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Keeping Time

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“I feel weird,” said Gabriel.

Sam sat on the edge of the bed and peered down at him. “How so?”

“I feel almost …” Gabriel lifted his head from the pillow. “Well-rested?”

Sam’s face brightened. “Nothing bothered you last night?”

“I don’t remember dreaming at all.”

“Gabriel, that’s great! But listen, when was the last time you had anything to eat?”

Gabriel snorted. “Maybe you can forget about the fancy overpriced CBD flaxseed bar you force-fed me before bed, but I can’t.”

“I thought we could have breakfast together. That’s why I came in to wake you up. We can go before everyone gets out of church for brunch.”

“Well, just because I didn’t puke up your hippy-dippy vegan brick at 3:00 A.M. doesn’t mean I’ll be able to eat. Don’t let your expectations get out of control.”

“I’m not going to get mad if you can’t have anything. I promise.”

“Yeah, I know; I just - anyway, sure, let’s go. Give me a second to make myself presentable.”

Although Gabriel was definitely better this morning, watching Sam exit the room gave him the same chill he experienced in his most desperate moments, the same feeling that perhaps Sam wouldn’t come back - or that when he did, it would be to scold Gabriel, to yell at him for being too attached and endlessly helpless. That was when the fear crept in, so that Gabriel almost began to hope that Sam would leave him alone.

Sam had given Gabriel so much, and still there was the voice in Gabriel’s head, punctuated by kicks to the ribs, stomach, and face: Spoiled rotten; always on your knees whining for more! Because nothing is ever enough for your greedy ass!

Gabriel gritted his teeth and shoved himself from the bed.

There was breakfast with Sam to look forward to. Asmodeus would not be allowed access to this morning.

Once he and Sam were winding through the quiet backroads that led to the diner, Gabriel felt a little more relaxed. But it was inevitable that sometimes - more often than he’d like to admit - these episodes of fear and shame crept out of nowhere and held him in their grasp for the rest of the day.

Sam glanced at him from the driver’s side. “Something wrong?”

Gabriel shook his head, trying to clear it. “‘Course not. Why?”

“You looked kind of upset.”

“Nope, that’s just my resting bitch face.”

Sam was quiet for a while. Then he said, “You know, if something’s bugging you, you can tell me.”

“You’ve made that clear, and somehow I’ve come to believe you.”

“I’m just saying … even if things are going okay. Even if you got a good night’s sleep, or started feeling stronger, or anything like that … I don’t know, I just don’t want you to think you have to be all right even at the best of times.”

Gabriel stared through the window, watching the scenery glide past. “Well, sooner or later, I will be.”

“Of course you - ”

“Sam!” Gabriel shrieked.

Sam slammed on the brakes with a cry of alarm. A boy aged about eight or nine stood frozen in front of the Impala, ogling Sam and Gabriel through the windshield with a combination of shock and satisfaction on his face.

Gabriel turned to glance at Sam, who was already throwing open the door to yell, “Are you out of your mind?”

The boy gave a nervous smile.

Sam glared at him. And there was something strange in his eyes, something Gabriel couldn’t quite identify.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sam demanded. “You could’ve gotten killed!”

“I won,” the child declared. “I won the dare and I probably would’ve won even higher if you’d kept on going. I definitely would’ve made it across. Which makes me a champion.”

Gabriel continued to scrutinize Sam’s expression, trying to figure out what lay beneath the incredulity.

Mouth set tight, Sam heaved himself out of the car and strode over to the child, who suddenly looked far less self-confident with Sam towering over him.

Gabriel’s breath caught. He could see the same terrified fury that came to life whenever Gabriel alluded to a desire to hurt himself.

Gabriel unbuckled his seat belt, pushed open the door, and stepped out of the car. “Sam, come on, he was just being stupid.”

“I was being brave,” the little boy objected. “I’m a - ”

“Not a champion, pal. A crackbrained prepubescent nimrod. Go home and meditate on the tender line between courage and recklessness.”

The child opened his mouth to respond, but Gabriel grabbed Sam by the arm and dragged him back to the Impala. To the child, he added, “Get your butt home, Evel Knievel.”

Once the two of them were seated again and the child had slunk away, Gabriel turned to Sam. “What’s up, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Sam spat.

Startled, Gabriel leaned away from him. “Did I - ”

“No.” Sam’s face softened. “No, you didn’t do anything. Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s okay; I’m totally fine. Let’s just keep going.”

