Title: Pick Your Battles

Summary: Sam faces bullies and Dean learns that there's more to fighting than throwing fists

A/N: This one is for JJ Phoenix, who was cool enough to want to join SFCOL(AR)S. Because of her passion, I'm actually pursuing making it more of an organization (with website an all!) to help spread the love of Limp!Sam. Since then I have had the pleasure of squeeing with her over all things Jensen and Jared and Sam and Dean, including a beautiful thing called the hipbone. So, JJ, enjoy the KTLA :) And thanks to Gem who makes this more than it is :) And a shout-out to Brenna, who is just to awesome for words.

Disclaimer: I could pretend they were mine but then I'd be living in a happy little place called DENIAL.

Pick Your Battles

Dean had to admit, he felt a little out of place sitting outside of Sam's high school in the Impala. Looking down the row of cars, he saw a host of middle-aged mothers, nodding their heads gently to 80s soft rock as they waited in their SUVs for their 14-year-olds to come rushing out of the schoolhouse door.

Dean, on the other hand, was 21 and too cocky for his own good. He rolled the windows down and let 90s rock blare from the speakers while he waited for his 17-year-old brother.

He had to admit, though, that the look of embarrassment on those 14-year-olds' faces was about the same as Sam's as he came slinking toward the car before ducking in quickly and encouraging Dean to peel out.

This was a role Dean was used to though—playing parent. He knew someone had to, and as their father seemed rather indisposed most of the time, it looked like Sammy was his concern, and he wasn't about to let the kid walk six miles to and from school every day. Especially given the neighborhood they currently lived in.

It was all still relatively new—they'd only rented the apartment for about three weeks—but it was the same old thing as always. It was the cheapest they could find and the seedier it seemed, the easier it was to blend right into the freakish backdrop. Dean understood that, didn't even mind it so much, but he knew it drove Sam nuts.

Worse than that, Sam was irritable with the move. He hated getting acclimated to new schools, though Dean never knew why—the kid always seemed to find his way into the hearts of teachers within days of his arrival. But he knew Sam wanted more—wanted to make friends, join activities--but there was never enough time and always too much risk.

Nearly all the moms in their SUVs had pulled away by now and fewer and fewer kids were leaving the building. He glanced at his watch. Sam was late, which was very unlike him. Sam may have had a rebellious streak as of late, but it was selective. Sam didn't want to stay out late or cut school—Sam just wanted to be a bit more normal, which was enough to cause both Dean and their father a decent amount of grief. Sam simply didn't see that his focus was needed on other things—as a matter of survival.

So Dean didn't put it past his brother to pull a stunt just to annoy him. He'd done it before, and he'd do it again if he felt cross enough. But their dad had been working the late shift at his most recent job, so Sam's contact with him was minimal, which always seemed to make Sam more amiable. Besides, there were some things even Sam didn't do—and being late without warning was one of them. They had all learned the importance of being timely and being communicative as to one's whereabouts the hard way, and it wasn't something Sam would use to cause Dean worry.

But then Dean saw him. Sam was walking at a good clip, his eyes head ducked as he approached the car.

Sam said nothing as he sat down, his hair mussed, nearly covering his eyes. But that didn't hide the black eye that Sam was nursing.

Dean stared at him, hard, hoping Sam would get the hint.

Sam merely glowered. "Let's go, Dean."

Reluctantly, Dean put the car into gear, pulling away from the curb. Their drive continued in silence, Dean sparing glances at Sam, who was still staring straight ahead.

Dean's patience wore out. "Dude, you plan on telling me what happened or are we just going to pretend that your eye isn't black?" Dean asked finally.

The question did not garner a positive response from his kid brother. Sam merely sunk into the seat, his eyes fixed on the neighborhood they were driving through. His face darkened into a deeper brood.


"It's nothing, okay?" Sam snapped, jutting his chin forward.

Dean eyed his brother, trying to gauge how to best wheedle the information out of Sam. "Sam?"

Sam sighed in a huff, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's none of your business."

Dean raised his eyebrows. He had more or less raised Sam. He had been the one to teach him to tie his shoes, the one who made his meals, the one who kept track of his homework. It was Dean who had showed up for Sam's school plays. It was Dean who had called Sam in to school when he was sick. It was Dean who had made sure Sam was safe and happy. "I think it is my business," Dean countered in a measured tone. "Unless you'd like me to bring it up with Dad, and then you can explain to him why you are getting into fights at school."

Dean's leverage was effective and he saw Sam folding in frustration at Dean's threat. Sam would push Dean on a lot of things, but when it came to their father—well, John Winchester wasn't a man known for his patience and understanding with the ways of teenage males. "I didn't get into a fight."

"Right. So you tripped and fell onto someone's fist?"

"No," Sam muttered. "Look, it's just—I mean—never mind."

"Sam." Dean's voice carried a warning.

"It was just a couple of jocks who think they know everything. It was nothing. Just a little scuffle and then we all went our ways."

"A little scuffle?" Dean asked. Sam was leaving out the details. "Over what?"

Sam worked his jaw. "It was stupid."

"Stupid as in you shouldn't have let them get to you?"

