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Skin Like Fear

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“Hey, Sammy, I got you one of those ridiculous froofy frapowhatevers, so get your ass—”

Dean pauses in the doorway, a bag of groceries dangling from his hand, the plastic cutting a red line into his fingers. He's got the other hand balancing a coffee tray with his and Sam's coffee, one foot still propping the door open.

“Sam?”

The room is empty.

Their bags are sprawled in a pile in a corner, Dean's half open and spilling a river of boxers and crumpled t-shirts onto Sam's. Their beds are both rumpled, used. Dean can see the dent in Sam's pillow where his head had been, can see where he's neatly folded back the covers to get up, but left the sheets tangled underneath. He can see the proof that this room has been inhabited by the two of them for the past two days.

And yet, for a split second, with no Sam in sight, his throat closes up with fear.

Then he registers the open bathroom door, light spilling out onto the carpet.

Dean breathes out and steps fully into the room, kicking the door shut behind him.

“You done beautifying yourself?” he calls out. “I've got caffeine!”

Sam pokes his head out the bathroom doorway, his expression set in his familiar morning bitchface, toothbrush poking out the corner of his frowning mouth. He squints at Dean like he's thinking of making some sort of retaliation before he ducks back out of sight to spit in the sink.

Dean ambles over to the table in the corner by the bags, setting down the groceries and the tray of coffee. He picks his up and takes a swig (black and bitter—the way Dad always used to take it), wandering back to the centre of the room so he can watch Sam through the open door.

He still looks weak.

Sam finishes brushing his teeth and moves on to washing his face, not even twitching under the weight of Dean's eyes.

“Bobby called while you were out,” he says, flicking water off of his fingertips. “He said he thinks he's got a case for us.”

“What's he calling us for?” Dean snorts. “He's got tons of other chumps he can hand the easy stuff to. We can get our own jobs.”

Dean ignores the prickling thought that Bobby was probably calling half just to check on them. He knows he has no right to feel irritated at Bobby's concern.

“Well, apparently this is a weird one.”

Sam flicks the bathroom light off and walks over to the table to pick up his own coffee. His hair curls at the nape of his neck, still damp from the shower he must have taken before Dean had gotten back, and the wet ends of hair brush against his shirt as he tips his head back for a swig of coffee. The fabric darkens with water and Dean pulls his eyes away.

“When aren't they weird?” he mutters. “Lay it on me: what do we got this time? Wendigo? Rakshasa? Something we haven't seen in a while? I'm kinda sick of demons and angels.”

For a second he wishes he hadn't said that last bit, but Sam only laughs softly.

“Nah, nothing like that. It's...weirder, actually.”

“Okay,” Dean says. “So what is it?”

When no explanation comes, Sam just staring off into the distance, coffee gripped loosely in his hand, Dean steps forward, waving a hand in front of his face.

“Snap out of it, Sam,” he says, voice maybe a little sharper than necessary. Sam blinks and stumbles backwards slightly, a placating, sallow smile springing to his face.

“I'm fine,” he says, the words coming out more like a reflex than a truth. “I'll tell you about it in the car, Dean. We've got a couple hours to drive, so we shouldn't waste daylight.”

Sam downs the rest of his coffee in one huge gulp, his throat working. He throws the cup in the trash and starts pulling clothes out of his bag. Dean watches him move about the room, his chest tight. The heat of the cup in his hand is starting to burn his palm, and he doesn't know how Sam managed to drink something this hot so fast.

“You know,” he starts, pausing to clear his throat when the words come out thick. “You know, we don't have to take so many jobs right now. We could just...kick back for a little bit. Have ourselves a break. You've earned it.”

Sam freezes, bent over with his jeans halfway up his legs.

“We've earned it,” Dean says.

Sam jerks upright, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he wriggles his way fully into his pants. He turns with a plastic smile.

“Yeah, I know. I just...want to get back on the road, alright? Keep busy.”

One of his hands is clenched in a fist around the hem of his t-shirt, bunching the material up. Dean can see a vein ticking in his arm, pulsing off beat. Like a broken clock.

He smiles at Sam, and the tight lines of his brother's face smooth out just a tiny bit.

“Sure, Sammy.”

****

Sam has been back with him for two months.

Two months and three days.

Dean still dreams of it at night: of Sam falling away into that gaping hole in the earth, pulling Adam—no, Michael—down with him. He still feels the cold plane of the Impala at his back, the bruises blooming hotly on his face. He still remembers shuffling over on his knees to the spot where the ground had sealed itself up, the spot where Sam had fallen. He still wakes up gasping, his hands cramping with the memory of how he'd clawed at the dirt there, breathing in more earth than air as he sobbed.

He'd fallen asleep there, his cheek pressed to the grass. It wasn't so much a decision to stay as it was that he simply couldn't get up. He remembers feeling perfectly clean and empty. Like an hourglass with the sand all trickled away. No more time.

He'd woken up to a world as wide and blank and Sam-less as the one he'd left behind in sleep.

****

Sam has been back with him for two months.

Two months and three days.

He was locked away with Lucifer for a year. That was how long it took for Dean and Cas to figure out how to get Cas into the cage so he could pull Sam out. Retrieving someone from the Cage was more difficult than retrieving a simple soul from hell, apparently.

Dean had tried to keep his promise to Sam: he'd gone to Lisa and stayed with her for a few months. But he couldn't do it, couldn't wake up and act like he hadn't seen the things he'd seen and hadn't lost the things he had. He remembers looking at Lisa, at the bright planes of her face and the way she smiled at Ben, and thinking, I could love you. And then, right on the heels of that thought: You deserve better.

So he'd left and tracked down Cas. And begged. It didn't take much. Cas had been waiting for him.

Cas had come out of hell bleeding and battered and carrying Sam. Sam, who looked perfectly fine, except for the fact that he wouldn't open his eyes. Not for three days.

Dean had sat beside him in the panic room at Bobby's for each of those days, just waiting for Sammy to wake up.

“You don't know what he'll be like if he does wake up,” Bobby had warned him. “You, more than anyone, knows what kind of shit he'd have gone through down there. And Cas may say that Lucifer's no longer in 'im, but we can't be sure.”

Dean had ignored him.

He'd sat there and watched Sam sleep, his face peaceful and slack. He'd changed Sam out of the clothes that he'd fallen into the pit in and dressed him in clean, fresh ones. Put one of his own shirts on him just because he wanted to, even if it was a little small. He could pretend that way that Sam had stolen it from him in some random motel, bitching that “I'm only wearing this because you dripped swamp monster slime all over everything in my bag! Besides, you're always taking my clothes! Who was it who got blood all over my favourite shirt? You.”

And then Dean would snark back, “Your ‘favourite shirt?’ You're such a girl, Sammy.”

He hadn't talked to Sam while he waited. Didn't want the reminder of the last time Sam had been lying motionless on a bed and Dean had monologued at him. Because this time, Sam wasn't dead. Sam was going to wake up.

And on the third day, he did.

****

They're half an hour outside of Port Huron, Michigan, where this job apparently is, and Sam is snoring.

He's got his legs awkwardly curled up in front of him, knees pressing into the dashboard. His head is resting against the window, cushioned on the makeshift pillow of his rolled up sweater, lolling around slightly with the movement of the car. His hands are pulled up close to his chest, and he looks like he's curling in on himself. Cuddling into an imaginary object.

Dean watches him sleep out of the corner of his eye. It's all he can do not to reach out and touch him, just smooth a hand across his hair and push it out of his face, the way Dean always used to do when Sam was a kid, before he grew into a snarky, surly teenager who shied away from Dean's hands with a scowl on his face and a muttered, “I'm not a kid 'nymore Dean, leave me alone.”

Dean's hands flex on the steering wheel, the joints in his fingers grinding together. Sam is sleeping, his mouth hanging open so he looks like an idiot, drool gleaming in the corner of his mouth. He's snoring lightly, and he looks and sounds just like he did before he took Lucifer into his body and jumped straight into hell. He looks soft and pure and nothing like what Dean had felt like after he'd come out of hell, shredded inside and so twisted up that it was all he could do to put on a brave face for his little brother.

“I don't remember anything,” Sam had said. “I'm fine.”

Yeah, right. Dean might've believed that if he hadn't been the one who'd been right next to Sam when he'd finally opened his eyes. If he hadn't been the one who'd reached out to touch him, and then—

Well, suffice to say that there's no way that hell hadn't done anything to Sam.

Before he'd conked out, Sam had explained the job.

“Apparently it started out with some weird reports from this one street in the suburbs,” he'd said. “People kept claiming that they were seeing weird, terrifying things, but nothing consistent. It always changed. Different people saw a pack of crocodiles, a gigantic snake, and a spider the size of a St. Bernard. But it didn't stop at weird animal sightings. More people started volunteering their stories in the comments on the web page that had the news article—people said that they saw things that were personally scary to them, like an abusive father who had died the year before, or a rapist, or their seventh grade math teacher who had terrorized them as a child. And then there was even weirder stuff, like people seeing the villains of horror movies.”

“Seriously? Jason and Freddy and Norman Bates are stalking suburbanites?”

“Seems so. And get this: no one even died at first. They'd just see the thing, run away and call the police, and there'd be nothing there when they looked back. The first sighting was reported three weeks ago. The first death was only two days ago. George Harmon, 48 years old. Found in the morning on Saturday. He was lying between two houses and he appeared to have been mauled to death by a large animal.” Sam had looked over at that point, raising his eyebrows significantly. “And the closest thing they have to a witness is a woman who lives in the house next to where he died, who says that she heard yowling and saw what looked like a very big cat run by her window.”

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” Dean had muttered. “So, what, we've got some sort of shapeshifting creature that changes into whatever you're most afraid of and then ganks you?”

“Yeah, I guess. Oh, and it's only been spotted at night so far. Usually in the alley spaces between houses.”

A brief silence had fallen between them, Dean humming along absently with the radio before he spoke again.

“It is a little weird, yeah, but it doesn't sound that hard. All you'd have to face is a clown or two, huh?”

Sam had laughed, which had been Dean's aim, except that it had sounded small and hollow. Dean had glanced over in time to see the smile shrink from his face. The lines at the corner of his eyes didn't look like laugh lines, but like cracks, fissures spreading out from point of impact.

That had been an hour ago. Sam hadn't come back with any sort of joke about planes, like Dean had expected. Like Dean had hoped. Sam had balled up his sweater, placed it against the window and closed his eyes.

He's stayed asleep for so long that it isn't a surprise that he doesn't wake up when they finally come into Port Huron. Sam doesn't jolt awake even when the Impala rattles over a dip in the concrete—god, the roads in Michigan suck—and turns into the parking lot of a motel.

The car rolls to a gentle stop, and Dean shuts off the engine. In the new silence of the car, devoid of the ever present rumble, Sam's snores seem much louder, filling the space. Dean lets himself sit there for a moment, watching Sam. Then he sucks in a deep breath, steels himself, and reaches over to shake Sam awake.

