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Wrung Out

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"You're welcome."

Sam strides out of the room. He slams the door, leaving the demon that is not his brother to curse and growl and howl on the other side.

Sam doesn’t wait around to hear if it stops. His vision is swimming and his jaw aches from the rictus smile he's been holding; and he needs to get far away, fast, so that the thing in the dungeon doesn’t hear him break.

He makes it into his bedroom before it all gives way. When that happens, though, it’s absolute. His knees fold and he crumples awkwardly down onto the floor, landing heavily on his one good hand, the ridges of his spine knocking painful against the wall. He presses his forehead against his knees, grinds his eyes down into the bone until they’re dizzy with stars. And then he starts to cry.

When he was younger, Sam cried a lot. Not only when he was scared, or hopeless, or sad; but when he was angry, too, bursting into embarrassing tears at the height of a fight with Dad. He remembers them pouring down his face as he stumbled down that dark country road towards the bus stop the night he left home. He cried at Stanford, too, when he was anxious under the weight of essays and feeling like he shouldn’t be there. He was still a kid, back then.

He’d still been a kid when Jess burnt bloody on the ceiling; blinking back stinging, smoky drops as he climbed grimly into the car. He’d cried again, eighteen months later, when he had to shoot another beautiful, bubbly girl through the heart. But after Dean made his deal, Sam had had no choice but to toughen up; tamp it down, hide the tears, reel them back up and in when they threatened to fall.

There were a few lapses after that. When Dean died in a red mess of yelling and guts. When Lucifer came in the dark of the night and told Sam that there was no getting out of this, not for him. And when that turned out to be literally true: in the dirt of a field with blood on his shirt and one less bullet in his chamber, Sam had howled to find his jaw and his brain and his skull still stubbornly whole. But after that stint in the Cage… even with his mangled soul put back in and the wall knocked down, Sam found himself feeling grey and washed out inside. It felt like the decades of torture had wrung him dry: tugged out the material of his heart so thin that it could no longer hold water enough to weep.

Even both times Dean had died since then, Sam hadn’t really managed to cry. Nothing at all in the stark, shocking oil-slick Sucracorp mess; nothing for that whole mirage of a broken year. All of Amelia’s fretting and coaxing hadn’t been enough to help Sam prise himself open like that. Even again, more recently, with Dean’s body still warm in his arms, he’d been able only to twist out a few painful tears. Mostly, Sam’s grief had been dry, burning with hatred for himself and his brother and the sick familiarity of horrible loss.

But now, made weak with terror and a kind of relief, Sam sobs: hot and damp and snotty into the denim of his jeans. He knows this isn’t Dean; and he hopes, wishes, prays that soon, if he can just keep going, he can bring Dean back. All these weeks of searching, not sleeping, barely eating, and he’s oh so close. He should be happy, right now.

But Dean knows how to hurt: and it’s not like the demon in his brother’s really treading new ground. The only difference is in how openly the words are said. Sure, Dean would never call him out, outright, for Mom’s death: for the loss of his four years’ family life. He wouldn’t ever tell Sam straight that he’s weighing him down. But he’d look it, and feel it, and show it; and it might spill out in a dark angry moment, or under the spell of the things they hunt.

And Sam can’t make it stop. He can’t stop Dean picking him up and manhandling him out of the fire, even when he’s desperate to throw himself into it and burn away. It’s never going to end. He can see, like an ache at the back of his mind, how things will go when Dean’s cured. “Hey, Sammy. You know I didn’t mean what I said. That was the Mark that was talking to you, right? Not me. Hey, Sammy. Let’s get back on the road.”

Back in the car with Dean at the wheel and the flames burning bright all around them, Dean’s hand twisted tight at his neck to haul him back off the coals. Dean looking at him with that peculiar, weighted, regretful love; like he’s determined to keep on carrying Sam with him despite his sins. It doesn’t matter what Sam does. He’s going to be Dean’s burden for the rest of his life.

But that’s just how it goes. So he cries himself out and pulls himself up, wipes off the tears with a rough cold flannel, and looks his reflection in the eye and practices his smile. And when he goes back into the room and finds the demon’s gone, he dutifully sets out to find it; brandishing Ruby’s blade before him and talking big words he doesn’t think he can fill. But as he stalks the bunker there’s a secret part of him half-hoping for the crunch of a blow through the back of his head. It won’t come, of course. What Dean’s going to do to him ain’t going to be mercy; remember? In this family, they don’t get to quit.