"I didn't let them get to me!" Sam exclaimed. "I'm not like you. I don't lead with my fist and think about it later."

"So stupid as in…?"

"Stupid as in they were just blowing off steam. They were angry and needed to throw a little hissy fit to get over it."

"They threw more than a hissy fit if you're walking away looking like that. I can only imagine how they must look."

Sam had fallen silent again.

Dean looked at him, his stomach turning worriedly. "You didn't hurt them, did you? Bad, I mean? Because you know we can't deal with that kind of trouble."

Sam shook his head, annoyed. "I didn't hurt them."

Realization dawned on Dean. Sam wasn't worried; Sam was ashamed. "You let them just hit you, didn't you?"

Sam looked up sharply, his face flushing in surprise. "What?"

"You let them take a swipe at you and did nothing about it."


"Sammy," Dean said, his voice colored with disappointment. "You don't walk away from a fight."

Sam scoffed. "I really can't win, can I? If I'd fought back, I would have gotten into trouble at school, and we can't have that. I thought in the grander scheme of things, avoiding trouble with authorities was probably a bit more important than my pride."

"You seriously just let them hit you?"

Sam rolled his eyes. "It wasn't a big deal. Like I said, they just needed to feel like they were in control. The whole thing will just blow over."

"Blow over? I don't think so, Sam. You just let yourself become their whipping boy."

"And what else am I supposed to do? I can't afford to get in trouble at school. And not just because of Dad. Besides, if I really fought back—it wouldn't be a fair fight."

"Right, so you take a dive. Be the coward."

"I wasn't a coward."

"Yeah, it was real brave of you to just stand there and let them hit you."

Sam licked his lips, trying to restrain himself. "Well maybe it takes more of a man to walk away from a fight that's not worth it than it is to haul off and not think about the consequences."

"Sam, you can't just let people hit you because they feel like it. You're better than that."


"I'm not saying you should hurt them. I'm just saying that you need to defend yourself. Chances are, if you get in one good punch, that'll be enough to scare them away. Just have to let them know you can't be messed with."

"Yeah. Whatever."

"I'm serious."

"I get it, Dean, okay? But you've got to let me deal with this on my own. My way."

Dean wanted to tell Sam that his way sucked, but he could see the stubborn set to Sam's mouth and the way his arms were crossed over his chest. Dean glared at him—now that was the petulant, rebellious Sam he knew. Insisting doing things his way, even when someone else's way was better.

Nonetheless, Dean knew he had to pick his battles. Sam would figure this out, one way or another, and Dean knew that if it got out of control, he could always curtail it, whether Sam wanted him to or not.


Sam was late. Again.

Dean muttered a curse. All the other mothers had gone home, sulky teenagers in tow.

Damn his stupid teenager. Always defiant.

But Dean was more worried than angry. After Sam's black eye, he'd been waiting for something else to happen, because he knew that a bully who had found a ready victim wouldn't relinquish that without reason.

He was about to get out of the car and look for Sam when Sam appeared, walking doggedly, head down, toward the car.

Dean could already tell that something was wrong. When Sam opened the door and sat down, he kept his head turned away, his hair purposefully hung low. Dean craned his neck and saw the blood.

"Sam! What the hell!" Dean was already reaching for Sam's face.

Sam tried to swat him away. "Calm down. It's nothing."

"Nothing?" Dean asked, persisting in his examination. He forced Sam's head toward him, shoving his bangs back. "You've got a gash on your forehead and a split lip. That's something."

Sam grunted as Dean fondled his cut. "Okay, but it's not a big deal."

"Did the same guys do this?"

"It's really just one of them," Sam admitted. "The others just, uh—watch."

"Enjoy the show?" Dean asked contemptuously. "Who are they? There's no way I'm letting them lay a hand on you again."

Dean made a move to get out of the car, but Sam grabbed his arm. "Seriously. Just calm down. You charging in there is not going to help me at all and you know it."

"Well, if you're not going to defend yourself, someone has to."

"I know what I'm doing."

"You're being an idiot. And you're not living up to your name. This is not how Dad raised you."

Dean's choice of logic was slightly less than effective. Sam snorted. "Right. And he raised us so well."

"He taught you how to defend yourself."

"Against spirits and poltergeists! Not high school jocks!"

"The idea's the same."

Sam was incredulous. "What planet do you live on? They're not the same."

"Whatever," Dean said with a dismissive shake of his head. "You still shouldn't be letting them walk all over you. It's not going to get you anywhere."

"Dean, I don't care if they make fun of me."

"Well, you should!" Dean couldn't believe Sam needed it spelled out for him. "You're a Winchester. And Winchesters don't just sit here and take this kind of crap."

Sam rolled his eyes. "Whatever. I just used defense instead of offense."

"Yeah," Dean said, trying to feel the cut on his forehead again. "Great defense."

Sam hissed in pain. "You know as well as I do that the school here is already on Dad's case—the whole absent parent deal. If I start getting into trouble and Dad gets called in, then chances are we'll be packing by nightfall. I can't screw this up. And Dad can't afford another notation on his file. Okay? There's a bigger picture here, and a bunch of guys who are angry because I'm smarter than them really aren't my concern."

