SUMMARY: Dean's in deep trouble and Sam's ability to help is undermined by the tattered state of their relationship post-Gadreel. Sam takes desperate action: he talks to someone. Beta'ed by the incomparable Scullspeare, and I am tremendously grateful for the gift of her time and insight. (Readers, please note: I did tinker a bit after the beta stage, and any errors in this final version are mine and mine alone.)

SPOILERS: A Season 9 story spanning the time between Captives and Do You Believe in Miracles?

DISCLAIMER: Obviously, I own nothing but am grateful to walk in this astounding world others have created.

RATING: T for adult language

GENRE: Gen/Hurt-Comfort

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story came into being because a friend and I were tossing around "what ifs" and found ourselves very much intrigued by a "what if Sam or Dean were really in therapy with a good therapist (at least, with a better therapist than has ever been portrayed on the show)"? My friend double dared me, and I dove into the attempt. It was a lot harder than I imagined it was going to be. How do you make two people sitting and talking in a room interesting? Well, it helps when one of them is a Winchester.

UNRESOLVED

"Before I go, will you guys promise me something? Can you two get over it?"

Kevin had been so young when he died, and sheltered despite the upheaval of his final years, Sam thought. He was a genius and a prophet, but also an only child. There was no way he could have grasped a relationship as deep-rooted and expansive, as tangled and tempestuous as his and Dean's...how a relationship that all-encompassing and trauma laden could get so colossally fucked up...how it wasn't so easy to just "get over it."

Of course, Sam had promised Kevin's spirit they'd stop the drama. It was a vow uttered on autopilot because he was not about to deny Kevin peace of mind. Unfortunately, it had also given Dean thirty seconds of hope that things were about to be OK. With what sounded like relief, Dean had turned to engage….

"Well, that was—"

He'd hurt Dean, walking away like that. He couldn't seem to help it, withholding to punish, but there was no satisfaction in it, only regret. As he stood at the door to his room, trying to muster some platitude that would paper over the gaping hole inside him and the chasm between him and his brother, panic clawed up his throat. If he gave in now, forgave all even when Dean didn't understand a damn thing, it would happen again.

And he wouldn't survive it.

Since Gadreel had been expelled, he'd hung, twisted and kicking, in this same defeated place: caught between silence, spilling out painful truths that would wound Dean, and surrender that would obliterate what little sense of self he had left. He needed to find a way to help Dean see so they could escape falling into these same spiked, bloody traps again and again.

Then things got worse. A psychopathic ex-Man of Letters, jonesing over the Mark of Cain, made sure the First Blade found its way into his brother's trembling hand. After removing Magnus's head from his shoulders, Dean gripped the ugly shard of bone, knuckles white, eyes feral, lips pulled back in a snarl, and took far too long to drop the foul thing in response to Sam's urging.

Worry took up permanent residence in the pit of Sam's stomach. His research on the Mark yielded next to nothing, and their relationship–so often a source of strength—was at an all-time low. Helpless, he observed the sleeplessness, the massive-even-for-Dean alcohol intake, and the disturbing apathy so alien to his bigger-than-life older brother–an apathy relieved only by eruptions of bloodlust.

"Look at me, bitch!"

It was after a berserk Dean decapitated a vampire with a machete and superhuman strength that Sam made the call. He didn't want to, but he had to. He was out of time, he was out of ideas, and he was losing his brother.

xxxXXXxxx

Brian Albright, a family therapist with an office in Salina, Kansas and a decade's worth of experience, agreed to see the man even though he insisted he would only come in for one session, ridiculous as that was.

Only mental health professionals put up with this kind of nonsense, Brian reflected with resignation. Nobody told their surgeon they had decided ahead of time they would only be on the table for an hour. Still, he understood. This was an individual who had probably vacillated before dialing his number, who felt massively ambivalent about coming in, and who, more than likely, wouldn't show.

Then he did. Kind of.

