Sam walked by Cas and Jack in the library, Jack eagerly listening to Cas tell about watching Chuck form the oceans.
Sam's heart clenched in jealousy for a moment before he reminded himself that this was good for both of them, and it was good for Jack to have a real parent... Someone who won't mess him up like Sam would.
Carrying on his way, he reminded himself of his mission. Get a glass of water, then go to bed and sleep until he felt like he could get out of bed without screaming. Or crying. Or both.
He caught sight of his brother, and stopped short in the kitchen doorway.
Dean was humming Led Zepplin's Rambling on, practically bouncing as he moved around the kitchen to cook the elaborate dinner he had planned.
His brother's joy was overwhelming. For weeks, weeks, Sam had been trying everything he could to bring even the smallest smile to his face. To keep him afloat, and none of it worked.
Hell, not even two days ago, Dean pulled a completely unnecessary kamikaze move at that ghost house. As if they'd never dealt with mass hauntings before. As if there was no way to fix it other than leaving his little brother behind.
Just as Sam made up his mind to go to bed without water, Dean caught sight of him, and he had no choice but to move further into the room.
He crossed to the cabinet, Dean a constant flurry of movement around him.
Dean's cheer was almost physically painful.
‘Dean being happy is a good thing,’ Sam reminded himself. ‘Don't bring him down, don't set off the big brother alarms. Complete the mission and retreat.’
He flashed Dean a tired grin. "Hey Dean, I'm getting you an apron for your next birthday. Or one of those stupid chef hats."
"Ok, first of all, I'm hot enough that I could still get more girls than you, even in an apron," Dean retorted, "and second, shut up, or you don't get any of this masterpiece I'm making. Dude, I found this recipe online, pork tenderloin!"
Dean flapped a hand in the direction of a stained paper laying under one of the mixing bowls on the counter as he walked over to check the oven.
“It sounded weird,” he continued, "but I think it's actually gonna be really good! You mix brown and chili powder together and about a dozen other things, and you rub it on, and at first I was like, gross, right? But the reviewers ranted and raved about it, so I figured I’d at least try it, and it's actually smelling really good, I think they might be on to something here!"
Sam sniffed the air. It did smell nice. Delicious and warm, it smelled like what he'd always imagined a home at dinnertime would smell like when he was a kid. Like what he imagined their home would smell like if mom had lived, and she and dad cooked them dinners at night.
Or maybe it would be a whole family affair, and he and Dean would be elbow deep in making the side dishes, and probably a mess as well.
The knife in his chest gave a vicious twist.
Dean continued his excited descriptions of the menu, moving to each cook station to emphasize what he was talking about.
“I got real cream for the mashed potatoes, and get this, apparently the way that restaurants get them so creamy is that they mix in a pack of cream cheese? Weird, right? And look what I found in the cabinet!”
Sam got a glass out of the cabinet as Dean moved on to describe the bread he had apparently made in an ancient looking bread maker he had found.
It was good to see Dean this excited about life again, it really was. It just hurt that nothing Sam had done to cheer him up had even compared.
His complete and utter failure to support his brother, to keep him floating, was even more evident in the light of this glowingly happy Dean. The Dean that was so happy, even though mom was trapped with Lucifer. The Dean who loved his life now that Cas was back, even though Sam hadn't been able to make a difference.
“We have a steamer Sammy, a steamer! I'm steaming up some veggies since you're a health nut. I've got green beans, broccoli, carrots. And I'm steaming them with some rosemary and roasted garlic.”
He glanced at Sam over his shoulder as he scraped the unused stems and leaves of the vegetables into the trashcan.
“Oh, side note, did you know that the flavor of garlic totally changes when you roast it? 'Cause I didn't, I always thought saying roasted garlic was just the pretentious way of saying you added bad breath to something. Anyway, dinner will be done in 20 minutes, so be ready.”
"Oh," Sam floundered at the abrupt end of Dean's kitchen tour. He thought he'd be able to subtly slip away, but apparently not.
“That all looks delicious Dean, and it smells even better,” he said with a weak smile, “but I'm not feeling great, so I'm gonna turn in early tonight."
Dean's exuberance shifted into concern, and he took a step toward Sam. "You're sick, Sammy? What's wrong?"
Sam felt like a deer caught in headlights. He hadn't expected Dean to have any follow up questions. He thought he'd get a snappy comment about how he wouldn't get sick so often if he ate more meat, which he would then have to inform Dean didn't make any sense at all, and he'd be on his way.
“Uh, it's nothing terrible, I’ve just got a headache, you know? And my stomach's not quite sitting right. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine. Make sure Jack at least tries your veggies, ok? We can't have him picking up all your bad habits.”
Dean cocked his head, a slight furrow in his brow. “Don't worry about you? Sam, that's my job."
There was a pause.
Dean studied him intently, and Sam was about to tell him good night and then continue with the mission when he said, "Come on, stay for dinner. We need you here with us."
Sam swallowed hard.
That put a dangerous crack in his facade, but at least it hadn't broken yet. ‘Play it off, play it off as a joke,’ he thought desperately to himself.
Sam pulled up a grin and tried for a joking tone. "No you don't. You have Cas, and you're happier than you've been in... weeks."
Sam's smile felt fragile, breakable, but at least it stayed in place. "I'm gonna hit the hay, but I want to try these leftovers tomorrow, so make sure you save me some, ok?"
