K Hanna Korossy

His cell phone was ringing.

No matter how exhausted he was—and he was pretty much walking-undead at this point—Sam was too much a hunter now not to register his environment even in sleep. Which was why he knew his freakin' cell phone was ringing even though his body and most of his brain was deep in slumber. He cursed and fumbled for the phone, knocking down a few things he couldn't care less about before his fingers closed on the slim shape.

Sam didn't even bother squinting to read who was calling, just thumbed the phone on. "'Lo?"

There was a long pause, muffled with sound, then, "S-Sammy?"

Sam's eyes opened and he sat up. Because that was Dean, and Dean never sounded that terrified and shaken, not even earlier that day—yesterday?—when he'd confessed his dirty little secret about his time in Hell. "Dean? What's wrong?"

"S-Sammy? That…is 'at you?"

"I'm here. What's going on?" Sam swung his legs off the bed, looking for his boots. Crap, he knew he shouldn't have let Dean go off drinking by himself. After the last hunt that had gone so wrong—primal human in the walls, civilians killed and traumatized, then Dean's roadside revelation—Sam's brother was as unstable as Sam had ever seen him. But a month of throwing themselves into one hunt after another had taken its toll, leaving Sam almost asleep on his feet, and Dean had insisted he'd needed some time alone, so it had been too easy to let him go. To decide he'd figure out how to help Dean tomorrow. "Dean? Talk to me, man."

Yeah, yet another brilliant plan.

He realized now the soft sounds he'd been hearing were gasps, like someone who was having trouble getting air. Sam cursed softly under his breath and gave up on his errant boots, grabbing his set of keys and his wallet and jacket as he stalked for the door. "Dean?"

"'S is… It's a trick, right? I'm not… God, I'm not…not out. Can't be. 'S a trick."

Oh, this didn't sound good at all. "It's not a trick," Sam soothed as he unlocked the car and slid in. There was a bar just down the street, and Dean had walked, knowing he'd probably be too drunk to drive home after. Sam turned the motor over and backed out of the lot, phone sandwiched between his shoulder and ear. "It's really me. Tell me what's going on, Dean. Where are you?"

Another long pause, the panting ratcheting up to near-wheezing. Sam almost didn't hear him when the answer finally came out in an anguished whisper. "Hell. I'm in Hell, S-Sammy."

God. Sam squeezed his eyes shut a second, then rocketed down the road toward the neon-lit building. "You're not in Hell, man—Castiel got you out, remember? You're in Arizona. And I'm coming—I'll be there in a minute, all right?"

"Sam? Sometimes I think it's you, but it's always a trick. They…they carve us up, inside-out. You always say you'll come get me out, but you…your eyes are yellow and…there's a knife…" A strangled breath. "God, I miss you, but it's a trick, it's always— You're not real!"

Sam's heart sank lower with every rattled word, every further glimpse into those months—years—of Dean in Hell. It was probably amazing he could stand to still look at Sam, let alone trust him, if Hell had abused his memory and loyalty so much. Sam wondered briefly how many times Dean had wondered those last few months, even briefly, if Sam was the real deal or if he was really still in Hell. "I'm almost there, Dean," Sam said helplessly. "Just…hang on. We'll figure this out."

There were some distant voices, and the friction sounds of movement. Sam didn't even bother trying to decipher them, already pulling into the bar's lot. He shoved his phone into his pocket as he rocketed out of the car and through the building's front door, barely feeling the gravel under his bare feet.

The crowd was sparse, but a quick sweep revealed no sign of his brother. Sam's throat tightened. Had something happened to Dean? Something that had triggered his reliving Hell? Somebody taking him, drugs, a supernatural influence—

"Hey. You with the other guy?"

That was the bartender, a girl with sun-leathered skin and old eyes. Sam pressed himself against the chipped wood of the bar. "My brother? Six-one, dark blond hair, leather jacket?"

She rubbed the bar with a grimy towel. "Yeah, kinda hard to miss him. Had an attack of PTSD or something—suddenly started yelling about demons and not falling for tricks. Almost skewered Charlie with a beer bottle, then rabbited."

Sam made a face, heart double-timing it. "He's gone?"

The girl snorted. "I wish. He's in the back." A shrug of the shoulder toward a closed door in the back wall. "Starts screaming and threatening anyone who goes in there."

Sam's eyes darted to the door. "You call the police?"

"Naw. Figured he'd settle down or fall asleep 'fore we closed. Got a lot of vets in this town—not gonna make it worse if we don't have to, y'know?"

PTSD, vets: she wasn't that far from the truth. "Yeah," Sam murmured, "Thanks. He's…had a rough time since he got back."

"Long as no one's bleeding and the furniture's not busted up, I didn't see anything." She shrugged, but her callousness wasn't as casual as it seemed. Sam spared her a half-smile, and then he was heading to the back of the bar.

He cracked the door open cautiously, not surprised to find the room dark. There was a Pabst sign on one wall that lit everything with a faint blue glow, but otherwise Sam had to give it a moment before his eyes picked out the shapes in the room: a desk, a crooked filing cabinet, boxes stacked against the far wall. And wedged in between them and the corner, a huddled figure.

"Hey," Sam said softly. "Dean? It's me. I'm here."

A scramble of sound, feet pawing at the floor, trying to push further back into the wall. "Go 'way," Dean rasped.

Sam stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. "You called me, man, remember?"

