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“Can’t you see he’s hurting you, Sam?” Sam spun around so fast that he nearly hit his head on the mirror he’d been peering into.

 

“Cas, what do you mean? Nobody’s-“ the pitying expression in Cas’ eyes made it clear that he was really, deeply concerned. Sam leaned back against the edge of the sink, avoiding eye contact.

 

“Dean. He’s not- not hitting you, or hurting you physically, but you have to see that there’s a problem.” Cas had, surprisingly, never had any sort of qualms about the two brothers being… well, more than just brothers. Until now. “I’ve noticed, Sam. How you’re fighting more often than not, how he’s constantly angry and drunk and taking everything out on you. And it’s not right.”

 

“It’s just a rough patch. I’ve done my fair share of yelling and fighting too. Hell, I was the one who threw a book at him yesterday.” Sam stared at Cas’ shoes, not letting his eyes reach any higher for fear of Cas seeing how much he really was hurting (even though the fact that Cas had brought this up in the first place showed he had exceptionally keen observation skills already)

 

“I’ve listened- only a few times, not to everything, but… when he’s screaming at you to finish research while he’s nearly bordering alcohol poisoning-“ Sam remembered that night. Remembered how the words were beginning to swim in front of his eyes, how he’d started cleaning up, and been told no. He remembered how useless and belittled he’d felt, that he couldn’t do the one thing he’d always had a proclivity for, well enough to impress his older brother.

 

Dean had apologized in he morning, had kissed him gently and softly until Sam believed things could be alright. But even while his brother’s lips whispered apologies onto his own, he remembered the venomous words Dean had spouted from that same mouth only a few hours earlier.

 

“Sam- you don’t have to stay with him. You have no… obligation. I’m not saying you have to leave him, you’re a consenting adult and that’s up to you, just… watch out, alright? I’m worried for you.”

 

~~

 

The next time Cas caught Sam poking at his own reflection in the mirror, it was because he was trying to assess the damage done to his bruised, swollen eye.

 

“Sam-“ the taller man was trembling, eyes downcast and lips drawn into a thin line.

 

“I kinda… p-provoked him, ‘s not like I didn’t deserve it. Should’ve just… left him alone, let him have his beer and not b-butted in. Wasn’t… any of my business anyway.” Cas took a step closer, and placed a hand on Sam’s shoulder, coaxing him to look away from the mirror.

 

“Sam, this is a problem. You can see that, right? You can tell there’s… tension, a rift, something wrong?” Cas didn’t continue until Sam gave a slow nod. “He’s your brother, despite what else he is as well, and- the Sam I know would absolutely not tolerate his brother treating him this way. You’re an amazing person, so why are you letting him tell you that you’re not?”

 

“Cas, I- I’ve screwed up, a lot. I deserve a lot more shit from him than I’ve gotten, and it’s not like I never got anything like this from dad, so I’m… I’m used to it.” Cas looked at Sam like he was so fragile that a gust of wind might tumble him over and carry him away. Sam hated that look. It was the look Dean used to give him, when he was very little and fell and scraped his knee, or stubbed his toe. Like Sam couldn’t handle himself. Almost like disappointment.

 

“You don’t deserve this. Nobody deserves to be hurt by the one they love, Sam. Nobody. Especially not you, especially not by Dean.” Sam shook his head slowly- he wasn’t disagreeing with Cas, not exactly, but the recurring thought of ‘I deserve to be treated like this because of all the times I’ve screwed up’ wasn’t extinguished by a single reassurance.

 

“He said I’d be a disappointment t-to our mom, said I can’t do anything right, s-said…” Cas cut off Sam’s train of thought by crossing the last half-step of distance between them, and wrapping his arms around Sam tightly.

 

“You could never be a disappointment. Not after all of the wonderful things you’ve done, the countless people you’ve saved. And you shouldn’t have to listen to anybody who tells you that you are. You’re worth more than that.”