His hand has barely landed on Sam's shoulder before Sam's entire body is jerking, as if Dean is a live wire sending an electric shock through him. His eyes fly open and his hands fly up, lashing out automatically.

“Jesus, Sammy!” Dean lurches backwards, Sam's knuckles only just missing his face, and feels a starburst of pain shoot through his skull as the back of his head slams into the door of the car.

“Fuck,” he hisses, closing his eyes on Sam, on the confused realization spreading across his face.

“Dean? Are you—sorry, I didn't mean, I was just—”

Dean slits his eyes open again, trying to muster up a smile to put his brother at ease. A couple years ago, Sam would've had his hands on Dean by now, would've batted Dean's away so he could get his own fingers sliding gingerly across the back of Dean's head, checking the injury himself. But now there's just Sam's hand hovering in the air between them, shaking and uncertain, Sam's face white and upset, so upset over something that in the past would've been cause for a joke and a shove and a “God, Sam, keep your monster paws to yourself!”

“'S no big deal,” Dean says, shoving the car door open and clambering out. “You get the bags from the back and we'll call it even, alright?”

Sam probably replies, but Dean doesn't hear it; he's out of earshot in two, three steps, moving like he's on a hunt with a monster on his tail instead of the brother he's spent a year missing.

His shoulders grow looser with each step away from Sam, and he hates it, hates it, hates this.

****

It's not like Dean wants them to be super touchy-feely.

It's not like they ever were in the past.

They were...normal. They were brotherly pats on the shoulder and whacks on the back and wrestling over the remote and shoving each other just to see the other's face split into annoyance. They were knees pressed together whenever they were sitting side by side, they were shoulders bumping, they were fingers carefully patching up torn skin and bruised flesh. A hug—only a few seconds long—if someone had just come back from the dead. It was all perfunctory, regular stuff, nothing girly about it.

And maybe it had gotten a little intense as time went on—for Dean at least. Maybe he finds himself wanting to wrap around Sam and keep him safe in the circle of his arms. Maybe he wants sometimes to pin Sam to the ground with his body and just hold him there so he can't disappear again. Maybe he wishes he could press his face to Sam's chest and hear his heartbeat, feel the solid evidence that Sam is alive and with him and won't leave again.

But he's never done any of the stuff he really wanted. Didn't want Sam to know how scared he was for him. How scared he always is. Instead he just soaked up what little contact Sam gave him and what little he allowed himself to give back.

Except they haven't touched in two months, and Dean doesn't know what the hell to do about that.

It's not like he doesn't get that Sam doesn't want to talk about whatever hell did to him; Dean practically wrote the book on that particular brand of avoidance. Except that Sam doesn't do this. Dean is supposed to clam up and Sam is supposed to pry and bleat about how “communication is good for the soul” or some shit. Sam is supposed to cry on his shoulder and Dean is supposed to stoically hold him and let him get it out, maybe shedding a manful tear or two in solidarity. Dean speaks through contact and Sam speaks through words.

Sam doesn't do this. Or, at least, Dean thought Sam had stopped doing this, had stopped lying to Dean.

“I don't remember,” Sam had said. “I'm fine.”

Look at me, Dean thinks. Look me in the eye and say that without a quaver in your voice and I'll believe that.

Touch me again and I'll believe it.

****

“Mrs. Harmon, was your son afraid of tigers?”

Bright, beady eyes snap from the painting on the wall that they have been fastened intently upon for the last three minutes and back to Dean's face. He smiles under the spotlight of her wild gaze, trying not to shrink away or hold up a crucifix or something.

Sam leans farther forward in the squashy armchair he'd settled into, his earnest expression unwavering even as the old woman ignores him in favour of staring at Dean. The chair looks like it's swallowing him, like it could snap closed any second with Sam inside, long spidery legs protruding from the billowy bulges of fabric.

“Mrs. Harmon?”

“Yes, dear?” Her eyes are still on Dean, but her body shifts, angling towards Sam. She's perched on a wooden chair, the only one in the room among multiple overstuffed couches and armchairs.

“Your son,” Sam persists. “George Harmon. My partner and I are just here to ask you a few questions about him to help in our investigation of his recent death.”

She blinks her owl eyes and pats absently at her white, fluffy hair.

“Yes, Georgie. He's a good boy. Helps me around the house. I haven't seen him today though. Alma says he'll be back soon.”

Dean exchanges a shit-son-she's-nuts glance with Sam. Through a complicated mixture of eyebrow movements and tiny scrunches of his mouth, Sam communicates “well, her son who has been living with her for her whole life did just die” back.

“Right, Alma?” Mrs. Harmon calls over her shoulder, her voice startlingly powerful and clear when raised.

Alma (neighbour, lived beside them for ten years, 35 years old, single, probably lesbian considering she hasn't given Dean a second glance) bustles out of the kitchen, looking stressed and carrying a tray of tea.

“Right, Julia,” she says to the old woman, setting down the tray and offering an awkward look of apology in Sam's direction. “I'm sure he'll be back soon.”

“Until then, you can take care of me,” Mrs. Harmon says, picking up the teacup closest to her. They're all tiny little things that look like they'll break if Dean's fingers get anywhere near them.

Alma's mouth twists briefly, but then she flashes a bright smile.

“Of course,” she soothes. Turning to Sam and Dean, she adds, “You gentlemen like anything special in your tea?”

Dean opens his mouth, but Sam gets there before him.

“Actually, I don't think we have time for tea right now,” he says smoothly. Not so smooth is his journey upright: the armchair seems to cling to him and he struggles ungainly for a moment before hoisting himself to his feet.

Dean stands up as well.

“Duty calls,” he says. “But if we could speak to you, Miss—Alma, was it?—for a moment...”

“Perhaps in the hallway,” Sam says.

Alma nods, understanding. She gently pats Mrs. Harmon—who has become completely consumed with staring at whatever is in her tea—on the shoulder before she straightens up completely.

“I'll see you out.”

She closes the sitting room door behind her and the smile she'd kept on for the old woman's sake quickly slides off of her face.

“You two are really FBI?” she asks, suddenly blunt.

“Yes,” Sam says. “We're here to find out what's been going on around this neighbourhood. Anything you can tell us about George, or his mother—”

“Or just anything you've seen or heard recently that strikes you as strange,” Dean puts in. “Anything could be helpful.”

Alma scrubs a hand over her face.

“Well, I don't really know much. I mean, they said George died from some sort of animal attack, but we don't get large animals here, only rarely coyotes. And Ms. Wigs down the street said she thought she saw a big cat, which doesn't make any sense.”

“Was George afraid of any type of large cats?” Dean asks.

“Yes, tigers, I think. He came over to visit me while I had a documentary on about them, and he freaked out. He was terrified of them.”

“What was your relationship with Mr. Harmon?” Sam asks.

Alma's eyes widened and she raised her hands, palms out.

“Oh, no, it was strictly a business relationship. He...knew I had a background in nursing and he wanted to hire me to be a live in caretaker for his mother. She's always been a little unstable and he's taken care of her almost his entire life. He wanted to finally leave home.” She shrugged, looking sad. “He was planning to announce to his mother that he was leaving in a few months, and I was going to start work then. He set up a fund to pay me automatically. I'm just...starting work a little earlier than anticipated.”

“So, you're living in the house then,” Sam says.

“No, not yet. I still sleep in my house next door and just come over early in the morning to make Mrs. Harmon her breakfast. My daughter doesn't want to move in with Mrs. Harmon and sell our house. She's only eleven and I think she's really shaken by the death of someone who's been her neighbour her entire life.” The grief clears for a second, a glimpse of sun shining out of her overcast face, an amused smirk curving her lips. “And I think she might be a little afraid of Mrs. Harmon.”

“I'm not surprised,” Dean mutters.

Sam makes an aborted movement like he's going to elbow Dean in the ribs, but catches himself, faltering awkwardly and making up for it by rushing ahead with his words.

“Thank you for your time, Alma. If we have any more questions, we'll contact you.”

She gives them a wan smile and Dean turns to the door.

He's only opened it halfway when someone shoves past him, a small blur of wispy blond hair and flailing limbs.

“Mom, Mom, do you have any permanent markers? I can't find any at home!”

“Sweetheart,” Alma said, bending down and gathering the small girl into her arms. “It's rude to just push by people. Say you're sorry.”

The girl turns and peers up at Sam and Dean. She's got her arms wrapped around a Harry Potter book and she doesn't look particularly apologetic.

“Sorry,” she says. “Who are you?”

Something like worry flashes across Alma's face, but Dean is already answering, smiling down at the kid.

“We're FBI,” he says. “We're here to find out what happened to Mr. Harmon.”

“Make sure it's safe around here for kids like you,” Sam adds.

The girl glares at them.

“Oh. You're police,” she says, hugging her book closer to her chest. “I don't like police.”

“Elise!” Alma scolds. “Sorry, she had an argument with the regular police officers who spoke to us about George before. She's not usually like this.”

“It's alright, we're used to not being liked,” Dean jokes. He gives a wave and starts heading out the door, not wanting to waste any more time in there. He hears Sam call out “have a nice day!” before his brother catches up to him on the walkway.

It's always creeped Dean out the way all the houses in the suburbs look the same. They'd gone and looked at the spot where Harmon had apparently gotten himself ganked and it had looked exactly the same as any old stretch of grass between two houses.

“So, we learned absolutely nothing from that,” he grumbles to Sam. “Except that Mrs. Harmon is off her rocker. Did you see the way she was staring at me?”

A small smile quirks up the corner of Sam's mouth.

“Maybe she's easily distracted by pretty things,” he offers

Dean laughs, surprised and pleased. Sam doesn't smile or joke very much anymore. If Dean had known how scarce Sam's smiles would become, he thinks he would've hoarded them, memorized every moment one split his face.

“If that was it, I think she would've been looking at you, Sugar Lips,” Dean snarks back.

Sam rolls his eyes, bitchy and amused and familiar.

“Well, we did confirm our theory that everyone is seeing their worst fears. I mean, we still don't know what the hell kind of shapeshifter this is, or how to kill it, but we can pretty much assume that it is psychic enough to reach into someone's head and pluck out what will frighten them the most.”

Dean nods, watching the slow crawl of a minivan moving down the road towards them.

“Since that was our last interview of the day, I say we grab some grub and head back to the room,” he says. He pauses on the sidewalk, waiting for the soccer mom to pass before he crosses to the Impala.

Sam isn't looking where he's walking though, his eyes on his feet, and—without thinking—Dean throws an arm out across Sam's chest automatically to stop him before he steps into the road.

He gets only a brief thump of contact, glorious, tangible contact from his elbow to his fingers spread out over Sam's starched FBI shirt, before Sam is lurching backwards. A gasp pops out of him like the sound an air pump makes when you stomp on it, and when Dean looks over at him Sam's skin has turned as pale as ash.