Dean considered Sam's words--John had not gotten off to a good start with the school officials. The day of Sam's registration had found Sam alone in the school's guidance office, offering pathetic lies about his father being tied up at work. When Sam had finally called Dean, Dean had showed up in time to receive a snooty and measured earful from the guidance counselor, who simply did not see why one John Winchester didn't care enough about his son's education to get him enrolled in school. There had been a mention of social services and Dean had barely gotten them to reschedule for the next day.

John managed to remember that meeting, and Dean played intermediary, and much to Sam's relief, he was allowed to start school the next day. Dean figured everything would have blown over--except for their hunt that weekend.

It wasn't a bad hunt--nothing too complicated--but in the chaos, the spirit had gotten ahold of Sam, nearly stangling him before they could expel the spirit. Sam was no worse for wear, but the colorful, hand-shaped bruises on Sam's neck had not sat well with one of his teachers, landing all three Winchesters back in the guidance office.

John had been cordial and his story believable, though the distrust between John and the school had escalated. And Sam had been overly cautious ever since.

Dean knew all that, but also knew his brother's concerns with his academic success were blinding him to the obvious issue. "There's also the bigger picture of you letting yourself get beat up. There's nothing smart about that."


"Don't Dean me," Dean said shortly. "Either you take care of this, or I will. Someone's got to stick up to the Winchester name."

It was too much for Sam. He sighed in extreme exasperation. "Great. We're back to that again. Fine. Whatever. I'll take care of it, okay? No more disgrace to the noble Winchester name."

"I'm not asking you to—"

"I get it, Dean. I don't need you to tell me how to throw a punch, okay?"

Dean eyed his brother, and knew that Sam was beyond the point of talking rationally. His kid brother had retreated behind a façade of teenage anger, and Dean had no desire to try to coax anything else out of him. "We'll clean that up when we get home," Dean said with a nod to Sam's forehead. "It's not bad."

Sam sunk back into the seat, his brow furrowed in anger. "Yeah. I know."

Dean rolled his eyes and promised himself that he would never have children.


Sam really wished he could be a normal kid.

He wished that he had a house on a nice street with a mother who made cookies and warm dinners. He wished that he had parents who came to teacher conferences, who would encourage him to join clubs and sports, and check that he did his homework every night. He wished he could just fit in, mix with other kids, be a part of their groups without worrying about getting too close and jeopardizing them or his family.

He really wished he could just exist, not move, not be the new kid, not be the bullies' target, not have a brother who didn't understand anything about trying to make two disparate worlds fit marginally in harmony.

But Sam Winchester was not a normal kid.

The fact was, he lived in a dingy apartment in a crappy neighborhood, his mother was dead, he did have a father who was gone more often then not and a brother who had learned how to warm up TV dinners when they were both too young to be eating that stuff. No one came to his teacher conferences and whenever he mentioned joining any extracurricular activity, all he got were lectures and glares and admonishments. He couldn't fit in, didn't mix with other kids, and was the perfect target for a bully.

Consequently, when the school bell rang, he was quick to get out of the building. He tried not to look at the other kids who lingered and socialized, tried not to see the kids preparing to go to their activities—girls in cheerleading skirts, boys in sports uniforms. He had to get out of here before he realized how lonely he was and before the other kids found him in that loneliness.

His pace was brisk as he exited the school, his book bag over his shoulder. He knew Dean would be waiting for him, and that his older brother was more anal about watching for Sam than most of the other mothers waiting for their kids. Not that Dean would ever admit that, but Sam could always sense Dean's mixture of relief and worry when he arrived late.

He was crossing behind the gym when he saw them.

Ducking his head, he kept going, hoping maybe to avoid confrontation today.

No such luck.

"Hey, Winchester," Keith called. "You're heading out of here awfully fast."

Sam tried to keep walking, but he could hear their footfalls behind him.

"Winchester, don't make us chase you."

He contemplated it, but knew they'd do it. Sam was fast, but in addition to being a basketball star, Garrett was a sprinter. Taking a deep breath, Sam stopped and turned. "What do you want?"

"What do you think we want?" Keith asked casually enough, sauntering up to him.

Sam knew they wanted to beat the crap out of him—that much had been established, but he still didn't really know why.

He didn't even know why they were so angry at him. He'd done nothing to them. He hadn't slept with one of their girlfriends, he hadn't encroached on their turf, he hadn't done anything except be there.

He shuddered to think that these youth were tomorrow's future. How could young men who were so ignorant, so blind, so insecure, possibly amount to anything?

Okay, so maybe his cocky attitude when it came to his schoolwork hadn't helped him make friends with him. Perhaps he shouldn't have shown up Keith in AP Language. But it wasn't his fault that Keith didn't belong in that class and had no hope of even scoring a 1 on the test. All Sam had done was answer the question so flawlessly that Keith had fumbled so pathetically.

He hadn't intended to be malicious. After all, he hadn't even raised his hand. It was Mrs. Cox who had called on him.

Apparently Keith's inability to analyze literature was related to his inability to realize just how he'd been duped, and how little of it had been Sam's fault.

