his father, the flare of silent disappointment when John merely increased the length of their runs, his determination to do better.

Sam felt the tears on his cheek as he watched this rare insight into a life he had no memory of, and into feelings his brother would never have willingly shared with him. He watched as Dean physically removed Sammy from the room anytime John started talking about the supernatural in order to protect as much of Sam's innocence as he could, trying to give his little brother the childhood he'd long given up.

His older brother had doted on him, giving anything and everything he might need, becoming in one little person the two loving parents he should have had. Sammy's first word thrilled him, his first steps earning him a whoop of joy from his older brother. When Sammy fell and scraped his knee, it was Dean that cleaned and bandaged it, kissed it better when a toddler too young to know any better pouted that it still hurt, even if it didn't really.

Dean finally started talking when the school threatened to remove them from John's care, proving that while he hadn't been very vocal, he was extremely perceptive. The school had been shocked to discover he could read before he entered the first grade, could work his way through well over half the multiplication table, and had a logic process far more advanced than his age. During his silent years, Dean had absorbed an incredible amount of information, processed it, and put it aside for future use, as he had been trained. He took to everything with a hard edged determination that concerned a few, but already adept at evading any special notice, Dean immediately allowed his grades to fall. With each new school he set out to prove that his advancement in his early years had been trauma induced, and wasn't going to be duplicated.

By the time Sammy entered school, few suspected the double life Dean led. He earned a reputation as a slacker in his academics, and a clever, sly, charmer who could wheedle his way in or out of anything. In short, Dean was a survivor. He could, and would, adapt to any situation in which he was placed with an ease Sam had secretly envied. Only now did he understand the true reason for it, that it was another shield Dean had conjured for their protection. Then there was the fact that Dean excelled in his home studies, having an ability to recognize patterns from the barest scraps of information. He might be failing English at school, but at home even their father had to admit to being impressed with how quickly Dean picked up the tools of their trade. His one and only act of rebellion against everything had been his outright refusal to learn Latin. He made a show of it, but never honestly put any true effort behind it.

Sam had always teased him about it, but he felt bad for that now. It wasn't that Dean wasn't capable of learning it, it was simply too painful for him. Their mother had used to read him bedtime stories in Latin. It was their special time, and he wouldn't sacrifice the memory of it, not even to appease his father.

In what seemed like an eternity, Sam watched their lives flash before them, feeling each pang the memories brought his brother. He felt Dean's hunger the first time their father hadn't returned on schedule and Dean had stopped eating to make sure Sammy could continue to do so. Stealing had never made him feel proud, but he wasn't too proud to do it. It was merely another skill at his disposal, to be used as needed. He watched the circumstances that had warped Dean into the natural warrior he was today. Felt that desperate need for approval from their father change into acceptance that it would never come, and eventually into a kind of contentment that he, at least, still had his father and brother. If nothing else in the world, he had that.

Dean struggled to hold in his grunt of pain as he lowered himself on his bed. He hadn't mentioned it to his father, but he was pretty sure his ribs were badly banged up. If he was smart, he'd wrap them first, but found he couldn't be bothered. It just hurt too damn much to move. The shower had pretty much wiped him out.

He felt the air in the room change, and instantly Sammy was crawling in on the floor, trying to hide from him. He couldn't stop the affectionate grin that took over his pain. Though still young, Sammy liked to believe he was all grown up, and too old for games like this.

Still, he pretended to jump when Sam popped his head up over the side of the bed, growling at the boy for scaring him. Wide hazel eyes filled with a secret pride looked back at him.

"Really, Dean? Did I scare you?"

Dean forced a scowl onto his face. "You know you did. You're a brat of a brother, you know that?"

Sammy laughed in delight, and Dean allowed his glare to soften. "Why are you still up?" he asked.

"I can't sleep. The storm is keeping me awake." Sammy had never liked storms. He liked them even less knowing his brother and father had been out in it. Nodding, Dean patted the bed, bracing himself for the pain he knew this would cause.