When Brian went out to the waiting room to fetch him, the man he presumed was Sam Richards was halfway out the door. It was pretty clear he'd sat and thumbed through the seven month old National Geographic splayed on the coffee table before losing his nerve.

Brian decided to pretend his reluctant client hadn't been in the midst of fleeing, warmly introduced himself, and ushered him into his office.

The man was far taller than Brian's five foot eight, long legs bent awkwardly to minimize the space they took up in front of the chair he rather overwhelmed. He seemed an odd mix of educated –his vocabulary and speech– and blue collar –the work boots, jeans, and faded indigo and grey checked flannel shirt worn over a blue tee. Nervously, he kept tucking his shoulder length chestnut hair behind his ear.

xxxXXXxxx

Sam's chest felt compressed, like when his ribs had been broken and wrapped after brutal contact with abandoned factory equipment or a marble mausoleum. Miserable, he hunched in his chair, interlaced fingers pressed between his knees. Why was he even here? What did he expect this guy to do with his crap-load of problems? He hadn't exactly had a lot of luck with shrinks. Mental institutions I have known he mused darkly and the thought brought home just how desperate he was to have voluntarily come here. Cautious, he sized up the therapist.

His name was "Brian." He was maybe mid-forties, a tad chubby, clean shaven, with blond hair trimmed close. He wore dark slacks, a light green button-down, and white Converse sneakers. His office was what you'd expect: a faux leather sofa and matching chairs, a walnut end table bearing a lamp and box of tissues, and on the wall dusky blue and yellow toned paintings of herons stalking through a marsh.

After the most basic of pleasantries, Brian got right down to business. "You said on the phone that it's your relationship with your older brother that's really tough right now. You said that you feel trapped…hopeless."

Sam stared at the floor. He did feel hopeless.

When he looked up, Brian was gazing at him with one part curiosity and two parts compassion. To his horror, Sam felt his throat begin to close. He'd felt so alone with this rift, this terrible betrayal, all bunged up with love and confusion and worry. He swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing.

"Can you help me understand that better?" Brian prompted. "Tell me what kind of 'trapped'?"

Thoughts in disarray, Sam raised his broad shoulders in a dispirited shrug.

"Trapped… because your brother is helpless and ineffective and needs you?" the therapist fished.

"He's hardly helpless," Sam huffed. The shrink couldn't be more off base.

"Trapped, because he's controlling?"

No, Sam thought. Not if the guy meant "abusive," like some dick who got off on dominating his doormat girlfriend.

"Not quite right?" Brian tilted his head to one side, seemingly aware he hadn't hit the mark.

"It's not about his ego, or him being the alpha or whatever, if that's what you mean," Sam protested.

"So not an overbearing ass." Brian's lips quirked in a wry smile.

"Right." Sam managed a weak smile in return. "Well, not most of the time."

"And he's not somebody who's getting off by keeping you in your place."

The words sucker punched Sam, stirring up a thick sludge of resentment and frustration, built up over years. A muscle jumped in his jaw.

"He keeps me in my place all right," he managed. "But not how you mean."

xxxXXXxxx

Ah-ha, Brain thought, not without sympathy. Here we go.

When someone was in distress, all roads quickly led back to the Snarl, the Problem, the Place-Where-They-Were-Stuck.

He was sorry it would be uncomfortable, but that's when they came to him: when the agony of leaving things as they were surpassed the terror, the risk of change.

xxxXXXxxx

"How do you mean it?"

Sam dithered for a few seconds, casting about for words that would even begin to adequately describe the situation, fingers flexing on his denim-clad knees. "He does need me," he said at last, "but not to submit to him. He needs me by his side. And a little behind…where he thinks it's safe."

"You look like a condemned man when you say that," the therapist commented, subdued.

"There's so much I can't tell you…" Sam whispered. Like about vengeful spirits and tulpas, vampires and wendigos, demons and angels, terrible inescapable destinies, and failure beyond comprehension. Anguished, he ran his fingers through his hair, lips pressed tight together -anything to distract from the roiling emotion in his gut.