Still, Sam had taken the punches with good grace, had moved on, and tried to keep the peace. He'd done above and beyond the call of duty. He was quickly earning the respect of his teachers, and already had an in with the journalism adviser. If he ever wanted to have a high school transcript that appealed to any college, he needed to keep his grades up and bolster his list of activities. Taking a few swipes from Keith was worth that price.

Not that it wasn't getting old. He didn't so much mind the black eye and the split lip, but the disappointed and disapproving glances from his brother were getting to be a bit more than he wanted to deal with. After all, he wasn't a wimp. He could fight. He'd been trained just as well as Dean had, and had taken on his own share of supernatural foes and come out victorious. He was sure that if Keith had even an inkling of what Sam was capable of, he wouldn't be picking on him at all.

As it was, Keith didn't know, and certainly had no intention of backing down. Dean had been right about one thing—once a bully found its prey, he didn't give up on it easily.

He sighed. "Look, I don't want any trouble. I just want to go home."

"Sure you do," Keith said with a smirk. "But not until you pay the toll."

Sam resisted the urge to be sarcastic. People actually said things like that? "Seriously."

Keith was on him now, definitely in his personal space. "Seriously."

Sam sensed Keith's advancement, noted the way the older boy's fists were flexing.

He eyed his competition warily. There was only one of him, and three of them, but he knew some things they didn't, and Sam was confident enough in his ability to take on a host of supernatural entities. Three high school jocks with barely passing averages hardly seemed like stiff competition in comparison.

The only one who topped him in height was Garrett. The kid was easily 6'5'' and a basketball prodigy. He had height, but not as much muscle yet, and he was lankier than Sam was. One on one, Sam did not doubt that Garrett would be an easy match—he was good at basketball, but excelled because of his height more than strength or agility.

Mitchell and Keith were different stories. They were both football players—defensive linemen, and they both could stand eye-to-eye with Sam. And they had the advantage of weight. Neither was fat, but Mitchell was beefy, and his sheer mass could prove problematic. Keith was the strongest of the three, his body toned from excessive weight training. In fact, Keith was the only one who worried Sam, the only one he figured could pose a real threat.

The three of them together, on the other hand, was a much different story. Sam did not doubt his own training, and he had seen his way through a variety of tough scrapes, but when push had come to shove, he'd always had a weapon on hand—a knife or a gun or some incantation up his sleeve—that could tip the scales in his favor. He was good at hand-to-hand, but three-to-one odds were really not in his favor.

Winchesters don't sit here and take that kind of crap.

And like it or not, he was still a Winchester. He couldn't stand to hear Dean berate him again. This was a fight he couldn't back down from, not because he cared what they thought, but because he cared what Dean thought.

Besides, it was Keith who antagonized him, Keith who had thrown the punches. If Keith was a real man, he'd keep this fight between just the two of them, and that was one Sam was confident he could win.

At any rate, he wasn't about to let Dean think he'd just stood there for another beating. There was no walking away without confrontation, and this time, Sam intended on showing them what he was capable of. So Sam waited, trying to foresee the punch he knew was coming.


Keith's fist flew hard and fast, but Sam's reflexes were quicker. He dropped beneath the punch, then used the Keith's loss of balance to fire back.

Clearly, Keith expected the fight to go as the rest had. One series of punches, one or two that made contact, before Sam would fall away and the three went off to chortle about their victory. It had been simple and effective, a quick and easy high for them.

So when Sam flew into him, his punches strong and accurate, Keith fumbled backwards. Sam could not help but relish the look of shock on his face when he pulled his fingers away from his bloody lip.

Keith looked surprised. "Looks like someone's been practicing."

Sam glared. "Just waiting is all. I had hoped you'd let it go so it wouldn't come to this."

Keith grinned; Sam's cockiness almost seemed to encourage him. "Well, then, no holding back then?" he asked.

Sam didn't reply, just eyed him contemplatively. He had shown Keith what he was capable of; now he needed to see what tactics Keith would respond with.

Keith came at Sam powerfully, with an array of kicks and punches that had Sam blocking and backpedaling. Maybe he knew more about fighting than Sam had given him credit for.

Nonetheless, when Sam saw his opening, he struck back, landing a good series of hits that made Keith stumble to the ground.

As Sam moved forward, Mitchell stepped in his path, Garrett not far behind.

Crap. So far, it had only been Keith to get in on the action. Garrett and Mitchell had cheered him on and offered not-so-creative insults to Sam, but had been bystanders. Sam had known they probably wouldn't stand by and let Keith get pummeled, but he had hoped not to try the three-to-one odds that did not bode in his favor.

But when Mitchell came plowing toward him, Sam was ready, and fought back for all he was worth. Maybe all that hand-to-hand combat training was going to come in useful after all.

They tried to double-team him, hoping to immobilize his arms while the others could work him over, but Sam kicked out viciously and broke the hold. He dodged and weaved and struck, landing more punches than he missed.

However, between the three of them, the blows were starting to accumulate on Sam as well. He needed to finish this fight—and soon—because he could feel the adrenaline starting to dwindle.

Hoping to compensate, Sam went on a major offensive, charging full speed with punches and kicks.