Gabriel stayed pressed into the door. “You’re not fine. You’re worrying me.”

Sam waved a dismissive hand. “Adrenaline rush, that’s all. You getting hungry yet?”

“Is that a joke? When am I ever hungry? Look, if you’re freaked out by this whole thing, we can go back; you can cram another organically-sourced monstrosity down my throat.”

“No, no, I’m gonna be fine. I mean, I am fine.”

“Sam.” Gabriel reached out to him and Sam jerked away.

“Don’t, Gabriel.” He took a shaky breath. “Just don’t.”

Gabriel wrapped his arms around himself. “All right. Okay. Let’s go if you want to go.”

Sam closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. “Just - don’t touch me right now, all right?”

“Okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t - ”

“Didn’t know, I know. I’m not pissed at you, all right?” When Gabriel didn’t move forward again, Sam snapped, “Just sit up, Gabe. I’m not gonna hit you or anything.”

Gabriel swallowed, heart pounding. Hating himself for his fear, he leaned further backward, tempted to open the door and flee.

Sam’s expression shifted into one of alarm. “Wait, wait, I know, I know, I’m sorry. It’s okay. You’re okay.” He held out his hand, waiting for Gabriel to accept it. After a few moments, Gabriel stretched out shaking fingers and allowed Sam to grip them.

“It’s okay,” Sam repeated quietly. “I’m not mad at you. I’m just - I’m sorry. I don’t know where my head is right now.”

Gabriel tried to even out his breathing. “You’re probably more discombobulated than I am, huh? Could use some food?”

Sam gave a faint smile and released Gabriel’s hand to take the wheel again. “Probably, yeah.”

Neither of them said anything more until they had walked through the doors of the eatery and taken a booth together.

Gabriel gazed down at the sloppily cleaned silverware, swallowing against the tightness in his throat, revolted by his own panic.

“Hey.” Sam’s voice was soft. “I was a little freaked out, that’s all. No one’s angry. Not at you. I promise.”

Gabriel’s hands had begun to shake. He lowered them to his lap so that they were hidden underneath the table. “What happened, Sam? What did that do to you?”

“I told you, it was adrenaline.”

“Don’t try to sell me that crap; you face way worse than that at least once a week and I’ve never seen you react like this.”

“I was …” Sam avoided Gabriel’s eyes. “It was nothing.”

Gabriel leaned closer to him and lowered his voice so that only Sam could hear. “He’s not here, you know. Whatever you thought you saw back there, it had nothing to do with Lucifer and everything to do with that little squirt being a dumbass.”

Sam didn’t seem surprised by Gabriel’s intuition. “Reflex. Hard to fight.”

“Understood. Look up at me, macho-nacho.” Sam didn’t. “All right, I can’t decide if you need caffeine, chamomile, or Corona, but let’s get you something to bring you back to the present.”

“I’m all here.”

“You’re miles away. I have eyes, ears, and common sense. Can you tell me what - ”

“Boys.”

The two of them looked up as a young waitress with sharp features and red hair hair cropped short slid menus in front of them. “Anything to drink, fellas?”

“Coffee for me,” Gabriel told her, “And lemonade for my partner in crime. As you can see, he’s showing all the classic signs of low blood sugar. Shaky, spacey, practically see-through.”

The waitress frowned. “Well Jesus honey, you need me to get a doctor on site?”

“No,” Sam said hastily. “No, I’ll be fine. But uh, lemonade would be great. Coffee too.”

“Copy that. I’ll have it right out.”

As she hustled toward the kitchen, Sam turned to face Gabriel. “You don’t have to worry about me, okay?”

“Let me feel your pulse,” Gabriel replied.

“What?”

“Let me feel your pulse and then look me in the eye and tell me I shouldn’t worry about you.”

“You should eat something is what you should do.”

“I’ll eat anything you want me to just as soon as I’ve got some indication of how I can bring you out of this.” Sam didn’t answer, and Gabriel’s tone grew desperate. “I know, Sam. I know what it’s like to be trapped in your own head. And I can’t - ” Gabriel cleared his throat. “I can’t watch you go through it. I mean, I know I’ve seen it before and I promise this has nothing to do with me not being able to handle what you talk about. In fact, you don’t have to talk about anything. I’m not asking for that. I’m asking what I can do. Because I know I can do something.”

“Look, Gabe - ”

But it was then that the waitress placed a tall glass of pink lemonade in front of Sam, followed by a donut drenched in powdered sugar. “On the house,” she told them, and then set down two mugs of coffee.

