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Art by the lovely and talented naisica.

There are constants in the universe. The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. Salt repels spirits. What goes up always comes down. A silver bullet to the heart will always kill a werewolf. If you’re a Winchester, never assume that you’ve reached rock bottom, because there’s always further to fall. Sometimes, Dean thinks, it’s nice to have these constants, these reminders that there are hard-and-fast rules to be followed in life. They offer a kind of stability without which he’s pretty sure he would go nuts. Sure, having his life suck ass on a regular basis with the promise of probably sucking even more later on might sound depressing to some people, but in his case he actually finds it reassuring, because at least he knows to be prepared for this shit.

There are other things which, while they’re not quite the-sun-sets-in-the-west kind of solid, are still pretty dependable. Like, for instance, the fact that Bobby always has a bottle of rotgut hidden away somewhere out of sight “for emergencies.” Like the fact that Sam is addicted to his smart phone, always fiddling with it, checking his voicemail obsessively even when he hasn’t received a call in days. Dean catches him at it regularly, listening intently to what has to be a message saved a while back, because almost no one calls them anymore, and while he’s ribbed him about it a couple of times, it never gets him more than a pained grimace in response. Sometimes he catches Sam looking over at him, even when he's got the phone glued to his ear, with an expression that Dean can't even begin to decipher. It reminds him way too much of last year, when everything between them was so damned raw that it felt like even breathing hurt, so eventually he just lets the matter drop. Of all of Sam’s habits and quirks and whatever, this one is the least of Dean’s worries, especially since he came back all new, improved and re-souled from Lucifer's cage, complete with complimentary wall to keep all the evil shit in his head at bay.

Another constant in life? Ghosts like to throw things. Things and people. Also, given the choice between Dean and Sam, the fugly of the week will, four times out of five, choose to try to maim Sam first. Dean doesn’t know why this is, it just seems to be a fact of life, and he’s learned to roll with it. Protecting Sam is one of his constants too –has been from the start. It’s not even something he thinks about much, unless he’s, you know, ruminating about it. Which he does sometimes. Hey, Sam isn’t the only thinker in the family, Dean can totally ruminate along with the best of them. Sam’s just broody about it all, and Dean doesn’t brood. Ever.

So he’s not really all that surprised when Sam gets himself thrown hard by the poltergeist they detoured to take care of while tracking down a lead on Eve. The lead isn’t much anyway, and this particular spirit is a nasty piece of work which has already killed two innocent bystanders. So in they go to dig up the desiccated remains, douse them with kerosene and set them alight. They’ve been doing this so long that Dean has pretty much lost count of the number of corpses they’ve torched. He burned his first remains when he was twelve, and so did Sammy, and they’ve never looked back.

Only there’s no such thing as a simple salt-‘n’-burn: even the easy ones come with a catch, and this time the catch comes in the form of the poltergeist objecting violently to having its remains disposed of and sending Sam –who was holding the goddamned lighter, naturally– flying headfirst into a particularly solid-looking tombstone. Dean could swear he can hear the crack from where he’s standing several yards away and winces in sympathy. The sympathy very quickly morphs into panic when Sam just slumps bonelessly to the ground and Dean catches sight of blood, wet and glistening darkly behind his ear.

“Sam!”

That’s another constant, right there. Lose track of Sam, call his name. It’s instinct, it kicks in whether he wants it to or not.There's no time to think, no time to run to his brother to check on him, make sure he's breathing, make sure he's alive and that these past few months haven't all been some horrific djinn-induced illusion which Dean is about to wake up from in some warehouse somewhere. All he knows is that Sam is down and that poltergeist is still up and kicking. The lighter is on the ground a few feet away where Sam dropped it during his impromptu flight, so Dean makes a dive for it, hits the ground hard, rolls to his feet. He barely manages to flick open the lighter and toss it at the remains before the poltergeist can turn its attention to him, feels a rush of air just before it vanishes with a shriek and a burst of flames that tells him if he'd been a couple of seconds longer he might have joined Sam in his collision course with the nearest headstone, and then they'd really have been in trouble.

“Sam! Sammy!”

