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Sam Winchester was twenty when they came for him. It was late, he was working on a thesis, he was tired. They attacked like an army, never letting up until his apartment was destroyed and he felt half-dead. All around him he saw fire and ashes, nothing to ground him, nobody to calm him.

It was October, just before Halloween, and Sam had several pages to complete before he would give up and finally go to bed. The air was slightly cooler than he was used to in California, and Sam had a brief flashback to a week spent in Massachusetts--a vacation of sorts--when he got to be a normal dorky kid who still loved the sort of stuff you found in Salem, before he knew everything that was out there. And at the time, it had seemed as though his family was having a good time, too. Even his father, whose good days were becoming few and far between. It was one of Sam’s best memories, and brought a small smile to his face before it dropped when he pulled himself away from the window and back to his laptop. He gulped down the rest of his lukewarm coffee and shook himself before digging back into his work.

By midnight, he was tired, but by three in the morning, Sam was falling-asleep-where-he-sat exhausted. That was when they came.

He probably should have expected the attack. After all, he had been having nightmares for weeks. But he thought that’s all they were, nightmares. He fought the first several off on pure adrenaline, but even that had its limit, and Sam was overcome in less than an hour. Less than half an hour.

He passed out before he even realized he had hit the floor.

In October 2005, John Winchester was in the process of exorcizing a demon when something she said actually made him freeze up for once. She said, “Sam Winchester is in Hell.”

He had stilled, shocked, and she went on.

“Oh, yeah. Sammy has been down there longer than you could imagine. You should hear him crying out for Daddy to save him, for big brother Dean. Begging for your forgiveness because he knows he’ll never see you again. We started off slow, going easy on him. But the boy just wouldn’t break. He cried, of course, but we still haven’t convinced him to say yes. Oh, don’t give me that proud look, John Winchester, because Azazel still has a few tricks up his sleeve. He’s going to use you. You and big brother Dean. He’s pretty sure, after all the flaying, the broken bones, the psychological torture, the blindness and the terror, that he can convince Sammy we’ve got you and Dean on the Rack. That you’re begging him to save you, begging him to do whatever it takes, that if he just agrees, we’ll let you go. He doesn’t need to know that you’re up here, still fighting the good fight. He doesn’t need to know, does he, John?”

John was pissed, of course. Before she could continue, he finished the exorcism. Her words, though, affected him deeply. He didn’t even stay in the same town for a night, choosing to drive out to Palo Alto as soon as he buried the woman the demon had killed.

As it turned out, the demon hadn’t been lying. Sam had never given the school an emergency contact number, but when John went into the office and proved he was Sam’s father, they gave him a thick manila file folder and a private room where they told him he could grieve.

There were photographs. Sam had been a favorite student, not only with other students like himself, but also with his teachers and the University Board of Directors. Every interview, people had nothing but nice things to say, and John was proud. He also despised himself for letting Sam slip so far out of his fingers that the boy could end up in Hell and John had no idea.

His apartment had been destroyed. The photos were extensive, showing everything from the scorch marks on the ceiling to the blood spatters on the floor. The only body part found was a single finger, a pinky. If John thought he could handle what he saw, he was dead wrong. It looked like somebody had sent an army for his youngest son and won. Oh, John could tell he’d put up a fight, even if he was out of practice, but they had beaten him down eventually, probably in the middle of the night, if he was exhausted from school work and a job.

He was looking at the tenth photograph a second time, trying to see a pattern in any of the blood spatters, when his cell phone rang.

How was he going to tell Dean?

“Hey, Dad, where are you? We were supposed to meet up in Tallahassee.”

“Dean…, there’s something I gotta tell you, son.”

After a moment, where he heard Dean swallow a few times, he said, “It’s about Sammy.”

“Dad? What’s the matter? Where’s Sam?”

John would give anything to keep this from Dean, let Dean be ignorant, but he didn’t know who else to go to, who else would help him rescue his little boy. Nevermind that he was twenty-two. “Sammy’s gone. I need you to come out to California, I’ll tell you everything I know. We’re going to get him back, Dean, I promise, if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Dad, where is Sam?” Dean’s voice had an edge to it that John was painfully familiar with, the same edge John always felt when he thought about Mary.

“I think he’s in Hell.”

Dean’s world crashed down around him in only five words. “I think he’s in Hell.” That was all it took, and Dean could hardly breathe, could barely see.