"That's OK," Brian reassured. "We'll work with what we can. So…by his side?"

Sam shifted in his seat. "I want to be there. I do. I've made that choice. We're all we have left. But…he doesn't…."

Sam's voice trailed off, his airway constricted.

"I know," Brian commiserated. "Sometimes things are hard to put into words even if you've been thinking about them nonstop."

Speechless, Sam nodded. He had. Hours and hours, alone in his stark room-that-wasn't-home, thinking himself into boxes, mazes, dead ends. Never finding answers, a way to make it OK. For both of them.

"Would you say that's typical for you, that you tend not to ignore but to analyze?"

Sam grimaced. That was him to a "T" -the careful one, the thinker. The "smart" one. Fucking useless. "It doesn't make any difference. Because however I try to change things, to explain, my brother…he can't hear me."

Brian settled back in his chair. "Tell me about him," he invited.

Dean. It would take years and a thousand pages to do Dean justice, Sam thought. The one who held him when he was a frightened toddler, ministered to his boo-boos, comforted him when he cried, nursed him when he was sick, cooked him Spaghettios and poured Lucky Charms into his bowl. The one who celebrated good report cards or athletic triumphs, praised his marksmanship or fighting skills, teased him mercilessly about his hair, his brains, his reserve. The one who defended him against bullies, against monsters, even against Dad once they started to battle. The one who sold his soul for him. Went to Hell for him. Left Lisa and Ben for him. Killed Benny for him. Aborted the third and last trial to make sure he was safe. Here. Alive.

Oh, Dean.

Sam's brows knitted with the effort of capturing it all. "He's stubborn. Brave. The bravest, best, most loyal man I know. The best, you understand?"

xxxXXXxxx

Brian met his client's tilted hazel gaze, knowing he needed to praise his brother at the same time he struggled with the aspects that drove him nuts. Love was a many splendored and messed up thing.

He purposely remained silent, bearing witness as Sam's voice and story filled the space between them.

xxxXXXxxx

"Our family…I can't… I can't tell you everything, but we were in danger. We really were." Sam met Brian's gaze, trying to read his reaction. He needed to explain at least part of it, but he knew it sounded one hundred percent cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs delusional.

Brian didn't even twitch. Sam prayed he wasn't about to be fifty-one-fiftied.

Fuck it. Barging in guns blazing was the Winchester way.

"These…people… They murdered my mom. They wanted me. I didn't realize that for a long time, but they did. They wanted me."

"Can you tell me why?" Brian inquired, intrigued.

"It was a…cult thing," Sam lied. "I was supposed to be some kind of…some kind of prophesied child. Dad taught us to fight, so we'd be safe because…they'd never stop coming."

"You said they killed your mom." Brian's expression was somber. "That's horrible. How old were you?"

"I was a baby," Sam said, jaw clenched. "Dean was four. I don't think…in some ways he never got over it."

"A person wouldn't."

The quiet drew out for a few seconds, an acknowledgement of the weight of it all.

"Did your brother blame you for your mother's death, since you were the target?" Brian asked at last.

"Neither of us knew that until years later, but no. Never." Dean hadn't ever, ever blamed him. Instead, he had kept terrible creatures away from Sam, shielded him from harm with his own body, come to his rescue, even given him the lion's share of food both when they were small and later, when he was a ravenous teenager. "He cared for me. Protected me." The vise around Sam's heart tightened as grief, barely held at bay, pulsed sharply.

"What about your dad? Did he remarry, or…?"

Sam ducked his head, wretched. He hadn't let himself dwell on John in a long time. Two versions of his father existed for him now. The young, open-hearted mechanic who had welcomed him and Dean into his home, so in love with his wife, so excited to meet her family. And the gruff, wrecked, obstinate ex-Marine who had shoved a gun in his hand when he was nine.

The man who died to save his brother.

The man who told his brother he might have to put Sam down.