Garrett was down, hopefully for awhile, but maybe not out. Mitchell was hurting, seriously favoring his left side. And Keith bled steadily from a cut along his temple.

But there was no time to bask in his accomplishments. Because for as weary as the three looked, Sam knew he was a bit worse for wear. His right eye had already begun to swell and his nose throbbed suspiciously, not to mention the fact that his entire body ached. This was a fight he needed to end—and soon.

Mitchell and Keith were circling him, watching for an opening that Sam didn't intend on giving them. He lashed out at Keith, catching him in the stomach with a strong kick.

Sam did not watch him go down. Instead he turned his attention immediately to Mitchell, who had sprung toward him when his attention was turned.

Sam dodged the uppercut and returned with a jab of his own. As Mitchell recovered, he quickly dispensed another. Without hesitation, he grabbed the other's boy neck, pulling him hard over his knee. There was an oof and Mitchell dropped hard to his knees. Not allowing a chance to regain himself, Sam grabbed his head, driving it hard into his knee.

Mitchell collapsed, mostly unmoving.

Two down--

One to go.

Sam barely turned in time to see the fist as it raked across his face. Sam reeled, but as Keith advanced, Sam managed a kick, hard and to the gut, of his beefy opponent.

Sam sensed his opening. He delivered another kick to the side of Keith's head, and the other boy stumbled to his knees.

Sam was about to lash out one more time when he heard the movement behind him. Garrett.

Sam spun to meet him, his fist already clenched for a right hook. Things were going so smoothly that he didn't anticipate what happened next.

Before Sam could get his punch off or even focus, a metal pipe hit him squarely on the side of the head.

In retrospect, he supposed he'd been lucky that Garrett hadn't used enough force to crack his skull, and that Garrett's aim had been poor enough to avoid serious damage to his face. But at the time, all Sam saw was stars.

His vision blackened and he felt himself zone out as his consciousness threatened to leave him. He imagined his dazed and pained expression might have been fairly humorous, but he was too busy falling to his knees to really think about it.

His ears rung—loudly—and his entire body felt numb. He didn't see the look of horror on Garrett's face as he held the pipe, speckled now with blood. He didn't hear Mitchell's curse of approval. He didn't even feel Keith's fist as it pounded into his jaw, only felt a strange disorientation as his world spun and he found himself on the ground, cheek against the pavement.

Sam was done. He wouldn't be getting up. He'd lost. They may have not played fair, but life wasn't fair. It shouldn't have surprised him so much--nothing in his life had ever been fair when he thought they should be.

There was a flurry of kicks that had Sam curling desperately into himself. The onslaught to his torso gave his head time to clear and his vision and hearing marginally returned. But there was no real respite. He was hoisted, arms pinned back, Keith's smug face loomed in front of him.

Blows rained on him and Sam fell back against the hands that held him, his legs unable to support his weight, his neck unable to hold up his head.

He distantly heard someone chuckle.

"I think he's had it," someone else said.

Sam had to second that thought, as much as he hated to.

A hand grasped his chin and lifted his head and Sam's field of vision veered up blearily, turning his stomach. There was a face in front of him, but he couldn't focus on it.

"Yeah, he's had it," someone smirked and let his head drop. It was Keith, it had to be Keith.

"Dude, is he okay?" That was Garrett—Sam had known that kid didn't have a stomach for fighting.

Sam wanted to glare at them. Do I look okay? They were stupider than he'd thought.

Their conversation was cut off abruptly by another voice.

"What the hell is going on here?"

The voice was firm, authoritative, dangerous. He recognized this one immediately.


Aw, hell. He was going to play damsel in distress again. This was not how it was supposed to go. He'd only wanted to make Dean proud, live up to something for once. Instead, here he was, beaten and pathetic, in need of a rescue.

"I'm going to suggest just once that you put him down."

Keith had turned away from him, eyeing Dean tentatively but with a hint of eagerness. Garrett lingered behind Keith, waiting for a sign, but clearly hoping for a reprieve. Sam couldn't gauge Mitchell's reaction, but the grip on his arms did not slacken.

"And you are?" Keith asked, slowly and deliberately.

Sam cringed. You don't want to know.

"His brother."

"Oh," Keith said, conversationally. "So tell me, are all Winchesters as wussy as Sammy here?"

It's Sam, but no one seemed to care. Sam could barely see Dean's face through the blood and swollen flesh around his eyes, but he could imagine the scowl as it spread angrily across his face. He could almost feel the rage in his brother's eyes. Really not smart.

"I warned you." Dean's voice was simple, plaintive, and Sam could sense him moving forward.

Keith moved out to meet him, and the two clashed in a fury of fists.

Sam wanted to move to help, to move at all, but all his hopes were dashed when the arms that held him released him. Powerless to stop it, Sam fell to the ground, mind spinning wildly on the impact.


Dean had expected to find Sam in the midst of a fight. That hadn't surprised him.

He hadn't expected Sam to be on the losing end of it—not at least to extent he seemed to be.

There were three of them—all strong-looking boys, but hardly trained fighters. Nevertheless, he walked in just in time to see one of them hold Sam up while another took his fist to Sam's unresisting face.

Whatever had happened, it was out of control, and Dean was going to stop it.

