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a matter of hope

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Sam's asleep on his stomach, hands tightly fisting the covers as he twitches in a dream. His face is turned towards Dean, and despite the dark Dean can see how Sam's hair curls wetly, his forehead glistening with cold sweat. Even so his brother looks peaceful, like he'd only just returned from a battle that's finally, finally over. He's not smiling – Dean can't remember the last time he saw Sam smile in his sleep – but even so, there's something tranquil about it. Even so.

He reaches out a hand to brush off a lock of hair from where it hangs right in front of Sam's nose, mostly because it looks kind of ridiculous. Dean's hand is a pale blue in the moonlight, and he stops, stares, puts it down. Goes back to looking at Sam.

The kid fought. The kid fought hard.

It took four days for the worst of the withdrawal to run its course (he doesn't want to wonder how much blood that means Sam took), and by the end of it they were all exhausted and rattled, even Cas. Sam still has a bit of a fever, but he'd seemed in control of himself enough so that Bobby and Castiel thought he could be relocated upstairs, so here's Sam in the very same bed he used way back when, just like that time he was seven and recovering from the worst case of the chickenpox anyone's ever seen.

If Dean squints a little he can almost believe that that's seven year old Sammy over there, except the white scars on his forehead faded a long time ago and Dean's not much for pretending anymore.

...Not like that, anyway.

"Go to bed," Bobby says behind him. "You keeling over won't do anyone any good."

He thinks it's funny that Bobby still tries, after everything. "I know," he replies, because he does know, everything's riding on his shoulders, his and Sam's.

Except Sam's his to take care of, so.

Maybe not.

He can't see Bobby's face, but he thinks the man's thrown off kilter, like Sam was when Dean didn't eat or celebrate Valentine's Day. Because Dean's supposed to fight when it's smarter not to, he's supposed to eat like he'll never get full, he's supposed to have lots and lots of rampant sex. Dean's supposed to do a lot of things.

Supposed to. Right.

Dean once used to think that pretending was good. That shoving everything away and pretending it isn't there was an excellent way of getting yourself out of bed in the morning. That if you tried and pretended hard enough it really will all vanish, everything will go away, the game of pretend will come true someday. All you had to do was pretend.

He still doesn't really think he was wrong – it used to work fine back then, before. It's not the theory that's wrong now. Just him. 

Him. Always the fucking exception.

"Well if you know," Bobby says finally, sounding like he doesn't know what else to say.

His voice is smaller than he likes, but he can't help it, the room's just too big and Sam's asleep besides. "I want to stay up a while longer. Watch over him, you know, make sure… make sure he's okay."

Not to mention, he's not going to get any sleep any time soon, even if he tries.

Faint slide of wheels on wood. A warm hand grips his shoulder, tightens a little. It makes him feel funny, because he knows he's supposed to feel something but he's not, not feeling anything.

"Sam's fine, Dean. He's gonna be fine."

He shrugs. "Yeah."

"Whereas you - you? You need to get to bed. When's the last time you got some shuteye?"

"No, I –  um. This chair's fine. Good enough." He breathes in, because he can't let his voice shake. There's only so far he'll let this go. "I need to. Please."

There's a pause. He can feel Bobby's worried gaze aimed at the back of his head.

He doesn't move his gaze from Sam. Just waits.

The hand lingers for a moment longer, then lets go. "Okay, kiddo. Don't stay up too long."

Dean blinks, suddenly remembering that he's not supposed to be a zombie, he's supposed to be okay and laughing and relieved that Sam's made it on his own, made his own choices and they were the right ones. They won, damn it all, he needs to start acting like it.

"Sure, mommy dearest," he tosses out, the best he can manage, a little careless on the delivery but what the hell.

Apparently it's good enough for Bobby, because Dean hears an amused snort and a muttered like hell I am while the scritch scratch of wheels fades away into the background, leaving Dean alone again with Sam. Sammy.

He looks so peaceful.

It's amazing, how Sam can fight – has fought, despite everything. Fought an addiction with withdrawal so harsh he's still reeling a week later. Fought the temptation long enough to save Dean, long enough to fight off a Horseman. Sam fought, and Sam won, like Sam usually did.

And it's kinda funny actually, but Sam, Sammy's been back for a while now. Really back, like he used to be, once upon a time before Dean died. And that's really good, it is, because Sam's getting the hang of it, of being back with Dean, of trying to fix what he broke. Sam's moving on. Coming back. Starting to live instead of just survive, which is what Dean has wanted for him for... ages. Ages and ages.

So, yeah, Dean can't blame little brother for wondering, wrinkling his forehead, asking what's the matter Dean, come on. Sam's better now, despite everything, so it only stands to reason Dean should be too. It only makes sense.

Can't fill it, can you?

His hand shoots down, grapples, finds the cool smooth neck of a bottle.