 

~~

 

Sam had stopped wearing short-sleeves altogether, and his hair was kept in a curtain over his face, as though if he didn’t have to see the bruises when he looked in the mirror, he could pretend they weren’t there.

 

~~

 

“Dean, what’s been wrong lately?” Sam had carefully timed his confrontation to be a time when his brother was sober, but not so intensely focused on a case that he’d snap at Sam for interrupting.

 

“What d’you mean, Sammy? You find another case or something?” Sam took the other seat at the tiny table, seating himself cautiously on the edge of the chair.

 

“No- no, it’s not a hunt. Something else.” Dean finally looked up, giving Sam a frustrated expression that wasn’t quite a glare, but was definitely close.

 

“Well, out with it then- C’mon, I’m trying to do work here.” Sam inhaled sharply at the harsh tone, the implied ‘unlike you’, but forced himself to speak.

 

“You don’t think you’ve been acting… weird, the past few weeks?” Dean shrugged, oozing with forced nonchalance.

 

“Weird how? What, you think I’m possessed or something? We’ve got holy water, silver-” Sam shook his head, picking up the hotel-issue pen from the desk and twirling it between his fingers to release his nervous energy.

 

“No- no, I don’t. You’ve been… aggressive, Dean. Mean. I don’t know if you see it, but-“ Sam flinched when Dean moved, then regretted his reaction when his brother reached up to run an agitated hand through his hair.

 

“I have…? Look, I’m sorry I hit you, really sorry. I am. I was out of line.” Dean reached over to rest his hand lightly on Sam’s thigh, just above his knee. “But so were you.”

 

“Apologies don’t count if they have a ‘but’ after them, didn’t you go to any of those bullying assemblies in elementary school?” Sam knew, as soon as the words crossed his lips, that he’d said something he shouldn’t.

 

“Sammy, come on, I’m trying here. I’m sorry, we both screwed up, but it was weeks ago, so can’t we just let it go?” Sam sighed and shook his head, frustrated that Dean didn’t get it. What had happened to the days when a single glance could tell them everything they needed to know about each other? When had that stopped?

 

“Dean, I can’t just let it go because you don’t see why it’s a problem! I mean, sure, you’re generally kind of an ass, but lately you’ve been like… I don’t know, like you’re purposefully trying to hurt me. Are you? Is that what you’re trying to do?” Dean’s eyes visibly darkened, contorting to the dangerously menacing expression usually only seen by monsters in their final moments.

 

“I said I was sorry, god dammit! I feel bad, why is that so hard to get through your head? But you keep digging, and poking, and making things into bigger issues than they have to be. Why can’t you just leave it alone, Sam? Or do you want this to turn into a fight? You want some kind of reaction from me? Well, you’re sure as hell getting one.” Dean’s voice had lowered to being barely above a whisper, but Sam cringed away as though he was being yelled at.

 

“I don’t want to fight with you, De, I just want to… I’m sorry. Never mind. Forget I said anything.” Sam didn’t want a fight, he didn’t- he wanted an explanation, a reason, a normal civilized conversation. But clearly, he couldn’t get even that from his brother these days. He got out of his chair, preferring to quit while he was ahead, rather than earning himself another black eye- or worse.

 

“Oh, no, you’re not just marching out of here. I can tell there’s more to it. What’re you so pissed at me for, anyway? For hitting you- what, once? A couple times? It can’t be just that.” Sam shook his head, taking a few steps towards the door. He expected to be stopped- didn’t expect Dean to let him off quite that easily- but what he wasn’t expecting was for his face to make contact with the dusty, carpet-over-cement hotel floor.

 

The breath was knocked out of his lungs instantly, and he struggled to gasp for breath. He could already feel where bruises were going to form, on his knee and hip and face.

 

“Sammy-? Shit, Sam, I’m sorry, I’m s-sorry…” Dean jumped off of him like he’d been electrocuted, scrambling backwards.