At the sight of that, his irritation dies as quickly as it flared up in his gut.

Sam's eyes jump back up from his own chest and Dean's hand, now hovering a couple inches in front of Sam's chest instead of resting on it, to Dean's face. Dean can see the whites of his eyes all around the iris, and Sam freezes when they make eye contact.

Dean takes a deep breath.

“Sam, you gotta—you gotta stop doing this,” he says, voice low, conscious that they're standing on the sidewalk in the middle of the crowded suburbs. “I mean—come on, how am I supposed to watch your back on a hunt if I can't even touch you?”

And Dean may not have a hand on Sam (and isn't that the whole issue?) but he can still feel it when Sam goes completely rigid.

“There's—”

His voice falls away. As abruptly as a car driving off a cliff. His jaw tightens, his head moving like he's carrying on a conversation with himself. He isn't looking at Dean anymore.

“There's nothing—” Sam blurts. He closes his eyes and seems to will the tension from his limbs in one breath. “Just leave it, Dean. Please.”

Dean's arm drops to his side, and he watches as Sam stalks across the now empty road to the car.

He hadn't even been able to feel the heat of Sam's body underneath his clothes, but his own skin feels like it's shaking, just at the idea that—however briefly—he had his hands on Sam.

****

Dean knows he can't do this for much longer.

He feels like an addict whose drug of choice has been taken away. Like he'd gotten hooked without even realizing it, and only felt the need now that it was gone. Because, yeah, they were always normal, they were never super touchy-feely, but if Dean had wanted more of it even back then, when everything was still good between them, well, now—

Now he's going out of his mind.

****

When Sam had finally woken up in Bobby's panic room, after three days of sleep, Dean hadn't even noticed at first.

He'd been dozing in his chair next to Sam's bed, slipping between a dreamless sleep and drowsy awareness. He didn't know how long Sam's eyes had been open when his own finally parted enough for him to notice the blank stare his brother was aiming directly at him. For a second Dean had done nothing more but blink at him, trying to figure out if it was the sleep muddling his brain, or if Sam was really awake.

“Sammy?” he had whispered.

And Sam had started, jerked, as if—despite the fact that he'd been staring at Dean—he hadn't really expected him to be there.

The next bit was where it always got twisted and fuzzy in Dean's brain—he'd gone over the memory of it so many times, trying to find something different in it, that it felt like an old photograph, smudged by fingers and love.

He'd reached out and Sam's eyes had gotten huge and scared, and Dean hadn't noticed. Dean had grabbed him and hauled him up off the bed and into his arms, and at first he thought the difficulty of it was because Sam was heavy and uncoordinated from sleep. A few seconds later, in the midst of him clutching at his brother's shirt and babbling in his ear, he realized that Sam was fighting him.

Sam had writhed as if Dean's hands were burning him, and when Dean pulled back he'd been able to see that Sam's eyes had rolled back in his head, leaving nothing but shaking white and red cracks, a sightless stare. And yet Dean still didn't get it, didn't realize that it was his touch that was making Sam respond like this, had instead clutched at him harder, trying to feel for injuries, to see where Sam was hurting the only way he could.

He'd yelled for Bobby and held Sam's shivering body to his, and he didn't let go until one of Sam's flailing limbs hit him in the face.

Sam had cried out at that, as if he was the one who'd gotten hit, and as soon as Dean had reflexively released him, Sam had scrambled backwards away from him, tripping over his own limbs in his haste. He'd crawled away from Dean until his back hit the wall and he'd curled up there, chest heaving.

Dean had taken one step towards him, reached out one hand.

And Sam had started screaming.

It was an unholy sound, so loud that Dean could barely make out the words at first, too paralysed by the sight of Sam's face distorting into a ugly caricature around the force of the scream. But after a minute, he realized that Sam was saying his name, crying it like he used to when he was a kid and woke up after a bad nightmare. He was calling for Dean, but at the same time he was saying “don't” and “get away” and “no”.

The door to the panic room had slammed open with a bang, and Bobby had appeared, out of breath, his face grim. He'd taken in the situation in one glance, and then he was crossing the room to Dean, grabbing him by the shoulders and pulling him back towards the door.

“No!” Dean had shouted. “No, I—he needs my help, he needs me—”

“Jesus, boy, listen to that,” Bobby snarled. “You think you're doing this kid any good right now? I'll handle this, you just wait out there.”

Bobby had shoved him out of the room and slammed the door shut, ignoring Dean hammering his fists against the metal. Dean remembered the feeling of panic, remembered going over Sam's reaction over and over in his head, remembered losing his head and just screaming for Sam through the door. Not that Sam would've even been able to hear him over the sound he was making.

When his own voice had given out and Sam's was starting to sound like it was shredded—Bobby's attempts at calming him having no effect—Dean had folded himself to his knees, grit digging into his skin through the ripped holes in his jeans. He'd bent forward and pressed his forehead to the cool cement ground and he'd prayed.

Cas showed up right next to him before he was even done with the first sentence. Dean had looked up and watched Cas's blank face twitch and seem to fall as he took in the cacophony that Sam was creating. Then he was vanishing, poofing in that angel way of his into the panic room. A moment later, Sam's screech abruptly picked up, and then cut off and absolute silence fell.

After another couple minutes, Bobby had opened the door and let Dean back in so he could see that Sam was fine; asleep again, knocked out by Cas's mojo. He looked even smaller than before as he lay on the bed.

The second time Sam woke up, Dean wasn't beside him. He'd been forbidden to watch Sam sleep in case something like the first wake up happened again. Cas was the one who was with him, and he'd been the one to come and get Dean when he decided that Sam was alright, that he was sane and ready to see his brother.

Seeing Sam when his brother was lucid and could talk to him was amazing, but the second Dean moved to hug him, Sam had flinched away. Dean had gotten the unspoken message. For some reason, Sam didn't want anyone touching him. Especially Dean.

Dean had thought that it would wear off. But it's been two months, and Sam doesn't seem to be getting better. He's getting worse.

****

Sam slumps back in his chair, throwing his hands up.

“Nothing!” he exclaims in frustration. “I've got nothing. Whatever this is, it's not an easily definable creature, that's for sure.”

Dean swallows his chunk of greasy burger before he replies.

“That's probably why Bobby told us it was a weird one,” he says. “Because it's something we don't have a simple answer for. Awesome.”

Sam closes the laptop, glancing once at his own half-eaten burger before dismissing it. Sam's been acting determinedly normal since they got back to the room and Dean can do nothing but leave it for now and focus on the case.

“I don't like not knowing what we're dealing with,” Sam admits grumpily. “Usually by now we've got a theory, but we have no idea how to kill this thing at all.”

“Aw, research boy sad that the internet has finally failed him?” Dean teases. Sam flashes him a bitch face in response. “C'mon, Sammy, we know enough. We know it's some sort of shapeshifting thing that only comes out at night and appears to the viewer as whatever frightens them the most. We'll just have to go get some firsthand experience to move forward.”

Sam shoots him a look.

“You really think we're ready for that? You did hear the ‘we don't know how to kill it yet’ part, right?”

Dean shrugs, licking the grease off of his fingers. He can feel Sam's gaze lingering on his mouth, but he doesn't bother to look up and meet the full force of Sam's “my-brother-is-a-disgusting-heathen” face head on.

 

“We'll be prepared. Most shapeshifters are killed with silver blades or bullets, so if we stock up on that and some other stuff just in case, we'll be covered enough to at least get a look at the thing.”

He looks over at Sam and tries to look confident. He has it on good authority that that was something he used to be good at.

“You and me are going on a stakeout,” he says firmly.

Sam shakes his head slightly, sighing, but a smile flickers on his face and Dean knows he's got him.

“I don't know about this,” Sam says.

****

“I don't know about this,” Sam says.

The suburbs don't look scary in the least at night. It's past midnight and the houses are almost all dark, but a few still have soft light shining through wispy curtains of living rooms or bedrooms. There are a few lampposts along the street too, casting pools of golden light onto the sidewalk and spilling over onto the road.

“Oh, come on, Sam!” Dean hisses. “We're in the suburbs! Doesn't really scream ‘danger’!”

“I'm going to laugh when you get mauled by a tiger,” Sam mutters.

“Yeah, 'cause oversized kitty cats are exactly the kind of things that haunt my nightmares,” Dean shoots back.

Sam cracks a small grin.

“Kitty cats?” he repeats.

“Shut up,” Dean says.

The alley that Harmon was found in is still a few houses ahead of them, and they confirmed with people who had claimed to see something that all sightings had happened in that area. Dean counts the distance in sidewalk panels, casually lengthening his stride so that he's ahead of Sam, so that he's the front line. He's not an idiot. He's aware that Sam might not see just a clown, after what he's been through, so he's hoping the thing can only take one form at a time and will focus on Dean.

They're three sidewalk chunks away from the alley when Dean sees a small shape dart across the street out of the corner of his eye. He tenses instinctively, fingers clenching around the gun at his side and his free hand half raised across Sam, before he realizes that it's a person.

The little girl from that morning, a stick clutched in her tiny hand and a bag bouncing against her leg, runs up and stops a few metres away from them, right at the mouth of the alley where the monster allegedly lives.

“You guys shouldn't be out here,” she says, glaring at them fiercely. “It's dangerous.”

“That's what I was about to say to you, kid!” Dean hisses, crossing the ground between them in a second, grabbing the girl's arm and pulling her off the sidewalk and into the abandoned street, away from the alley. He can sense Sam at his back without even seeing him, and a bolt of fear breaks through him when he realizes that Sam is closer to the creature’s potential lair than he is. The girl fights against his grip, her face scrunched up.

“Does your mum know you're outside at this time?” Dean asks. “Your neighbour died out here, you can't be hanging arou—”

“I know!” the girl cries. “That's why I'm trying to stop it!” Her eyes are bright, even in the darkness, childishly round. “I caused it, so I'm going to stop it!”

Dean blinks.

“What? What do you mean, you caused it?”

Something rattles loudly in the alley behind them. Dean can sense Sam turning away from him and back towards the sound.

“There's a box,” he says, and his voice sounds more distant than it should be. Dean glances over his shoulder to see that Sam is creeping slowly towards the alley. Beyond him, Dean can see a dark, rectangular shape, shaking back and forth. As if something was struggling to get out from inside of it.

“Sammy, don't touch it,” he warns, bracing a hand on the ground in preparation to get up.

Sam doesn't seem to hear him, merely moving s few steps closer. He's under the shadow of the houses now, his body died a dark blue without the light of the lampposts shining on him. He looks back at them, his eyes focusing on the little girl—on Elise.

“The book you were holding earlier,” he says in a low voice. “Was that Harry Potter?”

Dean's mouth drops open.

“Can't we save the geeking out for later?” he asks, but the other two aren't even listening to him. Elise nods frantically.

