Sam should've known better when Dean started talking about the ninja dust bunnies that were attacking his left big toe.
Sure, in their line of work, the possible existence such things as stealthy dust bunnies that stay in the dark shadows of the room, patiently awaiting a moment of distraction on your part to sneak up and kill you with their little cotton-balls, was odd… but not completely unlikely.
After all, they had battled fairies not that long ago.
"What are you doing?" Sam asked surprised, nearly dropping the steaming Styrofoam containers in his hands.
Dean's arm wasn't as steady as it would normally be, but his aim was still scarily solid.
"Why the hell are you here? You're not Sam!"
It wasn't like Sam wasn't aware that Dean had scratched his leg on that rusted fence when they'd been running from that big dog at the car impound on their last job.
After all, Sam had been there when Dean assured him that he could manage cleaning that cut all by himself, before disappearing behind the bathroom's locked door.
It was just…
Sam had been distracted by Dean's contradicting actions lately. Even before the ninja dust bunnies episode had turned in to their current predicament.
In some things, ever since Death had re-planted Sam's soul back inside his body, Dean went out of his way to make sure that Sam was okay, that he was coping with what had happened, making the biggest efforts to pretend everything was okay between them. That everything was just the way it had always been.
In other things, the small things, the absent-minded things, Dean acted like he was living with a stranger. A dangerous stranger, at that.
For instance… Dean had taken to locking the door to the bathroom. Took Sam awhile to notice that one, especially because it was a matter that he'd never paid particular attention to before until he tried to shave while Dean was using the shower stall and found the door impossible to pry open. After all, barriers were only barriers when someone put them up and Winchesters had never been all that big on boundaries.
Dean had also taken to double checking everything that Sam did, especially if it involved talking to the victims or their close family during their cases, like somehow he was afraid that Sam would say the wrong thing… which was odd in itself, because that used to be Sam's job.
He'd given up on the post-hunt celebratory beer by the side of the road, which had certainly never been an obligatory thing, but had more often than not helped them to get on the same page and just stop to appreciate the fact that they were still alive. In a way, it felt like the joy of celebrating being alive was absent, just like that, with the lack of a beer and found himself missing alcohol for the first time in his life.
Plus, Dean tried to be subtle about it, but he never went to sleep before Sam himself turned in, like somehow Dean needed the reassurance of seeing Sam in bed before he could allow himself to rest.
It was disturbing, particularly because Sam knew the exact reasons for Dean behaving the way he was behaving. It wasn't like he could blame his brother or accuse him of being prickly.
Castiel hadn't told him every thing play-by-play, but Sam could easily fill in the gaps of what had happened in the year and a half he couldn't remember. All the speculation, however, made for a very hard balance in between drowning in self-doubt, wondering about the meaning behind every one of Dean's actions and actually paying close attention to Dean's every move and word.
The point was... Sam had dropped the ball.
If he'd been paying closer attention, he would have seen the fever in Dean's eyes before he had reached a delirious state; he would have been close enough to feel the heat raiding off his brother; he would've seen that the scratch was actually more of a gash and that Dean's idea of 'cleaning a wound himself' had been less than thorough, which had resulted in a raging infection.
Add to that the fact that Dean had been running himself to the ground even before Sam had gotten his soul back and that his brother, being who he was, had never eaten right in his whole life, it really wasn't all that surprising that the infection took hold of him that completely and that fast. Like ants over spilled sugar.
The loaded gun pointing at his face in that exact moment? In a way, Sam could only blame himself.
"Dean," Sam aimed for the smoothest voice he could manage, his palms stretched in front of him in a placating manner. "It's just me, Dean… please put that gun down."
Dean shook his head, looking slightly green midway through the motion. The gun in his hands, however, never wavered.
When Dean had complained that he wasn't in the mood to go out to eat, Sam had offered to fetch them some diner. He'd been so desperately searching for an opportunity to be by himself ever since they'd left Bobby's that he had hardly noticed the oddness of Dean's claim.