He couldn't see anything more than his brother's hunched shape, but he could feel the weight of Dean's stare. There was a moment, then, "I'm not falling for it again." But the tone wasn't as belligerent as a moment before. In fact, it sounded painfully uncertain.

"It's not a trick." Sam slowly walked closer, hands held out a little to his side. Dean had always had terrific night vision. "You're not in hell anymore, Dean—remember Cas?"

He could see Dean's arm move, the right lifting to rub over the shoulder of the left: Castiel's handprint. The silhouette of Dean's Bowie knife jutted out of his hand.

"See?" Sam pressed gently. "You're out of there. We just did a job, remember? The Carters? You saved Danny."


He was only a few feet away now, and Sam crouched down to his brother's level. He could smell the alcohol from there. "Dean? Talk to me, dude."

A raw sound tore out of Dean that for a moment thrust Sam back to the side of the road, watching his brother visibly shattering. "You wanna talk." Another terrible laugh. "'S gotta be really you, then, right?"

"It's me," Sam promised, reaching out to just touch one of his brother's knees. Dean shuddered but didn't pull away. "You're just a little confused, that's all. Think you've got more alcohol than blood in you right now, bro."

At least a minute passed in silence, Dean shaking and swallowing, muscles clenching and loosening under Sam's fingertips. Coming back from the Hell his imagination had thrust him into, Sam guessed, because when he spoke again, his voice was choked with hurt instead of fear. "I screwed it up, Sammy." Dean's head clonked back against the wall. "Almost got 'em killed."

Sam sighed, sidling forward one more step, then settling on the ground. He could just see the glint of Dean's eyes now, the way he was pressed against the wall behind the fortress of his drawn-up legs. "We did our best…"

"You did your best. I was a friggin' amateur."

Unfortunately, Sam couldn't disagree. Dean had been so intent on saving the Carters, so determined to do this one right as if it were some kind of penance for all he'd done in Hell, that Sam had stepped back and let him take the lead and do what he had to. He'd felt that same need to balance the scales after finding out their dad's last instructions. And had gotten completely toasted, too, when he felt he'd failed.

But Dean had ended up making all the wrong calls: not letting the family leave when they could've still gotten out, not keeping them together and protecting them when they couldn't, being so sure they were up against a ghost. They'd only managed to keep most of the family alive through sheer luck, and the dad making one of the kills. Sam had given his brother the rope he'd asked for on this case, and Dean had neatly hung himself with it.

"We didn't know," Sam murmured. "I missed that the house had been sold, and we both thought it was a vengeful spirit. It happens, Dean—we can't know everything."

A few seconds ticked by. And then Dean abruptly laughed.

Sam found a new level of worry.

"We're only human, right? I came back from the dead with an angel, you're king of the demons. Just your everyday, normal Addams family." He swore softly under his breath.

Sam squelched a flare of anger at the casual condemnation. Dean wasn't himself, hadn't really been since his return. Hell had broken something in him, and Sam…Sam had put him there. Not deliberately, but in letting Jake kill him, he'd set the dominoes falling. He'd tried to let Dean redeem himself, get back on the horse, but the Carter case had made it clear his brother was not up to taking the lead.

Which meant Sam had to.

"Hey," he said quietly, scooting even closer. "You ready to get out of here?"

Dean's hand flexed around the knife. His eyes looked wide and paradoxically young and haunted in the soft blue light. "This really isn't Hell?"

Sam reached out and pried the knife free from cramped fingers. Dean didn't fight him so much as not seeming to know how to let go, but Sam got the weapon and slid it back into the sheath on Dean's belt. "It's really not, I promise. I'm here, and I'm gonna get you back to the room so you can sleep it off, all right?"

"Not gonna help." Dean sounded so bleak. "'Least Hell wasn't real. This is…you're…" He was swallowing hard, the sheen of sweat visible on his bobbing throat.

Sam very much didn't want to hear what his brother thought he was for real. He eased an arm under Dean's and lifted. "C'mon, big brother. Let's get you dried out."

Dean was pliant, trembling occasionally still but steady enough and docile as Sam walked him to the door, then out into the relative brightness of the bar. The bartender raised an eyebrow, and Sam nodded his thanks at her as he steered Dean forward, pausing only to dig a crumpled twenty out of his pocket to toss onto the wood. Then they were out of there.

Dean folded into the passenger side of the car without protest, let himself be towed into the room the same way. In full light, he appeared haggard, eyes bloodshot and haunted. Sam made him swallow some aspirin and a full glass of water before pulling his boots off and tucking him into the bed farther from the door. Dean either didn't notice or didn't care.

Then Sam sat on the edge of the mattress, hand resting on Dean's scarred shoulder, whispering reassurances as he watched his brother's eyes droop lower and lower.

Once upon a time, Sam would've joked to lighten the mood, and been less overt in his care. Once upon a time, he would've made an effort to leave his brother's pride and self-respect intact. Once upon a time, Dean had been the stronger one, the protector, the comforter. Once upon a time, he hadn't gone to Hell for Sam, and Sam hadn't been left alone, and things had been very, very different.

Sam never had trusted the "happily ever after" that usually followed once upon a time.

"I'm gonna take care of you," he said softly, watching as Dean's features smoothed out in sleep, only the occasional twitch breaking the calm. "I'll take care of everything. I mean, I figure it's my turn, right? I'll do it, Dean, no matter what it takes."

Even if, following in his brother's footsteps, the cost was himself.

The End