“Many thanks,” said Gabriel. “He’ll be up and at ‘em as soon as he guzzles that down.”

“Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, and left them alone once more.

Sam took his butter knife and cut the donut in half. “Here.”

Gabriel accepted his piece. “I’ll eat this if you tell me what I can do to help you.”

“What do you think you can do?” Sam sounded frustrated again. “I just have to let it pass. And I’ll be fine. I will. This happens all the time.”

“Oh, that’s reassuring. Listen, I used to think the same thing: let the pain run its course. And it works, am I right? It works when you do nothing to intervene. But when somebody steps in, it doesn’t have to last for hours on end.”

“It’s not going to last for hours.”

“It’s already gone on too long.”

“So what do you want from me?” Sam was edging toward anger. “Do you want me to tell you everything? The way you hate when I ask you to do the same thing? Huh?”

“That isn’t what I meant. Sam, I … I’m not … ”

He’s not violent. He’s afraid.

Gabriel took a deep breath.

He won’t hurt me. Not in front of all these people. No. No, not ever.

“It’s just,” Gabriel muttered, “I know I can’t fix it, but I want to make it better.”

Sam gave a derisive laugh. “‘Better’?”

Gabriel stared down at his half of the donut, suddenly sick to his stomach. “I don’t want to see you struggling, especially not over something like what happened to me.” He raised his eyes. “You understand, Sam?”

Sam continued to glare at him. Abruptly, Gabriel got to his feet.

Sam looked startled. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. I uh, I thought - I thought you might - I don’t know.” He sat down again. “I thought you might want me to leave.”

“No.” Sam sounded bewildered.

“Then stop.” Gabriel’s voice shivered. “Please. Please.”

Sam shut his eyes, trying to calm himself down. “I’m sorry. It isn’t you, I just …”

“Have a temper you try to control around me. An effort that doesn’t go unnoticed. Look, Sam - not to thicken the already lavishly decorated soap script we have going, but I care about you. I care about what’s ravaging your brain. Because if anyone knows how much those memories suck, how fast they can drain the life out of you and make you feel totally gone and like no one else is there, and everything is dark and broken - you’ve got me for that, even if you don’t want to talk. It’s like when I don’t want to say anything to you. That doesn’t always matter, does it? What matters when I’m like you are now is that you’re the only one who doesn’t seem like some contorted, sinister version of himself. And I’m the safe one here when everything else feels like it did in Hell. When things feel different, and gross, and untrustworthy, and some twisted parody of what’s supposed to be safe. It’s me, Sam. I’m here to keep you safe. Exactly the way you do for me.”

Sam shook his head. “That’s not your responsibility.”

“No, it’s not. I know that. I know because you’ve already told me thousands of times and I trust you enough to assume that you’re probably onto something. But do you really believe that after everything you’ve done for me - when you find me on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night too weak to even keep my head over the toilet bowl, when you lie in bed with me just in case it happens again, when you let me hold your hand where other people can see - you think that after all of that, I’m callous enough to let you bleed out on your own?”

Sam folded his hands on the table. His fingers twitched. “What if it hurts you?”

“Then don’t give any specifics if you don’t want to; just let me - let me - I don’t know, can I come over there and hug you?”

That took Sam by surprise. “Yeah, sure.”

Gabriel moved around to the other side of the table and wrapped his arms around Sam, who returned the embrace and, after a moment’s deliberation, rested his head on Gabriel’s shoulder.

“You are unyielding and unreasonable,” Gabriel told him, “And it’s stupid that you care about others more than you care about yourself. It’s stupid that you can give me what you do and still think you should just hole up in your room and panic without anyone there to wait it out with you. How would you feel if any of us put ourselves through that? You know I’ve done it, and frankly I can’t imagine Dean hasn’t too. And Castiel? There’s no conceivable way that my brother hasn’t taken his fair share of breakdowns and crammed them into a moldy cabinet somewhere no one ever thinks to look. And if you’re in pain, if you’re hurting because of what happened to you, don’t lock yourself away from me.” He strengthened his grip. “Just let me help you, Sam.”

Sam didn’t reply, and neither of them said anything for a few minutes. Gabriel didn’t try to pull away: he knew what it felt like to have to let go before he was ready.

Then Sam muttered into his ear, “Just tell me when you think you it’s too much, all right?”

“You got it, Sam.”

At last, Sam eased himself upright. Where his face had been pale before, he now looked flushed and feverish. “All right. So …”

Gabriel waited.