 

“Cas… w-was right.” Sam coughed out once he could breathe enough to form words. “T-this isn’t… normal, you’re gonna- you’re going to k-keep hurting me, Dean.” He could tell how pathetic he sounded, how choked up his words were. The single sentence hung in the air for a long, long time.

 

You’re going to keep hurting me, Dean.’

 

~~

 

“Sam, how have things been going… with Dean?” Sam had been laying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, but was startled out of his thoughts by Cas’ sudden appearance.

 

“Oh-! Hey, Cas. Um, alright, I guess?” Sam tried to smile, but it felt twisted and wrong, even to him- and lopsided, because part of his cheek was still swollen.

 

“Sam, I can tell you’re lying. You can… you know, you can trust me with these things.” Cas stood stiffly, resolutely, making it clear that he wasn’t going anywhere.

 

“Well, I… tried to talk to him. About- about how he’s been lately.” Sam mentally scolded himself for founding so weak and pathetic (“Geez, Sammy, what are you, a little girl? Thought dad taught you better than that.”).

 

“Oh? And, how did that go?” Cas seemed to sense Sam’s discomfort at being stood over, and took a seat on the edge of the other bed, carefully creating a comfortable distance between them. “Did you manage to get through to him?”

 

“He was starting to get mad… a-again, and I didn’t want a fight and tried to leave, and he… tackled me.” Sam’s eyes flitted to the spot on the floor where he had been pinned, then back to Cas.

 

“Sam, I- I’m sorry I wasn’t here to protect you from that. Are you alright? Where’s Dean now?” Sam nodded.

 

“I’m a little bruised, I think, but- Cas, you shouldn’t be sorry, it’s my own damn f-fault for bringing the whole thing up in the first place. If I’d just left it alone, it would’ve been f-fine, and he wouldn’t have-“ Sam vaguely realized he was shaking. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

 

“It’s not your fault. Sam, it will never be your fault for your brother having outbursts like this. But- I hate to bring this up, but… you do realize, it’s going to keep escalating, correct? You understand that this might just be part of who he is, no matter how horrible it sounds to say it? You can’t keep subjecting yourself to this, when you know what he’s capable of.” Sam took a moment to process this, staring intently at the buttons of Cas’ coat as though they were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen.

 

“You say that like… like you think he’s going to k-kill me. Cas, he’s my brother… He-“

 

“He’s hurt you, and doesn’t seem to be making any effort to stop. Sam, what he’s done, it counts as abuse. You understand that, don’t you?” And there it was, the word Sam had refused to say or acknowledge or even consider. Abuse. It had a bitter, acidic taste.

 

“Cas, Dean’s the only person I’ve ever had, even if he’s… h-he’s-“ Sam leaned forward to rest his head on his hands, palms digging into his eyes until stars danced across his vision. His eyes were dry, but he almost wished he was crying- wished he could break out of the numb denial that had settled over him.

 

“You have me, too, now, Sam. Don’t forget that. I’m here to help you however I can.”

 

~~

 

At the next hotel, Sam and Dean get separate rooms for the first time in years.

 

~~

 

It was almost like a bizarre sort of family meeting- Cas as the parent, Sam as the baby sibling who had told mommy that big brother was bullying him again.

 

“You understand, don’t you, Dean?” Cas was sitting between the two brothers, meaning that Sam could stare straight ahead at the wall instead of being forced to make eye contact with his brother. “What you’ve been doing, intentional or not, is not okay. He’s talked to you about it, I’ve talked to you about it-“ Sam hadn’t known Cas had spoken to Dean about him, but he supposed it only made sense, “- and something needs to be done.”

 

Sam’s arms were already crossed over his chest as a pathetic layer of protection, and his fingers found one of the bruises on his hip, pressing against it as a way to plant him firmly in reality.

 

“Yeah, I get that. I’ve screwed up, a lot. And I’ve apologized for it. And I am sorry, Sam, I feel terrible. I do.”