He spared a moment to appraise Sam. His kid brother was still a heap on the pavement, but a somewhat moving heap. He had already caught sight of the blood on Sam's face. He needed to get Sam out of here. But not before teaching these three kids a lesson.

He didn't care much for normal people under the best of circumstances, and when it came to the cocky types—well, they seemed more pathetic than most. After all, Dean knew how misplaced their cockiness was. These three jocks thought they were all that for their physical displays of power on a football field. But Dean knew just how meager their strength would be when it came to the really dangerous things out there.

Besides, these three had been stupid enough to take on the Winchesters. And their cockiness seemed even weaker when he considered that it had been the three of them against one, and a younger and smaller opponent at that.

It was definitely time for a lesson in humility.

As they circled him, he could tell they were worn out. Clearly, Sam had put up quite a fight. In fact, as he struck out with his first set of punches and kicks, he wondered how Sam hadn't finished this.

One punch downed the tallest of the three—he fell away and crumpled to the ground and didn't get up.

A roundhouse kick to the largest kid sent him flying back into the building, where he fell, clearly dazed.

The third had managed to sneak in a punch of his own while Dean downed the other two. His face coursed with pain, and Dean grit his teeth. This kid had no idea what he had gotten himself into.

They sparred, exchanging blows. Dean's landed, and the kid's whiffed through the air, too sluggish to make contact.

Then he heard the noise behind him—damn, he'd hoped that one was down for the count.

First things first—the cocky one, the ringleader as best Dean could tell, was getting sloppy. Dean figured one more good shot ought to do it, so he reeled back and let loose. The punch hit the kid squarely in the jaw and Dean saw the whites of his eyes before he hit the ground. Without wasting a second to gloat in satisfaction, he turned to defend himself from the largest of three, who was barreling toward him.

Dean didn't have time to move, but braced himself as they went back hard into the wall.

The air left his lungs in a rush, and Dean hissed a curse. He was really getting tired of this. It was time to end it.

Pushing the kid away, Dean let go of any restraints he'd been holding onto. Focused, he attacked vigorously. These guys would think twice before ganging up on someone again—especially his kid brother.


Sam struggled to stand.

Or he was struggling, at least—he was nowhere near standing. In the time elapsed during Dean's entrance to the skirmish, he had barely managed to get his head off the ground. Every time he came close, pain ricocheted through his head and bile rose in his throat.

His vision had cleared—somewhat. The moving figures began to make sense and he could see Dean amidst the three jocks.

Suddenly, Sam had an overwhelming need to stand. He had something important that Dean needed to know. He had to tell Dean, had to warn him. These guys didn't play fair, they didn't play by the rules, they had a—

Sam's mind was foggy. What had they had? What had happened again? He could remember the punches the kicks and—

He blinked as he watched Dean taking on Mitchell. Garrett, already worn out by Sam, was sprawled nearby, easily subdued. That was two, but there were—



They didn't play fair. They had a—

He saw the pipe in Keith's hand and remembered.

His eyes flicked to Dean, who was very much engaged with Mitchell. He was clearly in control, but distracted. He didn't see Keith.

But Sam did. And Sam saw the pipe in Keith's hand—he practically felt it in the throbbing of his skull.

His voice wouldn't work. Dean needed to be warned.

Pushing aside the overwhelming sense of vertigo, Sam pushed himself upward. He felt heavy and he stumbled, his limbs not functioning quite as they should. But he had to get to Dean.

He lunged, somewhat drunkenly, for Keith. Unfortunately, the older boy's reflexes were far quicker than Sam's impaired ones and he turned his fury back toward him.

Sam saw the pipe coming at him this time, and managed to drop as it whistled over his head. Taking advantage of his crouched position, he grabbed out at Keith's legs, somehow mustering enough strength to send the older boy toppling to the ground.

The effort shattered Sam's balance, and he hit the pavement hard. His vision tunneled and though his body screamed to move, he felt like he was underwater and his limbs were too heavy to manipulate. Hazily, he could see Keith moving toward him, but there were three of him and Sam didn't know which one to focus on. They all looked pissed.


Dean heard a thump and a clatter and knew he'd screwed up.

He'd forgotten one of the most basic rules to fighting—always watch your back. He'd just been so sure the other two were down…

He turned in time to see Sam newly sprawled and the ringleader advancing steadily toward him.

The kid he'd been working over had already slumped to the ground. Dean moved in quickly to intercept the jock before he could reach his brother. It didn't take much—just one more square hit to the jaw—and the kid collapsed, this time for real. Dean prodded him with his foot and there was no response.

Taking a breath, Dean surveyed the scene. The three bullies were laid out, all in various stages of unconsciousness. All of them would be bruised and swollen.

But he had more pressing issues. Sam.

Turning, he went back to his brother.

Sam didn't look much better than the three others. He had collapsed back against the pavement, his eyes closed and his face bloody.

He dropped to his knees beside his brother. "Sam," he called, turning his brother's chin toward him. "Sammy, we've got to get going now."

Sam's eyes were slits and he moaned slightly. Dean took what he could get, and counted that as consciousness. He braced himself to haul Sam to his feet. Dean did not want to be around when the other boys woke up, nor did he want to meet any other passersby who might discover this unfortunate scene. He did not feel like explaining what happened or trying to save the Winchester family from another pleasant encounter with the authorities.

