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When Lisa told him she couldn’t let him see Ben if he was going to be drinking, Dean got it immediately. He’d already been too much like Dad and the fact that Ben was as well-adjusted as he was showed just how much having a good mom mattered.

Dean got it, but that didn’t stop him thinking, this, too?

Sam was in Hell. There was no reason Dean deserved to be able to numb himself.

He tried an AA meeting. It went worse even than he’d expected, which was that he’d be able to sit in the back and not bother anybody else. But then they started in on this Higher Power shit and Dean just—

He came back later and made an anonymous donation so the church could buy some new chairs.

He didn’t drink. Sam was in Hell. There was absolutely no comparison between what Sam was experiencing and what Dean was doing.

Four months in, he had a dream where Sam appeared in Lisa’s bedroom. Dean turned to check on Lisa and found her throat slashed, sheets soaked in blood. Sam blinked and his eyes shone like the Impala used to, like armor.

Dean locked himself in Lisa’s bathroom when he woke up so that he didn’t have to see her. Coming back to reality was like being crushed by a ten-ton weight.

This wasn’t keeping his promise. And as Lisa said, he never made a promise to her. Actually she yelled, and she might have been trying to make a different point, but Dean was trying to get out before he did something even more unforgivable, and he knew with a decade’s worth of experience that there was always something worse left inside him.

Sam was in Hell and had greater concerns than whether his brother could fake it until he made it.

****

How’s this for irony: Dean moved in with a bunch of squatters in Detroit, homesteaders they called themselves, occupying abandoned and foreclosed houses and tearing down more decrepit houses to create little community gardens. Dean spent his days doing construction and repair, working until his body was the only thing he could feel. He left most of the guns in the trunk of the Impala, but he drew protective symbols on the sills of every house they fixed up.

He was surprised to find himself almost a leader in the incredibly disorganized group (seriously, hunters got along better), teaching other people how to tap power or fix corroded pipes, scavenging bits and pieces of five different houses to make one livable. There were the expected men of God preaching their horseshit as they offered charity, and Dean tried hard to keep his fool mouth shut but still ended up playing the role of the cynic, just like he was in a third-rate movie. Some kid, or girl, or maybe just the beautiful community they’d built was supposed to restore his will to live and his faith in humanity, but Dean would burn the whole thing down himself before he’d let that happen, and eventually most of the priest-types left him alone.

Sam was in Hell: the only four words in the world.

****

Except that Sam came back.

Dean was on his own. He’d just finished rewiring one of the houses, and now he was working on the condenser of the refrigerator; somebody’d get ice tonight.

He stood, putting his hands to his back in a stretch (nobody ever told him he’d get old), and when he turned, Sam was there, in clean jeans and a blue shirt so new it still had creases.

Black-eyed.

Sam let him look just long enough to grab for his gun, then slammed him back against the wall, not even bothering to raise a hand. Sam grinned at him, dimpling. “Honey, I’m home.”

“Lucifer?” Dean choked out, wondering how long the world had left.

Sam shook his head. “He’s still in the cage. Pushed me out through the bars once I was ready to see things differently. Did you keep time, Dean? Did you know how long it was?”

“Ten months, seven days, twenty hours, up here,” Dean answered, even though Sam wasn’t really asking.

Sam’s lips peeled back. “Took me a while to make it all the way back, physically. But I guess there’s just something that made me special.” Demon blood, the gift that kept giving to the Winchester family, Dean thought. If only Sam had needed to possess a regular body, like an ordinary demon, Dean would never have believed it was him for a second. “Once I could really get my hands dirty, I thought I’d look up your happy family. Imagine my shock when I found out you were just another deadbeat dad. Couldn’t even get that right, could you?”

Dean made his eyes go dead, which wasn’t hard. “Guess not.” If he asked how Sam had left Lisa and Ben, he’d only be guaranteeing that Sam finished the job later. Better not to ask, and leave them still untouched, if only in his memory.

“Oh well,” Sam said, all false sympathy. “I’ll just have to settle for taking you apart piece by piece.” As Sam stepped closer, into touching range, Dean felt the first stabs of pain, like switchblades jammed into the meat of his shoulders and his upper thighs. He yelled, fingers scrabbling involuntarily at the peeling wallpaper behind him. He’d forgotten, mind blessedly fuzzing out a lifetime of pain, so that it was fresh and new again.