Not with food or drink.

Gin. The hardest stuff comes cheap. Plenty cheap. He raises it to his mouth haphazardly, misses the target a little as a result. Alcohol trickles down his neck, under his shirt, but he doesn't care. He doesn't.

Not even with sex.

A noise issues from his throat. Soft, not even a whimper. Desperate.

Again. The gin's sharp against the roof of his mouth. He swallows and the back of his throat burns. The hint of flavor leeches off his tongue quick and without a goodbye, leaving him just the same as before. And just as empty.

…It's not working. Nothing is.

But he'd known that already. He hadn't needed someone to say it.

Have you wondered why that is? How you can even walk in my presence?

It just makes it more real.

That's one deep, dark nothing you got there, Dean.



...He keeps drinking. Maybe he's dead inside, but Dean bets he can still black out if he tries hard enough.



Before he knows it, the gin's more than half gone and he's drank enough alcohol to sterilize Bobby's bathroom. The hand with the bottle drops limply, clinking a little as the glass barely scrapes the ground. He stares at Sam so hard he doesn't even notice when his brother stirs and squints at him, that familiar perpetual frown back on his face now that he's awake.


He blinks back, wearily wonders what the appropriate response is. Is he supposed to be smiling? Sighing with relief? Frantic with worry? What does he usually do?

"Hey there, Sammy."

...Yeah, that sounds about right.

Sam's eyes flutter a bit before steadying on him again. "What are… what are you doing here?" he rasps, voice hoarse. (Sam screamed a lot downstairs.)

He ignores the question because it's stupid. "How you feeling?"

His brother groans suddenly, eyes squeezing shut before relaxing. "Better," he murmurs after a couple of seconds pass. "Better."

You can smirk and joke and lie to your brother.

"Uh huh. Right. How about you go back to sleep there, Pinocchio?"

Lie to yourself.

"Not sleepy," Sam protests, sounding blurry, like a little boy before bedtime. "I… it feels like I slept a long time."

"You did," he replies, because it's true. Sam had been unconscious when they'd hauled him upstairs, and maintained a steady fluctuation between semiconscious and comatose ever since. "But you need to sleep off the rest of it. So, come on, nappy time."

"I feel better," the kid says again, flipping over on his side.

He can almost hear the ocean. The sound fills his ears, rushing, pumping.

But not to me.

"Sam," he says, in a voice he can't quite recognize.

His brother stops, freezes.

And it's funny, Sam's been back for a while now. In a way it's like he's never been gone, or like he left and then returned without any idea of what happened in the meantime, and while Dean kept on changing (not by choice, never by choice) Sam stayed the same. Because on the one hand he's started to notice things that are off about Dean, but on the other hand he doesn't realize that they've been there for a while now and he just didn't see. Sam acts as if everything's just suddenly came out of nowhere, when it's been everywhere and all the time for… for a while.

"Dean? What's wrong?"

But still, he's noticing now. Maybe that means something.

"Nothing. Get back to sleep."

Maybe it doesn't.

"What's – what's going on? Is everyone okay?"

You can't win and you know it.

"Relax, Sam, everything's fine. Come on, don't spaz out on me."

"You – you sound weird, Dean."

You just keep fighting, keep going through the motions.

"What? I don't sound weird. You take that back." Why does he looks scared?

Sam pushes himself up on an elbow, which Dean thinks is inadvisable but doesn't really feel like protesting. "Dean, I - I'm serious. You – is it me? Did I do something when - when I was down there?"

He smiles a little, and it's the same kind of pain as the gin, thoughtless and quick. "No, Sam. It's not you." For once, he doesn't say.

Dean's brother still doesn't look convinced. "Then… then what is it?"

You're not hungry, Dean, because inside... you are already dead.

"Nothing, Sam. It's nothing."

"It's something. Tell me."

I have nightmares every time I close my eyes, he thinks at Sam. I tortured almost four thousand souls and I remember each one. I don't feel anything anymore and I should feel bothered but I'm not. I want it all to end but I'm fighting this fucked up war anyway. I don't think we'll win and the only reason I care is because I'm afraid you'll die again. I listened to you screaming for help for four days and couldn't do anything. I drank half a bottle of gin and I'm still conscious.

I almost said yes to Michael five days ago. And I'm still wondering if I should.

"Guess I'm a little tired," he says finally.

Sam looks skeptical, but he lies back down, tries on a smile. "It's been a long week."

"You can say that again." Inane. He's so good at inane. Dean feels for the gin bottle with his fingers.

Sam's eyes shine in the darkness. "But we did it. We took care of Famine. A Horseman."

Yeah, and it only took four days of Sam crying his lungs out before Dean could let himself think about it. These victories, they sure rock.

"We sure did," he says, not no, just you. "Be a while before we'll see his ugly mug riding round the corner."

