Two weeks rolled by slowly in a haze of routine as Dean worked to regain his strength. As soon as he was able to be up out of bed, he'd taken to spending his days outside, working around the yard and fiddling with the Impala. Sam took advantage of it, reading up on everything he could find about deals, understanding that Dean, in his silence, had made a request for time. So Sam dove into the research, but there was nothing that could save his brother.
Remembering the peace he had felt from his brother, Sam occasionally wondered if he had the right to try and break it. After everything, didn't Dean deserve the chance to rest? To lay down his arms and be at peace? But then, what peace could be found in hell? In his dream, John had told him to have faith in Dean, to believe in his knowledge that his brother would always do the right thing. Was there a reason Dean wasn't fighting the deal? Why he protested so vehemently when Sam tried?
Standing, Sam walked over to the window and watched Dean work with Bobby on his precious baby. Dean hadn't spoken much to either of them, seemed to be content to take the time he needed to retreat into himself once again, and Sam wasn't sure that it was his place to stop that from happening.
His invincible brother had been brought to his knees by his own memories. That kind of damage didn't disappear after two weeks of near silence. Even Bobby had kept a wide berth of the subject. Shouldn't that be a hint to Sam to do the same?
He wished he could simply let it go, but he couldn't. He had seen too much, watched an invisible enemy almost kill Dean. Wouldn't hiding from it just confirm the message that it had been trying to send? And there had been a message, that much he had put together himself. The Mercury symbol hadn't been burned onto Dean's chest for nothing. Spirit, mind, and communication. It had been a hint, a clue. If Dean had realized that, had told him what was going on, could they have stopped this from happening?
He needed to know, now more than ever, that he could trust Dean to not only do the right thing when needed, but to do the right thing for himself, as well.
Sighing, he stepped outside. Putting it off would only allow Dean the time to build his defenses again, and Sam couldn't afford for that to happen.
"Hey Dean," he started. "Can we talk?"
Bobby stood, taking a long look at Sam. As much as he loved this boy, he wasn't blind to the fact that Dean's efforts to give him everything had made him a little selfish. If he pushed too hard now, Dean would close up sooner than either was ready for.
Sam saw Bobby's concern, and gave him a small nod. His eyes weren't closed anymore. He would tread carefully. It was time to put into practice what he had claimed the night the hellgate had opened. He really would do anything for Dean, and now he had a better appreciation for just what that meant.
"I'm gonna run and grab us a case of beer, Dean. You good?" Bobby asked, needing to make sure he was ready for what he obviously knew was coming, despite Sam's assurances.
Dean smiled. "Yeah, I'm good. Thanks, Bobby." Not exactly a smooth exit, since both Bobby and Sam had refused to allow Dean any alcohol until he had regained a large percentage of the weight he had lost during his illness, but he appreciated the effort nonetheless.
Both boys waited until they heard the engine start before looking back at each other.
"How are you feeling?" Sam asked, wanting to make sure his brother was up for this conversation. He looked better, some decent meals had put a little weight back on, and there was a healthy color to his skin now from his time outside in the sun. He still had dark circles around his eyes, and his nightmares were as vicious, if not as frequent, as ever, but no one was expecting him to bounce back from this unscathed. The burn on his chest had faded into a light scar, instantly healed with the destruction of its cause. The symbols Knight had carved into his back were healing at a more normal rate, but would barely leave a trace of their presence.
Dean sighed, crossed his arms, and leaned back against his car. He had been dreading this, but knew it had to happen, knew Sam wouldn't let it rest until it had. "Well enough to get this over with. What do you want to know?"
Sam looked away. There was so much he wanted to know, but there was something he really needed to get out, first. "Dean, before we- I mean, I just want to thank you."
Dean arched an eyebrow at the unexpected direction. "For what?"
Sam chuckled and looked up at the sun. "For my life, I guess. For everything I took, and for everything you gave. Thank you feels so small for what you've done. Dean, you loved and accepted a woman you had never met into our family, and under your protection, simply because she was mine. There are no words for that."
Dean shifted uncomfortably. "Jessica made you happy, Sammy, and she could give you what I couldn't. That was enough for me. I'm sorry we couldn't save her."
Sam smiled, loving his brother more for the 'we' than the quiet confession. He knew now that the night on the bridge in Jericho when Dean had asked whether or not Sam had shared his little secret occupation with her, it hadn't been meant as cruel, or an insensitive dig. Dean had wanted to protect her from the awful nightmares that followed wherever the Winchester's landed. Sam knew, without a doubt in his heart, that if Jessica were still alive, Dean would have been there for her as often and as selflessly as he had been for Sam.