Dean swallowed, saliva and blood, and closed his eyes just for a second. “It’s okay, Sammy,” he said. Probably there was nothing of the real Sam left. Dean was pretty sure that would be the best thing. Sam wouldn’t have to see this happen. Dean would pretend that it was Sam anyway, because that would make it easier not to fight. “It’s okay.”

Sam sneered, then backhanded him. “How very Christian of you, Dean. ‘Forgive them, Father, they know not—’”

“Don’t you dare!” Dean interrupted, spitting out blood with the words and surprising Sam enough to shut his mouth. “Don’t you even think for a second I give a fuck about God. I don’t know whether He forgives you and I don’t care.”

Sam tilted his head, showy theatrical thing Dean’d seen from a hundred demons. “Hunh,” he said. “Well. This is going to be a challenge. I mean, you’re a veteran, plus up here I can’t raise you from the dead. There’s only so far we can go before I can’t bring you back. Still, I know you, and that’s got to count for something.”

If Dean hadn’t been pretending that some fragment of Sam remained, he would’ve pointed out that Alastair had spent thirty years with Dean too, and Alastair hadn’t been in diapers for any part of that. But he was thinking that not mouthing off would get him dead quicker, and since nothing worse could happen to him than what he was looking at, that was a worthy goal.

****

The slap brought him reluctantly back to awareness. His cheek stung and his throat was thick with the meaty taste of his own blood, also in evidence dotted across Sam’s face like an extra set of moles. He could barely feel his legs, hanging off the kitchen table Sam had repurposed for butchery. He wished he couldn’t feel his arms.

The thing in Sam was getting sloppy, to have allowed him to lose consciousness. A waste of good torturing time. Points off for technique, Dean thought.

The frustration on Sam’s face was so much like the look he’d get during one of their prank wars—when he was losing, naturally—that Dean would’ve smiled if he’d had the energy. His lips twitched anyway. Sam’s cheeks reddened with his rage.

“I’m gonna find it,” Sam swore. “The thing that breaks you.”

Dean lacked the energy to roll his eyes. Yeah, you’re doing so well right now. Dean was reasonably confident that the thing that broke him was not going to be found in his gut, where Sam had been rummaging for the past couple of hours. If Sam didn’t get that the last chance to do him real harm had gone down a hole in Stull Cemetery, then he really was hopeless.

Sam snarled, as if he’d heard Dean’s internal commentary, which Dean didn’t put outside the realm of possibility. “Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong.” He rested his hand on Dean’s stomach and Dean felt the ugly tug and heat of unnatural healing, which all things considered Dean wished wasn’t part of Sam’s special power set. “You know, I always knew when you went out to whore yourself instead of hustling pool. You thought you were so cool, but you had this look in your eye—pathetic, really, like you could actually be worth less.”

Okay, that stung some, more out of reflex than anything else. Even at their lowest, Dean’s first year back from Hell, Sam had never mentioned those times, when the size of the town and the priorities of the local cops had made earning cash safer and more lucrative than playing for it. Dean hadn’t even pretended Sam didn’t know; he’d buried it deeper, carefully not thinking about the question at all.

Then Sam started tugging Dean’s torn jeans down his legs, and whoa—Dean twitched and struggled reflexively against the power holding his wrists in place. Sam grinned, sharp flash of teeth, and Dean almost couldn’t swallow the protest that wanted to roar from his throat.

“Oh come on,” Dean slurred, because there was no point in pretending indifference now, “you’re not even trying. Maybe I should get you Alastair’s greatest hits collection for your birthday.”

“Really, Dean?” Sam put his giant palm too high up on Dean’s thigh. Dean shuddered. Sam grinned, shark/skull/madman. “Because I’m thinking, no matter how many cocks you’ve taken, there’s got to be something special about having little brother do it.”

Except that the demon’s gloating was just enough to turn the key in Dean’s head, bringing him back to reality. Sam wasn’t in Hell any more. This thing possessing his resurrected shell, maybe it was related to Sam the same way Lucifer was related to God, which was to say: they had nothing in common.

This was, he thought, a better ending for Sam than any of Heaven’s sick fakes. Better to be erased by evil than stuck on repeat, forever and ever and world without end.