 

“You sure? B-because you don’t act like it, Dean. I’ve done some research, and a common tactic used is making the v-victim feel like they’re the one at fault, rather than the other way around.” Sam’s voice was dull and lifeless, despite the emotions twisting him up inside, and he didn’t look away from the painting on the opposite wall.

 

“Tactic-? Sammy, what are you talking about?” Dean sounded uncomfortable- like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, if one were to continue the family analogy.

 

“Abuse tactics, Dean.” Cas supplied, when it became clear that Sam wasn’t going to. Sam chanced a glance at Dean out of the corner of his eye, and saw a calculating, brooding expression.

 

“Sam, I haven’t- you haven’t changed your mind about… about us, have you? I haven’t- I haven’t coerced you or… r-ra-“ It took a moment for Sam to figure out what Dean was saying.

 

“You haven’t raped me, if that’s what you’re trying to ask. I never said no to- that. But, you’ve been… if you can’t see what you have been doing, you’re more like dad than I thought.” Sam saw Dean shake his head, slowly, as if in disbelief. “I… I’m going to stay with Cas for a while. Or…” Sam glanced to Cas for further clarification.

 

“You two are taking a break. Spending some time apart. I’ll watch out for Sam, and probably check in on you every once in a while, too. I hate to use such drastic measures, but it looks like you can’t get this through your head any other way, Dean.”

 

And so mommy Cas put big brother Dean on time-out for being naughty, like they were five year olds and Dean had been pulling Sam’s hair in the sand box.

 

~~

 

It was hard at first- Sam still expected to have Dean’s arm draped protectively over him when he woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare, not Cas watching him with alert concern from across the room, where he was doing some sort of desk work or reading or writing. He didn’t sleep, but he was always there at night- not watching Sam, exactly, just present. Sam was thankful for it.

 

It was different, but Sam knew instinctually that it was safer. He’d coexisted with Dean his whole life, and for the first time, he wasn’t picking up dirty socks or complaining about the smell of fast-food grease or too much cheap cologne.

 

It was comfortable. The hotel rooms weren’t any nicer, of course, but the overall feeling of the rooms tended to be… cleaner, like Cas was purifying the very air around him with angelic Grace.

 

Cas wasn’t there all of the time, though, and Sam found himself alone more often than he ever had been before. He’d been tempted, a few times, to find out which nearby hotel Dean was staying in and go back to him, just because being lonely when Dean was so close was an awful feeling.

 

He didn’t, though- he’d promised Cas he’d stay away, and he couldn’t betray Cas’ trust like that. Sam threw himself headfirst into research, because if he was doing research he wasn’t thinking about Dean- or Cas.

 

He found himself thinking about Cas rather a lot, lately.

 

~~

 

An argument with Cas was the last thing he wanted.

 

So, obviously, an argument with Cas was what he got.

 

Only, it wasn’t like arguing with Dean- as soon as Cas saw Sam flinch away from the sound of his half-raised voice and slightly-colder-than-usual words, he froze, realization shadowing his features.

 

“Sam, I- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I shouldn’t have done that. Are you alright?” It took Sam a while to process that- he’d been getting yelled at because he deserved it, obviously, so why was Cas apologizing?

 

“I… it’s fine, Cas. I’m used to it, it’s not a big deal, r-really.” That was, apparently, not the response Cas was looking for, if his reaction was anything to go by.

 

“Hey- Sam, listen to me. If Dean told you that you were wrong, or that you deserved to be yelled at or belittled or put down, he was wrong. You’re- you’re a wonderful man, Sam Winchester. You’re not deserving of what’s happened to you- any of it. And I mean beyond the past few months.” Sam was taken aback by Cas’ rant, and even more surprised when he continued.

 

“-And I am well aware that this is a terrible time for this and you are probably going to hate me for this, but I need to tell you…“ Sam’s eyebrows knit together in confusion, and in the moment of quiet the mood of the conversation shifted almost tangibly.