“Yes!” she says. “I didn't mean to do it, really, I just wanted to be able to do magic, but then I made that come to life and—”

“A boggart,” Sam breathes. “You made a boggart come out of the book.”

“Can someone please explain to me what the hell you two are talking about?” Dean says, completely bewildered.

Elise steps past him, towards the alley, completely fearless. Dean's eyes flick to the stick clutched in her hands as she holds it up. Sam looks like he's going to faint, or have some sort of geek-gasm.

“At first it didn't do anything really bad,” Elise says, speaking only to Sam now. “In the books, all it did was scare people so that they would leave it alone to live in it's nice dark space. But it must have mutated over time or something because it killed Mr. Harmon, so I came out here and I used the spell that works against it, but all that did was help me trap it in a box, and I don't know how to make it go away or kill it for real—”

The box in the alley rattles again, harder this time, as if the creature—the boggart—knows it's being discussed. An audible crack comes from it's direction and Sam and the girl automatically step back.

“Uh, how strong is that box, exactly?” Sam asks. “Because I think you just made it angry.”

Dean takes one step towards them, and the box explodes.

Pieces of wood shoot out the alley straight at them, and Dean throws his arms up in front of his face instinctively, catching just a glimpse of Sam putting himself between the girl and the shrapnel, arms outstretched to shield her. Elise lets out a small shriek, but the explosion isn't large: Dean is dropping his arms and sprinting the two steps in between him and his brother only seconds after it goes off, trying to reach him before the creature chooses a form—

And then he's skidding to a halt next to Sam. Sam, who has gone completely still, staring across the sidewalk at another Dean, standing in the mouth of the alley.

Dean blinks, but it doesn't clear his sight, doesn't make his clone disappear. The other him is merely standing there, staring directly at Sam with a cruel twist to it's mouth, an expression that Dean is sure he has never aimed at his little brother.

“Sammy?” Dean chokes out. Sam doesn't even so much as twitch at the sound of his voice, his eyes still on the doppelganger—on the boggart. “Why does it look like me?”

Sam doesn't even blink. He's shut down, like someone flipped his off-switch.

The other Dean has its eyes fixed on Sam, and the smirk on its face melts away, replaced with a look of sheer disgust.

“You little monster,” it snarls, starting to move forward, pulling a machete from behind its back. “Should've known you'd end up like this.”

Sam flinches violently, but Dean doesn't have time to panic or figure out what the hell is happening here and why the fuck Sam's greatest fear is apparently him, because Elise is rushing forward, the stupid kid stepping in front of Sam with nothing for protection but that stupid stick she's still clutching.

Dean opens his mouth to yell at her to get out of the way, but suddenly his clone is twisting in on itself, morphing in a blink of an eye into a corpse, shambling towards the girl with it's arms outstretched. Dean recognizes with a cold shock that it's George Harmon.

Elise's hands are trembling, but she holds her stick steady and yells, “Riddikulus!”

A light shoots out of the end of the stick—of the wand, Dean realizes—and strikes the zombie in the stomach. It staggers backwards and suddenly its stained, bloody clothing is gone, replaced by exaggeratedly tight gym clothes and sweatbands around its head and wrists. A treadmill appears under its feet and the corpse is abruptly clinging to the bars on the side, struggling to stay upright as the track speeds underneath its sluggish feet.

Elise laughs, and Dean distantly admits that he'd probably find it hilarious also if it wasn't for the fact that Sam still isn't moving. Dean is fucking done with this hunt, done with anything that turned Sam into this empty husk of himself.

He steps forward, pulling his gun—loaded with silver bullets—out of its holster and firing two shots into the zombie's chest. Its lifeless body jerks with the force of the shots, but nothing happens other than that.

“That's not going to do anything!” Elise yells at him. “It's a boggart! Laughter weakens it, but it can't actually die!”

“Well, then what the hell are we supposed to do?” Dean shouts back.

The girl's eyes spark, and she presses the wand insistently into Dean's hand before she sticks her arm into her bag and pulls out the book Dean had seen her with before. Before she wrenches it open, he gets a glimpse of the title on the cover: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She opens it to the inside of the back cover, where a complicated, circular symbol has been drawn on in black, some sort of witch magic symbol that Dean's never seen before.

Elise is talking, saying how she tried to scribble out the circle and break the magic that way, but Dean isn't listening. He shoves his gun back into its holster and grabs the book out of her hands, ignoring her squawk of protest. He pulls his lighter out of his pocket and struggles to flick it on; burn the book, destroy the spell, and they'll be alright.

The girl is backing away slightly, and the boggart's attention moves to Dean. The treadmill flickers under its feet, and Dean watches as the corpse's face starts to change, George Harmon's features starting to melt into something younger, nose growing pointed, eyes curving like a fox, dimples appearing in sunken cheeks. Something kicks viciously in Dean's chest, and he remembers the gasping burble of air against his cheek and Sam's eyes going vacant and Dean's knees numb against the ground as his hands came away blood slick from Sam's back—

The lighter finally spurts out a lick of flame and Dean shoves it against the corner of the book. The fire races up the surface of the book, covering the black symbols, and Dean drops it onto the ground to let the entire thing light up. He looks up at the boggart only long enough to confirm that it's lighting up in flame as well, an ungodly scream coming from it, before he turns away, closing his eyes on the image of Sam's corpse crumbling to ash.

There is a second of silence afterwards, and Dean is frozen in it, listening to the sound of his and the girl's breath panting out of their mouths. He can't even hear Sam breathing at all, and he turns then, runs to his brother's side.

“Did you have to do that?” Elise whines behind him. “That was a signed copy!”

Sam's chest is barely rising underneath Dean's hand, and he's still staring blankly at the opening of the alley. Dean's throat closes up, and his hands are shivering when he fists them in the front of Sam's jacket. He can't even enjoy the fact that he's touching Sam, because Sam isn't here anymore, Sam's somewhere else, Sam's stuck somewhere—

“Oh, Jesus, Sam,” Dean whispers. He shakes Sam once, twice. His brother moves like a rag doll, unresponsive. “Sam, what's wrong? C'mon man, snap out of it! SAM!”

“What's wrong with him?”

The sound of the girl's voice only sends a thick current of rage up Dean's body, and he forgets that she's just a kid, that she had no idea what she was messing with when she tried to make something from her favourite book come to life, and he turns on her.

“This is your fault!” he yells, hands still clutching Sam to him. “This wouldn't have happened if you'd just have kept your grubby little paws out of stuff you don't understand! How am I supposed to fix him now?”

“I don't—” Elise starts, backing away from him as if he's going to pounce on her or something.

“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!” Dean screams. The girl's face goes white, and she whirls around, taking off at a run. Dean doesn't care if he's scared her. Dean just doesn't fucking care about anything other than the boy under his hands.

“C'mon, Sammy,” he begs. “C'mon, wake up.”

But Sam isn't here. Sam's back in the cage.

 

****

 


Oh, Sammy, you never really thought you could escape me, did you?

On the first day of hell, Lucifer used flames.

Sam felt parts of his body go a little bit at a time: his fingers lighting one by one, the flesh on them melting and bubbling, fire eating at them until greasy drops of fat were sizzling and the bones were charring away, black pieces falling from his hand into the abyss at his feet. Then his individual toes, then his ears. A wide circle in the centre of his chest was carved out by a patch of flame, white-hot and searing through his body, boiling his blood and burning first the surface layer of skin and then straight through the shuddering bellows of his lungs. The air was thick with smoke and heat and the stench of burning flesh, and Sam screamed until something ripped viscerally in his throat and he started to choke on his own blood.

That was when his tongue caught fire.

He tried to think of Jess, but her memory couldn't hold up there. Images of her brightness—her laugh, the soft touch of her fingers, her hair tangled up first thing in the morning and the way she'd scrunch her nose as she tried to work a brush through it—all flashed in front of his eyes, but they flickered and faded, overcome by the reality around him. Jess was all the best there had been in him, but she couldn't save him from this fire. She hadn't been able to save herself.

Dean, then.

Dean the spring that Sam turned fifteen, convincing him to wake up early and skinny dip in the lake next to the shack they were squatting in. He'd stripped off his sleep shirt and boxers, unashamed and unabashed in his nakedness, nineteen years old and still the centre of Sam's world, dancing ridiculously on his tiptoes to try and get his limbs to warm up.

"Come on, Sammy, don't be a pussy!” he'd teased, wrestling him close and yanking Sam's shirt off. He'd laughed at Sam's squawk of protest, his mouth a smear of pink on his freckled face in the early morning light. Sam had kicked off his shoes and pants, mumbling half-heartedly about how “stupid this was”, but there had been something warm in his chest from the presence of Dean at his side, the kind of warmth he always got whenever Dean's attention was on him.

Dean had run across the dock and jumped straight into the water with a whoop, coming up only seconds later gasping and shivering.

"It's fucking freezing!” he'd yelled, teeth clenching in a brilliant, shivering grin. “Get your ass in here, I am not doing this alone!”

Sam had held out longer than he really meant to, wanting to hear Dean's voice cajoling him a little longer. The sun still hadn't come up yet and the water looked like black ink, only silvery ripples letting him know where Dean was.

It was such a shock of coldness when he jumped in that he gasped as the water closed over his head, spitting out water when he surfaced. Dean was right there in front of him, smiling like a water demon, clammy limbs snaking around him to dunk him underwater again.

"Lemme go!” Sam sputtered, shoving at Dean's chest. His palm skated over his brother's slick skin, a brief bleed of warmth.

"Nah,” Dean chuckled, breath skating over Sam's ear. “Don't wanna.”

And Sam had laughed, too happy to pretend he was annoyed, even though the water was freezing and Dad would probably get mad at them.

Sam closed his eyes against the heat and he could almost feel the water pouring around him now, putting out the fire, cool skin pressing against his side as if Dean was wrapping his arms around him, protecting him.

Poor baby.

On the second day of hell, Lucifer used cold.

Everything was white as far as he could see, but to be fair, that wasn't very far. Wind and sharp blades of snow stung at his eyes. His tears froze as soon as they leaked onto his cheeks. He was naked, sitting in a ball in the snow, so cold that the pain of it was a constant wave crashing over him, but somehow never cold enough to slip into numbness. This time his fingers blackened from frostbite and slowly dropped off. His chest felt so tight that he couldn't breathe, and when he opened his mouth to try to draw in a desperate breath, his lips split open and bled fat drops of blood that froze on his chin.

Dean, then.

The winter Dean was sixteen and they had actually stayed in a nice motel for once; they had had a social services scare the month before and Dad was trying to leave them in nicer places so there was less suspicion. He would backslide in the spring, but for the time being, Dean and Sam had been comfy in a place where they had their own room, two beds, and a bathroom where the door actually locked.