These past years Sam had assumed that it was Dean's natural instinct that told him his brother was in danger and led him back to the apartment, that same instinct that had sent Dean looking for their father. Now, he knew Dean's instincts had expanded to include Sam's lover. An honorary member of their family was somehow being threatened, and he'd beat hellfire getting back to them. Had nearly drowned himself in guilt for failing, for not being able to save them both. In Dean's world, there was no greater sin than failing family.
It was the one enemy that could destroy his brother, Sam knew that now. It was why Dean couldn't watch him die again. Even then, Sam had understood that Dean was protecting him from his own emotions during that time. He'd seen enough now to be able to guess at the empty abyss Dean had fallen into, and also enough to know that he couldn't even begin to fathom the agony his brother must have suffered, a contradiction in that both were true. Dean existed for Sam. However it had come about, it was a simple fact. Without Sam, there was no life for Dean. The logic of it was achingly clear. If Sam was dead, then Dean didn't exist. If selling his soul protected that existence in whatever warped form it might be, then that was what had to be done.
Sam's heart was broken over the knowledge, and he suffered his own private agony in it. But for Dean, there had never been a choice to make. As with everything, it simply was.
Sam cleared his throat in an attempt to get rid of the lump that had formed there.
"How did you know its true name?" he asked, moving away from a topic that was still painful for them both.
"I assume you've translated it by now?" Dean replied, more statement than question.
"It means 'Truth' in Sanskit. But I haven't been able to find any reference to a demi god of sorrow in any of Bobby's books." Dean chuckled as Sam seemed to take that quite personally, as though his precious books had finally failed him.
"You wouldn't. It doesn't exist. At least, not in terms of being our kind of Hunt."
Now Sam was really confused. "But all that stuff you said, you couldn't have just made that up."
"I didn't. I just didn't realize what it all actually meant. I took it too literally. Sorrow's true name is Truth, Sam, because it is a fundamental part of human existence. It can't be banished, only survived, because without it, no one would be challenged enough to overcome it," Dean explained softly. It had been a hard won discovery.
"But it almost killed you!" Sam protested.
Dean shook his head. "No, Sammy, I almost killed me. Everything just built up, and I couldn't deal with it. So, I did what I do best- I created something that I thought I could kill. I didn't realize at the time how much I didn't want to kill it, how much I wanted it to swallow me up. I gave it power it never should have had."
Sam swallowed as the weight of what his brother was saying settled on him. "That vault you kept locking everything into finally broke, and it hit you all at once, creating a physical manifestation of years of painful memories. That's why you figured it out only after I got there. It wasn't because you needed the pieces of the puzzle I brought you, it was because up until then you had no reason to want to solve it. You couldn't let go once I was there to protect." Hazel eyes looked to his older brother, begging for him to call him wrong, to deny that terrible truth.
Dean licked his lips, unable to deliver the wanted denial. "Yeah, that's about right. I'm tired, Sammy. I know you don't want to hear it, but man, I really am. When I made that deal, it felt so right, like things could finally be put back into balance. I knew, for the first time, that you didn't need me anymore. I understood, then. It's like I had one job, one mission. To protect you. And my job is almost over. A part of protecting you, Sammy, is letting you go. I thought I knew what that meant when I let you go off to school, when I didn't fall to my knees and beg you to stay. Then again when you walked off to find Dad. But I wasn't even close. Those were tests, teaching you to crawl. Now, baby brother, you're ready to walk on your own."
Sam blinked back tears. "But I'm not, Dean, and I wish I could make you see that. I'm not ready to let you go."
Dean smiled sadly. "And you never will be. That's my fault. In needing so much from you, I forced you to need me too, and made this so much harder for you than it should have been. For that, I'm sorry. But I swear to you, I wouldn't leave if I didn't think you were ready. It's my job to do what's best for you, even if it kills me. I've done that. One year, Sammy. That's all we have left. Do we really have to spend it fighting a war neither of us is going to win?"
"What war?" Sam asked, knowing in his gut that Dean wasn't referring to the endless good vs. evil struggle that they had inherited.
"Our war, Sammy. I'm tired. I want to let go, because for once I get the feeling that you're going to be okay. And as selfish as it might be, I feel like I deserve it." Dean chuckled and shook his head, giving way to his growing understanding of his little brother. "But you won't let it happen. I know you. You'll fight this tooth and nail. I'm just saying that maybe, maybe we don't have to fight each other on it."