"Man, I really hope so."

"Me too."

Sam curls up on his side, facing him. His face is blue and gray and black in the dark, and Dean doesn't pretend – not to himself, anymore – but he can't help flashing back to when they were small, when they would stay up and Sam would whisper secrets to him until the little hours of the night.

"Hey Dean, what do you want?"

He starts, blinks. Talk about coming out of left field. "What?"

"I… I was thinking. About what Famine did to everyone."

He doesn't get where Sam's going with this, but it's okay because this time it's because Sam's just too fucking quick, not because Dean's out of the loop.

He toys with the gin bottle under his chair. "Yeah, sucky stuff."

But Sam's not rolling his eye, not playing his game, Sam's got that look like he's thinking hard, and when he talks his voice is 100% Sam-grade earnest. "It didn't affect you, did it? I was affected and Cas was affected, but you, you were fine."

His hand stills.

"Guess that's one of the perks to being an angelic meat suit."

"No, I don't think that's it," Sam says absently, not noticing the way Dean tenses. "I'm a vessel too, after all, and Cas is an angel and got just as whammied as everyone else." He blows a strand of hair out of his eyes. "I can't figure it out."

"So maybe you should leave it," Dean suggests casually, leaning even further back on the chair. He can drink more when Sam goes to sleep… which had better be fucking soon. "Why look a gift horse in the mouth?"

Sam gives him a look. "Because it might have rabies, Dean," he replies flatly.

Trust Sam to finally be Sam, irritating, know-it-all, observant Sam, when Dean would for once rather… rather…

"All the victims," Sam says, slowly, "they gorged on something they tried to deprive themselves of. Something they secretly wanted too much, even if it's been years and even if they never really had it. Twinkies, alcohol, sex." He pauses, adds softly, shamefully, "Blood."

"Maybe I'm just not deprived," he offers, heart sinking because he remembers, Castiel didn't buy this either. "Maybe I just ate enough Twinkies."

Sure enough, Sam ignores him. "Think about it, Dean. What is it you really want?"

To disappear, Dean thinks, before his brain can clamp down on the errant thought. He doesn't like morbid, he doesn't allow himself to think it usually, after all demons and angels get on his case enough about being emo, but –


Lucifer said that there's no escape for me, Sam had told him a couple months ago, voice low and close to breaking. If I – if I die, he said he'll just bring me back.

He remembers feeling relief back then, feeling glad - though he hid it of course, Sam would have gone nuts - but now he just feels thoroughly creeped out. Because what if it's the same with him and Michael, what if he'll be forced to go on until either he says yes or the world ends? If Michael's really that strong, strong enough to defeat Lucifer, then no wonder Famine couldn't get to him.

What if that's the reason? What if Michael's just as determined to keep Dean alive? What if that's why Famine didn't affect him, because he couldn't make Michael's vessel die even if he tried? What if I'm trapped here, trapped -

His grip tightens on the gin. Where's the Colt, he thinks blindly, that has to work, it has to it has to –


"Yeah?" he says reflexively, looking but not seeing.

His brother's hazel eyes give him a once-over. "You okay there?"

Ha. So many ways he could answer that, and only one of them would be right.

Dean shakes his head ruefully, running a hand through his hair. "Fine, Sam. Just… thinking." He clears his throat, flashes a grin. "You know, I think I've figured it out. The reason for that."

Sam's eyes widen. His head cranes forward in excitement. "Really? What is it?"

"Well, it all makes sense when you think about it," he drawls, trying to enjoy how Sam is hanging on to his every word. "My secret craving is, of course, to rid the world of howler monkeys. But, since howler monkeys are Lucifer's minions, Famine can't kill them off without pissing off the boss – ergo, monkeys live, Famine loses, I get zip on the hunger scale. Problem solved."

Sam huffs irritably. "Wow, Dean. Way to contribute."

"Always glad to share, Sammy."

They're quiet for a while, and he wonders whether Sam's given up on the subject, because that would be a heck of a lot easier to deal with than any well-meaning theories. Then he wonders whether maybe Sam just fell asleep and he's worrying for nothing, and finally he thinks to check.

But Sam isn't asleep.

"What if…" he starts hesitantly, looking up at Dean. At least there's an upside, he thinks, this puzzle's distracting Sam from thinking about his vampiric tendencies nicely. "What if you were starving for something Famine couldn't give? Something he couldn't touch?"

He raises an eyebrow. "I'm pretty sure Famine's not supposed to give anything. Actually I think it's kind of the opposite."

"That's not – I mean, what if you weren't starving for anything physical? What if you were starving for…" Sam hesitates. "…An emotion?"

Dean exhales. "What, like love?" he scoffs. "Did you miss the whole thing with the naked guy, or did I just make that up?"