“Are you sure?” Sam asked again.

“I’m sure.”

Sam hesitated, perhaps sifting through the potential repercussions - both for himself and for Gabriel - of explaining what was wrong.

Then, in a slow, cautious tone of voice: “I’m not really sure what I thought I’d be. In terms of life outside hunting, I mean. But in my head I - the idea of having a normal life after college, with a wife and kids and … and just forgetting everything else - I didn’t know if I wanted it; sometimes I think maybe I was just jumping from one extreme to the other. You know - the life of a hunter versus the life of some corncob-pipe husband and dad.” He paused. “But that’s the thing. I really did spend a lot of time thinking a lot about what it might be like to get married and have kids. Just get the chance to be a - a person, you know?” Sam picked at a sticky splotch on the table. “Maybe it wouldn’t have been the best thing for me. There’s no way of ever figuring that out now. And no need to wonder, I guess; no point in missing what I never had, and what maybe I didn’t really want after all. But …”

Sam stopped again, and this time he seemed to be wrestling with the urge to cry.

Gabriel didn’t intervene. Sam could be the one to decide if he wanted to say more.

“Most days,” Sam went on when he was ready, “I don’t think about it. I can’t. Because it won’t happen, ever. It’s too late for - for - crap - ” He used the heels of his hands to wipe his eyes. “Yeah, sorry, um - it’s just - Lucifer knew. He could get inside my head, easily. He could see everything.” Sam swallowed. “And he showed me what it might have been like - me, and the woman I loved, and … and the kids we might’ve had.”

Gabriel’s chest tightened. That shouldn’t have been taken away from Sam.

“He’s nothing if not thorough,” Sam continued. “Didn’t exactly make me believe it was really happening. I never thought I was out and free or it had all been a dream or whatever. He was with me the entire time, just letting me watch things play out. The life I thought I wanted. The life I thought I probably would’ve had. It took a while. I just stood and watched. I couldn’t stop watching. Because there she was, and the kids too, and I … just in those few minutes of watching them, I got to know them so well.” He took in harsh breaths through his nose.

“Easy does it,” said Gabriel. “Here.” He offered Sam the glass of lemonade. Sam accepted and took a few sips before going on.

“I remember exactly what they looked like, and their names too. There were three of them. Um - and - you know, I thought he probably just meant to torment me with, ‘Look what you missed out on; look at all the mistakes that erased this from your life. Look at every idiotic decision you made that took you away from what you never even deserved.’”

Gabriel recoiled. “Is that what he said to you?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does; did he trash-talk you like that?”

“Well, he wasn’t exactly in the mood to talk about the weather. So anyway, I figured that was his goal: to force me into bystander status for what might’ve been mine. But then - then he - we - ”

“Wait.” Gabriel gripped his shoulder. “Wait. Slow down. You look like you’re about to have an aneurysm. If you don’t want to say what happened then you don’t have to. I get it; spilling the truth can make things worse, not better. So don’t push yourself.”

Sam’s face had taken on a peculiar mix of terror and weariness. “I’ve never brought it up before. Now’s as good a time as any, right? And for my sake, I guess, I’m glad you understand. Not sure anyone else could.”

“I do. And I know going over it, out loud - sometimes it’s the worst thing, and sometimes it’s the best.”

Sam shuddered in Gabriel’s grasp. “Yeah, so anyway, he - um - it wasn’t just dragging me down a would-be memory lane. It ended with him - with - ” Sam squeezed his eyes shut. “When I was afraid maybe I was gonna hurt that stupid little kid - ”

Gabriel slid his hand off of Sam’s shoulder. “Oh no. Sam, no.”

“ - I thought about the knife in my hand, and what it felt like to - ”

“No, Sam - oh God - ”

Sam shrugged a shoulder to discreetly wipe his face on his sleeve. “Too much?”

Yes, Gabriel wanted to say, but not because it brought up memories for him. It was simply that he couldn’t stomach the image of Sam being coerced into something so depraved, something that would break him over and over again for the rest of his life.

“Okay,” Gabriel breathed. “Okay, listen. Let’s do the math here: the kid that ran in front of the car? He’s an idiot. Like all children have been since the beginning of time. Take my word for it, Sam: that much has never changed. He didn’t get hurt. Not at all. And more importantly, this has nothing to do with Lucifer. He isn’t here. Okay? He’s not. I’m here. Right here.”

Sam nodded, eyes lowered and full of tears.