Sam was gone. It was the only thing Dean never counted on, the one outcome he didn’t expect. He could understand if Sam was in a car accident and simply died, but Hell? How? It was unfathomable, little Sammy downstairs where the fires never died and every breath was filled with sulfur. With ash.

Anyone. Anyone but Sam. Dean could have handled losing anyone to Hell, but not Sam. No, he would find some way to get his brother back, he would give anything, even his own soul.

“How could we have let this happen?” he finally asked once he made it to California. His father smelled like sweat and whiskey. Dean would bet the man hadn’t showered in the three days since he found out. Maybe longer.

“For some reason, as stupid as it sounds now, we thought that he’d be relatively safe living like this, as long as we checked on him.”

“How did we not notice? It isn’t like we didn’t pass through.”

John met Dean’s gaze. His eyes were bloodshot. Dean didn’t comment. His were, too.

“Because we weren’t looking at the right things.”

And so, John filled Dean in. Showed him the folder. Told him that he didn’t find any patterns, still didn’t understand the motive. He understood Dean’s anger, understood the underlying weight he felt, the pain, like his world was falling down around him. It had been clear to John for a long time that his boys needed each other more than anything. It hadn’t always been clear to the boys though, and sometimes, he couldn’t stop them from spewing venom at each other.

Like the time Dean told Sam he was sick. Like the time Sam said Dean felt nothing. When he woke up one night to see them throwing punches at each other until Sammy was covered in blood and Dean had broken his hand.

But Dean had apologized in the quiet, dark motel room when they thought John was asleep, had told Sam that he wasn’t sick, that he didn’t mean it. Sam had gone for the longest walk ever, and returned with his heart on his sleeve, telling Dean he knew he felt everything, but he also knew his brother wished he didn’t feel anything at all. All the blood was washed away and the hand in a cast, and when John left the next morning, the boys were clinging to each other like they were running out of time.

They really had been, too.

“I let him down, Dad.”

It took John a minute, fishing for something to say. “Sammy wouldn’t see it that way and you know it.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better.”

John heaved a long sigh, but he understood. “I know.”

Somewhere far below, a boy was screaming. He couldn’t see a thing, and he couldn’t really hear very well either. If he focused enough, and stopped the sounds building in his chest, spilling from his lips, he might be able to hear the other things around him, but the pain never stopped, the flaying and the filleting, the breaking and tearing and ripping, the talking, the shouting, the ceaseless agony. Even when it did, he still hurt, in other ways. A part of him was ready and willing to say the words they wanted, but another part, however small and minuscule, just kept whispering, stealing his voice long enough to say ‘no,’ and ‘not yet.’ It was the only part of himself he still loved. He wondered how long it would take for that part to disappear completely.

He wasn’t sure if he remembered his name. He wasn’t sure if he could form a full sentence, given the chance. Wherever he was, whatever they wanted, he hadn’t given in. And whoever they were, they knew all the ways to pull and peel and shred at him, but he held on, still, not really knowing why, just that he had to.

He didn’t remember much, really. His short moments of reprieve, while his body recovered enough, new scars--their favorite scars--included, brought along small glimpses of a life he knew he should remember, but the only bits he could grasp were like whispers of reality. He didn’t know exactly what they said, only the feelings he could associate to them. Being loved. Being ashamed. Being lost. And, of course, being scared. He always felt scared anymore, even after centuries of torture, he was terrified. But he could handle being afraid. What he didn’t know how to deal with was the other stuff, the stuff he didn’t remember receiving, didn’t remember giving. How did you handle emotions when you didn’t even really understand what they were anymore?

He felt dead inside, he lived off of fear, and a need to be defiant against… whatever they were.

Until they said two names. John and Dean. He should recognize them. John was somebody he used to know, somebody he was supposed to trust, right? And Dean…, Dean was everything he used to know. Right? Wasn’t he?

“Here, Sammy, I’ll help you remember.”

It touched his head, and he felt. He recalled. He cried.

“That’s right, Sammy. We have your Dean. We have your Daddy. You should hear their screams, they’re begging you, Sam. Just say yes. Just imagine what you’ve been through down here, imagine them going through it. Can you let poor big brother suffer for you? Or your father, the man who taught you everything you know? The man who just wanted you to be safe? Just wanted you to help him avenge your mother, save people? Hunt monsters? Was that so bad, Sam? Just think, you should feel all the guilt in the world for what they’re going through now. It’s your fault, after all. How would you handle seeing your poor Daddy reduced to a weeping, screaming mess? Maybe we’ll make him watch your Mommy die over, and over, and over… And Dean? We could show him how we attacked you, how we consumed you and devoured you, defiled you, tortured you until you couldn’t remember Dad, couldn’t remember him, couldn’t even remember your own name. They’ll beg you to say ‘Yes,’ Sammy. Come on, it’s just a matter of time before we have them mindless and terrified, screaming, flayed and open and dying over and over, only to wake up and get more.”