He turned to leave, but Dean caught his arm.
"I know you're tired, but just hold up for a minute, ok? I want to talk to you about something real quick."
Dean nudged him towards the kitchen table, and Sam reluctantly sat.
"If it's about recipe advice, you know I’m hopeless in the kitchen,” Sam muttered, looking longingly at the doorway.
Dean moved over to the stove and turned off the burners before coming back to sit across from Sam.
"Yeah, no, I know better than to ask you for recipe advice. I just, I wanted to talk to you man. What's going on with you, Sammy? You, ...you know that what you just said, you know that's not true, right? I need you here. Jack needs you here."
Sam snorted, and he couldn’t stop his eyes from filling. He looked down at his glass of water to cover it.
"Jack doesn't need me here anymore, Dean. He found his real dad, and I just.. I just... everyone's taken care of now, and I'm so tired De'.”
He risked a glance up at Dean's concerned gaze and quickly looked back down. He could feel his mask breaking and he didn’t know how to stop it.
Dean was still waiting, he was waiting for more, and Sam didn’t know what to tell him.
"It's just, it's been a rough couple months for me too, you know? So I just, I need a little time to-, I'll, I'll bounce back soon, I will, I promise. I'm just so tired."
Sam could feel a sob rising in his chest, and he ruthlessly shoved it back down before it could escape.
“I just need a day or two, and then I'll be right back to looking for mom. Promise."
Dean leaned forward, ducking his head to catch Sam's gaze. "Ok, ok Sammy."
Sam's composure almost shattered at hearing Dean's big brother voice. Dean's big brother voice directed at him no less. He hadn't heard it in so long. He hadn't realized quite how much he missed it.
Soft and reassuring, it promised that Dean would protect him. That nothing could get him when his big brother was on watch.
"I know you're tired, and you've been single handedly holding the rest of us up, so I think it's our turn to help you, baby brother.”
At that declaration a tear did escape, even as he tried to swallow down the subsequent sob. He'd been waiting so long, so long, for an offer of help that he didn't even know what to do with it now that it was here.
Dean looked at him knowingly, and Sam was sure Dean knew exactly what he was thinking.
He ducked his head and took a deep breath. He wasn't going to burst into tears right here at the kitchen table, he wasn't.
Dean waited a long moment before he continued, and Sam could feel him staring.
“We're going to help, Sam, but before we get you taken care of, we need to straighten some things out. You're wrong about a couple things there.”
He tried to catch Sam’s eye again, but Sam focused on his water as if it held the answer to the universe.
“Jack does need you,” Dean said. “That kid looks at you like you hung the stars. We'll get you some rest and you'll see that, but Sam,” he trailed off.
Dean cleared his throat and forged on. “Sammy... Mom is gone, and we need to accept that. As much as it hurts, we need to live our lives, she'd want us to be happy Sammy."
"No," Sam objected, shaking his head with tears in his eyes. "No, because last time I tried that you were pissed at me for almost a year!"
To Sam's horror a tear slipped down his cheek, but he couldn't stop now, "and I can't handle it if mom is too. She already hardly acknowledged me, I don't want her to be mad too. I learned my lesson, Dean, I did, I promise. I'll keep looking until I have proof she's in heaven. It might be a death too late, but I did learn, I promise.”
Dean's patented comforting big brother look gave way to confusion. "Sammy, what?"
Why was Dean making him say this? Surely it was on Dean's mind every single day, just like Sam's. The list of all the ways Sam had let him down. The list went through Sam's head at least once a day, if not more. He had to remember, he had to make sure he never did it again.
He took a deep breath and forced the words out.
"When you were in Purgatory? And I thought you were dead and in Heaven? And, and I didn't want to rip you away from Heaven, the righteous man gets a ticket straight upstairs, the angels promised you'd be in heaven when you died. But you weren't, you weren't in Heaven with mom and dad and Cas and Bobby, you were in Purgatory, and I left you there. I was so sure -"
Sam broke off, shaking his head, trying to push the tears down for long enough to finish.
“I was so stupid, I thought, I thought you talked the angels into letting you send me a sign. I mean, how else would Riot have gotten there? Flat plains on either side, and all of a sudden there's a dog in the road? When I was on my way to - It was dumb, I was an idiot, I should have known.”
He shook his head again, and wondered how he could have ever been so stupid.
“I told myself, every morning, hell, every second, I had to tell myself that you would want me to be happy just so I could do something instead of laying down and never getting up again. I told myself that over and over and over, and I was wrong. I should have been looking for you."
Sam finally looked up and gave Dean an earnest, pleading look. "I learned Dean, I did, I won't give up on anyone until I know they're in heaven. I promise I won't, I just need a day or two, I'm just so, I'm so tired De'.”
His voice broke on his brother’s name. He clenched his eyes shut, trying to stop the tears. It only fanned them on, and suddenly he was silently sobbing at the kitchen table.
Dean got up and moved around the table to pull him into a hug so that his face was buried in Dean's stomach as his arms came up to hold tight to Dean's back. One of Dean's hands carded through his hair while the other rubbed his shoulders, rocking them slightly.
Sam appreciated the height difference, it made him think back to when he really was that much shorter than Dean.
Back to the days when he truly believed there was no problem Dean couldn't solve. As he sobbed into Dean's stomach, Sam thought that maybe he still believed that his big brother could fix anything.