“Sammy, you got stuck with the annoying archangel, not the bully. Here, have some more of this.” He nudged the glass of lemonade toward Sam, but Sam shook his head.

“Do you get it too?” Gabriel asked. “Feeling like you gotta throw up?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you want to go home?”

Sam blinked, and a tear rolled down his cheek.

“Come on, you.” Gabriel guided him to his feet. “I would offer to drive but frankly I don’t know if I remember how.”

Sam wiped his eyes. “It’s fine. I can drive.”

“Are you sure? Because we could get Cas over here. ”

“I don’t want him to see. Can we keep this just between us?”

“I never assume otherwise. But you know they’d understand, right?”

“Yeah, but this just … isn’t the right time.”

Gabriel wondered if that time would ever come.

Sam left a handful of bills on the table. The waitress caught Gabriel’s eye, glanced at the nearly-full glass, and frowned.

“Hold on,” Gabriel said to Sam, and went over to her. He lowered his voice. “Poor guy just ain’t feeling well. Stomach virus or something. Gonna get him home and resting stat.”

She looked crestfallen. “Wish there was something I could do.”

“Hey, you were a real help. Thank you. And don’t worry, I’m pretty sure he caught it from me. The least I can do is show him a little TLC.”

She smiled. “Make sure he stays hydrated.”

“Don’t you worry. I know exactly how to get him back on his feet. Learned it all from him.”

The drive back home was slow, but smooth. Sam was being careful, Gabriel realized, afraid of another near-tragedy with an impulsive child.

Then, just a few minutes from home, he pulled off to the side of the road and sucked in a shaky gasp of air.

Gabriel leapt out of the car and scurried around to the driver’s side, opened the door, and helped Sam lean forward to vomit on the pavement.

He kept his hand on the back of Sam’s neck while Sam choked, heaving deep breaths and spitting out bile. When Sam raised his eyes to meet Gabriel’s, neither of them spoke.

Gabriel returned to the passenger side and climbed in. The remainder of the drive was silent.

Once they were back in the bunker, Gabriel gestured for Sam to follow him. “Come into my room. Let’s hang out.”

A little uncertain, Sam did as Gabriel asked. When they reached the bedroom, he said, “You don’t gotta take care of me in here. Or anywhere else.”

“What a relief. I thought I was contractually obligated.” Gabriel sat on the bed. “ Christ on a crabcake, Sam. If your room can be my recovery chamber, then mine can be yours.”

With some reluctance, Sam closed the door and sat next to Gabriel. They were quiet.

“It’s okay, you know,” Gabriel said at last. “That kid is gonna be fine. You didn’t hurt him.”

Sam swallowed. “Um. No. Honestly, I … no.”

“No what?”

“No, it’s … it’s not okay. It really just …” Sam’s face was pale, his features tight and nervous.

“I know,” Gabriel answered softly. “I just meant that it’s more okay than it used to be.” He paused. “But I know the feeling. That you’re not really out. That maybe it would’ve been easier just to stay.”

At this, Sam looked perplexed. “What?”

“Because then you can avoid having to calculate what’s real and what isn’t. Drains a lot of energy, doesn’t it? Sam, you’ve seen how I get when someone even blinks at me the wrong number of times. ‘They’re gonna scream at me. They’re gonna start beating the living shish kebab out of me and then they’ll - ’”

“Stop. None of us would do that to you.”

“And that’s the crisis right there, isn’t it?” Gabriel squeezed fistfuls of the bedcovers in an attempt to steady himself. “Trying to disentangle the new truth from the old truth. With Asmodeus, things were simple: all it took was a couple of footsteps from outside the cell and I knew exactly what to expect. But now? When I hear you, or Castiel, or Dean, or Jack - any one of you guys could waltz past my door in the middle of the night and it takes effort to really feel that it’s you, even when I'm perfectly aware that there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve got Winston Smith syndrome, Sam. I just can’t make two and two equal five. It’s all a tangle of ‘you’ll be fine’ and ‘no you won’t’ and ‘you should hate yourself’ and ‘no you shouldn’t.’ And then … and then questions. ‘Why not hate yourself?’ ‘Because Sam’ll be mad if you do.’ ‘Why can’t you just accept that you’re safe now?’ ‘Because - ’” Gabriel took a shivery breath. “‘Because you’re not.’”

“Gabriel - ”

“Anyway, what can I do to make this better for you?”

“You’re making it better by letting me spend time in here.”