"Come on up, and grab that book on the way. We can finish it."

Sammy scrunched up his face. "I'm too old for bedtime stories."

"But I'm not, and I want to know how it ends. How about you read to me tonight?" It would keep his brother distracted from the weather outside, and give him a chance to relax a little. What did it matter that he had practically memorized the entire book?

Within moments, Sammy was snuggled tightly into his side, reading the last few chapters of Charlotte's Web. Dean helped him when he struggled, but was content to sit back and just listen. It took so little to make Sammy happy, and if the cost of it was a little pain, then it was a price he was more than willing to pay.

Sam hung his head. He hadn't known. That night was actually one of his most cherished memories of his brother. He had completely forgotten about the storm outside, and had enjoyed being snuggled so closely with his brother.

Dean had never given any hint how much he must have been hurting, and had patiently helped him with the bigger words. He felt guilty, but noted that Dean didn't seem to regret it anymore now than he had then. But the pain in this memory was so much more than just physical. Even then, Dean had held a secret wish in his heart that their mother could have been the one to read to Sammy. Not because he didn't enjoy doing it, but because Sammy deserved to know how good it felt to have Mommy read a bedtime story. Once again, Dean mourned the loss of what Sam would never know.

For his part, Sam had never noticed the lack, not then. Dean had been everything to him, for him. Mom, Dad, Brother and best friend all wrapped up in one neat package. At that age, while he knew there was someone missing from their lives, he never felt it. Dean provided him with everything he needed or wanted. He had never once considered what his brother must have given up in order to be able to support that unending need.

Sam watched as they took everything Dean had to offer, demanded more, and then took that too when it was given without reserve or hesitation. He felt Dean's pain as his brother finally had to allow Sammy into the world he and his father had existed in for years. He didn't remember his older brother ever contradicting anything their father had said or done, but watched as Dean fulfilled his promise to protect his little brother, even from their father if he had to, especially after little Sammy found his voice.

Sam never knew their father had turned to a bottle so many times in their young lives. Dean had taken the brunt of the drunken abuse, accepting that this, too, was simply one more thing needed from him. That deep devotion to the man who had failed him time and time again never wavering, even broken and bleeding on the floor from one of John's more violent drunks and frustrating hunts.

"Dean, why are you bleeding?" Sammy asked as his brother entered the bedroom they shared in the tiny suite. Dean had sent him to his room as soon as their father staggered in the door an hour ago.

Dean offered a smile and a shrug. "Tripped. How was school today? Did you do okay on the Math test?" He cleaned himself up, wiping the blood from the cut on his eyebrow, carefully applying a cold pack that he had grabbed on his way in to his cheek.

Sammy's smile lit up the room as his question was forgotten in the excitement of his academic accomplishments. Dean settled himself carefully on the bed and listened with a small smile of his own, asking questions in all the right places, proving that though his eyes were closed, he was taking it all in.

"I'm proud of you, Sammy. I knew you could do it."

Sammy beamed his own pride at his brother's praise. Then his face fell as he remembered what he had seen. "How's Dad? Did you patch him up?"

"Dad'll be fine, Sammy. We just need to let him rest tomorrow, then he should be back to normal," Dean answered. "Now come on, bed time."

So many times Dean had sidestepped the questions, leading Sammy in another direction, always knowing just the right question to ask to send him off the trail and into his own world, somehow making him forget about what was right in front of him. Sam didn't bother to check his shock.

"I didn't know, Dean. I'm so sorry, I didn't know," Sam whispered in horror. It was more than the abuse. He had never really considered how much his brother had hidden from him, only now truly seeing the depth of it all. Dean had given of himself time and again to keep their small family together, and mostly at peace.

Dean smiled gently. "You weren't supposed to. It's okay, Sammy. You were too young to understand back then. Dad did the best he could."

Sam was almost shocked to discover, through their link, that Dean truly believed that. He couldn't answer, could barely manage to look away from the determination of those green eyes to make the thought a reality. No, John hadn't done the best he could. Neither of them had.