And Sam lifted his head, opened his mouth, rasped out: “No.”

And they started again, each time it got worse, they said it worse, spewed venom and hate until Sam’s ears bled, until he could not see, until he could only hear his own screams, his own sobs, his own hoarse voice begging for release, and still unwilling to give in. That tiny sliver of a whisper, ‘no,’ over and over again. Not yet. Not yet.

When Dean woke up, he was covered in a cold sweat, hands shaking and heart pounding. He stumbled to the bathroom and heaved into the toilet basin until nothing came up but acid that burned his esophagus. His father watched him from the table in the main room. His eyes bled understanding.

“Anything new?”

“Called Bobby. He almost hung up until I told him. We’re heading there when it’s daylight.”

He wondered what his father was feeling. Was it fear? Despair? Did he bury it until he felt hollow inside, hollow enough to keep fighting? Dean wasn’t sure how to feel, except guilty and raw and painfully alone. It felt like a cord that was stretched way too thin had finally snapped, sent him reeling. How had he not realized?

“Does he have any idea what took Sam?”

“Like we thought. The demon that killed your mother.”

It was as if he was the Towers after the planes drove into them, Dean felt like he was crumbling inside and out. “What do you think they’re doing to him?”

“The demon who brought it up, she said that they’re torturing him. Flaying him alive, breaking his bones, things we couldn’t imagine. She said that they’re going to use us… to get to him. They’re almost certain it will work.”

“You mean, he hasn’t given in yet? Whatever they want, he hasn’t given it to them?”

“She said that they wanted him to agree to something, but that he was stubborn. He kept saying no, no matter how much they put him through.” John rubbed his face with his hands, looking for all the world like a man who’s drowning. “I didn’t realize how strong Sammy is, Dean.”

“We better pray he’s strong enough.” Dean was more right than he knew.

They better pray.

It was dark, and he was still. There was a strange lack of pain, a strange lack of anything. How much would it take before he broke? He was still holding on, helpless. They didn’t even tie him down anymore, because he didn’t have it in him to move. The slightest shift of his bones and he was lit up with pain like a fire. And believe him, he knew about fire. Boy, they liked to use it.

He shifted. He felt nothing but movement. He wondered if true death felt like this, absolutely nothing, but Sam had believed in angels and Heaven since he was a child, since Dean would tell him tales of winged beings that protected those who prayed.

It hit him. He remembered . Who and what and where and why. He remembered Dean and Dad and Bobby and his school friends--all the people who either thought he was happy or knew he was dead.

The whisper was still there, and Sam didn’t know if it was a piece of him or if it was someone else, something else. An angel? God?

He couldn’t see, but his eyes were open. He wondered if it was the space he was in or if he’d never see again. He didn’t know.

Eventually, after decades of nothing, they started in again. The pain was worse than he remembered. The ripping, the slicing, the clean cuts and the not-so-clean tears, the reshaping of his bones as they changed him and beat him and turned him inside out. If he looked in a mirror--if he could see--he wouldn’t recognize himself.

He forgot again, why and who and where and what. He forgot what he was supposed to do, how he should act, and he still said ‘no.’ He wasn’t sure why, but a whisper in his soul was sure he should say ‘no,’ so he did. The pain got worse, and he knew he had chosen well.

Dean was at a loss. After six months, they still didn’t know how to help Sam, didn’t know what kind of demon had him locked in Hell, or what it wanted. But he knew that Sam was still as stubborn as the day he was born, because nothing had changed, and he was willing to bet that if the demons had broken him, they’d come around to brag, find a way to let him know he failed his little brother even more.

Bobby had dug his hands right in and started helping, the three of them even tried interrogating a few choice demons. But while they had been thorough, the demons gave nothing away. Whatever was happening to Sam wasn’t common knowledge, that or the demons were more strong-willed than Dean liked. He kept trying to learn, though.

“Maybe we’re asking the wrong people. Maybe we oughtta try up instead of down,” Bobby finally said, well past a decent sleeping hour one night.