“‘Letting’ you. It’s a real drag but I’m a giver.”

Unexpectedly, Sam smiled. “You seem comfortable.”

“I what?”

“You seem to enjoy switching roles.”

Gabriel held up a hand. “You lost me. Because only a sadistic beast would enjoy watching you suffer. Lucifer is somehow the first to come to mind.”

“That’s not what I mean, Gabriel. I know you.”

“You know me better than anyone should have to.”

“What I’m trying to say is I know how badly you want to be useful. How you feel like you have to repay us for letting you stick around.”

“Also the fact that you’ve had to buy extra bags of coffee to make up for so many sleepless nights.”

“Like I’ve always said, none of us wants you to feel that way. Like you need to make up for being in pain. I just wanted to tell you that I think …” Sam took a moment to reflect on how to phrase his thoughts. “I think this is what you’re really good at. What you seem to be at ease doing. I just thought you should know that even if it doesn’t matter to me what you can do, this is the best thing you could ever give us. The best thing you could ever give me.”

Gabriel wasn’t sure how to reply. So he said, “I’m just glad I can play my part. I don’t care what you knuckleheads tell me; I’m in no position to keep bellyaching to Nurse Winchester without doing something to thank you.”

“Sure. Right. Because that’s the most important thing to all of us. You know, keeping around our all-purpose tool that I guess we’ve accidentally grown attached to.”

“I think I’m supposed to laugh.”

“I’m not serious, if that’s what you’re asking. All I’m trying to say is, this is something to remind yourself of when you’re … when you get how you get about your role here.”

“Hmm. Well. I’m just sorry you caught on to the fact that Mary Poppins in my secret identity. In any case, Sam, I’m only taking a leaf out of your CV. I know what works for me. I don’t know how to help you, not really, but I’m also not going to watch. I don’t think I could live with myself if I had to stand outside your door waiting for you to recover.”

Sam sighed. “I’ll be okay. I will. Really. I’m just … I’m not right now.”

“Hey, listen.” Gabriel moved his hand, hesitated, and then took Sam’s. “If all this torture - not the before, but the after - has taught me anything, it’s that ‘right now’ is the most important time of your life. And mine. And part of your ‘right now’ is that you’re out of there. So am I. We’re both safe.”

Sam didn’t reply.

“I’m the last person to take advice from,” Gabriel continued, “But it’s not that I don’t understand your tips about telling myself over and over again that everything’s okay. I just haven’t got the choreography down.”

“Well,” said Sam, “Sometimes the best way to learn the ropes is to teach someone else.”

“All right, we’ve spent enough time on me. Tell me what you need.”

Sam stiffened and slid his hand away. “I don’t need anything. I mean - you’re doing more than enough, so don’t worry.”

“There has to be something. When you ask me that question, sometimes I hold back.”

Sam hunched his shoulders. “Gabriel …”

Gabriel waited.

Sam met his gaze. “I just need those kids to be okay. I need to change what happened.”

Gabriel almost replied with But you can’t before realizing that that would be anything but helpful.

Sam didn’t need a reality check. Sam didn’t need to be reassured that none of it had actually taken place - not when he already understood that. Sam didn’t need to be told that things were all right now, that he was safe.

Because they weren’t, and he wasn’t.

“You know how it is,” Sam barreled on, “When you see a little kid and they don’t have any idea about anything? Have you ever had to watch a kid learn about death?”

“I once infiltrated a Catholic School disguised as a nun so that I could teach the headmaster a thing or two about kicking some dude out for wearing nail polish to Mass. And let me tell you, they give those rascals quite the G-rated version of Heaven. And the PG-13 version of Hell - they get some things right, and some things wrong, and if they have anything to say about it the kids are all headed to Hell for the wrong reasons. And don’t even get me started on the purity club and its abstinence-only community outreach.

“Anyway, yes, I watched the kids grapple a little. It’s confusing even if you’re given the black-and-white edition of the afterlife: you die and get to play mahjong with Jesus, or you spend the rest of eternity like I thought I was going to. But kids learn, Sam, and they work with what they’re handed. Except … I know it’s probably not the same watching your own kids learn about death by actually dying. Going from zero to sixty like that, in the most hideous way. You wanted to protect them, and I get it. I just hope you understand you did nothing wrong.” He couldn’t wind an arm around Sam’s shoulders without having to stretch a little, so Gabriel took him by the waist instead.