He'd planned check Sam out more thoroughly later, once they were in a safer location. However, he'd underestimated the head wound. Vertigo made Sam's eyes roll back into his head and Dean cursed as Sam collapsed limply back toward the ground. Apparently, the kid had taken a worse beating than he'd hoped.

Weighed down by Sam's loose limbs, Dean struggled to sit them both back down, hopefully without injuring either of them. He caught Sam awkwardly in his lap, and his kid brother's head lolled backwards. Adjusting his arm, Dean caught it, rolling back to his shoulder. "Come on, Sammy. This is no place for a nap."

Sam seemed to disagree.

With a muffled curse, he maneuvered himself out from under Sam and lowered his brother gently to the ground. He needed to assess how bad Sam's injuries were and figure out if this was something they could handle at home or if Sam needed a hospital's care.

Dean looked past the blood and focused on the various abrasions the blood came from. There was a decent-sized gash on his left temple and the one on his forehead had been reopened. There was a small one on the bridge of his nose, and friction marks around both eyes. Blood trickled from Sam's nose, and blood was smeared across his lips.

He felt carefully and deduced that nothing was broken, and that the only cut in need of any real treatment was the gash on Sam's temple.

Sitting back on his heals, Dean was pensive. Based on what he'd seen, Sam shouldn't have been unconscious. But then he saw the blood matting Sam's hair. He winced sympathetically when he found the large, bloody knot on the side of Sam's skull.

"Man, Sammy," he muttered. "No wonder you're out of it."

No fist could leave a bump like that. Dean glanced toward Keith and remembered the metallic clang he'd heard before he'd turned to find Keith advancing on Sam. His eyes roaming, he found it. A metal pipe and, even from a distance, Dean could see it was coated with blood. That's how they'd gotten the upper hand. They'd gotten Sam from behind, just like they'd try to get him. And no matter how strong either of them were, a pipe to the head pretty much guaranteed incapacitation.

Finally accepting that Sam would not be walking anywhere anytime soon, Dean sighed, gathered his energy, and hoisted Sam, somewhat awkwardly over his shoulder. With Sam secure, he didn't spare a glance for the three bullies that had gotten them there in the first place.


The drive home was silent and tense. Dean gripped the wheel, glancing from time to time at Sam, who was still sprawled in the passenger's seat.

Though splayed limply over the seat, Sam was awake. His eyes drifted hazily and blinked sluggishly, but by the time they reached their rundown apartment complex, he was more or less coherent.

Dean helped him into the apartment, situating him on a chair before going to retrieve the first aid kit. When he'd gotten it, he plopped down in a chair facing Sam and shook his brother, who was leaning back against the wall, eyes closed.

"You know that drill. Stay awake."

Sam grumbled and glared through thinly open eyes. "You've got a hell of a bedside manner, you know that?"

"Whatever," Dean said, emptying the kit onto the nearby table. "Now, look at me."

Sam complied, squinting against the light Dean reflected into his eyes.

"Pupils look good," Dean commented. He then set to feeling Sam's face.

A moment of silence passed; Dean probed and Sam bit the inside of his lip to keep the pain from showing.

As Dean reached for the cotton balls, he finally spoke. "What were you thinking?"

Sam sighed. He dreaded this confrontation even more than the one he'd already been through. But from the way Dean was glaring at him, he knew that this would be equally unavoidable.

"Thought you didn't want me to walk away from fights?"

"From fights you can win, little brother." Dean spit the words sarcastically.

"I could have taken them."

"Uh-huh," Dean said, dabbing gently at a cut on Sam's face. "That's why they had reduced you to a punching bag."

Sam winced. "They didn't fight fair."

"And you expected them to? People don't fight by Sam Winchester's Book of Ethics."

"Yeah, well, I just didn't expect the pipe. That's all. And neither did you."

Dean seemed to blush slightly. "Okay. Point taken. Still, what possessed you to take them on? After all your talk of the bigger picture?"

Sam shrugged noncommittally. "Just couldn't take it."

"Couldn't take it? That's not like you, Sam. What'd they say to you?"

Dean was looking at him expectantly, with a look of genuine confusion. It was clear he couldn't tell what had pushed Sam over the edge this time, when every other time Sam had backed away.

Sam looked down. "Nothing."

"I highly doubt that. Spill."

"Dean, really—"

"Sam, if you don't start talking to me, I'm going to smack you myself—"

Sam's patience snapped. His head hurt, his ribs hurts, his pride hurt—and Dean would not let this drop. "I just didn't want to disappoint you again, okay? I know I don't live up to anything you and Dad want for me and I don't know—I just thought maybe this time I could do it right." He paused, letting the words settle before offering a humorless chuckle. "Looks like I screwed that up too."

Dean gaped, watching his brother in disbelief. "I didn't want you to defend yourself for me, Sam," he finally said evenly. "I just didn't want to see you get pushed around. You're better than that."

Sam sighed. "Between you and Dad, hunting, school—it's just too much, you know? Trying to figure out how to do it all without screwing any of it up."