He leaves the remains to burn, scrambles over to where his brother is still lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. Moisture from the churned-up earth seeps into the knees of his jeans as he moves his hand carefully behind Sam's neck, his fingers coming away sticky and slick with congealing blood, and all that's running through his head is the same terrifying mantra that's been repeating itself ever since Death brought back his brother from hell ―oh God, what if this is it, what if the wall's come down, what if I've lost him, what if what if what if― until Sam stirs under his touch with a groan and he laughs in relief.

“Hey, hey Sammy, you with me?”

Sam blinks rapidly, shifts under Dean's hands, his heels scraping against the ground in a futile attempt to sit up. Dean is more than happy to help, propping him up and smoothing the hair back from his forehead.

“Sam? Anyone home? You took a hell of a knock there, even for your thick skull to handle. You okay?”

Sam's not quite tracking, it's easy enough to tell, but he reaches for Dean a little tentatively. “Thought you were gone,” he says, slurring his words.

“Nah, I'm right here, hauling your giant ass out of trouble yet again. You think you can walk if I help you up? You've gotten way too big to carry.”

Sam nods, but it takes a while before his legs are steady enough to hold him, and he ends up leaning heavily on Dean the time it takes to get him back to the Impala. He's still dazed, but he's pliant enough, docile even, when Dean nudges him into the passenger seat and switches on the light in the car so he can better see the extent of the damage. He makes a face when he sees the nasty laceration behind Sam’s ear.

“Definitely going to need stitches. How bad's the pain? You want a hospital, or you want to play it by ear first, see how the night goes?” Head injuries aren't things to be messed around with. God knows he and Sam have both had more than their fair share, and Dean's not stupid ―he knows these things have a cumulative effect in the long run. Except he's not really thrilled at the idea of taking Sam into an emergency room, because God only know what they'll find if they take x-rays.

Sam's eyes focus on him for a second. “No, no hospital. Where are we?”

“You're not exactly making a compelling case there, Concussion Boy. We're in Illinois, about two miles west of Turnbridge. How many fingers?” he makes a peace sign, holds it up in front of Sam's face, but he may as well be talking to himself. “Sam?”

Sam's face has gone from pale to greyish-green, and Dean barely has time to move out of the way before he pitches forward to throw up onto the muddy ground next to the car. Dean reaches over and rubs Sam's shoulder a little awkwardly.

“Okay, hospital it is.”

The hospital is like every single one they've ever been in, filled with overworked doctors and overwhelmed nurses trying to cope with staffing shortages and far too many emergencies at once. They barely glance at the paperwork he fills in, which is a relief because the insurance card he's using is crap even by their standards. Sam gets the laceration in his scalp stitched under a perfunctorily-applied local anaesthetic ―ten stitches behind his right ear― and then they wait. X-rays are done on a first-come, first served basis, except if it's life or death, and apparently Sam doesn't count in that category. Dean thinks he should probably be happy about that, but it's not exactly a picnic, watching his brother curled up as best he can manage on a gurney that's not built for someone his size, face twisted up with pain, in-between thankfully increasingly infrequent bouts of vomiting into a basin that Dean managed to locate before things got too messy.

“You hanging in there?” he asks softly.

Sam doesn't move, but he licks his lips a little uncertainly. “I lost my phone.”

“Old news, dude,” Dean tries to hide just how much that statement worries him. Sam left his phone with Samuel Colt about a hundred and fifty years ago. By the time it got returned ―by post, no less― it was less than useless, and between trying to track down Eve and other hunts, they haven't had a chance to replace it yet. Dean puts it on his mental to-do list. “You don't need it now, anyway.”

“I should have kept track of it,” Sam says, not looking at him. “Can't do anything right.”

Dean sighs. “I'm going to let that one go because your brains are addled.”

“It's important. Got stuff saved on there.”

“We'll get you a new one.”

Sam shakes his head and winces, eyes screwing shut. “Shouldn't have lost it in the first place. How'm I s'posed to remember now?”

“Remember what, Sammy?”

They're interrupted by the tech calling their made-up names, and by the time they're done Dean has forgotten all about the cell phone, because, really, in the grand scheme of things it really isn't all that important. What is important, as far as he's concerned, is that Sam has a skull fracture and the doctors are all clucking about pressure on the brain and observation and admitting him overnight. Eventually, using all of the considerable people skills he has at his disposal, Dean manages to convince them that he's more than capable of watching his own brother for signs of brain damage or inter-cranial swelling or whatever. He signs the requisite forms and steers Sam back to the car, folding him carefully into the front seat along with a rolled-up blanket to serve as a makeshift pillow.