“No,” said Sam, and Gabriel let go. Sam’s cheeks were flushed with the effort of holding back what Gabriel knew, from experience, would force its way out by any means necessary. “I just - I don’t want you to have to - ”

“It’s all right.

“I, um - I want you to trust me, and if you know I get like this - ”

“What is it you always say to me?” Gabriel’s voice was gentle. “‘Don’t do that Gabe; you’ll make yourself sick trying so hard to keep yourself in one piece.’”

No response.

“Sam,” Gabriel pressed, “No matter how many times you try to hide because you don’t want me exposed to whatever depraved shenanigans you think your own feelings are, it makes me trust you more. I like that you don’t try and stick to a list of signs and symptoms and potential treatments when it comes to helping me. You understand me and everything going on with me because you’ve never escaped either. You’re not a spectator, not an analyst; you’re part of whatever twisted team you and I have been forced to play for.”

Sam looked up at him, jaw tight.

“I trust you,” Gabriel repeated. “I trust everyone here. But I’ll never be able to trust the others as much as I trust you. I hate that you’re like this because you’re the last person to deserve it, but it doesn’t make things worse for me, Sam. It just makes you more … whatever it is you’ve been for me.”

Sam held his gaze for a moment, and then his face crumpled.

“Okay,” Gabriel muttered, pulling him close, “It’s all okay. It is. Or it will be. I’m right here.”

“Nothing’s going to make it okay,” Sam moaned. “Nothing except going back and not hurting them.”

“Ah shit, Sam, I know.”

Sam let out a sob and strengthened his grasp on Gabriel enough that it hurt, but Gabriel wasn’t going to tell him that. “How can I miss what I never even had?”

“Grief plays dirty, Sam. Makes you think you’re crazy.” Gabriel pulled away, taking Sam by the shoulders. “You’re not crazy. Wanting something doesn’t make you crazy.”

Sam gave a strangled laugh. “How is it that applies to me and not to you?”

“It does apply to me! Wanting things makes me - makes me - not crazy. Greedy, and … and spoiled and demanding. Anyway, you’re not crazy for wanting it. For missing it. You’re not, Sam. Especially if it was just around the corner. And if you wanted it then, and you thought it was within reach - ”

“Don’t.” Sam closed his eyes. “Sorry, um, I don’t - I can’t - ”

“Okay. Okay. It’s okay.” Gabriel hugged him again. “I know what that’s like, to feel like the only thing that’ll fix what’s wrong is to change what happened. Because it is. That’s not make-believe, Sam. It’s where my mind goes every time you talk about Lucifer. The way he got to fiddle with justice - it’s disgusting. I don’t know why or how or even when he made the stupid choices he did, but evil is evil even when it comes to anyone you thought you could call family. At the end of the day, the only real loose end is how Sam Winchester wound up as target practice. It’s not fair. And if I can’t fix it I don’t know what to do with myself.

“But that’s the thing, Sam: I can’t fix it. Sure enough, Sam’s tone hardened. “You didn’t deserve any of it.”

Committed to avoiding the debate they’d had countless times, Gabriel went on, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accept a reality in which my own brother could manhandle your existence like that. I can’t accept a reality that involves my father turning a blind eye to the ending you got.”

“It wasn’t an ending. I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“When I think about how you might not have been, I just …”

“Like you said: it’s right now that’s important. And right now I’m a mess but I’m not gone.”

Gone. The word made Gabriel’s flesh crawl. “I need you here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Gabriel shivered. “Right, yeah, no, of course. How are you feeling now?”

“I’m … I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth.”

Gabriel broke away again. “I think you should have something to drink. Seeing as you puked up what little of the lemonade you managed, huh?”

“I guess.”

“You want me to go get you some water? Some tea? Some … anything?” Then, feeling desperate: “It’s not enough; I know it’s not enough. I want to give you enough. Son of a bitch, Sam - I want you to be - ”

“I’ll be okay. I’m just not right now. You’ve been there.”

“I’ve been there, and I’m never okay!” Gabriel was tired, he realized, despite how energized he had felt this morning; and the exhaustion was making him weak, giving him a headache, bringing tears to his own eyes. “And you’re not either, and I don’t know how to make that stop, and I hate that I don’t know what to do to help you. To really help you, to - to make you not feel like I feel every day. The idea of you going through that makes me want to scream and start throwing things at the wall. It makes me want to hurt something, Sam. Thinking about you, having to go deal with what I do - those memories of Asmodeus hurt like nothing else has ever hurt, and you’ve seen that, and - and watching it happen to you just slaughters me.”