Sam had been twelve years old and angry at Dean for leaving him alone in the room while Dean went off with Marissa or Maria, or something like that—but then the door was rattling and he had heard his brother's voice coming from the other side of the wood:

“Oi, Sam, unlock the damn deadbolt! It's freezing out here!”

And he'd sprung to his feet and rushed to the door, pathetically grateful, hundreds of reasons for Dean being back this early racing through his head, all of them centring on the idea that Dean had given up his night with a girl because he'd rather hang out with Sam.

A few flakes of fat, fluffy snow drifted into the room when Sam managed to get the door open, and his brother's flushed face appeared in the crack, flashing a quick smile down at Sam even as he shoved his way past him.

“Gotta love winter, huh?” he said, tugging off his threadbare mittens and kicking off his boots before throwing himself face first down on the bed nearest to the door. “Geez, close the door, will ya?”

Sam slammed it shut and slid the deadbolt into place automatically, locking the cold out. He turned and ran over to the bed Dean was sprawled on, shoving him over so he could clamber on up beside him. Dean groaned and fussed at him, but it was pretty obvious that he was only pretending to be annoyed, a smile curving up the corner of his mouth as he lifted up one arm to let Sam curl up next to him.

Dean raised an eyebrow at him and Sam felt his cheeks pink.

“What?” he said, willing Dean not to make fun of him, to call him a baby and push him away. “It's cold.”

“You're like a parasite, I swear,” Dean muttered. He shifted slightly, pulling Sam closer to his side, as if Sam somehow wouldn't notice what he was doing if he moved slowly enough. Sam hid his grin in the curve of Dean's shoulder.

“What happened to that girl?” he asked. Dean's shirt smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent and sweat, none of the clinging perfume that girls usually left on him. Sam scrubbed his face from side to side, feeling the fabric scratch against his skin.

“Didn't feel like it,” Dean grunted. “Besides, it's cold as fuck out there. Rather be inside.”

And Sam had smiled and heard that as “rather be with you” and had closed his eyes and fallen asleep next to his brother, warm and content.

Later he would realize that that night had been the last time Dean let him sleep right next to him.

Now, sitting in the snow, Sam wrapped his stiff, freezing arms around his body and imagined them as Dean's, warmth bleeding into him on every side as his brother held him, melting the ice and blocking the frigid wind, shielding Sam from it all.

Nice try, buddy.

By the third day of hell, Lucifer had started getting more creative.

He sliced into Sam’s lower back, peeling the skin and sinew up and off his ribcage until it hung from his shoulder blades in a wide flap of bleeding flesh. Then he nailed Sam’s skin to the wall over an enormous, bottomless pit, leaving Sam to hang there as his body weight ripped more and more flesh from him, until it finally tore completely off of his shoulders, and he fell. If it had been happening in real life, the fall would have been the worst part, with the landing—with death—being a relief. But this was hell, and when his body hit the spikes at the bottom of the pit, Sam didn't die. He felt it all, felt it even when one of the spikes punched through the back of his head and pushed out his throat, when the impact thrust him down so far on the spikes that his mouth couldn't contain the girth of the spike and his lips tore open, peeling right off of his face. This was hell, and Sam felt it all, the uncontrollable scream thrumming in his ruined chest and gored lungs, his eyes—still intact—fixing on the bloody columns of spikes sticking so far up out of his body that they seemed to tower above him.

Dean, then.

Dean in Sam's earliest memory, a blurry face hovering above him, holding a bright red rattle just out of reach. Sam had stretched his chubby arms up and babbled for it, but it didn't take long after Dean lowered it down so he could grab it in his fat fist and wave it around a few times for him to realize that the wide moon face above him was more interesting than the plastic toy.

When Sam had dropped the rattle onto his stomach, Dean had made a worried little sound, stooping down and reaching for it like he thought Sam had let go accidentally and would want it again. And Sam had taken that chance to reach up and grab onto Dean, one hand on each of his ears.

That was the first time Sam had heard Dean laugh.

That laugh changed a lot over the years: became deeper, became more broken, became shorter. But there was a core to it that was always the same. Whenever Sam heard Dean laugh in the years that followed, he could still hear the echo of that child in his voice.

Sam closed his eyes and focused on the sound of that laugh.

He wasn't certain how long Lucifer left him in the pit of spikes. After the third day of hell, Sam stopped being able to keep track of time.

Lucifer melted all the skin off of his body. He skinned him alive and then threw him into salt water. He removed each of his organs separately and fed them to Sam, held his mouth and forced him to chew and swallow. He sawed off Sam's arms and legs, ripped open his chest, and sewed the limbs to his ribs. He tore Sam open, mutilated him in ways Sam could never have imagined before, and then he did it all again.

And throughout it all, Sam thought of Dean. Dean became his shield. He'd think of his brother, of the way the corners of his eyes crinkled up when he smiled, of the way he'd purse his lips ridiculously when he was focusing really hard on something, of the shape of his hands and how they'd felt on Sam when they were wrestling, when Dean was pressing him down into the ground and laughing breathlessly in his ear. He'd think of Dean and Lucifer would fade. Just a little. Just enough that he could stay sane. Just enough that he could remember who he was.

Sam didn't know how many years it was before it started getting more personal.

Apparently Lucifer had just been warming up.

Because—just when the constant pain had started to get monotonous—Lucifer started adding his own commentary. It was no longer Sam alone with his pain, with invisible hands dissecting him. No, Lucifer loomed above him, wearing the face of the vessel he'd been in when he'd first courted Sam, taunting him.

“You're not gonna need these,” he'd say, slow smile spreading across his face like an oil slick on water, and with a liquid sounding tear, he'd rip his fist up out of Sam's gut, flesh and blood pouring down his hand and arms. “Oh, that's a pretty scream, Sammy, but I know you can do better than that. That's only a...six out of ten, don't you think? We're both just going to have to work a little harder.”

Lucifer got his “ten out of ten” screams more often than not. It was like Sam was an instrument, and Lucifer knew just what strings to pluck to get the right sound out of him. And he hadn't been lying when he'd said that he ran cold. His entire body was like burning ice wherever it touched Sam's.

Sometimes Lucifer would leave Sam's stomach alone when he played with the rest of his organs, just so that Sam still had the ability to vomit. Sam thought he should have gotten used to the pain and the disgust by then, and he had on some level, but it never stopped affecting him. When Lucifer lifted the slimy pieces of his insides in front of his face and the rank stench hit him—Lucifer cheerfully describing all of the details of his torture—sometimes Sam couldn't help the lurch of his stomach in the ruined pit of his guts. Lucifer liked it when he pushed Sam far enough to throw up. He'd crow in triumph while Sam choked on it, on the sheer volume of the sick pushing up his throat. He should've had nothing in his stomach to vomit up, but the rules of the cage were different than the rules of reality.

“Aw, Sammy, you've gone and made yourself messy again. Don't worry, I'll clean you up. Get you nice and fresh for me again.”

With Lucifer's voice in his ears, it was harder to focus on the thought of his brother. But Dean had always been loud, even when they were kids. So Sam learned. Learned how to blankly meet Lucifer's gaze (he'd figured out quickly enough that if he closed his eyes to put some distance between himself and what was happening, Lucifer would cut off his eyelids, or sometimes just shove pokers through his eyes, crooning “If you don't want to look at me, you don’t have to look at anything.”) and let memories of his brother stream through his head, muting the pain of the torture.

Dean when he was twelve, standing over Sam on the playground and glaring down a pack of bullies, threatening that if they “hurt my little brother again and you'll get more than just a fist in the face, you got it, assholes?” Dean when he was twenty-six, sweating and pale and dying of a heart condition, snuggling grumpily into Sam's hoodie. Dean when he was thirty-one, wearing douchey sunglasses at night, hamming up the CSI act and trading one-liners with Sam to lure the trickster into a false sense of security.

Dean.

Sometimes Lucifer would leave him alone, would open up some kind of hole in whatever space they were in (Lucifer may not have been able to escape the Cage, but he could manipulate the reality inside of it to whatever he wanted) so that Sam could catch a glimpse of Michael and Adam. Adam had clung on for the first decade or so, but it didn't take long before those glimpses that Sam got became Michael beating on what amounted to a blow-up doll, Adam's eyes lifeless and glassy even while his chest rose and fell.

“Another person you've failed,” Lucifer would whisper in his ear. “Poor little Adam, born into the wrong family. Never had a chance. Just like you.”

Michael didn't wear the face of the vessel that Sam had met him in, and that was something to be grateful for; he didn't have to watch a younger version of his father torture one of his sons. But Michael also wasn't in his true form, either. Instead he took the form of someone Sam assumed must have been a previous vessel. He looked like he did in the old oil paintings. Like an angel.

Sam wished he was dead—truly dead—every day. Every second. He had moments when he wished to god that he hadn't jumped, that he hadn't said yes, that he'd just grabbed Dean and everyone he loved and hid away somewhere while the world went to shit around them. He even wished sometimes that Dean had said yes, that the two of them could've let go of the reins and let the archangels battle it out. At least that way, Michael would've killed Sam and Lucifer in one go and maybe Sam could've woken up in a field full of fireworks, with a seventeen-year old Dean laughing beside him.

Not that Sam deserved heaven.

But Sam had jumped. And Dean hadn't said yes. And that meant that Dean was still up there, topside, alive and pushing forward, and hopefully making a life of his own.

He promised, Sam reminded himself, focusing on the thought instead of Lucifer's fingernails digging into his flesh. Dean promised that he would go to Lisa and that he would get out of the hunting life. He would be happy now. Sam could almost smile at that thought.

If an eternity of this, of being ripped apart by Lucifer, was the price for Dean's happiness, than it was worth it. He had to believe that.

****

Sam should've known that there was worse to come.

Lucifer stopped carving and started touching around the time that Sam might have died had he lived out a full human life on earth. He held Sam down and stroked freezing hands up the backs of his legs, spread him wide and vulnerable and slid his fingers down beneath Sam's balls until they could nudge against the crinkled whorl of skin there. Sam squeezed his eyes shut, true panic rising for the first time in decades.

“Don't be like that, Sam,” Lucifer said. His voice was so soft, none of the snarl and mocking that had always been there before. “Sure, you ruined things for me, but we can take a break from all this animosity, can't we? Do something nice for both of us?”

“Fuck you,” Sam gritted out. He wanted to get him angry, he wanted to get punched. He wanted Lucifer to stop touching him with gentle hands, because his body was so unused to gentle that it didn't want to fight. It wanted to relax into it.

“That's kind of what I was thinking I'd do,” Lucifer murmured. He pressed, dry, cold lips to Sam's cheek. His breath tasted like death. “And if you're good, I won't even have to hurt you.” The cruel humour returned, just for a moment. “We know I don't want to do that.”

Sam hadn't begged throughout any of his torture until this point. He'd done a lot of screaming and crying, but he had never begged Lucifer to stop.

He begged now. He pleaded.

