The thing Dean can't get over is how much crap there is in Sam's head.
Most of it's freakishly neat, of course. There's a whole room full of maps, neatly marked with pins, and more rooms full of books—Dean could have guessed that one—but when he finds himself in Dad's old storage locker, it sets him back for a minute.
First of all, not much of the stuff in here is what Dean expects. A few things, Dean remembers from the real storage locker: Dean's first shotgun and Sam's soccer trophy among them. But everything's a lot less dusty than it was in real life, and the shelves are stacked neatly from floor to ceiling with black library boxes, all carefully labeled in small, neat printing on plastic tape. Maybe the weirdest thing—and it takes him a minute to figure it out—is that it smells like Dad, the way the real storage locker didn't. How come Sam can remember shit like what aftershave Dad wore, but he can't remember the way out of his own noggin?
"Because you're a freak, that's why," Dean murmurs under his breath, but it's said with affection.
He walks between the shelves, running his fingers lightly over the boxes. A lot of the labels don't mean anything to him. They say things like "Montauk," and "Mr. Wyatt," and "Crossbow practice." But then there are others, like "Cold Oak," and "Jess," and "Detroit." Dean's mouth goes dry when he sees that one, a chill passing through him like he's walked through a ghost.
His eyes fall on a small gold box, nothing like the others. It's on a shelf by itself, and it's not labeled. Dean brushes his fingers over it, then hesitates.
Curiosity gets the better of him. He takes it down and slides the lid off.
Inside, his amulet, which he hasn't seen in two years, lies gleaming quietly on top of its coiled leather cord. Dean looks at it for a long moment, then reaches in and pulls it out. The bull's head catches the light, feels warm to the touch.
After a while, chest heavy, Dean puts it back in the box and puts it carefully back on the shelf exactly where he found it.
It hits him, then, what's been nagging at him. There's something about this place, this room, that's different from everyplace else he's been in Sam's head. It feels real, in a way nothing else has since he got here. Everything in here has weight, and dimension. There's still no sign of Sam, but Dean has a hunch that if he's going to find Sam anywhere, it'll be in here, with the memories Sam's kept stored so carefully.
"Sammy?" he asks, hoping. "Could use a little help, here, man."
When there's no answer, Dean turns in a slow circle, reading the words on the boxes around him. It hurts, seeing how painstakingly Sam has packed their lives away in these neat, nondescript containers, like if he doesn't keep everything carefully put away, he'll lose the pieces of himself. Is this what it's like for him, now? When he says he's fine, is this what he means? This scarily controlled, compartmentalized version of sanity?
Dean thinks about Sam the way he used to be. Before Stanford, and Jess, and everything that came after. Even that first year, Dean thinks, when they were still looking for Dad, Sam was still the same—passionate and emotional—and angry, yeah, but messy and real and alive. Dean thinks about Sam saying "Watch me," when Dean told him he couldn't save him. Sam had still believed otherwise, back then.
Dean doesn't know if he ever had that kind of faith himself. He doesn't think so. There was only ever one thing he believed in, and that blind faith in his family died long ago.
As if the thought triggers it, his eyes fall on another box that he doesn't think was there a minute ago. It's bigger than the others—almost three times the size—and it's labeled with one word: FREAK.
Dean's gut shrinks in on itself, hurting like he's swallowed a bucket of rocks. Shit. He stares at the word, feeling suddenly worse than he has in his memory. Every time he's ever used that word, ever made Sam feel like something less than human, blooms sick and strong inside him, makes his chest ache. Dad, demons, angels, Ruby, Lucifer—they'd all fed that inner demon of Sam's, but Dean knows with a sudden blunt certainty that his fingerprints are all over that box—that whatever's inside it, there's no one more responsible than he is. Sammy, I'm sorry, he wants to say. But the words won't come.
Too little, too late, he thinks, and opens the box.
He's not sure what he was expecting, but this wasn't it. The box is almost empty. The only thing in it is an old cell phone. There's a crack in the casing, and it looks like it shouldn't work any more—but the screen shows that the phone has one new message.
"What the hell?" Dean murmurs. He reaches in and takes out the phone. After a moment of indecision he knows is mostly for show, he hits play, and brings the phone to his ear.
When he hears what it says, he closes his eyes. He wants to believe this is some kind of twisted metaphor or something, some self-hating inner voice of Sam's worst fears, but he knows better. This is real. Or, it was real. And he can guess when, and why, and who was responsible. Zachariah. It's a small comfort that the devious, dickbag sonofabitch is dead.