Sam had something stashed away in the Impala that he wanted to pick up without Dean seeing it and in all honesty, in between dying and coming back from Hell without a soul, this was the first chance he'd had to go get it.
At the time, a lifetime away, Sam had hidden it in the faint hope that the perfect opportunity to right that wrong would eventually arise and he could mend some fences. But later had been eaten by a pending apocalypse and falling into Hell and an oblivion of emotions so deep and consuming when he came back that Sam had all but forgotten about his plans. Later had somehow morphed into this second chance that they had both been given and yet the time never seemed to be right.
Now, it no longer was about mending fences. That boat had already sailed and promptly sunken near the shore… it was about reminding Dean that he had a brother again.
Dean was clad in nothing but a black sweatshirt and a pair of grey boxers, his hair still ruffled from bed. The gash stood out red and puffy against the pale skin of Dean's leg and left no questions as to the source of his feverish actions. Sam couldn't help but feel guilty for having allowed things to come to this.
He had been gone for a grand total of fifteen minutes, in between crossing the street for the burger joint and making a quick stop by the Impala's trunk.
Expecting nothing more than to walk in and find Dean snoring, Sam had been fully prepared to drag his stubborn-ass brother out of bed to get some food into his stomach and maybe coerce Dean into letting him see that infected gash before giving him what he'd fetched from the Impala.
But the minute Sam had step in to that motel room, Dean had jumped out of bed and grabbed hold of the first thing he had been able to reach. His gun.
"Dean… you're sick," Sam tried again, concerned that Dean's eyes seemed too glazed over for any of his words to be making any sense. "Please, put that gun down and lemme help you."
If Sam was really into being honest with himself about this whole mess, he would have to admit that he could've done something about it sooner.
After a lifetime of living with Dean, Sam could almost guess when Dean was coming down with something even before Dean himself got a clue.
There had been some pretty epic experiences in their past, enough to keep Sam on his toes when it came to Dean's ability to take care of himself.
Like the time when Dean had come down with pneumonia. Sam could remember that winter pretty well. Dean kept insisting on going with their father on some hunt in the middle of the frozen woods, arguing that dad needed him there... until Sam had pointed out that the reason why Dean felt like someone was kicking him in the chest every time he coughed and the shortness of breath that he was experiencing every time he muttered more than two words were not a sign that he was getting old at the age of sixteen, but more likely than not due to some infection in his lungs.
Then there was that time when Dean had spent a whole week blaming his lack of appetite on a stomach bug. It had taken a loose shoelace and Sam's alertness for John to figure out that his oldest's appendix was about ready to burst. Sam had been only five then, but even he knew that people aren't suppose to turn that particular ashen colour just from bending down to reach a tennis shoe.
Of course, throughout their lives, there were all the bruises that were hardly ever admitted, the occasional cold and sprains and the never mentioned trauma from spending forty years in Hell, something that Dean wouldn't admit to and Sam wasn't allowed to mention… even when Dean started punching cupids in the face. They developed a short-handed language, in which things were tended to without ever being acknowledged and help were offered and accepted without ever being called help. But that wasn't the point of what was happening now.
The point was…
The point was that Sam had known that there was something wrong with Dean when he had said he wasn't hungry and had spent a large part of the day in his bed. He knew his brother was feeling off for some reason and, instead of taking proper action even if Dean didn't want his help, Sam had basked at the opportunity to tend for Dean all by himself. To be there for him. To be his brother.
Because Sam's soul was back, but its addiction hadn't erased the feelings that something was still missing. Castiel's recount wasn't the same as having memories of what had happened before, but somehow, Sam could feel what those situations had been like; all of the things that Sam had done in the year he'd spend apart from Dean; of the things he had done in the time he had been back with Dean… Lord… of the things he had done to Dean. At what point empathy stopped being the feelings of others and started being a translation of his own feelings, Sam wasn't sure. He just knew it was.
Those not-really-memories had hurt more than having a soul shoved back into his body; hurt more than resisting the compulsion of ignoring Death's warning and to just find out just how ruined his soul was.