His brother's eyes are uncertain, unwilling to hurt him. "No, I mean… something more intangible."

"Love's pretty intangible, Sam," he points out.

"Not exactly," Sam says. "Love's based on a lot of physical factors, they've even linked the prevalence of some hormones to long term relationships. Besides, it's easy enough to mistake lust for love, and lust definitely has a physiological component. "

Dean can't really believe they're talking about this. "Are we really talking about this?"

"What I'm saying is," Sam says, slightly louder, "I think lust is what Famine goes after when he infects people. Not love. It's easier to find lust than love, cupids aside. Love's too... selfless."

He cranes his head to the ceiling so he doesn't have to look at Sam, puts his legs up on Sam's bed. His hands drop from his lap.

Dean's tired, man. Just dead, bone-aching tired.

"What does it matter, Sam? Famine's gone. Who cares?"

It's a stupid question. Sam always cares.

Well, except when he doesn't. But that's usually Dean's fault, anyway.

"…What if you just didn't realize?" Sam asks all of a sudden.


Sam glances at him, then looks away. When he talks it's reluctantly, as if he doesn't want to think about what he's saying. "Maybe Famine did infect you, but you just... didn't notice."

"I think I'd feel it if I was starving, Sam," Dean replies dully.

"Not - not if you already were," Sam says back quietly, expression fragile. "Not if you were... used to it."

He swallows, soldiers on. "That's total crap, Sam. I'm not starving, do I - do I really look like I'm starving -"

Silence. Sam doesn't meet his gaze, and Dean realizes that Sam really believes this. Really believes that... that Dean...

"What if it isn't tangible?"

"Sam -"

"What if - what if what you're starving for is hope?"

He blinks blindly, staring at the wall behind Sam's bed. "That's absurd. You're absurd."

"It makes sense."

"No, it doesn't. You're just... you're just making this all up out of nothing."

"I don't think so," his brother whispers.

Dean stands up abruptly, knocking the bottle of gin onto its side to roll on the floor. One hand grabs hold of Sam's collar, and he bends and at the same time brings Sam up to his level, glaring so hard he can feel his eyes burning. "Then how the hell am I supposed to fix it, Sam?!" he shouts, shaking. "How am I supposed to eat something that's fucking intangible?!"

Sam looks back at him sadly, hands limp against the mattress. His eyes squeeze shut for a moment, as if for once he's hating being right. "You… you just have to find it. You have to – you just have to find faith."

The noise he makes isn't laughter. "Faith? Faith?! God is dead, Sam! He fucking left the building!"

"I know, I – I didn't m-mean that," Sam stammers, and Dean suddenly remembers that Sam's still sick from the withdrawal, and, judging from the heat coming off his skin, probably still has that low fever. Fuck.


Dean lets Sam go, gently dipping his brother's head down onto the pillow. He rubs his face with a hand, pours himself back into his seat, bends down to find the bottle of gin.

He opens it numbly, brings it to his mouth because there's nowhere else for it to go. And as he does he wonders, vaguely, whether he should leave, skedaddle, maybe take an old car from Bobby's junkyard and just go go go, never come back.

…It's only a thought. He can't really leave Sam, after all.

"Do you think I'll say yes to Lucifer?"

He doesn't choke, just takes the bottle out and spits, "What the fuck, Sam."

"Do you think so?" Sam insists, putting out a hand on Dean's knee.

"No!" he snarls, avoiding the determined, feverish gaze and jerking his knee away. "No, I don't, so shut up and go the fuck to sleep!"

"Don't say it if you don't really mean it."

"Oh I mean it," he growls. "I really fucking mean it."

Sam's eyes close. "So you believe in me."

He glares at his brother. "If you want to be a fucking chick about it."

"So, in other words, you have faith."

Dean blinks.

Sam opens an eye. It almost looks like he's smiling, except really he just looks sick and like he should sleep for at least another day or two.

He slowly relaxes into the chair. Finally, without venom, Dean mutters, "You little bitch."

Sam burrows into his pillow like a huge cat, a pleased expression on his pale sweaty face.

"See?" Dean's brother murmurs contentedly, already falling asleep. "It's not that hard."

He stares. Then, after a moment, sighs, slowly puts down the bottle and gets up, tucking the snoozing giant inside the covers.

Let no one get the wrong idea here - nothing's actually fixed, nothing's really solved. Puppies and rainbows aren't going to suddenly star in Dean's dreams, and he's still planning on finishing the rest of the gin.

Dean might very well never be like he used to be. Maybe he will always have to drink himself to sleep, always have to fake a smile and a cavalier attitude. And maybe he will lose another fight, maybe he will get someone else killed, maybe the world will end, maybe someday Dean will have to say yes.

Still, at the same time...

He looks at Sam's sleeping face, and almost smiles.

"Maybe not."