In a way, it was good that he did, because Lucifer seemed to like the sound of it enough that even when Sam started fighting, started kicking and thrashing and scrambling to get away, Lucifer didn't nail his hands to the ground or cut apart the tendons in his limbs, just held him down with steady, implacable strength. Inhuman, unshakeable strength.

Sam had thought the cold of Lucifer's skin was bad when it was just the hands touching him, but it was worse than he could've imagined when Lucifer was blanketing his back and filling him up from the inside.

Lucifer's breath was harsh in his ear, his rhythmic grunts gusting out against Sam's neck in bursts of sour air. Sam's face was wet. He felt like he was being turned inside out, split in a way that the spikes and torture had never made him feel.

He remembered Jess's hands wandering south during a blowjob, remembered the way he had jerked in shock and the way she laughed at his expression and then took her hands away, saying that she had just wanted to try something. He remembered blushing and stammering his way through a confession a few days later that she could try that again if she wanted to. That he wouldn't mind.

This was worlds away from Jess and her bright, cheeky laugh and her careful fingers and her soft hair and warm breath against his thighs. This was worlds away from anything Sam had ever felt or ever wanted to feel.

When it was over, Lucifer let Sam curl in on himself, shivering. Sam felt Lucifer's hand come down, petting slowly across his hair, but he didn't have the energy to do more than flinch at the contact.

Lucifer leaned down and whispered, “This is how I'm going to break you.”

There was nothing that Sam could think of that would distract him. He couldn't pretend that Lucifer was one of the women he'd loved or slept with before. He couldn't distance himself completely and put himself somewhere else. And although at first Lucifer just sort of ignored him, simply used his body, that changed quickly. Soon Lucifer wanted more of a reaction. Wanted participation.

He put Sam on his back and pinned his legs up by his chest so he was folded uncomfortably in half. He curled a hand around Sam's soft cock and Sam hissed out a terrified breath, more at the touch itself than at the cold of Lucifer's skin. The fear paralysed him for a moment before he started fighting, bucking underneath the body pinning him down.

“Poor, poor little Sammy,” Lucifer hissed, holding him down easily. “You hate this so much, don't you? Little emotional Sam, never slept around much. Always had to like the girl's personality first, huh? Not like big brother.”

It was the first time that Lucifer had ever mentioned Dean, and Sam felt the shock of the acknowledgement rush through him like an electric current. He winced, looked away, tried to pretend that his reaction had been from pain or discomfort. Lucifer saw anyway.

“Don't like me bringing him up?” he said, his voice almost understanding, sympathetic even. “Don't like the idea that Dean could see you like this? Being the devil's little bitch?”

“Stop it,” Sam gasped. His face felt hot and tight. Lucifer wasn't moving inside him, and the pain was lessening. The hand on his cock was growing warmer, closer to the temperature of human skin, and Lucifer was kneading gently, starting to stroke. Sam could feel the blood starting to pool in his stomach and he started struggling anew, straining against the grip holding him down. Lucifer was so strong that he got nowhere, couldn't even get his arms free from where they were tied behind his back, wrists crushed to the ground under the weight of their two bodies. Sam could feel his breath growing short, his heart thrumming double speed in the fragile cage of his chest.

He was so, so afraid.

“Stop, stop, don't, get off of me, get off—”

“Trying to help you do that, Sam. What, you don't want to get something out of this too? I could make you feel good, just you and me here in the cage forever.”

“No, let go of me—”

“Your body doesn't seem to want me to let go though. Shame on you, Sammy, don't you know that mixed messages can cause confusion?”

Sam couldn't move. Sam could barely breathe. Sam couldn't control his own reactions, or stop Lucifer, or take refuge inside his mind.

For all of his strength and his size and his skill, Sam was nothing next to Lucifer.

When he came, it felt good. Uncontrollably good. For a few blissful seconds, he wasn't in the cage anymore. But it faded almost instantly. Faded and left him feeling hollowed out. Lucifer's smug face hovered above him and Sam felt the slow curl of shame swell to fill the empty space in his chest, growing until it was practically pushing out of him, until his entire body felt drum tight with the pressure of containing it.

Sam could feel the smears of come cooling on his stomach. It felt like a stain. Like a brand.

“You really are my little bitch, aren't you?” Lucifer said. His smile was so, so victorious, and Sam knew, knew that this wasn't about Lucifer “making him feel good”, knew that Lucifer didn't want anything good for him. This was about defeating him. “The boy who saved the world, nothing but a whore for the devil.”

That was Sam's first betrayal in the cage.

His second came soon after, when he started imagining that Lucifer was Dean.

****

He couldn't do it, couldn't stay in the moment and try to fight Lucifer off. It was pointless. All he could do was try to put his mind somewhere else to try and keep himself sane. But the touch of Lucifer all over his body was so visceral that he simply couldn't do it.

He tried to turn the hands into Jess's, or Madison's, or anyone other than Lucifer, but the hands were too large, the body on top of him undeniably male.

So it wasn't really that surprising that in a moment of fear and horror, he told himself that the palms on his shoulders were simply his brother's. That the body pressing down on him was just Dean's, that they were just wrestling like they used to when Sam was an ornery teenager wanting to fight with everything and everyone. That the voice hissing in his ear wasn't Lucifer, taunting him, but was his brother, laughing and trash-talking him.

And at first that was all it was, Sam pretending that the pressure of another man's body was just Dean's, simple and platonic. But the sex aspect of it got too real to be brushed aside, and so Sam started imagining that that bit was Dean as well. That Dean was the one pushing into him.

God, it was fucked up, but in some twisted way, it helped. Sex with your brother wasn't as bad as sex with the devil. He could just think to himself that Dean was taking care of him, same as he'd always done with every other part of Sam's life. Sam wasn't giving in or being a bitch or a whore, he was just letting Dean take care of him. Even though he knew that Dean would be horrified if he knew what Sam was thinking, how Sam was coping, Sam couldn't help it. He thought of Dean anyway.

But, just like with everything he did, he fucked that up too.

He forgot, just once, to stay silent. He forgot, and when Lucifer murmured, “You like that, Sammy?”, he heard it in his brother's voice, no mocking or censure in it, just his brother's low, soothing rumble, and he blurted out,

“Yeah, Dean, yeah, I—”

Lucifer ground to a halt abruptly, rigid above him, and Sam felt a cold steal through him that had nothing to do with the devil's skin.

“So that's how you're doing it, huh?” Lucifer bared his teeth and leaned down so he spat every word in Sam's face. “Imagining that big brother's the one porking you? Fuck, you're way more messed up than I thought. Bet you're glad I can't read your mind in the cage, huh? I could've been having fun with that little tidbits for years now. Could've cracked you without all of this effort.”

Lucifer's fingers were suddenly digging into his hips, bruisingly tight, and Sam remembered years and years ago, before the gentleness, back when Lucifer would simply punch his fist straight through Sam's skin and burst it open.

“Did Dean know you wanted him to fuck you?” he asked, his voice still deceptively calm. “Must not have, or he wouldn't have been able to look at you.”

Sam wanted to say, “I didn't—I didn't want—” but he didn't know if it would be a lie or not. Memories of what life was like before hell were growing fuzzy, no matter how hard he tried to cling to them. He didn't know if Lucifer had fucked him up this way or if it had always been there. He just didn't know.

“Well, we can't have you forgetting who you're with,” Lucifer said mildly, and suddenly the force of his hips was like a battering ram. Sam gritted his teeth and refused to shout out, even when Lucifer shoved his face down into the floor and ground his cheek against it. He clung on through the rest of it, tense and drawn even when Lucifer appeared to finish, refusing to let himself feel relief until Lucifer pushed himself off and out of Sam completely.

It was then that the aberration in schedule happened: Lucifer walked away.

Sam didn't look to see where he had gone. Questioning such things was something that required a type of energy that he no longer had. He closed his eyes and let his limbs go lax, let himself sink to the ground and try to take the moment of rest. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should be dreading whatever Lucifer was planning next, because Lucifer wouldn't let the opportunity to use this new information against Sam go to waste, but he just couldn't work up the emotion. He felt numb. He felt as if fading away and becoming just a husk of a man to be abused—like what Adam was now—wouldn't be such a bad thing. Maybe in this situation, insanity would be escape.

He was just starting to drift into something approximating sleep when he heard the footsteps.

It wasn't Lucifer. He somehow knew that. It sounded all wrong. Wrong footwear, wrong pattern of step. And yet it was familiar.

Oh, there it was. The dread. Turns out he still could feel it.

The footsteps stopped. Sam could see just the edge of a pair of boots out of the corner of his eye. He was just working up the energy to raise his head off of the ground and look up when the stranger spoke.

In his brother's voice.

“And I thought the demon blood was the worst thing you could do.”

****

Opening the door to their motel room while also carrying Sam is easier said than done.

Sam is no longer as stiff and rigid as he had been when Dean initially folded him into the backseat of the car to drive back to the motel. He had somehow sunken into himself during the car drive, growing limp and small as Dean broke all the speed limits driving them back, as if getting Sam to the motel would be the key to fixing him. As if Sam will open his eyes and return to normal the second they step over the threshold.

Dean is used to the weight of Sam, has been used to it ever since his father placed baby Sammy in his four year old arms and told him to get out of the house. When they were kids and Sam was still ignorant to the truth about their mother and the hunting, Sam had loved jumping on him from behind, wrapping his arms and legs around Dean like a monkey and giggling “piggy back ride!” in his ear. And when Sam started joining them on hunts, Dean had had to carry Sam several times, Sam crying into his chest about a broken ankle or a leg bruised so badly he couldn't walk. Even when Sam learned to take it in silence, learned to be stronger than a kid his age should've had to be, biting his lip stubbornly and shrugging off Dean's offer to carry him, he would still lean heavily into Dean's side. Let Dean put his arm around him and help him to walk.

Sam's a lot bigger now than he was as a kid, but it's nothing Dean can't handle. Manoeuvring his brother out of the passenger seat and into his arms is the hardest part. At least when Sam was stiff before, he'd been able to remain upright under his own power. Now Sam just flops around like he's unconscious, his eyes still wide and unblinking in their blank stare. Dean manages though, gets his brother up into his arms, staggering about a bit before hip-checking the car door closed.

For a moment, Dean just stands there beside the Impala, regaining his balance. He presses his face down into the top of Sam's head, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of shampoo and sweat. Sam is a solid weight pressed against him and Dean selfishly soaks it in. His thumb brushes a patch of fever-hot skin where Sam's shirt has rucked up, and he presses it in harder, feeling the soft give of flesh and the toughness of muscles underneath.

Dean considers just kicking the door to their room in, but he's not sure what will happen when Sam wakes up and he doesn't want people to call the police on them or try to run in and “help” if Sam starts screaming or something. There's nothing more annoying than civvies trying to make a citizen's arrest because they don't understand the situation. Instead, Dean leans against the wall so he can pin Sam's upper half there while he works a hand free, gets their key out of his pocket, and then finally opens the door.