“There’s no need for you to - ”

“To watch, right, whatever. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck to sit behind home plate. But what did I tell you it would do to me to step away and let you rot inside just for the sake of protecting me? That’s a special kind of torture, Sam. It’s every bit as heavy as the pain of being held prisoner and tormented and abused - losing who you are, or who you could have been - taught that you’re worthless, that you’re nothing but a freak, that you’re only good for what they can do to you - ”

“Easy, easy, calm down.” Sam rubbed his back. “Don’t worry so much about me, Gabriel. Of course it gets bad. Exhibit A, right? But this is just an off day, I promise.”

Gabriel gritted his teeth, although any effort to maintain control of himself had been wasted; and he hated that Sam had to see him like this when Sam was the one suffering, when Sam was the one who needed the chance to let go of what he felt so compelled to hide.

Voice hoarse, Gabriel said, “When it comes back to haunt you again and again - I mean yes, the present is what matters. But sometimes the memory feels like it’s part of the present, and … and I wish I could give you something different. Not just help, not just comfort. You deserve more than that.”

“So do you, Gabriel.”

Gabriel wanted to object, but he knew Sam would try to convince him otherwise. “You don’t belong to him. And the future you could’ve had doesn’t belong to him either. Whatever you wanted or needed or regretted or missed - he could play with it, but it was never his to keep.”

“Yeah, well … it doesn’t feel that way. Hey, listen, not to change the subject but - ”

“So don’t.”

“- I was wondering how you’ve been feeling lately. You’ve gone sort of quiet the last few days.”

“Quiet as in there’s been no encore since last week’s midnight performance?”

“You haven’t said much. Is there anything you want to talk about?”

Gabriel looked away. There had been so many nightmares, so many instances of waking up sweaty and nauseated and confused and wanting Sam. But after that episode of rousing the entire bunker with frantic screams for help, he was determined to leave them all in peace. It was nothing short of miraculous that the previous night had brought no horrors to the surface. “Not right now.”

“Are you sure? After that last dream you had, you seemed to kind of shut down.”

“Nobody’s shutting down, compañero. A glitch here and there isn’t a big deal.”

Sam surveyed him. “All right. Just … let me know.”

Gabriel pushed himself to his feet. “I’m hydrating you. Per the Sam Winchester manual of rehabilitation. Wait here.”

“I can do it myself.”

“Nope, no, shut up and stay sitting. That’s an order, not a request.”

Gabriel moved to the kitchen and pulled a glass from the cabinet. He gazed down at it, reading the scratches and chips and smudges.

He gripped it tight.

It was then, leaning up against the sink, empty cup in hand, that Gabriel found himself sobbing uncontrollably.

He was anything but eager to dwell on the distant past. He knew that if he were to study an old version of himself, he would either grieve for what he could never be again or be forced to grapple with the notion that there had not been a time in which Gabriel was worth anything at all.

Despite this, he remembered how differently he’d felt all those years ago, before he’d really known Sam - and, perhaps, before he’d really known Lucifer. He remembered how simple it was to scrawl in the margins of another person’s destiny in order to smooth the edges of the bigger picture. He remembered that it made sense to push for resolution.

That Gabriel couldn’t have imagined a future stained with the kind of torture Asmodeus had put him through. That Gabriel couldn’t have recognized how Sam would help him deal with the aftermath, and that his ability to coax Gabriel out of his worst moments came partly from the atrocities of which that Gabriel couldn’t have imagined his own brother capable.

The Gabriel of today, the Gabriel of right now, was desperate not to believe that anybody could have broken Sam on purpose. Of course having a family member as the culprit added an element of disappointment and disgust, but not confusion. Gabriel had long been aware of Lucifer’s wickedness and appetite for violence.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter who had tortured Sam: that anyone had done so was too much for Gabriel to accept.

There was no stopping the tears, not at this point. Not after everything they had just discussed.

Gabriel was sick of tears. No matter how many times Sam insisted that there was nothing wrong with being fragile, Gabriel hated himself for his own weakness.

Now he would bring Sam the water, and Sam would be astonished by what had happened between Gabriel’s coming and going. Sam would try to soothe him, and Gabriel would allow it.

Sam was right: these stories were more than Gabriel could take on alone.

He wondered, filling Sam’s glass with trembling hands, if he could be there for Sam without Sam having to reciprocate.

Not yet, Gabriel suspected, and hoped that, before long, the answer would change.