He picks a motel they normally wouldn't go for ―a little outside their usual price range― but he figures that if they're going to be holed up here for days while Sam sleeps off his head injury, they may as well be comfortable and have the advantage of cable while they're at it. Sam's still a little dazed and in more than a little pain, but he doesn't protest at all when Dean nudges him toward the bed by the window, just toes off his sneakers and slides under the covers, one arm over his head to block out even the dim light from the bedside lamp. Shit, Dean thinks, that can't be good. He pulls out the bottle of Sam's newest prescription ―filled at the hospital drugstore so they wouldn't waste any more time than necessary― and fishes as much ice as he can out of the hotel dispenser to make an ice pack.

“Come on, Sammy,” he perches on the edge of Sam's bed. “We'll have you back on your feet in no time.”

Sam groans under his breath as Dean hauls him upright, but swallows his pills without complaint. “Where's my phone?”

“It's about a hundred and fifty years out of date, dude. You don't need it to sleep, anyway. C'mon,” Dean coaxes him back down onto the bed, presses the ice pack gently to the lump behind his ear, ignoring Sam's flinch of pain.

“I just had it,” Sam insists, eyes slipping shut. “Should have kept track.”

“Go to sleep.”

Dean is thankful for the fact that the whole waking-up-every-hour thing has long since been debunked when it comes to concussions. It means that they can both get some well-deserved sleep, even if in his case he ends up slumped over Sam's bed for half the night, listening to his brother breathing. It's not like Dean sleeps all that well these days anyway, although the nightmares aren't nearly as bad as they used to be. Eventually he manages to crawl into his own bed and crashes, only opening his eyes when the first rays of dawn filter through the gap in the curtains covering the window.

This isn't the worst injury Sam has ever suffered, but it certainly ranks in the top ten. They've always been lucky in that department, Dean thinks, if you don't count all the times they've literally died and been brought back. He got worked over once by Alastair topside, which landed him in the hospital, but otherwise he's never done much more than break fingers, sprain joints and whack his head a lot. The same goes for Sam: a few broken bones here and there, bruised ribs, and what's a bit of strangulation during a case so long as it doesn't end up being permanent? So it's weird to see his brother all but incapacitated by pain that isn't supernatural in origin. At least it's letting him sleep, he consoles himself. It was more than a little creepy, the way Sam hadn't needed to sleep at all when he didn't have his soul, and Dean still doesn't understand how that even worked, because Sam's body had still been human, still ate and drank and fucked, and it was just all wrong.

“You watchin' me sleep? 's a little creepy...”

Dean starts a little guiltily. “Nah. Just making sure you weren't in a coma. How you feeling?”

Sam's eyes are open to little more than slits. “Head hurts.”

“Yeah, I'll bet. You want more pills?”

Sam pushes himself upright, slowly, moving like an arthritic old man. “I gotta take a leak.” He swings his legs over the side of the bed, anchoring himself with his hands, but his arms are shaking too hard to be of any use getting him to his feet.

Dean grabs his arm. “Lemme give you a hand.”

Sam stiffens a bit, but lets Dean pull him up. “Shit. Dizzy,” he mutters, eyes closed.

“No kidding. You back with me today? You were all sorts of out of it last night. Kept going on about your phone.”

His brother just lists against him, and Dean tells himself he just imagined the flinch at the words. He lets the matter drop, gets them to the bathroom and back without major incidents, and Sam ends up going right back to sleep after a dose of painkillers with nothing more than a mumbled warning to Dean not to watch him. Dean ignores the warning, of course. It's been far too long since it's been just the two of them, like this, and so long as Sam doesn't realize that he's being all sappy, then he figures it's good. It's not like he can get away with it when Sam's awake, after all. Sam's too busy walking around being all emo and guilt-ridden over whatever he thinks he might have done while he had no soul. He keeps shooting these glances at Dean when he thinks Dean isn't looking, like he's expecting something terrible to happen at any moment, like he's expecting Dean to yell or hit him or maybe shove him out of the car while it's running, or something. It's exhausting, is what it is, and it's not like Dean can actually do anything about it, short of telling him what happened, and that is definitely not going to happen anytime soon.