He lays Sam out on the bed closest to the door, and only realizes a few minutes later that it's his bed, not Sam's.

He takes off Sam's shoes and wipes Sam's forehead with a wet cloth. He thinks about closing Sam’s eyes before dismissing the idea with a shudder. Reminds him too much of the few times he's had to do that for a victim of the latest monster of the week. For people he couldn't save. And Sam's staring eyes may be creepy, but Sam isn't dead. He may have to stand there for a couple of minutes, his hand resting on Sam's chest, feeling it rise and fall with each slow breath, to convince himself of that fact, but it's true. Sam isn't dead and isn't going to be anytime soon if Dean has anything to say about it.

Dean pulls a chair away from the table and shoves it up against the wall farthest away from where Sam is lying. Then he sits down, fixes his gaze on his brother, and settles himself in to wait.

****

He doesn't have to wait long.

Somewhere around 4 in the morning, Sam lets out one, long, full-body shudder and then blinks his eyes. Dean jerks upright in the chair—he'd sunken into it as the hours went by, struggling to stay awake—and then freezes when Sam's head slowly swivels to look at him.

Part of him is expecting Sam to bolt at the sight of him, or maybe just freeze up again, but Sam just pushes himself up onto his elbows, scrubbing a hand through his hair. His face is ashen, but his eyes on Dean don't seem afraid. Not like the way he'd looked when the boggart turned into Dean.

“What—what happened?” Sam asks, his voice rough from his “sleep”. “Did we kill the boggart?”

“You—” Dean's legs itch with the desire to stand up and cross the room to Sam's side. He grips the armrests to hold himself in place. “Yeah, I ganked it after you—you don't remember?”

For a second he hopes that Sam truly doesn't remember anything. That his last few hours of comatose-ness are blank and empty to him. He wants to be able to laugh it off, clap Sam on the shoulder, and then crawl into bed.

Sam looks down at the bedspread, picking at a loose thread with his fingers.

“I may have lied to you,” he says, his voice a bit too strained for the casual tone he's shooting for. “Not now. Before. I...remember some things from the cage.” He breathes out heavily, almost a relieved sound. “But it's usually kinda locked away in my head. I don't know what I saw tonight, but something kinda made me...regress a little. I got swamped.”

Dean closes his eyes on the distance between him and his brother.

“Me.”

“What?”

“Me,” Dean repeats. “You saw me. The boggart turned into me when you were the one closest to it.” He leans forward, props his elbows on his knees, rubs his hands over his face. His skin feels waxy, stretched too tight. “Sam, why did it look like me?”

Sam's eyes go wide, irises bobbing like a speck of dirt in a sea of white. He turns away, forces out a laugh.

“It wasn't—it—you probably imagined that.”

Dean lurches to his feet, unable to stay sitting for another second. “I imagined it? Yeah, I'm sure I imagined you seeing something that looked exactly like me and then going into some sort of coma for the next four hours! That sounds exactly like the kind of thing that I would hallucinate just for fun!”

Sam doesn't reply. His long legs twitch on the bed, quick and spider-like. His eyes keep moving, roving around the room for something to focus on that isn't Dean. Dean starts pacing back and forth, trying to get in front of Sam's gaze.

“Sam!”

“Look, just leave it alone, Dean!” Sam yells. “I've got it under control, it's none of your—”

“Under control? Going into shock at the sight of my face on a monster isn't ‘under control’! And if you think that I don't need to know why it was me you were scared of, then you have another thing coming I swear to—”

“It wasn't you!”

Sam screams it and Dean grinds to a halt, standing at the foot of the empty bed that is usually Sam's. Sam is breathing hard, staring determinedly at the wall, the thick muscles in his arms jumping as though trying to escape his skin. As if he's holding himself back from attacking someone.

“It wasn't you, it was Lucifer,” Sam says quietly. “He could change his face in hell and sometimes he would look like you.”

Dean shouldn't be surprised, but he is. He feels split open with it, and he can't think of anything to say in response to that.

Sam nods once, as if satisfied with some sort of response that Dean hasn't even given. He moves slightly, as if preparing to get off of the bed and go hide in the bathroom or something, and the words are coming out of Dean's mouth before he's even thought about them.

“Is that why you won't let me touch you?”

Sam must have expected the question, because he barely even reacts outside of the twist of his mouth turning sour. He slides his legs off the left side of the bed and plants them on the floor, putting his back to his brother and his face to the wall.

“Leave it, Dean.”

And Dean could. Dean could just wave a hand and let them both go to sleep and then spend the rest of their godforsaken lives keeping an extra watch on Sammy and making sure not to reach out a hand to him unless Sam is unconscious, but this is the closest he's gotten to knowing the truth about this shit, and if he doesn't push it now, he might never know.

“No.”

Dean starts to move slowly towards his brother, edging around the end of the bed, and with each soft step he takes he can see Sam tensing even more.

“Sammy, I can't just leave it like this. We can't just leave it like this. Just tell me what he did with my face that has made you so damn scared of me. Please.”

They're only a few feet apart now, at most. Dean could cross the distance in one step.

“Come on. Out with it.”

Dean's just moving to take that final step when Sam explodes into movement, shooting to his feet and plunging past Dean. There's so little space between the bed and the wall that Sam has to push by him, shouldering through in a hot blaze of contact, and it's only instinct for Dean to grab onto him, fingers sinking into his brother's shoulders. Sam lets out a cry like he's been punched in the gut, strangled and breathless, but Dean holds on.

Dean expects Sam to start struggling, to start pushing at him and trying to use his strength to best Dean, the same way Sam always would in the past. But instead Sam goes almost limp as soon as he realizes that Dean's not going to let go. His whole body is shuddering, but he's making no move to get himself free, his eyes starting to sink into blankness.

Dean shakes him, hard, and Sam rattles in his grip like there's something loose inside him. Something gone sideways.

“I'm not Lucifer!” Dean yells. “Sammy, look at me, I'm not Lucifer, I'm Dean, I'm your brother.”

Sam's mouth gapes open, and it sounds like words are trying to climb out, but they keep getting trapped in his throat, too swollen to escape. He gasps and gasps like he's drowning upright and his body just starts to lock up and lose all sense of human coherence, limbs thrashing out with seemingly no input from his brain. His legs start to go out from under him and Dean throws him onto the bed and clambers on top of him, pinning Sam's arms and legs down with the weight of his body before Sam can hurt himself.

For some reason, that makes it worse. Sam's eyes are rolling in his head, crazy and panicked and Dean hisses into his brother's ear, “Come on, Sammy, it's me, it's me, calm down.”

“I—”

Sam's eyes struggle to focus on him. His words are shaky, forced out through his panic.

“I...need y...ou to—”

“What, Sammy, whatever it is, just tell me—”

“I need you to prove it,” Sam blurts, and he's gotten enough control of his hands now to clutch at the collar of Dean's shirt, pulling him unbearably close. It's as if his mind is split in half; part of it yanking Dean to him and part of it trying desperately to get away from him. “I—need you to prove it's you and not—”

“When you were eight,” Dean says. “Turning eight. On your birthday. I tried to—I tried to bake you a cake because you got bent outta shape when we forgot the year before. And I put in the wrong amount of flour and it got gross and I cried and you ate half of it to make me feel better.”

He's babbling, and Sam is relaxing. Sam is meeting his eyes and nodding and tension is seeping out of limbs. After a minute, he grows calm beneath Dean, occasional shudders racking his body.

His eyes are closed and Dean is close enough that he can see the bump of Sam’s eyes moving under his thin eyelashes, flickering around in his skull. In the new silence Dean is slowly registering the closeness, the feel of Sam pressed all along his body. A few years ago he would be itching to move away, to shift off the bed now that he was certain that Sam had calmed down some, but now he just wants to close his eyes and wrap his arms around Sam. Hold him like this forever, close enough that anyone trying to hurt him would have to go through Dean, close enough that his body moves with Sam's every breath.

“He couldn't read my mind, in the cage,” Sam says at length, opening his eyes. His voice is still shaky, but growing in strength. “I don't know why, but that was the only thing I had over him. He didn't know what I was thinking about.”

Dean nods. His hands are still clamped around Sam's wrists, pinning them over his head so that Sam is stretched out beneath him. When he shifts his weight, trying not to crush his brother, his body slots further in between Sam's legs and he suddenly becomes strangely aware of the soft bulge of Sam's crotch pressing against his hips. The knowledge of it flushes bright and hot and uncomfortable in his chest and he clears his throat, trying to focus on the matter at hand.

“Sammy, you gotta tell me what he did as me,” he says. “I can't make any of this better until I know that.”

Sam closes his eyes again and turns his head away from Dean, pressing his cheek into the bed. He takes deep, measured breaths. Flexes his arms experimentally against Dean's grip. And then he starts talking. Soft and quick and calm.

“Lucifer would...hurt me, and then he'd leave. And he'd come back, only he'd come back as you. And you would stand maybe ten feet away from me and yell at me and tell me I was nothing to you and I was disgusting and...and sometimes you would threaten me that you were going to come over and do what Lucifer did. That it would be your turn soon to teach me how worthless I was.”

Sam's face is blotched with angry red, his heart ticking away at double time.

“I figure if Cas hadn't gotten me out, than that would have eventually happened. That was probably next on Lucifer's ‘torture Sam itinerary’.”

Sam tries to chuckle, but it dies a strangled death in his throat.

Dean feels sick.

“So whenever I tried to touch you even when you were topside,” Dean says. “It reminded you—it made you think that Lucifer as me was finally coming to hurt you?”

Sam smiles sadly.

“Yeah.”

Dean wants to stop touching Sam now. He wants to back away and never lay hands on him again if this is what it makes Sam think of. The sight of his own hands wrapped around Sam's wrists is suddenly repellent, knowing that Lucifer planned to hurt Sam wearing his skin.

Dean lets go of his brother, bracing himself on hands and knees above Sam, trying not to let any part of them touch. Some of the extra tension bleeds out of Sam's face, but at the same time there's a hint of what looks like disappointment there.

“Sam, I'm sorry,” Dean says. He only wants to have to say this once, so he tries to put everything into his words. “I'm sorry you're afraid of me because of what Lucifer did to you. It wasn't your fault. You didn't deserve that and I won't—”

Sam barks out a brief, humourless laugh.

“You wouldn't be saying that I didn't deserve it if you knew everything,” he says. A new light has come into his eyes, a bright, suicidal carelessness.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

Sam rears up, pushing Dean back on his haunches. Dean tenses, ready to lunge for Sam if he tries to make a break for the door, but Sam only sits down at the top of the bed, leaning against the headboard and drawing his legs up in front of him like a wall of protection.

“Don't give me that bullshit,” Dean snaps. “Tell me what the fuck you're talking about.”

