There’s something lurking under Dean’s usual bravado, something other than panic and relief and don’t you ever do that again, something Sam doesn’t recognize. It’s there, though, clear as day in the way Dean’s looking at him, shy little red-eyed glances instead of the intense scrutiny Sam expects. It’s there, too, in the way Dean’s hand rests feather-light against his back as they descend the hospital steps, hesitant, as if he’s not sure he should offer support.
Sam tries to reassure him, leaning briefly into the touch before walking around to the passenger side of the Impala, but when they’re both settled in their seats that strange something is still there in the way Dean closes his eyes and breathes out for a moment, head bowed. It’s starting to tickle at the back of Sam’s mind now, like it’s something he’s seen before, and he can’t help asking, “What did you do? When you thought I was dead.”
The joke he gets in response is normal, at least, but he keeps asking until Dean quits joking and says, “I knew you weren’t dead.” Sam smiles at that, but there’s still something off in the tone of Dean’s voice, and he doesn’t like it.
When they get back to the bunker, Sam deliberately waits for Dean to help him down the long flight of stairs leading into the map room. Dean’s arm is firm around his back this time, and he doesn’t let go when they get to the bottom of the stairs, just guides Sam all the way to the den and deposits him on the couch.
“Doing okay?” Dean asks, as Sam gingerly leans back against the cushions. “Those stitches holding?”
“Yeah,” says Sam. He waits for Dean to insist upon checking the bandages himself, ready to grumble and complain and convince himself that everything is normal after all, but Dean just nods and backs away.
“I’m gonna get you some water,” he says, already halfway to the door. “You should stay hydrated.”
“Dean,” Sam says, but Dean disappears into the hallway without looking at him, returning a minute later with a bottle of water.
“You hungry?” he asks as he hands it over.
“Not right now,” says Sam. “Dean—”
“Need anything else?”
“Dean. I’m fine. Why don’t you sit down for a bit?”
Dean looks like he wants to refuse, but Sam doesn’t give him much choice, catching his wrist and tugging him down onto the couch before he can say anything. Dean gives in without a fight, sitting down carefully so as not to jostle Sam, but he doesn’t move in close the way Sam wants him to, and there’s a strange, tense hunch to his shoulders. At a loss for how to soothe him, Sam flips on the TV, and they let the sound wash over them, rising and falling like waves, until Sam is almost asleep. He rouses to Dean slipping an arm around his shoulders, hesitant like he was at the hospital, and Sam shifts towards him eagerly, ignoring the dull pain the movement sends through his abdomen, until he’s tucked comfortably into Dean’s side.
He’s almost asleep again when Dean speaks.
“When I thought you were dead—” Dean’s breath hitches, and Sam is instantly alert, feeling a jolt in his guts that has nothing to do with the gunshot wound. “Sam, when I thought you were dead—”
“What did you do?” Sam asks harshly, his hand clenching convulsively in Dean’s shirt, because he knows, now, what it is that Dean’s been hiding just under the surface, remembers it from the day several lifetimes ago—literally—when he’d woken up in an abandoned cabin just outside of Cold Oak.
“I called Billie,” Dean whispers into Sam’s hair.
Sam breathes in until his stitches start to pull, and breathes out again slowly. “Called her?” There’s only one call he knows of that a reaper will answer, and it isn’t the kind of signal that can be easily turned off.
“I did what you asked,” Dean says defensively. “I saved Michelle and that son-of-a-bitch Corbin, not that he deserved it.”
“Then what?” Sam asks, when Dean doesn’t continue.
“Bitch wouldn’t deal,” says Dean, with a faint snort. “No return, no exchange.”
He pauses, swallows, clearly waiting for Sam to say something, but Sam’s throat is so tight he can barely breathe, much less speak.
“Don't be mad,” Dean pleads. “I had to try. It wasn't gonna hurt anyone but me.”
Sam shakes his head, tightens his grip on his brother. “And me,” he points out softly.
“I had to, Sammy.” Dean is trembling now, his breath wet and ragged against Sam’s hair. “I had to.”
“No, you didn’t,” says Sam, trying to shout, but only managing a hoarse rasp. “I was fine. And even if I wasn’t—” He breaks off, takes a few quick breaths. “Even if I wasn’t, I thought we were done making deals. How could you do that to me again?”
“Yeah, well.” Dean drops his forehead to Sam’s shoulder. “That’s what you get for dying on me again.”
Sam sighs, presses his cheek to Dean’s hair. “Next time, you get a full refund or nothing. No exchanges,” he says after a moment. “Deal?”
He feels Dean nod, settling even more firmly against him. “Deal.”