"Sam…?"

"No. He…it changed him." The words, dredged from deep inside, tasted like treason. "He dragged us from place to place, trying to find mom's killer. Drank…."

xxxXXXxxx

Brian leapt to a probable conclusion: rootless family, withdrawn father, big brother trying to step in, shelter and make safe his baby sib…bound tight to those two souls, the grieving man and the orphan infant.

"Heartbreaking" didn't begin to cover it.

And it must be really hard to perpetually be that orphan infant in someone's eyes when you were actually a thirty-something man.

xxxXXXxxx

"And you and your brother remained together, even as adults?" Brian queried.

Sam nodded. "Mostly."

"So…let's get back to what you said earlier. 'Trapped,' you said."

Sam bit his lip, awash in gratitude and guilt. So much had been offered, so much given for his sake. What kind of person was he that he had spent so much of his life angry, resentful, and struggling to yank loose? From Dad's dictates, from the effect on Dean of Dad's most constantly repeated order?

"Watch out for your brother." Jesus.

"I'm guessing it's kind of…" Brian made a choking motion with his hands around his own throat.

Sam blanched at the pantomime. "Yeah."

"Because who you are doesn't fit this…family story you have, this narrative that's been lived again and again since you were kids. Little brother protected by big brother, little brother a step behind, even though–if I understand this right–you're not just brothers, but brothers-in-arms."

"Yeah…" Sam gave a vigorous nod. "He actually…. God, we'll be crossing the street and he thrusts his hand out in front of my chest, like I'm fuc-…friggin' five."

"It's pretty engrained, huh?"

There was a hysterical edge to Sam's laugh.

"Is there a part of you that likes it at all?"

Taken aback, Sam's eyebrows climbed into his bangs, but he gave it some thought and realized that if he were honest with himself it did feel good, damn good, to be cared about that much, to have someone in the world who saw him as that special even if he wasn't. That when the foundation of that care had been shaken in the past, his own world had shattered. He flashed for a moment to Garber, Oklahoma, a lonely hotel room, Satan breathing down his neck…and Dean refusing to bring him back into the fold. It had felt like a chasm opened up in the earth, black tar sucking him under and delivering him unto Hell without Lucifer's assistance.

"You got a picture?"

Sam drew his phone from his pocket, swiped a finger across the screen, and handed it over. "A friend took this awhile back."

xxxXXXxxx

Brian took the proffered phone.

Sam looked amused in the photo, but ill, with a yellow pallor to his skin and shadowed smudges beneath his eyes. The other man, the brother, had a handsome face, brown hair cut short, green eyes. Dressed as Sam was now, he stood with an arm thrown around Sam's shoulders, looking up at him with fond exasperation and what Brian was pretty sure was worry. He handed the phone back to his waiting client.

xxxXXXxxx

"You're taller," Brian said drily.

Sam stared at the photo. "He doesn't see who I am now, that I have to be able to make my own choices, even if I get hurt."

"You know, your voice was stronger when you said that than anything else you've said this whole time."

Unknowingly, Sam squared his shoulders, thrust out his chin.

"Tell me something, Sam…." Brian rocked forward. "If you could have it just the way you wanted, what would it look like? Between you and your brother?"

Taken aback, Sam gawped like a fish, feelings chasing each other, spinning down a vortex of befuddlement.

"Take a breath," Brian counseled. "Slow it down. Anything that comes to mind."

Sam did take a breath, and then another, deep ones, shuddering into his lungs as he stared unseeingly at the carpet.

"I can't leave him," he finally whispered. "I don't want to leave him."

"I hear you," Brian affirmed. "So picture yourself staying. How do you want it to be?"

Perpetually caught up in thinking about what he didn't want, Sam hesitated, thoughts churning while Brian patiently waited.

"He has to believe I have his back like he has mine," Sam attempted. "And he can't…. He has to put others ahead of me when I'm fighting for something larger than us. He can't convince me to put me ahead of others. My life isn't…shouldn't…."