John and Dean shared a look, and Bobby rolled his eyes. “There are facts. How can there be a Hell without a Heaven? If it’s called Hell, then there must be something above us, too.”

“Every hunter we’ve ever met said there’s no such thing as angels.”

“Yes, because we’re all a bunch of damned Christians,” Bobby said, glaring daggers. “We haven’t learned nothin’ since that goddamned exorcism almost half a year ago. Do you know how long it’s been for Sam? The deeper you get in Hell, the faster time passes, idgits. Sam’s been down there for more than a decade.”

Something in Dean snapped. He slammed the door on his way out, falling to his knees in the dirt and hanging his head. For the first time since he was five years old, he prayed.

Heaven had been falling apart for millennia. A lone angel paced the halls of Heaven’s many rooms, cataloging each name and each soul. One was missing.

The soul itself wasn’t technically supposed to be in Heaven, yet, but it wasn’t on Earth, either. For some reason, it was in Hell. The angel wanted to know why.

The truth of the matter was, Castiel was never very good at following orders. After his last deviation from God’s plan, he’d been pulled from the front lines and given a job in cataloging souls. It was nice. Castiel had always loved the human souls--that was the whole problem. The angel wasn’t really supposed to love anything, if the rules were really God’s rules. But God had left millennia ago. Castiel wasn’t sure if the things he knew as God’s rules had even come from God in the first place. If everything He decided had gone to plan, then why did He leave? Why wasn’t He happy?

Why wasn’t Castiel?

He left Heaven. Someone was praying for that lost soul, and he wanted to help find it. He just needed to find a vessel first.

He was waking up, and it was odd. He didn’t usually wake , where he was. Mostly, it was a constant awareness. Aware either of nothingness or of pain.

Waking up was different. He knew what it meant that he was waking up. He was saved. He had been holding on for this, and whether it was just a new trick of theirs or not, he was relieved. Even if it was just brief.

Opening his eyes, Sam could see for the first time in more than one thousand years. Everything was beautiful, but absolutely too bright. He closed them. He wasn’t ready to try and speak, and he was alone, so he just smiled to himself and took deep, long pulls of sweat and whiskey scented air.

Sweat and whiskey.

Somehow, Sam knew he was in a part of Bobby Singer’s house. It wasn’t a part he recognized, even having only a small glimpse with eyes that seemed too new, but it was definitely Bobby’s house, and Sam felt safe for the first time in a very long time.

“I know, Cas, but I’d still like to see he’s here, whether he’s awake or not.”

“I understand that you must reassure yourself, Dean, but he may need space, and Bobby told you not to go investigating.”

“Cas, let me see him.”

“If you try and look inside this room, I will put you to sleep and leave you a drooling mess on the floor, Dean Winchester.”

Sam had heard enough. Dean. Dean was okay, had been okay. Sam was glad he hadn’t given in to their wishes. He had held out… he didn’t even know how long it had been on Earth.

And who was Cas?

“Oh,” Cas, whoever he was, said.


“If you take one more step, I will not hesitate to injure you,” Cas said to Dean. Sam heard metal creak--a door. It shut again. A cool hand pressed against Sam’s forehead. “Hello, Sam. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“What are you?” he murmured back, although he felt perfectly safe. Dean was just outside the door, and Bobby trusted this guy.

“I’m an angel.”

Sam smiled to himself. Behind his eyeslids, he saw the glow of an unearthly form. “I knew it. Angels are real.”

The being he saw with his eyes closed seemed to give him a fond look. Sam was surprised he could see it this way. When he finally gave in and opened his eyes, what he saw was a man.

“Hmm. I can still see you when I close my eyes.”

Cas smiled something small and indulgent. “Dean calls this the imagination.”

Sam shook his head, slowly. “No. I’d never picture something so beautiful if I tried to come up with it on my own. The brightness, the way your wings fold against your back.”

The angel looked amazed. “No human has ever looked upon an angel’s true form and lived.”

Sam wasn’t sure if he was ready to move yet, but he did, rolling onto his left side and then sitting up. Cas’s hand was still on his head, but he didn’t mind. “Only with my eyes closed. Like this, I see the human body you’re wearing. How long have I been… gone?”

“To earth, nine years. For you?”

“One thousand and eighty years,” Sam said softly. “What do I look like, now?”

The angel helped Sam stand, bringing him to a full-length mirror.