It seemed impossible, but Sam would close his eyes and the only thing he saw was Dean being bitten by a vampire, helpless and abandoned while Sam felt nothing but elation for the opportunity it presented; he could see it as clearly as if it was happening right in that moment, Dean coming into their motel room after being taken by the fairies, having to fight his way back while Sam's body was still humming with the after effects of his orgasm. And all the lying…
"He thought he could defeat you," Dean whispered, blinking the sweat and tears from his eyes. "Sam was so sure that he could make it work…"
Sam had no idea if Dean was talking to whatever figment of his imagination he was hallucinating in that moment, or if he was actually speaking to him. Either way, apart from the gun trained on Sam's chest, locked inside his feverish perception of his surroundings, Dean acted like Sam wasn't in the room at all. "Dean… come on, I'm right here."
The flip of the gun's safety echoed across the room, a sound so small and yet capable of drowning the labored breaths coming from both men.
"You're not Sam! You're the thing that took him from me!" Dean yelled, the gun wavering dangerously in his hand.
Sam could've called Cass at any time. These days, the angel was literally one prayer away, despite the mess that they knew still reigned in Heaven. Sam suspected that he too was atoning for something, Sam just wasn't sure if the angel's guilt was aimed at Heaven, Dean or himself. In a way, Sam knew that the angel felt like he'd failed all three.
Cass would've come the minute Sam told him that Dean was in trouble. Sam should've called him after Dean started hallucinating killer dust bunnies, because even if Dean was just as stubborn with the angel as he was with Sam, Cass could at least use his two-fingered-foo and zap Dean into some restful sleep. Sam could do the same, but his 'foo' would probably leave a mark.
But no… Sam had to go all Munchausen by Proxy on Dean, hoping that by being the one to make Dean feel better physically, that would somehow translate into making Dean feel more at ease with him. As if a couple of Tylenol and a band-aid would somehow erase what Sam had done when he had no soul.
It didn't work out that way.
"Dean… come on… you have to trust me on this," Sam tried again, recoiling his arms when Dean advanced towards him on unsteady legs. "Whoever you think I am, you're wrong. I'm just me, Sam."
"You said that before," Dean whispered, his voice broken by emotion. "You made me believe you were Sam... but it was all a trick... nothing but a trick..."
Sometimes, Sam remembers the events that led up to his fall into Hell as something of a very vivid acid trip, complete with the bright, intense colours and the feeling of detachment from his own body. The events that happened after he got out of Hell and wandered around without a soul are even more disconnected from his understanding.
Sam often wondered what it had been like for Dean, trapped by his side knowing that the thing living with him wasn't exactly his brother, but unable to move away out of some sense of misplaced protection of his younger brother. Or the much needed protection of everyone else from Sam.
"Dean... what are you talking about?" Sam couldn't help but ask. In between what Castiel had told him and what he'd managed to pry from both Bobby and Dean, there was no clue to what he could have done that might've triggered that sort of reaction from Dean's feverish mind.
"Don't!" Dean yelled, slamming his body against Sam's and propelling both of them against the wall.
Up close, Sam could feel the heat radiating from his brother's skin, could see the sweat gathering on his forehead. He was burning up.
"Don't pretend to be him," Dean went on. "Because I know who you really are."
Sam blinked, trying not to move too much. Every breath he took, he could feel Dean's gun pressing harder against his chest. If Dean's finger all but slipped a inch...
"And who am I?" he whispered, looking into Dean's eyes, urging his brother to realize what he was doing. He could se nothing but a cloud of hate and fear.
"Lucifer!" Dean hissed, like the name itself burned his tongue. "You'r... you're not Sam... you'r Lucifer."
Sam recoiled from the sound. It wasn't just the fact that it physically hurt to see that much hatred and pain in Dean's eyes; it was a vicious kick in the gut to remember what it had felt like to be consumed by the endless darkness of the fallen archangel as he took possession of Sam's body; the fear and helplessness as all that he was took a back seat and Sam could do nothing more but watch as his own hands hurt and killed the ones he loved. To know that his was the last face they would ever see.