Words failed him.

Shame.

Black tendrils, deep-rooted, thorny, rising up, throttling all good intentions, all hope for salvation, every half-formed dim prayer that he could be worthy. It drove the air from his lungs. His eyes began to fill; he bit his lip, ruthlessly exerting control as he looked away.

Brian's query was gentle. "What are you feeling now, Sam?"

Sam curled into himself, hands gripping his knees, hair curtaining his face.

He had been hopeful by nature, once. Full of dreams. He'd tried to live them–left for Stanford, found Jess….

All destroyed. Everything he touched was defiled, every good intention turned to cinders. He was toxic, not Dean. He couldn't save his father, his brother. He'd been an idiot-on-a-string when he danced to Ruby's tune, releasing the Devil to plunder the world. After…his soulless self, unrepentant, committed who knew how many atrocities, while his re-souled self was little more than a broken burden.

"I'm not…. I've made some terrible mistakes," he breathed. "I wanted to be…redeemed. He knows that… Doesn't he freakin' know that?" It was utter dismay that kicked at him when he thought about this. How could Dean not get this? After everything? The taint of the demon blood, the addiction, Lucifer…even memories of feeling wrong back when he was small?

"D'you think…maybe I knew? I mean…deep down. That I had demon blood in me, and about the evil of it…and that I wasn't…pure."

"Sam, it's not your fault."

"It doesn't matter anymore. Because these trials, they're purifying me."

But they hadn't.

"Sam…." Brian made sure to catch Sam's eyes, force them up to meet his own, before continuing. "What did he do?"

"I knew that it could be the end of me, but it would save so many. I was so sick, so tired. Ready. And he talked me out of it. I let myself be talked out of it. Because…I was vulnerable. Because I'm a coward. Because…I don't know." Sam was shaking now, tremors running along his entire frame. "How could he…take that away from me?"

"I'm just getting to know you two," Brian remarked, "and even I know the answer to that."

Sam raised his haunted gaze to meet Brian's. "Because he's…hardwired to put me first."

xxxXXXxxx

So many elements, Brian thought. The childhood bond. Terrible trauma they'd only skirted around. Responsibility far beyond his years foisted on the older brother too soon. (And if he got the chance wouldn't he send them both to a playground to see what four-year-olds really looked like…! People like this distorted that in their minds, pictured themselves as so big and capable in a past when they'd been little more than babies, then blamed themselves for not handling grown-up responsibilities they should never have faced.) A pursuer-distancer dynamic in full force–with one person moving too close to ease his sense of aloneness or abandonment which pushed the other away as he struggled to maintain boundaries and a sense of self, in an accelerating, dysfunctional spiral.

In Sam he sensed an onerous burden of shame, hatred of self warring with weakening attempts to shore up boundaries and assert his own needs.

It would take a number of sessions to build the trust he'd need to learn the real story, to explore the childhood details, the truth of the father's situation, figure out what Sam's other relationships had been and were like, and how these two had been coping all these years. Had there been substance abuse, self-harm?

One session was not going to cut it.

xxxXXXxxx

"Sam, you and your brother have been up to your necks in it pretty much forever. Why now? What made you pick up that phone and call me?"

It was so fucked up, so monumentally fucked up. There almost weren't words…. Sam's hands balled into fists. "It's never been this bad. I tried to stand up for myself, to not fall back into the same old shit with him. But he kind of fell apart…and I think he's in trouble."

"Can you pinpoint what you said or did that made him 'fall apart'?"

Sam closed his eyes. Everything he'd said to try to change things had failed to have any effect but one: to gut his brother.

"I'm…I'm poison. Sam, people get close to me, they get killed…or worse. I tell myself that I help more people than I hurt, and I tell myself that I'm doing it all for the right reasons, and I believe that. But I can't, I won't, drag anybody through the muck with me, not anymore."

"Go. I'm not gonna stop you. But don't go thinking that's the problem, 'cause it's not."