For now, though, Sam's dead to the world, looking more peaceful than he has in, well, years. Dean doesn't remember the last time Sam got any proper sleep, uninterrupted by nightmares or visions or late-night visits by Lucifer. Head trauma seems like a pretty extreme measure to ensure a full eight hours, but he'll take what he can get. Sam moans quietly in his sleep, and Dean reaches over to brush the hair away from his forehead, feels something loosen in his own chest when Sam relaxes under his touch with a soft sigh.

“What's going on in that brain of yours, huh Sammy?” he says softly.

Predictably, he doesn't get a response.

Waiting isn't exactly Dean's strong suit. Sam spends most of the time dozing, in too much pain to do much else than let Dean drug him and put him back to bed, even the light from the television too hard for him to take for more than a couple of minutes at a time, which means that it stays off, even though he claims he's fine as long as he doesn't look at it (“Really, Dean, it's fine. You watch it.”). The end result is that Dean is bored. He pokes around on Sam's laptop ―and he will deny to his dying day that it's the porn that made it freeze up― but it doesn't hold his attention for long. He nudges Sam, waking him just long enough to tell him he's going for a coffee run.

“You want anything? Doesn't have to have caffeine in it, I can get you a sandwich or something else. What about soup? You haven't eaten since yesterday.”

“No thanks. Gonna hurl if I eat anything.”

“I'll find soup,” Dean rolls his eyes. Some things never change, including Sam's predilection for curling up and waiting for death when he's not feeling well. “You're feeling sick because your stomach's empty. Vicious cycle. You just call if you need anything, okay? Use the motel phone.”

He ends up stopping at a Dunkin' Donuts. The coffee isn't great, but at least he can get doughnuts and soup to go with it and not go bankrupt in the process. He gets himself a BLT too, because, hey, bacon. When he gets back, he finds Sam sitting propped up in his bed, face pinched, hanging up the motel phone. He starts a little.

“Oh, hey Dean. I didn't expect you back so soon.”

Dean shrugs, feeling oddly guilty that he somehow managed to miss Sam calling him. “I didn't go far. Who were you calling? I didn't hear my phone.”

Sam shrugs. “Just checking my messages. There's a toll-free number you can call from a land line, to save on minutes.” It’s a deliberate evasion, Dean can tell, because Sam isn’t even bothering to try to meet his gaze.

“I know that,” Dean can't help but snap a little. He's not an idiot, and he’s annoyed that Sam is, yet again, keeping something from him. “Who would even be leaving you a message, anyway? It's not like we have friends outside of Bobby these days, and he knows your phone is busted. He'd just call me. And Cas doesn't use the phone anymore. Reception in Heaven is a bitch.”

Sam nods and immediately winces as the movement jars his head. “Yeah.”

Okay, whatever it is, Sam isn’t about to tell him. Dean can work with that. He’ll let it go for now, regroup, come back to it later. “I got you soup. How you feeling?”

“Like I got thrown against a wall.”

“Technically it was a tombstone. But I take your point. Here,” Dean hands him the styrofoam container and a plastic spoon. “Chicken noodle for your delicate stomach, princess. I want it all gone, you hear? God knows it's better than your normal fare.”

If Sam wasn't already the same colour as his sheets, Dean swears he'd go a shade paler, eyes widening. “What?”

He snorts. “Two words, dude: salad shakers. I'm amazed you're not anaemic, frankly.”

His brother ducks his head concentrates on his soup. “Oh, right. Salad's healthy,” he adds a little lamely. “And sometimes they put chicken in it.”

“You're such a freak.”

Sam manages most of the soup before he's too tired to sit up any longer. He doesn't wait for Dean to take away the bowl, just puts it aside on the bedside table and slides back under the covers, eyes slipping shut. Dean tosses his sandwich wrapper into the trash, finishes his coffee and stretches out on his bed. He's not exactly napping, because he's totally not at the age where he needs naps, but resting his eyes for a while seems like a pretty good plan.

He should replace Sam's phone, he thinks idly, hands resting on his stomach. If Sam's so obsessed that he's checking his messages from a landline, then it's about time they got him a new one. One of those fancy ones, Dean decides, because it's been way too long since Sam got to geek out properly over anything. The laptop is a couple of years old, and a new smart phone might be just the thing to get him excited about something ordinary and not, you know, new and creative ways to stop the apocalypse, or whatever. Also, it might stop him brooding about whatever new thing he’s found to brood about. Yeah, definitely a new phone.