"It's just about focus. Priorities."

"But maybe my priorities aren't yours."

The words hit Dean like a punch. He already knew them, but he hated to hear Sam speak them. He bristled. "Family's the number one, Sammy. Even you have to know that."

Sam rolled eyes his in frustration. "Of course family comes first. You know I'd do anything for you and Dad. But—I don't know. I just—I just want more, Dean. I keep trying to make you and Dad proud but nothing's ever good enough."

"That's because you try to bring home reports cards to make us proud. That means nothing to what we do."

"Right, like being able to do the research, getting all the background information together, and remembering how to pronounce Latin so that the supernatural forces recognize it means nothing." Sam exploded. Then his eyes darkened. "Besides, it means something to me! Why is that not enough for you?"

"You're a hunter—"

"No, Dean, you're a hunter," Sam interrupted. "Dad's a hunter. I'm just here because I have to be."

The words stung and Dean clenched his teeth, steeling his resolve to not show his brother how much he'd just hurt him. Why did Sam always want the things that put him at risk, that separated him, that made togetherness impossible?

Sam just didn't understand. He could protect Sam from bullies, could protect him from angry ghosts, even a werewolf or two. But in order to protect Sam, he needed to be near Sam. He had to be with Sam. That was where safety was. That was where peace was. Together.

He didn't know how Sam was able to separate family from togetherness, how Sam could love and not want to stay. He didn't know how Sam couldn't feel the cause in his bones, how Sam always had to question loyalty before he followed. He knew his brother loved him—he could even see that Sam loved their father—but Dean would never totally understand the way Sam chose to express that love or the way it so quickly got convoluted with anger.

Sam was looking away now, and Dean could see his brother fighting his own battle with his emotions. And despite all his fear and anger, Dean's most basic instinct prevailed. He would protect Sam—even from the rejection and alienation that Dean knew were inevitable. "I am proud of you, Sammy," he finally said, hoping his voice sounded more confident than he felt.

Sam inhaled sharply, not able to look up.

"I'm always going to be proud of you. No matter what. You try hard, and I see that."

"Dad doesn't." Sam's voice is quiet and much younger than his 17 years.

"Yeah, well, Dad doesn't see a lot of things," Dean agreed. Like how much Sam needed them—not just their protection, but their love, their approval, their acceptance.

Sam gave a brief, humorless laugh.

"Now are you going to let me look at your head?"

Sam nodded his acquiescence and straightened so Dean could have a better look at his injuries. Dean wet a cotton ball with antiseptic, scooting closer to Sam as he began to work.

"And Sam? Next time, don't take on three high school jocks by yourself. You were right—it wasn't worth it."

Sam raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I could say the same thing to you," he quipped lightly.

"I was only there to save your sorry ass. Taken down by the captain of the football team," Dean joked with a shake of his head. "You'll never live this down."

"Right. Need I remind you who saved you in the end?"

Dean dabbed antiseptic over a gash near Sam's eye. "Whatever. I totally had that under control."

"Whatever, Dean. You didn't even know Keith was up until I had taken him down."

"You took him down? Looked more like you passed out on top of him."

Sam rolled his eyes. "I forced myself to stand with a head wound—it was all pure adrenaline to keep him from bashing your head in."

"Which is why I had to carry you all the way back to the car."

Sam flushed with embarrassment, falling silent as Dean continued to treat the abrasions. He jerked as Dean fingered the wound on the side of his head. "Careful."

"This one might need stitches."

"Yeah, and if you try to shave my head to do it, I'll kill you."

Dean laughed. "I'd like to see you try, Sammy. Besides, I could always take you to a hospital. You've probably got a concussion."

"Of course I have a concussion. They bashed me over the head with a friggin' pipe. But my pupils are equal and reactive, I'm not nauseous, and I can tell you aren't going to let me get any quality sleep for the next two nights just to be sure. I think I'll be fine."

"And is that your professional opinion, Dr. Winchester?"

Sam glared out of the corner of his eye. "Just bandage me up. I'd like to get some ice on my eye—it's killing me."

"And it's the size of a baseball. Not a good look on you."


"Anytime, Sammy," Dean replied. "Anytime."

Dean continued to clean and bandage Sam and kept a keen eye on his brother—too aware that head wounds had a way of catching up with people. When Sam's eyes blinked a bit too slowly and his shoulders began to stoop, Dean shook him. "Hey, you getting sleepy?"

Sam's focus clear and he glared hard. "Gee, maybe getting into a fight is kind of draining. Not to mention the fact we had to spend most of last night in research for the latest gig."

"You can't sleep now, though. You know that."

"Whatever, okay?"

"Uh huh," Dean said, going back to his work.

There was a pause.

"Hey, Dean?"


"What are you going to tell Dad?"

Dean set to taping the first bandage over the worst of the cuts. "You mean you think he's even going to notice?"

Sam laughed. "Yeah. I guess not. I mean, that's not his job."

"Well, maybe it should be," Dean muttered, wondering how much more support Sam really needed to survive being a teenager.

Sam grinned. "Nah," he said. "That's your job."

Dean could not stop from smiling. For once his brother was right.