Dean knows he should put the phone back, but before he can second-guess himself, he drops it on the floor and crushes it under his boot, giving it an extra vindictive twist for good measure. Then he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, like he can wish Sam into existence.
"Sam, I mean it. Stop screwing around, okay? I need to talk to you. Please."
"You shouldn't have done that," Sam says behind him.
Dean whirls around. Sam's leaning on the shelf opposite, arms crossed across his chest. He's wearing that stupid shirt he used to wear all the time—the purple one with the greyhound on it, or whatever it's supposed to be—and he looks about ten years too young to be Dean's Sam, but Dean's still so glad to see him that it's all he can do not to hug him on sight.
"Sammy, thank God. I've been looking everywhere."
"Looks like you found me."
That sets Dean back for a second. "Do you even know why I'm here?"
Sam smiles, a faint shadow of his usual smile. "Let me guess. Something's wrong with me?" He taps his temple. "Humpty Dumpty slipped a few more screws, and now it's up to you to put the pieces back together again?"
Dean takes a half-step toward him. "You're not crazy. I know that, okay? Things have been kinda tough lately, and I asked more of you than I should have. I'm sorry for that. You just need a little help finding your way back, that's all."
Sam uncrosses his arms and pushes away from the shelf. He turns, and begins neatening the stacks of boxes, which are already perfectly neat. Dean watches him brush away non-existent dust. Sam says, "Maybe I don't want to go back."
Dean's heart kicks. He steadies it with effort. "Yeah, I get that. I do. And I can't blame you. I know I haven't exactly been easy to live with the last year or so. Or, you know, ever."
Sam stops what he's doing, but doesn't look around. "You're kidding, right?"
Sam looks at him, then, and Dean's struck again by how unbelievably young he looks. God, he'd been a kid when all this started. They both had.
"You don't really believe that," Sam says. "You know you'd be better off without me."
"The hell I would," Dean says without thinking. "You're crazy if you think that." Sam's mouth quirks up, and Dean scowls. "Shut up, you know what I mean. We've always been better as a team. Always." He means it wholeheartedly. Sure, there have been times he tried to pretend otherwise, but if Sam ever believed that, then he wasn't paying attention.
Sam looks at him, and his face might be twenty-three, but his eyes hold a sadness that feels centuries-deep. "I'm tired of being something else you have to deal with, Dean. There's so many things wrong with me, I don't think they've even invented names for them yet, and I can't fix any of it. You shouldn't have to deal with that. You deserve your own life. Trust me, it's better this way."
"Sam—" It catches in Dean's throat. He takes a step forward without meaning to. "Look, I don't care if you are a pain in the ass. You've always been a pain in the ass, since the day you were born."
"That's exactly my point."
"Let me finish," Dean insists. He's standing close enough to touch, now, but he's afraid to, for fear Sam will disappear like so much smoke. "You want to know what scares me?"
Sam stares at him, then finally nods.
"It kills me that I can't help you. That I can't fix what Cas did. What I did. That you're the one who has to live with the fallout, because I couldn't let you go. And I look at you every day, and I think—" He breaks off.
"What, Dean?" Sam whispers.
Dean's close to tears. He doesn't know when that happened. But Sam's listening to him, now, intent on his every word, and Dean has nothing left to give him but the truth. "I think, if I had to do it all over again, I would. Because I'm no good without you, Sammy. That's the truth. I tried. I tried every way I know how, and I don't ever want to do it again. And I'm scared of what that could mean. If there's some other price you're gonna have to pay because I never know how to let you go, man. I never did."
"Dean," Sam says. And he's still wearing the stupid shirt, which is three sizes too small for him now, but he isn't twenty-three any more. He looks like himself, like Dean's brother, stupid hair and stupid sideburns and stupidly long arms that reach out and pull Dean in, hugging him unashamed. Dean grabs onto him and hugs back. The feeling of sudden vertigo, fear of the fallout from what he's admitted, washes through him, but he doesn't really care.
"Can we get out of here, now?" Dean asks, his face mashed into his brother's ridiculous, rock-solid chest. "Your label tape obsession is kind of freaking me out."
He feels more than hears Sam's chuckle. "Yeah," Sam says, low and rough against Dean's ear. "Let's go home."