Right. Dean putting Sam ahead of Kevin, of Cas, of the whole bloody world was the problem. But what had Dean heard? Probably nothing, he'd been so wrecked in that moment, so wrecked, he left. Ran to fucking Crowley.

"We don't see things the same way anymore."

No shit, they didn't. Dean had one imperative: Sam. And it was too much, too close. Let's see: shut the gates of Hell or let a person, a person who needed to complete the trials to feel worth a shit, live? Obviously, you shut the gates of Hell, no matter how much you loved that person because you loved that person. But…looking into Dean's desperate eyes, hearing his pleas, Sam had stopped. Sam had. Which made all of this his fucking fault, including Kevin's death.

"You say that like it's some sort of cure-all, like it can change the fact that everything that has ever gone wrong between us isn't because we're family."

It was as a family they were cursed, damned, their very blood branding them, robbing them of any chance of the "normal" life Sam had once longed for. Lucifer and Michael. Cain and Abel. Sam and Dean. Family, my ass. And yes, it was Dean's mantra for loyalty, and for his love for Sam, but it was that love that blinded him where Sam was concerned.

"I'm saying if you want to work, let's work. If you want to be brothers…."

Partners could be adults, equals. Brothers, in Dean's eyes, could not, not really. And Sam wasn't willing to accept that anymore.

"If the situation was reversed, and I was dying, you'd do the same thing."

"No, Dean, I wouldn't."

If you were suffering, prepared to die, and with no good options out, I would let you die, out of love for you. I wouldn't trick you into letting an angel in where demons and the Devil had been before, leaving a mind, a Self, that had been repeatedly fractured even more uncertain of who he was, what he felt, and what was real.

"Sam…?"

Sam looked up, tension in his shoulders, regret in his eyes. "I hurt him. Every word I said was 'no.' To him. No, I don't care about you. No, you aren't the person I would die for like you would die for me."

"I take it that's not what you meant."

"No." Sam leapt to his feet, reaching the window in less than two steps, pressing his forehead against the glass. "I meant that he can't take my choices away, and offer himself up as a sacrifice without hesitation, but always put me ahead of the greater good."

xxxXXXxxx

They were almost out of time. Brian tried to convince Sam to return. (In the back of his mind, he also hoped to get Dean in by hook or crook. He'd be able to help twenty times faster if he had them both in front of him.)

Sam's refusal, however, was absolute.

Damn it. He was going to have to offer what he could, based on not enough information, and never know if he'd made things worse by doing so. He'd permitted the situation to unfold, gambling that he could coax Sam back…and lost.

xxxXXXxxx

Time was nearly up. The therapist's chair creaked as he leaned forward. Sam sensed the denouement.

"Sam, I just parachuted into your life this morning," Brian began. "I don't pretend to have all the answers. I do think I can give you some perspectives, some homework that you can do that might be helpful."

Sam turned slightly away from the window, his face devoid of hope.

"It's not my job to hand out advice, like Lucy in Peanuts," Brian continued. "It's my job to help you discover what you want, and how to move towards that. Having said that…here's where I think the knot is.

"Big brother loves and cares for little brother, and little brother loves him back. Big brother helps raise little brother in really tough circumstances, and maybe they don't even realize that big brother isn't just a sibling, he's sort of a parent, too. Then these brothers grow up, suffer some terrible losses. But at some point–maybe a few points–little brother needs to pull away, be his own person. Problem is, for big brother every pull towards independence on little brother's part feels like…a bunch of bad things. Leaving little brother unprotected, but also loss. Abandonment. And unlike an actual parent, big brother doesn't understand that eventually letting go is part of the deal. Big brother yanks little brother back, literally or figuratively, so he can make those uncomfortable feelings stop and keep his little brother safe. And little brother feels suffocated.

"You feel stuck, and it really sucks. Because the guy loves you. And you love him. And you don't want to hurt him. But you can't go on like this. You know it. That's why you're here."