 

“Cas, whatever it is- it’ll be okay. I won’t hate you. Just… relax, okay? What is it?” Cas nodded, visibly calming with Sam’s reassurance. It was rare for Cas to show such drastic outward emotion, and Sam forced himself for whatever news was coming.

 

“Sam, how much would you hate me if I said I loved you?” The blunt words hit Sam so hard that he almost felt the world slide sideways, like his mind was rearranging itself. “I’m sorry. I am; I know you’re not in the right frame of mind to even consider it, and obviously over time you and Dean could still- I know you still want to make amends with him, I know you still love him, but I wanted to tell you-“

 

“I don’t… hate you, Cas. I couldn’t hate you for something like t-this. I couldn’t hate you, ever, really. I’m not- I’m not rejecting you, but…”

 

“-But saying that to you, given your current situation with Dean, was completely inappropriate. I’m sorry, Sam, you can forget I said anything.” Cas was completely serious- he looked like he was about two seconds from asking if he could erase the memory of the past five minutes from Sam’s memory, if he thought it would make Sam feel better.

 

“You didn’t let me finish… But, you’re right, I can’t- Dean and I, we need- he needs- to at least agree to… be apart. Back to… brothers, like we were before, i-if we can. I can’t- he’s my brother, Cas, he’s the only person I’ve ever had, always, and I thought- I thought it could work if he confessed? T-that that could… that I could date my brother? I screwed that up, Cas, I really… I really screwed that up.” Sam hated crying- despised how weak and vulnerable it made him feel. Even still, he felt his voice trembling and his vision blurred.

 

“Sam. Look at me, okay?” Sam slowly raised his head to meet Cas’ eyes. “I am so, so sorry for how all of this has worked out. But… this is how things are, and- I’d like to help you through it. Even if just as a friend, like how we always have been. I can tell you’re hurting, and I’d like to help it stop, in whatever way you’d like.” Sam nodded, jarring the first tear loose. It burned its way down his cheek, and no matter how quick he was to wipe it away, he knew it had betrayed him.

 

“C-Cas, I- I’m not r-rejecting you, I w-would like to… I think. But- I just need t-time, to… t-to- figure things out.” Cas nodded, and reached over to rest a hand on Sam’s arm, guiding him to sit on the edge of the bed and settling himself beside him.

 

“You have all the time you need, Sam. For now- a hug wouldn’t be crossing any boundaries, would it?” Sam shook his head and answered by leaning forward to wrap his arms around Cas, burying himself against Cas’ ever-present coat and inhaling the scent of him. It was subtle, and could best be described as the smell of raw power.

 

He wasn’t paying much attention to that, though; he was too busy trying not to cry all over said jacket like a five year old. Sobs wracked his body, and no matter how much he wanted to stop, to wipe his face and go on pretending he was fine, he couldn’t do it. The waterworks had started flowing, and couldn’t be stopped now.

 

“C-Cas… Castiel, t-thank you. F-for this, for… for e-everything.”

 

And when Sam was done crying, Cas let him go to clean himself up in peace, rather than poking fun at him or calling him a girl like Dean definitely would have, if Sam had broken down on his shoulder like that.

 

~~

 

What they had didn’t count as ‘a relationship’ yet- but it couldn’t possibly be considered ‘not a relationship’, either- with their constant closeness, both physically and emotionally, Sam and Cas had been ‘together’ in everything but name for months.

 

It’s Sam who initiates their first kiss- of course it is. Cas made it clear that his own emotions would wait for as long as Sam needed to feel comfortable, and let Sam essentially take complete control for the first time in his life.

 

It was a normal night- the two of them lounging on one bed, backs to the headboard, watching a movie that neither of them really liked but didn’t want to have to get up to change.

 

It isn’t as overwhelmingly magical as Cas had imagined it would be- first, Sam was sitting next to him watching the TV, then Sam’s lips were on his, and they had gone from being close friends to being more than that.

 

No words were exchanged- Cas just draped his arm over Sam’s shoulders and pulled him closer, filling the space between them that had been there for entirely too long.