He slips out in the afternoon to an electronics store he spotted on his coffee run and pretty much only half-listens to the sales rep's enthusiastic pitch about the latest toy they've got. Yeah, he thinks, looking down at the phone cradled in his palm, Sam is going to love this. It's got all the bells and whistles that he likes and has a brand new operating system and all that jazz.

“Hey,” he interrupts the spiel. “This is for my brother. His old phone got, uh, kind of totalled. Anyway, he's an OCD freak and backs up his shit constantly, so I brought his laptop. You think there's any way of getting all his old stuff on here?”

“Oh, sure. All you have to do is plug it in and it'll load automatically. There might be a few incompatibilities since this isn't exactly the same phone, but you'll get most of your stuff back.”

He smiles a little tightly. “Awesome. I'll just take it and go, then.”

He grabs the whole package, tosses a fake credit card at the guy, and makes off with his new booty like a cat slinking off with its latest kill, a little smug and more than a little excited. Sam is going to flip, especially if Dean hands it to him all ready to go. It occurs to him that maybe Sam will want to program his own stuff, but whatever, this is his present and he wants to play with it a little first, sue him. Sam can fix it later if he wants. He finds a convenient picnic table to work at, hooks up the cable, presses 'OK' to synchronize, and then sends far too long just staring at the little progress bar waiting for it to load. For a new phone, it sure takes a while.

Finally there's a cheerful ping! and Dean is able to unplug the phone, glad at least that they come pre-charged these days rather than making him wait overnight. Instant gratification is sorely underrated as far as he's concerned. He scrolls quickly through the phone, just to make sure all of Sam's information is there. Another ping catches his attention, and a dialogue bubble opens up.

1 unsaved message. Play now?

He hesitates, thumb hovering over the screen. Who the heck would have called Sam in the couple of hours since he last checked his messages, anyway? Dean scrunches up his face. It's precisely this sort of shit that drove them apart to begin with: Sam not trusting him, he not trusting Sam. Listening to Sam's private messages is a pretty big deal, he knows this, he's not going to delude himself. If he's doing this, then he's going to be honest about it. He presses 'play,' puts the phone to his ear.

A guy's voice, toneless and mechanical, informs him: “This message will be deleted if it is not saved again. To replay the message, press 1 now.”

So it's an old message, not a new one. The number looks familiar, but it takes him a while to place it: it's one of his, from a phone he hasn't had in well over two years now. That means Sam saved this message from him over and over again, week after week after week, even when they were apart. Even when Sam had no soul. What the hell could he have said, Dean wonders, that would make Sam keep the message that long? He sighs. In for a penny, in for a pound. He presses 1, starts listening again, and nearly drops the phone at the sound of his voice, the tone so harsh and angry he barely recognizes it.

"Listen to me, you bloodsucking freak. Dad always said I'd either have to save you or kill you. Well, I'm giving you fair warning: I'm done trying to save you. You're a monster, Sam, a vampire. You're not you anymore. And there's no going back.”

The recorded male voice replaces his own. “Message received Thursday, May 14th, 7:13pm. To delete this message, press 7. To save this message, press 9...”

He places the phone carefully on the table in front of him, stomach churning. Everything in him is screaming at him to just delete the message, to obliterate it and maybe the brand new phone with it too, just on principle. Except, it's not his to delete. Shit. He hits '9' and shoves the phone in his jacket pocket, all his earlier enthusiasm gone in a rush, packs away the laptop.

Sam is mercifully still asleep when he gets back, and Dean isn't inclined to wake him up for anything at this point. He sits on his bed, pulls the phone back out of his pocket and stares at it, like it's suddenly going to start explaining to him just what the hell's been going through his little brother's freaky head for the past... God, two and a half years or so. That date has been seared into Dean's brain for all of time and he doesn't doubt it's the same for Sam. It's obvious Sam thinks the message was from him ―and why wouldn't he? It's Dean's voice― that he's been listening to it at least once every week ever since he got it, right before he went into St. Mary's convent to face off against Lilith. Jesus. Even when Sam had no soul he still listened to it, still believed it, still kept it. He snorts softly. No wonder Sam let him get turned into a vampire, he thinks, maybe it was a birds of a feather thing.