He was unable to look away. “Have they… Have Dean and Dad… Do they know?”

Cas shook his head. “Your father is on a job. He wanted to be here when you woke, but now that you’re safe, he needed to blow off some stress, as Dean would say. Dean wanted to sit with you, but Bobby and I warned him against it. I was worried about you.”

Sam smiled. “I thought angels were supposed to be different. You seem very human.”

“I’ve been working with humans for seven years looking for you, Sam Winchester. The Prince of Hell Azazel kept you well hidden in one of his favorite reclusive places in Hell, and the urgency it would take to find you was incredibly stressful. I’ve picked up a few habits.”

“So, they didn’t know at first?”

Cas shook his head.

“I’m glad they didn’t have to go through it. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Sam looked back at his reflection, fully aware that his face and forearms, his neck, were not the worst bits of scarred skin and sunken features. There was a scar that made him think of Simba’s uncle from The Lion King, and another at the corner of his mouth. A burn scar started halfway down the back-left side of his neck, dipping beneath his shirt, but Sam knew it covered a good piece of his shoulder. He remembered every second of those 1,080 years.

“I think I’d like to shower and all before I see them.” Sam met Cas’s gaze after a moment.

“I can transport you right to the bathroom so you will not have to dodge anyone on your way there.”

“Thank you,” Sam said.

While in the shower, Sam took a better inventory of his body and what had been left as a reminder to him. He thought the worst was the pinky finger he had lost the night they attacked. The rest could have probably come from hunts, if Sam had stayed in the life like he should have, but Sam liked having all his digits, so missing one bothered him. There was a nasty looking scar that ran from his left collarbone to his belly button, thick and red and like it was still healing. Sam was willing to bet that he had gotten it just before he was saved. His left leg looked like it had been wrapped in barbed wire and then broken several times before they healed it. If he went looking for that memory, he might not be able to handle it, so he moved on. There were several long, pink scars that started at his right wrist that led all the way up the inside of his arm, stopping at the soft skin of his underarm. The eye without a scar looked like he should be blind, but he could still see clearly. He wondered how they pulled that off. It was milky-white, and it’d take a demon deal to be able to see out of something so horribly damaged. Sam almost laughed. His left arm had a series of scars that looked like snake bites. He wondered how many times he had died from snake venom Downstairs. There were multiple scars where it looked like they had sewn entire sections of his skin back together, and Sam was glad that he had no reason to gallivant around in front of other people naked. They wouldn’t like what they saw. He wondered if he was just okay with it because he had been under the knife so long it felt almost normal.

He didn’t look twenty, anymore, which he was grateful for. He didn’t think he could bear to look so young when he felt so aged. And how would it feel if he still looked twenty, but his father, his brother, had aged ten years. Or more, due to stress.

Getting dressed felt odd. Doing anything normal felt odd. Sam figured he’d eventually get used to it again. He was finishing putting a shirt on when somebody knocked on the bathroom door. “Sam?”

Cas had said that Bobby was the only one who had seen him since he got back, so he didn’t feel odd opening the door to face him. “Hey, Bobby.” If his voice broke as bad as he thought, Bobby didn’t comment.

“How do you feel?”

“Okay, considering.” He knew he was standing awkwardly. He thought about hugging the man, but he didn’t know if he could take the contact without falling to pieces. “Sort of feels unreal, you know.”

“I’m sorry it took so long,” the man said, and Sam could tell he meant it. He smiled a little.

“I didn’t expect to be saved. You didn’t take too long. I do have to tell you, though, they don’t exactly provide meals, and I am starving.”

Bobby cracked a smile, and if Sam closed his eyes, he’d see his soul glowing, but he didn’t know that, so he didn’t. “Then I suppose it’s a good thing I made chili.”

“You’re the best, Bobby.” He shuffled his feet. “Where’s Dean?”

Bobby gestured to the stairs. “Outside, fuming. Castiel told him not to be pushy and Dean almost broke his hand trying to punch him.”

“Isn’t punching an angel bad luck, or something? Does he want to get smote?”

Bobby chuckled, leading Sam down the stairs. “Cas won’t hurt him, they’re friends. Ever since he left Heaven to find you, Castiel has been pretty fond of you, as well.”

Sam shivered, a good feeling. He wasn’t used to feelings such as happiness and fondness anymore. “Why?”

Bobby shrugged. “There’s something special about your soul, Sam. Nobody should have been able to last a thousand years under Alistair and Azazel’s knives without breaking.”