It was that thing that Dean was still seeing now.
There were nights where Sam would wake up drenched in sweat, still hearing the crunch of bones in Dean's face under his knuckles; open and his eyes and still feel the moment when Dean's cheekbone shattered under the onslaught of his—of Lucifer's rage.
Of course Dean's feverish brain would go back to that.
"He's gone, Dean," Sam tried as reassuringly as he could manage. But then again, why should Dean believe him? "Dean... it's just me in here."
"YOU'RE NOT MY BROTHER!" Dean yelled, jamming the gun harder into Sam's stomach.
This was it, Sam was sure. Dean's finger would press the trigger and it would all be over in a matter of seconds. And, while Sam didn't particularly want to die what worried him most was the aftermath.
Sam knew his brother, knew his heart, especially where Sam was concerned. Later, once the fever abated, guilt would consume him from the inside out at the realization of what he'd done and Dean would be completely lost.
For once, Sam was really happy for having made his previous detour by the Impala. Moving slowly so as not to attract Dean's wondering attention, Sam fished the necklace from his jacket and held it up.
Dean's gleaming eyes caught the movement and focused on the pendant hanging from Sam's fingers.
"I gave this to you, Dean... remember that?" Sam whispered. "When we were just kids, even if our innocence was already long gone, we were still kids. At the time, it was nothing but a weird assed piece of crap that Bobby had laying around that looked cool enough to give dad," Sam went on, wetting his lips and hoping that his words would reach Dean. "But when you looked at it, the way your eyes lit up... Dean, it made me feel like the best brother in the world. And when you d—when you were gone, this was what kept me going, this was the only thing that I could grab onto to keep me grounded on the land of the living..." Sam stopped, shuddering as he remembered those dark, blurry days.
"I still kept it because I could remember that look and still hoped that one day, when I managed to rescue you from Hell, when I managed to stop the apocalypse, you would look at me like that again."
Sam paused again, watching as Dean's eyes watered and his gaze moved from the golden pendant to Sam's face.
"I just want to be your brother again, Dean..."
Dean blinked, inflamed irises locking on Sam's face. For the first time since Sam had entered that room the hatred was gone from those eyes. "Sam..."
Sam felt his chest cave in sheer relief. The breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding inside rushed out of his lungs like a cork under pressure. "Hey, man... good to see you again."
Sam didn't have much time to enjoy that small victory. Dean's eyes fluttered closed seconds before his legs buckled from under him.
He would've sagged all the way to the floor if Sam hadn't reacted as fast as he did. Still, Dean's weight was enough to drag them both to the ground. Sam barely managed to twist them enough that his brother landed more or less on his lap instead of the cold and dirty tiles.
They stayed like that for a while, partly because Sam didn't think he'd be able to bodily drag Dean back to the bed, partly because he just couldn't let go.
The room was silent save for the panting, as Sam struggled to regain his composure and Dean battled the sickness coursing through his body. Neither one realized how their harsh breaths moved in perfect synchronicity.
"Not... not Lucifer," Dean voiced after a while, barely a whisper of word escaping his mouth, breathless like he'd a run a marathon.
Sam looked down, his brother staring back at him through barely opened eyes. Cracked lips opened in a smile and Sam was sure now; it was recognition, and so much more and Sam choked back a sob at the enormity of it.
To have Dean trust him enough to once again relax against his arms, to have his brother clutching the pendant like it was the most important object in the world... it made Sam's heart beat lighter. It made him feel ten years old again.
Sam nodded. "Not Lucifer..." he whispered, watching his older brother sag back into sleep against his chest. "Just Sam."
SPOILERS FOR THE EPISODE 6.12 IN PARTICULAR AND HINTS OF SPOILERS FOR ALL OF SEASON 6
Many thanks to Jackfan2 for her awesome beta-work. All remaining mistakes are mine.