“Dean?”

Sam's voice is soft, questioning. He's obviously not quite awake, hair tangled around his head in a way that Dean would normally make it a point to mock him for until Sam huffed and made a bitchface at him. Sam pushes himself up onto his elbow, scrubbing at his eyes with the knuckles of his other hand, looking like not much more than a sleepy kid. It's cute, except for how now there's a big elephant in a frilly pink tutu twirling around in the room, just at the foot of the bed, and Dean doesn't even know how to begin broaching the subject.

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing. Nothing's wrong,” Dean lies. He holds out the phone. “Got you a present.”

Sam reaches for it, a smile spreading over his face. “You didn't have to. I was gonna replace it.”

“Yeah, I know, but it was like watching one of those sad nature documentaries when the cute squirrel gets its tail amputated and then it can't balance and climb trees anymore. I swear, you should just get that thing permanently grafted to your hand and then we'd be all set.”

Sam huffs a little and rolls his eyes, but he's still smiling as he flicks through the various screens. Dean sees the flicker of uncertainty as he gets to the saved voicemails, his thumb hovering over the little icon on the screen.

“I backed up all your stuff from the laptop.”

“Um, okay. Thanks.”

“So, you know, it's all there. Even your messages.” It's as close as he's gotten so far to admitting he's been rifling ―metaphorically, anyway― through Sam's stuff.

Sam shoots him a narrow-eyed look. “Okay.” He's clearly waiting for Dean to elaborate.

Dean and his big mouth. “Your head still hurt?”

“Yes.”

“I can get the meds from the bathroom.”

“No, it's fine. I'll take them later,” Sam's attention is focused on him, and Dean automatically drops his gaze, rubs a hand over his mouth. “Something you want to tell me?”

“Uh, why?”

“Jesus, Dean. You have the most obvious tells in the universe. Come on, man, you're freaking me out a little, here. A couple of hours ago you're fine, and now you're back and you've backed up my phone and you look like someone kicked your puppy. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you found something you didn't like. So what was it?” Sam snaps, his tone more than a little defensive.

“I, uh, shit.” Dean rubs the back of his neck. “It wasn't me. I just want you to know that.”

There's a silence. Then, Sam pinches the bridge of his nose like he's trying to stave off a new headache. “Maybe it's the skull fracture, but you're making less sense than usual.”

“The, uh,” Dean manages a vague twirling motion with one hand. “The voicemail. It's not me. It wasn't me. I never said any of that.”

He risks a look up at Sam and wishes he hadn't, because he never wants to see that look on his brother's face ever again, twisted into something that's caught between hope and anguish and doesn't know which way to go.

Sam swallows, Adam's apple bobbing, flips the phone reflexively with one hand. He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. “I don't understand,” he manages finally, voice faint enough that Dean has to strain to hear the words.

Dean comes off his bed, unable to keep still a minute longer, paces to the door and comes back, hates himself even more when he sees the look on Sam's face morph into something close to fear, like he was expecting Dean to just up and walk through the door and maybe never come back. God, how exactly did their lives get this fucked up, anyway?

“I didn't exactly plan on listening, but I was backing up your stuff and it was there and... whatever. That's not the point. That's not the message I left you.”

“But―”

“No, I know what it sounds like!” he interrupts before Sam can start logicking this to death. “I know it's my voice, but I swear it wasn't me. I did call you, you know,” he says, hating the pleading tone that's creeping into his voice now. “I called, and I got your stupid voicemail, and you know I hate leaving messages but I did. I did, but it wasn't that. I poured out my stupid heart into the damned recording, had a fucking honest-to-God emo Oprah moment and went on about how we were brothers and family and all that. Hell, I think I even apologized at one point in there, that was how sappy it got. That message there?” he points at Sam's phone. “Not me. I can't believe you think I'd ever say that to you.”

Suddenly exhausted, he drops back onto his bed, rakes both hands through his hair. Sam's staring at him, mouth hanging open, making him look a little stupid, but it's the raw hope in his eyes that makes Dean want to hit something, really hard. Or maybe re-enact his Oprah moment now, probably with added tears for effect, because that's just how emo and ridiculous this has all gotten.