Sam’s pulse sped at their names, but he didn’t falter. “Someone, somewhere, just kept telling me to hang on. When I didn’t remember my own name, there was still a whisper, telling me not yet, to hold on a while longer.” His voice broke. “When I forgot everything but pain, and I said no, and they started in worse than before, I knew I had to keep saying no.”

“Do you know what they wanted?” Bobby asked, gruff voice softer than before. Weighted. Thick with emotion.

“I don’t want to talk about that…,” Sam said, so soft. “You don’t want to know.”

So Sam scarfed down two large bowls of chili in silence, offering Bobby a look of thanks and relief that the man didn’t push. Then he went outside.

His brother was sitting on top of an old beat up piece of crap car, eyes closed, hands clasped together with his elbows on his knees. Sam sat beside him.

“Cas, I don’t want to talk right now,” Dean said.

Sam smiled to himself, not thinking of Hell. “That’s too bad.”

Dean went stiff.

“Dean, before you open your eyes, I need you to know something,” he hurried to say. “I don’t look like myself anymore. I don’t look the way you remember me. I have so many scars, it’s a wonder I even look like a human. I could be a Halloween decoration. I don’t even need a costume.”

Dean went for a joke. “You never did, Sammy.”

Somehow, Sam knew Dean would still see him as Sammy, no matter how bad he looked. He got up, placing his hands on Dean’s shoulders. “Okay.”

He saw green. Sam had almost forgotten how green Dean’s eyes really were. He didn’t have a lot of time to look, though, because Dean was up and crushing him into a hug before he could say a single thing. “Shit, Sam.”

Sam didn’t know how long they stood like that, but neither of them said another word until they separated. Sam was perfectly content, a feeling he wasn’t used to, just staying like that with Dean as long as Dean wanted to. He didn’t care about anything as long as he could see his brother every day. The amount contact was a lot to take in, but Sam hoped Dean didn’t notice how he squirmed. He hoped he wouldn’t break.

“Your eye, Sam…”

“I can still see. Not sure how.”

Dean pushed Sam’s hair out of his face, just looking. “How bad is the rest of you?”

Sam just met his gaze. “It’s pretty terrible. It doesn’t look awful to me because these marks were just their favorites. I’m not as phased as I probably should be.”

Dean shook his head. “Sammy…”

“No. No, please, don’t do that.”

Dean’s gaze found the ground. “Do what?” he asked, gruff.

“Cry. If you cry, then I’m going to cry, and if I start crying, I won’t be able to stop. I probably don’t seem like it, but I’m at the cliff’s edge of falling apart, Dean,” he said, voice hushed and broken. “Please, don’t fall off the cliff with me.”

Dean’s hands pulled him into another hug, this one grounding him, keeping him afloat in a sea of drowning waves. “It’s going to be okay, Sam. I’ll do whatever it takes to make you feel okay.”

It took Sam three months before he could sleep an entire night through. He was on the road with Dean, occasionally joined by Castiel. Sam’s reunion with his father had been emotional, more so even than with Dean, but Sam knew how guilty he felt for how he treated his dad, and he knew John felt guilty as well, even though Sam thought he deserved what he got.

It was in December, and freezing, and the only motel within a hundred miles only had one available room, with one bed. He and Dean took it, because they weren’t going to sleep in the car when it was ten below zero and there was a heated motel room they could sleep in.

Dean had planned on sleeping on the floor, but Sam had barely dozed off when the nightmares began, and Dean woke him, still dressed. “Dean, please. Just one night, please, there’s enough room, please--”

And Dean had shushed him, told him to lie down, he’d be back. Dean had gone into the bathroom. Sam rolled onto his stomach, prepared to suffer another sleepless night, until the bed dipped and Dean told him to quit hogging the blanket.

Sam slept like a baby. He slept like the dead. When he woke up, Dean’s hand was on his back to make sure he was breathing, although his brother was still out cold, snoring loud enough for the rest of the motel to probably hear him. Sam had hardly moved through the whole night.

When Dean woke up, the first thing he asked was, “Nightmares?”

And Sam pulled a pillow over his face. “No.”

There was no teasing. Dean didn’t call him any stupid names, or make fun of him for being a wimp. He just patted Sam’s arm and rolled out of bed, staggering into the bathroom.

After that, when he heard Sam start to have a nightmare, crying out in his sleep, Dean slipped into Sam’s bed, hand on his back, and Sam calmed. He woke up feeling safe.