Sam's hands come up and press into his cheeks, stretching the skin away from his eyes so that Dean can see red cracks spidering up into them. The strange courage of the moment before is gone as if it was never there, and he heaves a huge sigh.

“Dean, you know everything you need to know. Can we just sleep now?”

“No,” Dean insists. “You can't say that and then expect me to drop it. Why would you say you deserved it? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You were being tortured, man, nothing you could have done would have made you deserve—”

Sam's hands drop from his face.

“I deserved everything you said to me,” he hisses, harsh and fast. “Everything you—or Lucifer—said in the cage. You really want to know why? Because Lucifer fucked me, okay? He made me his bitch and to make it better I pretended that he was you.”

Dean blinks stupidly.

“So, yeah, I am the disgusting piece of shit that you called me in the cage, because I was not only the devil's whore, I pretended that my brother was doing me instead of him.”

Sam's breathing sounds harsh and hollow in the carved out silence of the room. There's something almost defiant in his face.

Dean stares. He can't move. He's aware in a distant way of the strain in his ankles, of the awkwardness in how he's kneeling on the bed. Sam's legs are slightly spread, and Dean's eyes want to follow the line of his brother's thigh down to the bunched material at his groin. If he were to crawl forward a few feet, he'd be between Sam's legs. Touching Sam the way Sam had imagined.

Nausea churns in his gut.

“I—”

Sam snaps his mouth shut before he's even really started the sentence. Dean can feel him watching, searching for a reaction, but Dean has no idea how the hell he is supposed to react to this. To the double sucker punch of a) Lucifer raped him and b) he imagined it was Dean.

“I'll go get another room,” Sam says quietly. “I can get a car in the morning and be gone before you have to see me.”

He starts to slide off the bed, and Dean moves instinctively, reaching out and grabbing onto Sam's wrist. His brother freezes, glancing over at Dean with cautious eyes and a clenched jaw. Like he's bracing for a punch. Underneath Dean's clammy fingers, he can feel Sam's pulse beating rapidly.

“Just give me a second here, Sam,” Dean says. His voice is barely recognizable. “'M not going to kick you out, I just need—”

Sam doesn't try to pull away, doesn't nod or move at all. He's awkwardly perched on the edge of the bed, his face in profile, staring at the opposite wall. The two of them breathe together. The two of them sit. In silence, Dean's hand wrapped like a manacle around Sam's wrist. Chaining his brother to him.

“Sam,” Dean whispers at length. It's late and he's so, so tired. “Sam, you've gotta tell me—”

Sam chokes on a laugh.

“Jesus, Dean, I've told you everything, what more could you possibly—”

“No, I—I just need you to tell me what you want me to do now.”

Sam licks his lips. Stares at the floor. Swallows.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“I'm sorry about what Lucifer did to you,” Dean answers. “And I—I don't want to hurt you. Ever. And I don't know if you even really want that with me. So you gotta—you gotta tell me what to do here.”

Sam shudders.

“Are you—?”

There's a layer of sweat coating Sam's skin where Dean's fingers meet it. Warmth bleeds through the contact. Dean tightens his grip, strokes his thumb in little circles across the the thrum of his brother's pulse. He wants things that he couldn't recognize before, things that were hidden in plain sight in his head, masquerading as ordinary feelings. He wants things that he doesn't think he can ask for, that he knows he can't just take, not when that's what was done to Sam, especially not when Lucifer used his face to threaten doing that.

Sam tips his head back and Dean's eyes get caught on the curve of his throat, tan skin bleached pale and sickly in the dim light of the bedside lamps. He leans forward, so slowly that it seems like minutes before his forehead makes contact with Sam's shoulder. Sam doesn't move. Dean closes his eyes, pushes his face against Sam's shirt in a mindless nuzzle, sliding his chin up until he can touch his cheek and nose to Sam's neck. He opens his mouth on a shaky exhale at the shock of their skin pressed together, and his lips brush against the neckline of Sam's shirt.

“You gotta tell me what to do, Sammy,” he says. He's shaking ever so slightly, and Sam is a solid, warm, living pressure against him.

One of Sam's hands fumble over and up Dean's back, fingers scrabbling awkwardly to try and fist at Dean's short hair, pressing his head closer.

“I don't want to make y—”

“You're not, Sam, you're not.”

One of Dean's hands has fallen to rest on Sam's hip and Sam is palming the side of Dean's face and pulling his head up out of the cup of his shoulder and neck so that they can meet each other's eyes. The edges of Sam's are bruised and raw but Dean doesn't have to look at that for very long because Sam is closing them and leaning down and Dean barely has time to suck in a breath of air before his brother's mouth is pressing against his, soft and visceral and real.

He'd expected it, been braced for it, and yet the reality of it explodes in his chest like a firecracker; Sam's lips nudging against his, Sam's mouth parting so slowly under Dean's instinctive push forward. A crazy adrenaline is pumping through his entire body and yet he's frozen in place, only able to kiss Sam back, to squeeze his eyes shut and slick his tongue into the dream-hot inside of Sam's mouth. In some ways it's exactly like any other kiss, but at the same time it's like an epiphany punching into him every time he remembers who this is. It's a burst of cold-hot each time, a spike of gut fear and horror melting into a crazed longing and satisfaction, burning in his chest.

When Sam pulls away, he looks so, so scared. He looks like he's going to jump up and run and keep running and so Dean presses the sides of their faces together, speaks into Sam's ear.

“When you were 18,” he whispers. “The day before you told me and Dad about Stanford. Me and you went hiking and we got caught in the rain and we sat underneath this outcropping of rock for hours, eating soggy m&m's.”

Dean bites at the tense line of Sam's jaw, feeling stubble catching on his lips. This should be weird, he thinks. But it's not. It's just good.

“I'm not Lucifer, Sammy. It's okay.”

“Promise?” Sam says, the word smashed up and slurred against Dean's skin. He sounds small and childish, and Dean feels a sudden swell of guilt, remembering Sam when he was just a kid and how Dean spent all of his time looking after him. Hell, he practically raised the kid and now—

Except he's nodding and Sam is kissing him again and Dean's fingers are digging into Sam's hair and he's sliding backwards on the bed, pulling Sam on top of him. Their bodies line up like they're fucking made for this and Dean fists his hands in Sam's hair, owns the wet curve of his brother's mouth. Dean pushes his hips up automatically, grinding roughly into Sam and Sam gasps, his body going liquid over Dean's. Their eyes meet and Dean remembers months of coldness, Sam by his side but never close enough to touch. Sam's here now and there's no way to be closer than what they're doing right now.

A fierce, sickly, guilty happiness swarms up through him and he runs his hand up the back of Sam's shirt, pressing down on the slick skin at the small of his back and rearing up to kiss Sam again. They move together, eyes shut and mouths hungry. Dean feels his cock go fat and swollen in his jeans, knocking against Sam's. He wants to get his hand down between them, get his fingers around Sam's dick, almost crazy with the idea of it, but he can't seem to remember how to coordinate any of his limbs. All he can do is rock up into his brother and bite at his lips, all instinct and no finesse.

It's shaky and awkward and over too soon, neither of them managing to get any clothing off before they burst against each other, groaning and sweating and making a mess of the inside of their boxers. Sam comes first, and it's the sight of his face—surprised and open and ecstatic—that makes Dean blow. They keep moving through the aftershocks, hands gripping and releasing, and Sam cries into Dean's neck. Dean closes his eyes, strokes clumsily at Sam's hair, lets his brother smear his wet face all over his collar.

Dean knows that there is a ton of shit they still need to deal with. He knows that this new thing between them isn't a magical fix-all for everything Sam went through. In fact, it could make things worse. He knows they've gotta talk about it.

So, naturally, they both fall asleep just like that. Tangled up. Soaked in tears and come. Together.

****

Sam wakes up in the cage.

At least, he assumes that that's where he must be. Because there's a heavy weight sprawled over half of his body, pressing him down into the mattress, and he can see the healthy swell of a man's bicep across his chest. He looks away from the pale, freckled flesh, gazing up at the ceiling, feeling his chest swell with emptiness, on the verge of imploding.

Of course he hadn't gotten out, he thinks painfully. Of course it had all been some sort of fever dream, some sort of hallucination that Lucifer had pulled him into. To give him hope so that the act of taking it away would be more satisfying.

“I can't believe you. Little slut, just offering yourself up for the devil? Getting hard for it? You're nothing to me anymore. No brother of mine would be so disgusting. You're just good for being fucked, and I'm going to take my turn soon. Show you that where you really belong is on your knees.”

Sam can feel the panic expanding in the hollow cavern of his chest and he wrenches his arm up in one sharp movement, jamming his hand into his mouth and biting down on the meaty flesh of his palm. No, no, no, no, no, maybe he had gotten out, maybe it was really Dean with him, except that Dean would never want him like this which meant that it was Lucifer, that it had all been a trick, that now the man who looked like his brother would roll over and sneer down at him, pronounce him to be nothing more than—

“Sammy?”

He jolts and his teeth break through the skin on his hand in a sudden burst of pain. It should be nothing to him after years and years of torture, but that's the funny thing about it: no matter how much pain you go through, no matter how used to it and how monotonous it gets, you never stop being able to feel the pain. It never stops hurting.

The weight on top of him is shifting and someone is making nonsensical cooing, calming, shushing noises, pulling Sam's bloody hand away from his mouth. A worried face swims into focus in front of Sam and he slams his eyes shut before Dean's features can solidify. He doesn't want to see Lucifer there in his brother's face, not again. He wants to believe that last night was real.

The body moves completely off of him, shifts to lie against his side, a warm, comforting pressure. His hand is dropped to his chest and he hears a ripping noise and feels the man next to him jerk before his hand is cradled in a wide palm and something—some sort of makeshift bandage—is being wrapped around the wound.

“Do you remember the summer you turned fifteen?” the voice says, low and gentle and heartbreakingly familiar. “And we were squatting at this shack up in Ohio next to this little lake, and I convinced you to go skinny-dipping.”

He laughs.

Sam becomes aware of the morning light, warm on his face and turning the insides of his eyelids a soft, molten red.

“You got out after like ten minutes because you were so cold. I was embarrassed for you it was so pathetic.”

Sam becomes aware of the softness of the bed beneath him, of the itchy, drying mess in his boxers. Of the shape of the fingers stroking over the heel of his hand and across the fabric tied around it.

Of the feel of the breath on his face, on the curve of his ear. Of the way the words spoken by the man next to him hit his skin. Curl around him like an embrace.

“You remember, don't you, Sammy?”

Sam opens his eyes.

Dean smiles at him from inches away. His eyes are bright in a way they haven’t been for a while, bright like they were when he was nineteen and laughing at Sam in the middle of a lake.

He leans in and presses his lips to Sam's in a brief, warm kiss.

“It's me,” he says.

“I knew it was,” Sam lies.