“Sam, anytime you want to say something,” he says, proud that he's managed to speak clearly and intelligibly at all, because he's pretty sure his vocal cords have closed up shop permanently at this point. “You going to leave me hanging here or what?”

There's silence, again. When he looks up, Sam has dropped his phone onto the bed, head ducked down so that Dean can't see his expression through his stupid floppy emo hair, but it's hard to hide the sudden hitch in his shoulders ―kid's too big now to hide anything.

“Sammy...” it comes out softer than he intended. “Have you really been listening to that voice for the past two years? Every time you were messing with your damned phone? Is that what you were doing?”

Sam hunches over further, but not even the hand he claps over his mouth can stifle the sob that wells up in his chest. He makes an undignified hiccuping noise, tries to twist away, but Dean's figured it out by now, knows exactly what sort of mental tug-of-war is going on in his brother's stupidly overcomplicated brain. Two minutes of revelation trying to overcome two years of brainwashing, and Dean has no idea how to even start fixing this, if it can even be fixed. There's so much that's been broken between them, this is just the last in a long line. He puts out one hand, barely brushes the tips of his fingers against Sam's knee, bridging the gap between the beds. It's only a few inches, but it might as well be ten miles. Dean thinks he gets it, now, what was going through Sam’s head when he made the decision to go into that church. He opens his mouth, hesitates, just in case saying it aloud will make it real and not just the product of his imagination.

“You didn't think you were coming back out, did you?” Sam's shaking with the effort to hold himself together. Dean's pretty sure that if he could still talk he'd be yelling at him to shut up, but he keeps going. “You were, what, going to take her down with you? One last kamikaze leap into the abyss?” Sam doesn't answer. “Sammy... tell me it's not because you thought I hated you.”

Predictably there's still no answer. Time to break out the big guns. So Dean slides over on the bed to sit next to Sam, nudges his arm. “You think a hug might help?”

That gets a surprised snort of laughter, all twisted up inside another sob, and when Sam still doesn't move Dean gives up on subtlety, hauls him over by his stupidly large shoulders and just holds on until Sam stops resisting. He can't see his brother's face from this angle, buried awkwardly in his shoulder like he's still just ten years old and still fits in Dean's lap, but he can feel him shaking, can hear the sobs he's trying to muffle. He pats Sam's back, puts his head down so that his nose is almost buried in Sam's hair. It smells a little of blood and lighter fluid and the antiseptic from the hospital, but mostly it smells of Sam, and something in his chest tightens a little.

Sam shifts closer, murmurs something into his collarbone, but Dean doesn't need to be able to hear it to know what he's saying. That's what was missing, he tells himself, like it's some kind of revelation, but it really isn't. Just him and Sam in some anonymous motel room, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Just them and no one else. There's never been anyone else, he thinks, not since he carried Sam out of that house twenty-eight years ago. Everyone else just comes and goes, and in the end it's just them, slotting back together the way they're supposed to.

He's almost surprised when Sam pulls away a little and cuffs at the tears that are still pouring down his face. Sam doesn't apologize, though, which is definitely a first. He looks terrible, his face grey with pain where it's not blotched red from crying, the circles under his eyes so dark they're almost black, but he's smiling. Not the wide, happy smile that Dean hasn't seen in years, but it's the first real smile he's seen from Sam in far too long, and at this point he'll take what he can get.

“You need anything?”

Sam shakes his head carefully, and Dean realizes that his brother is still holding onto his arm, hasn't let go the whole time.

“You look terrible,” he says, rather than all the other crap that keeps trying to bubble up to the surface. You're my brother and there's nothing in the universe that could make me not love you. They've never been those kinds of people, though. “Think you can sleep a bit more?”

For a second it looks like Sam’s going to refuse, or something equally as stupid, so Dean forestalls him, grabs him again and pulls the both of them down onto the bed. He wraps one arm around Sam’s waist and locks one leg firmly around both of Sam’s so he doesn’t get any idiotic ideas of pulling away, and his efforts are rewarded when his brother just lets himself sink into his arms with a barely-perceptible sigh, eyes closing. He smiles to himself, moves to whisper in Sam’s ear.

“Just so you know, the minute we’re awake? I’m deleting all your messages.”