So Dean relaxed, let it happen, let it hurt as much as it was going to. He stared at the cracked paint on the ceiling, patterns nothing like Devil’s Traps or anything else that had a purpose. Sam grunted and shoved and Dean didn’t dissociate, felt this only as a variation on the knives.

In the middle, Sam snarled and hit him again, loosely curled fist that snapped his head back against the table. “Stop it!” he ordered and Dean only blinked up at him and sucked the blood off of his teeth, because he had no fucking idea what Sam meant.

“Stop smiling!” Sam ground out, pushing so hard Dean felt something new tear, but the more surprising thing was that Dean was pretty sure he was crying, crying and grinning so hard that his face hurt. Sam was nowhere near as patient as Alastair, and his demon was no different from Sam that way. This would be over soon (well under thirty years, at least) and then Dean would be done. If he went up, he’d find Ash and figure out how to destroy a private Heaven, and if he went down, then he’d be finished all the sooner, just like Sam.

Laughter bubbled out of him like blood from a slashed throat.

Sam hit him, again and again, like when he’d been hopped up on demon blood, like when he’d been Lucifer’s puppet, until the sounds Dean was making were only recognizable as laughter because they both knew. Dean’s eyes were slitted shut, Sam’s face blurred through his lashes.

Dean vaguely registered when Sam pushed back enough to grab him and shake him, like he was trying to snap a civilian witness out of a shocked trance. “Dean!”

It was pretty clear that Sammy wasn’t going to stop until Dean paid him some attention, and for some reason having his head bounce around like a dandelion on top of its stem was more annoying than the rest of it. Dean made an effort and focused.

The force of Sam’s frown was only diminished slightly by the absence of Sam’s familiar annoyance-darkened eyes. He snarled out his next words. “I spent decades in Hell, the only thing that mattered to me was you, I claw my way out and you don’t even care?”

Dean stared at him, voiceless, and then it really hit him. “Heh,” he gasped. “Wel—welcome to my world,” he mush-mouthed, and curled into himself as best he could while the uncontrollable giggles took him over.

It was just possible that he’d crossed the line into crazy.

“Dean!” Sam’s voice was outraged, like Dean’d dumped salt into his beer while he was in the can. “That’s not funny!”

Dean flicked his eyes up, laughing just the same, meaning ‘It kinda is,’ and after a frozen moment Sam—eyes still lacquer-black—started to laugh too, rough and broken like he didn’t remember how.

“Shit,” Sam said, putting his hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Dean.” Dean jolted like he’d been electrocuted again. Sam was healing some pretty major damage, he figured, because his fingers and toes stung like they’d been asleep and the rest of him felt like he’d been gravedigging all night long.

Sam closed his eyes, breathed deep, and when he opened them again the demon was wearing his face full-on. Sam’s eyes had more colors than Dean remembered.

“Don’t,” Dean said, soft. “Don’t pretend.”

Sam blinked and his real eyes were back. Dean could see his own reflection in them. “I’m still me,” Sam said.

Dean didn’t know how to believe that. He didn’t know how not to, either.

“There’s no detox for me,” Sam continued. “This is what I am, now.”

Dean nodded, accepting.

“Everything soft, everything good that was in me—it’s burnt out.”

Dean reached out, grabbed his arm. Sam’s pulse buzzed against his fingers. Sam’s muscles were strong and solid where they touched. “I’m here,” he said.

Sam looked down at his hand on Dean, Dean’s hand on his body. It was hard to tell without any hints from the eyes, but Dean thought he might have been feeling—or showing, anyway—regret. “Love you just the same, though.”

Dean swallowed, the click of his throat loud in the room. “Yeah,” he said. Sam had done more damage this time around, but he could also fix Dean up better this time around, so really there was nothing new.

Maybe they could make it work together, hunt bad things to feed Sam’s hunger for suffering, the same as they’d done when Sam had wanted revenge for Jess. Or maybe this was only a trick, in which case Dean would happily let Sam think him a fool, if it got him his brother back for a while.

When Sam lowered his mouth to Dean’s, Dean thought, for just a second, that even if this wasn’t just Sam playing a longer game, maybe it would be different between them with all the soft and good taken out.

Then again, it wasn’t like he’d spent a lot of time noticing those parts before.

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