All the years of fighting with his father, with both of them drawing Dean into the middle, trying to force him to choose between them. Sam had never understood his brothers devotion to the man he had always blamed for his own lack of a normal life, hadn't seen how much it hurt Dean to play referee and peace keeper, always compromising himself in his effort to soothe the two sides.

With each passing year Sam saw more and more of his brother disappear. Dean's first solo hunt had been when he was so much younger than Sammy had ever been. Dean had been thrilled, happy to finally be able to put his extensive knowledge to good use. The need to hunt had been itching at him for years, until finally he had been granted his wish. It had nearly killed him, but Dean had been too busy riding the throes of a successful hunt to really notice. Somehow, that thrill of the chase had never really worn off. Sam didn't need a psychic connection to his brother to know Dean still felt that way, even now.

He flinched when he felt Dean's excitement upon receiving an acceptance letter from a college, when he saw Dean throw the letter in the trash as the two of them had started another major row. There was no emotion with the action. It simply was. Being accepted had been enough, had to be enough. He was needed here. It was a quick and simple, though hardly painless, solution as far as Dean was concerned. One minute the letter was in his hand, and he was wondering how to broach the subject with his father, the next it, and any thoughts of another life outside hunting, were gone, shoved into that vault in his mind. A brief flicker in the steady flame that was his brother.

The years moved forward quickly enough. Dean's was an acceptance that hurt so much more than the events they were being forced to watch. Even so, each event had hurt his brother in some way, had been wrestled with and shoved into a box that was already too full.

Sam's first hunt, and Dean had fought hard to keep him back, to protect him. But John had insisted, and in the end, Dean had to obey. He sighed. He remembered that hunt. Dean had barely left his side, moving forward only enough to keep their father in sight, but never more than an arm's length away. If something was going to get to him, it would have to go through his older brother first.

Thinking on Dean's habit of always taking the bed closest to the door, of always being the first one through the door and the last one out, Sam realized that constant vigilance had never died. It had merely become second nature to them both. Perhaps, in training his oldest to always follow his command, in allowing Dean to become Sam's primary caretaker, John had been silently training his youngest to rely on that security, setting up a strict chain of command.

It was a disturbing thought as harsh words floated back from the memories playing out before them.

"Dean, you need to watch your brothers back! You could have gotten him killed tonight! What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Dean, how can you just automatically obey everything he says? Christ, would it kill you to take my side for once?"

"Dean, you hesitated! Get your head on straight, boy, or you're no good to me!"

"Dean, don't you think Mom wanted something different for us than this? We're not soldiers."

Back and forth it went, a constant tug a war between the oldest and youngest Winchester, leaving Dean damaged and broken but stoically stable in the process. They had each used him and then discarded him, with Dean somehow making sure the only one who lost in the end was himself.

He recognized what was coming next. It had been a particularly brutal hunt, John had needed bait, and Dean had nearly died in the process. Watching Dean fight for his life while his father cleaned up the loose ends had been the end of a very short rope for Sam. In the end, Dean had recovered, hadn't understood Sam's upset. It was just the way things were. It was a dangerous job, and it was their responsibility to do it. Sam and John were both okay, and the thing was dead. Beyond that, what else mattered? That attitude had driven Sam to John, and things had gone downhill from there.

"I want a normal life, Dad!" Sam screamed, unaware of his brothers silent agony as Dean stood back, watching events unfold that he couldn't control. This one time, he couldn't interfere. This was Sam's fight, his decision.

"This is your life! It's our life! How can you just walk away from it?"

"No, Dad, it's not. It's your life, your revenge. All I know about Mom is that she wouldn't have wanted this for us. She couldn't have."

"And what about your brother? Can you walk away from him this easily?" John roared.

"What's my alternative? Watch you hang him out for bait again? Watch him die? Yeah, Dad. I can. Because neither of us deserves it. We're just pawns to you and I refuse to sit here and watch you offer him up on your revenge driven sacrificial altar!" Sam yelled in retaliation.