Sam sniffled. "Why do I get the feeling that even after everything we've just seen, I don't really know you at all? And never really did."
Dean shrugged. "Dude, come on. You know I'd never let you face something I didn't think you were ready for. I did the best I could for you, to help you be ready for this. It's enough. It has to be. The truth is, I can't do this without you."
"No, Sammy. You wanted a share and care moment? Well here it is. Dad was right, you were right. I'm nothing without you and Dad. My whole life has been the two of you, and if that's gone, then what do I have left, huh? Where could I possibly go from there? This way- this way I know you're safe."
Sam closed his eyes, Rita's words coming back to him. Our protectors, they can't survive without us... we let ourselves need them... in the end, they know we can survive without them.
"I'm sorry, Sam, for everything that's gotten us this far, but we had to play the cards we were dealt. Not every hand is a winner. Sometimes, we have to be content to break even."
"But it's not enough. I want you to fight this," Sam choked. "You fight for this family, no matter how many times we let you down. I don't understand why you can't fight for yourself just as hard. There has to be more to your life than just watching over me. My god, Dean, you have to want something. You did once."
"Yeah, and I gave it up, without regret. Do you know what I want?" Dean asked, shoving off the car and moving into his brothers personal space. "I want your life to be your own. Whatever you make of it. If that means a pretty girl and a thousand kids, then that's what I want for you. If it means that you go down swinging in this war, then that's what I want for you. I want you to be safe, loved and okay, in whatever weird fashion that might be."
"The choice you never had," Sam whispered.
Dean looked away, shaking his head. "That's what you still don't get, Sammy. Even after everything you've seen. You're so busy trying to blame Dad for everything that you've never stopped to look at the truth. I chose this. That night Dad put you in my arms, I made a choice. Every step we've taken from that moment, I've made my choices along the way. Yes, Dad encouraged them. He forced something on me that I didn't deserve, but I could have rejected it. I could have refused to shoulder it, but I didn't. I chose to accept it, because if I hadn't, where would we be? Where would you be?"
Sam heard his father's voice from his dream echo in his head. 'When the time comes, he'll do the right thing. He always does.' "How do you do it?" Sam asked, feeling the wetness on his cheeks, but refusing to wipe them off. "How did you keep making those choices?"
"I couldn't have, not without you. I needed a purpose, Sammy, something more than petty revenge. And you gave me that. I owe you everything... I owe you my life. You saw what happened with the Djinn? What I became without that purpose? Those memories were pretty one sided, and you missed the bigger picture. For everything you took from me, you gave it back ten fold without ever realizing it. You're my strength, but you're also my biggest weakness. I can't say no to you, but I've also rarely asked for anything from you. Now, Sammy, I'm asking. Let me go, and trust yourself."
"I can't, Dean."
"Then trust me, Sam, just this last time. Trust that I'm watching out for you in my own way," Dean requested, reaching out and grabbing his brother into a tight hug. "Can you trust me, Sammy?"
"Always, Dean," Sam whispered miserably, knowing the truth of it. However else their life played out, that one truth was his only constant. He grabbed at his brother, trying to keep him with him, knowing that in the end, it wouldn't matter. No matter how hard he fought, how hard he held on, Dean was going to slip through his fingers. The knowledge didn't deter his determination to save his brother. Dean was not going to rot in hell just to give Sam his legs. "I'm sorry, Dean," Sam apologized.
Dean nodded, as always somehow hearing his brother's unspoken thoughts, and Sam felt the sad smile on his lips. "It's okay, Sammy. I understand."
They stood like that for only a moment more before Dean pulled away, making eye contact with his brother, needing to know that Sam was okay, at least in this moment. No, Sam would never let him go, but he could handle that. He had no way to make this easier on his brother, except to let him fight for it, fight to change an outcome neither of them could beat.
Nodding, his choice once again made, Dean turned back to his baby. He waited until he felt Sam moving back toward the house before he called out. "Hey Sam?"
Sam looked back, seeing that spark of mischief in his brothers eyes and the signature grin that could charm anything with a heartbeat that always let him know everything would be alright. "Yeah?"
"Dude, you totally just used up a year's worth of chick flick moments."
And, after all was said and done, Sam realized that as much as there was still for him to learn about his brother, the basic truths he'd always known would never change. Dean would always be there for him, would always do what was right, would always be Sam's link to safety, and Dean would always be loving, selfless, childish, snarky, too clever by half, over protective, bad ass, unchanging, Dean. He couldn't help it.