"What do I do?" Sam's eyes were wide, pleading.

"For now, I suggest that you keep a journal, just for this. Write about the way you want it to be. Reflect about whether what I said was correct or not, and in what ways. Imagine how you could stay with your brother and not feel choked, and see if you can find the words to explain it to him, while at the same time reassuring him that you won't be unprotected and he won't be 'left' under the new bargain. Start to renegotiate what's between you so he gets the closeness he needs and you get the adult status you have got to have.

"And consider coming back, Sam. You and your brother have spent years perfecting this dance, know every step. A new one, even a better one, is going to feel unnatural and wrong at first–people need support while they're learning a new way. I can truly help."

Sam ducked his head in a semblance of a nod, shook Brian's hand awkwardly, and left.

xxxXXXxxx

with no intent to return, Brian realized.

He was sorry. He was sure he could've helped Sam. Sam and his brother.

He hoped he had helped. As much as anybody could in fifty minutes.

xxxXXXxxx

Exactly twenty-seven days later, two-thirds of a cheap blue notebook had been filled with Sam's neat script.

What Brian hadn't understood is that Sam had a lifetime of practice making do with a minimum of assistance. He took every notion Brian had given him, and worked it. Hard.

He'd realized so much.

That Dean had let him go, to Stanford and to the pit. Dean had suffered loneliness the first time, devastation the second, and might not have been able to face either easily again. (And couldn't Sam relate to that, after the Mystery Spot, the hellhounds, exploding Leviathans?)

That he was jealous when Dean did let go, established close partnerships that trod into "brother" territory with Cas, with Benny.

How unfairly judged he felt over the fact that taking refuge in a desperate, damaged relationship with Amelia could be viewed as faithless when it was not indifference to Dean's fate, but incapacitating grief that had led him to her door.

That, with Sam frighteningly debilitated, Dean wouldn't have been sure he should accept Sam's decision to die, not with the words Sam had spoken at the beginning of the trials mere months before… I want to slam Hell shut, too, OK? But I want to survive it. I want to live… I see light at the end of this tunnel and I'm sorry you don't. I am. But it's there, and if you come with me, I can take you to it.

His sense of betrayal because he'd been tricked into saying "yes" to so-called Ezekiel. His guilt because he had said it. His violation because that entity had ridden him for months and how could he be sure anything he felt or thought during that time was really his own? His horror because it was his hands that had murdered Kevin, burned Kevin's eyes from his skull, stolen Ms. Tran's hope of happiness, turned to shit all promises of family and loyalty he and Dean had ever made to the reluctant prophet.

His understanding that absolutely every action Dean took was out of love, sometimes selfish, sometimes selfless, but always love–a word never uttered but always lived by.

He'd been ready to have the conversation. With the Mark working its corruption, he'd been frantic to have it. To say of course they were brothers. He hadn't meant that "partners" thing, but he couldn't figure out how to stay close and not drown…how to make Dean hear him.

And now it was all for absolutely fucking naught.

Numb, he'd staggered down the metal stairs of the bunker, his brother's heavy body slung over his shoulder, and made his way to Dean's room. There, he'd removed Dean's blood soaked jacket and laid him out on his beloved memory foam mattress. He'd cleaned his brother's battered face, blue-lipped and still, with gentle strokes of a damp washcloth, letting the ruined rag fall to the floor when he was done.

He sat at the table in the shadowed library, tearstained notebook pushed to the side, a tumbler of whiskey gleaming gold in his hand, and the words Dean has spoken that evening reverberating through his consciousness.

"Listen, Sammy… About the last couple of months…."

I didn't let him finish, Sam thought. And that was what broke him.

All Dean had felt as Sam lay only heartbeats from death in the hospital came home to him in savage Technicolor. He put his face in his hands and wept for time wasted and words unspoken, wanting to tell his brother everything, wanting another chance.

Crowley. Sam exhaled slowly. Crowley was his only option. Resolute, he rose and headed for the dungeon.