“I’m sorry,” he told Dean, one of the times he woke up as his brother joined him.

“Don’t be.” After a moment, Sam sighed.

“How did you find out that they took me?”

He felt Dean tense. It was obvious his brother didn’t like to think about it. “I was supposed to meet Dad in Florida for a job, and he never showed up. When I called him, he said I needed to go out to California. That you were gone. You had been down there for two years, already. However long that is in Hell.”

“Two hundred and forty,” Sam told him, un-accusing. “Keep going.”

“When I got there, he said that he had been exorcizing a demon and she told him that they had you. That they were hurting you, but that you wouldn’t break. She said they were going to tell you they were hurting us, too.”

“They did,” Sam offered. “When I could remember things, they said you were begging me for help, that if I only said yes, they would leave you alone. Something inside told me to say no.”

“Dad showed me the photographs of your old apartment after the attack. It was awful, Sammy.” Dean’s voice cracked.

Sam still wasn’t comfortable in less than long sleeves and pants when around another person. He didn’t like to close his eyes throughout the day unless Castiel was with them, because he’d see the things that happened there unless he could see the angel’s grace (he still hadn’t noticed the human souls because he didn’t close his eyes until his back was to Dean and he was going to sleep.)

“Sam, it’s almost June, you’re going to get too hot,” Dean finally muttered, half asleep, more than an hour later. “I can handle it. M’not going to hurt you.”

Sam knew Dean would be kind, he did. It was just that he felt sick every time he thought about Dean seeing the damage done. He still hadn’t said much about his time in the place where they kept him, deep in Hell. What could he say that wouldn’t make him burst?

“I’m fine.”


“I’m not ready, Dean,” he said, quick and short because he had to bite down hard on his lip in his quest not to fall apart.

Dean sat up, fully awake, and pulled a pliant Sam up with him. He made it so they were facing each other, and asked Sam to close his eyes. “Just close them, you can hold onto me if you have to, okay?”

Sam wanted to resist, but Dean was using his ‘no bullcrap’ voice, and Sam didn’t want to fight. He closed his eyes.

He saw Dean’s soul, and it was hurting. The kind of hurt from a life full of war. A life full of loss and pain. But it was also strong, ready to lift and protect until Sam was full to bursting with the contentment he couldn’t find on his own.

“I can see your soul, Dean. Like I can see Cas’s grace. I never knew.”

Dean’s hands were rough, pulling at his long-sleeved shirt until it was yanked over his head. Sam focused on Dean’s soul. He finally got Sam into just his boxers, reminding him that he was safe, that they were in Texas and it was hot, that the air conditioner in their motel room was broken and that Sam ran hot anyway. “I’m not letting you go into heat stroke, Sammy.”

More than once, the memories tried to interrupt, but when Sam started getting stiff and twitchy, Dean spoke louder, squeezing Sam’s hands until he relaxed, focused on the bright, glowing soul from behind his eyelids. Sam was grateful.

He dreamt, sometimes. About meadows, sunsets, beaches, old faces, new ones too. He dreamt about the angel who carried him out of Hell, about the voice he heard before he was saved, about the sound of a thousand choirs just before he woke up in what Bobby called the Panic Room.

Other times, they were memories. Of barbed wire enveloping his leg, ankle to thigh. Of watching his own skin peel away, forming words, geometric shapes and patterns. Long, long claws buried in his eye socket to scoop out the squishy mass they eventually replaced with another. Having no control over his own body--being able to feel himself breaking his own bones when they commanded it of him. Hearing dark things whispered in his ears about his family, old friends, not being able to see who said them. Listening to the sounds of his family being tortured even though they weren’t.

“Sammy, buddy, wake up. Sam!”

Shaking, his whole body and the space around him thrashing like an earthquake.


Sam was sitting up, heart racing, struggling to breathe.


After a second, he felt Dean’s hands on his arms, digging his fingers into Sam’s muscles. “Hey, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

Sam closed his eyes, dropping his forehead onto his brother’s shoulder, focusing on the soul he could see in front of him. Dean was afraid. His soul was afraid, maybe worried. Sam didn’t blame him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, hardly forming the words.

“Don't you dare apologize,” Dean growled, pulling Sam further against him. He sighed against the skin of Sam’s neck, breath warm. “You’re gonna be fine, Sammy. It’s gonna be okay. I’m gonna make it okay. I promise you.”