"I don't hear Dean complaining," their father growled dangerously, an age old clue that Sam was hitting a little too close to home.

"You never do, do you?" Sam snarled in sarcasm.

The two competitors never saw Dean's face blanch, never saw him squeeze his eyes closed against the onslaught of pain their words caused, neither stopping to consider he wasn't a weapon to be hurled at each other.

"If you walk out that door, don't you ever come back!" John shouted, furious with his youngest. He moved to the other room, slamming the door separating the motel rooms from each other.

Dean took a shuddering breath, and moved to pick up his brothers duffel bag, every instinct in his body screaming at him not to do this, to grab his brother and tie him down until he saw sense. But Sam wanted, and, as always for Dean, that was enough.

"Dean, I-"

"It's okay, Sammy. I understand. This is something you need to do. Come on, I'll take you to the bus station. Don't worry about Dad, I'll talk to him in the morning," Dean managed with his signature grin, letting Sam know that everything really would be fine, even as his own heart broke. He had failed to keep them together, and it was his fault. He should have been able to do more. But he could do this, give this last thing to Sam.

Along the drive, Sam kept expecting his brother to lecture him, or plead with him to stay. But he didn't. Dean dropped him off at the bus, giving him a bundle of money that Sam knew very well was meant to be the replacement transmission in the Impala. He tried to refuse, but Dean pushed it on him.

"Full ride or not, Sammy, there are other expenses. Just remember to have a little fun, too, alright?" In a way, it was as close to having his brothers blessing as Sam was ever going to get. Dean gave him a brief hug, then nudged him onto the bus, ignoring the fact that the minute the door closed, his soul died.

Sam's breath shuddered as he felt the agony that simple action had caused his brother. Dean would rather have chewed off his own arm than let his brother go, but Sam wanted this, and as he had all their lives, Dean would make sure he got it.

"All you had to do was ask, you know. One simple word, Dean, and I would have stayed," Sam admitted.

Dean nodded, his expression serious and sad. "I know. It's why I didn't ask."

Sam blinked, surprised by that confession, but then, after all he'd seen, maybe he shouldn't have been. Whether he wanted it or not, Dean had been given a tremendous amount of power over him. Sam felt ashamed by his surprise that his brother had rarely exercised it.

Sam saw Dean's hunts, his reckless behavior, the pain of losing his first innocent. The endless stream of faceless women who were but a moment of light in an otherwise dark world. Countless barroom brawls as his brother had plied the only trade he'd ever known.

Tears slipped gently down his face as he saw his brother sitting on a dingy hotel bed, the room pitch black, except for the light of the cell phone he had cradled in his hands. Blood glistened on his side from the dim light, the pain from the wound nearly his undoing. One button would call his younger brother, would connect him to a voice he desperately needed to hear in his darkest moments. Sam closed his eyes against the resolve he could feel flowing through his brother as Dean closed the phone, determined to give Sam the silence he had requested.

Sam swallowed. He hadn't realized, when he'd shut the door on their lifestyle, that he had also shut out his brother, who practically embodied everything he was determined to leave behind. Dean had faced so much alone, had wanted to reach out, but wouldn't go back on his choice to let Sam go. Sam found himself flinching away from the many times Dean had nearly died, alone, in a dirty motel room. No one would have known. Dean had been so sure it was his place to suffer in silence, his punishment for failing to keep his family together.

He felt the guilt, shame and horror as Dean begged for his help in finding their father, felt that guilt triple when Jessica was killed, almost surpassing even his own. Drowning in the knowledge that he had failed to protect his charge by failing to protect something that was obviously so vital to him. Accepting a fault that had never been his.

But Dean was Dean, and saw it differently. For the first time, Sam got to see how much had been hidden behind that smirk and off handed comment.

"I can't do this alone."

"Yes you can."

"Yeah, okay, but I don't want to."

Sam could feel it, the guilt that later came from those words. He had to admit that, he, too, had blamed Dean at first for using those words against him. Dean had never asked for anything. When he finally had, it simply wasn't in him to deny that plea. And so Dean had learned, once again, the cost of wanting for himself. This time, it had been Jessica's life, and Sam's faith in him. Sam cringed, knowing this one absolute truth about his brother. Dean never made the same mistake twice, and those rare words had never passed his lips again.

The weight that Dean already carried settled heavily as their father laid the burden of their work on the young man's shoulders, that simple journal that had become all but the family bible reaching far to attach chains of responsibility on a soul already too old for its time.

In some ways, Dean's conviction that this was right, that they helped people, made Sam feel very small. His own reasons for hunting now were no less noble than his fathers. Revenge had driven them both, while his brother had forged ahead, seeing his duty clearly and willingly accepting it. If sometimes it hurt too much to deal with, then that, too, was part of the game they played.

He watched himself walk away from Dean yet again, determined to do this his own way, to rebel against his father in any way he could, even if it meant finding him when he didn't want to be found. Dean let him go, once again, because Sam wanted.

Dean sighed into the cell phone, his brief moment of levity gone.

"Sam. You were right. You gotta do your own thing. You gotta live your own life".

"Are you serious?" Sam asked on the other end.

Dean nodded. "You've always known what you want. And you go after it. You stand up to Dad. And you always have. Hell, I wish I - anyway... .I admire that about you. I'm proud of you, Sammy."

Sam frowned. He had occasionally wondered what Dean had been unable to say that day on the phone. Being so closely attuned to him now, he finally got his answer. 'I wish I had been strong enough to spare you from it all, I wish I could have given you your normal life, I wish I could have helped you understand who Dad is, and why I had to be the one to accept it, that it was the only chance I could give you'. All desires to once again give Sam what he had wanted most all his life, the one and only thing Dean had been forced to deny his younger sibling whatever was asked.

Then Dean was dying, and Sam couldn't help the laugh that popped out of him, strange in the somber mood. "You really did want to hunt that fabric softener teddy bear!" he accused incredulously.

Dean arched an eyebrow at him. "This coming from the man who's afraid of clowns?"

"How are you holding up?" Sam asked, trying to distract himself from the knowledge seeping into him that Dean really had been ready and willing to die then, to rest at long last. The soul deep weariness that had become such a permanent fixture since Dean was a child growing heavier as the chance to finally give in had been offered, and then taken away.

Dean shrugged. "It's getting a little boring, actually. I've already seen this show a few times." But there was a shaky quality to his voice that would have let Sam know he wasn't as fine as he was appearing, even without his window to his brother's emotions.

Sam remained silent, somehow knowing Dean needed that mask to remain in place if he was going to survive this. They rescued their father from the demons, forcing Dean to use a precious bullet in order to save Sam's life. There was no remorse with the action. It was a simple equation to Dean. Sam was in danger, and the threat had to be eliminated immediately.

"Killing that guy, killing Meg... I didn't hesitate, I didn't even flinch," Dean spoke out, refusing to look at his brother as he spoke. "For you or Dad, the things I'm willing to do or kill... it just, ah, it scares me sometimes."

That softly spoken admission hadn't even hinted at the true terror in his brother’s soul, forcing Dean to wonder just where he would draw the line when it came to his family. The horrifying acceptance that there was never going to be a line to cross. For his family, he would do anything it was within his power to do, and then some.

They watched as a possessed John nearly killed his oldest son. He winced as he felt the impact and truth of those words hurt Dean more than the torture the demon was inflicting. Even as his mind shied away from it, a part of his brother knew the demon wasn't lying, that he'd been witness to its verity his entire life. It hurt Sam that he couldn't refute it, not then, and not now.

Dean's panic that Sam might kill their father just to end a twenty year revenge oath nearly unhinged him. Sam had to calm his own breathing to fight it back, reminding himself that those feelings weren't his, that in the end, he hadn't been able to do as his father had ordered. He felt lightheaded as Dean's overpowering relief shuddered through him, threatening to send him spiraling into darkness.

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